This is in response to Chuck Wendig’s challenge at http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/09/05/flash-fiction-challenge-the-first-half-of-a-story-only/ where you write the first half of a story and theoretically someone else will finish it. As it happens, I had been meaning to do his previous title challenge, so it’s a combo pack.
Sam looked up, squinting against the sun. They did the executions at night, just as the sun painted the sky red. Only they could turn beauty into terror. Only they could take a sight enjoyed by billions, since the very dawn of time, and turn it into pure horror. The French had their guillotine. They had their blood-stained precipice.
There were exactly two ways to get to the top. The first involved an elevator and a long fall to the bottom. It was never taken willingly. Even the guards who dragged the victim – the condemned – to the top, even the guards went with hesitation. It was a punishment detail, the modern equivalent to cleaning out latrines. Except latrines didn’t scream and beg and weep on their way down. Their blood-slicked fingers didn’t cling desperately to the platform.
It smelled nauseating enough to be a latrine, if rumors were to be trusted. It was said in hushed voices that the bowels tended to let go as the condemned reached the top. Supposedly some of the guards had fallen prey to the same foul terror. They liked this rumor, encouraged it. Such whispers only added to their power, fed into the fear that stalked the people, day and night. Ceaseless, unrelenting.
The other way up was better and worse. Better because it was taken freely. Worse because death was just as likely.
It was oddly permitted to climb to the top of the precipice. Family members, journalists, curious onlookers – they all had the right to scale the beast, and an equal right to climb back down again. The condemned had no such hope to cling to. Of course, it was a slim hope. The structure was just too high. The color of desert cliffs, it towered over the courtyard. Red ochre, that’s what his mother would have called it. Others were put in mind of another substance.
The climb taught Sam how it had come by it’s moniker: the way up was nearly as bloody as the way down. The metal sliced into his hands, drawing blood from the first grasp. He hopped back down, dug in his backpack, and pulled out thick leather gloves. He’d been prepared for the possibility. He just hadn’t expected to need them so soon. He wrapped his hands in blindingly white bandages, then dragged the gloves on over them. They wouldn’t last, not the whole way. He had two sets of replacements in his bag. He wondered if he should have brought more. He wondered if he would have the courage to change gloves part way up.
Likely, it wouldn’t matter. The precipice was more than a thousand vertical feet. He’d never make it. But the greater the risk, the greater the reward. That’s what they always said. And with this particular reward on the horizon, Sam had no intention of surrendering to his fear. He reached up and gripped the metal.
Wincing at the pain, he began to climb.