It happens the same way every year. No one knows quite why it happens, but they know about what happens. They even take part in The Process, struggle to swallow down the bile in their throats as they do. Others choose to turn a blind eye, pretend each year that it doesn’t happen. Maybe that makes life easier for them. Allows them to believe they’re good people. People worthy of living happy lives. I imagine they think if they pretend they don’t take part in The Process, they won’t be accused as accomplices. As if anyone is brave enough to prosecute. We all know the consequences. They keep the whole town awake at night, away from the possibility of peaceful sleep. It even keeps me up at night. The adults in town pretend I am too young to have an opinion, that I have to wait until I go through The Process myself. I think it’s all a bunch of crap. I’ve witnessed it and as a witness, I have an opinion. I have a right to stay up at night, wondering if the lives of the people in this town are even close to being worth the lives they sacrifice each year. If you ask me, they aren’t.
December 30th, 1989
People flow around me as I stand on the street, feet glued to the ground. I feel as though I am a rock firmly planted in a river, willing anything, any current to push me forward. But do I want to be pushed forward? Or would I rather be stuck here forever as the currents of people flow around me?
Someone knocks me in the shoulder and out of my ridiculous reverie. Well, I asked for a proverbial current to push me and I got it, I think. The man who knocked into me turns back and gives me a sour look, a look that turns into pity as he realizes how young I am. I stick my tongue out at him. I don’t need pity from someone who’s about to potentially vote against me in The Process. I huff and force myself forward. As much as I don’t want to go through with this, I have no choice. No one does.
I hear the booming of the mayor’s voice as I get closer to the town square. The only plus to getting picked in The Process is that I won’t have to hear his nasally, over-excited voice ever again.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” He exclaims, “Welcome to our annual Processing ceremony!”
The crowd cheers. I swallow down my disgust.
“This year’s Processing is a special one! Today is the fiftieth anniversary of The Process! Isn’t that exciting?!” He gestures to the crowd enthusiastically and they cheer and clap. It makes their regret every other day of the year seem ingenuine. But who can blame their excitement? They get to live.
I rush to take my seat in the row closest to the stage as the mayor rambles on. I scan the faces of the other children in my row; some of them are crying, others shaking violently, while one sits stoically, hands clasped tightly in his lap. I guess some are better at accepting their fate than others. As I sit studying them the mayor’s words trickle into my ears, snapping my attention back to him.
“This year,” he says, “I thought it might be fun to change things up, being the fiftieth anniversary and all! What do you say, folks? How about two children instead of one?! Two years of freedom from The Process!”
Bile sneaks up my throat threatening to spill out of my mouth, but I swallow it down as the crowd around me screams in joy. Two years of freedom for them, double the chance of me being picked. There’s only eight of us. If I thought my chances seemed bad before this, they’re even worse now.
I understand how the other kids feel now. As they count up the votes, reality sets in. I can’t stop myself from violently shaking. I try to tell myself that it will be okay, that it won’t be me who dies tonight, but I know better than that. I look back at the crowd, scanning the faces until I find my parents. They’re looking down at their laps with pained faces. They feel guilty. Did they vote for me? I never was their favorite child.
“Alright everyone!” the Mayor yells, his voice echoing over the crowd. I reluctantly turn my attention back to him. “It is the moment you have all been waiting for! The votes have been tallied and we now have our two lucky contestants who are going to wander into the forest for us tonight! Are you ready, folks?”
The crowd whoops and screams. Some of them have already started the celebration. I look back at my parents as they timidly clap. I catch my mom’s eye, but she quickly looks away.
“The two lucky contestants who are going into the forest tonight are…Maggie and Lucy!”
I hear them say Maggie and suddenly I am paralyzed. I don’t know how to react. I am stuck between wanting to violently sob and wanting to yell and protest. But before I can decide, I feel a sharp pain in my neck. I try to get away and stand up, but my legs turn to jelly and I collapse.
I slowly come to, making the mistake of sitting up too fast. I lean over and retch on the ground. When I wipe my mouth, my hand comes back black and slimy. What exactly did they inject in me, I think. I wipe my hand on my jeans and look up at my surroundings. A chill runs down my spine. Something feels strange about the forest. I have never been here before, was never brave enough to step foot in here, but it is not hard to tell that something is different. The energy is unsettling. It weighs down on me like a brick.
I rise to my feet and scan my surroundings, spinning in a circle. My heart rate picks up as I begin to realize exactly how dark it is. I never liked the dark. The only light in the forest is being provided by the moon. The light is too dull to aid my sight. I spin around again, looking for anything, hoping my eyes might adjust more. As I keep spinning I stop in my tracks. Off in the distance, I see something glowing. I walk in that direction, hoping for…I don’t know what. Something.
The source of light is coming from a small pond. It has a fluorescent glow unlike any that I have seen. I step closer and lean forward to look under the surface, but all I see is my face staring back at me. I reach my hand out wanting to dip it in the water, but I stop myself at the last second. Considering what I have heard about the forest and what lies in it, putting my hand in the pond is not the best idea. I continue to look at my reflection in the surface of the pond. Just like everything else in the forest, something seems off with it. It’s me, but not quite me. I slowly lean closer to the surface and take in the details of my reflection. Suddenly my reflection reaches out and grabs me by the neck. Its grip tightens, but I force the hand off of me before it can do anything.
I gasp and jump back. I sit there, trying to get my breathing back to normal when I hear a scream off in the distance.
“Lucy?!” I yell out, hoping she hears me. “Lucy!”
She yells out again and I run in the direction of her screaming, “Lucy, I’m coming! Hold on!”
The screaming suddenly stops. I look around frantically and notice movement in the distance. I race off towards it.
I find Lucy, but I’m too late. I have to stop myself from gagging at the sight of her. The life has been sucked out of her. Her eyes are glazed over, staring right through me. Her mouth wide, frozen mid-scream. And she’s limp. Oh god, I’ve never seen someone so limp before. There’s a gash in her throat that looks like a bite. I can see her bone. I have to stop myself from touching my own neck. The snow around her is soaked in blood and that’s when I realize her stomach is torn open, intestines hanging out, gnawed on and missing parts.
It takes me awhile before I realize what’s been eating her intestines is still there and it’s staring right at me. My blood runs cold. It’s looking at me with a wide, comical grin as blood drips from its mouth to the snow, splatting like watercolor on a canvas. It looks like a fox, but nothing like a fox at the same time. It has the frame of a fox, the same pointy ears and bushy tail, but its fur isn’t orange. It’s the color of an oil slick. It also has the same beady eyes, but the yellow color of them is so much more intense against its black fur. It’s also three times larger than an average fox. I have never been more terrified of an animal in my life. I should be running. Why am I not running?
It tilts its head at me and impossibly stretches its smile wider. “Well hello there, little one,” it purrs at me. “Don’t you look tasty.”
Without thinking, I take off into a sprint. My heartbeat pounds in my ears and my legs are already beginning to ache. I push past it and force myself to run faster. I have no clue where I am going. I can barely see, but all that matters is that I am getting away from that thing. I keep colliding into tree branches, stumbling over rocks, but I keep running. I have to keep running.
Blood drips down my face into my eye. I am in so much pain that I am seeing spots. I ignore it, concentrating on living. I will not let it kill me. I feel like I’ve been running for miles, my lungs are burning so intensely I am surprised I’m still breathing. I check back to see if it is following me and see nothing but darkness behind me. No beady yellow eyes. I scrunch my eyebrows in confusion, “Wh-”
My foot catches on a rock and I tumble down the hill ahead of me. I hit every object possible on the way down. At this point I must be bleeding from every possible spot on my body. I reach the bottom of the hill and realize I’m heading head first into a rock. I stick out my arms to stop my fall, but my head still knocks into the rock. Hard. The world around me spins as a waterfall gushes from my forehead. I stumble till I’m standing and wait for everything to stop spinning.
I turn around to look back up at the hill and come face to face with the fox, his yellow eyes burning into me. I scream in horror, stumbling back and falling to the ground. I try to scramble away with the little energy I have left, but it’s no use. It grabs my leg and pulls me back towards it.
It leans close to me and breathes in my face. Its breath smells like blood. It sticks its tongue out and licks my cheek. I try to twist away, but it’s much stronger than I am.
“Mmm,” the fox purrs, “I was right. You are a tasty one. You’ll be fun to eat.”
He grins at me, mouth growing wider and wider, until his jaw is completely unhinged. He lurches down at my neck, tearing it open like he tore open Lucy’s. My eyes go wide and I fight to breathe. I claw at my neck, naively trying to stop the bleeding. My vision begins to fade and I look over at the fox. It’s sitting there staring at me, licking its lips while it waits for me to die.
“Goodnight, my child,” it whispers.
The world fades to black.
Mallory McCurdy is an English major and a writing minor. “I write some poetry, but prefer to write short stories. I spend way too much of my free time watching every movie I can and taking pictures of my pets, Ally, Marie, and Sadie.”