This is part 1 of an contest entry for Writers Digest Popular Fiction Awards 2015. I didn’t win anything so I’m publishing my story here. It’s too long to post the entire story in one entry so I’m breaking it up into two posts! I’m sorry Writers Digest didn’t like my story, but hey, it was my first attempt!
I woke up in a pool of my own sweat. The filmy t-shirt I wore clung to me as if I’d just walked out of a rainstorm. “God, please keep me safe,” I whispered into the air above the bed. I made the sign of a cross with my fingers. I wasn’t a practicing Christian but I always fell back on Bible verses when scared, or in this case, in the presence of pure evil.
A bedside lamp clicked on across the room. The illumination helped to clear the cobwebs from my head. My roommate Jen looked at me with eyes only halfway open. “Is it still here, Avery?”
“No. It’s gone.” My heartbeat so loud I was sure everyone in the ward could hear it. The black miasma that had floated above my head moments before, and held my arms against the mattress, was gone now. Like always, it had left no evidence of its existence, except my fear.
“That’s the third time this week, you know. I don’t think this is going away on it’s own. You should probably tell Dr. Pettigrew. Maybe she can help.”
“No!” I jumped to my feet. “It doesn’t help to tell anyone, believe me.”
“You have to do something. Look at you! Your hair’s so sweaty it bled blue dye onto my shirt!”
I looked down to see dark blue stains dotting the collar of the shirt I’d borrowed from Jen. All my clothes were dirty because I hadn’t done laundry in over a week. Blue stains dotted the material in every spot where my sweaty hair had touched it. My sheets had stains, too. They should know better than to give white sheets to mental patients. “Sorry about the shirt, Jen. But hey, who likes Muse anyway? It was only a matter of time before Paige saw this shirt and cut it to pieces.”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
A knock on the door stopped any further discussion of music preferences and I had just enough time to dive back under the covers before Nurse Tina’s round face appeared in the doorway. I arranged myself in a way that the woman couldn’t see the dirty pillowcase and sheets.
“Girls, it’s 2:45 AM. Why is that light on?”
I’m twenty-four years old and Nurse Tina always makes me feel like a guilty toddler. I feel no shame in being afraid of the big brutish woman. “Sorry!” I said. Although she couldn’t physically harm patients Tina could give out punishments and the isolation room was one of her favorites. I was terrified of that place.
The large woman looked around the room, fixed both of us with her most evil pig-faced stare and turned to leave.
“Miss Tina?” Jen asked in the smallest voice possible.
She looked down at her watch and tapped her toe on the floor. “What is it, Jenny?”
“Would it be okay if we left the lamp on? Just for tonight, I mean.”
Nurse Tina rolled her eyes and let out a huge expanse of air. “No.” She emphasized her point with a hateful yank of the lamp string. “And if I hear one more sound out of this room tonight there will be consequences. Got it?”
“Got it!” we said in unison.
I listened to her heavy footfalls until she was a safe distance away. “Why’d you do that?” I whispered and tried to sound mad at the same time. It was hard to make a whisper sound menacing.
“Well, you know, you usually sleep easier with the light on.” Jen made the Catholic cross sign over her chest despite that she’d been raised Methodist and had zero knowledge of Catholicism. “I wish we had a Bible. Maybe I’ll check one out from the library tomorrow.”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t make a difference. I’ve tried sleeping with one before and it never helps. I think it’s because I don’t believe it will. At this point I’m not sure if anything can help me.”
I couldn’t see Jen’s face in the dark but I knew she pitied me. I could feel her concern from across the room and it almost made me cry. Someone finally cared. In this cool still night with the moon hiding behind the Great Smokey Mountains, I could cry and no one would see. No one would think me crazy. It’s better if we don’t talk about it anymore. Talking about it makes it stronger.” I had no actual proof of that but talking about my nightmare was how I earned a nice mountain vacation at Whitetail Mental Health.
“Ok. But did you ever think that maybe the thing is back because you’re not taking the meds?”
Jen, who was also sometimes Paige, was a good friend but she was completely batshit. She had personality disorders they hadn’t named yet and even she thought I was hallucinating. If I could choose between schizophrenia and nightly torment from some spawn of hell, I’d gladly choose the former and take my pills. I didn’t fit neatly into a category, and antipsychotic drugs couldn’t cure my problem. “I’m still taking the meds,” I lied.
“Whatever you say, Avery. We’d better go to sleep before Stay-Puffed Tina comes back.”
If I weren’t so depressed about my situation I would have laughed at that comment. I was tired but too afraid to close my eyes again. I knew that I could only stay awake so long. Eventually, I would sleep and the nightmare would come for me. I lay awake and watched the small shadows of feet walking by our bedroom door until dawn.
The next morning I was roused from sleep when a white-hot beam of sunshine stabbed me in the face. I recoiled in horror as Nurse Gabby pulled back the curtains. I opened one eye to see that the wall clock read 7:00. I must have dozed off for an hour. A grunt of disapproval from the other side of the room confirmed Jen was also awake, and not happy about it.
Nurse Gabby was humming a Taylor Swift song and pulling back the curtains. “Good morning, sleepyheads. Breakfast in fifteen. Oh and Avery, you’ve got Dr. Pettigrew afterward.”
Great. As if the sun bouncing off theses obscene yellow walls isn’t enough to cause a headache. Whoever painted the bedroom walls canary yellow probably thought they were doing the residents a favor by using a cheerful color. People in mental institutions are often depressed, which in my opinion is even more reason not to surround us with the most garish wall paint imaginable.
I sat up and wiped sleep from my eyes. “I didn’t think I had a counseling session until Tuesday.”
“I’m not sure kid, just delivering the message. You’re supposed to report to her office right after breakfast. Oh and you may want to grab a shower first so there’s still some hot water!”
Nurse Gabby was the polar opposite of Titanic Tina. She was young, slender and hadn’t been in the mental health field long enough to become bitter. No one had told her most of her charges had no hope of improving and she treated them like they were regular people worthy of her respect.
“Thanks for reminding me.”
When she left I noticed the room was uncharacteristically quiet. By this time of day a chorus of mockingbirds are giving me their daily serenade. I looked out the window and didn’t see a single bird. It’s still too early in the year for migration. Strange.
“Hey you got anymore black eyeliner? I just hate the way my face looks without it.”
Obviously, Jen was still sleeping. Paige was the only one that ever wore eyeliner.