Life is all about choices and their consequences. How far would you go to save your own skin? This is Larkin's story.
I have—never—been so sorry in my life. To see that bitch sitting there, laughing merrily, surrounded by her group of friends without a care in the world, all the while her perfectly styled, golden corn-silk hair gleams in the sunshine and rustles effortlessly back into place after a breeze blows through the courtyard. She throws her head back, laughing so hard that her cheeks redden from the emotion, and her skin glistens even more in her humor. Knowing that she feels such pure happiness instead of absolute oblivion fills me with such raging contempt that there aren't enough words in the English language to fully curse her very essence.
The longer I stand gawking at them from a distance like a deranged lunatic, the happier their moment becomes. The brighter she smiles, and the louder she laughs, and the more the wind blows that goddess-like mane of hers, the more I feel myself seething with absolute hatred.
My teeth grind into each other, causing the back of my jaw to pulse from the pressure. My hands curl into fists at my side. I push so hard into myself that I feel the flesh of my palms being punctured from my own nails. The hysteric bellow that I desperately need to let loose, I clamp down deep into the dark pits of my bargained soul. My chest heaves. My nostrils flare. A sheen of sweat decorates my brow as my limbs shake with the restraint that keeps me from pummeling her made up face into the picnic table she sits perched atop of like she were a queen. Or perhaps grating her skin off against the bark of the grand oak that provides her and her subjects shade would be a better route.
I hate her with unmatched ferocity. Something terrible has to be done.
"Hey, Lark!" I hear from a short distance away, followed by a quick pattering of footsteps. I turn away from my stalking and shield my body behind one of the brick columns supporting the archway between two campus buildings.
The footsteps stop and my roommate Kim appears at my side. She opens her mouth to start rambling about something, but she takes one look at me and immediately freaks out. "Oh my God, Larkin, you're bleeding!"
My brain snaps out of its tailspin of horror and I take in her face. Her almond shaped eyes are wide with concern. She begins rumbling around in her backpack for a tissue which she promptly thrusts into my face.
"Another nosebleed?" she questions. "Are they happening again?"
Of course they are, genius, I think to myself. Whose fault do you suppose that is?
"And you're pale and shaking," she continues. "What's going on?"
"Nothing," I grunt, pushing past her into the closest building. I make my way into a bathroom, happy that its vacant. I wrangle more toilet paper from a stall and head to the sink to cleanse my face, careful to avoid my reflection in the mirror. Kim is right behind me, and after I stop the trail of blood, she hands me a wet glob of paper towels to wipe my face with.
The cool compress feels nice. I close my eyes and sigh at the momentary peace I feel dabbing it across my sweat filled brow. Big mistake on my part, because that allows my palms to be in Kim's direct line of sight.
"I'll say it's nothing. What happened to your hands?"
The peaceful moment ends as she yanks the compress away from me in order to stretch my arm out towards her. She sees the small crescent shaped slices in my skin and begins to run my palms under cold water to wash away the dried blood.
I sigh, frustrated, and turn my body away from her and finish washing my hands myself. I lean over to splash water on my face. In the process, the fedora I've slipped on my head tilts off balance, forcing me to naturally take it off to continue freshening up. When I stand and the water droplets vacate my eyes, my awful reflection is waiting for me on the other side of the mirror. I grit my teeth before snatching my hat up and grabbing more paper towels on the way out of the bathroom.
Kim is at my heels. "Does this have anything to do with—"
I whirl around swiftly and growl at her. "Do you want to die?" I ask bitterly.
She's taken aback by my quick turn of foot. My question has shaken her too. She shakes her head rapidly, her skin paling like mine.
"Then don't ask questions," I warn her.
We stand inches apart, my steely gray eyes scowling. It's all her fault. The eventual degradation of my body is her fault. Had I not had the humane need to feel compassion and companionship for and from other human beings, I wouldn't be in this predicament now.
"I'm sorry Larkin," she whispers.
I scoff. "Apologies can't save me."
The tense moment is interrupted when Ansley Donovan and her posse enter into the building. She's got her two best girlfriends at either side of her and a couple men behind them. One in particular catches my glance, but I quickly break the gaze. She catches sight of Kim and me and greets us as if we were old friends.
"Hey Lark, hey Kimmie. Great weather we're having, right? It's going to suck when all this is over and we're buried under two feet of snow. Gotta enjoy it while we can, right?"
Kim takes a step forward and stands beside me with a bright smile on her face while nodding in answer to the question. She clutches the straps of her backpack with both hands and teeters back and forth on her feet. I eye her discretely wanting to yell a thousand obscenities. This is college after all, not a high school popularity contest. The fact that she adores this prima donna and yearns to be in her posse of friends sickens me.
"Are you coming over for study group tonight?" she asks.
"I wouldn't miss it," Kim smiles brightly.
"Wonderful. See you then, I've got to get to my next class." She prepares to head off but pauses and addresses me. "Oh, and Larkin, the fedora is nice. I didn't know you were bringing those back. I do rather miss all those color coordinated hats and outfits. I might have a few from last season you could have if you'd like. I'll have Kimmie bring them to you after our study group tonight."
She turns on her heel and saunters away. The tailspin of horror catches me in its wave again and my vision starts to go dark with thoughts of terrible deeds. Again my hands curl into fists at my side and my mouth flattens into a thin line.
Unlike Ansley Donovan, the wind is unkind to me. Either that, or the gentle gusts have strengthened with the threat of an eventual storm. My fedora is blown loose on my walk from my late evening class and I scamper to retrieve it before anyone sees me without it on top of my head. Unfortunately however, the hat gets snagged in a tree and I have to resort to jumping up and down like an idiot as I try to get it down.
"Need some assistance?" a voice asks in the darkness.
Dread fills me like no other. I'd know that sweet voice anywhere. Before I can object or run for the cover of darkness, a male body is beside me, reaching his arm above mine to grab the hat. He spins it around his finger like a pizza a few times waiting on me to speak.
"Thanks Paul," I tell him, pulling the scraggily fibers of my hair down around my face and tucking them repeatedly behind my ears. Hopefully its dark enough that my thinning hairline won't be the first thing he sees. Hiding the patches is hard enough on its own; in the wind, it's nearly impossible.
He hands me the hat back and I reach out to take it. Only he doesn't release it right away. I'm forced to meet his direct gaze. His blue eyes twinkle in the little bit of light the half moon emits and the breeze is rustling his side swept light brown hair.
He takes a step forward and reaches his free hand to gently cup the side of my face as he begins to lean in. I let go of my hat and back away turning my back toward him and taking off at a brisk pace. It's not worth it. I've got dozen more hats and headbands back in my dorm room. He can keep the damn thing for all I care.
My silent plea for solitude is ungranted as he catches up to me and grabs me by the arm and positions himself in front of me. "What was that for?" he asks, frowning.
"What do you mean what was that for?"
"Since when do you not let me kiss you?"
"Since tonight," I answer, snatching my hat from his hands and tugging it snug on my head. I take off again, this time running, desperately needing to put as much space between him and myself as possible before his blind eyes of affection clear up and he sees me for the monster that I truly am.
"Larkin, what the hell?" he asks, stopping me again. He has managed to catch me as I attempt to cut through some buildings. He presses my back up against the cool bricks and cocoons me by placing his arms at either side of me. "I've been doing everything you want. Keeping us secret and all that. No one is around. No one is going to care. And if they did, screw them. I've missed you. I want to kiss you. I care about you. I want to be with you. Don't push me away."
The darkness seems darker. The exertion from my quick sprint leaves my body feeling more weary than it should. I crumple into myself, bracing my hands on my knees as I try to catch my breath. But the minute I angle my head downwards, a ferocious wave of pain and nausea wracks through my body sending me lurching forward directly into Paul's arms.
Another wave crashes through me and I tear out of his embrace and manage to turn my head away from him before the nausea produces a very tangible and vile manifestation. Paul manages to clutch my hair behind my neck and hold onto my waist as my body retches over and over again.
"Are you sick?" he asks. "Did you eat something bad at lunch?"
I brush the back of my arm against my mouth and stand straight. The simple movement is agonizing. No I'm not sick, I'm much worse. This is all just the beginning.
I turn to face Paul, shaking my head, with tears in my eyes. "Do you see me?" I ask.
He frowns. "Yeah…"
I shake my head. "No, do you really see me?"
"Larkin, you're not making any sense. Let me walk you back to your dorm. You shouldn't be outside if you feel bad."
He walks forward to put his arm around me but I rebuff him. "No!" I grit, swatting his arm away. "Don't try to be nice to me. It's not worth it. I'm not worth it. Don't you see? Just leave me alone! We don't have a future together. I don't have a future."
I take off running again and this time he gives me the space I need. I don't stop until I'm locked on the other side of my dorm room. Tears cloud my eyes and I crumple down onto the floor sobbing for ridiculous reasons.
When my body starts having waves of pain, I pick myself up and crawl into bed. The pain stops only to leave debilitating chills in its place. I pull my bedspread up to my chin and try to get warm, but no matter what I do, my body switches through the channels of stabbing pain, dizzying nausea, and vile cold chills every few minutes.
I close my eyes, my teeth chattering, and I feel my body disintegrating into the same feeble pile of skin and bones it was three years ago when I was at my lowest point. Since then I've only felt this intense pain and misery twice. Once for my own foolishness, and now because I let my emotions get the better of me and I decided to do a good deed for Kim. But at what cost?
A wave of nausea forces me to get out of bed and run to the bathroom. Moments later I pass out on the bathroom floor with visions of tree boughs dancing in my head.
Its silent where I am. Everyone is out partying. It's Mardi Gras. We've nearly completed our first year of college and decided to capitalize on an allotted absence and hightail it to New Orleans for some 'Big Easy' fun.
Only, I'm not having any fun. A week before, I received the most crushing news of my life. The treatments weren't working. I was too sick to try the experimental drugs. I'd be dead before I crossed the stage to get my degree. But I should be happy though, I'd lived a lot longer than most people with my illness. I should enjoy what time I had left. At least I wouldn't have to deal with the side effects of my chemotherapy… nausea, fatigue, hair loss. I could be a normal young-adult.
Yet that truth was a lot harder to digest than the fact that I was dying. I didn't have any more chances. Death would find me sooner or later. So rather than worry about the fact that one day I'd drop dead, I figured I might as well take matters into my own hands.
Death should've come when I jumped from that tree with a noose around my neck, but it didn't.
I opened my eyes to find myself lying on the ground, the rope around my neck, but my body perfectly intact.
"What in the world?" I gasped looking at my skin. It was vibrant and healthy, not pale and gray. Instantly I knew something was different.
I hopped to my feet and ran towards a nearby pond and checked my reflection. The girl staring back at me had been missing for a long time; thick, rich chestnut hair, plump cheeks, long eyelashes, vibrant rosy colored skin.
"Like what you see?" a voice asked.
I turned to see a man standing behind me. He was dressed in a purple and green suit with a top hat on his head, gold rings on every finger, and the most stylish alligator print dress shoes I'd ever seen. His skin was just one shade lighter than the absolute darkness that was around me.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"They call me Papa Midnight," he answered with a wink and the smoothest Cajun drawl I'd ever heard.
"What happened to me?"
"I saved you."
"Come with me and find out."
He turned and began walking away toward a cloud of fog that was too thick to see through. I should've ran away and waited for my time to run out, but I didn't.
I open my eyes to find myself back in my bed. I am not alone.
I sit up with stiff limbs until I'm facing my desk. Papa Midnight is sitting with his legs crossed shuffling a deck of cards in his hands.
"You broke the rules," he says. "Again."
"I know," I whispered.
"I told you it'd be worse each time you failed. I thought you'd believe me after the first time. I suppose now you've learned your lesson?"
I nod my head and rise from my bed and go stand beside him.
"Deal them," I tell him, tapping twice on the desk.
He begins humming a jazzy tune as he shuffles the cards. Then he begin to lay some flat. Instead of the usual one, he lays out two. I expected this. I get to live if I collect souls for his voodoo crypt. If I fail, the health he gave me when I attempted suicide would be swiftly recalled. I have to kill my previously intended target plus a new one.
"Ansley," I mutter, turning over the first tarot card, seeing her picture drawn into it. "And…"
The person etched into the second drawing causes a deep pit to fill every cavity of my body. I gasp only once before regaining my composure. I nod at the voodoo warlock and accept the target.
"Give me my strength back. I won't make it there without it."
"Before I do," he starts. "There's one more target for this evening."
"There's never been three!"
"I don't make the cards. I just deal them out. Even I answer to someone."
"Show me," I tell him.
"Hey, you came!" Paul says happily when I show up at Ansley's apartment an hour later. Ansley stands by the doorway with a scowl on her face.
"Is Kim, in there? I need to see her."
"I'll get her," Ansley says disappearing.
Before I lose my nerve, I rise to my toes and plant a deep kiss on Paul's lips. "Under different circumstances, I'd want to grow old with you," I tell him.
"I swear, I don't know what you see in her," Ansley grumbles as she rejoins us outside on the porch. "What do you want, Larkin? You're not in my chem class. You don't need to study with us."
"True, but I do have some business with the three of you."
"So get to it already. It's chilly out," Ansley bites off.
I huff and center my gaze on the warmth of Paul's blue eyes. "I might have loved you," I tell him.
I reach into the back of my jeans and pull out the pistol. The silencer keeps it from making a sound.
Walking away from the three lifeless bodies on the ground, I hum a jazzy tune. Out in the darkness, I hear Papa Midnight's laughter. The wind blows and rustles my hair. I take off my hat and let my rich locks flow free.
Written for the February 2015 Labyrinth Writing Contest
The Prompt for this competition is First lines – Choose One of the following as the first line of your entry:
1. I had never been so sorry in my life…
2. 'Excuse me, is this seat taken?'
3. 'Okay, everybody, we go live in three… two… one…'