She got the cape on around her shoulders, and he helped her tie on the mask. She gasped. “This—this —-”

“Indeed.” Mr. Grinde patted her shoulder. She looked like a young mother trying on her son’s Halloween superhero costume, but he imagined the subjective experience of wearing it was rather different. At first he thought the outfit made her look taller, but then he realized she’d merely levitated a couple of inches off the ground; that was all right. “May it bring you all the happiness you desire.” Mr. Grinde guided the young lady toward the front door and out into the world.

* * *

Some time later the bell rang again, and he looked up, and it was the same woman, this time emerging from darkness, fog swirling around after her.

“Ms. Stuart,” he said.

“Mr.—How can I not know this? What’s your name?” She wore a heavy dark coat, and her hair was damp.

“Grinde. Martin.”

“Mr. Grinde.” She placed an old paper sack, folded so often it had essentially turned into cloth, on the counter. “I’ve come to make another exchange.”

He opened the bag and peered inside. Mask, cape. “This was not to your satisfaction either, then?”

She took a deep breath. “It’s not your fault. At first, it really worked, but then, it didn’t, and…”

“Tell me about it,” he said. “This is how I learn.”

“Well,” she began.


First, just the feeling of wearing the cloak, it was indescribable, but she tried: total safety, physical invulnerability, the ability to fly—that last always a dream, a literally recurring dream, now made reality—and helping people, oh, yes. The thrill that first night when she walked the filthy rooftops of her city and saw a man being mugged in an alleyway where she herself had once been mugged and fortunately nothing worse. She jumped from the roof, falling light as a feather to settle in the alley, and simply plucked the mugger off his feet and threw him into a mound of garbage bags. The victim was so grateful, she saw him fall in love with her right there, his face like a window opening onto the light. She said, “Run along,” and he looked at her, reached out, didn’t quite touch her, and ran. Then she picked up the mugger and flew high, higher, higher, holding him by his ankles, dangling him upside-down in the sky, looking at the jewels of the city lights spread out below, and said, “Look. The world is bigger than you and what you want and need. Do you see that now? It’s a world full of people, real people just like you. Do you understand?”

He shouted something, terrified but affirmative, and she took him gently back to the ground, too polite to mention the smell of urine from where he’d wet himself, and deposited him in the middle of a plaza near the theater district filled with tourists and young lovers watching street performers play steel drums. They all looked at her with awe, and she waved, and flew off into the sky.

Every night was like that. She still went to work, during the day, waiting tables for the lunch crowd, but at night she was something special—the bloggers and eventually newspapers and TV stations called her the Redbird, though she’d never felt the need to name herself, or to wear any costume besides the essential, going out in t- shirts and jeans and sneakers under her cape and mask. She stopped muggers, and burglars, and rapists, and car thieves, and men who hit their girlfriends, and women who hit their children, and even admonished those who littered or left dog crap on the sidewalk or spray-painted public property, though it was only the truly dangerous ones she lifted up into the sky for a lesson in forced perspective: look. You are not the only real person on Earth. Everyone else is real too, not things for you to use.

Whether the flight made any difference in their lives, she didn’t know, but she never picked up the same criminal twice, so she let herself believe she was making more than a momentary difference, even as she knew, deep down, she was only treating symptoms, not causes. If crime was the common cold, she was a bit of tissue, a cup of hot tea, a soothing lozenge, rather than advanced anti-virals.

Then one night the mugger she carried up struggled, and pulled a knife, and tried to stab her—a stupid thing to do in the sky, and the blade glanced off her unbreakable skin anyway—it startled her, and she lost her grip, and he fell. She managed to recover her wits, swoop down, and catch him before he crashed to the ground, but she set him down on a corner without a word, flew away, and perched atop a church bell tower. After a moment she vomited over the roof’s edge, spattering the bushes below, and it was an hour before she stopped shivering.

There had been videos of her for weeks, posted on the internet, showing her various exploits in cell-phone- camera footage and occasionally higher resolutions, and she’d taken to doing her flights over more populated areas, because she liked the gasps, the shouted greetings, the spontaneous applause. But several people had filmed her dropping the man and catching him again, and the internet was full of voices saying she’d done it on purpose to terrify the man, the Redbird was toying with her victims, and while some of the commenters supported her new, more violent approach, others were disappointed, calling her a common torturer. It was all she could do not to log onto message boards under a name like RealRedbird and say, “No, it was just an accident.” But that would be worse. If the Redbird could make a mistake once, she could do it again.

After that, she didn’t take criminals into the sky anymore. She did make other mistakes: Breaking up a fight, stopping a woman from kicking a man, only to realize she’d been defending herself against the man, who’d tried to steal her purse. Flying too high near an airport and being pursued by police helicopters and later military jets. Stopping a drug deal that turned out to be a police sting operation, and getting tasered. The electricity had no effect on her, and neither did the pepper spray, but it was clear the police wanted her captured—that she was a dangerous criminal in their eyes.

Still, even with the setbacks, even with dark grays slithering into her comfortable black-and-white world, she might have kept on doing it, kept on helping people, kept on flying, except for two things.

First: One day in her “real life”—what she thought of truthfully as her false life, her secret identity—while waiting tables she saw a couple, a middle-aged-man and his younger companion, having a fight. When he got up to leave in a huff the pretty woman came after him and grabbed his arm, and he shoved her, knocking her into a table.

Forgetting where she was, forgetting she was only Eunie Stuart and not the Redbird just then, she grabbed the man from behind and attempted to throw him toward the door. Without her cape and mask she had no special strength, and he outweighed her by a factor of two, so he didn’t budge. She was fired for attacking a customer, and he said he might press charges. She realized then that this was her real life, and the cape was her false life, that and strength you only had because of something you’d bought wasn’t real strength at all.

And second: A ten-year-old boy put on a red cape and red mask and jumped off the roof of his suburban home and hit his head on the brick border around a flower bed on the ground and suffered severe head trauma. The whole thing was captured on video: he’d set up the family camera to record his first flight. The news showed part of it, alongside footage of the Redbird in the sky. Over and over.

* * *

“So here I am.” She shoved the bag at him. “Take it back.”

“I’m so sorry. There may be something here, a way to help the boy…”

“He died.” Her voice bitter as the scent of cyanide. “Do you have anything here that can raise the dead?”

He had to think about it. “Nothing you’d want to use, no. Nothing that works very well.”

She shrugged. “It was over a year ago. I’m… I won’t say I’m over it… but I’ve got some distance, now. It hurts like an old injury. I think I’m ready to try again. God knows happiness seems farther away than it ever has before. I’ve been reading. About happiness, and things that make people happy.” She shook her head. “From neuroscience to practical advice. Sing in the morning. Enumerate your blessings every night. Write thank-you notes to everyone and everything. Have good genes—they think fifty percent of personal happiness is genetic. Take anti- depressants. Clean out your closets. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Be born in a first-world country. Be happily married. Have more sex. Eat chocolate. Believe in God. I tried all the little things. There were some good moments, but I always slump back to my baseline, and honestly, after my time as the Redbird, that baseline is even lower than before.”

He coughed. “I confess, your request intrigued me, and I’ve been looking through my books as well—I have many books—and I wish I’d done it earlier. We could have saved some time. Money can buy happiness, but only to

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