Anita Mechler: The Ladder [edited]

[This piece is a re-work and shortened version of a multiple part series that I wrote for this blog. I performed this newly edited piece for a show benefitting the Chicago Zine Fest held at the Chicago Publisher’s Resource Center themed Hallow-zine!]
The aquamarine swimming pool caught her eye as she wandered through the mesquite trees along the perimeter of the camping site. Her skin thirsted for water. She could feel the sun on her back. Birds fluttered in the distance. The brush and trees crackled in the dry heat. The grass was grey and lifeless. The pool had been abandoned along with some cabins nearby. It stood stately, like a forgotten concrete fortress rising from the ground. Someone had tied a single crutch to the side of a ladder leading to the top of the structure. 
Justine reached for the rungs, the crumbling white paint coming off into her hands. She hoped it wasn’t lead paint that would kill her with cancer in 30 years but she shrugged off the thought. Pulling herself up was reminiscent of summer pool time in the city: cute tanned lifeguards, hot asphalt, boogery children, couples making out in the deep end, and the diving board. She thought of synchronized swimming routines, beautiful and extravagant, women enthralled with themselves and the water. This could be her new passion but she knew she didn’t have the body for it.
She got to the top and saw a small puddle in the corner of the deep end, clogged with rotting leaves and the skeleton of a small rodent. She could stay out there, never to return to civilization. She’d shack up in a cabin, refill the pool, and spend the rest of her days in wild solitude. 
This was the terrain of her youth, where she explored the woods with her dad, the one everyone called “Mountain Man”. Hikes were their adventure currency; learning about creatures whether friend or foe. Her favorite was the “daddy long legs” spiders; they awkwardly tipped-toed up her arms in their uncertain gait. She had been assured they weren’t poisonous.
She had left the others and their inane campsite chatter. It was a dumb idea, anyway, hanging with almost-strangers because she wanted to get the hell out of the city. They reminded her of insular teenagers with inside jokes that left her out and who treated her as the perpetual little sister. 
She heard a murmur from the tree line. The sinking knowledge that someone had followed her from the campsite shattered her reverie. She heard them crashing in toward her.
Justine saw Frederika’s face emerge from the woods; she had beautiful eyes with an uncannily intense stare under dark, thick eyebrows. With a relieved smile, she sighed when she saw Justine and Justine felt a smile being teased from her. Frederika grimaced as she crunched her way to the base of the pool, covering her eyes to the descending sun. Other people were concerned for her safety, after all, Justine thought. Or perhaps, they were just curious where she went. 
Frederika spoke first, “Whaddaya doing up there?”
Justine shrugged and looked over Frederika’s shoulder to see if anyone else was coming. 
“I thought I heard more voices,” Justine said. 
“Yeah, I left Franklin behind. He was yapping, getting on my nerves. We’re thinking about lighting a fire in the fire pit, if you’re interested. He’s supposed to be looking for wood.”
They started to hear more rustling and turned to see Franklin red-cheeked and breathing heavily. 
“We’re thinking about starting a fire in the firepit!” He said with a triumphant face, not unlike a child on an important mission with a bundle of kindling under each arm, pressing against his dirty sweatshirt. He didn’t see Frederika roll her eyes, under her straight black bob, and smile at Justine who nodded her head reluctantly giving one last look at the stagnant water in the corner, and began to approach the ladder. 
Justine smiled wanly at the couple as she joined them. After walking in silence for a while, they started to hear the murmuring of the campsite and many conversations happening at once. “Hey!” someone yelled from the group as everyone turned to look, but continued with their conversations. Justine settled in on the splintering park bench. The group was mostly comprised of couples in their 30s; some who had “stolen away” for the weekend from their kids. 
Franklin busied himself with gathering supplies. Justine watched him fumble and stack the wood incorrectly and not in a pyramid formation like her dad had taught her, but she didn’t get up to correct him.
Once the fire got started, everyone busied themselves with making s’mores, chugging beer, and complaining about their lives. She knew that what she wanted to do was dangerous and even her father would not advise that she strike out alone in the dark into unknown territory. She had to get away from the crush of the others’ personalities, opinions, expectations.
She left to explore the area just past the abandoned pool and found another clearing within a five minute walk. She missed the wilderness at night and the amount of stars she could see and identify. Her father had taught her some of the bigger constellations and they would practice them together: “Seven Sisters, Orion, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Scorpio, Cassiopeia.” She laid down on the wet grass and looked up at them until the chill reached through her clothes. She admired space from afar, but the vast wide openness scared the shit out of her. 
She decided to walk further, past the clearing, into trees and a rocky terrain until she heard the faint but unmistakable sounds of water, like the drippings of a spring. She hurried toward the sound and felt a wild urge in her heart pulse through to her cold extremities. At the end of a precipice she saw the darkest, deepest blue swimming hole she had ever seen, lit partially by the moon. She knew that it would be foolish to jump in alone and in the coldness of the night. She felt hunger rolling in her belly and thirst making her throat dry. She finally needed the warmth and safety of the campsite and her companions. She turned around and started the long walk back.
By the time Justine arrived, the fire had died to embers and everyone seemed too drunk and drowsy to comment on her absence. Some members of the group had excused themselves to sleep in their tents and she could hear someone snoring loudly. 
“Like a bear,” said Frederika wryly, clutching a plastic cup of some indistinguishable brown liquid making Justine jump. 
Justine said, “Is there any food left?”
They both looked around and saw some abandoned s’mores supplies at the end of the picnic table. Justine tried not lunge at them and stuff them down her throat. But she couldn’t help groaning quietly in appreciation once the graham crackers registered with her mouth. She didn’t realize how hungry she had become. Frederika raised an eyebrow and handed Justine her cup of liquid without being asked. 
Justine moved closer to Frederika for comfort. In a cold shock, she realized how much Frederika felt like her sister, Meredith. Unlike Frederika’s stylish flapper bob, Meredith had long dark, curly hair that hung toward her waist. They both possessed eyes that sparked with curiosity, concern, and mischievousness, a sense of knowing what is wrong with the world and being merely amused by it. 
Justine shivered and crumbled the plastic wrapper and shoved it into the empty box. She stood up abruptly and scratched the top of her thigh on the splintery table. 
“Ow! Um. I must be off to bed now.”
“Are you alright?”, said Frederika. After a pause and nod from Justine she said, “Not sure how you’re going to sleep with all that racket.” 
“Yes, of course. I’ll be fine. Thanks” said Justine. They both felt the warmth radiate from their tired smiles. Justine pulled away quickly and looked down.
“Well, good night.”
The next morning, Justine awoke to the smell of frying bacon and coffee and the low murmurs of the other campers who were awake around the campfire. She lay in her sleeping bag sweating in her cocoon. She considered faking sleep until everyone went away on whatever they had planned for the day. Something told her to join the rest of them, if only to talk to Frederika. She wiggled her swimsuit on under her hiking clothes and hoped she’d get a chance to sneak away without anyone noticing. 
“Morning!”, someone said cheerfully. Some of the group looked up from their morning activities to smile at her.
She made her way over to the spout at the entrance to the campsite to brush her teeth and get a drink of ice cold water and saw Frederika standing nearby finishing up her morning routine.
“Hi,” they both said almost simultaneously and laughed softly.
“So, I was thinking…” Justine hesitated. “Okay, you have to promise not to tell the others.”
“Sure,” Frederika’s eyes looked concerned and intrigued.
“I found this swimming hole and I’m afraid to go swimming in it alone. Anyway, it’s probably not safe for me to go alone. And I thought that, maybe, you’d like to come with me.”
“Well… I’m not sure what I’d tell Franklin so that he won’t worry. Plus, I’d need to find my swimsuit.”
Frederika chewed her lip as she thought.
“Okay, why don’t you go to the bathrooms and wait for me there. I’ll tell Franklin you’re having ‘female troubles’. That should keep him from asking too many questions. We’ll have to wait until the rest of them go to the caves. But I say, let’s do it!”
Justine made her way to the camp bathrooms, which were thankfully empty. She leaned against the coolness of the sallow campsite bathroom tile and thought about her sister Meredith, surrounded by her beautifully lush dark hair, undulating in the deep blue river, having drowned just before her 9th birthday.
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 green eyes lit with excitement. “Let’s go swimming!”
Justine sighed happily. She wanted to hold Frederika’s hand but she remembered that she wasn’t 10 anymore and had less life ahead of her than she had then. 
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 glistening in their webs along the trail. They delved deeper into the wooded area surrounded by sharp rocks, the air fragrant with wet conifers. 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 instinctively held out her hand. Frederika looked around slightly bewildered, face flushed, 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 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 like a mirage or oasis dreamed up by a parched desert explorer. They 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.”
Justine dove back into the water, disappearing past the reflecting surface. She 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 heard a soft rustling in the leaves near her left hand and saw a copperhead snake slithering through the grass toward her. She 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?” 
“Meredith. Meredith, my sister.” Justine began to cry as her soaked hair clung to her cheeks.
“You have to help me. Help me find her.”
Frederika jumped into the water. Justine grabbed her hand and motioned to the bottom. Frederika was scared 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. 
They dove in, Justine insistently pulling on Frederika’s hand. The water enclosed them, getting colder the farther in they went. Rocks closed in as well and she could see that there were small breaks in the walls that looked like caves. Their surroundings grew darker and she felt a panic rising from her stomach.
Then she saw it. It was blinding at first but then it 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 the cavernous watering hole. There were so many bones that they did not look like they belonged to one person. She attempted to pull away from Justine’s deathly grip as she started to feel pressure on her lungs. She desperately wanted to breathe, to take huge healthy gulps of air. She wanted to be warm on that rock, away from the shivering cold 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 lining the walls of their cave, gaping with eye sockets and missing jaws, grinning a welcome to their new visitors. Justine reached to touch them and her arm got stuck in some fibrous roots. Frederika felt her lungs sputtering 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 releasing her breath into large bubbles. Frederika tried to pull Justine’s arm out of its hold and Justine forcibly moved away her hand, shaking her head more vigorously.
Frederika reached for the sides of the cave and heaved herself up, blinking at the 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 had to find the others and tell them. She had no idea what else to do.


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