The Tower

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Chapter 19

I’ve never had a clear picture in my head of what the afterlife would be like. Mom had dreams of a heaven where she would be reunited with my father. Hopefully they have a good recovery program up there. But I was pretty sure that it didn’t involve pain, and I was in pain.

My arms and legs felt like they were being held in a bathtub of almost boiling water. My face was hot, too, but the itching was unbearable. At least my arms and legs didn’t itch. My head was throbbing, and there was an incessant beeping noise that was driving me crazy.

I did not like the feeling, and tried to escape back into the blackness from which I seemed to have come, but it was fading. A horizontal sliver of bright light, broken by what seems like hundreds of trees filled me world for an instant. Too bright! I shut my eyes as hard as I could. That was better.

Suddenly, I felt a flash of pain as if somebody was holding a hot poker to my eyes. I felt my eyelids being forced open, and this time was powerless to escape the light. The world turned white. I saw blurs passing by all around me, and there were moments of even brighter light, as what appeared to be a small flashlight was aimed directly at them.

“I think he’s coming around…”

I tried to ask them to dim the lights or let me shut my eyes, but no sounds escaped my throat. And then the blackness came to welcome me back.

The second time I came to, there was definitely much less pain. The room seemed darker than before, but I couldn’t be sure. After a few seconds, I was able to make out shapes of things in the room. I was in a hospital.

“You gave us quite a scare.”

I knew that voice.

“Treason! He tried to attack a soldier!” The anger on the general’s face was unmistakable. “I could have executed him for that. I could have had him thrown off the roof of the tower right then and there. He needs to be punished.”

“Donovan.” President Rettman’s voice was calm and smooth. I don’t know how the general could stay angry listening to that voice. It threatened to send me back to sleep. “He was suffering from severe hypothermia and delirious. He didn’t know what he was doing.”

“Is that what you say?” I felt the foot of the bed shake. “Did you know what you were doing?” I kept my eyes closed. I wasn’t prepared for this conversation.

“Richard, we know you’re awake.” President Rettman’s voice took over again. “Open your eyes.”

As the room came into focus I saw the president and the general standing at the foot of my bed. There were no nurses, no doctors. Other than the three of us, the room was empty.

“No, sir.” I was groggy and my voice was a bit weak. It was obvious that that answer hadn’t satisfied either of them.

“I didn’t know where I was or what was going on around me,” I explained. “I thought that Kris and I had made it to the top together. And then there was a monster at the top of the ladder.” I knew that there hadn’t been a monster, that what I had seen was Jeremiah, but I doubted that calling him by name would help my case any. “The next thing I knew, I was here in the hospital bed.”

“Extenuating circumstances or not.” The general crossed his arms and puffed out his chest. “If you’d done that where people could see, I would have had to take strong action.”

“I understand that, Donovan, but the only people who saw were your soldiers, and the situation is contained. We can’t exactly punish a national hero for screaming when he saw a monster on the top of the tower.”

“I’m fine with that, Mr. President. So long as he doesn’t mention anything about wat he saw up top. People could get confused.”

“Agreed.” They both turned form each other to fare me.

“Richard,” The President was now speaking in his authoritative voice. “If asked about the top and what you saw there, you are to say that you barely remember reaching the top and nothing else, understood?”

“Yes, Sir.”

With everybody satisfied, the president turned and left the room first.

“Well done, son.” The general smiled at me. His smile looked so warm and friendly, but something about it made me feel uneasy just the same. “Don’t worry about this, we just had to be sure that you understood that there are consequences and that you have now been warned.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The general turned to leave the room.

“Somebody send that stringy pencil pusher back in.”

Bandage and all, I walked to the stage for the interview. The people, the lights, none of them phased me. What was making me nervous was having Sherri there on stage. Her hair was straighter than it had been for the VIP party, but it still shined so brightly that it almost seemed to have a light of its own. It was parted on the left, and threatened to obscure one of her emerald eyes as it made its way around her face and down to her cheekbones. As I walked up to her, her face was the epitome of professionalism. She leaned forward to give me a welcoming kiss on the cheek.

“Relax. Everything is OK.” She whispered quickly before she pulled away.

“Richard Haversham, ladies and gentlemen.” The arm that had been on my shoulder only a second before moved purposefully in a wide arc to the left, as if she were connecting me to every person in the audience. The eruption of applause took me back to sitting on top of a stack of hay bales at the harvest festival. It had only been a month ago, but it seemed a lifetime away. And here I was, again, thinking to myself, Did I win?

She started by showing a video to the audience, telling my backstory. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I was feeling a mix of exhilaration just being next to her and guilt because we had kissed. Sherri Had known I was married before the kiss, but Jenny still didn’t know about it. And I had said such cruel things to her about faith and trust.

The video came to an end, and both Sherri and the audience had their moved faces on. She turned and faced me. It was show time. Somehow I would have to please President Kendall without angering the general. I had been coached on how to answer the questions that would come up, and I was pretty sure Sherri wasn’t going to throw me any curve balls. I looked up and did the slightest nod, signaling my readiness.

“Well, Rock - May I call you Rock?” I nodded. There no longer seemed to be any point in protesting that my name was Richard when ‘Rock’ was all over the newspapers, internet, and TV.

“That’s quite a bump you seem to have there.”

“I actually don’t remember how I got this.” I lied. I knew this would be one of the first questions, and was glad to get it out of the way. “I remember coming up to the top of the ladder. I was freezing, exhausted. I’d never felt so alone in my life.” The audience seemed to be hanging on my every word. “The next thing I knew, I was in a hospital bed with so many people wanting to help me. It was quite a change and a bit of a shock.”

Sherri looked up at me, her face taking on a sympathetic air.

“Now the scene that will probably stay with most viewers most viewers is not that of you reaching the top, but the one where you seemed for a moment to hit rock bottom.” The screen behind us showed me reaching for Kris and screaming as he fell away. The camera zoomed in on my crying face. Watching the scene filled my heart with so much pain and dread it was unbearable. As my face on the screen turned to one of determination, the audience clapped, Kris already forgotten.

“What were you feeling at that moment?” I knew that she had a set list of question she was supposed to be asking me, but at that moment I couldn’t understand how she or the audience couldn’t already know how I had been feeling. Hadn’t they just seen the same tragic death that I had? Didn’t they realize what a great person the world had lost?

“I felt… lost.” I was diverging a bit from the answers we had prepared, but something in me at that moment wanted these people to see what they were missing so much. I couldn’t stop

“I felt like the world had just lost such a great person… I was wishing that it had been me that fell instead.” The audience gasped. “And then I realized that no amount of wishing would bring him back, and that I had a choice to make. I chose to live.”

The audience started clapping again. Sherri smiled, but there was a half relieved nervousness on her face. I could tell that she was uncomfortable with the ad-libbing I had just done.

“Rock. You have found yourself in an elite group of people. You made the climb and have become a citizen of Chicago. How does it feel to have people calling you a hero?”

“Well…” I was supposed to say how honored I was and how challenging the climb had been, how I was looking forward to the challenges still ahead. But I paused.

Sherri looked at me, waiting for an answer. I don’t think she had anticipated this being a difficult question, and certainly hadn’t expected what I was about to say next.

“Well, I guess I am. But it doesn’t have anything to do with climbing a wall.”

Sherri and the audience suddenly seemed very quiet. She was obviously searching her brain for some way to follow what I had said, but I beat her to the punch.

“I’ve been a hero most of my life.” I sat there looking at the audience, most of them gaping at me. “Climbing the tower didn’t make me a hero. It just made me a winner.”

Sherri’s stopped looking like she wanted to interrupt. I couldn’t tell if she approved of what I was saying, or was just resigned to let me finish.

“I’ve always thought of a hero as somebody who puts the common good before their own selfish need. A hero does what is right, even when that might not be what benefits him the most. In many great stories, the hero dies a tragic death, but the world is better off for having had him in it.”

The audience seemed to be paying attention and agreeing with me. So, although what I was doing at that moment was crazy, it looked like people didn’t think that what I was saying was, so I continued.

“I guess for me, when I was growing up, my mom was my hero.” I could feel the crowd following along, and I wasn’t afraid of them anymore.

“Did anybody else here ever think of their mom as their own personal hero?” I looked at the audience, “Let’s hear it for our hero moms.” The applause was deafening this time.

“Since I was a little boy, my mother has gotten up every morning before dawn, tended to the chickens and cow before making breakfast. She made sure I got to school, kept a clean house, kept me clothed and fed. She made sure I said the pledge of allegiance every morning and my prayers every night. She said that even when times were tough, I could hold my head up high because we were feeding America.”

“We look at society, and we call many men heroes: soldiers, firemen, doctors, and sometimes even men who climb towers. But I couldn’t have climbed the tower if somebody hadn’t built it first. A doctor needs a hospital, tools, medicine. A fireman needs his truck and gear. And all of these heroes, in fact all of us here in this room, wouldn’t be able to do any of this if we didn’t have our basic needs met. So what could be more heroic than farming or working in a factory?”

“Climbing the tower didn’t make me a hero. I left the life of a hero for the dream of an easier, softer life. But I will spend every day of this new life being thankful to the heroes of America that make it possible.”

Sherri sat motionless, looking at me, wondering what I had just done. The entire room had gone silent.

A loud percussive sound reverberated throughout the studio. As I looked to see where it was coming from, it was repeated. An old man in the front of the audience had stood and began clapping.

“Praise Jesus and pass the Ketchup! That was amazing!” I had never seen the general smile with such glee. Since I had been expecting a reprimand for my interview, this was unexpected to say the very least. “You had them eating out of the palm of your hand.”

“Excuse me, sir?” I was flabbergasted. He actually seemed happy.

“Richard, drop the country bumpkin act.” He seemed happy and annoyed at the same time. “You did a good job!”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I had my doubts as to whether you would really be able to work in this town, but I think you’ll fit in just fine. Almost too well.”

I cringed inside at that statement. I was reminded of my dream with Ed and the hay bales. In reaching the top of the tower, had I doomed myself to lose the life I had loved. I hadn’t realized how much I loved that life until I had seen the other side. Paradise was not what I had imagined.

“Thank you, sir.”

The door opened again and President Rettman entered. With the general this happy, I steeled myself for the president’s rebuke.

“Richard, that was perfect!” He turned to address the general. “Did you see that? I hadn’t hoped for half of that response.” The two of them seemed perfectly giddy.

“Of course, you did ad lib a bit, but that’s to be expected. And since it turned out well, no harm done.” He thought for a moment. “We’re going to have to keep coaching him, though.”

The general nodded his head.

I felt so confused at that moment. I had thought that the president and the general were practically enemies, but here they were, congratulating themselves on my speech, when I hadn’t really done what either of them had asked of me.

“Richard.” The general could see my bewilderment. “You have accomplished what both of us have been trying to do in one fell swoop. My thoughts on increasing the military, the president’s thoughts on establishing more cities, these all have one common theme.”

“Hope.” The president joined in. “And by making the average American worker a hero, you’ve just given hope to the entire nation. You may not recognize what you’ve done yet, but you’ve reinvigorated the workforce with one small speech.”

“They’ll play that video clip in every town across the country.” The general patted me on the back. I didn’t know whether to feel proud or horrified. “Well done.”

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