Daedalus, the Inventor, forged wings from feathers and wax to free his son, Icarus, from being held captive on Crete. He cautioned Icarus against soaring too close to the sun, but in the original tale, he also warned him against soaring too close to the sea – too high and the wax could melt, too low and the winds would send him crashing into the waves. Icarus fell, but not before he touched the clouds…
Part 1: Icarus Has Fallen
12.12 AM, 21st Dec
The Icari are born into chaos; forged from seafoam, materialising in the midst of a hurricane. I am neither firstborn nor the last of our kind, but a mere ripple in the tide – a mortal being from an immortal race. The Icari have had countless names across time; some called us angels and saints whilst others deemed us demonic and inhuman.
I don’t have a name or a home. On 21st December 2021, I surfaced to screams and strobe lights; acid green LEDs and neon blue signs casting colour across the obsidian ocean. I gasped as liquid filled the lungs that, just moments ago, I did not have. I thrashed and tread, limbs flailing as I gained feeling in them.
I reached for the coastline, slipping in and out of consciousness as the harsh current washed me ashore. I felt coarse sand and the grip of another’s hand, shrill screams fading into laughter as a lit, arched sign board came into view. Santa Monica Pier. I recognised this place, unlike his face.
“You alright?” He sounded concerned… distressed, perhaps. I fought to tune out the carnival music and crashing waves, hearing fragments of his panicked gibberish. “…must be freezing …almost drowned …call an ambulance.”
I felt a sudden chill, spine colder than skin that had turned blue. “No,” I said, in a tone firmer than his grip.
“No?” he echoed, dumbfounded. I coughed, all but choking on salt water. “You need to get to a hospital,” he insisted.
I retched, fluids draining as I struggled to form a coherent sentence. I collapsed into the surf, arms and legs tired from their battle to bring me ashore; each time I blinked, I caught flashes of a different lifetime – pieces of the past. I recalled names, phrases in different languages, and familiar faces – like a stop-motion film burned into the corneas.
I bore witness to the rise and fall of civilisations, the dark ages and the industrial revolution, life and death… I felt heat rush through me for the first time in this life, forcing my eyes open as if pulling the cord of a projector screen. His face came into focus; dark skin, curls, and warm brown irises.
“Listen,” he muttered, but I didn’t. Instead, I stared – unblinking – at his handsome, horror-stricken face. “…might die. You understand?”
“Huh?” I blinked, flashing back to the Roman Empire for a fleeting instant. I found solace in his gaze, focused on his features to escape the barrage of memories – the lives of the Icari that came before me, I figured. In essence, a nightmarish slideshow of the shitshow that was mankind.
“I’m Nik.” He smiled, albeit reluctant.
“I’m cold,” I replied, trembling in the clutches of California’s ocean breeze.
Nik shed his baseball jacket, tugging the fabric across me like a blanket. “You’re going to freeze to death out here, let’s get inside.”
I nodded, taken aback at the concern lacing his tone. He helped me up, and though I stood as tall as an adult, I felt like a toddler taking his first steps – doubtful but determined. I felt his arm around me, but I didn’t lean on him. I did as all people must, putting one leg after the other, trudging across the beach in search of shelter, one step at a time.
2.20 AM, 21st Dec
“Large fries. 6 piece Chicken McNuggets. Chocolate milkshake…” He glanced sidelong at me, adding, “and a Vanilla milkshake for Blondie here… oh, and make it three cheeseburgers – extra pickles.”
“You don’t have to,” I mumbled, still a bit stunned, but he paid the $16.65 nonetheless. I had anticipated ending up stranded on some godforsaken island in the middle of nowhere, not standing in line at a McDonald’s next to a college junior generous enough to tip his robber. Nik, naïve or kind, I couldn’t tell.
He slid onto the bench beside me, sipping his milkshake. “I assume the name isn’t Blondie.”
“Oh,” I faltered, searching our surroundings for an alias. I find one in the Manchester United vs Chelsea match being broadcast. “Rafaél.”
“You have someone I can call?” he asked, still demonstrating inhuman concern for a complete stranger.
“No,” I murmured, struggling to remember the detailed, false backstory I had dreamt up outside the gift shop earlier as Nik rushed in to get me clothes. I donned an I Heart LA tee under his baseball jacket and a pair of ripped jeans a couple of sizes too big.
“No one?” He sounded panicked. “Parents? Friends? Girlfriend?”
I shrugged. “It’s just me,” I affirmed, adding, “I’m on the run.”
Nik paled. “Like, from the cops?”
“No!” I rushed. I realised I had dug a hole, and that each lie from here on out could just complicate things further. I sighed, glaring at him as I pondered the possible outcomes. “Look,” I said, after considerable hesitation. “I’ll confess under one condition. You must take the secrets I’m about to share to the grave. You hear me?”
He nodded, taking a massive bite out of his cheeseburger. “…loud and clear.”
I took a deep breath.
And I told him.
7.24 AM, 21st Dec
“Is that a tattoo?”
I had forgotten about the marks. I sat beside Nik on the bus, and upon rolling up the sleeves of his baseball jacket, I understood his question. Indeed, the marks looked a lot like a minimalistic tattoo – dark bands encircling both arms. I didn’t have to count them; ten on either arm and one around the waist. 21 in total.
“You’re not going to believe me,” I told him, feeling a pang of grief as I noticed that the left, uppermost band had begun to fade.
Nik scoffed. “I believed all that stuff about angels and mermaids, try me.”
“I never mentioned mermaids.”
“Just tell me.”
“Fine.” I bet none of the Icari before me had been subjected to such incessant questioning. “It tells me how long I have left,” I explained, gulping hard, “… before I die.”
“Yo, for real? Raf, that’s so cool.” He grinned, leaning in to take a closer look. “I count 20,” he observed. “Years?”
“21,” I corrected, lifting the hem of the I Heart LA tee to reveal the final mark, “…and no.”
His face fell. “Months?”
I just shook my head. I felt the mourning in his brief silence, but then…
“You’re just in time for Christmas,” he said. I looked up, surprised to see him smiling. I realised, then, that Nik had lost a lot in his lifetime, perhaps more than I stood to lose in mine.
Part 2: Before I Go
Rafaél and I made a solid team. First, I managed to convince Ma and Nisha that Raf was a transfer student. I took the couch, and though reluctant at first, he made a home of our suburban abode in Los Angeles. I’ll admit, trusting a stranger like this is unlike me, much less bringing them home and offering one’s bed, clothing, and food to them.
But Raf meant no harm. I could tell, from the moment I glimpsed him floating ashore, that he needed me. Granted, I didn’t believe his far-fetched fable about being born of the ocean at first, but I trusted him enough to respect his boundaries. I figured he could be an illegal immigrant. I understood that plight better than most people.
Besides, I had gone to Santa Monica Pier that night for insensible reasons, too. Pa died of pancreatic cancer last summer, and since spreading his ashes in the Fall of 2020, I had revisited that pier countless times in search of a sign – perhaps a good reason for him not telling me he had been diagnosed.
I lost those last eight months to ignorance, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree at UCLA instead of being at his bedside. Ma and Nisha packed up and left San Francisco after the funeral to be closer to me. I figured Raf needed a home, and our home needed to feel like one, so the arrangement made sense.
Besides, Ma and Nisha adore Raf. Ma even bought him a Christmas gift. In the past week, Raf had become my best friend. Perhaps even more, if I’m being honest. I’d taken him to Sea World, Union Station, the LA Kings Ice Rink, and the San Diego Zoo. Raf made a “Before I Die” list, and I made it my mission to check all the boxes.
“Merry Christmas, Rafaél.”
He grinned ear to ear as I placed the gift in his lap. Ma had knitted him a sweater. I made him a scrapbook, filled with polaroids of our week together, with space for more – our New Year’s road trip to New York ought to fill out several pages. He beamed, celestial features glimmering beneath the Christmas Lights.
“Merry Christmas, Nikhil,” he replied, placing a present in front of me. I unfurled the ribbon on the small box, lifting its lid to find a silver necklace nestled inside; inside its pendant, an old photograph of Pa cradling me as a toddler. How could a person I’d known less than a week give me the greatest gift of all?
New Year’s was the first time I kissed him.
Rafaél and I stood amidst the annual chaos in Times Square, and though his left arm had not a single band left, I couldn’t go on pretending I didn’t see him as more than a friend. For Rafaél, it meant getting to experience love in his limited lifetime.
For me, it meant losing the one I loved for evermore.
Part 3: Born to Die
9.35 PM, 5th Jan
The Icari are meant to inspire others, or so I thought until I met Nik. Perhaps an Icarus is destined to die, but that does not mean one cannot live a full life. Nik and I had forged a bond so strong, I felt more grief for him each time a band faded. I might have been destined to die, but Nik was destined to suffer.
Never once had I glimpsed a crack in his façade. I asked once if he understood the consequences of being kind to me, to which he responded, “Raf, the brightest stars burn the fastest – I’ll love you for as long as I can.”
6.55 AM, 11th Jan
“Here,” I told him, pressing the scrapbook to his chest. “It’s all here. Christmas, New Year’s… all our road trips, dates, and friends. You keep it.”
Nik seemed hesitant, but he clung to it as tight as his hand held mine. He remained silent for a long time, or for as long as one can afford to be in a situation like ours – and when he did speak, his voice was choked, tears brimming in his eyes. “You’re sure you can’t stay?”
I faced him, thumbing over his cheek as the sun rose over Santa Monica Pier. “Hey, I’ve got a few hours left. How about a couple of milkshakes?”
“You know,” he said, tears falling faster than I could catch them now, “I’ll come here every night, hoping to save you again.”
“I’ll miss you too,” I replied, Adam’s apple pulsing against my sternum, pulling his baseball jacket tighter around me to brace for the cold breeze as we watched our last sunrise together.
11.11 PM, 11th Jan
Nik and I laid silent in the sand, fingers intertwined; neither of us focused on the sun as it set. I felt the tide rise, pushing against us – gentle, but an unmistakable force of nature. I held him one moment but lost him the next.
Nik rose to his feet and did as all people must, putting one leg after the other, trudging across the beach one step at a time.
Written by: Karran Kumar