This story is by H.P. Borley and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The only thing scarier than waking up in an unfamiliar place with no idea how you got there is realizing you have no idea where you came from, either.
I’m tied to what feels like a hospital bed. I struggle weakly against the restraints but can’t even lift my head against the one pulled tight across my neck. Attempting to shout for help, I draw a deep breath, immediately choking on what I think might be soot. My eyes adjust to the lighting and the room comes into view, confirming my suspicions. Was there a fire? Did they forget about me? How am I still alive?
I don’t think I’ll be able to shout. Maybe I can find another way to make noise… although I have a sinking feeling no one is around to hear me.
I twist my head to the side as far as I can and can just barely make out a few syringes stacked neatly on the side table. If I can just nudge it a little, maybe one of them will fall. Will that be loud enough to get someone’s attention? I flail as much as I can under the restraints, hoping the wheels on my bed will still slide over the dust-covered floor. I manage to hit it just right – the metal pan holding the syringes clatters to the floor. The sound echoes in the emptiness and I hold my breath, listening for any signs of life outside. Several seconds pass and I start to panic – what if I really am alone here?
As if answering my question, the handle turns and the door swings open. Something about it feels off. Like the way an automatic door opens with the same cadence every time, just a little too perfect. Still, I breathe a small sigh of relief at the sight of another human. A tall figure in a pristine white lab coat appears at my bedside. She silently watches me with curiosity. It’s almost like she’s never seen me before – like she didn’t know I was even in here.
“What the hell am I doing here?” I try to say it forcefully, but my voice is still raspy. The doctor ignores me and leans forward to grip my jaw with inhuman strength – not enough to break bones, but enough to let me know she could if she wanted to. She leans in further until her head blocks out the bright lights and I can finally see her for what she really is – or rather, what she isn’t.
Parts of her rubbery skin seem to have eroded over time, revealing the metal frame beneath. In place of her eyes is what looks like glowing LEDs beneath a concave piece of glass. One of them is cracked and the light behind it flickers ever so slightly.
At first glance her eyes seem empty and lifeless – but they aren’t. There’s something alive in there. Something undeniably inhuman.
She ignores my staring and presses a hand to my face, uncomfortably close to my eye. She seems to enjoy watching my reaction as I struggle uselessly to get away. She presses her thumb beneath my eye until I see spots. My discomfort just seems to intrigue her more. She leans in even closer until our noses are less than an inch apart. I recoil as the scent of machine oil and old rubber reaches me.
Something primal inside me briefly wonders if I can attack her and force her to release me. Logically I know that would be practically impossible, even if I was at full strength.
“Why am I tied down?” I rasp.
“For security reasons,” she says.
“Security? How does tying me down keep me safe?”
“Not yours. Ours.” Suddenly she straightens up, as if responding to something out in the hall. She tilts her head towards the door without taking her eyes off me and holds perfectly still for several seconds. The only sound is my labored breathing and a faint mechanical ticking buried deep beneath her breast.
“You’re going to be released now,” she states. I stare at her, dumbfounded.
“Why?” As grateful as I am to hear those words, I find them hard to believe. I’m still not sure what I’m doing here in the first place. The doctor doesn’t respond, instead tearing the straps off me like they’re made of paper. She wrenches me to my feet and starts tugging me impatiently towards the door. I lean heavily against the wall, against her as my legs shake from the effort of supporting my frame. She supports me with one arm, half-dragging me towards the exit at the end of the hall. When we reach it she turns to me and her face breaks out into a smile that is truly ghastly to look at.
“Have a wonderful day,” she says like the most menacing automated customer service line I’ve ever heard. With that, she disappears down the hall. I stand there for another few seconds, trying to process what the hell just happened, and decide to get away from this place before anyone changes their mind about releasing me.
The elevator takes me to the ground level where I walk through the parking garage and onto a residential street. My brain still has no idea where I am, but my body is plodding along like I know exactly where I’m going. And somehow, the more I look at these houses, now dark and covered with soot, they do seem familiar.
What is not familiar to me is an enormous billboard several blocks away poking through the trees lining the streets. I can just barely make out the words “Hail the Great Uniter” across the top, and below is a photo of a young woman. I feel like I know her. The recognition is so strong that I stop in the middle of an empty street and squint at the billboard for several long seconds, but I just can’t figure out who it is. The thick glasses, the curly brown hair… who is she? Eventually I give up and keep moving, hoping I can make it somewhere safe soon. For someone who just woke up, I feel incredibly drained.
My legs take me several blocks further into the neighborhood until I can no longer see the billboard. I stop in front of a house. Then I feel a spark of recognition… this is my house.
A vague memory of a spare key hidden in a flowerpot surfaces in my mind. But which one? The walkway is lined with cracked and faded pots, all holding long-dead plants buried under years of soot and neglect. I root through them one after another but come up empty. The door is locked, too. Great.
Too tired to find a smart way to get in, I hunt in the yard for something heavy and pray that the house is as empty as it seems. The rock goes crashing through the picture window. I gently push out the remaining shards of glass, being careful of the jagged edges, and hoist myself over the windowsill.
I end up in the middle of the small living room. The whole house stands empty and dark. It looks like no one’s been in here in years. Where did everyone go? I don’t want to believe that they’re dead.
I make my way up the stairs, trailing my fingers through the dust piled up on the railing. I find myself gravitating towards the room at the end of the hall on the right. I think that one’s mine – but I can’t for the life of me remember what’s inside. Or who the other bedrooms in this house belong to, either.
There’s a mirror in the corner, covered in soot. I’m a little hesitant to look at myself – I’m sure I look as awful as I feel – but something compels me to look anyways.
I brush the mirror off with my hand enough that I can see myself. I flinch and stare at my reflection in disbelief. How could this be possible?
The glasses are gone, but the hair is unmistakable, even tangled and covered in ash. The same freckles dot my cheeks as the image of me on that billboard; I have the same intense gaze. I appraise myself for a few more seconds, feeling memories slowly start to creep back into my mind.
And then I see something in the reflection, just over my shoulder. I tense up as I meet the gaze of the glowing green eyes I’d failed to notice before. Another robot. Suddenly, it all starts flooding back. I start to remember everything that’s happened over the past few months – and I couldn’t be more grateful to see those green eyes again after all this time.
“Charlie,” I whisper, tears of relief stinging my eyes. “Charlie, I’m home.”