It had been ten years since June had eaten lasagna. Her eyes scanned the menu of the roadside diner, and they stuck on the option, nestled between a random assortment of Italian, Greek, and American foods. It was printed in unassuming sans serif font, but it cut like a blade into June’s chest all the same. She felt the world dimming and black danced in the edges of her vision; her only focus was the lasagna on the menu, the description listed below the item blurring more the longer she stared.
She was snapped out of her thoughts when the waitress came up to the tacky red vinyl booth she sat at with her father. June ordered a hamburger and tried to switch her thoughts away to something else, anything else.
Still, the memories came as they always did. She could see her childhood home’s kitchen in the light of the early Sunday morning. Her mother woke her up, excitement clear on her face when she told June that they were going to make lasagna today. It was the first time June would eat the family recipe.
“Alright, so, I want you to… shred the mozzarella. Be careful of your fingers; the edges are sharp.” She quickly showed her what to do, and June happily began grating the cheese, stealing bites to eat whenever her mother wasn’t looking. However, her mother noticed and scolded her before making her grate another block. June tried to tell her that her arms were tired, but her mother said she was just trying to make up an excuse to get out of doing some work and would hear none of it.
By the time the lasagna was in the oven, June went off to take a nap, unused to having to exert so much energy on a Sunday. June was excited to eat their creation, but she felt underwhelmed by the taste. Her mother asked her how it was, and she shrugged.
“It’s okay. Not my favorite,” she replied quickly, taking another bite. Her mother clenched her fists, her fingernails digging into her palms before she stood from the table, her chair scraping across the hardwood floor, and left.
June swam out of her memories and back into the present day. She forced herself into the moment and tried to pay attention to her father’s ongoing rambling.
“Look at all the college flags they have on the walls! I wonder if there’s one for New Paltz hanging somewhere,” her father mused, his tired eyes scanning the walls for the telltale clash of blue and orange that represented June’s college. She welcomed the distraction and pushed the memory away, praying it wouldn’t come back. In the corner, a small tv with a bar down the left side was playing a news story about a woman who went on a murderous spree four years earlier, killing a kick girl. It was still news in the small town; a picture of the victim was hung behind the counter, even all these years later. She tried hard not to focus on it.
Back in the car after their brief pitstop, June watched the sunset splash orange and gold across the sky with the radio playing softly in the background. Her eyes began to droop, and she fought to stay awake to see the last bits of twilight trying to hang on, the sky still illuminated enough to hide the stars, but not bright enough to light the way. The edges of the horizon were green; the sun was pulling itself away to light up somewhere new, and June drifted off.
When she woke up it was dark, the blackness of the night startling her; the only light was coming from their car’s headlights illuminating the unfamiliar Pennsylvania highway ahead of them. June swallowed thickly, watching the hotel’s lights get closer and brighter. They pulled into the parking lot, and she trudged with her bag into the lights of the hotel lobby to check in. She scanned the brightly lit area, her eyes squinting and trying to adjust to being awake and escaping the darkness of the night outside. Her father bristled at the front page of the newspapers sitting on the desk; the pictures of four dead girls stared up at her and she let her gaze drop to the floor. She pretended not to notice when her father picked up a copy and shoved it in his coat pocket.
By the time they were in their room they were both exhausted and silently got ready for bed, and when her father wasn’t looking, June snuck the newspaper out of his coat and stared at the girls, putting names to faces and feeling the gravity of the next day. The weight of the situation was sitting on her windpipe and keeping her from returning her father’s quiet “goodnight.” June welcomed unconsciousness gladly.
The next morning in the car, June’s father tried to talk casually, and June tried to respond to appease him. She was focused on not throwing up the few bites of food she’d managed to eat to really hold a conversation.
The prison began to make an appearance as a speck in the distance and even her father lapsed into silence. The guard checked their IDs and gravely nodded them through once they’d reached the gate. Of course, he knew who they were; once her mother had been caught their names and faces had been plastered across every magazine and newspaper for months. They moved states away and changed their last name to escape the same kind of recognition that dawned on the guard’s face.
They parked and walked into the unforgiving concrete building, again flashing their IDs and this time being given visitor badges.
“She requested to speak to you. Would you like to?”
“Yes,” her father responded, anger and determination set in the creases of his face, the wrinkles making him look older than he was. The guard looked apologetic and shook his head.
“Um, she only wanted to talk to her daughter. So, I only have authorization to bring, uh,” he glanced at the clipboard in his hands, “June Biondi back.”
“It’s June Metrano now, but… I don’t want to see her,” June replied after a brief second thought, her heart beginning to beat so quickly that she wasn’t sure she could breathe in enough air to let the oxygen pump through her veins like it was supposed to. Maybe that was why she felt cold creeping into her, starting in her fingertips and crawling towards the pit in her stomach.
“Okay. I can show you to the execution chambers now. It shouldn’t be too long.” The guard shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and he set down the clipboard before mumbling something into a walkie-talkie. He walked down a hallway, and June and her father followed. She tried to keep in mind that this was the end: after this, it would all be over; after this, she would finally be free.
They entered a room, already half-full of people sitting in chairs and staring down at the sunken chamber below through a plexiglass wall. The silence was deafening, but she still sat down in the back corner and thought of the newspaper she had seen in the hotel room.
She tried to match the faces of the girls her mother killed to the scattered pieces of families sitting around the room, but it was difficult. All the girls in the pictures looked similar: dirty blonde hair and dark brown eyes closely matching her own. The details of the way they were killed by being force-fed poisoned food leaking to the press shortly after her mother was caught. They never released what the food was, but June knew.
She tried to figure it out who the families were until movement in the room below snapped her to attention, and June saw her mother being brought in and strapped onto a sparsely padded gurney. They were talking, the men surrounding her mother, checking the needles on the steel tray next to the chair and inserting an IV into her arm. June couldn’t hear anything over the ringing in her ears, but she fought against the feeling and tried to focus on this: the end.
“Do you have any last words for the record?” a man dressed in a suit asked her mother. June saw her mother cautiously nod her head, a sweet look of melancholy spreading across her face. June could tell it was fake from the way her eyes still danced with laughter.
“Yes, I do… For my daughter, my Junie. You wouldn’t speak to me, darling, so I’ll just have to say this and hope you hear it…” The falsely sweet look on her face disappeared, replaced by something taunting and sour, “You would’ve been next.”
June couldn’t hear what happened after that. She tugged her dyed dark brown hair and felt her father’s hand grab her own, tightly squeezing it to show that he was there.
June watched as her mother became unconscious from one needle in her IV, and her heart rate monitor flatlined after the next.
June felt the weight of the end, and she shut her eyes in relief, but the look on her mother’s face was there, laughing at her, taunting her, telling her how close she had been to being another girl on the front page of the newspaper.
June opened her eyes and wished she was.
C.E. Witherow is a student at SUNY New Paltz studying for a BA in English. Her storytelling began at age five when she needed to create a reasonable lie blaming her brother for something she had done, and she hasn’t stopped telling tales since. She has no previous publications.