Lesson 1: Breathe
“Air is a renewing gift: a cycle of drawing in strength and pushing out weakness.”
I stand on the ledge of Romalvi Tower, the highest skyscraper in Union City. I wear my father’s colors: a thick, bright teal jumpsuit with a short orange cape and a matching winged emblem across my chest. The chilly, late-March wind blasts against my face, threatening to overflow my lungs and suffocate me. I dare not breathe, even though my heart is on the verge of exploding.
Goosebumps snag against the inside of my polyester suit, sending tingles through my body. The manic wind grapples with my cape. I fight to keep my balance. I question the cape’s utility. If the elements can use it against me, future enemies could too.
Two hundred storeys above ground, the rest of the city seems flat, as if all the other buildings and parks are woven into a tapestry. The setting sun floods the clouds with fuschia and paprika. Heaven and earth play with my perception, crushing me with their vastness. Maybe this is how Doctor Dimension feels before traveling to different planes of existence.
“You have to jump, baby!” Dad hollers from behind.
“I’m scared! What if I can’t fly?” I shut my eyes and tears evaporate against my windburned cheeks.
“Don’t worry! It’s in your blood!” I hear the rapid flapping of Dad’s long cape. I wonder how he manages it.
I gaze at the street below and feel like my head is unscrewing from my neck. The violent air whips my tight curls into fuzzy knots. The cars are like bugs marching back and forth. I imagine myself falling toward them as they grow bigger and bigger.
Five fingertips brush against my spine, pressing me forward.
“No!” I tilt backward with only my butt to break my fall on the hard, tar-paved roof top.
“OW!” I roll to my side.
“I told you not to look down!” Dad scolds as he pulls me up. I struggle against him, trying to lie glued to the roof. He lets go and stands up with his arms folded. His thick, black eyebrows meet in the middle to form a disapproving V. Even when he’s sullen, he looks perfect. Silky black hair gelled back. Square jaw firm as he grinds his teeth. Broad, muscular shoulders balanced with an upright back. I try to picture myself like that someday.
“Why can’t I have a more useful power, like fire-breath?” I gripe.
“Cause then your mouth will smell like sulfur and no boys will want to kiss you.”
“Whatever,” I suck my teeth, “I don’t like them anyway.” I sit up and hug my jelly legs.
“Well, you might change your mind later.”
“Yeah, right.” I roll my eyes.
“Fine,” Dad huffs. “Well, girls don’t like the smell of sulfur either.”
“Why can’t I have TK like Mom?” I rest my head on my knees and look away from Dad.
“You’re the first-born. We don’t get to choose these things, Jing,” his voice drops, hanging a little too long on my name. Dad holds out his hand.
“I don’t want to fly.” I focus on his orange boots.
Dad groans loud enough to startle a nearby pigeon. His feet float off from the ground.
“Then you can take the stairs!” He flies off. Disbelief unhinges my jaw, leaving my bottom lip dangling.
“Wait! Daddy!” I stand up too soon and am immediately on my knees. Pins and needles prance in my legs. I can do nothing but watch my father disappear.
Lesson 2: You are your own worst enemy
“The only barrier between you and the clouds above is the one you make up in your mind.”
Seething, I run down twenty flights of stairs until I give up and opt for the elevators. Leather oxfords and heels tap and clack across the lobby’s shiny marble floor. The sounds echo against the high ceiling and make me feel like I’m inside a giant clock. Some of the suits recognize the uniform I wear and stare at me. I pretend not to see them.
I hope that Dad has changed into civilian clothes and is just lounging in the seating area, waiting for me. No such luck.
“Lesson didn’t go so well?” A low yet chipper voice flutters in my ears. I whirl around to face a security guard. He has wavy grey hair and a belly that juts out.
“Don’t worry! Your dad is the famous Talon! I’m sure he’s a great teacher.” When he grins, his deep crow's feet are like small, fanned out hands.
“Thanks,” I grunt and turn toward the exit.
“Wait!” The guard runs to the front desk and takes out a teal and orange book. “Would you mind asking your dad to sign my copy of The Flyer’s Manual?” He has big, hopeful eyes that remind me of my younger brother, Paolo.
I stride over to him, using a polite smile to mask my annoyance. I take the book in both hands.
“Thank you so much! I’m a huge fan!” The guard takes out a notepad, writes in it, and tears the paper off. “Can you ask him to make it out to Ivan Rosen?”
“Sure.” I pluck the note from his fingers and stick it inside the book. I pivot on the slippery floor and stamp to the front door.
Dad is outside. A small crowd surrounds him. He is smiling and signing autographs. He glances up and spots me. His ogling fans follow his line of sight. Some take photos of me with their phones. Others just return to gawking at him. Heat creeps up my neck and I can feel sweat form on my temples. Apologizing to the crowd, Dad excuses himself and saunters to me.
“Don’t be pissed. You deserved that.” Passersby peek at us, giggle, and whisper. I hate how smug Dad acts.
“No, I didn’t and I don’t need you!” I yell, “I’m going to take the bus!”
“Suit yourself," he shrugs, "you’ll be late for dinner.” As he floats up an invisible fart cloud descends on me.
“Dad!” I growl, “You’re so immature!” I hear him cackling as he flies away. A confused laugh escapes my lungs, defying my resentment.
Lesson 3: Stay Present
“Fear of falling is fear of the future. To overcome this, think only of your present surroundings.”
Moonlight paints my house silver and black. The kitchen lights outline my mother’s silhouette: short afro unstyled, hips wide and strong, and a graceful posture, like a dancer. Her arms are crossed and dishes fly about her head. I can tell that Mom is furious.
Walking up the gravel driveway, I think about Dad’s book, about the chapter on Marissa Tate, his old student. The one who died. The one who fell.
Just outside the front door I can hear the clattering of silverware punctuated by my parents arguing. The door is unlocked. I guess Dad at least remembered I wouldn't have keys. I really need to sew in some pockets or maybe make a utility belt.
I tiptoe through the foyer and peek into the kitchen. Mom and Dad are too buried under their feud to notice me.
“Two hundred storeys, Ren? Are you crazy?” Mom sounds shrill, a rarity. Kitchen towels are drying the dishes in mid-air. Dad is stacking the clean ones away, striving to be useful despite knowing that he’s not needed. Paolo isn’t there. He’s probably watching cartoons. I’m glad he doesn’t have to see this happening.
“She’s got to learn to control her fears,” Dad states, stern and forceful. “It’s part of training, Izzy!”
“Training?” Mom cries out in disbelief. “Is that what your father said before he pushed you off a roof? You broke both arms!”
Dad hunches over a plate, holding it down on the counter with both hands. His back and shoulders are tense, like he’s trying to restrain the plate from overpowering him.
“Don’t you dare compare me to him!” Dad bellows and slams the plate down, splitting it in half. Mom doesn’t flinch. She’s used to battling The Earth Shaker, after all. They both are.
Mom closes her eyes and takes a slow, heavy breath.
“Ren, we’re not in the arena right now.” Mom’s tone cools. All the plates and towels stop moving. They settle on the kitchen counter. Dad’s a foot taller than Mom, but they glower at each other like equals.
“You don’t jump-start a girl’s power by risking her life,” Mom continues. Dad slumps his shoulders over the broken plate.
“She has to start small,” I hear Mom go on as I creep back to the foyer.
I slam the front door. My parents become silent.
“Mom?” I call out as I re-enter. I tread on the carpet as if it’s made of glass. My parents start to whisper, but their unintelligible speech percolates with tension.
“In the kitchen, honey!” Mom’s voice turns saccharine. “You hungry? I saved you a plate.”
I stand in front of the kitchen table and stare at the cold chicken, rice, and black beans. The dulled scent of oregano tempts my tummy and a bead of drool bubbles through the corner of my mouth. I sit down and place Dad’s book next to the plate.
“The security guard at Romalvi asked if you could sign this.” I try to sound bored, hoping that it will make my parents feel more normal. They simper at me like my old, plastic dolls.
“You don’t have to pretend like everything’s OK.” I sigh, “I’m old enough to know.” Seeming to put their differences aside, they look at me with the same mixed expression of concern and defensiveness.
“I just don’t want you to feel any pressure.” Mom walks toward me, her tone cautious. “The more you stress about your powers, the longer it will take for them to develop.” She sits down in the chair to my right and puts a hand on my shoulder. She looks at Dad, who’s still by the sink, and then back at me. “At least, that’s how it was for me when I got mine.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I pause, “I’m just scared is all.” I stare at my dinner plate and rub my index finger along its cool edge. I think about chickens and how they can’t fly either.
“You know I would never let anything happen to you, right, baby?” Dad pleads without pleading. He walks over and sits in the chair to my left. He puts his hand on my other shoulder. I recoil a little, still mad at him for leaving me at the tower.
“Is that what you told Marissa Tate?” I hiss and narrows my eyes. I know mentioning Dad’s old student will hurt him, but I don’t care.
“Jing,” Dad pulls away like an injured lion. “That was not nice.” His voice softens. Eyes glistening, he blinks hard. “That happened when I was still young and inexperienced.”
“Well excuse me if I don’t want my spine getting snapped when you figure out I can’t fly and have to save me.” I shoot back. My parents act as if I’ve just stolen all the oxygen in the room.
“I’ve lost my appetite. I’m going to bed.” I push the plate back. It makes a hard, rubbing sound against the table. I stomp up the stairs while my stomach curses at me through rumbles and moans.
Lesson 4: Stay Open
“The winds are always changing. Keep your mind open and you’ll never lose balance.”
Dad is sitting by my bed when I wake up the next day. He holds Ivan Rosen’s copy of the The Flyer’s Manual in his hands.
“Dad? What’s going on?” I mumble, rub my eyes, and blink out the sand. Ruddy purple sacks hang under his eyes. He’s pale and worn out. You OK?”
“Your mom and I—” he says slowly, “—we had a long talk.” Each word feels like a cut. Dad sees my worried face and his hands start to shake. “We’re fine. Just tired,” his voice cracks, “but, well, I need to leave for a while.” Dad inhales deeply and manages to look me in the eyes. “I’m here to say goodbye.”
“Goodbye?” I whisper and stare at him. The distance between us doesn’t feel like two feet, but two miles. “Why? Is it because of what I said about Marissa Tate?” Dad winces at the name. He puts the book down on my desk.
“No, it’s more than that.” Dad stands up and reaches for my stuffed dove. He bought it the day I was born. No matter how many times he’s washed it, the plush is still yellow from years of drool. Dad smiles at the dove with sad eyes.
“Your mother and I have been having some issues for a while now and what happened last night just brought it to the surface.” Dad says mechanically.
“But…no!” I fling off my covers and grab Dad’s hands. “Don’t go!” I beg, “I’m sorry! I take it back. I know you couldn’t help it.”
“And I can’t help you either, honey.” Dad squeezes my fingers and pulls away. He puts one hand on top of my head. “Not as I am now. I need to just go away for a while.” His voice is unyielding, but heavy with remorse.
“But you’ll be back, right?” My words spill out, shuddering, “you’re coming back.” I feel a pinching in between my eyes. Tears roll out, torrential. Panic attacks my body, making my stomach shrivel. If only I hadn't lost my temper last night, maybe Dad wouldn’t be leaving now.
“I want you to know that I love you very much and this is not your fault at all.” Dad holds me.
“Please don’t go!” I wail. Dad pulls out of the hug, clasps my hands in his, and kisses my forehead. His tears drip into my hair.
“I’m sorry.” The apology falls out of him like a stone. He walks out of my room. I chase after him, but he’s too fast. He flies into my brother’s room and locks the door before I can get to him. I sit outside and sniffle as I overhear Dad saying goodbye to Paolo. Paolo doesn’t understand and just starts sobbing, “Why? Why?”
I hear the floors creak a little and look toward the stairs. Mom grips the banister. Her face is wet and haggard. She climbs up the last few steps and walks toward me. She kneels down and tries to hug me, but I rear back like a hissing cat.
“Why aren’t you doing anything about this? You’re just going to let him leave?” I scream and push her away. Mom looks at me, speechless.
The door opens suddenly and a gust of wind blows me onto my back. Mom rushes in to console Paolo. My five-year-old brother trembles and bawls. Dad is already flying down the stairs. I run after him. By the time I make it to the front lawn, he is already twenty feet into the sky.
I watch Dad shrink from a man to a speck. I gaze upward, even after he is finally invisible, one with the sky. The clouds lumber through like a closing curtain. I continue to look up, hoping that Dad will reappear. Mom comes out of the house and takes my hand. I yank it away. She starts moving me with her mind. I float back into the house, my neck still craned to the clouds, which are blurry all of a sudden, like I’m looking at the sky from underneath a pool.
Lesson 5: Let Go
“Let go of everything you hold dear. Empty yourself and be as light as the air around you.”
I’m standing on the roof of Romalvi Tower again. Over the weekend I’d made an orange utility belt to match the emblem on my chest: Dad’s emblem. Paolo had helped me cut the fabric and I sewed it together by hand. It was our secret project. The belt is clunky, but that’s to be expected of a prototype.
A flock of birds are flying west. I wonder if maybe Dad has ever flown with birds before. Taking a deep breath, I walk to the ledge. I peer down at the traffic below.
“No, don’t look down. Dad said to never look down. Look up, Jing. Look up.” I whisper to myself. As I climb onto the ledge, my cell phone rings. It’s Mom. The fear that has been twisting in my belly settles, welcoming any excuse to delay the inevitable.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Jing? You were supposed to be home from school a half hour ago,” Mom’s words quaver through the static, “Where are you?”
“Why is the wind so loud?” Mom pauses. “Are you at Romalvi Tower?”
I am silent for a few seconds until guilt compels me to answer.
“Y-es,” my voice breaks.
“Jing, go down to the lobby and wait for me,” Mom commands. “I’m coming to pick you up.”
I take the elevator, feeling like a failure.
“Hey, Miss Talon! Wait up.” Ivan waves as I pass by the security desk. He scampers toward me holding a white envelope.
“Thank you so much for having your dad sign my book! Here.” He hands me the envelope while staring at his feet. It’s odd to see a grown man so bashful. It makes me feel curiously powerful. “It was tucked in the book. It’s still sealed. Didn’t peek at all.”
I examine Dad’s elegant handwriting outlining the sound of my name.
“Thanks,” I take the letter and feel that familiar pinching between my eyes. I force a quick smile and whirl around to the couches. I rip open the letter and read.
I used to think that flying was a useless power. And I didn’t respect my own father very much, even less when he pushed me off our roof when I turned fourteen.
I don’t ever want to push you that hard, because even though flying isn’t as useful as telepathy or shapeshifting, it’s the most exhilarating. And only a lucky few ever get to experience it. I never want to take that joy away from you and I think I have to leave in order to give you space. Us flyers need that, space to spread our wings.
Ultimately, it’s not power that makes a hero, it’s the person. And to me, you’re already a hero. No matter what happens, I love you and I believe in you. Take your time. I know I’ll see you in the skies soon.
I fold the letter and hide it in my utility belt. I wipe my wet face and drippy nose with my cape. Mom marches into the lobby and spots me sulking in a plush chair.
“Oh my gosh, you’re Mentalla!” Ivan exclaims, getting out from behind his desk again. “It’s an honor to finally meet you!” He holds out his hand with too much enthusiasm. “Your daughter was just practicing with the Talon earlier.”
“Is that what she told you?” Mom snaps. “Please don’t let her lie to you again. The Talon is away on a mission and won’t be back for a while.” Mom grabs me by the wrist and leads me out of the building. I turn back. Ivan looks like he’s just been slapped.
Paolo is sitting in the passenger seat, gazing out the window. He grins and waves when he sees me. A guilty ache squeezes my gut. I’m suddenly aware of how I could have lost him forever if I’d taken that jump, that fall. I open the passenger door and hug him tight.
“Ji-ji! I made a special thing at school today.” His voice lowers to a whisper. “It’s for our secret project.”
“You’re the best, Pow-pow.” I kiss him on the cheek.
“Get in the backseat, Jing.” Mom’s arctic glare makes me shiver, but I don’t want to lose her either. Or Dad.
I pass by my parents’ bedroom, which, I guess, is now just Mom’s bedroom. I can hear her sobbing quietly into her pillows. In my own room, I find a Paolo-sized lump under my star-decked comforter. The lump is snuffling. I lift a corner flap and peek under.
“It’s lonely in my room,” Paolo whines, peering up at me, “and when I went to Mommy’s she was crying, so I didn’t want to go in.” Greenish snot runs down his nose.
“It’s OK, Pow-pow.” I try my best to sound reassuring. “Mommy is going to get better.” I get under the covers with my brother.
“I wanted to show you what I made.” Paolo opens his fist. A crumpled piece of orange felt rolls onto the bed. I smooth out the wrinkles. It’s a four-pointed star, but the left and right points are longer and droopy.
“It’s a bird. To sew on the belt,” he says through a stuffy nose.
“Thanks, Paolo.” I smile a little. My brother holds onto me like a koala holds onto a tree.
“Do you think Daddy will come back?” Paolo murmurs into my armpit.
“Yes,” I say, but I’m not sure if I’m lying.
“Soon?” He looks up with large, wet eyes. I use every last ounce of willpower to keep my own dry.
“Yes, now go to sleep,” I croon, “the sooner we sleep, the sooner he’ll come back.” I kiss his forehead and press my cheek against his short, wiry curls. Paolo’s breath steadies and evens out. My tears begin to gush and sink into his hair.
The next afternoon I muster enough courage to confront Mom. I stand outside her room. She’s crying again. I tap my knuckles against the door.
“Just a minute!” Mom’s voice is muffled. She blows her nose. “OK, come in!”
“Hi, Mom.” I say gingerly, poking my head into the dim bedroom. The shades are drawn, but sunlight seeps in through the corners. “You OK?”
“Oh, yes, fine.” Mom sounds too tired to be guarded. She blinks quickly and tilts her chin back, as if she could force her tears down by sheer gravity.
“It’s OK, Mom,” I try to soothe her. “You don’t have to pretend with me. We all miss him.” I stand by the doorway, feeling nervous suddenly. I play with the door’s lock, turning it back and forth. “I’m sorry about yesterday. I just thought that maybe if I flew, I could find Dad and bring him back.”
“Oh, Jing,” She exhales and looks at me with pity. She glances at the small pile of used tissues on the bed. “I don’t think anything you do will make him come back,” she says solemnly, “It’s all up to him.”
“But,” I clench my fists, trying to squeeze out all my fear. “Maybe you can help me fly, anyway. We could use our house to practice. You could probably use your TK to stop me from crashing,” I plead. Mom stares through me like I’m a ghost.
“You can’t stay in here forever.” I say finally, not able to hide my bitterness.
Mom blushes in shame. She fills her lungs, almost in staccato, and closes her eyes. When she opens them again she gets up and walks toward me. She puts both hands on my shoulders.
“OK,” Mom gives me a small smile, “let’s try it.”
Lesson 6: Jump
“The inevitable step is the final one. For better or worse, let the winds take you.”
I’m sitting at my desk, examining a letter written in my own hand. It’s not perfect, but neither am I.
I guess you know what it’s like to live in someone’s shadow. I’ve never met grandpa, but I’ve heard the stories and I’ve seen the statues. Maybe you felt like you had to push me like he pushed you. You think you know what’s best for me, but only I can decide that.
I guess that’s it. I never needed you to push me. I still love you and hope you’ll come back, but I’m going to do this on my own. I can’t wait for you. It’s time to follow my own path.
If you look to the skies, you’ll find me, but not as Miss Talon. I’m The Winged Grace.
I write “Ren Wong” on an envelope and seal the letter inside. It feels weird to write out Dad’s full name, like he’s a stranger to me. I take the envelope upstairs to the attic. I’m wearing jeans and the emblem Paolo made me is sewn into my white t-shirt. My cape is hidden in the back of my closet.
I open the only window in the room. A gust of warm air blows in. Dust flies about, sparkling in beams of sunlight and misting in shadowy corners.
I stick my head out and look at Mom who is in our backyard, three storeys below. I drop the letter. She catches it and reads the name on the envelope.
“I’ll get this to him. I promise.” Mom’s lips curl up weakly. Her eyes are sad, but her voice is proud.
“Thanks, Mom,” I pause, “I love you.”
“I love you too, honey.” She puts the envelope in her back pocket and opens her arms.
“And me too!” Paolo shouts excitedly from his bedroom window, one storey to my left.
I breathe in the breeze, lightly perfumed with budding cherry blossoms and cedar sap. I look straight out at the woods and the afternoon sky. I don’t need to look down. I know what’s there. An old tire swing Dad had roped around a large maple. The vegetable garden Mom loves so much. Paolo’s fort made of logs and tarps. My old trampoline, the one I used to jump on and say “Look, I’m flying! I’m you, Daddy!”
That was so many years ago. I know I’m not him and I’ll never be him. I’m me. I’m not the Talon’s daughter. I’m The Winged Grace and I’m going to fly.
I shimmy my way through the small opening. I close my eyes and listen to woodpeckers thrumming and neighborhood kids playing stickball. I think about Dad and in my mind I tell him “goodbye.”
The wind changes suddenly, blowing up my nose. I sneeze and laugh at myself. Paolo and Mom chuckle. With eyes still shut, I imagine them tethered to strings I hold in my hand. In my mind I let the strings go and my mom and brother fly up, getting smaller until they disappear. My heart feels so light, it could float out of my chest.
I give in to gravity, letting it pull me out of the house. I think about the trampoline and how it could break my fall. I open my eyes and see it moving toward me. I haven’t hit the ground yet, but I feel as if I’m about to. I want to get to the trampoline.
“Ji-Ji! You’re flying!” Paolo calls out.
I look down. My face is hovering a few feet from the ground. I glance over at the trampoline. It’s floating closer to me. But I don’t need anything to catch me anymore. I set it down gently with my mind and as I do an exuberance surges through my veins.
I lift my chest up. I get higher until I can see my rooftop, bright cerulean under the sun. I see the tops of the maples and the cedars. A large hawk’s nest sits empty on the tallest tree. Tulips and lilies dot the pathway to my house in vibrant pinks, yellows, and purples. Mom is cheering and telling me to go higher.
I laugh from my belly, unabashed and unrestrained. My body feels like vapor. I want Mom to be up here with me. She starts to lift off the ground. Mom looks at me and then all around her, completely baffled.
“I wanna fly too! Don’t leave me!” Paolo starts to cry.
“Jing,” Mom laughs, “put me down. We’ll be here when you get back.” I grin and float down. My toes graze the soft, Spring grass still damp from the morning dew. There is real joy in Mom’s face.
“Go on and have fun!” She giggles and pushes me playfully. I hover backwards and gaze up at my brother.
“Pow-pow, I’ll be back before you know it!” I wave my arms, exultant.
“Pinky-swear!” He pouts. I float up to him, beaming.
“Always,” I say softly. I link our pinkies together and kiss his cheek. His finger loosens and I let him go.
I face the sun and rise. The wind ripples between my skin and clothes. Zephyrs slip between my toes. I am electric. I fly above the trees, above the birds, and into the clouds, howling with delight.