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Rocket Man

Lynette Mejia writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror prose and poetry from the middle of a deep, dark forest in the wilds of southern Louisiana. Her work has been nominated for the Rhysling Award and the Million Writers Award. You can find her online at lynettemejia.com.

The door to the roof slams shut with a bang and I jump, involuntarily. For a moment Roger is nothing but a dark figure illuminated from behind, and then he is reduced to the orange pinpoint of his cigarette as the light from the doorway is extinguished.
"You okay?" he asks. The orange light glows brighter as he takes a drag.
"I needed some air," I say, leaning against the iron railing at my back. I turn my head and look out over the city, twinkling and perfect from this height.
Roger stops a few feet away from me. Though the light up here is muted, I can still make out the deep grooves lining his face and the slight stoop of his shoulders. He exhales with his upper lip pursed above the lower, releasing the smoke in a stream like car exhaust.
"First time's always the hardest," he says. "It'll get easier. Hell, I didn't say a word for the first six meetings. Right now the only thing that's important is that you're there. Show them you're making an effort."
"I wouldn't be here otherwise," I say. My fingers tighten around the rail, dislodging flakes of rust and sending its metallic tang up into the air. "This is just a condition of my early release from the rehab unit."
"I know," Roger says. He stands there for a few moments, staring out over the rooftops. When he speaks again, his voice is quieter.
"They called me Roger Ramjet."
With a final exhale he flicks his cigarette to the ground and grinds it under his heel.
"Kids in school. They called me Roger Ramjet when they found out I could fly. I couldn't have been more than six years old at the time, I guess. My parents told me to hide it, but everyone was talking about the Black Swan back in those days, how great he was, how many people he'd saved that week--they couldn't get enough of him. They admired him, you know? So I told them."
I chuckle. "My six-year-old self would have called you a dumbass and invited you over to my house after school."
"That's the thing, though," he says. "People like us don't come around very often, do we? We're kind of destined to be alone."
The silence sits heavy between us. I swallow the nausea rising in my throat.
"The third villain I ever fought killed my parents," I say. "He tortured them, then left their bodies for me to find."
"That's not your fault," Roger says.
I look up and meet his gaze.
"How do you live with it?"
"That look in the eyes of the ones you can't save. The moment when both of you realize you won't get there in time no matter how much you want to."
Roger turns away. Pulls a wrinkled pack of Pall Malls out of his pocket and taps one out.
"You can't think about that," he says as he lights it. "You have to think about the ones you did save."
"The ones I did save go on with their lives," I say. "It's the other ones who seem to hang around."
"I know," he says. "I was a hero for thirty-five years. I couldn't tell you how many people I pulled from burning buildings or snatched out of runaway rail cars. But I can describe with exacting detail every single one of the forty-seven people who died on my watch." He squinted at me through the wreath of smoke around his head. "Why do you think I come to these fucking meetings? I crawled into a bottle in 1979 and didn't come out until Clinton was in office. But I'm here. I stuck around."
"Maybe I'm not as strong as you," I say.
"That's bullshit and you know it, kid. You're the Rocket Man. You saved a whole city from being blown to shit two years ago, you can damn well save yourself."
I take the pack of cigarettes from his hand and pull one out, leaning forward to light it on the flame he extends in my direction.
"You know how that went down, right?" I pull the smoke into my lungs, holding it for a second before exhaling. "That bomb was strapped to the bottom of a jetliner full of people. I tried and tried, but I couldn't..." I swallow and flick the ashes off the end of the cigarette before continuing. "The pilots were dead, the cockpit locked from the inside. The only thing I could do was bring it down over the ocean."
Roger is quiet now, watching me.
"There was this kid, a little girl, looking out of one of the windows. "Rocket Man!" she kept yelling. Over and over. "Rocket Man! Rocket Man! Rocket Man!" I stayed with her, flying next to the plane outside her window, the whole way down." I take another drag. "I thought I'd die in the explosion like everyone else."
"Why didn't you?" he asks. His voice is a little choked.
I shrug. "Recon jets say I blasted away just as the bomb went off. I don't remember any of it."
"Instinct," Roger says, regaining his bearings. "You have a hero's instinct. Live to fight another day, right?"
I turn back toward the city.
"Yeah. Maybe."
I flick the butt away and climb onto the railing, my feet shifting unsteadily on the bar. Balance has never come easily.
"Look, kid..." Roger begins. He takes a step toward me.
"Did you ever stop to ask why?" I say, without looking back. "Why us and not someone else? What is it that makes us so special?"
"We can fly," he says. "Isn't that enough?"
Hot air from the city below rushes up into the sky, whistling past my ear in the voice of a lost child.
"Not yet," I answer.
Arms outstretched, I step off the rail.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 4th, 2016

Author Comments

I originally wrote "Rocket Man" as part of a flash fiction contest at an online writer's group I belong to. I'm a huge comics geek, and my favorites have always been stories that explore the darker side of what it's like to be a superhero, like Alan Moore's Watchmen. When the idea came to me to write a superhero story for the contest, I immediately started thinking about what it must feel like to carry with you the memories of all the people you couldn't save--the ones whose eyes you looked into as they realized you would disappoint them. I figured, hey, maybe there'd be a support group for dealing with something like that. And so "Rocket Man" was born.

- Lynette Mejia
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