I was walking home from school when it first happened.
I wiped away yet another drop of sweat making steady progress down my cheekbone with the back of my hand. I shifted my scruffy backpack, stuffed so full of textbooks and exercise books that it couldn't be zipped up all the way, higher up onto my other, slightly less sore, shoulder. I walked in an odd, exaggerated fashion, heel then toe, heel then toe, to avoid scuffing my new shoes. I didn't seem to make any progress, but I knew I would be home soon.
Light footsteps, behind me. The street I took home was always deserted; I never saw anyone on the street with me. I whipped my head around, searching for whatever made that noise, but even as I turned, the footsteps stopped. I was completely alone on the road; there wasn't another person in sight. There was not a single place for anyone to hide, the street was a wide, empty space. Slightly suspicious, I continued on my way again.
I had only managed a dozen paces or so before I heard another sign that I was being followed. A rustle of leaves sounded from the gnarled oak tree on the corner of the road, despite it being a windless day. I jogged back cautiously, but found nothing behind the crooked trunk.
This continued for an unguessable length of time. Each time I thought I heard something, or saw something out of the corner of my eye, I would convince myself that it was nothing but creeping paranoia, that nothing was following me except for maybe a stray dog. But then curiosity and a hope that this time would be the one where I would catch my immaterial stalker would send me on yet another fruitless search. By now, I was incredibly jumpy. Any slight sound would have me leaping into the air and tripling my heart rate, before increasingly desperately seeking for my tormentors. Yes, I was now all but certain that there were multiple people, or even multiple things, following me. I was no longer trying to get home or they would know where I loved, so I frantically wove through streets, dove across roads at random intervals without looking (not that it mattered because there were no cars anyway) attempting to lose those that were following me. I couldn't breath in and out properly, my breath rasping against my dry throat. The sounds of my pursuers grew closer and closer. My school shoes slapped against the concrete at a speed far slower than my liking.
And the signs. The signs were still there. A glimpse of a shadowy figure, a snatch of murmurs, or footsteps, and on several occasions a rotten stench filled my nostrils. I found myself wishing that whatever was tormenting me would just show itself instead of dancing around at the edges of my vision.
A mirthless chuckle, so close I could feel the thing's breath on my ear. I whirled around, yelling, as I smashed a backhanded fist through where the thing must have been a fraction of a second ago, but my knuckles connected with nothing but air. I sobbed, and tore off down the road as fast as I could.
My surroundings grew more and more unfamiliar as the day drew on and the shadows lengthened. I ran until my legs couldn't hold me up any longer, and collapsed onto the cooling asphalt on my back. Lying there, I was finally able to draw breath fully. I realised I had not the slightest clue where I was.
The houses in this neighbourhood were smaller, more decrepit than where I lived. I glanced at my watch, but oddly enough, the numbers weren't ticking away. There was nothing for me to do, so I turned back and tried to retrace my steps.
The soft throbbing of bass came from around the corner, like a muffled song. I quickened my pace, but not too much as I was still exhausted from running. I recoiled when I actually saw someone, the first human I have seen since the start of this whole nightmare, standing there leaning against a lamppost with his eyes close.
He wasn't much older than me, sixteen at the very most. His feet, swathed in boat-like skater shoes tapped out a rhythm to the song smashing through his worn headphones. He was tall and emaciated, as if he was a starvation victim. He was dressed in a scruffy black t-shirt with the logo of a heavy metal band I had never heard of before and tattered jeans that were more hole than denim. Then he opened his eyes, black all over.
He turned his face towards me, and my head exploded with numbing cold. The feeling was just like that time I placed my head in a bucket of snow for a dare. Yet again, I was unable to flee as he slowly strolled towards me as if savouring my fear. His pale hand twitched at his hand, then he lunged forwards and I couldn't breath.
I struggled to draw breath despite the boy's vice-like grip around my throat, but couldn't. He lifted me up into the air where my feet dangled and kicked uselessly half a metre above the ground. I thrashed and writhed, as he observed me with those horrible cold and empty eyes. My hands scratched weakly against his hand, as unmovable and devoid of warmth as marble. Already, my vision was greying at the edges. I lashed my feet with renewed strength, and felt my foot connect with something that felt like a steel wall. I dropped in a painful heap onto the ground, but didn't care. I could breathe again.
As I sucked in mouthful after mouthful of sweet air, I glanced up at the boy, and did a double-take. His knee was obviously broken, his left calf bent backwards at almost ninety degrees, but he was still standing and seemed to not have even noticed. I half-crawled, half-ran away from the boy who stood like a human, looked like a human but certainly wasn't a human. He just stood there and cackled, a deep laugh that resonated through my very being. I got back up onto my feet and ran away from the thing that was still laughing, a sound brimming with insanity.
I had barely gone fifty metres before I doubled over and threw up into the gutter like a drunk. My stomach heaved out everything, mainly bile. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and tottered away in a direction that I guessed may have led me home.
It didn't. I travelled through the night, and when the sun rose, I was still in a strange place that I had no recollection of. I never saw the blow coming until it hit me.
A blunt force smashed into the back of my head and I actually saw stars, bright flashes of light against a black backdrop. I didn't realise I had fallen until I felt small stones in my half-destroyed uniform and the sidewalk against my back, now a far too familiar feeling. A glint of silver flew straight at my head above, I rolled to the side instinctively as adrenaline and instinct overtook the controls of my weary body. I looked back at where my head had been less than a second ago, and saw a kitchen knife planted up to its hilt in the asphalt. A sour taste entered my mouth as I realised what would have happened had I not moved. I sat straight up and leapt to my feet faster than I thought was possible. A quick survey of my surroundings revealed to me my attacker.
She was a young woman, in her early twenties or so. Her face was pretty, and would have been beautiful if she was smiling instead of snarling at me like a lioness, revealing every single one of her perfect teeth. A tattered green dress hung on her slight frame, weighed down by knives, dozens of knives. There were small ones the size of pencils but far sharper, and big ones, almost swords. She held one in each hand.
I didn't realise she was moving until she was halfway to me. I ducked and dove backwards simultaneously, but cried out as the tip of one of her blades nicked my left cheek, drawing blood. I touched it gingerly with my fingertip, and was almost unable to move as I stared at the crimson liquid.
A whistle sounded from my left and I spun around. The woman was smiling now as she examined my blood that now marked the tip of her knife. She licked my blood off, her warm, brown eyes never leaving mine. Then, at an incredible speed, she leapt at me again. This time I managed to completely avoid the first blade and place my right arm in front of the other knife, allowing my arm to be cut instead of my neck. The sharp steel glided across my forearm as if it was as insubstantial as mist. First, agony burned from the scarlet line the knife had traced, then a jarring impact as steel met bone.
Never before had I felt pain like then. All I wanted to do was to cower and hide, to flee and escape, but I couldn't. I knelt there in the middle of the road and stared at the knife still lodged in my arm, and screamed, screamed until my throat was raw. With a pain at least as bad as the entry wound, I tore the knife free from my arm with a wet sucking sound. I almost blacked out, but now I had a weapon.
The woman circled me patiently. Her smile had widened into a grin. We both knew how this would end; my body cooling down and its functions slowing before stopping as my lifeblood seeped away down the gutters and into the sewers. I held the knife in front of me, although I knew it would be of no use to me. The woman blurred, and a wrecking ball hit me full on.
I sprawled through the air and landed heavily, rolling several times, head over toes. I forced myself back up and found that my hands were empty. Panic started to course through my veins when I realised I couldn't find the woman. A groan alerted me to her presence.
The first thing I noticed was the blood. It was splashed across the road like a blood-spraying garden hose had been turned on too powerfully and gone out of control. Then I saw the woman. She was lying in the foetal position, her knees curled up to her chest but I could see the place where the blade had exited through her back. She must have impaled herself as she attacked me. She coughed, a gurgling, choking sound as more blood splashed out of her mouth. Her mouth opened, and to my utter horror, she laughed. A deep, guttural laugh that had no place coming from someone like her, hindered by the blood clogging up her throat, but unmistakeable. She died with her eyes open, which were now identical to the boy's, black and emotionless.
I had no idea of how long I stared at her body for before I realised I couldn't feel my hands. Blood was freely flowing from the cut, and my arm appeared to have been dipped in a bucket of red paint. With numb fingers, I ripped a strip of fabric off from my shirt, and wrapped it as tightly as I possibly could around my wound. It was soaked through in seconds, but the flow of blood seemed to be slowing.
This near-death experience had shown me that the possibility of death was very real, and that chances were high that I would not be able to survive this nightmare, let alone live to tell the tale and understand what was happening. I hurried off, hoping to find something, anything that could help me.
I pondered my unique situation as I wandered. Could it be karma? I didn't think so, because in all honesty, I didn't think I was that bad of a person. God? I wasn't religious, but I couldn't think of a better idea. Or did I do something bad, something terrible that I can't remember but everyone else did? Despite everything I had been through, I still clung onto the hope like a drowning man grasping a piece of timber that I was dreaming, lost in a vivid nightmare. However, I refused to allow hope to latch onto this idea because my pain and suffering were tribute enough to prove that I was fully awake and conscious.
In the distance, my ears started to pick up voices, footsteps, laughter. A crowd. I had mixed feelings on this as I balanced the pros and cons. On one hand, I could find refuge in the throng of people, safety in numbers as they say. I could even get my arm bandaged properly. But on the other hand, I was afraid of coming face to face with yet another of those laughing, murderous things, or endangering other people in case they pursued me here. I thought this over, and decided that the cost was well worth the risk of placing innocents in the path of danger. After all, wasn't I an innocent as well? Terror still surged through me as I made my decision. I realised with a sinking heart that for the rest of my life, I would never be able to trust another human being again. I wondered if the fear was driving me crazy. I sure felt like it.
My ears led me to a throng of busy streets, packed like sardines with people of all ages and nationalities. I hurriedly tucked my blood-stained knife into my belt. As soon as I stepped into the tumultuous cascade of hurrying commuters, there was no way out. All I could do was go with the flow to avoid being crushed and trampled to death.
Waves of dread washed over me like cold surf as a booming, thick laugh resonated through me like an earthquake. I did all I could to suppress the surges of hysterics raging through me, but my knees still shook as if I had been electrocuted. With a ferocity I didn't know I possessed, I attempted to claw my way through the crowd, but couldn't. I was completely surrounded, and now more laughs, mocking and cruel, reached my ears. Now, not only was I being assaulted via my ears but I was getting hit by random people, glancing punches and stinging kicks to the shin. I thrashed like a fish out of water, landing some solid blows that went unnoticed. The cacophony crescendoed into a roar of guffaws, entertained by my beating. My nose split open on impact as a fist with the texture, density and size of a bowling ball ploughed into my face. I felt my calf audibly snap as a heavy boot crunched onto it. Dozens and dozens of blows rained down on me, and I gave up trying to retaliate, now curling into a ball and doing my best to cover up against the crowd gone crazy. I caught glimpses out of my good eye; a morbidly overweight middle-aged bald man's fully bearded face, a hand wearing at least eight rings, a crisp white Nike shirt splattered with my blood, and a heavy leather boot with metal studs that delivered a hell of a kick. Without a warning, I was dropped to the floor as the throng receded, still chuckling at the mortal damage they had inflicted on myself. They left, scurrying away down the many side streets, leaving me broken on the ground.
I lay on the floor in agony assessing the damage dealt to me. I guessed that at least five ribs were broken, as was three of the fingers on my left hand. My right calf was bent backwards like a second knee, and a bulge the size of an egg was swelling on my scalp. Breathing felt like sucking in gaseous fire, and I couldn't twitch a muscle or I would be engulfed in pain. My knife was gone, but not before the blade had been pressed into my leg, opening up my left thigh. I couldn't hear through one of my ears, which was dripping blood onto the scuffed bricks and I could only see red out of my left eye.
Through a dark red haze, I heard through my good ear the ring of ambulance sirens. I should have been relieved, but I suspected that more of those things were coming back for me, to finish me off. As the paramedics hoisted me onto a stretcher, I weakly flailed and screamed in a confused mixture of panic and pain. They lied to me then, told me that everything would be okay and I was going to live. Before I blacked out, I caught a glimpse of a beautiful girl roughly my age being loaded into the ambulance first with similar wounds to me.
I was confined to the hospital for a tedious length of time. I gave up trying to escape, or request to contact my parents, my friends, anyone. Nobody came to visit me except for two things pretending to be doctors and the girl I had seen on the day when I had been given the injuries that had put me here in the first place. The doctor's name tags identified them as Bolsey and Cunnliffe. They lied to me, saying that I was safe here, but they didn't laugh that horrendous laugh ever. They said my thoughts wouldn't be the same as before because I had suffered several cases of blunt head trauma and that I had slight brain damage, even subtly hinting that I was no longer sane. But I knew better than that. They were just trying to convince me that things hadn't happened like I know they did, that what actually happened was that I was caught up in a massive street riot. They didn't want me to know the truth about them.
The girl's name was Eleanor. From our discussions, we discovered that we had been through similar hardships. Neither of us believed that the danger was gone from what was left of our lives. She turned out to be very intelligent, but also quick to anger. Conversations with her were always looked forward to and enjoyed, because they offered me a respite from the monotony that my life had begun. As days became weeks and weeks became months, my wounds faded away leaving only memories but I still didn't believe the horror was over.
Each day, after I had my lunch of cheap, plain hospital food. In that hour, I talked to Eleanor. She had not been hurt as bad as I was, and wasn't confined to her bed either.
Today, I knew something was different even as she walked in. Her face was struggling, but failing to conceal pure excitement. She obviously had something important to tell me. I pushed my tray of plain hospital food to one side and focused all my attention on her.
"Hey." She sat down on my bed.
"How's the leg?"
I lifted the bed sheets. My broken calf was taking the longest to heal, and I was only able to awkwardly hobble on it. My whole lower leg was cocooned in a white cast. The only signature on it was Eleanor's, looping elegantly across the wide expanse. The healing was slow, but it didn't really hurt anymore.
"Much better, hurts a lot less."
She smiled. "That's good to hear." Her eyes lit up as her lips split into a broader grin. "Anyway I have something kinda big to tell you." She fished around in the pocket of her hospital issue white gown, and came out with a small stack of Post-it notes and a pen. She scrawled something on the top note, tore it off and passed it to me. I took it cautiously.
There were only four words on it:
We break out today :)
I read the whole message three times. I opened my mouth to ask her how, but she shushed me with a finger in my lips and wrote another note, this one a little longer:
This room may be bugged. Don't talk, write.
I took the pen and replied in kind:
How? I've tried before, but an alarm goes off when I open my door.
She answered silently with words on paper:
I know how to turn off the power here. I have a couple of torches. You will know when when the lights go out. Meet you in the canteen.
She reached back into her voluminous pockets, pulled out a torch and slid it under the bed sheets in case of hidden cameras. Without another word, written or spoken, she left.
Excitement and hope coursed through me, emotions that I had not felt in a long time. Finally, I would be out of this nightmare and be able to go home!
The rest of the day went by far too slowly. As usual, there was nothing for me to do so I slept to pass the time. I awoke at 3:42 pm, and my mind turned to an already well thought-over subject: my whereabouts.
I knew already that my sanity was questionable. Where I was could have been anything from an ordinary hospital to a mental asylum where some things pretending to be doctors healed my flesh wounds. Or, which I thought was the most likely, was that I had been captured by those things and was held prisoner here so I could never pass on the truth.
After what seemed like centuries, it was time. The digital clock on my bedside table read 11:37 pm when it powered off, the glowing numbers flickering before flashing off.
Already, I could hear patients' alarmed cries and the drone of machinery shut down. Then I realised I was stuck in my ward; the only exit was an electronically operated door.
I clumsily hobbled out of bed and kicked the glass door with all my might. The cast on my foot really helped, not only giving me a stronger warhead but also dimming the impact on my foot. I quickly felt the glass start to give way. I couldn't see, but the tinkle of glass notified me of my success.
I hadn't been out of my room except for visits to the bathroom. I turned the torch on and followed the signs to the canteen. The door was thickset steel, so there was no way I was going to kick this one down. Luckily, Eleanor had met the same problem and was already there, casually leaning with her back to the featureless white corridor with her arms crossed. In one hand she held a torch, in the other she held two sharp surgery chisels the size of a steak knife.
"Hi," she whispered, so as not to alert to the doctor-things of our position.
"Sup," I replied, as if this was a normal occurrence for us. She handed me one of the chisels.
"Just in case we run into trouble," she mouthed. "Hopefully, we won't have to use it."
I gingerly took it, as if it was an explosive about to go off. I had handled my fair share of sharp blades meant for killing already, but I put it in the pocket of my gown anyway.
"So where to now?" I inquired. "Do you have a plan?"
"Of course I do," she smirked. "Just follow me and we'll be fine." Then she took off down the corridor back the way we came, her torch beam bouncing across the featureless walls. I was barely able to match her pace because of my cast, but she slowed down noticeably so I could keep up. Whispers of laughter rounded the corner and she turned around to face me, her mouth dropped open in horror and her eyes wide, a reflection of my own expression. That mocking laugh haunted both of our dreams. However, this time we were both armed. Eleanor rounded the corner first, and I heard scuffling before a sound like ripping paper and a water ballon bursting. I reached the scene as Eleanor casually wiped her bloodied hands off on her gown. The body of the doctor-thing lay on the ground beside her, its head almost completely severed, only held in place by its spine.
"Are you all right?" I wasn't completely certain that the blood wasn't hers.
"I'm fine," came the answer. Then she beamed at me, her eyes glowing with a sinister sadistic light. "I killed one!"
I shifted uncomfortably. It wasn't her fault she was behaving like so; she had been through a lot. "That's great," I said, and I really meant it, "but we have to keep moving.
She nodded and I continued after her. Her bare feet slapped on the concrete floor, while I added to the dull rhythm with my foot still in a cast. I now had not a clue where we were, but I trusted Eleanor. I glanced behind me, and by chance I made out a dark figure rushing towards me. I tried to yell for Eleanor to watch out, but by then the figure had already caught up to me and wrapped its foul hand around my mouth and pressed me against its rock-like body. All that escaped my mouth was a hiss of escaping air. That by now familiar chuckle sounded softly in my ear, almost gentle. Eleanor kept running.
I lashed around, trying to make contact with my hands, feet, even the back of my head with my attacker, but couldn't. It could have been a disembodied arm and a stone wall that had taken me hostage. Then I remembered my chisel. I reached into the pockets of the gown and wrapped my fingers tightly around the grip and plunged it backwards as hard as I could. No sound, but a trickle of something wet splashed against the back of my arm. I stabbed again and again and again as more blood splashed against before the thing released its hold. In the dim light of my torch, I saw that the whole of his right side was a glistening mass of pulverised flesh, slashed organs and pulverised bone. But he just stood there and laughed at me.
For a single, breath-taking moment, I was taken back to when I first encountered the laughing things, when the dead-eyed boy had released me and I sat sprawled in his shadow, bracing myself for a blow that had never come. That same feeling of powerlessness and fear washed over me, then was calmed by the fact that this time I was not defenceless.
At first I retreated slowly, then I turned around and stumbled away as fast as I could. I had no idea whether Eleanor had noticed I wasn't there anymore, so I had no option but to continue down the corridors and hope I get lucky, finding either Eleanor or the exit.
Footsteps up ahead. I switched off my torch and ducked lower, allowing the shadows to conceal me. I crept forwards silently, planning on a silent attack. As the thing neared, I launched myself around the corner and tackled the thing shoulder first. A high pitched scream sounded, and I jumped back to my feet, realising my mistake. I helped Eleanor to her feet.
"Ow, what was that for, dickhead?" Eleanor stood, brushing herself off and checking for injuries.
"I'm so sorry! Are you alright?"
"Not hurt too badly. Anyway, we're close. Not far to go."
We ran off together and within five minutes, we were outside. Outside! I hadn't felt fresh air on my face in months. We froze as we took in the beauty of the city, something I was convinced I would never see again. A sea of neon lights, traffic roaring through the streets and people rushing around despite the late hour with coats wrapped around them, shutting out the cold. I turned to Eleanor, who was still staring transfixed at the city. Her hand was wrapped tightly around her chisel, and I remembered I had left mine in the doctor-thing's gut.
"Is it over? Are we safe?" I asked no one in particular, just thinking aloud and not quite believing my freedom.
She turned towards me with a curious expression, then laughed, a deep, mocking sound that echoed in the space between my ears. Then she sprinted off, disappearing into the darkness at such a speed that alarmed me at how much she must have slowed to accommodate me. She covered less than five metres before my eyes lost her. I stood there in shock for maybe ten minutes, before I sat down on the spot with my arms wrapped around my knees, crying bitter tears. It would never be over.