With a running start a strong jumper can leap from the roof of the Wexler building onto a thin cornice attached to St. Anne’s Cathedral next door. Zorf Rierden discovered this possibility while scoping out new territory for his crew. Zorf covered the distance in a surging instant, but it took him twenty minutes of careful climbing, freezing against the cold bricks, to get back down. He stood shivering on the wet pavement after, his breath rising up like steam. He removed a little notebook and a chewed-up golf pencil from his shirt pocket. Eleven feet wide and sixty feet up, he recorded. A beautiful gap.
Jumping was part of a new movement that emphasized the primacy of physical courage above all else. It was a rejection of the digital, the cultural, the cognitive — these were control. A generation of young people had recoiled from the influence of the screen. Technology in any form was unfashionable, passé, meant for old people. Celebrating the human body and its potential was the noble cause of a new age.
Their parents were mystified by it. The logic of this new rebellion was opaque. When asked, their children spouted shibboleths. They spoke of the majesty of biomechanics and the beauty of the human form. Whatever violated their ideology was condemned as anathema to the movement. Beyond this, details were scarce.
Zorf ran with a crew of jumpers known as The Sudden Stop, and their territory was all of Calaveras County. Zorf was known for his discipline, and for his emphasis on what he called, “knowing your architecture.”
“Now your roofing tile patterns are a crucial aspect,” Zorf told his crew. The team had assembled in an alleyway downtown. It was hot, late August. They were seated on trash cans with their legs folded, listening to Zorf lecture. Zorf was all nervous energy, vaulting from ledge to ledge, chattering, boosting off the lid of a dumpster and flying thirteen feet up to a marble sphere that hung from the old dry-goods building and latching on. His two callused hands squeezed it like a balloon he might pop.
“Kylee,” he grunted, quizzing her. “Define imbrication!”
Kylee closed her eyes. “An arrangement of tiles such that each one overlaps the next, as on the scales of a fish. Or on rooftops.”
“It can affect landing dynamics. Landing with one’s momentum against the pattern is safest. Landing in the direction of the tiles can be sketchier, and with ceramic or slate tiles can dislodge them. You could fall, Zorf.”
“That’s right you could fall!” Zorf said, and then to everyone: “And what happens if you fall?”
“It’s not the fall that kills you,” they replied in unison, “it’s the sudden stop!”
Zorf released his grip on the marble ornament and fell to the asphalt with total grace. “Footwear inspection,” he barked, “line ’em up.”
They stuck their feet out in a row and Zorf passed along it.
“This sole is cracking,” he said, “glue it.”
“Scrape off that gum, Tara.”
“Frayed shoelaces, funky smell.”
“Learn to tie a knot, this isn’t kindergarten.”
And then, “Alright, good enough” he said. “Treasurer, read the accounts.”
Bianca Folks opened her binder and recited the numbers. “We owe Tar and Mineral three hundred dollars for the broken window at their Cedarview plant. I got another call about it. That’s not going away. We owe six hundred and fifty dollars for the new crash mats. A hundred more for medical tape. Fifty for incidentals and sundries, not including food. We owe twelve hundred dollars to St. Francis Hospital for Keaton’s broken elbow.” There were dirty looks at Keaton, who’d been careless on a huge abstract sculpture in the park.
“I’ve said sorry like a million times,” Keaton said, still in his cast, “you wish I’d zonked?”
“Keaton’s fall was unfortunate, but noble,” Zorf reminded his crew. “Let’s not be assholes about it.”
Bianca continued. “Food costs remain high. We’re looking at another four hundred this month just to cover weekly grub. As I’ve said before, a base camp would cut down on costs significantly, and — ”
“Thank you Bianca, that’s enough for now,” Zorf said, and stretched like a cat to close his hands around the last rung of a fire escape. “OK people,” he continued, “in case you’ve forgotten, paying a debt is not anathema to the movement. It’s praiseworthy. So let’s hustle. Any ideas for revenue growth?”
Nathan removed his sunglasses. “The McCabe Concert hall is re-painting its ceiling. They need scaffold monkeys with steady hands. I’m going down there at four.”
“Take Tad and Monika with you,” Zorf said. “Find out what they’re paying, and if it’s noble, send for two more of us.”
Fiona, the smallest member of The Sudden Stop, beamed and shared a recent accomplishment. “I made some scratch climbing the new cell tower for BellComm,” she bragged. “You should have seen their faces when I unclipped from the safety line.”
“Noble risk,” Zorf said, and nudged her with his elbow, “keep it up.”
“That’s been disbursed,” Bianca said flatly, “and it barely put a dent in our accounts. We need something bigger.”
“Well shit.” Zorf said. “Damn.”
The firefighter’s union held a fundraising gala each year for the families of men killed in the line of duty, and all the best people attended. At nine o’clock Zorf and his crew were at the stage entrance waiting to be let in. They were stretching and hopping in preparation for a job. They’d been hired to help re-enact one of the worst disasters in the city’s history, a horrendous warehouse fire dating back to the 1960s. The warehouse had been packed full of greasy sawdust and steel canisters of liquid nitrogen. The night’s production was titled Fire and Ice: A musical for Heroes, and Zorf’s crewmembers were to play the acrobatic firefighters who scrambled over the facade dodging flame jets and ice blasts controlled by the FX team.
“OK,” Zorf told them in his pep talk, “we have an opportunity here. Eight men lost their lives fighting this blaze. They saved ten city blocks. When you’re up there tonight, remember their sacrifice. Remember their steely nerve and the steadiness of their feet on the ladders. These were strong, vigorous public servants fighting a terrible enemy of the urban landscape. Do your best for them, and for all the martyrs to physical courage in our time.”
“And for seven hundred and fifty dollars.” Bianca said.
“Yes, and for that” Zorf said. “And we get paid after, so no screw-ups.”
The program booklet listed them as the Sudden Stop Stunt Players, and the mayor was curious about them. “Who are these guys?” he asked his wife at intermission.
“Oh, just some neighborhood kids,” she said, “they’re playing the firefighters, the heroes.”
“Are they actors?” he asked.
“No, not really. They’re one of those new street gangs, the ones who jump off buildings.”
“Off buildings?” asked the mayor. “Onto what?”
“Onto other buildings, mostly. They’re daredevils, dear.”
The mayor frowned. “It’s like our Shannon then,” he said, “kids today have gone crazy.”
“Shannon is perfectly fine,” his wife said, “she’s only going through a phase.”
“That’s a phase?” the mayor asked. “Walking from Alaska to Florida is a phase? She’s been gone three years.”
“Ssshh!” his wife said, “it’s starting.”
As the house lights were brought down the air in the theater chilled and clarified like filtered water. The audience re-entered its heightened, hyper-oxygenated state. By now the musical’s main characters and their sympathetic back-stories had been artfully established and the chief conflict — that deplorable fire — had been hinted at. An aching suspense had been masterfully built up and was now ready for release. When the curtain parted on act three and the flames were pouring from every window of the four-story prop representing the doomed warehouse, the audience gasped. It was ecstasy.
The Sudden Stop Stunt Players clambered like lemurs along the wooden facade, impressive in their shiny yellow coats and bright red hats. The FX men had primed them on the pattern of the flames and the blasts of ice (which simulated bursting nitrogen tanks) so that they would know which windows were safe at which times. None of them wore microphones, so Zorf had to yell his instructions above the crashing, apocalyptic music coming from the orchestra down in the pit.
“Higher on the left side!” Zorf called out, and they climbed up one story. “Two points of contact!” he said, “No dangling!”
The spotlights and the fire had the stage up over 100 degrees and when a blast from the ice cannons swept by it was like the window of a stuffy apartment opened in winter. They lingered when they should have ducked, but no one noticed. The FX men were laughing and winking at them as they arrived at each window, which Zorf considered unprofessional. These FX men had no discipline, Zorf decided. Their boss was a drowsy slob munching on a cigar backstage, barely engaged with the production. He had no gravitas, no duty to leadership.
Their scene was three-quarters over when the accident happened. One of the flame guys was off his mark behind the facade, his cell phone in one hand and his torch in the other. He was texting. He wore a thin smile on his face over some remark he was reading.
“Hey Donnie,” his boss called out, “hit window eleven!”
But Donnie was out of position and too far from window eleven, so when he launched his jet of flame it licked the wooden construction of the prop. The fire liked what it tasted, and began to devour it. In ten seconds the entire right corner of the faux warehouse was ablaze and burning sheets of cardboard painted like bricks were curling up and falling onto the stage as ash, spreading fire wherever they landed. In twenty seconds the panic was a tangible force in the theater and Zorf realized that the music had stopped and that all he could hear was the animal breathing of the fire and the screaming of the audience behind him. He pointed his canvas hose at a patch of conflagration and pulled back on the handle to release a deluge of water, but nothing happened. Oh yes, he remembered, it was all pretend.
The fire exits disgorged the crowd exactly as designed. The city’s entire upper crust came streaming out of the burning theater and onto the sidewalk in their tuxedos and evening gowns. They were covered in black soot but otherwise unharmed. They ran wildly until they were clear across the street. From this spot they began yelling “Fire!” and “Help, quickly!” into their cell phones. They were calling the members of their local fire department, most of whom were standing next to them in formal dress. They were calling about the great warehouse fire of 1965. It was burning again.
Inside the theater Zorf and the Sudden Stop were still roped-up on the façade. They couldn’t get their harnesses off. The FX guys had tied impossible knots behind their backs. Zorf pulled a pocket knife and cut his straps, then made his way to the others and set them free in turn. By now the stage had entirely collapsed and a smoking cavity had burned clear into the theater’s basement. From above it looked like the roiling mouth of Hell. The only direction clear of fire was up, which is where they climbed.
“Head for the catwalk!” Zorf called out.
The long steel platform stretching above the stage was close enough that they could reach it if they jumped. Zorf was the last person over the rail after boosting the others. Moments later the whole facade tilted and fell like a domino into the dark rows of purple seats.
“Run!” Zorf screamed, directing them off stage.
The grating on the catwalk was scorching hot and their shoes were melting so badly it was like sliding in mud, but finally they reached the access door to the roof. They took turns kicking at it until the deadbolt broke and they could fall onto the flat gravelly rooftop in exhaustion, momentarily safe.
They had suffered minor burns and their hands shook with adrenaline. Their heads were empty like the sky. They focused on taking clean air into their lungs and circulating oxygen-rich blood through their bodies. They stayed like this for a long time, spread out like stroke victims in wonky positions across the roof, listening to the fire growing inside. They all knew the roof would collapse at any moment.
Finally, someone spoke. “Now what?” Bianca said. They all laughed. Wasn’t it obvious?
“We jump,” Zorf said.
“To where? There’s nothing.”
This was true, or seemed to be. Zorf gave the order to break into groups of three. Each group was responsible for checking one side of the building for a landing zone.
By this point in the city’s life, urban renewal had almost entirely demolished the grand old buildings that had once bordered the theater. On two sides The Sudden Stop were met by only a wide expanse of asphalt. The remaining two sides each had an adjacent building, but neither one was attractive. There was Kellerman’s law firm, located in a squat, hopeless strip mall. That jump demanded a sixty-foot fall. The better option was east: St. Anne’s Cathedral. A portion of the church’s footprint extended across Dewbury Street and into the realm of possibility for a jumper. One of its five domed turrets was only twenty feet below the edge of the theater’s roof, maybe fifteen feet distant. Still not an easy leap. Broken bones were possible. In addition, the curvature of the dome would make for an extremely difficult landing. Someone would almost certainly fall.
A crowd had formed on the sidewalk below. They were waving up at The Sudden Stop and filming with their cell phones. A few people called out encouragement. “Hold on!” they said, and “rescue is coming!”
“Don’t film us!” Zorf yelled back at them. “Is nothing sacred?”
“I hope you have a plan,” Bianca said, “because we need to go.” Flames were shooting from the door they had escaped from and little tremors in the surface of the roof could be felt when they stopped to feel for them. They had minutes.
“We’re jumping to that tower,” Zorf told his crew. “That’s our exit.”
“It’s too far,” Monika said, “I’ve never made a jump that far.”
“You’ll make it this time,” Zorf told her.
Kylee was worried about the landing surface. “It’s round,” she said. “It looks polished.”
“Aim for the spire and grab hold of it,” Zorf said. “I’ll go first, followed by Bianca. After we land, we’ll tie our clothes together in a rope and secure it to the spire. We’ll throw the rope to you as you jump, in case you’re off target.” Zorf could feel their doubt, but no one objected. There was nothing else.
Zorf crouched at the edge of the roof and assessed the gap. It was wide, at the limit of what he’d done with the team. He’d made longer jumps alone, but never onto such a tricky surface. Zorf tied his shoelaces into a tight, triple knot. He retreated several yards. The team watched this in silence. Zorf took a moment to visualize his success: his hand would grab the wrought iron spire, the cold metal tight in his palm. He imagined pulling himself towards it, battling the momentum, which would try to carry him off the dome. Then he would hold it close, his face and lips crammed against it, the taste of oxide in his mouth. He imagined the relief, which would then wash over him.
Zorf sprinted hard and in a matter of seconds reached the edge, planted his right foot, and launched himself into the sky. At which point he began to float, as he always did on a jump. His soul, suspended over nothingness, exulted. It lasted less than an instant, was infinitesimal, but for a split second he was totally alive. Euphoric. He was every organism that had ever lived. He was mortal, but undying.
And then the downward arc began, and the shiny metal dome hove into view beneath him, rapidly increasing in size between his legs. And then there was a crash, and darkness. And pain, though not overwhelming. A shaft of light filtering down into a black room filled with dust. He’d broken through the skin of the dome. It hadn’t been a substantial cap of metal, as he’d thought, but a thin veneer with a void inside, where he was now. Zorf coughed. His eyes itched from the insulation. It was very quiet.
“Hello!” he said, his voice echoing sharply in the chamber. “Can you hear me?” he yelled. The wind played at the tattered opening above him like a dry flute.
Zorf limped around the room, looking for an exit. He was inside an architectural flourish, a windowless, doorless ornament. It wasn’t meant for people. His predicament at first panicked, then calmed him. He was alone, and responsible for nothing. He sat down, closed his eyes, and focused on his breathing.
After Zorf disappeared into the tower The Sudden Stop gave all four sides of the building a second pass. They found the fire escape right away. It was narrow, and painted green. They’d overlooked it in their panic to find a suitable jump. The whole team took it single file all the way down to the street. They felt sheepish in front of the crowd, which cheered. A few minutes later the theater’s roof collapsed and the beautiful structure was reduced to a pile of smoldering debris. The fire department, which had come from two counties over, finally arrived and put it out easily with fat spouts of water. The Sudden Stop told them about Zorf, and asked if he might be alive. They said it was worth checking, and so a ladder was raised against the tower and a team of able men scaled it. They dropped a metal basket into the opening and extracted Zorf like a clog from a drain. He was deposited on a limestone bench in the church’s courtyard.
Someone filmed your jump,” Bianca told him. A foil blanket was draped around his shoulders.
“What?” Zorf said, “Who?”
“Just someone watching,” Bianca told him. “It’s already online.”
“Oh my god,” Zorf said.
“Ask me how many people have seen it.”
“I don’t care,” Zorf said. “This is anathema beyond anything.”
“Seventeen million,” Bianca said. “They’re calling it the leap of faith. You know, because of the church.”
“Even worse,” Zorf said.
“I know, totally,” Bianca said. “But there’s all this money now, is the thing. From donations.”
“No,” Zorf said, “no way.”
“We didn’t set it up, OK? It just happened. Zorf, it’s up over a hundred thousand dollars. And still growing.”
“Give it all back,” Zorf said. “It’s bad money.”
“Not if we spend it on something good,” Bianca said. “We could pay off our debts. Grow the team!”
Zorf stood up. “I don’t want our team to grow.”
“But we could buy an old gymnasium, like we’ve dreamed about. Fill it with our gear. We could put down roots.”
“No,” Zorf said. “You put down roots, and they can get at you.”
Bianca shook her head. “Who?” she asked him. “Who can get at you?”
“The order-keepers,” Zorf told her. “The protectors of the status quo, the powers-that-be. All those establishment jerks we nearly got cooked for today. Even those brainless zombies watching us online. All they want is to control us. Make us ‘safe,’ legitimize us.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that?” Bianca asked. “We aren’t criminals, are we? If we had a place of our own, we wouldn’t need gigs like this. And no more trespassing.”
“I like trespassing,” Zorf said. “It reminds them of the score.”
At this point the team sensed something important was being decided, and gathered to listen.
“Look,” Bianca said, “I’ll be eighteen this year. No more school. No more money from my parents. Do you feel like sitting behind a desk? Because I don’t. This could be our ticket. We could make a living at this.”
“I don’t want a living,” Zorf said.
Bianca stared. “I have no response to that.”
Zorf adjusted his stance, his eyes wide. “You think you can hook up to their digital panopticon and live off the charity of its attention span? Please. It will destroy you.” Zorf made a gesture so as to include the whole team. “Ask yourselves what we stand for,” he said. “Is it comfort? Is it praise? Or is it struggle. Challenge. Risk! We’re cliff-dwellers, Bianca. We’re way, way out on the edge — no, beyond it! That’s our habitat. State of nature. Pure physicality. If that isn’t what you want, then you aren’t Sudden Stop. You’re anathema.”
When he’d finished, Zorf looked around and saw that his teammates were all frowning. They looked sorry for him.
Bianca placed her hand on Zorf’s shoulder. She patted it gently once, twice, and turned away. The team followed her. Zorf, having said what he had to say, could only watch them go. He listened as their bright conversation echoed back to him off the storefronts.
“First thing we’ll do is find a good bank,” Bianca was saying, “then contact an ISP, and I’m telling you I want a blisteringly fast connection . . . ” and so on.
When it was dark and the first-responders had gone home and the caution tape was in place around the smoking ruin of the theater, Zorf stood up. The only people left on the streets were staggering drunks and their caretakers. A bank of rolling clouds blotted out the stars and the wind was icy and swift. Zorf buttoned his jacket, rolled up his trouser legs, and climbed the radio tower on 7th Street. From this height he sat watching the sky, mindlessly tying his shoes over and over and hoping for a cold, soaking rain.
HOLT CLARK survives by working as a tech writer for some of the largest companies on earth. You’ve probably thrown out his instructions before. In his free time he writes fiction. His work has been published in Gone Lawn and Abstract Jam. You can contact him at email@example.com