Our 2016 Writing Contest Winner is Conor Kuczka for his story, “Last Chance.”
He has a won a $25 prize funded by our awesome donors at Gofundme.com.
Visual Writing Prompt #5: “I knew it would be a grand adventure, but that was all I knew.”
by Conor Kuczka
The air was cool and crisp, but the young sun was warm. It was early morning, and the raft bounced lazily along the riverbed. The clouds were still purple and pink and orange, reflecting the essence of a newborn day. Tall pine and spruce trees lined the banks of the wide Fat Chance, a river that existed where none should; its source was a deep underground spring and the exact location had yet to be discovered. The trees, with their long morning shadows, barely shaded a quarter of the river’s width. Birds sang to one another, to themselves, and to nothing at all. They sang for the hell of it, and it was beautiful.
It was the twenty seventh day of the expedition, and I felt confident. Confident in my ability to survive in the wilderness, confident in my equipment, and confident in my purpose. I set out to map the area, and I was 77 kilometers from my start point, the town of Last Chance.
The residents of Last Chance were unlike anyone I had met in my twenty four years. Quiet to a fault, they lived solitary lives in a town that was the definition of isolated. It was a settled area, had been for forty years, but I don’t remember seeing any children playing in the streets, or even a schoolhouse. I hardly saw anyone, if I recall correctly. The windows on each house in town were mostly shuttered, and the soft dirt streets appeared unused, aside from myself. The few residents I did interact with were strange. It took me a whole day to notice, but not once did I see them blink. They all had clear eyes, almost no color to them. Nor did they look me in the eye when they spoke with their soft voices. I left after three days, and I was relieved to be moving away. I did not look back.
The river quietly meandered from heavy forest to mountain valley, and most of the thick green trees gave way to sharp, dark rock and smooth tan granite, leaving a sparse wooded fringe at the edges of the river. The warm sun was short-lived, and was quickly covered by clouds, turning from purple, pink and orange to dull, uniform grey. It began to snow gently, but the birds still sang. The river bubbled along with their tune, and the wooden raft creaked in response. Standing, and looking far downriver, I noticed a sharp bend with the river moving out of sight. The river picked up.
A sudden chill rattled my spine and moved down my body to my feet, bouncing back up and running through me again. The river’s pace had increased, but I was not worried about rapids or waterfalls around the bend, I would have heard their echo along the valley walls long before I got to them. Thinking about it, I definitely would have heard them, because it was quiet. Silent, in fact, except for the gentle bird songs. Something did not feel right.
I scanned the sparse wood line on each bank, and noticed small movement just beyond the edge of the trees. As I floated by, I realized it was a woman in a sky blue dress down to the ankle and black leather boots. Golden hair fell to her shoulders and her hands were folded neatly in front of her. She was standing nearly still, facing the river. She did not look at me as I passed in front of them, she looked through me, with her unblinking, nearly colorless eyes. And then she began to walk, her boots sinking slightly in the riverbank sand, the water splashing on them as she stepped into the shallows. She continued to walk, water up to her waist, unblinking. I can’t imagine the temperature, a mountain river in early October. Her dress was soaked to the chest now, and she walked without slowing, without blinking, until she was fully submerged. I yelled to her. “Hey! What are you doing?!” I peered through the dark glass surface, but could see nothing other than my own reflection, my own face which now reflected fear and confusion. Who were these people?
There was more movement along the banks of the river, on both sides, and more residents of Last Chance silently walked down the bank and into the shallows. My raft was caught between them, floating through an entire town of people, self submerged and deathly quiet. I tried to look into the water again, and this time, instead of my reflection, I saw hundreds of eyes, colorless and unblinking staring back at me. My breath froze inside my lungs and my heart beat loudly in my ears. Their eyes, they saw through me, they saw into me and I gazed back at them. I tried to scream, but I could not make a sound. I stared back at those eyes, and I could not stop myself. I stood and walked closer to the edge of the raft. I had to get into the water. I could only hear my heartbeat and my breath clenched my chest with an icy grip. Putting both my hands on the side of the raft, I jumped in, breaking the dark glass surface and slipping below. The snow continued to fall and the birds sang for the hell of it, and it was beautiful.
Conor Kuczka is a casual writer from Boulder, CO. He has a degree in Psychology from the University of Colorado, where he was previously published for creative non-fiction in Journal 20/20. He is currently stationed in Fairbanks, AK as a healthcare specialist with the United States Army. In addition to writing, Conor enjoys reading, hiking and fishing in the wilderness of the Last Frontier.
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