A Fear of Great Heights
Sometimes I'd prefer to be a single-celled organism floating through space. No purpose to carry me. No thoughts or emotions to drag me down. I'm a coward, plain and simple. And if I'm going to tell you my story, you need to know this. I hate crowds and I hate stress, and I can never seem to go a day without avoiding them both. Whenever I get stressed or uncomfortable I like to listen to my music, the louder the better. With each passing day it seems to be growing louder and louder. Like jet engines in my ears, it soothes me.
My house is right around the corner from the train station, a quick walk home by the pale light of the streetlamps. Sometimes I walk around the block before going home, there's something about the deserted roads in the night time that's very relaxing. I just drink in the world as it would be with the volume turned down, and I think to myself, this is peace.
I opened the front door to a familiar squeak upon the hinges and I took solace in the fact that I was home. I brushed my fingers along the dusty banister as I walked to the kitchen. A staircase I had never used, leading to an upper floor I had never even set my eyes upon. Each day I tell myself that today is the day I'm going to climb those stairs and see what's up there. But today is the day I never do. A shiver ran down my spine from the moment I touched the wood, and what lingered on the banister were the fingerprints of what could have been.
I flicked on the light switch to see the kitchen was in the same state in which I left it; slightly dirty, but otherwise reasonably tidy. I walked over to the sink, and pried open the window to let the breeze in. The cool air is a presence I can enjoy, especially on nights like this that are uncomfortably humid. I rinsed my hands and face in the sink and with cupped hands I drank a few mouthfuls of cool water. Then I heard the wailing of sirens nearby and the squealing of tyres and I shut the window. A quiet night is a good night.
The morning came with a fist hammering at the back door. Joe. He invited himself in and put the kettle on. I was already half awake when he started knocking, but I usually needed that extra irritation to convince myself to get out of bed. Joe is my coworker and friend, one of the few people that I can enjoy spending time with. I showered and dressed and came out into the kitchen, following the wafting aroma of bacon and eggs to a plate laid out for me, along with a hot cup of whatever was in the cupboard. It looked like tea.
“Thanks Joe” I said, and sat down to eat the food he had prepared.
“Any time. Gonna climb those stairs today?” Joe asked, with a nod towards the steps just outside the room.
I stopped chewing my bacon to shake my head. Not today, never today. Maybe tomorrow. He nodded and took his emptied plate to the sink and ran hot water over it.
“When?” He asked.
I chewed the bacon a bit more, mulling over the question I knew he would ask. He always does. I always take the time to think, even though I've always got the same answer. I let the chewed up, greasy piece of bacon slide down my throat with a slurp of lukewarm tea.
“When I'm ready.”
He nodded again. “I'll be outside when you're done with your breakfast” he said and walked out towards the front door.
I chewed on another piece of bacon, although I distinctly felt that the taste had gone and I was chewing on cardboard. My mouth felt dry, and the tea did nothing to help. I got through about half of my breakfast tasting the same before I finally tossed the remains in the bin and slid my plate over Joe's.
The front door locked shut with an assuring snap, and I slid the single key into my pocket. Joe and I didn't speak when we walked to the train station, nor when we were on the train itself. He knew I liked it better that way. This time of the morning, there aren't usually many people on the train, and they don't talk much either. And with Joe there, I felt like I didn't need my music to distract myself from their wandering eyes. Besides, the gentle rhythm of the tracks was music enough.
This was how I lived my life, the to and fro between work and home, home and work. Joe was someone I could count on. We always caught the morning train to work, but I always caught the evening train home alone. That was something that couldn't be avoided, and to some extent, I felt like I needed it. The train going home was usually almost empty when I caught it, and even the train station isn't too bad, but unlike my home, I never know if it will be empty or not when I walk through the doors.
This night there were two young guys and a lady sitting aside from them. I sat on the far end of the train and put my headphones on. Volume up. The doors closed and the train started moving and the two young guys stood up. I didn't like that, people shouldn't stand on trains. I reached for my pocket knife, I didn't want them coming anywhere near me. They looked at me, but I kept the knife held in my pocket with one hand and turned the volume up with the other. They walked over towards the lady and grabbed her arms, one each.
She tried to pull her arms back, twisting in their grip, but she only managed to pull herself off her seat. She yelled at them to let go, and she kicked as much as she could, but they just laughed and snatched up her handbag. I could hear over my music even though I turned the volume higher and higher. It was at full volume, screaming in my ear and it didn't protect me from the noise and it felt like her voice was stabbing at my ears. One of the men opened up her purse and stuffed it in his coat pocket. She spat at him, her face twisted in panic and hate, and he pushed her into the seats. She stumbled over closer to me and I realised my hand holding the knife had become slippery with sweat.
From the floor she looked up at me, the coward, and with my music drowning out her voice I saw her mouth the word “please”. The men pulled her to her feet and pushed her down again. My stomach wrenched and my throat stuck and I felt sucked to my seat. She looked up at me again with pleading eyes glazed with tears. Those giant spheres reflected my ballooned image back at me through green irises. She called for my help again and I gripped my knife tighter. They picked her up again and threw her into me. My head smacked into the glass behind me and she fell to the floor again. My headphones had fallen off and I could hear her sobbing and their laughing and the percussive sound of the train tracks.
The two men leaned over the lady to grab at me. That's when I pulled out my knife. I popped the blade out and stabbed the guy with the purse in the hand. He reeled back and held his wrist and yelped out in pain. The blade got him in his palm, and he slumped back in the seat across from me and wiped the dripping blood on his sleeve. The other guy backed away when he saw my knife, and he leant over the purse guy to examine the cut. It wasn't too deep but it probably stung like hell. The lady pulled herself up onto the seat beside me and wiped her nose.
It wasn't a deep cut, but they had figured it would need stitches. And they knew the doctors like to ask questions, especially at this time of night. And they were probably terrible liars. So they gave the lady her purse and handbag back and moved to the other side of the train. My headphones were broken so I had to ride the train the rest of the way without. The lady didn't say much, other than a mumbled thanks, but I guess she was shaken from being thrown around. I didn't put my knife back in my pocket until I was off the train.
“Hey, wait” she said to me when I started walking back home. I turned around.
“Thank you” she said.
“It's ok” I said.
“I know it must have been hard for you to stand up to them like that.”
“I know I owe you so much already but could I please ask you one favour?” she asked.
I nodded again.
“Do you think you could walk me home? I don't think I can cope being alone right now.”
“How far away?” I asked.
“About ten, fifteen minutes' walk, maybe.”
“Too far” I shook my head and turned to walk away.
“Wait!” She called out. “How far away do you live?”
I pointed to my house.
“I could... I could use your bathroom to clean myself up, and call my mother to pick me up. Please?” I saw those big pleading eyes once more and I started walking towards the house.
I knew she was waiting for a “yes” or an “ok” but I figured that a lack of objection was invitation enough.
She followed me back to the house and invited herself in after me. I switched on some lights and pointed her towards the bathroom. I walked into the kitchen and washed my face and hands there, rubbing off the few stray drops of blood that were on my hands and forearms. When she returned, a purple-greenish bruise had appeared on her cheek. There was now a little band-aid stuck across a cut on her brow, and while there was still a little bit of blood on her face, she allowed a smile to sneak upon it. It was a smile that seemed to radiate throughout the room. A smile that said “no, things aren't always ok. Things won't always go your way. But that's ok, because life is full of surprises.”
“Ok?” I asked her.
“Yes, much better, thanks” she said. “Whereabouts is your phone?”
“If you want, you can sort that out in the morning. I'm sure it'll be too much hassle tonight.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Well, if you say so. Which way to the spare bedroom, then?”
“I don't have a spare bedroom set up. I've got a fold out couch in the lounge room though.”
I started walking her through to the lounge room when she stopped at the bottom of the staircase.
“You can't tell me you don't have a spare bedroom upstairs” she said, matter-of-factly.
I shrugged and said “I don't know.”
“How can you not know if you live here?” She said.
“I've just never needed to go upstairs.” I said, truthfully.
“Well, I'm checking it out” she said, and stormed upstairs. I held my fingers out and gently touched the banister where her hand had disturbed the dust. This time... this time it felt different.
I didn't like the not knowing. It blistered inside me while she wandered about upstairs seeing more of my house than I ever have. My hand slid from a gentle touch into a grip on the banister at the bottom of the stairs and I gently raised my foot to the first step.
“You've never been up here?” she called out from a distant room.
“No” I called back. “Not since I was a little child.”
“I told you, I never needed the space up there.”
“I... I don't need to explain myself to you. I just don't go up there. Ok?”
“But you have to come up here. At least once, it's amazing.”
“You'll have to come and see.” She teased.
I took the second step, guided by my firm grip on the banister.
She appeared at the top of the staircase and flicked on the upstairs lights, the lights that have been left untouched for years. I took another step and I grew with excitement at the achievement that I thought would be stuck in tomorrow forever. There were whole rooms up there, and they were a few more step, step, steps away. I reached the top of the staircase where she grabbed my hand and dragged me off towards one of the rooms.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I wanted to ask you the same thing.” She replied. She pulled open the door and lead me into a nursery.
“This house” I said, “It used to be my grandmother's. My parents got it when she passed away and they let me live here. This room would have been my mum's when she was a baby. Grandma didn't like changing things around too much.”
“That's sweet” she said, “I didn't expect to find anything like this up here.” She pointed around to the rocker and the mobiles and wooden cot.
“Why didn't I come up here before?” I said.
“I don't know. You never really needed to.” She said with a little laugh.
“Yes, but I wanted to.” I said with a wry smile.
“Check this out, too” she said, and pulled me again, out of the room and into the next one. “A spare bedroom.” She held my hand tight as she brought me into the room. Her hand was warm and soft and the subtle confidence she had about her seemed to flow through her hand into mine.
“Well then” I said. “I guess you won't be needing the fold out couch.”
“And over here” she let go of my hand and walked across the room, “there's a balcony. The view is brilliant. Come have a look.” She opened the folding doors that led out onto the balcony.
The wind gushed in and pulled a blanket of chill over my head. I stood where I was and shook my head.
“Come on” she urged, “It's amazing.”
“I'm afraid of heights.” I said.
“That's ok” she said, “take it step by step.”
I smiled and nodded. “Step by step.”