FICTION: Chapter 24 Vertical Hold (Complete, First Draft)

24: VERTICAL HOLD

Robbie

I’m dead. Am I dead? I feel dead. I have no sensation. Nothing. I’m down to two ropes. I’m covered in my own shit, piss and blood. I can no longer remember a time when this was not my existence. This is who I have always been, eternally. All I have is thought. So I think. I think a lot. Thinking is my only protest. It’s all I have against the Widow. She is going to drop me on the stakes. I’m looking forward to it. Looking forward to feeling something other than stretched cold numbness.

I have tried to escape. My wrists and ankles are bound together with plastic straps, and my hands are bound behind me with a further strap connecting wrists and ankles. I believe the technical term is “hog-tied”.

The pain in the beginning was indescribable. I have never known anything like it. I shrieked and writhed. I cried like a baby. But the Widow simply sat there, where I could see her, while my head filled with my blood. She was sitting in some kind of camping chair with compartments in the arms for canned drinks. She’d sit there sipping wine coolers and leafing through issues of Womans Day.

And she talks to me all the time. All. The. Time. She never shuts up. Sometimes she’s talking to me, but a lot of the time she’s talking to her late husband, either the still-living man or the ghost of the man who took his life.

I never know what to say or do. I understand what she says when she says all the Robs across the infinite universes share their identities, that important respects they are the same person. The person I was at ten and the person I am now are still the same. Just because I’m older and have a bit more life experience doesn’t make me a different person. So I can see that.

But I still feel that she’s got the wrong man here. She should have gone back to before her own Rob took his life and tried her best to save him. I’m sire, though, she’d say she did, and that it never works. He always does it, just at different times, and with different methods. He is a man hellbent on self-annihilation.

I understand the urge. Right now, dangling like this above these preposterous stakes, yes, I understand the urge very well. I have no hope of freeing myself. Even if I had a knife to cut the plastic straps, I doubt I would have the strength left by now–has it been a week, two weeks?–to keep parts of me from dangling into the stakes. I think my only hope lies in climbing up the ropes somehow.

I’ve stopped feeling hungry. Not hungry, not thirsty. She does let me sip water from time to time. But then, one day, out of the blue, she sets up a portable barbecue, right here in the room, and grills up some sausages, onions, a couple of steaks, and she and her drone eat up in front of me, and I scream for hours. Sometimes she says would I like some, just a bite, to try–and then I remember where I am, and what we’re doing. I think about stories I’ve read about Auschwitz, how the nice middle-class live-in guards would take their families, with their adorable little kids, out for picnics in the picturesque woods next to the camp, but where it still sometimes “snowed” with ash. I think about a Shakespeare play we’ve studied in high school English, MACBETH, where Macbeth rises to power in Scotland by, among other things, killing his rivals, including his dearest friend, Banquo, whose ghost shows up later at a celebratory feast Macbeth is trying to hold. Only Macbeth can see the ghost, and he freaks out.

I am Banquo’s ghost at these barbecue feasts the Widow likes to hold.

I can see that the analogy holds. She likes to present as all-consuming rage, a fury that would burn all before her. She feels justified in any atrocity. No jury would convict her. She’s going to visit every timeline she can get to and bring hell itself to bear on the Rob Bradford she finds there, to make sure he looks after his Fiona, does the right thing by her.

One day I’m talking to her, to the extent I can talk like this, with my head full of blood, my eyes full of sharp bamboo. It’s growing up to meet me, I’ve noticed, just like in the old stories.

“You realise, if I get out of here, and end up meeting you in hospital, like you say–I will run a million miles the other way, right? I will do anything to avoid you. I will be rude. I will avoid you. I will get a transfer to a different hospital. I will have nothing to do with you. We will have no contact, and we will not end up all broken together, the fragments leaning against each other. No. There’ll be none of that. I won’t have anything to do with you. If you persist, if you keep chasing me, if you make a nuisance of yourself, if you bug me in any way at all, I’ll do what your Rob did. Because I want nothing to do with someone who has all–” I manage to gesture at the room, the situation. “This in her heart. Who is capable of this. No. I don’t want any version of you. Not at any price. I’m lonely like an astronaut who’s been alone in space his entire life, I’ve got more enemies than friends, probably I have more bacterial colonies who like me more than friends, but I’m still not so desperately lonely that I want your friendship in any form. You are rejected. You are poison to me. You are death. Do feel free to drop me onto the stakes. I don’t care. I’m out of fear. I feel nothing. I’m a dead channel. I have rolling TV static all through me. My head is just channel 5A. No signal. Nothing. Even my screaming voices have gone. There’s just static now. I’m either dead, or I’m pre-dead, in death-waiting room, reading an old issue of People magazine.”

Fiona is shaking, hearing this, her face working hard, maintaining composure, but only just. She comes right up to me, and stares deep, deep into the abyss of my eyes, as if she’s trying to see all this static, but all she can see is the test pattern. She’s dead white, and biting her lip to keep from crying. Then, after a long, boiling moment, she bolts away into a corner, and returns with–I’m surprised!–a Japanese samurai sword. I knew she had been using something like a sword, or possibly just a serious hunting knife, to cut the ropes, but she’d been doing all the cutting behind me up to this point, to maximise the fear. With every cut there was a drop in the rigging, and I’d end up closer to the stakes. Now there were just two ropes left, both in front.

She takes the sword, holding it in what looks like an expert grip, and it occurs to me she may have had training, and I think, how mad is she right now? Is she ready to end it all? Did I go too far? Was the threat of my own suicide too much? I did mean it, though. I have had enough. Every word I said was true. I’m a boy who has always lied, because my lies were always fun, stories told about a world that was more fun than the world I lived in. But since all this started, I had told nothing but the whole truth, and I was ready to die. I was full of numb hissing static. My vertical hold was gone. I was tuned to channel 5A. I watch her. She’s standing there, breathing huge volumes in and out. You could hear her breathing a mile away. She’s weighing my life, and whether I’m worth keeping around, against my essential Rob-ness. She’s facing her failure, too. This has not turned out quite as she hoped. It was supposed to be different. It was supposed to help.

So she’s standing in front of two taut ropes. End it all now, or keep it going a bit longer?

“Get it over with and go home, Fiona,” I say. “You’ve done enough.”

She flinches at that. Adjusts her grip on the gleaming sword. It’s just her and me here at the moment. “This is not at all what I thought the future might be like,” I said.

“The future sucks, trust me. You’re better off not knowing.”

“Is it really 2017?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“I always kinda thought there’d be a nuclear war before this point.”

She laughs, but not in a happy way. “You never know your luck.”

And, saying that, she takes the sword up again, runs three steps on the tips of her toes, light on water, and in a flash of light she slices one of the ropes, the one to my left. The rig reconfigures again, and I drop about half a meter towards the stakes. I’m now a bit more than a meter above the nearest razor tip. It takes me a moment to recover my breathing. I had thought for a second she was going to cut both, and put me out of my TV static misery.

But I live on, and she lives on.