“Don’t look back!” Joanie shrieked, her petite face a picture of horror. “We can’t go back that way. They’ll get us!”
Bill glanced nervously behind him. Only a pitch-black void greeted his eyes. He didn’t know whether to feel worried or relieved. He leaned toward worried.
“I don’t see them,” he said between gasps for breath. “Maybe were not being followed anymore.”
“Oh yeah right,” Joanie countered. “You know very well that those things are still after us. We have to keep climbing!”
“Will you two just shut up,” Carol snapped. She’d only known both of them for an hour or so, and was already tiring of their bickering. The things chasing them were probably attracted to their voices, and the last thing she needed was giving away their location because they didn’t know how to keep quiet.
“She’s right,” Bill said quietly. “Let’s just keep moving.”
The dark mass swooped in at that instant, neatly plucking most of Joanie’s right arm from her body. A thin stream of coagulated blood pulsed from the raw stump, slicking the rungs of the ladder with slippery gore.
Carol screamed, the cacophony of terror echoing into the blank space all around them. Bill groaned in disbelief, his widened eyes reflecting the shock of the moment. And Joanie fell, her mutilated body collapsing into itself before slipping away into the oblivion below them.
“She’s gone Bill. We have to keep moving.” Carol felt bad for Bill. She truly did. Seeing your girlfriend torn to pieces before your very eyes would be tough on anyone, but she also wanted to live, and she wasn’t going to jeopardize her chances at survival because of him.
The dull gloom surrounded them and like a dust storm swallowing a small town. There was nothing in the featureless abyss to indicate where they were or how far they’d come. They were merely two survivors clinging to a ladder in a vain attempt to stave off whatever cruel fate the creatures had in store for them.
Despite the dire situation she was in Carol found herself pondering what they could be. Were they some type of demons? Zombies perhaps? Or maybe simply some weird flying bird, obviously carnivorous, and intent on using them as their next meal.
“We have to get moving,” Bill said. His expression was uneven.
Carol nodded and reached for the next rung on the ladder. Her hands were shaking and glistened with grime and sweat. She had to steady herself just to keep from falling.
“I hope she’s all right,” Bill mumbled to nobody but himself. “I really miss her, but I know she’s okay. That’s why she got off the ladder, to escape.”
Carol tried her best to ignore him. He was slowly losing his mind, of that there was no doubt, and she felt if she talked to him she could make it worse. Better to simply keep moving.
“Do you see anything?” Bill asked, a flash of lucidness on his face. I mean, I thought I saw a light below us. Maybe it’s Joanie signaling to us that she’s all right.” He stopped moving and gradually began to lean toward the darkness.
“Bill! Stop it right now! Do you hear me? Joanie is gone. We have to make it to the other side.” Carol hardly believed her own words, but knew she had to be strong.
Bill was gazing downward in silence. His eyes were locked on something there, something which captivated him, dulling any common sense or instinct to survive he still possessed. “I…I can see her! There in the darkness. She’s down there! I can see her! It’s Joanie!”
Carol paused, and against her better judgment, glanced down. Shock literally paralyzed her when she saw a face… Joanie’s face, staring up at her, a macabre and impossible expression floating in an inky sea of black.
“It can’t be,” she sobbed through clenched teeth. “It just can’t be.”
And then the sudden shift in weight as Bill flung himself off the ladder jolted Carol back to the cold, dark tale her reality had become. She could only watch helplessly as her new found escape companion hurtled to his death, his flailing body growing smaller and smaller as it spiraled away from the relative safety of the ladder. She could have sworn she saw a flash of joy on his face before he disappeared completely.
And then he was gone.
Carol did her best to ignore the seething fear bubbling up inside her gut, but focused her attention back on the task at hand: reaching other side.
It’s all right Carol, just think of each rung on the ladder as a type of stepping stone, a platform which will help you reach your destination. Take one at a time, and soon you’ll see how easy it is.
Her mother’s words of the encouragement floated through Carol’s head like birds soaring in a clear, blue sky. Their clarity was matched only by their sincerity.
“I hear you Mom,” Carol sighed into her forearm. I hear you, but I don’t know if I can make it.”
Her words trailed off into oblivion, unanswered, unheeded. The memory that spawned the words slipped into her mind: her mother in her food-stained apron as always, encouraging Carol to ascend a small ladder into the tree house her father had built for her.
It had pink curtains and yellow flowerpots decorating its two oversized windows, and a narrow walkway which snaked around the small rectangular building.
Carol was nervous about the climb, she wished her father had been there; he was at work at the time. She tentatively took one step up the ladder, and then another. She remembered the sanctuary of the ground drifting farther and farther away from her with every rung she climbed. But eventually she had reached her destination: the tree house.
And now here she was trying to reach another destination, although this one wasn’t the pretty little tree house her dad had built for her. This was the most of profound destination one could ever hope to reach: survival.
Carol reached out for the next rung on the ladder. Below her she could still hear the guttural moans and convulsing movements of whatever was lurking in the darkness. Occasionally, although she tried valiantly to block them out, she heard people’s voices mixed in with the inhuman snorts and growls. Some she recognized.
Jim was urging her to join him in the dark, telling her that they were mistaken, that there really wasn’t anything to fear. And Joanie was singing joyfully, mumbling lyrics to a song Carol didn’t know.
“They say that a slow fall is easy enough…”
And there were other sounds as well, the sounds of flesh being torn apart; of teeth mechanically gnashing, of bones clacking together as they are discarded after being picked clean.
Carol clenched the rungs of the ladder tightly. She found that it made her situation a little easier.
Just a little.
“As long as you’re watching world up above.”
Joanie’s singing was growing deeper; the lyrics to her private song drawing out into a mocking threat.
Carol tried to estimate in her mind just how far it was to the other house. A ladder suspended fifteen feet up, precariously connecting two bedroom windows was hardly a foolproof escape plan, but she was just glad that Bill had managed to secure it before the things attacked. He had found it in a workroom, unfolded it, and thrust it through the window. With the girl’s help he was able to ram it through a small window in a neighboring house, thus creating a bridge to freedom.
A swirling breeze was picking up from the east, bringing with it an aroma of tangy pines mixed with car exhaust. Occasionally, the wind caught the stench of the things in the darkness, wafting their odor into Carol’s face. The smell made her dizzy.
Just a little bit further. The other house had to be close. It had to be.
With each movement she made Carol felt more isolated, more alone than ever before. Foggy memories of that day so long ago when she was suspended on that ladder, half way between the ground and her new tree house, drifted into her mind.
A sixth sense alerted Carol to the presence of something in front of her, something big.
The other house?
It’s there! I made it! I made it!
With shaking hands Carol slowly, delicately felt for the next rung on the ladder. Her body tensed when she failed to locate it, her hands grasping at the air, but relaxed when she felt the comforting feel of the cool aluminum in her fingers. Immediately she inched herself forward and began to feel for the next rung. Below, the mocking voices started again.
“They say that a slow fall…”
Carol focused on her destination. The other house couldn’t be more than five or six feet away, maybe less. All she had to do was concentrate and keep moving.
The tree house lit up in front of Carol like a Christmas tree. It had bright pink curtains and yellow flowerpots perched on the sills of the two oversized windows. A narrow walkway wound around a small building.
It was her tree house! The same one her father had built for her! The same one she had been so frightened to climb the ladder to reach!
Carol shook her head, trying to dispel the illusion. She knew perfectly well what she was seeing wasn’t real.
Just think of each rung as a stepping stone.
It can’t be real.
Cold shadows flew by, brushing Carol’s face with their hungry stench.
Take one at a time, and you’ll see how easy it is.
It couldn’t possibly be real.
A razor-sharp talon scraped the side of the ladder; tiny metallic shavings drifted down into the darkness.
That’s it Honey, take one at a time.
Carol inched closer and closer to her tree house. Her mother’s words pulled her forward, gently guiding her to the pink curtains and yellow flowerpots. The soaring black things around her began to slowly slip into obscurity. Their screeching growls and bloated moans diminished with every move she made.
They simply were vanishing. Or at least they were in her mind, which, in many ways, was good enough for her. She knew that they were still there, and her only hope would be to reach the tree house. She’d be safe there, just like she was when she was a little girl.
Take one at a time.
And when she looked at the tree house, really focused on it, she saw someone inside, someone in a food- stained apron who was waving to her, beckoning her to come closer. More shadows flew by. Many more. The things filled the blackness. The pulsating slit far below that allowed them to enter the world so long ago sealed itself back up, forever confining them to their new hunting grounds.
Carol was so close to the tree house she could hear her mother humming.
“They say that a slow fall is easy enough…”
“I’m coming Mom. I’m taking one step at a time now. I’m coming.”
A cold rush of something gritty and yet soft, threaded over Carol’s face. It felt like woven silk dotted with innumerable specks of dirt. Instinctively, she brushed away the threads, but only succeeded in getting entangled in the strange substance even more.
The vague form of her mother stopped with its sweeping. It flicked the broom away and turned to face Carol, it’s increasingly alien form squatting like a diseased cow, bloated and sick. It fastened numerous yellow eyes on its prey. Slowly, it lumbered forward.
And behind the thing’s nest, scarcely noticeable in the gloomy dark, stood the other house. The ladder led straight into its tentative safety, to an upper story bedroom, which until recently, had been occupied by a small girl. She too had ventured out onto the ladder in hopes of escaping the terrible things that had attacked and killed her family. She too had seen something that caused her to leave her bed and go into the night. She too had met her fate at the hands of the thing in its nest.
By Rick McQuiston