by Sierra July
The roads of my city aren’t roads, but tracks, tracks that sit like birds on high-wires. The citizens of High Life have to travel by rollercoaster. Platforms that lead to town hall or to the school or to the store are in collected masses on what we call earth level, although we are still quite a ways from earth – only the clouds are higher. We can see the tips of the kings of trees and the gods of summits, and more commonly, the sky’s reflection as it shimmers and shines up at us in seemingly endless liquid sapphire, but we can never return to ground where our ancestors thrived. About the only new thing we have is our technology, given to us who-knows-when by who-knows-who, our brain chips that allow us to sync with the rollercoaster cars so that we can summon them, accelerate them, stop them at will. Still, there is no lack of essential equipment like building material . . . or the guns that my enemies fire at me.
I sit thousands and thousands of miles from ground in a rollercoaster car as a bullet whizzes past my cheek, taking some skin with it. I give a tap to the side of my forehead to activate my accelerator. The ride takes a second to heed my command and, for all of that moment, time seems to stop. The stars are eyes in the blue-black canvas of sky, the moon a hoop of light so close that I’m sure I could jump through it. “Aura,” the air whispers my name and its own as it plucks the wires suspended about me. “Aura . . .”
I don’t dare answer it, just grip the handle bars and get ready for the ride. More bullets that can’t find their mark clang against the car’s bulk, a breath’s length behind me. The black suits are on my tail and I don’t have the heart to hand my life to these perfect strangers on a silver platter. I close my eyes, say a silent prayer . . .
Then I am flying. The wind snaps back the skin from my face as I plunge to my destination, my bangs whipping my face while the rest of my hair makes a raven’s wing against the midnight sky. And despite the echo of clouds I travel through, leaving dew on my bare hands, I can feel sweat trickling down my leather-clad chest; the result of stress rather than strain. I bring my dew-beaded hand to my mouth and lap up the water. This is probably my only chance to get a decent drink and it would be foolish to waste it. I only wish I had some bird to feast on to end the monster’s tantrum in my stomach.
But there is no time to think of hunger. I race home now to tell my people what lies above the clouds, above the highest platform anyone has dared to step foot on—until now. I can see a picture of my family in my mind’s eye—my daughter whose hair is so like my own but whose nose and mouth share my husband’s quirks, my husband with his hard hands smelling of sunshine. I have to get to them before it’s too late.
The journey ends just as quickly as it began and I am jumping from the rollercoaster car onto a platform with a small cluster of people waiting on it. I only have a minute.
“Get back to town, everyone!” I shout, internally cursing my voice, light as bells regardless of my stern exterior. I’m a bird’s whistle when I need to be a fog horn. “I’ve been above the clouds and there is trouble coming. Find shelter, now!”
“Aura, what are you ranting about?” Sora, a girl I’ve known since infancy, all of my twenty-five years of life. She brings to mind fruit, something only seen in books, round-faced and luscious with her full-body, her eyes her only pointed feature. “You just got back and—”
“There’s no time for this,” I say, plowing the nearest onlookers into a settlement of woven straw, a larger-than-life weaver’s nest. They try to protest, but I slam the door in their faces. “There are men with guns coming and they’ll be here any second.”
As if I’ve summoned them with words alone, the men’s rollercoaster car comes to a halt behind the one I’d abandoned. They see me next to Sora and take aim. Sora gives a shriek and the few citizens that were still milling about carelessly along the tatami-matted platform scramble for shelter. Fear clogs my vision, my thoughts, stifles my nostrils. All I can see is the inside of the one of the gun’s barrels, the small hollow, opening wider and wider until it swallows me whole. I close my eyes, clench them tight enough to send a bolt of pain through my temples, and wait for a bullet to find me.
But the bullet doesn’t come.
I open my eyes again and see the men staring at me, frozen. No, not at me, at everything that stands behind me—the all-seeing buildings of straw riddled with residents’ peeping eyes between cracked doors and windows, the towers that serve as lightning rods, smaller lampposts providing light, the tiny bird feeders that lure our prey of finch and sparrow and provide for our falcon messengers—a work of art and majesty. I relax, anxiety seeping from my fingers and toes, but only a bit, and now I can feel Sora’s hand on my shoulder, pleading me and reassuring me all at once.
“What is it they want?” she whispers on hot breath into my ear. I could answer her, say that I’ve seen too much of their realm and that they’ve come here to silence me, but I can’t be sure that is the reason for their hostility. Perhaps I offended them in some way when I stumbled across their golden streets and placed my hands on their iron gates, sullying them, but I don’t know so I don’t say a word. I wait and I am rewarded with answers.
“What is this place?” one of the men calls out as he steps out of the rollercoaster car. The other follows suit and stands just behind the first, becoming nothing more than a shadow.
I step forward and say, “This is my home, a primitive version of your own. I don’t know why you followed me here with those weapons, but unless you put them away, I’ll have to insist that you leave.”
The men share a glance and stuff the weapons in their holders, pouches that hang from their shoulders and rest on their hips. With their weapons away I realize that there is nothing threatening about them. They are young, no older than I am, and they fidget like school children left by their mother for the first time. But there is one thing that differentiates them from my people—their suits have wings. I couldn’t have noticed from afar, but black feathers protrude from their backs like multi-fingered hands reaching to claim the sky, and with their pale skin contrasting with their dark-winged clothing, I realize they are merely magpies guised as buzzards, guard dogs reverted to sniveling puppies.
“Who exactly are you?” I ask.
“My name is Flier,” the man standing closest to me answers. His hair is bistre feather-down, light and airy as it ruffles in the breeze. “And this is Gale.” He cocks his head to indicate his partner behind him whose hair shares the same texture but has the color of a hawk’s eyes, a starling yellow hue.
“Well, I still don’t know why you’re here, but my name is Aura and this,” I point a thumb, “is my friend, Sora.”
“You live here,” Flier says.
Not a question, but still I say, “Yes.”
“But that’s—” Flier starts, but loses his voice as he struggles for the right word.
“Impossible,” Gale finishes, stepping away from Flier so that he is no longer a silhouette but a person of his own. “Everyone knows that all races but the Angels have died out.”
The Angels—a race that my own people had thought extinct. They are in our books, in our tales that spill forth from our mouths at mealtimes; a winged being that was a sheepdog to children, herding them from danger, guarding them from harm; they stood by the underdog as an invisible shield and sword to provide him with strength. Were we truly looking on Angels?
Sora removes her hand from me and fully breaks the ice, bounding right up to these two intruders who, until a moment ago, had her at gunpoint. But that was Sora, forgive and make friends. She takes them both by the hand and starts babbling away as she leads them to one of the empty settlements. She is most likely getting them settled for the night, a threat now become honored guests. There was so much more I had to say, to ask those two. I’d only gotten a peek into their domain, but something told me that they weren’t the only Angels above. Still, it is late enough for the stars to start winking out to settle for bed, and I have a little girl to tuck in so I make my way home, a dot of a place in the center of town.
The settlement is all a flurry the next day, a flock of cawing crows fighting over a tasty tidbit—but in this case, two. The Angels stand in the center of a ring of chaos, yet are somehow immune to the shoving and shouting carrying on about them, statues impossible to rattle. My husband and daughter are probably the only townsmen not a part of the riot, safe at home where they should be.
The settlement’s messenger birds fly soundlessly a few feet overhead. I smell sea breeze on their wings, the wind itself a shawl draping them in a salty coating. My messenger falcon, Talon, alights on my shoulder and fixes me with a piercing stare. Even to him this is getting out of hand. I have a strong desire to become the wind and fly back up to the heavens alone on the rollercoaster. But I’ve brought this on my home, so I choose to become a whirlwind.
“Everyone, settle down!” I shout. I don’t even expect to be heard, but my people operate on pulse rather than pure sound, and they sense my red-hot disapproval like the heat from the sun. We have no leader since we’re all as sensitive as sun-burned skin; we hear an order, we follow. It just so happens I’m frequently giving the orders.
Talon leaves me to stand in front of the Angels and face a semi-circle of the crowd; the people behind me will just have to open their ears and strain to net the sing-song notes of my voice on the wind. “I know that everyone wants to know if these two are really Angels, if there are more of them up there.” I point to the heavens. “So I’m willing to go back up there with them to find out the truth, and I’d like to take one other person with me. Any volunteers?”
Like asking a dry land if it wants water, every person, and I mean every person, including Old Man Ruff who has a bad hip and can no longer travel, raises their hand to plead with me, ask to embark on this trip of a lifetime. Funny how I couldn’t even get a live-like-there’s-no-tomorrow teen to go on the journey with me before now; regardless, I could pick my partner blindfolded. It’s no contest; I select Sora from the crowd.
The children who are old enough for school are boarded into the rollercoaster—the cars gone from midnight blue to azure with the use of chameleon technology to blend with the sky, the same used to provide our skin-tone matching suits—and are sent on their way while Sora and I stuff our faces with bird (the Angels refusing to eat amongst us), then the four of us load into one rollercoaster car, ready for takeoff. At least I believe we are, but first Sora wants to give a grand tour. I let Sora provide acceleration, since my brain chip needs time to recharge, and we begin a loop around my world.
We see the schoolhouse, its belly packed with children scribbling notes on their arms and hands with felt-tipped quills. Parchment has long since become a rare commodity so, whether written down or blazed in memory, our knowledge is short-lived. Then we see the small shops lined up like bowling pins, shops for bird feed and perfect-for-a-cloudless-day bottled water vapor and an assortment of other essentials. I hate going about our settlement so quickly because it only makes me recognize how small it really is, how limited my people are.
After we see the stale places that do nothing but induce yawns, we are on our way to the heavens. Up, up, up we go. The wind pops my ears but even through natural earplugs I hear birdsong. The sun shivers in time with the bird’s vibrato, sinking below us in a sea of pink and orange and violet clouds. The trip takes no time flat, and Sora and I have only one opportunity to open our mouths wide and let the wisps of cloud water vapor wet our tongues before we make it to the higher plane.
I leave the rollercoaster car first, Sora just behind me, and the two of us gaze at the new land, out of breath like we both ran a thousand miles. There is so much more to see in the daylight. The golden pathways extend forever and I instantly recognize something that I’d never thought I’d see—trees, trees in full glory bearing fruit of all different shades and sizes and textures. And they all possess a sweetness that makes my body shiver from head to toe. All of that goodness made prisoner by an iron gate.
I turn to the Angels standing behind us, doing nothing but observing our reactions. I haven’t heard them say a word since last night; they’ve just been going with the flow, two thunderclouds riding a squall. Flier twiddles his fingers in front of him, while Gale’s eyes shift about nonexistent shadows.
“What’s wrong with you two?” I ask. “Do you think you’re going to be in trouble with someone for having company?”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Flier mumbles. “Not yet.”
“What do you mean not—” A tremor runs through the platform, ending my speech. Then all is light. I’ve lost sight of Sora, of the Angels and their beautiful, magic-radiating land. It is the same as going blind, going blind and seeing everything. Everything.
“You can’t enter, Aura.” A voice speaks in my mind. And it is familiar. A voice I’ve heard all my life … the voice of the wind. “For now, your world is as big as needs be. You seek freedom, even in the sky. But to expand your world, you need only expand your heart.”
I want to reply, to say something, anything, but, just like that … it’s all over.
Vision returns to my eyes—colors, lines, shapes, what had always been familiar, now foreign. Sora is wide-eyed, gawking at me like I’ve grown two heads. The Angel’s appear indifferent, and I know that they know.
“What was that just now?” I ask them.
They share a look; no hidden meaning as far as I can tell, just a question of who should speak first. Flier, as always, takes the honor, saying “You know what happened, something that can’t be explained.”
His words ring true, but don’t leave me satisfied so I turn to Gale who nods and says, “Ancestors of our ancestors, we thought that you were long gone, but now we know you still thrive, you will have a permanent place here in death. But for now, live.”
I study the world through the fence again. The gold trails interweaving a carpet of green. Small creatures that I hadn’t noticed before litter the carpet, white and brown things that hop with tails of cloud; small vibrant-winged organisms flutter about like disabled birds, but they are beautiful, rainbows come to life. All of this, a secret for another lifetime.
“Well, if we aren’t going in, can we go back home now?” Sora’s words. For the first time, I understand that she isn’t as enthralled by the sight before us as I am. She didn’t come as a greedy eye craving what others have never seen, she wanted no bragging rights; she came as a friend.
Enveloped in gratitude, I nod to her and walk past our two Angel escorts. They follow us with their eyes but keep their feet planted. Sora settles in the car and I get comfortable beside her. Before she starts the ride, I shout “I’ll be seeing you!” and I think I see the tiniest of smiles on Flier’s face.
And with that we return to our world.
I want to say that my life was much different from then on, but it wasn’t. I just paid it all more attention. When I looked at the rays of sun sparkling in my daughter’s eyes or heard my husband’s laughter twinkling like wind chimes or got a friendly ‘hello’ or ‘how do you do?’ throughout town, I made note. Like those fervent children scribbling away in school, I jotted down the memories and hoped they’d stay. I continued to ride the coasters when I wanted to get away, to enjoy my solidarity with the wind, but I no longer journeyed above the highest of the highest settlement platforms. I stayed in my world … until death.
There was one thing that changed with the Angels’ appearance. My people no longer allowed the dead to be submerged in the waters below; instead wings were constructed as a funeral rite, added onto their suits. And with that, the dead flew higher than they ever could before.
Sierra July writes, … “Life’s Rollercoaster Ride” is about finding hope and braving the unknown to find it. I wrote this thinking about how wonderful it might be to live in the sky, and still feel like there is a whole other world above your head. My fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in SpeckLit, Dragon’s Roost Press’s Anthology for Canine Rescue, Every Day Fiction, the Fast-Forward Festival, and 365tomorrows. My poetry has appeared in Star*Line and Songs of Eretz Poetry E-zine. I blog at talestotellinpassing.blogspot.com.