Dana grasped Ollie’s hand so tight he gasped. They had arrived along with several other people and now stood outside the large wooden doors with bated breath. A posted notice told them to wait until the doors opened to allow them in. There was only a very small cleared area for them to congregate, the rest thick woods with brush filling the empty spaces between trees. Only a small path led from the parking lot to the large building they stood before.
The building was all concrete with a wooden door breaking up the grey wall. There were no windows in sight. What they were about to find, only a few of them knew. Those who had been here before stood apart and off to the side as they congregated. The haggard looks on their faces, the dark shadows under their eyes, and their bedraggled appearance said they had not slept for days, possibly not for weeks. The new arrivals’ fear increased. What did they have before them?
All Dana knew was that she was here for her brother, Jacob. He had a debt that had to be paid, but she refused to let him pay it. He was too young and too foolish. She never denied that mistakes had been made. Neither had he. But she loved him too much to allow him to face whatever was before them alone. In fact, she refused to let him face it at all. Whatever it might be, she only knew it had to be done by two people. That was all that was noted in the instructions aside from the location and time. The one paying the debt was to bring someone they trusted and must be willing to spend the night in the compound. In fact, they were to spend multiple nights. It was confusing, but they had no choice. It was either that or their loved ones would reap what had been sown. Jacob had heard of strange accidents that took the lives of family members of those who refused to pay.
One man had sweat running down his face. The woman with him tried to calm him by rubbing his arm. He looked over at those who had been here before. “What happens in there?” he whispered.
The veterans stepped back. Many of them exhibited a nervous twitch. The space between them and the newbies grew. Veterans moved closer to the door in hopes to get in quickly and pick their spots, whether it would give them the luck they sought was anyone’s guess. The newbies shied away from door, terrified to face the unknown.
Dana’s stomach lurched. She felt so guilty for bringing Ollie with her, but he had insisted once he had finally pried from her what was wrong. He had been there for her so many times over the years. Asking him to do something so seemingly dangerous was not on her agenda, but it gave her comfort that he was with her now.
Dana felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She looked up to scan the crowd around her. Her gaze landed on a young woman whose dark-rimmed eyes rested on her. Her face was as haggard as the others around her in the veteran group. Dana gave her a nervous smile. The woman lowered her eyes and pressed up against the man next to her.
A tightening in Dana’s stomach gripped her. Though in a crowd, she had never felt so alone. Before she could dwell on it, however, the sign on the door changed. The appearance of a paper welcoming them was replaced with another one that read: “You have until the last light fades from the sky to enter. Then you are at the mercy of the forest and everything in it.” A small contraption allowed someone inside to slide notices into a slot for those outside to view.
The veterans shifted back and forth. Their eyes darted around them as though expecting something to jump out and snatch them. The fear rolled off of them in waves and washed over the newbies. The rookies moved closer to the vets. Feet shuffled until bodies were sardine tight. Eventually the door clicked and swung wide open, revealing a dark, yawning abyss.
Pressure against Dana’s back pushed her forward. The hot breath from those behind her settled on her neck uncomfortably. The pressure had her shoved up against a large man who, aside from his fear-stricken face, looked like he could take out a bear single handed, but…his body shook in terror. Her hand clutched Ollie’s in a death grip. They had no choice but to enter.
Fear held Dana firmly. She wanted to turn and run away, but images of her brother shimmered in front of her as she followed a stumbling man.
“Hurry up,” a voice whispered urgently in her ear.
She looked out of the corner of her eye to see the woman who had caught her attention earlier. The woman spared her a glance before returning her gaze to the space ahead of them. Voices around her began to express the fear they all felt.
“We have to get in before the sun sets, and that’s just seconds away.”
“What will happen?”
“You don’t want to know.”
The crowd moved down a long concrete corridor that appeared to stretch for miles. The ceiling was over twelve feet high. The width was enough for multiple couples to move forward together. The momentum was set by the newbies, and it pushed them onward. Their fear of the unknown pushed the veterans even faster. What seemed like an endless path of stone ended abruptly in a large room where torches were lit high on the walls.
They were shuffled into the round room that was bare aside from the pallets laid throughout it. Aside from the torches, there was nothing on the walls, no windows, no pictures, nothing. Not even a light fixture hung from the ceiling. If cobwebs could be called adornment, that was all that graced the hall. The veterans moved to the pallets as though they were assigned. All of the new ones stared, unsure of where to go or what to do.
As the woman shoved past Dana, she whispered, “Find the pallet with your name on it.” Every person attending had to send their information, including who they were filling in for, to a generic email address.
Dana looked at the woman’s back as she made her way to her pallet. The woman stopped a few times to look at names but hurried along until she found her spot. Biting her lip, Dana pulled on Ollie’s hand. He had remained quiet until then. “Do you know where you’re going?” he whispered.
She shrugged her shoulders in response. They moved past the numerous pallets that were being filled by the veterans. Other newbies began to follow them around. She paused at each pallet and read every name until, in a far corner, she found ‘Dana Sutherland’ written on a sheet of paper tacked to the end of the pallet. They stopped there, and she pointed at the name to Ollie.
The pallet was larger than it had looked from when they first entered the room, almost as large as a full-size bed. Its wooden slats had two pillows at the top and one blanket. No padding or mattress was present.
“Do we just lie down?” Ollie’s voice was still a very low whisper.
Dana looked around at the veterans who were doing just that as though they were going to bed. “I guess so. Just do what they do.”
They laid down on the hardwood and pulled the blanket over them. It’s rough wool fibers warmed their bodies and scratched their skin. Dana sniffed hers and cringed at the smell of sweat. After several minutes, the sound of people getting into their places died down. Only the sound of newbies whispering could be heard.
Ollie whispered, “Now what?”
Dana wished she knew the answer to that question. So far, she was just following instructions and copying the vets. Now they waited. She was here to pay a debt. Somehow, that involved coming with a friend, lying down on hard wood, and just waiting. Maybe to someone else that made sense.
An eerie quiet settled on the room and its inhabitants. The silence made Dana tense. She couldn’t get comfortable due to the hardness of their makeshift bed. Trying to limit the amount of noise she made, she shifted closer to Ollie.
He moved his head nearer to her and whispered in her ear. “Not that I’m complaining about spending the night with a beautiful woman, but is this the payment you have to give?”
“I don’t know, but did you see the look on the others’ faces?”
“Yeah, like they had been through hell and back just to return days later.”
“Right. I just…” Her words were cut off as the torches above them went out. Dana couldn’t help but press up against Ollie. He put his arm around her and pulled her even closer.
No one spoke. A quiet settled in and hung over the group for several hours. During that time, a few snores echoed in the chamber. Some people squirmed about trying to get comfortable, Dana among them. At one point, it became obvious that a couple was taking advantage of the darkness despite others lying within close proximity.
Dana closed her eyes, trying to block out the sounds of their grunts and sighs. She couldn’t understand how they could be so focused on physical pleasure when they were facing something so fearfully unknown.
Gradually, all noise faded. The silence stretched out. Dana felt herself start to relax. With nothing happening, it was easy to do. The only thing that kept her awake aside from her discomfort was the sound of her heartbeat. She tried to focus on Ollie’s warmth, willing it to calm her. She could feel Ollie tense as he tightened the protective arm wrapped around her. Neither one of them could fully relax.
Every second that passed reminded her how thankful she was to have Ollie there beside her. He had been a strong support in her life since grade school. Now he was there to help her through this current and unexpected crisis too.
Suddenly, a horrendous cry ripped through the room, causing Dana to jump and grip Ollie tightly. In response, several people screamed out loud in fright. The screams escalated with an echo. Dana pushed her face into Ollie as she pressed her hands against her ears. One thing was for sure, nobody in the room had let out these screams. They were too muffled.
As abruptly as the screams began, they ceased. Dana raised her face and peered into the darkness. She heard nothing but muffled crying from a few people and shifting bodies from others. The silence eventually grew heavy. Minutes passed by. She heard no other noises, and the room gradually settled back down into tension.
Just as Dana finally relaxed again, and her breathing resumed a relatively normal pattern, she heard a strange scratching sound. At first, she dismissed it as coming from one of the people around her, but the more she listened, she realized it was not coming from someone in the room. It was coming from under the floor.
The scratching was not on the wood itself. Neither was it directly under her. Several moments went by with no interruption. It grew louder. As it did, so did the tension in the air. Others who had arrived for the first time began to shift uncomfortably on their pallets. The veterans froze in place. Dana could hear the movements of only a few.
The floor began to vibrate as the scratching moved to the wood underneath them. Dana’s grip on Ollie tightened as did his arms around her. Without any warning, the noise stopped. Everyone in the room held their breath. Nothing disturbed the fearful suspension until a scream shattered the silence from beneath the floor.
Just three pallets away, a couple shrieked in terror. Everyone jumped and held each other tight. Their screams faded as though they were being sealed behind a wall, yet the shrillness of their cries still floated through the air. This shrillness echoed from under the floor as a hideous growling mixed in with them. The floor vibrated with movement again. After several minutes, the noises died to a silence that was palpable.
Dana’s lips quivered. “What happened?” she whispered.
Ollie shook his head.
The rest of the night was spent with them lying in anticipation of a repeat of the horrific event. As the morning sun rose over the compound, the torches lit up on the walls, chasing away the shadows of the night to reveal the distinction between the newbies and the veterans once again.
Those who had been in the compound before did not hesitate to scramble up and head to the sealed door. The rest got up slowly and looked around first. It was then they noticed the only pallet with no pillow or blanket. Quickly, they congregated behind the veterans and waited for the door to slide open. Once it did, everyone fled the building and the grounds as quick as they could. In their cars, they returned to their daily lives with orders on papers left by the door to be back at the compound that night to finish carrying out their sentences.
Watching the people exit on the hidden camera, a smile spread across an unseen face. Eyes moved toward the iron bars that separated him and his pet. “Good boy. Tonight you shall feast again.”