Charlie Sodona, recently on vacation from his soul-sucking job, was back home and enjoying his last day off, unwinding and reviewing all the pictures he’d taken. He expected the post-vacation blues to hit and hoped that looking at the pictures might ease the malaise. He flipped quickly through the pictures of Europe and stopped when he came to pictures of a rainy day. Yesterday, his first day back. After going out and about every day on vacation, and with the impending anxiety of returning to work, the thought of being indoors felt like a waste of a day off. And something about being free to do what he wanted to do in his own home town brought a surge of inexplicable hope.
So he’d gone out and wandered about his own town taking pictures while the rain came down. He’d caught the dimples in a fountain in the park as the hefty raindrops fell. When the thunder and lightning started, he set his camera to continuous shooting mode, in the hopes of catching a breath-taking shot of a lightning bolt. He did, but his camera caught a glimpse of something else as well. There appeared to be, in one particular shot, a ladder. A lean-to ladder that wasn’t leaning on anything. It just stood on its own and it reached up into the rainclouds. He zoomed in to try and get a clearer view of the ladder or whatever it was, but the picture was saturated with light from the lightning and blurred from the falling rain. He couldn’t get a clearer view. That particular shot was taken in an abandoned parking lot on the other side of the highway that marked a part of the town’s border.
The next day after work, Charlie returned to the abandoned lot. As he’d expected, he saw no ladder. He walked around the lot with his arms out, trying to feel for it, just to make sure. He was only there for about fifteen minutes when someone called out to him. Charlie looked toward the sound of the voice and saw a slim older man wearing a blue security guard uniform walking toward him.
“What’s your business here, friend?” the guard said.
Charlie held out his hand and introduced himself. He thought he caught a glimpse of surprise on the guard’s face before he too reached out his hand.
“George,” the guard said slowly. He shook Charlie’s hand. Then he tipped his head to the right. Charlie’s gaze followed the gesture to a pole with a sign on it that clearly said, “No Trespassing.”
Charlie decided to tell the guard the truth. It was a short account, and saying it out loud made him feel silly enough to laugh at himself.
“What do you think, George? Am I just trying to extend my vacation?”
George chuckled sympathetically. But he also firmly stated that Charlie was technically trespassing and needed to leave immediately. He led the way and escorted Charlie out of the lot.
On a whim, Charlie pulled out the print of the picture he was talking about and showed it to George. He took out his camera and showed George the same shot, zooming in to the ladder. George patiently and sincerely looked at the picture. He nodded noncommittally, smiled, and mentioned something about all the weird ways that weather behaves and the shapes that clouds and lightning can take. He complimented the picture and told Charlie that he had a talent for photography. Then he bid Charlie a good day and good luck with work and watched to make sure that Charlie left.
Charlie began to speculate what that ladder could be. He wasn’t religious, but he grew up going to Sunday school and the first thought that popped into his head was the story of the ladder that led up to heaven. But then, George’s explanation of weird weather phenomena made more sense. Maybe it really was a ladder, and it had gotten swept up in the storm. The winds were high that day. Maybe a small vortex formed and lifted the ladder and then dropped it.
Then where did it go? Charlie wondered. Did someone else pick it up before my buddy George saw it?
That too was a plausible thought.
The memory of his vacation faded all too quickly into the day-to-day demands of his job and household needs. Having no other great mystery or purpose in his life, Charlie continued to wonder about the ladder. He thought of alternate explanations and found some that, while improbable, seemed far more plausible than a ladder to heaven. Maybe it was a secret government project where they were testing a cloaking capability. Maybe it was aliens. That ladder may have led up to a hovering ship, and if that was so, it would explain why he couldn’t find it when he returned to the lot. If the ship had moved on since the day of the storm, then so had the ladder that had extended from it.
It so happened that another storm was set to roll into town.
Charlie called out sick on the day of the storm and he made his way to the abandoned parking lot. He spotted George on duty and made sure to keep clear of the guard while he set up his camera from a distance and started taking pictures again when it began to rain. He gazed through the lens, wondering if there was something about the camera itself that could capture the presence of the ladder. He saw nothing. He took picture after picture and they showed him nothing. There were magnificent shots of raindrops frozen in mid-air, water bursting out in mid-splash. But there was no ladder. He was out there for over an hour, then two. Near the end of the third, he convinced himself that he had just spent hours trying to take a picture of something that wasn’t there and may never have been there. He decided to call it quits just when lightning began to flash overhead and thunder rolled in after.
He thought that he caught sight of something in the corner of his eyes, something standing in the empty lot. Even with the rain drumming down on him he felt the chill that went down his spine. He’d felt as if he were being watched. He glanced over at the guard station. George wasn’t in there. He was still on patrol. Charlie had already switched out the batteries in his camera once. He had no more spare batteries. He stared out at the lot and took pictures.
More lightning flashed. More thunder sounded. More rain fell and fell. And then, the storm passed on. In a span of fifteen minutes, the rain lessened into a sprinkle, then a mist. The low clouds rolled away. But high clouds remained, blanketing the sky. The air smelled of fresh mud.
Charlie checked his pictures. And there it was. A picture of the ladder. Just as before, it was hidden in the blur of rain and the brightness of the lightning. Charlie stared at the empty and now muddy lot. He saw nothing with his naked eyes. He stared through his camera and saw nothing. It must have been the lightning that revealed the ladder.
He glanced around, checking for George. He still didn’t see the guard anywhere. Charlie ventured forth into the parking lot. He peered. He squinted. He blinked.
He saw it. He saw the ladder if he brought his eyes just out of focus. He stepped toward it, reaching out.
The ladder was visible but in the same way that heat waves are visible. There was no solid object. There were shifts in the air where the ladder was standing. Charlie reached and grasped a rung. When his hand wrapped around it, he gasped. He had half expected his hand to pass through mist, as if the ladder was some strange after-rains mirage. His boots were slippery with mud. He took one off and placed his bare foot on the bottom rung. He slipped the other boot off and put the other bare foot on the next rung up. The ladder, ethereal as it looked, was quite solid. The rungs were wide and comfortable even to his bare feet. Charlie began to climb.
When he was about twenty feet up, he dared to glance down and saw a few people walking down the street. Kids. It wasn’t a high traffic area in his experience, less so on a rainy day. He looked down at the kids, expecting them to marvel at how he was able to float twenty feet in the air, but even though a few of them glanced up at him, none of them said a word. They seemed more focused on the ramshackle guard station. They were probably trying to make sure they wouldn’t get caught for trespassing by the lone but vigilant security guard.
Charlie kept climbing and climbing, expecting to grow breathless from the thinness of the air, expecting to grow dizzy and frightened by the height, but he could breathe just fine. And when he glanced down, he felt neither dizzy nor scared. His grip on the ladder was secure. The farther up he climbed, the closer he came to a bank of clouds. They were thick and light grey. The clouds of an overcast day. He climbed through them, smiling and marveling. It felt like a heavy fog. He might have imagined it, but he thought he smelled the crackling scent of electricity from the earlier lightning. He kept climbing and reached the top of the clouds. Not too far above that, he saw a curious sight. At the end of the ladder there was a man doing a handstand on the last rung. There was no solid ground around the ladder that Charlie could see. So he called out to the man.
When he’d got the man’s attention with a “down here,” Charlie introduced himself.
“I’m sorry if I’m intruding,” Charlie said. “But I found this ladder and I climbed it out of curiosity and just now I was wondering—out of curiosity again—why you are doing a handstand on the last rung of ladder.” Charlie wondered if the man was a guard. And wondering that made him wonder, for the first time, if George was guarding more than just the parking lot.
“The name is Broom,” the man said. “And what do you mean ‘last rung’? I am in truth hanging from the first rung of the ladder.”
After he said that, Charlie began to fall upwards, but Broom released the rung with one arm and caught him.
“Down there!” Broom said.
Charlie looked up, or rather down as he was now oriented, and saw a fountain several feet below that he hadn’t noticed before. Without warning, Broom let go and Charlie dropped straight into the fountain. It was only a few feet of water and though he’d fallen a few dozen feet, Charlie was unharmed, if soaking wet. He looked up and saw Broom float down and arc away from the fountain like a leaf or a feather and land on soft earth. Charlie climbed out of the fountain. The ground around it was grassy and felt good under his bare feet. Broom didn’t seem concerned or phased with Charlie’s state. He simply bid Charlie to follow him.
They walked along a grassy forested path for a while as the sky darkened and fireflies began to flit by. Finally, they reached a set of vast ornate doors. They weren’t made of pearl. They were made of some dark silvery metal into which were carved swooping circular characters that Charlie didn’t recognize. There was a large and equally ornate padlock holding the doors closed. Broom claimed he didn’t have the key. He knocked, but no one answered. He turned to Charlie and shrugged. Charlie studied the vast doors.
“Ah, there she is,” Broom said.
Charlie turned around and looked down the road that they’d come from. A woman was striding toward them, holding a lantern in one hand. She was dark-skinned and dark-haired and dressed in black. Despite her commanding appearance, her eyes were kind and smiling.
She addressed Broom first. “Thank you. Back to your post, please.”
Broom gave her a quick bow and without so much as a goodbye to Charlie, he started back toward the fountain and the ladder. The woman smiled at Charlie.
Once again, Charlie introduced himself.
The woman’s eyes widened. “Is that your real name?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And you give it so freely?”
“I…have no reason to hide it.” But now that she was making such a fuss about it, he regretted not giving a fake name.
“You’re admirably trusting. You’ll have to forgive me if I am not so. You may call me Lock.”
And once again, Charlie was bidden to follow.
“You do not wear shoes?” Lock asked as she led him back down the road he had just traveled.
Charlie explained where he had come from and what fate had befallen his footwear.
Lock nodded. They went a short way back down the road. Then they turned into the forest onto a path he hadn’t noticed before. By that time, night had fallen.
The light from Lock’s lantern was so bright, they could see clearly for several feet around them. But it still wasn’t enough light for Charlie, who was used to moving about through a well-lit town. He stumbled and winced a few times as he stepped on branches, brambles, stones, and the like.
The skies were clear. Charlie could see the stars. They looked closer somehow, brighter. Maybe it was because he was above the clouds, even though he had been turned upside down. At some point, he must have been turned right side up again. For the time being, Charlie set aside his questions about such things and decided to follow whatever path appeared before him. He heard a loud crack from above. He looked up and saw a burst of lightning overhead. But it was strange lightning. It wasn’t bright blue and white. It was a dark pink and a neon green, woven together and radiating out from the sky. And he could see it as if he was watching video of a lightning strike in slow motion. The strange lightning began to fade but left an afterimage, not in Charlie’s eyes, but on the sky itself. The afterimage glowed for several minutes while they walked on.
Charlie wanted to ask Lock about it, but he was reluctant to make too much sound in the forest. He heard things rustling in the woods just beyond the reach of the lantern light.
Soon they reached the edge of the forest and came out onto an open grass field with a true path that led into…a well-lit town.
Though night had fallen, the town was still quite awake and in the midst of evening activities. As they came closer, Charlie observed that it looked like a mid-nineteenth century town. Lock led Charlie past a smithy that looked to be shutting down for the day, an apothecary, stalls full of fruit and clothes, a toy shop. Then they turned down a street that seemed full of nothing but different kinds of book stores. Most were darkened, but a few still had lights on. In one, Charlie saw a man reading in the lantern light by the window. He glanced away, but did a double take, when he saw the man press his fingers onto the book, utter some words Charlie couldn’t hear, and watch as some object began to materialize from the book’s pages. It would appear to be magic, but then Charlie knew about touch screen and voice command interfaces.
Lock led him up the steps of an inn where instead of the raucous drinking and carousing Charlie expected to walk in on, there were tables full of aristocratic types having dinner and chatting civilly. There was a quartet of musicians in one corner, playing some string instruments. Charlie followed Lock to the bar.
Lock turned to Charlie. “You must understand. You were not an expected guest. I must consult my higher authorities about your visit. They will probably want to speak with you before releasing you to return home. In the meantime, I will of course arrange the finest accommodations for you.” She nodded her head to a young man who was behind the bar. He nodded in reply and hurried away. Lock suddenly raised her brows and shouted after him, “Oh, and a pair of good shoes!”
Charlie didn’t know how Lock had found him and Broom by the vast doors. Broom must have signaled in some way that Charlie hadn’t caught. Lock must have been ordered to keep an eye on Charlie. After showing him to a rather lush room with a bed that looked large enough to hold ten people, soft and thick rugs that made shoes unnecessary, a window that faced the town square, and a platter of food that was also surely meant for ten people, Lock lingered awhile. She asked to see Charlie’s camera and to see the picture of the ladder. She looked both fascinated and troubled by it. As he’d expected, she asked to take the print to her superiors. It was getting late enough that Charlie began to feel drowsy. Lock took her cue when he yawned and was saying her goodbyes when they were interrupted by a knock on the door.
A man announced himself. Lock opened the door, and a man wearing a dark red and green tunic and pants entered. He glanced at Charlie, whispered into Lock’s ear, and quickly departed. Charlie had excellent hearing. He was able to make out one word, “shield.” And from that one word, he knew he wasn’t in heaven after all.
“We’re on a ship, aren’t we?” he asked.
It made sense. And all the dirt, the forest, the inn, were all illusion, holograms likely. Maybe these people lived on the ship and made the holograms to stave off cabin fever.
Lock widened her eyes. “A ship?”
Charlie waved his arms up and down to indicate the room. “All of this, the ladder leading up, this is a ship, disguised somehow. Am I right?” When Charlie saw the cautious expression on Lock’s face, in her eyes, he hoped he hadn’t made a fatal mistake by not playing dumb. It had occurred to him that he was being reckless. That these people might do anything to hide their secret, and it was obvious they were hiding. They might kill him. They might cook him for dinner. It was too late. He had committed himself to the truth.
“What’s behind that padlocked door that Broom took me too? Did he make a mistake? Is that the bridge or the command center or something?”
Lock said nothing. Then the ground seemed to sway. Charlie suddenly panicked, fearing he’d been drugged. But the swaying stopped and the jerking and shaking began. Lock grabbed his hand and pulled him under the sturdy dining table.
“Are we taking off?” Charlie asked as platters of food dropped in front of him. “Are we moving?”
The shaking abruptly stopped. Lock waited a moment, then rose and pulled him after her.
“We can’t move,” she said, “until…We have repairs to make.”
“So this is a ship?”
Lock sighed. “Our higher authorities—”
“—will answer my questions. Yes, I understand.”
She pointed a finger at him. “May. They may answer your questions. You are not an expected guest.”
She waved a hand toward the bed. “I’ll send someone up to clean up the mess. You should get some rest. Tomorrow morning, you will meet with my superiors. If you wish to descend and bring back an advocate with you, you may do so. I will accompany you to assure you return.”
An advocate? Charlie frowned. Does she mean a lawyer?
It was his chance to get away from whatever he had gotten himself into. Aliens, using holograms to disguise their ship and even themselves likely. Their ship found an empty parking lot to hover over while they made repairs. They must have needed raw materials from Earth and hence the ladder. Charlie was no threat. One man with a story about climbing a ladder up into a spaceship that looked like a medieval forest and spending time in an inn with a dark-haired woman? No one would take that seriously. He wondered if the aliens would return him to his home and thereafter periodically abduct him. If so, he hoped each experience was like the present one.
He considered sneaking out in the middle of the night. But he had already decided to take the risk. He might as well see it through. He went to bed, remembering that he had work in the morning, and hoping Lock’s “higher authorities” would keep him occupied all day and give him some kind of document to bring to his boss to excuse his absence. He had his phone with him and it had stayed dry enough in a waterproof pocket of his raincoat to still work. He pulled it out and saw that he had reception. He sighed and set the phone aside. He went to sleep.
When Charlie woke, there was a sliver of daylight streaming through a space between the thick velvet curtains on the east-facing window. He woke abruptly and completely, with no grogginess. It was the waking after a good night of just enough sleep.
He found a basin of water by his bed, along with a toothbrush made with a wooden handle and well-cut bristles that surprisingly did not feel as if they would rip his gums apart. There was a small bowl with some kind of mint-scented liquid. Charlie brushed his teeth and washed his face. The inn seemed eerily quiet for what must have been late morning.
He heard a conversation in progress. He poked his head down the stairs and saw Lock sitting at the bar behind which was a wizened old man. She was dressed in blue and black, a black cloak draped over the chair back. The old man was dressed in dark gray robes. They were keeping to their disguises, it seemed. There was no one else in sight in the bar or the common room, coming out of the kitchens. Lock and the old man were having breakfast and the man had just said something.
Lock nodded. “He’s certainly curious.”
“You wouldn’t know it from his chosen profession,” the old man said.
“It’s natural to choose the safe path.”
“And often wise. Had we done that, we would not have found ourselves in this mess.”
“We’re none the worse for wear.”
“And what of our curious man? Did you find out any more on your last excursion?”
“Yes, quite a bit and quite easily. He is honest if nothing else.” Lock proceeded to report to the wizened old man, who it seemed was her superior, a summary of Charlie’s life story. Charlie couldn’t believe how much she knew about him. He felt a surge of outrage at the invasion of his privacy, and embarrassment that she didn’t have much exciting to report. But he calmed himself when he remembered that he had invaded their privacy as well.
“Nothing troubling there,” Lock’s superior said, “aside from the obvious way he found his way here.”
As he spoke the word “here,” a crack broke the air. Charlie pulled back his head and looked back up the stairs. He couldn’t see the window at the top of the stairs, but he saw a glow of violet and wondered if it was more strange lightning. He poked his head back down to watch Lock and the old man.
She was shaking her head.
Her superior chuckled. “You’ve done a fair enough job of it to give us the time we need to gather supplies. Now we can move somewhere less conspicuous, where we won’t have any unexpected visitors. I’m afraid I won’t have time for the usual conversation. He must simply forget, or if he remembers, he must remember a dream.”
Lock exhaled. “Now that we’re done here, perhaps we should tell him the truth. He could do no harm with it.”
“But we could do harm, to him. It’s best we let him believe what he now believes. I fear the revelations will not be made in his lifetime.”
Revelations, Charlie thought. He rose and continued down the stairs.
“Tell me the truth,” he said. He looked at Lock. “Just like you want to.”
The wizened old man looked at Lock, but Lock was gazing at Charlie.
“It’s a good thing your meeting with the higher authorities is cancelled. You could never present yourself looking like that.”
“At least his shoes are nice,” the wizened old man said.
Charlie’s eyes widened. “Cancelled? Why?” Lock took a step toward him and he stepped back.
“You’ve been asleep for a few days,” she said. “The journey must have tired you more than you knew.”
“A few days?”
Lock held out a hand. “Do not worry. We explained to your superior that you were detained for questioning by international authorities. You did take a trip recently?”
Charlie frowned. “Yes.”
“And we told your…land-holder that we would settle your fee for the month. He wasn’t pleased with the coins I gave him at first, so I changed them to the currency he prefers.”
“You are angels, aren’t you?” Charlie said, but he wasn’t quite convinced.
“Whatever we are,” the wizened old said, “we mean you no harm.”
Charlie raised a brow at the oft-spoken cliche. “I don’t suppose you want to be taken to my leader?”
“That will not be necessary. We will be leaving you now. You need never worry about us interfering with your affairs, or the affairs of your people.”
But how can I be sure? Charlie thought. Either these were friendly and benign beings—be they angel or alien—or they were deceivers, hiding some malicious secret. Either there was something wondrous behind the vast padlocked doors or there was something terrible behind them. There was only one plan Charlie could think of to find out. He would be doing a service to himself and his fellow human beings, if he at least tried.
Charlie asked if he could go with them. He was afraid they would say “no.” He was afraid they would say “yes.” He was afraid they would say what they actually said.
He was welcome to join them, and welcome to learn the truth. Welcome to learn their names. But if he did so, he would be made to take oaths and keeping to those oaths would mean he might never return home again.
Lock went with him to see to his affairs. George greeted them when they arrived back in the abandoned parking lot.
For what might be the last time, Charlie Sodona climbed the ladder into the clouds.
Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel