Line of Flight
by Maxim Salnikov
The day that puts me on my way to the Master starts with a jog.
Pain in my feet, joints, chest, all secondary to the intent of becoming a better man I was yesterday. Jogging. I hate jogging, and jogging hates me back.
Doesn’t matter. I’ll make it to the next lamp post and then I can slow down, have a break. Maybe. Cicadas sing around me, the sound rising and falling like gusts of evening wind. It’s an idyllic night to be alive, my heart pumping adrenaline, pain everywhere, but ideas are easy and doing is hard, and I am doing, I am doing what I promised to do. Getting fit, body and mind. I make it to the lamp post and slow down. Stop. Bend, hands on my knees, heavy breathing. A tingling in my legs.
The lamp has painted a chunk of the asphalt in electric yellow; I can’t help but imagine myself on the set of a noir film, a moment frozen in time before the detective steps into the light, trench coat and fedora and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, his existence driven by a singular purpose: saving damsels in distress. I shake my head and start walking, half-wishing my life had been as straightforward as that of my characters. I’m a fiction writer. A professional liar. Imagining is easy. Ideas cost nothing. Implementation, on the other hand … now that, that is a different story.
I continue down the sidewalk, mustering what little strength I have left for another ‘sprint’, emphasis on the quotation marks, when I register something landing on my head. A leaf? A bug? I run my hand through my hair, feel nothing, look up: tree branches hover over the sidewalk, swaying in the wind of the perfect mid-summer’s night, casting long shadows that move to the rhythm and reason of nature’s design. I inhale the scent of freshly cut grass and probe my scalp with my fingers. This time, I feel something. A bump. A bump on the top of my head, a bump that hadn’t been there before. It’s soft to the touch, warm, alien. A tick? Please let it not be a tick.
The aftermath of untreated Lyme disease flashes in front of me in a series of disjointed memories: Wikipedia articles, all the cripples I’d seen in my life, horror vignettes blown out of proportion — loss of motor function, crooked legs, mouths perpetually drooling, the mental images painting my fifteen minute walk home in a palette of fiction and fear. When I do make it home, the first thing I do is grab my sometimes-live-in girlfriend’s hand mirror and strategically position it in front of my bathroom mirror so that I can clearly see the top of my head.
It’s a tick.
The grey oval body, bloated like a blood sack, had penetrated the skin of my scalp, hiding its head below the surface. An insectoid horror, a problem to solve, a reminder that bad things happen in real life for no reason other than to mess with you.
I probe the disgusting creature with my index finger and watch it vibrate, whatever poison it injected numbing me from feeling it dig deeper into my skin. I consider my options: burning it with alcohol; a pair of pincers; holy water and a cross.
I settle for a shot of vodka, and, glass in hand, come out to the balcony. Two rows of yellow streetlights stretch in parallel into the abyss of uncertainty.
I drink the shot, Google the closest hospital to check myself in first thing in the morning, and walk back towards my worn-out keyboard.
Justin turned the throttle and the motorcycle’s engine’s hum changed in register, the speedometer arrow rising to forty, fifty, sixty miles per hour. There was another rider in front of him, a stranger on a green Kawasaki Ninja. The two of them passed car after car, united by the sense of the silent brotherhood of motorcycle riders.
Focus, Justin told himself. Have no fear and focus.
Thoughts were easy. Doing was harder. His wife left three days ago and took their two-year old with her. She’d expected him to change. Hell, he’d expected him to change. But he was the man he always was: a man of no compromise. He consoled himself in the thought that it was for the best. How could he teach his daughter to be her own woman with her mom constantly shouting at him? Degrading him? He couldn’t. The best he could do was be an example, a father she could aspire to.
The Kawasaki rider in front of him attempted to overtake another car, a minivan, when the van’s driver decided to swerve to the right. Justin squeezed the brakes. The other man didn’t.
Metal crashed against metal, a loud, explosive bang as the motorcycle smashed into the back of the van. Gears and glass flew, the rider thrown off the seat and into the van. The impact of his helmet left a dent in the car’s rear door. He bounced back and fell to the asphalt like a broken ragdoll.
Justin brought his bike to a standstill, adrenaline pounding in his ears.
His first thought was to jump off and see if the man was alive.
His second thought was, this could have been me.
Crispy hospital bedsheets, the scent of antiseptic. It’s not Lyme disease. They don’t know what it is and they don’t know how to cure it. I struggle to move, the left side of my body paralyzed – hopefully, temporarily, the doctor said – but then again, they don’t really know, do they? This is the sixth hospital I’ve been to, a transfer after transfer, one specialist after another, all with that empathetic look doctors give you when they don’t know what’s wrong with you but secretly think you are done for. Western medicine. High tech. Tubes and shots and scans and antibiotics. I can’t even take a shit on my own. I look at the catheter tube in disdain, wondering what’s next for me. But I am a writer. My trade is lies.
If I know what I’m doing, maybe I’ll even manage to fool myself.
But not today.
All I can do today is lie and hope that I lay bear the truth.
The ambulance took a good half an hour to arrive. The police were faster. They removed the rider’s helmet and all that Justin saw was blood: on the man’s broken face, on the road, dripping from the cracked helmet onto the asphalt, drip, drip, drip.
As the police questioned him, Justin decided to put his motorcycle up for sale as soon as he got home. Yes, he loved his freedom. But he had a daughter now. It could have been him broken and bleeding out on the pavement. It could have been him, and he no longer had the right. He had a daughter now. A little one. His sunshine.
Justin took out his iPhone and speed-dialed his ex.
‘Yes? What do you want?’
‘She’s fine. Why are you calling?’
‘I just … I just wanted to check in.’
‘Now? You could’ve checked in when I was alone with her and you went out drinking with …’ she went on one of her usual tirades.
Justin listened, but did not hear.
All he heard was the blood, dripping.
Drip, drip, drip.
My crooked legs are a curse, but I continue up the stairs cut into the grey rock of the mountain, Tibetan air cleansing my lungs with every agonized breath. After weeks of waiting, they told me the Master will see me now. I don’t know if I’m happy, relieved, or resigned, but I march up the stairs, one step after another.
First I’d tried the charlatans. Snake oil peddlers, literally and metaphorically. Promises of an instant cure. I’d burnt incense at full moon, rubbed ointments into my legs and face, went through ayurvedic medicines like a five year old in a candy store … they sold it and I bought it, ever the fool.
My wife had left me long ago. I had almost despaired.
Until someone told me of the Master on the mountain.
It could have been worse.
One step after another.
In my mind: the story of Justin. My book. My creation. My lie, that I chose to make truth.
‘All right, hun, okay,’ Justin said.
‘What did you just call me?’
‘I said it’s all right. Everything’s going to be all right.’
He dropped the call and turned off the phone. They were all right. He was all right. The man on the pavement wasn’t, but he was alive, and, Justin prayed, that he would be all right as well.
‘Everything’s going to be all right,’ he said again to no one in particular.
I reach the top of the mountain, and, for a second, forget about the pain. There is no temple here, no hermit’s cave, no nothing. Just a plateau, stony, windy and cold, with a breathtaking sight spread at the mountain’s foot: hills, uneven ravines, the greys and greens of soil and grass.
A short edifice stands in the center of the plateau, a vertical slab of stone, nearly my height, its surface polished to a mirror shine.
Inside the polished stone I see my own reflection.
I inhale the Tibetan air and, for the first time in I don’t remember how long, I smile, grin like an idiot, gums exposed to the elements, wind tearing at my face, a stupid, primal joy, an understanding, a sense of achievement … acceptance? No. A realization. I am broken, but undefeated.
Because the Master never gives up.
Justin rode home with the care of a man who brushed with Death Himself. The engine rumbled a pleasant tune between his legs, promising adventure, speed, adrenaline and freedom. He wondered if that promise was a lie. If it was just an excuse to make him feel alive, to feel real, to experience the world as wind, breaking against his visor.
He had a daughter. A family. A responsibility.
What he wanted most in the world was to be real.
To simply be real.
But he knew that wanting was not enough.
One had to do, and, then, to have done.
The airplane’s twin engines roar intensifies as we gain altitude. I barely have any movement left in my limbs, but I do not need them: I am strapped to my instructor, a man with over two hundred jumps on his record, or so he says. He slowly moves towards the door, taking care that my legs don’t drag. He opens it and wind hits me in the face; we move towards the edge. Below us: a city, fields, a serpentine road. Primal fear chokes me; why did I want to do this again?
This is insanity. Pure insanity.
‘Ready?’ the instructor says.
He’d explained to me about the line of flight before. The projected trajectory of where we’re supposed to land after we jump.
If we land.
But then, what do I have to lose?
I let the wind whip my skin and smile, baring my teeth at the impossible distance below.
“Ready,” I say.
My hands are spread, my heart is sinking, and I no longer feel bound by the chains of gravity.
Free fall. Freedom. Truth. Not lies.
We fall and we fall and we fall and I imagine Justin, and the tragic conflicts I need to put into his life for my readers to buy the book; ways to test him, to construct his narrative in such a way that, in the end, my readers can turn the last page with a ‘Wow.’
Wind whistles past as we fall towards the ground.
Fall? No. Fly.
We fly, and I know that, land or die, I am the Master.
And the Master never gives up.
Feature image via: http://animalwhoop.com/about-seagulls-and-seagull-babies/