by Maggie Slater
The tower’s not without its perks. You built it yourself—brick by brick, floor by floor—without even knowing you were doing it at the time. Each room is a monument to bring you joy. You have a chef’s kitchen, with a glittering stone backsplash and an island big enough to seat six; your home gym is minimalist-chic and filled with plants; your bathroom has heated tile; and the enchanted well in the center of your tower brings up buckets of steaming latte, detox tea, or gin, depending on your mood. With the CultureVulture app, you can order anything you want and it’ll be delivered to your window within an hour by a bald-headed old buzzard who only smells a little like carrion.
If you never looked out the window at the desert all around you, dotted with towers, you could almost convince yourself that you’re happy. You know you shouldn’t need anybody but yourself; that’s what all the blogs say, and you admire those who seem truly happy on their own. But you can’t help it. You hate being alone.
From your window, as you search across the sand dunes for glinting metal, you can count almost two dozen other towers. Some are massive, thorned, and—at least from your view—windowless. Some have moats and dragons scrambling over their tiled rooftops, breathing fire back at the boiling suns. Some are fragile, drooping on unstable foundations. One wrong step from a potential lover, and both the lover and the tower will collapse in rubble.
It’s not just women who build towers, hoping someone will be brave enough, clever enough, strong enough to get inside. Men build walls as thick as anybody’s. And it’s not just men who wear armor, who dare to climb the towers and take a chance on someone they can’t even see for all the walls. Today, there are no climbers, but you’ve watched them before, their metal shells glinting in the distance as they ascend. Some succeed. Some give up. You wonder what power allows them to wander, to shape thin, protective shells around themselves instead of building a tower. Is it confidence? Or do they simply not give a damn about being hurt?
No, you don’t believe that. Several armor-wearers who have tried to scale your tower have been incredibly fragile. They got discouraged, decided against the risk, and moved on. They didn’t have what it takes to get to you.
Now your tower has spikes. You don’t even remember adding those.
A glittering catches your eye as you turn from the window, and it makes you pause. You’ve been tricked before, catching the shine from a desert trolch’s shell as it creeps across the sands, searching for water and food in any form. But no: this reflected light isn’t one of the giant insectoids. It’s armor, and he’s almost at the rocky escarpment of your tower’s foundation. Somehow, you know it’s a man by the way he walks, the breadth of shoulder, and the tilt of the helmeted head, though his face is hidden behind a visor.
Your heart skips a beat, and you wonder, almost afraid to think the words lest they somehow ward him off: is he coming for me?
You don’t want to appear desperate, so you retreat into the tower. You try to focus on work. You exercise in the gym. But you can’t focus on anything. You hoist up a bucket of chilled gin and make yourself a drink. You pace from your kitchen to your bedroom and back again, over and over, until you’re dizzy. Or maybe it’s the drink.
Should you change your clothes?
What if you look back outside, and he’s gone?
You set your glass in the sink, take a deep breath, and go to the window. At first, your heart sinks, because he’s nowhere. You half-expected this, you tell yourself. He was just passing by. And you curse yourself for getting your hopes up, even though you’d worked so hard not to let them run away from you.
But then, a clatter and a scrape make you almost jump out of your skin. He’s there! Right at the tower’s base now, testing a rotted length of rope some previous armor-wearer installed. He tilts his armored face up and catches sight of you. He waves, and your heart almost breaks trying to hold all that hope inside. You wave and smile. It’s a long way down, but you shout hello anyway. You’re not sure he can hear you, because he’s focused on the tower now, strolling from one side to the other, gauntleted fists on hips as he contemplates your creation. Is it too difficult, you wonder? Have you built up too many defenses against loneliness?
However, as the setting suns dye the sky rose red, he grasps the rope. It’s secure, it seems, and he’s scrambling up the stone face, heading for the first spike. You retreat back into your rooms, pacing again, clasping your cold fingers behind your neck as your heartbeat thunders in your ears, obscuring all sound but the occasional boot scrape.
He’s coming for you. Somehow, he saw your tower, and thought: yes. This is the one. Something, even at a great distance, made him want to know you. He’s coming for you, and all your defenses are falling apart, because you want this so, so much. You don’t dare watch him climb. It’s too frightening each time his foot slips.
So you pace, telling yourself to be calm, to think about other things, but all your mind comes back to is him. Your stomach flutters as you imagine him slinging a leg over your windowsill, stepping into your private spaces, of him seeing you—really seeing you (how long has it been since anyone has?). You imagine the heat radiating from his armor, the thick musk of his body beneath it as he stands before you, a laugh of relief rasping hollow behind his mask.
You wait, and wait, and wait, until the moon has lifted its pitted face over the desert sands. A cold wind billows out the linen drapes, and you shiver in the sudden cold. Shouldn’t he have made it by now? Dread pinches your gut, and you rush to the window, leaning out to spot him.
You hadn’t heard him fall. You hadn’t heard a crash or a cry. But now he lies facedown at the foot of the tower, motionless. You press a hand to your mouth to stifle a cry, to hold back the sudden swell of nausea as you whip away from the window and sink to the floor. The breeze chills the sweat on your brow as you suck in breath after breath, none going deep enough into your lungs to alleviate the sense of drowning in your own body. The moonlight sucks the color out of your bedroom, casting everything in shades of grey.
Far away, born on the wind, a high-pitched whistle cuts through the darkness. You’ve heard it every night for years: a trolch’s call as it shakes off its heat-induced stupor and declares its territory. You force yourself to stand and look out the window. Perhaps a couple miles away, in the moonlight, you see it dragging itself across the sand, heading for your tower. It and all the other terrible things in this desert will smell his blood and come from miles to lick it from his bones. It’s hurrying, for a trolch, and you estimate it’ll be at the body by dawn, cracking the helmeted skull open with its mandibles, antennae fluttering in anticipation. You won’t even know what he looked like, then.
The wind tugs at you, and you know every minute you wait, the desert scavengers move closer. An easy meal is too tempting. Someone ought to bury him, you think. He deserves a grave. You wish you had known his name.
No one besides you even knows he’s gone, and it’s a hundred feet down to the jagged rocks. There is another way out of the tower, but you’ve never dared to try it. Grabbing a sweater and a blanket, you make your way down to the first floor. At the bottom, in darkness the sunlight never touches, there’s an emergency exit. You assume the building code required it, though you don’t remember installing it. You stand in the EXIT sign’s sanguine light and take a deep breath. Then you throw your shoulder against the striped bar.
You expect an alarm to sound, screaming out into the empty night, betraying your exit to any tower-dwellers within earshot. But it swings open silently, and the wind snatches your breath away. You step outside, skin prickling in the cold. Across the dunes, as far as the eye can see, the lights of other towers glitter like stars. You wonder what the occupants are doing, if they’re cozy inside their protected spaces, eating over the sink or binging TV or reading in the bath or listening to old records while they study. Are they pausing, now and then, to imagine who their rescuer might be someday? Are they worried about the strength of their fortresses, or are they even now adding to them, ensuring no one will save them because no one ever could, not because no one ever wanted to try.
A whistle cuts through the night, so close it makes your head buzz. You scramble over the rocks and around the side of the tower, just as a trolch hauls itself over the escarpment. It’s bigger than the one you saw out across the sand. Its spindly legs catch in the rocky clefts as it fights its own weight and drags itself up. Its mandibles clatter with excitement as its long antennae probe towards the body.
Resentment and rage rush over you. Without thinking, you dive for the sword laying beside him, and yank the blade from its scabbard. It’s heavier than you expected, and takes effort to swing it. But as the trolch’s legs catch hold of his arm and begin to drag him towards it, you find a strength you didn’t know you possessed.
With a scream, you swing the blade down on its nearest leg. The trolch lurches, hissing, and swings at you, knocking you down, but when it turns away from you, you leap up and attack again, swinging the blade down so hard it cracks right through a limb, splattering you with green blood.
The trolch’s hissing hits a frequency that makes your teeth ache, but you swing again, right at its face. This time, it jumps back, and the weight of its shell betrays its balance. It scrabbles to keep its purchase on the rocks, but the shell drags it down, toppling it onto its back on the sand below. Its many legs flail in the air, its unprotected belly exposed. You consider jumping down to finish it, the fury inside you burning for vengeance, but across the desert, more trolches whistle. They’ll eat their wounded brother themselves, you know, and then they’ll be all over the rocks. You managed to defeat one with blind anger, you’re not so foolish as to take on a whole swarm.
You wipe the green blood from the blade and turn to where he lays. The trolch didn’t move him far. You roll him onto his back, and kneeling, place his helmeted head in your lap. You close your eyes, seeing once more how it should have been: him, standing before you in the safety of your tower, removing his helmet and wiping the sweat from his grinning face.
“At last,” he’d have said, and taken you in his arms.
The wind whips sand against your cheeks as you twist the helmet and draw it from his head. “At last,” you say, and your heart nearly tears in two. He is just as you hoped he would be. He’s a beautiful stranger, and you’ll never know if there might have come a day when he would have seemed like a part of you, when you wouldn’t be able to remember what it was like for him to be unfamiliar.
You kiss his brow and run your palm over his bristled cheek. The sky overhead has developed a pale flush where it touches the earth, and you know you don’t have much time to do what needs to be done. He’s too heavy to carry with the armor on, so you remove it and lay it out beside him. Then you bury him deep in a crack in your foundation, wrapped in your blanket, and covered with feet of soft, warm sand. You fill the crack with rocks, until you’re satisfied even a trolch won’t be able to smell him. There are three or four within sight now, their movement slowing as the suns lift above the horizon.
You pick your way back to the tower’s base. You’d intended to go back up the emergency exit, but when you get to where the door should have been, there’s only blank wall, and your stomach sinks. In your rush to protect him from the trolch, you forgot to wedge something into the frame, and now it’s closed behind you, locking you out. You could try to climb back up, but from down here your tower is a giant middle finger extending up towards the sky, impenetrable and defiant.
As the suns break over the horizon, filling the sky with fire, you walk back to the armor. You kneel beside it, lifting the helmet in your hands, peering through the slats in the visor. It is warm, and though you know it’s warmed by the suns, not still warm from his body, somehow it feels like he’s with you, in a way. You lift the helmet onto your head, and are surprised to find it fits, as though it were always meant to be yours.
Piece by piece, you clad yourself in armor, slip the sword back into its scabbard, and face the rising suns. Any other morning, you would be leaning against your windowsill, latte in hand, peering out at the other towers and wondering if today might be the day someone came for you. Yesterday was that day. But today, you will search, and maybe, someday, you will find.