The Gifted Have Fallen
Navy Camp, Day Five:
In my Naval Academy dorm room, I lay in the dark, half awake. Every now and then, I rolled over in the twin bed. My roommate's snoring had woken me again. Or maybe it was the car engine heard through the open window. Or maybe it was a rattling sound I heard once. An intermittent noise, it had intruded on my dreams.
"Wake up, man."
I blinked. I sat up. The Naval Academy had a lights-out rule. Normally, everything around me stayed pitch dark. This time, I saw a sliver of light under my door. Finally, I remembered: Dave from Boston had said he would wake me. This was it.
As I got up, I watched a piece of folded-up paper slip underneath my door. It snaked around and tapped the floor a few times. That explained the rattling. I crept out of my twin bed. My roommate kept up his snoring. Nothing seemed to slow down his heavy breaths. At the door, I turned the knob and silently ushered Dave inside. He gave me a wide-eyed, startled look. When the door closed behind us, though, he grinned.
"You were really sleeping!" he whispered with a chuckle. In his accent, 'you were' came out more as 'je're.'
"Holy shit." He glanced at my roommate. I could tell his surprise was about the young, blonde man's snores. Really, the sound seemed unnaturally loud. It made the dorm window vibrate. Fortunately, the repeated series of snorts and snuffles seemed good cover against any noises we could make. We kept our voices low anyway.
"I scouted," Dave told me. "But you have to look and tell me what you think."
With our swimming towels in hand and in relative silence, we crept through the halls of the Naval Academy dorm. Amazingly, to me at least, the Navy had posted guards. Midshipmen occupied posts throughout the building. They moved around, too. That proved to be to our advantage. I knew how to do it thanks to my playing flashlight tag for years. As the guards moved from spot to spot, we trailed them at a safe distance. We could go anywhere at all, almost, while keeping ourselves in the gaps of their coverage.
I could see Dave's grin in the dark. He loved our level of sneakiness. At the front doors, though, we waited for the guards to move. And waited. And eventually, we figured out they weren't going to budge. We tried the back doors with the same result. Maybe there was no good way to sneak out.
"Let's try this." Dave pointed to an emergency exit.
He pressed. We heard no alarm.
Laughing, we strolled out into the dark walkway next to the building. As an afterthought, Dave tried the handle when the door had already closed behind us. It wouldn't budge.
Staying would not end well.
"Eh." He shrugged. "We'll figure that out when we get back."
We followed the wide, concrete paths across campus toward the athletic center. Along the way, we passed a fountain in the middle of campus. The fountain glowed with the lights around its rim, so we stayed at the edges of its concrete border even though no one else seemed to be around. The fact that we were strolling through at about two-thirty in the morning probably had something to do with it.
To our dismay, when we at last reached the pool building, we found it was locked tight. Even the windows of the place seemed dark and forbidding.
Halfway back to our dorm, we spotted the well-lit fountain again. I had my swimsuit on already. I shucked off my clothes, took a dip, and paddled around for a while. Dave chuckled and kept a lookout. After all, the dormitories had guards. Someone might spy us breaking the rules. Soon enough, I toweled off and got re-dressed and we hiked the rest of the way.
"Shit, those guards are pretty good," said Dave after we padded around the outside of our dorm for twenty minutes. "There's no way in through the doors."
For me, twenty minutes of searching was plenty. I was ready to give up. Or to try to break in through a door or a window. Or to sleep in a bush until people started walking around and I could slip back in. Left to my own devices, I would probably have elected the latter despite the chill in the air. It might not have worked out, though. Dave was shivering already. A while in the cold is not super noticeable but, over time, even a little too much exposure can become unbearable.
I was mad at the guards. They seemed much more alert for people coming in than going out. To my irritation, I believed they would question me and my beach towel entering the dorm even after the breakfast bell. And I had no great explanation for the guard about why I was a camp member coming inside from a campus that was supposed to be off-limits.
"The first floor windows are locked," Dave concluded. He didn't give up until he'd tried them all. "We'll have to climb up. Hey, you left your window open."
"So?" We strolled to the back of the building, next to the parking lot. My window had a great view of the lot and the guard house next to it. Fortunately, the guard house was empty. The parking area was, too, mostly. We had a clear line of sight to my partly-open window. My roommate liked it that way. I did, too, as a way to reduce his noise although on any other day of the week I would have gotten up to close it when the breeze got too cold.
"We can climb this building." Dave's gaze narrowed. He had a determined look.
"No way. I black out and lock up on unsteady heights."
"Nothing unsteady, here." He gestured to the blocks of pressed concrete that formed the outer wall. "Look, I'll go first if you're scared."
The word came out like "ski yard" but with a sneer, as if it was ridiculous to be frightened about falling to my death while scaling the outside of a multi-story building. And maybe it was. But I was keenly aware of how heights paralyzed me. They had for almost as long as I could remember. Already, my hands drenched with sweat as I contemplated the climb.
The back of the Naval Academy dormitory was four stories high. As Dave pointed out, I only had to climb two of them. My room was on the third floor. The parking lot guard house, once we climbed to the top of that, would let us leap to the bottom of the second floor. From there, I saw I would have no real handholds except for the grooves between blocks in the building. Still, only two stories.
"Hey up." Dave launched himself to the guard house. Seconds later, he helped me clamber up.
"You're sweaty," he said, noticing my slick grip. He hopped from the guard house roof to the dorm. He made it look easy. His left hand patted a concrete slab. "No problem, here. Good grips."
The fucker, Dave from Boston, scrambled upward like a monkey. Or like an experienced climber. I took a deep breath, wobbled, and nearly fell from the guard house. That would have broken my bones because a ramp next to the structure ran down farther away and deeper than I thought it should. Still feeling dizzy, I hopped from the one-story roof onto the second story of the dorm. I made sure my handholds duplicated what I had seen working fine for Dave.
For a few minutes, I stayed where I was, in the wind. I felt the depths whisper beneath me. I heard Dave clambering up and up, farther away.
After a while, I resolved myself to continue. I saw handhold after handhold. I did something Dave hadn't done and shimmied up between two of the concrete slabs. I'd known I was strong enough for it. But I reached a point where I couldn't see where to put my hand next. I froze. Above me, I watched Dave, a bright shadow in the moonlight, slip through the open bedroom window. That made me sigh with relief, although the feeling was momentary.
I remember looking back and seeing my death. When I fell, I would hit the guardrail of the ramp next to the parking lot guard house. The impact against the steel bar would crack me in half. Then the pieces of me would continue. As I hovered there, frozen, afraid to move my grip, panting and growing more tired, I felt something bounce off my forehead.
"What the fuck are you doing?" I hissed. My gaze shot up to Dave in anger. I realized he had thrown a wad of paper.
"You have to keep moving," he said. "You've been hanging there forever."
"I can’t move," I insisted. I hardly even thought about the sound of 'theah forevah.'
"You have to or you will hang there until you get exhausted and fall and die."
"You have to move," he insisted. "There’s a handhold right there."
He pointed to the next corner of a block. To grab it, I would have to push off hard with my left foot, latch with the fingers of my right hand, and trust I could hold myself up with no foothold available for a second or two after that. I might have to shimmy along holding by just one hand at a time for a while until the next grip for my foot. It was a tiny leap of confidence I couldn’t seem to make. I hyperventilated for another half minute.
Above me, Dave threw another scrap of paper at my head. It brushed my ear and sailed over my shoulder.
"Go, goddammit," he hissed. His accent still almost made me laugh. It was so ridiculous. "Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it."
For ten or fifteen seconds, he repeated himself. His voice grew more and more insistent as he continued. I wobbled, had a black-out moment, and realized Dave was right. I couldn't stay here. Staying would not end well.
I howled and jumped for the corner. A second after, I pulled myself to the next handhold and the next.
"Oh, shit!" Dave backed away from the window.
"Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr." A weird sound escaped from my throat. I felt like an animal, like a dog, trapped and trying to scramble out of a pit. Handhold, handhold, handhold. Stand up. Dizzy. No! Go. Go! Hop up. Handhold. Handhold. In less than half a minute, I slung my right arm over the windowsill and grabbed the opposite edge. I felt Dave's hands clamp down on my forearm.
"Do you need to rest?" he whispered while I hyperventilated again.
"Dave, man, I think if I rest any more I’ll get weaker. Ready?"
And then, oddly, I blanked a little and found myself in the room. I straightened up from the crouch I was in. I stared at my roommate. Unbelievably, he was snoring.
"I know," whispered Dave. "How do you sleep with that in the room?"
I shook my head.
"Do you think he’s faking?"
We stood between the twin beds for most of a minute.
"Sounds real," Dave commented.
"Can you get back in your room without getting noticed?" I asked him. "Do you need to sleep on the floor or something? No point in getting caught now."
"I made it here without getting nicked, didn’t I?"