This story is by Karen Kinley and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
You’re a freak.
The words echoed in Ben’s mind as he sped down the highway. His oldest brother was never one to hold back. He had made his opinion of Ben very clear the last time they were in the same room. But now that Gary was getting married, family obligation required that an invitation be extended.
Growing up as the youngest of four brothers wasn’t easy under normal circumstances. But when you added in a mental health disorder, things were downright unbearable.
Ben’s excessive cleaning became a family joke before he was 6 years old. And late at night, he would sneak downstairs after everyone was asleep and make sure the front door was locked. A few times, Rick caught him and ribbed him mercilessly.
Steering the car off the next exit, Ben thought about where he was headed. Gary and his fiancée were getting married at a country club in the town where Ben grew up. Earlier in the week, he had called Alex, the brother with whom he shared a bedroom for most of his childhood. “Is there a rehearsal dinner I’m expected to attend?” Even though he wasn’t invited to be a groomsman like his other two brothers, he assumed that he’d be invited to the dinner.
“No,” Alex had said. “They’re trying to keep things small.” Which was code for: Gary doesn’t want you there.
It was just as well. Eating a meal with his family had always been torture for Ben. Every action was under scrutiny. His sitting ritual (tap the back of the chair three times, sit, scooch the chair forward twice) was teased relentlessly. He felt his brothers smirk at the way he ate his food (finishing each item before moving clockwise to the next). If he touched food with his hands, he had to stop and go wash them before continuing with his meal, which also meant repeating the sitting ritual when he returned. His behavior wasn’t normal, and he knew it. When his mother wasn’t looking, Gary or Rick would mix Ben’s food together on his plate or lick his fork, knowing the stress it would cause.
Even Alex, who was nicer to Ben than the older siblings, got irritated when their parents made everyone stay at the table until Ben finished his meal, which often took long. “Ooh, poor little Benji needs us to babysit him so he can eat,” Alex would say in a mocking voice. “Do you want me to feed you, little boy?” Then he would hold his fork high in the air, swooping down making airplane noises as if Ben were an infant. Even all these years later, Ben’s stomach tightened at the memory.
When Ben was 12, his pediatrician suggested that his behavior might be related to OCD. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder was not something that ran in the family, so his parents weren’t convinced that’s what it was. They just thought he was an odd kid.
It wasn’t until a few years later—when Ben admitted to his mother that he had imagined taking his father’s hunting rifle out of the gun cabinet in the garage and shooting his entire family—that they started to realize that something was really wrong.
“No, he’s not a sociopath,” the psychiatrist explained to his parents. “Intrusive thoughts are part of the disorder. Your son is unlikely to act on them. People suffering from OCD often have irrational reactions to what others would consider benign situations. These reactions are very frightening, often debilitating.”
Although therapy and medication helped to suppress his symptoms, the damage was already done with his family. They didn’t understand what he was experiencing, and they didn’t want to deal with it. So the easiest thing for Ben to do was leave.
And he did. His grades in high school suffered due to his OCD, so “regular” college was out. He enrolled in a tech school, spending as much time in the computer lab on campus as possible. Machines were easier to deal with than people. He eventually took a job as a web designer for a large IT company two states away. He lived alone, which was how he preferred it.
Coming home was not something Ben did often. He didn’t feel welcome, so he avoided it. Especially since his brothers stayed close by. He scrutinized the road he was traveling right now. It wasn’t too far from his childhood home, yet it looked unfamiliar. He didn’t recognize the shopping centers and business parks flanking each side of the road. This only accentuated that his hometown had moved on without him.
The thwump of one of the tires interrupted his thoughts. It wasn’t loud. In fact, on most days he wouldn’t have noticed it. Perhaps it was the noise of running over a crack in the asphalt. Or maybe he hit a stray rock.
But with his amplified thoughts came the sudden fear that he had just run over something in the road.
Or worse. Someone.
Once the thought was there, it was impossible to dismiss it. He might’ve just run over a person.
Don’t be ridiculous, he thought. That’s your OCD talking.
Ben glanced in the rearview mirror, looking for something on the ground behind him. Nothing was there.
See? You’re fine. You didn’t hit anyone.
But the thought lingered. Maybe the person was flung to the side of the road by the impact. Maybe he or she was injured and in pain.
Ben told himself that if he had actually hit a person, it would’ve been a much bigger bump. Even though it happened only moments ago, he had trouble remembering exactly what it felt like.
I was lost in my thoughts, so maybe I didn’t really feel how jarring it was. Or maybe it was nothing.
He kept driving, hoping the intense feeling would go away. For the next several miles, he focused on the road ahead and tried to summon one of the behavioral therapy techniques he learned to help manage obsessions like this. But the panic was rising in Ben’s chest, and he just couldn’t shake the notion that he had run someone over. He had to go back and check.
If I turn around, I will probably be late for the wedding. Gary will be furious.
He continued on for a few more miles, but eventually the impulse was too strong. With a pounding heart, Ben made a U-turn and headed back the way he came. It took longer than he thought it would, but when he reached the location where he heard the tire noise, he slowed the car and frantically scanned the ground on both sides. Nothing.
Is this the right area? I’m pretty sure it was here.
Ben drove another block, turned around, and returned to the spot. This time, he pulled the car over and walked back to look for the body he was convinced he left behind. By now, he was sweating profusely, unconcerned about keeping his wedding attire fresh.
This went on for nearly an hour. A part of Ben knew that his behavior was pointless, but the OCD wouldn’t let him stop. So he paced and checked and retraced his steps, never finding any evidence that he had hit someone.
Eventually, the obsessive thought loosened its grip enough that Ben could return to the car and resume his journey. He continued to scan his rearview mirror the rest of the way.
By the time Ben pulled into the parking lot of the country club and turned off the engine, his heart had slowed to a normal rate. Checking his watch, he saw that he was late. Very late. He probably missed the ceremony. One more reason for Gary to hate him.
He stepped out of the car and shook his head vigorously, trying to clear his mind. Just then his cell phone rang. It was his brother, Rick. Shit, he’s probably gonna blast me for being late. Ben straightened his tie and answered. “Hello?”
“Ben? It’s Rick. Where are you?” There was an urgency in his tone.
“I, uh, got held up. Just pulled into the lot. I’ll be right in.” As Ben started for the clubhouse, he paused. The intense feeling that he injured someone had returned, stronger than before. Rick was talking, but Ben wasn’t listening. Maybe I should go back and take another look. Just one more time.
“Ben! Did you hear me?” Rick was snapping in his ear.
“Oh, sorry.” Perhaps I could—
“It’s about Gary,” Rick said. “There’s been an accident.”