Sujatmi left the jungle and approached the skeletal husk of the hotel. As her booted feet crossed the verdant edge of nature’s reclaiming, she heard the crunching of rubble and bone. The Pillow Boy appeared in the girders. “Mama’s gone,” it wailed. “She’s... just teeth now.” It piped and moaned as it clutched its filthy pillow to its chest, its ghostly voice almost human, almost alive. “Did you see Papa, little girl?”
Sujatmi squinted up at him. “I’m done waiting. You understand? You better fly away, little ghost.” His eyes grew wide, then he disappeared into the shadows. She doubted that he understood, not that it would change her mind. She shouldered her backpack and mounted the stairs to her room.
After the great wave came, everything near the ground had been left a ruined, stinking wreck of corpses and drywall. She’d huddled at the top of the building for weeks, scavenging food from the vending machines and crying for her father, but no one came back. No one but the ghosts.
“Hello, child,” said Mr. Chahaya as Sujatmi opened the door to their makeshift retreat. His long frame lounged on the bed with his hands behind his neck, the same fat man of ebony skin and meticulous grooming that he had been. “Any luck today?”
Sujatmi threw her heavy pack onto the floor. “Food. Gasoline.”
His face sagged and his eyes swam with compassion. “I’m sorry, child. You’ll find news of them someday.”
“I’m not so sure anymore.”
He smiled sadly at her. “You can’t give up hope. You haven’t been looking for very long.”
Sujatmi pulled the tin of matches from her pack and slammed it onto the table. “Hope? You ghosts are so stupid about time--it’s been over a year.”
Mr. Chahaya sat up. He followed the woven grain in the floorboards and fiddled with his wedding band, his eyebrows knit. “Surely not... a year?”
Sujatmi laughed without humor. “Go away, old ghost. I’m tired.”
“Ghost?” Mr. Chahaya blinked, opened his mouth, and rich, chocolaty water pooled up between his teeth to drip and pour upward, ignorant of gravity. “Oh... Allah, I remember...” He coughed the words, his eyes popping and collapsing as if eaten by fish, and then he disappeared, clawing helplessly against the recalled undertaker that was the wave. The only trace left of him was the smell of swamp.
Sujatmi sighed and pulled the precious canister of petrol from her pack. It was enough to boil water for another few weeks, if she’d had any hope remaining.
Through the glassless windows she scanned the horizon for ships as the sun set crimson above the Indian ocean. She leaned over the balcony to see that her great canvas sign was undamaged by the day’s winds. “HELP”, it read in English, in crude letters ten feet tall. “ALIVE.” So many weeks they’d flapped there, unread. It seemed impossible. What had she done to make God so upset with her?
Anger flared in her tiny body. She upended the petrol and spilled it down the canvas, reveling in the hard, chemical smell. This was her last plan. If the heavens would not hear her quiet question, then she would scream it at them with flame.
She tossed a match into the fumes and retreated as the great fireball climbed the sky. She ran onto the beach, watching as the remains of the hotel took. The Pillow Boy screamed and coughed from his aerie, and Sujatmi wondered piteously if ghosts could burn. The fire sent a great trail of smoke into the twilight.
Satisfied, numb, she crawled into the jungle and waited. Hours later after the ghostly screams fell silent and the night fell cold, there was the sound of a splashing footstep in the surf. Sujatmi jumped, every sense straining for the detail amidst the din of the ocean.
She crept out of the jungle. Moonlight shone through the ash that the night breeze lifted. A figure stood at the edge of one bluish shaft, a man in tourist dress. He saw her as she saw him, and he lifted his arms. “Sujatmi, darling!”
Sujatmi ran out into the night, her chest aching with love and relief. He embraced her, warm and smelling of rich bread and yeast and sweat. So many months of hoping, and here he was, the impossible fruit of clover. Sujatmi shed the shell of adulthood she’d been forced to grow, and she became a little girl, sobbing and weak in his arms.
He was crying as she. “I saw the smoke! I’ve been looking for you for days, child!”
Sujatmi sniffed, pulling away reluctantly from his warmth. “Days?”
He looked down at her, smiling from ear to ear, dumbly.
Sujatmi’s eyes fell. The smell of rot filled her nostrils.
“I... I found you,” he whispered. “I love you, child. I couldn’t rest until I’d found you.”
She lifted her chin to him. Her jaw was hard, all grown up. “I know,” she choked, “but now you can.”
Impossibly, the moon chased motes of light through her father’s body, and he drifted and scattered into photon ash, the smile of release still upon his face. Sujatmi collapsed onto the sand, half expecting, half hoping, that she too would float up to heaven as she’d found the answer she’d sought. But she was no ghost. She knew that now.
From the edge of the sands, the Pillow Boy approached her cautiously, his eyes glimmering with sadness. “I was sleeping,” he said. “But I’d a nightmare.”
What nightmares haunt little children? Sujatmi could not remember. She realized they both were shivering, so she stood and took his hand. “Come,” she said. “Somebody should take care of you until you disappear.”
Tomorrow they would set out along the coast and try to reach the capitol. There was no longer reason to stay.
Tip the Author
If you liked this, tip the author! We split donations, with 60% going to the author and 40% to us to keep the flashes coming. (For Classic Flashes, it all goes to support Flash Fiction Online.)
Payments are through PayPal, and you can use a credit card or your PayPal account.
About the Author
Scott Lininger is a father and entrepreneur in Boulder, Colorado. When not programming 3D software for Google, he occasionally uses the computer as a typewriter.
Your Commentscomments powered by Disqus
Copyright © 2009, Scott Lininger. All Rights Reserved.