Have you ever taken a sentence someone else has written, and created your own story around that sentence? Or looked at one you have written in the past, and done the same? It’s amazing what can happen when you use one sentence to inspire a whole new story.
The assignment for round 5 was:
Write a story about fear which includes a sentence from round one. You may use your own.
The sentence from round one had to evoke fear, but we didn’t limit the writers to write fearful stories. Even when a writer chose to write a story using their own sentence, it is vastly different writing just one sentence, than writing a full story.
We highlighted the round one sentence a writer has used in bold in their story.
Readers, what should you do now?
Read all the entries, and vote for the stories you like the best. Try to keep the assignment in mind when you make your choices. You have to choose three entries, no less, no more.
The survey is at the bottom of the page after the last story. Don’t’ forget to click the ‘Finish Survey’ button when you’ve made your choices!
We would love if you can leave the writers some feedback in the comments section below.
- Writers are not allowed to tell anyone which entry they have written!
- You can only vote once. Votes will be monitored and double votes will be removed.
- The voting round closes on Tuesday 13 September 2022 at 23.45 GMT (see the countdown in the sidebar).
- Results of the voting round will be published on this site on 17 September 2022 and then the author of each story will be revealed.
The Entries: Stories created from one sentence
The writer’s previous scores have been wiped clean, so all come to this semi-final round on an equal footing.
The stories have already been sent to the jury, and they will rate each with a point between 1-10. Below, you – the public – can read the stories, and vote on the three you like best. The points the writers accumulate in this public voting round will be ‘translated’ to a point between 1-10, and added to the jury score to get the final result of this round.
Below are the 10 stories for round 5, the semi-final round:
Since only five writers go through to the final round, it means five will be knocked out, so every vote is important. The next round will start again, with a level playing field.
Content Notice: These stories have all been created around a sentence that evoked fear… Tread carefully when reading if you are sensitive to that emotion.
1. Tommy, or Not-Tommy
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
The ticking clock was relentless. A constant reminder of the seconds passing by as I waited for the doctor to come back to me, to tell me that the excruciating pain and nerve-tingling fear I felt was all for nothing. “You’re just being silly, Mr Henderson. Tommy is perfectly fine!” That’s all I could think, over and over and over. At the same time, the clock reminded me that I’d been waiting for an eternity.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
Seconds counted down to the existential dread consuming my very being. The sound was soft, almost soothing, in a way that felt like salt on the wound. Nothing should be comforting to me right now, not while I waited.
The stark white corridor was empty of people except for myself and another man who had curled up to sleep on four of the chairs laid out for those waiting for family members to come out of surgery. I could barely hear his breathing over the systematic ticking of the clock, my heart beating alongside it now. Five families had come and gone in the time since the nurse helped me stagger from the ER entrance to the waiting area. I couldn’t recall her name. I could barely remember leaving the ambulance. All I could see, all I can see, was the bloodied and broken body of my son, his eyes closed, mouth open as the EMTs wheeled him away from me, the doors slamming in my face.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
The infernal clock! As if I wasn’t already acutely aware of how much time had passed since Tommy had been whisked out of my arms by the EMTs and strapped to the gurney so we could get in the ambulance and race to the hospital. My wails didn’t sound human, a distant yet terrible buzzing in my head. It sounded like something from another world, I didn’t even recognise the noise as something I could make, but I knew it was me. It was the sound of a man whose entire world was crumbling around his ears, holding his broken and bloodied son in his arms with nothing he could do.
I’ve never felt so helpless in my entire life. Even when my wife gave birth to Tommy, I was able to help. The day of his birth was as clear to me now as the day it happened. The roads had flooded, and we couldn’t get to the hospital. Rebecca’s screams from the backseat of the car left my ears ringing, and I could barely think, let alone hear what she was saying to me, as I launched myself out of the driver’s seat into the back to help her deliver our boy. His cry was music to my ears as he fell into my arms, Rebecca weeping and laughing with relief and joy as I told her Tommy was here. My love for my son was instantaneous and overwhelming, just as my love for his mother had been. My grief when Becca died consumed me, but I had Tommy to think of, and my son’s smile, the one that lit up the blue eyes he’d inherited from his mother, made me keep going.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
I couldn’t lose him. Not like this. Not to that idiot. Not to some stranger who hadn’t even had the common decency to stop after he sent my six-year-old boy flying through the air like a bloody ragdoll.
TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK.
TIKTIK, TIKTIK, tiktik, tiktik.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
“Shut up!” I roared, launching myself from my seat to rip the clock from the wall.
It didn’t come away as easily as I would have liked, screwed to the plaster, which gave way under my force and rage. I ripped it from the crumbling plaster and lobbed the offending timepiece at the opposite wall, less satisfied when the glass cracked, and the plastic rim shattered on the floor than I’d hoped I would be at its demise.
The sleeping man jolted where he lay, and a nurse squeaked at the end of the corridor, but they barely registered.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
Tiktik, tiktik, “Mr Henderson?” Tiktik, tiktik.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
“Mr Henderson.” A hand jolted me from my thoughts, and I spun around, ready to punch whoever had dared break through my thoughts. “Mr Henderson.” The doctor said in a softer tone; he had my full attention.
“Tommy? How is he? When can I see him?” My voice croaked, breaking as the tidal wave of emotion broke upon me as reality hit me with the full force of a tsunami.
“Mr Henderson, I’m sorry, Tommy passed away on the table at 1.00 am. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do. We can let you see him shortly to say your goodbyes.”
TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK.
TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK.
The red light blurred beneath my tears, and I stared at them as if my life depended on them. My world had been destroyed; the ground ripped from beneath my feet. Tommy was dead. My entire reason for living was gone, and I stared at those wobbly red lights and clung to my steering wheel.
TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK.
TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK.
That incessant ticking. I’d murdered that clock, yet somehow it was following me. There was no comfort to it now. It added insult to injury, reminding me of the seconds that passed in the hospital until I finally had to say goodbye to my son’s lifeless, almost unrecognisable form.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
Tiktik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
“Stop it, stop it, STOP IT!”
I punched the clock dial on my dashboard, wincing as the hard plastic and glass cut through my knuckles. I stared at the cracked screen, the eerie green glow of the digital clock with its now pixelated numbers reminding me that I didn’t own a ticking clock.
A shiver ran down my spine, and I focused on the light again, realising that it had gone green, grateful that it was still too early for much traffic.
Tiktik, tiktik, tik…
I was about to accelerate when I spotted a figure standing in front of my car. The bloodied and broken child standing in the road cocked his head — the spitting image of my son, who had died three hours ago on a hospital gurney.
I got out of the car, my hands trembling as I sobbed and opened my arms to my boy. “Tommy.” His name felt like honey on my tongue, my heart racing at seeing him. He was alive. Against all odds, he was here, and he was alive… and he was smiling.
My heart stopped. The smile wasn’t Tommy’s, and it didn’t reach his mother’s blue eyes. White, lifeless eyes looked at me emotionless as the maw spread from ear to ear in a terrible grin. Needle-like teeth went in all directions, barely containing the thick, sickening tongue that lolled from the void the thing called a mouth.
I didn’t get to scream as the not-Tommy, its face transforming into a less-than-human thing, its grey-white skin pulled taut against its skull, launched itself at me. Clawed hands reached out to embrace me, slicing across my throat. The pain didn’t register, but the warm spread of my blood and the sickening realisation that I was drowning in my blood did. I desperately pressed my hands to my throat, feeling my life pour through my fingers as I fell forward, unable to stop the inevitable.
I’d be joining my son and wife soon, left to die in the middle of the road just like Tommy was left to die by the hit-and-run driver, haunted by that nightmarish face as the not-Tommy became the not-me. Its eyes were still dead, its grin sharp and terrible as it turned its back on me to walk away.
Tik, tiktik, tiktik, tiktik.
TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK, TIKTIK.
2. Lessons for Survival
Time has unraveled. In the absence of alarms and email, I can no longer track the days. The beginning is hazy, some survival switch in my brain blocking retrieval. Sometimes my dreams belch repressed memories, flashes of hope followed by shocks of humanity.
Melanie glances at me with hollow eyes. She looks gaunt in the dim evening light, older. Her skin is ashen, a series of pocks and lines, paths of pain and sorrow. She is too young for wrinkles, but I fear she won’t live long enough to suit them. The soft rasp of her breath comforts me. Melanie is my partner against silence, my warmth in this nuclear winter.
It wasn’t always like this. We were born into a madhouse of sound and gadgets. Whirrings, tickings and sounds suddenly replaced by a silence so loud it hurt. We had stared into a cloudless sky. Our nervous gazes swiveling to the east, where a redness grew hours too early for sunset, while above, darkness spread, light dimmed behind a veil of ash. Blisters erupted along exposed flesh and our breathing became laboured. We hadn’t known how to cope. Most people are afraid of dying in a nuclear holocaust, but I don’t think enough are afraid of surviving in one.
The blisters are faint scars now, an illusion of healing.
I force air and memories out, train my focus on the curve of Melanie’s neck. We are trauma bonded with ties of love and safety. We met as the ash fell, not the beginning but close enough. I cross the room, causing cascades of dust to dance. I need to be close to her. She is so tiny, curled in the window seat. I rest my hand on her knee, kiss her forehead. Our fingers meet, entwine. There is tenseness in her touch. The argument will start again.
I follow her eyes through the dusty window, past the empty, overgrown streets down the hill to the rambling hospital. From this distance, you can barely make out the large smiley face painted red on its tall walls. If you squint, you can ignore the beginnings of a community.
“Mary, I’m hungry.” Her voice is faint, a mere tremble before the earthquake.
Below, I spy a group leaving the double doors of the hospital. She watches too, longing plain on her parted lips.
“We have the cans of tuna I found still, and I think we can find more stuff on the westside. It’s a bit of a mess down there cause of the flooding, but it keeps most foragers out.” I reply, trying for Lightness.
“Not just for food.” She pushes my fingers away, her shoulders slump.
“Baby, you know it’s not…”
She cuts me off with lightning eyes and a voice of thunder.
“Safe! You keep saying that! This, this…” She gestures wildly. “Nothing is safe, but there at least they’re together.”
“We have each other.” I plead.
A wind whispers through the gaps in the failing house. Memory stirs. Men, wild-haired, reeking of rye, waving flashlights in the night. I recoil when Melanie touches me, swim back from the depths that have swallowed me.
“We still will have each other, but I am afraid. It’s just not enough for me. What if you, I mean you could,” she sputters to a stop. What if I die? I shake my head. Melanie will never understand the real danger lies in other people.
Her fingers probe the small of my back. “How long have we been alone, aren’t you tired? I’m going Mary, I want you to come with me.” There is an edge to her words.
“Melanie, I love you, but we can’t. Bad things happen when there are too many people.”
“I understand you’re scared. Hell, I’m scared, but you won’t tell me what happened. You won’t compromise and I won’t do it anymore.” Tears and anger mingle in her words. She launches from the seat.
An iciness creeps from my toes, twines along my legs to grasp my heart.
“Wait,” I say. “Please, just stay the night with me and in the morning, you… we can go.”
Melanie pauses, our eyes meet.
“No games? No fits or crying? You won’t lock me in like last time?”
“No games.” I say.
She nods, a reluctant gesture. In the failing light, she reminds me of Erica, the same stubborn set and piggish stance. My thoughts hide behind a smile, the drunken words of men long lost ramble in my mind. My pulse pound like retreating steps. I must act before she leaves.
“Come,” I say, and I lead her from the room down dusty halls to the bed we share. She doesn’t fight, but her steps are reticent.
“One last time, just the two of us here in our makeshift home.” I sound breathless. I don’t dare to look back at her.
The mattress groans under our weight. I sink into her, inhale the sour notes of her sweat and the sweet undertones of her flesh. Our lips meet. We explore terrain well known with a new urgency. I whisper goodbye as we meld, but she doesn’t hear. When darkness comes, she sleeps. I listen for her breath but hear only whispers.
“They all leave. Janice, Jim, all of them. Remember Frank, with his lawyers and his alarms?” My head shakes, trying to deny the mouthless voice.
Erica, my girlfriend, in the beginning. When the booze was gone and my pills all popped, I couldn’t hold her. The drunken men with their siren calls beckoning. A better party, with people better than me.
My old psychologist would say I’m slipping. Such a foolish man, with his little prescription pad of yellow pills. Nasal voice ruffling his mustache as he nattered on about my probation being provoked if I didn’t stay the course. Dr. O’Dell and his diagnoses.
At least Erica was smart. She slipped away while I slept, the perfect time for betrayal. I turn awkwardly, careful not to wake Melanie. I reach under the bed, grapple with dust and debris, searching. My lips curl somewhere between a grin and a grimace. My fist encloses around the rough wood of a well-worn baseball bat. I slide from the covers and hover close, listening.
I whirl with emotion and memory. The slumbering figure is Melanie, Jim, Frank and Erica. It is my mother sleeping off her hangover and the man she brought home snoring softly. Love is the color of blood.
The bat raises and crashes. Screams and struggles, cracks and gurgles. There is silence when I walk away.
I stride into the moonlight, marvel at the blots of blood darker than the night speckling my hands and arms. I glance at the hospital. Calmness cascades around me like a gown.
Dr O’Dell would be sad, I think. I wonder how he fared. Had his hems and hah’s lived? Perhaps I should find him. He had never tried to leave. He knew how much I disliked that. I would love to tell him how I feel, how the hardest part of surviving is realizing you never really change.
3. The Sky Didn’t Fall
Lucy Pennycook was afraid. Lucy Pennycook was always afraid.
Before she learned her ABCs, she learned about the evil that can lie hidden under the thin, fragile skin of humanity. By the time she was five everyone scared her, but mostly she was afraid of her father, and of the way her mother’s fear excited him.
She was afraid to go to school, and afraid of going home; fearful of her family, but scared of strangers; afraid of the dark when she hid under the stairs, and of the hand which could reach in to pluck her out, but so much more afraid of being seen.
She was deathly afraid of her thoughts, of the evil lurking under her own skin, and so she tried to cut it out, to bleed it away. Then she became afraid of people seeing her damage, and afraid of no one ever noticing.
Lucy Pennycook, in short, was terrified.
* * *
Justine Fairlie was not afraid. Of anything.
Justine Fairlie was born when Lucy Pennycook was nine. Justine was seven years older than Lucy, and twenty-five centimetres taller, and Lucy set her sights on catching up. She missed by a month and two centimetres.
Five weeks after Lucy Pennycook’s sixteenth birthday, she vanished from her hometown. On the same day, Justine Fairlie arrived in the nearest city.
* * *
Justine Fairlie travelled light. She carried a cheap pop-up festival tent she’d bought that morning, and a childish purple backpack slung over one shoulder.
Six months earlier, when Justine was someone else, her mother had taken her shopping in the city. From the train, she’d seen people camping on wasteland by the station. Those men and women had seemed sad, and tired, but they hadn’t looked scared. They’d looked free.
The wasteland was where she remembered it. No one spoke to her as she walked through the tents, although she felt one man’s gaze following her progress to the far edge. Under his watchful eye, she set up her tent on weed-cracked concrete.
When he stood and approached her, she grabbed her backpack and unzipped the pocket. She’d bought a camping knife at the same shop she’d got her tent, and while it only had a three-inch blade, men only had one-inch eyeballs. She slipped the knife out, and unfolded it behind her back. She wasn’t afraid, but it didn’t hurt to be cautious.
The man stopped a few feet from her. He said her tent would blow away the first time it got windy. He told her she needed to take some rubble ‘from the heap over there’ and put it on her groundsheet to weigh the tent down. She nodded. He looked her up and down, then said he’d grab some while she got herself set up.
He returned with two big blocks, each made of a few bricks still mortared together, and each carried easily in one hand. He set them down beside her tent and told her if she put them at opposite corners she’d leave room for her sleeping bag.
She nodded again, mumbled her thanks, and silently cursed herself for not thinking to buy a sleeping bag. The man nodded back, and left.
She struggled to lift either block with both hands, but she persisted, and she succeeded. When she came out of her newly secure tent she found the same man standing there, holding out a threadbare blanket. He told her she should give it back to him, ‘when you get a bag, yeah?’
She spent that first evening in her tent, not mixing with the other homeless people. She wasn’t afraid of them — she reminded herself she wasn’t afraid of anything — she just preferred to be alone. She curled up on the hard ground, in pitch darkness, clinging to her open knife as tightly as the smell of urine clung to her blanket, and cried herself to sleep.
The next day, Justine learnt to beg without begging. She observed others from the camp sitting between shop doorways on the baking summer pavements, a bowl or cup beside them, looking at no one and saying nothing except ‘thank you’ when someone spared them a little change.
The good spots on the busy main roads were taken, but she found her own place on a side street, retrieved a coffee cup from a bin, and sat in supplicant silence. And she looked. She tried not to catch anyone’s eye, but she watched everyone. Most people seemed a little scared: scared of stopping, scared of losing precious time, scared of seeing her; scared of being her.
By lunchtime, she’d made enough to buy a Happy Meal from McDonald’s. When she ordered it, she heard a voice in her head: Happy Meal? Waste of fucking money. Eat at home and be happy for free.
She knew it was a waste of money, even before she took the small, plastic figure out of the bag. He was a superhero, but he still reminded her of her father. She put the toy in the same bin she’d taken the cup from. She enjoyed the hamburger though.
When the commuters had all gone home and the streets had become quiet, she poured her coins into the pocket of her backpack and returned to the wasteland. Somewhere among the tents two men were arguing, hurling threats and slurred curses at each other. She wasn’t afraid: she knew they had a different kind of sickness to her father. Nevertheless, she was cautious. She sat in her tent, her knife in her hand.
Later that evening a group of smartly dressed men and women arrived, going among the tents, talking to everyone. They offered her clean socks and underwear, towels and toothpaste, and a little leaflet about church services. They told her they came most nights, but they brought soup and sandwiches on Tuesdays and Fridays.
One of the men asked Justine how old she was. She said she was eighteen; his eyes said he didn’t believe her. He talked to her about help, about Nightstop volunteers and social services. She said she’d consider that, but what she really needed was a sleeping bag. He promised to bring one next time; her eyes said she didn’t believe him.
After the church people had left, she needed to pee. She asked the blanket man about toilets. He told her McDonald’s was open twenty-four hours, that they liked you to buy something if you were using their toilet but if they were busy they didn’t care. Or, he said, she could go in the bushes. Also, she should collect carrier bags, then she could… you know… in her tent if she needed to.
She went to McDonald’s. She peed, stuffed a load of toilet paper into her backpack, then bought nine McNuggets to go.
She sat inside her tent, chewing her food as slowly as possible. She’d left the door open so she could watch a terrier mongrel she’d spotted slinking around the edges of the wasteland. He obviously wanted to approach people, but he was scared.
Justine looked at her meagre supper, then at the dog’s pronounced ribs. She tossed one of her chicken nuggets to him. He wolfed it down. When she put a second nugget on the ground just outside the tent, he approached her warily, but once he’d eaten it she stretched her hand out for him to sniff, and he let her pet him. She put a third nugget on her blanket, and the dog crept into her tent to feed.
She told him she was going to call him Chicken. He looked at her with sad eyes, so she reassured him the name was because he liked to eat chicken, she wasn’t saying he was afraid, obviously he wasn’t afraid, he was a brave boy, a good boy.
Chicken’s tail wagged. It was a small, cautious wag, but a wag nonetheless. She curled up under her blanket, and he curled up on top of it, and they shared each other’s warmth.
Dusk rolled in early that night, black clouds shrouding the setting sun. Chicken’s hackles rose, and he growled at the electric tension in the air.
A crack of thunder rattled across the sky.
While she could not see him in the inky darkness that surrounded them, Justine felt her dog push up against her legs and heard his growl become a whimper.
She reassured him thunder couldn’t hurt him. She promised he didn’t have to be afraid, because she was strong, and she was going to look after him.
* * *
Chicken snuggled into the girl’s blanket. If she wasn’t afraid, then he needn’t be. And he knew she wasn’t afraid, because as she was falling asleep, she told herself so, over and over again:
“I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid.”
4. Better Dead Than
I believe the phrase “fuck around and find out” can still be applied when old men gamble with the fate of the world and nuclear war breaks out. Well, less a war and more an hour of missile exchanges and a decade’s worth of fallout. It’s a shame that the shortcomings of a handful of world power leaders can devastate the rest of the world.
Initial reporting claimed that “thankfully,” only half of the missiles launched made it to their intended targets. Imagine thinking only 63 million dead was something to be thankful for. Then again, maybe the people who died in the first explosion were the lucky ones. They were going about their lives one moment, worrying about emails and traffic; the next, they were gone. Ignorant that their lives were about to end, that life as we knew it would be gone in a flash of light. It’s not often one envies the dead, but knowing now what was ahead of us then, I would have chosen a thousand fiery endings over this drawn-out trudge to the grave. Most people are afraid of dying in a nuclear holocaust, but I don’t think enough are afraid of surviving in one.
Systems failed on an unimaginable scale; Power grids collapsed overnight, vast tracks of farmland poisoned against life, and human suffering beyond comprehension. Who do you blame? Who do you turn to? How does someone go to work after that? Nothing makes sense, and everything is made alien. Yet, at the same time, the trauma of the event impacts billions of lives across every imaginary line humans can dream up.
And some bastards thought they could be prepared for this. Or that a concrete hole in the ground with some canned goods could keep them alive through the worst of it. With enough guns and prep, they could rise from the ashes of the old world to form a new one. That was the last good laugh I had, watching those poor schmucks get swarmed by the scared masses.
I mean, what else are you going to do when your life’s objectives are turned upside down? When the people you love are dying preventable deaths with modern technology that was available until yesterday? When you get nuked back to the bronze age, it’s all but impossible to accept the deteriorating reality you find yourself in day after day. Wake up, learn of new horrors happening in your community you are powerless to change, struggle in the rot of civilization, pass out from grieving the life you lost, repeat the next day.
We all thought we were ready. Hardened for the fall, prepared to make hard decisions. But regardless of if you never thought this day would come or were actively readying for it, nothing prepares you for unimaginable loss on a global scale. Logically, you know millions are dead, and millions more are dying in the aftermath. But, emotionally, your body goes into survival mode. So we tune out, shut down, push out, and do our best to numb the suffering.
Yet, within the week, we’d lost a million more to suicide. A few million to radiation from the fallout and irradiated supplies by the following week. The violence was terrible as lawlessness bubbled up in the chaos. There were less violent grabs for power and more helpless flailing about. Guns make people feel like they have control, but only as long as they have bullets to shoot. Once the power fantasies subsided, people stopped to think about what they’d done. Not enough therapy in the world for that amount of mental health crises.
I mean, we couldn’t even manage natural disasters when we had infrastructure. Now the world is on fire, and we have half the people, a quarter of the resources, and no hope of relief. When your neighbor’s house is on fire, the neighborhood comes together to fight the fire. When the neighborhood is on fire, your neighbors flee with whatever they can carry.
You’re really hoping I can tell you that people banded together, that there were miracles and community in hardship. I’m so, so sorry I have none of that left to share. We scrapped the bottom of the barrel, searching for silver linings a long time ago. There was just too much suffering. One step forward, ten steps back. We got knocked down, and the kicks never stopped coming. There are no happy stories to tell, nothing that’s true anyway. The lies we told each other to keep people going.
The things we had to do to survive will haunt us to our final moments. Not even the grand and impossible decisions made by someone far away in a bunker. But the complete collapse in quality of life, food, and shelter every human being had to accept was enough to humble us. We had to face hard truths about ourselves and our world that none of us were braced for. Being reminded that we are not above the natural order of animals and their daily struggles to survive.
As much as I might envy the dead, I can’t bring myself to end things. Maybe it’s my lizard brain holding onto that core survival instinct. Lord knows I’ve tried. Prayed even for release. Like all the other poor souls still alive, I wish I could just wake up and find this was all a bad dream. But I never do. The world keeps on spinning, and there’s no one to stop the ride. So the nightmare, and mankind, continue on into oblivion.
If you’re reading this, I hope you never have to live through the end of civilization. May your God or higher being or dumb luck grant you a swift and merciful end. However, suppose somehow, someway, you’re someone who might have any sort of sway in the world to steer us away from mutually assured destruction. In that case, I beg that you do everything in your power to stop it. Of course, we will survive the end of the world, but it will be too high a price to bear.
5. Surprise Me
[Content warning: consensual non-consent]
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have heard, unusually, two remarkably similar accounts of what occurred at Shannon Stevenson’s home on the 24th of August 2019. The sequence of events on that night, described to us so vividly by Miss Stevenson, are not disputed by the defendant. On the contrary, the account given by Daimon Dreyfuss differs only in one important aspect; the question of whether Miss Stevenson was herself complicit in instigating the attack perpetrated upon her by Mr Dreyfuss and his unknown accomplices. If you are convinced by Miss Stevenson’s account, and her denial of any prior knowledge of or collaboration in the planning of the brutalities to which she was subjected, acts which Mr Dreyfuss does not deny took place, then you must find the defendant guilty as charged. Conversely, if you believe Mr Dreyfuss’s explanation of the events, and his account of Miss Stevenson’s own culpability, you will be dutybound to find him not guilty of the charges set against him. However, I should stress that if you do find Mr Dreyfuss to be innocent of the charges, as a natural corollary to that decision you will infer that Miss Stevenson has herself committed an offence in misleading this court which will result in necessary punishment.”
Shannon Stevenson squirmed in her seat, conscious of the clamminess of her thighs beneath her thin summer dress, and risked a sideways look at the jury. The six men and six women, a variety of ages and ethnicities, were giving nothing away. As she studied their faces, the chairman of the jury caught her eye and their eyes locked. He was a big-boned middle-aged man whose Caribbean accent, heard only once by Shannon as he was sworn in as chairman, was as dark and deep as the tone of his skin. The way he looked at her made Shannon, pale and petite, feel as vulnerable as a child, a frisson of fear rippling in her belly.
“Consider first Miss Stevenson’s version of events. She has told how, in the weeks leading up to the night in question, Mr Dreyfuss, her co-habiting partner, had constantly harangued her, accusing her of having had sexual relations with other men while he had been absent on a business trip. In his paranoia, he had monitored her every movement, even to the extent of insisting on her handing over her phone to his keeping, only permitting her to use it under his supervision. She tells us that, on the evening of the 24th of August, Mr Dreyfuss was angry, abusive and aggressive before leaving the house, locking Miss Stevenson inside and taking her phone with him. Though fearful, she felt a sense of relief at being alone and decided to take a bath. As she savored being alone for the first time in weeks, she exited the bathroom naked except for a fluffy robe and heard a window sliding open in the guest room. Overcome by terror, she froze. Suddenly, the lights went out and, in pitch darkness, Miss Stevenson was seized from behind and her robe wrenched from her; two hands held her arms while a second person secured her wrists with adhesive tape and, simultaneously, a hood was placed over her head by a third person. From this, and from what followed, Miss Stevenson concludes that at least three men attacked her; there may have been more but of that she cannot be sure. However, she knew that one of the men was her partner, the defendant, because at this point he said – and forgive me for having to repeat this – ‘So you like cock do you, you dirty little slut? Well, tonight’s your lucky night because you’re going to get fucked to death!’ Bizarrely, we have also heard that Mr Dreyfuss admits that he entered the house via a window, accompanied by other men, though he persists in refusing to identify them or even confirm how many were with him. Neither does he deny that he spoke those crude and threatening words; nor that he was present during the violations of Miss Stevenson’s body that followed. It is not necessary for us to revisit the details of this vileness, only to recall that it involved vaginal, anal and oral penetration, at times by more than one man simultaneously, and that the attack (if that’s what it was) lasted for about two hours in total, during which there were times when Miss Stevenson was alone, and believed the men to have left, only for them – or other men – to return and resume their perversions.”
Shannon turned to the other side, to where Daimon Dreyfuss stood in the dock. A look of indecipherable intensity briefly burned between them, witnessed by no one except the chairman of the jury.
“And so we come to crux of the matter, which is the defendant’s justification for his ‘not guilty’ plea. According to Mr Dreyfuss, Miss Stevenson is – in his words – a ‘phobiaphiliac’. He would have us believe that Miss Stevenson is not just a submissive masochist in her sexual inclinations but that, specifically and exclusively, she is aroused by fear. Throughout their relationship, he tells us, Miss Stevenson has demanded evermore extreme stimuli and role-play scenarios to evoke the sense of terror she requires to achieve arousal and orgasm. In the defendant’s version of events, there had been no preceding tensions between himself and Miss Stevenson, no accusations of infidelity, no coercive control or restrictions on her freedom. On the contrary, he claims, he had been away on business in the weeks prior to the night in question and it had been Miss Stevenson’s expressed wish for him to ‘surprise her’ on his return. Now, you or I might have understood that as a request for him to return with an unexpected gift or treat but Mr Dreyfuss would have us believe that ‘surprise me’ was the term commonly understood between them as Miss Stevenson requesting that her partner simulate a scenario that would terrify her for the purpose of her sexual gratification.”
Shannon fixed her gaze on a point above the judge’s bewigged head. Again it was only the chairman of jury who was sufficiently observant to note the deep flush of Shannon’s chest and, being closest to her, to hear her quickening breath.
“So why, if the defendant’s story were to be true, would Miss Stevenson have raised charges against him, charges that he claims are false and malicious? His answer to this question is that, entirely contrary to Miss Stevenson’s account, it is she who has levelled accusations of infidelity against him, subsequent to the events described, and is now using the perverted nature of their relationship against him as a weapon of revenge. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it is now your duty to consider your verdict on the charges against Daimon Dreyfuss, being cognisant of the potential consequences for Miss Stevenson of your decision.”
Shannon quivered as, after only the briefest of deliberations, the judged called on the chairman of the jury to stand.
“Are you agreed upon a verdict?”
“We are, my lord.”
“Do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty?”
“No!” Shannon gasped.
“Silence, Miss Stevenson! Mr Dreyfuss, you may leave the dock. Officers, please take Miss Stevenson to the dock.”
The two officers seized Shannon and dragged her, screaming, to the dock. On the command of a gesture by the judge, they forced a gag into her mouth and tightened it around her head. As the judge solemnly spoke, her wrists were cuffed behind her back and fastened by a chain to a collar placed around her neck.
“Miss Stevenson, you have treated this court with contempt and I have no option but to sentence you to be punished, according to our laws, by the gentlemen of the jury. Chairman, take charge of the offender.”
Shannon’s eyes bulged in terror as the chairman of the jury loomed over her, ripped her dress, front and back, and tore off her bra and knickers. Handed a leash, he fastened it to her collar and pulled her, mewling, towards the steps down to the rooms below, followed first by the other men of the jury then by the rest of the court, except Daimon Dreyfuss and the judge.
Daimon stood. “Permission to approach the bench, m’lord.”
Both men erupted with laughter. “Barry, you played a blinder there, mate.”
“Thank you, Daimo. Dual membership of both Guildford Amateur Dramatic and The Gilded Cage Sex Club has its benefits. I’ll tell you what though; we’ve had some elaborate role-play nights here but that one takes the biscuit, mate. I hope Shannon found it all to her satisfaction.”
“Satisfaction, Barry? She’s living her fucking dreams, mate, living her dreams. Or should I say, living her nightmares! Shall we go down and enjoy the spectacle?”
“It would be rude not to, mate. Lead the way.”
“No, no; after you, m’lord.”
6. Demons and Daddies
There was something wrong with the house. I smelled it the day we moved in.
They had tried painting over it — tried replacing the old floorboards and rickety banisters. They pulled down rotting wallpaper and flimsy light fixtures and replaced them with new ones. They fixed the plumbing and the heat. Mommy arranged flowers and matched patterns, filling our home with pies and cookies, and hot cocoa.
But the darkness still crept in, late at night, no matter how warm the radiator got, how lush her garden became, or how plush our beds felt as we drifted off to sleep. Shadows scurried down the halls, tapping on the doors, and hovering in our peripherals, like cobwebs in a dusty attic.
Mommy said it was all in my imagination, but she couldn’t see them like I could.
But the worst had been a few nights ago. Daddy was laid up on the recliner, a beer in his hand, watching the television. Mommy had put me to bed two hours before, but I’d woken up thirsty. I saw it from the top of the stairs — a long, spindly creature with unnatural arms and legs that bent in all the wrong places. Its shadow hovered behind Daddy’s chair, as though it were waiting — ready to pounce.
I’d frozen where I stood, afraid to step any deeper into the dark — any closer to that unnatural thing that didn’t belong. Aware of every breath, I watched as it lifted itself from the floor and crawled shakily towards the edge of the chair. It paused and I pressed my hands to my nose, trying to hold back any noise that might come.
It wasn’t enough. My heartbeat thrashed in my ears. Thump, thump, thump, rapid-fire — so loud, I knew it could hear.
The creature turned its head to reveal a gruesome face like someone had shoved it through a cheese grater. It smiled — or at least that’s what it looked like — its strange slit spread from side to side revealing pitch black emptiness within. I gasped, gripping my sweaty hands against the stairs to find my balance. Terror forced me back into the side of the stairs, sharp edges digging rivets into my back.
Helpless, I watched it turn to slither up the back of the chair and latch onto Daddy, like my brother Ian when he wanted a piggyback ride. Its arms extended, reaching for his face, grasping the top of his mouth until it gave an ungodly crack. And for a moment I could see both the back of Daddy’s head and his eyes as the demon stretched his face so wide, I was sure it’d split in two.
My bladder gave way. As hard as I’d tried to hold it, my fear had other plans. Daddy’s eyes were dead, glossy, and unmoving, and although a scream was brewing, it wouldn’t come out. He stayed like that — the whole front of his face torn in two — as the television roared onward in the background, the only source of light in the otherwise dark house.
“Hank?” Mommy whispered from the kitchen, poking her head into the hallway, dressed in a sheer blue robe.
I watched, breathlessly, as Daddy’s head slowly rolled forward as though he were slipping on a mask, bringing his eyes away from the back of the chair and towards the television screen again. He turned then, his eyes as dark as the shadow that had crawled inside him.
And then, he blinked. His eyes shifted back to brown.
“Yes?” he asked, his voice identical to Daddy’s.
“I’m heading to bed.”
“Be there soon, honey,” Daddy spoke, stretching in the chair. He turned then, his eyes slowly crawling up each stair until they reached my bare toes, curled around the step. His gaze reached mine and he smiled, revealing that same pitch black darkness within.
In a split second of bravery, I turned, slipping on a step as I lunged for the second floor, running down the hall, sure I could feel hot breath on my neck as I ran. The shadows seemed to taunt me as I reached my bedroom, slamming the door shut and flipping on my nightlight as my clammy hands fumbled for my blanket.
Daddy seemed normal the next morning. He flipped chocolate chip pancakes and poured me orange juice. We spent the day by the beach while Daddy worked on his truck and when we came home, he fried up some fish. I couldn’t see the thing that had crawled inside him. Maybe it had all been a bad dream.
But yesterday, the strangest thing happened. Daddy told me Mommy and Ian went on a long trip. I was confused because usually, they ask if I want to come.
Now, it’s just me and Daddy in this big old house.
Mommy bought me my nightlight after we’d first moved in and told me it would chase all the shadows away, but there’s still one that I can’t stop looking at — two shadows for two feet, standing just outside my bedroom door. They haven’t moved all night.
I watched them, even as my eyes got dry and tired. Finally, my door cracked open — a sliver of light shining in from the hallway. Daddy watched me for a moment before a loud pop! Complete and utter darkness. In seconds, Daddy was at my bedside.
“Tricia,” he said gently, his weight making my bedsprings creak. “I need you to come with me.”
“Daddy?” I questioned, studying him as my eyes adjusted to the dark. He sure looked like Daddy. The scary thing I’d seen must have been in my imagination, just like Mommy said.
“Come,” he said. “I have a game I want to play.”
A game! I straightened in my bed.
“A tea party?” I asked.
Daddy nodded. “In the garden,” he whispered.
I followed him downstairs and back into the kitchen where the garbage had piled up so high it fell over the edges. He paused at the back door, turning his chin to his shoulder to smile at me. “You’re gonna love this, kiddo,” he whispered.
We walked out onto the back deck, then down into the grass. Mommy’s garden stood on the far left. Daddy led me to the hydrangeas, and I skipped forward in anticipation, stopping dead in my tracks as I reached fresh dirt. There were no tea kettles or tea cups. There was only a big hole, with a box in it.
“Where’s the tea?” I questioned into the night.
Daddy turned on his heel and dramatically hit his hand on his head. “Silly me,” he answered. “I’ll go get it. Why don’t you take a seat here?” He motioned towards the box.
That, I wasn’t sure about. The box was made of wood and there was nothing that said tea party about it. But Daddy looked so kind in the moonlight, that I thought it might be impolite to say no.
I climbed in, so eager I mistook my anxiety for excitement.
“I’ll be right back,” Daddy said. “Lie back.” But as he reached into the box, I noticed he no longer smelled like Daddy. He smelled like the house.
Still, I did as I was told. Daddy smiled and told me he loved me before closing the casket lid but it wasn’t until the hammering started that I realized this wasn’t a game.
7. Opening Night Jitters
You’re lying in a hospital bed, alone in pre-op. A machine beside you counts a cadence like a time bomb approaching detonation.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Maybe if you hadn’t dreaded this moment for most of your life.
Maybe you wished it into existence.
Maybe if you’d gotten up earlier, instead of staying up to watch cooking shows. Maybe if you were made of self-raising flour you could’ve been a morning person.
The morning yogis were already in corpse pose by the time you got to the studio. It killed you. They’d finished a ninety-minute practice before you’d even unrolled your mat.
Maybe if you’d taken more flow classes you’d not be lying here—tranquilizers flowing through your veins, trying in vain to calm you.
A doctor comes by to check your chart. He mutters something in Spanish to his assistant. Maybe you shouldn’t have moved to Spain.
You can’t make out his Andalusian accent, but it sounds like “I dare say.” This isn’t the comforting quip you want from a cardiac surgeon. Maybe if you were in a PG Wodehouse novel and eating biscuits dusted with castor sugar.
Maybe you sampled too many of your baked goods.
Maybe if you’d eaten more margarine. Grandpa used to call it “low-priced heart attack spread.”
He had his first of seven at 36, open heart surgery when he was 54. You were 8.
You’ve been afraid of this moment for more than a half century, almost a lifetime of fear.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
He recovered at your house. You remember them bringing him inside, sitting in his wheelchair. He wore white compression socks and clutched a pillow to his chest.
Grandma cried when she saw your mom, you, and your sisters running to greet him.
You’d never seen her cry.
You remember thinking he looked like the soldiers in Viet Nam you saw John Chancellor reporting about during dinner. Beaten. Exhausted. Alone. Frightened.
“Don’t hug him too hard,” your mom whispered. “And do not make him laugh.”
He hadn’t been in the war that fueled your childhood nightmares. He’d had the operation that fed the ones you suffered as an adult.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Two nurses come in. Maybe you recognize one, but you can’t tell because everyone looks the same, disguised in their surgical caps and masks.
Maybe she’s the one who put in your IV this morning.
She’d been wearing Crocs, God’s scourge on footwear.
“Me encantan tus zapatos,” you lied. You tried to be friendly with the nurses, to make them laugh. Maybe then they’d be looser with pain meds later. If there is a later.
“Gracias.” She smiled and taped down the shunt that now extends from your forearm.
You don’t hate needles, you hate seeing them sticking out of you.
Her name tag says “Dolores”.
Dolor. Spanish for pain. Maybe parents shouldn’t name their daughters after pain.
Maybe you should quit thinking about how much pain there’s going to be.
Maybe you’ll be in the one percent who doesn’t survive the bypass.
Maybe you shouldn’t have Googled so much.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Maybe they could turn off that machine.
Maybe they could’ve given you better drugs to quell all this thinking.
Maybe, since you’ve beaten the odds of surviving the 80s, after being told you wouldn’t turn 30, and taking all those drugs to keep the virus at bay—maybe the odds will finally beat you.
An orderly comes in. Even with his mask, you know he’s handsome.
“Vale, guapo. Es tiempo.”
Is it time, or is it your time?
He rolls you towards the operating room. Something’s stuck in the wheel of of the gurney. Like a playing card clipped to a bicycle wheel.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
You remember when your first boyfriend was being wheeled into surgery for his valve replacement. He tried so hard to not look petrified.
“I’m gonna be fine,” he said.
You wanted to ask, “If you really believe that, why are you crying?”
He was fine, in fact. He got a Saint Jude valve. You could hear it tick with every heartbeat. A constant reminder of the pain he went through.
A constant irritation to old women in quiet theaters.
“I dare say I can’t stand those loud sports watches,” one dowager miffed during a London matinee.
“Sorry, ma’am. That’s my ticker.”
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Maybe you should’ve stayed in touch with him.
Maybe you’ll be in a theater again some day.
You’re finally in the operating room. The Brits call it a theater. It’s not the theater you envisioned.
You can’t help feeling exposed, lying there on stage, naked under a thin gown, surrounded by strangers who’ll soon be wielding knives, scissors, and clamps. Forceps and retractors. Instruments used by surgeons and butchers alike.
You’re about to be spatchcocked like a Sunday roast chicken.
They transfer you to the narrow operating table. You’d need more counter space if this were your kitchen. It’s cold and smooth under your weight. You’re reminded how comforting the thin padding of a yoga mat can be.
They strap you down with a belt around your waist. It does not match your shoes. They stretch your arms to each side, securing them to padded sideboards, like you’re about to be executed.
Bright lamps glare down on you, a bouquet of light in full bloom. You breathe in the dry, antiseptic air. You’d always thought sterile would smell more like Clorox.
They ask you who you are while attaching you to more machines. They tick off a checklist, making certain they’re opening the right person. You think about ripping off all the accoutrements they’re garnishing you in.
You dare say you’re immobilized.
You’d never practiced this crucifixion pose in yoga.
Maybe you should have paid more attention to the meditations. When you focused on the points where your body touches the earth, the mat, the sacrificial altar where you may well take your last breath.
Maybe you would have embraced the present and stopped stewing in perpetual discontent.
The machines grind, whir, beep, and click.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The anesthesiologist leans over you. You’d met her last week. You’d brought her biscotti. She’s holding a syringe, and says “you feel warm in arm.”
Not warm. Scalding. She’s pushing frying oil into your veins.
“No me gusta. No me gusta.” You plead with her to stop.
Her eyes crinkle above her mask. Is she laughing at your discomfort? Did she hate that biscotti?
She massages your forearm, like she’s rubbing freshly-seasoned “high-priced heart attack spread” beneath the skin of Sunday’s roast.
You wait for sleep — to peacefully cross the threshold of consciousness and believe all this technology and science is for your own good, not a state-of-the-art sacrament.
Sleep does not come.
The world slows down.
Three men and an anesthesiologist, all in the same disguises, stare down at you. Shadowy silhouettes, broiling under the bouquet of lights.
You try to blink them away, but your eyes will not close.
Maybe they won’t open?
Are you dreaming or awake?
Are you a statistic or a sacrifice?
Whatever they are, they flutter about in slow motion. They no longer speak English. Are they a fellowship of physicians or a tribe of shamans, preparing their ritual in a mystical language?
You count your breaths in your native tongue, to defy them.
One. Two. Three. Four.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
This moment. It’s just a moment. You’ve learned this in countless meditation classes, yoga sessions, and lucid dreaming workshops.
Is this real? What is real?
You feel the tubes in your nostrils feeding you cool oxygen. The tightness of the blood pressure cuff gripping your arm.
You’re not supposed to feel anything.
Thoughts tick tick tick by.
Grandpa got out of his wheelchair and burnt those ugly white socks. He started smoking again.
Kevin survived surgery. Some months later you celebrated at DisneyWorld, his Saint Jude valve clicking louder the more excited he got.
TICK. TICK. TICK.
The rhythm of the machines—those that will keep you alive when your chest is cracked opened—grows louder.
You try to escape from your body, to float to the top of the room. You linger above the lights to get a surgeon’s eye view.
Your shaved chest. Unveiled. Pale and gaunt. Lying there in not-quite-corpse pose. How did you get so old?
One of the masked mages brandishes his knife. The edge of its blade flashes in the light.
The burn of the ice-cold scalpel etches into your chest and you immediately scream out, but their anesthesia has paralyzed your voice as well as your body.
You’re back on the table.
You feel the pressure of the rib separator pulling you open.
You wish you could cry.
8. A Fatal Mistake
“You don’t have to do this. I’ll take care of it.”
From the backseat, Ben met Craig’s gaze in the rearview mirror. Craig would cover for him, he knew. As far as older brothers went, Ben had a good one.
But then Ben glanced across the Robson’s yard and saw the reason he was in this mess shimmying out of her bedroom window.
Her nickname was Nyx and she certainly played the part, with her black hair, lips and clothes. She disappeared into the shadows, then reappeared by the hedge, sprinting toward Craig’s car.
Ignoring the empty passenger seat, she climbed into the back with Ben, filling the not-yet-heated interior with the spicy scent of her perfume.
“You ready?” she asked, in that Bostonian accent that Ben found as strange and enchanting as the rest of her.
Ben wasn’t sure if he was or not, but he said, “Yep!”
The next stop was Duane’s house, then Andrew’s. Andrew crowded into the backseat with them. Ben knew the other boys were as infatuated with Nyx as he was, but it was him that she leaned into, him that she sat closest to.
“We just have to get a picture by the altar. That’s it?” Nyx asked, and Craig nodded.
The $320 bet had unfolded at a Halloween party the previous weekend. Their parents were fighting again, so Craig let Ben tag along. The only sophomore there, Ben sat quietly while the seniors drank and told scary stories.
Nyx leaned forward when Duane told the legend of the preacher.
“None know how the preacher died in the old wooden church, but on moonlit nights some say he stands in a broken out window of the chapel beckoning those who see him to come inside.”
“Let’s go!” she said. “Who’s with me?”
No one replied, and she rolled her eyes.
“C’mon, you Alabama chickenshits.”
“I’ll go!” Ben blurted, and she grinned.
Nyx hustled the money. Ben didn’t care about any of that, but he’d scrap with the devil himself for another of those smiles.
Craig dropped them a quarter-mile from the church and they walked the rest of the way in the monochrome of the full-moon night. When he saw Nyx shiver, Ben insisted she take his coat.
“You sure you’re a sophomore?” she asked. “You’re more of a man than any of them.”
She made him feel bulletproof. Maybe that’s why—when he saw the preacher beckoning in the window—he didn’t immediately react. To her credit, she didn’t either.
“That’s no ghost,” she scoffed. “They’re pranking us.”
The preacher withdrew as they approached. She was probably right, but as they stepped onto the porch, tendrils of fear tickled Ben’s stomach.
The locked door hung in a sagging frame. When Ben rammed his shoulder against it, it gave way without much protest. He stumbled inside, with Nyx on his heels.
He looked around the vestibule. Moonlight streamed through the broken window and Ben’s pulse quickened when he noticed the thick layer of dust on the floor beneath it was undisturbed.
Maybe Nyx noticed, too, because she grasped his fingers with her icy ones and whispered, “Let’s just get the pic and go.”
Together, they opened the double doors to the chapel.
It was darker here, moonlight muted through the stained-glass windows. The air was thick with dust and reeked with mildew. Ben turned on his flashlight.
His ears registered the sound of sobbing just before his eyes spotted the source. A shadowy man knelt before the altar, his face in his hands.
“Forgive me, for I have sinned!” he cried.
“Oh, fuck this!” Nyx muttered.
But before they could run, a dark cloud rose from the figure and rushed down the aisle after them. It hit Ben so hard it knocked him from his feet, cracking his head against the floor. An icy vapor flooded his nose and mouth, smothering him—drowning him. He clawed at his throat, spots dancing behind his eyes.
Ben blinked, and he was standing. Looking at two thin, bedraggled Black couples. The chapel was clean, and newer, lit by the lantern he held.
“This way,” he said.
The voice that came from his throat wasn’t his. He turned and walked toward the pulpit, but that wasn’t him, either, and he couldn’t stop. He led them through the back into the attached graveyard.
“The area is cramped,” he said, “But the conductor will be here at 3 a.m. to get you. You’ll stop in Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio before you get to Canada, then you’ll be free.”
Ben felt his face widen into a smile.
“Bless you, Father,” one woman said, and he squeezed her hand.
I’m in the preacher’s body! Ben thought, as he led them to a cluster of graves by the treeline.
He stopped beside a fresh grave. James Walker, date of death of August 29, 1850. Ben looked at their clothes.
The Underground Railroad, he realized, as he retrieved a shovel and moved a layer of soil to reveal a rope and handle. He yanked on it.
“These … hinges …” He grunted, and both men hurried to help him. “Gotta get them … oiled.”
The door groaned open, revealing a ladder leading into a dark hole. The other woman gasped.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s only for a couple of hours. Patrols and raids have stepped up. We can’t risk hiding you in the chapel.”
“We’ll be fine,” her husband said. “Thank you, Father.”
One-by-one, they descended the ladder, then the preacher pushed the door closed and shoveled dirt back on top.
Ben blinked, and he was back in the church, looking at another group of people, this one all men.
“This way,” he said, and walked them to the graveyard.
A man stood beside the grave, holding a shovel.
“Oh, good!” he said. “Saves us both some trouble.”
“Joshua!” the preacher exhaled. “You scared me.” To the group, he said, “This is your conductor.”
Joshua greeted them and said, “Sorry you were delayed a week. The governor—”
“What do you mean?” the preacher interrupted, and the conductor frowned.
“The delay,” he prodded. “Because of the raids. I sent word.”
Ben felt dizzy, sick.
“No!” the preacher whispered.
He seized the shovel and dug.
The conductor asked him something, but the preacher couldn’t hear—Ben couldn’t hear—over the roaring in his ears.
When they yanked open the door, they were assaulted by a putrid stench that hit Ben almost as hard as that thing in the church had. The preacher fell to his knees.
The confused murmurs of the men turned to outrage as they realized what had happened.
“Murderer!” one shouted.
“You’re of them! This is a trap!”
Rough hands seized the preacher as they attacked him and the conductor.
Ben felt every punch, every kick. His terror and the preacher’s blended until they were drunk with despair, blinded by pain.
One of them decapitated the conductor with the shovel.
They cut the rope loose and twisted it around the preacher’s neck. It bit and burned into his skin as he fought to breathe.
“Don’t kill him!” someone hissed. “Show him how they felt.”
They shoved the preacher into the gaping hole.
He landed on a body. Foul air whooshed from its lungs and for a moment, Ben thought someone was alive down there, but nothing alive could smell like that.
Before he could catch his breath, they tossed something down. It hit the preacher in the stomach and reflexively, he grabbed it. His fingers clutched a fistful of the conductor’s sweaty, bloody hair.
With a cry, he tossed the head, then instinctively rolled to his side, narrowly dodging the conductor’s falling body.
“No!” he screamed, as they closed the door, leaving him in utter darkness. “It was an accident! I didn’t get word!”
“No!” Ben gasped. “Imsorryimsorryimsososorry!”
Rough hands seized him again, and he didn’t even care, as long as he escaped that hole.
Craig. Oh, God, it was Craig.
Ben opened his eyes to see his brother’s horrified face looming over him.
“What the fuck?” Craig demanded, on his knees on the dusty church floor.
A strangled moan made Ben twist his head. Nyx lay on her back beside him, crying. When her eyes met Ben’s, she flopped over and seized his shirt, hauling herself up against him.
“Those poor people!” she sobbed.
Duane’s dad was the sheriff. They begged for over a week until he reluctantly agreed to accompany them to the graveyard.
“We’re only digging a couple of feet,” he warned. “I ain’t disturbing someone’s grave.”
But his shovel hit something solid only a couple of inches down. Wide-eyed, he brushed away the dirt covering the door.
Nyx turned away, burying her face against Ben’s chest as he glanced back at the old church. Though it was broad daylight, he thought he saw a shadow move behind one of the windows.
I know you’re sorry, he thought. I hope now you can find some peace.
9. They Feed at Night
It all happened so fast.
One day, I was heavy with child, finishing up work and preparing for my maternity leave. Majid and I had a beautiful, if small, apartment on the Upper West Side. Life was at our fingertips and we thought we had many, many years left to enjoy it.
Then, the next day, he came home sick, feverish, coughing. Within a few weeks, he was dead along with most of the city.
We had thought the last pandemic was bad, but this… this came with no warning and went away just as fast. Very few survived, and those that did had immunity to the disease. Life was hard after that, with civilization totally wiped out. No government, no manufacturing, nothing.
But then, the beasts emerged…
‘I’m ready when you need me to take her,” I whisper, holding out my arms.
“I think she’s asleep,” Sonya whispers back.
I let my arms drop in disappointment. I try not to show it, but I can see in Sonya’s eyes that she knows. She always knows.
“Be ready though, Kayley. When she wakes up, she’s coming to you.” Sonya leans her head back and closes her eyes, bouncing little Megan gently in her arms.
I know she is just resting because we don’t sleep at night. It’s too dangerous. It was a miracle that she found me in the first place. And so soon after my own baby…
No, I can’t think of that. I was lucky, too.
The sun was just starting to set when I heard the whimpering of the infant. I had just finished my scavenging for the day and was running back to my hiding place in an old fall out shelter I found in a nearby school. It had been cleared out of provisions, but the doors still shut tight and it seemed more secure than any other place I’d found so far.
I had just been asking myself why. Why did I work so hard to survive? Who was I surviving for?
But the sound of a baby struck a nerve. Plus my breasts which had been engorged for days, started leaking a little.
I didn’t really have time, but as I passed an alley, I saw them, a young mother crouched against the wall, trying to suckle her whimpering baby.
The sight of me startled her, at first, but as the baby’s whimpers turned to wails, she softened and then her eyes filled with tears.
“I’m not producing enough and I can’t do this anymore on my own.” Sonya, as I would learn her name to be, broke down.
“Come with me. I can help.” I helped her to her feet and took the baby while she righted her shirt. “We have to move fast.”
Sonya nodded and followed.
After we got back to my shelter and I locked us in, Sonya handed me Megan. I held her for a few seconds, relishing the feel of a baby in my arms again. When I lifted my shirt, she latched right on to my nipple. I sighed as the pressure released on my aching breasts. I switched her to the other side and sighed again. Tears flowed down my cheeks, unbidden.
“Thank you,” Sonya whispered. Her smile was sad but she didn’t ask what had happened to my baby. Questions like that weren’t necessary anymore. The answers didn’t need to be vocalized.
Since then, she’s heard the whole story and much more. I’ve learned her story and we’ve found a reason to survive: Megan. Only a few days old at the time, she’s growing into a bright, bubbly baby.
After a few months, we scavenged all we could from the neighborhood around the school. We had to move, to find a new place to hide, somewhere with a secure building to live out of and stores that still had shelves of nonperishables that hadn’t been ransacked yet.
Despite the fact that we hadn’t seen another person alive since we met, all the stores were empty and pantries in houses were bare. We walked halfway across the city before finding a neighborhood that wasn’t already completely looted.
We packed our bags full at a grocery store, but the light was waning and we hadn’t found an appropriate place to hide. As the sun set, we climbed down into a root cellar and pulled the door closed, securing it as best we could.
Now, we sit here, listening as they run past the door. A loud crack startles Megan and Sonya hands her to me before she can make a sound. I pull up my shirt and she latches right on. After too short a time, she starts whimpering, so I switch her to the other side. We picked up formula, but there’s no water in this cellar and I’m afraid her appetite has outgrown my production.
I look desperately at Sonya. When Megan starts to fuss again, I hand her back.
The skrit-skrat of razor claws stops outside our hiding place again, but this time neither of us have enough milk to keep the baby quiet.
Make a quick decision, jump up, and kiss both Megan and Sonya on the head.
“Take care of her,” I say as I press myself against the door, bracing it, knowing that I can’t hold it against the beasts, but maybe, just maybe, I can buy Sonya some time to get away or hide.
I watch Sonya hug Megan close for just a minute before the baby is wailing. The door presses in on me and the scratching gets louder.
“Go, Sonya! Hide!” I implore. She can’t lose Megan like I lost my little Majid, named after his father.
Sonya hugs Megan tighter and shakes her head.
“We’re in this together.”
I smile at her and push harder, keeping the beasts out as long as I can, but they become frenzied as Megan’s crying continues.
I just catch a glimpse of Megan’s cherubic face before the hinges snap and the doors crash in on me.
10. Eternity In Agony
It turns out that a medically induced coma is nothing but prolonged anesthesia, and you can sometimes still be aware of the outside world.
Don’t believe me? Try getting into a terrible car accident and visiting the angel of death for a few minutes. Then have a team of twentieth-century medical specialists decide that the only way they can help you is to put you into a medically induced coma. You’ll see what I mean.
Since I had never been under general anesthesia, I didn’t know I could be one of the rare cases of being fully aware mentally while being shut down physically. The theory is that the coma can reduce the load on the brain after a head injury, thus allowing it to heal while taking a bit of a vacation. It didn’t quite work that way for me.
Imagine this: The burn of the ice-cold scalpel etches into your chest, and you immediately scream out, but their anesthesia has paralyzed your voice as well as your body. That’s when you know you’re fucked.
Sounds fun, right? In addition to the brain injury that I sustained in the accident I was also impaled by a three-foot piece of rebar that had to come out. They thought I was out cold, but I was fully awake and alert. I simply couldn’t move. Or talk. Or flinch. Or see. Or scream. I started to panic but forced myself to relax. What could I do? I had read stories about people being aware during surgery. This must be it. This is how I’ll spend eternity. This is how it ends. This is how it will forever be.
The pain was beyond agonizing. Otherworldly. Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. In my case, however, it served no purpose. The nature of pain changes when you can do nothing about it. I couldn’t react, so I was forced to wallow in it.
In certain types of meditation you learn to sit with discomfort. You learn to tune in to your body. To work with your discomfort instead of fighting it. Having no other options to deal with the pain, this is what I did. As a result, the most amazing thing happened. As if I crossed an unknown threshold, I suddenly had full access to my entire memory bank.
Since my brain wasn’t using any bandwidth to run by body, it was free to roam freely. Using the extra random-access memory, it gave me access to a partition normally locked away by the taxation of daily living—the part where memories are stored. As it turns out, every memory of my life in excruciating detail was there all along, right under my nose, so to speak.
Time has a funny way of eliminating detail and turning your memories into a highlight reel. With my mind’s limitation governor offline, I had a new streaming service to watch while I healed. You think this would be fun because of the romantic nature of nostalgia, but you would be wrong. The human mind protects itself by distorting memories, burying trauma, and using unhealthy coping skills to get us by.
I quickly learned that the ability to travel to any memory of my past and experience it through my own eyes all over again wasn’t as pleasant as you might think. I could feel what it was like to be in that moment. See, smell, taste, touch, etc. For some reason I was drawn to the profound moments of my life. Not necessarily the happiest moments, but the most important ones.
For example, the one that got away. I find myself reliving the moment I left her, looking out the window of my car as I drove away. In the middle of the night, I drove away from her forever. I could see the shape of her figure backlit by the porch light of her house. I faintly see her tears illuminated by my taillights—the same tears I can still taste on my tongue from our goodbye kisses.
The sadness of reliving it was overwhelming. We cried together over and over during our last weekend together. My mind had washed over the pain through the years, polishing away the rough edges like a pebble in a stream. Seeing it again only compounded the pain. Or maybe I had simply forgotten how deep the pain was.
I had to take the job, though. Right? It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was my dream job. I’ve never been able to free myself from the shackles of that decision. I still miss her.
While my mind was busy driving down memory lane, they must have finished the surgery. Instead of searing pain, I feel a dull ache in my entire midsection. I don’t know if I’m on pain medication in addition to the anesthesia, but I don’t have any idea how much time has passed. It could be hours or months.
From this perspective, it’s as if I’m on a bridge watching my memories bob under me in an inky, black stream. The detail is exquisite and jarring. All the wonder and worry of life passing beneath me, free to experience again at a moment’s notice. Time has no effect on this place. In this purgatory of sorts.
I am violently pulled from my reverie by a needle poking into my arm. They must be giving me an IV. My brother and mother are here now, tears in their eyes. They’re going to wake me. Finally.
The IV is making me feel weird. More alive, but weird. My heart is pounding in my chest. The inky black liquid carrying my memories begins to drain slowly, steadily, increasingly. Suddenly the bridge upon which I stand and the sky begin following the viscous memory liquid down an invisible drain.
I am pulled into the drain and swept through a series of pipes. Like a sensory deprivation waterslide, I have no idea in which direction I’m traveling. I’m floating in the thick solution among the memories of my life, moving toward…something.
Then, it stops.
I’m in my hospital room. My brother and mother stand over me, each holding one of my hands. Their touch warms my soul. My eyes open and I can see but can’t do anything else.
Am I coming out of anesthesia? There’s a tingly sensation. Millions of pins and needles, but I’m turning the corner. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. I feel alive for the first time in what feels like years.
My mom and brother look so sad. Why are they sobbing?