The following is a short piece of fiction stemming from a writing prompt during the most recent Pen to Paper Live session hosted by the Charlotte Lit organization. You can register here. We writers were asked to recall a “near death” experience of our own––or imagine one for a fictional character––and describe the setting with as much sensory detail as possible
Tripping with death above the Barren River
The Barren River runs fast here, slicing through the forested green gorge, its metallic blue waters dotted with white outcroppings of rock, like a lost field of mushrooms dropped down among the foothills of western Kentucky.
College students come here where the river plunges 20 feet over the falls, the mist from where the waters splash off the limestone below creating cool wet clouds that rise and hover, leaving tiny wet droplets on your tanned skin.
Seeking space from exams and empty wallets, 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds come to the Locks to sip cherry hooch mixed with pure grain alcohol and trip on shrooms. Those wise know to keep one in your group moderately sober as a trip to the Locks requires traversing a one-car-wide path that splits a sheer grey wall of granite and a dizzying drop of some 40 feet to the river below.
And it is here, 45 degrees vertical on that thin ribbon of road, where JD has decided to stop his hand-me-down hatchback. He needs to piss and it won’t wait until we reach level ground.
I sit in the back seat alongside Adelphi and we tip our beer cans together. “Cheers, mate.” He giggles. I’m quite certain he gobbled most of the pocketful of shrooms JD carried and in his altered mind he’s anywhere but perched in a Pinto on the side of a cliff waiting on his driver, who is still visible through the front window, a yellow stream now snaking its way between JD’s legs, carving a path in the dry, dusty gravel.
I glance out the open window and look down. It’s a straight shot, save for a few stubborn scraggly pines, to where the river runs clear below. I can smell the mist and hear the river hissing as it starts to run fast near the lip of the falls. I’ve never been one for heights. A boyhood trip up the St. Louis Arch left me light-headed and queasy and my back pressed against a carpeted wall, the people below a speck of tiny black dots moving hastily like worker ants serving a queen.
Adelphi giggles some more and takes a long sip from his beer.
“Fuck it,” he says, leaning forward and over the front seat. As if in slow motion, I watch Adelphi as he shifts the gear stick into neutral and, giggling again, flops back, landing partly atop me, his beer spilling onto my jeans. There’s the smell of warm hops and a sudden lurch in my stomach as I feel gravity grab hold of the Pinto and we start to slowly move downhill.
Hearing the crunch of tires on gravel, JD has turned around, his hand still around his pecker and a look of curiosity upon his face as he tries to ponder how his one piece of tangible party has slipped into gear and is steadily moving backwards toward where the road bends, a literal dropping-off point.
“We’re moving, man, we’re moving!” Adelphi shouts out, reaching up to the top of the brown felt roof, his hands rhythmically smacking again and again, seeking out whatever unicorns or demons are filling his head space.
“We’re moving, man, we’re moving.”Adelphi
I feel my own fingers digging in between the cushions, thinking a seat belt strapped around my waist is going to do me some good when that Pinto plummets backward off the cliff, smacks three pines on its way down and ends up, roof down, wedged between two big boulders, water streaming in and me stuck in place with my seat belt. Instead, my hands pull out a months-old peppermint and three years’ worth of brown, sticky lint.
My eyes remain on the front window, focused on JD, who has now taken on the form of a hermit crab, his legs askew, jeans still unzipped, pecker flopping, as his pudgy arms try to keep pace with his even fatter legs. He runs for his Pinto, its back bumper bouncing us off the wall of granite like the shiny silver ball ricocheting off the bumpers on the pinball machine I used to pump quarters into on Sunday mornings between Sunday school and worship service. Seems like years ago.
Game literally over, I think, surprising myself in the clarity and calmness of how one accepts one’s demise. My hands grip the headrest in front of me and I push my spine farther into the back seat cushion, readying for the free flight, bracing for the bone-jarring impact.
“It’s beautiful,” Adelphi says, linking his arm around my bicep, pulling himself close. He leans his head back and lets loose with some Skynyrd in the sweetest harmony I’ve heard. And there, in that moment, I realize I’ve never known Adelphi to sing.
“If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me”
I’m fine with dying, I say to myself, and close my eyes. If it must be like this, then it’s gonna be.
“For I must be traveling on, now
‘Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see”
I savor the air that enters my mouth and fills my lungs, counting each breath. One… two…. I can taste the river on my tongue now, the wetness and cold awaiting. I hear the spring breeze whistling through the pines and I think of dead doves.
One breath. Exhale. Two breaths. Exhale.
“My father, who art in heaven,” I mumble, my mind in a jumble, trying to remember the words.
Adelphi now in full chorus.
“Cause I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you cannot chaaaannnngggggeeeeeee”
The car lurches and our heads snap back and then forward, my forehead smacking the head rest, my fingers white, clenched in the foam.
I later come to find out that JD, that sweet, plump, slow-moving snail, had somehow managed to catch up with the Pinto and then wedged himself inside the open door and thrown his body into the driver’s side floorboard, his hands slamming down on the brake pedal, the Pinto’s back bumper hanging off the edge.
For a few moments we sit there in silence. The river still hisses below, almost like it’s angry, mad that it’s missed out on its allotment of drunk, foolhardy, teenagers. The spring breeze still blows and I feel it enter the open window, cool on my face that’s wet with sweat.
Adelphi breaks the silence. “Glorious day, dude.”
JD sits upright, closes the door and turns the ignition. The Pinto finally catches, slips into gear and then climbs, in its wake just dust and the river waters that run through the rocks and cascade down.