A knife may have been in my hand, but I did not kill her. Had I witnessed a murder? I couldn’t remember. How long had I been passed out on the side of the bridge? My blackouts were escalating.
A bout of shivers overtook my body. A twig snapped as I tiptoed closer to the body to get a better look. My flashlight illuminating her face. The poor thing didn’t look a day over four years old. She had blonde hair with hints of strawberry. Eyes hollower than my father’s heart along with a bruised neck. I imagined her alive, throwing a ball into the air as the wind played with her hair. She would never be able to play or see her family again, assuming she had one. Her body was frozen and contorted into an unnatural position. A kind of nightmare I would never be able to repress.
My eyes searched for the assailant to no avail. Nightfall around here being its own kind of monster. There were no lights or sign of life within miles. The only things in existence were me, the stars, and a nameless dead girl with eyes peering into my soul. My hand clenched the knife tighter sensing I may not be alone. This would be the third murder this year. The first was a girl named Mary, an outspoken thirteen-year-old. The other girls name was pearl. Both blondes I had seen at school, but they never uttered a word to me.
I hopped on my bike peddling, but the wood in tow slowed me down. I passed a sign that read Salem, Oregon. Nineteen thirty. If I made it home, I feared my mother would accuse me of lying. With less than a mile to my farmhouse I caught the glimpse of a light in my peripheral vision. A scream echoed but I did not dare turn around. Moments later I realized the scream was mine.
Snow started to fall. My bike fell into the gravel and I rushed into the house. The white screen door with chipped paint slammed behind me. The aroma of bean soup filled the air. It was the fourth day this week my ill mother had prepared it. I didn’t dare complain feeling lucky we had food at all.
“Momma, Momma,” I shouted darting into the kitchen.
“Bethany sit down and eat your soup. I don’t care to hear your stories at supper.” She said in her southern accent and dumped the contents from the ladle into a bowl. Then wiped her hands on her dirt stained red dress. Mother loved that dress. It was the only one she owned. My heart wanted to argue but my mind knew better. I knew if I did, she would make me find a switch in the dark and my butt was already sore.
I scarfed down my food hoping it would quench my thirst. I paused pulling a piece of my mom’s brown hair out my mouth. I admired the shape of her hair. It spiraled like a staircase down to her waist.
“Momma when’s daddy coming home?” I asked placing my bowl in the sink.
“I told you child I don’t rightly know and don’t you dare ask again. You hear me?” She asked pointing her finger.
“Momma I saw a dead girl down the road,” I peered out the window.
“No, ya didn’t. This best not be another one of your stories” She shook her head and blew out the candle.
“No back-talk young lady. You didn’t see nothing. You understand? We don’t need no trouble. Best forget what you seen”
“Stop talking to me like I’m a child, I’m fifteen momma,” I sneezed into my shaking hands.
“That’s it. I expect you to have a nice switch off that tree out front for me in the morning. You best count your blessings we’re not still sleeping under that tree. Don’t ruin this for us.” Her shadow disappeared into one of the three bedrooms. Minutes later I heard her caterwauling bouncing of the walls.
I placed my hand on my heart, trying to soothe the ache. With nothing left in the fireplace but glowing coals I fetched the wood I had gathered before supper. Throwing a few pieces on at a time until the fire roared back to life. I wiped the dirt off my hands and placed my palms in front of the fire. Flipping them until warmth radiated from my skin.
A picture of a family covered in dust hung crooked on the wall. I wondered what had happened to them. The house was empty when daddy found it. The scent of must still floating in the air. I stayed vigilant making sure I didn’t fall into one of the many holes hidden throughout the wooden floors. Deep down I knew daddy wouldn’t return. That he had died trying to find us food or even worse, found a new family. I laid my head on a stack of books next to the fire, hoping it would burn the image of that poor girl out of my mind.
“Beans there you are, you crazy cat. Where have you been? I can’t fight the rats off without you,” I whispered. His fur so black he made a game of hide and seek out of it. He purred as I scratched his head laying down beside me. At least I had one friend.
My eyes stayed open all night long. Every time I tried to close them, I saw her frozen face etched in my mind. She did not deserve what she got. I had to tell. No matter what mama said, I knew what was right. The roosters crowed. I yawned, stretching my arms to the ceiling. I threw another broken branch on the fire then cracked my knuckles. I waited for momma to make breakfast, reading to pass the time but she never came out of her room. She must have been tired.
The snow had dissipated into puddles of water. I hopped on my Schwinn and peddled the 6 miles into town. Sometimes I felt bad for the girl I stole the bike from. Her family bought her a new one the next week I kept telling myself to ease my conscience.
I passed the grocery, then the closed down tavern. The first human I encountered was Tommy. He was two years older than me. His hair the matched color as the sun paired with perfect smile, but he was meaner than a cornered snake.
“How many times did your mama hit you with the ugly stick,” Tommy picked up a rock and threw it at me, barely missing. I kept my head down until I made it to the jail. Jumped off my bike and tried to comb my fingers through my brown locks.
“Sheriff, sheriff,” my arms flailed trying to get his attention.
“What on gods green acre do you want now Bethany?” he said spitting his chewing tobacco.
“You better come quick. I found a dead girl by my house.” I sucked in air trying to catch my breath.
“Alright, you lead the way,” he jumped on his brown and white spotted horse.
That little girl could have been me. One different decision or turn but it wasn’t. I wanted to ask god why bad things happened to children, but I kept peddling. Mama taught me to never question the lord.
I pointed, then closed my eyes. “She’s right over yonder.”
The lawmen jumped off his horse, and I turned away. Some part of me wanted to look. Wanted to see a dead body in the sunlight. I fought the desire. That was the stuff nightmares are made of.
“I don’t see nothing. This best not be another one of you kids jokes.” He pursed his lips.
“No, she was just here last night. I aint fibbing, I swear,” I walked over to the lawman. I searched but he was right. She had vanished. I hid my face behind my tangled hair.
“Alright, you stay here,” he took off, shrinking in the distance.
The sky looked a funny kind of gray. One I hadn’t seen before. My breathing accelerated. A sharp pain made it’s home in my chest. My vision a blur. Tingles overcame my malnourished body. What if he couldn’t find the girl? What if he told my mama I was lying? I wrapped my arms around myself counting the holes in my green knit sweater. The echo of the horses gallops closed in. My memory came flooding back. I remembered hiding behind a tree in the distance, trying to bury the screams building in my chest as I watched. Daddy wrapped his hands around her neck until the girl with strawberries for hair took her last breath.
The sheriff returned and dismounted off his horse. Dirt danced as his feet hit the ground. “There aint nothing out here girl. Your mama been feeding you?”
My eyes widened like the holes in my only pair of socks. Could my father be responsible for all three deaths? My gasps for air did nothing to alleviate my suffocation. “I don’t feel so,” My grip on gravity vanished. I fell sideways slowly, then all at once.
Water washed over my face. My attempts to jump out of the bed were fruitless. The smell of urine and sorrow lathered the air. I tried to break free, but something held me in place. My hands and legs stuck in restraints attached to the metal frame. A nurse with stringy black hair and skin paler than a ghost stood by my side with an empty pitcher tapping her foot.
A woman of short stature, she wore a white oversized uniform, but had surprisingly good posture.
The nurse placed the pitcher on a metal cart and picked up a clip board. “Good girls don’t wet the bed. I’ll be taking away your dinner privilege tonight as punishment.”
My nostrils flared. “But I didn’t”
“Don’t sass me child.” She read the paper attached to the clipboard following along with a pencil. She continued. “How do you feel about shock treatment?”
I crinkled my nose. Her breath reeked of week old egg salad. I wondered if she had ever heard of a toothbrush. If there had been a sign of life of compassion in her eyes, I was blind to it. “That doesn’t sound fun,” my teeth chattered.
“Oh, it’s lots of fun. I think you might like it. Maybe it will help you learn to keep your mouth shut," She chuckled. “I’m nurse flora. Welcome to the organ state hospital for the mentally deranged. You are much younger than our average patient but don’t fret we’ll take good care of you.” She winked as a wicked grin overtook her mouth.
I groaned, “You have lipstick on your teeth. Why am I here? I’m not crazy.”
The nurse sucked her teeth. “That’s what they all say, and that’s something you will have to discuss with the good doctor,” Flora rolled her eyes and turned around to wipe the lipstick off her yellow stained her teeth.
She grabbed a tiny white paper cup filled with green and orange pills dumping them into my mouth. “Doctor Handsworth should be in shortly, he’s real handsome too.” Not wanting anymore problems I swallowed the pills hoping they were poison and stuck my tongue out at her. Would I ever get out of here? Psychotic Flora strutted away. Heels clicking against the dirt and vomit stained tile. What a bike woman.
Water dripped on my forehead from a gaping hole in the ceiling. I held a dimly lit hope the Doctor in question would be more understanding. I knew what this was about. The dead girl. They thought I made her up or worse imagined her. Maybe they found the body and thought I had killed her. The lights flickered.
An older gentleman with oily gray hair and a five o’clock shadow walked in. He wore tiny spectacles over his sunken eyes.
“Where the hell am I?” I asked with a bewildered expression.
“I see you are awake experiment seventy-four,” He walked around the bed to my side.
“I want to go home. My mother will look for me you know," I clinched my fist into a ball. The doctor cleared his throat, maintaining a vacant stare. “Your Mother is dead, has been for some time. You killed her. The sheriff found her body covered in maggots with chunks missing. I suspect you were eating her for sustenance. And that body you found never existed. It was all a hallucination brought on by your lack of ability to process your crime. You are what we call a schizophrenic. A danger to yourself and others. I hope you don’t plan on seeing the outside of this hospital alive.”
My mouth opened but no words came out. I yanked my arms trying to break free but the restraints refused to loosen. My eyelids grew heavy.
"Don’t fight it experiment seventy-four, you’ll only hurt yourself.” He lit a cigarette. Smoke billowed into the air. The battle continued. My mind versus my drowsy eyes. Having no idea what was real anymore. I accepted defeat.
I opened my eyes and grasped my shoulder. “Ow," I winced. My injury was red and half the size of a baseball with pus oozing out. I examined my surroundings. No door, no window, and no bed. The floor covered in an inch of muddy water. A rectangle hole neared the top of the wall, far too high to attempt an escape. I became convinced the people in charge of this facility were the insane ones.
I shouted. “Hello, is anyone up there?” My voice echoed back mocking me, followed by silence, and eventually a thump. A female body fell from the shoot. The evil doctors voice climbed down the hole into my ears, “Eat up seventy-four.” I slid down against the corner of the wall and wrapped my arms around my bent knees waiting for her to say something. The corpse didn't speak. I clenched my eyes shut as my stomach churned. Vomit climbed up my esophagus and into my mouth. I swallowed it knowing I may never eat again. I hoped my mother was somewhere nicer than this concrete prison.
The smell of death and dead dreams grew more pungent with each passing day. The bodies began to pile up, but my stomach remained empty. Nothing could make me eat a corpse. I questioned what was real and what was fiction. All I knew is that I didn't eat my momma. What a sick experiment! A wail escaped from my lips. I dried my tears and wiped away my snot bubble. The doctor was right about one thing. I would never get out of here alive. My heart overflowed with anguish. I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I banged my head against the concrete over and over searching for relief. Blood gushed down my face as I closed my eyes never opening them again.
“Mama,” I screamed jumping into her arms. “What’s heaven like?”
She pointed, “Isn’t it beautiful.”