Saad fixes televisions. His 12-year-old hands know how to use a screwdriver. In the kitchen, he pours himself apple juice.
A gun battle erupts on the screen when he turns it on, but there are noises in the hallway too.
“Filot! Filot!” screams Saad’s father, running outside. Voices rise, and doors slam. Saad cannot go beyond the apartment, for there are men in the hallways who would not like him to. He cannot find his father now. He turns to the TV. In a flash, it burns itself out. A stink of electricity and melted plastic puffs from behind the screen, rising to the ceiling.
Saad listens to the building. The men in the hallway have moved on.
At the balcony, he swings a telescope over the city. The crack in the lens makes two cities: one is far away and blurred, the other is at the end of his nose and wet with rain. He swings around until he is looking at the building next to his. It took mathematics and drawings to tell him that Nisha’s apartment must be number 506. She is on her balcony, climbing the boxes of beer bottles, peering over the edge of the railing. Her hair is gold, as bright as Saad’s is thick black.
Nisha is bent over the railing, her legs in the air. Saad can hear her singing. It is the only time, he thinks, that she sings. There are birds flying over her as she tips and tips and tips, until her forehead touches the outer face of the balcony. Then the balcony door opens and a woman grabs Nisha by the dress and hauls her back. Nisha takes the blows; she is on the ground. The woman has a needle. She puts it into her own arm and squeezes, but she spares a little for Nisha. A little body lies on the balcony, shaking.
It is night. Saad is taking apart the television. His father has returned. His father is in the bedroom with someone.
A hammer wrapped in a towel shatters the glass. He pulls out the cables inside. The radio is playing. Saad uses his mother’s sewing machine to connect the canvas of an old tent to the bamboo she once used to grow tomatoes on the balcony. He attaches flashing lights from the TV’s diodes to the tips. He stands in the mirror and stares.
A man comes out of his father’s bedroom and sees him. “You high on something, boy? No? Want something then? Today, it’s on the house. It’s on me boy.” He grins. There are more gaps in his mouth than teeth. “I owe your dad. Oh yes I do.” Saad stares at the mirror.
“You high,” says the man at the door. “Straight up family, this.”
Later, Saad’s father comes out. Saad has hidden his invention on the balcony, where his father never goes – it is the one place where Saad’s mother always went. He sees the boy on the couch, staring at a shattered television. He vomits in the sink. Opens a beer. Goes back to the bedroom.
In Saad’s dreams, he is walking in the hallways to the elevator. He is going downstairs, tucking in his shirt, and joins up with other children for the trip to school. They are wearing uniforms. They are eating apples. They are surrounded by trees and carnivals, and there is music coming from speakers attached to every building they pass, stuck on the roof of every car and bus that flows along the roads.
The pan crackles with an egg swimming in butter. Saad eats as the radio tells him about the weather. He writes a note and puts it on the handle to the front door. He cooks a second egg and leaves it on the stove.
The telescope shows two cities: one is dirty and cracked to pieces, the other has grown from the soil of a second planet, one Saad has drawn. Mathematics tell him that he cannot go there easily. He tests the wind with an old envelope, tears it into pieces and watches them spill over the balcony and into the gulf. He stands on a chair and puts a foot on the balcony railing. He spreads his wings.
Nisha is outside. She is playing on the boxes of empties. She is wearing the same dress as yesterday.
Saad sees the street. He has been told never to look down, but this is different. This is a tale of two cities, one that rests below him on the cracked asphalt and the other that swims by on the clouds above. He can hear his father awakening. He can hear people in the hallway.
Saad puts his other foot on the railing and steps off. The air is warm. He is moving fast, and his breath is gone at the beauty of the two cities that flicker before his eyes as he falls. He flexes his arms to bring his wings in check, to stop the spin that is starting. He catches the wind. The harness of leather belts and corded dish towels buckles as he begins to turn, to turn. Someone is screaming.
Apartment 506 is in front of him. Nisha is playing with a bottle, toying with the idea of throwing it over the edge. She sees him and waves.
Saad is moving faster than he wanted to. Mathematics run through his head, calculations that form the basis of flight and expose every possible thing that could go wrong with the trip; numbers are before his eyes as approaches the balcony and pulls hard on the nylon rope in his hands. The wings rotate through their allowed radius, and Saad feels the force of the wind in his arms, the friction that competes for him against gravity. He slows down, but his feet graze the railing of Nisha’s balcony, and he twists in the air as Nisha sings.
The balcony door is open. Saad rolls inside. A woman is screaming. She is tall and curly-haired, and there is something in her teeth. “Arun!” she cries, running into the hallway. “Arun, get over here!” She is still screaming as Saad lifts himself up and walks to the balcony.
“Who are you? A birdman?” asks Nisha.
“Saad. From that building. Apartment 1318.”
“This is apartment 509. I’m four.”
“I know. Do you want to fly, Nisha?”
“That’s not my name. Never tried before. Is it hard?”
“No. Come over here. Put this strap around you and that one underneath you.”
“It isn’t very comfortable. You better hurry. Arun is mean. He’s next door.”
“Sorry. Yes, we will hurry.” The door flies open and a man runs towards them. He is filthy and his shirt is in tatters.
“Are you ready?”
“Don’t be scared of it. It’s just wind.” Saad steps onto the boxes of empties; the bottles shudder under his feet. He steps onto the railing and tests the weight as Nisha draws a breath. She is lighter than he expected, and moving so much that his balance is not good. Saad jumps anyway, and once again he is hurtling through the air.
Nisha is screaming, but in Saad’s ears it is singing. Within the shadow of the apartment building, they swing freely over the road below them. Saad turns to follow the traffic. All is well, he thinks. The city is below him, and it is above him also. The leather belts creak as he picks up speed, and Saad knows that he cannot stay afloat forever, but he has planned for that too. They clear the buildings and are over an intersection. A wind buffets them from the perpendicular road, and Saad has to turn. The wings strain against his arms, as he tells Nisha that he will find her a good place to land. He turns. He turns and turns and turns, until he can see two cities before him, one glowing and pink and filled with a singing girl’s voice, the other impossibly close, so close that he can taste its rain and smell the first peal of lightning that has just been born inside it.
This was five years ago… how time flies. Back then, I didn’t take myself seriously. I still don’t, but there’s an element of drive now that I can’t pack away, no matter how big the box. Or the moving van. I submitted out of curiosity and actually won $1,000 for this entry in the CBC Short Story competition. The story has since vanished from the internet, so I thought I’d put it back up. Someone actually did a reading of this story, which I quite like, so if you don’t want to read, have an 8-minute listen.
I know I can write. Many of you nice people tell me that, and it’s stuck in my head. But it’s also about being accessible. About finding your audience and convincing them of your stories. And it’s about taking your work to a different level, and working hard. There’s no telling where this journey will lead. But like the main character in Saad Steps Out, even if the destination is uncertain, the journey can take you very far indeed.