Aren checked his phone again. 9:30 PM. Still no reply. The answer would be no. He knew it. Why would they say yes? He still didn’t qualify for their little flying club. Sure, he helped them keep it secret, even served as their lookout, but that didn’t mean anything.
A ding sounded from his pocket. A text from his mom. Gibberish. She must have gotten off early and had enough in tips to merit a bottle or two. He slid the phone back and considered riding the bus home just so it would take longer.
The two-way radio beeped. “Three live ones coming your way.” Static crackled through the speaker.
“Great.” Andrea closed her book and sat up in her chair as three adults entered the long room followed by an older woman with a sour expression who didn’t appear to be with them. The three weaved their way up the entry line, but the grumpy lady skipped the line and cut past them on the side going straight for Andrea.
“Welcome to the Top-of-the-Rock.” Andrea spoke in a monotone.
“Do you sell City Passes here? There’s a problem with my pass, and I need you to fix it.”
Andrea shot Aren a relieved look. Fielding questions about passes and stuff was a lot easier than deterring some out-of-towner from taking a trip skyward.
And he had three of those making the final turn to his register, now.
“Hi, we’d like to go to the top of the Rock.” A worried smile punctuated the woman’s words. A man, maybe her husband, and another woman lined up next to her. All three were drenched.
Aren hesitated. The three had already been warned about the visibility. He knew that. The club took no chances. Two other wannabes had been posted at crucial junctures in the building to dissuade tourists from taking the 67-story trip up. Now, it would be up to him.
“Looks like it’s still raining?” He eyed the girl in the middle who was hoodless and dripping from head to toe.
“It’s slacked off some now.” A determined flare lit up the other woman’s eyes.
Aren swallowed and tried to stay casual.
To his left, Andrea reeled off the City Pass no-refund policy to her customer. He prayed these people didn’t have the City Pass. If they did, they would be even harder to deter.
“Looks like visibility is at zero.” His eyes flashed from them to the screensaver on his computer. “Yep. You won’t be able to see a thing.”
“Zero. Are you sure?” She leaned against the counter. “I mean you’ve got to be able to see something, right?”
Aren pictured the clubbers at the top and tried to focus. “We’ve got a guy posted up there, and he just called saying it’s zero visibility.”
The woman looked at the man in the group. “I think we should try it. I mean we’re here. Why not? We’ve got the pass. We might as well use it.”
Andrea cleared her throat, and Aren knew he needed to think fast or he’d never get invited to the top. And not going up would mean feeling even more isolated and alone, if that were possible.
“Did you say you have the City Pass?” Aren interrupted their family powwow. “If you have the pass, why don’t we go ahead and book you for tomorrow morning. You can skip the line and go right up. No worries.”
They stared at him, and his heart thumped like a flat tire on hot asphalt.
Sadness pulled at the woman’s eyes. “But we wanted to see it at night. We saw the view from the Empire State Building yesterday morning. This is our only chance to see the view at night.”
Aren pulled away from her pleading. He couldn’t give in, and he couldn’t let them go up. Don’t feel sorry for them. They probably live in a big house in the suburbs, with two cars, a dog, and money to burn.
He leaned toward his computer. “You can go up, but you’re not going to see anything. I have three openings at 8:30 AM. How about that?”
A long pause followed, and the three returned to their huddle. Andrea had her arms crossed, watching now. She’d already fended off her customer.
“Okay, I guess we’ll go in the morning. Make it 9:30, though.” The woman looked so sad it almost made him feel bad, but he shook it off and got their tickets squared away before they could change their mind.
“That was close.” Andrea whispered as the three sloshed out.
Aren’s phone pinged. Good job. Come on up. He read the words three times then let out a whoop. “I’m going to the top!”
“Bravo! Have fun.” Andrea grinned. “It’s the closest you’ll ever get to flying.”
“Right.” He knew that wasn’t true, but these people might be the next best thing.
The rain had stopped. Thirty people dotted the observation deck. Everyone holding a controller and staring off into the sky.
“Hey, Aren. Over here.” Josh waived him over. “Welcome to the Top-of-the-Rock Flyers, here.” He held up goggles. “Check it out. It’s over by the Jenga building.”
Aren slipped the goggles on, and in an instant, he was flying. The drone hovered at the thirtieth floor.
“Watch this,” Josh whispered. The screen blurred and then came back to life as the drone dipped lower. Too low.
“Cop.” Aren blurted out louder than he probably needed too.
Josh laughed. “I got this. Don’t worry.” The drone followed the cruiser onto Wall street then peeled off toward the Hudson. Josh kept the device low, and then accelerated it upward as it came up 49th.
“Incoming.” He navigated it to a stop on a huge square pad laid out in the middle of the deck. “What do you think, newbie?”
“Too cool.” Aren peeled off the goggles, his heart soaring to be around people who’d seen the things he’d seen and felt the thrill of soaring. It wasn’t the same, but it was something.
His phone pinged. More gibberish from his mom. That pulled him back down. The only person who could maybe help him figure out what was going on, and she couldn’t even tie her shoes most of the time.
“Okay, so you’re clear on the rules, right?” Two other guys joined them as Josh opened up a large case for the drone.
“Yeah.” Aren understood the dangers of flying in New York City better than any of them.
“We also fly in DC every other month. That’s a whole different ballgame down there.”
The guys tossed out flying stories, and Aren drank them in. He felt a kinship with these rebels. They dared to do something and didn’t let the world keep them grounded. Of course, what they were doing was extremely illegal, but it didn’t seem like it. Flying only on low-visibility nights and handling their aerial power with care. They had a code of ethics and understood the thrill of flight.
“Mann’s on his way up.” A girl called from near the elevator. The group scrambled landing the last few drones and gathering their cases.
“You might want to take the stairs, newbie.” Josh called over his shoulder. Aren hung back. It had started to rain again, and the cool drops felt good. In a matter of seconds, everyone had cleared the deck and were either getting on an elevator or already gone. Mann would be here soon, doing his security guard thing, and Aren took one last look at the view. Not much to see but haze and fuzzy lights. Perfect.
Cinching his black hoody over his head, he walked to the center of where the drone landing pad had been. Maybe one day he’d find someone who could understand his struggle. But until then, he’d embrace it.
It had been five months, three days, and fourteen hours since he first left the ground. And every scary, awful attempt to hide it or make it stop or deny its presence had only ended in making him feel even more alone and freakish. But tonight, he hadn’t felt alone. He’d been with people who wanted to do what he could do, and for the first time, he felt hopeful, like maybe he wouldn’t be alone in it always.
The elevator binged, and Aren bent down then pushed off the ground. Raindrops pelted him as he spread his arms through the rush of air. Mann strolled around the observation deck with a black umbrella, oblivious to the person hovering thirty feet above him.
Aren smiled. Zero visibility was a very good thing.
(Here’s a link to the original blog post that goes along with this story! Why Indecisive People Never make it to the Top)