Contest #197 shortlist ⭐️

20 comments

Mystery Suspense Fantasy

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

We four wandered into fortune’s path

And learned how we would die.

We laughed, though the wariness

Never wilted in our eyes.

I watched as all the others went

Their fortunes holding true.

Would knowing how your life will end

Influence all you do?



 An unrelenting rain slides off my umbrella as I stand at Robbie’s graveside service. It’s a hurried affair, only five mourners including myself. I have already hugged and shared words with his long-suffering mother, her dull stare trained on the glossy black coffin being lowered into the earth. I do not know the other three people gathered around this hollowed rectangle of dirt, but they are likely old schoolmates. They look to be my age, early thirties, though they could also be five years older or younger.


I met Robbie in college and only visited his hometown one other time, for Thanksgiving our sophomore year. Robbie was healthy then, witty and wild and studying kinesiology. The before time. It was he who spotted the shadowed cabin beyond the gas station on a lonely desert road hugging the borders of the Mojave Desert. It was he who jogged toward the cabin, peered at the neon palm blinking in the window, then turned and shouted, “Guys, let’s check it out!” 


It was Spring Break of our senior year, and the four of us – Robbie, Dave, Sadie, and I – had thrown our backpacks and pillows into Dave’s Suburban to make the four-hour trek from UCLA to Vegas. Dave and Robbie rode in front, the girls in back, listening to The Lord of the Rings soundtrack because back then we played Dungeons & Dragons, and the musical score wouldn’t interrupt the flow of conversation. We were all majoring in various flavors of pre-med, from physical therapy to dentistry to pharmacy. Sadie, petite and spectacled, sat cross-legged in the seat behind Dave, a gentle giant, all arms and legs. Dave hailed from Vegas and had made the drive countless times, his eyes shining with mirth at our exuberant expectancy of the Strip, the bright lights, the casinos, the shows. To Dave, it was the same old carnival that never left town.


If Dave had filled up the Suburban before leaving Los Angeles, we may never have pulled off the road at that tiny patch of earth on a planet with 25,000 miles wrapped around it.


If Sadie hadn’t needed to use the restroom, we may never have given Robbie enough time to notice the cabin lurking in the gloom beyond the gas station.


If I had listened to my gut and voiced my protest, we may never have climbed the cabin’s rickety steps in the first place. When my gaze fell upon the stripped pine boards, the smoke curling from the chimney, cold dread snaked up my spine for reasons I couldn’t verbalize.


IF.


The conjunction unique to fate.


The woman who opened the cabin door looked like someone had taken a 70’s Stevie Nicks with her scarves and untamed mane and aged her seventy years. Madame Moira, she called herself, and led us to a round table near the hearth. Dried herbs hung from the mantle, a fluffy gray cat watched us from a worn green sofa, and all ten of Moira’s fingers bore rings of various sizes and colors, not quite distracting from the age spots that dotted her wizened skin.


Sadie, always the pragmatist, asked how the woman managed to keep a business in the middle of nowhere.


“I have a telephone.” Moira’s dark eyes searched Sadie’s, and Sadie shrank in her seat. “Fifty dollars to read your palm, and then be on your way.”


After a pause, Robbie plucked his wallet from his back pocket and slid a hundred-dollar bill across the table. “That’ll get two of us.” He grinned, his dimples winking, and laid his hand on the table, palm up. “Read it and weep.”


The woman frowned at Robbie as if observing an unruly child, then held his large hand between her two smaller ones. I expected her to examine his palm, but instead she closed her eyes, her thumbs tracing the creases, the crisscrossing patterns like some strange version of Braille. Expectancy hung in the air as we all watched her, barely breathing, the crackle of the fire the only sound.


Then Moira spoke, barely a whisper. “Stop blaming yourself for Paul.”


We froze at the mention of Robbie’s brother. Robbie’s grin vanished, and he jerked his hand from hers, shielded it with his other hand as if she might lunge for it. “How the hell did you do that?”


Moira shrugged, not quite meeting his eye. “It’s a strong memory. Painful.”


Paul. Found hanging in the garage at seventeen, Robbie only fifteen. How did she know? How could she possibly know?


I shifted in my seat. “Maybe we should go.”


“No.” Robbie straightened, his eyes steel. His palm flashed open on the table again. He locked eyes with the woman. “You know so much. What about me? How am I going to die?”


“Robbie.” Sadie glanced nervously from him to the woman. “Come on.”


“I didn’t see it coming. So I want to be prepared.” A different Robbie flashed wild eyes at each of us in turn, a wounded animal, a desperate soul clawing from a coffin buried beneath the earth. “If you know what’s coming, you can avoid it. Right?” He rapped his knuckles on the tabletop. “Let’s get on with it.”


The woman’s eyes searched his, sorrow mixed with pain. Her gaze dropped to the hundred-dollar bill, and she slid it toward him with one jeweled finger. “No, child. You don’t know what you ask, what nightmares it will bring. It is better not to know. Take your money and be on your way.”


Robbie growled, whipped out his wallet again, thumbed out three more bills. Four hundred dollars. “Tell us. All of us.”


The woman stared at the money, and I saw it in her eyes. She might have a telephone, but it didn’t ring often. She sighed and nodded her head. She reached for his hand again, and her eyes fluttered closed.


We descended the steps a mere ten minutes later, turning over her cryptic words, whispers in the night that would haunt our hearts for the rest of our lives.


On the road again, the mood was somber until Dave pointed out that reading a person’s past is one thing. Predicting the future is a whole different ball game. “Think about it,” Dave said, glancing from the road to a brooding Robbie in the passenger seat. “If she could predict the future, she’d be betting on horses and lottery numbers. She’d be ordering drinks poolside, not withering away in that shack.”


“Exactly,” Sadie said. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to convince us or herself. “It didn’t even make sense. I’m going to die underground?” A strangled laugh escaped her. “Be buried alive or something? Whatever.”


“No more basements for you.” Dave met her gaze in the rearview mirror. “Still not as weird as mine. My manhood is going to do me in. Guess I’m going to die having sex. Can’t think of a better way to go.”


Two months later, we flew from the undergrad nest, Dave to Nashville, Sadie to D.C., Robbie and I staying in L.A. We kept in touch, posts and pictures popping on our phones, but physical separation has a way of fraying the cords of friendship. New faces grew familiar, and for me, pharmacy school left little time for much else. My bag of dice sat silent on the shelf. And with time, even the old woman faded from memory, each new day, new month, new year a preponderance of evidence against the death warnings that slipped from her lips in the desert.


That is, until Dave texted four words to all three of us.


I have testicular cancer.


He died at twenty-four. Sadie followed at twenty-six, a fiery collision in the Chesapeake Bay tunnel a full hundred feet below the surface.


And now cold, clammy hands clasp my umbrella handle as Robbie is laid to rest at thirty-three. Hands once held by an ancient Stevie Nicks with rings on each finger, a woman with a terrifying gift.


Robbie’s mother meets my eye, offers a wan smile, and turns away, her figure growing dim in the slate gray rain until she is gone. The others leave as well, and I stand alone, perhaps the only person who truly understood why he dropped out of school, why he turned to drugs, why the wild and witty light in his eyes sputtered and died, leaving emptiness and fear.


You will drown.


That’s what Madame Moira told the boy who took his first steps on the sandy shores of Santa Cruz, who was more surefooted on a surfboard than any other surface. Robbie did avoid the ocean for a time. But after Dave’s funeral, Robbie went on a tear, ditching classes to surf for hours, as if in defiance of his fate. Like Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, he shouted at the roaring waves to do their worst or go to hell.


In the end though, it wasn’t the ocean that got him. No. Robbie drowned in alcohol. A death of his own making. What if he hadn’t known? Would he be a gifted physical therapist now, a husband, a father? Would he have died at fifty rescuing a flailing swimmer, at sixty in a boating accident?


I pick my way across the sodden soil, past silent gravestones, to the warm, dry car where my boyfriend Mark waits behind the wheel. I shake the rain from my curls and kiss him lightly on the cheek. “Thanks, babe.”


“You okay?” His dark eyes are warm, concerned.


“Yep. I’m good.”


We make the three-hour drive to Fresno, and life goes on as it did before. I fill prescriptions in a drugstore pharmacy only five minutes from a quiet home I share with Mark, a science teacher and volleyball coach, and our goldendoodles Sonny and Cher.


Mark knows, of course. He’s the only one who knows. Knows the story, knows why sleep doesn’t come easily to me, even years later.


While Robbie’s fate drove him mad, it’s driven me to live each day to the fullest. I wake each day relieved to have done so. I work medical clinics in Haiti and Costa Rica. I’ve hiked the Half Dome in Yosemite, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.


To be fair, my fate was perhaps the easiest to bear.


In your dreams.


For weeks I envisioned Freddy Kreuger’s pruned visage and razor-sharp claws. Fantastical fiction aside, there is nothing more vulnerable than a sleeping human. So I don’t sleep much. I double-lock my doors and windows. I can’t fall asleep in an unfamiliar place. Not the first night anyway.


But over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to the four hours or so a night, more if Mark is holding me in his arms. I will live the life Robbie would not, that Sadie and Dave could not.


Death can come for me on any given day. But isn’t that true for us all?


I know one thing. I’m not going to spend my waking hours dreading the IF. For it is the present moment that shines brightest. The moments that have passed, the moments to come, always exist in shades of gray. I will die. I know this.


But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep.


May 12, 2023 22:08

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20 comments

Jody S
21:08 May 26, 2023

What a great take on the prompt! I like your breezy style that got me hooked and kept me reading. Building suspense in a story is a skill I lack--you did it so well! Congratulations on being of being short listed!! Well deserved and a great read!!

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Shannon Gale
02:19 May 30, 2023

Jody, I appreciate your kind words more than you know. Huge shot in the arm to keep doing what can sometimes be a lonely venture. :-)

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Jody S
14:15 May 30, 2023

It can be a very lonely venture but that is my favorite part about it as I am an introvert at heart!

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Kathleen Spencer
15:51 Jul 31, 2023

Very interesting story. Well written. I love how you wrote about how it sometimes better not to know how you meet your end. I think that's true... and how the character has her own way of overcoming that fear.

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Amanda Lieser
14:50 May 26, 2023

Hey Shannon, This was an utterly captivating tale! I thought you did an amazing job of building up the mystery of the story. It felt like something that came straight from a movie screen-we’d open on the friends, casually, enjoying a car ride, we’d have an orchestral swell as we meet the mystery woman, and then we get to flash at the very end to each individual characters’ demise. Nice job and congrats !!

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Shannon Gale
02:20 May 30, 2023

Thank you so much! I could hear the score as you were describing it. I'm glad you enjoyed my story.

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Graham Kinross
00:15 May 24, 2023

Congratulations on being shortlisted, well deserved. Great story, Shannon.

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Shannon Gale
02:20 May 30, 2023

Thanks, Graham. I appreciate the encouragement.

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Graham Kinross
02:24 May 30, 2023

You’re welcome. What was the inspiration for this?

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Shannon Gale
02:40 May 30, 2023

Fragments of this story had been swirling around my head for a few years, and it took this prompt to bring them together. I've always been intrigued by fate versus free will in literature, particularly in Greek mythology. How would you live differently if you knew the end game? And though stories like this are dark, I always end them with a message of hope. Live today to the fullest. Looking back and looking forward are important, but sometimes they can take over the current moment. And that's all we really have, isn't it?

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Graham Kinross
04:48 May 30, 2023

Living in the moment is important for sure. Yolo can be a dangerous slogan. https://youtu.be/z5Otla5157c

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Philip Ebuluofor
14:46 May 22, 2023

One fucking subject no one wanted to speak about. Death. Congrats.

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Shannon Gale
02:22 May 30, 2023

I guess I cut my teeth on Stephen King and C.S. Lewis, two very different but equally creative writers who never shied away from death. Thanks for reading and appreciating my story.

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Philip Ebuluofor
20:10 May 30, 2023

Welcome.

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Mary Bendickson
02:46 May 20, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist! Well, deserved.

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Shannon Gale
02:22 May 30, 2023

Thank you, Mary! It was fun to write this one.

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22:28 May 19, 2023

Beautiful. Love it.

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Shannon Gale
02:22 May 30, 2023

Thank you, Derrick! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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Steve Uppendahl
21:12 May 19, 2023

Oh man, this is awesome! I love your plot and characters. For years, I've had a story idea in my head about someone knowing the day they will die and how they would handle it. You knocked it out of the park. Well done! Having 3 of the 4 die young is unusual, but it lends itself well to your storyline and the characters. Part of me wonders how different the characters would be if only one of them died young. How would the others react? It's touched on a bit with the narrator and Robbie. Either way, you rocked this story. Write on.

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Shannon Gale
02:26 May 30, 2023

Thanks for your feedback, Steve! This one had been swirling around in my head for a few years, just waiting for the right prompt to coax it out. I did bat around different ideas about their ages, but since most of the story revolved around Robbie, I decided nine years to go off the deep end was probably long enough. Thank you for the encouragement!

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