“Sixteen stories to the street. That has to be enough.” David jammed the crowbar into the door frame and pulled. The wood cracked and snapped, pieces falling. Tossing the tool aside, he retrieved the wine bottle of from the top of the stairs. There were a few mouthfuls of red left. Couldn’t let it go to waste.
The rooftop was still wet from the afternoon’s rain. It was rush hour, but the thunder of engines was carried away on the wind long before it reached the rooftop. This far up, there was only the sound of birds. The words “Deimos Inc” were written in gigantic, steel letters on the side of the building. A family of pigeons was living in the “D”. Every morning, the birds flew from the sign and searched the street for scraps. If they saw something they couldn’t eat, they covered it in shit.
In a few more days, it would be six years since he had graduated from California State, six years of sitting at a desk and staring at a flickering rectangle. His father had spent his life designing office buildings like this one, grand structures like urban mountains. “But everything I’m doing is just ones and zeros, just shifting the pattern in the pixels. A thousand years from now, my father’s work will be unearthed by some alien archaeologist, but my entire life will be digital dust by next week.”
Not everyone felt the same way about their work. Downstairs, the other screen slaves were dancing. This was a good year for Deimos. The wall charts in the accounting department had sprouted tall, black lines like prison bars. The boss had invited everyone to a formal cocktail party to celebrate and, hopefully, to get drunk enough to forget about asking for raises.
David threw a leg over the railing and stared at the black pavement below. He swallowed the last of the wine, wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his jacket, and let the bottle fall over the edge. On its way down, the bottle bounced against the side of the building, exploding like fireworks.
He didn’t bother to leave a note.
When his eyes opened, the sun was cresting the top of distant hills. The edge of the roof was about ten feet above his head. Underneath him was absolutely nothing.
He screamed, but the pavement didn’t rush up to meet him. He wasn’t falling. Hours must have passed since he’d jumped, but he still had another hundred and fifty feet to go. He had landed on something hard and cold, but could see only empty air.
Struggling to his feet, he stood on nothing. A careful step sent ripples through the air, like a drop of water falling into a bath. “What is this? Am I dead or am I dreaming?” He pressed a hand to his chest. His heart was still beating. Moving his arm made his side ache. His head throbbed like a rotten tooth. Unless ghosts could have cracked ribs and hangovers, he was still alive. “Something saved my life. But what?”
If he could walk through the air, perhaps he could walk to the ground. Moving cautiously, like stepping across a sheet of glass. Did this invisible something extend across the whole city? He felt the air with his feet, tapping to make sure the path was still solid.
He came to an incline, the air sloping upward gently. Apparently even empty space could have hills and valleys. Whatever this was, it felt much smoother than a sidewalk. He had a sudden vision of slipping off the edge and falling to the street, exploding like a piñata filled with ground beef. Perhaps it would be better to just sit down at the top of the hill. Surely someone would see him eventually, and mount a rescue effort. Right?
“But why worry? So I might fall to my death. Isn’t that what I wanted? Well, I was drinking pretty heavily last night. Maybe this is god or the universe or whoever giving me a chance to reconsider things more rationally. How do I do that?”
He searched his jacket pockets. He had a golf pencil and the receipt from the tuxedo rental place. Only three square inches of paper to help him make the biggest – and possibly last – decision of his life. He scratched six words at the top of the page: The Pros and Cons of Suicide.
“Not one more day working at Deimos, not one more moment of pointless poking at a keyboard, building sandcastles while the tide is coming in. Sure, no chance of finding a meaningful job, either, but I’m starting to doubt they exist. Does anyone drive to work with a smile on their face?”
The pigeons left their home in the sign, off in search of their daily bread. It was hard not to envy birds. The wind caressed their faces, held them up, carried them through the world. Why did they have so much more freedom? Even standing fifteen stories in the air, he was still chained to the earth.
“And they have a family. At the end of the day, they have their chirping little ones to come home to. What the hell do I have? My apartment complex won’t even let me get a dog. Would I even be happy if I had someone? Do I really want to spend my life with another person? In a little while, the streets will be filled with cars and pedestrians, thousands of people, all with one thought: get the fuck out of my way.
“I could go out, I could meet people, maybe find someone wonderful. But the absolute best case scenario is I end up like my mother, fifty happy years with my soul mate, and two weeks by their bedside in the hospital. It’s like driving for hours to a funeral, in the hopes that there will be some nice scenery on the way.
“Why guarantee myself heartache when joy is so uncertain? I could make sure I’d never have any more pain. I might miss out on a few happy moments, but at least I’d have a little peace.
“Or would I? Every major religion is against suicide. They all say I’d end up in hell. But why should god get mad at me for killing myself? He created this world. He knows what a shit place it is, and he’s not doing anything to fix it. But, then, I suppose killing myself isn’t exactly doing anything to fix it, either.
“What about Buddhism? They don’t believe in hell. I’d just be reincarnated. Probably into a lower life form. I could end up a bug on someone’s windshield.
“What if none of the religions are true? What if there’s nothing? Maybe death is just floating forever in an endless, black void. Or spending forever on earth, unable to touch anything or communicate with anyone. The afterlife might even be spending eternity working at an even worse job than I have now.
“On the other hand, this might be a miracle. Maybe this proves that god exists, and he’s saved my life for something more meaningful. But it looks like I’m stuck up here. If there are angels under my feet, why won’t they set me down? The only thing I know for sure is that, if I jump, I won’t get a chance to change my mind. …Probably.”
He looked over his notes, but couldn’t see anything clearly pushing him to one side or the other. He still had plenty to think about, but not much more space to write. And it was hard to think about death objectively when the sunrise was painting the sky orange and gold.
The invisible object began to vibrate. It lurched forward, the sudden jolt knocking him on his back. The thing darted away from the office building, humming over the street. He wanted to call out for help, but it was so early in the morning, there was no one to hear him. Even if their had been, what could they have done?
The thing flew faster, buzzing like a gigantic chain saw. The wind whipped at his face, shoving him against the side of the invisible hill. Skyscrapers gave way to suburbs, then farm houses, then forest. At last, he came to rest above a clearing. The invisible object was quiet.
A ring of stones marked a smoldering camp fire. At the edge of the trees stood a dome tent, like some gigantic, neon orange turtle shell. Someone had left empty beer cans and crumpled fast food wrappers scattered about the camp site.
The air filled with a sharp whir. A cone of blue light descended from the object and surrounded the tent. In an instant, the light, and the tent, vanished. The whirring was replaced with the muffled sound of screams.
“Oh my god…” David thought. “It can’t be! I’m on a… This is a… What are they doing down there? …No, don’t panic. They obviously don’t know I’m here. I’m safe.” But the vibration returned, quickly growing into a high-pitched squeal.
The object sailed up over the trees, carrying David into the air. The forest thinned, replaced by a checkerboard of farmer’s fields, a winding snake of highway, then miles of sand. As the object rose higher, the air grew cold. He pulled his jacket collar up, but it did nothing to help. It was designed for parties, not protection.
“Soon the atmosphere will be too thin to breathe. What if the things down there want to go home? I’ll burn to death in the atmosphere. Maybe my skeleton will end up in orbit. Unless…” Fighting against the wind, he stood and peered down at the earth.
Into the blue. For a heartbeat, it almost seemed like the air was holding him in place, that he would never fall again. But it didn’t last.
His jacket flapped against him like a flag in a storm. The wind was deafening. This time, there would be no second chances. This was the end. “God, if you tried to save my life, I’m sorry. Maybe next time.” He suddenly realized he was still clutching his list. He opened his hand, and the paper fluttered away.
The wind made his eyes water. Far below, something shined like amethyst. He closed his eyes and tried to prepare himself for whatever was about to come. Maybe the afterlife would welcome him with open arms. If there was nothing on the other side, hopefully it would at least be peaceful.
Blinding pain, suddenly choking. “Water! A lake? The ocean? I need some air… I have to swim to the surface. Which way is it?” Impossible to think when everything hurt. The ribs that were cracked now felt broken. Why even try to swim? He would never make it back to shore. Even if he did, the universe clearly wanted him dead. He could just open his mouth and let the water inside, and the pain would stop.
Deep in the blue, something was moving. A strange shape was approaching, something long and gray. A dolphin? A shark? Gray scales, fins, and long, black, hair. Her smile wrapped him in a warm blanket. Her hand touched his, and he could breathe again.