“You’re kidding, right?”
I ask this as I stand, gazing up at the one-hundred-and-nineteen metre, skeletal structure of cables that keeps the bridge I stand on suspended over the Dnieper River, black against the pre-dawn light. I try to focus all my willpower on holding down the bile that is slowly burning its way up my throat. I reach out and grab his arm for support, before I completely keel over. He doesn’t seem to notice my discomfort because he turns and flashes a buck-toothed grin and says in Ukrainian, “Cool, yeah? You up for it?”
I swallow hard, as if gulping down every ounce of sense I have ever possessed, and manage a sombre nod. I have to do it. I have to. Unless I want to go home to a life as common and brown and bare as the dead earth sitting in my mother’s window box.
I am not a coward.
And besides, it can’t be that high.
“Alright, then,” he says. “Let’s do this before the police show up.” He scurries off towards the base of the cables as the words he just uttered dissipate into the wind.
Don’t_look_down07. The adrenalin-junkie looking for a follower to document his feats. That is the reason for the camera. I am here to compose evidence for the jury that we are surely to be standing in front of very soon.
And yet —
I sprint after him. It’s very early morning and this usually busy bridge is eerily silent. Maybe it’s for the best. If I do have the misfortune of falling to my death on this endeavour, at least now I will remain a permanent stain of legendary renown on the concrete rather than a temporary smear on the windshield of some Volkswagen Golf.
He is already halfway-up the cable by the time I reach the bottom and climbing fast, shooting up the iron like a sprout of unwanted ivy, winding and weaving where it shouldn’t. I tentatively begin my ascent.
There is one rule for free-climbing. Just one. And that is the only thought in my mind as I begin.
Don’t look down.
I kick off from the ground and begin to ease myself up, steadily picking up speed. Sliding up and up, never looking down, only at the task at hand. I feel my entire body beginning to shake as cold gnaws through my bones.
Ten metres — Twenty metres —
I cling with every ounce of might I can muster. I am beginning to hyperventilate, but I keep climbing, while he has seemingly vanished into the sky.
Sixty metres — Seventy metres —
Ten metres left.
His head pokes out from the maintenance hatch along with the offering of an arm. His calloused fingers are swollen from the climb but they still manage to pull me up.
I collapse onto the metal walkway.
I’m alive. Just about. Half dead from frostbite, but alive.
While I sit here, glorifying my survival, he springs around as if unaware that one wrong step could kill him at any moment.
“This way.” He scampers off, while I stagger to my feet and drunkenly clamber after him.
I reach the top and find him gazing off into the distance. At first, I don’t know what he’s looking at but then I see the pinkish hue beginning to bloom across the sky, as dawn unfurls its light petals across the fading stars, softly bathing us in morning light.
His face is pale with bliss, his hardened features softened by the delight that glimmers in his eyes, as steady as a rock.
This must be why he climbs in the dark, risking his life.
To watch nature in it’s purest form. Maybe there’s more to him than I thought.
But he’s not done yet.
“It’s great, yeah?” I nod, and he seems to bounce. “OK,” he mutters. “Let’s do something stupid.”
I want to ask, hasn’t everything we’ve already done been stupid but he has already skipped over to the edge. I follow hesitantly, and glance down. My dinner threatens to make a reappearance.
It is very high.
“Hang me over the edge.”
I think I must have heard him wrong, because I thought I heard him ask me to hang him over the edge. Yet he’s looking at me expectantly. I’ve seen him do it before, on the videos he linked to me over Twitter all those weeks ago. I don’t know how to answer so I just nod. He can’t really be intending to do it?
But, already he has positioned himself heels hanging over the drop.
Now I have two scarred hands clasped around his right and he’s dangling only by the strength located in my upper body. Despite the danger, he seems as giddy as a child. His face is as pink and gleeful as the sunrise surrounding him.
“Pull me up,” he says.
It’s then that the breeze hits me. It’s just a faint breath of wind blowing in from the tributary, but it’s enough to tip me slightly off balance.
And in that brief moment, I feel his clammy fingers slip through mine. I grasp violently at thin air and just manage to clasp his shirt. Now he’s dangling precariously over the edge but I feel him trying to fall, as gravity attempts to claim it’s universal right.
His eyes are full of something I have not seen in him before. His eyes are full of pure horror as the truth dawns upon him.
And he does the one thing you are told never to do when free climbing.
He looks down.
And gravity gets its prize. His weight shifts just enough that his shirt twists out of my hand. I snatch at him but I’m too late.
The only thing I manage to catch is a last glimpse of his terrified face.
I don’t see him land, but I feel his body shatter. Yet all I can think of is an empty window box and a blood-splattered dawn.
Suzanne Elliott is an aspiring writer as well as a current history student in her final year at the University of Glasgow. Her literary heroes include F. Scott Fitzgerald (basic, she knows) and Naomi Novik. Aside from writing, she competes in public speaking for her university. You can follow her on Twitter here or Facebook here.