6903 words (27 minute read)

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

The door to hell stands under a fluorescent light in an alley in Queens. The devil himself showed me.


I didn’t hear any music coming from the building. Nobody was smoking outside, and no other partygoers had arrived, just Roman, his friends Raine and Norhan, and me. The situation had all the elements of a CSI episode, and I’d be playing the part of Corpse Number One.

I knew that leaving a bar with a group of strangers was a terrible idea, but I couldn’t say no to Roman. He was like the sound of the ocean at night, intimidating and alluring.

Roman’s voice had the power to transform the most mundane actions into epic adventures. But it wasn’t only his voice. It was the vivid way he described things, the over-the-top adjectives and random historical references. His words could turn a forty-five-minute trip on the subway into a quest to Middle-earth.

“Imagine Berlin pre–War World II. Decadence, lust, and fun were all synonyms back then. There was no judgment, just an insatiable appetite for pleasure.” His hands were drawing pictures in the air as if sound were not enough to describe the greatness of the party we were about to attend. “You’ll love it, Andres. I promise!”

“I don’t think I am down for an orgy.” I laughed nervously.

“If you don’t like it, you can just get dressed and leave.” Roman winked at me.

Maybe that’s why I decided to stay. How could a loser like me say no to such promises? The wave of putrid sweetness from the dumpsters was a warning sign, but I ignored it. I wanted to see Roman’s utopia and become part of one of his stories.

The heat rising from the door handle woke my cold fingers. The tingling sensation climbed my arm like a snake. It wasn’t an electric shock. It was a different kind of energy. It wasn’t painful, just unnerving.

I yanked my hand off the handle and took a step back. A black aura clouded my vision while that numbing sensation I felt every time I got up too fast paralyzed me for a couple of seconds.

“Everything all right, Andres?” Raine said while she lit another cigarette, the third one in the last half hour.

I tried to sound casual. “Something is going on with the handle.”

She leaned against the wall and smirked. The fluorescent lighting accentuated the wide pores peeking from under a thick layer of makeup.

“I can get the door for you if it is too heavy,” she said, speaking in that condescending baby voice adults use to talk to children.

She was a bitch and not pretty enough to get away with it. I grabbed the handle again, but this time, it was nothing but a cold piece of metal, just a little sticky from the many who had opened it in the past hours.

There is nothing wrong with the door. It is just my anxiety, I thought while taking a deep breath.

I was not much of a party guy. I was always the one who stood in a corner, looking at his phone while others drank, laughed, and became Facebook friends. I tried to mingle. I attempted to make friends, and every once in a while, I even tried to get laid. I just didn’t have the talent for it.

“So why am I here?” I said to myself.

I racked my brain for an answer that made sense and had no choice but to admit, despite all the lies I kept telling myself, I wished I had a regular life. I wanted friends, dinner plans, and random hookups. I wanted to meet the love of my life and break up with her two months later when she started talking about meeting her family. That was the reason I went out that night. That was the reason I followed Roman.

“Andres, if you’d rather go home, that’s cool.” Roman looked at me with an annoyed expression. He had heard me talking to myself.

“I’m fine,” I lied while I pulled the door open.

I felt his hand on my shoulder—his grip solid and unbending. I tried to turn around, but he kept me looking straight ahead and moving forward.

“There is no turning back, my friend. Now you walk in there and have fun, doctor’s orders.” His voice was friendly but firm, and part of me was thankful he was taking charge and stopping me from running away.

Walking through the door felt like stepping into a tunnel. Darkness engulfed us for at least thirty seconds until light and sound became real again. In front of my scared eyes, bodies covered in glittering sweat bathed in an ocean of white smoke. The steam emanating from the walls smelled like myrrh—the incense scent of choice of my childhood church. I took off my denim jacket, trying to ease the sensation of walking into a bowl of hot soup. After two seconds, I was already dripping with regret.

“You can do better than that,” Raine said in my ear, pointing at my jacket and pouting her lips toward my shirt.

Without a second thought, she took her shirt off. Her bra sparkled with tiny crystal flowers embroidered on red lace. Her breasts were too small for her athletic frame. They seemed misplaced, as if they were the product of a splicing experiment gone wrong. The pale skin on her arms concealed hills of defined muscles strong enough to take on any man.

“Remember . . . clothing is optional,” she purred.

I knew she wasn’t flirting with me. On the contrary, she was mocking me, showing me what a joke she thought I was.

The thick air entered my lungs and remained there like a heavy meal. I found myself gasping for a second, but the more I inhaled, the more I started craving the sweet smell surrounding me.

Maybe it was the smoke, the smells, or the lights, but I could tell there was something staged about the place. It wasn’t just a party; it was the most outrageous party I had ever seen, and I knew someone had worked hard to make us believe that mirage was real.

The music hit my forehead with the strength of a sledgehammer. Monotonous lyrics on a loop, wrapped in screeching metallic sounds bounced from wall to wall and landed like javelins in my eardrums. It was just arrhythmic sounds with enchanting power, and the crowd loved it.

“So what you think?” Roman yelled over the unrecognizable song.

“It’s cool,” I lied.

“Give it a minute, you’ll like it.”

We marched into the shapeless, unsynchronized human mass bouncing in front of us. There was no path to follow; we had to use our bodies like machetes and create a trail to cross the writhing jungle.

On the dance floor, a group of girls were performing their mating dances like nymphs around a campfire. They slowed their movements as if it were Pan, the son of Hermes, who was whispering in their ears and not a car-factory-inspired electronic band. Their hands were reaching for the ceiling while their hips moved from side to side, their mouths half-open, waiting for rain to fall from the sky and mitigate their thirst. It was carnal and mesmerizing. I couldn’t help but stare and wonder why their efforts were going unnoticed—why no guys were standing close to them or even looking at them.

“Easy prey. We can attack later if you want,” Roman whispered in my ear while pointing at the women dancing.

I nodded and kept walking. There was something unsettling in the way he looked at them. Somehow the word attack didn’t sound like a figure of speech. Behind Roman’s kind face, there was a dark presence, a wild animal waiting for the right moment to come out and feed.

We moved toward the bar, rubbing against bodies. I let strangers put their sweaty hands on my chest and grab my ass without consequences. I smiled at chicks with eyes too big for their faces and thanked guys who told me I was cute.

Roman was still behind me, but his friends had vanished.

“This is a little too packed for me,” I yelled over my shoulder.

Roman ignored me.

Deeper into the belly of the party, I noticed a group of giant men roaming the room. Their noses were pointing up like bloodhounds following a scent. Their massive arms were covered in crimson scars, and their wide chests were like mountain ranges. There was something strange about their faces—maybe an odd shape around their eyes—but it was hard to see in the dim and distorted light.

One of the giants grabbed a man taking pictures with his phone and dragged him out like a rag doll. The man’s eyes were wide and watery. He was screaming for help, his feet kicking the floor as he attempted to stop his captor. Nobody seemed to notice or care.

I wanted to run in the opposite direction, but I had promised myself I would step out of my comfort zone and try to have fun.

“You need strong security when you have so many people in one place,” said Roman as if he could read my mind. “I know these guys. They look scary, but if you are not an idiot, they are cool.” His words didn’t make my anxiety go away.

“What’s up with those scars?” I yelled.

“Medals of Honor.” His answer made no sense.

The party was not my scene, but then again, what was my scene? I had no friends, and I almost never went out. I was not even a nerd or a geek, which would have, at least, given me a tribe or a purpose. I was just a socially awkward, bland guy. My mom would have slapped me if she knew I was describing myself that way, but it was the truth.

“You are a loving, smart, and good-looking kid! Stop being so negative!” my mother said every time she had a chance. She was my biggest fan. But at the end of the day, that was her duty. Cheerleading for the runt of the litter was in her job description.

The thought of her kept me walking. She wouldn’t approve of this place, but she would be happy to see me making friends. A miracle had occurred earlier; a group of “cool kids” invited me to a party, and it wasn’t part of a mean joke or an attempted robbery. I ignored the bubbling angst rising from my gut, wiped my wet palms on my jeans, and pushed forward.

“A drink will make me feel better,” I said to myself.

We were almost at the bar when a man with blue rings all over his torso stepped in front of me. I wondered why all the weirdoes walked around shirtless.

His eyes scrutinized me like a child looking at a zoo animal for the first time. There was something peculiar in the shape of his face. He reminded me of a Picasso I saw at the Met, unsettling but intriguing and attractive in a weird way.

His breath smelled like licorice. The scent coming out of his mouth was candy-store strong. There was something unevolved about him, as if he had skipped a step or two on his way to becoming a Homo sapiens.

The tattoos on his chest were circular saw blades. There was a tribal flair to them, something that felt ceremonial. Even though I didn’t understand their meaning, they seemed familiar.

I tried to pass him, but he blocked my way and continued to stare, tilting his head from side to side, studying me and assessing me like I was an object he wanted to purchase. The situation was crossing the line from weird into seriously creepy.

I said hi and waved my palm in front of his eyes. He hadn’t blinked at all for the whole minute he’d been standing in front of me.

He wet his lips, smiled, mumbled something that sounded like “walker” and grabbed my hand.

“Dude, that wasn’t an invitation! I’m not . . .” His grip hurt, and the more I tried to free myself, the harder he crushed my hand. He wasn’t even looking at me, just dragging me with the gravitational strength of a black hole.

The crowd opened in front of him like the Red Sea, and he started walking with me struggling behind. I turned my head around, begging for help, but Roman was nowhere to be found.

“Let me go, asshole!”

The music muted my screams. I knew he couldn’t hear me. Nobody could hear me. I looked around with pleading eyes, but I was alone, surrounded by people but ignored by the rest of world.

My foot hit his leg with all the force I could muster, one, two, three times. He turned around and spoke for the first time.

“Stop that. We need to get out,” he said, moving his lips slow so I could read them.

“Come on, dude, this is not funny,” I said, my voice shaking.

He stopped and got close to my ear. He didn’t let go of my hand.

“I don’t know how you ended up here, walker, but I need to get you out,” he said with a slight shake in his voice.

He started dragging me again. For only one second, I wondered why he was calling me “walker,” but the urgency to free myself was more important than wherever name he wanted to give me.

I screamed at the top of my lungs, cursing him and kicking him, but he was undisturbed. His legs were thick as the walls of a dam. Every time my foot slammed against him, my entire body trembled. He continued walking, oblivious to my attacks.

I couldn’t feel my fingers. My legs ached, and my eyes filled with tears. I felt numb, weak.

“Please don’t pass out, please don’t pass out.” The words fell from my lips like a mantra. I knew that if my nerves got the best of me and I blacked out, I had no chance of leaving the party in one piece.

Roman walked past me and got in front of the guy. His eyes were blazing pits of fire. There was something lethal in his stare, and the guy saw it and took a step backward—his hand still locked into mine. They started arguing. I didn’t know how they could hear each other, but it was clear an intense exchange was taking place. The man pushed Roman to the side, but he didn’t move an inch.

Roman shoved the man, sending him stumbling back. My captor’s hand let go of mine and rose in the form of a fist launching toward Roman’s face. The crowd opened up, creating a ring for the match.

Raine appeared next to me, giggling like a little girl watching two puppies play.

“When was the last time two studs fought for you, sweetheart?”

Blood rushed to my face, and I looked down. She was right. I was standing there like a damsel in distress, letting a knight in a shiny tank top save me.

Roman received the blow like a professional boxer. He took a couple of steps back and then charged the guy with the might of a rampaging bull. They both fell to the ground, entangled in a knot of fists and rage.

Roman grabbed the guy by his throat and started squeezing, unbothered by the punches raining over him. The tattooed man began losing strength, and before he knew it, Roman was on top of him, pounding his face until blood started gushing. I thought he was going to kill him when two of the bouncers appeared.

Roman got up, ran his fingers through his hair, and spit words that seemed like orders. Without a second thought, the giants dragged the unconscious man away.

That should have been my cue to get out of that noisy and foggy asylum. I should have thanked Roman and headed home. I had tried to do something different and exciting, and I had failed. It was time to go, but instead, against every screaming sense in my body, I stayed.

I couldn’t understand my actions. There was a force anchoring me to that place. I was terrified, and at the same time, I wanted to see what other surprises were waiting for me.

“Thank you,” I said to Roman as we walked toward the bar.

“That could have ended badly. What about you throw a punch next time someone tries to kidnap you?” Roman yelled in my ear.

I was too mortified to reply.

The scene at the bar was weirdly normal. If it weren’t for the fact that I almost got kidnapped by a direct descendant of the missing link, who was later dragged away by two giants, I would have thought that this was a regular bar in Midtown Manhattan.

“What are you drinking?” Roman asked me while leaning on an open space between a guy and a girl who were flirting with each other. The guy gave him a look and mumbled, “Douche.”

“Beer, a Stella,” I said, and he smiled. We had known each other for just a couple of hours, and we already had an inside joke.

My tongue felt like a dry sponge sitting in my mouth. My shirt was damp, and my lips were eager to taste that beer.

“Take your shirt off if you are too hot.” Roman pointed to the flock of shirtless guys walking around.

“I’m fine, just need a beer,” I said a little bit more brusquely than I intended. Roman took his tank top off and threw it on the floor.

“It got blood on it,” he said, unaware of how unsettling the comment was.

He was tall and lean, his face shaped in sharp edges aligned in a symmetrical way that seemed man-made. He wasn’t good-looking in a traditional way; his cheekbones were too high, his chin was too square, and his eyes were too close together, but somehow it worked for him. I wasn’t ready to say the words out loud, but I was attracted to him. Roman sparked in me feelings I had fought against my whole life.

“Why did you invite me to the party?”

“I don’t know, you seemed cool.” Roman’s gaze was wandering.

“I don’t think many people would describe me as cool.”

“I don’t care about what others have to say. Believe it or not, Andres, you are special.”

His eyes jumped from face to face, scanning for something or someone. I assumed he was thinking of an excuse to leave; after all, I had been nothing but trouble so far, and a guy like him could get laid with a lot less effort.

He fixated on an older guy on the other side of the room. A big smile bloomed on his face. He turned to look at me, cupped my face with both hands, and said, “Just wait here, you’re going to love this.”

The hungry mob piling on the dance floor swallowed Roman’s body. His scent lingered like a dense fog on a winter morning. I could taste black pepper and limes. There was also something salty and spicy, like the aromas of a foreign market next to the sea. Then it was gone, and the odor of hundreds of human bodies grinding in the gloom of the warehouse was all I could smell.

The spell holding me hostage in the party left too. I needed to go home, not only because of the uneasiness I felt since the moment I entered the building, but because I knew what Roman wanted, and I knew I didn’t have the strength to say no.

The idea of crossing alone the nine circles of hell I had just survived went against every ounce of common sense I had.

I went to check the time when I noticed my phone was missing. Either it had fallen from my pocket while I’d struggled with the tattooed weirdo or someone had stolen it. That last thought simmered in my mind for a minute. The image of Raine whispering in my ear during the fight replayed in my head, and the pieces fell into place like the ending of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. She took the phone. I had no proof, but I knew it.

I felt eyes drilling my skull, the heavy weight of stares pushing down on my shoulders and chilling my spine. It wasn’t my imagination. From all corners of the bar, people were watching me. Men and women from urban tribes I had never encountered before were staring me as if I were a dish they were dying to devour but knew they could not touch.

I locked eyes with a young kid in the middle of the bar; it was obvious he was not old enough to be drinking. Next to him, a tall and attractive woman with skin the color of pearls and long red hair was whispering something in his ear. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I had met him before. He mumbled something, maybe to himself, maybe to me, I couldn’t tell. I kept watching him, trying to solve the puzzle he was reciting, and then I got it: he was praying.

I noticed the woman’s left hand was on his shoulder. A red stain was forming where her black nails dug into his white T-shirt. She didn’t seem to notice the blood running down his young arm, or she just didn’t care. Those around them didn’t see it either. Their eyes were too distracted by her witchy beauty.

“She is not human,” I said.

It was absurd, but I couldn’t get rid of the thought. My eyes leaped from one face to another, and despite my brain’s efforts to fit the picture within the boundaries of my reality, I couldn’t deny that something strange was brewing around me. I saw one of the giants grabbing another man, and then it became apparent; there were two types of creatures in this place: predators and cattle. I had been brought there as the latter.

It was ridiculous—I knew that—but I felt the urgency of escaping before half of the party turned into man-eating monsters.

“You are acting insane,” I said out loud, but this time, insanity was winning.

My breathing was short and fast. Cold drops of sweat were running down my forehead. A panic attack was on the horizon like a tidal wave menacing the beach where I stood. My knees felt weak and my skin numb.

“Get your shit together, Andres!” I scolded myself as if my rough inner voice would scare the fear away.

I started walking toward a wall just past the bar. My survival instinct had taken over, and it was guiding my body without waiting for my permission. If I followed the wall, I could make it to the exit door. I thought this was safer than venturing into the core of Hades for the second time.

I was a pathetic idiot. Roman could have invited me to pet a puppy in his house or offered me candy out of his windowless van, and I would have fallen for it. My weakness had nothing to do with his charm and everything to do with my loneliness. Roman had smelled my desperation and preyed upon it.

I hated myself more than usual, but I knew I had to snap out of that puddle of shame and keep pushing. It wasn’t too late. I just had to walk until I found the exit, and I would be ok. From there it was just running to the closest subway station.

I followed the outline of the wall for a long time. The edges of the concrete and metal vault holding us hostage were as crowded as the middle of the dance floor. My shoes stuck to the ground with every step. The moisture in the air was becoming molasses on the floor; the sweet flavor I had tasted at the beginning had become sour. The place was decaying, rotting in plain sight, but the bleary eyes of the damned couldn’t see it.

The logical part of my brain was losing the battle against the wrenching gut feeling that I had walked through a portal to hell. Even though I grew up in a house where the existence of the devil was considered a fact and diabolical possession a thing that happened even to the best families, I never believed in the supernatural. For the women in my family, ghosts, spirits, witches, and saints were as real as the churches where they prayed every Sunday and as influential in our destinies as the men and women ruling the country.

I was raised around rituals of cleansing, afternoons of praying, and hours of imploring guidance from the dead. Grandma Elisa had countless streams of cautionary tales about men and women falling for the allures of the evil one.

“The devil doesn’t have horns or a tail. That’s just a story to scare children. The devil is handsome, charming, and quite nice.” My grandma’s words echoed in my head. “But you can beat him, Andres, tu estás bendecido, mijo.” But at that moment, I didn’t feel blessed at all.

Maybe Roman had put something in my beer, which would explain the panic, the distorted faces, and the nightmarish creatures I could feel lurking in my blind spot. Something was clouding my judgment, handicapping my senses, making me see and feel things that were not there.

A mindless dancer blocked my way, forcing me to let go of the wall. That was all it took for the human current to grab me and take me away. I bounced, spun, and gasped for air like a drowning victim mangled by raging waves. I knew the feeling. I had experienced it when I was thirteen, and I thought that making it to the swimming team made me immune to the capricious will of the ocean. Back then, a fishing boat had saved me; this time, I had to save myself.

I got my initial panic under control and let my body drift, waiting for the tide to slow down.

“Just don’t fall. Let them mangle you, but don’t lose your footing,” I told myself.

I was dragged to the eye of the hurricane, a spot that seemed protected by an invisible force field. I could see the chaotic mass still rolling around me, but somehow I was safe; nobody was bumping into me or grabbing me. I felt a second of relief, but it went away soon. I couldn’t see the wall or any sign of the exit.

It had to be past 2:00 a.m., and the party didn’t show any signs of slowing down. I fought the surge of exhaustion taking over my limbs. I had to keep moving. I didn’t know what kind of danger I was in, but I knew the stakes were high.

I held my breath and pushed my way through the crowd. The only way to get out of that place was to keep on moving.

Just a couple of feet later, I bumped into the only other human being not dancing in the whole place. She was standing idle, looking in all directions with the same lost expression I was wearing. She was looking for a way out, and that gave me a sense of relief. I had found an ally.

“Hi, are you looking for the exit door too?” I said, getting closer to her.

She turned around and looked at me with so much fear I felt like hugging her. Tiny blood rivers crossed the white part of her eyes. The makeup from her eyelashes was splattered over her cheeks as if her stylist were Jackson Pollock.

Her face was long and angular, her lips thin and wide, and her eyes big like a Margaret Keane model. Her frame was so small she looked like a child, but she was an adult woman, probably in her late twenties.

“There is no exit,” she spoke in my ear.

Distress and hopelessness covered the trembling in her voice. Her gaze swung from side to side as she waited for someone or something to jump from the shadows. I didn’t understand what she meant. Were there people guarding the doors, preventing others from leaving?

“What do you mean there is no exit?” I yelled over the noise.

“There is no way out. I walked for hours, and the entrance is gone.”

She waited for my response, but I didn’t know what to say. Doors couldn’t just disappear; also who would take hundreds of people hostage and think they could get away with it? No matter how drunk or messed up the crowd was, when they realized this was a trap, they would rebel and fight back.

“We can find the way out together. I’ll get you home safe.” I grabbed her hand and started moving, but she didn’t follow me, she stood there like a stone figure.

A warm tenderness emanated from her grip. It was in the way she positioned her fingers, in the way she squeezed my palm like we were sharing a painful good-bye. She was done fighting. I could see it in her expression of excruciating loss. I recognized the look in her eyes. She pitied me.

“We are never going home. You don’t get it.” Tears started rolling from her eyes.

“What’s your name?” I asked, trying to calm her down.

“It doesn’t matter.” She kept looking left and right. She was scared.

“I’m Andres. Who brought you here?”

“She is coming for me.”


“The catcher,” she saidhaltingly.

Her mouth opened, but no words came out. Her expression distorted into a mask of horror, her eyes dead and her body shaking. She saw something I didn’t. I looked in all directions, but the boogeyman haunting her was not there. I clutched both of her hands and looked into her eyes. Her pupils had almost erased her irises.

I pushed her to walk, but she wouldn’t. Her body was petrified while her mind was traveling through a hell I couldn’t see.

“I can take it from here,” a woman’s voice said on my right side.

Her skin was like dead leaves, and her features reminded me of a rat. Her black hair was slicked back, hugging her skull like a shiny leather globe. Her eyes held the intensity of a sociopath, and her posture reminded me of a mantis. She exuded danger.

“I think she needs fresh air, let’s take her out.” It was a poor attempt, but I had to try.

“I said I’ll take it from here. Let her go,” she threatened.

“Where are you taking her?”

“Don’t you worry. She’ll be taken care of.” It was the last chance she was giving me.

I let the woman’s hands go. Her eyes begged me to rescue her, but I knew I couldn’t. Her feet took small and clumsy steps. She looked like a baby lamb walking into a slaughterhouse. “You don’t even know her name,” I said as I rushed in the opposite direction.

I pushed my way through the multitude on a path I hoped would take me to the entrance. I saw the heads of the giants floating like magic orbs, scanning the place with their sharp eyes. I tried to stay calm and changed direction every time one of them got too close. I knew they were not looking for me, but their proximity would be a serious threat to my getaway plan.

I continued pressing the slithering bodies, not paying attention to the figures touching me on the way. Men and women would grab my face and my hips, inviting me to stay and join them in their rites of drunken lust. I kept moving, freeing myself from arms like vines in a jungle.

“How big is this place?” I asked, exhausted.

I had walked for what felt like hours without finding a new wall. The only logical explanation was that I was walking in circles. My feet felt like concrete slabs, and the ache from hours of standing made it hard to continue.

The nymphs I had seen when we arrived appeared like an oasis in front of me, their arms still pointing to God and their mouths waiting for manna to feed their hunger. A rush of hope made me smile. I had a north. I knew the entrance was close to them. It was the final stretch.

Without any warning, the music stopped, and the lights went on with a loud sound of snapping switches. At first, the crowd looked confused, but then they started booing. Whistling and yelling replaced the music that had pounded our ears through the night. The growing murmur of a riot rose.

A strong hand grabbed my arm.

“Let’s get out of here. This is going to get ugly.” Roman’s voice took me by surprise.

Raine and Norhan were next to him. His fingers were firm on my skin and showed no sign of letting go. I tried to free myself, but he pulled me along.

“You dropped your phone. Raine found it at the bar.” He put the device in my hand.

“Roman, stop! I am not going anywhere with you.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Andres, this place is a time bomb.”

“I have to go home.”

“Well, standing there, I doubt you’ll make it anytime soon.”

We were not walking in the direction of the exit. We were heading toward a black door to the right. Roman turned around and gave me a puzzled look.

“What is wrong with you, man? Did you take something?”

The events of the night were spinning in my head like swirling water. I looked around, and there were no monsters. Just upset partygoers demanding to continue their orgy. Roman was right; the temperature of the place was rising, and there were not enough bouncers to contain the uproar.

Raine and Norhan were right behind me. Their steps were getting so close to mine that I had no choice but to keep moving. Their expressions were devoid of any emotion, and their pace was steady. Even if I tried to escape, there was no way I could outrun those three. They were escorting me, I didn’t know where, but Roman’s act couldn’t fool me; I knew I was not going home.

“Where are you taking me?”

“Somewhere safe,” he said matter-of-factly.


“Andres, I get it, you don’t make a lot of friends, but this is getting annoying. We have been nothing but nice to you. I left you for two seconds at the bar, and then you were gone. I find you two hours later, and you are acting like this is a scene from Logan’s Run.” He wasn’t even looking at me, just marching ahead.

I heard the sound of knuckles colliding with bones and the first howling of the enraged mob. It was starting. Panicked soles hit the floor like a herd of antelope chased by lions. It was mayhem. I looked back at the entrance, and the door was infested with people fighting to leave.

Roman started running, and I followed. The black door was just feet away, and its proximity felt like my salvation.

We rushed into the next room like a band of fugitives. I was so scared and out of breath that I barely noticed the man standing in front of me, offering me a glass of a bubbling liquor. I looked around in awe. The room where I was standing didn’t belong to the back of a club, but to a medieval castle. Or a Medieval Times restaurant.

The mancontinued to stare at me, waving the effervescent liquid in front of my eyes. He was a short, chubby guy with hands so big they looked like tennis rackets. His skin was white and smooth in an unnatural way that gave it the appearance of salt crystals. His hair was a rebellious salt-and-pepper cluster of curls falling all the way to his shoulders. His smile was forced and uncomfortable. The type of tight-teeth grin rich people give to their servants when their friends are around.

“I am Ash, Nice to meet you, Andres,” he said introducing himself. “Roman can’t stop talking about you.” His handshake reminded me of the slugs I used to play with when I was a child.

The cruelty in his eyes was so palpable I felt like I could see his sins staring back at me. I didn’t need to be a mind reader to know he found pleasure in violence. That sixth sense that all humans possess, the inexplicable voice in our heads that tells us to run when danger approaches, started screaming at me as soon as I saw him.

I wasn’t sure what to say. The edges of reality were tearing at the seams, and I was holding on to the running pieces of thread. There was only one thing I was sure of; my next move was my last chance to go home.

“Nice to meet you too. I’m sorry to be rude, but I am not feeling well. Is there another way out? I need to go home.” I tried to sound as calm and as polite as I could. I knew that asking to leave was the most naive approach, but it was a starting point.

“Of course, but first have a drink with my wife, Embla, and me.” Ash pointed to a woman lying down on a green sofa.

Embla looked unconscious. I couldn’t imagine how she would even hold a glass, never mind drink. Her skirt was almost all the way up to her waist. Her hair was muddled and her top removed. She looked like the victim of a violent assault.

There were no other doors in the room. Bucolic paintings of landscapes and families in the countryside covered every inch of the walls. There were so many of them of all sizes, hanging from ground to ceiling.

The stone floor felt uneven as I switched my weight from one leg to the other. I didn’t have a plan B. I was trapped.

“I shouldn’t drink any more. Seriously, I don’t want to get sick here.” I touched my stomach and made an exaggerated expression of pain.

Roman was standing right behind me, Raine and Norhan flanking him like two trained Dobermans waiting to be released. I thought about my brothers. They would have fought their way out. “Live with honor or die with glory!” Their war cries would have resounded in every corner while they charged their captors and even died in their attempt at freedom. I wasn’t ready to die, so I resigned myself to whatever Roman and his friends had planned for me.

“You look so tense, so afraid. Nothing is going to happen to you in this room, Andres. Trust me.” Ash’s voice was slow and affected. He was putting on a performance. He wanted to be the mustache-twirling villain, the one who tells you his plan as he is about to kill you.

I turned around and looked at Roman, his face blank like a virgin canvas, his eyes concealed with a varnish of indifference.

“Please,” I pleaded, almost crying.

“You are being rude, Andres.” His voice sounded like a judge reading a sentence.

Ash pulled my shoulder and turned me around. I saw his left arm rise and then go down with fury, letting the back of his hand land on my face like a cannonball. The strike sent me flying across the room. I hit the wall with savage force. My ears were ringing, my eyes blurry. I heard Ash’s voice distorted and distant.

“I will enjoy this one.”

As a black mist fell in front of my eyes, I thought of that morning, the familiar noises of my neighborhood and that small pill that had promised me salvation.