Tanya had been thinking about leaving for years: packing up what she could fit in her car and just driving away. Each time she got close, fear of the unknown had stopped her. The devil you know, and all that.
This time – this time he’d gone too far. The car was packed. She was on the outskirts of town. Tanya knew once she crossed that bridge, there was no turning back.
But the bridge was so long; she couldn’t see land on the other side. Fear paralyzed her. Drivers behind her began honking their horns. Tanya had to make up her mind: straight or left. And she had to choose quickly.
Welcome to the Indies Unlimited Flash Fiction Challenge. In 250 words or less, write a story incorporating the elements in the picture and the written prompt above. Do not include the prompt in your entry. The 250 word limit will be strictly enforced.
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18 thoughts on “Flash Fiction Challenge: Straight or Left”
Benteen was not a man to try to jive and Tom knew this. Still, he had to try something unexpected. He’d always told Tanya he liked their small shack so much better than a new trailer because there were more ways to get out in an emergency. The emergency had arrived. Benteen wanted the coke or the cash. Tom didn’t have it.
Tom was through the back window and onto his Harley before Benteen realized what was happening. Gravel and dirt flashed in waves as Tom wildly took the turn onto the highway with the Harley biting the ground in a half circle. Benteen was a big man and not quick enough to the ground to make the shots he squeezed off count for much.
Tom pushed his ride hard through the humid evening as he cut the yellow line down the highway, heading for the bridge. He hoped against reason that he could catch her in time. He rehearsed his lies and stories in his head as he blasted toward the water front. The whole scheme he would say, the whole scheme was to finance their escape from this dead end life. It was for the two of them. One last big score. He had repeated it so often to himself he almost believed it.
That was when he saw it.
People will say that everything slows down when they find themselves caught up in violence. Like a car wreck unfolding, the ones involved feel outside their bodies, watching the dream of what was taking place. That hot, thick day seemed to slow down the gracefull trajectory of the green Ford pickup as it cleared the bridge railing, rolling and tumbling in an arc, as graceful as a ballet against the salmon sky. Or so it seemed for those who saw it happen, even as the truck and Tanya and the half million dollars in cash and coke Tom had skimmed off Benteens’ deals had reached 100 mph and then plummeted together to their abrupt end.
Tanya glanced in the rear view, boxes and bags crammed in the back left a small tunnel open to her past. She caught her reflection too; sunken eyes rimmed in red, skin so pale her blue pulse threatened to burst out from the fragile shell.
“Straight,” the syllable sneaked past teeth barely rooted.
Her foot pressed down and the car lurched forward. The honking behind her subsided. She was on the bridge. Decision made. No going back.
She allowed herself one last look in the mirror and saw the powder blue truck pull into the passing lane. Panic burned her veins and made her chest clench.
Please god don’t let that be Jake.
But there could be no mistake. It was him and he was coming after her.
How could I have been so stupid. Of course he wouldn’t let me go. That’s not how he works.
The truck, now only three vehicles back, caused Tanya to wonder if her borrowed beater would let her escape.
The mirror revealed him one car back. She could almost see his furrowed brow and flaring nostrils and righteous glare.
Another surge of panic seemed to help propel her overpacked car forward. Then she realized he was ramming her. Another strike and she skidded out of control.
The crunch from impacting the guardrail barely registered. She felt, more than anything, the car flip over the side. Water, then sky, and then she just closed her eyes.
Finally, I’m free.
Family Ties (248 words)
He never did hit Tanya. But life with him was hell.
One time he stabbed her tire so it would slowly lose air and eventually become flat. It had been a snowy day, well below freezing. Tanya had driven ten miles into the hills before she had to pull over. The cell phone had no reception. She had to walk back to town.
He told her best friend that Tanya was having an affair with her husband. It wasn’t true, but it cost Tanya that friendship.
When Tanya needed to leave town to attend to her mother, he lied to her boss. He told him that she was in Las Vegas with friends for a bachelorette party. Tanya had to show her boss the plane tickets stubs to prove otherwise.
Last year he shoved a dead racoon under a loose floor board in her closet. Tanya furiously pulled out all her clothes and scrubbed the walls, floor and ceiling. The smell only worsened. At work people were whispering and wondering why she smelled like death. She lost that job.
One fall night she came home and found a broken window. Everything valuable was gone. The silver. Her jewelry. Tanya reported it to the police but she knew it was an inside job.
Now he had gone too far. She thought he would never hurt the family dog.
She was done with him. Let Bobby go into foster care. He was a ten year old hellion.
Her foot moved slowly back and to the right. She had made her choice. The car lurched and began to roll forward. There was no going back now. Her courage fled even as she cautiously pressed the gas.
The bridge before her rippled and shimmered in the twilight, its two lanes filled with pairs of staring red eyes eager to devour her and her little car whole. Bright white flashes streamed by, briefly illuminating the the dark water that pressed in from both sides, threatening her equilibrium. The impatient horns faded from her awareness as the car slowly gained speed, first five, then ten, then twenty five miles per hour.
She felt like she was careening forward, the vehicle’s progress out of her control. She tried not to glance in the rear view mirror at the SUV trying to turn her car into a hood ornament. Her gaze was concentrated on the pavement just in front of her tires. If she didn’t look beyond, didn’t acknowledge the fearsome monsters lurking just outside her peripheral vision, she might just make it to the other side.
A black shadow swooped down across the windshield and she flinched, jerking the wheel slightly to the left to avoid the gull. Finally, finally, she started the slight descent toward landfall. She followed the road a few miles before she found a safe place to pull off. Sweat trickled down her back as she loosened her death grip on the wheel. Now what?
The honking behind her grew louder, but Tanya was in a trance. She was frozen in panic. How had this happened to her? She used to be strong and independent. Now she was nothing more than a neurotic mess.
She thought about having to leave her dog behind in order to sneak out of the house. She thought of her job – she was next in line for promotion. Were these just excuses to stay? She didn’t know anymore.
Tanya jumped at a knock on her window. She looked at the man standing in the intersection. His angry expression changed when he saw the mascara streaked down her face and the blood caked on her lips.
“You okay, Miss Tanya?” he asked.”
There was a beseechment in her eyes that twisted at his gut. “Slide over,” he told her. He signaled to his partner before getting in.
While driving her home, he tried to find out what had happened this time, but words weren’t coming for Tanya.
Officer Jenkins waited for his partner to pull into the driveway before going up to the house. Mark answered the door with a shotgun blast, sending the officer back onto the lawn. Tanya fumbled under the seat for Mark’s 9mm.
She could hear the other cop yelling “Officer down!” Everything was distorted, like slow motion, as she leaned onto the hood of her car and squeezed the trigger until all the bullets were gone. Mark collapsed next to Officer Jenkins. She was done being a victim.
Should she turn left? It would be a quick plummet off the side of the bridge. Or should she go straight? Something she only dreamed about until now. She heard another honk. She checked her rear view mirror. Behind her was him.
She couldn’t go back. She floored the gas, screeching the tires as she accelerated over the bridge. He was right behind her. He gained on the distance between them. She knew he’d ram her if she didn’t go faster. She started to swerve around the traffic, dashing between cars.
The bridge kept going. The car was an extension of her body now, taking her farther away from him to freedom. He wasn’t going to hit her again. No more words that cut at her heart. It was over. Finally.
In front of her, she saw a bright light. She drove towards it. She checked her rear view mirror and saw he wasn’t there anymore. In fact, the other cars surrounding her were gone too. Behind her she heard sirens.
She got to the end of the bridge and saw an exit. She came to a gate. It was brightly lit, with gold trim and pearl inlaid décor. The gatekeeper leaned out. His long beard spilled over the side of the window.
“Welcome Tanya. We’ve been expecting you.”
She got out of the car leaving her body behind. She floated to the gate feeling only joy. “Thank you. I’ve had a long drive to get here.”
In that moment Tom’s words filled her thoughts, “You are nothing without me.” Her memories spiraled, not just to the disaster of her relationship with Tom. She remembered the relationships that came before him as well.
In everyone she had given everything, her time, her attention, her sanity, and each time she came away an empty shell of who she could have been. She heard once that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results was a sign of insanity. It described her life so perfectly an insane quest for the same relationship over and over again.
Tom had become a stand in for the same guy, same attitudes she expected from her relationships. She couldn’t even picture his face anymore. It had morphed and blended with the others.
She looked ahead, toward the other side of the bridge. Though she couldn’t see the end she edged her car forward. As Tanya’s car picked up speed the thoughts of Tom and the rest slipped to the back of her mind. Not out of thought, but a physical sensation of the thoughts slipping behind her.
As her car crossed the bridge’s thresh-hold she looked a last time in her rear view mirror. The cars behind her began to chase her. Tanya reached up to adjust the mirror and ripped it from the window. She would never look back again.
Onward and Upward (250 words)
Tanya heard the bells jangle on the door and turned, wiping her flour drenched hands on her apron. It was the new vendor from Boar’s Head Meats. She had been waiting for him.
“Hello, yes, please come in. Sorry the place is a mess. We don’t open for an hour.”
Tanya was finishing stacking pastries on shelves beneath the glass counter tops at the Black Sheep Deli. It was her deli. A dream deli, if that can be said about a place with a few dead flies and a grease trap. But it was hers. And she deserved it.
Two of her staff arrived early. They were boyfriend/girlfriend, both 19, and students at the local college. The two kids were studying Hotel and Restaurant Management and hoped to open their own eatery one day. They didn’t mind the constant cleaning and wiping down of surfaces. He tackled the grease trap with no complaints.
Tanya had met Sue at the yoga studio across town. They became instant friends and Sue helped Tanya decorate the deli. Sue’s husband set up a little stage in the corner and started an open-mic night on Thursdays. His own jazz trio played there Sunday mornings. Local artists showed their paintings on the walls.
Tanya caught her reflection in the pastry case and pushed some loose hair behind her ear. She remembered one year ago, when she was driving across that long bridge. It was the best decision she ever made.
“Shut up! Let me think,” she bellowed at the cars reflected in the rear vision mirror. The hooting continued.
Fear and guilt trapped her mind in the continuous replay of her internal debate. How could she leave him? Should she have gone sooner?
For 45 years they had stuck to their promise. They had survived and thrived through thick and thin. They were proud of their strong, enduring love, but now, when it really counted, she was giving up on him.
Tanya absentmindedly flicked the indicator to signal a left turn, but instead she switched on the windscreen wipers. The sudden rhythmic scratching over the dry window released her captured thoughts.
What was she thinking? She can’t go back. There’s nothing left. The dementia had gone too far. He was now in the home. He would want her to go.
The tutoring job and cheap room rental would give Tanya enough money for weekend visits across the bridge. She could relax, sit and hold his hand. The staff would see to all his needs.
She thumped both hands on the steering wheel. “Come on, old girl, wake up, take control and watch the road. There are always options in life. Bridges are built to be traversed both ways.”
Tanya laughed. She gave the drivers behind her the ‘thumbs up’, and accelerated onto the bridge.
“Honey, you’re safe and well cared for. It’s time to look after myself.” She turned up the radio and sang.
Nobody ever went left. Everyone always went straight, over that seemingly endless bridge. To the left it was dark, roads shadowed by overgrown trees and brambles. There almost wasn’t enough room for a car.
So Tanya chose. She turned the wheel hard and went left. Crazy, they would call her. Nobody goes that way.
She drove until the brush was so close her car got stuck. Driving forward was impossible, but she couldn’t back up, either. She had to get out of the car.
Her hand trembled as she opened the door. The air was fragrant, like there was a bed of flowers hiding just around the corner. She’d expected it to smell dank, stale.
She walked all night. She was tired, dirty, and more than ready to rest when she caught glimpses of the sun rising through the thick trees overhead. She began to think she should have gone straight. But she knew he would have found her.
Suddenly the path opened up, and it was beautiful. It looked like a world she’d read about in fairy tales, a world she’d only dreamed about full of magic and love.
The woman picking flowers near the path looked up and smiled. She was as lovely, her skin sparkled in the sunlight. “You made it.”
Tanya nodded, unable to speak.
“There’s not many that take that turn. But those that do never regret it. Welcome home.”
Taking a deep breath and pursing her lips, Tanya depressed the accelerator. Straight it would be.
Straight away from her lifetime home. Straight into the unknown. Straight onto the longest bridge in the world—ironic for someone panicky about crossing bridges, but that was how desperate her situation had become.
After discovering his great-grandmother’s “collection,” Jesse had immersed himself in the dark arts, over time morphing into a scary and paranoid Doppelganger, the very opposite of the man she had married.
When Tanya confronted him, he claimed it was all in fun, that the bizarre rituals he performed didn’t really do anything. But she knew better, on both counts. The last straw came when she found him, trance-like, mumbling an incantation over their wedding photo. Tanya waited until he’d left, then packed the car and headed for the bridge.
Her fear lifted as she drove. She felt ready to start over, comfortable facing the unfamiliar.
All too soon, however, the “other side” began to seem familiar. Frighteningly familiar. Spotting a Piggly Wiggly store just like the one at home didn’t unsettle her, but seeing the identical twin of their local diner next to it did. An exact replica of Pontchartrain Elementary three blocks away sent her into a cold sweat. Tanya haltingly followed her usual route, dread growing with each well-known landmark. She parked and sat in terrified silence, staring at her house—and Jesse out front, expecting her.
“Welcome home, darlin’,” he drawled, his eyes gleaming red. “Welcome home.”
Where had it all gone wrong? Tanya leaned her head against the tattered headrest as she waited in the heavy tourist traffic. She and Tom had married right after graduation. The first year had been idyllic. Then the abuse began. At first just verbal’ within months it had turned to punches. She’d had to make excuses to her boss and friends for the bruises that dotted her face. Last night she knew she had to leave. Tom had almost killed her as he kicked her over and over. She’d waited until he was snoring, passed out from the whiskey, then crept downstairs. She’d grabbed the keys to her old yellow truck and her purse and fled the house.
The bridge that seemed to stretch forever before her was the only way off the island. Her freedom was on the other side. The car in front of her began moving. She turned the key to start the engine and nothing happened.
“Oh God, not now.”
She pumped the gas and tried again – nothing. Tears of frustration poured down her cheeks.
“I’m getting off this island even if I have to walk the whole way.”
She got out, purse over her shoulder, and began to walk. People stared as she passed by. No one offered a ride. She continued to walk undeterred by their indifference. Several cars ahead a door opened. A man stepped out moonlight caressing his coal black hair.
“Need a ride?”
She was facing the right direction but objects in the rear-view mirror are always closer than they appear—especially the Devil! She stared intently back at the ruins of her former life, the truth about him becoming sympathetically unfocused. Her breathing slowed, the panic and terror of the unknown replaced by all that was familiar—comfortable. The conjured memories, mere distorted images, weakened her resolve, making her question her righteous judgment to flee. ‘I am being irrational. Ungrateful? I am throwing away a life-long commitment, years of safety—stability. I am being nonsensical—a fool!’
But as soothing as the comfortable, familiar, and fabricated retrospect was, the pernicious sorrow also returned, thrashing and stinging her fresh soul like salty, squally ocean waves burn tender, human flesh. This ocean of sorrow was so deep and frigid for Tanya, she felt her beautiful and burgeoning heart instantly shrivel, plummeting back down toward the dark depths of numb, habitual despair.
Change was painful, frighteningly immobilizing but despair was far worse! ‘I want hope, faith and above all—love! Glance back but never, ever stare again,’ she thought.
Eyes forward, courage rallied, her resurrection and salvation remained straight ahead across a seemingly infinite bridge of fear. Distant, concealed, situated upon a strong rock off the island’s white, sandy shore, was her new destination. She had yet to see it, to touch it, but she had dreamt it! Her faith strengthened, conviction restored, she gathered speed and began her liberating journey straight toward personal victory.
She was paralyzed and lost in the din of car horns honking behind her. If she turned back she could still have him; if she went across the bridge she would loose him and the city she loved.
At last she inhaled, stomped her foot on the gas, lurched ahead, and then soon found the right pedal touch. The gray 2006 Chevy Malibu purred forward. The seagulls cawed: you go girl, don’t quit now, don’t give up. Hot tears stung as they ran down her bruised cheeks, the left eye almost swollen shut.
She loved him. She could not give up on him. But she could keep on driving in the early morning traffic. The Malibu would not let her down. The Pontchartrain was quiet, serene, and secretive. She drove over rowboats sunk from neglected leaks, destroyed confederate gunboats, unending discards, and dead fish. She could barely see the proud alligators being piled on shore as fishermen who had floated into the wrong territory whacked them to death. Why the men had not just paddled back to where they belonged she did not know.
So much she did not know. But she could drive and she did.
She began to see the brightness of the rising sun, for which she owed nothing. She owed nothing; now that was a good feeling. She liked it. How long since she’d known what she felt? What she liked?
Well, no matter. She knew now and she was on her way.
She accelerated hard and mounted the bridge. Soon that vast expanse of water was opening up on either side of her as she took in deep breaths of fresh air from the open window. Her fear evaporated. The decision made was made – no turning back.
Not even a sliver of doubt lingered. Despite Danny’s promise to address his secretary less seductively when she called about work on his day off; regardless of his decision to forego this year’s Christmas party, where she knew so many of the harlots from his firm would lie in wait, ready to pounce. It was over six months since she had slept with his brother, and still Danny’s outrageous behavior persisted – culminating with his failure to notice her new shoes yesterday.
A text message buzzed in her handbag. She had raced across the huge bridge, and a queue of traffic waited to take the exit ramp. She yanked the phone free. The message was from Danny:
I need a break. I’m staying at the Delaware. It’s a small hotel on the other side of the bridge. You know the one. Get in touch when you are ready to be reasonable.
Tanya glanced at the windscreen, in time to see the sign for the Delaware, nestled up on the hill ahead, emerge. It twinkled at her through the mist.
She dropped the phone, curled her hands into tight fists and screamed.
Tanya gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, struggling against the air that seemed to press down on her. Sweat streamed down her back. The erratic thump, thump of her heart drowned out the honking horns behind her. Drivers gestured and screamed for her to move aside. She was holding up the daily commute, one that she hadn’t partaken of since coming to this place with him, asleep, in the dead of night.
There was nothing out there for her, he’d said. No hope, no love, no people. Only he would have her. Confidence slowly eroded, just like the banks of the island. Her world shrunk until all that was left was his will.
This wasn’t the first time she’d hovered at the edge of this bridge, staring as it disappeared into the distance. Each time, fear had held her back, the panic of that big empty expanse of water with only a thin layer of concrete and steel for safety. Fear of how she could survive alone, without him.
Movement caught her eye. He was coming, charging down the road, mustache twisted up into small horns. Even at this distance she could see his furious expression.
She’d suffered his poisonous words for years, even the occasional slap, but last night left more than her self-confidence beaten. If it was just her, she’d suffer through, but this wasn’t a life to bring another into. Hands shaking, she slammed the accelerator. The car rocketed into the unknown. Free at last.
Tanya hesitated at the bridge. She had been so sure of her decision up until now. Looking out at the point on the horizon where the bridge ended and the sky began filled her with panic. Knowing she would have to trust further than she could see caused her heart to skip more than a few beats. She knew this day would come eventually. She had watched others before her pack up their vehicles, drive over the bridge off the island and into the great unknown. No one had ever returned to tell them what lay beyond the fog and the mist. That was the caveat. Once you left the island you could never return. Tanya would have been content to stay, slowly losing her memories. She had given them up without a fight to the Guardian in exchange for a place on the island. She had given him memories of birthdays past, first kisses, dances and lovers lost without a backwards glance. He had gone too far this time. He had begun to take her memories of Aiden, the one thing she refused to give up. Horns honking behind her she gunned the engine and raced over the bridge. She could feel the weight of Aiden on her shoulder, smell his sweet baby skin. He was still with her. All of the baggage she had packed began flying out of the convertible. Looking in the rearview she saw the bridge burning behind her as Purgatory lost a resident.
“No,” Tanya calmed herself through the cacophony of honks. “No, you’re fine. Come on, you have to go!”
Tayt had ruined the possibility of staying. She knew deep down he had probably already hurt someone. It’s impossible to say what fueled his rage.
For the first time, the driver in the truck behind Tanya slammed his horn. His proximity startled her.
“Oh, God no,” she pleaded.
She blinked then calmly pushed the button to release the back passenger window. Then, exiting her vehicle, she searched the back seat for an old friend.
The driver behind her yelled out his window, “Come on, lady. Some of us have places to get!”
Tanya removed a duffle bag through the window, and as she approached the man, she stated “You know, Tanya was just trying to decide in there if she was going or staying.”
The man glanced at the unoccupied car, and questioned, “Are you Tanya?”
“No,” Tanya smiled. Then, waiting until the man returned his gaze, she growled, “I’m Tayt!” Before the man had time to register, he felt a shower of glass rain over him, as Tayt, newly armed with a metal baseball bat, began dispatching every piece of glass that separated him from his antagonist.
Pleased with his work, Tayt smiled at his audience of wide-eyed drivers. Then, returning to his vehicle, with Silence as his escort, Tayt said to himself, “Tanya, you’re right; we have to go.” And with that Tayt took off over the bridge.
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