One Eighty

MJG Science Fiction, Stories 3 Comments

Dray wakes up with the message light on his mobile phone flashing redly in his eyes. He rolls over on his futon, reaches out into the cold, and pulls it under the covers, flicks it open. Time is 11:00, 2 hours ‘til work. Checks the last message, sees it’s from his girlfriend, and plays it back.

It’s not what he expects. Her voice is frantic and she sounds terrified. “Dray,” she cries, connection hissing fuzzily. “Dray, you have to get here, I’m going crazy, there’s a, argh! (thudding booms), man at the door, remember I told you, he’s trying to get in and there’s no-one answering anywhere and everything is a mess and I don’t understand and Dray you have to-”

The message cuts out. It is dated at 2 hours ago. He cycles through the phone’s menu and tries to call her, but there is no signal. He throws the covers aside, cold air forgotten, and tries again, pacing in the darkness. No signal. He tries another number, the Japanese teacher at his school, but still no signal.

He curses. Tosses the phone back onto the futon, throws the bedroom sliding doors open and hits the kitchen light switch. But there is no light switch. He fumbles along the wall but cannot feel it. Curses again, strides to the window and throws it wide open.

It’s not what he expects. His room is in disarray, futon lying disheveled with the covers beneath it, bookshelf standing on its head and tilted into the corner, full-length mirror fallen flat and smashed to pieces. His clothes are heaped around the clothes rail, hangers jutting at crazy angles, his curtains are slumped in untidy piles under the windows, and his stereo is on its side and jutting red wiring.

But that isn’t everything. The main thing is the light bulb by his feet. He takes a deep breath, and looks out the window.

“What the,” he breathes.

The world is upside down.

picture-23

Image from here.

He looks up and he sees the street, hanging overhead like a concrete sky. He looks down and sees nothing but the cloudy blue heavens. He staggers back onto his futon, slumps down on the covers, and takes a few deep breaths, staring up at the dark paneled wooden floor above.

His alarm goes off. Numbly he pushes it silent. It is 11:10.

By 11:20 he is up and staring out from the balcony again. The streets are empty of cars and people, the drains leaking water like rain. The car park across the street is full of cars lying crumpled on their roofs against the ceiling. He throws out a sock and watches it fly down to the sky. He scans surrounding buildings, sees other faces panicked and pressed up to the glass. One or two desperately shutter their windows when they see him.

He listens to the message from his girlfriend again. It fills him with a sick dread. She’d told him about a funny guy in her apartment block before, a stalker. Dray had always rushed round when she called, her house 5 minutes away underneath the now silent Keio railway line, arriving every time just after the guy had gone, vowing to beat the life out of the stalker if he ever caught him in the act. But he was never there.

Well. Now he is, but her house isn’t 5 minutes away. He looks out over the topsy-turvy buildings, impassable roads, and wonders if 5 minutes is further than he can go. Then he notices the power lines.

By 11:30 he is getting dressed and making what equipment he can. He slices his sheets, covers, towels and curtains into long strips which he weaves into 2 thick ropes. He ties one round his waist and legs and knots it tight with a loop at the front. Into the loop he feeds another rope, knotted every foot or so for climbing, and locks it with about 50 double knots over his stomach.

By 12:30 he leaves the apartment packing a rucksack half-filled with extra clothes, a water bottle, a pair of scissors, his phone, and a huge kitchen knife. He stalks along the corridor, stepping over and around the white halogen light bars, his eyes tracing every door he passes, with their upside down numbers, handles on the wrong side and curving the wrong ways, peepholes and post slots too low.

At the end of the corridor he taps the call lift button, but of course nothing happens. He imagines the lift wedged tight up against the roof, and wonders if anyone is trapped inside. He turns to the Escherian staircase and proceeds up the building to the bottom floor.

As he climbs, ceiling all steep diagonals, he sees crows out the windows cawing madly, roosting on the underside of trees. There is an occasional scream, and he looks out for a falling body, but sees nothing.

*

At the bottom level the stairs wedge into a gloomy triangle with the floor. He dismounts and walks along the bottom floor ceiling and into the foyer. The automatic sliding glass doors don’t slide when he stands before them, even when he stamps his foot on the ceiling-mounted sensor, so he goes back along the hall until he finds a bicycle, unlocked and lying bent on the floor. He wheels this back and throws it through the doors, which skitter glass chunks over the ceiling noisily.

He opens the door to the outside and stands in the doorway for a long time, a light wind kissing his face gently, staring at what he has to do. It terrifies him completely.

*

He goes back along the bottom floor looking for a utilities cupboard or some supplies. He finds one in back of the small attendant’s box set off from the foyer, computer and monitors lying smashed on the ceiling underfoot, but there’s nothing but spare mop heads and cleaning detergent inside. He finds another in the garage, a wall closet obscured behind a mammoth fallen vending machine wedged against the wall, which he crowbars free with the metal frame of his backpack. The machine tips onto its side with a resounding CRUNCH and starts spewing out bottles of cold green tea. For a second he considers packing a few up, grabbing them before they roll into the sky like lemmings, but he doesn’t. He hates green tea.

Inside the wall-closet is a treasury of tools. Some of the larger ones, like saws and pliers, are still hanging from their pins, while most of the drawers of nuts and bolts have worked loose and showered their contents into an oatmeal mess at the bottom.

Using a small hacksaw he manages to disentangle the A-frame from the bicycle, which he then shapes with the pliers into a G-shaped grappling hook. He ties this onto the end of his longer rope with a whopping Gordian knot.

He collects some other tools, a hammer, nails, spanners, screwdrivers and a few more saw-blades, and slots them into the zippered pouches on his backpack.

*

Taking a deep breath at the edge of his building’s façade, knowing full well that between him and the big drop into the blue there is only a slim layer of concrete and a sign reading ‘Lion’s Mansion’ in gothic print, he starts to swing his grappling hook.

On the second toss he catches a looped rung on the telephone mast at the corner of his building. He tugs on it a few times, checking the hook, the rope. It seems OK. He tugs on it a few times more, checks his harness, takes hold, then drops off the edge of the world.

Freefall. Blue sky spreading beneath him, then a hard jolt as the line goes taut, followed by a smooth pendulum descent underneath the tip of the mast and up the other side.

“Aaaaa!” he cries.

After a while the giddiness fades and so does the swing, leaving him rocking gently in the soft wind, some 15 feet below the top of the mast.

Then he starts to climb.

*

At some point between reaching the top of the mast and completing his swing, he notices his audience. People filing up along the contours of the Lion’s Mansion, tiered along the upside down balconies like spectators at a football game. Mostly they are women and children, although there are a few older men, grizzled Japanese ex-professionals, still in shirts and ties most of them.

“Daijobu,” he calls out, “I’m OK,” but none of them reply. He shrugs, and they watch on in silence. At the mast head he gets a foothold, then loops his harness round the pole, ties it firmly. He tentatively touches each cable with the back of his hand, but they’re all dead. A voice calls out to him in English as he’s adjusting his harness, nearly making him lose his grip.

“What the hell are you doing, man?” it calls, brash and American.

He’s confused for a second, looking for the source of the voice.

“Over here, in the fitness center!” cries the voice, and Dray looks over, sees a foreign white face in the ‘SPORTING CENTER’ entrance next to his building. The man is wearing yellow spandex pants and a very concerned look on his face, standing well inside the foyer, surrounded by a gaggle of smaller Japanese men, also ludicrously outfitted.

“Hey,” calls Dray, wrapping his arms round the pole and sitting into his harness. He opens his mouth to say more, but can’t think of anything else to say.

“What are you doing?” calls the American. “Are you crazy?”

Dray shrugs. “My girlfriend’s in trouble.”

The American snorts. “We’re all in trouble. I seen people floating away already, and you trust me, it ain’t a pretty sight.”

“You saw it?” asks Dray. “What happened? I was asleep, I just woke up on the ceiling.”

“Was just like that,” says the American, snaps his fingers. “About 9 in the morning, one second I’m working out in the gym, next second I’m drifting up to the ceiling, weights and all.”

“What happened?”

“Damned if I know, but I know you shouldn’t mess with it. Like I say, I already seen people floating off, just rising on past the window, slow at first, kicking and struggling like they were dancing or something.”

Dray nods. “I heard some screaming,” he says. “I thought it was just the gas station guys.”

The American nods. “It might have been.”

“Ah, god.”

“Listen. This is not a joke, OK? You need to come on down from there while you still can.”

“I can’t,” says Dray, “I have to get my girlfriend.”

“How are you going to get her? What, you think the subway is running now?”

“No, she only lives just over there. Do you think you could help me out?”

“Toss me that rope, sure, I’ll reel you in.”

“No, I mean, there’s got to be some real climbing equipment in the gym, they’ve got a climbing wall. If you could send me a proper harness, some carabinas, this would be a whole lot easier.”

“Whoa,” says the American, holding up his hands. “You want me to help you stay up there? Are you crazy? Didn’t you hear me, I saw people dying that way already! No way I’m gonna help you do that.”

“Look,” says Dray, patient as he can, “I’m going anyway- just toss me some equipment.”

“No.”

“What?”

“No. You’re just playing hero and risking your life for no good reason. Now come on down from up there.”

“You’re really not going to help me?”

“Help a fool into his grave? I think not. You come down or nothing.”

Dray stares up at him.

“Alright then,” he says finally, “nothing,” and turns away.

He gets a firm hold to the mast, changes his harness to loop round a cluster of wires leading towards the convenience store across the road. He unhooks the bike frame grapple and ties it tightly to his backpack, lowers his weight into the harness, wraps his legs tight round the power lines, and begins to slide himself hand over hand along, nothing but blue sky beneath him.

It’s nerve-wracking at first, and obscene to watch the street inch by above him. He feels like a piece of clothing on a washing line, swaying in the wind, with the whole weight of the world waiting to fall down upon him. When he’s halfway across, breathing sharply as the metal lines sag and stretch under his weight, he wonders if it wouldn’t have been just easier to toss a grapple to the fitness center, wait out a few days there, see if it all fixed itself.

When he makes it to the other side he breathes a long sigh of relief. He sees that his hands are trembling. Surveying the route ahead, he figures he’s got another 25 or so similar transitions to make. He can’t remember if power lines go all the way up to her apartment. He starts to worry about underground power lines. He starts to worry about having to traverse gaps with just a single wire strung between them.

He slaps his own face, whispers “don’t freak out now”, then unhitches the harness and the rope, one at a time, re-connecting them to the next set of wires as careful as he can. Then on he goes.

As he shimmies from one mast to the next, the process becomes routine. His mind wanders. He remembers a time once, when he was riding on the back of his friend’s motorcycle on a highway. It was a hot Boston day and they were riding from the summer camp he was working at to a party at somebody’s house. He was wearing full leathers and a helmet, travelling at some 80 mph, and getting sleepy. His arms were tight round the guy in front, but his eyes were closing all the same. That was pretty terrifying, in a continuous, numbing kind of way.

One of the power lines snaps. He drops a foot or so, the harness cutting tight around his waist and groin. Before he sees it, the recoiling length of metal wire whips around and slugs him across the face. He passes out.

*

He comes to and it’s evening, the concrete pavement above him dim and gray-cast. His head aches like he’s hungover. He stretches his arms and legs slowly, then reaches up to the wires above. 3 left. He touches his face where the whiplash hit, feels a gouge running down his cheek, scabbed over with dried blood. He sees dried black trails running down his arms and fingers. He blinks, but both eyes are fine. He hears a distant voice.

“How you like the high wire now?”

It’s the American, and he doesn’t bother to look. He simply lifts his hands and legs back to the wire, continues his upside down crawl to the next mast. When he’s safely strapped to the pole, feet on ceramic pylons and one hand on the climbing struts, he looks over his equipment. Everything is fine, except for the harness. It has started to wear away at the point it meets the power lines.

“No,” he whispers, fingering the jagged rent. It is worn almost halfway through. He wonders if he would have noticed without the whiplash to slow him down, or would he have continued until the thing snapped and left him dangling at the end of the lazily tied grapple rope. The thought makes him shiver.

It gets dark as he examines the problem. He thinks about the logistics of un-raveling the harness and re-raveling it. He considers simply avoiding the already torn section, of swapping rope for harness and harness for rope, of switching them all and using the grapple as his connection to the wires like an open carabina, and several others. As he ponders the last of the sun sinks away, and it is soon darker than he’s ever seen it in Tokyo. There are no lights. There is no neon. Even the half-moon is obscured behind heavy gray cloud. He starts shivering from the cold despite his thick layers, and imagines he will not sleep tonight.

*

He has nightmares of buildings firing off from the earth like rockets. He sees a war between demons and angels where the detritus of human life is used as ammunition. Heaven is shelled with telephone poles, cars, and human bodies wriggling like hooked fish. He sees a huddle of slack-jawed people gathered around a brazier on the ceiling of Suntory Hall, cellos and violins burning for warmth and light, talking about the revelation of St. John. He sees a huge spider crawling over the webwork of Tokyo’s wires coming to eat him. He sees Ryoko standing at the edge of her balcony alone, then stepping out and falling up, her face calm and serene until she is no more than a dusty speck on the sky.

Finally, he sees the dawn.

*

His clothes are wet with dew, his entire body is aching, and his bladder is pressing uncomfortably against the ropes. He loosens them enough to take care of immediate business, but notices something as he does. The wire that lashed him last night is still hanging on, down into the sky. He reaches down to feel it, smooth metal. He compares it to his rough sheet weave of a harness, then sets to work.

He adjusts his position on the mast, re-tying himself lower and freeing the zip of his backpack. He takes out a hacksaw, looping it into the long rope so as not to lose it, then takes up the long wire and begins to grind the two together. The saw strikes sparks from the wire, his arms soon grow tired and he begins to sweat, but slowly the toothy edge bites through the tightly-wound steel. As the last slivers tear free, the wire pulls loose and nearly yanks his arm out of its socket with its weight. His grip locks tight, but still the wire slips through a foot or so, burning his palm. It is far heavier than he imagined.

Slowly he hauls the thing up, rests it across his lap against the mast, and starts to saw again. This time the larger stretch of wire drops free, and he holds on to a smaller section, about 6 feet long. This he loops into his harness, spools around the power cables, then knots as tightly as he can with the aid of his pliers. Slowly, he leans his weight against it. The metal slips a little, but locks in the double knot at crooks he’s bent with the pliers.

He sighs relief, loops the old rope round the cables as a precaution, then sets off along the cables once more.

*

He reaches Koshu-kaido, the main road running west out of Tokyo, and sees more people peering out of their observation box houses. Across the road is a garage with 3 or 4 people in yellow and blue uniforms sitting huddled together on the station’s canopy, playing gameboys. They wave when they see him, call out some Japanese encouragement, then settle back to watch.

He reaches Ryoko’s apartment by midday, second story in a long thin redbrick block. He slides in easily to the edge of the building using the wires, then grappling hooks his way onto the third floor balcony.

*

At Ryoko’s apartment he is stunned. The brown enamel of her door has been scored, punctured, drilled, burnt black, and dented. The paint has chipped and flaked away, revealing the beaten silver metal beneath. At some points he can see right through into the dark room beyond, the edges flayed back like the half-peeled skin of an orange. Panic courses through him.

“Ryoko,” he yells, hammering on the door, feeling it tremble under his fists. “Ryoko!”

Within seconds her face appears at one of the larger holes. His heart skips a beat and he reaches out to her. She flinches back. “Dray?” she asks, voice trembling. “Is it really you?”

“It’s me,” he says, reaching a hand through the hole to touch her face. “Are you OK?”

“No, I’m not,” she says, unlocking the door in a fury of rasping noise and motion. She throws it wide open, grabs Dray, pulls him in, and immediately locks it again behind him. Then she cries against his shoulder for a long time.

*

When she’s done, and he’s said “it’s OK” more times than he can remember, she tells him what happened.

She woke up to a knock on the door, and the world was upside down. Same as everyone else. She was stunned and shocked, but the knocking on the door kept on so she went to it, knelt to look through the spy-hole, and saw the guy who’d been stalking her, tall and thin, staring back in her. She grabbed a knife from the kitchen then opened the door on the chain. When Dray sighed and asked her for God’s sake why open the door, she said she thought he might be scared too.

But he wasn’t. The second she opened the door he slammed his shoulder against it, tried to force his way in, but the chain was on and it held. That was when she called him, she said, watching the guy try and force his way in, desperate. Then the connection had cut loose.

She managed to get the door shut and lock the bolts again, wedge a table up against it. After that stalker had started talking softly and calmly to her, telling her she was in danger and he was only trying to help. First he claimed the building was on fire, then that aliens were coming and he’d save her. She said nothing. He started to shout and threaten her. He swore she would pay for it, she would die, he would make her suffer. Nobody came to stop him. She tried the phone again and again, but each time no signal. Eventually he left.

He came back later and told her, in his softest and friendliest voice possible, that there were others gathering on the third floor, someone had a GPS phone that still worked, and was letting people make calls for free. She ignored him. He persisted, started to tell her they would have a party, there would be lots of beer, food, and it would be a whole bunch of fun. She spoke at last, told him she didn’t care about beer or food, she was waiting for her boyfriend. He laughed at that. What boyfriend, he asked. Where is he?

That night he came back with drills and hammers and saws. He started trying to force the door, but she was ready for him. Every time he pushed a drill bit through the door, she hammered it out of shape with her meat tenderizer. She braced the door with another chair. For a long time he hammered at the lock, but he couldn’t do anything about the chain or dead bolt. He did manage to make a big enough hole to reach through though, and when he succeeded in this, he seemed to go away.

It was dark and cold by then, and she was exhausted with fear and the constant tension. All she wanted was to sleep, but she knew she couldn’t. She drifted but had to hold herself awake, crouching in her tiny foyer.

Hours later, just as she was beginning to relax, think sleep might be all right, she saw his hand creeping through the hole in the door. She stood up smoothly and whacked it as hard as she could with the tenderizer.

He screamed, cursed her, told her she was a dirty whore and she’d die. He rained blows down upon the door and told her to get ready. Then he was gone. She hadn’t dared to sleep all night, and when Dray had started calling her name, she’d thought it must have been him.

Dray is shaking with rage by the time she finishes. “He’s a dead man,” he says. “That’s it. That’s all there is to it.”

She nods, and hugs him.

“Take the rope and grapple, go to the balcony. If he gets past me, climb it to the next floor. Keep going until you get help.”

“No,” she says, “don’t leave me.”

“I’m not leaving, it’s a precaution.”

“Promise me you won’t leave.”

He smiles. “That’s the easiest promise I ever made. Now go, tie the ropes on.”

“Here,” she says, hands him the knife and meat tenderizer. “Use these.”

“Sure,” he says, “go,” and she hurries off to the balcony without looking back.

He unlocks the bolt and chain, crouches by the door. Sets the hammer and knife down on the floor. And then he waits.

*

It’s mid-afternoon when the handle begins to turn again, face peering in through the hole. Dray bellows a war cry and charges the door, pushing down on the handle as his weight crashes against the metal. He feels it thump against the body on the other side, hears the ‘whumpf’ sound of breath rushing from a body, then he’s out, standing ready on the ceiling, while the stalker scrabbles backwards, gets to his feet.

He’s wearing a workman’s belt with screwdrivers, drill bits, spanners, hacksaws and nails lodged in the loops. In his hand he has a big wooden mallet and he holds it up, hand trembling. Dray holds out the hammer and knife.

“You are one stupid bastard,” he says, and advances.

The stalker runs forward and swings for Dray’s head, but the mallet is heavy and slow and Dray ducks beneath it easily. The swing carries him through to crash into the wall, off balance, and Dray stabs at his gut with the knife, but the stalker lurches away and brings an elbow down on Dray’s shoulder. Something cracks, and Dray slams into the floor. Sudden nausea floods through him and he chokes back vomit, struggles to flip onto his back.

The mallet is rushing down at his face. He jerks his whole body, his legs kick out and brace against the stalker’s giving him just enough leverage to arch his back and pull his head away from the wooden mallet-head before it hits. The sound is dull but rings off the concrete floor, the stalker yelps in pain and the hammer drops from his stunned fingers.

For a moment Dray tries to get to his knees, but the stalker steps in to kick him in the face. He flops back down the ceiling towards the stairs, the stalker raining blows on his back and side, most ineffectual but enough to wind Dray, to drive him back towards the edge where the staircase becomes the edge, becomes the bare blue sky below.

A kick comes in and Dray flops, a second kick, and Dray’s limp body flops over the edge.

For a moment the wiry young man with the tool-belt stands at the edge, breathing heavily. Then he steps up to look over.

Dray’s hand snatches him round the ankle and tugs, the stalker’s balance is broken, his other leg jumps out in front as he desperately tries to flip his body and grab hold of the floor with his hands as he falls.

Dray hangs on tight to the woven power line as the stalker’s hands flutter against him, desperately seeking purchase.

Then he is gone, screaming, into the sky.

Dray hauls his battered body back up to the ceiling.

He limps back to the apartment, doesn’t bother to lock it, and slumps down to his knees by the futon, gasping almost hysterically. Ryoko rushes in from the balcony, panic on her face, kneels beside him and wraps her body around his to still his convulsions.

“You’re OK now,” she whispers into his ear, “everything’s OK.” Gradually, his trembling subsides.

“He fell off the edge,” says Dray eventually, when his voice has steadied.

“You killed him,” she says, quietly.

Dray nods.

She hugs his head to her body and kisses him.

“Thank you,” she says.

*

At 4:36 on the second day of the one eighty flip, after gathering speed for around 10 minutes, the stalker’s body burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere in a matter of seconds. The contents of his tool belt burn up a few seconds later.

END

DARK FICTION

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