We started hanging from buildings. Like the Bulgarian guy in those videos online, suspended by his fingertips some thirteen stories up, feet swinging in the air, veins protruding like spiderwebs down his forearms. He flung himself from fire escapes and almost kissed the pavement. Climbed up a church spire with a GoPro camera strapped to his head. Our favorites were “EXTREME ROOFTOPPING: 300 feet of elevation, a near-death slip?!?!” and “Police arrive during ascent of exclusive celebrity high-rise!! (NOT CLICKBAIT)”. We watched his videos in study hall. Just Jackson and I, at first. Sharing a pair of stained white earbuds, cord loose between us as we leaned in towards the phone hidden in his sweatshirt pocket. Then Cade got in on it—let us on to the roof of his apartment building for the first time on one hot night at the end of summer, two days before Jackson’s 14th birthday, to see if we could feel what the man in the videos felt. We survived. And we knew we’d felt it.
Fourth time around, Cade brought his Mormon girlfriend, and she was eating neon green Pop Rocks from the palm of his hand. They sat sprawled out on the concrete, the speaker between them. Playing old Kanye, the sound all twisted, muffled, metallic. Jackson paced over near the edge, staring off towards the lights from downtown, pulling his faux leather jacket tight around him.
Cade was talking about how he snuck Hanna out, got his sophomore friend to drive and get her after she climbed out of the window of her younger sister’s ground floor bedroom. “While the kid was sleeping right there, too.”
“In her Cindrella sheets,” Hanna added, with a hoarse laugh. Windy out that night—her long blonde hair whipped into the air suddenly when another gust came, like it was about to take flight. She was in Cade’s Thrasher sweatshirt, volleyball shorts, high-tops. Hands shaking. I noticed this just before she interlocked them in her lap to hold them still.
Sitting across from them with my back against the water tank, I closed my eyes. Either from exhaustion or heights, the world began to tilt around me in the darkness—slowly, sweetly, like the feeling from inside a Ferris wheel car. Earlier, my older sister had given me the speech during dinner. She was standing at the end of our white plastic kitchen table, smoking a menthol cigarette while touching the skin around her eyes with her fingertips. Dark makeup smudged. I picked at some take-out Chinese while she went on about our mother going on a girls’ trip, which I knew was code for a man met in a nightclub, a motel room by the shore, three to four business days. Our grandparents would be there the next day to watch us. But tonight, my sister said, she was having friends over, and so it’d be helpful if I figured out a way to disappear. She ended up driving me to Cade’s apartment complex herself, in our mother’s Honda, blasting some manic glitching electropop that made my head spin as the sounds grew higher and higher.
“Hey, Miles.” I opened my eyes to see Jackson standing in front of me, my face level with the rips in his jeans. He took a hit from his pen, exhaling a sickly caramel-flavored cloud into the night air. “I’m going first. Get your camera.”
There was a ladder going off one side of the roof with no apparent destination. Cut off after ten rungs or so, like an architect’s accident. I filmed as Jackson climbed down a few steps and then hooked both of his legs over one of the bars, knees locked tight. Pressed his hips in towards the wall. Cade and Hanna were crowding next to me, whispering to each other. None of us knew what Jackson was planning to do until he did it—let his hands fall of the metal bar, and leaned back slightly, eyes sliding shut. Balanced in space. He seemed to escape it, for a second, whatever that night was. Dim moonlight falling over his gaunt face, turning his stringy blond hair silver. Like some boy king from a storybook. Hanna began laughing without a reason to, asked me to zoom in.
After five seconds had passed—or what felt like it—I called Jackson’s name. His eyes snapped back open, and he stared up at me with a sick smile. Grabbed the ladder again. I stopped recording as he climbed back up.
“That was some Circus du Soleil shit,” Cade said, cracking his knuckles. “Didn’t know there were points for artistry, Jacky-boy.”
Jackson grinned wider, reaching the top of the ladder. I extended my hand, and he grabbed it to pull himself up, uncut nails biting into my skin. He slapped me on the back, pulling me into an off-kilter hug. Reeked of Axe and sweet nicotine. Could feel him trembling through his jacket.
“Yeah, you know I always send it,” Jackson said, letting me go and running a hand across his mouth, his chapped lips.
He was never supposed to be my friend. But I hadn’t ever had one until him, really.
Jackson’s family moved to the city about a year ago, just before 8th grade. He was suspended for a week that October, after he tried to steal from the highway rest station that we stopped at on the way back from a school field trip to some Civil War fort. A can of Coke, and he had money for it too. Sensors caught him on the way out. I hid it from my mother for as long as I could, because this was when I was already going to his house almost every night, sneaking out to take long bike rides through the city with mumble rap blasting from his portable speaker. She found out through some family friend anyways. I had to promise her that Jackson never stole anymore, called it a cry for help, told her about how his mother—social worker, if you can believe it—kicks him out of the house when he pisses her off. She hadn’t liked him since. But I had never been so close with anyone in my life. He introduced me to Cade that winter, and then it was the three of us most times, in the locker room after school or playing video games in my basement. But it was only Jackson that I texted late at night, sometimes until the sun rose. There were times when we talked about awful things. How Jackson kept dying in his own dreams, how I wanted to shoot my sister’s boyfriend, how just waking up and facing the world sometimes felt like getting nails stuck in the skull. Jackson made certain plans, and I told him to never follow them. So he didn’t. Awful things, but Jackson made them all make sense, for the first time. With him, I felt like we shared some dark wild energy that I didn’t know I was capable of before.
He still stole, of course, never mind what I told my mother. Shoes, sometimes. Candy bars. Two Swiss Army knives, one of them for me. And I slipped necklaces into the pockets of my jeans at the mall, silver chains with roses or fake crystal pendants hanging off them. Kept it a secret, even from Jackson. Sometimes I would imagine that I was saving them for a future girlfriend. And then other times I would try them on myself, standing in front of my sister’s smudged bathroom mirror, watching them gleam dully against my skin.
“I’m going next, then,” I said, gaze shifting towards the edge of the roof and the empty air behind it. And Jackson just nodded in agreement.
As I walked over, Cade followed, tapping me on the shoulder. “Hey, give me your phone.” I handed it to him, and he slid up on the home screen to open the camera, rubbing at an irritated patch of skin at the bottom of his jaw with his free hand. He’d picked it until it bled.
I could hear the other two shuffling over to stand behind me, though I didn’t turn and look. Stared down at the drop. There was a nice lip on the rooftop, a wall made up of a few inches of solid concrete. Enough to wrap my fingers around, enough to trust that I could pull myself back up. I’d done it twice before. But it still took my breath away, the thought of it, the sound of a few spare cars rushing on the streets below. Where were they heading, this late? Did they expect to see a kid falling from the sky? That old scolding about your friends jumping off a bridge—meant to point out that you were a lemming, a follower.
A month ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and overheard my mother talking to my sister in the kitchen. They’d said earlier that they were having a few drinks together, just a few, but my sister was slurring her words.
“You know how Miles is, he needs a charismatic leader.”
And my mother just laughed this calm laugh, in recognition of a fundamental truth.
I hated them, hearing that. Spent nights awake imagining what I would tell them in return and came up with nothing. Only that I wanted to let them know that I had always been angry, this whole time, ever since those other boys in the schoolyard started throwing me around back in elementary. It wasn’t something new that was woken up when Jackson came to town.
Stepping up to the ledge, I rolled the sleeves of my sweatshirt up past my elbows and sank to my knees. Looked down towards the pavement seven floors below. I could make out the manhole covers on the sidewalk, the glow of the 7-Eleven down at the end of the block.
“Why isn’t he going?” Hanna said, almost whining. I gripped the concrete lip, pressed my forehead to it. Something felt strange about tonight. There was this nausea that had emerged the minute I closed my eyes near the water tank, this knot in my ribs.
“Cool it,” Cade shot back. “Don’t freak him out.” Then he raised his voice, like I couldn’t hear him before, and called to me, “Whenever you’re ready, man.”
Hanna just laughed. “You know, this whole act is fucking boring anyways.”
I tried to block her out, taking a look over my shoulder at Jackson, who stood cloaked in shadow a few feet behind me. Breathed in, out. Then I swung my legs over the ledge, and I was suspended in the air, a heavy pain shooting from my fingertips down to my shoulders. My face was just an inch away from the brick side wall of the building, I breathed in its dirty chemical scent. Felt my shoes sinking, a loose and unearthed sensation in my chest like a drop in a free fall that never ended. A few dozen yards of air between me and the ground.
Gaze flipped up to see the black eye of a phone camera, Cade behind it with an encouraging smile on his face. Saying something, but the wind took it away before it hit my ears. He repeated himself. “You’re good, I got it.”
I’d done it before. The crunch of muscles that seemed almost impossible, the single pull that sends your body careening back up to the land of the living. And yet when I tried it tonight, I ended up right where I’d started, elbows buckling halfway through the move.
“Come on, come on!” Jackson yelled down at me. He had moved to kneel right at the edge of the roof, slamming his hands down on the concrete lip for emphasis.
I pulled again, and again my arms failed. I was trembling through my whole body now, drunk on the adrenaline, not even able to understand what it all meant. But then Cade spelled it out for me, as he finally dropped the phone and put it out of sight. “He can’t get back up.”
Hanna started praying, words unintelligible in a tone that wasn’t far off from a scream, bent over on the ground with her hands wrapped together in her lap. My fingers were slipping, now. Cramping at the knuckles. I would die tonight, I realized much too late. I shut my eyes, tried to summon all the energy I had for what would be my last attempt. Counted off from three.
But then, on two, I felt a pair of hands close around my forearms, yanking upwards with a painful force. “Let your hands go!” Jackson shouted. So I did, as I was dragged over the edge of the roof, hitting my chin on the concrete. My shoulder sockets burned from the sudden pull, brought tears to my eyes. I was bleeding from the side of my lip, and my left leg ached from where it scraped against the ground, but I had something solid beneath me again.
I buried my head in my arms for a long time, curled up on the ground as I tried to get air back into my lungs. “Miles, Miles,” Cade started calling, crouching down to look at me. I turned my head to face him, blinking my eyes open. “You’re still here.”
I nodded, almost not believing it. He helped me to my feet, and then walked over to Hanna, who stood staring at me with her hand over her neck. They melted into each other and began kissing with wet open mouths, murmuring words in between. Guess that my near-death was romantic. I looked away from them anyways, over towards Jackson, who was standing at the other end of the roof with his back turned. He hadn’t said a word since saving me.
“Hey,” I said, walking over. “Thank you, god, I can’t believe—”
Suddenly, he whipped around to face me, and his hands met my chest. Shoved me straight back down. I hit the ground hard, the wind knocked out of me. “The hell, man!” I shouted up at him. His face was unreadable as he stood over me, and then I felt a hard kick in my side that made me choke on my breath. Then Jackson was off, sprinting towards the exit. He was out of sight by the time I got back to my feet.
“Jackson, the fuck are you doing?” I yelled after him. Cade and Hanna were pretending that they hadn’t noticed, their faces pressed together. Figured they knew it was just between me and Jackson, whatever was happening. Like a lot of things.
After mopping the blood off my face with the corner of my shirt, I went after him, walking down the dimly lit emergency staircase that connected the top floor to the roof. He was down at the doorway when I found him, bent over and breathing heavy. Didn’t do as much as look at me.
We stood there in silence for about a minute, not acknowledging each other’s presence. Heard some siren from the streets below, getting louder and then fading. Maybe a fire, a heist, or a few kids on a roof doing nothing in particular.
Finally, Jackson straightened up again, facing me. Took me a moment to notice under the dim lamplight, but then I saw it, the glimmer from his cheeks, the red eyes. His jaw was set, like he was grinding his teeth down to stop any words from leaving his mouth. But what came out in the end was this: “I never want to speak to you again.”
He then grabbed me around the neck. For a second, I thought I would meet violence again. Yet he just pressed his forehead against mine, left it there. And for as long as we needed, we stood there, breathing in the dark.
It felt wrong to me that we hadn’t been in each other’s lives for five years, ten years already. Like I must have misremembered it. Because we should have been together before, when things were easier, climbing trees or dressing up like pirates. Playing tetherball together at recess, writing Valentine’s cards for every member of our 3rd grade class. I would have never had to go home, and he would have never had to go home either, we would have found a new place to live on those bad nights, ran away like some boxcar children with handkerchiefs tied to sticks. Some beautiful joke with no stakes at all, that was how it must have been—because that was the only way that the moment on Cade’s roof would have made sense. All I felt then, instead of the fear of what had just happened, was how much I wished that I’d known Jackson since we were kids. Well, more of kids than we were now.
Sylvan Lebrun is a writer and student at Yale University. Her work has been previously published in Gone Lawn, Angel City Review, and Heavy Feather Review, among others. She is a staff reporter for the City desk of the Yale Daily News, and previously interned for Pittsburgh Magazine. Sylvan grew up in Tokyo, Japan.