Upp, Led a Devil
Yegor hung up the phone. Heights be damned, he took the job without question. SRTB, the biggest telecommunications company in the country, met his quote as soon as the offer leapt from his tongue.
He stepped out of his service truck at Kotarinko Tower forty minutes later and wiped dried mud from the driver’s-side door so that “SOKOLOV’S REPAIR SERVICES” was visible even though no one was in sight. He brushed his calloused palms on his work pants and held a dirty hand to his brow, his head pointed straight up. The top of the structure hung somewhere in the gray sky, but his eyes lost focus trying to find it. Yegor’s stomach lurched at the thought of looking down at someone standing where he was now. Did the tower even start from the ground, or did it fall from the sky like a stalactite in a cave, out of the boundless darkness? It was a good thing he had tripled his usual rate for this contract – that might almost make it worth climbing this man-made everest. Almost.
The elevator jerked and the jittery ball in Yegor’s gut bounced around as if he were on a decrepit rollercoaster at a pop-up amusement park. You must be this tall to ride, an imaginary sign failed to warn him. Before the ball could settle back into place somewhere in his bowels, Yegor envisioned someone ripping it from his intestines and throwing it at a stack of glass bottles. A stuffed brown bear watched him, grimacing.
Yegor wouldn’t have peered out of any windows even if they existed. Despite this, daylight found a way into the elevator box, stealing through the slit between the flimsy doors. This clued Yegor into the fact that he flew upwards at more than a meter per second. Through the bumps and clangs of moving metal, he caught his watch give a tiny click, and then again after what seemed like hours later. All the while, behind locked eyelids, Yegor watched those dusty bottles. They teetered, but they never collapsed.
As each ball hit, the bottles rang out like a bell, and a memory from his childhood rushed out from the depths of his foggy mind.
He was in school. The teacher wrote their take-home assignment on the chalkboard. Without looking down, Yegor scrawled it on a scrap paper and continued to stare at the back of the girl sitting in front of him. Her long hair draped over the back of her chair and onto his desk. With each tiny tilt of her head, the golden strands flicked back and forth before him in a ballet. His arm drifted toward her hair, fingers outstretched – but the bell in the hallway shrieked the session to a close. The girl stood up and gathered her materials in the crook of her arm. Pressed tight against her breast was the book they were assigned to read. It was about an American man and his pet wolf-dog in the Canadian north. Her eyes fell on his arm floating out in front of him, centimeters from where she just sat. She flashed her eyes at his and marched out of the classroom. Yegor’s stomach sank and a sharp heat raced up his spine as he dropped his arm. The bell called out again.
The sliding elevator doors released him from the memory and Yegor lunged forward onto the landing platform, even pettier than the metal box he just escaped. Evening air whisked around his face as he grasped each of the the guard rails on either side of him. Instead of the ground he left so far and long ago, Yegor forced his wide eyes on the steel floor supporting his feet. Did the wind move him or did it move the entire tower? His wristwatch ticked again and Yegor’s feet made their way ever upward.
Step after step, he trudged up the swirling flight of stairs, wrapping itself around the tower like a snake around its prey. Yegor’s white knuckles bulged out from his fists as he gripped the thin railings hovering at either side of his waist. Though his mind tried to evade his control for panic, Yegor willed it into routine: step, step, step, breathe in. Forty, forty-one, forty-two, breathe out. One hundred twelve, one hundred thirteen, one hundred fourteen, breathe in.
Three hundred sixty-three, three hundred sixty-four, three hundred sixty-five, breathe out. One step for each day he spent up here. He hadn’t risked a glance up from his marching feet, but he sensed he still had far to go. His wife had once told him that Kotarinko Tower was the tallest freestanding structure in the world up until the CN tower was finished in Canada a few years back. He had seen Kotarinko in the Moscow skyline so many times before, but he had never given it a thought until she mentioned that. Now, here he was, a part of something he had seen every day, taking part in something that had never been more than in the periphery.
Four hundred fifty-one, four hundred fifty-two, four hundred fifty-three, breathe in. When he arrived home, his wife would have a warm bowl of solyanka and a steaming chunk of honeybread waiting for him with her kiss.
Five hundred two, five hundred three, five hundred four, breathe out. As he climbed up the steps, a gray bird screeched at him from out from the crook of two steel beams of the tower. It sat on a shabby nest and flapped its wings at him as another vision from his past took over.
Yegor stood on his uncle’s boat in the Rybinsk, still anchored to the dock. As he bobbed up and down in the surf, he clutched a bottle of champagne in his right hand. He took a swig as gold and white bubbles fizzed out and dribbled down his new shirt. He wiped at his face with the back of his left hand, clenched tight in a fist around the keys to his uncle’s speedboat, the keys to his uncle’s vacation home, and the keys to his uncle’s repair shop – now all Yegor’s as of yesterday evening.
Before Yegor could shove the keys into the ignition and race out of the marina, a squawk came up from the water behind the stern of the boat. Yegor stumbled to the back of the boat and leaned his head over the side. On the water, a wading storm petrel cocked its head at him. It squawked again.
His drunken eyes glazed over and he dumped the remaining half of his champagne on the bird. It screeched and flapped its wings, splashing water up at him. He hovered the bottle over the angry creature and loosened his grip. The champagne bottle plopped into the water centimeters from the petrel as it cawed and flew off, leaving only a floating speckled feather in its place.
Yegor found his other hand floating above the water, dangling the keys to his inheritance over the feather spinning in the churning water below. As he dropped them, the suppressed part of his mind fought for control, and Yegor shot his arms into the water before the keys could sink into the depths forever.
Six hundred sixty-four, six-hundred sixty-five – his foot fell dead through the air and he stumbled forward, panting. He had reached the top.
As blood rushed back into his head, he surveyed the platform of steel surrounding the tower, like the crow’s nest of a pirate ship. Standing out of the ring’s center, a great metal mast sliced the sky in half and two satellite sails filled with southbound wind. Above the left satellite, a red bulb blinked like an eye in and out of the fading sunlight. Yegor searched for a similar red light atop the right satellite, but his eyes were only met with dark clouds. This was it. He found the reason he came all the way up here.
Yegor went to work on the tangle of wires in the black box beneath the right satellite. After all but ten minutes, he relaxed his head back onto his shoulders and searched for those ruby eyes above the satellites. The bulb from the right dish now blinked in unison with the left.
As Yegor turned away from the tower, he had forgotten not to look down. But instead of dizzying heights and the terrible vertigo feeling he had dreaded the entire journey up the tower, his eyes were met with a spectacular view of the city, enshrined in the glow of the setting sun.
But the city was different then he had ever seen it before. So far removed, concrete buildings which Yegor knew to be massive, tens of stories high, were only gray building blocks standing on asphalt carpets from up here. He could kick them and they would topple. In the distance, beyond the toy city, Yegor watched a lump of butter sun melt on a forest of broccoli. If he wanted to take them for a snack, he would only have to reach. Above those, birds reduced to specks soared through the sky like sea monkeys in a fishbowl.
From far below, a cry came. Yegor strained to hear it, but he was in another world.
It called again. The cry wasn’t tearful or scared or angry – it wasn’t upset in any way. It was only curious. This time, he caught a wisp of it.
Yegor was learning to drive and a child ran down the sidewalk. He twitched the steering wheel in her direction. The child screamed and he lurched the wheel back toward the road.
He was smoking a cigarette at home. He placed it on the arm of his recliner and watched as a hole grew beneath the ash. The smell of burning upholstery freed him from his trance.
He was walking in the city and an old man stood on the edge of the sidewalk. A bus charged down the road toward them and Yegor readied himself behind the stranger. The bus slowed to a halt, let the old man on, and continued on its route.
The call from the void came again, and Yegor heard it clearer than ever. He had no choice but to answer it. He was given the chance, so he had to take it – no matter the outcome.
Yegor loved his wife, and he loved his job, and he was happy. But he was here, and he could, so he did.