Searing sweat etches pockmarks into the stairs as if it were acid, burning my eyes on its way down. The relentless climbing is good for my lungs, heart, bones, immune system, and a hundred other bodily functions I can’t name, but there are a thousand other things I’d rather do than suffer the monotony of step, step, step. I climb head down because if I look up, I’ll see the floor number, and then the discontinuity of where I hope I am, just a few fights from the top, and where I actually am, not even halfway there, will detonate shock waves of despair through me.
I’m not here by choice. My wife’s words whip me upwards. “Keep it, Liam. You’ll lose that belly in no time. You’ll be in great shape.” I asked for a kiss before the stairs, but instead she slipped a dayglo carrot in between my lips. “Eat the carrot now for vitamins, and the kiss will be yours when you return.”
If I sit on a stair for thirty minutes and pretend I’ve done all fifty-nine flights, will she know? Yeah, she’ll know.
The steps and walls are beige, and the handrail is brown. There’s a black sneaker smudge on the thirteenth stair between the nineteen and twentieth floors. I try not to see it, because then I’ll know I have dozens of flights left to scale. Each landing has a motion-sensor light though sometimes I don’t activate it. I used to think I wasn’t moving enough, but I came to realize that the light doesn’t turn on because the stairs are as bored with me as I am with them. The tedium of sameness numbs my mind.
Up and up, lungs and heart teetering on the precipice of extinction, like being on a cliff edge where the slightest breeze catapults you to your doom, the staircase air compressing, heating, encasing me in a container of flames. Hot air rises, and I’m rising, too.
There’s a bang three flights below. The sound reverberates up the stairs, rattles the handrail, and rings my ears. A chilled north wind slips inside the stairwell, cascading toward the higher, hot air, incompatible armies about to do battle. The wind slaps my back, spins me, and propels me forward and up. I’m caught in the atmospheric conflict and take flight, hovering midway between the stairs and the ceiling.
I extend my arms forward like Superman and hear an invisible cape fluttering. After a few seconds of flying this way I stretch out my arms and flap like a bird, which seems more natural. I press my fingers together and keep my hands flat, because that makes aeronautical sense. The motion is effortless. This is what weightless feels like. Two silver and blue winged manta rays with piercing turquoise eyes fly on either side of me, their wings flowing as if they were underwater, escorting me as I ascend. Past 20, 25, 40, to the 59th floor, the last floor, where I draw my knees into my chest, hold my breath, spill backward like a gymnast, a flawless summersault, and land silently on my feet on the building’s final step. The mantas continue their upward flight. The wind blasts the stairway door open. As they exit the roof, the mantas tilt to the left, curl their wingtips, and wave goodbye.
How was this all possible?
The first thing I do when I get home is check the weather. I note the temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, wind direction and speed, dew point, and sunrise and sunset times. I check the moon’s phase, and to my surprise, it’s just a sliver of a crescent, still weeks away from the omnipotent full moon. Jupiter’s ascending and Mars is in opposition to Vega. I don’t know if that’s relevant, but I’ve also recorded it.
Delilah, my wife, emerges from the bedroom. “How were the stairs?” She scans me with the eye of a personal trainer, smiles broadly, and adds, “You’re getting in shape, Liam. You’re not even winded. Do this every day and you’ll be fit like you were when we met.” Delilah touches her fingertip to my lips, making them quiver. She kisses me for five seconds, about how long it takes me to climb ten steps.
Neurons spark in my brain. “Earthquakes. Have there been any quakes today?”
“No, but there is a comet. You can see it from the living room. It appeared out of nowhere.”
Delilah opens the window so we can see the comet without having to peer through layers of dust and grime. It’s brighter than the moon and about the same size, too, though teardrop shaped. The comet’s bow is sunrise yellow. It’s blue around the middle and red at the stern. A glittering purple tail extends from the comet the length of the horizon. Flying below and above are the manta rays, which given that the comet must be thousands of miles away, I shouldn’t be able to see. But there they are.
Blurs trace the outskirts of my peripheral vision. I turn my head, blink to clear my eyes, and see hundreds of people in the sky. Some with their arms like Superman, some flapping, some with their arms pasted to their sides. Like me, they’re all wearing exercise clothes — shorts, t-shirts with brands, bands, animals, slogans or nothing at all printed on them, sweatpants with and without racing stripes, red, blue, and white sneakers, and sneakers with bling that refracts the daylight into hurried rainbows. Another thing I shouldn’t be able to see, but I can: their flaccid, sweat-stained faces, wearing expressions of exhaustion and relief.
I turn to Delilah, kiss her on the forehead because it’s the quickest kind of kiss I know, open the window the rest of the way, step out over the ledge, join a nearby flock of people, and soar to the comet.