Cast of Wonders 479: Loving the Falls (Staff Picks 2021)

Loving the Falls

by Marie Vibbert

I was in love with falling water. If I stared at a waterfall long enough, it pulled me to jump in. I could read the signs about sharp rocks and imagine the looks of disapproval that warned me against it, but I was always going to give in some day. I did, in my senior year of high school, during the spring flood. The vitality of the river was over-the-top, the surface all surge and deft scoops. I imagined it’d be like sliding on silk, or caramel, or running my body over God’s six-pack abs.

It wasn’t.

The impact hurt; rock cracked my butt like the water wasn’t there, and then I was breathing water, sputtering. I panicked and flailed, realizing I’d made a terrible mistake. My love was unrequited, leaving me nothing but a slush of pebbles and twigs and the slick-as-snot bottom. No glorious view of the edge, no anticipation, no acceptance. There was a brief moment of stomach-less-ness, and then I hit a wall of concrete and died.

I woke up in the hospital, my whole body burning and throbbing. Mom hugged me before I was free of the drugs and I fought her off, horrified. Even afterward, that memory didn’t feel real. I hadn’t seen her since I was eleven.

When I woke up again, she was gone. I felt jilted, but glad to have survived. It was the first stage of heartbreak, when the pain is too great to feel, and you don’t doubt you’ll love again.

A middle-aged man with grey-red hair came to see me. He wrung his ball cap in his hands and stared at the wall while tears sparkled in the edges of his wrinkles and he told me how sorry he was he hadn’t gotten to me in time.

That was my first clue.

His name was Wally, and he worked for the county road department. He smelled like cigarettes and diesel. He gave me a small bear, the kind you get out of “Big Choice” machines. It was hard and brown and it smelled like him.

“Where’s my dad?” I asked the nurses.

“Your mom’s coming,” they said. “After we move you out of ICU.”

When I was ten, my mother had a stroke, a bad one. As a kid I imagined a rock got lodged in the base of her brain. It didn’t kill her for more than a few minutes, but when she came back from the hospital, she was never the same. It was the procedure, to bring her back–or it was all in our heads–but to me, a kid with a kid’s certainty, my mom was gone.

In my new hospital room, with windows and a watercolor on the wall, a doctor came and showed me pictures: pretty animations of spongy goo spiking out into neurons and networks. They’d rebuilt parts of my brain, copying what was missing from simulations that guessed what ought to be there. Like photoshopping another girl’s photo where pixels of mine were lost in trauma’s noise, only not that simple. The computers train a long time to learn that a squiggle goes here or there and the machines that micro-print the material are so tiny you can’t even feel them pierce your skin.

It has a name. The thing they did to my mom. No one uses it.

It doesn’t always work.

There are missing pixels in the picture. That’s why the Dead are easy to spot. There are endocrine malfunctions they share, a certain jaundiced look. Like a photocopy, dimmed at the edges. Some people believe it misses more than the occasional memory: it lacks soul.

I grew up with a mother who didn’t have a soul. She lived with us for a year after the procedure, but I don’t remember much of it. I remember her absent, afterward: a picture on the mantle, little black scarf on top and everything. Dad never spoke ill of her, but it bugged me, knowing that my mother was walking around, yet we acted like she’d died.

Mom walked into my room. Older than her picture, but instantly recognizable from her smirk, and her hair still swept upward like a candle flame, still dyed orange.

A fluttering pause, like a bird alighting. She was checking if my eyes met hers, if I recognized her.

“Hey, kiddo.” She sat in the chair by my bed. She smelled like dried roses and cosmetics, a solid inch of makeup masking her jaundiced face. I felt angry and repulsed, but dully, under layers of numb. I was grateful not to be bored.

She had a fat manila envelope. “Your dad sent this.”

The impossibilities were stacking up. Mom talking to Dad? She held the envelope to me and it felt rude not to take it. Inside was a stack of note papers, scrawled front and back with advice, apologies, and a manic stream-of-conscious narrative. Dad’s handwriting was never good, all sharp and slanted, so I didn’t understand most of it. “I love you” was on a number of them and “Was there anything I could have done?” Somewhere in there he apologized for once wishing I was a boy. Weird, but funny.

Mom tried not to watch me reading. “You’ve got cards.”

They were on the bedside table, from kids at school I didn’t know well. We would graduate in a month and I might never have talked to them. Someone had sent me a yearbook. They hadn’t done a special spread for me, like they had when David Keen hanged himself. Not even a little black ribbon painted around my picture.

I knew I wasn’t allowed to be disappointed by that.

Mom was waiting for me to talk. What were we supposed to talk about? The last time I knew her, my deepest interests had breakfast cereal tie-ins.

She had come, though. “What is all this?” I fanned out Dad’s notes on my knees. “Was I too–” another note said, and then something indecipherable, scribbled out.

Mom looked delighted I’d asked. “He was a mess. Used up every scrap of paper in the house. He asked me to pick the best ones to give you, but please.” She threw her hand up. “I am done making decisions for him.”

Had she made decisions for him? There was so much I didn’t know about her, about them. “I’m Dead, now. Like you.”

Mom bared her teeth, a hiss like when you see a child scrape their knee and don’t actually feel bad for them. “I always hated that. If anything, they should say ‘undead.’ It would give the goths something to look forward to, eh? All the teen sui…” she caught herself. Smiled too big, exposing grey gums, jaundiced teeth. “Most people won’t notice. You look great.”

“I didn’t kill myself.” That was my first time saying it. It already felt like something I’d said too many times without being listened to.

“Thank goodness that trucker saw you jump.” Mom reached out like she wanted to take my hand, but thought better of it. “I know we haven’t been close. Your father would be here, if…”

If he hadn’t used up all his understanding on her? “Did he pay for the procedure? Why? Why bring me back? He couldn’t live with a Dead wife.”

She looked past me. “You still blame me for leaving.”

“I don’t blame you for leaving.” This also felt like something I’d said a thousand times, but I never had. No one had ever asked if I blamed her. “Where’s Dad?”

“Your father’s a coward.” Mom stood up. “This can be a new beginning. Whatever drove you to jump–”

“I wasn’t committing suicide! I thought I could body-surf it.”

Mom stopped. She really looked at me. “Jesus, Nikki, why would you think that?”

I didn’t have an answer. She apologized, and tried to kiss me on the cheek, but I pulled away.

“We’ll talk.” She moved to the door. “When you’re ready.”

She left me a business card, soft plum colors and “Living Is Worth It” in curly letters. I tossed it and Dad’s notes in the trash.

Dad wasn’t a coward. He was a police officer. He jumped out of airplanes. Once with me strapped to him, his safety and smell at my back, the glory of open air on my face.

He wasn’t, however, good at raising me. Sometimes he looked at me like he was afraid I’d explode or leak. Like no one had told him how to deal with small humans.

Emotions and words terrified him.

I terrified him. He came to get me when they discharged me from the hospital. He didn’t tell me he was coming. He didn’t say hello. He handed me a new phone. I had forgotten to worry about my phone. I had left it in the pocket of my jacket. My favorite, light yellow spring jacket. I’d left it and my phone and my shoes under the bridge railing, safe for my return. Galvanized steel in that soft double-bend, on short square stumps. I could still remember the bite of the metal in the backs of my fingers as I balanced on the crumbling road edge, looking down at a river I thought would love me back.

Dad didn’t look at me, didn’t talk as we signed forms and walked together out of the hospital. It was like there was a repulsing field around me. Before unlocking the car, he hugged me, hard and fast, so that it was over before I caught my breath. He smelled like tears and stale coffee.

In the car, he addressed the windshield. “You’ll have to take a few classes over the summer. But, uh, your art teacher and uh, gym– they say you did enough to pass, so they’re done. Math teacher said you can just take the final exam. But you can… call when you’re ready.”

In every pause, I heard “Was it my fault? Was it my fault? Was it my fault?”

No wonder Mom left.

As soon as I could, I snuck back to the falls. The water was lower, now. Ordinary. Dry scalps of rocks. I still loved the braided shapes of the river, but painfully. I crawled along the bridge railing, but my jacket wasn’t there, nor in the bushes down-wind.

Blue and red lights swept over my hands. Dad stood by his patrol car, hands on his belt, like he wanted to arrest me.

“I’ll walk home,” I said.

I beat him home. Maybe he’d had to check in at the station.

I stared at myself, in the mirror. Stare long enough at yourself and you become something else. All surface. My skin was tight, pale, especially around the eyes, like my eyeballs might pop out any minute from the pressure of my shrinking skin. Had I always looked like that? My body wasn’t quite my own anymore.

Dad came in the back door, dropped his keys in the little dish by the sink. Took off his boots and belt. I heard him splash water on his face. I heard him come up the stairs and pause. Take another step and pause.

He’d done this to me. I was a copy. I’d died, legally. The death paperwork signed, credit non-transferable. Dad had had to re-open my bank account, re-gift me my own things. The laws were arbitrary and uneven. I could still finish school, but had a new social security card coming.

He knocked. “Nikki?”

I closed my eyes and stared at my mind, feeling for missing memories. I didn’t remember being rescued, being operated on. There was no brain to perceive the pain then. It was a cut-off experience, like a bottle of hurt sitting alone in purgatory, wondering how it got there and who it belonged to.

What else was missing? What was added? Was the airless joy of the first time I jumped down from my cousin’s treehouse a real memory, or a procedurally generated one? Lots of suburban kids have treehouses and cousins.

I could jump out my window. There was a slope of roof under it, over the laundry room, then a four-foot drop to the ground, and I’d done it a thousand times before, but suddenly, I hated the idea of falling: nausea, and a hard stop.

Dad didn’t move. If I looked at the door, I’d see the shadows of his feet. I knew his knuckles were resting on the wood. I knew he was in stocking feet, those dark grey cop socks.

A gentle, scraping sound. Dad’s hand dropping. He walked away.

I stayed in bed until Dad left the house. He tried to talk to me through the door again, but I stared at the ceiling and thought about personality. A single missing pixel could make all the difference. A dot could change an l to an i. A neuron could change a good daughter into a selfish, emotionless zombie.

I wrote a note. “It wasn’t your fault. You’re a good father. There, are you satisfied?” I should have stopped at two sentences. It was the anger. I tore the bottom sentence off. Then I tore the whole thing up.

I took all the money I could find, a bag of pretzels, and my backpack stuffed full of clothes.

Mom used to hitchhike. Dad told me about it, how he’d met this weird, wild woman walking along the turnpike and had given her a ride in the patrol car. She’d been going to a rave. He had hung around to take her home, calling it in as a potential drug bust. I wondered what the kids at the party made of this square, young cop.

Times have changed. No one stopped for my thumb. One guy stuck his thumb out the window back at me.

Halfway to the next town, I rested my blisters and called Mom.

Mom’s apartment was cluttered. She moved a pile of clothes off a chair for me to sit. “Check this out.” She took a framed picture off the wall and offered it to me like I was supposed to eat it.

It was a photo of Mom getting dragged by police, nicely placed between cones of tear gas.

“Right to Death rally,” she said.

I didn’t know anything about that stuff. “Cool.” I set the picture on top of a stack of others.

“I have a lot of friends in the movement.” She looked for a place to sit opposite me and had to move a comforter, a bag full of yarn, and a cat. The cat complained, but settled down where put and continued to sleep. “Skayla leads a youth group. A lot of teen sui– sue–suit-wearing…” She rolled her eyes at herself and spit the word out, “Suicides. You do know most of the kids in your situation tried to kill themselves? Maybe you don’t want to talk to them.” She clasped her hands, leaned forward. “But you can talk to me.”

It was weird how this stranger I called Mom was suddenly forcing intimacy, when Dad could hardly look at me. What could I say? That I was so convinced I understood water, like it was waiting to carry me? Now water was my ex-boyfriend. I felt betrayed, but he hadn’t betrayed me. He was true to himself.

“Your movement, is that about the Slain?” I’d read something about that. Murder victims revived by law enforcement. These women whose lives were still over, who maybe didn’t want to testify, or didn’t remember, or want to remember. They hadn’t had any choice. Like me.

“I want to talk about you,” Mom said.

Dad was between us. We’d both run away. I could see all the brittle places he left in her, because they were inside me, too. “I want to go somewhere where people don’t know.”

Mom looked relieved, and the emotion sank into me from her. “I know just how you feel.”

Mom arranged it, but Dad paid for the apartment. Maybe Mom helped, but she didn’t let on if she did. The neighborhood was cheap—boarded up shops with apartments over them that were half empty. There was no local law against renting to the Dead.

At first, people treated me nice. I looked like I was recovering from an accident. I got a job right away, bussing tables. Not enough to live on, or even pay Dad half rent, but I assumed it was temporary. I’d move up to waitress.

Then a month passed, and another, and I guess I had the look. The restaurant asked me to only work after close. People in the street stared, or tried not to stare, and that was worse.

A few old friends tried to visit and hang out, but they were going away to colleges. They told me I should move somewhere cooler. They asked if Dead Groupies were hounding me, and if any of them were cute.

Dad mailed me a twenty-dollar check, with a scrap of note-paper that said, “Good luck my big girl. I love you.”

Then next month the note read, “Proud of you. I love you.”

I could see him asking. It was in the space between the “e” of love and “y” of you. Was it my fault? Why did you do it?

I wrote Dad that I jumped because I love waterfalls in spring. That it was like his jumps from airplanes. It was an affirmation of bravery. It was a trust-fall. The only mistake was in what I chose to trust.

He never replied to that. The next check said, “Cat died. Ha ha. Love you.”

I lost the bussing job. Job interviews got shorter as I tried less to get past their flinches.

I was flinching, too. I didn’t really want to work. Knowing I’d died made me want to taste the air. It made me feel guilty I wasn’t relishing every grey sky and blast of bus exhaust.

When I was ten, partially in rebellion as a cop’s kid, I shop-lifted a new dress for my Barbie doll. I remember sitting in the car, running my fingers over the clear plastic, feeling the ruffles of the doll dress that had been so beautiful in the store, and realizing that I didn’t want it, that it made me feel dirty.

Cheating death was like that, only I hadn’t even chosen to do it.

Mom pushed through the door before I’d finished undoing the chain lock. She got it herself with a practiced flick. “Do you have any idea how much this place is costing your father?”

And thank you for pointing it out, I thought, and gestured at my miserable room. Dusty window, hot plate and boxes of food on an old television stand. One bare mattress, two plastic chairs. Entrez.

Knowing you ought to feel grateful doesn’t help you actually feel grateful.

“He’s struggling.” Mom held her beaded purse like a podium edge. “Jilly Petersen tells me his gas and water are off. Do you want him to live like that? What about when winter comes? Have you thought about that?”

“Kids hang out near the nightclubs wearing make-up to look Dead.” Stacks of failed foundations crowded the sagging cardboard box I used as a bureau. I sorted through them. “Think I could do that? I can’t make myself look Live, but I could make myself look fake. Could your group get me a performance art grant for that?”

“You were on the honor roll.” Mom said this like it meant something. “We could talk to your school. They might still let you graduate. Stop being selfish.”

Suicide was selfish. I hadn’t done that. But risk-taking, falling for the joy of it, wasn’t that selfish? I’d prodded my memories and questioned them as much as anyone. Had I spent too much time alone, read too much poetry? Too much jumping off things and surviving?

I lifted the tea kettle, found it full enough and turned it on. “There’s nothing I can do.”

“There’s a hostel for Dead young adults in Buffalo, with a work and study program. It’s not associated with my organization. No ties to me, no one who knows you. I’ll pay for your trip. Would you consider, for your father’s sake, going to it?”

I turned before I could stop myself. I could see her hope, could feel something that might have been my own. Buffalo was near Niagara Falls. I’d been there when I was little: when the divorce was a fresh memory and Dad took me to the zoo and the park and the beach, as though activity could turn one parent into two. I remembered the thickness of the water, the unending torrent of it.

I hugged my mother and thanked her, though she smelled of dust and roses. I didn’t want to touch her, but it seemed the right thing to do, that last, awkward hug. Niagara Falls was a long-lost childhood friend. The little boy who knew you before you added layers to yourself.

I didn’t plan on staying at the hostel. I didn’t want everyone to think they were right all along, but it felt like completion, the natural extension of my journey. Some things you shouldn’t get away with.

In late February, Niagara Falls was colorless, washed in clouds that contrasted with the desperate glitz of the tourist area. Broken walls of ice hid the lower half of the falls. It was unseasonably warm and some middle-aged couples were entertaining themselves knocking melting ice off the fence. The thick, mist-grown caps plunged against the stones below, making satisfying crashing sounds.

There weren’t many people around, and the fence would be easy to climb, so I did. I held the wrought iron with the backs of my hands. It was smooth, comfortable despite the cold. Water swirled thickly against broken-off, dried weeds. I imagined myself immersed. Rolling. Hitting the ice walls, flung by the force of the water like a bug against a windshield. A red splat, clothes, hair, skin dissolved away.

You stand staring at Niagara Falls long enough, and your thoughts dissolve away. All that Lake Erie hurtling itself over the ledge is unquestionable. It’s real. I wouldn’t get my cartoon-character splat; it’d be a sudden, rushing beating followed by asphyxiation.

I preferred the way I imagined it would feel, pulled smooth and sure like a slide.

“Hey!” someone shouted, far off.

I dutifully climbed back onto solid ground, gave the running woman a glare like of course I wasn’t doing anything wrong and held my phone to my ear to ward her off. Dad answered on the first ring, but didn’t say anything, only took a breath, half a breath, like he was forming my name but afraid it would banish me. He held his breath, like my foot had dangled over the roil.

“I’m in Niagara Falls,” I said. “Did Mom tell you?”

“Yes,” he said. The seconds slid by thickly. I silently begged him not to demand absolution.

He cleared his throat. “What’s it like?”

This was the question I didn’t know I’d been waiting to hear. I sat down where I could see the mist rising. Now I didn’t want to speak; my breath could melt the connection crystalizing between us.


Concern roughened his voice. I landed on the other side of the silence. “It’s like falling in love again.”

About the Author

Marie Vibbert

Marie Vibbert has sold over 70 short stories, dozens of poems, and a few interactive fictions and comics.  Her first novella, “The Unlikely Heroines of Callisto Station” is the cover story for the July 2021 Analog magazine, and her debut novel “Galactic Hellcats” about a female biker gang in outer space rescuing a gay prince, came out in March of 2021.  By day she is a computer programmer in Cleveland, Ohio. Find out more about her online or follow her on Twitter.

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About the Narrator

Kat Kourbeti

Kat Kourbeti is a queer Greek/Serbian SFF writer, film critic, and podcaster based in London, UK. Her novel-in-progress about a secret society of Swedish superheroes was shortlisted for the London Writers Awards in 2019, and she was a juror for the Best Non-Fiction category in the 2020 British Fantasy Awards. She organises Spectrum, the largest critique group for SFF writers in the UK, and is one of the podcast editors at Strange Horizons magazine. Her day job is in theatre.

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About the Artist

Alexis Goble

Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.

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