The Whipping Girls

4,100 words

Erika’s fingers tense on the steering wheel as she approaches the Kansas-Colorado state line. Endless fields of wheat, waiting to be harvested, sit on both sides of the interstate, the stalks rustling whisper-soft. Her car is thick with the smell of fresh bread—good bread, not the almost-stale dollar store loaves she grew up with and swears never to eat again.

By now, the funeral’s over and she wonders if anyone even showed. Her mother’s list of friends was a short one. She thinks of her dress, crumpled in a ball and tossed in the dumpster, atop bulging bags reeking of dirty diapers and fast-food wrappers, and a nervous giggle spills from her lips. What is she doing? Truly? Who quits their job and leaves their life behind on a whim, making the decision between opening a bottle of shampoo in the shower and toweling dry? She should go home, call her boss and beg his forgiveness, throw away the note she left for her landlord. The dress, however, could stay in the trash.

“Stop it,” she says, her voice too loud, too brittle.

“You’re always afraid of everything.” She hears her mother’s voice as clearly as if she were in the passenger seat. Smells the liquor on her breath, sees the pill-dilated pupils of her eyes. “And you’ll always be afraid. Nothing will change that, Eri. Nothing.”

“I’ve made it this far, haven’t I?” Erika says, but even with Topeka five hours behind her, her mouth goes dry.

“Fraidy cat. Fraidy cat.”

“Fuck you. I’m not afraid anymore,” she says as she grips the steering wheel tighter, guns the engine, and crosses into Colorado.

She sees the interstate simultaneously with her own eyes and through another pair awash in tears. The world through the second stretches out of shape into a blur of black and gold and blue, and her upper body thumps hard against her seat, as though veiled hands are yanking off a heavy coat. There’s a sharp bite of pain in her chest, but before she can draw breath to cry out, both weight and hurt vanish, and her vision snaps into singular focus.

In her rearview mirror, she catches a glimpse of someone standing with slumped shoulders on the side of the road, feet planted on the Kansas side, a half-formed girl made of fear and sorrow, someone who exists without really living.

Erika clenches her jaw. No one’s there, no one at all. Blame imagination. Blame the caffeine thrumming through her bloodstream. Blame a hovering haze on asphalt, never mind that the full heat of summer has yet to force itself upon this part of the world.

She sets her gaze on the road ahead and refuses to look back. The only way forward is through.

§

She picks up Interstate 80 just outside of Laramie, a route that doesn’t make much sense unless you look at the map. Staying on I-70 would send her too far south.

In spite of the spring weather, the mountains in the distance still have snow on their peaks, but against the impossibly huge sky, those mountains look like tiny hills. Funny, when people said the Wyoming sky was big, Erika always thought it a joke because the sky was plenty big in Kansas. Here, though, even the blue is different—brighter and clearer and dotted with cotton candy clouds.

“You are definitely not in Kansas anymore,” she says with a grin. And thank god for that.

She shifts in her seat and arches her back, stiff from sleeping in the car. She’s got enough money to stay in hotels, at least the cheap ones, but it’s cash she’d rather not spend, and as far as brushing her teeth and washing her face goes, rest stop bathrooms do the trick same as any sink anywhere.

Her tires keep chewing the miles and she thinks about what waits ahead. She’s nineteen, healthy, and not afraid of hard work; she knows her boss, even if he’s pissed off, will give her a good reference. She ticks off a mental list: a place to stay, a bank account, a job. It can’t be that hard. People relocate all the time. It’s not like she’s moving to another country. But she worries a cuticle until she tastes the tang of blood.

“You’ll never get anywhere, girl,” the memory of her mother says. “You don’t have what it takes and you won’t ever. No matter where you go, no matter what you do.”

“You’re wrong, Mom,” Erika says.

The last time her mother said those words, the night before Erika moved into her own apartment, she was even more drunk than usual, all glassy eyes and slurring words and sour breath. When Erika finally had enough and tried to walk away, Kaye grabbed her arm, digging neon pink acrylic fingernails into her skin hard enough to leave half-moon bruises. “Just remember. You can move out, you can run away, but you’ll never get anywhere.” With a laugh, she pushed Erika out of the way and staggered into the living room.

But Erika isn’t that girl anymore. She’s not.

Her vision bifurcates into road and blur, her skin burns with unseen fire, and she feels as though she’s peeling in two. The sensation and the double-vision disappear; the pain slowly ebbs into a dull all-over ache.

And in the back seat sits a girl wearing Erika’s face.

Erika veers onto the shoulder with a squeal of tires and scrambles from the car, her mouth an oil slick of panic. The girl staring through the window is a slightly younger version of Erika, dressed in a shabby t-shirt and even shabbier jeans. Erika remembers how those jeans, another thrift store purchase, ripped during her move, how she cried when she threw them out. Stupid, because they were just jeans, but she was unable to stop.

She laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world, didn’t she?

The voice, heard with Erika’s head, not her ears, is recognizably her own, and she takes a half-step backward. A horn blares, loud and indignant. Erika slams her body against the car as an eighteen-wheeler races past, tires leaving a mist of road grime in their wake. She squeezes her eyes shut. When she opens them, the girl is still there.

A pale ribbon, the color of smoke, runs from the center of the girl’s chest, and Erika follows its length to her own. She peeks down her shirt; the ribbon runs through the fabric and into her flesh, piercing it seamlessly. No blood. No swelling. No discoloration. She tries to grab it, to pluck it free, but her fingers go in and through. It feels like half-set gelatin—warm and wet and amniotic—and she shudders, scrubbing her hands on her jeans.

Her mind spins with the how and the why, but there are no words for this. There are no explanations grounded in science and fact, only the incomprehensible here and now.

The girl appears real enough on the surface, but there’s something not quite solid, not quite tangible, as though she’s half-here and half-elsewhere, which is as ridiculous as it sounds. Erika blinks and in the brief darkness, sees the girl standing by the road in Kansas.

Some things don’t have hooks. They’re easier to get rid of.

Erika swallows hard, fighting the urge to step away again. “What are you?“

No response, not in her head or otherwise.

“Okay, okay, then,” she says, her voice trembling.

This isn’t real. The girl isn’t, and can’t be, real. With that thought firmly set in her head, she climbs back in the driver’s seat and tilts her rearview mirror, refusing to look at either girl or tether. She rests her forehead on the steering wheel, the low-grade ache radiating throughout her body.

The girl’s presence is persistent, like a bad tooth a tongue can’t help but revisit again and again. Erika pinches the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index finger, sighs, readjusts the mirror.

“What. Are. You?”

What am I? You mean who, don’t you? It’s sort of obvious, isn’t it?

“No. You’re not me. You’re not.”

Believe whatever you want, but damage has to go somewhere. You’ve been carrying us around for a long time.

“What do you mean?”

What do you really expect to find at the end of this trip? Run as far as you can, gingerbread girl, but you can’t run away from yourself.

“I’m not running from anything. I’m moving on.”

Right. Leaving Topeka behind and starting over, I know. Proving Mom wrong.

Erika turns in her seat, faces the girl. “This doesn’t have anything to do with her.”

Don’t be an idiot. It has everything to do with her. If she made cookies and tucked you in at night instead of drinking herself into oblivion and forgetting to buy groceries or pay the electric bill, do you think you’d be here? If that’s the case, you might as well let me back in and keep heading west, keep pretending you’re fine.

“I am fine.”

The girl (and Erika refuses to believe it’s her, no matter what face she wears) rolls her eyes. If you were fine, I wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be parked on the shoulder. You’re not fine, but you can be. I don’t know, maybe you’re not strong enough to do what you have to do. Easier to stay the way you are, right? Easier to stay damaged.

“I’m not—” Erika brushes hair from her eyes. “You don’t make any sense. What do I have to do?”

You let me out, so that’s half the battle, but it’s the easy part. The rest … She waves one hand. It hurts, doesn’t it? What’s inside you? But it doesn’t have to. You can let it go. It’s up to you.

Erika turns around in her seat and stares at the road. She wants to drive on, ignore the girl and hope she’ll disappear, but she can’t seem to remember how to shift the car into drive.

I know it’s hard. This will change you. It will change everything. But you’ve made it this far, right?

Tears burning in her eyes, Erika meets the girl’s gaze in the mirror. The girl nods. Erika exhales. A shadow swirls around her heart, a shadow she’s had for so long she doesn’t know how to live without it. Maybe her mother’s to blame for its existence, but Erika’s been keeping it in place, keeping herself prisoner. And for what?

With a cry, she peels it free. The ache in her body begins to bleed out, her arms go all-over goosebumps and a shiver dances along her spine. The tether in her chest darkens, first to charcoal, then to pitch, then to a black so absolute she can’t give it a name. It shrivels, a desiccated worm on the pavement of her lap, and dissolves into a million specks of dark that cling to the air for a brief moment before they fade away to nothing at all, taking the last traces of pain with them.

From the back seat comes the sound of muffled sobs, and Erika whirls in her seat. Spilled-ink bruises pattern the girl’s skin. She’s shaking, her face contorted, her lips pressed into a tight line devoid of color.

“Oh, god, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t want—”

I know. But now you understand. The girl manages a small smile, but the expression doesn’t meet her eyes. It will get worse, a lot worse, before it gets better. Remember that. The only way forward is through.

“What do you mean? I don’t understand.”

The bruises spread, melting into one another, not covering the girl, but erasing her. Erika starts to climb over the seat, but it’s too late. The girl is gone. A dark, oily after-image lingers; Erika blinks and then that’s gone, too.

A heavy silence hangs in both the car and Erika’s head, but her heart holds a new shape, a new weight. She wipes her cheeks dry, puts her car in drive, and pulls back onto the interstate.

§

Halfway through Utah, with the Great Salt Lake reflecting the blue sky at her right, Erika starts shaking and pulls into a rest stop. Ahead, the mountains are the jagged teeth of a submerged monster biting the sky, and she fears the beast will emerge and devour her whole.

“You think you’re something, don’t you,” her mother’s voice says. “You really think you can make something of yourself?”

The sound of dark laughter echoes in Erika’s mind. No, no, she’s done with that. She let it go.

But there’s her mother tugging at the edges of her mind, her mother tossing aside a report card, one eyebrow cocked and her mouth in a sneer. “Letters on paper don’t mean shit, girl. Never have and never will. You think being book-smart means you’re better than me? Means your future will be bright and happy? You watch. You’ll end up just like me, no doubt about it.” The laugh again, all acid and teeth, and Erika’s vision doubles.

“No, please, no.”

Erika moans against her palms, envisions her body a cage with a lock impossible to pick, but she suddenly sees the mountains with her own eyes and those of another. Agony shudders through her, and she breaks in two.

She doesn’t want to look at the girl in the passenger seat, but she isn’t a child anymore who can pretend closed eyes create a cloak of invisibility or a spell of protection. This time, the girl is even younger, her features caught in awkward adolescence, maybe thirteen or fourteen. Erika muffles a moan behind her palm. The tether between them wavers in the air and drifts down to settle across gearshift and thighs.

Why are we here? Why did you stop?

“Go away,” Erika says. “Please. You need to get out of the car right now. Please, I don’t want to hurt you. You need to go.”

The girl looks at the tether and then back to Erika, her mouth soft, her eyes helpless. I don’t think I can.

Hiding her face in her hands, Erika tries to keep in the pain, but it doesn’t want to stay. She doesn’t want it to stay. Instead of a shadow, this hurt is barbed wire, sharp and cutting.

“I’m sorry.”

Wait. You don’t have to do this. Please. Just let me back in. I won’t bother you. I won’t—

Her words dissolve into hitching sobs. Erika closes her eyes, steels her heart.   

Please, stop. Make it stop.

“I can’t, I’m sorry. I have to do this.”

No, no, the girl shrieks. Please don’t. Please.

Erika covers her ears, humming to conceal the sound of the girl’s cries, but it isn’t enough, it could never be enough. When the pain is gone, she takes a ragged breath and forces herself to look. The girl holds out arms crosshatched with gaping wounds, all bleeding darkness. Erika reaches for her, but the girl flinches, her eyes dull with hurt and betrayal.

You hurt me. Why did you hurt me?

“I’m sorry.”

Erika turns her face away until the pressure of the air changes, letting her know she’s alone once more. She rests her head on the steering wheel, a bitter pill of guilt on her tongue even while her lips curve into a smile that feels strange, but right and strong and true.

§

Nevada greets her with a blue and white Welcome sign. Low, boxy houses sit on her right; on her left, a resort and casino. More big sky, more mountains in the distance. Erika isn’t sure why, but she expected things to look different when she crossed state lines, each state a wholly separate place, not part of a whole.

Dusk creeps in as the miles glide by, an endless vista of flat land on both sides. She pulls into a gas station to top off her tank, but instead of returning to the road when she’s done, she moves her car off to the side and walks in aimless circles, stretching and shaking her arms. Over her shoulder, she catches the gas station attendant watching from behind the plate-glass window. She waves and he returns the gesture, a bemused grin set into his grizzled face.

Leaning against her car, she watches the stars appear, glittering like bits of glass trapped in the deepening blue. The mountains are a dark shadow at the horizon, and she’s struck with the sense that no matter how long she drives, they’ll remain where they are, preventing her from ever crossing the state, from ever reaching California.

“Know why? Because you’re not good enough,” her mother says. “Do you hear me, you worthless little shit? You don’t deserve a damn thing.”

Erika’s vision blurs, and pain threads through her limbs. “Not again,” she whispers. “Please, not again. Haven’t I done enough?”

But the first girl’s words ring in her ears: It will get worse before it gets better.

Her vision splits, and she shatters in two. The girl now standing in front of her, maybe seven or eight, gives Erika a tentative smile. Her gaze flits to the narrow ribbon connecting them, and her smile falls. Then her chin lifts, her eyes widen.

Look at all the stars!

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Erika’s voice quavers and the girl frowns.

I think I should go back. Can I go back now?

Erika shakes her head. “Not yet.” When the hurt begins to push free, all jagged points of glass, she doesn’t fight it, nor does she turn away. She’ll give the girl at least that, no matter how hard it is to bear witness. She owes her that much.

The tether twitches once, twice; the girl drops to the ground and covers her head with her hands. Her body convulses. You’re hurting me, she shrieks. Stop! Stop it!

Her voice is aluminum foil on amalgam fillings. Erika winces, rocks back and forth.

Please make it stop. Please don’t hurt me anymore.

But Erika can’t. She can’t. Damage has to go somewhere, and she’s carried it long enough. The tether blackens, shrivels, disappears.

The girl struggles to her feet, her cries shrieking into the night, her flesh slashed and gouged. Erika steps away, palms out, an apology caught on her tongue. Nothing she can say will make this right. The girl’s mouth is an O of pain and terror, her eyes accusations, and when the dark begins to bloom its poisonous flowers, Erika whispers, “I’m sorry.”

A throat clears and Erika jumps. The gas station attendant is watching her, his forehead creased. “You okay, miss?“

She nods, finds her voice. “Yes, I think I am, but thank you for asking.”

“You be safe out there, okay?”

“I will.”

For a moment, he looks as though he wants to say something more, but he doesn’t. And with shoulders straight, she drives on.

§

Erika stands at the California sign with arms crossed and elbows cupped in her palms. Tree-covered mountains rise in gentle slopes, and a cool breeze kisses her skin. Although she’s five and a half hours from her destination and can’t yet smell the ocean, she senses it there. A wish. A dream. A chance. She tips her head, catching the sun’s warmth on her face. Her mother’s voice is a ghost of silence and she laughs into the wind. She’s free. Finally, she’s free.

§

Elk, California, a tiny town in Mendocino County, is home to only two hundred and fifty people. A place picked at random; a place with no ties to anyone or anything she’s ever known. A place to forget, to begin anew.

She slips off her shoes and pads across the beach, the sand cool between her toes. Strands of loose hair play-dance across her cheeks as she pauses to inhale the salty tang of the ocean. The Pacific is as beautiful as she imagined it would be, the blue richer than any photograph she’s seen, the sun dappling the surface of the water with flickering light, the crashing waves singing a lullaby.

There are so many things she needs to do, but for now, this is where she has to be. Here, she’s not worthless. Here, she’s not afraid. Here, she’s Erika alone. She tries to take a step closer to the water but can’t convince her feet to move.

“Such a waste of space. Such a fucking mistake. I wish you were never born.”

The words are laced with vehemence and Erika staggers, falling to her hands and knees. She can’t breathe, can’t think; the pain is too much. It’s fire and glass and razors and darkness. The ocean twins, a blurry half-image of the receding waves overlaying her own until she splits, until the girl crawls from her belly and drops to the sand in a grim simulation of birth, the tether a misplaced umbilical cord, a liar’s promise of sustenance.

The toddler has chubby legs and fingers, a rounded belly, and baby-fine hair several shades lighter than the color it will become. Her face should be smiles and hope and nothing more, but her eyes already have the look of a wounded animal and Erika catches her lower lip between her teeth, chokes back tears.

Gingerbread girls can never run fast enough, never travel far enough. There’s always a fox at the end, and that fox, once it sinks in its teeth, will never let go, not until all the good parts are gone and what’s left simply goes through the motions while waiting for the end to come.

Erika’s shoulders slump, her chin drops, her throat clenches. The hurt washes over her, a baptism of defeat, and she can taste the triumph of her mother’s laughter.

She scrubs her mouth with the back of her hand and gets to her feet. Curls her hands into fists. Straightens her spine and swallows her sorrow. No, she’s made it all this way, she won’t stop now. She won’t give in.

Her younger self grabs handfuls of sand, lets the grains sieve between her fingers. Erika tucks a lock of hair behind her ear, smiles, and opens her arms.

The little girl hesitates. Picka-up me? she says.

Erika nods.

Nice lady?

Erika nods again, her smile on the verge of disintegration. The girl’s skin is warm and solid beneath Erika’s touch, no matter what she knows in her head. The heart can make anything real; so, too, can hurt.

“You’re the last one, aren’t you?” she says. “The last one I have to say goodbye to, the last one I have to let go.”

The little girl giggles and touches Erika’s cheek, leaving a dusting of sand behind. Erika holds her close, breathing in the smell of talcum powder. Part of her wants to stay this way, to stand here forever, but innocence lost can never be reclaimed, so with slow, careful steps she heads into the surf. As the spray mists around them, the little girl squeals and tries to squirm from her grasp.

“Shh,” Erika says. “Everything will be okay.” She heads deeper in, breathes, “I’m sorry,” into the girl’s hair. As a wave approaches, she inhales and goes under, sinking to her knees. The chill seeps into her bones, sets her teeth to chatter, but she clamps her jaw tight. Against her shoulder, collarbones, and thighs, the little girl’s hands spasm, her head thrashes, her legs kick.

Erika tightens her arms until they ache. The current buffets her from side to side and her lungs scream, but she remains beneath the water until the little girl’s grip loosens, until she stops moving, until her weight becomes impossibly heavy. The tether snaps free, and Erika breaks through the surf with a cry.

Hair drifting in seaweed tangles, arms outstretched, the little girl’s body floats like a discarded doll, mercifully facedown, then a wave rushes in and when it recedes, the little girl is gone.

Alone, Erika makes her way back to the shore, her steps sure, her spine straight. Her eyes sting, but whether from tears or the salt of the sea, she doesn’t know. Right now, it doesn’t matter. Waves nudge her thighs and the current tugs her ankles, but she keeps moving. The only way forward is through.

Originally published in Chiral Mad 3, March 2016.

Damien Angelica Walters is the author of Cry Your Way Home, Paper Tigers, and Sing Me Your Scars. Her short fiction has been nominated twice for a Bram Stoker Award, reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and published in various anthologies and magazines, including the Shirley Jackson Award Finalists Autumn Cthulhu and The Madness of Dr. Caligari, World Fantasy Award Finalist Cassilda’s Song, Nightmare Magazine, and Black Static. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls. Find her on Twitter @DamienAWalters or on the web at http://damienangelicawalters.com.

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