Journey - Runner Up

Alexis Cunningham

Runner Up
Whiplash Road


Raised in East Anglia, Alexis has a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's in creative writing, and an imagination that asks 'what if heaven outsourced its paperwork to hell?' and 'Is it better to be eaten first in a zombie apocalypse or hold out for salvation?' This didn't help much in a clerical career in health and social care, but did help her get her horror-fantasy short stories published in two US anthologies, as well as help her (unpublished) YA fantasy novel, Soul Strife, make the Mslexia novel prize longlist earlier in the year. She is currently submitting her novel to agents and publishers, and is very grateful for the boost in confidence from this prize!




Whiplash Road By Alexis Cunningham

Your feet are wet. Your body cold. Your neck hurts. The road is dark; rain glitters on the asphalt, studding the blacktop with a million broken stars of light. Night chill pinches your bare arms. You look down the stretch of road in front and behind you, watching for a car. You need a ride and you’ve lost your phone.
You walk along the grass verge, heels clasped in your hand. Stupid, stupid Tessa. You should’ve gone home with Jason. It’s not like the fight was that bad. Now you’re stuck out here alone in the dark. And the wet. And the cold.
You’ve ruined your dress. There’s mud all up your legs. Your hair is a complete mess. You’re cold. Really cold. Did I mention that? And as for your neck? You’ve only gone and wrenched it bad, haven’t you? The back of your scalp’s all tingly, like icy needles are pricking through your skin and spilling melt water down your neck.
It's been a horrible evening. Which is a crying shame because you were really looking forward to the dance. Retro, it was. A proper old-time bop. You did up your hair in victory rolls and your lips are fire engine red. Your skirt is out to here. Such a good find in the charity shop. You were so chuffed when you found it. Actually, you were feeling really special when the evening started. Then Jason had to ruin it.
Couldn’t stop whining about the footie. Couldn’t get into the swing of things and throw you over his shoulders and through his legs like a supportive boyfriend should when Ella’s playing. Then he went on and on about how everything has to be your way and you never want to do any stuff he likes. Well, obviously. Jason’s boring. All he wants to do is watch sports and play video games. And not with you, neither. Not after that hissy fit about the highest score and a certain someone’s power up bonus.  
Look, you tried to share his passions. You really did. Ask anyone. They’d all agree. You were completely committed to gaming nights with him. It’s not your fault you were a better player after three weeks than he was after three years.
It was dumb though, refusing Jason’s offer to drive you home. And the funny thing is you can’t remember much about the argument now. Or how you got out here. Wherever here is. It’s like the middle of nowhere or something. Really creepy. The trees are all pointy and shaggy; firs, you think. An owl is hooting. There should be a full moon. And a witch flying past on a broomstick. Instead, there’s rain sheeting down and you’ve got an awful crick in your neck.
It's the cold that’s the worst. You are so cold, Tessa. Scary cold. Sleepy too. You feel all loose and weird. Like nothing connects quite right. Floaty, almost. Maybe you’ve got hyperthermia? You should be feeling all sorts of nasty stuff under your feet. Dirt and stone and maybe even broken glass. But all you really feel is the cold and the wet and the dark.
Yeah, the dark. Seems strange, doesn’t it? That darkness should have a texture and a weight, but you can feel it. It sticks to you like tiny burrs, rolling up in your skin and rubbing bits of you away as you walk.
Suddenly there is light. It fills your world. You move like you’re in a dream, stepping out into the road like a nitwit right in front of an approaching car. There’s a moment as the car bears down and the light consumes you, burning through your eye sockets and lighting up the darkness inside your skull that memory tingles.
There was another car, wasn’t there Tessa? Its engine a roar; its lights so bright. You tried to flag it down. The driver didn’t you see. He couldn’t have seen you. Or he would have stopped, wouldn’t he?
This one stops. Driver’s window slides down with a soft hum. An elbow on the door, a face in the dark. ‘Where are you headed?’
Where are you headed, Tessa? It’s been a long night, walking the road. You’re cold. Can you remember?
Words are a long time coming. You don’t sound like yourself. Your voice is as cold and as lost as you feel. ‘Edenbury Avenue, Little Forthay.’
A smile. ‘I know Little Forthay. It’s on my way home. Get in.’
You get in the back. The upholstery is fuzzy. The car is clean and dry. It should be warm but you’re cold. You look out of the window as the car starts. The darkness clings to the glass, smearing it with slithers of rain.
‘You mind if I listen to the radio?’
You say nothing. You’re sleepy. The seat’s headrest puts pressure on your neck. The back of your skull feels wet and slippery. You watch the world go by.
‘That’s some party frock you’ve got there. Fancy dress, is it? Near scared me to death when I saw you. Thought you were a ghost or something.’
You’re starting to get travel sick. Your skin feels tight over your bones. Your neck throbs and cold stabs your heart. You have a strange feeling, as if a great hook is lodged in your chest and with every mile the car eats up you feel an invisible rope draw taut.
‘What were you doing out on Old Fork Road at this time of night?’ the driver berates you in fatherly tones. ‘It’s not safe. The Council should put in streetlights. There are too many accidents. In fact, there was a nasty hit-and-run only last week. A young girl. Hitchhiker, just like you. You just can’t be too careful these days.’
A sharp wrench. A painful yank. Bright lights flare in front of your eyes. Pressure slams into your chest. You taste copper on your tongue. The driver twists to look into the back seat. The rope hauls you back. Your neck snaps forward.
You’re back on the road. Your feet are wet. Your body cold. Your neck hurts. Your chest feels like an empty cavern. The rain has stopped. The moon is out. No witches, though. You walk along the verge, shoes in your hand. Your dress shines white.  You need a ride and you’ve no one to call. The darkness seeps in through your pores. It weighs you down. You can’t feel your feet. You watch the road for lights.
‘Where are you headed?’ the driver asks. Is he the second? The third? You can’t remember, Tessa. Why can’t you remember?
‘Edenbury Avenue. Little Forthay.’
The car is cramped and dirty and the inside smells like oil. There is a blackened banana peel on the back seat and a dirty t-shirt on the floor. You slip in without disturbing the crisp packets underfoot. You can’t tell if it is warm or not. What even is warm? Whatever it is, you’re not it, Tessa. You’re cold as night. Cold as the road. Your chest feels tight already. Your head hurts terribly.
‘That’s a pretty dress,’ the driver leers through the rear-view mirror.
You watch the world go by. Everything is silver gilded and cold. The hook in your chest digs a bit deeper. You can feel the pull of the road. The night. The darkness.
‘Not much of a talker, are you? Here. I’ve got an idea. Why don’t I pull over and you come sit up front with me? Warm you up a bit, eh?’
The driver turns. The rope pulls taut. Your neck snaps forward. Bright lights. Pain. Copper on your tongue.
You are back on the road. Your body is cold. Your neck hurts. You can’t feel your feet. You walk along the verge. You wait. The darkness fills your chest. You look for bright lights.
‘Where are you headed?’ the woman asks.
‘Edenbury Avenue. Little Forthay.’
The car is clean. A baby seat waits beside you. You wait for the snap, the pull, the agony. The darkness runs alongside you, keeping pace. The lady doesn’t talk much, but she watches, worry reflected in the rear-view mirror.
This time you make it all the way to Little Forthay. The luminous village sign welcomes you and warns you to drive carefully. Buildings rear up on each side of the road, pushing back against the dark. The road gives way to a roundabout. You start to hope.
‘Did you say Edenbury Avenue?’ the woman driver asks. ‘Isn’t that where they built the new crematorium?’
The hook gouges. The rope pulls taut. Your neck snaps forward.
You are back on the road. Your body is cold. Your neck hurts. There are flowers by your feet. Bouquets wrapped in cellophane. A sad little teddy bear. Water-logged cards gone pulpy and unreadable.
You walk along the verge. The darkness cocoons you. You need a ride. The road is long. You wait for lights in the darkness.
‘Where are you headed?’
The car is a van. You sit up front. The dashboard is covered in cigarette ash. The inside of the cab smells greasy. The driver puts his hand on your thigh. You don’t feel it. You look out of the window. You don’t see anything. The driver swerves and pulls over. He reaches for you.
The rope pulls. Your neck snaps. You are back on the road. Your body is cold. Your neck hurts. The flowers are gone and there is a streetlight standing tall in their place. Its light does not reach you. You walk along the verge and you wait for someone to take you home.

Judges Comments

Reality gives way to the trap of a relentlessly repeating cycle of supernatural nightmare in Alexis Cunningham's 'Whiplash Road', the runner-up in WM's Journey Short Story Competition. It's really well done, initially drawing the reader into the first-person narrator Tessa's befuddled discontent as she makes her own way home after a let-down of a night with a boyfriend who doesn't live up to expectations.

This is the very effective set-up that explains why Tessa is out late at night, on her own, accepting lifts from strangers. From this point, though, the narrative takes a turn for the weird, as Alexis drops in hints that Tessa has been here before: There was another car, wasn't there Tessa? This split, with 'rational' Tessa talking to 'instinctive' Tessa is an interesting and really effective device that introduces the strangeness of the repeating cycle in which ghost-Tessa is trapped.

Alexis very effectively tightens the screw as the story progresses, using what Tessa remembers to build up a picture for the reader. The writer's control of the elements of this weird, shifting tale is exemplary. The narrative tempo speeds up with each 'recall' of Tessa's, including pointed details that reinforce the horror and terror of being caught up in a situation from which she cannot escpe - doomed to repeat the terrible cycle of the journey that led to her death.