John was busy again that day. He told himself that surely things wouldn’t get worse, but he was wrong. Another day meant another dollar, and as the dollars ran dry, so too did the days. What started as a boring yet necessary office job soon became a painful chore, and then an inescapable dead-end. He was stuck in the back corner of his firm. No one came to talk to him unless they had something that needed doing. There were no friends to converse with around the water cooler. There was no wife waiting for him when he got home, just more work. And the tap that supplied work never seemed to parch. There was always work to be done, deals to manage, papers to sort, and every time John accomplished something, another two tasks seemed to sprout, piling up and accumulating until they became an unconquerable obstacle.
John was suffocating. He felt empty, like something was missing. Nothing had a point; life was just endless work and toil. The merrier times of youth lay smothered beneath a thick fog of reality and loneliness. He wanted to dig his way out—wanted to escape—but he could not think how. He had no more avenues to explore; he had no special someone to fall back on. He felt alone. He felt helpless. And he was alone. He was helpless.
But on this day, this relentlessly busy Tuesday, an idea finally came to him. He knew of one ever-present escape plan—something he could always fall back on. The idea frightened him at first, but after dwelling on it as he shifted through mounds of papers, the fear and uncertainty that accompanied it lost their sting, becoming duller and less recognizable with each passing second. He eventually found himself accepting of the fact, and so it stuck with him as he continued working. But for some reason, the minutes seemed to drag longer than usual. In the back of his mind, he knew what was waiting for him; and so he both feared and encouraged the steady procession of the clock’s second hand. It was marching him along to his prison of freedom.
The office was always busy, even during the evening, and his cubicle sat the furthest away from the bustle. Surely no one would notice if he… stepped out for a bit. He continued to work as though he did not know what was on the horizon; he toiled as though it was any other day. But in the safe confines of his own mind, he anxiously awaited the upcoming hour. He knew what the sun looked like, and despite what he had always been told, he planned on staring it in the face.
The closer it came to changing shifts, the slower time seemed to pass. John, although firm on his mindset, still had irritating flies buzzing through his brain. What would his family think? John mulled over the worry, but soon reached a verdict. At that moment, he simply didn’t care. Who would take his place in this lifeless cubicle? Another poor sod, one which he neither knew nor concerned himself with. Where would he go after closing his eyes for the last time?
He remained silent in his brooding, and kept the typical appearance of boredom and busyness. On the inside, however, he was withering away.
Tick. He wasn’t going to leave a note. Tock. That was the way to go. Tick. Just as he came. Tock. A nobody. Tick. Nobody would miss him. Tock. There wasn’t a point. Tick. He shouldn’t be scared. Tock. He needed to do this. Tick. He was already dead inside. Tock. At the top of the sky rise. Tick. Looking down. Tock. The people would look like ants. Tick. Would they care? Tock. No. Tick. He would just need to take another step. Tock. Close his eyes. Tick. And leap.
Tock. It was five o’clock.
Relieved and anxious rustling filled the nearby cubicles as his coworkers hastily prepared to leave and make room for the upcoming shift. Others began to pour in, taking the place of those now ready to depart. John was scheduled to work late that night; this was his chance. He got to his feet and shuffled out of his cubicle. The sound of idle chat that echoed across the entire floor became muffled to him, his moving coworkers a blur. He continued to put one foot in front of the other, making his way across the department, finally coming to the back stairwell. Nobody paid him any heed when he opened the door and slipped inside, or at least they pretended not to. Perhaps he simply did not wish to wait for the elevator.
John walked up eleven flights of stairs in complete silence. The back staircase was eerily chilled with steps of an inelegant concrete. He climbed all the way to the top, stopping when he came to the looming metal door emblazoned with the words “Roof Access”. Drawing steady breath, he pushed it open.
The building’s roof was barren and bland, the ground covered with gritty pebbles. John shook violently at the ridged bite of the wind. It seemed so much colder up here with no buildings to protect oneself from the wind. It was a bitter way to spend one’s last minutes, but John figured he didn’t deserve better anyway. The edges of the rooftop were lined with a short railing, but nothing too difficult to step over.
John strode out into the cold, closing the door behind him. The grainy ground emitted a loud crunch with every footstep, and each of his shaky breaths came with a puff of silvery smoke. He slowly began to make his way to the other end of the rooftop, but midway there, he stopped in his tracks. He could feel something drilling into him, a sensation that sent shivers down his spine. It was a sense that was hard to describe, but easy to determine. Someone was watching him.
He turned slightly, his eyes darting in search of his uninvited spectator. Soon he found the source of his discomfort.
Sitting slouched against one of the guard rails was a young boy, no older than ten. He had slightly messy brown hair and soft but curious eyes. At his side was a sizable ream of paper, held in safety from the wind by a hefty looking stone. Even so, the sheets still skittered and danced in the breeze where they sat. John stood speechless as he took in what he saw, his eyes eventually meeting the labor of the boy’s hands. Within the scrawny yet delicate fingers rested a neatly-folded paper craft—a humble airplane. Each crease was made with care; its proportions perfected and design as flawless as possible from that of a child. It was like a snow-white bird, one prepared to stretch its wings and take flight.
As John stared at the creation in fascination, the boy’s unwavering eyes regarded the new arrival. Both of them stood with their mouths parted slightly, faces laced with confusion and fascination.
After several seconds of silence, John found his voice and began to address the child. “What are you doing up here? This is no place for a kid.”
The boy stared back calmly and answered, his voice resolute. “Well, what are you doing up here?”
John opened his mouth as if to respond, but soon thought better of it and shut his mouth once more. He hadn’t expected this—hadn’t foreseen or planned for it. There was no way he could continue with his plan as a child watched on. His stomach began to turn and curl, as if he was fighting with himself. Why was this child here? There were rarely any children in the office, let alone on the roof, and it certainly wasn’t bring-your-kid-to-work day.
“You should go; it’s not safe up here,” John spoke, trying to muster as much adult commanding into his voice as was possible for him.
The boy shook his head, his eyes breaking away to stare out across the sky line.
“I don’t wanna,” he stated defiantly. “I was here first.”
John became slightly flustered, shoving his hands into his pockets and peering at the boy with narrow eyes.
“What’s your name, kid?” John inquired.
“Peter,” the boy stated simply, returning to his work. With nimble fingers, he added the last crease to his recent creation.
“Okay then, Peter, what exactly are you doing up here?” John asked again, watching as the boy continued.
“Making paper airplanes,” Peter explained.
John gave an inaudible sigh at the response. He had meant to ask what business the boy had on the rooftop; he wasn’t searching for the obvious. John decided to try a different approach.
“Do your parents know you’re up here? What department do they work in?”
The boy fell silent, turning around to face the vast citrus-violet sky above the city. Leaning over the railing, he swung his arm, releasing the white airplane into the picturesquely bright sherbet clouds of the cityscape. John watched on breathlessly as the bird-like object danced and fluttered off into the distance, celebrating its newfound freedom. As he watched, John couldn’t help but feel an inexplicable jealousy. The plane was so elegant, so free. The bitter winter breeze filled its wings and carried it on its way, rather than crumpling its progress and sending it spinning to the lifeless streets below.
Peter slid back down to the roof with a soft thump. “No. And they don’t work here,” he finally answered the two questions respectively.
John was snapped back to earth, now more confused than ever. Every aspect of the boy was mysterious and unnatural.
“Then how did you get in this building? This is private property,” John stated in a disconcerted tone.
The boy did not answer, but instead reached for another piece of paper, pulling it out from beneath the make-shift weight. Diligently he returned to his practice, changing the topic of conversation with an abrupt statement.
“This is the best place to watch them fly, y’know.”
Peter’s attention subtly changed from the piece of paper to John, his hands continuing to fold and crease on their own accord.
John couldn’t speak, merely watch as the boy resumed his practice. Soon, another masterfully-created paper airplane sat in his fingers, slightly different from the last. It looked almost like a whirly-bird, with long paper strands weaving paths above the body.
“This one likes to dance,” Peter spoke again, assessing his design with mild pride. He repeated the process from before, getting to his feet and tossing the creation from the rooftop. The moment it left his hand, there was a strong gust of wind, and the paper rode high into the sky, stopping when it eclipsed the sun. John continued to watch in amazement as it twirled and skipped, dancing an elegant ballet against the dimming twilight. Its performance remained unhindered as it began to spiral and loop through the air with a mind of its own. And then it fell. Caught on another draft, it set its course back to the soft gravel of the rooftop. Peter followed its journey with his gaze, smiling as it softly kissed the ground in front of his feet.
“It’s seems this one isn’t ready to leave just yet,” Peter explained, scooping it up gently with his open palm. He held it closer, inspecting each of its features with admiration. Peter looked up to address the man before him once more, “You aren’t ready either, are you?”
John stood in complete silence, his face blank as he tried to read the boy. “W-what are you talking about? I can get back to work whenever I feel like it,” John stuttered, pointing back at the stairwell he had ascended. Peter gave a soft chuckle at this.
“Not leaving the roof, stupid,” he clarified. John fell ice cold, staring motionlessly into the boy’s eyes with a mix of fear and amazement. The boy got to his feet and brushed the loose grit from his pants, keeping the paper craft in the safety of his relaxed fingers.
The next thing John knew, he felt something crisp enter his hands. Peter took the grown man’s hand and placed the whirly-bird in the now out-stretched palm, smiling youthfully as he did so.
It was perfect. Although a bit rough around the edges, it had been so masterfully crafted, so scrupulously designed, that it did not matter. It was beautiful nonetheless. John held it up into the light, trying to look more closely at the details of its creation. He had never seen anything quite like it before. Nothing he had made during his days in school could even come close in comparison. It was special; it was unique.
“W-who are you?” John asked, his hands trembling slightly, whether from shock or the sheer cold of the rooftop. There was no reply.
John looked up from the spectacle to find that he was completely alone. The rooftop was quiet and desolate. All that remained of the boy was the small stack of papers and the creation in John’s possession. With another gust, the papers flew free of their confines, taking to the air like a flock of birds. And just like that, they were gone as well, scattering in the wind, leaving only the one remnant of the boy.
John stepped to the edge of the rooftop for a better view, watching in awe as his mind continued to race. He couldn’t think straight, couldn’t explain what was happening. But then, remembering what he had come to the rooftop to do with an audible gulp of air, John leaned over the railing to stare at the busy streets far below. It was nauseating, and he felt dizzy simply looking at the small dots that scattered about below. His palms turned sweaty, and he began to clench them to stop from trembling. The sensation of paper against his skin brought his focus back to the small airplane in his hand. He stared at the creation, then at the street, and back and forth.
John’s world stopped spinning for a split second, and everything suddenly made sense. Peter’s airplane crumpled as John clenched his fist; and just like that, he began to cry. The tears slid across his cheeks and speckled the concrete rail on which John’s hands rested. In a burst of anger and confusion, John flung the wad fiercely off the building, watching as it plummeted without so much as a bow to the cars below. He turned, slid to the gravel, and sobbed into his knees. He had no idea what he was thinking. Nothing made sense anymore.
John was busy again that day, but he told himself that things surely wouldn’t get worse. He hoped he was right. When he returned from the rooftop, after calming himself and relaxing his unsteady breathing, he sat down in the chair of his cubicle and returned to work. It was hard work, and it was boring work, but it was his work. As he went about the rest of his day, his mind could not wander from what had occurred on that rooftop. He still had questions; he still didn’t understand what was going on.
Every once in a while, John found himself grabbing a sheet of paper from his to-do basket and folding it into a crude airplane. With each one, he grumbled to himself, crumpled it into a ball, and tossed it into the nearby waste basket. At one point, this earned him a disgruntled warning cough from his department manager, after which he promptly flattened the sheet and continued filing, signing, and categorizing with a sudden ‘inexplicable’ burst of motivation.
As John sorted his belongings back into place at the end of his work day, the events from earlier continued to loom over his mind. The thought absorbed him as he packed up his things and left the building. It remained present as he got in his car and drove home, bringing his face to his palms at each stoplight. It continued to swim about his brain as he left his car, approached his apartment complex, and climbed the steps. Waiting at the top was a sight which made him stop in his tracks, eyes wide in disbelief.
Sitting atop the welcome mat of his front door was what appeared to be a snow-white bird, one prepared to stretch its wings and take flight.
There, resting on his porch, was a neatly-folded paper airplane.