by Anthony R. Karnowski
I had been scoping out Union Jack’s, a small dive on the west side of town, for weeks. Jenny said it had the best selection and prices, but there were a few things keeping me from just walking in. I wasn’t twenty-one, for starters, and even if I had been, Glyphs weren’t completely legal. Not that that had stopped anyone else; I was one of the only kids left that wasn’t boasting at least one. Jenny had even shown up to school flying. Or, at least, trying to fly, anyway. When she tried to land she tumbled into me, knocking my cellphone out of my hand and into a fountain. She laughed as she detangled from me, her hair wind-blown and wild.
“They finally caved?” I asked, letting the water drip out of my phone.
“Yeah, I convinced Mom to go ahead and give it to me as an early graduation present.”
“Sorry I didn’t wait. I know we said we’d go together, but when she asked, I just sort of freaked.”
“No worries. I probably would have done the same.” It was a lie, but her smile made it all right.
“So, when are you getting yours?”
“I’m still…” I caught myself before saying “waiting for my mom to give the okay.” Instead I said: “I’m still trying to decide what to get.”
“Flight is the absolute best,” she said, leaving no room for argument, and the thought of us flying together, hand in hand, made me think she was right. A week later, as we were filing out of school she smiled and looked to the sky.
“Still can’t fly,” I said.
“Sure you can. I figured something out yesterday. Come here.” She took my hand. “Just kick off, okay? Ready? On three. One. Two…”
We pushed off together, and I felt my stomach lurch as the laws of physics ceased to apply. My legs flailed about as they tried to find some bearing while I waved my free arm for balance.
“Easy there,” Jenny said, laughing. “You don’t want to let go of my hand or you’ll go splat. Just relax.”
That was difficult. The more I tried, the more I tensed. She took both my hands, squeezing them as she tried to hold us steady. Looking into her eyes helped, but it wasn’t until I remembered a technique I’d read in one of Dad’s books on meditation, and I started breathing slowly, focusing on the feeling in my lungs as they expanded and contracted, that I finally calmed down. Once I was adjusted, though, that first flight with Jenny was one of the most amazing, and terrifying, experiences I’ve ever had. We were weightless. Buoys in the clouds. She led us far enough into the air that our breath turned to mist and she started to shiver.
“The air is clearer the higher you go,” she said, her teeth chattering. “Thinner, too, but cleaner, fresher.”
We hovered there for a few moments, holding onto each other for warmth as we drifted through clouds. The world beneath us was painted in the richest greens, browns, and blues.
“Wanna do something fun?”
“Sure,” I said, anxious to seem like I wasn’t terrified.
Her grin had never been more devilish, and there was mischief in her eyes.
“Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t let go.”
Suddenly we were falling. I heard screaming as we plummeted toward the earth. When we were about a hundred yards from the ground, Jenny lifted us back up, and all I could hear was the wind and her laughter. She didn’t stop until we reached the old Fire Tower on Sharp’s Ridge.
“I never would have guessed you were a screamer.” She grinned and shouldered me playfully as we sat on top of the tower, holding hands and watching the sun descend as dozens of kids darted around us, rising and falling on the horizon like a flock of strange birds.
“Maybe if I’d had a little warning.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think so. My brother has always said that people are either screamers or they’re not. There’s no in-between.” That wicked grin appeared again, but this time she seemed to be considering something. Quickly, she leaned forward and kissed me. Nothing fancy, just a quick pop on the lips. “Come on,” she said. “I gotta get home. Mom probably thinks I’ve flown to Tokyo by now. I’ve been threatening her ever since I got the Glyph.”
* * * * *
It was the kiss that did it. With the memory of it still fresh, I drove home with a purpose after Jenny dropped me back at the school. After close to six years of playing classic rock covers at the local pizzeria every Saturday night, and having parents that always bought me the latest video games in order to distract me from all the other kids flaunting their Glyphs, I had just over five thousand dollars. I kept the roll of twenties stashed inside my first acoustic, and as I shook the guitar to get it to fall out, I realized I’d never actually heard how much Glyphs cost. I hoped I had enough.
Replaying the memory of Jenny’s kiss again, I pushed the door of Union Jack’s open and stepped into the stench of stale smoke. There were several old men sitting at the bar, puffing cigarettes and sipping beers. The bartender looked up and scowled. “I hope you’re not looking for a drink,” he said.
I shook my head and opened my mouth to speak, but then shut it.
“In that case,” the man pointed over his shoulder. “Ayita’s back there somewhere. She’ll take care of you.”
I nodded before walking past two old pool tables covered in stains that could have been blood or vomit. My shoes stuck to the floor, making a strange sucking sound each time I took a step. The haze of smoke made my eyes water, and I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to hang out there.
I made my way past the bathrooms and through a curtain of beads. The floor changed from wood to concrete as I stepped through, and there was a draft coming from somewhere. It was still smoky, but the odor had changed. I could never remember what that particular scent was called, but Dad always called it “hippie.” There were a few tables and chairs scattered about, but there was no Ayita. Thinking that maybe she’d stepped out for a second, I moved to sit down.
“Look at this pretty young thing.” I jumped before I made it into the chair. The voice had been female, but I couldn’t see where it had come from. “He’s jumpy, too.”
A woman, tall and beautiful in a dangerous sort of way, melted out of the wall. She wore dark jeans, thigh-high boots, and a mesh tank top that left her naked from the waist up. My eye twitched a little. The woman, whom I assumed was Ayita, stepped forward and lifted my chin, turning my head slightly to the side, examining me. I tried to look her in the eye, but there was something powerful in her dark eyes, almost frightening. I settled for staring at her chest.
“You’re not a cop, are you?”
The question took me by surprise. Surely she could tell I wasn’t old enough to be a cop. I shook my head and stammered out something like “of course not,” but I was still so entranced by how much of her I could see that I really didn’t know what I said.
“I had to be sure. If I find out you’re lying to me, you’ll regret it. I’ve touched you. Do you see this?” She pointed to a tattoo below her left breast, a bloodhound with a compass on its collar. I nodded. “It means I can find you anytime I want.” She smiled and waited, letting her words settle into my mind. When she was satisfied I understood, she sat behind an old, scratched table and took a sip of the blackest beer I had ever seen.
“So, what’ll it be?” She asked, motioning me to the chair across from her.
“Um… what’ve you, like, got?”
She chuckled. “Dearie, I’ve got anything you could possibly imagine. I’ve got Flight, I’ve got Invisibility. Teleportation. Seduction. Strength, Intelligence, and Healing. You name it, I’ve got it.”
“How much for Flight?”
She smiled again. It was a nice smile, full of small, straight teeth. “The kiddies always want the wings. You want true Flight or just Levitation?”
“How much for true Flight?”
“A grand. You can get Levitation for six-fifty, though. It’ll still impress the little girlies.”
“A grand, huh? That’s it?”
She smiled. “That’s it, he says. Only a thousand dollars. Rich kid, huh?”
“Not really,” I said, dropping my eyes to the table and tracing my finger along an old scratch on its surface. “How many Glyphs can you have at once?”
“There isn’t a set number. Some people can handle more than others. I would recommend starting with one. Maybe two if you think you can handle it. I won’t sell more than three Glyphs to any one customer at any one time. Too risky. Never more than two to a first-timer, though.”
My mind raced with all the possibilities. If Flight only cost a grand, I could afford to get two. How cool would it be to walk out with Flight and Strength? Or Invisibility. But then I decided that this woman probably knew what she was talking about, and I might be better off starting small. Still, if I was just going to get one, should it be Flight? Shouldn’t it be something that really got my blood moving? The memories of flying with Jenny made my stomach turn even when both of my feet were firmly on the ground. But mixed in with the nausea was the feeling of her hand in mine and the memory of her smile as we drifted through the clouds, both of which did get my blood moving.
“Let’s go with true Flight for now.”
“Are you sure? It took you a long time to answer.”
“Sure. I mean, Flight seems like a good one to start with, right? Nice and practical.”
She smiled in a way that made me remember the look in Jenny’s eyes just before she let us fall. The memory of my scream made my face hot, and I decided that if Jenny liked speed and thrills, I would try to give her that.
“Let’s do it,” I said. “But can I get Speed, too?”
“Of course. As long as you’ve got the cash. It’ll be seventeen-fifty for both.”
I pulled the money-roll out of my jacket pocket and, turning slightly so she couldn’t see, counted it out. I rolled the rest back up before handing her the stack of bills. She smiled, folded the stack, and stuffed it in her back pocket.
“Right. This way, please. Go ahead and take your shirt off, too.”
I did as she asked, tucking my shirt and jacket under my arm as I followed Ayita through another beaded curtain that I hadn’t noticed before, further into the back of the bar. There was an old, cushioned table, like at the doctor’s office, in the middle of the room. One wall was a solid mirror, while the others were covered in posters of tattoo designs and shelves that were filled with needles and strange devices. An old TV sat in the corner, lifeless.
“Lay face down on the table, please,” Ayita said.
I did as she asked, laying on top of my shirt and jacket so I wouldn’t lose track of them. “Is this going to hurt?”
“Terribly,” she said. It wasn’t a lie.
For the next four hours, she worked. Slowly. Methodically. A low murmuring chant came from her lips, barely audible as she worked the ink into the flesh of my back. It felt like fire. Like ants were chewing through my back. But then it was over, and I was staring into a hand mirror in order to see the two emerald and black wings on my back reflected through the wall mirror. Between them was the small silhouette of a rabbit.
* * * * *
The next day after school I asked Jenny if she’d help put some antibiotic ointment on my fresh tattoo. Ayita had said it would heal in about a week, but I would need to be careful to keep it from getting infected or the Glyph might not work.
“I can’t believe you got two! And without your parent’s permission!” Even though it hurt like hell as Jenny rubbed the goo on my back, the hairs on my arms stood up every time she touched me. “I could never do that. There, that should do it.”
As I pulled my shirt back on, she lifted slowly into the air. She’d taken to hovering in Lotus position instead of sitting. It was odd, having to always look up at her.
“I can’t wait till we can go super-fast! How long till we can go to Tokyo?”
“Ayita said I should be able to use it by next Saturday. So we’re kind of stuck in the Southeast till then.”
“It’s going to be great. We can go to Mt. Fuji, too! Maybe we can even stop off and see where my brother’s stationed on the way! You’d like him.”
“That would be cool,” I said. Jenny was always talking about her brother, but he’d joined the Army just before she and her mom moved up from Georgia so I’d never met him. She was always telling stories about him, and many of them made me doubt that I would like him, regardless of her claims to the contrary.
“I’ll plan out a whole list of things we can do,” Jenny said, rambling in her excitement. “In the meantime, though, I bet we could make it to the Gulf and back before dark if we left early enough on Saturday. What do you think?”
Listening to her make plans for us was intoxicating. Her face was animated with the possibilities in her mind, and something about her referring to us as “we” made my stomach feel weird. Not bad, just weird. Like it was the gooiest cinnamon roll ever served. She wrote out a list that she titled “Local Excursions” and said she thought it would keep us busy over the next week while my Glyphs healed. The next afternoon, after I fumblingly lifted off the ground for the second time while holding Jenny’s hand, she flew us to Asheville where we walked through small folk-art galleries downtown while sipping lattes out of recycled coffee cups. A couple of days later we flew to Nashville and ate hotdogs on top of the Parthenon while hundreds of pigeons cooed and fluttered around us.
The next morning I woke to Jenny knocking on my window. There was a bag over her shoulder, and I barely had the window open before she was inside.
“Quit wasting the day, we’ve got places to be. The beach is calling.”
“What?” I yawned and rubbed my eyes.
“The beach. The ocean. I packed us a lunch. I figure it should only take us a few hours to get there. Get dressed and let’s go.”
Several rushed minutes later, after having thrown on some beach appropriate clothes and brushed my teeth, we were on our way. Jenny flew us to the Gulf where we spent the rest of the morning laying in the sun, sipping soft drinks and watching sea gulls skim across the water.
“The last time we came to the beach when I was a kid, I always wished I could fly across the water like the birds. Daddy always shook his head and said I was a silly girl and needed to stop thinking such childish things if I wanted to get anywhere in the world.”
“Shows what he knew,” I said. “Now you can.”
She looked out across the water and gave the faintest possible nod. “He left not long after we got back from that trip. Accepted an assignment and left to go god-knows-where. Wouldn’t even tell us where he was going. When Jacob joined the service Mom almost lost it. She said he was abandoning his family just like his dad.” She seemed to snap out of a spell and the smile that made me notice her in Algebra spread across her face. “Sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. You hungry?”
After lunch we spent the afternoon chasing the gulls, flying close enough to run our fingers across the surface of the ocean. As the sun began to descend, we made our way back home.
The following week was spent completing our tour of the Southeast. Short, evening trips to Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, and Raleigh got us through the days of waiting for my Glyph to start working. The tattoo was starting to itch, and Ayita had said that would happen a few days before it was ready. Just another day or two and I would be able take Jenny to the other side of the world and back in the span of a few seconds.
It was late on Friday night when it happened. I was hunched over the side of my bed playing guitar, when the tattoos started to itch. I raked my fingers lightly across my back, and it felt like a sheet of spiderweb peeled away. Then, suddenly, I could feel the wings move. It only happened a couple of times, like a light fluttering, but immediately after it happened, I hovered into the air of my bedroom for the first, shaky time by myself. It was harder than Jenny made it look. I kept wanting to flip backwards, but eventually I got my balance.
Once I did, I wanted to test out my new Speed. Flying was cool, but I’d done so much of it with Jenny over the past two weeks that I was ready for something different. Even though I had promised she could be with me the first time, I wanted to test it out by myself in case I did something stupid.
I started small. I held a guitar pick as high as I could and then dropped it. It hit the floor. Frowning, I tried again. Each time I dropped the pick, I would try to bring my hand down in time to catch it, but my hand didn’t seem to be moving any faster than normal. The thought that Ayita had taken me for an extra seven-fifty crossed my mind after my twelfth failed attempt. But then something happened. Instead of trying to catch it, I decided to just watch it. As soon as I did, it was like the world went into slow-motion. The pick seemed to hover in the air, not moving at all. I reached out and pushed it a half-inch to the left before letting it drop. There was a slight pinching behind my eyes until I slowed back down, and after noticing that I figured out how to make myself go faster or slower by manipulating that tension. It was almost like I was stopping time.
I slipped out my window and flew downtown. There wasn’t a lot of activity, even for a Friday night, but there were a few people around. I sped myself up and flew into Market Square. Standing in the center of the Square, I never felt like I was moving any faster, but the world would slow to a standstill. I could control how quickly the people around me moved. Anywhere from normal speed to extreme slow-motion to not moving at all. At times it was like looking at a photograph. The clouds didn’t move, and there was a complete absence of sound. I flew home smiling at the cars on the interstate. I was moving so fast they looked like they were parked.
I stopped by Jenny’s house on the way, hoping she was still awake so I could share my new power with her. The light was out in her bedroom, though, so I left, not wanting to wake her. She would get to experience it soon enough.
Settling back on my bed, I decided to test my new ability further. I sped up, and watched the second hand on my watch while counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi.” Time still moved forward, but a second took about two and a half minutes.
The rest of the night was spent playing with time. I shot rubber bands at the wall and caught them before they hit, hooking them with my index finger. When that got old, I hovered above my window for a minute trying to figure out something else to do before heading North. I followed the interstate, playing with my speed in relation to the trucks below, laughing as they stopped short, freezing in place as I sliced through the air. In about five minutes of clock-time, and before I realized it, Manhattan was beneath me. The city was silent as I zipped through the streets, buzzing the heads of people stuck in a moment that for them would last but a second, but for me could last hours.
I touched down on top of the Empire State Building and slowed back to normal. The traffic roared as the city came to life. Wind skirled around, buffeting me as the tiny people below resumed their lives like nothing had happened. I turned it on and off like a baby that’s just discovered light switches, tensing and releasing the muscles around my eyes. In the back of my mind I knew I should wait and share this with Jenny, but I was having so much fun!
So, I flew to Florida. Then to New Orleans. I got hungry then, so I slowed down again long enough to buy a candy bar and a soda at a gas station. Then I went to L.A. Then Seattle, and, finally, Vancouver. Eventually, though it had only been a couple of hours since I started, I knew the sun would be about to come up at home, and my eyes didn’t want to stay open.
As I crawled into bed, the sun was beginning to creep into my window. Jenny was coming over around ten, so I could eek out around three hours of sleep. I pulled my covers over my head to block the sunlight and fell asleep. My dreams were strange, and I woke to a loud knocking on my window.
“Finally,” Jenny said as I opened the window and she floated inside. “Jesus. You look terrible. Late night of video games?”
“No,” I said, rubbing my eyes. “I was playing guitar, and, all of a sudden, my wings moved.”
“They did! That’s great! So, what, you been flying around the world all night?”
“No, just the U.S.”
“What? I was kidding. You said you’d wait and take me with you!”
“I know. I came by your house, but your light was off.”
“Jacob never called last night like he was supposed to, so I was downstairs with Mom till almost four in the morning trying to calm her down! You could have texted me or something!”
“I know. I’m sorry. I was just kind of caught up in it.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“I heard you.”
“Look, I didn’t get mad when you went and got your Glyph without me. Cut me some slack.”
“I knew you’d throw that in my face some time.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing. Just nothing. Sorry. I had a rough night.”
“Me too. I’m sorry, I mean. Is your mom okay?”
“She’ll be fine. Jacob was supposed to call last night. We haven’t heard from him since he deployed the last time, and Mom’s just worried. I am, too.”
“Yeah, well, it’ll be all right. Listen, just get some sleep. You’re obviously exhausted. When you’re rested, come find me. I’ll probably be at the Fire Tower. If not, call me. Cool?”
Her face was pinched, and she flew out the window without a hug, a wave, or anything. Too tired to think about what that meant, I fell into bed and buried my head with pillows. I was out in seconds.
* * * * *
When I woke up, I went to find Jenny. She was at the Fire Tower like she said she would. I sped myself up so that I could try to surprise her by just appearing suddenly, but I wound up surprising myself. The world was crawling by for me, and I found her flying with a guy in a Brawlers uniform. He was way too young to actually be a member, but he could fly better than anyone I’d ever seen before. I watched as they danced around each other like fighter jets before embracing and twirling around as they ascended in slow motion, locked in each others arms.
I saw the exact moment their lips met.
A great pit opened in my stomach, and I couldn’t stay sped up anymore. The world came alive with an explosion of wind, and I watched as the two of them resumed their dance. It took several minutes, but Jenny finally noticed me. She said something to the guy I couldn’t make out and flew over. The clouds on the horizon spoke of rain.
“You feeling better?”
I shrugged, not really sure what to say.
“Did you still want to try and go somewhere? London maybe?”
“Is he coming?”
She at least had the decency to blush. “I… uh…”
“Yeah. That’s what I thought. How long has this been going on?”
“We met just after I got my Glyph. I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks but I ran into him this morning after I left your place.”
If she had punched me in the face I would have been less surprised. It had only been a couple of hours. If she could be kissing someone else so soon after such a small fight, maybe I didn’t know her like I thought.
“You two have fun, okay? Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“Eric, wait, I…”
I didn’t wait to hear what she was going to say. I tensed the muscles behind my eyes and was gone. An hour later I was sitting on a ridge on the side of Mt. Fuji.