Ascending

Christopher Paolelli 

He cowered on the ruined balcony. Shriveled into a crouch, he screamed wordlessly at the inferno that was devouring the known world.

Sal called encouragement to him, but he wouldn’t listen or couldn’t hear. So Sal started toward him, cautiously, one shaky step at a time. Then something went wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. In a moment the balcony was gone. And so was the boy.

It gave Sal some comfort to see that the windows were crying too. From his bed, he watched their tears drizzle down in slow-motion freefall— until they vanished from view at the bottom of the glass, like so many of his troubles had. He couldn’t get back to sleep; the boy wouldn’t leave his thoughts. He crept into the room from some corner of the night, materialized out of ceiling tile, and grew up before Sal’s eyes—laughing, dancing, going to school. Making something of himself. His image slithered away into a wet blur.

Sal rolled on his side and slowly sat up. He’d found out later about the family. That was their only kid. Late marriage, infertility, their little miracle. He was afraid to keep track of them after that, but something made him obsess over the obits. Some time later she was there—the mother—killed herself with pills, couldn’t take it anymore. Which left the father just another man alone. Sal never found out what happened to him.

Shakily, he got to his feet. The floor was cold as he stepped toward the window. Tears still crawled down the pane. If only it could have been raining that night…

He knew what he should do. It was only fair. He moved to the doorway and stepped out.

There was nothing between then and now. How long had it been? Not long enough to blur the razor-keen image. He didn’t so much conjure it as succumb to it, the young fea-tures twisted in terror. The screaming didn’t always accompany the face, but he could conjure that too, if it was dark enough. It was tonight.

The vision faded— he was in the hallway now— and he realized he was falling. He struck the ground hard, then soft, seeing at the moment of impact—who is that?—a woman’s face. His cheek pressed against the floor, transferring a sweaty imprint to the smooth tile. He couldn’t stay here. If they found him like this it would be back to the bed, and the bed was not where he wanted to be.

Rain hammered the window at the end of the hallway. Could he move? He became dully aware of a fire roaring in his knees, echoing in his ears, protesting the mere thought of standing up. He reached toward the railing midway up the wall—a railing, thank God—struggled to calm the flame, laboriously righted himself, and began walking again, the pain igniting anew at every step.

It bothered him: who was she? No closer to an answer, he clung to the woman’s face be-cause it kept the boy away. The boy… his mother. It was the mother, the face in the obituary. No. It was somebody else.Who?

He was on the floor again, his forearms succumbing to the inferno. It wouldn’t be so easy this time. He groped above him for the railing, couldn’t get it, backed down. He breathed. He tried again. Hands and feet blazing, he clawed at the railing like a man on the edge of the earth. He kept walking.

This was almost how he’d felt that night, but much worse, and without the woozy pleasure. It was summer then— it was still summer, the rain said— and no. The call came at noon, not night. It all happened in the broad, pitch daylight, it was over by evening, and here he was at night. It could not possibly have been today. It seemed so distant— but no, not distant— distinct. It was today. This afternoon it happened, and her name is Claire.

Claire. She was Claire. And he had fallen again. Why did he have to fall? It’s only fair. He heaved upward, a new burning in his side, and back down. He didn’t remember eat-ing, but the nauseous sting in his abdomen indicated otherwise. All this falling doesn’t help any. Was he getting closer? Maybe not. It was too late now to do anything but go on.

He lay a moment, not really sure how to go about getting up this time, but wishing it as he’d wished only one thing else in his life. He reached upward for the railing. No railing, but something caught his right hand. He pulled and pulled and brought himself up to gaze into the chalky eyes of a white statue, a woman. Not her, and not her— someone else. He unhooked his right hand from her outstretched stone finger, feeling for whatever it was around his wrist that had caught there, but then he saw the window, red light spattering through the raindrops—not much further now—and he didn’t care what was on his wrist; he had to move on.

Looking back, he really hadn’t had much that day; it shouldn’t have made a difference, but it did. Crouching, reaching from the edge of the balcony, trying to yell and be soothing at the same time, then the world sort of shuddered. He’d come to love that dizzy feeling; that was the worst of it. That tiny burst of toxic pleasure was ever so slight this time, but it was just enough to kill his balance. Of course he’d had his gear on— he didn’t get hurt. We never do. It was always someone else.

He was at the window. It opened outward, just like the doors to the balcony had, and by God, it was unlocked. Like it’s meant to be.

He pushed it open and he was there again, oppressive heat tempting him, as always, to tear off his mask, the boy retreating onto the rickety balcony—“It’s OK! I’ll help you!”—almost there, that heart-ripping moment when the boy started to move back toward him, and then Sal gave in to the dizziness and slipped, gloved hand shooting out to catch the balcony floor on instinct, but that was all it took. A couple of angry, burning cracks and the entire balcony shrank from view. Sal watched in horror from the jagged border of the apartment floor. Three stories didn’t seem far, but for a four-year-old, it was everything. It all came so quickly. And after that, there was nothing. Nothing between then and now.

He stared out the window, and—funny; where’s the street?—all he saw was water, three stories below, furiously rushing past, faster than everything but time. An endless sea spread in every direction. There was no horizon.

He hadn’t thought of drowning, but it made sense, the better to quench the flames engulfing his hands, his legs, and his side. After all, the falling didn’t help any. But this would help. He could hope, anyway. He leaned out, grasped the window frame, raised one leg to the windowsill, thrust himself forward… and stopped.

His right hand had snagged again, this time on the window latch.What is that? He looked down, saw a featherweight something sliding from his wrist, and snatched it reflexively, before it could fall toward the roiling water below. He brought it close to his face, squinting in the dark.

It was a wide strip of paper—it looked like a bracelet—torn by its encounters with the statue and the latch. Something was written on it. He fingered the wavy capital letters like alien hieroglyphs. PALO VESI MON… No. That wasn’t right.

He looked again. The letters resolved themselves: LOVE, SIMON. Then a space, then I LOVE YOU. And something else he couldn’t quite make out. He perched with one foot on the ledge as he tried to understand. He would have felt this under his glove, it would have chafed him, he couldn’t have been wearing it, so— so I wasn’t wearing it. So it didn’t happen today. His eyes bored through the wrinkled paper, searching for significance.

“Si… mon.”

At the sound of the name, there he was. A little boy, floating in Sal’s gaze as surely as the other one had. But he wasn’t the other one. And he brought with him a feeling enough like doubt to make Sal step shakily back to the floor. So there was something. He reached out and shut the window with steady hands, the sound of the water abruptly vanishing, along with the aches in his body. There was something in between.

There was a long, all-consuming sadness, then what? He’d stopped drinking after that day, but he could never have done it without Claire. He couldn’t have done much if he hadn’t met Claire— where was she now? He turned around.

He needed to get back to bed, to sleep on this, figure some things out.No reason to do anything rash. Shuffling slowly in the opposite direction, bathed in soft blue light from the window behind him, he looked again at the strip of paper in his hand. What was that something else written on it? He could almost read it, but the paper was torn right through the word. I LOVE YOU… something.

He suddenly came upon a doorway. But this didn’t look like his door.

The doors parted before him, revealing a small room.

“C–laire?”

No. It was empty. With a small, sad smile, he stepped inside. There was a noise behind him. The doors were closing again. Ah. He turned around. It was an elevator, and someone had already pressed the glowing button.

It began to move. Was it rising or falling? He couldn’t tell.

He raised the bracelet in front of his face and tried to imagine it without the tear. I LOVE YOU… something. What was it? He squinted harder.

Oh, yes. It said GRANDPA. Sal closed his eyes and smiled as the elevator ascended.

* * *

When the first nurse on the morning shift arrived, Maria looked sad.

“We lost 342 last night, Jo,” she said. “Found him six o’clock this morning, peaceful as could be.”

“Aw, you mean Sal?” Joanna looked at the chart. “That’s too bad. He was a cute little guy. Well…at least he didn’t have any trouble.”

“No trouble?” Maria said. “Honey, he didn’t even wrinkle the sheets! Looked like he never budged the whole night long.”

“Hm.” Joanna gazed out the window. “Say, did you know he used to be a firefighter?”

“No kiddin’! That little guy?”

“You bet! I talked to his family just yesterday. He’s got the cutest little grandson.”

“Oh, I know Simon!” Maria chuckled. “I’ve seen that little angel. Adorable! Always bringin’ his grandpa little gifts and things.”

“Mm-hmm. Nice family. He must have been so proud. Man! Eighty-seven years old. Poor guy. He was a widower, too… I’m just glad it was easy for him.”

Maria laughed. “Yeah, I hope I go like that. Just slippin’ off in your sleep. Easiest thing in the world.”