This story is by Nancy VanPatten and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
There is something that lurks in the shadows just beyond my reach. I can’t quite make it out, but I know it’s there. I feel it. It’s oppressive and suffocating. This is Hell and I am consumed by the darkness. It seeps into my skin and occupies my every thought. I’ve lost count of how many days I’ve been shrouded in gloom. One day bleeds into the next until I can’t recall if it’s Tuesday or Thursday. Maybe it’s Friday. I no longer care.
I’m so tired. I close my eyes to escape this void but my thoughts are dark and disturbing and I fear that even my dreams have abandoned me. I desperately try to push away the darkness with the hope that I might be transported to a happier place. Without any memory of having fallen asleep, I open my eyes and find myself in the middle of a large, grassy field. The scents of fresh cut grass and honeysuckle float by on a sun kissed summer breeze. I inhale deeply and the tightness in my chest eases.
I am suddenly startled by the sights and sounds and smells of an outdoor festival; surrounded by carnival rides, game booths, food vendors, and laughing children. In my hand I hold a variety of different flavored jelly beans. I slowly savor each bean, one by one. The first one tastes like cotton candy; the next, like watermelon; and the next, like bubblegum. Each mouthwatering flavor, soliciting its own unique sensation on my tongue. They are all so delicious. Without hesitation, I toss the remaining jelly beans in my mouth and I am besieged by an explosion of flavors. There is a heavy aftertaste lurking underneath that makes my stomach start to churn. I brush it off and focus on the potent, lingering sweetness instead.
In the distance, I hear the melodious sounds of a carousel. Oh, how fun! I walk toward the sounds of music until I am standing in front of a spectacular merry-go-round; the occupants, brilliantly colorful, one more ornate than the next. I immediately approach the roundabout and give the operator my ticket. His vacant eyes look directly at me, yet stare right through me. “Where is everyone?” I ask, as he lifts the rope and allows me entry. He turns his back without answering. I step onto the platform and am immediately drawn to the most magnificent horse I’ve ever seen. All the vibrant colors of the rainbow shimmer across her fur and sparkle in the sunlight. I am mesmerized. I hold out my hand as I approach her, and she gives it a friendly nuzzle in response. She nips at my fingers. I think she was hoping for a sugar cube or an apple slice. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ve eaten all my jelly beans.” She snorts and nudges me to her side as if to say “Hurry up and get on. The ride’s about to start.” She patiently waits for me as I mount the saddle and place my feet in the stirrups. I notice an inscription on her bridle. I lean forward to get a better look and discover her name is Futility. “Hold on,” she says, “This is going to be one crazy ride.”
The gears start to grind and the carousel slowly begins its journey. Futility starts to move up and down, up and down, accompanied by looped circus music. The merry-go-round picks up speed, the music crescendos and the wind whips my hair in all directions. My heart is beating wildly in my chest and my palms are sweating as I tighten my hold on the reins. Futility is foaming at the mouth, galloping faster and faster without ever gaining an inch in this race to nowhere.
I become dizzy with the endless rotation and want to dismount but the carousel continues to spin around and around, faster and faster. The once brightly decorated horses are now nothing but a kaleidoscope of jagged, distorted images in shades of gray. “I want to get off!” I scream. I am suddenly nauseous; “I shouldn’t have eaten all those jelly beans.”
“I made a mistake. This ride is making me woozy. I want to get off,” I plead.
“You knew what you were getting into before you got on this crazy ride,” responds Futility, laughing maniacally.
I look behind me to see a black onyx horse fast approaching. His throat and flanks shine with sweat from his efforts to keep up. He’s attempting to nip at my horse’s rear but Futility proves to always be just out of reach. The thought of him catching up to us makes my chest compress with fear. I look back once again to gauge his proximity and notice his name emblazoned across the side of his saddle: Melancholy.
To my immediate right I notice a beautiful white horse. His mane is whipping around wildly and his eyes are bulging with the Herculean effort he’s making to keep up with Futility. My eyes seek out his bridle where I know I will find his name: Redemption. He watches me intently but says nothing. Seconds go by that live for eternity.
“Can you help me?” I ask desperately.
“I can,” he replies, panting heavily as he gallops alongside me. “But first, you have to admit that you need help.”
“Okay, okay,” I shout, desperate to be heard over the warped carousel music and the roar of the wind. “I need help. I don’t want to do this anymore. Please stop the ride.”
“I cannot stop the ride until it runs its course. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get off.”
“The ride is spinning out of control. How am I supposed to get off?”
“Jump,” Redemption proclaims.
“What? I can’t jump.” I begin to tremble. “I’m afraid.”
“I know you’re afraid. But, sometimes you need to take a leap of faith, even if you’re frightened. You will find the courage later. Now, JUMP!” commands Redemption. I close my eyes and leap. I am free falling. My arms flail as I try to gain my sense of balance.
I am once again on solid ground, standing on my own two feet. I must have jumped pretty far because I’m in the middle of the carnival fairway, hemmed in by throngs of people milling about. I can hear my mother calling for me, but I don’t know where she is. “Mom, I’m here!” I shout. She calls for me again, but I can’t seem to pinpoint her location. The crowd begins to swell and I am swept off my feet. I am lifted above the mob and transferred from one person to the next. “Put me down!” I don’t like getting manhandled. When I am finally free, it takes me a moment to realize where I have been deposited; the same grassy field, darker now under the star studded sky. Exhausted, I collapse to the ground, knees curling up against my chest, head tucked in. I am once again alone with the darkness, yet it feels different; less soul-crushing.
The smell of flowers, coffee and antiseptic rouse me from my restless sleep. My head is throbbing. In fact, my whole body aches. I’m afraid to open my eyes. I lay quietly and listen, desperately trying to make sense of the vaguely familiar sounds registering in my foggy brain. I hear soft, murmuring voices mingled with an incessant beeping. There! I hear it again. My mom’s voice calling my name. I slowly open my eyes to find my mother looking back at me. The lighting in the room is such that it forms a fluorescent halo around her mussed hair.
“Am I in heaven?” I ask, trying to make her smile.
My mother leans closer to me and takes my hand. She gazes at me through wet, mascara smudged eyes. “Far from it, Sweetheart. But at least you’re out of Hell.”
“What day is it?” I ask curiously.
“It’s Friday,” my mom answers, “Why?”
“No reason. I just need to know.”
I guess I do care.