“FUUUUUUUCCKK!” I screamed. “We can’t just leave him there!”
Kris and Jeremiah both stopped climbing for a moment and looked at me as if I were crazy. Suddenly I realized that they might be right. The only thing that we could do for Owen at this point would be to put ourselves in danger while trying to get his foot loose. While he wasn’t technically dead yet, there was no way he was ever leaving the tower from the top. I scrambled to catch up with Kris and Jeremy, and as I pulled even with him, my hand slipped on the rung.
This is it, I thought, I’m dying. But my hand was evidently faster than my mind. All of those practice sessions with Ed must have paid off, because before I could even think of what I should do, my hand twisted and grabbed the side of the ladder, stabilizing me. I looked back down toward the ground, thinking about how I had almost fallen, and suddenly I froze.
“I was an idiot to join the climb, Kris.” I held the rungs in a death grip. “I can’t go any further.”
“You’ve done OK so far, Rock. Regroup! Focus! You can make it!”
“I don’t know if I ever wanted to make it.” As soon as I said the words, I knew them to be true.
“You know when you said I was running from something. I guess maybe I was. I’ve been working that farm for twelve years. When a new manager spot opened up for feed management, it should have gone to me. But they were like, ‘No, Rock, you’re much too valuable where you are. Wait a few years, and we’ll put you in charge of dairy production.’ I tried to tell them that I didn’t have a few years if Jenny and I were going to have this baby, but Duchesne said that I didn’t have what it takes to be a good manager.”
Kris looked back at me, his eyes begged me to climb just one more rung, but I was frozen. I could see his outstretched hand and the confusion in his eyes. He didn’t want to leave me behind.
“And then Jennifer was turning tricks with soldiers to help make ends meet. She lied about where she got the money, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.”
Kris Lowered himself back to my level.
“What are you, a fucking idiot!” Jeremiah grabbed the next rung and pulled himself up. “If he wants to die, let him GO!” He looked at me with what I felt was compassion, looked at Kris, and then turned his face to the tower and kept climbing. Kris remained.
“Rock, can we talk about this after we-
“I guess I was pissed. Pissed at Jenny, pissed at the farm, pissed at my life. I saw the poster for tower recruits, and I thought, ’I’ll show them.’ I’ll either make it big, or at least make them wish that I was there -still barely making it.”
“And how’s that working out for you now.” He motioned toward my hands which were clenched to the rung.
“I guess that was stupid, but back there, when I almost fell, something changed. I’m not angry with Jennifer. I never was that angry with her. I guess I was angry with myself that I couldn’t provide for us well enough to get by without her thinking that she had to do things like that.”
“So you want to end your life with a bout of stupidity, and not let her know how you feel?” He pulled at my jacket, urging me upwards.
“I would give anything to see her again, and apologize, and hold her, and tell her I love her.”
“Then shut up, and climb this wall with me. Come on Rock, We’ve got history to make.”
It seemed we were getting pretty close to the top. The closer we got, the slower our progress seemed. At this point, I didn’t know how many had fallen or were still climbing. I knew that Owen had fallen - the rest were just numbers.
Numbers. My cold addled brain had suddenly become obsessed with numbers. How many rungs had I climbed, How many were left? How much time had passed since we left the hotel? How much colder was it at this height than on the ground? So many numbers questions, and I didn’t know the answer to a single one of them. I desperately needed a number question that I could answer.
We were beyond the point where talking was an option; I couldn’t ask Kris or Jeremiah. But for some reason I needed questions that I could answer with numbers. As I pulled myself up, rung after rung, I tried to ask myself questions I could answer. How many bales did we stack in the contest?
Before I could answer, Jeremiah let out a scream. It was almost more a sob than a scream. I had assumed that the pain in his extremities had gotten to be too much for him, but when I looked at him, it was as if his head were on fire.
We had climbed to the point where the shadows of the other buildings no longer blocked the sun to the west. Jeremiah, who had been looking at each next rung with fierce determination as he climbed, watching his fingers (which probably had little or no feeling in them at this point) close around each rung before pulling himself up, now had his eyes clenched shut, avoiding the glare.
I watched as he blindly swung his hand until it hit the next rung with a thud. Cupping his fingers, he pulled back until he felt the resistance in his arm, gripped tightly, and pulled himself to the next rung. He then repeated this with the other arm. It was a slow and obviously painful process. I suddenly felt so lucky to have these stupid reflective goggles that Guttenberg had given me.
I felt bad for having criticized Guttenberg instead of thanking him. My goggles allowed me to keep focused on what I was doing, pulling myself up, one rung at a time. My arms had never hurt like this before, even after throwing hay bales in a barn from dawn till dusk. This was different.
Kris and I began to pass Jeremiah by, and the top didn’t look as distant as it had before. When we were below the glare and looked up, the tower seemed to extend indefinitely into the sky. Now it had definite edges, a glaring rectangle chiseled out of the clouds and darker skies to the east.
Without warning, the lights in the window in front of me began to switch on and off. It seemed to be happening to all of the windows on the tower. I thought for a moment that this was yet another way of trying to confuse climbers and cause them to fall. It took me a moment before I realized that they were blinking in such a way as to make a pattern of movement from the floor to the top.
I had seen this before, but never from this close. Somebody had reached the top. I imagined I could hear cheers from the crowd below, but I wasn’t sure at this point if that was real or only in my head. I wondered if it was Alex who had reached the top.
As the light show stop, I turned to see that Kris had not stopped to watch the lights as I had. He was moving upward, but there was something strange about the way he was moving. His shaking was getting worse. He would shake violently for a few seconds and then stop. During the moments in between, he would advance a rung or two.
Shaking again, Kris paused for a moment. I pulled myself up to the next rung, using the opportunity to catch up with him. His shivering had gotten bad enough that he was holding the rung with a death grip so he wouldn’t shake himself off.
“I think I’m d-d-done.” He stretched is face and shook his head, trying to get the shivering to stop - at least enough for him to talk normally.
“Almost there!” I shouted. “Can’t give up now!” I wasn’t as good with the pep talks and advice as he was. I didn’t know what to say. “Your family is counting on you!”
“C-counting on m-me to die!” He spat the word die out. “B-been p-planning it since I was ten.”
I thought about what he had said for a moment. Knowing the risks, Kris’ family had been preparing him for the climb for years. I couldn’t imagine how that must have changed the way the treated him, and how he felt as a person. All of that confidence, all of that knowledge, but deep inside feeling like he had been sent to die so his family could prosper. And the crazy thing was, he loved them for it.
My family, on the other hand, hadn’t wanted me to go. Had I told anyone about signing up before it was a done deal, they would have stopped me. Jenny had even sold herself to help make ends meet, and tried to shield me from knowing, and I responded with anger and resentment.
“They’re counting on you to make it!” I shouted. The wind picked up again for a moment, and we hugged as close to the ladders as we could.
Movement above caught my eye, and Kris and turned to look as another body from above sailed past us on its silent trip to the ground. I couldn’t tell who it was, but at this point, I didn’t really care anymore. It seemed like we would all fall at some point. It was really just a question of when, and the only people who really cared about that were the ones who had money on it.
Still, I couldn’t tell this to Kris, who seemed to be slipping into a funk like Owen had before he lost it. I had to say something to encourage him.
“I’m counting on you to make it!”
Kris looked at me and smiled. The fire seemed to be back in his eyes, and his shivering had subsided. He reached upward for the next rung
Crisis averted, Kris and I began climbing again. His pace had gotten faster again, and it was hard to keep up, but I figured it would help keep me warm to get the blood circulating more in my body. The shakes seemed to have completely stopped for Kris. I was still getting the shivers in spurts and it made it even harder to match his now almost frantic pace.
I couldn’t call for him to wait. I just had to keep climbing one rung at a time and keep us as best I could. We had now outpaced Jeremiah, and his head was well below my feet. I could no longer see him when I looked to my immediate right. I looked down to see how far below he was. He was at least a body length behind us.
As I turned back to face the top, I saw that Kris had stopped moving. I struggled to make up the distance between us as I watched him opening and closing his right hand as he stared at it.
“No Feeling!” He was starting to seriously feel the effects of the cold.
“Let’s hurry!” We were pretty close to the top now, and I didn’t know how much longer either of us would remain lucid. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t shivering as much as I had been. Kris nodded and reached for the next rung. He was a good four or five inches short, and he seemed oblivious that his hand had closed around nothing.
I watched, helplessly, as his left hand let go to reach for the next rung.
“No!” By the time I screamed, it was too late. Kris was looking at me. He seemed to be wondering why I was screaming, and then he looked back up at his right hand which was gripped on an invisible rung as he started falling. He seemed more perplexed than panicked.
I knew that reaching out and trying to catch Kris was impossible. I knew that even if I were somehow able to grab his hand in time that it would just end up pulling us both down to our deaths. I knew that, but my hand shot out anyway.
Time seemed to freeze and I watched my hand inch its way forward, fingers spreading open to grab Kris. Kris was still looking at his own hand as he fell. I can’t be sure what he was thinking, but it seemed like he was wondering where the rung had gone. I watched as his hand passed inches from mine. It seemed so close, but so very, very far.
I had seen a few climbers fall, and I watched as Owen fell back against the building, still trying to take off his coat, but I could not bring myself to watch Kris Fall. I squinted my eyes shut as hard as I could.
“Kris!” I half screamed, half sobbed. I stayed there, crying for a few moments. When I left for the tower, I felt like I had lost what little family and friends I had. Now, with both Owen and Kris gone, I had lost the people in this crazy place that I really felt close to. I felt like giving up, but I couldn’t bring myself to let go of the rung. At that moment, I knew that I wanted to live. Taking a deep breath, I turned and continued upward.
I had lost any concept of where I was. I didn’t know if I was halfway up the tower, or only a few rungs from the top. But steadily, I grabbed each rung and pulled myself up. The feeling in my arms was beyond pain, and with each rung, I wondered whether I would have the strength to grab the next. I don’t know if it was delirium from hypothermia, but suddenly, everything changed. The tower became everything.
The pain in my arms was no longer real. The sadness and frustration I had been struggling with was gone. In that moment, it seemed that climbing the tower was the only thing I had ever done. I couldn’t remember anything before, and couldn’t imagine a life after. There was no Jenny, no Kris, No Sherri. I climbed the tower. That was my existence. And so I continued to do what I had always done, grabbing one rung after another until…
There was no Rung! The absence of the resistance I had become accustomed to caught me by surprise, and I almost slipped. The sheer terror brought me back to my senses - out of the stupor I was falling in to. My eyes snapped wide open, and I looked at the ladder above me. The rungs ended abruptly just above my head. I was confused. The sides continued for a few more feet but there were no more rungs, there was no more building.
It took a few seconds for me to register that I had reached the top. At that point, I don’t know if I cried or laughed or screamed. I remember that it was an amazing feat of concentration and effort to rotate my wrist, grab the side, and keep pulling.
As my head cleared the top of the tower, there was a sudden burst of light from the flash of cameras. There was clapping, and I heard my name being called but couldn’t tell by whom. I looked in front of me. There was nothing left to climb. I stood there numbly confused.
I felt somebody put a warming blanket around my shoulders. Are they crazy? I thought. It isn’t even cold anymore. I tried to shrug it off, but didn’t have the energy. There was a buzz of people around me asking me questions and trying to help me.
“Can you tell me your name?”
“Sir!” A soldier at the edge of the roof called out. Everybody turned to look. Suddenly there was a hand swinging back and forth, reaching for a rung that wasn’t there.
It didn’t really look like a human hand, anymore. The fingers ranged in color from a pale blue to a pinkish red, but the tips were as black as coal. The index finger on his left hand was bent at a strange angle. After a few sideways swings, the hand gripped the railing and pulled.
Jeremiah’s head came into view - or at least what used to be Jeremiah. His eyes were still closed.
Frozen tears held Jeremiah’s eyes shut. His scary grimace of a face showed his teeth in a clenched smile between his blue lips. Surrounded by the bright red of his cheeks, it was almost as if he was mocking the flag with his face.
His legs pushed, and he was standing on the last rung. A gurgled scream came from his clenched teeth. I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. I’m not even sure if he was screaming in victory, pain, or both. I don’t know if he did either.
Morbid curiosity made me walk forward.
“Take him out!”
That’s when I noticed that instead of a line of soldiers with cameras, Jeremiah was facing a firing squad. Three soldiers stood, guns raised, preparing to fire.
“No!” I screamed, running forward to block Jeremiah from their aim. And the next thing I saw was blackness.