Kathleen Glassburn



Peeling white paint barely covers the clapboard of their recently purchased big old house. A metal ladder extends twenty-four feet up an exterior wall. Kate stands to the ladder’s side, her sneakers muddied by the damp, disturbed ground. Don’t walk under. A smell of raw wood fills the air. The ladder looks as if put there by some taunting giant.

“It’s time for you to check placement of those third-floor front windows,” Carl, foreman of the remodeling project, says. Her face grows hot as he takes in her features, then adds, “The ladder’s perfectly safe, Mrs. Shaw.”

With a fluttering stomach, Kate closes her gray eyes for a second. “Can I do it tomorrow? I’m in kind of a hurry.” She figured the inside stairway would be ready.

“Tomorrow morning,” Carl says. “Our installers want to finish this job by the weekend.”

“I’ll be over here as soon as the kids are off to school.”

Walking across the street to the shingle-covered cottage that they’ve rented for several years, Kate chastises herself, Why not just go up there?

Why? Because she avoids high places, except in completed buildings and airplanes. On a ladder? All that open space below and above and around.

It’s ten o’clock. Mattie’s at her second-grade class, and Johnny’s in the kindergarten room. She has several hours to herself and planned to use them writing. Instead, until she leaves to pick the children up from Seattle’s Hillside Elementary, memories of other scary heights sneak into her mind like ghosts flitting back and forth.

* * *

During a family trip to Ireland last year, Kate enjoyed exploring the heritage she shares with Patrick, and managed to do quite a bit of research for her novel—a family saga. One harrowing scene resurfaces, causing her fingers to pause over the keyboard.

They stopped at County Clare’s Cliffs of Moher where brave children rested on their bellies, peeking at crashing waves hundreds of feet below. Parents stood nearby, laughing at their adventurous offspring. Meanwhile, Kate hovered on a path several feet away.

Patrick grabbed Mattie’s and Johnny’s hands. “C’mon. Stay right by me and we can look.”

“Please don’t go too close.” Kate’s head spun as if on a Tilt-A-Whirl.

“They’ll be fine. I won’t let go.”

She watched as her husband and children marched closer. Mattie and Johnny flopped down and wriggled puppy-like across the ground. Patrick knelt between them, hanging onto waistbands of their shorts.

“The waves are huge,” Mattie said to no one in particular.

Johnny murmured, “It’s far.”

I can’t stand this. “There’s a gift shop.” Kate pointed. “I’ll be there.” Turning to run up the path, she didn’t wait for Patrick’s response.

* * *

She makes a copy of her manuscript’s twenty-first chapter and reads it over once. How many times have I rewritten this? Starting once more, she’s interrupted by a disoriented sensation, like driving in circles through an unfamiliar neighborhood.

When Kate was twelve years old, her family took a camping trip, stopping in Sundance, Wyoming, to visit relatives. It was one hundred degrees on a picnic outing. Despite thick heat, the other five children took off to climb Warren Peak Lookout. Katie lagged behind, wanting to read her book, Black Beauty, and practice her own story writing.

“Don’t be such a poor sport,” her father said. “Go along with them.”

“You’ll enjoy it.” Her mother’s round face beamed with perspiration.

“Mary and Bobby want to show you the view,” her aunt piped in.

“It’s a humdinger,” her uncle said.

If it’s so great, why aren’t you going up there? Katie knew the answer. They’d rather relax and drink lemonade.

Her younger brother Frankie, her little brother Mikey, her tiny sister Terry, as well as Cousin Mary and Cousin Bobby, raced to the top.

Katie placed the toe of her sandal on the first step.

“Pick up those big feet,” her father urged. “Frankie’s halfway to the second platform.”

In order to silence him, Katie began a slow trek. One—two—three steps. She peered down through metal grating. Grass and weeds pushed limply up from the earth. Four—five—six steps.

“Gonna beat you all.” Frankie’s words floated past her.

“No you’re not!” Mary latched onto Frankie’s red T-shirt.

“Wait for me!” Bobby, a couple of years younger, followed closely behind.

Panting, Mikey and Terry brought up the rear.

“There’s Devil’s Tower,” Mary announced. They were almost to the top already.

Katie quickened her ascent. Fifteen steps to the first platform. This isn’t so high. Only seven more to go. She contemplated the adults. They lounged under a tree, passing a thermos. She’d seen her mother tip a bottle of vodka into it. Wisps of cigarette smoke wafted like feathery clouds above them. Her mother placed Baby Christopher on a blanket and loosened his romper.

Her uncle had said, “The lookout’s fifty-five feet high. Elevation’s sixty-six hundred feet. Best view of the Black Hills.”

With steadiness, maybe she could get to the top. Reaching the third platform, she gazed at the clear, blue sky, trying not to look down. Going up to the fourth platform, she searched for each step with a toe.

At this resting place, she thought, If it’s this beautiful, what’s the top like? An all-too-brief surge of anticipation took over. Then, she couldn’t help it; Katie looked down through the grating and her vision wavered, her throat filled, she clutched the railing with both hands. Staying like that for several minutes, knowing she’d never make it all the way, Katie dropped and huddled on the top step of the fourth platform, her shorts-covered bottom pressing into the grating. Trapped, she anguished, How to get down?

The steps shifted and bounced as pounding feet like a thunderstorm setting in descended upon her. The others had turned back. Drops of moisture tickled as they rolled down her flat chest.

With several more jostles, the other kids zoomed past.

“What’re you doing?” Frankie croaked. He didn’t stay long enough to hear Katie’s response.

The rest ignored her. Mary tried to catch Frankie. Bobby tried to catch Mary. And Mikey held little Terry’s hand as they tripped along at the end of the line.

Seconds later, all reached the ground and charged down a gully.

“Stay close,” Katie’s mother called.

Katie took several deep breaths. Can’t get up. She scooched down one step. She stopped and rubbed red welts from mosquito bites on her legs. She took another breath and slid to the next step.

“Anna Kathleen! Stand up and walk!” her father yelled.

Katie pressed her lips together. She slipped and halted, slipped and halted the rest of the way to the first platform where, at last, she rose to her feet.

* * *

Pushing recollections of this humiliating episode away, she returns to Chapter 21, pencil in hand.

A few changes later, three ladies on white horses trot across her mind.

They entered center ring, while less dramatic acts glittered on either side. The star looked like a princess. She stood, arms out as if in flight, diaphanous pink fabric flowing. The other seated riders, more simply costumed, followed, waving at the audience. The star’s slim body rocked side to side, knees bent, as her horse, decked out with spangles, galloped in front of the audience. Sparkles blurred with faster and faster movement. The star slipped onto her horse, pivoted to face backward, and rode like this for several minutes. As a finale, she rotated forward, threw herself out, feet against the horse’s side, legs straight, head parallel to the ground, arms stretched like a soaring bird. Clapping filled Katie’s ears as the star flew around and around the ring. Katie’s chest filled as if her breath had solidified. The star resumed a seated, forward position and a smile broadened Katie’s thin face. She would be safe.

“You really like horses, don’t you?” Her mother knew Katie’s answer.

“They’re wonderful.”

All three riders waved and cantered out of the ring, disappearing through a red velvet curtain.

“I wish they’d stay forever.”

“There’s lots more to come.”

This was the first time Katie had been alone with her mother since they’d shopped for uniforms and a book bag. She was in fourth grade at St. Joseph’s. The circus came to Seattle in late spring, and her mother had said, “It will be a special time for the two of us.” They’d left Frankie and Mikey and Baby Terry at home with Mrs. Connor, their next-door neighbor.

After the horses came caged tigers. Mounted atop pedestals, they lifted gigantic paws when the man wearing a white safari hat cracked his whip in front of their gaping mouths. Katie worried, What if they bite? They didn’t.

Next, two motorcyclists in orange bodysuits revved up and raced through a wire globe, missing each other by mere inches. Amidst the engines’ roars, Katie worried, What if they crash? They didn’t.

The trapeze artists—a man and a lady, both with gleaming black hair—entered the ring hand in hand. The crowd clapped, loudest yet, as they took their bows.

“This is the highlight,” her mother said.

Katie stayed very still. Her eyes locked on the swings swaying overhead.

The lady’s iridescent blue costume shimmered as she climbed a dangling, snakelike rope. Katie couldn’t climb the ropes in gym class. Her arms always gave out. Loops wound around the lady’s bare legs. She went higher and higher as the man, in his glimmering blue pants and matching billowy-sleeved shirt, started up a ladder. He came to a small platform and perched on it, waiting for the lady to arrive at her own platform. Once there, she reached for a swing. With a swift, sure movement she seated herself on it, and her legs began to pump like Katie’s did at the playground, but those swings were close to the ground. The lady’s legs carried her back and forth. She leaped onto the man’s platform.

“Ah-h-h-h-h,” went the audience.

The man grabbed her swing and lunged over their heads. He flipped his body to hang by his knees, getting closer and closer to his platform. He seized the lady’s hands, swinging, swinging, swinging. Now almost touching, now flying apart, he tossed her onto the other trapeze so that they moved simultaneously.

Katie’s head rocked with their movements. Up and down. Eager faces nearby swirled. She felt her mother’s arm rubbing on her own. A familiar, usually pleasant, lilac scent made her tipsy. Katie feared that she might throw up pink cotton candy onto her green plaid school skirt. She closed her eyes. She held her head, trying to still its weaving.

“Katie, my love! Are you all right?” Both of her mother’s hands pushed Katie’s braids away from her flushed face.

“I don’t want them to fall.”

“They won’t. They’ve been practicing for years.”

Katie kept her eyes tightly shut. Music blared. When will it end?

With an all-audience gasp, followed by a loud thump and an all-audience moan, it did.

“Oh, my God,” her mother said.

Katie opened her eyes, only a crack, her hands pressed like blinders on either side of her temples.

Below lay a pile of blue, gem-covered fabric. A white arm stretched out in a strange way, as if it didn’t belong to the bunched-together figure.

The man jumped onto his small platform and began a rapid descent down the ladder.

Katie ground her fists into scrunched-up eyes.

* * *

Until she was eight years old, before the circus accident, Katie had a recurring dream of a white house facing the ocean. High up on top of this house was a room with windows all around. Trees surrounded three sides, and the front looked out at the waves. On the side toward the ocean this room felt like a lighthouse built on the edge of a rocky bluff. The other three sides felt like a treehouse tucked away in thick branches.

In this room were shelf after shelf of books for Katie to read, stretched out on the most comfortable white chaise lounge, white pillows at her back, a white quilt covering her legs. To her right stood a small white table with a cup of warm cinnamon milk and a china plate full of macaroons. Red and blue and green covers on books provided the only color in the room.

This secret place could be reached by a stepladder and entered through a locked trapdoor with one key—Katie’s. Her little brothers and sister, whom she often cared for when her mother was too busy or had a headache, stayed in the messy kids’ room lined with bunk beds. Here in the dream room, Katie memorized the endless ocean and pondered whatever mind pictures came from her reading, and wrote about those pictures with her recently acquired, careful penmanship.

After the circus accident, Katie’s dream left her.

* * *

They’d been hoping for a house like this for years, ever since Mattie’s birth. When the big old three-story across from the rental cottage went up for sale, Patrick and Kate took all their savings for a down payment.

While poring over remodeling plans at the kitchen table, he said, “Figure out how you want the top floor. You can read and write up there.”

Kate thought: My dream room. She’d be able to work at a distance from her children’s clutter and noise. They could come in, but she wasn’t going to make it too interesting for them.

Finally, construction was going full force. From the muddy ground below, she’d looked up and seen where her special place would be. In another month the new inside stairway, with railings, would be complete. But, Carl wanted her input no later than tomorrow.

* * *

Kate doesn’t sleep much that night. She keeps imagining a climb up the ladder and…what? Falling? Getting sick? Passing out? When she does doze off, her mind fills with nightmares of cliffs and lookouts and trapezes.

At dawn, she quietly crawls out of bed. She makes a cup of tea in the silent cottage and sits on her wooden rocker at the front window, where she can study the big old house. Openings on the third story will soon hold windows. Why can’t they put them in without asking me?

Carl had said, “There’s some wiggle room. I want you to decide exactly how you want them. You’re going to spend a lot of time up there.”

She hasn’t heard Patrick’s approach. He quietly says, “What are you doing out here?”

“Can you go in late today?” Let him decide.

“I have a client coming at eight. What’s up?”


“You’re on the verge of tears.”

Kate tells him.

“It’s going to be your room.” He rubs her shoulders. “You can do it. Look straight ahead as you climb up and down.”

“You think so, huh?”

“I know so. This is where you’ll finish your novel.”

Finish her novel. What then? Putting it out there. With all that open space.

* * *

At eight-thirty, after dropping the kids off, Kate parks her Honda Odyssey in front of the cottage. Across the street, the third story of the big old house looks a mile straight up.

Carl approaches the car holding a roll of blueprints. “I’ll meet you there.”

Attempting a smile, Kate says, “I need to go inside for a minute.” Her head tilts toward the cottage. “Be right over.”

With dragging feet, she trips at the front door. Inside, she draws a glass of water and barely manages a sip. She sits at the front window, watching Carl swiftly climb the ladder. He moves behind a wooden wall with streaks of white.

Fifteen minutes pass. She has to take action soon or he’ll come knocking.

Then, she knows what has to be done. She goes back to Patrick’s and her bedroom. She digs under the double bed for her backpack and fills it. She pulls the straps over her shoulders.

Kate doesn’t rush across the street, but her footsteps are determined.

At the base of the ladder, she calls, “Carl, I’m here.”

No answer. Maybe he’s gone.

Kate yells louder, “Carl, I’m here!” If he doesn’t answer this time, she’ll run back to the cottage.

Carl pokes his head full of bushy gray hair around the white-streaked wall. “C’mon up.” He moves away.

She puts one sneakered foot on the bottom rung, grabs the ladder’s sides, and takes another step. You can do this. She takes another step. Another. Her toe slips. Stupid big feet! She pauses as heat rises to her face. Tries again. Four—five—six. From the corner of her eye she sees a robin fly by. The bird lands on a western cedar. Seven—eight—nine. About the ceiling of the first story. Ten—eleven—twelve. Don’t look down. Thirteen—fourteen—fifteen. A breeze rustles her hair. Several brown strands stick to her eyelashes. She releases her right hand from the side of the ladder and brushes them behind an ear. Her palm looks like it’s been painted scarlet.

Again, Carl sticks his head around the wall. “Everything okay?”

“Fine. I’m enjoying the view.” How to get down?


Sixteen—seventeen—eighteen. Too late to jump.

Nineteen—twenty—twenty-one. Her eyes inadvertently shift to the ground. Muddy earth rolls like surf after a storm. More breaths. Eyes straight ahead.


“You made it!” Carl takes Kate’s hand and helps her to the plywood flooring.

She almost tumbles into its safety.

“Nice, huh?”

Kate nods and her eyes scan the new construction. This is where the bedroom will be. Its finished windows face the forested backyard.

“Plenty of space for a king-size bed. The closet will be over here.” Carl walks ahead of her to the designated closet that’s as big as their present bedroom.

He continues, “Double sinks’ll be here.”

He walks into another room on the other side of the wall and gestures to different corners. “Bathtub, shower, toilet.” He looks as if she’s about to win a blue ribbon. “Let’s go check out that special room of yours.”

Facing the street and the ocean beyond, a long, narrow area awaits her first visit. She walks through the wide opening that will hold French doors.

“Exactly how do you want these windows?” Carl holds up his hands in front of the first of three openings. “I’m thinking here”—he moves—“here”—he moves—“and here. What do you think?”

Fine with me. She hesitates and reconsiders. “I want it to be all windows. A whole wall of windows.”

“I can manage that. Push them closer together and add two smaller ones on either side.”

Kate’s eyes take in what will be her lookout on the world. She soaks in the spring fragrance of new growing things.

“That’s all I need,” Carl says.

“I’m going to stay up here for a while.”

“It’s yours.”

Kate places her backpack on the plywood, kneels, and unzips it.

“Wondered why you had that thing.”

She pulls out her laptop and sits cross-legged against a support beam. “I have writing to do.”

Several hours slip by as she loses herself in the work, making changes to at least thirty pages, forgetting about open spaces and how to get down.


© Kathleen Glassburn