Alex stood on the edge of a rooftop fifteen stories high, staring at an exit sign that led to nowhere. His unlit cigarette was perched precariously between his lips, momentarily forgotten.
He walked around the exit sign, looking at it from the right side, then the left. Why would someone put an exit sign up here?
Usually he just went behind the building to smoke, like all the other guys. But today he’d wanted some privacy, a place to be alone with his thoughts. There was no litter up here on the roof, no half-chewed gum to get stuck to the bottom of his shoes; just Alex and the whir of the building’s central air system, the concrete rooftop the same gray as the sky. A sea of concrete and faded brick surrounded him, each building dirtier and covered with more graffiti than the next.
At first he thought the sign was floating. Nothing even seemed to be holding it up. But then he saw that it was balanced on either side by a wire-thin post, almost invisible, a doorway on the roof—on the edge of the roof. But the sign led to nothing; he’d made sure of it, he’d checked. It led only to the street below.
He lit his cigarette, took a deep drag, and unfolded the letter that had been sitting in his pocket for the past week. He studied the way the letters slanted, the way his name looked in her handwriting. The other guys wouldn’t understand. They’d laugh and clap him on the back and congratulate him. But this wasn’t what he wanted. He hardly even knew the girl: he’d been drunk, she’d been pretty.
His eyes felt inexplicably drawn back up to the exit sign. He chuckled. Maybe it was a prank. Maybe the other guys had put it here as a joke, as an ironic commentary on their shitty jobs, their shitty paychecks. He sucked on his cigarette and felt the smoke fill his lungs, soothing in its density, its familiarity.
A gust of wind threatened to send his letter flying. He folded it and put it back in his pocket.
The sign nagged at him. He walked back to it and waved an arm underneath. He didn’t know what he was hoping for — a parallel dimension? a wormhole? — but his arm passed cleanly through the air under the sign just like it should.
He looked down. Fifteen stories below, cars sped past, pedestrians window-shopped, the traffic light changed. He looked up: the exit sign hung there, infuriating in its possibilities, in the unanswered questions that lingered in his mind.
A noise behind him made him turn. “Oh, very funny,” he called, relieved that it was, after all, a prank.
A car honked down below.
He was alone on the roof, talking to himself. He felt foolish. But he tried again.
He sighed. The baby probably wasn’t even his. He’d deny it, insist on a paternity test. Would she make him send a check every month? He could barely afford his rent as it was. He tossed his cigarette to the ground and stepped on it. He’d have to get another job.
Heavy dark clouds were rolling in, and the exit sign seemed to glow in the dim light. A thought fluttered through his mind: if he left and came back here on a different day, would the sign still be there?
He pulled out another cigarette. His hands were trembling, but he managed to put the cigarette to his lips and light it.
What would his mother say? He could feel her disappointment already, crushing him, making it hard to breathe. His head whirled, the echo of an unknown number of doors slamming shut in his future.
Okay, he thought, and looked around himself again to make sure he was alone. What if it was a wormhole, or a door to another dimension or time — or what if he was dreaming, and the only way to wake up was to walk through the posts, underneath the exit sign, to see where it led?
Maybe he’d read too many science fiction books as a kid. Maybe the dose of reality in his pocket was exactly what he needed. But he kept staring at the sign, at the spot under the sign, at the near-invisible supports holding it up. Would someone really have put up this sign for no reason? Wouldn’t that be a safety hazard?
He tried throwing his cigarette between the supports holding up the exit sign. It hung in the air for a moment before getting carried off by the wind. He cursed and then chuckled at himself. He was being ridiculous. He was acting like a crazy person.
A breeze ruffled his hair, bringing with it the smell of freshly baked bread, though the nearest bakery was miles away. He started back toward the stairs but then turned back to the exit sign once more. Was this an opportunity? An open doorway he was too stubborn to see?
Was he out of his goddamned mind?
He stared at the exit sign.
There was only one way to find out.
He took a few steps backward and then raced toward the sign, building up speed. He jumped between the supports, through the invisible door, and as his feet left the rooftop he felt himself soaring through the air, light as a feather, the weight on his lungs gone, his breathing free and easy. He began to fall, hurtling toward the asphalt fifteen stories below, but then there was no street below him, only the smell of freshly baked bread and the feel of soft grass tickling his arms, and he wondered if his mother would be proud of him, if she would understand where he’d gone.
JB Starre is a writer of both literary fiction and fantasy. She is currently publishing a fantasy web serial novel that posts every Wednesday at www.thewizardsprophecy.com. You can find more of her flash fiction online at www.jbstarre.com and in the Winter 2011 issue of Broad! Magazine.