alexander in midair
shortlisted, southern pacific review short story contest 2017
Alexander has a second to think before he begins falling, but he chooses not to use it. He doesn’t begin thinking immediately after he begins falling, either.
It is only a matter of time until he is no longer falling, so he settles into the air to enjoy the view. The horizon remains consistently horizontal in the distance, a fine flat line where the sky and the water meet. The setting sun spreads across the water like orange marmalade. So flat. It makes sense the horizon is flat. It is no coincidence that horizon and horizontal sound the same.
“There’s proof the Earth is flat,” Alexander thinks sagely as he clears the promontory. “Mr. Ivan said it would be, and it is. That’ll show ‘em. The moment of truth!”
Any minute now, he will lose this heavy sinking feeling. The air is messing up his hair. He tugs at the few loose strands that still cling to his scalp and smoothes them. They won’t behave. Alexander is aware there is a camera watching him up above. Perhaps they can fix his hairs when they edit the video. Maybe they can give him a fine head of hair like Mr. Ivan wears. They can do amazing things with cameras these days.
The errant hairs tickle his ears like taunts, but it will be worth it soon. He will slow and then float off into the sky, like a balloon. Even if he hasn’t been covered in enough magnets to float away, there is an inflatable dinghy waiting for him down below that will catch him when he drifts down and will carry him away a proud victor. His hair will do what it is supposed to do. When he slows. Any minute now.
Any minute now.
Alexander sighs. This is taking too long.
He chastises himself for being impatient. Mr. Ivan didn’t say how long it would take. If Mr. Ivan has faith in his ability to prove the doubters wrong, the least he can do is wait a bit before so-called “gravity” releases him. He is not close enough for the magnets to interact with the water anyway. Squinting down, he can make out the assault of the white seafoam against the cliff below. He wonders if the waves will thrash harder as he nears, the water irritated by his magnet suit.
A seagull flies by and gives him a startled look, like it can read Alexander’s mind. Alexander shoos the seagull away. A seagull reading a man’s mind is unnatural.
“If I want a bird to know my thoughts, I’ll holler at it, like nature intended,” Alexander thinks.
“The first thing you must understand is that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were clever, but they were wrong. They used math to confuse people,” Mr. Ivan tells them on the video. “Everything they taught you in school is a lie.”
Mr. Ivan is an impressive man, tall and confident in his wool suit. Alexander stares at his teeth. They line up in perfect proportion. The white of his smile matches his starched shirt. His hair, a rich black that shines blue in the light, is as resplendent and full as his smile. Each hair obediently sits where it is meant to sit.
“He must know what he’s talking about to be so successful,” Alexander thinks, adjusting his body in his chair to improve his posture. “And he’s right about math. It is confusing. People say it explains things, but I don’t understand it at all. How well does it explain things if I don’t understand it? That’s a pretty bad explanation if I need someone else to explain it to me afterwards.”
Mr. Ivan’s voice continues. “There is no gravity. There is no invisible force there to pull you down.”
“Then how come we don’t float off into space?” Alexander wonders to himself, watching the monitor. It would be nice if nothing pulled him down. He avoids the eyes of his wife in the framed photo she hung on the wall by the computer.
“Now, I know some of you are probably wondering, why don’t we float off into space?”
“Yes!” The word escapes from Alexander’s lips with great force. It’s as if Mr. Ivan can read his mind through the monitor.
Alexander’s wife, Dina, calls from the other side of the door. “You okay in there?”
Alexander hits pause. “I’m okay! What are we having for dinner?”
He waits for a few seconds, hoping she says hamburgers instead of quinoa salad or something horrible and flavorless. No response comes. He could die in his desk chair and Dina wouldn’t notice for weeks. He hits the pause button to start the video again.
“There are many reasons we don’t float off into space. First, we are less buoyant than the air …”
Alexander looks down at the paunch nestled under his once-black, now-dull grey tee shirt and nods.
“Second, there is electromagnetism. We all know how magnets work. We learn about it in science class in school. That part, they didn’t lie about. Electromagnetism, without going into too much detail, keeps us safe on Earth.”
Alexander grips the arms of his chair. Solid. He has often felt like the desk chair has a magnetic draw for him, as though it requires extreme effort to lift himself from the soft black cushion. Laziness isn’t the reason after all, according to Mr. Ivan. He will tell Dina it is definitely electromagnetism whenever she makes dinner, which will hopefully be pizza or something good.
He listens to Mr. Ivan for a while longer, before he wanders off to discover he will be eating tofu stir fry for dinner against his will. Mr. Ivan’s voice is soothing, like Charlton Heston’s voice in The Ten Commandments. He makes his points with ease and authority. Here is a man he can respect. Here is a man he could listen to again and again and will in the days and months to come as he learns about the real science of the Universe. He will even get to hear Mr. Ivan’s voice in person once or twice while the Moment of Truth (now capitalized and formally named) enters the planning phase.
And this is the voice Alexander hears as he falls and remembers in a few brief moments that first day when the world finally made sense to him.
“I wonder if I’ll fall right through the Earth,” Alexander thinks in a moment when Mr. Ivan’s video goes silent in his head. The wind picks up and is whistling chaos in his ears. He probably won’t fall all the way through the Earth, not unless he wasn’t as committed as he needed to be to his diet. They had accounted for the buoyancy of the magnets when figuring out how much buoyancy he needed to lose. The paunch from the first day he heard Mr. Ivan speak is nothing but loose skin now, held down by parachute-fabric pockets filled with magnets. They measured his buoyancy before he jumped. He will not crash through the Earth.
The fall is taking a long time to slow, and this delay has distracted Alexander from the historical importance of what he is doing, he realizes. Mr. Ivan would be disappointed to know he is experiencing doubt. He would give him that half-smile he gives when talking about ignorant people. Mr. Ivan would remind him in jovial tones and hard eyes, “Doubt is like gravity. It does not exist when you know the truth.”
And this is the Moment of Truth. Mr. Ivan selected him to make the demonstration to the world. There is no room for doubt, so Alexander has no doubt.
He has time, though. There are only a few flat stripes in the sky now, so he can’t pass the time looking for shapes in the clouds. He turns, as well as he can turn in midair, wearing a heavy magnet suit with wind pushing at him, and examines the cliff wall sliding past him. Rocks. Lots of rocks. Rocks wearing socks. Rocks, orange-brown like a fox. Rocks made out of blocks.
He looks below his feet. More rocks and, out of the corner of his eye, the inflatable dinghy. The rocks are difficult to see directly beneath his tennis shoes, and one of his shoelaces --the right one --has come untied. The two ends of the laces flap in the wind like his hairs. Alexander would like nothing more than to reach down and retie them, but the magnet suit prevents him from bending comfortably, and he would probably flip over head first, which would be disorienting. He is not participating in the Moment of Truth to be disoriented. He is finally oriented in the right direction, for the first time in his life. He ignores the obvious flapping of his laces.
Alexander turns his head to the left and sees the dinghy in full. The yellow of the small boat is fading to a muddy phlegm color as the evening approaches. He sees the pilot’s face. What is the name of the man? Tim? Tom? Something like that. He has an expression on his face like a startled rabbit, as if he would rush off the boat if he weren’t surrounded by water. This confuses Alexander. There is nothing startling to see. The rocks are as dull as sticks and dry leaves, and even the waves are becoming boring in their regularity. Not scary at all.
A realization dawns on Alexander slowly as the rocks and the dinghy grow quickly.
“Dina’ll miss me tonight,” he thinks as he loses consciousness. It grows dark overhead, and the ether turns black.