The Tower

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Chapter 17

As the last few climbers arrived at the front of the tower, I stood at looked up at it. I don’t know how something can see so small and so big at the same time. It was easy to see how so many climbers would think that they would be able to reach the top. The hubris of the fallen.

I knew from my talk with Kris and with Guttenberg that the tower was not to be underestimated. As we climbed, the winds would increase and the temperature would decrease. Given that it was already only 30 degrees here at the base, I shuddered to think how cold it would be at the top with the wind blowing.

There were tables set up with coffee, hot cocoa, and warm brandy. Kris and I stayed away from them, but I saw Owen waiting in line.

“I wouldn’t drink that if I were you.” I doubted that there were any drugs in these containers, since any climber could drink, but Owen was reaching for a cup of warm brandy. “I’m no doctor, but I don’t think it’s good to drink alcohol before something like this.”

“I’m not going to have enough to affect me.” He smiled and drank his brandy. “Besides, if it wasn’t good for this, why did rescue dogs carry a cask of it on their collars?”

I wasn’t really sure what he had been talking about, but since he was already done with his brandy, I figured it didn’t matter. I walked over to the right side of the crowd to join Kris.

While it had been the general who had sent us off from the hotel, it was President Kendall giving the speech here. He spoke of hope. I remember thinking to myself that I only hoped he’d finish quickly so that we could get to climbing. I wasn’t in a hurry to die, but the waiting was killing me.

As he finished his speech and pulled out the ceremonial pistol, I felt suddenly very queasy. I could tell I wasn’t the only one, but the incident earlier with Charlie had reinforced the idea in our minds that there were scarier things here than the tower.

Bang!

The climbers in front seemed to sprint toward the ladders in the center. Kris and I were able to get to ours on the right side in roughly the same time by walking. As we approached the tower, I found my mind filled with absurd thoughts about how there technically weren’t any convict climbers, since they had all been pardoned a few minutes ago. I asked Kris if he thought the rule still applied to them once the climb began, or if they were actually free to climb anywhere they wanted.

“You’re an idiot sometimes, Rock.” He laughed. “Why don’t you go ask the President?”

I laughed as well, and we turned our attention to climbing. The first three stories went quickly for everyone. You could see the climbers who had gotten to the center trying to speed their way up the wall. Alex was climbing quickly, but he didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He barely noticed as climbers passed him by. He seemed to be taking each rung deliberately at a pace he had determined long before the climb.

In the first stages of the tower, we were close enough that he was able to shout a few insults over.

“Don’t fall yet, Rock! I want you to make a big splatter when you land!” I didn’t understand how he could be so hateful when, as far as I knew, I had never done or said anything to him.

We didn’t have to wait long for the first climber to fall. I think we were only about five or six stories up. We could hear him clanking against the angled ladders beneath (they hadn’t finished removing them all yet).

“I think I’m going to be sick.” I didn’t know the name of the climber who said that. I know I met him at the reception. He was from Alabama or Arkansas. I couldn’t remember.

“Lick the rungs!” I heard Alex’s voice scream out. “It sounds crazy, but it makes it better.”

Lick the rungs... I chuckled to myself. Who would be stupid enough to fall for -

“Ahhh!” I heard a gargled cry. “Argh Ganha boob!” I think he was trying to say I cannot move, but I wasn’t sure. Alex laughed and continued to climb. I looked at Kris.

“Nothing we can do for him.” Kris kept climbing and I followed. About twenty seconds later, we heard an agonizing scream. The boy had forcibly pulled his head away from the rung, leaving a good portion of his tongue. He was climbing upward with a vengeful look in his eyes, going after Alex.

As we climbed higher, the sounds of the crowd below faded out, and there was only the sound of hands and boots on the steel rungs. Before the climb, I had wondered a few times if the ladders would be able to hold the weight of all the climbers at once, but now that I was here climbing them, I knew that they had been built to last. I don’t know if it was the cold, the number of rungs I had gripped already, or the finality of what would happen when I was finally unable to grip the next rung, but they felt harder than normal steel. There was something eerily powerful about them. I kept my eyes forward for the most part, trying not to look up or down.

Kris had gotten a good 10 rungs ahead of me now, and I could hear Alabama coming up from behind. As he drew next to me he looked over at me and grinned, blood covered the entire space between his mouth and chin, as well as most of his chest, but it was the bloody teeth in that grin that made me shiver more than the icy wind.

“I gohda ki da sabbi” He turned his head forward again and kept closing on Alex.

The climber to my left was much less talkative. I stole a glance or two his way when he came next to me. He didn’t look back. He had a look of determination in his eyes that I wished I could feel. His gear was as nice as mine if not nicer, which meant he was good enough to have the better sponsors.

We climbed, the three of us side by side, slowly catching up with Owen. I’m pretty sure we’d all lost count of the fallen below us, and there were fewer and fewer above us as we went.

Kris had been right about sticking to the right side. It seems the prisoners had thinned out faster than the rest of the crowd. There had been nobody falling on us from the top early on, and now, late in the game, we weren’t feeling the pressure from behind.

It seemed there were fewer ‘tricks’ to make climbers fall at this height, but maybe that was just because there were fewer of us. The elements did their best, however to make up for the lack of greed based heartlessness that had pervaded the first half. As we got higher, the temperature dropped. Kris and I were wearing high tech body suits and gloves, but Jeremiah was climbing in his prison clothes. I don’t know what he had underneath, but I doubt that I could have demonstrated the sheer will he was now demonstrating with each rung. I could see the chapping on his hands and knew that he was overcoming real pain with every grasp. Kris and I were cold, tired, and sore, but looking at Jeremiah reminded me what a farce this entire climb was.

As a child I watched the climb at town hall with everybody else. Mom had chided me. Why do you want to sit and watch a bunch of people die? I even made bets with my friends - not for money, just bragging rights- about who would fall first or who would make it. As a kid, I never seriously contemplated the equality, but then again, I had never thought to bet on a black man reaching the top. I had a feeling that Jeremiah might be that man.

The thought immediately disturbed me. There were at least 10 climbers still above us, and who knew how many below (I estimated about 20). Nobody had reached the top yet, but once 1 or 2 had gotten there, it would become an all-out fight to the finish. The President had told me that they wouldn’t allow a red X to reach the top, but Jeremiah had been smart. He stockpiled water and food to avoid taking anything offered to him today. Short of killing him on national TV, what could they do now to stop him? I was starting to worry that he had beaten their system. I admired him but I hated him. With less than half left to climb, he had become a legitimate competitor.

I paused. Did I really deserve to reach the top?

The shivering was now coming is spurts, sometimes uncontrollable. The higher we climbed, the colder it got. The setting sun and the winds whipping around the tower weren’t helping things either. Kris and I had lucked out with the sponsors. Sherri’s endorsement of me had given us access to some really amazing gear. It wasn’t heated like Alex’s, but it was better than anything I had ever worn in winter before. Even in these clothes, Kris and I were having troubles. I felt cold to the bone, but it was worse for Owen and Jeremiah.

Jeremiah still had the look of determination in his face, but the color was fading fast from his cheeks. Cracked and pale, his hands were those of a statue. Owen was better insulated against the cold, but he had a lot less body fat, and the brandy that had warmed him up for a short time was now causing him to lose heat more rapidly. His climbing had slowed to the point we had caught up with him and now were leaving him behind.

Owen tried to say something as we passed, but with the wind, I couldn’t hear anything more than a mumble. I turned and looked at him. He had stopped climbing and was looking at his hands.

“Kris!” I gestured for him to look down at Owen, who was now trying to pull a glove off with his teeth. What was he thinking? I knew I didn’t have much time to get to him.

“Leave him!” Kris shouted over the wind. “He’s not even shaking anymore, Rock.” Kris shook his head, pointed upward, and climbed another rung.

Owen had gotten his glove off, and let it drop to the ground, now so far away. I had to remind myself not to let my eyes follow it. The last thing I needed at that moment was vertigo. He took his bare hand and pulled the end of the knot holding his hood tight, and then pulled the hood back. I watched, dumfounded.

“Rock! Keep moving!” Kris was now a few rungs higher than me, keeping pace with Jeremiah, whose face had been replaced with a grim mask of determination. His shivers seemed to be coming less as well.

I knew I had to move, so I pulled myself up to the next rung and looked back down at Owen, who was now removing the ski mask he had been wearing. I couldn’t hear anything he was saying, but he looked up at me and I could read the words so hot on his lips in the middle of it. The ski mask was now falling to the ground like his glove before.

“Owen!” I screamed. He looked up at me, smiled, and then let go of the rung and began to tug at the fingers of his other glove. He was still smiling as his body began to fall away in a wide arc. I didn’t want to see, but couldn’t turn away. I thought he was going to follow his glove and ski mask, but as he slid downward, one of his feet slipped between the rung and the windows of the tower.

There was an audible crack as Owen’s ankle broke under the pressure and a thud as his back and head hit the ladder below. I thought for a moment that his entire foot would break off and he would continue falling, but he hung there. Part of me hoped that the blow had killed him or at least knocked him out - there was no saving him now. But a moment later I watched him throw the other glove away and begin unzipping his coat.

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