[Short story] Ladders
Content Warning: Suicide
Sybil passes the gourd-shaped lady tending to her garden of ladders. The widowed neighbor spends her retirement painting beautiful designs on the ladders that jungle her condo. She paints things like starry nebulas, yin-yang appropriations, deer moose swan. Her late spouse was a carpenter, so he had hewn many ladders.
Sybil walks to the station. Along the way, children’s playgrounds have those semi-circle ladders, non-rusting aluminum frames. Look at them climb and play under the warmth of the sun. Scale the concrete grid.
Sybil loves to explore the forest of ladders, the ones that reach beyond the fog, fizzling into atmospheric nonobeyance. Astronauts have yet to discover the final rung of infinite space. Anyone can make a ladder out of mundane materials, like the ladder her friend had made from rope, puff pastry, and toenail clippings.
Stairs to the underground, gleaming rails and ladders of refuge. Travelers hustle through stands under warm bulbs, the smell of damp wind crinkles into bagel delight. No ladder for sesame comfort.
Metal scanners ahead. Sybil sports a thick coat and hidden forks. Rush hour creams the mass, a flurry of scarves and ladders. She weasels aside a conveyor belt, bypassing the baggage checkpoint. Free from the can, out cold in the terminal. Upon a lattice bench she sits, waiting for the train to arrive. Bullets travel straight, but a severed hand flies in an arc.
“Your attention please; The Charlatan Valley Ladder is now approaching. Stand behind the yellow zone, and do not lean on the glass.”
Marveling at paneled ladders with crystal spreaders, Sybil blinks away the ladders in her eyes. What did that Son of Ladder say? ‘Why do you insist on taking out the ladder from your brother’s eye, when you fail to notice the log in your own?’
Walking underneath a ladder brings bad luck. If that’s the case, Sybil must have exceptional fortune. At the dog park, the chain-link runs sideways, so dogs are spared superstition.
Everywhere in the sky above, feral robots, hot-air jellyfish, rove in vast schools. As the sun half-shines through their veils, they swoon and bobble when the bullet slows to a stop. Godrays dapple the station. Sybil boards the carrier and finds a worn seat under the baggage ladder.
They said automation would usher joblessness and communism. It did, so everyone has more time than they know what to do with, lounging around and filling the world with ladders. Sanding, polishing, welding, decorating. Sybil watches the landscape rush past her window.
Time travel is possible when you climb through ladders. Wormhole of people and streets. Spires of glass blot out the sky, the wind howls with xylophone timbre. Traffic and statues surround her like a paparazzi swarm—until Sybil presses against the door and enters the massive building. The howling stops.
In the far corner of the atrium, a peddler sells paper bundles laced with black ink ladders. Buddy, your dying is industry and journalism is ladder. Suddenly she remembers they print crossdoku puzzles every Sunday, but the lawyer isn’t in office on Ladders.
She crosses the vast rug and presses the button on the wall. The ladder opens, and she steps inside, directing it to ascend to the laddereth floor. Tight space, cigarette scents baked in. The grody carpet should divorce those fake marble walls.
She had always enjoyed rock laddering, becoming a graceful puzzle that sways to reverse-engineer the grip designer’s maze. The goal was to graduate to actual rock cliffs, because polyurethane resin just doesn’t have the same majesty.
Cerulean panels, obsidian rails. Dance with the clouds all day, at heights that could melt humans faster than flaming wax. Absolutely no dresses! Can’t a woman climb without getting leered at?
Hard hats aren’t very hard, but ladders are even tastier! The robots struggle with balance at harsh wind altitudes. How much kinesthetic intelligence does it take to pass a 30-story survive? Sybil scored in the 10th percentile on the National Ladder, not eligible for university.
Addicting friction, rubber cap attachment hinge. Cables checked, no fraying, investigation concluded. There was a superfluous lawsuit where an office worker sued the ladder; he spilled scalding coffee all over his nuts, because a face loudly bumped the window right next to him.
“Mr. Ladder!” Sybil shuffles into the lobby. “Do you have the videotape?”
The man dressed in a suit and neckladder says, “We’re still working on extracting it. In the meantime, why don’t you check your purse?”
“Oh?” Sybil unzips her fake dead zebra; a CD-ROM catches her eye. She unclasps the clear cover from the disc.
The lawyer motions to his office projector and struggles to pull a DVD machine to the forefront. “Here, why don’t you put that in.”
Sybil takes the disc by its hole and slides it into the ancient drive. The lawyer turns on the projector, and the colors start off green before warming into normal hues.
For hours and hours, Sybil watches the video romp on the fabric. She grasps at the ladders of prismatic shadow beamed from the ceiling eye. Over and over, she presses rewind on the remote. Boatswain platform wipes the windows, leaving streaks. Soaked overalls.
She laughs at the detergent bottle that slides off. “There goes my partner!” Apparently it landed on a pedestrian and caused ladderal damage.
Throughout the day, ding. Clients stream through the elevator, the lobby, greeted by a giant projection of infinite low-resolution nonsense. Static bars flicker over secret tragedy, barely.
The lawyer beckons visitors to his private office. He should’ve enforced a restraining order for that homeless woman long ago, but now he’s stopped minding. Every week, she arrives like clockwork for the video. Ladders are not meant to be moved until the job is done.
Rib rungs and spines support flesh, the tracks of the subway lay horizontal, and the sinusoidal doctors draw waves from conclusions. Poles and transformers, wires net the heavens, behemoth scarecrows bear lightning omens, why can’t artificial intelligence overcome ladders?
Do sky ladders need cleaning crews? Sybil had a lot of trouble gripping the glass surfaces, because they were perfectly unrocky. It’s no trouble to fall, no fault to be unlucky. Under the tracks, a foot was found. Not Sybil’s foot, mind you, she’s only considered doing it. Why’s it bad luck to be underneath a ladder? Going anywhere near one is just asking for it. What ought she do if the ladder’s invisible? Darn those evil scientists for making invisible metal. Kids find amazing dexterity to escape the crib. Onto the ladder. Tossed aside by trains of uncaring people.
“Ladders” was originally published in Issue 1 of Slouching Beast, a poetry and flash-fiction journal about rupture of capitalist hegemony.