It’s Thursday and you know what that means, you have a one in two shot of a new chapter of The Sky Below. In case you missed the first couple of chapters of our serialized story, I’ve put up a new landing page that has all the links you’ll need. And if you look to your right you’ll see the new cover. Neat, huh? Anyway, hope you enjoy this chapter and as always keep the comments coming. ~BTW
Bethany woke to throbbing pain from her right hand. The skin was pink and wet, and had the faint aroma of the coffee she’d been holding moments before. The immediate scalding heat had subsided, leaving a dull ache and a slightly itchy sensation, making Bethany wonder exactly how long she’d been unconscious. Still, that question could wait until her more immediate needs were met: a fresh cup of coffee and something cool for her hand.
Bethany recalled a bathroom just around the corner and pushed down with her good hand to get herself up. The floor felt rough and dusty. She wondered idly if her donut was still on the counter or if it had fallen off during … whatever had happened. Sure enough, there was a little paper wrapper on the floor with the edge of a maple donut creeping out of it. As she bent down to pick it up, she noticed that the counter was no longer in front of her.
The Latina woman and another teenage employee were sprawled out on the floor where the counter should have been. Bethany took a tentative step forward, then stepped back as the woman groaned.
“Are you alright?” Bethany asked.
The woman was still dazed, her eyes squinting as she regained focus. “I think so. What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Bethany replied. “Do you have any bottled water back there? I spilled coffee on my hand.”
Bethany put out an arm which the woman waved off. Once the woman had righted herself she stood on her tiptoes to look inside the little refrigerator behind the counter, which was now above her head. “All I have is milk and orange juice.”
“Probably the milk,” Bethany said. “How much do I owe you?”
The woman fixed her with a look, then said flatly, “No charge.”
Bethany took the small carton and held it against her hand. It felt a little better, but the cardboard didn’t feel very cold against her skin. She sighed and pushed the carton open, pouring out the liquid slowly over the back of her hand. She winced briefly from the cold, then relaxed as her fingers loosened and the skin felt less chapped.
“Throw on a little fresh cinnamon and I’ve basically made a latté on my hand,” Bethany said. The woman just stared at her. Finally Bethany said, “Thanks. That feels a lot better.”
The Latina woman nodded, then turned to wake up her co-worker, who was drooling into a pile of spilled cup-holders. Suddenly the thought of eating her donut in front of these people didn’t seem so appealing. Bethany reached into her coat pocket to stash the wrapper when she noticed a familiar bump was missing.
“Dammit,” Bethany hissed softly. Looking down she saw nothing other than milk-stained shoes. She looked behind her and caught a glimpse of a purple phone case against the far wall. She took an unsteady step toward the phone, then froze as the floor creaked beneath her. Suddenly heels didn’t feel like such a good idea.
Cautiously she slipped her feet out of her shoes, then knelt slowly to pick them up, dangling them from her left hand. Given the state of her hair and clothes she looked like a woman walking home from a one night stand, with the added humiliation of milk dripping from her hand and shoes. The floor creaked with every step but at least it didn’t feel like it was going to buckle anymore. Within a few seconds she was across the alcove to where her phone had slid.
The protective case had broken open but the phone seemed relatively intact. She had a couple of missed calls from her sister but no messages. This was pretty typical; Grace was the kind of person to keep calling until you picked up rather than leave a message. When she wanted your attention she had to get it right then, though the last call was from about ten minutes ago. Bethany frowned; it wasn’t like Grace to give up like that.
Reluctantly, she pressed down the call button. The phone didn’t even ring once before she got the three-tone alert message.
“We’re sorry, but we cannot place your call as dialed. Our lines are over capacity at the moment. Please hang up and place your call again later.”
“Probably everyone’s calling each other trying to figure out what’s going on,” the donut woman shouted.
Bethany frowned again, “Even if there was some kind of accident in the mall it wouldn’t have jammed up every line!”
“Lady, we’re upside-down. I think that’s enough.”
Bethany looked up toward the “ceiling” and saw the familiar tile of the floor. The “floor” beneath her feet was completely flat, except for a couple of diamond shaped bumps that looked a hell of a lot like light fixtures.
“That’s impossible,” she gasped.
“You’d think so, but here we are.” The woman shrugged. “Listen, can you help me with Jared here? I think he might have broken his ankle.”
“I must have hit my head harder than I thought,” Bethany said, not really hearing her.
“Hey, maybe so, but until you wake up I could really use a hand here.”
Bethany shook her head clear and walked back over. Jared was still in a haze, which was probably just as well given the angle of his foot. Bethany put a hand under his arm, and grimaced at the moisture underneath. The woman shot her a grin, “Yeah, I know. Try standing next to him for 12 hours on end.”
“Where do we put him?” Bethany asked, pulling upward. The two women linked their arms trying to put most of Jared’s weight on his back and under his thighs, though his feet still bumped into the floor every couple of steps.
“We’ve got a couple of chairs in the office in the back, assuming they weren’t bolted to the floor.”
The back area was dark, the floor littered with all sorts of dry ingredients, sugar and flour and cinnamon, floating a few inches off the floor in a thin mist. Bethany could already feel a coating forming around her ankles and feet.
They found a yellow plastic chair that looked like it had been taken from a 70s classroom and kicked it upright. Jared let out a little yelp as they dropped him down, then slumped slightly forward, threatening to fall back onto the floor. The woman shuffled over to the other side of the office and found another chair. She put it under Jared’s left leg and he leaned back, his head falling backwards to the right.
The woman leaned against the back wall to catch her breath and Bethany did the same, “What’s your name?” the woman asked.
“Bethany, and you’re … Sofia, right?”
“Got that from my name tag and everything, right?”
Bethany blushed, “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Yeah, I guess so. It’s actually Claudia, but I got sick of people pronouncing it wrong. Clow-dia not Claw-dia.” Claudia breathed out heavily, “Hey. You still got that donut?”
Bethany chuckled, “It’s been on the floor.”
“Actually I think it’s the ceiling. How ‘bout you give me half in return for that milk?”
Bethany took out the paper she’d tucked in her jacket and tore the donut in two. “Deal.”
* * *
“Grab my hand!” Reverend Marcado shouted as he leaned down toward the balcony railing.
Marcado had wrapped his legs around one of the wood paneled columns which suddenly felt a whole lot less solid with the weight of the balcony pulling on it instead of pushing down. Hymnals and Bibles were raining down around him as they slipped out of the pews, forming blue-bound piles on the high curved ceiling.
The young man below him was terrified, and had wrapped both arms and legs around the flat metal of the railing. Already Marcado could tell that railing wasn’t going to hold his weight forever, despite the 200-year old craftsmanship of the sanctuary.
“It’s alright,” he said calmly. “I’ve got you, and the Lord’s got us both.”
The young man leaned as if to move, then whimpered and held the railing more tightly as his ball-cap fell off his head.
“Son,” Marcado said more firmly, “I know it’s scary, but you’ve got to climb.”
The young man leaned out again, still leaving his legs wrapped around the railing. As he stretched he was able to get a few fingers under the curved inset of the panel above. Marcado stretched down and this time he could just barely brush the tips of his fingers against the young man’s hand.
“Just a little bit more,” Marcado encouraged. “You’re doing fine.”
The young man grabbed the U-shaped arch of the trim and pushed up, reaching with his left arm to grasp one of the small wooden balusters. He let his right hand go and pulled upward, swinging his legs out and hanging by one arm for a few terrifying seconds before Marcado grabbed him. The baluster in his left hand pulled out from the railing and dropped out of his hand, making a low clattering as it hit the ceiling.
Marcado grunted as the man’s full weight pulled down on his arm. He began tugging with his legs, hoping the weight wouldn’t pull the column out like the baluster. The young man grabbed Marcado’s arm with both hands, the weight easing as the kid got a hand up on the ceiling at the base of the balcony. Within another few seconds he had a leg up and soon was lying flat on his belly. Marcado dangled over the edge till the kid collected his wits enough to grab his arm and spin him around the column.
Both men lay flat for a few minutes catching their breath. The adrenaline was already starting to wear off, and Marcado was wishing he’d spent a few more evenings playing in the church basketball league. The young man looked to be in his late twenties, wearing a large and garish Chief Wahoo t-shirt. Most of the fans in the city had long ago abandoned wearing that mascot, at least in public, preferring the newer letter styled jersey, or if they liked the tradition at least keeping the Indian small and on their arm. It was the out of towners who still got a kick out of the grinning chief.
“Reverend, look!” the young man shouted, pointing downward. He’d crawled to the edge of the balcony and was looking toward the organ. Below them, pairs of curved wooden bracers stood atop a wooden floor, with circular vents in between each pair. Further down, stained glass windows glowed brightly from the sun outside.
‘Whatever has happened hasn’t spoiled the sky at least,’ Marcado thought.
On the floor near the organ, a young woman lay sprawled over one of the curved bracers. She was breathing slowly, her long black hair fanning out behind her head like a halo. Her eyes were open but unfocused, looking at nothing in particular.
“We’ve got to do something,” the young man said, already looking around for something to lower himself down.
From twenty-some feet above Marcado could see the small pool of blood forming behind her head. That she’d survived the fall was something of a miracle, if a cruel one. Her body was bent and broken, her breathing raspy and pained. Her face was a cloud, unable to speak even if her lungs would allow it, on the verge of seeing a divine mystery Marcado had only glimpsed from afar.
“Don’t just sit there, we’ve got to help her,” the young man’s voice was growing all the more urgent. There was no rope to be found, nothing aside from a few domed glass hanging lights now lying flat on the ceiling floor. The cords might lower them down a few feet, assuming they could even hold their weight. Marcado put a hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“We can’t reach her, not without falling ourselves,” he said gently.
“But you’re a man of God, you’re supposed to help people aren’t you?” the young man said angrily, pushing Marcado’s arm away.
“I am going to help her,” Marcado said, “I’m going to pray.”
“What’s that going to do? We’ve got to get her up here!” The young man said, tears starting to form around his eyes. “We can just leave her!”
“Who is she, son?”
“What’s her name?” Marcado asked calmly.
“Stacey,” the young man said, tears running down his face in earnest now.
“You care about her a great deal, don’t you?”
The young man looked down at his feet, “She’s my girlfriend, about six months now. We just moved in together about a month ago.”
“Alright, you want to help her don’t you?”
“Yes,” he said weakly.
“Just look at her.”
The young man took a tentative crawl toward the edge. His eagerness from a few moments prior replaced by fear, not of heights or the ceiling collapsing from beneath him, but of the reality he knew lay just below him.
“She’s dying, son, probably only a few minutes now.”
The young man backed slowly away from the edge. Marcado stopped him gently and the young man’s voice cracked as he spoke. “She was just a few feet in front of me. If only I’d been closer I’d…”
“I know,” Marcado said. “She’s in God’s hands now but we can still pray for her.”
“But we’re not believers, Reverend,” the young man said. “Doesn’t that mean you think she’s going to go to hell or something?”
Marcado shook his head. “You really think that’s how it works? I don’t think God is as cruel as men make him out to be. He’ll take care of her.”
The young man wiped his tears off with a sleeve and bowed his head. Marcado closed his eyes. After a brief prayer he opened them again and stared at the front of the sanctuary. Everything loose had fallen toward the ceiling, including a grand piano which had landed with its legs sticking in the air like a wounded animal. Somehow the organ had managed to maintain its shape, with just a few of the over three thousand pipes slipping out of their moorings. The chandeliers, on the other hand, had all swung toward the center of the room; the glass from each of the cylindrical lights shattered and strewn in a glistening carpet on the ceiling. The Bible he read from every Sunday morning and the candles he lit were all gone. All of the familiar rituals and objects that made this place his home as much as God’s were falling away.
The truth was he didn’t know what God had in store for Stacey or for any of them. He’d seen people die before, around the world and right in front of him. But none of that had felt like God’s doing, just man’s nature at its most extreme and perverse. But flipping a church upside-down didn’t feel like the work of man. God had killed all but a few people in a boat when he brought terrible floods. He said he’d never do it again, but maybe he only meant the rain.
Marcado turned back toward the young man who was still kneeling with his head bowed and eyes closed. “Come on. We’ve got to get moving. If we get into the basement, we might at least stand a chance.”
The young man opened his eyes and nodded. The two men turned and crawled away from the edge, neither looking back.
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Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube