Acrophobia

The platform had never had a tower.

Jones knew this for certain, because he’d seen it day in and day out for six years. The squat-square tower had never been there before. And if it was here now, that meant it had been built sometime last night.

Coy strode out of the side door, his heels made a neat rhythm on the metal walkway.

“Copacetic?” he said by way of greeting.

Jones pointed.

Coy walked to where Jones stood. He draped himself over the metal railing and studied the platform.

“Graveyard?”

“Blom.”

“Cambio?”

“No, just Blom.”

Both men looked at the platform. It remained solid and smooth, as if the traitor tower had always been there to begin with. The yellow adobe plastered over its timbers was beige in the bright sun.

“I’ll call Blom,” Coy said, peeling away from the rail.

 

Three men now stood on the parapet.

“I’m telling you: if this happened, it happened on your shift.”

Blom turned, indignant. “So this is my fault?”

“No one said that,” Coy said, “I didn’t say that. Jones didn’t say that. All we said was if this happened, it happened on your shift.”

“Implying this is somehow partially my responsibility.”

“Not implying. Inferring.”

“Regardless,” Jones cut in, “should we call someone? Go out and prod it with a stick? I mean, what’s the protocol for this?”

The other two men exchanged looks.

“Nothing in the book about this,” Coy said.

“Well, there goes that spot of hope.”

“But your second idea sounded reasonable. I mean, if we call someone and they ask us a question we can’t answer…” Coy trailed off.

All three men stood in silence.

“I suppose I’m up to climbing that thing?” Blom nodded in its direction.

“It would be the logical progression of events.”

“Bull. You’re making this out to be my responsibility. Why don’t you go instead, I might be biased—”

“It’s our shift. If something happens on our shift, someone needs to be able to raise the alarm, and Jones doesn’t know how to work the console—”

“Still? What the hell do you two do on your shift, play poker—”

“I’ll go,” Jones said.

The other two men stopped talking.

“It makes sense,” Jones said. “I’m not a senior officer. I don’t have any valuable skills that might be lost. I should go, don’t you think?

Coy said, “Alan,” and left it at that.

 

The platform crouched like a spider over the arid soil. Jones had never thought to ask about where it had come from, or even what it was for. He regretted it now. Maybe it was an Indian structure, and by climbing it he was committing some sort of archaeological crime.

The spruce log that leaned against the side of the platform had notches knocked in the side. He tested one with his boot and found it solid enough.

“We can wait,” Coy said quietly. Blom was already paced back to where he could see the tower clearly. “We can phone it in and give them the bare facts.”

Jones swallowed. “It’s okay. It’s just a platform, right?”

Coy smiled wanly. He waited for Jones to ascend a short ways before he stepped back, tracing the climb with his eyes.

Just like visiting the old treehouse. Like walking up one of those narrow Victorian stairwells. Nothing at all, really.

When Jones hit the top, it was a little exhilarating. He was where none of them had been before. Sure, you could see a little from the walkway, but there was a lot you couldn’t see. The platform was not flat, it had low channels that wound mazelike over the surface, peppered with sets of steps.

Jones tested the ground with his heels, envisioning mud crumbling and giving way after centuries in the sun. The soles of his feet tingled in an almost pleasant way. Arms out, ready to grab at the first cracking sound, Jones walked.

The tower looked like a model, like miniature version of a much larger planned project, or some kind of forced-perspective trick.

Jones’ stomach dropped. He wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t like that thought. Not at all.

The mud tower had little square windows and steps that led up through a little arch like a tongue into a mouth.

Jones reminded himself to curb that line of thought. It was hard enough to make his feet move at this point.

Five steps. That’s all it took, and suddenly Jones was on the top of the tower.

Or not. There was a turret that rose from the top of the tower with an identical set-up: square windows and a little set of steps. Six, this time.

He hadn’t seen that from the ground. He hadn’t seen it from the walkway. It should have been smaller and thinner than the tower where he stood, but the steps seemed no steeper, the turret no less deep.

Jones swallowed and backed up, and enjoyed a moment of romantic terror when his heel hit a stopping point.

It was just a retaining wall. He was being silly. He would shout down this factoid to Coy and Blom and they would reassure him.

Jones looked down.

It wasn’t this high. Jones white-knuckled the wall. The platform was ten feet off the ground, tops, but this was more like looking out a third-story window. Something, some desert effect had telescoped the distance. Something he was sure would have a reassuringly technical name when he looked it up later.

He edged his foot on a step.

Yes, when he got back down he would look it up and laugh with the others.

“Jones! What the hell are you doing?”

Jones swallowed. He wanted to call down that it was fine, he was coming right down, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t. Something about the distance that yawned between them made his voice retreat.

“Jones!”

This broke his stupor. Jones shifted his weight—and found he had put his foot on an upper step.

There was a discussion on the ground but it didn’t really register because it was too far away. He was too far, and he was going up and up and up…

“Jones!!” the repetition of his name made him shudder. He though of childhood, of jumping out of trees, how much the landing made your feet hurt. It was just so much easier to climb higher and higher…

Until the branch broke beneath you. No matter how small or nimble you were, a branch always broke.

Sick and clinging to the walls, Jones forces himself down the steps.

It was taking too long to get to the log ladder. Jones looked down and realized that his feet had been unconsciously following the channels. Lifting a foot to step over the wall made him seize up with terror so he surrendered to the path, let it sling him along before spitting him back out at the log.

He looked down. The log looked nearly vertical from here.

Coy and Blom had abandoned their posts to stand on either side of the log.

“Jones,” Coy said slowly and carefully, “come down here.”

A spell of vertigo hit. Jones cried out, closed his eyes, and jumped.

 

“That can’t be right,” Blom kept insisting.

Coy had Jones sitting on a discarded crate and was applying ice in a towel to his head.

“You say that like it means anything. Look at the watches!”

Their watches had been piled onto another crate. Jones’ had somehow slipped an hour and forty minutes behind theirs.

“Okay, so he has a malfunctioning watch. And he got heatstroke. So. What. That proves nothing.”

“Care to go up there, then?” Coy asked.

Blom closed his mouth with a snap and stalked away.

Jones took a shuddering breath. “You can’t see—”

“No, I can’t see the tower,” Coy said gently, “I should’ve had you bring a camera.”

“Would’ve dropped it.” Jones gulped. “So far—far to fall.”

Coy was looking at nothing in particular, ruminating. “I never asked why this was here. They never issued any special instructions, you know: ‘don’t go near the spirit-platform that thirty Sioux died defending‘.”

“Sioux were plains people. They wouldn’t have been here.”

Coy chuckled dryly. “You’re feeling better, then.”

He withdrew the ice towel. Jones snagged it and put it over his eyes. He couldn’t stop swaying, no matter how he tried.

“Seems to me the thing to do,” Coy said in measured beats, “is take a few pictures. Document the thing. Then take our hands off and keep them off. Top brass can do what they want, we just need it to look like we did everything humanly possible.”

Jones swallowed. His throat still pinched. “Do we have to?”

“Not you,” Coy said hurriedly, “you’re not going back up there again.”

“Oh yeah, and who is, then?” Blom had returned. He was looking testily from Jones to Coy. “You can’t do it because you’ve already done it and it gave you terror of the heights,” he jabbed a finger at Jones, “and you can’t do it because—”

“I’ll do it,” Coy said, “I’ll do it just to shut you up. But you have to stay with the kid here and you have to explain how and why you’re here after shift end and what—”

“Jesus, okay!” Blom snapped. He had gotten a coke from the vending machine. His hand was trembling, Jones noticed.

“Wait,” he said, “don’t.”

Blom set his jaw. “Nuh-uh. I want you bastards off my back. I’m doing this and then I’m applying for shift change.”

“Alright, Blom, if that’s what you want.” Coy said neutrally.

Coy equipped him with an old Kodak from the supply closet and a coil of rope and left him at the end of the log. Jones could notice every detail about it, how the end was buried solidly in the soil, how a bunch of hand prints had been worn into the underside of the log.

“Stop him,” Jones said suddenly.

Coy clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Relax. Blom won’t take any unnecessary risks, he hates us too much for that.”

“No. Don’t let him go up. It’s…wrong.” Jones struggled to find the words. “It’s too high. They made it too high.”

Coy looked at him, forehead scrunched with concern. Blom had mounted the first few notches and looked unsteady.

Jones rose. “Get him down.”

Coy looked back and forth between the two of them.

“Alright,” he said, “if that’s what you want.”

He walked over. Blom had paused halfway up. Coy rested a hand on the log and spoke in low tones. Blom’s voice rose indignant. Coy cut in soothingly. Blom piped a few notes of dissent and took a step up, daring Coy with his eyes.

Coy left shaking his head.

Jones caught his sleeve. “He has to come down.”

“He won’t. Look, it’ll be alright, alright? Worse come to worse, I’ll catch him too.”

The thin humor passed over Jones’ head. He watched, anxious, until Blom peered over the side wall. He smiled sickly and waved. The camera’s strap was wound tightly around his fist.

Coy squinted. “Where’d the rope go?”

“Oh, no,” Jones said under his breath.

Before they could shout, Blom stepped back from the edge. The rope coil had been missing from his person, they couldn’t even see a single length tied around his waist.

Both men waited, breathing the thick desert air.

“Where do you think he is?” Coy murmured.

Jones thought of the tower and jammed his knees together.

Something clattered from the side of the tower—the camera. Coy dove out too late to catch it. It shattered on the rocks.

Blom screamed.

Jones flinched and started crying.

Coy ran around the support timbers. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Blom. Blom? Ritchie?”

Blom screamed again. Now they could both hear the odd note. Blom screamed again and again, fainter each time, as if he was screaming from an increasing distance.

Coy paced backwards to where Jones sat.

“That’s it, then,” he whispered, “it’s not—”

There was a thud at the top of the tower. Jones and Coy stood and waved frantically at Blom. Blom ran for the edge and tripped.

They watched his black shape spiral end over end as he fell

up.

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