Walton had done the calculations. The building stood twenty-two stories tall which was approximately two hundred and forty feet and his freefall wouldn’t last longer than four seconds, reaching seventy-five miles per hour on impact.
That should do the trick, he thought as he closed his eyes, held his breath, and stepped off the building ledge.
A hand caught the crook of his arm in a vise-like grip and yanked Walton violently back onto the roof. He was confused when he opened his eyes and saw…
No. Although she was so pale she almost looked faded and thin to the point of anorexia, skin stretched over bones, the woman standing over him was definitely corporeal. Walton wasn’t one to judge a person’s appearance but she wasn’t attractive. Her hair was baby-fine and lifeless and it collapsed onto her shoulders. He was in midair when she grabbed him but there was no way this frail, bony woman could have yanked him back onto the roof.
“I didn’t mean to manhandle you like that. I just didn’t know your story,” the woman said. Her voice was mousy but her tone was strong.
“Are you insane? What are you talking about?”
“I wasn’t the one about to swan dive into concrete, so let’s not judge anyone’s sanity here, okay? And I’m talking about your story. Everybody’s got one and it would be a shame if you did what you were about to do and nobody knew your story.”
“Wait, you stopped me because you wanted to know my story? Not because I was going to kill myself?”
“Let’s be honest here, if you aim to top yourself, you’ll find a way to do it, and there’s nothing that I or anybody else can do to stop you. I’m just curious to know who you were.”
“You mean are.”
“I mean were. You’re going to kill yourself after all.”
“You really are crazy.”
“There you go again, with that label. Hello, pot, meet kettle.”
“What are you doing up here anyway?”
“I could ask you the same question.”
Walton pointed toward the building ledge. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“Oh yeah, right.”
“Look, I don’t have time to waste talking nonsense with a stranger,” Walton said, rising to his feet and dusting himself off.
“Vonda Darleen Honeycutt,” Vonda said, extending her hand.
“My name. We’re not strangers anymore. And you are…?”
“Not interested.” Walton walked past her to the roof’s edge.
“I’m just going to go downstairs and rummage through your gunky remains until I find your ID, so why not save me the trouble?”
He let out a sigh of exasperation. “Walton.”
“Got a last name there, Walton?”
“Summers, all right? Walton Mayson Summers, are you happy now?”
“Hey, we got something in common, you’re a three-namer like me. Ever wonder why middle names went out of fashion?”
“No, now if you’ll excuse me…”
“Uh-uh, not so fast. I still don’t know your story. It must’ve wrapped up in a shitty day to bring you to this.”
“How about a lifetime of shitty days?”
“That would certainly do it. Wanna get it off your chest? You may not know it to look at me but I’m a helluva listener. Besides, I’m only gonna keep snatching you off the ledge until you tell me.”
“Then I’ll take you with me,” Walton said.
“Are you a murderer?”
He wasn’t. Walton sat on the ledge and asked, “If I tell you my story, will you let me do what I came here to do?”
Vonda made the sign of a cross over her left breast. “Cross my heart and hope to…well, you know.”
And with that, Walton told her the story of an unsuccessful author whose work failed to connect with an audience of any kind, who turned to alcohol, an addiction that chased away his wife, his family, and his friends, relationships he wasn’t able to repair even though he had been sober for almost five years.
“Not exactly a life worth living,” Walton concluded.
“What if I could show you something?” Vonda asked.
“Let me stop you right there, I’m not religious, never have been, never will be.”
“I’m not proselytizing, not trying to sell you on a cult, but what I have to show you will damn sure feel like you’re having a religious experience.”
“What have I got to lose? This will all be over in a minute, anyway, so go on, show me.”
Vonda began feeling the air. looking like a mime trapped in a box. Walton rolled his eyes and was about to swing his legs off the side of the building when the odd woman found what she was looking for. She traced her fingers down an invisible seam in the air and dug her fingers into it. With a bit of effort, the bony woman pulled back a piece of reality.
Walton’s eyes grew wide as saucers as he looked upon a sight that altered his perception of himself, his life, everything. It was similar to the overview effect reported by astronauts who viewed the Earth from outer space. What stared back at Walton from the rift in the space/time continuum allowed him to see, for the first time with his mere mortal eyes, the big picture: his life in relation to the universe at large.
Vonda closed the rift, making sure it was sealed tight. Walton walked to where the rift had opened and felt around. He had to see it again but his hand touched nothing except air.
“I never knew,” he said.
“And now you do,” Vonda said. “But there’s a catch.”
“What sort of catch?”
“What you just witnessed has to remain a secret.”
“I’ve just had a cognitive shift in awareness, how can I not scream this from the mountaintops?”
“Them’s the rules,” Vonda shrugged. “In exchange for this experience, you can never tell anyone about what you’ve seen. You can’t even write about it, not in a story, journal entry, email, or text. You are forbidden to utter or issue a single word referring to it.”
“Then why show it to me?”
“You’re about to kill yourself, who are you going to tell?”
“Well, I don’t want to kill myself now, do I?”
“I don’t know, do you?”
“You know damn well I don’t, which is why you showed it to me!”
Vonda shrugged again and held out her pinky. “So, do you promise to keep this a secret?”
“You want me to put it on a pinky swear?”
“It’s universally accepted as a binding contract,” she smiled.
Walton locked his pinky with hers and agreed to keep the secret.
Then something occurred to Walton. “Wait, if this is such a big secret, how were you able to tell me?”
“I have special dispensation, you should have been able to work that out on your own by my ability to peel back reality. Besides, I didn’t tell you anything, I showed you. Big difference.”
“Will I be able to do that, too?”
“Learn to crawl before you walk, pal.”
It turned out that Vonda had been sleeping on the roof since she had no place to live. How could Walton not allow her to crash at his rundown apartment? She was the keeper of the greatest secret unknown to mankind, after all.
Sheer proximity to one another and the sharing of a perception-altering experience led them to become involved in a serious relationship and through her encouragement, he sold his first short story. Vonda turned out to be his good luck charm because published short stories turned into published novellas and Walton’s life soon improved as his struggling writing career became wildly successful.
The couple eventually married and had two beautiful children. The years rolled by as years were wont to do and Walton’s career continued to blossom, however, he had written so many books that he exhausted all of his ideas. Yes, he had earned enough money and invested wisely enough for him and his family to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, and if he needed to work there was always the lecture circuit or he could have sculpted aspiring author minds by teaching a masterclass, but a writer in the pit of their soul wanted to write, wanted to be read, and if he was being honest with himself, fame was a difficult thing to let go of.
Walton had written forty novels at a rate of four books a year and on the tenth anniversary with his publisher, his agent thought it would be a spectacular idea to mark the occasion with a new release. He agreed, even though his new idea well had run dry, because he felt he owed it to his fans to attempt to put out at least one final book before announcing his retirement.
The road to hell was always paved with good intentions.
He wrote in secret, and Walton’s conscience should have plagued him to no end but he somehow convinced himself that what he was doing wasn’t a breach of his promise because he wasn’t detailing the wonders his wife showed him ten years ago. He wrote a fable in allegory and metaphor, craftily altering elements and tweaking details until they in no way resembled the precise details of the truth. But the moment he put the finishing touches on his manuscript, Vonda and the children appeared in the doorway of his study.
“All you had to do was keep one secret and the world would have been yours,” Vonda sighed heavily, letting her head drop. Her teardrops beat patterns on the hardwood floor.
Vonda held out her pinky, a reminder of the vow he made, and Walton watched her pinky fade into nothingness. She screamed and clutched her two daughters tight, who emitted a heartbreaking wail as they began to unravel corporeally and dispersed into so much stardust.
And after they were gone, his current reality followed suit. Films and television programs based on his books became unmade, audiobooks were unspoken, novels melted away from bookshelves, his words vanished from the minds of fans and his publishing company, deals were unsigned, his house unbought, all the positive things that paved the path to his success were undone and time reversed on itself, speeding faster and faster until he was back on the ledge of the building again taking that first big step off.
But this time there was no hand to pull him back onto the roof and gravity did what it was designed to do.