a short story by James Lovegrove
The bell rang, and suddenly the corridors and shafts of the school were filled with moving bodies, and the classrooms, libraries, laboratories and gymnasia were left empty and echoing to the slamming of desk lids and doors. Dust and loose leaves of paper settled even as the teachers began to shape their lips around the words "Class dismissed".
Through the building the children flew with a great racketing roar, celebrating with their screams and whoops and yells the death of another school day. A dozen disparate streams of them converged in the main hallway, and when the hallway could no longer contain all these young bodies, all this enthusiasm made flesh, the main doors swung wide and spilled them out into the yard.
There the children blinked and stood dazed for a moment in the sunshine like prisoners released from long sentences in lightless dungeons; but then, quickly adjusting to their new-found freedom, they fell to clasping hands and exchanging grins and sharing jokes and promising to meet up later that day, or tomorrow, or whenever; and dividing into pairs and knots of three or four and the odd solemn single, up from the yard they rose on single down-thrusts of their wings and off they flew along the windy streets of Cloudcap City, satchels in hand, shirt-tails and skirt-hems fluttering, blowing like dandelion seeds to all six corners of the compass.
Amid all this fever to escape Az plodded along in his usual ungainly fashion. A few classmates patted him on the shoulder and said "See you" as they flew past, but Az's excruciatingly slow progress meant that no one was going to stay beside him for long. It just wasn't possible. It took Az over a minute to traverse a corridor or clamber up or down a shaft, using the metal rungs fitted into the walls especially for him, whereas it took the rest of them a handful of seconds. The other children swooped around him like swifts, like swallows, while Az was a beetle, struggling, bumbling, lumbering.
The last few children were taking off from the yard when Az finally emerged into the daylight. He watched them rise into the sky, wave to one another and flit off in different directions. He waved too, on the off-chance that one of them might happen to look back and see him and return the gesture, but it was useless; their eyes were fixed on the horizon and home. Alone, and sunk deep in his own thoughts, Az traipsed across the yard.
Normally he would have caught the airbus and travelled home with the elders and the fledglings and all the other clipped-wings, but when he came through the school gates he found his brother Michael waiting for him on the landing platform in his Corbeau. Michael was returning the admiring glances of a pair of girls who were wafting by on the other side of the street, but catching sight of Az, he forgot about them and raised a hand and cried, "Hey, little brother! Hop aboard!"
Az climbed into the passenger seat beside Michael, dumping his satchel between his feet. Michael hit a switch on the dashboard of the Corbeau, and the blades began to rotate above their heads.
Over the rising whine of the engine and the vip-vip-vip of chopped air he shouted, "Good day at school?"
Az shrugged. "So-so." Michael looked carefully at the little guy and saw the gloom in his face, sitting heavy there like a cumulonimbus on a blue sky. He didn't ask what the matter was. He merely said, "I've got an idea - why don't we stop by the Ice Castle on the way home? I bet you anything there's a sundae there with your name on it."
"Thanks. No," said Az, buckling on his safety belt.
"OK, why don't we pop over to the Aerobowl then? I've got free passes. Come on. The Thunderhead Eagles are playing the Stratoville Shrikes."
"'Oh'? What does that mean - 'Oh'? The Shrikes, Az. You love the Shrikes."
"No. 'S all right, really. Thanks. I just want to go home."
Michael frowned. "Well, OK. If you say so. If you're sure." He glanced out of the cockpit to check the street was clear, then pushed down on the joystick. The autogyro sprang from the landing platform, soaring up into the sparkling air.
The Corbeau, the latest model in the Airdyne 3-series, was the status-symbol two-seater of the moment - sleek, tapered, a giant's teardrop cast in bronze, every inch of the surface of its fuselage smooth and gleaming from the nose-cone with its ring of rivets to the scallop-grooved tailfins - and Michael flew it with the requisite recklessness, slipping and side-sliding through the air channels, descending suddenly, just as suddenly climbing, overtaking, undertaking, the aircraft responding to the tiniest nudges on the stick and pedals as though it were an extension of its pilot, a mechanical extrapolation of Michael's own abilities. And had Az been in any kind of a good mood, he would have been laughing uproariously as they nipped around the other traffic and whizzed past his schoolfellows at breakneck speed, leaving them standing just as they had left him standing earlier. But today, not even a fast ride in a classy piece of aero-engineering could lift his depression. If anything, it served to deepen it.
They whisked down Sunswept Avenue, great cubes of apartment block blurring by on either side, then took a right onto Cirrus Street, then an up onto Goshawk, and shortly after that the Corbeau was settling down onto the private landing platform that poked out like a rectangular tongue from their parents' front porch.
Az leapt out and was about to make his way up to the front door when Michael grabbed him by the arm and turned him around with a gentle but forceful strength, bringing them face to face.
"Listen, little brother," he said softly. Az averted his gaze. "I know it's not easy for you," Michael continued, "and I know that sometimes it must feel like the whole world's against you because of what you don't have or what you think you don't have. Just remember this - it doesn't matter. You're still our Az, and one lousy pair of wings isn't going to change that. If I thought it would, I'd cut mine off and give them to you right now. You understand that, don't you?"
Az nodded dumbly, not looking up. "Good. Well, take it easy on yourself. And maybe we'll go down to the 'bowl at the weekend. How about that? Would you like that?" Az nodded again, and Michael let him go. The whine of the autogyro rose behind him as he wandered slowly up to the porch. Michael's "Catch you later!" was cut short by a slammed front door. "Dear?" His mother's voice, from the kitchen. "Azrael?" She came out into the hallway, drying her hands on a dishtowel. "Was that Michael I heard just now? Isn't he going to stay for supper?"
Az shook his head. "I don't know."
"Some girl, I bet," said his mother, indulgent wrinkles multiplying around her eyes.
"Maybe," said Az. Then: "I'm going up to my room."
To reach the upper storey of the house Az had to use a contraption his father had built for him, a space-consuming succession of cantilevered wooden steps that rose diagonally through an aperture in the ceiling. His parents used the steps too whenever he was around. As a rule, they made sure to walk as much as possible when he was in the house, out of respect to his feelings.
His room was like any other twelve-year-old's room, save that the door went all the way down to the floor (another of his father's D.I.Y. adaptations). The carpet was strewn with clothing, books, pieces of a long-abandoned jigsaw, some small die-cast biplanes and a larger scale model of a Corbeau which Michael had given him on his last birthday, saying it would do until Az was old enough to earn his pilot's license, at which point Michael would buy him the real thing. He dropped his satchel into the middle of all this debris and stretched out on his bed, flat on his back. Lying on his back, Az reflected, was the one thing he could do that no one else could. Some compensation. Yeah, right. What a talent. The kids at school were forever asking him to show them how well he could lie on his back.
He stared up at the ceiling for a long time, trying to think of nothing. At some point during the long slow diminuendo of the afternoon, he fell asleep. And he dreamed.
Az wakes up to find he has grown a fully-fledged pair of wings.
He doesn't know how they got there, he doesn't dare ask why.
He simply accepts.
His parents are happy and amazed. His mother cries, his father
thumbs some grit from his eye. They forgive Az. For what, they
do not say, but it is enough for Az to be forgiven. He kisses
them both, and prepares to fly off to school under his own steam
for the first time ever.
Flying, he finds, is not so difficult. He has the instinct
for it, and now he has the means. A little practice, some plummeting
and frantic fluttering, and he's on his way.
Heads turn and mouths gape in the school yard. A cry goes
up. Look! Look at that! Did you ever...? Who'd have thought...?
Az alights in the middle of the school yard and his peers
cluster round him, jabbering excitedly. They fire off a million
questions at him. They ask him if they can touch his wings.
He tells them they can. They touch them with reverential awe
and care. It tickles.
Word gets around, and before he knows it Az is a celebrity
in school. He is clapped and cheered wherever he goes. When
he glides down a shaft with his wings outstretched, every feather
intricately splayed to catch the air, he descends into a hail
of hurrahs. When he kites along a corridor, keeping pace with
the rest of his class as they hurry from one lesson to the next,
they grin and encourage him every flap of the way. During break
time Az is asked to join half a dozen impromptu games of balloonball,
and though he has never played before, has only ever watched from
the sidelines, he soon gets the hang of it, and even scores a
Horizontal Slide. The seal is put on his popularity when Mrs
Ragual interrupts Phys. Ed. to ask Az for a demonstration. The
class goes outside and Az soars and barrel-rolls and loop-the-loops
for their benefit. Mrs Ragual tells him he is not just a good
flyer, he is a great flyer. Then the rest of them join him in
the air, and together, under Mrs Ragual's approving eye, they
pass a happy, truant half-hour simply doing what they like best,
wheeling and whirling and squealing and squalling like a flock
of mad seagulls. All the time Az is the centre of attention,
the focus of everybody's admiration. After all, anyone who can
make one of Mrs Ragual's Phys. Ed. torture sessions FUN has to
be some kind of a hero.
His parents are happy and amazed. His mother cries, his father thumbs some grit from his eye. They forgive Az. For what, they do not say, but it is enough for Az to be forgiven. He kisses them both, and prepares to fly off to school under his own steam for the first time ever.
Flying, he finds, is not so difficult. He has the instinct for it, and now he has the means. A little practice, some plummeting and frantic fluttering, and he's on his way.
Heads turn and mouths gape in the school yard. A cry goes up. Look! Look at that! Did you ever...? Who'd have thought...?
Az alights in the middle of the school yard and his peers cluster round him, jabbering excitedly. They fire off a million questions at him. They ask him if they can touch his wings. He tells them they can. They touch them with reverential awe and care. It tickles.
Word gets around, and before he knows it Az is a celebrity in school. He is clapped and cheered wherever he goes. When he glides down a shaft with his wings outstretched, every feather intricately splayed to catch the air, he descends into a hail of hurrahs. When he kites along a corridor, keeping pace with the rest of his class as they hurry from one lesson to the next, they grin and encourage him every flap of the way. During break time Az is asked to join half a dozen impromptu games of balloonball, and though he has never played before, has only ever watched from the sidelines, he soon gets the hang of it, and even scores a Horizontal Slide. The seal is put on his popularity when Mrs Ragual interrupts Phys. Ed. to ask Az for a demonstration. The class goes outside and Az soars and barrel-rolls and loop-the-loops for their benefit. Mrs Ragual tells him he is not just a good flyer, he is a great flyer. Then the rest of them join him in the air, and together, under Mrs Ragual's approving eye, they pass a happy, truant half-hour simply doing what they like best, wheeling and whirling and squealing and squalling like a flock of mad seagulls. All the time Az is the centre of attention, the focus of everybody's admiration. After all, anyone who can make one of Mrs Ragual's Phys. Ed. torture sessions FUN has to be some kind of a hero.
He woke up. He dared to touch his back. Still wingless. He rolled disconsolately over onto his side to look out of the window at Cloudcap City all laid out in neat rows and columns and tiers, up, down, left, right, reaching as high as the stratosphere and as low as the cloudtop and as far as the horizon, each block suspended by means of six-way electromagnetic positional stabilisers to form a three-dimensional latticework of buildings, between and through and around which tiny figures and aircraft of all shapes and sizes were threading their way. Most of the buildings were cubic in shape, but there were oddities. The cylinder of the Freefall Dance Palace was one, the annular Aerobowl another, the spike-spired mace-ball fantasy of the Cathedral of the Significant God a notable third.
The air being clear and his eyes being sharp, Az could make out the bird-trawlers a mile below on the cloudtop, casting their nets into the wilderness of white. He could also make out the sky-mines that ringed the city, forming a circle of stability on which the whole meniscus of floating buildings depended. The sky-mines looked like tulips balancing on lofty, delicately slender stems which pierced the cloudtop and went all the way down to the Ground, from where they sucked up the juices that kept the city running. Service elevators, like glass aphids, crawled up and down the stems.
He lay there watching the view for he didn't know how long. It seemed like no time and all time had passed when his mother called up from below, summoning him down for supper. Az clumped down to the kitchen, from which emanated smells which even his gloom-ridden brain recognised as mouthwatering.
"Go and call your father," said his mother. "Then you can lay the table."
Az went out into the hallway again, walked along a little way and stopped at the large trapdoor that led down to his father's workshop. He listened hard, and heard from below faint sounds of banging and tocking, clonking and clanging.
Construction. While a working man, Az's father had spent much of his spare time dabbling in home improvements, which were usually for Az's benefit, like the steps and all the doorways in the house. When his forty-year career as a maker and mender of clocks had finally wound down, however, he had turned his hand to invention, and had begun building a series of thises and thats and the others - gadgets he hoped one day to patent and sell by the million, devices intended to make everyone's lives that little bit easier. So far, not a single one had proved patent-feasible. A portable trouser-press had made its mark in all the wrong ways. A clockwork toothbrush had been a gum-mangling disaster. A pair of self-sharpening scissors that had almost cost him a finger. But he went on making these things nonetheless, toiling away by the uncertain light of a gas-lantern, in secret, in the strictest of privacy, hope springing eternal with the completion of every new invention until that invention blew a gasket or slipped a cog or collapsed in a heap or simply failed to start. Then it was "Oh well, back to the drawing board," with a sigh that contained neither defeat nor despair. It was almost as if Az's father wasn't really looking forward to the day one of his devices worked and was a success and made his fortune and meant that he never had to make anything else again. The old man was happy just to be in his workshop, out of harm's way, tinkering, occupying his hands and his time.
Az called down, and the sounds of construction ceased and his father's muffled voice came up.
"Coming." A moment later his father bustled up into the kitchen. "Give me a hand here, won't you, son?" He turned his back, and Az helped him unzip and wrestle his way out of the plastic slipcovers he wore over his wings to protect them from dust and stray sparks. His father's plumage had greyed at the edges, was rough in patches like a fledgling's, and had gaps where pinfeathers had fallen out and would never grow back again; but they were fine, proud wings all the same, and in excellent condition for a man his age.
"Outside, please," said Az's mother, referring to the dusty wing-covers. Her husband obediently popped them out onto the back porch. "I shudder to think of the state of that workshop," she went on. "Knee-deep in shavings and scrapings and wood chips and what-have-you."
Az's father clasped a fist to his chest. "I would rather die than have you clean in there."
"I wasn't offering," his wife replied. "I was merely remarking." While Az finished laying the table, his father washed his hands in the sink. Drying them on a towel, he said, quietly, as if it was no matter at all, "Do you know, I really think I'm onto something this time."
Az's mother, who had heard this statement or statements pretty much like it a hundred times before, said, without looking up from the stove, "That's good, dear."
Az said nothing.
But when his father sat down at the table, there was a gleam in his eyes Az could not remember seeing there before, a light of excitement brightening the well-yellowed whites. "No, I mean it," he said. "I've been working on this particular project for some weeks now, and I think I'm close to cracking it."
"Eat," said Az's mother, placing laden plates in front of them. They ate. His parents, reckoning Az was not in a communicative mood, left him alone and chatted between themselves, chewing over trivialities and inconsequentialities the way long-married couples do when the weighty subjects have all been thoroughly discussed and all that remains is the nitty-gritty and the fine-tuning and the splitting of hairs. Finally Az could bear it no longer, and said, "What?"
"What what?" said his father.
"What is it? The something that you're on to? What?" The gleam re-entered the old man's eyes. "Never you mind, Az. Wait and see." By this time Az's mother was intrigued too. "Go on, Gabe," she said. "Give us a clue."
"What, and ruin the suspense?" "Is it going to make us rich?" Az asked. His father made a great show of considering the question. "Well, in one sense, yes. In another sense, no." He grinned enigmatically. "Wait and see."
Az waited several days, and still did not see. Every afternoon when he came home from school he would stop quietly by the trapdoor and listen to the tink and bonk and clatter and whack-whack-whack of industry, and the tuneless humming with which his father often counterpointed the rhythm of his labours. The sounds seemed no different from the sound his father usually made down there. They were infuriatingly ordinary.
His attempts to extract from his father even the tiniest hint as to what was taking shape in the workshop were met with gleeful stonewalling. Endless questions could be asked over the dinner table, only to be answered with a "Maybe" or a "Could be" or a simple "Not saying". Once, recalling that his father had recently bought in several sheets of copper, Az asked whether these had some bearing on the mystery, but his father pointed out, rightly, that he was constantly buying and bringing in sheets of copper. It was, he said, the most tractable and obliging metal to work with.
One evening, while flicking through a magazine, Az held up each page of advertising in turn and showed it to his father, asking, "Is it like that?" To which, in every instance, his father replied, "Something like that. Only completely different." Eventually Az became so aggravated that he threw the magazine down and left the room, hearing his father chuckle merrily behind him.
There was no question of secretly investigating the workshop, violating the privacy of his father's sanctum sanctorum; so in the end there was nothing for it but to wait and wonder.
One good thing, though, came of this continuing mystery. Az was so busy thinking about what might be in the workshop that he forgot to dwell on his own problems. Teachers marked the disappearance of his depressive fits and were quietly pleased, although a tendency to daydream in class was noted in the normally diligent pupil. His classmates were for the most part indifferent to the change in his temperament, although a few of them did notice that Az no longer scowled so hard when he walked. His mind seemed to be elsewhere, on something outside himself. The more sensitive among them recognised this to be a healthy sign.
Eighteen days after his first announcement, Az's father made a second, even more impressive announcement. It came one suppertime. Michael had dropped by on his way to pick up a girl called Raphaella and take her to a harp recital at the Cathedral of the Significant God. The family were halfway through the main course when Az's father tapped his wine glass with his fork, cleared his throat and said, "A short speech."
"A very short speech. Just to say that this Saturday will see the unveiling of a device that is going to make us the happiest family alive. I want you to be there, Michael, if you can make it."
"This isn't another of your exploding specials, is it, Dad?" said Michael. "Like the self-heating coffee cup?"
"It's something," said the old man, with an extravagant display of self-restraint, "that is going to make us the happiest family alive."
Michael turned to Az. "We're going to be millionaires," he said with a confident wink. That night Az hardly slept at all. It was ridiculous, he knew, to get all excited over a dumb invention of his father's that might not even work. But there it was. His father's enthusiasm was infectious. And so Az lay awake trying to imagine what form the device would take, what use it could be put to, how big it would be, how practical, and he ached for Saturday to come so that he could see which, if any, of his suppositions turned out to be correct.
The day of the unveiling arrived, and Az and his mother watched Michael and the old man haul the device up from the workshop and carry it out onto the landing platform. The device was covered by a tarpaulin, so that all anyone could say about it was that it was twelve feet long, thin at either and end, bulky in the middle, and angular all over. Az thought of the dinosaur skeleton in the Museum of Ancient Artifacts.
"Well?" said Az's mother, giftwrapping her impatience in a laugh.
"One moment," said his father. "First, a short speech."
As before, the family groaned, as they were supposed to.
Pretending not to notice, Az's father ruffled his wings and grasped his lapel like a politician. "Once," he began, "long ago, we were not Airborn but Groundling, and we lived an earthbound life, circumscribed on all sides by natural boundaries - mountains, rivers, seas. Since then, the race has moved onwards and upwards, and now we live lives as close to perfection as it is possible to get. We are paragons, living embodiments of all that the Groundlings aspired to. This is our heritage and our privilege. A privilege that should not be denied to anyone. Least of all, to flesh of my flesh." Here, he looked straight at Az, and suddenly everyone - except Az - had a pretty good idea what lay hidden beneath the tarpaulin.
There might have been more to the speech, but Az's father sensed that the game was up, and, like any good showman, he knew he should not let the audience get ahead of him, so with a grand flourish he swept back the tarpaulin, revealing his creation to the world.
Four faces were reflected in a relief mosaic of burnished copper. Three of them gawped, wide-eyed. The fourth grinned with pride.
Finally, someone spoke. It was Az's mother.
"Wings," she exclaimed, the word tailing up into a question.
"Wings," her husband confirmed, bringing the word back in to land.
And wings they were. Larger than lifesize, correct in every detail, lovingly crafted in beaten copper. A pair of metal, mechanical wings. Every feather was there, perfect down to the fine comb-teeth of its filaments and pinned into place with a free-floating bolt; every joint, too, from the ball-and-sockets at the base of the armatures to the hinges at the elbows; and a complex system of pulleys and wires connected the ensemble to a leather harness which was just the right shape and just the right size for the torso of a boy of twelve.
"Come on then," said Az's father, taking Az by the shoulder. "Let's try them on, shall we?" Michael stepped forward to help, and together he and the old man loaded the wings onto Az's back and tightened the straps of the harness around his chest.
Az submitted passively to the fitting, not knowing what to think, not really thinking anything. The wings were very heavy, and when his father and Michael let go, he teetered and would have overbalanced if Michael had not caught and steadied him.
Az barely listened as his father explained how the wings worked. "You see, they're designed to take the action of the muscles in your shoulders and translate it into wingbeats, so you'll simply be employing the natural abilities God gave you. You may have some trouble adjusting to them at first, but that's only to be expected. There's no reason why instinct shouldn't take over almost straight away. Trust me, Az. You'll be up and soaring in no time."
Bookended by Michael and his father, Az staggered to the edge of the landing platform, the wings making a soft shimmering clatter with each step as hundreds of copper feathers shook against one another. He peered down. The rippled surface of the cloudtop was awfully far below. The bird-trawlers plying their trade down there looked as tiny as gnats.
He glanced back over his shoulder. At first he could see nothing but copper wing, but he dropped his shoulder slightly and the wing flattened out, and then he could see his mother. There were tears in her eyes. "Go on," she said to him, smiling bravely. "Don't be scared. You'll be fine." But he wasn't scared. He was embarrassed. The clench of his jaw wasn't one of determination but one of humiliation. He felt clumsier than ever burdened by these huge metal prostheses. He felt neither Airborn nor Groundling but a horrid amalgamation of the two. A joke, a parody. What would they think of him at school when he turned up on Monday morning strapped into this ugly clattering copper contraption?
"I don't think I can go through with this," he said. "Nonsense," said his father, mistaking the tremor in Az's voice for fear. "Michael and I will make sure you're all right, won't we, Michael? Whatever happens, you won't come to any harm. Trust us."
"Will you at least hold on to me?" Az implored.
"The only way to learn is the way I learned," said Michael. "The way we all learn." "What way is that?" said Az doubtfully. "The hard way," said Michael, and with a grin that was devoid of malice and yet still wicked, he grabbed Az's arm. Az's father on the other side did the same, and together, chanting "One, two, three," they heaved Az out over the edge and into space.
And let go.
There was a moment of sheer disbelief, followed by a moment of sheer terror. Then all that was lost in the sickening uprush of falling. The weight of the wings yanked Az head over heels onto his back, and down he went in a wind-shivered rattle of metal. Down he plummeted, making no attempt to right himself or flap the wings, unable even to entertain the notion of saving himself. Down in a state of dreamlike apathy, with no thought except that he was going to die. Hypnotically down, past building after building, past windows and doorways, past light aircraft and happy citizens out for a Saturday morning glide. Down, down, down, with no hope of rescue, and no desire for it either. Down without a gasp or a scream, for an elastic stretch of seconds, the platform above receding, the house and all the houses around it shrinking, the sky growing smaller and filling up with more and more city. Down towards the cloudtop and the Ground from where the Airborn race once sprang and which now lay forever hidden.
There was a tentative knock at the door. "Can I come in?" "Sure, Dad."
Az glanced up from the book he was reading, an adventure story about sky pirates, as his father entered the room. The old man's head was contritely bowed, and his wings drooped so low their tips were almost touching the floor. The look of shame that hung on the old man's face was so comical, Az could hardly fail to smile. His father gestured at the edge of the bed. "May I?"
The old man sat down. There was a long silence while he deliberated over his next move, then he reached out and laid one hand on Az's leg. He patted the leg, the action affectionate yet mechanical. It was clear that he had several things to say but no idea in what order to say them.
Az helped him out. "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings." "My feelings?" "By not trying." "Oh. Well, I wouldn't say my feelings were hurt, exactly. I was a little ... disappointed? No, not even that. I did hope... Well, it doesn't matter now. How I feel doesn't matter. It's how you feel that matters."
"I feel fine. Honestly." "The doctor said there may be some delayed shock." "I feel absolutely fine, Dad. Guilty, though." "Guilty?" "For letting you down."
"You didn't let me down, Az," said his father with an exasperated laugh. "How can I get that into your thick skull? I don't mind. Really I don't. It's enough for me that you're alive and well."
"Well, I think I did. I mean, the wings would have worked. Almost certainly. Definitely. If I'd tried. I just didn't try. I didn't want to try."
"Oh," said his father. For the sake of his own conscience, it was what he had been hoping to hear. "Well, anyway, you'll be pleased to learn that I've taken the damned things along to the scrapyard. Never again." "But you are going to carry on with your inventions.
Az's father frowned. "Perhaps. The fun's sort of gone out of it."
"But what about making your million?"
"It's just a dream."
"Dreams are important."
"Az," said his father, then paused. "When your mother was pregnant with you, the doctors suggested she ... she shouldn't have you. Health reasons. She wasn't so young any more. But she was prepared to take the risk. Quite determined, as a matter of fact. And because she was, I was, too. We both wanted you more than we'd ever wanted anything, no question about it. And when you came, we couldn't have been happier. We loved you the instant we set eyes on you. You were different, but that only made you special." His father looked deep inside himself. "Even so, it hasn't always been easy. You understand. For any of us. The looks we sometimes get, that mixture of compassion and disappointment, like we've somehow let the whole race down. Sometimes... Anyway, what I'm saying is, I was wrong to try and make you the same as everyone else. I'd convinced myself I was doing it for you, but of course I was just doing it for myself. And now I can't help thinking what would have happened if Michael hadn't been so quick off the mark, if he hadn't caught you when he did..."
"But he did, and I'm fine. It just wasn't meant to be, Dad. That's all there is to it." "Please believe me when I say that I had your best interests at heart. It simply never occurred to me... I just assumed that to fly must be your dream, your greatest, wildest dream."
"Oh, but it is, Dad, it is. I dream about having wings all the time. The thing is, I've got so used to the fact that it's never going to happen, it doesn't bother me so much any more. Sometimes it's better to have a dream and not have it fulfilled than make do with something that's like your dream but not quite as good."
"Say I'm forgiven anyway." "You're forgiven anyway." "Thank you." The old man thought about tousling his son's hair, but checked himself. That was something you did to little children. To boys. Instead, he patted Az's leg one more time, and left the room.
Az shut his book and turned over to look out of the window.
Cloudcap City, his home, lay suspended in the bright afternoon sunshine, shadowless and huge, its interstices busy with traffic, thriving with life. It pleased Az to think that, even if only for a handful of seconds, he had plunged through that city unaided, unsupported; that he had had a taste of flight, however brief and unwelcome. It filled him with a weird kind of serenity.
In this world he would always be a floorbound, wingless freak. There was no changing that. But in his dreams...
In his dreams, he would always be able to fly.
© James Lovegrove 1995, 1999.
This story first
appeared in Heaven Sent (Creed, 1995; Daw, 1995).
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