It had surprised him that she’d consented to the date so quickly. Susan treated him like a baby when it came to normal adult activities, like going out to have a few beers with his friends, crashing at someone else’s house for a night, and spending time alone with a woman. He almost never did these things, but could remember a strange paralysis coming over her, a glassy-eyed intractability, when he wanted to do basic stuff like this in the past. Last night was no problem for her, for some reason. Maybe she finally realized he’s a real, live, grown-up human being. Or was it something different? Jacob double-checked the alarm time on his cell phone. It’s possible she sensed the truth about him and Claire, that they were meant to be together, and she didn’t want to mess with fate. Like playing with fire, he mused, dreaming off to sleep.
To the right of the black marble steps, the ramp led up to the revolving doors in three parallel segments, with a couple feet of space between them. Pushing hard up the first section of the ramp, Jacob’s arms began to tire, shoulders and triceps aching before turning to ascend the second, which he climbed more slowly, gasping at the start of each new push. Halfway up the third segment and less than twenty feet from the top, his right arm gave out, and the chair swung back to the left, and struck the metal railing with a low, percussive ring, a sound that tensed and uncoiled, sweeping out through his surroundings and permeating the ground, walls, and buildings as if they were merely air.
The front entrance had a single automatic door by the top of the ramp, yet it didn’t open when he pressed the button. Jacob clumsily wheeled in using his elbow to prevent the door from closing on him, rolled weakly past the vacant front desk, and continued across the spacious, warmly furnished lobby toward the row of elevators at the far wall. The effort required to convey his chair across the floor seemed to increase with each rotation of the wheels, his muscles felt like dead weight, his lungs began to choke on the sour air, and his head, sweating, nauseous, clouded by exhaustion and despair, sank forward and hung limply on his chest. He kept pushing. One arm, both arms, one again, both again… The lamplight in the room grew dim, and in the oaken darkness Jacob sensed the presence of his family and friends, pale, luminous figures, like spectators on either side of him, faces growing clearer, his sister and brother-in-law, with their kids, his physical therapist, his bro Sunny, Mom, Dad, Claire… They were smiling, and crying, some of them, watching him push. He raised his head. The elevators appeared, blurry and quivering, just a few yards away. The wheels squeaked on the cold tiles as he inched his way forward. Susan stood to his left, quiet like the rest, silently cheering him on. He looked at her and smiled, faced forward again, and propelled the chair onward with a final, broken cry.
The elevator doors slid open. In a moment he was strong again, and wheeled inside with ease. Four vertical rows of square buttons, twenty-five in each row and numbered one to a hundred, with several for the lower levels below, shone with amber light in front of him. He pressed the button for floor eighty-two. The car jolted and rattled into motion, swaying slightly as it rose, while the grid of lights over Jacob’s head cast bright floating circles on him and the elevator floor.
The car stopped and the doors opened. He rolled into a dim, high hallway where a woman sat at a desk in a cutout to his left. Her hair was sandy blonde, straight with dark roots, and she glanced up from her computer and smiled as he passed her. A conference room at the end of the hall, illumined by floor-to-ceiling windows, drew him to its glass wall and door, which he pulled open, awkwardly entering, and wheeling past the empty table and chairs, he parked before the center window and stared out at the city and sunset.
Above the staggered buildings, the clouds swept down in orange, pink, and purple waves, like the break of a cosmic surf, static, though imperceptibly flowing, crashing to the earth from a separate encompassing world. Within his heart, the softest change, a watered seed first parting, then peace, eternal dreams—
Knock, knock, knock.
Jacob turned as the conference room door swung open, and a man in his forties, eyes brown and steady, stepped in and walked over. “Hello, it’s nice to meet you. My name is Buddy.”
“I’m Jacob,” he answered, reaching out to shake his hand.
“Do you mind if I sit down? I’d like to speak with you for a few minutes, if that’s alright.”
“Your office, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not,” said Buddy, pulling out a chair and spinning it around to face the windows. “This is a sort of common space, for people who work in various capacities for the one who owns the building.”
Jacob leaned forward to peer down at the avenues and minuscule vehicles not quite a thousand feet below. “He must be… rather comfortable, if he owns this place.”
“Well, yes and no,” he said thoughtfully. “Sometimes I think he’s in worse shape than the rest of us combined.” Buddy took a second to gaze up at the clouds. “You could call it a tragedy, and I tend to think of it that way, then, almost as quickly, I realize there was no tragedy, and nothing that happens was ever really tragic at all.”
After a long, unburdensome silence, during which the sunset breathed perhaps its finest breath, Jacob asked, “What the hell are you talking about?”
The man looked at him as though irritated, but not by the question, nor by Jacob himself. “We only have a little time here. I’m not sure you’re going to remember this when you wake up. If you don’t mind telling me, when you were younger, did you have many dreams about running, or flying?”
“Running, yeah. I still do once in a while.”
“And did those dreams feel very real?”
“Sure, probably the most realistic dreams I’ve ever had.”
On hearing this Buddy turned away, pretending to survey the rooftops, level and angled surfaces to the right of their towering room.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Everything. And that’s exactly why you and I are here right now. You have a terribly important job to do,” he said, meeting Jacob’s eyes. “There’s an infinity of ways to accomplish this work, but I’m afraid you alone are qualified. You’re the lucky one who is able to do it.”
“Because I’m special.”
“Yes,” he nodded eagerly.
“Because I’m the bravest boy in the whole world, and God loves me so much and He’s so damn proud of me? I’ve heard that one before, Buddy. The lady who said it ditched me to take care of someone else’s kids. I don’t need to hear that from you, and you know what? I never needed her, either. What’s the quickest way to get out of this fake-ass building?”
He didn’t respond, merely watched him for a moment with the same unfocused irritation, before fading away into blackness with the building, the city, and the evening sky. Jacob awoke to the shrill chirping of birds in the dark outside his window.
The early shift at Makermart was painful on Mondays. The majority of the flow team, and the entirety of the management, moped through the store on autopilot, performing their duties with alternating vexation and stoic misery. Jacob didn’t feel too bad on this particular morning, in part because Sunny would be picking him up at two and driving him across the river to Pointer Arena to see the MMA fights that night. He’d been looking forward to this for weeks, and so had Sunny, who’d studied Jiu-Jitsu and fought in some amateur bouts himself.
It was almost two-thirty by the time he arrived, as Jacob sat in the cold debating whether or not to call Susan. “I am so sorry, man,” he said, jumping out of the driver’s seat and jogging back to open the hatch of his Sonic LS.
“I was about to give up on you,” he laughed, “thought we were gonna miss the fights.”
“No way.” He removed a narrow aluminum ramp from the back of the car, anchored one end on the pavement, and did the same with another identical piece. “My nephew had to go to the hospital, he got food poisoning at school, toxic bologna or something.”
“Is he okay?”
“Now he is, now that he puked his guts out.”
“Thank God… Beware the poison lunchmeat.”
As they approached the Kilbourn Street Bridge, they decided to park and grab a cup of coffee and some food, and kill an hour or two along the river. “Sorry I’m such a pain in the ass,” he called back as Sunny unloaded his electric chair in the parking garage.
“You’d be worth the trouble if you bought the food more often.”
Stopping at a Ringman’s not far from the bridge, Jacob paid for their coffee and scones and they strolled down the riverwalk as they ate. Two young women passed them going the opposite way, walking a black Pit Bull mix. The taller one smiled at Jacob, who grinned and said, “Hello, ladies,” forgetting he had a mouthful of blueberry scone.
“Real smooth, bro,” said Sunny, and they veered to the right, parked and sat by the railing. The river wasn’t icy at all, even though he was pretty sure it was below freezing. The two of them sat quietly for a minute, finishing their coffee.
“I had a date the other night.”
Sunny turned. “With Claire?”
“How’d it go?”
“How do you think it went? I swept her off her feet. She’s in love with me.”
“Where’d you guys go?”
“Stayed in, watched a movie. I cooked dinner while she told me her life story.”
“What about the Sub?”
“She agreed to spend the night elsewhere, believe it or not.” He glanced to his right. “Shut up,” he said, shaking his head.
“Tell me you at least kissed her.”
“That would have been nice, though. No, we just watched the movie, talked a little, and then she left. She had a good time, though, I know that.”
Sunny peered down at the dark green water. “And you were worried about that stupid dream you had. I knew you’d be alright. When are you hanging out again?”
“We didn’t make plans. I don’t know, sometimes…” Jacob’s eyes seemed to darken as he stared down through the bars of the railing. “I think sometimes it’d be better if I lived alone. I mean stayed alone, forever.” He glanced at Sunny again. “I’m not sure I could make her happy, especially someone like Claire.”
“You said your equipment worked just fine.”
“I hate you, bro. I’m talking about long term, everyday life. Do you remember, The Death of Superman?”
“The comic book?”
“Yes, the comic book. It starts with a spiked fist beating the hell out of this thick iron door. A big dude in a green jumpsuit busts out, and starts tearing through the forest. Well, the Justice League hears about the damage he’s doing, and they come to bring him in, but he starts pummeling those guys. Later Superman shows up, and Doomsday punches him in the stomach, then turns around and kicks him through a house, clean through a house. Superman.”
“What’s this got to do with Claire and you?”
A flash of anger reddened Jacob’s face. “Because no matter how they try to crush him, the dude keeps getting stronger. Even Superman can’t stop him, unless he dies too.” He searched Sunny’s eyes again. “I feel like that some days, like Superman in that story. Or maybe like Doomsday. I don’t know…”
He watched the current a second longer, reached over and squeezed Jacob’s bicep. “You might be like Supergirl in that story. Come on, let’s go.”
Less than half the seats in Pointer Arena had filled up by the starting bell of the first fight. Their tickets had only cost thirty-two dollars a piece, which bought them a view from about three hundred feet away from the ring—worse than most of the people there, but neither Jacob nor Sunny was too disappointed. The first bout ended quickly, the favorite, whose reach gave him a dominating advantage, kept his stronger opponent out of range with his jab, and when he began getting tired hammered his head and face with hooks and crosses. The next few bouts lasted longer, the fighters more evenly matched, and the last fight they saw raged for all five rounds. One of the guys could draw and dodge punches with blinding speed, then he’d either counter or take his opponent down to the mat, but the guy kept breaking free, landing elbows or kicks while he got away, and the process would start over again. Both fighters were swollen, bloody, and barely conscious by the end of the fifth, when the faster guy won by decision. Sunny admitted on the ride home he probably couldn’t have beaten either one of them. As Jacob rolled in the house at just past nine, Susan asked if it was a fun trip to the art museum. “Sure was,” he nodded. “You’d be amazed how exciting flower paintings can be.”
His morning routine the following day took an extra twenty minutes, since he slipped off the seat in his shower as he was reaching for the conditioner, and in his efforts to pull himself back up, his foot got caught in the plastic suspension bands, and he fell onto the shower floor again trying to free his leg. Once he had, Susan knocked on the bathroom door in a panic, asking if he was okay. Jacob inhaled and exhaled five deep breaths before answering, “Yes, I’m fine. A minor accident, that’s all.” He lay still a while on the floor of the shower, until he was reasonably sure that she’d gone away, then resumed the attempt to climb onto his shower seat. By the time he’d finished getting ready for work, and wheeled out to the kitchen, Susan had prepared a fresh, hot breakfast of steak and egg whites, scalloped potatoes, and avocado salad.
“This looks delicious,” he said, surprised. “I haven’t lifted for a few days, I don’t need that much protein. Thanks, though, I appreciate it.”
“Figured I might as well,” she smiled from the sink, “having awoken to a loud, mysterious thud in the direction of your bathroom.”
“Yeah, I slipped off the seat trying to reach my conditioner. No permanent damage.”
Turning off the water, she placed the last pan in the dishwasher and came to the table to sit with him. “Why don’t you keep it where it’s supposed to be?”
“I do, usually. I was… Never mind, please.”
Susan gazed out the window, through the open blinds at a sparrow perched on the bird feeder hanging from a lower limb of the pear tree in their backyard. A female cardinal soon alighted upon the opposite side and frightened the sparrow away, and a minute or two later a round gray dove appeared and scared the cardinal away. She let her eyes drift down to Jacob beside her, dividing the last of the egg whites with his fork. Her left hand flew out to brush the damp yellow waves of hair back over his ear. His arm shot up to block hers and force it away.
“Please don’t touch me.” Swallowing the food in his mouth and setting the plate and utensils aside, he looked down at the table, turned to her and said, “Will you help me pack my stuff this week? I need to move out.”
Susan flinched, almost invisibly, and sat up straighter in her chair. Regarding, briefly, the kind certainty in Jacob’s face, and focusing on the bird feeder again, vacant now, the seeds reduced to dotted, uneven sand between the glass, she covered his look with her own, replying, “Only if you take me with you.”