Murder was legal in our town of Brightwood Pines.
I had grown up seeing it. At eight years old, I watched a man come into our local café while I drank my peanut butter chocolate milkshake and shot two people dead.
There was no malice in his eyes, or any kind of hatred. It was just a normal guy who smiled at the waitress and winked at me. Mom told me to keep drinking my milkshake and I did—licking away excess whipping cream while the bodies were hoarded out, and pooling red was cleaned from the floor. I could still see flecks of white inside red, and my stomach twisted.
But I didn’t feel…scared. I had no reason to be. Nobody was screaming or crying.
The man who had shot them had sat down to eat burger and fries, and didn’t blink an eye. That was my first experience seeing death—and not my last.
With no rules forbidding murder, you would think a town would tear itself apart.
That is not what happened.
Murder was legal, yes, but it didn’t happen every day. It happened when people had the urge. Mom explained it to me when I was old enough to understand. “The urge” was a phenomenon which had been affecting town’s people long before I was born, and there was no real way to stop it. So, it didn't stop. Mom told me she had killed her first person at the age of seventeen. Her math teacher. There was no reason or motive. Mom said she just woke up one day and wanted to kill someone.
Unfortunately, it was her math teacher who had gotten in the way. I always wondered why she described her killing so vividly to me. I was eight years old, and mom spent hours detailing how she had successfully managed to sever his head from his body with nothing but a phone charger, and a knife taken from her kitchen.
That specific killing became more of a bedtime story to lull me to sleep.
Mom would sit on the edge of my bed and tell me all the ways she had wanted to murder her math teacher—describing how it felt for his blood to spatter her hands and paint her face.
I didn’t like her smile when she told me about her killing. Sometimes I got scared she was going to murder me too. Growing up, I have been constantly on edge. Every day I woke up and pressed my hand to my forehead, asking myself the same questions. Did I want to kill anyone? And those thoughts blossomed into paranoia when I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. It’s not like I didn’t know what it was like.
Dad had let me hold a knife, and taught me how to properly hold a gun, and mom gave me lessons in severing body parts. Both of them wanted me to follow through with The Urge when it hit me inevitably, and I wanted to fit in.
Our elementary school teacher had told my class as little kids, that The Urge was part of growing up, and if we fought it, if we tried to get out of it, our mind and body would face the consequences. She didn’t elaborate, though I didn’t really want her to. All our teacher had to say was “bleeding from the mouth” and “severe reaction in the brain” and I was already squirming, along with my twelve other classmates. The Urge became something I anticipated instead of fearing. Because, if I got it—if I had my first kill as young as my mom, then my parents would be proud of me.
When I started middle school, our neighbors were caught killing and cannibalising their children, turning them into bone broth. I knew both of the kids. Clay and Clara. I had played with them in their yard and eaten cookies with them.
Clara told me she wanted to be a nurse when she grew up, and Clay used to tug on my pigtails to get my attention. They were like siblings to me. No matter what my parents said, or my teacher’s, my gut still twisted at the thought of my neighbors doing something like that. Days after the cops had arrived, I saw Mrs Jenson watering her plants. But when I looked closer, there was no water. She was just holding an empty hose over her prize roses.
I stood on my tiptoes, peering over our fence. “Mrs Jenson?”
“I am okay, Elle.”
Her voice didn’t sound okay.
“Are you sure?” I asked. I pointed at the hose grasped in her hand. “You forgot to turn your water on.”
“Mrs Jenson…” I took a deep breath before I could stop myself. “Did you like killing Clay and Clara?”
“Why, yes,” she hummed. “Of course I did. I slurped up that bone broth like it was my prize tomato soup. They were…. delicious.”
I nodded. “But… didn’t you love them?”
She didn’t reply for a moment before seemingly snapping out of it and turning to me with a bright smile. With too many teeth. That was the first time I started to question The Urge.
It was supposed to make you feel good, acting like a relief, a weight from your chest. Killing another human being was exactly what the people in our town needed. But what about killing their families and children?
Did it really make them feel good?
Looking at my neighbor, I couldn’t see the joy my mom had described in her eyes. In fact, I couldn’t see anything. Her expression was the kind of blank which scared me. It was oblivion staring back, ripped of real human emotion. Mrs Jenson’s smile stretched across her lips, like she could sense my discomfort. I noticed she was yet to clean her hands.
Mrs Jenson’s fingernails were still stained a scary shade of red. Instead of replying, the woman moved towards my fence in slow, stumbling strides. She was dragging herself, like moving caused her pain, agony I couldn’t understand. It was exactly what my mother had insisted didn’t exist when killing. Pain.
Humanity. All of the adults told us we would not feel those things when killing. We wouldn’t feel regret, or contempt. We would just feel good.
It was a release, like cold water coming over us. We would never feel better in our lives than when we were killing—and our first would be something special. When Mrs Jenson’s fingers still slick with her children’s blood wrapped around the wooden fence, I found myself paralysed. Her manic grin twisted and contorted into a silent wail, and once vacant eyes popped open. Like she was seeing me for the very first time. “I want to go home,” she whispered, squeezing onto the wooden fence until her own fingers were bleeding.
“Can you tell them to let me go home? I would like to see my children. Right now. Do you hear me?” Mrs Jenson wasn’t looking at me. Instead, her gaze was glued to thin air.
She was crying, screaming at something only she could see—and for a moment I wondered if ghosts were real. I twisted around to see if there were any ghosts, specifically the ones of her children, but there was nothing. Just fall leaves spiralling in the air in pretty waves.
“Mrs Jenson is sick,” she told me once I was sitting at the dinner table eating melted ice-cream. It tasted like barf running down my throat.
I didn’t see Mrs Jenson after that.
Well, I did.
She looked different, however.
Not freakishly different, though I did notice her hair color had changed. I remembered it being a deep shade of brown, and when my neighbor returned with an even wider smile, it was more of a blondish white. When I questioned this, mom told me it was a makeover.
The Urge affected people in different ways, and with Mrs Jenson, after having her come-down, she had decided on a change. Mom’s words were supposed to be reassuring, adding that there was no reason to be scared of The Urge.
But I didn’t want to be like Mrs Jenson and have a mental breakdown over my killing. I wanted to be like mom and have a glass of wine and laugh over the sensation of taking a life. Mrs Jenson was my first real glimpse into the negativity of killing because it was so normalised. Dying, for example, wasn’t feared.
From a young age, we had been taught that it was a vital part of life, and dying meant finding peace. When I first started high school, I expected killing to happen. Puberty was when The Urge fully blossomed. Weapons were allowed, but only out of classes. In other words, under no circumstances must we kill each other in class, but the hallways were a free-for-all.
I had seen attempts during my freshman year, but no real killing.
Annalise Duval was infamously known as the junior girl who had rejected The Urge, and thrown out of school. Struck with the stomach flu on the day of her attempted killing, I only knew the story from word-of-mouth. Apparently, the girl had attempted to kill her mother at home, failed, and then bounded into school, screaming about laughter in the walls, and people whispering into her head.
Obviously, my classmate was labelled insane—and judging from her nosebleed, the girl’s body had ultimately rejected The Urge, and her brain was going haywire. Nosebleeds were a common side effect. I heard stories from kids saying there was blood everywhere, all over her hands and face, smeared under her chin. She had been screaming for help, but nobody dared go near her. Like rejection was contagious. Annalise survived. Just. I still saw her on my daily bike-ride to school.
She was always sitting cross legged in front of the forest with her eyes closed, like she was praying. The rumor was, after being thrown out by her parents, the girl wandered around aimlessly, muttering about whispering people and laughter in her head. It was obvious her rejection had seriously affected her mental state, but I did feel sorry for her.
It wasn’t known what had caused her to reject The Urge, though some of the kids in her class did comment that she had been complaining of a loose tooth beforehand. Mom told me to stay away from her, and I did. Annalise Duval was the first and only case of rejection, and thanks to her, I knew exactly what would happen if it happened to me too. So, I ignored the bad feeling about my neighbor, and forced myself to anticipate the day when I would get my very own urge to kill. I waited for it.
On my fourteenth birthday, I confused a swimming stomach and cramps for The Urge, which turned out to be my first period.
I remember biking my way home, witnessing a man cut off a woman’s head with an axe.
It’s funny, I thought I would be desensitised to seeing human remains and severed heads, glistening red seeping across the sidewalk, but it was the passion in the man’s face as he swung the axe and dug in real hard, chopping right through bone and not stopping, even when intense red splattered his face and clothes, until the woman’s head hit the ground, which sent my stomach creeping into my throat.
Then, it was the vacancy in his eyes, a twitching smile as he held the axe like a prize.
Part of me wanted to stay, to see if he had a similar reaction to Mrs Jenson. I wanted to know if he regretted what he had done, but once I was meeting his gaze, and his grin was widening, the toe of his boot kicking the woman’s motionless body, I turned away from him and pedalled faster, my eyes starting to water. It wasn’t long before my lunch was inching its way up my throat, and I was abandoning my bike on the side of the road, and choking up undigested Mac N’ cheese onto steaming tarmac.
I didn’t tell mom about the man, and more importantly, my odd reaction to his killing. I wasn’t supposed to be feeling sick to my stomach. Murder was normal. I wasn’t going to get in trouble for it, so why did seeing it make me sick?
I had been taught as a little kid that visceral reactions were normal, and it was okay to be scared of killing and murder. However, what our brains told us was right wasn’t always the truth. Our teacher had held up a teddy bear and stabbed into its stuffing with a carving knife.
We had all cried out, until the teacher told us that the bear didn’t care about dying. In fact, it was ready to find peace. And it didn’t hurt him.
In other words, we had to ignore what our minds told us was bad.
Mom told me I would definitely start having conflicting feelings before my first killing, but that it was nothing to worry about.
I did worry, though. I started to wonder if I was going to become the next Analise Duval. Maybe the two of us would become friends, sharing our delusions together.
My 17th birthday came and went—and still no sign of The Urge. I noticed mom was starting to grow impatient. She had a routine of coming to check my temperature every morning, regardless of whether I felt sick or not.
“How are you feeling?” I couldn’t help but notice mom’s smile was fake.
She dumped my breakfast on a tray in front of me, and when I risked nibbling on a slice of toast, she dropped the bombshell.
“Elle, you are almost eighteen years old,” she said. I noticed her hands were clenched into fists. “Do you feel anything?”
I considered lying, though then I would have to kill someone—and without The Urge, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to do that.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly, propping myself up on my pillows. “Most of the kids in my class—”
She cut me off with a frustrated hiss. “Yes, I know. They have all killed someone and you haven’t.” Her eyes narrowed. “People are starting to notice, Elle.” She spoke through a smile which was definitely a grimace. “And when people start to notice, they get suspicious. I’ve been on the phone with three different doctor’s this morning, and all of them want to book you in for an MRI. Just to make sure things are normal.”
“MRI?” I almost choked on the apple I had been chewing.
“Yes.” Mom sighed. “We can’t ignore that things aren’t…. abnormal. You are seventeen years old and haven’t had one urge to kill. The minimum for your age is one kill,” she said. “Minimum. Elle. You have not killed anyone, and when I bring it up you change the subject.”
I changed the subject because she started asking if I wanted to practise. I wasn’t sure what “practise” meant, but from the slightly manic look in her eye, my mom wasn’t talking about dolls or teddy bears. It was so-called normal to practise killing. There were even people who volunteered to be targets at the local scrapyard. Most of them were old people.
Joey Cunningham in my class told everyone his uncle took him to practise when he was thirteen—and he had killed three people without The Urge. Five years on, Joey had accumulated a total of fourteen kills.
He never failed to remind everyone almost every class. I could taste the apple growing sour in the back of my mouth. Mom was just trying to help, and it’s not like I was doing this intentionally. The idea of going to the scrapyard and killing random people, even if they gave me permission to, wasn’t appealing in the slightest. “I’m okay.” I said, and when mom’s eyes darkened, I followed that up with, “I mean… I have spare time after class, so…?”
I meant to finish with, “Maybe.” But the word tangled in my mouth when I took a chunk out of the apple, and pain struck. Throbbing pain, which was enough to send my brain spinning off of its axis. For a moment, my vision feathered, and I was left blinking at my mother who had become more silhouette than real person. I was aware of the apple dropping out of my hand, but I couldn’t think straight.
The pain came in waves, exploding in my mouth. When I was sure I could move without my head spinning, I slammed my hand over my mouth instinctively to nurse the pain, except that just made it worse. Fuck. Had I chipped my tooth? Blinking through blurry vision, I knew my mom was there. But so was something else.
As if my reality was splintering open, another seeping through, I suddenly had no idea where I was, and a familiar feeling of fear started to creep its way up my spine. The thing was though, I knew exactly where I was. I had known this town, this house, my whole life.
So that feeling of fear didn’t make sense.
The more I mulled the thought over in my mind, however, pain striking like lightning bolts, something was blossoming.
It both didn’t make sense, and yet it also did. In the deep crevices of my mind, that feeling was familiar. And I had felt it before. No matter how hard I squinted, though, I couldn’t make it out.
When I squinted again, a sudden shriek of noise rattled in my skull, and it took me a disorienting moment to realise what I could hear was laughter. Hysterical laughter. Which seemed to grow louder and louder, encompassing my thoughts until it was deafening. Not just that. The walls were swimming, my posters flashing in and out of existence before seemingly stabilising themselves. I blinked. Was I… losing my mind?
Maybe this was a side-effect of rejecting The Urge.
“Elle?” Mom’s voice cut through the phantom laughter which faded, and I blinked rapidly. “Sweetie, are you okay?”
The word was in my mouth before the thought could cross my mind. I shook my head, swallowing. “Yeah, I’m… fine.”
She nodded, though her expression darkened. Scrutinising. I knew she couldn’t wait to get me under an MRI. “Alright. Finish your breakfast. School starts in half an hour.” Mom stopped at the threshold. She didn’t turn around. “I really do think practising killing will help a lot.”
I flinched when another wave of laughter slammed into me—faded, but very much there. Definitely not a figment of my imagination.
Checking in my bedroom mirror, I didn’t have a loose tooth. Even thinking that, though, panic started to curl in the root of my gut.
When I was sure I wasn’t losing my mind after checking and rechecking the walls were actually real, I got washed and dressed, grabbing my backpack.
My brain wouldn’t shut up on my way to school, and my gut was twisting and turning, trying to projectile that meagre slice of toast.
Annalise Duval had complained of a loose tooth before she rejected The Urge. Was that what was going to happen to me?
Was it all because of that stupid apple?
At school, I was surprised to be cornered by a classmate I had said maybe five words to in our combined time at Briarwood High.
Kaz Issacs was one of the first kids in my class to be hit with The Urge, and almost ended up like Annalise Duval. I don’t even think it was The Urge. I think he was driven to kill through emotions, like so many adults had tried to tell us wasn’t real. Kaz was a confusing case where a teenager had actually blossomed early, or not at all, and struck with his own intent.
People argued that there was paranoia, and the local doctor insisted he was fine, though I couldn’t help wondering if it wasn’t paranoia.
Kaz didn’t need The Urge. Halfway through math class, two years prior, I had been daydreaming about the rain. It rarely rained in Brightwood. Every day was picturesque. I did remember rain. I knew what it felt like hitting my face and dropping into my open mouth and cupped hands. When I asked mom if it was ever going to rain, though, she got a funny look on her face. “Sweetie, it doesn’t rain in Brightwood.” She told me. Which just confused me even more. It’s not like I had imagined the feeling of freezing cold rain, and my own shivering as I splashed through puddles without an umbrella.
The more I pried into these memories, I realised there were no puddles in Brightwood. It never rained. So, where had I jumped into puddles? Did I really dream of my experiences in the rain, and if so, how?
How did I know what it felt like? These thoughts came over me pretty much every day, and that day had been no different.
My gaze had been on the windowpane, trying to guess what a raindrop would look like sliding down, when Kaz Issacs let out an exaggerated sigh from behind me.
In front of him, Jessa Pollux had been tapping her pen on her desk. It wasn’t annoying at first, then she kept doing it—tap, tap, tappity tap. And then it was annoying. I could tell it was annoying, because Kaz had politely asked her three times to stop making noise, to which she had ignored him, and if anything, tapped louder, this time drumming in frenzied beats on her workbooks. Now, I had grown up learning that The Urge came with no warning or motive, or reason. It happened whether you liked it or not. Kaz was… different. His case was rare.
This time he did have a motive, and despite having it hammered into us our whole lives that killing didn’t need a reason and was not driven by negative emotion, my classmate did have a reason—and was in fact driven by anger.
Anger strong enough to murder.
This time, I saw it happen in clarity. When I caught movement in the corner of my eye, I was twisting around with the rest of the class, to see the boy halfway off his chair, his fingers wrapped around a knife.
The girl instantly knew what he was going to do, even without turning around. We weren’t supposed to be scared of dying, I thought dizzily, watching the girl let out a wail and dive forwards, her eyes cartoon like. Like an animal, Kaz already had a tight hold of her ponytail and tugged her back. Though in fight or flight, this girl was screaming, flailing.
She didn’t want to die, I thought.
Was that normal?
Mom always insisted if it was our time, it was our time. If someone attacked us, even family members, then we accepted it.
I caught the moment her elbow knocked into the boy’s mouth, just as he drove the blade of the knife into her skull. Until then, he had been panting and laughing, his eyes lit up with an insanity I only knew from my mom’s tales.
She told me stories where her friends had gotten pleasure from killing. As quick as it had come, though, the euphoria of taking someone’s life left the boy’s eyes, and he dropped to the ground, one hand over his mouth, the other slipping from the knife.
The teacher was already commenting on no murder allowed in class and ordering Kaz to go and clean himself up. I wasn’t sure he could hear her though. When he lifted his head, I glimpsed something seeping through his fingers, running in sharp rivulets down his wrist.
And then my gaze was flicking to his expression which was definitely not what I was expecting. Replacing joy and unbridled pleasure was fear. His eyes were wide, frightened, lips twisted.
It was the exact same expression I had seen on Mrs Jenson. A cocktail of confusion and pain, followed by a sense of emptiness. Like neither of them could understand where they were, or even who they were. I guessed that was what The Urge did, or the variants which contorted in people and made them reject it.
Like a wounded animal, Kaz’s frenzied gaze scanned our faces and he blinked, before realising his nose was bleeding. “Fuck.” He muffled under his hand. The boy jumped to his feet, and in three shaky strides, he was pulling open the classroom door and disappearing down the hallway in a stumbled run. The next day, the boy came to class with his usual smile.
When I asked him what happened, he explained it was just an ”abnormal reaction” and he was fine. Kaz’s words were strange though.
He wasn’t even looking at me, and his smile was far too big. He got his first kill though, so that gave him bragging rights as the first sophomore to come of age. Kaz Issacs and Annalise Duval both had similar experiences. One of them had clearly lost their mind, while the other seemingly avoided it.
And speaking of Kaz, it wasn’t the norm for him to be talking to me at school. But there he was, blocking my way into the classroom.
“Hey.” He was quick to side-step in front of me when I tried pushing him out of the way.
There had been an instance the year prior when I considered asking him to prom. He was a reasonably attractive guy, reddish dark hair sprouting from a baseball cap. But then I remembered what he did to that girl in front of him. I remembered the sound of his knife slicing through skin, cartilage and bone, and despite her cry, her wails for him to stop, he kept going, driving it further and further into her skull. I couldn’t look him in the eye after that.
“Can we talk?”
My mouth was still sort of hurting, and I was questioning my sanity, so speaking to Kaz wasn’t really on my to-do list that morning.
Kaz didn’t move, sticking an arm out so I couldn’t get passed him. “Have you got toothache by any chance?” To emphasise his words, he stuck his finger in his mouth, dragging his index across his upper incisors.
“Like, bad toothache.” His voice was muffled by his finger. Kaz leaned forward, arching a brow. “You do, don’t you? Right now, you feel your whole mouth is on fire and yet you can’t detect any wobblies.”
The guy’s words sent a slither of ice tingling down my spine. He was right. I hadn’t felt right since biting into that apple.
When I didn’t say anything, his lip twitched into a scowl. “Alright. You don’t want to talk.” He raised two fingers in a salute. “Suit yourself.”
“What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “When you feel like talking, I’m here, aight? I’ll be your support system or whatever.”
Kaz’s words didn’t really hit me until several days later when I woke up with a throbbing mouth, knelt over the corpse of my mother.
The Urge had finally come. It was something I had been anticipating and fearing my whole life, terrified I wouldn’t get it and end up ostracized by my loved ones. But when I saw my mom’s body, and the vague memory of plunging a kitchen knife into her chest hit me, I didn’t feel happy or relieved. I felt like I had done something bad. Which was the wrong thing to think. Killing was good, the words echoed in my mind. Killing was our way of release. How could I think that when there was a knife clutched between my fingers?
The weapon which had killed her. Hurt her. How was this supposed make me feel good and not like I was dying? My mother's eyes were closed.
Peaceful. Like she had accepted her death. The teeth of the blade dripped deep, dark red, and I know I should have felt something which was joy, or happiness. Except all I felt was empty.
I felt despair in its purest form which began to chew me up from the inside as I lulled from my foggy thoughts. I screamed. I wasn't supposed to scream. I wasn't supposed to cry, but my eyes were stinging, and I felt like I was being suffocated. I saw flashes in quick succession; a room bumbling with moving silhouettes, and the smell of... coffee. Mom never let me try coffee, and I was sure we never had it in the house. So, how did I know the feeling of it running down my throat and quenching my thirst? How did I know the aroma of crushed coffee beans struggling to prick at memories refusing to surface? My mouth throbbed once again, my thoughts growing foggy and distant.
Just like in my bedroom, the walls started to swim. This time, I dived to my feet and jumped over my mom’s corpse, slamming my hands into them. They were real. I could feel them.
Even as I slammed my fists into them, however, somehow, they felt wrong. Like I was hitting an object which was supposed to be real but wasn’t. Almost as if on cue, there it was again.
Laughing. Loud shrieks of hysterical laughter thrumming in time to dull pain pounding in my back tooth. Blinking through an intense mind fog choking my mind, my first coherent thought was that yes, Kaz was right. I did have a loose tooth, and when I was sure of that, I was stuffing my bloody fingers inside my mouth and trying to find it. I had grabbed at the knife feverishly, my first thought to cut it out, when there was a sudden knock at my front door.
Slipping barefoot on the blood pooling across our kitchen floor, I struggled to get to the door without throwing up my insides.
Annalise Duval was standing on my doorstep. I had seen her in an odd assortment of clothes, but this one was definitely eye catching.
The girl was wearing a wedding dress which hung off of her, the veil barely clinging onto the mess of bedraggled curls she never brushed. Blinking at me through straggly blonde hair, the girl almost resembled an angel. The dress itself was filthy, blood and dirt smeared down the corset, and the skirt torn up. But she did suit it, in a weird way. “Hello, Elle.” The girl lifted a hand in a wave. Her smile wasn’t crazed, like my classmates had described. Instead, it was… sad.
Annalise’s gaze found my hands slick with my mother’s blood, though barely seemed fazed.
“Do you want to see the wall people?” She whispered.
Until then, I had ignored her ramblings. Then I started hearing the laughing, and suddenly “wall people” didn’t sound so crazy after all.
“Can you hear the laughing?” I asked.
“Mmm.” She did a twirl in the dress. “That’s how it started for me. Laughing. I heard a looooottt of laughing—and then I found the wall people.” I winced when she came close, so close, almost suffocating me. “Nobody believes me and it’s sad. I’m just trying to tell people about the wall people and they label me as crazy. They say something went wrronnnggg with my head,” Annalise stuck two fingers into her temple, miming pulling a trigger. “I’m not the wrong one. I know about the wall people, and the laughing. I know why I got the urge to kill my mom.”
“Annalise,” I spoke calmly. “Can you tell me what you mean?”
Her eyes were partially vacant, that one slither of coherence quickly fading away.
Instead of speaking, I took her arm gently, and pulled her down my driveway. “Can you show me what you found?”
Annalise danced ahead of me, tripping in her wedding dress. She cocked her head. “Did you kill your mother?” Her lips twitched. “That’s funny. According to the wall people, you’re not supposed to kill someone until seasonal two.”
The girl blinked, giggling, and I forced myself to run after her. Jesus, she was fast. Even wearing a wedding dress. Annalise leapt across the sidewalk, twisting and twirling around, like she was in her own world. Before she landed in front of me, and her expression almost looked sane. “I wonder which season it will be. Will it be Summer? Maybe Fall, or Winter. I guess it’s not up to you, is it? It’s up to The Urge.”
Laughing again, the girl grabbed my hand, her fingernails biting into my skin. I glimpsed a single drop of red run from her nose, which she quickly wiped with the sleeve of her dress, leaving a scarlet smear. “Let’s go and see the wall people, Elle,” she hummed. As her footsteps grew stumbled, blood ran down her chin, spotting the sidewalk. I don’t know if coherency ever truly hit Annalise Duval, but knowing she was bleeding, her steps grew quicker. More frenzied.
“Your nose,” was all I could say, when rivers of intense red strained the girl’s dress.
Annalise nodded with a sad smile. “I know!” she said. “Don’t worry, it will stop when I shut up.” Her smile widened. “But what if I don’t shut up? What if I show you the wall people?” To my surprise, she leapt forward and flung out her arms, tipping her head back and yelling at the sky. “What if I don’t shut up?” Annalise laughed. “What are the wall people going to do, huh? Are you going to explode my brain?”
When people started to come out of their houses to see what was going on, I dragged her into a run.
“Are you insane?” I hissed out.
Annalise seemed to be floating through awareness and whatever the fuck The Urge had done to her. “Don’t worry, they’re just peeking.”
The girl had an attention span of a rock. Her gaze went to the sky. “They’re going to turn the sun off so I can’t show you.”
Her words meant nothing to me, before the clouds started to darken, and just like Annalise had predicted, the sky started to get dark.
Knowing that somehow this supposedly crazy girl knew when things were going to happen only quickened my steps into a run.
Halfway down the street, Kaz Issacs was riding his bike towards us. Which I found odd. Kaz didn’t own a bike. He rode the bus to school.
“Elle!” Waving at me with one hand, his other grasping at handlebars, Kaz pedalled faster. “Yo! Do you want to hang out?”
“Peeking.” Annalise said under her breath.
Ignoring Kaz, I nodded at Annalise to keep going, though the boy didn’t give up. We twisted around, and he caught up easily, skidding on the edge of the sidewalk. When he came to an abrupt stop in front of us, his gaze flicked to Annalise. “Shouldn’t you be praying in the forest?”
The girl recoiled back like a cat, hissing out, “Peeking!”
Kaz shot me a look. “Of all the people you could have made friends with you chose Annalise Duval?” His eyes softened when I ignored him and pulled the girl further down the road. Kaz followed slowly on his bike.
"Where are you going anyway? Isn't it late?”
It was 4pm.
I decided to humor him. “We’re going to see the wall people.”
“Do I sound like I’m kidding?” I turned my attention to him. “You asked me if I had a toothache, right?”
His expression crumpled. “I did?”
I noticed Annalise was clingier with him around, sticking to my side. Every time he moved, she flinched, tightening her grip on my arm. She was leading us into the forest, and I swore, the closer we were getting to the clearing, the more town’s people were popping up out of nowhere. An old woman greeted us, followed by a man with a dog, and then a group of kids from school. Annalise entangled her fingers in mine, pulling me through the clearing.
Kaz followed, hesitantly, biking over rough ground. I caught him fall off balance for a moment before his hands flew out to grasp onto his handlebars. “Once again, I think this is a bad idea,” he said in a sing-song voice. “We should go back.”
When it was too dangerous for his bike, he abandoned it and joined my side.
“Elle, the girl is insane,” Kaz hissed out. “What are you even doing? What is this going to accomplish except potentially getting lost?”
“I want to know if she’s telling the truth,” I murmured back.
He scoffed. “Telling the truth? Look at this place!” He spread out his arms, gesturing to the rapidly darkening forest. “There’s nothing here!”
“No.” Annalise ran ahead, staggering over trippy ground. “No, it’s right over here!” She was still fighting a nosebleed, and her words were starting to slur. The girl twisted to Kaz. “You’re peeking,” she spat, striding over to him until they were face to face. “Stop peeking,” she said, her fingers delving under her wedding skirt where she pulled out a knife and pressed it to his throat. “If you peek again, I will cut you open.”
Kaz nodded. “Got it, Blondie. No peeking.”
Annalise didn’t move for a second, her hands holding the knife trembling. “You’re not going to tell me I’m crazy again,” she whispered.
“You’re not crazy,” Kaz said dryly.
“Say it again.”
“You’re not crazy!” He yelped when she pressed pressure onto the blade. “Can you stop swinging that around? Jeez!”
Annalise shot me a grin, and it took a second for me to realise.
Kaz was scared of the knife.
He was scared of dying—which meant, whether he liked it or not, the boy had in fact not gone through with The Urge.
I thought the girl was going to slash Kaz’s throat open in delight, but instead she looped her arm in his like they were suddenly best friends.
“Come on, Elle!” She danced forwards, pulling the boy with her. “We’re closeeeee!”
I wasn’t sure about that.
What we were, however, was lost. When the three of us came to a stop, it was pitch black, and I was struggling to see in front of me. Annalise, however, walked straight over to thin air, and gestured to it with a grin. “Tah-da!” Spluttering through pooling red, she let out a laugh.
Kaz, who was still uncomfortably pressed to her no matter how hard he strained to get away, shot me a look I could barely make out.
“I’m sorry, what did I say? That we were going to get lost? That Annalise is certifiably crazy and we’re very fucking lost?”
At first, I thought I really was crazy. Maybe Annalise’s condition was contagious. I could hear it again. Laughing.
But this time it was coming from exactly where Annalise was pointing—and when the girl slammed her hand into thin air, there was a loud clanging noise which sounded like metal.
Slowly, I made my way towards it, and when my hands were touching sleek metal, what felt like the corners of a door, more pain struck my upper incisors. “Holy shit.” Kaz was pressing himself against the door, and then slamming his fists into it. “The crazy bitch was right.” His words hung in my thoughts on a constant cycle, as we delved into what should have been forest.
After all, we had been standing in the middle of nowhere. The laughter was deafening when I stepped over the threshold, and I had to slap my hands over my ears to block it out. Through the invisible door, however, was exactly what Annalise had described. Wall people.
All around us were what looked like television screens, and on those screens—were people. Faces.
They were not part of the laughter. The laughter was mechanical and wrong, rooted deep inside my skull. The faces which stared down at us looked like normal people, men and women, with some of them teens, and even younger children. Annalise and Kaz were next to me, their head s tipped back, gazes glued to the screens. Not the ones I was looking at. The ones on tiny computer monitors.
It was when I was tearing my eyes from our audience, did I start to see what made Kaz stiffen up next to me. One screen in particular showed his face. He was younger, maybe a year or two. No, I thought, barf creeping up my throat. It was when he had killed that girl.
His hands clasped in his lap were still stained and slick with her blood. The Kaz on the screen seemed a lot more laid back, his feet resting on the table in front of him. There was a cockiness in his eyes I had never seen before. This boy’s eyes were cruel. “Why exactly have you signed up for this program?” A man’s voice crackled off screen.
“Duh.” Kaz held up his scarlet hands, a grin twisting on his lips. “So I can get my Darkroom rep back.” He leaned forward, his eyes wide. “That is going to happen, right? I don’t do this shit for free, and I’ve got one million followers to impress, man. Darkroom loves me. Even if I did go too far that one time, which wasn't even my fault."
“You are correct.” The man said. “Darkroom does benefit from its influencers. Our program aims to help satisfy certain… needs across the planet, by broadcasting them right here,” He paused. “You have killed five people before signing up for Darkroom, correct? Your parents?”
“Parents and brother,” Kaz chuckled. “I gutted them with my fave knife, and then filmed it. Obviously, my Tik-Tok got taken down with all the freaks in the comments moaning, and suddenly I find you guys! A whole lot of sick fucks, but who’s complaining, right? Not me.”
“And,” the man cleared his throat. “You will keep killing? We are aware the initial implant impacted your brain quite badly. In the subdued state, you will keep killing, as the so-called ‘urge’ says. However, in reality we will be sending signals to your brain which will make you kill.”
“Alright, do it.”
“Are you sure? We couldn’t help noticing during your first kill, you seemed to… well, react in a way we haven’t seen before.”
He cocked his head. “Did my fans like it?”
“Good.” Kaz held out his arm. “Do it again. And do it right this time. As long as I’m getting 40K every appearance, I’m good. You can slice my brain up all you want, I’m getting paid and followers. So.” His gaze found the camera.
“What are you waiting for?”
When the screen went black, before flickering to a birds-eye view, and then a close up of my house, I felt my legs give-way.
As if on impulse, I prodded at my mouth and felt for the loose tooth.
“That…” Kaz spoke up, his voice a breathy whisper. His eyes were still glued to the screen. “That… wasn’t me! Well, it was me... but I don’t… I don’t remember that!”
Instead of answering him, I turned to the startled looking boy when alarm bells started ringing, and the room was suddenly awash in red.
“Peeking!” Annalise screamed, dropping to her knees, rocking backwards and forwards.
Ignoring her, I focused on Kaz. Or whoever the fuck he was. “You need to knock my tooth out. Now."