I want to thank Coach O's class at North Stafford High School for their participation in writing this short story. This isn't a typical piece for me, and was difficult to continue, but I hope you enjoy!
Thank you to the kid in the back of the room for the wonderful suggestion of the last line.
* * *
Abandoning hope, I stared at the river a good hundred feet below. One step and it would all be over. One step and I'd never have to worry about this again. One step . . . .
* * *
Carl walked up the drive, carrying the mail the way he always has, shoved into his gray shoulder bag. He looked especially unnerved today, his forehead sweatier than usual, his gaze directed at his feet—or whatever not ahead of him.
He muttered, shaking his head, then turned around and stomped toward the street.
“Hey, Carl. What’s wrong?” My mail carrier and I weren't friends, but no one wants to see important papers run away from them, right?
Unfortunately, my words did nothing to calm him. He took off running.
Chasing after him wasn't in the cards, so I went back to watching the game on ESPN. Good friends, potato chips, and beer—what could be better?
"Who was that? Not Claire, I assume." Jeff handed me the remote . . . not that I had any intention of changing the channel.
"Strange. That's what that was." I took a swig of my drink. "Definitely not Claire, and I guess I won't see the mail until Monday."
I'm not sure why Jeff asked me anything; he was completely engrossed in football. Can't say I blamed him.
A few minutes later, someone knocked.
Jeff grinned at me like a psychopath. "Bet that's your girl now."
Jumping over the back of the sofa, I made a beeline for the door, then took a deep breath and ran my fingers through my hair.
"Dude. You have it bad."
Bryan and Jeff snickered like schoolgirls, but the jokes on them. At least I had a girl!
I turned the handle, excited, but Claire's beautiful smile didn't greet me. In fact, no one was there.
Just before I slammed my recently replaced, nine-hundred dollar door, I glanced down and noticed mail on the rug. I collected the letters, ready to mark off Carl from my 'nice list', then turned to go back inside and noticed yet another present. “What the . . . ? Jeff, Bryan, come look at this.”
How did someone paint a Chinese symbol on my door so fast? Better yet—why? The paint was thick and oozed down the solid oak panes, reminding me of a letter seal from times long ago.
The more I stared, the faster my anger faded, and the shakier I became.
"I've seen this before." Bryan leaned in close. "Remember on the news last week? They found the guy dead in his house, this exact symbol on his door, no explainable cause of death."
Jeff made ghostly noises, earning him an evil glare from my always paranoid buddy, Bryan.
I hated to give in to fear, but the very sight of this thing on my door made me queasy. Never mind it pissed me off. "I have to get rid of this."
A quick trip to the garage and I was back, scrubbing like no man should. Red streaks stained my wrists and burned my skin. Whatever this paint was made of, it wasn't hypoallergenic. I tossed the bucket and cleaning brushes into the trash, just to be safe, then scoured my skin in the kitchen sink.
My tendons tightened; my veins bulged and pulsed with red, not blue. Sweat beaded on my forehead, and I swear my beer was about to come back up. “What’s wrong with me?”
"I have to go," Bryan said, taking the side exit rather than going out the front.
Jeff scurried after him.
I shook my head and stared at my arm again, but it looked normal. Game ruined, friends gone, and absolutely no hope of seeing Claire, I decided to read my mail.
Bills. Ads. Coupons. Huh? A letter sealed with the same symbol.
I tore open the envelope, then unfolded the yellowed parchment.
"Due to your unique genetic makeup, you have been chosen to participate in a test of strength, of courage, and of will. The next ten days will be painful. The next ten days may be the last days of your life. By now, you have surely touched the Stamp of Death. By now, an alien form is taking place inside your soul. Live through the pain and you will have all the things you have ever desired, especially power. Decide to take your life, as every candidate before you has, and you may save this world from a massive war it could never possibly win, but then, will you have your Claire? Will you have your friends? Maybe. Because if you decide to take your life, we will also take theirs. Choose well. Good luck."
My stomach roiled. Bile climbed up my throat, burning. Just my imagination. Just my imagination. The letter fell from my hands and landed by my feet. No way this psycho has my friends. No way cramps are crippling me at the knees. No way . . . .
I ran to the garage, sweating worse than working in hundred-degree heat. I had to see if Bryan and Jeff left in their car, but when I opened the door, I didn't need any more proof. My two best friends and the only girl I'd ever even remotely thought the word 'marriage' about were bound and gagged, faces pale, eyes wild, arms held by a couple thugs dressed in all black.
"Let them g—" I doubled over, vision blurring, stomach losing its contents all over the concrete. Hot, searing pain tore through me like something was taking me over, moving in, pushing me aside. Falling to my hands and knees, I gasped for breath, gasped because all I wanted to do was die, and something in my mind, some strange voice, told me that death was a good choice, that if I allowed this thing inside me to live, all life would cease to exist and I would never truly get everything I desired. This alien didn't want to live, and I didn't want to let it, but what did that mean for my friends?
Claire screamed through her gag, and one of the thugs punched her. I tried to get up, I tried to save her, but the toxin rushing through me, singeing every hair on my arms, squeezing through every vein in my body, prevented me from moving. Blackness crept into my vision, and I passed out.
* * *
Ten Days Later: Abandoning hope, I stared at the river a good hundred feet below. One step and it will all be over. One step and I'll never have to worry about this again. One step . . . .
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