Jasper Collins walked up another flight of stairs, his movements slowing with each new step. His breathing was now ragged and felt like shards of glass as it rushed in and out of his raw throat. He stopped at the next landing, as he had done at every landing since the 43rd floor, and leaned against the rusty handrail.
“I’m going to die before I even get there,” he gasped to the empty stairwell. He no longer even thought of it as talking to himself. The city — the entire world as far as he could tell — had been empty of everyone but him for almost seven years now. There was no one else to talk to, and a man had to talk to someone. So he talked.
“If you’re going to die today, you’re doing it from up there,” Jasper said, looking up. “Not here in a dusty stairwell full of trash.” His breathing had slowed again, and he felt as though he might make it to the next landing before leaving the world completely without humans. “Seventy more to go,” he said as he took the first step. “You can make it, old man.”
Jasper made it all the way to the 75th floor before he had to stop again. Instead of leaning against the railing, he sat down on the floor of the landing and let his feet dangle over the ledge. He leaned his head over the lowest rail and looked down the central shaft of the stairwell. His small headlamp pierced only a few feet into the vast darkness below, so the shaft looked like a bottomless pit. He tried to spit into the endless expanse, but his mouth was too dry from the climb.
“Damn. Even too old for that,” he said.
Jasper looked down at the fanny pack strapped around his waist. “As good a time as any,” he said, fumbling with the zipper. At last he got the pack open and rifled through its contents: a small plastic pouch, a candle molded into the shape of the number 60, and a lighter whose blue plastic body had been worn dull from use.
He held the pouch up close to his face, then backed it away to arm’s length. “Marbled Pound Cake,” he read, squinting. “Compliments of the United States armed forces. Thanks, fellas — you shouldn’t have.”
Jasper tore open the tan pouch, removed the flat piece of cake that had hidden within for longer than he cared to imagine, and placed the cake on the floor atop the discarded pouch. He set the candle on top of the cake and pressed down to ensure it would remain upright. He picked up the lighter, but the sheen of sweat on his palms caused it to almost slip away — toward the endless, dark stairwell shaft. With a gasp, he caught the small device with both hands. After a deep breath and a shake of his head, he struck the lighter. Aside from sparks, nothing happened.
“Oh, you son of a bitch,” Jasper called to the darkness. “It’s my birthday. You have to work at least one more time.”
He flicked the lighter’s metal wheel, directing every ounce of his will toward the plastic-and-metal contraption. A small sputtering flame jumped up, wavering in the meager currents that moved through the stairwell. With the care of a heart surgeon, Jasper cupped his free hand around the small flame and lowered the lighter toward the floor. He held his breath and touched the flame to the candle’s wick.
Just as the lighter’s flame was withering to nothingness, a matching flame sputtered to life on the wick and grew to its full height. “Thank you,” Jasper whispered, clinching his eyes shut for a moment.
He stared at the small flame. “Unless there’s a forest fire out there somewhere, you might be the only flame on this earth, little guy,” Jasper said. “I guess that sort of makes us kindred spirits.”
He took a sip of water from his bottle. “Gotta wet my whistle first,” he said to the flame. “May be the last time I sing it, so it has to be good.” Jasper opened his mouth, threw his head back, and sang the “Happy Birthday” song as loudly as he could. His voice echoed off concrete and steel, returning from every direction in the close darkness of the stairwell.
When he finished, he looked back down at the flame. Small tears had escaped his eyes as he sang. One of these ran down his face, perched for a moment on the tip of his nose, and then fell. Jasper watched the tiny drop plummet, as though in slow motion, toward the candle. With a sputtering hiss and a small puff of white smoke, the flame — perhaps the only of its kind — ceased to exist.
“Damnit,” Jasper said to the smoking wick. “Well, I was about to have to murder you anyway. A man has to eat his own birthday cake, after all.”
He set the candle aside and picked up the small dry piece of pound cake. After a quick inspection of its surface, he took a bite and began to chew.
“I don’t know if I have enough water to choke this crap down,” he said with a mouth full of dry cake.
After several sips of water and a few minutes of focused chewing, the cake was gone. “Well,” Jasper said, brushing his hands together to clean off the crumbs, “These stairs won’t climb themselves, will they?”
He zipped up his fanny pack and used the highest handrail to lift himself back to his feet. After a moment, he let go of the rail and began to walk. He’d learned a long time ago not to get up and immediately start moving. That was a good way for a man his age to end up right back on the floor. And in a world bereft of luxuries such as ambulance services, going humpty-dumpty was a bad idea.
Whether driven by the calories in the cake or the knowledge that he was almost at his destination, Jasper completed the remainder of the building’s 125 floors without needing another rest. With shaking legs and ragged breath, he grabbed the bar on the door at the top of the stairwell and pushed. At first it remained shut. He was afraid it was either locked or rusted shut. After more pushing and more than a few curse words, however, the door began to swing open with a scream of long-rusted hinges.
Blinding sunlight filled Jasper’s eyes as he stepped onto the asphalt rooftop. He stood there for a while, blinking and waiting for his vision to adjust from the complete darkness of the stairwell to the brilliant light of the midday sun.
Once his eyes had adjusted, Jasper walked nearly to the edge of the roof and looked out over the cityscape. He had climbed the stairwells of many buildings during scavenging trips, but never all the way to the top of a building so high. Food was scarce, which meant energy was a valuable commodity. Climbing that high for no good reason had been out of the question.
The view was heaven — almost enough to make him forget the derelict cars and trash littering the streets.
“You really going to put yourself through this, old man?” Jasper said, scanning the streets far below. “What will people think?” After a moment he threw his head back and laughed.
Jasper hooked his thumbs under the straps of his scavenged parachute and made sure they were still snug. “Well, I don’t guess I came all this way just to look.” He craned his neck around so he could see the bulge at the back of the contraption.
“For all I know you won’t work after lying around for however long it’s been since they packed you. But for all I know you will. Either way, I’m going to fly on my birthday. How I stick the landing is kind of on you, my friend.”
Jasper opened his fanny pack and pulled out a folded piece of paper, followed by a stubby pencil. He unfolded the paper, which bore the heading “Bucket List” up at the top. Below that, a number of activities were listed in a column. He smiled as he scanned them. Most of the items, such as “sip really expensive scotch” and “drive a stolen supercar” had been checked off. There were a couple of items, such as “BASE jump from tall building,” that remained unchecked. At the very bottom of the list was written, “Die.”
Jasper touched the pencil lead to his tongue and placed a check beside “BASE jump from a tall building.” After a moment of thought, he placed a question mark beside the word “Die” at the bottom of the list.
“Well,” he said, placing the paper and pencil back in his fanny pack, “I guess we’ll just see, won’t we?”
He walked over to the edge and looked down, making sure there was an unobstructed path all the way to the street below. Aside from a tattered awning above the first floor, it seemed clear.
Jasper turned toward the center of the building and walked several steps before turning around to face the ledge again. He was the last man on earth — arguably the most important person in the world — and he was about to fling himself from the top of a skyscraper.
“Happy birthday,” Jasper said to himself. He smiled and began running toward the ledge. With a scream, he leaped into open air and pulled on the parachute’s cord with all his might.