The Words That Make Us Fly11 min read


S.L. Harris
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Death or dying

When Prentiss made it breathless to where Flyboy’s last Words had been, he saw they’d been painted over. He slumped against the wall and slid to the ground like he was being pulled to the center of the Earth. If anyone had ever needed to fly, it was Prentiss just then. Fly up and out of the world of doors slamming and money fights and school fights and dollar-store-dinner fights and people screaming and leaving, or crying and leaving, or just leaving. But Flyboy was gone now, really gone, and Prentiss wouldn’t fly again.

They were all gone. Flyboy fled down to Florida, Maker consumed by her own creations, Ninegold run off to wherever he went with his money after it had ruined everything, Pharoah still here in body but lost to drugs and despair in the stale tomb of his house. And the Wizard King dead. That’s when it had really gone wrong—not when Ninegold cursed them with cash or even when Pharoah slipped away. The death of the King was when it had fallen apart, like the sun had disappeared and all the planets went spinning away to collide with each other or vanish into darkness. Except him, little Prentiss, too late to the party, a small grey rock still turning in place. Never learned to make his Words, never found out what was in him.

He punched the wall where Flyboy’s Words had been and yelled a curse at everything, but especially at the King. The Wizard King could have stuck around. Pharoah had the Words for sticking around, but the King had said no. Wouldn’t cheat time, beat death, not for himself and definitely not for Prentiss. Just left him unfigured out, no Words of his own.

Shaking his stinging torn hand, Prentiss walked down to the gravel and the rust-orange tracks. Freight cars stretched out to the horizon like a line of coffins under the hazy sky. He thought of lying down on the tracks, or of hopping a train. Gone forever either way. But the cars weren’t moving. Nothing was. If there was an engine, it was out of sight.

He went back to Flyboy’s ruined Words. One stroke of paint enough to kill all the magic in the world. He touched the spot where the Words had been. For a minute he felt the magic under his fingers. Those evenings rising into the orange-violet dusk and the night a big wide open future; Flyboy laughing, whooping, glad to be alive and full of magic; Prentiss full of hope; and the King down there, not smiling exactly but something like a smile in his eyes, because all the King wanted was more magic in the world, and Prentiss felt that, too, that he was part of some great lifting.

Then it was gone. Prentiss was alone again in the deepening shadow of the building, and everything weighed so much.

He tried to remember everything the King had told him about pulling the power from inside and making it manifest. He pulled out a marker and tried to make some Words. He thought of everything he wanted. He wrote words of returning and reunion, building and repairing, people with each other. Nothing. Just marks on the wall, no magic in them. The words turned angry: destroying, exploding, burning, then leaving, disappearing, trains going forever into darkness, nothing. Nothing.

He stared at the mess of words—not Words, just words—and almost couldn’t bear it. He looked over to the trains and wanted them to go. He liked the noise of them, enough to roll over the noise in his head.

He got out his phone and stared at it for a bit. Then he texted Flyboy.


hey man. long time.

How’s FL?

not bad man

pretty sweet

Flying much?

not really

busy with work

you know

Prentiss let that hang for a bit. He’d give anything to fly out over the ocean, the blue forever beneath him. It should’ve been hard to imagine Flyboy not flying, but it wasn’t, somehow. He could see Flyboy working in his uncle’s garage, then hanging out in the hot Florida night, new friends, new deal, his feet never leaving the ground. Before he could stop himself, he sent:

Miss you man

He felt the embarrassed kick in his stomach as he sent it, felt it get louder as he waited.

you should come down here. I bet my uncle could set you up too.


There was a pause. Flyboy wrote:

get out of there, man

whatever it takes

Prentiss didn’t know what else to say. He had the feeling as he stuck his phone in his pocket that he’d seen the last of Flyboy’s words that he’d ever see. He looked back at the freight cars. Torn between going home and hopping a car, he decided to go see Pharoah. Last one around. Last chance to figure it out, or last goodbye to say. Prentiss wasn’t sure.

Even from the outside of the house, he caught the stale smell of a slow slide into decay. Past the cracked concrete lions and onto the screened porch and into the musty darkness where Pharoah, holder of the Words of Life, sat dying the longest death in the world.

“What’s going on, Prentiss?” his voice croaked into the brown darkness.

“Thinking about King,” said Prentiss.

“Ah, forget it. He’s gone. Always was the smart one.”

 “He say anything about me?” Prentiss insisted.

“Ah,” said Pharoah. “Words, still? You know I don’t like talking about that stuff. King was wrong. It’s not a blessing. It’s a curse. Look at me.”

As Prentiss’s eyes adjusted, the room became clearer. Pharoah’s frame was stiff in his old sagging recliner. The skin on his face was drawn. His eyes stared out at nothing.

“There’s the Words for you. Friend Ninegold’s Words got me all the money I need. Money enough to kill myself. But my Words got me life eternal. So the money won’t run out and neither will I. All the money and all the time in the world. That’s all anyone’s ever wanted. And look at me.” A bony arm gestured around the dusty room, the shaggy mildewed carpet, the old, browned curtains. “That’s your magic Words for you.”

“Did he say anything about me?”

Pharoah sighed. “I told you. You were his puzzle, kid. He had a nose for people like us. He was never wrong. If he says you’ve got the Words, you’ve got the Words. But he could never draw them out of you. Couldn’t find them.”

Prentiss looked at the dying light through the curtains.

“I miss him,” he said. “I miss all of you.”

“Aw, I’m not going anywhere. They’ll dig up this house in a million years and open up this room and I’ll be sitting right here.” He laughed a little wheezing laugh that made the hairs on Prentiss’s arm stand up. “Like you, Prentiss. Like everybody in this town. Only difference is I’ll still be alive. If you want to call it that. You ought to forget it. Forget the Words, forget the magic. You live long enough, it’ll all go wrong for you.”

“It already all went wrong.”

Pharoah was quiet. Prentiss started to turn and go, but a sound was brushing against the edge of hearing. He realized Pharoah was crying. He stopped.

“I’m sorry,” Pharoah said. “I’m sorry, kid.”

“I just don’t get it. You had everything, like you said.”

“Yeah, that was the problem. That was it.”

“Pharoah, I don’t want everything. I never wanted Ninegold’s money. I just wanted some Words of my own.”

Pharoah sniffed.

“Listen. Go check the King’s house, alright? I made sure nobody’d touch it. Don’t know why. I like things to stay the same, I guess. Maybe that was really my problem. Just wanting things to stay. Check the King’s house. The King always knew what was up.”


“Take care of yourself, Prentiss. I hope … hope it works out for you.”

“Hoping’s something.”

“Yeah, it is at that.”

The Wizard King’s old singlewide on the edge of town was as he’d left it. What was it about these magic people and messes? It smelled of old papers, old food, secrets, magic. Pharoah said he’d kept it safe, but really who was going to clean the place out? Who would bother, here? Pharoah was right. The archaeologists would find it all, just as it was. This whole town buried like Pompeii, not by a volcano, but by neglect, time, despair.

But the King had not despaired. Not even at the end. Ninegold gone and Flyboy leaving, Maker dead and Pharoah drugged stupid, and the King had not despaired. To the end he believed that, yes, there was magic, and, yes, it was good, and, yes, there would be more of it, even when he was gone, and, yes, that too would be good. He had—somehow—still believed all that.

Prentiss found the big easel Maker had made for the King and the little spray can of infinite paint in infinite colors. He tried it out. Just lines at first, in whatever colors he could think of. Then he tried some Words again. The smell of paint and propellant lingered only an instant in the air (“just enough to let you know it’s real,” Maker had said), and then it was gone. And when Prentiss wished the easel clean, it was clean. Over and over, Prentiss reached inside himself for anything: invisibility, levitation, ice. Nothing.

He tossed the can down and went over to the table and its mountains of papers. Maybe the King had left some notes about him. He was always writing, reading, jotting down. He’d lived in words, and not just the magic ones. Or maybe for the King, Prentiss sometimes thought, all words were magic.

Words on everything: delivery menus, receipts, scraps, old notebooks. The King never stopped. Little scraps of diary entry floated over long treatises on the nature of magic. Weird stories—histories? memories?—were crammed against shopping lists and piled over letters from people the King had never mentioned. And there were Words, too, as likely to be written on a pizza box as in a careful hand in a leatherbound book.

Prentiss looked for his name. He saw notes on the others: a fragment asking: Ninegold—can we set a limit? A long marked-up essay on whether Maker’s creations could achieve independent animacy. A list of names headed For Flyboy to Talk To. But next to nothing on Prentiss. Just once, covering an otherwise blank sheet of paper: Prentiss? He snorted. That was it, alright. Prentiss? and a blank page.

Prentiss stopped when he found an upside-down receipt taped to the top of a bulging manila folder. On the receipt was scrawled “from Maker.” It was full of photos. Big clear photos like you’d see in an expensive book. Maker must have taken them before Ninegold’s money took her down. They were, all of them, pictures of Words.

Words sprayed on buildings or painted on rocks. Words written in books—the Wizard still wrote them in books—and carved like Pharoah’s. Words on bodies, from before his time. Mostly paint, though, out in the open, magic for anyone to look at but only a few to really see. Magic, magic, magic.

He came to a shot of an exuberant tag on the roof of a parking garage. “FLY,” Flyboy had written. Of course, the picture didn’t have magic. It was just a picture. The King said it was the aura of the thing, the physicality, that made it. It was why no one—not even Maker—had been able to figure out how to make the Words go digital. Prentiss stared at the picture of Flyboy’s word. From the perspective, Flyboy must have taken Maker up into the sky, and she’d taken the picture from above.

He remembered the feel of the wind beneath him, the big silence of the sky broken only by Flyboy’s mad whoops, corkscrewing, spinning, turning. Up where there was no one sick, angry, yelling, poor. There was the sky, limitless, and it was his. His and Flyboy’s.

He looked at the picture again then went to the easel and shook the can.


He wrote it just like Flyboy used to, just as it was in the picture. He stepped back. It was good. Should be. He’d spent enough time with paint trying to learn his own Words. Anyway, he thought, it’s something. They’ll come and dig us up and maybe someone will know that some of us felt something once. Even if there’s no one left alive with magic. Even if the Wizard King was wrong. They might see it and know that someone had felt like they needed to fly.

He half smiled, remembering, and touched the word on the easel.

The magic filled him. Prentiss flew.

He was stunned for a minute as he felt the ground give his shoes a goodbye kiss. Then he raced out the door and up into the sky not yet dark, laughing, heedless of who saw him. Into the sky Prentiss went up like a screaming roman candle. He flew under the power of the Words. Real Words, magic Words—Flyboy’s? His own?—and he was free.

He laughed and couldn’t stop. He could go anywhere. He could do anything. He knew the Words now. The King had been wrong. The Words weren’t inside him trying to get out. They were outside waiting to get in.

He came back down at last. He looked again at the photos, at the Words the King had left strewn across his house. Words of making and unmaking, joining and separating, changing and preserving, calling and sending. He wrote them on the easel, touched them, and made magic. He made magic like the King had made magic, not one Word but many. He made lights like Maker used to, little firework globes that hung spinning and exploding always in the air. He made vanishings and reappearings. He made a word that healed his hand like new. He made a Word that sent the smell of old food out of the King’s house and brought the gentle scent of rain. But somehow it seemed wrong, and he brought the old smells back.

He saw Ninegold’s Words, too, the money Words, and he left them alone. He hadn’t lied to Pharoah about that. He didn’t want it. He knew what those Words could do.

The evening drew in around the house as he fished through the Wizard King’s papers, finding more and more Words and practicing them. Maker’s lights—Prentiss’s lights—kept the dusk away. At the bottom of a scattered paper mountain, he came across his name for a second time. A note stuck to the table read: PRENTISS. For you. Keep what you need. Give what you can. Find more.

There was nothing else. Prentiss couldn’t tell what the note had originally belonged to. Then he breathed in. Oh. He thought. Oh. He laughed, and every bit of anger he’d had toward the King for leaving him melted away.

He put a word of locking on the door of Wizard King’s trailer, then thought better of it. That was Ninegold thinking. Owning, having, keeping. The Words weren’t the Wizard King’s, and they certainly weren’t his, whatever the King had written.

When he walked back toward home along the train tracks, he saw the cars still there. He shook Maker’s can and began to make words on the sides of the cars. All the Words the Wizard King had left him, that his friends had given him. Even Pharoah’s, because who knew who out there might need more life? Words of healing, of remembering, of making. And on almost every car: FLY. He’d come up with more, he thought. There were always more words. But for now: FLY.

As he finished, he heard the wheels start to creak and whine at last, and in his mind’s eye, he saw the cars going out first in a long straight line, then decoupling, re-hitching, and spreading out across the continent; and the Words too, spreading out, until maybe at last coming to rest in front of someone who needed them; and, as it was with him, the needing and the reading of them would be one and the same, and whoever it was—whoever they were—would fly.

  • S.L. Harris

    S.L. Harris is a writer, teacher, and archaeologist who can often be found digging in gardens, libraries, tea cabinets, and ancient houses. Originally from West Virginia, he currently lives in the Midwest with his wife, two children, and many books.

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