The Tower

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Chapter 9

Her name was Sherri, and she didn’t start the conversation by trying to solicit sex. She just walked up to me and put a fresh glass of beer in my hand.

“Don’t you just hate these parties?” She turned and stood next to me, surveying the room. “So much duplicity in one room.”

“Well,” I said smiling, “It’s my first, so I’m not really qualified...”

“All of these people, pretending they want to be your best friend. And really just sizing you up so they’ll have a better chance gambling on how high you get.”

My thoughts returned to the penguin I had talked to earlier and a few of the other less memorable encounters.

“And then you have the girls in heat.” She pointed at Drew, the boy from Tennessee, who was talking with a woman who appeared to be in her early thirties. He was making bashful eyes as she stroked his chest. I wondered if he’d close the deal with her, or keep looking.

“It is a strange party.” I took a drink of the beer she had handed me. “No doubt about that.”

“But you’re the strangest thing in here by far.” She looked up at me. Her emerald eyes were the most beautiful I had ever seen and were perfectly framed by her flowing dark red hair. “I have more information on the climbers than most. I know the profiles of pretty much every climber in here. I know the court reports of evrer convict. Most of them are open books, but I can’t figure you out.”

“Not much to figure out, I’m afraid.” I was now facing her. She stood a good five or six inches shorter than me, which seemed like the perfect height. “I’m just a hard working country boy who suffered a bout of temporary insanity, and signed up to climb a wall.”

She giggled. It seemed like such an honest giggle that it made me smile as well. She was very cute.

“Well, I already figured out that you were crazy.” She tilted her glass in a mock toast to my insanity, and I joined in. “I just didn’t know how crazy.” She turned to face the room again, giving me a brief glimpse of her silhouette in motion. Suddenly the idea of being with somebody tonight didn’t seem like such an alien idea.

No! That’s wrong! I told myself. But the thought was there, and as we continued our conversation, I found myself hoping that she was as attracted to me as I was to her.

“I mean, you’d have to be a little crazy to climb the tower.” She angled her head in thought, giving me the perfect view of her neckline: how the skin seemed to flow from just below her ear, along the nape, and down to the top of her breasts at her dress line. “And to sign up at the last minute like you did, you’d have to be really crazy, but I think you’re good crazy.”

“Good crazy?” I knew that I was crazy right now: crazy enough to be here, crazy enough to have left Jennifer at home with a baby on the way, and crazy enough to have all of those thoughts being pushed aside by the beautiful woman standing next to me.

“Yeah.” She looked up at me, and put her hand on my arm. “Most of these guys are young enough to still think of themselves as immortal. Some of them signed up almost a year ago. They’ve been preparing and planning for the climb even longer than that. That kind of crazy just makes me a little sad.”

“Why sad?” I couldn’t understand her thinking, because at the moment, I was wishing I was one of the more prepared climbers.

“Because there are a bunch of climbers just like them every year, and most of them don’t make it to the top. But every year, all of these new boys sign up thinking that they will be the one to defy the odds. Most of them never do.”

“I guess not.” I thought back to the stories I had heard at dinner, and the climbers like Alex who thought that they would be the only one at the table who would still be alive at the end of the climb. I hadn’t really believed I would reach the top. I just wanted to get what I could for Mom and Jenny. “I probably won’t, either.”

“See!” she pulled on my arm, looking into my eyes as if trying to see what I was thinking. “You’re different. That’s why I can’t figure you out. What’s your story?”

Although I had been hesitant to talk much with the other guests, there was something about Sherri that put me at ease. I found myself telling her not only my story, but the story of how my family had lost our farm and my mother was now barely making do selling eggs and raising her own food. I told her how I hadn’t been promoted on the farm, about the baby, the hay bale stacking contest, and even ended up telling her about Jenny. I worried that by telling her so much she would pull away or decide that I wasn’t ‘good crazy’ after all, but she looked at me and smiled.

“You’re willing to risk everything, even lose your own life, to provide for your family.” She turned and took both of my hands in hers. “I admire that.”

“Well, some would call it irresponsible,” I began. But before I could finish she brought her finger up to her lips signaling me to be quiet. She inched little by little closer.

“Well, I think it’s very heroic. And very sexy.” She closed the last few inches between us and leaned her face up toward mine. I knew that I shouldn’t kiss her, but my mind was racing in a million directions all at once.

I suddenly found myself remembering one of Pastor Garner’s sermons at church. He had gone on and on about how the flesh was weak, but the spirit was strong. My flesh didn’t feel weak at the moment. And to be honest, my spirit didn’t seem to be resisting the temptation that strongly. I guess that’s one more thing the church got wrong.

And then we kissed. It wasn’t a small peck, but it also wasn’t one of those kisses you see in the movies where the two people seem to be trying to devour each other’s faces and lick them at the same time. There was no loss of self-control, where the couple becomes oblivious to everyone around them. What it was, was a pure and wonderful romantic kiss. I was sure I’d remember that kiss for the rest of my life, however long or short that ended up being.

“Good luck, Rock.” Her eyes were starting to swell with tears, and I could see she was trying to make a graceful exit. I so much wanted to stop her, wanted to spend the rest of the evening with her, but I knew it would be wrong. Hell, as right as that kiss had just felt, I knew that had been wrong, too, and that Sherri was doing us both a service by leaving. “I really hope you make it.”

With that, the first of what looked like it was going to be many tears fell, and she turned away and started to leave.

“Thank you.” I beat myself up later for not having thought of anything better to say than ‘thank you’, but it was all I could manage at the time.

As I wandered from conversation to conversation, I marveled that I had been so drawn in. I found myself scanning the room for her, trying to find her again. I was both exhilarated and ashamed at the same time. Part of my brain wanted to rationalize that it was ok because I was likely going to die, but most of me felt it was wrong.

“So are you going to hook up with her?” Owen asked with a grin. “No doubt about it, man. She was hot!” He licked his finger and then made a sizzling sound as he pretended to touch his finger to some imaginary iron.

“No.” I took another sip of my beer. “I’m not hooking up with anybody.” I started to walk away when his hand on my shoulder stopped me.

“Well, here’s the thing,” he said. “I’m gonna get with that girl over there by the mirrors.” He pointed, but I didn’t really notice her. I was still looking for Sherri.

“The thing is,” he continued, “If you’re not with anybody, and you come back to the room while we’re in the middle of things...”

“I’ll stay out. How much time do you need?” I could have asked him to leave the do not disturb sign on the handle just as easily, but I didn’t relish the idea of going back and forth between the room and the lobby all evening long.

“Well, guests have to be out by eleven, so is it ok if I keep her there until then.” He got an embarassed look on his face. “I want to be able to... cuddle and stuff, too. I mean, if it’s ok with you.”

“It’s fine.” I laughed. I couldn’t really blame Owen for wanting to have a goodtime, especially when my mind had been racing in the same direction. Some quiet time out of the room would do me some good. “Enjoy.” He beamed a big smile at me and ran back to the woman who was waiting for him by one of the giant arched mirrors that lined the sides of the room.

As the reception died down, and guests started to leave, I found myself wondering what I was going to do for the next two hours. I had decided that my chances of running into Sherri again were slim at best, so I found myself gravitating to the bars on the first floor.

I had heard that a lot of climbers were drinking together with guests in the 720 south bar, but one look told me that I didn’t want to go in there. Besides being a bit rich for my taste, the bar was packed with climbers and guests, and seemed like a continuation of the reception I had just left.

There were a few climbers sitting in the lobby. I wondered if they had been displaced as I had, or were just trying to face the inevitability of their own demise. I met faces with each of them, in hopes that a conversation would start. I got a sneer from a redheaded man whose name tag read ‘Jordan’, a shrug from a somewhat fat boy with a scraggly beard who had apparently removed his name tag, and a glare from someone I knew I had seen before. It was Charlie from Minnesota.

“Fuck off.” He clearly didn’t want me to approach him. I felt bad that I hadn’t been more friendly on the train, but he hadn’t exactly been a fontain of conversation, either.

“So you’re from Mineso-

“I said, ‘Fuck off’” He turned and left.

A few minutes of hostile faces, and I knew the lobby wasn’t the place for me, so I decided to search for an afterparty that I felt comfortable with.

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