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.

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I, Savior

Time Machine Eye

I thought, you know, there would be something spectacular when I arrived. There were no arcs of electricity that would make Tesla proud, no electromagnetic waves bowing my visual perception of reality, nor the stench of burnt hair. I know the last one seems strange, but when you test out a device that needs as much power as my time machine, you’d expect to ride the lightning, too. Thankfully, I didn’t.

Anyway, I appeared in my old backyard. That was where I had hoped to materialize because that was where the machine sat in my future self’s time. Besides, the device wasn’t capable of transport. Well, I could theoretically move it elsewhere, but it would require a heavy-duty truck and trailer. I didn’t actually need to move it because it sat exactly where I wanted to go and because I knew there was nothing occupying that same exact space in the past. Only God could know what would happen to me if I materialized where an object already existed. I didn’t want to find that out the hard and probably painful way.

After exiting the device, I walked across the rain-soaked lawn. The clouds above still sprinkled small beads of glassy water onto the world, and because my fever had turned up the heat before I left, it felt good against my skin. Fissures of lightning crawled along the dark sky, and a rolling roar of thunder boomed. The cold weather irritated my chest, and I coughed. Remnants of blood stippled my hand, and I wiped my lips hoping the rainwater would wash away whatever I missed.

No doubt, this story is as you expected. The only reason I went back in time—as anyone else would—was to change the future. Unfortunately, I wasn’t here to save myself. No, that wasn’t it at all because I knew how a paradox worked. I knew that going back and changing my life may have an impact on everything else, sure, but it might also alter the timeline in a way that ensured I never traveled back. Of course, if I never travel back, then how could I change the future? Exactly. I wasn’t prepared to figure that out because I had more important things to worry about, and the fate of the world was more important than my survival in the future.

Despite what I’ve just told you, I don’t want you to think of me as selfless. What I had to do in the past was selfish. True, I went back to save the world, but I only did it to save my daughter. Furthermore, and this is the part you’ll likely think of me as a maniac who doesn’t deserve to live, I had to kill hundreds of people. Men. Women. Children. All murdered by me.

Still here? Well, it all started ten days from now—or twelve years before I used the time device. It started with a woman and a child. A birth that would end the human race. A birth that some called the coming of the antichrist—the end of times. That woman was my neighbor.

As the rain fell harder, the subtle ping and pong of it hitting nearby pottery and buckets, I went to the shed. I had the key in my pocket, so I opened the door. Inside there were few things of interest to me. I would later needs some of this stuff to make more weapons, but for now, I had only need for one item, and that was the hand spade. After picking it off the wall mount, I closed the doors, followed the side of the house, and exited through the gate.

The neighbor’s house was aglow with amber light, but only through the big picture window. It was there I was able to spy Michelle sitting at the dining room table nursing a small bowl of hot soup. She gently scooped up a spoonful, puckered her adorably pouty lips, and blew on it.

I wished I didn’t have to kill her. I knew I had no choice, though. If she didn’t die, then many more people would. In fact, the ratio, if I remember correctly, was for every one person I killed, I saved close to ten thousand others. It was an obvious answer to the choice I had in front of me, but it disturbed me nevertheless.

In the past—before this day, not in the future of this day—she had asked me to water her plants while she was away. She had told me that she kept a spare key hidden in a fake rock and buried in her garden. According to her, she was a klutz and often did things like lock her keys in the car or had locked herself out of the house. It was fortunate for me that she kept it there at all times.

After opening the door, I listened for a moment. The sweet scent of tortilla soup made my mouth water, but it also bothered my sensitive throat. I held my hand over my mouth and coughed. They came as nothing more than soft chuffs of air. When they subsided, I wiped the blood on my pants and listened. There was still only the soft clink of the spoon against the bowl as she scooped up the soup. No indication of her hearing me.

Now inside, I stood behind her. The spade felt slick in my hand, probably a combination of sweat and rainwater. My heart hammered, thumping hard in my ears, deafening one of them. My face burned, and maybe I was pale, I couldn’t know. Anxiety had worked its magic, and my illness had taken it a step farther.

As she blew on the soup, I came up behind her and stabbed her neck with the spade. She dropped the spoon, grabbed her throat, and looked up at me. Surprise was what I saw on her face, but had she known the kind of hell she would rain upon the world if given the chance to live, it might have been a look of acceptance. At least, that how I wished it were, because I needed something to acknowledge that I was doing the right thing. However, the world in the future and the world in the now would never know what I had to do, what I would do, and why I needed to do it.

I don’t need to tell you what I did next, but suffice to say I had to make sure the baby did not survive. As sure as I sit here and write to you all about what I had to do, that baby probably wouldn’t have survived the mother’s death. That wasn’t a chance I could take. Just one life can take so many more lives, and that risk alone was simply too great.

When I finished, I rushed to the kitchen and vomited. I would have liked to blame by illness on my stirring stomach, but the reality was that I had never killed anyone, let alone a pregnant woman. That sickness lasted for days, and thankfully, it ended before I had to find the next person. A man named Albert Pinchot.

I didn’t immediately leave her house. Instead, I went upstairs to the master bathroom to see if she had any Tylenol. She did, and although I took some, I wasn’t sure it would help with my now pounding headache. It helped a bit, but as I suspected, it wasn’t enough to ease my discomfort.

The master bedroom had a balcony. I swiftly opened the sliding door and stepped outside. The cold water felt good, and my thrashing head seemed to settle a bit. I glanced at the device I had arrived in, and it was gone. Probably I had left the system running, and it had either returned to a different time or gone back from whence it came. It was okay, because I didn’t need it anymore.

The horizon of twinkling lights from homes of people who would die one day made me take a deep breath to calm my nerves, and maybe it made me cough, but that was okay. The pain in my chest reminded me of why I was here and what I was doing. It was for my daughter. For me. For the future.

You’ll Never Believe What Shocking and Horrible Thing He Gives Out each Halloween!

Finger Food

He didn’t know why he checked the crime log. He had nothing to worry about. After years of doing the things that he did, he was as likely to get caught as was a mime likely to press his hands against a real wall. Not gonna happen. He continued to read though, and that’s when he saw his name, in bold, with a small reward amount.

“What?” he said to himself, and looked around trying to think of how he got caught but a sudden repetitious bang on his door broke his concentration.

“Open up! Police!”

His heart hammered, his mouth dryer than the Mojave during a drought.

BANG BANG BANG!

He shot up from his seat and watched a silhouette cross the window. Beads of sweat rolled down his face as if he’d just took a brisk walk through torrential rain.

BANG BANG BANG!

“Last warning! Open up or we’re coming in!”

He dashed from the living room, up the stairs, and into his bedroom, which faced the backyard. He had been preparing for this for a long time, and now that it was time, he was scared nothing would go right.

From his closet, he armed himself with a shotgun. It was loaded with only two rounds, but that was enough.

He heard the door open on the first floor. They had a key. They must have, because he had locked the door after grabbing the paper that morning. He always locked it.

When feet started stomping up the stairs, he positioned himself three feet from the door. It was enough for the door to open and enough room for the shotgun spread. When the door burst open, he fired. The blast hit his intruder in the chest, and he watched the uniformed man stagger back and tumble down the stairs. He waited for just a moment to see if anyone followed him, and when he heard nothing, he dropped the shotgun.

Gable ran toward the back wall of the room and kicked it. One, two, three times. The cracks started to appear, and then the wall crashed out onto the ground below. He worried that the break-away wall would fail him, but it turned out to work well after all.

He stopped at the edge, and looked out into the crisp morning sky. A cold wind nipped at his skin, and a distant dog barked at something. This was supposed to be another wonderful Halloween, which he’d prepared for all year long. Now, it was spoiled because a couple cops couldn’t mind their own fucking business.

Above his head, there was a metal twine rope attached to the wall and it lead down to the grassy area just beyond his backyard fence line. He opened the cabinet to his right, which contained clothes and other assorted items, and he retrieved a zip line mechanism. After quickly connecting it to the line, he zipped to the ground.

He looked up, and no cop appeared at the opening in the wall. They were probably being cautious or tending to their fallen comrade. He didn’t know. Didn’t care. He just started running, and as he approached the ally between his house and the other, someone turned the corner and he ran right into them.

After falling and then scrambling to his feet, he was about to dash the other direction when he saw it was Lucas, the man he’d known for over two decades.

Gable said, “They’re here! The cops. Dude, we gotta bolt!”

Lucas’s face was red, his eyes lit with the glisten of water. “You killed him!”

Gable stopped, and turned. “What?”

“Victor. You fucking killed him!”

Sirens blared in the distance as Gable approached Lucas. “What the hell do you mean I killed him?”

Lucas, through deep heaves of pain and anguish over his friend’s death, explained that he and Victor had dressed up as detective and cop, respectively, to play a prank on Gable. He was supposed to open the door and find two cops there, but then immediately realize that it was just a prank. When they heard him rummaging around, they used the key he’d given them a couple years ago to go inside and scare him a little more. Victor went upstairs while Lucas stayed behind to get a good laugh.

“Shit,” Gable said, the sirens near.

“Why the fuck did you freak out!”

Gable knew why. It was because normal people don’t understand him. They don’t understand that he has fetishes and desires that he had to feed. They don’t understand people like him, and so they call him monster, murderer, and try to lock him up in jail, but they don’t try to understand him. They never do. After this, they won’t even try.

“Why!” Lucas screamed and wailed in pain.

Gable listened as the police vehicles in the front of the house came to a screeching halt. Soon, they’d capture him, and then they’d find his friend dead in his house. The police would arrest him, and probably they’d search the rest of the house. They’d find the bodies he had stuffed in the walls, and the one he had in the basement that was still fresh. They’d examine those bodies and find that each one of them was missing fingers and toes. They’d find the bowl of fingers and toes in the freezer, and then they’d connect him to the fingers and toes he handed out to kids during Halloween. They’d know that he was the Candy Man serial killer–as the media so lovingly called him. They’d find out all of that, and he would go to jail. Likely he’d be put to death. All because his stupid friends played a stupid prank, and the stupid police responded to the stupid fucking gunshot.

War of the Cupcakes

Below is my official entry into round 1 of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. In this contest, they give us a genre, a subject, and a character to write about. The challenge, usually, is that we must use these things in the story (to what degree appears to be subjective per whatever judge reads our work).

My Group: 51
Genre: Comedy
Subject: Artificial Intelligence
Character: An Executive Assistant

Synopsis of story: Many people died on January 29, 2015, and anyone who survived that horrible day called it The Dawn of the Pastries. They survived only to face a worse nightmare, one people would later come to know as the War of the Cupcakes.

War of the Cupcakes

If you had known me before the end of the human era, you wouldn’t guess I was only a quiet executive assistant. You wouldn’t guess that I set appointments, ordered coffee, or helped my boss harass employees about remembering to put covers on their TPS reports. You wouldn’t think any of that.

What you might think, on first glance, is that this girl was military. I have seventeen scars, three of which take residence on my face. I hadn’t smiled in five years. However, if I did show my grin, which only happened when I needed to keep the rattle of the mini-gun from shattering my teeth, then you’d see that there were four missing pearls from my mouth. My muscles aren’t large, but they’re well defined. I no longer set appointments because I set battles. I long ago ceased to order coffee, and ordered hits. I no longer bugged employees about unnecessary reports, but instead killed cupcakes.

My name is Alyssa James, and I was the leader of the human resistance. The people elected me to that position because of my unique knowledge of sweets. Long before the war, I had dreamed of owning a bakery, and had even won awards for my baked goods in local competitions. As a result, when the cupcakes showed up during a baking event, I responded with the precision of an assassin and dispatched them by using warm milk. Softened and rendered harmless, I conquered those sweet beasts. From then on, they needed someone to look to, and so I became the resistance leader. I was their hope. I was promise of a better future.

On October 15, 2021, five years after the pastry revolution, I had one last battle. A battle to end the war and bring humanity the future I had always promised.

As the sun kissed the western waters and set the horizon aflame with varying degrees of tangerine and periwinkle, soft clouds floated languidly in the sky alongside threads of smoke highlighted by the recent fires. The air, now thick with the stench of charred sugar and soured milk, grew heavier as we approached the concrete canal leading to the bunker in which the mother of all cakes resided. The system we all knew as Grub-Sugarwrath.

We were resilient, but unease befell us as we looked upon that entrance because we were only four strong. The rest of our ranks fought far enough away to keep the enemy occupied. I only had a small team to complete this mission, but it was the best damn team I could have asked for.

To my right was Christa Cameron, a tech engineer with the knowledge to take Grub’s artificial intelligence systems offline. She was the one who discovered that the nanotechnology inside the batter ran from a single central location. Therefore, it seemed best to bring her along.

Standing next to her was Adrien Voorhees, our demolition expert, and to my left, was our infantryman Jack “The Gnasher” Jordan. He got his nickname because he loved to eat the cakes he killed. Revenge does strange things to men, and while most people lost their taste for cake, Jack only grew hungrier as his rage rose like leavened bread.

I turned away from the dying light, and looked at my crew. They watched as if waiting for me to say something. I cleared my throat and gave them the best damn speech I could give, “So, uh, when I was a little girl, I used to stay after class and help the lunch ladies clean the cafeteria. One day, after cleaning the tables and sweeping, I grabbed the mop and wheeled the bucket to the center of the room. The lunch lady, a large busty woman who reminded me of Mrs. Butterworth, snatched the mop from my hand and stared down at me. You know what she said?”

Jack inspected the barrel of his weapon while slowly chewing his gum. The others stared intently waiting for me to say something meaningful. Maybe even brilliant.

“She told me, ‘You ain’t allowed to mop here.’ ”

“I said, ‘Why? I always help out.’ ”

“She said, and I shit you not, ‘You might slip, fall, an’ get die.’ ”

Jack was now looking up at me, one eyebrow tugged north. The other two didn’t make eye contact with me. I couldn’t blame them. I had no idea what any of that had to do with our mission. I may have been their leader, but I never claimed I was any good at giving speeches. This was especially true when I was under pressure from nervousness, which has never been kind to me.

“So, okay,” I said, and scratched the back of my head. “Just don’t do anything stupid, or you might get killed. This is our only chance.”

Nailed it, I thought, as they nodded in agreement.

I continued, “All right. Let’s get this done.”

The approach to the door was quiet. I suspected it was too quiet, but not in the way that heroes in movies suddenly get a bad feeling when things are too silent. First, I’m no hero. I’m a regular woman who did what needed to be done. Second, the distant thunder of explosions from the battle boomed and we could hear the shouts as our valiant brothers and sisters fought hard to protect their loved ones from the cupcakes. To say it was loud would be an understatement. It was actually quiet in the way that there was no movement. No sentries keeping watch. Nothing.

Jack and I stood watch over the area as Christa worked her techno-magic on the door. A moment later, a metal clank signaled that she’d succeeded, and we cautiously entered the tunnel.

As Jack readied his gun, a modified flamethrower that projected boiling-hot milk, he said, “I got a bad feeling about this.”

He wasn’t alone. I don’t think any of us felt safe, and now that we were in the master’s den, it seemed we were tempting fate to lead us to everlasting sleep.

The tunnel was deep and dark, so we couldn’t see anything at great length. The width spanned twenty, maybe thirty, feet. The ground was wet and slippery, and the air had a musty, sweet malodor tainting it. The walls appeared to have some sort of crystal layer forming on them, which I guessed was sugar. In areas where the cupcakes nested and duplicated, it was typical to see those types of formations on surfaces.

As we traversed that murky tunnel, Adrian said, “Tell me again how all this is supposed to work? I don’t really get how this is gonna end the war.”

He had a pleasant velvety voice that was easy to listen to, and even harder to ignore. I said, “Christa?”

“It’s just a theory, but…”

Adrian said, “Whoa, wait. We’re here on a theory?”

I said, “Yeah, a damn good one. Now shut it and let her finish.”

Christa took a deep breath. “Okay, so, you all know how the first batch of cupcakes were made right? Hostess was trying some new nanotechnology that was supposed to collect data from people and help them build the best treat the world had ever tasted, but instead it brought the pastries to life. What I hope to do is hack the main computer that controls all the nanotechnology and shut the cupcakes down for good.”

Adrian said, “I’ll admit, that does sound like a pretty good plan.”

“You bet it does,” I said. “Okay, guys, we’re here.”

Illuminating the door with my flashlight, the writing indicated we’d reached Hostess’s secret laboratory they cleverly named after their acclaimed Twinkie.

This was the location where it all started. Standing before it, I felt the sudden weight of the mission crushing me. If we died there, if we failed, then humanity would likely never get another chance. Our mission was secret, and therefore, no one knew about it. We made no effort to document anything, either. If there was one thing we learned in our time of war, it was that you could never trust people to resist the temptation of baked goods. A person’s own folly can lead to ruin, and we didn’t want to take any chances. Not with so much on the line.

I said, “Ready?”

Jack said, “Yep, let’s get this over with.”

I turned the door handle just as an access gate behind us exploded open. We whipped around, and watched as cupcakes poured into the tunnel. They rolled over each other, bouncing and tumbling. The sound they made was distinct as if produced by babbling babies with their tongues hanging out. Indeed, if you looked at them long enough, you’d see a mouth-like hole stretched across the corrugated wrapper, and a small, flat, and maroon piece of toffee flopping around that opening as if they in fact had a working tongue.

Their initial lack of sound surprised me. It was as if they quieted to hide their approach, which was unusual given their often-careless, robotic behavior.

Jack started spraying the cupcakes with hot milk. Some dissolved, but even more replaced them. We had expected resistance, but we didn’t expect so much. It was as if they knew we were coming.

I said, “We gotta run for it!”

Christa kicked some of them away from her and growled through clenched teeth, “Where?”

“Deeper,” I said, “our best bet is to find our way to Grub-Sugarwrath’s central system and barricade ourselves in.”

Adrien said, “Doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

I watched a thousand more cupcakes flood into the tunnel. “Only choice we’ve got.”

Adrien was the first through the door, ever the gentleman. Christa followed close behind, and I told Jack to head on through. He refused, arguing that since he was the only one with a milk gun, he had a duty to hold them off until everyone was safe. I couldn’t argue with him, so I fled through the door. A moment later, the babbling cupcakes were too much, and overpowered him. As their pink acid-like icing smeared across and melted his tormented face, I took one last sorrowful look and slammed the door.

The team wanted to go back, but I couldn’t let them. We went to that place for a reason, and we all knew the dangers. We had hoped nothing would happen to us, that the mission would be as short and sweet as all the others we’d completed together, but nothing can ever be perfect or last forever. We were fools to think otherwise.

With Jack’s demise heavy on our hearts, we pressed on through the complex. We passed several doors and vents, but nothing attacked us. When we finally reached the giant room housing Grub-Sugarwrath, the artificial intelligence system, we realized we were far more unprepared than we originally thought.

According to the old blueprints we consulted before the mission, the computer was at the center of the room. However, as we looked into that place, we couldn’t know for sure anymore. Tall glassy walls rose from the floor and reached toward the ceiling. They appeared to be made of the same material as the crystals in the tunnel, but they had a pearlescent sheen.

As the familiar babbling sound rose outside the door, Adrien said, “What are we gonna do?”

We had intended to use Christa to hack the system and shut it down, but that was no longer an option. I chuffed, “Fuck it. Let’s blow the whole room. You got enough on you?”

Adrian said, “Enough to level the whole complex, but—”

I interrupted, “No, ‘buts’, man. Let’s end this. Set the charges around in a circle. Make sure the concussive force is directed toward the center of the room.”

“Got it,” he said, and started working.

“Christa, I need you to find us a way out of here,” I said, but she appeared to be lost in fear. “Christa?”

I crossed the room and grabbed her by the shoulders. She seemed to look right through me, and so I slapped her.

She rubbed her cheek. “Ugh, bitch.”

My face turned hot. “I just… I thought, you know…”

“You don’t just smack someone across the face. Ow, man, that really hurt.”

“Sorry, I just needed to you to find us a way out of here.”

“I know, jeez. Just, stay over there and let me figure it out. And keep your paws to yourself.”

“Sorry.”

She glowered at me, and then tapped away on her computer. After a short while, Adrian announced that he completed setting the bombs.

As the noise grew increasingly louder outside the door, Christa said, “Found a way out!”

I said, “You lead!”

Christa squeezed through a gap between the wall and the crystal structure, carefully stepping over one of the bombs. Adrian followed her, and I tried, but got stuck. It was a moment where I wished I hadn’t been a nervous eater. Strong as I was, defined in the muscles I might have been, skinny in the booty I was not.

Christa and Adrian snared my arms as the door crashed open. Babbling cupcakes rolled into the room, and I felt the small of my back tighten with fear. Oh, how I wished I had butter or oil to help squeeze me through that gap. Fortunately, I didn’t need either. They managed to pull me through just as dozens of cupcakes encroached on me. I wouldn’t be their buttercream snack that day.

Following Christa after that wasn’t so difficult. The hardest part was staying ahead of the cupcakes. They weren’t round but they were definitely fast, and they exploded from every orifice in the building through which they could fit.

Christa said, “Over there! Through that pipe.”

As I looked at the horde behind us I said, “Are you sure?”

She jumped into the pipe, slid down, and said, “No choice!”

We followed her. I feared we’d end up in a room full of hungry cupcakes; or worse, in the vats below that stored their acidic buttercream topping, but it dumped us out into the parking lot at the back of the building.

We ran hard and fast, moving far enough to be safe from the blast. We guessed the debris wouldn’t travel that far, but we wanted to play it safe. We turned toward the building, and Adrian offered me the trigger. I waved it away, knowing he’d enjoy it more than I ever could.

With a smile on his face, he blew the building. It was powerful, even a little beautiful. The dark sky lit for the first time with hope as the pastries that followed us through the pipe fell silent, unmoving, and dead. It was finally over. Our war with the cupcakes was won.