I was there when it first happened. The first time he ever did it, I mean. The first time he saved someone.
The media were all over it the next day, of course. With that many smartphones in the city, there were no shortage of eyewitnesses who caught him on the move. A million hits on YouTube in the first hour.
The footage is all the same in essence: Shaky, blurry movement as the camera pans up and up the side of an apparently endless skyscraper. Then it steadies, and the eye can focus on the shape falling. A second later, and it becomes clear the shape has arms and legs and long hair streaming behind her, arms and legs that are flailing at nothing, trying to grab air as though it will save her, her mouth a black hole and her eyes wide. On the good phones, the sound of her scream follows her down like a merciless harpy. Then an updraft smashes her into the unbreakable glass of the building, and the screaming stops. The arms and legs become limp, the left arm twisted to an unnatural angle. At least she won’t feel the ground when she smashes into it at a hundred miles an hour is your cruel and merciful thought as you watch, powerless.
Then the impossible: The grey blur rising from the bottom of the screen, nothing more than a smudge. But it slows as it nears her, and it becomes obvious that this blur also has arms and legs, ones that are under a lot more control. And then the blur slows and slows, and it snatches her from the air as easily as I would catch an apple falling from a tree.
From below, the screams turn to disbelief, disbelief turns to laughter and finally become relief as he reaches the ground and lays her on the cold cement that should have killed her. Then he is gone, rising and rising into the evening sky, breaking every law of physics that humanity has ever known, and everything we knew about the universe changed with him. Everything we thought we knew was blown away. Even something as simple as gravity couldn’t be trusted anymore.
We knew a man could fly.
There were the usual cries of fake and hoax, as everyone expected. Then he saved that oil tanker, and then there was no doubt who he was and what he stood for. Not after something that big.
Comic books – or graphic novels, if you wish – would have painted him in bright reds and blues. We all knew what to expect from our superheroes after all, even if they didn’t actually exist before he appeared.
He wasn’t anything like they would have you believe though; no cape, for a start. And he managed to wear his underwear under his clothes. At least, I imagine he did; I don’t believe any reporter he’s ever spoken to has ever asked.
I know something about him though, something no one else knows. I watched the first steps he took. I saw the look on his face when he saw that woman falling to her death. I saw what it took, that first time.
I was checking the stock on the deal I’d just signed in a boardroom forty stories above me, my head down when I came out of my office. So I didn’t really pay attention when someone pushed me back out of his way. Not until I looked up into his eyes.
He wasn’t even looking at me, but at the building across the street, his eyes raised and calculating. The brightest shade of blue I have ever seen, like a Caribbean sea in the mid-day sun. As I said, no bright blues and reds here, no capes or symbols across his chest. Simple grey boots and a tight grey outfit. The spandex was the only part that looked right. Nothing that made him stand out in a crowd or blend in. Apart from his eyes, so intense and focused.
It was one of those odd empty gaps in the city crowds, and of course, by now everyone was watching the woman drop from across the street. So I was the only one who saw him, the only one who saw what happened next, the next few seconds that decided whether that falling woman lived or died.
He stared at his feet and the ground between them as though willing something to happen, taking in a breath and clenching his fists until the knuckles were white. His jaw clenched and shook and the muscles in his arms and shoulders jumped and danced; there was no doubt that what he was doing required his every ounce of strength. He inhaled once more and his eyes closed. And there was no doubt, at least to me, that he had never done this before.
Then it happened, something I had never seen before, something that no one on the planet had: The man I was staring at rose an inch from the ground, then an inch more, wobbling as he did. He spread his fingers as though to steady himself on invisible supports.
Then he smiled, and his face was transformed. His eyes opened and his arms spread wider. Only now seeing me, he winked once in my direction, then was gone across the street.
Everything changed for the world that day. But it changed for me as well. I watched someone try something they had never done before and succeed. And the result was a difference between life and death for us all.
It took a long time – years – for me to track him down, and took even longer for him to teach me what he did that day. But he was patient with me, and tonight I’m ready to fly. To claim my place beside him.
He’s going to push a man out of a window across the street from me in five minutes, as his predecessor did for him. A rite of passage for me, and my first flight.