Various attractions drew my eyes as we stepped out of the double-large elevator onto the third floor of the museum.  Sunshine poured in through the skylights, falling from the ceiling to the ground floor one hundred feet below us. The glorious natural light cheered away the heavy solemnity of serious learning, laughing at the assumed dignity of academia and inviting wondering minds to forsake looking for experiencing.

My eyes wandered around the balcony, avoiding the railing, and its drop, until they rested on a strange hope. “Grandma, can I try that?”

My grandmother, a scientist herself, considered the spectacle of my fascination. Suspended on a rope over the open area where sunrays danced most merrily down to the ground level far below, a  boy about three years younger than myself slowly  pedaled a counterbalanced bicycle backwards, away from the safety of solidly constructed floor. He returned to the attendant, who tilted the bicycle far to one side, then sent him on a second ride across the rope, this time swinging side to side, bringing to mind Poe’s pendulum.

Beside the attendant stood a small sign offering the same adventure to anyone willing to pay three dollars. It seemed perfect.

My grandmother, always interested in furthering the education of her grandchildren, decided the experience might be sufficiently edifying to justify the small fee, although she knew I already understood the physics involved. The heavy counterbalance well overmatched my weight; I could not fall.  A technically-unnecessary net offered added security to anyone foolish enough to lie about their personal mass, or perhaps it hung there simply to be reassuring.

I straddled the seat and pressed down on the pedals. My heart thumped hard against my ribcage while my mind raced to master the instinctive panic rising in me. I was never afraid of heights before the cliff. I didn’t want to be afraid anymore. I was going to lick my fear of heights if it killed me. I looked down, facing the long drop below me, gritting my teeth and daring gravity to just try pulling me down from my lofty seat.

The bicycle tilted. My breath caught in my throat. I closed my eyes, reminded myself that the counterbalance made falling off impossible, and gently leaned the other direction. The bicycle slowly righted itself. I opened my eyes and shifted my weight to sit upright on the bicycle once again. The momentum of the bicycle tilted me toward the other side. I panicked and jerked desperately in the other direction, trying to find the center of gravity and rebalance the bicycle. My movements only pushed the bicycle further down. I pressed my thighs against the seat and wrapped white-knuckled hands around the handle bars as the bicycle flipped completely, leaving me hanging upside down above the net.

My sweaty palms and fear-weakened legs soon gave way. I dropped, leaving my stomach suspended upside-down with the bicycle. Before my scream reached my lips, the mesh of the net pressed against my back, wrapping around me and trapping my arms. I lay still for a long time, forcing my lungs to breathe normally, stilling my trembling limbs. Somewhere, someone spoke to me, but  my mind refused to process anything not pertaining to escaping my fabric prison.

Slowly, very slowly, I rolled onto my belly, squeezing my eyes shut against the sight of the floor. I grasped the net and pulled against it, muscles straining, heart still racing, to inch toward the ledge of the third floor. The net dipped and swung under my weight. With each shiver of the net, I struggled against new waves of fear. I pulled my leg forward to hook the toe of my shoe against the net for leverage. I pressed back with my foot.

A familiar noise shot through the museum. I froze. The weak fabric creaked again. All thought fled my mind as I scrambled madly forward, arms and legs flailing. I reached out as the net gave way beneath me with a ripping sound as loud as thunder. I extended my fingers to grasp the mesh and stop my fall. The tips brushed lightly against the frayed knots, too late.

I watched my grandmother float away, her horrified scream echoing in my ears. The ground approached slowly, like a stalking tiger. I grabbed at the air, hoping to find some handhold in the void. Nothing offered itself. The ground pulled back on its haunches and sprung.

I snapped my head up and forced my mind away from its morbid wanderings. Half-way. I was only half-way across the rope. I tried to press my legs back, but they refused. Half-way would have to be good enough. I pedaled forward slowly, disappointment and relief vying for first place in my mind. Fear refused to die today, but perhaps tomorrow…

Yup. That's about how I felt.

Yup. That’s about how I felt.

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