This week, the lovely Naomi Harvey of So I want to be an author… created an intriguing new flash fiction challenge! Called Song Lyric Story Saturday, the idea is a fun one – Naomi posts a random lyric or two from a song, and our job is to create a story in 1500 words or less inspired by that lyric. It doesn’t have to use the actual words of the lyric, but the story should be clearly influenced by it. I thought this was a fantastically fun idea, and couldn’t wait to throw my hat into the challenge.
This week’s lyric?
When the end has come and buildings falling down fast, when we’ve spoilt the land and dried up all the sea…
So here, at 1500 words, is “Jacob’s Ladder”
“Your persistence is admirable, I’ll give you that,” said the man in the impeccable suit, “but really, Jacob…don’t you think it’s time to call it quits?”
Jacob sighed, and put down the binoculars. He turned to look at the man in the suit, the man that had no name. The man that wasn’t actually there.
“Shut the fuck up,” Jacob snarled. He reached down for his canteen, shook it. Empty. He turned his gaze back to the horizon.
Up ahead, he could just see through the haze of heat and dust the remnants of an old office building. It swayed in the never ceasing wind like some sort of giant, manmade reed, and even here, from so long a distance, he could hear it creak and moan.
Fuck. There was supposed to be a lake here! He looked down to his tactical bag, opened it, dug through the pockets and pulled out an old, worn map. His fingers, grimy with dry, thick dust, scanned across the lines and creases, trying to determine which was which. The groan of steel, bitterly complaining about its burden, filled the air.
“Fuck,” he said aloud. It was getting harder and harder to find water. This place, this building, should have been on the edge of a large lake. He looked through the binoculars again and for a moment, the dust cleared just enough for him to see a long, deep hollow beyond the tortured high-rise, its surface cracked and crumbling. And dry. Bone dry.
The impeccable man chuckled.
“I told you there wouldn’t be anything there,” he chided, “but would you listen?”
“I said, shut the fuck up.”
“Is that what you really want, Jacob? Honestly? Because I think you might regret saying that later.”
Jacob pulled the binoculars from his eyes, squeezed them tight, and rubbed them hard. He blinked several times, then turned back. The man was still there. The impossible man. Wind and dirt and grime blew all around him, but his suit remained clean. Perfect. Unruffled by wind, untouched by dirt.
He couldn’t quite remember when the man had first appeared. He had vague recollections of it being after he had wakened from a fevered dream. His eyes fluttering, his head throbbing, and then, there he was. The impeccable man.
A rollercoaster of emotions swept through Jacob at that moment. First, fear, panic. It had been a long damned time since he’d seen another human being, and that had not been a pleasant encounter. His side still ached from the memory of the club that had probably broken a rib or two. Then, befuddlement; the man’s incredibly fine, tailored clothes were incredibly jarring in the post-Fall world, where one scavenged what one could, regardless of cut or style or fit. And last…relief. Much as he hated to admit it, he was relieve to see another human being, to have someone to talk to, argue with, listen to. Even if he was a figment of his mind.
Jacob remained silent.
The man nodded, sagely. Jacob wished he could smack him. Instead, he tucked the binoculars away, pulled his worn, old scarf up over his face to block the dust, and began walking towards the building.
“What are you doing?”
He nodded towards the building.
“Could be something left inside. I need water, and a lot of buildings were only looted on the lower levels after the Fall. That one’s tall enough, there could be an old water cooler tank or case of bottled water or something.”
The man frowned. Even his frown was perfect, balanced, symmetrical.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea. Doesn’t look very safe.”
“What do you care? You’re imaginary.”
The man stopped.
“Perhaps I am. Perhaps I’m not. Either way, and end to you could mean an end to me. Shouldn’t I get a choice?”
“Sure,” Jacob said with a huff, “Let’s thumb wrestle for it.”
The man’s face went cold. Jacob felt inwardly pleased at calling him on his lack of physical form.
“You know what? Do it. Go in there. I don’t have to go. I can make the choice not to. So go, get yourself killed. As I said, maybe it’s time to call it quits.”
“Maybe it is.”
Jacob looked again. The man was gone. Not unusual, entirely. There were plenty of times he’d vanished in the past. He’d be back, no doubt, to gloat if Jacob found nothing or to sulk if he scored big.
Time to find out which.
He’d spent at least an hour looking for any other way up but the fire escape, and failed. The ground floor had been, predictably, well looted, but he guessed from the look of the barricaded stairwells that there may well still be something worth having on the upper floors. Plus, it wasn’t like he had much of a choice. He was already getting a little woozy from dehydration.
That fire escape, though. Rusted, rickety, swaying in the breeze. He could see how it pulled away from the wall every so often as it wobbled. And the ladder was so far up. Still, he might have a chance. He opened his pack again, rummaged around, and pulled out his rope and the makeshift grappling hook inside. It was ugly, pieced together from old car parts, but it worked. He tested the weight, gave it a few spins, and sent it sailing.
It hit with a clatter. A quick tug confirmed that it had caught, and he began heaving it towards him. The metal groaned, low and loud at first, then a higher shriek as the rust began to give way to the relentless tug of his rope. Then, with a final desperate shriek, the escape ladder shuddered and surrendered, crashing down with a bang. Jacob coiled his rope, and walked over to the ladder. He gave it a few shakes, gingerly set a foot on the first rung, then the second, and bounced a few times. It held. Good.
He went up, up, up. The first three floors were completely inaccessible, the windows completely boarded up. Further still, then. The same for the fourth, the fifth. By now, he could feel the sway of the building with every gust of dust-laden wind, and once, the fire escape pulled away from the side of the building entirely, leaving him grasping the ladder with knuckles gone white with stress and pressure. But then the building swayed again, and the rickety old ladder smashed against the side of the building with a bone rattling clank. Jacob had to catch his breath. His heart pounded ferociously beneath his chest, and for a moment, he wondered if the impeccable man had not been right after all.p
“Of course I was right,” the man said, sitting calmly on the platform just above Jacob.
“I thought you weren’t going to come,” Jacob growled, but he couldn’t fully hide the gladness he felt at not being alone.
“I couldn’t leave you here, Jacob. Not alone. Not so far up from the world below. How far are we now, Jacob?”
He’d lost count. Jacob looked down, and saw only swirling clouds of dust and ruin, the microscopic remnants of the spoiled land below. The building teetered. He looked up, and saw the fire escape climb and climb, only to disappear into another cloud of dust, the dehydrated remains of a sea bed now gone. God, he was so thirsty.
“I think you’ve gone far enough, Jacob,” the man said, but this time, the edge to it, the sarcasm was gone and in its place, something more akin to…concern? Tenderness?
“Can’t stop,” Jacob said, gritting his teeth as the ladder swayed again, “Gotta find a way in. Find water. I’ll die otherwise.”
The impeccable man stared at him for a long while, silent. His eyes, a strange, watery blue, seemed fit to burst with tears, but none escaped. He just sat there, watching Jacob, who clung to the ladder and could not find the strength or courage to move against the swaying, blowing storm. Finally, he nodded.
“Very well. I can do no more this time. Good bye Jacob.”
He stood, walked to the edge of the platform, and leapt.
“NO!” screamed Jacob, and he instinctually shot out a hand to grab for the man who wasn’t there. As he did, his body weight shifted, and a horrible, deep cry shook through the entire building. Timbers creaked and snapped in thundering cracks, as brick began to crumble. Jacob cried out, but his voice was lost in the tumultuous crash of the high rise.
“We were close this time, Phillip. We almost had him free.”
Phillip turned to the impeccably dressed man, and nodded.
“Perhaps next time, Doctor Jennings? Perhaps next time, we can bring him back to the real world, and out of this fantasy he’s built.”
Jennings, dressed impeccably, looked in at Jacob as he thrashed against the padded wall. His watery blue eyes swelled with tears.