My fingers fumble in my pocket. Searching. Searching. Until they close around the reassuring smoothness of the small object. In my possession for only two hours, it is as familiar to me as my mother’s braille books left around the house. But it cost a great deal more.
Blowing out a breath, relief leaks into me. But it is quickly followed by a new sense of trepidation; a slight tremble in my legs and a tightness in my chest. How will I take the pill without anyone noticing?
A buzzer sounds. The crowd below cheers. Some in genuine approval, others at the lack of promised gore. Five of them have made it across in a row. Five eighteen-year old girls, just like me. As the girl in front of me steps onto the narrow beam that trespasses the abyss between two skyscrapers, sweat forms on my palms and the pill drops to the bottom of my pocket. She’s just a slip of a thing, no meat on her at all and blonde hair so wispy her scalp shines through. A gust of wind makes her pause, then she places one pointed toe a couple of inches across the expanse. Arms out, she leans. And remains balanced.
I am holding my breath, looking at the cameras, looking at the thundering crowd below, looking at the big banner promising a better future if you can ‘prove your bravery.’
The illegal pill throbs in my pocket. My fingers swim after it. My club foot aches with tension. An image of my mother in the Workzone flashes into my mind; the squalid living conditions; the disease and infection; the smell of rank garbage and fetid body odours; the skitter of rats in every corner, no matter which direction you look. It’s no place for a blind woman. I can’t let them put her there.
The air stills. My thighs tremble with anticipation. The sun scorches my bare shoulders. My fingers close around the pill once more. The performance-enhancing pill. The one that will make me dance as light as a ballerina across that death-trap of a beam. Despite my foot. Watching the girl meet the half-way mark, I edge the pill towards the frayed seam of my pocket, a smidge of it just popping into the light.
The girl teeters on the beam. She turns sideways, windmills her arm in the indifferent air. Despite the unobstructed sun, spotlights take aim and cameras whirr. On her tip toes, she folds in half, her hair falling over her face, a scream splitting her lips. The crowd below call and whistle. They want her to fall. Their need for blood rises, bringing with it a tangible lust for death.
The scream cuts off. The girl topples forward, over the beam, performing an unintended somersault. With all eyes and cameras focussed on the imminent death, I slip the pill into my mouth, not daring to check if I’m being watched. I hold it in the tip of my tongue, wondering if I can gather enough saliva in my desert-dry mouth to swallow it down.
I think I can hear the thud of the girl’s body as she hits the ground below. There won’t be much of her left. Her skull will be smashed open, her limbs twisted at unnatural angles. The crowd roars. Another buzzer sounds. A pressure in the small of my back urges me towards the beam.
The camera pans the audience. Settles on my face. Then my mother. Her eyes staring but not seeing. Her grey hair, an askew mop around her face – I’m not very good at hair cutting – her hands cupped over her mouth.
The pill lodges in my throat. I cough. A bottle of water appears in front of my face. I close my eyes and drink, feeling the pill travel the length of my burning oesophagus and land in my nauseas stomach.
A surge of confidence floods my thoughts. My limbs still, waiting.
“Maggie O’Connor.” My name is announced.
The crowd roars again. Hungry for more death. I step onto the beam.
I can do this.
I don’t see the limitless drop. I don’t see the glint of the sun reflecting off the glass of the skyscrapers. I don’t see the crowd bobbing about below like busy ants. I don’t feel the sun on my back or the gentle breeze that brushes against the nape of my neck. I don’t smell the meat of the hotdogs the vendor below is serving to the feverish crowds. Nor do I smell my own fear. For I have none. Not now. Not since the pill entered my stomach.
My club foot stutters along the suede surface. My mother’s face looms on the large screen. And then my own. I notice there are beads of sweat on my upper lip. I kiss the necklace hanging at my collarbone and then take another step. And then I stare at my foot. The problem one. If I could just calculate the angles. Assess the distance and the ratios. But I don’t have time for that. And so I run. Without thinking, without feeling, I run across the beam.