Icarus. Bright eyes, dark skin, usually smiling. Such a delightful boy, elementary teachers wrote in bright blue pen, on report cards that made it home, unlike countless misplaced; a shrug was all he’d ever given as explanation. He wore his identity in a smirk, in a laugh that echoed off the subway stations and dingy sidewalks of New York in the fall. If he wasn’t in good spirits, even for a second, he wouldn’t be himself, or that was how the third grader had explained it so many years ago, when they’d slept in a homeless shelter and he’d had no pajamas.
He had several pairs now, stuffed in a splintered cobalt chest. Surely this meant Icarus was better off, he slept in an agreeable bed, had a real bathroom. He should be happier by all means.
Teachers didn’t refer to Icarus as smart, and he was absolute in the belief of never becoming smarter, of just filling his head with education until it burst. The sum of two digits was another, the earth was polluted, but what could Icarus do about any of it?
They called him a multitude of things, almost always fondly. Impulsive yes, but never ill mannered. Ambitious, certain the world was in his hands and would continue to be. Friends came with ease and were never lost, the same going for girls. Attention-seeking, from the very first day. A pudgy-faced, ebony toddler running with the older boys, wailing when he couldn’t follow or scraped a waiflike knee.
No mother, not for a long while. Just a wayward father who’d once planned to live comfortably in the middle class, but had decided on making inventions instead of money.
All Icarus remembered of his mother was long coiled locks that fell past a low neckline, and long fingers that were gone by the time he needed a permission slip signed. In a fit of anger a year back, Icarus shaved his head, the curls dropping to the concrete like black feathers.
Icarus spent the majority of his childhood homeless, loudly laughing the whole way through. It helped that his father, Daedalus, never left. This set him apart from the other doleful children, dressed in pale faces and rags. Icarus was decidedly different, because he was never alone.
Daedalus was better now, had a real job in a narrow office with unmarked walls. It hurts his head, but pays the bills, which go to a real home. He comes home tired and doesn’t get much sleep, dawn to dusk, five times a week. Daedalus doesn’t smile, perhaps he never could.
Icarus misses the shelter, but he won’t say it out loud.
Daedalus. Weathered face and world weary hands. Streaks of grey shone through a battered cap and aging lines seemed etched into his skin. It was the eyes that threw people off; they were alive, always moving and when he talked, they looked right at you.
It was a bit of a strange habit, to make eye contact so directly, that you would almost dread starting a conversation. Daedalus didn’t mind.
His coat was several sizes too big, resembling a green shroud that fell past his knees. Homemade pockets adorned the back, stuffed with odds and ends that would fall out as he walked.
Back at the shelter, a crowd of small children were never far behind. Hiding behind metal fences and stone pillars, snickering and fighting over anything that dropped. Sometimes it was a brass button covered in equations, sometimes a whirring metal dragonfly. Daedalus used to spin around and mock-growl at them, hiding a smile when the kids would flee, giggling, back to the old mattresses they called home.
Daedalus could be seen vanishing into back alleyways across the city, always moving at a fast, clipped pace. Some people were like that, whispered the shopkeeper to his wife as they watched him leave; always late, even with nowhere to be. Where was it the old man went at night, when wind tore at the flimsy buildings built too high, and snow blanketed the city, silencing everything?
In the end, it wasn’t a growing boy needing a place to do homework that caused them to leave. It was needing a place to store his mechanics, as they were overflowing the pockets. Daedalus was smart, and got a job with ease. The problem had never been his education, it was that he’d had no motivation.
Perhaps Icarus was a gift sent to teach him to care, to try for something. Daedalus was clever, in an outdated, steam and machinery sort of way. If it wasn’t for his heavy Spanish accent and lack of charisma, he might have been a successful businessman in another life.
A small studio in the slums of Brooklyn, up two flights of stairs and an off-putting landlord, could be bought from a few years of hard work. Some distant uncle loaned them enough to pay a year, and they moved in a blur of tears and tantrums. Icarus was just a clumsy boy then, angry at his father and at the world. He’d been more a part of the shelter than his father, who was aggressively introverted.
The door stuck, and the fastidious lock had been broken long before. Muffled shouting could be heard from all walls, until it wasn’t noticed, just a part of the home. They adapted, bought a heavy bolt.
When Daedalus was as old as Icarus, he’d planned to to be an inventor. Still did, but life kept getting in the way. Daedalus tinkered with microwaves, had a spare room full of broken gears. Nothing that would pay the bills. Such great potential, according to his grade school teacher. Where had all that potential gotten him? Stuck behind a desk.
Icarus comes home late, and when the front door finally screeches open, he smells of smoke and gasoline. Daedalus starts awake, lifting his head from the low table where he’s sat for hours. The movement causes the bills and crumpled documents piled around his head to flutter. An envelope falls to Icarus’s feet.
“You didn’t have to wait up.” Cue the head tilt. “What’re you doing?” He picks up the envelope, carefully, so the wax doesn’t burn his fingers.
Daedalus gestures for the envelope, plucking it from his nephew’s fingers. “Making sure you got home safely. How’s that girl you like, Maya?”
Icarus peels off the ratty coat carefully, like it’s a second skin. “I expect Maya will be much better, now she’s rid of me.” He grimaces, shrugging a pair of knobbly shoulders.
Daedalus starts to speak, pauses, and looks away. Daedalus is considerably better with machines than people.
Icarus yawns, a dramatic air in the way he throws his coat onto the chair. “I’m exhausted!” He fills a space that was somehow empty, with pearly whites and laughter. Muddy boots thrown in a pile, grabbing a milk carton and slugging. It spills; he’s so absurdly messy that Daedalus just rolls a pair of tired eyes. It’s too late to stop the fond expression creeping on his face.
“Maybe you should’ve come home before twelve then?”
Icarus shrugs, swinging the fridge door shut with a bang. “I lost track of time?”
He’s always losing things these days. His gloves, test results, headphones. Daedalus blames it on puberty, a phase, not to be confused with what happened to his mother. Thank every god Icarus only inherited a mild iron deficiency from her.
If a small part of Daedalus fears that his son will follow her drunken footsteps, the way she left one summer night and didn’t return, well he doesn’t show it. If he sits at that worn table every night until Icarus comes home, well it’s only because he likes to work there. No, Daedalus didn’t wait up, he was just about to go to bed, was Icarus gone? Perhaps he hadn’t even noticed. The lies slipped out his mouth every night, sounding dry, leaving a bitter taste.
Icarus looked at him for the first time, still looking pleased at some inside joke. He had many of those, causing him to burst into laughter or beam throughout the day.
“Go to bed, dad,” he teases, throwing the words off his shoulder. “You look old.” There’s a furrow in his brow; it looks out of place. A small moment of melancholy, this fleeting concern for his parent.
“I feel old,” Daedalus grumbles, blinking at the taxes, hoping they’ll disappear.
A chuckle is all he gets in response, then the closing of a doorway. The clock reads 12:32, and Icarus has to leave for school at six. One hour later, Daedalus takes the subway to his job, an accountant in the city. He hates every second of it, but hates letting down his family more.
Icarus drives a battered Prius to school; he got his permit last year. The boy drives fast, without a seatbelt or a care in the world. Daedalus cares, he cares an awful lot. Watching his son pull away and almost hit the curb, every morning without fail, is no easy task.
Daedalus can hardly remember the days before he was a father, before every choice was made by asking, how will this impact Icarus? Those days were gone, fleeting memories of a house in the west, and a back that didn’t ache. Of gazing up at an ethereal, burning sun that seemed to never set back then, and thinking it seemed a whole lot closer than the woman beside him.
Something slams across the dingy hall, and he rises with a groan to investigate. The door of Icarus’s room is covered in dents, a metallic sign warning intruders to keep out! Daedalus opens it quietly, peering in.
The miniscule brick-walled bedroom is shadowed, the only light coming through the window surveying the fire escape, which is open. The faint sounds of city life trickle in, shouts from some party on a nearby roof. Frigid night air makes Daedalus blink, but it doesn’t seem to bother his son.
Icarus sits in his bed, leaning out, chin propped up on one hand. The other tempt a pigeon with a cracker, who pecks cautiously. In the silhouette of the golden streetlights, his features are soft, the ghostly outline of a skinny boy. Icarus looks like he could float away with the next passing breeze, and Daedalus resists the urge to leap into action, pull him to safety.
The animal is supposed to be a secret, as if Daedalus hadn’t found the droppings all over his windowsill. It’s missing an eye and most feathers; it has to be the ugliest pigeon in the world, showed up last fall and has visited every day since. Icarus coos soft words at it, and the pigeon gargles back.
Daedalus must have bought at least a hundred cracker boxes for that dopey bird. It better not leave anytime soon.
He pulls his head back softly, treads away before making his footsteps loud, stomping up to the door again. The panicked sounds of a pigeon being pushed off a fire escape make him grin.
Daedalus opens the door to find Icarus tucked in bed, innocently stretching his arms. “I was almost asleep!”
“Sorry kid.” He looks pointedly at the open window. “I’d shut that.”
Icarus laughs nervously, pulling the cracked screen down. “G’night, love you, sweet dreams.”
“Love you too,” Daedalus pulls the door shut with a yawn.
The small apartment is soon quiet, both inhabitants tucked in bed. One sleeps with a smile, the other’s bones ache terribly. Night sounds wash over the New York landscape, broken only by the indignant cries of one bird.
He’s never been one to explain, and when Icarus slams the fading front door at 2 a.m., he doesn’t. In a blind panic, Daedalus scrambles to stop his son from escaping into the bathroom. Icarus looks askance at him, all drooping eyes and hanging sleeves.
“I need to use the bathroom, dad. Mind moving?” Icarus quips. A cigarette winks at Daedalus from between the Icarus’s fingers and he glares at it.
“I- where have you been?” The sentence sound feeble, crawling off his mouth.
“Where have I been? Where do I begin?” He yells, swinging around. Icarus is smiling, but it’s a manic sort of smile. “All over the city!”
“You can’t drive that junked up car this late,” Daedalus’s voice grows louder with every word. It doesn’t seem fair that he should love such a reckless, irresponsible child so much. “You can’t skip school for a smoke, and you can’t seem to get it through your head-”
“Where have you been?” The boy cuts in, and in the light of a cloudy lamp at 2 a.m., his cheeks look hollow and edged, as if someone sharpened them with a knife.
“Waiting for you,” Daedalus is weary of playing the same game every night, not knowing the rules and never winning.
Icarus scoffs, looking around the dim lit hallway as if searching for the right response. “I’ve never asked you to do that!” As if hitting the maximum of emotion he could show, the next words are softer. “I mean, dad, just get a life.”
He pushes past Daedalus, and Daedalus lets him, motionless. The door slams, ending his last chance at reconciling. You are my life, he wants to admit, but the words get stuck a little past his throat.
The officers comes at midnight. Daedalus was sitting at the same table he’d been every sunset before, waiting for his zealous son to burst in, vague about where he’d been and was going. Daedalus had a mental handful of notecards, I’m sorry’s and I love you’s written in the wrinkles across his brow.
Instead, the thud of knuckles rapping on the door. Later, he would remember thinking it was strange, and preparing to tease Icarus about losing his key. Unlocking the bolt, Daedalus chuckled, shaking his head.
The policewoman has eyes like his son, matching her uniform. Beside her, a somber man with dark attire and low-lidded eyes. Some instinct in the recesses of his mind warns to close the door, that there can be no good news here. Daedalus ignores it, inviting them in, would they like something to drink?
The man speaks in short bursts, as if losing momentum between each sentence. Starts to tell Daedalus how tragic it all is, how there’s no easy way to say this. Daedalus is inexplainably furious then, wants them out of his house. “Don’t say it then.”
The pair keeps talking and the terrible feeling grows in Daedalus’s gut, until he’s certain they’ve come to tell him he’s dying, that could be the only explanation for this crippling sense of loss. He wishes wholeheartedly for this to be the case, and Daedalus hasn’t prayed for many years, but he prays now. A mantra repeats in his head, a steady stream of please, please, please, no, no no.
For the first time, Daedalus wishes he wasn’t so clever. He doesn’t want to know.
“I bid you to wait, my son Icarus will be home soon, and this must concern him too.” Daedalus stutters, rising from the chair and stepping back, repelled by the somber glances they’re emitting.
They convince him to sit back down, and against the old man’s will, begin to speak. Daedalus keeps his eyes on the door, begging Icarus to walk in, raise eyebrows at the scene. His prayers go unanswered.
Wrapped in apologies and condolences, a story comes out. The roads were poor, the weather was worse, black ice covered the streets in a sickly sheen. Icarus had gone driving as Icarus loved to do, down to Manhattan, perhaps in pursuit of that girl, Maya.
Daedalus cut them off, insisting there was a mistake, he’d scraped together some money for winter tires, to prevent this very sort of thing from happening.
But Icarus hadn’t been going the speed limit, or anywhere near it. It was near a blizzard out there, he couldn’t have seen ten feet in front of him. Icarus had started the ignition anyway, recklessly driven the tiny Prius straight off the road.
Daedalus felt as if it all happened at once. The crushing realization that this was no faraway child whose story he’d read about in the newspaper. This was his son, his loveable Icarus, his whole life.
It’s ripped from him with one patch of ice, leaving a gaping hole and a empty bed. It was quick, Icarus didn’t feel a thing, no that was left for Daedalus to do. He’d finally found something he was good at.
The tears come freely now, collecting at the bottom of his chin. The policewoman with a the blue-slate stare is expressionless, an unfeeling slab of rock.
The man speaks of investigations and reports, but Daedalus is far away, sees Icarus. He’s laughing in Central Park, surrounded by pigeons, or pedaling his old bicycle, “look Daedalus, no hands!” Icarus had once again flown too close to the sun, and would continue to do so, every life onward. But no matter how short, all of them were important.