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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Action/Adventure · #2165705
Can Ken overcome his acrophobia and save the day? 2nd place What a Character, August 2018.
Ken gazed up at the Ferris wheel and shuddered. Its flashing, multicolored lights provided a cheerful contrast to the night sky, but in his mind's eye he saw rotor blades ripping through green foliage. Ever since his fateful crash-landing in the jungle, he hadn't been the same.

“Sorry, I can’t do it.”

Sonali folded her arms across her blue sari and glared. “What do you mean?”

“Have you seen that rusty frame?”

Her brown eyes blazed. “You said roller coasters were too risky and helter-skelters made you nauseous.”

He swallowed. “Sorry, this isn’t turning out to be much of a date. The truth is I suffer from acrophobia.”

Sonali threw her hands in the air. “Fear of heights? Your Hug-A-Hero dating profile said you were an Army helicopter pilot.”

“Retired helicopter pilot.”

“I thought you were the man of my dreams.” She shook her head. “Turns out you’re no hero.”

“I know.”

“Well, I have people to see, places to go, chocolate to eat…” She spun around and melted into the crowd at the Fredericksburg Summer Fair.

Ken sighed. Well, it wasn't as if Sonali and he were compatible. After she'd gobbled down a hot dog, some candy floss, and a toffee apple, he realized she really enjoyed junk food, and his cardiologist had advised him to cut down since that nasty episode last summer.

She was the third lady he’d hooked up with from Hug-A-Hero, and the other two dates had also turned into disasters. Carol appeared perfect, right up until she confessed she dreamed of flying a helicopter and hoped he would teach her. Angela was young but seemed mature enough and wasn’t repulsed by his wrinkles. Then she invited him on a rock climbing adventure weekend. He'd exchanged messages with another lady called Amy, but whenever he tried to arrange a date, she claimed to be too busy. That was probably an excuse because she'd seen his grizzled face on his profile page. These days, he was more a raisin than a grape.

He pushed his way through the throng, headed out of the fairground, passing couples holding hands and smiling. After his much beloved wife passed, Ken hadn't been in a good place mentally and couldn't even think about dating for years. Now he began to think he'd left it too late. As he passed through the exit, his shoulders slumped.

In the surrounding streets, vehicles were parked bumper to bumper. He’d left his car a little distance away. At least it was a pleasant night for a walk, with a clear sky, bright stars, and a cooling breeze. Within quarter-of-an-hour, he spotted his Mustang just to the other side of a five-story apartment building. He picked up his pace.

The sound of sobbing drew his gaze skyward, and he froze mid-step. He rubbed his eyes, but they hadn’t deceived him. A little girl, maybe four-years-old, perched precariously on a windowsill a few feet away from the fire escape on the top floor of the building. She looked so innocent and helpless, with her blonde hair tied in two bunches and wearing a pink unicorn onesie. Just watching her dangling her skinny legs over that forty feet drop made his stomach lurch.

“Hey, little girl!” he shouted. “That isn’t safe. Go back inside.”

She didn’t budge or even glance in his direction. She just kept on crying.

He rushed to the communal doorway and pushed a random top floor buzzer. No response. The labels indicated four apartments on that floor. He pressed the other three. Again, no answer. He stepped back and looked up again. Now she balanced on a ledge that ran along the wall, edging toward the fire escape. A wave of dizziness caused him to stumble. He gripped a lamppost for support.

“What are you doing?” he shouted. “For goodness sake, get back inside.” He pulled out his phone to call the police and discovered the battery was flat. “This isn’t my night.” He glanced around at the surrounding buildings. They were all businesses and every window dark.

A shrill cry drew his attention back to the girl. Her feet had slipped off the ledge, but she’d thrown her arms around a drainpipe. She clung on like a spider monkey. It didn’t look like she’d be able to hold on much longer.

“Wait! I’m coming.”

Ken examined the bottom of the fire escape. There was a drop-down ladder. He scanned around for anything long he could use and spied an old broom propped against a nearby trash bin. He grabbed it and snagged the bottom of the ladder, which slid down into position.

He placed one trembling foot and on the rickety rung. His heartbeat raced. If he hadn't lost his faith, he would be praying like tomorrow was Judgment Day. Swirling rotor blades flashed in his mind. He smelled acrid smoke and heard breaking branches. No! He could do this. He must. He lifted another foot and stepped off the ground. The ladder creaked. Bile rose in his stomach. He ruthlessly suppressed his fear and climbed. The girl's frantic cries urged him on. He half closed his eyes, like blinkers on a timid horse, and focused on one step at a time. After reaching the first landing, he gripped the handrail and maneuvered himself to the bottom of the first fixed steps.

The steps were an improvement on the thin ladder rungs, but as he ascended, the whole fire escape shook and rattled. Ken recalled the vibrations of the helicopter as it plunged through the forest canopy, the whine of the failing rotors. These exterior stairs weren’t made to the same exacting standards as those designed for everyday use. As he climbed, the steps groaned beneath his feet. At any moment, the whole structure could break away from the wall.

The girl screamed. He pushed all negative thoughts aside and sprinted up the remaining stairs. Soon, he arrived on the top landing, level with the girl. She hung from the drainpipe only four feet away. Up here, that cooling breeze was a wild wind that whipped his hair.

“I’m here,” he said.

She still didn’t glance his way or indicate she'd heard him. Her eyes were squeezed shut and her face twisted in fear.

“Don't look down,” he muttered to himself, then leaned over the handrail and reached out. His fingertips grabbed at the air mere inches from her elbow, but it might as well be a million miles. Beside him was a window—the route from inside to this fire escape—but he couldn’t open it from outside. The opaque security glass prevented him seeing how it was secured, and he couldn’t break in without tools.

His cardiologist would have a fit if he saw Ken now, but he had no choice. No matter how terrified he was, the little girl must be more so. Any moment she could lose her grip. Steeling himself, he focused on her. He clambered over the handrail and set his feet on the same ledge she’d used. While holding onto the rail with one hand, he edged close enough to touch her shoulder with the other.

Her eyes shot open. She lost her grip and slipped. He grabbed her onesie hood and held her up. She regained balance and managed to get both feet on the ledge. Ken gestured to the fire escape, but she shook her head. Was she crazy? She edged away from him and scrambled back onto the windowsill. There, she gestured inside the apartment, making complex signals with her hands. Sign language! No wonder she hadn’t responded to his shouts. But what was she trying to say? He wanted to turn around and make his way back to the ground, but he couldn’t leave her on the windowsill.

He gripped the drainpipe. It seemed solid enough to take his weight, and he only needed it for balance. For the first time in five years, he offered up a silent prayer. It couldn't hurt. He took a deep breath and released his hold on the handrail. Shuffling along the ledge, he was able to maneuver around the drainpipe and onto the windowsill. The girl jumped into the brightly lit interior, and he clambered after.

Ken wanted to kiss the floor with relief. They were inside a bedroom, with pink walls, a lace throw covering the king-size bed, and the scent of floral perfume. The girl tugged at his sleeve, and he allowed her to lead him around to the other side of the bed. A lady in her thirties wearing a nightgown lay on the floor, a syringe in her hand, unconscious. Now he understood why the girl had risked her life out on that ledge.

Ken’s Army first aid training kicked in. He checked her airway and pulse. She was weak but still alive. He moved her into the recovery position, then glanced around for a phone. He couldn’t see one. He made the shape of a phone with his fingers and looked at the girl. She shrugged and shook her head. A red plastic box stood on the nightstand next to a medicine bottle and an open leaflet. He glanced at the leaflet. It contained instructions on how to administer an emergency injection to treat hypoglycemia in a diabetic. He checked the syringe in her hand. It was full. She must have been preparing to inject herself.

The little girl stood in a corner, watching, tears running down her cheeks. Ken had to make a swift decision. The wrong choice could have serious consequences for this lady, maybe even fatal. However, it seemed clear what she needed. Offering up his second prayer of the night, he reread the instructions, then administered the injection.

At first, nothing happened, and he considered checking the rest of the apartment. The lady must have a phone somewhere. She moaned, and her eyelids fluttered open. She gazed around, appearing lost, then her bright blue eyes fixed on Ken.

“W-who are you?”

“I’m Ken. Ma’am, you’ve had a medical emergency.”

She squinted at him. “You're a paramedic?”

“No, a passerby.”

“How did you know I needed help?”

“Your brave daughter climbed out the window and got my attention.”

The lady's eyes widened. She sat up and scanned the room. “Sophie?”

The girl ran over and threw her arms around her mom's neck.

“It’s okay, Sophie. Momma’s gonna be just fine.” The lady returned her attention to Ken, and her eyes narrowed. “How did you get inside?”

He pointed toward the window. “Same way your daughter got out.”

“It’s the fifth floor!”

Ken chuckled. “I noticed.” He knelt beside her. “I’d like to call you a doctor if you can tell me where your phone is.”

“No. Seriously, I’ll be fine.” She gestured to the syringe on the nightstand. “I guess you gave me the Glucagon?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you. You may have just saved my life.” She brushed a length of blonde hair from her face and gave him a really pretty smile. “Call me Kate.”

“Okay, Kate. Is there anybody I can get for you? Your husband, perhaps.”

Her smile turned into a frown. “Sophie’s father and I don’t talk. In fact, I moved three states away to avoid ever seeing him again.”

Ken stood. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be. I’m not.” She gripped the table edge and made to stand.

He helped her rise, but her legs were shaking, so he led her over to perch on the side of the bed. Once seated, she smoothed down her nightgown. Ken's cheeks warmed, and he glanced away. The thin cotton did little to hide Kate's ample charms.

She smiled again. “The truth is that Bob was too immature—a man-child. What I need in my life is a real man. A hero who steps up to a challenge and knows how to treat a lady.” She looked him up and down. “Tell me, Ken…are you married?”

Thank you, 🌓 HuntersMoon , for being a hero!

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