The floating started on the way back from the casino. The kid from out of town was driving him home. Andy, or Amos, something like that. Clayton couldn’t remember. Had he given Andy a twenty? More? Marissa said he was always tipping too much, and now he was here, at night in Nevada, a half-hour south of Carson City.
“You all right, man?” The kid was looking at him, concerned. ”You don’t look good, you sure you’re going to make it?”
“I feel fine.” Clayton did, actually. He felt light, pure. He shrugged his shoulders.
“You pointing at stuff?” Andy asked. “I’m going the right way, yeah?”
They sped through an intersection, one Clayton recognized--the hair place, the gas station, and the burger drive-through--meaning they had another five or so minutes in the car.
“Keep on. I’m in the next town, I’ll tell you which turn is mine.”
Andy said he was in town for a job interview. The company, some creative consulting agency, had flown him out. Bright-eyed kid, optimistic, annoying. Half an hour ago Clayton had lost his last hundred dollars to Andy, and six hundred more before that. The hands they played were a story in their own right, but with nobody to tell, he might as well forget—Marissa wouldn’t be there when he got home.
He’d considered driving his own car back, but it was a three block walk from the casino to his car and he was cold.
“I'll drive you back,” the kid said when they got outside. The night smelled like sweet sage. His wallet felt thin in his pocket.
“Yeah, is it far?”
“Not too far.”
Clayton climbed in the passenger seat of the kid’s rented Buick. Was the kid sober enough to drive?
Better than me, he thought, and put his feet up.
They drove, radio off, down Carson City’s deserted main street, past its car dealerships and casino movie theater and bowling alley. Nobody on the road.
Clayton wanted to sit quietly and warm his hands, think back to Marissa and the eighty grand they had. He wanted to lose himself in memories but the kid was still talking to him. They were buddies now, supposedly.
“When I’m back in town after I take this job we should meet up,” Andy was saying. “I need someone to show me around, take me to cool places.”
“I can take you places you’ve never dreamed of. Back rooms, parties with high rollers and performers. I’ve had midnight meals with comedians, actresses, dancers. Everyone is pretty chill, if you are.”
“Yeah, okay. Really cool.”
Clayton was playing it up, remembering what it was like before, when they were in the money.
Clayton thought of the women he’d been with in Marissa's absence, and felt a sour emptiness. Sleeping around comforted him for a while. Each kind soul whispered soothing songs he ultimately had to reject, sweet nothings he knew were nothing sweet.
None of them stopped up where he was missing her.
Marissa and Clayton were supposed to have started a real life together, make a down payment on a beautiful home — they’d talked Hawaii — considered Oahu. How could he deal with the un-knowing? The unwinding of her in his mind? Now he was no longer playing poker he couldn't think of anything else.
“You cool? You’re waving your arms all over the place.”
Clayton looked at the kid, then noticed his own arms floating in front of him, buoyant near the glove compartment. They reminded him of seaweed. He put them back at his sides.
“I’m cool. Sorry if I’m weird, I stayed drinking a little loo long.”
“You stayed losing a little too long.” Andy was grinning at him but when Clayton didn’t return the smile, he cleared his throat. “I play poker online, mostly. That was my first time in a real casino. I got lucky.”
“Yeah, you keep coming back, it'll catch up to you.”
They approached another intersection and set of swinging stoplights. Clayton recognized this one—he would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and see the different colors light up the wall where he'd hung a framed painting. Before Marissa left there'd been a mirror there.
He found the painting at a garage sale he'd gone to by himself. Oil on canvas, featuring a smattering of birds flying high in formation above swaths of wheat. Looking at it made him feel good.
“Here, turn here,” Clayton said to the kid. “The big stone pillar, the Woodland Estates, take a left.”
“Sure man, sure. Easy does it. I’m doing it, don’t pull your seatbelt off yet,” Andy said.
“I’m not, kid.”
But Clayton's body was lifting in his seat, tugging at the strap, the nylon tiught against his chest.
“Right here, right here. I live here.”
Andy hit the brakes, swerved to the other side of the street and started to turn into a private driveway. The motion got Clayton’s stomach in a twist.
“It's good. Here's good."
Clayton pulled the handle and kicked the door open.
He undid his seatbelt and at first seemed to bounce up, head catching the lip of the car’s hood, legs flowing out from under him. Clayton clawed for the door, but it was too far now. He was too far.
He was airborne, somehow, rotating backwards, wondering when his head would connect with something else. Concrete, grass, metal?
Now? Now? Now?
He never hit. The sky is so much bigger than I remember, he thought.
Now, the car—the kid’s face, upside down and staring. Now, the ground approaching, excruciatingly slow.
Clayton went another rotation and landed on his knees in the grass. He grabbed two handfuls of turf and started an unintentional handstand as his legs tugged him up toward the sky.
"Holy shit, man!" Andy shouted from the Buick.
Clayton pulled down and pushed back, to do the last part of a front flip. This time he got his feet on the ground, then reached for the grass again, crouching. When he had a good hold, he puked, and felt gravity return to him.
“You okay?” the kid asked, tentative. Clayton kept puking.
“Hey, well…thanks for the money for driving you, all right? I'm just, I'll go. All right? All right.”
Clayton heard the door to the car slam and the kid was driving away and he was glad.
Cherry-colored foam steamed from the cold grass like a hot meal. The sweat on his forehead had already become ice. He got to his feet, no longer floating, and limped up the stairs to the door of the two-bedroom apartment that used to be theirs. He wasn’t hurt—it was the limp of an alcoholic.
Keys in your pocket, it’s the long copper one with the pie chart holes at the top. Into the top deadbolt. Twist left, and push the lower handle forward. Lock it behind you.
Marissa's voice. She always helped him.
Once he was in the apartment he stood there, looking around. The furniture they’d bought together was gone, but the divots in the carpet were still there. He looked at the empty spot on the wall, where a fifty-five inch television used to be.
She’d taken the television, and all of his furniture. The only entertainment he had anymore came from books. She left plenty of those.
Five in the morning. In four hours he had to be at work.
He stumbled around the empty living room, pulling his clothes off until he was naked. The room was fifty degrees. Was the heat off? He pushed buttons on the thermostat until the screen read seventy-five.
Clayton flipped the switch on the wall down and up again.
The fans started _woof_ing. Along with the inflatable mattress (seventeen bucks at Target) he had a few plush blankets.
The microwave clock glowed green, albeit with the wrong time, but at least he had electricity and it gave him a little light. He plugged in the phone near his mattress, and as he pulled himself into bed he felt the dizzy embrace of the alcohol, and thought how much he’d had to drink. He wished it was more, then realized he could address that.
He had bottles of Sam Adams in the fridge, fewer than six but more than three. He went and got one, using the counter to pop the cap off.
“Put me to bed, Sammy.”
Clayton drank the whole bottle naked in front of the open door.
He dropped the empty in the trash, hearing it clink against the other bottles there. I should buy groceries, he thought. Clayton tottered into the bedroom and fell into the mattress, landing lightly despite his clumsiness. He pulled the covers over his face, eyes fluttering shut.
He dreamed he was a tiny man trying to flirt with a regular-sized woman in a smoky cocktail bar. She never noticed him until she stabbed him through with a cocktail sword and bit him off it with her teeth, before chewing him to death.
"I love you," he said, arms and legs coming off between molars.
Clayton awoke on the ceiling.
His first thought was, I must have gotten twisted in the blanket and fallen out of the bed. That made sense. What didn’t make sense was why his left arm, snaked out the side of the cover, didn't feel like it was resting on floor rug or wood panels. His arm instead felt like it was resting on...tacks? No, stucco. Clayton pulled his head up to get a better look and knocked his head on a fan blade.
The inflatable mattress hung above him, like it was screwed there, like an out-of-body experience he had his back to. Light climbed in through drawn shades and cast wedged shadows on the floor. The ceiling, where Clayton lay surrounded by the hanging shroud of his down comforter (pinned to the ceiling as if by a magnet), was caked in darkness.
Clayton rolled onto his back, then got the feeling he was going to fall, was about to drop from the ceiling and bust his head on the bed frame. If it happened he'd be unable to avoid being taken apart by the post.
He didn't fall.
As he untangled from his sheet it fluttered up toward the bed, a fabric stalactite accelerating then crumpling flat.
He got up on one knee from the prone position, then stood up. The pointed tips of the stucco broke under his heels. He stepped around the ceiling fan and walked to the bathroom, straddle-hopping the wall above the door.
A moment of panic--was it drop tile ceiling in the bathroom? He couldn’t remember. His foot came down and he didn't step through a tile. He was standing. The ceiling of his bathroom was solid and supported his weight when he stepped inside. Clayton breathed a deep sigh of relief.
It was dark. The light switch, normally on his left, now on his right. He pulled it down, and the upside-down bathroom was flooded with upside-down light. He shuffled to where the toilet was.
The way he ended up having to make it all work was on his back, his johnson pointing up at the bowl on the ceiling. Urine broke up on the way down, pittering on the seat, splashing on the wadded togtether t-shirts and underpants on the linoleum above the bowl.
Clayton left the bathroom, again hurdling the doorframe.
In the kitchen, the counter was just the right height for him to reach up and pull the bottle of ibuprofen from it. He tipped the bottle down but no pills came out. He put his hand over the opening and rotated it, until he could feel the little capsules piling into his palm crease. He closed his palm and tipped the bottle back around.
He held two ibuprofen caplets in his hand.
He dropped the bottle. It flew up, tapping the counter with one rolling edge and pinwheeling up to the floor. Pills were ejected from the spinning plastic tube, and Clayton was reminded of the bottle rocket he’d convinced his kid brother to light off in the house where they grew up.
He opened the refrigerator and had to stand on tiptoe for a beer, which he tugged down by its cap. He held it for a minute, trying to work out in his head just how this was going to go. How would he drink?
Clayton pulled the cap off with his shirt, then quickly righted the bottle so that only the smallest amount of alcohol escaped to the ceiling.
He threw his head back and lifted the bottle as if he were preparing to balance it on his chin like a top-heavy bowling pin. He got his lips around it, then doubled over. Beer rushed into his mouth and he gulped until it started coming out of his nose. He pulled the bottle free, eyes drowning in tears and carbonated malt foam, and it accelerated away from him and spun out, creating clouds of beer in the linoleum sky.
He tried again, with another beer, doing it slower. It went better that time.
His phone rang.
On the floor by his bed, and he couldn’t reach. By the time he’d dismantled the shower curtain rod in the guest bathroom and knotted the spaghetti spoon from his kitchen counter to one of its ends with a tie--the purple one--from the top of his dresser, he could see on his screen that he’d missed four calls. His work. All of them. He struggled for fifteen minutes to cradle the phone in the womb of the spaghetti spoon and pull it up, but all he managed to do was kick it around the carpet.
“I’m doing something wrong,” he said.
Normally he’d be frustrated with himself, because calling in sick wasn’t hard. Especially when you were recovering from a big one, since faking it wasn’t really faking it anymore. But this time? Was he supposed to feel like he was even more incompetent just because his body had floated to the ceiling in the middle of the night and stuck there like he were a balloon?
He pushed the phone into the living room, and then onto the kitchen floor. Then he took a deep breath, climbed on top of the cupboards hanging above the oven and grasped the lip of counter. He used it to guide his jump upwards, and then the phone was in his hand and he was falling back to the ceiling.
The plastic covering on the fluorescent bulb case shattered, and so did the lights. Clayton rolled out of the way as best he could, avoiding the scary-looking sprinkler as the aftermath of his mission went flying up to meet the floor.
“This is going to take some getting used to.” He dialed his work and asked for Steve, his supervisor.
“Steve? Clayton. I’ve been having more than the usual amount of trouble getting out of my apartment this morning."
"You coming in?"
"I don't think that's going to be possible."
Behind his boss's sigh, he heard phones ringing. Phones he wouldn't be answering today.
"All right, but one more time and I can't defend you to Carter anymore."
"I didn't know I was cutting it that close."
“Clay, we're losing money right now. Everyone's watching everyone. Gareth has been trying to get you canned since we hired him. He'll say something to Carter, Carter will ask me, and this time you'll be all right, but next time? You're not doing yourself any favors."
The stucco in the ceiling was puncturing Clayton’s butt. He scratched his front tooth with a fingernail.
"I get it. But I got some stuff to work out. If I can make it in today I'll let you know, but I'm feeling a little turned around."
"Okay. Hey, poker tonight?"
"Probably not. Think I'm coming down with something." More like floating up with something, he thought.
"All right. Get some sleep and let me know by tonight if you're going to be in tomorrow or not."
Clayton pressed END and laid back, letting go of the phone a split-second before he remembered he wasn't supposed to do that. His arms did cartwheels above his head but he whiffed at all the air around it.
The phone broke into three parts when it hit the floor. The battery, the body, and the door that held the battery in. The battery spun across the carpet and under the living room sofa.
Clayton put his hand on his forehead and sat still for a moment, adjusting to his new reality.
Without his phone, time slowed down. He wanted to get back on the carpet, the stucco ceiling was painful in his feet. It was expert plaster pulling, a true marvel of engineering, but when he finally had to sit down the spines broke skin, making his eyes water.
There was no way to get down, he was pretty sure, especially after trying to climb up the closet drawers. They'd all failed on their hinging and come loose, giving him a second or two to claw at what was now the ceiling before falling back on the jagged plaster.
If the people upstairs were home, they’d think…what?
Clayton was naked and sweating. He felt the salty stuff drip up his nose and past his eyes. Some of it was blood. It was warmer up here, so he'd be all right for the time being. He moved over to the window facing the public park opposite the stoplight, and there he pulled the shutters up, bunching them easily between hands despite their desire to drop.
He looked out the window at the world reversed, the earth a green floating ball, this the underside. From this perspective, nothing bent to the ball, and below him lay an unimaginable dark, a dark beyond time and terror.
He was a man out of gravity. It really, really scared him, and he had no beer.
Toward late afternoon he was able to fall asleep, even though he was sweating his balls off. He'd managed to crush down an area of stucco with his fingernails so it wasn't so sharp, then sat there while clearing places for the rest of his body.
Finally he had a place to put his shoulders that didn't dig into the already holes he'd gotten from the climbing episodes. When he thought about all the spots of blood on his ceiling and the broken closet shelving and drawers from the bathroom he chuckled--remembering his girlfriend saying, before she moved out,_ "At least you'll get the security deposit."_
He got to sleep humming a song, because he had a massive headache. No beer or pills for the migraine this time.
His spot on the ceiling was right above the couch, in the living room. He didn't feel like going back into his own room, not close enough to the door--that had been his original reasoning, but maybe he'd feel safer in there than with this view out the window.
Here over the couch, were he to get flipped back into regular gravity during his nap (which he hoped would happen) or coma (which he hoped wouldn't happen) he'd land somewhere safe. Or my psyche will. I think that's how that would work. If nothing flipped, he'd wake up on the ceiling no worse for wear.
The sleep was thin and cold, and he felt at all times to be just a part of him submerged, eyelids dipped under a pudding skin of consciousness.
Clayton dreamed of walking the dog she'd had, a little schnauzer mix that was wearing schnauzer jeans and a schnauzer button-down shirt, out and around the neighborhood and back again. Clayton was naked. He walked the dog that never seemed to get tired past an apartment, where his landlord waved from a window. The dog, nodded its head at the landlord, then hunched forward and got small.
The dog pretended to be tired and the leash went slack. Clayton walked it back to his apartment, where it plopped down on his bed and yawned a violin-stroke of relief and took its shoes off. Clayton laid down on the kitchen floor and licked Cheerios from under the dishwasher.
Later he dreamed he and the dog walked on a desert road. The dog (wearing leather now) lost itself among the cacti (but where here, in Nevada, were cacti?) and then the dream shifted and he was with the dog--now found--under a giant fiberglass sculpture outside a chocolate factory. The dog pointed to an open car door. Another dog was hanging out the driver's door chewing grass and vomiting.
The sky went dark and Clayton’s eyes were opening. He awoke, still on the ceiling. He scratched his scabs.
Without beer or coffee, he tried to get his aching head to lull itself back into the slow temptation of sleep, but it would always jar him out of it with a sharp pain, and each time he drooled a trail of slime from ceiling to floor.
In the morning he felt the people upstairs get up and go to work. He had turned in his sleep, was on his belly now. His upstairs neighbors thumped above him and their weight pushed his shoulder, his groin forward. There was a light walker and a heavy walker. The heavy walker stepped where his head was.
The two talked.
He tried to yell through the ceiling. "Help! I live below you and I need help!" It took several tries to get his voice going, and by the time he was able to do a proper yell the footsteps had left and he felt their front door close as they left.
“But then what? They come home, there’s a hole in their floor, a naked guy on the ceiling.”
He tried to imagine what he would do in coming home to that situation, and decided to stop wasting energy planning a hole in the ceiling below him. Besides, a solution that required other people every step of the way was hardly a solution.
He ate pasta and rice from the cupboard for breakfast.
He had to do a chin-up to snatch a pot from under the sink (a wire hanger was instrumental in helping him get the doors open) but the rest wasn’t so hard. Water in the pot, pot on the stove, a little tiptoe twist of the burner knob.
He watched the water boil for a while, sitting above the burner as the steam found him on his back on the ceiling, warming him nicely. He thought of how cold he’d been last night, how he’d dreamt through chilled pain.
"One day soon, I'll be a balloon, singing a tune, on my way to the moon," he chattered to himself.
He put the pasta and rice into bowls, and then poured the bowls into freezer bags. In order to eat the food in any traditional manner, he’d have to hold the bowl or plate and any utensils upside down to eat, the idea of which baffled him.
So he squeezed food into his mouth from the corner of the freezer bags and walked to the study and pulled a book from the upside down bookshelf.
The Bible. Clayton sat above the bookcase and tried to read it—it was heavy and after a while his hands shook and he dropped it.
Watching the Bible fall up to the floor, Clayton got the idea.
There was duct tape under the bathroom sink, and he had books. More books than he was heavy, he knew that. Which meant there was a way out of the apartment. There was a way to get help, maybe even to survive, without flipping back.
He could shove books in his jacket, down his pants, strap them around his legs and arms and torso. He would make himself a suit of books, to grant him entry back into the world.
Books helped him pass the time, or could, and by the time he'd figured out how to lay on his belly over the toilet and hit the water the second time he realized his brain needed something else to do. He could think about how she wasn't here anymore or how he couldn't watch the TV she'd taken with her or how their bank account used to have $80,000 in it until he'd gambled it away, but it wasn't doing him any favors.
He got Darwin's The Origin of Species from one of his bookshelves and spent an afternoon leafing through it, skipping ahead any time he didn't understand, which was often.
When he was satisfied he couldn't get much more meaning from it, he taped it to his leg.
It was getting dark out and he was tired and he felt he could sleep. He wouldn't be using alcohol this time, and while it made him feel proud not to be drinking he still felt a longing for it. In his gut, and in the dull ache near the base of his skull.
The next morning he ate a sleeve of fig newtons, drank orange juice out of the carton with a straw and taped more books to himself. A History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell. Heart of Darkness, by Conrad. A Connecticut Yankee by Twain.
It took him a few hours but eventually there were enough books taped to him where he felt himself rise up off the ceiling a slight bit.
He could stand up straight without help. When he leaned back he couldn't fall down, but books were hanging off him in odd angles.
It took him all of his strength, and more than once he wanted to pass out—he had no water left and no way to survive if this didn't work--but he eventually had enough books, he presumed, to match his weight.
When he was finally buoyant, after a full day of work, Clayton floated in the middle of his living room and cried. His arm muscles and back muscles were strained and screaming. He twitched, he was numb.
Throughout the performance of his emotions, he imagined Marissa coming through the door seeing him there. Maybe she’d be ready to treat him with scorn, but she’d see him floating there and she’d get scared, and sympathy would open her up and she’d come back to him.
He scolded himself. Stop entertaining daydreams. He was stalling, delaying his mission in order to entertain mentally-engineered dramas.
He swam to the shelf and grabbed another book, Don Quixote by Cervantes.
His head touched the floor above him, very gently. The occurrence startled and heartened him so much that he redoubled his efforts, adding book after book while he accumulated against the floor. At this point he was able to turn himself right side up, and was able to stand in his kitchen again, for the first time in days.
Standing on the floor, blood filled his head and the veins in his neck and his face, and he suspected if he saw himself in a mirror his hair was standing straight up.
More determined than ever, Clayton spent another hour of taping himself up and was ready to leave.
Only one problem: his car isn’t in the parking lot. It’s at the casino, a few blocks away.
He needed to put together his phone, call the kid Andy to come pick him up and bring him back to his car, he needs to snag his wallet and then he can drive to Walmart.
His phone came back to life, notifications scrolling out of view. Clayton ignored them, instead opening his contacts and looking for the kid he’d added, the one in from out of town for a job interview, the one who’d driven him home and seen him literally flip out on the lawn. If he was even still around, with his rental Buick.
About an hour later, Andy called him.
“I’m here, down in the parking lot.”
Getting down the apartment stairs was an exercise in learning how to walk with this new shape—he almost fell several times, and as he was passing through the car park he tripped and left a big brown handprint in the driver's side panel of a white convertible.
He looked up and down the car park as he bounced along, hair pulled up into the sky, sunglasses threatening to drop off his face. His hair was pulled from his skin with every shift. The tape made it hard.
He tried not to think of the small margin of mass keeping him attached to the planet, the endless fall that awaited below him, and he stood upside down against his instincts. Some primal part of him wanted to shed books, and do a half-turn, flipping forward and navigating via a kind of hand-walk, akin to the way an astronaut might pull himself around on a space walk. Every time he had a new sensation that was unfamiliar or inverted his body was wracked with sweat.
It took a lot of practice and plenty of frustration, and thankfully nobody stopped him to say anything, but he finally got to Andy’s car. He opened the door and pushed himself into the passenger seat.
They drove to Carson City, Andy looking at him sideways and trying not to ask about the bulges under all of Clayton’s clothing.
“So, what’s, how did your week end?”
“Not well. I haven’t left the apartment. I didn’t go to work. I probably got fired. I got a bunch of books under here, with me. People are going to think I’m crazy.”
“You are crazy. You went all in with pocket eights.”
“See, I knew you wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. Remember what happened when I got out of the car?”
“That was actually really weird. Or it was, until—hey, have you watched the news the last few days?”
“No, I don’t have a TV.”
“Hey,” Clayton said, suddenly reminded of something. “Did you get that job? How did your interview go?”
“I was late to the interview, but I called and apologized and we rescheduled for later that morning. Turns out they were okay with it, or were set on me, and I got an offer. If I say yes I have to move out here.”
“Do you want the job?”
“I don’t know. I have to return the car tonight and fly back, and I have a few days to think.”
“Well, trust your gut. Listen to the tug.”
The kid nodded slowly, but didn’t say anything much of the rest of the way. When they’d driven past the casino parking lot and stopped in front of his car he seemed relieved to finally be rid of the bulging man he’d had a momentary affinity for during poker a few nights before.
Favors had been called in, and in the opposite direction than was probably expected.
“Well, thanks again,” he said, getting out of the Buick. Andy nodded, smiling uneasily, and drove away. Clayton knew he wouldn’t see him again.
Then he tottered to his car and unlocked it, pulling himself into the driver’s seat.
Inside the car, that was the most normal he’d felt since before driving to the casino. Behind the wheel, with his right foot on the gas. He felt grounded.
What did he need? Food. Water. Rope. A drill. Something to fashion a new upside down life in the apartment. Prepare for a trip to the caves, if need be.
He'd cope this way. He'd get by like this. He'd have to. He breathed while looking at the people as they returned to their cars.
He drove to Walmart.
Clayton didn’t want to get out of the car. He had to convince himself that he’d be back sooner than he knew, that he’d be driving again, feel right again, in less than an hour. He counted to ten, then opened the door and stepped out.
The whole time he shopped, Clayton could feel people watching him.
He knew why.
He was light on his feet and his legs were very large at the bottom. He looked like a tree, but had to go slow so he could get the necessary traction from the floor. The way he moved must have been very strange to see.
He got the items from the hardware section and was walking back when he passes the bulk food section. Theme a woman there, and he saw her from the side.
Clayton knew as soon as she moved her head the slightest degree toward him, toward the sound, that it wasn’t her.
Instead of making eye contact with the woman who looks over at him, he looks past her. He pretends not to see her. He bounces past her, pretending to look at chips.
Of course Marissa wouldn’t be shopping here, she was probably in Reno, or Vegas. Or California, more likely.
Clayton went through the self-checkout, avoiding any kind of verbal interaction. He went through the doors of the Walmart and into the sunlight and breathed a big sigh of relief.
When he got home he would rest, and he would use his apartment like normal, right side up. Thinking about getting home and resting on the ceiling.
As the doors opened equally to the left and right on the way out, someone screamed. To his left, there was a little white woman pointing at him, about to scream again.
It was the woman he’d mistaken for Marissa.
"That man looks like he's strapped with something dangerous! That man, right there! His face is so red and his hair is going straight up, he's scaring me! He doesn't look safe, he makes me afraid to shop here!"
“No, I don’t, I’m not--” Clayton tried to address the woman who had screamed, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was waving at people behind him, she was windmilling her arms and was screaming again.
“This guy, right here!”
"Sir, can you come this way?" A security guard approached Clayton from behind, so he turned.
Clayton stopped. "I can try. What's the problem?"
"Well, sir, it looks as though you're hiding a large amount of merchandise under your clothes,” the security guard said.
"Open your coat."
Instead, Clayton clutched his jacket closed, clutched it tighter than he had before. The security guard stepped forward and forced it open for himself, then looked inside.
His face changed.
The security guard started pulling at books. Out came Ulysses, by James Joyce. Out came Cosmos by Carl Sagan.
”What are you doing, sir?" the security guard screamed in his face.
“Stop, please!” Clayton said, “These are all my books, these are all mine. There's nothing against the law about that. I strap my books on me. Please don't touch me. I need to take my groceries home.”
The security man wasn’t listening. ”I don't think you're telling the truth. Why would you come here like that?"
He removed more books from Clayton’s body. Some Shakespeare, some Dickens. He could feel the sky tugging at him.
“Stop it, I haven’t committed a crime. They don't even sell these books in there. These are my books."
To his horror, they didn’t stop. Now there were more, security all around him, peeling books off him, laughing at him, calling him a thief, saying they haven’t seen a criminal so dumb in years.
"Books aren't clothes, sir.”
“Don't do that, you’re killing me!"
Clayton was starting to float.
At first the security guys fought against him but soon it became apparent he was hard to hang onto. They let go and Clayton floated up.
"Pull me back down, help! I want to live!” He screamed. He was floating past their eyes and none of them had a hold on him.
Instead they drew their guns and pointed at him as he floated out of reach.
"He's getting away! He's flying away!" screamed the white woman with her grocery cart.
They watched him go higher and higher. Clayton felt himself vibrate to numbness, and as he watched them—the security guards' guns drawn and pointed upward—he thought once more about his vision of safety, of final escape, how he would eventually strap himself into a car and drive, blood rising in his face and hair billowing up near the closed moon roof, toward the caves.
He felt the terrible feeling of having lost everything.
"Throw them back! Throw them!" It was hopeless, he knew. He screamed for them to throw the books at him anyway.
Then he remembered the rope.
He dug for it, dropped it and watched as it unfurled. When it was fully unraveled the bottom end was still above the roof of the Walmart.
The people below him got smaller and their guns fell away.
They might as well have shot him.
Clayton lost his job a day after disappearing into the sky. He was never heard from again. Although the next morning and over a few weeks, several books were found in backyards and at least one in a chimney.
The Origin of Species burned all up.