The plan was simple, like all plans in the minds of boys are simple. He would climb out onto the roof, climb even higher up to where the attic over the garage met the chimney, and he would simply step off.
He drew diagrams in his mind, never on paper. No point in leaving a trail. The risk of someone stealing his design, his life’s work, was a hideous thought. It didn’t matter if a life’s work was built and ready for testing in fifty years or a mere twelve. Mozart had written a symphony by the time he was five. And at twelve years old, this would be Holland Atlas’s first symphony. His first gift to mankind.
As far as he was concerned, the Grimm Reaper was sitting in the hall outside his door doing a crossword puzzle, waiting, just waiting for the boy to give up and do nothing at all.
For as long as he could remember he had been obsessed with planes, with flight. This was because his father and uncle were obsessed with planes and flight, his grandfather was obsessed with birds and flight, and such was the case as far back as the Atlas bloodline went. All the way back, aeronautical concerns dominated Atlas dinner tables and holiday gatherings, and that was simply that.
Every member of the family had taken magnificent, giant steps in their respective fields of flight throughout the years. For Holland, there were still a few kinks to be worked out in his plan. There was of course the issue of his mother and father. Though, by seven o’clock they would have already had their before dinner cocktails, their glass of wine with dinner, and their after dinner cocktails, allowing his afterschool work to go unnoticed. They would be sucked into the television, not watching anything, but scrolling among the thousands and thousands of channels, movies, series there were to watch. Hours would be spent scrolling, trying to decide and pull the trigger on something, before eventually deciding on some terrible new “thing” that was only worth about fifteen minutes of attention before turning in for the night. They were not the problem.
Holland’s uncle Warren, who slept in the room across the hall from him, was of more concern.
Uncle Warren had moved into that room two years ago, shortly after his “collapse.” That was the word everyone used to describe the events to Holland. The boy didn’t know what such a collapse meant or even how a full-grown man could simply . . . collapse. Was it his legs? Bad knees? His mind maybe? Perhaps he had trouble walking and was constantly falling in places. But why did he need to move in with them and stay in the room across the hall from Holland? Why did Uncle Warren feel the need to check up on Holland in the middle of the night and just stand there in the doorway like he did? The boy didn’t know.
When the plan initially made manifest in Holland’s mind, the first person he told it to was Warren. Even if it was strange that he came and stood in the doorway each night, it was suddenly a part of the way of life in the house. Holland grew used to it, and soon enough, on nights that the boy couldn’t sleep, the two of them would be playing cards or reading comics together until the dawn broke or until Holland fell asleep in his uncle’s lap. Despite Warren’s collapse and his odd smell and bizarre nightly habits, Warren proved a safe and open ear to discuss moving parts with.
“I’m gonna fly,” Holland said.
Warren only stared at the boy, then laid down a king of spades.
“I’m serious,” Holland said. “I’m gonna fly. I know how I can, too.”
“Even if you did figure it all out, it won’t work. Trust me,” Warren said.
“Nope, I got it perfect. I do.”
Warren’s eyes moved up to the black and white picture of Orville and Wilbur Wright that the boy had tacked on his wall. Most boys had posters of Michael Jordan or Star Wars or even a small wooden crucifix above their beds, but Holland Atlas had a picture of the Wright brothers and another of Leonardo da Vinci, among the dangling wild air of model Spitfires and Bombers.
“It took all them a long time to fly,” Warren said. “Trial and error. Error and error. You ready for all that failure?”
“Won’t be any failure,” Holland said. “I have everything worked out already.”
“Just need a little last-minute help. With the details.”
“Suppose you’ll be asking me?”
Of course, Warren was assuming his little nephew was speaking about taking one of his newly completed model planes out for a test flight. Uncle Warren, just like his own brother and father and grandfather, was equally obsessed with all matters of aviation and flying things. Long before the “collapse,” Warren had been Warren Atlas of the Warren Atlas Small Plane Company. While his father spent his life watching birds through the small lens of a binoculars, and his brother spent adolescence and early adulthood filling notebook after notebook with blueprints of landing gear and rudders and wings for how the Boeing Company could improve the landing equipment on their 747 and 757, Warren was building model planes.
Building their tiny engines and remote controls, breathing in hours and decades of musty garage air and lungfulls of soldering smoke, perfecting the craft of the hobby airplane.
Warren paid his father the twenty-thousand-dollar loan back within a year of starting the Small Plane Company. He sold out of his 1,500-unit stock in a single Christmas season; another 5,000 were sold out the following spring, and over a million dollars in sales were reaching within the first year of business.
With each new plane that Warren tested and sent by remote transmission into the wild blue yonder, a part of his soul also left the ground and never came back.
The record sales found Warren a little more removed from terrestrial matters each time. He would be wildly working on a new, better model, even minutes after the latest release hit the production line. Soon, the money found its way to different hands, and Warren was up all night with bloody tissues stuffed in his nose to stem the blood and to keep the powder up a little longer, to get just a little more altitude, as he slowly lost more and more of his soul with each tiny wing, with each little piston and mechanical landing gear he installed.
The “collapse” was preceded by a silent crash and it felt like dominoes tumbling across what little of his soul was left. Suddenly, no model was perfect enough. No new record sales figures were happily dropped on his desk. A crash of inventory, a crash of stockholders, a crash that found Warren a twelve-month stay at the Albatross Landing Recovery Center just outside the city in White Plains.
Warren’s mind still squirmed with images of those tiny engines, of those fiberglass wings gliding through the air. His fingers still twitched to cut-up and rip another line, aching to be further and further above that unreachable cloudbreak. His lungs still reeked with the stench of soldering smoke and damp garage air.
Soon, Warren couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t sleep, so he wandered around his older brother’s massive house, a ghost in a memory of family and domestic living that could have been his own. That he ached were his own. A dream of all that could be and never was.
Uncle Warren watched Holland’s mind run wild and stare at something only the boy could see. Dreams of flights through the heavens and perfect landings. The same dreams that became nightmares which filled Warren’s own mind. That filled every Atlas mind as far back as anyone could remember.
Warren watched and felt a scream choked deep in his throat. Would he even listen to me? he thought. Would I if I were him?
“Uncle Warren, it’s your turn,” the boy said, bringing him back down to earth.
“Right,” Warren said.
He laid down an ace of spades and felt that choking ball swell bigger and bigger, deep in his throat.
From under his bed, Holland dragged out a long footlocker. The toys and books and sweaters he’d grown out of had been cast to the back of the closet or pushed far into the forgotten darkness under the bed. He laid both hands on top of the closed lid and looked up at Uncle Warren.
“What I’m about to show you, you have to promise you won’t tell anyone,” the boy said. His voice held a suspiciously adult tone, one of sharp command and brevity.
“Are you sure I even want to see it?” Warren said.
“Too late for that. You’re helping me now, remember.”
The boy unlatched the footlocker and opened it. The smell hit Warren first, then curiosity took over his muscles, pushing him forward where he sat so he could see into the box. The air about them smelled like earth. Wet, loamy earth. Rotten blackberries and sun-bleached brambles; carrion of dead creatures and muddy worms. The air fluttered with the stench of birds.
Warren’s eyes floated over the massive soft bed of feathers that filled the box. Without the lid, the feathers slowly pushed upwards, and several fell from the case. Hundreds, thousands. Thousands upon thousands of feathers, he figured. Raven and crow and hawk. Wren, junco, blue jay, cardinal, and mockingbird. Starling, goldfinch, oriel, and warbler. The boy moved his hands over the loose top layer like a wave combing over the shore. Warren felt a haunting echo in his head. Birdsong and melody faintly played off in the corners of the room, as if the box had trapped each creature’s song in its darkness. Warren reached down and picked up a single osprey feather and held it before him. It was perfect in every way.
“Where did you get all of these?” Warren’s voice was a whisper.
“I’ve been collecting them,” Holland said. “Didn’t take long. Feathers are every where actually. No one bothers to look for them though.”
Warren ran his finger along the soft blade of the feather, pricked his fingertip with the sharp quill.
“I just need your help with the fitting,” the boy said.
“Did you . . .” Warren stopped suddenly.
The boy looked up at his uncle.
“All right,” Warren said. “I’ll ask you once, and it better be the truth I hear. Did you kill any of these birds?”
“No. No, sir. I didn’t. I swear.” Holland’s voice was suddenly shaky. He looked at his uncle with sorrow, as if the mere suggestion of killing a bird, killing any flying thing, was an unforgivable sin.
Holland, in his mind, was suddenly found questioning, as the man was questioning him.
“Have you killed a bird before?” Holland asked.
“God, no. Never. Never in my life would I.”
“Me either,” Holland said.
They both stared at the box of feathers, remembering what each of their fathers once told them, what their father’s fathers told to them, and on back as far as anyone could remember.
“A bird is a sacred thing. A free and living thing. To kill a free and sacred thing is a sin that just can’t be forgiven. No matter how much you beg.”
The words filled the room like an aether.
“I just need help with the fitting it all,” Holland said.
“Your turn,” Warren said. He stared blankly at the cards in his hand, still holding the feather.
The following morning, Holland faked being sick to stay home from school the last day before the Thanksgiving Holiday. For Holland, this was a tried and true method of getting out of any school day because him mother loved him deeply and also did everything she possibly could to avoid being around the boy. A sick day meant a day for Holland in his bedroom watching movies, with only the rare peek through the door or shout from the living room from his mother. Holland loved his mother and appreciated this small fact about her. And even in his feigned illness and the ironic scratch that started in his throat that same morning, there was work to be done.
Despite his brief twelve years of breathing telluric air, the boy was not about to approach the subject of aviation, no matter how mercurial or naïve it seemed from an outward perspective, with jest or boyishness. Observation with his father alone brought the knowledge that bats miracles of flight, always taking off through the air but never managing the miracle of soaring. Jagged, manic, struggling against the earth’s luring was the mammal way of flight. Holland didn’t have his mind on mere flight, on the seemingly mundane acts of levitation and weightlessness. The bat proved a poor model of form and style. And when it came to flying things, style was everything. No one ever admired the manner in which a hawk or falcon flew, but instead, it is the way in which they glide that’s forever fixed in the eyes of onlookers. How they glide and the grace, the style in which they accomplish this feat. Style and form—Holland saw the two side by side; he saw them as alpha and omega, where flight began and where it ceased. His father’s son.
The bat’s wings were of flesh and blood. Poke a vampire bat’s left wing and first you will hear the tear of flesh, then the blood, watery and thin though it might be. This was weight and drag, and these were forbidden words in any Atlas household.
Feathers were another matter entirely, and feathers were what the boy had chosen; like da Vinci before him, like Icarus and Daedalus, and even the early attempts of the Wrights. Feathers allowed the flight to breathe, allowed for nature to do what nature does: to breathe and react when something is soaring in the place it is not supposed to be. The boy knew this, and he respected the air because of it.
The pressure of wind upon wings, along with the initial downward pull of the earth, would require immense strength of the feathers. His first thought was to sew the feathers, each and every one of them, into his pale skin. It would work, only, Warren would need to be the one conducting the needle and thread. Blood, too much blood.
Cement was a second thought. But cement didn’t stick to skin like it did to wood or brick or anything else for that matter. A quick test in the back yard as his parents repaved the walkway through the garden last summer proved that. But glue was a thought. Something industrial. The paper-cement his mother used to make her artwork on the mornings after she fought with his father seemed a perfect solution. All manner of abstract things clung tightly and unwavering from her multi-colored, confusing canvases when she used it. Yes, it might just work.
One at a time, Holland placed the feathers onto the glue. Small to large, matching them by build and structure, he laid them, pressing the quills deep into the solvent. Feather by feather, he brought to life what he built in his mind.
The boy cut long strips of leather from the chaps of an old cowboy Halloween costume he’d grown out of since last year. The feathers, layers and layers deep, were pressed into another layer of glue he’d spread over the soft leather, giving more support and structure to the base of the wings. Large feather, mostly hark, falcon, birds of prey, served as the primary remiges. Medium-sized feathers went on the second layer and back-up coverts, and so on, adding layers until they formed the alula and nape.
This wouldn’t be some silly project that could fill up a few afternoons after school. The boy had researched and researched. The first rule his father taught him. “You can come any way to wish to flying,” his father had said. “Come with love, come with adventure, come with raw ambition. But never come lightly to things in the sky.”
Next came the tail. On average the tail made up almost twenty-five percent or more of a bird’s size. Holland carefully chose three layers of feathers from the footlocker and fanned them out onto a thick line of glue. He let them dry then tested them gently; the quills were unmoving.
After it was all built and formed, the boy looked at the wings and tail lying on the floor of his bedroom. He couldn’t stop the smile. He’d done it, just as he’d imagined and dreamed for just about as long as he could remember.
The urge to run and tell his father, to show him all he had done, was suddenly brimming within him. Boiling over now, and the boy started for the door, for the stairs and landing beyond that. The sudden stench of his father’s vodka breath stopped his step, instantly cooling the joyous pride in his warm heart. He could then hear his father’s disdain, the unmoved, impossibly obdurate mindset and blank stare.
“Fly?” his father said in his mind. “Not possible. Been tried. Not possible. Human arms can’t get enough lift or thrust. Won’t work.”
Holland felt a dagger pierce his heart as he imagined the words. He could almost hear Mr. Death’s bone-white feet scratching the floors as he walked down the hall towards the boy’s room; he could feel failure’s mournful reprise laughing in his ears.
The boy cried silently, sliding down the wall as he looked at his now monstrous creation. A deep voice suddenly came from the doorway.
“Of myself forever reproaching myself, for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?”
Holland looked and saw his uncle standing in the doorway smoking a cigarette, eyeing him.
“These them?” Uncle Warren said, nodding at the wings.
The boy sniffled and nodded yes.
“So, you make something with your own two hands and cry about it? O me, O life!” he said. Warren slapped a theatrical hand against his forehead, then winked at the boy.
“You think they’re good?” Holland asked.
“Hell, you won’t get an inch off the ground in those.”
The boy held his young face in his hands. “I thought they were perfect.”
“Jesus, quit that sad crap. They look fine,” Warren said.
The boy watched his uncle bend and examine the wings, a cigarette balanced evenly in his lips.
“So, what’s wrong with them?”
“They’ll fold right up on you, mid-flight.” Warren slapped his hands together; Holland suddenly forgot he was crying.
“So, what do I do?”
“Bones,” Uncle Warren said.
“You need bones. Strength.”
The boy thought a moment. He looked at the wings, then back at his uncle. “O that the powerful flap of wings goes on, and you might contribute a flutter.”
Holland smiled again. He could feel the sunlight on his back for the briefest of moments.
“Bones,” he said.
The wire cutters slipped in Holland’s fingers and he readjusted his grip. A din of holiday chit-chat and laughter and music poured out through the open back door of the Atlas house. The boy worked silently like an escaping convict as he clipped away at sections of the wire fence surrounding a small portion of the backyard. Beyond Uncle Warren, over a dozen other relatives and close family friends were gathered in the kitchen and living room and back deck for Thanksgiving. Holland went almost completely unnoticed past the wine- and beer-fogged lens of the adults’ watchful eyes.
He clipped at the fence, cutting out perfectly shaped wings from behind the cover of a few hydrangeas. No one would notice the holes for a few weeks at least, and by then, they would be more concerned with Holland, with his magnificent, aerial accomplishments. The boy, by then, would have personally and dangerously gone where no man has ever gone before. A few holes in a fence were little concern when compared to human flight.
He clipped away at the thin wires and he could almost feel his head swelling with the praise of his family. He would be the first. The first of dozens of generations of pure high-altitude-concerned blood to actually take flight. This would be his first symphony. Of course, there had always been rumors of a great-great-uncle Truman Atlas sometime back during the Civil War having built a flying machine and getting a few hundred feet up before crashing to his death. But rumors were all they ever remained. Holland was alone in his quest for true flight, and alone he would remain.
The final snip of clippers let the outline of the left wing fall before him in the soft bed of pine straw. He glanced back at the porch in the afternoon light and saw his aunt Jenny stumble off the bottom step of the porch and roll laughing into the flowerbed. Others joined in the laughter and helped her up, while Holland snuck around the side of the house with the pieces of borrowed fence.
Warren smoked a cigarette in the doorway as the boy finished adding the wire “bones” to each wing. His precision and delicate attention to detail was something to admire. Warren looked at the boy, looked at the familiar sweat beading and dripping from his focused skin. Eyes sighted and hands perfect puppets of the mind’s slightest whim. Of course, Uncle Warren was making assumptions. He even thought of the stupid joke that accompanied assumptions and what they make of us all.
But even still, watching the boy, he couldn’t disturb the fierce, raw ambition. Building a costume, of course he’s just building a costume to show off for the night. Everyone would get a kick out of it. Anything to do with all matters of flying things sent a wave of pride and fascination through the minds of those present. It moved the heart blood of every Atlas who watched, the same blood that swam through Holland’s own veins, the same blood that pulsed and quaked through his father’s own mind, that brought such flight and collapse to his Uncle Warren, that moved the hearts of all Atlas men and women as far back as anyone could remember.
Downstairs, the soft vibrations of voices in conversation drifted up the staircase and down the hall, bringing the warm smell of prime rib and herbs along with it. Prime rib was the family tradition for all holidays; a bird, even a flightless bird, had never, would never be eaten in an Atlas household.
“Smells like dinner’s almost ready,” Warren said.
The boy worked, oblivious to his uncle’s comments.
“Should we go and eat? Mingle a bit?”
“No. I need your help with the fitting,” Holland said.
Uncle Warren stepped delicately around the feathers scattered across the white carpet; the smell of clouds and dead tree limbs rising like ghosts from their soft blades. Warren bent to put a finger on a knot as the boy tied off the last section of wire fence. Uncle Warren smiled. He was suddenly gone, lost in the same euphoria of heavens and silence there the boy had already disappeared. He thought of the small planes. He could feel the sting of melting solder haunting his nostrils. His blood swam like a flooded river beneath his pale skin.
“I can still remember the first time my grandfather took me up in his plane,” Warren said suddenly. “He had this small plane, single engine. When we started going down the long runway, I thought it was impossible. How could we ever take-off? How could the two of us, all this weight, ever just lift into the air. Then suddenly, I closed my eyes as my stomach dropped to my ankles. When I opened them again, we were passing through the clouds. I cried. I cried then. I wasn’t scared or anything. It was just so beautiful. I cried, and because I did, my grandfather cried too.”
Holland looked at his uncle, looked at the moments replaying in his pale blue irises that stared numbly off into the far corners of the room.
“Strangest thing was when we came above the cloudbreak. For some reason I always thought I would see people when I was up there. I thought that when people died, they floated up to heaven and that from up there I would be able to see them. But there weren’t any souls up there. There was nothing. Everything glowed golden and the earth looked beautiful for the first time. Like how I imagined God might see things. How birds see things.”
He smiled, distant and tired.
“Once you see something like that, you want it again. Forever. You want that feeling of nothingness, entirely weightless. But you never can quite get it back. No matter how hard you try. You let your soul go up each time and, after a while, you haven’t got any more soul left.”
The boy stood and looked at Uncle Warren. “I’ll bring it back down for you,” he said, and smiled.
“Come on, let’s get you suited up. You have a crowd waiting.”
Holland slid his arms into the soft wings as Warren held them up. The structure and architecture were perfect in every way. The tail combed smoothly over the carpet as Holland moved around his bedroom getting a feel for the wings. He spread his arms wide and brought them back with a great sweep of his boyish arms.
“It’s perfect,” he whispered to Warren.
His uncle nodded. “So, how far up will you go?”
“To the sun, to the clouds. As far as I possibly can.”
“Gonna go anywhere while you’re up there?” Warren laughed, lighting another cigarette.
“Everywhere,” the boy said. “I want to see what God sees.”
“Well, how about I go and get everyone gathered outside and you can come make your grand entrance out the back door?”
The boy nodded and his heart beat faster and faster and faster.
Everyone was gathered in the back yard of the house. The afternoon sun shone amber and warm across the autumnal stretch of grass and trees, casting sharp shadows over the high peaks of the massive house.
“I don’t know,” Warren said to his bother. “He just said that he has a surprise for everyone.”
Everyone was smiling and their chatter grew to a low murmur as the minutes dragged on and suddenly the anticipation was curiously peaked.
“All right, Holland!” Warren shouted through the open back door. “Everyone’s ready!”
As all eyes were held steady and suddenly sober on the darkness of the open back door, a new shadow stretched over his father’s face. Heads slowly tilted backwards, and eyes raised to heaven. A few quick gasps for breath caromed across the porch. A single choked scream came from Aunt Jenny as she looked at the highest point of the roof. She was stepping backwards, unaware, and fell off the porch again, but this time no one noticed or cared.
Holland Atlas stepped careful and smooth, climbing out of his bedroom window onto the roof, climbing even higher up to where the attic over the garage met the chimney. Five storeys up, he went higher, and climbed up onto the top of the chimney and stood looking out over the people below.
His father’s voice rose higher and louder over the rest of the family who were screaming. The boy smiled, only briefly, then resumed a trapeze performer’s steady undaunted guise.
“Come down this minute,” his father demanded, but the boy could only hear the music of the autumn wind swelling like a euphoric torrent around his face, through his winged arms.
Holland stretched his arms out beside him, Christ-like and perfectly steady. The wind breathed familiar and cool through the feathers that blossomed from his arms.
Warren stared up at the boy. Amid cries of horror and the rush of a few people dashing through the door and up the stairs, Warren felt a smile crawling over his lips. He could suddenly hear the whispers of clouds in his ears; he could smell the raw high air overhead that had never been breathed before; he could feel his own heart move as the boy’s heart now moved, with terror, with thrill, with electric torrents of everything it meant to really be alive.
Suddenly, the screaming waned and stopped and eyes watched the feathered boy standing high overhead. Every breath was the breath of the boy; every heartbeat, beat with the rhythm of the boy’s. Holland stood above his entire family, stood above the earth, above the hearts and souls of every Atlas generation as far back as anyone could remember, and stared up towards the wild blue above him.
He took a breath and stepped off the rooftop and gave a great flap of his winged arms. Weightless, he could hear the music of the birds and autumn wind high over the earth. He stretched out his arms and dreamed of the heavens and of perfect landings. He dreamed of the music that filled the earth, that moved his heart. He stretched out his arms, falling from the air—one boy amid the wild music of heaven, one boy conducting the sky.
Spencer K. M. Brown is the recipient of the 2016 Penelope Niven Award, the 2018 Flying South Fiction Prize, and a finalist for the 2019 Doris Betts Fiction Prize. His short fiction has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in the Scalawag, Empty Sink, Prime Number, Flash Fiction Magazine, and more. He lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with his wife and son. His debut novel Move Over Mountain will be published later this year.