This is Not a Ghost Story

The last rescue chopper clambered upward, mud and wet sand skidding in its wake. It aimed for the mountain, half of which had slid into the sea and buried a mile of highway.

We held hands and sung round a bonfire. I’d come with Natalie but when the music ended the woman standing beside me wasn’t my wife.

Her name was Wendy, and she wore a bridesmaid’s pink balloon-sleeve dress. It trailed in the sand as we passed a listing wedding canopy and rows of empty folding chairs.

We entered a restaurant-cafe still strung with streamers and paper lanterns. An upright piano, drum set, double bass, and electric guitar stood on a small bandstand. People huddled on cots and in blankets on the floor. They looked dazed and exhausted but otherwise unhurt though a few medics still circulated among them.

We took a corner booth. A waitress came with Red Cross sandwiches and coffee. Wendy told me she was maid of honor, and I said my wife and I had gone camping and didn’t know about the wedding.

Wendy tried calling the bride and groom. ‘No reception and the landline’s out,’ she said miserably, returning the phone to her handbag.

Musicians shuffled onto the bandstand, coaxed by another woman in a bridesmaid’s dress. She then went from cot to cot urging people to clear the dance floor. They rose slowly, clutching blankets and sleeping bags.

Wendy’s face tightened. ‘Deirdre thinks she’s being helpful—’

‘Maybe she is.’

‘—what if Tim and Ellie arrived early? What if they’re—’ She glanced at the mountain.

‘I’m sure they’re all right. Excuse me,’ I said, rising. ‘I better look for my wife.’

I walked onto the beach. The tide surged in, starlight glinting in rivulets and pools. Along the highway, new rescuers and a work crew had replaced the first responders. Giant arc lamps lit the hollowed mountain while bulldozers circled, alarms blinking and shrieking. Bits of metal and glass poked from the vast mud like sprinkles on a chocolate cake.

But was Natalie in danger? They say people are at risk long after a disaster passes—they can be disoriented, careless, agitated, or just unlucky.

Natalie and I had argued moments before the slide. We’d been, in fact, bickering the entire drive.

She’d suffered another miscarriage, but that was weeks ago. There’d be other chances, I told her, and the trip would be good for both of us.

I scanned the cliffs and nearby point. Was she trapped somewhere by the incoming tide? I yelled her name, but the wind swallowed my voice. Then I stepped toward the water’s edge, removed shoes and socks, and waded into the shallows, venturing until the ocean was waist high. I stumbled on something sharp, gasped, choked, and again yelled her name.

Back at the restaurant, a paramedic lent me a blanket, dry clothes, and saw to my cuts. The country-and-western band was in full swing, the floor crowded with couples, among them Wendy and Deirdre, the two bridesmaids, slow dancing together.

The paramedic wouldn’t leave me. She kept asking about the accident—if I’d been in shock at the time, if I’d been treated for injuries.

I remembered our Subaru slamming into the guardrail, wheels dangling over the edge. I said we were fine, that Natalie and I had climbed down to the beach and soon joined other people at the bonfire.

‘We sang and we prayed,’ I told her. ‘We were happy, grateful—we’d survived!’

But the paramedic kept staring and holding my hand.

‘This is not a ghost story,’ I said.


First appeared in Fictive Dream, Feb. 8, 2017

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