The boy never made the cover of the black and white tabloids at the supermarket even though he learned to fly before he hit puberty. The curve in his back was subtle, but it was there and microfiche suggests he was born with a partial exoskeleton, what entomologists on record referred to as a beetle back. At the time there was some debate about his usefulness to science and if he should be studied. An unclassified government CD-ROM from 1987 documents his existence and suggests he might be of some use to the military, but there is no official mention of him after 1988.
The boy did disappear, but not immediately after 1988. There are yearbook photos from his time in elementary school, the headgear and braces and the over-gelled side-spike haircut forever immortalized after his parents moved from Chicago to the skinny part of Idaho near the mouth of the Snake River, where they thought they wouldn’t be bothered. The boy grew like a regular boy, his voice cracked and he back-talked his mother, though each successive year his back curved more noticeably and his wings became stronger and his appetite larger. His mother thought the curvature of his beetle back was beautiful, the dark, waxy ridges in his skin and the seam running down the middle where human indentions of vertebrae were absent. She asked God how the boy had come from her womb, and wondered to what end could God allow the boy’s existence?
The mother cherished the boy and thought him a blessing, a light in the family. Polaroids exist showing the beautiful black dots, like those on a Lady Bug, just under the wavy, indented skin below his shoulders. By third grade it looked like the boy was wearing a turtle shell under his shirts, and the boy’s sister couldn’t decide if his form was enhanced or mutated or deformed. The boy’s sister never tired of staring at the deformity in the same manner as strangers and small children, who gawked openly. She would pat him on his back, tell him good job and hug him for no reason if only to feel the beetle back, to understand it, to touch it, to try and grasp the absurdity of nature. The boy ripped many shirts from uncontrolled spasms and injured his wings when there was no place for them to unfold. It was a hazard until he learned control. The boy walked in a hunched stance and tried to make up for it with good posture. His mother told a family friend that the boy slept on his stomach because sleeping on his back made him feel like a marooned crustacean.
Flying didn’t come naturally for the boy. His father said in passing that it took the boy a year to control his beetle back, to regulate when his wings would come out. The exoskeleton had different wiring and the boy struggled to control two bodies at once. At first the boy could only flutter in the air for a moment, like an early pioneer of the jetpack rising unevenly in the inventor’s backyard. Grainy home movies show the boy’s back separating and translucent wings emerging; off camera someone admires their beauty, the intermittent control, the flight. In slow motion the wings moved rapidly and created a whirr of wind that the boy’s father later joked was powerful enough to unhinge his combover.
For years the boy was unsteady in flight and his mother urged him to stay out of the air. The boy’s sister remembered that if he started to hover in the living room their mother would become hysterical, worried about her glass figurines. There were tchotchkes in every corner of the house and an arrangement of antique wooden dolls stacked like produce on a table in the dining room. The boy’s father collected tiny pewter soldiers, all of them staged on various shelves, looking up to defend a swarm of equally tiny, fire-breathing dragons suspended from the ceiling by fishing wire.
But the boy never broke any of the collectables. He learned to harness his form and it wasn’t long before he was gone for hours and then days at a time as his wings could carry him farther and farther. Mostly he flew north toward the Canadian border and beyond into the wilds of the Northern Forest where he could sate his appetite for earthworms, snails, animal dung, leaves, and all of the decomposed matter that winter left in its wake. Every time he left the boy said he would return. The time between his trips grew shorter and the boy had fewer things to say when he returned. Eventually the boy was silent, focused in a way no one in his family had seen before.
It was a clear evening the last time they saw the boy. He circled their house slowly and took off the last bits of his clothing. His Nikes and jean shorts came to rest on the roof, caught in the grit and stickiness of the shingles. Naked, the boy darted up and away and his family followed him until he was but a speck in the sky, the way a helium balloon rises and then fades into the expanse. The boy’s sister and his mother and his father stood on the lawn waving after him, calling for him to return. Days, weeks, months later the boy’s mother fell ill and his father took to his work and his sister wrote and wrote and wrote about him, sometimes repeating the same sentences over and over again in her journal until there was nothing more she could say.