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Submitted on 06/17/2020

Categories: Mystery

The old apartment was dusty with disuse and the stale air gave the place an unmistakable feeling of abandoned neglect. George wandered from room to room, opening windows as he went, examining the artifacts of a life once lived, an existence all but forgotten.

    The stranger who’d lived here had been his father.

    George had been born and raised in London. His parents had divorced when he was young, and his father had moved to New York to seek fortune and fame as a writer. George knew this only from what his mother had told him; he had no memory of the man who had abandoned his family to pursue his own, selfish ends.

    His father finally succeeded in his life long ambition of having one of his books published in 1939, six years ago now. Two months later he passed away under mysterious circumstances while returning to New York from Liverpool on an ocean liner. The cause of death was determined to be suicide.

    Word of his father’s demise had reached George in Suffolk, where he was stationed as a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. The news troubled him, not because he had any love for his errant elder, but because it was believed that the man’s family had a history of hereditary mental illness and George’s biggest fear was having his flying career cut short by a similar diagnosis.

    He had resolved to find out exactly what had happened to his father if only to forewarn him of any ticking time bombs lurking within his own psyche. The war, however, had dragged on and it was only now, in December 1945, that George had been able to get to New York to go through the old man’s possessions following his discharge from the RAF.

    Here he hoped to find some clue as to what happened to his father six years ago.

    As sole heir to the estate, all of this was now his. Not that it amounted to much – shelves of ancient books, piles of unfinished manuscripts and other assorted paperwork, some worn furniture – all worthless. He’d already decided to get rid of the lot of it.

    The only item of interest in the entire apartment was the old steamer trunk on the floor of the study. It had been sent from the ocean liner, The Atlantic Dream, on which his father had passed away. It contained his effects from that final, fateful voyage.

    If there were any answers to be found, George knew that the old trunk was the most likely place.

    Before opening it, he removed from his coat pocket the newspaper clippings he’d copied at the library on his way to the apartment. The story of the incident hadn’t made the papers in England, so George knew little of the circumstances surrounding his father’s death.

    He skimmed the reports now.

Hurricane Dolores Batters Eastern Seaboard.

    July 8th, 1939 – Hurricane Dolores made landfall in New York City yesterday, bringing with it gale-force winds and torrential rain. The storm, classified category 5 my the US Meteorological Survey, wreaked havoc in the city, although no fatalities have been reported. Large parts of lower Manhattan remain flooded and several harbor ports were critically damaged, leaving at least one cruise liner, The Atlantic Dream, stranded several miles off the coast. Officials are working around the clock to repair docking facilities to receive the ship. In the meantime, they confirm that the vessel has been restocked with provisions and is in no danger while it awaits docking clearance.

Stranded Cruise Liner Returns to Port, Mysterious Fatalities Reported.

    July 21st, 1939 – The Atlantic Dream, anchored off the coast for nearly two weeks awaiting harbor repairs following hurricane Dolores, has finally returned to port. In a shocking development, authorities have confirmed the deaths of 10 passengers on board. The circumstances surrounding the incident remain unclear at this time. Among the deceased are believed to be a prominent US senator, an Oxford professor, and a novelist. Their names have been withheld pending an investigation by US maritime authorities.

Cruise Liner Captain Defends Decision to Keep Passengers in the Dark.

    July 25th, 1939 – Under-fire captain of The Atlantic Dream, the cruise liner on which multiple fatalities were reported upon its return to port this week, has defended his actions amid accusations that he was negligent in failing to inform the passengers of the reason the ship spent nearly two weeks anchored off the coast. “At the time, we were unaware of the extent of the damage the storm had caused in the city, and the decision was taken not to inform the passengers of our position or the reason for our delayed arrival to prevent panic,” he said in a statement. He also claimed that the intermittent power outages the ship experienced while at anchor were due to a minor technical fault and in no way contributed to the passenger deaths. The investigation is ongoing.

Official Investigation Rules Mysterious Cruise Liner Fatalities Suicide

    August 7th, 1939 – The investigation into the deaths of 10 passengers aboard The Altlantic Dream has deemed the fatalities to be the result of suicide, clearing the ocean liner of any wrongdoing. A spokesperson for the company has expressed regret over the unfortunate incident and offered condolences to the families of the deceased. While the question of why the group of passengers took such drastic action remains, it is hoped that the conclusion will bring some closure to the bereaved. “It’s done, we can’t dwell on it. All we can do now is move forward and heal,” said one family member who wished to remain anonymous.

    That was all there was. The story, relegated to sidebar pieces from the start, dropped entirely out of public notice after that. A few weeks later Hitler had marched into Poland and the mysterious cruise liner incident was entirely forgotten.

    George was more perplexed than ever. While he hadn’t known the man, he assumed that his father, having finally succeeded in being published, was not suicidal. Even if he had been, why would he have killed himself aboard a ship? And what of the other nine passengers who did the same?

    There had to be an explanation.

    He opened the steamer trunk.

    Within, atop a pile of assorted clothing and toiletries, rested two books. One, a leather-bound volume, appeared to be his father’s diary. The other was a copy of his maiden novel, Nightmare Voyage.

    George hadn’t read the book, had no idea even what it was about. From the summary at the back and a cursory glance through the pages, it seemed to concern a trans-Atlantic ocean liner that gets stranded at sea. With food and water running low, a small group of passengers bands together for survival against the cannibalism and depravity that ensues among the rest of those on board. Paranoia and in-fighting consume the group, who eventually turn on one another. In the end, it seemed, everyone died.

    George laughed out loud. What rubbish. The story, not particularly well written, was overburdened with gore and cheap scares. The weak plot was not helped by the atrocious ending. He wasn’t surprised that his father’s big literary break amounted to little more than mental fluff. According to his mother, the man’s character had been just as shallow. The only mystery here was how he’d found someone willing to publish the thing.

    There did, however, seem to be some parallels between the story and his father’s demise. The instance of a man dying on a trans-Atlantic cruise not long after writing about that very thing seemed like more than mere coincidence to George. He suspected the book had played some part in what had happened aboard The Atlantic Dream.

    More curious than ever, he turned to the diary.

    Paging through to the pertinent entries of July 1939, he read, rapt.

    July 3rd

    One week until we dock in New York. What a relief. This trip has been a spectacular failure. I had hoped to promote my new book among my fellow first-class passengers. What a career boost it would have been to gain recognition from such an esteemed group. But I’ve been ignored by the whole, stuck-up lot of them. Self-important prigs. There was mild interest when I informed them I’m a published author, but upon learning my work is fiction, they collectively dismissed me. The senator, Bollings, even rolled his eyes when I told them, and that academic, professor Green, offered a thin-lipped smile as if pitying me for not having a real profession. Damn them! When I eventually attain the fame and fortune I so richly deserve, they’ll be falling all over themselves to claim me as an acquaintance. They’ll regret their dismissal and disdain.

    July 8th

    It seems the ship has stopped moving. Curious. No doubt it's just some technical issue related to the storm and will be resolved shortly. In the meantime, this new development has thrust me into the spotlight among my companions – dinner this evening was a marvelous success! Naturally, everyone was speculating about why we had stopped and when we’d get underway again. And, of course, what would happen if we didn’t. I was able to offer valuable insight on the matter, seeing how my book is about this very thing. When they learned this, they were all begging for a copy to read. Even Bollings seemed curious. What a stroke of luck. I do hope we get moving soon, I’m keen to get back to my apartment to resume writing, just not before they’ve all read my book.

    July 11th

    We were meant to dock yesterday, but we remain at anchor. All of the other nine passengers in this first-class wing have now read my book. The group as a whole is beginning to entertain the idea that my work was a prophecy of our present predicament. I suppose professor Green Is to thank. She was awfully curious about where I got the idea, and when I told her it was inspired by a dream, like all my stories, she launched into a lengthy discourse on the subconscious and the conscious minds, how dreams are a bridge between the two and how it's common for latent precognitive abilities in certain individuals to manifest by way of prophetic dreams. The phenomenon, she said, is well documented. I don’t know about any of that, she’s the psychology expert, not me, but the idea has taken hold among my companions. They genuinely think my writing may be prophetic. And to think, a few days ago they’d all but dismissed my work as unimportant. This is brilliant! Ridiculous, to be sure, but brilliant all the same. It’s just fiction, after all, nothing more. I am not a prophet……am I?

    July 13th

    This is deeply troubling indeed – the ship remains idle. We haven’t moved for five days now; something must be wrong. The captain has yet to address the passengers, but his silence conveys the message that something is amiss better than any words ever could. It won’t be long before the food runs out, and then….. I’ve started to agree with the group that my story really did foretell of this. Professor Green has brought the full weight of her academic insight to bear on the matter and has subjected the text to careful scrutiny. She pointed out the marked similarities – the name of this ship, The Atlantic Dream; Nightmare Voyage the title of my story; that the idea came to me in a dream. And there’s more. In the book, the captain remains suspiciously silent, adding to the unease of the passengers, just as ours is doing. Even the layout of my fictional ship and this one are strikingly similar. The name of my publisher is Atlantic Press, the same ocean upon which we find ourselves stranded. And the formation of our little group mirrors the fiction as well, of course. It’s unmistakable. And we all know what comes next….

    July 17th

    The power went out this morning, as we knew it would, thanks to my book. When the lights go out in the story, all hell breaks loose on the ship. In preparation for that, we’ve barricaded ourselves in the ballroom. But we know we can’t prevent the coming internal conflict that will tear our group apart and kill us all. Already suspicious glances are being exchanged among us. Oh God, how did this happen? And what can we do to save ourselves?

    July 20th

    Bollings, Green, and I have come up with a plan. Thanks to my prophetic book, we know the nightmare that awaits us. But there is an alternative – suicide. Death by one’s own hand, far from desirable, is infinitely preferable to the carnage soon to engulf us. The others are in agreement. There is no other way. We have a nice stockpile of sleeping pills and pain killers among us, they should do the trick. As tempting as it is to bemoan my fate, I can at least take solace from the fact that knowing what is to come will allow us to avoid the horrors my fiction predicted. For that much, I am grateful. If it all goes to plan, these will be the last words I ever write. And to think, no one will ever read them for, like the rest of the passengers on this nightmare voyage, it is my firm belief that this diary will dwell forevermore at the bottom of the ocean, never to reach dry land again…

    That was the final entry. George, of course, knew what had happened next. The group succeeded in their mass suicide and the ship docked safely shortly afterward. What a senseless tragedy.

    His father’s book had indeed played a part, but it was not the cause of the group's eventual fate, merely a catalyst. It was a classic case of collective paranoia and the desire to make sense of the inexplicable. They latched onto the idea that the book was prophetic as a way of understanding their dilemma and George’s father, with his inflated ego, inevitably fell prey to the same delusion.

    For his part, George was comforted by the knowledge that his father’s suicide had not been the result of some long-dormant mental malady, which meant that he had nothing to worry about regarding his own psychiatric state.

    What a waste, he thought. The man had been working on several manuscripts at the time of his death, all of them presumably dream-inspired, and now none would ever see completion. Maybe that was for the best. The one book of his that had been published led to tragedy, after all.

    That was pure coincidence, of course….wasn’t it? George considered the matter. Could his father’s writing really have been a form of prophecy? The highly educated first-class passengers aboard The Atlantic Dream had thought so, including the noted academic, professor Green. The idea was absurd, yet not without its own inarguable logic. For, hadn’t the group of passengers, much like their fictional counterparts, ultimately perished?

    George considered the unfinished pile of manuscripts on the desk. Could the stories contain glimpses of the future?

    He paged through them to see if he could find out.

    Here was a story about a disastrous US military campaign in the remote jungles of South-East Asia. Having just concluded the greatest conflict in human history, George knew that the developed nations of the world would never again engage in large-scale warfare. All military minds agreed those days were over.

    Another manuscript seemed to concern the assassination of a popular young US president in Texas, and here was one about a manned mission to the moon. One Small Step was the working title. As a pilot, George was well aware that space-flight was an impossibility; an idea that belonged squarely in the realm of science fiction.

    At the bottom of the pile, he found an outline for a story set right here in New York at the turn of the new millennium, about a horrific terrorist attack on some yet to be determined landmark it the city – in the margin his father had made the annotations: emp st bldg.? Stat lib? Other? – and the profound effect the incident has on the United States.

    George had seen enough. As intriguing as these story ideas were, they were about as far removed from reality as one could get. They were just the fictional constructs bourne from the fevered dreams of a frustrated writer, who, because of one of his stories, would dream no more.

    His father’s writing hadn’t been prophetic, after all.

    George was mildly embarrassed for ever having considered the notion. That kind of thinking was what had ultimately killed his father and his little group of acolytes; a clear example of the dangers of erroneous assumption and jumping to conclusions.

    George vowed to himself that he would never make the same mistake.

    Heaving a sigh, he rose from the desk and left the study, reaffirming his conviction to get rid of the entire contents of the apartment. He’d gotten what he came here for, had learned the truth behind the mystery of his father’s death. The man’s possessions were best buried and forgotten along with their former owner. They were useless, after all.

    With that, George walked out the front door, down the stairs, and out into the crisp winter air, never once looking back.                   

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12 comments

Meg L
19:49 Jun 22, 2020

Oooh, very mysterious! This was really gripping & had me reading until the end, and felt really satisfying as a complete short story. It definitely reminded me a little bit of the Nicolas Cage film, Knowing!

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Pragya Rathore
17:32 Aug 17, 2020

Ugh, why couldn't he just have taken the manuscripts along? Five stars, as usual, Jonathan. I really, really want to know how to master plot twists like you. This was sad for the protagonist, like your superhero story. The diaries were very mysterious and made me want to know the secret behind his father's prophetic powers. But it was mysterious and reminded me of a Bollywood film. (Don't ask, it was barely watchable. But its name is Bhoot: The Haunted Ship :p) Much as I hate to ask a question dreaded by each writer: Where do you get your id...

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Shreya S
16:42 Aug 27, 2020

Oh my god, I remember that one. It was a dreary movie, even though I’m a scaredypoke and jumped at all the scares. The ratings were awfully high. The ratings were awfully wrong.

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Pragya Rathore
17:12 Aug 27, 2020

Yeah, I know! The last scene, in which there's a shadow outside Vicky Kaushal's house... CREEPY. And the girl walking on the walls, it was haunting, but sort of funny too :D It was a terrible movie with misleading ratings :)

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Shreya S
17:15 Aug 27, 2020

Eeeh *shudders* it’s kind of disappointing actually when the scary ghosts have normal backstories and end up being normal good people who did something in desperation. The scariness level goes down, which is good because otherwise nightmares, but still disappointing.

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Pragya Rathore
17:22 Aug 27, 2020

It's like you verbalised my opinion :) Yeah, but the orange jumpsuit creep was still pretty scary 👻😨😱

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Laura Clark
08:37 Jul 02, 2020

A very cool concept and I liked the dramatic irony of the reader knowing the father is right about the future whilst George dismisses it outright. One note is that I thought the two times you did an ellipsis followed by ‘wasn’t it?’ were unnecessary and pulled me out of the flow of the narration. I’d already understood the undertone. I really liked the letters and newspaper clippings as a way to tell the story too - I thought it was a clever way to do it and the tone of them were spot on.

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Jonathan Blaauw
14:46 Jul 08, 2020

But…but… it was necessary……………… wasn’t it? :) No, I suppose it wasn’t. Good point. Having re-read it with this in mind, I see exactly what you mean. Thank you very much for reading my story and for the invaluable feedback. Your insights are always welcome.

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Laura Clark
14:55 Jul 08, 2020

Haha! You’re more than welcome. If you want feedback on future stories, just leave a comment asking for it on one of mine. Let me know if you want general, medium or nit picky. The comment here is a medium, for reference! Check out Batool H’s stories to see what not picky looks like! Always happy to help.

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Beth Rodner
16:54 Jun 25, 2020

I really enjoyed reading this story. Your writing is very mature and elegant. I wish I could write with words like that. The story felt very complete to me and the search for his father’s cause of death had me hooked from the start. Maybe I would have liked to read some description of George, nothing major, just a couple of features so I could at least picture him from the beginning of the story, but that doesn’t really take away from the character’s presence. It’s just a comment on my part. Overall, it’s a really good story!

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21:21 Jun 24, 2020

Great story. His father's diary entry is probably my favorite part of this. But I feel they rushed into something that could have been avoided. It is mysterious and captivating. Good job

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Jonathan Blaauw
14:51 Jul 08, 2020

That is the essence of the story, the point I was trying to convey. They rushed into something based on incomplete information and by jumping to conclusions. George vows never to make assumptions like that, even while assuming that his fathers work isn't prophetic. A touch of irony, there. But thank you for your kind words, really appreciate it. I'm glad you got the story and that you enjoyed it.

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