New York City, circa 1898. Arthur is just a peculiar boy with a peculiar mind, trying to impress a girl with his contraption that flies.
Summer 2010. Steampunk writing contest on Novel Novice.
Prompt: New York City circa 1898; Include a piece of “steampunk” technology.
Touching the Sun
Only nineteen and already a complete hermit. That’s Arthur in seven words.
Some think he’s absolutely mad (which is sort of true), but the majority don’t even notice or care to notice him at all. His eyes are clouded with imaginary blueprints and strings of calculations. His fingertips are stained with grease and his blonde hair spikes off in all which way direction, singed at the tips from the latest electrical fire he accidently caused in the tiny room that serves as his workshop, his bedroom and kitchen all in one.
“No! No! No! That’s not it!” Arthur shouts.
The gears in his head jam with frustration and his entire universe threatens to implode. His leather-wrapped fist crashes down on the wooden worktable, cluttered with tools, loose pieces of parchment, quill pens, inkbottles and an old Egyptian abacus. Nails and screws rattle, rolling over the edge of the table and hitting the floor, already forgotten.
After a glance at the nearby clock, Arthur pulls down his goggles to rest around his neck, leaving rings of soot and sweat around his eyes. He wipes his dirty gloves over his apron and moves towards the only window in the room. He pushes the glass forward and it’s when he feels the fresh air on his hot skin that Arthur remembers there’s a world outside his workspace. He looks out at New York City—where he was born, raised and will probably die.
The streets are busy, which isn’t unusual. It’s a sea of merchants and mechanics, producers and consumers, and the occasional wandering soul. Out of all the faces milling through the streets, there’s only one that could pull Arthur from his work. Around the same time every day he escapes his world of complicated experimentation and mechanical sounds for a simple glimpse at an angel. Like clockwork, there she is below.
The young lady is indeed a vision. A girl who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, petite, with hair the color of ink, whirled into a neat up-do, feathers and flowers nesting within. Arthur’s gaze sweeps up and down her body from the tight corset accentuating her chest, down the draped skirt on her hips and finally a pair of leather boots. A gold necklace dangles from her neck, a combination of pocket watch pieces and a golden amulet in the shape of a songbird.
She isn’t the most beautiful though she’s far from being the most hideous girl in all the five boroughs. There’s just something about her, innocent yet alluring. They’ve never met and Arthur intends to keep things that way. He watches as she smiles at the street vendors and giggles at her trailing suitor. She means the world to him, but it isn’t something he’d ever tell her. Being a simple artisan, Arthur knows where he belongs. That girl, such a glorious human specimen, deserves what he could never give her.
It seems fate is to blame when she is in the crowd on the day he decides to take his flying contraption for a spin. Arthur stands on the ledge of the inn’s rooftop. People have gathered in the streets, looking up at him, probably pegging him as a suicidal loon. If he dies then at least he’ll do it in his best outfit—a gray vest over a clean white shirt, a skinny blue tie flapping in the wind, a fresh pair of trousers and shined shoes. Securing his goggles over his eyes, Arthur walks over to his latest modified version of Arthur Haskell’ Latest Greatest Flying Contraption. Shortening the name doesn’t really work. It would only muddle the grandeur.
Arthur runs his fingers lightly over the wings of such a powerful machine and he can only pray he’s flying with angels and not diving with the devil. Filling his lungs with the deepest of breaths, Arthur crawls into the single seat. His heart speeds up at the clunking sound of the engine, feet on the pedals and hands gripping the wheel. After a quick sign of the cross (his mother would castrate him if he didn’t beforehand) the machine takes flight.
There are gasps from the crowd as he plummets over the building’s edge. Just as the people on the street duck in fear, the contraption jerks upward and takes to the sky. Arthur wears a wide grin as the onlookers erupt in cheers. He sails through the air, barely grazing rooftops and heading toward the water. He skims the surfaces and feels the spray against his face. With a wide turn, the flying machine heads back to the main street.
Arthur looks down as he always does, but unlike every other day since he was thirteen, the girl is looking up. He’s a good hundred feet in the air, but he’s had so much practice picking her face out of a crowd. His concentration is obliterated with a deadly scream. Arthur’s gaze shoots forward and he sees a woman in a window, looking at him with utter horror. Reacting quickly, he takes a sharp turn and goes careening into the street below.
His audience’s fascination turns to panic; a stampede of people scream and try to run away. Arthur and his flying machine crash into a produce stand below, splinters of wood exploding everywhere, tomatoes squishing and apples rolling off. A sharp pain shoots through his arm and Arthur can’t feel his legs at all. Cradling his arm to his chest, Arthur yanks off his goggles and drags his palm over his face that’s slick with sweat.
“That was bloody brilliant!” he shouts.
“Bloody brilliant? What in the devil’s name do you think you’re doing?” a voice asks, soft and feminine and laced with terror.
Arthur blinks, hoping his blurred vision will settle enough to see who’s talking to him. When it finally does, Arthur’s breath hitches in his throat. It’s her.
“I…um, I was…trying to touch the sun?” he cheekily replies. At the front of his mind, he mentally tells himself not to blush, but with the way her eyes suddenly sparkle with amusement, he’s sure his face is as red as the squished tomatoes splattered across his invention.
“Hmm. Trying to touch the sun, huh? Are you mad?” she asks. Arthur climbs out of the machine and hops down to stand next to her; relieved his legs still work. “Don’t you know the story of Icarus?”
“I do not,” Arthur replies, “but what a name that is.”
“Of Greek origin. So you’re implying you can build toys that defy the laws of our great Sir Isaac Newton, but don’t know your Greek mythology?” she asks. Arthur shrugs and the girl shakes her head at him. “The Greek, they spoke of Icarus, the boy who tried to escape Crete by wings constructed by his father, a remarkable craftsman. Is that what you are, sir?”
“Well, I don’t know about remarkable. I did crash,” he says. “It may amaze you, miss, but this isn’t my first attempt at flight. I’ll admit the first few trials were a smidge more successful.”
“Oh, I know,” she says. Arthur looks at her in shock. There’s such audacity in her eyes as the corner of her lips curve in a smile. “I watch you sometimes.”
If his hand weren’t busy cradling his busted arm, he’d probably dramatically clutch his chest for when she speaks those words he swears his heart skipped a beat. That’s how surprised he is. He reminds himself to be suave, but he can’t help the goofy grin that forms on his face.
“Why, Miss Adams, may I say that’s a tad bit forward of you?”
“I abhor formalities. My name is Marie,” she says sharply. She fidgets and plays with her necklace, twirling the songbird between her fingers. “As I was saying, I watch you sometimes, flying, soaring, not a care about whether you live or die, and I’m here, firmly on the ground, safe, but scared to death.”
He doesn’t know what to say to her, but Arthur manages to stutter, “I—It ‘s how I’m built.”
“It’s brave,” she says. “You’re bloody brilliant indeed.”
His palms grow clammy and his throat turns dry when he sees the slow roll of her eyes, up and down, raking over him. Her teeth catch the flesh of her bottom lip, the only hint of hesitation. He doesn’t know if he should say something or do something. He doesn’t know what is a proper response and what is an inappropriate reaction. He does notice how inviting her lips look and how daring her eyes are.
Before Arthur can even think to make a move, a voice calls out in the distance. “Marie!”
She blinks as if freed from a spell and the moment is lost.
“James!” Marie calls back, standing on the tips of her toes, waving frantically. Arthur just stands there, forgotten. He shrinks back, bows his head and kicks at the dirt. When she faces him again, Arthur tries not to look too disappointed. “I must be on my way. Try not to crash into any more fruit stands, will you?”
“No promises, miss,” he says. Hitching up the edge of her dress, Marie starts to make her way over to her latest suitor. His heart hammering, Arthur purses his lips and calls, “Just a moment! You never told me what happened to the boy with the wings!”
Marie stops a moment and smiles at him from over her shoulder. “Well, I’m sorry to say, there’s no happy ending. Upon escaping, the father warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun nor too close to the sea. Icarus was absolutely giddy, drunk with the power of flight. He didn’t listen. He lost his bearings and fell into the sea where he drowned.”
Gulping loudly, Arthur pulls on the collar of his shirt, hoping she speaks in jest. A moment later, he grins and replies, “Well, it’s a good thing I know how to swim then, isn’t it?”
She laughs lightly, shakes her head and turns to leave.
“My name!” Arthur shouts. Marie turns to face him once more, still with a smile on her lips. “It’s—I—um, my name it’s…Arthur.”
“Hmm, I think I prefer to call you Icarus,” she playfully responds.
“As you wish.”
Smiling, Arthur watches Marie rejoin the sea of people and disappear. He has gotten her attention and that alone feels so much greater than touching the sun.
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