This story is by Julie Stroem and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I slammed the brake so hard the tyres skidded to a halt immediately, but the leaf-littered ground swept the car forward, dead set on collision.
A short, high-pitched scream, the crunch of bones and squeak of metal.
I drew one shaky breath after another.
Not my fault, I told myself, even as I felt the tingling of alcohol buzzing through my veins – bar tending had its perks. But the court wouldn’t agree. I was fucked. What would happen to Gran when I went down for this? She’d end up in some institution for the severely demented. Mum wouldn’t have wanted that. I was all she had left. Even though she didn’t recognise me.
I was peeling potatoes later when the local news caught my attention.
‘Local chef, Louise Pommel, was found dead earlier today, a victim of what appears to be a hit and run, the police are searching for witnesses.’
With any luck, they wouldn’t find any. I’d examined the car after. Only a minor dent, no blood-ouch!
I sliced my finger on the peeler. Scrambling for a piece of towel to stop the trickle of blood, I examined the damage to the food.
The potatoes were all neatly cut up into flower shapes and arranged on the platter, even sprinkled with seasoning I didn’t even know we had.
I’d never seen such elegantly cut potatoes before, let alone made any myself.
I frowned. Louise Pommel had been a chef. Could there be some connection? A snort. Sure, if you believed in the supernatural. But I had enough shit on my plate. Shit and… potato flowers.
I saw it happen in slow motion this time. She was cycling towards me on a lonely stretch of road one very early morning. She hit the curb and lost control when her chain broke loose.
My foot twitched towards the brake hand almost pulling the wheel to the left away from her, but curiosity won out, and before I knew it I was fleeing from a body again.
That night in bed, I was gazing towards the last rays of sun through my window when a thought suddenly occurred… in Greek!; I should paint my room like Monet, capture the way sunlight flickered on my sill before spilling onto the wall like a gold waterfall.
I recalled the news from earlier:
’25-year-old art and linguistics major from Trenton University was found dead this morning…’
‘Cool,’ I breathed.
The eighth time it happened, it was an addiction. I’d never been anybody, had no accomplishments beyond mixing drinks. But some stroke of magic allowed me to absorb whatever prominent skills my victims possessed. There was no limit to what I could achieve – save a feeble moral one, but I’d cursed that to hell when the flames had taken my fire-fighting parents. They died helping others. Now I was evening out the score. I was owed.
Work became a game. Eyeing people at the bar, deducing their skills. If desirable, it was a simple act of spiking their drinks with one of those little pills I’d bought off the guy on Conan street. The obvious accident would present itself as soon as they left, and I conveniently had to take out the trash;
A business man bragging about his flair for stock market changes. Too bad he slipped and broke his neck tumbling down the stairs to the parking lot. Bye-bye financial trouble.
A race car driver, peeing off the pier, swaying from the drug in his drink. Tut tut, one should never go swimming while drunk. It made driving a hell of a lot more fun.
A scientist choking on a peanut in the alley, epi-pen snatched from his pocket. Now I could mix my own drugs.
The last customer to leave the bar, now hunched over her phone a little too close to the train tracks on a deserted platform. Oh, you’re making this too easy. I woke up the next morning reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets while my fingers itched to play the violin.
‘Local police are seeing a rising pattern of what appear to be accidental deaths, yet some are wondering whether this string of deaths is purely by accident or if we perhaps have a dangerous serial killer on the loose.’
As for Gran, well, she didn’t mind the subtle luxury of her new wardrobe or the full-time nurse who saw to her every need. She was sweet, Nurse Helen, fair, with long dark hair and full lips.
An image flashed suddenly, another girl surrounded by shards of glass, reeling from the blow of a crash.
I blinked, startled.
The shimmering scene faded. Gran was looking as blank as ever while Helen fussed over her.
I had never been in a car accident with a girl. Then it hit me.
It was someone else’s memory.
I raced to work the next day, uneasy for the first time in months. The policeman I’d pushed in front of a car had taught me to cover my tracks well. Yet a strange fear had settled deep in me, ready to jump out at me when I least expected it. A customer slamming his hand down hard on the bar top became another person’s memory of a gunshot, turning my skin to ice. Later, another woman’s deep brown eyes suddenly transported me to a cemetery where I stood weeping before a grave in another person’s body. I blinked, and the image disappeared. It left me feeling sick and weak.
The more I tried to block the images from my mind, the stronger they grew. Turmoil, fear, blame, regret all bloomed in me like infested wounds. No skill in my arsenal could block them out. The scientist in me couldn’t concoct a drug strong enough.
Mind occupied, my forty-sixth victim became a sloppy affair. Her hand caught mine before she stumbled onto the train tracks, nails leaving bloody streaks on my hand.
After my failure, I hid in my house for days. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work. Every action became obscured, turning into a foreign memory. I shouted through lips that weren’t mine as I fought off emotions I hadn’t caused. Helen tried to help, but everything she knew, I knew from victim no. twenty-five. Nothing medical could explain this. This was a curse, a downfall of the mighty. Her voice took me back to that crash, to people I didn’t know, to suffocating emotions. I tried to block the images out, tried to claw my way back to myself, but it was like swimming through mud. I could no longer find myself among the sea of souls fighting for my attention, for their chance to hurt me.
Stumbling through several bodies a second, mind swimming with images, I found my way to a kitchen. To a knife. The blade had barely pierced my skin when I saw her: Eyes, milky with age and blank with a delicious unconsciousness, stared at me from across the room. Every person in me screamed for the same blissful forgetfulness. I advanced, no longer in control.
The forty-seventh time it happened, I yearned.
There was a shout as my knife pierced flesh.