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Labyrinth

Updated: Sep 3

Beata squeezed the centipede’s guts out like it was a toothpaste container, the slippery nervous system splattering onto the linoleum. About the size of her head, it was as long as she was tall. The first time she killed one had sent her vomiting in the courtyard. Now it gave her a buzz of satisfaction to ensure that it wouldn’t attack again. She preferred to empty their bodies, to prevent them from being brought back to life in this strange world.

The students’ desks lay overturned, pencils scattered and broken, guts and marks from her sword practically embedded into the floor. She had hidden there for four days, sleepless and paranoid until a group of centipedes broke in through the window. Her first day teaching, she’d adored the view of the school’s courtyard. The windows left her too vulnerable here. Brightly colored duct tape held together the shattered glass, providing a fractured view.

It never grew dark, just dull. Gray clouds filled the sky in a perpetual oncoming storm. Sometimes she saw birds flying. One of the school’s resident mockingbirds landed on a courtyard tree just outside the window. Its belly flopped open, smearing intestines against the branch it perched on. All the birds flew around halfway dead, some with featherless patches of skin, broken beaks and mangled wings.

Beata placed the remains in the corner of her classroom, atop a steadily-growing pile of garish leftovers. The room hadn’t seemed big at first. One wall had been converted into a closet space, four wooden doors struggling to hold all of her books and required readings. A bookshelf covered a few inches of the whiteboard on the right, the item the school had allotted her when she’d requested extra space. Her students could barely breathe as it was, twenty chairs crammed underneath five short tables. The back wall had a small desk with an old computer that hadn’t worked for years. With just her and the sword, she had too many places to watch. Too many tables for something to hide underneath.

The centipede had ripped posters from the wall in its scramble to escape her sword. She picked up the pitiful shreds of grammar rules and tossed them in the recycling bin. The blue plastic had old stains on it, dried insides sticking to the tops of previously recycled papers.

She had to go back to the vending machine. The lack of shuteye led to painful hunger cramps. This world wedged between worlds offered her a choice between inadvertent vulnerability and throwing herself into the hundred arms of centipedes. Not that she could sleep if she wanted to.

She picked up the heavy sword and scrubbed it clean with her once-magenta overcoat. One of the buttons kept popping off, Beata’s seamstress skills less than desirable. She avoided paying to get it repaired. An old habit of saving money that never died.

The sword’s sheath still hung on the back wall, nestled between two unscathed posters on story structure and figures of speech. Beata joked that she had bought it to kill the roaches. She hadn’t expected it to foreshadow this.

She threw her door open, letting it swing on its hinges and crash into one of the wooden closet doors. The doorknob rattled. No skittering on the tiles, no clicking of mandibles. She had lucked out with only one intruder this time. The lights in the hall clicked on as she stepped out, alerting anything that could be watching of her presence. She glared at the empty walls and bent ventilation covers, daring something to come forward. She’d shish-kabob the nearest moving object without a second thought.

Beata passed a locker with the door wide open. A mirror reflected the gray skies through the window, breaking the view as she moved past. She ignored her reflection. She wouldn’t look now, or ever. At the vending machine, she focused on not cutting herself on the shards of broken glass, pushing down the memory of why she’d broken it in the first place. She grabbed three remaining bags of baked potato chips.

She heard the centipede as it came down the hall. Her stomach clenched. Beata’s body told her to run, run, but she let the chips fall to the ground, grasping her sword in both hands so that she could properly wield it. She’d trained long enough to know how to use it with one hand, but this wasn’t a tournament.

This one was double the size of the usual ones she encountered. It didn’t speak in groans and screams but in a distinctly human language. It curled around the corner, wrapping itself along the wall as it crawled towards her. It spoke in hymns, an invisible orifice chanting. The rhythm dug into Beata’s bone marrow. They stared at each other. She stiffened, ready to make the first move and kill it. She wanted to hear her sword slice through its body, breaking the exoskeleton like it was rusted metal.

“You are like me,” It spat out, bringing together words in a broken voice. It had no pitch, just a buzzing noise that formed English. “Like me.” It stuttered. Its body seemed to hover over the window, creeping across. It eclipsed the courtyard and its spindly bushes, interrupting her view. Beata took a defensive step back, her shoe landing on a bag of chips. The plastic popped, and her heel smashed the snacks. She didn’t hear it.

“I’m not a monster.”

“It is so easy,” It continued, ignoring her. “So easy to succumb.” Beata prepared to swing. It shot across the glass, reaching the end of the hall and rounding the corner in seconds. It moved faster than any of the others, the sharply curved jaws large enough to instill the fear Beata had from her first day there. She searched for any stragglers hiding behind the vending machine or around another corner. The bell trilled, sending goosebumps up her arms. Time stopped with the unmoving, cloud-covered sun in the sky, but the bells continued, with no students to shepherd to class.

She grabbed the remaining bags of chips. She would have to start venturing up to the second floor, or risk a longer trip across the school. The floor plan was maddeningly large, a labyrinth that provided plenty of hiding spaces for the centipedes. The campus had several separate buildings, including one for the music department. She’d take refuge in a new building, find one of her coworkers’ smaller classrooms.

Beata locked herself in her room, played a youtube video through her projector and ate her vending machine meal like it was a delicacy. She sat at a righted desk, watching a cellist’s bow cross strings. She didn’t bother to shut off the computer. Couldn’t stand to see herself once the screen went dark.

She’d fought to never worry about food again. And up until falling asleep at her desk and waking up here, she hadn’t. She didn’t know how to escape and find a store. Her wallet had fallen somewhere in the classroom. Centipedes didn’t care about money, blind to the importance of wealth back home. All she could do was strike them dead until she woke up again.

Beata tried to return home, but nothing brought her back to the dredges of unconsciousness. If she were home, she’d be far too weak to defend herself, running on processed food and daydreams. Here, she was practically invincible. She thought of the mockingbird with its belly hanging open, and she wondered if it ever slept.

The doorknob rattled, something fighting to get inside. Beata brushed salt and crumbs from her fingertips and grabbed the hilt of her sword. She was a sitting duck. The longer she waited to kill them all, the longer she remained trapped.

She jammed her foot onto the door, pressing all her weight onto it in order to keep it shut. She unlocked it and sprang away, waiting for the door to fly open. Whatever was on the other side groaned as it struggled to twist the doorknob. It sounded human, frustrated.

“Let me,” It gasped. “Let me in.”

“Then open the door.” Beata said, raising the sword. Eventually, she would have to figure out how to sharpen it. She’d never needed the skill. Bamboo swords clashed with each other in the dojo, dull thuds against padded armor.

“Can’t.”

Beata knew it had to be the same centipede as before. It would be in her classroom, familiar territory. She’d kill it before it could string together another poem. She darted forward to let the door open a crack. The centipede began to spill through, limbs climbing from the door jamb to the wall. She swung, slicing into its body but failing to deliver a clean cut all the way through. She yanked her sword out of its body and managed to saw another inch of the way through.

The chanting started again, like a self-soothing mechanism. She listened as the centipede stopped moving, returning to its hymn. “Ow.” It said in a moment of reprieve. Blood dripped out, gooey, sticking to the wall and dribbling onto an overturned desk. She halted her assault and hopped backwards, allowing the creature to heave its bleeding form onto the floor. Letting itself rot instead of fighting back. Like her, cowering in her classroom until centipedes squirmed their way inside, screaming and pleading as their legs wrapped around hers.

“It is so easy to succumb.” The centipede repeated from their first interaction in the hallway. “So easy.”

Beata gnashed her teeth together, disgust and curiosity meshing with each other. “Your friends fight back.” She waited, but the centipede had gone silent. Listening. “You’re bigger than any of them, yet you let me kill you.” It wasn’t dead yet, but it would be. She drank in its agonized song. “They’re stronger than you.”

The centipede’s lower jaws twitched. “The fight is not with me.”

Beata completed the slice, stepping on its halved body until she emptied it. Even after, she kneaded the soles of her shoes into it, willing for more to leak out of the exoskeleton. The vessel that held life was relegated to carrion.

“There’s no one else to fight.” Beata said to no one. She moved the body to the pile of other empty centipedes, ignoring the fact that they never emitted a stench. This world was abnormal. Nothing made sense. Slimy blood stained her hands, reaching up her jaundiced arms.

Beata escaped her classroom once again, feeling untouchable after her latest kill. She scoured the walls for more. She’d kill every last one of them if that was what it took.

She slipped into the single-stall restroom at the end of the hall, locking the door behind her. A centipede waited for her, its body covering half of the wall. She waited for it to scream, like they all did. She’d screamed with them initially. The first centipede had howled and howled, setting her in a trap of wary concern. She hadn’t wanted to kill it until it reached for her, desperately clinging to her legs.

It didn’t move, seemingly frozen in fear. She revelled in this, drunk on the power that came in fighting back. Beata slowly raised her sword, prepared to strike. “Please.” It sounded softer than the giant centipede she’d dealt with, though with an equally flavorless voice. “What have we done?”

“I need to go back home.” Beata said. Reasoned. She had liked it better when the centipedes lacked language.

“Home is not with me.” She killed it before it said anything else. Her sword sliced it to pieces, and she flushed bits of it down the toilet, one segment at a time so as not to clog it. Beata ignored her limbs in the mirror, averted her eyes from her jagged, yellowing face as she ran the water. Smaller bugs escaped the sink, and she pressed her dirty thumbs into them. She washed the bodies away with the rest of the stains on her arms.

She glanced up without meaning to, a habit. The centipede stared back at her. Her mandibles were like the rest of her legs, two of a hundred. Of many. She couldn’t hold the sword once she’d seen her new form, couldn’t remain upright like a human.

Beata’s legs swarmed the wall. She forced the bathroom door open, splintering wood, and propelled herself toward a stairwell. She passed another centipede, but it fled from her. She wanted to rip it apart.

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