The Programmers

My first ever attempt at thriller/horror, so it probably won't be too scary. I've given it a yellow rating just in case.

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1. Chapter One: A or B.

 

The building is dark, covered in the occasional burst of ultraviolet goo. The roof leaks, the floors spews lava, and each corner is shroud in mystery and danger.

‘What!?’

The screen turns black. Moments later the words ‘Game Over’ flash on the television.

Stanley throws his cap angrily on the ground.

‘That’s the tenth time, the tenth time!’

A drop of water lands on his head, and he quickly puts his cap back on.

His house isn’t in much better shape than the one in the computer game. No, his floors don’t spew lava, and there isn’t any ultraviolet goo. But as for the leaking roof, dark building, and corners shroud in mystery and danger – it’s pretty much a perfect replica.

Stan starts the level over again for the eleventh time that day and shifts uncomfortably on the floor. The couch is right behind him. He should probably sit on it. Still, it’s not like the floor is any cleaner than the couch.

As the level loads, he cocks his head a little so that he can see into the next room. There, veiled by a mist of smoke, sits his wife, smoking while watching a show on how to quit.

She never will.

Just as the game finally begins again, there’s a knock on the door. At first, Stan is frustrated, but after processing what has just happened, he becomes intrigued. Pausing the game, he yells,

‘Liz, did you buy something!?’

His wife seems equally surprised, and shakes her head.

‘Well,’ Stan says after a few moments, ‘are you gonna get it?’

Liz’s eyes widen in horror, and she freezes completely.

‘I take it that’s a no’ Stan mutters, standing up.

Walking through the house is a little like walking on a roll of bubble wrap. Stanley only hopes it’s rubbish he’s stepping on.

‘You  know,’ he calls roughly to his wife, ‘you should really clean the house one day.’

‘You could turn on a light.’

‘I don’t wanna see this mess.’

His wife says nothing more in reply. It’s a miracle she’d replied in the first place.

Stanley opens the door to his house and is amazed when light comes pouring in. Squinting, he turns to the man at the door.

‘It’s day time?’

The man smiles overenthusiastically and nods. ‘Eleven o’clock in the morning, and sunny as ever!’

Stanley blinks.

‘May I say sir, you’re looking….’ The young man hesitates. ‘Relaxed.’ He finishes, no longer smiling. ‘You look relaxed.’

Stanley looks down at himself and figures out what the young man really means.

His grey t-shirt looks like it’s been used to mop up vomit, his track-suit pants are covered in what he can only hope are raisins, and he himself looks no better. He hasn’t shaved for a few days now, but his hair hasn’t been cut for a year at least. It touches his shoulders and hangs in a mess of stiff strands.

‘Yeah, so do you.’ Stanley grunts at last, to which the young man seems taken back.

‘Right… well, thank you, sir. Sir, would you mind answering a few questions?’

‘You mean some more questions?’

Yes, sir.’

‘Yes.’

‘Sir, it’s a very important survey…’

‘You don’t really care if I don’t wanna answer your stupid quiz, do you?’

‘Yes, sir, I do, and it’s not a quiz.’

‘So why didn’t you just say, ‘sir, answer these questions’?’

‘Sir, I’m trained to speak politely to you.’

‘Well it’s annoying, okay? You ask me a question about asking questions, and then you totally disregard my answer.’

‘Okay, sir, I’m sorry, sir. Sir, would you do me a favour and answer some questions?’

‘No.’

‘Sir, just answer the questions.’

Stanley stops frowning and smiles for a minute.

‘Much better.’

The young man relaxes a little, begins smiling again.

‘Sir, are you between the ages of…’

‘I’m 41.’

’30-45, okay…. Sir, have you ever been married or in a relationship…’

‘I’m married now.’

‘And is your wife in the same age group?’

Stanley blinks.

‘No, she’s eighty.’

The young man frowns quizzically. ‘Is she really?’

‘Yeah, of course… what are you, and idiot!? Of course she’s not, keep going!’

‘So…’

‘The same, yes! What’s next!?’

‘Do you have any children or pets?’

‘What? Why are they in the same question? Are you telling me they’re the same?’

The young man is growing impatient now.

‘No, sir. That’s why we say children OR pets.’

‘What if I’ve got children AND pets?’

The man blinks. ‘Well do you?’

‘No.’

‘Never had any?’

An awkward silence suddenly falls.

‘That’s none of your business,’ Stan snaps, snatching the survey from the man, ‘I’ll fill the rest out myself.’

The man wisely shuts his mouth and waits for Stanley to complete the survey. After a few minutes of watching the older man aggressively turn pages and scratch markings on the paper while listening to him mutter under his breath and smelling his all too pungent odour, the survey is soon shoved forcefully back into his hands. 

‘Done.’

The young man nods quickly, and leaves with a simple, ‘thank you, sir.’

Stanley watches the young man walk off while his body soaks up the warmth of the long-forbidden sunshine. Before he knows it, five minutes has passed.

Stanley blinks.

The man isn’t even in sight anymore. He’s just staring at nothing.

‘This is stupid.’ Stanley says, speaking softly for the first time in a long time.

He tears back inside the house, determined to fix things.

‘Liz!’ He cries, ‘I’m cleaning up.’

His wife doesn’t even flinch.

Stanley sighs and runs to the kitchen, where he opens the curtains. He runs back into the lounge room, where he does the same. He pulls the vacuum out of the cupboard – it hasn’t been used for a year at least.

He tidies the house tirelessly, until it is perfectly spotless. Then, exhausted, he collapses onto the couch in front of his belovéd x-box.

 

He awakes the next morning to find his wife staring down at him. Her eyes are wide, scared. He sits up immediately.

‘What are you doing up?’ He asks, sounding rough.

‘Today is the day.’ She mutters, as if in a daze. ‘The day Elli comes closer.’

Stan freezes, as the reality of her words hits him between the eyes. She’s right, he thinks. This is a bad day.

‘Did you have to remind me?’ He asks, this time sounding timorous.

Liz blinks apologetically (or is it to hold back tears?) and returns to her spot by the t.v.

Stan shivers, and tries to forget everything – everyone. When he fails to do so within five minutes he forces himself to stand and meanders his way to the medicine cabinet, where he takes a sleeping pill strong enough to withdraw him for a day.

 

When he wakes up, his thoughts immediately turn to anger. The sleeping pills have not worked. He sighs – it sounds more like a growl – sits up, and rubs his head. He checks his watch… it has stopped.

He can’t hear the t.v., so it must be fairly late at night. He lies back down and tries to go back to sleep. As he does, he catches a glimpse of the clock in the kitchen. Midnight. How picturesque.  Now, he thinks, is the time for fairies and murderers.

He settles down a bit, tries to block out the sound of the ticking clock. He glances at it again – one minute has passed. He stares at it for a while, wondering how many minutes he will have to watch pass before it is gone – this pain, and terror. He is distracted by his thoughts, and does not react immediately when a shadow falls over the clock-face. When it disappears, however, it has his attention at once.

He freezes, and his imagination begins reeling. Slowly, he turns his head towards the lounge. He can just make out a light in the hall.

Why is there a light on in the hall? Has his wife moved? She hasn’t moved for a year - what could possibly induce her to do so now? And on a day like this, too!

Out of the corner of his eye he sees something dash across the lounge room behind him, and turns his head. His heart begins to race when the shadow ducks down, disappears behind his seat.

Somebody is there, he is certain. And it can’t be his wife – Liz, where is she?

‘Stanley.’

A hoarse whisper, very breathy – his wife’s voice. 

But it comes from behind.

He is up in a flash, running towards the light. He flicks the switch, dares not look behind him, races to the next, and the next, until every light in the house is on. Has he, he wonders, taken too many sleeping pills? Is he now in a drugged sort of fit?

‘Stanely.’

It is louder, more confident.

‘Stanley.’

All at once he stops. His heart begins to palpitate, and – in an attempt not to fall – he leans on the wall.

It is no longer a voice calling his name. It is no longer his wife.

There are voices. Many voices.

He tries to turn around, slowly. He knows some-one is behind him, he can feel their warm breath on his neck. But he is distracted. As he runs his hand along the wall in an attempt to stabilize himself, his hand touches something cold and wet.

No! He thinks, begins to suffocate in an attempt not to hyperventilate. Oh no!

Slowly, he draws his hand to his eyes.

It is red. Dripping red.

He staggers, takes a step forward – his foot lands in something wet and warm. He dares not look down, yet he does.

‘No!’ He cries, beginning to tremble. ‘No, no!’

Red – why does it have to be red? And warm – the worst part of it all.

‘Stanley.’ The voices hiss again. He turns to his right, where he is sure the man is standing. Yes, he is certain it has to be a man.

A chill runs down his spine, and it occurs to him that it is not just a chill of fear. His neck has gone cold.

No-one is there.

He begins to shake and backs up against the other side of the hall, crumbling into a ball in an attempt to calm his trembling heart. As he does, he spreads blood all over himself, mixing the warm with the cold.

He buries his head in between his knees and tries to ignore the voices – they are everywhere, but at least not near him anymore.

The left side of his face is warm; he accounts it to the blood.

Suddenly, in his ear: ‘Stanley.’

He cringes, dares not turn towards the voice.

‘Look up.’

His ear goes cold, and it hits him that the person has left. How did they do that, move so silently?

He will not look up, he thinks. Never.

‘Look up, fool!’ One voice roars.

He cries out in terror, breaks his promise to himself, looks up.

Oh, horror of horrors! His wall has been defaced, painted, coated in red - vandalised with terrifying, threatening words. He is shaking with such fear now that he can hardly make out the words, but – eventually – he does. And when he does, he panics. There, written on the wall in large, undulating letters he could just make out four words – in no obvious order.

Never.

Will.

You.

Leave.

Then there was a full stop.

That was not a question – will you never leave? It was a statement. No, not a statement. It was an imperative: you will never leave.

His hands are shaking by now, but the attack on freedom is too much. He stands up and begins to scream.

‘Where are you!? Show yourselves, you cowards!’

He thinks about his wife and panics a little more. He races into the lounge room. She’s not there.

‘Where is she?’ He asks, looking round, ‘where is she?’ When he receives no reply he returns to drastic measures and screams, ‘where is she!?’

The room is filled with smoke, but it strikes Stan as odd. It does not smell like cigarette smoke. He tries hard to place the smell, but he can’t.

The lights flicker, and he pauses.

There is a bang –a horrible, loud explosion – and he curls in a ball immediately. Glass shatters around him, cutting his skin and covering him in more blood. Then there is silence.

He looks up slowly. The house has plunged into darkness. There is no light anywhere.

Stan trembles violently now. ‘Where is she!?’ He screams, deciding to focus on that one point. ‘Where is she!? What have you done to her!?’

Something breaks within him, and he begins sobbing, wallowing in self-pity.

‘Not her too.’ He mutters through his tears, barely able to understand himself. ‘Not her too.’

There is a flash, and he instinctively looks up. The television has turned on.

The reception seems to be bad – the screen is fuzzy, and the audio muffled. There are cartoons – the most terrifying cartoons Stan has ever seen – and the sounds blend in a disturbed manner, agitating every nerve in Stan’s body, until he finally screams.

‘Stop! Just stop it!’

Why – he thinks - does he bother? Does he truly believe he can be heard?

The t.v. turns off. All Stan can hear is himself screaming. He stops, mainly in fear. This is worse, he thinks. This means they can hear me. This means they are close. Or, he adds, it means they are controlling everything in my house without being here.

The t.v. turns back on, silently this time. There is one cartoon, a picture in sepia. It is two cartoons, really. Split down the middle, a sort of multiple choice. The left side is marked ‘A’, and has demented characters saying, ‘Do you choose to leave?’ The right side is similar, only it is marked ‘B’, and the characters say, ‘Or do you choose to stay?’

Stan is angry. ‘I want my wife!’ He screams. ‘Where is she!?’

‘That is not an option.’

The picture on the television has changed.

‘Chose A or B.’

Stan shudders. ‘I don’t want to!’

The screen does not change.

He roars, gnashes his teeth, and screams, ‘A! I choose A!’

Now there is a voice coming through the t.v. speakers. It is deep, menacing.

‘Do you?’ It asks.

‘Yes!’ Stan screams, filling with defiance, hoping it will drive away his terror.

‘Are you sure you chose?’ The voice returns.

‘Yes! What’d you even mean?!’

‘Who’s to say we didn’t choose for you?’

‘That’s ridiculous!’ Stan replies quickly – he doesn’t have to think about his answer. ‘Of course I chose! I want to get out of here!’

‘What about your wife?’

At the mention of his wife, Stan hesitates. ‘Where is she?’

‘Do you want to leave or not?’

‘Of course I want to leave, you idiot! But first I want my wife back!’

‘If you want your wife you must stay.’

‘Where is she? How can I get her back?’

‘You can get her back by doing exactly as we say.’

‘Yeah?’ Stan replies, feeling a little relief wash over him. ‘What’s that?’

He can almost see the man – the owner of the voice – shrug.

‘You’ll work it out.’

Then the screen dies.

 

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