“What the fuck?”
“How did we get in here?”
“I think I’m bleeding.”
“We’re all bleeding, dumbass.”
My fingers reached for my slick forehead and slipped off, smearing blood across the couch as I let my hand fall limp.
Thirteen of us filled the room, and judging by the gashes running from the center of our skulls down to the bridge of our noses, someone brought us there by force.
The house looked harmless enough, with stark white floors connecting living room to kitchen and a spiral staircase crafted from white wood, but the people inside – some slouched across counters, some propped against walls – acted as if someone had thrown them into the wild.
“All right. We need to sort this shit out,” a boy with an ocean sleeve said. He climbed onto the coffee table inside a semi-circle of couches to be better seen. “Anybody here have any memory of… anything?”
Murmurs floated through the room, soft and confused. Maybe a serial killer kidnapped us, drugged us, and dragged us here? Or maybe we all suffered through trauma together, a plane crash or a shooting, and formed collective amnesia?
Each new theory out-crazied the last, but I failed to come up with anything to beat them. My mind felt heavy, thick with questions.
“To hell with this,” a girl with paw print tattoos across her collarbone said and slogged toward the front door. “Who cares why we’re here? Let’s get out.”
Before she could jiggle the handle, right as her fingers curled around the silver knob, electricity shot through her body. The convulsions started at her fingertips and worked their way down her spine and into her legs. She shivered there, stuck in an electric seizure, for ten counts until she stiffened and dropped.
Wait… I could still do that. I could still count. I knew numbers and letters and words, elementary school knowledge. I forced myself to create lists inside my head and realized I could name dog breeds and sports cars and Disney movies. Crime novels and fighting styles and gun classes. But I found it impossible to list off my family members or my cell number or my age or my weight. Personal details stayed lost in a fog.
I continued to sift through my memories as a coping mechanism, as a distraction to avoid watching Ocean Sleeve check Paws Prints pulse, dip his head, and announce how faint it felt. To avoid the chaos that came next, of someone pointing out the lack of windows, and someone else winding back to punch the wall, discovering steel beneath the sheetrock.
Other discoveries were made, on the edge of relieving and disturbing. Food in the fridge. Cans in the cupboards. Clean clothes in the closets and shampoo in the shower stalls.
Someone set up this place. Someone planned for this. Someone picked us for a reason.
“Maybe it’s the end of the world,” an older woman with black angel wings across her shoulders said, pacing around the kitchen. “Maybe this is a bunker sent to us by God and it’s good we can’t get out because everyone else’s skin is bubbling up and bursting apart from the radiation.”
A teenager with tribal markings raised a brow. “What about an alien abduction?” he teased. “Can’t rule out that either.”
With limited memories, figuring out why someone brought us there felt impossible, so I tried to find a link between everyone in the house instead. Something we all shared. A reason someone would group us together and lock us inside.
I glanced from face to face. At Ocean Sleeve. Paw Prints. Black Angel. Tribal Marks.
“We all have tattoos,” I said, my voice thin and cracked from disuse. “I don’t know, maybe that means something.”
Tribal Marks made a comment about how everyone had tattoos nowadays, how even old ladies sported ink. Heads nodded. Throats cleared. Conversations branched toward other things.
“Wait, no, wait. Our tattoos could help,” Angel said, raising three fingers like a girl scout leader. “It’s doubtful that’s why we’re here, but maybe it can spark a memory. Maybe it can give us a clue about who we are.” She lifted her tattooed shoulder. “I mean, I must have gotten this for a reason. Oh, maybe I was a preacher’s wife! I’ve always had a thing for those southern types with their long…”
Ocean sleeve rested a hand on her shoulder, his gentle way of cutting her off. “Don’t judge a book by its cover, that’s the saying, right? I don’t want us to go judging people based on their tats when we need to stick together. Besides, I think we’re better off focusing on how to get out of here than who is already in here.”
A burst of heat hit my cheeks, along with the desire to leave the room, because I’d started the blasted conversation. I wondered if that happened as a little girl. If I excused myself and hid in the bathroom after raising my hand and getting the wrong answer in class?
I stumbled upstairs, anxiety still swirling through my stomach, and discovered a row of bathrooms back-to-back. I chose the middle one and undressed in front of the full-length mirror inside, even though I worried whoever put us there also installed cameras. But I needed to see my tattoos, to see what mattered enough in my life for me to transfer it into ink.
I found four of them. A jet black garter belt holding a knife which circled my thigh. A half-faded skull on my wrist. A yellow jellyfish on my hip. Barbed wire around my ankle.
Nothing looked familiar, except for the fish, and for a moment I thought I poked at a memory – but then I realized Ocean Sleeves had the same one. In the middle of the blue waves across his arm, a yellow jellyfish with the same markings dripped down his bicep. Identical to mine.
Come to think of it, his hair color matched mine too, so he could be a brother, a cousin, an uncle. Or I could have been fucking him. He could have been the love of my life or an ex who hated my guts.
I slipped my shirt back on, thankful to be covered, because maybe I should keep my tattoo a secret from them all? Maybe I should pull Ocean Sleeve aside and tell only him instead of announcing it to the whole house? Or maybe…
I stopped when I heard a yelp, cut short in the middle, like the person heard himself start making the sound and then forced his vocal chords to freeze.
On tiptoes, I exited the bathroom and walked toward the adjoining one with its door ajar. I knocked hard enough to swing the entryway open and saw a man with a teardrop tattoo sitting on a closed toilet seat, razor in hand.
“Hey, whoa, are you okay?” I asked, knowing how stupid the question sounded when blood already squeezed out from a thin line in his wrist.
Teardrop twisted toward my voice, stretching out the arm holding the razor. His wrist shook as much as his voice when he said, “I killed someone.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“There’s a fucking teardrop on my cheek. I might not remember much, but I know what that means.”
“There are multiple meanings,” I said. “It could also mean that you spent time in prison. Or some people get them to mourn the loss of a family member.”
I cleared my throat to sound more convincing, unsure of how I learned a fact like that. I wondered if I dated a felon, took a psychology class, or just watched a shitton of crime documentaries.
Either way, I held onto hope that he would believe me – until he lifted the blade toward his neck and said, “You should probably turn.”
The skin sliced and his head tumbled forward. I grabbed a towel and tried to apply pressure, tried to reel him away from the reaper, but only managed to stain my shirtsleeves and step into blood puddles.
I don’t remember screaming, but I must have either called for help or cried a few decimals too high, because the rest of the house clomped up the stairs. They dragged me away from the body to get their own turn plugging his gash and checking his pulse.
When Ocean Sleeve tried to lift him into another position to slow the blood, Teardrop’s shirt buttons popped open, revealing paw prints across his collar bone. Five of them.
“That’s the same tattoo that the electrocuted girl had,” I said.
Did they know each other? Did everyone in the house have a match? Were we all couples, all siblings?
“You’re fucking kidding me,” Tribal said, losing interest in the now-dead body and flying downstairs to find Paw Prints.
When he returned three minutes later, he shoved through the hallway crowd and lifted his hands in the air. “She ain’t in this house. I checked every room. She disappeared.”
“There’s no way she escaped,” Ocean said. “She was still knocked out. I left her on the couch.”
Even if she woke up after hearing all the commotion, we already scoured the house for extra doors and windows and escape hatches. She couldn’t have stumbled outside on accident when the rest of us failed to do it on purpose.
Everyone scuttled downstairs to see the proof themselves, but of course, Tribal told the truth. No Paw Prints in sight.
A few people grouped off to re-search the house, but most of us stayed in the living room, confusion mounting us in place.
“Those two girls have matching tattoos, too,” Angel burst out, pointing to a set of identical brunettes. “They both have butterflies behind their right ear. I noticed it before and didn’t think anything of it but now – What if we all have a match and when one of us dies and the other gets to leave? One winner, one loser?”
Every voice dropped into silence, because she actually sounded plausible. That actually sounded disturbing enough for the truth.
Tribal wasted no time in ripping off his shirt. “Come on. Strip down. Let’s see what everybody’s got.”
The girls shook their heads. The boys gave nervous laughs. And I crossed my arms, holding them even tighter to my body as Tribal approached.
“Come on. We need to test the theory and find our match,” he said, thrusting me against the wall. His fingernails pierced my wrist, pinning it to my lower back. I squirmed against the tile as he reached for my jeans, trying to yank them down my hips without unbuttoning.
I felt the weight lift off me and realized Ocean had grabbed Tribal by the arm and heaved him against the backside of one couch. Tribal tumbled to the ground, and when he stumbled back up, he launched a punch toward Ocean’s jaw.
They threw right hooks back and forth, ducking and sidestepping, with the occasional hit that sprouted blood from their lips and noses. No one tried to pull them apart. They just kept watching, looking thankful not to be involved.
Underneath Tribal’s shit talk, I heard a female voice say, “I’m sorry for all this.”
I followed the sound to see one of the brunettes holding a butcher knife she must have swiped from the kitchen drawers. With one hard push, she dug it deep into her twin’s chest and twisted.
The girl collapsed, knife still plunged through her flesh with the handle poking toward the sky. But her sister’s butterfly tattoo glowed a bright white, like LED lights were placed beneath her skin. That shine worked its way up and down her body until she became a burning glob of light. A star in the center of the room. It blinded me with white, and when my vision returned, she was gone.
“Oh no no no no.”
“See? She’s gone. It’s true.”
It took me a few tries to find the strength to said, “Yeah, but this doesn’t mean she wins or whatever. She could be someplace else. Someplace worse.”
No one listened to my theory. Without warning, strangers lunged toward each other. They ripped shirts from skin. They scratched and kicked and bit. Without knowing their match, they attacked anyone who came close to them.
I made a run for one of the bedrooms, planning to lock myself inside, but Angel grabbed a fistful of my shirt. Every time I tried to pull away, she yanked me harder in reverse, so I went the opposite way, letting the shirt slip over my head so I could escape in only my bra.
I scrambled toward safety, passing Ocean on the way and I just know he saw. I watched his eyes slip down to my waist where our matching tattoo sat. Where my identical jellyfish swam.
I swiveled on my heels to switch directions, bolting toward the dead twin and pulling the knife from her chest, pieces of flesh flying off with it. I needed it for protection, nothing more. A just-in-case scenario.
When I made it to the bedroom, after slashing one man in the palm and kneeing another in the groin, I locked myself inside, scuttled over to the furthest side of the room, and slid down the wall.
My best bet would be if someone else killed Ocean in the chaos, sending me into the light. Not that I wanted him dead. He protected me earlier and our matching tattoos must have meant we knew each other before this, it must have meant he mattered to me.
Maybe I could find a way to protect us both, maybe our match didn’t have to die. Maybe we just needed to not have a match to be set free.
Maybe if I could find a way to remove my tattoo, and I didn’t technically have a match anymore, we would both survive.
I stared at the knife clutched in my hand, wishing the jellyfish sat on a fleshy part of my body like my thigh or underneath my arm. Not my hip. My bony thin hip.
I pinched the skin between my fingertips and tried to bunch up the skin as much as I could before resting the knife against it, sawing at the mound, ripping off my flesh.
Each swipe of the blade stung, so I tried to think of other things, happier things – but my mind stayed blank. Without any memories, happiness felt hard to find.
Somehow, I had removed half of the tattoo, which rested in flakes on the floor, when I heard a knock at the door. Heavy. Impatient.
“I can’t let you in,” I said.
“I wouldn’t hurt my match.” Ocean. His voice sounded faint through the wood. “Besides, I don’t think they have it right anyway. When we first got here, there were only thirteen people. Now there are nine. With an uneven number of people, how could everyone have a match? I tried to tell them, but no one out there would listen to reason.”
The last piece of my tattoo fell to the ground in a flutter, releasing a heavy string of blood.
Nothing happened. No light. No freedom. Nothing.
“Fuck,” I screamed, but it came out as a whisper.
I tried to stand, but the stretch hurt my hip, so I crawled over to the door on my elbows and knees. Reaching for the lock sent a bolt of pain through my side, but I flicked the lock out of place and Ocean barged inside.
As I clamped my palm over my wound to stop the blood, I felt a memory tugging at the corner of my mind.
“My parents never let me get a hip tattoo. They said it was too sexual.”
“So you got it behind their back?” he asked, sliding down to my level. His eyes darted between my unexplained cut and the abandoned knife across the room.
“I don’t think I know you. I think someone gave us these tattoos. At least the matching ones. I don’t even like jellyfish. Especially bright colored ones when the rest of my tattoos are plain black.”
Ocean parted his lips to speak, but I lifted a hand to shush him, because I could hear whistling. And the only reason I could hear whistling was because the rest of the house had gone silent. Because everyone else had stopped breathing or poofed away.
When the last remaining person came inside, a gun swung from her hands.
“I don’t like questions so I’ll just throw out some answers,” Angel said, holding up her index finger to silence us. “No, this is not earth. This is purgatory. No, I am not a guardian angel. I am your chaperone. And no, you were not good enough to get into heaven. But hell is overcrowded.”
The bile in my throat cut off my laughter. She must be joking? But then, it made sense in a sick sort of way. The loss of memories. The unrecognizable body art. The white light snatching souls away.
“You all – everyone in this house – behaved shitty throughout your entire lives. Shitty enough to be sentenced downstairs. But due to overcrowding, we had to find a way to weed out the decent souls from the true sinners. Basically, a select few of you get a free pass upstairs,” she said, gun now at her side against her popped hip.
I struggled to stand, legs shaky. “And you test us by placing us in some random house with random people?”
“By placing you into a stressful environment and seeing how you react to extreme doubt, distress, fear. It’s different each time. Each guardian gets free reign to design whatever type of social experiment they please.” She talked so casually. Like a teenager, not an otherworldly being. “You’re lucky, really. Other guardians stick their participants in rough waters. In lava pits. Or they mimic hell and test reactions.”
Ocean’s top lip met his nose in a snarl. “Are you telling us we passed? Are you congratulating us?”
“Neither of you killed anyone, but…” She sucked air between her teeth. “We don’t want too many criminals upstairs. We’ve been doing half-and-half. That’s why I came up with the matching tattoo bit. To break you into pairs. A killer goes to hell, their match goes to heaven. Gets their memories restored. Gets their loved ones’ company. Only room for one more of you, though.”
She crouched to the floor. Slid the gun toward Ocean and I. Waited.
Another test and we both knew it. Both hesitated. Whoever shot the gun would be sent directly to hell. And the other…
I swiped the weapon from the floor, ignoring the fire in my side, and bolted past Angel and into the living room where the front door stood. After pushing back the safety, I fired the full clip into the lock.
It sparked. Sizzled. Eased open.
I kicked the door the rest of the way to reveal a white expanse of nothingness.
As I hovered on the edge, I thought of Teardrop and the blood splashed across his skin. I thought of Butterflies and the way she shoved a knife through her twin. I thought of all the painful things I could remember during the last few hours. Memories that ate me alive and I barely knew the people, barely cared.
I could only imagine how much pain it would cause me to remember the twenty (thirty? forty?) years of my life on earth. How many people I hurt. How much destruction I caused. How many regrets I piled up.
When coldness brushed against my hand, it took me a second to realize it was Ocean wrapping his fingers around mine. He didn’t have to nod. He didn’t have to speak.
We both understood. And we both jumped, choosing to be there, trapped in a stretch of nothingness without our memories, without any clue of what we’ve done, of what monsters we really were.