“Annalise, are you even listening to me? Annalise?!”
I’m yanked out of my daydream and look forward to the front of the room where I see Jonah, our so-called leader, staring stonily in my direction.
“Sorry,” I mumble, generating muffled laughter from the others who clearly pay more attention than I do.
“Anna, this is important,” he continues.
“That’s not my name,” I say, garnering as much confidence as I can muster. I’d tuned out about five minutes ago, but I’d heard enough of the plan the day before to know it was insane.
He walks over and kneels down before me. I stare down at my hands nestled in my lap, avoiding his gaze.
“It won’t work,” I whisper, hoping the others can’t hear. “They’ll know I’m not who I say I am.”
“That’s not true,” Jonah says. “Annalise died just yesterday. We all know how slow they are to update the crew’s records. It’s just up to you to believe what you’re saying.” He tucks a strand of hair behind my ear.
“And you look just like her.”
I smile and nod, but I’m not convinced. Jonah stands, and the others turn their heads back to him. Our brief moment of privacy is over.
“As I’ve said before, you cannot falter, Anna. They’ll know. They are bred to detect lies. You’ll be dead before you can say your full name if you so much as stutter.”
“I like your other pep talk better,” I say, the sarcasm spilling out of my mouth.
“This is important, Anna!” His voice rises in frustration. I narrow my eyes and push myself off the floor.
“You’ve already said that!” I scream the words and not even Jonah can hide his surprise. He raises his hand to his mouth to shush me, but I throw my hands up in disgust.
“Don’t even bother. I’m out. I won’t do it.”
I exit the room as quickly as I can, the shocked silence of the others following me out into the hallway. I begin to feel the sharp sting of guilt when a hand grabs my shoulder and pulls me back around.
“Please don’t change my mind, Jonah.” My voice is already softer than it was before, thick with fear, but there’s a layer of hatred beneath it that’s new and uninviting.
Jonah steps back, his eyes soft and forgiving. “You’re scared. I can see that. I shouldn’t have asked you to do this. It’s unfair to send someone else on my own mission.”
The laugh escapes before I can even try to hold it in. I’d kill him if I weren’t so damn impressed by the manipulation.
“Oh please, Jonah. I can see right through you, and you know it.”
There’s a smile beginning to form on the edges of his mouth, but I can see the guilt lurking underneath.
“You know me too well,” he says. “Even in the short amount of time that you’ve been here.”
I nod, knowing I’m about to do exactly what he planned all along.
“Which is why you picked me.” I continue his thought for him. “The guards don’t know me from Adam. I’m the only one with a chance to slip through. Well done, Jonah. You’ve entrapped me.”
“That’s not what I wanted, Joan.”
The use of my real name jars me back to the reality of my situation.
“If you make it through to the outside and find the others,” he continues, “it could mean survival for us all.”
I grit my teeth in frustration. Check mate.
Before he can respond, I turn and walk toward the common room. A soft “good luck” follows me down the hallway, but when I turn back to wave, Jonah’s already gone.
You cannot falter. They’ll know.
His words return to me. I have just one shot to get through, one shot for our people. As the person before me steps through into safety, I feel a cool breeze caress my skin, and I gasp at the freshness of the air. An abrupt cough pulls me back, and I look over at the short, stocky guard. For a moment, I panic. I know the question is coming, but the answer has disappeared. I swallow and begin to feel the heat rising to my face. The guard narrows his eyes at me, already assessing my honesty. With a grim smile, he taps the list that holds my freedom.
Everyone keeps a safe distance from the flames. I stand watch from above and pray there is enough tree cover to keep us all hidden from sight. We’ve been on the road for three nights; three nights longer than we’d planned.
Something wriggles down onto my arm from a nearby branch, and I resist the urge to yell out. Clenching my fists around my weapon, I breathe in deep before taking a hand and swiping the unseen creature from my skin.
A crackle in my ear jerks me back to attention.
“You’ve seen every horror imaginable, Carrie.” Tom’s voice is terrifyingly loud through the bud nestled in my ear. I glance around nervously, but nothing stirs beyond our small camp.
“Yeah?” My voice remains steady in spite of the fear coursing through my veins.
“You’ve seen it all,” Tom continues, “and yet bugs still give you the willies.”
I roll my eyes and raise a middle finger in Tom’s general direction as his muffled laughter recedes and silence engulfs us both once again. I glance back down to the fire and the ten souls surrounding it, focusing my thoughts on the forest and who or what could be lurking within.
There used to be 32 of us, I think to myself. Leaning into the tree, I ignore the coarse bark as it scratches against my bare shoulders and close my eyes to the night, envisioning each face we left behind.
I’d awoken three days before to Tom violently shaking me until I practically fell off my cot.
“It’s here,” he’d whispered, the fear shining brightly from his eyes. He didn’t have to say anything more.
We moved as one through the settlement that night, grabbing everyone we could and leaving the rest. Tom said it had already gotten to most of them. As we’d practiced time and time again, we lit the fires set in the four corners and sent the small clearing we’d called home for almost a year up in flames you could see for miles, though we didn’t wait around long enough to watch.
The screams still echo through all of us.
I feel myself coming to and jerk awake at the realization that I’ve fallen asleep on watch.
“Don’t worry, Carrie.” Tom says, and I feel his smile beneath the words. “I’ve got watch. I figured you needed the rest. You’ve barely slept since we left.”
“Neither have you,” I say, barely above a whisper as my eyes slowly close, and I fade back into my nightmares.
Tom’s screams pull me out of the black, but it’s not through the small device in my ear that he calls to me. He’s beneath me.
I resist the urge to call out to him as I pull myself to my feet. The sun has begun its slow rise into the sky, and as I look down to the ground, I’m just in time to see Tom’s dragging feet disappear beyond the treeline.
Throwing caution aside, I move as quickly as I can and swing myself down from the tree, releasing my hands from the branch to land in a crouch on the dewy grass. I make to run after Tom when a small face emerges a few yards beyond the clearing. I stop dead in my tracks.
“Meg?” My voice shakes at the name that’s haunted me for three days. The brush rises almost to her shoulders. She’s merely a floating head among the weeds. I watch the virus flow through her, turning her veins black as they pulse beneath her skin. Half her face is burned. I think I see bone, and my body involuntarily shudders. How on earth did she survive?
I take a tentative step forward, but Meg holds up a hand and I obey, holding my own up in acquiescence. A small smile plays on her lips, her jaw bone moving beneath the wound. I force myself not to look away.
“Meg, what happened?” I whisper. My thoughts go to Tom, and my stomach flips with worry. It’s only at that moment that the silence of the small clearing catches my attention. My gaze briefly turns to the ground and the near-dead fire in its center. What was just recently littered with the sleeping bodies of my friends, now lies deserted.
“You left us.”
Meg’s tiny voice reaches my ear, and I jerk my head back to her, but it’s too late.
She’s already gone.
Finally, here is my final story I submitted to the NYC Midnight 2015 Flash Fiction Challenge. This was for Round #2 where the semi-finalists were re-sorted into new groups. There would only be one challenge for this round. For my group, the story had to be science fiction, take place predominately in a convention center, and include a pumpkin pie. While I enjoyed the story, I came up just short, earning an honorable mention in my group but placing just outside of the top 5. There’s always next year!
A New World
It was supposed to be a fresh start, an escape to a place free of the infected world they’d lived in for years, but after making it to the transport center, Jennifer and her little brother find themselves trapped with a dead portal and thousands of others fighting for survival.
It didn’t spread overnight. You didn’t just go to sleep one day and wake up the next with the world in ruins. It was a slow, almost casual burn. No one wanted to believe what was happening. No matter how bad it got, we always thought we would win.
Denial is a dangerous thing.
“Do you think they’ll have pumpkin pie?”
His tiny voice pulls me out of my thoughts. I look down at Marcus who stares up at me with hopeful eyes.
“What?” My voice cracks, my throat burning from dehydration.
“I said,” my little brother moans, drawing out the two words as long as he can in a single breath. “Do you think they’ll have pumpkin pie? I miss pie.”
“Sorry, kid. Guess I drifted away for a bit.” He smiles up at me, apology accepted.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “It’ll just have to be a surprise, won’t it?”
I reach my arms out and he folds himself into me.
“How much longer?” he whispers.
I glance around the cavernous space we’ve called home the past two weeks. It’s hard to imagine it once held conventions with big pharma and superhero cosplay, though probably not at the same time.
“I don’t know, kid.” I look to my left where the portal stands dark just a few feet away, as it has for days.
We weren’t told many details. When the government realized they couldn’t beat the infected, that we’d lost almost as soon as it had begun, they turned their efforts to more radical solutions. Word finally came three weeks ago. All we had to do was get to the convention center.
We were some of the last to arrive. As they’d herded us inside, Marcus and I heard the first screams of the infected coming for us. They shut the doors, locking us in. We weren’t worried. We had the portal. Well, until it shut off, that is.
I watch the men in charge as they hover over a computer just a few feet away. Marcus slips away from me and walks up to the small barrier surrounding them.
“Excuse me,” Marcus whispers. I don’t think they’ve heard and reach to pull him back when one of the men tilts his head toward us.
“Yes?” He turns to Marcus and bends down to his level.
“Do you know if there will be pumpkin pie?”
Before I can stop myself, I snort with laughter. The man looks over at me and I see a small smile playing on his lips.
“Sorry,” I say. “He’s obsessed with the idea that we may one day have pie again. We haven’t been told much about this new world. We couldn’t help but dream a little.”
The man gazes into my eyes before reaching out his hand.
“David,” he says.
“Jennifer,” I respond, taking his hand.
“You haven’t answered my question.”
Marcus glares at us, his fists balled and glued to his hips. I force the laughter down and look to David.
“This is all you, sir.”
A smile breaks across his face and it’s so pleasant that for a second I don’t hear the scream that tears through the room.
Marcus throws himself on me. David stands, but I know he can’t see anything. The room’s just too big. The screams grow, moving from one person to the next. I hear a gunshot, then two, and I feel Marcus throw his hands over his ears. David jumps onto a nearby table. I look up at him surveying the disaster and a look of utter shock crosses his face. When he sees me staring, he tries to recover, but it’s too late.
“They’re inside, aren’t they?” It’s not really a question and David knows it. He turns his back to me and grabs the two other men who look on in terror at the scene behind me. I hear David arguing with them, something about not caring where or when they’re sending us.
I lift Marcus away from me and lower him down onto the other side of the barrier before climbing over. I pick him back up and stare at the portal, praying for it to light up like it did when we first arrived. A hand falls on my shoulder and I turn to find David.
“It’s time,” he says. “It won’t take long for the infected to tear their way through the crowd. We’ll send as many as you through, but the second they get close, I’m shutting it down.”
“You mean it’s been working this whole time?”
“Not exactly,” David says. “We’re not sure why, but the other side shut us down. We’re not sending you to the original destination.”
“So where in the hell are you sending us?”
David pales at my question and I know I’m not going to like his answer.
“I don’t know,” he whispers. “But it’s the only way. You won’t make it here. None of us will.”
I hear the portal begin to power up behind me and know he’s right. I feel my head nod slightly, my mind apparently made up.
“Go,” David says. “It’s ready.”
I turn away quickly but not before seeing three infected barreling toward us behind David’s back. I clutch Marcus to me and run as fast as I can. The portal swallows us and all I see is black as we start to fall. I wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake, that maybe just having it end would have been better, but then I hear Marcus whimpering into my hair and realize that we’re back on solid ground.
Silence surrounds us and I’m terrified of what’s to come. We’re alone in a new world, all thanks to David. I squeeze Marcus and send up a silent thank you to the stranger who may have just saved us. We must keep going, if only for him.
I gather up all the strength I have left and open my eyes to gaze upon our new world.
The NYC Midnight 2015 Flash Fiction Challenge story share continues! This was my submission to Challenge #2 of Round #1. It had to be action/adventure, take place predominately in a maximum security prison, and include an ice machine. After placing 7th in Challenge #1, I knew I had to make up some ground if I wanted to move on. Much to my delight, this story came in 1st place in my group, earning me 15 points for Challenge #2 for a total of 24 points. I landed in first place overall in my group for Round #1 and moved on to the next phase. Enjoy!
Kill or Be Killed
After spending five years in Colorado SuperMax for murder, Christopher Brody soon finds himself in the middle of a prison-wide conspiracy. Will he just be another pawn in the warden’s game or did they pick the one man who could bring the system down to its knees?
They say it feels like a bee sting when a syringe enters the flesh, like that’s a good thing. Have you ever been stung by a bee? It fucking hurts.
I can only stare down at my arm and the bindings that hold me to the gurney as the needle slips inside.
“Just a few more minutes, Brody, and then you’ll be ready,” Craddock barks at me.
He wears a grin on his face that I can’t explain. He knows something I don’t. A second gurney stands just a few feet from me, but it’s empty.
“Where’s the other guy?” I ask.
“You’ll find out soon enough, Brody.”
He rips the bindings away, lifting me up. The room spins.
“What did you give me?”
He doesn’t answer. A door opens nearby, and I’m thrown inside a dark room. A lone bulb floats in the middle, illuminating a small circle of space. Jones, an inmate from my own wing, stands in the center. The door slams behind us. We’re alone.
“What’s happening, Jones? Why are we here?” My vision clears, and an energy I’ve never felt courses through my veins. I leap off the floor, bouncing on my toes as I embrace the newfound strength.
“I’d hoped it wouldn’t be you,” Jones says.
My body stiffens at his words. I go to ask what he means when static fills the room, and a voice we know too well bellows into the space.
“Thirty seconds. Fighters, get ready!” The warden’s voice shrieks at the end, his excitement filling the room.
“Fighters?” I ask. Jones moves his right foot back and lifts his fists before him.
“Sorry, Brody,” he says. “It’s just how it is. Kill or be killed. That’s the only rule.”
The warden’s voice penetrates the room again, beginning the countdown from ten. I hold my hands up to protest, but the look on Jones’ face stops me dead in my tracks. I move closer and attempt to prepare myself to do something I swore I’d never do again. I look up at Jones, and he nods.
“Kill or be killed,” I whisper.
It’s been seven days since Jones, seven days since I let myself open up to that side again. It’s taken over now.
My battered hands shake as I scoop mashed potatoes out of the tray and slop them onto passing plates. I catch Craddock’s eye at the far end of the room. He gives me a grin that sends chills down my spine.
At the end of service, I head back to clean up. It doesn’t take long for him to find me.
“You ready for round 2, Brody?” I jump at his voice.
“I won’t do it,” I say, my voice barely above a whisper.
“You think you actually have a choice?” Spittle shoots from his mouth.
“Kill or be killed, son,” he says, turning away. “You can stand down if you wish. It sure will make it easy for the other guy.”
I lunge at Craddock. Grabbing him by the shoulders, I smash his head into the ice machine, his neck snapping with the force of impact. Craddock goes limp, and he slumps to the floor. I stare down at him, my body shaking with rage.
“Kill or be killed, boss.” Adrenaline surges through me, and I ready myself for what must happen next.
I walk as fast as I can without drawing attention to myself. I’ve been here long enough. I follow the rules. They don’t perceive me as a threat.
That’s their mistake.
I disappear through a nearby door. Following the stairs, I find myself in the gurney room. The warden hovers over an inmate. I rush him before he notices me, wrapping my arm around his throat and squeezing.
“It’s your turn, Warden,” I whisper into his ear as his body goes limp. I throw him into the fight room and turn to find the other inmate blocking the exit.
“I’m leaving,” I say. “You can come with me.”
He shakes his head. “You’ll never make it.”
“I have to try.” He steps aside, and I walk past him toward an exit that I can only hope will lead me outside.
“Hey, Brody.” I turn and can only stare. Veins pulse outward across his arms as the drugs engulf his bloodstream.
“What was this?” he asks.
“Kill or be killed,” I answer. He turns to the warden huddled on the floor. Without another word, he walks into the room and shuts the door behind him.
I throw open the door and run, not knowing where in the hell I’m going. The hallway ends at a ladder leading up to a hatch in the ceiling. I climb, push it open and rain pelts my face.
I’m outside. I stand and let the rain wash over me, cleansing me of my sins.
“You didn’t kill me, fuckers!” I scream.
“Don’t be so sure.”
Pain shoots through me. My world spins, and I drop to my knees. A man in a dark suit approaches, umbrella in one hand, a stun gun in the other.
“Didn’t that seem a little too easy, Brody?” he asks.
“Who are you?” I manage to squeak out. Another shock rolls through me.
“Did you really think the warden was in charge?” He laughs, and I have to force the bile down my throat.
“You’re going to be a star here, Brody,” he says. “I had to see what you had in you. I’ll give you the night off, but tomorrow? Be ready. I want a good show.”
He turns and walks away.
I can’t go back. I can’t be what they want me to be. I whisper under my breath.
“What was that?” he asks. I gather what strength I have left.
“Kill or be killed,” I whisper, and with nothing left to lose, I lunge at him, clipping him at the knees and sending his body careening to the ground.
It’s over in less than a minute.