Last week I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I discussed it in my blog post, Trust your imagination, but the brief was to write a short story of 2500 words or less and the prerequisites were as follows:
Genre – suspense Subject – PTSD Character – X-Ray technician
One of the attractions of the competition is that we can receive beta reader feedback afterwards provided that we post our stories on a blog or social media platform. So here goes …
Title: Ten days later
Synopsis: The story is set in a hospital where a young woman, Megan has gone in for an X-Ray. It is clear from the outset that something is very wrong and as the story develops, things take on a somewhat sinister tone …
When I can stand the pain no longer, I get my mum to drive me to hospital.
‘I’m worried about you, Meg,’ she says in the car. ‘You’ve been so subdued lately. Won’t you tell me what’s wrong, love?’
I see her anguish and want to tell her, long to in fact, but instead I mumble that I’m fine and wander off inside. I’m not fine though, I know that.
The hospital building consists of a maze of corridors with signs emblazoning every wall. After inquiring at reception, I go left then right, then left again and I’m in a huge waiting room with rows of yellow plastic seats and noise. Banging intrusive noise. I put my good hand over one of my ears and try to block it out, but my head’s pounding. I took two sleeping pills last night but still couldn’t sleep. I’m desperate for a drink too so I plonk myself down near the water chiller and pour some of the freezing liquid into a cup. I close my eyes and focus on the shooting pains screeching like sirens through my wrist. It’s weird but I’m almost grateful for them as at least they stop me from thinking.
I don’t look at anyone and hope no one speaks to me. The sooner I’m out of here the better. The hard plastic is rubbing against me and I can’t get comfortable. I try to ignore the mishmash of noise. Children screaming, the TV blaring and annoying announcements every five seconds. I wish to God I’d brought my iPod. Anything to protect me from this.
There are tons of seats free but an old lady sits down in the one next to me and pulls some knitting out of her bag.
‘Dreadful weather, isn’t it dear? I’m making a jumper for my granddaughter. Almost finished now.’ She proudly holds up what she’s done and I attempt to smile but smiling feels weird. The jumper has brown and orange stripes. I want to tell her that it’ll make the girl look like a bee, plus the wool is that awful scratchy stuff that brings you out in a rash. I think of my rash. On both sides of my thighs. I’ve scratched the skin so much that it’s red, itchy and bleeding now.
The old lady waffles on and on until I can’t listen any more, but she doesn’t seem to notice. An hour passes. I go to the information desk.
‘We’re running late,’ says the chap without looking up. ‘Shouldn’t be long now. There’s a coffee machine at the end of the corridor. You could probably do with a hot drink on a day like today. It’s only going to get colder you know.’
So I buy a cappuccino, and by the time I get back to my seat, the old lady has gone and I’m alone again. The waiting room is emptying out – it’s 5 o’clock, almost closing time.
There’s a stack of old magazines on the table in front of me – I lean forward and pick one out. The date on it is January 2013 and the celebrity on the front is dead now. Of cancer last year, and inside is an article on a famous couple who got married that summer. Three years on and they’re divorced. She’s with someone else I think. Dunno about him. I flick listlessly through the mag, all glossy faces and fake smiles. Dunno why people read such crap. Suddenly one of the features catches my eye. I remember that story. It was all over the news several years ago. The woman, a pop star was sexually assaulted after a concert. She disappeared into obscurity but according to the feature, she’s back. To absolute normal too. Completely fine in her showroom house with her hot model boyfriend, everything hunky dory again. Like nothing ever happened. I devour every word of the article and anger sweeps through me like a tornado.
‘Back to the Fairytale,’ it’s called.
What fucking fairytale? How can anyone go back to anything after experiencing something like that?
I scour the airbrushed photos and read and re-read all the glib words, searching for any signs of trauma. There are none. Then I chuck the magazine back on the table, put my head between my hands and stare at the shiny laminate floor, the last ten days disappearing before me like a chain of dominos.
‘Miss Jenkins, Miss Jenkins. Are you all right?’ A large black woman pats my arm. ‘I’ve called your name a dozen times.’
I jump, the woman’s sharp voice striking my nerves like an electric shock. I nod and draw a breath, raising my head to look at the woman. ‘Yes.’ I feel myself trembling.
‘Are you sure you’re okay, love? It’s your turn next. You’re with Mr Simpson in Room 6.’
I nod again. Everything around me is blurry and I can’t think straight. I sling my bag over my shoulder and move in the direction of the door.
Back to the Fairytale. I can’t get my head around it.
‘Miss Jenkins, is it?’ says the X-Ray technician. ‘Come in. Awful weather, isn’t it? They say it will snow tonight.’ He’s staring at me, completely impassive.
I look around the room. It’s small and box shaped with a table in the centre, a clock on the wall and a large X-Ray machine hanging from the ceiling. There’s a small adjoining room from where the machine is operated, and once I’m inside, I know I shouldn’t have come. When the technician shuts the door, all noise from the outside is eliminated and the only thing I can hear now is the huge clock with its long, slow thud of a tick. I bite my lip. It’s just me and him now. Me and him.
He’s still staring at me so I smile, trying to hide how I’m feeling. ‘Yes it’s cold,’ I say and shiver.
‘Please, take a seat.’ He pulls out a chair. His English is good but he has a slight accent – Middle Eastern or Italian. Something like that. It’s vaguely familiar. And his smell. It’s heady, intoxicating, too much. A musk-like aroma that drowns my nostrils and makes feel dizzy. It reminds me of something, someone.
‘It’s your right wrist, isn’t it. Is that correct?’ he says abruptly, flipping through the papers in front of him.
‘Yes,’ I say, watching the spidery writing streaming out of his pen. He’s wearing a ring. On the middle finger of his left hand. It’s silver with an Indian design, and when his cuff slips down his arm I spot a small Chinese character.
‘It means love,’ he says, when he catches me looking. ‘I hoped it might bring me some.’ He chuckles and carries on with the form. I start counting, down from twenty then up again. It’ll soon be over. I’ll soon be out of here. Never need to come back. Ever. In front of me on the wall is a picture. It’s a mass of bright colours, kind of like a kaleidoscope, and the colours seem to be changing – from pinks, to blues, to reds, like something out of a dream. I try to focus on it. Forget that I’m here. Forget that I ever came.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ says the technician. ‘It helps my patients relax. Oh, could you possibly remove your watch? Here, I’ll help.’
I feel his fleshy fingers under the strap. He pulls it through the buckle and slips it off, placing it behind him on the desk.
‘Just place your forearm here. Palm down first please. Spread your fingers slightly. That’s the ticket.’
I feel the cold metal against my skin and wince slightly, then I realise that the bruises I’ve been covering up are even bluer under the harsh lighting. I try to pull my sleeve down but I’m too late. I feel exposed. Bare. Naked.
‘Gosh, they’re rather nasty,’ says the technician, slowly running his thumbs over them. ‘How on earth did you get them?’
‘I fell,’ I say and look away.
‘I see.’ He glances at me for a second then repeats the procedure again, palm side up this time. I squeeze my eyes shut, obliterating the fluorescent lights boring into me from above.
‘There are people you can talk to,’ he says. ‘People who can help.’ He’s close to me now, his breath on me. Warm. Heavy. It smells of coffee and cigarettes.
I shake my head, tears running down my cheeks. ‘No,’ I say. ‘No.’
He passes me a handkerchief then smiles slightly and disappears into the adjoining room to switch off the machine. ‘Well that’s it. Nothing broken. You’re a very lucky girl.’
His voice is quiet, sinister, a ghostlike whisper. He lifts my wrist away from the machine and holds onto it for a moment, his grip a little tighter than before. I flinch and pull away.
‘I meant what I said, you know. You don’t need to suffer alone.’
I slowly raise my eyes. The way he’s looking at me. That smile. Those perfect white teeth. And the eyes; amber with a flicker of yellow. I’d never seen eyes like that. Not till that night. It’s him. I know it is. I look away, a feeling of nausea enveloping me. The smell of him is suddenly everywhere; in my lungs, my brain, my consciousness. I have to get out of there.
‘You look awfully pale, Miss Jenkins. Are you okay?’
The room is closing in on me. I gasp for air. The X-Ray technician is standing in front of the door. I scream, shove him out of the way and jam my sore hand down on the handle. It opens and I’m free. The waiting room is empty now and even the receptionists have gone. I pull my hood over my head and search frantically for the exit. A green rectangular sign appears out of nowhere and I stagger towards it. An old lady with her hair in a bun is mopping the floor nearby.
‘Careful, love,’ she says as I bump into her.
In the car park, the icy air is cold and fresh. It’s dark now and flurries of snow have started to fall. I take a deep breath and begin to walk. Faster and faster. Faster and faster. I rush through the gate and turn left, darting down a side street. The main road is five minutes away. The bus stop isn’t far. I can make it. I know I can. But suddenly I hear him.
‘Miss Jenkins. Megan!’
‘No!’ I close my eyes and run, the pain in my wrist forgotten.
His footsteps are getting nearer. He’s almost upon me. ‘Miss Jenkins, wait!’
I run faster. Like a gazelle, a sprinter, an athlete; my heartbeat in my ears. ‘No,’ I scream again. Over and over. Over and over. I can’t breathe. Flashes from that night are coming back, then vanishing. Coming back, then vanishing. Like a fucked up fairground ride. His smell. His voice. His body. Pushing onto me. Into me. His laugh. Nasty. Sneering. Evil. His hands mauling and grabbing at my body.
Lurid neon and chicken shops leap out at me from the high street. I run the last few yards and reach the bus stop, breathless. The 159 pulls up beside me. I jump on and sink into a seat.
The X-Ray technician is close behind. He stops just as the doors of the bus shut but I hear what he says. ‘You forgot your watch, Miss Jenkins. That was all.’ And as he begins to walk back to the hospital, I see him slip my watch into his pocket and smile to himself.