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The only thing I can remember is this tower.
I must have been somewhere else before coming here. I don’t remember anything before this, but I know things. I know the room I often wake up in is a doctor’s office. Then again… those words together don’t seem quite right to describe what I call the checkpoint. Office of a doctor, maybe? The doctor’s study? It was warm and homey, covered in shelves crammed full of books and knick-knacks. I wonder why I call them that… little objects and shapes with no discernible purpose… knick-knacks.
There is a couch nestled in a window nook, but outside the window is nothing but a blank white. There’s a ball on a stand… a…. globe? Yes, a white globe that sits by this couch. I sometimes spin it when the door is locked. There is a desk piled high with books, each page filled with handwritten scrawl I don’t recognize. There is one book that I know: I think it was blank when I first came here, but I can’t be to sure. I don’t remember ever arriving here. Just being here.
Off on its own there’s a cabinet that stretches from the floor to the ceiling. It’s as wide as my arms when I hold them out and made of a dark, solid wood. It’s filled with glass bottles with little labels on them and jars filled with cloudy water and plants. Vials of powders line the doors and dried flowers and bags of chopped roots hang from the top.
There’s one other thing in the room, sitting atop a carved podium in the center of the room. A blood-red phone. I know it’s old, and I know it’s called a rotary phone. Every day, it rings, loud and harsh. It always startles me and makes my heart pound. I’ve climbed over the desk and knocked down side tables just to make it stop. When I pick it up and put the receiver to my ear, I know what to say.
Sometimes there’s noise after I say this. A scream, a loud crash, a high-pitched tone, a rattling breath, but sometimes there’s nothing. I put the receiver back on its cradle and I hear the click of the door unlocking. If I’ve knocked anything over in the room it has been replaced, and sometimes the furniture is a bit different. The window, the globe, the desk, the cabinet, books, and phone are always there, never moving. However, sometimes there’s an extra chair or table, sometimes the shelves look different or there’s an extra pile of books on the floor.
After I stop the ringing and I hear the lock click loose I know it’s time to keep going.
The stairs sometimes change, but my favorite form is that of a curving stairway. One side curls flush with the walls of the tower, the other looks down into the gaping maw below. Usually there’s a banister, but not always. When I look over the railing, all I can see is stairs winding down, down, down, all the way to eternity: a tiny pinprick of black. It is the same when I look up. A few times I’ve opened the door and nearly stumbled off, for the stairs were narrow and simply hugged a slender pole going up the middle of the tower.
That’s rule number one. Be careful.
There are a few other rules I’ve discovered. Don’t touch the phone unless it rings. Picking it up will cause the tower to shift and noises to erupt from the other end. The phone will start its harsh ringing and an uproar will erupt from its receiver. The door will lock so you’re trapped in the uproar until you collapse in exhaustion.
Another rule is don’t try to force the door open. The phone will scream at you.
There is sometimes a television in the checkpoint. It has a knob you can turn and antenna you can move. If the door is locked you can turn the knob and it will light up the room if the lights have gone out. Sometimes, it’ll show fizzling bits of black and white. If you stare at them long enough, you’ll sometimes see things. It’s a good way to pass the time if you’re waiting for the phone to ring or you get to a checkpoint early and aren’t tired yet. Just make sure you turn it off when the door unlocks. If you leave the room with it on it will start growling with a low, humming sound. It’ll get louder and louder until it’s filled up your head with its buzzing roar until you fall or go back down and turn it off.
Those are the last two rules. Don’t sleep on the stairs. You’ll wake up with wounds and bruises. It’ll slow your progress for quite awhile, and you don’t want to be caught in the stairwell after dark.
Finally, go up, never down. I… don’t know why. But when the phone rings and the door unlocks, you should never, ever go lower than the checkpoint. I get uneasy even turning around to turn off the television, but the one time I took a step lower out of curiosity I knew that I had just done something terribly wrong. I jumped back up to the landing and sat down, unable to move for quite a time. The checkpoint door locks behind you, so I eventually had to force myself to trudge upward until I reached the checkpoint again.
It was always the same basic room, and my own book always lay on the desk, but somehow I feel like I’m making progress.
Every day it’s the same. I open my eyes and I’m in the checkpoint. Sometimes lying down on the couch, sometimes sitting at the desk, sometimes standing by the door, but always at the checkpoint. I wait for the phone to ring, I answer it, the door unlocks, and I climb. Eventually, I make it to the checkpoint again. I watch the television, leaf through the books, or write in my own book until the room darkens and I close my eyes. Then everything repeats.
I don’t remember a time that anything was different. Sure, sometimes there would be a new piece of furniture in the checkpoint or the stairs were somewhat changed, but overall my days bleed from one into another in a ceaseless climb upward.
That is… until now.
As I climbed up the stairs yesterday, I noticed a second step of echoing footsteps right behind my own. It was barely out of sync with each strike of my foot on the stone stairs and didn’t seem in any hurry.
That same feeling as when I stepped down instead of up filled me from my feet to my chest, threatening to reach its fingers into my head.
I’m the only one here. I’ve always been the only one here.
But… I’m not the only one climbing.
The staircase was wood today. It curled around a central white pillar, accented with an elegant curved handrail and gold brackets . The wood was smooth and cool to the touch, drawing a smile to my lips as I glided upward. Wooden stairs always seemed more welcoming than iron or stone, and it made the stark light that emanated from everywhere and nowhere seem warmer and more welcoming.
There were windows on the smooth stone walls. As always, they were blank and white, like someone had build a second wall on the other side. After taking a few cautious steps I settled into the rhythm of the new stairs. They were nice, not too steep but not to shallow. I craned my neck up, noticing that I could see a door hovering on the edge of discernible vision.
The checkpoint seemed close today.
With hope of a short climb I picked up my pace a little, matching the beat of my footsteps on wood to a song that always hung at the edge of my mind.
My grandfather’s clock was too large for its shelf
So it stood ninety years only the floor.
It was taller by half than the old man himself
But it weighed not a pennyweight more…
As steady as the ticking of a clock, my footsteps echoed up and down the stairway. I found myself humming along with the words in my head.
Ninety years without stumbling
His life seconds numbering
But it stopped-
A footstep echoed.
I hadn’t moved.
Cold dread filled me as I stood motionless. I strained against the silent buzzing of still air, but heard no more footsteps.
I slowly continued to walk, this time listening for any deviant echoes that trailed behind me. Craning my neck upward, I squinted towards the checkpoint. It seems the stairs were tricking me today – though I had gone up quite a bit the checkpoint had barely moved. I was tired, but didn’t want to risk resting without knowing how far the checkpoint really was. I blinked and the stairs wavered, flickering closer to the central pillar as it twisted itself tighter as it rose. I frowned, looking down at my feet as the pleasant wood drained into the cracks of emerging stone.
The same quivering fear that filled me when I took that step towards the lower floors rose to my throat. As if running from a rising tide, I rushed up the stairway, ignoring the handrails in fear of them faltering or changing. A second set of footsteps echoed seconds and inches behind my own as the tide of dread rose faster, licking at my heels and biting at my ankles.
With another blink the air waved and the stairs sunk into a flat landing, where I stood panting. The echoing footsteps had stopped and a heavy silence had draped itself into the stairwell. I signed and slowed to a stop, catching my breath and looking around. I found my eyes pulled towards the way I came, and the ocean of dread that rose behind me was almost tangible. With a shuddering sigh I forced my eyes away and looked up towards the checkpoint. It didn’t seem as far up as it had been earlier, but I pushed my excitement down, knowing that it might very well move again.
With breath and composure restored, I started up those stairs again. It had been a long time since the stairs had been so active in their changes. Usually things didn’t change while I was on the stairs, instead waiting until checkpoints to morph. By this time the stairs had slid flush with the central pillar, roping upward in a tight spiral. I kept my fingertips grazing the stone walls – it was nice to have walls on both sides instead of just one. I couldn’t fully extend my arms, but the narrow hall of stone was comforting.
As I rounded another tight bend the silence was broken by a sharp shattering and clattering. Around the next curve I sped to find a window that nested in the outer wall was broken. Fractured glass hovered and spun slowly in the air as if suspended by wire. Amidst the scattered debris floated a cup and saucer, delicately detailed with white flowers I thought I recognized.
I prodded at one of the glass shards, carefully pushing them away until I could take the cup. A bit of liquid sloshed out, a dark, sticky, mess. Chunks of stuff floated in it, as though it had congealed from being left out for so long. A cautious sniff made me sick to my stomach – it smelled of rot and blood and poison.
Careful not to spill any more, I continued up the stairs. It was only a few more bends until I was face to face with a smooth wall. I smiled and looked towards the central pillar, the predictable wooden door of the checkpoint was there to greet me.
It had been a long climb today, it would be nice to sit down.
Balancing the cup and saucer in one hand, I opened the door and pushed my way into the checkpoint. The cabinet was already open, inviting me to store my new prize inside. I would sometimes find bottles and jars on the stairs, and I always felt the need to hold onto them. I squinted at my teacup closely, looking at the painted flowers.
I knew those flowers.
Carefully placing it on the newly formed hollow – perfectly suited for a cup and saucer – I scanned the dried flowers hanging from the top. I finally found a dried bloom that looked the same, although its white petals were yellowed with age. Above it, the words “Rue: Extract or dried” were written in precise letters.
I peered back into the cup at the liquid inside. What exactly was it? I noticed that rot-and-blood smell again. With plenty of space in the stairs for the smell to defuse it wasn’t as noticeable, but here in the checkpoint it stifling. I searched in the cabinet for an empty jar, successfully finding one in the back. Holding my breath, I poured the chunky stuff into the empty jar, closing it fast. My head spun and I felt sick.
I stepped away from the cabinet for some fresher air and went to the desk. I wrote about the active day in my book until I felt the air might have sweetened. Back to the cabinet, I picked up the jar and brought it to the desk for better light. The mixture seemed somewhat layered, sharp reds slurred around dark chunks and bits of pinkish film. I frowned and held it up to the dull light of the window, but it didn’t seem to change anything. Just in case it disappeared, I described both the cup and liquid in great detail, and attempted to sketch the cup. It wasn’t the best, but it would get the point across.
The light of the tower dimmed, progressing steadily to darkness. I closed the book and hurried my way to one of the couches – I didn’t trust that the room stayed the same in the darkness and I didn’t want to stumble around in the dark.
I could just distinguish the shape of the couch when the room descended into pitch. I felt my way across the room until my fingers touched familiar fabric and lowered myself down in a sigh, happy to finally…
… I was by the door.
I wish I was asleep instead.
Ignoring my wishes, the phone rang, clamoring for my attention with its dark scream. When I answered it in my usual way I heard a screeching cry and troubled coughing. I stiffened, knowing better than to try to hang up before the phone was finished. The screaming dwindled to a sob… a cry… and whimper… and nothing. Finally, the merciful sound of a sharp note played through the phone, giving me permission to hang up. Unlike the other calls, this one sent chills down my spine. Something about that withering life, full of suffering and pain, finally ebbing away frightened me.
I rubbed my eyes and looked around the room. It had been ransacked sometime between my blinks. The furniture that was always in the room was still intact, but the extra tables, chairs, and couches were town and flipped over. The cabinet had been opened and its contents spilled out in the room. The rot-and-blood-and-poison mixture from the jar was sprinkled among the trail of dried plants that snaked its way to the door. The vile smell was unleashed into the room, stronger than it had ever been. I gagged and covered my nose as I followed the trail out of the checkpoint.
The stairwell was dim today, narrow and wrapped around thin pillar as it traveled. It was made of iron grating, and the stairway seemed to widen as it went up. I couldn’t see anything past the stairs, and wondered if how large the tower had gotten. The free side of the stairs opened to darkness, and I knew I’d have to be careful without a handrail. There was no sign of the sickening trail on those stairs.
I steeled myself with a deep breath before looking down. The trail that had led me out of the checkpoint had turned down the stairs, which twisted down into the darkness. I couldn’t tell if it widened as it went down or not. Dread nipped at my ankles and I started up to avoid it.
I hadn’t gone up more than a few hundred feet when the second set of footsteps appeared. As always, just an instant behind my own. I looked up to check the distance of the checkpoint… and my heart stopped.
Looking down at me, just a floor or two above, was a woman. Her dark eyes were ringed with tired bruises, and they widened at the sight of me.
Or should I say… my own eyes widened at the sight of my reflection. I flattened myself against the pillar while my doppelganger took off up the stairs. I only heard a few of her steps before silence took over. It was as though she simply disappeared.
Or she had stopped, and was waiting between me and the checkpoint.
I knew there were other people like me. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone else, but just as I knew the names of the things in my room I knew that I wasn’t the only person. I had tried in vain to remember what other people looked like, but all I could recall were my own blurred features from one of the checkpoint’s occasional mirrors. However, the reflection I had just seen was sharp and perfect, as lifelike as a twin.
I still hadn’t moved. The idea of meeting myself was too much.
Slowly, I moved my eyes down. The rot-and-blood-and-poison trail had crawled up the stairs, looking like a trail of something being dragged downward. My gaze went back up. Which would be worse? Following the foul trail into the trembling darkness below or continuing upward towards the checkpoint and my other?
The smell from the trail was turning my stomach, pulling the ball of sickness upwards into my throat. I swallowed it down and hurried upwards, pushing my soon-burning legs until they trembled and twitched.
My hands met flat wall and I instinctively turned and threw myself into the checkpoint door, crashing into the room and falling to the floor. The nausea had finally receded into the pit of my stomach, freeing me to gulp down lungfuls of air as I lay on the cold floor.
The checkpoint was very bare today. Only the phone on its podium and a single chair furnished the room. My book filled with daily scribblings was crumpled on the floor, as if it had been carelessly tossed. I picked it up and looked around the room. Where was my cabinet?
Clutching the book to my chest, I inspected the walls of the room. It wouldn’t be the first time I had found a hidden alcove in the checkpoint. However, the walls were flawless and bare.
I was actually relieved when the lights began to dim. The checkpoint hadn’t even provided me with a pen to write in my book with, so I had little to do other than pace the tiny room. The chair would have to do for tonight.
It was a simple wooden chair, the type that was used with a desk or a table, not the type to curl up in and snooze. There were no arms or cushions, so I was left to awkwardly fumble into what felt like a livable position. As the grey lights gave way to black pitch, I could hear the soft groans and snaps as the tower shifted its many checkpoints and stairs.
The door clicked shut, sealing me inside the safety of the checkpoint. For a long while I just lay and breathed, focusing on the cool marble floor and the sweetly stagnant air – not even a hint of rot-and-blood-and-poison.
I couldn’t find the phone.
It screamed and screamed, but I couldn’t find it.
The door and its frame stood in the otherwise empty checkpoint. The room stretch to the horizon, fading into an empty grey as its floors melted into the distant nothing. No ceiling, no walls…
With adrenaline burning my insides, I threw myself against the door. A tattoo of bangs sounded from the other side, each strike to the door accompanied by the cracking of wood and a booming voice demanding entrance.
The tower was angry.
With a resounding roar a crack spiderwebbed across the door’s surface, cracking and splitting the paint. A burning chill flared in my stomach as I ran in the other direction, trying to keep my footing as the floor began to tilt upward in an attempt to dump be back to the door. With a defiant scream I pushed my legs faster, scrambling up the incline with all the strength I had. I had resorted to crawling on my hands and knees when I saw something at the corner of my eye, the smallest of flaws in the perfectly empty room. A ragged gasp escaped my lips as I changed direction and crawled towards it on bloodied knees and palms.
With a groan the floor shuddered and began tilting back to its original position. The phone still screamed and the booming voice still punctuated the violent tattoo against the door behind me, but at least I had a fighting chance. Back on my feet, I ran towards the growing shape of my cabinet. The splintering of wood grew louder as the door bulged outward and a crack echoed through the empty room.
“Where is she?”
I had no choice.
I wretched the cabinet doors open and threw myself inside, feeling my heart jump into my throat as I came into contact not with the edges of the thing, but with cold, dead air.
It was dark.
Deep, black darkness. So thick and inky if felt as though it had substance, like I was falling through a thick syrup. Thicker and thicker the air grew and slower and slower I fell until I lay suspended in the air.
For a breath I was relaxed, floating in the air and cradled in the thick atmosphere. I felt safe,cloistered in the solid air. By the succor was short lived as the blanket tightened and snaked around my neck and into my mouth, filling my nose and mouth and lungs and ears as I struggled against the constricting darkness. I bucked and kicked, but the binding tightened around me, squeezing the last drop of air from my lungs. My head began to spin as blood pounded in my ears. The world flooded and my body fell limp and…
With a gasp I found myself above water, grabbing wildly at the cobblestone that circled around me, clawing like a wild animal until my fingers caught the edge and I pulled myself up and-
The water was suddenly shallow.
I looked at the rock wall encircling me, its edges a few inches above my head. On shaky legs I stumbled up, using the wall of this… well? Using the walls of the well to pull myself up.
This isn’t right.
This wasn’t the stairs… this wasn’t the checkpoint.
This was… something else.
Walls were absent from this room. However, unlike the bastardization of the checkpoint I had seen earlier, this room was dim and full. All around the well swelled a gently lapping pool of water. It lapped against a grassy edge that poured into a sloping field beyond. On the opposite shore grew tall and sturdy sentinels that blocked the view beyond.
Chirps, croaks, and gibbering calls echoed between them, melting into the darkness behind the sentinels.
The word came to my head but was dismissed as my eyes scanned the lapping shoreline until the trees shrunk into smaller and smaller versions of themselves and the landscape returned to field.
This isn’t right.
Careful of any shifts, I climbed out of the well, testing the depth of the pool surrounding it. Despite it’s appearance, the water barely covered the sole of my shoes. Water rippled from my feet, kissing the flecks of green that clustered here and there.
I could clearly see stalks diving down from the pads and disappearing into the darkness far below the surface of the pool.
Yet my feet were barely wet.
I took a tentative step … then another… and another… repeating the motion with caution until I was close enough to leap from the water to the grassy shores.
A tug at the corners of my eyes pulled my attention back to the trees on the other shore and my throat tightened at the shift.
Ropes hung from every branch. Thick, sinewy things, each with a gaping loop at its end.
Pain blossomed in my neck and twisted its fingers down my spine and into my ribs. That same feeling, the sensation of wrongness, the same I felt when I thought about going down instead of up. I stumbled into the grass and flung myself towards the field beyond. The painful fingers loosened their grip on my rips, retracting further and further up my back until only a dull ache behind my eyes remained.
I glanced over my shoulder, back into the rope-strewn woods. Those sharp, throbbing fingers of pain branched down to my ribs again, squeezing my lungs until I jerked my head away.
I could breathe again.
With a cold stone of unease settled in my stomach, I turned my attention to the endless fields beyond. The grass was stock-still, only moving when I brushed it aside. The stalks slowly return to their original place with the a slow deliberateness reminiscent of a venus fly trap.
I squinted into the distance. Far, far off, past where the grass blurred into haze, was a massive shape. It seemed more blurred than the rest of the horizon, shuddering and wavering as though it was underwater.
I didn’t want to go back to the ropes.
There wasn’t much choice. I couldn’t stay here – I had to get to the checkpoint. What if it got dark? This place felt more dangerous than the stairs, more open, and so, so distant from the familiarity of the stairs and the safety of the checkpoint.
When I looked at the roped trees it was all-too similar to the feeling that twisted my stomach when I thought about going down instead of up.
What if I was… Down?
I had to get back up, to the checkpoint and my cabinet and collections and journals and even the blood red phone that screamed and demanded.
Anywhere was better than here.
Still struggling for breath, I pushed aside the stagnant grass and trudged towards the distant shape. At first, my progress seemed as unmoving as the grass around me. But with every step, my lungs filled easier, and the distant shape began grow and sharpen into a white, dingy cylinder. Despite this, it continued to waver, forever shifting its place in the world. I stopped, squinting at it. It stretched high into the sky, surely too far to even be scaled.
A few paces more and I began to notice the grass thinking before sloping down to a lapping shore that stretched into a treeline.
Those same roped trees loomed before me, stealing my breath as the familiar pain threatened to bring me to my knees.
I was back?
But that jittering shape stood in place of the well. Its somehow solid and fluid form shivering around some undefined center.
But those ropes. They were in the trees beyond and behind. I was boxed in, trapped between dangling ropes that made my head and chest hurt with pounding blood and asphyxia.
I only had one chance.
The old pain began to work it’s way down my spine and around my lungs as I walked towards the shoreline, knowing I would have to bear the pain if I was to get to that flickering tower. By the time I reached the shoreline the throbbing in my chest left no space for air to flow into my lungs and I was grasping at the space in front of me, desperate to find the entrance to the tower that flicked in and out of existence.
I must have blacked out, because I woke with my face pressed to an oddly warm wooden floor. Unsteadily I fumbled up, feeling somewhat at ease now that I was back inside the tower.
That ease left me when I looked around. The wooden floor seemed to age and rot the further away from me it stretched. Pristine wood gave way to rough grey boards, the gaps of rotten wood growing larger and larger as dirt and grass took over the floor, finally sloping into a shore and…
I was back at the lake.
It was still as glass, not even a ripple at the shores or even around the well that stood in the middle of the lake. I didn’t want to look any higher than the shoreline, what if the trees were still there? The trees and those choking ropes. I mustered my courage and dragged my eyes upward, preparing for the worst. But instead of trees and ropes, rough hewn stone walls surrounded the area. I sighed in relief – I was still inside the tower. I was still Down, but that could easily be rectified with the stairs that curved upward from the shore. I walked around, skirting away from the too-still water to access the base of the stairs, but I stopped short at sight of what was waiting on the stairs.
Very young, maybe four or five, with the short hair of a girl with too few years for it be long. Most of her head was covered with with a sunhat that seemed a few sizes too big for her, and she wore a very fancy dress, bursting with lace and petticoats and ribbons. She looked just like me.
How long had I been here?
The girl… I? The other me looked from her velvet shoes and a resounding sense that I should leave gripped me. Those unblinking grey eyes stared at me with no sense of malice, but also without recognition or any type of thought. Just a blank, unfeeling stare.
I eased towards the stairs – I was indeed Down, and I knew I needed to get back up, I wasn’t supposed to be Down. I felt sick, my stomach rolling with hot, festering fear as I advanced towards the blessed stairs and the cursed child, the taste of it thick on my tongue. Her eyes followed me, craning her neck up as I came closer.
Finally, I was at the base of the stairs. By now, the fear that sickened my stomach intensified as a thick, cloying smell clouded the air around me. It seemed to fill my lungs with the heavy stink, lessening the space for much-needed air.
I had to get up. I had to reach the checkpoint. I had to get back to the monotonous climb.
But I didn’t know if I could get past this other me.
I turned away from the child, covering my mouth and nose. Another step and the smell was so thick it seemed to settle on my shoulders, weighing me down with its sour heat. A buzzing had started filling the air and I could almost feel the flick of tiny wings against my face as I drew closer. What little space was left for air in my lungs was filled and I gagged – I recognized the smell. The smell of rot-and-blood-and-poison.
Desperate for air, but slow from the weight on my shoulders to run, I pulled myself up the first few stairs and past her. Step by step, the air grew clearer, lighter, but still filled with dread as I felt the stair of my own eyes on me.
The pressure of her gazed finally left me as I turned a bend in the spiraled stairs. The relieved sigh drained my last speck of energy and I sank to ground, gulping shuddering breaths. The air was clean, but that fetid smell seemed to be stuck in my nose. I wiped it furiously and pulled myself up by the banister. I needed to move – it was a bad idea to be caught on the stairs after the checkpoint closed.
I knew from the echoing footsteps and flutter of motion above me that I was again not alone in my climb.
The flashes were fleeting, hurrying upward. I should hurry too. Keeping my eyes to my own moving feet, I went up the stairs as fast as I could without needing to stop. As I climbed, the polished wooden stairs steadily rippled from brown into a dull and splintered wood and I kept my hand hovered just above the withering banister to avoid the splinters and loose nails.
A slam from above me startled me and I grasped the banister, nicking the side of my palm on one of the nails. A hiss of pain echoed through the tower and I grasped my injured hand to my chest. It stung, but it was just a nick in the skin, nothing serious. I turned my gaze up towards the sound at fault and saw something I never saw before.
The checkpoint above stood on its own at the end of the stairway, an arched ceiling… no, not just a ceiling, a …roof? Yes, a roof hovered over the checkpoint’s door.
A deep chill wafted up from below, cutting along my ankles and ushering a heavy stink I recognized. The lights below began to dim and darkness oozed its way upward.
Bleeding hand forgotten, I threw myself upward and grabbed the warm, pulsing doorknob and opened the final door.
It was different here.
Not like the ropes in the trees or that room in the Down, not sickening or painful.
Like Down, this place had grass, but no lake, no border of rope-choked trees. Just grass and hills stretching far, far, far, until they faded into nothingness. The whole place seemed to breathe, rippling through the tall grass with a rush of cool breath.
It was wind.
The breathing hills were only broken by a single, gnarled tree. It twisted and wound upward, reaching towards the unending dome above with pointed fingers. And there, at the base of rolling roots, was myself. That tiny, short-haired me.
Her… my? The child. The child’s hat flew off her head and she took off to chase it. There was no sickly smell or buzzing cloud this time. Instead there was a soft, clean smell to the place, carried from the grass and hills.
The other me caught up to the hat and squatted to pick it up. She looked up in time to see a small bit of black jump out of the grass and flutter a distance. She dropped the hat and started towards the creature, arms outstretched and eyes bright. No more than a few steps were skipped before a booming voice echoed from the world, the same one that had screamed at me while it pounded on that door.
“Not so far from me, little one.”
Startled, but far from afraid, the child grabbed up her hat and took off towards the tree, leaping through the grass like a spirited fawn.
With a crackling and splintering, the tree gave a jerk and its limbs began to straighten as it reached a twiggy arm toward the girl. Its twisted limbs smoothed into long, pale fingers that slightly rubbed the child’s hair before pulling her towards its now-human body. As he did the girl looked up at him, her eyes filled with love and admiration.
The creature turned its head to me and the same twisting pain from the ropes curled down my spine. He lowered his head so that only his clenched mouth and chin could be seen and the pain settled into the back of her skull, dull and aching.
“Go and play, little one.” He said, “But not to far, not beyond our hill.” He gestured to his roots, which were fluttering from wood into cloth, and a single grasshopper burrowed out and leapt high. The child made a squeaking nose and followed it excitedly, attempting to grab it but narrowly missing as it led her away.
He stared after her, but seemed stiff and his pale fists were clenched at his sides.
“Nothing.” He started in a low voice, “Nothing I can give her will amend for for what was done to her. I have tried. Giving her this place to play and discover, guiding and caring for her. But only so much can be done for that little one.”
I hesitated, “Is… is that me?”
At that the creature seemed to grow. His black robes rippled in a sudden gust of chilling air. The fabric struggled to accommodate his growing form, stretching tight enough to see the outline of bones. His mouth opened and his lips receded to bone as he screamed, “You? You? You stupid woman, you are the cause of all this! Snuffed out after mere days and knowing nothing but pain from the moment her little nerves awoke!
I felt the tiniest of heartbeats stirring inside me, causing a deep, dark shame.
“I…” I felt the memory, small and irritating, “Is this…”
I understood. I had done something wrong. I swallowed and looked up at him, whispering, “The abortion?”
A deep growl rumbled in his bony chest, “That? You think this is about that? Removing an unwanted child from your undeserving womb?” By now the robes were barely threads woven into yellowed bone, but his face was still blessedly covered. “No! You could have given her a clean, painless death. Her little soul plucked from you and placed into another. Her body would be destroyed but she would have lived!” Pieces of the revealed bone were flaking away and even his face cover was loosening.
Teas, herbs, and honey, but still it grew. Arriving early, red and malformed, mewling for days and refusing to quiet until…
“But your selfish pride wouldn’t allow that! You thought yourself so pious and true, and so concerned were you of that reputation that you would rather make all around you suffer than to admit to the slightest of missteps. And when someone, someone truly pious and good tried to intervene, to rescue the little one from the pain-”
Blood. A knife. Cutting, slicing. Sorting by size and concealing in bags… taken out to the back fields and hidden. Cleaning, wiping, scrubbing. So much bleach.
“She was going to tell.” I rasped, “She swore she wouldn’t tell but she went back on her word! It was supposed to be a secret, but she still came, saw me outside and -”
Water. Even after three days it still clung to life. She had to quiet it, had to make it stop.
“No courage to end the most innocent quickly, even after all her suffering. Too weak, too cowardly.”
Finally, it stopped its twitching and writing, stilled by the frigid lake on that winter day.
“So very cowardly.” Its face was exposed. Fiery hatred blazing behind its empty eyes as its skull cracked. “So concerned for yourself, unable to bear living while others knew what you had done, you refused to accept the deserved repercussions for your sin!”
A rope. Pain shooting from her skull and down her spine. Gasping for breath that couldn’t find a way in.
“I was scared.” I whispered, “Yes, I was weak. I was wrong, but I was so, so-”
With a resounding roar the familiar pain racked down her body, so terrible that her vision dimmed and her breaths stopped. A whipping breeze whirled around her, pieces nicking her skin and tearing her clothes.
“I, I, I!” The creature howled above the wind. “So much damage you inflict, so much bloodshed and pained weeping, yet you still say, I, I, I!” She could hear the cracking and splintering of bone as the creature shifted its form. No longer human, no longer anything that should exist. It heaved with some unknown effort, now a huge, grotesque amalgamation of mismatched bones and tendons. The fire behind its eyes was blazing as its now-cervine skull fractured and lowered with the weight of stretching and cracking anglers. A final splintering sounded as bone erupted from the creature’s curved spine, twisting and splitting into some broken reflection of dying bird.
“I!” The creature’s scream racked its own bones, causing them to shudder and clatter against one another. No longer coming from just the beast, the cacophony shook the world around her so it churned and flickered, sharpening as the border of trees burst forth from the ground. Closer and closer, more trees broke through the soil, the bindings of rope growing tighter and tighter on their branches and trunks as they multiplied.
“I!” A warbling tone had joined his cry.
“I!” It screamed in beat with the creatures raging voice.
“I!” Ringing, ringing, ringing-
I picked up the blood-red phone. I knew what to say.
“I’m here.” A single, shuddering breath came though the phone before being replaced by silence, followed closely by a sharp tone.
The checkpoint’s lock clicked open and I started my climb. Ever since I can remember, it’s been the same thing, day after day. I open my eyes to the checkpoint, answer the phone, and I climb. Sometimes the furniture may change or the stairs might shift, but I can always guarantee to have a window looking out into dim light, a globe and books, a cabinet for things I might find, and the same, blood-red phone.
The door locked behind me and I felt a sudden uneasy notion that I should look Down. I eased my eyes away from my upward goal and felt a cold dread grip me with such ferocity that I vaulted myself up the first few stairs.
I had to climb.
“My grandfather’s clock was too large for its shelf
So it stood ninety years only the floor.
It was taller by half than the old man himself
But it weighed not a pennyweight more…”
After all, that was one of the rules.
“Ninety years without stumbling
His life seconds numbering
But it stopped short,
Never to go again
When the old man died.”
Never, ever, go Down.