by J.E. Allen
A story about a young couple, caught between the future, love, and intense tragedy.
Catherine Ross stood at the full-length mirror in her quaint upstairs bedroom a little after nine in the morning, getting ready for a picnic with her boyfriend, Scott. She furrowed her brow at her poor choice of an outfit for the day's activities. She quickly undressed and went back to the drawing board. Perusing her closet, she eyed the yellow sundress she had yet to wear this spring. "I forgot all about you! How lucky!" she said out loud. A smile blissfully canvassed her pretty face as she removed the hanger from the closet. She held it up to the light for inspection. She now remembered the reason she bought this particular sundress: there were little white lilies printed on it.
After pulling the dress over her head, she once again assessed herself in the mirror, and this time she approved. I look cute today, she thought to herself and smiled. Her smile faded when she thought about her boyfriend, Scott, and what she had to do today.
"How ya doin', hon? Oh my, you look great! Need me to zip you up?" her mom said from the hallway outside of her bedroom door.
With a sigh, Catherine said, "Yeah Mom, c'mon in."
As she walked into the room, Mrs. Ross saw the troubled look on her daughter's face. It was a sadness she had seen more than a few times in between her daughter's seventeen birthdays.
The first time was when Catherine was only 4 years old and had lost her trusty stuffed companion, Mr. Snugglebunny. Mr. Snugglebunny was not a bunny; he was a brown, long-eared, stuffed Basset Hound. She insisted on the name because of its long ears, even though her father reminded her several times it was, in fact, a canine. He would try to prove this fact by lifting the poor dog's ears into the air. "See honey, the ears don't even stand straight up, like Peter Rabbit's do. It's a puppy!" her father would try to explain. But when her father let go of the long ears and they flopped down, Catherine would start to giggle uncontrollably, spouting little tears of joy.
"That's Mr. Snugglebunny because he's my snugglebunny, Daddy," she would say softly. Her dad realized he couldn't argue with that logic.
Her mother found Mr. Snugglebunny behind the clothes hamper in the hallway bathroom, but not before she witnessed her daughter spend four terrifying nights without her stalwart stuffed protector. When her nightlight was no longer a suitable deterrent for the monsters in her closet or under her bed, she would run down the hallway crying to her parent's room, and her father would pull back the covers and allow passage into a warm and safe refuge.
Her mother knew her daughter's sadness would pass. Once Mr. Snugglebunny was back in his rightful place by her side, Catherine bounced back into the joyous little girl she always was. It was as if the days spent sulking and the nights spent crying herself into a fitful sleep never happened. Her mother was thankful for that.
A few years later, she had found the stuffed doll underneath her daughter's bed, long forgotten. Mr. Snugglebunny was missing one of his large, sad, plastic eyes, and his left ear was hanging by a thread. Catherine would always drag the toy around the house by that one ear. It was the perfect carrying handle for a four-year-old.
When her mother finished zipping up the dress, she turned Catherine towards the mirror and stood behind her, straightening the hem and pulling her long brown hair from her shoulders. Looking into her daughter's eyes through the reflection in the mirror, she said, "Today's the day, huh?" Catherine nodded her head. Her mother said, "Well, he's a smart kid, and I'm sure it's going to be painful at first, but he'll eventually understand. Life is full of these bumps in the road. This won't be the last, not for either of you. I know eight months is a long time for teenagers to be in a relationship, but you both have the rest of your lives ahead of you," she offered her daughter. Catherine welcomed the sage advice from her mother, but it still didn't ease the pain of what she had to do.
She lowered her head and said, "I really do care for him. But I'm off to college in the fall, and I need to focus on school, not on a long-distance relationship. I'll still see him over the holiday break." Today, her mother was more of a friend, helping her through a tough time, than the woman who took her driving privileges away when she wasn't home by nine o'clock on a school night.
Her mother turned Catherine around and said, "Look, I know he's a sweet boy - a little strange sometimes - but your father and I care for him too. But, you have to focus on your future, and we stand by whatever decision you make. We love you."
She embraced her mother and said, "I love you too, Mom. I better hurry up; he'll be here soon," she said as she gave herself one last look in the mirror. "I still have to load up the picnic basket."
Scott pulled up to the driveway in his beat-up old Honda as Catherine was placing a plastic container of potato salad into the basket. Throwing the handle over her arm, she yelled to her mother, "Love you, Mom. I'm leaving now," and went out the door, not sure if her mother had heard her. Jane Ross would always regret not being able to hug her daughter and say goodbye, one last time.
Catherine bounced down the driveway toward the car, just as Scott was finishing a call with one of his friends. "Did you clean your car, mister?" she chided through the open driver's side window.
"As a matter of fact, yes I did, missy. Mickey D's wrappers and all," he said with a coy smile creeping up on his face. She was always making fun of his dirty car. He knew she was only kidding; it was one of their many inside jokes. He exited the car to get the door for her. Chivalry was alive and well with Scott; he was so in love.
She handed him the picnic basket and brought her free hand to shield her eyes from the sun and said, "OK, good. I'm wearing my best sundress for you today, and your dirty car better not mess it up!"
"Your chariot awaits, my dear," he said holding on to the door like a poised and professional chauffeur. He closed the door and put the basket in the back seat and walked back around to start the car.
Before Scott got back in the car, Catherine pulled down the visor mirror and looked herself in the eye and said, "You got this girl; it's gonna be ok," but she felt her fake-smile fading.
Scott got back into the driver's seat and took notice of the worried look on her face and asked, "Everything ok, babe?"
Startled at how easy it was for Scott to see through her act, she replied, "Yeah, everything is great. We're going to have an awesome day. Who were you talking to, by the way?" she said, trying to change the subject.
"Oh, that was Kevin. He and Mike are hanging out today and wondered when I would be back in town to meet up. Told them I didn't know, because I was hanging out with my lady!"
She mustered another smile as he reversed out of the driveway, hoping this time it would stick. "You're going to have to let me meet them one day," she said. Although, she knew that would probably never happen after she broke his heart into a million pieces. He would probably never speak to her again. Her stomach turned in knots and she felt the guilt building in her chest. Keep it together, Catherine!
They arrived at Clear Lake a little after ten o'clock. Getting out of the car, they both marveled at the sun reflecting off the crystal clear water. The deep blue sky was full of puffy white clouds, and a slight breeze cooled the air. Scott noticed Catherine's light-green eyes were radiant in the mid-day sun, and her hair wisped around her beautiful face as they held hands and strolled to the picnic site near the shore.
Catherine pulled a red and white picnic blanket from the large basket. Both grabbing a side, they laid it down on the soft grass and began setting up for lunch. They ate thick ham sandwiches they had to cut with a knife along with potato salad and a piece of apple pie smothered with a dollop of whipped cream.
When the meal was done, Scott moved the plates out of the way and laid his head down in Catherine's lap. He commented, "Boy, was that a good meal. I'm so stuffed, thank you." As he looked up into the sky, his face showed complete satisfaction.
Catherine hesitated. She wasn't sure if she could go through with breaking up with Scott. It was such a beautiful day. She closed her eyes and focused her thoughts. Mustering the strength to do what had to be done, she looked down at Scott and said, "There's something I wanted to talk to you about." Her heart was beating a million miles a minute. "It's important, Scott."
He made eye contact with Catherine and pushed himself up to one elbow and said, "You can talk to me about anything, honey. What is it?"
At first, he didn't have the strength to open his eyes. It seemed the only part of his body working was his ears, and their sole purpose was to hear the distant sound of water dripping from...the ceiling...the wall, where am I?
Scott was slowly emerging from a chemically-induced sleep, and he shuddered at the sticky, cold drool collecting around his slightly opened mouth, causing his face to adhere to the padded cloth floor. Trying to move, he discovered someone had bound his arms, drugged him, and tossed him face down in the darkness. He had no idea who had kidnapped him, but the one thing he was sure of is that he needed to find Catherine and get the hell out of this place.
His heart twisted as the memory of Clear Lake flooded his mind. Catherine was absolutely stunning in her yellow sundress. The little printed white lilies danced as they held hands and walked along the shoreline, looking for the perfect spot for their picnic. He was absolutely in love.
Her parents even loved him. He had an open invitation to dinner any night of the week (except on Sundays), and they were always spending the evenings in the family room, watching movies and eating popcorn. It was some of his most favorite times, and Scott believed it was definitely better than spending time with his own family, which was difficult to do since his father ran out on them two years ago with a younger, bustier, childless blond woman.
During the day, his mother worked two jobs, and at night, she focused on drinking herself to death, one cheap plastic bottle of vodka at a time. She didn't even bother to mix her booze anymore; she drank it straight. Scott helped his mother pay the bills by bagging groceries after school, even managing to keep a little change in his pocket. He couldn't wait to move out and move on with his own life. With Catherine by his side, of course.
Scott managed to painstakingly roll onto his right side, and when he turned his head, he grimaced as he felt his neck return to its normal position. How long had he been lying that way? His muscle fibers felt like the old beef jerky Scott used to find on the floorboards in the backseat of his car.
The only light visible, was coming from around a huge steel door, which looked as if it could withstand a nuclear attack. His arms were bound in front of his body, in a way that resembled someone hugging themselves. Scott realized he was in a straightjacket.
He tried to think of how he got here, in this cold, dark cell, unable to move. Who would do something like this? Who would be so sinister to kidnap at 17-year-old? Was Catherine OK? His mind began to clear, and he tried hard to remember what happened to them and how the hell he had gotten into this mess.
He finally managed to sit himself up. His back screamed out in defiance and his legs fought to stretch forward. Nausea swept over him from the physical exertion and most likely from dehydration. Judging from the distance of the light, he figured the room was about ten-feet squared. He closed his eyes and he pressed the back of his head against the soft, padded wall and tried to clear his thoughts. Focus, Scott! He figured he must be in some abandoned hospital basement. He couldn't remember any old, dilapidated medical facilities locally, so he figured he must be far from home. That's right, Scott, gather the facts. Try to make sense of it all and find a way out of here.
That's when he recalled something horrifying: the echoing sound of rattling keys. Scott's mind convulsed with a vision of him wearing a white hospital gown and frantically running down a long corridor filled with doors. The hallway, painted in bright strobes of red light, also emitted a deafening siren that violently threatened to liquefy his ear drums. Desperate banging thundered from the hallway doors, accompanied by wails of torture and screams of absolute delight.
In this memory, Scott reared his head to see if he was being chased, and in doing so, he tripped on his hospital gown and went sprawling on the tile floor. His arms immediately came forward to catch his fall, but his face did most of the work stopping his body. The white cinder block walls laughed at his misfortune, and his whole body hurt from the shock of the fall. The taste of warm copper flooded his mouth, but he mustered the strength to get back on his hands and knees, where he managed to pull in a few large breaths of fresh, much-needed air. Droplets of blood fell to the white tiles beneath him.
He looked ahead down the hallway and saw a green painted door, with very institutional white stenciled lettering that read, "Outside Visitation Area," with words below that read, "Visitor Parking Area." This is it, this must be the way out! Scott got to his feet, and with renewed vigor and determination, he ran towards the door. He shoved the intense fear to the back of his mind, and lauded the idea of freedom.
Scott reached the door just as his lungs began to burn (how had I gotten so out of shape?) He reached desperately for the brass knob and grasped it with his clammy hand, giving it a hard turn. Nothing. The door--the only obstacle left in his path to freedom--was tightly secured by a simple deadbolt.
He screamed, "NOOOOOOO!" Balling his fists, he frantically began banging on the door. The sirens and the lights inexplicably stopped, and after a second or two, the screams and laughter died down as well. It was like the other captive "patients" knew something more dangerous was coming. Scott's spine froze in his back, like a small stream in a blistering January winter. That's when he first heard the sound of rattling keys.
At first, the sound was far away, and Scott's heart stopped beating in his chest. That meant he may have more time to get out, but the sound was getting closer and more aggressive. He started banging again frantically; he didn't care if he broke his hands trying. He was going to get someone's attention--someone had to help. Scott cried, "Somebody help me! I'm being held hostage! Somebody please!"
The rattling stopped for a split-second, as if the bearer of the sinister key ring was trying to listen for Scott. He wondered how many keys were on the ring, each signifying a person confined to their death sentence in this hospital of nightmares. How many of these tortured souls were already dead?
The key holder turned into Scott's hallway, and the rattling of the keys got louder and quicker, as whatever dark figure picked up the pace. Falling to the floor, Scott curled up in a fetal position, closed his eyes and accepted his fate. Before the world went dark again, he envisioned a singular drop of blood falling through the air, splashing onto the petal of a perfect summer lily.
The memory faded and Scott's mind returned to the padded cell. He banged his head against the soft wall and let out a frustrated moan; hot tears formed in the corners of his eyes.
"Finally awake, huh? I wouldn't make too much noise if I were you," a voice suggested from the darkness to his left.
Scott's breath froze, and he struggled to blink the tears away and to focus on the dark room. He could see the different shades of gray and black coursing through his vision, as his eyes and brain attempted to make sense of his surroundings. Then he saw it. The light coming from underneath the door partially illuminated the middle section of the room. He could barely see the outline of a foot, stretching into the column of light.
"Who...who's there?!" Scott demanded, as he tried to draw in breath.
The voice replied, "Scott, its Kevin."
Scott shook his head and let out an exasperated gasp of relief. He suddenly became excited at the prospect of having some help to getting out of here. How did they kidnap him as well? What kind of sick bastards am I dealing with?
"Yeah, and Mike is here too!" a voice coming from the right spoke a little too loudly.
"Shhhh Mike, we're gonna get Scott in trouble."
Scott could see another foot jutting into the light to his right. Mike was sitting directly across from Kevin on the right side of the room. Now he had his two best friends with him. Neither of them could see the big smile on Scott's face, but they both heard him when he started laughing.
Kevin let out a groan and Mike chuckled.
Kevin, sounding worried, said, "Shhhh, be quiet, Scott! You don't want him to hear."
"Fuck him, we'll jump his ass, take his stupid keys, and we'll escape this hell-hole!" Mike again said too loudly.
Scott's laughing died down, and he regained his composure. The room was still dark, and it was difficult to see his friends, but their presence was a great relief. He didn't feel alone anymore; he had faith they would make it out of this alive.
"How did we get here, guys? What the hell happened?" Scott inquired.
Kevin said, "You don't remember?"
"No, I don't. Everything is a blur and foggy. I think they drugged me, or us. I...I just don't know," Scott explained. "Someone, fill me in!"
He could see movement to his left as Kevin repositioned himself and said, "We wouldn't be in here if it wasn't for what Mike did!"
"Oh here we fucking go again with this bullshit!" Mike said with palpable frustration. Even in the dark, Scott could feel the tension. These two were always fighting about something. Scott wondered how they were such good friends. "If I wasn't in this straitjacket, I'd beat your ass."
"Why are you such a bully? Why do you like hurting people, Michael!"
"Why are you such a pussy, Kevin? All you think about is hugs and rainbows and shit. You don't have a mean bone in your body; that's what I'm here for. Scott needs me to be strong. You just hold him back with all your bullshit feelings. You wanted Scott to marry her or some shit, didn't you!?"
Scott interjected, "What happened to Catherine? Is she OK? Is she here too? We need to find her and get the hell out of here!" His friends became quiet. Their feuding had ceased for a moment.
Neither of them was sure how to proceed until Mike said, "You don't have to worry about her anymore, buddy. She's gone. Good riddance to her; she didn't love you anyway-"
"She was just going away for college!" Kevin interrupted.
"She was breaking up with him. I couldn't let her hurt my best friend like that!"
Getting louder, Kevin exclaimed, "She was coming back in the summer!"
Mike said, "She was gonna go fuck other guys next summer. She was going off to college where she'd meet tons of new people. It would all start with her forgetting to text, and then to call, and then all-together, she'd forget all about poor little Scotty with his piece of shit car, crappy job and alcoholic mother. Why would she stick around for him!?"
Kevin's anger reached its boiling-point and he screamed, "YOU DIDN'T HAVE TO KILL HER, YOU SICK FUCK!!"
Scott, worried and confused, said to his friends, "No, she's fine guys. The last thing I remember is that she made ham sandwiches, and we sat laughing and talking all afternoon by the lake."
Mike laughed again and said, "She was taking you there to break up with you. She didn't want you causing a scene. Hence, the picnic by the secluded lake, dumbass! You're almost as bad as Kevin over here."
"You-you're lying! She can't be dead!"
"She's gone, Scott! As soon as she said that she wanted to break up with you, Mike took the knife from the picnic basket and stabbed her."
"Yeah, in her pretty little belly, right through that stupid yellow dress with the white flowers on it. TURNED ALL THOSE FLOWERS RED! She won't be hurting you again, buddy. I fixed her."
At that moment, Scott had another blinding vision of Catherine, from that day at Clear Lake. She was lying on her back on a checkered red and white picnic blanket, hands grasping at the gaping wound that penetrated her abdomen, with a wild look of confusion and terror in her light-green eyes. The yellow sun dress was stained crimson. The final image in Scott's mind before the rage, terror and insurmountable grief reached its paramount, was Scott looking down at the knife in his bloody hands. The cold, serrated edge was stained with blood all the way down to the hilt. Scott remembered the truth.
That's when he started screaming.
A sudden crash reverberated throughout the cell. A thousand-pound battering ram slammed into the steel door, giving the poor frame a run for its money. There again was the familiar, terrifying sound of keys rattling.
"Oh no, he's coming!" Kevin warned.
Scott didn't care what was going to happen now. His Catherine was gone, and it had been his fault. He didn't care if he ever left this place. He kept on screaming. It was the only thing he had control over.
The lock in the big steel door turned and made a satisfied clunk. A blinding light from the hallway flooded the room and Scott closed his eyes, but the tears and the screams kept rolling.
A giant man was standing in the doorway, with a long chain holding a heavy set of keys. The bright fluorescent light flowed into the room around him, shrouding his large, thick body in darkness. With three large strides, he crossed the room and grabbed Scott Evans by the neck and brought his body three-feet off the ground, using only one impossibly strong arm.
"You better get off the noise, you sick fuck! I'm tired of listening to your screaming every damn night! For three years, I've been listening to this shit!" Officer Woodworth of the Sunny Valley Mental Institute ("for the criminally insane," the locals always added with raised eyebrows) screamed into Scott's face. The guard's horrendous breath propelled a flake of chewing tobacco onto Scott's cheek.
He picked Scott up with both hands and slammed him down on the padded floor, knocking the air from his lungs. Woodworth pulled apart the back of his hospital gown, exposing his bare ass to the world, and Scott began to squirm, thinking the worst.
"Shut up, you little lunatic. It's time for your medicine." A nurse scurried in through the open door, and he felt the cold moisture of an alcohol wipe, and then the hot prick of a hypodermic needle entering his buttock. Scott's screaming stopped.
As the nurse made her way out of the room, Woodworth rolled him onto his side and got within an inch of his face and said, "Who the hell were you talking to anyway? Your little friends again? Look around, dipshit. No one is here!"
Scott scanned the now well-lit padded cell and saw that he was all alone. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that already.
The guard maintained his grip and formidable distance and continued, "Remember the other day when you ran away from that group counseling session in the cafeteria? I had a good laugh when I found you crying by the outside visitation door. You sure did give those other patients a scare. Did you hear them screaming? They didn't know what the escape sirens were for; you had this place up in arms. That hasn't happened 'round here in a while. Every time you remember killing that poor girl, you flip out again. The judge should have given you the electric chair, instead of this nice padded cell. Well anyway, that Thorazine should be kicking in right about now. Sweet dreams, Scotty boy."
He let go of Scott, and he slumped back to that all too familiar position, face down on the padded cell floor. Officer Woodworth left the room and slammed the door. A few patients down the hall began cheering with glee and screaming bloody murder at the loud crash.
A stream of slobber formed in the corner of his slightly opened mouth. His friends Kevin and Mike were gone for now, but they'd be back. They had been by his side since he was a little boy. Kevin had always been so nice, and Mike--well, he was always the one causing trouble. They were like two sides of the same coin. Scott was the coin.
He could hear the distant, comforting sound of water dripping. Was that coming from the wall? He was almost certain it was. Scott Evans was going to the only place where he could forget what he had done, even if only for a night. He drifted off to his warm, fuzzy Thorazine reprieve.