Most people thought to avoid the stairs, they said the steps went on forever. An endless string of creaking boards, spiraling up the tower like a fraying strand of dna. One step forward feels like a thousand steps backward, climbing this eternal tower.
It’s quite a view, standing prominent in the center of town; visible even from my cabin perched on the sloping hills in the distance. Back straight and head held high, never flinching as bombs rained down upon us. The stone feels frozen under my touch as I run a single finger along the ancient walls. Not a single engraving marks the walls, no one daring to spoil something so flawless.
A lone firefly, wandering away from the rest of the light, leads my way. Flickering and disappearing around the monotonous corkscrew floors. It bobs up and down a few feet ahead, looking close enough to reach out and touch. To clasp inside my slender hands until I find a suitable glass jar, one that I could set on my nightstand to bring me light throughout the night. But only a small movement causes it to flit away from me in the blink of an eye, possible one second and impossible the next.
Just like our victory in this war, it’s a fleeting thing. Becoming only a dream as our people’s once-strong faith gives way to hopelessness.
The air thins and the ice starts to bite at my rosy cheeks as the steps tick higher and higher. As memories race through my mind, giving the sensation one might have standing on the fringe of a road, a drop escapes from my frozen eyelashes. My short breaths start to haze the air in front of me, creating a fog to conceal my tears.
--- ✧ Moving forward.
-------- ✧ Another single step.
------------- ✧ Ignoring the shadows.
------------------- ✧ Only one step at a time.
I’ve almost reached the top of the tower now. When the staircase ends, another limitless ladder appears in front of me. I place one oversized black boot on the first ring and test my weight on the wavering wood. It bends a little under my foot, but I continue on upward. The bare skin of my hands becomes numb as I start to grip slippery ice. More than a few times, my feet begin to slip on the sleek bars, giving me barely enough time to catch myself. I don’t want to look down, to see how far the fall will be, instead, I fix my eyes on the growing light at the top of the trapdoor.
✼ ---- Hand, foot, hand, foot. ----- ✼
✼ ------ Distance dwindling. ----- ✼
✼ - Moonlight glimmering above. - ✼
At the final minute, my hands reach the top and I pull myself onto the roof. Another silhouette waits for me above, starlight illuminating his wiry figure. His eyes are flushed and weary, not having slept in days. A sign that he, like the rest of us, is kept awake by the ghosts that now haunt our homes.
With no need for words, we settle down on the blanket layed on the stone, watching the lights over the old balcony in the clouds. After a few silent seconds pass, a glowing streak of light darts across the sooty canvas.
A shooting star.
A window of opportunity, to make one wish. For the spirits living among the night sky to finally listen, instead of ignoring my pleading voice. I sometimes wonder how they can stand to watch us from the sky, and do nothing to save us from our loss.
“I wish for him to come back, to hold me again with a beating heart,” I whisper to the night, begging them to notice how quickly my faith is fading.
Lukas shifts to face me, solemnly taking in my unrequited hope.
“They pronounced him dead over a year ago, Kiera, you can’t wait for the impossible.”
“You don’t know that he’s not still alive out there. Shivering in the cold and looking up at the same moon as us,” my voice breaks a little as Lukas watches me carefully, “Waiting for the day he can make it home.”
“Death is a hard thing to accept for us all,” he whispers, moving closer to wrap a blanket around my trembling shoulders. The icy wind continues to pester me, making old wounds so much more painful.
“He can’t be dead. Not now, not when he had so much left to do. He can’t leave me alone in this place.”
“You’re not alone, Kiera”
“You can’t replace him,” I whisper, shaking my head quickly back and forth, “No one can replace him.”
We’re silent for another minute, listening to the buzzing sound of the insects around us.
“I want to be yours,” he says quietly, “For when the nights are dark and the days fill with ashes. I’ll always love you underneath the stars.”
I can’t find any words, so I stare out into the remains of what was once our magnificent city. Where two people lived and loved without fear of the fire around them. Inseparable until the sharp blade of war cut them apart.
“When will you let yourself love me?” he asks, trying to meet my glistening eyes.
“I can’t think about that now. I can’t possibly see past the ruins around us.”
“Maybe when the fire that lights up our homes is extinguished?”
“That isn’t happening any time soon. This is war, Lukas, and there’s no simple end to the misery. Only more and more deaths piling up beneath this tower,” even as I say these words, it feels as if the reality is suffocating.
“Possibly when his death stops consuming you?”
“Another word for never,” my voice is nearly lost in the sweeping breeze, but I know the words weren’t lost to him.
I know Lukas is looking toward my future, one that could be spent by his side, but I can’t help but be stuck in the past. Forever immersed in vivid recollections of the one that meant the most to me. The one that kept me warm on the coldest nights and read me whispered tales in the candlelight. The one that’s forever was shorter than any of us expected.
Lukas is silent after that, not asking me the question again, the question he hasn’t stopped asking me these days. I know he hasn't given up hope, not that easily, he’s only waiting for another night. Perhaps one similar to this one, where two old friends meet atop a colossal tower to discuss their past and future under the moonlight.
For now, I’ll let the walls of this hundred-foot tower shelter me from the damage, keeping my heart safe behind its unforgiving stone door. Standing tall above me, as the flames burn through everything I have ever known.
Because I know that even when what was once our town is turned to dust, the tower will be standing.
Taller than ever.