When she dies, it is in a dramatic and tragic way—but not how you may think.
She's not mowed down by a drunk driver on her birthday or shot by a jealous lover accidentally paroled. She's not especially young, either. At 58, she's visiting a national park in the Southwest and is halfway up a sheer rock wall, clinging to a narrow ladder seemingly made of driftwood. It doesn't break. She does.
As eager as she is to reach the ancient cave dwelling above, she is suddenly transfixed by the notion that she's 40 feet in the air and she never did like heights. Her palms grow slippery. She is light-headed. She uses her childbirth breathing technique to calm down, but it didn't work then and doesn't now.
As her vision dims, tunneling to a mere pinprick like the end of the cartoons she'd watched as a child, she dwells on those waiting their turn—the large youth group from Pennsylvania spread out like an Amish quilt below. And there is the drama, and the tragedy.
When she awakens, it's not in agony in an ER or shattered among the flattened teenagers. It's in the arms of a man wearing a translucent fur cape. At first, she thinks she's died—she's surrounded by dirt walls and it's so dark—and then she's certain she has.
Her body is light and diaphanous. It is like a cloud. No, really more like her truck's exhaust on a cold morning. A trick of the eye makes it seem as though the heavy yellow caution tape is banning the full moon from entering the cave.
The man releases her and together they float to the lip of the cave and look down. Already there are flowers, teddy bears, lit candles. She looks for a sign of her body, but of course it is long gone.
"So many of us must have died." She thinks she will cry and yet she cannot.
"Just you. Sixteen kids were hurt, but they'll live." The man speaks in the language of ghosts, a sort of Esperanto for the dead.
"So, these flowers are for me?" She's curiously touched. No one brought her flowers when she was alive, although she'd always dropped hints.
"No, it's the 450th anniversary of their death." The man motions behind them. Out of the gloom about 30 people float, dressed in beaded skins, from an infant to one very old woman.
"That's terrible," she says to the ghosts. "I'm so sorry." She knows she is saying the traditional things, but it is all she knows. To the man she says, "You said 'their.' What about you? Who are you?"
"That doesn't matter." The man looks down at his see-through bare feet.
The crowd behind them now mutters angrily. One young woman picks up a rock and throws it at the man, but it merely sails through his chest and out the cave.
He floats to face all of them. "My apologies about the ladder. As I've said literally hundreds of times."
"Wait—what about the ladder?" she asks.
The man is suddenly silent.
"We were at war and took shelter in the cave. So our enemies couldn't reach us, we pulled up the ladder. But when they left, he clumsily dropped it," the young woman says, pointing at the man. "We were trapped up here to starve."
Watching the baby sleep forever in its mother's arms, she finds she can cry, her tears dripping onto her chest and making her appear more corporeal, if only for a moment. Another surprise from death.
"We're sorry for you, too." The young woman scowls. "You would have made it up to the cave today, if someone hadn't given the young people the idea of trying the weed. The smoke is what addled you."
Now they all glare at their fellow ghost, who studiously looks at the petroglyphs on the cave wall, then startles and tries to block the carvings.
As inquisitive in death as she was in life, she floats up to him and squints through his transparent chest to view the prehistoric art.
In it, dozens of men on bareback pursue a lone figure in a fur cape, who from the back looks just like a bear. Intent on their quarry, they are about to drive him and themselves straight off the cliff.
Peering through the spot where the ghost's heart would be, she absorbs the old story of death. How the end is not the end, but just a story left hanging unresolved out in space. Forever open to interpretation as to who is the villain, or the hero, or something in between.
's work has appeared most recently in apt, Bird's Thumb
, and has been recognized on the Wigleaf
Top 50 Very Short Fictions long lists of 2017 and 2018. She is co-editor of 100 Word Story and its anthology "Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story