This story is by S.E.McKee and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The words, You Should, bounce around the center of my mind like a trapped wasp, searching and scratching for freedom. I focus on them, desperate to find their meaning. Yet, the harder I focus on the two words, the faster they break apart into small letter sounds. My mind burns as the letters disintegrate into dust.
I stretch out my arms to gather my bearings and feel a slight weightless sensation. The strange tunnel I was just pulled into could have taken me anywhere. Across space or even time.
My eyes adjust to a small white room, as the ringing in my ears makes it impossible to hear my surroundings.
A pounding heart reminds me that I am still alive although I fear it may burst at any moment, along with my lungs that are demanding more air even though I am breathing as hard as I can. One more blink, and it is all gone.
No more heartbeat or breathing. It has all vanished. I press my hand onto my chest and realize I can’t feel my hands or skin. Perhaps my body is adjusting to this strange new land.
The ringing in my ears has also stopped. This white room must be blocking out all sound and feelings. Shadows seem to move across the ceiling depending on where I look, like a cave. I feel I am wide awake and in a dream at the same time. Panic sets in as I remember I can not feel myself breathing. The air must be different here. I don’t know how long I can survive in this cave. Time to escape.
I look around and see a large doorway to my left and run towards it.
The vast force-field swirls with shiny bright colors that remind me of a giant bubble. I lightly press my hands against it and feel a small strange shock run through my body. Similar to the jolt, I felt on my journey here. It feels like a jump scare that makes my spine twist.
Only one way to find out if this tunnel works both ways. Mentally, I take a deep breath and a running jump into the colorful swirl. Immediately, I feel another shock that causes my body to become completely paralyzed. I’m stuck and suspended in mid-air, with only my left leg and arm inside the doorway.
I’m starting to feel the feelings again. This must be the way home. The shock pulses through my body with every heartbeat. I slowly stretch my arm out further into the tunnel, desperate to pull myself home. Painful swelling is in every vein, yet, I stick my head inside.
I remember the feeling of being terrified. My eyes well with tears as my emotions fall apart.
An irregular warm wind is on the back of my neck. It smells like the expired trash in the kitchen. No, not warm air. Hot, smelly breath.
Something wraps around my waist, squeezing so hard I think my ribs may crack.
I kick and fight in all directions as the doorway throws me onto the white floor like a rag doll. My bones should be broken, and skin torn. However, there is no pain in this place.
I have been without feelings for so long that I realize I miss them. I am forgetting who I really am.
A small view screen in the center of the room comes into focus. There are water droplets on the outside of the glass that slowly move in all directions. Beyond the glass, I see a fuzzy, glowing red light in the distance. I try to focus, but the glass seems to fog up. The red light looks so familiar, like four math symbols stacked on top of each other. They are familiar to me, yet I can’t decipher which symbols they are. The column of symbols sway and bend back and forth like a circus act.
They say math is a universal language. Is this a message from another world?
I raise my hand to touch the window and see the glass is several feet thick. I will never be able to break it, no matter how hard I wish to leave this place.
A movement to my right catches my attention. Low to the ground, thick black fog ripples in the corner. I walk towards it and sense a vast open pit in the floor.
Something alive is inside. It must be an alien. I still can’t hear anything, yet I can sense its needs and desires.
The creature tells me its name is Rage, and it too wishes for freedom. Each step I take towards the pit, the closer Rage swims to the surface. I stand on the edge with my toes hanging over and feel the warm comfort of sleep.
The dark fog ripples as Rage nears the surface and snaps its teeth as it roars in a fury, though I hear no sound. I know it won’t harm me in any way. Its only desire is to help. All I have to do is sleep, and Rage will take over and escape beyond these walls. It will awaken a wave of anger I never thought possible. Rage will fight an unseen enemy with sharp claws and razor teeth. The destruction will be brought down, ripping them to shreds, and all I have to do is sleep. A deep, dreamless sleep that Rage cannot guarantee I will ever wake up from.
This pit is my EXIT. My feet slide forward, and I balance over the edge on my heals. My brain is twisting to the right as if I am dizzy. I wait a few moments, but it won’t stop, just keeps turning to the right. The fluid in my brain must have become a whirlpool with the end of the funnel draining out by my feet and into the abyss below. The emptiness is replaced with the safety of sleep. My eyes drift close as I spread out my arms and lean forward.
Rage’s fingers emerge from the smoke as it pulls itself up, and into my cave, ready to steal my identity.
As the darkness starts to encumber me, and sleep is within my grasp, a single thought runs through my mind; I have seen the red math symbols before.
Quickly, I jerk backward and slide my feet away from the edge. Rage imitates my movements in a mirror image and retreats down into its cage, down into its place.
With sharp eyes, I look behind me, at the small window with the glowing red light. I tilt my head to the side, and the strange symbols become crystal clear and spell out one word. EXIT.
My red light. It was my only anchor to the real world, and I realize I never left earth. I’m still physically there.
The floor starts to close in around Rage as the black fog drifts down into the depths of the unknown. I sense Rage howl in despair as the floor shuts behind it.
I was in a public place today. Running for the exit door while being chased. I wasn’t fast enough. Was that minutes or hours ago? Time has no meaning here.
My body is, in fact, awake, but I am not in control. My own mind grew walls to encase and shelter itself from harm’s way.
I force myself to look at where Rage’s black pit used to be and wonder if eternal sleep would have been better. Rage wanted to help me. To fight for my honor. Or was it just an end to this torment? I hug myself knowing his offer to sleep forever was a one time offer.
I want to be the one who wakes up from this place. Assuming I will ever get out.
My eyes are glued to the small window with the red light, like a moth to a flame. I feel comfort and a terror to look at it.
I walk around the outer wall of the cave, but all I find is a solid barrier.
Hope flares inside I choose to believe I will escape this place, eventually, one day. For now, I sit down on the ground in defeat.
What will happen when I do face my monster in the real world? Will anyone believe me when I say I was at war with my own mind?
Or will they shout, ‘You Should have fought back. You Should have ran.’
The words, You Should, swirl around in my mind once more.