Horror & Dark Fantasy

Claiming T-Mo

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Fiction

Fail-Safe

The door was thick. The room, well-made. I knew. I’d seen. Every step.

I never heard Mother screaming in the night. I knew she was, it was obvious. I’d seen her with the cameras. Father had made me watch when I was young. Father had worried I didn’t fully understand. Fully believe.

But I did.

My favorite days were when it was over and Mother was allowed to return. Mine and hers both, I imagine. She was never happier than after. She would hold me and squeeze me tight, and I’d laugh and she’d pepper my cheek, neck, and forehead with kisses.

Father would stand by, watching, smiling, looking haggard and wistful. After giving us time to reshape our natural bond, he would join as well, hugging us both. Kissing us greedily.

I loved my parents. Loved them dearly.

• • • •

Deep down, secretly, I worried I would wake up one morning and find myself alone. That the room would take them from me. I’m only a boy still, sure, only twelve. But I’m growing. Learning.

When Father first built the room I had watched. Had helped, even. In those days, Mother had been held elsewhere. By men I did not know. By friends of my father’s. But she always came back, happy and healthy, hugging and kissing, just like it was after the room was built. I liked it better, having the room here. Liked her being home, with me and Father.

The room is not large, but it’s well built. It has many fail-safes. Father explained these to me as he built them into the room’s design. The walls are steel. Thick, slick, impenetrable from the inside. The door also, steel. One foot thick of it. Handle-less. Released by internal bolts that are hidden behind the metal-plated walls.

There is one light. A pair of fluorescent tubes behind a cage in the ceiling. Impossible to reach. That’s what we thought.

The restraints, however, are really impressive.

Crafted to hold, but not hurt. That’s what Father said. To keep her, and us, safe. I nodded when he told me these things. I felt I was learning, getting older, wiser. Helping.

“Then there’s the gas,” Father said, showing me the vents high in the walls, just below the ceiling. Far above where even her unnaturally-lengthened hands could reach them. “That’s our last line of defense,” he said, ruffling my hair, messy as always. “That’s if all else goes to hell.”

I nodded, but Father could see I didn’t fully understand. He knelt down, took my arm, pressed kinda hard, looked into my eyes.

“If she gets free of the restraints,” he pointed to them lying listless on the smooth concrete floor, “she still can’t leave the room, see?”

I nodded again, growing.

“If she gets to the door, does some damage, then I hit a button, and whoosh!” He expanded his hands in a circle to show the spreading affect. “She gets the gas.”

“Then what? She goes to sleep?”

Father nodded, dropped his eyes a moment, then found mine again. “She’ll be dead.”

I thought about this. “And we’ll know she’s dead because of the cameras.”

Father smiled broadly, eyes sparkling with pride. “That’s right, Son. The cameras.”

We were standing in the half-constructed room at the time, and Father pointed to high corners where reflective orbs were tucked. I waved, saw a distorted reflection of another boy—a smeared, tiny boy—waving back.

“We’ll watch her and make sure she’s dead before we come in,” he said, then put a firm hand on my shoulder. “She’d want us to be sure.”

I knew this was true, because she’d told me so a hundred times herself. She told me to always be sure, if something were to go wrong, to always be sure we’d killed her. “I might lie,” she said. “I might pretend.”

“Like a game,” I said.

Mother smiled and nodded, stroked my hair away from my forehead. “Like a game you must always win.”

When Father and I left the room, now deemed ready, Father stopped by the heavy steel door, the shining heads of the sliding bolts poking inch-high from the edges of its frame.

“One last thing,” Father said, taking off his lab coat and hanging it on a bent steel nail next to a mask and a tarnished yellow rubber suit. “And this is the most important thing of all. There’s always a chance, a very, very slim chance, that Mother won’t keep turning. That she’ll turn once, and stay that way. Forever. You understand?”

I nodded.

“If that happens . . . or, if anything goes wrong. If I’m not here, for whatever reason . . .” He paused, because there were too many wrongs to think about. “Well. There’s one last fail-safe.”

I waited, thinking it silly, knowing Father would always be around, but willing to hear him out, to learn.

“It’s a timer, see?” he said. “I start it every time your mother goes into the room. If for any reason, any reason at all, I don’t stop or reset that timer in twenty-four hours, the room fills with gas.”

“Whoosh!” I said, mimicking Father’s hand gesture.

“That’s right,” he said. “That way, if something, well . . . if something goes amiss, then all you have to do, see, is wait it out. You don’t have to do a thing. Just wait twenty-four hours, and that timer will tick off, and things will be handled inside. The gas will go off, and the gas is poison. Poison that kills. You got that?”

I remembered something from my lessons. “Like the cat.”

Father’s eyebrows came together in confusion.

“Schroeder’s cat.”

Father thought a second, then laughed out loud, a wonderful laugh that filled the steel and concrete room he and his friends had just completed.

“Schrodinger!” Father bellowed, still laughing. Laughing so hard he was wiping tears from his eyes. “Schrodinger’s cat. Not Schroeder. He’s from Peanuts.”

Father continued laughing, wiped his eyes once more, and rested a hand on my shoulder, pushed me gently from the room.

“But yeah. Sure, I guess. Like that.”

• • • •

We tested the room many times. Mother inspected every inch of the walls, the floors, the vents, the cameras. Inspected the restraints, the heavy steel cuffs, the chains and cables that held them, the clasps that bound them fast to the wall.

The first night we were all a bit nervous.

Mother had always been with Father’s friends on these nights. They were infrequent, yes, but regular. But Father seemed calm, and we both helped secure her to the new restraints. She smiled at me as I locked her wrist tight. She watched our work closely, studied the clamps around her wrists, tested them. She yanked her arms against them hard, making them clink. I took an unthinking step away from her.

“Not that testing them now matters,” she said that first time, smiling sadly at Father. “I’m half the strength.”

“If that,” Father agreed, but nodded. “They’ll hold. They could hold a mad gorilla.”

Later, Father and I sat outside the room. Father watched the monitors closely. I sat on a stiff, dusty-smelling couch behind him, reading a comic book.

“There,” Father said.

I set down my comic, walked over to the monitors. I watched in grainy color, like a television, as my mother turned.

Her eyes, then her skin. She looked up at the cameras, watching us watching her. As I looked on in fascination, she went still. Sort of . . . slumped. I held my breath. A trick, I thought.

Then she went mad. A whipping tornado wrapped in flesh, all teeth and nails, venom and fire. Her mouth spread open, chin dropping impossibly, eyes bulbous, her muscles doubling in size, squeezing against the inside of the restraints. She screamed at the pain. Pure fury. She looked so strong. She thrashed and kicked like a pale-skinned monster.

“Holding just fine,” Father said, sounding relieved, and a bit proud. “Holding just fine.” He turned to me and smiled.

“She won’t be getting us tonight.”

• • • •

In the months after Mother’s first night in the new room, things went perfectly. I enjoyed having Mother home more, even though some nights I couldn’t see her. It comforted me because she was still there. Still home. Even if she was locked away.

Father’s friends came over and watched the first few times, assuring themselves of the safety and security of the room. I sat nearby and listened while Father explained the fail-safes to them. He patiently explained the gas, and the timer.

The men watched, some shifted their feet. A few turned away from the monitors.

When they were all there, crowded around, I could not see Mother on the screens, but I knew she had already turned. They called it turning because she turned a little and she was one thing. But then she kept turning and was herself again. Turning and turning forever. The Great Fear was that she would turn and not turn back. It had happened to others. I always prayed it would never happen to her.

“Here,” Father said, and flipped a switch.

The room filled with screams. Mother’s screams. They were terrible. They reminded me of a screeching eagle I had seen on television. Screeching so loud it echoed in the room around us, swirled around our heads.

“She could talk if she wanted,” Father said, raising his voice to be heard. “She could sound just like herself. But not when she’s angry like this.” He watched her writhe a moment, as if considering. “Not when she’s hungry.”

“Turn it off,” one of the men said, the biggest one.

Father flipped the switch and the screeching stopped, leaving the room so thick with silence no one dared speak.

“Should he be here?” one man said, tilting his head toward me. Another man turned around to look at me, eyes narrowed, but by doing so, exposed the small screen on the desk. I could see Mother, naked and twisting, bleeding from the wrists, teeth large and snapping, black tongue whipping across her lips.

Father looked at me, then back to the man, holding his eyes. The man seemed nervous and swallowed and said nothing more.

After a while they all seemed satisfied. They waited until the morning, waited until Mother was okay to be let out. Father went in, dressed her, treated her wounds. After a few minutes they came out. As always, Mother seemed tired, her skin slick with sweat and covered in a hot rash but pleased to have it behind her. Wrapped up in a coarse green blanket, she looked at me and winked. I tried to wink back—it was hard doing just one eye—but she smiled so I figured I’d done close enough.

They all talked then for a long time. I got bored and wandered across the basement and upstairs. I went outside, closed my eyes, and listened to the sounds of the neighborhood. Cars rolled by. Kids laughed from somewhere in the distance; behind a neighbor’s house, maybe. I opened my eyes, saw a man watering some bushes with a hose, watching me. It was so sunny and peaceful . . . I’ll never forget it.

After a few minutes I turned away, went back inside, and closed the door.

• • • •

Once the routine had been established, I felt we were just like any other family.

The last evening, we sat around the dinner table. Mother had prepared fish and salad. We didn’t eat meat.

I drank milk. I drank a lot of milk, because my parents assured me it would help me grow. And I wanted to grow. Wanted it more than anything. I would be thirteen in two days, and I couldn’t wait. Thirteen meant manhood. Thirteen meant adult.

That night, I watched my parents eating, smiling, content. My father opened a bottle of wine, which is what parents drink instead of milk. I watched Mother closely, looking for signs. I’d been trained what to look for, although I knew it was unnecessary, because Mother always knew first, knew way before Father and I knew. We almost depended on her, in a way, to tell us. To let us know when it was time to go into the basement, into the room.

If she didn’t tell us, it’s possible we might not know in time. That’s how fast it happens. One second, a loving mother. The next, death.

“Mom,” I said, picking up a green bean with my fingers and biting off the tip. Mother turned to study me, cocked her head.

“You have a fork,” she said.

I took another bite. She always said that about the fork.

“Do you think . . .” I said, flushed with the embarrassment of the young and ignorant. “Will I be like you one day?”

I knew there were others like Mother. Hundreds. I also knew you could become like her if she attacked you. Spread into you. Mostly people died when attacked, but some lived, and then they turned, too. Like vampires or zombies, but real.

Mother’s eyes went to Father, who looked at me like I’d said something sad. Their eyes met for a moment while he gathered his thoughts.

“The truth is, Son, we don’t know,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin before setting it neatly down on his empty plate. “Not yet.”

I finished the green bean, took a drink from the heavy milk glass they always gave me. “When?” I asked.

“Soon,” he said, looking more troubled. “When you’re . . . when you’ve become a man.”

“I’m almost thirteen now!” I cried out excitedly, knocking a knife off the table with my elbow. It clattered to the floor.

“It’s more than just age that makes a grown-up.”

I was confused. “What, you mean when I’m a dad?”

Father laughed, and Mother smiled, but it was a sad smile, the one she used before she went into the room. The one she used when she told me everything would be all right.

“No, not that kind of man. When you are through puberty. There will be . . . signs,” he said, then hurriedly added, “but it’s nothing for you to worry about.”

I smiled, set down my milk and burped. “Because we can build another one. Just for me,” I said. “Right? We’re good at it now. I can have my own room.”

Father looked at his plate, set his fork down on the table.

Mother said nothing.

• • • •

Later, we were watching television when Mother announced she was going to turn, and soon. She said it felt strong this time. Hours, maybe.

Father looked at her, nodded. He turned off the program, a documentary on the migration of birds.

I was sad, even more sad than usual. I sulked but knew it wouldn’t make a difference. I didn’t want Mother to get locked up, so I delivered my best, haughtiest frown, and walked out of the living room. Mother called after me, but I kept walking into my bedroom and shut the door behind me.

After a little while I grew bored of sulking, and anxious about Mother. I ventured back out, expecting my parents to already be downstairs. But they were there, waiting.

“You okay?” Father said.

I nodded, sniffed, wiped at my mouth. I turned to Mother. I didn’t want to help that night. I wanted to be a normal boy, with a normal mother. I didn’t want to see her turn. That night, I figured, I could pretend.

“Will you tuck me in?”

She set down her magazine, stood up and came toward me. I was too big for her to pick up, but she hugged me hard. I felt her hot breath on my neck.

It smelled foul.

I snuggled underneath the covers while Mother stood over me, stroking my forehead. The light in the ceiling gave her a halo and left her face in shadow. Her bob of hair made her head seem bigger than it was, expanding the black shape of her head upward and outward, tiny wings at the tips.

“Will you sing me to sleep?”

She nodded, reached out and switched off the light. I felt her weight on the bed. I wondered how much time she had.

“What shall I sing?” she asked, her voice a husky whisper. “How about Jesus Loves Me?”

I shook my head, then realized she probably couldn’t see me. Her eyes sparkled in the dark. She coughed.

“Sing the hush one.”

She placed a hand on my arm, squeezed it. She sighed, then sang softly, almost in a whisper.

Hush little baby, don’t say a word,

Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.

I closed my eyes, let Mother’s voice float into my mind, fill my body with her love, her words. I let myself drift.

And if that mockingbird won’t sing,

Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.

And if that diamond ring turns brass,

Mama’s gonna buy you . . .

She stopped suddenly.

I opened my eyes. I was almost asleep, annoyed she’d stopped at my favorite part. “A looking glass,” I prodded. “Like Alice.”

Her hand tightened on my arm. She was a dark shape on my bed.

“Mom.”

The dark shape did not move, did not speak. Her hand squeezed me harder.

“Mom.”

• • • •

Hours later, Father came upstairs, poked his head into my room.

“You awake?” he said.

“Sorta,” I replied. I hadn’t been, but he’d woken me. Like he needed to talk, to not be alone.

“I just, well, I wanted to tell you everything is just fine, Son. Nothing to worry about.” He laughed, but strangely. Like pretending. “It’s all pretty routine now, eh?”

I nodded, hoping it was true, and closed my eyes.

“Well, goodnight then. I love you.”

I listened to Father leave. After a moment, I heard the sound of the basement door open, heard his footsteps going down the stairs.

As the sound of his steps grew fainter, then vanished, exhaustion took hold. I fell back asleep; a strange half-sleep, half-dream state. I dreamed of the cells inside my blood, forming and re-forming, clustering like galaxies, making me a universe.

I woke in the middle of the night, shaking and upset. I’d had a nightmare. I couldn’t remember. The house was deathly quiet.

Father would still be in the basement, watching Mother.

My bedroom was pitch dark. There was no moonlight, no light from other houses, no light from the street. It was a small, quiet neighborhood, and late at night, like this, it was as if the whole street just turned off.

Click.

I was thirsty, and I had to go.

I went to the bathroom, washed my hands, and walked into the hallway. The lights were all off, so I stood there a moment, in the dark, the floor cold beneath my feet, waiting for my eyes to adjust. Then I went to the living room, past my parents’ bedroom, which I noticed, without surprise, was empty. Then to the kitchen.

I got a glass, stuck it under the sink, let the water get cold. I filled the glass and drank down the whole thing. I never took a breath.

The door to the basement was open a little. Light came through the slit.

This was unusual.

Father always locked the door to the basement when Mother was in the room. Not to keep me out, but as a “precautionary measure.” Protocol.

I stood there, holding the glass, looking at the bar of light. I listened but heard nothing. Nothing at all.

I decided to go downstairs.

At the bottom I saw Father standing over the monitors, looking tense. He turned quickly, saw me there. His eyes were wide, his face strained.

“What are you doing?”

I shrugged. “I was thirsty.”

Father licked his lips, looked at the monitors again, then at the steel door that led to the room. Where Mother was.

“Dad?”

Father raised a hand. “Stay there. Just . . . stay there. Okay?”

I was confused. I was always allowed to go to the room. My parents never hid what happened in the room from me, hid what happened to her. They wanted me to know, to be aware, to fear it, but not fear her. It was the only way, they used to say. “We all have to be in this together,” Mother always said. “Or we will all die.”

Father pressed something on the wall by the door, and there was a sharp hiss, and a sound of metal sliding on metal, and the door clicked open, pushing outward a couple of inches.

He opened the door, I thought, hardly believing it.

Without looking back, Father pulled the door wide, peered inside.

“Dad,” I said. This was not procedure, I knew that. This was not procedure in the slightest. I watched him as he stared into the room, the back of the door blocking my view. I waited.

There was no sound coming from the room. No screeching, no gurgling chatter, no panting. None of the usual sounds Mother made.

Father turned to me once more. “I was wrong. I need you.” He wiggled his fingers, wanting me to come closer.

I didn’t want to. I was afraid. But he needed me, and the room was so quiet, and I was almost a man. I started toward him.

“No!” Father snapped, holding up a hand once more. “Sorry,” he said, wiped the hand over his face. “Wait until I’m inside. Then come over here and watch. Open the intercom if you have to, but watch the monitors. When you see me wave at you, open the door and let me out. Understand?”

I did, and I nodded.

“But only if your mother is still restrained. If she’s not restrained, do not open the door. No matter what. Okay?”

I nodded again. “Because sometimes she pretends.”

Father looked at me a moment longer. He looked as sad as I’ve ever seen him, like he had something else to tell me. He started to say it, then lowered his head. “When I wave.”

Then Father went into the room.

The heavy door sealed shut behind him.

I walked slowly to the desk where the monitors and the intercom were. I pushed aside the rolling black chair Father always sat in, looked at the screens.

They flickered once, and I saw a flash and vague movement.

Then they went completely black.

I tried pressing the small power button in the lower corner of the monitors. Turned them off, then on. Off, then on. A small red light by the button proved they were on, and powered.

Then why are they black? I wondered. And how am I supposed to see Father wave?

I waited. I studied the steel door. My eyes went to the large rectangular black button next to it, the one Father had pressed. It was as big as my whole hand. I had pressed it before. I knew how to do it. How to open the door.

I shook off the idea for the moment, looked at the other machinery on the desk. There was the black intercom box. Next to it was the switch that turned it on, or “opened it up,” as Father said.

There was a long green box with cables running out the back, toward one of the walls of the room. I knew this box controlled the gas. There was a clear plastic tab that flipped up, and under the plastic tab was a black button. When you pressed the button, the gas in the room released, and everyone who breathed it would die. Everyone, whether they were human or not.

There was a thin black screen with red digital numbers on the box. It was a timer. I saw it counting down. It was at 18:43:06. A second later, it showed 18:43:05. Next to the timer was a knob and a switch. The knob, I remembered, made it more time or less time. The switch turned it on or off.

I left it alone.

I pulled the chair over and sat down. I waited, humming to myself the song Mother sang earlier that night, hoping the screens would come back to life, show me what was happening inside the room.

I moved my hand to the intercom switch, flipped it. Listened carefully. But there was nothing. Some light static, maybe a sound of some shuffling, some heavy sliding movement. But nothing else. Father wasn’t yelling for me. Mother wasn’t screeching like an eagle. It was like the room was empty.

After a few minutes, I went to the couch that sat against the wall facing the steel door. I sat down, then laid down.

I was still very tired. It was the middle of the night.

I fell asleep.

• • • •

“Hello?”

Mother.

“Hello? Can you hear me, sweetie? Can you hear Mommy?”

I woke up to her voice and opened my eyes, stared straight at the steel door.

Still closed.

I stood up, rubbed one eye with the heel of my hand, and walked over to the desk. I was so tired but I knew I should stay awake. Father might need me.

I sat in the black swivel chair, eyelids heavy, shoulders slouched. I looked at the green box, the one with the timer counting down.

13:22:02 . . . 13:22:01 . . . 13:22:00 . . .

There was sound coming from the intercom. Breathing, I thought. Heavy breathing. And . . . giggling? Like my parents were playing a game. I almost smiled, but realized that it didn’t make sense. Not at all.

“Hello? Can you hear me?” It was Mother’s voice again, coming through the intercom. There was light static, her voice sounded far away, thin and nasally. Like she was transmitting from the moon. I felt frozen. I forgot to breathe. “The red intercom light is on in here, so I think you can. Honey, if you can hear me, I need to tell you something. Listen carefully, okay?”

“Okay,” I said out loud, even though I knew she couldn’t hear me.

“Your father is in here. He’s . . . he’s hurt. But I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me. It was an accident. I’m . . .”

There was a pause, then a scratchy sound. It sounded like whispers.

“I’m fine. I’ve turned back and I’m okay. So it wasn’t that. He had an accident. He came in, and he fell, and he hit his head. He needs a hospital I think. Okay? You understand?”

I yawned, looked desperately at the blank monitors. I waited, hoping they would turn back on. The light, I realized. There’s no light.

Mother’s voice came again, louder, as if her mouth was pressed right up to the microphone. “Baby,” she said, her voice a harsh whisper. “I need you to open the door.”

• • • •

Later, I went up to the kitchen to look for food. I was upset, confused, but also hungry, and so very tired. Sleeping on the couch had been uncomfortable, and I had woken a bunch of times to the sound of Mother’s horrible, pleading, demanding voice.

I thought about calling Father’s friends. The men who had taken Mother before we built the room, who had handled her. But I didn’t want to call them. I just needed time to think. A man made his own decisions. Even the hard ones.

I split a bagel, put it on a plate and into the microwave, heated it for thirty seconds, then slathered peanut butter on both open halves.

There was half a jar of orange juice, and I poured myself a tall glass.

I felt better. I chewed on the sticky bagel, washed it down with cold juice, and debated my options.

I knew what Father would say. Father would say to let it ride. Wait for the gas. The gas would kill them both, and then I would be safe.

I would also be alone.

I have no other family. No relatives. I don’t go to school. I have no friends from the neighborhood. My parents give me lessons every day, teach me science and mythology, math and languages.

There was no one to turn to. No one at all.

I finished breakfast and went to get dressed.

• • • •

The basement was cold, and I was bored.

It was late afternoon now, almost a full day since Mother had been locked inside. Time was running out.

I sat at the desk, watched the timer ticking down. 03:34:46 . . . 03:34:45 . . . 03:34:44 . . .

The intercom had been silent, the cameras showed nothing, the monitors black as empty space. Anything could be happening inside the room.

On one hand, my parents could both be alive and well. Trapped, perhaps injured. But themselves. It was possible.

Or Mother might have turned, and not turned back. It usually took at least a day before she became herself again. But there was always the possibility it would be forever. I couldn’t trust her not to pretend. Not to trick me.

I watched the timer. My stomach rumbled. I was about to get up and find more food when Father’s electric voice came through the intercom.

“You there, Son?”

I froze. My mouth went dry. My eyes fell to the top of the desk. I was angry, anxious, scared. I ran a finger along the grooves in the tired old wood. My spine was itchy.

“I’m okay, Son. I was . . . hurt. I’m still hurt, but I’m awake now, and feeling better. Much better in fact.”

Father’s voice sounded ragged, his words coming too fast. His breathing was heavy. Irregular, he would say. Abnormal.

“Listen, I have a feeling our time is growing short in here. I don’t . . . according to my watch, anyway, I’d say we have only a few hours until the gas releases. Is that right?”

I looked at the timer. Getting close now. And it’s almost my birthday.

I was having a hard time thinking, my brain felt fuzzy, and I was so very tired. I rested my head on the desk, my ear flat against the rough wood, feet kicking air.

“Son. Please. We’re fine. We . . .”

More whispering.

“Your mother is still restrained. The keys . . . I don’t know where they are, but your mother is still restrained. And I’m hurt, not badly. But . . . I’m okay, you understand?”

I slipped down from the chair, walked to the room’s steel door. I pressed my ear against the cold metal and listened, but I could only hear the sound of my own blood rushing through my ears. I closed my eyes. My blood sounded like waves, like wind. Like the inside of a seashell.

I banged a fist against the door. Once, twice. Father’s voice came screaming over the intercom.

“That’s right! Oh, thank God! Son, listen, you need to turn off the gas. Do you understand? Or . . .”

Mother’s voice interrupted him. Loud, insistent.

“Do you want us to die, baby?” she said, sounding more and more like the eagle, high-pitched and scratchy. “Do you want to be alone? If you don’t open the door, we will die. We will die, and you will be totally alone. I don’t mean to scare you, but that’s the truth. Please, do you hear me?”

Then there was silence. They were waiting.

I couldn’t think. I didn’t want to think anymore. I didn’t want this to be happening. I’d never felt more alone. I pressed my palm against the cool steel door. I didn’t want to make any hard decisions, didn’t want to be an adult.

I missed them so much.

I laid down at the foot of the door, curled into myself, and cried.

• • • •

There is no time now.

I’ve waited, watched the timer tick slowly down.

00:02:13 . . . 00:02:12 . . . 00:02:11 . . .

There is no way to stop the gas other than the green box. Opening the door, I know, will not stop it. The only way to stop it is by turning the little knob and resetting the timer, or shutting if off completely by flipping the small black switch. I take a deep breath. My decision is made.

I have no intention of stopping it.

I walk away from the table, cross the chilled air of the small basement toward the steel door, toward the room.

There is loud pounding from the door at the top of the stairs. Men yell savage curses.

I look to the stairs, toward the yelling. There must have been another fail-safe I didn’t know about, one that alerted Father’s friends. For a brief moment I panic, then relax. The door leading from the basement to the house is locked, reinforced, bolted. No one can get in without breaking it down, and it’s thick, solid. It would take time, and tools.

I take a deep breath. My parents have been quiet for the past hour or so. Waiting, I know. Hoping. I don’t know what’s inside the room. I have some ideas, some possible outcomes, in my mind.

Mother, hideously pale skin streaked with blue veins. Anger and flaring nostrils, yawning jaw. Her teeth, her eyes . . .

Father, poisoned by her, but alive. Reborn in monstrous flesh. Waiting, biding his time. Pacing frantically, his amped-up nerve endings flexing for the very first time, the air around him feeding energy into his altered bones, his sensitized flesh. A six-foot-tall rabid dog.

If I open the door they will run at me, grab me. Tear me apart.

But I imagine other options.

They are lying in there dead. Human or monster. Maybe half-turned. Maybe half-eaten.

Or maybe the room is empty.

Or maybe the room is gone.

What do I believe?

I want to believe it will be my parents, alive and human. Just Mother and Father, tired, perhaps injured. Hungry not for flesh but for freedom. Air, food, water. They will run to me and hug me. Kiss me on the face, wipe away my tears, rub my back soothingly. Sing to me at night. Take care of me. Protect me.

Everything will be like it was, and we will be together again.

Once I open the door, once I go inside . . .

I put my fingers on the smooth black panel that releases the heavy bolts of the lock. My face is burning, there is a throbbing pain behind my eyes. The men scream and pound. I can’t wait for the end. I’ve been counting down the numbers from the screen in my head.

. . . sixteen . . . fifteen . . . fourteen . . .

I’m tired, but I smile. I’ll be thirteen soon. I will change. One way or the other.

. . . nine . . . eight . . . seven . . . six . . .

I hear the faint sound of frantic scratching on the other side of the door. I can hear it through the steel. Desperate, monstrous. My parents clawing for life, maybe. Or something else. Something I haven’t thought of.

I love them so much.

. . . three . . . two . . . one . . .

I push the large black button, feel the click of the release vibrate up my arm. Metal slides on metal, the heavy door hisses.

I pull it open. The room is pitch black. Silent.

I step inside, ready for whatever waits.

There’s a shushing sound. The darkness is total. I move deeper into the room, confident.

It’s almost my birthday.

Something moves toward me. I lift my chin, spread out my arms.

No matter what comes . . .

I close my eyes tight.

. . . I will be a man.

Philip Fracassi

Philip Fracassi, an author and screenwriter, lives in Los Angeles, California.

His adapted screenplays have been distributed by companies such as Disney Entertainment and Lifetime Network, and his short stories have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best Horror of the Year, Dark Discoveries, Cemetery Dance, Lovecraft eZine, and Strange Aeons among others.

He is the author of the award-winning story collection, Behold the Void.

For more information on his books and screenplays, visit his website at www.pfracassi.com. You can also follow him on Facebook, Instagram (pfracassi) and Twitter (@philipfracassi).