Clearly I’m on a path of new adventures in trying things with this blog. New reading segments and author interviews and the such. Here is the third cool new thing I’m doing. Actually, you’re doing, should you choose to accept the mission (and it’s totally fine if you don’t. We all have busy lives. I get it.) From time to time, I’ll be putting up a short story that I’ll need to have beta-read, since contest entries need to be at least somewhat legit. So if you’re looking for something to read (and possibly critique) and have any suggestions or notice any plot-holes or obvious grammar issues that you simply *must* bring to my attention before I press submit, it’ll be your chance to do so (and I greatly, greatly appreciate it!)
Today’s story: Choice
Contest deadline: Dec 1st
Theme: Roadtrip (Creepyish)
“Try it, kid. I’m giving you a good deal.”
Chris hesitated, but eyed the small capsule with curiosity. Maybe it would help. He was bored out of his mind with the entire family packed in the 90’s minivan and the vacation had only started. He’d need something if he was going to survive the next few days.
“Look, kid, I’ve got other customers. You want it or not?”
Chris couldn’t take much more the arguing. Or the snoring. Or the why this-why that questions from his four-year old sister. If this thing worked half as well as it was said to, then he needed it. He’d need it for the next solid week. Just one long block out. Then he’d never touch the stuff.
Chris slid the man a folded hundred-dollar bill. He secured his purchase in the back pocket of his jeans and stepped back. This was the last thing he thought he’d be doing when his dad pulled them into the rest stop for some gas and snacks. Chris had merely wanted to bum a cigarette off the guy. He’d looked decent enough—choppy black hair with a too-big tee-shirt and cargo shorts—and was leaning against the far side of the building which was where Chris needed to be if he was going to light up. The last time his dad caught him smoking, he thought he’d never hear the end of it. Cigarettes kill. Tobacco kills. It’s all he ever heard, all damn day long. But this wasn’t a cigarette. This was something else. Something different. Something stronger.
Chris started to turn when a hand landed on his shoulder.
“Remember, it’s called Choice for a reason. You can give into it or not,” the guy threw his hands into his pockets and shrugged. He started to back away, caution in his eyes. “Whatever you want, kid. It’s whatever you want.”
The man was gone before Chris could respond. It wasn’t like he had a ton more to say to the dealer, but his last few words left a familiar warning in his ears. Chris had heard people talk about the drug, about the hallucinations it causes and how real it can all seem. He’d even heard about some people going all the way over—trapping themselves in the visions, believing everything they saw and felt and heard. They were called the Lost. But Chris didn’t need to trap himself there; he just needed to escape the present for a bit. And besides, there was always the choice: deny the hallucinations or accept them. If anything got too real or too ugly, he could decide to remain in reality. It was all up to the customer.
Chris brushed his brown locks from his forehead. He looked up, spotted the green minivan and suppressed a groan. Four hours and counting. Four hours into a week long road-trip to see their cousins in Iowa—cousins Chris hadn’t seen since he was in diapers. Did he even remember what they looked like? He had no idea why his dad had the sudden desire to squeeze the entire family into the twenty-year-old vehicle and drag them halfway across the county to begin with. To make matters worse, he’d slapped the vacation label on it. This was so not a vacation.
For the four hours Chris had been in the car, he’d listened to his mom go on and on about some woman from work who’d been using her trashcan. His father agreed automatically at every pause, offering a shallow sigh with each supportive phrase: Yes, dear. You’re right, dear. She should know better, dear. Their one-sided conversation carried over his grandparents’ obnoxious snoring, which started almost immediately into the trip. For about a half hour, Chris debated which one was worse. His grandmother’s snores were nasal and consistent, like an ongoing whistle, but his grandfather breathed deep through his chest, rumbling like some snarling animal. He would quiet and there would be a moment of peace before he started up again, like an engine rearing to life. The sound irritated Chris beyond reason and eventually, he decided the old man was worse.
When he wasn’t ignoring his mother’s rants or debating over a pair of eighty-year olds sleeping, Lila, Chris’s four-year old sister, would poke him with a question every few seconds. “Why don’t our cousins live closer? Why don’t we always go visit them? Why don’t you live with them? Why don’t I live with them?” Chris couldn’t take much more. He was only sixteen for crying out loud. He shouldn’t be on a road-trip with a family who talks too much or sleeps like coma patients. He should be at home, playing XBOX and chatting it up with his online buddies. What a crappy way to spend one whole week of the summer.
His mom waved him over.
Damn. Guess they were ready to leave. Chris scanned the parking lot with a sigh. He really didn’t want to get back in that van again, unless it was to go home. And that wasn’t happening for another six days, about as long as Choice stays in a person’s system. Chris hadn’t planned on trying the new drug that had everyone talking. He only wanted a cigarette from the guy—just a quick nicotine fix and he’d be on his way. But then the dealer mentioned the one word on everyone’s lips lately: Choice.
It was like fate.
And even if it wasn’t, the deal was done and now he had it, right there in his back pocket, ready to be swallowed. But it was a dumb idea right? Taking drugs around your family. They’d probably know instantly, unless he decided to deny the hallucinations when someone was talking to him. That’s what made it so awesome.
Chris reached into his pocket. He eyed the small purple tablet in the center of his palm.
What’s the worst that could happen?
In one swift move, Chris threw the pill into his mouth, swallowed and exhaled. There. He’d done it. The next six days would be up to him now: reality or fantasy?
“Chris,” his mother waved her arms. “Did you want to stand there all day or did you want to get in the damn van so we can get out of here already?”
Rolling his eyes, Chris dragged himself from the gas station wall. He wasn’t sure how the whole thing worked but assumed he’d figure it out along the way. When he climbed into the minivan he wasn’t surprised to find his grandparents still asleep, their heads back and their mouths open, spittle dripping down their matching plaid sweaters. Gross. Lila was already bouncing back and forth, her dark ponytail swinging across her back. She moved her hand from the window to her grandfather’s balding head and back again.
“Is someone going to buckle this child in?”
“You’re her older brother,” his mother climbed into the front passenger seat. “Try taking on some responsibility for a change.”
Chris muttered a curse and something about not being involved in her conception. He reached for the seatbelt and laying a hand against Lila’s stomach, he forced his sister to sit. The four-year old let out a sharp wail of discomfort. She started to protest but Chris buckled her in, pulling the strap extra tight. Lila cried out.
“Don’t hurt your sister!” his mother snapped around.
“I’m not! I’m buckling her in!” Chris scoffed. “Jesus.”
The girl wailed louder.
“What do you want me to do?” He threw his hands up. “She’s already buckled in. That’s what you wanted. I can’t stop her crying.”
“Don’t be so aggressive. She’s only four and you’re sixteen! You should know better.”
“God,” Chris slammed himself back into the seat. “I can’t do anything right. I can’t buckle her in right. I don’t play with her enough at home. I don’t—”
“Is it too much to expect a little help? Really? I thought by now you’d be a little more mature in handling—”
“I am ma—”
“—what comes along with being a big brother. No one’s asking a lot from you. But you don’t offer any—”
“She’s not my kid!”
Lila sobbed louder, matching the volume of the old people sleeping in front of them. His mother raised her voice, fighting for attention over the rest of the chaos. “She’s your sister and—”
“She’s YOUR daughter!”
“Everyone SHUT UP!” His dad roared with finality.
Lila instantly fell quiet, his mother turned around and Chris looked out the window. If anyone could silence the car, it was his old man. Normally, the retired cop was quiet. Complacent. Amenable. He’d go along with anything if, Chris believed, he was left alone. But sometimes, when things got too heated—and they had been since the retirement—his dad would snap and loose his cool. Like just then, coming in like a tidal wave of instant fury.
Chris had only seen his dad so angry one other time, and it was when he’d caught Chris smoking in the garage. Man, had he gotten a lecture about that. Cigarettes kill. Tobacco kills. At one point, Chris even thought his old man might hit him. Right across the face. He’d prepared himself for it, but the impact never came. Instead, a warning and a tirade about what the dangers of inhaling a dangerous substance can do. Apparently, his dad had lost a friend to lung cancer and he’d been anti-nicotine since. That’s why Chris took extra care to hide the habit from his old man.
Besides his grandparents snoring, the car ride was quiet.
Content with the situation, Chris had almost drifted to sleep when five words startled him back into consciousness.
“You want to strangle me.”
He wasn’t sure he heard it. But he must’ve. No one had spoken for nearly an hour—thank God—so the words were crisp. Articulated. Solid. He played it again in his head. It sounded like his sister’s voice, but also like someone else’s—a man’s. It was as if the two were fused together to form one low and high pitch that synced perfectly.
Chris turned to Lila. She stared at him, her bright eyes unblinking. He waited for her to say something—maybe to repeat it—but she simply stared, waiting for him to respond. When he was about to give up, she spoke again.
“You want to strangle me.”
“What?” He sat up. “No I don’t.”
“You want to kill all of us,” Lila said, the voice both belonging to her and someone else. It was light and dark, innocent and evil. “You think about it a lot. Strangling me,” Lila looked up the van to their parents, “strangling them.” She focused on the grandparents. “Smothering them with a pillow.”
Chris glanced to the front of the van, ready to defend himself. But no one had heard. No one was even looking. Other than his dad who was driving, the others were asleep. Chris turned back to his sister and lowered his voice.
“It’d be real easy to strangle me. Probably easier than you imagine. And them,” her eyes flickered to the sleeping couple, “you could probably do it at the next rest stop. No one would even know.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? I don’t want to kill anybody.”
“You do. You just won’t admit to it.”
“Whatever,” he crossed his arms. His head rolled to the window again and he stared out at the passing trees, trying to count them as they flashed by. But he could feel her watching him. What was wrong with Lila? Why the hell was a four-year old talking about murdering people? And how’d she know that he’d fantasized about the pillow thing with his grandparents? It’s not that he hated them but… geez… the fucking snoring already. That had to go. They slept all the time anyway. And what was death? Eternal sleep, right? They’d probably thank him.
And his mom—God. What he wouldn’t give for some peace and quiet there. Always nagging, always complaining about one thing or another. The room wasn’t clean enough. The garbage wasn’t taken out as soon as she’d wanted. Shit. With his mom dead, he’d get a lot more done. Like surfing the web or playing XBOX with his buddies.
“And I wouldn’t call you down for something stupid like laundry,” she turned around to look at him. Chris blinked, looking for the catch but there was none. She was serious. “It really would be better if I was dead.”
“See?” Lila confirmed. “You kill people all day on your video games. But when it comes to real life, you hesitate.”
“Yeah,” he scoffed. “That’s because it’s real life.”
“And doesn’t that make it more meaningful?”
Chris considered this. He’d killed countless players online. So many, he couldn’t start to add them all up if he wanted to. And with each death, nothing happened. Nothing changed or got better for him. Their deaths were completely unimportant to his overall happiness.
“And that’s why you need to kill us. It’ll solve your problems,” Lila said in her girl-man voice. “No one would bother you. No one would berate you. You wouldn’t have to listen to me or to them,” she glanced at the sleeping couple, “or rearrange your life for anyone else. You would be free.”
The one thing Chris yearned for. Freedom and quiet. And he’d have both if he did in life what he did everyday online. Five deaths. That’s it. Five deaths and it’d be over. And what was five deaths anyway? The start of the round, that’s what. The more and more Chris thought about it, the more and more it made sense. Lila was right. He’d been hesitating. And it seemed so silly to have taken this long to realize that was what he was doing. The answer had been right in front of him.
There was no point in waiting any more.
Chris awoke with a start.
Man, he’d been tired. Dead tired. His dad hadn’t pulled into the off-road motel until eleven thirty because his mom kept chirping that the less they slept, they better time they’d make. Of course, she’d taken naps in the car. During them, all Chris could think about was how and when he’d put his plan into motion. That night at the motel? After they got back from their “vacation?” Lila had kept him up with questions the entire drive so when they’d reached the cheap accommodations, Chris was ready to shelve the question for the following day’s drive.
He’d practically fallen into bed, his dad having carried everyone’s suitcases up the two flights of stairs. Chris already had half his body under the covers when his dad finally set the bags down with a groan. Chris couldn’t get to sleep fast enough. Lila was throwing a temper tantrum about the lack of a bedtime story since their mother had claimed the bathroom—and hot water—with a nice, long shower and his grandparents, having been situated in the adjourning room, were already asleep.
Damn, it’d been a long day. Snoring, yelling, quiet and questions—all squished into a decades-old minivan that Chris loathed. And the next day wouldn’t be any better either. But it’d be okay. He now had a plan to make everything better, a solution so simple he felt silly for not thinking of it sooner.
Heavy with exhaustion, the last thing Chris remembered was the look on his father’s face when his mother said she’d be in the bathroom for a while. That’s when his eyes closed.
And now, he was awake again.
But it wasn’t morning.
Something rustled in the bed across the nightstand. Rubbing his eye, Chris tried to clear the sleep that blocked the movement. The sheets flapped together and then the blanket fell to the floor. When his vision cleared, Chris squinted at the scene, trying to make sense of it. But he couldn’t. Why would his dad be straddling his mom like that? He and Lila were in the room for crying out loud. Gross.
Chris glanced from the movement to the floor. It’d been clear the night before, but now there was a lump blocking the way to the door. Chris squinted. Two lumps. Panic rose in his throat as he listened to the alarming quiet. No snoring. He waited, hoping to hear the sound he detested. But there was nothing. He looked to his immediate right. Lila lay still beside him. He poked her arm but she didn’t move. She didn’t so much as stir.
“Lila?” he leaned in with a whisper.
It was then that he saw the marks. A trail of light bruises running the length of her neck.
He gulped and focused on his dad again.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said, his large, bear hands wrapped around her throat. His mother kicked her legs, flailing beneath him. She caught the nightstand lamp and it fell to the floor with a crash. But his father held on. “You said it would be better this way. You said it would be better.”
‘***And for any other writers out there who want to enter it: Horror Tree – Bump in the Road Contest