Man on a rope – a short story
The young man stepped gingerly on the wet, algae-covered rocks. He’d learned his lesson: They are slippery; the aching bruise on his ass kept reminding him of that. He found a secure spot to put his feet and paused, listening. No footsteps in the distance. No dogs. Just wind and the babble of the swiftly-moving river. Good.
Encouraged, he started forward again, carefully placing his feet and grabbing whatever strong-looking handholds he could find that stuck out of the carved mud bank. South. South about 100 yards past the sharp bend. That’s what Harry had said. The rope will be there, Tony.
Tony looked back. The only sharp bend was behind him. How far? Had he come 100 yards yet? How could he tell? Tony tried to visualize a football field, but since he was way too skinny and uncoordinated to play sports—not to mention uninterested—he couldn’t. After another fifteen feet—five yards, right?—he raised his eyes from the intricate confusion of the rock and dead branch path to look again. What if Harry meant 80 yards? Did he pass it? What if Harry meant 120 yards? Then he wasn’t there yet. What if Harry didn’t know a yard from his asshole?
He crept along from slippery rock to slippery rock, glancing occasionally at the refuge that lay on the other side of the river. Those bastards couldn’t get him there. Tony looked down at his orange uniform. The mud that was supposed to disguise it was caking and falling off. He reached down, grabbed a fresh load of wet mud and lathered up the exposed cloth. Good. And I’m warmer, he thought and moved forward. He would be less visible for a while in the gathering morning sky, but soon he’d feel like an orange spot light when the sun hit him. Damn weather man! It was supposed to be foggy.
He froze. Dogs? After twenty seconds, he didn’t hear anything more, but he quickened his steps anyway. After another fifteen feet he saw the end of the rope, tied to the eastern side of the river. That buoyed his confidence and he sped up. Almost there. Almost out of this cursed country with its hate of anything American. These religious freaks that refused to see the goodness that was Anthony Burgess, preacher, spreader of the word. They were the unbelievers. Pricks.
The farther south he got, the more rope he saw. Even the path got easier; the sharp riverbank got higher. God’s will be done! Finally he saw the rope’s end on his side of the river and moved to it, testing it. It held; it was well-tied. The rope was secured about three feet off the surface and in the middle it touched the water, pulled into a broad “U” shape by the current. This wasn’t going to be easy. He didn’t know if he had the strength left; the last meal before escaping through the drainage line was the same Asian vomit he was fed every night. But he wished he had forced it down anyway.
Tony put both hands on the rope and eased himself into the frigid water. He would have given his soul for the wet suit he owned back in Ft. Lauderdale. Cold was not his primary love. Comfort, on the other hand, was. That’s what got you in trouble, you dickhead, Harry had said. Love God, not things. Well, that just wasn’t in Tony’s makeup, not really.
As the security of the river bottom fell away, he let the current take him as he inched along, handful of rope by handful of rope. He felt like a waving flag as his legs were lifted behind him. The safe side of the bank seemed to be about eighteen miles away. He knew it wasn’t, but it was demoralizing nonetheless. Think about the boat! He tried to imagine the warmth of the sun when the 41-foot Pearson sailboat cut through the water. It was hard. And there was that other thing that keep that vision from becoming a powerful comfort: The damn owner hadn’t installed the autopilot yet and it would be risky to try to throw the body overboard if he couldn’t control the boat for a few minutes. So, he had to wait.
He should have stopped.
Tony had inched farther along as he reminisced about his strange life and strange passions and the awful things they led him to do. Where did religion come from? An escape from the guilt? Maybe. An opportunity? Probably, but not a good one. However, it paid the bills for a while.
Dogs? His ears came to attention. Damn. Dogs. He found himself halfway across the angry river and getting very tired, but he quickened the pace again. Hand meeting hand; hand reaching forward; hand meeting hand; over and over. The water was tugging at him harder now as he passed the mid-way point, but he felt encouraged once more.
Harry? Between splashes of water in his face he definitely saw Harry on the safe side of the bank, waving reassurance. Tony smiled and actually did feel better. He glanced at the rope then looked back at his saviour. Harry had been standing, but now he was twisting… and falling. What the hell? Tony saw his friend hit the rocks below and lay still. Confused, he looked back at the bad side of the river. Four men, heavily-bearded men—why do these assholes think beards make them manly?—were standing on either side of a dog, who was barking in Tony’s direction. One of the men had just lowered a sniper rifle. Another man pointed at Tony.
His heart started beating so loudly from the sudden application of terror that he could feel his pulse like hammer blows in his arms. Tony tried to run toward safety, but quickly realized he was in water. Then he tried to run with his hands along the rope. That didn’t work. He figured out that sudden panic was driving him to attempt actions that were stupid, so he tried to calm down and started climbing the rope as if it were vertical, hand over hand. That started to work better, but a rock must have hit him in the chest because something almost knocked him away from the lifeline. A big fish? He recovered, but his arms now had a hard time grabbing the rope. He wished he had been more interested in athletics. Maybe God will help me, he thought with a level of fear that had started to engulf him with a strange warmth of its own. He started to pray: Please God… Oh, wait. That was a scam. Sorry, God. It seemed right at the time.
But maybe God did answer: He suddenly felt better, more relaxed, safer. Even the water didn’t seem as cold. Even his sins didn’t seem so bad. He was starting to feel… comfortable.
The bullet had missed his heart by an inch, the doctor said later when the body was found. That was a good thing for his heart. The bad thing was that it pretty much destroyed everything else. He might have lived for a few seconds. But that’s all.