Someone had tucked me in.
I blinked, coming back to full awareness. I was once again staring at the ceiling of the tiny bedroom that I’d first woken up in. As I looked at it more closely, I saw that my earlier guess had been right. It did have secret little lines running across it, a place for a square panel to open clearly visible among the shiny metallic texture.
I shook my head. That probably wasn’t my biggest concern.
What had happened? I quickly ran everything back through my head.
I’d signed up to play a experimental murder mystery game show, met a penguin, yadda yadda yadda…
The panel. I’d seen a panel in the wall. In it had been that ball. And in that…
I pulled my right hand from out under the blanket. The sludge was almost entirely gone. A few droplets of it had managed to make their way to my right sleeve, where they had dried and left light pink spots, but that was all I could see left over from it.
That was likely a good thing, considering that it was almost definitely the reason I’d fallen unconscious in the first place. I hadn’t drank any of the water, and I couldn’t think of any other obvious mechanism for drugging me that wouldn’t have also affected everyone else. (I supposed it was technically possible that they had drugged all of us and that I’d just been the first to succumb, but I doubted it. Again, six-foot-two.)
Of bigger interest, how had I ended up back inside my bedroom? The doors to our hallways had been locked from the outside of the main room as soon as we’d closed them, and that included mine (I’d watched Caroline meticulously test all of them a little after Hold came in). If I had woken up there following my collapse, that would imply either that the others had figured out a way to open them or that the gamemakers had unlocked them themselves. I guessed that it was the latter, but even then, who’d brought me there? Was it the players? Had the game already started without me? Had they been allowed to start exploring the building in my absence? What was I missing out on?
Gah. Too many questions. One step at a time, By.
After taking a few more seconds to shake the eye dust off, I forced myself out of bed, pulling the remainder of the thick blanket off of me. The first time I’d woken up, I’d been sleeping on top of it, so I hadn’t really noticed, but it was legitimately one of the softest and most comfortable pieces of fabrics that I’d ever felt.
Which, I reminded myself, was clearly the most important thing for me to be thinking about. Fabric softness.
Giving myself two tiny slaps to the face, I moved back to the door, taking one last look around the room. Nothing had changed beyond where I’d left it originally, including the exact placement of the one-word note I’d ripped off the door my first time around. Also like the first time, I was still wearing my clothes, shoes and all, so I was ready to go. (My pink keycard, as I felt, was right where I’d left it in my skirt pocket.)
I still remembered my code (0239), thankfully enough, and I moved to the keypad to try and input it. It was off. No lights, even after pushing all the buttons.
Briefly coming close to shitting myself, my hand dashed to the knob.
It turned, and the door opened. I looked out at the empty hallway again, sighing in relief.
…Had I been right? Was the door code seriously only intended to be used once? That’s the theory I’d argued for, sure, but seeing proof of it somehow made me less confident in it.
Whatever. I wasn’t going to complain. The last thing I wanted was to be locked in my room.
I took a final glance at my backpack before walking out, once again deciding not to take anything from it with me. Finished, I sped across the hallway and back to the main room, taking a deep breath before pulling the door back.
I saw thirty eyes.
(Well, twenty-eight. Claim had a mask on.)
I had become, believe it or not, the sixteenth player to arrive.
One of the many who’d beaten me to the punch stood near the center of the empty circular room I had found myself in, and she raised a flipper over her head, waving me over. She was wearing, of all things, a penguin suit.
“Hey! Ice to meet ya!”
I just stared at her. She walked over, the rest mostly glancing at me with faces that I was having trouble reading. Surprise, maybe?
I got the impression they knew something I didn’t.
“See, that’s what I said to you when you walked in here the first time, remember? You did it twice, so I repeated it. Like when they have identical scenes at the beginning and end of a movie, y’know?”
I wasn’t paying too much attention to ZB, more concerned about taking in my surroundings. A lot had happened in my absence.
On the floor, right near the spot where I’d fallen into someone’s arms near the eighth door, a small towel had been placed on the floor. I was fairly sure it was right where the plastic capsule had landed.
Easier to notice, four new green cardboard boxes had been spread out throughout the room, making five, all of which I assumed to have dropped from the ceiling in the same way the first one had. All were open, but I was only close enough to see one, which was filled with a number of small shiny unmarked plastic baggies. I saw a few of them scattered around the room and in people’s hands, Dent pulling a green potato chip from the one he was holding and stuffing it in his mouth.
More importantly, I saw the final two players, both of which must’ve come from either door fourteen or fifteen. They were both women, evening out the gender ratio. Coincidentally, they had by far the fanciest and most complicated wardrobes out of all of us, something I might’ve been able to appreciate more if they’d walked in before my collapse.
The first girl was dressed in an old-fashioned Victorian-style gothic dress, which had been dyed a beautiful dark purple. She had the general aesthetic of a reluctant goth, ample makeup on her face, including more than fair amounts of dark eyeshadow, foundation, and soft black-colored lipstick. She had a dark bob cut, which highlighted a pair of cute, well-proportioned eyes, and a face that just worked. In the context of the game, I considered makeup a waste of precious personal item space, but I’d have been lying if I tried saying that it wasn’t paying off for her in at least one respect.
She was of average height, about my age, and Chinese (a guess at precise national origin I was much more confident in than I’d been with Joyo). Out of the two newcomers, my eyes had probably been attracted to her first because of her expression.
She looked like a deer in headlights, and while staring at me in particular, she looked terrified. I’d have expected someone wearing clothing as bold and attention-grabbing as hers to be among the more confident-seeming of the group, but at least going by body language, she might have been the least. As she examined me, she twiddled her fingers together nervously, the moving gray polish continuously grabbing my attention.
There was one particular article of clothing on her body that didn’t mesh with her overall aesthetic, a hefty pink bracelet-watch wrapped around her right wrist. Looking around the room, I saw them on everyone.
Everyone but me and ZB, anyway. (I guessed that she was wearing hers under a flipper.)
The last girl, who I didn’t get much of a chance to examine, did not seem like she belonged. She looked, as best as I could describe, like a princess. She wore an elaborately flowing blue dress, poofier and girlier than anything I’d ever seen outside of a Disney movie, a silver tiara and a long pair of white gloves stretching from her fingertips almost all the way to her shoulders.
She was black, thin, and tiny, smaller than all of us, her curly hair tied up neatly behind her in a tight bun. Strait had said something earlier about how obviously he’d have needed to be eighteen to play, but I struggled to see how the girl in front of me could have been thirteen, let alone of the age of majority. She didn’t seem to have any type of growth disorder either, looking like a perfectly proportioned child; her presence seemed to defy all expectation.
She had a giant smile on her face, and seemed to be one of the only people in the room completely at ease, along with Hold and Joyo. I noticed that she was also the only person in the room standing by herself.
I would have lent more attention to the oddity of such a young-looking person being there with us if it wasn’t all so much for me to take in at once. The bracelets, the boxes, both new players, the terrible sense of tension and anxiety that had built up in the room…
I had a sudden thought. If it had been long enough to justify giving everyone that many boxes worth of supplies, just how long had I been out?
Not that far away from shitting bricks again, I slowly forced my eyes to move towards the clock.
“It’s clever, you gotta admit. Symbolic, I figure, the start being like the finale. Like poetry. It rhymes.”
“…I’d, um, like to think we aren’t close to the end of things just yet.”
“Well,” interjected Joyo, with the biggest shit-eating grin I’d seen on him yet, “We aren’t. You, on the other hand…”
My eyes widened.
I looked around at everyone, all of whom had been staring at me nonstop since I’d come back in. With my body, I was no stranger to being the center of attention, but that wasn’t the issue. As much as the focus was on me, when I turned to meet the others, I found almost none of them willing to meet my eyes.
Nobody wanted to say it.
Strait took a step towards me, awkwardly scratching at the back of his neck.
I ignored him.
“The bracelets. Where did you all get the bracelets?”
Enjoying my distress, Joyo pointed in a box lying in the center of the room.
I ran over to it, Dot and a few others moving out of the way for me as I did. It was empty.
Joyo went on.
“About, oh, I dunno, a minute after you fall flat on the floor, this loud buzzer rings. We don’t know what it means, y’know, but then a second box drops, this time from a different panel. Gives us a message. Says to take Twelve back to her room. Says her door will be open, which it was. Says that she broke the game.”
“We don’t know that,” said Caroline. “Joyo said that, but he ate the note that came with the box before anyone else could read it.”
“I ate it because I was hungry, that’s all. You accusing me of something?”
“The door was open, Caroline. Unless you think I got magic powers, I don’t see how I could’ve-”
“Don’t assume that I’m an idiot. You could’ve easily told the truth about the door and misheld or misrepresented information about what it said in regards to By. Truth isn’t all or nothing.”
He laughed, looking at me again.
“Forget her for a second, By. Here’s what happened. We do what the note says, bring you to your room, tuck you in all nice and comfy. And then we wait for a bit, and Soso and Lu walk in around thirty minutes later… and a little while after that, bam. Box three. That’s chips.”
“Good chips,” said Dent, loudly crunching. “Guac.”
“I asked for fishsticks.”
“…After that, we wait. We tried waking you up, but your room locked us out again. This was a long, long ass fuckin’ wait, you gotta understand. A good chunk of these people are trying to drive me off the fucking wall. The bird doesn’t shut the fuck up. The degenerate doesn’t shut the fuck up. And that goddamn lunatic… ”
Joyo pointed to Hold. In response to the accusation, he smiled, amused.
“Well, you know. And the midget ain’t much better. But then, holy shit. Enough hours, and we get our fourth box. Just more water… but right after that, maybe about an hour ago…”
“We got the last box,” said Zeezrom. “It’s the one you’re looking at.”
“And in it?”
With a gross smile, Joyo held up his forearm up, gently tapping his watch.
“How many watches do you think were in the box, By?”
I didn’t want to hear it from him.
I turned towards Strait again. He wasn’t smiling.
“Is he lying?”
“…No, not about that. I’m sorry, By. There were only fifteen watches.”
Joyo laughed again, clearly enjoying his own theatrics.
“Now, let me clarify, because I want this to be crystal clear. The note said to put them all on, and we all got to it at the same time, so nobody better start some BS about how I must’ve grabbed one and hid it. Is that in contention?”
“Good. Real good. Okay now, hun, let’s piece this together. Number one. We saw you collapse, and we were ordered to remove you from the room. In a murder mystery game, you collapsed on the floor, some mysterious pink liquid drugging you via skin contact.”
I stared ahead, out of words.
“Number two. They send us cutesy little bracelets, like the exact shit you’d expect players to be forced wear in something like this. But we don’t have enough for everyone. Just fifteen, one short.”
Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me.
“The order is to put them all on. Normally, this’d be an issue, and we’d probably have a debate about who’d go without one. But you — By — you ain’t in the room. So we all just get ‘em on without hassle. Now, if we assume that these bracelets mark us as players, and we know that you’re the only one without one, what does that make you?”
“That makes you a ghost, By. You aren’t a player anymore. You’re dead.”
I couldn’t accept that. I didn’t want to.
“…If I was eliminated, they wouldn’t have let me back in here.”
“Right,” agreed Quote, who still was standing aside Corn and Dent. “We thought you were out, since they put you back in your room, but since they let you in again…”
“Exactly,” I said, grasping on to whatever shred of hope I could find. “And I couldn’t be out. They didn’t even give us the rules yet. They’d… obviously they’d give us the rules first.”
As much as I wanted to, I wasn’t even close to breaking my rule. I hardly had a smidgen of confidence in what I saying, let alone absolute confidence.
“Fuck that. Are you that dense? It’s that pink shit. That’s what this game is. You touch it, and you go down. That’s death.”
“…Even if that’s the case, it- it wouldn’t have counted. The game didn’t start yet.”
“Oh, this is desperation. Wah, the game didn’t start. Wah, I didn’t get the rules. Good fuckin’ lord, what a load of crap. Imagine this as a real murder mystery. If you fall down before the first kill and trip on your face and die, that sucks, but God don’t come down and revive you and let you try again. If you wanted to play, you should’ve been more careful.”
“It was bad luck,” said Caroline. “Don’t attribute it to a fault of character or strategy. If you had seen the panel, you would have done the same.”
“There’s no such thing as luck. That’s a bullshit word losers invented to make themselves feel better. And you, By…”
He pointed at me.
“You’re dead. And I don’t talk to ghosts.”
I didn’t believe that — not absolutely — but it wasn’t difficult to see his point. It wasn’t hard to see mine either, though. If I was out… why would they have let me back inside the room?
The whole incident was messy and confusing. The more that came up and the more I thought about it, the structure of the game didn’t make any sense to me. What were the gamemakers thinking? We’d been here for twelve hours with no explanation or guidance, and I’d been drugged, carried to a bed by a group of strangers, and then allowed back inside after a seven hour nap. What was the point of all that? Who the hell even planned something like this? Had they planned anything at all?
“Yeah. That’s what I decided. Until I hear otherwise from the gamemakers, you’re dead. They’re the only people I’m listening to, whenever the hell they choose to show up. Nobody here decides shit.”
I paused again, trying to rationalize some half-decent explanation for everything, but I was stopped in my tracks, the final door opening. It was the big double one without a number. For the final time, we all turned to face the newcomers, who both walked in as soon as the door stopped creaking.
There were two of them that stepped out, a man and a woman.
The woman was short, and the man tall, both of them disgustingly, almost impossibly thin. They had been done up perfectly in layers of makeup, their faces and all the skin I could see painted paper white, as if to make them both into full-body mimes. They both wore long, thick white robes, and as a final bit of decoration, each had a large perfect circle painted or tattooed on their foreheads. The woman’s circle was red, and the man’s was green, each about quadruple the size of quarter. Both of their robes had one thick line running down the center on it, each made to be the same color as their respective forehead-circles.
The bald man with the green circle spoke. The woman, who stood just inches apart from him, stared at us silently and introspectively, giving us a deadly serious glance through her thin-rimmed glasses. The man seemed much more casual, smiling and greeting us by name, as if speaking to a group of good friends.
“That’s where I beg to differ, Joyo.”
His smile widened. I noticed, dangling from the chalk-colored fingers in his left hand, a pink bracelet.
“You’re all going to be deciding a lot of things.”