Searing sweat etches pockmarks into the stairs as if it were acid, burning my eyes on its way down. The relentless climbing is good for my lungs, heart, bones, immune system, and a hundred other bodily functions I can't name, but there are a thousand other things I'd rather do than suffer the monotony of step, step, step. I climb head down because if I look up, I'll see the floor numbers, and then the discontinuity of where I hope I am, just a few fights from the top, and where I actually am, not even a quarter of the way to the roof, will detonate shock waves of despair through me.
I’m not here by choice. My wife's words whip my slothful soul. “Keep it up, Liam. You’ll lose that belly in no time.” I asked for a kiss before the stairs, but instead, she slipped a dayglo carrot between my lips. “Eat the carrot now for vitamins, and the kiss will be yours when you return.”
If I just sit and pretend I’ve climbed all fifty-nine flights, will she know? Yeah, she’ll know.
The steps and walls are beige, and the handrail is brown. There's a black sneaker smudge on the thirteenth stair between the nineteen and twentieth floors. I try not to see it because then I'll know I have dozens of flights left to scale. Each landing has a motion-sensor light, though sometimes I don't activate it. I used to think that was because I wasn't moving fast enough, but I’ve come to realize that the light doesn't turn on because the stairs are as bored with me as I am with them.
Up and up I go, lungs and heart teetering on the precipice of extinction, like being on a cliff edge where the slightest breeze catapults you to your doom, the staircase air compressing, heating, encasing me in a container of fever. Hot air rises, and I'm rising, too.
I hear an explosion from below. The sound shakes the stairs, bends the handrail as if it were made of Silly Putty, and stings my ears. A fierce, hot gust slaps my back, spins me, and lifts me up. I take flight.
I extend my arms forward like Superman. After a few seconds of flying this way, I stretch out my arms and flap like a bird, which seems more natural. I press my fingers together and keep my hands flat because that makes aeronautical sense. The motion is effortless. This is what weightlessness feels like. Two silver and blue manta rays with piercing turquoise eyes fly on either side of me, escorting me as I ascend. Past 20, 25, 40, to the 59th floor, the last floor, where I draw my knees into my chest, hold my breath, spill backward like a gymnast, a flawless summersault, and land silently on my feet on the building's final step. The mantas continue their upward flight. The wind blasts the stairway door open. As they exit the roof, the mantas tilt to the left, curl their wingtips, and wave goodbye.
The first thing I do when I get home is to check the weather for anomalies. I note the temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, wind direction and speed, dew point, and sunrise and sunset times. I check the moon's phase, and to my surprise, it's just a sliver of a crescent, still weeks away from the omnipotent full moon. Jupiter's ascending and Mars is in opposition to Vega. I don't know if that's relevant, but I also record it.
Delilah, my wife, emerges from the bedroom. "How were the stairs?" She scans me with the eye of a personal trainer, smiles broadly, and adds, "You're getting in shape, Liam. Do this every day, and you’ll be fit like you were when we met." Delilah touches her fingertip to my lips, making them quiver. She gives me the kiss she promised.
Neurons spark in my brain. "Earthquakes. Have there been any quakes today?"
"No, but there is a comet. You can see it from the living room. It appeared out of nowhere.”
Delilah opens the window to see the comet without having to peer through layers of dust and grime. It’s brighter than the moon and about the same size, too, though teardrop-shaped. The comet’s bow is sunrise yellow. It’s blue around the middle and red at the stern. A glittering purple tail extends from the comet the length of the horizon. Flying below and above are the manta rays, which given that the comet must be thousands of miles away, I shouldn’t be able to see. But there they are.
Blurs trace the outskirts of my peripheral vision. I turn my head, blink to clear my eyes and see hundreds of people in the sky. Some with their arms like Superman, some flapping, some with their arms pasted to their sides. Like me, they’re all wearing exercise clothes—shorts, t-shirts with brands, bands, animals, slogans or nothing at all printed on them, sweatpants with and without racing stripes, red, blue, and white sneakers, and sneakers with bling that refracts the daylight into hurried rainbows. Another thing I shouldn’t be able to see, but I can: their sweat-stained faces, wearing expressions of exhaustion and relief.
I turn to Delilah, kiss her forehead because it’s the quickest kiss I know, open the window the rest of the way, step out over the ledge, join a nearby flock of people, and soar to the comet.