‘Rooftopper’ by Susan Grundy


Illustration by Andres Garzon


Liam was six when he started to shimmy up the doorway moldings. “Look Mom!” he’d cry from the ceiling. “No hands!”

Lena tried to discourage him. “Why don’t you play hockey or soccer like a normal kid?” she would ask, but there was no stopping the climb that carried her son through boyhood and adolescence, from doorways to signposts to the roof of their house and all the other roofs in their neighbourhood. The taller he grew, the greater the assent. The therapist said he would grow out of it. Lena was not so sure, but she carried on as single mothers do.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she confessed to the police when they came knocking on her door –– incriminating words that she later denied. Although she was angry with her idiot son, Lena had no intention of testifying against him. She claimed to be ignorant about his YouTube video, the one responsible for the new silver strands in her hair, the same video that had blown up on social media

The police forced her to watch the footage, all eyes upon her. “Do you recognize your son’s baseball cap?” they asked.

“No comment.”

“Does it bother you, what he does?” one of the cops whispered, hoping for a confession.

“Breaking into abandoned buildings, hanging off forty-story buildings? What do the kids call it? Urban exploring? Urbexing?”

Lena said nothing.

The police lingered for hours, waving their search warrant, checking every drawer, every closet. They confiscated cell phones, computers, camera equipment. Before leaving, they locked Liam’s wrists in handcuffs.

“Looks worse than it is,” Liam told her.

As Lena closed the door behind them, she heard the neighbours congregating on the sidewalk, her privacy now invaded on both sides of the front door. Her son had gone too far this time.

Liam returned home victorious, the evidence too thin for a conviction. Urbexing had triumphed over the legal system. It was clear to Lena that her son had learned nothing, and had every intention of carrying on as usual. The video of Liam, teetering on the edge of oblivion four hundred feet in the air, played over and over in her mind. She couldn’t sleep. But when she explained to Liam that his urbexing was slowly killing her, he simply took Lena’s hand, and told her not to worry. Lena stared down at the fingers she loved so much wrapped around her own, and the germ of an idea began to form.

At five o’clock on a Friday afternoon, Lena pushed against the revolving doors of the Imperial Bank Tower in Downtown Montreal, and made her way against the crowd of exiting office workers. The guard behind the security desk turned away to answer the phone. Lena waited for the elevator to be empty, and then stepped inside, pressing the top button for the 40th floor. As the door was closing, a tall man with a briefcase slipped inside, and studied the panel before retreating to the far corner of the elevator, diagonally across from Lena. He tapped his feet while they were hurtled upwards, his Louis Vuitton loafers gigantic next to Lena’s sneakers. She watched the numbers flash on the panel. When the door opened onto the 40th floor, Lena rushed into the hallway, tripping over the grey-blue carpeting. Her knapsack fell to the floor.

“Can I help you?” the tall man’s voice called from behind her.

She stopped and turned. The skin on his face was smooth and flushed. He looked young enough to be Liam’s older brother.

“I’m looking for Blake & Smythe.” She remembered the law firm’s name from a sign in the lobby.

“Their offices are on the 30th.” He eyed the backpack with either curiosity or suspicion–– Lena wasn’t sure.

“Your first time here?” he asked.

“I’m familiar with the building.” It wasn’t a lie. She’d watched Liam’s video at least fifty times.

He pressed the down button for the elevator, and showed no sign of leaving.

“Think I’ll take the stairs. I need the exercise.” Lena sprinted towards the flashing exit sign that she recognized from the video. Inside the stairwell, she steadied herself against the concrete wall, and studied the bright red steel of the rooftop door looming from the top of a narrow set of metal grated steps. The door appeared more intimidating than on film, and she considered that it might now be connected to an alarm. She pulled down on the metal bar, and then pushed. The door didn’t budge. She pushed harder. Nothing.

“You’ve got to be joking!” Lena hurled every part of her raging motherhood against the steel. The door yielded. Lena held her breath waiting for the deafening bell or shrill siren, but the only noise came from the high-pitched whistle of rushing air. She stepped outside and the door slammed shut behind her.

The force of the wind whipped Lena’s long hair in every direction, blinding her. She crouched down and pulled out a camera and a black ski mask from the knapsack. After adjusting the mask on her face and tightening the straps of the knapsack, she set out to follow the phantom footsteps of her son.

Later that evening, Lena wrote the first entry in her journal.

The rooftop swept away the anger towards my son, and the tedium of responsibility weighing on my shoulders. No longer playing the starring role, I graduated to a silent spectator. What a performance! Under the sky’s unfathomable vastness, the sinking sun illuminated the city with her fabulous golden light. Everything else paled in comparison. For a precious moment, nothing mattered.

Lena did not mention in her journal how the door had refused to open, that she was stuck on the rooftop, how she made an unforeseen phone call for help, and forty-five minutes later a pale-faced Liam had flung open the red steel door. She didn’t have to record any of this. It was all caught on film.

“See how it feels?” Lena asked her son through the lens.

Liam was quiet that evening. They ordered Indian food, and watched her video. Lena helped herself to seconds. Liam barely touched his plate. He asked his mother to swear that she’d never pull a stunt like that again, or post anything on the Internet. Lena asked what he would promise in return. Neither agreed to anything.

* * *

A year has passed. Last spring Liam graduated from college, and moved into his own apartment on the other side of the city. Tonight he treats his mother to dinner.

Lena checks the weather before changing her clothes and stepping outside. It is almost midnight when she crouches down on the gravel and grabs on to the gutter rail, expertly swinging her legs over the edge of the roof. Her dusty shoes dangle seven stories above street level. A bitter wind bites on the bare skin on the small of her back where the windbreaker rides up. She adjusts her ski mask. Breath softens. Heart calms. This is her favorite moment, the one that follows the inspiration, the planning, and the uncertainty of what might happen. She has arrived safely at tonight’s destination. Perched on this rooftop under the night canopy, Lena feels alive.

Clouds recede, the atmosphere clears, and shadows become transparent. Lena leans forward to peer down at the street. This is not the highest rooftop she has navigated, not even close, but the days are numbered for this abandoned building, once a garment factory. Tomorrow, it could be sitting in concrete rubble. Later tonight, while the details are still fresh, Lena will record notes in a journal for the book she will one day write. In the meantime, she reaches for her camera.

The sound of crunching gravel. Lena turns her head as the flash from a lighter reveals the faces of two teenagers. Confident the boys will keep their distance, Lena looks to the east where the full moon has paused directly above the Imperial Bank Tower; hovering like a luminescent large dot of exclamation. “Perfect,” she whispers, and takes a photo.

Lena looks to the north where Liam is fast sleep. She thinks of quitting her job, and exploring other cities. For now, she swings her dangling legs back onto the roof and brushes the gravel dust from her jeans. The two teenagers say nothing as she heads for the fire escape. They’ve heard the stories about a middle-aged woman with a black ski mask who never speaks. There’s a rumor among the city’s outlaw explorers that to cross her path on a rooftop is a sign of good luck, like receiving a mother’s blessing. It is the boys’ lucky night. They stand and salute her.


SUSAN GRUNDY recently changed paths, from marketing consultant to fiction writer. One of her short stories has appeared in The Danforth Review. Earlier this year, she completed her first novel, a story about a hard-edged Montreal architect who breaks free from a painful ancestral cycle. Susan lives in Montreal.

Copyright © 2019 by Susan Grundy. All rights reserved.