by Tianna Grosch
(novel excerpt turned short fiction)
published by Cauldron Anthology,
Issue 5 "Seer" theme
July 13, 2018
I jolt awake to someone straddling me, hands tight on my forearms and pinning me against the cot. My first thought is to scream, but when I open my mouth a sweaty palm slaps over my lips before I can make a sound.
“Hush, sweetheart, it’s only me.”
I feel her breath in my ear and loosen my muscles.
Charlotte removes her hand from my mouth.
“You scared the shit out of me. What’re you doing?” I demand, trying to sit up.
Charlotte’s leaning so close to my face, our noses almost bump each other.
“I couldn’t get you to stop thrashing.” She rises off me.
A slight disappointment settles in my gut at the absence of her skin. Heat rises, prickling my cheeks. “Sorry, I must’ve been dreaming.”
“More like nightmares.” It’s too dark to see, but Charlotte tilts her head and I bet she’s giving me a look. “You alright, hun? I’ve been worried.”
“I’m fine, just dealing with consequences.”
“We’re all dealing with those in here. You want to talk, it’s good to get that shit out.”
I take a deep breath and hold it for a few counts.
“I still see his face, sometimes.”
“Whatever he was,” Charlotte says. “He’s your past. Don’t give him control over your present.”
“I know I shouldn’t let him, after everything he took from me.”
“You’re still giving him power to take from you.” Charlotte places a warm hand on my shoulder. “It’s past time to let him go, sweetheart.”
I lean into Charlotte’s touch as she puts an arm around me. We rest back against the cold wall of our cell, nestled together and listening to each other’s breathing. Her heart pounds fast, a heavy rhythm in my ears as I rest my head against her shoulder. When she begins talking, it’s a low rumble of thunder in my head, the vibration of her voice echoing all throughout my body.
“I had a few bad relationships in college. Whenever one of those douchebags made me feel worthless, I went down the shore. I’d head to the nearest beach and curl my toes beneath warm sand, wipe my mind clean listening to the sound of the waves.”
“I’ve never been to the ocean.”
“Never?” Charlotte shifts beside me and brushes hair off my forehead. “I take it for granted, growing up with it in my backyard most of my life.”
“What brought you to New Mexico?”
“My husband got a job out here. It broke my heart to leave the seaside, but I was pregnant with our first child and I wasn’t going to raise him on my own.”
“I would’ve done the same.”
“Yeah,” Charlotte says, then sighs. “Who would’ve thought I’d end up in here?”
Nighttime in prison is full of cat calls and howls from other cells, like stepping inside a zoo of exotic animals. Every so often, the night shift CO yells for everyone to pipe down but it remains quiet for a few minutes at most. I wonder how anyone gets sleep. Maybe they take shifts, wake each other up to continue the cacophony.
Silence is worse – when it goes quiet on the block and you can hear every tick, every scurry of could-be mice or rats across the floor. Not sleeping isn’t such a bad thing, a blessing in disguise. Every time I close my eyes the nightmares begin.
It starts out as a nice dream, with Cassandra in the meadow. Like Elysium, a true paradise surrounding us. The meadow is greener than the deepest emerald, the grass shimmers in the sunlight, swaying in a light breeze. Cassandra races through the field, giggling. She picks a bouquet of bright flowers and brings them to me, holding them out for me to sniff. Golden hair is braided down her back and swings as she turns and races away. There’s a flash and the storm hits without warning. Lightning streaks across the meadows, outlining Cassandra’s form in the dark for a split-second before she’s gone. No matter where I search, I can’t find her.
My dreams return to the same image: a single, cracked headlight, flashing against a pile of crumbling rock. A truck leaning on its nose, shoved deep in the earth with a stream trickling alongside it and a cliff rising above. I’d recognize it anywhere, even in my dreams: the Rio Grande Gorge. And at the bottom, that solo headlight, winking. It breaks through my momentary paradise.
The sky rumbles with thunder, air crisp with the promise of rain. I breathe deep, absorb the power of the storm’s approach. Wind whips around me, pulling against my body, desperate to consume. It drags me closer to the edge and bits of rock crumble beneath the soles of my feet.
Eight-hundred feet deep, rivets cut into the rocks through years of erosion by the river flowing through the gulley of the Gorge. A streak of lightning ignites the sky. Heavy clouds roll overhead. At the very bottom that incessant, strobing light like a heartbeat. Like a soul breathing down there. It flashes against jagged rocks, imprinting on the backs of my eyelids and illuminating the gorge like a steady strobe, each strike of lightning revealing something new: crushed metal and shattered steel grill, thick black smoke chugging from a busted engine, the hood bent in. Calling attention to itself, the jet-black Toyota crunching further into the earth. Pushing its nose deep, the imprint lasting forever. The wick on a stick of dynamite burnt to the end, waiting for the spark to ignite in a burst of flame.
Rain hits like icicles against my skin. I am a crow watching above, swooping over the wreck to peer inside the cab with beady eyes. Behind the windshield, twin dangling arms reach out but never grasp, never touch the keys in the ignition. An engagement ring shines beneath the seat. That wincing, broken headlight, shards of glass glinting on all sides as if to say I’m here, I’m here. Come find me.
Instead of answering, I lean my head back and trail my eyes up. Stars cast a net above. I yearn to pull them closer or drag myself up among them. An orange glow of fire erupts below. The wind tugs, pulling me down the Gorge and I lose my balance, free-falling into flames. Spinning in a whirlpool of bright stars, the sensation of falling down the cliffside to the bottom of the gorge jerks me awake, covered in a cold sweat. Dreams loom over me. A headachy, sticky fog wraps my mind like a spider’s web. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
“The rhythm of the ocean calmed me,” Charlotte says, “I found an inner peace I was able to take with me wherever I went.”
“Describe it?” I ask.
“The waves never stop moving. Sometimes you’ll go to the beach and won’t see much sand when the tide is high. But when it’s low, the sand stretches for miles and you find treasures left behind – sea glass and shells, even creatures washed ashore, poor things.” She pauses. “The sea glass was always my favorite. Look how the ocean wears the glass down little by little, wave by wave, until it’s smooth to the touch, then spits it out along the shoreline. Spending so much time to create beauty only to discard it for the discovery of another.”
Charlotte turns to me in the stillness of our cell, and I feel her breath against my face. Heavy and hot, sweet not sour. She smells like honeysuckle baking in the heat of the sun. “You make me a promise,” she says. “When you get out of this godawful place, go see the ocean for yourself.” I try to imagine the waves rushing over the beach, reaching for my toes. “I will,” I say. Charlotte leans closer. “I can stay up here, if it will help you sleep.”
I grip her hand. “I would like that.”
She settles down beside me, the rhythm of her breathing and pounding heart a soothing lullaby. Her warmth wraps around me and before I know it, I’m drifting into a deep, dreamless sleep.
I miss watching the sunset through the window of Cassandra’s nursery, the colors of the sky painting the trunks and sloping backs of the elephant mountains.
The far window looked out on a breathtaking sunset over the Sandia Mountains, painting them a deep red. Orange and pink mixed together with wisps of deep purple clouds. The mountain-scape still left me breathless.
Down the slope and in the valley, a cluster of cane cholla stood guard with stiff, spindly arms outstretched, magenta flowers budding at their fingertips. A smaller mountain range stood apart from the Sandias closer to home. This singular row of mountains resembled a line of sleeping elephants, long ears flapped over one another, trunks intertwined – unmoving, eternally loyal. I miss the tiny complications of daily life. Not being able to find the car keys, worrying about being late to work. How I once felt so naughty, snagging a fresh bottle of whisky and marking if off on the evening liquor count at the tavern. How things used to feel so simple.
I’d woken up in a foreign bed, a tight band around my wrist and my hair stuck to my forehead with dried sweat. Everything had smelled like alcohol and the sheets around me were crisp and starch-white.
My clothes were gone, replaced with a dress, strings tied but hanging loose around me. My breasts sagged. Everything felt wrong. My entire body ached like a knife had sliced deep and removed my insides. I moved my head and there was Craig, draped in the chair beside me.
“Where am I?” I asked him, “What happened?” But I already knew.
He leaned forward, took my hand in both of his and started crying.
“I’m so sorry, Zoë.” Craig kept shaking his head. His eyes were rimmed red and his breath stank like sour whisky. “I’m so sorry.”
The absence inside me, a deep black hole.