Fate has a way of laughing at our plans that isn't funny at all. Six months at work went by smoothly as I improved my firefighting skills when Mother called and informed me Dad had a stroke.
I’d had gotten used to responding to emergencies at light speed but I held my breath as the news sunk in, feeling parlayed.
I immediately booked a flight even though I don't like airplanes. It feels so unnatural to sit inside a big noisy metal tube hurtling 500 miles an hours at 38,000 feet, but it was the quickest way to get back home.
I rushed to the hospital imagining the worst. Worried about how to comfort Mom, I frantically searched the waiting room, then spotted her familiar mop of curly brown hair from behind and rushed over to find her knitting calmly. It was her way of dealing with stress.
“I'm sorry this ruined your upcoming birthday,” she apologized in her usual practical manner. Mother had been raised a Jehovah's Witness so didn't think much of holidays but Dad and I did.
“Never mind that, how's Dad?” I asked, forcing her to put the knitting down in her lap.
The stroke was minor she told me, but sadly, it had ruined his gift of speech. He could talk but it was so painfully slow, he lost interest. Getting him to physical therapy was a trial.
“Dad, you need this to get better,” I confronted him, but he crossed his arms like an obstinate child and refused to budge from his favorite chair when I tried him get him in the car.
I recognized his stubbornness, we were different yet so alike. I looked like a younger version of him minus his tortoise shell glasses; the same square face and dark wavy brown hair.
The therapy wasn't the problem, it was my presence at home. I took two weeks off from work to help Mom run the hardware store and seriously considered quitting to care for him. I had no regrets about the decision, his health was more important. Dad, however, made it clear my quitting was out of the question.
“I'll make you a deal,” I said as I knelt down next to him and took his small hand in mine. He tried to pull his hand away but I held it fast. “You go to speech therapy and I'll return to work --deal?” I fixed my gaze on him. He fidgeted in an attempt to say something but gave up in exasperation.
“Deal. Go now. The world. Use your strength.” He squeezed the words out slowly, I didn't understand his meaning and frowned. He shook his head and repeated himself, his gaze reaching into me for greater comprehension. Then it dawned on me, he knew.
I discovered my true strength when I was seventeen. My friend Pete and I got a job loading fifty-pound bags of grain from a conveyer belt to a palette for transport. Although average in height and on the lean side, I could keep up with the football jocks working to make some extra money. As we got into a rhythm, a friendly competition developed to see who could load the most sacks. By lunchtime the other guys were sweaty and covered in dust, their hair plastered to their foreheads. I was barely winded.
“You're pretty strong for a skinny guy, Archer,” one of them commented with a tinge of jealousy. Pete was equally winded as we traded secret grins.
Pete was privy to my special skills and we laughed about the contest later while getting our daily ice cream cone. We took a shortcut thru Mr. Rivers' property and passed by his tank-sized Edsel parked near the barn, when Pete stopped me with a hand. Looking around he challenged me to lift up the back end of the car. While holding the cone in one hand, I reached down and took hold of the trailer hitch with the other and lifted it until the rear wheels rose off the ground. Satisfied with the results, I gently set it down. We giggled and continued on our way.
I looked at Dad and knew he was right. I returned to work where I could put my strength to good use and cover it up for I knew the world was not ready for my gift of flight.
But apparently people were beginning to notice something odd in the air. It started with the fringe media stories of a flying man. Most of it was bullshit of course, but some of the reports were true. When a blurry photo of me in the air near a forest fire showed up in a tabloid I grounded myself for some time.
The path to revelation became serious one lazy day off while I sat on the couch eating a second bag of potato chips and read the Sunday paper from cover to cover. There was an interesting article in the magazine section: “From Reality to Myth". At one point the author touched on the outlandish stories of a flying man:
One can brush off such stories as imagination run amok like crop circles and
UFO's, but the stories persist despite attempts to debunk them. Not only do they
thrive, but they become harder to explain away with each new report.
Damn, I had to either stop flying altogether or eventually be exposed. I let this idea sink in, and read on.
It's a modern urban myth that refuses to die because the fanciful is preferable
as the truth is often simpler and not as flashy.
A hundred years ago people didn't believe rocks fell out of the sky,
when they continued to do so, it was seen a sign from God.
Now we know they're meteorites, a phenomenon stripped of mystery.
There is a grain of truth in every mythological story. They grow to fantastic
proportions to fill the human need for inspiration. The flying man myth is just
another variation. After the dust of confusion settles, what is the truth of such speculation and where does it leave us?
The hairs on my arm stood up in attention. I contemplated my abilities in a new light. I looked at the byline--Victoria Ball. I made a note to read more of her stuff and clipped out the article to post on my kitchen corkboard. The more I looked at it, the more tempted I was to meet her. How would she react to the fantastic?
The debate was buried under work through a long, miserable Winter followed by weeks of cold sogginess.
“Great, maybe Spring can finally get started,” Darryl groused with palatable relief when the rain stopped just as we jumped into the engine for a run.
The first floor of a townhouse was engulfed in flames when we arrived and we worked quickly to keep the fire from spreading to the building on one side still under construction.
Rueben and I checked on a woman sitting on the stoop of a house two doors down. She was put on oxygen to deal with smoke inhalation, while a man was brought over with burns on his hands. Their injuries were minor, it was the rapidly spreading fire that was a concern. The woman pulled off the oxygen mask.
"Where's Penny?" she asked the older man in a panic.
" She's not with you?" he accused wide eyed.
Oh Shit, this was not a good sign. Just as we realized the grandchild was unaccounted for, we heard a shout from the second floor of the burning building.
A young girl at the window yelled and waved her arms as smoke tried to swallow her. We scrambled to get the ladder in place, but there was a swamp of mud below the window.
"The ladder will just sink in that muck," Fabiano railed at the complication. There was little time to deploy the aerial ladder and there was no way to enter the building from the first floor.
I could easily fly up there, I thought and for a moment I forgot myself, until I remembered the news crew and spectators watching from across the street. I spotted a large piece of canvas covering some heavy construction equipment; I grabbed it and got three more guys to hold onto the corners.
“You got to be kidding?” said Fisher, not sure this was the time to employ a firefighting cliché.
"You got a better idea?" I retorted.
We crowded beneath the window and with her grandmother shouting encouragement, the six-year-old girl climbed onto the windowsill twelve feet above and jumped. Everyone held their breath as her small body hit the canvas and it collapsed slightly from the impact. A moment later she stood up, a bit wobbly, and was quickly smothered in her grandmother's hug.
I'll be damned--it worked. As I gazed at the cheering crowd I did a double take when I saw Pete among the faces. He stared at me with his typical challenging expression.
A grinding noise caught my attention, and in the next instant I opened my eyes and realized I was in bed at the firehouse. Phil's high decibel snoring that had awakened me. I sat up slowly and looked around at the shapes of other firefighters sound asleep in the dim light of the dorm.
How strange and disturbing. Did that really happen? What was Pete doing there? I was wide awake and confused as I contemplated the remarkably vivid dream. I usually don't remember my dreams so I knew this was important. Unable to sleep I rose quietly and went to the day room to make some notes and remember Pete.