I was lying on my back. A metal snakelike rod, long and thin, wriggled around in the air inching towards my stomach. It suctioned stuck onto my skin right below the belly button and drank up. I was scared it would hurt like a bite, but it felt more like soft electrical buzzing.
The buzzing found me on the ground. Still on my back and now every inch of my skin was being pressed with other skin. The bodies and body parts of maybe 20 different people all squished together on top of me. They weren’t moving I don’t think but there was a pulsing current drumming through their skin into mine that was suffocating and terrifying and also quite erotic.
“Are you sure?” The sky asked me.
I was standing in a poppy field. It was warm but not too warm and there was a light breeze tickling at my nipples.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
While my half-dead body sucked into a hospital bed, my other body took the bus with 43 fellow hopefuls. I wasn’t particularly interested in making friends, and succeeded at keeping to myself for the first few hours of the ride. I was sitting at the front left, right behind the team leader and in my own seat. The bus was a little too hot, just enough that my back and thighs wetly glued to the pleather seat. It smelled like gasoline and plastic and armpit.
Around hour 3, a man twice my age creeped up the rows and sat next to me.
“Long ride, huh?”
I didn’t have anything in my hands to pretend I was doing.
“You’re quite young.”
“Yeah I guess.”
He put his arm up on the seat head and scanned the rest of the bus behind him.
“Well you have more of a reason to go back than anyone else here.”
He decided to talk at me for the duration of the ride.
At our first rest stop, a concrete complex that looked like a cross between a prison and a spa, each of us was given a locker to hold our basics: towel, toothbrush, oversized T-shirt, elasticized pair of shorts, pool slides, pajamas and slippers so we might not lose our sense of humanity in case we make it back.
On that very first night the group leader broke into my locker and stole my towel. They were in the shape of a 35 year old woman, quite tall and muscular and blonde. I wasn’t sure if she was a demon or an angel or one of us who didn’t make the journey back, but she seemed bitter as hell to me. Of course she was nice to everyone else. She went by the name “Babs.”
When I went to the bathroom during the after dinner games I found an open closet with a stack of clean towels and swiped two.
We were woken at six to attend a seven am lecture. Breakfast like every other meal was a sparse buffet. Mealy apples, banana muffins with too many walnuts in them, coffee, milk, orange juice that tastes like vitamin powder.
The lecture was in a drab conference room and featured two guests. One who had chosen to return to our world and one who hadn’t. Neither was particularly convincing. To me.
12 others disappeared over the course of that morning.
At dinner they served fishsticks, rice and a sad looking salad. I optioned for rice and the sad salad.
I sat at a long table by myself and slowly began consuming the sweaty rice. A small plump woman in her 40’s approached, “Do you mind if I sit here?” She had a nice looking smile.
“No, not at all,” I said and she sat.
She began eating one of her fishsticks. Almost everyone else ate the fishsticks.
“It’s Rhonda by the way.” We shook hands and I told her my name, too.
“Maybe it’s not appropriate for me to ask but how did you get here? You’re so young.”
I told her about my accident and she told me about hers.
“Strange moment we’re in now isn’t it,” she said. “Thank god Babs is around to guide us. What an angel.”
I didn’t answer and maybe I made a face and so she asked me “You don’t like Babs?”
“Shh..” I whispered. I looked around to make sure no one was listening. “I think Babs is out to get me.”
“Oh no what made you think that?”
“She stole the towel out my locker.”
“Maybe it was a mistake?”
“Trust me I saw her do it.”
“I can’t see Babs doing that… But then again I’ve only known her for a day. You know I think you’re the same age as my son.”
“How old is he?”
“21, my Curtis. He’s just graduating from college, already got recruited to go work at Google, that boy is so smart I don’t know where he gets it from. Not me, of course. My smart Curtis. Oh I miss him so much,” then she started crying and dabbing at her eyes with her dirty napkin. “I’m mostly going back for him.”
“Wow, Google, that’s big. That’s great. You should be very proud… and I’m 28 actually. I would be 29 next…”
There was a long line for the showers after dinner and I waited in just my towel. 5 out of the 6 bathroom stalls were also in use, grotesque smells and noises bubbling through the shower steam. When I was only one person away from my turn, a woman whipped open her shower curtain, ran out the stall wet, grabbing her towel round her, diarrhea spilling fast out from under the towel in a messy trail, and beelined for the toilets.
The person in front of me didn’t move just stared at the empty shower. A pool of fishstick juice running down the drain.
Everyone got sick from the fishsticks.
13 more disappeared after this and so now we were just 18.
A day later we were on the bus again. This time I sat with Rhonda far away from Babs. I liked that we could sweat together and that we could laugh about it. I liked Rhonda. She sort of reminded me of one of my favorite teachers from high school. The drive was long and surrounded by flat fields reaching out to the end of nothing. We pulled up to a bus stop where 23 people were waiting.
Babs stood up at the front, “Can I Have Everyone’s Attention Please.” Every word that came out of Babs’ mouth sounded phony. I thought maybe she was mocking all of us. Waiting for us to drop.
“Drumrollllll,” she drummed with her hands on her thighs. The bus door opened and the 23 initiates started to pile in. “Please Make Way For Our New Friends… Thank You…”
After everyone was seated the bus chugged on.
We didn’t reach our next location until dark. The new spot wasn’t much different from the old one. Also concrete. Same basics and lockers and shower stalls.
Rhonda and I chose top bunks next to each other so that we could whisper before bed. The mattresses were plasticy and thin and made plasticy noises when you shifted around. Babs scolded us when we whispered too loud, though she didn’t stop the man a few bunks over from masturbating.
In the morning, after breakfast, we did a workshop where we were separated into two groups. Babs separated Rhonda and I of course.