Shame or Sacrifice

Submitted by Kevin Barkman to Contest #5 in response to: Write a story about someone who finds life meaning in an unexpected place.... view prompt

The damp air sagged and settled over the cold ground leaving droplets of water tracing lines on every surface. Every breath coated the inside of my mouth and lungs with fresh tasting dew. The streetlights looked hazy and distant through the damp air. The sun still clung to the dark in the distant east, and the city hadn’t thought to wake up yet. 

I stood with my back to the wind, taking a deep breaths and watching my breath freeze and drift with the breeze. The cold snuck past my Carharts and through my Cat jacket, hoodie, and right down into my chest. I ran my checklist through my mind, and stuffed my hands into my pockets. This day had happened a thousand times, I thought, taking a sip of my black coffee that was cooling far too fast. 

We had a lift to get started, two fork lifts, and the crane, we had to get the torches to the roof first to melt the ice, and I wondered briefly if I would have time to grab a bite to eat before the beams arrived. I shrugged and hoisted myself into the truck. As I turned the key Counting Crows came on playing Color Blind.  

The drive was short, barely ten minutes of speeding down empty streets and missing stop lights. I started the lifts, put on my harness and tool kit, signed the safety sheet saying I had given the crew our daily safety meeting, which I hadn’t, and locked the truck. I debated taking the lift up myself, but instead threw a couple of buckets of tools in and left the lifts for the rest of the crew. The climb would help me warm up. I walked the distance of the huge building to the tall orange ladder leading to a a steel ring ladder mounted to the side of the building thirty feet up. The steel was cold, and I had to keep tucking my tools in as they snagged on the safety guards around me. As I pulled myself onto the roof I could see an orange tint over the mountains to the east making the fog glow in an otherworldly fashion. I started the generators and plugged in the spot lights, and began to uncover the tools as the laughter of the crew came drifting up with the sound of the moving lifts. 

“Hey Canada, did you grab the twelve inch spikes?”

I gave a thumbs up and kept working, shaking the water off my gloves and spitting into the hole in the roof. 

“Canada, you wanna run downtown and grab us some more hooks for the sprinkler system?” Jake yelled across the roof. 

“Send Special Steve!” I yelled back.

“Then we won’t see him till lunch!” He walked towards me. 

“All the better,” I mumbled to myself, but out loud I said, “Then send Boon, his back is bothering him anyway.”

Jake nodded and turned to yell at Boon. 

I lit a torch and began to melt off the next segment of roof. Nothing had changed in months, except the mornings got colder. I looked out over the ocean and wondered what it would be like to take a boat out into the sea and work to survive and to adventure, rather than to work all day to be rewarded with hotel food and overpriced candy bars. 

We had a pile of beams, each weighing between 790 and 850 pounds, depending on the length. One was on two carts ready to be dragged into position. I grabbed it and began pulling with all my weight to get it moving. A few hard steps and it was rolling along the frozen wood. In a split second the ground gave way under me. For a moment time stood still as I fell leaving my guts and half my tools behind me. They say your life flashes before your eyes the moment before you die. I was sixty five feet above concrete, and falling. I was as moments-before-death as I had ever been, and yet nothing flashed before my eyes. I had one thought as I fell. I wondered, for half a second why I was going to die making money instead of helping people. As fast as it came the thought left and I felt arms around me, pushing me sideways. With a jolt through my back I stopped falling. Five feet from the roof my foot had jammed into a rusted brace and my back got stuck between a rotted beam and a long board that hung arbitrarily out from the beam. I heard the yells and a hand reached over the edge and grabbed my harness and with a scream from above I was hoisted back onto firm footing of the roof. The men all gathered around pale faced. 

“Shit,” I said. “My back hurts” and I laughed. Of all things I could do, I laughed. The men just stared at me. I swallowed the lump in my throat and attempted a deep breath. Instead of air I got shooting pain through my ribcage and back. “Early coffee break?” I looked at Jake. He nodded. 

We made our way to the lifts and clipped in for the first time since we started the job. No one said a word till we reached the bottom and then Scary Jerry said, “holy f—- thats some ————- scary shit.” 

Everyone laughed then. 

Scary Jerry let out a big sigh “you might be a piece of shit kid, but I couldn’t handle watching you die,”

Jake nodded. “——“

I cringed, “Any of you got Advil? By anyone, I mean, Boon, can I use some of your Advil?” I smiled a little, “I think I just joined the bad back club with you and Special Steve.” 

Everyone laughed at that. Then we sat in silence for a long time. No one ate coffee break. People swore now and then just blurting out profanities at random. Then Scary Jerry looked at me and said quietly, “You look less scared than the rest of us. You almost died kid.” 

“It’s not the first time,” I said. 

“You don’t seem crazy enough to have a death with you little —“ he said

“I don’t,”I smiled. 

Then Jake said, “This kid has been through wars already, whats a little fall?” 

I stood up and walked out into the sunshine for a moment and leaned against the doorway and looked out over the ocean. A huge container ship made its way slowly towards the huge docks that were south of us. The men started to chatter and I heard Scary Jerry say “Kid doesn’t look numb enough to have a death wish. The little —— looks calm as ——. What the —— is wrong with him?” 

Jake answered after a moment, “Kid is a special one. Works like —- but is a different breed for sure.” 

Truth was, I was scared of dying. We are all scared of dying. But more than that I was scared of dying for the wrong things. I was scared of living doing something I didn’t care about and dying for something that wasn’t worth living for. I knew I needed the work, but I vowed to leave if I ever had the chance and do something where dying wasn’t a shame, only a sacrifice. 


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