A Short Horror Story from The Prospector
She didn’t know how to dance. I couldn’t care less.
The lights were dim, our faces cast in planes of shadow, triangles of multi-colored laser lights shifting across her collarbones. I watched her twirl. The hem of her dress swept the floor, clinging her body in crimson fabric. Every time she laughed I think I blacked out for a second.
The song hit its peak. The beat drummed faster, a chorus of two hundred high school kids singing incomprehensible lyrics at the top of their lungs. Farah Khouri was among them. She liked all the new pop music that I didn’t, but if you asked me what my favorite song was right then I would’ve said it was whatever Farah was screaming.
She was a wild, carefree thing, clad in molten lava, her dark hair bouncing in loose ringlets.
Attending the Fall Formal had been more of a last-minute decision on my part. I had yet to regret it. It was late in the night, too, the dance likely another twenty minutes from wrapping up. My dress shoes were too stiff, the food was subpar, but I couldn’t stop smiling.
The alarms sounded with no warning.
I suppose there never is a warning for that sort of thing, only the split second beforehand when the hairs on the back of your neck rise. And in the second after the mechanized peals rip into the air and burrow into your eardrums, there is uncertainty.
Is this a drill? Was that part of the song? What’s happening? What’s happening? What’s happening what’s happening what’s happening-
The loudspeaker crackled to life.
“Run,” said a voice, heavily disfigured by static. “This is not a drill.”
We bolted for the exit, the alarm bells chasing after us as the crowd of students nearly blew the doors off their hinges.
“I can’t find him!”
“Who was that? Stay together!”
“Hold my hand!”
“Are the police here?”
We flooded out the gym, and as one creature covered in scales of black and white cotton—we paused.
The cold seeped through my blazer. I spun about, searching for Farah or a glimpse of red, but I’d lost her in the panic of our exit. I didn’t know what we needed to run from. I didn’t know if it’d caught Farah already.
I exhaled a puff of fog. In the absence of overpowering music, it seemed entirely silent outside.
The darkness of midnight was only lessened by the full moon watching over a campus utterly abandoned except for us. The school had twisted itself into a lonely, silver world that we didn’t recognize; we had paused because of it, uncertainty clouding our thoughts, hesitation rooting our feet to the ground. I slipped out my phone. No service.
Was this real?
Someone screamed, from within our pack. At once we separated into a circle, forming a ring around the source as if we were gathering to laugh at a fight. I shouldered my way to the front. What if it was Farah?
It wasn’t, but it was a girl, her black hair in a bun and her dress glittering gold as she knelt on the freezing cement.
“Help me!” she screamed. “Please, oh, god, please, help me!”
Her name was Sam, and I knew her. She was in my AP Chem class.
I didn’t move. Neither did anyone else.
Sam wailed, “It’s too much!”
I sucked in a breath as her hands began to turn black. Charcoal-colored tendrils bloomed across her palms, her knuckles, crawling beneath her skin like worms. Sam’s body shuddered violently. The lines spread higher, twining around her wrists and surging up her delicate forearms to disappear underneath the half-sleeves of her dress.
Sam whimpered in pain. “Please.”
At last, a group of people—friends or not—broke the spell and hastened to help her back to her feet. The rest of the circle watched. I watched, paralyzed in horror or fascination or a dreadful combination of the two.
Sam’s hands, wrinkled and blackened to the point where it looked as if her veins were pumping ink, flew to her own throat. She hunched over. I couldn’t see, but there was the sound of fabric ripping, and she was groaning, and all the kids were scrambling backward as if they’d seen the devil, and I supposed they might as well have, and Sam’s figure writhed and contorted, her bones popping, her skin stretching—
“We warned you, but you weren’t fast enough,” purred the loudspeaker, in a sing-song voice.
The creature in the center of the circle growled. Torn bits of gold and sequins dangled off its shoulders, glinting against the pure black of its hide. It opened its eyes. They burned red, as fiery as Farah’s dress, and eerily similar to pinpricks of blood.
It didn’t resemble any known animal. Its body was distorted, the way your reflection seems in a curved mirror, the limbs in all the wrong places and a muzzle stretched skinny with an excess of flesh at its abdomen.
“Samantha?” asked a tall boy with cracked glasses. I didn’t know why he bothered. That was nothing human. Not anymore.
But maybe he was brave, or hopeful. The tall boy approached and lifted a hand to brush the side of the beast.
It reared its head and split the air with an ear-shredding roar. Its muzzle yawned wide, exposing rows of fangs, dripping transparent slime. Steam curled from its nostrils.
This was real.
The tall boy let out an unearthly shriek. He staggered back dizzily, staring down at his palms. Black tendrils snaked up his neck, pulsing, spreading to cover the left half of his face.
The girls kicked off their heels, choosing the cold in favor of practicality, and the other boys grabbed their dates’ hands and bolted. Farah had disappeared. Swallowing back the lump in my throat, I loosened the knot of my blue tie and made for the front gate of the school along with another dozen kids.
But the beast was lumbering after us, its stride irregular and stilted, like it’d just learned to walk, but it still moved far quicker than any animal of its mass should be capable of, and then I’d blinked and there were two of them. The tall boy had transformed, too.
One creature rose on its haunches. It towered above us, at least ten feet tall, a rank odor of rotting flesh permeating the air. A shard of glass crunched underneath its clawed foot. The other one circled the quad, blocking the path to the rear gate.
We were trapped, lab rats in a horrific experiment. It became a chore to breath, to push lungfuls of brisk air down my throat.
A red velvet dress caught my eye. I sighed in relief, a moment of happiness, despite the utter desolation of our current circumstances.
Farah shouted, loud and clear, “Inside the library!”
I wondered if we were clever or foolish, as we followed the only remaining route, students funneling through a set of double doors and into the library. I moved on autopilot. As soon as everyone was in, we put our backs against bookshelves and heaved them against the door. We didn’t need to talk. We’d done this, for years, in emergency drills, and we made a formidable machine in constructing an elaborate barricade. Books littered the carpet. Tables lay on their sides, chairs crammed into empty spaces, purses and useless phones forgotten in a corner.
In unspoken agreement, we didn’t pull the blinds on the window. There was a wide one to the right of the doors, the view a perfect snapshot of the quad and the beasts prowling through it.
They slunk out of sight, bored without us to prey on. Nobody looked relieved. Strangely, their absence was infinitely worse.
But now that we’d gained a modicum of safety, my thoughts returned to their usual pattern. Before I could restrain myself, I’d gone to Farah’s side, searching her person for any injuries. She sat on the ground, leaning on a desk. She seemed unharmed.
“I’m glad you’re safe, babe,” she was saying, her voice tremulous but sweet. Her gaze fixed wholly on a boy clothed in a tuxedo, a crimson bowtie at his neck.
He hugged her tightly and murmured, “It’s going to be okay.”
My lip curled. I wanted to fling him to the ground.
Farah sighed, and shifted, her doe brown eyes locking onto me. “Uh. Do I know you?”
Her boyfriend, Adrien Zhou, cocked his head. “Sorry, man. I know there’s not a lot of space in here.”
“I—um, no, you don’t know me,” I blurted to Farah, ignoring him entirely. “Just...checking to see if you were, you know, okay.”
“You’re Nico Caruso, right?” said Adrien. I nodded.
Farah glanced at me. She offered a tiny smile. “I’m okay. I hope you’re okay too, Nico.”
Before I could tame the new churning in my belly, the loudspeaker turned on.
“In the library? Oh, you’re such smart students! We always did say you’re all capable of great things! But we have an important announcement.”
Dread swamped my senses.
“One of you was given a very special award. Fortunately, several other students decided to help Samantha Kinston during her award ceremony.”
Award? Sam was a monster. Sam was dead. And they wanted to call it an award?
“We are truly grateful for a positive learning environment on this campus! However, of the students who touched lovely Samantha, one will also receive the same honor. After all, we are all about sharing our experiences.”
My fingers molded into fists.
“Once you discover the winner, please have them report to the office. And do not feel discouraged if you were not selected as an award recipient. If you succeed in identifying and acting on the lucky student, your prize is simple! You stay alive.”
The speaker embedded in the wall emitted a high-pitched buzz. Smoke seeped from its holes.
There wouldn’t be any further announcements.
“What does that mean?” someone asked.
“What do you think it means?” I hissed under my breath. A chill rolled down my spine despite the library’s temperature, which we’d cranked up to a toasty warmth.
Farah, ever the patient one, said, “There’s someone in this room who’s infected.”
Infected. The word spread like wildfire. She wasn’t wrong, of course, because I could think of no better way to define what we’d seen, those marks, transforming Sam into nothing recognizable and leaping to destroy that tall boy as soon as he touched it. It was a disease.
“We’re going to die!”
“Oh my god, this is is like, some Walking Dead type-”
“It’s one of the people who helped Sam.”
“Enough!” I cried, hyper-aware of Farah’s attention on me. “We don’t know who, not exactly. And we don’t know when the person will show signs of...it.” An image of Sam’s tattered clothes popped into my head. How had she contracted the infection? How long before it had taken effect? “But as soon as someone’s skin gets those black worms, what happened to Sam happens to them. And if anyone touches a beast, the infection spreads to them too. We’re on a time limit.”
“We have to stay calm. And wait for rescue. Our parents must think we’re missing by now,” said Adrien. He didn’t stand, because Farah was tucked into his side, her breaths coming shallow and rapid.
“And nobody’s here yet. If we can’t escape, no one can enter, either. There is no rescue,” I snapped. “What we do have to do is figure out who it is.”
“That’s impossible,” a kid interjected.
“Are we going to be okay?”
“It really be like that sometimes.”
“If it’s only one person, we can-”
Adrien raised his voice just enough to cut off the chatter. “Please, everyone. It’s not as if we were forgotten. It’ll just take a little more time.”
Would it truly? I understood the reality of our situation and there were no parents coming to retrieve us. We were on lockdown; cages inside with a disease that granted no mercy. If I didn’t take control, it would pick us off one by one.
“The outside world isn’t coming.” As I said it, I heard murmurs of agreement roll through the room.
If there were a way to single out the ‘infected’ person before the black tendrils manifested under their skin, before it became contagious, we would be safe. Farah would be safe. Even if she didn’t care about me, I’d always love her. The thought was comforting. It felt like the solid ground underneath my feet when the rest of this night had gone so awry.
I glanced at the couple hundred teenagers huddled on sofas, leaning against bookshelves, checking at cell phones that wouldn’t suddenly begin to function. They would listen to me. They had to listen to me. Clearly, I was the only one with the guts to take action. Farah needed to realize that.
She knew my name now. Farah would understand that I was the real hope in this library, that I was a leader, not a blurry face at the Fall Formal.
“Who went to help Sam up?” I asked, pivoting. “Come on, don’t worry. Just raise your hands.”
No one did.
At last, Adrien stood. “I did.” With his example, a few more voices agreed, a few hands went into the air.
“Good,” I said. “You guys should move to the center of the room. So that we know how many.” I kept it vague enough that no one seriously questioned that, and people scooted and rearranged themselves.
We counted. In total, it was only twelve people who’d touched Sam.
A girl complained, “What’s the point of this?”
“We’re trapped anyway.”
“How are we supposed to know who it is?”
“It doesn’t matter who it is. There has to be another solution,” said Adrien.
I scoffed. “Have any ideas?”
“If you just stop, and think for a second, we’ll come up with something!”
But I could feel the apprehension in the other students. This debate was maddening, and we’d cycled through an impossible range of emotions within an hour. We were exhausted, frustrated, terrified out of our minds, and all this back-and-forth wasn’t getting anyone home safe and sound.
And, I knew, on a base level, the crowd wanted to help me. We wanted to cease thinking and listen to the voice’s instructions. Pick a person. Send them outside. No more fear, no more panic. We’d been conditioned to obey that loudspeaker our whole life, and following it would prove the easiest route. The path of least resistance.
I took this primal urge, and I made it mine. “We should do what they said. We find the infected person, and we send them outside so they can’t spread the black stuff to the rest of us.”
To face the beasts. To face death. But sacrifices were necessary, and this particular one meant the majority of us would survive. Farah and I would survive.
Sweat trickled over Adrien’s brow. “This isn’t right. You know that, Nico. They’re playing tricks on our minds, and it’s working on you. On all of you!”
“Do you want us to live or not?” I growled. The atmosphere had shifted. The other kids sided with me, looking suspiciously at their friends for signs of the infection on their skin.
“Maybe we should trust him, Adrien.” Farah said carefully.
I spared a moment to glance at her. She was still beautiful, even with her makeup smeared by tears. “Farah….”
“Rescue!” cried Adrien. “We’re supposed to be rescued! Going after and suspecting each other like this isn’t—can’t you see it isn’t right?”
My temper flared. “Who’s coming for us? Why aren’t they here yet? Really, Adrien.”
Confusion passed over the other boy’s face. His gaze searched the library as if the answers he needed might be painted on the walls. “They’re..they’re coming…” he faltered.
“There,” I said triumphantly. I made eye contact with a few students, one by one. “You see? He’s gone crazy. We need to make a decision.”
Suddenly, Adrien was directly in front of me, so close our foreheads were nearly touching. His hands clamped onto my shoulders. I attempted to step back, startled, but his grip was ironclad.
“Nico,” he said, so softly I nearly missed it. “What do your parents look like?”
I looked at him incredulously. My parents? My mom’s hair was...brown, I think. Like my sister. Do I have a sister? My dad wore glasses. Or maybe it was a baseball cap. My family- what were their names again?
“I can’t remember either,” whispered Adrien.
I smacked his arms away and tried to ignore the pounding of my heart. “Don’t touch me.”
It didn’t matter. We’d been arguing for too long. The virus would show itself soon, and then like that tall boy with the cracked glasses, it would be over for every last one of us.
Who could it be, the infected person? Of the dozen who’d rushed to Sam’s aid? Eleven of them still sat, frozen by shock, in the center of the room like a herd of cattle. One of them had returned to Farah’s side, clasping their hands together.
I rubbed my eyes. I could feel the crowd watching me, waiting. I could practically hear their thoughts in my head, the endless chant of who? Who? Who? Who? One out of twelve, Nico. Think! Is it seriously random? Nothing else has been random. Don’t be stupid, Nico. You know who it is. You’ve always known who it is.
Because there was one person. There was one person who’d insisted on waiting. On rescue, on the police, on parents, on some ridiculous hope that we might be saved from this nightmare.
I turned to Adrien.
“Farah,” I said, slowly, “back away from him.”
Adrien’s expression changed. His eyes roved wildly, like a cornered animal. “Are you crazy, Nico?”
I said, “No. I’m right.”
“Stop it! You don’t even know if the loudspeaker was lying! It could be anyone, not just the dozen. It could be any one of us, just like Sam!”
But the eleven kids had stood. They weren’t to blame now. They couldn’t be chosen, not if it were Adrien instead of them.
“You thought you could hide? Pretend to be some kind of leader?” I asked, keeping my voice at a steady volume. “Give it up. Save the rest of us.”
Adrien looked like he wanted to leap for my throat. He couldn’t disguise his emotions, and the other kids peered at him with a new perspective. “It’s not me, babe. We shouldn’t do this. You believe me, don’t you?”
I knew I had won when Farah hesitated to respond.
“Take him!” I demanded, and the crowd surged forward. A handful of boys ripped the couple apart and dragged Adrien by the arms. He kicked and twisted, but his struggles were futile, and he and I knew it.
Farah ran after her boyfriend. She fought tooth and nail, too, but I’d created an unstoppable movement, a carnal force built of desperation and fatigue and fear. She was shoved to the side. I helped her up. Farah shouldered past me and followed the horde of students, shouting Adrien’s name frantically.
“Outside!” I yelled, over her. “Hurry!”
The barricade vanished in an instant. The tables snatched out of the way, the chairs yanked back, the bookshelves overturned as we undid our handiwork within seconds.
One of the doors had the space to open now.
Through the window beside it, the quad seemed deserted, but no one doubted the presence of the twin beasts lurking outside.
“Push him out now!”
This was survival. No more, no less.
“Give him to the monsters!”
Adrien was thrown onto the pavement with a flat thud, but he forced himself onto his feet with the grace of an athlete. He whirled around.
I ordered, “Close the door!”
To his credit, Adrien Zhou never screamed. He heard the click of the door’s lock and merely stared at us through the window, an acceptance passing over his features. He didn’t bother trying the door handle. He just stared and stared at me, his black eyes boring holes into my skull, his mouth set into a grim line.
Then there was a blur of black, and the sound of snarling and hissing was audible even inside the library as monsters no man should ever face descended to shred a boy into ribbons.
And then there was silence. Cold, dreadful silence.
My pulse returned to a regular tempo. I turned to Farah, half a grin on my face because I was finally her hero.
But Farah’s eyes were bloodshot and puffy; her lips parted in shock.
“What have you done?” said Farah, aghast with horror.
“I did what was necessary!”
“Get away from me,” she said. I blinked at her. “Get away from me!”
I reached out a hand, to cradle her cheek in my palm and assure her it was going to be okay.
Farah shrieked. She scrambled back, her dress snagging on a chair leg, and she toppled to the carpet. “Get him away!”
Please, I wanted to plead. Trust me. But the pain slammed into me the same moment I noticed the tendrils turning my fingertips pitch black.
“I just wanted to save you,” I said, lost in Farah’s terrified gaze.