The last thing she could remember was the bite—ragged and messy, right into her jugular. She was bitten in the street. A warm, wet seeping sensation on her neck, a sharp turn of her head, and then blackness.
She opened her eyes and she was flat on a hideous carpet, face down. A long, shoddy office hallway stretched before her, carpeted in a colour somewhere between ambiguous beige and ennui grey. She pushed herself up on her hands and immediately felt a shudder deep inside her guts. It was as though someone had tickled her insides with sandpaper. She stopped moving then lowered herself back down. Next, she attempted to flip herself over. Fireworks exploded in front of her eyes. Had she twisted herself in half somehow? She felt separated and vulnerable in the most basic way, and she could not feel her legs. As she turned over, she felt the familiar, warm dampness of blood soaking her midriff—and that sandpaper, more urgently irritating now. She propped herself up again by her elbows and every move was a stroke of torture. The searing of pain whited out her vision—she waited for her sight to return. Carefully, she looked down at her torso only to find that that was all there was left to look at. Everything from her crotch down was gone. Everything beneath her breasts was guts and blood. A menstrual cycle gone wrong. Clotty, bright crimson, pink, and burgundy shades of meat glowed up at her. She could see her ribs were broken and what remained poked straight up like fractured branches through the red wet. They were cracked aside so that all within could spill out like a waterfall of entrails.
Gagging, she closed her eyes and fell back to the floor. She should have blacked out, but she pulsed with agony with every panicked breath, which kept her conscious. She looked to either side of herself and saw only ivory walls with cracked paint and wear and tear—the epitome of banality. She lifted herself onto her elbows again, pushing through the pain just enough to see there were no doors or exits at the end of the hall in front of her. She let herself drop again and stared into the rectangular fluorescent fixture above. On cue, it sputtered and began a pattern of constant flickering. Her heart was still pumping, and with each pulse it pushed pain through her as well as blood, which had pooled considerably around her. She couldn't remain in the wet. She had to find a way out and figure out what was going on. With all this absurd blood loss and organ damage, why wasn't she dead?
She pushed her palms into the carpet, thinking to propel herself backwards on her back, but the carpet clung to her. It held her in place, in the morbid puddle, stuck to her meat. She reached back, crying out in a spasm of pain, and dug her fingernails into the wretched wool fibers. She struggled against the clingy carpet. Her eyes spilling with tears, she stopped and examined her fingers. Scraped, wet and bloody. She screwed up her face and barked out a sound only as loud as her sensitive guts would allow her to bellow. The fluorescent light blinked above her, as if signaling to her in Morse code. She imagined it was taunting her. Was there a special code for laughter? Or was it just "H" and "A" over and over again? She could almost hear the fixture's cackling echo inside her ears.
Summoning as much strength and courage as she could, she flipped herself back onto her stomach with a groan. She could swear she felt something vital separate and fall right out of her. A squelching sound issued from her abdomen, causing another gag. At the end of the hall she now faced, she could see a stairwell and one lonely door on the left just beside the exit. The door was open a crack and she could see a faint light within. She stretched her arms forward and grabbed the carpet. As she heaved herself along, the carpet allowed her movement. White spots sparkled before her eyes as the feeling of sandpaper inside her bowels and organs turned to full flame unleashed within her underside. She wondered if the carpet was made from wool, or scouring pads. Her ears rang. She couldn’t tell if she was weeping aloud or not, but her mouth was hanging open and drool spilled out of it rather matter-of-factly, so she assumed that she was. She thought about looking behind her to see if anything "vital" had been left behind in the smear of blood she surely trailed, but she could not bear to, physically or mentally.
"Help me, please!" she screamed, then her throat closed. Was her stomach gone? Or disconnected, perhaps? She couldn't vomit.
No answer came while she waited. She pulled herself forward again, repeating the same horrific process of sparkles, gagging, and burning pain where there should never be such pain.
"Please!" she whispered harshly as she, at last, inched towards the door left ajar.
"Yes, come in, Miss Jensen, come in," came a nasally, high-pitched voice from somewhere within.
"Please, I need help," she groaned.
"You'll have to make your own way, I'm afraid."
Tepid tears dribbled down her already wet cheeks. She stretched out her arms again slowly and pulled—and pulled—and, eventually, pulled herself over the threshold, batting the door aside bitterly.
The room was dim and empty but for the short, miniature desk before her at the end of the office closest to the stairwell. It was too dark to discern the colour of the walls, but she assumed they were probably ivory and cracked, just as they were in the hall. There was a filing cabinet with a false wood finish peeling at the corners sitting against the wall to the left of the mini-desk. An old picture-tube television sat on top. But she was most puzzled by the creature behind the short desk. He hovered—yes, hovered—behind a green-shaded banker's desk lamp. He looked like a tiny half-skeleton floating on a cloud soundlessly farting puffs of smoke like an exhaust pipe. He wore a black hoodie.
"Do forgive my attire," he said like a magnanimous chipmunk. "I find it cold in here."
She drew forward into the room, towards the desk that stood at a perfect height for someone dragging herself on the floor. She felt a stab of cold hardness hit her intestines. The floor in the room was ceramic tile. The slabs were icy, but somewhat of a relief compared to the burning hallway. She practically glided up to the desk, but could more readily feel her own seepage.
"Who are you?" she gasped.
"I am the Transition-Enhancement Coordinator," chirped the skeleton-demon.
"What are you?" she wheezed.
"Now, now, Jensen—manners. Even here, negative notes on your Inhuman Resources file will not help you."
"Where is here?"
"This is the Institute of Self-Imposed Incarceration and Harsh Punitive Techniques."
"What?" she sputtered, coughing, then swallowing something back down her throat—she didn't even want to think what it might be. "Wait, why am I here? What's happened to me?"
The Coordinator picked up a clunky, grey remote control and pressed one of the large buttons, barely even pointing it at the television atop the filing cabinet. The screen popped on and an image of a snowy neighborhood faded in. She blanched as the camera zoomed in on one home, a home of privilege—her parents' home ten years ago. The scene was still and no cars were parked in the driveway. Cut to the backyard of her childhood. The back door opened and she watched a younger version of herself, hands wet with blood, carrying a squalling child just recently born. She placed the child in a snow bank and retreated into the warmth of the house. The image froze—on pause.
"Does this refresh your memory?" the Coordinator asked with a toothy smile. She felt her guts churn—emotionally, this time. She couldn't bring herself to say anything.
"All right," he murmured, turning back to the screen and pressing another large button on the remote.
The image changed to a bathroom—her bathroom in her condo last year. Wretched groans and moans filled the room as she observed an image of herself on the toilet. Blood was splattered on the floor and seat. Her year-younger self hollered and clenched her teeth. She was pushing another baby out of herself. She let it drop into the toilet. She breathed heavily for several moments before rising and closing the lid. Pause.
The Coordinator turned to her. "Ever hear of abortions?" he asked with a quizzical frown.
"So, I'm in hell?" she spat back.
"We don't use that term here," he explained. "We find it doesn't properly describe every level. Every floor. This is a floor for people like you."
"What does that mean? Hell is hell, right? What do you mean 'people like me'?"
"The afterlife is different for every individual," he continued, "and here at the Institute, we try our best to categorize and group some similar people together, as well as other people that can help us carry out the 'harsh punitive technique' component of the program."
"You mean torture," she said, tears streaming again. "The carpet in the hallway—it's like that on purpose, isn't it? I'm gutted like this because—"
"Because this is how you choose to torture yourself. Yours is a more visceral pain because you know you did wrong. You are flogging yourself, in a sense, with your own guilt."
"I don't deserve this!" she screamed, stopping short, tensing against the stab of agony that followed.
"I'm afraid I've heard this before," replied the Coordinator. He seemed to attempt an expression of sympathy but it looked more like a grimace. "There is nothing I can do. This comes directly from a deep subconscious layer within your own soul."
"So, you're saying that if I had no conscience, if I was some sort of sociopath, I wouldn't be punished?"
"No! It's simply that a sociopath's hell is very different from yours. It's not about guilt for them—they have none. It's about the gnawing and biting of the chasm deep inside themselves. The numbness they knew in life becomes overwhelming. They experience a great nothingness even greater than they would have experienced in life." He scribbled a brief note on a pad of paper in front of him and opened what looked like a date book and thumbed through it. She was about to complain about his phony sympathy, or his nonchalance, when the phone beside the desk lamp erupted with a sound like a rusty bicycle bell. The Coordinator held up a bony finger indicating he needed a moment, glided closer to the phone and answered.
"Transition-Enhancement Coordinator," he said cheerfully into the receiver. He listened a moment. She could not hear the other voice. "Thank you," was all the Coordinator added more testily. He slammed the receiver back into the cradle. It cracked at the seams. The phone was made of cheap plastic and appeared as though it had been manufactured in 1982. "Budget cuts," he said, by way of explanation. Then he looked her over through his deep, empty eye sockets. "The rapists will see you in the stairwell in half an hour."
"Rapists?" she cried.
"Some people who are also condemned, and who help carry out the harsh punitive techniques—in this case, your harsh punitive techniques…"
"What are they going to rape?" she asked, looking back at her mangled half-body.
The Coordinator shook his head brusquely. "I don't ask them how they do what they do," he replied, "but they'll fill out a report at the end of the day."
"So, I'm dead," she said, changing tack. The Coordinator seemed pleased she brought this up. He raised the remote to the TV again and this time pressed the large, red button.
"See, there's your corpse, along with millions of other zombies fulfilling a self-fulfilling prophecy. The world is punishing itself. The collective conscience is avenging its moral compass. Just like you are right now, here at the Institute."
She watched her zombie body chewing on a small child's thigh. The child struggled and screamed, but her corpse paid no mind. It revolted her. "The people of the world have a social conscience, so therefore the world is ending?"
"No, no, the world would end no matter what," the Coordinator replied, impatiently. "The world is ending in this particularly gruesome fashion because of man's social conscience. You're not really following this, are you?"
The Coordinator nodded, sighing. He turned back to the television and changed the channel. Rotisserie chickens filled the screen, rotating leisurely and tantalizingly. She watched them turn a moment then shook her head.
"I don't understand," she whispered.
"I know you don't," replied the Coordinator, still entranced by the chickens.
"I don't know how I could come up with something like this to punish myself… and where are all the others you spoke of who are supposed to be on the same floor as me?"
"The hallways are multi-dimensional," the Coordinator said waving her away. "There are thousands of people on this floor, you just don't know it." He looked down at his wrist. "Don't you have an appointment to keep in the stairwell?"
She felt her eyes widen. "I'm not actually going to drag myself to the stairwell voluntarily!"
The Coordinator very gradually turned his head towards her. His expression, if you could call it that, chilled her. He seemed to smirk and his eyes, if possible, were even emptier than before. Yet, it seemed a flame had been ignited deep within—it was something she felt rather than saw, like an invisible laser beam trained on her, unnerving her utterly. Her will crumbled.
Her hands moved across the tiles and pulled her across the floor, back over the threshold, back to the hall, back to the wool carpet. All the while she felt the laser gaze upon her—boring into her like nothing she'd ever known before. The wool and the stairwell would be a respite compared to it.
She waited in the stairwell for what felt like many hours while continuing to bleed out. No one came. She wondered what this might mean, but it somehow made her feel abandoned. She thought about returning to the little office to talk to the Coordinator. Then the image of those eyes, or rather, eye sockets, swam into her mind. She would not return to his office anytime soon, so she remained in the stairwell and waited.
And waited. And bled out more than four hundred times her weight in blood.