This story is by Michael Harrison and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I awake alongside a familiar darkness. I can feel it there, trying to break out. I fight it, as I do every time, but tonight something is different, something is wrong. I open my eyes and, to my surprise, am staring at a star filled sky, blocked only by wayward branches of tall trees. In the center of the sky, the moon looms, only a sliver and unencumbered by the woods below it. Laying on a bed of leaves, slowly gathering my senses, I realize I have no memory of arriving at this patch of forest.
The woods are quiet, stilled by the darkness. There is no rustle of nocturnal animals, the trees are not whispering in the wind, instead these natural sounds have been replaced with a faint electric hum. Like that of a harsh fluorescent light in a depreciating office building. The hum builds slightly, and a small click escapes into the night as a spotlight illuminates a poster on a nearby tree. Seeking relief, I am drawn towards it.
What I find instead is discomfort. The weathered poster contains a photo of a man in his mid-20s with broad shoulders and a crooked smile. Above his photo reads one word – “MISSING”. Lights on other trees begin to click into existence creating a circle linking back to where I stand. Now that more light has flooded the area, I can see that I am enclosed by a humming chain link fence, with the trees acting as fence posts.
I begin to follow it to the next tree and another missing poster, which looks slightly less weathered and contains a snapshot of an entirely different person. This pattern continues as I walk the circumference of the cage, postmarked by ever-newer missing posters. Each new face sending an adrenaline-charged package of fear through my nervous system. The fact that they all seem somehow familiar is not putting me at ease in the least. I don’t know any of them, of that I am sure. Yet a pull in my brain tells me I’ve seen them, like I have passed them on the street frequently.
Finally, I reach the last tree in the circle.
This tree does not contain a poster but instead has an electronic tablet hanging from it. As I stare at the black screen, it too illuminates. The question “Missing?” appears for a few second before the image changes to video footage of me in this cage. The question reappears – “Missing? – and then flashes to another man sitting in the middle of a clearing, a familiar confused expression plastered on his face. The screen flashes again with a directive, “You Choose.”
Before I have time to fully process what I have seen, a small light at the bottom of the tree ignites, revealing a wooden box fixed to the tree between the tablet and the light. Oddly, I find that some of my fear has been replaced by an eager anticipation as I open the box. I reach into the box and pull out a long knife, stained with blood.
I jump as a loud buzzer breaks the relative quiet. Turning towards the sound as a gate along the circle opens into the black.
This is our chance, whispers a creature within me.
The knife is to defend myself, I tell the creature, as I step through the opening, but this justification feels feeble and –
Incomplete. You are excited by the feel of the metal in your hand.
The opening in the circle has led me to a short corridor, which retains the same construction as the circular cage. The fence is closer together here, the trees looming as sentries at irregular intervals. The electricity hums, encasing me in its presence as I begin to walk the corridor. At the far end stands another opening, with an exposed light bulb swaying from a wire above it. Focusing on the gentle back and forth of the light, I try to relax the tension in my chest.
The creature shifts, jockeying for control, as anxiety begins to morph into excitement.
Halfway to the door, the hum intensifies and grows into a distinct buzzzz . A stifled scream echoes off the trees. Reaching the second cage, I see my counterpart has attempted a different escape from his confinement. The shock from the fence has left him flat on his back, unconscious.
Defenseless, the creature corrects. Now’s the time to act.
“No,” I say out loud.
“I’m not a killer.”
You don’t know that.
The man on the ground, oblivious to my argument with the creature, doesn’t stir. I contemplate what would change if he had heard and rose to face me.
Nothing. You grabbed the knife without question. You want to know what it feels like as much as I do.
I find myself dropping to my knees, not remembering crossing the length of the cage, or even deciding to enter. The creature within unfurls more, rejoicing. The knife feels heavier, as if burdened by the weight of the task in front of it.
I am not capable of this.
We both know you are, the creatures replies.
I can’t…I won’t.
You must. You will.
I raise the knife above my head with both hands, hauling its existential question with its physical weight. The answer to that question hovers at the top of the arc, above my head.
Can I do this?
With less effort than expected, I plunge the knife into the man’s chest. I feel the barrier keeping the creature back break along with my victim’s ribs. The quiet night is interrupted with the thud of the effort, the leaves on the ground crinkling as they stir. The man does not yell, but he does open his eyes in shock. We lock eyes, but he sees no apology in mine. I watch as the life leaves him, his blood warming my hands.
The creature burst to the surface. We stand and howl, arms outstretched, into the night. Alive with the darkness.
We’ve killed a man. Taken a life. Controlled a fate.The creature whispers feverishly.
Looking at the man’s face, I feel nothing.
I do feel something, I feel –
Whole?, offers the creature.
The creature arches his back, enjoying its freedom from the prison I’ve kept it. I can feel its drive, its desire to find another sheep to slaughter. For perhaps the first time, I recognize it as my drive and am terrified. But the terror pales in comparison to the elation. I understand now why the creature’s pull has been so strong. Transforming a living person into an inanimate object has stitched the fractures within me back together. I am complete.
The hinge of another gate opening into the darkness interrupts my thoughts. Stepping into a third cage, three trees stand in the middle and a gate with an exit sign looms to the right. The middle tree holds another tablet that contains a final message:
You have chosen life.
Now choose your fate.
Remove your rival.
There is a missing poster on each tree on either side of the tablet. One contains my face and the other contains the face of the man lying lifeless in the cage behind me. I remove the man’s poster from the tree and discover it was covering a hole that has been carved out of the trunk. Within the hole is a final message that reads “You may leave or you may stay.” Below the word “leave” is a key to the exit and below the word “stay” is a syringe labeled “sedative + memory blocker”.
You are a killer, the creature laughs.
I look quickly to my missing poster and realize it is dated nearly 3 months ago, the truth hitting me like a brick. The creature was already scratching at the surface when I woke because I’ve been stuck in a cycle.
I never choose to leave.
Save yourself. Leave this time.
If I leave, we never stop.
I lunge for the syringe and inject its contents into my arm. The creature rages, twisting and turning against the darkness that is already creeping into my vision.
No! Let me out!, it screams.
At least in here, I can limit my victims.
“For now,” we tell the trees.