Tower on the Horizon

By Ellis Hastings

The man opened his eyes and saw a vast landscape covered in sand sprawled out before him like a maze. His name is Charles Fletcher. He is a fifty-four-year-old doctor from the big apple. The last thing Doctor Fletcher could remember was being on an African Safari with his son, Cody. Everything past that memory was just black. Now that he was awake, he began to get to his feet but was welcomed with a crippling pain that shot through his head. Charles dropped back onto his hands and knees with his head dipped towards the ground in a praying position. The ache in his head pulsated, making him feel like he had a second heart that was inside of his brain. As soon as he felt this throbbing pain, one word broke from his cracked lips, “Dehydrated.”

After a moment, Charles came out of his praying position and sat down in the sand. A strong ache went through his old legs when he tried to cross them, so he left them sitting straight out. Gazing at his arms, he noticed they were red and swollen. A cluster of blisters half the size of a penny was spread across his right arm, running from the wrist all the way up to his elbow. He glanced at his left arm and saw that luckily for him, there was only a single, quarter-sized blister near the center of his forearm. Avoiding his blister-ridden right arm, Charles pinched the skin on his left hand, pulled it back, then let go. The area of skin he had pinched took a couple of seconds to fully return to where it was prior, showing Charles that he was not just dehydrated, but severely so. 

Ever so slowly he began to rise, taking deep breaths as he straightened his back in an attempt to prevent the same crippling headache from leveling him again. The ground seemed to move beneath his feet as he regained his balance. Once he managed to stay standing, Charles surveyed the landscape once more, this time looking out towards the horizon. Apart from the occasional cacti and dead tree, there wasn’t much to the right. However, towards the center of the horizon was something of interest: a tower. Upon seeing the tower that floated on the horizon like a shadow, one word came to Charles’ now-hopeful mind: salvation.

Charles began his long trek towards the tower. The extreme temperatures he had been exposed to for hours made his entire body weak from dehydration. Every step he took caused his legs to shake like a bridge about to collapse. After two hours had passed, Charles had barely made any progress towards the tower. His skin, which was already dry just hours before, now felt like sandpaper. The dull ache he woke up with had now spread to his kidneys. Charles’ case of dehydration was now so advanced that his body was beginning to drain fluid from his organs as it desperately tried to compensate for the lack of water.

It wasn’t until another grueling heat-filled hour of insanity passed that the tower finally appeared closer. Charles tried to tell himself, “Slow and steady wins the race,” but found that he was unable to speak more than a few words due to his throat being completely void of saliva. Charles felt a maddening itching sensation in his throat every time he would speak. This would cause him to go into an uncontrollable coughing fit. Each and every cough was followed by a sharp, stinging pain which felt like a thousand papercuts being made inside his esophagus. Each coughing fit lasted longer and hurt a little more than the one prior. 

Suddenly, a cave that seemingly appeared out of nowhere sat one hundred yards from Charles. He tried to ignore it, afraid that if he went inside to rest he would lose too much valuable time. However, the possibility of there being water in the cave was too great to resist. He began thinking about his son, Cody as he neared the cave. Cody is a 23-year-old Harvard graduate. Charles paid for his son’s tuition with some of the millions he made from investing in Facebook in the early 21st century. He was hoping to give his son a head start on life by sending him to the prestigious Ivy-league school. Cody could have become a doctor, a lawyer, or even something dull but high-paying like an accountant if he so desired. The list of great majors seemed endless; but instead, Cody decided to major in philosophy. As a result, he had trouble finding a job. Eventually, he ended up working at a popular coffee chain in the heart of Times Square. After months of struggling to make ends meet, Cody begged his father for a slice of his fortune. Charles refused, still furious about his son’s choice of major. He told Cody that he would inherit his fortune after his death.

Finally reaching the cave, Charles swiftly removed his socks and shoes. The cold stone floor felt like Heaven against his aching feet. The sand in the desert was so hot that the rubber soles of his shoes melted, causing him to develop burn blisters. After the burning sensation in his feet was soothed, Charles looked around the cave. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the sudden change of light; but once adjusted, they were immediately attracted to what was a small pond in the back. Charles couldn’t contain himself.

“Thank you God!” he burst out loudly. His throat responded to this burst of excitement by beginning to burn sorely, causing him to cough hysterically.

Charles ran as fast as his old, tired legs could go, which was now barely faster than a brisk walk. He knew this water was definitely filled with bacteria and would surely make him sick within a few hours, but that was fine by him. This dirty cave water would give him just enough hydration to make it to the tower. Charles dropped to his knees and fully submerged his head under the murky water, sucking it down with large gulps. It would have tasted horrible if Charles’ vital organs weren’t in the process of shutting down from severe dehydration. However, now he was so thirsty that the bitter, fungus-filled cave water practically tasted like a margarita.

While Charles’ head was submerged, the world around him was silent. He didn’t even notice the angry hissing sound to his right until he came up for air. As soon as Charles heard the sound, which was accompanied by a gentle rattle, he knew exactly what was waiting for him. Charles quickly turned his attention to the source of the hissing; seeing a very irritated snake. The snake was coiled along a piece of wood that floated out barely a foot from him.  Its skin was a lightly colored shade between orange and brown. Three rows of white diamond shaped spots ran from its neck to the base of the tail, where a large rattle was attached.

He began to slowly move away from the snake, whose leathery body was erect in a warning position. It watched him intently.
“Easy…” Charles said softly, talking to both the snake and himself.

He raised his left hand into a halting gesture, “Easy…”

The snake took this movement as a threat. It quickly uncoiled itself from the stick and lunged towards Charles’ open hand.

When the brownish-orange snake made contact with Charles’ left hand, it sank its fangs into the skin. The fangs, like daggers, swiftly cut through the fat like warm butter. As they emerged from his palm, Charles let out a loud cry that caused him to cough simultaneously as he moaned in pain. He fell back onto his right side; arm propping him up on the cave floor. A thick rock half the size of his fist laid just barely within reach, so he lunged for it. The snake fastened its body around Charles’ arm and unlatched its fangs from his hand. Charles grabbed the rock and slid it towards himself as he felt the snake’s knife-like fangs pierce into his forearm.

Charles grabbed the coiled body of the snake with his bite-free hand and managed to pry it from his arm so that it swung from side to side like a slimy, scaly pendulum. This swaying movement caused the fangs to teeter-totter in his arm, causing another jolt of pain to shoot through it like lightning. Charles grabbed onto the midsection of the snake that now hung from his arm and squeezed as tightly as he could, then pulled forcefully. There was a sickening popping sound as the snake was torn from his arm. Charles threw it onto the floor of the cave in one swift motion. There was a wet slapping sound as it made contact with the cold stone. As the snake tried to slither away, Charles put one knee firmly down onto its body. He picked up the thick rock lying next to him and brought it down a single time onto the snake’s head. Its tiny skull burst as the rock came down upon it with enough force to cover Charles with blood.

After the altercation was over, Charles sat down. His body continued to ache while his wounded hand and arm felt like they were on fire. Charles examined his hand first; his index and middle fingers were extended, but the other two hung limp. Each of the holes in his palm was the size of a penny. One of the wounds sat under his pinky while the other laid under his ring finger. Charles flexed his hand, both uninjured fingers moved without a problem. However, his ring finger barely twitched, and his pinky didn’t move at all. The tendons were severed.

When Charles turned his attention to his forearm, he saw that the snake left him two souvenirs; both of its fangs jutting out from his arm. A golden liquid was dripping from the top of the fangs where they had been pulled from the snake’s mouth. Charles was no snake expert; as he had figured out a moment ago, but he could tell that this liquid was venom. An unbearable pain radiated from the wound. He had to get these fangs out. Charles looked around for a sharp object, but the only thing he could see was the bloody rock he used to kill the snake.This will have to make due Charles thought to himself, already being able to tell that this was a bad idea.

He picked up the rock, noticing that it was now wet, and pressed it against the top of his forearm. It sat perpendicular to the fangs. Charles bit down on the collar of his shirt, before forcefully sliding the rock up his arm towards the fangs. The rock struck the side of the first one directly. The fang twisted, and increased the width of the wound, before popping out of his arm and falling to the floor with a hollow clanking sound. More blood gushed from the now-unblocked wound as the rock struck the second fang at a bad angle, causing it to get pushed deeper into his arm. Now it would be impossible to remove the fang without surgery.

Feeling completely defeated, Charles gave up all hope of ever reaching the tower. He laid down onto his right side, as he accepted his fate. A crinkling sound of paper emerged from his pocket, immediately catching Charles’ attention. Sitting straight up, he put his hand into the pocket. When he removed his hand, a small crumpled piece of notebook paper was in it. “What’s this?” he wondered aloud. Once he unfolded the paper, Charles saw something that caused fear to enter his body while simultaneously giving him new life. It was a handwritten ransom note.

Dear Mr. Fletcher,

We are sorry to inform you that if you are reading this, it is already too late for you. We saw you and your son on the side of the road after your rent-a-car had a flat tire. Then we attacked you both. We dumped you in the desert and we took your son with us. I’m not telling you not to worry because you definitely should worry for your son if you are a decent father. The reason I am telling you this is so that you can at least know what has happened, and to provide you with some facts before your expiration, whether you want them or not.

My “deepest” apologies,

Charles’ fatherly instinct went into overdrive; dying now would mean abandoning Cody when he needs him the most. Charles jumped to his feet and rushed out of the cave. Once back in the desert, he saw that the tower was now only about a mile away.
“Don’t worry, Cody. I’ll find you.” Charles said to himself, determined to follow through with that promise.

Forty-five determined, yet pain-filled minutes ensued until the tower on the horizon now became the tower in the distance. As it drew nearer, Charles found himself thinking intensely about the handwritten ransom note. Something just seemed off about it. He had seen that handwriting before. Suddenly, the same splitting headache he’d felt when he first attempted to stand came back. He was thrown off balance but managed to stay on his feet. A flashback appeared inside his mind as if he were hallucinating. In this memory, he was reading over a handwritten essay. He noticed that the writing on the essay wasn’t just similar to that on the ransom note; it was identical. That’s when, to his dismay, he saw the name at the top of the paper. It read: Cody Fletcher

The flashback changed to the last thing Charles could remember before waking up in the desert. He was driving a car he had rented in the town bordering the desert while Cody rode shotgun. They hit a pothole, and heard a loud bursting sound coming from the side of the car, so Charles pulled off to the shoulder of the road. Upon further examination, it was apparent to Charles that they had a flat tire. However, this wasn’t much of a problem because Charles knew how to change a flat.

He got down on his hands and knees to examine the tire closer and asked his son to grab him the tire iron from the trunk. After ten seconds, he heard the trunk shut and glanced over to see Cody approaching him with the tire iron. “I got it, dad, ” Cody said. His voice sounded sad now that Charles realized what happened, but at the time he didn’t think anything of Cody’s tone. He turned his attention back to the flat tire. That is when he remembered feeling something blunt strike him. The memory stopped there.

Charles was stopped in his tracks, now just one hundred feet from the tower, when he came to this conclusion. “Why did he do this?” he asked himself, heartbroken and in a state of manic denial. There was only one possible reason that came to mind; Inheritance. He knew that at least his son was safe, but didn’t know what he would do if he made it out of the desert. Charles figured that he may press charges for attempted murder against his son, but he wasn’t sure if he would be able to do that to Cody.I’ll just focus on the tower right now. I’ll figure the rest out if I make it out of here. He thought to himself, as he pressed towards the tower for the final time.

After a moment, Charles was standing in front of the door at the base of the tower. The tower was made of black cobblestone and stood about ten stories tall. The door in front of him was dark brown and was made of aged wood. A single thick crack ran from waist height to the top of it. The crack looked as if someone had forced their way in. When Charles examined it further, he noticed that the door was ajar. “The moment of truth,” Charles said to himself, as he slowly reached out for the door, praying that the tower he had worked so hard to reach wasn’t just a mirage. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath as he reached for the door. His hand stopped when it touched the wood. When Charles opened his eyes, he saw the tower was still there.

As soon as he opened the door, a gust of sand flew into his face. He stumbled back, lost his footing, and fell onto his backside. “No!” he screamed, as he rubbed the sand from his eyes, “It’s not real!” Panicked, Charles turned his attention back to where the tower stood, expecting it to be gone. But it was still there, and now the door was wide open. He took a deep breath and started for it.

A horrible stench filled his nostrils as he entered the tower, overloading his senses. He gagged, and some cave water came out. As a doctor, Charles knew that stench; it was the smell of death.  The room was lit by nothing more than the sunlight coming through the single window on the wall behind him. There was also a trail of sand on the floor that lead across the room, stopping at a desk with a figure hunched over it. As Charles quietly followed the trail of sand, he noticed two jail cells on his left. A bloody corpse in an orange jumpsuit lay in each of them.

Charles jumped back upon seeing the bullet-ridden bodies of what appeared to be prisoners. The man in the left cell laid on his side. His eyelids were open, showing the whites of his rolled back eyes. While the man in the right cell slumped back against the wall. A single messy splatter of dried blood was spread across the wall above the body. Charles could make out four wounds on the prisoner. One went through the right shoulder, two were in different areas of the chest, and one was across the jugular vein. The top of the deceased prisoner’s jumpsuit was stained a dark red.

Disturbed, Charles turned his attention away from the dead prisoners, and towards the figure hunched over the desk. The figure wore a uniform as well; but unlike the prisoners, it wasn’t an orange jumpsuit. As Charles approached the desk, he noticed a gold badge pinned to the side of the figure’s blue suit. He realized that this man was the jail guard. Once he got to the desk, he discovered that the guard was also dead. A large cavern created by a bullet split the guard’s head, leaving a bloody mess across the wall. Charles was overwhelmed by a tremendous sense of grief, as well as empathy for the man.

Under the desk at the guard’s feet sat a safe that was cracked open. Charles kneeled down and opened the small metal door the rest of the way. The inside of the safe was completely empty. “A robbery gone awry, ” Charles said to himself, “What a shame” He added, as he searched the room for a clue to where exactly he was. Charles glanced up to his right and saw a drawer with a small keyhole. Unsurprisingly, when he attempted to open the drawer, he found that it was locked.
“Of course, ” He muttered under his breath, annoyed.

It must be locked for a reason Charles thought to himself. He was determined to open it one way or another. That’s when it hit him; who would have the key to the drawer? The jail guard. It was obvious to him now. Charles glanced at the dead guard’s waist and saw a keychain with various keys hanging from the metal loop. He reached out for it. Suddenly, the hand of the dead guard shot out and grabbed him. Charles could feel the cold, dead hand squeezing tightly against his arm. He looked up terrified and saw that the guard was glaring menacingly at him.

“You shouldn’t be in here,” growled the dead guard.

Charles tried to explain himself, but had trouble due to his fear, "I-I-I'm sorry. I'm l-lost," he cried out, stuttering like a nervous school boy.

"You'll join me when they come back." The dead guard snarled, as an eerie smile broke across his rotten lips. Charles cried out, forcefully pulling his arm free from the dead man's grasp. He quickly crawled to the wall away from the guard.

The angry sounds of the guard stopped once Charles reached the wall. He turned back towards the desk and saw that the guard was in the exact same hunched over seated position that he found him in. I just imagined that Charles thought, reasoning with himself. However, when he glanced down to his arm, he saw the white marks of fingers slowly being filled by the red platelets in his skin. He figured that either what he saw was a grim reality, or he did this to himself in a state of panic. Charles told himself that it was the latter, but his racing heart caused him to question this belief.

Charles was now positive that there was something in the locked drawer that could help him. Ever so slowly, he got into a crouching position, stealthily making his way towards the dead guard. Once he got to the body, Charles quickly snatched the keychain from the metal loop. The chair began to slowly turn towards him. Charles jumped back, and dropped the keys onto the wooden floor, fearing that the guard would come back to life and lunge at him. Instead, the guard's body dropped out of the chair. It crashed to the floor with a haunting thud. Charles stood frozen in place for a moment, as he stared at the guard now lying on the floor. Finally, he quickly hopped over the body, praying that the dead man wouldn't grab his leg. After fumbling through the keychain for a moment, he found the one that unlocked the drawer. The dead guard didn't move nor make a sound.

There were three things Charles discovered in the drawer; A notebook, a stack of Polaroid photos, and a flare gun. He first grabbed the notebook and flipped through it, looking for something that told him where in the desert he was located. There weren't any directions; however, there were instructions on the first page.

"In the case of emergency, follow these instructions." Charles read aloud.

1) Make sure the prisoners are locked up, and try to keep them quiet.
2) Wait until dusk, then go outside with the flare gun.
3) Fire the flare straight up into the sky, away from the tower.
4) Go back inside and wait.
5) Pray that the town's police get to you before the bandits.

The last instruction made a shiver run down Charles' spine, but at least he finally knew what would have to be done. Next, he carefully took the flare out of the drawer, holding it hesitantly by the handle. It would be just his luck to accidentally shoot himself with it. He checked the chamber and saw that there was actually a flare in place, "Thank God," he said under his breath. Charles placed the flare gun on the desk and sat down in the chair next to the dead guard. He wasn't sure of the exact time, but he knew the sun would be setting soon. He began looking through the Polaroid photos as he waited. All of the photos were of a man, presumably the dead guard, and his family. The picture that stood out the most to Charles was that of a tan blonde woman walking hand-in-hand with a little girl on the beach. This gave him more empathy for the man lying dead at his feet. Now the dead guard wasn't just that, now he was someone's husband, as well as someone's father.

When Charles placed the last photo on the desk, the sun had just finished setting. Once he stood up, his entire body was heavy. It felt as if he were wearing a weighted jacket. He knew that he wouldn't make it through the night if he didn't get help, so he grabbed the flare gun and headed outside. Now that the sun was out of view, the desert began to get cold. The wind chill alerted Charles, temporarily ridding him of his drowsiness. It took every ounce of energy he still had to raise the flare gun wielding arm over his head. He pointed the flare gun just as the instructions in the notebook stated: up and away from the tower. Then he pulled the trigger. The flare shot out of the gun at a rapid pace, leaving a bright red streak behind it as it was launched into the dark blue sky. It vanished out of sight for a just moment, before exploding like a firework. The explosion was followed by a loud crackling sound as an almost-pink colored light filled the sky, covering the stars.

Charles found the lights of the flare to be quite beautiful in a way. He dropped the now-empty flare gun onto the cold sand and went back inside. Now back in the tower, Charles sat down at the wall across from the partially-broken door. He knew that there were two things that could happen following his distress signal. The first thing that could happen, and the one Charles feared was the most likely, was that the bandits who killed these men would realize their bloody scene had been discovered, and come back to kill him. The second thing that could happen, and the one Charles prayed for, was that the local police would reach the tower first. In this moment, his fear outweighed his hope, but he had done everything he could. Now all he had to do was wait.