map Jetpacks

by Gregg Maxwell Parker

Published in Issue No. 236 ~ January, 2017

It was a year ago this Wednesday when we woke up able to fly. It happened very naturally; I didn’t even feel it in my sleep. My friend Mick called me on the phone, and I was still groggy when I answered. “Go jump off your balcony,” he said. “Trust me. You can do it.” I went out to my balcony and there he was, floating a few feet below the rail, treading water in the air. “Come on,” he said. “You have got to see what it feels like.” So I jumped.

I closed my eyes at first – just a natural reaction. I opened them when I began to feel funny, and I saw Mickey above me as I fell. I could tell that I was falling slower than I should, but I was still falling. Mick just smiled at me. I tried to straighten myself, so that I was pointed upward, and then I just thought: “Float.” And I did. I felt myself rising, right along with my breath and the hairs on my body, the air in my lungs bringing me up toward eye level with a man who could get me to do just about anything, light as air yet cutting through it.

I laughed. “Cool, isn’t it?” he said. “Look down.” I saw the street below us. I only lived on the fifth floor, but everything still seemed infinitely small, two-dimensional, like it wasn’t real. The breeze blew my nightgown out like a seventeenth-century dress, and I had to mat it down with my hands. I struggled a bit in the air, tipping over and then righting myself. “You’ll get the hang of it,” said Mick. He looked like he was standing on an invisible platform.

For a moment I was self-conscious about how I looked, but then I noticed Mick was a mess too, his hair sticking up in all the wrong places. Over his shoulder I saw others in the sky, stumbling along, rolling over and flying crooked zigzags in pajamas and robes. There was even an old man with a cane, waving it around as if that might help.

We flew out over downtown, over the freeways and buildings, watching the river slowly trickle beneath us. We climbed awkwardly upward, trying to avoid all the new fliers as they struggled to get their bearings in the air, everyone laughing and asking each other how the hell this had happened. We made our way to the top of the Lincoln building, not just the observation deck but the very top, where there were already a few people perched like crows. We sat there, gargoyles on the edge, leaning over and looking down, completely unafraid of the expanse before us. I could see miniature workers, men with briefcases and women balancing back and forth on heels, cramped and uncomfortable, navigating through crosswalks as they tried to get to work, unaware that flying above it all was possible. It was like a giant mat canvass, the world stretched out sideways the way it ought to be seen, the streets and city blocks laid out like puzzle pieces with different colors and shapes, the whole earth frozen just for us. “Wow,” I said. Mick nodded. I cried.

It was pandemonium for the first couple of weeks. It was like you could do anything, and people did, testing the limits by darting in and out between buildings and machines close to the ground or going as high as they could go and just letting themselves fall; everyone did it. At the end of the third week, they finally had to start playing an audio recording on loudspeakers all over town asking everyone to please start coming back to work so the economy wouldn’t crumble; we’d all completely forgotten about it.

There was a lot of adjusting that had to be done toward the beginning. A large number of stalkers and peeping-toms were arrested, just hovering outside people’s windows and peering inside. I spent most of my time near the high-rises downtown, leaping from building to building as best I could. Some days I even forgot to eat lunch and just stayed up there all afternoon. Everyone was getting into it – you could see all the neighbors out some nights, playing hide-and-go-seek in the dark above our complex. By the end of the month, there was no one who wasn’t fully immersed; even the religious people who thought the apocalypse was coming had started zipping around.

I went back to work at the end of the month. It was kind of a drag, putting on those stiff clothes and getting made up, having people care about how you looked. After I’d gotten dressed the first morning, I actually rode the elevator down to the lobby before it dawned on me that I could’ve just used the window. I lost a heel that day while flying to work, but no one seemed to mind my stocking feet since I wasn’t the only one; we all had to make adjustments.

I hardly got any work done at first; I would try to concentrate, then end up just staring out the window at all the lucky people outside. Work was lame now; flying was cool. The last thing I wanted to be was the boring adult cramped inside, but I guess I was; kids taunted us through the windows.

Of course, there were casualties those first couple months; it was inevitable. There’s no way to know the limits of something like that until someone gets hurt. People kept getting ground up in helicopters, or just splattered on the pavement after the air from the chopper would shoot you downward at an unmanageable speed. And then as soon as a couple people died that way, it became a thing, and a week didn’t go by when you didn’t hear about a high school kid being scraped off the concrete after trying to show off to his friends.

Distance and speed were the biggest things we had to get used to. The fact is, people are not birds – we’re way bigger, so we move slower and can’t go as far without touching down. Some guy tried to fly all the way over the Pacific Ocean in one shot, but he was going so slow that it took more than a week, and he hadn’t brought any food, so he just passed out and drowned. That was sad.

I didn’t ever really mind the speed. Sure, it was slow, but you didn’t have to deal with traffic or the things that got in your way on the ground, so it was twice as fast in addition to being totally fun. Studies have yet to be done as to whether or not flapping your arms helps – I think it does – but overall speeds are definitely much slower than most people would like. It’s expected that soon technology will catch up to nature and we’ll have machines that can help us fly even faster, and with less mental concentration. I’m sure they’ll be expensive at first. I go for more of a “frog kick” motion rather than a standard bird-flap. I’ve seen people who just keep their arms at their sides and point their heads forward, some of them wearing skin-tight suits and helmets, so they look like bullets shooting through the air. I’m not sure how they do it; I’m not that good.

Once we got used to it, everyone started to get more work done – our office, at least. You get up and fly to work, then since you can get back and forth quicker, you leave a little bit later to get home at the same time you used to. We started doing all our deliveries through Hermes, since they come right up to the window and pass the gas savings on to us, and we were able to get rid of half the shipping department. Hell, even inside the office you’d see guys doing barrel rolls down the hall just to hand something to someone quicker. It was more like a game: see how much we could get done when we were all zooming, showing off our skills.

A lot of things about appearance changed, especially for women. For starters, no more skirts; I learned that one the hard way when my garbage man thanked me for the show I’d given him, then pointed a bit too closely when I’d asked him what he was talking about. The clothes had to be wind resistant, because the wind could get really annoying when you had on something frilly or a jacket that didn’t button securely. And shoes weren’t the big loss that you’d think; I got myself a single pair of black slip-ons that at first I couldn’t look at without thinking of ballet, but then eventually I forgot about my height and didn’t care at all what was on my feet. It was just like everything else at work – it was cool because we weren’t just flying to get somewhere, we were becoming something new, staying at the forefront of technology, because the technology was us. No matter what we did, it felt exciting because we made it that way. Flying was everything – we were advancing the human spirit and standing on the edge, the dawn, of a new age – and we were having a blast.

Sometimes it would be disappointing when you’d realize that certain things were crap now and couldn’t be done anymore. They tried to have the X-games downtown like normal, but it was really boring because every athlete in the skateboarding half-pipe kept doing 4800-degree spins, and most people had moved on to finding new extremes. A bunch of daredevils killed themselves by fashioning steel wings to help them glide faster, and of course the wings just ended up weighing them down and they all plummeted like rocks, just like kids we’d known who’d jumped off the roof to be like Superman.

Flying kites was a big thing: it was way more fun because you could kind of let yourself go and have the kite whip you around a bit, though it was always really annoying whenever I’d be trying to get somewhere and some idiot would smack me with his kite.

People still needed planes to go long distances, but sales of cars took a nosedive; they ended up having to close a lot of the factories, even after the whole Cars for Cross-Country campaign last summer. Everything touristy had trouble until they were able to adjust. The hot-air-balloon ride industry went belly-up, as did the helicopter tour industry. And as for things like amusement parks and outdoor concerts, they were still fun, but I always felt like such a sucker shelling out fifty bucks for an orange wristband when my friends just flew in the top and got entertained for free. I’ve always been too chicken to break the rules.

This guy in our office, Dave, nearly died when he ran smack into a whooping crane on his way back from visiting his mother. He was in the hospital for a month, and then he almost went to jail because they’re endangered. You saw a lot of cases like that, with people running into birds or hurting themselves trying to ride them, which I thought was pretty cruel. It was strange: I would have thought that the ability to fly would make me love birds more, like kindred spirits, but they pissed me off just like everybody else. I didn’t even care that much when people started hunting them with wire like they were fish, though I was one of the first people to sign that petition to outlaw shooting at them; what kind of idiot fires a gun in mid-air with people all around? Again, though, they were simply casualties of changing times; there’s always going to be trouble when progress happens.

Doctors started reporting a new psychological condition known as “Icarus Syndrome,” where the troubled individual becomes so enamored with flying that he’ll head upward and not be able to stop, rising and rising until the air gets so thin that he passes out and tumbles back to earth. They showed the footage of this one Icarus sufferer on the news one night when I’d stayed home to relax; she’d fallen something like ten thousand feet while unconscious, and then when she hit she splattered like a water balloon. I’m glad nothing like that ever happened to anyone I know.

The only explanation that scientists have been able to offer thus far is that changes in the atmosphere, coupled with variations in something called the “Heliopause,” were somehow affecting gravity at the molecular level; they warned against any further actions that might affect the environment out of fear that it could incite more drastic changes. This message was mostly ignored, since the majority of people kind of saw the gift of flight as us winning the war with the environment.

Politicians had their own explanations, of course. The majority of them agreed that flight was a gift from God, and even drafted up a Congressional resolution thanking him for it. Our state senator made an announcement that he and his family were going to choose not to fly because they saw it as giving into temptation and yet another sign of the deterioration of our culture. I wondered what the Amish thought about it, but I never checked. It seemed that half the religious people I saw were harassing flyers-by to praise this great blessing, and the other half spent their time on the ground painting signs on hills about the coming Rapture. My mother said that she thought it had to do with all the unhealthy food because no one ate meals as a family anymore.

Mom also lectured me for a while about how I shouldn’t fly alone, because “You never know where terrorists could be now that they can go all over the place.” I tried to tell her that terrorists don’t care if you’re alone, but she’s getting older and it’s best to let her have her way. I don’t think the government will go through with the idea of building a sky barrier for protection, but I suppose anything’s possible. We could end up living in a snow globe in a few months.

The first Sky-Donald’s opened up just north of downtown by the old basketball arena, since they wanted to take advantage of the rush hour traffic. It was a huge event because of how expensive the construction had been. It took four months to build, and everybody thought it was the coolest thing, that giant tall building resting atop those cylindrical steel supports, just like in The Jetsons. I wasn’t able to check out the grand opening because I’d had big plans that day.

A bunch of friends and I had all agreed to take a Friday off and go somewhere fun. We chose the tallest mountain in the state, even though it took all morning just to fly there. We’d all been so caught up in everything that I hadn’t seen a bunch of them in a while. Mickey was starting to grow his hair out, and he’d gotten a new job at a company that designed flight safety equipment; it was the first I’d heard about it.

At first, everything looked the way it did from the chairlift – the trees seemed like a field of grass, like if you let yourself fall down they’d catch you comfortably. Then as we got closer to the top, it got chilly, and it was harder to breathe in the high altitude. I set down a little below the peak and walked the rest of the way up because I was feeling light-headed – I didn’t use the path, though; I just walked straight around it like a fly on the end of a baseball bat. We all sat at the top and had lunch – I know we could’ve gone there at any time before and hiked up, but it still seemed special, like we were the only ones who could do this. We had a little picnic lunch, the six of us, and relaxed on the blanket for an hour or so, just looking out at the scenery, closer than before, conquerable.

“Do you ever think maybe you want to change your life somehow, now that we can fly?” Mick asked me, quietly, so I’d know the question wasn’t meant for the whole group.

“You mean more of a change than being able to fly?” I replied.

“Yeah,” he said, and chuckled. “Like, it’s got to give you a sign for something more, doesn’t it? I mean, I don’t know if it means to everyone else what it means to me, but this is a chance. Like…” He trailed off and shook his head. I patted him on the knee.

It rained on the way back from the mountain; it was the first time I’d been out of the city and in mid-air during a rain shower. It was beautiful to watch how the droplets dampened the earth, soaking in and joining it little by little. Rain was a big problem in the city: people would be unable to see and run into things – buildings and each other – and then sometimes in a heavy storm old people would get weighed down and fall to their deaths. Someone on the City Council suggested nets for safety, but then no one could agree on what height they should be, since who wants their apartment window stuck under a city net? I’m glad I don’t live up north where they have to deal with all that snow in the winter; it must be terrifying. There was a hailstorm in Oklahoma City last year that killed almost a hundred people. I don’t know what they’re going to do to protect people from stuff like that.

There were lots of ways that laws had to be adjusted, and it took a long time to figure out what kind of regulations there should be. Do we need speed limits? Should there be a cage around the penitentiary? Of course the child safety debate is the worst; I doubt that thing will ever get resolved. One of the major new laws was that we can’t fly drunk anymore; I get that one, since there were so many accidents. They’re also looking into laws preventing the elderly and small children from flying, not just because they’re dangerous, but also because the roads should be for people who know what they’re doing. The first time I saw cops in the air I nearly smacked right into a flock of birds. They don’t just fly on their own; they ride these little surfboards with big handles sticking out, so it looks like they’re standing on giant scooters. How can you take that seriously?

Then, along with the regulations, every company in sight started getting into the act: billboards higher and higher in the air, minimum-wage workers holding signs up in the sky for hours at a time, messages buzzed into lawns – and that was just the advertising.

The corporate expansion was ridiculous, but it was all inevitable. Up was where the business was headed, so that’s where they wanted to be. They built mini-marts and grocery stores that looked just like the kind on the ground, but these rested on huge mid-air platforms like giant coffee tables. More and more skyscrapers started going up every day downtown, and then the big thing seemed to be top-and-bottom exits at every fast-food joint. It was hectic at first because there was no zoning – everyone just built as high as they wanted, straight up from their ground properties – and the government was too busy figuring out how to deal with other countries to care about property laws. After a while there were stores everywhere, like the whole world had just shot up in the air, or like downtown was a giant mall with the escalators removed. You couldn’t see out of town from my building anymore.

The products were the worst. They came out with this machine for people who wanted to take their pets for a walk or fly or whatever – it was like a bubble you could set your dog in, and then he’d walk on what was essentially a treadmill with wings, and you’d pull him around; they got in the way constantly, especially around the suburbs. There were also all sorts of new flying outfits, streamers and that sort of thing, but I never really kept up with it because I was so busy at work after I got promoted.

The sports have at least been cool – not just high-altitude racing, but other stuff too. They had the first annual Cloud City Triathlon a month ago, and I caught a bit of it on TV. All the racers had to keep their balance while standing on top of really small old biplanes as they whipped through the clouds, followed by a ten-mile flight around the city. Then they had to crisscross through downtown, jumping from roof to roof before ending up at the Lincoln building, where they ran straight down the side toward the ground and there was a big inflatable mat to stop them once they broke through the tape at the second floor. I was just amazed at how they’d come up with all that.

They finally got traffic regulated, which did reduce accidents, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. You get ticketed for flying more than four across in a lane, and they’re super strict about vertical distance rules. I had to start getting up at six-thirty every morning because of how slow it was during rush hour and because my route now takes me around the new convention center rather than over it since that area’s an East-West only.

A while ago I kinda felt like I was over it; I mean, there’s only so long you can stay excited about something, especially when everyone won’t stop talking about it. Brett’s still always got that little radio on in his office, and if I have to hear one more person request “Learn to Fly” or “Fly Like an Eagle” or that stupid Peter Pan song I’m going to huck that thing out the window. It’s been a year; it’s not funny anymore. I even found myself resenting flying – I couldn’t even step out my own window without running into jerks zooming around all over the place, and the crowds just got to be too much. It seemed like there was no empty space anymore, since everywhere you turned something huge was being built and taking up half the sky. Every now and then, while at a traffic stop, I’d look down and see the empty old roadways, not a single car on them, and I’d sort of miss the days of not having to be self-conscious in the privacy of my car.

The other day while I was getting coffee, I ran into Mick and his new girlfriend. I almost felt embarrassed to see him. They’re apparently working with some group that wants to tear down all the unnecessary old buildings out in the country to preserve the natural groundview. He was really excited to tell me about it, but we didn’t have much time to chat. I thought she seemed a bit thin for him. Seeing him reminded me of us looking out over the countryside from way up above, before there was crap all over the sky. I felt a little sad.

This past week has been a rough one at work; I was there until nine every night, including Friday. Sometimes I feel like I’m chained to that desk, and on the fourteenth floor all the noise from outside can be really distracting. On Thursday I just went ahead and passed out at my desk during lunch with my head on my arms; I dreamt about trees, specifically their trunks and how I used to jump up and down on the exposed roots when I was a kid. Each night when I got home, as I undressed and finally had a moment when no one was watching, it occurred to me how exhausting it is to have people see you all the time. I just felt like being by myself. So this morning I got up, dug a comfortable pair of shoes out of the closet, took the empty elevator down to the unoccupied lobby, strolled out onto the sidewalk, and went for a leisurely walk in the park. It was lovely.

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Gregg Maxwell Parker is a writer, comedian, and beloved public figure from Lincoln, Nebraska. A graduate of the University of Southern California, his writing has appeared in Blue Mesa Review and the Broadkill review. He lives in Los Angeles, where he writes movies found in bargain bins around the world.

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