This story is by Michael Ingco and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Digging. Crawling. Legs and forearms scraping against the rock below her. Shoulder blades rubbing at the cave roof. Monstrous voices echoed from behind, misshapen figures silhouetted against the white light as they peered into the hole. Annie didn’t know how long she’d been locked away, didn’t know what lay at the other side. Her mind focused solely on the thought of escape, and that among the alien voices, her brother called out to her. His voice, high and young, cried like a wounded animal.
Annie grit her teeth. Tears welled up in her eyes, and her haggard whisper barely reached her own ears.
“I’m sorry Zack. Please wait for me. I’ll come back for you. I promise… I’ll never leave you…
Outside, her fist burst from the ground and she clawed at the weeds to pull herself up. Bluish metal walls behind her. Empty streets of her childhood town looming in front. She took a moment to push a rock over the hole before sprinting off.
She stumbled into an alleyway, hands groping in the darkness, groaning from exhaustion. Annie struggled to open the pub’s backdoor. When it wouldn’t budge, she strode to the cage leading into the basement and pulled desperately at its latches. Nothing worked. Her clenched fists hammered at the door, snarling in frustration.
If she had the right tools, Annie could have picked the lock in front of her. Inside the pub there would be food, a place to hide, and a hunting rifle propped up on the wall above the bar. But all she had was the equivalent of a large pillowcase drooped over her shoulders. She had nothing, alone in a town whose people weren’t human anymore.
Images flashed in her mind once more. Prisoners with panicked faces and pleading voices.
She breathed in. Then out. Took a moment to orient herself. This particular road ran along the edge of the town. Gas station across the street, woods and wilderness beyond that. Town exit to the north.
Annie slid her back down the rough brick wall, watching the streets as a lone car passed by. Its engine growled next to her, wheels crunching through the concrete and shattering the remains of an empty beer bottle. Lampposts hummed across the road, their soft yellow glow illuminating all but the alleyway in which she sat.
Her breathing labored, chest hurt. The muscles on her legs twitched and tightened from their overuse. She groaned but kept still as another car cruised past her hiding place. This one had its windows rolled down, the sulking figure on the driver’s seat craning its head side to side. For a moment, the wall opposite her’s was illuminated by the yellow headlights, and a massive painting loomed in front of her. Splashes of silver, crimson, and black.
It was a spray-painted mural depicting a fountain of blood erupting from the barrel of a gun. And crawling out the barrel was a grey skeleton, its head turned back to the viewer in a faceless expression of both agony and delight. It forced its weight forward, one hand dropping to press onto the shoulder of a pale skinned man. Only, the man wasn’t part of the painting. He turned his head and blinked at her, red lines dripping down from the top of his head.
Annie gasped in shock but made no move to sit up from her spot. She sat frozen in darkness, staring forward into the man’s blank eyes as though trying to discern a mirage. The silence between the two became like a weight pressing into their bodies. Nothing moved, until within the red came a sardonic smile.
Beneath the blood of the mural the man began to choke. He coughed and shook against the wall, body convulsing anew with passing minute. And in a brief moment of light Annie could see an insectile bulge writhing within the man’s throat. Her eyes widened with horror, a chill wind rolling across her skin.
“Hey there…” he groaned. At first Annie thought that his voice echoed off the walls. But then she realized the echo was not his voice, but a poor imitation by something unseen. And with every sentence, the bulge in his throat slid further down his body.
“I know you.”
His voice was like sand sliding across glass.
“You were in the cell across from mine… Doesn’t seem like they got to you. Funny. Never imagined you’d be the one to try and escape. Always figured you’d stay crumpled up in your corner.”
“Did… Did you escape out here too? What happened to you?”
He shook his head, a wide sneer spreading across his face.
“Same thing as everyone else. They brought me in. Put something in me. Gave me a choice. Be harvested or give them control. Afterwards they just let me out free. If I try taking it out, they’ll kill me right here and now.”
Annie said nothing in return, only watched the thing in the man’s throat slide its way into his chest. The man looked behind him and sighed, blank eyes staring up the wall.
“I….. made this painting…. Heh. The last thing I accomplished before being taken away. And now…I return to it… My last act of free will, to come back…. After the process….They’ll tear it down. And yet I won’t be dead. I’ll still live on, a tool for the collective. How nightmarish…for an artist to outlive his work.”
The words “process” and “collective” had the inhuman echo overtake the man’s. It was a sound between hissing and choking, a slithering that garbled the words before they left his mouth.
Annie tilted her head down. Though her eyes remained wide with fear, an angry grimace formed across her face.
“You call that living…” She shook her head. “Letting those things inside you…That’s not living…”
“It’s better than dying.”
Voices behind her now. Low, broken moans, like the long drawn out notes of a distant foghorn. Annie leaned out from the corner and peeked back toward where she came. Two women strode forward, both heads facing each other in mid conversation. Their blue police uniforms were dulled against the street lamps. One blonde, one brunette, both with uncanny smiles that sent chills down her spine.
She pressed herself back into the wall as much as he could, knees bent and arms hugging her shins across her chest. She tried to curl up as small as possible, to keep her body hidden in the shadows. The two officers stopped at the entrance, talking in that strange alien language while their bodies repeatedly slumped forward and back. They scanned the darkness, heads turning slow. Both officer’s eyes then centered on the man, who smiled and waved without fear.
Annie held her breath while her heart pounded in her chest. Sweat dripped down her brow. The brunette officer laughed and spoke something that made the blonde turn and shrug her shoulders. Both women faced north before continuing down open road.
When the droning voices were no longer in earshot, Annie opened her mouth and gasped for air. Again the man in front of her spoke, blood starting to drip from his eyes.
“If I were you I’d forget about staying here. Leave while you can. Save yourself. It’s too late for anyone else.”
She said nothing. Simply stared again, eyeing him, noting the way his limbs twitched and spasmed, noting the hunched posture he started to take on. And when he spoke now, the echo was no longer an echo.
“….I should get going too…. You don’t want me around when I turn into those things. If you ever see me again… try to kill me. Maybe… I wouldn’t mind dying from a pretty lady like you.”
He stood up from his spot and staggered into street. Then silence. Nothing but the cold wind wafting in and twisting into the alleyway. Outside, she could hear a metallic rattle, a soda can clambering its way across the asphalt.
Annie squinted forward, mind racing. She didn’t know how long the process took for each prisoner to be transformed into another monster. There was no way to tell the time in those deathly prisons. The yells and pleas of the captured had grated in her ears, making time seem to drag on forever. But outside, each passing second beat against her consciousness. Every moment was one step closer to the end of Zack’s life. Just another body in a town full of strangers.
She pressed herself against the wall as yet another car passed by. The lights lit up the image in front of her like a golden halo. Another flash of blood, metal, and bone. Annie growled, teeth clenched, voice low and rumbling like a feral dog’s.
“Leave? No…I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving without my brother. No matter what it takes, I’m going to get him back.”
Of course, the first thing she needed was a weapon.