Perhaps it was the harsh fluorescent light or the antiseptic cleanliness of the room that had all six people panicking the moment they opened their eyes. Or perhaps it was the fact that the last thing they remembered, they were walking down the street, or driving into work, or getting their morning coffee and now they were here - wherever “here” was.
Three women, three men. All different ages, races, backgrounds. They had nothing in common but the fear and panic that was beginning to build as they sat up and searched the unfamiliar room for some identifying features. There were none - it was a white square room; benches sat up against three of the walls, and the fourth held an inset metal door. The door lacked a handle.
Each person became aware at different speeds, the grogginess giving over to confusion, then to terror. A thin girl with dark hair scrambled onto a bench, back pressed against the wall. “Who are you people?” she demanded, pulling her knees up to her chest.
The others looked at her, then at each other. A man was about to answer when a crackling noise flooded the room, the static sound of a microphone turning on.
“Don’t panic. Most of you might make it out of here alive,” a deep voice promised. It sounded like it had been run through one of the masking systems that kidnappers used when placing demands. There was a stir of trepidation as the six did not take the voice’s advice not to panic. “If you notice, there is a gun in the center of your circle.”
Everyone looked to the center of the room, the middle of the circle in which they had been arranged. As the voice promised, there rested a sleek black gun. One of the men swallowed hard, and the girl on the bench began to cry.
“There are six of you. One of the people in this room is the serial killer who is responsible for you being here.” They glanced at each other, fear evolving to suspicion. “The gun has six bullets. If you kill the right person, the rest of you will go free. If you kill someone innocent, you’ll have to choose another.”
There was a brief silence as everyone digested this. Several eyes flickered to the gun, fingers itching to snatch it up for themselves. No one moved.
“To speed this along, you must kill at least one person an hour. If you fail to do so, everyone but the killer will die. Good luck, and remember,” the voice said, “no one is innocent.”
When the static died, small screen above the door clicked on.
59:59. 59:58. 59:57.
The group sat in silence for a minute, some crying, some frozen in shock, some forming plans. No one moved for the gun.
“Okay,” one of the men said, letting out a shaky breath. He seemed to be in his late thirties or early forties, and had an air of calm that contrasted the fear in his eyes. “We have to go about this logically.”
“Logically?” the oldest woman asked, though she, too was relatively young - early thirties or so. When she spoke, she held a slight french accent. “How do you logically figure out who here is a serial killer?” she demanded, her dark hair whipping as she glanced around the room. “It could be anyone.”
A thin teenage boy stood from where he was hunched. “Do I look like a serial killer to you? Last thing I remember, I was unloading my stuff at my dorm room, and then I wake up here,” he ranted, motioning with his hands. He pulled at his hair. “What the fuck?”
The unidentified girl on the bench sobbed harder.
“You don’t look like a serial killer, but what does a serial killer look like?” the French lady replied. “Who here looks like a serial killer?”
The final two met the boy’s gaze with wide eyes. One was a pretty young brunette, and the other was a mid fifties African American man. What did a serial killer look like?
“I’m not a serial killer,” the boy insisted.
“Which is what a serial killer would say,” the woman shot back.
The bench girl continued to sob.
The boy threw an arm in her direction. “Maybe it’s fucking Kristen Stewart over there in the corner, huh? She looks like a weak, weepy girl, but maybe that’s just to throw us off?” Through teary eyes, she glanced up, then cried harder.
“Stop!” the middle aged man burst out. “Let’s not start pointing fingers yet. We have to come up with a plan.” The boy clenched his fists, but sat back down. “What are your names?” the man asked.
“No,” the black man interrupted, staring at the floor. “We shouldn’t share our real names.”
His eyes were solemn as he looked up. “Personal information makes it harder to kill people.”
A silence fell over the group, interrupted only by the occasional sniffle.
“Fake names, then,” the boy suggested. “We need something.”
“We just do, okay?” he snapped. There were no protests. It seemed a small point to argue over. “Kristen Stewart,” he named the girl on the bench. “Mark Wahlberg.” The middle aged man. “Sofia Boutella.” The French woman. “Kevin Hart.” The African American man. “Mila Kunis.” The wide-eyed young woman. “I’ve been told I look like Asa Butterfield,” he finished.
They all vaguely resembled their celebrity counterparts, so no one argued. It didn’t much matter anyway.
“Why would a serial killer do this?” Kevin asked. “Why would they want us to kill them?”
“They don’t,” Sofia replied. “This is a rush for them. They think they can convince all of us that they’re innocent. It’s a challenge.”
“No one is innocent,” Mila muttered, speaking for the first time. She was shaking, her eyes wide and trained on her shoes.
There was a brief silence. “So maybe they’ll overcompensate in their acting,” Asa mused. “Try to come off as innocent, but overdo it.”
All eyes turned to Kristen, who had curled up into a ball, tears streaking her makeup. “You think it’s me?” she choked out. “I’m not a serial killer! Don’t kill me! Please don’t kill me,” she begged.
The gun still sat in the center of the room. It was such a small object for the weight it held. “No one is killing anyone,” Mark assured her. He turned to the group. “We can’t give in to their demands. We should just not play along.”
“Then he’ll kill us all,” Kevin pointed out. “I’m not dying today.”
“So you’d rather become a murderer? We can’t just go shooting innocent people at random!” Mark protested, anger heating his cheeks.
“It’s not random!” Kevin’s voice was a growl as he continued, “It’s not like we’re doing this for fun. We don’t have a choice. We play along or we die. I’m. Not. Dying.”
They looked at each other and in one movement, they both lunged for the gun. As their hands fumbled for it, Mark knocked it away from Kevin’s reaching fingers, and Mila snatched it up. Her hands trembled as she closed her fingers around the handle. Everyone else stopped, and her eyes flickered from one to another.
“I think,” she began, then swallowed, “that we should wait until the last possible second to make the decision.”
For a moment, no one spoke. Finally, Kevin asked, “So you agree that we shouldn’t just sacrifice ourselves like this jackass wants?” He jerked his head towards Mark.
Mila blinked at the gun, then nodded slowly. “If there’s a chance that someone could survive… there’s no reason not to take it.”
“I agree,” Sofia muttered. Asa nodded, and Kristen kept crying.
“But how do we decide who dies in the process? How do we decide who goes first and who gets the best chance of survival?” Mark shot back. “What if the one person left standing is the serial killer?”
“Then it’s no different than all of us being offed right now!” Kevin snapped. “I’ll take my chances. Now, give me the gun.” He held out his hand to Mila.
“Why?” she asked, scooting backwards until her back was pressed against the wall. Kevin stood, approaching her like one would approach a skittish animal.
He tried for a smile that came off as a grimace. “You’re not going to shoot anyone. We both know it. There’s no point in you having the gun.”
Sofia pushed herself up, stepping in Kevin’s way. “Let her have it.”
“Stay out of this.”
“Stay out of this?” she echoed. “Everything any of us does affects everyone in this room - what exactly should I be staying out of?”
Kevin glared at her. “She shouldn’t have the gun if she’s not going to use it.”
“That’s exactly why she should have the gun,” Sofia replied, her jaw set. She was younger, smaller, than he was, but she stood her ground. “Until we make a decision as a group, then no one should be shooting anyone.”
“You don’t trust me to restrain myself?” Kevin shot back.
“You just said that you have no intention of dying today,” Sofia pointed out. “You strike me as someone who’ll do whatever it takes to keep that promise.”
Kevin grunted, but had no reply to that. “Fine. She can keep it. For now.”
30:19. 30:18. 30:17.
They sat in silence for a while, each person quietly analyzing the others. The room was so silent that their heartbeats were almost audible, beating together in an erratic tattoo.
26:48. 26:47. 26:46.
“I think it’s him,” Asa spoke up, pointing out Mark.
“Me?” Mark echoed, his brows raising.
“Yes, you,” Asa replied, a strange venom in his voice. “You wanted us all to give up and die. Isn’t that the best solution for the serial killer? There’s no risk if everyone just dies.”
Sofia shook her head. “That doesn’t make sense. Why would the serial killer want the game to end that easily? Why wouldn’t they just kill us now?”
“To see how we react,” Asa suggested. “To see if we’d choose to sacrifice everyone to avoid becoming murderers.”
“He has a point,” Kevin grunted. Mark’s eyes flickered to him, then back at Asa.
“Look,” he said, “I’m a construction worker. I have two kids and a dog named Sneakers. I’ve been married to my wife for thirteen years. I’m not a serial killer.”
Sofia’s eyes narrowed. “As much as I’m inclined to think you’re not the killing type, none of that means anything. If you were the killer, you’d want us to believe that you’re an innocent family man. You could just be good at acting.”
Mark pushed himself to his feet and started pacing. After a few laps, he pointed at Kevin, demanding, “What about you, huh? You’ve got scars up and down your arms. Get into violent situations often?”
Kevin’s surly glare intensified. “I spent fifteen years in the service,” he replied.
“That could be a lie,” Sofia commented. Kevin’s gaze turned her way.
“Say it’s not,” Mark speculated, “maybe he got a taste for blood in the military. Maybe when he got back, he was… messed up.”
All eyes were on Kevin now, and he crossed his thick arms. “Watch who you’re accusing.”
Mark spread his hands. “I’m not accusing anyone of anything. I’m just… speculating.”
“Fucking speculate about someone else, then.”
Asa spoke up again then, saying to Sofia, “You’ve been pretty calm about all this.”
Sofia’s eyes flashed. “I’m a psychiatrist. I’ve had to deal with some difficult situations; I’ve learned to detach my emotions and approach things from an analytical standpoint.”
“So what’s your analysis telling you about this, then, huh?” Mark asked. “Who should we shoot in eighteen minutes and ten seconds?”
“I won’t be responsible for choosing who lives and who dies.”
Kevin scoffed. “Like we’d take your word as gospel.”
“We’re just asking for your professional evaluation here, Doc,” Asa said. “Who’s lying?”
“I…” her eyes flickered around the group, coming to rest on each person for a few seconds. The tension was palpable. “My evaluation could be off - this is a highly stressful; I don’t think-“
“Stall any longer and we’re going to think it’s you,” Kevin threatened. “After all, wouldn’t it ruin this sick little experiment if the serial killer is the one to suggest who dies?”
Sofia looked torn between being angry and scared. “If I had to guess - and I’m not advocating acting on this, but if I had to… I would guess her.” She nodded towards Kristen, who burst into a fresh round of tears. “She doesn’t look like your typical serial killer, but that could be it’s genius. A vulnerable, crying girl is a good way to mislead and gives her an opportunity to observe what’s happening without really influencing or participating. Also, there are fewer chances to slip up and reveal anything.” Sofia drew in a shuddering breath. “If I were a serial killer, it’s the act I’d go for.”
“No,” the woman sobbed. “Please, no, I’m not- I’m- please…”
There was a long silence as the time ticked down. 14:48. 14:47.
“I still don’t think we should kill anybody,” Mark insisted, pacing again. “If we do, we’re no better than the killer.”
“Um, I don’t think that’s true,” Asa objected. “We didn’t choose this.”
Mark stopped and looked at him, eyes wild. “And I guess you’d pull the trigger, kid? You’d kill this girl? She can’t be older than twenty! She’s someone’s daughter.” He swallowed and closed his eyes. “I won’t let you,” he said, turning to gaze at the group. “I won’t let you.”
“You’d condemn all of us to death just because of your morals?” Kevin demanded. “This isn’t a time for an ethics debate.”
“It’s not a debate!” Mark shot back. “I won’t let you kill this innocent girl.”
“How do you know she’s innocent?” Asa demanded. “She could be the killer!”
Mark whipped toward him. “So could you!”
Kevin let out a growl. “Just because you don’t have the balls to kill someone doesn’t mean I’m going to sit here and die because of your fucking useless moral crusade.” He turned to Mila. “Give me the gun.”
She curled in on herself, fingers clenching around the gun. “We still have ten minutes.”
“Why wait the ten minutes when we could shoot her now and see if we got it right?”
“When did we decide we were killing her?” Sofia demanded. “I didn’t want-“
“You say this like it’s a game,” Mark interrupted, talking over Sofia at Kevin. “Like some magic trick where you’re going to flip the cup and see if the marble’s still underneath. And if it is, then great, you got it right, but if it’s not? You don’t lose the ten dollars you bet, this girl loses her life. How can you treat it so casually?”
Kevin was still looking down at Mila, ignoring Mark. “Give me the gun.”
“I- I think we should talk about this some more,” Mila protested.
“We’ve talked about it enough!” Kevin replied. “It’s decided.”
“Nothing has been decided!” Sofia shouted. “We can’t just shoot her based on some stupid hunch! I can’t think straight under all this pressure - I could be wrong, I could-“
“Nobody fucking cares about your guilt!” Kevin snarled at her. “Chances are you’ll be next anyway.”
“What?” she breathed.
Mark stepped towards Kevin, reaching for the arm that was extended towards Mila. “Hang on, you can’t-“
Kevin turned and punched him in the jaw. Mark went sprawling, red blood splattering against the pristine white floor. Everyone went still.
For a minute, none of them knew what to say or do. Mark picked himself up off the floor, wincing as he prodded his tender jaw. “You bastard,” he spat.
“You don’t want to fight me,” Kevin warned.
“Why not?” Mark replied. “You just gonna kill me?”
“He might,” Sofia warned in an undertone.
Asa’s eyes were wide as he flicked his gaze between the two. “Guys. This is what the serial killer wants. He wants you to fight and suspect each other. I thought you didn’t want to play his game.”
Both of them turned towards him. “You’re right,” Mark acquiesced, but Kevin’s eyes just narrowed.
“How do you know what he wants?” he asked.
Asa blinked. “I mean- What I think he wants. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not. But I mean, that’s probably the point of this, right? To cause chaos? Like a Lord of the Flies thing?” he rambled.
“You keep referring to the serial killer as a ‘he,’” Sofia observed. “Why?”
“Uh,” Asa’s breathing picked up speed, “because men are more likely to have antisocial personality disorder? Because of the decreased frontal lobe tissue that affects impulse control and means little remorse for wrongdoing?” he rushed out. “It’s psych 101.”
“Or maybe it’s because it’s you,” Kevin mused. “Maybe you - a skinny, scrawny teenager - have somehow orchestrated this whole thing. Kidnapped us all.”
Mark looked at him. “Saying that out loud, do you realize how ridiculous that sounds?”
Kevin huffed. “Maybe. I’m not convinced.”
“Guys,” Mila’s small voice came from the corner. She pointed at the clock.
02:51. 02:50. 02:49.
Kevin watched the countdown for a few seconds, then said again, “Give me the gun.”
“You’re going to kill her,” Mila muttered with almost childlike realization.
Kevin’s face was hard, set. “It wouldn’t be the first person I’ve killed.”
That only seemed to terrify Mila more. Kevin took another step towards her, and she raised the gun in front of her. “Stop! D-don’t.”
There was a tense moment, then Kevin laughed. “You’re not going to shoot me.”
“Maybe I will,” Mila said, but it came out as uncertain as a question. “Don’t come any closer.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Kevin said.
“Don’t,” Mark warned from behind. “Don’t you dare hurt her.”
Kevin threw a look over his shoulder. “Bite me.”
01:48. 01:47. 01:46.
Mark’s hands balled into fists, and he took a step forward, but Asa spoke up. “Don’t fight him,” he said in a low tone. “Or I’ll have to stop you. You’ll get us all killed.”
“You stop me? You’re a twig.”
“I just have to delay you long enough for him to shoot someone,” Asa reasoned. “Give him the gun,” he said to Mila.
“What if he shoots you?” Mark demanded.
Asa hesitated, then replied, “Then at least maybe some of you will still survive. But since I know I’m not the serial killer, do choose better next time, yeah?”
01:11. 01:10. 01:09.
“Give me the gun,” Kevin pressed.
Kevin’s eyes flashed. “Look, either you give me the gun and let me kill someone, or you condemn us all to death. What’s it gonna be?”
Mila blinked hard, her eyes watering up. “I-I could shoot you.”
“You think I’m the killer?”
“Fine,” Kevin said. “Go ‘head and shoot me. Just make it quick or else all these other people are going to die because you’re too chicken to pull that trigger.”
Mila’s hands were shaking so badly that if she had pulled the trigger, she might have missed Kevin’s chest where she was aiming.
“What’s it going to be?” Kevin pushed. “Hurry up and decide.”
She blinked rapidly, her eyes flicking in every direction.
“Give him the gun!” Asa urged.
Still, Mila hesitated.
A bead of sweat ran down Kevin’s forehead.
“Okay!” Mila burst out, thrusting the gun towards him handle first.
Kevin wasted no time tearing it from her hands. In a smooth, practiced movement, he turned around, cocked it with a thumb, and pulled the trigger.
59:59. 59:58. 59:57.