By Lea Anne Stoughton
Rain had settled in. These were the nights she liked best and feared most, the dark and cold and wet. Nights like these, most kids stayed home.
She moved among the machines. Light from the flashing displays made a ghostly twin of Charlie’s FunTime Arcade on the plate glass windows.
Charlie himself sat behind the prize counter. (Or maybe his name was Joe? She knew once. Her memory was becoming . . . eccentric.) He flipped through a wrinkled girlie magazine and occasionally scratched his beard. The beard sickened her, thin and patchy, like a disease crawling up his face.
She circled back through the aisles, past Dirt Bike 5000 and Galaxia and Kombat King—but turning before she got as far as Buttercup Garden. That had been Amy’s favorite. (Amy or Abby? Names were so slippery.)
She passed the prize counter again. Charlie (Joe?) was obscured from the waist down by key rings, plastic whistles, decks of cards, jumping frogs, paper yo-yos, and stale off-brand chocolate bars. She knew there was a stack of fresh, full-size Hershey bars under the counter as well, hidden behind the display of inflatable swords. She didn’t like to think about that stack but she did anyway. There were worse things she could think about.
Dirt Bike 5000, Galaxia, Kombat King.
A shadow hesitated outside. A girl, maybe 12 or 13, pressed her face to the window. Charlie-or-Joe put down his magazine, ran a dry tongue over his lips, and reached down to touch the stack of Hersheys. She became aware of the chafing on her throat. The knot pressed into the side of her neck, under her ear.
A woman touched the girl’s shoulder and the face disappeared. The chafing subsided.
Dirt Bike 5000, Galaxia, Kombat King.
She wondered if it was almost time for him to close. (She had lost the ability to keep track of time, another of those worrying eccentricities.)
Dirt Bike 5000, Galaxia--
Charlie? folded the magazine and slid it into his back pocket. She hovered by the counter as he stood up and stretched, scratched his sickening beard, and shuffled to the door, keys jangling. He flipped a row of switches and the overhead lights went dark. She followed him through the “Employees Only” door, right next to Buttercup Garden. The chafing returned, sharp and hot, and she fingered the knot under her ear as the door swung shut.
The short corridor ended with another door, this one marked “Office.” Whoever he is locked it behind him and jiggled the knob before slumping into the chair. Her breath choked when she saw him unbutton his pants and reach for the drawer. He pulled out the shoebox and raw, burning heat squeezed her neck.
Inside the box was the detritus of girls: hair clips, earrings, a rubber bracelet. And Hershey wrappers. One still had some candy inside, with small, even teeth marks along one edge.
He sifted through the box with one hand while she clawed at her throat, grabbing the knot, trying to loosen the rope that only grew tighter. When he pulled out the purple headband, Amy’s or Abby’s headband, HER DAUGHTER’S HEADBAND, something shifted. Her eyes bulged and a scream broke through her crushed windpipe. She flew at him in a fury of teeth and nails and fists. She gouged his eyes with her thumbs, raked at his throat with her teeth, peeled the beard from his face, buried her hands in his steaming guts, driven by all the hurt and guilt and anger and sorrow and VENGEANCE, oh VENGEANCE!
Joe Turner, owner of Charlie’s FunTime Arcade, mumbled to himself about all the goddamn drafts in this shithole, and continued masturbating.
I found you.
It was the middle of the night, early October. The 12th, 6 years ago, almost to the day. I was afraid. For no reason other than nerves because I hadn't heard from you.
The kitchen lights were off. I walked in the side door; calling your name. Your truck was in the drive so I knew you were home. I walked through the kitchen to the dining room, quickly, my anxiety peaking. I stopped at the entrance to the hallway...
You were there, but you were gone. Hanging from a rope in the attic staircase.
Even now, when I'm calm and I conjure the image in my mind I cannot seem to remember the details. Not your clothes, not the rope... if there was one. It could have been anything. I don't remember if the dishes were done or if the laundry was still on the floor. I only see your face. It was pale and your jaw was slack. Your eyes were closed. I remember that much.
My heart stopped at that moment. Maybe I died at that moment. Panic set in. What I did next surprised even me.
I ran out of our house and got in my car. I backed out of the driveway screaming. I parked on the road and called for help. That's all I remeber. After that moment it's all black.
I don't remember the 911 call. I don't remember the police or the coroner or your body in a black bag on a stretcher. I know they took you because the detective took me inside to get some of my things and you were gone. I don't remember how I drove home. I remember the song that was on the radio because to this day every time I hear it my heart breaks into a million pieces all over again.
The days after are still a blur. There was no funeral. You were cremated. Your family wouldn't allow me to see you at the morgue because they blame your death on me. They said they didn't want me to see you like that, but that never made sense given that I found you.
I'm not angry. They were hurt. Blame needed to be placed somewhere in their minds. I just wanted to be sure you were gone. Feel that your skin was cold...know this wasn't a dream.
The last time I saw you, I ran. I'm ashamed of that now. I should have checked to see if you were breathing. I should have gotten you down. I wish I had kissed your cheeks, touched your hand, let my tears fall on your chest. I wish I hadn't been afraid. But I was.
I have taught myself over the years not to question your decision. I have reminded myself of the demons you fought every day. I remind myself that I loved you fiercely and that kind of love must be enough to save a soul. Maybe not your life, but I have to believe it was enough to save your soul.
I go to sleep every night and I'm one day closer to seeing you again. I dream each night of my head on your chest. I walk down the soap aisle and I always stop to smell the Irish Spring. I close my eyes and I can still feel my lips against my favorite spot on your cheeks to kiss. Sometimes when I wake in the middle of the night, your name is a ghost on my lips. I miss you more than you could ever know. On bad days I hope you aren't near when I cry.
The hurt never goes away and the story never gets easier to tell. It is a piece of my life I have learned to live with and bottle away. I don't know if I ever want to love someone that much again because the pain of losing you has been so intense. I made it out the other side, I survived. How much of me, I can't say. It changed me on a deep level. So much so that I don't remember who that girl was anymore. I think she died with you that night.
Happy trails to you.
Until we meet again.
This is our new Wicked Short Stories page with submissions from various Authors. Please look for bio-snippets about the Author at the bottom of the various pieces. Enjoy!