Broken, Part II

As you might’ve guessed, the people that ruined my life were part of a crime organization. I didn’t much care about the organization itself. It was the people that happened to be a part of it that concerned me. Namely, specific people on my list that I have killed or would eventually kill. At that moment, I had only one person in mind, and that was Vincent. Vincent Gianulias.

It was still warm out when I arrived at his address, sticky even. Maybe it was just me, maybe it was because I no longer had the protection of the gun with me. I had to leave it in the car because neighborhoods like this don’t take too kindly to the sound of gunshots in the middle of the evening.

Vincent’s house stood on the east end of town in a gated neighborhood. Most of the wealthy people lived in this area. I can’t say for sure if all of them were as dirty as Vincent, but if I had to guess, I’d say that most people with a pretty penny to pinch have fucked someone at some point in their life to get where they are today.

The perimeter had a modest amount of security, but I didn’t expect much resistance. In my endeavor, I wasn’t starting from the bottom and working my way up murdering their ranks. Vincent had no reason to believe that I would be coming for him. Everyone I killed was dead and gone. They had no recognizable connection because all those evil pricks had such hefty criminal records that anyone from any point in their life could be picking them off. Vincent might have increased his security, but because of the kind of man he was and the things he did in that house, he favored his privacy. His paranoia was my advantage.

Contrary to the lives of monsters in general, and as I mentioned before, my beef was only with the people responsible with murdering my family and leaving me a broken wreck of a man. That said, I took no issue with the guards, and I didn’t really feel the need to kill them, so I slipped into the house through a jimmied window without detection.

Most of the rooms were dark, which made it easy for me to move around. What didn’t make it easy was the fact that I had been here before this night. The last time I wasn’t an intruder. I was Vincent’s guest, and as a result, those damned off-cherry scented candles he used sickened me.

I made my way through the kitchen, and wasn’t the least bit surprised what I found on the counter. Two severed hands. One looked like it belonged to a young woman, the fingers slender, long and delicate. I wondered if she, too, was a pianist before this fate of hers, but I didn’t dwell too much on it. The other hand looked as if it belong to a man, one considerably higher in age with knotted knuckles that resembled the roots of an old oak tree.

When Vincent was eating my hand, he spoke about how much he liked arthritic joints. The inflamed tissue around the knuckles were especially yummy, which he likened to veal or filet minion. Lightly salted, naturally full of flavor.

A normal person might rear in disgust, but I didn’t have the luxury of being a normal person. I was special. When you endure something horrific, no matter what it is, you become either desensitized or less vulnerable to stimuli than your average person. People who experience famine are less likely to complain about having to eat liver. Those that are poor are more likely to accept a modest place to stay, even if it’s a cardboard box full of holes. Me? Well, I’m more likely to not care if there’s a half-eaten hand sitting in front of me, because nothing will ever compare to watching a grown man chew and suck the meat right off my fingers while still attached.

I moved into the living room, and some of the stink of cooked flesh had finally thinned. The sofa sat in the middle of the room, and directly in front of it was a large television. Tucked in the corner was a small oak and glass table topped with a dying plant. I guess when you’re too busy killing, you don’t have time to keep things alive.

As I moved through this room toward the next, I heard a door open and close. The sound of the footsteps indicated that the person was either ascending or descending stairs. There was nowhere for me to hide, so I needed to decide which location to monitor. Either he was coming from the basement or the second floor. A few more steps echoed through the room, and I positioned myself at the top of the basement staircase. I wasn’t sure if he was coming this direction, but I knew that I could see most of the second-floor stairs from the reflection in a nearby grandfather clock, which meant this was the safest place to wait.

My intuition proved to be accurate when he arrived at the head of the basement steps. When his eyes met mine, they widened with surprise. He intended to call out, to alert the guards, but he didn’t have that free moment. I struck him hard in the chest with the full force of my body weight, and he choked on his own breath. He slammed hard against the wall, and tumbled back down the stairs. I quickly followed after him, expecting to fight, but the fall had either knocked him out or killed him.

I checked his pulse. Alive. Good.

The fact that Vincent was overweight bothered me. It wasn’t because I had to struggle to drag him deeper into the basement or because I had some deep-rooted issue with people who were overweight. I was strong enough to handle men twice his size, and I didn’t give a dsmn about how he looked. When someone murders your family, your thoughts and ideals shift. No longer do you care about someone’s weight, their acne, or if some asshole cut you off in traffic. That stuff doesn’t matter because you just don’t care anymore. You generally only have one thing on your mind. Murdering the mother fuckers who did you wrong or killing yourself, and to be honest, there’s no shame in taking the low road.

Anyway, his weight bothered me because it was a physical testament to the amount of food he ate. More specifically, the amount of human flesh he consumed. I don’t know how much he had to eat to become this disgusting creature, but it had to amount to a lot of people.

After some effort dealing with his dead weight, I was finally in the middle of the dark basement. I dropped him, and heard his head smack against the concrete—or whatever material from which the floor was made. I headed back toward the stairs, tripping over his body in the process. He moaned, and I kicked him for good measure. He grunted, and moaned again.

Quickly, I walked to the wall where the light switch was at and turned it on. The entirety of the basement lit up, and revealed what I can only imagine was his torture chamber.

On one entire wall, he had an assortment of stainless steel cutting, ripping, pulling, and snipping tools. All of them were so clean they reflected the rest of the room pretty clearly. Across from those dark utensils, he had a table, complete with an industrial drain. The wall adjacent to the weapons had different bins containing an assortment of binding equipment.

My eyes finally reached the other side of the room, and that’s where I saw her. She was barely an adult, maybe nineteen or twenty. She was chained nude against the wall, one arm hanging from a high-slung handcuff, the other hanging slack by her side, probably didn’t bother shackling it since he had removed her hand; it was likely the one I saw in the kitchen. She was either passed out or dead, because her face hung down. The only thing keeping her upright was her good arm.

Next to her was a man, and he was most certainly dead. He was propped against the wall, one eye stared blankly toward the ceiling, the other cut out and missing. One of his hands was gone, too. He wasn’t as old as I had thought, and he was in good physical condition. My guess was the inflammation in the hand upstairs was some reaction to the cutting. I didn’t know, though. I never was good with biology.

The smell down here was reminiscent of nearly rotted meat mixed with a fresh cut of steak. It was metallic from the amount of blood he spilled, but it was also slightly sweetened by the solvents he used to clean up. He apparently liked Pine-Sol the best.

There wasn’t much time left before Vincent would wake, so I wrestled him from the floor, threw him over my shoulder, and walked him to the table. I wasn’t graceful when I tossed him onto that metal slab. The sound echoed through the basement, and he grunted as I wasted no time using the straps to tie him down.

The wall of tools drew my attention, and I didn’t have to study them long before I knew what I wanted. After picking the large knife from its perch, I heard someone behind me. I whirled around, heart hammering, and I expected to find an alerted guard. Instead, I found something much worse.

My Perfect Valentine

“It’s not me. It’s you,” I said, and watched the afternoon sun glistened in her glossy eyes. “I could say that it’s my fault that my feelings aren’t there anymore because I’ve lost interest, but that’s not the case at all. I still adore you, but I’ve lost that connection because you haven’t been able to give me that thing I need to keep this relationship alive. We had it once, but now it’s gone, and I’m afraid we won’t ever be able to get that back. Sorry, babe.”

Monika sniffled, ran the back of her hand under her pink nose, and shifted her weight to her other foot. After folding her thin arms over her ample chest, she said, “Why would you do this on Valentine’s Day?”

“I, uh…”

Sh*t. I had no idea it was Valentine’s Day. I totally forgot. I spent so long in my own turmoil that I had even called out of a work a couple of days because I couldn’t focus.

I dug my hands into my pockets and pawed at the floor with my foot. I couldn’t look her in the eyes any longer. I was sure she didn’t want to look at me, either, so it worked out for both of us.

“Sorry,” was all I could say, and I turned to head back to my car.

“Wait,” she said.

I paused, considering the ramifications of turning back around. If I returned to her, then I might be offering her a glimmer of hope that this could still work, but I believed there was nothing she could do that could make this better. However, was it my place to take that away from her? I didn’t want to deny her the opportunity to say what she probably needed to say. After all, I wasn’t a monster.

A cold gust caused me to shiver as I returned to her door. Her gaze seemed as icy as the wind, if not more frigid. I thought that perhaps she might lunge at me just then, slash my throat, and leave me for dead. Knowing her, it wasn’t exactly an irrational thought, but unlikely at best.

“What’s up?” I said, hoping to break the tension. It didn’t work.

“Don’t you at least want to see the Valentine’s gift I got you?”

Red alert. Stop. Turn and run. For the love of God, just get the heck out of here, I thought, but then said, “Sure.”

Okay, so maybe I was a man, and maybe I didn’t always think too clearly. Standing there on her porch with the sun warming my back and the wind nipping at my nose, I figured she wanted to show me only one thing: s*xy lingerie followed by an hour of hard, rough pillow tossing. Just the way she liked it. Just the way I liked it. What kind of man would I be if I turned down some sheet time? Obviously, I couldn’t know for sure she wanted to sweat a little, but I knew I’d regret it if I missed the opportunity to have her one last time.

I stepped beyond her into that old familiar foyer. As she closed the door, I breathed deep the apple and cinnamon scented oils she warmed over a nearby candle. Her blue canary twittered a subtle song from the niche near the kitchen, and I so wanted to say hello to him as I always did, but I didn’t feel welcome in that house anymore. I felt like a stranger in a home that I had only just visited for the first time.

“Come,” she said, and walked toward the living room. I followed her a few steps, stopping briefly to admire some of the paintings on the walls. I knew I’d never see them again, and wanted to see if I could pull anything else from them before I left. Unfortunately, I learned nothing new. Probably I would have if I had more time to gaze at them, to study the things she had painted on that taut skin. I didn’t, though, and so I continued after her unsatisfied.

Monika stopped at the basement door, put her hand on the silver handle, and smiled. When she opened the door and turned to lead the way, I wasn’t the least bit curious what she had to show me. Actually, I was entirely preoccupied watching her walk in those tight yoga pants. She may not have been able to offer that special something that I needed, but she sure as heck could turn me on like nothing else.

I never liked going down these old wooden stairs. They would bend when you stepped on them, and often they’d let out this moan with a few unnerving hard snaps. I always expected one of them to give out and I’d fall through the floor. The idea of falling didn’t bother me, though. I just didn’t want to become a pincushion for tetanus shots. Boy, did I hate needles, and that was almost enough to get me to turn back and go home. Almost.

At the bottom, she switched on the light and revealed to me a giant box covered by a red, satin sheet. Little aluminum hearts dangled from thin string above it, and there was a little folded sign that read: FOR MY LOVE, HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!

Double sh*t. I had no idea she had bought me something so big, and here I was, giftless and guilty. If she had wanted me to feel that way, she succeeded. I only hoped she could return it and be able to get her money back.

I said, “Sorry, babe. I can’t accept that.”

“Sure you can.”

“I don’t have anything for you.”

“It’s for us.”

“Us?”

She smiled that smile that had won me the night I met her. I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, because there’s no such thing. It was, however, lust at first sight, that carnal need to be with someone that gets your blood pumping and your heart pounding. Right then, I felt the cool room get seriously hot, and I heard my heart thumping in my ears.

She yanked the black tie from her wrist and pulled her golden hair into a bun. She watched me for a moment with those emerald, tear drop eyes, and smiled. She ran her hands up her thighs, snagged the edge of her shirt, and pulled her top off. She hadn’t been wearing a bra, so she stood there bare-chested. Despite how warm I felt, it was obviously cold in here. Either that or she was as heated as I was. Or both.

She said, “Join me?”

I knew it was a bad idea. It always is. I mean, men can sometimes seduce women, but women can seduce men so much easier, and so you can’t often trust them. Your best bet is to say no and walk away.

I don’t really know why men get stupid when women come at them like this, but it’s always been the case. I guess maybe it exists to balance the s*xes out because I have never met a woman who didn’t use her s*xuality to gain some advantage in life, feminism be darned.

Pulling off my jacket, I finally felt how cool it was, and although I was shivering, it wasn’t because of the temperature. I was tremendously turn on, but also there was also a measure of excitement I hadn’t felt in a long time. I kicked my boots off and my shirt quickly followed.

She came to me, pressed her chest into me, and barely touched her lips to mine. I felt her tongue dancing in her mouth as she spoke to me, “Are you ready?”

“Yes,” I said, and ran my nails over the soft skin of her perfectly arched back.

Monika grabbed my belt buckle, and pulled me to the box. As we stood there, my pants throbbed as I waited impatiently for her to open the zipper. She kissed my neck, moved down to my chest, and trailed even further until she kissed my pelvis. I looked down, and watched her gently grasp the edge of the satin sheet with her fingers. She playfully bit my crotch through my jeans as she tore the sheet away, and I stared down with unequivocal love for our gift.

I said, “You didn’t.”

“I did.”

“But how?”

“It took months of planning. I wanted today to be perfect.”

“Oh, baby,” I said, my fire had reignited for her. I wasn’t sure how long that fire would last, but I knew this was what we needed to rekindle our dying relationship, a jumpstart for a new beginning. “Can I?”

“Of course.”

I kneeled next to her, and gave her a quick playful nibble on her neck. She moaned and giggled the way I always liked. She handed me a rolled up, black cloth, and the metal contents within it clinked together. She smiled, and without even looking, I knew she had found us the perfect set with which we could work.

I looked at the gagged and frightened woman in the cage next to us, smiled, and I told the woman, “Thank you.”

Midnight Drive

With school over, it was time for this chick to head back home for the summer. I couldn’t wait to get back into my own bed and the quiet of my own home. Sure, dorm life has its perks, and it’s certainly a fun experience while it lasts, but there is a limit to the amount of chaos one can handle. As for me, I had reached that limit about a week too soon, and so going home, I was ready for a refreshing and calm summer.

By the time I left campus, it was already dark. Looking through the windshield, I couldn’t see the stars because a fine layer of percolating clouds had moved in just that afternoon. I hoped to get home before the rain started, but as a single drop smacked the glass, I knew I was in for a dangerous drive.

I opened the window to let some cool air in because I had always really liked the smell before (and during) a good rain. It was as I had predicted. Refreshing, cool, and comforting. In fact, it was almost too comforting. I closed the window because it was starting to make me sleepy, and I knew that I still had two hours of desert to go before I reached my parent’s house.

Gradually, the road became slick, reflecting the headlights. This effect made me thirsty, and I was immediately glad I brought with me a lunch box with a premade, quartered sandwich and two bottles of water. It wasn’t my usual practice to be prepared for anything let alone a three hour car ride, but I knew I would be either thirsty or hungry or both, and I didn’t want to be in the unique position of being in the middle of nowhere thirsty as hell.

Reaching to the back seat was no easy task because I was short, which meant my arms were short. Maybe they weren’t as handicapped as say a T-Rex, but you can be certain that I had to push against the floor with my feet to get far back enough to reach the handle. After feeling around for a moment, I finally snatched up the strap, and pulled the bag into the front seat.

The cooler had one of those frozen ice packs in it, and so the water was cool and crisp. Some of it dripped down my chin and landed in my cleavage. It was cold, but it didn’t feel that bad. I was never the kind to get too cold, so a little icy water was pleasant in its own way.

After capping my drink, I realized that the rain was dropping enough for me to need the wipers. The headlights were no longer cutting through the night, instead, a curtain of rain reduced my visibility to half. For this reason, I slowed. I had started this trip at eighty miles-per-hour even though the posted limit was seventy-five, and although I wasn’t exactly afraid of crashing, I was afraid of being stranded in the middle of nowhere with no one near enough to help.

As the engine quieted, I felt a sudden coldness go through my body. I don’t know exactly what it was, but it felt like pure fear. It felt like needles in the back of my neck, like someone was stabbed me, but that wasn’t the worst part, it was then that I saw the red and blue lights begin flashing behind the car. This overwhelming oh, shit sensation came over me, and I slowed the car even more.

When the Chevy was finally stopped, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I had only one other interaction with a police officer in my life, and his name was Red, a man who frequented the bars back near my college. While the exposure to that side of the blue wall was more than pleasant, I doubted this one would even come close to it.

As tired as I was, I had no idea I was dead tired. When I opened my eyes, the spotlight in the review was bright; in fact, it was almost too bright. The cop approached on the left side, which I thought was unusual since I figured she’d want to come from there other side where she was less likely to be hit by a car.

When she reached my door and I looked up at her, she suddenly pulled her gun on me. Fear put my tired, aching body into overdrive, and I suddenly tensed up.

She screamed as she moved toward the front of the vehicle, “Get out of the car! Now!”

I put my hands up, and stepped out. My legs were weak. I had been driving, but because I had used the cruise control, I didn’t move my legs much. Embarrassingly enough, my legs gave out, my knees drove into the ground, and I winced in pain.

“Get the fuck on the ground!”

Harsh, I thought, but I was in too much pain to care. I laid down, scared half out of my mind that I was going to become another statistic. I was going to get shot, and my family was going to find me on the news tomorrow. Cop murders Jessica Larkin, the tabloids would say.

I kept my eyes locked on the cop, and she said something into the radio attached to her shoulder. She then proceeded to grab the handcuffs from her belt, and walked toward me. To be honest, I had no idea what I did, and maybe I was a strong girl growing up, but at that moment, there wasn’t anything else I could do but let my fear and anxiety take over. A moment later, this girl passed the hell out.

When I woke, I was in the back of an ambulance. I guess when you pass out, it’s mandatory that they call for medical help. Of course, that was the mandatory reason, and I wasn’t so lucky.

The cop was sitting in the back of the ambulance with me, and when she saw that my eyes had opened, she scowled at me. She said, “Are you okay?”

My mouth was dry, and my voice was sticky and hoarse. “Yeah, I guess.”

She said, “You’re not hurt.”

I supposed she wanted to make sure I was okay so I wouldn’t press charges against her. After all, she did manage to scare me half to death. However, I was awake and alive. There wasn’t anything better at that moment than the sweet sound and smell of the rain.

I said, “I’m fine.”

She said, “You were out for a long time.”

“It feels like it. My head hurts.”

“I bet it does,” she said, and smiled briefly.

I looked passed her, and there was a man in cuffs talking to another officer. I said, “Who’s that?”

The officer hesitated. “Warren Hicks.”

“Who?”

“Near as I can tell,” she said, and held out for a dramatically long pause, “not a good person. When I pulled you over for speeding, I swear to god I thought you was alone.”

“I what?” I said. The confusion from passing out was still pretty strong, and I didn’t really grasp what she was trying to tell me.

She continued, “Mr. Hicks over there was in your back seat. Saw him back there with a knife in his hand, and couldn’t take a chance, so I drew my weapon.”

I felt my heart hit harder than ever. My face felt numb for the first time in ages as if I had just weathered a searing wind in a subzero climate. “He was what?”

“My guess, ma’am, is that he was hiding back there. Had a syringe with him, too. EMT tells me he stuck you with it. God only knows what was in there. I was afraid you was never gonna wake up and I was gonna have a murder on my hands.”

I felt my face get even colder. The cop put a hand on mine, and smiled. She said, “I’m just glad you’re all right, honey. They’re confident you’ll be okay, but they’ll take you to the hospital down the road to check you out.”

I smiled thinly and looked passed her. Warren Hicks, a man who would later plead guilty to hiding in the back of four other women’s cars, drugging them, raping them, and finally murdering them. Maybe just then, as I sat in the back of that ambulance, I had no idea how lucky I really was. I could have been his fifth, and I’m thankful every night that I wasn’t.

Skin Tags

The jagged square of flesh pinched between my fingers felt strange as I stood over the dead man’s body. Beads of sweat dripped down my face, and I held back the vomit while I thought about this horrible place. This wasn’t where I thought I would be today. I thought I would wake up, start another day of work, and cap the day with a savory meal and a cold brew. I wanted so bad to wake up in my warm bed, hit the snooze button, and then roll over so I could fall into a new dream. I wanted this to be nothing more than a nightmare.

Indeed, it was a nightmare, but a living nightmare. I wasn’t asleep. I was awake and very alert. I had to be, because a lack of diligence would get you killed in a place like this.

Earlier, when the loud trombone-like sound woke me, we found a note on the floor. It told us that we all had a talent for couponing, and that in order to stay alive, we had to rely on that talent. I certainly was a good coupon clipper, and even competed in plenty of extreme couponing competitions. My OCD made me a perfect candidate to get it done, and get it right. However, nothing could have prepared me for this hell.

There used to be six of us. The man at my feet was Michael, and like him, all the others were dead. That left me alone to complete the challenge. I could no longer rely on anyone but myself, which considering the circumstances, it was much better than having people fighting while a clock slowly ticked away toward my demise.

I stepped over Michael’s crumpled body. Not long ago he’d taken a shotgun blast to the skull. It wasn’t suicide but rather a fatality resulting from a mistake he made trying to complete the puzzle for this room. This was no surprise to me because he wasn’t as good at couponing as the rest of us. What was a surprise was that he outlived everyone but me. Of course, the rules of this game were ever changing based on the whim of the man who talked over the intercom. That faceless monster who built this kill house toyed with constantly, so anything that could change did change.

I stepped through the door, and entered the next room. It was like this from the get. As the note informed us, we were to go from room to room and solve each puzzle. Well, they weren’t really puzzles. They were areas with set coupons, and if you used the right coupons to get the best deal possible, then the door would open. If not, the trap would kill the person who offered the deal. We all took turns per room. When one of us didn’t make it, we just rotated to the next person. After twenty-two room, there was just one person left.

This room was not new to me for I had been here before, but not in the sense that I had been here before I came to this awful place. I came into this room earlier after I solved the puzzle that killed Michael. As it turned out, there were no coupons in this room, so I had to go back and find them.

The room was the same size as the others, though poorly constructed with particle board. Don’t get me wrong, the walls and ceiling and floors were strong and reinforced. We couldn’t just escape by breaking down a wall. There was concrete and rebar and all manner of stuff. Whoever stuck us in here had it planned perfectly. Moreover, like a haunted maze, the particle board was there to terrify us, among other things of course.

These other things I’m writing about are the props. In this room, the walls had blood splattered all over them. Pig’s blood if I had to guess, but I could be wrong. There were pieces of animal limbs spread around the floor, with animal innards splayed from the ceiling by wire and a few too many bits laying on tables.

You might think that this was the most horrific room, but it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. You see, each room represented a different type of retailer, each a morbid representation of the type of business. For instance, one room resembled a barber shop, and there were severed heads, scalped flaps of hair hanging everywhere, and beards torn from faces and nailed to the walls. In another room, which was a nail salon, there were severed fingers hanging from fishing wire, nails ripped off and glued to the floor, and feet laying on the tables. All this among many other things.

I didn’t know where he got all the body parts, and I didn’t much care. All I wanted to do was get the heck out of there.

This puzzle in this room wasn’t hard, but it was by far the worst of the bunch. The coupons weren’t in a basket near the beginning of the room. I didn’t have to dig through body parts or a list of ingredients to find the right one. No. I had to return to all my fellow competitors. Each one of us had a tattoo of a coupon on our body somewhere, which had been inked there before we were locked in this place. It was clever for this guy to have done this because it meant we had to torture each other just to get through the final door—or what I presumed was the final room. What he didn’t count on was that there would only be one of us left, and I didn’t have to torture anyone to get the coupons.

After gathering the last of those five coupons, there was only one left. Mine.

As I mentioned, the tattoos were not in the same spots, and in some cases, it was difficult to get it off someone. Michael had his on his back, and I was thankful that mine was on my stomach in the front, where I could easily access it. This, however, didn’t make it any easier to clip.

The room had provided six pairs of razor sharp scissors, and I had already used a pair to cut out the other five. I grabbed a clean pair because I wasn’t sure how clean or dirty the other captives were, and if I did get out of there, I didn’t want to suffer from some disease I got from sharing someone else’s blood. Call me crazy, but that little OCD voice inside me needed to feel safe.

My hands were shaking as I looked up at the timer on the wall. It read that I had three minutes left to complete the room. I didn’t know what would happen if the timer in each room ran up, and I didn’t want to find out now.

After pressing the sharp edge of the clippers against the corner of the coupon, I struggled to make the first snip of my skin. The shaking became even more violent, and I felt my head go foggy. I fought passing out, but soon squeezed the handle and felt the blades cut through my skin.

I would like to tell you that I didn’t scream, that I fought through the pain without tears. It didn’t happen that way. After the first snip, I felt my body turn icy. I screamed and I cried and I pleaded to the maniac who brought me here. The snot dripped from my face, and my shaking hands moved the sheers a centimeter further, and then… SNIP.

I nearly dropped the sheers that time, but persisted. One snip after another clip, I pressed on. I glanced up at the clock, which told me I had wasted a minute and a half just getting thorough one edge of the coupon. This wouldn’t do, so I had to go faster. All the way around, until each side was cut.

Looking up at the clock, there were fifty seconds remaining. I still had to organize all the coupons to get the best deal, and that didn’t leave me with much of a choice. I had to tear the coupon off or I wouldn’t make it. So, I peeled back one of the corners, and yanked hard and fast. This, I fear, was nothing like ripping off a Band-Aid. It was hot. It was cold. My vision blurred. I was nearly down for the count.

After wobble-running to the door, I fished the other slices of flesh from my pocket. Some of them slipped from my fingers, and I had to quickly scoop them from the floor. The timer dropped second after second, but I dared not look up to see it.

Reading each label, I needed to find out what coupon should go in the scanner first, but there was nothing more than bar codes on them, which I hadn’t noticed before. Each tag of flesh twisted my stomach as I handled them, the torn flesh rough and slick against my fingertips. I had no idea what went where and in which order. So, I began scanning them all and throwing them into the basket. I ended with my own piece, but hesitated to throw it in with the rest. Whether it would save my life or not, tossing out a piece of myself felt weird, but I eventually scanned mine and dropped it in there.

The clock on the wall continued to count down, and I wondered what the heck I had done wrong. Something somewhere wasn’t right because usually the clock stopped the moment the last coupon went into the basket or, if it didn’t, you were immediately killed because it meant you failed the puzzle. Frantically searching the room turned up nothing useful, and the clocked began its final countdown.

…5

…4

…3

…2

…1

The red LED clock numbers began to repeatedly flash 0:00. I expected the room to close in on me or for a toxic gas to snuff me out. Maybe I would just be locked in the room with all these festering bodies until I eventually died of disease or starvation.

That’s when I heard the soft buzzing noise. The door behind me closed, and the one before me didn’t immediately open. Instead, I felt like I was floating for a second. A moment later, that semi-weightless feeling ended, and the clock changed to three hours. The door before me opened, and I entered a new room with five new people.

They watched me, and I sized them up because I had no time to mess around. I didn’t know if I would have to endure this forever, but these new sets of puzzles wouldn’t be the thing that would end me after all that horrific stuff I went through. I wouldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t. So, I pressed on, determined to lead this new group and help them succeed where the others had failed.