By Chris Fryer
“Give me, give me, give me that,” I sputtered, drooling a fresh bite of Cheerios down my chin, snatching the newspaper from my girlfriend’s hand.
“Such manners,” Megan said, laughing.
I didn’t hear her. I was too busy scouring the back page for Edward Jones, pretty damn sure I just caught sight of his name in the obituary section. Sure enough, beneath a blurry black-and-white photo of a young man in a striped button-up shirt, the name: Edward Jones. Age: twenty-one. Date of death: two weeks ago. Cause (I read on): stomach cancer.
“What’s the deal?”
“I know this guy.”
Flipping the paper around, I showed her Edward’s portrait, taken at some body of water—you can see a lake and mountains in the background. Even monochrome, his bright blue eyes stand out on a page of black text, like cat’s eyes in a shadow under a car. Last time I saw them glow, they were looking up at the stars, and he was saying something wise beyond his years like, “I think a world without fear would be a world without growth.”
I told Megan, “I met this kid on a roof one time.”
“Downtown. Behind the old bus station,” I said, reading the paragraph beneath the photo, details about his dreams, details about his accomplishments. “Oh wow,” I said, filled with pride, “he did the Peace Corps.”
“Who did?” she asked, pulling down the top of the newspaper to steal my attention. “Your Cheerios are getting soggy.”
I’d forgotten about my breakfast cereal. My mind was on the roof of an abandoned department store, a four-story building surrounded by its big building brothers. The roof itself was slightly slanted, spattered with dormant vents, quiet air conditioning units, and everything was tagged with graffiti. Six years ago, I’d arrived there by way of hopping a fence, tearing my pants, and climbing a rickety ladder, keeping to the shadows as cars passed through the alleyway below.
Clear summer night sky, chilled, a breeze that smelled terribly like bat shit, since the bats liked to use the abandoned air ducts for caves. You could see them flashing in and out of the vents, huddled tightly against the walls, so little and frail. Away from the bat ducts, the smell dissipated into the usual midnight haze of car exhaust and restaurant patios, and I made my way to the far corner by way of climbing a few small walls, ascending another ladder, and crossing onto the roof of the adjacent building. I felt like I was casing the joint.
Six years ago, I was spinning.
“Spinning how?” Megan asked, taking a sip of her banana smoothie. “Like spinning out of control?”
“Not spinning good or bad. Everything was fine, just everything felt like it wasn’t bolted down. There was this crazy impermanence to my life. Is that a word? Impermanence?” I looked at Edward’s photo again, and thought about the last time I ever smoked a cigarette, six years ago on that roof.
She smiled. “That’s a word.”
I told her how I was happy with the way everything was going at the time. I had plans. I was finishing school. I was about to travel. I told her how it was probably around the time that I bought a plane ticket to another country that things really started to feel weird. Started to feel like a dream I knew I’d wake from and all I was doing was waiting.
I sat for a long time on the edge of the building with my feet dangling over the side, four floors above the dimly lit sidewalk. No one ever looked up. I thought for a long time about the girl I loved, who I missed so much it was nauseating to look at pictures of her, and I looked at the people walking below and wondered if they’d ever felt love the way I did then.
A lighter flicked, ignited nearby, its brief flash of light behind me, casting a quick shadow of myself across the ledge. When I turned around, I saw Edward lit by the orange crackling glow of a cigarette between his lips, standing a few feet away.
“Shouldn’t sit there,” he said, smoke lifted lazily from his nostrils.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I won’t fall.”
“It’s not that. It’s so no one sees you.”
I looked below. At this hour, only the homeless patrolled these streets. Still, there was something about a kid giving an ominous warning that I couldn’t ignore, having seen enough horror movies to know the rules. Swinging my legs back onto the solid side of the ledge, I said, “Good point.”
I guessed he was about fifteen. He was at first glance a shrimp, scrawny and frail, but through his eyes you could see pain like a forest fire moving through his thoughts, the vacant stare of someone with way too much gloom on their mind. To me he gave off the aura of a jaded cop too far from retirement to see the light, like a fifty-year-old soul in a prepubescent body, and the cigarettes sandpapered his voice.
“How did you get up here?” he asked.
“The fence,” I said, pointing.
“That’s what I thought. I never come up from that side. I can’t jump the fence. But I can use the pipe over there because I can reach it when I push the dumpster under the pipe. But you just get your hands all black, like this,” he said quickly, showing me his dirty palms.
“I ripped my pants on the fence,” I told him.
He grinned, noticing now the tear near my groin. “Woops,” he said.
“Yeah, woops. It’s a good thing I wore underwear.”
The boy took a long drag from the cigarette. It didn’t make sense, that habit, so I asked him where it came from. Cigarettes were pilfered from his mother’s purse; the habit was from his brother who used to take him up here. He said, “Charlie was in a car accident last year. I come up here every Tuesday night, like we did before. Mom says it’s good to keep traditions like that alive because it keeps him alive, too.”
“She knows you come up here?”
He shrugs. “She knows I go somewhere.”
Inhale glow, exhale smoke.
“Can I have one?” I asked.
“Wait?” my girlfriend interjected. “You took a cigarette from a kid?”
I shrugged. “He made it look so cool. Anyway, that’s not the point.”
We exchanged names after that. I lit my cigarette, found out Edward was fifteen His brother was two years younger than me (at the time) when he died, hit by a drunk driver. Dad divorced Mom. Dad lived now in Colorado. I took a long drag and coughed, totally ruining the serious moment.
“Sorry,” I apologized, wheezing for breath. I worried I was making too much noise. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had a cigarette. “Not a habit I suggest you keep,” I said, “even if it’s for your brother.”
“That’s what Mom says.”
“She’s right,” I said. I dried my eyes. “But you’ll figure it out.”
“That’s what my brother said, too. He said when you get older, some things will make more sense, but then new things will not make sense, and then after a while those things will make sense. You figure it out. He said, you can never figure everything out because everything you make sense of has its own mysteries.”
I nodded. I couldn’t smoke the cigarette properly, so I faked it. “Your brother sounds like a pretty cool guy,” I said.
“Hey. Do you want to try something?”
“What do you mean?”
“You can climb that fence. I think you could make the jump.”
“Yeah, what jump?” my girlfriend asked, the two of us now in the bedroom getting ready for work. Megan was putting on makeup and spoke to me by way of mirror. “I didn’t know you did stuff like this. Do you still do stuff like this?”
I said, “Jump from one building to the next like Spiderman? No.”
“You didn’t,” she replied, mouth agape.
“The kid convinced me,” I said.
He brought me to where the neighboring rooftop was within reach, willing that someone made the four-foot leap and grabbed the ladder installed on the opposite wall. Down below, nothing but cold hard cement. I couldn’t decide if the kid thought I would make the jump because I was tall, or because he thought I was suicidal. We stood at the ledge and I thought the kid was crazy.
“There’s no way. Maybe with a net,” I said.
“My brother always said, you will not always have a net.”
“Did he make the jump?”
“He made it?”
“He said, you don’t have to believe in yourself, you just have to give in to what you were meant to do in the first place.”
I laughed. “You understand all that?”
He said, “Do you?”
“I mean. I don’t think I was meant to jump to that ladder.”
I shrugged. “It’s not in my cards.”
This kid, this somber-faced, lanky little kid, told me, “My brother always said, denial is a small death. He said most of all we’re alive so that we can say yes to things.” Edward looked up at the sky. “My brother said, there is no way to prove that the whole universe wasn’t made just for you.”
My girlfriend shut her car door and I shut mine. Seatbelts. Megan turned down the radio and said, “He’s precocious. Precocious? Is that a word?”
“I think that’s a word,” I told her, backing us out of the driveway.
“He really said all this stuff?”
“How’d he get you to jump?” she asked.
“He told me that I’d regret it forever if I didn’t.” I nodded, reminiscing on how sincere this kid was. Why he connected with me so quickly, why he felt like spending his roof time with me, I would never know. I never saw him afterward. Once I built up the courage to make the jump, I was so enticed by the prospect of a new roof to explore that I didn’t notice him slip away.
He told me that the universe could be my playground. He said that his brother said, fear is a part of life, fear is the first step to learning. He said, “You won’t ever know if you could do it unless you do it first.”
I really shouldn’t have. Let’s be honest. The drop was four floors and I certainly wasn’t a trained circus performer. This was insane. And yet the ladder did not seem far. The jump, a piece of cake. I had confidence. I was tapping into that concept that the universe was my orchestra and I was the conductor, and as the band reached a crescendo of free will, I leapt from one rooftop to the ladder of another, and without much trouble at all I landed safely on the metal rungs, as if I’d already been on this other ladder all along.
He called up to me, once I’d climbed to level ground, “You just figured out that you could do that. With each fear we defeat, every denial we deny, we open ourselves to a billion other lessons to be learned.”
“I’m gonna go look around,” I told him.
And I never saw the kid again. Until today, in a black and white photo.
Megan was about to get out of the car, the two of us parked outside of the hospital, and she said, “Did you know he was sick?”
“I think he got that afterward.”
“Well,” I sighed. “It’s because of that kid that I became confident. It’s because of him I learned that I was capable of taking big risks. He taught me to look at the goal rather than the work needed to get there, because if the goal is meant to be, the work will get done somehow. I mean, it’s the kind of confidence I didn’t have yet, and if it wasn’t for him, I probably never even would’ve talked to you.”
“That’s sweet,” she said, “But I’m just glad you didn’t fall to your death.”
We parted ways. I made it another four blocks toward the school, already running a little late, when I suddenly pulled to the side of the road and pulled out my phone. Edward was being buried in a cemetery not far from here, not long from now. With a twist of the wheel, I decided it was fate that brought Edward and I together on that rooftop, fate that I should see his face in the obituaries, and fate that I should be there with him at the end.
There was a bit of fear—I’d never been good at funerals—but I thought about what Edward said, without fear there is no growth, and it was fitting those words were etched on his tombstone there beside his brother.
About the Author
Chris Fryer was born to tell stories. Amidst figuring out what to do with the rest of his life, he’s been submitting short stories, working on a novel, and actively building the blog Thousand Thoughts. On a path toward a teaching career, he looks forward to teaching English and creative writing in the future.
This column was originally published on Niche’s website on August 6th, 2013.