I’m pretty sure Felicia was going to break up with me, but before she could utter the phrase, a significantly disfigured harpy clutched her by the shoulders and yanked her out of our apartment. The harpy had crashed through the enormous bay window, spraying shards of glass all over the IKEA furniture Felica and I had bought a few months ago after we ignored everyone else in our lives and moved in together. The enormous bay window had been a major selling point, basically the only thing we could agree on, and it was kind of ironic that my last glimpse of her was the exact moment she was perfectly framed in that window, her pale oval face a mask of confusion.
We’d known the apartment was near a harpy den, of course. The landlord had to disclose it. But she’d assured us that a harpy hadn’t whisked away a human in a couple of decades. “Everyone is used to them,” the landlord had said. “They’re part of the town.”
The one that had grabbed Felicia was missing an eye.
So there I was standing in the living room, a chilly wind blowing the hideous curtains Felicia’s mom had given us when we’d moved in, and the first thought I had was if Felicia and I were still together. Like would she want me to rescue her?
Then my second thought was that maybe another harpy was coming, and I got out of there really fast.
Outside the apartment building, I found a bunch of people standing on the sidewalk looking up to the fifth floor at our enormous bay window as if the moment of Felicia’s abduction was going to keep replaying like the Zapruder film. Glass littered the sidewalk under their feet like confetti.
“That was awesome,” a boy said. “I never believed harpies could do that. I thought they just ate fish out of the river and laughed at everyone’s clothes.”
There was a general murmur of agreement.
“Well, they do a lot more than that,” I said, suddenly brimming with anger at these people enjoying what had happened to Felicia and our window. “That one took my girlfriend. Possible ex-girlfriend.”
Everyone stopped talking to stare at me.
Then finally a woman said, “Do you think you might move out now? How much is rent in this building?”
In truth, I pretty much liked everything about Felicia. The reason no one thought we were going to work was because my family and friends thought I didn’t deserve her, and her family and friends thought I wasn’t good enough for her. With that kind of pressure, it seemed like we were riding a self-fulfilling prophecy all the way to the final stop.
But the more we set out to prove everyone wrong, the more our differences became apparent. We spent so much time arguing over what couch to get and if the curtains her mom got us should go on the window or in the garbage, that we forgot how much we’d loved to be together. I could spend twenty-hours on a couch with Felicia, even if I hated the color, and watch movies and eat burnt popcorn and clutch hands as if one of us might float away. Or be snatched by a harpy.
We hadn’t done that in months.
After I stormed away from the crowd in front of our apartment building, I walked two blocks north and looked up at the harpy den. The harpies had taken over the twentieth floor of an office building many years ago. The twentieth-floor staff had gotten up from their desks on a hot afternoon to take part in a fire drill. As they’d assembled on the grass below, they’d watched a dozen harpies crash through the windows of their offices, and then once the cruel creatures were huddled on the desks the workers had just abandoned, they began pointing down at the workers and laughing at their clothes and overall bad luck.
Harpies wore strips of fabric and remnants of clothing they found in the trash which they stitched together somehow using their claw-like fingers. These garments hung on them like multicolored rags. Their unwashed hair hung in a similar manner over their mostly human faces. They also had thick brown wings which seemed incapable of flight but somehow weren’t. I’d never really seen a harpy up close until the one who had snatched Felicia right in front of me. I would sometimes see them flying in pairs to the river to catch fish or sitting on top of the mall. Never as close as the one who’d taken Felicia. The one who was missing an eye. The one I would absolutely recognize if I saw again.
The rest of the building where the harpies had taken up residence was still in use by small insurance companies and IT departments. The den was a blight on the otherwise spotless building. It too was draped in extremely dirty multicolored tarps that covered the broken windows from that fateful day when they’d taken over the twentieth floor. What was it with harpies and defenestration?
I did not want to go up there.
I cut across the parking lot where mounds of harpy trash and droppings had rendered many parking spots unusable. A lot of people thought it was bad luck to touch that stuff so it accumulated like cancerous growths. The glass doors leading into the lobby didn’t have a single fingerprint so I tried to only touch the handle. When I entered, an older woman with a face that sagged on both sides gave me a smile.
“Welcome,” she said. “How may I help you?”
“Anyone ever go up to the twentieth floor?”
She looked at me as if I’d just lit a fart and singed off both of her eyebrows.
“The only people who go up there would be people launching rescue missions.”
“Does that happen fairly frequently?” I asked.
“No. Never. Not while I’ve been here.” She picked up a stack of paper and tapped the edges on the desk in front of her to line them up perfectly for no apparent reason because the act of placing them back on the desk caused them to no longer be lined up. “But before I started working here, I heard of some rescue missions happening.”
“How did it go?” I asked. “Was it easy?” I was really hoping it was easy.
“Some came back. But some didn’t.”
More than anything ever in my life, I didn’t want to be a some didn’t.
“The elevator only goes to the eighteenth floor,” she said. “The people who work on the floors above the twentieth arrive in helicopters each morning and take the elevator down to the twenty-second floor if needed.”
“So how would I get up to the twentieth floor if hypothetically I wanted to?”
“I have no idea,” the woman said. “Do you have an appointment?”
When Felicia and I first started dating, I decided I wanted to work on my manners. I knew there was a better way to hold my fork and knife, and I was really interested in all the ways that I could be polite to her specifically. I began holding doors open and saying please and thank you and even I’m sorry. I once discovered something she hadn’t known previously and that made me feel incredibly astute. It was this: If we were walking down a flight of stairs, manners dictated that I was supposed to go first.
“I’m not sure that’s correct,” she’d said.
“It’s so that if you trip, I’ll be right here to break your fall.”
“Or catch me. You could catch me.”
“My arms don’t bend back that way,” I’d said and she’d laughed even though I hadn’t meant it as a joke. That happened with us a lot.
Since the woman at the reception desk wouldn’t let me go up, I decided maybe I’d have better luck trying to get one of the helicopter pilots to take me to the top of the building. I wasn’t planning to launch a rescue mission or anything. I just wanted to look in the den and make sure Felicia was alright. It seemed like a fairly simply request for one of the pilots considering the three of them were just standing around at the far end of the parking lot laughing and smoking while their helicopters crouched on a hill behind them as if they might jump up at any moment. And once I’d checked on Felicia, I could go to the police station and fill out a harpy kidnapping form and provide a detailed description of the harpy with one eye. Then I could get lunch and start cleaning up all that glass in the apartment.
“No,” said the first pilot.
“No,” said the second pilot.
“Yes,” said the third pilot, “but only because I don’t like being in agreement with these two assholes.”
“You’re just mad that you lost in cards,” the first pilot said.
“Slight problem,” the third pilot said to me. “I’m happy to take you, but like two minutes before you walked up, I lost my helicopter to these assholes in a card game.”
“So you’ll take me, but you don’t have a helicopter?” I said.
“Precisely,” the third pilot said and shook his head. “Because of these assholes.”
I looked up at the twentieth floor. It looked pretty quiet up there. I wondered if our fates had been reversed if Felicia would be trying this hard to check on me.
The second pilot, who up until this had been scrutinizing me with a creased brow, narrowed his eyes until they were almost closed. “Are you on a rescue mission?”
I shook my head. “My girlfriend was taken by a harpy earlier and I want to see if she’s okay.”
“Sounds like a rescue mission,” he grumbled.
“Not exactly,” I said. “I don’t plan to fight or shout curses or sneak in while the harpies are sleeping. I want to make sure she’s okay. That’s it.”
“But she was taken by harpies. Why would she be okay?”
That was a really good question. “Well, I guess I want to see if it’s preferable to being with me.”
The three pilots laughed even though I hadn’t meant it as a joke.
The helicopter ride was bumpy. The second pilot gave the impression that he wasn’t the strongest of pilots. Before we took off, he kept twisting and turning some knobs on the dash and quickly scanning this dogeared book next to him. Once we were in the air, he pulled and pushed a lever between his knees and we lurched up and up and up until we were on the roof.
“Sorry I can’t maneuver past the windows. All I can do is go up and down. You can take it from here.”
“I don’t know how to take it from here,” I said.
He grunted. “You have to get down to the twentieth floor.”
“I don’t know. It’s your rescue mission.”
“It’s not a rescue mission. I think we might be broken up.”
“But you still love her?”
I very purposefully did not answer.
Then I got out and watched the helicopter shuffle to the edge of the building and basically tip off the side. I ran to the edge in time to see the pilot get the helicopter righted before he landed near the parking lot with a thump.
A wind blew across the cement rooftop, and I suddenly felt very, very alone. And when I thought of everything off of this rooftop, the rest of my life going forward from this moment, it seemed very lonely as well. I walked to the other side of the building and looked out at our apartment. I could just make out the large bay window, but I couldn’t tell it was broken from here. Maybe from a distance, nothing ever looked broken.
I thought about Felicia’s journey from that window to this building. It was probably over in a matter of minutes. She was ten floors below me, but never felt further away. I knew if I walked through the large metal door leading into the building, there would be a stairwell and I would walk down and I would keep walking down until I got to the twentieth floor.
And I would be on a rescue mission.
An hour or so later, a handful of workers emerged from the metal door. They looked at me quizzically as I remained cross legged on the warm cement. I knew I couldn’t sit there all day, but I wasn’t ready to make any major life decisions.
One of the workers, a guy in a gray suit, went to the edge of the roof and began waving his arms around frantically. Another guy held up a large sign that said LUNCH in massive block letters and he waved it in the direction of the pilots down below. Then I heard a helicopter begin to whir.
A woman in a long flowery skirt approached me. “We’re about to go to lunch, but I couldn’t help wondering. You work here? I’ve never seen you before.” She cleared her throat. “This isn’t a pickup line. Trying to figure out if I should call security.”
“I’m stuck,” I said. “My girlfriend was taken by a harpy earlier and I don’t know what to do.”
“Okay, I’ll call security.”
“Wait,” I said.
“Too late,” she said and held out a little clicker about the size of a garage door opener that said SECURITY across the button which she was pressing over and over as she stared at me.
“You’re right,” I said. “It’s too late.” I saw Felicia’s face as she’d been whisked out the window. There was part of me that thought I could have grabbed her. Was that her hand reaching out for me or was I imagining it? I could have run into the elevator long before the older woman in the lobby would have had any chance of stopping me. Or instead of sitting on the roof and feeling sorry for myself and my predicament, I could have walked down to the twentieth floor already. Maybe when I arrived, Felicia’s hand would have still been reaching out to me. What would it have felt like to grab her hand and pull her toward me? Now I would never know.
I heard a whooshing of air off the side of the building, and I expected to see the helicopter arriving to pick up the workers for lunch. But it was a harpy. More specifically, it was the harpy. The one from earlier. The one-eyed harpy.
“This is the guy,” The woman with the flowery skirt said as she ran off to join her group of co-workers waiting for the helicopter. Even though this harpy was apparently the security for the building, she clearly still made the woman nervous.
The one-eyed harpy landed with a thud on the roof and squinted her only eye at me.
“I remember you from earlier,” she said in a voice that didn’t sound like it was used all that frequently.
“You took my girlfriend,” I said.
“Ex-girlfriend.” The harpy laughed hysterically. “Why would anyone stay with someone who dresses as poorly as you?”
“Are you saying she’s my ex-girlfriend because you took her or because she told you that we’d broken up?” I said.
The harpy laughed again. “Are you on a rescue mission?”
I’d been asked this all day. I’d never once given an honest answer.
The harpy’s multicolored rags rippled in a breeze. Her wings shuddered slightly as if she was about to take off. I didn’t actually like being this close to her either.
“I only want to make sure she’s okay,” I said.
“She’s not with you anymore so I’d say she’s doing great,” the harpy said.
“But did she say that?”
The harpy took a step toward me. “Why don’t you ask her?”
And that’s when I figured out that I wasn’t scared of the rescue mission. I’d made it this far already. I was scared of what came after the rescue mission. Of Felicia’s reaction.
The harpy took another step toward me. “I can take you to her. Fly you right down there. What do you say?” Nothing would make a possible rescue mission easier than letting a harpy fly me directly to my destination.
The helicopter suddenly lurched up over the building and the blades sliced off one of the harpy’s wings as quickly as when she’d grabbed Felicia earlier. Then it careened across the roof sending the office workers scrambling and then it dipped down over the edge and disappeared.
The one-eyed harpy slumped to the ground with a groan. I knelt next to her, trying not to look at the bloody mess of her wing. “What can I do?” I said. “How can I help you?”
“I need to get back to the den,” she said.
“I’ll take you,” I said without thinking first. “I’ll help you get down there.”
The harpy moaned in pain. She reached out to me, and I grabbed her gnarled clawed fingers. Before I could help her to her feet, she pulled me roughly toward her.
“When we get to the stairs, I need you to walk in front of me. In case I fall.”
I looked her in the eyes. I could see how much pain she was in. Then I could see Felicia again. That same look in her eyes. She wasn’t reaching for me. She was waving goodbye.
“She’s not down there, is she?” I said.
“No,” the harpy said weakly. “She paid me to take her away from her life. And off to her new one.”
“She didn’t expect me to rescue her.”
I let that settle. Maybe our biggest problem was that we didn’t expect anything of each other.
“Well, I’m on a rescue mission now,” I said. “I’m going to get you back to your den. And I won’t let you fall on the stairs.”
“I suck at walking,” she said.
“It’s okay,” I said. “That’s one of the only things I’m really really good at.”
I helped her to her feet and she clutched my shoulders, the same way she’d grabbed Felicia. Her breath was hot on my neck.
We reached the metal door, and I pulled it open.
“Don’t let go,” I said. “Don’t let go.”
Josh Denslow is the author of the collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books) and the novel Super Normal (forthcoming fall 2023 from Stillhouse Press). He is the Email Marketing Manager for Bookshop.org, and he has read and edited for SmokeLong Quarterly for nearly a decade. He currently lives in Barcelona.