Contest #191 shortlist ⭐️

38 comments

Fiction Inspirational Sad

The rescue plane traced distant contours, circling, seeking, never nearing. Henry searched for a break in the canopy through which to attract attention, but the dense foliage clung and clawed, engulfing him in greenery slick with the jungle’s sweat. From the sky, he was invisible. The faint whirring of the engines taunted him like the whining mosquitos feasting on his blood, stealing him drop by drop from the refuge of his skin.


Although last night’s violent storm had cleared, spent after tossing and tumbling the plane from the sky, the air in its wake was a humid soup, vibrating with unfamiliar bird chatter and incandescent with insect wings. Shrouded in its sticky folds, Henry leaned against a tree trunk, tie loosened and shirt sleeves rolled up, flicking flies from the gaping wound in his calf. He should have been killed outright with the other passengers−he was no less deserving of their sharp, shocking end. Instead, cruelly spared, he faced a slower demise, abandoned in this remote pocket of land.


But he wasn’t afraid. He was ready. For as long as he cared to remember life had stretched its flat and desolate terrain before him, presenting a duty made bearable only by hard work and the blister packs of tablets that promised unremarkable days. With as much strength as he could muster, he filled his lungs to summon death and hasten his passage.


“I’m here!” he hollered. “Henry Watling, of Watling and Son Funeral Home! I’m waiting for you!”


A raucous flock of birds erupted from a nearby tree, screeching protests as they dispersed. Henry’s invocation was otherwise unheard. He slapped at the sting of a mosquito on his cheek.


Having devoted his career to death, he wasn’t spooked by its presence as others often were. When the plane had begun its final, nose-dive descent, the large lady with glasses sat next to him shrieked, her lacquered nails indenting his arm. The man wearing a bow tie across the aisle screamed for his mother, clutching his briefcase like a swimming aid. Henry had merely patted his breast pocket to check for his passport should it be required for identification purposes.


Henry was a sensible man, and frugal too. He would never have squandered his own hard-earned savings on this trip. Never before had he gambled− he believed in neither recklessness nor luck. Yet in an ill-judged moment, he had purchased tickets for the Funeral Director Association’s annual raffle. Upon winning the all-expenses-paid trip to their International Conference, he’d thought it only right to accept the offer, on behalf of the business of course. But look where frivolity had led him. At his age, with his experience of how the world worked, he should have known better.


“It’ll do you good to go, Dad,” Nicholas had said when he heard about the prize. “Time to shake things up, get some new ideas. It’s all about compost burials and wicker caskets these days.


Henry had baulked. Watling and Son was a traditional family business. Conservative. Nicholas’s mother would have wept to hear such new-age nonsense. As it stood, she was probably turning in her grave.


“Solid oak coffins are the cornerstone of our work,” he’d reminded his foolish son, fuming. “These new-fangled fads lack dignity.”


Nicholas had rolled his eyes and thrown a pained expression to Audrey, who was cleaning up after an embalming. Audrey, the dear old brick, had simply offered a neutral smile, never being one to hold disagreeable opinions. She understood that since finishing his business degree Nicholas had become challenging, forever rattling on about diversification and consumer choice. If he’d followed advice and gone to Mortuary School, he would better understand the needs of the bereaved, and appreciate that change was unwanted and unnecessary. Now, Henry mused glumly, he’d probably be glad his father had taken a one-way trip, and the business could be all Son before the Watling. Henry gave it a year before it folded. 


He would be long gone by then. Although right now death was dallying, taking time out after the busy night shift. To occupy himself while he waited, Henry limped as far as he could around the crash site. The mangled fuselage was scattered throughout a wide, basin-shaped depression surrounded by high cliffs. In the absence of commissioned marble and masonry, Henry feared the craggy precipices would be their only memorial. He would die unreachable, lost in body and soul, his final resting place marked by an anonymous tangle of florid, wild orchids.


He attended to as many dead as he could find. The assertion of duty and responsibility brought comfort as he waited for his own reckoning. There wasn’t much to do, just the closing of eyes, the covering of faces. It struck him that this was the kind of natural disposal Nicholas swore was all the rage− simple biodegradation, a return to nature. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad way for a body to end up. In some ways, it was a new beginning, a flourishing of life after death. Nicholas would have approved. Henry chided himself for being so stern− perhaps he should have given the boy more time.


Fortunately, Henry had put his foot down to Audrey coming along− what a close escape she’d had. Having worked with the business for years, she’d become a valued colleague, practically family. She’d been a godsend with young Nicholas when Henry had been lost in grief, her care extending over time with hot dinners and endless errands. She was a thorough worker, attentive to detail, both clinically and artistically talented. No one could give a glow to dead faces the way she could. Moreover, Audrey worked without any chatter or nonsense; qualities Henry highly regarded.


After Henry had squabbled with Nicholas, she’d brought over a cup of tea. Weak, with a good splosh of milk, just as he preferred. After all this time she knew him inside out and it made for a cordial relationship. Since being widowed, Henry had spent more of his waking hours with Audrey than with anyone else.


“Henry?” she’d asked, with a pensive smile. “I’ve been thinking…”


Good grief, Henry had thought, the woman’s asking for a raise. But instead, she’d asked to accompany him to the Conference.


“Perhaps it would be helpful…to explore ideas. To consider new directions,” Audrey had suggested, her cheeks as flushed as one of her made-up cadavers. “It might be a pleasant change to spend some time together… outside of work. Relaxing. You and I are both overdue a holiday.”


Henry had made clear it was a preposterous notion. The business didn’t have reserves to cover her expenses, not even after the busy run they’d had following the nursing home listeria outbreak. But she'd hovered, hands patiently clasped, her sensible shoulder-length hair tucked behind her ears, watching him sip his tea while he pretended to ignore her.


“I’ll cover my own expenses. I’d very much like to go with you, Henry.”


How doggedly she had pursued the matter, how irking her persistence! With cool-headed diligence, Henry had insisted that she must stay and ensure Nicholas didn’t initiate any of his ludicrous modern whims. Hadn’t it been imperative that one sensible head stayed behind?


Henry groaned. His leg wound smarted, his body ached from the bruises and bumps vying for his attention. Audrey would have known what to do. She was just the kind of woman to carry a clean handkerchief and antiseptic cream upon her person. Come to think of it, she would have made a fine travelling companion. The image of her small, clean hands and closely clipped nails came to mind; her earnest, gentle gaze. His heart skipped a beat, perhaps a symptom of its impending failure. What if things were different, he wondered, and they attended next year’s Conference together? With crushing regret, he remembered that his life was due to expire. There would be no next year.


Audrey would miss him; he was certain of that. Nicholas too, despite their differences. He pictured them weeping, reminiscing, adrift without his stable guidance. This strangely warming thought left him yearning to console them, hungry to share the giddy joy of a homecoming. How fine it would be to feel Audrey’s gentle lips brush his cheek, to be pummelled by Nicolas’s hearty backslaps upon reuniting.


The drone of the rescue plane interrupted Henry’s reverie. This time it circled closer. Turning towards the amplified throb of its engines, Henry glimpsed the gleam of its approach through a channel of broken branches carved out by the crash. Vigour surged through his body, dulling pain, stoking purpose, and taking him quite by surprise. He leapt up, scrambling through the mud and snagging shrubbery, clambering over metal debris and luggage cases split open like windfall fruit towards the spears of sunshine slicing through the shadows. Standing in the sweet light, wild-eyed and dazed, he flailed his arms at the blue sky above in a manner unbecoming of one prepared for death.


“I’m here!” he screamed to the spiralling plane. “Henry Watling, of Watling and Son Funeral Home! I’m waiting for you!”

March 25, 2023 15:02

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38 comments

Michelle Oliver
00:47 Apr 08, 2023

Congratulations on the shortlist. I really enjoyed the way you wove this story together. The backstory slipped into the narrative seamlessly. You have some great lines, I love this personification of death: -Although right now death was dallying, taking time out after the busy night shift. I also love the image of him against a tree with a tie loosened, but still on. So proper! Any sane person would take the tie off and perhaps used it to bandage the wound in his leg. It speaks volumes of the kind of set in his ways man that he is. Let’s ho...

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Aeris Walker
22:07 Apr 07, 2023

Congratulations on the shortlist! I greatly enjoyed this one—your descriptions of the setting were so vivid, the characters all felt like real people, and you did a great job naturally weaving in backstory without distracting from the moment. Well done. I love your writing style—always a treat.

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Jack Kimball
12:12 Apr 03, 2023

Hi Cecelia. This brings to mind Hemingway’s ‘Snows of kilimanjaro‘. An honest appraisal of life knowing death is eminent. I thought of him as a ghost, already dead, and not knowing. ‘From the sky, he was invisible’, The writing style is dead on in my view. The word ‘thought’ is only used three times, ‘came to mind’ once, yet the whole story is in the third person narrative in Henry’s head with smooth transitions to memories of dialogue. And then the ‘lost love’ with Audrey, instilling in the reader, in my view, the moral; grab life as ...

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Viga Boland
16:23 Apr 07, 2023

Congrats on yet another shortlist. 👏👏

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16:03 Apr 09, 2023

Many thanks Viga!

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Josephine Harris
16:35 Apr 04, 2023

I think its all been said below, with the exception that I feel dissatisfied when your stories come to an end and want more. There are always hints of books. Great stuff Cecilia

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16:03 Apr 09, 2023

Thanks so much Josephine!

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01:18 Apr 04, 2023

A wonderful character study, and what a unique idea, a funeral director in a deadly plane crash. I could really imagine this being a tv episode. The voice is so self absorbed it really shows his personality, and how he could have been blind to coworker's Audrey affections all those years. With the morbid tone flowing through the story him being rescued actually turned out to be a happy twist. A fun read.

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16:04 Apr 09, 2023

Many thanks Scott!

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Geir Westrul
14:16 Apr 03, 2023

This was a story I read twice, just to savor the nuances of what you did. Especially the repeated "I'm here! Henry Watling, of Watling and Son Funeral Home! I'm waiting for you!" ... first to Death at the beginning of the story, then to Life (renewed life, in fact) in the form of the rescue plane. Henry seemed so stuck in his ways, so oblivious of the romantice possibilities with Audrey, so dismissive of his son Nicholas. It was as if he was, if not dead, then at least so deadened to life that he might as well be dead. You put him through a...

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16:06 Apr 09, 2023

Hi Geir, many thanks for your feedback. You’ve grasped exactly what I set out to convey.

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Geir Westrul
17:50 Apr 09, 2023

Cecilia, congratulations on the shortlist! So, well deserved.

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Kelsey H
06:39 Apr 03, 2023

Great portrayal of someone so stuck in his ways and unable to consider change, until something major forces him to confront his life. His profession worked in so well with the fatal plane crash plot, and helps him be stoic in the face of death. I loved the contrast in his two lines of dialogue when he yells "I'm here, etc", from hope of death to hope of rescue.

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Jacob Weber
06:11 Apr 03, 2023

Your protagonist has echos of Arthur Meursault that I find engaging. You get the sense of someone so certain of the shape of things that they have become alienated from even themselves. Good read.

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16:11 Apr 09, 2023

Hi Jacob, thanks so much for your feedback. Yes, there is an existential theme here, as you say. And a hint of resolution.

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Marty B
04:40 Apr 03, 2023

good transition from - bored with life 'For as long as he cared to remember life had stretched its flat and desolate terrain before him, presenting a duty made bearable only by hard work and the blister packs of tablets that promised unremarkable days.' to back into the thrill of living- 'Standing in the sweet light, wild-eyed and dazed, he flailed his arms at the blue sky above in a manner unbecoming of one prepared for death.'

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16:13 Apr 09, 2023

Hi Marty, thanks for your comment. Henry does undergo a transformation. Who knows if it lasts!

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Suma Jayachandar
02:25 Apr 02, 2023

Only a person who is staring at his imminent death can look back at his life with such clarity and honesty. And no organism is ever ready to give up on its life till there is hope for survival. Masterful use of imagery, clever turns of phrases and an excellent character arc make this a great read, Cecilia.

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David Sweet
15:26 Apr 01, 2023

Fantastic! I appreciate the progression of this character, well-developed! The irony of a funeral home director to be the sole-survivor of a plane crash is brilliant. I'm also glad that he has someone to go home to and that she didn't die in the crash. I also appreciate that you allowed the reader to be able to make up their mind as to if this happened or not. Good luck with this story. I really enjoyed it.

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Shea West
03:05 Mar 27, 2023

Nice to see this again!

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18:30 Mar 27, 2023

Thanks Shea, it’s all the better for some embellishment.

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Mary Bendickson
17:33 Mar 25, 2023

Yeah, he is ready to live again. How do you put out such a fine story so fast after the prompts are presented?

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Mary Bendickson
17:34 Mar 25, 2023

Thanks for reading and liking my silly story.

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17:37 Mar 25, 2023

My pleasure entirely!

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17:39 Mar 25, 2023

I had a half-baked one 😉

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Mary Bendickson
18:01 Mar 25, 2023

Pretty tasty!

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Lily Finch
15:29 Mar 25, 2023

Cecilia, the story is well done; your diction and descriptions are excellent. Irony in the end that his words came back to him - does the plane rescue him? Great ending. LF6.

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17:42 Mar 25, 2023

Hey Lily, thank you! Tbh i don’t know what happens next to poor old Henry. I’d like to think he’s rescued, realises Audrey fancies the pants off him, and becomes a leading provider of natural burials. But then again…

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12:01 Sep 01, 2023

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12:01 Sep 01, 2023

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21:15 Aug 31, 2023

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20:38 Jun 11, 2023

THIS IS SO GOOD! 🤩🍄😍

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Kira Carver
06:49 May 06, 2023

I think this is my favorite story of yours. Very much captures how cynicism can die shortly before YOU do. Everything changes, everything flips. Suddenly you realize Audrey was in love with you, and you might love her, too. Simple and beautiful, even as the setting is so cataclysmic.

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