He’s climbing a ladder. It’s infected with rust, tiny red and silver flakes mingling with the beads of sweat rolling off his hands. They told him not to look down, so he hasn’t. He doesn’t know if he’s following orders, or he simply doesn’t want to know how far up he’s come. There are people below him, there always are. Normally he can’t hear them, they’re so far away, but he can always feel them. Encroaching on his territory. Stalking him, hunting him to claim his head.
He’s been climbing for longer than he can remember. If he had someone to tell his story to, he’d probably say he’d been climbing since he could remember. But alas, the lonely path was his to walk – or climb, in his case.
He’s only seen them once, and once was enough. They’re like spiders, the whole lot of them. Swarming, their eyes and arms and legs tangled, yet working cohesively to clamber up the rungs. He doesn’t know how they do it. It confuses him, and sometimes it scares him. He’d have to fight them all off, if it came to that. And there’s no way he could beat the lot of them. Not with all those beady eyes, looking at him, staring into his every nook and cranny. That in itself would be enough to destroy him, but he doesn’t know that. He only knows how to climb.
There’s no time to rest, but he’s used to that. No rest for the wicked, they used to say. He closes his eyes every twenty rungs, and so far that’s been enough. His hands have calloused over and over themselves, and he thinks the same has happened to his feet. He can barely feel the rungs now, he just counts them. Like some kind of ritual.
It gives him an advantage over the people below. They stop more frequently than he does. He assumes they rest, but never at the same time. It’s like they keep watch for each other, though he doesn’t know if they’re always together or not.
He used to sing to pass the time. But he hasn’t done so since he detected the presence of the people below. He didn’t want to give off his location, and he wanted to hear when they were getting close. So now he tells himself stories instead. Set in faraway lands, with faraway people. They lead lives, have families. Some of them even sing songs. It’s hard for him to hold on when he tells himself these stories. Sometimes he thinks if he lets go he could be a part of one. Sometimes he’s gotten close, mere fingertips away. But he always reels himself in. This is the one thing he knows how to do. He couldn’t– wouldn’t change that, even for another life.
He’s never looked up before. They didn’t tell him that looking up was forbidden, but he’s never really felt the urge to do so. He only need to look ahead, he tells himself. One rung at a time. That strategy has never failed him.
The feeling of being hunted weakens as the rungs go by. He doesn’t know if it’s because they’re dying off, or if they’re getting further apart from each other. They probably couldn’t, but it’s still a possibility to be entertained. He smiles to himself.
They’re watching him closely. They see the indent that his mouth makes, the thin curve of his lips. “He’s too far gone now,” one of them says. “I told you so,” says another.
He keeps climbing, until one day the feeling’s gone. At first, he thought it was just his mind playing tricks on him. He climbed faster than he ever had, his hands close to bleeding, his ears pounding in his chest. He doesn’t rest for what seems like an eternity, and soon the weariness overcomes him.
He sleeps, properly, for the first time in ages. They’re afraid he won’t wake.
But eventually he does, his hands and feet still glued onto the ladder. The feeling’s still gone, and he’s expecting to be swarmed by eyes and arms and legs – he’s waiting for the eyes to get him.
They never arrive.
He breathes a sigh of relief. They’re gone. He feels as if a cloud has been lifted off him. For the first time ever, he wants to look down. He wants to see how far he’s come.
“No!” one of them says. The others simply stare.
His eyes dart downwards, probing, scared, hoping.
He sees the ground. It looks crunchy, like it’s made of tiny little rungs all stitched together and stamped in. It looks like it’s in reach. He just has to take his hands off the ladder. He’s hypnotised by it, but he can’t bring himself to do it, to let go.
So there he clings, onto this ladder he has been climbing his whole life, stuck between what is and what could be. He still tells himself stories, stories of faraway lands and faraway people. But most of the time, he just wishes the eyes had gotten to him first.
Yen-Rong is a Brisbanite who is currently attempting to write an Honours thesis. She has a keen interest in science communication, which will probably please her parents somewhat as they weren’t too pleased with her transition from ‘aspiring scientist’ to ‘aspiring English literature academic’. She has written for Semper Floreat, Brain Mill Press, and Rambutan Literary, and spends an inordinate amount of time making sure her cat doesn’t totally ruin her couch. You can find her on Twitter @inexorablist, or at her website at www.inexorablist.com.