Driven Mad, Jackie Domenus
Updated: Dec 19, 2021
CW: mentions of depression
When I’m nineteen, I have depression, but I don’t have the word for it. I sleep a lot and cry a lot and eat only fast food in my very dark bedroom. It feels like I have given up control, like whatever has taken over is whispering in my ear, you will be alone forever. It threatens me. You won’t make it to twenty-five.
When I’m nineteen, the boys I know, who sometimes are like my brothers and other times are like every other drunken, horny nineteen-year-old boy, go through a phase with trucks. They put on their heavy Carhartt jackets and camo hats and steer their big, angry trucks with exhaust pipes whose misfires sound like gun shots and whose tires seem better suited for monster truck arenas. They pour money from their part-time jobs into their trucks—new fog lights, a new hitch. Then they drive them out into the woods and beat them up. They go wherever it’s muddiest, rev their engines, and floor it through deep, wide puddles, hoping to get a little stuck halfway through. They get off on their back tires spinning under murky water, smoke billowing out from under the hood. They aren’t satisfied until dirt is caked everywhere, until the fenders are bent and the paint is scratched.
Each time I leave my very dark bedroom and hoist my frail body into the backseat of one of these tall, man trucks, I know I am headed toward danger. Like the time we sped up a hill so steep, it threatened to flip the entire truck backward and send us tumbling down. Like the time we sank so quickly after misjudging the depth of a puddle, I had to climb out onto the hood through the passenger side window. The boys embrace adrenaline more, perhaps, than any other hormone. And that is something I understand, especially when I can’t seem to feel anything else. With every risk, I think I might die. I welcome it. I embrace it.
One night, it’s cold and it’s late and the boys want a new place to go muddin’. I sit in the backseat of one of their Jeeps and apathetically pick pieces of hardened mud from the upholstery. We head down a never-ending stretch of highway toward the Pine Barrens—New Jersey’s infamous woods, ripe with tales of devils and hauntings. The street lights seem to grow farther and farther apart, the road in front of us illuminated only by yellow headlights. The first truck in our line of four turns down a dark side street. The rest of us follow, engines whirring as we make our way toward a large, open field surrounded on all other sides, by woods.
The tires dip from the pavement to the grass, jostling my body like a ragdoll. The darkness, the outline of the forest, they remind me of scary movies, the ones that so often involve a group of teens—drunk or high—out in the middle of nowhere, hunted down by a demon, a serial killer, an axe murderer. Those aren’t the kind of movies that scare me though. It’s the psychological thrillers—the ones where the lead character recognizes their own capacity for insanity—that knock me loose. The ones where they realize none of it was real in the end, where they realize they’ve made it all up in their mind.
“What the fuck?” I ask, upon first seeing it. As we bump slowly through the field, the headlights shine faintly on a broken down, abandoned white house-like structure, in the middle of seemingly nowhere.
“You know Ancora is right up the road from here, right?” one of the boys asks, feeding my alarm. I watch his face in the rearview as he tries not to smirk.
Ancora is the most well-known and highly feared psychiatric hospital within any radius to South Jerseyans. It’s rumored to be filled with crazy murderers, child molesters, rapists. It’s the townspeople’s main source for scary stories. It’s in the news every now and again for escapees.
“Great. We’re definitely gonna die,” I say drily, keeping my gaze fixed on the decaying building as we pass it, wading slowly through the mud.
The trail through the field leading to the woods is sticky with the thickness of recently moistened dirt. We fishtail here and there, the tires slipping beneath us as I grip onto the back of the passenger seat. It rained last night—a sure sign the puddles will be more like small ponds, making it harder to judge their depth, especially in the night.
I know danger lies straight ahead, but I can’t peel my eyes from the abandoned house as we pass it. It’s dark now without the glow of headlights, but I can still make out its white paint, all chipped through to rotted wood, its collapsed roof and glassless windows. I might soon be sinking in quicksand, trapped inside a vehicle, unable to force open the doors. But my mind ignores the palpable fear and chooses to create its own.
Just for a moment, out front of the old, abandoned house, a figure stands in a white hospital gown, dirtied with mud or dried blood. It’s a woman. Her hair is grown out and disheveled. The field weeds reach her knee caps. She bears no weapons, just a body. She stares straight at me, her eyes empty, like mine.
I am paralyzed at the sight of her. Panic rises up from my stomach and into my chest, pulling my muscles tight like the tension of a rubber band about to snap. The Jeep carries on slowly, jostling my body with each bump it hits, but I keep my eyes fixed on the figure. If she is real, she’s just another “crazy” woman I am terrified of becoming. If she is fake, aren’t I already crazy? I blink hard, breaking my stare, and she is gone. I don’t tell the boys what I think I’ve just seen, worried they’ll brand me insane. Instead, I swallow hard and shudder.
Over my shoulder, the house slowly disappears, unable to be made out between trees as stray branches begin to squeak against the Jeep windows like nails on a chalkboard. The country song on the radio is eerily quiet as the boys prepare to light a joint. I face forward again in my seat and shiver, terrified not of the uncertainty of the woods and its accidents waiting to happen, but of my mind and all it’s capable of.
Jackie Domenus is a queer writer and educator from New Jersey. A graduate of the 2021 Tin House Winter Workshop, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, Watershed Review, Hooligan Mag, and elsewhere. She recently earned her MA in Writing at Rowan University. You can find her on Twitter @jackiedwrites.