(by Justin McConnell, copyright November 2011)
“Don’t say anything else!” pleads Erica, maintaining eye contact through tear-streaked eyes. Examining the faces of her friends, she knows they needed convincing, that they had to understand. Survival depended on it.
A few minutes ago, there were eight of them, happy and oblivious, not knowing how close to the edge they were. Now, with two down, they were closer than ever to the truth, and in turn, death. They need to know everything, Erica realized, but he can never find out. He had to be kept in the dark. In a flash of irony, the answer strikes her, and she lowers her head, defeated. Of course I know, well before she does.
The eight of them had traveled the long stretch of highway in two cars, a fact that Leon never let them forget. Every group has a Leon: frugal to a fault, schedule conscious, organized. For days leading up to the trip, he had been comparing prices on rentals, calculating mileage, and generally figuring how to save as much money as possible. He planned to rent a minibus, but everyone else stopped listening to his advice long ago, and by his calculations, their gas price was now double. His frustration had turned to annoyance early in the trip, while at dinner. After eating a salad and watching everyone else gorge on combo meals and beer, the table insisted on splitting the bill. Little things added up all along the road, and by the time they had turned off into the secluded trail to the cabin, Leon had decided he’d rather be anywhere else. Only the odd passing glance at Laurie, the fleeting hope, kept what little he had left of his spirits up. Maybe this was finally it. Maybe.
The sun pierced through the canopy of trees in staccato rhythm, a natural strobe, partially obscuring Laurie’s vision as she drove. She raised her hand to lower the sun-visor. She could sense it then, as she always could: Leon was staring at her again. Glancing to the backseat, she made eye contact, adding a quick smile to really rub it in. Leon swiftly looked anywhere else, as if something in the trees was suddenly fascinating. At this point, she wasn’t really sure what she thought of Leon, but didn’t see the harm in messing with his head. Besides, he wasn’t that bad to look at, and if the timing was right, she entertained the idea. Perhaps.
“Why are we slowing down?” Phil asked, sitting in the passenger seat across from Laurie. Up ahead, the brake-lights on the second car flared red.
“No clue, these roads aren’t maintained for shit.” She swore, but I won’t count that against her. Yet. Everybody gets one.
Phil lost interest fast, and returned to his phone, surfing the net in the middle of nowhere. Brightly-coloured nipples and flesh beamed at him from a 2-inch screen.
“Is that porn?” Laurie inquired, both curious and a little bit intrigued. From the backseat, Leon and Jenn both leaned forward with keen interest. Jenn, normally quiet but willing to take the piss out of anyone when the opportunity arose, was the first to speak up. “How do you see anything on that tiny screen?”
“It’s just a little taste.” Phil stated, grinning. Turning to Laurie, a devious gleam in his eye, he spoke with the suave cadence known to get him laid more often than not, “Don’t worry, I brought the portable DVD and the good stuff for us.”
From the backseat, Leon watched as Laurie grinned uncomfortably, an almost defensive maneuver. ‘Good’, thought Leon, ‘came across a little bit creepy there, asshole’. I agree.
Turning back to the road, Laurie noticed something wrong with the car in front. It began to swerve on the narrow pathway, a little at first, but growing in intensity as time rushed past. She motioned to the lead car “what the hell?”
The four of them watched helplessly as the inside of the front car exploded, a shower of blood and flesh spreading across all the windows, as if pressurized. Laurie slammed on her brakes as the lead car swerved into the ditch, rolling over.
In shocked silence, they sat there, staring forward. The rear doors of the front car swung open painfully, and someone started crawling out. All at once, Jenn breaks the silence. “We have to help them.” Finally, some reaction time. A point for Jenn.
All at once the rear car empties, the four rushing up to help their friends. The first person out of the front car is Barry, a short, stocky fellow with some early male-pattern baldness. He also happens to be covered head to toe with blood and pieces of flesh, staring forward with his shocked eyes glowing white, a crazed look of disbelief on his face. He’s speaking gibberish, until he makes eye contact with Phil. “Fucking exploded. He just…..”
Laurie and Jenn have rounded the other side of the overturned car, and bend down to look inside. Both of their friends on the passenger side are hurt, but alive. Erica and Mike are helped to their feet, the same dazed expressions covering their gore soaked bodies.
“What the hell happened?” asks Laurie, not really wanting to hear the answer. Erica just stares at her, unable to put her thoughts into words. She’s starting to understand, but can’t quite formulate the complete thought. I’ll give her time.
Leaning further into the car, Jenn makes eye contact with Phil through the gruesome interior. The whole thing is covered with what used to be Scott, shreds of his clothing bunched up among hunks of flesh, decorating the car. Jenn saw one of his shoes, foot still inside, and turned from the sight. She stumbled to the side of the road and vomited.
Erica watched as Jenn stands back up, a disgusted look on her face. She glanced around at her remaining friends, and still can’t bring herself to speak. Aside from the fact that Scott just spontaneously exploded, something just wasn’t right here. She could feel it. Of course, she’s right.
Laurie steps back, angry and confused. She yelled out to everyone at once, “Could someone tell what the fuck just happened?” In a blink of an eye, she explodes, showering her friends with a blast wave of blood and bone fragment, enough force to drive them to the ground. I told you, everyone gets one.
Erica pointed to where Laurie just stood, and exclaims “That! That’s what happened.”
Phil looked around, disbelief on his face, “What do you mean? Scott just fucking exploded? People don’t just do that!” That’s one.
All at once it hits her, and Erica knows. She knows, and she’s in the moment, she’s existing in the present. It’s her time to live, a gnats life, and she’s going to make every second count. She remembers. It’s too horrible to believe, but she knows it’s the truth. She knows the rules, and she has to save her friends. She’s going to try, but I know there’s no hope. Pity.
“Don’t say anything else!” she pleads.
“What are you talking about? You’re not making any sense.” Leon exclaims, regaining his footing and picking little pieces of bone out of the side of his face.
Erica shakes her head. She has to make them understand, but she can’t let him know. But he already knows. I know everything. “If you piss him off, he’ll kill you.”
They stare at each other silently a moment, Phil in particular sizing up Erica, trying to make sense of her words. “Who is he? Who are you talking about?”
“I can’t tell you. If I tell you, he’ll kill me too.” Erica searches her mind, her thoughts racing, looking at every angle. How can she do this? How can it be different this time?
Jenn breaks in, “Look, we have to get help. Anyone’s cell phone work?” Patting themselves down, a look of confusion washes over the group. “Where’s my phone?”
Barry shakes his head, and dives back into the car, searching through the splattered interior. “Where is it, where is it, come on, where is it?!?”
“Your phones are gone.” Erica answers, the only one not frantically searching. In the distance, a bird cries out, and Erica freezes, fear washing over her face. The rest of the group stops searching, and looks at Erica in disbelief. Phil is the first to speak.
“You keep talking like you know something. What aren’t you telling us? What do you mean the phones are gone?” He approaches Erica, imposing and somewhat threatening. I don’t like this much.
Erica shakes her head, pleading, “He just took them away. Look, you just have to trust me, we have to stop talking. It’s the only way.” Little does she know, mere thought can kill.
“No, no, fuck that. You know something, spill it.” Exclaims Phil, still angry.
In the sky above, the bird cries out again, closer now. Erica looks up, fear in her eyes. New tears form, streaming down her cheeks. Her face fills with pain for her friend, knowing what’s coming next. She speaks softly, “I’m sorry….”
A large shadow swoops over the group, something massive flying over them, low and fast. A whoosh of air rushes through them, kicking up dirt. Phil looks up, and screams. A massive bird, prehistoric and somewhat demonic, swoops down at him. He’s snatched in the thing’s massive talons, and lifted into the air.
On the ground, the friends scream helplessly as Phil is lifted high above them, and then dropped. The ‘asshole’ screams in terror as he plummets to the earth, striking the ground at their feet with a wet thump. There’s no saving him. In truth, there’s no saving any of them. I apologize in advance.
Barry screams out first, quickly cutting his words as he sees Erica aggressively raise her index finger to her lips. “What the fu—-?” She silences him.
Jenn grabs Leon by the shoulder, and pulls him back, motioning for them to crouch. They stare up at the sky, searching for the monstrous bird. Barry remains staring at Erica, who simply stands there. Jenn calls out “We have to find cover, it could come back.”
Erica looks to Jenn, and responds coldly, “It won’t make a difference.”
There’s silence for a few moments, when something catches Leon’s eye: a small piece of jewelry, glittering in the sun, sitting in a pool of thick blood. Earrings, once belonging to Laura, bits of flesh still attached. All at once, sadness hits him like a wave, years of pent up emotion, of hopes and dreams, crashing down at once. She was his ‘one’, even if she didn’t know it. He turns to Erica, “Tell me what’s happening…. Please…”
Erica’s face fills with pain, and she desperately wants to tell him. She knows the specifics, but has to be vague. She shakes her head, “He’s watching us, sees everything, hears everything. You can’t make him angry.” She misunderstands me.
Jenn has had enough, but holds her tongue. Her thoughts are crimson, pangs of anger with no direction or target. Drifting to a visage of her mother, and their last moments together, two nights ago. Something in the way she looked at her, a hint of approval after all these years, a long overdue smile. She wanted to get back to that, to the loving embrace, a bond finally built after so many years of coldness. To her family, her pets, her life. She stands, new resolve on her face, and begins to walk away from the group, back toward the highway.
Barry calls after her, “Where are you going?”
Responding, a sense of determination in her voice, she moves like a woman possessed. New strength flows through her, a survival instinct cultivated from a history of strong female leads, a hero in the making. A Final Girl. “I’m walking to the highway. There’s no way I’m dying like this.”
She steps forward to the sound of a click. Looking down, she notices two metal pins sticking out of the dirt, and lifts her foot slightly, carefully. There is a whirring noise, and her eyes fill with fear. She turns to look at her friends, and locks eyes with Erica. She sees pain in her friend’s face, but also a strange calm, a detached expression. Like she knows.
The ground below Jenn’s feet bursts upward, spewing dirt and launching the mine into the air. It explodes at her midsection, vaporizing her upper body, leaving bloody stumps and spreading her body across the road. Sorry Jenn, nobody gets out that easily.
Barry watches as Jenn bursts, eyes wide as his sanity leaves him. He rushes at Erica, tackling her to the ground. “Tell me what the fuck is going on? Tell me now!” He holds her down aggressively, his face filled with wild rage.
Seeing this, Leon rushes to the rescue, throwing his shoulder into Barry like he’d imagine a football player would. The two men topple over, leaving Erica panting on the ground. As they struggle, Erica turns to them and pleads, “Stop! You’ll just piss him off!”
Barry quickly gains the upper-hand, delivering a fury of blows to Leon’s head. Punch after punch lands, turning Leon’s face to pulp. He’s alive, but dazed. Looking over at Erica, Barry moves toward her.
Staring up at the sky through his broken face, Leon realizes that his entire life, all the calculation, all the worrying, amounted to nothing in this moment. Striking him at exactly the wrong time to make a difference, he learns that sometimes you simply can’t plan, and have to let instinct take over. With his last bit of energy, he pulls himself to his feet, and stumbles toward Barry.
Barry is pulled to the ground before he reaches Erica, choked into the dirt as Leon uses everything he’s got left to try and make a difference. To be the better man, the hero of his own story. Only Erica knows that this isn’t his tale, he’s merely a player.
A piercing shriek fills the air, and the ground rumbles. Erica sits up, preparing for the inevitable. She looks at Barry and Leon as they struggle, and stands.
With a sudden jolt, a large metal spike protrudes from the earth below Barry’s head, piercing his skull. Leon is sprayed with blood, and jumps back, in total shock. He watches in terror as the head of the spike separates into four, folding back to resemble a grappling hook. The shriek fills the air once more, and the hook pulls back, bringing Barry’s impaled head with it. With a crunching of bone Barry’s entire body is dragged into the ground, headfirst. A geyser of blood rushes from the hole in the ground, homage to any number of things. I never really liked Barry anyway. He was a redshirt, even before he was covered in blood.
Leon looks from the gory mess of Barry’s instant grave, to the cold face of Erica. She stands over her last remaining friend, and smiles. “I tried. I really tried, I’m sorry.”
In an instant, Leon begins to remember as well. A wall of denial tumbles down, and he sees his place in the world for what it is. He sees the falsehood of every single piece of himself, the joke of existence. He smiles at Erica, thinking of nothing better to do, and speaks one last time, “Fuck, this is going to hurt.” With that, he explodes, showering Erica once more with blood.
Erica looks around her, at the remains of her close friends, the people she’d known her entire short life. Anger takes her, finally, and she screams out, to nobody in particular, “Do you get off on this, you sick fuck?” There’s no answer, because there’s no narrator. “Tell me, do you get off on all this shit, on all this suffering? Why do you do this to us, what gives you the right? What makes you so special, huh?!?”
In the distance, the monstrous bird cries out, startling Erica for just a moment. “I know what’s coming, and I’m not afraid. Bring it on, you son of a bitch! You might kill me, but you’ll still be just some pathetic loser in a dark room somewhere, probably living in your mother’s basement. Probably can’t even get it up, you fucking shell of a man!” She’s well past two strikes.
The shadow of the monstrous bird flies over her, blocking out the sun for a few brief seconds. She knows it all, sees what’s coming for her. Knows there’s nothing she can do. As the creature closes in, she feels the wind first, and closes her eyes. In a quick flash, she’s lifted into the air, the feeling of weightlessness taking her, causing butterflies in her stomach. She remembers her childhood, driving back-roads with her dad, jumping the foothills. The feeling of the car taking air, the freedom and thrill. She remembers her sisters, the look on her first love’s face, that moment she knew deep down that life is going to be okay. The moment she truly believed she had a bright future. She remembers all of this, because I want her to. It’s all false, but it comforts her nonetheless.
Now, she’s falling, plummeting to the earth. Mere seconds, and she’ll hit the ground, every thought and dream gone. All lost, forever. I want to comfort her as she falls, to tell her the real truth behind it all. The mystery behind the veil.
She thinks she understands, but she only sees part of it. She will live on, forever, existing again every time someone reads this. Her, and all of her friends. They’ll all keep coming back to life, or more accurately, to existence, in the imaginations of every new reader. Even Mike, who I only mentioned once, will live briefly until he fades to nothingness due to a fault in my storytelling.
I gave her life, as I did the roads they traveled, the vehicles they drove, and the bird that dropped her. She lives in my mind, and the minds of the readers, and nowhere else. But she lives, all the same. And now she dies, all the same. As she hits the ground I want to introduce myself, to take credit for the short flicker of her existence, to experience her hate or love firsthand. Would she greet me with disdain or acceptance? Would she value her short life, or simply want the cycle to stop? Would she realize that the power I hold to destroy, I can also use to create? That all it would take is words on a page to change her circumstance, to break the loop?
As Erica meets the ground once again, I impart my message, I give her awareness. I make sure she remembers next time. I suggest that maybe she can change things, but I know it’s false hope. I hold all the cards. I’m the writer.