Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall.”
Cora reached shaking fingers for the first thin iron bar mortared into the steep rock face. “Ohnononononono.”
The wall of the massive boulder was nearly vertical, a rusting set of rebar handles its only guide to untrained climbers like herself. Blazes marking the trail at its base and far above, at the boulder’s summit, denied any hope that this was an optional part of the hike. She fought nausea at the mere anticipation of climbing the iron ladder, while the wind lifted her hair and her anxiety with a strong gust.
How did I get here? she berated herself. Why had she decided to take this hike as an effort at curing her fear of heights? And why, in the name of all things holy, would the Acadia National Park name this a “moderate” hike? So far she’d gotten lost and backtracked twice, was worried about running through her water bottles too soon, and she had torn her pants and skinned her knee on a section of trail clearly paved for the passage of moderately sized ogres. Her college roommates had bailed on joining and now she was likely to embarrass or kill herself all alone on what was only a six-mile trek.
At least alone, the embarrassment could be minimized.
“Don’t fall. Just reach for the next one. Nope, don’t do that.”
She had fought this fear of heights her entire life. To her credit, she wasn’t giving up, was making progress. No one with severe acrophobia went on hikes in Acadia. That knowledge didn’t stop the roiling of her empty stomach as she reached another shaking hand for the next rung, grasped it, and tested its bond to the rock before trusting it with her full weight.
Unprovoked, she imagined her grandmother standing behind her and whispering encouragements.
“Fly, little coruja,” Gamma’s voice traveled past her ear on the chill Maine morning breeze. She never knew what the nickname meant, but it warmed her like an embrace. Though two years gone, Gamma Ginny had always encouraged her to try new things, and seldom permitted the word can’t in her household. “You can do it.”
Cora closed her eyes and willed her adrenaline to lessen, to release the claws it dug into her mind and muscles. She imagined the hippocampus of her brain stem was taking a slow breath. She inhaled deeply, meditation style, as her mother had trained her. The smooth sensation of calm returned, and she opened her eyes to look up the rock face again. She focused only on the metal bars and reached for the second, then the third, which allowed her foot to join the party and step onto the first rung. Progress. Her second foot left the ground next, and soon she was in the middle of the rock face.
“Breathe, coruja,” whispered Gamma’s ghost. “You’re doing it already.”
“I’m doing it!” Cora laughed aloud, though it didn’t preface further movement. This kind of incremental accomplishment, regardless of the distraction of other-worldly encouragement, warranted presence, a recognition of the moment.
Live in the moments, her mother would say during morning meditation, the times when Cora’s father would hand her a cup of coffee as if her mother’s closed eyes were unseeing. She always tried to ascend to Mom and Gamma’s plane of meditative existence, but privately suspected it was a farcical place.
A bird’s sharp call jerked her attention up in time to see a white form with a huge wingspan float over her. An eagle? Owl? She couldn’t look away, following its flight over her shoulder and envying its fearless ability to watch the world from on high.
Then her eyes traced back from the clouds, to the horizon, and down. Stretched out beneath her was the whole expanse of Acadia and beyond. She was so high she could see the Atlantic Ocean, blue and gray and gilded with morning sun. And under her feet, should she slip, was a half mile of near-vertical fall to the bottom of the mountain she had hiked. Only a few trees might break her fall — and her spine — on the way down.
Even knowing where it originated, the feeling of adrenaline spiking through her system was just as terrifying as the imagined fall. Her head whipped back to the dangerous excuse for a ladder and Cora’s arms locked up like rigor mortis.
Staring at the rock, immobilized by fear, Cora began to hyperventilate.
The sound of David Byrne blasted in Eoghan’s single earbud as he hiked his favorite trail in reverse. He’d started early, almost completed it, then concluded it would be more fun to recollect the trail in the opposite direction, too. He often used reversals to look for patterns or a new perspective on problems in his engineering. Already it had paid off. The hawk he sighted a few minutes ago was still in view of his binoculars, a beautiful specimen of aeronautics and elegance.
He would never understand people who didn’t want to watch birds. The sheer variety of design was fascinating. For an animal to be able to leap into the air and take flight in microsecond bursts of energy, then borrow the wind’s energy and stay aloft for hours, to navigate through yet-unclear interactions between its brain and the earth’s magnetic fields, was nothing short of magic.
There were many things about people in general that Eoghan rarely understood.
He chuckled as the hawk circled back over him.
“Hey buddy. Wanted to check me out again?” He lifted his binoculars again. This close, he felt he could see what the bird was looking at below. In the morning stillness, every sound was delicately magnified, so he paused the Talking Heads and pulled out his earbuds.
“Blessed be...blessed be...May the earth and the goddess hold me...Give us this day our ...”
Eoghan cocked his head, craned around. Where the hell is that coming from? It was a woman’s voice, soft and lilting, yet breathless . . . scared. He tried to follow the sound: ahead of him, above him? No. Ahead. He reached the edge of what he thought of as “Poor Man’s Ladder,” the same one he had climbed two hours earlier, and looked down.
Several feet below, a dark-haired woman clung to the middle rungs, staring at the rock, a senseless litany tumbling from her mouth. He could see her slim body trembling.
“Ma’am? Ma’am, are you alright?” he asked. She seemed too focused on the rock face before her nose to hear. “Ma’am! Are you alright?”
She stopped mumbling and then shook her head. “Where are you? I can’t look down. I can’t look down again.”
“I’m up above you.”
“I don’t think I can do that either,” she finally said, so softly and with such embarrassment Eoghan winced. “Can you . . . help me?” This time, the shamed whisper was touched with tears.
“Hold on.” He dropped his backpack to the dirt. He kept a short climbing rope, harness and figure-eight belay in his bag. Not enough for any major descents, but often handy when trying to spy cliff nests. In a few minutes, he was harnessed and his rope was tied off to a sturdy tree trunk, then looped through his belay and harness. “I’m going to come down beside you, okay? I’d just take the ladder but I don’t want to step on you.”
Soon he was beside her in his harness, but her long, thick hair obscured her face from him and she seemed incapable of turning her head. She was, in climber’s lingo, “locked up.” Frozen in fear.
He could see enough to guess that she was young, probably close in age to him, and her hiking gear was sensible: boots that supported her ankles, long pants, a warm fleece under her backpack. Yet it struck him how small she seemed in contrast to his tall, gangly body.
“Alright. We can go up or down. I’m guessing you were headed up?”
The girl nodded.
“I looked at a bird and I — I — I looked too far. Or down. I can’t move.”
Eoghan noticed her stilted speech, as if she was bordering on shock.
“Okay, that’s okay. I’ll guide you back up. I’ll keep my hand on your back, if that’s okay, and we’ll go back up together.”
“No!” she ejected uncontrollably.
“Alright. I won’t touch you, but I’ll be right here.”
“No, it’s not the touching. I can’t do it.”
Eoghan tapped his teeth together, then nodded.
“Gotcha. Then we’ll solve this another way. I’m going to slide behind you and I’ll be your hands. You can either climb onto me or just trust me and I’ll put your hands on each rung.” He saw how white her knuckles were from gripping the rungs for dear life. “I think option two.”
He shifted himself slowly to behind her, hooked a toe onto the rung beneath her feet to tug himself in and get a foothold on them, then reached to grasp one rung above her head. He clamped his larger hand beside her smaller one on the rung before her nose, and thought he could feel her sharp exhale against his skin. He straightened a little, his arm muscles taking over easily from the work of the rope. It brushed against her spine.
“Alright, you got this. Hey. Shhh,” he rushed to say near her ear when his movements sent a terrified quaking through her. “Take a long, deep breath. Good. Now you’re basically wearing a harness, because I am and I’m wrapped around you. So you’re not in any danger any more, you’re just climbing a ladder to change a light bulb. You do that at home all the time, right?”
“See, I thought so. You’re pretty short, you probably have a ladder in every room.”
She sounded surprised by her own laugh, a brief hysterical cackle, but genuinely amused.
“Okay. Just a ladder,” she echoed.
“Exactly. Follow my hands. Then I’ll cover your hand with mine so it’s your net.” She progressed one rung by hand only and Eoghan felt her body begin shaking again as she lifted a foot, missed the rung it sought, and had to find it again. The sharp whimper she released reminded him of an animal in pain. He decided it best to distract her in addition to the encouragement. Her backpack bore a Bowdoin College patch. “You’re doing great. So what do you study at Bowdoin?” As he’d promised, he covered her hand with his on the new rung.
It took Eoghan a moment to process her answer. When he first touched his hand to hers, an odd feeling washed through him, the warm shiver of a familiar memory just out of his grasp. The smell of her, rosemary and fresh air, filled his head.
“Okay. So how many biologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” he asked.
She breathed out a bare hint of amusement. They went up another rung.
“I don’t know.”
“Four. One to change it and three to write an environmental impact paper on it.”
"Sheesh. A climbing comedian," she muttered.
Another rung. Two more to go, he thought. He wasn’t sure, after the strange sensation, if he wanted to touch her more or never again.
“Climbing engineer, actually. Now you tell a joke.”
“Okay. How many engineers does it take?”
Eoghan grinned behind her, impressed that she had parried him so quickly. “I don’t know.” He guided them up another rung.
“Twenty. One to change it and nineteen to re-engineer a lightbulb that never needs to be changed.”
He chuckled a laugh that grew until it genuinely made his shoulders shake. He saw her lift her left hand to grasp the next rung, then stop and stare at the rust on her palm. She asked, “What if — what if these things can’t take both our weight? They’re rusty. They’re going to break.”
“Nah, this is number ten rebar and it’s steel reinforced. That means you’ve got a weight capacity on each rung of roughly —” Eoghan glanced down at her slim form, did the math in his head in a split second, and padded it before he lied, “three hundred pounds capacity per rung, which combined, we’re far below. I’m an engineering student, trust me. And breathe.”
She inhaled again a few times while Eoghan eyed the next step. They were out of rungs, which meant they would be cresting the top of the rock face by either scrambling on hands and knees, or via his taking over for the lifting. Before she could question how they would do it, he had quickly moved his arms around her waist and re-grasped his rope, whipping the loose rope in front of her. Then hand-over-hand, he hauled her the last steps upward over the rock face as if they were walking in line with one another. Depositing her at the tree, he stepped back to recover his rope and she sank onto her rear as if her knees wouldn’t cooperate with gravity.
Eoghan studied her surreptitiously as he removed and wrapped his gear. She was pale, still shaky, but possibly the most beautiful girl he’d ever encountered. Long dark hair full of curls and waves in reds and browns tumbled around strong cheekbones and wide, unusual green eyes. The gold-link necklace she wore looked old and unpolished, rough, and it circled a red gem at the hollow of her slim throat that seemed too large to be a real ruby. The blood-red stone sparkled in tempo with her still-short breaths. His natural inclination to avoid people, especially attractive females who made him nervous, drowned out his instinct to kneel down and make sure she was truly all right. If he did, he would likely stutter, or trip and fall, or otherwise transmit the perpetual loser vibe that he never failed to broadcast. It felt like a radio frequency channel he couldn’t dial away from, one he thought of as channel JERK. And now that she was taking him in with those green eyes, he was probably blushing, while she was undoubtedly deciding he was not the white knight she wanted to kiss in gratitude.
“Thank you,” she said earnestly.
“No big deal,” he shrugged.
“What . . . what’s your name?” she asked. He told her, but was already shoving his gear in his bag and starting to head over the rock ledge. “Please, before you go—”
Eoghan looked through his glasses at her.
“Are . . . are there any more ladders like this on the rest of the hike?” she finished.
“No. It’s downhill now. But taking this trail with a fear of heights? It’s pretty stupid.”
As soon as he said it, he regretted it. She looked swiftly away but the trembling chin betrayed her embarrassment.
Damnit, Eoghan cursed internally. Channel JERK wins again. He rolled his eyes at himself and headed down the ladder, but shouted back, “Be careful.”
Cora passed the massive granite pillars guarding the entrance to the Bowdoin library, hitched her book bag higher on her shoulder and entered the enormous solid oak doors. Inside, the warm honeyed wood paneling and beautiful arches of its cathedral-like interior invited her to find a nook, steal a rare empty armchair, open her laptop to study. One could only imagine a warming blazing inside the roomy but retired fireplaces. Soon the librarians would enjoy their winter trick of placing wide monitors in them playing fire videos replete with crackling logs.
However, today was not for academic studies. She was going to solve her personal problems. She would find the best research available on fighting acrophobia and she would make a life decision: get over her fear of heights, or get on with it. After the guy who called himself Owen had left her on the top of trail, she had cried half the way down the mountain, then she had left the hiccups behind and started to find her anger.
He had been right. She was foolish to take the trail alone. She could handle ladders. She could even fly on (large) planes. Still, the fear controlled her more than she controlled it. She would fix this, with science. Or, Cora reasoned, she would confirm it wasn’t solvable and she would quit obsessing. Her mother had advised her to meditate while repeating a mantra about conquering fears. Cora preferred solid logic to her maternal family’s bias towards crystal-adjacent cures.
In the digital card catalog, she found several books and many more articles. She printed the list of them and headed for the stacks. Soon she had a pile balanced in her arms that reached her chin, and the thought of digging further lost out to a convenient table and lamp near a warm floor vent. An hour into reading, making notes, discarding several books and articles as useless, she was beginning to think her mother’s approach might be her best bet. One last article she hadn’t yet pulled, an ancient study from the fifties, hinted at a long read for little payoff. But it was part of her mission, and if it yielded nothing, then that would tell her where to head next. It would also prove that she could be the disciplined researcher she longed to embody: cool, steady, focused, logical. Not like her mother, like wind and water.
She followed the hallways according to the coding and details on the printout, took a staircase, hallway, another staircase, until it occurred to her that she was in the library’s highest stacks. To her relief, there were no balconies here. The elegant wood carvings that had disappeared along the way in unattractively renovated sections of the imposing building now revealed their charming curves again. She searched through the much older-style shelves for the dated psychology journal, finger dragging along a dusty ledge, then stopped at the sound of someone’s footsteps.
Quiet filled the space.
“The phantom of the library is here, inside your mind . . .” she hummed, but rubbed the gold and ruby amulet necklace that passed to her through the uncanny women of her family.
The sound echoed again. Someone stacking, moving things. She followed it, rounded the last shelving unit, and saw a dim passage just beyond what could deceptively appear to be a corner alcove. Cora’s curiosity and a fondness for old buildings outpaced her ghostly superstitions. She rounded the corner on silent footsteps.
Before her approximated a large dorm room, with a single arched window, a low bed, shelves and a desk and closet. And on almost every bare wall space hung elegant line sketches of owls and hawks and — planes? She couldn’t tell if they were animal or mechanical, but they were minutely detailed. Out of the closet, holding a box, came Owen. He had seemed tall on the mountainside, but here in the tiny room, she saw he was likely a foot or more than her five-feet-four and a wishful half-inch.
“You,” she blurted.
He took her in over the top of his glasses, squinted, then shifted the box to nudge his frames up the bridge of his narrow nose. She saw now he really couldn’t be more than a few years older than she. And in her college?
“Oh. You.” He sighed and shook his head in dismay.
Boy, you’re really good at this, Cora, she thought. Twice now, you’ve repelled him, and this time with merely a word.
“Cora,” she supplied.
“Hello, Cora. Glad you made it off the mountain safe.” He moved the box to the bed, began to pack items into it exactly and neatly.
“Are you?” she scoffed.
He sent her an uncertain look but opted not to reply.
Nailed it again, Cora. Sarcasm is definitely going to win him over.
“I mean, you seemed pretty glad to be rid of me the other day. I didn’t mean that rudely, I really appreciate what you did.” Cora ran a nervous hand through her thick hair and hoped it didn’t look as frazzled as she suddenly felt. “And you were right. I was stupid to go up alone.”
“I didn’t mean to be . . . rude . . . when I called you stupid. I only meant it was a stupid decision.”
Cora realized he was packing, the room nearly bare. To move? To leave Bowdoin? It seemed suddenly vitally important that she learn more about him. She wanted, with the desperate emotion of a girlhood crush, to know who he was.
“So . . . you live here?”
He paused, tense and uncomfortable. He hadn’t even asked for her name, so she certainly had no business prying into his personal situation. She felt like a fool, nothing like the Marble Cora she wanted to be. Yet here she was, eager to glean any details he would give, to satisfy the curiosity she had nurtured about him for the past week.
“In a sense,” he answered her question.
“Is it like a special dorm room for gifted students?”
His short, bitter laugh stung her feelings again. But Cora wasn’t giving up.
“Are these your drawings?” She gestured to a wall pinned with sketches.
“You ask a lot of questions.”
She leaned close to study a series of owl sketches and didn’t miss his wary observation of her. “They’re beautiful.” She traced slim fingers over the face of a snowy owl with its bright eyes, elegantly drawn beak and proud shoulders in mid-extension.
She caught him staring at her, but when her warm and smiling eyes met his, he didn’t respond with the same aloof chill as before. She saw the change in him, his posture — pride in his work, a receptiveness, a cautious step towards her. Was he nervous too? He came closer to where she stood.
“It’s a snowy owl,” he offered.
“I thought owls were little. He looks big.”
“Snowies are huge, their eyes are the same size as a human’s and take up five percent of their body weight. But when flying, they’re completely silent. Serrated feathers on the edges of their wings silence even their flapping.”
He had stepped close enough that Cora could feel his warmth and smell him. She still remembered his scent around her when he had helped her, cedar wood and clary sage.
“That sounds terrifying,” she admitted.
“It would be. For a mouse.”
“No, I meant flying. Being that high and looking down.”
“You should try virtual reality software for your acrophobia. It would give you a different perspective.” The sentiment was delivered rather coldly, but she turned her head to find him looking down at her and knew somehow that he meant it well. He was studying her face, looking it over in detail before he met her eyes.
“Different how? I thought climbing a wall in Acadia would be a good perspective and I only made a fool of myself.”
A smile almost surfaced from his lips.
“You were just scared. You weren’t a fool. I was a jerk to walk off and leave you there.”
Shocked by his reply, Cora’s mouth opened, then closed with no useful product.
He seemed shocked, too, and cleared his throat. “Virtual reality, it would give you a chance to try heights without any risk.”
“Where can I —” she began to ask, but his gray eyes lifted and shuttered at the sharp click of heels walking down the hall. Cora turned to see a librarian, older and with an elegant salt-and-pepper bob brushing her jaw.
“Young man, you will need to be fully cleared out before four pm.”
Cora’s head snapped back to Owen. He had already turned his back, and grabbed a large duffel bag that he cinched closed at its top. Then he tossed a couple more items into the cardboard box she’d first seen him carrying, hefted both up, and shouldered past Cora.
“Are you going? What about all your drawings?”
Owen stopped just past the woman and glanced back to Cora.
“Take your pick. They’re in my head,” he replied, then disappeared around the corner with the woman in tow. Like he was being escorted out.
Cora stared, dumbfounded, around the small empty room. Aside from sheets on the bed, a few textbooks and other books on the shelves or desk, only his smell remained. And the drawings. In case the wretched woman was unfairly evicting him, Cora began to carefully unpin every sketch and slide them into her bookbag.
“Young lady, I hope you’re not taking any library books,” she heard behind her. She turned to see the woman again hovering like a watchful cat in the doorway.
“Of course not. I’m getting his drawings. Are you making him leave?”
“That’s none of your business.”
Cora’s eyes narrowed. “Well, then who’s the next lucky student to earn such a coveted spot?”
One dark brow rose slowly. “This spot will return to being the resting place of late-working librarians, janitors and visiting guest parsons. Owen may be going, but you are correct in assuming that he was . . . unique in earning the school’s permission to reside here.”
Cora thought about the subtext of the words as the older woman led her out, then it occurred to her that Owen would be crossing the quad now, wishing he’d kept his sketches. She sprinted down the stairs towards the side exit and out into the cool fall air.
He was gone.