Flight of the Lonely
by Dusty Wallace
Edgar tried to make it to the toilet without glancing at the mirror over his bathroom sink. He didn’t want to see himself anymore. His wrinkly, liver-spotted wings had been beautiful once, blanketed with golden plumage. The feathers had started falling away in his fifties, and he’d begun to look sickly. Once they were all gone, the pale, chicken-bumped skin embarrassed him. Now he was an 80-year-old man, and the wings were covered in the same fine, white hairs that filled his ears and nostrils.
Edgar groaned as a trickle of urine forced its way past his enlarged prostate. A retirement community, he thought to himself. Retirement from what? From a furniture factory, was the answer, but he didn’t see it that way. Retirement was what successful people did after a fulfilling life. He had simply grown too old to work and got dragged to this place after a heart attack 10 years before. He groaned again as he zipped up. His bladder never felt empty anymore.
“If only I could fit a bed in here,” he said to himself. “Would make life a lot simpler.” Then he glanced in the mirror anyway.
Most seniors feared giving up their freedom, but for Edgar, it was different. In the past, whenever he’d been angry or frustrated—which was often—he’d take to the skies. A few hours of seeing humanity from God’s perspective would cool his thoughts. Now, holed up in a 90-square-foot room that smelled like dirty diapers and death, he felt tortured.
“Meal time, Mr. Langston,” called a voice from the hallway.
“Just leave it by the door, Ruth!” Edgar yelled from his bathroom.
“You can’t stay locked up in there all the time. Besides, I could use someone to sit with in the dining hall,” Ruth said.
“My Medicare pays for this room, I can stay locked up in it if I damn well please!”
Edgar liked Ruth. She did his laundry, cleaned up his room, and sponge-bathed his wings at least once a week. But Edgar always made sure to live up to his reputation as a cantankerous old bastard; it was the natural progression from the cantankerous young bastard he’d been decades earlier. He didn’t know why Ruth put up with him.
A few minutes later, Edgar heard a knock, then footsteps trailing away. With the help of a wooden cane, he shuffled his ancient legs to the door and retrieved a covered plate. He sat it on the kitchen table and removed the plastic top to find Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. Edgar sighed with relief. The last two nights, the kitchen had served pork chops and chicken legs, and Ruth had had to cut them up into tiny pieces so his toothless maw could handle them.
After dinner, he slipped into his pajamas: an old-fashioned onesie, gray with blue vertical stripes, and special holes cut out at the shoulders. Back before Eleanor had left him, when she still thought he could be a hero, she’d made him a similar-looking costume. He’d refused it then, saying that having wings didn’t make him a hero, just a freak of nature—which was the exact phrase his doctor had used.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” she’d said, “I would never date a freak.”
“Well you sure as Hell ain’t dating a hero,” he’d replied. “Some people have tails. Some chicken have teeth. It’s just one of those things.” He’d liked Eleanor even more than Ruth. Loved her, actually. But she saw potential in him, potential he refused to recognize.
“You need anything before you go to bed?” Ruth asked, just outside his door again.
“Silence, mostly!” he snapped back.
There was the briefest pause, then she walked away. Edgar wondered if that pause was pregnant. Had he finally broken Ruth the way he’d broken Eleanor? Had she held back words of rage in that split second? Or worse, tears? He’d always hated the tears of a woman, and the way they put a pit in his stomach.
Doesn’t matter, he thought. She’s not a volunteer. I’m not her friend. That have to pay her just to feed me. To Hell with the bitch. But it didn’t settle the matter in his mind.
He rebuked himself aloud, “You dumb, old asshole. She’s the closest thing to a friend you’ve had in years. The other attendants don’t even ask how you’re doing. Most of them can’t even look at your wings.”
He also thought about Ruth’s legs, their deep blackness, the sculpted curves of her thigh. He’d stared, and she’d known but never said a word. She could have told her bosses and been replaced by some bearded fellow scrubbing his wings with steel wool. No, she’d kept silent and allowed an old man a few simple thrills.
Edgar shuffled out to the balcony where he lit a cigarette. Smoking was strictly against the rules of Shady Maple, one more thing that Ruth had kept quiet about. Why can’t I just treat her kindly? he thought. He’d started the bad habit at 30, after Eleanor. She’d always kept him clean and healthy. Once she was gone, he’d had a hard time finding reasons not to drink and smoke. That’s why none of the women he’d met during the last half-century stuck around. Well, that and the wings.
Sirens wailed in the distance, growing in volume and pitch. Soon, red and blue lights blazed two floors below. A wailing fire truck pulled up as Edgar watched. Three firefighters stood by as a fourth opened one of the truck’s compartments, pulling out some kind of netting and unfolding it like a blanket.
“A lot of trouble for a game of tennis,” he said, laughing at himself.
The police had finished setting up a yellow-tape barricade on the near sidewalk. A crowd formed behind it that stretched along the entire city block. Shady Maples was adjacent to the Westcott building, 30 floors of office space. Its roof was known for a terrific view and a long drop.
Edgar’s sight wasn’t terrific at his age, but he knew all those heads were pointed up.
The onlookers let out a collective gasp. Edgar stood, craning his arthritic neck over the railing, and looked skyward.
She was just a dot. A brown falling star against the black sky. But in his arrhythmic heart, he knew it was Ruth. He couldn’t think of any reason why she’d try to kill herself. Then again, he’d never asked.
When Ruth had brought him dinner some months ago, he’d never asked why her wedding ring was missing. When she’d brought him medicine for a cold, he hadn’t asked why she was wearing black scrubs. Last month, when she’d brought him a mini-cake and fuzzy slippers in a gift bag, he hadn’t asked why she never wore makeup anymore.
With no forethought, Edgar tipped himself over the balcony, spreading his hairy wings.
It hurt. Oh, dear God, did it hurt. The cartilage in his wings had worn away, and now those hundreds of joints scraped together, bone on bone, as he flapped for the first time in—he couldn’t remember. It didn’t elevate him, or even level him out. He was free-falling, a stalled-out plane, a duck shot by a hunter mid-flight. If he couldn’t push through the white-hot pain, there’d soon be two bodies splattered on the ground.
Edgar flapped, and his wings seared a little less this time. He tried again, up and down. Not so bad now. He bit down hard and forced the wings to move. Soon, he was on an updraft, experiencing a euphoric floating sensation he’d forgotten existed.
Adrenaline slowed down time. Edgar looked up. Ruth was still falling. He was close enough to see her face, etched with fear and regret. Whatever her reasons were for jumping, she didn’t look ready to die.
Edgar gained altitude, swimming through the air towards the only person that gave a damn about him. Before their paths intersected, he reflected on how stupid he must look: a geezer with wings in a onesie, trying to rescue a falling woman. This won’t make it into a comic book, he thought.
Then he caught her. It was more of a collision, really. Edgar started losing altitude immediately. His wings could barely keep his own 90-pound frame aloft, much less carry the weight of two people.
Ruth held her arms tight around Edgar’s neck. Her body pressed firm against his own. She was crying and muttering in his ear, “Thank you. Thank you.”
Wings stretched wide, Edgar managed to achieve a glide. He was still falling too fast, but at least there was time to think.
A few floors down, Edgar spotted a beacon. The porch was still lit where he’d gone for a smoke. He adjusted, aiming himself at the balcony.
He realized two things: He wouldn’t be quite high enough to get Ruth over the railing. And he was going way too fast.
As he approached, he made a great sweeping motion with his wings, pushing them just a few feet higher. He forced open Ruth’s clasped hands and she dropped onto the balcony, bowling over a plastic chair and rolling to a stop against the screen door.
Edgar crashed into the ledge above, cracking his right wing and knocking himself senseless. Instinctively, he spread the other wing in a futile attempt to slow himself. He spiraled downward, thudding against the pavement.
Consciousness came in pulses as Edgar lay wounded. He struggled to breath against broken ribs. His lungs burned with exhaustion. Faces flashed before his eyes: a medic with a neck brace, another with a stretcher, a beautiful woman.
The medics were saying, “Miss. Miss, you need to sit down, let us check you for injuries.” Edgar saw her shove one of them away.
“You were right, Eleanor,” he told the woman. “I hope you’re proud of me.”
“I am,” the woman said, “I am so very proud of you.”
Edgar closed his eyes and was young again.
Copyright © 2014 Dusty Wallace