The Boy Who Fell
by Lee Moan
There were twelve of us on the platform when it happened. A dozen of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful men, standing there like ravens in our black pressure suits, watching the tragedy unfold and powerless to stop it.
An unkindness of humans. That’s how I think of us.
We had come to the Zee Orbiting Station to see something special. What could be more therapeutic than standing on a gantry two hundred miles above Earth’s atmosphere, looking down on the surface of our beautiful blue world? It was supposed to give us a new perspective on our busy lives. The kind of therapy only businessmen with too much money can afford.
The viewing platform was a gantry that stretched across an open ellipse in the station’s shell. The mesmerising blue of Earth’s oceans filled the window, and it was only the thin membrane of the energy field between us and space and the planet below.
When we first lined up on that platform and took in the sight before us, everyone gasped. The guide did her best to heighten the experience by plying us with a stream of astounding facts, but it was all lost on us. There we were, twelve cynical men of the world , reduced to misty-eyed children by the world’s simple beauty, a beauty we had all forgotten.
Then, it all went wrong.
There was a shriek from someone on my left, and I saw a flurry of activity in the distorted bulge of my visor. At the same time, I felt the safety-line that connected us all through our belts become slack. I saw the boy, standing on the lower rung of the barrier, his arms outstretched. Several hands clutched at his suit, trying to drag him back. But the boy was beyond their reach. He glanced around once, fixing his eyes on me and in that moment, I felt a flicker of recognition. But there was no time to analyse why.
An instant later, he fell.
But he didn’t drop. Zero gravity. His leap from the barrier gave him the propulsion which carried him horizontally out and away from us, towards the energy field. The guide threw herself against the safety barrier at the point which the boy had just vacated, following through a motion she had started moments earlier. She screamed at the boy, I can’t remember what, just a futile cry of shock and horror .
Then, when we all realised there was nothing any of us could do, we simply froze — some kneeling, some standing, some peering through fingers — and we watched. The spectacle we had come to see was replaced now by something ugly, yet no less compelling.
Over and over he tumbled, the light on Earth’s horizon glinting off his helmet with each revolution. He didn’t appear to be struggling, but then we didn’t expect him to. This was a suicide plunge, a swan-dive of dreadful beauty.
Breathless , mouths agape, we watched the tiny figure approach the energy field, causing a flare of deepest red as he passed through it into the cosmos beyond. We watched as he drifted into Earth’s exosphere, slow at first, but gathering speed , falling, falling.
Eventually , there was a tiny flare of light and he was gone, lost in the heat of Earth’s electric blue shield. What he experienced in those final few moments, none of us could scarcely imagine.
Slowly, one by one, we began to drift toward the exit. The show was over. I found myself incapable of looking anyone else in the eye. I think they all felt the same.
* * *
How the boy came to be there alone was a mystery, but in the aftermath, when questions began to be asked, and fingers of blame began pointing, it emerged that the boy had lied. He’d said he was with me, and nobody at Zee Station had questioned it.
The authorities questioned me, though, more so than the others, simply because the boy had singled me out as his alleged father. But in the end, I convinced them that I had no children, never had. The boy had simply picked me at random as a name to use to gain entry . I was his passport to death.
So we left that place with only half the answer. The boy had been suicidal, yet we still didn ‘t know who he really was or what had led him to such a tragic fate.
* * *
When I took my seat in the return shuttle, I found the handwritten note in the pocket of my suit.
You don‘t know me, it said. And you never will. But I know all about you. I know what you did.
My heart rate doubled. Anxiously, I read on:
How could you betray the woman who slaved to get you out of the ghettos, the woman who fought to give you a chance in life? How could you leave her behind, while you went off to make your fortune? I bet you think she’s never forgiven you. I bet that‘s why you never came home — with all your money and power — to put things right.
The words — so unflinching, so true — cut into me like blunted knives. And as I read on, I began to hear my own voice talking back to me through the letter. It was almost as if my own conscience had been put down on paper.
Well, I’ve got news for you, it continued. Even after all you did to her, Ma still loves you. Yes, that’s right. She spent every penny she owned to try and bring you back into her life. Every last penny.
In that moment I understood: the boy on the gantry, the echo of my own subconscious in the letter — everything fell into place.
The thought of it made me shiver. I felt sick, delirious, trembling with emotion.
But she doesn’t want a replacement, he went on. She wants the real thing. She just wants her boy back. How about that? So this is my gift to you. I’m clearing a path for you.
Tears of grief bloomed in my eyes — but grief for whom? The boy, or myself?
Go home . She needs you.
That was it. No signature. No postscript. Why would there be? He said all he needed to say with his final, selfless act.
When I get back, I will take that path home. I will beg my mother’s forgiveness, safe in the knowledge that it has already been granted. That is a gift too precious to turn down. And, no doubt, I will eventually ask Ma about him — that ‘other boy’ — and she will refuse to talk about him.
But that, I suppose, is as it should be.
Copyright © 2007 by Lee Moan