It’s time for Weird Fiction Monday, when I post stories that I’ve written — both new and old — for the entertainment (hopefully) of my readers! As always, I note that I haven’t done extensive editing of the tales here, so don’t be surprised to find the writing a little rough.
I was hoping to finish a new story to post here this week, but my stories — like my science blog posts — always take much longer to write than I anticipate. So instead, I present a story that I wrote sometime around 1996. I’m not quite sure what to make of it…
When the van finally pulled up in front of the school at five minutes past six, Dustin Pendleton had just moved outside anxiously to wait for its arrival. The side of the vehicle read ‘Simms Heating’, and a large dirty looking man, probably a union worker, stepped slowly out of it. He glanced back and forth disinterestedly across the length of the elementary school building for a moment while he adjusted his tool belt, and then he focused on Dustin.
Dustin moved towards him eagerly, extended an arm forward in greeting.
“You’re the one who called about the heating problem?” the dirty man asked, glancing at Dustin’s extended hand but not shaking it. His name tag read ‘Porter’, but Pendleton disregarded it at first.
“Yes, I’m Mr. Pendleton, principal of Coleridge Elementary. I’m terribly sorry to bother you on a Saturday. Are you Simms?”
The man shook his head, stepping past Pendleton and looking at the building again. “I’m Porter. Simms owns the company; I just do the work.”
“Well, maybe we should get to it then,” Pendleton piped up, feeling too impatient. “Let’s take care of this before it gets dark outside.”
Porter walked towards the main doors, and Pendleton scurried ahead to unlock them.
“So what’s the problem?” Porter asked, stepping inside.
“Well, it’s a problem with our heating ducts apparently. Its seems like we’re having some heat flow problems, not enough heat getting to certain rooms, and the like. Maybe you can find out what the problem is.”
“In a building this old, usually the original heating systems aren’t designed too well,” Porter commented, glancing at the walls as the pair walked down the hall. Coleridge Elementary certainly was an old building; it had been built in the early twenties, a product of post war prosperity. Now, however, the aged stone walls and worn tiled floors made the corridors look bleak and unfriendly.
“Our duct work is fairly new,” Pendleton corrected quickly. “In the 1970s the city installed new tubing, just before money started to get tight. They just suspended the new ducts from the ceiling, since there’s ample room, as you can see.”
He pointed up to one of the aluminum tunnels as they passed under it, a rectangular tube cutting across the corridor between classrooms. Porter nodded, but didn’t say anything; he looked somewhat bored, actually. The duo marched down the halls in silence for another minute, and then they had arrived at an unmarked door.
“The furnace is in here,” Pendleton waved towards the portal. “I don’t know if you want to look at that, because most of the rooms get heat just fine…”
“Can you show me which rooms are having trouble?” Porter interrupted, adjusting his belt. That was the question Pendleton had been waiting for, and he blurted out, almost too eagerly, “Of course! Let me show you!”
Through the windows, he could see the sun going down outside. Trying not to break into a run, he led the way through more twisting passageways. He had one more question he had to ask, and made a point of asking it well before they reached the back classrooms.
“So, Mr. Porter, did you go to school around here?”
It seemed like an innocent enough question. Porter shook his head in response.
“I went to school in Chicago,” he answered, volunteering no other information. But then again, Pendleton didn’t really want to know any more than that.
“Well, I went to school here, if you can believe that. It was kind of a surprise when I was offered the job as principal here last year. I had been teaching in the northern suburbs for years when – bang! – they asked me to come back. I wasn’t particularly enthused at the time, for, you know, childhood memories and all, but the pay was much better, so here I am.”
He shrugged, but Porter wasn’t watching. So much the better; Pendleton couldn’t imagine what his own expression looked like. They walked without conversation until they entered the back hall.
Pendleton repressed a shudder. Even in full daylight, the back hall always seemed darker than the rest of the building, and with the sun almost gone outside, the corridor was infested with gloom.
“Rooms 114, 115, and 116 at the end of this corridor have been lacking in heat,” Pendleton said, pointing at the three last wooden doors on the right side of the hall.
“It could just be their distance from the furnace,” Porter muttered, looking around for the ceiling ducts. “Further rooms get less of the heat.”
“But they were doing fine last winter,” Pendleton argued, listening to the strain in his own voice. “Several teachers have commented on a noticeable change. Something must be different.”
He watched carefully the eyes of the heating man drift along the line of cold rooms… and past them to room 113. The eyes paused there for a moment, then continued further along, moving to where a heating duct protruded from the room into the hallway, and down the hall towards the furnace.
“Have you checked that room yet?” Porter asked, walking to the door. Pendleton’s heart jumped as the doorknob rattled under the man’s grip.
“Why… no,” he lied carefully, scratching his chin for effect. “It’s been closed off for quite some time, since it was determined to be… unfit for use as a regular classroom. Now we just use it for occasional storage space, and as an overflow classroom.”
Porter rattled the doorknob again; the sound seemed terribly loud in the empty school. “Do you have a key to it?” he asked.
Pendleton fumbled with his key ring for a moment, and finally, as quietly as possible, he unlocked the door to room 113. He stepped back to let Porter go in first to look around, and waited just outside the door.
Porter clicked the non-functional lights on and off once, then pulled a flashlight from his utility belt.
“We cut off power to this room, since we don’t use it for much,” Pendleton volunteered from the hall. He couldn’t bear to go in just yet.
“What the hell?” Porter laughed from within the room. His flashlight beam flickered as it swept up and down. “I think I’ve found your problem.”
Taking a deep breath, Pendleton went inside to look at what he already knew was there. Desks still remained neatly arranged in rows throughout the length of the former classroom, only the dust revealing their long vacancy. One of the shiny aluminum heating ducts ran lengthwise across the room, from chalkboard to back wall, and it was at the center of this that the heating man was shining his flashlight.
One of the side walls of the duct was missing, and sagging down from the darkened opening was a tangled mess of ropes, their length whirling down to the floor like a frozen fountain of cables. Porter tugged on the ropy mass, eliciting a dull thud from the section of ductwork nearest the breach.
“I figure all this garbage is probably cutting down on your heating efficiency,” he chuckled, shaking his head. Pendleton tried to gather some shock for his voice.
“I imagine it would,” he breathed out, stepping further into the room – but not too far – as if for a better look.
“Any idea what this is all about?” Porter asked, tugging again on the tangle. Pendleton restrained a wince.
“No, I haven’t been in here for a while,” he lied again. “I have no idea where that came from.”
“It’s not electrical wiring. Probably something students were trying to do,” Porter muttered, trying to shine his beam up into the murky aperture. “Maybe you should check in here more often. I can’t see where it’s connected up there, but it’s probably hooked through one of the supporting braces along the way. You know, this almost looks like a mass of knotted rope ladders.”
“Can you clear it?”
Porter frowned, and turned to Pendleton.
“Look, you don’t need a specialist for this – I’ll save you the cost of our fee this time. All you need to do is get a good stable ladder, climb up there, and cut this mass of crap out of the way. Everything should work just fine then.”
“You mean you won’t do it?” The thought seemed both strangely relieving and incredibly terrifying.
“You don’t need me to do it. Just get one of your janitors in here on Monday to clear it out. Look, I’m trying to save you money.”
“But the weather men are predicting another cold snap on late Sunday night. I’d like the school’s heating up and running by the time it hits. Would it be too much trouble if you could just take care of it now? I’ll pay the fee, that’s not a problem.”
Pendleton held his breath while the heating man mulled the offer over. Porter was clearly weighing more pay versus extra work, but after another look at the tangle of ladders, the pay seemed to win out.
“All right; it should take only a minute. Do you have a ladder around here I can use?”
“Not that I know of,” Pendleton lied yet again; his plan wouldn’t work if the man didn’t climb the ropes. “I could go search the maintenance rooms, but that could take some time…”
“Never mind,” the heating man said, tugging thoughtfully at the knotted mass again. He then dragged a desk just below the opening, raising low clouds of spectral dust in its wake. Stepping precariously upon the aged desk, he grasped the ends of the hole and tried to hoist himself up to peer into it. For a terrible moment Pendleton was sure that the man would manage to climb up without using the ladders, but Porter’s hand slipped and he reached out and grasped the haphazard wrapping for support.
“Good thing this can hold my weight,” Porter quipped, using one hand to hold the duct and the other to pull himself up upon the ropes. Pendleton wasn’t surprised- he had seen first hand how even one of those ladders could support a person’s weight, be it child or PTA member. Porter managed to wiggle his torso into the duct with the help of the ladders, and slid himself deeper in, out of sight. The metal groaned lightly under his weight.
Porter said something, but his voice was too faint to hear, so Pendleton unwillingly moved closer to the hole, standing uncomfortably next to the twisted bundle of cords.
“I said I can’t see where the stuff is connected from here. It seems to spread out and stretch down the tube… What the hell?”
Pendleton didn’t ask what the man had seen. He hadn’t wanted to know when he was a child and he didn’t want to know now. More groaning of metal followed in the ducts above, as Porter moved further along the ductwork, away from the opening.
“…this is interesting…” his voice sounded through the aluminum softly, growing fainter. The shape of his body slithered along the narrow tunnel, and slowly shifted away through the wall and out of the room.
Pendleton waited for him in silence for a long time. The sun had completely set now, and the room was dark save for a wedge of pale light coming through the door from the hallway. And the silence was oppressive.
He had just begun to move warily back towards the door when the entire mass of rope ladders twitched, and then lifted violently up through the opening and into the ducts beyond.
Pendleton started sharply, and leapt away from the aperture, stumbling noisily against a desk in his retreat.
So that was it; it had happened again, and this time it had been premeditated… by Pendleton himself. He had held out some hope that the ropes would have crashed down to the floor, that Porter would have found the source and cut them loose once and for all. But the fact that the ropes were gone meant that Porter was gone, too. He would never be seen again, just as that man from the PTA had never been seen again, and the janitor before him, and Pendleton’s own best friend Timothy before him.
Timothy had been the first. He and Pendleton had been sitting in English class when the wall of the duct had burst open above their heads, and a single thin ladder had descended from the hole. Timothy had always been a daredevil, and he had climbed the ladder while the teacher was hunting for a janitor. Pendleton, and the rest of the class, had watched him go, and all of them knew he was gone for good when that first ladder had disappeared – or been pulled – up into the darkness of the ducts.
Then the teacher had come back with the janitor…
A sudden noise drew Pendleton’s mind back to the present, and his heart skipped a beat as a single rope ladder, its cords thin and wiry, rolled down from the opening that Porter had gone through. The base of the ladder rolled off the desk and brushed the floor, swaying lightly.
Pendleton followed its length up towards the darkness of the hole, hoping not to see anything within, and he slowly backed his way out of the room, his mind remembering the day he had first seen one of the ladders.
By the time the janitor had arrived, another ladder had fallen from the hole, and the janitor had climbed up to find Timothy. A minute later – or perhaps sooner, Pendleton couldn’t remember – the ladder had pulled up into the ceiling, just like Timothy’s, and a minute after that, another had fallen through the maw of the duct.
More people had gone up looking for Timothy and the janitor, but those two were never found, nor could anyone ever find where those rope ladders originated from. The lines from them seemed to crisscross throughout the network of ducts, growing in density in some areas and tapering off in others, but with no origin ever found. The searchers had returned unharmed, but they had used school ladders to climb, and that was the difference – when you climbed the rope ladders, you were accepting the invitation of whatever was up there, and no one ever returned from such an invitation.
Pendleton shut the door of room 113 and locked it, testing the handle before walking quickly away through the halls. Eventually, authorities would come to ask him where the heating man had gone after stopping at the school, and Pendleton would plead ignorance. He had left the man alone, he would say, and had found the abandoned truck on Monday morning. People in town wouldn’t inquire too closely; most had gone to Coleridge Elementary as children, and would be glad to know that Pendleton was trying to protect their children. And them.
For the extender of invitations was persistent. Pendleton hadn’t been around at the time, but he had heard that after the first two disappearances, the classroom had been closed, and when it was reopened eight years later for a PTA meeting, eight ladders were dangling down from the opening in the ducts. A frustrated father who knew the stories climbed up the ladders to find out what the story was, and he apparently found out, for the ladders withdrew, and a single ladder dropped down a minute later, and the man was never seen again.
Pendleton reached the exit of the school, but once outside his uneasiness did not subside. He hurried to his car and fumbled for his keys for an uncomfortably long moment before managing to get in and drive towards the safety of home.
The room had been closed after the PTA father vanished, and no one had reentered it until Pendleton became principal 20 years later, and found the twenty ladders tangled amongst themselves in that forsaken room, and realized what he had to do to protect the children, the community, and himself. He was afraid of what might happen if the invitation was not accepted for a long time: would the host come down and extend those invitations personally?
Pendelton was sure the PTA would approve of his actions, in any case.
This story probably contributed to the end of my grad school romance! I was cuddling with my girlfriend in bed one night, drifting in that realm of not-quite-awake-not-quite-sleep, when the bizarre concept of this story appeared fully formed in my mind.
Some stories I write, and some stories write me — this was the latter! With a perfunctory explanation, I tossed her out of my apartment and wrote furiously, finishing the tale early in the morning.
Shenanigans like this really didn’t help our relationship, which ended not too long afterwards. The final straw seems to have been my making her watch the movie “Slapshot” with me…