“You can’t be serious,” my mother said over the phone. I sighed deeply, “Mom, I’ll be fine. I am just going back to see a friend, that is all.” “For how long?” the worry still showing through her words. “Four days, three nights.” “Noah, honey, it’s not safe.”
I had spent nearly half an hour trying to convince her that I would be fine, causing her to hang up on me out of frustration. After texting Valerie, the girl I’d be visiting, I began packing the necessities for an out of town trip.
My phone lit up in the darkness of my bedroom, making me open my eyes. Unlocking my phone, I saw that I’d received a text from Valerie. Bring a mask. The pollution is supposed to be really bad the days that you are here. Pulling open another tab, I added mask to the list of things I needed to pick up before I got there.
The next day was a toughie; it was highly noticeable that the pollution got worse heading North from Yerington, where I was living. My home town, Polusville, had become extremely dangerous to live in when I was about seven. My mom, being the hypochondriac that she is, bought a house in Yerington right away. We were living there not even a month later.
I stopped at a department store by the name of Gump’s, looking for the things on my list. The masks I found right away, however; the space blanket was out of stock. Thankfully, the customer service said that it hardly protected you from the horrible environment anyways.
A wave of nostalgia flooded over me as I passed the sign reading “Welcome to Polusville, Stay a While!” Even though the town had changed significantly, it still seemed the same. Another sign came into view, showing the local radio station. Being in the spirit, I changed from the old country back to 88.7, radio station of Polusville.
“Hello, do you guys have a washroom here?” I asked, practically crossing my legs. “Down the hall, first door on your left,” the cashier said, motioning towards the back. I thanked him, making my way past the rows of tampons and nail polish remover, a woman, holding a baby no older than two, staring deeply with hatred into my eyes.
The water in the toilet bowl made me nauseous, the color a dark green, closer to a brown. I gagged, squatting over the seat, afraid of contracting crabs or worse. Pollution was really getting the best of this town, ruining its shiny view in the public’s eye.
Squinting, I was able to make out the tiny dashes along with the numbers, printed onto the meters lining the streets. Pollution Risk, in bubble letters above the numbers, for people who were dumb enough to think that this weather was alright, and perfectly normal.
The color was up in the yellow, the print beside it explaining that you should go longer than an hour without a mask if you are outside. I grabbed a mask from the backseat, keeping my eyes on the road ahead. I’d have to double up, the fabric of the mask being too thin for absolute protection.
Are you almost here? The text lit up my phone, distracting me from the oncoming traffic. With all of the technology these days, I’m surprised she didn’t already know. Thankfully, I was only a couple blocks from Valerie’s house, the neighborhood had been renovated soon after I’d left for Yerington.
As soon as I pulled up to the tiny townhouse, I noticed a group of teenagers, huddled at the corner of street. “Druggies,” I muttered under my breath, slightly hiding inside my car, as if they’d heard me. “Noah!” a muffled yell, nearly scaring me out of my skin, came from outside the car. I turned, rolling down my window. “Valerie,” I smiled, “it sure is good to be home.” She shook her head, “Don’t get too comfortable. Nobody else is.”
Her half of the house was cozy, not too crowded, yet still giving off a homey vibe. A chubby calico cat, her collar stating her name was Harlow, slept soundly on top of the refrigerator. I reached up, petting her calmly. Harlow purred steadily, exposing her stomach for me to continue.
“So, have you seen the rivers yet?” she asked, taking the water filter out of her fridge to prepare tea. “No, why?” I didn’t even have to ask. If the so-called “clean water” looked like grey water, I couldn’t even imagine what had been done to the rivers and lakes.
After finishing our tea, we headed down on foot to the quarry back behind her neighborhood. The heat was taking a toll on us, beads of sweat dripped through my hair onto my neck.
“Jesus Christ…” I was in awe; the water was a cloudy grey, the color of the sky on a stormy day. “How long has it been like this?” I asked, kneeling down onto the ground. “mmm, maybe about a year? Year and a half? It’s just been getting worse as time moves forward.”
Cautiously, I stuck the tips of my fingers in the water, afraid it would burn the flesh. “It’s not even cold,” I sighed, standing back up. Suddenly, I got the strong sensation that a pair of beady eyes staring into my soul. Slowly, I turned back to the forest, noticing the same group of teenagers from my arrival.
Subtly, I turned to Valerie, giving her a look. “Who are they?” I mouthed, tilting my head in their direction. Valerie rolled her eyes, “Guys, how many times have I told you. Get the hell out of the forest! Everyone knows you are there. You aren’t slick.” One of the teens, the tallest of the six, turned in our direction, smiling creepily.
Hobbling down the hill, he reached us, sticking out his hand. “Sorry about my friends, they don’t exactly like newcomers.” I opened my mouth to correct him, he cut me off before I could get a word out. “I hope you don’t mind; my friends and I would like to ask you both a few questions. We are trying to conduct a survey of the citizens and tourists of Polusville.”
Looking back from Valerie to the teenager, I agreed. “Fantastic, I’ll go get them.” His pale complexion made him even harder to trust, that was one thing they all had in common. They were all incredibly pale.
“Do you know these people?” I whispered, keeping an eye on the group as they silently discussed the previous topic. “I don’t know. I mean, I sometimes pass them through the woods when I go for my morning runs. Other than that, no, not really.” I hummed softly, sidestepping closer to her as the group flooded down the hill.
Some had hands behind their backs, some held sacs made of what looked like human flesh. I turned back to Valerie, giving myself whiplash in the process. “I don’t like this,” I said, quiet enough so they wouldn’t overhear.
“Hello, Valerie, Noah,” one of the women said, sending shivers down my spine. “Wait, how do you know our n—”
The ridges of the hard ground ached under my back. I groaned, trying to sit up, failing miserably. My vision was blurry, making me unable to see where I was. “Valerie?” I called, my voice raspy, and hardly audible.
I waited, giving up hope after a few moments. Suddenly, a low mumble came from my left. Listening carefully, I made out two words; Help me.
“Hello?” I asked, managing to flip over onto my stomach. The same voice came, a bit louder now. “Keep talking!” I tried to shout, my throat dry and sore. They did as they were told, helping me navigate their whereabouts. The blurriness had faded, helping me see the sandy ground.
When the voice stopped, I was already able to move my neck upwards to match the body to the voice. It wasn’t Valerie; however, it was a younger girl, perhaps twelve or thirteen. I grasped her hand in mine, squeezing it tightly, noticing the stream of blood leaking from her throat. Swallowing hard, I searched my surroundings, trying to find something to absorb the blood.
We were in a cave, maybe underground. The walls, the ground, the ceiling, everything was sand. On impulse, I pulled off my shirt, pressing the thin fabric lightly against the wound. The girl flinched, trying to move away. “Don’t move. I’m just trying to stop the blood.” She let me dab away at the blood, wary of my presence.
“Who did this to you?” I asked, still working on her neck. “Who do you think? The same guy who brought you here.” She coiled back, the pain showing through her eyes.
A sharp pain shot through my body as my knee touched my stomach. Looking down, I noticed the purple marks covering my tan skin. “He got you too. I saw him, he took the broomstick to both of us.”
I glanced around, “Where are we?” Carefully, she sat up, holding the shirt to her throat. “We aren’t the only ones trapped down here,” she started, “this is just one room. There are hundreds, just waiting to be filled.”
“Valerie,” I whispered, suddenly remembering everything. “Valerie! Valerie, where are you?” I couldn’t shout loud enough. As quick as I could, I made my way to the medieval looking door. Banging on it with the palms of my hand, I continued to yell. “Valerie! Valerie! Where are you?” I stopped after feeling a squeeze on my wrist, it was the girl, she looked scared. “Don’t!” her voice was nearly inaudible. “That’s how he got me. For yelling. Now quit it, he’ll be back soon.”
Over the course of an hour, I learned that the girls name was Avery. She was from around here, thirteen years old. “So, how long—” I was interrupted by the sound of the door being pulled upwards. Quickly, I scooted backwards, leaning against the sandy wall.
“Good afternoon, how are you feeling?” a man, wearing nothing more than a black robe, came in, closing the door behind him. In his left hand, he carried two small, brown, paper bags. I eyed them, suspicious.
“Come on,” he said with a sigh. “I’m not going to hurt you.” The man knelt down in front of us. The closer look at his face made me see that he had been one of the six that I’d mistaken for teenagers.
I noticed he was smiling at me, a creepily, evil looking smile. “How was your rest, Sleeping Beauty?” it took all I had not to slap the stupid grin off his face. “I see you’ve helped your little friend here,” he sighed, motioning towards my now blood red t-shirt. “I’ll take that,” he grabbed the shirt from her neck, thankfully the blood had mostly stopped.
Avery growled, clutching her neck out of pain. “Clara! Get in here! Bring Trent!” the man yelled to the door, keeping an eye on us.
Within seconds, I could hear the door opening again. “Hello, Frank,” the woman said, bowing to him. The man called Trent bowed as well.
“Get her out of here!” Frank demanded, using the collar of Avery’s t-shirt to throw her toward the others. She hit the ground face first, taking in mouthfuls of sand.
Clara and Trent both leant down, each of them grabbing an arm. “Let me go!” she screamed, flailing her legs, trying to strike on of them in the knees.
I tried to stand, being pushed back down immediately. “What’s the rush? The show has only begun. Enjoy it while you still can.”
Avery’s left eye had begun to turn purple, the impact from the ground bruising her eyelids. “Take her into room 176. Remember to lock it!” Clara and Trent lifted Avery off the ground, her fragile body going limp as they brought her out of the door, turning left out of the doorway.
“Left,” I whispered to myself, making a mental note of the number and direction. “Say something, Babes?” Frank asked, making my whole body go stiff. Shaking my head, he got up, heading for the door.
Pausing, he turned back to me. “Almost forgot,” he said before launching a sandwich from one of the brown bags at me. “Eat up, no water today.” I leaned forward, earning a glare from the other.
“Wait until I’m out,” he growled, pulling the set of keys from his pocket, thousands of keys jingling as he searched for the one that locked my room.
He pulled the door opened, dragging it back to the ground, making him invisible. Once the sound of keys stopped, I stood, passing the moldy sandwich. Quietly, I pressed the side of my face to the door, making out broken whispers.
“…the police are onto us…” one of the three said. “…well…that’s why…” another said. Suddenly, footsteps began leading away from me, going left. I stuck my eye through one of the cracks in the door, searching for a way out.
“Psst,” a voice came from across the hall, the number tag reading 294. “Psst,” the sound came again, confirming that it hadn’t just been my imagination.
“Hello?” I whispered, waiting for a response. “Hi. It’s Valerie!” now I recognized the voice. It was desperate, agony spilling out with it.
“Valerie!” I exclaimed, practically falling into the door. “We have to get out of here!” she whispered, clearly afraid that Frank would return.
“I know. Do you have anything that could be useful?” I bit my nails anxiously, a bad habit. She sighed, “a bottle of water, a hair elastic, and a paper bag. What about you?”
I looked around my isolated room, all I saw was the moldy sandwich, my bloody t-shirt, and an empty water bottle. It was as if a light bulb went up in my brain.
“I’ve got an idea.”
Gobbling down the sandwich, I could already feel the nausea building up. The plan was already going as planned. I sat against the wall furthest from the door, the water bottle filled with sand lying behind me.
Finally, the food began to come back up, hurting my throat from the dehydration. I coughed, wiping my mouth with the bloody t-shirt. “Show time.”
“Frank!” I yelped, pounding on the door. Carefully, I kept my weapon, if you could even call it that, behind me. Footsteps came rapidly towards my door, causing me to step back. I stepped away from the door, reassuring him that I’d gone back to my wall.
Once the door was pulled up halfway, I swung the bottle, hitting him directly in the groin. Frank screamed out in pain, collapsing onto his knees.
Pushing him down, I grabbed the keys from the pocket of his robe. Roughly, I dragged him into the room I’d once belonged to, hitting him over the head with the pound of sand.
“I’m coming, Valerie!” I yelled, heading for the door. Not even getting two steps away, a hand wrapped itself around my ankle. As anybody would do, I shook my ankle furiously, as if to boot away a mouse, or maybe even a rat.
Pain shot through my body, Frank bit down on the back of my ankle, striking several different nerves. “Clara! Trent! Madison! Wyatt! Help me!” he yelled, pulling me to the floor.
Multiple pairs of footsteps boomed down the hall, coming from both directions. Quickly, I twisted around, pulling Frank into a headlock. The keys were just touching his neck.
Four youthful looking people appeared in the doorway of my room, holding weapons of their own. Clara, the woman from the day before, held a knife. One of the two men, Trent, carried a broom stick. And finally, the two unfamiliar faces held pistols, the Beretta 92’s.
“Don’t step any closer,” I shouted, “otherwise Frank gets it!” I brought me head behind his, making it impossible for them to shoot me without hitting their leader. Bringing the keys closer, I heard Frank choking over his tears.
“Here is what you are going to do,” I stood, pulling Frank up with me. “You all are going to unlock every door in this place, and let everyone out. Got it?” they all stared at me, fire in their eyes. Wyatt opened his mouth to speak, closing it before turning his back to me.
Wyatt whispered something to the others, they all nodded in agreement. Madison gave me an evil smile, as if Frank had given her lessons on perfecting it.
Suddenly, they all sprinted out the door, turning right. “Hey!” I yelled, unable to move.
On instinct, I brought my knee up to Frank’s crotch, having him drop back to the ground. Before he could grab me again, I ran out the door, locking him in.
“Valerie!” I opened her door, motioning for her to come with me. “We have to let everyone out!” she nodded, joining me in the hall. Slitting them in half, I gave Valerie half of the keys, hoping they were organized in numeral order.
Valerie went to the right, I went to the left, unlocking rooms that had from one to three people in each. I finally found Avery in room 176. Thankfully, the numbers had only gone up to 200. “How are you doing, Val?” I yelled down the hall, handing out keys to the people who followed me, unable to process the situation.
“Val?” I yelled again, heading for her end of the hall. “Valerie!” I was running now, worried. My heart stopped, she’d been stabbed, meaning that the leaders were close. “Run!” I yelled, to the people in my end, and then to the ones in hers.
Suddenly, a sharp pain shot through my spine, the sound coming after. My hand went to my stomach coming back bloody. Collapsing to my knees, everything began to go white. This city had changed tremendously.