Rowena Thompson tugged at the hem of her white t-shirt. It was too big, the baggy material swallowing her whole. She did her best to tie a knot in the corner of the fabric, keeping it from sliding around her shoulders. Her pants were a whole other matter, dangling precariously around her hipbones, her plain underwear the only thing keeping them from dropping around her ankles. Rowena fretted at the hem, wishing desperately that they came with a drawstring to tighten.
“They would fit better if you ate something.” Rowena flinched, not prepared for the additional voice of her mother. She tilted her head down, the lank, red strands curtaining her downcast expression. “They don’t come in a smaller size, you know?” Amber Thompson pushed the tray of food closer to her daughter with crystals forming in her eyes. Rowena watched the fluorescent lights flicker against the shiny drops. Amber sighed at her daughter’s glassy gaze. “Ro, you need to eat. You’re wasting away.”
“I’m not eating that,” Rowena whispered. She shivered when she felt someone’s breath wash down the back of her neck. She didn’t look behind her. “I’ll eat when I’m out of here.”
Sparkling powder flew at the car, swirling against the windshield and around the old Ford’s red body. Rowena imagined she was traveling at warp speed to another galaxy. The thought alone was exhilarating; her heart thumped a heavy bass and imaginary colors clouded her vision. The wind gushed against the car, thrilling her. Full speed ahead captain, she heard in her mind. The male’s voice was deep and rich. She could picture him giving her a salute. Rowena giggled at the ridiculous gesture. Thank you, Terry, she mentally responded, snorting once again at her foolishness.
Joslyn Turner shot Rowena a glare from the passenger seat. Rowena pouted at her innocently. “What? Are you making fun of me?” Joslyn asked, crossing her arms like a toddler. “My singing isn’t that bad.”
Rowena shook her head, a smile tugging at the left corner of her mouth. “I wasn’t even listening.” Joslyn gasped in mock horror. “I was just thinking.”
“Oh God! You weren’t doing that thing you do, were you? It’s so weird.” Rowena glared at her as they approached a stoplight. The snow looked so gentle now that they were stopped, the fluffy particles turning liquid against the warmed windshield. We have arrived at our destination, captain!
“It is not weird!” Rowena snapped, turning her attention back to the road. Her tires squeaked as she shot off the line, twirling dampness into the air. Change of plans, Terry, she thought, anger coating her mental words.
Joslyn slammed her hand into the dash, the sudden change in speed and Rowena’s angry outburst surprising her. She looked at Rowena with wide eyes as the redhead sped around a sharp corner. “Geez, Ro. I’m sorry,” she said, frantically snatching the oh-shit handle. “Calm down. I didn’t mean it like that. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Rowena sighed. “I was just thinking.”
“I know, Ro. I know. Now will you please slow down?” Joslyn slammed her eyes shut as Rowena sent them a little too close to smashing through a guardrail. Rowena let off the gas, sucking in a deep breath. “Thank you,” Joslyn sighed.
Rowena looked over at her friend, studying her round eyes and dark pixie cut. Joslyn pressed a hand to her chest. “Fuck, girl. Are you trying to send me to an early grave?” Rowena smirked. “I’m gonna haunt your ass if you kill me before I’m sixty.”
“Damn. There goes my plan to finally get some peace and quiet.” Joslyn punched her. “Hey! Don’t make me turn this car around!” The girls laughed.
“So, what were you thinking?”
Rowena smiled and thought about rolling the window down to let the fluffy flakes swirl around her, too. “Just the snow. It looks like we’re in a vortex or someth—oh shit!” Joslyn screamed as Rowena swerved around the man that had just appeared in the road. His arm was raised in a salute. “What the fuck?” Rowena shouted, looking over her shoulder, searching for the man. Her lungs seized, her eyes spotting nothing. Oh God, did I run him over?
“What the fuck! Ro!” Joslyn smacked her. “Rowena, keep your eyes on the goddamned road!” She threw her hands over her face moments before impact.
Rowena piled her hair on top of her head, tucking even the tiniest strands away from her face. She hated the feel of her hair tickling her face at night. She pushed on a headband ensuring even the baby hairs framing her face stayed contained. After brushing her teeth and scrubbing her face clean, she wandered towards her bedroom. The trek down the hall was short, but time-consuming. Rowena liked to pause and admire each painting for a few moments before continuing.
What are you doing, you freak? a deep voice whispered in her ear.
She wished her roommate a goodnight, before closing her bedroom door and locking it. Her mother hated that she did that. Something about being worried that people wouldn’t be able to get in to help her. Too bad Amber Thompson didn’t realize there was nothing anyone could do.
Rowena walked around the small space, tidying as she went. She straightened a book on her desk, ensuring the corners of the two objects lined up with each other perfectly.
Why do you bother? an angry voice shouted in her mind. She winced at the volume. It’s all a game! You’re just pretending to be in control. The woman’s voice was not her own, high-pitched and nasally. Rowena shook her head, and continued about her bedroom routine.
She flipped the switch for the ceiling fan, the old device on full speed. It made a clicking sound with each rotation. Two more floor fans were turned on as well, oscillating around the room. They whirred with noise and caused the hundreds of sticky notes pinned to her walls to flutter like butterflies. The noise comforted her, even as she turned on the white noise machine that perched on her nightstand. She could still hear a murmur, but most of the buzz was drowned out.
Rowena squeezed her eyes closed, pressing her hands to her lids, relishing the quiet. This was the only time the cacophony was bearable. She sucked in a deep breath and reached down for her box of medications. The acrid scent of burning rubber and gasoline filled her senses, blurring her vision. She gagged, rushing to the window. The crisp air was tainted. It’s all your fault! a voice screamed. A dark-haired pixie appeared before her between blinks. How can you live with yourself?
“I don’t,” Rowena whispered. She plugged her nose and reached into her nightstand drawer, pulling out several different bottles of scented oils. She allowed several drips to fall from each bottle into the diffuser before turning it on. The powerful odors of eucalyptus, lavender, sandalwood, and bergamot filtered into the room, the fragrant steam filling the room in a hazy cloud. It covered the stench of rubber and death.
Relaxing slightly, Rowena straightened the pencils she had knocked ajar in her haste to reach the window. She sucked in deep breaths, almost choking on the mixed scents, and walked back around to her nightstand. Carefully, she pulled out three prescription bottles. She placed one pill from each on the nightstand, one pink, one blue, and one white. She took them individually, telling herself what they were supposed to do.
“Quiet the voices.” She swallowed the pink one. “Happier thoughts.” The blue pill. “And no more nightmares.” The white pill tasted bitter on her tongue.
Do you really think those do anything? a dark voice snarled. Shimmers glinted at the corner of Rowena’s vision. She closed her eyes. Those aren’t helping. You can’t fix crazy. A heavy hand fell to her shoulder, causing her to jump. Rowena ignored it, grabbing her well-worn copy of Brave New World. Tucking her feet beneath the covers and propping her back against the headboard, she waited for the medication to make her sleepy. She ignored the ruffling of clothing and shimmers of stardust surrounding her.
Flipping to previously marked pages, Rowena read her favorite parts aloud.
“’Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly—‘” What the fuck are you doing, you freak? Go ahead, keep pretending this is normal. “’—they’ll go through anything.’” She rustled through the pages. Her eyes felt heavy. “’Actual happiness always—‘” Happiness! You’ll never be happy! How could you, after what you did? Rowena’s fingers shook. She swallowed. “’Actual happiness,” she started again, her voice gone hoarse, “always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations of misery.’” You deserve to be miserable, you fucking bitch. “’Stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability.’” No shit! Everyone looks forward to making fun of the freak. How else are the sane people supposed to get a laugh in? A weight Rowena knew wasn’t there dipped onto the bed. Breath whooshed against her cheeks. That’s the only thing you’re good for, the voice whispered. Its breath smelled like burnt hair. That’s the only reason people keep you around. You’re good for a giggle now and then.
“Stop it,” she whispered, throwing her book to the bottom of the bed. She pressed her hands to her lids, desperately trying to ground herself. “I just want to sleep in peace.” Then why wait? The pills are right there. Take a few more! Go ahead. It’s not like anyone would care.
“You’re right,” she breathed.
“Who are you painting?” a gentle voice came from behind her. Rowena tucked her head down, ignoring the woman. She dipped the brush in the murky water, before smearing it in the black pad on the Crayola watercolor pallet. “Rowena? Look at me, dear.” A figure dropped next to her in the chair. She looked through her hair, studying the individual. Nurse Jessica perched next to her, watching Rowena’s short strokes. A relieved breath rushed out of her now that she recognized the curvy blonde, and she brushed her hair behind her ear.
“I don’t know,” she whispered. It was all she could manage, fearful she might scream if she tried to speak at a higher octave.
“What was that?” Jessica asked.
“I don’t know who it is,” Rowena said louder. “I just see him a lot.”
“Do you know his name?”
“No,” Rowena snapped, suddenly agitated with Jessica’s nosiness. “Dr. Tumin just told me…He told me…” She sighed, unable to find the words. She pressed her fists to her head, smearing colors across her skin. Red dye trailed down her cheeks like bloody tears.
Jessica placed a hand on her back. Rowena startled at the contact, but didn’t move away. “Rowena…Hey, it’s okay. Take your time.” She rubbed soothing circles on her back.
“I-I…Dr. Tumin told me to…he told me to draw what I see,” she forced out at last. The words were lodged in the back of her mind. It was hard to sort out which words were hers.
“Do you think it’s helping you?” Jessica asked kindly.
Nothing can help you, you stupid bitch.
Rowena shook her head. “I…like to paint though.”
“So instead of painting what scares or upsets you, try drawing something that makes you happy.”
Rowena stared at Jessica, watching her dirt-colored eyes. They twitched back and forth between Rowena’s, with twinkling starbursts from the overhead lights around her pupils.
“I don’t know what makes me happy,” Rowena said after a moment, her vision clearing back to reality.
How could you be happy after what you’ve done?
Jessica smiled. “You’ll think of something.” She patted Rowena on the back one last time. “I’ll be back to check on you in a few minutes.”
Rowena pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and began sketching large, doe-shaped eyes.
Glass sprayed like confetti, sticking to everything. The ground, the car, the tree, and Rowena were covered in the sparkly shards. Rowena was mesmerized for a moment, watching the blood on her arm turn the clear pieces pink. She felt a pressure on her chest she couldn’t understand, until she lifted her head. She realized it was the airbag, and she smashed the fabric away from her, choking on the white powder spewing from it.
Her car was accordioned around a large oak tree. The scent of gasoline perfumed the air, a gentle fragrance compared to the stench of burning rubber and plastic. Terry, we have a problem. She thought dully. Heat flushed her face red. “Why are my hands burning?” she wondered aloud, looking down. She gasped. Large chunks of skin were missing from the backs of her hands, blood soaking her pants. “Oh my God,” she screamed. “Oh my God! Joslyn!” she shouted, suddenly remembering her friend. “Joslyn, what the fuck happened?”
She glanced over to her friend, only to discover she wasn’t in the passenger seat. Red streaked what was left of the windshield. Dark drops came from above. Drip, drip, drip against the hood of her car.
Rowena shook the pill bottle, enjoying the rattle. She opened it up and dumped its entire contents in her palm. Her scars circled the pills, a ghostly outline. Go ahead. Do it! You have nothing left to give this world.
“You’re right,” she breathed again.
A man appeared in front of her. He had black hair and black eyes. He is the man from her nightmares. The man from the road. Behind him stood Joslyn. She was small and fluttery, a little pixie with big eyes and a wide smile. Take the pills, the black-eyed man said. No one wants to be around a freak.
I was your only friend, and you killed me, Joslyn cried, her fairy hands gesturing at Rowena accusingly. No one else is ever going to deal with you. You’re going to be alone forever now. People don’t like being around freaks!
Tears dribbled down Rowena’s cheeks. “You’re right.” She dumped the pills back in the bottle, closed the lid with care, and placed it neatly next to the other two prescriptions. She rolled away from the pair in front of her, closing her eyes. “But, ‘if one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely.’”
About the Author: Natalie J. Dagan lives in Boulder, Colorado, and is double majoring in English and Psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder. She hopes to be both an accomplished author as well as an advocate for survivors of rape and sexual assault. This is her first published piece. She has four dogs and a cat that she loves with all her heart. She enjoys visiting them in her home town near Colorado Springs.