21. Sky Ladder

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Seagull skeletons hung in the breeze

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Seagull skeletons hung in the breeze.

Geoff noticed the birds. He remembered reading somewhere about birds being a sign of land.

"Are we close to some shore out here?" he asked the captain.

"Not apart from the island," said Eugene "and a few other islands nearby. No cities or anything. You do get a few arrivals here, we pick them up sometimes after they've arrived and ended up stranded. People who died on secluded island places above ground, on holidays. Tsunamis and midlife crisis suicides. That sort of thing. And sometimes they're used by mutineers and blaggards as launching pads for raids on the above world. That's the first step towards a zombie mutiny. They build up their forces on the islands before making their way up the ropes."

She pointed up above his head. A good fifteen feet in the air, which Geoff could only just see by squinting, there was the bottom of a rope hanging in the air. Geoff squinted harder up into glare of the sun and he could make out the rungs of the ladder directly above them.

"How do we get up there" Naomi asked.

"We use an old fashioned wooden ladder for that," said the captain.

As if on her word, the skeleton crew began hauling on ropes that were attached to the portside of the ship. As they pulled on the ropes, a loud clunking sound came from over the rail. The clunking and scraping continued. The skeletons weren't as strong without their muscles so were leaning back as they pulled the rope, some almost parallel with the wooden floor of the top deck. Finally after lots of scraping and clunking and grunting a long plank of wood appeared above the side of the ship.

 Finally after lots of scraping and clunking and grunting a long plank of wood appeared above the side of the ship

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The crew pulled the ropes against themselves as the ladder inched closer to the edge of the ship. When they were within arms each they grabbed a hold of the contraption. It was the tallest ladder Geoff had ever seen. At least twenty feet tall, A-frame, with lengths of rope connecting the two sides.

The crew stood the ladder tall and brought the feet apart until the connecting ropes pulled taught.

Geoff knew Naomi was afraid of heights. They'd known since they boarded the Radical Notion that they'd be climbing back up into the stratosphere of the underworld. Back towards the scaffolding that hung under the grave layer, just below the green grass of their old lives. And they knew that was necessarily going to involve heights. But it was something else entirely when you saw it with your own eye sockets.

"Are you ready to climb" Geoff said "I can go first".

He turned to face Naomi but she wasn't standing next to him.

She was walking towards the ladder.

"I've got this" She said as she stepped onto the first rung.

As she began climbing a cheer went up from the crowd.

Geoff followed Naomi onto the ladder and together they climbed higher and higher until they stood together at the small steel platform that capped the wooden A-frame. Hanging a foot or two higher was the swinging rope ladder.

Naomi turned to Geoff "Are you ready for this?".

"After you darling" he said.

Naomi shouted down to the Captain, "thank you for everything."

Geoff caught Jamieson's eye "Are you coming?" he asked?

"Me and Susan are going to stay on board a while longer I think. I have some making up to do. You''ve given me a fresh start and I'll always owe you for that. Now go get your cat," Jamieson yelled back up at them.

Together, Geoff and Naomi climbed higher still away from the ocean and the skeleton ship and the great expanse of the undead world, onwards toward Bernie.

💀💀💀

Geoff had thought about the ladder climb in advance. He'd planned out a pep talk to give to Naomi to keep her motivated, a whole speech. He hadn't thought that he was particularly scared of heights himself. But it turned out that you didn't really know what fear of heights was until you'd climbed a rope ladder that lead up so high into the sky that it became a single thin line and then became a dot and then became nothing.

Geoff looked up to Naomi's steadfast ankles above his head. They swayed in great big arcs through the air and in the distance gold lightning tore through the pale blue sky. He was trying to comprehend in his own empty bone head just how terrifying this moment was, suspended an eternity above the ant sized ship of warm hearted pirates below him, now only dots, now invisible with his love above him, with his ghost heart exploding in his non-existent but insistently throbbing throat.

He wouldn't have been able to give Naomi the speech even if he wanted to

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He wouldn't have been able to give Naomi the speech even if he wanted to. The wind up at that altitude was so strong it was a dull roar all around them. His head was full of the height and the wind and the sun burning above them. He would have to shout to be heard and somehow the thought of shouting this high frightened him. He didn't want to expend that much energy projecting his voice, didn't want to steal any of the precious energy from his painfully tight gripped fingers that were holding on to the coarse rope of the ladder as if his life depended on it. His continued happy death probably did depend on it.

The fall wouldn't be enough to crush him completely. But It would shatter his bones into small enough pieces that he would fit through the cosmic sieve into the world of dust. And this time there would be no Jamieson to rescue him.

If Geoff fell now, he would lose his arms to the surf and his legs to the coral and his skull would be left bobbing in the empty sea. Eventually the crashing waves would break him down onto the ocean floor and he would slowly weather away and after a few century or millennia he would be gone entirely.

He began giving himself, in his head, the speech he had planned for Naomi:

Forget about the ground.

Breathe, exhale, relax your face, unclench your jaw

Save your precious energy for the slow and steady work of climbing, of putting one foot above the other, of repeating the same motion over and over as you move up the ladder. Forget about the end result, forget about where you are, forget about where you're going, Instead just focus on the work at hand, relax into it, take care with it but do it with as little effort as possible.

Do it beautifully.

Do it like you have been climbing ladders all your life and this is as easy as rolling out of bed after a warm Sunday afternoon nap and drinking a tall glass of cold water.

Geoff tried to listen to his own advice. He unclenched his jaw and relaxed into the mindless repetition of one hand over the other. Of course it was easier said than done to forget about the ground, the ground that had now become an unimaginable and endless void of death (of a death worse than death, greater and far less and far more than the death they were in now).

Naomi hadn't spoken to him since they started climbing. She hadn't spoken to herself either. Not that Geoff would have heard her if she did. She just kept climbing. One hand after the other. 

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