This is a story I'm trying out - I'm not sure where it's going yet, but I got pretty excited writing up this part of the concept.
The room is so quiet, it rings.
So still I have to blink just to make sure it is real.
Not even the clamor and chaos of the outside has breached these doors, and I can feel it when I breathe - the walls expanding and inhaling with me. Each creak underfoot as it groans along with me. The ceiling coming closer, trembling like a leaf.
I am so scared.
Outside a new world waits. It is my world, and I will be the hero, but I have never felt terror like this before. Because I don't want to do it anymore. Nobody talks about the sacrifice - all my books and stories, my heroes and heroines, leaking emotion but never saying it aloud. Never admitting that victory has a price.
Victory is a price.
I have drawn the curtains and put away all the things that made this room mine. Packed up what is left of my life. Everything, all of it, sits there by the door. Ready and waiting.
I am not.
I will never be ready.
But I can hear them now, coming down the hall, their voices lowered to a muted mumble.
Just an hour more.
It's already been too long.
He opens the door first, poking his head around it and trying for a smile that feels like porcelain. I can't even give him one back. I should be happy. I should be celebrating and smiling and laughing because I have given us all a hundred more years to live. A hundred more years to figure out how to barter for a hundred more and then a hundred after that. I have given us all a chance at life again.
Freedom and hope and love.
"They're ready for you, Cee."
At a cost.
"Just a minute."
Such a terrible cost.
"We can't keep them waiting any longer."
But mine to give. My cost. Mine.
"All right," I whisper. He stoops to pick up my bag, and I almost tell him to leave it. What good are memories of this place to me? There is a bitterness stirring at the back of my throat, and I try to swallow past it as I tuck a smaller bag across my chest. In the hall, the people I have done this for wait. They all try to smile. This time, I return their favors with as much strength as I can muster. If I am going to do this, it must be done completely. And if it means convincing them that I am happy to do this, then so be it.
No one ever talks of grief like this.
I shake back my shoulders and let them pass me through their hands, kissing and hugging and whispering their thanks and their goodlucks. Goodbyes all said in quiet reverie.
I am the heroine.
"We'll never forget you, Cee."
I look at her, this familiar and beautiful face, and feel my insides crumple. I touch her cheek, just to remind myself that she is real and I am not doing this all for naught. I don't doubt that she will go on remembering me for as long as she can. Kissing her temple, I force myself not to linger.
I cannot linger here.
I will never leave.
They follow me down to the lounge. He leaves my bag with someone else - someone from the other side. I almost can't look. I almost can't make the plunge.
But I do.
They are amassed in the room, just five of them: three men and two women, none of which are substantial players in this gamer but for one. I am careful to look them all over before fixing him in my gaze. He looks so harmless. So at ease.
So why am I so afraid?
When he smiles, he looks triumphant.
"The journey will be long, but I have brought people to look after you." He gestures at the four behind him. I don't look. I'm not ready to accept this new life yet. "And when we reach my home, I assure you your efforts will be rewarded." He smiles again, and now he looks excited. I catch the brief glance that darts down to my feet and back to my face.
I suppose it should make me at least a little more comfortable - at least he will want me, for a little while.
"Thank you." It is a relief that my voice doesn't break or whisper. I sound put together. I sound strong. "But my comfort isn't what I bargained for."
He smiles for a third time, and this time, it is wily. A keen look of satisfaction.
"Of course. The safety of your home." He nods and waves one of the women forward. She slides a knife the length of my arm toward me across the coffee table, and for a moment I have to stare. It is out of place and deadly. I feel my insides go cold.
Oh gods, am I scared.
I look back to him.
"I still don't trust you."
He rolls his lips together, brow puckered in thoughts.
"I will demonstrate for you. There is nothing to be-"
"-No." I am tired of the games. I am tired of everything. "No. I don't trust that once you have me, you won't come back here. You won't go back on your word."
He has the grace to look offended before he settles his expression and smiles one more time.
"Once there has been an exchange of this kind," he explains, slow and deliberate though I have heard it before. "I, and none of my own, can pass back here for at least one hundred years." He holds out his hand. He has spoken of it for the last time, that is certain. He will not be doubted anymore. I feel like a flower, wilting under the heat of some cruel and scorching light. It is too much weight to bear. I slip my fingers over his and grip his palm, looking up into the face I will have to grow familiar with quickly.
He may be finished, but I am not.
"If anything happens," I tell him, and now my voice has withered away to a whisper. "I will murder you in your sleep."
We hold gazes.
"You are understood."
He waves the second girl forward dropping my hand, gesturing to the knife and one of the other men. She lifts the weapon with an ease that is unsettling, and an expression that is so bored she could be watching the business channel. She and the man pull close together, chest to chest, and I watch as she tucks her head beneath her chin and closes her eyes. Despite his promises of a painless journey, I see a flicker of dread curling through the muscles in her jaw as she clenches it. She holds the knife to his back, the tip nicking through his shirt. I hear him whisper something into her hair.
And then she plunges.
The tip appears at her back, red. She looks pale. She looks frightened.
Someone behind me screams, and I hear someone give a shout. Something angry. But there is a buzzing in my ears. I can't look away from the girl's face as it twists into a grimace, her cheeks drained of all color. She makes a quiet noise, something like a little squeak of pain, and then she and the boy are falling fast, crumpling under the weight of their deaths.
They are gone before they hit the ground.
But I see what I need to in the seconds before she goes, and my resolution goes to steel as he bends to pick up the knife. He doesn't look away from my face.
"Have you said your goodbyes?"
I nod. I am shaking.
His eyes scan the faces behind me, hard and determined, and I see a man who fights wars and barters with his own life. When he nods, I make myself close the distance between us. If anything, I will at least be strong when I go. This close to him, I have to crane my neck back to look at his face.
This time, as he smiles, he looks gentle. He looks happy.
When he speaks, it is in a whisper.
"Just copy what she did."
I clench my jaw and nod. I will have to trust him. I tuck my head against his chest, right beneath his chin, and for one last moment take in the sight of my family, eyes wide with fear and grief. I smile.
"I love you."
And then I close my eyes and wrap my arms around his torso, because I don't think I will be able to hold myself still, and the knife's tip stings into the skin at my back. My heart races. My blood pounds. I am suffocating. I am going to die.
For a brief moment that feels like eternity stretched into a single second, the world goes still. It goes quiet. I can feel it expanding and inhaling around me. There are lips in my hair and whispered words in my ear. There is the knowledge that after this, everything will be okay.
It takes a long time to die.