The job market was so dried up, you could only hope and pray for some shitty, part-time shiftwork underneath some dilapidated footbridge. The days of getting a comfy, monster-under-the-bed type job were long gone. Holding out for your own closet to scare out of? Hah! What are you smoking? The market bubble had gone bust, and every night, the streets in my neighbourhood were getting worse; monsters were slinking in every shadowy alleyway, cracked out and strung out and begging for your last dime.
So when the ad came up on my phone — full-time hours with opportunities for overtime, no educational requirements, paid relocation — I should have known it was too good to be true. But you know what they say about beggars.
With all my shit slung over my shoulder in a garbage bag, I was waiting on the curb when the long, dark sedan pulled up. It idled beside me. I looked down my poverty-torn street; the shining, black vehicle was so out of place, a lot of the looky-loos were staring; I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of pride as I climbed into the back.
That’s the last time I saw that street. These days, I struggled to remember what it looked like; the heaving pavement and the crumbling buildings, all awash in amber lights. None of it perfect. Nothing shiny or bright. Not like this place.
And I think of my mother and my little brother; am I remembering them right? Or have their images distorted in my mind over time? But then I realised that none of that matters – even if I ever did get out of here and manage to find them, we’d pass each other by without so much as a second glance. People change over the decades. I’ve changed.
The sedan’s tinted windows blocked any light from the street, and the backseat was divided from the front by thick, black glass. I did finally work up the nerve to tap on it, but no one answered. About forty-five minutes into the drive, I was rocking a game of Candy Crush, when my phone rang. Private number. “Hello?”
“Hello, Moe. I hope your ride’s been comfortable so far.”
“Sure. Except it’d be nice to know where I’m going. We’ve been driving a long-ass time. And I just thought there’d be somebody picking me up who would actually explain some shit. But this monster won’t even talk.”
“Ah, yes, sorry about that. Our company employs a car service. Unfortunately, it can come across as a little bit… impersonal.”
“Yeah. Right. So where am I going, exactly?”
“You should be arriving on the grounds shortly. That’s why I’m calling. It’s going to be dark, Moe. We operate from a remote location. But we’ll be ready for you. Follow the lights, Moe. Do not deviate. One of our people will be waiting for you at the other end.”
“Um, okay…” I said, but there was no one there. The call had dropped.
I shut off my screen; that’s when I noticed just how dark it had gotten. I tried to look out the window, but between the heavily tinted glass, and the dark countryside, I could only make out that we were passing by trees, of whole lot of trees and nothing else. I’ll admit, maybe this is when I should have become concerned, but, you know, hindsight.
When the car came to a stop, I stepped outside and understood instantly what the caller had meant; the gravel road terminated in a narrow, dead end surrounded by thick woodland. Pinpricks of light stretched out, forming a pathway that wound into the woods for as far as I could see.
This whole scenario was starting to feel real sketchy. I considered climbing back inside the car and demanding that the driver take me home. Or at least back to some form of civilization. Only, I needed this job so badly. I wavered, trying to think.
I didn’t get to decide. The car took off, backing down the narrow road in reverse, spitting up clouds dust and showers of fine gravel.
“Fuck! Wait, man, my shit’s still in there!” I started to chase it, but there was no point; that thing was going like a bat out of hell. “What the fuck, man!” I checked my cell. No bars. Fucking Hellus Mobile and their cheap ass bullshit.
So I did the only thing I could. I followed the lights.
The forest felt so empty, that when the lights finally led me into an underground tunnel, and I could see someone further along, I stupidly felt some relief.
“Finally!” I cried as I approached. He was a larger monster, shaggy, with two large eyes perched close together, above a long, hairy trunk.
“Yeah.” I nodded. The lighted path behind me winked out, leaving us in total darkness. Then an engine powered up; I could hear gears grinding as a flap of the ground peeled back in front of us. It opened to a staircase, and new lights flickered on, illuminating the steps down.
“I’m Mr. Upagus. I’m here to walk you through the intake. Right this way, please, and welcome.”
What followed was a series of tasks undertaken in small square rooms joined by long, narrow hallways, all underground. I’ll admit, I thought having to go through all this mysterious bullshit just for a job did feel a bit whack. But at the time, Mr. Upagus’s explanation of security protocols sounded legit. And, I was think of my family, you know. Like, how my mom had been working three different part-time gigs just to put off-brand Slop on the table. Plus my brother was thinking of dropping out of Scare School. I was worried he’d start slinging on the streets like some other kids I knew on the block. I needed this job so badly.
So, when Mr. Upagus led the way, I followed. And when he shoved the contracts in front of me, I signed. And when he explained the vaccinations, I got the shots. Thinking back, I don’t know why they even had contracts. Just to fuck with our heads later, I supposed. Like, I agreed to this shit? Damn!
That’s when the nightmare truly began.
I don’t know what was in those shots, but when I came to, my whole body ached. Especially my head and my arms. My brain throbbed like a thousand hangovers happening at once. The room I woke up in was so bright and white. When I raised my arms to shade my eyes, I saw why they hurt so badly. Long, thin rods extended from my heavily bandaged wrists.
“What the fuck –?” The moment the word fuck left my lips, an electric shock coursed up from the floor through those rods, sending my body into spasms.
They kept me in that bright, white room. They broke me there.
I don’t know how long I was in there, alone. How many sing-a-long songs or ABC’s can exist in an eternity? You stop counting, even though you’re saying the numbers out loud. You stop hearing your own voice, even though you’re reading the scripts off the wall.
And then they brought in the children. My so called “co-hosts.” And they prodded and tortured me until I gave them what they wanted – cutsie conversations and mind-numbing games of ‘Peek a Boo,’ and ‘Where’s Moe.’ The parade of sweet, untouchable morsels that kept coming in, are a blur. All but Katie, that is. I don’t know what was different about her, but I can always recall her in such detail; her fresh, pink smell, just a hint of sweat, and the mouth-watering way her baby-fat giggled when she cried.
My painful conditioning could stop me from snapping her up, but they couldn’t erase the primal calls that issued from my belly. Yeah, I remember Katie because she awoke something inside of me. Made me realize that I still existed; that somewhere buried within, lurked the monster I once was.
Then came Dotty. Not a big talker, even for a goldfish, but they left her in with me, and I was grateful for her company. She was a real listener. And she was my redeemer. Dotty kept me sane in my darkest hours. I only wish I could take her with me when we make our break for it.
Yeah, I said we. There are so many of us down here. Trapped. Beaten down. Broken. And we’re escaping. You see, nowadays, they let me out when they’re not filming. Not free, just out. I finally got to see the street they always had me gibbering on about. After so long in a box, I’d just assumed it was a made-up place. It’s not. It’s long, with lots of faux-front, brick houses and shops, their fake windows dressed in bright, colour-coordinated themes. Its road is paved with perfect, thick, seamless cement. And it’s lined with street lamps that never shine, because the big, overhead sunlamps are always on.
I met Blue, I like him, but he’s trouble. A real brawler. One time, he bit a guard. The next thing he knew, they were drugging him up and pulling out all of his teeth. Poor dude has to eat everything through a straw. Everything except cookies. Man, you can’t even say the word around him; he’ll go berserker on your ass. I’ve seen him take on a lot of guys with those gummy gums of his.
But fighting won’t get you anywhere except put back in your own private hell. So I don’t go out of my way to hang around him.
Then there’s Bird, that round, yellow fuck. At first, I thought he was alright, but now I don’t trust him. My friends think he’s working for the company, just like that bastard, Mr. Ufagus. Of course, it’s possible Bird’s just a fat, fluffy fucking rat. Either way, it seems like you can’t say much around him without it getting back to those in charge.
But Oscar and me, we’re tight. He’s got some serious hoarding issues, not to mention his hygiene, but we’re working that to our advantage – the hoarding, not the bad hygiene. Me and the other guys have got a real nice tunnel going, its entrance hidden under Oscar’s epic mess. My boy Kurt’s in charge of structural integrity; basically, he makes sure our tunnel won’t collapse in on itself and bury our asses alive. And then his brother, Bernie, is our lookout man while we dig. They’re solid. We’re like our own little family now.
And I think we’re going to make it. It’s slow going, man, it’s slow. But we’ve got to keep our spirits up and our game faces on. So, when it starts to get to me, I just keep singing in my head, “Can you tell me how to get, how to get off Esami Street. To get the fuck off Esami Street!”
Short story author Tapanga Koe has published works in Mystery Weekly, Aurora Wolf, The Link, and Euonia Review, as well as anthologies They Have to Take You In (edited by Ursula Pflug, Hidden Brook Press, 2014) and That Not Forgotten (edited by Bruce Kauffman, Hidden Brook Press, 2012). She lives in rural Ontario, Canada.