Suck It Up, Buttercup
The following story received honorable mention in the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story contest. I was required to write a horror story, which was a real horror for me as I've never written horror. I was also required to write about a mayor and a one-way ticket.
Leslie woke wanting water. Her tongue was furry and thick. Her head felt like a foot crammed into a too-tight shoe. One gulp of vodka and vermouth remained in the glass on the nightstand. Through bleary eyes, she watched a maraschino cherry sway in the dregs of the drink. On impulse, she plucked the cherry out of the liquid by the stem. Sweetness exploded in her mouth when she bit into it. She dropped the stem back in the glass and licked her sticky fingers.
Bile burned scorch marks on her esophagus. Ready or not, the Grey Goose was coming up. She just managed to make it to the world’s smallest bathroom in time. The rocking of the sailboat added insult to injury.
She was hunched over the toilet when the Windstar crested a large wave, throwing her off balance. Her knees hit the floor. She landed with her face almost in the toilet bowl. A soft caress grazed her bare shoulder. It tingled. It happened again. Instinct tried to take over, but her body was too weak to fight and the space too compact for flight.
Twisting to face the intruder, she saw only a towel swinging from a hook slightly above her left shoulder. She was alone.
Moonlight poured in the window adjacent to the bed. She could’ve sworn the curtains were closed when she went to sleep/passed out. Pausing to peer at the mountains along the coastline, she noticed a light on in one of the houses nestled in the foothills. She pictured a doddering old fool, much like her, sipping a tall glass of Metamucil while gazing out his window at her as she floated by on the Windstar.
Leslie needed sleep. She closed the curtains and climbed back in bed only to stare at the ceiling as her head and knees throbbed. Something important but elusive nagged in the recesses of her mind.
Klonopin. She’d forgotten to take her Klonopin. She knew mixing a benzo and booze was a no-no, but skipping a dose wasn’t an option. It kept her anxiety at a level she could live with, without wanting to crawl out of her own skin.
She turned on the lamp, intending to get out of bed to take the pill. Light reflected off the empty glass.
“What the hell?” she said out loud. There was no liquid or cherry stem in the glass.
She’d drank too much at dinner and at the ‘70s musical revue after dinner and at the casino after the cheesy revue and at the midnight buffet which she should’ve skipped, truth be told.
Overindulgence was messing with her mind, she figured. All things in moderation. Her mother preached that to her when she was alive. She missed her mom more than she could say.
Excluding the four years Leslie attended Fairfield University, she and Joyce lived under the same roof until the day Joyce died.
Leslie had been excited to leave home for college. She’d meet new people, maybe join a sorority, possibly find a boyfriend. Trying too hard to make those things happen resulted in none of those things happening.
Girls in the dorm gathered to gossip, giggle, and sip wine from smuggled bottles of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. Leslie was never included. She was too loud, too fat, too smart, too much.
Kim Howell, cheerleader, beauty queen, and drama major, was her roommate. A week into freshman year, Leslie returned from class to an almost empty dorm room. Kim had changed roommates and moved without telling her. She’d also helped herself to Leslie’s bottle of White Shoulders perfume and her Rumours album. That was the beginning of four years of increasing animosity between the two.
Leslie graduated with honors, receiving special recognition for outstanding grades, as well as the hundreds of volunteer hours she worked as a teacher’s aide in the local third grade special education class. She accepted her diploma to a smattering of polite applause.
Kim Howell graduated by the skin of her flawless, straight, white teeth to thunderous applause. She was famous at Fairfield for playing Piper Hughes on General Hospital. Leslie heard it hadn’t been talent that landed Kim the part the summer after her junior year. Leslie thought it was perfect typecasting. Piper Hughes was the town slut of the fictional Port Charles.
The married director, who’d hired Kim and contracted herpes from her, fired her after three weeks on the job. Waitressing or returning to finish school was a no-brainer even for Kim.
Leslie threw off the covers, got out of bed, and walked into the bathroom to take the pill. A panic attack would be most unwelcome on top of throwing up and getting knocked to her sixty-year-old knees. Just thinking about panic threw her into a bit of a panic.
More than a little shaky, she dropped the tiny pill. “Shit,” she said.
There was no way she was getting back on her aching knees to look for the damn pill. She fished another one out of the pill box on the counter. It was hard for her to believe she was a woman who owned a pill box.
The pill stuck in her throat as the lights went out. Standing in the dark, coughing and sputtering, she didn’t see the shower curtain bulge behind her.
When she felt it, she froze with a glass of water halfway to her mouth. Engulfed in a curtain covered in mermaids, she dropped the glass. Her airway constricted. She was choking to death and mermaids were squeezing the life out of her.
Fighting to get away, she stepped on broken glass. A scream slithered over the pill in her throat and escaped her mouth. The sound was pitiful, not powerful. She fainted.
When she came to, wrapped in the shower curtain, the lights were on. She screamed again, but it was too weak to attract attention. She needed to get to the phone to call for help. Crawling was all she could manage with shards of glass embedded in her feet. Halfway to the phone, the TV turned itself on.
It was the closed-circuit channel. The camera, pointed at the brightly lit bow of the boat, was focused on the back of a lounge chair. Leslie watched as a woman rose from the chair, turned and flashed her a bright, white smile. Her long, blonde hair blew in the breeze.
Leslie’s stomach clenched. She felt like she might throw up again when she recognized the woman on the TV. It was Kim Howell.
There was no sound, but Leslie could see Kim’s mouth moving. She was cheering in her red and white cheerleading uniform with Fairfield Stags embroidered across her ample chest. She jumped high in the air extending her feet horizontally in a V formation. When she landed, she threw the pom-poms she’d been holding into the air. The wind caught them, blowing them out to sea.
The camera zoomed in. Leslie stared at the sweeter-than-honey smile on Kim’s lovely face. The smile turned to a nasty smirk. Kim poked her thumb and forefinger in her mouth. Leslie couldn’t look away. With dramatic flair, Kim pulled out a cherry stem tied in a knot. The screen went blank.
She continued crawling across the floor, leaving a bloody trail on the gaudy carpet. She was on the trip of a lifetime, in more ways than one, and her biggest fear was coming true. She was losing her mind.
She finally reached the phone. Mashing the button marked reception, she sat on the floor counting each ring.
“PICK UP THE PHONE!” The words came out of her mouth in a croak.
“This is Melissa, how may I help you?”
Relief flooded Leslie’s body at the sound of Melissa’s perky voice. “I’ve been attacked,” she said as loud as she could. “Hurry, I need help.”
Waiting for help to arrive, it occurred to her she could be hallucinating. One or all the many drinks she’d ordered could’ve been drugged. Her mother told her many times that liquor was a one-way ticket to trouble.
Joyce had been a teetotaler. She had taught Sunday school at the First United Methodist Church in Derry, New Hampshire for twenty-five years, and served as mayor for almost that long. Diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer shortly after she retired, she declined quickly. Leslie took a leave of absence from teaching to care for her mother.
It was hurtful and scary to watch her mother suffer. Each minute felt like an hour. An hour felt like a day. A day felt like a week. If only her father had survived the Vietnam War. She could’ve leaned on him for support. Leslie barely kept herself together during the eight days her mother lapsed in and out of a morphine-induced fog. Leslie’s doctor prescribed the Klonopin to help ease her anxiousness.
At the end of her mother’s life, Leslie held Joyce’s hand and listened to her mutter, “For you, for you.”
“What are you talking about, Mom?”
Leslie didn’t get an answer, only more rambling. Joyce was slurring her words, but Leslie thought she said, “Don’t be mad.”
Bending down, Leslie put her hands on either side of her mother’s face and said, “I could never be mad at you.” Too emotional to go on, she cleared her throat and continued, “You’re the best person I know. What will I do without you?”
Joyce opened her eyes. She looked at her daughter’s face, so like her own, and attempted a smile. She said clearly, “Suck it up, Buttercup.” Those were her last words.
Leslie laughed through her tears. Her mother had always said those words to her when she’d indulged in self-pity.
Two hundred thousand dollars. That’s how much money Leslie inherited. She was shocked her mother’s life insurance policy was that good. She found out it wasn’t that good when she cleaned out Joyce’s closet a month after she buried her.
She found a small box under a pile of scarves on a shelf in the closet. She had to get the scissors to cut the layers of tape holding the lid in place. There were three journals inside. She poured herself a cup of coffee and began reading.
Four hours later she still couldn’t believe what she’d read in Joyce’s handwriting. Her mother, the woman who’d loved the Lord, taught Sunday school, abstained from liquor, organized charitable bake sales, and led the town, had been a criminal. Joyce had recorded every detail of every crooked deal she’d pulled off as mayor of Derry.
Her mother’s hobby had been documenting moments, both mundane and special, in Leslie’s life. Joyce’s journals were just as neat and organized as all the scrapbooks she’d lovingly created for her daughter. The only difference was instead of documenting cook-outs, academic achievements, and happy holidays, she had documented embezzling, fraud, and forgery.
Leslie finally understood what Joyce had been trying to tell her as she lay dying. Her mother had done it for her, and she didn’t want Leslie to be mad at her after the fact.
Leslie struggled with what to do with the information contained in the journals. Ultimately, she burned them to protect her mother’s legacy. She continued living in the modest home she’d shared with her mom. She continued driving her old car that needed new tires. She continued teaching special needs children until she felt a lump in her left breast.
“Metastatic breast cancer,” the oncologist said. “It’s late stage. You might have six months maybe more with treatment.”
She didn’t get treatment. She got a passport and a one-way ticket to fly to Barcelona for the inaugural voyage of the Windstar. No need for a round-trip ticket. She had no intention of returning to her old life. The time she had left would be spent sailing around the world until her life or her money ran out, whichever came first.
The boat’s doctor gave her a shot with a syringe full of feel-fantastic-juice. She floated on a plush cloud while the doctor dug glass out of her feet. Later, they sat in his office discussing the traumatic night she’d suffered through.
“I’m not a psychiatrist,” the doctor said, “but I can arrange for you to see one in our port of call tomorrow. His name is Dr. Jerry Ruiz. I’ve known him for years. Rest assured, he’s at the top of his profession.”
“Thank you, Doctor. That needs to happen. Why was I hallucinating? Have I been drugged or am I losing my mind? I need answers.”
“Of course, you do. I understand your concerns. Our security staff is investigating. In the meantime, you’re perfectly safe. Try to relax.”
Face down on the massage table in the spa, Leslie was deeply relaxed and drowsy. Her back was covered in warm oil. Candles burned, soothing music played, and she was feeling better.
“I’m going to prepare the stones,” said the masseuse. “I’ll be right back.” Leslie was asleep before the woman was out the door.
Stevie Nicks woke her, singing about Rhiannon. The soft music had been replaced with Fleetwood Mac. Smiling to herself, Leslie remembered how many times in college she’d listened to the Rumours album before the bitch had stolen it from her.
Soft hands kneaded her neck. She sighed in anticipation of the heat from the stones. The room smelled delicious. She inhaled deeply. The scent was familiar. It reminded her of her favorite perfume, White Shoulders.
The pressure tightened around her neck. She could feel long fingernails digging into her skin. “Please ease up,” she said. “You’re hurting me.”
The masseuse said, “Suck it up, Buttercup.”
Leslie raised her head and stared into the eyes of Kim Howell. She rolled off the table trying to put distance between her and the thing in the cheerleading uniform. Her bandaged feet slid from under her. She landed hard on the floor. Kim let out a long, loud laugh. She was not the alluring, youthful Kim from college. She was a Kim straight out of a horror movie. Her face was melting. Her blonde hair was on fire. Her hands burst into flames as she lunged at Leslie.
“I’m going to hell,” said the thing that was Kim, “and you’re coming with me. We’ll be roomies again.”
# # #
Leslie stared at a blank TV screen in the dayroom on the psychiatric floor of Mercy General Hospital. A nurse’s aide gently wiped drool from her chin. Two people stood across the room observing.
“How’s she doing today?” asked Dr. Ruiz.
“Physically, her health is deteriorating,” replied the charge nurse. “Mentally, she’s improving a little.”
“She spoke to me for the first time since her arrival a month ago,” said the nurse.
“What did she say?”
"She said, 'Are we there yet?'”