What the hell? Mallory wondered.
“Accountability isn't worth a dime without courage,” Hunter told them. “You need courage to remove yourself from your old patterns; to tell your so-called friends to take a hike; to face the people back in the real world and convince them you aren't the worthless heap of self-pity you were when you came into this program. We will see if you've got courage, ladies and gentlemen. You will not leave Black Level until you know that nothing—NOTHING—can test you worse than I can test you.”
Mallory's ears were ringing. Did he say leave Black Level?
Hunter finished fitting the straps and hooks around Leyland's chest, then Leyland started putting a similar harness on Hunter. The black levels stood there, watching—like this was normal, standing outside in the icy rain in the middle of the night watching your instructors tie each other up.
It dawned on Mallory that the gear was some kind of climbing equipment—and her excitement turned to apprehension. Courage was something she knew she didn't have. If she'd had courage, she never would've wound up here. She would've figured out a way to help Race.
Your so-called friends.
Leyland finished putting the harness on Dr. Hunter. They double-checked each other's straps.
“Now,” Hunter told them. “In partners with your counselor. The job you do may be the difference between life and death. Do it right.”
Olsen came up to her—tossed her a harness. “After you, kiddo.”
Mallory did her best to fit Olsen. Her hands felt numb, the straps sluggish going into the metal buckles. Olsen's clothes were as wet and cold as her own, smelling faintly of sweat and campfire smoke.
One of the instructors yelled, “You don't want to be last! You DO NOT want to be last!”
“Doing fine,” Olsen assured her. “I won't bite you.”
Mallory got the last strap secured around Olsen's thigh.
Olsen checked her work, grimaced. She lifted a strap Mallory had forgotten to fasten. Mallory's face burned with embarrassment, but she finished the job.
Olsen picked up the other harness and started weaving it around Mallory's torso—tugging hard on the straps, making them tight around the shoulders, like she'd done this a million times before.
They weren't the last ones finished. Bridges took forever getting his counselor hooked up. But finally, everybody fell into line.
“Too slow,” Hunter told the group. “Let's make up for lost time.”
Leyland blew his whistle and led them on a run—down the familiar path to the river, rain spiking in their faces, kids slipping in the mud, instructors yelling. Just like old times.
They passed the obstacle course, the Mushroom Rocks, and then came to the banks of the river.
The whole forest was lit up fluorescent silver, striped with rain.
Floodlights burned in the branches of two enormous cypress trees, one on either side of the river. Strung between their trunks, maybe forty feet in the air, were three thin cables like power lines. Below this the river raged, swollen and glistening like an enormous, melting slug.
“That bridge,” Hunter yelled over the growl of the rapids, “is the only way across.”
What bridge? Mallory started to ask. And then she realized Hunter meant the ropes.
All her confidence drained out of her.
“There is no going back,” Hunter continued. “You will be here until you make it across—if that means tonight, or a week, or the rest of your life. So watch and learn.”
Hunter tossed Leyland a safety helmet.
Leyland put it on, clipped himself to a climbing rope, and Hunter took the other end.
“This is the belay,” Hunter told them. “This is your lifeline. I will not do this for you. I will not catch you if you fall. You and your counselor will spot each other. So pay attention.”
Leyland began climbing handholds Mallory hadn't even noticed before—knobs no bigger than drawer handles going all the way up the trunk of the cypress.
He ascended effortlessly. At the top he stepped onto a tiny platform—just a couple of boards nailed between the base of two branches. He hooked himself to a new line, dropped the climbing rope, then started over the rope bridge—his feet on the bottom cord, hands on the middle, a safety line tied to the top. He shimmied his way across the river, to a platform in the opposite tree.
Mallory no longer felt the cold. She no longer felt the thousand pounds of rain soaking into her clothes. Her mouth was dry and hot as beach sand.
I can't do that.
She had always been scared of heights. She couldn't even look out the windows of Race's grandmother's apartment. Now she was certain she was going to fall and die.
“One pair at a time,” Hunter said. “Your counselor will spot you. Then you'll return the favor. Volunteers?”
No one spoke.
“Zedman and Olsen,” Hunter decided. “Thank you.”
Mallory's eyes widened. “I didn't—”
But Olsen was already stepping up to the tree.
A white level explained the belay gear. He told Mallory she would be climbing first.
“No,” she said. “Not first, please.”
The white level frowned, started to repeat the order.
“It's okay,” Olsen interceded. “I'm ready to climb.”
Mallory didn't like the idea of holding Olsen's lifeline any more than she liked climbing. How the hell could Olsen trust her, after everything she had done? Her shoulder couldn't be fully healed from the stab wound Mallory had given her. But Olsen didn't act scared.
The white level fitted Olsen's helmet, hooked her to the line and made sure it was secure. He showed Mallory how to wrap the belay cord around her waist. Mallory would be responsible for spotting Olsen as she went up, taking up the slack, making sure she didn't fall. Then Olsen would spot for her, from the top platform. Simple.
Right, simple, Mallory thought. We're both going to die.
Olsen said, “Belay on?”
“On belay,” Mallory said.
“No,” Dr. Hunter chastised. “You got her life in your hands, girl. Say it like you mean it.”
“Climbing,” Olsen called.
“Climb on!” Mallory said.
Mallory watched her ascend, even more swiftly than Leyland had. Soon, she was at the top, reversing the ropes so she could hold belay for Mallory.
There was no way Olsen would be able to stop her falling, holding her rope from way up there. The platform and Olsen looked so tiny.
Mallory got hooked up, stepped to the tree. This would be a good time to wake up, she thought.
She yelled that she was climbing, heard Olsen's distant voice shouting back to climb on.
Mallory got ahold of a slippery knob, pulled herself up. She tried putting her foot sideways on the footholds, pushing with her legs. That worked pretty well. About five feet up, she slipped and banged against the slippery wet bark of the tree, but she didn't fall. She just dangled. Olsen had taken up the slack.
Mallory found a foothold and continued climbing.
Her progress was maddeningly slow. Her fingers ached, her forearms burned. The strap of the safety helmet cut under her chin. There was nothing but tree trunk and rain and the unforgiving floodlights in her eyes. Her vision telescoped to the smallest details—canyon patterns in the bark, the gray plastic half-moon of the next handle, the blood seeping from the cut on her right hand. After a million years, she reached the base of the platform; she hauled herself up next to Olsen.
“Good job,” Olsen told her. “Excellent.”
She was trembling, and Olsen's praise made her want to sob like a baby. She hooked herself to a new line, then lowered the climbing rope to the ground.
Looking down made her stomach spin—the other black levels the size of dolls, their heads all bent upward, watching her.
The platform seemed to shift under her. She grabbed Olsen's leg.
“You're not slipping,” Olsen promised. “It's vertigo.”
“I'm going to die. I can't do this.”
“Yeah, you can,” Olsen said.
“I'm scared of heights.”
“You're connected to the cowstail. You'll be fine.” Olsen pointed to the rope bridge—the small top wire that ran above the bottom two. It was red, and impossibly thin, and Mallory's lifeline was now connected to it.
“Cross slowly,” Olsen instructed her. “Small movements. Slide across, don't step. If you slip, you'll just hang there. Take your time getting back up. You saw the ropes take Leyland's weight. They'll take yours.”
“Christ, have you done this before?”
“Counting tonight?” Olsen asked. “Once.”
“Language,” Olsen warned her.
“Language? I'm about to die here and you tell me ‘language'?”
“Let's go. I'll help you up.”
Mallory knew her fingers were leaving permanent gouge marks on Olsen's arms, but Olsen didn't complain.
She coaxed Mallory to the platform edge, said encouraging things Mallory couldn't even register as words, and somehow got her to step out over nothing.
“Good!” Olsen said. “Slow—just take it slow.”
The rain was worse now—needling her face, reducing her vision to nothing. She slid one foot out on the bottom rope. The feeling was like a trampoline, only worse. Every vibration in the line was an earthquake.
She knew the others were watching her—the black levels, Olsen, Leyland, Hunter.
Mallory wanted to do well. She took another step, exhaled, the cord cutting into her soles.
“Good!” Olsen told her. “Your right hand. Just slide it out a little. Now the left.”
Mallory measured her progress by inches, memorizing the feel of the cord, the braid pattern under her hands. Olsen's voice was the only thing keeping her heart beating.
About halfway across, just when she was feeling like she might make it, she stepped wrong. The rope slipped from under her foot and the world did a mad pirouette on a floodlight. Mallory found herself hanging, unable to find the lines, the river twisting and churning below, hungrily waiting to swallow her.
She was too terrified even to scream.
“It's okay!” Olsen shouted. “It's okay. The foot line is right next to you.”
“Right hand. Extend it.”
Mallory tried, but she was still swaying in the void. Her hand found nothing but air and rain. She saw Olsen on the platform above her. Then the rope turned and Mallory was looking at Leyland in the opposite tree, his face stern. He was gesturing for her to come on.
Mallory extended her hand again, found a cord.
“Good!” Olsen yelled. “Now slowly—take your time. Put—”
There was a sound like Velcro ripping, and Mallory dropped a millimeter, the pit of her stomach threatening to yank out the bottom of her shoes.
“What—what was that?” she yelled.
Olsen's voice—for a terrible half second—wasn't there.
“Mallory, other hand,” she called, the new urgency in her voice making Mallory's joints freeze. “Both hands on the line. Now.”
Mallory tried, but her arms wouldn't obey her. The rain stung her eyes. She swung and saw Leyland, his face now pale.
“Mallory!” Olsen shouted again. “You need to get back up.”