For our summer flash fiction, I submit this 952 word short story.
In the Sweltering Dark
by Linda Robertson
Abigail roused to the sweltering dark, but she was not in her bed.
Drowse fled away as realization struck: she was in a boat. Tear-shaped, it had only room enough for her, and barely that. As she slid onto a sitting position, she could not straighten her legs. Her pantsuit was dirty and there was sand and mud under her nails.
What in Hell is going on?
Pushing her gray hair out of her face, she scanned around but recognized nothing. The night-shrouded shores offered no explanation. Sweat beaded on her brow, but not purely from the stress of this moment. Despite the lack of sun in the sky, it had to be a hundred degrees here. A hundred and twenty.
Thinking to splash some water on her face, she dipped a hand into the fluid but drew back instantly. Even the river seemed about to boil.
How did I get here?
Thinking back, Abigail had trouble remembering. She knew her name. She knew she was an Executive Assistant to the Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art – had been since graduating from Bryant Stratton thirty-two years ago. She had a cottage in a posh suburb. But she hadn't been home… and she certainly wasn't there now.
Eyes closed and hands covering her face, she fought to remember.
Snippets of calm, blue ocean shifted into a churning mass of green and gray. A gentle curve of coastline being ravaged by the swells of giant, foamy waves. White houses in the rain.
Mykonos. I was in Greece! A dream assignment and vacation in one.
There had been a storm. The charter boat bucked and heaved under her. She was told to go below deck; she hadn't understood the words but the captain pointed.
She hadn't made it.
Reliving it, she felt the wave grip her, lift her, and pull her from the deck like a monster. Just drops of water, she'd thought. Just drops...but gathered into millions, surging to the whim of a tempest's fury, and she was powerless. The Aegean Sea closed over her head. Gray turned to black.
Pulling her hands from her face, she opened her eyes again.
Yet I’m here. But where is here? If I’m dead…this is…no. No. It cannot be.
The speed of the river increased. Ahead, it split. One side flowed into a thick mist, the other seemed alight under the mist. Leaning, she steered the boat toward the light.
Nearing, she found that wasn’t mist on this side, but smoke. And the light on the water was flames.
Leaning again, twisting the boat beneath her, she willed it to change its course. But Abigail could not alter the bearing. Her path had been chosen.
Fear claimed her as she neared the flaming portion of the river. A more tangible version of death was about to seize her.
Hugging herself to keep as far from the flames as possible, the smoke enveloped Abigail and she floated among the flames. Every breath of this steamy air made her lungs feel more scalded.
In seconds, figures appeared to the left and right, near the shoreline. They were women, some ankle deep in the water, some knee deep. All moaned or wept.
At the sound of a nearby scream, Abigail turned sharply as another woman appeared, closer, and waist deep in the river. This one wore a tattered blouse with scorched cuffs, and her thin hair hung like so many threads. The burnt cuffs flaked away like ash as she reached out, broken nails scratching at the rail but finding no purchase. She cackled and cried, though it could have been mad laughter.
Drifting onward, the figures grew more numerous, many much closer to the boat. Their piteous cries filled Abigail’s ears and she covered them but could not block the sound. Her eyes squeezed shut again and seemed to continue burning from the smoke.
This couldn’t be happening.
She thought of her children and her husband, finally acknowledging the pain and loss they must be suffering, and her heart grew heavy knowing they would grieve. In his own way, so would her dog, Dante—
At his name, knowledge connected with thoughts and ideas and bound tight as she looked around again.
“I’ve committed no violent crimes,” she shouted into the smoky haze and drawing the attention of those trapped in the river. “I am not meant to be here!”
She felt and heard the scratch of something on the bottom and the boat lurched to a halt despite the current. Peering over the edge, she saw a wrinkled face barely above the surface of the lake. White hair fanned around her. “Help me!” The woman moved slightly to either side as if keeping the ebb of the heated water from flowing into the corners of her eyes and up her nose. Her arm, beneath the surface must have grabbed the keel. “Help!”
Being restrained in the river, the flames latched onto the boat. They licked up the sides, painting her view in orange and red. “Let go!”
From the river came only laughter. Not just the closest one; all the women began to laugh.
Abigail pulled off her shoe and threw it at the old face. Fire-water splashed across the woman’s eyes and she screamed. The boat began to drift again, but too late. The flames had set in and the heat redoubled at Abigail’s back—
Sitting up in her bed, Abigail gasped. Lightning flickered and thunder boomed outside her window. Aside from the pouring rain there was no sound. No light. Not even the clock.
The electric’s out. AC cut off.
And another hot flash crawled over her.