Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: My Father's Unusual Death

Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: My Father's Unusual Death

This story was written for Chuck Wendig's Flash Fiction Challenge: Another Ten Words. Here is the challenge:
"I’m going to give you ten words. Your job is to work all ten of these words into a flash fiction story, ~1000 words in length. That’s it. End of mandate.

"The story’s due in a week: Friday, August 30th, noon EST.

"Post at your online space.

"Link back here.

"The ten random words are as follows:
Funeral, Captivate, Deceit, Brimstone, Canyon, Balloon, Clay, Disfigured, Willow, Atomic."
 (You'll notice I took one liberty: rather than "captivate" I used "captivated".)

The characters and situations used in my story are entirely fictional.

My Father's Unusual Death
by Paige Williams

My father's manner of death was fitting since he had been the kind of man for whom one feels the word "eccentric" was tailor-made. I'll tell you more about that in a moment.

When my father met my mother it was love at first sight. I don't have pictures of her but my father said she had long blond hair and a smile that held the sun. I asked him why, and he replied that whenever she smiled, no matter how sad he was, he felt happier. She captivated him.

But nothing lasts forever. When I was three years old my parents left me with a friend and went fishing on a nearby lake. When they'd reached the middle of the lake where it was deepest my mother stared into the water, fascinated by something just under the surface.

"What is it?" my father asked.

My mother bent over the side of the boat and said, "Henry, there's someone in the water!"

"Gilda, be careful, you'll fall in!" My father said, leaning forward as though to pull her back. (My father didn't tell me this, but whenever I play the scene in my mind I imagine my mother rolling her eyes at him for being overprotective.)

As my mother leaned over and touched her fingers to the surface of the water, her breath caught in her throat and she said, "My God! Henry it's ..." Then her body went limp and she stopped breathing.

After the autopsy, the doctor told my father that his wife had experienced a massive aneurism and died instantly. He said it was painless, she probably never knew what happened: one moment she was alive and the next she wasn't. 

Like untempered glass heated in a clay oven to an extreme temperature and then plunged into cold water, my mother's death shattered something deep within my father. He died that day, though his body took another 50 years to follow suit. 

But I digress. I was talking about my father's unusual death.

All his life, or at least as long as I remember knowing him, my father rhapsodized about riding in a hot air balloon, how peaceful it must be, like flying while held in the arms of an angel.

Eight days ago, the day after his 80th birthday, he decided to cross the top two items off his bucket list and ride in a hot air balloon while visiting the Grand Canyon.

The balloonist who took my father up, a man born well before the atomic age, told me that one moment my father had been riding in the basket of the hot air balloon, happy as a clam, but the next he'd vanished.  The balloonist was a religious man so, for one bizarre moment, he thought that, like Elijah, my father had been caught up to heaven. Then, horrified, he realized his client must have jumped.

Panicked, the man peered over the edge of the basket in time to see my father falling through the air, his arms and legs splayed out from his body, his long white hair streaming up behind him as the wind grabbed it. A moment before he plunged into the pool at the bottom of Mooney Falls he shouted, "Geronimo!"

Miraculously, my father survived the fall, though two swimmers nearly had heart attacks. It's not everyday you see an octogenarian plunge through the air, heading straight for you, shouting 'Geronimo'.

Moments later, after my father recovered from the shock of not-being-dead, he swam to the edge of the pool and, throwing his arms out from his sides as though to embrace nature in her entirety, he laughed and exclaimed, "I'm alive!"

Everyone there--three hikers, the two swimmers who were wondering about their cardiac health, as well as a couple on their honeymoon (they had planned on the waterfall being much more private than it turned out to be)--said my father looked happy, even peaceful.

A moment later my father was dead.

The witness accounts differ in many respects about what happened but one thing everyone agreed on was that, as he was about to walk away from the lake, it was as though he saw something just beneath the surface of the water. He took a step closer and peered into its depths--or at least as far as he could, given that he'd just turned 80 and his contacts had popped out in the fall.

"Gilda?" he said, his voice trembling. He looked away, rubbed his eyes, then looked back and grinned. "Gilda, my God! What are you doing down there?" As he said this he reached out to the pond but the moment his fingers brushed the water his face changed. He gasped, eyes wide and staring, then slumped forward and hit his head on a rock, cracking his skull open like an egg.

For a moment the witnesses to my fathers demise were stunned and stood, frozen, watching his disfigured body float down the pond toward a lazy stream, a red ribbon of blood trailing out behind him. Later that day, searchers found his body nestled against the boughs of a desert willow.

The medical examiner said the blow hadn't killed my father, that his heart had stopped beating before his head hit the rock. When I asked what had killed him, the doctor shrugged and told me, "It was heart failure. The man was 80 years old after all."

Considering that everything born must also die, it was probably one of the better ways to go.

My father's funeral service was not at all what I'd expected. I'd imagined a hell and brimstone sermon, one that promised an eternity of damnation to the unsaved. As it was, the pastor quoted a piece of scripture that summed up my father perfectly: "he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth."

The day after the funeral, the balloonist found a note from my father wedged inconspicuously between two of the basket's floorboards. It contained a neat listing, in pencil, of 10 activities under the heading "Bucket List", seven of which were crossed out. The remaining three were, in order: 'Ride in a hot air balloon,' 'See the Grand Canyon' and 'Free fall.' At the bottom of the note, hastily scrawled, as though it was an afterthought: 'If I don't make it, water my plants.'

"My Father's Unusual Death” copyright © 2013 by Paige Williams.

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Photo credit: Freshwater lakes.

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