The climb was a rite of passage in Westborough Hills. Every kid went up the rocky path of the steep ridge that hemmed the rear of the football field. Once you passed the first ledge, ten feet off the ground, there was no turning back or changing your mind. You went up and over, fingers clenching for stability, sneakers searching out any crevice, heart pounding, breath sputtering, and chest aching.
Every adult issued warnings against doing the climb. Hypocritical sewage, all of them, Mark thought silently as he closed his locker and headed to Ms. Ralston’s Lit Class. He bet even his uptight Dickens-reading English instructor had made the trek. Everyone did, if they were true locals.
Once a climber reached the top of the ridge, the only way forward was to tumble down the stone-covered slope to land with a bone-shattering thump on the cracked asphalt of the road. Timing was critical. Veteran climbers slid down, caught their footing and sprinted across before the cashmere blue Pontiac Star Chief launched over the horizon.
Everyone knew how the haunting began. At every public function someone mentioned the unfortunate shortcut Larry Nelson took home on a warm spring afternoon back in 1958.
Mark had heard the story his entire life and knew all the details. Like most kids he’d Googled the make and model of the old-fashioned car so he’d recognize one on sight. Now he wished he hadn’t. Knowing felt like he’d issued a challenge into the ether.
The town buried the tragic event in a lavish ceremony at the local cemetery but within months the sightings began. In an inexplicable turn of events, witnesses claimed the car appeared with the spirit of Larry Nelson behind the wheel. Over the years, slipping the pass offered the opportunity to become a local legend.
Mark had postponed his attempt as long as he could. It was overtime now. If he didn’t make the run this afternoon, he’d get no other chance. He was the final straggler of the graduating class. Even three of the girls on the cheerleading squad had successfully completed the climb and dash – something traditionally reserved for the male half of the student body. The pressure Mark experienced was intense. Tomorrow morning the town would gather to celebrate as each member of the senior class walked across the stage, shook hands with the principal, and received a black folder containing a blank diploma.
Twenty-four hours from now he’d officially be released from high school, but today expectant stares and raised eyebrows met Mark’s gaze everywhere he looked. Even Melissa Stonebridge, who’d flirted with him each morning since the last football game, sent him a questioning glance during study hall. He only nodded stiffly and confirmed everyone’s expectations.
After his final period, Mark crossed the end zone before anyone caught up to him and started to climb. He pushed hard, moving fast to tune out the cacophony of words and thoughts bouncing around inside his skull. He reached the pinnacle of the top and slid over the edge, sliding in a free fall on the steep stone slope, landing in a twisted heap halfway into the southbound lane. He was up and moving in less than a second, leaning forward, arms swinging, pushing off the cracked tarmac, stretching to leap over the width of the northbound stretch and reach the safety of the far shoulder.
The smooth treads of the whitewalls made no whirring sound on the pavement. The engine was silent as sparrow wings. No warning rumble of exhaust forewarned the appearance of the Pontiac. There wasn’t even a whine of acceleration when the car crested the pass and careened toward him. The blur of faded blue paint burst over the incline, aimed north. Sunlight glinted from the fractured glass of the windshield but the glare didn’t hide the figure hunched over the steering wheel.
Mark blinked. Instinct pushed him forward. He landed one step and then another, his gaze locked on the front apron where the chrome bumper bared silver wire teeth in a grin.
In the second before the impact he saw the Pontiac emblem. Then the world went spinning. Wind whistled between his outstretched fingers. His arms flailed. His legs, limp useless appendages, trailed in his wake. He crashed hard on the embankment of the shoulder.
Air rushed back into his lungs. He wheezed in a breath, blinked grit from his eyes and, swiveled his head but the spectral automobile had vanished. The world just seemed normal again.
Mark pistoned his legs and shoved away from the yellow ribbon edging the asphalt strip. A fragmented memory of first aid training he’d learned in an adolescent summer camp uncoiled in his mind. The echo of Mrs. Ledbetter’s reedy voice reminded him to be still. He listened. Sprawled in the dirt with rocks digging into his soft parts he assessed himself for injuries. A bristly clump of sun-dried seed pods poked through his t-shirt as he counted off a dozen breaths in a steady rhythmic staccato. Finally, he lifted his arm, rotated his wrist, and checked his watch.
Two minutes had passed.
Rolled to his right side, he inhaled road dust and exhaled a cough of pain. Sensation stabbed at his kidney, worse than when he’d been pummeled during the playoffs last year. He gritted his teeth and pushed up to his knees. His hip throbbed from the impact but he managed to get up on his feet. Ribs aching and elbows burning like he’d slid across a carpet, he staggered along the shoulder. Each step grew surer and stronger.
Mark looked back over his trail, swiped at the rivulet of blood trickling down his chin from his split lip and couldn’t suppress a victory grin. He’d done it. He’d slipped the pass.
Flash Fiction Challenge: A Smattering of Settings @ http://www.terribleminds.com