Sep. 14, 2017
The road ahead was twisty but dull. The same half-dead trees lined either side of the street each day, the same cars proceeding in a slow, methodical procession from point A to point B. The drivers sat in their vehicles listening to music or radio shows, usually in some sort of daze. When the road ahead flickered for an instant, Lucas almost didn’t notice. His eyes were half shut and glazed over, he was only conscious enough to keep the car on the road, guided by the yellow line and the tail lights ahead of him. He perked up for a second when the image before his eyes flickered, as if he was watching a television that was losing signal. It happened again, and then again two more times. He lifted his foot off of the gas pedal and hovered over the brakes for a brief second before his head started to spin. The whole world suddenly appeared to be underwater. Waves passed over the trees and the tar, the car in front grew in size and then shrank again as the waves shuddered across his windshield. His head felt light, as if filled with air, and his breath became short. His heart raced and his eyelids grew heavy as the waves became more pronounced and the flickering returned with added fervor.
Lucas started to think that he should pull over, but before he could press his foot to the brake and move to the side the road ahead of him exploded in a fiery blaze. The explosion shot upwards and out from the car ahead of him, shrapnel flew everywhere. He could smell the burning flesh and hear the screams of men and woman around him, suffering. Gunfire and more explosions erupted around him, his eyes darted to and fro in a panic. He stomped his foot, trying to stop the car before it flew into the flames but he car was gone, he was running full of heavy gear towards the flames. A rifle hung loosely around his shoulder and a grenade was poised in his hand, the pin removed and nowhere to be seen. His panic grew worse as the waves and flickering returned as suddenly as they had appeared the first time. Suddenly the car ahead of him was there again and he was sitting straight up in the driver seat of the car, beads sweat dripping down his temples. The brake lights flew towards his face as he screamed and cranked the wheel, flying around the vehicle on the right as it made a slow left turn.
“Shit!” Lucas yelled as he slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt, throwing sand into the air and creating a cloud of dust and smoke that whirled around his vehicle. “What the fuck was that?” As he said it the world flickered and wavered again, the sounds of gunfire and explosions came and went with the images, fading in and out. He could hear people screaming, then the familiar sound of traffic, explosions, then a horn blaring at him as a car whizzed by. The waves started pulsing over his vision and his head swam. Lucas grabbed his head and held it as he rocked slowly back and forth in the drivers seat, one moment running towards gunfire, next reeling in the seat of the car. With a nauseating pop, the back and forth ceased and he succumbed to darkness.
“Shit, Jones, get up!”
“What?” Lucas’ head was pounding and his gut felt like he was carrying a bowling ball.
“Get up! We have to go, evac team is here.” Lucas lifted his head to look around. He gasped and squinted as the bright sun burned his eyes and his head screamed in pain. He could feel the grit of sand stuck to his face, he was lying on his stomach in the middle of a desert. Slowly the sounds of battle returned to his ears and the haze in his head began to lift, as did the pain. Someone was pulling on his shoulders, trying to lift him up. He pushed himself off the ground and turned to see a man in full soldier garb with a concerned look on his face. “What’s wrong with you? Move it!” The man took off running in the opposite direction and Lucas followed, his heart racing and unsure of what to do next. Bullets whizzed through the air and children cried out for their mothers. The steady crackle of fires breathed a constant supply of smoke, Lucas coughed and nearly fell back down. “Just ahead, get to the safe house.” The man looked back at him, lifting his arm to wave him on when he exploded in a fiery, bloody mist. The warm spray covered Lucas as he shielded his eyes and stumbled, barely keeping his balance as he sprinted through the cloud of smoke that was a man moments before.
“Fuck! Fuck!” he screamed as he sprinted for the doorway the man had motioned to. He pushed his hands outward as he reached the door and threw his weight against it, forcing it open as his body crumpled inside. His eyes tried desperately to adjust to the sudden darkness. The sounds of battle were dulled and he could hear the scraping of boots on the wooden floor around him, but he could make out no figures. He tried to stand but the wave of nausea struck him again, more violently this time and he doubled over in pain. When he opened his eyes he was back in the car, a warm stream of drool dripped down his chin and his pants were soaked threw. The vehicle stank of urine and sweat. Lucas looked around feverishly, trying desperately to figure out what happened, where he was, who he was. As he sat there in panic his head slowly cleared and his heart slowed to a normal rate. As he caught his breath and wiped the drool from his chin he reached a shaky hand forward and turned the key in his car. The engine purred to life. He checked his mirrors and pulled into the road to continue driving home. “I just need to get home, I need to sleep,” he said to himself as he pushed down on the gas pedal. “That’s all, I just need sleep.”
Later that night Lucas laid in bed, eyes wide open as he stared at the ceiling unable to find rest. He ran his fingers through his hair and his wife stirred as he let out a loud sigh. Not wanting to wake her, he quietly got up and put on some clothes. His wife stirred again and he paused in the dark, watching her roll away from him and pull the blankets up under her chin, settling back into a deep sleep. He left the room quietly and walked down the darkened hallway to his office. He always kept a bottle of Macallan scotch on his bookshelf, next to his copy of Moby Dick. He liked to think it was symbolic but really it just made him feel cool, like he was classy and educated, of a different society or class than he really belonged. He grabbed the bottle and a glass behind it and poured himself a double. For a moment he sat at his desk, sipping the scotch and thinking about what had happened but the anxiety it was causing was getting the better of him. “This is ridiculous,” he muttered to himself, finishing his drink and pouring himself another.
He left the office with a fresh drink in his hand and headed for the back door. The land around his split level home swooped up around the house in a sharp hill. The house had literally been implanted into the hillside and one could walk up the hill and then step onto the roof from behind, it was one of his favorite things about the otherwise mediocre home he and his wife shared. Many nights he had spent lying on his back, staring at the stars as they slowly twinkled and moved about the sky, tiny signs of life amongst an otherwise dead and empty expanse. It was exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. As he sipped his scotch and watched a satellite blaze through the sky his mind wandered from his own problems to the typical existential questions a man ponders when staring into the soul of the universe. The stars pulsed overhead, appearing to gain and lose power with the beating of his heart. The thumping in his breast intensified and the stars grew more and less pronounced with the rhythm. “No…” Lucas muttered as his head began to swim, “not again!” He placed the scotch glass on the roof as his hands began to tremble. He grabbed his head and tried to sit up but the dizziness was too much and he laid back down quickly, resting his head on the roof as the stars grew so bright that he was blinded with white light.
When the light faded he was laying on his back still, grass blew gently in the wind, tickling his ears and cheeks. The stars were far more numerous than they had been and he was lost in the beauty of it. He sat up suddenly, aware that he was no longer on his roof. He was laying in a small field, a clearing in the middle of the woods. Large pine trees surrounded the clearing and rustled slightly in the cool summer breeze. An owl hooted in the distance, perhaps calling for it’s mate or celebrating a successful hunt. As he sat in the grass he realized he wasn’t wearing the same jeans and sweatshirt he had donned when he got out of bed. He was wearing some sort of rough wool shirt with ties in the front, cotton pants that also tied instead of zipped or buttoned. His feet were bare and dirty, he could feel the thick callouses as he placed them on the ground and pushed himself to a standing position. He spun in a circle, scanning the woods, listening intently for any sign of life but found nothing. He was completely alone in this strange field, accompanied only by the creatures of the night and his own thoughts. He took a few steps forward, peering into the darkness when he stepped on something wet. He stopped short and knelt down to see what there was. In the glow of the moonlight he saw a naked woman lying in a twisted heap on the ground. Blood had pooled around the body but there didn’t seem to be any visible injuries. Her body was twisted and contorted in a way that looked entirely unnatural. He reached out a shaky hand towards her face, hoping to get a better look when she suddenly sprang forward, face contorted in a horrible scream, blood dripping from her lips. Lucas shot backwards, landing on his back in the grass as she sat and started to crawl towards him. He tried to turn to run but she grabbed his ankle. She was surprisingly strong and dragged him across the ground towards her as she continued to scream. He felt the warm spray of blood as she dragged her broken body on top of his and screamed into his ear.
“Stop! No!” Lucas screamed and squeezed his eyes shut. As quickly as she had sat up, she let him go and the warmth of her breath disappeared from his neck. Panting, he slowly opened his eyes. He was propped up on one elbow, the rough ceiling tiles biting into his arm and his glass of scotch sitting just in front of him. His hands were shaking terribly but he grabbed the glass and drank the last of the scotch inside. Suddenly overcome by the cold breeze, Lucas shivered and stood on the roof, walking unsteadily towards the hill and off the roof. As he stepped off the roof the grass was cold and wet, his foot slipped and he dropped his glass as his hands shot forward to break his fall. He hit the side of the hill hard and his hands slipped on the grass, shooting outwards in each direction and allowing his face to slam into the ground. He felt a sharp bite of pain as his chin split on a stray rock and he felt the cold lick of the wet grass on his forehead as he slipped out of consciousness and into a deep sleep.
Aug. 25, 2017
He stared at the dark screen as the gray cursor blinked repeatedly. He had been at this for hours and the screen was still mostly empty, save for a single sentence and a few random marks leftover from his short nap on the keyboard. He held the backspace key for a few seconds and cleaned it back up. The blank screen stared him in the face, taunting him with the only phrase he had been able to punch out so far.
“This is the end.”
When he had scribbled it out he had been filled with intention and excitement, it had poured out of him like a deluge and he was prepared to sit and write for hours with a huge smile on his face but as soon as he hit the period key on his keyboard his mind went completely blank. Never in his long career had he experience such severe writer’s block. Nothing came to mind, nothing sounded fun. It was almost as if that was the story right there. As if he meant to say “this is it, people, it’s all over now, just sit back with a drink and enjoy it.” It wasn’t the end, though, at least he didn’t want it to be.
He pushed back from his desk and let the chair roll to a slow stop on the hardwood floor, let out an exasperated sigh, then stood and walked to the bar he had placed by the window. After pouring himself a drink and taking a sip he pondered his night, searching desperately to find something to blame for his current predicament. To be honest, this wasn’t the first time it had happened. It was the worst case so far, for sure, but his deadline was tomorrow and he had been faced this all week, throwing away several different drafts that he had powered through. An entire week wasted on second tries, the though of it amused him, though it shouldn’t have.
“This is the end.”
The words echoed in his head, taunting him. Maybe it was time, maybe his career was over and that is why the only sentence he could muster up had to do with ending. Maybe it was time to fold, call it quits. He swallowed the last of his scotch and set the glass down roughly, he was never one to quit and the thought, alone, made him wince. He took a long look out the window before turning around to get back to work when his blood froze in his veins. Sitting at his desk, staring at him with a complacent smile, was his wife. His late wife, to be exact, but she looked just as beautiful as she did the morning before she died. Her auburn hair laid gently on her pale shoulders, just as it had before he sliced her neck open with his hatchet. That smile, it lingered on her lips knowingly, taunting him as he stuttered and shook violently by the window.
“It’s time, you sick son of a bitch.” She cackled, suddenly by his side laughing into his ear. He squeezed his eyes shut and whimpered. “Finish the story,” she smiled cruelly as she whispered to him. “Finish it.” He ran to the computer, ready to slam it shut when he read the screen.
“This is the end. This is my confession.”
“No,” he whimpered again as tears strolled down his face and she laughed her maniacal laugh from the corner of the room. The keys clicked and he watched in horror as his story typed itself out, and his wife laughed and laughed as he cringed and cried. When the detectives found him two months later he was a dried, horrified husk, still sitting at his computer. His face was frozen in a cruel, grotesque shape as if he was screaming and crying. The computer screen glowed, illuminating him in an eery light. The detectives commented that they heard a woman laughing as they entered the room but could find no evidence of anyone in the house. His confession letter was still on the screen in front of him, typed out in full. The computer screen had been smeared with blood near the bottom right corner and when they looked closely they found that he had signed his letter in his own blood.
The detectives recommended that the house be burned, they all agreed that something horribly evil still lingered there. To this day none of them will speak of that day, and all but one of them have left the force. The house still stands where it did, silent in the woods amongst the northeastern pine trees. The neighborhood kids tell stories to each other around campfires about a woman’s wild cackling that can be heard if you drive by the house slowly at night with your windows down. They say the cackling is always followed by a woman singing the words “this is the end” to a distinct, light tune. They don’t like to talk about it for long, and no one likes to hear of it very much.
When the “For Sale” sign was taken down and the yellow tape was removed the town quietly cringed in fear. No one was supposed to be there. They gathered together before move-in day and burned the house at the end of the road, and huddled together in fear as the screams grew louder and louder, rising above the flames. As the house collapsed everything went silent and the whole town let out a collective sigh, the nightmare was finally over. They started to disperse as the quiet and gay cackling started again and the town watched in horror as a fiery form waltzed out of the fire, laughing hysterically and performing a slow, seductive dance while singing “this is the end, this is the end.”
Aug. 25, 2017
Bill threw down his notepad and darted across the room to the phone in the corner of the kitchenette. He snatched up the receiver and, without hitting any buttons, said as clearly as possible, “108 is ready for extraction. I repeat, 108 is ready for extraction.” He hung up the phone and ran back to the window, yelling for James to get up. He ran out of the bedroom tying his robe shut in haste.
“He figured it out!”
“No shit! How?”
“The bird loop!”
“Did he notice the delay?”
“He didn’t say anything about it so probably not, but who cares? We can go home!”
The two men laughed and hugged as the extraction team opened the steel door at the front of the apartment and charged in, guns at the ready. They were dressed all in black, with helmets and large rifles, it was almost comical given the fact that they were merely incapacitating and removing a test subject. Bill and James had always secretly joked that the guns were plastic, or at least not loaded but they had no way of knowing for sure. These experiments were always a 90-10 split of theatrics and reason but you could hardly tell one from the other most days. The team quickly subdued 108 and gave him a tranquilizer. The two men watched proudly as the team carried the unconscious subject out of the apartment and closed the door.
The elevator chimed and James got in, “ready?”
“Yeah, hit the button, I want to see.” James punched the button for the lobby and held the doors open with his hand. The apartment erupted in turmoil in front of his eyes. The furniture flew in the air and erupted in flames, pictures rocketed off the walls and incinerated before hitting anything, and the walls appeared to melt into the floor. After half a second of intense burning there was a flash of light and Bill shielded his eyes. When he looked back he was staring at a cement chamber as ashes swirled towards the vents in the ceiling. He smiled and headed for the elevator, glad for a little vacation.
Bill and James shared a pleasantly quiet ride to the surface. As they watched the doors close behind them in the lobby the smiled and thought of their lab being incinerated now that it was empty. They walked outside into the sun laughing and joking together.
“Wonderful job, boys!” Their driver said with a smile as he opened the door for them. “Your families are waiting.”
Aug. 25, 2017
Francis gripped the coffee cup with a shaky hand as he stared out the glass door at the birds hopping from branch to branch. He hated those birds as they flew about, unaware of how marvelous their freedom was. He glared down at his coffee mug and lifted his other hand to stop the shaking. He wasn’t quite sure if it was the lack of sleep, the anger, or the jealousy but the shaking had grown progressively worse every day.
For ninety days and ninety nights he had been trapped in his apartment. His cell phone had no signal, not even for a 911 call, his windows were unbreakable and his walls were backed by cement. He had spent days trying to break out from every angle he could think of, nothing worked. On this, the 91st day, he stared at the birds and wondered why. It was a thought process he had visited before but he felt it was time to really address the issue. Why had someone done this to him?
He drank the last of his coffee in a large gulp and kicked some confetti around mindlessly before one of the birds caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. A little brown bird hopped to the feeder, grabbed a few seeds, saw him in the window and promptly flew away. “That’s odd,” he thought to himself. These same birds had been coming for the past 90 days and he wasn’t moving, even in the slightest. This bird should be used to him standing in the window by now and not become alarmed. He glanced at the clock, 9:42, and committed that to memory. He figured the bird would be back at a similar time the next day and he wanted to see him. Francis smiled and went about his daily routine of trying to find a weakness in his prison walls.
The next morning he washed his coffee mug from the previous day, filled it, and placed himself in front of the glass door by 9:00 AM. He even wore the same clothes as the day before, he wanted everything to be the exact same to see if his little friend would still be startled. After a considerate amount of time a brown bird with the exact same markings hopped onto the feeder, grabbed a few seeds, became started and fled. It was all exactly the same as the day before. He looked at the clock. 9:41, right on schedule. It was frighteningly punctual and he sat down to puzzle over it.
The next morning he arrived at the window around 9:30 and a thought occurred. What if the bird couldn’t see him? He drew his blinds on the window adjacent to the door and gave himself just enough room to see out. Sure enough his little brown friend arrived, ate, startled, and flew off. He was relieved that it wasn’t him frightening the bird but was still confused as to what its problem was. He glanced at the clock; 9:41. The most punctual bird in the world.
The next morning Francis was grumpy. He had been up all night puzzling over the bird’s odd behavior and had grown angry with his little feathery friend before falling asleep. This morning when he saw the bird hop to the feeder he started to holler and pound on the glass. “Go away! No one likes you!” He pounded the glass until his fist hurt. The bird paid him no mind and exhibited the exact same behavior as the day before. Francis was frustrated and glared at the clock. 9:41, this was too uncanny. A sudden realization struck him as he grabbed his phone and brought up the camera app. He started to record the birds outside his window. The next morning he watched his little friend show up, do his dance, and leave. He checked the clock; 9:40. He was early today. He then held up his phone and began to play yesterday’s video as he watched the birds outside. The video and the birds outside matched up exactly. They zipped this way and that, first on the phone, then outside. Francis sank down on the couch.
“It’s a recording, it’s not real…” he said out loud, he had taken to talking to himself lately. “It’s….it’s all fake…simulated…where…?” He put down his phone and began to cry.
Aug. 25, 2017
“Up and at ’em, Bill! Show’s about to start.” Bill groaned and rolled over. Six A.M. Why did everything have to happen so early? They were buried three miles underground in a cement lab next to a mock apartment. The sunrise and sunset were all faked and controlled outside fake windows, they could start the experiment at any time but they insisted on “realism.” “The subject wouldn’t notice the difference, this is all just a pain in our asses,” he insisted to himself as he dragged himself out of bed and tried to rub some clarity into his eyes. James had taken the night shift, he specialized in analyzing sleep patterns while Bill focused on behavioral patterns and mental health.
“Pretty normal night, nothing special. Slept pretty soundly, seemed to dream pretty heavily…wish we could have hooked him up to something but whatever, we did what we could.” He handed bill a cup of steaming coffee. “What was really fun was watching those clowns prep the apartment. I swear they moved that gun about thirty times, two inches here, two inches there, like it matters.” Bill took a sip of the coffee and chuckled.
“They call it attention to detail, plus if he doesn’t find it whose head do you think will roll? Not ours.”
“Yeah yeah, I get it, it’s just funny to watch.” James left the room, sensing that Bill needed a moment before starting work. Once he was alone, Bill stared about the room. Cement walls with no decorations, a wide window with simulated sunlight streaming through dusty blinds, a small black dresser in the corner and a twin bed fit for a prison inmate were all that they had to call home during these experiments. He listened to the silence and felt it creeping into his bones. These cement labs may have been economical but they were depressing to say the least.
He wandered into the main room, an expanse of more cement walls devoid of decoration. They had a small kitchenette in the far corner with appliances from thirty years ago. They were hardly used but that didn’t make them any newer. They also had a small two-person plastic table with two plastic chairs where they could eat together, though they hardly did. The rest of the unit was wide open. The entire southern wall was a giant window in the apartment they were viewing. They could see every room and were to keep the subject in view at all times. There was no furniture along the wall so they had nothing to trip over, just a wide open space to pace back and forth alongside their poor experiments. James was standing at the window staring into the bedroom. His final task was to observe the subject waking up, then he could finally get some rest. Bill joined him, ready to start the day shift.
“108, right?” He checked, grabbing his clipboard from the nail below the window.
Bill sighed, “107 failures, 108’s the charm, right?”
James chucked and scribbled his final notes as Subject 108 got out of bed.
“Well, I’m beat. Enjoy! I heard they left you a present in there.”
Bill ignored the comment as James headed to the bedroom to sleep. He knew Bill got bored and always hoped for some excitement, they always teased him, telling him something exciting would happen that day. Twenty years on the job and it was always the same, it was getting rude to claim that anything could be any different. The subject went about his business like they all did, experienced the same sudden panic when he was stuck inside and had the same realization when he found the gun. Everything was par for the course until the subject turned towards the window, gun in hand, and aimed straight at Bill’s head. He froze for a second, unsure of what to do. He knew he was in no danger, the bullets couldn’t breach the glass they installed there, but this was completely new behavior, not to mention potentially detrimental to the facility. Most of the subjects threw the gun away or turned it on themselves, never had they turned it on their environment before. If he fired that gun he might be able to deduce that he is not just stuck in his apartment but in a different facility altogether. The bullet may not breach the window but it may show that the window is there and 108 would become the fastest failure yet.
“Don’t do it, Frank” Bill mumbled under his breath.
Subject 108 pulled the trigger and an explosion of confetti rocketed out from the barrel covering the window with bright bits of paper. Suddenly balloons were falling from the ceiling and dancing around the floor as party blowers sounded and a rush of voices all joined together behind him. “Happy Birthday, Bill!” They broke out into song as a young intern grabbed his clipboard and took over his post to take notes on Subject 108 collapsing onto the couch in confusion and misery. James clapped him on the shoulder, laughing.
“You thought we’d forgotten? Nah, man, have a piece of cake! Your family is waiting for you upstairs when you’re done. Enjoy a day on the surface, let me know if the birds still sing, eh? The real ones, anyway.” Bill laughed, he couldn’t believe they remembered. He couldn’t believe they had gone through all the trouble, this was sure to be his most memorable birthday yet.
Aug. 25, 2017
Francis awoke the next morning to the familiar chirping of birds outside his bedroom window. He shot up and looked around, confused and tired. He stared around the room for a few moments, piecing everything together. “What a dream,” he muttered to himself as he dragged himself out of bed, finally. He rubbed his neck where he had felt that prick that knocked him out and felt nothing there. It had all seemed so real and yet here he was, safe at home with no sign of injury. He stumbled to the kitchen to prepare his morning coffee. “Work is going to be strange with that weighing on my mind” he thought to himself as he waited for his coffee to finish. He decided to shower and dress for the day instead of staring at the pot as it filled and by the time he was finished his coffee was ready. Thinking a breath of fresh air would be good he filled a cup and headed for the balcony. As he reached the door he flipped the lock and tugged on the door but it wouldn’t budge. Confused, he set his coffee down on the coffee table behind him and gave the door a harder tug. When it still didn’t budge he fiddled with the lock a little and tugged on it some more, nothing would make the door open. After several minutes of puzzling over the door he reached for his coffee to take a break. Laying on the coffee table next to his mug sat James’ gun from his dream, exactly as he had imagined it. Francis stood there, frozen in horror as the blood drained from his face as a million explanations ran through his mind, but none of them made any sense. He crumpled onto the couch in awe.
“It was a dream, wasn’t it?” he wondered aloud, “It had to be.”
An hour passed of Francis sitting on the couch in a trance, sipping at his coffee and staring at the gun, thinking. When the coffee finally ran low and he stood for a refill he was struck with inspiration. He set the mug down and ran from room to room trying all of the other windows and doors. None would budge, he was completely sealed in. He returned to the living room, breathing heavily and feeling lightheaded. His mind was racing and he was starting to panic. He grabbed the gun from the table and pointed it at the window across the room, hesitating for only a second before pulling the trigger. The gun made a loud pop and a shower of brightly colored pieces of paper shot from the barrel, dancing to the floor in a colorful and showy display. Francis was stunned. He sat on the couch, jaw dropped, and let the gun hang down beside him. As he stood there the last bit of confetti ran down the barrel and onto the couch. He watched as the last of it settled on the floor and the room was quiet and still again, save for the constant repetitive chirping from outside his window.
He heard the door click shut softly but he waited a few more minutes, listening for the clicking of heels down the hall. Once he was satisfied and sure he was alone he opened his eyes slowly to look around. The floor felt cold against the side of his face and he could feel the corn syrup pooling underneath his suit. The red dye would stain but it didn’t matter, the boss would replace it. James let out a sigh and grunt as he hauled himself off the floor, shaking his right arm to try to dry it slightly. Corn syrup flung off his sleeve and left blood spatter patterns on the white walls. He glared at the deep-red door filling with rage as he thought about the turn of events from the past few minutes.
“Fool,” he muttered as a chuckle broke out behind him.
“A fool indeed,” Bill Wyatt beamed at him and slapped him on the shoulder. “Dumbass really thinks he got you, how’s the arm?”
James shrugged his shoulder and swung his arm in a windmill, checking the muscles. “Worst part was pretending it hurt and that I was stuck. Hell, I thought I was going to have to hand him the stupid gun myself.”
Bill smiled again and chuckled. “I’m just impressed that he went for it. Kid’s got balls.”
“Had balls” James corrected as they shared a laugh. “Anyway, shall we?”
Bill snapped his fingers and a man in a gray jumpsuit came out of the blood-red door across the hall carrying a mop and pail. Bill motioned for James to follow him into the next door. They entered the unit adjacent to the one that Francis had entered. Bill helped James off with his jacket and tossed it back into the hall. “Don’t touch anything.” They walked around the corner into a dim living area. “There’s a clean suit in the back room.” James headed to the back to change while Bill moved a frame on the far wall and flipped the switch under it. A larger mirror on the wall behind him lifted into the ceiling revealing a window into the room next-door where Francis was staring, perplexed, at a TV. James walked back into the room straightening his tie.
“What’s good ol’ Frank up to?”
“I think he’s drooling.” The two men laughed again and settled in to watch the show in the large comfy chairs that had been set in front of the window.
“So how long you think it’ll take him?”
“Please, you know Harvey started a pool, I’m not giving you any tips. Kicking all of your butts will buy my kids’ christmas presents this year.”
“Like you need the money.”
“It’s never been about needing it.”
The two men quieted down as their boss entered the room silently. James pulled out a notebook and a pen while Bill grabbed his phone and activated the room’s cameras and set them to record, their work had only begun.
Aug. 25, 2017
The elevator chimed as it pressed down into the earth. Floor after floor it would chime and the display above the door would update. Minus eight, minus nine…Francis looked at his feet then adjusted his tie.
“It’s too bad, really…the way this will all shake out,” the suit next to him said evenly. “I always liked you, Frank. You had a lot of potential, a lot!” Francis shuffled his feet as the elevator continued to beep. He glanced sideways at a faded picture on the wall. A sunrise over the desert with one word emblazoned in the sun. “Life.” His gaze was interrupted as the suit nervously checked his firearm inside his jacket. Francis sighed and stared back at the display over the door. Minus twenty, minus twenty-one; deeper into the Earth than he had ever planned to go before.
“You know,” the suit began but was interrupted as the elevator came to a halt at minus twenty-four and the doors opened. Before them stretched a long white hallway lined with dark-red doors with black trim. The hallway had no visible end but it couldn’t possibly go on forever, could it? The suit cleared his throat and smoothed his tie before striding forward with the faux confidence his employer required. Francis followed him closely, dazed. After some time, a half a mile perhaps, they came to a sudden stop.
“Here we are, 4815.”
Francis stared at him blankly then looked at the deep-red door to his right. There was no number on it, how did he know where he was? What does it matter, asking questions is what got him here in the first place. He nodded at the suit and waited for him to open the door. The suit nodded back and reached for the knob saying “Well Frank, it’s been a pleasure.” Francis grabbed his wrist and looked him straight in the eye.
“My name is Francis.” With one swift move he twisted the man’s arm behind him and reached around to his jacket pocket while he flailed to free himself. He lifted the gun from it’s holster carefully and clicked off the safety. Before the man even knew what was happening Francis pulled the trigger and sent a round into his chest at an angle, flinging them both backwards and onto the floor. Francis scrambled out from under the man and steadied the gun in his face as he tried to stand up as well, clutching his chest and gasping for air.
Francis fired a final round into the man’s forehead, painting the white walls and floor with blood and brain matter. He stood there watching the blood gather and pool on the floor before he stepped back a few feet and checked the clip. It was full when they arrived so he was in good shape. He turned toward the door and straightened his tie.
“4815” he muttered, clicking the safety back on and stuffing the gun into the back of his pants. Francis turned the knob and pushed the door open. The blood on the floor behind him had almost reached his shoes and he thought about looking back. He decided not to, just in case there is life after death and he didn’t want to give the man’s soul the false impression that he cared. Without further hesitation he pushed his way into the dark room and gently closed the door behind him.
Once the door was shut the room was completely dark except for a dim light playing on the wall as if someone had left a TV on in the adjacent room. He double-checked the gun in the back of his pants to make sure it was accessible and then turned the corner. The dim TV in front of him was flickering dully across a few familiar images when he entered. He scanned the room and, seeing no one around, allowed himself to relax a little. The screen suddenly brightened with an intensity that made him blind int he dark room. An audio feed started playing suddenly and seemed to match the video. His eyes couldn’t adjust to the dark around him and he was consumed by the picture in front of his face, as if he and it were the only two things that existed.
“You know when you’re driving and there’s no one behind you or in front of you going the same way, but there’s a line of cars coming at you?”
“Sometimes I like to think that they are all trying to escape some sort of apocalypse, zombies or something, and I’m heading right into it without knowing.”
Francis shrunk back against the wall behind him as a new scene began to play.
“Happy Birthday to you!”
He tensed up.
“Happy Birthday dear Francis, Happy Birthday to you!”
The screen flickered again and he was staring at the tiny meeting room from his first job.
“Truthfully, I can’t take credit. Francis ran the project himself, he’s really shown initiative on this one.”
He took a couple steps forward, jaw dropped as more memories flashed by. Promotions, breakups, parties, conversations, it was all here. The audio quieted and the lights came up in the room slowly, showing a cozy living room with a couch, a couple of chairs, some end tables, a coffee table…his coffee table. It was all his, this was his exact apartment ten years ago, before he had taken that job out of the city.
“It’s uncanny, isn’t it?” A voice said sharply from behind him. He spun to find an older gentleman in a gray suit with white hair and a graying beard. Francis opened his mouth to speak but the man continued, walking in a slight curve towards one of the armchairs. “We had to upgrade the TV, of course, but I think you’ll find everything else to be the same.” The man eased himself into the chair and motioned for Francis to do the same across from him. He obliged as the man continued. “As you see, we have been with you for some time, Francis.” The audio picked up again as a scene from his toddler years emphasized the point. “The path that led you here was no accident, you see, it was all an exercise. Sure you improvised here and there, poor James paid for that out in the hall, but in the end the result is the same. We are here and now we must complete the exercise.” The TV turned off and retracted into the ceiling leaving behind a map of the Atlantic ocean and adjacent shores. The man sighed as Francis stared at it blankly. “I really expected more from you by now, has nothing occurred to you yet?” Francis wracked his brain trying to figure out what was going on but he came up short. After a few minutes of awkward silence the man continued. “Well, we hired you as a sort of recruiter, yes? You brought us new employees and we bought you things to hide your misery.” Francis opened his mouth to object but the man silenced him with a wave. “We taught you everything about the company that someone of your pay grade could handle and you absorbed it. You became our star employee but when offered a raise and a promotion you refused it. You were happy to stay in your pathetic position even though you had been professionally groomed for higher management, why?” Francis opened his mouth to answer and was silenced again. “Because you knew something was up. So how is it that you could know something was wrong then and be so stupid when we are right here in your face?”
Two strong hands suddenly grabbed his shoulders and held him down as the man stood up. “We don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, you’ll accept this promotion and you will excel at it. I will be back to accept your formal apology and a statement of intent for your new position as soon as you figure out what we do here.” He crossed the distance between the chairs and leaned into Francis’ face, pausing inches away. “Don’t be long, I’m not a patient man.” He patted Francis on the cheek and left the room. Francis struggled to rise and go after him but the hands held him strapped to the chair. As he continued to struggle he felt a sharp prick in the back of his neck and a wave of calm washed over him. The muscular hands released him as the room faded to black.
Aug. 24, 2017
The old truck bounced down the dirty road. Its passengers sat quietly and watched the lush forest speed by. Birds of every color swooped and screamed through the trees and rodents scurried away from the ruckus. Normally, the two would be embroiled in some conversation or competition to help pass the time as they sped down this same road they had traveled once every two weeks for the past fifteen years, but today they sat silently and watched it all speed by. Something was off this morning, they had been on edge since they woke up and neither could figure out why. They hadn’t felt this way since the lizards first came. Those first two years had been the most frightening thing they had every experienced. Long sleepless nights, fists clenched with fear as they jumped at every creak and groan fro the trees outside, it as so long ago but the memories still hung thick on their minds. Normally they could shut them out, they had learned to deal with this new life, but their was something somber about today
As they bounced past the old gas station they saw a jumper sprint out of the forest, leap over a rusted out station wagon, and disappear in the woods again. This, now normal, sight triggered a deep memory in both of them that finally allowed them to understand their moods. Today was the anniversary of their arrival. “The Rise of the Birds” they had called it, jokingly. It helped to laugh but they never laughed for long. They had endured far too much, it felt wrong to smile. For sixteen years to the day they had lived with this nightmare and they still had no idea why.
They were so lost in thought they almost didn’t notice the loud whirring sound that was starting to overpower their engine. From the passenger seat she reached out and grabbed his arm and he pulled over, squinting down the road, listening. There was a large open field to their right and dense woods on their left, no living creatures in sight. The whirring grew louder and louder until, with a flash, something passed over their heads. They watched, half in amazement half in horror as a giant metallic dish slowed to a stop in the air above the field, lights flashing brilliantly in blues and purples. It lowered to the ground and the whirring faded. Suddenly snapped out of his stupor, the driver turned the key but nothing happened, the truck made no attempt to start. They sat together, trembling, as part of the disk lowered to the ground making a door and a ramp, then the whirring stopped completely. For the first time in sixteen years they weren’t alone, but they so desperately wanted to be.
The weeks passed and the couple slowly resumed their usual schedule, stopped looking over their shoulders constantly, and stopped asking questions that had no answers. They had settled back into their blissful complacency they had adopted to get them through this new life so many years ago. He was strolling through the woods one day that fall, admiring the leaves and watching for any signs of a den being set up near their home. It was important to make sure no one tried to move in; the lizards had a tendency to be extremely territorial and would constantly attack them. He chuckled to himself as he realized how territorial they, themselves, had become. There are no neighbors in the apocalypse.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw some light reflect off the trunk of a tree, sending bright flashes of light through the branches. It wasn’t until he had a flashback to the sun glinting off of cars as he walked the streets of his old city before he realized how out of place that was. He startled then turned to the tree. It was a normal tree but hidden along its trunk was a slender metal pole, topped with what appeared to be a periscope. It turned silently left and right, setting its gaze on him for a few moments then quickly sucked itself downwards into the ground, turning up its eye to slide effortlessly through the leaves. He rushed forwards and brushed away the leaves around the tree to reveal a hole in the ground among the roots with a metal tube in it. The lip of the tube extended just above the surface, enough to keep dirt out but remain hidden. He stared down at his find, stunned, then took off in a sprint for home.
She came to him while he was rummaging around in their shed throwing aside hammers, pickaxes, old boxes, looking for the shovel he knew to be hidden somewhere under the mess. She watched silently for some time until he tossed an old hunting rifle to the side. It landed on the corner of a red metal toolbox and the old decrepit firearm unintentionally misfired through the shed wall and into the woods. She dove out the door then stormed back in, heart racing in a fury.
“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed at him, now huddled on the floor trying to figure out what happened. He glanced up at her and sighed.
“Sorry, I have to show you something! I need the shovel! Go get the flashlight!” he ordered excitedly. They had learned long ago that fighting was useless and she could tell that something had him very agitated, especially since the shovel was hanging on a rusty nail on the left wall just where it had been for the past decade or so. She walked to the house and grabbed the flashlight, tested the batteries and grabbed a few backups from their supply, then casually walked back to the shed. He was standing in the middle of the floor messing up his hair and staring at the mess he made. She clicked on the flashlight and pointed it straight at the shovel and said cheerfully, “ready?” He looked at the shovel, sighed, snatched it off the wall and said “follow me.” She moved aside to let him push past her and followed him into the woods. In his haste he had failed to mark the exact location in his mind and he started to wander around feverishly, checking various trees and muttering to himself. She hung back after a while and began watching him closely, becoming worried about his state of mind. Just before she was about to ask him to call off the search he straightened up from the tree he was examining with a huge smile and beckoned for her to come closer. As she approached he turned on the flashlight and shone it proudly onto the metal hole in the ground.
She squinted at it for a few seconds then shrugged, “I give up, what is it? A drain?” He beamed at her.
“When I walked by earlier there was a periscope sticking out of it, looking around! Then it saw me and disappeared down this tube!” He made a sucking noise with his mouth to animate the disappearance. She stared at him blankly, unsure of what to think. Uncaring of how she felt, he picked up the shovel from where he had dropped it and began to dig.
“What exactly do you expect to find?”
“Someone is down there!”
“What if they’re not nice?” He stopped for a second; pondering the possibility that this was a bad idea.
“If they’re not nice they already know we’re here, they’ll come for us anyway.” He said, then went back to digging, satisfied with his rationale. She sat down on a fallen tree and chewed her lip.
“There has to be a door somewhere, give me the flashlight.” He wiped his brow with the back of his hand then picked it up and tossed it to her. As he dug deeper and deeper she wandered around, poking and prodding the ground everywhere she could while staying within earshot of his shoveling. She figured a shelter underground couldn’t be that big and must have an entrance close by.
Hours later, as the sun began to set behind the hills to the west, she returned to the tree to find him standing in a six foot deep hole with the metal pipe jutting up through the middle like a flag pole.
“It just keeps going!” He was beaming, clearly excited by the find.
“Look, it’ll be dark soon, we’ll come back tomorrow.” she said sympathetically, worried he would be upset with the prospect of giving up for the night.
“Yeah, no door huh?”
“Oh, yeah I found one three hours ago but you needed the workout so I kept quiet.” He chuckled and tossed the shovel out of the pit. She reached in to help him climb out.
“Maybe we should bring some rope tomorrow,” she grunted as she pulled him up. He agreed and they gathered the shovel and flashlight then headed home, holding hands as they walked they began to hum their favorite song.
Aug. 24, 2017
Word arrived by messenger pigeon that the Maine tribe was under attack by an unknown force. Apparently their raiding parties had been disappearing commonly for months. Assuming desertion, some scouts had been sent out to report on their whereabouts to ensure our existence remained a secret. They found almost every missing acolyte executed in the woods. Bound, gagged, and dragged into the bushes just off the main trail, the bodies were not hidden very well. Reynolds was sending large groups out to try to collect the body of every missing person before a ranger happened across them and started an investigation. The last line of his letter was the most alarming. “Reinforcements requested, something big is coming.” Reynolds was a hard man. He didn’t rise to the top of the most remote chapter by taking prisoners. He had raped, murdered, and pillaged his way to the top without a single report opened against the chapter. Some believed he had connections within the state, which was absolutely prohibited by the oldest statutes of the organization, but everyone who met him insisted that his reputation was just and he was a truly frightening man. For him to ask for, or need, any type of help was unheard of.
The next day a pigeon was sent but the elders would not relay their message to the lowly acolytes. So the rumors continued. Mostly centered around a war with the lost Canadian tribes that had abandoned in Northern Maine were the most prominent, but talk of law enforcement or the plague could be heard echoing off of the cave walls late at night when everyone was supposed to be sleeping. How the plague bound and executed our trained scouts was beyond me, but I tried to not become involved.
Finally, after two weeks of rumors and mild panic, the response came. Every day that went by the rumors had worsened. The reason for the delayed response had been guessed at and argued over daily and when the pigeon arrived the whole community rushed to the great cavern expecting some big news. In an effort to finally calm down his charges and regain control of his branch, elder Adams brought the pigeon to the great cavern to read the message to the people. He began by explaining the situation.
“As you have all heard,” his voice echoed off the walls, silencing the community. “Reynolds has requested reinforcements against an unknown threat. Two weeks ago we sent him a response. We asked him for proof of his plight before we parted with men that we absolutely needed. We wrote that we meant no insult to him or his clan but that his request was far too difficult for us to cooperate without solid information.” The crowd froze, realizing how dangerous an insult to Reynolds could be. The clans had been at peace for 85 years but they were still separate cells with separate leaders and ideals. “The fact that he took so long to respond has worried us just as much as it has worried all of you so I will read his response to you now to set everyone at ease so that we may deal with this issue with level heads. I have not yet read this response and will experience it at the same time as all of you.”
The cavern was absolutely quiet, everyone seemed to be holding their breath. Adams unrolled the thin slip of paper that had come strapped to the bird’s leg. He opened his mouth to read but nothing came out. The blood drained from his face as he stood in front of everyone, open-mouthed and pale as a ghost. He shoved the paper harshly into the hands of one of his advisors and roughly grabbed the two others by the shoulders, forcing them out of the cavern and apparently cursing at them as he did it. The remaining advisor read the slip then stared at the silent crowd and began to tremble.
“It…I…It…says…” he stammered, trembling harder. “It says…I’m coming.” The advisor squeaked out the message then turned and ran from the room as if he were being chased by wolves.
Aug. 24, 2017
They came in the predawn glow as it illuminated the range ahead of us. We had woken up early to enjoy the sunrise and marvel at how magnificent and important we were to be some of the first in the country to see it. Atop some small mountain or another along the Appalacian trail in Maine the air was cold and crisp on this fall morning and we were at ease. As we watched the sun rise over the pines they emerged from all angles, rifles carried carelessly, huge hulking figures stomping the ground as if we had wronged them somehow. They didn’t speak, they just attacked.
They grabbed her first as a couple came at me from behind. I had snuck my firearm out of its holster just in time to get a shot off into one of their ribs, causing him to collapse and his friend to jump back in surprise. I pierced his skull with another round and ran for the two trying to carry her off. One received a new hole in his throat while the other lost feeling of his arm as his shoulder was blasted and became a useful shield against his three remaining friends. Screaming for their lives they threw down their weapons and surrendered. We tied them all together as they begged and pleaded for us to let them go, apparently they had never met resistance. While bound and gagged together like bundles of wood I executed each of them with a quick shot in the back of the head.
As the sun continued to rise it danced off of the blood in shattered beams as it rolled gently down the hillside. We packed up our camp and prepared to begin our day. Our message would be heard loud and clear. She picked up one of their rifles and tossed it from hand to hand, a sly smile creeping across her beautiful face. The war against the lost tribes had begun.
Aug. 24, 2017
I stood frozen in place in front of the massive stone gate. The intricate carvings of ritual sacrifice, a man standing over a naked woman with a scythe in his hand, were the symbols of the past five years work becoming a success. In the span of a few heartbeats, as I crested the hill, everything seemed worthwhile. The long nights studying by an oil lamp, sweating in the heat it threw off but determined to work out the issues that wracked my brain were suddenly but minor bumps in the path. I looked down at my blood stained hands that were shaking with a mix of anticipation, excitement, and hunger. The smears of blood on my shirt, satchel, and hands reminded me of all those who were lost in the efforts to deliver me to this very spot. A pang of guilt shook my soul as their faces raced through my memory and their screams echoed in my ears. I fell to my knees, tears streaming down my cheeks, mixing with the mud and blood that had caked there. It was all for this moment, what happened in the next twenty-four hours would determine whether or not their lives had been given in vain. I mustn’t falter now.
I pushed myself back to my feet and stumbled forward. The horrible hunger in my stomach that had plagued me the last couple days was slowly replaced by the hunger for knowledge that had driven me to the jungles of Peru to begin with. My parched throat seemed insignificant compared to my parched mind ready to receive the plentiful answers beyond this gate. I pushed forward. As my excitement rose my pace quickened and I soon found myself walking briskly, taking high, proud steps like a boy on his first day of school. As I passed under the massive gate and proceeded down the hill that followed I knew that everything had changed. My journey had only just begun.