The last time Jack Wu jumped off a building, he nearly lost an arm clipping the fire escape. Something wrong with his takeoff. Maybe it took a few seconds longer to catch an upstream or something, he didn’t know. God, it had hurt like hell.
But then he was up in the arms of the grey sky again, his hands out in front of him in the night above the city, looking for trouble.
When he got home, his arm still throbbed, and he was bickering with his back. He went straight to the fridge for the frozen peas to defrost against his lower vertebrae. He’d forgotten his phone by the sink, and there was a message from Penelope. His heart stuttered. Was something wrong with the kid? That had been his paralyzing fear since the day Sebastian was born. Something happening to Sebastian, Jack not there to save him.
“Calm down,” Penelope said when she picked up. She could tell he had already worked himself into a circus again. “We’re completely fine. The house isn’t burning down. Listen, I’ve got to go out of town for a conference. So you need to take Sebastian for a week. And don’t tell me you’re too busy. I make it work every day; you can make it work for a week.”
He removed the peas from his back and flexed experimentally, grimaced at the stab of pain. He wanted to want to say yes, but even the anticipation exhausted him. He exhaled slowly over the sink and said: “I’d love to take Sebastian.”
It rained buckets that night. Right as he was sinking into the deepness of sleep that comes with the reassuring percussion of rain on the window, Jack got a call about a missing child, last seen being swallowed by the maw of a blue Volvo. He went out, but it took him half an hour to get into the sky. By the time he did, his old sneakers were soaked through, and he regretted not changing out of his pajamas.
It was an evil kind of dark and nearly impossible to see a thing through the downpour. Then lightning shattered the sky, and in between the cracks of it, he spotted a flash of metallic blue. The license plate was a match. Down he went and kicked open the door. It was midnight, and the child sat in a dirty diaper, eating applesauce with a broken spoon. Jack tied up the kidnapper, changed the diaper, called the cops.
When they came, he had to beg a ride, because he couldn’t feel the air between his cold, numb fingers. He stretched for it, tried to rise, but nothing: a wet match that couldn’t scrape a light.
“You all right, Jack?” one of the cops asked.
“Sure,” said Jack. “Just tired.” And he felt that way to his bones.
Sebastian arrived with a backpack and a runny nose. Penelope handed him a heavy suitcase.
“Oh,” said Jack. “I’d been looking for that.”
“It’s mine,” she said.
Jack’s phone pinged, and he glanced at it. Cat in a tree. Get your own goddamned cat, he thought. I’m with my son.
He squatted down and held out his arms. The boy shrank back a moment behind his mom’s thigh, and Jack’s heart squeezed from the betrayal. It had only been a year since Penelope asked him to move out. He still saw Sebastian as often as he could. Which was not enough.
The first three years of Sebastian’s life, he’d really tried to do it all: he’d do Sebastian’s night feed while Penelope slept, then put Sebastian down, jump out the window, answer a cry for help, get back in time for breakfast. Penelope had asked him to cut back, be more present. “Last I checked, flying didn’t mean you can be two places at once. Or not sleep,” she said. And invincibility didn’t mean Sebastian’s shrill wail didn’t make him hurt inside, his pulse stampede. He could hear it from a mile away. Each time, he thought something unspeakable had happened. He would abandon the job and fly right back, only to find Sebastian had merely dropped a spoon on the floor. He had tried, he really had.
“Say hi to Daddy,” Penelope said.
“No,” said Sebastian and turned his face away.
“He’s just shy these days,” said Penelope. “Sebastian, that’s not very nice.”
“I don’t want to stay here,” said Sebastian, and each word was like a bullet hitting Jack’s chest.
Later, after she left, Sebastian perked up a little bit, and Jack couldn’t remember why he ever thought this was hard. They watched cartoons on the big, sagging couch, and Sebastian put his dirty feet up on Jack’s lap, until Jack tickled them, and Sebastian laughed and laughed and then kicked him in the jaw.
“Ow,” said Jack.
Sebastian buried his head immediately in a couch arm, bracing for a barrage of harsh words to follow, because his dad never understood that you could do a thing you didn’t mean. It was always Sebastian, don’t, Sebastian, stop it now, Sebastian¸ you’re in big trouble mister. Jack read all this in the bracket of his son’s shoulders, and he felt like crying himself.
His phone rang. He didn’t answer it. Three times, he almost called them back. But didn’t.
The Fire Department texted him about a three-alarm fire all the way across town. A wave of cold anxiety washed over him, and he took a breath. Sorry, he responded. I have my son this week.
“Come on, you,” he said to Sebastian. “Let’s go to the playground.” And he hauled Sebastian over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, and Sebastian howled and pounded his back with his fists and pretended to be outraged. Jack growled, declared himself a big, blue monster, and threatened to eat him up.
As they walked to the playground, Sebastian said, “Can’t we fly, Daddy?”
“I don’t think so, kiddo. Sorry.” He massaged his arm, thinking about how he’d gone for a run that morning, and he’d sprinted and jumped and nearly faceplanted on the pavement after missing the sky. He never missed the sky. “I think I’m getting too old.”
“But I want to,” said Sebastian, beginning to sniffle.
“I know, sweetie,” he said. “Me too.” But what he really wanted was to lie down right there on the concrete and let the sun soak through his skin, he was that empty.
He didn’t blame Penelope. She had started making plans without him, hiring strangers to babysit their son. He had said, but I’m here. But you’re not, she’d replied. They negotiated. He stopped taking calls on Saturdays. He gave Penelope his phone as a hostage, so nobody could even reach him. The city complained about that. “Saturday is Death Day” said one particularly annoying headline, all because the rate of homicides and accidental casualties had ticked up for Saturdays. Marginally.
“It’s not even statistically significant,” said Penelope, pulling off her reading glasses so she could rub her eyes. She was an economist and knew these things.
“It’s my fault,” he said. He went and threw up in the toilet. He looked in the mirror and saw there was silver in his black hair. He hadn’t told Penelope how he’d pulled a muscle taking off earlier, and he remembered aging had come the same way for his mother, who had ignored it until the end, even after she broke a hip coming down from the sky.
“Feel better?” Penelope had asked.
She’d picked up Sebastian, kissed him on his nose, helped him pick out a new crayon. She’d given up for the day on making progress with her research. Didn’t look up when he went to her jewelry box where she kept his phone. And when he came home again, she’d said: maybe it’s better we don’t do this anymore.
He’d tried to argue. He cried. She cried. (Sebastian cried too, with his ambulance wail.)
“I’m sorry,” Jack said.
“And yet,” she said.
She was kinder than she needed to be. If only he hadn’t felt so relieved. Later, that was what he hated most about himself.
Sebastian was even more of a handful now. He was two hands full. He vibrated with the energy of ten thousand bees. Not his fault, of course. It was Jack’s fault. He shouldn’t have bought Sebastian the ice cream cone. Penelope had, in fact, warned him about sugar, but how could Jack have predicted how off the wall Sebastian would be? Sebastian did not want to go to bed. He did not want to eat the takeout Jack ordered specially for him. He did not want to take a bath. He did not want to call Mommy. He did not want to calm down. NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!
And Jack had been trying all afternoon to recapture Sebastian’s love, to be gentle, to be patient, to be the Best Dad on Earth. He sat on the couch and put his head in his hands while Sebastian threw his legos at the wall and hollered at the top of his lungs.
“Please,” Jack said. “Please don’t shout.” A stormfront was building in his temples, and his back hurt again from picking Sebastian up all day.
The boy was all carbonation, vigorously shaken, fizzing out through his perforated seams. If only Jack could get him to sit down. I can’t do this, he thought. But I have to. I have to be the best for him. He could feel the surface of his temper begin to bubble up inside, reach one hundred degrees even as he struggled against it.
His phone rang. It rang again. He picked it up and threw it across the coffee table.
“Boogerface!” said Sebastian, as he passed Jack in his march around and around the couch, battering its cushions with the abused cover of his picture book.
Jack went and got the phone. Thirteen messages.
Jack, where are you?
“Butthead!” Sebastian said.
need your help
“I hate you!” Sebastian said.
traffic signal out
“Hey!” said Sebastian, with his hands on his hips, practically shouting in Jack’s ear. “I’m talking to you! Did you hear me?”
“SHUT UP!” Jack regretted the words even as they were coming out of his mouth.
“No, you shut up!” And then Sebastian immediately began to sob like the world was ending.
“I’m sorry,” said Jack. He tried to hug his son, but Sebastian ran to his room and slammed the door.
Jack got up off the floor and went to get the frozen peas from the kitchen.
He sighed gratefully as the cold touched his skin.
Sebastian came stomping back in. “Hey! Poop emoji!”
And then when Jack didn’t respond, Sebastian kicked the leg of the kitchen table so the utensils in the drawer rattled. “I’m talking to you!”
Jack waited, sipping his breaths. This time I’ll be better. I’ll understand.
Then Sebastian slammed into him full-tilt and wrapped his arms around Jack’s legs. He turned his little face up to Jack. There was dirt on his nose, and his eyelashes were sticky with tears. “Why won’t you play with me?” he asked.
“I wish you wouldn’t shout,” said Jack, sliding down to sit with his back to the cabinet and wrap his arms around his son like a seatbelt.
Jack pressed his face into the boy’s hair and smelled the grass and the sunshine and four year old sweat from a day of running around, and he thought, if he could just bottle this moment, right now, then he wouldn’t need to fly anyway.
They went to the diner and ordered hash browns, just hash browns, because that was all Sebastian wanted. Sebastian was well-behaved until the second half of the meal. It was like a switch was flipped. He was angry, he was sullen. He would not talk or look at Jack.
“Kids,” said the waitress sympathetically. “It’s just that age, you know.”
“Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?” she asked.
“Don’t think so,” said Jack. He did know her. He’d rescued her half-naked from the back of a car, bloody and only semi-conscious. He didn’t want her to remember that. So he left a good tip and took Sebastian home.
“What about the zoo?” asked Sebastian.
“Tomorrow,” said Jack.
“You have to work?”
He saw Sebastian’s lower lip begin to tremble, so he scooped him up and held him close. “I love you, okay?” He said this again, but he felt like there was no way to say it in a way the boy would understand.
Sebastian fell asleep in his arms.
In his back pocket, he could hear his phone ringing, again and again, miniscule grappling hooks piercing his skin. He thought he should answer it. He didn’t.
Jack took a hop-skip and tried to fly. The sky wouldn’t take him. He tried again.
“Shit,” he said.
He hailed a cab instead.
“Hey,” said the driver. “Aren’t you–”
“Shh,” said Jack, putting his fingers to his lips. He pointed to his son, snuggled against him.
After, the driver wouldn’t take his money. “I never knew you took cabs,” he said, shaking his head. A big goofy grin was plastered across his face from ear to ear. He left Jack standing on the street with his wallet out.
Detective Greene was waiting for him on the stoop.
“Chief thought maybe something got you,” said the Detective.
“Daddy?” said Sebastian, waking up. “Can you carry me upstairs?”
“Okay,” said Jack, even though his arms felt like lead.
“We called you a bunch of times. Did you lose your phone?”
“No,” said Jack. “I have my son for the week.”
“Right,” said Detective Greene.
Jack began to take the stairs. He never took the stairs; he usually went straight through the window.
“Everything all right with you?”
“I’m doing fine. Cut myself with the knife last night making chili, though.” He showed the detective his hand.
“What are you wearing a bandage for?”
“I told you, I cut myself.”
“I thought you didn’t bleed.”
“I’m forty-five,” said Jack. Detective Greene shook his head like this was impossible. “I’m not going to be around forever, you know. You’ve got to learn how to deal with your own problems.”
Jack kept on climbing and left the detective at the bottom. There were seventy-three stairs, enough to suck the wind out of him.
“Good night, Daddy,” said Sebastian, tucking his head into Jack’s neck. And even though Jack’s legs and arms burned, he thought he could continue standing there, holding his son, until the moon crashed into the sea.
They played checkers in the park. They went to a movie. He taught Sebastian how to ride a skateboard (carefully, clutching his hand all the while).
He dreaded Friday, when Penelope would come home, and he would have to give the boy back. But also, he counted the minutes until the little tyrant would have someone else to boss around.
“I never appreciated how patient you were,” Jack told her when she called to check in.
“It’s not patience. It’s endurance,” she said.
“You’re superhuman,” he said.
“Don’t be silly. You of all people.”
He didn’t tell her that he’d tried to fly one night while Sebastian was asleep. Someone had called him about a situation involving a woman and her daughter and a boyfriend with a gun. He couldn’t just plug his ears and look away, could he? He had to go. That’s what he thought. He opened the window and spread his arms and willed himself to float. Nada. So he ran all the way down the stairs and borrowed the neighbor’s bike. The cops beat him there. The woman was wounded, but she and her daughter were alive. Turned out, they didn’t need Jack after all.
When he got back, Sebastian was curled up on the couch, clutching Penguin. He had been crying a long time and had peed on the couch, a big wet patch, the shape of his abandonment stained into the fabric.
“Where did you go, Daddy?” Sebastian asked. “I was scared.”
And Jack felt like he was drowning in his mistake. If something had happened—
He wrapped Sebastian up in his arms and said again and again: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” and knew it would never be enough.
The last night, Jack took Sebastian to a baseball game downtown. They sat in the cheap seats right beneath the sky and ate peanuts and yelled when the home team did well and yelled when they didn’t. Even though Sebastian had insisted he didn’t want to go, he enjoyed himself immensely, and when it was done, he asked when they could go again.
As they walked to catch the bus, a dissonant chorus of sirens passed them, headed down Fourth Avenue.
Sebastian watched them go with his ears covered. Then he swung his plastic inflatable bat and hop-skipped down the sidewalk. And for a moment, just a moment, he seemed to float in the air. Jack saw it, and his breath caught in his throat.
Then Sebastian’s feet touched the ground again, and he stumbled a little and giggled. “I tripped. Oopsie.”
“Oopsie,” Jack agreed. He grabbed Sebastian’s hand tight.
His phone rang, and Sebastian put his thumb in his mouth and watched him answer it.
It was the Chief of Police, who hadn’t called him in days.
“Jack. I know you’ve got your kid with you right now, and you’re going through an existential fucking crisis, but this is important. There’s a bomb downtown in a bank, and my guys are saying it could take out multiple buildings.”
A crowd of people came running. There was a falafel cart guy carrying his spatula and people in suits and a woman limping along on a broken high heel. And all around the air was like the inside of a balloon about to burst.
“Run,” someone told him as she passed.
“Jack?” said the Chief.
“You have a bomb squad,” Jack said.
“C’mon Jack, please. Don’t make me beg here.”
Sebastian looked up at him with big eyes. He swung the plastic bat at Jack’s knee, and Jack barely felt it. He felt better than he’d felt in a long time.
“Where is it?” Jack asked.
“By the Credit Union at Fourth and Quarter Avenue.” They were practically there, if they just turned the corner. He wouldn’t even have to fly. But there was Sebastian, looking up at him, waiting for him to leave again, and trying not to cry. He felt between them the sway of a fragile skein of love, like a spider’s web that links the branches of two trees in a forest. On the other hand, there was the nylon line that reeled him back, again and again, to the city of people that he loved.
He got down so he was eye to eye with his son. He pulled him in and kissed the place where the curls fell over his eyebrows, and Sebastian squirmed, but for once didn’t protest. Jack thought about what he could live with and what he couldn’t live without.
“I’m so sorry, Chief,” said Jack. He placed his phone in his pocket.
Sebastian put his sticky palms up to Jack’s cheeks. “Are you crying, Daddy?” he asked.
“Do you know how much I love you?” he told the boy.
Sebastian bit his lip.
“I love you more than the world.” He reached down and picked Sebastian up in his arms. He hardly weighed anything. And then he bent his knees and looked up, and when he jumped, the sky caught him, and they were soaring. Above the buildings, and up, up, up, away.