This was written as an entry for Chuck Wendig’s weekly Flash Fiction Challenge over at his site, involving taking someone else’s character concept (created for the previous week’s challenge) and writing a story within 2k words. I chose Kira Jessup’s character, Ryan Healey, from her page.
The sun sets over a gently rolling ocean, throwing hues of brilliant orange and yellow over the waves in the sort of idyllic scene that always makes me pray for storms. I glare at the picture-perfect scene as if that might scare it away. It doesn’t.
I give a snort of disgust, leaning back against the wooden bench I now call home. It’s not much, but I’m glad to have furniture at all. Sitting around on rocks might not be any less comfortable, but it’s hard to feel any dignity that way.
Just as the dark starts to set in, I feel that old familiar pull. Looks like another jumper on the way, I think to myself, with just the faintest bit of hope. Who knows? This might finally be the one that sets me free.
As if on cue, ten minutes later she appears, walking as if carrying a sack of rocks on her shoulders. Which she is, even if nobody else can see it. Her white dress and dark hair would be stunning if it weren’t for the worry weighing her down. I watch, unnoticed, as she places her hands on the iron guard rail. Past that lies only two feet of last chance, a place to hesitate and say your goodbyes, before a hundred feet of sandstone leads straight down to nothing.
Like most of them, she stands there for a while trying to work up the nerve. Her fingers grip the railing so hard they turn white. I can see her muscles tensing, and once again it’s time to go to work.
I square my shoulders and move toward her through the dusky gloom. You okay?” I ask, knowing full well she’s not.
She starts a bit, not having noticed me. But her hands stay on the guardrail, ready to go. Her eyes narrow, but her voice isn’t nearly so defiant as she wants it to be. “Why do you care?”
“I don’t,” I reply with a shrug.
“Then leave me alone.” She climbs the fence and stands on the thin wedge between her and the long drop. A breeze kicks up, blowing her hair and dress about, the very picture of a woman ready to make her last decision. But she takes a look over her shoulder at me anyway. “You’re not going to try to stop me?”
“That’s up to you,” I say, walking through, rather than over, the iron fence to stand on the void beside her. “I do have a bit of business with you first, if you don’t mind.”
I watch her face contort as she tries to comprehend what she’s seeing. One of the perks of the job, you might say. Like an unexpected storm that roughs up that perfect ocean, there’s something new about it every time. A second ago, I’m just some average-looking guy in a black T-shirt, jeans and hiking boots, same as I was wearing when I took the same trip ten years back. Now, not so much.
“You…you’re not real. You can’t be real. You’re a g…ghost.”
Ah, the classics. But I’m not in the mood to play up the spirit act, so I get to the point. “Bingo,” I say, with an insincere smile. “I’m sure you can guess how I got here.” I give a little nod to the abyss for emphasis, watching realization come over her.
It doesn’t take long for her to get over the initial shock, but she’s still timid for other reasons I can already guess. “W….what do you want with me?”
I gesture back toward my bench, “Step into my office, we’ll discuss it. Don’t worry, if you don’t like what I’m saying I can’t exactly hold you back.” I wave my hand again, this time through her, which results in a satisfying tremor and a renewed grip on the railing. “After you, miss….”
“Kim,” she replies, crossing the barrier with a bit more caution this time. “Wendy Kim.”
Crossing the trail together, and I start my usual spiel. I find it’s good to level with jumpers from the start, saves us all some time and they trust me more if I don’t yank their chain. Definitely less hassle than dancing around the issue.
“I’ll give it to you straight, I’m the ghost of someone who went over that edge same as you were going to. And before you ask, no I don’t remember it or much of anything between that first step and finding myself here. Been a long time since then, and what I do is try to help other jumpers to not follow me down. And now I’m here to help you, got it?”
I give Wendy a chance to take all that in before continuing. “It’s not like I’m some sort of saint or anything. I’m just some idiot who got himself in over his head and took a bad way out. Now I’m stuck here until I help enough people decide not to follow. Think of it like my job, and you’re my next client.” I didn’t bother adding it wasn’t a job I was especially thrilled about. I like to get straight with jumpers, but there’s no sense giving too much away.
Wendy nods. She gets it, at least the gist of it. I’m relieved not to have to go into too much depth.
She nods again. “Ryan, then. You said you want to help me, but I don’t really understand how.”
“Fair question. Well, I can’t talk to anyone but you, or maybe another jumper, and I can’t leave this place. Can’t even touch anything but the ground and this bench. So there’s really not much I can do but help you talk things out.”
She considers all this. “So…you’re like a therapist?”
“Think of me as your bartender,” I reply. “Except I’m stingy with the drinks.”
She seems to get the idea, which again is a relief. I hit on the bartender idea about six years back, and it’s made my life – or afterlife – easier ever since. Lets the jumpers know what to expect.
I encourage Wendy to start. She’s a little hesitant, but once she gets into her story she gets more emotional, and the tears start flowing long before she even realizes it. I’ve never liked tears, but like those damned sunsets I’ve learned to put up with them.
“It’s my fiancée,” she starts, and I know the story practically before she says it. I nod where I’m supposed to as she tells me about how it was her first romance, someone who made her feel special, someone who took the place of the friends and family that eventually turned away, how she became her whole world…
“Hold up a sec….she?”
Wendy looks embarrassed. “Olivia, yes. We’re supposed to get married next year, or I guess we were.”
I’m floored, but I try not to let it show. How the hell much did the world change out there since I left it? Something that big…and here I am with these damn sunsets and nothing but time. I feel a bit of resentment, but manage to push it down and encourage Wendy to continue.
The rest of the story is what I expect. Even before the engagement, things started to turn dark in all the usual ways. Easier to accept the apologies, to forgive the odd slip, to weather the lost tempers than to think about how often they happen. Soon you’re the one making apologies. The one who doesn’t measure up. The one who deserves what she gets. Until there’s no way out but down.
“This is going to sound stupid,” I say as Wendy pauses , “But why don’t you just leave the guy…girl I mean?”
Wendy looks embarrassed, and her eyes shift away. “It’s….it’s not that easy.”
“It never is. Still, easy or not you’ve gotta get out of that place. There’s nothing worth going back for.”
Wendy flinches, a motion she’s way too good at. “But I can’t. I don’t have any friends any more, and my family won’t take me back…because of the girl thing. I’ve got nobody, and I don’t know if I can handle something happening her.”
Here it comes. “Why would something happen to her?”
Wendy falters, trying to find the words. “She’s never been good alone. She always told me that I was what kept her going, and she wouldn’t have lived much longer if I hadn’t come into her life.”
“And now you’re the one on the cliff.”
She opens her mouth but nothing comes out. I practically see the wheels turning, trying to make sense of it all but coming up dry. Hard to face the lies you’ve gotten so good at explaining away and not keep helping them along, but something inside her was starting to figure it out. She just needed a push.
“Look, I know this is hard, but fact is I’ve seen this a lot. Right down to the I can’t live without you bit. It’s how they turn the screw, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a man, woman or what.”
“But nothing. It’s how she keeps you under her thumb. Taking away anyone you can rely on, making it all your fault, laying on the guilt if you think about getting out. It’s one big con.”
“I….I think you might be right. It’s so hard to take all this in, though.”
We talk a couple hours longer, and I give her as much as I know. It seems to get through, at least the bones of it. But the living can’t go on forever, and I convince her to at least spend the night at a shelter, and come back any time she needed a good listener.
Next day, she’s back again, no big surprise. Someone like that doesn’t get much chance to seriously be listened to, so they end up craving it. I’ve got nothing but time, so I give her what she needs, even though I’ve heard it a hundred times coming out of other people. She doesn’t need to know that. For a while it’s every day or two. Then every few. Maybe more if she feels like she’s backsliding and wants to go back. But I see her letting go, which tells me that one way or the other, it won’t be long.
It’s been three weeks since Wendy’s been by. I don’t miss her. She’s just another in a long line of jumpers, although with a bit of luck maybe the last one. What I miss is the break in the monotony of sitting around every day, wandering around in my own little purgatory, with only the occasional damaged soul to talk to. Even a lousy job is better than no job, when that’s all you’ve got to keep you sane.
I feel a tug then, but a different one than a new jumper gives me. It’s no less familiar, and I stand as the full sensation washes over me. It feels like someone above and around me moving weights onto a scale, seeing if it all balances out. It’s overwhelming, and tells me that Wendy’s case is done with one way or another. Did she finally move on? Did her ex catch up and put an end to things? Did she just pick another cliff without a dead meddler in the way? No to knowing, and in the end it didn’t matter.
And then it’s gone, but I’m left with a feeling that somehow I came out ahead. Not far enough to be free, not yet. But progress at least.
Still a bit lightheaded, I sit back down on the bench. Off in the distance, past the railing and the cliff, another perfect sunset graces the horizon, and the waves become a painting. Just the kind of thing I hate.
Today, I’m willing to give it a pass.