The railing of the fire escape stairs is cold under my touch as I throw a leg over to the wrong side. It’s damp too, possibly from the chill in the air that I’m doing my best to ignore. I hesitate poised over the railing and stare down the four stories to the pavement that’s a nauseating distance below.
I move my left leg to the outside as well.
The shiny black paint of the railing had peeled to reveal a disgusting shade of brown underneath. I gripped it with white knuckles in both hands and used my thumb nail to scratch off more layers. I can still see the ground from the corner of my eye. If I shifted too far in one forward...
I take in a shuddering breath instead. Can’t let my head take the reins now. My chest aches.
I shouldn’t be out here. I should go inside.
I should call my mum.
I should shift forward too far.
Instead I slide my phone from the back pocket of my jeans and type out triple zero. But that’s silly, I’m just overreacting. I select Contacts and hover over Mother Dearest. The phone merrily shines the time into my squinted eyes: 1:14am. I can’t possibly call her now. She needs to get up early in the morning to coach the junior netball team.
I slide the phone back into my pocket. For a while I just breathe, in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four. Square breathing, Dr Sandra called it.
I start to get dizzy anyway. There’s an invisible band around my chest that’s tightening, ever tightening. I’m fine, I’m uninjured, and why the hell can’t I just go inside and go to sleep?!
My class schedule is taped to the back of my door, and one of them is at 8am tomorrow. ‘Linguistics for the Ages’, I think. It’s late, but if I go now, I could still make the class I chose to attend in the morning.
I don’t move. My grip on the railing sends tingling down my fingers. The sky above is dull from the city lights and probably polluted, but there’s one section just above the house across the street where the dots of light twinkle through. Only the stars were watching.
I glance down the street simultaneously hoping it’s empty and wishing for someone to walk down to interrupt me, but it’s as vacant as always. The chirping of crickets is the only gentle sound on the breeze. Only the stars were watching.
Only the stars.
My blood rushes in my ears, my heart beats wildly in my throat, but a numb sense of calm blankets it all. My grip goes loose. I tilt my head forward.
A hand lands on my shoulder.
I screech way too loudly and whip around, immediately off balance on the railing, and I nearly fall just from my own startled jump. The hand on my shoulder stabilises me, and oh, the hand is attached to an out of breath woman with a wild expression.
“Sorry to startle you there, darl,” she says. Her thin blond bangs are frizzy and windswept, and unlike myself, she’s dressed for the chill with a leather jacket hurried chucked over her maxi dress. The hand steadying me has delicate tattoos wrapped around the fingers. The night seems darker behind her, shifting around, but when I blink the presence is gone. She’s still staring intently at me.
“- and focus whenever you’re ready.” Her accent is quite pleasant.
“What? I was - I’m just stargazing, thinking about things,” I say. My smile is quick as always and leaps to my face without my permission. I hope my eyes are dry.
There’s a social script for these situations, which I’ve noticed over time. It goes like this: ’Oh, sorry for interrupting, just thought I’d check! If you’re sure you’re alright? Okay. Well, have a good night.’
I wait for her to follow the script.
“It’s hard to stargaze from here, ain’t it? You can barely see anything apart from clouds. Mind if I join you?”
“Um,” I say, but she’s already dropped her bag and leant backwards onto the railing with both elbows, facing the opposite way to me. She gives me a wide encouraging smile which shows off her laugh lines. Something tense lingers behind her eyes, but I don’t think it’s directed at me.
“My name’s Harper. I’d shake your hand, but I think I’d rather they both stay occupied keeping you upright.”
“Yeah, I’m holding on tight. Being up here gives me a thrill, you know. Life gets monotonous.”
I don’t know why, but it feels safe to share this information with her. Almost like I’ve just sat down with my mum. The night has always given me a false sense of security.
Harper has to leave eventually though, and then I can return to my rising thoughts.
“What are you doing out here this late, Harper?”
Her smile fades a little. “Oh, just on my way to my diner to meet some friends. And before you ask, it’s open all hours for truckers and night shift workers.”
“You own the place? That’s cool.”
“I called it the Secret Plate. Over northside near the park and the cinemas.”
“I know the area. My university is three blocks over.”
“Ah, Hales University. It must be tough being a student. It’s a lot of pressure, stress, deadlines…”
Something close to panic blooms in my chest and the tight ache returns. I know exactly what she’s doing now - staying with me, well within arms reach of my precarious position, prodding gently into what my worries might be. It’s been a long time since anyone cared enough to open a discussion like this.
I refuse to meet her gaze.
“Doesn’t matter, it’s not interesting.” I turn away, swinging both legs to the safe direction of my flat and dropping to my feet. My right sneaker squeaks as it thuds against the floor just like it always has after walking through a muddy puddle three months ago. Harper straightens and steps in the way of the door so I’ll have to move around her.
“I’ve been where you are now, darl. It’s okay to talk.” Harper says.
“I don’t even know you. Sorry, but I have to go to bed.” I can’t help but bristle at her audacity.
“Please. I don’t have to know you to want to help.”
“I was just stargazing.”
“You were making love eyes with the pavement!” She rubs her eyes with a sigh. “Damn it. Look, I know I’m a total stranger, but I have a… knack… for telling when someone’s about to do something stupid with their life and I refuse to just sit by like a sheep to avoid some awkwardness or whatever. Please let me help you. How about I call someone for you?”
“Hell no,” I say in horror.
I can’t talk to anyone I know about my frowned-upon nightly routine at the fire escape. The thought of their judgement or their sorrowful glances or their pity makes me want to burrow into the ground and stay there.
I can’t call anyone.
The thought suddenly makes my eyes go sore and I’m doing my best to blink the rapidly-forming tears away. It’s getting harder to breathe. Harper hovers a hand near my arm. God, if she’d just go away, I could have my stupid breakdown in the privacy of my own room like usual, but she’s pushing the issue. How did she even know I was up here?
I cover my eyes and runny nose with a hand and turn away. Calming down is priority number one yet my disobedient lungs won’t cooperate.
“What’s your name, darl?” Harper says in a soft voice.
“You’re safe with me, Alex.” And damn it, she’s so genuine and warm, a presence around her that draws me in and makes me want to vent my every problem like a toddler. I’m crying now, trying to muffle sobs as sharp embarrassment rises like the tide, but Harper opens her arms and draws me into a hug, murmuring gentle assurances and rubbing my back.
Nearly jumping off the fire escape seemed so numb and far away until Harper wanted to talk about it. But she knows, she knows, and she wants to talk about my reasons and probably ways to help and it’s all so impossible because I’ve already tried all the self help books and seen a therapist and tried everything under the sun to feel something other than apathy and nothing works and - and - and -
“You’ve done so well. It’s okay. It’s alright to feel anything, even apathy, just let it out.” Harper continues her reassurances. I’m shaking like a leaf as I gasp for air, lungs burning on my tears, bunching the smooth leather of her jacket in my grasp. I’ve closed my eyes at some point. My burning forehead rests on her shoulder. My throat closes up and my heart hurts.
Harper lets me stay there until the overwhelming feeling of everything dies down a little and I can get a hold on myself.
I pull back, wiping my face even though it does nothing to help, and I can’t meet her eyes. Harper offers me a tissue which I take and use. I’m a fully grown adult who just had a sob fest on a total stranger - who knows what she must think of me now.
“It’s okay, Alex. How about you come with me to the diner and have a coffee? It might do you some good instead of going back to an empty fourth storey apartment.”
“How do you know it’s empty?” I sniffle out the words, looking for an escape from the elephant in the room.
“The fact you’re still out here tells me it’s empty, darl,” she says gently. I groan and nod. Harper picks up her bag, rubs my arm in a comforting way once more, and heads down the fire escape.
I’m cold, I’m numb, and I follow her.