The adrenaline caused his heart to race faster as sweat formed on his face, only to be whisked away by the cold winds of the creeping winter in Chicago. Twenty-one floors up, Mike Auburn stood on a six-inch I beam, looking at the city below him. The blood-red sun on the horizon added a grim look to the city when shining on 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 farther on the beam. His worn, duct-taped boots gripped the cold steel as he leaned over to look down before performing a slow balancing act, moving out a bit more. His arms were stretched to each side, and his fingerless gloves offered little protection against the biting wind. With each gust, Mike’s heart jumped as he adjusted his balance. He dared himself to not look down and to keep pushing farther out than he had the last time. One step. And then another. And another . . . Ah, fuck it. Just get out there, man. Quit screwing around. What’s the worst that can happen, fourteen seconds of free fall? He broke 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. His red dragon bandana, already soaked with sweat, flew off in 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 onto him as the city below attempted to claim one more soul for her bloody belly. The world turned gray 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. He hooked his knee around the beam at the last second. Gasping for breath, he grabbed for safety with every bone, muscle, and, he was pretty sure, organ. 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 standing in the middle of the street with a look of surprise on his face before the yellow cab would speed through the red light. Looking into the office building across the street, he saw his first girlfriend being strangled with a necktie by an executive she was cheating with. His wife in a cherry-print dress, paralyzed with terror before the 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 twenty-eight years. 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. He was dangling twenty-one floors up in a new skyscraper being built for some obscenely rich bank. People the size of his thumb walked 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 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 for him to make out the figure, as the red hue of the setting sun obscured the view inside. By squinting, he could see the silhouette, someone in a long coat with a cabby hat, the cherry of 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. 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, the soft glow glinting off Chicago’s skin of brick and steel. The cold no longer bothered him, his adrenaline already subsiding. He glanced across the street toward his voyeur but only saw an empty room. Shrugging, 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 street, Mike lit a cigarette and began bumping shoulders with people during the pedestrian rush hour. One of the best things about Chicago was that any guy in dirty construction clothes was completely invisible to everyone else. Only women and power suits got attention from the masses. The homeless were a different story. They always saw everyone. Mike flipped a bill and a spare lighter into the case of someone setting up his homemade string instrument. He reached out to shake the musician’s gnarled hand and paused when he saw his face, leaving his hand awkwardly hanging in midair. The guy had one shoe, camouflage pants, and a brown coat, but no eyes. Blood still ran down his cheeks like tears as the empty sockets looked back at him.
“He sees you,” No Eyes said in a raspy voice. “Watches you every day. We watch you . . . always.”
Mike shut his eyes and backed up quickly, bumping into the train of people. “Fuck. Longer visions this time.”
Opening his eyes, Mike realized his foray had pissed off a suit who was 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. Adjusting his Carhartt coat, he went back to shouldering people out of his way with more haste than before. He had an unfair advantage walking in crowded streets, as 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 Mike Auburn. Today it was a 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 fashioned 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, he let out an ear-piercing whistle, summoning a chariot to his side. He hopped in. With the door almost closed, he saw the other cabs speed by, ignoring his challengers.
“One sec,” he told the driver. Then, leaning out, he said, “Hey, you three want in?”
They exchanged apprehensive looks before shaking their heads and going back to gazing down the street for the next set of cabs.
“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 cabbie’s skinless hands gripped the wheel. Bones, tendons, and muscles left a trail of fluid on the wheel as it spun under his palms. The driver looked backward casually.
“Rough day at work?” he asked.
“Meh, you know how it is,” Mike said. “Don’t even know why we do the grind. Build stuff, get paid, drink, smoke, watch a movie”—he took a drag—“and hang upside down from a beam trying to prove to yourself there’s an afterlife. ’Nough about me. How’s yours, Frank?”
“Awww, ya know. Bearshh lost again. Got some cash riding on the next game, though. You know, he wants to seehh you, right, Mikey?” Frank said, his skinless face and torn lips slurring his speech.
“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. You suck at the pitch line.” Mike laid his head on the cold window and looked out at the pedestrians, unsurprised he had 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 who, boy. 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 . . . you are O’Neil. Frank O’Neil, it says so on your card back here, annnnd you’ve been dead since the sixties. So, how could I meet you? Besides, you’re all imaginary anyway.” Mike changed his voice to a higher pitch like his doctor’s. “Just my messed-up projections of guilt made manifest.” He chuckled. Smoke started to fill up the cab, so he cracked a window. “Whatever. Hey, drop me off here. Tell your boss if he sees”—he counted on his hands quickly—“my three girlfriends, kid, mom, dad, aunts, uncles, my barista, and my last few crews, and my 7-Eleven porn dealer in hell with the rest of you, tell them I said they all still owe me money.” Mike made eye contact with the skinless driver in the mirror. “Except Gabe. I still have his stuffed turtle.” Tapping the glass with his knuckles, he signaled it was time to pull over.
“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. So Mike threw some cash into the front seat, flicked his cigarette out the window, and stepped 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.