The Last Mile

March 14, 2024

TRIGGER WARNING: Drunk Driving

 

The pounding in my head like a snare drum is what brings me into consciousness, my eyes clenching shut harder than they already were and my hand flying up to massage my temple. I push myself up into a sitting position, forcing my eyes to open against the blinding light seeping through the parted curtains. 

What happened last night? Gosh, I can’t even remember getting back home. Everything past the drive to the club and the various “birthday shots” we took to celebrate Robin’s 26th is completely black to me, the memories blurred and senseless. Instead of fighting to remember them, I glance next to me in bed, thankful to not see some random person I managed to drag back with me last night. 

“I’m hungover,” I groan to my cat who now walks into my room. “I did this to myself.” 

Salem jumps onto my bed at the sound of my voice, softly purring. She stares at me with wide eyes and lets out a loud, currently ear-splitting meow, which probably means I overslept, and she’s hungry. 

“All right,” I mutter, giving her a quick rub behind her ear. “Let’s get breakfast. Or lunch. Whatever the hell time it is.” 

My bare feet lightly slap against the hardwood floor as I make my way to the kitchen and take my time pouring tuna patte onto a small plate for Salem. Once I set it down in front of her on the floor, her cries finally cease, turning into the sounds of tiny lips smacking against each other as they devour the artificial tuna.

I wish I got that excited to eat the same food every day for eight years straight. After taking a long, steaming hot shower and brushing my teeth at the same time as washing my hair, I dress into lazy clothes that are probably more like pajamas, unbothered with how I look, and force my arms into my too-small parka. Even though I feel like I just got hit by a truck, I have things to do today. And if I don’t get out of the apartment, I’ll start to spiral into my yearly seasonal depression again, and I’m trying to push that off as much as I can. 

I get in the elevator and come face to face with Miranda, my cranky next-door neighbor who never fails to pound on my door in the middle of the night to ask for sugar, flour, or anything else because she’s too lazy to go to the store during the day. She isn’t nice about it either. I don’t know why I keep giving her stuff. 

“Morning,” I mutter. She ignores me, which doesn’t surprise me. She usually does unless she wants something. 

It’s a blessing when the elevator finally reaches the first floor, and I stalk out of the opening doors and go through the lobby, making my way outside. I take a deep breath of the chilled air, the scent of gasoline, smoke, and something else tangy and rotten filling my nostrils. My nose crinkles as I look down at the sidewalk to identify the smell. 

Garbage day. Perfect. 

I shuffle past the endless piles of trash bags, bidding good morning to a homeless man and glancing at a stray cat nibbling at the spilled contents of a dumpster. New York City. Nothing like it. And not in a good way—at least not for me. I dreamt my whole life of one day moving to the Big Apple, editing for Harper Collins, and living in an apartment on the penthouse level, waking up to the clouds right outside my window, so close I could reach out and touch them. 

Instead, I’m an almost thirty-year-old single woman with a small, terribly paying job at one of the most poorly rated publishing houses in the city, who lives in an apartment the size of my bedroom at my childhood home. On the weekends, instead of going to dainty wine tastings with co-workers, I drown myself in cheap vodka, pretending like it’s for fun, while really it’s because I hate where I’m at in my life, and if I can forget it even for a night, I’ll sacrifice my taste buds and dignity without another thought. Instead of seeing white, puffy clouds outside my window, I see a thick, gray smog stemming from the power plant just a block away. 

Safe to say, I’m not exactly living the life I envisioned. I know I’m still young. I’m just discouraged. But it makes me feel better to know I have plenty of time to change my life around…. I’ll try again next week. 

I shove my hands into my parka’s pockets, lowering my head against the harsh wind. I nod greetings to a few people as I walk, but they all ignore me. Also not a surprise. It’s New York City. If someone actually acknowledged me, I’d look up at the sky to see if pigs were flying up there. I finally find my way to Zabar’s, a small bagel shop a few blocks from my apartment. My mom’s visiting tomorrow, and I promised I’d stock up on her favorite bagels and cheeses before she arrived. 

As I go to push open the glass door, hairs on the back of my neck rise up, and I slowly turn to see a man standing about thirty feet from me, staring at me. He’s wearing a red plaid shirt with a deep green sweater vest, and his hair is combed all the way to the right. He’s rather young, probably only a few years older than me.

At first, I’m flattered he thinks I’m worth looking at. But the more I look back at him, the more unsettled I feel. His eyelids are lowered in an almost sinister way, and his bottom lip is trembling as if he wants to say something, or even as if he’s about to break into tears. I almost walk up to him to demand an explanation, but when his gaze grows more and more filled with rage, I quickly spin around and go inside the bagel shop. I’ve worked on too many crime pieces that took place in this city to risk being in one of my own. 

I try to shake off the unsettling feeling that’s washed over me like a tide as I open my mouth to speak to the cashier. 

“Hi,” I say quietly, looking down at the food in the display cabinet. “Can I get three blueberry bagels and three chocolate chip ones? My mom has a bit of a sweet tooth,” I say to him, plastering a slight smile on my lips. He doesn’t answer and continues to fiddle on his phone. 

“Hello?” I say after a few seconds. Still, nothing. “Sir?” I say louder, my impatience starting to grow. He finally looks up as the door swings open again, the bell hanging over the hinge jingling against the glass. A woman in a beige suit jacket with her hair pulled into a slick bun on the top of her head walks past me, and the cashier greets her with a warm smile. “How are you today, miss?” he says to her, and I scoff. 

“What the hell is wrong with the people in this city?” I shout as I storm out, my finger shooting up in a crude gesture, and my cheeks heating up in anger. Who is he to ignore me like that?

With relief, I see the man is no longer standing outside the store, and I keep walking, determined to get something for my mom before her flight comes in tomorrow.

I welcome the cool air as it chills my hot face, my anger simmering down from a forest fire to just an ember. 

My eyes light up as I notice the familiar bookstore up ahead, the fading green letters on its front reading ‘The Book Nook.’ It’s been my only true safe haven in this city since I moved here two years ago, and there’s a pastry shop inside. Mom loves a good croissant. 

I make a beeline across the street, and just as I go to enter, the hair on my neck raises yet again. Is this guy following me? 

I whirl around to give him a piece of my mind, my hand ready to whip my pepper spray out of my bag, but he isn’t there. Instead, it’s a woman who seems to be about my age, her stomach substantially swollen. Her hand rests where her belly button would be under her shirt, and she’s looking at me, her chocolate brown eyes dull. 

“When are you due?” I force out, trying to kill the awkward silence. She frowns, her brows knitting together, and her hand grows into a white-knuckled fist at her side. She doesn’t answer me, though. Just stares at me as if I’m the bane of her existence. 

I roll my eyes and go into the bookshop, irritation flooding my veins. I swear people in this city are seriously messed up. Didn’t anyone ever teach them that staring is rude? And that ignoring someone speaking to them is even ruder? 

As soon as the smell of cinnamon rolls and old paper hits my nose, I grow exponentially calmer, comfort replacing the annoyance in my chest. When I was a teenager, still dreaming of living here in the city, I visited once or twice with my mom, and both times I came here, staying for hours on end reading the back covers of books I’d never heard of. I’d always been an avid reader, hence my desire

to work with a publishing firm, and as a young girl, I would comb through the shelves of endless pages, dreaming of my future here. 

I still come here as a place of comfort. But I don’t pick up any books. I don’t read at all, anymore. I’ve lost my passion for it. Instead, I come here only to feel the nostalgia of what I felt back then. The ghost of the hope I had for my life back then lives here, haunting every aisle and blowing its cool breath on my skin. 

I do allow myself to dream here, sometimes. But only a little. Too much would only make my chest ache. But every once in a while, I let myself feel that hope again. Remind myself I still have time to change. Still have time to stop drinking, pick my life up, start reading again, start writing again, and start chasing the life I’ve always wanted. 

I wander aimlessly through the aisles for a bit but am too hesitant to pick up a title. Instead, I go to the pastry area, making my way to the sweet-looking, plump woman behind the counter. Mary Beth, her name is, and she’s the closest to what I can call a friend in this city. 

“Hi, Mary Beth,” I greet, smiling at her in earnest. She doesn’t answer though, preoccupied with sorting pastries in the display case. 

“The one you’re holding looks great,” I add. “Apple fritter is it? Can I have a few? My mom’s visiting tomorrow, and you know how much she loves them. I’m sure I can get her to stop by to say hello.” 

Mary Beth doesn’t respond. Completely ignores me, in fact.

This whole morning, I’ve been ignored, but instead of feeling irritation at Mary Beth joining the trend, panic instead rushes into me. People I don’t know in the city not talking to me is one thing but her? Something must be seriously wrong. “Have I done something?” I desperately ask her. 

Did I do something last night when I was drunk? Did I come here and say something to her that ruined my friendship with her? 

She still ignores me and then wipes a stray tear from her cheek. I stumble backward in disgust. What have I done to upset her so much? What have I done to make her cry just by entering her store? 

I whirl around, sprinting to the front door. Something’s wrong. Something is seriously not right. What did I do? 

I dash down the street, my legs moving at a much quicker pace than they’d like to as they carry me back in the direction of my apartment building. 

When I finally reach it and go to fling open the door to the lobby, I notice a small girl standing in my way, looking up at me with wide eyes. 

I pant, feeling exhausted from my trek here but kneel down to her level. “Are you lost?” I ask her, looking around to see if there’s an adult to claim her but to no avail. “Where’s your mommy?” I say, but she just stares at me. She has braided pigtails in her hair, the hair ties securing them bright pink and sparkly. She has a cute little holiday dress on, with a fluffy white coat covering her arms. She’s wearing lace knee-high socks, with tiny black dress shoes on her feet. 

“Okay, come inside with me. We’ll find your grown-up,” I say to her, grabbing her hand and taking her with me to the apartment building. Panic and adrenaline still rush through my veins, and I know in order to help this little girl, I need to get a hold of myself. I take her to the front desk and place her next to the receptionist. “Watch her for just a moment,” I mutter to him, not looking up. 

“I’ll be right back, okay?” I tell her, and as I go to turn to the bathroom in the lobby, she makes a small sound. I look at her, surveying her tiny face. Tears are rushing down her cheeks, her eyes filled with a sort of sorrow I’ve only seen a few times in my life. 

“Don’t worry,” I say, crouching down to her. “I’ll be right back, I promise. We’ll find your mommy.” 

She doesn’t say anything, and I speed walk to the bathroom, needing to just take a minute to breathe in order to help her. I just need a moment to myself. I push open the door and walk in, expecting the motion sensor light to flick on and light my path. But the bathroom stays dark. 

I wave my hands around, moving forward, trying to trigger it, but still, absolutely nothing. The blackness is calming though, so I just lean against the tile wall, taking deep, soothing breaths. 

After a moment, the door flings open and the light suddenly decides to turn on as a woman walks in. Wow, even the damn light is ignoring me today. “Excuse me, I’m in here,” I try to tell her, but she ignores me, walking right past me, the smell of cheap perfume trailing after her. I scoff, yanking at my hair. What is wrong with people? 

I turn to leave, but a flash of color makes me stop, and I turn to look. It’s myself, in the mirror. But not myself. At least, it doesn’t look like myself. It can’t be. The woman in the mirror is covered in red. Deep, deep red. Her hair is matted, and she’s wearing a party dress that’s torn up in various places. Her arms have cuts up

and down them, and her right eye is hanging out of its socket. Her lips are swollen and bruised, and there’s a gash in her forehead so deep that it looks as if she could reach inside it. 

And the woman in the mirror is me. It’s me. 

I scream, flying back so hard that I ram into the wall behind me, my hands shaking tremendously. What’s going on? What’s happening? 

A rush of a memory darts across the forefront of my mind, but I fight it, pushing it back

I don’t want to know. I don’t want to remember. 

I dart out of the bathroom to escape the nightmare and have to plant my feet on the ground to avoid slamming into someone. It’s the man from earlier who was staring at me outside of the bagel shop. And next to him, the pregnant woman, who’s holding hands with the little girl from just a few minutes ago. They’re looking at me so intently that I’m surprised there aren’t holes being burnt into my forehead. 

Another memory flies into my mind, and I grit my teeth. “I don’t want to remember!” I scream. I clench my eyes shut and let myself fall to the ground, sobs coming out of me in between every panting breath. Memories start rushing into my mind like a flood, and as much as I try to build up a barrier to keep them from entering, they push past. I unwillingly watch them play out like a movie on a screen. 

“Take another shot!” Robin told me, and I did, throwing back the burning liquid with a smile on my lips. My mind was foggy and I couldn’t stand up straight, but this is how I liked it. 

Another memory crashes into me.

“You can’t drive,” Courtney told me, grabbing my wrist.

“I’m fine,” I slurred, yanking out of her grip and stumbling to my car.

“Just leave your car overnight and take an Uber back with us. Getting towed is better than driving like this,” she insisted, and I clumsily rolled my eyes. I opened my car door, slipping into the driver’s seat and knocked my head on the steering wheel. A laugh bubbled up from my gut as I twisted the key, the engine rolling over. 

“Stop, stop, stop,” I beg. I don’t want to see any more. I don’t. I can’t. The final memory hits me with an impact so hard I’m left without breath. 

I tried to stay in my lane, but it was useless. Both lanes blurred together, 

appearing like one. The sound of a car’s horn was muffled in my mind, because I couldn’t focus on anything. With the amount of alcohol I drank, focusing on anything was an impossible task. My vision, blurry and obscured, cleared up for a single moment as I careened towards the blue compact car, and before I rammed into the front of it, I caught sight of what was inside. In the driver’s seat, a man with a red plaid shirt and a green sweater vest, his eyes wide with fright. In the passenger seat, a woman, one hand gripping her pregnant belly and the other reaching into the back seat, her mouth open in the shape of an O. And finally, a small girl in the backseat, strapped into a car seat, her lips parted and eyes staring straight at me, horror etched in its gaze. I fly forward as I make impact with the car, and all goes black. 

My eyes shoot open, and I’m back in the apartment building lobby, sobs racking through my body, and I vomit all over the floor. 

No. No no no no no no no. 

I force myself to look up at the family. And I see them – really see them, this time. The man’s neck is twisted at an unnatural angle, blood spilling over his clothes.

The pregnant woman’s leg is bent awkwardly, as is her arm, and her skin is decorated in thousands of shards of glass. 

And the little girl – oh, the little girl. Her face is so busted it’s unrecognizable. Still, they silently stare at me, forcing me to come face to face with what I’d done. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I thought I’d be fine to drive.” 

I collapse at their feet, begging them to forgive me. 

“Please,” I sob, slamming my already broken face into the ground. “I want to turn my life around. I want a second chance.” 

They don’t answer of course, and no one else hears me. 

“I thought I’d be fine to drive,” I repeat. “I thought I’d be fine.”

Danielle Koziol has been an avid writer since she could hold a pencil. Currently, she’s 20 years old and aiming to traditionally publish her work in progress, a new adult romantasy novel, Wings of Ash and Ember. In addition, she’s presently pursuing a public relations and creative writing degree at university. When Danielle isn’t writing, she’s drinking chai, attending classes, reading fantasy or romance books, or spending time with her dog Ruby. To follow her writing and publishing journey, and to learn more about her book, follow her on Instagram and TikTok at @AuthorDanielleKoziol.

 

Featured image by Federico Passi.

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