The following story was written as a competition entry to “The Writing Magazine’s” Ghost Short Story Competition, 2016 (maximum 2000 words).
©Ian Laskey, 2016
It was unbearably cold. An invisible blanket of ice wrapped around the child’s fragile body, choking the air from her burning lungs in shallow gasps. She clutched her hands up to her chest, shivering uncontrollably, trying to slip her bluing fingertips under her sodden petticoat. The wetness of her clothes absorbed the iciness of the night air, callously transferring that coldness down through her skin, into her very bones.
Around her, the world undulated uncontrollably under the imposing night sky. Her weakening body pitched and rolled with frightening ease, the violent motion making her insides churn and she knew that she could not control the rising bile. She expelled the sickness through greying, chattering lips, hot liquid against her frosted skin. But her mind could not care, so cold and terrified was she. It could not process the horror that had befallen her, nor could she cry in fear as her body started to shut down, preserving what little life force she still had.
The girl drifted between awake and unconsciousness. Her eyes could not open; the seawater in her lashes frozen into locking crystals. She huddled tightly like a ball, as her mother had once told her she’d been as an unborn in the womb, rolling amongst the pool of water that sprayed over the tiny boat’s sides.
The ocean roared around her in cacophonous fury, sounding like a dozen trains colliding with steam whistles screaming full-blast in panic. As the boat pitched to the right, its side so close to the water that it threatened to engulf, the ghastly sounds of drowning passengers rolled into the vessel like invisible waves of dread to taunt her. Voices screaming to the heaven and the Lord for salvation, crying out for loved ones in their last desperate moments, and all swiftly silenced as the boat rolled over to the left and the broiling waves of the outstretched Atlantic hissed. Back and forth this torture of sound continued, until that dreaded moment when no human sound met her for all had been claimed by the uncaring depths.
She was so, so cold.
And so alone.
The little girl’s lungs burned with protest against the frigid air that intruded them. She could barely feel her heart beating inside; part of her mind fearful that it would slow to a stop. Behind the darkness of her eyelids a torrent of images bombarded her. She pictured the big red steam funnel of the ocean liner tooting joyfully under the blazing sun of the earlier blue sky; of how she and her mother had both jumped back in surprise at the sudden bone-rattling sound, and then fell into fits of embarrassed laughter as hurried away down the deck, away from the frowning eyes of the other disapproving passengers. Then the girl remembered being back on that deck at night, her mother having taken her out for a calming stroll to see the night stars, so bright in the cloudless sky. They’d counted two dozen constellations before the sea turned choppy, hanging onto the guide rail and whooping with glee as they pitched up and down, their insides flipping safely as though on a merry-go-round.
Then there came the noise, so loud and explosive, burning the back of her head and slamming her into the metal rails. A second and third followed and she’d turned to watch fragments of the once proud red funnel splintering up against the stars in an explosion of flame-licked steam. She held her mother’s hand as the world disintegrated around them and a great force threw them into the night, crashing beneath the black waves.
Her mother had pulled the young girl to the surface, miraculously finding the tipping lifeboat amongst the debris, helping the girl into it.
The girl tried to seek out her mother huddled within the lifeboat, to find reassurance and safety in that presence. But she couldn’t find strength to open her swollen eyelids, nor could she reach out to touch the older woman, despite her scared mind desperately willing frost-covered limbs to stretch outwards and find solace at the touch the hem of her mother’s dampened dress.
Instead, the girl drifted further into the darkness of sleep.
“Be strong my darling daughter. Don’t be scared.”
The words whispered through the girl’s consciousness like the caress of a soft hand against her forehead, comforting her.
“We will find home. But you just have to hold on…”
She wanted to answer, to tell her mother that she was so very frightened, that she wanted to be hugged and find warmth in a loving embrace.
“Promise me that you will never let go?”
She tried to nod her head but the energy failed her.
“Shhhhhhh, there, there…”
It was such a sweet, whispering voice.
“Don’t try to move… conserve your strength my angel girl…”
The voice drifted away as sleep reclaimed the girl.
The ocean had calmed and the incessant pitching of the tiny boat had ceased.
The skin behind the girl’s sealed eyelids seemed brighter and she felt a small patch of warmth on the exposed nape of neck, though it made scant difference to her critically cold body. Her dry mouth was pressed against the seat of the boat and water lapped at her parched lips. Instinctively, she pouted her mouth against the liquid and took a weak sip. The salt water lanced through her gullet, burning her throat, and was spat out in choking coughs.
A shadow moved across her and she sensed a hand pressing lightly down on her shaking shoulders, calming her to stillness.
“The water will do you no good, my angel girl.”
The child stilled and her retching calmed. She ignored the temptation of the vile seawater undulating around her. She trusted her mother more than anyone and she felt secure knowing she was near.
“Mother,” she rasped weakly, the sound barely louder than the breaking of the calm waves against the hull of the lifeboat.
“Keep still and quiet, my darling. You need your strength… I will watch over you.”
“But, so… cold…”
There then came the sensation of warm hands petting her, of soft fingers stroking the girl’s face. Behind shut eyes she could picture her mother smiling and heard whispered hushes that soothed her nerves. The child wanted to rest like this forever, to never wake up fully and face the cold, harsh real world.
Hours as long as days passed by and soon a lukewarm sun hung high above the boat. The increasing warmth was enough to soften the water crystals in her eye lashes and slowly, painfully, the girl opened her eyes to allow the pale light in.
All around her was an unfocused blur, as though the very surfaces of her eyes were layered in ice. The dark curve of the boat’s sides encased her, and above shone the blue nothingness of sky. Panicked, she tried to rise, to shift her paralysed body around, to find the woman that kept her safe.
“I’m here, I’m here; please don’t you fret.”
But I can’t see you, the girl wanted to reply.
“I’m always here…”
It was enough to subdue the child’s fear and, exhausted, she closed her eyes as her body shivered.
“When will we get home?” she tried to whisper.
“Soon… be strong… be so very strong…”
The cold descended like a tormenting fiend as the sunlight faded. The girl’s sodden clothes slowly froze and clung stiffly to her tiny frame. She could barely move, the energy having drifted away like the debris from the ocean liner.
She just wanted to curl up against her mother and sleep, to dream of sweetness and warmth, to be rid of that tiny boat and that dreadful, vast, bleak ocean. The tiniest of little boats, on the largest of seas, totally alone; she was sure that no one knew of their plight or how to find them.
“They’ll never find us,” she murmured. “Never, ever…
“You can’t give up, my angel girl. Be strong…”
That was all she could say. She had no strength to form the words in her mind, let alone speak them. She could give no more.
And then she sensed herself being lifted high, standing; of her mother clasping her close and warm hands soothing the young child’s body, sending waves of energy and warmth throughout the deathly cold girl; reinvigorating her, pulling her back from the clasp of endless sleep.
The girl nuzzled her cold face against the soft nape of her mother’s neck, smelt the sweet scent of that favourite perfume, the one with the crystal glass bottle shaped like a rose, and tasted the warm saltiness of sweat as she kissed with her blackening lips. She wanted to hold her mother so tight and never let go, until they stood together again on dry land in the small little courtyard before their pretty little house.
She was held so tightly and lovingly, all was safe in her world. The coaxing blanket of eternal darkness that had threatened to engulf her faded away. She could sense a liberating transference of life force between them.
“I knew you could be strong…”
The girl was slowly lowered back onto the curved floor of the tiny boat, her bending knees finding the cold pool of seawater.
“…and you have been so very, very strong, my angel girl…”
The loving grip of the older woman lessened, the young girl curling down into ball.
“…I love you, my strong darling daughter…”
The girl reached out to her mother, wanting to be held so warmly again, to feel the soft reassurance of their fingers entwining. But she just touched cold, brittle air.
“…I will always love you…” came the faintest of whispers.
And then the tiny boat juddered and rocked as though slammed against something immovable.
And as the girl started to cry, the tears finally finding the energy to fall as the last whisper from her mother evaporated, she heard the sounds of men shouting and klaxons wailing.
And she felt a thick, wet rope slap against her body as it fell into the open vessel, which she instinctively grabbed like a life-line.
And then, moments later, strong hands slid under her shaking frame and she was lifted atop the sailor’s shoulders. He climbed the rope ladder, so careful not to drop this most precious of cargo back down into the icy depths. For as he stared back over his shoulder and down into the empty lifeboat, he knew what a miracle this lone survivor was.