The tremor in her arm was the first sign Cat was reaching her limit. Her labored breathing was the second. She’d pushed so hard during this climb that every bit of clothing she wore—her long-sleeved gray jersey, her sports bra underneath, her long black climbing tights—was soaked. Sweat ran down from her sopping bandana into her eyes. The salt stung. She clenched her jaw.
I can do this.
The fear she’d fought so hard to ignore disagreed. ‘No, you can’t,’ cackled the demon within.
She fought back.
Hang in there. Stay here for a minute and rest. We’ll be okay. Relax. Just don’t look down.
She took a deep breath and gripped the red-hued rock tighter. Her gloves weren’t thick enough to protect her from its knife-like edge. It bit back. “Ow!” The burn spread through her arms. She kept shifting her right foot to find a more secure foothold.
Better. Worse. Better. Worse. Damn!
The struggle only added to the strain on her upper body. Now both her arms were shaking. Stop! she commanded. They ignored her. She took a series of deep, hard breaths, hoping to get oxygen to her muscles. Her throat burned from the effort.
Put the weight on your left foot to get a better grip.
The black rubber sole slipped off the rock and shot into mid-air. She grunted and instinctively tightened her grip even more, which only increased the pain.
Defying the agony, she pulled herself up a few more inches. Her heart thundered against her chest. Straining, she gasped for air. Safety was within sight. If she could just grab the next handhold, she could regain her balance and give herself a chance. She gritted her teeth and stretched—but it was just out of reach.
She put all her weight on one leg and explored the rough surface with her free foot. Miraculously, she found a foothold that would let her lift herself.
I can do this!
She shifted her weight onto that side.
Stretch! Push! Pull! Fight! Just two more inches.
But the pressure on her leg was too much. The pain in her calf was instant and searing.
Fuck! A cramp!
The muscle tightened with a mind of its own, oblivious to the fact that it was bringing about its own destruction. With her legs now useless, she shifted back to her arms. Drained, they shook. Even her hands had nothing left.
She gulped as dread washed over her. But she still struggled.
It will be okay, she lied.
Her heart pounded as her fate became undeniable. Her throat tightened and her face flushed. She didn’t know which felt worse—the pain in her hands from gripping so hard? The searing burn in her muscles? The terror at being so high? Shame at having overreached and being the author of her demise? Swallowing hard, she knew that, given what was about to happen, the question was academic.
Her trembling arms told her that she had only seconds before her body betrayed her. She closed her eyes tight, clenched her jaw, kept fighting and prayed for a miracle. But her final bit of energy evaporated.
Even as the cold, merciless hand of Death pried her fingers from the rock and pulled her to her tragic destiny, she refused to surrender.
But gravity pulled her backward like a rag doll.
“No! No! Please, God! No!” she screamed into the void.
The sturdy black safety harness snapped sharply around her. She grunted in reply, and her friend slowly lowered her to the gym floor.
Lauren greeted her with a big smile and a warm hug. “Twenty feet. That’s a new personal best, Cat. Congratulations. Of course”—she laughed—“it doesn’t change that you just died again. What is that…five times today? But it’s still an accomplishment. High five!”
Cat’s arms were so spent that she couldn’t raise either one in response. As her friend helped her out of the harness, she hung her head and wiped her face. “I know you’re trying to be encouraging, but being so weak and terrified only twenty feet off the ground is humiliating. I’m such a failure!” She began to cry.
Her friend covered her in an oversized pink towel to sop up the perspiration. “They’ve got the AC blasting, sweetie. You’re drenched from going all out. You don’t want to catch cold.” She put her arm around her as they walked to the locker room.
As she and her friend dressed in the pristine locker room after showering, Lauren pointed to the sopping mountain of heavy, colorless, sweat-soaked fabric in front of Cat’s locker. “That’s at least one problem you could solve in one stroke. You’d be cooler and more comfortable climbing in shorts and a sports bra. All that wet cloth makes you overheat and drains your energy.”
Cat winced. She was a failure as a climber. Now she couldn’t even dress right.
“I’m sorry, Cat.” Lauren hugged her. “You know I’m your biggest fan. I’m just trying to help. Let me treat you to coffee. I’ll even spring for a chocolate croissant. The good news is that since you’re now nearly a ghost, calories don’t count.”
Cat mustered a weak laugh.
“Seriously, it takes real guts to face your fears like this. You should be proud. You’re a fighter!”
“Sure, a fighter without a punch,” she replied dejectedly.
Lauren wrapped Cat in another big hug, and Cat laid her head on the comforting shoulder, took a deep breath and relaxed into her warmth.
“You’re the best, Lauren. I’d have given up weeks ago if it weren’t for you.”
As they left the gym, Cat squinted at the bright sunshine and winced at the heat then she tossed her bag into the trunk of her old canary-yellow Toyota. It was a glorious day in Sedona. The spectacular blue sky perfectly framed the red rocks glistening in the distance. Normally, Cat took comfort in the natural beauty around her—especially the rugged red mountains that reminded her of her heritage and her mission. Today, defeated by the climbing wall yet again, she barely acknowledged her surroundings. Her friend pointed to the mountains. “You have my word,” she said resolutely. “You’re going to own those rocks.” Cat shrugged. She was too tired to argue.
They walked the few blocks to the café arm in arm. Lauren wore cute pink shorts and a tight white sleeveless top. Cat had on long, loose-fitting black track pants and an oversized, long-sleeved, gray, Red Rock University T-shirt. Pressed down by the weight of her exhaustion, the best she could manage was a slow trudge.
As she reached for her coffee on the white stone counter, her arm still shook. She had to use both hands to pick up the red paper cup. She carefully placed it on the sturdy wood table so it wouldn’t spill. As she started to sit down, however, her leg began to cramp again. She lost her balance and jostled the table. The cup rocked, but Lauren grabbed the drink before it could tip over and stain the red-and-white checkerboard tablecloth. Despondent, Cat plopped into a chair and stretched out her leg to stop the cramp. Once the pain had passed, she picked up a sugar packet—but tore it so badly that it exploded over a pair of cute guys walking by. As she brushed the white powder off her gray T-shirt, she noticed that they looked her way then chuckled. She flushed hotly, put her head on the table, covered it with her arms and sighed.
“They thought it was cute,” Lauren said quietly. “Sit up. They’re hanging around. They want to come over and chat.”
Cat sat back up, shook her head and mumbled something incomprehensible.
Lauren caught the guys’ eyes and shrugged apologetically. They picked up their drinks and headed out. “Okay, the coast is clear.”
Cat shook her head in disgust. “See? I can’t even manage a cup of coffee and cute guys. I’m pitiful—a pathetic sack of fears destined for failure. I’m an aspiring archaeologist who’s afraid of heights. Even after presenting at a bunch of conferences, I’m still terrified of public speaking. I hate it when anyone even looks at me. Those guys were gawking at adorable you. They noticed me only because what I did was stupid. I have ‘career fiasco’ and ‘relationship nightmare’ written all over me. I’m hopeless.” She slumped again.
Lauren took her hand and gave her a warm smile. “Are you kidding? Bumping into the table and not being able to open the sugar are signs that you went all out on your climbs. You don’t do things halfway. I admire that about you.” She put her finger under Cat’s chin, raised it and looked directly in her eyes. “Now, tell yourself you’re a fighter…and mean it! That’s an order!”
She sighed. “Fine. I’m a fighter,” she murmured sullenly.
“Cat!” Lauren replied.
“Okay, okay. Despite my unbroken string of miserable failures and despite the obvious futility of continuing to try, I stupidly haven’t given up,” she said.
Lauren laughed. “If that’s the best you can do, I’ll take it. And also tell yourself that you’re a beautiful, sexy woman. I’ve seen you naked at the gym. Those guys were checking you out because you’re hot—even when you insist on dressing like a nun.”
Cat managed a weak smile then the tears started again.
Lauren reached into her white backpack and handed her a tissue. She stroked Cat’s arm gently. “I know it doesn’t feel like it, sweetie, but you actually had a good day. Once you get past the fear of heights, you won’t waste so much of your energy gripping so tightly. And weight work will give you the strength you need.”
Cat wiped her eyes and made a face, recalling how embarrassing her recent sessions at the gym had been. “I struggle so much, even with small dumbbells, that I get that pitiful look from everyone around me. They ask me if I’m okay, like I’m coming back from major surgery or something. I’ve even tried to go when no one else is there, but then the trainers come over. I can see it in their eyes. They’re worried I’m going to hurt myself then sue them. I’m so self-conscious that it’s humiliating.”
Her friend paused, a frown furrowing her forehead, and looked down at the table. She sat quietly for a few seconds, pursed her lips and moved the saltshaker from a red square to a white one as deliberately as if she were playing chess. She glanced back up at Cat. “Maybe…you…” She took a sip of coffee. “It’s just…”
“Nothing.” Lauren looked down and took the pepper shaker this time. Staring in its direction but not really looking at it, she rhythmically tapped it on the table as she pursed her lips.
Cat sighed. “Come on. I can take it. You’re going to tell me I’m stupid to think I can do this. I need to face facts and give up.” She closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands as though someone was going to punch her.
Lauren gently took Cat’s hands and put them back on the table. “Look at me, Cat. I am not going to criticize you. You do that too much already. How do you forget so quickly that you graduated summa, won a great graduate fellowship and are on a fast track to your Ph.D.? Didn’t the school just send you to that conference in Greece where everyone raved over your presentation? You’re awesome! You’re the only one who doesn’t know that. I wasn’t going to criticize you. Actually”—she looked out of the window—“I might…have an idea,” she said hesitantly.
Is there hope?
Looking back at Cat, Lauren sat quietly. She leaned in, lowered her voice and spoke. “I have a thought…about a Plan B…to solve your problems. It’s unusual, but…” She left the sentence incomplete.
Cat leaned forward excitedly. “A Plan B? Really? Tell me.”
Lauren looked into her coffee and stirred. She took a deep breath and sipped. Then her face tightened and turned red. Quickly looking down at the crusty croissant in front of her, she said abruptly, “Boy, this coffee is hot.” Flustered, she tore off a piece of her pastry. “And this looks great.”
Cat was startled. She didn’t believe that hot coffee could make her friend’s face turn scarlet. What is she not saying?
Lauren looked away and pulled her long blonde hair behind her. “Um. Not weights.” She looked down and tapped her fingers on the table. Her face tensed, and—to Cat’s surprise—she bit her lip and held her breath for a few seconds. When she exhaled, she almost imperceptibly shook her head.
After a few seconds, she looked up and glanced out of the window. “I mean, let’s figure out why you’re so afraid first. If we can reduce your panic, you’ll be more relaxed and will climb better,” she said, looking back at Cat. “Then we’ll worry about body strength. So, where does the fear come from? And if you’re so terrified, why are you so committed to learning to climb?”
Everything—Lauren’s cadence, expression, posture—screamed that she’d deliberately changed the topic.
Cat frowned. If there were another way to tackle her fears, she didn’t understand why her friend wouldn’t tell her. But it was obvious that pressing for an explanation was the wrong thing to do. She’d respect Lauren’s wishes. At the same time, she wasn’t ready to confide everything to Lauren yet about her embarrassing fears and weird obsessions—at least not in a public coffee shop where she could be overheard. “I promise I’ll explain—but let’s save it for a day when I haven’t fallen to my death so many times.”
“Fair enough.” Lauren smiled. “But enough with the sad stuff.” She leaned in with a naughty smirk and lowered her voice. “Tell me all about the conference. Any cute guys?”
“I told you I’m not interested in anything that could distract me from my work—and certainly not a relationship until after I have my degree.”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it. Did you follow my suggestion”—she nudged Cat conspiratorially—“and engage in some wanton revelry? God knows you deserve it after how hard you’ve been working.”
“Wanton revelry?” Cat looked puzzled.
“Sorry. Too much Shakespeare. When you got to the conference and unpacked, you must have found my strapless red dress I snuck into your bag. Did it work? Did you get laid? Surely there were any number of hot young studs happy to service you.”
Cat laughed. “Hot young studs? Have you ever seen what archaeologists look like?”
“Sure. Indiana Jones. The hat. The whip. The bedroom eyes. Bedroom hands. Bedroom you-know-what.” She playfully raised her eyebrows a couple of times.
“Sorry,” she chuckled. “That’s the movies. Real life archaeologists are nerd city.”
“Wait a minute. Didn’t you text me that there was some drop-dead gorgeous guy all the women were drooling over? The one who’d made some sort of amazing discovery?”
“Oh, him. The Brit who found an ancient Grecian vase that’s going to rewrite the history of the period. Because my flight got delayed, I got to the conference after his lecture, and he was nowhere to be seen. I don’t believe he was as good looking as everyone said. Nobody’s that handsome! Even so, I wouldn’t be interested. He’s not my type.”
“Not your type? Handsome and brilliant? He’s every woman’s type!”
“No, I mean he’s a hound.” She waved her hand in the air dismissively and grimaced. “He pursues women with the same vengeance he uses to look for artifacts. We’re just prizes for him. The rumor mill said he was bed-hopping the entire conference. Colin Tucker is the last man I’d ever be interested in!”