My Round 1 assignment for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2018 was to write a ghost story (I know, again!), taking place in a quarry, with a mention of a propeller. I hope you enjoy “Journey in the Afterlife,” where we follow the victim of a horrific fall as they reflect on past events while life hangs in the balance.
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The first thing I am aware of is pain. My own pulse pierces a sadistic beat through my body. I cry out. When I hear no reply except my own echo, I open my eyes.
White light sears my retinas. It takes a few minutes before I can see the blue all around me, all above me. I’m confused until I turn just enough to see the sheer rockface of the quarry. Ah, yes. I’d been hiking. But something is wrong. I’m not on the beach on the shallow side of the quarry. No, I realize, I’m lying on a small mound of gravel at the far end, way across the blue water, at the base of the highest part of the rockface.
This isn’t good. I try to think back to how I got here. I remember calling out of work this morning, feeling the need for another personal day. I remember getting out of my car in the quarry trail parking lot, and the pleasant stroll along the dirt path leading to the beach with the abandoned skiff. I’ve seen the boat many times before; it’s been there for as long as I can remember. I don’t know the story of why it’s there. It just sits on the sandy shore, dilapidated, continually crumbling through the years. Nothing more than an eyesore or a selfie hotspot, depending on your generation.
I remember standing alone on the beach earlier today staring at that boat, lost in thought. It’s been a tough year. I remember almost forgoing the rest of my hike and having lunch in the boat instead, feeling strangely pulled to it. But I’d snapped out of it and moved on, redirecting my focus to navigating the tricky terrain up and around the inclining edge of the quarry. I remember really wanting to have lunch in the spot Dad and I usually did.
What happened when I got to the top? I must have fallen, lost my footing on the trail and slid over the edge. An accident. Just me being clumsy. Or was it? A dark tentacle of shame snakes up within me. It grows and coils, fills me until it fills my vision, reminds me of the pain I’m in. The pain I’ve been in. Before everything goes dark, I remember that it’s a weekday, and few people come to the quarry on weekdays. Even if someone did, I think about the chance they’ll bother hiking to the top, and the chance that they’ll look down and see me once there. I think about how hard it will be to get to me, surrounded by water and the sheer rockface. My odds aren’t good, but that’s okay. I slip away.
The next thing I am aware of is rocking. Forward and back. Gentle, soothing. There is no pain here, just a buzzing sound, a steady whine. Soft splashing, water lapping against the sides of something close by. I open my eyes.
The sun is down. The early evening’s strange grey light is kinder on my eyes. The air is cooler. Only the brightest stars are twinkling above in a red-purple sky slowly giving way to black to allow the rest of the stars to shine. A familiar face comes into view. It is comforting. When his eyes meet mine, I recognize his smile. I smile back. He’s with me. He’s been with me all day, since the moment I called out from work. He knew I’d need him today. I go back to sleep, knowing now that I am safe.
There is pain again, and too much noise. Urgent chatter from the rescuers. I open my eyes while they strap me to the board. It hurts. They ask too many questions: Where did I fall? How did I get here? Who was with me? I look at the familiar old skiff next to us, its tiny engine long rusted and seized; its propeller buried in the sand below. Nothing but the ghost of a boat, really. I watch it shrink in the distance as they carry me away.
Mom is with me in the hospital room. The pain is gone again, for now. She says they found the bag with my lunch, wallet, and keys across the water, on a little gravel mound at the base of the rockface. She says my injuries indicate a traumatic fall, which couldn’t have happened on the beach. What happened? How did I get to the beach, where I was found by a woman taking her dog for an evening walk?
I smile as I tell her, “Dad did it, Mom. He brought me across on a boat.”
She looks pitifully at me and strokes my hair.
“Oh honey, no, your memory mustn’t be so good after that fall.” Her voice is small and sad, like it’s been all year.
But I know she’s wrong. I can’t remember the moments leading up to my fall, if that’s what it was, but everything else comes back to me more clearly with time. I know what I saw.
Months pass. Physical therapy goes well. The other kind of therapy takes a bit longer; I probably could have used it long before my first solo trip to the quarry. I slowly get better, though. Nobody claims credit for transporting me across the water, where the only boat available was half-buried and useless. I know why.
When I’m ready, I go back for another visit. It’s a weekday again; there is no crowd. The skiff is still there, neither an eyesore nor a selfie hotspot to me anymore. I step over the peeling side and sit on the cracked floor, facing the engine and the tiller where my father’s hand had rested that night.
“Hey Dad,” I say out loud, “thanks for always being there.” A small smile that looks like his pushes at the corners of my mouth, “Even in death.”
I unpack my bag and have lunch.