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An aspiring young businessman, Tom Benecke has not debated long about stepping out into the darkness after the yellow sheet that will bring him a raise. But, once out there on the ledge eleven stories above the street, "fear stirred in his stomach." By not allowing himself time to think, Tom edges his way along, not permitting himself to look down, either. Finally, he reaches the paper; lowering his right shoulder, Tom pulls loose the paper. However, he has looked through his legs and "far below." Lexington Avenue stretches out for miles. He sees the theatre's sign, blocks ahead, traffic lights, cars, street lamps, neon signs, and the "moving black dots of people."
And a violent instantaneous explosion of absolute terror roared through him.
Tom trembles violently, panic strikes his mind and muscles, and he blanches. Before horror paralyzes him, Tom jerks upright, scraping his head, causing him to sway outward and nearly lose his balance. Now, his body shudders beyond his control; he shuts his eyes to block out the reality of where he is. Tom feels that he may faint, so he draws deliberate breaths of the cold air. In his terror, Tom realizes that he should have made himself look down in order to accustom himself to the sight. Instead, he cannot walk back, for he cannot bring himself to move. He shouts "Help!" but the wind carries the word off; Tom knows that few will pay attention to his cry, anyway. So, he faces the fact that he must move since there is nothing else to do. As in a movie, Tom envisions himself stumbling and falling. Out of this death thought, Tom is slowly able to close his mind against all thoughts but the one about what he must do.
With leaden movements in a fear-soaked reality, Tom barely is able to lift his foot from one ledge to the other. When he notices the yellow paper pressed to the bricks under the palm of his hand, he utters a cry and takes the paper in his teeth. By concentrating completely, Tom is able to move first one foot, then the other. But,
he could feel the terrible strength of the pent-up horror on just the other side of the flimsy barrier he had erected in his mind; and he knew that if it broke through he would lose this thin artificial control of his body.
Tom tries to keep thoughts out by closing his eyes, but he must open them to be sure he is safely on the ledge. He keeps them from looking outward, knowing he will be "past help" if he does. Tiny step after tiny step, Tom struggles with this mind, his fears. He knows the "slender hold he was keeping on his mind and body was going to break." The barrier does break and Tom's fear run through his muscles and nerves. In fear, he takes rapid steps, blind steps, with "no feeling of what he was doing." He stumbles. His right foot smashes into his left ankle, and his fingertips press on the edging of his window. The window slams shut. As this happens, Tom loses his balance and he clutches the narrow wood stripping of an upper pane, suspended between balance and falling. With sheer will power, Tom regains his position.
When the window will not open, Tom strikes the glass, nearly losing balance again. He feels calm; the trembling has stopped, but Tom knows that he must withhold his feelings until he is again in his home. He imagines how he will grab the tufts of the rug in his hands, and he will run around the room. Holding these thoughts at bay, Tom tries to no avail to break the window with his shoe.
It is impossible to stay on the ledge until Clare comes home; no one can remain on a ledge for four hours. Reaching in his pocket, Tom finds matches; he lights three papers, but no one notices from the room across him. Then, he drops coins onto the step far below; nothing happens. Tom envisions his death, the empty contents of his pockets, save for the yellow sheet. In a moment of revelation, Tom Benecke becomes aware of his wasted life--hours working on the project when he should have gone with his wife. His love for her is the driving force: in the last desperate attempt, Tom draws back his arm, knowing that he must penetrate the glass or die. He shoots his arm forward, shouting "Clare!" and falls safely into the room.
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