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Today's Story by Richard Priebe

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Where the Water Falls

She looked ill, the woman sitting by the inner door of the waiting room—terribly ill.  Darrell MacCubbins sat at a small table with two healthier looking women, young women, discussing—what had they been discussing?  The women looked at him and smiled kindly.  Nothings.  They had been chatting politely about nothing in particular.  He smiled back.

“Could I get your names again?” he asked.  “I’ve never been good at remembering people’s names.”

He’s wasn’t sure why he lied.  After five years teaching in public schools, Darrell could remember names, lots of names, more easily than he could remember where he put his keys which, pawing at his pockets, he found to be missing.  Still, it wasn’t all a lie—he really had forgotten their names.  He felt embarrassed.  It was an off day for sure.

“Barbara,” said the woman closest to him.

“My name is Dymphna,” said the woman across the table.

“My name is Darrell,” he said.

The two women laughed, gently.

“We know who you are,” said Dymphna.

“Right,” said Darrell.  “I’m sorry.  I’m not feeling very well today.”

The two women nodded sympathetically.

“Anybody know what’s wrong with her?” asked Darrell, subtly motioning with his chin toward the woman by the door.

“She’s at the next stage,” said Barbara.

“The next stage?” asked Darrell.  “Does she have cancer?”

“No, nothing like that,” continued Barbara.  “The next stage of life.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” said Darrell.

“You will.”

The ill woman stood suddenly, and looked toward their table.  Something in Darrell’s stomach thickened like over-stirred rice.

“Go ahead,” said Barbara, talking to the woman.  “Everything’s going to be okay.”

The woman opened the door and was gone.

“I’m not feeling well at all,” said Darrell.

“I shouldn’t think so,” said Barbara.

Darrell stood up.  He took a few steps toward the door but the uncomfortable feeling in his stomach twisted into pain—he felt like his insides were about to explode and he sat down, trying to pull himself together.

“You’re almost there,” said Barbara.

“Where?” asked Darrell.

“The next stage,” said Barbara.

“She needs you,” said Dymphna.

Darrell didn’t know who Dymphna was talking about, but he couldn’t ask—he could barely breathe.  He was shaking. Darrell stood up again.  He felt himself drawn to the door and took a step forward but stopped, fearing it at the same time.  What was behind the door and why the hell was he walking toward it?  He looked at Barbara.

“It’s alright,” she said.  “It’s the next stage.”

“Only natural,” said Dymphna.  “Don’t be afraid.”

The pull of the door conquered his fear and he opened it and he knew.  He was dead.  There had been an accident and he was injured.  Now he was dead.  He had been waiting here to die and it happened.  The woman, the door, the next stage…but it didn’t matter because he was dead.  He waited for his life to flash before his eyes but nothing came.  Darrell focused on the door but he couldn’t see anything—not light, not darkness, not Jesus and Mary, not the devil—nothing.  He passed through anyway.

Darrell stood on top of the world—on top of a world.  There was thunder that wouldn’t stop, not even for a moment, not quite thunder, but louder, booming and booming and crashing.  It was water and it was familiar, something like the Horseshoe Falls in Ontario, but bigger and bottomless.  Darrell remembered a documentary he’d seen called The World’s Ten Best Watefalls. Iguazú Falls.  That’s where he was, or almost, but even Iguazú Falls had a bottom.

There were people around him on all sides.  He was in a line, like one you’d see at the amusement park’s newest rollercoaster, and it stretched behind him, far beyond the capabilities of his eyesight.  The road ahead was more of the same. People and people and more people, crammed together, walking slowly down the steep decline that seemed to disappear into the spray and mist.  Many fell off the edge, but the others slogged on.  Other than the plummeters, no one strayed from the path.

To his right, Darrell saw the exception to his observation, a little girl, a toddler, wading through the shallows of the river water, coming closer and closer to the chute of the cataract, oblivious to the deepening water and building current, wandering like a lost child in the supermarket.  He moved to retrieve her but a hand pulled at his shoulder.  It was the ill woman from the waiting room.  Darrell remembered that he was dead.

“She’s gone,” she said, barking above the relentless roar.

“I can save her,” Darrell said.

“Don’t leave the path,” she said.  “No one can come back after they leave the path.”

Darrell jerked his shoulder, breaking her hold.

“Somebody’s got to do something.”

He splashed through the water, his legs pumping like dumbbells on the last rep of the last set.  It was impossible to run.  He could see her better now.  He yelled for the toddler, but she couldn’t hear him.  She was almost in the current.  He realized he knew her.  His brain strobed in bright white and he dived into the water, thrashing his arms and legs.

“Nellie,” he yelled.  “Nellie, baby.  Dada’s coming.”

Nellie didn’t seem to hear and continued toward the current, half walking, half bobbing, the water just below her chin, slowly swallowing her into the flow that would send her tumbling indefinitely through the mists of the never-ending cataract. Darrell was close and secured his footing.  Nellie went under.  He caught hold of her arm and pulled her up, but lost his balance, sending father and daughter coasting down the river toward the falls.

Darrell tried to stand again, but his feet wouldn’t grip.  He held Nellie close, pushing her head above the water. They would go over.  He looked back at the people on the path but no one was coming.  Behind the people he spotted something he had missed before—another cataract.  Just like the first waterfall seemed to have no bottom, the water from this waterfall fell like rain from the clouds, pounding the river below like a fire hose on a puddle.  The people humped forward or fell from the cliffs. Darrell and Nellie were at the edge.  Darrell felt himself falling and hugged Nellie as tightly as he could…

And then he woke up.  There were brilliant lights and rhythmic beeping and people—real people—doctors and nurses people.  And then his mother.  A tension lifted as the room itself sighed with relief.  His mom took his hand.  He struggled to speak, eventually managing a whisper.


“She’s going to be okay,” she said.

“Where’s Celia?”

“She’s in with Nellie,” she said, and tightened her grip on his hand.  “We thought we were going to lose you both.”

“What happened?”

“There was an accident…”

Darrell never stopped thinking about the waterfalls he saw that day when he and Nellie died and came back to life.   In his memory he could still see in detail the sloggers and the plummeters, Barbara and Dymphna, the ill woman, the bottomless cataract that reunited them with their family, the waterfall of the sky…   And he never doubted that it had all been real—never cared that no one, not even his wife, believed him when he said it wasn’t just a dream.  It didn’t matter.  But he washaunted and what haunted Darrell MacCubbins was a question:  What would he do next time?


Richard Priebe received his MA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University in 2008 and has recently enrolled in their MFA program. He lives in Northeastern Pennsylvania with his wife and two young daughters.


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