23 | A Short Story by Jerome Berglund
The ladder was new, and for a variety of reasons considerably disturbing.
For nearly as long as he’d been on this earth, Cyrus had evinced a zeal for climbing. Relatives and babysitters, instinctively and predictably, rarely failed to equate him to a howler monkey, with astonishing consistency, of their own accords unprompted. As an infant he had grappled his way out of the crib with the ease of a miniature acrobat, was always being surprised poised near the ceiling having scaled window panels in the porch, balanced himself precariously upon kitchen countertops and stretched out luxuriously across every available cabinet, before long was perching atop wobbly stepladders navigating loose gutters to investigate their old chimney closely from above in the open air, carefully trod across peeling tiles to survey their sleepy suburban neighborhood, gaze out at the rushing highway which lay immediately beyond the nearby retaining wall which only marginally muffled its steady roar. From that point on there proved to be no stopping him.
Sometimes with youthful accomplices, just as commonly by his lonesome, Cyrus eventually surveyed, reconnoitered, and with the cunning of a bank heist’s execution navigated his way onto the roofs of any accessible buildings within the vast territory his mountain bicycle could cover, from Minnetonka where the minor resided out across Wayzata and Plymouth, with occasional parallel investigations in whatever city his divorced father was currently shacking up, be that Bloomington, Edina, Richfield, or Long Lake over the span of his early adolescence.
The young boy understood this behavior, his predilection and confidential hobby, could quite plausibly someday land him in some hot water, be frowned upon by each property’s respective owners or managers. So, Cyrus exercised great discretion and covertness in those sporadic surreptitious jaunts. He always respected the premises, never damaged or defaced any property, demonstrated immense self-control, restraint and clandestine stealth so as not to invite deleterious repercussions or risk incurring a nasty burn from the heat their small towns’ notoriously draconian authorities exuded—famed for their disproportionately aggressive and litigious responses to harmless shenanigans, liberal in dispensing community service and steep fines to finance municipal operations, subsidize their streets and public parks’ prettification.
As no one, besides his intermittent tagalongs directly partaking in, ever witnessed their adventurous excursions, quantifiable harm or mischief beyond trespassing and sightseeing was ever committed, their infrequent exhilarating romps had yet to be disrupted, they’d gotten neither apprehended nor dissuaded, incurred no adverse consequences or deterrence that might inspire their ceasing the pastime and investing their athletic energies and juvenile thrill-seeking more conventionally, indeed perhaps a sight less wholesomely as a matter of fact.
Cyrus reasonably prided himself on the relative honest and upright nature of their technical intrusions, comparatively speaking. At worst they might leaf through a few adult magazines, or puff goofingly on swisher sweet cigars one of the boys had purloined from his dad’s stash like pint-size mafiosos. But it was all in good fun, compared to the sort of less savory hijinks some of their peers, older brothers and neighborhood acquaintances were beginning to develop habits of, starting dumpster fires, sparking the devil’s lettuce, trafficking in narcotic prescription pills, shoplifting, graffiti, heinous beatings, the list went on and on. There was no shortage of trouble a youth could get up to in the wrong crowd with bad influences and goadings to prove himself. Cyrus felt fortunate to have his own unique sport and challenge to occupy his spare time, channel his rebellious nature and satisfy his adrenaline-cravings, validate stores bravery and physical prowess in the eyes of his classmates, the most prominent bad boys and cool kids he aspired to fraternize with, rank among as general rule.
And courage these endeavors truly did require, not to mention ample dexterity. The danger itself might even be part of its appeal, in all truthfulness. Because more traditional methods of clambering had never much interested Cyrus when he’d experimented with them. Climbing walls felt too controlled and artificial, their enthusiasts silly and overinflated with ostentation. Alternatively, those who challenged legitimate mountains and cliff-sides seemed to the boy objectionably foolhardy and reckless in their death-defying, arbitrary in their pursuing of those extravagant undertakings risking life and limb without any concrete goal or objective—beyond surpassing others’ times, to establish some new record, as at this late stage in the game there were no new heights to scale left, only loftier manners of navigating them—assuming oftentimes quite fallaciously, that there is some intrinsic worth to the process itself.
Exurban exploring, its contingent requirements for transgression and evasion in effecting, the genuine possibility that in actuality they represented the only gallant few who had traversed those various gauntlets obligatory for attaining entrance—certainly the lone daredevils in their small social circle of association—created legitimate value in scarcity and accomplishment, which entitled Cyrus and his small climbing crew to social capital they might freely spend, modest glory and bragging rights that translated in the rough and tumble hierarchy of elementary and middle school, projectable to return on their speculation, supply rewards to repay the risks involved, which beyond some hazy chance of lawful reprimand, were most conspicuously the very real likelihoods of inadvertent foreseeable injury.
That was the flagrant prevailing constraint which without fail did separate the wheat from their region’s juvenile chaff, would inspire a great many classmates and neighborhood chums who had tagged along for the whispery escapades—making grand talk and proclamations of valor and physical aptitude—at the moments of truth become humiliated by their own cowardice, shrink away and balk when it came time to shimmy up a gutter, with one hand holding onto a door’s extruding hinge slide around a corner over twenty feet of air meeting cement where the slightest misstep or fault in performance across which maneuver could result in broken bones, brain bleeds, quite realistically fatality if not at minimum a lad’s crippling. Thus far they had witnessed no such injuries, and Cyrus was highly selective in the physical makeup and abilities of those he would permit to accompany them on each mission. But still, everyone had bad days, made mistakes, suffered unexpected accidents.
That handhold he had just grasped to spin around the corner onto the grocery store’s sprawling rooftop, it was connected to a door he—through judicious surveillance and intel gathered via bagger confidantes on the inside—knew was randomly utilized by staff to enter and exit a break room. Certain managers and employees of adjacent departments would similarly leave through it to reach their automobiles parked in the back lot. While improbable and unlikely, there was a slim prospect that someone would come bursting out that door just as a boy was sliding across the abyss described earlier, as this door resided at top of a steel stairway three stories high. Should such disastrous eventuality occur, the inopportunely placed spelunker would conceivably be jostled down for a violent and ruinous landing. While it raised their stakes, such gambling with the reaper imbued exploits with much consequent excitement, allowed them to assert bravado and swagger, as though they each time had survived the pulling a trigger of Russian roulette.
Even if it amounted to one slug of low-caliber ammunition in a thousand chambers, and the firearm was pointed at their foot, this trial proved too imposing for countless schoolchildren, further corroborated and testified to the mettle of those who would dare to confront it, distinguished the men from the boys, chickens from fighting birds, established who was an asset and which students represented liabilities. These rites of passage and tests of nerve were quietly committed to memory, logged in the verbal histories and accounting books which determined invitation or ostracism, birthday party or conspicuous exclusion, first pick or final humiliation when teams were being assembled, if that knock-out chica down the block would accept your stammered offer to go for a spin beneath the disco ball, to a slow tune at the sock hop.
On the surface it was puerile, inane tomfoolery, but there were also social risks on the line, loss or credit possible for reaping depending upon how one performed. So a serious undertone, sincere pride or gut-wrenching sensation of failure accompanied each participant depending on whether they ultimately cut it or not. This leant much incentive and justification to the ordeals, which helped Cyrus in roping in behooved company to make his ventures less lonely, furthermore effectively guaranteed their additional security via a spreading of risk, amassing multiple sets of eyes and ears to spot or discern trouble, creating a swarm of possible targets less easy to detain than a solitary prowler. Yet frankly, all the daring and leverage it might make for in society had little to do with what drew Cyrus to these windy scenic vistas, precipitated his regular quests to locales such as this alone or in company. Almost not whatsoever.
It seemed self-explanatory, and gauche to inquire or express objections and demand explanation for the entertainment, might risk interpretation as exhibiting spinelessness or lily-liver, so none of the boys ever explicitly questioned their shared delight’s worth, why it was pleasurable, why they should be motivated to attempt it. Had he ever been interrogated—say, by a manager, security guard or police officer, subsequently his parents or one of those highfalutin analysts they were always dragging him to—Cyrus should have had some difficulty articulating his precise logic or internal reasoning to any degree of specificity, coherence or lucidness. But in his gut the boy understood intuitively somehow, and the magnetic pull northward regularly drew him up now no less strongly than it had as a babe.
Like the aspiring bird-men of antiquity, the dreamers and builders from Da Vinci to the Wright brothers, the lad primarily wanted to touch the sky, ride the air distancing himself from the sordid dirt and squalor, the stifling prosaic crampedness at street-level, that filthy curb the cracked streets adjoining it, those ants and potholes and scalding lengths of pavement. The rooftops provided an elevated viewpoint to gaze out across the greatness of creation like a god from Mount Olympus, a giant in the clouds, a waxen-winged prodigy soaking up the sun’s rays where they are stronger, warmer and more potent.
Cyrus remembered a peculiar science lecture, being momentarily riveted but once in that subject he did not often find especially relevant or engaging, when he’d learned of the Inverse Square Law, how the energy radiated from a light source increased exponentially, proportional with your closeness to it. While he might not possess the eloquence to explain why, the youth had immediately connected this rule with his constant yearning to get higher, that lifelong imperative for clawing onward and upward for the stars, seeking purchase like a feline upon the highest vantage accessible.
Subconsciously, he also never dismissed or long forgot, was always painfully aware and cognizant of the caveat that soaring heights provided ample opportunities for devastating plummets, that probability suggested each time he successfully navigated a hazardous feat it was bringing him closer to the one he crapped out and instead dropped. Such concerns Cyrus might banish from his deliberate mind during performance of the compulsory gymnastics themselves, but the rest of the time it had grown to weigh heavily upon his psyche, and caused the boy to seriously consider retiring from his renowned office as the diversion’s principal competitor, leaving the arena proudly with dignity while he still could rather than waiting to do so disgraced or hobbled.
Yet each time he tried to put the plan into motion, no sooner had he professed departure, proclaimed intentions of categorical withdrawal, then some new construction presented itself temptingly to his expertise in challenge… Or as with today, Cyrus simply got an irresistible urge to read comic books basking in the glow of a beautiful summer day atop Lund’s grocery, where he kept a small and captivating stack always stowed in the storage cubby, at the far end of the rooftop past the smoking area behind a panel, which had resided there for years now beside various maintenance tools and equipment. Those utilizing them on occasion had always respected and left his collection unmolested, presumably perhaps assuming they belonged to another coworker with access to the section, thankfully to date had neither filched nor disposed of anything yet.
The Endless’s travails, and the Vault-Keeper’s horrors would have to wait for today though, for abruptly when Cyrus swung Tarzan-like around the corner this time, he had been greeted with a sight as otherworldly and jarring as anything he read in those graphic novels or science fiction stories… He was tremendously grateful not to have set eyes on the thing until he had successfully landed, gotten his footing and stepped clear of the edge, for its impact did quite stun and disarm him, thrust the lad into confusion and panic, could quite imaginably have foiled his delicate navigating, jeopardized that practiced evasion of peril.
The first question Cyrus had was, how hadn’t he noticed it peddling through town, across the parking lot, from immediately beneath as he mounted the steps. The ladder was indeed thin, with almost transparent metallic coils threading their way up as far as his eyes could make out. And its treads, equally silvery and perhaps no thicker than a crowbar, might hypothetically blend into the blue sky like those wires Hong Kong superstars floated around on to inflict kung-fu mayhem, or magicians levitate their assistants with, become for all intents and purposes invisible to the naked eye even at close range. Still, Cyrus was certain that if he was not hallucinating, this anomaly should have been perceptible from below, employees and indeed more qualified investigators should by now have been dispatched to inspect it, determine what in the Sam Hill the strange manifestation could be.
Suffice to say, the boy was at this point not entirely convinced he wasn’t having a nervous breakdown of some sort, dreaming, disassociating from reality, witnessing a mirage. It seemed equally thinkable he’d consumed long-expired foodstuffs containing psychedelic mold, was experiencing the same symptoms those Salem accused purportedly had after eating funky bread. That there was just some ladder leading to the clouds, extending upward into nowhereville far as one could see, not terminating yet remaining stationary unperturbed by the heavy breeze, seemed irrational, illogical, ludicrous. Cyrus pinched himself hard, slapped his cheeks several times. He was not asleep, it appeared. He cautiously approached the thing and gave it a tentative tug. It felt real and solid, unless his mind was somehow far enough gone to send false signals, generate sensory inaccuracies. Anything was possible, the boy was now willing to acknowledge. He felt sane enough, rooted in tangible space and time. The most accurate metric or ruler to assess this irregularity by would be confirmation by another person or persons. No one should ever believe such an outlandish yarn at face value; if he merely described it to adults they might deem him schizophrenic, commit the boy.
But Cyrus also knew, somehow, that if he left this astonishing scene it was quite feasible he would never encounter it again. Like the fey funeral Blake witnessed, this was a once in a lifetime fluke of happenstance dangling before him, but for what the teen wondered fretfully? He should really go back down right now, Cyrus knew, yet nonetheless he stood before the ladder scrutinizing it intently. Gently, holding the cool sides, he placed one foot then the other on the bottommost rung. It held him with ease, felt sturdy; the furious winds gusts did not seem to sway the thing one bit.
Cyrus took a breath, stared down across the only town and people in his short life that he’d been privileged to know thoroughly, whom despite his precocious cantankerousness towards and characteristic reticence interacting with the adolescent in fact frequently admired and deeply cherished, and whispered a goodbye to them softly. None heard it. Then the boy began to ascend. He was slow, patient, methodical. If any below noticed a tiny blip passing across the sky, dwarfed in juxtaposition to the high-rise apartments and towers of commerce, they did not find it worthy of mentioning. A short while later this dot was growing tinier and tinier, like a sluggish satellite receding along its orbit. At last it vanished entirely, into the murky ether of nimbus which rested over their heads like a funereal shroud.
No one ever noticed the ladder from down below, but Cyrus was not the first, nor would he be the last to climb it.
Were there castles in those clouds? And if so, how did their visitors’ sizes compare to those of their native occupants? Did the expatriates encounter humane, benevolent life above, or find apex predators who viewed them as succulent dishes to populate their dinner tables? Have they chanced upon any enchanting lyres, found rapport in august company listening to sweet music made? If so, could they manage to sustain the connection for any considerable duration, perchance elope and abscond with that newfound comrade before its owners realized the coup had been carried out? Likewise, did these seekers remain at those rarified heights, or come plunging back downward like Hephaestus, Icarus, Laika? No one ever asked; scrabbling frantically through the dirt like wearied insects, focused necessarily on desperately constructing their meager burrows, locating and with difficulty transporting burdensome scraps of nourishment back to them, while assiduously avoiding all those massive tennis shoes continually carelessly stomping through, they could not have cared a fig one way or the other. Cyrus couldn’t blame them.