This One Time, 51

This one time I was warm and toasty up in the fire tower, which almost never happens during the winter months. The place wasn’t incredibly well insulated, but we did our best any time we got the opportunity to bring up any improvements. The truth of the matter was that the tower was one large octagonal room, and four of the eight walls were floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and the other four walls were glass from about the middle of the walls to the roof. There really wasn’t much you could do to insulate that, especially at the top of a hundred-foot tower on the top of a reasonably tall peak in the mountains. The wind whistled through everywhere, and if you actually managed to shut it all out like you’d want to, you’d suffocate like a bug in a jar with no holes in the lid. The air was thin enough up here as it is.

But hey, we had our own lightning rod. And we were on the power grid since we convinced a local data provider to build a cell tower and a satellite uplink here. So we also get cable.

We used to get one particular local radio station really really really well, like in our fillings and eyelashes. It interfered with any method we had for communicating, anything with a radio. Hell, anything with a speaker. Even if it was off. We had them shut down, seeing as we were here first. A few of us that were stationed up here at the time may well have suffered some permanent damage from that. Like our eventual kids, if we can have any, might end up with an unusual number of arms or legs or tentacles. Or feathers. Or scales.

The reason I thought about it then was that the whole place got unbelievably warm when the transmitter was going, no matter what the weather. It wasn’t quite that warm now. But the wind had stopped, and that always just seemed unnatural.

Comfort wasn’t permitted. I set the rules for this place, being the one who had been here longest and the one who was guaranteed to be on staff during the months when campers were less likely to show up and set the forest on fire. When you noticed yourself getting comfortable, you did something about it. So I suited up, grabbed the binoculars, and made a round outside on the walkaround deck.

That was more like it. I spit over the rail, knowing a rock of ice would be hitting the ground by the time it got there. Assuming the wind didn’t grab it and take it to, I dunno, Iowa.

The clouds out here were strange, confused things. UFO saucers of mist that grabbed hold of peaks like they were afraid of getting torn free and lost. Clouds that looked like a jumble of body parts, butts and breasts and bellies and knees and elbows, sailing overhead in an underlit orgy. Even this high up we’d get impenetrable yellow fogs. Stormlight with no storms. At sunrise and sunset the Brocken Specter was a regular visitor.

This evening, this sunset, there was another sort of visitor to the peaks.

The wind was calm around the tower, but there was a cloud layer above us, masking most of the peaks. I could see the nearby ones on this range, but the ones on the range to the west were obscured. There were no snow-veils blowing off the peaks I could see, so whatever wind we had was above the cloud layer.

There was a disturbance in the cloud layer, though. Or more than one.

If you’re in a bathtub, like in a bubble bath that’s starting to thin out, you can paddle with your hands to make swirling eddies in the bubbles. Just drag a hand slowly and watch things swirl. Pick your hand up and do it again somewhere else. Tease the remaining bubbles into clumps set them against each other like icebergs at sea.

Looking north, I could see something like that. Stationary clouds with a sudden parting, sudden swirling, coasting to a stop. And again. And again.

It started as far away as I could see, miles and miles. And as I watched, it resolved itself into a kind of pattern. Two lines of trails in the cloud layer in an alternating pattern. Where there was a disturbance in one line, there would be blank smoothness in the other. It stuck me as annoyingly familiar, something I could puzzle out, so I stared at it, both naked eye and with the binoculars, watching the pattern develop and resolve and painstakingly slowly, work its way south toward me. It was maybe a couple of miles away, maybe ten minutes away by the pattern I was watching, when I figured it out.

I was watching the legs of an invisible giant wading through the cloud layer. And it was coming this way in glacially slow steps, walking along the ridge. And now I could see it was kicking sparks free as it walked, cloud-to-cloud lightning lighting the cloud layer in blues and reds from the inside.

I have never been more terrified in my life. I needed to get down. I considered the fast way, seriously. Then I considered the slow way, down the rungs we come up and go down when the shifts start and end, wondering if I could hold it together long enough to keep from slipping. There was a handrail and a belaying line for when the winds were really high, but I was beginning to resent the few minutes it would take to strap on enough rig to make it useful.

I went inside to the radio and asked for a weather update. And asked if anyone knew of a plane or helicopter that had the bad sense to be flying south on the ridgeline. I made the effort to ask the two questions with enough precious seconds between them to try to keep them from sounding like they were connected, to try to keep from sounding crazy, but I know I failed. I waited as long as I dared from a response from the rangers’ station, but there wasn’t any. At least not fast enough for my sense of impending doom.

And then, since I was basically already suited up, I got the hell out. I popped the trapdoor, clipped onto the line, and half slid, half rappelled, and goddamn nearly fell all the way to the ground and beat feet back to the treeline. By the time I turned around, the entire tower was stomped sideways away from the ridgeline, looking for all the world like a smashed mosquito.

I never heard it happen over the sound of my own heart hammering in my ears, over my own rasping breaths.

The Jeep was untouched. I went back and climbed into the cab, but it took me half an hour to remember what I had to do next. It was a long drive back to the rangers’ station in the dark.


February 20, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


Leave a Reply