Illustration by Lura Schwarz Smith
Illustration by Lura Schwarz Smith

The Sparrows fly today, but this time it’s different; I’m not in the audience. This time I’m standing with my brother’s troupe at the edge of Mexico City’s Olympic Stadium, as the world watches and waits.

But I can’t jump. I can’t even move.

One by one, I watch as the others approach the edge and tumble off: Eli, Natasha, Xien, Adam.

All I can think about is my brother, David: his body darting about in a flash of green, perfect in every movement; then, after the car accident, his body crushed and broken — unfamiliar as it lay on a cold table, in a cold room.

I was training as David’s understudy when he was killed. Even then, I couldn’t fly like him — no one could.

Erin pauses at the edge and turns to me, smiling.

“You can do this, Jacob,” she says, placing a hand on my shoulder. “I know you can — we all do.”

Then, arching a yellow neocite wing to the sky, she drops into the wind and vanishes from sight.

In the distance, my brother’s face grins back at me from memorial posters held by grieving fans — somewhere, by our parents.

It was supposed to be my brother standing here today — not me. And I just keep thinking that I’ll crash into the safety net below; that I’ll fail.

What sort of Sparrow hesitates before the fall?

* * *

The first time I watched a troupe of Sparrows perform, it was at an abandoned granite quarry in my hometown. I was twelve, and David was still alive.

Summer came early, shattering every temperature on record, and our parents nearly kept us home, citing reports of heat stroke on the news.

“It’s just a silly air show, for god’s sake,” my mother said, exasperated.

But it was so much more than that to us. My brother and I shared a room, and Sparrow action figures hung suspended from the ceiling, parallel to posters of Alice Zheng — the first American Sparrow to become an Olympic champion.

We had grown up watching the miracle of human flight, but this was our first chance to see it with our own eyes — not on the internet, or the television.

In compromise we arrived caked in sun block, armed with a liter of water each. We waited in line, then squeezed into a spot on the sun-scorched aluminum bleachers.

When the show began everything else seemed to vanish around us: the Sparrows burst into the sky, diving and looping about the quarry in a pinwheel of color.

It looked effortless, the way they danced through the wind. One moment they were soaring. The next they were hurtling back to the granite below, only to extend their wings an inch above the ground, returning to the sky above the quarry.

It was mesmerizing; after that, there would be no keeping us from the wind.

* * *

What we learned from our first flight test:

Homemade neocite is a poor substitute for the real thing; the space from the roof to the ground is much further than you’d think; broken bones take months to heal; a parent’s trust takes longer.

When my collarbone shattered after that first jump, I thought I’d never fly again. David was four years older than me, and my parents blamed him for the accident.

“Grounded for life,” he said when he came to see me in the hospital. “Want to trade places? Can’t be worse than the way Mom keeps looking at me. And Dad…”

I laughed and reached out to punch him in the shoulder, but there was a flash of pain, and I cried out.

“Oh man,” he said, grimacing. “I really messed up, didn’t I? I just thought you’d want the first go at the wings — honest. I thought they’d work.”

And I never doubted that — not for a moment.

* * *

I didn’t get the chance to try a real set until David came back from his first semester at college.

“Do you miss it here?” I asked after he had settled into his old bed across the room.

I lay there in the silence, watching one of the action figures turn slowly in the air.

He didn’t say anything. Instead, he hopped out of bed and put a finger to his lips, motioning for me to follow.

We crept outside to his pickup and drove for a long time without talking.

“I don’t miss it,” he said at last. “All the heat and dust. How nothing changes. But I do kind of miss you.”

I smiled and watched the headlights bounce along the back roads.

We parked near the quarry and David hopped out, tugging a large bag behind him. After a moment he tore it open and held a Sparrow’s uniform up against his body.

“How did you get that?” I asked, gawking at it.

It looked like a bobsledder’s suit, except for the decorative plumage at the top, and the long, flexile wings that extended from the arms. It was green, and it reflected the moonlight like a lantern.

“Student loans,” David said with a shrug.

He stripped naked and began fitting himself in.

“Wait,” I said, panicking. “It’s dangerous.”

At that, David just laughed.

“Everything is dangerous, little brother. Besides, it’s easy. Just like walking in the air.”

Grinning, he stepped off the edge of the quarry and let the wind take him in its hands.

* * *

I look at the world below — at our troupe soaring through the sky — and think of David.

Everything is dangerous.

David spent his life plunging through the air, but it was a car that ended it. Just one careless moment on the road.

Closing my eyes, I picture him in the quarry, fearless, darting about like a small green flame. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen — and all I ever wanted to be.

“Just like walking in the air,” I whisper.

Then, lifting two green wings above my head, I take a breath and fall into the wind.