'On the Guide Rope'
Second Place winner CL's Fiction Contest 2019
Rae is 17 years old, sitting under a tree up on a cliff in the middle of Utah’s canyon country. The world is divided into two parts: land and sky. In front of her is 10 feet of rocky ground, then a 2,000-foot drop. The canyon rim is massive, winding in and out for miles. Rae sits on a large, flat rock; every time she moves, a handful of smaller rocks tumbles over the edge.
There are nine of them perched on the cliff like a group of bighorn sheep. The instructors, Michelle and Tom, are tying a rope around the tree that will serve as an anchor for the rappel. Rae is alarmed they’ve chosen a juniper. Until now, she loved these trees, with their gnarled branches and twisted trunks that look mystic in the desert. But up close, this tree is gray and limp, with bark that looks like rotten spaghetti. She knows the choices are limited; nothing grows in such a barren environment. At least a deep groove around the trunk suggests it has supported the weight of a person before. Rae imagines taking a photo over the edge of the cliff and texting it to her mother. Think a klutz like me can actually do this? or something. But Outward Bound doesn’t allow phones, and Rae feels very alone.
Tom goes first, to work out any kinks in the line. He threads his harness, then locks a large carabiner in place. He yanks the rope sharply, one-two-three, then turns to the students. “This is serious. Do exactly what Michelle tells you.”
Rae puts her head between her legs. She sucks air in, counts to five, pushes it out. There’s nowhere to go. No helicopter nearby to pluck her from the side of this cliff. Not enough water left to turn around and hike back the way she came. It took the group five days to reach this point. Hours trudging along uneven desert pavement, scrambling up large boulders, cursing rocks that reflect heat like miniature suns. Now that they’ve reached the canyon, Rae tries to convince herself a 200-foot rappel is a relief. At the very least, it’s a shortcut.
When Rae looks up, Tom’s squatting with his butt stuck out over the canyon ledge. Soon, all she sees is the top of his blue helmet.
Growing up, Rae’s mother tells her the story dozens of times: At Rae’s six-month-old check-up, the pediatrician diagnoses her with hypotonia. Floppy baby syndrome, he calls it. Fortunately, she’s developing normally otherwise, and the pediatrician seems confident she’ll outgrow it.
It’s true Rae is a lethargic baby. She falls asleep early and doesn’t wake at night for feedings. She has almost no body fat: no sausage-casing legs, no potato-shaped feet spilling out of soft-soled shoes. Her head seems permanently collapsed against her mother’s chest in resignation. Rae never learns to crawl, and doesn’t take her first steps until she’s two.
By the time Rae enters public kindergarten in the Seattle suburbs, she’s in therapy twice a week. Hours spent climbing a five-step ladder, throwing color-coded balls into buckets, tracing letters and numbers in the sand. In gym class, Rae hurts herself so often her mother insists she be placed into a special group for kids with developmental disabilities. But her blood work and EEGs come back normal. No cerebral palsy. No dyspraxia. No official diagnosis. According to the doctors, Rae is just really clumsy.
She takes her differences in stride. The watered-down social cruelties of elementary school are limited to classmates laughing when she trips. By middle school, Rae has no interest in sports, and her lack of coordination matters less; she develops a close group of friends who are into punk rock and video games. For her 13th birthday, Rae gets an iPhone and, within minutes, posts a selfie on Facebook of a girl ready to hold her own. A few weeks later, the reality of round-the-clock connectedness sets in.
What have you eaten today?
I Juuled for breakfast.
Rae! I know you’re kidding.
I bought mango yesterday. It’s washed and chopped and ready to go!
I’m worried about your diet. I know how much you like mango.
I’ll eat the mango! Mango will be eaten!
Her mother has rules: If Rae doesn’t respond to her texts, the phone is taken away. If Rae is too snarky or swears, the phone is taken away. The same goes if Rae engages in “distracted walking” or “biking while texting” and hurts herself.
Be careful getting home after school!
And be nice to Ali. She says you’ve had an attitude lately.
You would too if you had a babysitter at 13.
I’m just trying to keep you safe!
This constant surveillance extends to most parts of Rae’s life. She can’t go for ice cream or pizza without an adult chaperone. She can’t use the oven unsupervised. She’s not allowed to wait in the car alone while her mother shops, even though she’ll get her license in a few years. By the time Rae’s in high school, she feels a growing urge to escape.
Before Rae and the other students can rappel, they must first send their backpacks down the line to Tom. Rae’s pack, which weighed 50 pounds at the start of the trip, is much lighter now that the water bladder is almost empty. The contents are carefully arranged, her sleeping bag on the bottom. Pots and pans wrapped in fleece to reduce bulging. Taking up the middle third of the pack is the food supply. Rain gear, sunscreen, and moleskin for blisters are on top. Rae watches nervously as Michelle lowers her pack over the canyon edge. Out here, it’s her mobile home, everything she needs to survive.
Rae doesn’t know what to expect from the rappel. She doesn’t think she’ll experience anything profound, like seeing the face of God, but she hopes to feel something other than terror. She desperately wants to text her mother and tell her she loves her. What if their final exchange was just another petty argument?
Rae is the first student to go. She stands up, legs shaking, holding the tree with one hand. Michelle threads the harness, then demonstrates which hand is used to guide, which hand is used to brake. The other students cheer softly, as if their words might blow her over the edge.
“On rappel!” Michelle shouts down to Tom, and Rae shifts from the secure anchor to the rope that will guide her to safety. The next part, she’s told, is the most dangerous: stepping over the side of an exposed wall.
“Plant your feet carefully and go slow,” Michelle says. Rae takes two steps back and there, between her legs, is the view she has been dreading. She’s so high up she can’t see the bottom of the canyon.
“Work your way down,” Michelle continues. “Keep your feet below your waist. Go slow.”
At first, Rae sways from side to side. The muscles in her forearms and thighs strain. There’s no chance she’ll faint; the adrenaline has set her mind on fire. Scanning the options below, she puts her right foot into a groove in a large boulder. Her left, on top of a small ledge. She moves slowly and carefully. My girl with two left feet, her mother used to say. Eventually, her torso is flush with the canyon wall. She focuses on the contours of the sandstone and tries not to look down.
“You’re doing great!” Michelle yells at Rae. A few moments later, she yells something else, but Rae can’t understand her. Out here, exposed on three sides, the wind is stronger than expected, whistling loudly against her helmet. At some point, a tiny strand of hair gets in her eye, but she doesn’t dare lift her hand from the rope to brush it away.
Eventually, Rae gets into a groove: right foot here. Left foot there. Slide down the guide rope, release the slack. Don’t look down. Keep going. Keep going because you have no choice.
Rae learns about Outward Bound her junior year of high school. A boy in her class who smokes meth and steals cigarettes from the convenience store is sent to the program as part of his probation. There are rumors about him being left in the woods for three days with only water and a journal. Out of curiosity, Rae reads up on Outward Bound’s history: training sailors during World War II, then eventually becoming the world’s most well-known wilderness survival program. According to dozens of personal accounts online, the majority of students in the program want to be there. Among the course listings, one in particular stands out: four weeks in southern Utah. Rafting, canyoneering, mountain climbing. The photographs are dazzling and foreign: red, rolling hills, ancient rock formations, and purple sunsets. Now, Rae is the one doing the relentless texting.
It could be a graduation present. I can go the summer before college.
That’s a very expensive graduation present.
Think of it as one last year of summer camp, mom. And it would look great on college apps. The holy grail of leadership blah blah.
It doesn’t sound like summer camp. It sounds dangerous. Especially for you.
I’m not a baby anymore. And the instructors know what they’re doing.
The summer before Rae’s senior year, fate seems to take sides. A 16-year-old girl from Boston dies while participating in the same course Rae wants to attend. The details of Elisa Santry’s death aren’t clear, but, according to news reports, she was missing for more than five hours in 110-degree heat.
To Rae’s surprise, the Outward Bound spokesperson is unapologetic. No one is fired. No one changes the rules. In one article, Elisa’s mother is quoted as saying Outward Bound killed her daughter. No, the spokesperson says, we didn’t. The wilderness did.
Rae expects to be put off by the tragedy, but she’s more determined than ever. She and her mother go back and forth for months.
It’s the only death in more than a decade!
They let her hike alone and it was way too hot.
When they found her, she had food and water. It wasn’t their fault.
That program isn’t safe.
You have to let me go, mom.
You have to.
You’re all I’ve got.
I’m not going to die, mom. Besides, there are worse things than death.
You have to let me go. The consequences of me not going will be profound.
The mechanics of rappelling come down to friction. So simple, the whole concept terrifies Rae. The rappel device allows her to control her body weight with minimal effort, all because a piece of rope rubs against steel. She felt the same alarm in seventh-period Physics, when she learned planes are kept up in the sky because of slightly different pressures above and below the wings. Amazing, how those massive Boeing jets can be reduced to a linear equation.
Rae recognizes the moment everything goes wrong. The moment the system breaks down and she loses control. Tom was pointing a camera at her, and the strand of hair was still stuck in her eye, driving her crazy. Rae wanted to get a good picture for her mother. For her Facebook profile. A shot where she looked brave and calm, not like a terrified lunatic with hair in her eye. She knew her arms couldn’t handle the rapid movement required to brush it away, and she still did it. How could she be so stupid?
It takes Rae a moment to realize she’s falling. Her feet, once firmly planted, now move rapidly through space. One hand still grips the rope, but she’s not sure which one. Her stomach is in her throat. There’s no time to scream.
Everything comes to a halt. Rae jerks forward from the waist, feels her head smack against a rock. She stares down at Tom, only a few feet below now, his body straining against the rope, looking horrified.
Adrenaline surges through Rae’s veins. Light bounces around the canyon. The sun feels like a furnace. She stares at her right hand, watching with alarm as blood pools in the center.
With Tom’s help, Rae untangles herself from the rope, then stumbles from the rappel site. The two of them crouch beneath a juniper tree. There’s a deep cut where the rope has sliced her skin. Rae thinks she can see bone. Tom pours a red liquid on her hand, then sprays something that bubbles on contact. Gauze, bandages. An entire roll of medical tape. A large bandage for her forehead. Finally, a handful of pills, which Rae somehow swallows without choking.
“I need your phone.” Rae fights back tears.
Tom removes a cell phone enclosed in a heavy protective case from his pants pocket. “I have no idea if you’ll be able to get a signal.” He taps the screen several times, then hands it to Rae. “It’s getting late. I have to go help the other students.”
Rae stares at Tom’s phone. It has been 22 days since she used one. Or is it 24? She realizes with horror that she doesn’t know her mother’s number. They recently changed providers, and Rae hasn’t bothered to memorize it.
Rae looks over at the narrow gorge she’ll have to traverse in the coming hours to reach camp. She’ll have to carry her backpack; there’s no one to carry it for her. Can she manage with one working hand?
Tears fall down Rae’s cheeks, one after another after another. Shock has dulled the pain, but her hand and head throb. I can do this, she tells herself. My mother is waiting for me. There’s no reason to think I will end up like Elisa. I am going to make it.
Chesney D’Avis is a finalist for the second time in Creative Loafing’s Fiction Contest. Her story, “Cold Turkey,” won first place back in 2006. Her writing career peaked at age 10, when a personal essay earned her the chance to meet Dave Barry, a prize that hasn’t been matched since. Since then, her work has appeared in newspapers, literary journals, and an inspirational anthology by the publishers of Chicken Soup For the Soul. After nearly a decade writing international news at CNN, she now lives with her two beautiful children and amazing husband in Decatur.