Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
The ladder hadn’t been there this morning; of this, I was certain. Nor had it been there before in all the time I’d known this house.
And it’s not that I don’t know it well: it used to belong to my grandparents, and I spent many a summer here; I know the building inside and out, every nook and cranny, as only a child possibly could. I know this ladder doesn’t belong here, that the house doesn’t even have an attic; the slope of the roof (a roof I almost fell from on more than one occasion during my early teens) is too shallow to offer anything in the way of storage space. That’s why I keep so much junk in the basement: rarely (but still occasionally) appliances, holiday decorations, and furniture I simply couldn’t bring myself to part with when I inherited the place.
And yet there it was, in front of me: a ladder, its gnarled wooden rails thoroughly at odds with the upstairs landing around it. It was carved roughly from some dark, almost black, wood; not a variety I recognised, although I don’t claim to be an expert on wood.
I’d seen enough horror films in my time to know what would happen if I were to go up there, although I didn’t let that stop me taking a look up, standing in front of the impossible hatch in my ceiling and tilting my head back. I saw rafters, insulation… more or less what I expected to see. Deciding there was nothing to fear, I decided to make my way up there. With the benefit of hindsight, I can honestly say this was the worst decision of my life.
As I passed through the rectangular aperture above me, I felt as though I was moving through some form of thick gel, rasping against my skin and stinging my eyes; I closed them, and continued, feeling blindly until I felt my head come free of the strange sensation. I opened my eyes.
The room I found myself in was dark, lit only from a circular window on the far wall. The weak beam of light did little to illuminate the place, not reaching far enough to show me any walls beside the one the window was nestled in, which was made of the same dark wood as the ladder, this time cut into rough, splinter-filled planks. There was a curious smell to the place, although it was faint enough that I couldn’t quite place it back then. I crept over to the window, reasoning that a peek outside wouldn’t hurt.
I’d expected to see the familiar lawn, the familiar street: the mailbox sitting in the ground at a slight angle (I still recalled catching that with my car two weeks ago), the oak tree, which still had a homemade swing attached, the birdbath, the gravel driveway, the field across from me… more or less the American Dream incarnate, really. Instead, what I saw was… impossible. The image has never truly left my mind.
Low in the pitch-black, starless sky was an eclipsed sun, a halo of light, almost white but with a purple tint. This narrow disc illuminated a wasteland, a cruel parody of the world across from me: the oak tree a fungus-encrusted stump, the birdbath a heap of rubble, the field across the road nothing but black, withered, long-dead stalks. I tore my eyes away, finding they had adjusted to the semi-darkness: I could make out the room a little clearer now, clear enough to see several mounds of rags and crates, along with furniture (or at least what looked to be furniture), covered by dust sheets the same purple-tinted white as the sunlight in this impossible place. I bent down, lifting the corner of the nearest one and finding myself looking at a bookcase, ornately carved from the now somewhat familiar black wood. It was completely full, too, leather-bound tomes covering each and every shelf. I picked one at random, taking it down and letting it fall open in my hands.
Curious symbols swirled around on the page, which may once have been white but had faded through yellow and well into brown with age. I didn’t recognise the language, although I know less about written languages than I do about wood; I took a year of Spanish back in high school, but I didn’t even come close to passing. I tucked the strange book under my arm and made my way back to the ladder, hearing the floorboards creek under my feet as I did so, feeling the strange, rasping gel rub envelop me as I made my way back down into the familiar world. The book was still with me. I made my way downstairs, and was about to make my way into the sitting room when I realised how dusty the book was; clearly, the dust sheet it was under hadn’t worked. The dust was just as wrong as everything else from above that ladder: rather than being grey, or grey-white, it was a reddish-brown, almost rust coloured. Deciding against getting any of that on the sofa, I continued down to the familiar concrete walls and wooden floor of the basement.
It took me a moment to find my grandmother’s old writing desk, moved down here when I inherited the place to make way for a television. I’d read one or two of my grandmother’s stories over the years: she was a rather talented horror writer. I remember my parents always objected to her letting me read her work, claiming it gave me nightmares, but I turned out okay (although I admit looking back on these events I made some terrible decisions). I set down the leather-bound book and pulled up a chair, taken from the dining room; I ate enough microwave meals to not need more than one or two chairs in there, and so the remaining four were down here. Sitting down, I opened the book to a random page, and saw…
The page was empty. As I flicked through the rest of the heavy tome, I discovered all the pages were blank. Could it be that the books were only readable up there, in the attic? Realising this made as much sense as anything else that had happened since I arrived home from work, I stood up, leaving the book where it was, and started towards the kitchen to grab a flashlight from the emergency kit I kept under the sink–
–But as I stood up, I heard a crashing sound from somewhere above me; the alarm system hadn’t gone off (my grandfather always was paranoid), so it couldn’t have been a home invasion; whatever had made the noise was already inside the house. It sounded close, too; I turned towards the stairs and saw a shadow atop them, cast against the plain wall in the light coming from the utility room, a shadow of nothing on earth: in the few seconds I saw it before diving under the writing desk to cower in fear, I caught a glimpse of tentacles and fur and muscles all in one writhing mass.
I don’t know how long I sat there, listening to the shapeless horror drag its body around the room, wincing with each heavy footfall. I was crammed into that space, eyes wide, fighting the urge to vomit as the stench of decay crept into my mouth. The footsteps grew closer, and it passed right by me; I heard its breath, ragged and continuous, as though it were coming from several mouths, connected to several sets of lungs. I looked away as it drew near, hearing the chair scrape against the floor, feeling the wooden legs press against my body, hoping the creature wouldn’t think to look under the desk. After what felt like an eternity of fear and the stink of decay, I heard it moving away again, and allowed myself to let out a slow, silent breath. It still sounded near, though; I didn’t risk peeking out from under the old writing desk, not until after I heard the heavy footfalls on the stairs back out of the basement. And even then, I sat there for a few minutes, rooted to the spot.
Standing up and stretching, I realised the book was gone; the wood of the desk had darkened where it had been, and the smooth surface around it was covered in scratch marks. I crept back out of the basement, weaving my way past furniture and boxes of decorations and my grandfather’s old tool box; I paused at the last one, picking out a heavy wrench and slotting it into my belt. No sense in going into this unarmed, even though I didn’t know the first thing about fighting another human, let alone that… thing, that creature up there. I know, this was as bad an idea at the time as it is in hindsight; the fact remains, though, I didn’t want that… thing, that whatever it was, in my house. Creeping my way through the house to the kitchen, listening out for the sound of footfalls, of rattling, continuous breath, hoping I wouldn’t encounter that stench again for as long as I lived.
I made it back up to the ladder without encountering the creature again. I couldn’t tell whether that creature was up there, but if it was, I thought as my hand went for the wrench, I was as ready to deal with it as I would ever be. The rasping sensation against my skin was familiar now, and I knew to keep my eyes closed. Opening them after reaching the impossible attic, I took a cautious look around, checking for that formless horror, before pulling up the rest of my body; the room was empty, save for furniture and crates. I reached for the flashlight, and flicked it on.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of a window; the wall itself had changed, plain concrete rather than wood panelling. And as I cast the flashlight’s narrow beam around the room, examining the assorted crates and dust sheet-covered furniture. I found the bookcase once again, and saw the empty space where that curious tome, filled with swirling symbols, had been. I picked up another book at random, holding it with one hand and shining the flashlight on it with the other, letting it fall open at a random page once again.
The instant my eyes fell upon the page, I felt my mind begin to expand, felt it fill with strange and impossible concepts, images of a world beyond our realm of understanding; the laws of reality as we know it don’t apply there. It wasn’t until later that I would come to realise that ‘there’ was, in fact, ‘here’.
Letting the book fall to the floor with a resounding thud, I turned to leave, only to see the ladder was no longer there. I scurried over to where it had been, and found only smooth, dark floorboards; no place where a hatch could have been. I realised I was trapped in here.
Hoping to find some other exit, I began searching the room, frantically tearing down dust sheets, searching under furniture, until I found something… familiar. The wooden surface was pitch-black, same as all the wood in here, but the dimensions were familiar. What gave it away, though, wasn’t the size, or the shape, or the fallen chair lying beside it.
What gave it way was the familiar pattern of scratches on the surface of what used to be my grandmother’s writing desk.
I staggered backwards, unable to believe what I was seeing. But sure enough, as I paced around the room over and over again, I found more and more familiar items: the rest of the chairs from the dining hall, my grandfather’s toolkit, a high chair I had used when I was a baby.
So that brings you up to date. I’m writing this now in one of the empty tomes in the bookcase; in the world I once lived in, it would have been a dictionary, or Shakespeare, or Dickens; my grandparents were the proud owners of several vintage novels, and though I knew I would never read them, it just didn’t feel right selling them. Holding a pen is in itself a challenge now; I can already feel myself beginning to change, feel my skin split and crack day by day as I become what I most feared. It wasn’t until I found I had an arm capable of holding a pen that had once been in my shirt pocket that I realised I could make some record of what happened to me.
After all, I won’t be able to tell it for much longer. Thinking is already in itself a chore, and in the time since I started this, the wood panelling on the walls has begun to return, and even as I write I can see the circular window beginning to form once again. I wonder how long I have, before I truly become that creature, before the ladder appears once more in my life… and above all else, I wonder where the monster I become goes after the human I once was ascended that ladder, that impossible ladder, for the final time.
Credit To – venort