Fiction: The Ladder by A. Greensward
by A. Greensward is the winning entry for the 2020 WritingForums.com Prize Flash Fiction challenge.
Somewhere above the cocaine-depths of the city, above the fire escapes clinging to piss-stained walls, it was said there was a house between worlds, hanging in the sky next to the polluted moon.
You could only see it on lonely nights—nights when there was nothing to drink to and no one to party or sleep with. It was like a storybook cottage, with woodsmoke coming from its chimney—nothing like the choking factory fog. If you looked closely you could see a twisted ladder coming down, silhouetted black against the greenish glow of the city lights. If you climbed it, you couldn’t look down. If you did, it would crumble to dust and you’d tumble to your death.
Annie thought of Jacob and squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting the tears to come. Her last memory of him was his twisted, broken body, blood trickling into the sewer.
She’d always wanted to find the ladder. She and Jacob used to search for it in the urban jungle, on nights when the sky was lit up with satellites. Not anymore—not ever. Not without him.
The jungle was fenced off now, fortified with chain links and glittering barbed wire. They were gonna build something there—maybe another factory. Jacob would’ve wanted to stop it. He would’ve taken a plier to it and torn through, laughing.
Now she stood in front of the rusty sink in the sterile halfway house, smoothing a comb through her tight coils. She didn’t like this place. It was a last resort to come here—only on nights when she could hear his voice murmuring too loud, and she could see his face, floating ghost-like in the fog. Womyn Plaza, it was called. There weren’t any windows. Kids weren’t allowed in—they hung around outside, hollow-eyed and hungry. Inside, the women were blank-faced and defeated, sitting on the flea-ridden mattresses with birth control brochures in their hands. Too empty to even be sad anymore. They made her sick with fear.
She looked in the mirror, comb frozen in her hand. Wide eyes stared back at her, bright in her soft brown face. She reached up, touching her cheeks.
“Not gone yet,” she whispered.
Not yet. Not ever, if she could help it.
You got a light to you, girl.
Jacob used to tell her that, looking in her eyes, smiling deep, curly hair falling over his forehead.
Don’t you let it fade.
Annie tucked the comb into her backpack and pulled the straps over her shoulders. Her throat felt tight. A tear trickled down her cheek. She could just stay in the halfway house. Lay on a dirty mattress and let the bugs bite her till morning. Stay in limbo here forever. A slow, windowless death . . .
Before she knew she was doing it, she’d rushed out of the bathroom and was running through the place. The women barely looked up.
Annie flung the door open. The cold night air thrilled her lungs.
It was only a few miles to the urban jungle. On instinct she searched the sky, looking for a break in the smog.
You never know where there might be room for a ladder.
Oh, Jacob . . .
And then, as if from a dream, it was there. Silhouetted dark against the neon-green sky, falling straight into the urban jungle like something from a fairytale.
Annie’s mouth went dry. Her heart pounded hard.
Maybe, maybe . . .
Clinging to her backpack, she started to run. Her eyes were fixed on the ladder, and she muttered a prayer under her breath. Please, please don’t let it disappear.
Tears pricked her eyes when she got to the urban jungle. Half of it was already dug up. A cruel dinosaur-like machine stood dormant next to it, its claw hand frozen in mid-air. The chain-link fence stood tall and menacing. The barbed wire was hooked all the way around it. There was no way to climb over.
Annie crumpled to the ground, burying her face in her knees.
“I’m sorry, Jacob.” Her voice broke. “I-I couldn’t do it. Not without you.”
She started. Slowly, slowly, she raised her eyes.
The smog had split, revealing wizard-blue sky, glittering with silver stars. The ladder was before her, the twisted brown rope nearly brushing her nose. Wonderingly, she reached for it. It felt rough and firm; it smelled of pine and woodsmoke. She felt a wild rush of joy.
“Oh, Jacob, we—”
She stopped. She saw his broken body in her mind’s eye.
I swore I wouldn’t leave you.
The wind blew through the dead trees, whispering unintelligible words. The stars winked at her in Morse code: follow us, Annie. Follow us.
Don’t you let that light fade, Annie-girl.
Fear lanced through her as she grasped the rope. She pushed it down, determined, and began to climb.
Her eyes were fixed on the ladder, disappearing into the stars. She climbed faster, faster, faster, gulping breaths of sweet air. She couldn’t see the smog anymore; only wizard-blue and stars, stars, stars. She could smell woodsmoke, and strained her eyes in search of the house.
“Is it here?” she cried. “Or have I lost it?”
Keep climbing, the stars sang. Keep climbing, Annie-girl.
She climbed till she was breathless, then the stars breathed on her and she could climb again. The joy rose in her heart. Everything was so beautiful, but she didn’t stop to look. Her eyes were on the top of the ladder.
The ladder was gone. She looked about her, astonished. A man was swinging on a porch swing above the sky, tinged with orange dawn. He smiled at her, creasing the brown skin under his eyes.
“H-hello,” she stammered. “Where—where am I?”
He stood, walking through the air effortlessly, and opened the door to the cottage. Woodsmoke drifted from the chimney.
“Home,” he said.
About the author
A. Greensward is a science fiction and fantasy writer from St. Paul, MN. She loves rainy days, movies, chocolate chip cookies, and daydreaming. Along with writing, she draws and paints.