This is the story I wrote for round one of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. The entrants are divided into heats of 30 writers (I think) and each heat has a different prompt. We post our stories for feedback on the main forum (that is why this is here…have to host it somewhere). Round one, you have a week to write and the word limit is 2500.
My assignment: ghost story, bride, lifeboat
I haven’t written a short story in YEARS, and I’ve never written a ghost story. But this was a fun exercise!
Dead in the Water
A fisherman stays out on the sea after sunset and lends a hand to a woman in need.
I’d watched the sun slip into the sea while I ate my smoked halibut sandwich. Each day’s passing brought less sunlight and colder nights. Fishing had been better than usual and I decided to stay out on the open water for a few more hours. Fish after fish had swallowed my hook and I’d filled most of my small boat’s locker with cod, perch, and a few sablefish, a catch that would feed my family for a month when winter came. Within weeks, ice flow would limit my small boat’s ability to fish, so I intended to make the most of evenings like this, when the aurora curtained the crisp sky.
Wispy fog crawled over the surface of the waves and my boat bobbed in almost silent waters, captured in the fog’s tendrils like prey in a spider’s web. I shivered in the cold air and slipped on my heavier jacket. One more fish, then I needed to head for the harbor and unload. My wife would be worried if I stayed out any longer.
I cast my line and heard the weight’s gentle plop off the boat’s stern. My Inuit ancestors would have marveled at my shiny metal boat and outboard engine—much more efficient than their wood and skin kayaks. Yet, I still fed my family as they had done, hunting and fishing. I derived great pleasure from the fact that I honored them in this way. I let my line go slack and settled in to wait on the next fish to fall for my bait.
Stars sprinkled the crisp night sky and a filmy splash of bright greens and faint pink marked the aurora’s pulsing path through the dark. I took a deep breath of cold, briny air. I was but a speck upon the water, insignificant yet all important in my solitude. The ocean filled my soul as it had my ancestors before me, and I was at peace. Out on the water was the only place I could settle my thoughts and become one with the animals, the sea, the Earth.
A sharp tug on my line snapped me out of my reverie. I pulled the pole up to hook the fish, and then began reeling it in. As I wound the line, I noticed a faint smudge of yellowish light on the horizon, bobbing on the water. A beacon? Another boat? No matter, I had a fish to land and the light was far from my boat. The fish jerked in counterpoint to the rhythm of my reeling and I yanked to keep it from escaping.
The yellowish light grew larger and I kept a watchful eye on it as I pulled the fish closer. A gust of cold, pure air sliced through me as the wind picked up. My teeth chattered in the silence and I couldn’t wait to be home by the fire, my wife bringing me warm towels to drape over my feet and shoulders. September on the sea was a mix of every kind of weather, and not ever predictable. The sun’s warmth drained quickly from the air and night brought a biting cold. The boat canted and I gave a last tug on the line, bringing the fish on board.
The fish landed on the boat deck, flipping its silvery scales in defiance. I leapt to catch it before it jumped back into the sea. Cod. I removed the hook from its mouth, checking to see if the fish’s length was of a keeping size. It was. I opened the bucket and dropped it in where it could flip around with my other captives.
I smiled. It’d been a good day, despite the chill. My wife would be proud when I returned with such a bounty. The sea always provided.
The light on the horizon had grown larger as it moved soundlessly over the fog-draped water. It had to be a beacon of some sort, or a buoy that had broken free, but it was moving so fast, I wondered if it were possibly a boat. Maybe one of my fellow fisherman from the village. We often fished the same area. I wrapped up my pole and line and prepped the boat to head home. My wife, a shower, and good night’s sleep awaited.
I glanced at the light again as I stowed the fishing gear. The yellowish-green glow pulsed in the deep night, almost mirroring the aurora overhead. Some of my people’s legends said the aurora was a walrus kicking around a human skull, but of course we now know the science behind it. I still think the borealis is comforting and beautiful.
Suddenly, the hazy light picked up forward speed and rushed straight for my boat. A deep sense of dread coiled in my stomach and I hurried to batten things down so I could get out of the light’s way. Whatever it was, it was headed for me.
The light closed in, still not making a sound, and I fumbled to click on the deck lighting to make myself more visible. Surely the thing would turn away before hitting me.
A low-pitched whine started as a warbling gasp and crescendoed into a blaring wail that pulsed with the light, then stopped, leaving the air soundless and the light unwavering. My mouth went dry and I passed my tongue over my slick teeth. The light was almost to my boat and the glare was now more green than yellow, exactly as the aurora above. If I weren’t on the sea, I would think a train was headed straight for me.
I yanked the outboard’s pull cable, the muscles in my arms burning with the sudden use. The engine sputtered and spat. Then stopped.
My heart pounded, and I wasn’t sure if it was exertion or fear. I jerked the cable again, trying to coax the engine to start. I had plenty of fuel and the boat had been tuned-up just three weeks ago so there was no reason the motor shouldn’t respond. The light, blinding now, lit the whole area like daylight and I shielded my eyes and pulled the cord again.
Once. Twice. Three times more and the motor didn’t even sputter.
“Start, dammit!” I spoke aloud, my voice echoing across the waves. Nothing.
I was dead in the water.
Something bumped my boat and the yellow light flashed out, and so did the lighting of my boat. Maybe a beluga whale had run into my boat? But what about the light? My eyes, temporarily flash-blinded, only saw hazy circles in front of me as I stumbled back toward the bow. I fell to my knees and grabbed at the cold air in front of me, trying to reach my handgun that lay in a storage box under the front seating.
My boat jarred as it was knocked again. I fumbled with the box and pulled out my gun.
“Who’s there?” I shrieked. Rationality had fled and I grasped the edge of the boat and searched the darkness. “Why are you hitting my boat?”
No answer except the frigid wind again, this time slithering up my back and circling my head like an iced halo. My eyesight slowly returned and I held the gun out in front of me, aware that my hands shook so much that I’d likely miss any target.
“I’ll shoot,” I warned. “What do you want? Why did you hit my boat?”
A trailing meteorite slid across the sky and flash burned as it streaked toward land. The aurora returned, its greens bright as twilight. Then, I saw it.
A tiny boat had edged up against my own, Nuliaq emblazoned along the side in script. No larger than a lifeboat for a fishing vessel, the craft’s prow barely above the surface of the water. Standing at the stern was a cloaked and hooded figure and someone else sitting, hunched as if cold.
“You there!” I called.
The figure glided toward me and I put my finger on the trigger. I would shoot. I’d never shot anyone or anything before, but the terror that tracked through my veins pushed me to a pseudo bravery I’d not felt before. I steadied my hand and glanced to see if the seated person had moved from the stern of the lifeboat. It hadn’t.
The standing figure stopped at the bow of the lifeboat.
“Stay where you are,” I rasped. I aimed at its chest.
The figure shed the cloak and I almost dropped the gun. Bile filled my throat as I stared. The woman, if you could call her that, was pale green, ephemeral. She wore the tatters of a wedding dress—one of those tulle princess gowns that had probably been gorgeous when it was new. My wife had worn something similar at our own wedding.
She stepped closer I and caught a glimpse of her face—what was left of it. Where eyes used to be, wet flesh gaped. She had no nose, and her upper lip was missing, giving her the appearance of wearing a perpetual smile.
I swallowed my scream and pulled the trigger. The echo of the gunshot rang out over the waves but the apparition kept coming toward me. What the hell? And that’s surely where she came from, since a gunshot at point-blank range did nothing to stop her. She held her hands out to me and my heart ached as if she were squeezing the life from my body. White terror slid down my spine and adrenaline lit up my brain.
I had to escape.
My boat rocked as I tried to sidestep her. I couldn’t swim to shore, it was too far and the water dangerously cold. Maybe I could take her lifeboat, if I could get past her. She opened her mouth and I froze.
“Marry me,” she hissed.
“No!” I scrambled past her and leapt to her boat, barely missing her grasp. I landed hard on my knees, my gun flying from my hand. I shrieked. The lifeboat’s bottom was filled with bones of all shapes and sizes—and all appeared human. I scampered to the far end of the boat, casting aside bones as I went. As my ears filled with pressure, I held my hands over them, trying to shut out the noise of fear.
I was trapped.
Between the seated figure and the bride who had floated onto her boat, I opted for the lesser of the evils. With a grunt, I shoved the seated figure hard. I couldn’t fight both of them. Its covering fell off revealing a partial human skeleton covered with rotting flesh, bones tied together with twine. The putrid odor of gore slammed into my nostrils and I gagged then vomited.
The apparition sidled up to me, leaning close. Her breath, cold as a glacier and putrid as rotting fish, washed over my face. “Marry me!”
I shook my head and backed away, losing my footing in the pile of bones. I fell. My head hit the deck, hard, and dizziness overtook me. I stared at the night sky. The stars melted and slid down the dark fabric of night like dripping candles then the wavering aurora froze and cracked, green shards falling in a musical cacophony as they sliced the waves.
The bride leaned over me, her maw open, dripping. My tears crystallized in my eyes.
I was going to die.
“That’s some fish story.” Malik laughed and took a swig of his beer.
I nodded, my mind wandering to darkness. I kept my arm hidden under my coat. “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s all true.” I leaned forward on my bar stool and grabbed my beer awkwardly with my left hand. Better get used to it.
“Yeah, sure.” Bruce slapped the table and our beer sloshed in the bottles like tiny waves on the summer sea. “You win.”
“Great story,” Malik said. “But when are we going back out? I need more fish to get the family through winter.”
I sighed, realizing they weren’t going to heed my warning. Marry me. Cold bile crept up my throat and sweat broke out on my back. My family would starve unless I got better at hunting caribou. “I’m done fishing. I’ll never go back out…on the sea. She’s there.”
Malik peeled at the label on his beer, dropping the curls of paper on the table. “Sure. The town’s best fisherman, giving up fishing because he saw a ghost. I’ll believe that when I see it.”
Pete clapped Malik on the back. “Well, if he does quit, that’s more fish for the rest of us.”
They laughed, but I stilled, my mind wandering to that cold, dark night when the aurora fractured over the black sea. Marry me. I stared at the taxidermy moose head on the bar wall, imagining the bones underneath its leathered exterior. I had to make my friends understand. “Don’t go. She’s waiting.”
Pete shook his head and sucked down the rest of his beer.
Malik lit up like he’d just figured out the secret of the universe. “So, if she’s so dangerous, how’d you escape? You said you thought you were going to die.”
They all watched me and I took a slow sip of my now-warm beer. Marry me. Even my wife didn’t believe me.
“She wants a husband,” I said.
“And you’re already married, is that why she let you go? If so, then we’re all safe.”
They all laughed again, the beer warming their bellies and their minds.
I shook my head and held up the stub of my wrist, still sore and weeping through the bandage. The doctor had sewn it up as best he could. “She needed a right hand. So she took mine then bound it to keep me from bleeding to death. I woke up tied to my dock.”
All three men stared. Malik was the first to speak. “Shit, man, that’s crazy.”
Marry me. I covered my stump with my coat and continued. “She’s building her husband, piece-by-piece. That’s why there were bones were in her boat. Leftover pieces from putting together her groom.”
“Oh, my god.”
“So that’s why you say you won’t fish…”
“That…” I wiped at my mouth with my good hand and stood to leave. “And the fact that she still needs a head.”