The Ascent: A Novel of Survival (Thriller Suspense), Page 2Ronald Malfi
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“Did you see the boats?” she said, returning to the kitchen.
“They’re gearing up for some big race. People from all over the country are in town. You should see the size of the boats down at Ego Alley.”
Ego Alley was what the locals called the downtown dock, where all the silver-haired, retired Annapolis moguls coasted by on their enormous boats, their chests puffed out, while bikini-clad, amber-skinned women decorated the decks. If one were to look closely at these men, it was almost possible to spot a fan of peacock feathers sprouting from their asses.
I piloted my wheelchair back onto the deck, snatching the bottle of Macallan as I went. Sure enough, I could make out a cluster of white sails farther down the shoreline. Uncorking the bottle, I brought the scotch to my lips and took a quick swig. Marta had stopped reprimanding me for drinking while on pain medication, knowing damn well I’d sooner give up the meds than the whiskey. When she caught me now, she would only shake her head like someone who’d just heard of a terrible automobile accident on the news.
It had been six months since the incident at the cave and four months since the last of my surgeries. The result was a steel plate and a dozen or so stainless steel screws drilled into the bones of my left leg. Such things were beyond the assistance of simple pain medication; such things were beyond mere pain.
“Is this a new one?” she called from inside.
I craned my neck to find her standing in the vestibule, holding an envelope.
“Another one from New York?”
“They’re always from New York,” I reminded her.
“You didn’t even open it.”
I took another drink from the bottle and watched a pair of Jet Skis carve white tracks of froth across the surface of the bay.
Marta came up behind me, fanning herself with the envelope. “Can I open it?”
“Be my guest.”
She tore open the envelope, depositing a pigtail curl of white paper into my lap, and read the contents of the letter out loud. She’d gotten only partway when she stopped reading and said without humor, “What’s the matter with you? These guys are making a great offer. They want to fly you out and discuss it. Oh, shit. What’s the date?”
“Don’t really know.”
“Damn it. They wanted you to go out last week. You missed it.”
I shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Right,” she said. “Nothing matters. This letter doesn’t matter and neither do any of the others that came before it. There’s a stack of them in a shoe box under your bed, you know.”
“I thought you threw them away.”
“Why would you think that? You never asked what I did with them, and I never told you.”
“Why are you making a big deal about this all of a sudden?”
Marta crinkled the letter into a ball and dropped it in my lap. I could tell, even without peeling apart the ball, that it had been typed on expensive paper. Probably watermarked, with an upraised crest in the header.
“Because it’s been too long,” she said, slipping into the apartment. “Too much time has gone by, and you haven’t done anything to get back on track.”
I turned the wheelchair around and followed her inside. “It was never my intention to get back on that track.”
“Well, you need some track. This place is a dump, and you’re running out of money.”
That much was true. Since the accident, I hadn’t been able to teach at the college. I’d attempted to provide students with an online seminar for the semester—something I could teach via the Internet and a digital camera three nights a week—but I was not a very good lecturer. And it was next to impossible to teach an art class over the Internet. Fortunately I was able to take a sabbatical while I recuperated, and I’d spent the past six months watching DVDs and in the evenings crutching from bar to bar through downtown Annapolis.
“I told you,” I said, not knowing if I’d ever said these words to her or not, “I can’t do it anymore. It’s left me.”
“Are you so sure? When was the last time you even tried sculpting something?”
“Before the accident, I was sculpting every day in class—”
“I don’t mean at the college. I mean for real, in real life. Not something that takes you fifty minutes to mold out of clay. I’m talking about the kind of sculpting you used to do before I knew you. The work that made you happy and got your face on the cover of that magazine you’ve got framed …” She glanced at the empty square of wall beside the front door—the spot where a crooked little nail jutted erect, suddenly so obvious I was surprised she hadn’t noticed earlier. “Why did you take it down?”
“It accidentally fell and broke,” I said. This was only partially true.
Seemingly defeated, she flopped onto the sofa. She looked like she wanted to hit me. Instead, she shook her head, something like a coy smile teasing the corners of her mouth. She brought her hands up and rested her chin on them. A spray of freckles covered her arms.
“Let’s play,” I said, placing the bottle of Macallan on the floor. I started setting up the chessboard that sat on the coffee table between us.
“No.” Marta stood.
“I’ve got a date.”
“You always sound surprised.”
“I always am. Who is he?”
“He’s no one you know.”
“That’s not what I meant. What does he do?”
“He’s a bartender.”
“Maybe I do know him.”
“Ha. Seriously, he’s just a nice guy, nothing fantastic. But I’m not getting any younger.”
“So you’re thinking a bartender’s the way to go, huh?”
“Cool it. I’m watching my life tick by.” And for whatever reason, this statement caused something to turn over inside her—that much was evident by the change in her expression—and she cocked her hip and looked at me from beneath her brow. “What the hell possessed you to explore the cave on your own that day?”
In all this time, she’d never asked the question. Right now my answer was a long time coming. “Guess I was just looking for something,” I said, continuing to set up the chessboard. I would play by myself if I couldn’t convince Marta to stay.
“Looking for what?”
I shrugged. “Can’t answer that.”
“Can’t? Why not? Someone holding a gun to your head? Or is it some vast government secret?”
“The latter one sounds cool. Let’s go with that.”
“Christ, Tim. Sometimes you’re just goddamn impossible.”
I almost told her about Hannah right then—about how it was Hannah’s ghost that had helped me out of the cave and beckoned me toward the highway. I would have never found that highway on my own, and I surely would have died in that cave if not for Hannah.
But I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to discuss such things, because that story was connected to another story, a current story, and I didn’t want to tell that one at all. Given the physical and psychological stress my body had been under at the time of the accident, seeing Hannah’s ghost was easily explained away. Her image was a figment of my imagination, summoned from the depths of my memories to the forefront of my world while in a state of excruciating pain and the onset of hypothermia. I could have claimed to have been led from the cave by Elvis, and it could be blown off with a subtle grin an
d a wave of the hand. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was where the story led me—to the here and now—and how such claims were no longer dismissed as easily.
Because since the accident I’d seen Hannah in my apartment. Most recently, three nights ago, standing outside on the balcony …
“What’s wrong?” A furrow creased Marta’s brow. “You look frightened all of a sudden.”
My palms were sweating. I swallowed and my spit felt granulated, like sand. When I spoke, my voice cracked as if I were going through puberty all over again. “Guess I was just thinking back on the whole thing.”
“It must have been horrible. But it’s over now. You escaped. You’re alive.”
I cleared my throat. “Stay. Just for one game.”
“Stop it.” She came and kissed the top of my head. It was such a motherly act that I felt a pang of nostalgia for my childhood. “I have a date and I need to go. I’ll stop by and see you tomorrow, okay?”
“Unless you get lucky tonight. You know how sharp those bartenders can be. By the way, tell him I said hello, whoever he is.”
“You’re a regular riot. There’re fresh cold cuts in the fridge. Try to stay out of trouble.”
WHEN NINE O’CLOCK ROLLED AROUND. I WAS STILL
thinking of Hannah. The apartment had grown cold and dark, and the air that came in through the balcony doors carried with it the gritty scent of the Chesapeake.
I sat in my wheelchair and watched the first hour of Rear Window until my memories got the better of me; I began to trick myself, believing I saw Hannah in the periphery of my vision. Once, as Jimmy Stewart looked out across his courtyard with a telephoto lens, I thought the face of the leotard-clad dancer in the opposite apartment bore Hannah’s face. This was stupid, of course … but I still reversed the DVD and paused it on that frame nonetheless.
After a time, I rolled out onto the balcony with the Macallan. It was good scotch; I approved of the cozy chateau emblem on the label. I sat and drank, watching the sodium lights twinkling farther down the stretch of beach toward downtown. Directly over the water, which was now a vast blanket of darkness, stood the Bay Bridge, bejeweled with the countless headlights of automobiles.