From the author: When gravity fails, Isaac looks for what holds him.
The first thing Isaac noticed was the rhythmic dripping from the hydrant stopped. The water collected, in a droplet that wobbled as it grew, but never fell. Isaac was on East 43rd Street, almost on Third Avenue, sitting on the fire hydrant. Gravity had let go.
People tripped but didn't fall. They floated upward, arms and legs scrambling for something to hold them to earth. Traffic on Third Avenue lost its grip on the pavement. Cars going thirty miles an hour ricocheted off one another. The chime of shattering glass was almost as loud as the racing engines. A small bump at the intersection became a ramp, enough of an upward push to launch car after car into the air. Before they had reached the intersection at 44th the cars were forty feet in the air, some higher. The drivers with fast instincts—some might say the smart ones—threw themselves out of their cars immediately. The really smart ones made sure to push off their car, aim themselves toward the ground, hold hands with other passengers or neighboring drivers. The more cautious simply stayed belted into their seats, hands hurting against the wheel, screaming for help that would never come. In less than a minute a cloud of revving vehicles and broken glass had risen above Third Avenue. Above every avenue. The rumble of engines gave way to horns, sirens and screams. Some cars rose as if they had suddenly learned how to fly: Level, magical, serene. Most tumbled. End over end, barrel rolls, or both. They knocked one another, caught and crushed floating pedestrians, hit buildings, high and higher, passed by windows filled with hands and faces of office workers lucky to have been inside instead of in the sun and fresh air.
A year earlier, Isaac had narrowly avoided two trucks crashing into one another. One had run a red light. He had suddenly been between them, at their nearest point, the front bumper of the light-runner swinging toward him. Later, over drinks, he'd told Julie and a group of other bicycle messengers how it had all been a blur.
"I saw the bumper coming at me, and something said 'duck' and I did, and I went under the fucking side mirrors as they hit." His friends didn't believe him until Julie picked a shard of mirror out of his hair, sprinkled there with other, smaller bits.
"Thank God you've got good reflexes," Julie said. She had smiled, proud and aroused. This was before Zachery was born, before Julie learned to hate him, before she saw nothing but faultlines across his surface.
"Yeah," said his friends, almost a chorus. "Good reflexes."
The trucks had collided just behind his back wheel, the light-runner smashing into the UPS truck, folding in its side between the front and back wheels on the driver's side. As he passed under the mirrors, their shattering blossoming over his head, he looked straight into the eyes of the UPS driver. The woman was terrified, face taut, mouth a line of clenched teeth. It was her eyes that stood out. Wide, piercing, and looking through him. As he heard the metal ripping behind him he remembered that as far as drivers were concerned cyclists didn't exist until they were under tires. This was common knowledge among bicycle messengers. He had pulled to the curb, turned around and looked at the two trucks, now one. The UPS driver was out on her passenger side, shaking her head and turning pale. The other driver bled behind the wheel. Isaac breathed heavily and listened to the strange silence. He had good reflexes.
When gravity let go he heard the dripping stop, he saw the pedestrians trip, and the cars lift. He felt himself lighten as if every burden and worry were gone. And in that moment he simply reached down and took hold of the hydrant. A small chain connected the cap to the base. He gripped it and gave a slight tug, a test. He did this before the first cars had drifted north of 44th, before he registered that his bike was slightly spinning in place because his foot had tapped it. He held the chain and looked across the street. A man smoking a cigarette hung only an inch above the ground, eyes full of panic. Above him spun a jogger, her screams amounting to nothing, already twenty feet up. The world was a horror of bodies at rest, bodies in motion.
Marcus held the chain and reached out with one foot to hook his bike. Even this small movement lifted him from his seat. In seconds he was parallel to the ground. He held on, gathered his bike, then re-angled himself, got his feet against the ground, used a little pressure on the chain to hold himself in place.
"I'm like a mountain climber," he thought. Marcus had never been to the mountains. Now he was in a city of them.
Nearby, pigeons struggled to fly in straight lines. They approached and flapped against the ground, windows, people. They looked like they were attacking. It was panic. Nothing held them in place. Some flew straight up, like rockets. Their screeching said their hearts wouldn't last long.
A little way up the street was a school with a scaffold erected in front of it. Some people had been under it for shade. They now clung to the poles and the bars. People climbed from windows. Most of them were panicked teens, linked together like a paper-chain, and not half as strong, kicking and grabbing and screaming. And only now were they all learning that the scaffold wasn't attached to the ground. Its connection to the building was minimal. Scaffolds rely on gravity more than foundation, and what foundation they have is borrowed. All the motion of these scramblers went into the scaffold. It lifted off the ground in one piece. People already on the scaffold screamed at others to stop moving, to leave. A police officer pulled a gun.
Isaac held his bike and bag in one hand. The bike had always been light, now it was nothing. He aimed them at the scaffold. He counted to two and pushed off. He had thought to push lightly but was hurtling. Some on the scaffold saw him coming and held out hands to stop him. One woman screamed at him to stay away.
He crashed into the scaffold but at just the point he had aimed for, his motion pushing the metal structure back into place for a moment. He pulled his bike toward him and unwrapped the thick chain and lock from its handlebars. He pushed the bike toward the ground gently. It would wait there. As people clung to the bars around him he climbed over them to a spot where two metal poles intersected beside a "No Parking School Zone" sign. He wrapped the chain around the bars and the street sign's pole. People continued to scream at him. He locked the chain. At the other end of the scaffold was a doorway into the school propped open with a brick. Isaac climbed toward it. People fought at the doorway, some to get in, others to get out. Children were screaming. A police officer hovered nearby one hand holding a bar, the other on his gun. He screamed louder than everyone, yelling to remain calm.
Isaac looked him in the eye until his gaze was met.
"I need your handcuffs."
"Fuck you." The cop was covered in sweat.
Isaac held out a hand. He was skinny from hundreds of miles sweated onto the streets. His arms a map of tattoos. "Man, I need the cuffs. We've got to lock this thing down or these kids are going to fly away."
The cop looked at Isaac. Scaffolding groaned around them. They floated beside one another, closer and then further away. They both struggled to keep their feet pointed toward the ground—everyone did—which now struck Isaac as insane.
"Lock it down how?"
"The door, man. Please." He held out his hand.
The cop looked at the door and nodded, not to Isaac but to himself. He didn't look back at Isaac as he cuffed the scaffold to the door handle. It wouldn't last. How could it? What would?
When Isaac discovered that Juliet had left him—taken Zachery and headed to her mother's place—he had just finished a double shift on the hottest day of July. He'd returned home and noticed what was missing. It wasn't hard: their apartment was too small to be called cozy, a one bedroom with built in air quotes around the one, big enough for a bed if you didn't mind one side pressed flat against the wall, no door between bed and living rooms, a kitchen big enough to overheat if you lit a pilot light. A place that big you see what's missing the way you miss a tooth after a brawl. What was missing was this: everything that belonged to Zachary, Z, Mr. Z. Toys. Clothes. Diapers. Even the diaper can, the confusing plastic container with odor proof—air quotes again no charge—bags and disposal system. Even that. The can of shit. Isaac had stopped in the door the moment he saw the living room. Keys in the door. He knew immediately. The room was Mr. Z free. Juliet had left behind most of her own stuff. Isaac never did figure out what if any of her things were gone. The closet was full of hanging clothes, dirty laundry in the basket, dresser drawers over-full. As always. It was as if she hadn't gone, as if only Mr. Z had. As if he had never been. The suitcase was gone. Bulging, he was sure, with blankets and diapers, rumbling through the subways on its way to Port Authority's bus terminal, a suitcase of toys bound westward to New Jersey.
Isaac hadn't needed to find the note to know that's where she was headed. When he found it later it was as of he'd already read it. As if he had written it. Isaac had stopped in the door, already knowing what she had done, and he had closed the door and walked back outside, pushing his bike ahead of him to the corner. Key still in the lock. He'd gone into a corner bodega, hadn't even chained up the bike because who would want it, dented and beaten, ridden hard so it was nearly a blur, and bought a water and a donut and then peddled off, one in each hand, steering handless, cruising downtown toward the dispatch office to beg for more hours and no questions.
Isaac held the scaffold for only a minute. It wasn't going to stay in place much longer. People refused to leave it. Its population grew with weightless immigrants. The scaffold moved in every direction at once. It shuddered with everyone's need for stability.
His bike and bag hovered where he'd left them. He pulled himself over and through crowded children and adults. Some offered feeble reminders to calm, to wait, to be assured. Wait for whom? Assured by what? Those people held one hand in the air as if their palm offered a message, the other hand gripping white-knuckled on metal bars.
He reached his belongings and realized how useless they would be. What was a bicycle now? What was the bag full of envelopes? He grabbed the bag anyway, he might need that. He left the bike. Should everything suddenly come crashing down he would come back for it.
An explosion shook the air. Another. Isaac felt the waves of it ripple through the air, felt himself pushed slightly, like a bubble in a wave. He looked up. What might have been parts of an airplane were streaking through the sky, those that didn't pierce office buildings spun forever upward. Among the pieces were softer shapes. People, spinning away. Constellations of panic filled the sky.
At the corner was a drug store. Isaac pushed himself across the street, pushed off like he was swimming laps, aimed at a parking meter. He pushed from solid object to solid object. Parking meter to street light to bus stop. He passed underneath people floating dozens of feet above him. He shouted how sorry he was he couldn't help them. They didn't care for apologies. They wanted help. He had apologies.
He reached the store on his sixth push. He expected the door to be locked. The people on the other side of the doors weren't nearly so organized. Most items were still on the shelves but were beginning to drift. It was subtle. The world was turning and leaving items behind. They fell from view, over the horizon of need, interest, concern.
Someone had kicked a display in their panic. Lotion and sunscreen bottles drifted in the air. Customers and employees clung to shelves and one another. They pulled themselves downward, attempting bring their feet to the floor, desperate and failing to recreate normal. Objects are resigned to drifting. Not so, people.
Isaac pulled himself inside and then pushed himself to the back of the store. He found only candy. He needed housewares. A sign pointed to the lower level. The escalators were still working. He grabbed the downward handrail and let it pull him downstairs. At the bottom was a louder kind of chaos. A man had gotten sick, his vomit sprayed and floating throughout the large room. A woman nearby held two children. The infant was screaming, red-faced, inconsolable. The older girl was laughing, swinging her arms and not at all interested in her mother's desire to protect her.
"I'm like a snowflake!" she yelled.
Her mother was not so thrilled. "Yes, honey. Stay with Mommy." Her voice was like a scream through glass, panic visible yet unheard.
Isaac found housewares. They had extension cords, all he'd hoped for. Maybe fifteen in all. He could share them. He thought this, contemplated doing so, hanging in the aisle beneath a sign that said "2: Housewares, cleaning products, tools." In the end he took nine ten-foot cords. He didn't ask if anyone needed help. He knew they did. He was halfway back to the escalator when the power went out. Screaming replaced the light.
Emergency lighting came on, just enough to see the ends of aisles. The lighting had been set up to guide along the floor, to avoid tripping and falls. This was unhelpful. There was so tripping, no falling. The screams continued. Isaac pulled out his cellphone, used the light to guide himself past the shelves to the ceiling. He pulled himself over the tops of shelves to the woman with the screaming children. He hovered near her in the dark. Close enough to touch her, he could hear her crying.
"Take my hand," he said. He held onto the chain of an aisle sign leading the way to allergy medicine and cold remedies. "I'm right above you."
The woman looked up. He couldn't see her face in the dark. "I can't move." She held onto a shelf. Isaac reached down, found her hand.
"Let go. Upstairs it's not dark. We'll find help."
What help, he wondered. He knew she wondered as well.
"I can't," she said.
"Come on, your babies need to be where the sun is shining."
"I know that!" She was screaming now. "You think I don't know that? Who do you think you are?"
He let go of her hand. "I'm sorry. I was just trying to help."
"Help?" Her voice shook. "Oh you were helping?"
"I'm sorry," he said again. He pulled himself along the top shelf down the aisle, back to the escalators and the glimmer of daylight there.
Upstairs more items filled the air as people grabbed whatever items suddenly seemed critical, even those items that clearly weren't. Makeup and bags of candy filled the air like blown dandelion seeds. Isaac made his way to the doors. Floating boxes struck his face and hands. He protected his eyes. Employees watched him, crying, holding onto the counter, the PA mike, each other.
Outside panic clung to window ledges and doorways. The sky was full of cars, garbage cans, bicycles, trash. The sky was full of people. Some kind of current ran from east to west, but many of the items and people rising above moved against it. Some of the lucky ones got hold of items big enough to push off against. Cars, trash bins, other people. Others clung to objects or one another. What else did they have?
The store was on the ground floor of the Chrysler Building. At the next corner Isaac could reach Grand Central. The 43rd Street entrance swarmed with hands, feet, fearful faces. Above the entrance spread a gold eagle statue. Men and women in business suits clung to it.
Isaac pushed the electric cords deep into his bag and pulled himself to a newspaper bin chained to a traffic sign. The entrance looked like a wall of bodies. He'd have to join it, find his way in.
Isaac pushed off against the newspaper box but it shifted. His angle was wrong. Nothing was within reach. He was drifting past the eagle statue. He would pass over Grand Central's eastern windows. He would fly over the building. He would continue on and up and never come down. Through nearby office windows people screamed at him, hands outstretched. He heard explosions behind him.
When Isaac had found Julie gone he'd asked for more work. Double shifts. His dispatcher obliged, never asked why. He didn't ask why Isaac sounded desperate, never asked for reasons why Isaac might need the money. "What is 'over-time?'" was a handwritten sign he kept on the wall over his desk. He had a cellphone, a landline, a computer, and no window. He was pale and his fingers were dark with smudged ink. He may not have known Isaac's full name.
"Sure. What hours you want?"
"All of them," Isaac had said. "Any time."
"You got it."
Isaac's paycheck more than doubled, two-thirds of which he sent to Julie's email address via electronic transfer. She never replied to any of the payments, but she did accept them. The money left his account as it came in. A river of currency.
Something under the pavement of Lexington Avenue exploded. People clinging to scaffolding and signposts nearby were cut by chunks of pavement become shrapnel, shoved by the shockwave from what had passed for safety into walls, windows, the air. Vehicles that had been hanging in parking spots, or those that had been blissfully waiting at a red light when gravity let go now drifted upward. Drivers who had felt safe in staying put now dealt with being mobile, opened doors, fled, some the wrong way: out, and ever up. The shockwave gave Isaac the push he needed. He was shoved by a hand of air toward the windows. His approach was too fast. He covered his face and slammed against the glass, ricocheted. Stunned, he couldn't react. The world went dark. When light crept back he was holding the hand of a worn, ageless man who simply said, "Got you, buddy, got you," as he pulled Isaac through a window. They floated above a walkway high above the floor of Grand Central's main concourse.
Debris rained against the glass around them. It sounded like hail.
Isaac held the man's hand for a moment. "Last time I push off with an anchor," Isaac said.
"You and me, both," the man said.
They let go of one another and drifted apart.
Isaac found his way along the walkway between the inner and outer windows to a window that allowed access into Grand Central's main hall. People filled its air. Stars decorated its ceiling. Where outside panic and pain accompanied the change, inside wonder and concern. A group of tourists held hands and shouted reassurances in German as they slowly formed a great ring in the air above the clock at the hall's center. They gathered one another, smiling. A giant bubble of people, wavering but not collapsing. It began to gather strangers, people not in their group but who needed those hands to hold—businesspeople, school children, transit workers. There was calm. There was even laughter.
Isaac pushed himself down to a terrace dominated by a computer store. He hooked his leg around a light fixture. He pulled the extension cords from his bag and began to tie them together.
Somewhere outside, somewhere over 43rd, floated Isaac's bike. It occurred to him he'd never see it again. It had tape over its handlebars and the seat was worn free of foam. It had a broken odometer. At one point, before Julie had left, he had tracked his daily mileage, writing the data into a small notebook. The notes weren't needed for anything, but they had made sense. At least to Isaac.
After Julie left the numbers had almost doubled. And when he looked back through the book he found extraneous information, unclear, unnecessary details.
Water bottle dropped on 2nd Avenue, near 13th.
Old man with tie, cane, stooped. Alone.
22.3 and 41.0 and
Gum, power bar, water (X3), almonds
Eventually the odometer had broken, only the tenths wheel moving, the miles unchanging, yet he'd still recorded the data for a time.
Until at last he'd filled the book, ending with a short note, scribbled late at night, that said, "Julie would think this obsessive and weird. And she would be right."
Isaac knotted the ends of the cords together. He pulled at each knot until his arms burned. A single rope would be better. That would come later. For now he had this. The cords knotted together would be around eighty feet. In his mind the gap between places to hold onto the Earth were far greater than forty feet, but he reminded himself of how he could find spaces between moving vehicles that weren't there, how he could ride atop a broken curb as if it were a boulevard, how he had sometimes found his way home after twenty hours of peddling and couldn't recall the ride home, or the last delivery, or the one before that. Even if forty feet was too short, he could make it work.
He tested it out in the safety of the grand concourse. He threaded the cord through a gap in the terrace railing and then picked a chandelier almost directly above him. Holding both ends of the cord he pushed off. He planned to hold both ends and reach his destination, let go of one end and pull the cord back. He'd planned to move from anchor to anchor. It didn't work. His angle was off, and the cord affected his trajectory. It was also too short, and he could already imagine the difficulty he would have outside, the slow pace of moving twenty or thirty short feet at a push. Better to rely on care and reflexes, he thought. They were all he had.
A man called to him. "Hey," he yelled. He floated near the chandelier, held the hand of an elderly woman who clutched at his side. "Over here."
Isaac looked but didn't respond. He thought he might have smiled.
"Toss the end of that up here." The man didn't say please. He shouldn't have to, thought Isaac. He just wants something to hold him down.
Isaac did his best to get the cord to the man, but it took a half dozen tries. The man and the old woman were patient, even encouraging.
"It's okay," called the woman. "I'm just enjoying the view." They all laughed at that.
At last Isaac discovered that tossing the loop of cords directly was the problem. Indirect might be better, and he tried to throw it in an arc that would cross them. He got it to them on his first try. Indirect is better, he thought.
He wrapped his legs tight around the light fixture and he and the man pulled to one another from either end of the cord. When they were all clustered together, the knotted cords a swirl between and around them, the man and old woman and Isaac all briefly embraced and thanked one another. Even Isaac, though he wasn't sure who he thanked or why. Thanks is better than nothing, he thought. He pushed himself along the railing, along the perimeter of the room toward the west side exit. The man called after him, held the cord up. Isaac waved a dismissive hand.
"It doesn't work for one," he said.
Before leaving he looked back just once. The human bubble at the center of the room had grown into a swarm, its architecture complex and writhing. It began to sing a hymn. Isaac didn't know the hymn or understand the words, but it reverberated through the hall, growing as it went. It was beautiful.
He had tried to contact Julie just once. The cell phone bill showed her calls and texts. She still used the phone, he still paid for it. He looked at each bill the way one looks at weather forecasts. Looks like it might rain. What's the weekend look like? Lots of texts to her Mom. What are all these calls to Manhattan? Details like stars: Distant and beyond influence.
Late one night, in his dark kitchen, in the breath-thin gap between ending and starting shifts, he dialed her number. As he pressed send he realized he should have called from an unknown phone, from one of the few remaining pay phones or from a burner bought from someone stealing luggage at JFK, his name and number would pop up on her screen. It was late or early. He wasn't sure how to judge. She would be asleep or awake or wrapped around some other man and unwilling to untie herself to connect with him. Isaac hit cancel.
He hadn't tried to keep any of the phone bills but finding one was easy enough. The apartment was layers of refuse, gathered through denial. He found one only a few months old. One number stood out. Manhattan area code, texts and calls, early and late. Every day of the week, even weekends. Isaac had sent a text:
"The question is, who is this?"
Again, the moment he hit send he realized his mistake. He'd shrunk himself to the size of his hurt and jealousy. He'd dug a hole and climbed in, weeping and alone, and waited for someone to kick dirt over him. He sent another message.
"Sorry, wrong number. Apologies."
He had imagined this lie would be as transparent as his first message had been impotent and flailing. He had also known he wouldn't call or text again, either number, with the fear that both phones would be in the same room.
Isaac exited Grand Central. Outside, things had gotten worse. The sky was cloudy with things previously thought heavy. Now cars, benches, police barricades, garbage dumpsters, store displays floated away like ideas best forgotten. Among them wriggled figures beyond screaming for help. Light was low, blocked by the cloud of society rising.
Isaac was safe under an overhang. He floated between those scrambling, swimming to get inside. He spotted the nearest street sign, only a few yards away, and with a small push he reached it. He saw down the alley of 43rd Street looking west; all the people there were clinging to every scaffold and sign, every hydrant and building facade. Seeds blown on the wind find odd purchase. At the corner of Madison an office building maybe twelve stories tall was under construction, it's scaffolding was wrapped under black nylon netting as extra protection against falling debris, like a shroud over the entire structure. This shroud, until just a few hours ago, had hung close to the building face. Isaac had passed it dozens of times since the shroud had gone up. He had begun to think of it as a mourner, a solitary black wrapped figure in the crowd of the city, the one who knew better than the others that time was passing, that decay was the only promise ever kept, that silent blindness was our only permanent union.
Now it didn't look like that at all. Now the scaffolds were crowded with people, and the black netting over it undulated with their crowded movement beneath it, like a sheet over lovers. The surface of the netting was alive, a sea of arms and legs, people holding the netting and one another, growing chains of survival, links of hand to hand to ankle to belt, some of them drifting upward, waving like fronds in water. The mass looked like a spiders nest, hatching, and soon the spiders would need to turn on one another. For now they seemed content with hatching and being alive.
Isaac tried to look further down the street. All the signs and streetlights were overgrown with people, like trees with branches made of people's waving arms, leaves of clinging hands. There was no place for a handhold, no target to aim for. He watched people strain to hold themselves earthward, give their whole being to something that only hours earlier required no thought, he watched panic build roots.
As he watched he saw pockets of calm grow. In fact he saw people moving over the surface of the street, back and forth. He pushed himself forward, floated to the nearest crosswalk sign, and found that the people there were carefully holding hands with those wishing to move along the street, giving gentle pushes in the right direction, making human chains linking doorway to doorway to window to pole. He watched a dozen people leap forward into the open arms of people waiting on scaffolding fifty feet away. Men and women with children tied to their belts were passed along with priority, ushered toward whatever destination called to them most. Red-shirted street cleaners from a halfway-house rehab program led the effort.
"Everybody got a home they got to get to," said one. "Everybody got someone they worried about. Help them so they can help another." He called this out as he caught people who flew toward him with outstretched arms and wet faces. He caught them as if he'd caught people like them his entire life.
Isaac pushed himself down the street and soon found a series of outstretched hands willing to move him along. The chains hung a dozen feet or more above the ground. They formed and broke quickly, quietly. Few spoke. Few had to. Everyone knew to hold on to something as you passed another, to catch and be caught. Isaac was a link along with all the others.
He floated west. When the sun broke through the cloud of floating objects it glowed and refracted between the buildings. Strange, rainbow-colored arcs moved slowly across faces, painted the chains that danced and moved the city through itself.
Before long he was near what had been the Hudson river. It no longer flowed. Without gravity there was no motion to the sea, there was only the water's momentum and this had lifted it out of the river bed. The refractions had come from massive spheres of water floating out of the valley of what had been the river's bed. Finally awake, the water had risen. Some spheres wobbled like tiny balloons of light high over the city. The water gathered to itself, car-sized, bus-sized, larger. Spheres of water touched and combined as if desperate for comfort. Through the water an orange sunset glowed, filled the water with light, caught in the dirty silt of it. Across the bottom of the riverbed an unmoving sludge, a black stink smeared toward the ocean. And the ocean no longer an wavering body but a wall, green-gray-blue and rising, casting a shadow across the city that it would soon hang over like a curtain.
Isaac joined a crowd at a railing overlooking the river. This had been a park, joggers and bikers had ridden this path overlooking the western waterfront. Now survivors clung to it, tried to plan for further travel or openly wept and prayed for a return to earth or an end to all things.
Isaac joined the crowds, was caught in a hug that included an array of arms and the tired, sweaty faces of those just like him. Come in, join us, we're all truly in the same boat at last. At last. He kept himself from being swallowed by the crowd. So many arrived and fought to hold the metal bars of the fence along the park that those clinging to it expected everyone needed it. They caught newcomers, accepted and welcomed them, absorbed them into the crowd's body toward its metal rail skeleton. Those like Isaac had to push back a bit, refuse acceptance, float at arms length. "No, I'm okay right here. Not staying." Most no longer heard explanations, or anything but their own need, nodded and pulled anyway; others stared, uncomprehending, as if they watched a drowning man call for ice water.
Isaac held those hands able and willing to help him float at the high edge of the wall of people, a spot where he could look across the muddy trough that had been where the Hudson lay for so long before waking up. It looked foamy and black, and solid as black pudding. There was nothing to hold onto.
Most everyone along the fence looked west, over the riverbed, toward the horizon fuzzy and blurring with debris of rising lives. An explosion called from the east. A gas main or some other repository of old world need had given up and had taken part of midtown with it. A funnel of dust, rock and glass rose up, at the center of it the black column of whatever building had been demolished. It turned clockwise as it rose, dozens of stories high. It would be a speck within an hour.
The crowd watched in silence. No words could carry what was happening. Isaac turned his back to it and concentrated on the gap between him and the far riverbank.
A man beside Isaac—they held hands, both helping and helped—said, "I got my mom and sister over there."
Isaac nodded. "I've got a son." He swallowed the rough edges of the "somewhere."
"People are heading to the tunnels and bridges," said the man.
"Tunnels are probably a nightmare." Isaac couldn't stop the flood of images, bodies jammed sausage thick, panic squeezing everyone's breath. Would there be light? Would there be air?
Isaac and the man examined the skyline becoming obscured with the explosion's dust cloud. They looked for some sign in it.
"The bridge is so far uptown," said the man.
"Too far," agreed Isaac. In his head he could see the route he would take if he were on his bike. He tried to slow his thoughts, to slow the route down in his head in order to spot places to hold onto. Were there enough street lights? Building scaffolds? Statues, building facades, bike stands, news stands, traffic lights, parking meters? He saw all of them, but were they real? He both saw and didn't see them constantly, they had been background. Now they were ground.
"I got to get over there," said the man.
"I know. Me too."
They floated and jostled with the movement of the crowd. Isaac held the man's left hand in his right. He didn't know the man’s name.
Isaac said, "We could jump across."
The man nodded, fast and aggressive, convincing himself. "Yeah." Isaac watched the man study the column of dust rising to support the sky over midtown. "I have to get over there."
Isaac stared at a spot across the gap. It looked like a ferry pier. Large spheres of water clung to it. Above it hung those ferries that had been docked, slowly drifting away on droplets the size of car lots.
Isaac said, "Let's jump."
People around them heard. There were hundreds within reach, yet the silence was hard as a closed coffin lid. A woman, black business suit dusted gray, said, "You're jumping across the river? I'll go with you." Others nodded approval. More fought to move away, afraid desperation was contagious.
Those making the leap gathered together. There were more than twenty. They decided on two groups of ten. Isaac spoke loud, suddenly certain he was the leader. "Push off toward that pier, look right at it and push on the fence. Like you're in a pool, pushing off the wall." Everyone nodded. They would hold hands. They would line up along the fence. People not leaping had cleared enough space that everyone going had plenty of room to push. Word of what was happening spread. By the time Isaac and his group were ready there was a roar of conversation, and Isaac had to shout to be heard.
"Stretch out and try to grab something on the other side. One of us will reach something."
And then he was counting. He couldn't recall what number he started at, but when he hit one and then yelled "push" everyone did. Almost immediately the group became a clotted mass of arms and legs, but soon people managed to unknot and not lose one another and they were a wobbly line coasting over the riverbed. Above them quivered spheres of water, murky and darkening as the sun was disappearing below the western horizon. As they coasted toward the Jersey bank Isaac could see orange sunlight leaking through gaps in the formerly solid looking landscape. They would miss the pier, but they might fly directly into the rows of trees beyond the docks. Row after row of tangled branches reached upward. Beyond that a large parking garage might catch them.
No one spoke, but there were sounds from the people they'd left behind. Isaac carefully looked over his shoulder, partially afraid of altering their course but needing to see why the yelling had gone up in pitch.
Behind him, from where he had pushed off and from all along the river, for as far as he could see, people where pushing themselves to the further shore. Alone and in groups, carefully and recklessly they leaped. Some at angles destined only for the thinnest air far above the surface, others disastrously into the silky black mud below them, but many with a chance to reach across what had been flowing water, and all with arms outstretched, as if leaping toward a call that promised a safe landing.