The Height



August 1980



It was a very impressive thunder storm--lightning in a strobe effect across the sky, tympani crashes of thunder keeping time with the light. A bright flash and a jarring crash brought the entire family out into the hallway in alarm. Kelly screamed at the sound, and as for Peter, he was none too steady, either.

Thunderstorms had been hard for him since the temple--the sound and the flashes reminded him too much of the explosions. During a thunderstorm, Peter's instinctive reaction was to hide under the covers and shiver.

Or run.

From the window in the Blaisdells' bedroom, they could see the tree which had been hit. It was split in two smoldering pieces and part of it lay on the roof of the house. Paul threw on a jacket while Annie called the fire department. Paul was back inside minutes later, soaking wet, saying that the tree had also taken the power line down and a large cable was arcing on the driveway.

The fire department and the electric company both arrived minutes later, and together they dealt with the tree and the cable. Electricity, the family was informed, would probably not be restored until sometime in the morning.

Eventually, the crisis passed, as did the storm. And in the blessed silence which followed, the Blaisdell family finally went back to bed.

Power was still out in the morning when, after a breakfast of cold cereal, Paul told Peter they needed to see what damage had been done to the roof by the storm. Peter pulled on his sneakers and followed his foster father outside.

Paul was standing at the side of the house, looking up. "There's a lot of debris up there," he commented. "And we'll need to get someone in to take care of the rest of this tree." The tree's--carcass--was lying across the driveway. "The sooner the better--we can't get the car out until we do. Well," he sighed, "come on, help me with the ladder."

Peter frowned. "What are you going to do?"

"We've got to go up there and see if any shingles were damaged, and pull all that crap off the roof. Come on." He turned and went into the garage.

Peter froze. Going up--on a roof? The thought of it made him shiver, made his stomach do flip-flops.

"Come on, Peter, hurry up," Paul called and Peter swallowed. He couldn't tell Paul how scared he was of heights--he just couldn't. It was bad enough Paul knew he had nightmares. If he learned about this, too--well, then he really would think Peter was crazy. Or worse--think he was a wimp, a sissy. He couldn't let that happen. So he took a deep breath and went into the garage to help his foster father.

They got the ladder set up against the side of the house, extended to its full height. It reached to the lowest part of the roof, but most of the mess rested on the sloped surface which jutted far beyond the ladder's reach. They had to climb the rest of the way on the roof itself. Peter got to the top of the ladder and froze, suddenly unsure if he could go on. There was nothing to hold onto, and it was so high up....

"Peter, come on," Paul called to him, "I need your help here." His foster father was above him, crouched on the roof, and he extended a hand to him. So Peter took a deep breath and stepped off the ladder and onto the roof.

He wobbled his first couple of steps, then Paul told him, "Crawl up on your hands and knees, if that helps." So Peter dropped to his knees and crawled on all fours to where Paul was waiting for him. When he got to the spot where Paul was waiting, he swallowed and sat down.

"You ever been on a roof before?" Paul asked. He shook his head. "Well, it takes some getting used to, but you're doing fine. Just take it slow and steady." Peter looked up at him. He was smiling kindly at him, and Peter had to smile, too. He nodded. "Good," Paul went on. "Come on."

They moved across the roof to where the worst of the debris had accumulated.

"Here," Paul began, grabbing the end of a branch. "Help me with this stuff. Toss the little branches over the edge. The big stuff, just drag to the edge and we'll lower it down later."

"Right," Peter managed. He was still facing the roof, not yet daring to look around. His father's words came back to him: Small fears drag at the soul. You must conquer them or they will control you. So with a deep breath, he started picking up the debris and tossing it off the edge as Paul had instructed.

It was slow, tedious work, made even slower by the cautious way Peter moved on the roof. But eventually, though it didn't become easy, it became slightly less terrifying. Peter put himself in a focused state of mind--concentrate only on the branches, forget about the roof.

It may have been this state of mind which made him careless. It may simply have been a mis-step; Peter was never sure afterwards. He had worked his way up the slope, tossing branches, when one branch seemed to overbalance him. He stumbled and caught a glimpse of the ground beneath him, and felt the dizziness swamp over him. He lost his footing and turned around, hoping to drop back to his knees, but he couldn't grab hold of anything. His feet went out from under him and he was sliding inexorably toward the edge of the roof. He heard a scream, only distantly realizing it was his own. And he heard Paul's cry of "Peter!"

Time contracted and expanded, each millisecond sharper than the last. It felt like he fell forever, but his foot eventually touched something and the slide stopped. He didn't dare move--he couldn't have moved even if his life had depended on it. He was terrified--petrified--hanging onto the side of the roof desperately, eyes pinched tight so as not to see the fearful image of the ground so far below him.

"Hang on, Peter," he heard Paul call to him. "Hang on." Peter had no intention of doing anything else. "Here, give me your hand."

He felt Paul above him on the roof, probably reaching for him. But he couldn't move; he was frozen with fear. "I-I--can't-"

"Come on, take my hand," Paul repeated.

"I can't--" he gasped. "I'm afraid--I can't--I can't--"

"Yes you can. Come on, just give me your hand."

"No--I'll fall--"

There was a pause. "All right, I'll come get you."

Peter hung there on the roof for what felt like an eternity, but eventually he felt something near his feet.

"Okay, Peter, the ladder's right behind you. Can you climb down?" Paul called up to him.

"I can't let go--I'll fall," he answered. He was starting to shake from the effort of holding himself so still.

"All right, hang on." There was the sound of footsteps on the metal rungs, and then he felt Paul's hands on his leg. "There, I've got you. You can't fall now; come on--let go. It's okay, Peter, I've got you, you're safe--come on, let go." Paul's even, steady voice soothed Peter's jangled nerves, and slowly, he let go, letting Paul guide him back to the ladder and down. His foster father kept a hand on him the whole time, helping him down the ladder, speaking gently to him, coaxing him along.

"Okay, sport--three more steps, come on--two--last one. There you go--solid ground."

Peter gasped out a breath, relieved to be down off the roof. Paul put his arms around him, hugging him close. "It's all right, son, it's over."

Peter was shaking with reaction, then suddenly everything tensed. He pulled away and threw up in the bushes. Paul kept a hand on his back while he vomited, then once Peter's stomach decided to join the rest of his body, Paul said, "Let's get you inside."

He straightened and Paul led him into the house. Annie was just inside the door. "What happened?" she asked.

"Had a little accident, but we're all right now. I want to get him cleaned up, babe, I'll talk to you in a couple of minutes." Paul marched him straight into the downstairs bathroom.

The trembling hadn't let up--if anything, Peter was shaking worse now. Paul quickly and efficiently inspected Peter's scraped up hands and arms, washing and putting antiseptic on them. Then he did the same with the scrape on his jaw, and the abrasions on his stomach, where his t-shirt had been pushed up as he skidded down the shingles. "This will sting," he cautioned. To be honest, Peter barely felt the sting--he was still overwhelmed by his near-brush with death, and the terror of the height.

Paul put his hands on Peter's shoulders, stroking the cords in his neck. "It's private in here, kid--you think you want to let go now?" But Peter just shook his head jerkily. If he let go now, he'd shatter into a million pieces. It was bad enough Paul had seen this horrible weakness in him--he wasn't going to compound the problem.

"You'll live," his foster father said finally. "How's your ankle?"

Peter didn't understand the question. Maybe he'd hurt his ankle when he fell--he didn't remember. "Okay," he managed.

Paul stroked a hand over his hair. "Why don't you go upstairs and get changed," he said gently. Peter nodded and Paul opened the bathroom door. Peter bolted for the stairs, running upstairs to his room. Running toward sanctuary. He felt a minor pain in his ankle, but ignored it. All he cared about was getting by himself--so he could fall apart without anybody seeing him. So he could disintegrate in private. He closed his bedroom door, flopped on the bed, and let the tears come.



~~~~~



"What happened, Paul?" Annie asked him when he came out of the bathroom. "Is Peter all right?"

"Yeah, I think so. He slipped on the roof; scared the daylights out of himself--and me. He's not reacting well to it--threw up as soon as I got him back down."

"Is he hurt?"

"Scraped up, and he may have jarred his ankle. But it's nothing major. Mostly it's just reaction to the fall. He was terrified--too petrified to move."

"Oh, my poor baby," she said, turning toward the stairs. His hand on her shoulder stopped her.

"Let him be for a little bit, babe," he said. "He refused to let it out when he was in the privacy of the bathroom with me. Let him deal with it on his own."

"Won't that be worse, letting him dwell on it?"

"No, he needs the privacy right now. He was petrified up there, but I think he was mortified as well--embarrassed that he should be so scared. And he was definitely upset about his lack of control when he came back down. He needs to deal with that by himself first."

She chewed on her lip uncertainly. "I wish I could help him..." she said.

"I know, but he needs his space right now. Look, I'm gonna call someone to get rid of that tree, then I've got to go back up and finish the job. If he hasn't come down by the time I'm done, we'll deal with it then."

She sighed. "All right. But be careful up there, darling. We've already lost one today; I don't want to lose anybody else. How does it look?"

"A mess, but not as bad as I'd feared. It doesn't look like there's any damage to the roof itself. Though I'll need to check that piece of gutter that stopped Peter's slide--he was supporting most of his weight on it." He leaned in and kissed her. "I'll be back in as soon as I can. Any word about the power?"

"Not a thing--at least not yet."

"Well, it's still early. If we don't hear anything by this afternoon, I'll call and nag them."

She smiled and patted his shoulder affectionately, and Paul went to make his phone call.



~~~~~



Two hours later, the roof was as clean as it was getting. Paul's next door neighbor, John Haberman, had come over to lend a hand, and between the two of them, they got the worst of the debris off the roof, and the largest branches piled on the parkway waiting for the trash man to tote them away. The emergency forestry crew had arrived and were in the process of chopping up the old dead tree. Paul told them to leave the large logs out in the back behind the deck--later on he'd hire someone to break them down into fireplace logs, thus saving himself the cost of a cord this winter. If the damn tree had to go, at least they could get something useful out of it.

Like many summer days after a storm, this one was hot, sunny and steamy, and Paul was glad, when he finally came inside, that the power had been restored an hour or so previously. Annie had shut up the house and turned on the air conditioning, in part to cool off a house too long without electricity, and in part to keep the cacophony of the chainsaw down to a dull roar. Paul went straight upstairs to clean up, then stopped by Peter's room, which was empty.

He came downstairs and found Annie in the kitchen, washing up the dishes that couldn't be washed this morning.

"Where's Peter?" he asked, kissing her cheek.

"In the family room," she answered. "The TV's on, but somehow I don't think he's watching it. I think it's just on for the noise. He came down about twenty minutes ago, but when I asked him how he was, he mumbled okay, and couldn't get away from me fast enough. He's still upset about what happened."

"Mmmm," Paul mused. While he'd been working on the roof, he'd been thinking about what had happened, and realized that Peter had been petrified the whole time he'd been up there, but had struggled not to show it. It could be that his reaction hadn't just been to the fall, but to a deep-seated fear of heights, something Peter hadn't wanted to admit to. He needed to talk to the boy about it. But if Peter had gone sullen on them again, it might take a little coaxing to get him to come out of his shell.

He went to the refrigerator and pulled out a cold can of beer, opening it and taking a swig; there was nothing quite like a cold beer on a hot day. An idea came to him, and he headed into the family room.

Peter was sitting on the couch, his legs tucked up under his chin as he stared unseeing at the TV. He'd changed into a clean t-shirt and shorts, and with his bare legs, looked even more coltish than usual. Paul smiled. The kid would be quite a heartbreaker when he was older, but right now he still had the gawkiness of adolescence about him.

He walked across the room and sat down next to Peter, not too surprised when his foster son made no move to acknowledge his presence. Peter was in a good sulk--it would take some careful handling to bring him out of it.

Paul handed the him the can of beer. "Here," he said. Peter raised his head and looked at him. "Go on," he coaxed, "drink it."

The skeptical hazel eyes narrowed as Peter looked from the can to Paul and back again. But he reached for it and took a swallow. He grimaced as the sharp carbonation hit, then said, "That's not too bad."

Paul smiled. "It's an acquired taste, but no, it's not too bad at all."

Peter held the can out to him and he took it, having another swig before giving it back.

"You doing any better?" he asked. Peter just ducked his head, as if afraid of answering. He shrugged and hunched further over his knees.

Paul licked his lips, trying to decide the best way to approach this. Peter's "no trespassing" signs were 20 feet high and painted in neon. He took a deep breath.

"What happened up there? Just lose your balance?" Again that ambiguous shrug. Paul was beginning to think he'd just found the one part of Peter that was Chinese--his inscrutability. He tried again.

"Peter, there's no shame in taking a fall; it can happen to anyone." Still no response. "Or," Paul added, "is it what happened after you slipped that's got you upset?"

Peter's head came up and he stared at his foster father a moment before looking away again. He took another drink of the beer.

"I let you down," he mumbled.

"It's all right," Paul told him. "John Haberman came over and helped me finish up." He looked carefully at his foster son. "Peter, why didn't you tell me you were afraid of heights? If you'd said something, you wouldn't have had to go up--we would have worked something else out."

"I thought I could handle it!" Peter blurted. "It's such a dumb thing to be scared of, I thought I could just ignore it. But I looked down and lost my balance."

The kid looked so miserable, Paul felt sorry for him. He wanted to make it better for him, but didn't know how. "Have you always been afraid of heights?" he asked.

Peter nodded. "My father used to say that it was a little fear to be conquered. But it never felt little to me. I thought--" he swallowed, "I thought I could handle it. I--I didn't want you to be disappointed in me."

"Peter--kid, I'm not disappointed in you, whatever gave you that idea?"

"I'm scared of so many things," he cried. "I have nightmares, I hate thunderstorms, --and-and now this. I've been nothing but trouble for you, and now I can't even help out when you ask me to."

"You haven't been any more trouble than we were expecting," Paul told him. "All those things, they're just us learning about each other. We knew there would be rough spots, that was never even in question. And you do help out; you do things around the house, you help Mom, that's especially welcome. But Peter, being afraid of things is nothing to be ashamed of. Everybody has fears. Everybody has things they're afraid of."

"Not like mine," Peter mumbled.

"Maybe not exactly like yours, though fear of heights is one of the most common. But just as significant to the people who have them."

Peter was silent, thinking. "Are you afraid of anything?" he asked quietly.

"Of course. Everybody is. Sometimes you learn to deal with it, sometimes you avoid situations where you'll be afraid. For example, I don't like the dark. I can cope, if I have to, but total dark makes me very uncomfortable. Fortunately, Annie doesn't mind if there's light, so it's never been a problem. I just leave the curtains open in the bedroom, and the streetlight is enough for me." He took a sip of the beer, then leaned over and said in a low voice, "And you know what I'm really afraid of--what I really can't stand?"

Peter looked at him questioningly. "What?"

"Bugs. Creepy, crawly things, especially spiders." He shuddered, partly involuntarily, because he really couldn't stand the things, and partly for effect. "I absolutely hate spiders."

The tactic worked. Peter smiled. "Spiders don't bother me," he said matter-of-factly.

"Good," Paul answered. "Then the next time we find a spider in the house, you can kill it."

"Okay," Peter agreed, sounding relieved that there was something he could do to help--something he wasn't afraid of. Then he got a quirky little half-smile on his face. "As long as it's not up high."

Paul laughed and put an arm around him, ruffling his hair. The immediate crisis was past, Peter would get over his current fear and they'd go on.

Peter sighed, taking another swig from the beer can. The tension was slowly leaving his body, as evidenced by the fact that he unknotted his legs from their curl and stretched them out in front of him. "It's just that--well, I've been so much trouble for you since I moved in--you know, having trouble fitting in, and everything--the nightmares and not understanding things, and--well, you know, what happened over the 4th. I just didn't want it to seem like oh great, here's another thing this kid can't do. Like maybe--you were starting to think maybe this wasn't such a good idea?"

Paul smiled and stroked Peter's hair gently, a gesture to calm him down. "We'd never think that, Peter. We told you when you came to stay, it was for good. Any problems we have, we'll deal with them."

"I know, but--there's been so much--"

"It's still early tw\\yet; you haven't even been here a couple of months. Things will settle down eventually. But when you look at it like that, you really have been having a rough summer, haven't you, kid?"

Peter cocked his head, thinking, then got a little smile on his face, a little smile that grew as he spoke. "Are you kidding? I'm having the best summer ever."

Paul chuckled and hugged his foster son, grateful that for all the rough spots, for all his fears, Peter was happier now than he'd been in a very long time. That's what this was all about, helping Peter, giving him the love and the support--the family that he needed. If, in spite of everything that had happened, Peter could still claim to be having a great time, then all the uncertainty and the worry were worth it.

Peter passed him the beer can and he took another sip, then passed it back and Peter finished it up. "Can we have another one?" he asked.

Paul laughed. "Not right now. And don't expect them on a regular basis, understood? They're still off-limits in the refrigerator. But sometimes, when I say so, you can have one."

Peter nodded, fidgeting with the empty can, denting it. "Too bad it's empty," he said, "it felt good on my hands."

"Do they hurt?" Paul picked up one of Peter's hands and turned it over, looking at the red, raw skin.

"They sting--the cold felt good."

"Why don't you ask Mom for an ice pack? She'll want to see them anyway."

Peter sighed. "I guess." He slid to a vertical position and headed to the kitchen. Peter never liked admitting weakness, but it was always less embarrassing, somehow, admitting it to Annie. Paul smiled as he heard Peter's voice say, "Mom? Paul said I should show you my hands--maybe get an ice pack for them?"

"Come here, honey, let's take a look."

So, another crisis diverted. At least for another day. Paul smiled to himself, pleased with the way he'd handled the situation. Maybe he was finally getting the hang of being a father to a son. Or maybe he just got lucky. It didn't matter; whatever it was, it worked. He decided to reward himself with another beer, especially since he hadn't actually drunk most of the last one.

When he walked into the kitchen, Peter and Annie were in the downstairs bathroom, tending Peter's wounds.



Chapter 8: The Young Man And The Sea

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