Anita Mechler: The Ladder: The Conclusion

[This piece is the conclusion to a multi-part series story. It is recommended to first read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]

Justine leaned against the coolness of the sallow campsite bathroom tile waiting for Frederika to join her for their afternoon adventure. She stared at the spiders in the ceiling corners struggling under the weight of dust and captured prey. Finally, she felt the air suction her body and saw Frederika’s outline in the warped metal mirrors above the sinks.

“We’re in the clear,” Frederika said with a smile, her hazel green eyes lit with excitement. “Let’s go swimming!”

Justine sighed happily, shrugging off the concerns of the camping group. She was relieved of Steven’s bland, friendly, expectant face; his curiosity as annoying as Franklin’s confident bellowing. She wanted to hold Frederika’s hand as if she were her sister and skip to the swimming hole together. But she remembered that she wasn’t 10 anymore and she had less of her life ahead of her than she had then.

Frederika seemed as excited as Justine. There was no mystery to the men in their group. Justine thought that making love to someone like Franklin was probably like being mauled by a bear. That part, at least, seemed exciting. The cut of Frederika’s hair and clothes made her seem chic and stylish and the liveliness of her eyes indicated insatiable curiosity and a generous warmth in stark contrast to the bumbling attempts that Franklin made at seeming “cool”.

The grass outside was slick from the previous night’s dew; it had not yet burned off in the late morning. They shivered at spiders larger than the bathroom dwellers resting in their glistening webs along the trail. They delved deeper into a wooded area, the air fragrant with wet conifers as sharp rocks continually rose in the air. Neither noticed that they had stopped speaking; there was only the rustle of clothing and unevenness of their breath. Justine heard a trickle of water and picked up the pace. She could hear Frederika lagging further behind.

“Come on!,” Justine said more insistently than intended and instinctually held out her hand. Frederika looked around slightly bewildered and didn’t notice the outstretched hand until she looked up and saw Justine pull back shyly.

“Sorry. I heard the stream, I’m just so excited to see it in the sunlight.”

The swimming hole was a much more complex shade of blues and greens than Justine had seen it in the moonlight, deep ultramarine and cerulean, clear as glass down to a bottom of unknown depths. It was mesmerizing and hypnotic as the sun sparkled along the surface. It looked like a mirage, an oasis dreamed up by a parched desert explorer. They couldn’t form words and instead paused and turned to each other smiling slowly.

“Oh shit! We forgot towels!,” said Frederika suddenly, looking down at their empty hands. “Oh well!”

They felt the sun encouraging them to disrobe to their swimsuits. They grabbed hands facing each other, nodded, and screamed happily while jumping in the water. It was colder than expected and rose around their throats, squeezing tightly.

“Oh my god!,” squealed Frederika when she surfaced. “It’s so cold, I feel as if I might die.”

Her smile faded as she noticed a dark shadow pass over Justine’s face.

“Why so serious?”

Justine shook her head nervously, without breaking eye contact.

“No reason.”

Frederika began to swim to shore. She climbed up the muddy hill to sit on a sunny rock.

“I’m not sure how much of that I can handle,” she said breathily. She felt her fingertips tingling and arched her face to the sun with closed eyes.

“It is refreshing, though.”

She saw Justine dive back into the water and make her descent to the bottom, disappearing past the reflecting surface. Justine popped back up after a few seconds, but only long enough to catch her breath. She stayed down longer and longer each time until Frederika could hear her gasping for air. Frederika’s expression went from bemused to concern at the sight of Justine’s desperation.

She heard a soft rustling in the leaves near her left hand and saw a copperhead snake slithering through the grass toward her. Frederika’s swallowed a yelp and withdrew her hand as slowly as possible and moved toward the water. As she neared the water, she put one foot in and felt Justine grip it, unexpectedly.

“What are you crazy?” Frederika said more harshly than she intended.

Justine spat some water out, “She’s down there, I know she is.”

“Who? Who is down there?” The snake was forgotten as quickly as it came.

“Meredith. Meredith, my dear sister.” Justine began to cry as her soaked hair clung to her cheeks.

“You have to help me. Help me find my sister.”

Frederika jumped back into the water. Justine grabbed her hand and motioned to the bottom. Frederika was scared and concerned for her own safety, but also the unhinged look in Justine’s pleading eyes. As crazy as it seemed, she felt the need to help her.

underwater-caveThey dove in, Justine insistently pulling on Frederika’s hand. The water enclosed around them, getting colder the farther in they went. Frederika noticed that the rocks around them starting to close in and she could see that there were breaks along the layers of rock that looked like small caves. Their surroundings grew darker and she felt a panic rising from her stomach feeling like they had gone down too far.

Then she saw it. It look like a blinding white light at first, but then began to twinkle. She could make out what looked to be a pile of white sand. There were irregular lines not caused by a current. Before she could comprehend what she was seeing, they seemed to swim up toward her. She realized that she was staring at bones, a huge pile of shimmering bones deep within this cavernous watering hole. There were so many bones that they did not look like they only belonged to one person. She attempted to pull away from Justine’s deathly grip as she started to feel the pressure on her lungs. She desperately wanted to breathe, to take in huge healthy gulps of air into her lungs. She wanted to be warm on that rock, away from the shivering cold of the depths of the water. She began to shake involuntarily.

Justine seemed transfixed on a shelf above the pile of bones and Frederika realized with a start that they were surrounded by skulls, gaping with missing jaws and eye sockets, grinning a welcome to their new visitors, lining the walls of their cave. Justine reached out and got stuck, her arm getting tangled in some fibrous roots. Frederika felt her lungs sputtering and began to feel heavy until she realized that Justine had loosened her grip. Frederika grabbed Justine by her shoulders and motioned upward. Justine shook her head sadly as she began to open her mouth.

Frederika reached for the sides of the cave and heaved herself up, blinking back spots before her eyes. The top of the water seemed unrealistically far away, but she was determined to live. Her animal instinct for survival kicked in and she hated to leave Justine there, but felt that she had no choice.

It seemed to take her ages to make it to the top, but she did. She leaned on the side of the hill sputtering and heaving and gasping, the pain in her lungs almost unbearable. Her eyes stung and her body felt unbelievably heavy. She began to weep slightly and had to pull herself together.

She had to find the others and tell them. She had no idea what else she could do.

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