Everything was prepared. I left the letter on the kitchen table where I knew it would be found hours later. There was nothing I left behind that I didn’t want to be found.
I started walking through the dark, foggy forest just outside my town, searching for the ideal place to finish the job. Deep inside the dead, autumnal forest, I found a tree with a branch strong enough for me to make my noose.

There was no way a branch that big would break.

The rope was the best quality I could find at the hardware store.

I climbed the tree and worked meticulously for a few minutes until it was done. All I had left to do was put the noose around my neck and let myself fall from the branch. Which I did with no hesitation. At first, there was a strong burning sensation around my neck that spread to my whole body within seconds. It was as if it had been all doused in gasoline and set on fire.

Then, after what felt like hours of standing in flames, came the numbness. Everything around me was blurring out until I lost my eyesight completely. The only thing that still went through my mind was a plead to the universe for the end to come faster…
Unexpectedly, I heard a strange sound that made me instinctively open my eyes.
It seemed to be the sound of electrical wires falling over.
I was in the middle of a street in the middle of what seemed to be a town. As the seconds went by, I examined my surroundings. I saw a fallen electrical tower not very far away from me; that must have caused the sudden sound. But there was something else confusing me.
The town looked as if it had been through a brutal battle. There were huge holes in the asphalt, the buildings were ruined and the streets were completely deserted. It was probably around midnight and the still functioning streetlights made for a dismal atmosphere. Every few seconds you could hear the flickering of a neon sign that was barely attached to its post.
I started taking a few steps forward, carefully inspecting every crack of every building and flinching at the slightest sound.

‘Is this hell?’ I kept asking myself as I was picking up the pace.

It took me a couple of houndreds of steps to reach a crossroads. I looked left first, and noticed that the road was blocked by a metallic gate. It was small and one could easily see through it, but strangely enough, everything beyond the gate was engulfed in pure blackness and nothing coul be distinguished from there on.
I couldn’t remember seeing a night so dark. Still, I walked towards the gate, put my hand on it and gave it a gentle push. It didn’t budge, so I turned my back towards it and started going in the opposite direction.

“Looks like going right is the only opt-“ I was thinking out loud, but then I heard movement and a metallic screech.

I froze for a moment, knowing I had just turned my back and that I could not see anything beyond the gate. My reflexes made me turn back towards the gate, now open. And just in front of it, there were three men standing. The one in the middle was the tallest of the three and he was the only one whose face was visible. Bald and imposing, he had the stance of a military man.
The other two had a similar build, but their entire heads were covered by helmets and masks. Their attires slightly resembled military ones, though they seemed improvised and didn’t look like official uniforms.
“I know you’ve always wanted to see what’s beyond this gate. Follow me and you’ll find out,” the man in the middle spoke, turning back along with the other two and disappearing in the darkness beyond the gate.
I followed them as if I ware experiencing a mirage, as if I had entirely lost control of my body. The notion of time evaporated and after an unknown amount of robotic walking in a straight line, I found myself on a gravel road going up a hill. The city had become but a group of tiny, flickering lights a long way downhill from where I was. Around me, there was complete darkness; I felt I could barely see myself.

A weak, yellow shimmering light caught my attention.

I strained my eyes to find its source and discovered an outline of sorts on the left side of the road. After taking a few steps in its direction, I could distinguish the form of a long building positioned along the road. My whole being concentrated on the dim light that seemed to be the only way out of the darkness.
I reached the wall of the strange building and walked alongside it until I could find a door. I reluctantly touched the handle and pushed it slowly. The door was strangely open and I entered, walking through a small lobby to find what looked like a very long hallway with doors on both sides.To the left, there was darkness, but the far right end was lit.

‘That’s where the light must have come from’ I thought and started taking slow, silent steps on the marble floor.

As I got closer to the end of the hallway, I distinguished some silhouettes moving in the dimly lit end. The closer I got to it, the more confident I became, as the yearning to get an answer about where I was burned hotter. The end of the hallway was wider than the rest of it, as there was an empty space where there was probably supposed to be a room. The few old couches and low tables were making it look like a recreation room of sorts, and the silhouettes turned out to be a group of girls and boys, a group that was odd by all means.
They seemed to be walking around the space randomly and even though I could see them interract with each other every now and then, I couldn’t hear or understand what they were saying. They were all unusually pale and had eerie facial expressions that somehow conveyed sadness, happiness, and neutrality at the same time.
What I could not understand, however, was the fact that they didn’t seem to notice my presence. They would walk right in front of me as if I was not there and peacefully continue whatever they were doing. I couldn’t help but stare at them in disbelief, unable to understand their nature.

A few moments later, I heard a door open just behind me put of a sudden.

I turned back and saw the same bald man I had seen in front of the gate exit one of the rooms on the side of the hallway. All the mysterious people also stopped whatever they were doing and looked towards the man as if he were a leader of sorts.
“It’s alright. He’s a guest here, you don’t have to avoid him. I brought him here in the first place,” he said, and everyone started looking at ne all at once as if I had been invisible up until that point and finally materialized.
That was when the people in the room started to change. I could see dark marks appearing on their wrists, hands, legs, and almost covering their entire bodies. As seconds passed, the scars were getting wider and longer and a dreadful pitch-black liquid would start pouring out of them, yet they did not seem to be bothered at all.

“Walk with me for a moment.” I heard the bald man speak, startling me. I had completely forgotten he was still there, watching over everyone.

I went towards him and we started walking through the dark hallway. The building seemed to be poorly maintained and the paint covering the doors was faded and old. I couldn’t help but notice that the rooms were numbered, but in a way that was contrary to all logic. Room 4397 could be right by room 19, for instance. My lack of understanding about the strange world around me transformed into a tingling in my whole body and I knew I couldn’t keep my composure for much longer.
“What is this place? Why am I here?” I asked, failing to hide the desperation from my voice.
“It’s not something you can really define, but I can promise that you will find your answer very soon,” he replied, amplifying my anguish.
I wanted to protest, but before I could do so the man stopped. We were in the small lobby I had entered through. He went behind some sort of counter that almost resembled a reception desk and took a key.

“Let me show you to your room. I should also give you this,” he spoke and handed me an old, rusty key with a tag that had the number 136 written on it.

We walked further down the hallway for a few seconds until he stopped and pointed his hand towards a door, a matching136 visible on it. Unlocking the door, I entered a dark room, and behind me, the man turned on the light. It was dim, but bright enough for me to inspect my surroundings.
The room vaguely resembled a typical motel room and there was an odd smell that screamed ‘old’ in the atmosphere. There was an old bed in a small bedroom and some dirty curtains covering a window with a wooden frame.

The only oddity in the room was that there was a shelf not far from the bed with a few glasses and bottles on it.

“I’ll get going now. I know you must be tired after all you’ve been through. If I may, could I suggest you have a sip from that bottle of wine? I find it quite…reinvigorating.” The man pointed towards a bottle and left the room, closing the door behind him.
I spent a few more moments in complete confusion, staring at random objects in the room, trying to imagine what kind of place I could be in. At some point, I noticed the bottle the man had showed me again and went over to inspect it. It was quite dusty and seemed old, and I could figure out inside was something akin to white wine.
I figured that taking the man’s advice and having a few sips could not do any bad, and conveniently enough, there was a bottle opener on the same shelf. So opening it, I grabbed a dusty glass from the shelf and filled half of it. The taste was profound and exactly between sweet and dry. It didn’t seem to be one of the cheap ones you’d find in a corner store, in any case.
I downed the glass and strangely enough, I felt a soothing sensation taking over my body. It wasn’t the regular buzz one would get from alcohol, but much more intense and deep. The whole tension gathering inside me from the moment I found myself in the deserted city seemed to slowly disintegrate and I felt a sudden urge to lie in bed.

I hadn’t felt very tired before.

But now, lying there, before I could resume my thoughts, I passed out in a sleep deeper than anything I’d experienced before and only woke up to a few glints of light coming through the curtains of the room’s only window. I got up from the bed slowly, feeling somewhat more calm compared to the previous evening.
I went up to the window and drew the curtains, hoping that the lack of darkness would tell me more about where I was. All I accomplished, though, was to replace it by a thick fog, just as opaque as last night’s blackness. The natural light didn’t seem to be normal itself; it was too dim, even for a cloudy or foggy day, and grey in color.
I spent a few moments walking aimlessly around the room until I decided to exit and see what was going on.
Opening the door, I entered the hallway and noticed immediately the sound of people talking from a room not far away. I looked to the right and noticed an open door further down the hallway, and I was certain that was where the sound was coming from. I started walking in that direction and reluctantly entered the open room.

It was much larger than my room and was almost completely unfurnished.

There were a lot of people roaming around, many more than the group I had seen the previous night. They, seemed almost normal at first again, but within a few moments the scars on their bodies and the mysterious dark liquid started to reappear. The mysterious bald man was standing in a corner and observing the interactions quietly.
“Oh, there you are. We were waiting for you in order to begin,” he smiled subtly once he noticed me.
“Begin what?” I asked, confused.
“You’ll see,” he replied, and I noticed everyone around me forming a circle.
Everyone started holding hands in order to finish the circle and I noticed how two girls, one on each side of me, were reaching their hands for mine in order to complete it. I reluctantly took their hands – abnormally cold – and the circle started moving. It was a slow, lethargic movement at first, but I could feel how everyone was slowly speeding up the pace.

Before I could realize what I had gotten into, the slow movement developed into a hypnotic dance of sorts.

We were almost running and were jumping in every direction, yet still keeping the circle united. The moves were something my clumsy self would have never been able to master, but at that moment, my body was acting completely independently from my mind.
With every second that passed, everything around me was getting brighter and it went on until almost my entire surroundings had whitened out. Just as the last outlines were about to completely disappear, I felt a strong hand grabbing me by the neck and pull me away from the circle with force. I was filled with panic and everything around me returned to the initial state.
I noticed how everyone else that formed the circle had stopped from the dance, but before I could get a better look at everyone, the same hand grabbed me from behind and dragged me outside of the room. The bald man closed the door behind him. He was wearing the same clothes I have always seen him in, but strangely enough, he also had what seemed to be a sheathed sword attached to his belt.

“I hope you understand now why you don’t belong here,” he spoke gravely, looking right into my eyes.

“What do you mean? What is happening?” I shouted between breaths, as panic was making it almost impossible for me to breathe.
“You’re not like the others here. This time, I’m going to make an exception,” he said, reaching for his sword.
I wanted to scream and run, but I froze completely. Seeing the man draw the sword from his sheath, I closed my eyes, expecting to receive the final blow. Instead, I heard it slashing the air above my head.
I was feeling as if having fallen to the ground and there was an ache spreading throughout my whole body. It was impossible for me to move for minutes on end, and my entire perception of the outside world was blocked. It was as if I was levitating in a void. My senses started coming back to me slowly. Only moments later could I feel the grass beneath as well as a strange sensation around my neck. I built up the courage to open my eyes and was almost blinded by bright sunlight coming from above me.

Getting used to the light, I noticed that I was, indeed, lying on grass, most likely in a forest.

The trees were green and the sounds of birds and critters were everywhere around. I watched my surroundings in awe, believing I was hallucinating. After partially recovering from the shock, I still felt an uncomfortable sensation around my neck. I touched it and I could feel my heart stopping for a second. There was a collar of rope around my neck. I panicked and pulled it out violently, scratching my whole face in the process. Upon glancing at it, I noticed it was the noose I had made myself.
It was cut from the rest of the rope with the cleanest cut I had ever seen. I instinctively looked above and remembered the thick branch I had tied it to. It still had the other part of the rope hanging from it.
I stared at the two pieces of rope for what seemed like an hour. But every time I’d look closer, I’d realize there was no possible way the rope could break in that exact way under my own weight. It was supposed to be able to hold at least a few times my weight.
There was only one thing that could make a cut that clean.
Author: Alexandru Tănase
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