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The Spider's Hook

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

 

My crappy jalopy groaned in protest as I pulled into the parking lot of an old nature reserve. A brick building stood at the edge of the dense woods. I heard it had been abandoned because the city couldn’t afford to keep the place up and running. Judging from the thick vines clinging to its walls, I guessed that rumor was true.

There wasn’t a single other person in the lot, but I was fifteen minutes early. I’d been anxious to get there on time, and ended up leaving my apartment way too early. What if I misread it? What if I got the day wrong? Don’t be stupid. You read the email like three times… but what if another email was sent that I didn’t know about?

I pulled out my phone, then immediately groaned as I noticed the little “no signal” up at the top of the screen. Well, there went that plan. “Couldn’t he have picked a place a little closer to civilization,” I groaned, tossing my phone on the seat next to me.  

Finally another car -- one much nicer than mine, I noted with jealousy -- pulled into the lot. A tall, bearded man got out and stretched his arms. I recognized him to be Garret, the guy whose cubicle was next to mine. Then Darrick, with some chick I’d never seen before, pulled in.  Could we bring a friend with us? I hadn’t bothered to ask. I’m not sure I’d want to drag anyone I know all the way out here for this anyway. Slowly people filtered in, the last being the boss. It was only then that I bothered to get out of the car.

The hot midwest summer air hit me immediately. The shade of the forest would help cool us down, I hoped. “Everyone grab something and let’s head up!” My boss said, gesturing to the trunk of his van.

“We’re hiking?” Lindsey -- it took me a moment to remember her name, she was new -- asked. She’d just been hired to work in accounting despite the fact the department had just faced layoffs. She was related to the owner, according to water cooler rumors.

“Yep!” My boss said before dropping a small cooler into her hands. She didn’t seem happy but went with it regardless. “Let’s give you something light,” he said, plopping a grocery bag full of chips in my arms.

“I can take more than this.” I started to reach for another bag, but he quickly dismissed me.

“Don’t be silly,” he said, grabbing another cooler and handing it off to Garret. A few of the other guys laughed behind me. I tried to laugh along with it, even though I didn’t find it very funny,

I knew I looked scrawny. I couldn’t deny that I was probably the least muscular guy there. In high school I’d been pretty self-conscious about my appearance.

We started up the trail, the boss leading us up into the dense forest. “It’s about an hour hike,” he said, glancing back at the few of us who were straggling behind. “Maybe an hour and a half if you count the part that’s off the trail.”

“Off the trail?” I asked. Isn’t that a bit dangerous? It’s probably not a big deal. People know we went out in the woods. I mean, I didn’t tell anyone, but they probably did. Right? Oh god.

He laughed as if he sensed some nervousness from my tone. “Don’t be a worrywart. I know this area like the back of my hand.”

The trail itself was fairly easy to follow. A wide dirt path had been worn down by others over time, leaving it mostly clear of the various plants that tried to reclaim their territory. Darrick, who had worn shorts for the adventure, cursed several times as his legs brushed up against different leaves.

“I swear to god, if I get poison ivy,” he began to grumble.

“The email did say we were going hiking,” I said under my breath. I’d worn slacks, figuring if we were going to be tramping through the woods, I’d need to keep my legs safe. The only “dressy” thing I’d worn was a short sleeve button up and some random tie I grabbed from my closet.

Our leader suddenly turned off the trail, pulling us into the unknown. Here the forest became denser. We walked in a single file line past tangled branches and bushes. “Watch your step,” the boss shouted back at the group as the ground to the right of us took a steep dip.

“I’m glad I didn’t bring my son, he would have definitely tried to climb down there,” someone in front of me said. The whole party of people had become obscured by immense branches and I could now barely tell where we were going.

While the others chatted with each other casually, I found myself more concerned with our surroundings. I didn’t know how late we were planning on staying, but if it got too dark the trip back might be dangerous. The afternoon sunlight barely passed through the canopy of trees around us. What puzzled me most of all was the total lack of noise. When we first started the trip, I at least heard birds chirping above. The further we got in, the more silent it became.

Yet, suddenly the trees parted as we emerged into a small, cleared out area. A tiny gazebo with a few chairs and a table stood off the in the corner, and people quickly deposited the food and drinks there. In the center was a fire pit that looked oddly well-maintained compared to the rest of the untouched woods around us.

“Told ya we’d get there,” the boss smacked me on the back a little too hard. “Now who wants a roasted hot dog!”

I hadn’t realized just how close everyone in the office was. As much as they complained about the outing, they all settled in around the fire, roasting hot dogs and chatting about their lives. They shared stories of old memories together. The ones that were my age talked about the ridiculous stuff that went down senior year.

“Oh my god, remember when we covered literally every surface of Principal Farley's office with Christmas wrapping paper?” Lindsey giggled and Garrett quickly laughed at the memory.

“Jesus, the look on his face when he walked into his office was priceless,” he said.

“That was our senior year prank right?” I chimed in, vaguely remembering it. The day before school went out for summer break, everyone brought Christmas paper and tried to wrap everything they could get their hands on. I was too lazy to bother with an entire room, so I just I wrapped all my teacher’s staplers.

They both looked a little puzzled. “You went to Bethalto High?” Garrett asked.

“Yeah! We had Biology together,” I said, hoping that would jog his memory. “I think one time I bought the answers to a test off you, actually.”

He rolled his eyes, “oh yeah, I did use to sell those. Sorry man, I guess I forgot.”

“I honestly thought you just moved to town,” Lindsey said as she grabbed a beer from the case. Maybe it’s a good thing she doesn’t remember me. During our sophomore year, I spilled a soda all over her backpack and people made fun of her for smelling like Mountain Dew for weeks.

“What’s your name? Maybe that will jog our memory,” Garrett asked, waving for Lindsey to hand him one as well. I would have thought that they’d know, considering how small our class had been. Then again, I’d been a pretty quiet kid. There were a few embarrassing moments though, ones that I was sure would have made me notable in their minds.

At that moment, Darrick’s guest spoke up. I hadn’t noticed, but the two of them had sat down next to me by the fire. “Guys, it’s Dwight Fairfield,” she said, as if it was the obvious thing ever stated. “Come on, don’t you remember him in middle school?”

I glanced over, trying to place where I’d seen her face before. At first I thought she might be new in town, but if she knew me from middle school then that couldn’t be the case. Somewhere in the sea of faces she must have known me.  She finally gave them a hint. “He fell off the bus that one time and face planted into the ground!”

Lindsey’s face lit up. “Oh yeah, I remember that. Didn’t you stand up and like, immediately walk into the glass doors of the school.”

I felt the warm flush of embarrassment spread across my face. “Yeah, that’s me,” I said flatly. Boy am I ready for a different conversation. Time to talk about literally anything other than this.

“Aw man, I felt so bad for you,” Darrick chimed in. “I thought you had a concussion or something.”

“Nah, I was fine,” I tried to play it cool. I recalled that at the time I wasn’t fine, I was mortified. Now it just seemed like a silly thing to be embarrassed about. If that was the only story that people remembered about me though, I’d gladly be fine with that.

The conversation finally moved on from me. Usually when people catch up with their high school classmates, they brag about how great their life was going. Considering most of us were working at a failing car lot, there wasn’t much to brag about. The only way to be entertained, then, was to gossip.

When the sun started its descent, the conversations lagged. The older members of the group had just finished playing some kind of card game, and it became pretty clear that the party was about to become boring.

Of course my boss had a remedy for that. “I almost forgot!” He pulled himself out of his chair and opened up one of the coolers. “I brought you all a special gift, but you have to promise not to tell on me.” He winked at a few of the older people and they chuckled.

Out from the cooler came an old mason jar. A clear liquid sloshed about inside. The light of the fire glinted against the glass, making it look as if it was glowing against the backdrop of the dark forest.

“No way!” Lindsey laughed, then started clapping.

“Now this is an old family recipe, carried down from generations,” my boss pulled a few more jars out of the cooler and set them down.

One of the older guys -- I forgot his name -- turned to us. “This is the best damn moonshine in the whole county. Don’t let him be humble about it.”

My boss waved his hand at him, laughing. “Oh hush, let them decide that for themselves.”

“I’ve never had moonshine,” Darrick said as the boss handed him a jar. He eyed it warily, before turning to his friend. “Ladies first!”

“Uh, no,” she said, passing it to me. “I’m not going to be the guinea pig here.”

“I don’t think I should,” I said, trying to hand it off to the next person. I strictly stuck to beer, never much liking the burn of sterner booze.

“Hey, c’mon dude,” Garrett said, pushing it back at me. “You got this.”

Everyone looked at me expectantly. Even the boss, wearing a proud expression, watched for how I’d react. Rejecting it will hurt his feelings. Plus I’ll look like a wimp if I back out now.

I brought the jar up to my lips, counted to three, and gulped. The main mistake there was the gulp. Immediately the worst burning sensation of my life worked its way down my throat. My eyes watered up and an endless stream of coughs came out of my mouth. A slurry of curses ran rampant through my head. I spat out most of the drink and I swore I could see the grass withering from the touch of the stuff. I could hear the uproaring laughter around me, Garrett laughing the hardest, as someone claimed the jar from my hands.

People began popping open the jars. Garrett took a drink of his own before immediately shuddering, much to my pleasure. “Jesus, that’s some intense stuff. No wonder why you couldn’t drink this,” he failed back a chuckle as he looked at me. He meant it to be light-hearted, but the small voice in the back of my head told me I needed to prove him wrong.

“Jesus ain't got nothing to do with it kid,” someone from the Gazebo retorted.

“Wait,” I said, reaching for the jar. “Let me try again.”

Garrett raised his eyebrow at me, “You sure? I don’t think even I could handle another taste of this.”

“I can handle it,” I insisted, getting a little impatient. I realized a little too late that my tone came off accusatory.

“Oooh, I sense a competition,” Lindsey said, her smirk looking a little eerie in the firelight. “Come on Garrett, you going to let Dwight here out-drink you?”

He scoffed the second she said it, handing the jar to me and getting one of his own. Before I knew it, Lindsey had started a countdown from ten. Garrett stared me down, smirking as the others cheered him on.

“Five,” she said as someone pulled out their phone and started recording us. The camera mostly faced me. That’s where they expected the best reaction. “Four!” I looked up at the boss, wondering if he’d try to put a stop to this. He didn’t seem to care, too caught up in some conversation. “Three!” All the older members were barely looking at us, actually. “Two!” I stared down at the clear liquid which could easily be mistaken for water. “One!” My body tensed, waiting for the burn to return. “Go!”


I first became aware of the horrible ache pulsing throughout my head. Then the distinct scent of dirt. Somehow just that scent alone triggered a wave of nausea. Even though my eyes were closed, I could still feel the world spinning around me. I didn’t want to open them. Any sudden move felt like it would make me puke.

My stomach didn’t want to seem to wait. My eyes flew open as I realized that I need to sit up quickly or I’d be lying in a pool of vomit soon. My glasses were caked with grime and I could barely see the fire pit beside me. I leaned over it, waiting for the wave of sickness to finish.

I didn’t know how long I sat there puking my guts out. By the time I finished, a raging headache had taken over. There wasn’t a single soul in sight. Evidence of the party remained, but it had clearly ended long ago. I checked the watch on my wrist, then cringed at the time: 6:14 AM. I couldn’t recall anything about the party other than the moonshine. Just the thought of the stuff sent me heaving again.

Then I realized I’d gotten blackout drunk in front of everyone in my office. No longer would I be known as the kid who smacked his head on a door. I’d be the lightweight who acted like a total idiot in front of everyone he knew. I didn’t know what was worse, the bodily pains all over my body or the intense embarrassment that made me want to wither and die. If I didn’t hate myself before, I sure as hell do now.

I tried to stand, my legs shaking at first. My hand reached out of the nearest tree as I stumbled forward. God, no more stumbling. My stomach can’t take it. A part of me worried that I might still be a little drunk. When I finally lifted my head, I became aware of a new challenge. “How am I going to get out of here?” My voice came out as a scratchy whine.

There were no signs for which direction to go. Every shrub and tree that surrounded me looked the same. I instinctively reached for my phone, then remembered I’d left it in my car. Not that it would have mattered, there was no signal up here anyway. “Don’t panic, don’t panic,” I kept repeating to myself. It didn’t help. I was a nervous wreck. The claustrophobic silence helped nothing as I became acutely aware of my pounding heartbeat.

It took a while before I finally composed myself. The sky had gotten brighter, not fully day yet but a lot closer. Somehow just seeing that made me feel a little better. At least I knew I wouldn’t trip and break my neck in the dark.

The woods around town aren’t really that thick. This isn’t one of those life or death situations you see on TV. It’s not like I’m stranded up in the mountains. There aren’t even bears around Bethalto! All I have to do is pick a random direction. At the worst, I’ll be walking maybe three hours tops. Easy!  

I’ll go North. That’s North right? I stumbled past fallen trees and twisted roots. Thick vines climbed over almost every surface. Every sound of my step felt too loud in my ears. Even my own breathing was audible. I expected the warm June heat to build as time went on, but instead the forest only grew colder. A choking mist hung to the ground, swirling and sprawling as I walked through it. As time wore on, the mist grew into a thick fog.

The sky, which I could have sworn was about to turn light blue, rapidly went jet black. There’s no way, this doesn’t make sense. “Shit,” I cursed, my hand shaking as I tapped the plastic face of my watch. 6:14 AM. “Seriously?!” No phone. Dead watch. I was losing it.

Just when panic began bubbling up to the surface, I saw it. The briefest glimmer of light hidden behind the tree trunks. Freedom. My walk turned into a jog as every fiber of my being was pulled to that light. I shoved my way past branches and brush, and emerged past the treeline.

A fire crackled in the center of a clearing. The light of the flames rocked across the dark trunks of the trees and provided a small radius of light which barely pierced the darkness around me. Despite the perfect ferocity at which it burned, there was not a single person around to claim it as their own.

Chapter Text

 Meg Thomas

I could hear the cheerful tune of my alarm coming from my phone upstairs. Sometime during the middle of the night, I’d fallen asleep with it in my hands. I’ll probably find it mixed in with the sheets somewhere.

I set a plastic tray down on the kitchen counter, then loaded up the breakfast of the day. The smell of cinnamon oatmeal made my stomach grumble, but I couldn’t eat yet. That’s everything! Oh, wait a minute! I almost forgot the most important part: tea.

The sound of shuffling upstairs was right on queue. I carried up the tray, each step creaking loudly beneath me, then knocked lightly on the door.

“Come in,” I heard my mother’s groggy voice call out to me. My mom’s favorite color was yellow, and her favorite pattern was floral. The second you walked into her bedroom, that became immediately obvious. Pastel yellow everything, floral sheets and wallpaper. Every piece of furniture in her room looked like it came out of a catalog forty years ago.

“Oh Meg, you didn’t have to do this,” she said, smiling at the breakfast tray I put on the vanity. She’d just put on one of her wigs -- the long blonde one with waves just like her hair used to be. Does she do it because she’s worried about her appearance? I doubt anyone is going to see her this early in the morning. Anyone besides me, anyway.

Maybe she did it for me. I often got the feeling she didn’t want me to see her ill. I warmly smiled, placing my hand on hers. “It’s no big deal. If I’m going to go running in the mornings, I might as well make breakfast too!”

She flipped on the tiny television sitting at the corner of her room. I’d offered to buy her a flat screen but she insisted that the old-fashioned boxy TVs worked just fine. “Looks like rain is coming today,” she said with concern. “Don’t go running for too long.”

“I’ll beat the storm,” I smirked.

“What time will you be back? Joann might be visiting today.” I vaguely knew Joann, an old friend of moms. They used to work together before mom had to quit her job.

“Eight?” I took a guess. When I went out running, I tried not to worry about how long I’d been gone. Running was the rare moment where I could focus on the present.

She took a few bites of her oatmeal. “You’ll eat before you go out, right?”

“I have a breakfast smoothie waiting in the fridge,” I reassured her. Of all the things to worry about, I should be the last thing on her list. There had been a time where she stayed up all night anxious that something bad had happened to me. I knew above all else that I’d never let her worry about me again.

“Good. All that running means you’ll need to eat more,” she lectured. I wanted to roll my eyes, but I knew that would only annoy her. Right when I started to leave, she stopped me. “Oh, one more thing. I love you.”

“Love you too Mom!”

 

Nothing could beat the beauty of a sunrise. Soft blues and pinks blurred together as the light began to say hello to a new day. You can’t worry about your struggles when you see a sky like that.

My feet hit the sidewalk pavement with a steady rhythm, starting as a slow jog and easing into a run. The scenery changed from our quiet neighborhood to the main part of town. The dark store windows glared at me as I passed them by. The early morning commuters drove past, some even honking their horns at me if they recognized me.

Even though I graduated a year ago, being the star athlete at my high school still made people cheer for me. The local newspaper ran a story about my record speed. I even got scholarship offers from colleges all over the state. Then mom got sick…

I picked up speed, leaving the thought behind. Whatever, doesn’t matter, I made the right choice in the end. No one can argue with that. Even when I reached the park, I didn’t slow down. Winding trails led up from there into the mountains and I was determined to pick the longest one.

We moved to Colorado when I was a little girl. Me and mom in a crappy van, a broken radio stuck on 101.9 forever. She’d been frazzled since dad left us. I distinctly remember looking out the window and gasping at the sight of the towering mountains in the distance.

“We’re living there?” I asked, not quite believing it.

“Yep. Sweetie, I promise you it’s going to be great.” Mom had been convinced I was secretly upset about the move, but I honestly had been unphased until that moment.

Everything clicked into place, and then suddenly it didn’t. The mountains didn’t appease me. Mom annoyed me. My friends and I wanted more than what our boring little town could offer. If the coach didn’t insist I join track, I would have probably ended up in juvie.

The wind began to pick up as I made the ascent upwards. I’d forgotten to take my hair out of braids last night and now several escaped strands of blonde were whipping around my face. I thought about pulling the hood up on my jogging jacket, but the wind would probably just blow it down anyway. I thought that my body heat would have kept me warm enough, but the air was much colder than usual, and my thin sport leggings did nothing to fight off the chill.

Thick boughs arched over the rocky mountain path, blowing tensely from the wind. I could hear the whisper of leaves, but nothing else. No animals. No other joggers on the path. I knew I wouldn’t see many people out that early, but I expected to see at least a dozen on the trails. Maybe the threat of a storm scared them away? The weather channel predicted it wouldn’t happen until noon though.

Yet, the further up I went, the darker the sky got. Through the tangled branches above me, I could see that the beautiful sunrise had been drowned out by gray clouds. I remembered the promise I made myself: don’t make mom worry. I need to turn back. I hadn’t gotten too far up the trail, so getting back down wouldn’t be difficult.

Droplets began to make their way through the trees. They dabbled my pink jacket, seeping through the thin fabric. I won’t tell mom that I went to the park. She’d just get mad if she knew I risked it when the weather was forecasted to be that bad. I began making up excuses to tell her.

The trail kept going, twisting and turning in directions I didn’t remember taking. After what felt like an hour, the first thought of panic hit me. Did I somehow take a wrong turn? The trails were known to connect at certain points. I’m still heading downwards though. Surely I would have hit an exit by now.

So caught up in my thoughts, I didn’t notice the mangled root jutting out in the middle of the path. My shoe caught it, jerking my leg back as the rest of my body moved forward. The world began to rush by in a blur, then impact. I felt my bones shudder as my body tumbled downward. I could hear the cracking of foliage as I tore through it.

My body finally stopped, but I didn’t dare move. I tested my fingers first, bending them slightly. Then my arms. They ached but were obviously not broken.  I twisted my head back and forth, testing my neck. Thank god, I’m not paralyzed. That was the last thing my mom needed in her life. I rolled over onto my back and opened my eyes.

A black sky, dark as night, looked down upon me. The sight of it sent a shiver of unexplainable fear down my back. Beside me, the warmth of a roaring fire graced my cold skin.

“Hello?” A voice stammered out.

I sat up and rubbed my arms. They might not be broken, but they still hurt like hell. 

The source of the voice became evident by the only other person there. A nerdy looking guy sat at the fire, holding his knees tightly against his chest. His eyes were wide, a hint of fear hiding behind his thick-rimmed glasses. I can’t blame him. I’d be pretty startled if a lady came rolling into my campsite too.

“I am so, so sorry,” I said, quickly pulling myself off the ground. “I was trying to get home before the storm started, and I guess I wasn’t watching my step carefully enough. Um, do you know if this is the Goat Cliff trail? Or the Fern Hollow?”

“Uh, what?” He still had the same panicked expression. He’s acting kind of suspicious. Maybe this guy isn’t in the best frame of mind.

“I know it can only be one of those two. I’m not sure how I even got lost in the first place. I’ve traveled all the trails around here like a hundred times… Except, now that I think of it, I don’t actually remember this campsite being here,” I frowned. Did they add this clearing here recently? I feel like I would have noticed they were doing that though.

He looked at me like I was some kind of alien. “I don’t… I don’t know,” he finally answered, then looked back at the fire. “I don’t know where I am. I’m lost.”

“Oh!” That would explain his odd behavior. Aw, poor guy. “Hey, it happens all the time around here. I can get you out of here. If you needed help why didn’t you just say so!”

I thought that might calm him down a bit, but he only gave me a blank stare. “I’ve been stuck here for hours.” He shivered despite being so close to the fire. “I tried to hike out, but then I just ended up here again.”

“It’s easy to get turned around in the woods,” I said, nodding my head.

“That’s what I thought. But when it happened again, and again, and again…” His voice trailed off. Another shiver. He’s delusional. Maybe high? As I got closer to him, I noticed an intense smell of alcohol.

To me, that was the sign that I needed to get out of there. “Listen, I’m going to go get help,” I stated slowly as I backed away. “You stay here, and I promise I’ll send them right over to you. What’s your name? I want to make sure they know who to look for.”

Please don’t ask to come with me. Please don’t ask- “Dwight Fairfield.” A sigh of relief escaped me before I could help myself. He didn’t see to notice. He totally looks like someone who’d be called Dwight.

“Cool, well, see ya!” I awkwardly waved, then dashed back into the woods. Okay, if I just keep heading down… There was no more down, however. The woods around me had suddenly gone flat. I moved a few feet inward, fighting against branches and vines that tried to hold me back. Yet, there was no incline. Okay, so I reached the bottom, I guess. I might be close to the parking lot actually.

The black sky did nothing to help illuminate the way. I found myself tripping in the dark, scratching up my hands as I grabbed onto anything that could help me stand. The sounds of crunching leaves beneath my feet seemed far too loud. It’s too loud because it’s the only sound in the entire woods. I stopped in my tracks. The chirping insects I expected weren’t there. The animals who normally make the woods come alive seemed non-existent. I could only hear my breathing.

Whatever, no big, I’m sure there’s some reason I’m not thinking of. I forced myself to move forward despite the sense of unease that had settled inside me. Lo and behold, a few minutes of walking and I could see light glistening from beyond.

I walked as fast as I could, wishing I could run but fearing I might trip again. I burst out of the treeline and into the light.

Dwight looked up at me, completely unsurprised but still holding the same nervous expression. “Yeah, that’s what happened to me too,” he said, wrapping his arms around his knees again. That’s not possible. I broke out into a sprint, shoving my way back into the forest, only to again be spat right back out to the fire. I have to get home. This doesn’t make sense. No matter what direction I tried, it led back to the same place. The campfire no longer seemed welcoming. I have to get home to mom, she needs me! I lost count of how many tries before finally collapsing to the ground, out of breath. Dwight leaned his head down on his knees, mumbling something unintelligible. The firelight flickered and crackled as if mocking me.

Chapter Text

 Claudette Morel

The bus shuddered to a stop, jolting me awake. I didn’t remember falling asleep. One moment I’d been scrolling through my blog on my phone, the next I had my face stuck to the glass window next to me. I could see a dirty bus stop below me. A single street light stood next to it, waiting for the evening sun to set so that it could illuminate the bench beneath it.

The bus driver mumbled something into the speaker. I could barely tell what the words were except for the last few: “Chemin du Parc-National.”

That’s me. I grabbed my purse which had been laying at my feet.

“Excuse me miss,” the woman said, tapping my shoulder. “You forgot your phone.”

“Um, thank you,” I said, taking the phone from her hand. She totally saved me. I’d be so lost without this.

When I got off the bus, I barely registered the noise of it pulling away from the stop. I’d already started to scroll down a mile long message thread, too invested in the conversation. The last message was twenty minutes ago from Star Boy. 

Star Boy: Someone send me memes so I can see something funny when I wake up.

It looks like most of them are offline now. Probably sleeping.

We ran a network of blogs together, all under the name of “Research Pals.” It started off as just a fun way for me to geek out about botany, but then a few others joined in. We gained a following. Some were writers who wanted to make sure their fiction was accurate. Others were simply people who also shared a passion for learning. I loved the little blossoming community we’d made.

Science Girl: So what am I looking for exactly?

Science Girl: I’m here, btw, if that wasn’t obvious.

Travel Babe: They said they saw it all over the edge of the forest for miles. The way they wrote it makes me feel like you’d see it right away.

Grammar Blob: What if it’s a trap?

Travel Babe: I really doubt that. I looked at her blog and she seemed legit. Nice old lady.

Grammar Blob: One minute they’re a nice old lady, the next they could be a rabid granny.

Travel Babe: Hush. @Science Girl did you find anything?

I hadn’t actually moved from my spot. Every second I stood still, the light in the sky got dimmer. I needed to hurry up before it would be too dark to see anything.

It all started when Travel Babe got an email about a weird sighting in Jacques-Cartier National Park outside of Quebec City. An old woman, a tourist, claimed she saw some weird black webbing -- Halloween decorations are what she called it -- along a small portion of the park, and wondered if there was some reason the Canadians put that up.

Travel Babe didn’t live in Canada, but she was fairly certain that didn’t sound like a normal thing for us to do. She reached out to the only person in our group who lived near Quebec: me.

I’d never heard anything like that. However, it did spike my curiosity. Maybe it’s just a stupid prank, or maybe there’s some weird fungus growing out here.  

Science Girl: No, I’ve been standing out here reading your messages lol! I’m going in now.

Science Girl: The signal here is kind of bad, btw. I had to resend that last message twice.

 

I trekked my way towards the treeline, sifting my way through tall grass that badly needed to be cut. The purple sky above cast a warm light on everything around me. I should take a couple of pictures for the blog. I bet everyone would love to see how beautiful this park is!

I pulled out my phone and snapped a few pictures. Maybe I should have gotten a minor in photography. I smiled at my work, then started to tuck my phone into my back pocket. That small gesture was what made me stop.

In front of me thin strands of black web clung to the stems of the tall grass. When I read the email that Travel Babe had forwarded me, I thought it was going to look like spider web. Thin, wispy. Instead, this stuff looked almost congealed. Each strand was thick and droopy, pulling down the grass blades with its weight.

I better not touch it. It might be toxic. I pulled the sleeves of my pink button up down in an attempt to protect my arms. Luckily I’d chosen to wear my skinny jeans, so I didn’t have to worry about my legs.

I kept walking until I finally reached the treeline. Any concerns or anxieties I might have had flew out the window as I followed the trail of slimy webbing. Much to my curiosity, and even horror, I noticed that the black webbing only grew more intense in the forest.

Whatever it is, it’s taking over pretty quickly. What if it's killing the plants? And why haven’t the park rangers done anything about it? They had to know about it. If a random tourist driving by saw it, they would too. I didn’t know the protocol for this kind of thing, but I felt like the area should have at least been roped off.

While outside the forest the lighting had been fine, inside it looked dark as night. I pulled my phone and flipped the flashlight on. A little indicator at the top of my screen warned me that there was no signal. I’ll have to tell them what I found once I leave. I was going to send them pictures, but that would have to wait.

I kept following the trail of black. The wet surface reflected the light of my phone. A glimmer in the dark. The ground began to cling to the bottoms of my shoes. I shined the light down at my feet to see the black substance pooled beneath me. Oh, I just bought these! What a waste of thirty dollars.

The thought of ruining my other clothes almost made me turn back. My light dashed across the trees around me, making me stop in my tracks. Only the sound of my breathing reminded me that I was awake, that this was real.

It barely looked like a tree anymore. A pillar of black, completely consumed from top to bottom, as if someone had dumped a tub of the strange tarry liquid over the poor tree. Oh dear. The university lab needs to look at this.

I plopped my phone on the ground and started rummaging through my purse. My hands shoved past old receipts that needed to be recycled and pens that had long ago dried out. Finally, I found my little glass vial. I’ll have to come back and get a more official sample later. I don’t even know the location of this place. The official stuff could be handled later though. For now, I just wanted to examine it.

When I pushed the glass into the black slime, it surprised me how easily it flowed into the tube. Like water, it flooded in quickly, almost spilling over and onto my hand. Then, after only a few seconds, it took on a more solid form. Strange. Usually temperature can affect a substance like that, but the vial isn’t particularly hot or cold. Maybe… surface tension? Once I got home and made some coffee, I could make a more serious assessment. I made a mental note of the strange reaction, the sealed the vial back up and tucked it away in my purse.

Finding my way back should have been easy. The trail of black webbing was hard to miss. I trekked through the foliage, my phone lighting the way like beacon of hope. A thin mist hung beneath my knees, but it did little to obscure the light. The sound of the branches snapping below my shoes felt deafening compared to the silence around us. The forest shouldn’t be this quiet. I guess it is night time though. All the little creatures must be snuggled up somewhere warm. A warm blanket and cup of coffee sounded so nice. I quickened my step. The thought of home thrilled me.

I hadn’t taken any turns when I entered the forest, yet I ended up at a landmark I didn’t recognize. The trees parted but did not lead to the road I’d expected. No bus stop in sight. Instead, I found myself at the edge of a large pond with water so still it could have mistaken as a mirror.

A pond? There wasn't- that can't be... A-pond-a-pond-a oh my gosh, I’m lost! Oh my gosh! The realization felt like a bucket of ice dumped over me. No, no-no-no that’s impossible! The road should have been right there. This can’t…

I’d only been standing there for a few seconds, yes the world around me felt like it had undergone a surreal change. The lights from Quebec City always drowned out the stars, but normally a few managed to freckle the sky. Tonight, however, only inky blackness greeted me. Not even the moon could be seen smiling down.

I honestly didn’t know what to do, so I stood frozen in fear. This park is many miles long. Heading inward would be dangerous. But if I go back the way I came, isn’t that also heading inward too? My light was shining down on the water, and the only answer I got was the anxious reflection staring back at me. Nervous brown eyes begged for an answer I could give. Caught in among my dreads, a leaf clung to my hair. I pulled it out, throwing it into the water.

Maybe I should stay by the pond, right? People camp up here, and I’m sure they visit this place all the time. The water rippled as something must have startled below its surface. It must be a good fishing spot, or a swimming hole. I absentmindedly kneeled down and brushed my fingers against it. I wasn’t surprised by the frigid cold, but I was startled when I pulled my hand back out.

A small yelp escaped my lips as I recoiled back. The black liquid rolled off my skin in strange droplets. Almost like a pool of mercury, it clung together. I barely noticed that I’d lost my balance. I fell and quickly wiped my hands off on the grass. Great, if that stuff is toxic, and I’m out here in the middle of nowhere, I’ll die. Totally dead! God, I can’t do this. I… what now?

In the corner of my eye, I saw a new problem arising. A mist emerged from the trees behind me. It moved in an almost unnatural way, sweeping across the ground with a mind of its own. Thicker it grew until I could barely see the trees I’d just come from.

All my life I’d felt a sense of anxiety when it came to dealing with certain situations. Playground games felt like torture. Dates felt like walking in a minefield. Yet nothing could compare to distress that seeing that fog gave me. I scrambled up to my feet and started running beside the pond. Fog licked at my heels, not quite fast enough to catch me, but god if felt like it was trying.

I ran into the trees, feeling as if it was a mistake but knowing no other option. My heart pounded my chest. My lungs ached with each labored breath. In the back of my mind, I could hear a small voice saying you’re going to have a panic attack if you don’t calm down but even that did not stop my flight.

And then, just like that, I stumbled onto a clearing. A large campfire irradiated heat all around, it’s warmth touching my skin despite the fact I was barely close. A couple of white people sat beside it, neither speaking a word to each other. The girl had her head in her hands, and even at the sound of my approach, she didn't look up. The guy beside her smiled weakly at me.

I looked behind just in time to see a wave of fog burst through the trees. 

Chapter Text

Jake Park

When I first moved out into the woods, I thought I was going to end up like that kid that died in a bus up in the Alaskan wilderness. Alone, starving to death, and hopeless. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. My mother definitely thought I was going to die. My father probably wanted me to.

When I was supposed to be reading textbooks about businesses management, I read survival manuals. Books about the wilderness. Construction. Herbal medicine. My grades tanked. My knowledge grew. I finally felt confident enough to take care of myself.

I’d chosen to take the leftover money from the college fund I’d been given by my parents and buy a cabin out in the woods. The shittiest cabin one could find. No electricity. No plumbing. Somewhere so far away from society, you have to hike to get there. And when I found it, I bought the 20 acres of land surrounding it just to make sure not a single other soul could come near.

The first few months had been the hardest. I only had the supplies that were in my backpack when I first hiked up. No furniture. No clothes.The roof leaked over my bed -- a blanket I set on the floor -- and every time it rained the cabin creaked liked it was about to fall apart. Even the small garden I planted struggled to grow because the rain kept drowning it out.

It’s been three years.

My eyes hadn’t opened yet. Above me, a drizzle of rain hit my roof. The bed creaked underneath me as I turned onto my back. Now it was a real bed, with a sturdy wooden frame I made myself.

Three years, and you’re still going strong.

You don’t know what to expect when you make that kind of change. From the lap of luxury to the thorny embrace of mother nature. Everything you know gets turned upside down. I moved because I felt like I didn’t know myself anymore. I thought the woods would somehow help me soul-search. I thought I’d be getting introspection. 

People thought I did it for mysticism or religion. I didn’t. I did it because every second I spent under that intense pressure of my family, I wanted to die. And if I was going to die, I might as well do it out in the woods in peace.

I did find peace, but it wasn’t the peace of death. When you go out into the woods -- not for a week-long getaway with wifi, but actually immerse yourself -- you realize just how meaningless most of the stresses society puts on you are. GPA, GOP, DOW-- seriously, who the fuck cares. All that melted away the second I got into those woods. It was just me, some trees, and the true meaning of life: survival.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t completely get away. Every few months my mother would appear outside my cabin to check up on me. She did it at first to make sure I hadn’t died. It became clear I was self-sufficient, yet she still visited. Nothing would dissuade her from hiking an hour up into the mountain.

A knock at the door brought her back to my memory. I wonder who that could be? It’s not like there’s literally only one person in the entire world that ever visits me. I let out a sigh as I mustered up the will to get out of bed.

Another knock. “Hold on,” I said gruffly, pulling off the wool blanket she’d given me last time. I stumbled my way out of the bedroom and into the kitchen, the second and only other room in the entire cabin. “You know it’s unlocked,” I said, swinging the door open.

A short, slender woman stood out in the rain, fiddling with the zipper of her black hoodie. The second she saw my face, she smiled. “Jake,” she simply greeted me, then pulled me into a tight hug.

Whenever I thought about my family, only negative images ever appeared in my head. My body would tense up. My heart hardened. My face instinctively scowled. Yet, whenever I saw my mother, the ice thawed a bit, even when I wished it wouldn’t.

Safe from the rain, she pulled her hood down, releasing a wave of long black hair. My mother was born in Korea, but moved to America midway through her life. I took after her in almost every aspect, especially in appearance. The same hooked nose, brown eyes, thin lips, thick hair: honestly, I doubted I inherited anything from my father, but maybe that was wishful thinking.

The first time she visited, I hated her guts. The conversation, in which she tried to convince me to come back home, had turned ugly. She accused me of all hiding all sorts of things.

 

“You’re just coming out here because you’re too afraid of who you are on the inside,” she hissed. “What are you so afraid of that you have to come all the way out here to deal with it?”
“I’m not afraid of anything,” I argued.

“Is it a drug addiction? Alcoholism?”

I scowled, “What? No!”

“Are you gay?”

I rolled my eyes, knowing that my father probably had put that thought in her head. Just another supposedly evil thing he thought I'd be guilty of. “No, I’m not gay.”

“Unfortunately not. I would have rather had a gay son than a non-existent one.”

 

We never talked about that fight. I wondered if she even remembered it.

“I know you hate when I bring you things,” she began as she sat down in the single chair at the kitchen table. I never really needed more than one. “But I saw these and figured you might like them a bit more than what you’re currently wearing.” Out of her backpack, she pulled a paper parcel, then handed it to me. “Go on!”

I really should just stop accepting her gifts. She never gave bad ones though. It was always something I actually needed. I pulled out a set of clothes. Thick brown cargo pants obviously meant to withstand stress.

“They’re waterproof too,” she said with a gleam in her eye. Even though my neutral expression hadn’t changed, she somehow knew I loved them. Next came an olive green jacket, lined with wool on the inside. “With winter coming, you’ll need something to keep warm.”

“I feel bad,” I sighed as I folded up the clothes and gently laid them on the table. “I don’t have anything for you.”

“I don’t need anything,” she said, waving the thought away. “Just coming up here and seeing you are okay is a gift enough.”

She stayed for a couple hours, questioning all my recent projects. I’d started preparing for winter, even though it was only June. Can’t be to careful when it comes to the deadliest season of the year. No matter what I showed her, be it the collection firewood or my garden, she seemed interested.

“You’re saving up food right?” She asked as she slung her backpack back onto her shoulders. She looked over at a little shelving system I installed by the fireplace. A few canned goods were in place, but of it was just empty mason jars.

“I’m starting to. I think I’m going to have to save up more than usual this year. Almost all my traps have been turning up empty for months.” I had a number of rabbit traps set all around the woods. Normally they kept me fed well enough that I didn't have to eat so much from my garden. 

“I guess they are catching on to your tricks,” she laughed, then patted me on the shoulder. “I love you. I’ll see you in a few months.”

“I love you too,” I said, the words sounding strange coming out of my mouth. “Be careful hiking out of here. Don’t get lost.”

She waved goodbye. I watched her gracefully glide past the trees until finally out of sight. I tied those rope railings to the trees all the way down. She’ll be alright if she follows them. The sun hadn’t even started setting but I still felt worried. She didn’t normally stay that late.

I started up a fire in the fireplace. A serving of vegetable soup was left in the pot, all ingredients coming fresh from my garden. All it needed was a little reheating. Microwaves may be faster, but they don’t have the benefit of heating up your house too.

While the food got warm, I decided to try on the clothes she’d given me. I pulled off my ragged jacket, the gray fabric now stained after many months of hiking through the woods. My jeans were in just about the same state. I’ll need to patch up some of those holes. These could easily last a couple more months. I tossed them into a crate I’d designated for laundry. In the morning I could go to the creek and wash them out.

I slipped into my new outfit easily. Why yes, my mom does still dress me. I chuckled to myself, admiring the warmth the jacket surrounded me in. How did she know what size to get? At the start of summer, I had started to get slimmer, more muscular. Somehow she had accounted for that even without seeing me.

The wind outside began to whistle as it picked up speed. I ate my soup, listening to the angry gusts blowing through tree leaves. The sounds of a storm were the most soothing music I could listen too. I closed my eyes, letting myself be raptured by nature’s anger.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

If I hadn’t been so focused on listening, I wouldn’t have heard it. The three subtle knocks coming from outside. I opened my eyes and sat very still. Did I hear that right?

Knock. Knock. Knock.

That’s definitely real. “Mom?” I asked, so quiet that she couldn’t have heard me.

Yet, the handle clicked. Everything inside felt still compared to the hell breaking loose outside.

The door burst wide open and whipped back and forth on its hinges. The wind screamed as it blew out my already dwindling fire. I jumped out of my chair to wrestle the door shut, then stopped as I saw a figure dash back into the woods. They moved so fast they were a blur that melted into the darkness.

“Hey, wait just a minute,” I shouted, walking out into the cold. I slammed the door shut behind me. “You get off my property, you hear me!” My voice sounded stern even though on the inside I was terrified. Who the hell would be wandering around here this late at night? Jesus christ, what if they were trying to break in? I had a gun underneath my bed, just in case someone tried.

When only the wind responded to my calls, I felt a little relieved. The rational side of my brain took over. They were probably lost. Maybe a scared camper who didn’t know it was going to storm. You probably scared them more than they did to you.

I walked a little bit more into the woods, listening for any other sounds. “Hello?” I called out one last time, expecting nothing.

A foreign noise answered back. It took me a moment to recognize it as the clinking of machinery. “What the…” If its loggers, I swear to god… No one is allowed to touch my woods. No one. I followed the noise, the faster I moved the louder it got. Just when the noise got deafening, I reached a barrier. A wall of fog shrouded the mysterious machine. I could hear its deafening roar just on the other side. All I had to do was walk in to it.

When I pushed through, I stood in the middle of a decaying building, filled with machinery that hadn’t run in decades. Large paneled windows, once impressive but now shattered, covered the walls. Not that it mattered anyway. No light could escape the dismal, gray sky above anyway. A metal walkway hung far above me, overlooking an enormous rusted vat that smelled rank of decay. There were no signs of life, save for the quiet thudding of a heartbeat.

A heartbeat which was not my own.

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

The girl with a strange accent had just finished telling me her name. Claudette Morel. She was short and slim, her skin a russet, reddish-brown. She stumbled over the words, barely making eye contact with me.

One moment I was introducing myself to yet another stranger who stumbled into the woods. The next, a thick gray fog surrounded us, much like the one I saw before I arrived at the fire. Not again, please no.

Suddenly it felt like I’d been deprived of all my senses. I could see nothing past the dark gray. The sound of the fire left me so that silence was my only company. I reached out for Meg, who had been sitting beside me, but my hands clasped onto nothing.

I shakily got to my feet. Something’s wrong. Terribly wrong. I took a few steps forward. My legs brushed against tall grass, but I had a distinct feeling that I wasn’t actually getting anywhere.

Then, just like that, the fog released its prisoner. It unraveled itself from my presence. I found myself standing among trees and large boulders. Crates laid decaying in the distance, along with a labyrinth of brick walls. The first thing that I noticed, however, was the smell.

It was gross. Like rust and oily rags from the auto shop back at work, but more intense. It made me gag a bit. I stumbled backward and leaned on a nearby tree for support. The small hope that this was all a dream faded. No dream could make that stench. And if it did, it would’ve woken me up.

There’s no way I walked in here through the fog. I only took a few steps. Right? The cozy campfire was nowhere in sight. In fact, there seemed to be no signs of life at all, save for a few black crows perched on a nearby crate.

Okay, so, I was, uh, teleported somewhere. That’s definitely on the list of new experiences today. The question is, did the others come with? And are we finally out of the woods? I moved towards the brick walls. The deep red looked almost purple under the navy sky. I trailed my fingers across the cracked surfaces. They felt rough against my hands, but the feeling almost calmed me. It gave me something else to think about.

Each piece of wall seemed unconnected with the next. At first, I thought they had been part of some demolished building, but the layout made no sense. It’s like they built randomly. Just a bunch of corner pieces tossed around without reason.

I weaved my way through the nonsensical structure. As I passed a windowed wall, I saw a large industrial building that piqued my interest. A landmark, impossible to miss. My heart skipped a beat at the thought of finally seeing people again. I jumped through the window with very little grace, nearly falling flat on my face as my shoe got caught on the window ledge.

I felt something hard hit my feet as I tried to regain my balance. A metallic clank responded to the touch. All I could see was the tall grass which thickly covered the ground. I crouched down and pushed the grass aside.

A crude and rusty looking trap laid at my feet. It didn’t look like it had been set. Its metal teeth were clenched tightly shut, but somehow that didn’t make me feel better. My hands started to shake. If that had been set when I climbed out that window… I shuddered. I didn’t know much about hunting or the materials used for it, but I was fairly certain that was a bear trap. Am I going to have to worry about bears around here? I’m definitely going to have to worry about tetanus...

I turned my attention back to the building ahead of me. A factory of some sort was my guess. A large entrance faced me, along with a winding staircase that traveled across the face of the building. At first glance, the shattered glass and rusted exterior made me think it had been abandoned for ages. However, the flickering fluorescent lights that hung from the ceiling told a different story.

Maybe someone inside has a phone. I don’t even know who’d I call. My boss? I don’t know if I’ve been fired. I might have done something really stupid after all that drinking… After that night, I thought I wouldn’t have another drink for at least a year. Suddenly, having something to calm my nerves didn’t sound so bad.

“Meg?” I called out as I walked inside. My voice echoed lightly. Large machinery -- I couldn’t even begin to guess what it was -- took up most of the floor space. Above me were walkways which lead to some other room. “Claudette?”

I thought the building would be full of workers running around, doing whatever it is you do in a factory. Obviously, the place wasn’t up and running, but I expected a demolition crew, maintenance, anything really. Maybe upstairs? They wouldn’t leave the lights on in a place like this with no one around, right?

A generator stood in the corner of the room, next to the large machinery. I wouldn’t have noticed it if it weren’t for the fact that it stuck out like a sore thumb. While everything else was coated in flaking rust, the generator looked untouched by the elements. The shiny metal reflected a warped version of my face. It’s bright red paint stood out amongst the dull colors of the walls and floor. Is this what’s powering the lights? It’s not running though...

My eyes scanned the room as I ascended up the staircase. The second my feet touched the metal, the sound ricocheted around the room. My breath got just a little more ragged. Even my heartbeat, which strangely seemed louder than before, began to beat fast. I’m literally freaking out over the sound of my own steps. What the hell is wrong with me? Next I’m going to see my shadow and have a heart attack.

Now above the machinery, I had a good view of everything below. Thankfully, I didn’t suffer from a fear of heights. Everything else, yes, but not heights. However, at a certain point in the walkway a large portion of the railing was missing, which did cause a certain queasiness to invade my stomach.

I stood at the gap of the railing and looked down. All I would have to do is trip and end up impaling myself. Whatever that machinery does, I’m sure it wouldn’t work well with a body stuck on it. My heartbeat got louder, faster.

Below me, the machine had a wide, circular opening. The fluorescent light flickered. A thick sludge coated the insides. With each flash on the light, my mind tried to decode what it was seeing. Bits of ivory sticks stuck out of the sludge. Chunks of red ooze. A skull, mouth agape, peered back up at me.

“Oh… OH,” it clicked in place. I took a step back, but my feet found no ground beneath me. I hadn’t realized how close I was to the edge. I stumbled backwards off the walkway. My hands grappled onto the metal grate flooring just in time to stop me from falling completely off. I found myself hanging in the air with only my fingers -- which were ever so slowly sliding out of the metal holes-- holding me up.

The heartbeat pounded in my head so loudly I thought it would split. Sweat dripped from my forehead as I tried to muster up the strength to climb back up. Just the act of holding on made my muscles shudder. Years of sitting around playing DND were catching up to me. The metal began to cut into my fingers, causing droplets of blood to roll down my hands and arms.

Loud footsteps echoed on the paved floors. Heaving breathing. Finally, someone can save me. Yet, as I looked down at the newest visitor, something about his appearance made me stop.

Scars and lacerations covered his grimy skin. Mangled pieces of metal protruded out of his bulky shoulders. In certain areas, his skin split between the metal spikes, revealing rotted flesh that should have received medical attention a long time ago. Despite these wounds, which would have left me crawling on the floor in agony, he acted as if he didn’t notice them.

Someone had carved a comical grin on the face of the mask he wore. Where the lips parted, I could see no hint of his face. Only blackness and a bit of blood that stained the jagged teeth that stuck out around the mouth.

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. He stood below me, looking at the generator. His head was only a mere few inches away from my feet as I dangled above him. The only sign of emotion I could gather was the sound of intense, heavy breathing.

The heartbeat raced, and I realized then that it wasn’t my own. The sound was coming from him.

He patrolled the room, stopping by the staircase. For the briefest moment, I thought he might come up, but instead, he stepped through an empty window frame and walked away. The heartbeat became muted before finally stopping.

A gasp escaped my lips. I didn’t know how long I’d been holding my breath, but my head felt light.

“Hold on,” a tense voice came from above me as two hands grabbed my arms.

“Fuck!” I’d been so focused on what was happening below, I didn’t realize someone had been up on the walkway with me. My hand slipped, both from the stream of blood and the surprise of his voice.

“I got you,” he promised, hoisting me back up to safety. Another muscular guy, though this one seemed a lot safer to be around. I held on to his arm, waiting for the shaking in my legs to stop before I let go.

“You scared the shit out of me,” I said as I started to assess the damage. Deep gashes cut across my fingers. “I think I need stitches. Do they put stitches on fingers? I don’t think so, but I don’t know…”

He ignored my rambling and started looking at my hands. My health class in high school would have warned him about touching a stranger’s blood, but he didn’t seem to care. He unzipped his jacket, then tore a piece of fabric off his shirt and wrapped it around my hand. “Sorry if this hurts,” he said, squeezing tightly. “We need to keep pressure on it for a bit to help stop the bleeding. Once we get out here, you can find a doctor to deal with this.”

“It’s not a big deal,” I said more to myself than him. He probably thinks I’m whiny. Who gets this upset over a few cut fingers? But if it is a serious injury… “Right?”

“The cuts are pretty deep, but I think it’ll be fine,” he nodded. For a few minutes, we stood in silence. He looks pretty rugged. Not creepy rugged, like that guy down there but, wild? He looked like he rolled out of bed just in time to save me. His thick, black hair stuck out all over, and he had a bit of a scruffy beard growing.

The pressure on my hand stung, but the adrenaline still pumping through me made the pain barely noticeable. “I’d be more worried about the guy we just saw.”

Oh yeah, that guy. There were too many things to focus on. “He looked like he needed medical attention.”

“He was carrying a weapon,” he said, letting go of my hand.

“A weapon?!” My voice went up a few notes. I tried to play it off. “Ahem. I guess I didn’t notice.”

“You didn’t notice the bloody cleaver?”

“Listen, I was a little preoccupied with not falling on his freaking head,” I defended my lack of perceptiveness. “Right now, we need to focus on getting out of here. Have you seen anyone else?”

He shook his head. That’s probably a good thing if there’s someone dangerous running around. “Have you gone up there?” I pointed at the office at the end of the walkway. Again, he shook his head. “Maybe there’s a phone or something we can use to get help.”

This time I was careful to keep hold of the railing.

When the office was new, the interior windows would have given the occupant a good view of the work happening below. Did it have a good view of the people melting inside that vat? I shuddered to think of an explanation for what I saw. Just another thing I really didn’t need to think about.

Unfortunately, the office provided very little besides that. A doorway led to some outside area and there was a box pushed up against the wall. “You search that, I’ll keep watch,” the stranger said.

I carefully opened it, half expecting to see something horrible inside. Instead, I saw mostly junk, scraps of clothes, bits of metal. I started to sift through for anything that would be useful. “I’m Dwight Fairfield, by the way,” I introduced myself.

“Jake Park,” he answered. So I guess he’s Korean. That would be rude to ask right? Probably shouldn’t piss off the guy that saved my life.

“You wouldn’t happen to know how we got here, would you?” I asked as I pulled out a shirt. A little embroidered logo was sewn into the right chest pocket. Macmillan Mines.

“I heard some noises out in the woods. Machinery. Next thing I knew I was in this place,” he said. “I’m guessing you don’t know either.”

“No,” I said, tossing the shirt aside.

“Hey, come look at this,” he whispered.

He grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the doorway. We were high up, overlooking the small pocket of woods that surrounded the building. I could see brick walls off in the distance, surrounding the whole area, but nothing beyond that. Just blackness.

Below, bending over a blanket of grass, I saw the man in the mask. A red light glowed at his feet, making him impossible to miss. “What is that?” I asked. Jake shrugged, obviously knowing no more than me. The man in the mask continued to shuffle the grass with his hand, then walked off in the opposite direction of us.

Jake walked outside. I followed him out onto what seemed to be a fire escape. Of course, the railing was missing. Whoever ran this place clearly did not care about safety.

We reached the end of the stairs just as a shrill scream came from the labyrinth of brick walls to our right.

“I have to help them,” I said, surprised at the words coming out of my mouth.

“We should go get help,” Jake said, grabbing my arm to stop me.

“It could take hours to get help, and we don’t know if this person has that much time. What if that masked guy heard them? He might be one of those murderers you hear about on the news! Like that, uh, M-Mayers guy in Haddonfield!”

“He might be killing them right now,” Jake said flatly. “I’m not going over there. You can if you want, but I’m getting help.” He walked off into the woods, not even glancing back at me.

I found myself frozen for a moment. They might be dead. If I go over there, I might end up dead too. But if that were me over there and I was still alive, I would want someone to come help me.

I looked back at Jake, who had now disappeared into the trees. What the…? Even though I shouldn’t be able to see him, I did in a weird way. The feeling was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. I could see the faintest yellow outline from where I knew he was. Just like I could feel him moving away from me, I could also feel the presence of someone suffering not too far away. This had no light with it, but I could still feel it. It was like a little voice in the back of my head, whispering that someone was in trouble. They aren’t dead, but they are in danger.

I edged my way to the brick walls, listening carefully for any sign of a heartbeat beside my own. I wandered through the labyrinth until I heard the quiet sound of crying coming from behind the wall in front of me. I turned the corner.

Tears were streaming down Meg’s face. A gore covered hook was wedged in her shoulder, keeping her suspended high up in the air. A large slash across her chest coated her body in blood, and a second one on her neck wasn’t helping things either.

“Help me,” she cried, her hand reaching out for mine.

The sound of her voice was the only thing keeping me from freezing. A million thoughts were running through my head. This has to be a dream. There’s no way this can really be happening to us. How the hell am I going to get her off this hook? And if I can even do that, how is she going to survive? “I’m going to get you down from there,” I promised, my voice shaking so much that I doubted it comforted her at all.

I looked at the base of the hook, hoping to find some kind of lever or button to lower her down. The metal base seemed sturdy. There were screws at the front that looked like they were attached to the pole holding the hook up, but I had no way to loosen them. There’s no time to do that anyway. She’s bleeding to death right now.

“I think I’m going to have to pull you off,” I warned her.

“I don’t care what you do, just please help me,” she sobbed. “I tried to pull myself off but I think I just made it worse.”

I gently placed my hands under her arms and pushed her up. It looked painful, but that goes without saying. A sickening, wet sound came from the hook as I pulled it out of her shoulder. The worst part was feeling it, the way the metal scraped along muscle and bone on the way out, the wet squish of my hand on her bloody shirt. She clenched her teeth, hissing back a scream as I pulled her off. As soon as her feet touched the ground, she collapsed in my arms and buried her face in my shoulder.

I could feel a wet warmth soaking through my clothes as her blood seeped through my shirt. “I don’t want to die,” she whimpered. “Please don’t let me die.”

“I won’t,” I said. I don’t know how I can keep us safe, but I have to. I pulled the bandage off my hand and held it against her shoulder. A gaping hole had been left behind from the hook, and it gushed with blood. “I think if I put pressure on it, it should help stop the bleeding a bit?” I said, remembering what Jake said. There’s no way this is going to work. There’s too much blood, the wounds are too big and deep. I need a bigger bandage.

I dropped the soaked rag onto the ground, fully prepared to rip off a section of my shirt to help her. Yet, as soon as the cloth left her skin, the wound had stopped bleeding. This doesn’t make sense, she should be hemorrhaging blood.

“Dwight?” She asked, touching her shoulder, then winced. Muscle glistened from within the wound. She shouldn’t be able to move her arm. I’ve seen enough Stories From the ER to know that kind of thing gets you an amputation. Her eyes were wide with fear. “What just happened?”

“I don’t know, but we need to get out of here before--”

Another scream in the distance made us both jump.

“Not again,” she gasped, her hands clutched tightly onto my shirt.

“We have to save them,” I said. She started to shake her head. “Meg, no, listen to me. We are in this together, all of us, and we need to protect each other too.”

“You didn’t see that man, no, that thing that attacked me.” Her voice shook. Some memory, one that would probably terrify her for the rest of her life, flashed across her face. She pulled away from me turned in the opposite direction of the scream. I wonder if she can sense them too?

“I did see him, and that’s exactly why I came over here to save you!” I insisted. She stopped for a second, giving me the time to push the subject. “Big burly guy with a mask, right?” She nodded, barely turning to look at me. “I knew I couldn’t leave anyone alone with someone that terrifying. We have to save them before he does something worse to them. You know it’s true. You can sense it, right?”

“Y-yes,” she said, her face falling to the ground. “They aren’t far from here.”

“I promise, we’ll go save them, and then we’ll leave right after that.”

She sighed, “Fine. But if I see that guy, I’m getting out of there, you hear me?”

“That’s reasonable,” I agreed. Another scream, this one coming from a familiar voice. Jake. We started edging our way to the first person. I assumed it would be Claudette, though I hoped it wouldn’t. I wish it could just be no one, but I guess that’s not possible.

“It’s in the basement,” Meg whispered. She stuck close to my side as we walked forward. “I… I don’t know how I know that.”  The basement in the shack. The thought sounded like my voice, but I had no idea what that meant. “It’s like there’s a compass in my head that’s telling me exactly where to go.”

A heartbeat drummed as soon as we caught sight of the shack. The deep blue sky tinted the fog that hung close to the ground, giving the decaying building an ethereal glow. There, in the doorway, I saw a tall shadow pass by.

“I’ll go first,” I said, giving her a reassuring nod. “Stay crouched low to the ground and follow me. The fog should give us a little bit of cover.”

I waited a beat. My heartbeat drummed faster as the masked man exited the shack and took off in another direction. Towards Jake. He’s checking up on his catch. I scooted forward, slipping through the doorway with Meg close behind. Another odd building with no purpose. Red closets, probably for storage, were against one wall. A lone generator sat in the middle of the room.

Meg pointed to the staircase leading down. The heartbeat began to pick up just a little bit. Her eyes widened. “We need to move, now,” she said, dashing down the stairs.

Before I even got to the bottom, the smell of death invaded my senses. Rank decay unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The scent must have hit Meg too hard. As soon as she got to the bottom, she threw up.

Blood and entrails coated the floor. A black mist hung around the ceiling of the room, flowing from cracks in between the wooden boards of the walls and ceiling. Bright orange and yellow lights glowed from behind the walls. Lights from where?

In the center of the room were four hooks. Claudette hung on the one closest to the entrance.

“Help… me,” Claudette choked. A trickle of blood flowed out of her mouth and down her lips.

The heartbeat roared. “He’s coming,” Meg hissed, looking behind us. I pulled Claudette off, this time much smoother than before. Blood soaked the front of her shirt. There was no time to tend to her wounds. We had to run.

We started for the stairs but fell back at the sight of the man staring us down from above. He tilted his head, his breathing almost as loud as the heartbeat that drummed off him. Claudette kept her hand on my shoulder, barely able to keep standing.

He readied his cleaver. Fresh blood dripped from its rusty blade. The only way out is through him. I stood in front of Claudette, knowing if he hit her she wouldn’t last.

Suddenly he jolted down the stairs, swinging his cleaver. It made a whipping sound as it swooshed just a mere inch away from my face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his hand reaching for me. With one swift movement, he jerked me to the side and took a swing at Claudette.

“No!” I screamed as the cleaver wedged its way into her neck.

Her mouth opened to scream, but only a gurgle came out. She collapsed to the ground, clutching the spurting wound.

Meg retreated further back into the basement, behind the hooks. He either forgot about me and Claudette or simply just didn’t care. He followed her down, swinging wildly. She was caught having to run around him, and both sides screamed danger. When she tried to go right, he swung right. When she went left, he went left. A swift smack to her back sent her flying into the wall. Our eyes connected. A look of pure, unadulterated fear became mangled as the cleaver cut into her face. Then again. And Again. Her body slipped to the ground, the remains of her head spilled out on the floor.

The man looked at me, then the barely conscious Claudette at my feet. He grabbed her by the leg and pulled her toward him, before lifting his cleaver high up in the air.

I scrambled to my feet and headed up the stairs. I could still hear the dull thud as his cleaver tore into her back. They’re dead. Oh my god they’re dead. Images of Meg were burned across my mind. My stomach lurched. Everything screamed at me to stop moving, but I couldn’t. I have to save Jake.

I kept running, now heading back to the main building. It’s just past the foundry and up the hill. Up the… hill? I hadn’t been on that side of the building before. I ran through the building, jumping over lose bits a machinery that had fallen off, and exited on the other side.

A rocky hill with a hook on top, just like I thought. But how did I know? There Jake dangled, his groan audible even from where I stood. It’s time for me to return the favor. A heartbeat, dull and slow, began to drum in my ears. I didn’t have much time.

I broke out into a sprint, up the base of the hill.

Jake lifted his head at my approach. His eyes widened. “Watch out-” He shouted just as a metallic clanking noise snapped at my feet.

Metal teeth gripped onto my leg as I stumbled over the bear trap. A deafening yelp of pain escaped me. A slurry of internal screams and curses made it impossible to hear anything else. Jake was shouting something at me, but all I could do was look at the metal tearing into my skin. Every move, even minor, made it clamp down even harder.

Everything seemed to move so fast. Too fast. My brain couldn’t comprehend any of it. My hands were trying to pull its jaws apart before I recognized I’d even moved them.

Jake grabbed onto the base the hook, trying to pull himself off. A ripping noise. Curses. Everything feels so light. The pain in leg dulled. My fingers started to bleed again as the metal trap resisted my pull. I just want this to end. A heartbeat pounded out my thoughts. A thud from behind me.

“Dwight!” Jake pushed my hands out of the way and pulled the jaws of the trap apart like it was nothing. How did he…? “Hurry!” He grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me to my feet. The heartbeat roared in my ears. A red light flashed across his face just something heavy hit me in the back of my head.

I hit the ground, squishing my glasses into my face hard enough I heard the frame crack.

Consciousness became nearly impossible. I could smell and taste dirt. Behind me, I could hear Jake screaming as the hook tore into him again.

Heaving breathing invaded my ears as the masked man lifted me up. He kicked his bear trap out of the way as he carried me down the hill. I tried to fight it, instinctually. Each kick made me groan in pain as I tried to squirm out of his arms.

And then suddenly none of that mattered. Nothing mattered because all I could feel was the sharp pain of something tearing through my body. I looked down and saw the metal hook protruding out my shoulder.

The masked man watched from below, his eyes locking onto mine.

At least my life isn’t flashing across my eyes. I don’t need to be dying and depressed.

Black, spindly arms formed around all around me like a cage. I looked up just in time to see one poised for attack. It swung down on my body, impaling my chest before I could register the movement. The last thing I saw was the masked man -- The Trapper -- nod his head and walk away.

Chapter Text

Meg Thomas

 

My arms flailed wildly as something propelled me upward. A bitter taste filled my mouth as I gasped for breath. I can’t breathe! My fingertips reached upwards, a nip of cold air hitting them. I started to kick my feet to move faster. Finally, I breached the surface.

If it weren’t for the campfire barely visible on the other side of some trees, I would have I thought I was in a void. The black sky above and the black water I floated in looked endless.

My lungs burned as I gasped in deep breaths. I felt like I’d just gone on the worst run of my life. Everything hurt: my ribs, my arms, my back. A splitting headache made me want to sink back into unconsciousness.

Somehow I gathered the will to swim my way to the bank of the pond. I collapsed on the ground, my feet still slightly touching the water. Cold air assaulted me and my wet clothes, but I didn’t quite have the strength to go to the fire yet.

I remembered seeing Claudette’s body slumped over onto the floor. Dwight’s face as he held on to her, trying to stop a river of blood flowing from her neck. A glint of silver caught my eye as that awful man swung. He hit me in the face. I winced at the memory. I touched my nose, which I felt like should be broken. Not even a scratch.

Everything else was a blur. I remembered brief pain, then waking up almost drowning. Did everyone else die? That girl, Claudette, looked in pretty bad shape when I last saw her. Dwight might have saved her though. He sounded pretty intent on it.

I wandered over to the fire and sat down. The warmth helped cure some of my problems, but it didn’t stop the headache or the muscle soreness. I also couldn’t help the gloomy feeling that had settled in. Not quite sadness, but more like everything around me felt dull.

The sound of splashing came from behind me. I started to stand up, but my legs protested. Whatever, they’ll come over here. Apparently random people just come crashing through these woods all the time.

A terrified and tired Claudette approached. All evidence of the gash in her neck was gone. Her clothes, previously bloody, were clean albeit soaking wet. As soon as she looked at me, she gasped. “You’re alive?” Her voice shook.

“Apparently,” I said flatly. I knew this should be shocking to me, but I didn’t have the energy to freak out. The trauma of the day bled me dry, emotionally and probably physically.

“I’m alive,” she said. She put her hands on her chest, right above her heart, like she was about to have a heart attack.

“I hope so,” I said with a weak grin. “I can’t deal with ghosts right now.”

“Me neither.” She plopped down on the ground next to me and held her hands out to the fire. She ran a hand through her hair, brushing a few of her dreadlocks out of her face. Occasionally she’d give me a glance. I got the feeling she wanted to say something, but she didn’t.

“I’m Meg, by the way,” I said, reaching over to shake her hand. “I don’t think I got the chance to introduce myself earlier.”

“Claudette,” she shook my hand gingerly. “You, uh, seemed out of it when I saw you last time.”

“Yeah, I guess I was.” I shook my head and shrugged. All I could think about was Mom. She’s probably called the police by now. Has it been over a day? The sky is still black.

I hadn’t heard water this time, but another person entered into the campsite. A rugged, Asian guy with an unreadable expression. He looked at me, then Claudette. “Hi there,” I said, waving at him. “Welcome to the party.”

He pulled off his jacket and threw it onto a nearby branch. If I wasn’t wearing a white shirt underneath this, I’d do the same. The wet fabric had barely begun to dry.

I got the feeling both of my new friends weren’t much for talking. Claudette seemed shy while this guy… I didn’t really know what to make of him.

“I’m Meg, this is Claudette,” I introduced ourselves. Claudette smiled shyly.

“...Jake,” he said, maintaining a gaze on the fire. He didn’t sit down but still lingered close by.

“So, this is going to sound odd, but did you happen to see a big guy with metal… bits sticking out of him?” I asked. He nodded. “And I’m guessing he attacked you.”

“Yep.”

“And then you ended up on a hook?” I didn’t feel like dragging the whole story out of him piece by piece, but that was exactly what was happening.

“Yeah.”

Jesus, getting answers out of this guy is impossible.

“What happened to that one guy. Uh, Dwight,” Claudette interrupted my interrogation.

“He’s either dead or dying,” Jake said bluntly. “Last I saw him he was being carried off by that trapper.”

“Oh,” she said, looking down at the ground. “He tried to save me.”

He shrugged, still silent. We sat there watching the fire for a while before a conversation finally picked up again. “Well, I’m going to get help. You guys can stay here, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” he checked his jacket but left it hanging there when he noticed it was still too wet.

“Where are you going?” Claudette asked.

“The nearest town is about a three-hour walk. I’m not sure where we are, but I know these woods pretty well. I can easily hike out of here.” He said it with such confidence. Yeah, I thought I knew these woods pretty well too, yet here we are.

“I’m coming with you,” Claudette said, scrambling to her feet. “Meg, come-” She stopped, yelping as she looked behind me.

For a moment, my mind conjured up some awful image of a killer lurking behind me. When I heard his voice though, the image was suddenly laughable. “That’s not going to work,” Dwight said as he sat at the fire. “You’re just going to end up back here.”

“I seriously doubt that,” Jake said, rolling his eyes. “I’ve lived here for years and never once got lost.”

I think I know a way to settle this argument.   “Hey, you two, before you go, I do have one more question: Where are we located right now?”

“In the woods,” Jake answered.

“No, dummy, I mean what state are we in.”

Claudette frowned. “We’re in Quebec.”

Jake looked at her like she was crazy. “No, we’re in Alaska.”

“Before all this happened, I was in Illinois,” Dwight said, giving me a knowing look.

“That’s funny because when I went for a jog this morning, I was definitely in Colorado.” I shrugged.

“That’s impossible,” Jake said. I think we’re going to be saying that about a lot of things now.

“Guys, lets just-” Dwight looked up in time to see Jake storm off through the trees.

“Is he going to be okay?” Claudette asked, looking after him. “Hey, Jake, wait!” She ran after him without even waiting for our response.

“Well then,” Dwight sounded irritated. He, too, also must have emerged from the pond, judging from the state of his hair and clothes. He looked like a wet dog that just got done with a bath.

“Hey, you got something on your glasses,” I said, reaching for the bit of black slime that stuck to the rim.

“That water, or whatever it is, is disgusting,” he groaned. “I’m probably never going to get my glasses clean again.”

“What do you think happened to us? Like, I swore I was dead, and then I woke up about to drown,” I shook my head, knowing it was impossible to comprehend.

He stared into the flames. “I wish I knew. I literally watched you get murdered. There’s no way you should be sitting beside me but you are. I,” he paused, glancing over at me. “I’m glad you’re back though.”

I could hear the sound of branches and leaves being disturbed. “They’re almost back,” I said, wondering if that would make him feel better. “Hi there! Welcome to the party,” I waved at them as they entered the campsite yet again.

“There’s no way,” Jake said, shaking his head in disbelief. Claudette stood behind him, a mixture of disappointment and fear on her face.



I began to realize what I must have looked like to Dwight when I first arrived. Jake continued to storm through the woods. Despite the unreadable expression he held, his stomping footsteps gave me a good clue as to how he was feeling. Claudette tried to use her phone, but apparently waking up in a pond full of water did not help the electronic device. Dwight stared at the fire, deep in thought. He’d occasionally stare at one of us.

“Let’s start from the beginning. Maybe there’s some common element we share that we haven’t figured out.” Dwight finally spoke when Jake entered the campsite again. This time, he didn’t run out but instead leaned up against a tree. He let out a sigh of defeat. Dwight looked at me. “How did you end up here, Meg?”

I told them every detail I could remember. Even the stupid things. I told them about the guy that honked his horn at me when he recognized me. I told them about the clouds from the storm turning black and the fog.

Claudette perked up at that. The normally quiet girl followed up my story with her own. She spoke with excitement as she described the weird, black webbing that led to this place. Her cheeks flushed when she said, with embarrassment, that a creepy fog had chased her up to the fire.

Jake’s experience was a little different. He explained in brief detail that he lived in the woods, willingly. Honestly, yeah, that explains a lot. A weird knocking noise on his door made him leave his house. “I saw the fog too,” Jake said. “The sky didn’t turn black, or maybe I just didn’t notice. It was already night when I left my house. And I didn’t end up at this fire, I ended up in that big industrial building.”

“So we all saw the fog, and with the exception of Jake, we all saw the sky go black,” Dwight said, his chin resting against his hand.

“You didn’t tell us your story,” I said. “How did you end up here?”

His face flushed red. “It’s, uh, kind of boring really.” He fidgeted a bit, straightened his glasses, then took a deep breath. “I was supposed to go to this team building thing out in the woods, but I got lost on the way. Took the wrong trail. You can guess the rest.”

That doesn’t explain why he smelled like alcohol. I looked at the others, but they seemed fine with the answer. Maybe I felt suspicious because I knew there had to be more to the story. For now, I’ll let it slide.

“Sorry for interrupting,” Claudette said, “but why does it matter that we saw similar things? I mean, like, we have so much else to worry about.” She sounded frustrated, and I didn’t really blame her.

“I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers, but I think the more we make note of things, the better equipped we’ll be to handle whatever happens next,” Dwight said. For a guy that always looks like he’s about to jump out of his skin, he’s surprisingly well spoken.

“The fog also transported us to that place with the guy,” I offered.

Jake chuckled. “That place with the guy?”

“Shut up, you know what I mean,” I rolled my eyes. “I was sitting at the fire, and then suddenly fog was all around me. When it went away, you guys were gone and I was somewhere completely different.”

“So the fog can… teleport us?” Claudette offered.

I shrugged. “I guess so. Maybe there’s a way we could use it to bring us back to our homes.”

“It sounds crazy, but I would be willing to try anything,” Claudette said.

“What if we can’t return,” Jake said as he poked the fire with a stick. The flames wrapped around the wood but it didn’t light up.

“Don’t say that,” Dwight said. “We can’t give up so quickly.”

“We died. You guys seem to be ignoring that important detail. I got impaled by some weird thing and-“

“Wait, what?” I stopped him there. Claudette shared the same confused look as me.

“When I got hooked, this spiny spike stabbed me in the chest,” he explained it so simply like it meant nothing.

“I think the same thing happened to me. It looked kind of like a spider’s leg,” Dwight said.

“Uh, I don’t know what kind of fucked up spiders you got in Illinois, but I’ve never seen any spider like that,” Jake said, waving his hands. “The point is, we died. All of us. So what’s to say that we aren’t in some kind of afterlife? Maybe this is hell.”

Leave it to the weird hermit guy to suggest something religious. “I’m not dead. I have a pulse. I’m breathing. Let’s not go down that avenue of thinking please,” I said. If I’m dead, my mom won’t survive. She can’t deal with this right now. She’s probably worried sick already. The doctors said stress would make things worse…

“Let’s not entertain that idea until we get more info,” Dwight said, his voice higher than before. “For now, we need to focus on finding a way out of here.”

“You say that, but I seriously don’t think that’s possible,” Jake argued.

“Uh, guys?” Claudette tried to break in.

I wonder if the police are looking for me right now. Where would they even look? No one saw me on the trail. And even if they did find the spot I disappeared from, then what? Would a fog have to swallow them too?

“We can’t just give up because things look bad,” Dwight said. “If we all put our heads together and think this through, I’m sure we can come up with a plan!”

“Guys, its back!” Claudette shouted, pointing at the trees. Sure enough, the fog had started to push in towards the camp. It’s not moving as quickly as it did last time. It stood almost still, each second moving in just a little closer.

“I don’t want to go back there,” I said, moving behind Dwight. Not that he was really much of a defense, but I’d rather it took someone besides me first.

Jake gave us a quick glance, then dashed into the woods behind us. Claudette glanced at me and Dwight. “Maybe he has the right idea,” she said, taking a few steps backward.

“Or maybe he’ll just loopback and end up in the fog anyway,” I said. Dwight stepped forward, close enough that the fog was touching his feet. He waved his hand through it, disrupting the cloudy texture.

“I’m going in,” Dwight said, his voice shaking. “Maybe it’ll take us home.”

Home. Mom. “I’ll follow you,” I said, feeling a bit braver. I’d do anything to get back to her.

We stepped into the fog. I rested my hand on his shoulder, hoping that would keep us together. Thick gray vapor clouded my vision until I could only see half of my arm stretched out into the fog. The feeling of the fabric of his shirt disappeared. My hand fell limply to my side. He was gone.

Chapter Text

Claudette Morel

I didn’t have the chance to go after Jake. The second the other two entered, the fog quickly swept over me as well. My mind went totally blank. I felt like even the slightest movement would cause something to lunge out of the fog and attack me. Even after it dispersed, I didn’t move for another minute.

Even though a thick blanket of clouds covered the sky, a bright blue light still managed to somewhat illuminate the surrounding area. Trees were scattered around an otherwise flat grassy area.

It’s the same place, I think. Oh my gosh, I don’t want to be back here. What if Jake is right and we really are dead? What if I end up finding my own body? I don’t know what I’d do at that point.

In the distance, I could see a wooden building. It looked like it would collapse any moment.   Does that guy with the traps live there? The first time I saw him, he was carrying a bear trap around. God, what if I step in one of those? Would the others save me? I almost started walking through some tall grass but thought better of it.

I wanted nothing more than to turn away from the creepy building. In fact, I’d already started to move in the opposite direction. The mental image of that trapper hanging around his home base didn’t sit with me well. But then I saw him sneaking around the front. He stuck his head through a window frame, peering into the darkness inside.

Jake? Finally a familiar face. I’d rather not wander around this place by myself. I picked up the pace and jogged over to him. He must have heard the sound of my steps, cause he turned around and glanced at me. The only acknowledgment he gave was a short nod.

It would be weird to stand in silence, but I don’t know what to say. Hey there, Jake, how’s life treating you these days? “Um, I guess you didn’t outrun the fog?” He shook his head, then quietly ducked through the window frame. There’s a doorway literally a foot away from us. Yet, for some reason, I followed his lead.

My feet hit the soft dirt floor. The inside looked worse than the outside, and I didn’t think that would be possible. Bits of broken metal track sunk into the dirt flooring. Grass and plants had started to grow on the inside, helped by the holes in the roof that probably let light in during a different setting. Hanging up on the wall was a giant, rusty pickaxe. It’s a mine, not a house. I’ve never been to mine before, how exciting! Jake didn’t seem to share the enthusiasm, probably because of the whole murderer thing. Suddenly I didn’t feel so excited anymore.

Though I doubted the trapper lived there, signs of life still existed. Mining equipment hung on the wall, all of it basically destroyed by the passage of time. A thick canvas belt with a small satchel caught my eye. I pulled it off the hook. Another belt that had been tangled with it fell to the ground with a heavy thud. Jake jumped at the sound, nearly bolting to the door. When it became clear that the only danger was my klutziness, he gave me a look.

“Sorry,” I apologized as I put the belt on and tightened it so that it snuggly fit around my hips. Whenever I went camping, I’d wear a bag for carrying any useful stuff I’d need. Sometimes I’d collect plants and carry them back to the campsite for making tea. I hope he’s not annoyed with me. I’m sure once he sees how useful this thing could be, he’ll understand. He headed down the hallway. On the way down I saw a red storage unit. I opened it, hoping to find some supplies, but it was empty.

The floor began to sink lower into the earth. Rock jutted out from the sides of the walls. We shouldn’t go in there. This place hasn’t been in operation for so long, I’m sure any tunnels below us aren’t stable. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry too much about that. The tunnel abruptly stopped after a few feet down. Instead, an out of place structure was wedged into the side. A familiar staircase.

A putrid smell wafted out from it. I’d dealt with dead things in college enough to know that we were smelling death. This is the place that he brought me to last time. Except, how is it all the way over here? It looked exactly the same. Same red glow emerging from below, same blood coating the floors and walls.

“I think I’ve seen enough,” Jake said with a grimace. Good, cause I don’t want to go down there ever again. Then I heard the heartbeat, slow at first but growing faster. “We need to hide,” he whispered, but I already knew that. I learned a painful lesson last time I heard that beat. His heartbeat drummed in my mind like a psychic drum.

There weren’t very many hiding places in the narrow hallway. Jake headed down the stairs into the bloodsoaked basement. “Jake,” I whispered, trying to stop him, but he either ignored me or didn’t hear me.

I didn’t want to go down there. Uh, heck no, I’m pretty sure I died down there last time, or at least I died somewhere similar... The only other obvious place was the bright red storage unit. An eyesore impossible to miss. My heartbeat raced and I knew time was running out. I opened the door. Big enough to fit one person.

The hinges creaked as I slipped inside. Please, please please don’t hear that! I could barely see anything through the metal slats on the door. The heart sounded like it was about to explode. The sound of it racing almost drowned out the heavy breathing directly next to me. I covered my mouth, unsure if that would really stop me from screaming if he made any sudden moves.

A bright red light glowed against the wall as he walked in. Every time he turned, it followed his direction, despite the fact there was no obvious light source on him. He looked more beast than man as he towered over even the top of the storage unit. The second he glanced at the door, I broke out into a cold sweat. He knows. Oh god... He’s going to rip me out of this locker and break me in half. I think he literally can do that.

He took a few steps towards me. If I die, will it be final this time? Yet, he kept walking. He passed the until and headed further down the hallway. I heard his heavy footsteps against the stairs as he descended. I should move, but I can’t. If he hears the hinges when I open the door…

I heard a unit door open and slam shut below me. Oh Jesus, he actually checks these things? Another door opened, followed by a shout and thud. I held my breath involuntarily. He found Jake. I remembered the moment the trapper killed me down there. I wanted to beg him for mercy, but he never gave me the chance. The second his eyes had locked in on me, it didn’t matter what I said or did.

I almost had a mini heart attack when I heard Jake scream. It was like an animal that had suffered some horrific wound. Fear doesn’t make someone scream like that, but pain does. Somewhere nearby I heard metallic clicking. Then, the trapper passed by the unit without a clue.

I waited until the heartbeat slowed before venturing out of the locker. Moments before, the hallway hadn’t seemed so scary, but now I felt like it was a place of nightmares.

In the middle of the hallway, a bear trap laid open. You’d have to be blind to stumble into that. Still, evil. I guess he knows someone would try to rescue Jake.

Unfortunately, that task seemed to be mine to take on. I didn’t know where anyone else was, but they certainly weren’t as close as me. I snuck past the trap and headed down the stairs. The dim light did nothing to improve the atmosphere.

I hated the wet splash against my shoes as I got to the bottom of the stairs. A steady layer of blood pooled across the floor. Jake hung from a hook, blood dripping from his own hand, adding to the collection.

“I’m sorry,” I said, placing my hands under his arms as I tried to pull him off. I knew it was going to hurt. My hands shook under the pressure. He was so heavy. He gritted his teeth, a low hiss escaping through them. I remember last time I was on a hook, I couldn’t stop crying. Jake was either made of sterner stuff or much better at hiding his emotions.

I tried to patch him up as best as I could. He leaned against one of the wooden walls. His nails dug into the surface as I applied pressure to the wound. After a few moments, the wound on his shoulder stopped bleeding. It doesn’t make sense, but I guess I shouldn’t question it. A wound like that wouldn’t stop bleeding without being stitched up.

Someone’s hurt. I heard their shout somewhere in the distance. We both glanced up. I had to take a step back. A gasp escaped my lips. “Do you see that?” I asked, pointing at the ceiling. Well, really, I was pointing at a little yellow silhouette of a girl that was getting smaller as it ran away from us. Judging from the figure, I guessed it was Meg.

“What are you talking about? The fog?” He asked, glaring up. I hadn’t noticed the wispy black fog that hung above us, but I guessed that, too, would be noteworthy.

“No, the girl. The yellow girl,” I said. I knew I sounded crazy. “It’s Meg. She’s limping away. I think she’s being chased?”

“Are you feeling alright?” He asked, putting his hand on my shoulder. “We don't have time to lose our minds out here.”

“Jake, I’m not crazy. I can see her,” I argued. Just then, another shout rang out.  She was now just a small dot, so far away I could barely see her. Her silhouette was lifted in the air, and then suddenly it was gone.

A few seconds later, we heard her scream as she hit the hook. She’s behind the stack of logs. I looked over at Jake, almost certain he must have said that. I hadn’t seen any stack of logs around the mine. He looked just as confused.

“Something’s messing with us,” he growled before storming up the stairs.

“Hey, wait!” I followed him up. “Are we going to go save her?”

“Heck no,” he said, rolling his eyes.

“Well we can’t just leave--”

He spun around and put a hand to my lips. “I know what you are going to say, and I promise you, you’re wrong. We can leave her, and in fact, we should leave her. You know why we all died last time? Because that idiot insisted we all try to be heroes. The only way we’re going to save each other is if we get help, you understand?”

I shook my head, unable to say anything else. I was used to people never coming close to me. That was a trait of having only long-distance friendships.

He took a step back, releasing me. “If you want to go help, fine,” he said gruffly, “but I’m going to keep looking for a way out.”

It seems so heartless to leave her. I feel like a total jerk, but... he’s kind of right. We need police to handle this. He turned around in a circle, looking for something.

“You see that brick wall?” He pointed to the one that was behind the mineshaft. It stretched out past the trees, out of sight. “I bet you if we follow it, we’ll find a way out.”

We started walking along, not saying much. Something about him made me feel more social anxiety than normal. Occasionally, he’d press against a brick that looked especially loose, but they never budged. “Sturdy,” he mumbled to himself. “Too tall to lift someone over either.”

It’s kind of weird that a mine in enclosed like this, right? Maybe this is someone’s privately owned mine, and they really want to keep people out. Well, if it’s that Trapper’s mine, then he definitely wants to keep people out. Still, a giant brick wall has to be expensive. That guy doesn’t look like the type that could afford it.

We reached a corner of the wall and kept going. At some point, Meg must have gotten off the hook, because I saw her injured figure crouching in distance. Then, it vanished. A few minutes later, a new yellow silhouette appeared, this time much closer. Dwight shouted out, his voice crystal clear. A heartbeat drummed in my chest. Jake and I stopped, our backs pressed against the wall. There was no cover nearby. The trees were too thin to hide behind.

The second Dwight came into view, his yellow silhouette was gone. I only see it when they are behind something. Weird. He ran past us, with the Trapper only a few feet away. For the briefest moment, The Trapper looked up. The black holes in his mask bore into mine. A shiver ran down my spine as I remembered the same dead stare he gave me when he killed me last time. Then he turned back to his prey, back in the chase.

“Let’s go,” Jake said, pushing me ahead of him. The gut-wrenching fear made my legs shake, and I stumbled forward. “Go!” He pushed, forcing me to run. His hand grabbed my arm and pulled me along with him. The wall made a quick turn outward, then folded in backward, forming a ridge that provided a nice barrier of cover.

It was only when the sound of the heartbeat faded that he finally stopped. I bent over, clutching my sides. My lungs burned with each deep breath. Oh my god I’m so out of shape.

When I collected myself, I noticed we were standing in front of a giant metal gate. Sheets of metal were welded together, forming crude doors. Beside them, a lever waited to be pulled. It had three unlit light bulbs above it. Jake tugged on the handle, but nothing happened.

“Maybe hold it down?” I suggested. He held it, but still the doors didn’t budge.

“This has to be the way out,” he said, looking up at the impressive structure. “It’s probably electronic.”

In the distance, I heard Dwight scream. By the scattered boxes. I could sense him not too far away. “He’s not going to last long,” I said, moving towards him.

“Claudette-” Jake said with annoyance.

“Listen, just work on getting the doors fixed. I’ll be back soon with Dwight,” I reassured him. I hope so, at least. He waved his hands, dismissing me. I didn’t understand why he was so standoffish about the others, but there wasn’t any point in arguing about it.

There’s no heartbeat, so I guess it’s safe to run. I heard Meg yelp from somewhere close to the mining shaft. Dwight was located just a little bit beyond there. I could feel it.

I thought it might be better to cut through the building. The decrepit building felt creepier now that I was alone. The wooden floors creaked loudly under my steps. I hope the wood isn’t rotten. What if I fell into a mining shaft? I looked down just in time to see my foot slam into an open trap.

I couldn’t stop the high pitched scream that flew from my mouth. My body jolted forward from the loss of balance, making the metal teeth dig into my leg more. Hot tears ran down my face as I tried to pull my leg out. The teeth peeled my skin back even more. Blood pooled beneath the metal mechanism.

At some point, my mind cleared a bit. I couldn’t tell if I’d been standing there for two seconds or two hours, but I definitely felt like I had just blacked out a bit. A loud groan echoed through the woods and mineshaft. I didn’t have time to worry about that. There was a more pressing concern literally latched onto me.

My hands shook as grasped onto the rusted jaws. One of them slipped the first time, and the teeth snapped back into the leg. I choked back a sob. You can’t give up. Jake’s probably got the door opened now. You’re so close to escaping.

I took a deep breath before yanking open the trap and dragging my leg out of its jaws. I’d barely gotten it out of the way before I lost my grip and the teeth snapped shut.  

The heartbeat subtly echoed in my mind. He’s coming back. I stumbled out of the building and towards a nearby tree. The second I put weight on my leg, I had to muffle a cry of pain.

I barely slipped behind cover before the beat began to race. Please leave me alone. Please!  A bright red light flashed on the ground beside me. He walked past, his back to me as he scanned the tree line. I put my hand to my mouth, trying to stifle a sob. Fear and pain were threatening to pull me apart.

Out of nowhere, a strange growl echoed throughout the woods. The world rumbled around me. Earthquake? If the earth decided to open up and swallow me whole, that would probably be a better fate than being murdered. The sound seemed to distract him. He tilted his head, listening to the noise, then headed back towards the mineshaft.

The heartbeat faded into nothingness. I pushed my face into my sleeve and allowed a few cries escape. There isn’t any time for this, I need to be out there helping everyone. The second I moved my leg, shooting pain made me cringe. I’d have to handle that situation before I could help anyone else.

Blood had pooled down at the bottom of my shoes and soaked my socks. The sight of blood didn’t normally bother me, but as I examined my leg, I started to feel lightheaded. Even if I ripped up my entire shirt, I wouldn’t have enough to bandage this.

And then I saw it. Is that a yarrow plant?

A memory fluttered to the back of my mind. Days of sitting in the sun, reading my most prized book. My dad got it for me for my fifteenth birthday. My medicinal plant journal had a long section about the yarrow plant. The book probably sat on my nightstand still. I’d been rereading it the week before I went missing.

The leaves are antiseptic and encourage clotting. People would crush the leaves and put them on wounds to stop bleeding. I think I remember it said something about a Greek myth about yarrow too? I’ll have to go back and reread that some time... I plucked the herb out of the ground. My dad had told me that basic botany knowledge saved lives, and he wasn’t kidding.

I covered the wound in finely crushed leaves, then sealed them in with a few strands my ripped shirt. After a few minutes, I felt the pain dull a bit. Blood stopped seeping through the bandages. I stood up and tried putting weight on the leg. It still hurt but in a muted kind of way. The effects aren’t supposed to kick in so quickly.

Another scream echoed through the woods. Meg. In the brick labyrinth. I could sense it somewhere to the right of me. Then a bright light shot off in the distance. I really should go help her… But Dwight’s out there somewhere, right? He could get her. I didn’t sense him running around injured, nor Jake. I get the feeling Jake’s never going to save anyone if he can help it.

I started off towards the bright light that exploded amongst some trees. As I drew near, I could hear the rumble of an engine. One of the dead generators had roared to life, apparently. It’s kind of comforting to hear something other than silence. Still, I didn’t feel safe around it. Standing in the bright light made me feel too visible.

I backed away and headed off toward the door Jake was trying to open. At some point, I must have gotten turned around because I ended up finding another metal door. This one was facing a different direction than the one Jake and I found. So, there are two exits. I wish that meant we are twice as likely to escape, but that’s not how math works.

A series of giant crates were strewn about like someone had unloaded a shipment and left them to rot. Another dreadful hook sat in the center of it all, but I noticed that it had fallen to the ground. Nothing left but the metal stand it was attached too. They do look pretty old. I’m not surprised some of them are falling apart. Take that, jerk. I hope all your stupid hooks rot.

I was about to turn around and head back towards where I thought the other door might be when I heard a noise. The sound of gears turning, albeit slowly. Hidden behind a brick wall, I found Jake hands deep in a generator.

“You’re alive,” he said without a glance upwards. Before I had a chance to respond, he spoke again. “I think the gates are powered by these. I’m not really sure how, since there’s nothing actually connecting them, but it’s the only source of power we’ve seen around here.”

Nothing makes sense around here. I felt awkward just standing there watching him. “I wish I could help.”

“Then do so.” His voice was flat.

“I don’t know how?” Isn’t it kind of obvious? I’ve never even touched the inside of a machine before.

He yanked on my arm, pulling me down to his level. “Neither do I, or at least I didn’t. It’ll come naturally.”

My hands slid against the smooth metal pipes and into a mess of wires. This just feels awkward. My hand scraped against something plastic. This screw feels loose. I should turn it. My fingers slipped a few times. A thick coat of oil covered the inside. However, as I got it tightened the generator got just a little louder. If I had some tools, this would be easier, but I can fix it on my own.

“You’ve never tried to fix a machine in your life, right?” He asked and I nodded. “Yet you’re working on it like a pro.”

“I’m not lying,” I said, embarrassed. I really hadn’t ever attempted something like this.

“I believe you,” he assured me.

Those wires aren’t connected. I brushed them together. A jolt of electricity shot through me as I accidentally touched the metal. Ah, ow! The generator made a loud bang and sparks shot out of the machine.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered as Jake shot me a glare. His face softened a bit, but he didn’t say anything. The wires still aren’t connected.  I tried again, this time being a little more focused on the task at hand.

I began to pick up a steady rhythm in the sound of the generator. No longer did it’s internal clicking sputter. It sounded louder and smoother. I almost didn’t hear the heartbeat thudding in the background.

“I think-” I started to warn Jake, but he was obviously much more observant than me. He jolted off towards the trees nearby, leaving me alone by the nearly finished generator. I didn’t have a chance to consider following him. The heartbeat quickened as the masked man approached.

I stayed crouched by the machine, too scared to even move. The metal glint of a trap in his hand made me shiver as I remembered the number the last trap did on me. He took a few steps towards the generator, then looked at the ground. Suddenly he turned towards the trees Jake had just run past and headed in that direction.

I didn’t dare move until the heartbeat faded. With my luck, I’d be so scared by the sound I’d mess up the generator even more. After a few moments, I sensed Jake being hit. He must have run pretty fast because he appeared to be super far away. I quickly went back to tightening the screws. With one final turn, the generator kicked on. I let out a yelp as the light blinked on.

A low shout echoed through the air. He stumbled to the ground, then disappeared from my vision. A horrifying realization buzzed in my mind. That whole time I’d been dealing with my injury, he probably hadn’t moved from that generator.   We’re the only ones left, aren’t we? Jake doesn’t seem like the type to go rescue anyone, and I know at least one of them was hooked… When’s the last time I heard Meg or Dwight?

There’s no one left to save him but me. I hoped that some surge of bravery would send me rushing to the rescue. Instead, my hands and legs began to shake. The second I heard his scream — much more intense this time — I stumbled back.

By the mineshaft, to the left of it. In school, I suffered a lot from people bullying me. I was the girl that could barely make eye contact, let alone talk to my classmates. Dad would always tell me the same thing; treat others how you want to be treated, even when they are being jerks. Just because he’d leave you behind in heartbeat doesn’t mean you should leave him too.

I forced myself to move forward. Even if I didn’t see him, I could still feel his presence. My heartbeat picked up the closer I got. Finally, I pushed across a layer of trees and brush. Not quite crossing the barrier, just peaking out.

Strange legs protruded from the hook. They looked unlike anything I’d seen in my life. Black spikes with orange tips unfurled from them, like thin hairs. They attempted to wrap themselves around Jake.

The killer stood by the hook, watching as Jake struggled to keep the spidery legs at bay. He tilted his head, then swung his machete. Jake let out a cry of pain as blood splattered the ground. A yelp slipped through my mouth before I had the chance to cover my mouth. Jesus, please no. There’s no way I can get to him without being caught.

The killer didn’t seem to notice. He swung again, this time holding his machete in Jake’s abdomen for a few moments before pulling back. Jake sputtered and blood began to leak down his lips. The life was fading from his eyes quickly. What kind of monster does this to another person?

The legs twitched in anticipation, thrusting towards him. He didn’t have the strength to hold them back anymore. His hands slipped as it impaled him in the chest. The sky ripped open and black mist unfurled through the gray clouds. Almost like a claw, more of the spindly legs descended through the tear in the sky and wrapped around his now dead body. The earth rumbled as he was pulled up, and the ground beneath my feet shook.

The killer turned around, eyeing the forest I hid in. My mind short-circuited. I started running away before I even thought about whether or not that was the right move to make. If he didn’t notice me before, he definitely did at that point.

My heart raced, and the drumming in my head followed a similar rhythm. I risked a glance behind me. So close. Too close. He swung his machete at me and I jolted forward. Pain. Something wet trickled down my back. Oh god, I’m bleeding. My mind wanted to reject the whole notion. All my thoughts seemed to freeze.

Somewhere to the right of me, there was a loud whooshing sound. I turned the corner of some broken brick walls, the killer bearing down on me. A large metal hatch was open, black mist swirling around. The machete hit me in the back once more and I toppled over into the gaping darkness below.  

 

Chapter Text

Claudette Morel

The wind brushed against my face as I tumbled down into the darkness. I put my arms over my head, bracing for the moment I’d land face first into the ground. Then, without warning, my feet hit something solid.

The sensation of falling had stopped. What the…? I let my arms fall to my sides. My whole sense of direction was screwed, and the mist that blinded me did little to help the situation. I half expected that murderer to fall down on top of me, but the moment never came. Perhaps he’s too large to fit into that hatch? He seems bloodthirsty enough that I think very little would stop him.

Now that I was out of there, I had a whole new series of questions. The black mist faded and suddenly I could see the campfire ahead. A few people were sitting by it, some familiar and others not so much. I wanted to be happy to see them, but instead felt a tinge of disappointment. There’s no point in trying to figure out how this all works. How could I have fallen so long just to end up back at the fire? Does this mean that the fire exists somewhere below the place I was just at? At least now I know going through that hatch doesn’t mean a permanent escape...

I approached quietly. Jake, of course, sat away from the group. He leaned against a nearby tree with his eyes closed. An older man sat at the fire, a lit cigarette in his hands. The wisps of smoke floated above his green hat. Dwight was having some intense conversation with him and neither looked up at my arrival. The older man wasn’t the only new face to be seen. A young girl sat beside him, holding knees close to her chest and she rested her head against them. Her long blond hair fell over her face a bit, but she didn’t seem to mind.

Meg poked at the fire but looked up once she heard my footsteps. She frowned. “You’re not soaked. Did something new happen?”

At this, pretty much everyone looked up. All but Jake, who seemed to be fast asleep. Of course, they’d notice. How do I even explain what just happened? I don’t even know! The feeling of having so many eyes on me made my stomach clench. The older man looked me up and down, making some internal judgment. The young girl glanced up but barely moved.

They watched me expectantly. “I escaped.” It took me way too long to get the words out. I remember the days my mom would try so hard to get me to be more outspoken. Evidently, all that hard work didn’t pay off. “There… there was this metal hatch on the ground, and I fell into it. I mean, that creepy guy hit me and I guess accidentally pushed me into it?” Everything had happened so fast. The details already felt hazy.

Dwight looked over at the older man as if expecting an answer. “That can happen.” He had a gruff voice but didn’t sound too unfriendly. I plopped down and let the warm embrace of the flames take over. “We call it the hatch. Sometimes ya can find it when you’re the last one left. It also shows up when there’s a lot of generators done. I’m not sure ‘bout all it’s innerworkin’s, but I’ve escaped that way many times myself.” He put his cigarette up to his mouth.

“I feel like I should introduce myself,” the young girl said, lifting her head up. “I already did this with the others, but I remembered you weren’t there for that. Sorry!” She gave me a weary smile as she gingerly shook my hand. “I’m Laurie Strode. What’s your name?”

“Claudette,” I said. The anxiety inside me was almost overwhelming. Somehow, having a name for the person helped alleviate it a little.

“I’m guessing she’s the fourth person you said appeared with you?” The older man turned to Dwight.

“Yeah,” Dwight nodded.

“I’m Bill,” he said, giving me a nod. “Normally people don’t show up so quick together. I’ve seen maybe two people appear a few months after each other, but never four in a day.”

“How unlucky,” Laurie sighed while slipping on a beige sweater that had been previously wrapped around her waist. A blue button up peeked from underneath the cashmere. Her hair and clothes seem… classic. They’ve obviously been here a while, but I wonder how long? That girl is so young. Did she come here when she was just a little kid? Gosh, that would be horrible.

“So, do you guys have any clues on what this place is?” Dwight asked.

“There are some clues but I doubt they are helpful,” Laurie answered. Bill focused on his cigarette and let her handle the rest. Where did he get those anyway? “I’ve noticed that some of the trials take place in real locations, or at least recreations of real locations.”
“Trials?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s what we call it anyway,” Laurie said. “Whenever you get moved away from the fire and into some random place with a killer. That’s a trial.”

“The others thought it would be easier if we came up with some consistent terms,” Bill added gruffly.

“Anyway, one of the locations we get placed in is my neighborhood, actually,” Laurie continued. “Well, a really crappy version of my neighborhood. There are other places too, like a farm and a burned down hospital. You never really know what to expect. Just when I thought I’d discovered everything, it seems like there’s suddenly a new killer or place I haven’t been.”

This is all just so overwhelming. The others didn’t look too happy about all this. Dwight seemed lost in thought, only occasionally glancing at the new strangers. Meg stared intently at the fire, her brows furrowed in concentration.

“Wait… new killer?” I asked. “What do you mean, new killer?”

“There’s more than just The Trapper,” Dwight answered. I apparently missed that part of the conversation. He tried to seem calm, but his voice shook.

“There’s a singin’ woman who chucks hatchets at you. A tree thing that turns invisible. All kinds of weirdos who want to gut you alive,” Bill sighed.

“There’s also this strange man…” Laurie’s voice got quiet. “He was stalking me on Halloween night. He killed all my friends, and when the police took me to the hospital, he killed all the nurses there too.” Her voice quivered. The heat of the fire couldn’t negate the icy chill I suddenly felt. “Somehow, he ended up in this realm too, and now he stalks me here.”

“We are in Hell, aren’t we. This is what Hell is.” My fingers dug into my hair as I clutched my head. The overwhelming sensation of pure panic began to flood my senses. More killers? More awful monsters trying to murder us for no reason? This can’t be happening. I don’t deserve this. No one deserves this! I’m never going to see my parents again. Mom and dad are going to think I ended up getting murdered or something. I was supposed to make the cake for his 40th birthday party! A few days ago I would have thought that a silly thing to despair over, but at that moment it felt like the most important thing in the world.

“There’s all sorts of them, and they all have different quirks,” Bill spoke this time, surprisingly calm. He gave off the air that none of this was new to him. How long has he been here? Am I going to be like that one day? I can’t do this. I can’t be stuck here forever, I just... The whole idea of becoming used to it was absurd.

“How do you escape the trials?” Dwight asked. His face had gone a few shades paler. His fingers nervously twitched and I noticed the chewed marks across his nails. I’m not the only one losing my mind over this. I wanted to feel glad that I, at least, wasn’t alone in my pure panic. Why can’t we all just wake up and find out it’s been a terrible dream?

“Do gens, watch each other's backs, and get the hell out of the gates as soon as ya can,” Bill said.

“It’s fairly simple as a concept, but usually things don’t turn out that way in trials,” Laurie added. “People are going to mess up and make mistakes. The killer will end up being stronger than you thought. There are times where I swear their abilities have evolved into something more insidious than normal.”

“You’ll get angry with each other, it’s bound to happen,” Bill said. “Don’t start getting pissy though. I guarantee ya, if someone else has made a mistake in a trial you’ve probably made ten.”

I don’t deserve to be in Hell. I’ve been a good person. What did he do to deserve this? What did any of us do? Laurie is a teenager, obviously. How could she possible deserve to be here?

“I don’t know how to fix generators,” Dwight said. His voice quivered slightly. As soon as the words came out, he flushed red.

“It comes naturally to you,” Bill answered. He threw his cigarette into the fire, apparently done with it. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that in trials, there are a lot of things that don’t make any sense. The unnatural instinct you have to fix gens is just one of them. Everyone has their own skills that aid in survival.”

“Like knowing where people have been hooked even if you haven’t been in that location before?” Dwight asked.

Bill nodded, “Yeah, but there's more than that.”

“When I was in the trial, I could see people who were injured even when they were far away. It was like this yellow glowing silhouette. Is that what you mean?” I offered up an explanation. He nodded.

“Something similar happens to me,” Dwight said. “I can see silhouettes if people are within a certain distance.”

“There are obvious abilities and then not so obvious ones,” Laurie said. “When I’m in a trial I can see the killer whenever I look in its direction. But I also noticed a more subtle power. The more that people die in a trial, the less aware the killer is to me. It’s like it can’t sense me anymore.”

Powers. Abilities. I would have found it impossible to believe if it weren’t for the fact I literally had something like this happen to me.

“I saw something come down and take Jake’s body up into the sky. What was all that about?” I asked.

Laurie and Bill exchanged a look. “We don’t know,” Laurie finally answered. “No one does. All we know is that when you die, you end up coming back through the pond over there,” she nodded her head towards the black water beyond the woods.

“Sometimes people don’t come back,” Bill muttered. “I don’t know what happens to them. They’re just gone now.”

Dwight started asking Bill more questions about the killer we kept running into. Apparently, he was dubbed “The Trapper” by the uncreative survivors. I didn’t feel like budging into that conversation. Frankly, I didn’t want to know anything about The Trapper at all. I hated him.

“Where are you from?” Laurie asked as she scooted closer to me. Her voice was a bit quieter this time. “Your accent isn’t like anything I’ve heard before.”

“Montreal, Canada.” Whenever conversation was on me, anxiety would buzz in the back of my head.

“Oh, that’s neat,” Laurie said. “I always wanted to visit Canada. Mom said it's beautiful up there. I’m from Illinois, but you probably don’t know where that is. It’s the most boring state in the country.” A small frown formed on her mouth.

Dwight perked up. “Wait… I know you! Laurie Strode, that’s why your name sounds so familiar. Uh,” his face flushed red as he noticed everyone looking at him. “I’m from Illinois too. You’re the girl that disappeared from Haddonfield right? After the Halloween murders?”

“Y-yeah,” she said, somewhat surprised. “Is it really that well known?”

“I mean, not really. It’s just that I live an hour away from Haddonfield. Every Halloween the old folks talk about it,” he explained.

“Oh,” she looked down at the ground. She had a small twig in her hand and she seemed to be carving a doodle into the dirt.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up something so…” he didn’t finish the thought.

She shrugged it off. When she looked back up at us, she wore a cheerful smile. “It’s no big deal. It’s just been so long, I honestly thought everyone would have forgotten about me. I don’t know if I should feel happy or sad that they didn’t.”

“How long?” Meg asked. She’d been quiet the whole time we’d been sitting there. She stared intensely at Laurie.

“Um, I don’t know. I ended up here in, uh, I think 1978? What year is it now?” She asked. 1978?! That’s not possible! The young girl looked like she was still in her teens or, at the most, barely out of them.  

Everyone around the fire seemed a bit stunned, besides Bill and Laurie of course. Bill just looked sort of bored, as if he was expecting the reaction. Meg looked back into the fire. Her eyes shimmered with the tears that were welling up. I wanted to comfort her, but I didn’t really know what I could say.

Dwight, after recovered from the shock, spoke for us. “Wow. Uh, it’s 2016 now. So that means,” he paused, his fingers moving slightly as he mouthed a few numbers. “You've been gone 38 years,” Dwight said, stunned.

“I’m 55 years old?” She didn’t sound very surprised. I guess she isn’t as young as I thought.

“Ain’t got nothing on me, kid,” Bill teased. He looked around his sixties but looks apparently didn’t mean anything. They started laughing and teasing each other like the revelation wasn't terrifying.

Meg stood up and walked off into the treeline. Something about her vibe told me she wanted to be alone. Dwight kept on chatting with Bill about this and that. At one point, he asked Bill how he ended up in the realm. “You don’t need to worry about that. It doesn’t matter how ya get here, it just matters that ya survive,” Bill answered.

While everyone else was lost in the conversation, I couldn’t help but notice the man watching us from a distance. Jake stared intently, not really hiding the fact either. I don’t think he knows I’ve noticed. His eyes darted between the Laurie, Bill, and Dwight. I wonder what he thinks of them. Does he distrust them? He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that easily trusts people. He glanced at me, making eye contact before looking away. He probably feels the same way about me.

Chapter Text

Meg Thomas

 

I took a long, deep breath. I’ve got to hold it together. My braids had started to become undone so I unraveled them and then re-braided. My hair was still damp, making the task easier. When I was done, my hands were still shaking. Another long, deep breath.

I can’t afford to freak out right now. I had left the group and stumbled into the woods. Not too far in, though. I didn’t want to get looped back at the fire. Honestly, I wanted to get as far away from them as I could.

It’s not that they were unlikable. They seemed like nice people. At that moment though, I despised what they represented. The anger and negativity welling up in me was enough to make me nauseous.

They’ve been here for decades and they haven’t found a way out, how the hell am I supposed to- The thought burst through the walls I had carefully built in my mind. I shoved it back out and sealed up the cracks before the deluge could hit me.

I started doing the only thing I knew cleared my mind: jogging. Coach taught me that being active kept the mind healthy. Every time I felt like my panic was becoming too strong, I picked up the pace. Anger, sadness, boredom -- its fuel for energy. If Coach was right, then I’m going to become the fastest runner these killers have ever seen. I found myself circling the large, black pond outside the campsite. The sound of my feet hitting the dirt felt too loud compared to the eerie silence. It made it too easy to think.

I wish I could play some music or something. There was a playlist on my phone dedicated to working out. The high energy beats motivated me on the days I felt too lazy. At that moment, I needed something like that.

Bill said that opening the gates leads back to the fire. Apparently, that hatch does too. There has to be another way to escape. We haven’t found it yet.

Fog crept through the trees and crawled its way over the water. I slowed myself down to a stop. When I wanted high energy, I didn’t mean being chased by some murderer. It licked at my heels, wrapped itself around me and whisked me away to some unknown hell.

Thick clouds of brown smoke flooded the sky above. The scent of burnt wood was unmistakable. I stood in the remains of a charred building, up on some upper floor where the roof had collapsed in. Despite the fact that there were still glowing embers, there wasn’t a hint of warmth. Another gloomy, cold place to add to my passport.

Beds were scattered around the hallways, some even overturned from whatever chaos has ensued before the fire. Papers, stained by ash, spilled out from toppled cabinets. I didn’t know how stable the floor was, but the generator in front of me didn’t look like it was about to collapse through. I’m pretty sure this place needs to be condemned. I reluctantly knelt down and started working on it. Even though I’d been told it would come naturally to me, I still found myself surprised as my hands moved fluidly over the machine. In the back of my mind, I could sense neutral commands. Twist that, hold those wires together but watch out for the fan.

Somewhere in the distance, I could hear inhumane screeching. The shrill sound echoed every few minutes, sometimes close by and sometimes further away. I guess I’m going to have the pleasure of meeting another killer. Oh, joy. T he sound of a heart racing drummed through my head. A screech nearby deafened me, and in my shock, my hands slipped from the generator. It exploded, sending me reeling back.

Fuck my life.

I dashed out of the room and ran down the stairs. A whoosh of wind blew past. A flurry of white appeared in front of me. I barely had time to register the pain when something sliced against my chest.

A woman in a white, ragged dress wiped the blood off her blade. Her lungs wheezed as she dropped her head down, shaking it. My brain registered, too late, that something stunned her. I turned and tried to run up the stairs. Another screech. There she was, in front of me now. This time she aimed for the head, knocking me down to the ground.

Despite her small frame, she didn’t have any problems picking me up and slinging me over her shoulder. The sound of her breathing made her seem so much weaker than she was. She glided over the ground like a ghost, floating a few inches above the concrete floor.

We emerged from the burnt building to the outdoors which looked the opposite of inviting. Most of the surrounding area was flat land and brown grass. Besides a few dying trees and rocks, hiding spaces would be hard to find.

She placed me on a hook and teleported away without a glance back. Unlike The Trapper, she seemed much more focused on finding others rather than enjoying her fresh capture. Two generators dinged in the distance. Now that people knew to do them, they were popping off all over the place. One of them better get off a gen and come help me . For several minutes, I hung limp. Blood trickled down my arm and dripped into a puddle beneath my feet.

It turned out I had a Dwight in shining armor. “Hello, again,” he said, pulling me off the hook. I let out a hiss of pain through my teeth as soon as my feet hit the ground. He shot me a sympathetic look before pulling me over to a large rock only a few feet away. "Let me fix you up," he said, holding out a med-kit.

The second he started healing me, a screech rang out. I jolted out of his arms in time to avoid a swing from the teleporting creature. She let out a strangled cry of frustration before clutching her head. I heard Dwight shout as she slashed at him. I felt bad leaving him behind, but there was no way I could save him from her wrath. I ran away from the creepy old building and towards the burnt out trees.

At some point, I stumbled upon a series of broken brick walls. The sound of a sputtering generator filled me with hope as I weaved through the maze. Each step made my stomach clench. The laceration on my chest gushed blood. As soon as I found the generator, I leaned up against it and tried to put pressure on the wound. Nothing I did made it stop. Blood soaked the front of my jacket. The pink fabric turned dark red. It clung to my skin and made me shiver.

I pulled myself together as best I could and started working on the generator. My head started to feel light. Several times the generator almost blew up in my face because I couldn't get my hands to move the way I wanted them too. Finally, it lit up.

Is this going to be the first time I actually survive? I couldn’t remember if Bill had told us we needed five or six generators done. I want out, I don’t care what it takes .

I exited out of the maze of walls. In front of me, the large burnt building looked formidable. From the upper floors, I could see the killer circling. Her red light shined out of the windows. She reached her hand out spinning around. She stopped when she saw little old me looking up at her. Damn it.

I bolted off to the right toward a large hill, hoping that would obscure me from her view. I heard her screech behind me as she flew down from the top floor. I didn't know just how close she was until she swung her blade, barely missing the back of my neck. We twisted through trees and crumbled structures. When she wasn’t flying around, she moved slowly. I always managed to be a little bit faster than her. Thanks, Coach. I think I might owe you my life now even more than before.

As I ran between two walls, I pulled down a wooden pallet that stood propped up against it. The sound of tearing made me glance back. The cloth cover she wore over her head ripped. She screamed as she grabbed the cloth and attempted to close the tear. I ducked behind a wall, hoping she’d be distracted enough to think I ran off somewhere. I tried to steady my ragged breathing. All that running made my wounds feel even worse. I peaked around the corner. Her hand glowed, pointing towards me.

I realized, too late, what she was doing. She vanished only to appear beside me with a whoosh of wind. Her blade sliced into my neck, leaving a gaping wound. Blood flowed over the grass and dirt underneath me as I laid on the ground.

She flipped me over onto my back. Black liquid seeped out of her mask and dripped onto my chin. I tried to push myself away from her, but even the mere movement made me cry out in pain. Her hand slid across my neck. Blood seeped through her fingers as she applied pressure. Is she… trying to stop the bleeding?

Then her hand tightened. She leaned forward, shoving the weight of her body down on my neck. My eyes felt like they were about to bulge out of their sockets. In desperation, I tried to pry her fingers off. She dug her nails into my skin, determined to keep hold. Lights blinked in the corner of my sight.

“Hey!” A voice broke the moment. It sounded strange and unfamiliar. Her fingers loosened slightly, but not enough to let me breath. “Get off her, bitch!”

A light hit the killer’s face. She screeched and recoiled backward. Her hands flew to her face as she turned her head away. I gasped for air. My throat burned. She didn’t exactly stand up. More like she teleported into a standing position. Her hand rose, targeting my new hero.

I managed to get a glimpse of my savior in the chaos. A young girl, out of her teens. Intense red lipstick accentuated her mischievous grin. “Come on, asshole, let’s see what you got,” she taunted, flicking her flashlight on and off.

She ran as soon as the killer started her teleport. In her rage, the killer must have gotten a little too sloppy. She moved too far forward and ended up swinging at a tree rather than the girl. They ran into the burnt out building, leaving me to bleed out.

I wanted to escape. Just once. I touched the wound on my neck and winced. Too much blood. I’ll never make it.

“You’ve got to let that kind of thinking go, Meg. It’ll only hold you back.” I remembered the time my coach told me that. Back in high school, right before a big competition. She always told me I had a defeatist mindset. I can’t… Giving up means I’ll never see mom again. Giving up means I’ll never get to tell her how much she means to me!

In the distance, a generate dinged. Loud horns echoed through the area. The gates… are they finally powered?

My fingers dug into the earth as I struggled to sit up. The exit is so close… Just around that corner there. I’m going to escape this time. Nothing is going to stop me. I held my arm tight against my chest. The wound ached as I started to run, faster than ever before.

Two of the three lights on the gate were lit up by the time I’d reached it. Dwight was holding the lever down, and the alarms blared as the third light lit up. “Do you need help?” He asked, glancing at me.

“Just get the gate open,” I hissed. My wounds could wait. I wanted to know what escape felt like. The last thing I needed was to die right outside of freedom.

The doors slid wide open. A stone pathway, crumbled from the passage of time, lead out to a foggy field, Beyond, I could see the campfire glowing brightly. It beckoned for us.

“Should we… wait for the others?” Dwight asked. He edged his way closer to the fire. Even The Dwight in shining armor could taste the temptation to leave.

The loud screech and drumming heartbeat answered the question for us. I ran out of the gate as the killer teleported in. The fog started to cover the exit, but that didn’t stop me from turning around to see what was happening. She swung at me, but her blade bounced back. It looked as though she was hitting air, yet a metallic clang rang from the hit. She groaned in frustration before turning back towards the trial.

“She can’t follow us out,” Dwight said beside me. He sounded relieved. I pushed my hands against the edge of the exit. An invisible barrier blocked us from entering.

“And we can’t go back in, either,” I pointed out.

Even though we saw no one else exit, the area became completely enshrouded. “I guess there’s no turning back,” Dwight said as he walked toward the fire. Bill was leaning against a tree but stood up at our return.

I sat down next to the fire and rubbed my neck. The bleeding had stopped for the most part, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. I was surprised when Bill sat down next to me with a med-kit. Where he’d gotten it, I wasn’t sure.

“Let me patch ya up,” he said, pulling out a package of gel dressing. He pressed a pad against my neck, keeping steady pressure. The memory of her fingers on me caused an involuntary quiver. “I know the water back there heals people up pretty good, but I prefer to do things myself. I don’t trust that stuff.”

Does it heal wounds? “I guess if it brings you back to life, it should also heal you up again,” I mused.

“Sometimes. I’ve seen it other times do nothin’ to an injury. Can’t trust it,” he reminded me again.

“Where’s Laurie?” Dwight asked, looking around the camp.

“Haven’t seen her. Probably in a trial with the others,” Bill said. His hands felt rough and calloused. He secured the bandage with a bit of gauze.

“How many people are here?” I asked.

“Hard to tell,” Bill said. “There’s almost always a trial going on. Rarely are we all together. Then sometimes people stop showin’ up altogether.”

“You mean, they just disappear?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said. “There’s Quentin and David, you haven’t met them yet… and Ace. I haven’t seen that old bastard for a while now.”

Jake emerged from the fog with a white metal box in his hands. Close behind, the young girl came out, flickering her flashlight at us. She grinned at Bill when he raised his eyebrow at her.

“The Nurse is going to have a headache after all the blinding I did to her,” she laughed.

“The Nurse?” I asked.

“We call her that cause she’s drawn to people healin’ or injured,” Bill explained. He turned toward the girl. “And I see you got yourself a nice reward.”

She plopped the flashlight down by a tree. “No one touch this, it’s mine,” she pointed at me, Jake, and Dwight. She had an accent, one that I’d never heard before. “Who are you all?”

Dwight introduced himself, then Jake. I could tell she was trying to look like she didn’t care. She yawned and messed with her hair. In the firelight, I could see her a lot more clearly. She looked like what my teen-self wanted to be. Bright dyed hair and intense makeup. She looked like a punk from the 90's, even with a chain wallet to complete the look. How does she do her makeup here? And where does she even find makeup?

I hadn’t bothered with that kind of thing in years. Besides going out for runs, I never left the house. Plus it’s not like I could afford nice makeup anyway. Maybe a bit of lip gloss or some concealer, but that was it.

“I’m Meg,” I said when the others had finished their introductions. “Thanks for saving me back there.”

“Oh, no problem,” she said. She fiddled with a button on her red plaid shirt. It was caked in grime and the edges were stained. Very grunge. Even her pants are ripped up. I can’t tell if that happened because of the trials or if it was on purpose. Mom would be so annoyed by the ripped jeans. We even had a fight about that once…

I found myself curious about her, but my questions weren’t going to be answered. Without a word to us, she turned on her heels and headed off to the woods.

 

 

 

Do gens, open gates, escape. Bill and Laurie made it sound so simple. The truth was, it never got easier. Each slice from a killer’s weapon still knocked the breath out of me. Every time I was placed on a hook, I screamed. The only thing that dulled was the shock of seeing my friends die. You see the same horrors over and over again and things start to lose their meaning.

I didn’t know how many trials I’d been through or how many times I’d died. I lost count a long time ago. Our sense of time became warped. The endless night made it impossible to know how much time has gone by.

I’d met a few new survivors along the way, but I wasn’t close to many of them. Quentin, a young guy just out of his teens, seemed nice but kind of weird. He always looked like he was on the verge of passing out and I doubted he slept. I caught him once swimming in the pond. He almost drowned due to exhaustion.

The other guy, David, appeared a year before me. The only thing I knew about him was that he didn’t like to pick his fights carefully. The first time I met him, he tried to punch The Hillbilly — a hideous man that wielded a chainsaw. By the end of the match, David could be found in pieces all over the cornfield.

“Well, at least someone made it,” Dwight tried to sound cheerful when I approached the fire unscathed. The Hillbilly had killed everyone and I escaped out the hatch.

Nea rolled her eyes but didn't say anything. I hadn’t gotten the chance to hang out with her, even though I wanted too. She wasn’t exactly frigid towards the other survivors, but she definitely didn’t cozy up to us. When they first interacted, I thought she and Bill were friends. In reality, she enjoyed teasing him and getting on his nerves. I got the feeling she liked being solo, but not in a weird way like Hermit Jake.  I wanted to hang out with her, but the idea of asking seemed so daunting. I never had problems making friends before, so I wasn’t sure why my mind freaked out over Nea. She’s so cool. Badass. Attractive.

“Did that sound sarcastic?” Dwight fretted. “I didn’t mean it that way. Really, I’m glad you made it.”

“Thanks,” I smiled. “I wish we all did.” I’d gotten to know Dwight a lot more since we arrived. In the beginning, I thought he was some creep, but he ended up being a nice guy, and not in the fedora kind of way.

He started talking some more about different plans of attacks we could have for trials. Bill, of course, found this fascinating. Nea, on the other hand, must have slipped away because I definitely didn’t see her anywhere by the fire.

“I’m going for a jog,” I said as I put my hair up in a ponytail.

When mom got diagnosed, she almost went crazy pacing back and forth through the house. There were a lot of tears, a lot of freakouts. She got over the stress by developing a routine.

I guess mom and I are a lot more alike than I thought. My routines were the only thing keeping me sane. They were little things, like de-tangling my hair or scrubbing the stains out of my clothes. I always tried to go for a jog right after I woke up like I did back home. I’m never going home again. It helped me pretend things were normal, at least for a bit.

Except that morning— or whatever time it was — as soon as I woke up I was pulled into a trial. Breaking the routine made me feel disoriented. The fact I managed to escape was a miracle. No dumb trial is going to keep me from running.

I started circling the pond as a warm-up. Bill told me not to trust the water, but I didn’t need the warning. The water’s surface swayed and bubbled. The mere thought of my friends' bodies being reassembled in its depths was enough to keep me away. I don’t understand why Quentin swims in it. There was something jarring about seeing someone emerge dazed and gasping for air.

I moved into the woods. I had to slow down to a jog to make sure I wouldn’t trip on anything in the dim light. I hope I don’t loop back to the fire for a while. It was hard to tell how far we could go in, especially since it always felt like that border was changing. Once Claudette and I jogged for what felt like an hour outward before being looped. Another time it only took thirty seconds for me to come face to face with the campsite again.

This time, it seemed like there was more space around the fire to explore. I let my mind disconnect for a while and focused on the movement. I almost didn’t see the crouched Nea at the base of a tree. I slowed to a stop to avoid tripping over her.

She looked up, startled. Her hand gripped onto a small pocket knife which was currently stuck in the tree. “Sorry, I didn’t expect to run into anyone out here,” I apologized, backing away.

“It’s cool,” she shrugged, resuming her chill attitude. She turned back to the tree and tugged the knife out. Patterns were carved deep into the surface, starting at the base and reaching about five feet high. Some of it was intricate, like flowers and vines. There more crude carvings up top. One of a familiar mask and the words “Trapper fuck off” underneath.

“Nice,” I laughed.

“Oh yeah,” she grinned. “I wanted to make the tree sick looking, but then I got bored and carved that instead. It takes so long to make something look nice.” The edge in her voice softened a little.

“That’s why I never did well in art class,” I sighed. I had too much energy for me to focus on art. Couldn’t sit still that long.

“Now if I could find a can of spray paint somewhere, every surface in this forest would be tagged,” she smiled to herself.

“Oh, you do graffiti?” I knew I sounded lame when I asked the question.

“Did,” she answered bitterly. “Now I carve. It’s the only creative thing I can do around here.”

Well, your makeup is definitely creative, and I still don’t know how you manage that. “I used to tag stuff,” I admitted. “It looked like garbage but, I don’t know, it was still fun to do.”

“Really? You?” Her surprise felt a bit insulting.

“I do more than run, you know,” I defended myself. “Tagging was the only artsy thing I could stand doing because it meant I could move around. It felt freeing, to be honest.” I’m sure the store owners didn’t think so. I hope someone more talented has covered up my ugly shit by now.

“Oh yeah, I get that,” she agreed. “I love the thrill of it. My friends and I used to go through town and spend all night tagging places. I miss that,” she sighed.

“Did you ever get caught?” I asked.

“Actually, no,” she smirked. “My friends did, but I always managed to sneak away. You?”

“Only once,” I answered. “Usually I could outrun the cops. Small town police aren’t known for their athletic ability. Unfortunately one of my friends sold me out though and I almost went to freaking juvie over it.” Okay, maybe I’m still a little bitter about that.

She nodded and pursed her lips. “Sucks. Where are you from anyways?”

“Colorado Springs. That’s uh, in Colorado if that wasn’t obvious,” I said.

“Oh, I know where that is. Somewhere in the middle of the country, right? I don’t know my States that well,” she admitted. She sat down cross-legged and started messing with a few blades of grass below her.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Hjo, Sweden,” she said, ripping up a piece of grass and throwing it away. “I lived in Massachusetts for a year too, but I don’t count that.”

“Wow, so you’re an international graffiti artist,” I teased.

She frowned. “Actually I don’t think I ever tagged anything in Hjo. All that started when I moved to the US. Too bad. International artist does sound pretty badass.”

I still wanted to know more about the elusive survivor. “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“I don’t know, why are you asking?”

Her tone changed. She went back to trying to sound a cool and uncaring as possible. Trying too hard.

“Just curious, that’s all.”

She didn’t say anything for a while. “I don’t know,” she answered. “I showed up in 1995, if that’s what you were wondering. I was 18 when I ended up here, and I still look 18. Does that answer your question?”

Im going to end up like that. I’m never going to see my mom again. Im going to be stuck here f o r e v e r.

We stayed like that for a while, talking about the dumb stuff we did back home. Nothing too personal. Much like Bill, she seemed guarded when it came to the personal stuff. She continued her carving of the vines, moving around the tree as they wrapped entirely around it. Large, simplistic roses filled the gaps between the leaves.

Eventually, a fog started to roll in. I could feel it pulling me. Nea dropped her knife, feeling the pull too.

“Hey, let’s try to find each other in the trial,” she said. "I like be alone, if you couldn't tell already. The others aren't sneaky enough but… I think you’ll be able to keep up.”

She shot me a mischievous grin before the fog swallowed us up whole.

Chapter Text

Jake Park

 

The chainsaw dug deep into Claudette’s spine. Her scream turned into a gurgle as it cut through her lungs. The grotesque man wielding it wiped the blood off his face before revving up his chainsaw and dashing across the field.

I could see the trial falling apart from up in the rickety farmhouse. The upper floor was barely stable and several times the wood cracked under my feet. I had the generator beside me halfway done, but was there really a point in finishing it? Laurie had been sacrificed to the thing up in the sky and Claudette was dead. The only one left was David King.

I’m certainly not going to risk my life for him. I left the sputtering generator and headed toward the stairs. There were no doors or windows to protect me from the view of whatever lurked in the grass. The house’s layout made no sense to me. The rooms were too small to be useful and lacked any furniture. It reminded me of those toy houses for dolls.

What bothered me the most about it was the smell. All the other places we’d been reeked of death. The surrounding corn field had clean air. Every now and then while walking through the farmhouse, I’d catch a whiff of perfume. If I believed in ghosts, I’d think the house was haunted.

As I walked out, the odor of apple pie was undeniable. Freshly baked. Sugary sweet. A shiver ran down my spine and I quickened my pace down the stairs.

Beyond the house was literally nothing but corn and farm equipment. Off in the corner somewhere a shack existed, but I knew to stay as far away from there as possible. I’m not going in the basement again.

Cornfields were great for hiding in. They were also great for the chainsaw-wielding maniac — The Hillbilly we’d affectionately dubbed him — to come running through. I shifted through the stalks of corn,  trying not to look at Claudette’s body as I passed by. My own heartbeat was racing but I couldn’t sense the killer’s. I have to find that hatch, especially before King or The Hillbilly does.

King hadn’t been put on a hook even once the entire trial. I found that shocking since he always did his best to maintain the attention of the killer. Plus he’s always refusing to let anyone heal him. It’s like he wants to make it easy for the killer.

In the trials, all that mattered was survival. Dwight would argue fellowship, but that was nonsense. There are two generators left to finish. There’s no way we’re both getting out. I have no choice but to leave him.

“Oi,” the gruff voice of the Englishman came quietly from my right. I hadn’t even seen him when he emerged between the stalks of corn. “What you doin’ out ‘ere? We need to get the gens done.”

Shit. “I’m looking for one right now,” I said, taking a small step back from the muscular man. His physique and scars made him imposing. Not that I was intimidated by him in any way.

“There ain’t any over there. All the gens on that side got done,” he said. He was right, but that didn’t mean the hatch wouldn’t be there. Also if there weren’t any gens, chances were there wouldn’t be any killer either. They normally didn’t patrol the areas with gens already done.

A slow heartbeat began to thump through my head. We both crouched down, waiting to see if The Hillbilly would come our way. I haven’t died in four trials and I’m not going to start now. He didn’t.

“I, uh, think I saw one up in the farmhouse?” My voice rose a bit at the end as if it were a question.

“Then let’s go get it done,” he said, turning towards the dilapidated white building. I started to reluctantly follow him, lagging behind slower and slower. It would be so easy to turn around. He wouldn’t even notice.

I took a few steps backward. The gen up there was almost done. Maybe he’d finish it before being caught. If he finishes it, the killer would be drawn to his location. I could get the hatch faster if he gets caught.

I headed off back in the direction of the completed gens. It’s not like I’m sabotaging him. He could still survive. Besides, it doesn’t matter if he dies anyway. He’ll just come back later.

Toward the edge of the farm the corn cuts off and a labyrinth of wooden walls cropped up. Usually, I found the hatch around there. I approached and heard the low thud of a heartbeat. Crap . I ducked behind a stack of hay and peered over it.

The Hillbilly circled around the wooden walls. He swung his chainsaw wildly like a rag doll rather than a weapon. His skin stretched across his face and shoulder all wrong like it was putty draped over his body. He started moving closer to the haystack. My hands rested on the pallet beside me. If he’s taking me down, I’m not going without a fight- God, I sound like King now.

The generator powered up in the distance. The Hillbilly turned toward the noise and revved the saw, holding it high up in the air. He dashed off towards the generator and out of sight. Moments later I heard a gruff yell come from the cornfield. Looks like I was right after all. Working on generators at this point is suicide.

I weaved through the wooden walls, carefully checking the grass as I walked through. A metal clank came from below me as I took a step forward. I found the reason why The Hillbilly had been searching that area.

King shouted as he was placed on a hook. By the farmhouse entrance. Not that it matters.

The time he hung on that hook felt like forever. My heart was racing. If The Hillbilly realizes I’m not going to save King, he’ll come over here and try to stop me. Finally, the earth shook and the sky split open. Giant crooked legs came down to claim its prize. The revving chainsaw came closer and closer. I turned around, noticing the noise wasn’t coming from the south where the hook had been. The Hillbilly was flying towards me, his chainsaw soaked in blood.

Fuck. I barely had time to react. The hatch flew open. I dove into the blackness, but not before his saw collided with my shoulder. The hatch closed behind me, leaving me to fall in the dark.

I clamped my mouth shut and kept my groans quiet through gritted teeth. When my feet hit the ground, I tried to pull my jacket off so I could see the arm better. It felt numb and as I tried to lift it, I noticed it stayed perfectly still. The cold realization made the whole world stop. My arm… it’s paralyzed. Oh. My mind struggled to comprehend. It felt like I should panic, but everything felt blank. 

The fog had cleared enough that I could see the fire ahead. The survivors from our trial were there plus a few others. David paced around the fire back and forth, soaking wet. I spotted Claudette talking with Dwight about something.

Claudette… I need something for the pain. I just hope she has a tincture for that. I stumbled toward the fire trying not to sound like a wounded animal. At my approach, they all looked up.

“You son of a bitch!” King growled.

My nose cracked under the pressure of his fist. I reeled backward, totally stunned. My vision blurred from the pain and sudden rage at being attacked. Another hit. The air in my lungs flew out as he swung into my stomach. It was like being hit by a train head-on.

I clawed at him with my usable hand, trying to shove him away. My hand grasped onto his hair, pulling his head back. “Mother fucker-“ he said, grappling with my arm as he tried to pull my hand off him.

The pain of his fingers digging into my arm left me seeing red. I didn’t think it through. I slammed my head into his own and he finally released me. For a moment, everything went silent as he stepped back. Blood trickled down his forehead. He touched it, then watched the red liquid drip down his hand. He looked up.

I've made a terrible mistake. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. His nostrils flared and his fists clenched. This is how I actually die.

It didn’t register that he’d knocked me down on the ground until he was on top of me. With the force of his weight behind him, he slammed his fist into my jaw. Blood pooled in my mouth. I tried to speak but instead choked on my own blood. It splattered over his face and clothes. Another punch. He didn’t stop.

“David!” Claudette screamed. I couldn’t see her. My eyes couldn’t focus on anything until he stopped hitting me. There was scuffling and cursing. The weight on my chest lifted, but even then I didn’t — couldn’t — move.

The world stopped spinning after a few minutes. The others were gathered around us. Dwight and Quentin held King back as he tried to get at me still. I could see Laurie and Quentin trying to talk some sense into him. The others stared at me with their mouths covered. Audible gasps.

Claudette fell to her knees beside me. Her hands were shaking as she flipped open a medkit and shuffled through the contents. “Jake, say something.” Her voice was shaking.

I opened my mouth and more blood spilled out. “Ow,” I finally mustered. She wiped the blood off my beard with her sleeve.

“Thank god there're no mirrors around here,” someone — Nea? — said.

With a fury that I didn’t think could ever possibly come from the girl, Claudette shot the onlookers a glare. She looked at me again, her face softening. “Can you walk?”

I didn’t want to move ever again. Still, she held out her hand to help me up. “It’s okay, you can lean on me,” she assured when I stumbled forward. In the trials, I could take a beating like it was nothing. Suddenly I felt like a fragile old man. Her slender arm wrapped around my waist and she gently put my arm around her shoulder.

“Where are we going,” I gasped as she led me away from the fire.

“Bill said the water can heal wounds sometimes. Plus we need to wash off all this blood. I’m not sure if infections can happen here but let’s not take that risk, right?”

She led me to the shore of the pond. I flopped down to the ground, hoping I’d never have to stand or move again. “Erm,” she mumbled, catching my attention. Her cheeks flushed red. Oh great, what now?

“Yeah?”

“Do you want to take off your shirt? It’s going to get soaked.” The plaid flannel shirt would definitely get waterlogged.

I mustered a grunt of agreement and started pulling at the buttons. “I can’t move my arm,” I said after struggling with several of the buttons.

“Oh, let me help you,” she said, taking over the task. I didn’t have the energy to fight her. Even my independent streak was too tired. She tossed the shirt a few feet away from the water’s edge.

The water felt frigid against my skin. She used an old shirt as a rag to wipe the blood off me. Her hands moved delicately like I was made of paper. The pain subsided until it was just a dull ache. I noticed the wounds were sealed up and I wasn’t bleeding anymore. A slight tingling sensation went through my arm but I still couldn’t move it,

“Feeling any better?” She asked as she rinsed out the rag.

“Physically? Yeah,” I answered. I’d gotten over the shock of being attacked and now my mind has settled on being embarrassed. I got my ass handed to me.

“Your nose is broken,” she pointed out.

“Eh, it’ll heal.”

“And I’m not sure when you’ll be able to use your arm again. Hopefully before the next trial,” she said. She poked at it and looked at me. “Did you feel that?”

“Not really,” I shrugged. “Anything I should do to fix it, Dr. Morel?”

She smiled, dimples formed on her cheeks. She’s kind of cute, now that I think about it. Kind of? No, definitely. God, I'm losing it. I need to sleep.   “Rest. Maybe it just takes the water longer for deep wounds. Hey, would you like something to get rid of the pain? I have some medicinal plants that might help.”

She looked back towards her garden. Over time, she foraged through the forest and collected plants to harvest. Some of it was medicinal and some of it was just for beauty. Somehow plants still managed to grow even though there was no rain or sun.

I thought I would end up being the expert on nature. She proved that wrong, knowing even more than me.

“It’s fine,” I said, my words slurring a little. My head felt light and I knew I was on the verge of passing out. “I’m just tired. Let me sleep.”

“Okay, but if you need anything let me know.” She tossed me my shirt before heading back to the fire. I barely managed to get the shirt on before promptly passing out.

Chapter Text

Jake Park

I felt relief when I woke up unharmed. The fury I had seen in King’s eyes made me concerned he’d go for round two while I was knocked out. What an asshole.

I worried about my arm first. The other injuries I could deal with. It didn't matter that I looked like someone kicked the shit out of me. It did matter if I couldn't repair generators. My fingertips felt numb but the rest was fine. I clenched my fist and my whole arm tingled.

I buttoned up my shirt and tried to find my jacket. My legs ached as I stood up. The bitter cold air by the pond made me want to rush to the fireside. If some deity existed over our new home, it definitely wanted us by the fire. I didn't believe in that nonsense, but if I did, I felt like the uninviting atmosphere around the fire was by design.

Someone had hung the jacket up on a tree branch nearby. The slash from The Hillbilly's chainsaw had been sewn up by someone. Delicate red stitches held the fabric together. A few weeks ago, Claudette found a sewing kit in the lodge within the Red Forest. Who am I kidding, it was definitely her. She has a knack for taking care of people.

I found everyone gathered by the campfire. Nea was begging Claudette to create hair dye from the plants around the woods so that she could dye Meg’s hair green. Meg seemed to find the commotion amusing, while Claudette tried — and failed — to refuse the request.

“Okay, fine, I’ll do it,” Claudette said, waving her hands. “It’ll take me awhile to get it ready though.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t forget,” Nea winked. Claudette turned away from them to hide the expression of regret, but I still saw it.

Quentin poked the fire with a stick, trying to spread out the ashes. Unnecessary of course. The fire took care of itself. He’s a strange one. I’d never seen what extreme sleep deprivation did to a man until I met Quentin. He’d go weeks without sleep until he looked like a soulless ghoul. The effects were startling, to say the least.

I took my usual spot by the tree and waited for whenever a trial called to me. The anger I felt had simmered down, but not enough. I still didn't feel like talking to the people who watched the shit get beat out of me. They did nothing. I should have expected that. People always do nothing.

I still enjoyed people watching. It was interesting to see the way Dwight and Bill were becoming close, or how Claudette tried to distance herself when she felt socially awkward. Of course, I noticed the moment Quentin's eyes fluttered closed. He went still for a long time. The conversations of others lulled on but didn't wake up. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead. His fingers twitched. With slow movements, he reached into his pant's pocket. I thought for a moment he was awake, but his eyes were still closed. A small pocket knife fit in the palm of his hand. He flicked it open. The blade glistened in the orange light.

In an instant, he jammed the blade into his leg. His eyes flew wide open. His face went from sheer panic to intense pain. The fist clenching onto the knife released. He pulled it out, closing the blade and tucking it back into his pants.  Blood stained the leg of his jeans. He glanced at the others. No one else noticed. His eyes met mine before he looked away, embarrassed. Yep, he's a strange one.

"Hey, guys?" Quentin called for the attention of the group. Probably wants medical attention. He's going to need stitches. "What are we going to tell people once we get out of here?" His hand laid flat on his leg, applying pressure while concealing the wound from the others. He piqued my interest, and the others as well. He told me before that he thought escape was impossible. Why is he bringing this up then?

Claudette jumped at the chance to escape her current predicament. She moved closer to the fire and away from the playful girls. "Go on?"

His already pale face went a sickly hue. "We can't tell them the truth. I mean, they'll think we are crazy," he said. "So we have to come up with a plan, right?" The voice rose made him sound a little maniacal, but I blamed the sleep deprivation.

Even the obvious pain didn't seem to keep him awake. His eyes fluttered before he dug his nails into his leg. It all finally clicked into place. Oh. He's trying to stay with conversation. Well, that's easy. Maybe they can tell him which direction my nose bent when King broke it. I bet that would keep him awake. I clenched my fist and waited for the anger to simmer down again.

Whenever the topic of escape came up, Meg turned serious. Out of everyone there, she was the most obsessed with escape. I hadn't figured out why yet. "So we should like about it?" Meg asked. "I don't think that would be a good idea."

“Being institutionalized isn’t a good idea either,” Quentin retorted.

"But what if we all get out of here together and then our stories don't match up?" Claudette asked. "They would know we were lying."

"Exactly," Meg agreed.

Bill and Dwight were testing some of the flashlights the others had brought back. They tossed the dead ones into the fire where they mysteriously dissolved into ash as fast as paper.

"If we all tell the same lie, it wouldn't matter," Dwight chimed in. He unscrewed the lens of a flashlight and plopped into a nearby pile of parts. "I would prefer not to be put under the care of my parents just because people thought my story sounds crazy." That's the first time I've agreed with this guy.

"What are you even talking about? No one could do that," Meg said.

"Uh, yeah they could. My dad tried to claim power of attorney over me because he thought I lost my mind," Quentin said.

"Same here," Dwight said, his voice cheerful but somewhat bitter. As annoying as he is, I doubt he's crazy. Quentin? Sure. Not Dwight though.

The others started to argue about whether that was a thing that could happen. My dad had always tried to force me into a mold I'd never fit, but at least he never tried to pull some legal stunt. I noticed while their conversation got off track, Bill wore a grave expression. Come to think of it, the old man has never made any remark about escape. There’s got to be a reason unless he thinks the same thing I do.

Ah, fine. I'll join the party for a while. “Why bother telling them anything?” I pitched in. They stopped their argument and looked at me with surprise.

“That’s stupid,” Meg scoffed.

“Whatever dude. I never explain why I went missing for years? Or why I look the same as I did when I disappeared?” Nea said. “Yeah, that’s going to go over well.”

“That’s what I’m going to do,” I shrugged. Though we’re never getting out so there’s no point in arguing about it.

"I'm sure that's easy for someone who has no friends or family," Meg said, rolling her eyes. I felt like she meant to be as insulting as possible there. "But what are you going to do when the rest of the world realizes you're alive again?

“Just tell the world to fuck off.”

“Now there’s a sentiment I can get behind,” a gruff voice said from the shadows. He emerged from the tree line. The warm yellow light of the campfire gave him a dramatic look. Knowing him, he did it on purpose.

I found it surprising that David King of all people agreed with me. The Englishman shot me a smirk, just to be extra irritating. “How’s your jaw feeling?” He asked, sitting much closer to me than I’d like.

“Never been better,” I answered flatly. He chuckled and shook his head, but didn’t say anything else. King of Assholes. That’s his new name.

“I doubt our friends and families would like that,” Claudette said in a quiet voice. Even if I had friends and family, I wouldn’t tell them. Mom would be a crying mess. She would insist I move back home. That's not happening.

“I guess for me it doesn’t matter,” Laurie said. She’d been sitting by the fire, quiet during the whole event. Now she looked up. The firelight glinted on her watery eyes. “Everyone I know is dead.”

Bill got up and put his hand on her shoulder. I didn’t expect him to the comforting sort, but his normally stern expression softened. He didn’t say anything because there was nothing he could. I’m sure everyone he was close to was old when he disappeared. A few years can change a lot when you’re close to the end of your life. He’s facing the same problem she is.

The silence began to feel awkward. Quentin‘s eyes fluttered and that expression of panic set in once again. He looked around at the trees, startled.

“Maybe we need to tell an altered version of the truth,” Dwight suggested. “Something simple so it’s easy to remember. I mean, if you want to not tell anyone that’s fine too,” he looked over at me. “But we should still make sure we’ve got a solid story.”

No one objected so he continued. “We don’t need to explain what happened to us while we were gone. It would be too complicated and sound crazy. All we need to do is come up with an excuse. Something that no one would track or try to disprove like… we were each kidnapped.”

“So someone just took each one of us hostage? From all around the world?” Meg asked. “That sounds ridiculous.”

Dwight rolled his eyes. “It only sounds ridiculous if you mention who else was taken. They don't need to know all that though. What if one day you were going for a run in the woods and someone hit you in the back of the head? Maybe give them a few hints, like you remember hearing some language you didn’t recognize or someone giving you a drug. But you don’t need to explain the trials, the other survivors, the killers.”

"My mates would find it 'ard to believe I got kidnapped. I mean, look at me," the King said.

"People get knocked out in fights all the time at bars. Someone could have easily taken you while you were unconscious," Dwight said.

"You think that's what 'appened to Jake? He went down pretty easily." King shot me a smirk.

Dwight rolled his eyes. The last thing he wanted to do was encourage a fight. “I thought a lot about what I would tell police, and that seemed like the easiest story to remember. I wouldn’t have to prove anything and I don’t think they could disprove it either. They might try to push me into explaining how I didn’t age or whatever, but if I genuinely claim I can’t remember then what are they going to do?”

"It sounds like some foreign government ran experiments on us, to be honest," Meg said.

"More like it sounds like a good way to getting experimented on by the government,” Bill said.

“Maybe, but I’ll take the risk." Dwight shrugged. "It sounds better than ‘a giant spidery thing comes out of the sky and eats my dead friends.’”

The others continued to argue with him for a while. Meg and Nea loved to be contrarian and decided to ignore his idea. The others agreed Dwight’s suggestion. I thought it sounded ridiculous, but I also didn’t care what they told police as long as they didn’t drop my name in with it.

Claudette got up from her spot and moved to the tree I was leaning against. I must have looked like total shit yesterday, and she had to clean up the mess. That was stupid of me. I shouldn’t have let her deal with all that. I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. Everyone got to see that awful moment of my life. Some thought I deserved it too. In a self-conscious gesture, I touched my nose. Painful, but it didn't feel out of place.

“How are you feeling?” Claudette asked, looking over at me with concern. Always so worried about everyone but herself. There were so many times I’d seen her dash in and rescue someone with no regard for her own safety. She was gifted with the ability to always be acutely aware of other injured survivors. She had empathy.

“I’m fine,” I finally answered. The others would have a hard time believing that there were moments I felt guilty. I didn't actually enjoy letting someone die, especially when it came to Claudette. I’d seen her several times rescue people from hooks only to quickly be mowed down by a chainsaw. Our fellow survivors would leave her to be sacrificed or sawed in half to save their own skin. I’d even done it myself in the past. If I leave them to die all the time, aren't they going to do the same thing to me? That's why I can't save any of them.

“I’m so tired,” she sighed. “Every time I go to sleep I have the worst nightmares, but I guess being awake is a nightmare too…”

“It’s not the most restful environment is it,” I said.

“I’m worried I’ll wake up in a trial with a killer looming over me,” she admitted.

“Well if it makes you feel any better, if I ever see the fog trying to take us I promise I’ll wake you up.”

“Thanks,” she smiled.

The argument must have shifted to some lighter conversation. The others by the fire started laughing. I could see Dwight turning bright red with embarrassment. The whole scene looked so pleasant and warm, but the girl next to me looked like she heard the worst news of her life. “Do you think there’s any chance of escape at all?” She asked.

How am I supposed to answer that question, Claudette?

In life, I never believed in anything religious. I thought when you died you just died. There was no great beyond, no deity to welcome us into their heaven. I had been wrong.

Of all the afterlife’s to get into, this one wasn’t the worst I could imagine. Despite the company, it had its perks. Outside of the trials, it was like how I lived my life before. Take out the trials and tortures and I’d dare to call it heaven.

The others would have found this thinking horrifying. It took awhile for everyone to adjust to outdoor living. Dwight and Meg complained the most about it. Meg didn’t strike me as the outdoorsy type, and I doubted Mr. I-Worked-in-IT had gone camping even once in his life.

Claudette handled it the easiest. It was obvious she had some experience of outdoor living. During a trial, she went on a nervous ramble about her life and told me she went camping for weeks at a time every summer.

The others groaned about my nihilistic opinion on things. Yet, I felt like if I told her what I believed it would make her dislike me just like they did. Why do I care about what she or anyone else thinks? When did that start happening again?

“I wish I knew the answer to that. We can all theorize and speculate, but without solid evidence, nothing can be certain,” I said. It was such a bland and generic response. The words felt wrong in my mouth. I never liked censoring my thoughts for others. I couldn’t do it. “Truthfully, no. I don’t think so.”

She pursed her lips and nodded, not looking me in the eyes. Is she angry with me? Or upset in general? See, this is exactly why I shouldn’t have told her my opinion. Lie better, dammit.

“I just,” her voice shook a little and she paused. “I’m so tired of dying all the time. Everything hurts, everything feels so bleak. There are days when I can’t even will myself to move because it feels so pointless. Every time I come out of that water, I feel like I’ve lost some piece of me.” She wasn’t crying, but it looked like she wanted too.

I put a hand on her shoulder, trying to reassure her as best as I could. I didn’t know how to handle emotions, especially other people’s emotions. “No more dying then,” I ordered her.

She laughed bitterly. “I wish it were that easy.”

“Next time we are in a trail together, I won’t let you go down,” I promised. “After all, don’t I owe you for the past thirty times you’ve saved me?”

“You’re going to start saving people?” She asked, surprised.

“Uh, no,” I corrected. “I’ll start saving you, but I’m not going to go risk my ass for anyone else." You can bet I'm going to let King die every chance I get now.

Her cheeks grew a little redder. “Well, I feel bad for the others but… it’s a good start at least.” Start? Oh god, she’s going to start convincing me to go save everyone, isn’t she.

She rested her head up against the tree and in a matter of moments, she was asleep. Is that really all she needed to hear to get peace of mind? I doubted I had that effect. She got too tired, that's all.

After a while, her head slumped over onto my shoulder. I thought I did a pretty good job of seeming unapproachable but she saw through that. I might have moved her if I didn’t know how much she needed the rest. At least, that’s what I told myself anyway. It's kind of nice being liked by at least one person. I closed my eyes, trying to remain still so I wouldn’t wake her up.

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

Decayed white houses were lined up in a row along a strip of road that led to nowhere. Only darkness existed beyond the glassless window frames. A vacant cop car flashed red and blue lights across the suburb, but the whole neighborhood was eerily quiet.

I hate this place. Too familiar. Too much like home. Every Halloween all the local newspapers took pictures of that neighborhood in Haddonfield. Murmurs of “what if that had been my town” echoed across Southern Illinois. Now I had the pleasure of being murdered there. They have no idea just how awful it is.

I started working on a generator in the middle of a small, overgrown park. It was near the edge of the road right by the wall that enclosed us all into the trial. I liked doing the generators near the outskirts of an area before working my way to the middle. This was especially true in Haddonfield, where I knew far too much trivia about each house. During my teen years, I found the story of Haddonfield to be quite stressful and I obsessed over every detail with anxiety. I guess I had to keep my mind off of... you know what, nevermind. 

I think I saw David head into the fog with me. Jake too…  Despite all my efforts, I couldn’t stop the animosity between the two of them. I just hope we don’t end up dead because the two of them can’t work together.  The two of them were similar to each other, though both refused to see it. It made sense why'd they clash. Two suns cannot exist near each other without causing chaos. Their force of gravity would tear everything apart. When two obstinate people disagree, the same turmoil can erupt.

The hum of the engine grew louder and louder, but I never heard a heartbeat. Somewhere at the opposite end of the road, a generator popped. Then another. Something’s wrong. My own sputtered to life, casting a pool of light over me. I stood up, looking around for any sign of our killer.  Maybe it’s chasing someone? My mind already started eliminating possible murderers. I would have heard The Huntress's song by now, and I doubt it's The Hillbilly either. The Wraith can be quite stealthy...

My eyes almost didn’t catch it. Something glinted from the upstairs window of a nearby house. At first, I thought it was my glasses. Then I noticed the pale face standing inside. Unnaturally white skin. Eyes black and soulless. He tilted his head at me. The knife in his hands glistened in the light. Michael Myers, or as the other survivors called him: The Shape.

Jesus Christ, get me out of here.  I sprinted down the street toward the cop car and ducked behind it. I tried to open the door but the handle didn’t even budge let alone open. He’s going to find me. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to cut me up and murder me just like he did with all the other victims. My heart thudded so loudly in my chest I swore anyone within a ten-foot radius would be able to hear it. I now regretted reading so much about his merciless kills.

The sound of heavy, muffled breathing came from the other side of the car. Every part of me wanted to bolt but the fear paralyzed me. I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the moment he’d grab me by the shoulders and gut me.

The sound of his steps faded away. Everything went silent once again. Is he gone?  I didn’t realize just how reliant I’d become on that heartbeat. I tried to peer over the cop car but the lights were blindingly bright. My legs shook as I forced myself to stand. I couldn't see a soul in sight. 

The forth generator powered on, followed by several screams. The sense of relief that washed over me quickly turned into guilt. I shouldn't have been so happy to be safe while my friends were being attacked.  They must have all been together. You need to find the last gen. He hasn’t hooked anyone yet and if we get the gates open soon he might not even catch one of us.

As I circled around the neighborhood looking for one, I caught glimpses of survivors. Their yellow silhouettes dashed around in circles and through decaying houses.  He’s chasing them around pallets. My unique ability to see my friends also gave me the advantage of knowing where the killer was. I headed in the opposite direction, ending up in the same place that started the whole mess. If they can distract him for just a little longer, we’ll make it out of here.

The house where Michael had been watching me stood open. Fine, I’ll check there first . Much like everything in all the trials we’d been in, the house looked dilapidated. Wallpaper curled off the walls and black mold could be seen underneath. The lights flickered ominously as I continued up the stairs. From the hallway window, I could see the generator I’d finished early. The thought of being in the same place of him made my stomach flip.

I searched through the upstairs rooms and found one of the final generators. David’s silhouette appeared down below, running towards the house. With two of us working on it we’ll get it done fast.

His breath was ragged and he was bleeding. “Jesus David, let me patch you up.” I rushed to his side but he quickly pushed me away.

“You need to 'ide now ,” he said as he shoved me back into the only locker in the room and shut the door on my face. “Fuck!” I heard him say under his breath. He started to vault the window.

I hadn’t heard the muffled breathing. A shadow of man moved swiftly into the room and grabbed David’s leg, yanking him back. I choked back a yelp as he lifted David with just one arm into the air above his head.

“Fuck you!” David growled, sling his arms around as he tried to hit Michael. The killer, though much slimmer than the buff Englishman, held David up as if he were a toy. “I swear to God I’m goin’ to tear you from limb to--” The words abruptly stopped. He gasped as Michael’s knife dug into his gut. The killer tilted his head, watching as David’s face grew pale. Again, he thrust the knife into the man, and then again. The insults David tried to spew turned into an awful choking noise until he went silent. When it was obvious he was dead, Michael tossed his body down the ground like a rag doll.

I tried not to look at corpse right outside the locker. Michael looked at the halfway finished generator and then at David. He peered out the window as if looking for something. Michael turned, facing towards the locker. My chest pounded and my hands started shaking. I held my breath knowing it would be too loud and shaky. My lungs started to ache for air. The final generator went off in the distance. The blaring alarms of the gates nearly made me jump out of my skin. Michael started to move, but not towards the stairs.

He knows!

I burst out of the locker doors and slammed into his chest. I knew I was a scrawny guy but figured it would at least surprise him. It was like running into a brick wall. The man didn’t falter. He grabbed me by the neck and shoved me into a nearby wall. The tight grip around my neck made it nearly impossible to breath. 

He brought his face so close to mine I could see his crystal blue eyes, just as expressionless as his mask. What is he waiting for? I eyed the knife in his hand, still dripping with David’s blood. His hand twitched and his breathing got heavier. He brought the knife up to my throat, right underneath his hand.

“Please,” I gasped as I felt the metal caress my skin. “Don’t do this.”

He held the same deadpan stare as before. The silver tip sliced into my throat. Slow. Meticulous. I tried to scream but the air came out as a ragged hiss. I could feel the blood clogging my throat, making it impossible to breath. It slickened his hands. He let me slide to the ground. Without so much as a glance, he walked away, done with the kill.

I died alone besides David’s corpse. Michael never came back as I slowly bled to death. Everyone is gone. They left you. No one wanted to be stuck with a killer powerful enough to instantly murder a victim. I’d never seen a killer forgo the rituals of the trials. To do such a thing was truly powerful.  For all the talking you do about working as a team, they sure were quick to abandon you.   I didn’t know if the killer could leave before everyone was dead. If he couldn’t, he didn’t care enough to come back for seconds. Probably for the best…



When I came out of the water, I didn’t go straight to the fire like normal. There was a small patch of grassy area beside the pond that I went to whenever I needed some time to myself. It was on the opposite side of the lake so the chances of anyone bothering me were slim.  I plopped down in the grass and pulled out a stash of supplies I’d gathered from the different areas we’d visited. Some of it was useful in trials, like tool boxes, flashlights, and medkits. Most of it was junk that ended up not having any clues about our surroundings.

The most handy thing I found was a barely used notebook in the junkyard office building. It became my own personal journal.  Okay, so apparently they don’t have to hook you before killing you. Or maybe that’s just specific to Michael Myers? There were so many things to keep track of, most of it all just speculation. I’m so tired of having nothing concrete to work with. I’d be fine just believing was Jake does if I had any proof that he was right. Well… maybe not fine. I’d rather not be dead. But it would be better than not knowing.

I had a few pages dedicated to all the killers. Michael Myers had the most information since he was the only one I’d heard of in my previous life. I had a very specific memory of going to the library with my youth group for some Halloween kid’s event. The librarian did presentations about local history, including a watered down version of the Myer’s killings.  Kind of a morbid story for kids. I don’t think they thought that one through.   I hadn’t told Laurie that Michael was her brother. I wasn’t sure she knew the truth about that yet.

Michael Myers: can sometimes murder you without hooking. No heartbeat. You can hear his breathing quite loudly though. I jotted down the notes and looked despairingly at the other blank pages. There were still killers I hadn’t met yet. Not knowing how to interact with them meant certain death. The Huntress, The Hag, and The Nightmare are the only ones left. Quentin obviously knows something about The Nightmare. He’s not great at hiding it, and the fact he’s not sleeping at all is a pretty good indication that somethings up. None of the others have experienced any nightmares that I know of. Why is it specifically targeting him? 

I looked up from the pages. Bill? I need to clean my glasses. Stupid pond water mucking things up.  The older man’s gait was hard to mistake. His shoulders slumped over and he always looked ready for a fight. He’s basically old David King, now that I think about it. Old and not british.

“I wondered where ya went,” he said. He looked me up and down. “Kid, you’re soaked. Shouldn’t you be by the fire?”

I didn’t want to tell him I wanted to be alone because that would be rude. Also, I didn’t mind Bill’s company. “I needed a good thinking session,” I said. “Michael -- The Shape -- murdered me and David without even hooking us. I didn’t know that was possible.” It was kind of nice being able to spend time with Bill. With the others, I always felt like I had to my prove myself. Bill didn't expect all that. He pushed me to be better, but he never got angry with me when I messed up. Nea would tease Bill by calling him the dad of our group. Even though it was a joke, I agreed with it. It wasn't that he reminded me of my father, but instead that he didn't. That's exactly why I liked him. Of course, I could never tell him any of this cause he'd accuse me of being a sap. 

He sat down next to me and lit a cigarette. The warm orange glow was the only light around us. “The Shape is a real piece of shit. You should see the way he gets with Laurie. Sick son of a bitch.”  

“It’s weird. When I was a kid, that guy gave me nightmares. Now, forteen years later -- or whatever amount of time it’s been -- he ended up fulfilling exactly what I had dreaded,” I said. That’s another thing I need to be keeping track of: time. I don’t even know how old I am anymore. I was twenty-five but is that still the case?

“What’s the book for?” He asked, nodding his head.

I hadn’t told anyone about my notes yet. It was one of the only ways I found to curb my nervous tendencies -- besides practically chewing my fingers off -- and I didn’t want them to make fun of me. I trusted Bill, though. “I’ve been keeping track of everything I know. All the survivors I’ve met, the abilities I think they have, the killers, the locations. All of it. Even the random crap I’ve found laying around.”

He smirked. “You remind me of an old friend of mine. Louis. Tried to find meanin’ behind everything even stupid shit. What have you got so far?” There was an unspoken rule with Bill to never ask about his past. Even the mere mention of someone he used to know was kind of shocking.

“Well,” I flipped through my notes, “Quentin told me he thought the thing that takes us up in the sky is a spider god.”

Bill snorted. “Spider god? Don’t like the sound of that.”

I shrugged. “Better than Jake’s theory that we are all in hell.”

“What do you think it is?”

I took a deep breath. “All I know is when I really try to focus on it, my head hurts and my vision gets fuzzy. Have you ever tried watching it take someone up? It’s like looking through frosted glass. I think it… I think it doesn’t like it when I do that.”

We were quiet for a little while. Bill contemplated while he smoked. “To be honest, I never looked. You know me, I never like stayin’ still. Next time though I’ll try. Who do ya have on your list of survivors? Maybe I’ve met some ya haven’t.”

I flipped to the page and showed him. It went a little bit more in-depth with names, as I also wanted to figure out what abilities everyone had. The more I could figure out about the people I was working with, the better my chances were of surviving.

“You’ve got a good list here,” he nodded. His finger lingered on his own name where I listed some thoughts about his skills. When he pulled me off a hook, it was like a shot of adrenaline. The trapper hit me but I didn’t go down. Had to keep moving. I was glad I hadn't put down any personal opinions about the survivors. If Bill read all the praise I had for him, I would have died of embarrassment.  “Pretty accurate. You are missin’ a few people, but they’ve been gone for a long time. Chances are, they ain’t coming back.”

“Oh, I’d still like to know,” I said, grabbing my pen out of my front shirt pocket.

“Gaia showed up pretty quick after me and disappeared soon after. Said it was 2009 when she showed up. Not sure if you want to keep track of that information too. She was a wild one. Definitely did drugs. Even had drugs on her.”

I wrote down everything. My handwriting was a scribbled mess but I could go back later and fix it. He went on with about five different people, then added that Nea and Laurie would definitely have more. Some he insisted he just saw only a few weeks ago, some he was certain were completely gone. Just when I thought he was done, he continued.

“There’s Ace.” He paused. I could sense he was hesitant to talk about whoever this stranger was, much like all the other people from Bill's past. “I miss that ol’ bastard. Hate to consider him gone for good but it’s been a long time since I saw him.”

“His name’s Ace?” Sounds fakes. Who would name their kid Ace? 

“That’s what he claimed. He’ll claim a lot of things and most of it will be bullshit. Ace Visconti. Put him in your book because he’s a man that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten,” Bill said. That's the highest praise I've seen him give. Normally he talked shit about all of us, most of the time teasing.  “He’s a good friend. Closest one I’ve had here so far,” he smirked. “You’d like him, I’m sure.”

I nodded. “When did he end up here?”

“1980. He’s even older than me.” Bill threw his cigarette into the pond. I looked over the page of notes. That’s the longest anyone has been around. I didn’t think that was possible. 

It seemed weird that there would be survivors I hadn’t met yet, but then again there were killers I hadn’t met either.  I started writing some of my theories about our new home. Bill would occasionally make commentary or, more usually, grunt with approval. For once, I felt peace, but it wouldn't last. As if fate read my mind, a fog crept it and called me to a trial. Bill placed a hand on my shoulder before I left. "You stay safe out there, kid." 

I hope we all do. 

 

Chapter Text

Meg Thomas

Things had a way of going wrong in trials.

It started when Dwight took a medkit out of a chest that Nea was going to search. They argued about it during the trial, wasting precious time, and in the end, Dwight didn’t relinquish the medkit.

Then Dwight saved King off the hook and tried to heal him. He, being a stubborn ass, refused. He chased him across the redwood forest until a hatchet wedged itself in his shoulder blades. He went down like a stack of bricks.

Nea tried to distract the killer but ended up going down too. The Huntress left the two of them bleeding out in favor of catching David again. I could hear Nea grunting insults at him from across the forest.

By the time I rescued them, David had already been hooked. Dwight tried to save him but The Huntress’s aim was their downfall. She hit David from the top floor of the cabin lodge, sealing his fate.

Nea had a temper that matched her bright red lipstick. The second she saw Dwight, she lost it. The noise attracted the keen hunter. She did away with them quickly, then found me soon later trying to hide in the shadows by a generator.

Now everyone was glaring at each other over the flames of the campfire. Well, Dwight didn’t glare so much as cower. He should have given her the medkit.  For all his preaching about staying together, he’s terrible at leading us.

Dwight probably thought Nea was being greedy, but it wasn’t like that. She simply knew she was better than everyone else in the trials. If he hadn’t distracted her so much, she would have easily been able to get a few gens done and escape the hatch. Especially since I would have helped her do it.

I knew letting myself die for her to escape was unhealthy. She even told me this. But nothing about this hell we were in was healthy, so why even bother? It’s not like escaping got me any closer to seeing mom again, so I might as well let her take the win.

I need to focus on watching my own back, not hers. But… I hate watching her die. That doesn’t help anyone.

“I’m sorry, David,” Dwight said with a quiet voice. The fire in the man’s eyes flared up. Dwight’s eyes grew wide as he recoiled. We’d seen the aftermath of David’s rage before. The brutish man shrugged but said nothing. I could see the way his back tensed up. I guess he can restrain himself sometimes. Lucky for Dwight. If we thought what happened to Jake was bad, Dwight would be a million times worse off. It would be nice to see Dwight get taught a lesson though. I bet if you gave them just a little push, you could send David into a flying rage.

“Let’s go chill out somewhere else,” Nea said, standing up. She brushed her hand against my shoulders, gesturing for me to follow. I had become one of the few she liked to hang out with. When we first started becoming friends, some of the others seemed surprised. Laurie told me that Nea was a lone wolf. She never stayed with the others for long.

The girl moved like a cat through the shadows of the forest. Stealthiness came naturally to her. I could tell something was off. While she liked to act all mysterious in front of the others, she normally talked freely around me. This time, though, she remained quiet. Is she still mad about that last trial?  

After we’d gotten a decent distance in, she stopped. The forest felt chillier than normal. She shivered. I pulled off my jacket and handed it to her. Goosebumps were forming across my arms, but her being comfortable was all that mattered to me. We spent a lot of time in the forest together, but this time things felt different.

“I’m such a bitch sometimes,” she sighed, leaning up against the nearest tree. I didn’t really know what to say. “That whole time they were talking I just hoped David would start a fight with Dwight.”

I tried to come up with some kind of defense for her but, yeah, it was kind of bitchy. “What’s gotten into you lately?” I asked, switching subjects. “You’ve been picking fights a lot.”

She stared back at me. “Do you ever feel like someone is in your head?”

“Uh,” I took a step back, “what do you mean?” Something in the air seemed to go sour. I felt like I had eyes watching my back.

“Please don’t tell me I’m the only one,” she sighed, sinking to the ground. “It sounds like me, and even acts like me sometimes. At first, I heard it in the trials. It tells me where people are hooked, even when I shouldn’t know. I thought it was my instinct, but now… now I hear it even when I’m out here.”

We shouldn’t be talking about this. “I think I know what you mean.” I, too, had heard the voice speak through my mind. I didn’t know when it first started happening because it blended so well with my own thoughts. When I first caught it, I panicked. Then I realized it was just something else helping me through the trails. “If it weren’t for the voice, I don’t think I’d be able to save you guys as much as I do.”

“It’s not a savior,” she said with bitterness. Her hands shook as she took a blade of grass and idly ripped it apart.

The way she spoke made me pause. The more we talk about this, the more upset she’ll get. You should change the subject. I tried to reassure her. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”

“I tried not to. But now it speaks to me out here, when we aren’t even in a trial!” She waved her hands towards the forest. “It tries to trick me into doing things I’d never do. You know how shitty this place is. You know what it's like to wake up every day and feel like it’s just so pointless to keep going. Some days I’ll wake up with just a feeling despair and then I’ll hear it whisper that it’s going to be okay or that I’ll be out of here in just a few more trials. It’s infuriating!”

Really? I would be happy to have something like that. Every day I woke up, I found it harder to hold on to the hope of escape. The only thing keeping me going was the thought of seeing mom again. I knew she wouldn’t give up on the hope of seeing me, so I couldn’t give up on her either. “That’s not a bad thing though, Nea. Isn’t it better to have something giving you hope than, like, despair?”

“No!” She looked up at me, glaring. “Because the next trial just leads to me dying. I never escape. I’m never released from this stupid nightmare. I feel like it’s just laughing at me now. It wants to feel hopeful so it can tear me apart.”

I sat down next to her and placed my hand on her back. Her glares never scared me away. I knew her too well to know she would never snap at me. Just as I thought, she leaned her head on my shoulder. She never liked seeming weak, but I was glad she let me comfort her for once instead of putting up walls.

“Whenever I die now, I hear my own voice blaming me for everything that went wrong. It’s my fault that everyone dies, it’s my fault that I ended up here, it’s my fault that the asylum…” her voice trailed off. “I’m such an awful person.”

The asylum? “You’re not awful. Everyone makes mistakes in the trials. It happens. There’s no avoiding that.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you knew the things I’ve done,” she sniffed and wiped her face. I hadn’t even noticed the silent tears.

I put my hand on her cheek and forced her to look up at me. Her makeup smeared underneath her eyes. Even after she’d tried to wipe it away, the faded black pigment remained.

“Breaking a few windows doesn’t make you a bad person,” I said.

“I’m a murderer,” she said. The words took a few moments to register. She must be joking, right?

“You aren’t a murderer for letting people die in the trials-”

“I’m talking about before then. Before I even got here, I was a murderer.”

We went quiet again. “Please tell me murderer means something different in Swedish,” I said.

“It doesn’t,” she said.

What if she’s dangerous? I slid a few inches away, facing her instead of being beside her. “Okay, you can’t just call yourself a murderer and not give me the details. Explain yourself,” I said with a firm voice.

“I,” she paused. “I don’t know the details.”

“You don’t know the details on how you’re a freaking murderer?” I asked.

She looked up at the black sky, mouthing something silently. After a few seconds, she turned her attention back to me. “You know why I never tell anyone how I got here?” She asked before quickly answering her own question. “Because I know when people are lying about it. I mean, the voice tells me when they are lying. When Bill told me he’d gone into surgery at the hospital and woke up here, the voice told me it was a lie. When Dwight told us that he’d gotten lost in the woods on the way to some dumb office party? Lies.”

What does this have to do with anything? “Okay, so Bill and Dwight have something to hide. What does that have to do with you, though?”

“I’ve never told anyone about how I got here because I was afraid the voice would tell them I’m lying too. I mean, I don’t think anyone else is as attuned to it as I am, but there’s always a chance they might be.”

“Just get to the point and tell me,” I said, losing my patience. She’s stalling because she doesn’t want you to know just how fucked up she is.

She took a deep breath before letting the words spill out. “It started off as a dare. My friends were being assholes, like always. We kept daring each other to do stupid shit. When it got to be my turn, I dared Nicole to spray paint a bunch of slurs on her stepdad’s car. He was a cop, and he scared the shit out of her. I thought she was going to pussy out on me, but she actually went through. As revenge, she dared me with the biggest challenge yet: set fire to Crotus Penn Asylum.”

She must have hung out with a tougher crowd than I did. We got into so crazy shit but nothing that bad. Just another red flag that something is wrong with her.

I started to say something but she put a hand to my lips. “Let me finish. All my friends were too scared to get close to the place because they thought it was haunted. I don’t believe in that shit, so it didn’t bother me. I entered the asylum grounds and picked a good spot by the entrance. Okay, I’ll admit that I found the asylum creepy. Not that I thought the rumors were true but… if you think it looks bad all burned up, it looked even worse before.”

She actually went through with it? Most delinquent teens know better than do something as bad as this. Wait, that’s really not fair. I had a bad sense of right and wrong when I was her age too.

“I’ll admit I should have checked around for other people in the area. I just wanted to get the dare done as quickly as possible. When I tossed the match in, I didn’t think anything would actually burn. I guess it was a lot drier in there than I thought. Within a few minutes, the fire had spread to the point that I couldn’t put it out. Trust me, I tried to stop it. But then I started hearing screams and,” she stopped. Her voice shook. Her eyes were glazed over. Even though she was looking in my direction, I felt like she was staring through me. “I guess there were people squatting in there. I didn’t know. I really didn’t know.”

She put her face in her hands and rocked back and forth. I could tell it wasn't for show or attention. If she kept this locked away for so long, it must have been traumatizing. She’s a murderer . But it wasn’t intentional. There’s blood on her hands. I’ve done some awful things as a teen that were on purpose. She made a mistake. A terrible mistake. I’m not going to turn my back on her for that though.

“Nea…” I grabbed her hand. “I’m so sorry. That must have been awful.”

She wiped a few more tears off her cheek. “Don’t you hate me?”

“Of course not,” I said with a gentle squeeze. “I could never hate you.”

She sniffled and looked down at our hands. Her thumb trailed over the back of my hand. “I guess I thought I was unforgivable,” she finally spoke. “God, I probably look awful, don’t I?” Her makeup had run down her face, thanks to the exorbitant amount of eyeshadow she wore. The fierce look was gone, replaced by something softer.

“Somehow you still manage to make it look pretty,” I chuckled. “Here, let me help you.” I lifted a corner of my shirt and tried to clean the black shimmering powder off her face. Her cheeks were turning red but I pretended not to notice. We’d never gotten this close to each other before. I felt hyper-aware of every small movement she or I made. Butterflies flipped around in my stomach, making me nervous for reasons I had to explain. “There. A little smudged but much better,” I teased.

I started to pull back but her hand grabbed my waist. “Wait,” she said, her voice shaky. It didn’t shake because of sadness or anger this time. Are we really doing this? She pulled me forward until my forehead was touching hers. Her legs had parted and now her knees were pressing against my hips. Our shallow breaths felt so loud compared to the silence of the forest. The air around us was freezing now, but somehow I felt way too warm. My hands found their way around her waist before I’d even noticed. Everything about the moment felt so natural, so perfect.

For the first time in what felt like forever, I heard the sound of leaves shifting. We both froze. “Was that…?” She started to speak but her voice stopped as the sound came again. It didn’t move like wind, as I first assumed, but instead started and stopped abruptly. I sat up and looked at the darkness around the trees.

It wasn’t just the leaves that were shifting. The sturdy trunks bent like rubber. They warped in a rounded, unnatural way. The ground crunched as I took a step back. Nea scrambled up to her feet. “Meg, look,” she whispered, pointing to the grass beneath us. Ice formed over on the tips of the blades and bark of the trees.

Whatever was causing the trees move that way was getting closer. Wood snapped under the pressure and crashed to the ground. “We need to get out of here,” I said, grabbing her hand and pulling her away. I couldn’t remember what direction we’d headed to get there, so I just picked the one opposite of whatever was heading towards us.

The sound continued behind us, getting louder no matter how fast we ran. I risked a glance back. The scene was unfathomable. Tree trunks were jutting out of each other at varying degrees. Leaves were shriveling up right in front of my eyes. Black liquid seeped through the bark and pooled on the ground. In the darkness, I could see the shadow of a man in the middle of it all.

“Meg!” Nea grabbed my arm and pulled me to the right. We stumble beside a tree I nearly face planted into. “This way,” she tugged me toward a light glimmering in between the trees in front of us.

We crashed into the campsite, gasping for air. I turned back towards the woods, watching for any sign of our pursuer. The sound of the trees snapping could still be heard even from where we stood. Yet, it never breached the campsite. The only sign of anything wrong was the thin layer of ice that formed on the tree bark.

Nea glanced at me and then back at the fire. Dwight looked startled by our presence and Bill seemed pissed. They sat on a fallen log beside the fire. Quentin and Laurie sat on the outskirts of the camp and watched the scene before them. An awkward silence had fallen over the group of survivors, and I finally noticed why.

A young Chinese woman stood by the fire with her arms crossed tight. She wore a sporty blue uniform that shined from the light of the flame. The tiny shorts made me think it was meant more as a costume than something practical. She glared at us for a few seconds before redirecting her anger at Dwight.

“You say you’ve been here for years,” she snapped at him. She had a thick accent, but spoke quickly, like she’d known English her whole life. “Y-yeah,” he answered.

“You say you don’t know where you are?” She continued. The words slurred together so quickly I had trouble understanding her.

“Yes.”

“How can you be here for years and not know. What are you, stupid?”

“Now you listen here,” Bill growled. Dwight waved his hand in the air.

“It’s okay,” he insisted. “You said your name is Feng, right? Feng, I know you’re upset but--”

“Shut it,” she said. “I don’t care to hear you. Leave me alone.” She turned on her heels and walked towards the forest.

“Wait, don’t go out there,” I said but she ignored me. She disappeared into the trees. You should go stop her before it’s too late.

“I could have handled that better,” Dwight sighed.

“Kid, there’s nothing you could have done. She was pissier than an old man’s bed. When someone’s that sour, they’ll take offense to anything,” Bill snorted, lighting another cigarette.

“Guys, seriously, you need to listen to us,” Nea said. “Something literally just chased us through the forest. We need to get that chick out of there before something bad happens!” The longer you wait, the more dangerous it is for her...

“Chased?” Quentin perked up. His eyes were puffy and his hands trembled. No offense dude but I don’t think you’ll be any hope.

The Chinese girl walked back into the campfire. “How…” she stared at the fire before turning to us. “Is this some cruel joke? Take me home, now. It’s not funny!”

I didn’t know how to handle the girl’s fiery temper. The second her eyes locked onto mine I felt like a bug under a microscope. “If I could I would,” I stumbled over the words.

“The 2021 national competition start tomorrow. My team needs me!” She pointed at my track jacket. “You know. You must know how important this is.”

Why does she think-- oh, she must think I’m on some kind of team too. Did you not just hear what she said? For a moment, my mind didn’t catch the meaning of the words. It sounded like me, but different. It felt intrusive.

She said I must know--

No. Before that. Think, Megan.

A competition. A national one. Probably a Chinese one, assuming she was from China. The foreign symbols on her shirt gave me a pretty good inkling I was right. She didn’t mention what it was for. Wait, 2021? My heart froze.

“2021?”

“Yes!” Her eyes lit up. “It’s the last chance my team has. Please, you know right?”

“What’s today’s date,” I asked, my voice going flat.

She huffed, irritated. “May 11th. What does this--”

“Year?” I stopped her oncoming rant.

“What?”

“What fucking year is it?” I snapped. Nea put her hand on my shoulder but I shook it off.

“2021, of course,” the girl frowned. “What is wrong with you people!”

Oh.

Oh no.

God, please no.

Your mother is dead, Megan.

Chapter Text

Meg Thomas?

How did I end up here?

The forest drummed, vibrated, pulsed, screamed and cried for you to come home but you never did.

 

You fucking LEFT HER to DIE.

 

Worst fucking daughter in the world. You never deserved her. She was too good for someone as awful as you.

 

The light of the campfire disappeared a long time ago. Days ago. Weeks ago. How did I end up here? I remembered meeting Feng. I remembered Dwight asking me if I was alright.

 

She waited on the porch every day from morning till night. Even when her bones were weak and her muscles screamed, she cr awled her way to the window to watch for her loving daughter to come home.

 

The bark of trees tore at my skin until I finally collapsed to the ground. The blackness of the forest wrapped around me, choked me, ripped into my lungs. Kill me, please, I want to die.

 

She was too poor to hire a nurse. Too poor to stay in a facility.

 

I watched her rot away in that house with no one to care for her. No one loved her like you did, Megan. No one stopped by to check in on her. I tried so hard to keep her company because I kn ew no one else would.

 

The ground shifted underneath me like a puzzle piece snapping into place. I tried to scream but dirt poured out of my mouth. It squirmed as if it was alive before turning into viscous liquid.

 

I watched her final moments when she cried herself asleep. She thought about you, Megan. She prayed to a god that would never listen for you to come see her one final time.

 

Funny, really, that s he wasted

her final thou ght

on someone as

P a t h e t i c

as you.

 

Why didn’t I try harder? I could have escaped. I could have saved her. She wouldn’t have died if I’ d just been there for her like you w ere suppose d too.

 

Her husband failed her. Her body failed her. YOU failed her.

 

I deserve this. You deserve this.

 

Ice formed across the ground. I heard the crunch of steps approached. I tried to turn on my back but I couldn’t move. She couldn’t move either, Megan, when she was bedridden those final weeks.

 

I’m a horrible daughter. You’re a terrible daughter. Someone placed a firm grip on my shoulders. My skin burned at the touch, yet I felt so cold. A scream finally released from my throat, hoarse but painfully loud. Letmegopleaseithurtssomuch

 

Soon I lost all sensation in my arm. A numbness covered my whole body until I finally stopped moving altogether. No more screaming. No more breathing. Even my own heart stopped. Whoever held me turned me over. All I could see in the darkness was the outline of a man peering down at me.

 

Please just let please just me please me let me please let let let let let 

Let me die.

 

“Oh no, Megan. I have something much more useful for you planned.” The voice came from him. He placed his hands on my head. The pain of his touch was only felt for a moment before he quickly snapped my neck.

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

 

The chaos that Feng Min brought with her sent everyone over the edge. Her words triggered panic within some of us. Bill, Laurie, David, Nea -- they’d gotten used to the passage of time. After being trapped for decades, five more years was nothing to them. It felt like someone had splashed me with ice water.

I saw the look on Meg’s face. Something’s wrong. She looked like a ghost had passed through her. The expression unnerved Feng Min, who took a step back from the girl.

“Eh? What’s wrong with her?” She asked.

Meg stumbled past her and into the woods. Claudette stood paralyzed from the shock of the news. I noticed Jake trying to keep a calm composure, but even he struggled. Has it really been five years? Nea ran after Meg, shouting that it was dangerous. They did say they were chased by something, didn’t they? Their problems didn’t seem as important at the moment. Panic flooded my thoughts.

Everyone believes I’m dead. I didn’t have many friends back home. In five years, most of them must have moved on with their life. On the off chance that anyone remembered me, that probably wasn’t a good thing. My town was small enough that most people knew the stories associated with my name. I’m sure everyone in the church won’t let that bit of gossip die down. Thinking back on it, I doubted I had anything close to a best friend. I spent the most time with the people I worked with and… well, they left me stranded in the woods, so it’s not like they cared about me.

“I’m never going to see mom and dad again, am I?” Claudette mumbled. She wrapped her arms around her knees and kept her head tucked down. Jake stayed close to her, trying to reassure her in his own way.

If I knew anything about him, he thought never seeing his parents was a good thing. I wished I could have the same confidence. No matter how much I tried to put my family out my head, sometimes pangs of pain would come back. Do I miss them? In the back of my mind, I struggled with that idea. I always had, even before I got taken to whatever hell this was.

Feng seemed to understand that she triggered something. That, or we weirded her out by the grim tone we’d all taken. She stayed in the shadows, watching our pity party from a distance. If she only knew the hell she’d gotten herself in. In a few years, she’d be mulling over the same horrifying realization.

“I wonder if Dad is still looking for me,” Quentin said somberly. I wonder if my parents even started. Surely, they would have. I’m still their son, even if… I didn’t like crying in front of everyone, so I put the thought away as soon as the warning signals started. Be strong, if not for yourself then for them.

“My mom definitely never stopped,” Jake said with a sigh.

“My dad, uh, is really protective of me,” Quentin said. I’d gotten closer with Quentin over the past few months. He showed up to our hell when he was only eighteen. Technically, I was a year older than him, but I still considered him to be the baby of the group. “He probably obsessed over finding me.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Jake said.

Bill and David had done their best to stay out of the conversation at that point. Laurie, too, remained silent. They’ve already accepted the reality. All they can do is watch us come to terms with it. God, this is so screwed up. David perked up when he heard Jake speak.

“Just because ya ‘ave daddy issues doesn’t mean he does. Did ya ever think maybe it's a good thing his dad is worried about him?” David snapped at Jake before I could shoot him a warning look. We don’t need this right now.

“You really enjoy getting offended by everything I do, don’t you? Tell me, is it hard going through life being that sensitive?” Jake said.

“Was it ‘ard gettin’ your girlfriend to reassemble your nose?” David retorted. Jake’s fist clenched so tight his knuckles turned white.

“Both of you, cool it,” I said, standing. The panic was making me antsy. I needed to move around. “This is the last thing any of us need, and you both know it.”

Even without my interruption, they would have stopped fighting. As soon as the words left my mouth, a scream rang out through the woods. I stood, frozen. I recognize that voice. The unfortunate thing about seeing your friends die all the time is that you soon recognize their screams. Nea.

Bill ran out in the woods towards the sound. The whole confrontation with Feng had distracted me from the warning the girls gave us. Now, I remembered that they said something had chased them.

“Wait!” I called out, but he was already gone. I turned to the others. “We need to get them out of there before anything else happens.”

Claudette stood up, but Jake put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ll go, you stay here with Feng,” he said.

She rolled her eyes at him. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, you know.”

“It’s not you I’m worried about,” he said. “It’s the new girl who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Someone needs to tell her about the trials before she gets pulled into one herself.”

“Meg and Nea are my friends.” Claudette crossed her arms and stared down Jake. “I won’t sit around and do nothing while they might be in danger. Why can’t you stay behind?”

“You think this guy, with his outstandin’ charisma, is going to ‘elp her?” David interrupted. “I’ll stay ‘ere. We don’t need this idiot spreadin’ his bullshit ideas around, anyway.”

I would have preferred David to Jake, as much as I hated to admit it. David handled a fight like a pro when it came down to it. The past suggested that Jake would abandon us the second danger showed. However, David was right. I didn’t want anyone else doing the lone survivor thing in the trials. We worked better as a team. “We don’t have time to argue. Let’s go,” I said, waving at them to follow.

Thick, leafy branches jutted out into the sky. Long ago gotten I got used to seeing no signs of life, but that didn’t make me miss it any less. I wanted, more than anything, to hear a bird other than crow squawking. I led them off into the direction I saw Bill take, but that meant nothing. After a few seconds, we were stumbling blindly into the darkness.

The sound of branches snapping made us all stop. Dread filled the pit of my stomach. Why did I do this again? Way to go Dwight. Of course, you’re all brave when by the fire. You should have known that you’d break down once you got out here. It couldn’t be an animal. Those didn’t exist anymore. Perhaps a killer? We’d never seen them in the woods before, but that didn’t mean it was impossible.

“Something’s coming,” Jake said from behind me. I noticed the shape move through the darkness. It approached our group with slow and deliberate steps.

I decided to break the tension. “Who’s there?” I called out.

The figure stopped. “Dwight?” I heard Bill call out.

“Thank God,” Claudette whispered. She stuck close to Jake’s side and watched his back. 

“Jesus kid, you about gave me a heart attack,” Bill said as he approached us. “I saw the group of you in the dark and thought you were ‘bout to ambush me.”

Well, we found one. Two more to go. “Any sign of Meg or Nea?”

He had a sour expression. “Kinda. I found her earlier. She was right behind me a few minutes ago and then gone.”

“You see, kids, this is why you don’t go running off into the forest by yourselves,” Jake said. “Idiots. What were they thinking?” he murmured under his breath.

“Let’s focus on finding them right now. We can give that lecture later,” Claudette said, trying to alleviate the stress of the situation.

“Do you know where the boundary is?” I asked. The last thing we needed to do was loop back at the campfire and get even more confused over which places to search.

Bill shook his head and headed off toward the right. “It’s about this distance out. Let’s try to walk on the outskirts and see if we find her,” he said.

Bill took the lead, much to my relief. We kept walking and watching for any signs. The smell of earth matched the freshly uprooted trees we soon stumbled across. “This is where I found Nea,” Bill said, pointing to one of the logs. “You might find this interestin’,” he gestured to Claudette.

Several of the trees had trunks fused inside them, jutting out in weird ways. It reminded me of particularly glitchy video games I’d played where the assets would clip together.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Claudette spoke with wonder. Her fingers trailed along the bark of the fused trunks.

“Those are two different species,” Jake said, and she nodded.

“Inosculation can occur across species, those that is unusual. Normally this occurs when two trees grow next to each other,” she explained to the rest of us. “Their branches fuse when friction caused by wind wears down the bark. The trees will attempt to repair the wound which makes them fuse.”

“There’s no wind around here to cause that,” Jake said to himself. “Plus, this looks like actual trunks, not branches.”

“Sometimes, two trunks will grow too close together, which will cause the trees to become conjoined. However, I don’t think that happened here. Look at the angle these trunks are at.” She pointed at one of the fallen trees that had a second of trunk sticking straight out of its body. Its top was splinted by whatever caused it to fall. “This doesn’t imply that they grew up together. Rather, it’s like this separate tree grew through and out of the other’s trunk.”

“Is that possible?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Nature can always find a way to survive, I suppose, but it’s strange to see so many of these instances all in the same place. I mean, look at that trunk of there. See how it’s cut off?”

I moved through the mangled mess of wood. I should have paid more attention in my biology classes. Another conjoined tree, off to the side of the wreckage, had followed its brothers to the ground. This one, however, didn’t look broken. Instead, one of its edges had a clean cut all the way through. No splinters or cracks in sight.

“Something has to be fucking with us,” Jake said.

“Well Claudette, you managed to make trees creep me out. Congrats,” I said, pushing my glasses up to my face as I moved back to the group. I fought the urge to chew up my nails, which were already destroyed from the past five years of constant anxiety. The only thing that kept me from doing it was the embarrassment. Nea already made fun of me several times for chewing on them and I didn’t want to hear all the teasing again from the others.

As we walked, no one spoke. We were afraid we’d miss something over the sound of our voices. Over the crunch of our steps, I noticed a sound off in the distance. The first time I heard it, I thought it was a fluke. Sometimes sound echoes in weird ways around trees and even the simplest noise can be mistaken for a garbled voice. At least, that’s what I tried to tell myself before I heard it a second time. 

“Meg…” Nea called out to our missing friend. Her voice came from far off in the distance.

“Stop,” I grabbed the fabric of Bill’s coat to stop him. Jake and Claudette bumped into me, not noticing in the darkness that we’d stopped moving.

“Meg!” I heard her call out again. If she hadn’t been shouting, we would have lost her in the woods.

We all froze at the sound. “What if this is a trick?” Jake asked. I’d been so caught up in finding her, I hadn’t thought to be skeptical. Thankfully, Jake had a talent for questioning everything. “I’ve never seen this forest go this deep before. How do we know that’s not something luring us out there?”

Bill looked out into the darkness. “A witch,” he spoke in a hushed tone. A witch? I doubted he meant a little old lady flying around on a broomstick. “Stay quiet and stick low. First sign of trouble, we run,” he said to the rest of us.

The woods became less dense as we moved forward. Nea’s voice became clear as we got closer. The Swedish accent sounded right. There’s no way something could imitate her that perfectly… right? Then again, I’d noticed instances of that occurring in my own head before.

The sky took on a muddied, red tone. A warm glow cast over our small group. For once, we didn’t have to stumble around in the darkness. Black viscous liquid pooled around the ground. It clung to my shoes like gum. On the grass, it webbed between each blade as if a spider had spun in. Thick coats of the black slime dripped from the trees.

“This happened before I got taken,” Claudette whispered.

Like most things, the sound of the dripping slime made me uneasy. I felt myself approaching the edge of a panic attack. Hold it together, Dwight. We need to find Nea and then I can get the hell out of here. We reached an impassable wall of trees embedded in thick layers of hardened slime.

Jake glanced around the isolated woods.  “When’s the last time we heard Nea,” he said.

Bill stayed still, listening. She’s not here. The panic swelled over. It’s a trap. Claudette and Jake backed away, but Bill remained, staring up into the trees.  We need to leave. This is wrong. All wrong. I’m the one that led them out here. This is all my fault. I did this.

                “Let’s go,” I said, grabbing Bill’s arm. I tried to jerk him away but he didn’t budge. I looked up at whatever was distracting him. At first, I noticed nothing different about the wall of slime and tree branches. Then my eyes glanced across a tuft of white fabric. A fancy white hat was embedded in layers of hardened slime.

 

Before any of us could react, Bill scrambled up the wall. The strange material crumbled under his feet and hands.

“Jesus Christ, Bill,” Jake spat when the older man lost his footing. A large chunk of the black substance broke off under his heavy boot. The only thing holding him up was the strong grip he had with his hands. “Get down from there before you get yourself killed.”

Bill grunted but didn’t give us any response. I wasn’t sure if he even knew we watching him. His eyes were on the prize. The fancy white hat practically glowed in front of the black background. The wall warped in several places, but I noticed that the area by the hat bulged outward, as if to appear easier to climb. It was only a day ago that Bill had been talking about his friend. He cared a lot about the guy. Could this have been done on purpose?

“I’m not carrying his ass all the way back to camp,” Jake grumbled before Claudette elbowed him in the ribs.

If this was a trap, then what’s coming next? I looked up at Bill. He’d nearly reached the hat. Is he the target? I wasn’t sure what I’d do without Bill. My mind raced through every worst-case scenario in a matter of seconds. The idea of losing him, like losing him for good, made my lungs tighten up. He could still break his neck if he’s not careful. We know if we die in the trials we can come back, but what about out here?  

A large crack split beneath his hand. “Bill!” I shouted. He scrambled up before a chunk broke off. Black ooze leaked out of the spot before hardening right in front of our eyes. As his hands clasped onto the hat, the crack grew upwards. In a matter of seconds, the huge bulge of wall split off, bringing Bill with it.

The hardened slime hit the ground with a heavy thud, only an inch away from Bill’s head. Claudette and I rushed to the older man’s side, terrified that the worst had happened. Jake lagged behind, looking at the hat that was still imbedded in the slime. “Is he okay?” I asked Claudette as she examined his head. The fact he wasn’t protesting us worried me more than anything.

“If he broke his neck, he might be paralyzed,” she said, not answering my question. “Bill, stop trying to move your head.” She had her hands on the side of his head as she held him still. He groaned, his eyes still closed. Okay, he’s awake. Good. That’s good. His hand grabbed my wrist.

“Bill?” I asked, unsure if he meant to do that. He didn’t strike me to be the affectionate type. He opened his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Help me up,” he said with a gruff voice. Claudette shook her head at me. He swatted his free hand at her, trying to get her hands off his head. “Kid, I’m not fuckin’ around. I’m an old man with bad knees, pull me up.”

“Are you sure?” I asked. He shot me a glare. “Okay, you’re sure.” I scrambled to my feet and grabbed his hand, pulling him up to his feet. He stumbled forward and grabbed my shoulder for balance. For a second, I thought he would fall over, but he stayed standing.

“Thanks,” he said, patting me on the shoulder.

“Please don’t do anything like that again,” I said. My voice shook from the panic attack threatening to bubble to the surface. “You mean a lot to,” I paused. Don’t do this. Don’t embarrass yourself in front of everyone. You don’t mean that much to him or to anyone here. Why are you always so attached to people when you know no one likes you? Just because you think of him as a father doesn’t mean you’re his son. Idiot. Fucking idiot. Thomas was right-

“He’s right, you know,” Claudette said, coming to my rescue “We all care a lot about you.” Even under the white beard, I saw his cheeks turn bright red.

“Not to ruin this touching moment,” Jake said as he kicked the black chunk of wall beside us, “but I think there’s something off about all this.” He waved his hand at it. I welcomed the distraction from the toxic thoughts harassing me.

Upon closer inspection, it became obvious that this was not some random piece that had fallen off. The oval shape was too perfect to be an accident. As we gathered around it, I noticed that the sides were much smoother than the weird, warped wall behind us. The hat was absent until Bill rolled it over. Crumpled down, it looked less fancy and a lot sadder. He tugged on the brim but it was too imbedded to be pulled out.

I tried to chip away the bit holding the hat down. The substance switched from hard to a thick sludge. It splatted on the ground as it dripped off my arm. This is… not the worst thing I’ve encountered, but it’s in the top five. “It did that to me last time too,” Claudette said with a hushed tone. “It changes consistency without warning. I don’t know if it’s the body heat or moisture that does it.”

“That should have loosened it,” I said to Bill. He pulled again but it didn’t still didn’t come out.

“There’s some bit that’s still hard under it, keeping it in,” Jake said. He looked at me. “Give it another try.”

I frowned. Why do I have to do it? He hasn’t done anything this entire time. Then I thought about Bill, and how much it meant to him. Damn it. I dug my hand back in, deeper this time. I felt it clinging onto the fabric on my shirt. It stayed for a few seconds before turning into liquid and rolling off me like raindrops on a plastic raincoat. Hardens when left alone, changes when touched by skin, but resistant to everything else. Won’t even soak into fabric. How?

My fingertips brushed against something different. It wasn’t the fabric of the hat or the sludge. I looked up at the others and then back down into the black liquid. What could that have been? Better keep digging.

The Kenku reminded me of my previous fears about all of this being a trap. When I realized that there was something in my head imitating my own thoughts, it seemed right to nickname it after one of my favorite Dungeons and Dragons’ enemies. I’d figured out a long time ago that it was there, messing with me. It started in the trials, giving me helpful hints. I almost didn’t notice when it gave me personal insults at the campfire. Every time I had any self-doubt, I’d hear it whispering in the back of my “mind. It honed in on all my insecurities with uncanny accuracy. Then it pulled up memories I’d tried to keep repressed. Somehow it figured out things about me I hadn’t shared with anyone.

I pulled handfuls of sludge out until something peaked through the surface. A white, knuckled hand clutched onto the brim of the hat. The first thing I noticed was the delicate nature of his skin. As my hand first brushed against his, the skin ripped under the slightest pressure.

“It’s a damn cocoon,” Jake said with surprise. My mind sifted through several emotions before landing on general disgust. I’d just been elbow deep in corpse goo. Bill pulled off chunks of the dried slime so fast it didn’t have a chance to change consistency.  

“Careful,” Claudette warned. “He might have been preserved in here but his body is still delicate.”

“His body?” Bill said, stopping. While she distracted him, I took the chance to carefully extract more of the sludge. There’s no way he’s going stop until we get the guy out of here. The sooner it’s done, the sooner I can forget about touching dead body ooze. “You’re talking about him like he’s dead.”

“Bill…” she said, glancing down at the mummified arm I’d uncovered. Tasteful suit jacket. Nearly perfect condition beside the blood stains. Could he have been placed  here recently? I’d gotten an Associate’s in Computer Science, not biology or forensics. I didn’t know how to tell the time of death.

“Dead or not, I think a better question to ask is how he got up there,” Jake said before Bill could flip out.

“We can ask him when we get him out of here,” Bill snapped as he turned back to our task. For a moment, he watched the careful movements I made to uncover the body, then mimicked my caution.

It took a while to uncover him. Somehow, he ended up in a fetal position in there. His knees were tucked up against his chest. When we’d gotten most of his body uncovered, the slime seemed to give up. The sludge turned into water and the hardened exterior of the shell melted away.

Claudette and Jake took a step back as the slime pooled at our feet. They seemed cautious of the substance though it hadn’t been proven to be dangerous yet. “Is this the stuff that’s in the lake?” Jake asked Claudette. She shrugged.

Bill was already on his knees beside the man laying at my feet. I could tell by looking at the gaunt face staring up at me that the slime didn’t preserve him well. His olive skin looked like hardened leather. Splotches of black bruised areas around his mouth and nose.

 “Rigor mortis hasn’t set in,” I said, noticing how his legs and arms fell limp.

Jake scoffed. “Rigor mortis? Where’d you pull a big phrase like that out?”

“Perry Mason,” I shrugged.

“Who?” He asked.

I realized the dated reference I made went over his head. “Sorry, it’s a murder mystery show,” I explained.

“The guy who hides in lockers every chance he gets likes to watch murder mysteries?” Jake asked.

“Oh wait, I know that one! My grandma used to watch that show. It’s like fifty years old,” Claudette said.

“So Dwight watches shows meant for elderly women. The plot thickens,” Jake teased. He enjoyed his pun a little too much.

“I regret everything,” I sighed. The main reason I liked Perry Mason was the lead star. I admired Raymond Burr for many reasons, but if I told them that they’d only think I was more a nerd. Of course, they’d be right. I was a huge, unashamed nerd of murder mystery shows.

Bill checked for a pulse by pressing his fingers on Ace’s neck. The skin had no elasticity and held the imprint of the fingers for several minutes. What bothered me the most about the body was the eyes. While the rest of the body looked like it died a long time ago, the brown eyes seemed glossy and bright.

“We need to get him back to camp,” Bill said. He walked over to the dead man’s legs and lifted them up.

“Oh, now this is just getting ridiculous,” Jake grumbled. Claudette put a hand on his arm, as if to quiet him.

“Bill, there’s nothing we can do for him,” she said with a calm voice. “Do you really think he’d want you dragging his body everywhere? We need to put him to rest.”

Bill wasn’t looking at them. He stared at me expectantly. “We can take him to the pond.”

“I don’t know how else to put this to you,” she said, now firmer. The girl could be stern when she needed too though it took a lot of effort to muster up the courage. “Bill, he’ll fall apart if we try to move him. Don’t do this to your friend. Don’t do this to yourself, even.”

“I’ve never left a man behind before, and I ain’t startin’ now. Either you help me carry him back or I’m doin’ it myself,” he said to me.

“Bill-“ Jake started to argue.

“Jake? You know what'd do us more good than all your whinin’? Gettin’ the fuck out of my way,” Bill snapped. “I’ve lost a lot of good people in my life and I ain’t losin’ him without a fight.”

The air grew heavier every second they argued, and it wasn’t just from the tension they were causing. The overbearing silence of the surrounding woods made me uncomfortable. Claudette shifted nervously on her feet. She feels it too. We aren’t welcome here anymore. Get out.

I moved to the front of the body and placed my hands under his shoulders. All the mystery novels in the world couldn’t prepare me for being that close to a dead person. The well-dressed corpse, the strange slime that preserved him, the voice of the still missing Nea that led us up there: all the strange little details culminated into a surreal and horrifying experience. I wanted to be done with it as soon as possible.

“Let’s go,” I said to Bill before the argument got any more heated. The relief on the older man’s face kind of made it worth it. Admit it, you’d never let him carry this body by himself. He’s grieving. The last thing he needs is for us to abandon him.

We stumbled back through branches and brush. Claudette and Jake exchanged glances but otherwise presented no interruption.

My arms ached as we carried the body. Blood seeped through the fabric of his jacket and onto my hands. If the same was happening to Bill, he didn’t react. He led the way, his eyebrows furrowed with concentration as he glanced back every few feet. Maybe his sense of direction was better than mine. That’s what I was hoping, because I had no idea where we were going.

I first noticed the wisps of fog forming in front of us. My initial fear was that we would be pulled into a trial carrying a dead body.

“It’s calling for me,” Claudette whispered, clutching her chest. The call of a trial came with every wave of fog. For once, I was lucky enough not to feel it.

“Me too,” Jake said. The quick-witted man went straight into planning mode. “You know how every trial has a big landmark, right? Meet me there.”

“What if it’s Haddonfield?” She asked.

He didn’t miss a beat. “Then meet me at the park.” He walked into the fog, knowing there was no reason to fight it. The fog always claimed you, eventually. Claudette followed behind, shooting me an apologetic expression.

“It’s just us, I guess,” I said, my voice straining. I don’t know how long I can keep holding this guy up.

Anger flared across Bill’s face. “We need to move, fast.”

He jolted forward. I almost dropped the poor guy on the ground. The fog surrounded us until we were blinded from seeing anything in front of us. He stopped before we’d got hopelessly lost. “It wants me in the trial,” he growled. It clung to his legs and arms. Any second it would pull him away.

The words came out before I had a chance to think them through. “You focus on surviving that trial, I’ll take care of this,” I said. What am I doing? I can’t carry half of this guy, now I have to drag him to camp all by myself? He didn’t like it, but what other choice did he have? There was no way to avoid a trial.  The fog covered our vision until he disappeared. I heard the other half of the body hit the ground.

When everything cleared away, I stood alone in the woods with a corpse at my feet. Great. This is what I’ve always wanted. I put my arms under his back and legs. The weight sent me backwards, and I almost collapsed to the ground. He wasn’t fat by any means, but he was much taller than me which made it awkward to keep a good balance.

It only took a second to figure out where I needed to go. Behind a line of trees in front of me, I saw the flickering light of a fire. That wasn’t there before. Bill had been standing there only a few seconds ago. We would have both seen the fire. Did the fog transport me too? This would be the one and only time I was glad to be transported somewhere. Getting the heck out of the creepy woods was the best gift I’d been given.

“David?” I called out, hoping the strongest guy around could help me. No response. “Feng?” My voice didn’t sound so sure this time.

When it became clear that no one was around to help me, I carried him over myself. The skin on his neck stretched thin as his head lulled around. I tilted him until his head rested on my shoulder so I wouldn’t have to deal with that nightmare of a problem too. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if he didn’t look so horrifying. I’m going to be joining Quentin in the nightmare club soon.

I got to the edge of the pond and placed him by the bank of the water. My legs and back screamed in pain as I plopped down on the ground next to him. I should have gotten that gym membership when I had the chance. It was only $12 a month. Why was I so worried about working out next to hot guys, anyway? They wouldn’t have noticed me. I took a deep breath. Dwight, focus. This is not the time to be worrying about your nonexistent romantic life. You can worry about that when there isn’t a corpse beside you. Speaking of which… Do I just dunk him in there? What if it doesn’t work? He’ll disintegrate and then Bill will kill me. I turned my attention to the body as if it would give me an answer. If he does come to life, I hope he doesn’t look so… zombie-like.

“Okay, let’s get you in here before my stomach decides it’s time to throw up.” I hadn’t eaten anything in years, but reality had a way of fucking up where we were.

As I rolled him into the water, I couldn’t help but notice how much worse the body had gotten from our short trip to the camp. The skin shredded like paper. There’s no way this will work. I waded into the water to push the body further in. He sank quickly into my arms. In fact, the longer we floated there, immense pressure formed until it pushed me down.

I let him go before it could shove me any further into the depths of the pond. The water -- or slime, or whatever it was – bubbled around me. As I splashed to the surface of the water, gasping for breath, the whole atmosphere around the pond changed. Beneath the dark surface, I couldn’t see anything. Yet, I felt the current shifting around my legs with unnatural intensity. A whirlpool spun in the center of the pond, moving faster and faster each second. Then, without warning, a jet of water exploded from the center. Large waves towered over me as if I were in an ocean instead of a pond. There’s no one around to save me if something goes wrong. They’d never find me. They crashed against my body. I tumbled backwards until my back slammed into the shore.

As if I’d imagined it all, the waves dissipated. The surface of the water went still in a matter of seconds. The man floated up to the surface with a gentleness I didn’t expect. We always woke up gasping for breath, yet he remained still. The water carried him all the way over to me as if to deliver him like a package.

“Wow, now I have a nicer looking corpse. Gee, thanks,” I said sarcastically as I pulled him over to the shore. However, as soon as we got out of the water, I noticed his chest moving. He’s breathing? I got down on my knees and put my head on his chest. Sure enough, I heard the steady heartbeat. The revelation took a second to hit: we’d just resurrected a dead man.  

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

The man lying beside me looked nothing like the body I’d rolled into the water. The warped wrinkles on his face disappeared, replaced by just a few laugh lines. His cheeks were no longer gaunt, and I saw color had flushed back into his skin. Even with the gray hair, he looked around forty years old. Laurie looks seventeen, but that doesn’t mean anything here, does it? His eyes fluttered open, revealing the umber hue I’d seen before.

At first, he stared blankly up at the sky. Oh god, maybe he did turn into something zombielike. His stare eventually fell on me, and the expression changed to one of confusion. He sat up and looked at the water beside us. Immediately his hands flew up to his head and hissed, exhaling quickly. “Are you okay?” I asked.

It took him a few seconds to answer. When he did, he let his hands drop and turned to me. Any sign of pain was gone. The hint of a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “You know, I’ve woken up next to strange people before, but I at least remember their names. We must have had one hell of a night,” he winked. “The name’s Ace Visconti.”

He held out his hand. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out he wanted to shake mine. “Sorry. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to properly introduce myself. I guess I’m not used to it anymore,” I apologized, giving him a firm handshake. “I’m Dwight. Uh, Dwight Fairfield.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said with a smirk. For a guy that just woke up from a deathly slumber, he seemed oddly cheerful. He glanced at the water and chucked at his disheveled reflection. He smoothed out his ruffled, silver hair. The blood stains in his clothes had washed away from the water somehow. I didn’t bother questioning it. His tan jacket, tailored to fit him, looked expensive. The damask print shirt, left generously unbuttoned, was a little outdated, but he made it look good. Very good, indeed.  He cares about his appearance, that much is obvious. I’m losing my spot as best dressed to this guy. Damn, I wish I’d been wearing a suit when I went missing.

When he finished managing his appearance, he turned back to me. “You wouldn’t happen to know how I got here, would you?”

This whole story will sound crazy. I wished the others hadn’t been taken away. If Bill explained how we found Ace, it might sound more credible than coming from a stranger.

We sat by the shore as I gave him the whole story. I told him all about the search for Meg and Nea, and how it led to finding him in the slime. He kept a straight face through the whole story, breaking into a slight grin when I talked about Bill’s heroics.

When I finished, he took a moment to mull it over before speaking. “That crazy old man never knows when to quit, does he.” He shook his head. “Thanks for going through all that trouble to get me here.” He took it better than expected. If I were in his shoes, I’d probably give myself a heart attack.

Well, Bill would have been pissed, so it’s not like I had a choice. “Do you mind if I ask how you ended up in there? I mean, we didn’t even know that part of the woods existed.”

“The details are fuzzy,” he admitted. “I was in the middle of searching for the hatch. I usually stumble upon it pretty quick, but this time I couldn’t find it anywhere. And then,” his voice trailed off. He shrugged. “Again, it’s fuzzy. I think I hit my head on something, and then I woke up here. Here’s a more important question,” he paused for dramatic effect, “have you seen my hat? I had it on in the trial.”

“You remember the hat but not how you died?” I asked.

For the first time, his voice turned serious. “It’s an important hat.” Is that why Bill nearly died trying to retrieve it? The stupid hat had gotten us in a lot of trouble and I doubted it was worth any of it.

“Bill had it in his hand. I remember he dropped it when we uncovered your body.” I thought back to the time I saw it last. “I think he left it behind where we found it.”

He got back on his feet. “Which direction?”

“You aren’t thinking about going on there, are you?”

“Did you not see that hat? It’s perfect. I’m never going to find another one like it out here,” he said. The way he delivered the explanation sounded so logical, I had to laugh. I’d risked my life for a lot of stupid reasons in the past five years, but a fashion accessory hadn’t made it on that list. After seeing my reaction, he smirked but still stayed serious. “Laugh all you want, but that hat is worth it.”

“How about we wait for the others to return before traipsing through the woods again,” I said. The last thing I wanted to do was chase after this guy through the woods. “I think Bill would kill me if I let you go out there by yourself after everything that happened.”

“Dwight, you’re a genius,” he said, clapping his hands. “We wait for the others and get a search party together.”

“Oh yes,” I chuckled, “the others will love that.” A more concerning thought entered my mind. “We might have to do that anyway since I still haven’t seen Meg or Nea.”

“I don’t know anything about your friend, but Nea’s a firecracker. I trust she can handle herself out there. Hell, she knows those woods better than me and I’ve been here way longer than she has,” he said. He stood up and looked toward the campsite. I wonder if this place looks any different to him compared to before. “I’m freezing. Let’s get back to the fire.”

I scrambled to my feet. He’ll wander off if I leave him alone, but I need to get my notebook. There were too many things I needed to record, and if I didn’t do it soon, I’d forget. “I’ll be there in a second, I just need to go grab something. Don’t go anywhere, okay?”

“You mean don’t go hat hunting, right?” he asked with a chuckle. “Fine, fine. I’ll be right by the fire when you return.”  He sauntered over to the fire and looked up at the sky. I grabbed the little spiral-bound book and headed back as I fast as I could, nearly dropping the thing twice in the process. When I got back, I found him humming a tune while circling the fire. There was a pep in his step with each beat of the song. A white hat perched on his head. As I approached, he tipped it at me, still humming.

I was gone for like thirty seconds! “How-“

“I think it followed me here,” he shrugged. “I found it right by the fire over there.” Besides us, there wasn’t another soul at the camp. The darkness of the woods glared at our lonesome party. Something really is fucking with us.

He continued to hum. Does he not realize how creepy all of this is? “Ever heard anything from The Kinks?” He interrupted his song to ask. I shook my head. Is that a band? I’m guessing it is. “Yeah, guess that’s expecting a lot. What year is it now?”

“2016. No, wait, that’s wrong,” I said. Feng’s upsetting news hadn’t sunk in yet. “2021. I forgot I’ve been here five years.”

“Holy smokes! It’s been that long already?” He shook his head, eyes wide with disbelief. “No wonder you haven’t heard my music. Everything from my era is in a museum by now.” Again with the music? This guy has some unique priorities. “Wait a second, you’ve been here for five years?”

“I guess so, yeah,” I said, though I couldn’t believe it myself. It didn’t feel like five years had passed.

“We never met, so that means I’ve been knocked out for at least five years? Holy smokes,” he exclaimed again as he took the hat off and ran a hand through his hair. With the fancy hat, he’d fit into some hi-baller party. Did he dress like that everywhere he went, or was he on his way somewhere special before he disappeared? In all honesty, he looked like one of those 50s movie stars I’d seen in some old mystery flicks. Handsome in a classic way. It explained the extreme-confidence he exuded. If I knew I’d look that good in my middle age, I wouldn’t deal with so much self-loathing either. “Congratulations on the five-year anniversary, by the way. Most of them don’t make it that long.”

“So I’ve been told,” I said, flipping through my notes. I’d left a blank spot under Ace’s name on the off chance I learned more about him. Here’s my opportunity, I suppose. “I’ve been keeping a record of everything I’ve learned while I was here. If I ever die, I want to leave something behind for other survivors to use. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” I felt one of those journalists conducting an interview with some big celebrity.

He stopped humming his song. “Go for it,” he said. “You don’t mind if I walk around while you interview me, right?”

“It doesn’t bother me.” Unless he decided to go into the woods. That would bother me. When it appeared that he only wanted to walk around the fire, I finally sat down and let my legs rest. I pushed my glasses up to my face while I thought over the first question. “Uh, when did you arrive here?”

He took a lap around the fire as he thought about the answer. “August 21st, 1982, about 8:14 P.M.”

“That’s specific,” I said, taken aback. Everyone else struggled to remember the last few moments of their normal life.

“Do I win a prize?” He smirked. “A radio would be a nice prize right about now. We need some music to liven up this place,” he said the last statement under his breath, but I still caught it. Under his name, I made my first note. Really likes music. “I’m probably wrong about the exact minute but it was something close to that. I had a plane to catch that night and left the motel at 8 on the dot. This is off the record, but I had a drink before I left. Well, a bottle, maybe two. I was blitzed, okay? It’s no wonder I crashed my car into that tree, especially with the fog that rolled in.” Two bottles? Are you kidding- Dwight, stop. You can’t judge him, considering the hangover you had when ended up here. The fact he saw fog is interesting, I supposed, but expected. That’s the first sign before getting taken.

“That makes you the oldest one here. You’ve been here for almost forty years? Whoa,” I paused. “I think you’re older than Bill. How old are you?”

He grimaced as he kicked a stick away from the fire. “I don’t like this line of questioning.”

My first reaction was to apologize, but I didn’t get the chance. A branch snapped behind me. I turned to see Bill with arms crossed. Beneath the same crotchety expression, a glint of mischief sparked his eyes. “Don’t mind him,” he said to me. “Old Man Ace is sensitive about his age is all.”

“Hey now, Grandpa,” Ace said, pointing his finger at Bill. “I don’t look a day over forty, which is a lot better than your wrinkly ass.” They both squinted at each other before erupting into laughter. Bill pulled the man into a tight bear hug.

“How dare you leave me with all these kids. I’ve been playin’ babysitter for five fuckin’ years now,” Bill said with mock accusation. 

“I missed you too, Bill,” Ace said, rolling his eyes.

As the two of them caught up, I noticed tears welling up in Bill’s eyes. I wonder if I’ll ever make a friendship like that. Of course, I considered the other survivors to be my friends. But best friends? Quentin, Laurie, and David stuck together like glue. Claudette had Jake and Meg had Nea. If anything happened to Bill, I’d be a crying mess, but I suspected that was a one-sided feeling.

When Quentin and Laurie entered the camp from the fog, Bill wiped the tears away and resumed his standard stern expression. Ace greeted both, albeit Laurie got a warmer reception.

“Hello dear,” he said, tipping his hat at her. In a normal world, they’d both be about the same age. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek.

“It hasn’t been the same since you were gone,” she said. “We were all so worried about you!”

 “Another one?” Quentin grumbled under his breath. At first, I thought he was irritated about the whole Ace thing. Then I noticed the fog creeping toward the young boy. He’d only been sitting there for a few minutes after the last trial. Oof, that’s unlucky. It was unusual to be called to another trial so quickly. Bill, too, had to leave much to his displeasure. He and Ace both exchanged a knowing look. They are going to talk each other’s ears off later.

Jake and Claudette, replacing the two that left, stared wide-eyed at the man before them. They didn’t think he’d come back either. As the introductions continued, I realized it would be awhile before I’d get to talk to Ace alone again. I tucked the notebook back into the pocket of my shirt for whenever the moment arose again.

When the inevitable question of how he ended up dead arose, he gave them a much more dramatic version than what he told me. “I was crouched down real low to the ground,” he said with a low voice, scrunching up his shoulders as if he were there in the tall grass. He put his hands up as if placing them on something in front of him. “I peeked up my head to see if The Shape was around,” he whispered, “when BAM!” He clapped his hands, causing everyone to jump. “A bloodied knife swiped right in from my face!”

The captivated crowd gave a few nervous laughs. Even I found myself enjoying the story. That didn’t stop the nagging suspicions bouncing around my thoughts. Everyone is sufficiently distracted. No one mentioned Meg or Nea. Ace intrigued even Jake, who usually didn’t give a damn about other people. The man knew how to put on a show, but I wondered if that was the point.

Could he have been the trap all this time? Finding him had been awfully convenient. We were led there by Nea’s voice, or at least something pretending to be her, and instead got this guy who’d been missing forever. Too convenient. After he finished his story, he bowed dramatically at the few claps he earned. The man could obvious act. What if this is all an act? He flashed the crowd a smile. What if he’s been in on it from the start?

Fog poured in through the surrounding trees. It’s time. Each one of the survivors stood up, sensing the call too. The fog whisked me away from my friends faster than ever before. The ground beneath my feet changed. Tall reeds sprouted out of thick mud which clung to my shoes.

When the fog dissipated, I found myself standing at the foot of a giant boat run aground. Broken lights fizzled in and out of brightness every few moments. My mind still lingered on the suspicions I had before, but there wasn’t time to deal with that. Focus, Dwight. Your friends need you right now. On the top floor, I could see a generator waiting to be fixed. Tempting, but I’d rather stay down here for now.

It looked like a place that should be warm and humid. Instead, it felt like the same icy temperature of all the other trial locations. What I wouldn’t give just to feel warm weather again. I took a step forward into a large puddle that splashed all over my legs. This is becoming my least favorite place we’ve been too. Though, at least this place is brighter than all the others. I’d dare to call it daytime, though the sun never shined through the ruddy clouds above.

Work on gens and keep your friends safe. That’s all you gotta do. I started working on a generator a few feet away from the boat. I wish someone would come along and help me. It’s so much better to work on these things as a team. I always ended up making more mistakes on my own. I’d always check behind my back every few minutes, afraid that someone was sneaking up on me. My hands would tremble. I’d drop the wires.

I heard the heartbeat. If it weren’t for the fact that the generator was almost running, I would have bolted out of there. Just a few more minutes. The heart raced, but oddly I saw no sign of my murderer until I noticed movement above me.

She was chasing someone around the top floor of the boat, swinging wildly and missing each time. It took me a few moments of watching to realize the hunched over figure was a woman. Dead skin rotted of her frail looking body. Her proportions were all wrong. Arms twisted and longer than they should be. Hands that resembled claws.

The white hat bobbed as he jogged around the upper floor, holding it down with one hand so it wouldn’t fly off in the chase. Getting himself into trouble already? He had her going in circles around pallets. Every time it looked like he was going to pull one down, she’d step back to avoid being hit and he wouldn’t pull it. The whole time she chased him, he had what could only be described as a shit-eating grin. If that were me, I’d be freaking the hell out. Not crying but… okay maybe crying a little.

Another generator popped around the same time mine did. At some point, she’s going to call his bluff. With the generators getting done so quickly, she had to act fast. She leapt forward, catching onto his game. The second she did though, he pulled the pallet down onto her head. Without missing a beat, the man shot her finger guns before running away.

 I…

I can’t believe I just saw that.

The killer let out a loud scream of frustration as she started the chase again. He is so going to die.

Of all the things I wanted to watch, someone getting murdered wasn’t on the top of my list so I headed toward the next generator. The one on the boat still didn’t feel safe, so I opted to head into a flat, swampy area. In the distance, I could see a smaller boat run ashore, as well as some piers. A generator sat in the middle of a field of scattered crated. Good a place as any, I guess.

I waited for the inevitable shout as he got put on the hook, planning to go rescue him once the deed happened. Unlike Jake, I wouldn’t let my mistrust control me. It wouldn’t be fair to let him die in the first trial he’d done in years.

By the time I got the generator halfway done, I heard footsteps approaching. Ace sauntered over with a smug grin and dropped a shiny new flashlight at my feet. “You look like you could use this,” he said before working on the generator. “Just make sure to blind that pretty lady if she knocks me down. Sounds like a fair trade, eh?”

I stared at the device as if I’d never seen one. Heavy metal, industrial. I flicked in on and off. It’s like a freaking spotlight. Where did he find this thing? The items I’d found in trials tended to be utter garbage. Is it more suspicious that he’d find something this good or less because he gave it to me? A traitor wouldn’t help us fight against a killer. Or would they, to gain trust?

“How…?” I started to ask, then shook my head. Conversation later, generator first. We were quiet as we worked. My brows furrowed in concentration, yet he smiled and chuckled at whatever was running through his head. Then he started to whistle the song I heard by the fire. “What are you doing?” I asked, my voice squeaking.

“Relax,” he said. “She’s probably still doing loops over by that shack,” he laughed again. “You should try running them around like that sometime. Really gets the blood pumping.”

“Maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t it seem a little hard to relax when you could die any second?” I asked.

“When you go through as many trials as I have, the novelty wears off,” Ace said. I didn’t have a retort for that. If I lived as long as he did, maybe I’d have the same casual approach to everything. Then again, imagining a time where I wasn’t always on the verge of panicking was impossible.

The generator popped just as the heartbeat began again. I realized, too late, that she was coming for us. Her emaciated body came into view as she turned the corner of the large ship. Rotted skin hung from her gnarled face. I froze. Her eyes locked onto mine.

“Hey, it’s me you want, right?” Ace called out. Her eyes darted to the slender man beside me. “Yeah, that’s right. Come catch me if you really can,” he taunted as he backed away from the generator.  She followed, bumping my shoulder as she passed.

Did she ignore me? I thought for sure she’d knock me to my feet, but Ace was too tasty of a treat to resist. When I composed myself, I realized I still had the flashlight he’d given me. He must have pissed her off. If she ever catches him, it’s going to be tough to get him off a hook. I looked for signs of their pursuit and quickly caught up.

She honed on him, destroying all the pallets he threw in her path. This time she didn’t bother playing his games and lunged every chance she got. So far, he’d been lucky enough to knock her away. However, before reaching the last pallet around, a horrible explosion rocketed up from beneath his feet. She lunged out of the ground in front of him and the creature chasing him disappeared. As if she inhabited it, the clone came to life and attacked Ace, sending him reeling back. Again, he triggered something in the ground and again she managed to lunge out in front of him and attack.

I've never blinded a killer before. I saw Jake do it once when The Wraith was in the middle of uncloaking. Otherwise, most attempts were failures that only irritated the killers more than usual. Don’t screw this up, Dwight. The grip on the flashlight grew tighter. Right when she picked him up, I dashed in front and flicked the light at her face.

She hissed and covered her face, dropping Ace in the process. We both ran toward a nearby pier. “I knew I could count on you,” he said, smiling wide despite the several gashes across his chest and back. The Hag was already chasing us again. I ducked in between the walls under the pier but he didn’t follow. I wasn’t sure where he went after that, but I heard that strange explosion once again.

It’s like the nurse, but less direct than teleporting. I’m going to have to pay careful attention to this woman to see how she sets these traps. I crouched down to the ground and headed toward the sound of explosions.

She’d already knocked Ace down by the time I found them. She hauled his body over her bony shoulders and put him on the nearest hook. Unlike the other killers, she hung around for the moment, drawing her finger through the mud like a child drawing with chalk. While she set her traps, the final generator went off. Finally she slipped away, off towards one of the exit gates.

Do the others have the gates open yet? If he ran towards an unopened gate, he’d be screwed. If I pulled him off when no gates were open, she’d have nothing to distract her from the injured man. While I weighed the options carefully, I noticed he didn’t have the same level of patience. He started to pull himself off the hook.

Bill warned me to never attempt that. Never had I seen anyone successfully do it, and we all knew that trying to get off the hook made the spider come down for its meal sooner than normal. I have to stop him before he summons that thing! I walked out from my hiding spot, trying not to activate her traps.

With one quick move, he grabbed the hook and pulled his body upwards. The slender man didn’t look strong enough to do it, yet he slid easily off the rusted death trap. That’s impossible. How did he even…? The man landed on his feet and dusted off his jacket before flashing me a million-dollar smile.

He’s so… cool. Never once in my life would I have thought someone pulling themselves off a meat hook would be cool. He did it though. Somehow.

He crouched down to the ground. The move seemed silly and all kinds of weird at first, but then I noticed that as he stepped over her traps, they didn’t activate. Slow movements don’t activate them. Good to know. When he got far enough away, he stood up. “Want to see a magic trick?” He asked, holding his hand out. Blood is literally soaking the front of your shirt, but sure, show me a magic trick.

“Go for it?” I asked, not sure at all. What kind of crazy stunt is he going to pull this time? I put the heavy flashlight in his hands. He flicked the light on and pointed it at one of the mud drawings. The triangle glowed a fiery orange before melting into the ground. Light destroys them too. Huh, maybe this isn’t as impossible as I first thought. Damn it, I wish he’d been around when we first got here. We’d all have lived a lot more with someone this experienced in the group.

He handed the light back. “She’ll be back soon. I wouldn’t be able to resist these Italian good looks either.” Fortunately for him, I don’t think killers pick their prey based on how attractive they are. At least, I hope not. That’d add a new layer of creepiness to all this.

Sure enough, the heartbeat returned before I had time to patch up his wounds. David normally acted as a bodyguard for injured survivors, but I liked to help when the gates were open. I stuck close behind him as we ran, just in case The Hag tried to take a swipe.

When we got back to the fire, the fog never receded into the woods. It hung close to the camp and plucked away each survivor. “Another one? Busy day,” Ace said, looking toward the fog.

“Before you go,” I said, catching his attention, “take this.” I pushed the flashlight back into his hands. “I won’t be there to save you this time.”

“Shame. I liked having you as a hero,” he said with a smirk and tip of the hat.

"Oh, uh, thanks?" I said with a nervous laugh. I watched, dumbfounded, as he entered of the fog. Did he just flirt with me? I could feel my face turning red. I’d never told anyone about my… preferences. I had a history of people reacting the worst way possible to the news. No. Not possible. The guy is from a different time-period. He probably hates gay people, with my luck.

Quentin arrived from his last trial and was pulled back into another before he had the chance to sit down. I hoped David taught Feng Min enough to survivor because the fog certain wasn’t sparing her from the onslaught. As Laurie arrived from another trial, the fog pulled us both into a new nightmare.

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

When I first felt the ground turn to pavement under my feet, memories of Haddonfield sent a shiver down my spine. The shadow that stalked the long stretch of road there haunted the few dreams I had. However, once the fog released me into the trial, I realized we weren’t visiting that isolated neighborhood.

I found myself in a parking lot in front of a dilapidated elementary school. Empty cars sat in the front of the school, reminding me of better times. What I wouldn’t give for a set of keys and a working engine. I’d drive one of these cars right through the trial walls if I thought it’d help us escape. The picket white fence surrounding the decayed playground reminded me of my mom. When I was ten, she hired a contractor to build one around our entire backyard. She told me it represented a perfect family. I guess the symbolism failed to hold our family together, despite her efforts.

Even without reading the sign on the school, I knew we were at Badham Elementary. Its name traveled in whispers through conversation around the campfire. No one knew much about the place, only that it appeared rarely. Even those with their fair share of trials, like Bill, had only been to the school a handful of time.

Quentin had a history with the place, though he pretended not too. Sometimes, he’d murmur the name of the school in his sleep before jolting awake minutes later. While warning me about The Nightmare, he casually let the killer’s real name slip out. The Nightmare, also known as Freddy Kruger. Besides Michael, he’s the only other killer we know the name of. I pretended not to notice, since it was obvious he didn’t want to talk about it.

Laurie walked through the empty front door and smiled when she saw me. “It’s nice to see a friendly face,” she whispered. “There’s usually a generator behind that wooden fence over there.” She nodded her head past the small playground and toward the back of the school. As we headed over there, I noticed her checking behind our backs. Even when settled down at the generator, she never stopped glancing over her shoulder.

“Something up?” I asked, trying to keep my hands from slipping off the generator.

She shot me a weak smile. “This place just makes me more nervous than the rest. The Nightmare… well, he likes me a lot for some reason. Every time I’m in a trial with him, it’s like I’m the only one he wants. It doesn’t help that you can’t see him coming,” she said, referring to his invisibility. When I first heard of him, I thought he’d be similar to The Wraith. However, their similarities ended at invisibility.

“Quentin told me you can hear children singing when he’s near though, right?” I asked. Some of the survivors thought they were the ghosts of his victims, but Quentin scoffed at the idea. He told me it was just Freddy’s way of mocking his prey.

“Unless he puts you to sleep,” she said. “Then you enter the dream realm.”  

“Hence the nickname The Nightmare, I suppose,” I said. “What about your ability? Doesn’t that help you see where he is?”

“Not him,” she said, looking at her bloodstained shoes. “Something about him blinds my power.”

“Well, don’t you worry,” I reassured her. “I’ve got your back if anything happens.”

Once the generator finished, I headed toward the school to find another to work on. Laurie, however, lagged behind. “You go ahead. I’m going to search the houses over there for supplies,” she said. I understood why she didn’t want to enter the school. Everything about its presence was foreboding. However, only a limited number of generators existed in each trial, and I really didn’t want the last ones to be in school.

The cracked, tiled floors squeaked beneath my feet as I entered. Papers with messy crayon drawings littered the walls. The doodles of flowers and smiling stick figures appeared out of place in the run-down facility. I poked my head into one of the classrooms. Bright toys were arranged on the floor as if children had just been playing with them. The half-finished sentences on the chalkboards made it seem like the class had been abandoned mid-lecture.

In the middle of the hall, a gaping hole dropped down into what appeared to be the basement of the building. I crouched to get a better look. The orange lighting cast an ethereal glow over the steaming pipes that lined the walls. Tucked into a corner, a yellow generator waited for one brave repairman. Oh, great, that’s me. I jumped in and started my work.

The yellow silhouettes of my fellow survivors would flash into existence as they got close to the school. Each time, they turned away as if repelled. For once, I wasn’t the one being a scaredy cat. I didn’t know if I should be proud or concerned.

Two generators popped in the distance, followed by my own. We had one more to go and not once had I heard the killer. Just when I thought things might go shockingly well, I heard the strange voice. She’s by the end of the road, next to the shack. 1… 2… I heard Laurie’s scream echo through the school. It never lied in the trials so far and yet again it had been right.

I took the steps two at a time as I rushed to get to her in time. The final generator popped as I got halfway across the street. The road split into a T-shape. To the right was an exit gate, which Jake worked on opening. At the far end, away from the school, I sensed where Laurie got knocked down. The hooks remained empty. As I came closer to the scene of chaos, I saw the silhouette on the ground crawling towards me. He didn’t hook her?

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I heard David cry out.  He enjoyed playing bait for killers, even though it only took one hit to knock him down. Every trial he started injured, though none of us knew why. He never complained about it, just said it made him better bait.

I thought he’d be left on the ground just like Laurie, but that wasn’t the strategy The Nightmare was going for. His body floated up in the air by some invisible force. Even from where I was standing, I could hear the Englishman yelling every curse word known to man.

The hook by the shack. Yeah, I know, I’m looking right at it. David didn’t bother waiting to be rescued, despite the fact he most definitely could see me coming for him. He attempted to pull himself off the hook twice. Maybe Ace was an inspiration for him, or maybe he didn’t care about surviving that particular trial. Either way, he failed. So, the middle-aged, skinny dude pulls himself off but not the strongest guy here? Really?

Judging by the surprise on his face, David must have been thinking the same thing. I’d just gotten to the hook and had my hands under his arms. The spider leg materialized above him in a split second. It twitched in anticipation for the first meal of the trial. He was too busy looking at me to notice. In one quick move, the leg pierced through his chest. Blood splattered across my face. The color drained from his body as he went limp.

My arms still reached for him even as his body was carried off into the sky. The trial continued to go downhill all around me, but I found myself frozen. I had him in my arms, you can’t just… The whirling clouds above disagreed. A strange fuzziness clouded my vision as I looked up in the sky. Laurie needs your help. It was like someone put a photo filter over my glasses. Jake is calling for you to come escape. David’s darkened silhouette stop it became drowned don’t look in a bright yellow light. The glow pulsed Leave. Now. from deep within whatever hid in those clouds. Goodbye, Dwight.

A sharp shock sent me reeling backward. White noises deafened my ears as if I was standing next to a broken television. The fuzziness that blinded me before dissipating. I stood only a few feet from the gate Jake just opened.

The disorientation became the least of my problems when I heard Laurie scream behind me. They were over by the hook I’d just been standing at. How is this happening? Something hoisted her injured body up and carried her away toward the school. I didn’t see any hooks over there.

Laurie had a trick up her sleeve that The Nightmare didn’t anticipate. She kept a shard of glass hidden in her hand every trial. I watched her jam it into the air, then jump down to the ground, released by her invisible assailant. “Run!” She gasped as she pushed past me and toward the open gate. 

Following behind her, a soft melody drifted through the air. A choir of children sang with sad, yet taunting, voices. A tingling sensation started in my neck and spread across my body. As I tried to follow her, my body felt like I was wading through water. The pressure of sleep became too heavy to bare until finally, my eyes fluttered shut.

The blackness of sleep didn’t greet me like I expected. Instead, the world around me blurred into a foggy, dark copy of the place I’d just been in. The singing stopped, replaced by a rapid heartbeat. I stood face to face with a maniac covered head to toe in scars. On his hand, he wore a leather glove with bloody blades on each finger. They clicked against each other impatiently as I blocked his path from the limping girl ahead.

His eyes remained locked on his target. It wasn’t like the dead stare of Michael, nor the pleased gaze of The Huntress. He looked her up and down like she was a piece of meat. A hundred memories threatened to break from their cage. My stomach clenched. Each second, he wasted time with me allowed her to get to the gate. He hooked his claw deep into my shoulder and flung me out of his path. Not on my watch.

My hands clung to the fabric of his worn sweater as if they had a mind of their own. The sensible, even cowardly, part of my mind was telling me to let go. Have you lost your freaking mind? He’s going to gut you alive if you don’t get out of his way! Too many things didn’t add up. None of the other killers honed in on someone like that. He spent the whole trial only wanting her. The way he looked at her, the fact he never hooked her. Why was he trying to take her to the school? My fingers dug deeper as he tried to shake me off.

The man moved faster than I expected. He grabbed me by the collar of my shirt and shoved me against a tree. His ungloved hand gripped tight into my hair. The first time he slammed my head into the tree, I thought I would pass out. By the third time, I heard my skull crack. My vision started to blur in and out of consciousness after that.

The attack lasted only a few seconds but that’s all she needed. You’re the only one left. Did she make it out? His head snapped toward the gate as if he’d gotten the same message.

As soon as he let me go, my legs gave out from under me. I let myself slump to the ground. I’d made a fatal sacrifice, but it proved to be worth it. He left me there to check the gate, then came stomping back a few seconds later.

I told you not to look. Huh? White noise buzzed in the back of my mind. I didn’t know if the splitting headache was coming from the broken skull or the incessant static.

The man’s seething expression changed to a comical grin that stretched out the scars across his face. “You know, I was looking forward to playing with Laurie, but I guess you’ll make a good test-run.” The gravelly voice didn’t match the small man’s stature. Wait… they can talk? On some random page in my notebook, I’d speculated that the trials made the killers mute. That theory just shattered and left me with a million questions.

He slid his hand beneath my chin and lifted my head up. Every muscle in my body tensed. Only The Nurse had touched me that gently before, and that was while she was choking the life out of me. Yet, the final death blow I expected never came. He brought his mouth up to my ear.

“Go to sleep,” he whispered. The static grew louder and the nightmarish world surrounding me vibrated.

 

 

I opened my eyes.

The cracked ceiling above me showed signs of water damage. Mold grew in green and gray splotches.

I took a deep breath.

As my lungs exhaled, I noticed the tremors. Every part of my body twitched at random. I lifted my hand up to my face to watch the way my fingers shook.

I waited for a sign.

My mind felt like it was melting. It reminded me of that time in high school when someone gave me an edible. I could almost imagine floating in the room like a ghost, watching my body like it was some kind of scientific specimen.

The ghost gathered a few vital pieces of information. One: Someone – probably The Nightmare – trapped me in Badham Elementary School’s basement. I didn’t recognize the room, but the aesthetics were the same. Children’s drawings covered the walls. Toys pushed into the corners. Somewhere nearby, pipes hissed with hot steam. Two: Speaking of the room, it didn’t have a door. Not a real door, anyway. A tunnel blocked off by a piece of wood appeared to be the only way in or out. Candles were lit by the

The panic attack began a few minutes later. This one didn’t hit with a slow boil. It bore into my head like a bullet from a gun. This is your own fault. Shallow breaths. Racing heartbeat. You put your hands on a killer, you freaking idiot. A cold sweat that soaked into the scratchy blanket underneath me. Always trying to play hero when you’ve never had the spine for it. Sitting still made me antsy but moving made me feel like a target. Heroes roles are for people like Bill or Claudette. People who help their team. You’re just a worthless dimwit who gets in everyone’s way.

My fingers clawed at the mattress as if I could rip a hole through it and escape. What’s the last thing I remember? The Nightmare whispered in my ear and then… I woke up. Or, something close to waking up. The same foggy haze I saw outside drifted around the room.

That brought me to the next question. He obvious brought me down here. Now he’s locked me in. Why? When Laurie escaped, I pissed him off. So this is about revenge. But is this even allowed? The trials had a specific format that the killers stuck to religiously.

As if on cue, footsteps echoed outside. No heartbeat. No children singing. These are good signs, at least. That didn’t stop me from being on edge.

“H-hello?” I called out.

The response came in the form of the wooden board flying off the tunnel’s entrance. The sound induced an involuntary yelp from me. Another survivor would have responded, right? Most of them would, I felt. Jake and Feng Min might not, but then I doubted they’d ever come to my rescue in the first place.

I held my breath. No one entered. Not a sound came from outside. Alarm bells rang throughout my head. I wondered if this was a ploy to get me to run out. Wouldn’t it be worth it to at least try? He might hurt me if I run. He’ll hurt me if I don’t. Everything is fuc- screwed.

I gathered up what little courage I had and headed toward the tunnel. A thick layer of dust clung to my sweaty palms as I crawled out on my hands and knees. Ahead, I could see the staircase leading back up to the school’s main floor. Are the gates still open? Can I actually leave?

Yet, I’d barely gotten into the tunnel when I felt something grab my leg. Rough hands yanked me back into the room. I tried to scramble back on my feet, but a pair of scuffed shoes gave a quick jab to my ribs, knocking me back down. My body instinctively tried to curl up, but my assailant wasn’t having any of that. He flipped me over onto my back and shoved his foot into my chest.

The sight of the worn, brown hat made my stomach churn. He smiled, watching me squirm as he pinned me down. This is bull. No heartbeat? This is cheating. He wasn’t even in the room with me!

At first, neither of us said anything. The only time I talked to a killer was to plead for my life, which, of course, did nothing. He didn’t seem like the merciful type either. My morbid curiosity wondered what a conversation would be like with a killer. Now, I’d be getting the full experience.

While all that concern echoed through my head, he watched. His eyes shifted over me like he was sizing me up. The slight smirk and mischievous glint made my stomach flip. The whole thing lasted maybe five seconds at the most, but it felt like an eternity.

“Did you enjoy your nap?” He purred with a low voice.

“Y-yeah?” I asked. That’s not the question I expected.

He gave an approving hum. “Of all the piglets I could have had on their backs today, you weren’t the one I was expecting. This wasn’t a part of the deal but I suppose you’ll have to do.”

My lungs ached as he pushed his foot tighter against my chest. On their backs? A low, unending groan started in the back of my head. “A deal?” I asked.

The question got left unanswered. In a split second, the taunting demeanor changed to hostility. He hoisted me up by the collar and shoved me against the bed. Too close. He pressed his body against mine. The groan in my head was now deafening. I hadn't had a flashback in years and I didn't want to start now. This can’t be happening right now. I can’t… The last thing I needed was to give him more ammunition to use against me. I tried to shove him off me. His hands found my wrists and held them down tight.

“Relax.” He drew out the word. “Mmm, it’s been a while since he’s let me have fun. You’ll have to excuse me if I get performance anxiety.” I could feel his breath against my neck. Can’t breathe. The smell of old books overwhelmed me. I didn't want to go back there again. “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” I hadn’t heard his voice in so long. It felt more like an assault than the killer on top of me.

“Naughty boy.” His teeth nipped at my skin, drawing blood. “It’s the first date and you’re already trying to get me in bed? We should get to know each other better first.” The metal bedframe pressed deeply into my back as I recoiled from his touch.

“What do you want from me?” My hoarse voice struggled over the sounds.

As he placed his clawed hand over my knees, the tips of the blades poked through my jeans. “Do you know how much persuading it takes to get time alone with one of you piglets?” His voice was thick with irritation.

The claw traveled up my leg as he leaned over me. Except now it didn’t look like a claw but a freckled hand. The red and green sweater had changed into a black suit. My mind short-circuited. The Nightmare's words stopped as he'd been replaced by a figure from another time. Salmon pink tiles sprouted over the dingy concrete walls. A few rays of sun escaped through a ripped curtain covering the one window in the office. The oak desk beneath me, which hadn’t been sanded in months, left splinters in my thighs. I felt the weight on my chest grow heavier as HE leaned into my body. My eyes focused on at the pink glass. Each blemish on their surfaces now fascinated me.     

“Shhh, it’s okay. You’re safe now, Dwightie.”

“I hunted her down with perfect patience. And then you—” The Nightmare jabbed his claw into my thigh, pushing the blades deep into my skin. The sunlit office faded back into the grimy basement. All other thoughts flew out the window as my brain struggled to react to the attack. Each twist made me scream louder. His entire demeanor changed as he chuckled. "You signed up to be my number one favorite of the evening.”

Not safe. It’s not safe. You need to run. NOW.  His claw, still embedded in my leg, ripped down my thigh as I threw myself off the bed. The screaming turned into garbled sobs as pain rocketed through my body.

He watched me with mock fascination as I tried, and failed, to crawl to the tunnel. “You think this is bad, you should see what I’m going to do to Laurie,” he purred louder now. “Or should I go after Quentin first? They’d both be so delicious.” He wiped the blood from off the clawed glove. The clean blades glinted from the candlelight.

“Leave them…” My voice cut off into a hiss from the piercing pain that traveled through my leg. “Leave them alone.”

He let out a raspy chuckle. “Was she worth sacrificing yourself over?” He asked, approaching me with slow, deliberate steps. I didn’t know the answer to that. The only thing my brain could focus on was the waves of agony paralyzing my body. My hands still clawed at the ground, as if that would move me closer to the tunnel. He stepped in front of me and lifted my head with the tip of his shoe. “Mmm, you know just the right way to look at a man.”

“F-fuck you,” I spat, earning a swift kick in the face. My glasses flew off and hit the wall beside me, cracking from the impact. Everything blurred together. The small thread of anger I had before vanished with each blow of his claw. A high-pitched ringing started from the moment he hit me. didn’t realize he picked me up until my back slammed against the wall. I expected him to taunt me once again. Instead, he plunged his arm into my chest. The last breath I’d take in a long time ended. My lungs collapsed, and my throat filled with blood. Every second I suffocated, I prayed for a release.

“I heard you like magic tricks,” he said. “Want to know one?” The Nightmare pulled his hand out of my chest, eliciting another wave of agony. Instead of screaming, I puked up blood. It coated his hand as he grabbed me by the chin and forced me to look at him. “In this plane, it doesn’t matter what I do to you. You’ll live for as long as he wants, and trust me, you and I will be well acquainted by the end.”

Now I knew why Quentin was so afraid to fall asleep. If this Nightmare could inflict that level of torture while we were awake, I didn’t want to know what he could do to us in our dreams.

Chapter Text

Ace Visconti

Blood orange slices floated in a crystal glass of vodka and citrus juice. My hand twirled the drink around, ice clinking together. The bartender had just finished telling me about his latest conquest and turned to tend to a customer next to me. Over a crappy radio, some kid sang a sappy love song about his lady running off.

The conversation hadn’t taken off my edge, but the booze certainly did. Three drinks in and I was beginning to feel tipsy. The goal was to get plastered, but this was a good start at least. Judging from the way people were ordering, I suspected I wasn’t the only one trying to gain joy out of a bottle. Then the drink turned from the key to my happiness to a useless hunk of glass the second they walked into the room.

A blond woman in a shimmering silver dress and a tall man stood in the doorway of the bar. All eyes were drawn to her, either because of the sequined dress or the bright makeup. Neon lights cast red shadows across her face, perhaps adding to her mystique. A few of the guys in the bar outright stared. Some even whistled. She looked fine, I supposed, but her partner was certainly a sight for sore eyes.

His eyes were covered by sunglasses, an odd accessory choice for the middle of the night, but that didn’t stop me from admiring the rest of him. He wore a tailored blue suit that accentuated his narrow shoulders. I admired the hint of collarbone peeking out from his oxford button up. His slender hand tapped impatiently on the woman’s shoulder. I can think of a good use for those hands. Ten years ago, I would have felt ashamed to think that way. But it had been two weeks since I last got laid. All I wanted was to sink into someone and forget all the other crap going on.

The woman shot a sly smile at one of the men eyeing her up. This must have irritated her partner because he steered her toward a booth in the corner of the room. Jealous boyfriend? Damn, he would have looked lovely in my bed. He finally took off the sunglasses, thanks to the smoky room and poor lighting. Attractive face, attractive body. If the man wasn’t suspicious as hell I’d be chasing after him in a heartbeat.

There was only one other person in the bar dressed as nicely as those two: me. In this place, everyone else looked like the standard working joe of America. This wasn’t the high-rise bars you see down at the strip on Las Vegas. Those were for the tourists and the people who had money to sling around. That was exactly the kind of bar I was avoiding so as not to get spotted.

The others in the bar resumed their conversations, but I kept a discreet eye on the two of them. They either ran in the same crowd as I did or they were tourists exploring the seedier parts of Los Vegas.

They said nothing to each other as they sat in their fake leather seats. Kind of odd for a date, isn’t it? Unless this isn’t a date. Maybe I’m still in this game after all. I smirked at the ridiculousness of the idea. The guy in the booth couldn’t be older than twenty-five and would never be interested in some thirty-nine-year-old who already had silver in his hair. Gloria told me the silver was attractive. She was just trying to make me feel better.

After a few seconds, I realized he was scanning the room. They both were. He made it more obvious, while the woman tried to disguise it as flirty looks to the other patrons. I wonder how many saps are dreaming of taking her to bed tonight. Desperate people will cling to any wild dream, I suppose. His eyes stopped moving when he settled on the bartender in front of me. Or is he looking at me? He whispered something to the woman and she risked a glance toward the bar.

He stood from his seat and, despite all the red flags, I found myself admiring every inch of him again. My eyes lingered just a little longer at his crotch. Desperate people entertaining desperate dreams… I shifted uncomfortably in my barstool as a heat welled up at the bottom of my stomach. It’s the booze. I’m not thinking straight.

He slid his way up to the front and started chatting with the bartender. “I’ll take a White Russian and an Old Fashioned,” he said, pushing a few large bills towards the man. “Keep the change.” The smell of vanilla and lavender rolled off him. Bit heavy on the cologne. Sweet, but too much. As the drinks were prepared, he shot me a smile. “Come here often?” He asked.

If I say yes, will you let me buy you a drink? Can I show you all the other places I come, too? “When I’m in the mood for some pleasant company.”

“Well, maybe I can fill that role for a while. The name’s John White.” He shook my hand. Ha, how generic. Another voice, the one that begged me to give in, tried to reason. No reason to be so suspicious. Gay guys lie about their names all the time. My fingers lingered on the palm of his hand just a second longer than normal. The trace of a smile tugged on his lips. I should have been more on edge, but all the booze had hit by that point. This is a mistake.

 “Nice to meet you, John,” I tipped my white Panama at him. Maybe he’s just a nice guy looking for a good time. Paranoia had taken a toll on me since that major loss last night. I’d gotten in debt before, but never anything over ten grand. You just need to take your mind off it. I glanced back down at his lap. Focus on other things. I’d always been bad at self-control. Desperate dreams…

“It’s a good thing you came here for the company because the view certainly stinks.” He said it as if the cheesy décor and grimy surroundings was a personal insult.

“I’m guessing you must be more used to the glamorous side of Vegas. In this part of town, this bar is as close to luxury you can find.”

“I suppose so,” he admitted. “My sister over there said this place was good. I’ll be the judge of that once I get my drink. Say, I don’t think I caught your name?”

That’s ‘cause I didn’t give it to you. “Collin Brosmen,” I said without missing a beat. With a name like John White, I’m sure he also knew how to lie about his identity. Just like Gloria says, no one in this town is who they say they are.

“Nice to meet you, Collin,” he said. “You should come join us over at the booth. After we finish our drinks, I’m going to drop my sister off at the hotel and then,” he brushed his hand against my knee, “maybe we could have some fun of our own?” I could feel my pants getting tighter. I’m the desperate fool chasing dreams out of my league.

The bartender raised his eyebrow at both me and John. I always hated that look. It reminded me how dangerous these feelings really were, even in the 80s. I need to get out of here before I do something I’ll really regret. I struggling to get my mind off the shifting sensation building at my crotch. The music had shifted to jazz. His hand shifted up and up, squeezing my thigh and then Ahh~ I didn't want him to stop. A young couple swayed to the music, oblivious to the rest of us. Find him a distraction. Everyone else was too drunk to notice the two men blatantly flirting at the bar. One guy was winking at the booth. The blonde.

“Looks like your sister might not need a ride,” I said, staring at the woman as she blew a kiss to someone. His muscles tensed as a man from across the room approached her. His touch lifted, releasing a mixture of regret and relief in me. The bartender placed the two drinks on the counter. As John grabbed them, I noticed pistol holstered in his jacket. Looks like he might rough me up in a different way than I intended.

“I’ll be right back,” he mumbled through gritted teeth.

That’s my signal to get the hell out of here. I dropped a twenty on the counter and headed out through the back exit. Each step made me aware of just how much I wanted his offer to be real. You could have gotten yourself killed with that bullshit. I tried to scold myself, but it was half-hearted. That might not be the worst thing, depending if he fucked me or not.

I’d never been the type to despair. Ever. But after losing over a 150 grand in a month, I realized I was in deep shit. That’s not the only debt you got. It just kept piling up. I owed to several people, but the worst was Spilotro AKA The Ant. Your luck is going to change, it always does. They just need to give you some more time. If there was one thing Spilotro was famous for, it wasn’t giving second chances.   

All my hair stood up on end as I walked through the back alley. In the night, even shadows seemed threatening. A single streetlight lit the path, and even that damn thing could stay on without flickering incessantly. As if that wasn’t enough gloom, a drizzle of rain kept the cracked pavement looking slick. I doubted the man in the bar was one of Spilotro’s followers. That wasn’t his style. He liked to go in for an ambush that would leave every bone in your body shattered and your lungs collapsed. In places such as dark alleys. My heart skipped a beat.

The back door shot open and two people stumbled out. God damn it. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I felt like my luck had dried up.

“Visconti,” the man called out.  

“How’d you find me,” I said, turning slowly to face my attacker. He kept a gun aimed at my chest. The pretty blonde behind him yawned with boredom.

 “You owe a lot of people money, and word on the street is you don’t have a penny of it,” he said, ignoring my question. Gone was the flirty persona he threw on in the bar. There was no way he just stumbled into me by accident. How long has he been following me? I’d been looking out for a tail, but obviously I missed this one. Is he the only one that’s been tracking me? Who does he work for? A million questions crowded my mind, but one screamed louder than the rest. If he knew about my attraction to men, does he know about her?

 Gloria. She needed me. For all the garbage I was worth, she needed me, and if I died then I’d be failing her. I can’t fail her. She meant everything to me, and even though I didn’t understand how, I meant everything to her.

Of course, he was right. I had barely a cent to my name. “I have the money,” I lied with all the charisma could muster.

“Is that why you borrowed 300 grand from The Ant?” He asked, waving the gun at me. “You’re full of shit, Visconti.”

“Who do you work for?” I asked, stalling. Even if I managed to talk my way out of this, that wouldn’t stop Spilotro from finding me.

“Cohen.” Makes sense. Spilotro likes to make a message out of his victims. He’d never let me have the easy death of a bullet.

“I owe him 50,” I said blandly. There was only one person I knew that would hand that kind of cash over. There was no doubt in my mind she’d pay the debt off for me in a heartbeat, but I promised Gloria I’d never involve her in my gambling affairs. I intended to keep that promise even if it meant dying. But maybe dying isn’t enough. Even if they kill me, who’s to say they won’t come after her to settle it?  

“Prove it,” he said. I heard the gun click as he readied to pull the trigger. No matter what I told him, I wouldn’t be leaving that alleyway alive. My odds of surviving looked slim. The shitty lighting and rain could affect his aim, but he’d have to be an idiot to miss someone standing five feet away. What are the odds he’d miss? 1 out a 100?

Idiot or not, I was willing to take the gamble. As I turned to run, a gunshot blasted through the narrow brick alley.

Then, I jolted awake.

A small grassy area I’d chosen as my napping place replaced the narrow alleyway. A few feet away, a black pond lapped against the shore. In the distance, I saw the light of the campfire warming a few survivors before their next trial. A familiar face scowled above me.

Bill always looked irritated, but today he looked more so than usual. “Hello, beautiful,” I grinned up at my older friend as he sat down beside me. “Is there a reason I’m lucky enough to have your company?”

He took the dying cigarette out his mouth and flicked it into the water. “I thought you were Dwight,” he said. I didn’t feel like sitting up so instead, I rolled onto my side and propped my head up with my hand.

“Oh, and here I thought you wanted to see me,” I said with an expression of mock hurt.

Bill didn’t seem amused by my antics. He rarely was. “The kid adopted your spot once you left,” Bill said, rolling his eyes at me. “This is where I find him, usually.”

“Ah, so he’s the one that shoved all that junk over here,” I said, looking over at the pile of trinkets hidden by the base of a tree. The patch of grassy land by the pond had always been my spot. The chill zone as I liked to call it when I wanted Nea to cringe at my attempts to be cool. I guess I have to share it now. Oh well, I should have known someone would take a liking to it while I was gone.

“He’s collecting it from the trials,” Bill answered the question that hadn’t been asked. When I first saw the pile of collectibles, I thought I had hit the jackpot. A secret stash of tools for me to swipe. Instead of medkits or flashlights, I found clothes, licenses plates, and even old family photos. Junk, basically.

“Kid thinks he’s a detective. Like he’ll find clues to help us escape through all that garbage.” Bill’s words didn’t match the tone of his voice. He sounded amused, even slightly impressed.

I didn’t know if there was much use to it, but it sounded fun. “If I see anything in my next trial, I’ll toss it over to him,” I said, though I hoped the next trial wouldn’t come for a while. After I’d been brought back to the camp, an endless cycle began. I must have gone through fifteen before I got a chance to sneak away and sleep.

“That’s if we can find him,” Bill muttered. Around the others, he liked to act like he had a heart of stone. I knew better to believe it. He cared about all of them as if they were his own family.

“What, another person is missing?”

He glared at the still water in front of us. “He better not be. I got enough shit on my mind right now.” He took a deep breath. “Laurie was the last person to see him and that was… Who fuckin’ knows how long it’s been in this place. A day, maybe.”

I’d been asleep for a lot longer than I expected. Strange that I spent so long being dead, yet still got tired in a matter of hours. “Where did she see him?”

“In a trial. She said The Nightmare was chasin’ her when Dwight decided to play bait. When she left, he was the last one alive.” Bill glanced my way. “I’m hopin’ what happened to you don’t happen to him.”

Of course, the thought crossed my mind. When I first heard about the missing girls, I wondered if this was some kind of exchange. It seemed too convenient, a fact I was sure some of the others had considered. Though why fate, or whatever dictated the world, would make such a trade was beyond me. So if fate decided to trade me for the three of them, what am I supposed to do? Going back to being dead didn’t seem like an option anymore. It didn’t seem worth stressing over, but the concerned expression on Bill’s face made me anyway.

I didn’t know much about Dwight, other than he seemed like a ball of nerves. Yet, the others were drawn to him like moths to light. At least, that’s what Bill told me. In the brief moments I spent with the kid, I felt that connection too. Watching him work on that generator with determination inspired me to work just as hard. Funny, how feelings like that rub off on others.  

I felt relief knowing Bill hadn’t been alone in my absence. He took long enough to warm up to me. This Dwight guy didn’t know just how grateful I was to him for keeping Bill sane. The old man liked to pretend he enjoyed being alone, but there was only so much isolation a person could stand.

“I’m sure it’s nothing like that,” I tried to reassure Bill. Of course, I wasn’t sure, but he didn’t need more stress.

He’s special to Bill. Something happened while I was gone to bring about this bond. While Bill always acted like a parent to the younger survivors, I noticed how protective he was of Dwight.

The crunch of the rocky shore broke the conversation. Bill carefully recomposed his stern expression as that Asian guy—something Park? — approached. The silhouette of Claudette, the woman who seemed to shadow him where ever he went, watched at the opposite end of the shore. She had her arms crossed tight against her chest. Firelight flickered from behind her, giving her an almost eerie glow.  

Whenever I saw her I would think of Gloria, though the two were barely alike. Gloria embraced everything about herself: her curves, her skin, her beauty. People considered her a social butterfly, for obvious reasons. She could float between social groups effortlessly during parties. Even when people tried to judge her by the color of her skin, she kept oozing her charm.

I didn’t know much about Claudette, but she seemed like a gentle soul. Much of Gloria’s persona was forged through the harsh world she’d been born in. I hoped that Claudette didn’t have to go through the same hell that Gloria did. Perhaps the world had become a more accepting place, but I didn’t have enough faith in humanity to fully believe it.

The concerned look she shot Park, though, was similar to the one Gloria would give me when I headed out to the casinos. Always worried I’d get myself into trouble. Is this Park guy the same way? As Park approached, I noticed he tucked his hands behind his back. He held the same serious expression I’d seen when I met him before, but something about his body language hinted at… reluctance?

“Hello, Bill.” He nodded his head toward me. “Ace.” What came next made him pause. “Claudette and I found something out in the forest just now.”

Bill glared up at the guy. “What in Sam Hill were you doin’ in the woods? You want to end up gettin’ lost like—”

“I know,” Park said with a cool voice. “It wasn’t my idea.” I glanced over at Claudette. Ah, so is she the one that gets in trouble instead? She doesn’t seem like the type. Perhaps she’s friends with the missing girls? “When we went searching last time, we were just stumbling around in the dark. I’ve got experience following tracks, and I’m pretty good when I have decent light.”

“Jake lived out in the woods before he got taken here,” Bill explained to me. Not that I really needed explanation. Park looked like the kind of guy who’d enjoy tromping through the woods. God that hair is wild. He had a beard too, but not maintained. Just as wild as everything else. Not my type but he’d do in a pinch. Pretty sure this one’s claimed by that girl over there though.

“We took a flashlight out there and tried to follow the trail,” Jake went on to explain. “I found tracks. They weren’t from the last time we were out there either.”

“It didn’t loop you back?” Bill asked and Jake confirmed. While this surprised Bill, it didn’t have much effect on me. I’d been around long enough to see it happen occasionally. Whenever people headed out into the woods together, there was a chance that something strange would happen. Sometimes they’d come back terrified of mysterious forces that haunted the air between those trees. Other times they’d never come back at all. At the time, we survivors weren’t sure what happened to them. Now I had a good idea they suffered a similar fate to mine.

 “I found sneaker imprints and this.” He produced a red sports jacket stained with splotches of blood. The gaping holes in the back left strands of string to unravel the thin fabric. The sleeves were shredded up to the point they were barely attached to the rest of the jacket. “The tracks stopped from there. It’s like she disappeared out of thin air. That’s not all, either. The trees were fallen and fused together over there, just like we saw before.”

Bill froze at the sight of the jacket. It had no meaning to me, but apparently, it did for him. “Did you tell the others about this?” He finally got out.

Jake shook his head. “Just you two and Claudette know.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” Bill said in a hushed voice. “If Nea comes back,” he paused, then corrected himself. “When Nea comes back, I don’t want the others panickin’ her by talkin’ about it. Shit is bad enough for us as it is.” He glanced over at Claudette. Something about the sight of her triggered that protective streak in him. “And you two both stay out of the fuckin’ woods. I don’t need to be haulin’ my ass out there again, you understand?”

“Yes sir,” Jake agreed without hesitation. I wondered if Claudette would take that order as well as him. “What should I do with the jacket?”

“I’ll take it,” Bill said, tossing it into the pile trinkets Dwight had collected.

Jake took this as his queue to leave. He turned in his heals without another word and headed up the shore to the waiting Claudette. Dwight said they were here for five years, right? It didn’t surprise me that relationships would form over that time. I’d seen romance both blossom between many survivors. It was only natural.

Unfortunately, those sorts of things never lasted. Trials had a way of pitting people against each other. When your life was on the line, a simple mistake made by someone else could send you in a blind rage. Or you ended up like poor Gaia and Tom, who just disappeared into the forest a few weeks apart.

For several moments, Bill sat quietly by my side. I could tell from his thick white brows, which were furrowed deep, that he was deep in thought.

“That’s the missing girl’s jacket, right?” I asked, tilting my head toward the bloody garment. Bill nodded silently. Thinking back on it, the way the two of them disappeared seemed like Gaia and Tom. “Were the two of them dating, by any chance?”

Bill always got awkward when it came to talking about relationships. The man didn’t strike me as the type to get caught up in that kind of thing. In a way, I was jealous. As much as the others teased me of being a womanizer, there was a hopeless romantic streak in me that couldn’t be killed.

Once he tried to start a conversation about gay relationships. It was more awkward than I could have ever expected. “Er, Ace… Do ya think men can fall in love?” It took me a while to realize he meant with each other. He knew some details about my relationship with Gloria, but I hadn’t told him everything. To be honest, I was afraid he’d hate me if he knew.

“Of course,” I told him.

“I just haven’t noticed that bein’ a thing until recently, ya know?”

“Even in the 60s gay people existed Bill.” We’d both grown up in the same era, though our lives ended up being wildly different. “They just kept it hidden is all.” There were ways to keep suspicion off. I heard whispers of places you could go at night to fool around with likeminded people. If rumors got to intense, you could always just marry a woman. Have her pop out a kid. That usually could keep you in the closet.  

The fear of being fired or, even worse, attacked kept people from coming out. In the 80s, before I disappeared, things got a little better, but they were still far from perfect. Apparently in the early 2000s people had gotten a lot more open-minded, according to Gaia. Then again, she spent all her time partying in nightclubs where people didn’t give a damn about anything but getting drunk and high, so who knew if that was accurate.

“What brought all this on anyway?” I asked him.

“Uh, oh nothin’ really.” He turned away and started chewing on his cigar, cheeks turning red. I never got a real answer, but I never pushed for one either. If Bill wanted to talk about it, I knew he’d do it eventually. Plus he had a tendency to get snippy whenever something embarrassed him.

Back in the present, he seemed a little less flustered at this question. He looked at me blankly. “I don’t know. You know Nea. There’s no tellin’ what goes through her head. She ain’t the sharin’ type either.”

Bill wasn’t the most observant person in the world. If I had seen the two of them interacting, I’d probably be able to tell. Nea bragged about conquests with “hot chicks” enough that I knew her type. That didn’t mean this Meg girl was the same way, though. Maybe someone else noticed something. This Dwight guy likes collecting information, right? He’d know.

Bill scrambled to his feet and brushed the dirt off his pants. “I’m goin’ to look for Dwight.” He glanced out into the darkness of the woods. Before everything that happened, I never found myself afraid of the gloomy canopy of trees. Even now, it’s eerie presence didn’t ruffle me that much. Still, I worried about my old friend. 

I frowned. “You’re not thinking about—”

“What if he’s been put in that slimy shit you got stuck in,” Bill argued before I had a chance to finish. “I ain’t lettin’ that happen to him.” He subconsciously clenched his fist into a ball so tight his knuckles turned even whiter than his pale skin.  

“You just said it was dangerous to go out there,” I pointed out, knowing full well it wouldn’t change his mind.

“I’m an old man with nothin’ to lose. Anyway, now that you’re back I’m sure your good luck has rubbed off of me again,” he chuckled. He always thought my devotion to luck was a joke. Laugh all you want. I still have the highest record of escaping through that hatch.

“Well, do you at least want me to come with you?” I asked though it would be better if I didn’t go. Once, when Bill and I took a walk through the woods together, we almost didn’t come back. The trees seemed to never end. It got to the point where Bill thought we were hopelessly lost. The fear that I was going to end up missing like the others put me on edge. Then, as luck would have it, we stumbled back into the camp. Of course, I ended up going missing the very next trail I entered, so maybe I wasn’t as lucky as I thought.

He shook his head. “You stay by the water in case he shows up here. Maybe he’s just takin’ a long time to get sacrificed.” I watched him head to the camp, presumably to grab a flashlight, then walk into the woods.

He’s just going to end up at the campfire again. If my theory was right, you’d just loop right back to the woods if you headed in alone. You needed to be with someone to get far. Someone you knew well. Maybe only people who are romantically involved? But that doesn’t make sense. Bill and I weren’t in love when we got lost that last time. So just someone you have a close bond with?

I didn’t bother to ask why the woods decided this. Trying to understand the logic of our world would drive a person insane. The only thing you could do was figure out the rules. Learn the rules, and you’ll learn how to cheat. Then you cheat your way out of this shithole.  

The thrill of escape made my heart soar for a moment. Then the thought of everything that awaited me, and everything I’d missed out, sent a pang through my heart. Forty years was a long time away, and the world would be a vastly different place. A place without her…It had taken a long time to come to terms with that. Even after all that time, I still felt my stomach twist in a knot. No point in lingering on the past.

Bill’s loud cursing bounced through the camp. I smiled, knowing I’d been correct. I might have failed her, but I can still make up for it. I’ll do what I can to keep them safe. And then, once I’ve figured how to cheat my way out of here, I’ll bring all of them with me.

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

Little bundles of pink ooze laid scattered across the floor. My eyes blurred as I tried to focus on the shining specs. I felt their chunkiness under my right cheek. My mouth hung open, unable to be closed, and I could taste the rustiness of blood over my tongue. It took me a while to realize those chunks were parts of my brain.

When did that happen? I couldn’t remember. Everything felt like a series of blurs. I didn’t know how long I’d been lying there. I’d stop asking myself, and the voice, a long time ago. At some point, it stopped speaking. My brain struggled to form any comprehendible thought. It couldn’t understand me anymore. I couldn’t understand myself. 

Cries reverberated from deep within my chest. They shuddered through my mangled body and emerged as garbled moans that a rabid animal would make. I didn’t feel connected to them. Half the time, I was unaware I was making sound at all. The crumpled body of meat and bone wasn’t me. I was beyond that. I was in the corner of the room looking down at the scene with coldness.

The anger. Fury, even. Not once had I woken from this nightmare-induced slumber. Even when he cracked my skull open, I remained painfully asleep. Always in his grasp. Stuck obeying whatever whim he threw at me. When I could still move, I’d bashed my face against the wall hoping that would wake me up. I clawed at his face, bit his arms, anything to provoke him into killing me.

Now he lifted my head up. I felt my skin peeling off the rough concrete. Some of it remained behind, adding to the mixture of agony and terror that flooded my body. Stripped of my clothes and now even parts of my skin, I felt like a toy only used to be abused for its owner’s amusement.

A wide grin etched across his face as he trailed his lips across my cheek, tracing my jawline with his tongue. His hot breath caressed my neck as he leaned in close. If I could move, I would have shuddered. Funny how a broken spine kept me paralyzed but losing chunks of my brain did nothing to inhibit my cognitive awareness. 

“The call of a trial has, unfortunately, brought this date to an end,” he said with mock sadness. Somehow, I heard him with perfect clarity even though he’d ripped my ears off my head. If my heart moved, it would have skipped a beat. Please… let me die. “Oh, don’t cry,” he said, noting the louder wail that shook my body as he tilted my head at an unnatural angle. “I’m not abandoning you. Trust me, Dwightie, we’ll see each other soon again.”

Before my head could hit the floor once again, the world went black. The next thing I knew, black water filled my lungs as I breached the surface of the pond. I frantically kicked my legs, eyes welling just at the feeling of being able to move again.

When I got close enough to shore, I crawled up to my feet and hid in the tall grass of my usual spot. For several moments I just sat there, clutching my knees and rocking back and forth. To be honest, I didn’t want to rejoice in my freedom quite yet. The second I did, I feared the spider would reach through the water and pull me back into hell again.

Finally, the silence of my mind broke. No more pain? I’d forgotten what that felt like. Without that overriding sense of agony, I was lost. The brush of the grass against my arms tingling my newly formed skin. Am I free? I half expected the voice to respond, but it didn’t. For once, I was alone with my thoughts.

You’re okay now. I told myself, though I didn’t really believe it. Every shadow in the forest warped into the image of The Nightmare, his scarred visage grinning at me. What happens the next time I’m in a trial with him? My stomach formed a knot. Well, this time I won’t be stupid enough to jump in front of him.

I thought about writing down what happened to me in the little notebook hidden somewhere in my pile of trinkets. The others deserve to know that the limits of a trial can sometimes be broken. But… I closed my eyes and all I saw was the way bone jutted out of my twisted arm. I can’t. The gory memories flooded all my senses. The agony shot through my veins once more. I smelled the putrid scent of decay that saturated that room in the school’s basement. My stomach lurched. I rushed to the water and heaved. When’s the last time you ate something? You can’t puke, dummy.

Why did you have to tell everyone? You knew they wouldn’t believe you. I inhaled sharply. I’d gotten the two events confused in my mind. Dwight, that happened years ago. That’s not what happened to your tonight. Yet, I still felt that empty sensation of being so out of control. I let it happen all over again. At least he didn’t… God, this is so screwed. Just because Freddy didn’t cross some lines didn’t mean I should be grateful. He might not have hurt me in that way, but he triggered a reaction.

I thought of the pink tiles again and bile formed at my throat. Freddy never mentioned the warm office I’d been transported back into. The fact he hadn’t taunted me mercilessly about it made me think he hadn’t noticed. So what’s worse, having your PTSD triggered randomly, or having a killer purposefully bring you back to that place?

If I were to guess, the trigger came when he put that pressure on my chest. Of course, the odd sexual remarks and unwanted advances added to the stress, but that pressure… I wrapped my arms around my knees tight and started rocking again.

My emotions shuffled like a deck of cards in a dealer’s hands. Each one flipped so quickly into another, I didn’t know how to react. Anger bubbled up the most. Anger that I’d ever ended up in those woods. Anger at what Krueger did to me. Anger that he’d triggered something I hadn’t seen in years.

And then there’s Laurie. Every fiber of my being hated her. If it weren’t for her, none of this would have happened. I would have gone back to the fire, blissfully unaware of the fate I’d avoided. I wouldn’t have seen that stupid light in the sky. As if on cue, that sharp wave of static filled my brain. Yeah, yeah, I know. I shouldn’t have looked. Go screw yourself.

Again, static sizzled in my mind. The smell of that old office – old books left to collect dust, stale air because he never opened the window – surrounded me. I let out an involuntary hum as I squeezed my eyes shut. Stop thinking about it. Those pink tiles. The hard desk under my back. Even though it wasn’t real, that wound opened itself again. At that moment, when I looked up at Krueger, I didn’t see that scarred visage glaring down at me. I saw… him. The knot in my stomach grew tighter.

Funny how you blame all these different people, but you haven’t once questioned the real culprit to your problem.

I ignored the snide comment from the voice. In that moment, all I wanted was to be away from the other survivors, away from the trials, and away from the voice that mocked me while I was tortured. Of course, being left alone was impossible. I noticed out of the corner of my eyes, a shadow shift from behind the trees.

The silhouette of a man in a hat stood only a few feet away. My heart raced as I backed away from the looming figure. At first, I thought it was Freddy coming back for a second round. My back hit a tree behind me, stopping my retreat.

It was only then I noticed this did not have the same shape as Freddy’s distressed hat. It’s bright white brim was familiar.

“Dwight? Is that you?” A voice came from behind me. I whirled around, my heart pounding at the sudden sound. Ace stood by the water, a concerned expression wore down his normally happy face. But how are you there when… I glanced back at the woods only to find that the man I’d seen before was gone.

Ace watched me with caution. It had been so long since I’d been able to speak, I almost didn’t want to try. “Hey,” I said, my voice sounding meek. It felt foreign to open my mouth.

He approached and put his hands on my shoulder. The sudden contact made me freeze, though I couldn’t understand why. “Oh my god, I’m so glad you’re okay.” He spoke in earnest. He doesn’t know me. Why would he care? “I thought you’d disappeared for good.”

“I thought I wasn’t ever going to come back,” my voice cracked this time. My emotions were wearing thin and I didn’t know how long I’d have the strength to keep myself from breaking down.

He pulled me into a hug and again the touch made me freeze. “Hey now, you’re back. You’re safe,” he said with a soothing voice. My muscles relaxed a little, and I only realized just how tense I’d been. He released me and examined my face as if searching for something. I knew I looked weary and miserable, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.

“Want to get your mind off things?” He asked. “We can talk about something else.”

I swallowed and nodded my head. The past few hours had consumed my thoughts to the point that my head ached. I didn’t know how he planned to distract me, but I hoped it would work.

From the pocket of his suit jacket, he revealed a small box of cards. The cheap, classic kind you can find at any convenience store.  “Found these at the swamp,” he explained, pulling the cards of out the box carefully to avoid dropping them. He shuffled them around a bit and then presented me the deck. “Pick a card, any card,” he said, flashing a smile that made my heart skip a beat. He could smother someone to death with that charm.

But suddenly that strange, warm feeling that settled in my heart flitted away.

Magic tricks.

Freddy’s face blurred across my thoughts. “I heard you like magic tricks.” Heard from who? I remembered Ace showing me how to destroy The Hag’s traps. “Want to see a magic trick?”

He started talking, but his voice sounded muffled and far away. The roar of my own thoughts deafened me. I half expected the voice to come back at me with some snide comment. It stayed oddly quiet, though I could see hear that static worming its way through my mind. Did Ace tell Krueger?

Suddenly that charming smile seemed sinister. His warm voice changed into a mocking tone, accompanied by a sneer. My hand instinctively clenched into a fist. I felt like a wounded animal caught in a corner. “Get away from me.” The icy tone of my voice was a warning.

A look of genuine surprise flashed across his face. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, backing up. The sneer was gone in a flash. He adjusted the collar on his shirt with shaky hands and for once I enjoyed the fact I wasn’t the only nervous one.

Each second he stayed near me felt like a ticking time bomb. As if somehow, he’d just flick his fingers and Krueger would appear. Didn’t expect me to stand up for myself, huh? “What, you thought feeding me to Krueger would just make me bend to your will?” It took me a second to realize I’d spoken out loud. I didn’t know who I was addressing at that point: Ace or the voice. In my mind, they were one and the same.

“I don’t understand…” His voice trailed off as he held the confused expression on his face. He’s a good actor. So good that I almost questioned if I was wrong. Magic tricks. He’d been so cocky during that trial with The Hag. He charmed me, and I fell for it like an idiot.

I shot him a glare. “Get the hell away from me,” I hissed, picking up the nearest thing I could grab – a rock – and chucking it at Ace. He stumbled back as the rock sailed past his head. Anger flared up in his face but quickly quelled. Trying to hide his true colors. Bastard.

The commotion caused a few others to peer out from the safety of the fire. How wonderful it must be to feel so safe over there. Bill rushed over to his friend’s side with a look of concern etched into the wrinkles of his face.

“He’s not who you think he is, Bill,” I said. My hands were shaking as I noted how close they stood together. Is Bill in danger right now? If Ace was talking to Krueger, who knew who else he was involved with. What if he sold Bill out too? “He’s dangerous.” I hated the way my voice shook from adrenaline. It made me sound so unsure? Am I? Static sizzled sharply. This isn’t the time to doubt yourself, Dwight.

“What the hell are you talkin’ about,” Bill said, trying to keep his voice even as he assessed the situation.

Now that I’d been asked to explain, I found myself at a loss of words. I had no evidence. Just my own experiences. That went so well for you last time, didn’t it? “He’s working with the killers. I don’t know how, but—”

Bill waved the statement off. “God damn it, kid. Stop it.” The finality in his tone felt like a bucket of ice dumped over me. He didn’t even listen to me. A wave of anguish washed over me. It must have shown in my face, judging from the almost pitying look Ace gave me. Screw you. “You’re not thinking straight,” he grumbled. They never listen. When are you going to learn? No one trusts you. No one cares what happens to you.

“Well when he ends up getting everyone killed, don’t come crawling to me,” I spat.   

The rage that flashed in his eyes had been the same I saw in my parent’s when I told them I was gay. “You listen here—”

Bill took a step toward me, but Ace grabbed his arm and shook his head. Oh Ace, always pretending to be such a hero. How’s it feel to know they all defend the man that caused this to happen? All his charisma and handsome looks kept the others charmed. He had them in the palm of his hands. They hate me. He told them to hate you, remember? 

It came to me as clear as day. Everyone sitting in their wooden pews as they stared up at him with such reverence. He held the crowd's gaze as he pointed at me, spewing lies which they drank up so easily. Their gazes shifted, dozens of eyes all glaring holes in me. Claudette and Jake sneered at me from the back. Feng Min crossed her arms and looked away as if she always expected this. The most painful one was Bill. The way he looked at me felt like someone sucker punched me in the gut. Amazing how you once thought of him as a father. He’s no better than the one you left back home. Tears pricked at the corner of my eyes.

And then we weren’t in the church. We were standing by a pond which cold air nipping at my still damp clothes. They walked away, though I noticed Ace look back at me as if he wanted to say something. Perhaps he’s relishing your pain. The look lacked any joy that the voice accused him of.

For several moments, I just stood frozen.  What did I just do? Doubt graced my mind as I considered the accusation I leveled at Ace. How would he have communicated with Krueger in the first place? He was in trials this whole time.

I don’t know. Jesus, I just don’t know anything. I’m numb. I’m on fire. I’m fucking drowning. I’m gasping for air and trying to suffocate all at once. Everyone’s trying to get answers from me and I don’t even know how it got to this point. I slid to the ground and held my hands in my face.

You shouldn’t have looked.

My head throbbed, and the sound of static brought another surge of panic. It was prodding me into feeling worse, and no matter how hard I tried to control my emotions, it would find a way to manipulate me. Even now, away from Krueger, I felt like I had no control. My death had released my physical body, but my mind felt like it’d been run through a shredder.

 

Trials came and went, taking the others into the fog. I stayed by the pond, stirring only when someone would emerge from the water. The rage and anxiety subsided eventually, leaving me with nothing. A heavy sense of loneliness overwhelmed me as I remembered that cold glare Bill gave me. After a while, I got sick enough of the cold and headed back to the campfire.

The others seemed so content when I scooted up to the flame. Quentin had his head propped up against a tree, and for once, he slept peacefully. Claudette learned over Jake as she taught him how to make a medical tincture. Their hands grazed against each other and I saw the whisper of a smile on his lips.

The sound of Ace’s laughter hung in the air as Bill playfully wrestled him. Bill ruffled his silver hair, knocking off his fancy white hat. Mischief glinted in his eyes as he batted away Bill’s arm. He looked almost boyish at that moment, and I could imagine a young Ace tackling Bill to the ground. A pang of pain shot through me as I looked away. At least Ace cheered him up.

God, I’m such a shitty person.

Of course, the absence of Meg and Nea could still be felt. They weren’t teasing the other survivors or making those stupid faces at each other. It seemed like I was the only one who noticed they were gone. How quickly will they forget about you, once you leave too? I didn’t like the way the voice spoke about it with such finality. I don’t want to go. I heard the whine in my own thought. 

Dwight, look up. The taunting tone had turned serious. I cast my eyes from the embers of the fire to the dark forest. At first, nothing about the darkness struck me as noteworthy. Then I noticed one of the shadows shift forward. Just beyond Ace and Bill, I saw a man staring at me. The fire lit up his face. His blond hair glowed golden from the orange flames. The silver cross from his neck glinted.

Sobs escaped my throat. They came out loud and strangled as I tried to choke them back. The others looked up, startled by the sudden outburst. Shhh, it’s okay. You’re safe now, Dwightie. I’m here now. It wasn’t the voice speaking to me anymore, but him. Hot tears streamed down my face as I rushed out of the camp and toward the only safe place I knew: the pond. I needed to get far away from him.

I wanted to collapse to the ground and curl up into a ball. This is hell. My whole body shook as I heaved short breaths. Everything’s going to be okay, everything’s going to be okay. I thought if I lied to myself enough I’d finally believe it. Everything’s going to be okay. I squeezed my nails into the palm of my hand until my skin broke under the pressure.

He’s coming for you, Dwightie. The voice said my old nickname with a sickly-sweet tone. A shudder went up my spine. I felt his eyes burning a hole through my back. How long have you known about this? The voice didn’t respond, but I felt his presence growing closer. My heart raced as I tried to compose a plan. All I wanted was to run into the woods as far as I could and leave it all behind.

“Dwight.” A hand grasped my shoulder. I screamed, jolting forward towards the trees. Two firm hands grabbed me again and spun me around before I could get far. I lifted my arm to push the man away from me but stopped when I saw his face.

Ace grabbed my wrist and pushed it gently away from his face. “Hey, please, I’m sorry,” he said, releasing his grip on me. “I know you’re angry with me, but please just listen for a second and then I’ll leave you alone, okay?”

I glanced around the pond and realized the man of my nightmares was gone. A moment of clarity broke through the fog of anxiety that settled over me when I woke up. It was trying to push me into those woods. Just like it did with Meg and Nea.

Ace continued speaking, totally unaware of the gravity of the situation. “I don’t know what happened to you earlier, and I know you think I had something to do with it. But I swear I would never do anything to hurt you or anyone else here.”

He leaned down and picked up something from the ground. “Please, just accept this gift. You look like you could use it a lot more than me,” he said with a weak smile. He pushed a heavy glass bottle in my hands. An intricate pattern decorated its label-less surface. Its cold surface felt alien against my skin. A brown liquid sloshed around inside, and I began to realize what he’d given me.

He’d already backed away when I spoke. “Wait,” I said, holding my hand up. “Why are you giving this to me.” I hated the way my mind jumped to suspicion. It didn’t make sense, though, that he’d be so nice to me when I’d been so terrible. And crazy. You’ve been acting insane.

“To say thank you,” he said simply.

I froze for a second. The idea that he owed me anything seemed laughable. I almost handed him back the bottle because I thought he was joking. “What do you have me to thank for?”

While Ace could be great at bluffing, he had a nervous tick that I recognized only because I did it myself sometimes. He fidgeted with the button on his damask-print shirtsleeve. His fingers traced over the edges of the small circle, memorizing the pattern by touch.

“You’ve done something for me that means more than you’ll ever realize, probably,” he finally admitted. “Bill’s always been my closest friend. I mean, when he first showed up I know I annoyed the shit out of him. But after a while we became inseparable. My disappearance must have hurt more than he’d ever let anyone know.

“I know that sounds very self-important,” Ace added. “But I don’t mean it like that. I just mean that Bill… well, he likes to keep himself but that doesn’t mean loneliness doesn’t take its toll on him.” Sadness glazed over his eyes. This isn’t an act. “Then you came along. You kept Bill company when he had no one else. Honestly, I think you gave him hope, which is the most important thing in this shitty little world we got stuck in.”

He took a deep breath. “So, I’m sorry for whatever I did to make you mistrust me. But that’s not going to stop me from thanking you every chance I get.” Seemingly finished with his explanation, he turned back to the campfire and walked away.

I watched, dumbly, until he went out of view. Then I looked at the bottle in my hand. After waiting a beat, I unscrewed the lid and reveled in the oaky smell that wafted up. I took a swig straight from the neck, embracing the burn of whiskey as it filled my throat. It’d been so long since I’d gotten to taste booze. Funny that the very thing that got me stuck in hell was now soothing my nerves.

How did he find this? I knew he was lucky, but damn if this wasn’t the rarest find of the century. And he gave it to you. Guilt coated that final thought. I knew that Ace meant a lot to Bill, but I hadn’t considered Ace’s side of the story.

Seems like you’ve been doing that a lot lately. The emotional outburst earlier echoed in my mind. The static, which rumbled in my head so long, had stopped and now I noticed it’s absence. I should have never accused him of something so stupid. Obviously, Krueger knew about our conversation, but that doesn’t mean Ace told him. The voice did. Ever since the haze of panic had cleared, the absurdity of what I’d done became so obvious. Either way, you owe him an apology. I looked at the bottle in my hands.

As I approached the campfire once again, my eyes instinctively checked the darkness of the woods. He was gone.

Claudette was curled up on the ground next to Jake, fast asleep. He pulled his jacket it off and laid it over her, careful not to wake her as he did so. When he caught me staring, his cheeks went red and he looked away. Perhaps you aren’t as selfish as you want us to believe.

Ace glanced up when I approached, and I gave him a sheepish smile. “Mind if I join you?” I asked.

He shot me that same charming grin he always wore. “I’d love the company,” he responded. The seriousness of our previous conversation seemed far away from his now cheerful countenance.

I sunk down into the ground beside him. Nervousness crept over me, but it wasn’t the terror-filled kind I’d felt earlier. This felt more natural, more controllable. I focused on my steady breathing and let calmness wash over me once again. Maybe it was just his happy attitude, but being near him almost made it easier to keep calm.

“Would you like a drink?” I said, pushing the bottle toward him.

“I’d love one,” he admitted, slipping his hand around the neck of the bottle. His hand grazed against mind and I noticed how warm he felt. He took a small swig and closed his eyes. He gave a low hum of approval as he handed the bottle back at me.

I took one last deep breath. “I’m really sorry about everything that happened today.” My voice was low with regret. “You see, at the last trial I…” my voice faltered. Another wave of memories made it hard to speak. Ace seemed curious, but he waited until I was ready to speak again. “I’m not sure if I can really talk about it,” I admitted.

“You don’t have to say anything if it’s that upsetting,” he said, giving my arm a reassuring squeeze.

“Let’s just say that I was tricked into thinking you’d done something horrible,” I explained, feeling even stupider than before. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. If I had, I would have realized how unbelievable the whole thing was.” The firelight flickered across Ace’s face, but it didn’t have the same effect it had on the man in the woods. He looked warm and welcoming. The soft look in his eyes glimmered with each flicker. “I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me.”

The gentle smile on his face wasn’t the same as the cocky one he normally flashed at everyone. “Of course, I do,” he said, his voice quieter now. “Don’t worry about it, okay? It’s all in the past now.”

I nodded and screwed the cap back up on the whiskey. Let the past be the past. We didn’t say much after that, but the silence wasn’t uncomfortable. He shuffled his cards and laid out a game of solitaire. Even with the placid look on his face, I could feel the intense focus that radiated off him as he moved his cards. As the evening wore on, I noticed with fascination that he’d won every single game he’d set up. 

Survivors trickled in from another trial, bringing Bill along with it. When he saw the two of us sitting together, relief flooded his eyes. He didn’t say anything to us as he sat down beside me, but I could tell he was pleased. I knew giving him a sappy apology would only embarrass him, so instead, I offered him a drink of whiskey. He accepted with a grunt before affectionately ruffling my hair.

 

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

Pleasant moments could only last so long before the fog pulled the others away from the fire. Each time those misty tendrils rolled through, the air in my throat would get caught. They hadn’t claimed me yet, but I knew it would eventually happen, and then I’d been stuck in a trial like a rat in a cage. Only this cage had something desperate to kill me. Something like Krueger, who apparently was given free reign to do whatever he wanted to me after a trial was finished.

What if that’s a power given to all the killers now? Everything I’d known for the past five years had been turned on its head. This had gone past sacrificial hooks and fast executions. I wondered if the other killers were as creative about their cruelty. What methods of torture could The Trapper device with those bear traps? A bead of sweat dripped over my furrowed brow. Those metal teeth could crack a human skull as easily as a leg. Even with those scraps of metal sticking through his muscles, The Trapper had arms that could tear me limb from limb.

He’d gladly do it, you know. Sharp static tore through my mind and disheveled my thoughts. It felt like an anchor tied to my heart had been dropped in the pit of my stomach. I’d just finished grounding myself with some breathing exercises, but now I felt like I was drowning in a sea of anxiety once again.

“Hey,” Ace’s voice cut through the haze of my thoughts. Then, just in a split second, it all stopped. The static fizzled out. The fear and anxiety evaporated. Ace snapped his fingers in front of my eyes until I looked up. He still exuded that cocky confidence that seemed to be his signature style, but I didn’t miss the genuine worry that glinted his eyes. “Don’t get so lost in there that you can’t find your way out,” he said, gently ruffling my hair as he sat beside me.

He wasn’t the only one that regarded me with concern. I noticed the way the others exchanged glances once they saw me back at the fire. When Laurie first noticed my presence, her face lit up with a mixture of joy and relief. Yet, one look at Bill and Ace kept her from ever mentioning that fateful trial.

It took me a little while to realize they’d told everyone to leave me alone about it. Probably Bill handled most of that. Pulled them aside during the trials and gave them one of his stern warnings. He's more threatening than Ace. I never expected Bill to be the considerate type. The fact he even thought to do that made my eyes water. No one had done something like that for me. Adding Ace on top of all that, after I’d been such a jerk, was more than I deserved. Bill and Ace had the loyalty of wolves, and now I was a member of the pack.

Again, he seemed to notice I’d fallen back into that ravine of thoughts. The uneasy glances from the others made me anxious. With him, it was different. Maybe his cheerful attitude made it easier, or maybe it was just his kindness. The gentle squeeze on my shoulder filled my chest with warmth.

One person who definitely did not help the situation was Quentin. While the others at least tried to be polite about what happened, he stared at me with such intensity I thought I would shatter. I knew he wanted to talk to me about what happened. He made no show of hiding that fact. He obviously knew something about Krueger, but all the questions I once had about that killer were lost. I wanted to forget the dream demon as quickly as possible.

Another fog rolled in but this time I felt its call. The gnarled grip of fear clenched around my chest. As I stood, Ace followed my lead. “I’m in this one too. I got your back.” Like a puppet on strings, it dragged me inside and swallowed me whole.

For the briefest moment, I thought I’d ended up back in Springwood. Finding myself inside some residential home reminded me of all the small houses that clustered around Badham Elementary. I peeked out of a wooden window frame then wiped off the peeling paint that clung to the skin of my hand. We were in Haddonfield. Good sign. That wasn’t a confirmation that the killer was Michael Myers, but I found that to be more likely. While the killers had their own domain, sometimes they would stray into new locations. The Huntress in the junkyard, for instance, had been interesting. She struggled to hit us as we weaved through walls of scrap metal and compounded cars. He could still be our killer. What if it’s Krueger? I would have done anything to obtain the promise that I’d never have to deal with him again. The voice knew that thanks to all the begging I did before, but it never took me up on that offer.

As soon as I emerged from the deteriorating house, our eyes locked on to each other. He stood on the porch across the street having just finished searching for a fresh kill. A strange sense of relief soothed me when I noticed the man the white mask. After what Krueger did, Michael had lost first place in my nightmares.

The relief subsided when I noticed him stalking closer. I don’t want to be the first one down again. I turned on my heels and ran out of the back of the house. Killers had an uncanny ability to track people when they ran, but I hoped that the hedges and fences would confuse him enough to put some distance between us. Yet, when I glanced over my shoulder, he walked behind me with a steady pace. Damn it.

Two yellow silhouettes appeared as I ran toward the street. Oh great, you’re putting everyone in danger now. The only option was turning back, and I couldn’t do that unless I wanted a knife wedged in my shoulder. I passed the generator and received a dirty look from Feng. “Sorry,” I said, running past her. Ace barely looked up, so concentrated on the generator that he didn’t notice my chase.

Yet, even the people diligently elbow-deep in machinery did not interest The Shape. He passed them by as I was the only man left in the world. My lungs burned from the long sprint. Since when do I get tired from running? My stamina had seemed infinite before in other trials. Either way, I didn’t have time to consider any of that. I needed a distraction. I ran in between a car and a tree, pulling a pallet behind me so he’d either have to break it or go around.

Ace dashed over from the nearly finished generator. “Go, I got this,” he said, pushing me away as Michael circled around the hood of the car. I don’t want to leave. The tight feeling in my chest only got worse with each short breath. Michael tried to push past Ace, oblivious to his shouting, but Ace bravely stood in the way. He threw himself in front of Michael long enough for me to get out of sight. My feet pounded against the creaky stairs of whatever house I’d just wandered into. I hid up on the second floor, not sure if I’d really escaped.

A few seconds passed. Then a minute. Michael never came up those stairs. I looked out the window and saw both the masked killer and the luckster were gone. I’ll have to thank him for that later. I put my hands on my knees and let a deep breath out. Each second in a trial meant being closer to failure, but I honestly couldn’t will my feet to move forward. I slumped down on the ground and waited for my heart to stop racing.

This isn’t right. Never, in the thousands of trials I endured, did I experience fatigue. Not like this. My body felt like it was being weighed down with bricks. Pain shot through my muscles in the form of a burning sensation. I didn’t notice, at first, that the buzz of static had returned. If trials continue like this, I’ll be useless to my friends. I wondered if that’s why we were never allowed to worry about fatigue before. Perhaps it kept us focused on survival rather than our own physical needs. At that moment, it certain dropped a blanket of despair over me.

But then I thought of Ace. The man who’d wandered the fog for decades. The man who never let his smile faulter, even when things were hopeless. He didn’t put his life in danger just so I could sit around and despair.

You’re already useless to them. For a brief moment, it didn’t bother to imitate the sound of my own voice. The sound came to me warbled by static, as if someone had accidently bumped a radio antenna. Somewhere beneath layers of electronic noise, I could the words echo in deep growls. Then, it returned to its normal imitation, clear as day. They’ve been thinking that ever since your return. You saw the pity in their eyes. The contempt.

Bill didn’t look at me with contempt when we shared that whiskey. Nor did Claudette when she hugged me tight and told me how much she missed me. Ace certainly didn’t when he sat down beside me and squeezed my shoulder. Whenever he glanced my way, he had warmth in his eyes. The kind of warmth that made me feel wanted, for once.

My stomach fluttered. I wanted him to look at me like that again. The static fizzled out. I need to do a gen. A few popped in the distance while I was wasting time daydreaming of a handsome luckster with a charming smile. The flickering lightbulb above me hinted I might find a machine hidden in one of the rooms. Sure enough, one was tucked behind a back corner.

I kneeled in front of the generator and brushed my hands against the cold metal pipes protruding from under its plastic yellow top. Knicks and rust coated the silver surface. The scent of oil lubricant and propane wafted off the dead machine.

I felt so lost.

I stuck my hands into the mess of wires and metal, but no instructions came to mind. How many of these things have I fixed over the years? It must have been thousands. I’d never bothered to pay attention to what I was doing because I knew the voice would always be there, guiding me along the way.

Now it ignored me, like a child throwing a tantrum. Are you seriously that mad at me? It didn’t respond nor did the static that fled my mind earlier comeback. Again, I felt as if I’d lost connection with it somehow. The only question was, how did I do it? And was that a good thing or a bad thing?

My mind cautiously considered the light I’d seen in the sky. Every time I’d thought of it before, the voice and it’s static would come screeching at me. The light. I waited for a response. Nothing. So it can’t hear me right now.

Ever since I saw that light, it had been punishing me. Krueger’s torture had been an infuriated reaction to my disobedience. Thomas’s manifestation – I grimaced – appeared to me during that time of panic as well. In fact, I felt fairly certain he appeared so that I would run out into the woods, perhaps so I could meet whatever scared Meg and Nea so badly.

But why? It seemed weird to create a punishment so severe just because I looked up into the black hole in the sky. If it didn’t want people looking up there, it shouldn’t make it so damn obvious. Then again… It took me years to really look up. When I first saw it, I thought my discomfort was simply because I didn’t like seeing my friends carried up to some monster in the sky. I was wrong. This discomfort was unnatural. It made my vision fuzzy and my heart race. It – whatever that thing in the sky was – messed with my mind. It didn’t want me looking up there, and now that I had seen that stupid light, it wanted me to die.

Had Meg and Nea seen it? They hadn’t told us, if they did. Which they would have, because those two would never stop talking. And Ace? Maybe that’s why he disappeared? That didn’t seem right either. It wouldn’t simply send him back if he knew about the light. I knew it couldn’t erase memories either, otherwise, it would have done that to me.

In the end, all I knew was that the light was important and that something didn’t want me to find out why. So much so that it took away my ability to perform during trials. I paused, remembering the lack of repair instructions, the fatigue, and the voice in the static that faded randomly. Maybe it’s not willingly ignoring me. Maybe I’ve done something that’s strangling my connection with it.

The fifth and final generator popped, cutting me out of my tangled thoughts. My team managed to get everything done without me, thankfully. I took the stairs down two at a time. Sometimes the gates were located behind people’s houses, but usually, they were at the either end of the street, just as they were in this trial.

I pulled the untouched lever down, thankful I hadn’t forgotten how to flip a switch too. The gates slip open, their mechanical grinding unpleasant on my ears. David King sauntered past me, giving a slight nod before heading out of the trial. Still, I waited. I wanted to make sure no one got hooked. Too many times I’d experienced death by being left behind.

Not long after that, I heard the stomping of feet. Ace came running down the road with that same shit-eating grin on his face that I’d seen when he taunted The Hag. I tried to ignore how my heart flipped when I saw him wink at me. Now that my anxiety-induced suspicion of him was gone, my mind had gone back to finding him attractive. And funny and charming and sweet. Hnng. Unfortunately, the butterflies in my stomach turned to rocks as I saw a dark shape of man swiftly following the luckster.

Myer’s held his knife in the air, waiting for the perfect moment to attack. My blood turned to ice as I watched the bloody knife slice toward the already injured man. 

By some stroke of luck, he missed. The knife sailed over Ace’s head a good few inches, and Myer’s almost lost his balance from the attempt. As he steadied himself, Ace managed to get a few feet of distance between them. It wasn’t much, but it was just enough to allow him to escape. He grabbed my arm as he passed by, pulling me out of the trial with him.

Only after we got to the fire did he let go of my arm. My disappointment annoyed me. I shouldn’t enjoy being dragged around by him as much as I did. “See? These trials are easy.” He laughed as if he had no idea how close he’d come to being caught. I knew the others found his cavalier approach to trials infuriating. Feng Min, especially.

“Hey creep! You almost got me killed, twice!” She snapped in an accent so thick I had trouble understanding her. Claudette, who had been tending to a large cut in Feng's arm, shuddered from being so close to the rage. She backed away from the petite girl, waiting until the argument was over.

“You’re still alive aren’t you, sweetheart?” He asked. Feng Min answered with a glare. “Look, you even got yourself a nice medkit. Cheer up.” She let lose a series of Chinese phrases which I could only assume were curses and insults.

Yes, the others most definitely did not enjoy that carefree attitude, but damn did I love it. His luck was like magic and he knew just the way to work it.

I thought we’d stay by the campfire, but he had other plans. He waved for me to follow him out to the pond. We walked along of the edge in quiet until he stopped by my usual spot. “You’re so lucky you didn’t get killed back there,” I said before stumbling on some rock in the dark. Trying to regain my balance wasn’t much use because he then grabbed my hand pulled me down into the tall grass with him.

“I get so tired of seeing that same old flame,” Ace yawned, rather cutely I might add, crossing his legs as he sat beside me. “I bet Bill didn’t tell you that this used to be my old hiding spot, back before I disappeared.”

No, I couldn't remember Bill telling me that. Was that why he always visited me so much when I hid out here? It made me kind of sad, to think how much Bill must have missed his friend every time he saw me in their old spot. “I guess I’ll have to share it then. Unless you want to fight for it?” I asked, flexing my skinny arms as if it would intimidate him.

“I’m not much of the fighting type, in case you couldn’t tell,” he said, patting his equally slender arms. “Wagers and bets are more my speed, but I enjoy your company too much to ban you from my hideout. Besides,” he tilted his chin up to look down at me, “I’d win any bet you placed against me.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Cocky.”

“It’s being this cocky that won me thousands of poker games,” he said. I knew it lost him money too, but I didn’t want to ruin his pleasant mood by bringing that up. For a few minutes, we sat in a comfortable silence. Being around him makes it easy to forget where we are. Without all the stress, I found myself noticing even more details that made Ace so likable. His fingers drummed on the ground to some beat of a song in his head. I watched him mouth the lyrics, stopping occasionally whenever he forgot the right word. He’d bop his head every now and then, which looked silly but also adorable.

I didn’t realize how liking someone, as in seriously liking them, changed your perspective. Hanging around the pond didn’t feel boring now that he was around. Death in a trial was agony but knowing I’d get to hear his cheerful laugh and silvery voice later made the loss bearable. His smile made me feel like I’d gotten a flash of light at the end of a tunnel. Is this why Jake spends so much time with Claudette? It made me feel warm and fuzzy and HAPPY. It had been so long since I’d felt this way about someone, long before I ever ended up in this dismal nightmare.

But every sweet thing in hell often came with bitterness. You know nothing is going to come of this. Even if he only looks 40, he’s 80 years old! There’s no way a guy from his era is going to be accepting of gay people, let alone date a guy himself. I feared the way he'd look at me. That gut-wrenching look my dad gave me after I came out to my parents made me terrified to tell another soul. It was the very reason I never told Bill. I couldn’t bare to have him look at me like that too. And Ace?

No. I couldn’t let my sexuality ruin everything. Not again. Pining after Ace was better than not having him near me at all.

He turned to me, now serious. “I never got to finish my magic trick.”

It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about. Those words stung with unpleasant memories. Not in a way that triggered my PTSD, but still enough to make me flinch. Hey now, magic tricks are fun. Remember? Don’t let this ruin your fun.

“It’s always music and magic with you,” I said, smiling to myself.

“At least I can do my card tricks. I’m probably never going to hear music again,” he said, his voice softer than before. The sadness in his eyes was fleeting. He perked up again. “Which is why you should let me show you my magic tricks. Well, one trick. That’s all I know how to do,” he admitted. “Please?” He said, his now honeyed voice coaxed me into agreement.

“Show me what you got, Houdini,” I said, pushing myself closer to him. He smiled at me like a kid opening presents on Christmas. I don’t think I’ve ever made someone look that happy before.  

He smoothed the wrinkles out of his jacket and dusted off his Panama hat. With a quick cough, he cleared his throat. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said to his crowd of one, “watch and be amazed as I present to you the only magical card deck you’ll ever see. While they may look like ordinary cards, I can guarantee you that they came from a land of wonders, where time stops and living creatures never die.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Ah, yes, so magical. He shuffled his cards before fanning them out in his hands in front of me. “You sir, the dashing man up front. Pick a card from the deck, any card at all.”

I knew he was joking but I still found myself blushing at the compliment. It’s hard not to be charmed by him. The charm, the sense of humor, the likability—he had it all. If I didn’t find him so attractive, I might have become overwhelmingly jealous. I took a deep breath and grabbed a card, staring hard at its surface. 10 of Spades.

“Now don’t say a word but memorize what it looks like. Play close attention now! You don’t want to forget.” I glanced up at this magician from a magical land. He was trying to hide the fact he was turning the deck upside-down. Unfortunately for him, I knew how to do this trick, though I suspected he didn’t have the same twist ending as me.

His silver hair fell in his face as he looked down at the deck. My eyes traced his handsome features, starting at the face and working down. I’d caught myself admiring his Italian good looks many times, but I never had many chances to appreciate the rest of him. He still had his shirt generously unbuttoned at the top. I could almost imagine trailing my lips along his neck, over his collarbone, down his chest – I pushed the card back into the deck, hoping he didn’t notice the flush of heat spreading over me. While he was distracted with the cards, I untucked my shirt and let it fall loosely over the now obvious bulge in my pants.

“Perfect.” His husky voice practically purred out the word and I absently wondered what he’d have to do to make me purr. “Now, the magic in the cards will bring yours up top.” He took the cards behind his back – an important part of the trick, I remembered – before bringing it back to me. He picked the top card up and showed it to me. “Is this your card?”

“Oh wow, Mr. Visconti,” I said with my most fake surprised voice. “It sure is!”

He waved his hands dramatically, as if taking a bow. “I told you they were magic!” Of course, I knew that wasn’t the case, even in the weird world we lived in now. The whole trick was that most of the deck was upside down, so when I placed my card right side up, he’d easily be able to spot it.

Something in the air – and something in my pants, let’s be honest – had me feeling a bit more confident than usual. “Perhaps I could show you an even better trick, if you lend me those cards,” I said casually. If he finds it offensive, I can always play it off as a joke. The anxiety that I’d lose everything remained a whispered in my mind.

He took the bait and slid the cards in my hand. “Impress me.”

As I made sure the deck was ready for the trick, I stalled for time. “You see, Mr. Visconti, the key to magic cards is you have to listen to them when they talk.” I turned the deck upside down and made sure everything was in place before fanning out the deck. “Oh,” I said as soon as his fingers touched the surface of the cards.

“What?”

“They were just telling me that you seem pretty good with your hands,” I winked. I had the confidence of someone drunk, even though the whiskey from before was well out of my system.

The expert bluffer did well at keeping a straight face, but I didn’t miss the slight flush of red over his cheeks. I could see curiosity in his eyes, like he was trying to figure out my plan. He picked his card and read it before putting it back in the deck. However, this was where out tricks changed. I ignored the card he placed, opting for the one I’d marked already.

I slipped the deck behind my back and started talking. “Now that the essence of your luck has enchanted these cards, they will—” I stopped for dramatic affected.

“…will?” He leaned in.

I furrowed my brows in concentration to play up the act. “Sorry, it seems the cards having something more important on their minds.” I pulled them back out and put my ear to the stack. “What’s that you say? Oh, well, of course.” I nodded at them as I pulled out the top card – the King of Hearts — and turned to him. “They want to know, will you be the king of my heart tonight?”

He glanced at the card and then back at me, his cheeks turning even redder than before. A strange look crossed his face. Not anger, which I’d been worried would happen, but something I couldn’t put my finger on. “God damn, Fairfield, I had no idea you could be that smooth,” he finally spoke. I enjoyed, too much, how impressed he sounded.

He took the cards from me and I felt the pads of his fingers brush up against the palm of my hands. His touch lingered there for a second, but I didn't recoil. I couldn't help the grin that formed on my flushed face. Well, there went your cool vibe, you dummy. But he smiled back, stroking his thumb across the back of my hand. Then he packed the cards back in the box.

For a moment I could imagine all of that playing out at a bar. I would have offered to buy him a drink, since he liked the trick so much, and then tried whatever else I could to charm the pants off him. Figuratively. Maybe literally too. But this isn’t a bar, this is hell. And you’re talking to a guy who grew up in the 60s. You know, a generation of people who aren’t exactly famous for being open-minded.

“Yeah, well,” my voice cracked a little from the nerves. “I’m pretty awkward at starting conversations so I came up with a trick that would help me break the ice. I’m sure you already know how I did it since you know the basics of the trick. You could easily switch it to a Queen of Hearts when hitting on women,” I said off-handedly.

Ace didn’t say anything for a moment. I thought he was still putting the cards back but then I noticed him carefully examining my face. “What?” I asked.

He shrugged, trying to be casual but still keeping an eye on me. “You know, I’m actually more of a King of Hearts kind of guy myself.”

Oh?

OH!

 It took all my willpower to grab ahold of that smooth façade from before. Maybe I have a shot at charming his pants off then. “Huh, me too,” I said, trying to match his casual tone. The butterflies in my stomach had multiplied tenfold. All over again, I felt like a starstruck teenager trying to talk to their crush. 

He leaned in close to say something but then groaned as he looked out at the pond. I noticed a fog sweeping over the water and heading toward us. I didn’t feel the call of a trial, but he seemed too. “We’ll talk later, right?” He asked.

I looked up at the campsite and noticed the last person enter the gray haze. Looks like I got the whole place to myself. Cool. Though I’d rather have the whole place to just me and Ace at that moment. “I’ll be waiting here,” I said. For the first time, he looked bothered to be leaving for a trial. He gave me one last wistful glance before disappearing.

After a few minutes, the fog dissipated. I glanced around the motionless pond. Its still surface reminded me of a mirror painted black. Without the sound of chatter coming from the campfire, the silence was deafening. Now what? Rarely did anyone get to be alone like this. It crossed my mind that this would be the perfect opportunity to take care of the hard-on pushing at the fabric of my jeans. I blushed with embarrassment. It’s been months since I last jerked off, right? The long wait would probably explain why I wanted to get in Ace’s pants so badly. Except... this felt different.

My mind still lingered with fantasies, but they weren’t the same as the lust-fueled ones I normally entertain. I wanted to hold him so close I could hear the gentle beat of his heart, to kiss him until he knew just how much I appreciated him, and then to fuck him senseless. Rinse and repeat, perhaps with varying positions.

My hands brushed against the zipper of my pants. Even that small pressure felt good. Too good. I stopped, letting my arm drop to my side. Fornication is a sin. Self-pleasure is unnatural in the eyes of God. Guilt pulled me out of those blissful fantasies. They didn’t come from my religious upbringing though. Let me help you, Dwightie. They came from a person who had other reasons to redirect my desires. Even after three years of therapy, his help haunted me.

I could hear that static again, right at the back of my head. The voice didn’t say anything, but it was there. I didn’t know how long. Long enough to make me uncomfortable. I glanced towards the woods, remembering when I saw Thomas watching me. Thankfully the shadows remained black and empty. Still, nothing killed a mood like thinking about the past.

At some point, I must have drifted asleep while waiting for him to return. My eyes fluttered open to the sight of moldy walls and cracked floorboards. Warm humidity clung to the air, so unlike anything I'd felt in five years. Everything around me was cast in an orange glow that felt like a filter put over my eyes. The distinct feeling of not being quite awake nor asleep tingled through my limbs. In front of me, a weathered door swung open with a whining creak. 

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

Grass and weeds poked through the gaps in the floorboards, which sagged beneath my feet. They creaked in protest as I entered the small room. The only source of light came from a cracked and grime-covered window. I could taste the damp air as I took a deep breath, trying to steady my nerves. The bare walls were cracked beyond repair, letting frigid air seep inside. What is this place? It felt like the rest of the buildings I found in this world – deteriorating and unlivable. Only a small armchair sat in the corner of the room. It’s embroidered fabric looked muddied from decades of abuse.

Though I couldn’t see anyone in there with me, I didn’t feel alone. The hair on my neck stood up as I heard muffled voices coming from outside. I wiped a small circle of dirt off the glass and peered out the window.

A campfire, twice as large as the one by our camp, burned with ferocity. Instead of survivors circled around it, there were buildings which looked just as dingy as the one I stood in. My eyes glanced over a familiar figure leaning over a garden which struggled to grow. My heart picked up its pace and my skin turned clammy. The Huntress buried her hand deep into the dirt as she ripped out the dried corpses of plants. The Nurse laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. She’s strangled me with that hand before. I couldn’t tell which one of them was talking since they both wore masks. It shouldn’t have surprised me that they could talk since I’d seen Krueger do it, but it still felt strange. I never expected them to act so human when they weren’t hellbent on bloodshed.

“Well, well, look who couldn’t stay away,” Krueger said from behind me. His voice rumbled like a car over a gravel country road. I spun around only for him to push my back against a wall. The pressure on my shoulders wasn’t painful, but hard enough to keep me pinned. He tilted his head, watching me with curiosity. “Welcome to my home away from home. When I’m not torturing attractive boys in my basement, I come here.”

The killers were afforded the luxury of shelter. How pleasant. “I guess you all live here, then,” I said, trying to wiggle my way out of his grasp. Despite being so short and small, he easily kept me where he wanted.

“Not all of us. Some prefer to stay in areas they are more familiar with. While I enjoy my Springwood,” he said the name with remarkable fondness, “I find these other lost souls to be fascinating company.” If you’re as creepy to them as you are to me, I doubt they feel the same way. When I didn't say anything, he took the opportunity to change the subject. “I could really use a stiff drink after that last trial I was in,” he said, trying to sound casual. “You should have brought your whiskey over here, instead of hiding it in those bushes. After all, what’s a good date without a few drinks?” My muscles tensed. How does he know about the whiskey? The voice could have told him about it, but I didn’t see why it would.

“If all your dates end with you beating them death, I can tell you now you’re not going to get any callbacks,” I snapped, though my voice shook. Memories of the violence he perpetrated before made me shrink back. I expected a blow to the gut or something equally horrible, but he stayed still.   

“Oh, that wasn’t a date,” he chuckled. “That was business, this is pleasure.” His hands traveled down my body and settled at my waist. The points of his blades poked at my skin, bringing unpleasant reminders. “Unless you’re into that kind of thing. I’d gladly oblige.” His sharp grin reminded me of the jaws of a shark. “What’s wrong, Dwightie?” He asked, noticing the way I shuddered beneath his touch.  

The sound of my old nickname made my stomach churn. I could feel myself slipping into that panic-stricken fog. What if he triggers something much worse this time? “Stop calling me that,” I said through gritted teeth. 

He let out a single laugh, shaking his head. “I was told you hated the name, but I didn’t realize it was that important.” With a gruff hand, he forcefully pushed himself between my legs. I wanted to fight it, but I found my lower body paralyzed by some unseen force. Heat rolled off his body as he leaned into me. Something hard dug into my thigh. “What would you be willing to do to make me stop?”

There were a string of curses and insults that I wanted to say, but I couldn’t force them out. I felt like I was choking on air. He slipped his normal hand around my back and under my shirt. His blood-crusted nails scratched at the small of my back in light circular patterns. “Perhaps you’d be more comfortable with a familiar face?” He mused. I watched with both horror and curiosity as the skin on his hands and neck began to smooth. His face shifted into David King’s own image. There are other people he can turn into, Dwight. Thomas. My heart began to race.

“Get off me,” I finally gasped as I moved to shove him away. Yet, as soon as I lifted my arms, my wrists smacked against the wall. I struggled to pull them off, but they didn’t budge, as if glued in place. He smirked as I came to the horrifying realization that he could keep me pinned just with his mind.

“Or better yet, maybe it’s time to live out some fantasy of yours that will never be fulfilled.” Please not Thomas, please. With that last remark, the bulky form of David King transformed into a slender figure. Ace’s charming smile grinned down at me, tainted with malice. The smell of smoke and sulfur dissipated, replaced by the scent of whiskey and tobacco that inexplicably rolled off Ace. At first, I was relieved it wasn’t Thomas. That got cut short as he pulled his hand out of my shirt and squeezed my crotch.

I recoiled from his touch, pushing my body against the wall as tight as possible. Every part of my body screamed at me to run, but I stayed paralyzed by his powers. A skin crawling sensation shuddered through my legs and arms. I turned my head away from him, unable to stand the sight of Ace’s malicious stare. A low growl escaped his parted lips as he grabbed my jaw with his clawed hand forced me to look at him. He pressed his forehead to mine, staring with intensity as he continued to stroke at my pants. My eyes watered and heat welled at the bottom of my stomach. You’re sick for getting aroused by this. What the fuck is wrong with you? I tried, in vain, to will that part of my body to stop.

A bitter tang filled my mouth. “Don’t do—” The harsh whispers of a plea were suffocated by a forceful kiss. His tongue snaked against my own, and at that moment I was certain I’d vomit. His soft skin changed against mine, warping back into that scarred visage. He let go of my crotch, but I felt little relief. Instead, his fingers scraped at my scalp before he grabbed my hair and forced my head back to expose my neck.

“That King of Hearts move was pretty cute,” he purred. His hot breath blew against the skin of my neck. “I have to admit, I’m feeling a bit jealous.” Did he hear that whole conversation? This isn’t… His teeth nipped at my jaw, causing me to yelp involuntarily.

My mind struggled to keep from drowning in terror. Are you really going to let this happen again? Are you that much of a coward? I tried to hone-in on that spark of anger. Instead, my throat burned with the threat of tears. “You’re just, just the absolute worst y-you piece of shit,” slurry of words spilled out of my mouth. Then he put his hand on my chest. The gesture was gentle, but I somehow understood the threat of it. My mouth froze from whatever insults were supposed to spew out next. 

“Interesting,” he hummed to himself as he pulled back from me. “That really does keep you nice and agreeable.”

 “How would you know that.” I tremored, trying to redirect his attention to anything but that memory. That calculated stare of his examined me. Silence fell over the room as he weighed the question. When it became clear he wasn’t going to answer, I pitched another question. “Who told you about my nickname?” Again, no answer. Maybe he can’t tell me?  “Why are you doing this to me if you aren’t going to even answer my questions?”

“Well, beating the shit out of you didn’t get any results, so now I just have to resort to other methods,” he finally answered. He trailed one of his blades down my arm, slicing into the skin. The blood trickled down past my elbow before dripping onto the floor. I winced at the pain, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle, not after what he did last time.

“What results and who wants them? You?” I asked. My voice cracked. What could he want that requires torturing me? And sexual assault? Or that the pleasure part he was talking about. God, get me out of here. I’m going to be sick. “Listen, just tell me what you want and… and maybe we can work this out. Please, you don’t have to keep doing this.”

He leaned in again, putting more pressure on my chest. “Why don’t you like your nickname, Dwightie?” The second the word slipped out, I felt my mind growing dizzy. This time, there weren’t any pink tiles or sunlit windows. Just the distinct smell of old books and dusty carpet.

 “Go fuck yourself,” I spat out with instinct, but the words didn’t come out in the intimidating way I wanted. They were a shaky whisper with no backbone.

“Careful Dwightie.” He kept his abrasive voice as light as it could be. “If you keep being this rude, I might have to turn this into a wet dream. Maybe that would get you to tell me your secrets.” The threat lingered in his voice as he looked at me like I was something to eat.  

“I’m not going to answer your stupid questions if you don’t answer mine.” At least the words came out firm that time, albeit unthreatening. “Screw you and your results.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” he growled. “I won’t stop until you give me what I want. And trust me, I can make it last all night long if I need too.” I swallowed hard, trying to ignore the sexual connotation behind his words. Each time I met him, he pushed past that line further and further. I didn’t want to know what he’d do to me next.

He turned his head toward the window, as if someone had called his name. The muted voices from before were gone. Only the sound of my ragged breathing and the crackling fire outside could be heard. “Aw, the lovebirds and the seniors? I was hoping it would be my favorite boy,” he muttered under his breath. He turned to me. “Tell Quentin I’ll be seeing him again soon. The poor boy has been neglected,” Krueger said. My arms fell limp to my side as whatever power holding me there released. I crumpled to the ground, shaking.

Then, just like that, the man vanished as I woke. Long strands of grass made up my bed, not the cracked and saggy wooden floor. A starless, black sky glared down at me, giving no explanation for what I just experienced.

Every place he touched me felt dirty. I could still feel the ghost of his hand scratching at my back. As I rubbed my skin, hoping to get rid of that feeling, I noticed the sharp pain. There was one long slit down my arm where he had cut me. Even when I dream, he can hurt me. My mind wandered to Quentin and how tired he always looked. Krueger said he’d be seeing him soon. I guess that explains why Quentin tries not to sleep. The others haven’t complained about seeing him in their dreams, so what makes us special? Did he see the light in the sky?

On cue, the static snarled up in my mind. Tears were running down my face before I could even process the sudden change of emotion. You deserved what happened to you. You should have just let him keep going. Maybe your parents would still love you if you'd kept your big mouth shut. It wasn’t the voice speaking to me, but ever past insecurity I’d felt. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths, focusing on the movement of my chest. Just breathe. Ground yourself. If it weren't for my therapist teaching me those breathing exercises, I would have lost my mind a long time ago. 

Finally, I got calm enough to focus. I needed to talk to Quentin, no matter how touchy the subject was. Maybe not about the… thing I saw, but I should at least ask about Krueger. I have to find a way to stop him before this gets any worse. I stood up to see if I could find the boy at the camp, then winced at the pain. Right. Forgot about that.  

Well, at least I have access to a magical pond. Goosebumps formed across my bare skin as I sunk my arms into the water and waited for the affects. I’d never self-harmed, though the urge had been there in high school. This cut went far deeper than what I could have ever done with a razor.

How did Krueger know about the whiskey and card game? It seemed strange that the voice would share those details with him. I eyed the shadows of the woods with caution. The lovebirds and the seniors… when Krueger looked out that window, could he see the survivors going into the trial? We’d traveled those woods several times and never came across a camp of killers, but that didn’t mean anything in our nonsensical world. If I was right, then Krueger would have easily seen me hide that whiskey and, if close enough, heard me and Ace talking. If I'm right, does that mean the other killers are able to see us too? Or is this just a Krueger thing?

The pain in my arm hadn’t diminished even the slightest. As I pulled them out, red droplets fell from my fingertips. The wounds were just as deep as before. Seriously? I scrunched up my nose at a particularly bad throb of pain. First, I lose my ability to work in the trials, now I’m not even healing from the water. Great. Does this mean I’m going to actually die if I get caught by a killer? That seemed too good to be true. It wanted to punish me, not give me an easy way out.

A loud splash broke through the silence as a survivor breached the surface. Ace emerged, clutching his soaked hat. Well, he died quite quickly. He grumbled under his breath a few curses. As soon as his eyes landed on me, the grumpy expression softened. Nothing like how Krueger looked at me. I didn't realize just how much I missed the warm way Ace looked at me until that moment.  At the time, I thought Krueger had summoned the perfect replicant of Ace. Now I realize how dumb that was. The soaked and shivering figure standing in front of me was nothing like the handsome mirage Krueger put on. The real Ace exuded friendliness, something Krueger was too evil to ever accurately mimic.

“You’re bleeding,” he said, looking at my arm. “Hold on, I’ll go get a medkit.”

“You don’t have too—”

"What kind of King would I be if I let someone bleed, hmm?" He winked before running back to get a medkit from the camp. The man just died and he’s already worrying about you. A warm feeling brewed in my chest. I found myself smiling, despite the horrible nightmare I just experienced. In hell, you never know when things will go right for a change. It’s the little things that you have to find happiness in.

Chapter Text

Jake Park

It never bothered me to be alone with my thoughts. I lived alone for a good portion of my life, often with only my thoughts to keep me company. While in this new hell, I spent most of my time memorizing the forest around the camp and brooding over the various predicaments we got ourselves caught in.

Yet, ever since Meg and Nea’s disappearance, images and words slithered through my mind which I desperately wanted to avoid. The hollow look in Meg’s eyes as she walked out into the forest, never to be seen again, felt too familiar. Hopelessness. I felt its grip on me for a while now. How long would the monotony of the trials send me out into the woods just like her, and what would happen after that?

The way in which the others seemed to forget their existence both fascinated and bothered me. A perfect storm had swept the concern they had for the missing girls and brought along a dozen new things to worry about. A dead man came back, bringing suspicion along with him. Dwight suffered some traumatic experience, that much was obvious, though he refused to talk about the subject. The others failed to notice how Quentin’s eyes would be red and puffy as he walked into camp, and I doubted the pond water had anything to do with it. So much hell had broken lose that the others barely had the chance to think about the missing girls.

As much as I rolled my eyes at conspiracies, I almost wondered if this was on purpose. Maybe whatever dictated the rules of our hell didn’t want us chasing after the girls. Or perhaps the trials weren’t enough torture, and now we had to endure fear even beside the campfire. Dwight and Quentin certainly were, judging from the way Dwight reacted to Ace that first night back and the hollow look in Quentin’s eyes.

While Bill and Ace tried to get Dwight back to normal, King and Laurie fretted over Quentin. Despite the fact they looked around the same age, Laurie had very little in common with the boy. Their teen years were drastically different. King was, well, as useful as always at cheering people up. Feng Min, of course, stayed away from all of us. The only person that really mentioned Meg or Nea again was Claudette. She, of course, anxiously waited for them to return to the camp.

“Still looking for them?” I asked her as she watched the black waters of the pond. A heavy knit sweater, navy blue, hung over her delicate arms as she shivered from the cold air. Something she found in one of the trials, no doubt. Makes her stand out like a sore thumb when she’s hiding but… She does look pretty.

“I thought maybe since Dwight came back, they would too,” she sighed, taking a step back from the shore. “Do think they might be holed up someplace like Ace was?”

The last thing I needed to do was upset her with my own cynical bullshit. I’m not even sure what to make of that whole mess. Bill told us when we first arrived that he’d seen many survivors come and go through his years in hell. Perhaps they were all stored away just like Ace had been, but if they were, I didn’t see any sign of it. Maybe in hell, you can simply stop existing. What if it’s not as eternal as we were told while we were alive? If that were the case, then Meg and Nea finally found peace. I almost felt jealous of them. 

“I guess they could be,” I said. Maybe if I ever got any proof, I’d talk to her about it. She’d heard enough of my brooding for a while.

“You know what bothers me the most about all of this?” Her already soft voice got quieter now. If the world around us weren’t so silent, I wouldn’t have been able to hear her. “They said something was chasing them out there. Why didn’t it come after us?”

“We were a larger group,” I said with confidence, though I really had nothing to back up the suggestion. “It didn’t want to attack so many people at once.” I’d wondered several times what attracted it to Nea and Meg but not us.

Of course, the second we started an actual discussion about the hell we were going through, the fog started to creep through the trees. I cursed under my breath. That’s the 12th trial in only a few hours. We’ve never gone through this many so quickly before.

“Are you in this one?” I asked, already feeling the call of the trial in my heart. She nodded and pursed her lips. “Let’s go to the fire and see who else is coming.” I didn’t want to deal with King. I’d rather have Dwight berate me for my lack of team effort than fight King again.

She stayed close as we wandered up to the fire. Most of the others were gone, probably lost in some other trial. Ace and Dwight were watching the fog flow closer to the fire. “You two?” I asked, and they nodded. Good, no King. Even not having Quentin, who probably hadn’t slept since Dwight came back, was a relief.

For once, Dwight failed to give his cheery pep-talk that came before every trial. I missed hearing him yammer on, if only because it would bring a sense of normalcy back. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets and avoided looking into the fog. I wondered if he was afraid we’d be going against The Nightmare again.

“I’ll go in for the saves,” Claudette whispered as the fog slinked around our feet. She had a spare medkit in her hand, no doubt for the others.

“Fine,” I sighed, knowing it would be impossible to convince her otherwise. “But you be better be careful. If you get hooked, there’s no way I’m leaving you behind and I’d rather not get myself killed trying to save someone.”

I caught a glimpse of her smile before the fog swallowed us. The ground beneath my feet changed into charred grass. The fog released me, and I found myself standing at the base of the asylum for probably the hundredth time in my life. My familiarity with the place is what helped me notice the changes in my surroundings. The building, previously scorched to the point of being dangerous, now housed a roaring fire that licked at its walls and burst through its open windows. With its roof now intact, I could see it was twice the size of its ashen version.

Are there generators in there? I doubted the fire would hurt us, but my instincts still blanched at the idea of entering. I walked along the perimeter, searching for a generator outside to do. I liked being outside of buildings. It was easier to be more aware of my surroundings. Easier to spot people.

People like Claudette, who I could see creeping along a chain length fence in the distance. The sense of ease that settled in my chest didn’t go unnoticed. I hated not being by her side during trials, mostly because I never knew what danger she’d throw herself in to protect the others.

I ran through the tall grass to catch up with her. The chain length fence surrounded a mostly empty parking lot. Litter laid scattered across the faded pavement. In the center of the lot, a large red van sat empty, with its doors hanging open. Bumper stickers adorned the back doors, mostly advertising old bands I hadn’t heard of in what felt like decades.  Claudette searched one of the cardboard boxes in the back, not even checking to see if danger was approaching.

“Find anything useful?” I ask, crossing my arms. What if it’s The Shape hunting us? She needs to be more careful. There’s not much I’m going to be able to do for her if she gets caught right away.

“Jesus,” she gasped, catching her breath. “You scared me.”

“You’re lucky it was just me and not someone, or something, else,” I scolded.

She tossed down a raggedy denim jacket covered in patches. “There’s a bong if you consider that useful.” She pointed to the glass device stashed away underneath the driver’s seat.

“Of all the things to find here, that’s probably the last I’d expect. You didn’t happen to find weed, did you? Actually, forget I asked. I doubt you’d know what that looks like anyway,” I teased.

“I’m a botanist, Jake, of course, I’ve seen weed before,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Let’s go find a generator, you jerk.” It was hard to imagine Claudette doing anything in college except shoving her face into a mile-high stack of books. Did she go too crazy college parties? Was she the one to buy her friends weed or was she too shy for that? How many weekends did she waste away getting drunk instead of studying?

The smell of smoke felt almost suffocating and only got worse the closer we moved to the asylum. Hidden in tufts of long grass, plastic bottle caps and various other bits of litter ruined what would otherwise be a decent plot of land. In the distance a generator popped, followed by two familiar screams. At least they got something done.

I waited for that instinctual voice to tell me that someone had been hooked. Claudette put a gentle hand on my shoulder, looking toward the flickering light of a generator hidden behind some trees.

 Somewhere in the distance, another generator popped, followed by several screams. I wondered if they were getting hooked. Yet, that instinctual voice in the back of my head never warned me of their location. The voice never spoke. Perhaps Ace is showing the killer one of his famous never-ending chases.

Claudette looked hesitantly over to where we heard the screams. I knelt by the generator braced up against a tree. “The best way to help them is getting these generators done,” I reminded her.

“Dwight just got hooked,” she said, poking her hands back into the machine. “Ace looks like he’s in a chase right now. It’s weird though, he’s not acting normal.” Everyone was jealous of Claudette’s unique ability to sense those that were injured. I wished I’d been granted that power, though I’d only use it to keep as far away as possible from the action. Perhaps that’s why she’d been gifted with it: she was the kindest soul of all us.

“What do you mean, he got hooked?” The voice always told us when that happened. Why would it be silent now? Something’s wrong. Things going weird outside the trials was enough to make me uneasy, but inside the trials too? That was a death sentence.

She shrugged, squinting at toward the parking lot. “Dwight was flailing his arms around and… oh gosh, Ace just pulled himself off the hook!” As she watched the horror occur far away, I watched the micro changes in her expression. The way she covered her mouth in surprise. The furrow in her brow that creased more as another scream echoed through the asylum grounds. Who says gosh, anyway? How does she make such a dumb word sound… Cute.

“I’ll go check on them,” I said, wiping my hands on my shirt to get rid of the machine’s grease.

“You?” She raised her eyebrow. I basically wrote the book on leaving teammates behind. Of course, she’d find it strange that I’d volunteer myself to scout out danger.

“Finish the generator. First sign of trouble, get out of here, okay?” The hatch would be available as soon as that generator was done. Maybe she caught the meaning behind the words. I didn’t stick around for her to debate me.

Heading back to the parking lot, I felt a sense of dread settle like a pile of rocks in my stomach. The scent of something burnt wafted through the smoke. Something organic. It had been so long since I’d smelled it, I didn’t recognize it at first. Meat. The gray pavement was blackened with burn marks, leading up to a charred corpse. Instantly, my stomach lurched and I had to clutch onto the chain link fence as I dry heaved over the ground. I’d seen my fair share of bodies hacked into pieces, but seeing someone I knew burnt beyond recognition made me sick. Even after I was done, my breath still shook as I tried to recover. A clammy feeling coated my body and hands.

A generator popped. Claudette. The mere idea of something like that happening to her made my blood run cold. My imagination wandered to the screams we heard earlier, and I shivered at the thought of hearing her go through what they did. I have to get her out of here.

The crack of a branch caused me to spin around. I hoped it would be one of the men, or perhaps Claudette running to see what I’d found. Instead, the slender figure of a girl with bright blue and white hair grinned at me. Her black painted nails clicked impatiently against the large red canister in her hands.

“N-Nea?” I asked, taking a step away. My back hit the open door of the van, yet its hinges remained rusted open. There was no heartbeat drumming through my head, but the look in her eyes still screamed danger. She unscrewed the cap, still holding that coy smile, and the smell of gasoline mingled with the scent of burnt flesh. “Where have you been?”

The liquid sloshed within the plastic canister. With just a twitch, she heaved it toward me, splashing gasoline all over my blood-stained clothes. I could feel the wetness soaking through the fabric and onto my skin. “What the fuck are you doing?” I snapped, though the fear in my voice could easily be heard. It didn’t take my brain long to put the puzzle pieces together.

She pulled out a silver lighter and, which a small click, brought forth flame. The light caused shadows to flicker ominously over her face. My heart raced, matching the rhythm of the one that now throbbed through my mind. Run. Run anywhere. I could hear her devilish snicker behind me as she threw the lighter. An unnaturally large burst of light exploded to the right of me, spreading flames across the already dried grass. Again, I heard the click. Please, don’t let me die like this.

The flames hit my back and spread across my body. Heat turned into scorching pain as the flames licked at my skin. I fell to the ground, screaming, as welts formed along my arms and back. I became painfully aware that my clothes hadn’t burned away as the fabric of my blood-stained jacket rubbed against my raw skin.

Even before the flames could die, she scooped me off the ground and carried me over her shoulder. The fire danced against her smooth skin, but if she felt it, she didn’t flinch. As she shoved me onto the hook, I looked for any recognition in her eyes. The same coy smile etched across her face, matched with a wild spark as she looked around for other survivors. Whatever it was that hid behind those eyes… it wasn’t Nea anymore.

She left me there without a glance back, tucking the lighter back into her pocket and pulling her canister off a strap around her waist. The heartbeat disappeared, creating a sense of false peace. Even as the flames mysteriously withered away, the agony of those burns still made me wince. I could barely lift my arms up to try and pull myself off the hook. Blood seeped through the fabric of my jacket.

I shouldn’t be doing this. I reached with shaky fingers and tried to peel back my sleeve. Morbid curiosity made me want to assess the damage that had been done. “F-Fuck,” I hissed as several layers of skin peeled back with the fabric as if melted into the cloth. Discolored splotches of goo clung to my fingertips as I pulled the sleeve back down. My skin. I gagged, feeling as if I might just puke right then and there.

“Jake.” A raspy voice approached from my right. I turned my head, letting out an involuntary whimper from the pain. Dwight, covered in burns across his arms and face, limped toward me. His face contorted as he reached up and tried to pull me off. He saved me, barely. The second I was free of the hook, he collapsed to the ground in a heap. “Why… didn’t you guys come to save us?”

It took all my willpower to keep myself from crying out as my knees hit the ground. All I wanted to do was curl up and die. Fuck the trial. Fuck this stupid bullshit. I want to go home. I want to see my mom and listen to her fuss over my hair and make fun of my stupid hermit cabin. But I didn’t have time to think about home. Home was gone, mom was gone. It was just us and The Pyromaniac. “Save?”

“I expected it from you, but I thought Claudette would at least come…” Dwight rambled. The skin on his face was so discolored as layers peeled off. “Ace and I were hooked. But then you guys didn’t come so he… he saved me. He pulled himself off and saved me. But then she came back and…” His face fell. Tears had been running down his face for a while now, but I didn’t miss the low sob that choked in his throat.

I’d relied on that instinctual voice to tell me when the others were hooked. “It didn’t tell me,” I spoke with a low voice. Even mentioning it made my spine tingle with discomfort.

Claudette emerged from behind several trees. I wanted to shield my face from her. It didn’t matter if Dwight saw me like that, who cared what he thought. She covered her mouth as she took in the sight of probably the worst injuries she’d seen in all her time in hell. Then she looked up.

Something wet splashed against my neck from above. Dwight choked as it splattered across his face. Gasoline. Claudette screamed as Nea leaped down from the second floor of the asylum. I didn’t wait around to see what was about to happen next. I grabbed her hand and pulled her away, trying to ignore the horrible screams that came from Dwight as he was set on fire.

It’s going to be one of those trials. The kind where the killer ignored its need for sacrifices. They happened rarely, enough that we never seemed to get a good handle on them. One by one we were dropping like flies.

As I heard Dwight’s screams wither away, I grabbed her hand and pulled the two of us behind a rock. “Jake that was…” Claudette’s voice quieted as the sound of a heartbeat began to thrum in our heads. Somehow she tracked us down, probably from the trail of blood I left behind. The scent of gasoline reeked off my jacket, fully soaking through my clothes.

Tears welled at the brim of Claudette’s eyes. “Claud…” I whispered. I gave the hand I still held a gentle squeeze. It barely registered to me at all that I should be upset over this new revelation. Nea becoming a killer was surprising, sure, but I hadn’t any time to really think any of it. Being set of fire made all my questions disappear, replaced with a need to survive.

But of course, Claudette would be the only to realize the gravity of the situation. She cared about all the survivors, even the annoying ones. I wondered if she was morning what Nea had become, or perhaps crying at the feeling of betrayal. All I could think about was what would happen next. If she wants to take Claudette, she’ll have to go through me first.

The teen wandered through the forest, laughing maniacally to herself. The heartbeat grew louder. It’s only a matter of time before she finds us.

Claudette seemed to realize the same thing. “Maybe I could lead her away from here. It would give you enough time to run away.” She pursed her lips at the thought, absent-mindedly rubbing a thumb against the top of my hand.

The mere idea of Nea setting fire to Claudette made my stomach lurch. I didn’t want to ever hear those screams. Not in this trial, not in any trial in the future. I wouldn’t let it happen. I’d rather die protecting her that be the coward King claimed I was. “You’re not putting yourself in danger for me.” I shut the idea down.

“You’ve been hooked once already—” Her brows were furrowed with concern that, even in my state, made me notice how cute she was. Swallowed up in one of my jackets that she’d stolen, she looked too small to take on such a task. Even if I knew she had the balls to be a hero, I didn’t want to her suffer the consequences of such an action.

“Claud…” I tried to interrupt the list of reasons she began to spew out. The tears had dried up now that her head was back into the trial. My mind was anywhere but. I focused on the shape of her lips, the red flush in skin from all the running she’d done, the little huff she gave as she swiped a loose curl away from her glasses.

I grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her into a kiss. Her lips moved to say something, before suddenly stopping as her body registered the action. My heart fluttered as she brushed a hand through my tangled mess of hair. She leaned into me, deepening the kiss, and suddenly I didn’t care about the trial. All I think about was her, how much I needed her, and how miserable I would have been without her.

I pulled away after a moment, panting for air. If my lungs didn’t ache, I would have stayed there forever. She looked just as breathless, even stunned. There wasn’t time to talk about what just happened, or what this really meant for us. I could tell from the look in her eyes she had a million questions, but before she could get answers I needed to do one thing: die.

Adrenaline pumped through my body as I prepared myself for what I was about to do. I grabbed her by the cheeks and forced her to look at me. “When I die, run. Take the hatch.”

I barely heard her protest as I dashed out of our hiding spot. The heartbeat hadn’t faded completely. “Nea!” I shouted out with a raspy voice. The smoke that filled my lungs burned with each breath, and the sound that escaped my lips felt strangled. I stumbled against a tree, scraping my already burned skin against the rough bark. I didn’t bother to hold back the groan of pain this time, hoping she’d hear it soon.

Behind me, I heard the slosh of gas being tucked away in exchange of a lighter. The red light of a killer flashed across my back. The heartbeat raced in my head before I could even panic at her proximity. Even though I wanted her to catch me, the mere thought of the charred corpses left behind us was enough to trigger my flight response. I shoved myself forward, heading toward the burning asylum.

The Swedish girl’s giggle made my stomach knot. Her shadow loomed behind me. I flinched as I saw a swift movement out of the corner of my eye. I expected to be fully engulfed in flames but instead felt a heavy blow against the back of my head. Metal knuckles, now coated in blood, accessories her manic appearance. As I tumbled to the ground, she wiped the knuckles off on her stained and ragged plaid shirt. Once she earned those blood stains while helping us. Soon they would be lost to layers of gore from her sacrifices.

I didn’t bother pleading for my life. We never liked each other much before, I doubted it would be any better now that she was a murderer. Be strong, for Claudette. The grass in front of me shifted, and I hoped more than anything it was just a trick of the eye. Please don’t watch this. Even after all the wounds she’d tended and the deaths she’d witnessed, I doubted she’d stomach the sight of someone burning to death.

Nea turned me over and placed a firm hand on my neck. With the other, she flipped her lighter on. I tried to scream and gagged on the sound. Her tight grip and the smoke made my throat shrink. As she lit the fire, all I could see was her face grinning down on me. Even as the light blinded me and the flames ate at my skin, she never stopped admiring her handiwork. As my consciousness quickly faded, I could only hope that Claudette would be lucky enough to avoid my fate.

Chapter Text

Claudette Morel

My heart pounded in my chest even after he’d left me behind that rock. I touched my lips, going over every detail of the memory. He kissed me. The softness of his lips and the earnestness of the kiss made my stomach do a flip. Nea. The fire. Trials. Death. All of it disappeared the second he touched me. If I was drowning, his kiss was a life preserver.

I never thought we’d actually get to this point. For years, I had feelings for that elusive survivor, but I assumed that he would never feel the same way. Jake was a lemon. Sour towards others, never anyone’s favorite.

His scream cut through the air, reminding me that in this nightmare nothing can save you from death. The logical side of my mind told me that he had been right: only one of us would be able to survive this trial. Yet, I still ran to the sound, desperately hoping I could save him before she hurt him any further.

The fire blazed, roaring over his guttural noises as she held him down. His arms and legs flailed, coated him orange and yellow flames. They licked at her perfect, pale skin, leaving behind no marks. She glared down at him, a wide smile adorning her bright red lips. As his body stilled, a deep sense of unease settled in my stomach. I’m the last one left.  She wiped her hands on her jeans, smearing blood against the denim. That sickening grin never left her face as she disappeared into the smoky asylum.

I tried to avert my eyes from the ashen corpse she left behind. Even the thought of his death, no matter how impermanent, made me tear up. I hated seeing my friends hurt, but with Jake, it felt even worse. It’s my fault he died. He did it for me and… My breath shook as I tried to stop myself from crying. I can’t deal with this right now. Too many emotions running through me. It was a sickening combination of love and grief that made me nauseated. I can’t let his death be in vain.

I wiped the tears away with the sleeve of my sweater, then looked out on the asylum grounds. The familiar rubble of burnt out walls left behind by some destroyed building created a maze in which to find my only hope of escape. Hatch games. That’s what Jake called them. It was a race to find the hatch first. Whoever did, won. And if I lose, I’m sacrificed to some spider in the sky.

I caught a glimpse of Nea wandering through the trees, her gas canister now out. The lack of heartbeat made the moment almost nostalgic. It wasn’t long ago that we were both in a trial together as survivors, instead of predator and prey. We were friends. How could something like this happen? I couldn’t imagine hurting any of my friends, especially not sacrificing them to something in the sky.

She was going to help me dye Meg’s hair. I still had the dye stored away in my bag back at the campfire. They had some plan to make her hair an obnoxiously bright green. Now the dye would go unused, just a reminder of the two girls that were no more. Does this mean Meg is going to… I shook the thought away. Not Meg. Not my Meg.

I wandered my way back to the parking lot, where that old van sat open. The various collection of junk slowly began to make sense. The old bands I recognized for being popular in the 90s, the cans of spray paint and drug paraphernalia: it just screamed Nea. This is her car, isn’t it? I wasn’t sure why it would be at the asylum, of all places. Perhaps this is how it goes for all the killers. They leave some kind of mark in their world.

I was so lost in thought, I barely heard the whisper of wind escaping from the hatch. In front of the hood of the van, the hatch lay open, promising me the reward of safety. I risked one last glance around – wondering what would happen to Nea after I escaped – and then leaped inside.

The wind whipped against my skin as I fell through the fog. I knew soon I’d reach the ground, but that didn’t stop my stomach lurching. Entering the hatch felt like being in those sensory deprivation tanks. The darkness deprived me of any sense of direction. For a moment, I felt as if I was floating up rather than falling. The wind changed directions all around me as if trying to pull me apart. Humidity clogged my lungs. Then, my feet gently plodded against the grass. The fog dispersed, revealing my friends and the campfire once again.

I could tell by the somber expressions that the news had already been delivered. Those who were still in trials would no doubt be told when they came back. They talked in hushed voices to each other, split off in their normal cliques. I wonder how Bill is feeling about it. He knew Nea better than I did. She was practically like a daughter to him. News like this would spread quickly, I had no doubts about that. They barely looked up at me as I approached the camp.

Ace moved closer to Dwight as they sat by the fire. The younger man leaned into him, a sorrowful look hiding under those thick glasses. Ace placed his arm around him, pulling Dwight into a light hug. They’ve gotten a lot closer, despite that weird fight they had when Dwight came back. I wonder what all that was about. At that moment, they didn’t say anything to each other. They didn’t have to. Somehow just being together with someone was enough to keep the pain numbed.

My mind wandered back to Jake, who was apparently absent from the camp. Even though we spent so much time together already, I still missed his company. That kiss… I didn’t know what to make of that. Had Jake and I been headed in that direction? It would be a lie to say I hadn’t dreamed of it sometimes.

Nea and Meg used to tease me about that little crush of mine when we were sitting by the fire by ourselves. They were the only ones I ever told, and they took every opportunity to embarrass me about it. I didn’t mind, though. Those moments felt so natural. Like, for once we didn’t worry about death or the trials. It was just a couple of girls giggling about crushes.

He’s just using you.

The sharp voice of doubt cut through everything in my mind.

Jake Park has never cared about anyone except himself. Why would he suddenly be interested in someone like you? You talk too much. You aren’t attractive. You don’t even share the same philosophies. By all means, you two were supposed to be enemies.

 A layer of static drowned out the sound of the others chatter. The crackle of the fire went mute. I became painfully aware of just how alone I felt, with only those despairing thoughts to keep me company.

You always did let yourself fall for the assholes. When’s the last time someone dated you for any reason other than sex? Never. You were always just the nerdy girl that slid into bed with the first guy her heart fell for. Jake can see this. He’s using you.

Every ex I ever had treated me like crap. It was my own fault for being blind to their obvious intentions. Jake’s not like that though. I see his flaws and accept him just as he is. I know he sees mine too. King was right about Jake being selfish. He cared about his own survival more than others. Outside the trials, he kept to himself because he simply didn’t want to bother forming bonds with the others. People bored him. He didn’t trust them.

Except… there were moments that weren’t true. I saw the way he watched them at the camp, always trying to figure out what went through their heads. I saw the look of fear of his face when he found Meg’s bloody hoodie. He worried about her, even though I knew he couldn’t stand her. Whenever Quentin went for a swim, even after being awake for several days, Jake would linger by the water. He cared about that kid, even if he didn’t want to admit it. He isn’t the type to use someone. That voice of doubt would have to try harder to sway me. If he was trying to use me, he would have left me to die by Nea’s hands.

When you get your heart broken, you’ll remember this moment and think about what a stupid fucking cunt you were.

The static flared, throbbing so loudly I felt like my eardrums were going to burst. The voice had stopped speaking, but I could still feel its rage. My brain felt like someone had wedged a knife into it. As I clutched my head, I swore I could feel heat pulsing with each wave of static. Several hands were on my shoulders, trying to keep me steady.

 “Claudette?” King’s voice sounded so far away in the sea of static. My breath sawed in and out.

“Make it stop, please, make it stop,” I sobbed as the static only grew louder. Strange words became garbled in the mist. Lilw…iaet…sshiolu…ndakeam…oyuwtcha… It didn’t sound like my own voice anymore. This one was deep and old.

King grabbed my chin and forced me to look at him. His brows furrowed with concern. His lips moved quickly. Utyeaor…lfirmobm…lyiomub…sbtiutpcihd… Behind him, I could see Dwight and the others watching me writhe in agony. Something wet dripped down the sides of my face. I touched my fingertips to the surface and recoiled at the sticky blood leaking from my ears. The others panicked. Some rushed to the medical supplies, trying to find some magic cure to whatever was happening to me. Wihaemn… thherwooungth… ryeocuorgfnaiczee…

Just when I thought I might faint from the pain, I felt an arm wrap around my waist. The static broke instantly, leaving me a dizzy mess. He smelled like pine and earth. Even without looking up, I could tell who it was. “It’s okay, lean on me,” Jake said with a soft voice. He pulled me in close, ignoring the blood that coated my cheeks and neck. He felt like warmth. Safety.

“You saved me,” my voice cracked.

“Seems like I’ve been doing that a lot today,” he chuckled humorlessly. The others probably had no idea what was going on between us. Even I didn’t know.

He led me away from the fire, toward the pond. He could have taken me anywhere and I wouldn’t have noticed. His arm was still wrapped around my waist, and my mind was analyzing how good the pressure of his fingers felt against my skin. Only until we had moved to the opposite side of the pond did he let me go. I found myself immediately missing his touch.

He settled down on the shore. I sat next to him, watching him toss stones further out into the pond. Ripples moved across the black water, and occasionally bubbles would float to the surface from some unseen thing below.

“What happened back there?” He asked after some time of silence.

“I don’t know,” I said. As much as that truth was unsatisfying, it was all I could say. After finding out Nea was a murderer, the kiss, and then the strange meltdown at the fire, my nerves were shot. I didn’t know what to make of anything.

I expected him to push for details. He ran his thumb against the rough edges of a rock while he looked out at the water. Should I ask him about the kiss? The moment didn’t feel right. I wasn’t even sure I wanted answers. Our relationship had a delicate balance. I felt like confronting our feelings could be the string that unravels everything.

“Thinking about Nea?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” he answered right away. His voice was quieter than normal. The words were drawn out just long enough to suggest that he was still lost in thought. “I was thinking about Meg, and what she said about her mother.”

Meg had kept most of her life a secret to the others. All we knew was that she’d been a star athlete in high school, but never went to college in favor of taking care of her sick mother. I suspected she didn’t have siblings since she never mentioned them, and her father probably wasn’t in the picture either. That didn’t stop her from talking fondly about all the little details of her mom though. In all honesty, we probably knew more details of her mom’s life than her own.

“Why?”

He pursed his lips for a moment. “It’s weird. I never thought that someone like Meg Thomas would teach me anything. When she used to ramble about her family, I found it annoying. Thinking back on it though… she made me miss my own mom.” He finally looked at me, a bittersweet smile on his face. Jake never spoke about his family, I realized. “I spent most of my life trying to avoid her. Avoid my whole family, really. She was always trying to take care of me, even when I was trying to prove I could take care of myself. Now that I can never see her again, I miss her more than anything else.”

I adored my parents. They supported me no matter what I did. I could have told them I wanted to be an artist and they probably would have paid for my art degree. I couldn’t even imagine trying to avoid them. “She must have loved you very much,” I said, hoping that would cheer him up.

“Probably,” he shrugged. “I resented her for a lot of the things she did. There are a lot of messy details about my family I won’t bore you with. Funny though, how unimportant that all seems. After spending years dying, I guess it put a lot of my old life in perspective. I got hung up on details that didn’t matter and held grudges against the wrong people. I’m rambling, I know. You probably don’t understand any of this.”

“No no, I think I get,” I answered. “There were a lot of silly things I was terrified of doing back then. I never wanted to leave my apartment half of the time. Now I’m more afraid of turning into Nea than talking to a grocery store cashier.”

He raised his eyebrow. “Turn into Nea?”

“Well, yeah,” I said, looking down at my shoes. “Going crazy and killing the people I once loved. I don’t want to hurt anyone. Not like that. Not like she did.” The mere idea of ever hurting Jake made my heart ache. I’d rather die than do something like that to him.

He tossed the rock aside and grabbed my hand. His rough skin felt warm against mine. That touch… I’d been longing for it ever since we sat down. Every second I got to be next to him was a moment I’d cherish forever. “Claud…” He spoke with a hushed voice. “That won’t ever happen. You’re the most compassionate person of the entire group. Hell, you’re even better than Dwight. He only saves people because he thinks it will help him survive. You do it to keep people together because you love them. That’s not the kind of person that simply turns into a killer.”

The earnest way in which he spoke made my heart flutter. “I don’t get it,” I said, admiring the way his brown eyes looked at me. There was a light there that only shined when I was the subject of his attention. “Why do you think so highly of me but poorly of everyone else? What did I do to deserve this?”

“Oh that’s easy,” he grinned. With his spare hand, he ran his thumb along my jaw. He leaned in close, and for a moment I thought that he would kiss me again. He paused, though, lingering just close enough to tease me. “I respect you more than them. You’re more intelligent than the others. You don’t fight so hard to be accepted like Dwight does. You don’t try to be the center of attention. When you’re kind to people, it’s not because you have some ulterior motive. Everything about you is simply better than the rest.”

“Is that why…” I bit my lip, second guessing myself. Too late, can’t stop now. “Is that why you kissed me?”

He looked serious now. “I kissed you because a thousand deaths would be worth experiencing if it meant keeping you safe.”

Now the butterflies in my stomach were moving at full force. “So… will you kiss me again?” Five years ago, I would have never made a move like that. Time is short, and I don’t want to waste another second not kissing him.

He grinned, sliding his fingers through my hair as he pulled me close. His touch was gentle as he kissed me. Soft and slow. My lips parted involuntarily as I breathed in his smell. Pine. Earth. He’s one with the forest. He took it as an invitation to deepen the kiss and quickly obliged. The movements became needier. He slid his tongue in, letting me taste him. I hooked my hand around his belt and pulled him on top of me, running my fingers through his hair with the other hand. Each touch left me needing more.

My skin flushed with heat as he placed a hand on my thigh. With a gentle push, he parted my legs and slid between them. Heat built at the pit of my stomach. I felt hyper-aware of the many layers of clothes between us and how much I wanted them off. I wanted to explore every inch of his body, to feel his heat all over me.

“Please,” I whispered, tugging at the collar of his jacket. He glanced over at the camp. Its light barely glinted through the trees. Almost never did anyone wander this far away from the fire, and even if they did, I didn’t care. All I could think about was how much I wanted him, how long I’d fantasized of something like that happening.

“Well, if you insist,” he whispered before gently kissing my neck. His hands tugged at my sweater and I eagerly pulled it off. He fiddled with the buttons of my shirt as messed with the zipper of his pants, enjoying the warm hardness beneath the layer of denim.

Then his hand touched mine. “Wait…” He sounded breathless. My heart fell at the thought of him wanting to stop. “Should I worry about getting you pregnant?”

I couldn’t help the little snort that escaped my lips. “Jake… I haven’t had a period in five years. I think we’re fine.”

“Just gotta make sure. I don’t want to take on parenting along with everything else this place throws at us,” he huffed, letting my hand go. As he slid the last of my clothes off, he paused, looking down at me. The cold air nipped at my bare flesh, causing goosebumps to form across my skin. With my legs parted around him, I became aware of just how vulnerable I felt. Anxiety gnawed at the back of my head as I considered that he might not like what he saw.

“I’ve never met someone so beautiful that they took my breath away until I met you,” he said as he trailed a shaky hand down my chest. “I thought I’d eventually get used to it, but even now you leave me breathless.” My breath hitched as he gave a gentle squeeze to my breast, running his thumb across my nipple. He quickly kicked off his pants and shirt, blushing slightly as his dick rested against my thigh. Just the sight of it touching me made me shiver with anticipation. I blushed at the wave of dirty thoughts going through my head. All the ways I wanted him to take me made my head spin.

His fingers trailed down my body, in between my thighs. “Jake…” I pleaded as his fingers caressed my inner thigh. He watched with amusement as I lightly moved my hips, desperate to feel his hand against me. His finger brushed against my clit, making my pleas dissolve into whimpers. Going five years without sex had made me needier than I ever realized.

As his fingers played me into a mewling mess, he nibbled and kissed at my neck. Soon I could feel my wetness slick against his fingers. He stopped for a moment, making me groan with irritation. “Needy, aren’t you?” His voice shook as something warm and hard brushed against my entrance. That blush was still spread across his cheeks, but lust burned in his dark eyes. “Can I?” He asked as if I hadn’t made it obvious how much I wanted it.

“Please,” I gasped before biting my lip to suppress a moan as he entered. It was slow at first, paired with a cautious look on his face. He watched me carefully, checking for signs that I was okay with it still. I always thought of him being a bit self-centered that it surprised me he was being so careful with me. This wasn’t the first time I’d had sex. There had been others, but even my first boyfriend hadn’t been this cautious. I found the care he put into it endearing, but also sort of frustrating.

He leaned further over me, putting his weight on his hands to not crush me. He pressed his forehead against mine, an intense look in his eyes as he slowly pushed in. I couldn’t help but gasp at the feeling of his girth. His eyes flickered shut as he thrust with torturous, slow movements. I buried my face into his shoulder, closing my eyes and letting myself simply ride out the feeling.

Soon, though, his hips move just a bit harder. Rougher. Putting all of his weight on one hand, he grabbed my hair with the other hand and pulled my head up, exposing my neck. Bites are placed all over my skin, muffling the deep groans and grunts he emitted with each hard thrust. The scruff of his thick beard scratched against me. There’s a strange mixture of pain and pleasure that I find myself craving even more. “Harder,” I ordered before I even realized the word was out of my mouth.

This time, there was no caution. The grip on my hair grew tight as he started pounding into me. The sound of the lake, the fear of the trials, the death and blood and everything I hated was gone. All I could feel was him. It was painful, animalistic, and perfect all at once. Just me and him entangled in the act.

It doesn’t take much longer for me to cum. Even as I rode out the waves of my orgasm, a little voice in the back of my head whispered that need for more. He could take me any way he wanted, as many times as he wanted, and I wouldn’t be satisfied. When I first started having sex, this thirsty side of me came as a surprise. Now that I was older, I only hoped Jake would be willing to keep up with my cravings.

It took him a little longer to get there, but I didn’t mind. I was still riding out the waves of pleasure when he spoke. “I’m… close,” he gasped. He buried his face into my neck, no longer biting or kissing. I could hear his shaky breathing as he stifled a moan. Hot stickiness jetted inside me, spilling out onto the grass and my thighs. His fist unclenched from my hair as he mumbled my name over and over again.

Then there was quiet. Neither of us moved, both content to lay there forever. We’d have to get up eventually and wash ourselves off, but I didn’t want to think about that. He looked up at me, his eyes examining my face closely.

“I’m sorry if that was, uh, bad,” he said, clearing his throat. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

I brushed a few strands of his wild hair out of his face. “I told you I wanted it hard, didn’t I?” I asked with a coy smile.

He placed another kiss on my jaw. “I didn’t know you were such a wild thing in bed, Claud.” He rolled over onto his back, pulling me close to him until my head rested on his chest. “Not bad for a first time, I have to say.”

It took me a moment to process what he said. My brain felt like mush. Emotionally exhausted from feeling literally everything it could in such a short time. “First time?”

“Oh yeah, I didn’t mention I’m a—well, I was a virgin?” He corrected himself. The extreme caution, the nervousness – I’d chalked it up to it just being a long time for the both of us. The mere idea of Jake being a virgin seemed impossible to me. Even if the guy hated people, surely he had dated someone before me. He was far too attractive to be ignored by other girls.

“Really?” I asked, still in disbelief.

“Surprised?” I could hear the cockiness in his voice. “I must be really good in bed then.”

I rolled my eyes. “Let’s go get cleaned up before your ego gets any bigger.”

“Wait,” he said, stopping me from sitting up. His arms wrapped around my waist as he kissed my head. “Stay with me a little longer. I want to enjoy this before we have to go back to that nightmare.”

I didn’t argue with that. We laid together in the darkness, just listening to each other’s steady breathing. Soon, we’d have to face another trial. Perhaps it would be my turn to be set of fire then, or maybe The Hillbilly would saw me in half. There were a dozen horrible things that could happen to either of us. Until then, though, I’d listen to Jake’s heartbeat and find safety in his embrace.

Chapter Text

Ace Visconti

The shot echoed through the alleyway, whizzing only an inch away from my head. People screamed as I dashed out onto the attached sideways, no doubt hearing the shots. Even late at night, the streets teemed with life. Though he and his beautiful companion chased after me, I knew my way around the city to lose them. I weaved my way through throngs of people living it up in the late night until they finally lost sight of me.

Things could have ended differently if the man had just aimed a little more to the right. Instead of wrecking my car as I fled from Vegas, I could have ended up with my brains splattered across concrete and a closed casket funeral. At the time, I thought I’d been lucky. Later that week, when the fog abducted me from that wreckage, I considered that maybe he’d done me a disservice by missing that shot.

Over the decades of living in the nightmare, I thought of that moment many times. Much of my previous life had become a blur. Memories were a shadow of what they once were. Not that one, though, as much as I tried to forget. I questioned how things could have gone differently. I wondered what the aftermath of my disappearance was.

“Looks like Quentin’s getting the cold shoulder again,” Dwight sighed as he sat down beside me. He’d yet again stolen my jacket, despite the fact it was too large for him. The sleeves gracelessly flopped over his hands. He scrunched them up again, though they’d probably just slide back down in a minute. If I really cared I could have wrestled my jacket back from him, but he looked cute wearing my clothes.

I thought about the deck of cards tucked away in that jacket. King of my heart. In the back of my mind, I almost hoped he’d been serious. He was joking, of course. He had to be. Some cute guy half my age couldn’t be interested in me. He leaned against me, setting his head on my shoulder. Such acts of affection would have been deeply frowned upon in my day but the others didn’t bat an eye. Of course, they didn’t pay much attention to us anyway. Everyone had their little social groups: probably the only thing that felt normal in this world.

After all, pleasant company could keep the nightmares at bay, unless you were Quentin. I doubt he’ll last much longer. I watched the young boy attempting to start a conversation with the Chinese girl that’d just arrived. Not much of a talker, that one.

“Playing video games for a living must have been fun, right?” He asked, watching her poke the fire with a stick. As soon as Quentin started to speak to her, a stern expression formed on her face. The metallic blue stripes on her uniform shimmered in the light. Her face and hands were dirty, but she kept her uniform in pristine condition. Proud to wear it, I’m sure.

“Hm.” She glared at the stick in her hand.

“I miss video games,” he sighed, nervously stuffing his hands in his pockets. I wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about. Video games, at least when I was around, seemed quite simple. I never quite understood the appeal. How could someone make a living off that? I thought about asking Dwight, but I didn’t want to make myself seem any older than I already felt. “I bet some really cool games have come out.”

“Hm.” She didn’t even glance in his direction. She’s got just about the same patience for socializing as  Jake. That hermit, along with his loyal companion, were in somewhat heated argument with the Brit, David King. I wouldn’t want to be on David’s bad side. The man looks like he’s made of bricks. They were standing on the outskirts of the camp, organizing some of the medical supplies recovered during trials. I didn’t catch how the argument had started, but it obviously devolved into personal insults.

“You know, you could at least have the decency to not walk around half naked all the time,” Jake said, rolling his eyes at the shirtless hunk of a man standing before them. Some people just don’t know how to admire art. The rugged and handsome brit was a sight for sore eyes, even if he wasn’t my type.

“What, worried your girlfriend is enjoying the eye candy?” King asked, winking at Claudette as he flexed his muscles.

“Why would I be worried? I get laid way more than you do,” Jake said with a smirk. Claudette’s eyes widened, followed a deep red flush against her auburn skin.

“J-Jake!” She stuttered, slapping his arm with a loud whap. He pulled her into a kiss, shushing whatever complaints would come next. Well… can’t say I’m not surprised. As cute, and somewhat strange, as they were, I worried. Couples had a way of disappearing into the woods and never coming back. This better not turn into another Gaia and Tom incident.

Dwight shifted beside me, letting out a sleepy yawn. “Aw, that’s so sweet.” His glasses had slid down his face, pairing well with his tired expression. He didn’t have the chronic bags under his eyes as Quentin did, but I could tell he’d been fending off sleep for a while. He’s cute even when he’s tired. I kind of wanted to pinch his cheeks and tell him to take a nap, but I also selfishly wanted to have his company for a while.

Quentin soon plopped down beside us, giving up on his attempt to make conversation with Feng. “She’s not becoming my best friend any time soon,” he said, crossing his arms. I didn’t know much about the boy, only that he looked far too young to be in this nightmare. Even if he was older than he looked, which was often the case for us survivors, it still made me feel sorry for him. “I just wanted to know what games had come out since I left.”

“I wonder if they ever made a sequel to Skyrim,” Dwight mumbled against my shoulder. I don’t think he’s used to being this tired like Quentin is.

“You know what you guys need?” I began pulling out my pack of cards from my jacket pocket. “A real game. Any of you know how to play poker?”

At this, Dwight got the energy to sit up. They both glanced at each other, and then back at me, shaking their heads. Fresh blood. Excellent. I couldn’t help the wide grin that spread across my face. It had been a while since I’d convinced anyone to play a game with me, and pretty soon I’d have these poor saps losing what little they already owned. “Well, I’ll teach you then.”

It didn’t take long to get a game started. We technically didn’t need chips, but Jake Park kindly offered a collection of screws he found in one of his tool boxes in exchange for a seat in the game. “Care to join us?” I asked as Bill and David approached to see our shabby little setup. The glitz and glamour of a casino were missing, but I could still feel luck in the air.  

“As much as I’d love to kick Jake’s ass in a game of poker, I think I’ll just watch this one,” David said, eyeing me warily. Perhaps Bill had already warned him of my reputation. The others seemed much more excited, unaware that they were doomed from the start. Dwight, now wide awake, listened to me carefully explain the rules. The rules of Texas Hold ‘Em seemed as easy as breathing to me, but the others had some difficulty grasping the game. Even Jake, who I assumed had at least a bit more life experience, didn’t understand much of card games. We all start somewhere, I suppose.

“I, uh, call?” Dwight said.

“It’s not even your turn… right?” Quentin asked me.

“No, it’s Jake’s turn.” I turned toward the rough-looking man beside me. “This is the preflop though, so you basically have three types of moves you can make here—”

“All in,” Jake said, pushing his ten screws to the center of the table. He acted quite confident for a guy who had no idea what he was doing.

“You didn’t even look at your cards!” Dwight accused him. “Wait, did I just call a bluff?”

“You’re doing great, kid,” Bill chimed in. They weren’t doing great. Not at all. Eventually, however, they started to pick up the rhythm of the game. Each round moved at an awkward pace as I stopped occasionally to tell them what their options were. Dwight showed me his cards at least three times, asking what he should do even though I was his opponent. Bill gave me a stern glance every now and then as if warning me not to take advantage of Dwight. He knew my love for the game almost overrode anything else. Almost.

Jake folded fairly quickly, not truly taking the game seriously. I could tell that Quentin was unsure about his hand by the face he made every time he looked at his cards. Bluffing wasn’t a skill they’d learned yet. They’ll have decades to fine tune their poker face. I didn’t have much to work with either, only holding two of a kind. As soon as I raised my bet – a fine pile of screws now formed in the center of the table – Quentin folded on his next turn. Just a display of confidence can bring anyone down.

The others were knocked out of play, leaving just me and Dwight in the showdown. “I guess I can’t ask you how this hand is,” he said with a sheepish smile.

“I’m sure a bit of my luck rubbed off on you,” I said, showing my card. He flipped his over, revealing a five and six of diamonds. With the other cards on the table, he’d managed to bring in a full house. That easily outranked my two of a kind. “Well look at that. You won.” I’d been fully prepared to throw the game for him anyway, but the move wasn’t necessary.

“Seriously?” Dwight looked down at the cards in awe.

“This game sucks,” Jake yawned, collecting his jacket as a fog rolled in. “Enjoy your new riches,” he teased, glancing at the pile of screws Dwight earned, before heading off into some trial. The others dispersed, leaving me, Quentin, and Dwight to enjoy the aftermath of the game.

Dwight pocketed his screws as if they were some sort of treasure, then pulled out his bottle of whiskey. “Care for a celebratory drink?” He asked me and Quentin. Half the bottle was gone already. I’d caught him drinking heavily once before, after apparently waking up. Some of the others would have never even opened it, saving it for a special occasion. Like him, I didn’t see the point of saving something forever. Might as well enjoy it while you can before life ripped it away.

He handed the bottle to Quentin, who took a hesitant swig. His mouth sneered with a grimace at the bitter taste. “Thanks, but that tastes like shit,” he said, handing the bottle back to the giggling Dwight, who then turned to me. I didn’t think twice about taking a swig. In the past, I considered myself a bit of a whiskey connoisseur. I’d gotten a taste for the fanciest brands. Now, I couldn’t remember what they tasted like. For all I knew, this could be the finest whiskey ever made or the cheapest bottle found in a continent store. It burned my throated and soothed my chest. Warmth spread through my body, all the way down to my fingertips.

Dwight reached for the bottle, wanting a taste of the action as well. A strange look crossed over Quentin’s face as he stared at Dwight’s hands. I might not have noticed if it weren’t for the reaction. The jacket sleeves were scrunched up again, this time a little higher than normal. Long, scabbed-over slits were etched deep into his skin.

“What happened to your arm?” Quentin asked, his voice now more serious. Paired with the baggy and bloodshot eyes, he came off sterner than he meant to.  

Dwight instantly recoiled his hands, rolling sleeve back down over the cuts. “Oh, it’s nothing. Probably happened in a trial.” He spoke in a jumbled mess. An embarrassed flush of red tinted his cheeks. Under normal circumstances, I would have thought it cute, but the nervous tone of his voice and the tired look in his eyes made me worried.

We all knew that we never kept the wounds we obtained in trials. Either in death or the fog, we’d lose the near-fatal wounds gifted to us by the merciless beasts that hunted us in the trials. Quentin glanced at me, a tinge of suspicion in his eyes. I half-expected the boy to call him out.

“I’ve gotten those kinds of wounds before,” Quentin said. “In my dreams.”

The words hung in the air with unspoken significance. The two of them exchanged a knowing look, leaving me out in the dark. I could only guess that they were speaking about The Nightmare. Whatever Krueger did to Dwight isn’t finished yet. Dwight took a long swig of his whiskey, his eyes watering from the burn.

“I knew Freddy before I came here,” Quentin went on. “I met him when I was in preschool and again when I was eighteen.” Dwight remained very quiet, glaring down at the bottle of whiskey as it grew emptier.

“Was he always that ugly?” I asked, trying to lighten the mood a bit.

“When I was a child, he looked normal enough. By the time I saw him again as a teen though… let’s just say he wasn’t much different than he is now.” Quentin spoke softly, thinking back on the past. “He has a way of getting under your skin. He knows your worst nightmares just by one glance. I don’t know what you did to catch his interest, but if I were you, I’d do everything I could to keep him away from me.”

“If that’s his power here, I can’t imagine the kind of person he was in life,” I murmured.

Quentin glanced up at me, his brows furrowed with concern. “Worse. His powers back then were much worse. To be honest, I think whatever controls this place curbed his ability.”

Powers back then? Now he’d lost me. “Are you saying he could do these things before he got here?” I asked, not quite believing the story. Maybe that lack of sleep screwed up his brain.

Quentin sighed, clearly not wanting to explain whatever it was he’d been eluding too. This conversation brought on an unnatural feeling of dread. It hung in the air, warning us to move onto a more pleasant topic. Dwight drank the last of his whiskey like a man dying of dehydration.

“I don’t remember much of the story,” Quentin said with a shrug. “I was just a little kid when it all happened. Freddy had been accused of some awful crime, and instead of going to the police, I guess a few people decided to be vigilantes.” He lingered on that sentence, as if not sure where to go from there. As he told the next part of his story, he kept his eyes pointed at the ground. “They burned him alive. Everyone thought that was the end of it, but then he came back. He started murdering all the kids of the people that killed him. He haunted us in our dreams, killing us one by one while we slept. He tried killing Nancy – my, uh, crush – but we stopped him, at least for a little while. When he came back again, I tried to put an end to things myself. Instead, we were both thrown into this place.”

“Can we stop talking about this?” Dwight asked, wrapping his arms around himself. His words slurred slightly. I regretted not stopping him from going on a drinking binge. He’s going to have a nasty hangover.

“I was just leaving anyway. I need a swim after all that stressing over cards,” Quentin said as he stood up. Neither of us spoke as we watched him walk away.

Quentin had painted a grim picture of Freddy. The idea of some vengeful ghost with supernatural dream powers seemed ridiculous at first, but I’d had more of my fair share of supernatural bullshit to teach me to have an open mind. I wondered how all this information made Dwight feel. His face remained unreadable, besides the faint blush that came with being drunk. His fingers clung to the ends of the jacket sleeves as if he needed to hold them down over the cuts. Tears welled up in eyes. I finally realized why he didn’t want to talk about it. Wait, is he ashamed of all this?

He had a way of taking responsibility for things that weren’t his fault. I knew he blamed himself for what happened to Nea. I couldn’t let him hate himself for that strange trial with Krueger. “Listen, if it would make you feel safer, I could stay up while you sleep. If I notice you’re having a nightmare, I’ll wake you up.”

He had a glimmer of a smile, which faded as quickly as it came. “I don’t want to be an inconvenience. You need rest too.”

I scooted closer, cautiously placing my arm around his back. We’d been close before but this felt different. I wanted to keep him close. To keep him safe. He leaned against me, his head resting on my shoulder. The mere idea of Krueger hurting him made my skin crawl.  “Don’t worry about me. If I can handle being dead for a decade, I can handle protecting a guy while he naps.”

He was quiet for a moment. When he did speak, it was to change the subject. “You gambled a lot before all this happened. Did you win a lot?”

“Won thousands, lost thousands.”

“Sounds like an exciting life,” he hummed, wrapping his own arm around me. It felt nice, feeling his warmth as he leaned into me.

“It was until people came to claim their debts,” I said, thinking back on that time in the alley.

“Oh?” His voice was low now. He trailed his hand across my leg, light enough to make me shiver. “Sounds dangerous.”

“Sometimes,” I said, my voice going breathless as his hand rested on my inner thigh. What’s he playing at? It had to be some kind of joke, but I had no intention of stopping him. “To be fair, only a few debt collectors tried to kill me.  Most of them were fine with letting me settle it in other ways…” Those heated nights were a blur of booze and tangled sheets.

“What kind of ways would that be?” He gave my thigh a squeeze, making my breath hitch. The heat of his breath blew against my neck as he leaned in. What a tease.

“In the beginning, I only borrowed from friends who ran in uh, certain crowd, you might say. They were easily convinced to forgive my debts in exchange for a few favors.” Favors which required me on my hands and knees, but, judging from the way Dwight’s hand was moving up my thigh, he’d already guessed that. “I might have left my dignity behind, but at least I had fun doing it.”

“God I wish I had my wallet right now,” he said, his mouth moving along my jaw. The smell of the whiskey on his breath brought back memories of steamy nights long forgotten. We could make some new memories together.

“Why?” I brought my hand to the back of his head, gently playing with his hair.

“Cause then you could borrow some money from me,” he said before nipping at my neck. Just that one bite made me melt in his arms. He could have honestly done whatever he wanted to me then and I’d be into it.

Any subtlety was clearly gone as he rubbed his hand against my crotch, feeling the hardness that built up over the past few minutes. “Hmm, and just how much would you be lending me?”

He pulled back just enough to look at me. He faked some thoughtful expression while playing with the zipper of my pants. For once I was thankful no one else was at the fire because I was certain in a few minutes he might be tearing off my clothes. As much as I tried to convince myself that he was only joking, the hungry look in his eyes certainly didn’t feel like a joke.

“How much would it cost to have you blow me?” He spoke with unusual confidence, most likely fueled by the booze.

To some, being reduced to turning tricks for money might be insulting. To me, it was degrading in the most satisfying way. In the back of my head, I was already fantasizing all the ways he could use me. “Ten dollars. I’ll give you a discount cause you’re so cute.”

He started rustling through the pockets of the jacket. If he did manage to pull out the money, we would be going down a road I never expected. This has to be a joke. Dwight’s young and attractive. You are old and far below his league. He’s just messing with you because you accidentally let on that you were gay. Yet, everything about him made me wish it wasn’t a joke. I wanted to pull him out in the woods, to take that striped tie of his and make him tie me up with it. Dwight didn’t seem like the dominant type, so he’d probably be quite awkward at it, but god even that thought was adorably hot.

Out of his pocket, he pulled the familiar rusted screws from our poker game. “All I’ve got is ten screws,” he said with a disappointed tone.

I grinned, unable to resist the line that had already popped in my head. Two can play this game. I leaned slightly over him, running my hand over his thigh and letting it rest on his hip. “Hand those over to me and I’ll screw you.”

A crooked grin pulled at his lips as he dropped the screws into my hand. “You’ve got yourself a deal Mr. Visconti,” he said, this time his words heavily slurred. The full effect of whiskey must have hit him at that point. He didn’t waste any time grabbing my shirt and pulling me on top of him. The heat, the feeling of his hands groping my ass, the warm of his breath as he buried his head against my neck: every ounce of me wanted to keep going.

I scrambled to get off him, panting lightly as I untangled his hands from me. In retrospect, I should have been gentler. He looked more than hurt as I pulled away from him, probably misinterpreting the move as some mistake on his own part.

He sat up. The bright red blush grew worse with embarrassment. He brushed the dirt off his arms, barely looking up at me. “S-sorry I…” His voice trailed off as I placed a finger to his lips. I’d give him no opportunity to blame himself. 

“You’re drunk,” I sighed, moving to affectionately ruffle his hair. “You aren’t thinking clearly.”

He frowned, wrapping his arms around my waist again. The feeling of his embrace made my heart do a flip. We could stay like this forever and I’d be content.

Another fool chasing desperate dreams.

“I know I want this. I’ve wanted this for a while, Ace.” While I wanted to believe him so badly, I didn’t miss the slight hiccup in his voice. The meaning of the words felt dulled by the smell of whiskey. It wouldn’t be right. He deserves better than this.

There was another issue, one that whispered anxious remarks when all this began. How could a healthy relationship last in this place? What are you going to do if he disappears forever? You know you have feelings for him, but what if he’s only after sex? Relationships brought complications that didn’t fit into an already complicated world.

“Sober up and then maybe we can have our fun,” I said with finality. He couldn’t argue his way out of this. I needed more time to think anyway, and I couldn’t do that when he was making me unbearably horny.

“I’m still going to like you just as much when I’m sober though. Nothing is going to change.”

“Well then prove it by screwing me when you’re not drunk,” I said, rolling my eyes. He pouted at me. “You know, you’ll get sober faster if you sleep.”

“Fine, deal,” he grumbled. I thought he might be irritated with me after all that, but he still kept close to me and the fire. He curled up against me, resting his head on my lap. I absently-mindedly played with his hair as I watched the fire, thinking about what Quentin had said earlier. How am I supposed to tell if he’s having a nightmare? I didn’t think that far ahead. Maybe he’ll start talking in his sleep or something? We should have discussed this beforehand.

I had my fair share of nightmares after being shot at in the alley. As soon as I got a decent distance from Vegas, I found a toll phone and called Gloria. Of course, I had no plans to tell her what happened. I just wanted to hear her voice again.

I could still remember it. A deep, velvety voice that could soothe me even in my worst moments. Even with the scratchy audio that came through the phone, it calmed me. She told me about her day, the groceries she bought, and the random gossip our neighbor told her on the front porch. We never talked about my gambling, though she was well aware I was in way over my head.

As a married couple, we probably should have discussed finances. However, we were far from average. From the day we eloped, we knew our marriage was simply a bond of friendship and respect. Sure, it was eccentric, but it worked at keeping people from bugging her about being an old maid and it kept people from being suspicious of my own interests. We often laughed over dinner about the many affairs I had.

Bill arrived through the fog, breaking my train of thoughts. “Well don’t he look cozy,” Bill said, smirking down at the sleeping Dwight. He’d taken his glasses off at some point and cuddled against me, curled up like a napping cat.

“Sleeping off a stressful week,” I remarked, removing my hand from Dwight’s ruffled hair. Even though I knew Bill wouldn’t care, I still worried about it. Affection toward men had caused a lot of trouble in my life before. Naturally, it was one of the few things I ever became anxious about.

“I noticed he ain’t been sleepin’ lately. Has somethin’ to do with The Nightmare, I bet,” Bill said as he settled down by the fire not too far from us. I went ahead and told him what Quentin had said about Freddy, and mentioned the strange wounds on Dwight’s arms. I knew Bill would want to keep a close eye on Dwight after hearing that. We spoke in hushed tones, trying not to wake the man who was gaining much-needed rest.

“I wish I’d been in that trial,” Bill said. “It doesn’t feel right, what happened. I’ve been here for years and I’ve never heard of somethin’ like that goin’ on.”

“You can’t blame yourself for not being able to stop it,” I said, hoping this wasn’t some kind of survivor’s guilt. We didn’t need any more of that around the fire.

“That’s not it. Don’t ya think there’s somethin’ more goin’ on here? If this Freddy guy is so obsessed with Quentin, why’d switch to Dwight?” Bill asked, then took a long drag of his cigarette.

“He wanted to hurt Laurie and Dwight got in the way. I guess Freddy wants revenge,” I said. It seemed fairly simple enough. Unfortunately, knowing why didn’t answer the question of how to stop Freddy from hurting Dwight anymore. I cared more about that than getting answers.

“I was just in a match with Laurie and Freddy. He didn’t torture me when I protected her,” Bill said, not satisfied. “I don’t like it. Just feels off, ya know?” He put out the cigarette. “Enough about that though. Seems like you two have gotten pretty close.” He nodded toward the sleeping Dwight.

“What, jealous?” I asked, cocking my head with a half smirk. It was a joke, but already I felt nervous about the subject. “Nothing’s happening between us. Seriously. I’m way to old anyway, you know that, and after what happened with Gloria… there’s no way I can someone else’s partner. I’d let them down just like I did with her.” The words spilled out so quickly. They were the thoughts I’d been harboring since the whole mess started, ever since he showed me that King of Hearts.

“I, uh, didn’t mean anythin’ by that,” Bill said, turning slightly red. Already reached for another cigarette, flustered and forgetting he just finished one. “I was talkin’ about your friendship is all.”

Now I felt embarrassed. Of course, he didn’t mean anything by it. This is Bill we are talking about, not some gossiping old wife. I’d spilled my guts to an unsuspecting victim, one who never liked all that “emotional crap” anyway. “Sorry, Bill, I guess I just have a lot on my mind.” So much for not making it obvious. Now he’s caught on I’ve got something for Dwight.

We were quiet for a moment, this time out of discomfort. “Listen, I’ll be the first to admit I ain’t ever been too invested in other people’s relationships, but I gotta say the excuses you just gave are horseshit, Ace.” There was that blunt charm I liked from Bill. He didn’t sugar coat anything. Never felt the need too. “Gloria happened decades ago. You’ve got to let it go. And yeah, in the real world the age gap would be odd, but in this place? Age means jack shit. Besides, it’s obvious the kid likes you.” He smiled now. That little, gruff Bill smile that almost never showed.

Yeah, if what happened tonight was any indication, Dwight’s into me. The thought was thrilling enough, but accepting it still came with other doubts. “Relationships can’t last in here. You remember how quickly Tom and Gaia disappeared after they started dating? What if there’s some unspoken rule around here that relationships mean we go away for good? I can’t put him in that kind of danger.”

Bill nodded, mulling over my words. “Ya know, I came to that same conclusion once. I fell for someone here at the camp, but I was afraid telling them could put us in danger. So I sat on the feelin’ and let it gnaw at me for years. Then, when I finally couldn’t take it anymore, it was too late. They disappeared in the fog and never came back. I never got to tell them how I felt, and I’ve regretted it ever since.” That regret was apparent in his voice, though he did his best to keep a steady front. He watched me, no doubt knowing I got the message of his story.

Should I let that fear stop me? I’d traveled to a foreign country, gambled away all my money, mixed with the seedy underbelly of many cities, never once giving in to the petty fears that held the average man back. Am I getting soft in here? Perhaps all the death had done it to me.

For the first time, I felt genuinely scared of losing something. Dwight had become precious to me. He was one of the few survivors I could count on in trials. Perhaps he was cowardly when it came to killers, but he sure as hell knew how to finish a generator fast. Long hours at the fire didn’t feel so long when he was there. Listening to him talk about the strange new world out there fascinated me. He loved technology and knew the ins and outs of it at a level far beyond me. A light would glimmer in his eyes as he talked about mystery shows and movies, even talking about the old ones I watched when I was young. He was cute and sexy, and interesting all rolled up into one geeky person.  

“Hmf,” he grunted from my lap. Bill and I both froze, watching the boy with nervousness. He turned a bit, stretching his arms in front of him. Bill and I both looked at each other, unsure. He turned again, this time scooting on his back. “Ache…” He spoke in just a whisper. His arm swatted around at some unseen thing in the air.

“Dwight?” I called his name, placing my hands on his shoulder. It might just be a dream but… I’d rather not risk it. The last thing I needed to do was break my promise to protect him.

The tossing and turning grew erratic. Sweat dripped down from his forehead despite the cold air. “He’s burning up,” Bill said, placing his hand on Dwight’s forehead. As he tried to pull my jacket off, Dwight dug his hands into the ground, pulling clumps of dirt and grass up as he struggled.

“Ache uhp. Ache uhp!” His voice shook as it grew louder.

“Ache uhp?” I repeated, furrowing my brows. Ache uhp. Ache up? Wake up. Specks of red soaked through the fabric of one of my jacket sleeves. I shook Dwight violently, shouting his name as I tried to force him awake. When even that didn’t do it, I slapped him across the face hoping the pain would trigger something. He didn’t react. Not even a flinch. Bill pulled the sleeve up, clenching his teeth at the newly formed marks across Dwight’s skin. It wasn’t simple slits anymore. In precise lines, the wound formed right in front of my eyes. M Y S L U T.

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

The beige walls did nothing to bring life to the quiet house, nor did the “Live, Laugh, Love” sign in the dining room. If anything, the cliche decor only reminded me how bitter I felt. No amount of frilly quotes or cheerful bible verses on the walls could convince me that anything good happened in the house.

I should know, after all. I lived there for sixteen years.

To others, a walkthrough of the house would have left an unremarkable impression. To me, the place left an uneasy lump in my throat. The only light I could see was coming from the kitchen. Cabinet lights cast a yellow glow over the bar, barely leaking into the living room where I currently stood. The same leather couch from before was pushed against the wall, right under a large window that overlooked the driveway. A black sky, speckled by a blanket of stars, made the idyllic neighborhood look sleepy.

I walked into the kitchen, hesitating when the floor creaked underneath my feet. For the first time, I noticed my shoes were gone, replaced by a brand of silver-toe socks I wore all the time in high school. My business slacks and button up were replaced by a pair of sweatpants and blue hoodie, both having the old logo of my high school. The whole situation screamed of familiarity.

I hate this.  It’d been about a decade since I last stepped foot into my parents’ house. I never planned to go back, yet here I was.

In the back of my head, I could hear that sheet of static blurring the lines around my thoughts. It brought with it a chaos of emotions that kept my mind in a jumbled mess. Deep, broken voices echoed in the static, blurred just enough that I couldn’t make out their words. Beyond that thick veil of static, I heard a thump coming on the floor above.

I walked toward the carpeted stairs near the kitchen and peered up into the blackness. Though I couldn’t see anything, I knew there’d be a hallway at the top, with several doors leading to bedrooms and a bathroom. The thump came again, toward the right side.  My room.

The last time I’d been in there, my dad was kicking me out of the house. I grabbed what little I could fit into a backpack before he all but flung me out of the front door. The way he looked at me, like I was some disgusting parasite to be rid of, still burned in my mind. My throat and chest ached at the memory.

My hand shook as I grabbed onto the wood railing. I walked with hesitance towards the pale white door. There wasn’t a single sound throughout the entire house. Just the smell of old carpet and the taste of dampness in the air. I swung the door open and took a step inside.

Just like how I left it.  My rejected clothes laid scattered across the floor. A computer, shut off, sat on a dusty desk. My bookshelves displayed figurines I’d collected through my teen years. When I got kicked out, I realized just how useless those plastic toys really were.

I tried to flip the light switch, but the bulb remained off. The only light in the room came from moonlight leaking through the window. I walked across the room and pushed the curtains open, hoping to let as much light in as possible.

The door slammed shut behind me. I spun around, not bothering to suppress the yelp that flew out.

He stood in the shadows, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. The blade on his claw twitched, creating a clicking noise that sounded too loud in the otherwise quiet room. He glanced around, staring with interest at our messy surroundings. I let out a shaky breath, not realizing I’d been holding it ever since I laid eyes on him.

Wake up.

“You know, it’s amazing how vividly you remember this place. All of this was created just from your memories. Even these little toys,” he said, eyeing the figurine of a girl from some anime I used to watch. “Why is this place so important to you, Dwightie?”

I flinched at the use of that old nickname. “If you got all this from my memories, wouldn’t you know why?” I asked, my voice rising with irritation.

The scars in his skin provided the perfect poker face. He stayed silent for a moment. “You grew up here?” He guessed, ignoring my question. He took a step forward and I leaned away, my back pressing into the wall. “You must have spent a lot of time in here. Was it because your family didn’t like you?”

His guess was a little too on point. “No,” I denied quickly. “I’m really close to my family, actually.” The words felt like sand in my mouth.

“Close enough that they kicked you out?” He asked, his scarred skin contorting as he raised a brow. A hint of amusement could be heard in his voice. He knows. I pursed my lips, not wanting to play any more of his games. He must have known I wasn’t going to be easy. “Oh come now Dwight, what will I have to do to pry these answers out? I’m sure you don’t want a repeat of last time…” His threat brought a flicker of memories back. Memories of being locked in the school basement, being beaten into a pulp. I tried to look away, only to notice a pair of metal cuffs locked onto my bed frame. “Perhaps there are other ways I can get you to talk,” he purred, placing a hand on my waist.

That’s all it took for me to spill. “Yeah, they kicked me out. I don’t like my parents and I haven’t spoken to them in years,” I admitted, grabbing his hand and trying to pull it off me. “I don’t get your point with all this.”

The next movement knocked the air out of me. Something pulled me away from the wall and shoved me onto the bed, all while Krueger barely moved a muscle. He watched, a grin on his face, as I failed to move from my pinned position.

“I told the truth!” My voice squeaked from panic. The metal cuffs dangled above my head, representing ideas I never wanted to entertain with Kreuger in the room. Now it wasn’t just being beaten up that scared me. “Wake up,” I told myself, speaking aloud in the hopes that my sleeping body would say it. All I needed was the others to hear me. “Wake up!” He leaned over me, his hand grazing over parts that he had no right to touch.

“Quiet Dwightie,” he said, running his fingers down my bare arm. His claws clicked with anticipation. “This will only sting a bit.”

I couldn’t stop the yelp that came out as he dug his blades into my arm. My vision blurred as tears welled up at the bottom of my eyes. It didn’t hurt me enough to make me scream – my pain tolerance had skyrocketed thanks to the trials – but I almost wished it had. Then the others would have heard me.  Why aren’t you waking me up?

He leaned back, admiring his handy work. I turned my head far enough just to make out the lines of words carved into my skin.  My Slut.   

“I’ll tell you what you want to know,” I gasped, no longer above pleading. “You don’t need to do this.” My voice lingered on the last word, quivering at the thought. I didn’t want to consider why he was calling me his slut.

He grinned, relishing my fear. He stroked his hand against my cheek, wiping away tears I hadn’t noticed before. “I want to keep going down this memory lane. Something tells me there’s more to this story.” His claws clicked together as he ran them down my chest. As much as I tried to wriggle away, I couldn’t budge from the strange, invisible pressure on my arms and legs.

Quentin warned me how ruthless Krueger could be. He’d found the exact point of my life I’d gladly forget and decided to burrow down into those memories like a parasite.  All you need to do is convince him this isn’t worth talking about. Make it boring to him. Don’t let him know your weakness.  I took a gulp, unsure I could prepare myself to be as confident as my thoughts.

“I’m gay.” My voice shivered. He paused, tilting his head. “They didn’t like me cause I’m gay. That’s all there really is to it.” As much as I tried to keep my voice even, it still squeaked at the end.  Please leave me alone. Please.

“That’s all?” He asked, his ungloved hand still stroking my cheek. The intimate gesture made my stomach churn. I nodded my head, afraid I’d mess up if I said anything else. This wasn’t the kind of conversation I’d ever want to have with him. I’d only come out to three people before, now four. I wasn’t used to this.

The way Krueger stared at me felt so assaulting. He could pull my waning mental state apart with just one look. Being stuck to a bed was enough to make me feel vulnerable, but the subject of my sexuality only made it feel worse. He’d already opened me up physically, and that wasn’t enough. Now he had to pry into my mind as well?

“There’s another place you remember well,” he said, letting the subject drop. Relief washed over me as the pressure on my chest lifted and I could finally sit up. I took a second to assess the wounds on my arm, blood dripping out of the cuts that still made me deeply uncomfortable. When I looked up, Krueger was gone.

For a second, I thought I might finally be free to wake up again.  Is my punishment over?  I asked the voice but got no response. Just the same old static. Noise began to billow behind my closed door. Pipes hummed out a familiar tune that made my blood chill. I swung my feet off the bed and headed to the door, pushing it open an inch.

The orange glow of a giant, dangling light fixture lit up the empty pews of the chapel. Old Bibles and hymnals sat on shelves screwed onto the backs of the wooden pews. Many of them probably still contained the crayon drawings I did when I was a bored toddler forced to listen to sermons I didn’t understand.

My feet touched the thin red-carpet floor, leaving a muted padding sound with each step. Stain glass windows glared down at me as I squeezed past a pair of pews and entered the center of the room. In the light of day, they’d display some beautiful patterns of color against the walls and floor. At night though, I could barely make out the various biblical scenes they depicted.

The organ music continued to hover over the room, intermingling with the static that started to prickle through my mind. I glanced anxiously at the instrument, wishing whoever was playing would stop. At the front of the church, beside the altar and podium, sat the ancient machine. I watched the keys move of their own accord, not a soul in sight.

“I didn’t know you were a church-going man,” a voice rang out from the back. The lights flickered, and from those few seconds of darkness, he appeared in the center of the room. Something was different about him this time. His skin was no longer charred, but instead smooth and pale and familiar. Tidy, blond hair replaced his bald head and ragged hat. He stood tall, in a tweed brown suit I’d often seen him wear on Sundays. For a moment, he wasn’t alone. All the others were in the pews-- Bill, Jake, Claudette -- sneering at me with uncharacteristic disdain. They vanished in between the flickers just as quickly as they came.

Pastor Thomas.  This nightmare would never stop for as long as I was in this hell. Krueger had figured out my worst fears and brought them to life.  He’s always known, hasn’t he?  All those questions he asked had simply been a game to him. He knew from the beginning why my parents hated me.

“Why don’t you give me a tour of the place, Dwightie,” he said, his voice just as warm and charming as I remembered from the hundreds of sermons I’d heard. The sound of my pet name sent a jolt of panic through me.

“Wake up,” I said, squeezing my nail into my palm so tight it drew blood.  Ace promised he’d wake me up. Why isn’t he doing it already?  He took a step forward, a lopsided smirk pulling at his lips. Even at that distance away, my skin prickled with goosebumps. “Please, wake me up,” I begged.

“Why do you wanna go and do a thing like that?” Thomas, or really Krueger, asked with a mocking tone. He took a step up on the stage. “What about our appointment? You know how much I look forward to those.”

Appointments. Hours locked away in his office. Hours memorizing the flaws in faded pink tiles while he did whatever he pleased. Hours of “therapy” as my parents liked to call it. They didn’t know what he did to me, and they didn’t believe me when I finally told the truth.

No one did.

At the back of the stage, beside the altar and giant cross that stood on display, was a door that led into the church’s hall. Most of the rooms were classrooms for Sunday school, a few dreadful offices, and then some stairs leading down to the community basement. That’s where all the breakfasts and parties took place.

The basement kitchen has a door I can get out through.  I had snuck through it many times while trying to escape the boredom of youth group. There were even a few “therapy” sessions Thomas started off with us leaving through there.

Don’t think about it. Just run.  I shoved the door open, the old wood cracking at the impact of the wall beside it. The dark halls smelled like mothballs and stale bread. Cute little crafts of crosses and doves adorned the walls, created by the younger students during their youth group. When I was little, my own abominations were hung up. Back then, Thomas didn’t care about me. It was only when I got older that I noticed his attention was on me.

You can run all you want, but you know he’ll find you.

My feet smacked against the tile surface as I slowed to a stop. The stairs. They were gone, replaced instead by office doors. Somehow, I’d run right to them.  But that doesn’t make sense. They aren’t supposed to be here!  Behind me, a door closed shut. He was coming.

Let me wake up.  My only hope was to plead with the voice.  Please.

You shouldn’t have look—

I know.  There were tears welling up at the bottom of my eyes. My breath quickened with every step of his polished shoes. I pushed my back against the door to his office, watching him get closer and closer.

“Eager to get started, are we? I knew you loved our little sessions as much as I do,” he called out, his voice thick with his own amusement. Even though I knew behind the mask of memories it was just Krueger, his perfect imitation of Thomas’s voice made my legs tremble in fear.

I’m sorry I looked. I don’t even know why you’re mad at that. I don’t get the significance of what I saw, okay? So it’s fine. I’ll forget all about it and we can just pretend it never happened.

Maybe I should never let you wake up again. I could let Krueger keep you here forever, locked away in that office and making you relive every moment.

I know what happened Dwight.

I know everything about you.

Static shuddered through my brain, mingling with the voice until it was unrecognizable. It writhed inside me, forcing things to the front of my thoughts I tried to suppress. Pink tiles. Heavy pressure. Wooden desk. The smell of old books, sweat, and intimacy. 

My body started to curl up as sobs leaked out. Thomas placed his hands on my shoulder, keeping me from slumping down to the ground. “Shhh, you’re safe now Dwightie. I’ll protect you,” he whispered in my ear. I wanted to puke and run and scream all at once.  Ace, please… wake me up.  “I made you feel good, didn’t I? Don’t lie. You liked it. I let you be yourself when your parents wouldn’t.”

I wanted to argue with him, but it was getting hard enough just to breathe through the tears. His touch sent a shudder through my spine. “Then you ruined everything,” his voice became more guttural. The tone of Krueger’s rage burned through it. His skin shifted between the familiar and the scarred visage of what really lied beneath it. “You should have kept your mouth shut.”

A swift elbow brought me down to my knees. I gasped, clutching onto my stomach, trying to get air. He grabbed my chin, forcing me to look up at him. His other hand now wore Krueger’s bloody glove, which clinked as the blades touched each other. It dangled above my face, threatening to cut me open.

You shouldn’t have looked, and now you will never look again.

Again, an invisible force held me in place. His claw plunged into my eye socket, eliciting a scream of shock and pain. The lens of my glasses cracked, shattering across my face from the impact. Everything on one side of my face went black. He plunged it back in. Hot blood streamed down my face as a tried to flail away from him. My other eye was so blurred from the tears I could barely see. All I could hear was the sound of his claw moving back and forth, a wet squelch sound as goo and blood leaked out my eye socket.

I might have thrown up, but I wasn’t sure. Everything going on with my body felt unfamiliar. Even my own screams didn’t seem like my own. A sudden feeling of cold clamminess coated my skin. He moved his claw over my second eye, blood dripping over my lens. I didn’t have time to plead for mercy. The shatter of the plastic lens sounded too sharp in my ears. Everything went black. 

Chapter Text

Ace Visconti

Every fool knows that the best way to get rid of a problem is to ignore it. Take any bad situation and look for the positives. Can’t find anything good about it? Then grab a bottle of booze and figure out where you can move to so that the problem doesn’t exist anymore.

One minute, Bill and I were talking just like we used to in the old days. The next, Dwight was screaming while vile words were carved into his arms. My Slut. For once, I couldn’t drink away my problems. There was no running from this. My blood boiled with a mixture of rage and despair as I jumped to a dozen terrible conclusions.

Bill tried everything to wake him up. We even brought Quentin in. No amount of screaming, shaking, and even hitting would bring him out of it. I could only watch with hopelessness gnawing at my chest while Dwight screamed for me to wake him up.

“How the hell hasn’t he woken up yet?” I shouted at Quentin as if somehow waking up would make whatever just happened to go away.

“I don’t know,” he stuttered. “This happened to N-Nancy once. I had to, to use--”

Dwight shuddered violently in my lap, his scream turning into a sound that I’d only heard wounded animals make. Blood splattered across Bill and I. Laurie, Feng, Jake, and Quentin who had gathered to watch screamed and backed away. Bill tried to hold Dwight down as he thrashed about while I watched in horror as his eyes quite literally split apart.

I promised to protect him. He was so happy before and I was the one that made him go to sleep. This is my fault. My fault. I failed him, I… I ran a hand through his hair, now wet with sweat. His eyes ruptured into a thick sludge of slime and blood and fleshy bits that ran down his face. This isn’t the time for a pity party. You got him into this mess now get him out of it.

Laurie puked. Feng reeled away in disgust. I felt my lips speaking his name but my mind was so far away. I stared.

At the blood.

At the sockets.

At the way his mouth moved as he screamed.

“I can’t see,” he choked out. “I’m sorry I looked please just let me wake up.” No one spoke. He kept crying out. Then I realized he still thought he was asleep.

“Dwight,” I said, my throat burning with tears I didn’t even notice. I brushed a hand through his hair, gently so it didn’t startle him. In between sobs, his breathing grew quieter. He sat up from my lap, shuddering with each movement. His hands raised to touch his face, but Bill stopped him.

“Son, don’t.”

Dwight turned toward the sound. His face contorted. His shoulders shuddered as he cried out. The sound that came out was more than simple crying. I’d heard enough crying before in all those trials. This was worse. It was the desolate sobbing of someone drained of hope. It was the sound of both physical and emotional agony tearing someone apart.

I wrapped my arms around him, speaking a slurry of words as if any of them would ever fix what he was feeling. I just needed him to know he wasn’t alone anymore. For a second, he froze. Then he ran a hand down my cheek, lingering over the facial hair around my mouth and on my chin. His fingertips were slick with blood. I tried not to pay attention to the gored holes where the remains of his eyes still hung. They were still in there, an oozing, misshapen mess that stayed only because of the stringy bits of muscle that held them in. All my fault.

“Ace,” he gasped between cries, speaking the for the first time in what felt like forever. He buried his face into my chest, gripping onto the collar of my shirt to pull me even tighter to him. A part of me was relieved I didn’t have to look at it anymore. The rest of me felt horrible for thinking that.

“This is too much,” Laurie gagged.

“Just another person to carry. Worthless,” Feng huffed, crossing her arms.

“What the fuck made this happen?” Jake asked with the least amount of tact possible.

I turned to Bill, a rage burning in my eyes. “If you don’t get these guys to piss off and leave him alone, I’ll do it myself.” Admittedly, I might not have been as intimidating looking as David King, but I was angry enough at that point I could have delivered a punch just as hard as him.

“She’s right though. He’s blind. How is he going—” Laurie started to speak but stopped from a dark glare by Bill. They speak about him like he’s not even here. I wished Claudette were there to reign in their sense of empathy. Plus she knew how to patch up wounds better than I did.

“Go away,” Dwight’s voice was muffled by the fabric of my shirt. He sounded like he was crying, but I had a morbid reminder that the wetness that now soaked the front of my shirt was blood. “Just go the fuck away. All of you.” The final words cracked as he shouted. After that, it was just sobbing. We won’t be getting anything else out of him for a while.

I stroked his back and hair, soothing him in whatever small way I could. If I’d done thing differently… maybe if I’d woken him up before the dream started? How was I supposed to know? Feng gave one last glance to the scene before turning away, muttering under her breath in Chinese. She’d seen enough. Bill ushered the others away, saying he needed room to work.

“Do you want me to leave too?” I asked. He shook his head. There was a pleading whimper of words I couldn’t make out. His grip on my shirt tightened. “I’ll stay right here for as long as you want me,” I said, petting his hair.

Bill eventually came back after the others settled down, medkit in hand. The second Dwight felt Bill touch his cheek, he recoiled.

“Son, you need to let me do this,” Bill reprimanded with a gruff voice that didn’t match the soft look in his eyes.

“There’s no point,” Dwight shuddered “Everything hurts. It hurts so bad. I shouldn’t have looked. It’s too late… too late for me.” His words started to slur. Bill and I exchanged the same confused looked. “I’m useless. Disgusting. I deserve this. I’m… I’m not good enough to be your son. I’m not good enough to be anyone’s son.” This brought on another awful wail I could barely stand to hear.

“Don’t be sayin’ that shit.” Bill pointed his finger at Dwight, letting it drop after a moment when he realized Dwight couldn’t see it. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re the best damn son I’ve ever had. Now let’s get you to that pond ‘ver there. If it can bring this son of a bitch back, it can bring your sight back too.”

Dwight didn’t say anything as we helped him stand up. His legs wobbled with uncertainty as he clung onto my arm. The first step he took almost ended with a faceplant if Bill and I hadn’t been there to hold him up.

“Of all the fuckin’ times for that,” Bill murmured.

“I’m sorry,” Dwight whimpered.

“Not you,” he said, patting Dwight on the back. “It’s a damn trial comin’. The fog’s rollin’ in for me.”

He wasn’t wrong. A fog rolled through the trees, claiming Laurie and Feng. Bill would be leaving soon too, leaving me pretty much on my own with poor Dwight. Where’s the fourth? A trial never started without four of us, but I noticed that Jake wasn’t leaving nor could I feel the call of the trial in my heart.

“Please don’t leave me,” Dwight begged. Blood oozed through the threading of my shirt as he squeezed me. He smelled like sweat and booze.

“Never,” I promised, petting his ruffled hair down. Please don’t be for Dwight. He can’t handle a trial right now. “Is this trial for you?” I asked, terrified he might say yes. I’d give my life to trade spots with him. In fact, if it were an opinion I’d endure every trial after that in his stead.

He shook his head no, resistant to let me go. “I got this,” I assured Bill. “Just please hurry back.” We need you. I need you. He saw the look in my eyes. I couldn’t handle this alone.

Trials could last hours, sometimes even days if the killer was feeling particularly merciless. There were times where we’d be left to slowly bleed out just because a killer didn’t want us to take the hatch. The Trapper was notorious for this form of cruelty. We’d be left for hours crawling on the ground, spilling of trail of blood behind us. If another survivor tried to heal us, he’d find them and knock them down too. If a survivor didn’t try to save us, they were stuck hiding in a locker, praying that their friends would just die already. I hoped that Bill would get someone fast. Someone like The Hillbilly, who finished his trials almost as fast as he sprinted.

I looked out at the water. It was only a dozen or so yards away, but that kind of walk would take forever with the sorry state he was in. “Dwight, I’m carrying you.”

“C-carrying me?” He hiccuped.

I placed an arm under his legs and swept him off his feet. He held on, though the grip he had around my neck felt weak. He’s getting worse by the second. “See? I got you. No problem.” He was heavier than I expected, but not enough to make me falter. All those times pulling myself off the hook really built up muscle, huh.  

When we reached the edge of the water, he turned his head toward the sound of the water lapping against the shore. “Do you really think this will work?” The slight degree of hope in his voice made a lump form in my throat. It fuckin’ better work.

“Let’s see,” I said, gently letting him set his feet on the ground. He stumbled a few steps forward, yet waved my hand away when I tried to steady him.

I kicked off my shoes and started leading him into the water. “I can do it,” he said, before suddenly slipping backward and landing on his back.

“I think that answers that,” I said, rolling my eyes as I pulled him back up. He tried to argue but I placed a hand to his lips. “Just stop. Let me help you.”

“I’m not worth--” he blurted, the words muffled under the palm of my hand. He grabbed and pushed it away. “I’m not worth the trouble. You know it. Feng knows it. Everyone knows it. I’m useless. I’ve always been useless and now it’s worse because I’m blinded.” The words were spilling out fast with no sign of stopping. “Just look at me, Ace. I look like a freak now. I’m just as ugly and disfigured as those monst--”

“If you don’t shut up and get in the water, I will dunk you myself,” I said, pulling him into the water with me. I dragged him along, ignoring his protests as the water got deeper and deeper.

“Your suit--” he started to argue.

“My suit is covered in blood and snot. Who gives a fuck. You’re more important,” I said, rolling my eyes again at him. Even though he couldn’t see it, he could still sense the tone in my voice. His brows furrowed, but whatever expression he was trying to make was masked by the injury. It felt rude not to look, but every time I saw the misshapen orbs split inside his sockets, I had to look away.

That made him go quiet. “I’m going to dunk you, okay? Hold your breath.”

He pursed his lips, nodding once as I gently dipped him backward. The inky blackness of the water covered over him until I could no longer see what remained of his face. His thin fingers held on to the collar of my now red shirt for dear life. A few pieces of tissue and skin floated to the surface. I suppressed the bile the built up at the back of my throat.

After a few seconds, I lifted him back up. His wet hair looked black as it clung to his forehead. The holes in his face remained still as horrible looking as ever. He lifted a hand up to his face to touch it, but I swatted the hand away.

“Stop,” I ordered when he protested with a whine. “You were only in there a few seconds. This will take a while.”

A sense of unease settled at the bottom of my stomach. I’d seen worse wounds before in trials. People got gutted, sawed in half, and beaten into a bloody pulp during trials. This was a natural part of life. Outside of the trials was a different story. Things like this simply never happened before. The campfire was supposed to be safe, yet now I worried about how long it would be until we were all tortured by the killers. How long would it be until it wasn’t just Freddy hurting one of us?

Even worse, I felt like I lied to Dwight. I’d seen the water heal wounds almost instantly before. Deep gashes were sealed up in a matter of seconds. Gaia had given herself bad gashes before when she was still dealing with withdrawal. The water healed them up in a matter of seconds. Why isn’t this working for him? Of all the people out there that deserved this kind of punishment, it wasn’t him. There was strange cruelty in that someone so innocent could be damned so horribly in this nightmarish world.

Dunking him in the water began to grow tedious. We changed positions. I let him float in my arms as he held his own head under. Every few seconds, he came to the surface gasping for breath.

No changes.

I’ll kill Freddy myself. Rip him apart. Set him on fire. I’ll do it.

He was the first to give up. I probably would have stayed there for days trying to force some change that would never happen. He moved sluggishly toward the shore, never speaking a word. He settled down by the fire, only slightly turning his head toward the grumbles of the returning survivors. What do I do if the next trial he’s sent to isn’t one I’m in? I know I can trust Bill to take care of him, but the others?  

I grabbed a medkit I found in a trial earlier and started looking for a sufficient amount of gauze. There were some small square bandages that would probably cover up most of the wounds. I took them, trying to ignore the Chinese muttering coming from my left. I lingered over the medical supplies, procrastinating over the inevitable.

“I’m fucked, aren’t I,” he said when I sat down in front of him. His voice had gone cold. He pressed his fingertips to the wounds. There was nothing I could say to reassure him. We’d never had someone disabled in the trials, at least not blinded. There was one guy who could only hear out of one ear, but he could at least hear and see something. “I’m so fucked.” His voice fell as he stated it again.

“That’s… not true,” I said, pulling his hand away from his face. My fingers wrapped around his as he looked down. I’d done it deliberately just to cheer him up, but there was something nice about feeling his hand in mind.

“I’m going to put all of you at a disadvantage in any trial,” he said.

“Who cares,” I said, irritated that Feng had even put the thought in his head.

“I do! I’m putting you at danger like this,” he said, gesturing to face.

Hearing those words coming out of him sent me over the edge. “You really have no clue, do you? I’d rather have you by my side and be in danger than be safe and alone.” I pressed my forehead against his as if I could somehow will him to shut up about it.

And then I saw his arm and the words Freddy had carved into him. It snapped me back into reality like a rubber band. All I could think about was the word slut and how many implications it had. Why Dwight? Why isn’t this happening to Quentin or one of the younger girls?

Sure, Freddy showed an obsession with Laurie, but every killer did that. She shined brightest in trials for them for whatever reason. Dwight though? He was an adorable dork with an affinity for hiding in lockers the second he heard a heartbeat. He never incurred the wrath of the killers like Laurie, David, or I did. Well, something must have changed. Maybe Dwight’s just Freddy’s… ugh, type.

There were smaller square bandages we normally never used which settled over the gaping holes. The others watched me apply them, cringing. Even my own stomach churned looking at the shredded remains of his eyelids dangling over a blended mash of flesh and eye. My chest tensed as I held in a gasp. The color drained from my face as I got a hard look at what The Nightmare had done to him. The others, unfortunately, weren’t so considerate in keeping their horror contained.

“Don’t throw up again, don’t throw up again,” Laurie whispered to herself, her hands clutching her head as if to stop her from looking.

The pond might have washed away a lot of the mess, but fresh blood still flowed from the wounds. Chunks of his eye still hung from the sockets, oozing jelly-like fluid. My fingers shook as I pressed a bandage against his cheek and pushed it back into the hole. He winced at the touch.

“Sorry,” I whispered, trying to be gentler this time. The only response I got was a shiver. I wrapped some gauze around the bandage and moved onto the second eye. The cuts on this one went all the way up to his brow. Less precise, much deeper. Was this the first place he attacked? Part of the skin was peeled back during the attack. “I’m going to need to grab a bigger bandage,” I said, quickly realizing just how awful the wound really was.

“You don’t have to do that,” he said, speaking for the first time in what felt like forever. His voice sounded tired and slurred. “Don’t waste supplies on me. It’s not like I’m going to actually die from this anyway.” He added that last part bitterly.

The others stirred as he spoke. There was something so eerie about watching him move. His skin was pale as the corpses I’d seen pile up over thousands of trials. Blood now coated his neck and clothes as it flowed from the still open wound. I realized, watching him, that he should have died from what Freddy did to him. No one could have survived that without blood transfusions and whatever other emergency medical care we had no access to.

“I’ll use every medkit here to help you if I have to,” I said firmly, grabbing another kit and searching for something better. This one's better stocked. Disinfectant? I guess I could use some of that.

“The others wouldn’t like that,” he said, seemingly unaware that they were staring at him. Feng eyed the medical supplies like a dragon assessing its hoard. Laurie glanced away as soon as our eyes met. Feeling guilty? The only one that didn’t look like they hated his guts was Jake, who still hadn’t gotten any answers from the others.

“Fuck them,” I said, returning to the wound with a better bandage. There was still stuff that had to be pushed in. flesh and skin and bits of eye that Freddy hadn’t managed to eviscerate. I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the way it felt under my fingers to push it all in. I failed to suppress the gag this time: I didn’t have the iron will that Jake had to these sorts of things.

“I’m sorry.” His expression was unreadable, marred by the injuries, but the tone of his voice conveyed despair. I ran a hand through his hair, ruffling it affectionately.

“ S’okay,” I said, finishing up with the bandaging. There, not so bad looking. I took a second to check my handiwork. Parts of the white were already turned red from blood seeping through. More concerning was the fact his skin was almost now as white as the clean bandages. Lost too much blood. I should have worked faster to stop the bleeding. His lips were turning blue from the cold air. The wet clothes he still wore didn’t help anything.

“Let’s get you out of those wet clothes,” I said, already undoing the buttons. He barely nodded his head. I expected more resistance, but it seemed he didn’t have the energy to argue with me anymore. Goosebumps pricked across his chest as I peeled away the wet shirt. It took a bit of shifting around but I finally got it off, replacing it with my suit jacket he seemed so fond of wearing. A bit of blood had splattered on it from the attack, but it was at least dry and warm.

Once I started to undo his belt, he fluttered to life a bit. “No,” he said, trying to push my hand away.

“It’s not good for you--”

“Not them,” he said, grabbing my hand holding it. “Not yet.”

Not yet. My cheeks flushed red. “That’s not what I…” The others were looking. I didn’t want to know what they were thinking anymore. My mind went back to Gloria. What would she be thinking if she saw this?

“I’m so cold,” he sighed, breathless. I pulled him as close as possible, rubbing my hand against the skin of arm to bring some warmth back into it. She’d be worried sick about him. Her gift to the world was caring so much. I could almost hear her telling me to warm up the pour soul while she tried to find help.

He rested his head on my shoulder. “I guess I missed my chance, huh.”

“Hm?” I asked, my thoughts not totally in the present at that moment. Her voice lingered in the corner of my mind, telling me how I needed to keep him safe. He needs you.

“We could have been something. If I hadn’t looked. Now I look like… this…” His voice trailed off like a broken train of thought.

If I hadn’t looked? He said something like that earlier, right after the attack. I looked up, wondering if the others had caught any of it. They were preoccupied now, whispering.

“Looked at what?” I asked, my voice lower now. There was a moment of silence that stretched so long I thought he might have passed out.

“The light,” he whispered. “The light that eats us when we die.”

Chapter Text

Ace Visconti

The light that eats us when we die.

Every time we died on a hook, a creature came down from the sky to claim us. An ungodly thing with spidery legs that pierced through our chests like we were made of paper. Even mentioning the thing made me uncomfortable. None of us talked about it anymore. It was simply just a thing we pretended didn’t exist.

Is that what he means? Now that I thought about it, I never really looked up when another survivor died. The chaos of a trial didn’t give us the luxury of time to take in the scenery. Plus, something about seeing that creature felt wrong to my very core. It made my skin crawl more than any killer I’d faced.

I opened my mouth to ask, but nothing came out. He saw something he wasn’t supposed too. If he told me, I could be in danger to face the same fate. A frown pulled at the corner of my mouth. He started murmuring again about the pain.

It took some searching but I finally found some high strength Aspirin. Pain pills were always the first to go from the kits when we brought them back from a trial. Most of us suffered residual feelings of injuries that weren’t there, especially when we died at the hands of a killer instead of a hook. Once I felt the blade of the Huntress in my chest for a week. I called them phantom injuries. The only way to get rid of them was through pills, usually. Eventually, our brain would forget about it and the phantom injury would go away.

I dropped a few pills in his hand. “You want some water to drink with it?” I asked. His mouth turned down with a grimace before he popped the pills in. Can’t blame him. I don’t want to drink corpse water either.

For a long while, he continued to mutter a few things on his breath. He rubbed his temples, nursing pain that was unimaginable to me. Eventually, though, he went quiet. The pills wouldn’t take it all away, but they could at least take off the edge.

“You can leave if you want,” he said with a broken sigh. “I guess there’s nothing else that can be done for me. I’m screwed.”

“I’m not leaving you,” I said. Not here. Not in a trial. Not ever. I’m staying right by you and I’m going to get to the bottom of whatever the hell this is.

“I don’t know how you can stand to be near me. Even with the bandages, I’m sure I look disgusting.” His voice quivered when he spoke. Perhaps he was right about that. The bandages only covered the holes. they didn’t do anything to hide the misshapen spots of his face caused by the build-up of tissue Freddy pulled out. There were lumps beneath the surface of the gauze. Blood seeped through the white bandages with a vividness I hated. I’d seen so much blood before but this was different. This was Dwight.

“Yet you’re still cuter than me,” I said, trying to lighten the mood even though my stomach was turning into a queasy mess. “If you’re so worried about it, take these.” I pulled a pair of my sunglasses out and gently settled them on his ears. Besides the streaks of blood on his cheeks, it was hard to tell anything was wrong. Plus, seeing him wear my things was always a plus. It made him feel closer to me, in a strange way.

He felt the plastic frames for a moment, trying to figure out what I’d just stuck on his face. “They’re yours,” he deduced. “Do they,” he hesitated, “hide everything?”

For a moment, I remembered the way he looked at me drunkenly by the fire. That red flush of his cheeks. The way his eyes glittered from the light. He looked at me like he knew exactly what he wanted. I leaned in and kissed him on the forehead. “Yeah. They do.”

He stayed still for a second. The glasses and bandages made it even more impossible to read him. Gone are the days where Dwight is an open book. Still, I could see his pale cheeks get just a bit more color in them. “Is there still any chance we could,” he started to speak, stopped, and then started over again. “Could you ever be into me, after all this?”

Any pretense of being just friends had disappeared and I wasn’t sure when that happened. That wall was torn down at some point and we were no longer dancing around the idea of being something more than just allies in this nightmare.

I wrapped my arms around him and pressed my forehead to his. “Dwight, I’m a desperate fool for every part of you. Not just your very handsome looks.”

“Ace,” he whimpered my name so quietly I almost didn't hear it. He held onto my waist, trying to get as close to me as possible, almost pulling me right on top of him. It was an awkward move considering we were both just sitting face to face. “Kiss me, please. Make me forget this.”

And for once, I didn’t stop to worry about if people were watching or what they would think. I didn’t let the fear that I’d fuck everything up in the future stop it. All of that disappeared as I started kissing his neck and jaw, bringing warmth back into his skin where the cold water had taken it out. He fell back onto the ground, giving me the leverage to finally get on top of him without being an awkward tangle of limbs.

I relished the feeling of his legs separating as I moved in between them. His hands ruffled my hair as I worked each kiss up to his lips. When they finally met mine, he kissed me like I was the air he needed after almost drowning. In the back of my mind, a quiet voice whispered that something was wrong. Dwight was not the type to be so upfront about his feelings. Why start now? Right after going through something so horrific? But this tongue brushed against mine, coaxing me out of my thoughts and making me focus on simply feeling him beneath me.

Each fervent kiss made us both forget, at least for a moment, the horror we had ahead for us. He brought his hand down from my hair and started exploring my body with courage I’d never expected. Just the lightest touch against my thigh made me realize how I craved for whatever this was. His hand slipped beneath the waist of my jeans and I knew at that moment I was completely his to do with whatever he wanted.

Everything about it was perfect, which is exactly why it couldn’t last.

We pulled away at the sound of a loud crash coming from the woods beyond the pond. Dwight pulled his hand out of my pants and sat up, nearly hitting me in the head. The brightest shade of red colored his cheeks, almost matching the bloody bandages. I readjusted myself as best I could but there was no way of hiding the giant bulge in my pants. Another crash brought my mind away from my dick and to whatever was out there.

The trees were shifting back and forth while strange yellow lights were glittering in and out of existence behind the pine and leaves. “What’s happening?” Dwight asked, looking toward the noise but obviously not seeing anything. I could feel his heart racing while he was pressed against me.

“There are some lights. The trees are moving around,” I tried to explain what I was seeing.

“Trees…” His voice fell a bit. “Nea and Meg heard something like this before they went missing.” I kept staring out at the woods, noticing how the trees around the pond were beginning shudder as well. It started at the back end, slowly making its way closer and closer to us. “When we were looking for them, the trees were all messed up. Fused together, you know?”

I grabbed his hand as I stood up, tugging him to get up with me. “We should go back to the camp,” I said, never taking my eyes of the trees. The lights vanished and the movement stopped, but that didn’t change the feeling of dread in my heart. The woods were disturbed and now a hundred angry eyes glared at me from the darkness, blaming me for what had happened.

He stayed close to my side as we backed our way up to the campfire. As soon as we were in its light, I finally stopped watching the pond. There were only two left in the camp at that moment, but that was enough to make me feel safe even if it was just Feng and Laurie. Dwight seemed lost in thought, perhaps still thinking of his missing friends. I squeezed his hand tight. You aren’t going to go missing. If anyone should go through that, it should be me again. Not you.

“Ace, have you ever seen someone out in the woods?” He asked. “Like, someone that’s not supposed to be there.”

“Can’t say I have, no.” The woods around the camp were only of the few areas I could rely on to be peaceful, at least until recently. Hearing the story of my own body being caught into some strange black cocoon made me more uncertain. Even more so now that the others could apparently not find that strange place again.

“I saw Tho… someone I was very afraid of in the woods,” Dwight said, his voice distant.  “He chased me away from the camp.”

“Another survivor is out there?” I asked, not quite sure what he was getting at.

“No. It wasn’t really him just like, an illusion? There have been other times too when I thought I saw a man out there in a white hat kind of like yours. It all started after…” His voice trailed off.

“After you saw something you shouldn’t have,” I finished, guessing already why he didn’t say. The thing that eats us when we die. He stayed quiet, pursing his lips shut. “You saw something you weren’t supposed to see. Now you’re being tortured by Freddy every week and seeing weird things. Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Bill and I can figure out a way to fix this.”

“What if it was luring me out into the woods to take me, just like it did to Nea and Meg? Maybe what Freddy is doing to me isn’t a punishment. Maybe it’s a warning that will never stop until I give in to whatever it wants.”

I didn’t like the sound of whatever crackpot theory he was cooking up. There would be no giving in if I had anything to say. “You keep saying it . What do you mean, it?” I asked, now even more frustrated before. He didn’t say anything. “I don’t care about the danger. I just want to know what’s happening to you.”

Everything was too quiet then. The woods still glared at me. He felt my face and when his hand grazed my ear, he figured out the right place to lean in. “The spider in the sky. I saw its light while it was taking David away, and now that voice --”

The trees around the camp shuddered, eliciting a few cries from the girls. The fog began to flood the camp, but it wasn’t the same as the other times before. It moved quickly, whisps stretching out like arms to drag us into the unknown. The girls yelped, surprised to be taken so suddenly. They disappeared from view and their voices faded away. I held onto Dwight, afraid that it would take me and leave him alone to be lured out into those woods just like he said.

The fog hovered over us. Sound became muffled. All I could hear was Dwight’s anxious breathing. All I could feel how warm and perfect he felt in my arms. Do what you couldn’t do for Gloria: be there for him. It climbed all around us as if trying to pry us apart. When it couldn’t do that, it settled to us go together. The campfire was gone, replaced by an old parking lot and brown picket fence. A tall, brown brick building stood before us, its steeple coming to a point so sharp it could cut the sky. Stain glass windows glinted in the moonlight, their colors muted by the dull night. A sign with the changeable white letters sat on the center of the lawn.

“Where are we?” He asked.

“It’s someplace new,” I said. I tried to come up with the best way to describe it. “There’s a church in front of us and a sign on its lawn. Right now we are in the parking lot.”

He pursed his lips for a moment. “Is the church brick?”

I looked down at him. “Yes.”

He took a deep breath. “The sign, what does it say?”

I looked over at the white letters. I’d driven past hundreds of churches in my life, never paying much attention to their signs before. I’d grown up Catholic and that was about all the religion I could handle for the rest of my life. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but--”

“--the rod of discipline will drive it far away.” He finished the verse before I could. “Proverbs.”

“I uh, didn’t take you to be the religious type,” I said, a little surprised. Especially not the type to have this stuff memorized.

“I’m not.” His voice trailed off.  He looked paler now and I realized I hadn’t ever gotten him anything to wear other than my jacket. I buttoned it up around as best as I could. A bit tight but better than freezing to death.

“Here’s the plan,” I said, literally coming up with it at the very moment I was speaking. We hadn’t had any time to discuss how we would handle this. I expected Bill would at least be around to give me some kind of idea what to do. He was the best at handling emergencies. My instincts always told me to run away at the first sign of discomfort. “We’ll go inside and find you one of those fire barrels. There’s always at least one thing on fire in these places. While you warm up, me and the others will get the gens, okay? All you gotta do is stay quiet and hidden.”

Easier said than done. We’ll tackle the next disaster when it comes though. Yet as I walked toward the church entrance he tugged on my hand. “Is there anywhere else we can go? What about the yellow house nearby.”

I turned toward the street which stretched out into the fog. On the other side, there was indeed a yellow house with boarded up windows and doors. I did spot the roof of a shed in the back. That could be a good hiding spot. “It’s boarded up but we can get in the backyard,” I said, then paused. “How did you know it was there?”

“I made a lucky guess.”

“Aren’t I the one that’s supposed to have unnaturally good luck around here?”

“Please, just one look at me and you can tell I have the best luck.” His voice dripped with sarcasm. Somehow he managed to stay humorous even in the most shitty of situations. Bill’s really rubbed off on this guy. I liked it.

That still didn’t answer my question. This isn’t the place for interrogation. We need to get more hidden. Being out on an open parking lot didn’t make me feel good and crossing the street definitely made my hair stand up on end.

Dwight didn’t say anything as we wandered behind the house, not even when he nearly tripped over a jutting root from a nearby tree. He just held onto my hand, shivering every now and them from the cold. When we heard a fire coming from a nearby barrel, he picked up the pace and warmed his hands over the heat.

“Ace? Dwight?” A familiar voice cut through the crackle of the wood. Laurie took cautious steps as she approached, her wary eyes checking the shadows. Dwight turned toward the noise of her voice, only to sigh with annoyance.

“You’ll get used to it,” I reassured him, hating the fact that he had to.

“My head hurts really bad again,” he whimpered, messing a little with the bandages.

Laurie, in all of this, barely looked at him. The injuries seemed to upset her more than the many others she’d seen before. Would Freddy have done this to her? Or was this just special treatment for Dwight? My fury for the man that walked in nightmares was boiling again. Hitting him the head with a million pallets would not be justice for what he did.

“I was with Feng earlier in that church before we got split up. I’m not sure who the killer is,” she said, glancing hesitantly at Dwight. He stiffened at once, his knuckles clenching so tight they turned white. “That’s not our biggest problem though. Ace, it’s the weirdest thing. We couldn’t find any generators.”

My head was swimming with all the new ways this could go horribly wrong. “Laurie, it’s a new area. We always have trouble finding generators.”

“I haven’t seen a single hook either. Also…” She looked toward Dwight with that same weary look she had before. After a pause, she pulled a small pamphlet out of her pocket. “This was on one of the bulletin boards in the church.”

The cheap paper felt too delicate in my hands. It was one of those handouts they have at the front of every church, advertising the various programs it offers. I remember Gloria attended some grief counseling at her church because she found one of those little fliers up front. It took me a second to realize why Laurie handed it to me.

The black and white photo on the front was a little blurry, but I could still make out the features of a young man in big dorky glasses and knit sweater. He was leaning against a brick wall that looked much like the church bricks. A black Holy Bible was clutched to his chest. It didn’t have his name on it, but it was most definitely a teen Dwight.

She pointed to the black letters at the top. The first line with much bigger words simply said “Love and Compassion” while the second line, smaller, added “Gay Conversion Therapy”. I raised my brow at that. I was quite aware of the different therapies out there for gay people, but they were never loving or compassionate.

I scanned the first page, reading a bunch of nonsense about removing gayness and so on. It was the same stuff popular in the 60s just with a prettier wrapper on it. There were a few quotes from various who talked about how much better they felt overcoming their sexual feelings. I paused at the last one.

“My sense of masculinity is a lot more complete when I’m not focusing on other guys. I never felt good about myself until I overcame that sin.” -- Dwight F.  

Laurie didn’t hide the fact she was reading right along with me. She tugged on my arm, pulling me a few feet away from the heated barrel. “What’s happening here is obviously about him,” she spoke softly, but I wasn’t sure if it was quiet enough. My ears burned at the accusation. “Whatever beef Dwight has with The Nightmare, I don’t want any part of it.”

I realized now why she stared at him so wearily. She wasn’t thinking about how Dwight saved her from Freddy’s grasp. She distrusted him because of some stupid paper she found.

“This doesn’t mean anything,” I pointed at the pamphlet. “He turned to religion to answer the questions he had about his sexuality, that--”

“That’s not the point! You know I don’t care about that stuff,” she huffed. “Every killer we’ve met has had their own place. The Doctor has his institute. The Huntress has her forest. The Nightmare has his school. This place is Dwight’s.”

I laughed humorlessly. “Are you trying to tell me the blind guy is going to murder us?” Laurie and I had a friendship spanning over decades but at that moment I felt like she’d lost her mind.

“I’m saying that we’ve already seen people become corrupted that way. He wouldn’t be the first,” she said, crossing her arms.  

“This is bullshit.” The weight of her words crushed my shoulders. “He went through hell to protect you and now you are accusing him of being a murderer when he can’t even see.

She threw her hands up. “Look, I like Dwight, okay? I don’t want to make him out to be the monster but you have to admit that this is weird!”

“You know I can definitely hear you guys, right?” Dwight said, still leaning over the fire. His face was careful to be composed, but I was sure her words hurt. “Your arguing is so loud you’re making my headache five times worse. Just because Freddy is in the dream world doesn’t mean he can’t hear you guys fighting.”

Laurie’s face lit up bright red. I walked to him and rubbed a hand against his back, hoping that would reassure him at least enough to take the sting out of her words. “Sorry love,” I said, kissing his forehead.

“There are better times to be discussing this, and it’s certainly not in the middle of a trial,” Dwight said, his words coated in thick bitterness.

“Dw--” Laurie started to speak.

“Why don’t you go back to the church and dredge up more bullshit from my past to accuse me of being a killer?” He took a few short breaths, holding back whatever else he wanted to say. There was an uncomfortable silence, broken by a shrill scream. Feng Min. We’d been so caught up in our argument I didn’t think about why we hadn’t heard the lullaby that followed Freddy wherever he went. No wonder he didn’t come after us. She had him distracted.  

Laurie didn’t hesitate to run toward the sounds of the shrill screams that now echoed through the suburban neighborhood. If I had to pinpoint the location, it was somewhere near the church, a place I absolutely had no intention of dragging Dwight near now that I knew the killer was there.

Much like Haddonfield, it seemed that the wall didn’t go much further than the yards of the houses near the street. I grabbed Dwight’s hand and pulled him towards the next house over, searching for a generator to work on.

“Where are we going?” He asked.

I didn’t give him an answer. Not yet. Feng’s screamed had triggered a plan in my mind, one I knew he’d hate. Saying it out loud would make me feel like a scumbag and that’s the last thing I wanted him thinking of me as. Feng’s going to die. Then Laurie. If I get three generators done, the hatch will be revealed. I’ll find it, plop Dwight next to it, and then get myself killed. Easy.

One of the things I loved about Dwight was his blind belief in teamwork. In this situation, however, the team was going to have to die. The only problem was, would I get the generators done in time?

It seemed more and more unlikely as I pulled him through the yards trying to find one. There were no hooks, gens, or even chests. It felt as if we had been dropped into a place that wasn’t ready for us. My brain tried to make sense of it but all I could think was: This isn’t possible. If there are no hooks for him to sacrifice them on, then what is he doing to them? I thought of the words still carved onto Dwight’s arm and pulled him closer on instinct.

Another scream cut through the air, this voice deeper than Feng’s shrill one. Laurie. The first sliver of panic breached the surface. There was only so much denying I could do before it caught up to me. This is going by too fast. Where are the fucking gens?

“Ace,” Dwight tugged on my arm, refusing to go further. We were on the last house of the right side of the street, a big two-story one that actually had open doors, unlike the others.

“We don’t have time for--”

He pounced on me so hard my back hit against the wall of the house. For the briefest moment, I felt annoyed. His hand tangled in my hair as he started kissing me, missing my mouth at first by an inch. He let out a breathless sigh before pushing his mouth against mine. The annoyance melted into heat that burned through my core. I wrapped my arms around his waist. His hips rubbed against mine with each kiss until my pants grew a little tighter from the sensation, just enough for him to notice. He rubbed his hand against my crotch until my dick practically ached to be released.

“W-wait,” I gasped, letting my hips thrust a little more into his hands. The muffled feeling of pleasure that brought almost cut my words off completely. It had been so long since I’d gotten to fool around with someone, decades probably. “The trial,” I reminded him as he tugged on the zipper of my pants, which gave in almost too easily. My dick jutted out a bit, the only thing keeping it in was the thin layer of my boxers. My mind flickered to all the different ways I wanted him to fuck me, thoughts I’d tucked away as simple fantasies long ago. His tongue flicked against mine and my mind honed in on one fantasy in particular. He’d do it too. God, that would feel like heaven. That cute little mouth sucking me-- aah!

The palm of his hand cupped the tip of my dick through the fabric, sending a wave of pleasure through my brain. My mind fell into a stupor with each circular motion of his hand. The kiss stopped as he gasped for air, but the light rubbing certainly didn’t. I watched the way his lips moved as he sucked in a breath. His cheeks were flushed with heat. The sunglasses were lopsided thanks to our makeout session.

“You’re so damn beautiful,” I said, running my hand across his jaw. He let out a quiet snort as if to say yeah right. I could feel the vibrations of the sound move through his neck as I placed a few kisses there.

His hand gave a gentle squeeze as he moved from the head down to the shaft. A moan escaped me before I could help it. “Ace,” he whimpered. Every logical thought flew out the window. “I want you.”

“I’m all yours.” Do whatever you want to me just please don’t stop touching me. I looked toward the door of the house. We could find a dark corner in there somewhere, a place that wouldn’t be checked.   He tugged on the jeans, letting them slip below my thighs. Hiding inside was not on his agenda. When he said he wanted me, he meant now and God that just made it hotter. My dick tented in my boxers, eager to play victim to whatever whims he had.

The whine I let out when he removed his palm was on purpose. I jutted my hips toward him, trying to get the sensation back. The whine that came when his lips pressed over the head of my erection was quite involuntary.

The warm wetness of his lips sucking at the tip drove my head back against the wall. Even through my boxers, it was heaven. Fuckin’ tease. Ah-! My eyes might have been pointed at the sky but my brain was entirely elsewhere. He hummed with approval, the vibration of the noise eliciting a gasp from me. When’s the last time I got blown? I’d been stuck going off into the woods to handle my business for so long, I couldn’t remember.

I got the strength to bring my eyes back down at him. It shouldn’t have been so sexy, seeing his bandage-clad face sucking at the fabric. I watched the way his tongue flicked across the fabric. A red blush peaked beneath those white bandages. I should be the one doing that to him, after everything he’s been through. His lips parted over the head again, sending the thought flying from my mind. Later. I’ll worship every inch of him later.

The jeans slid down to my ankles as he pulled the waistband down, followed by the elastic band of my boxers. My dick, finally free from its confines, twitched from the cold air. Dwight left me no time to decide if the cold was uncomfortable or not. He rubbed his lips against the shaft, placing hot kisses up and down the length. Heat welled up in my cheeks as I admired how cute he looked with my dick rubbing against his face. Mine. I pushed it against his cheek, marking it with the slick of saliva and precum.

He brought his lips against it again, searching for the tip. One hand circled the base of my dick, making my breath hitch and hips stutter. His other hand needily rubbing at the bulge in his pants. Just the very image of that was enough to fuel my fantasies for the next six months, but then his perfect lips slipped over the head and suddenly--

He sucked needily, tongue swirling around and cheeks hollowing. Each bob of his head left me feeling more and more weightless. It took everything in me not to shove his head down right then and there. Instead, I let my fingers tangle into his mess of hair, shakily stroking him as he pushed me closer and closer over the edge of pleasure. He took me in like I was the last meal on earth, worshipping every inch of me until it felt like he sucked my life out of the tip of my dick.

He took in the last inch, burying his nose into my pubic hair while I felt myself hit the back of his throat. Everything felt so much tighter, warmer... I covered my mouth with my hand, desperately trying not to make any noise as I neared the edge. The only noise that could be heard was my muffled mewls and sounds of his perfect mouth working its magic. I smacked my head against the wall again, arching my back as everything in my body tightened up. The only warning I gave him was a light squeeze of his hair and then--

My eyes fluttered as I bit into my wrist, muffling the too-loud groan in my lungs. His tongue still lapped at my shaft, coaxing my cum down his throat with ease. Pleasure flooded my mind, drowning everything else out. If hell was the world around me, then heaven was inside him. When my breathing steadied and the flooding pleasure faded, I took a moment to admire the few dribbles of cum, my cum, on his chin. His cheeks flushed red as he placed a few lazy kisses on my dick.

“Ah,” I felt my mind slowly begin to form comprehensible thoughts again. My hold on his hair was too tight and I murmured an apology, keeping my fingers still tangled in his hair but releasing the grip. That was so fast. An embarrassed flush covered my face, though of course, he couldn’t see it.

“Come here,” I said breathlessly, stroking his hair as he stood. I spun us around so his back was on the wall this time and pulled him into a kiss, loving way the taste of me lingered in his mouth.

“Was that good?” He asked, his voicing sounding rawer than before. I ran my hand over the flushed skin of his chest, enjoyed the warm beneath my fingers. My body might have been in the settling state of pleasure, but my mind was already conjuring up a dozen different ways I wanted to have him.

“You’re heavenly,” I whispered, brushing my lips against his jaw. “Let me return the favor?” My fingertips tapped lightly against the bulge of his jeans, admiring the warmth and hardness. As much as I loved getting spoiled, I prided myself on giving twice as good of whatever I received. At least, as far as sex was concerned.

He gasped a little as my teeth grazed my neck. “P-please,” he whimpered, pushing up against my hand needily. Just the little squeak of his voice was enough to make the heat stir within me again. Maybe if I hadn’t gone so long without being laid, I would have made him beg a little more. This time, however, I decided to play nice. I was going to get on my knees right then and there, but he stopped me. “Wait. Use your hand,” he said, wrapping an arm around me. “I… I want to kiss you while you do it.”

A romantic type, eh? There was something a lot more intimate about holding him there, his arms around me as fiddled with the zipper of his jeans. He pressed his forehead to mine. Pants and boxers slumped to his knees. Shallow breathing that hitched as my hand made contact with his skin. “I haven’t ever, ah,” he gasped, “done anything like this before.”

“Gotten a hand job while mortally wounded in a life or death situation? Me either,” I smirked, giving a gentle squeeze around his shaft. My thumb brushed against the tip, making him moan into my mouth. I couldn’t help but smirk against his lip.

“So cocky,” he said. I pulled the same palm move he did earlier, cutting off whatever other words he had to say. His head collapsed to my shoulder and he nestled deep into my neck.

“God, you’re so cute when you’re like this,” I purred, upping the rhythm of hand a bit. His nails pressed against my hips, digging in with each stroke. “The things I would do to you if I had a bottle of lube right now,” I said, earning me a moan that took me from semi-soft to hard. A fan of dirty talk, hm? I can make good on that. More words spilled out of my mouth, promises of what I wanted to do with him the moment he hit on me.

His legs shivered. Suddenly, I felt his teeth bite into my neck as he muffled a cry. Cum hit my shirt. Muffled words were pressed against my neck. His legs still shuddered until I wrapped my arms around him, letting him lean on me as he rode out his climax. “God,” he huffed after he managed to lift his head.  “I love you. Oh gosh, I really love you.” He showered my neck and jaw with kisses, murmuring his love with each one until finally, his lips crashed against mine.

This kiss was different. It wasn’t lustful. It wasn’t flirty. It was passionate and desperate, with a choked back sob to add with it.

It was goodbye.

“Dwight?” I called his name, pulling back. I’d given plenty of hand jobs before and none of them ended with the other guy crying.

“I love you and that’s why you have to let me die,” he said, his voice shaking.

I grimaced. Post-orgasm melodrama wasn’t what I was interested in. “I’ll get the generators done. We don’t--”

“Ace. This isn’t a trial,” he said, his voice shaking. “Laurie was right.”

“If this is you trying to tell me you’re going to murder me, I’m not amused,” I said, crossing my arms. Then again, I guess a killer that blows you to death isn’t the worst thing I’ve encountered here.

“No, that’s not,” he sighed, stopping himself. “This is a death trap. I don’t know why you all were brought in here, but the only way to make it stop is if I give myself up. There’s something I didn’t tell you. Well, something I haven’t told any of you. I thought it wouldn’t ever come up, to be honest, but this place has a way of dredging up the worst in all of us.”

I started zipping up my pants, realizing the moment was definitely over.  “Did the voice tell you all that?” I asked, turning to help him redress. Cum dribbled down his dick, mixing with the dried blood on his skin from earlier. I wiped it away absentmindedly, not wanting him to be any more uncomfortable than he already was.  

“No,” he said. “It hasn’t spoken to me since… since I was blinded. I know I’m right though. This is my punishment. It wants me.”

It being the thing in the sky. Alright. Okay. My boyfriend is being threatened by some horrible eldritch creature. Okay. This is fine. “Why? Because you saw a light in the sky?” We were in completely unfamiliar territory. “Listen to me. I’ve seen people go missing. We’ve seen people get turned into these killers. This thing that’s happening to you? It’s never been like this before.”

“I fucked up,” he whispered. He wasn’t hearing me.

“There’s no way in hell I’m going to let anyone or anything take you.” The words were painfully meaningless. How are you going to protect him from something you can’t even fathom?

“I fucked up,” he said it again. “The light…” His voice trailed off for a moment. “Do you remember when I told you I saw someone in the woods watching me? It was someone I knew. A pastor, actually.” He leaned into me, shivering slightly. The only other sound in the world was the slight shifting of the grass beneath us. No more screams. No more heartbeats.

“When I came out to my parents they, um,” he continued, “didn’t take it well. They wanted me to go into conversion therapy at our family church. Thomas -- I mean, our pastor. That was his name. Thomas. I thought it was going to be awful, but he was actually really nice about it. About everything, I mean. He said it was okay to be gay and that my parents were wrong.”

This struck a chord of confusion. “What about the pamphlet?” I asked.

“The church does that so parents send their kids to him rather than an actual conversion therapist,” he explained. “Seems pretty great, right? I just had to spend a few hours a week with him and tell my parents how straight I felt. It was great, at first. Sometimes we’d hang out someplace cool, or we watched movies together. But then…”

His body went still. A few times, he started to say something but stopped. Finally, the words spilled out as awkwardly as could be expected. “He started doing things to me I didn’t want to do. There were times when we were locked up in his office and I… it felt like it would never stop.” His voice was shaking now, on the verge of tears that couldn’t be shed. The need to make him feel better was there, but nothing I could do could heal the pain of that. I kept a hand on his cheek, brushing my thumb against it.

“I couldn’t exactly stop the sessions,” he said after he’d regained his composure. “I was sixteen at the time so basically it was my parent’s choice. He told my parents I needed the therapy so they didn’t question it. Eventually, I told them about what he did. They basically blew it off, along with anyone else I turned to for help. No one believed me. My own dad kicked me out of the house because he said I was too dangerous to be around my siblings.”

Everything started to click into place. Laurie had pointed out that every killer had their own personal realm. It wasn’t a sign of Dwight being dangerous, however. “Dwight, love, I’m not going to let him hurt you,” I said, rubbing his shoulders. A crow flew in and settled on a nearby branch, preening its wings. Soon another flew in, sitting by its friend.

“Krueger knew what I was afraid of. He pried the information from my mind without me saying anything. He even made himself look like Thomas,” Dwight said, barely hearing what I said. A crow cackle from a tree above. There were several now, tilting their heads down at us. “I don’t know how he knew. He just did. Now we’re here and everyone is going to die because of me. I fucked up Ace.”

He gave me another desperate kiss. “That’s why I did this,” he said, his hands ruffling my hair with a gentleness that made me shiver. “I wanted to know what it felt like to be with you before it could take that away.”

“No one is taking you away,” I snapped.

We froze at a new sound. A choir of children singing a new song than the standard lullaby I’d grown to hate. It was a soft whisper coming from the distance, getting closer with each second. A crow fluttered its wing, cackling again. A thin veil of static was seeping into my thoughts. I felt overcome with the feeling that it had been there for longer than I noticed.

This little light of mine

“We need to get out of here,” I said, grabbing his hand and pulling him toward the house. He stumbled on the stairs, nearly falling in the process. I scooped him up into my arms once again, this time more used to carrying his weight.

I'm gonna let it shine

The darkness inside did little to improve the feeling of dread welling up inside me. We were in some kind of kitchen, nothing like I’d ever seen before. Silver appliances, marble counters, a bar that overlooked the living room; I felt like I’d walked into some model home of the future. Dwight shivered against my chest, each word the children sang made him choke back a whimper. I turned around, looking for any place we could hide in. Carpeted stairs led to up into inky darkness, save for a sliver of light coming from behind a doorway.

This little light of mine

I took the steps two at a time, my grip on Dwight tightening as I pulled him close. Each second that passed brought me closer to the nightmare that I might fail to keep my promise once again. You failed Gloria. You can’t fail him too. I opened the door with the light and shut it behind us, barely noticing our surroundings. It was only when I tried to find something to block the door that I noticed the framed picture of Dwight on the wall.

I’m gonna let it shine

Toys were scattered across the bookshelves. Weird equipment I’d never seen before sat on the desk, dusty and unused for quite some time. It looked far more advanced than anything I’d seen before, even more so than the stuff in the Institute. Focus. I turned my attention back to hiding. The small bed was too low to the ground to have him hide under. I pushed open the closet door, nearly tripping on the pile of clothes tangled at my feet. The sound of steps coming up the stairs, deliberately slow, made me feel like I was about to shatter.

This little light of mine

As gently as I could, I set him down on the floor of the closet. He was sobbing at this point, biting into his arm to muffle the sounds while his panic boiled over. “Don’t leave me, don’t please,” he pleaded, latched onto my arm for dear life. I placed a hand over his lips, kissing his forehead and hair.

“Promise me you’ll be quiet no matter what,” I whispered, waiting until he steadied his breath a bit. He nodded, still ragged but in enough shock to stay still. I kissed him one last time, stroking my hand on his cheek. “I love you.”

Yes, I’m gonna let it shine

I slid the closet door shut, hearing only the sound of the music and the beats of my racing heart. There was one last step to make. One last thing I could do to help Dwight. I headed toward the window and yanked it open, letting the cool air into the stuffy room. Perhaps Krueger will think I shoved him out. God, please, let him think I did that.

The bedroom door flew open. The sound of the children surrounded me. Exhaustion hit me like it was a cocktail laced with something malicious.

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Freddy stood in the doorway, clacking his claws together as he glared me down. Blood coated the blades, mixed with thick strands of long hair hacked from a recent victim. The stained striped sweater dripped with fresh viscera. Laurie. Feng. I shoved my back against the wall, knowing I’d soon be made an accessory to his uniform.

Sharp static filled my mind, crackling uncomfortably beneath the seams of our reality. I saw the way he shifted, his eyes darting as soon as it started. He hears it too. Noises gurgled beneath the surface: words that were impossible to decipher. Maybe he knew what they meant. I would never find out.

“Where is our lover boy, hmm?” Freddy asked, glancing around the room with feigned interest. Every time his eyes glanced over the closet my chest felt like it would burst.

Decades of holding a poker face for once became an honorable skill. “Probably across the street at this point. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not totally certain which direction he ran off in but I’m sure he was smart enough to head away from your choir of creepy brats.”

Static rippled through the mind once again, sharper this time. “You hear that?” He asked, tilting his head. “They’re in agony. Screaming. Just like what your boyfriend will be doing once I’m done with him.” His scarred lips stretched across his face in a wicked grin as he took a heavy step forward. I watched a droplet of flesh fall of his sleeve and hit the floor. Will Dwight have to listen to me getting ripped to shreds?

He moved in an instant, his free hand wrapping tight around my neck. His claws clicked impatiently, waiting to strike. “You know what I’m going to do to him, right?” The grip tightened until I couldn’t breathe. “I’m going to drag him all the way through those little halls over there until we get to his favorite pastor’s office. And then?” Blades slashed into my chest as soon as I tried to writhe away. Every word he spoke dripped with malice. He could feel the helpless rage that bubbled within me and enjoyed every second of it.

He leaned in close and whispered into my ear. “Then I’m going to bend him over that desk and fuck him just like he was sixteen.” The blades twisted in my chest. No foreplay. He wasn’t interested in messing around. They twisted, grinding against my ribs, eliciting a scream that drowned in the blood that filled my lungs. “I’ll do it over and over again. Skull fuck those pretty little holes I made in him. Maybe even make a few more holes when the old ones get worn out.”

Fog clouded my mind and the static roared over his words. My whole body began to go limp, ignoring my internal struggle to fight the oncoming darkness. “You know what the best part is? You’re going to ascend to that pretty little pond of yours and leave him behind. When you come back to life, I want you to think about what I’m doing to him. Think about how he’ll beg for you to help him and how you’ll never be able to save him.”

My body slipped from his hand, falling to the floor with a thud. Vomit and blood gushed through my mouth, the final act of my defeated body. “You failed him, Ace.”

You failed him, Ace.

You failed him, Ace.

 

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

Each throb I felt in my face was like the blade of a blender. The pain chopped at my thoughts, turning my mind to a mess of agony, terror, and despair. The choir of girls and the static that crackled in the air was the cherry on top of a migraine-inducing cacophony.

Ace kissed me for what felt like it would be the last time. “I love you,” he said. I knew I’d play those words over and over in my head for however long left I had to live. His taste, his voice, his touch: I focused on every detail I could, memorizing. Memorizing him.

His muffled cry brought me back. It wouldn’t be long before Krueger would find me. I was being ripped away from one of the few that loved me. I’d gotten to give my goodbye to Ace, but what about Bill? What was the last thing I said to him? The others too -- Claudette, Quentin, even Jake -- God, I don’t think I can do this. I clamped a hand over my mouth, shuddering out a silent sob. The sound of flesh being torn open cut off and Ace’s scream left me paralyzed in fear. This is it. It’s just me now. Each tense breath I let out tightened my chest until I was a hyperventilating mess.

Through the static, the warbled snarls sounded like a radio slowly turning to the right channel. It honed in, focusing until the static was concentrated into words. There you are. Pain. Fury. They coated the words, dripping down into my mind a stirring a deep sense of dread. Did you honestly think you could hide from me?

The sound of a door being ripped apart made me scream. Heavy hands pulled me out, shoving me against something hard. I gasped, barely able to breathe. My lungs felt like they’d had the air sucked right out of them.

“What’s this?” A familiar voice hissed. “Afraid the sun will burn out your eyes?” The sunglasses Ace gifted me clattered to the floor, followed by the crunch of plastic. I cried out as sharp metal tugged at the ribbons of bandage around my face. Something wet and fleshy slapped against my cheek as he peeled the last of it away.

“Oh Dwightie,” Freddy said, pulling on whatever landed my cheek. I screamed out in pain as I felt a strange pressure in my head. “Looks like I didn’t do a good job removing this. Whoops.” There was a snap as he tugged. Something wet hit the floor.

“We need to get you cleaned up. Wash that filthy face of yours,” he said, his breath hitting my face from some unexpected direction. I felt helpless under his control, totally blind to what he planned to do next. Something wet and spongey brushed up and down my cheek. His tongue. I could smell his breath, like rotted flesh, and hear each ragged note as he exhaled. It ran up my cheek until hitting the edge of wound. It toyed with the flesh there, moving bits of skin around in movements that would have made me cry in pain if I still could. Even without tears though, he could hear the sobs in my throat. He could feel the way my body shuddered beneath him with each gasp.

He groaned then, plunging his tongue deep into the socket. No amount of aspirin could dull the feeling of that. I screamed, trying to flail away from him, but nothing could stop his tongue wiggling inside my skull like a worm in an apple. My sense of feeling became cut off until it was just agony. There was no up or down. No wetness on my skin. No tongues or silver claws or smell of decay. Just pure, unfiltered agony that left me light and weighed down, barely conscious but too aware.

Eventually, the schlucking of his tongue stopped. He pulled away. There were noises close to the sound of his voice. I couldn’t understand what he saying. My mind had recoiled inward to the moment when Ace kissed me by the pond. It was the last time I thought maybe my fate wasn’t hopeless.

My head jerked to the side as Krueger slapped me, nearly knocking me to the ground. “Feeling bored?” Krueger snapped, much too close to my ear. “I can stick more than my tongue in there, bitch.” The sound of a zipper coming undone sent me into a panic. I flailed against his hold, kicking and scratching blindly. He grabbed my arms, only making me scream more.

Wait.

Everything stopped. The static. Krueger. My screams.

Gentle steps approached. I could feel their light vibrations on the floor beneath me. A cold hand brushed against my chin, pointing my face up. I flinched at first but they simply grabbed it again.

“Hello?” I asked, my voice so high pitched and shaky that I didn’t even recognize myself. For a moment, they let me go. Then I was hoisted up to my feet.

From the darkness, I heard him speak. “ You shouldn’t have looked. ” It was the voice, but different now that it wasn’t in my head. It no longer sounded like me, nor did it sound like the garbled voice from within the static. It sounded… human.

“Please,” I whimpered, my body trying to curl back into a ball. His hands dug into my shoulders, keeping me up. His fingers felt like ice cycles. Too cold. Too sharp/

We are far beyond pleading, Dwight, ” he said. He paused for a moment, his hand stroking at something on my chin. “ So this is why you’ve been so hard to find. The two of you have made this so more infuriating than it needed to be.

I tried to understand. My mind was racing and my lungs ached with each panicked breath. All I knew is that him talking was far better than Krueger’s torture. “The two of us?” I asked.

His fingers released me as suddenly as they had taken hold. I reached for the wall behind me, toppling over when my hand failed to connect. It was gone. Disorientation took over as I tried to feel around for anything to ground me.  

All of you, really. Ace and you. Those two brats. Even Jake, who I thought would be the most reliable of all you idiots. Really, what is it with you people? Is it not hard enough to simply survive through trials? Do you have to go pair off too? I-- ” He stopped, took a deep breath, and started again. “ Pardon. I’m at my wit's end.

He circled around me, his shoes echoing around the room. Somewhere empty. Cold ground. Feels like concrete? He chuckled as a hand yanked my hair, forcing me to look up. “ I guess the real question now is, what do we do with you?

I shrunk away from his touch, hating how icy cold air practically rolled off him. “Let me go?” I suggested with little hope. When he started to laugh, my mind managed to find what little energy I had left to get mad. “You made me blind, isn’t that enough of a punishment?”

Oh that? Meaningless. Look, ” he said. A strange squelch in the room made me jump. Something wet was spread against my right eye.

At first, the pain of being touched was enough to make me cry out. However, slowly it dulled into a slight tingling sensation. The skin on my face starting writhing on its own like a corpse that had been electrocuted. Then, the faintest light shined through. There were blurs of light that formed into blobs. Shapes became defined through the abstract colors until I could see the shape of a white hat and a stern looking man staring down at me.

He had a suit on, similar to the gray one Ace wore occasionally, but this was darker in color. Not quite as tightly fit as his. The brim on the white had was shorter too. He wiped the black slime off his hand and onto my -- or really, Ace’s -- jacket. I noticed some dripped off my cheek and it slowly clicked that he had used it to bring back my eye.

“Who are you?” I asked.

There were light wrinkles along his mouth and forehead. Strands of brown hair peeked beneath the brim of the hat. He didn’t look quite as old as Ace but definitely middle-aged. “ You aren’t as broken as I had hoped. ” If he heard me speak, he didn’t acknowledge it. I felt like I was trying to talk to a brick wall.

“Not as broken?” I repeated, my irritation growing. I’d been blinded, harassed by my rapist, murdered and tortured. “What the fuck do you mean, not broken?” I snapped.

He held up his hand, his long fingers pressed against my lips to shut me up. “ No yelling. I’ve heard enough of your screaming, thank you very much. Should have had Krueger cut out that windpipe of yours.

After that, I kept my mouth shut. Can’t be trusted. He continued to circle me, half watching and half lost in thought. Does this mean he can hear my thoughts? It seemed likely if this was the voice I’d been hearing all these years.

That didn’t stop me from considering an escape. We were in a dark, concrete room with no furniture and no windows. Just a single, wooden door stood slightly ajar. White paint peeled off its panels. Only darkness appeared on the other side. I wondered if that would truly provide escape.

“I don’t understand what’s happening, and if you let me go back to the camp, I don’t need to understand. I’m sorry for looking, okay? But I swear, I don’t know what you think I saw but I didn’t see it. I didn’t,” my words trailed off to a whimper as his head snapped to look at me.

The stranger’s eyes were what made him worse than all the rest. Black and void of emotion. His mouth curled into an amused grin. “ You think that’s what all this is about? ” He asked, chuckling. “ That was simply the final nail in your coffin.

Can you stop talking in riddles and give me some damn answers. He took the hat off and ran a hand through his hair, sighing with annoyance. With a quick wave of his other hand, the world began to change. It was a sudden shift, a physical vibration that made me hold my breath. The concrete popped into wooden boards. The wooden log walls were lit with everlasting torches I’d seen in the red forest. The stranger sat down just as a cushy seat and desk appeared in place. There were papers scattered all over the front with strange symbols drawn into them. Sketches of faces I recognized: Claudette, The Wraith, The Trapper, Meg. There was even a sheet on me, with scratched in details I couldn’t see. Why can’t I have both my eyes back?

I suppose it would be fair to tell you why this is happening, wouldn’t it? ” He pondered. I didn’t say anything, afraid that I’d make him stop talking. The longer this stranger talked, the longer I’d be far away from Freddy’s wrath. The pain from my left eye was excruciating. It throbbed as if Freddy’s tongue was still inside it.

I’d like to think I’m a generous man. I’ll do you a favor and answer exactly three questions. In return, you’ll have to answer three of mine. I wouldn’t bother trying to lie; I can read your thoughts you know. Do we have a deal?”

I felt so small, sitting in front of his desk as he stared down at me. Of course I’d take the deal. The only issue was that I had no idea what to ask him or where to even start. There were a hundred questions I had running through my head.

Do I focus on getting answers or trying to find a way out of here? Maybe I need to figure out who he is before I even decide that. How can I know I can trust him to give me the truth anyway?

I won’t lie, ” he said, still watching me closely. “ Unless you lie. Then I’ll return the favor. ” I barely fluttered an eye at that. Even if that’s true, he wouldn’t tell me how I could escape from here. He’d just say it was impossible. God, I can’t think like this. How did we get here? Where did Krueger go? I just want to go back to the camp. I want Aspirin. I want… Ace.   I don’t have all day.

I took a deep breath, trying to come up with something fast. “Who are you?” I blurted out. Maybe the question was stupid, but it was better than nothing at all.

My name is Benedict Baker ,” he said. I waited for more to follow, but he instead kept staring at me.

“That’s it?” I huffed. If that’s how he plans to be with all these questions then what’s the point?

Technically that’s a question too but I’ll let it slide this time. Yes. That is indeed who I am, ” he said, a coy smile pulled at his mouth. I thought back to all the useless junk I’d collected through the trials. Names had appeared on documents and clothing: Carter, McMillan, and so on. No Bakers, that I could remember. “ My turn. Who have you told about what you saw?

I leaned away from him as my mind instantly flickered to the only person I ever told: Ace. Of course, he knew it the second the thought came to mind. I swallowed hard, my eyes widening in fear. What have I done? It didn’t matter to me what Kruger or this Baker guy did to me, as long as they left Ace alone. He didn’t deserve to go through everything I just did.  All I could do was try to protect Ace from my own stupid mistake. “Please, don’t--”

He held up his hand. “ Unless you have a question, I’d prefer you didn’t talk.

I closed my eyes, or really just my one good eye, and rubbed my throbbing head. My limbs felt too heavy and my head felt too light. It was only a matter of time before I passed out. I was unsure where I’d be delivered then. Krueger? Some other nightmare? “What did you mean by seeing the light as being the final nail in the coffin?”

That is a complicated one. Congratulations on finally asking something interesting. ” He shifted through some of the papers on his desk, not paying me any mind as I struggled to stand up. His hand stuck on a paper with a crudely drawn sketch of a woman with heavy makeup. It took me a moment to recognize Nea. “ It was those two girls who started it. We felt their poison. Meg was easy to claim but Nea wasn’t ready. She, unfortunately, saw something she shouldn’t have so I had to take her sooner than I would have liked. Then you lot broke the barrier before we could reseal it. I knew you’d catch me before I could finish up so I let you be distracted with Ace. He was devoid of nutrients but not a danger to us anymore, or so I thought. ” He wiggled his finger at me. “ It didn’t occur to me to be worried about you.

If I was supposed to feel honored to hear that, I didn’t. I was rooted to my spot, too afraid to speak. “The sniveling fool who I thought would have been cast aside within weeks. I didn’t realize you were such a fighter until I did a deep dive into your history. Delicious, I have to say,” he mused, looking up at the ceiling as if lost in a trance. He sighed deeply, finally looking back at me. There was no regret in his face to match what he said next. “I suppose I reacted harshly, letting Krueger toy with you like that. Laurie was supposed to be his reward and I knew I’d never hear the end of it if I left him with nothing. It was just the perfect storm really. You infuriated me, he needed a prize. God, it was delicious too. After all that poison weakening our system, you were the perfect snack. The way Bill and Ace reacted really sealed the deal. I needed more.”

This was, at least, a better answer. He returned with one of his own. “ You are close to Claudette ,” he stated. “ She’s recently started a relationship with Jake. What is their weakness ?”

“You read our minds. Why wouldn’t you know that already?” I asked.

Is that your final question ?” He asked, snark hanging on his words.

“N-no!” I’d been nervously fiddling with my hands and scrunched them together on reflex. I knew he was asking me to sell out my friends. I wasn’t sure why or what their relationship had to do with anything, but he couldn’t have anything good planned for them. He clucked his tongue, aware that I wasn’t focusing. “Claudette is more compassionate about people while Jake doesn’t care much about us. She probably doesn’t agree with his whole lone wolf thing.”

Truthfully I didn’t know if that was much of a weakness. I’d never seen either of them fight before. Jake followed Claudette around like he was her shadow. That was really my only best guess for the two of them. Benedict seemed satisfied none-the-less.

What genius question will you give me this time? ” He asked.

Last one, have to make it count. A part of me considered asking him what we meant. There had to be something there, but the chances of him giving me any good answer were slim. What if he just lists out a bunch of names, like he did with the first one?

There had to be something I could ask that would encompass at least most of what I needed to know. Then again, what really was that? If escape wasn’t an option and if I couldn’t go back to the camp, what was left for me? Maybe there’s only one real question I should be asking. One I was afraid to know the answer to.

“What do you plan to do with me?” I asked.

“Straight to business. I like that ,” he stated. “ You might be thinking I want you to join the ranks of vile murders just like your friend Nea did. Perhaps you’ll be glad to know you’ll be serving a higher purpose than that .” He opened a drawer in his weathered desk and pulled out a leather bound book. He flipped through a few pages before landing on whatever he was looking for. “ Judging from what I’ve seen in your mind, you haven’t gathered what it is I do here. You see, there are more roles in this world than just to survive or to kill. Someone must keep track of the rules in a trial. Someone must make sure the prey aren’t causing trouble and that those killers, as you so simply call them, aren’t tearing each other to bits.

That’s where I come in. You can consider me to be a moderator of sorts. However, as the numbers here grow, the more stretched thin I become. Why do you think you and Ace were able to get away with so much? Why Claudette and Jake became so close before I noticed? As much as these powers may seem omnipotent, I can’t be everywhere at once.

If there was someone else, however… Someone who could keep tabs on the killers while I manipulate the survivors against each other. “ He looked at me like I was some kind of treasure. “ You’ll solve this problem of mine quite nicely.

“And if I don’t want to cooperate?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady.

Oh Dwight, you will. You have no choice in the matter. I mean that quite literally too.” There was a slight hint of sadness in his eyes. “Free will is not allowed for the servants of our master. It will be crushed out of you until you are simply a shell for us to use. I can tell by your face that you are terrified. That’s okay. This process won’t be pretty for any of us, but once it's done, you’ll never feel pain again. Consider this pact of power between the three of us. You may not want to agree to it now, but eventually, you will. I did.

The door behind me swung open, hitting with a loud thud that made me jump. Benedict barely fluttered an eye, probably hearing whoever was coming long before me. A shadow of a man slid into view as he walked in behind me. His hands gripped my shoulders.

Benedict looked up at the man and then back at me. “ Your Wednesday afternoon is about to begin, ” he said. The words made my blood turn to ice as I thought of the painful drives with my parents as they dropped me off at church. Those moments leading up to everything always made me feel the most alone.

I tried to shove the hands off me, but his fingers dug tight into my skin. “You didn’t ask the third question,” I squeaked, struggling to get away from my captor. An arm wrapped around my waist, the familiar black sleeve of a suit I saw often on Sunday mornings. His smell — not the chemically fresh scent of most deodorants, but musky, oaky cologne he wore every day — overwhelmed my senses.

I don’t need to. You gave me everything I needed to know, ” he said as he scratched a few words in his book, not even looking up.

“Come on Dwightie, let’s see what we can do with that spare eye socket of yours,” Thomas said, malice dripping over his words. He hooked a hand around my waist, yanking me out of my chair as I flailed against him. Benedict barely glanced at us as Thomas dragged me through the door, slamming it shut behind us.

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

Wooden boards sprouted over the door, letting it melt into the cracks of light behind the walls. The smell of death felt too familiar. Black fog hung around us. A basement? I barely had a moment before Thomas shoved me forward, letting me slam against the wall by the stairs leading up.

“Miss me?” He asked with the same voice that spoke holiness on Sundays and lustful desires on Wednesdays. The warm grin on his face was greatly out shadowed by the blood beneath his feet. The hooks behind him swayed back and forth, promising me a death I would never be granted. Everything about his demeanor was exactly as I remembered. Not a hair on his blond head was misplaced. The same laugh lines around his mouth. Same brown eyes.

I took a few tentative steps toward the stairs, never once breaking my vision of him. It’s not really him. It can’t be him. “Got tired of the pizza face look, I see,” I said, my voice so much weaker than I wanted it to be.

He took a step forward and I pushed myself up the stairs. I could barely see the ceiling of the room above. Speckled white tile, the cheap kind you see that people liked to stick pencils into. “Pizza face?” He asked with amusement.

“Fuck you, Krueger.” I spat. I must have been a sorry sight, one-eyed and coated from my neck to my chest in blood.

“Krueger?” He asked. “The only people here are me and you, Dwightie. Hm, you seem quite confused. Maybe it's a good thing we are starting these sessions up again after all.”

Maybe it is him… My chested ached with each shortened breath. The thought of the fog pulling him into hell was only satisfying if I wasn’t there. The last time I ever dealt with Thomas was over the phone. I was crying in a gas station bathroom after being kicked out by my parents. I begged him to get them to let me come back home. I would have done anything. I promised I’d do anything.

He hung up. After I tried to get the elders of the church to believe me, he wanted nothing to do with me.

The sinners will be cast outside and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

A dark shadow clouded his vision. “Perhaps we can do something with that wandering tongue of yours,” he said. “As I recall, you owe me quite a debt after the little stunt you pulled all those years ago.”

All I wanted to do was get as far away from him as possible. The way Benedict made it sound, there would never be a way out. They would wear me down until there was nothing left. Just like what the probably did to Nea and Meg and anyone else they took.

That didn’t stop me from running. I tripped several times as I scrambled up the stairs. My sense of depth was thrown off. The steps seemed closer than they actually were. My foot slipped on the slick wood, causing me to topple over and hit my chin on the step. Even that didn’t stop me from getting back to my feet. I could hear Thomas slowly ascending the stairs behind me. I felt less like I was being chased and more like I was simply there to be an amusing display.

It didn’t take me long to gather where we were. I felt more familiar with that church than I did with any other building in this nightmarish world. So much so I could even tell where the replication failed its job. The basement I’d just emerged into, used for congregation breakfast after the church sermons, was too small. Only two tables were set in the room instead of the ten it should have been able to house. The door I would have ran out of was one. Instead, it was replaced by a long hallway.

A hallway I’d been down not too long ago.

“God help me,” I gasped.

In my distress I called to the Lord and he answered me.

“God can’t reach you here,” Thomas said. I yelped in surprised as he yanked my shoulder around. He grabbed my throat and lifted my head up, forcing me to look at him. “What’s this? Tears?” He wiped his free hand under my good eye. I didn’t even notice I was crying. “The only god you’re going to find is me.”

He shoved me back and I tumbled to the floor, unable to keep my balanced. My head smacked against the white tile floor. The smooth surface felt cool to the touch against my hot cheek. A slight rumble vibrated through the surface. Something cracked beside me. Not the sound of bones breaking that I grew accustomed too. Something metallic and wet.

I opened my eyes-- both of them. My face was resting against the glass of a car door window. Oldies rock and roll played on the radio, just loud enough for the driver of the car to be jamming out. He downed half his soda and plopped it back into the cup holder. The evening sky laid in cloudy layers across the wet freeway road. There were street lights every now and then, waking up as night began to bathe the world in darkness.

I looked at Thomas, shaking his head goofily to the music. “Come on,” he said, grabbing my hand and forcing it up into the arm, jostling it about to the beat of the song. Steady drum beats and the strumming of a guitar that tried to drown out the roar of thunder from the sky. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew this memory. We’d gone on drives before together when simply messing around in his office wasn’t enough.

Still, there was something so mind-boggling about seeing the real world again. This car actually worked. The engine purred as the wheels hit what felt like an endless road. There weren’t brick walls enclosing me in a death trap. I wanted to fling myself through the door and start running through real grass that didn’t have traps hidden within.

“I didn’t say you could stop,” he said. He let go of my hand and ran it through my hair. I felt limp as he pulled me forward, pushing my head down into his crotch. His dick was out and I didn’t really have much time to consider when that happened. “Don’t be a tease,” he ordered, giving a tight, painful tug on my hair. I wanted to scratch at him, to strangle him harder and more ruthlessly than he’d ever done to me. My arms went limp against my instincts. All I could do was close my eyes and wish I was outside.

My back crashed against something solid. Papers scattered to the floor along with trinkets and glass that shattered beneath us. I gasped at the pain of some sharp edge digging into my spine. The sharp pain where my missing eye was returned, reminding me of the impairment.

The details of the church might have been blurred, but Thomas’s office certainly wasn’t. Dusty shelves containing bibles and other religious texts sat unused for ages. Even the small window to the outside had just a bit of light peeking through. My stomach lurched.

I tried sitting up but he promptly elbowed my chest, knocking the air out of my once again. My head hit the wooden desk beneath me too hard. “Good boys stay still,” he cooed, sweeping off his suit jacket. His hands deftly undid the sharp green tie around his neck. He reached for the buckle of his belt--

I looked away then, tears welling up in my eyes. My breaths became shorter each time until I was bordering hyperventilation. Let me go back to the camp. I glanced around for anything I could use to defend myself, even though I knew it was useless. My vision settled on the wall beside the window. The stupid, pink tiled wall that had been a part of the bathrooms before the renovation. Every crack, every discoloration, every surface flaw-- it was all there, just as I remembered it.

This time I did puke. Bile, discolored and thin, bubbled up in my mouth. When I tried to move he held me down, letting me choked on it until it flowed down my chin and neck. “Messy boy. Let’s get you cleaned up,” he said, placing a hand on the seams of Ace’s jacket. He faltered as if remembering something.

“What’s wrong? Don’t have your claw to cut it away?” I snapped before thinking of the consequences.

He smiled at me. “I told you, Dwightie, I’m not Krueger.”

“Oh really?” I hissed. “Then how do you know that’s who I was talking about?” His eyes narrowed. The smile twisted into something darker as he delivered a swift blow to my gut.

“Looks like you’re eager to get a taste of both worlds.” He grabbed the collar of Ace’s jacket and ripped it off of me, ignoring the cry of pain I let out as one of the sleeves got caught on my arm. I nearly fell off the desk, but his nails dug into my arm, keeping me from fully falling off. I noticed wet warmth leaking from his grip and glanced down. Metal blades cut into my skin from where he held me. What was once his hand was now a familiar claw. “Shame, I was enjoying letting you think I was really him. Still, I’m sure by the time I’m done with you, you’ll be so delirious you won’t even know the difference.”

His free hand groped at my jeans, lingering at my crotch. His fingers felt the soft bulge beneath my zipper, kneading at it in an attempt to wake it up. “You’re disgusting,” I whimpered, letting my eyes linger on the tiles again. He didn’t respond for once, odd considering how much he loved the sound of his own voice.

A part of me -- a sickening part I tried to drown out -- was comparing it to the real thing. There were parts Krueger got right and parts that he got wrong. Thomas was never quite so violent. Can’t make a lot of noise. Don’t want to raise suspicions. This nightmarish version of Thomas that he created seemed intent on making me scream.

He nicked a metal blade against my thigh, cutting through the fabric of my jeans and my skin. I whimpered but held my tongue as best I could. Another snip, on the other side, brought out a few more silent tears. Blood seeped through the fabric and onto the desk. He dug the blade all the way up my inner thigh, then chuckled when I shuddered as the blade barely grazed the skin of my balls.

The cutting soon stopped though as he grew bored of my muted reactions. He tugged on the zipper and unceremoniously pulled my pants off, followed quickly by my boxers. The unbearable vulnerability I felt made me want to curl up into a ball. “Oh Dwightie,” he said, cupping my still soft dick in his hand. My brain lingered on the touch even when I didn’t want to. His touch and warmth sparked some sensitivity beneath my skin. “This is precious,” he purred, pressing his lips against it in mock adoration. The slight sensation of his breath pricked at my skin in the worst ways. It’s okay. He’ll get started soon and then you won’t have to think anymore.

That didn’t stop my stifled sniffles. “You’re too beautiful for words. I wish I could keep you like this forever,” he groaned, his fingers stroking at me over and over until there was at least a slight stiffness. “Hm, now that I think of it…” His hands left me for a second, not long enough for me to scramble away, though I tried.

He returned with a black device strapped to his palm. The old recorder looked like something from the early 2000s, bulky and outdated. He had the little screen pulled out, looking at me through it. I instinctively looked away as soon as I saw the red light flick on. How did he know about that? I tried to never think about Thomas, let alone the things he did to me. Did Baker see the things Thomas had done to me? Did he tell Krueger to do this?

Then Thomas’s hands were back on my dick. My vision glazed over as, for the briefest moment, my body felt something akin to pleasure. It tingled down my dick, building heat at the pit of my stomach. My eyes focused again on the salmon pink wall. Each row had 72 tiles, each about an inch wide, and each column was 108 tall. He pulled my legs apart and forced himself between them.

“I’d use lube but you’re such a slut anyway, you don’t need it,” he teased, flicking his finger against my thigh. I secretly hoped it would hurt him just as much as it would me. I shuddered as he ran his blades closer to my hole, digging in deep enough to break the skin. Thomas liked to leave marks, but he never made me bleed. Bruises were the cutest, he’d tell me.

Something hard and warm prodded at my entrance. I tried to keep my eyes on the tiles but he grabbed my jaw and forced me to look up at him. “Smile for the camera, Dwightie,” he hissed. I only had a second to angrily glare at him before he crammed himself into my completely unprepared body. Sharp pain forced out a yelp as he jolted forward. My insides burned so hotly that tears immediately ran down my face. The stupid camera pushed closer to my face and I slammed my eyes shut to avoid thinking about it.  My back had arched from his abuse and it took me a moment to find control of those muscles. He pulled back, my insides clinging onto him with a dry tightness. Then he thrust forward again, so fast I couldn’t catch my breath. I suppressed my whimper. My back fell onto the desk as I let myself go limp.

He murmured words of approval as his hand slipped from my jaw. He raked his nails down my chest and to my dick, circling his nails around it with an unspoken threat. I focused on the pink tiles. Most of them were their original shade of pink, but 34 of them had been bleached near white by years of sunlight hitting the same spot. I had once asked Thomas about why there were tiles in his office. I tried to never let on my fascination with them, not that he would have cared. The only thing that mattered to Thomas when he used me was his own needs. Another thrust came, this one more violent than the others. He leaned all the way down until his elbows were digging into my chest.

“You like that feeling don’t you,” he said, watching the way my skin turned pale and clammy. I tried to shove his arm away from me, but as soon as I lifted my hands they flew back down against the desk.

“Fuck you,” I choked. Pressure. Too much pressure. The last thing I needed was a PTSD attack during an event that would no doubt also cause me PTSD. Suddenly Thomas’s lips were against my neck as he leaned into me, whispering the same words he always did.

“It’s okay, Dwightie. You’re safe with me.” He was breathless. I could feel him moving in me but it wasn’t like before. It was wet and consistent and obscenely loud. The pain was still there, but this time there was something new, something that felt disgustingly good. He hit just the right spot to send a shiver down my spine. If the confusion my body was going through didn’t make me puke, feeling his chapped lips against my neck would. His hand was stroking my dick, milking out the second orgasm of the day, just like he always did during our sessions.

And then I was back. Back into the real world with the dryness that kept everything comfortably miserable. Krueger’s effort to make this hurt was actually far more comforting than he meant it to be. The less my body could enjoy what was happening to me, the better. I took a deep gulp of air and waited for whatever hell he would throw at me next.

“God, I love feeling your body convulse around me like that,” he said, finally pulling himself off my chest. “You know, I can feel it when someone like you is remembering what happened to them. Nancy and Quentin… I love them but I have to admit, you’re feeding me a power I’ve never gotten off them before. This holy man must have really gotten deep into your soul, hm?” His breath shook as he spoke, a sign I’d learned well. He’s close. The relief might not have shown on my face, but inside I felt it. It’s almost over and then he’ll go away and I can finally try to reclaim myself.

“At what point did you decide you didn’t like it? Was it at the beginning? I bet it wasn’t. I bet you loved being an older man’s slut. Hm, I wonder if that’s why you’re so attached to Ace. He gives you that nice old dick you crave.” Krueger liked to hear himself talk, but this time, it struck a chord with me. Ace’s name did not belong in his mouth. “You know, Baker isn’t listening anymore. I could turn into your boyfriend if you want. All you gotta do is beg.”

It started to make sense why the Thomas persona had fallen apart so quickly. Krueger didn’t want to play the part of a pastor. He probably didn’t even know enough to do it well. He did it for as long as Benedict paid attention. My anger flared to the point of seeing red. If they wanted to break me, they’d have to do worse than this. Let’s see if this catches his fucking attention.

“I don’t care what powers you have. You’re ugly, fried up face couldn’t ever accurately match his. Why don’t you go guzzle some gasoline, since apparently burning to death is the only thing you’re good at.” I said before lobbing a wad of spit in his direction. He grabbed my head, yanking it up before crushing it back into the desk. “Eat shit,” I slurred. The waves of fury wouldn’t be held back by mere pain. You want to break me? Then I’m going to do whatever I want before it happens.

“Someone here needs an attitude adjustment,” he said. He pulled out of me so fast I thought my guts were going to be ripped right out with him. Words were still flowing out of my mouth, insults and obscenities I wouldn’t have ever dreamed of saying before. I prided myself on never cursing but at least that sin would be minor compared to the long list my current company had.

He walked around the desk, setting the camera on the nearby bookshelf. “I need an attitude adjustment and you need to swallow a bullet.” I heard my own voice, but my mind was beginning to fade. There was blood soaking through my hair and a throbbing headache that hadn’t been there before. At the moment, I barely noticed the impact, but now I wondered just how hard I’d hit the desk.

That didn’t matter, however. With just a handful of my hair, he yanked me forward until my head was dangling off the edge of the desk. A section of hair ripped from the roots and he tossed the sweaty strands to the ground. I still winced at the pain, though it wasn’t anything compared to what I’d experienced before.

My insults stopped flowing as soon as his dick came into view. I thought he was going to make some snarky remark about making me shut up. A breath got caught in my throat as I noticed that he didn’t seem to be aiming for my mouth.

A brief second passed.

I started flailing. My arms and legs were stuck to the desk by some unseen force. The advantages he had were so unfair, but I guessed that was the point. I’d always be at a disadvantage against Krueger, Baker, against whoever controlled this place, whoever we was. Against Thomas. That was my life. I was born to be overpowered by the worst situations.

That didn’t stop me from trying to fight. I arched my back, twisted and turned against his will, shook my head away as he tried to press his dick into my eye socket. My arms and legs clung to the desk like they’d been glued there. Slowly the feeling of paralysis crawled all the way up to my neck until all I could do was seeth and take it. He grabbed both sides of my face and held my head firmly still. Even then he’d have to fight me. I wasn’t going to go down easy. Not again.

The head of his dick pressed into the small hole. The shredded skin and flesh around there flared with pain once again, along with the strange new sensation of pressure. Pressure and tightness and pain. I tried to find the tiles for some kind of relief. All I could see was his pale thighs and stomach. He pushed deeper.

I think my mouth opened to scream. My throat felt raw from all the other screaming and cursing I’d done earlier. He couldn’t fit all the way in, but that didn’t stop him from trying. I wasn’t sure if the hole was simply too small or if he’d hit the back of my socket. The pressure was horribly intense but I couldn’t feel anything back there at all except the pain id had from what he’d done before.

Somewhere behind me there was a crack and suddenly one of my fingers was throbbing. It took me a second to realize that I’d been clawing into the wood of the desk so hard I’d cracked a nail off.

There were strange thoughts going through my mind. Fears that he might hit my brain or something. Questions about the lack of nerves within my socket. The worst thought crossed me, one that actually made me want to die for the first time that night: maybe I would have been better off with the real Thomas here.

Thomas was a lot of terrible things but we’d crossed into a sadistic territory that not even he would fall into. The man thrusting into my face was simply wearing Thomas’s skin like an ill-fitted suit.

Was their grand plan to make me wish for the real Thomas and break me that way? I didn’t know or care at that point. I had begged to be released back to camp but now I just wanted it to be over. There would be no way for me to explain to others what happened to me. No amount of healing could ever let me and Ace have a normal romantic relationship. He deserved someone less broken than me anyway.

It was the thought of Ace that finally brought me back to some sense of despair. Benedict Baker knew I’d told him about the light. Would he have to go through the same torture? He did everything to protect you, and now you’re the one that might have gotten him into a fate worse than death. Thomas -- Krueger, whatever -- thrust forward so hard my head cracked against the wood. I screamed that time, feeling the blood now gush through my hair and dribble onto the floor. Something hot spilled out onto my face-- cum leaking out of the socket as he pulled out. My hands instinctively tried to swat it off my brow and forehead, but of course, I wasn’t even allowed that. This is hell.

“Open your mouth again and I’ll piss in it and see if I can get you to snort it out your nose,” Krueger snapped, his own voice coming out of Thomas’s lips. Whatever I said had gotten to him, apparently.

“Do you even have a working bladder? I figured it would have been all burned up,” I said with what little energy I could. I wasn’t sure where this defiant spirit within me was coming from, but I appreciated the effort.

“Keep talking. I’ll fuck your brains out you little shit,” he snapped. The last time he cracked open my skull, I never got the luxury of becoming brain dead. I doubted I would be that lucky this time either. I kept my mouth shut, even as he shoved my head back onto the desk with enough force to make tears flow once again.

He grabbed the camera again, focusing in on my face. “Look at that,” he cooed. “All those tears. All that blood. You look so perfect with my cum on you. It’s the perfect accessory for my favorite student.” His hand trailed across my thigh, brushing at my mostly soft dick. Not this again.

The phrase “student” brought back a whole host of unpleasant memories. My parents had been so pleased to see me helping Pastor Thomas with the youth events, writing up the church pamphlets, and all the other various secretarial duties he passed onto me. He called himself my mentor. I’m sure many of the older ladies in the church gossiped that I was going to go into ministry as a career. They never suspected what happened behind the closed office doors of the church.

Thomas stroked me with languid movements. Enough to stir heat in my stomach, but not enough to take my mind off the aching pain that traveled everywhere through my body. At that point, I wasn’t entirely sure he could force anything out of me. Every breath I took reminded me of the pain in my ribs and back from where he tossed me around.

“Come on Dwightie, don’t you want to put on a good show for the camera?” He asked. I could hear the sound the lens twisting, no doubt zooming in on some part of my body I wished to be covered. His hand squeezed, his palm hot and sweaty against my shaft. The pressure went from pleasant to unbearably painful. He chuckled as he finally released it, watching me wheeze in pain.

I had nothing but hatred for him, for Baker, for all the assholes that made my afterlife a never-ending nightmare. I wanted to be back at the camp, leaning against Ace as Bill retold one of his many stories. The thought of Ace’s embrace made my throat burn with stifled tears. If Baker thought he could turn me into one of those monsters and make me hurt Ace, he would be disappointed. I’d rather die than harm any of them, especially him.

An interruption broke through. Static filled my thoughts, flickering through my mind as if to probe my brain. There were noises, deep and muddled, beneath the surface of the sounds. I strained to understand but the words were garbled and nonsensical. Just sounds that only pretended to be a language.

Krueger stood back from the desk. The facade of Thomas had fallen away. He’d returned to the sweater-clad monster I’d seen so many times before. He didn’t look so pleased now; more confused, than anything else.

Violent vibrations shook the ground beneath us. The shelves rattled so much that the books slid off and clattered to the floor. Static crackled in the air like lightning. The tiles shattered from the now unstable foundation. For a moment, I hoped that the ceiling would collapse on top of me.

How nice it would be to die right now.

The earthquake settled after a moment but the steady sound of steps approaching down the hall kept it from being totally silent. Whoever was coming was walking with a quick pace, as if in a hurry. Another person here to torture me? I tried to steady my panicked breathing. The door flew open.

Baker moved carelessly past the knick-knacks and books that had scattered across the floor. There was a pale, panicked look on his face that hadn’t been there before.

I tried to sit up for the first time in what felt like hours. My back ached the most out of my whole body. The sharp edges of the wood had dug in deep enough to leave heavy gouges. Blood smeared down my waist and legs but at that point, I didn’t care.

Baker grabbed me by the arm and yanked me off the desk with barely any warning. I tumbled to the ground, my legs too unstable for the moment. The broken glass cut into my hands and knees, making an already shitty situation more painful than before.

“What’s going on?” Krueger asked as I stood up and picked at the bloody glass in my palm. Seeing the striped sweater and ugly hat was actually a relief. As much as I hated Krueger, it was better than the Thomas skin suit he had going on before.

Baker said nothing, at least not out loud. Static in the air made it obvious that there was some kind of conversation happening internally. Baker’s face never changed once in the exchange, but Krueger had a harder time keeping his emotions in check. His face moved into a scowl and his breath quickened.

Am I free? I looked toward the door. My clothes were somewhere in the now wrecked room. Even just a blanket to cover up in…

Baker turned his attention away from Krueger. The briefest burst of static pounded through my head. I collapsed to the ground, feeling my body go weightless. Heavy darkness covered my mind as I drifted into a panic-inducing unconsciousness.

You are coming with me.

Chapter Text

Dwight Fairfield

Static.

All around me it fizzled. My skin. My nails. The dewy grass and mud beneath me. The blood in my veins. The hands that dragged my limp body along the ground.

We were going up. So far up, in fact, that I couldn’t see anything below us. The fog here was thick and suffocating. It blocked out any light that might have existed beyond its borders.

It was just me, Benedict Baker, and the inky black sky.

At first, I tried to struggle against his hold. My arm ached from where he held me, dragging me like rag doll behind him. My limbs didn’t respond to my efforts. They dragged along, limp and useless. There was something else wrong with my body, though. Something beyond the missing eye and the torn off nail and the cum and blood and mud that coated my scar ridden skin.

I couldn’t feel anything. Not the pain, the wet grass, or the cool air nipping at my naked body.  I tried to say something, but my mouth hung dully open, only emitting a low groan.

What did you do to me?

Baker acted as if he didn’t hear me. He must have sensed the panic in my thoughts as I realized my whole body had become numb and paralyzed. Yet, even as the grass turned into inky black slime, he made no sign of sympathy. I felt totally alone in his company.

I tried to remember what had happened. I’d blacked out after Baker pulled me away from Freddy. The details around that time were flimsy in my mind. Baker looked panicked when he came. Afraid, even. What happened to Baker? Whatever scared him had sent him in a hurry.

A strange, dull thudding vibrated through the air. The static shuddered to a beat. The higher we went, the more I felt like the very atoms of my body were being torn apart. Even Baker’s grip on me seemed to weaken with each pulse until he had to place both hands on me to carry me up.

Something hit my face, once, then twice. Black droplets oozed down above me, stringy and pliant. I looked at the blackness above, only to notice that is wasn’t the inky night sky that covered the campfire. It was a sheet of black ooze which dripped down onto the hill we were climbing. A dull orange light throbbed only a mere few feet above me, in rhythm with each pulse of static. Its glow was muted by the thick black slime that encompassed it, but every beat made it glow just a little bit brighter.

Baker dropped my arms, letting me fall straight onto my back.  

We’re here.

We weren’t at the top yet, but we were as far as we could reach without Baker having to crawl on all fours. Even from where we stopped, he had to hunch his back or else get his head into the black ooze. Not that it would have mattered much anyway. The slime here flowed freely, quickly coating the both of us as it dribbled down from above. I wished at that moment I could look around. My head was stuck looking straight up into the orange glow.

This is the light.

Yes. He finally answered me.

Why are we here?

I told you. You have a new purpose. Your time in the trials is done.

I didn’t know what that meant. All I knew is that the longer I stared at that light, an immense dread filled the pit of my stomach. Baker pushed a hand under my legs and back, lifting me up with little effort. The static shuddered throughout my body, so loud I could no longer hear my thoughts. If Baker said anything else, it was long lost.

Heme… go... vim it…

The beyond the pulsing, a deep noise in the static formed words. They were hard to hear, but they were there. Not from Baker, but from something else. Something deep within the light. I finally understood what Baker meant, when he said he was creating a pact of power between three.

Hell mil sits... rots sum achs ho... eve flit... tog

The black slime parted until nothing stood between us and the light. Spider legs emerged from all side and lifted me up. I could hear nothing, feel nothing, and see nothing. Just the blinding light and static.

nos oip lsit wofls... thu... rogh sit nievs

My mouth grew wider as something clamped down on the corners of my lips. I tried to look for whatever was holding me hostage, but my body remained just as limp as before. All I could do was let it manhandle me in whatever way it wanted.

Something wet touched my tongue. I gagged as it slid its way down into the back of my throat, constricting my air flow with it’s thick, viscous body. How long it was, I could not tell. Time seemed to move both too fast and too slow. All I knew is that I eventually stopped feeling it on my tongue. It crawled down in me, wiggling around like a worm burrowing into a new home.

All of a sudden, the static seemed to focus into a single source. The voice I heard once before was no longer lost in it, but instead one with it. A strange burning sensation began to boil in my chest, seeping into all parts of my body. I could feel myself becoming obliterated from the inside.

We are one now, Dwight.

Finally, I felt the pain. It was worse than anything Freddy had to me. Worse than any trial. This was a pain that shook me down to my very being. The creature purred with pleasure as I screamed out. The agony overwhelmed me, but so did the Spider’s very presence. It was more than just a voice in the fog. More than just static. I could feel it’s loathing, it’s power, it’s hunger.

I was a piece of food dangling above the mouth of my predator. All it would take was the slightest twist and it could break me in two and chew me up. I could feel it resisting, not because of something as silly as pity, but something else.

I groaned as I felt a sharp pain in my chest. That’s why. The thing that crawled into my throat. The black slime around us. I’d become one with the Spider and one with Baker. The second it put that thing inside me, I was doomed. It can’t eat me because I’m a part of it now. It’s given me a piece of itself, and now we are linked.

A normal person should have felt hopeless, learning that they’d become infected with a creature like that. Yet, for the first time, I had some kind of understanding of what was happening. I saw now what really ruled the realm and pulled us in. Perhaps I would die with that knowledge, but I couldn’t help but be satisfied that I’d at least gotten something. I met the Spider and learned it’s secrets. I was strong enough that it had to force itself down my throat.

The creature’s frustration and loathing felt like it was physically crushing me. It hurt you, didn’t it? You had to tear a piece off of your own body just to get me to this point. My body might have been useless, but my mind felt more fired up than ever before. Was this the grand finale? You force me to be raped and tortured by some psychopathic monster and then, what, you give me the final blow by making me eat a piece of you?

Beyond the roar of fury the creature let out, I could hear Baker’s voice. Nothing he could say would make me shut up. No amount of intimidation could get me to comply. If I was going to die anyway, I wasn’t going to sit down and take it. I’d spent my whole life letting people use and abuse me for whatever they wanted. I sure as hell wasn’t going to die that way.

You can torture me, shove slime down my throat, kill me for good. It’s doesn’t matter. I’ll never be “one” with you. The only people I’ll be “one” with is Ace, and Bill, and all my other friends down there. Nothing will break the bond I have with them, especially not some stupid pact I never agreed to in the first place.

Dwight from five years ago would have pissed himself at the mere idea of what had happened to me. The only thing that helped me grow stronger was my friends. I couldn’t let them down when they needed my help. Through thick and thin, we were a team destined to be together. The Spider could cast us aside or warp is into something we were never meant to be, but it would have to fight like hell to pull us apart first.

We were survivors. Nothing could take that away from us.

The worm inside me writhed with every word. Baker’s voice echoed through my mind. Free will is not allowed for the servants of our master. I warned you of this from the beginning. You can fight as much as you like, Dwight, but in the end, you will succumb to the Entity’s will.

Baker’s intent was to scare me into submitting, but I could feel something else there. They made a mistake when it let me connect with it. As soon as I did, I felt a link with the world around me.

I was in the traps that hid among tufts of tall grass. I was the breeze that brushed against a muscular, masked man. The Trapper idly waited for a new trial to begin. He worried that there hadn’t been one in quite some time.

I moved past the swaying hooks lining the street of Haddonfield. Michael Myers longed for prey that hadn’t come. He stood by an upstairs window, watching for signs of life. There hadn’t been any visitors for a long time.

The Wraith freshened the layers of paint on his shawl, and I could feel the wetness of the white liquid beneath his fingertips. He was angry and confused. “ Killed them all before I was even done. Going to get punished for something I didn’t do wrong.”

It took me a moment to realize I was hearing his voice. There were others out there, soft and muted until I honed in on the thoughts. Whatever was happening to my own body felt too distant for me to care. I was far away, in the thoughts of the monsters that once hunted me. So this is how Baker does it. My mind wandered back to him. Why were you so upset?

The light burned my skin, crackling like fire all around me. My arms and legs ached from the sheer pressure weight down on me. A sharp snap sounded as one of my arms splintered. The pain, however, felt dull enough for me to ignore.

The power I held was more immense than I could imagine. His thoughts, feelings, memories were all there, waiting for me to pilfer. That’s how they must have known about Thomas. Everything I’ve ever experienced has been free for them to exploit. What I wanted, however, was to know why he was so upset. I prodded at his mind, sifting through various thoughts until I found something familiar.

He was leaning over me, staring into the muddled holes where my eyes should have been. He heaved once, opening his mouth. A stream of black slime flowed out into my eye socket. It filled it up, fizzling around the edges of my frayed skin. A milky white bulb formed, shifting in color until I see my own brown eye looking up at Baker’s face.

My stomach churned, and it wasn’t just from the fact I found out my eye was made out of Spider ooze. Whatever had crawled into me clenched tight, sending a wave of agony down my spine. I might have puked. I wasn’t sure. My senses were too dulled to tell. My body was giving out on me with each second that passed. I didn’t have much time before I’d black out completely, and then I was unsure I’d be allowed to wake up again.

I returned back to my current mission. Dying could wait. I needed answers.

After Baker turned me over to Krueger, he never really left us alone. He stayed in his office, giving orders to Krueger like it was some kind of job. The horrific nature of those demands never once crossed his mind. In fact, I found him sometimes savoring the energy that bloomed out of the situation.

My pain, Krueger’s lust, the sheer terror: all of it fed the Spider. In turn, Baker reaped the rewards. It was a surge of energy that breathed life into him and satiated his hunger.

Something happened, however. Something that pulled Baker away. A screech from the Spider that it was in danger. Baker combed through the minds of every killer and survivor, searching for whatever could be the problem. Every second, the Spider frantically squirmed. Baker was terrified. He’d never seen his master fearful. Then, his mind rested upon the culprit.

My own eyes flew open as I realized then why I’d been taken so quickly. They wanted more time to cultivate my weakness, but someone had gotten in the way. Someone had figured out the Spider’s weakness.

Ace.

Chapter Text

Ace Visconti

Gloria sat in our sunroom with a record playing. The old machine has been in her family forever. It held a nostalgic place in her heart. She had a yellow dress on, one with prints of tiny, white daisies all over.

“One of these days, I’m going to have to hire a detective to find you,” she teased, but the humor in her voice didn’t quite mask her concern. I’d done my best not to involve her in my affairs, unlike all the bridges I burned with my family. That didn’t stop her from finding out about the massive debt I owed to The Ant.

She also knew about my plan to gamble away the last couple of thousand dollars I had in a desperate attempt to get the money I owed him. I’d managed to wring the last two thousand from my brother and sister, though it wasn’t an easy thing. They’d grown used to my charms and they knew my tricks. If it weren’t for the fact we were family, they would have cut me off long ago.

“I can help you pay,” she sighed as if she knew what I would say. There was a long list of people I’d burned, and I didn’t plan to add her to it.  Her head hung a bit lower and she looked at the red and gold carpet on the floor. “I don’t want you to leave. I’m scared you won’t ever come back.”

I dropped my suitcase on the floor before walking across the room. A few tight black curls settled over her forehead. I brushed them out of the way as I set a kiss there. She felt so warm and comforting in my arms. Gloria was the only woman who ever made me feel like that.

“I’ll be back, I promise,” I said, meaning every word. Luck was with me that weekend. I could feel it. All I needed was to take a risk and I’d be rolling in dough just like the old times.

Of course, it didn’t end up that way. I never kept my promise, as much as I wanted too.



Gloria sat in our sunroom with a record playing. She had a yellow dress on, along with tiny, white daisies in a floral pattern. Yellow was her favorite color. It suited her, bringing out golden tones in her umber skin.

“One of these days, I’m going to have to hire a detective to find you.” Her brows furrowed with concern.

I’d done my best not to involve her in my affairs. I couldn’t be the bastard I knew her family and friends thought I was. I wouldn’t ruin her life like I did mine.

She also knew about my plan to gamble away the last couple of thousand dollars I had in a desperate attempt to get the money I owed. I’d managed to wring the last two thousand from my brother and sister. The last thing Delfina said to me was that she never wanted to hear from me again.

“I can help you pay.” There was a long list of people I’d burned, and I didn’t plan to add Gloria to it.  She meant more to me than my own sister. I really was a bastard. Her head hung a bit lower and she looked at the red and gold carpet on the floor. “I don’t want you to leave. I’m scared you won’t ever come back.”

I dropped my suitcase on the floor before walking across the room. A few tight black curls settled over her forehead. I brushed them out of the way as I set a kiss there. She felt so warm and comforting in my arms. I would have done anything in the world for her. Anything except stop being the piece of shit husband I was.

“I’ll be back, I promise,” I lied. I thought luck was with me that weekend. I lost everything.

 

Gloria sat in our sunroom with a record playing. Everything was soft and fuzzy and bathed in light from somewhere beyond the open window. I tried to move, but tendrils of something wet and black held my legs in place. A door opened behind me just as all the glass in the room shattered. Heavy breaths brushed against my right ear. A cold hand pressed against my neck, twisting hard enough to make it snap.

 

Gloria sat in our sunroom with a record playing. A chorus of little girls hummed a haunting tune through the scratched vinyl. She had a yellow dress on, a long one with blood that coated the pretty floral pattern.

“I did everything. I even hired a detective to find you,” she sobbed, her face in her hands. I wondered how quickly her family told her to give up on me. Did she keep looking for me until her death? I couldn’t imagine her remarrying, considering the way she was.

I’d done my best not to involve her in my affairs. It hadn’t been enough. The people searching for me dragged her into it.

“I could have helped you pay.” There was a long list of people I’d burned. I pulled off scams that ruined lives. Moronic fathers bought into my schemes, losing so much money they couldn’t afford to feed their kids. Women stole money from their husbands to give to me, only for me to disappear a few weeks later. I got what I had coming to me, but I wished it hadn’t hurt Gloria in the process. She started sobbing again. “Where did you go?”

I dropped my suitcase on the floor before walking across the room. A few tight black curls settled over her forehead. I brushed them out of the way as I set a kiss there. She felt so warm and comforting in my arms. If I had known what was coming, I would have never left.

“I wish I could come back,” I cried, holding her tighter.



Gloria sat in our sunroom, despite the sky being pitch black. The only sound in the room was my breathing. She stayed still as she looked out at the darkness.

“You’re dying, Ace,” she said with a dead tone. A chill went down my spine. Something had gone wrong. This wasn’t how things had ended.

The walls melted around us. Shelves of books turned into black ooze. “So are your friends.” I’d been a bastard to everyone in life. The idea that any of the people at the camp considered me a friend was insane.

I dropped my suitcase on the floor before walking across the room. Her black hair clung to her cold and wet forehead. I wiped away a few tears from her cheek before placing a kiss on one of them. She felt so cold and weightless in my arms.

“I’ll be back, I promise,” I said. The ceiling gave way as it warped into a black slime that fell over us.  

“There’s no coming back now. I’m gone, and you’ll be gone too if you don’t wake up.” She looked up at me. “Ace, he needs you.”

I didn’t understand what she was talking about. “Who?” I asked. My head felt too light. Suddenly I was alone. The slime constricted around me, hardening into a thick shell. “Gloria?” I called out her name. I tried to open my eyes, only to feel a thick film weighing them down. What the hell is stuck to my face? I went to wipe it off, only to feel some heavy resistance on my arms. It pressed down all around my body. My breath hitched, made worse as I struggled to even breath.

I quickly realized the only way I’d get out of there was with help. I sucked in all the air I could possibly get before trying to shout. A muffled groan was the only sound I managed to get out before a wad of slime filled my mouth. I wasn’t sure if I could die from suffocation or not.

I wiggled my hands, feeling something hard brush up against my fingertips. It crumbled against my touch before melting into the same slimy consistency that buried me alive. The hell is this stuff? I pushed further out, letting more of it crumble away.

It took some time, but eventually, I reached the point where I could feel cool air on my hands. The shell cracked around me, and I collapsed onto the ground.



Gloria sat in her sunroom, her silhouette the only thing I could see in the darkness. The walls and floors were crusted in dried slime.

“Do you know how afraid I was when you left?” Her voice was all around me. It should have frightened me, with how cold her tone was. Instead, it felt like a gift. I missed her voice more than I ever realized.

“That boy isn’t going to last much longer,” she said, a heavy sadness in her voice. An image flickered to my mind. Dwight, sitting in a closet, blood coating his face and chest. “You know where you are, don’t you?” She waved her hands at the crumbling black walls. “Isn’t this familiar?”

I took a step toward one of the walls. Beneath my feet, it crumbled and turned into that black slime. The texture seemed to change with just the slightest shift in pressure.

“Krueger took him,” I said as everything came flooding back. We’d been put into a trial with no way of escape. “I don’t know how I can save him. I left him there to die.” Left behind. If Bill had been with us, that wouldn’t have happened. I wasn’t as brave or strong as him.

Krueger’s words rang in my ears. You’re going to ascend to that pretty little pond of yours and leave him behind. When you come back to life, I want you to think about what I’m doing to him.

“If there’s one thing I know about Ace Visconti,” she began, “it’s that he’ll always find a way to make things right.”

 

I tried to open my eyes, only to feel a thick film weighing them down. What the hell is stuck to my face? I went to wipe it off, only to feel some heavy resistance on my arms. It pressed down all around my body. You’ve done this before. I wiggled my hands, feeling something hard brush up against my fingertips. It will crumble. It did so, melting into the same slimy consistency that buried me alive. It took some time, but eventually, I reached the point where I could feel cool air on my hands. The shell cracked around me, and I collapsed onto the ground.

This time, there was no sunroom and no Gloria. I fell onto the forest floor, covered in slime and gasping for air. A wall of the hardened ooze stood tall behind me. Mark this down as the worst way I’ve ever woken up. I scrambled to my knees. The strange substance clung to my clothes. Just the slightest touch as I pulled it off made it turn into a puddle of black water in my hands.

I heard shouting in the distance. The flames of the campfire flickered between thin, drooping branches. I stumbled toward the light, unsure if this was another trick.

Things had changed in the time I was gone. The roaring fire became a small pit of embers, barely strong enough for me to see everyone. The trees wept around us, their leaves stripped away or rotting in a dry, brown mess. Instead of the infinite loop out in the woods I’d grown used too, a close wall of slime towered over the camp so high I couldn’t see where it touched the sky.

Everyone was there, except for the man I longed to see the most. They hadn’t noticed my arrival yet, but that changed when Claudette lifted her head. “Ace!” She gasped.

From there, it was chaos. A crowd of people huddled around me, pulling me into a giant hug. “Jeez, you all are acting like I died or something,” I said, trying to free myself.

“We thought you were,” Laurie sniffled as she placed a hand on my shoulder like she needed to make sure I wasn’t a ghost.

The only one that lingered behind everyone else was Bill. I knew just by the look in his eyes that he was hoping that I wouldn’t be alone. “Where’s Dwight?” Bill asked.

It took all my strength just to say it out loud. “Krueger took him.”

I expected there to be accusations. If I were in Bill’s position, I’d hate my guts for ever letting that creep take Dwight. The others let me go, perhaps sensing how upset I really was. “We told everyone about what happened, Ace,” Laurie said. “I mean, about the church and the pamphlet we found and, well, what Dwight turned into.”

“What Laurie is trying to get at here is that we think Dwight has become a killer,” Jake said, his arms crossed.

“Dwight wouldn’t do that,” I grimaced. I knew that stupid theory would come back up. “He’s not—“

Laurie stopped me with a firm voice. “Ace, listen to us.” It was clear that everyone was listening, even the sleep deprived Quentin. He rocked back and forth, staring at the dying fire. King had a look on his face like he didn’t buy any of what Laurie was selling. Bill’s expression was unreadable.

“Every killer gets its own territory. It happened with The Shape,” Jake started. “I mean, we even found Nea’s van for crying out loud. It’s obvious that Krueger wanted Dwight for something. Now we see Dwight’s got some weird church popping up out of nowhere with his face and name all over it. I don’t want to believe it either, trust me, but all the signs point to Dwight becoming a killer.”

“Maybe The Nightmare has been the one in charge all this time.” Laurie’s voice trailed off.

“That’s not possible,” Quentin finally spoke, his voice quiet compared to all the others. He’d sat down at the fire before anyone else after I arrived, probably too tired to stay on his feet any more. “Freddy was human during the time some of you were taken. I know he’s powerful, but he’s not strong enough to make a place like this. Plus… this just isn’t his style.” He murmured the last few words, each one thick with sleep.

“Quentin’s right,” I said. “I know why Dwight was taken and it has nothing to do with Krueger.”

“How do you know?” Laurie asked with suspicion.

“Dwight told me, right before Krueger got to us,” I answered.

“And you think we can trust that?” This time it was Feng Min who spoke up. “I’m not going to trust someone who I know is going to end up killing me in a week.”

“He’s not,” I snapped.

“Let’s at least hear him out,” Bill said.

“I don’t need too.” Feng crossed her arms.

“Well then shut the fuck up so I can hear him out,” Bill growled. No one said a word after that, perhaps because they had never seen Bill lash out like that. I knew he’d been teetering on the edge of fury as soon as they mentioned the idea of Dwight becoming a killer.

All eyes were on me. Telling them could be a big mistake. It was obviously dangerous information, but maybe there was power in that. The more people that knew, the more of us could use it to fight back. “Remember the trial where Dwight disappeared? That happened because he saw something he wasn’t supposed to, and the voice we all keep hearing decided he needed some kind of punishment. Krueger is just a tool for that purpose.”

“Sounds about right,” Quentin muttered.

“What did he see?” Bill asked. He wanted to get to the point.

“He said it was a light in the sky. The voice told him ‘you shouldn’t have looked’ or something like that.” I remembered how terrified Dwight was when he shivered in my arms. I wanted to go back to that moment if only so I could have a second chance to be with him.

Laurie looked up at the night sky over us. “Up there? I’ve never seen anything over here. Not even stars.”

“This is ridiculous.” Feng rolled her eyes. “Why would it go through all this just cause he looked at the moon or whatever.”

“Why are you being a bitch about this?” King snapped. His fists were clenched tight into balls that made his knuckles turn white.

“You all need to think realistically. If that makes me a bitch, so be it. I’m just saying that something here isn’t adding up.” Feng spoke so confidentially. She hadn’t seen the way Dwight begged me to save myself. She didn’t know what he was like. He cared about all of us too much to become a cold-blooded killer.

“It wasn’t the moon or stars, and it wasn’t this sky either. It was over Badham. He said it was ‘the light that eats us when we die’.” I wondered if the light ate me when I died last time. I hadn’t been on a hook when Krueger ended my life.

You’re going to ascend to that pretty little pond of yours and leave him behind.

“When the spider takes someone’s body off the hook,” Laurie confirmed. “I… I don’t see how that’s such a big deal, though. We all knew there was something weird about that. Why would it matter if we knew there was light up there.”

I didn’t come out of the pond this time. Was that deliberate? Was it because Dwight told me about the light?

“That’s because it isn’t,” Feng snarked.

“It’s the only lead we have right now. Maybe there’s a way to reach the light from within a trial,” Bill huffed on a cigarette one last time before stomping it out.

“Wait, I’m confused. Why do we want to reach the light?” Claudette asked.

It wanted me to stay dead.

“Well it’s important for some reason,” Bill said with a gruff voice. He wasn’t as snippy with Claudette. “Maybe we can use it to get him back. If all the dead people are in the light, then maybe he’s there too.”

“That doesn’t make sense. When you die, you come out of the—“ I stopped.

The water.

You’re going to ascend to that pretty little pond of yours.

I looked past the tree line and toward the black waters. There must have been thousands of times we’d come out of there, none the wiser about what lay beneath us. Why did we never question the fact the water was black? We simply accepted it as a quirk of our new home, not once considering that maybe it was a feature. Maybe it was black because it was hiding something. Something so deep and so bright that it needed a cover.

If Dwight is dead, then we’ll find him in the light.

While everyone argued, Bill, Claudette, and King followed my line of sight.

If there’s one thing I know about me, it’s that I’ll always find a way to make things right.

My feet were moving toward the water before I knew what I was doing, first as a slow few steps and then a sprint. I promised Dwight I would protect him. I intended to keep that promise or die trying.

“What’s happening?” King asked, following behind me. Apparently, the three of them were curious enough to follow.

“Ace? Wanna clue is in?” Claudette said, sounding just as lost as King.

“The dead go into the light. They come out of the water. So, the light is in the water.” I knew I could trust Bill to keep it simple.

As we neared the shore, I wondered if drowning was something that could actually kill me. I never heard of anyone dying outside of a trial. Maybe I would just feel the pain of drowning without any lethal effect. I’ll endure that to save Dwight.

“You should let me do it,” Bill said as if reading my thoughts. “We don’t know how deep this is. It’s too dangerous.” There were many times I wished Gloria had gotten to meet Bill. He would have found her to be the most charming woman alive. She had a way of melting people’s hearts with just a smile. I’m sure she would have found his rough edges refreshing. The two of them would have been the best of friends.

“This is crazy,” Claudette spoke like she couldn’t believe it. “We don’t even know if it’s really down here.”

“That’s why I should do it,” I said, turning to face them. “If I’m wrong, or if Dwight was lying, then at least it will just be me that gets hurt.”

“I ain’t lettin’ you do this,” Bill growled. “I’ve always been the one to do this shit. It’s what got me here in the first place.”

“I made a promise—“

Bill grabbed my arm and tugged me away from the water’s edge. “I’m not going to watch the last living person I love throw their life away. I’m not going to make it if I lose both you and Dwight today. I ain’t strong enough for that.”

Bill had a history of losing the people he cared about most. He may not have been open about his past, but you could tell by the look in his eyes. The last thing he would ever want was to see both me and Dwight disappear forever, just like all the others before us.

I grabbed his hand with my own and squeezed it. “I’m so sorry,” I said, knowing that my apology would mean nothing if I ended up dying. I shoved him back, hard, then ran into the water.

As soon as it reached my knees, the pond bubbled all around me, turning into a soupy consistency. Dread filled the pit of my stomach as I watched the water turn into the same thick, black slime I’d dealt with earlier.

Claudette screamed behind me. I turned to see the spider’s leg jutting out of the water. It towered above me, dripping with black slime. There was no time to react. It thrust down, piercing me in the shoulder. I screamed in pain as it quickly pulled out, only to hit me again in the chest. Blood filled my lungs, coming out of my mouth in waves. The pain throbbed, deep and warm, as I stumbled backward. If I hadn’t of fallen, the leg would have hit me right through the skull. Instead, it just barely grazed my left arm. The leg twitched as it stabbed into the water beside me.

“Get out of there!” Bill shouted, already diving in after me. The slime clung to him as he tried to paddle his way toward me. He only made it a few feet in when suddenly another spider’s leg speared him through the gut. I froze, incapable of doing anything except watch in horror. He dangled from its tip, twitching involuntarily. It swung around, flinging his body on the shoreline.

The sickening thud of his body hitting the ground, followed the crack of bones, seemed so much louder than anything else around us. I would have flinched from the sound if I could have. The slime hardened around me, holding me in place. The spider’s leg aimed for its now stationary target. I closed my eyes, knowing it would all be over soon.

I’m sorry, Dwight.