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Walking the Line

Walking the line

Estimated reading time — 32 minutes

I awoke in a standing position, my eyes suddenly shooting open and my legs weakening as I began to stumble. I panicked as I felt myself falling forward, instinctively reaching out to grab the nearest thing to hand, which happened to be the shirt of the guy standing in front of me.

“Watch it buddy!” he exclaimed in annoyance, although the mystery man did take hold of my arm and shoulder before helping me to steady myself.

“Are you okay?” he asked sympathetically.


“Yeah, I think so.” I replied through trembling lips, as I tried to get my bearings.

“Well, just keep your cool…” he instructed, “And, whatever you do, don’t step over the white lines.”

I didn’t understand what he meant but then I adjusted my eyes and surveyed the scene around me, and what I saw was a vision of hell.

I hadn’t seen the face of the man who’d helped me, but when I looked up, I could make out the back of his head in the darkness and realised he’d turned around after assisting me, now facing forwards. Darkness was all around me, but there was a dim illumination on the ground which I stood upon; two lines of white light about three feet apart – one to the left of me, and the other on my right.

I remembered what the man had told me a moment earlier, warning me not to step outside of these lines. I didn’t know what he meant but somehow realised this was probably good advice.

I creaked my head to one side, looking over the shoulder of the man ahead and seeing a line of people standing in front of him – a long, single-file queue of shadowy figures stretching for several hundred yards up what appeared to be a slight elevation.


All stood within the two white lines which seemed to operate like some kind of emergency lighting, and at the top of the queue of unidentified figures was a doorway of bright, almost blinding light – a literal beacon in a sea of darkness; inviting, comforting, and offering a glimmer of hope in what otherwise seemed like a dangerous situation.

I didn’t understand what this place was or why I was here, but in that moment, I believed the shining white light ahead was my salvation. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of people standing in the queue in front of me, and I couldn’t move past them without stepping outside of the white lines.

I shook my head, experiencing an almost crippling anxiety as my mind raced to make sense of this inexplicable situation. I opened my dry lips and struggled to speak, addressing my fearful question to the anonymous man in front of me.

“What…what is this place? How did we get here?”

He didn’t turn his head to face me, but the man did respond.

“You see the white light at the front of the line?” he asked in a surprisingly calm voice.

“Yes.” I confirmed nervously.

“Well, look behind you.” he instructed.

I was terrified but needed to know the truth, and so I turned my head, making sure to keep my footing and stay within the lines as I did so. Directly behind me stood a woman about 5 foot 5 inches tall. I could barely make out her features in the dark but – in any case – her head was down, and it appeared she was unconscious.

She was sleeping whilst standing up, just as I had been only moments before. I guessed this was the same for every person in the line, and that we’d all been unconscious when they brought us here. But who had done this to us, and why? I decided this was a question for later.

I suppose I should’ve paid more attention to the sleeping woman behind me, and if I’d done so I would surely have recognised the young lady, but my attention was drawn to the scene beyond her. I soon realised I was standing in the middle of a long queue which stretched back for at least several hundred yards and sloped downwards. And at its end was the polar opposite to the light before me.

At the very bottom of the line was a swirling vortex of crimson red – a terrifying portal to God knows where, so vile and sinister that I couldn’t bear to look upon it for more than a few seconds. If the light before us offered hope and salvation, the blood red whirlpool surely represented doom and despair, and the mere sight of it chilled me to my very bones.
I turned back around, muttering a profanity under my breath as my body shook.

“It gets worse.” the man in front said ominously, “Look ahead.”

I creaked my head once again and saw a terrifying scene unfolding. I guess another man had suddenly woken up like I had, but he didn’t react well to his surroundings. I watched in awestruck horror as the darkened figure stumbled, swearing as he put his foot forward and stepped outside of the white lines.

Someone else in the queue tried to stop him, reaching out to grab the disorientated man whilst shouting – “Don’t do it man! We can’t leave the queue, no matter what…”

But the well-meaning person’s efforts were in vain as the man he was trying to save ignored the warning, slapping his hand away whilst shouting – “Get away from me, you damn freak!”
And then he put both feet across the line on his right-hand side and walked out into the darkness. I say dark, but I could still make out his shape once he was over the line. He was a big guy, over 6 foot in height and well built. I guess he didn’t scare easy and thought he could find a way out, but he didn’t get far.

I guess he was about ten yards out before they got him. Thankfully, I couldn’t see much in the dim light, and it all happened so fast. But the creatures that emerged from the black void were horrifying, imp-like demons the size of grown men, but with eyes which burnt a deadly shade of red, and with claws and teeth like those of the deadliest predators.

There were three monsters in total and they all roared like lions, moving so rapidly as they surrounded the doomed man and tore at him with their long and sharp claws. Their victim screamed in absolute terror as the monsters ripped his clothes and skin. Next, the horrified man tried to fight and make his way back to the relative safety of the queue, but soon he was knocked over and seriously wounded by a deep slash along his back.

Even then he didn’t give in, crawling along the hard ground as he desperately cried for help. Not one person attempted to reach him however, as all remained frozen to their spots. And of course, he didn’t make it. A moment later, one of the demons grabbed him by the legs, pulling his body away from the line as he screamed and tried in vain to dig his nails into the ground.

Before long, the monsters and their victim disappeared into the darkness. We could no longer see them, but we did hear the vicious attack reaching its horrifying conclusion. The doomed man screamed louder as his predatory attackers growled with sadistic glee. And then I heard the appalling sounds of skin ripping, bones cracking, and finally what I can only assume was the noise of the monsters feasting on his still warm flesh.

“What the fuck!” I swore aloud.

I retched, feeling like I was going to be sick, but nothing came up. Panic soon spread along the entire line as people reacted to the vicious killing we’d all just witnessed. Some deteriorated into screaming hysterics whilst others fell into themselves, whimpering or quietly praying under their breath. But all were in agreement on one point – we must not step outside of the white lines.

Stepping out of the queue meant certain death, while within the lines we were safe – for now at least. I shivered as I tried to come to terms with the extreme violence I’d just seen. It seemed like the temperature had suddenly dropped, or perhaps this was just my brain’s perception. In any event, my mind was now racing, and I wanted to ask one hundred questions at once.

I noticed how the man in front of me had hardly reacted to the savage attack. It was like he’d expected it to happen. I also recalled how he’d helped me when I first woke up, but I was still to see his face, and even now he would not turn around.

He’d been the one who’d warned me about the rules and that simple advice had probably saved my life. Nevertheless, I had the distinct feeling that his faceless man knew more about our situation than he’d shared thus far, and so I was determined to ask him further questions. But before I got the chance, I was disturbed by a soft cry from behind me.
I jumped in shock and turned around, almost accidently putting my right foot over the line before I stopped myself. Once I’d turned, I saw the woman behind me slowly falling and I reached out to catch her, taking hold of her slender body and helping her back up to her feet.

I felt a familiarity as I held her in my arms. Perhaps it was her scent, or maybe my muscle memory. But then she lifted her head and met my eye, and I almost jumped out of my skin once I saw her face.

“Sally?” I said in astonishment, as if my eyes were deceiving me.

“Joshua?” she answered weakly, as she opened her eyes and slowly adjusted to our new environment.

I saw her dark hair tied back in a bun, her soft skin and expressive green eyes, and knew it was indeed her. And Sally’s presence in this hellish realm brought the terror I felt to a whole new level.

I held onto Sally’s body as she regained her composure, and continued to do so until she was able to stand on her own two feet. And I was still thinking of what to say as I looked into her frightened eyes and a flood of old emotions came back to me – some good, others bad.

In the end, I could only repeat the crucial advice I’d been given, saying – “Don’t step outside of the lines Sally. Whatever you do, stay inside the lines.”

Sally looked up at me in confusion and I was prepared for a stream of follow up questions which I likely couldn’t answer.

But before we got the chance to speak, the man in front of me spoke, asking – “Do the two of you know each other?”

“Erm…yeah.” I answered without thinking, “Sally and I used to date.”

“Hmm…interesting.” the man replied without elaborating.

He was still facing forward and so couldn’t have seen Sally falling into my arms. He must have been reacting to the sound of our voices and eavesdropping on our conversation. Meanwhile, Sally adjusted to our terrifying situation, looking ahead at the light and back towards the vortex.

Her reaction was much the same as mine, as I saw her face contort with horror and confusion.

“Where are we?” she asked, looking to me for answers.

“That’s what I’m trying to find out.” I replied, before turning back towards the man in front.
“Hey buddy,” I said, “you know our names, how about you tell us yours?”

The man still refused to turn his head and he didn’t speak for a long time. But finally, he did answer my question, saying – “You can call me Milo.”

“Okay.” I replied hesitantly.

The name rang a bell somewhere in the back of my mind but I didn’t dwell on it.

“Well Milo, how about you tell us what the hell is going on?” I demanded.

“What makes you think I know anything?” he replied cryptically.

“I think you know more than you’re letting on.” I said, “You told me about the lines after all.”

“Fair enough.” Milo admitted, “I know some things, but not everything.”

He paused before continuing. “You wake up in this queue, standing between the white lines. You know what happens when you step outside of them.”

Sally didn’t, not yet anyway. I was grateful she’d been spared the sight of the savage killing.
“What are those things out there?” I asked, although a part of me didn’t want to know the answer.

Milo shrugged his shoulders but still didn’t turn around.
“Can’t say for sure.” he said, “They could be demons, monsters, aliens, or genetic mutations. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, does it? I know they dwell in the darkness all around us, and they see everything. For whatever reason they can’t step inside of the lines. We’re safe from them as long as we stay in the queue. But, if we enter their domain, they’ll slaughter us without hesitation.”

I turned to Sally, seeing the fear in her eyes. That’s a look I hadn’t seen in a long time and hoped I would never witness again. I put a hand around my ex’s shoulder to comfort her, but she pushed me away, and I was forced to remember why we’d broken up in the first place.

I put this to the back of my mind however, instead focussing on my inquisition of the faceless man in front.

“So, we’re trapped here?” I asked fearfully, the desperation now evident in my voice.

“Oh no.” Milo answered in an almost flippant tone, “I’m afraid you don’t understand. The queue won’t remain stationary. When the trumpets blow, we move forward, one at a time.”

When the trumpets blow? What the hell did that mean? I thought about it for a moment before I realised the implications of what Milo was saying.

“You mean we move towards the light?” I asked hopefully.

I knew little about our situation but surely the white light at the top of the queue was our chance at salvation.

“Yeah, that’s what happens. But there’s a catch.” Milo said.

“What do you mean?” I demanded in angry frustration.

“You’ll find out soon enough.” was Milo’s typically evasive response.

I opened my mouth to speak again, but then I heard it.

The trumpets, blaring from God knows where – a deafening and terrifying sound which blasted out from the darkness, seemingly surrounding us on all sides. Both Sally and I collapsed down to our knees, covering our ears with our hands in a futile effort to drown out the awful din.

I felt the pressure building inside of my skull and thought my head was going to explode, but thankfully the trumpets stopped after a few moments, and then the line started to move.

I looked forward and saw the figure at the front of the queue stepping into the light, his dark silhouette immersed as he raised his arms and cried out in glorious ecstasy, gladly allowing the portal to transport him to another realm. And with that, he was gone – freed from this nightmare and surely now safe from the monsters which dwelt within this dark hellscape.
“Wow!” I expressed in amazement. But – like Milo had warned us – there was a catch.

Suddenly we heard a blood curdling scream from behind us – a cry of abject terror emitted by somebody in mortal danger. I swiftly turned my neck, seeing how Sally was already facing in that direction.

My eyes widened in terror as I saw the man at the back of the line, his body being physically sucked into the swirling vortex of crimson red. He continued to scream as his legs were pulled inside, and soon he was up to his waist, reaching out desperately and digging his nails into the frozen dirt beneath him.

“Please! Please help me!” he cried.

There was a woman ahead of him in the line and – to her credit – she did try to help. Reaching down, she grabbed his hand tightly, but the pull of the hellish vortex was too great. Within minutes she lost her grip upon him and the man was sucked through the portal.

I remember the look on his face the second before he disappeared into the abyss – his eyes so wide and his mouth frozen in a silent scream. And then he was gone.

The middle-aged, slightly overweight woman who’d tried to save him suddenly cried out, as something inside of her just broke.

“I can’t do this! I can’t be here!” she exclaimed.

And, before anybody got the chance to stop her, the frightened woman did the worst thing imaginable. She stepped over the white line.

There was nothing we could do but watch as the poor woman attempted to run into the darkness. Inevitably, she didn’t make it far. The attack didn’t play out like the previous time. She wasn’t set upon by a gang of savage monsters but instead confronted by a single creature which suddenly emerged from the black abyss to block her path.

The woman just froze, stopping dead in her tracks as she stared into the monster’s burning red eyes. She was seemingly unable to flee or fight, as if the beast had her under its terrible spell.

My jaw dropped as I observed the unreal scene. For a moment I naively thought she might be okay and that the monster would actually let her live. But then, in a single rapid and brutal action, the beast raised its muscular arm and thrashed out with its claw, easily cutting the woman’s jugular wide open.

She grabbed at her throat as blood poured from the gaping wound and soon collapsed heavily to the floor. Her body continued to thrash as she choked on her own blood, but a moment later and the beast leaned down and grabbed hold of her hair, dragging the slowly dying woman into the darkness.

“Oh my God.” Sally cursed under her breath.

And I couldn’t utter a word. This was the second person I’d seen slaughtered by the monsters stalking the shadows, but it didn’t get any easier. Frightened murmurs and the occasional scream went along the line as all present reacted to the horrors we’d just witnessed. Those who hadn’t seen the deaths firsthand no doubt heard about them from their neighbours in the line, and the panic spread like wildfire.

Still, I noted how Milo had not reacted at all to the bloodshed. Still, I reckoned he must have eyes on the back of his head, and perhaps he’d seen it all before. Nevertheless, our mysterious companion was able to provide an explanation of sorts.

“That’s the catch I was telling you about. They let one person pass into the light whenever the trumpets sound, but there’s a price to pay. One goes into the light, and the vortex takes one from the back of the line. That’s the way it works.”

Suddenly I felt cold all over. I was sure the temperature had dropped since I first regained consciousness, although this was the least of my worries as my exhausted brain attempted to process what Milo had just told us. I’m sure Sally was doing the same, as she remained silent for the time being. Although I could hear her clicking her tongue, a habit she did when nervous or stressed.

I glanced ahead and behind me, once again confirming that we stood roughly in the middle of the long, single- file queue of people. If what Milo said was correct, one person would reach salvation at each trumpet blow, while one would simultaneously be sucked into oblivion, or whatever the hell lay on the far side of that damned portal.

Assuming this twisted process continued, the line would gradually grow shorter as more people left this shadowland, and in the end, we too would discover our fate. I felt a vile sickness in the pit of my stomach as my whole body shook. I didn’t know what to say next, but it was Sally who broke the silence.

“Hey Milo, that’s your name, right?” she shouted over my shoulder.
I saw Milo nodding in confirmation, but he still wouldn’t turn to face us.

“You know, you still haven’t answered Joshua’s question. You didn’t tell us where we are and why we’re here.”

Milo snorted before replying. “Like I said, I don’t know everything. But I guess I’ve been conscious to our situation for longer than the two of you. During that time, I’ve come up with a couple of theories.”

“Like what?” Sally demanded.

I could tell she was becoming increasingly impatient. We’d been split up for two years at this point and hadn’t spoken in nearly as long. But seeing her again in this dangerous and terrifying situation made me realise I still had feelings for her.

Milo eventually replied in a matter-of-fact tone, with no emotion evident in his voice as he spoke.

“Well, one possibility is that we’ve been kidnapped or abducted by some malicious person or persons. What’s the last thing you remember before waking up here?”

I tried to think, realising there was an unexplained gap in my memory.
“I remember driving.” I said uncertainly, “And then everything went black.”

This didn’t make sense. Had I been in an accident? If so, why didn’t I recall a crash or collision?

“I…I have the same memory.” Sally muttered nervously.

I glanced back at her in confusion, only to find she wouldn’t meet my eye. This revelation confused me even more. Sally and I hadn’t been together. We hadn’t even seen each other in two years. What were the odds of us both being involved in car accidents at the exact same time?

And all this talk reminded me of the incident which had led to our breakup in the first place. I’m sure Sally was thinking the same thing, but we’d both promised to never speak of that night again.

“So, if we were abducted, then who has us?” Sally continued, “And why are they doing this to us?”

“That’s the one-million-dollar question.” Milo replied, “It could be aliens I reckon. Or maybe it’s the government running a psychological experiment, or some sick billionaire who tortures people for fun. But of course, there is another possibility – one which is more supernatural in origin…”

I stared at the back of Milo’s head in astonishment, irritated that I couldn’t see his face and tell whether he was serious or not. There was a tense pause while I waited for Milo to elaborate, but to my surprise, it was Sally who spoke up next.

“You mean that we’re dead.” she said ominously, “That every person in the line is deceased and trapped between heaven and hell.”

Her chilling words hung in the air as we considered the terrifying inference.
“It’s a possibility that’s occurred to me.” Milo responded dispassionately, breathing life into the horrific theory.

“So, if we really are dead,” Sally continued, “the white light means salvation while the whirlpool means eternal damnation.”

Milo didn’t answer her question, but the conclusion Sally had come to seemed like an obvious one. Still, there was something which I just couldn’t understand.

“But the people at the front of the line are guaranteed to reach salvation, while those at the rear will surely get sucked into hell.” I exclaimed, “Why are some saved, and others doomed?”

I waited for an answer, but a moment later and the trumpets sounded once again, forcing us to cover our ears and making further conversation impossible. And of course, the whole ritual played out again, as a solitary figure gladly walked into the light while the poor sap at the rear was pulled into the whirlpool, screaming in abject horror as the vortex took him.

The line had become slightly shorter, and it was now clear to everyone standing in the queue what was going on here. The fear in the icy cold air was palpable, and soon the line behind us descended into panic and chaos.

I heard shouts and screams, looking back over my shoulder to see violent scuffles breaking out, as desperate souls tried to fight their way forward and put as much distance as possible between themselves and the vortex. The results were tragically inevitable.

The white lines were only three feet apart at most. If people had been more co-operative, they could have slipped past one another and reorganised the line in a sensible manner. But nobody wanted to be left at the back of the queue when the dust settled, and so fights broke out – desperate struggles which resulted in several people being thrown over the lines on either side.

And of course, the monsters were there waiting. A dozen or more demons emerged from the shadows, roaring with fury as their red eyes burned with an intense hunger. The scene which followed was worse than anything we’d seen thus far, as ravenous monsters greedily tore into their near helpless victims with claws and teeth.

I couldn’t bear to watch and so turned around, but I could still hear the screams and the awful sounds of ripping and tearing.

Thankfully, the massacre soon ended. I guess that those at the back of the queue realised it was futile to try to fight their way forward and so they stayed within the lines where the demons couldn’t reach them.

But suddenly a horrifying thought crossed my mind, and I turned to speak with my ex-girlfriend.

“Sally, who is standing behind you?” I asked in a panic.

“It’s okay.” she replied, “There’s a woman behind me, but she hasn’t woken up yet. Her head’s down and her eyes are closed.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that Sally was safe – for the time being at least.

“What about you Milo?” I said, addressing my question to the faceless man ahead of me.

“Don’t worry about me.” he replied firmly, “I know how to look after myself.”

I had little doubt this was the case…and of course, Milo was ahead of us in the queue.
None of us said anything for a time, but once again our attention was drawn to the front of the line where there was an unexpected and gut-wrenching development.

We heard the sounds of an argument from the two people at the head of the queue – a man and a woman by the sound of their voices. Their conversation was muted at first but soon grew louder, enough so that we could hear from a couple of hundred yards away.

I don’t know whether the two knew each other outside of this hellscape, but they were having a heated discussion, with the man wanting to take action and the woman being against it.

Finally, the man cried out in defiance, shouting – “Screw it! I’m not waiting a moment longer. I’m going through!”

With that, I saw the man charging towards the white light, determined to make it into the portal. But what happened next was horrific.

The man didn’t pass through a porous membrane like the others. Instead, he charged into a wall of flames, screaming in total agony as his skin and flesh burnt fiercely, as within seconds he was engulfed by the unholy inferno – his body reduced to mere ashes.
The man’s female companion yelled out in grief, and the rest of the line fell into a chilling silence.

“We’ve all got to follow the rules.” Milo muttered solemnly, “There are no shortcuts.”


For once I understood what he meant, and my jaw dropped when I considered what had just occurred. The man at the head of the line had suffered an agonising, fiery death – and all because he was impatient. If only he’d waited until the trumpets blew, he would have safely crossed over to paradise.

Slowly but surely, the line moved forward. We were now one step closer to salvation, but no-one was likely to make the same mistake.

Nevertheless, the situation continued to develop in an unexpected way. We heard muttered chatter from all along the line – dozens of separate conversations but which surely related to the same topic – survival. And then something extraordinary occurred.

People began to swap places in the queue voluntarily, carefully pushing past each other whilst ensuring that nobody stepped outside the lines. There weren’t many changes to the pre-arranged order, but there were some, and these transfers were apparently done after mutual agreement and without the threat of violence.

I was astonished, particularly when I saw the bald-headed man who now took the unenviable position at the very end of the line. But he did not seem afraid of his imminent damnation. Instead, he sat down cross-legged on the cold ground, his form illuminated by the burning red of the vortex. I watched as he closed his eyes and remained perfectly still, as if in a deep meditation. I couldn’t understand why at the time, but he seemed to have accepted this fate.

And with that, the ominous trumpets blared, drowning out all other sounds as the now familiar cycle played out once again. I guess the woman at the top of the line had recovered from seeing her male companion burnt alive, because she slowly and carefully stepped into the light and safely passed through to the other side. And meanwhile, the bald-headed man at the rear maintained his monk-like composure right to the very end. He didn’t fight or even scream when the vortex sucked him in, and his limp body disappeared into apparent oblivion.

I shook my head in disbelief. It was clear that something significant was happening here, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was and how it impacted on us. But Sally was quicker off the mark, which I suppose I should have expected. She’d always been smarter than me and knew how to cope in a crisis situation. I’d learnt as much during the incident two years before.

Still, as well as I thought I knew my ex-girlfriend, I never could have predicted what she’d do next.

“Hey Milo, how are you holding up?” she said suddenly.

I looked over my shoulder in confusion, only to see my ex giving me a knowing look. I’d seen that look before and knew what it meant. Sally wanted me to trust her and keep my mouth shut, and so this is what I did.

I suspected she wanted Milo to turn around so she could make eye contact, but by now I knew this wouldn’t happen. For whatever reason, our mysterious new friend was determined to keep his eyes facing forward.

“I’m doing just fine.” he answered, a response which struck me as odd. “Why do you ask?”

Sally seemed frustrated by Milo’s reply, but she persevered nonetheless.

“Well, I feel like the three of us are in this together,” she said, “but we know nothing about you Milo. As you know, Josh and I were in a serious relationship. Things didn’t work out, but we’re still close. And we share custody of our son.”

I spun around in shock, opening my mouth to challenge my ex. But, when I did so, she shot me a hard look and raised a finger up to her lips, silently telling me to stay quiet and go along with this. Obviously, Sally was lying. We never had a child together. We’d talked about it, but our relationship ended abruptly soon after the incident, and our dreams of having a family died at the same time.

But now Sally was claiming we had a son together. I didn’t understand why she’d made up this fictional child, but I soon found out.

“You have a son?” Milo asked hesitantly.

“Yes.” Sally replied without delay. “His name’s Kevin and he’s two years old. A real rascal sometimes but he’s as sweet as punch.”

I was shocked by how deeply invested Sally was in this lie she’d manufactured from thin air. It was frightening how she was willing to add details to make it sound more convincing.

“I was driving to pick Kevin up from my parents’ house when all this happened. I just hope he’s not too upset and wondering where his mummy is…”

She let this sentence hang in the air for a moment, I guess for the maximum emotional impact. I couldn’t bear to look at my ex-girlfriend and didn’t wish to be part of her deception. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to speak out against Sally, because I realised, I still owed her a massive debt.

Milo hadn’t responded verbally to Sally’s words, but she eventually followed up with a question.

“Do you have children Milo?” she asked purposefully.

Milo’s reply surprised me, because his usual cool demeanour broke down and he suddenly became upset and angry.

“No.” he spat, “I never had any kids. My wife and I wanted to, but we never got the chance.”
I think Sally was taken aback by his emotional response, but she soon regained her composure and continued with her ruse.

“I’m really sorry to hear that, Milo.” she said, in what I knew was mock sympathy, “But we do have a baby boy, and – in a situation like this – don’t you think parents should get priority?”

All of a sudden I got it. I guess I was slow to understand what my ex was doing, but Sally always said I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. Milo was in front of both of us in the line, so he would reach the safety of the light before we did. We might survive either way, but Sally was hedging her bets, trying to get Milo to voluntarily switch places so a ‘loving parent’ could survive and get home to her child.

I guess this lie was meant to help me as well, but I still didn’t like it. We’d told too many lies already, and there had to be consequences for our deception. Nevertheless, I didn’t say a word, instead waiting for Milo’s response. But, before he had an opportunity to answer, the trumpets sounded once again.

As we covered our ears, the familiar pattern took place before our eyes, with one figure stepping into the light and another getting sucked into the vortex.

In the aftermath, an individual broke from the line and stepped into the shadowy kill-zone. I was shocked to see this figure was little more than a child – an adolescent boy with wild terror in his eyes. I didn’t see whether the kid was pushed or if he ran, but he was quick on his feet and seemed determined to make a break for it.

Inevitably, a gang of three bloodthirsty demons emerged from the shadows and grasped out at the kid with their claws, but amazingly the kid dodged all of them, making it past the trio of monsters and sprinting into the darkness.

He disappeared from sight and for a brief moment I thought he could actually make it to safety, but then we heard a blood-curdling scream closely followed by the cracking of bones and the ominous sound of a huge beast biting into flesh, and I realised that the kid had fallen victim to some yet unseen horror looking in the shadows.

My heart sank in that moment, but Sally’s devious plan was still very much in play. Milo predictably didn’t react to the kid’s violent death, but he did recall the conversation we were having before the trumpets sounded.

“So, you think you should go ahead of me because you have a kid?” he asked, his voice returning to his characteristic, emotionless tone. I remained silent, but Sally spoke up on our behalf.

“Frankly, yes. I don’t want to be brutal about it, but we deserve the chance to see our boy again.”

“But if we really are dead, then what difference does it make?” Milo blurted out.

I had to admit that he had a good point here. I didn’t know how Sally would respond to this direct question which poked a massive hole in her story, but of course she had a pre-prepared argument.

“But we don’t know that we’re dead. Not for sure. If we have been abducted, then reaching the light could bring us home. And besides, even if we have…passed away – don’t you think two loving parents deserve to go to heaven?”

I didn’t know how Milo would react to this loaded question, but I certainly didn’t expect what happened next. Because suddenly Milo began to laugh, quietly at first but growing ever louder. But his laughter wasn’t one of mirth. Instead, it was filled with bitterness and scorn.
I turned around to look upon Sally, only to find she was as baffled as I was. We had no choice but to wait until Milo finished his mad cackling and opened his mouth to speak, his voice now filled with passionate anger.

“You really don’t know who I am, do you? I hoped there would be some recognition, some remorse…but now I realise this is beyond you both.”

I shook my head in confusion, feeling like there was something I should’ve picked up on, but sadly I remained oblivious.

“I’m sorry Milo, I don’t understand.” I said nervously.

“You don’t huh?” Milo spat back,“Well, maybe it’s about time you saw my face.”

And with that, he slowly began to turn around for the first time. I stood there in nervous anticipation, my entire body trembling because I suspected what we’d see would not be pleasant. And when his face was illuminated, I recoiled in horror as my most painful memory came back to punch me in the gut.

Milo’s face was in actual fact a grotesque death mask – his dead eyes bulging, and his forehead caked in dried blood. His skin looked like leather, and when he opened his crusty lips, green water poured from his mouth and nostrils.

I heard Sally scream behind me, and I was about to follow suit. But, in that moment, the trumpets sounded, louder than ever this time. I fell to my knees and buried my head in my hands, but the almighty din was too intense. I felt like my head was about to explode, and then I found myself drifting out of consciousness, as suddenly my whole world went black.
And then I was in another place and time – thrust back to a point in my life which I had tried my hardest to forget.

Sally and I were in my car, driving along a lonely country road late at night. We were coming home from a party and were in high spirits. We’d both been drinking. I was driving and surely over the limit, but I’d made this journey a dozen times before and thought it would be fine.

I remember the two of us laughing over a shared joke. I glanced over to the passenger’s seat, looking into Sally’s mischievous eyes and feeling so much love for her in that moment, but I should’ve kept my eyes on the road because I didn’t see the pedestrian until it was too late.

A sudden panic overtook me as I slammed my foot on the brakes, but I hit the man head on, horrified as his broken body was thrown up onto the hood before it smashed against the windscreen. I brought the car to a stop as the body fell heavily to the ground, and I sat frozen, still gripping a tight hold of the steering wheel and in a state of shock.

Slowly, I turned to look at Sally and saw an expression of sheer horror etched across her face.

“Joshua. What have you done?” she whispered.

And I didn’t have an answer.

After some time, we exited the vehicle and went to see to my victim. What we found was a bloody mess of a man – a human body broken almost beyond recognition. We were both sure he was dead.

Sally and I stood there under the headlights on the side of the abandoned road, looking down at the corpse of the young man I’d just run over. And then I really started to panic.
“Sally, what the fuck am I going to do?” I exclaimed, “I’ve killed a man! They’ll send me to prison for this!”

“That’s not going to happen.” Sally answered firmly, her eyes narrowing as she took control of the situation.

“There are no witnesses. Nobody saw what happened…” she paused briefly, letting those words sink in, “The lake is only five miles from here. We can make him disappear.”

I glared at her in shock and disbelief, disgusted by the suggestion. But of course, I went along with her plan. I didn’t wish to face the consequences of my actions and so I conspired with my girlfriend to cover up the crime.

With some difficulty we lifted the body and loaded it into the trunk of my car. I vividly recall seeing the man’s grotesque death mask, his dead eyes looking upwards into the night sky as we slammed the trunk shut and sealed him inside.

We drove to the lake, exiting the car at the top of a disused jetty after releasing the handbrake, watching in solemn silence as the vehicle rolled downwards and disappeared under the water’s surface.

Sally and I made the long walk home that night, barely speaking a word as the seriousness of our crime hit home. We reported the car stolen the next morning, Sally giving the report to a disinterested police officer who didn’t ask too many questions.

A few days later, we heard a missing person report on the news – a young man who had been walking at night and never made it home. In the days and weeks which followed, I lived in a state of constant anxiety, forever fearing a knock on the door. But the cops never made the connection and didn’t find the body.

I guess it was about two months later when Sally and I were watching TV at home, and suddenly there was a press conference featuring a teary-eyed woman giving a statement with a photograph of the missing man framed behind her. She pleaded for anyone with information to come forward and wept as she begged for her husband to come home. And the missing man’s name was…Milo.

Suddenly my ears were filled with the sound of trumpets, and I was brought back to the dark hellscape, except the circumstances had changed during my absence.

The first thing I noticed – before I even opened my eyes – was the overbearing heat. Before this place had been ice cold, but now the opposite was true. And simultaneously my nostrils were filled with an awful stench of sulphur and burning flesh, making me retch in disgust.
But, when my eyes opened, I almost jumped out of my skin, and I started to stumble until a pair of arms grabbed me and held me up.


“Remember the rules.” was what she shouted in my ear, her voice just about audible over the almighty din, “Stay within the lines and they can’t get you.”

That was Sally, and she had a tight hold of me. I glanced into her wide eyes, wondering if she’d experienced the same gut-wrenching flashback I had during our blackout. The look of horror etched on her now drawn face told me she surely had, but this wasn’t the reason she was so frightened.

The demons weren’t in the shadows any longer. They were standing right up beside us – so close that I could smell their foul breath which stank of rotting flesh and see the flesh blood dripping from their sharp fangs. There were half a dozen of the beasts visible on either side of the white lines, appearing like soldiers standing to attention.

They didn’t make any attempt to attack, but the monsters shot us murderous glares through their burning, red eyes, and they grinded their razor-sharp teeth and clicked their long claws, as if eagerly anticipating the kills to come. But they couldn’t get to us, not as long as we stayed in line.

And the queue was much shorter now. I guess Sally and I had been out for longer than I’d thought as we relived our past sins – because, whereas the line had once included hundreds of lost souls, now there were only five of us.

The doorway of white light was right in front of us, while the crimson vortex lay behind us, the two gateways competing to drown out the darkness. But the intolerable heat and disgusting stench came from our rear, and I had no doubt that the vortex was a portal to hell itself.

In the moment which followed, the terrifying process repeated, as the anonymous figure at the front of the line crossed over and the woman behind Sally screamed as the hellish whirlpool sucked her inside. And then there were only the three of us.

In all the chaos I’d almost forgotten about Milo. But the ghoul was still facing us, his dead eyes burning with rage as he savoured his moment of retribution.

“Tell me?” he snarled through his rotting maw, “Do you two feel any guilt? Any remorse for what you did to me? For what you took from me?”

I struggled to find the words to respond as I experienced a foul, burning sensation in the back of my head. I knew I couldn’t hide from this any longer.

“Milo,” I spluttered, “Of course we’re sorry for what happened. But it was an accident. You’ve got to believe that.”

Milo laughed bitterly once again.

“An accident!” he exclaimed in anger, “Was it an accident when you bundled me into your trunk and pushed your car into the lake? Was that a fucking accident?” he paused briefly, his lifeless eyes narrowing, “I was still alive when I went into the water. Did you know that?”
I shook my head in disbelief, muttering – “No. That’s not possible!”

“It’s true.” Milo confirmed with a nod, “I slowly suffocated to death inside of that trunk. And they never found my body. My wife never got closure, never got to bring me home. And that’s all because of the two of you!”

Milo was now beyond fury as he roared and charged towards Sally and I with his arms outstretched.

“Josh! Stop him!” Sally screamed.

But he was already upon me, his skeleton-like hands wrapping around my throat in an attempt to throttle me. I fought back with all my might, tackling Milo and shoving him to one side. And of course, he fell outside of the lines.

Milo released his grip on my throat as the demons grabbed hold of him – their eyes lighting up with a ravenous hunger as they dug their claws into his flesh. Milo didn’t fight or scream when they took him. He merely looked upon us with a sad resignation as they dragged him into the darkness.

I glanced down at my own hands in disbelief, realising that I’d killed this innocent man for the second time. The rest of the demons retreated at this point, cackling cruelly as they returned to the shadows. As I watched them go, I felt an immense guilt eating away at me, and I knew that it should’ve been me.

It was Sally who broke me from my trance, placing a firm hand on my shoulder and forcing me to look her in the eye.

“Joshua. Are you doing okay?” she asked sympathetically.

I shook my head, muttering – “I’m a killer.”

“You did what you had to do, Josh. You were trying to protect me, but I need your help one last time.”

“What do you mean?” I shot back in confusion.

She sighed deeply, probably frustrated by my lack of awareness. “Come on Josh, there’s only two of us left now. What’s going to happen when the trumpets sound?”

And suddenly I was up to speed. I was standing in front of Sally in the line and was closest to the white light of salvation.

“You want to swap places.” I said ominously, “You want me to sacrifice myself for you.”

I wondered what I thought about this idea. It certainly wasn’t an appealing offer. I was terrified by the vortex and whatever hell lay beyond it. Of course I was. But would I screw over the woman I’d once loved to save my own skin? It had never crossed my mind that it would come to this, but I think Sally had always envisaged this outcome.

Sally had always been one step ahead…and in the end, she had the words to persuade me.
My ex held my hand tighter, tears in her eyes as her tone became increasingly emotional.
“I know it’s a lot to ask Josh. But remember – I saved you after the accident. You said you couldn’t face prison and I made the problem go away. I don’t deserve to suffer for your sins, you know that Josh.”

I opened my mouth to respond but we’d run out of time. The trumpets blared aloud, drowning out our conversation. I needed to make a decision right now, and I went with my heart over my head. In an instant, I grabbed hold of Sally’s waist, embracing and kissing her once last time before pushing her ahead of me in the line.

The terrible din made any further words impossible. But, in the last moment, Sally smiled back at me gently and mouthed ‘thank you’. And, as she did so, I remembered all the tenderness and love we’d once had for each other, but I couldn’t escape the nagging suspicion that she’d played me.

But Sally didn’t wait, soon turning her back on me and confidently walking into the light. And then I felt the irresistible pull from behind me as the all-powerful vortex sucked me in. I felt my skin burning and the air leaving my lungs, and then I was gone from that place, never to return.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect once I regained consciousness and adjusted to my new environment. I knew it wasn’t going to be a good place, but my panicked mind was filled with images of burning lakes of sulphur and sadistic demons wielding pitchforks. But the space I found myself in was quite unexpected.

I was inside of a car, sitting in the driver’s seat. But it wasn’t just any vehicle – it was my car from two years previous. The same car I’d been driving on the night of the accident…the night I’d killed poor Milo for the first time.

And that wasn’t all. I was underwater, surrounded by dark, flowing liquid on all sides, with the only illumination coming from the light above the dashboard.

I started to panic, struggling to breathe as I desperately tried to open the doors, only to find they would not budge. Next, I kicked out at the windscreen which was already shattered from the night of the accident, but when I kicked the glass, I discovered it was rock hard and unbreakable.

I cried out in angry frustration, slamming my fists on the wheel and hearing the muffled sound of the horn. But then I was taken unawares by a chilling, deep voice from behind me, saying – “I won’t bother if I were you. There’s no way out.”

I jumped up and turned around, seeing a dark figure sitting in my back seat. I knew he hadn’t been there a second before, and so he’d seemingly materialised out of thin air. The man – if that’s what he was – appeared well dressed in a finely tailored tuxedo suit, seamless white shirt, and black bowtie.

But I couldn’t see his face as it remained hidden in the shadows. Thus far, he’d only offered me what seemed like advice. Nevertheless, there was something very disturbing about his tone of voice and whole demeanour, and so I guessed this mysterious individual was no friend of mine.

I felt like history was repeating itself and feared the worst, struggling to speak through trembling lips and asking – “What is this place?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” the shadowy figure replied.

It was of course, and I needed to face the grim reality of my situation.

“I’m in hell, aren’t I? This is my personal hell.”

The shadow man responded with a sly chuckle before saying – “Certainly not Joshua. This is a half-way house of sorts. Call it purgatory if you will. Believe me, you’d know if you were in hell.”

I experienced a wave of emotions in that moment – relief for sure. but, as always, I was confused.

“I don’t understand.” I exclaimed, “I was sucked into the vortex. I smelt the sulphur, felt my body burning…”

“You made an assumption.” the man replied abruptly, “Did anyone tell you that one portal led to heaven and the other to hell?”

I pondered his words for a moment until the horrifying implication became apparent.
“Sally!” I exclaimed, “What happened to Sally?”

The man sighed before answering. “Sally is…somewhere else. Don’t worry about her now Joshua. You won’t see her again, not for a while anyway.”

I gulped, feeling a chill as I thought of my ex-girlfriend and feared for her safety, but it seemed there wasn’t anything I could do for her right now.

“And what about me?” I muttered nervously, “What will become of me?”

There was a lengthy, almost unbearable pause before the shadow man answered me.
“I’ll be honest with you Joshua. You’ve got us in a bit of a pickle. On one side, you committed a heinous sin on the mortal plane, but then you made a noble sacrifice in the shadowlands to save a woman you once loved. Your sacrifice was futile in the end, but you weren’t to know that. We’re going to need some time to consider your fate, Joshua. In the meantime you can stay here, in this watery prison of your own making.”

I experienced a renewed panic and also anger, crying out before I had the chance to think.
“No! You can’t keep me here! I won’t stay!”

The shadow man’s reaction was instant and furious. He leaned forward, allowing me to see his hideous eyes through the darkness – burning, crimson orbs which reminded me of the vortex I’d been pulled into – mesmerising and yet terrifying at the same time.

And when he spoke, his voice blared out like a banshee’s wail.

“You’ll do what we damn well tell you!” he screamed, “Do not test me, you wretched mortal! I can make all your worst nightmares come to life!”

I’d never been as frightened as I was in that moment, not during my mortal existence or even in the shadowlands. Whatever this entity was, I realised he could inflict suffering upon me that I couldn’t even imagine.

I had no words to respond and so I merely grabbed hold of the steering wheel and lowered my head in a meek submission.

“Very well.” the shadow man said with a smug satisfaction, “Goodbye Joshua. Until we meet again.”

I nervously glanced up into the rearview mirror and saw the entity melting away into the leather seat, and then I was alone.

To this day, I remain trapped in this watery grave, staring out at the bottom of the lake which was the scene of my worst crime. I don’t know how long I’ve been here. All I know is that I can’t leave, not unless they set me free.

I assume the shadow man will eventually return to reveal my ultimate fate, but for now all I have is time. I’ve had what seems like an eternity to come to terms with what I’ve done.

I think about Sally often, and Milo too. Will I ever see them again? I hope so, because when all my sins and regrets are washed away, all I want to do is make amends.

Credit: Woundlicker


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