Since this adventure I don’t know if I’m more allergic to dust or ladders.
Written and illustrated by Alejo Porras de los Ríos.
The grating screech of the bell startled me, the teacher sighed in relief, and the kids shouted in delight as they ran out the doors and left my fifth grade classroom almost empty in a matter of seconds. While my ears recovered, I grabbed my favorite cookies and a sugary fruit juice out of my bag and headed towards the exit when the big, tanned figure of my friend whom we called “Chunche” or “Chun”, a word in Spanish that in Costa Rica means “Thing," entered the classroom walking on tiptoe, a smile of mischief on his face. He was up to no good… again.
“I found something,” he whispered to me as he looked from left to right, and then again to his left. Noticing the professor still at his desk (had he fallen asleep?), he whispered, “Come with me."
I carefully opened the noisy metallic cookie wrapper. “Does it have to do anything with toads? I think we should leave them alone,” I said as I put one of the cookies in my mouth, chocolate side up. A few weeks ago, Chun had discovered a round, concrete drain cover that held rain gathered from the school gutters. He heaved it out of the floor all by himself and found inside that it was crammed with toads of all sizes. We had an enjoyable time playing with the creatures, scaring some of the girls (and boys) who came close, but when somebody got the idea of flushing them down the toilet I didn’t think it was fun anymore.
“No, no more toads, I promise. This is even better, but you can’t tell anybody.”
Oh! a secret mission! Being part of one was definitely a better way to spend my recess than playing in the swings or trading cards from the FIFA World Cup France album. So I scarfed as much as I could of the cookies, squeezed the remainder of the juice into my mouth, and followed my friend’s steps.
We found our way through a crowded hallway at the high school building, walked down the stairs that led to the outdoor sports facilities, passed the swimming pool, and then Chun slowed down a little bit, noticeably excited. Finally, we turned the corner and walked inside the gym. The high school students were in the dressing rooms, as they had just finished their PE class, and there were no professors to be seen; the coast was clear. We sneaked onto the big stage, passed the long red curtains, and I suddenly realized where he was taking me: the forbidden backstage. It was known that a ladder led to a sort of attic above the stage’s ceiling. Some said many interesting artifacts have been stored there for years, but many were afraid to climb because we have seen bats coming in and out of there. I didn’t mind the bats. It was mostly my allergies who advised against this exploration, but my curiosity was stronger so I doubled my pace, my heart racing inside my chest.
We went through the backstage dark curtain, almost squeezing ourselves inside. Chun grunted when his shoulders rubbed the walls, and with every step he took the wooden floor complained at his weight. I raised my hands in front of me and I couldn’t see them; we were surrounded by darkness, except from a dim light that came from above and revealed the vertical ladder that stood like a tree leading to the ceiling of the gym. It must have been 15 feet tall at least. My knees started to wiggle.
“I have been all the way up and there’s not much to see in the attic,” he whispered. “That is what I discovered.” Although I couldn’t see his hand pointing, I knew what he must have been indicating. A few rays of light infiltrated through the wall like lasers, dust shimmering in the still air.
“There are peepholes to the dressing rooms of the swimming pool and the high school girls just finished their PE class.” From the sound of his voice, I could tell he was smiling.
Puberty took over my brain and I started climbing that ladder as if there was no tomorrow, Chun following my steps closely. We climbed, and climbed, and climbed, and the ladder felt more like a treadmill. My nose got stuffy from all the dust and I started sniffing and rubbing my eyes from time to time. I heard a fainted flapping noise somewhere above me. “There are no vampires in Costa Rica, just friendly bats,” I repeated to myself encouragingly as I continued to climb towards the light with determination, and slowly got my head closer to the wall as I finally reached the spot that would reveal a new world to me.
My eyes blinked at the bright light and took a moment to adjust, and when they did, I was utterly disappointed. Not only there were no girls to be seen, but the view wasn’t even the inside of the dressing rooms. All I could see was the swimming pool, the roof of the dressing rooms, the stairs we had walked down, the high school building at the distance, and kids running everywhere because the stupid bell was ringing again, calling them (and us) back to class.
I traded concerned looks with Chun and my hands started to sweat as I noticed I couldn’t even see the floor. I could only see Chun climbing down clumsily. He stopped abruptly, looked at me and let his hands off the ladder while saying, “I think I reached the flooooooo….” His hands and feet seemed to wave in slow motion as he fell. The darkness swallowed him without mercy. I held my breath and felt a wave of panic falling from my head to my stomach, slowly and heavily.
Then a muted thump.
Then silence again.
I remained perched in that ladder, paralyzed, hoping I could hear my friend’s breathing or some sign that he was alive. After a few seconds, I started my way down, white knuckles holding firmly each step. My eyes were itchier than ever but I resisted to rub them.
When I reached the floor I heard a faint voice saying “I’m... fine,” just as his body moved, noisily, trying to recuperate himself in that enclosed space. With no broken bones and just a few scratches, Chun managed to survive the fall and keep the hopes of going back some day. I never knew if he did but he changed schools the next year, and though I stayed, I never visited the backstage again.
To this day, I’m still not fond of ladders.