“Cruel and Unusual,” by Eric Troyer, is the First Place winning story in the horror category for the Ninth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with W.R. Parrish and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2014 issue of Writer's Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Tenth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Eric's winning entry.
Cruel and Unusual
by Eric Troyer
God, I want to die.
Everything hurts. Head’s splitting. Heart’s pounding. Body…sore all over. Feels like…feels like I’ve been hit by a truck. Even my teeth ache. Mouth is…is so dry. Sour smell. What in hell happened? Where in…where am I?
Let’s see what—
Whoa! Kinda bright out. Must be…must be daytime. I’ll keep ‘em closed for a bit.
I’m sitting. Seat’s soft, comfortable. I’m holding something hard and curved. Smell’s…gone? No, it’s leather. This is my cab! I was driving it, right? Was I in a wreck or something? Feels like it.
Try to see again, real slow. Ow! That light hurts. Yeah, my cab, all right. No shattered glass. Everything seems fine. No accident. So, what happened?
Wait. Wait a minute. Was it a dream? I remember…something. Can’t pin it down. A nightmare? Yeah, that’s it. Just a goddamn nightmare. God, is that all?
Pain’s fading. I’m feeling better. What in hell was I dreaming about? God, it must have been bad. But…but I’ve had this dream before. Haven’t I? Or is it different? It’s different. But it’s the same, too? Oh God, am I fucked up. I need to see a doctor. I need a pill or something/
You’re paying the price. You know you are.
No, no, no. That’s not it. It’s something else. Something else.
Say you’re sorry. Just say you’re sorry.
No, goddammit! I’m not sorry for anything. It’s not my fault! It’s never been my fault! Why am I even thinking about this?!
Rap! Rap! Rap!
Jesus Christ! Goddamn woman. Scare the shit out of me. Go knock on someone else’s window.
Rap! Rap! Rap!
Gotta get rid of her. I stare straight ahead and open the window a crack. I start to talk, but can’t. Damn dry mouth. I work up some spit and lick my lips.
“I’m off duty,” I tell her, my voice croaking a bit.
“That’s not what your sign says.” She points toward my cab’s roof. I glance up, then at the dashboard. The off-duty light is off. Shit. I reach down and turn it on.
“Please, I need your help,” she says. “I need a ride.”
I turn to look at her. Shit, why did I do that? Something in her voice. She’s old. No, not that old. In her 40s, maybe. But, God, she looks older. And so sad.
Doesn’t matter. Get rid of her.
“I’m off duty,” I say, staring at a black button on her gray overcoat.
“Please? I really need your help. You’re the only one who can help me.”
I’m the only one? I scan the view through the windshield. I’m on a suburban street. Cookie cutter houses with lawns and mailboxes, all nicely taken care of. No cars, though. No one else around. Just a little girl down the street jumping rope in her yard. Cute little girl. All alone. Middle of the day. Someone should be watching her.
“Don’t you have your own car?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “I really need your help.”
God, I wish she’d stop staying that.
“Get in,” I say, heaving a sigh. The nightmare has left me groggy, but I’m good enough to drive. I hope she doesn’t want to go far. The sooner I get rid of her the better. Something about her is…wrong.
She climbs in the back, hauling a large purse. At least she’s probably got cash. I see that my meter is already running. Over a hundred dollars. Shit. How did I do that? Did I have a fare with me when I fell asleep? I look around but see no money. Just my candy bars on the seat. I got screwed. Damn nightmares. I’ve got to see a doctor.
“Where to?” I ask as I restart the meter.
“Just head into town.”
I pull out onto the street, trying to remember how to get into town. Shit. Why can’t I remember? I don’t even recognize this neighborhood. Or do I? Seems kind of familiar. Must be this damn grogginess. I’ll just keep going. It’ll come back to me. The day’s warm, so I flip on the air conditioner.
I drive by the place with the kid. The cute little girl. She’s gone now. Jump rope’s still in the yard. Must be inside. I wonder if she’s alone.
I keep driving, making a few turns. I think I’m going on gut instinct, but I’m not really sure. Maybe I’m lost. God, I hate feeling lost. I know this town like the back of my hand. Thought I did. Maybe I should ask the woman where to go.
I glance back in the rear-view. She’s staring out the window, not saying anything. I must be heading in the right direction. I steal a few more glances at her.
At first, she seems ugly. But she might be pretty. Yeah, she could be pretty, but her face fights it. Her mouth sags. Her eyes have big, dark bags. She’s got nice brown hair. Down to her shoulders, the way I like it. But it’s a mess, like she didn’t sleep much. She’s got a streak of gray down the middle of one side. She should color that out. Makes her look old.
God, she looks sad. Maybe her kid died or her husband left her. Too bad something like that happened to such a pretty lady.
Shit. What do I care? I don’t know her. For all I know she caused her own problems. Most people do.
But I think I recognize her. Maybe I’ve given her a ride before. It was almost like she knew me. Ah, hell, probably just imagining things, but I can’t stop glancing back. Twice she catches me looking. I glance away, quick-like, but she knows. Makes me uneasy. I gotta say something.
“Have I given you a ride before?”
“Yes, a long time ago,” she says, staring out the window with those sad eyes. I try to remember, but my old fares are a blur. Too many. That happens a lot, but it bugs me that I can’t remember her. I wish she wasn’t so sad.
“I hope it went well,” I say, smiling. Stupid, but I need to make conversation. A hint of a smile flicks across her face. Still sad, but it was almost a smile.
“Changed my life,” she says.
I wait for her to say more. Changed her life? Did I do something or did I just take her somewhere that changed her life? I feel a little thrill of delight. Whatever her sadness now, at least I did something nice for her in the past. Damn, I should remember this woman. My day, heavy from the nightmare, lightens a little.
Stop it. You don’t know this woman from shit. Take care of yourself. Let her deal with her own problems. Don’t get sucked in.
“Park in front of that bar,” she says, pointing.
I look over. Jesus! We’re in town. I don’t remember driving here. What in hell’s wrong with me? I pull over to the curb. Stores are all along the street, but not much traffic. Hardly anyone walking the sidewalks. The bar has a narrow front, only a door and a window. The neon red sign above the door just says “BAR.” Grim place. Can’t see through the window. Too dark inside. Getting dark outside, too. Is it just the clouds or is the sun going down? What time is it? I look at my watch. The red numbers show six past seven. Then I see the seconds aren’t changing. Great.
I put the cab in park and drum my fingers on the wheel, waiting for her to pay. She just sits there.
“There something more?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, staring out the window. “I’m waiting for a man.”
“Can’t you wait in the bar?”
She just shakes her head.
“Husband?” I ask.
She shakes her head again.
“Will it be long?” I ask.
Fine. She’s paying. I sigh and lean back. But I keep drumming the steering wheel. It bugs me that I can’t remember this woman. I can’t ask her. If I changed her life, I should remember, right? I keep stealing glances, but her face doesn’t jog any memories. I hate not knowing. The bar seems familiar, though. I’ve been there before…I think. I remember things from inside, but I’m not sure if they’re real. Me sitting in a booth, alone. A line of guys sitting at the bar, talking loud. Clinking glasses. The bartender drying a glass, laughing at a joke. A mug of beer, cool and hard in my hands. The sound of—
Screaming, way off in the distance. I look around the bar, but I can’t tell where it’s coming from. Nobody else seems to hear it. The guys at the bar keep talking. The bartender keeps laughing. The screaming gets louder and louder. It’s freaking me out. No one’s doing anything.
“What is that?” I yell.
“The screaming? Can’t you hear the screaming?” I’m talking to the bartender, but I’m looking at the woman through the rear-view. What the—? How did—? I must have nodded off again. Fucking nightmares.
“Never mind,” I say, leaning back in my seat, loosening the death grip on my steering wheel. But she keeps looking at me with those goddamn sad eyes. I can’t look away. I want to do something. I want to make her sadness go away, but I don’t know what to do. Finally, she looks out the window.
“I hear screaming all the time.”
What in hell? Man, something bad happened to this lady. Wonder if it has anything to do with this guy we’re waiting for? I hope not, but I start getting worried. Maybe I don’t want to be around when he comes out. I mean, I kind of want to help her, but I don’t want to get sucked in. I turn up the air conditioner a notch.
“If it’s gonna be a long time, I gotta get going.” I look at the bar’s door. It’s all scratched.
“I’ll pay you for your time,” she says.
The door opens and a man comes out. I tense up and glance back at her. She watches him, her expression unchanged. He walks away, but I don’t relax. Something bad’s gonna happen. I can feel it.
“I gotta get going. I’ve got other things to do,” I say.
“Yes, of course you do.”
I glance in the mirror. Was that sarcasm? Is she trying to tell me something? What does she know about me? I get cold. Hold my breath. Is she an undercover cop? Shit. Just be cool. Be cool. I’ve been careful. They’ve got nothing on me.
“I’m sorry,” she says with a sigh. “I should be more sensitive. If he doesn’t come out in the next 10 minutes I’ll let you leave.”
Just like that, my worries slip away. She’s not a cop. She’s just a nice but sad woman. Someone should take care of her. Make her troubles go away. Now I feel bad for mistrusting her. Shit. How did that happen? How is she doing this to me?
“OK,” I say. “A few more minutes. Maybe 15.”
“That’s how long it took.”
“What?” I glance back at her, but she’s looking out the window with wide eyes.
I look at the bar. A guy has just left and is walking away down the sidewalk. He’s wearing a black windbreaker and a dark blue baseball cap. The clothes look kind of familiar. But the guy has his back to us. He could be just about anybody.
“You sure?” I ask.
“Yes. I’m sure.”
Do I know him? Wish I’d seen his face. I get that feeling again. Something bad’s gonna happen. Suddenly, I don’t want the woman to get out. I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but it’s not gonna be good for her. For either of them.
“Follow him, please,” she says. “Just a little ways back, so he doesn’t see us.”
What? I look at her in the rear view mirror, leaving the cab parked.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
She looks at me with those eyes, those goddamned sad eyes.
“Please,” she says. “I need to do this.”
“But following him is creepy. He’ll notice.” I hate the pleading tone in my voice.
“No, trust me. He doesn’t have a clue.”
Don’t do it. Don’t trust her.
But I do. She’s a good lady. And she needs help.
I put the cab in drive and ease forward.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea, lady.”
“Don’t worry. It’ll be fine,” she says. “You were with me before and you didn’t get into trouble.”
What the—? What in hell happened before? God, I wish I could remember. And now she’s looking out for me? Man, I wish she wouldn’t do that. I don’t need help. She’s the one who needs help.
The guy keeps walking. The lady’s right. He doesn’t have a clue. After about a block, he turns down an alley, walking real slow. The brick wall of a dry cleaning place lines one side of the alley. Small backyards, all with chain link fences, line the other. The alley is deserted. No, not completely. There’s a kid in the last yard. Skipping rope. Just like that girl out in the lady’s neighborhood. Getting too dark to see far, but the girl looks cute, too. Bad kind of cute. The kind that talks you into things. The kind that get you in trouble. And that guy’s heading toward her. I don’t like this.
“Stop,” the lady says.
“Why?” I step on the brake, keeping my eyes on the guy. “What are you gonna do?”
The lady doesn’t answer, but I hear her rustling around in the back. I look in the rear-view just as she pulls a big, goddamn snub-nosed pistol out of her purse. Shit.
“Hey! Hey! Whoa, lady!” I turn in my seat. She’s still got this really sad look on her face. “You don’t want to do this. I don’t know what he did to you, but you don’t want to throw your life away.”
“He already did that.”
As she gets out I kind of reach for her but miss. Standing on the sidewalk, she looks at me. I unroll my window. The muggy air rolls in.
“Lady, it’s not worth it, whatever he did. You’ll go to prison.”
“Prison.” She’s got a half-smile. “Prison ends. Prison’s easy.”
She starts down the alley. The guy just keeps walking. I look both ways. Streetlights are on now, but I don’t see anyone. Where in hell is everyone else? It’s up to me. I’ve got to stop her. But she’s got a gun. She might shoot me or she might get shot in the struggle. And, besides, he probably deserves to die. She’ll get off with a light sentence. She’ll be better for it.
But I don’t want to see it. Don’t want to see someone die. Don’t want to be around when the cops come. Don’t want people asking why I didn’t stop her. The guy deserves it. People make their own choices. What goes around comes around.
But my foot won’t leave the brake. Can’t tear my eyes away. She’s walking quick-like, gun at her side. He’s still walking like he’s got all the time in the world. Shit, doesn’t he know? He’s probably focusing on that girl. Is she still in the backyard? I can’t see. It’s too dark. I can’t breath in this thick, hot air. My hands ache from squeezing the steering wheel. My head starts to ache.
Leave! Get out of here! But the horror freezes me. She’s right behind him, gun in one hand, the other reaches out to his—
Shoulder! I scream at the touch, spinning in my seat. A little girl’s in the back. How did she get in? She sits back, putting her hand down. She’s like 10 years old. Pretty brown hair. Big, sad eyes. Wait a minute. God, I know her! She’s one from a long time ago. Years ago. What was her name? I can’t remember. What were any of their names? Can’t remember. Don’t want to remember.
She’s not real. It’s another fucking nightmare. I close my eyes and open them again. But she’s still there, standing in an alley. What the—? We’re both standing in an alley, just outside a fenced backyard. Now I know I’m having a nightmare. I want to look away. Wake myself up. She brings back bad memories. Why? I never felt bad before. But I can’t stop staring at her. Just like I couldn’t stop….
It stinks like rotting trash here. I can feel sweat trickling down my face. I look down and see I’m holding out a candy bar. Shit. I drop it and take a step back.
“Go away, kid. Leave me alone.”
She just stands there looking at me. She’s wearing a gray dress with black buttons. A jump rope lies at her feet. I want to apologize. I open my mouth, but I can’t do it. It was partly her fault, too, right? She’s not apologizing. It was mostly her fault. I can see it in her eyes. She’s telling me to do it. It’s not my fault. It was never my fault.
But the words are hollow, coming from long ago. It’s what I used to tell myself. But I don’t believe that anymore. Why can’t I believe?! If I can’t believe then I don’t want to live with what I’ve done. I want to die. God, I want to die!
It’s getting hard to see. I’m crying? I never cried before. But it hurts so much. I’m so sorry for what I did.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” I tell her, but I can’t see her face. I’m crying too hard. I don’t know if she believes me. I wipe my eyes. “I’m—”
She’s got a gun in her hand. I’m surprised but I’m not. It’s that big, goddamned, snub-nosed pistol. The same one. It’s all making sense. My pain, the nightmares. They’re all about to end. I start crying. But now they’re tears of joy. I smile at the little girl.
“Go ahead, I’m ready,” I tell her. “I deserve it. I did horrible things to you. To a lot of…I deserve to die.”
She doesn’t move. She just looks at me with her sad eyes.
“This will be good for both of us,” I say, dropping to my knees.
She lifts the pistol and points it at me. God, it’s huge. She’s so small. She’s got to lift it with both hands. They’re shaking with the effort, but she points the barrel right at my head. She’s not even sweating.
I start shaking, too. I want to tell her to shoot, but I can’t. I should want to die for what I’ve done, but I want to live. The desire floods over me. I want to be forgiven and live! I clasp my hands in front of me.
“I can’t do it. Forgive me! Forgive me and let me live! Please let me live!”
Maybe I can grab the gun out of her hands.
The girl doesn’t say anything. She just pulls the hammer back on the pistol. Shit.
“Please forgive me! Let me live!” I scream, but she’s not going to forgive me. “It was partly your fault, too, you know! You made me do it! You made me!”
The words shock me, but they’re true, aren’t they? Aren’t they? No, not anymore.
“I’m sorry! It wasn’t your fault!” I scream through my tears. “I’m so sorry. It was my fault! All my fault! Please forgive me! But I want to live!”
Then she smiles. A small, sad smile. The barrel of the gun drops just a bit.
“You’re right,” she says. “This will be good for both of us.” I cry even more. I see it in her eyes. Forgiveness. I’m still crying, but now I’m smiling.
“Thank you! Thank you!”
She turns the gun and points it at her head. I go cold, so cold. The sweat is ice against my skin. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. What in hell’s she doing? I try again.
“No! Don’t do it!” I yell. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Just forgive me and everything will be all right.”
“No,” she says. “Everything won’t be all right. I’ve got my whole life ahead of me.”
People are coming. I see them behind her. They’re walking slow, not saying anything. They’re all women. Women and girls. I recognize them. They flow around a cab in the street. My cab. I’ve got to it. I’ve got to get out of here. Get out of this nightmare.
“Don’t do it. I’m sorry. Everything will be all right,” I whisper.
“Do you forgive me?” she asks.
“What?” I stare at her. They keep coming. I’ve got to get out of here. The alley stench is suffocating me.
“Do you forgive me?” She looks at me. Her eyes aren’t sad anymore. They’re just dead.
“For wha—? Yes! Yes! I forgive you!”
“Then stop me,” she says.
I start bawling again.
“Get off your knees and stop me.”
I reach my hands out as far as they will go. I can almost touch her gray dress. I stretch my arms but stay on my knees.
She pulls the trigger.
Good God, I want to die.
Everything hurts. Head’s splitting. Heart’s pounding. Body…sore all over. Feels like…feels like I’ve been hit by a truck. Even my teeth ache. Mouth is…is so dry. Sour smell. What in…Hell happened? Where in Hell am I?