This story is by Chris LaRoche and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Penny wrung her hand tighter and tighter, strangling a brochure in her fist. The Institute, helping those who can’t help themselves. Really? You think it would be more crowded in here. Her eyes welled with tears as she imagined a life not her own, created in some lab by a psychiatric doctor playing God. First the blue pills, then the yellow.
Next stop, Wonderland.
She tossed her mobile phone down on the passenger seat, the fractured image of her and her father lighting up the home screen. She had lost contact with the real world hours ago, the miles piling up behind her. The mountains of Maine were like a black hole, where nothing could exist inside its cold and lifeless void. Not a cell signal, not family, and certainly not herself. She glanced at the screen, begging for the image to fade away, just like her memories.
Why did she keep that photo anyway?
Was it nostalgia? No, she wasn’t wired that way, at least not anymore, not since the treatments.
Maybe she could out run them, or at least put a sizable distance between what was real and made up. That’s where the line always blurred… or maybe it was all the drugs they were pumping her with.
She pulled the lighter from the dash. Her hand shook as she inhaled sharply, the red coils burning the tip of her cigarette. Smoke escaped from her nostrils like a tired old dragon, twisting around her raven black hair. She coughed hard, her chest tightening in fiery convulsions.
She took a sip from her father’s flask, the whiskey soothing her scorched throat. A gift from his third wife. Just another stepmother who didn’t care for her hand-me-down family. She was a horrible woman. He put her up on a pedestal next to the things he cherished most; his new life, their two children, the lake house, and of course, his precious car. Penny never made it that high. She was simply cast aside, never made to feel special. All but forgotten!
What the fuck, daddy!
The cigarette bobbed on her chapped lips as she pressed the buttons on the a.m. radio, anything to fill in the mind crushing silence of her cynicism. Anything! A Catholic Pastor preaching scripture. The white noise from his angry pleas to keep her company. An Act of Contrition abolishing her of her sins. Anything!
She insisted on rolling her own cigarettes. It’s cheaper, it’s better for you, you’ll smoke less. It was all a lie. Even the smell. She waved at the pocket of air, gagging on the combination of vanilla and turpentine. Her stomach lurched. She was going to throw-up. Just another reason to quit.
She probed and prodded the dashboard, flipping switches and pushing buttons. The wipers whipped wildly over the dry windshield, crying out like a skinned cat.
Her dad’s car was a nightmare, his midlife crisis all wrapped up in a world he could no longer afford, nor wanted for that matter, her included. She wasn’t sure who he would miss more, her or the car.
She retracted the roof, expecting that rush of fresh air. The smack of being alive. The wind through your hair, footloose and fancy free. She breathed deep, hoping for a cleansing breath of balsam fir and maple syrup. Nothing! She tried again, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Nothing! Panic settled in the pit of her stomach, replacing the burning bile hedging for its escape.
An impregnable darkness enveloped the cherry red convertible, invading both time and space. The road and the sky took on a dizzying illusion, distorting up and down. Was she flying? A thick fog rolled in, an opaque mass of dust and mist suspended in the air. She hated to fly.
Penny sped ahead, tethered to the ground by the sound of the whitewall tires gaining purchase in the loose gravel. The headlights played across the thick forest as she wound her way along the serpentine road. The bare trees rattled in a death march, buried in their own pool of decay.
This was always going to be a one way trip, a mad dash for sanity or a stumbling stupor toward a complete emotional and mental break. She could be happy here in the mountains, free from the pain and heartache she inflicted.
She deserved to suffer.
The forest thinned, laying bare to a desolate wasteland, spawned by hate and jealousy. The car shuddered, rolling to a stop at the edge of a great lake. Her reprieve was over.
Tilting her head back, she looked up at the starless sky. Nothing to mark her way, no celestial bodies guiding her to the promised land. A raindrop landed on her cheek, running along the etchings of her sallow skin. The radio cackled, “hose her down.”
Wait, what? No!
One drop became two, two became a deluge. She reached for the radio, the pressure from the rain keeping her at bay. Turn it off! She writhed in her seat, the water pelting her skin like the bite of a thousand fire ants coursing over her body. Turn it off!
The rain subsided, leaving her cold and confused. She pulled her legs up to her chest, realizing she was naked. Brushing aside her hair, she spit out the limp cigarette, the loose tobacco spattering the ground in differing shades of bronze and gold.
The radio cackled again. At least she thought it was the radio. When you drive the same road day after day, it was easy to get lost. “Hit her again.”
The rain was all around her. She sputtered and coughed, her lungs filling with hot water. Drowning her. This was definitely going to ruin the car. The teak finish, the leather upholstery. Her father was going to be pissed. She opened the door and rolled onto the ground. The water splashed around her, disappearing down a drain in the middle of a sandy beach.
She laid in the moist sand, curled up as if in her mother’s womb, no umbilical cord connecting her to the outside world. Black vultures pecked at her toes and pulled on her hair, claiming her for their own. They tore at the carcasses strewn along the beach, their beaks dripping with blood. She wasn’t much of a meal, mostly skin and bones now anyway.
A light flared in her field of vision, a blinding singularity penetrating her gray eyes. The radio cackled. “Hit her again.” The vultures took to the sky, circling above in a silent ritual, willing to wait for their taste of flesh.
The water roiled, wave after wave crashed over her, beating her into the blackened sand. She held up her hands in mock defense, helpless against the onslaught.
She didn’t care anymore.
She awoke against a man’s chest, arms cradling her broken body. He lifted her into his skiff and pushed off from the shore, battling the angry lake with his ferryman’s pole. He was a beast of a man, roughly sculpted out of amber, his muscular arms beating back the lost souls fighting to gain passage across the lake.
She cowered at the back of the boat, listening to the feeding frenzy of bodies devouring bodies. Cold hands groped her, longing to feel her life force, needing it, remembering it.
The skiff glided to a virtual standstill, a tranquil oasis at the center of hell. A false elegance cast from the light of the ferryman’s lantern. The water was set like glass, free from the eternal screams of the underworld.
The bodies of her victims floated to the surface, knocking against the underside of the boat, rolling and bobbing for her attention, their bloated faces covered in masks of fear. They were stuck in limbo, between heaven and hell, promised an eternal joy that would never come. She counted them; one, two, three… nine!
It was all for you, daddy.
She missed him. The hatred, the guilt, the pity, all his feelings she mistook for love. He stopped visiting her years ago. She couldn’t understand why. She was ready to take her rightful place atop his pedestal. To be cherished.
Out of her reflection emerged her father’s face. She smiled in anticipation. A half smile out of unrequited love. He ripped her from the boat, pulling her down into the depths of the lake. She screamed, her last breath bubbling to the surface as her victims tore her limb from limb. She embraced oblivion, welcoming her Happily Ever After.