Giorgia Peckman wrote this short story in the 826 writing workshop “The Tale is in the End.” During this workshop, students started a story at the end of a character’s life and worked backwards.
A doll floated by in the river. Zwing sprang up, dirt smeared eyes lit up with sudden hope. She chased it down a tunnel and plucked it from the greasy water, it was not the elephant she was looking for. It was however, a forgotten American Girl, presumably Kit (although who could tell), her clothes were barely even rags, the doll’s once-blond hair was dark and some locks seemed to squirm. An eye was missing and an empty, gaping hole stood in the eye’s place.
Zwing was about to hug it to her (one doll is better than no doll) when a furry rodent snout poked out of the eye socked and squeeked. Without hesitation she dropped it where the gruesome American Girl was swept away by the cloudy river.
A piece of paper lapped at Zwing’s feet, she bent down and picked it up. The sheet turned out to be part of the New York Times from three days ago. Only the headline was discernable. “Anonymous Strawberry-blond Woman Saves Museum Curator’s Life!” April. Zwing knew it was her without a doubt.
Zwing couldn’t help but feel a terrible sadness overwhelm her. If only she’d listened to April. Taken her seriously.
“Snapping sides will pull you down in darkness, old friend–“ Zwing couldn’t remember the last bit. The part that would save her.
She sighed wearily, now resigned to her fate and continued on. Somewhere off to Zwing’s left, a large splash echoed on the grimy walls. She turned and pushing her oily black hair back from her face, Zwing sprinted towards the sound. Murky water seeped up her pallid night, slimy creatures squirming underfoot.
Again, a splash thundered down the tunnel. Zwing’s heart froze with her fear, but she urged herself onwards. The lost girl raced towards the noise, oblivious of everything around her.
Unfortunately, everything included the large, tuber-like fetid thing lying in the middle of her path, gently oozing pus. Too late, with a sickening squelch, Zwing’s foot plunged into the thing and with a loud squeal, it exploded, knocking Zwing to the ground. With a goopy splash, she landed on the floor of the sewer.
Groaning, she sat up and wiped much out of her eyes. Zwing then lifted up her head and began to crawl forward, grimacing as cool, gooey pus from the exploded creature shifted around her skin.
Soon she stopped though because, with an abrupt finality, the tunnel ended, opening into a vast cavernous tube. A thin ledge crept from the circular edge of the tunnel and out over the cavern. Far below a soiled lake splashed.
Cautiously, Zwing inched forward out over the lake. When she reached the edge she crouched there, peering nervously over the edge, shivering with fear.
The splash echoed again, filling the chamber and thundering in Zwing’s ears. A huge, scaly tail with thick spikes along it briefly emerged from the dark, swampy lake and immediately disappeared right after its appearance.
Zwing blinked her eyes, not believing it and timidly leaned farther over the edge, peering downwards.
From somewhere above, banging against the sewer walls, an ancient roll of toilet paper, soiled with an unknown substance, struck Zwing’s head with a loud thunk.
That toilet paper had disrupted Zwing’s delicate balance and with wide, terrified eyes, the young girl hurtled off the ledge with wide, terrified eyes, black hair, and white gown swirling around her.
A splash echoed once again around Zwing and a thick, strange, sinewy, green body erupted from the water. The crocodile’s jaws opened, revealing many sharp teeth of a muddy yellow color.
Zwing, tears streaming down her face, fell between these jaws. Above her, dangling by a thin thread, dangled a dirty gray elephant doll with scratched button eyes. She reached out and plucked the doll from the string where it precariously dangled.
Hugging it to herself, Zwing closed her eyes and with a final snap, the sides clamped shut. As Zwinglian’s life vanished, she focused on April’s phone number, dialing it in her head.
Surprisingly enough it worked. April’s voice machine picked up.
“April here. I can’t come to the phone right now, but if you’d like to leave a message after the beep, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” Beep.
Zwing took her last breath and said into the waiting silence, “Hello April. It’s me, Zwing, just calling to let you know I’m dead.”
She closed her eyes and with a resounding clunk, Zwinglian Xerodurma’s life came to an end. Far above, a robin circled in the sky, in its beak was a wriggling caterpillar. Across the city, April sat in her kitchen, wiping tears from her eyes.
“Goodbye Zwing,” came her choked whisper.
She turned her head to gaze at a framed photograph, faded from the sun, of herself standing beside a vibrant black-haired girl whose smile was as bright as a sunny day.
With that, April turned the frame over, hiding the picture from view and hung her head, and on a slender branch on a tree in Central Park, the robin ate the caterpillar.