This story is by B. Narr and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
His face shone like moonlight. It was only there for a moment, glimmering through the second story window, but Carver had seen it. A face, and a hand beckoning him. Come down, it said. Come quick. Without question, Carver followed. He opened the window and began the work of shimmying down the trellis.
He hadn’t seen Jake alive in two weeks, but he’d seen plenty of his ghost. At first, it was a glimpse, flashes in the corner of his eye. But then he was everywhere. On the street in front of his house. In his bedroom. On the way home from school. Never for long, just a blink and he was gone. He was only there long enough to pick at the wound of his absence.
Tonight was the first time the ghost had asked him to do something. Carver still wasn’t sure what that something was, but he wasn’t about to say no. He at least owed Jake that much.
Late autumn air nipped at his bare arms as he crossed the yard. He’d forgotten a jacket, like last time. Unlike last time, Jake didn’t have an extra for him. Instead, he stood at the nearest light pole, too pale and completely drenched, neck twisted unnaturally, beckoning him once again.
A blink. Jake disappeared. In his after-burn, Carver could see a more tangible version of him: his missing poster. They’d been hung by Jake’s little brother, Noah, and crafted with all the design skill the nine-year-old could muster. Normally, the posters would’ve been taken care of by someone more official, or at least his parents, but Noah had beaten everyone to it. He had them plastered all over the neighborhood less than 24 hours after Jake went missing. To his credit, he spelled everything right and picked a great picture of Jake: a cropped photo from their last camping trip. A bright smile, messy hair. He looked like the Jake that Carver remembered, not the one haunting him now. Off-camera, his arm was around Noah. A reminder for Jake, wherever he was, that he had something to come home to. Noah still didn’t know that Jake would never come home at all. Carver’s stomach turned. He looked away from the poster.
Wet footprints led off the road, disembodied and dragging, onto the dirt path through the woods at the edge of the neighborhood. Towards Lake Tenkiller. Carver followed. In the woods, the fading light of the sunset dropped away, and darkness fell over him. Up ahead, a pale light flickered – human-shaped, but wrong. A shiver ran through him. Tonight, it wasn’t from the cold.
The night it happened, it was the coldest it had been all September. Carver remembered Jake holding onto his hand too tight, their palms sweating despite the chill. He couldn’t blame him. They only had one flashlight, one that barely worked. One misstep could have sent them tumbling into the ravines that snaked their way through the woods. Worst of all, they were on their way to Pure Hell. It was a cliff that supposedly clocked out at over 100 feet tall and ended in a base of razor-sharp rocks. Whether or not that was true, Carver had no idea. Pure Hell was gated off and patrolled by park rangers during the day, no one was allowed up there. People had died jumping off it. All of that had made Carver want to see if it lived up to its name – and he’d talked Jake into wanting to see, too.
The light up ahead fizzled out. Carver looked around for it, but it was nowhere. A fresh pang of loss hit him, and he felt stupid for it. Even Jake’s ghost couldn’t stay around forever. Without a guide, Carver finally turned on his own phone light. As the forest became fluorescent, his stomach dropped. He had no idea where he’d been led. This was somewhere off the path. He spun around. Only trees, indistinct and skeletal. Slowly, he moved forward, looking for the path again, but nothing seemed to change.
Something touched the back of his neck. Carver whipped around to see – no one. He reached to feel where he’d been touched. His hand came away wet. Lake water glistened on his fingertips and, he quickly realized, on the tree in front of him. Their tree.
It was a towering oak that he and Jake had dared to carve their initials into. Not only a monument to their friendship, the tree served as a landmark. It led the way to the best secret hangout spot this side of Lake Tenkiller. Noah even carved his initials into it later, right under theirs, when Carver and Jake finally showed him where it was. They’d promised to take him to his first bonfire out there. It would’ve been tonight. Now, it would never happen.
Carver had tried to go back there once, a day after the incident. He’d only made it to the tree. Every time he started up towards Pure Hell, anxiety started to work his gut. It only let him get a few steps before it was crippling. He ended up spending an hour by the tree, imagining the sheer drop less than a mile away. Imagining death.
The path forked soon after the tree. The right led to the clearing, the left to Pure Hell. This time, Carver waited, unsure, until the ghostly figure appeared again. It went left. Carver swallowed thickly and forced himself to follow once more.
At the end of the winding trail, there was a gate and a stooped, rusted sign that read: “Don’t Be Number 7.” It had stood a stubbornly inaccurate vigil for years. More than seven people had died jumping off Pure Hell by now, far more, but the sign still made its point. This place was dangerous. If Carver hadn’t understood the gravity of that before, he did now. Carefully, he made his way through the dark.
The night it happened, it had been even darker. A moonless expanse had hung overhead, blurring the line between the cliff and the water.
“How are we gonna tell if it’s high as everyone says?” Jake asked, hand still in Carver’s.
“Look, I guess.” Carver shrugged, as if that solved the problem of seeing in the dark. He started to walk closer to the cliff and felt Jake hesitate. “C’mon,” He squeezed his hand, “We’re already here. We might as well.”
“… Yeah. I guess so.” Jake nodded, even though he sounded a lot less sure than he looked.
Beyond the cliff was oblivion. Carver shined the flashlight down, but it only lit up the moss clinging to the sheer side. He let go of Jake’s hand to crouch, hoping to catch a glimmer of light on the lake. Just enough to tell how far down it was.
It might have worked. He didn’t have time to check. Jake leaned over to look with him, using his phone light to help, and a rock slipped. His feet were swept out from under him – and Carver wasn’t fast enough to do anything about it. He didn’t even see him hit the water, he only heard the splash and the sickening crack of rock against bone.
Carver knew he should have told someone, but even now he still hadn’t managed to say it out loud. Saying it meant it had happened. Saying it made it real. Carver steadied himself as he climbed over the gate.
The clearing by the cliff appeared through the trees up ahead, and by the light of his phone, Carver could see a figure wandering around. It was too solid to be Jake, too small. After a second, details came into view, and it clicked. Noah.
Carver’s heart rate skyrocketed. He scrambled through the trees, phone falling somewhere along the way.
“Noah!” he shouted.
The boy turned on his heels, startled, and lost his balance. He started to stumble backward towards the edge. Halfway there, Carver froze. Terror gripped him with icy hands, squeezing his chest so tight that he couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. Getting close spelled certain death. He’d seen that first hand.
But then he saw the fear on Noah’s face. If he didn’t do anything, one person would still die tonight. Another innocent person.
If it had to be anyone, he would rather him than Noah.
Carver forced himself to move, to burst forward towards the cliff, reaching for Noah’s arm. It connected, and he pulled. His feet slipped, and he fell –
Onto solid, merciful ground, Noah in his arms. Carver pulled him close, both shaking with adrenaline.
Later, Noah would tell him why he was out there, about wanting to start a bonfire for Jake and getting lost. Later still, Carver would tell Noah what really happened to his brother. But the only thing Carver would remember with absolute clarity was what he saw over the edge of Pure Hell that night. Jake, standing on the rocks, smiling up at him.