On the Ledge

by Adam Decker



I am standing on the ledge of a skyscraper, one hundred and one floors up, on a beam about ten inches wide.  The toes of my shoes hang over.  I am roughly a thousand feet from the ground—over three football fields away.  It is night and the traffic below looks like little miniature cars with battery-powered lights.  I can see people below—coming in and out of shops, haling cabs, walking.  But they don’t look real.  They are an inch tall.

            I am pressed against the glass behind me, trying not even to breathe.  One mistake—one little slip—will send me to my death.  My hands are sweating even though it is February in Chicago.  Even though it is night.  The monstrous structure behind me roars every so often.  I am amazed at how something so massive moves so easily when the wind kicks up.  At any moment, I fear I will be swept along by the breeze, into the night.  Gone forever.

            Three minutes ago I was hanging off of the beam instead of standing on it—let me back up even further.  I started this interruption of a journey inside the skyscraper, in a nice warm room overlooking the Windy City’s horizon at sunset.  The entire one hundred first floor is my brother’s home.  He designed this building.  He was gracious enough to let me use it, to propose to Holly.  It is a beautiful place: marble floors, hundreds of crystal lights, windows for walls on all sides.

            I hate heights.  Let me rephrase that—I am deathly afraid of heights.  Always have the urge to jump, even though I don’t want to kill myself.  Don’t know why.

            I’d never been this high up and surely never wanted to be.  But I knew the view.  I wanted to see the look on her face from this view.  I wanted her to remember it forever.  And part of me wanted to be there—to feel the rush from my fear of heights—something like watching a car crash, I suppose.  It was that rush that made me get as close to looking down below as I could.

            I took the ring out of its case from the inside suit pocket, and held it up to the backdrop of the city.  The light from the distant buildings sparkled through the diamond.  I wouldn’t even have to say anything to her.  I was sure of it.

            If I just would have put the ring back in my pocket.  But I didn’t.  Instead I held it in my right hand.  I opened the window—it tilted inward toward the room and stopped well before being parallel with the floor.  I leaned over it, curious of the site below.  The drop was further than I imagined, the landscape tinier.  A shiver ran through my body.  I dropped the ring.

            It slid down the window, toppled over the frame of the window, bounced three times on the beam below, and somehow balanced on the edge.  My heart dropped.  I squatted down below the window and reached my hand out.  The ring was just inches from the end of the window, but I couldn’t get my fingers under it.  The window was tilted too close to the beam.  I tried shutting it a bit, but that only shortened the distance that I could move my hand out.  I had to reach over the top of the window.

            I pulled out a chair, put my arm over the tilted-in window and reached for the ring.  Again I was an inch or so short.  Not to be defeated I pushed forward, my feet left the chair, my weight shifted, I grabbed the ring, I slid out of the building.

            I caught the beam with my left hand.  My feet dangled and twisted below.  Survival always wins out over fear in these situations.  I grabbed the beam with my right hand and adrenaline pulled me up to vertical.

            That’s how I got here.

            The ring is in my inside suit coat, taking a beating from the pounding of my heart.

            The adrenaline is short lived though.  Now I am just a man pressed against the glass, on the one hundred first floor of a skyscraper my brother designed.  I am more scared at this moment than any other moment in my life.  And while I try desperately to cling to something, anything, behind me, my hands are sweating and slick.  I am sweating nowhere else, just my hands.

            The window I fell out of is shut now—my weight closed it as it transferred from one side to the other.  It does not appear to open from the outside.  And why would it?

            I kick it gently with my heel.  Gently because I am balancing on a beam not wide enough for my feet.  This is not ordinary glass I am kicking.  I’m sure my brother could give you the correct name.  I will just call it thick-skyscraper glass.

            The beam above me is about six feet away.  That means the one below me is probably twelve feet away.  Traveling up or down the building is out of the question.              There is a vibration by my waist.  I think for a moment that maybe it is the wind, or my trembling, and then remember my cell phone is on vibrate.  I reach in, taking my right hand from the window as slowly as I can.  I slide it in under my suit coat.  I pull out the phone with two fingers.  At about my waist, it slips through my lubricated fingertips, tossing in the air—I swing at it and miss—and then it falls forever.   I suck back to the window behind me.


            My voice is small against the city.  It goes nowhere, absorbed by the clutter of car horns, sirens, and wind.  Even this high up I can smell the city, the exhausts and the factories, the pizzerias and Chicago dogs, Lake Michigan.

            I notice the wind picking up.  I feel the temperature drop.  It is starting to rain.

            Holly is catching a red-eye flight from Champaign.  She won’t be here for hours.

            My brother left town so we could have the place to ourselves for the weekend.

            There is something in the corner of my eye.  Something moving inside.  I turn my head so at least my right eye can look in.

            It is my brother’s maid.  She is folding towels on his couch.  I start to yell and kick the glass again with my heel and also my fists.  There is no response from her.  She continues to work.  I am screaming at the top of my lungs.  I am hitting the glass so hard that I am pushing myself away from the building.

            She walks not ten feet from me, but does not look up.  Her ears are plugged with speakers from an Ipod.  I start to cry.  The rain is beating me against the window.  The wind is howling.  The building is moving.

            I can’t last much longer out here.  I have to do something.  I have to try something.  If I do not, I will either slip or be blown off.  I will tire from exhaustion or faint from fear.  I already feel nauseous.

            To my left, about twenty feet away, running vertical down the building, is another iron beam.  If I can get around that maybe there is something on the other side—a window washer’s cart, something, who knows.

            I slide my feet side to side, never taking my back away from the window.  I move rather quickly because I know the longer this lasts the worse my chances are.  I continue until my left shoulder bumps the vertical beam. 

            Deep breaths. Slower breaths.  You can do this.

            I unpeel myself from the glass and grab onto the beam with both hands.  My eyes are closed.  I am now facing the building.  My hands are sweating.  I take a step and feel with my foot but there is only air.  No beam on the other side?  I take my leg and move it closer to the building.  I feel it now.  I am on a corner.  I open my eyes and see the city below and the wide-open space around me.  My hands are sweating.  I swing myself around the vertical beam, plant my right foot, almost trip, back hits the glass, plant my left foot.  I sway back and fourth.  The rain hits me hard.  I open my eyes to see that I am still alive.  The beam I am on is different in one way from the other.  Directly below my feet there is a white pole hooked to the building, protruding upward at a forty-five degree angle.  On the end of it, is a large American flag.  It flails in the wind.

            I have a thought and wish immediately to unthink it.  But what are the chances of someone finding me before I fall?  What are the chances of me lasting in the once rain, now snow?  I don’t think they are very good.

            They say that everything becomes clear just before you die, that everything makes sense, that your life passes before your eyes.  None of that is happening with me

            I look out over the city and see the soft white flakes of winter dance toward the earth.  I wish I were one of those flakes.  I wish I could float down to safety.  I look at the snowflakes and then at the flag.  A sense of calm comes over me, a crude satisfaction for what I’m about to do.  Not because it will work, but because I am least going to try.

            I plop down on the pole below me, straddling it, and holding on with my hands.

            They are still sweating.

            I pull with my arms and scoot a couple of feet.  I repeat this until I am at the top of the pole with my head resting on a brass ball.

            The city moves below.

            I squeeze with my legs and hold with my left arm.  With my right, I retrieve a knife out of my pants pocket.  It is a Swiss Army pocketknife.  When my grandfather gave it to me years ago, he said, “Son, carry this on your person at all times.  A good pocket knife could be the difference in your survival.”

            How right he was.  And is.

            The flag was strung with a plastic cable through two metal eyes at both corners.  I put the knife to my teeth and pull the saw blade open.  I work fast on the cable, trying to ignore the movement a thousand feet below.   A gust comes, bending the fiberglass pole beneath me.  It might break.

            I have my legs wrapped so tight that I cannot feel them anymore.  The last fibers of the plastic cable tear apart.  I let grandfather’s knife drop and hold one corner of the flag in my right hand.  I scoot the other corner down with my left hand until it has come off the split cable.  I lie there on my stomach, looking down at the concrete jungle below, my legs cramping but numb, my heart beating in my chest, just as fast now as the moment I fell out the window.  I start to crumple the flag until the bottom starts up toward me.  It is at least ten feet long.

            I have two corners in each hand.  I sit up on the pole for a second.  I let my torso fall to the side.  I’m hanging upside down. 

            “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop.  Let’s just hope yours is not that sudden.”

            My legs release.

            I fall toward the city below.








Did you like this short story?  Email Adam Decker and tell him what you thought.  Or get to the main course and read the fan favorite novel The Janitor.

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