In January, I submitted my first round entry for the NYC Midnight Short Story contest. The results were announced at the end of March. I was awarded second place in my heat, and earned a spot in the second round.
This time out, I had three days to create a 2000-word story with the following prompts:
Subject: A one way ticket
Character: An amputee
I have to admit, I came really close to giving up on this one. I spent almost two of my three days blocked and miserable. But, as my friends were quick to point out, I’m pretty damn stubborn. Would I ever forgive myself if I didn’t at least try?
The answer was a resounding NO. I wouldn’t forgive myself. Because I am pretty damn stubborn. So here’s my entry.
“Displacement, Level 1.”
When the judge uttered those words my breath caught in my chest and my thoughts spiraled out of control, like a drone with a death wish. I knew I should be grateful that Samwell managed to get me a reduced sentence. My “little operation”, as Sam liked to call it, involved the creative – and highly unorthodox – reallocation of state resources. Things could have ended up a hell of a lot worse for me, but my little brother was a lawyer who knew how to pay his way through the legal system, and he liked to remind me of my good fortune on a regular basis.
“At least you’ll be intact, Malcom. Most aren’t so lucky,” he said, after negotiating my Level 1 plea bargain. I looked down at my hands and nodded. They weren’t pretty; they were scarred and calloused, and I’d bit the fingernails down so low, my cuticles were ragged and bloody. But they were mine, and I was relieved that my sentence didn’t include losing them.
“Look at this as an opportunity. A second chance.”
At the time, I had agreed with him. But that was when it was all still theoretical. When reality caught up to me, I had more than a few doubts about my unknown future. I was scared shitless, to be honest. The official term was Displacement but on the street we called it Devil’s Doorway, because nobody ever came back.
After sentencing, they stuck me in a holding pod, which I shared with one other guy. Jax was a Level Two, poor bastard. I had no idea what he’d done to earn that sentence and I didn’t really care. None of that would matter when we passed through the Doorway; without hands, he’d have no way to look after himself.
Jax was pretty much a dead man walking, as far as I could see, and he obviously felt the same way about his situation. He sat on the floor with his back against the wall, just staring at his hands for hours, barely moving. Although sometimes he’d wiggle his fingers a little bit and I’d find myself longing for pockets, somewhere to hide my own clammy palms.
I tried to ignore him. Not my problem, I kept reminding myself. After all, I had enough to worry about without adding Jax into the mix. But damn, he looked a pathetic sight.
The pod was tiny; with nothing better to do, I spent a lot of time standing on my bunk, looking out the cell’s only window at the city, far below. It was grimy and crowded and the source of all my troubles, but it never looked more beautiful. And in just a few days, I would never see it again.
Samwell came to visit me one last time, to collect his final payment and say goodbye. I authenticated the transfer of funds to his account, lay down on my bunk and closed my eyes. I didn’t feel like talking.
“That’s it? No words of thanks?” Samwell snapped. When I said nothing, he continued. “I went out on a limb for you. And don’t think your micro savings account comes close to covering my expenses.”
I couldn’t find any words. Sure, I was the criminal in the family, but I had my reasons. Where did he think the money came from that put him through school? And I was supposed to be the grateful one? Typical Samwell, never seeing what was right in front of him. If he only knew the half of it.
Sam waited for a minute, but when I didn’t jump up to express my undying appreciation, he had the guard let him out and he left without another word. That was the last time I ever saw my brother, though I still think about him, sometimes.
Displacement. I had so many questions. Would it hurt? Would I even survive? And, if I did, what then? Sleep, on my final night, never came. Jax had been taken earlier, and the hours passed slowly while I tried not to think about where he was, or what might be happening to him.
A guard collected me just after sunrise. As I followed him down the hall, my heart thumped painfully in my chest, like the erratic bassline from an electrobeat song. It was time.
He ushered me into an empty room. I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t that. I looked around for some sign of what came next, but the blank, windowless walls gave nothing away.
“Stand inside the circle,” the guard ordered.
Before I could ask “What circle?”, the floor shimmered then a red line arced across the previously pristine white tile, forming a pulsing target in the center of the room. Like a rotten, beating heart, the portal twitched and spasmed. The hypnotic rhythm sent cold sweat trickling down my spine and I couldn’t seem to get enough air into my lungs.
I knew I had to start walking, but my feet refused to cooperate; they didn’t like the look of things any more than the rest of me did. My guard didn’t waste any time repeating himself; he prodded me with his taser, and gave me quick zap with a low current. I took the hint and, panting a little, began to shuffle toward the circle.
Before I got there, I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and watched as Jax stumbled into the room, shoved from behind by another guard. He threw his arms out to break his fall, but then pulled them back into his body again, cradling the bandaged stumps against his chest as he collapsed onto the floor. My stomach heaved and I swallowed hard, to keep from puking all over my boots.
“Get up, Prisoner.”
Jax curled up into a ball and sobbed. The guard kicked him, hard. “I said, get up.”
I watched the guard land a second kick. Jax moaned. Always a sucker for the underdog, I couldn’t just let him lie there. Without stopping to think of the consequences, I crossed the room.
“Come on,” I hissed, and hauled him to his feet. The guard with the taser stepped toward us, weapon raised, but I dragged Jax into the circle before he could reach me. He hesitated at the perimeter, glaring but coming no further.
The other guard stood at attention and cleared his throat. “Prisoners: for your crimes against the state, you have been sentenced to Displacement. You will pass through the portal and into the void. There is no return. Do not leave the circle. Leaving the circle is punishable by death. Your sentence begins now.”
The circle throbbed and hummed. The hairs on my arms stood on end. Jax leaned in against me like a cowering puppy, and I didn’t even mind; the contact was the only thing keeping me from bolting.
Jax obviously didn’t take as much comfort from my presence. I felt him quiver, and then suddenly, he was gone. The second he stepped outside the circle, his features began to melt, as though he’d been doused with acid. Any thoughts I had of attempting my own escape were immediately forgotten. My only hope of survival was the one-way ticket that Displacement offered, wherever it might take me.
The floor beneath me pulsed quicker and the humming intensified, drowning out Jax’s screams. But I only had a moment to feel grateful for that small mercy. Pressure built inside my skull, a blinding pain which brought me to my knees. I pressed my hands over my ears, but the assault seemed to be coming from within my own head. I fell to the floor. And then I fell further. Displaced.
When I came to, the first thing that I noticed was the quiet. The howling from the void was silenced, but it was more than that. No grinding engines, no sirens, no shouts. Not even an electricity hum. Quiet.
The second thing I noticed was that I was still alive. I opened my eyes and sat up. I found myself in a wide, green field, and I wasn’t alone.
There were a dozen or so people standing in a loose circle around me. Their formation reminded me of the place that I’d just come from, and I jumped to my feet, ready to flee at the first sign of a threat.
The people were dirty and barefoot, and wrapped in rags. One man took a step toward me; I figured he must be their leader. I held up my hands in the universal gesture for Keep your distance, buddy and everyone gasped.
When the man reached out toward me in what I assumed was meant to be a conciliatory gesture, I realized why my appearance was so shocking: both of his arms ended in knobby points, an affliction shared by all the others. Level Two, every single one of them.
Just over his shoulder, I caught sight of what must have been their camp: a few rough-looking huts, some piles of stones, and a smouldering fire pit. Understanding hit me like a punch to the gut. I realized how they must get by in life. And why none of them wore shoes.
One of the others made to take a step toward me. Their leader held up one leg to restrain him, his long, dirty toes caressing the other man’s knee. I shuddered.
“Welcome,” the leader said. “We have been waiting for one such as you.” He was not looking at my face, but at my hands, and the greedy expression he wore told me all that I needed to know about what my life would be like if I stayed with them.
I remembered what Sam said about the Devil’s Doorway and second chances.
I turned and ran like hell.