I stare up at the ceiling in my room, completely lost in thought. Just to be sure, I had even asked Zedd what his dreams looked like. He had described in vivid detail my worst fears: his suffering was identical to mine. There was a small part of me that hoped these monsters just showed us our worst fears. That maybe they were some sort of creature that fed off of fear and pain. The more he shared with me, the more I wanted him to stop talking.
I rolled over on my side and frowned at the poem on my nightstand. The 9 seemed more bold than usual.
There’s no escaping it.
His words echoed in my mind. If that were true, there would be absolutely no reason for me to continue any of this. My whole entire existence was pointless. I wanted to cry but nothing would come out. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs and never stop screaming. It ached to be in my own skin and I was angry. Angry that I was one of the few people that actually knew what was going to happen, but powerless to stop it.
Even if I were to try and call someone, or reach out to people─ no one would believe me. If someone had told me this a few days ago, I wouldn’t have believed them. I would have thought they were some conspiracy theorist or nutcase. Unless─
I sat up and checked my phone. It was early, but Devon normally got in about eight or eight thirty. I might be able to chat with him for a while. I had an idea, but I wasn’t going to come off as completely crazy until I was sure. I dressed as quickly as I could and jumped on the first train.
“Kate, hey” Devon said smiling, “what brings you in so early?” I was surprised to find him already there when I came in at seven forty-five. I smiled nervously at him, checking my pocket for the hundredth time to make sure the piece of paper was still there. I relaxed as I felt it crumple against the weight. “Hey Devon,” I said, “I sketched this out last night and thought you might want to take a look at it.” He raised an eyebrow, “Oh yeah? Sticking to those old-school guns, I like it. Let’s take a look.” I tried to steady my hand as I reached into my pocket.
I unfolded the paper and stared. More hooded figures had appeared and the skyline looked less blurry. I could make out shapes and finer details of the buildings. The hooded figures all stood outside of the city, staring at it. Waiting.
My legs moved and I walked over to his desk, passing the little paper over to him. His hand briefly touched mine and I was suddenly very aware that I hadn’t showered that morning. I must look an absolute mess. I fidgeted with my hair and tugged at my shirt.
He was quiet for a few moments and then furrowed his brow. “I don’t get it.” His face broke into a wide grin, “Did one of the guys set you up to this?” He chuckled and handed the paper back to me. “ Is it some secret code that I have to pour milk or lemon juice on it? Maybe wave it over the stove?” he waved his hands around. “Already messing with the boss, huh?” I smiled at his words but at that very moment I died inside. Why could Zedd and I see it, but not Devon?
It must have been awkward for me to walk in there like that and not have some sort of a come back, so I forced a chuckle of my own, “You got me.” I wanted it to sound casual but it ended up sounding even more awkward than anticipated and it hung in the air, stagnating. I cleared my throat and turned to leave.
“Hey, Kate.” His voice sounded off. I turned back toward him from the doorway. “Take care of yourself, this job can get really stressful.” My face burned but I managed a lame, “oh totally, no worries.” I spun around, nearly plowed into the wall and shuffled my way out.
Great, the end of the world comes and I’m still managing to make a complete and total asshole of myself. I guess some things will never change.
I’m still feeling slightly sore over my love life a few hours later, but I’ve knocked out a ton of progress on my main character. So, that’s a bonus. I’ve rationalized that if nothing else, this gives me something to do. It’s pointless, the game will never be released. I don’t even know when the bomb will go off.
But I know the day.
It made me wonder if it was just going to happen here, or all over. Maybe the beings only showed what would directly affect us. That gave me an idea. It’s my first week, but considering I’ll only have just over a week left to live, I figured fuck it─ road trip it is.
I finished up my tasks for the day with a couple of hours to spare. Zedd had been oddly quiet today, in fact, I hadn’t seen him all morning. It’s a possibility that he is going to work on the night shift. Most of us hated that schedule, but there was a team that worked from four until midnight.
Even if he never showed up to work again, it’s not like I could blame him. I mean, there was at least some hope that you are just over-tired and hallucinating, but to have someone confirm your worst fear? That’s true terror. I was hoping to at least talk with him a bit more today. The way we had left things last night made me feel beyond depressed.
I felt more helpless than I ever have in my life. I was desperate to cling on to some hope that we could find a way out of this. Somehow.
I woke up feeling a little better today, but having the kind of unwanted knowledge that I did made it that much harder to breathe. I shot him a text, just to check in on him and then headed to Devon’s office.
I tapped lightly on the door. There were a few murmurs on the other side and finally I heard, “come in.” I peeked my head around the door and smiled. “Hey, there’s my favorite gal. I just got your completed works for the day. Careful─ you’re making the other guys look bad.” He winked conspiratorially at me and grinned. I laughed and shook my head, “Oh, that can’t be true. I’ve seen their work.” He typed a few things on his computer and then turned his full attention on me. “What can I do for you, ma’am?”
I smiled at the southern drawl. I noticed that people here tended to address each other as sir or ma’am but it wasn’t in a professional way, it was polite and respectful. I was still getting used to their drawn out words and pronunciations. It took me ages to figure out the guys were saying pen instead of pin, which they pronounced as ‘pin’.
“I’m so sorry to ask this, but I’ve had a family emergency come up. Is there any way that I could work remotely and maybe take half a day off to drive up there?” His face suddenly grew serious. “Oh, Kate. I’m sorry to hear that, is everyone OK?” I shake my head feeling guilty over the lie. “No, no, nothing serious. My dad is out of town and my mom broke her leg. She just needed me to help out at the house until dad gets back Friday.”
“No problem at all. Honestly, just go ahead and take tomorrow off and you can work a half day Friday, how’s that sound?” I’m shocked at how understanding he is.
I’m also slightly disturbed how easily the lie slipped from me. I’d have to address that with myself later. One thing at a time. “Oh, and Kate?”
“Hmm?” I responded. “Zedd is not feeling well, but he’ll be in tomorrow. I’m loving the direction you two have come up with.”
I thanked him and quickly made my exit. This was a weird day, but it wasn’t entirely bad. I felt accomplished, which was a weird feeling given the circumstances. I’m taking this all too well.
I stare out the bus windows for the hundredth time. I’m not sure what I’m expecting to see, but the tree lined roads are finally giving way to mountains. It’s something to stare at as I listen to my audiobooks. I knew going too far would be silly, and if I went back home I felt like I would somehow get the same result. I decided on New Mexico. It was twelve hours from Dallas, but it was at least another state and would help prove my theory.
I was still working on that theory, but at least this would hopefully get me another step closer to figuring something out. It was better than sitting at home and sulking. My eyelids grew heavy as we got to the last hour or so stretch. This state was huge. I couldn’t believe how long it took to get across. I could have gone to Louisiana or Oklahoma, but I figured if I was going to go somewhere it was at least going to be pretty. The constant drone of the audiobook’s narrator wasn’t helping and before I knew it, I was out.
I blinked a few times, staring from the familiar building. This time, the entire floor was filled with everyone at the office. Devon walked past and flashed his winning grin, his warm brown eyes crinkled around the edges. I smiled shyly back and then started walking toward my desk. Usually the things had appeared by now, but instead it seemed like a typical day.
I glanced around, curious about where this dream was going. I was vaguely aware of movements at each cubicle as I passed by. People were glued to their monitors, little clicks of the mice sprinkled through. At any moment the terror would unfold and I would stare at my insides.
I would sit helplessly as the blast would blow me apart and I would feel every agonizing second.
I squeezed my eyes shut, willing myself to wake up. Please, I silently begged, I don’t want to go through it again. Don’t make me go through it again. The second I close my eyes I feel it. The office shifts and then trembles violently. Seconds later, the screams began. My eyes open and I’m once again faced with the tall, spiraling cloud that mushrooms and expands. It hurtles toward us and then slams into the building with a crushing blow.
The glass cuts into me, embedding itself as the flesh peels back from my face. Adrenaline will not kick in, I can feel everything. People drop like flies around me, their screams eventually replaced with wet gargles. My lungs fill with blood and my one good eye watches as the earth shifts and I fall to the ground. My exposed nerves and bones take on a dull ache as my body finally accepts what is happening. Just like the ones before, I’m alive and I won’t die.
I had always thought that this was the part of dreams you would wake from and scream. Even in my more terrifying dreams I would wake up just as I was attacked or fell. Not only could I feel the pain, I could taste my own blood, feel the aftershock as the building groaned and tilted.
And then, they are there. Or they always have been and I am just now noticing them. I try and close my one good eye, but to my horror I realize that my eyelids are gone. The debris lands softly on my exposed eye. The reflex to blink happens but all I can do is stare forward. The burning is so intense against all of my softest parts that I’m sure I will pass out from the pain.
I can’t die.
I can’t die.
I can’t fucking die.
They close in on me and groan in ecstasy, peeling my suffering from me as if I were a bit of string cheese. They fed on the others in seconds, but me, god fucking help me─ they were having a four course meal. I tried any way I could to die faster. I tried biting my tongue, but there wasn’t enough left of it for me to get ahold of. I tried in vain to move either of my arms, but too much of the muscle lay piled on the floor. I was stuck here, being consumed piece by piece─ layer by agonizing layer.
I roared awake, my screams filling the bus. I heard a man curse in the seat in front of me and the driver came to a screeching halt. I ran my hands over my face, and then my body searching every bit just to make sure I was there. I drank in the air, so much clean, fresh air thank god.
I sat back in my seat and let out a sigh. “Hey,” I jumped at the loud shout from the driver, “everything OK back there?” I peered around the row of seats and crumpled slightly at all the confused faces of the passengers. I cleared my throat, “um, yeah sorry,” and then I added “bad dream.” The entire bus groaned and people muttered, throwing angry looks my way. Sorry, I mouthed at them, my face on fire.
I disappeared back to my seat and hugged my legs to my chest.
Whatever that was, it wasn’t a dream. I’m not sure what it was that kept those monsters feasting on me but I had a sinking feeling they were the reason I was kept alive. I shuddered, running my hands along the length of my legs trying to spread some sort of warmth through them. The air on the bus had grown colder, we must be in the mountains.
A quick glance outside confirmed it as we chugged along uphill.
My thoughts turned dark as I stared out across the misty mountains, I had been able to sleep OK last night, but what if the dream returns tonight? Could I ever sleep again?
The hotel was nothing fancy, but it was cozy. After speaking with the front end and getting my room key I was all set up. I walked down a few hallways until I found the first set of double doors the man at the counter had described. I walked through and saw to my delight that it opened into a large pool area. It was all enclosed and there was a hot tub. I’m glad I decided to pack my bathing suit. I was hoping the place had a sauna or something I could relax in.
My mood got even better when I saw they had a sauna as well. At least there was something to look forward to tonight.
After I got in my room, I set up my work laptop and placed my phone on charge. The signal here was awful and my battery was already at forty percent. I checked my messages and email. Devon had sent one about an hour ago and it was just to check in and make sure I had made it to my parents. I sent him a response that I was fine and I would be able and work by tomorrow afternoon. I added that he could call or text me for emergencies and then sent it.
I was surprised to find that I felt energized. Despite the dream, it must have refreshed me. I glanced over room service and then checked out some local food on my phone. I was starving. I finally spotted a local pizza place that had decent reviews and placed my order. In less than an hour it was sitting on the dresser and I had a scary movie playing in the background. Even though my own life was the stuff of nightmares, I still found it comforting to watch someone else go through hell instead of me.
I’d seen just about every horror movie made, even the campy ones from out of the 80’s. The boogeyman always fascinated me because they never died. I loved Halloween, Jason just kept coming back. Ironic, given that my own hell in these visions paralleled that. Maybe he was just pissed off that he couldn’t die and took that out on others. Suddenly, I had a soft spot for the guy.
I devoured three pieces before I finally slowed down. I was ravenous and sure that even if I ate this entire pizza, I’d want more. But after the sixth slice, it seemed to do the trick and I sighed and patted my belly.
I wasn’t entirely sure how all of this would work, but I checked the image when I first arrived and it hadn’t changed. It was still the Dallas skyline and the hooded figures surrounding it.
I was hoping that spending a night in another state may change it. And if that were true, maybe these things did prey off of scaring you. Or, it meant that this was going to happen everywhere. Maybe we were witnessing the end of it all. Surely we could travel miles out from major cities and be safe right? Isn’t that what someone sending a bomb would do? Target all the major cities? I remember learning in one of my science classes that if several bombs went off it would affect the entire planet and that eventually the fallout would kill us all. Radiation poisoning was no joke. We’d not only die, we would die horribly.
There really was no brighter side to this no matter which scenario was true.
After finishing off the pizza and the movie I decided to go ahead and hit up the hot tub for a good soak. The chill in the air brought a chill to my bones, even with the heater on. I opened the closet and smiled as I pulled out a robe. This place may have been old, but it was full service. You would never find things like this in a normal hotel. At least not one that I could afford. I slipped it over my bathing suit, grabbed my key card, and walked down the hall.
A few doors down I could hear someone’s T.V. blaring. It was loud as hell, the person watching it must have been ancient. Reminded me of my grandfather’s shows of old westerns. I’m pretty sure I heard a horse whinny. Well, at the very least it brought me comfort knowing that I wasn’t alone. I walked into the pool room, hung up the robe and slipped into the tub. I sighed and then smiled, I was in complete bliss. If the end of the world really was happening in eight days, this was my idea of a great way to spend my time. It was perfectly quiet, just me and the warmth.
My body sagged as the weight of the world slipped away. My eyes shut and I rested my head against the cool concrete. Seconds after I closed my eyes, there was a thunderous boom. I jumped, whipping my head around. The sound echoed and vibrated around the room, but nothing was out of place. Both doors were sealed tight. My lower lip trembled as the water trickled down my face.
That boom, I knew it anywhere. I had it etched in my memory. I expected at any moment the room would collapse around me. I imagined the burning blast of air that stripped me of my insides.
Stop it, I told myself, just stop. There is nothing there, you’re just tired. I tried to rationalize it. Maybe it was my neighbors T.V. Or maybe, I thought, every time you close your eyes you’ll relive your own death again and again. My blood ran cold at the thought of possibly never being able to close my eyes.
How long could I last? One day─ two? I shuddered despite the surrounding warmth. Suddenly, the sauna didn’t sound so good and I decided to head back to my room.
It was around three a.m. when I got the call. When I’d gotten back to my room earlier I had ordered as many caffeinated drinks as I could. After two monsters and several diet cokes, I was fairly sure I couldn’t sleep even if I wanted to. I kept action movies on and played games on the laptop. I figured, as long as I was moving, or doing something I couldn’t fall asleep.
I was in the zone blasting away at bad guys when my phone went off. I paused and looked at my phone, it was Devon. Confused I answered immediately.
There was a pause on the line, followed by a few sniffles. I decided that maybe he had dialed me by mistake, but I answered again anyway. “Hello? Devon?”
“Hey, Kate. Yes, I’m here.” His voice sounded shaky as if he had been crying. I was instantly alarmed.
“Hey, is everything OK?” I asked. There were a few more sniffles. “Kate, I’m so sorry to be calling this late, but I thought it would be better to hear it from me than the news.”
“OK.” I answered. My heart was beating out of my chest, I didn’t know what to expect.
“This is really hard to tell you, especially since it’s your first week. I’ll be making an announcement on Friday, but I’ve also been making calls to all the team members.” He sniffed again. “I’m sorry to have to let you know that Zedd will no longer be coming in to the office.”
My hands wouldn’t stop shaking. I had just seen him less than two days ago. “Was it an accident?” I asked softly.
There was a long pause on the other end. I thought maybe he had hung up, but then finally he answered. “Zedd, I’m afraid, took his own life earlier today. I’m so sorry, Kate, but I have to go. We are closing the office down tomorrow, so don’t worry about work, OK?” I thanked him for letting me know and hung up the phone.
Part III coming soon.
I will be posting this story on RoyalRoad.com