Friday Flash: Snakes and Ladders

I watched the old man drag himself down the street for twenty minutes. His progress was painstaking; he moved in half foot increments, hauling himself with his forearms and upper body. His pale grey beard contrasted with his dark skin, and the navy blue beanie was moth-eaten. The clothing could have been found in any decade gracing the racks of St Vincent de Pauls, and his difficult mode of transportation took an obvious toll.

I was fascinated. My breath misted on the glass as I pressed my nose on its cold surface in order to see him better. My mind wandered with the possibilities. What was so important that he would heave himself along the frosty, dirty pavement? Did he lose his wheelchair? Where was he going?

Not once did I wonder how I could help him.

Clacking steps sounded behind me and I jerked back from the window. Sister Mary frowned at the imprint I left behind. I whispered a shamefaced apology and hurried down the corridor, late for Mass.

***

“Did you hear about the man that died?”

“What man?”

“They found a body at the gates. A homeless man, starved to death. Or froze. Maybe both.”

The gossip intruded upon my daydreams. A homeless man, dead at the gates? Was it my man? The cheerful chatter bothered me, I felt uncomfortable by the callous dismissal of the solemnity death demands. Slipping away from the other girls I made my way to the doors that guarded the inner sanctums of the school. Seeing no one, I shoved them open and stepped outside.

The cold hit me like a blast. I pushed back on the doors, closing them against the wind. I shivered, leaning against the vast red-orange surface. The wrought iron handles bit into my back. I gazed down at my slippered feet, then out at the grimy snow. Wincing in anticipation I placed my foot gingerly in the snow and bit back an exclamation as the icy wetness soaked through. Shaking my head at my folly, I dashed to the gates and leaned through the bars, hoping to see some sign of the man.

Of course he wasn’t there. No dead body, and no crawling caterpillar of a man either. They would have removed the body hours ago, if the rumour was even true. Still, I felt an urgency, a need to know. I crouched behind the gates, reaching through to sift through the snow. A passerby looked at me, startled, and crossed the street. I must have seemed crazy. My numb hand brushed something hard and I grabbed at it triumphantly.

When I pulled back I saw the cold metallic glint of silver, nestled happily in my palm. An oval locket, untarnished, decorated with beautiful celtic swirls. I admired it, holding it up by the chain to watch it dance in the morning light. Dropping it into my lap, I prised the frosty metal clasp open; it seemed to fight me, grimly trying to retain its secrets.

A dark eyed girl of about five stared back at me, her serious face framed by curly dark hair. Daughter? Granddaughter? I sighed with frustration and shut it with a snap. Awareness of my sodden state made me groan—I would have a lot of explaining to do if caught. I struggled out of the snow, grasping the locket firmly in hand, and trudged back to the doors.

The leering dog faces winding through the handles unnerved me; they were an incongruous adornment on a house of God. I paused to study them—from their staring eyes to their irreverent tongues to their devil-pointed tails they reeked of the Devil. Shuddering, I made the sign of the Cross and pulled on the handle to open the door.

It didn’t budge. I tugged at both handles, but neither door shifted. I pushed, just in case. They remained as still and solid as stone. My shoulders drooped; it seemed I wasn’t destined to go unpunished for my trespass. I raised my hand to knock on the door but jumped back when the nearest dog-head swung away from the wood with a hiss. Like a snake it twined upward, swaying slightly as it kept its metallic gaze on me. I felt hypnotised, unable to stagger back even though a part of my brain screeched at me to do just that. My vision narrowed to a tiny point culminating in the face of the creature. It seemed to strike in slow motion, hitting me on my cheek, its tongue piercing my skin.

I fell in slow motion too. The thump of my body against the doors would surely bring someone. I lay against the red-orange wood, slowly freezing, my vision dimming, still clutching the silver locket. The doors squeaked open and I slumped in onto the floor. The familiar face of Sister Mary hovered over me, puzzlement etched in the wrinkles on her forehead. She started to swing the doors shut and I dragged myself in further to avoid being trapped. I tried to speak but nothing came out. Sister Mary peeked out one last time before shrugging and closing the doors with a dreadfully final boom. Stepping over my body without any awareness of me she vanished down the corridor. I was alone.

The freezing cold locket remained unwarmed by my hand. Slowly I hauled myself along the concrete, my only purpose to keep moving. As all other thoughts flickered and died, that chant alone lingered and burned in my mind. Keep . . . moving.

—–
Thanks to Icy Sedgwick for her photo prompt “Door Handles”. When I saw the prompt I knew I wanted to use it, but I didn’t have an idea for a story. I searched through my memory of people I’ve seen and noted, and the memory of the man dragging himself through Sydney train station popped into my head. At the time I was pretty overwhelmed by his plight, but I didn’t know what I could do about it. He seemed adept at moving without the wheelchair he so clearly needed. The thought that someone like him could fall through the cracks in a first world country is pretty upsetting, and I have no doubt it was due to him being homeless, as the challenges faced by homeless people in accessing help are daunting. So I thought I would take the two ideas and merge them somehow, with no real expectation of what would come out of it. There is no answer to this story, if you are looking for one. I have my own ideas about what happened to the MC, but I don’t really want to force the ending into a neat hole.

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11 thoughts on “Friday Flash: Snakes and Ladders

  1. Wow, you were right, that IS creepy! Glad my prompt inspired it. The doorway plays on notions of portals between worlds and breaching sanctuary, which really sets up the ending.

    The handles are on the doors to a pub under a bridge in London, but they wouldn’t be out of place on a castle in some remote medieval fantasy!

  2. This was brilliant, the way you kept the mystery going made me want to keep on reading.

    Loved how you made the handles come alive. And the way you rounded off the tale.

  3. You explanation of the origins of the story are spot in in that you did a great job conveying the horrendous notion of a person being allowed to slip through the cracks, with the implication that the mc had just been locked out to face a similar fate too.

    Good stuff

  4. I feel like her inaction is what brought her to this state: invisible, nearly immobile. Breaking the chain will take some doing. Literally.

    I recognized Icy’s pic immediately and wondered how it would go. Great interpretation!

  5. I love the eerie quality to this, from the haunting view of the old man struggling along the street to the door handles and their ability to come to life.

    And bring death…should someone stop moving finally.

    Excellent.

  6. Really great story. Loved how you reinforced the imagery by having a similar thing happen to the girl. The nun stepping over the girl very effective and yes the line about not thinking about helping him. Very well drawn and effective piece.

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