Hello everyone! As part of Short Story Saturday, I have posted another short story, this one entitled Free. Please enjoy. Also, if you haven’t already checked out my FAQ on my upcoming book, Magic Once Removed, please check that out as well. Thanks again!
His long flowing locks danced in the ocean breeze. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before facing the sun. Then he looked over the edge of the cliff. His eyes were transfixed on the raging waters below.
Jagged rocks the size of boulders looked like pebbles. Small bits of earth crumbled beneath his feet as he walked along the edge. It took several seconds for them to meet their final destination. Plunging from this height would give him plenty of time to think and plenty of time to regret, assuming a man like him was capable of such a thing.
“Doesn’t the water look inviting?” a voice asked. He turned and faced the ghost who served as his tormentor.
“It was a mistake,” he pleaded.
“Do you speak the truth?” Her face contorted into what one might call a knowing smirk had she still had lips.
This was the spot where they had spent many a romantic and intimate evening, to put it mildly, in the back of his red Corvette. A gift bestowed to him by his father on his birthday. That was why she felt it was the perfect spot to deliver the news.
“I wasn’t ready to be a father.”
“You weren’t ready to be a man.”
He was the chief suspect when her bloated corpse was found several days later floating amongst some trash. At one point, he was incarcerated for the alleged crime. A lack of evidence and a technicality allowed him to elude justice. His father’s affluence and connections certainly aided in the judge and jury finding that verdict. Knowing the right wheels to grease often helps the corrupt.
Yet money can only go so far. It does not make one free.
His initial jubilance and relief were replaced with existential fear.
She was every nightmare. She was every unpleasant memory. She was what kept him awake at night. She was the one who dogged him through college and the early days of his professional career. She was the terrible secret that he carried with him everywhere. So she ultimately was the reason he moved to a new town, took up a new identity, and for all intents and purposes except for the most important aspects of himself became a different man.
The change of scenery of a small town granted him a temporary reprieve. There though the offerings were sparse he managed an employer needing IT work. Though the pay was much less than he was used to or desired, he now had a clean slate. He also managed to earn the respect of his coworkers and bosses alike with his adroit mind and expertise. Such skills were at a premium at his new home than they were at the city he once called home. Because of this, his efforts quickly led to promotions and raises, along with a gigantic boost in self-esteem.
A new sense of pride led to him becoming a more active member of the community. He joined local gyms and clubs and participated in community events. It didn’t take long for him to become a pillar of the community. A few years into his residency, he even took part in the local government.
This led to new friends. Free of his past, he could communicate with others without judgment and scorn or at least perceived judgment and scorn. After all, they had no idea who he really was or what he was accused of in the past.
One of these friends introduced him to a beautiful young woman. He fell for her and she shared his feelings. The specter of his past faded shortly after and the wedding led to her complete disappearance. It seemed that what happened was now a distant memory swept away like dust. He was finally free.
Or so he believed.
On the man’s twenty-seventh birthday, approximately a decade after his act of extreme cruelty, his new wife announced that she was pregnant with their first child. Unlike the previous time such an announcement was made, he was overwhelmed with joy. It was excitement unlike any he had experienced in his life.
Only he was unable to express these emotions.
A look of terror washed across his face.
She had returned.
The apparition floated above her wife’s shoulders. Her disheveled finger pointed at the man as her mangled lips made a facsimile of an accusing smile.
“I thought you were gone,” he whispered.
“I’ll never leave you,” she said. Her voice reverberated in his skull.
“What are you doing here?”
“To congratulate you! You’re going to be a father!” She placed a deformed hand against her chin and looked upward. “I wonder what this reminds me of.”
“Get out!” he suddenly screamed. Those words barely escaped his lips when he realized what he had done.
Tears welled in the eyes of his chagrinned and bewildered wife. The man did his best to stammer out an explanation. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t m-mean…”
“I thought you’d be excited,” she sobbed. “I guess I was wrong.” She stormed out of the room while ignoring the man’s attempts to console and assure her that he wanted the child.
The ghost then elicited a shrill laugh that nearly drove him mad. He yelled, screamed, and cried anguished commands for her to leave and never return. She did not listen and continued to cackle.
No matter what he did, she could not be exorcised. Quite the contrary, her aura grew with every passing day. As it did, her appearance grew far more grotesque, and her mangled visage became more pronounced reflecting her true form, what he had made her become. Her warbling voice anguished him. “Remember what you’ve done.” Those words echoed in his head ceaselessly. She’d repeat them tenaciously with the conviction and devotion of a holy man’s mantra not allowing a moment of reprieve.
When he went to work, she was there. When he went to bed, she was there. When he attempted to repair the damage done to his relationship with his spouse after his outburst, she was there. He was the only one who could see her. It was a deeply personal affair.
Her perpetual berating wore down his soul. He began to lash out at the people he supposedly cared for and loved the most. For example, a friend once commented on the perceived epidemic of men who leave their impregnated lovers because they are too cowardly to accept such responsibility. He then praised the man for being “one of the good ones”.
A voice whispered in his ear. “How ironic. He called you one of the ‘good ones’.”
“There’s nothing ironic about it! I am one of the good ones!”
Needless to say, the man apologized to his very confused companion and tried in vain to explain his odd response. He only received a bemused stare before the conversation turned elsewhere.
Another time, his wife, who had ostensibly forgiven him for his earlier outburst, though in truth it still lingered in the back of her mind, recited to him a sad tale she read online. A teenage boy stabbed his girlfriend when she told him she was pregnant.
A voice again whispered in his ear. “Interesting. Doesn’t that story remind you of something?”
“It was not my fault!” he screamed. His wife stuttered out a response that told him that no one was accusing him of the crime, though to say that the comment unnerved her would be quite the understatement. Then the man approached his wife. He met her eyes with his and gave her a cold stare.
A shiver went up the woman’s spine and a cold sweat formed on her back. Her brain raced with whatever lessons she could conjure from a self-defense course she had taken several years before. It was not until that very moment that she ever regretted not taking any follow-up lessons.
He spoke slowly and deliberately. Each syllable was emphasized. “Don’t. Ever. Tell. Me. Those. Kinds. Of. Stories. Ever. Again.”
It was the first command he ever made in their marriage and the only one he’d ever make.
His wife agreed though she didn’t quite know the reason for that ultimatum. Though several thoughts bounced in her head, she dismissed them all. However, not with true conviction. Rather, she feared the truth.
For as minor as it might have seemed to an outsider, not long after the aforementioned incident, the couple grew more distant. His violent temper and thinly veiled threats, not to mention the increasingly frequent and seemingly random shouts, terrified her. She feared for not only herself but also her unborn child. To feel at ease with her husband’s increasingly violent mood swings, his wife eventually found the arms of a comforting friend. A male friend.
At first, she assured her husband that the trips were platonic and initially, that was the truth. Soon, though, the stays grew longer and more extended. The amicable yet innocent visits became far more amorous.
He more than suspected his wife of infidelity but there was little he could do about it, especially in his mental state. Isolation had taken its toll for not only had his wife abandoned him so too did his friends and coworkers. His screams toward what appeared to be empty air caused consternation and had grown far more frequent. Though there was often talk that he needed to get help, none had the fortitude to make the suggestion. Instead, they kept their distance, remaining polite and cordial but always at more than an arm’s length away, both literally and metaphorically. He was soon taken off projects at work and given far less responsibility and as a result, his career prospects diminished.
His standing in the community fared no better. The local government removed him from planning committees and events, saying it would be best if he did not get involved anymore at least in the short term. They would let him know when they’d need his services once again. No explanations were ever provided but it was clear that his increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior.
Once on this almost irrevocable downward spiral, the man begged the spirit, beseeched her, and implored with all his might, literally and figuratively, to tell him what he must do to rid himself of her presence, to finally be free, as he mistakenly believed he was before.
She said nothing.
Instead, she pointed at the door and floated out. He went outside to join her. She then gestured for him to follow. The man dutifully did.
Then came faint phantasmagorias of him being in a car only pausing his drive to eat, drink, and take care of other biological needs. He also had vague recollections of paying for a hotel or at times sleeping in his car. Nothing was definitive, though. Nothing was tangible. None of it seemed to have happened. He felt as if he was in a dream.
When he awoke, the two of them were at the top of a cliff.
A familiar cliff.
One that had significance to him since the time he was a carefree teenager and was dating the most beautiful cheerleader of all of Ridgeway High.
He froze upon its sight.
“Isn’t this…” His voice trailed yet the apparition knew what he was about to ask and nodded.
“My death killed them,” she said.
“My parents. I was all they had. Without me, they allowed themselves to wither and die.”
She hovered over the edge of the cliff and beckoned him over. Every fiber of his being wanted to turn away and flee but his legs moved him forward against his will. It was as if he were a marionette under someone else’s control. He tried to protest and even made an impotent assertion stating once more he was declared innocent by the court.
His pleas fell on deaf ears. Lies always did with her.
Tears welled in his eyes. His derisive shouts gradually faded to a raspy whisper and a stutter. He quickly realized arguing was futile. There was nothing he could do but reluctantly accept his fate.
“Will it hurt?” he asked.
His question pierced her in a way that should have been impossible to a specter. It triggered memories that had been dormant.
The freezing water crashing against her skin. The nauseating pain as her body collided with the stone. The sickening sound as her skull and bones shattered. The water as it filled her lungs.
With every gasp she and with every desperate attempt to breathe, she prayed somehow she’d survive, somehow she’d manage to get through the experience, to live to regret it, that somehow she’d find her way to shore, that someone somehow would find her and get her to the hospital in time.
Near the end, she hoped beyond hope that it was a dream, a nightmare that she’d wake from and laugh. The very idea that her subconscious would even she could perform such an act was the epitome of absurdity. Nothing more than sleep’s cruel delusion.
All of such thoughts happened in an instant but the pain she experienced, both physically and emotionally, was enough for several lifetimes. Words cannot truly encompass what she felt. It defies human language.
“No,” she said. “You will feel nothing.”
He nodded. A kind of peace washed over him as his toes dangled over the edge of the cliff. He spread his arms wide with his palms out as if he wished to embrace the sun. Then he looked toward the sky one last time.
“I’m sorry, my love. You’ll be raising our son on your own. This is the only way.”
With one last breath, he let himself go. He was finally free.
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