Hey! Part 4
Rest evaded Audrey once again. She’d snatched a few winks sometime between 2:00 and 3:00, but after that she was right back up, still feeling like crap. She decided to try a new tactic: getting out her phone and earbuds, listening to music the rest of the night. She was glad that she was able to hone in on the rhythms and the lyrics, keeping her from thinking of other things (for the most part). But she never went back to sleep.
She lugged herself out of bed come 6:45. And though she slurred when she spoke, and her head lolled about through her calls, she put in another full day. Her pitches were bland, straightforward, but at least she could get the basics across, when someone did bother to answer. She suffered more belligerent customers, more tirades about how “they” needed to quit calling them. And it wore on her. After her final call ended (and despite making a sale) she set her palms to her temples and curled her legs up into her chair. She felt like she was on the verge of tears, of screaming her head off.
It looked like her shoulders were already slumping.
She couldn’t keep up with this, with work. Not with what she was going through—with all she was trying so hard not to think about. Tomorrow was Friday. Her day off. The weekend was upon her, but she had to put in a few hours every Saturday and Sunday. And right now, feeling how she was, that seemed interminable.
If she had to make another call without a good night’s rest to back it up, she was going to snap. She’d not only sell pans to people, she’d be telling where to snuggly store them.
Her aching eyes eventually glanced over to her corner desk. The afternoon light splayed in from her window, falling upon a jar of pens and pencils, sending shadowy fingers along the wall. The sight of it brought the tiniest bit of ease to her, and she started to consider something.
A few minutes later she’d emailed her boss, requesting vacation time, effective this Saturday and carrying on until the Monday after next. She was entitled to it, and although it was rather short notice, she thought she’d get it. She was a model employee (minus the last two days) and she pushed the ailing father story a tad in her message. She felt a little bad using her perfectly healthy father like that, but honestly, she’d done far worse as of late.
If her boss gave the vacation an okay, she’d use it to get straight, to get some relieving work done on her new book and its art. And after a week off, she’d be back in the swing of things. It sounded good. Best of all, it sounded like it could work. But it all hinged on her getting some blessed sleep again.
Audrey decided she wouldn’t leave it to chance. She changed out of her pajamas and headed downstairs, aiming to drive to the nearest Walgreens. Some NightAid would do the trick. She’d taken it plenty times before, and though it sometimes made her a little loopy, it’d never failed to get her to sleep through the worst headaches or the stuffiest colds. Hell, she’d chug it until she had little dragons flying around her head and saw Pavarotti singing in her shower, if only she could catch some Z’s afterwards.
She got into her Escalade and drove off, winding through the suburbs of Danville and heading towards the small-town bustle of Main Street. The streets were quiet, near-barren, the school buses already finished up with their routes for the day and the nine-to-five folks still an hour off from freedom. The sky was starting to get overcast, dull gray clouds drifting across the sun, looking like a spot of rain was on its way.
After a few blocks, the total stillness of everything began to pester Audrey. She reached for the radio and poked the nub, the sound of electric guitars and thumping drums blaring into the car. It made her jump. Sparing a little laugh at herself, she looked back to the radio, making to turn down the volume. But then the chorus of the song struck up; hearing it sent a chill along her hand, staying it along with the rest of her.
It was “Help!” by the Beatles.
Audrey felt as though she slipped out of herself in that moment. She hung there in the car, the loud music becoming muffled to her distant ears and the feel of the wheel just a vague sensation in her clinched hand. She finally snapped back when she saw something appear in her windshield, emerging from her peripherals. She looked back ahead and felt a scream catch in her chest.
Marcy Houghton stood in the street, staring straight at Audrey as the Escalade barreled towards her.
Audrey swore and jammed her foot on the brake, her other hand shooting back to the wheel, the tires beneath her screeching as they ground against the pavement. Her seatbelt constricted along her chest as she lurched forward, the car finally stopping as she waited for a harsh thump to sound out.
It didn’t. Audrey flung back her hair, looking ahead again.
A little girl stood only a couple feet away from the Escalade’s nose, but it wasn’t Marcy Houghton. Not by a long shot. Only her head was visible from over the hood, her face gone pale and slack in dumbfounded amazement.
The little girl blinked and slowly stepped back from the nose of the car as a shrill voice rose up loud and clear, even against the Beatles. “Jenna Marie!”
Audrey saw an elderly woman shuffling her way into the street from the front yard off to the right. Her features were caught in a mixture of fear and fury. “I told you to never run into the street!” The woman, perhaps the girl’s grandmother, grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up against her hip, leading her quickly away. She glared back at Audrey as they went. “And you need to pay some damned attention!”
Audrey would’ve shouted back a sincere apology, but she couldn’t speak. She could hardly even move. She just sat there for a minute, the Beatles still singing, still pleading.
What the hell had just happened? The question hammered against her skull as she finally, slowly drove off.
She could have sworn it had been . . .
She saw her. The pigtails. The dark dress, from the photo on the news. The one she was wearing the day Audrey had . . .
But she hadn’t been smiling, not like in the photo. No. She was just standing there, staring . . .
And it hadn’t seemed like some passing spur of imagination. Sure, she was damn tired, but to actually see . . .
Surely she wasn’t that out of it. But if not that, then . . . ?
Good lord, if she’d braked any later, she would have—
—she would have let another child die.
And with that smack of a realization, Audrey pulled her car over to the curb. She put it in park. She punched the radio off and all was quiet again. It really didn’t help in the least.
She set her head to the wheel. She cried, choking on apologies that no one heard.
By the time she got back home with her three large bottles of NightAid, Audrey’s boss had emailed her back. He had signed off on her vacation, as she’d expected, and he said he hoped it would be a relaxing one for her. Audrey had just sighed bitterly at that and broken open a bottle of the clear-pink medication, taking a big swig of it. She didn’t give a damn about measuring it out. Then she fell into bed, leaving her street-clothes on.
She slept. Sort of.
She managed to get in four hours’ worth, which at this point was a victory she would gladly take. But when she woke up to the nighttime, and those thoughts started to creep back in like an evening tide, she ached for more slumber. She took another hit of the NightAid, but it took a bit longer for it to kick in.
And that was the pattern of her weekend, with little else for variety: guzzle and sleep, wake and lament, rinse and repeat. She missed a call from her sister; Dana texted her shortly after, to say she’d be stopping by later in the week to drop off a piece of crockery she’d bought for Audrey at some sale. Harland Poole had tried getting in touch with her, too. Multiple times. He left voicemails that Audrey never bothered to listen to. She wasn’t up for getting her ass kissed by him, or for any of his passive pushing to hurry it up with the new book.
By Monday she was in moderately better spirits—at least, a damn sight better than she had been—and she had caught just enough rest to function somewhat properly. The nights were still a bit rough and long, and the daytime hours became her go-to chance to nap.
Come Tuesday, she was finally intent on getting some writing and drawing done, or whichever she could manage. Her hand was a little shaky, and her thoughts still dove in and out of order—maybe from all that medication she’d consumed, maybe from her still-troubled sleep—but she forced herself to get a go on her new project. She tried to get some character profiles down first. Figuring out their intricacies before she wrote their story. It ended up consuming the whole day, minus a few choice breaks to the bathroom or to stare at the walls in encroaching defeat. A few good tidbits came to her, but for the most part it was just uninspired drivel. The same warmed-over crap she’d seen in countless kid’s books. For every idea she halfway liked there were five she tossed out, scratching her pen across her notepad in frustration.
Eventually, she decided that a bit of unconsciousness sounded better than toiling at something that just wouldn’t come. She took another hit and lay down. It took a couple grueling hours, but she eventually dozed off.
When she woke up (for good, that was) it was Wednesday afternoon, and she thought she’d give some sketching a shot. If her character’s personalities wouldn’t come to her, maybe their likenesses, at least, would. She’d set herself at her corner desk and got to it. She drew and colored in what started at a slow, deliberate pace, getting a feel for what she pictured in her mind—but as the hours passed, it switched into a furious flurry of paper and frantic curses. There was a blockade between her thoughts and her hand, the lines she drew growing more and more crooked, her shading just sloppy, every little thing she put to paper looking like a half-rate grade schooler’s doodles. Half a notebook’s worth of paper ended up crumpled or torn, tossed into her wastebasket or left on her table to clutter. Some bore the soggy marks of tears, which Audrey hadn’t even been aware of shedding—not until she was just putting down erratic swoops and zig-zags, with no meaning to them beyond loosing her angst.
Her worn pencil eventually snapped in her hand, her grip a vice. She’d been clenching it between throbbing fingers. She cradled her arm and stared at her fingers awhile, as though recognizing them for the first time, their skin now red and angry. Another break quickly followed, one that was felt only in Audrey’s mind; she pushed herself away from her desk, pens rattling and falling to the floor.
She went for the NightAid, finishing off the second bottle. She threw herself into bed and screamed into the mattress.
Patrick Winters is a graduate of Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL, where he earned a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. He has been published in the likes of Sanitarium Magazine, The Sirens Call, Trysts of Fate, and other such titles.
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