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Whatever Happened to Spider Monkey?

by Jen Sexton-Riley

Part 1 appears in this issue.


Wait, what? How am I alive?

It just didn’t make any sense. Peter slowly got to his feet, feeling his limbs and doing a few experimental stretches and bends. Not so much as an ache anywhere. And where was everyone? Wasn’t Shanghai supposed to be crowded? The second most populous city in China at nearly 25 million people, right? So how could it be that he saw no one? Heard no one? No cars, not so much as a bicycle? Determined to catch sight of another human being, Peter sprinted around the entire building. No people. No Eli. Since when did Peter climb alone?

His ear buds didn’t seem to work, so he removed them, stuffed them into a pocket and headed into the building. Surely a security team would stop him before he reached the roof. But no, even inside, there was no one to be found. A brand new skyscraper, the tallest in the world, nearly completed, an irresistible magnet to urban climbers and their selfie sticks from the U.S., Ukraine, Romania, Germany, France, Turkey, Russia, everywhere, with no security? Impossible! Where was everyone? Where was Eli?

Peter stepped into the world’s second fastest elevator and rode all the way to the 128th floor in 20.5 seconds, swallowing to ease his popping ears. Nobody anywhere. On the roof, he walked out unimpeded and looked up at the blue sky. Since when in his lifetime had Shanghai, a city populated by face-masked millions with pollution-reddened eyes, ever seen a clear blue sky? And suddenly, once again, his head swam, his clean white tennis shoes careened against that blue sky and Peter found himself falling, though he hadn’t yet reached the roof’s edge.

Peter sat up on the sidewalk and leaped to his feet to the sound of invisible birds. A newspaper carried along the ground by the wind caught on his white tennis shoe, and he bent over to grab it. The headline, in English, read “Shanghai Closes 150 Factories. Blue Skies For Shanghai Disneyland On Opening Day.”

What? Oh, this was too perfect. Was he dreaming? Was any of this even real? He reached up and felt the ear buds that he remembered stuffing into his pocket once again in his ears, playing the sound of wind or was it a mechanical whir? And birdsong. He removed the ear buds, which on inspection were connected to nothing, and hurled them away down the sidewalk.

Peter noticed that his camera and monopod were still clipped to his belt. As he unclipped them he spotted a scrap of paper protruding from his pocket and pulled it out. A note from Eli.

“Peter, thank you for being so understanding about my unexpected work obligation at the lab. I need to focus here, bud. I’m sorry I can’t be there for this special climb, but I am there in spirit. I know it will be amazing. All hail Solo Shanghai Spider Monkey!”

Huh. Well, this explained Eli’s absence. There seemed to be a convenient explanation for his every question.

Peter decided to record a message. He held the camera at the full length of the monopod to capture his face with the Shanghai Tower looming behind him.

“Eli, I don’t know if you can hear me, but this is so, so messed up. I don’t know if I am dreaming, or still in the tube in your dad’s lab or what. Did I die? Is this hell? I know you must be able to hear me in some way or another. Got your note, by the way!” Peter shook the paper at the camera, at the impossibly blue sky, all around at the empty city. “Okay, look. I am going up again, and this time I’m going to figure this out. From bluer than blue Shanghai, Spider Monkey out.”

Peter entered the tower once again. He wondered what his Spider Monkey subscribers would think, what the Monkettes would think, and suddenly, as the elevator sounded his return to the 128th floor, thoughts rushed in of Riya.

Riya. Lovely, smart Riya, who was far too good for him, in Boston pursuing her degree in actuarial mathematics, whatever that was. It would pay well, that was all he needed to know, she’d said. It had to do with analyzing the costs of risk and uncertainty. The irony wasn’t lost on Riya of studying risk analysis Monday through Friday while spending weekends trying to plan a future with the Spider Monkey.

Nothing was lost on Riya, including the long-range viability of their relationship after using her copy of his apartment key to walk in unannounced during one of his mid-week video chats with one of the dozen or so Monkettes he kept in the Spider Monkey loop.

Riya stood in the doorway, surveying the situation. Her gaze swept from the golden, giggling image on the laptop screen to Peter in his boxers, scrambling to close the chat window. Riya analyzed the risk, assessed the uncertainty, made a few quick cost calculations, turned and closed the door without a word. Her sweet scent lingered in the room for a moment and was gone. Peter hadn’t run after her, hadn’t tried to explain. He never saw Riya again. One minute things had been going well; the next, she was turning away from him, and then she was gone.

He’d tried to tell himself what a fool she’d been for just leaving without at least allowing him a chance to explain, to make it better. Maybe the Monkettes had actually made him a better boyfriend because of the risk, did she ever consider that? Just like maybe the fear made him a better climber. All he knew was that once Riya turned and closed that door, he couldn’t bear the sound of another Monkette giggle. She walked out and took all of carefree female companionship with her. He didn’t even say goodbye. He just closed the laptop on the whole thing and shut it down.

Peter opened his eyes, wondering how long he’d been standing here, eyes closed, close enough to touch the blue summer sky on the roof of the Shanghai Tower. His face began to burn as he tried to blink back tears. Finally the emotion burst forth and he hurled the camera, monopod and all, over the edge into nothingness.

“I’m sorry, Riya! I’m sorry!” Peter said. “Look, I’m going to be better, okay? If I ever get out of this, I am going to be better. More than a Spider Monkey. I promise.” He turned his back to the edge, closed his eyes and lowered his face into his hands. A breath of sweet, familiar scent swept around and past him. Then the solid roof beneath his feet was no longer there and once again he was falling.

* * *

Peter opened his eyes. Why bother sitting up? Then he remembered throwing the camera and monopod from the roof and, out of curiosity, he sat up and looked around. They should have landed right about here, and there should be debris of some kind. Even if the camera had been obliterated by the impact, surely the solidly-built monopod would have left at least something of itself behind.


Then he reached down to his waist to find the camera and monopod intact, securely clipped to his belt.

Peter lay back down on the sidewalk. He felt the warm cement under his fingertips. He reached up to find the ear buds once again in his ears. It was all so real. It couldn’t be a product of his imagination. Could it? Did he make the trip to Shanghai, with or without Eli? He remembered talking about it over lunch. He remembered making plans, booking a flight, arranging a hotel. He remembered packing his bags and equipment, but he had done that for so many trips in the past. Could his memory be fooling him? Did Eli cook this whole experience up from the fear-busting recipe he concocted in the fMRI lab?

Or could Peter have sustained some injury during his climb that caused Eli’s fear replacement recipe to kick in automatically? Peter heard birds. He removed the ear buds and threw them away. They’d be back again anyway, after his next fall. And there would be a next fall. And another. And another. He still heard the same birds, but there were none to be seen in the nearby row of small, perfectly shaped trees. There was no way of knowing. Was he living? Was he dead? Was he still lying in an fMRI that first night in the lab? Or had he been on life support for years following a fall? Did it even matter?

Peter thought about how people die. Sometimes they knew what was coming. Heart disease. Cancer. But sometimes they didn’t know what was coming, and it happened so quickly — an accident, a lightning strike, a fall — in those cases of sudden annihilation they must find themselves, if there was another world, suddenly dropped there as if from a great height, with no way to prepare, no explanation or guidance. Was it really so different from the way people found themselves thrown into life with no explanation, no language or preparation, naked and squalling, at the mercy of strangers for their very survival? Finally, there were no answers in life. Answers were a human invention.

* * *

The elevator chimed once again at the 128th floor, and the doors opened. Peter stepped out and made his way one more time to the roof of the Shanghai Tower. It was here. He was here. So he ascended. He knew nothing else for sure. His memories of his life, of his Spider Monkey exploits, of climbing the Lotte World Tower in Seoul, One World Trade Center in New York City, the Princess Tower in Dubai, Al Hamra Tower in Kuwait City, the Superman back home in Providence, of Eli, of Riya, of love and fear, courage and broken hearts, of promises and uncertainties and risk all wore a halo of soft forgetfulness.

His clearest memories were of blue skies filled with sailing white clouds, clean white tennis shoes, ear buds, elevators, birdsong and falling. There was no risk of falling anymore. He would always fall. He didn’t wonder anymore. He didn’t hope anymore. He didn’t rage anymore, sorrow anymore or want anymore. His sole conscious thought was not a question, but a sweet certainty as he stepped through the door onto the roof again, took a running start and jumped.

Copyright © 2020 by Jen Sexton-Riley

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