Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
It is a strange thing, what fear and ignorance does to the haughty human race. In our own twisted creativity, we desensitize ourselves to our own undoing. And in the end, we will have plagiarized or parodied our own demise. We have always been blissfully unaware of our reality, as our own superiority has always seemed constant and blinding. The human race may have always known we are our own worst enemy, however we have allowed that knowledge a place near us without its deserved fear, as one would an exotic pet. It has infiltrated our lives.
For decades we have playfully prepared ourselves for our own race to mindlessly turn against us, overcome with the urge to kill and consume. The philosophy infected pop culture and entertainment, therefore desensitizing mankind. Mankind, who in an effort to profit from the idea, designed things to combat this happening. Homes of concrete with safe rooms. Vehicles covered in armor. Weapons and targets to pepper with spent ammunition of the bored masses following the trends. Films, novels, and television programs dedicated to the fantasy of the brave warrior with assault rifle in one hand and rucksack in the other, going on one glorious exciting adventure of survival after another. Mankind, who has long created its own monsters to be fought, escaped, cured, and predicted. And later with hope, understood.
We are fucking delusional.
My story doesn’t begin with something on the news or the internet that I read and ignored. It doesn’t begin with a rumored illness or mysterious parasite. It begins without my knowledge, on a day when I simply overslept. In college, everyone adapts to their own lifestyle. Mine was an unwise combination of frivolity followed by guilty conscious. Staying out all night with girlfriends and crashing the frat parties, then dragging myself out of the dorms, tousle haired and hung over to class the next morning.
This particular day, I knew the instant I awoke to bright sunlight streaming in the window that I had not set the alarm. My roommates bed was empty, her purse and laptop gone. I had slept through Fundamentals of Physics but if I hurried, I could still sneak into the Intro to Psychology. After throwing on some cloths and rapidly packing up my bookbag, I raced out of the building, trying desperately to outrun the clock.
After jogging across the campus, I stumbled into the room exactly thirteen minutes after class had begun. The only seat left was an aisle seat next to a guy in my class who had always made me…uncomfortable. It was wrong and probably really insensitive to feel that way, but it was the kind of discomfort that comes from being healthy and whole in the presence of someone who is not. While the boy had always been friendly enough, if a little quiet, I had always had trouble not staring at him.
He must have been in some horrendous accident in his youth, something that had left one side of his face stretched, shiny, and discolored. A twisted country road of a scar ran the length of his face from forehead to jaw, giving it a grotesque patchwork quilt quality. One hand was a fused mass of five knots, no longer resembling the fingers they must have once been. The other hand, lying on the table closest to me as I slid tentatively into the seat, had three more fused knots, though the thumb and ring finger had been spared. The remaining two fingers were covered in a layer of angry red skin, darker than the rest of the hand, the fingers forming a disfigured claw-like appendage.
He glanced at me as I seated myself, then turned his attention back to our professor. The middle aged balding man was lecturing about brain chemistry in sleep disorders, saying there was still so much we didn’t understand about sleep and the unconscious mind. With a flourish, he gestured towards the pulled down projector screen at the front of the room and continued to talk about how despite how much we still don’t know, modern science has far outreached what we used to think. To show this, he claimed to have procured a rare old medical film from the 1940’s that discussed dreams, night terrors, sleep disorders and something called “The Russian Sleep Experiment.”
The lights were dimmed and the film began with a whirring and crackling noises, a reminder that it had once been shown using an early film projector. Several people in the room could be heard shifting restlessly in their seats. Smart phones came out and whispered conversations could be heard under the sounds of the film. My late night began to catch up as I relaxed into my chair, trying to concentrate on the screen through drooping eyes.
The grainy black and white footage depicted deep-voiced men wearing white lab coats and talking in monotones about the conscious and subconscious state. They exhibited a bleary eyed balding man in a threadbare shift collapsing for the camera in what looked like a narcoleptic fit. It was interesting for a few minutes, then the large words and monotonous voices began to make my mind drift. I found myself watching the boy with the burned hands drum his remaining two fingers on the desktop.
About halfway through the film, the men introduced an experimental method on treating sleep disorders. The patient was shown a series of images and sounds designed to stimulate different parts of the brain. As the film showed the process of the experiment, I noticed my seatmate had stopped drumming his fingers. He was motionless, enraptured by the film, wide eyed and stretched forward over the desk. His body was ridged and his eyes dilated. I watched him nervously, feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. When the sounds and images on the screen gained speed, I could hear his breathing grow shallow and tiny drops of saliva dribbled down his lips.
What the hell was wrong with him? Just as I began to edge away, his hand suddenly shot out in a startlingly fast movement towards me, one ruined finger hooking on my shirt. Every head swiveled to look at me as I shrieked and leapt from my chair, a button popping off my shirt and pinging to the floor. My movement carried me across the aisle and almost into the lap of the young man sitting there. He caught me by the hips, asking what was wrong and looking at me as if I were an idiot. Glancing back I saw the boy with the burned fingers had snatched his hand back to the table and was sitting still and transfixed, just as he was before trying to grab me.
Stammering out an apology, I gingerly slid halfway back into my chair, red face and embarrassed. The boy I’d almost sat on hissed something across the aisle that sounded like have some respect but no one heard this. No one was listening to him anymore. Every head in the room was now watching as the boy with the burned fingers climbed onto the tabletop, his chair banging to the floor. Head nearly brushing the low ceiling, he straightened up to face the film, shoulders pushed back unnaturally far and he swayed slightly on the spot. The instructors inquiries were drown out as the boy began to shout gibberish at the screen in an awful guttural tone, the sound causing a chill to fan over my skin. The student seated on his other side looked concernedly up at him, reaching out to touch his leg.
At that moment, we were all unceremoniously thrust into our movies, our video games, and our made up stories. We were not armed with AK 47s. We had no steel plated cars or concrete bunkers to escape to, no valiant hero vigilante coming to our rescue. We were a room full of kids, not even armed with our wits. So when the boy with the burned fingers turned and seized his other seatmate by the hair with his remaining digits, wrenching his neck to the side before sinking his teeth into it, there was a moment, a breath of shocked silence. A silence filled with the wet squelching of flesh and the tearing of cartilage.
Someone screamed; a shrill hysteric wail of terror that sent a percussion through the room, breaking the delicate spell of shock. The people closest to the brutal sight clawed and scrambled over each other to escape. Chairs fell to the floor, almost quietly amidst the shouting. Someone vomited onto the floor in the aisle, the sour smell hitting my nostrils moments before my hand landed in the warm puddle. It slickened the floor beneath me as I tried to crawl away, fueled by blind instinct and fear. Someone shoved past me, crushing my hand beneath a running foot and adding my own shriek of agony to the chaos of sound and movement. Clutching my hand to my chest, I clenched my teeth against the blinding pain of the broken bones grinding against each other. I rolled under the nearest table groaning in pain, trying to stay away from more running feet.
Another boy had fallen in the aisle near me, a trickling cut on his forehead, framed by an angry blooming bruise. A scraping sound on the desk above me froze the breath in my lungs. The steady thump thump thump passed over, the feet that caused the sound suddenly slapping to the floor only yards from me. Not able to see completely around the metal sheeting that encased the legs of the desk, all I could do was listen as there came a squeal of skin on tile and the fallen boy in aisle was dragged out of sight, a swath of blood left in his wake.
Whimpering in fear I crawled further back down the row, stopping to ball up and nurse my injured hand. It was then I realized how quiet it had suddenly become in the classroom. The sickening sounds of the crazed boy crunching and tearing into his classmate were easily heard. Another boy, the first one, lay barely visible along the row ahead, a growing pool of blood pouring from the large bites of flesh taken from his neck. Panic rising, I realized this was all really happening. Worse, I was alone, hurt and I had no idea how long the seemingly possessed boy would be occupied with his… meal.
Forcing my breathing to slow, I listened hard, hearing no sign of anyone left alive in the room. In my mind I pictured the layout of the room I was trapped in, the room I’d spent ninety minutes three times a week in for three months. The route to the back door I’d snuck into only an hour ago would take me into direct view of the crazed boy, who sounded like he was close to the front of the room. There was a second exit off center of the front of the room, behind the presentation podium. To get there, I’d need to follow the row of desks to the walkway near the wall and then somehow get down the walkway to the door at the end without being seen.
Slowly, steeling my nerves, I began to crawl on my hand knees along the line of desks, the metal sheeting around the legs shielding me from sight. Hot throbs of pain burned in my broken hand with each foot I crept. Tiny drops of what I thought was sweat rolled down my chin, realizing when they hit the beige tiles that it was drops of blood. I had been biting my lip so forcefully against the pain that it had cut open and was bleeding down my face. About halfway down the row, a groan broke the awful quiet in the classroom. It came from the row of desks in the very back, closest to the wall. Raising up as far as I dared, I saw a girls head emerge from behind the desks. She looked dazed, her long hair tangled and blood streamed from her nose.
I wanted to call out, to warn her, but it was too late. The boy with the burned fingers was already racing over the desks towards her, his face stained red from the nose down and his bloody hands leaving streaks on the desktops. The girl saw him moments before he reached her and tripped over a chair trying to run, falling to the floor and sealing her fate. He was on her, dragging her with an arm around her neck, back to the front of the room. She screamed and cried, begging for help that could not come.
Horrified, I quietly pulled a chair with a bookbag still slug over its back forward to conceal myself from sight, but there was no blocking out the sounds. The screams merged into sobs and cries of pain as the awful wet tearing and crunching began again. Agonizingly slowly, the crying turned to groans, then to only a gurgling sound. Pressing my head between my knees, I vainly tried to block the sound and the despair of not being able to help her as she was eaten alive.
Numbly, tears still streaking my face, I began to crawl again. My mother’s face swam in my head, followed by my little sisters. I wanted to live. I wanted to survive this to see them again. I was twenty years old and I had never seriously thought of how I’d die before. It was perhaps more frightening then the nightmare I now faced, dying like this. Shoving down the pain and trauma, I promised myself to do everything it took to live, crawling faster in my determination to make it to that door. In my haste, my ankle hooked a chair leg and loudly scraped it across the floor.
I froze, fresh terror flooding over me as I held my breath, waiting… listening. The tearing and chewing noises abruptly stopped. Pressing my good hand over my mouth, I hoped and begged for him to just ignore the sound and go back to butchering the other girl. My heart was beating so fast and so hard it was painful. The footsteps started, slow and calculated, not concerned with being heard. The panicked urge to press back under the desk and make myself as small as possible fought the urge to leap to my feet and sprint to the door. But despairingly I knew I couldn’t outrun him, and trying to hide would be a death sentence. If I wanted to live, I had to fight.
Glancing around for something, anything that could be used as a weapon, my eyes fell on an aluminum coffee mug on the floor of the row behind me. It was miraculously still upright and its lid still in place. Grabbing it, I found it was still full and steaming merrily out of the tiny opening used for drinking. It was my only chance. Clutching the mug to my chest, I listened to the footsteps draw nearer, punctuated here and there by the crazed boy climbing over a desk. But it was the next sound that would chill me to my core and stay with me until the day I died.
“I can smell you. I can smell your fear.”
The voice was cold, guttural and rasping, shaking my resolve. Trembling in terror, I squeezed my eyes closed and breathed deeply, taking a fleeting moment of comfort from the scent of the coffee I held clenched in my good hand. Through the crack between the desks I could see blood streaked jeans. If I was going to die, I wasn’t going to die like this. In what felt like terrible slow motion, I crawled out from under the desk and leapt to my feet, flipping the lid off the mug as I went. Surprise was on my side, for when I turned to face him, he paused in momentary confusion. The image of him, the boy that had once been my quiet classmate, seared itself into my brain.
He was covered in blood; his face so solidly red he look as if he wore a mask. Broken teeth gleamed wetly from the slack mouth, a chunk of blood soaked hair dangling from the corner. He stared at me for a moment, his dilated eyes flat black disks. It was that empty blackness, devoid of any remaining humanity, that I aimed for as I dashed the scalding liquid into his face. The creature gave a bird of prey-like screech and stumbled back, clutching his face. Dropping the cup, I sent the desk that separated us flying forward with a kick. It slammed the creature back, giving me the precious head start I needed to dash up the row. Disorientated and terrified, my numb brain wouldn’t obey my command to turn up the aisle when I reached the wall.
Instinctively throwing out my hands, I slammed into the solid wall at a run, sending a fire of white hot agony up my broken fingers. Another awful snap sounded from my wrist and my vision swam the pain. The air was forced form my lungs on impact and I crumpled to the cold floor, gasping for breath and trying to stay conscious. The creature, recovered from its minor attack, began violently kicking desks from its path. I could hear it gibbering angry wordless noises as it closed in.
I wanted to cry out in despair. I wanted it to just be over, to die and not feel my broken bones anymore. But I’d always heard that the will to live is an incredibly powerful thing, something that we don’t fully comprehend and can only access in times of great need. At that moment, with my escape just steps away, I felt it. I felt that promise I’d made to do whatever I must to live, and it overrode the hopelessness. In a last desperate attempt, I staggered to my feet and ran for my life down the aisle to the door, the monstrosity close behind. A blaring alarm sounded as I threw open the door, fresh air that was clean of the stink of carnage washed blessedly over my face. Shouldering the door closed, I braced against it as the boy with the burned fingers rammed into the solid wood on the other side. There was a slender rectangular window set in the door that offered a dreadful view of the crazed boy throwing himself at the door again and again, smearing blood and saliva over the glass as he attempted to reach me. The longer he rammed the door the more enraged he seemed to become, the thuds of his body growing louder and more frenzied.
The soles of my sneakers began to lose their grip, sliding back with each percussion and the hall was deserted. Knowing my only choice was to run, I watched through the window, deciding to flee when he back up for another assault on the door. As if hearing my thoughts, the crazed boy hesitated at the window, watching me with those black eyes. Just as he began to back up, his head suddenly jerked violently on his neck, a fine spray of blood and brain matter spewed over the window. I braced for a last impact that never came. Instead, I watched the boy with the burned fingers collapse to the ground, a gaping hole in his head. Staring at the corpse, a brief fear sized me that the body would suddenly reanimate in classic horror movie fashion.
But he lay still, blood gushing from his head. A few minutes later, a burly man with a shaved head and dressed in a black uniform edged through the door, most of the patches and insignia on uniform I didn’t recognize. A lethal looking gun was slung over his back, explaining how my deranged classmate had reached his sudden end. He spoke a rapid string of code into a radio clipped to his shoulder, then approached where I sat huddled against the wall. His face was serious but his voice was gentle as he reached out to help me to my feet, telling me it was okay and I was safe now. Though he wouldn’t say anything more than that, he carried me away from that nightmare room.
The next hours were a blur of hospital rooms, pain, and my mother’s face as she stroked my hair and called me her brave girl. Both men and women in expensive suits came to see me, flashing badges and giving me names too generic not to be aliases. They asked probing questions, coaxed out details, and pressed for every tiny thing I could remember, recording it all on tiny devices. Eventually the faces faded together, each meeting leaving me drained.
I stayed in the hospital a week, seemingly more for containment then treatment. I was then briefed on what was expected of me by the people investigating the incident. I was not permitted to leave my parents’ house until after I could appear at the inquiry. A car with darkly tinted windows drove me directly from the hospital to my parents’ house in the middle of the night and it didn’t leave after that. It was always parked near the house, always with two suited men seated inside. I didn’t leave. I didn’t talk to anyone. Social media and phones were forbidden. I watched the news stations hush up the massacre until it was only mentioned briefly as a murder, no other details. Nothing about the film, nothing about how the students died. When I made my appearance at the inquiry, I learned that the truth was much more frightening.
After a few weeks of isolation, the dark car picked me up again and transported me to a non-descript building far out of town. Dressed in cloths usually reserved for job interviews or funerals, I was escorted into a windowless room on the other side of a retinal scanner locked door. It resembled a courtroom, with rows of seating before a raised platform. The only decorations were an American flag on either side of the raised platform. A panel of five well-dressed people, three men and two women, were seated there. Their faces were grim, as were the faces of the several other people already seated in the rows. I was waved into a seat close to the panel, who watched me as I awkwardly shifted my plaster encased arm to sit down.
The bones in my hand and arm, though they had been badly broken, were healing well. But the nightmares born of my trauma were still going strong over the month following it. I relived my experience daily, both in waking and in slumber, sometimes being rescued as I had been in real life, other times in the darker nightmares not getting to the door in time and seeing the bloody face bearing down on me before screaming myself awake.
The panel of people addressed the room, beginning with an official sounding document that informed us all proceedings thereafter were government classified, criminal prosecution the consequence of sharing anything said in the meeting. I was called to the small podium before the panel and told my story again under oath. They did not ask questions or take notes, simply thanking me for my testimony and returning me to my seat.
An older Middle Eastern man with graying hair and a beautifully tailored suit took my place at the podium, identifying himself as Dr. Amir Hadied. Using an accented but eloquent voice, he confirmed to the panel that he had performed the autopsy of my now deceased classmate, whom he simply referred to by his first name of Jacob. The panel questioned him on his findings and he replied that after the examination, there was now a theory as to why the quiet 20 year old had murdered and cannibalized three of his classmates.
Dr. Hadied began by explaining that when Jacob was a child, he was trapped inside his home when it caught fire one winter night. While he had been rescued alive, he was grotesquely burned and required dozens of reconstructive surgeries and skin grafts to save his life. Large amounts of anesthesia were necessary for these procedures and the drug, while putting the little boy into the temporary coma as it is designed to do, also stimulated other parts of his brain. Some of these areas were the ones controlling impulses and movement, creating new neural pathways that are usually created from outside stimuli. Dr. Hadied continued to say that the strange thing was, the pathways were not used once the brain was brought out of its anesthetic coma. The pathways lay dormant until that day in Intro to Psychology when Jacob viewed the bizarre sleep study film. The images and sounds stimulated the dormant neural pathways and rerouted nerve stimuli there instead of the already established connections, essentially rewiring the brain in a shockingly short amount of time. As to why the brain had reacted in such a violent way he did not know.
When the doctor requested to analyze the film, the panel announced the film was missing. It had disappeared in the chaos and none of the surviving witnesses could tell its whereabouts. After the initial attack, most of the students and the instructor had fled the room. I was the only one left to witness Jacob devouring his classmates. The panel also informed us that our instructor was also under investigation for the origin of the film. Other people stood up to speak but I stopped listening. Something in the easy way the panel of people before me claimed that the mysterious film had vanished seemed very wrong. The secretive manner in which they handled me as a witness, how they brushed off the requests of the doctor to see the tape, and how little surprise there seemed to be at the theory of the tape being the trigger of the attacks, it all seemed to add up. That film was not lost. No, I would have bet my life that it was safely in the hands of whatever government agency these people all belonged to.
Perhaps it should have been the swift and silent cover-up of the whole event that was most terrifying. But these are just humans running other humans. In the hindsight of what I experienced, I’ve come to realize that our pop culture zombies are wrong. When the human race turns on itself, it will not be something we can plan for or treat. It will not be an illness or parasite at the root of the cause. It will stem from something potentially inside us all, a switch simply waiting to be flipped. I witnessed something as innocuous as a school film release that switch in a young person who otherwise had no motivation to cause harm. The humanity inside him died and left a shell. We all may have that switch inside, triggered by the most unexpected source.
And when it happens, it will spell damnation for all of humanity.
Credit: Marie Slate
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