Today I’m not writing off a prompt. I’m exploring an idea I had years ago – back when I lived in L.A. I actually had this idea jangling around in my head, and then I read a book by (I think) Robin Cook and I got really excited that other authors had thoughts along the same lines.
I did list this idea rather vaguely as a prompt here: “A pill that is supposed to cure something causes something terrible instead.”
Because my original idea was that this could, one day, turn into a novel, I am going to try to write just one scene of it – the scene I initially envisioned. I don’t yet have the rest of my ideas in place, but I think that I or someone inspired by this could create something amazing from this vignette.
The Perfect Pill
The day everything changed seemed like any other. It was mid-January, chilly as only a Los Angeles winter can be. At exactly 5 PM, Alice locked the doors to her office and headed to her car. The sun was rapidly sinking, cloaking Bruno Realty’s parking lot in shadow. Alice’s Prius was the only car in the lot, parked close to her building. She always felt creeped out on nights like this, when she was the last person in the complex. Another real estate agent had told her that one night when she was working late, two large men tried to get into the building through the back door. Since then, Alice made sure her keychain pepper spray was in her hand before she headed out.
Despite the worry clutching at her stomach, Alice made it to her car safely, clicking the locks open and hopping into the driver’s seat.
“I probably shouldn’t be so paranoid,” she thought as she locked the car doors behind her.
Alice drove through the dark, above ground lot, wishing for the thousandth time that it was lit by more than two street lamps. She turned on her brights to compensate for the poor lighting, and that’s when she saw the man, standing in the middle of the driveway.
“Jesus!” she shouted. She eased around the man, who didn’t appear to see her. He was staring straight down the sidewalk. Alice turned on her indicator light and peered in the direction the man was staring. Nothing. She thought about rolling down her window and asking if he was okay, but she didn’t. Who knows who this guy was; if he was harmless or if he was a murderous psychopath. She turned out of her lot.
The traffic on Foothill Blvd was usually bumper to bumper, but that night it was light and easy flowing. The change made Alice’s hands relax on the wheel, and the tension drain out of her neck and shoulders. Sitting at a light, she glanced over to the cars parked on the side of the road. Drivers sat, still as mannequins, in the two she could see next to her. She craned her head back, trying to peer into the windows of the other parked cars lining the street, but she could only see shadows.
The light changed, and Alice turned right, her hands once again clutching the steering wheel. She tried not to look at the parked cars she was passing, but couldn’t help seeing the still shadows sitting behind the wheel of each one.
Alice made it onto the freeway onramp, sighing with relief as she navigated down the steep decline onto the 210 freeway. She almost slammed on the brakes when she saw him. A man, standing on the grassy embankment at the end of the merge lane. He seemed to be wobbling between the safety of the turf and the oncoming traffic. Alice whizzed by him, her eyes facing forward. She hit her Bluetooth call button when she heard the slam and screech behind her.
“Siri, call 911,” Alice said.
The phone rang three times, and then the world around her exploded in insanity.
Alice’s breath came in short gasps, her foot slammed down on the gas as cars around her weaved in and out of traffic, several smashing into each other. She whipped the wheel left, and then right, her car careening across lanes and around wrecks happening in real-time.
“What the fuck!” she shouted as a lifted pickup truck with wheels as big as her car came within a centimeter of obliterating her Prius against the center lane divider.
“911, what is your emergency?” asked the voice at the end of the line.
“I’m on the 210 East, and it’s insane! I think I’ve seen about fifteen accidents in the last, I don’t know, minute and a half. We need CHP, we need I don’t know, the military or something.”
The 911 operator started laughing.
“What the hell is going on?” yelled Alice.
“Doesn’t it feel,” the woman paused to let out another whoop of laughter, “exhilarating?”
“What are you talking about?” Alice tasted bile in the back of her throat. She didn’t have time to throw up, she’d be killed by the chaos going on around her.
The woman didn’t answer. She just laughed until her voice ran raw. Alice didn’t have a free hand the end the call, so all she could do was listen as the woman croaked out laughs. She was helpless to do anything when the laughter died, and the banging started, hollow thumps that sounded like a head smashing into something. A wet, gurgling laugh accompanied each thud. Alice wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. Instead, she kept her white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel and rammed her car through the maze of vehicles crisscrossing the freeway.
Alice wasn’t sure how she made it home, but she did. There were so many accidents blocking the freeway exit that she’d had to drive on the embankment. Something had lodged in the Prius’s undercarriage, creating a constant grinding noise. But at least she had been able to turn off her phone before navigating down the dark side streets to her little duplex.
Generally, she was supposed to leave the spots in front of her building free for guests or in case of emergency, but that wasn’t going to happen tonight. She parked right in front of her gate, wishing she could drive over the chainlink fencing that surrounded her postage-stamp-sized yard.
Instead, Alice unlocked her driver’s side door and bolted out of the car. Fumbling with her keys, she made it to the fence without incident. Her hands shook as she tried to stick her key into the lock at the gate. Instead of getting the right key into the lock, she scratched the key across the gate, almost dropping it. She clutched her right wrist with her left hand and rammed the key into the hole, twisting it and opening the door in the same motion. She slammed the gate behind her. Hearing the automatic lock click home, she slumped down against the fence into the cold, damp grass.
“What is going on?” she asked herself. She shook her head, trying to clear it. “What the hell is happening?”
“I’ll tell you what’s happening,” said a voice on the other side of the gate. “If you’ll let me in.”
Alice turned to see a face peering through the chain link. The woman on the other side was short, her head pressing into the fence, wide eyes staring down at Alice. Her hands came up and clawed at the gate, her fingers pushing through and yanking at the metal.
“Let me in, and I’ll show you how to be happy like the rest of us.”
One hand loosened its hold on the fencing and Alice scooted away from the woman, her throat locking around a scream. The woman threw something. It hit the grass next to Alice, who shrunk away from it.
“Don’t worry, it won’t hurt you. It’ll make you feel goooooood.” The woman’s voice slurred, her smile growing impossibly wide.
Alice grabbed the pill bottle, shaking it and trying to see the label in the dark.
“Thake one,” said the woman, the left side of her face drooping. She looked like a comedy/tragedy mask all on one head.
Alice ran to her front door. She found her keys and scrabbled at the lock. The woman behind her called “Leth me unn,” and began bashing the gate. Alice got her key in the lock, turned it and bolted inside, securing the door behind her. She put on the chain lock just in case, then went to each window in her darkened home, checking to make sure they were all latched securely. She did not turn on the lights.
Once the banging at her fence died down, Alice took a chance. She had no rooms in her house that didn’t face an exterior wall, nothing that didn’t have a window where light could leak out. So, she turned on the oven light in the kitchen. There was one window in the kitchen, and it looked out on a wall of tightly packed cypress trees. Behind the trees was another fence, and beyond that was the recess area of the school next door. She was fairly sure no one would be back there since the school entrance was on a different block entirely.
Alice sat on the floor in front of the oven, facing away from the window. That way, if anyone did get past the fence and trees, they wouldn’t see her. She looked at the bottle the woman had given her. According to the label, it was a bottle of Citavenlafaxine and you were supposed to take it once daily.
She pulled out her phone and looked up the drug. The first article was from the FDA:
“FDA approves new antidepressant/anti-anxiety medication with minimal side effects.”
“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved new two-in-one antidepressant/anti-anxiety medication Citavenlafaxine. Almost 7% of the US population suffers depression while 18% suffers from anxiety disorders, with nearly 50% of those suffering from depression also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. New Citavenlafaxine has been proven to help those suffering from depression, anxiety, and those suffering from both depression and anxiety.
“We are happy to give the public a new option in their mental health care,” said Alexandra Gronich, CEO of Pharma Inc. “In our testing, we have found that Citavenlafaxine has no-to-minimal side effects, giving doctors a once in a lifetime chance to provide their patients with pure, unadulterated, alleviation of suffering.”
The article went on, but Alice got the idea. Why would that crazy lady throw the bottle at her? And if this drug was causing all the chaos, how did it have “minimal” side effects? Alice’s head was spinning.
She opened her browser again and started searching. She looked up traffic accidents with no real results, she scoured the LA news, there was no mention of what she’d driven through to get home. For a moment, she wondered if she was insane. She wondered if she’d hallucinated everything. But there was the bottle in her hand, as real as could be.
That’s the end of the scene I have in my head. I would be happy to hear your thoughts about the story and where it could go from here. I am working on a novel at the moment, so little dribs and drabs like this is what I am going to give you until I’m done with final edits (I know I’ve said I’m done with edits before, but my writer’s group gave me more to work on).
See you tomorrow!