The adrenaline caused his heart to race faster as sweat endeavored to form on his face, only to be whisked away by the cold winds of the creeping November winter in Chicago. Twenty-one floors high, Mike Auburn stood on a six-inch I-beam looking at the city below him. The sun, blood-red on the horizon, added a grim look to the city when mixed with the swaths of people leaving their daily jobs. Go back home to your reality TV and frozen pizza. Mike thought.
I’m out here for a reason, I can’t turn back now. He reached down and decoupled his safety harness, inching further on the beam. Worn, duct-taped boots gripped the cold iron beam as he leaned over to look down before performing a slow balancing act inching further out. Arms stretched out to each side, Mike’s fingerless gloves offered no protection against the biting wind. With each gust of wind his heart jumped as he calibrated his balance. Daring himself to not look down and keep pushing himself further out than he had the last time. One step. One step. One ste… ah fuck it, just get out there man, quit screwing around. What’s the worst that can happen. fourteen seconds of freefall? He broke into a jog which turned quickly into a sprint. One boot after another pushing him forward closer to the concrete void below.
Fear of the fall, that tumbling sensation when you’re turned upside down with no sense of control, spiked instantly in him as he came to the end of the beam without stopping his sprint. His red dragon bandanna, already soaked with sweat flew off due to a gust of frozen wind. Instinctively, Mike shot his arm out like a cannon and grabbed it. For a single beat of his heart, his destination of oblivion forgotten.
Claws of gravity latched him as the city below attempted to claim one more soul for her bloody belly. The world turned grey as Mike began his descent. Chicago was ready to embrace her soon-to-be shattered lover’s body when his training as an Ironworker kicked in, hooking his knee around the beam at the last second. Gasping for breath as every bone, muscle, and he was pretty sure, organ tried to grab for safety. Mike steeled himself to embrace the feeling rushing through him and kept his eyes wide open. THERE! Right there at the edge of death, Mike saw it. The decayed city of Chicago, covered in ash from a fire that raged nearly a century ago. The buildings around him exposed their flaws in construction, their secrets laid bare like an old whore.
He took them in, along with the ghosts of the past. His son, down below in the streets, standing in the middle of the street with the look of surprise on his face before the yellow cab would speed through the red light. He saw his first girlfriend being strangled by a necktie from an executive she was cheating with in the office building across the street. His wife in a cherry dress paralyzed with terror before a crane would fall. Everywhere he looked in that fleeting instant showed the dead in his life, frozen in their moments of time. Countless lives lost over his years, which weren’t many at his age of twenty-eight. Here, on the precipice of death, Mike could see them. If only for an instant.
The sharp pain in his knee jerked him back to the situation at hand. Dangling twenty-one floors up, in a new skyscraper being built for some obscenely rich bank. People the size of his thumb walking below him, too interested in their cell phones to look around at the wonder of this city. Mike pulled his other leg around the I-Beam and dangled there, taking in the sights of the city and his past. The wind whisked away a few tears. He used his bandanna that almost cost him his life to clean his face. I had it for a second. I can feel it. I can see the afterlife. Death can’t be the end. Why not just let go?
It was the sight of a cigar being lit in the building across the street that paused the thought. The warm orange glow didn’t provide enough light to make out the figure as the red hue of the setting sun obscured the view inside. By squinting, he could make out the silhouette, someone in a long coat with a cabby hat. The embers on the cigar playing a trick with the light casting a shadow on his face. No phone in hand, no rushing to call emergency services. He was just standing there. Watching him.
An upside down Mike chuckled for a second, and flipped his strange death admirer the bird. With the same hand he grabbed the beam and let his legs go, showing off a bit. Mike’s hands had a grip like a vice and he was very proud of them. He’d never lost a thumb war in his life. Meh, got a doctor’s appointment anyway. Daneka will just show up at the Billy Goat if I miss the appointment and the last thing I need is my Doc showing up around my crew. Better get going. Mike pulled himself up and took one last look at the sun’s vanishing rays and his mistress the city. The cold no longer bothered him, adrenaline already vanishing. He took one last look across the street where his voyeur once was and only saw an empty room. Shrugging his shoulders he trotted back across the beam to the construction site. He would slide down like a spider monkey before he would reach the freight elevator, a nightly ritual that stayed the same regardless of what building was under construction.
Stepping out onto the streets, Mike lit a cigarette and began bumping shoulders with people during the pedestrian rush hour. One of Chicago’s finer pleasures was the ability to be completely invisible to everyone else if you’re a male in dirty construction clothes. Only women and power suits got attention from the masses. Homeless were a different story, they always saw everyone. Mike flipped a bill and a spare lighter into the music case of someone setting up his homemade string instrument. Mike reached out to shake the musicians gnarled hand and paused when he met his eyes, leaving his hand awkwardly in mid-air. The guy, one shoe, camouflage pants, and a brown coat had no eyes. Blood still ran down his face like tears as the empty sockets looked back at him.
“He sees you” the man said in a raspy voice. “He watches you every day. We watch you, always.”
Mike shut his eyes and backed up quickly, bumping into the train of people. “Not again man. What the hell?” Opening up his eyes Mike realized his recent foray had pissed off a suit, clearly on important business. A completely mundane street musician setting up his gear looked at Mike like he was out of his mind. Doc is going to put me on so many meds I’m going to start calling myself the second Son of Sam. He adjusted his Carhartt coat and went back to shouldering people out of his way, with more haste than before. Mike had an unfair advantage walking in crowded streets. He was a hand taller than most with a scrappy frame forged in mosh pits and by hanging off buildings. Pushing his way through, he made it to the street corner where he could hail a cab.
In any major city, hailing a cab was always fun for Auburn. A competition and bidding war versus three other hands waving in the air. A grin crept across his face as he eyed this evening’s competition. In one corner was a lady in those furry ski boots and a hat made from a dead animal. In the other, a set of Japanese businessmen carrying poster boards of some pitch. Almost unfair today. The yellow cabs waiting at the red light saw their marks and inched closer waiting for the second they could hit the gas. Putting his fingers to his mouth and letting out an ear-piercing whistle, summoning a chariot to his side and hopping in. With the door almost closed, he saw the other cabs speed by ignoring his challengers.
“One sec man” he said to the driver. Then, leaning out, “Hey, you three want in?”
“Alright, Fullerton and State please” Mike said.
As the cab pulled away, Mike looked out the window at the people before turning to the driver to start chatting him up. The cabbies skinless hands gripped the wheel. Bones, tendons and muscles leaving a trail of fluid on the wheel as it spun to pull the cab out. The driver looked backwards casually.
“Rough day at work?”
“Yeah, you know how it is. Don’t even know why we do the grind. Build stuff, get paid, drink, smoke, watch a movie” Mike took a drag. “Hang upside down from a beam trying to prove to yourself there is an afterlife. How’s yours Frank?”
“Aaaaaawww ya know. Bearshh lost again, got some cash riding on the next game. You know he wants to seehh you right Mikey?” Frank said, his skinless face and torn lips slurred his speech at times.
“Yeah, you’ve said that every day for the past… hundred and forty-seven days now is it? So who the hell is He anyway. I keep asking and you keep beating around the bush. For an imaginary cab driver you suck at the pitch line.” Mike laid his head on the cold window and looked out at the pedestrians. Unsurprised he ended up in this particular cab again. Good for them. They get to live normal lives. He couldn’t help the feeling of longing clenching his chest and did his best to push the feeling away. “Ha! He’s probably some very dead guy like you.” Mike said.
“No more dead than you’ll be if you keep about the way ya are Mikey. Ya know, em; O’Neil, the guy who runs this town. He’s a patient man but nice invitations do wear out.
Mike ran his finger along the picture on the cab info card that showed Frank as a larger man, of Indian descent with a warm smile. Frank O’Neil bribed his way into a fake I.D. “Frank….. you are O’Neil. Frank O’Neil, it says so on your card back here. Annnnd you’ve been dead since the 60’s. So how could I meet you. Besides, you’re all imaginary anyway.” Mike changed his voice to a higher pitch like his doctor. “Just my messed up projections of guilt made manifest.” he chuckled, smoke starting to fill up the cab as he cracked a window. “Whatever, hey, just drop me off here. Tell your boss if he sees my three girlfriends, kid, mom, dad, aunts, uncles, my barista, and my last few crews, and my Seven-Eleven porn dealer down there in hell with the rest of you. Tell them I said they all still owe me money. Except Gabe. I still have his stuffed turtle. I’ll walk from here.”
“Ya don’t have much time left. Sheven daysh left. Twenty one daysh aftah dat.” Frank looked back again. Mike could never tell if he was smiling or just staring at him. Mike threw some cash into the front seat, flicked his cigarette out the window, and stepped out into the bitter November night. He watched as he imagined a very confused mundane cab driver pulling away. Well, what did you expect buddy, you are dropping me off near my shrink’s office.