You don’t remember passing out. You remember buying a ticket for the midnight screening of your favorite horror flick, remember peering over your shoulder, nervous your Watcher with the spidery silhouette and that glowing, flickering gaze might’ve followed you in off the street.
The shadowy creep hadn’t.
You didn’t buy popcorn, but you remember sitting in a packed theater, a center seat with a clear view of both aisles, both exits. Three endless days of this, of seeing him everywhere. Important to stay alert. Stay around people. You’re an expert. You’ve devoured all the best scary movies and know what happens when morons doze off with lurkers slinking around.
Still, there’s no denying it—you passed out. Hard.
Now, spitting out the last invasive bits of popcorn, blinking woozy sleep from your eyes, you realize two things at once.
First, you’re alone in the blackened theater.
Second, along with that popcorn wad, you’re pretty sure something metallic scraped your teeth when you spat just now. Feels undeniable, like an echo inside your skull. Something clattered down the slanted concrete floor.
You try standing, but your wrist shackles snap taut. Insidious chains, rusty bracelets, they lock you to the arms of your chair.
Your guts sink, your mind starts plummeting.
Did your Watcher do this? Where’s he now? You force yourself to go numb. If you panic, whatever fresh hell this is will end badly before survival even begins.
You’re wondering if it’s futile to scream for an usher, when the projector spins to life and a flickering message dominates the silver screen.
I’m close. Can you escape me? Quick, choose one:
Scream for help.
Find the key.
Okay, deep freaking breath. You’ve seen these movies, read these books.
You know this game.
Another thing you know:
The odds won’t be kind to you, the hapless victim. Still, there’s usually a razor slim path to victory. It’s no fun if you die right away. That’s why the first choice is always an easy one.
Clearly, anyone still hanging around the projector booth or the popcorn stand is dead.
Finding their gory jackknifed corpses will prove quite dramatic if you manage to make it to the lobby. So, no point screaming. That leaves the key, which was definitely that metal object you spat out with the popcorn earlier. It gleams dully in the half-chewed kernels oozing under the seat before you.
You test your shackles. The wrist cuffs are tight, cutting off circulation. But with dim relief, you discover you’ve been sitting on chains. Your right shackle has an arm’s length of extra give.
Enough to reach under the seat.
Your hand feels deadened and oddly stiff—your whole body, actually—but you twist forward and tweeze the key with your fingertips.
Something under the chair bear-traps down on your wrist!
A hand! Your Watcher’s bony, spidery, nightmare hand! Clamping you in place, he slices out with razor-fingered brutality, opening grinning gashes across your knuckles.
You scream, shriek, bellow, and finally yank free.
Like you suspected, nobody rushes in from the lobby to rescue you.
Instead, a crooked silhouette unfolds from the dark row ahead, standing silently. Like always, he’s wearing your clothing—or tattered replicas. Same pants you wore to the theater, same shirt, even your favorite jacket. All of it shredded at the seams, too small for his distended form. Except that’s not the worst of him.
Those shimmery, high-beam eyes have always cast the rest of him in ambiguous bent-bone shadows. But he’s tall, so tall his unseen face turns fish-belly pale as he rises into the projector light and—
That’s not a face!
No mouth, no nose. Just a featureless, egg-smooth terror, dotted with two spherical lenses. Movie projectors for eyes? They ignite, and he angles his gaze upon you, dazzling your vision. Your shackles rattle as you shield your face.
Silent as the first films in cinema history, your Watcher waves at you with one gloved hand, waggling long razor-tipped fingers like the first time you caught him prowling, three nights ago, outside your bedroom window. It’s like something from the endless horror movies you use and abuse to escape your stressful life—fake kills to distract from the troubled pains of daily existence. The sight of him warps your reality. Your hyperventilating mind can’t keep up. That razor-blade glove is famous, like MTV-famous, though you feel anything but starstruck.
You shrink back into your seat and press your hacked-up hand against your chest. Blood slicks your fingers, but despite yourself, you grin. The key digs into your palm.
Your Watcher observes you with a daft tilt of head, flickery gaze blinding and amused. He could easily reach over the seat and end you fast—slash, slash—but where’s the carnival in that?
He taps one razor-sharp finger against his forehead then slices a red-rimmed line from brow to chin, splitting his egg face with a gruesome vertical smile. Twin flaps of flesh curl away, one broken disguise blooming to reveal another.
Studded with shining eyes, the face beneath once gave your great-great-grandparents gaunt-cheeked nightmares. An undead horror with pointed ears and pointier teeth. Victorian victims drained of blood, filmmakers accused of plagiarism, it all flashes before you in a black-and-white blur. Then your Watcher swings his projector stare away from you and begins a leisurely, ghoulish stroll down his row, gliding past seat after seat. Where’s he going?
Quickly, trembling, you open your bloody hand.
And hell. Holy face-flaying hell! The key isn’t a key.
It’s a razor blade—no, it’s one of his bladed fingernails. That was in your mouth? It gleams at you, a sharp rusty wink.
Something else gleams too…
Between the sliced-to-gills flesh of your index finger, where you should find bone, you catch a glint of steel.
Above, in the Rialto’s projector booth, the spinning flick-flick-flick-flick of the movie reel pulses like a heartbeat. The message on the screen changes.
Everything you need is already inside you. Are you brave enough? Choose one:
Find the key.
Wait right there.
“You’re a monster!” you shout and snarl, but your Watcher already knows this. It’s the point of this game. He reaches the end of his row and swings into yours, taking his demented time, drawing out the terror, twenty seats away. Nineteen now. Long dagger teeth, classic movie-ghoul rictus.
His gaze sprays sharp-cut light across your row, and you can’t believe what you see. Everywhere the beams touch, the scenery ripples and blurs, revealing a milky movie-glossed glimpse into an alternate reality. In this other world, every abandoned seat appears occupied, a jam-packed theater. All around, patrons slump in their seats, heads lolling on the bone—only they’re not sleeping. You shudder, swallow hard on raw panic. The ragged-tooth bite marks staining every throat promise they’re as dead as you’re about to be.
“Stay away!” you scream, shackles rattling. Page four in the invisible script, and you still haven’t found the damn key!
Your index finger, besides being sliced to gills, won’t bend. An infected incision runs the length of your finger, knotted with thick black stitches where the twisted bastard sewed you together again—where he inserted a surprise.
You pinch the malformed tip of your finger. The key’s teeth poke sideways like a growth beneath the skin. No time to think about this. Grave-shovel footsteps scraping ever-closer, your Watcher sweeps rays of throat-massacred illusions across the theater like the flashlights of a gawky usher.
Wielding the razor blade in your good hand, you saw your stitches, popping them one by one. Now the worst part: refusing to scream. You peel yourself open, parting pale meat and tendons, but there’s no pain. No pain even as you tug and twist and slide the tip of your finger away. No pain. Shock, adrenaline—or maybe he anesthetized you? Ghastly toxins in the air, a quick injection in your neck, something lacing the popcorn? You might never know.
The key head protrudes from your finger, wickedly, triumphantly.
Ten seats away now, your Watcher’s gaze transmutes the neighboring seats. Beside you, a moviegoer appears with a silent throat-torn scream, her milky, dead eyes imploring you to hurry! You jam the key into the keyhole. You twist, your cuffs rattle, but the lock doesn’t give.
Instead, the end of the key spins slickly inside your finger stump.
Quickly, you jerk the key from the cuff. Clamping your teeth around it, you wiggle it loose, hollowing out your finger. The flayed flesh droops, boneless as snakeskin.
Your Watcher looms, five seats away now.
The end of the key is just a tiny bar, nothing to grip, so you clamp it between your teeth and screw it into the nearest keyhole.
This works! The left cuff slings open and falls off your wrist.
Two seats away now. You stand and pivot just as your Watcher swipes at you. Hideous hooked fingers scrape your shoulder. Scrambling, you grab the unlocked shackle and swing the chain wildly at his pasty movie-vamp face, hoping to smash those projector eyes.
Instead, that ghoulish toothy leer shatters like porcelain. You catch a shuddery glimpse of the hockey mask beneath and back away.
The chain cuffing your right hand snaps taut.
Shaking, fumbling, using your teeth, you frantically unlock the second cuff just as your Watcher raises a machete. Where in movie-franchise hell did that spawn from?
Your Watcher’s new oversized blade splits the air near your spine and lodges in a seat cushion as you escape down the row.
Or almost escape.
Three seats deep, your right leg buckles. You collapse sideways onto someone’s cold, spectral lap. In the furious projector spray of your Watcher’s glare, you discover a corpse dressed like a camp counselor, with an arrow through one eye. The Rialto’s sticky popcorn floor turns verdant, outdoorsy. A path of pine needles points you onward between a forest of bloody trees. You recognize these corpse-splashed woods. You’ve hiked them a dozen-odd times thanks to the power of your old VCR.
Holy slasher—but there’s zero time to freak out—you’ve got a bigger problem. You pull yourself off the camp counselor’s skewered corpse, and instantly you know, something’s hideously wrong with your right leg. What did that monstrous freak do to you?
Your Watcher yanks his machete free and towers over you, blazing-eyed in his hockey mask.
You lurch away on your good leg. The elongated shadow you cast in his furious light cuts a line of sticky-floored reality between the woods. Using the chair-backs as crutches, you hobble out into the aisle and stagger toward the tangible reality of the silver screen.
Your Watcher stomps after you, sweeping the theater with his leer, illuminating unexplored trees. Over where you last spotted Rialto’s emergency exit, a ghostly archery range appears. Heavy boots clomp into the aisle behind you.
You don’t look back. You grit your jaw and shamble in the general direction of the emergency exit. In the illusory blaze of his movie light, the archery range draws closer with every step. You’re not certain how the physics of this nightmare operate, but if you can’t reach the emergency exit, you figure the archery range is the next best option. Maybe you can arm yourself. Arrows won’t do much damage against zombified psycho-slashers in masks, but it’s the only plan-B you’ve—slam!
You smack face-first into the back of the theater, and the illusion of summer camp crashes to black. Starbursts dash your vision, blood trickles your nose. You barely notice. Nearby, the emergency exit’s hallway sits at an angle untouched by your Watcher’s light. This is your chance! You start to limp down the dim, prefab hallway only to balk. He barred the door at the end with chains. A trap if you go down there without a key, and the only key you know about is still lodged inside the shackles you abandoned in the top row.
You stagger back out into the theater. Nearing the front row now, your Watcher angles his light your way, the maniac woods return, a 35mm mirage superimposed upon the seats. Butchered moviegoers hang pinned to trees, while overhead, the message on the silver screen changes. You can barely read it through the blur of greasy, dizzy tears.
Exits aren’t an option, I’m afraid. You know what happens next. Choose one:
Find a weapon.
Run all night.
Never do what your attacker wants. That’s Survival 1-0-freaking-1. What attackers want helps them, not you. If they tell you not to scream, you scream. If they tell you not to struggle, you struggle. But in this case, your Watcher offers sound advice.
Run, find a weapon.
No point begging for mercy. Sometimes sick bastards are just sick bastards. And this one wants a showdown worthy of a franchise. A chimera of cinema, and you stumbled right into his lair. Fool.
You try to run, despite your right leg’s dead weight. Reclaiming the seats as crutches, you lurch along the front row. With every drag of your foot, the bones inside your leg shift and swim apart with a hideous metallic clatter, like meat and silverware.
One row from the front, eyes glowing behind that hockey mask, your Watcher raises his machete.
Ahead, skeletal branches paint the aisle with a dense and hopeless forest, the light of fiction rippling like lake water. You pivot up the side aisle of the theater, not daring to look behind you, trying to see beyond the trees.
As you reach the middle rows, your Watcher’s machete slices past your head, whirling like a helicopter blade. It lodges into a nearby evergreen, which is also the Rialto’s wall.
You don’t waste a heartbeat. You hobble over and yank, but the machete remains buried handle-deep. Your strength feels gooey, transient. Still, you put all your weight behind one more tug. The machete doesn’t budge.
Your skin prickles with desperate futility. Your Watcher shines at you from the foot of the aisle now, a dozen-odd rows below. The machete’s a lost cause. You gotta leave it. Tumbling through phantom branches, you land hard on all fours and scramble up the remaining half of the aisle. Behind you, the hockey mask clatters to the sticky floor like a snake molting—revealing a new nightmare? Gut-sick, you glance over your shoulder.
Your Watcher still lurks near the bottom row. All at once, the woods and his projector-glow drop away as he collapses into a fetal ball. He grips his lake-bloated skull, clawing at himself again with that bladed-glove hand. Red raw gashes open up, but instead of blood they sprout fur. Rabid, wiry fur. Ears turning pointy, teeth and maw elongating, savage claws hooking the air. All of this in a stop-motion flash. Still, you know what you’re up against.
The exit at the back of the theater isn’t an option. More chains cocoon the double doors leading to the lobby. Desperate, you complete an insane loop and spill back into the top row, then hobble, chair by chair, right leg meaty and clanking.
You can’t avoid it any longer: your attention shivers downward. Before the evening got going, your Watcher must’ve split your pant leg to the hip. What you glimpse now between the swinging bell of fabric is not your leg. This jagged, bruise-mottled horror-show with the bulging lumps and the festering zipper of black stitches cannot be your leg!
“What did you do to me?” you gasp, voice strangling.
With a viscous stretch-and-tear of flesh and a grisly snap-and-fuse of bone, your Watcher completes his transformation and raises his slathering, blazing attention your way.
Vandalized by movie light, the Rialto intercuts once again with paintbrush streaks of midnight trees. Different this time though. Black-and-white and full of wolfsbane. Amid the distant seats, you glimpse a quaint, thatched-roof village nestled between hills of rolling fog. A bloated full moon hangs in the sky beside the projector booth.
Near the front row, your Watcher throws back his toothy maw, howls silently, then leaps with ferocious agility onto the back of a seat. Everything about his snarling, muscle-ripped silhouette promises he’s ready to pounce.
You scuttle deeper down the back row, hunting for the shackle with the key, praying it’s your razor-thin chance at survival. But the shackles have vanished, and with every unsteady step, tightly-packed horrors shift and poke inside your jagged, serrated leg. With every step, pointed objects protrude from your stitches.
You think you see the tip of a dagger jutting below what used to be your kneecap.
Bloody leg-splitting hell. You know what you have to do.
You reach the end of the top row, putting as much distance between you and your Watcher as possible. No way you can outpace him. He’s relished the chase, cherished toying with you, but if he decides to pounce, you’re dead.
Drenched in moonlight and fog, you drop into the Rialto’s final seat. Your leg juts sideways. That’s definitely a dagger poking between your stitches like a compound fracture.
Gritting your jaw against a vertigo wave of dizziness, you grip the dagger’s tip with your good hand. Every vein in your body turns to ice. You’re seriously going to do this!
Your fingers slip on the blood-slick blade. You cry out in ragged frustration.
You try again, wiggling the blade like a loose tooth. The only mercy is there’s still no pain—only numb, surreal horror.
Your Watcher sniffs the air. His predatory stink mingles with the rancid-butter promise of popcorn. You hold your scream. What’s he waiting for? But naturally, you know.
He wants you to do this. Dig deep for a weapon so he can see what you’re made of.
Fine. The dagger slides, blade and hilt, from your ruined knee, slicing putrefied flesh and popping one of your stitches on its way out.
A pathetic match against any snarling, snapping beast.
Even so, you grip the dagger and stand, hell-bent on going down fighting.
Too bad your leg has other ideas. Jarred by your unstable weight, the sharp contents of your flesh-bag calf shift and clatter. Your entire leg cracks like a lightning bolt.
Shrieking, you spill sideways into the aisle, and the light shifts as your Watcher springs across the theater. He lands in the aisle above you with feral grace, claws digging into the red carpet, embedding you both in a foggy wolfsbane meadow. The legendary flower is lethal to shapeshifters, but something tells you the weapon you need doesn’t reside in the world of unreality. Time to dig deep, remember?
You grip the dagger and start with the bottom stitch, near where your ankle bones used to live. You pop your stitches. One by one. Desperate, shaking, sanity swimming on the edge of blacking out, pop-pop-pop from ankle to mid-thigh, until your flesh splits open like a rifle case.
You gasp. Instead of bone, an arsenal of meat and metal spills out.
From this gut-twisting muck of hamburger and horror, blades and crucifixes and tiny alchemy bottles gleam.
No going back. Your Watcher crouches again, eager to finish you.
His shadow darkens over you, hooked hands, fingers like a skeletal forest preparing to tangle around you.
From the booth, the Rialto’s projector light flick-flick-flickers, the contents of your oozing leg-sack gleam, and on the haunted screen, the message changes.
Look at yourself, raring to survive, open to anything. Choose one:
Discover my weakness.
I discover yours.
He’s right. You’ve come this far. You’ll do anything to survive—even reach inside the hollows of your own jacked-up slaughterhouse-leg to fish for salvation.
He’s filled you with every cinematic possibility.
Bronze dagger, crucifix, a machete, bundles of white sage, alchemy jars of holy water, a Zippo, a wooden stake, a sawed-off shotgun, and a scattering of silver bullets. Everything needed to slay a silver-screen monster.
Your mind fast-forwards through a montage of creature films—stakes for vampires, machetes for undead psychos, silver for werewolves. But what’s guaranteed to stop a film-obsessed chimeric abomination like your Watcher?
You seize the sawed-off shotgun.
You rip it wetly, gruesomely from your calf. Boneless flesh slithers as you scoot against the wall and face your Watcher. Silver bullets won’t fit—you aren’t fooled. You can only hope the shotgun comes with buckshot and that it still works.
For the briefest, two-frame flicker, you consider turning it on yourself. Ending this nightmare, ending the soul-wrenching anxieties of your everyday life. It would be so easy…
You raise the barrel and take aim, but your trigger finger sags, more deboned flesh. With a desperate, sickened scream, you switch hands.
His shadow twitches, and you aim wildly and pull the trigger.
The barrel detonates with a gun-powder flash and kicks you against the wall.
Your Watcher’s wolfly shoulder explodes, backscattering tendrils of meat and fuzz into the Rialto’s projector light.
But he doesn’t stop. He rages at you with beaming eyes. All around, the wolfsbane meadow swirls with Technicolor plumes of crimson-fury fog. You don’t need audio to feel the low rumble of his growl. His sharp-toothed maw snaps open, and he pounces!
You scream out and raise the shotgun again. This time your aim doesn’t shiver.
The buckshot blasts him square in that projector-lens glare, shattering his light.
All around you, the foggy forest cuts to black.
Your Watcher drops to his knees.
His werewolf pelt splits down the middle, peeling away, layer after layer, falling loose like exorcised masks, revealing a lake-bloated killer, a Victorian vampire, a blade-handed nightmare stalker. Horror after horror, until only a buckshot-charred pile of shadow and bones remains. Two ruined projector lenses tumble loosely down the aisles.
But you’ve seen these movies, read these books, know this game.
You cock the shotgun, aim, and squeeze the trigger. There shouldn’t be any ammo left, but this is your movie. The gun fires.
High above, where his full moon once shined, the buckshot shatters the projection booth window. The theater falls to darkness. Only thing left is to roll the final credits, but naturally, you’ve made sure that can’t happen.
With the shotgun clamped in your hand, you slump against the wall and welcome the darkness. Relieved this creep show is finally over.
Whatever trippy drugs your Watcher used on you must be wearing off. Your mangled, deboned leg tingles with the first needling, shuddering screams of lifelong misery. Still, you can’t help but smile. The pain means you’re still alive.
The pain means you won.
Laughing wildly, dazedly, you shove yourself upright.
You’re just starting to wonder how you’re going to puzzle the chains off the exit, when the projector in the booth fliiiiiiick-fliiiiick-fliiick-flicks back to life, an immortal heartbeat, refusing to fade.
Every pulsing victory inside you plunges into a dark theatrical pit even as a Hollywood glow beams from the fragmented window above, ever-lighting the silver screen.
Inside the flesh of your mangled leg, something twitches. Something hideous pokes, squirms, a new nightmare being born.
A bladed arachnid hand bursts from your flayed flesh!
You scream and scream as that festering stump-gash births a nightmare arm with shadowy bones. It coils, snakelike, and the bladed hand rears back, ready to strike. Ready to cleave you down the center and open you wide, exposing every real-world tragedy you ritually hide from.
You grope for a weapon while the projector ticks out a grainy movie reel countdown.
A final message appears on your beloved silver screen.
You chose wrong. The monster I am is the monster in you. Ready for our sequel? Choose one:
Copyright © 2023 Amanda Cecelia Lang