This story is by Talia Semeniuk and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The crowd is red.
They aren’t actually red—I know it’s just an illusion cast by the powerful lights set into the high grated ceiling—but they sure look it. Red splashed across their cheeks, soaking into their clothing, pooling in their delicately fingered drinks, heating the whites of their irises until they very near glow. Like magma, like coals, like the blazing eyes of the demons from which they run.
Or maybe toward, not away, if there’s any difference between them at all. More and more I find myself considering the—dangerous, so dangerous—concept that we’re ever returning to the place from which we came.
Conversation is all but impossible except for those pressed into the tightest of huddles, words drowned out by the music rumbling the metallic foundations of the enormous room. Even when brushing elbows with the people I pass, even with years’ experience spent inside their groups learning what they talk about and how, I find I often cannot make out more than a syllable here, a clipped-off word there, soundbites snatched from mouths like wallets from pockets. I don’t feel bad about thieving. If they deserve one, they deserve the other.
The light is red.
They aren’t actually lights—I know this the first time one slowly swaying spotlight-from-on-high gropes at the back of my shoe when I’m not fast enough to step aside. It’s no wonder the crowd seems to undulate, a constantly evolving shadow tinted all manner of crimson—the lights carry sound, music, I determine when I, on purpose this time, let the beam catch my hand as I walk around it. Loud music, pulses of bass and gleams of treble, a riotous medley of harmonics and overtones and undertones so condensed and concentrated that they vibrate with searing intensity down the foundations of my bones.
Or maybe the light is more than just music, I decide in a vague, hazy sort of way as I snatch my hand back, cradle it to my stomach, try to massage the haunting echo of thought-untethering pain away. They aren’t just lights, they are… they are—
The visible spectrum turned sonic—a many-legged weapon ambling through the room, ever so slowly chasing down those who utilize weapons of their own on the daily, the hourly. Except the rest of the crowd seems only just aware enough of the danger to break ranks when the sound-light curves close enough to breathe smoke in the direction of their red-suffused clothing; then, once the danger has passed, they form up again, as natural as breathing and as effortless as the rehearsed. As though the consequences of what will happen if they misstep, if they find themselves blocked from an empty section of flooring by one too many bodies, don’t exist.
The crowd is red.
They aren’t actually murderers—I know it isn’t true, not for this one night of the year. Tonight is a stakeout, a test, a networking opportunity. This one night of the year, alliances between the elite and the powerful are built and broken and reforged stronger and weaker time and again. Promises made, promisees burned, though never literally. Not tonight. Not when everyone—anyone—family, friend, lover, stranger—is a perfectly placed shove away from a bloodletting.
Or maybe I’m the only one who sees it, the way we’re brought year after year to the brink of disaster, hunted like creatures only to be released back into the wild. Predators turned prey turned predators again.
Gathered tonight between the scaffolding-like decor stretching between floor and ceiling are a collection of the world’s most beautiful people, not that anyone would know when the entire industrial-sized room is a gradient of bright red hiding behind dark; they are a coexistence of the most dangerous of enemies, not that anyone would know from their conservative-cut clothing, their dearth of glittering adornments, their benign smiles. But their teeth drip, drip, drip when I walk by, fangs feasting upon the lifeblood of their foes; nails glint a dark wet around whatever slakes their thirst, talons ripping in great swaths the hearts from their victims.
The floor is red.
It isn’t actually wet—I know it’s only enormous slabs of poured concrete—but it might as well be coated in the viscous footprints of those who have trampled over multitudes to reach their current towering heights. I prefer to imagine the floor as a wall-to-wall bed of embers, banked but ready to scorch the air with tongues of flame at the slightest provocation—and provoke the crowd should. It would be quite something to witness them stomping over one another—new friends, new enemies, always rivals—to reach the warded exit, mice calling themselves men scrambling for the coveted safety of their well-appointed boltholes.
Or maybe I’ve grown weary of their machinations, drained dry in every way possible. Rather, drained dry by the lifestyle but not necessarily of life—I’m coming to the abrupt conclusion that I by no means feel dead yet.
The music is getting louder, a cacophonous pounding in my chest, against the base of my skull, behind my eyes. Each sinuous sweep of the lights seems to be straying closer despite my bruising, distended hand’s warning to stay clear, until I find myself required to devote less attention to the shallow but subtle conversations and more attention to staying ahead of the beams’ chasing threat. Biting, barking, bitching at my heels, shepherding me like I’m one of these sheep people so easily pushed about.
The crowd is red.
They aren’t actually guests—I know none of them come here by choice, and they’re certainly not allowed to leave unless released. They’re given just enough comfort and entertainment to make them forget, at least for a little while, that the festivities are always broken up by a different sort of entertainment, one that barely dares exist in furtive whispers, in stolen looks, in graves forever unmarked.
Or maybe they don’t remember—maybe they choose not to remember. Wealth, power, influence—they’re drawn in like sharks to the wounded, mindless of the carnage left scattered behind.
I’m rushing now, the floor forever clear before my feet, the malevolent eyes of the roaring spotlights all around me, the target growing evermore upon my back. The exit is blocked, by slow people, by predatory lights, by waiting guards, blocked, always blocked. I swerve away, back into the heart of the cavernous cell of a room as the music crests, climbing into a crescendo that shatters my thoughts into fragments and blows holes through my ears so that they surely bleed, damaged beyond repair by the overwhelming noise.
The world is red.
It isn’t actually red—I know it’s just the lights pouring down from their circular arrangements mounted hopelessly far above anyone’s reach, creating perfect round puddles of fire on the floor around me—the fire I wanted all evening but not how. The air shivers in the gap between each beam, bars now, a cage of sound and light and heat and marrow. I’m inside, the crowd is outside, and no one will dare attempt to cross the symphonic barrier. They never do. They never will. The choice is made.
Or maybe it was never a choice. Maybe one of us is marked from the moment we’re herded into this room, a fate sealed no matter how far or hard anyone runs.
The crowd is circling closer now, jostling with excessive politeness for the chance at a ringside view. Their faces are mere shadows behind the rippling light, but I don’t need to see them; I know too well the expressions of relief, of thank God it’s not me or my kin, even as they steel themselves for the violence that’s sure to come. The heavenly bodies of light crowned high above my head begin to angle inward. Noise shudders the air apart on my every side, once music, now an inescapable knell. I cannot run, cannot try, soles and soul welded to the floor even as my heart thunders in my ears and the sweat of fear evaporates off my skin in wispy dry curls. One devoured to control the masses, to feed the system, year after year, the circle unceasing. It’s my turn—too late I realize I’m not actually ready, I’m not ready. But I’m already shaking to pieces, bursts of sound popping like flames, like joints, like squeezed vessels inside my head until one cannot be told from the other; I’m crushed in and torn out, and then, in a spray and a splatter and a sparge:
The crowd is red.