A short story

Getty / Oliver Munday / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Caleb Crain about his writing process.

Maybe if there had been someone willing and able to hold him completely, so that his gift left him altogether, he would have accepted the loss for the sake of the connection and made the adjustments necessary for living the way most people do, but in the early days, even at his weakest, he was always capable of a little stuttered jump in which he could recognize the bud of a flight, even if it didn’t take him off the ground for more than a few moments. And when no one was looking, it was sometimes capable of taking him farther and higher. He learned while still very young that he couldn’t rely on the gift, but when it failed, it always came back to him, like Samson’s long hair. So he was never able to think of himself as similar to other people, as sharing their predicament—he was never able to be one of them—and he couldn’t help but regard them, and their ideas of safety, with a certain amount of scorn.

“I will go home”: The feeling that summoned the flights had some of that character. “I will be who I have always been.” And some of that. “I will know myself a child of God.” And also some of that. He kept the gift to himself because he guessed that most people who learned about it would hate him. Their instinct, if they saw him fluttering along a wall like a moth trapped indoors, would be to crush him rather than to open a window. He felt scorn for them on account of this probable cruelty, too. He couldn’t believe in the justice of punishments that would be easy for him to escape from.

There was no trick. It was just something he could do, if he concentrated. That was the whole mechanism: concentrating and letting go at the same time. It came more easily to him in some places than others: in the ruins of a barn, under certain trees. Growing up in the countryside had probably helped him discover that he was capable of it. Even when he was little, he had often been left on his own outdoors.

The gift had almost no practical use, despite what someone unfamiliar with it might expect. It made a couple of venal things easier, like spying and stealing, but they had to be kept hidden, like the gift itself, and therefore couldn’t really be enjoyed. Still, even though it brought him little to no benefit, it made him lazy by preserving in him an unearned confidence that almost everyone else had to surrender on the way to adulthood. For him, getting away was always easy, and this weakened him.

People never looked up when you left, he learned early on; up never occurred to them. One moment you were being reprimanded, and the next moment you were looking at the scene of the reprimand, receding below you, as it continued in your absence. It was bad for one’s morals never to have to either give in to such a situation or gather your resources to challenge it. Sometimes, aware of how far he was drifting from the kind of person he was supposed to become, he tried to make himself give in as an effort of will, but the life he had been born into, the one he had so much trouble keeping himself stuck in, wasn’t easy, and one definition of suffering is that it is more than one can take. Despite his best intentions, when he reached that point, he left, naturally.

He watched the ground that his feet had been resting on pull away.

“Samuel!” his mother shouted. “Samuel!”

It was always quieter; the falling-away was always peaceful. Was it a little like death? There the world goes, he thought. So that’s how the rooms of the house fit together. He never signaled beforehand that he was leaving, partly because he was never sure ahead of time that he was going to be able to. Through accommodating his personality to the gift and its intermittent nature, he developed, instead of a morally responsible character, a deep respect for luck. To challenge himself, the way the effort to be virtuous challenges ordinary people, he came up with a rule: He decided that it would be vulgar to presume on his luck, which was, for the most part, like a god’s.

Even though he liked his teachers and they liked him, he didn’t finish school, probably because of his gift. He couldn’t get himself to believe that he needed to know what they were teaching. After he called it quits, his mother’s understandable frustration with him reached such a pitch that he moved out. He took a job in town washing dishes in a diner and rented a room in a group apartment at the bad end of the main street. When he walked back to the apartment, at the end of a night shift, his fingers thick, he waited until he was in the shadow between two streetlights before he let himself be lifted up. Now that he was an adult, whenever it happened he mostly just felt sorry for other people that they didn’t have anything like it in their life, but not sorry enough to stop. What they didn’t know they were missing perhaps didn’t hurt them. Above the hoods of the streetlights, the spray of stars in the sky was visible in a finer grain.

One day, while he was eating lunch at the end of the counter, a god sat down on the stool next to him. His skin was colorless. He looked only a few years older than Samuel. He was a god of destruction, he told Samuel in so many words. “But I can’t destroy someone like you,” the god said. “You can only be killed once you’ve lost your gift.”

“But I never know if I still have it until it happens again.”

“Shall I try to kill you, and see?”

“Not today,” Samuel laughed. And his gift pulled him away, above the counter and the fry grill, and he pedaled the air to stay in place and found that he was rotating slowly, against his will. He was being turned by the effort he was making to keep from passing along the tin ceiling and slipping like smoke out the transom window above the diner’s front door.

The god took a sip of his coffee and looked up at Samuel.

Samuel saw that he wouldn’t be able to hold his own unless he challenged himself with a new rule, to secure his dignity: never presume on or trade on acquaintanceship with a god, which was, after all, also a matter of luck. And never pretend not to know that a gift gives one the right of equal conversation with a god.

The two arranged to meet that night on the steps of the town’s white church.

After his shift, Samuel ran home to shower off his dishwasher’s coating of sweat and grease. When he reached the green, the god spotted him and came down the church steps.

“Take me with you,” the god ordered.

“I don’t think I can,” Samuel said, but when he put an arm around the waist of the god, who stepped onto one of his feet, they rose. Carrying someone made Samuel dizzy. Maybe he was dizzy because being accompanied caused him to retain enough of his everyday social self to remember that it was only human to be afraid of being high above the ground, unsupported. Or maybe he was unnerved by having to be careful not to let go; for once, a flight of his involved a responsibility.

At the foot of the green stood three white pines. Samuel landed himself and the god on a branch near the top of the middle one. He put the god down where the branch met the tree and placed himself farther out, so that when he reached toward the trunk for balance, the god’s warm torso pressed against his arm. From this height he could perceive that the circles thrown by the lights below had different tints—skim milk, beer, apple juice. On the ground, one stood too much inside the lights to distinguish between them.

“Shall I kill you now?” the god asked, and jumped.

Samuel jumped after him, feeling responsible. The stinging pin-feathers of the tree battered his face as he fell, but he kept his eyes on the god’s eyes, the god upright and himself head down. Before they hit the ground, the god reached out and erased the tree and erased the town and took Samuel’s hands.

When the god restored the town, he and Samuel were standing on the green again, and the god disentangled his fingers from Samuel’s with a gesture almost of throwing Samuel’s away.

For weeks, every night after work, Samuel returned to the church steps. Sometimes he let himself wait on the steeple—he stood on the rim where the steeple’s white pyramid rested on its white plinth. The choice of setting was a little dramatic and self-pitying, he knew. Only someone under a curse like his would wait in such a place. The plinth was wood, but the pyramid wasn’t. Instead, the pyramid was a light-colored metal, which quavered if you rapped it. There was enough light pollution that even from this height Samuel had a view, in barely colorized silhouette, of almost the whole town.

For the first time he felt a surge of ambition; he wanted to be able to do something to compel the god to notice him. Call the god down again. Otherwise the rest of his youth might pass away before it occurred to the god to revisit him. He should have thought of ambition sooner, though; he was already on a different path. On some nights, in an invisible exhibition, he rose as high as he could, until the horizon started to bend away and the steeple below him dwindled to a white caltrop. The emotionalism of such a trajectory was a bad habit, he sensed, but since the feat was something only he could do, perhaps there wasn’t a standard by which it could be judged.

A woman Samuel’s age started at the diner as a waitress. She had freckles and, on her left cheek, a scar. When business was slow she opened the emergency exit, despite a warning on it that an alarm would sound, and smoked a cigarette, the cigarette outside the diner and herself inside.

“Do you want to get high?” she asked one night when they were closing.


“Why not?”

She unscrolled the rattling security grill to block the front door, and they sat in one of the booths. She took out of her purse something that looked like a kazoo but that she said was a pipe, and she unpuckered the Ziploc top of a clear-plastic baggie and sprinkled into the kazoo what looked like broken rock sugar.

“Kiss me,” she said, after she had taken a hit but before she had shared the kazoo with Samuel.

“I think I’m into guys,” he cautioned her.

“Me too,” she replied. “I just want to remember.” She explained that her first boyfriend had broken a bottle in her face, five years ago—that was the scar—and that she didn’t have any feeling anymore in the left side of her lower lip. “But I don’t usually notice,” she said. “It’s called ‘filling in,’ when you think you feel something you can’t feel.”

She took another ball of smoke into her mouth and he kissed her as a way of taking it from her, and the high was so much better than anything he had ever been able to do for himself or anyone else had ever done for him that for the next 17 years he forgot about what he had been able to do.

He was living on a different coast when he remembered. His hair was gray, which might not have been from using, but sometimes when he got high, his body went out on him like a spotty cellphone signal, and that probably was from using. He had been put in a house. The time had come for him to either give up on getting high or give up on trying not to, and while he was struggling with the choice, it came back to him that once upon a time, there had been a similar choice that he had always been able to get out of. That was how he returned to the memory. At first it was like remembering having had an imaginary friend without being able to remember the friend. But after a while, as he remembered a little more, he started to wonder how much the gift had been to blame. Maybe the irresponsibility fostered by the gift had been the point of vulnerability in him. The point where his armor had been pierced.

Or had the gift been a strength that using had alienated him from? A drug, after all, helped one fit in with the world. Using wasn’t a matter of grace. Anyone could use, even if not everyone did. And once used, a drug was gone; in that way, it was one of the most routine pleasures in the world.

He saw that over the years he had transferred to the drug much of the secret pride he had once taken in his gift. He had even taught himself to look down a little on his former woolly-mindedness—on his lost willingness to depend on a pleasure that had been not only anomalous, but unreliable. He had grown up. It was unlikely that he could reverse the process. But even if he could, even if he were able to recover his naive faith, it might be stupid, at this late date—it might sabotage any hoped-for recovery—if he reminded himself, in a feeling way, that for him getting out of being in the world had always been the subtlest pleasure to be found in it.

One morning he signed out of the house and took a bus south of the city to a beach he liked that the authorities had closed, or had tried to close, anyway. At one end it rose to an escarpment high above the water, erratically undermined in the past few years by erosion, which was why the beach was supposed to be closed and also a large part of the romance of it.

He was hungry by the time he got there; he had forgotten to plan for lunch. It was the rainy part of the year. He zipped up his fleece against the drizzle and hid himself in his hood. His fingers were stiff from dozing on the bus and he was tired, because all these years later he was still working night shifts. As part of getting sober he was staying away from work in bars and restaurants, and instead was doing a kind of data entry, reading business documents for a law firm and attaching tags and other metadata so that attorneys assigned to a case could search them more effectively. Nothing about the job naturally held his attention, but he had trained himself to find a groove and roll along in it.

Rivalrous waves flattened themselves at his feet and subsided, fizzing, into the sand, darkening and smoothing an area whose upper border had the shape left by wipers at the top of the windshield. There was getting high with other people and there was getting high alone, and he had always preferred alone. He remembered the god who had made him feel left alone. What a ridiculous story! They hadn’t even gone to bed together. Had anything really happened? Ahead, where the escarpment rose, he saw that the tip of a sort of promontory had broken off and was held in place by a mesquite tree’s roots, which had grown through the tip while the tip and promontory had still been attached and which in their far extremities still held on to the yellow clay of the promontory. The trunk of the tree was pointing not quite straight down. Toward about 7 o’clock.

He tried to imagine himself rising up the incline to the tree. He even closed his eyes. Nothing raised him. Of course, he had spent the past 17 years training himself with reward and deprivation, so no wonder he had succeeded in establishing at least a habit of conforming.

He continued walking. It was still a nice day for the beach, in a somewhat desolate way. Maybe the underlying memory was of an experience that he’d had as a child and misunderstood at the time, such as being picked up by a parent or grandparent. Or maybe it was a species memory of something like swinging in trees when we were monkeys. Or it could just be a memory of the feeling of swimming. He had always liked swimming. Once when he had been younger and full of his own vigor as well as high, he had stripped and waded into a cold sea and, almost just for the symbolism of it, with great effort jacked himself off, the cold of the water working unsuccessfully against the heat in him. He had proved something, at least at that moment, for that moment. He almost certainly couldn’t do that now.

He could still go for a swim, though, for the sake of whatever symbolism remained in that, or just for the experience. This was a colder month, but a warmer ocean. There was a breeze, and the water, a sour green, was just flicking into whitecaps, but a slightly high sea was a clean kind of danger, and because he couldn’t remember his blackouts, he liked to say that nothing really bad had ever really happened to him. He folded his clothes as he took them off.

The trick was to get far enough out quickly enough to put all of himself under before his feet and ankles got so cold that he gave up. He raked his legs through the water until he was up to his waist and then fell forward. He saw little spikes of white under his closed eyelids as his body recalibrated to the temperature, and then he felt the exhilaration of surviving the pain and moving in it and, for the moment, mastering it.

He turned to float on his back, frog-kicking himself away from shore. Waves were breaking violently against the rocks at the foot of the escarpment, and he needed to keep away from them. He had to make sure, too, that his muscles and his blood kept moving so that he didn’t get a cramp, which would be dangerous alone in choppy water. This wasn’t what he remembered, but maybe this had gone into it. This moving in a medium that was itself moving. Another possibility was that the underlying memory was just walking, which must feel like an uncertain miracle when a child first manages it.

He flipped over and ducked under and pulled himself down and forward. A cold line rolled across his body as he sank into a deeper, colder stratum.

He came up to the surface just in time for a wave to slap him in the face, and he sputtered a little. He told himself to take the sea’s violence playfully. He was naked, after all. Its violence was the sportiveness of a great creature, like a bear or a lion, capable of killing him without meaning to. He was too old for this, but it was exciting. What if someone came up the beach and stole his clothes? He turned around to look for them, treading water as he did so. After a moment he found them, farther to the right than he remembered them being, which meant he had been carried to the left. A wave surged from behind and lifted him.

Suddenly a torque inside the wave swiveled his legs as if they were inside dough that was being kneaded. I’ve never felt this before, he thought as he was pulled under. A sensation of being overpowered and not wanting it. Of being moved in a medium in which he couldn’t will himself to move. An ant in cooling amber. Everyone is always on a path that leads to death. But I don’t want to die yet, he thought.

I have to get to shore was the sharp side of what he was feeling. But there was also a duller, slower side: So that’s how the rooms of the house fit together.

By the time the torque relaxed, his legs had gone so rubbery that they wobbled around under him without getting any purchase in the water. He dog-paddled, lacking the strength of mind necessary to organize his movements. A current was still trying to pull him away and down the shore, but the force in his arms was probably going to be enough to counter it. If he made it, he was going to have to walk a bit to get back to his clothes.

It was raining in earnest now, pitting the surface of the water around him. His clothes were going to be wet, or anyway the T-shirt on top was going to be. He was able to see the little smudge that was the stack of them, waiting for him, now even farther to the right than they had been before. If he came ashore on the rocks, he was going to have to be careful not to cut up his feet and shins or topple and hit his head. He wanted to be able to try to fly one more time, even if it was too late.