July 22nd, 2004

Mask

Make a Wish

The kid struggles out of his wheelchair, arms pressing against the armrests, lifting his small body. His movements remind me of a calf trying to stand beside its mother. His bald head doesn’t even reach my waist. I can see from his face that he is older than he looks; his pinched lips betray a sorrow that is uncommon to children. The disease has drained the youth out of him, and I feel like vaguely embarrassed watching his tender, difficult steps toward me.
“Hey.” He says and blinks at the flashing cameras. The reporters out to get a human-interest story on my yearly visit to the ‘Make a Wish’ foundation are holding their palm pilots poised, ready to record the smallest word or action. I knelt to face the boy, even kneeling, I’m still a head taller than he is.
“You want to get out of here?” I whisper. He smiles, just a crack in the concrete of his face.
“More than anything.” I lift him up and he’s so slight that I’m scared I’ll fumble, drop him. I’m like that with small, light objects, they are like a bunch of feathers and I’m always worried that they’ll slip through the circle of my arms. I look down at the kid. His face is cynical in a way I’ve never seen before, like a battleground.
I want to take him to France and Singapore, fly him to Brazil and Japan. I know I can’t, I don’t have time. I could do those things in an hour but the human body, even a healthy one, can only take so much speed and pressure. There are reasons that planes aren’t convertibles.
“Where do you want to go?” I put the question in his hands. He looks desperate.
“I don’t care.”
“Okay.” I hold him tighter, trying to balance between dropping him and squeezing him to death. I leap upwards, and the cameras light up as we both watch the hospital roof, and all the people, become smaller under our feet. He hides his face on my shoulder, peeking out at the clouds with one eye.
“Are you cold?” He shrugs.
The minutes of silence stretch between us and I wish he were more talkative. I don’t know what to say to a dying kid. I think about the things I wanted as a child.
“Hey, do you want to stop for ice cream?”
“Do you eat ice cream?”
“Sure.”
“I thought maybe, because you were an alien, that you might not.”
“I happen to know many aliens that enjoy ice cream.” He smiles again, and I want him to keep smiling.
“Can I ask you something?” He says, rubbing his cheek.
“Shoot.”
“Why do you wear your underwear on the outside?”
“Well, it’s kind of a secret.” He looks at me, eyes narrowed. His voice is flat.
“I hear the doctors talking, they say I’ve got four months, maybe six. I can keep a secret.”
It’s the longest sentence he’s said to me yet. I tell him.
“That’s weird.” He says, when I’m done.
“It’s practical.”
“Well, now I know why you don’t tell reporters.” I think about my wife and smile.
“Oh, I tell reporters a lot of things.”
We speed across the air, and I decide to fly below the clouds so that he can see the landscape. He leans his head on my chest.
“Your heartbeat is really fast.”
“You know, I never think about it.”
“I wish you would drop me, or squeeze my head till it burst.” I choked.
“What?” I can feel myself shaking, even thinking about that kind of action. He wraps a bony arm around my neck and closes his eyes.
“This is good, right now. I don’t want to go back.”
“I have to take you back.”
“I know.”
“But not right now. We can be late.”