(This is my entry for the first round of NYC Midnight's 2019 Flash Fiction Challenge. I had 48 hours to come up with a 1,000 word story based on their prompts: Action-Adventure, a ravine, and a bag of money. This story finished third in my group of thirty, so I'm pretty happy with it.)
Reginald Reynolds had done this a thousand times before. A garish teal and gold outfit, a pair of thin suede-soled slippers, a 26-foot balance pole and a braided wire tightrope.
The stakes were higher this time. A thousand onlookers. Live network television. No safety wire or net. And about 4,000 feet between him and the bottom of Coal Cutter Ravine, eight times as high as he’d ever walked before.
At the other end of the tightrope, among the helicopters and ambulances and EMTs that would spring into action should he misstep, a literal six-foot tall bag filled with one million dollars, complete with a giant dollar sign and armed guards. His for the taking if he reached the other side of the ravine in one piece.
“Good God, that’s cheesy. What are you, a cartoon bank robber?”
“Shut up, Ramon.”
Ramon is the name that Reggie gave his inner voice, one that started as an imaginary friend, guiding him through childhood and puberty and his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s cancer. Lately, however, Ramon had transitioned into inner demon territory, a bitter and malevolent repository for increasingly dark thoughts.
“So this is what your life’s work has become. A death-defying freak show. You do realize that most of the people here are waiting for you to fall?”
Reggie ignored Ramon, venturing further from the ravine’s northern edge, trying to concentrate on keeping his weight over his legs and keeping his eyes on the rope.
“Why not give the people what they want?”
In his peripheral vision, Reggie saw movement coming toward him from below. An unkindness of ravens enveloped him, erupting in shrill caws as they flew past. Distracted, Reggie felt the heel of his left foot slip, breaking the angular inertia that kept him upright. Acting on instinct, Reggie hastily but effortlessly tilted the pole 55 degrees to the left, causing gasps from the crowd but equalizing torque and restoring balance.
Reggie’s heart galloped as he froze on the wire, waiting for his breathing to return to normal. His left eyelid started twitching.
“Goddamn birds,” Reggie muttered under his breath.
“What birds?”, replied Ramon. “Ravens don’t live in this ravine. That was just your psyche going all Edgar Allen Poe on you.”
Reggie looked around. No birds in sight.
“What are you doing to me, Ramon?”
“Nothing that you aren’t already doing to yourself.”
Reggie caught his breath and resumed the performance.
He was directly over the center of the ravine now.
“C’mon Reggie, what are we doing here? Your heart hasn’t been in this since Esme left you and took Alex with her. You’re sleeping less, you’re drinking more. And you know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“I am NOT my father!”
“If you say so.”
“And a million dollars will help fix a lot.”
“Will it? One third will go to taxes, another third to Esme and Alex. You’ll get just enough to go back to your ranch and drink yourself to death alone. Is that how the story of Reginald the Great ends?”
“And what’s your bright idea, Ramon? Suicide?”
“Not suicide, Reggie. A spectacular accident that will make you the most famous performer since Harry Houdini.”
“So suicide, then.”
“Look. You finish this walk and your name is on the lips of every talk show host for a day or two. You fall, and you’ll rule news cycles for the next month. You might even make the ‘In Memoriam’ montage in every network’s ‘Year in Review’.”
“And then what?”
“And then it’s over, Reggie. No more painful, lonely days wondering what could have been with Esme and Alex. No more crawling into a bottle every night. No more long, sad march into oblivion.”
Reggie did what he could to block out Ramon’s taunts. The southern edge of the ravine was within two dozen steps now.
“Reggie, I’ve always looked out for you. This is the best way. I swear it won’t hurt. You’ll be flying for a few fleeting seconds. And then, finally, peace. Just close your eyes and imagine it. That’s all I ask.”
Reggie did close his eyes for a moment. He pictured it. He felt the long, graceful fall. He saw his body at the bottom of the ravine. He glanced across his casket to see Esme and Alex in tears at the funeral. He scoured the newspaper tributes describing how the daring Reginald Reynolds died doing what he loved, with condolences tweeted by everyone from the President to Ellen DeGeneres.
An ear-piercing scream from the crowd brought him back.
Ramon had tricked him. Reggie was losing his toehold on the tightrope.
In an instant, he was falling. Extending both arms toward the cable, Reggie managed to clasp his right hand around the braided wire. Ignoring the intense friction burn of the metal, he reached his left hand up and used every ounce of his strength and a good dose of adrenaline to swing his legs up and over the rope. As he hung upside down, he saw the balance pole glancing off the side of the ravine as it fell.
“Not today, Ramon.”
There was no response. Ramon was gone.
One of the EMTs broke the silence. ”Mister Reynolds, are you alright?”
Reggie maneuvered himself back into place on the wire. Without his pole, he would have to finish the walk before he lost his footing again.
Left foot right foot left foot right foot left foot right foot jump!
The cheers erupting from the crowd told him he’d made it. As he landed, Reggie fell to all fours and kissed the ground.
It his signature move, one he’d done a thousand times before.
But this time, it felt like hope.