This story is by Sharri Hough and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The first drink was hard. It burned going down.
The first one’s always hard, but they get easier. By the fifth or sixth they slide down like hot butter on a metal slide in August. Real smooth, and fast.
I lost count after seven. The music and festivities at the party sucked me in and I lost all track of, well, everything.
I don’t remember leaving. My best friend Bob told me later everyone said I seemed fine. But, since they were as hammered as me, I believe their definition of ‘fine’ may have been a bit skewed.
A bit skewed. That was funny to me now, in some over the edge kind of way. Every time I say it to myself, I laugh out loud. It makes people turn and look. They see the tears of hilarity in my eyes and give me looks like they think I’m crazy or something. They don’t understand the tears.
Given the population of inmates I am surrounded by, it’s probably a good thing I keep that in their minds. I want to be unapproachable, and random bouts of hysterical laughter fills the bill.
It’s really the only thing I find funny anymore. Not funny ‘ha-ha’, funny like a cruel irony.
Now, I sit, waiting for the verdict.
Vehicular manslaughter; two counts. Guilty. I already knew. It should be guilty. My lawyer told me to plead no contest. I refused.
When the gavel banged on the podium, I jumped involuntarily. The echo sounded like the last nail pounding into the coffin of my fate. It was over now.
I sat welded to my seat, eyes straight ahead, mouth as dry as the empty bottle of bourbon that started it all. Amidst the sounds of people making their exits behind me, my lawyer sighed, packing up his files and legal pad. He didn’t look at me as he faced me. The guards approached to take me away.
“I’ll file the appeal,” he said before snapping his briefcase closed. I wanted to tell him to leave it, but I couldn’t speak.
Standing, I turned toward the gallery and saw them. For the first time in a long time. My family. My parents and sister. They seemed upset. Understandably so. I was going away for a long time.
She was there too. Streams of tear-drenched mascara ran from her unbelievably blue eyes down her pale cheeks. Her long blonde hair was pulled back and rested in a messy bun atop her head. She was more beautiful than I remembered. My heart clenched, yearning to go comfort her. To get comfort from her. But that was impossible now. I had not expected to see her again. Here, of all places.
The toddler she held simply wrapped its little arms around her neck and laid its head on her shoulder. I couldn’t fathom what the child might be thinking, staring at me like that, with those same blue eyes and long, dark lashes.
When at last her eyes landed on me I had to look away. When I looked up, she was gone.
Heaving a big sigh, I allowed myself to be led out, but not before the laughter started to bubble out of me. A bit skewed. It didn’t go over well with the guards.
It was that night. Again.
The music blared and people laughed. The odors of alcohol, cigarette smoke, and cologne mixed into a smell like old lady perfume; Jean Nate, I think they call it. Then there was the argument. She was tired and it was getting late.
“Do you need me to drive?” she said.
The answer of course was, “Of course not!” then, “We’ll go in a few minutes, it’s barely past midnight!”
Man, she was sure sucking the fun out of everything. She needed to relax and have some fun. What a drag.
A loud summons came to me from across the room, so I walked away from the argument. It was a downer anyway.
Later, driving home, I heard that argument again. I turned up the radio to drown out the sound.
I yelled at the other cars on the road. They all seemed to be going so slowly. Every opening I had to move ahead, I took. Someone honked at me. I flipped him off. A wasted gesture since it was pitch black outside. I’m sure he never saw my raised middle finger.
Suddenly, there was more honking and all the cars were in the wrong lanes. It was surreal. I tried to swerve, get out of the way, but they were coming at me like angry hornets.
There was a scream and a loud bang as the airbags deployed. Shattered glass flew everywhere and the sound of grinding metal filled my ears. I didn’t know which end was up.
Time halted abruptly. Objects floated in mid-air for a moment before drifting to the ground.
Time started up again.
I tried to decide if I was hurt but I couldn’t feel anything. My vision filled with a blurry haze. People ran toward the car. Their voices sounded like they were underwater and running at slow speed.
I don’t know how much time went by before the sirens came. I think I faded in and out of consciousness.
They finally laid me out onto a stretcher. There was blood. It seemed like a lot though. I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t feel anything. I was confused. The EMT’s talked to me. I think I answered, but it might have been in my head.
As they loaded me into the ambulance, I glanced into the crowd that milled around giving statements to the police and there she was, standing there, beautiful as always. Even with that bulging pregnant belly she was gorgeous. She glowed. I’d heard people say that about pregnant women.
Strange, I didn’t remember her dress having those big red roses on it. She looked at me. Eyes as blue as the Caribbean Sea, rimmed with unshed tears and filled with regret. Panic seized me unexpectedly.
She was the last thing I saw before I blacked out.
Eight years is a long time. The world outside changes so fast; inside it stands still. There’s time enough to get something done or nothing done.
Some people wrote or called. Like my parents, my sister, and Bob. Most didn’t. What would they say? But Bob, he’d stuck with me through it all. I think he felt guilty for not stopping me that night. For not taking my keys.
Now, I was out. Early. For good behavior.
Getting a job was hard. Nobody wants a felon on payroll. I did my best to put something of a life back together. To pay back what can’t be replaced. Months passed. I moved through time like a robot.
One day, Bob came over. Some of the guys were getting together.
“I can’t go,” I said.
“Sure, you can! It’ll be good for you. You need to be with people.”
We argued. Finally, he agreed to stay sober because I had to. I agreed to go, enjoy myself, and maybe smile.
He was right. It was enjoyable. And not too weird. Until the end.
We came late since it had taken so long to convince me. Everyone chatted about old times and it was…nice. But, James “the tank” Neuman had a few drinks too many. And then a few more. He was a big guy and he had a pretty high tolerance. When he was ready to leave, it didn’t seem like anyone was going to stop him.
So, I did.
“Are you kidding me?” I said, blocking the door. My life flashed dizzyingly before me. I’d had it all once. A wife. A son. With blue eyes like hers.
“What?” he said, swaying unsteadily.
He tried to play it off, then he got belligerent. I begged for his keys. Bob and I would take him home. That escalated into insults about who could and couldn’t handle their booze and then into a physical fight that would probably land me back in jail. It took three guys to separate us.
But I won. I wrestled the keys away from him. Mike calmed him down and took him home.
It was time for me to leave too.
Outside in the cool air, she was there again. I had almost expected her this time. Her long hair was down. Just the way I’d liked it. I stopped and looked at her. Still beautiful; untouched by time.
The baby had grown up. He would’ve been eleven now. Standing there with those eyes. Her eyes.
But his smile? That was all mine.
She smiled at me too, and I knew she finally forgave me. I almost spoke to her, a lump in my throat. Almost told her I missed her, before they faded; like the darkness. But she was gone and anything I said would have been a bit skewed.