The Ascent (2 page)

It was the fear of dying alone in the dark that set my body in motion. I proceeded to scale the wall, my fingers seeking out niches in the wall to hold on to, the muscles in my arms and shoulders straining as I hoisted myself off the ground without the assistance of my legs. The tunnel was too narrow to bring a knee up; my legs hung uselesslybelow. My broken left leg felt as if it were rigged with coat hangers and packed with broken glass.

I gripped a ledge above and felt space open up behind my shoulders. The tunnel was widening.
This is swimming. This is swimming
. I managed to raise myself up farther—

My hands slipped, and I anticipated the fall before it actually happened. But when I crashed to the bottom, the pain in my injured leg was potent enough to send my mind whirling …

I stood at the end of a long pier watching a Ferris wheel pull slow rotations in the oncoming dusk. Something tickled my throat, and I coughed into my hands. People shouted from the boardwalk, and when I looked in their direction, I was shocked to see many of them pointing at
me
. I cupped my hands to my mouth and coughed into them again. This time, however, I coughed up the head of a daffodil, glistening with spittle in my palm, and I stared at it with wonder—

And then I’m there once again, standing off in the distance, admiring the green, sloping lawns of the Italian countryside. As soon as I realize where I am, I see the motorcar speeding around a curve in the road. I wave my arms as it approaches, pleading for the driver to slow down.

I stood in a room of darkness as a figure approached. How I was able to discern the figure’s shape I did not know, but as it drew nearer, I sensed a radiance from it, and there was an anticipation in my chest.

Then my eyes opened to the blackness of the real world.

Here, I thought. I’m going to die down here.

The pain had ushered me into blessed unconsciousness. Upon awaking, I felt the numbness of my left leg—the frightening
absence
of it—but it was no longer that drilling, incomprehensible pain.

I was on the ground, icy water all around me. I knew I was awake and lucid, but I refused to move. The flashlight was dead, probably destroyed when I’d landed on it, and I didn’t care. This was it. I was watching the motorcar launch over the hillside, and I no longer thought about broken legs or my Jeep Cherokee.

There was someone else here with me.

The feeling was unmistakable. When I was a child, my mother used to gather me in her lap and rake her long fingernails down my bare back. She would carve designs, designs I was required to guess—a turtle, a lion, a skyscraper. Seconds before her fingernails ever grazed my flesh, I could sense their approach, could feel them coming like a twinge in my spine, a tickle in my tailbone. This feeling was like that: a sense of impending certainty of the presence of another.

“I’m dying,” I said. Although I could not be certain if I spoke these words aloud or not …

—You’re not
, Hannah said.

I felt my heart leap in my chest. I wished for light by which to see her, but there was no light here. This was a tomb below the surface of the earth.

—Get up
, she said.

“I
can’t
,” I managed, certain this time of the words forming in my throat and hearing the way they croaked forth and came back to me. “Can’t … move …”

—You can’t die down here, she said.

There were other words, too—words that made no
verbal
sense, no
vocal
sense—but they were dedicated to forcing me up from the frigid water.

I didn’t see the hand come out of the blackness above; instead I
felt
it. Again, it was similar to my mother’s fingernails on my back, causing goose bumps and sending shivers down my spine. I knew the hand wasn’t actually there—that I was feeling it only in my mind—but the sense of it was enough to cause in me a surge of power, of strength, of celebration.

My arms were over my head this time, a smarter approach. My fingers fumbled and grasped a set of niches in the wall. Using my renewed strength, I hauled myself off the stone ground and out of the freezing pool of water in which I’d been sitting. This movement caused fresh agony to bullet up through my left leg. I could feel it everywherethroughout my body, igniting every single nerve ending and causing my teeth to gnash. Still, I continued to raise myself into the hole above my head, using only my arms and my one good leg.

The narrowness of the hole permitted my elbows to bend to a maximum of perhaps thirty degrees, merely bowing out and not truly bending at all. There was nothing more I could do about this; the walls of the channel pressed hard against the points of my elbows, and I was once again breathing in the heavy dust.

It took all my strength and concentration to release my grip on one of the handholds I’d secured and to swing momentarily like the pendulum of a clock. My free hand shot straight up, providing more room in the tunnel in its wake.

Then I was able to bend my other elbow just a bit more, drawing my face closer to where one hand still gripped the handhold. I could feel the tendons in my body, as tense as violin strings, quaking in unison. Yet I was able to raise my free hand higher into the darkness above. It slapped against the stone far above my head with numb satisfaction. The fingers immediately slipped into another groove.

Overzealous, I pulled myself up too quickly and was instantly rewarded with a blinding, delirious pain as my exposed shinbone, rising into the hole, cracked against the lip of the crevasse. The blackness was overcome by a dazzling display of fireworks—explosions of all color—and I thought maybe I had died and was boiling in a vat of molten lava in the deepest depths of hell.

—Up
. Hannah beckoned.
Up
.

I could have let the pain engulf and destroy me, but I allowed it to fuel my aggression and will to survive. I didn’t care if I ground the exposed bone to yellow powder against the walls of the shaft. I was going to climb out. The pain made me determined.

I continued to climb to the wan light. I didn’t know how long it took me to reach the chamber above and to let the fading daylight course down on me fully through a rent in the ceiling of the cavern—it could have been minutes or hours. When I finally climbed out of the crevasse onto stable ground, I passed out.

3

FLASHES OF CONSCIOUSNESS FLITTED BY LIKE

dragonflies. Whether or not I was actually dreaming, I could not be certain because when my eyes unstuck, I was somehow out of the cave itself and in the open desert, watching lizards lap water from kiss tanks with vibrating black tongues and feeling the pre-evening heat clinging wetly to my body.

I crawled in the dirt toward an immense outcropping of stone, suggestive of the undulating, skeletonized backbone of some prehistoric animal. Again, I fell into unconsciousness.

This time when I awoke it was night. The moon was a fat pearl shimmering behind a stretch of clouds like pulls of dirty wool. The air was frigid against my skin. I blinked several times, trying to remember where I was and how I’d gotten here.

When I tried to stand, my body refused to cooperate, and I was sent sprawling to the dirt, agony coursing through the marrow in my bones. I glanced down and saw the horror that was my left leg—the blackened, soaked trousers and the ghostlike glow of the bone in the moonlight—and vomited into the sand.

I wasn’t sure if I passed out again or if I switched over to autopilot, but the next thing I remembered was leaning against a wall of stone, the heavy limb of a tree under one arm as a makeshift crutch, and squinting into the distance. The sky was a velvet canopy of stars. Around me, the cacophony of nature—the twitter of insects, the screech of birds, the howl of wolves, the cumulative chatter of all things wild—was nearly deafening.

I peered across the vast white flats of the desert, searching for the highway. I could see no headlights of passing vehicles, nor could Ilocate the vaguely orange sodium glimmer of a distant civilization. The surface of the moon couldn’t look less desolate.

Hannah stood about twenty yards ahead of me. In a simple white cotton dress, her hair bobbed short as I’d often imagined it, her skin pale to the point of near translucence in the light of the moon, she appeared to hover like a spirit several inches off the ground. And of course she was a spirit—Hannah was dead.

“Hannah,” I breathed, my throat abraded and raw. It hurt just to breathe let alone speak. God only knew how long I’d been without water.

She turned and walked—no,
floated
—to a craggy hillock of stone, disappearing around the other side. She said nothing, and she was too far away to see her expression, but I was certain she wanted me to follow her.

Leaning on my makeshift crutch, I hobbled toward the hillock, pausing only once to catch my breath and allow the feeling to shift back into my numb left leg. There was no more pain. I was beyond pain now, which was good for the moment, though I knew such numbness was a bad sign in the grand scheme of things. The leg was going dead. Also, hypothermia was beginning to set in. All the signs were present—the profuse sweating while simultaneously shivering, the blurring vision, the lethargy I felt with each tedious step I took. I wanted to curl into a ball and close my eyes. In fact, that might have been my fate had I not spotted Hannah—

That’s not Hannah, a voice spoke up in my head. Hannah’s dead.

Hannah appeared on the other side of the hillock, staring straight at me. As I lumbered forward again on my crutch, she turned and headed through a veil of low trees.

I pursued this visage through the trees, using their outstretched branches as support, and if it wasn’t for the peripheral sight of Hannah’s white gown in the darkness, there but not wholly there, I would have surrendered to the sheer weight of my exhaustion before ever passing through the trees into a vast clearing.

But it wasn’t a clearing at all. It was pavement. I was standing in the middle of the highway.

4

I NEVER MET THE MAN WHO EVENTUALLY STOPPED

to collect my broken husk off the side of the road, propping me up in the backseat of his car and shuttling me to the nearest hospital, but the doctors later assured me that he was a very nice guy who wished me well.

Chapter 2

1

MARTA CORTEZ COME AT THE END OF THE WEEK,

looking pretty with her hair pulled back and her naturally tanned face fresh and without makeup. She hummed to herself, and the sound was pleasant enough to instantly brighten the entire apartment.

“Look at you.” She sighed, pausing in her long-legged stride. “You’re in one of your bitter moods.”

“How’d you get in? I thought I locked the door.”

“Don’t be so combative.” She practically swished through the apartment, her arms burdened with brown grocery bags and a swinging leather purse, and went straight for the kitchen.

I was on the deck, the balcony doors open, watching the distant glint of traffic creeping across the Chesapeake Bay. I maneuvered my wheelchair around and thumped over the rubber threshold stripping of the deck into my apartment. Even with the breezy summer air filtering in, there persisted the underlying stink of stale sweat and old, musty books throughout the place—a smell I’d once found comforting, the way some people find libraries comforting, though which recently alerted me to my own hermitic lifestyle. With the exception of Marta’s weekly visit to bring me groceries and playthe occasional game of backgammon or chess, my tiny Annapolis apartment entertained no visitors.

“This place is a mess,” she said, emptying the bags of groceries into the refrigerator. “Can’t you clean up a little?”

“It’s homey,” I retorted, surveying the room. Clothes clung like foliage to the sofa, while towers of paperback novels and DVDs teetered on nearly every available flat surface, including the leveled shade of a lamp—a potential fire hazard. A half-empty bottle of Macallan scotch, along with an assortment of used rocks glasses and champagne flutes, stood atop a stereo speaker. Empty food containers from various local delivery joints had cropped up like tiny civilizations seemingly overnight. In particular, a carton of reeking Chinese food balanced on a collection of DVDs that in turn perched atop a mountain of books on the coffee table in the middle of the room: a cumulative testament to just how pathetic I’d become. “Anyway,” I continued, ignoring the mess, “I’m still getting the hang of this chair. It’s hard to get around and clean up.”

“I thought you were on crutches now.”

I glanced at the pair of crutches propped in one corner of the room, a ratty old Hawaiian shirt draped over one of the cushioned supports. “Ask some of the neighbors, and they might attest to seeing a man in his late thirties, skin pasty, a bad dresser, stumbling around the lobby on a pair of crutches from time to time. But they’d also no doubt relay the embarrassed and frustrated look on the man’s face.”

“You’re an asshole, Tim,” Marta said matter-of-factly. Then, some musicality coming to her voice, she said, “I got you a surprise.”

“Oh yeah? What is it, a housekeeper?”

She appeared in the kitchen doorway, looking almost seductive in a pink halter top and a pair of too-short black shorts from which her brown, coltish legs seemed to slide like shafts of daylight. Marta and I were friends and had never dated. Although one night several years ago after spending a few hours getting hammered at a Main Street bar, we’d returned to this very apartment where, midway throughwatching a Coen brothers movie, we’d kissed. The kiss transitioned into clumsy groping, resulting in Marta bare-chested on my sofa, me on top of her with one hand down her pants—which was the exact position we woke up in the next morning. We were mutually humiliated, and I hadn’t kissed her nor seen her breasts since that night.

She crossed the room and tossed a DVD case in my lap.

“Rear Window,”
I said. “Hysterical. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you’ve got a lousy sense of humor.”

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