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The Otherworld

Even the school bell sounds like it doesn’t want to be here. Administration cranks up the volume to about a million decibels so the dull buzz can be heard over the shrieking students. Some days I swear it vibrates the walls. I stab myself yet again on my seldom used house key as I shove my hands into my pockets. Why do I even carry that around?
“Hey Ash,” At first I flinch at my whispered name but when I feel the hot air on my neck I feel nothing but disgust. I turn to see a heavyset boy smirking at me, followed by his entourage.
“Watch out Jack, the Giants comin’.” I am six foot two, its funny how this guy thinks he can intimidate me by pointing how much taller I am than him. That and referencing Jack and the Beanstalk, terrifying.
“Piss off.” I say, completely deadpan. His cronies are fanning out, closing me in. I start to move, hoping they will move. Claustrophobia grips and I force casualty into my walk.
“Not so fast.” The boy grabs my arm. Outraged, I drop the calm demeanor and jerk my arm towards me. I hiss “Don’t touch me!” he reacts as if I lit myself on fire. I push through the crowd, taking advantage of the blank surprise. Hopefully that display will hold the boy off for a while. I refuse to learn his name, once he stops picking on people I’ll acknowledge him, until then he is ‘The Boy’.
I walk calmly out the heavy double doors at the end of the hall but as soon as I’m out of the boy’s line of sight I break into a dead sprint. To me running has always been mollifying. Not bothering to think, only feeling my muscles extend and contract, the air filling my lungs, the wind in my hair. Nowhere to be but everywhere to go.
Suddenly, asphalt slams into my face and searing pain shoots from my left ankle. After I dislodged my foot from the pothole it was stuck in I found myself on an unfamiliar street lined with crumbling graffiti-clad buildings. My guess is I ran to the abandoned neighborhood a few miles from my school. People say this place is haunted, years back there was a toxic chemical spill that affected the water deep in the ground. Many relied on well water so when the news got out they all started running for the hills. Apparently the ground was so infected even after a year of damage control the town couldn't declare the area safe. After the Major admitted defeat it was as if the town itself started moving backwards. Businesses started closing up and moving to the other side because no one wanted to go near this place. Others declared bankruptcy because they couldn't afford to move. The schools were among the few that couldn't afford the move. They used to be vibrant places where kids played and walked to and from. Now they lie on the outskirts of town, no one drinks the fountain water and everyone rides the bus. Except me.
A quick assessment of my injuries made me think I’d get off with a few bruises and a sprained ankle, relatively bad bruises, but bruises nonetheless. Assured of my wellbeing, I start to study my surroundings. Hobbling to my sore feet I see geometric designs lead to stylistic demands to be heard. This street alone was a faded museum, a testament to those who used to be here. This place doesn't look as if anyone has been here for a long while. Somewhere along the lines a chain link fence encased a small plot of land, no larger than ten by ten feet. Adorned on the wires were signs warning me to stay away, handwritten and official alike. A few of which told of electricity. Calling it a live wire. Why go to such length to keep people away? Beyond the fence is only a mangled leafless tree and dead grass. Upon closer inspection I see flashes of bright red among the higher branches. Everything here has faded, had the life leached out of it, nothing here is that bright. Intrigued, I instinctively reach out, I only barely catch myself before grabbing the “live wire”. But, why not touch it? I doubt someone would pay to electrify a fence in this area, especially to protect a dead tree. Whatever, I’m doing this. I push up my sleeves and shake out my arms. My hesitant touch reveal the signs as lies. I ignore the relieved disappointment and clutch the metal. To get a better look at the red I hoist myself up and jam my right foot in a hole, letting my sprained ankle hang. Still unable to discern what the splotches are I swing my left leg hesitantly over the top. I was unsure of how much abuse my ankle could stand but I stuck my toes in the fence and abused it anyway. Immediately, pain exploded and my leg buckled. I was falling head first, but I had finally gotten a good look at the red. It was a balloon, a popped balloon, its jagged crimson pieces strewn across the branches of a dead tree.
I hit the ground, new pain erupts in my head and shoulder and all I can do is whimper my protests. Eventually I notice a wet chill lapping at my limbs. The ground here must be very soft, I’ve sunken in a few centimeters. The grass looks like it’s reaching for me, straining against it’s decayed roots. Eerie beauty. I should go, this place is creeping me out. I start to move but suddenly I cry out, I feel like I’ve been stuck by a million small pins all at once. The grass blades closest to me have grabbed my skin like stitches. Thrown into panic I try to scramble away. Grass turned steel rips my flesh away. A thick layer of dirt leaps onto me cutting and squeezing. Gravity kicks in and I fall, squirming all the while. My captor disintegrates into quicksand. The floor follows suit. I swallow air like I’ve never breathed before, it feels like I haven’t. Before I know it I’m sinking in earth intent on swallowing me. I flail like a fish out of water. I’m sinking faster now, I can hardly move my arms. My head is pulled under and I start to cry through tightly shut eyes. Long seconds pass and my lungs burn. Sharp rocks scratch me when I’m pulled through dense earth. I don't know where I’m going or how or even if I’ll be alive when I do. Unconsciousness beckons. Nowhere to be but everywhere to go.
###
People say eyes are windows to the soul. People say real smiles show in their eyes. If thats true, no one has ever really smiled. All I see in peoples’ eyes is a hollowness, they reflect the world around them because they have nothing of their own. No one has anything of their own.
###
I wake to find myself lying in a bloodstained patch of clovers. Maybe I’m lying on a four-leaf clover. Maybe thats why I woke up. I’m glad to have woken up. I think my wounds have stopped bleeding. The air tastes sickly sweet. My body is throbbing. White spots cloud my vision. The world slips away.
###
My head pounds. Sunlight, even faded and filtered by the trees above, pierces my brain. I make no attempt to disguise my pained groans. I hurt, I’ll admit it. The backs of my arms and legs appear to be nothing but scabs and I have bruises everywhere. The grass tore at my skin but I think thats all. I’ll never be rid of these scars but nothing seems to be anything more than skin deep. I groggily sit up, not wanting to support my own weight I shuffle backward till I bump a nice, soft, mossy tree. My ankle protests loudly.
“How did you die? Looks like you made a show of it.” I startle at the interjection of my pity fest.
“What? Die? W-Who are you?” A boy walks hesitantly into my field of view.
“Circe Volar, lovely to make your acquaintance. Is that where you woke up?” He points to the clover patch. His voice is odd, it sounds as if he is gurgling, trying to talk around water in his mouth.
“Yes, h-how did you know that? And what was that you said about dieing?” He looks at me for a moment then spits something red into the surrounding flora.
“Most people remember dieing.” His voice is clearer now. He has round face but sharp brown eyes. His cynical expressions don't match his boyish proportions, at least not his curly blond hair. He can't be more than 8 years old. Every time he moves his leg there is a slight jingling sound.
“I’m not dead.”
“Of course you're dead, this is The Otherworld. Everyone here is dead.”
“The Otherworld?”
“The place that people go when they commit suicide.”
“But I’m not dead, theres no way I committed suicide.” He stayed silent then, I shifted and my body complained. Did I kill myself? No, I had no control of the ground. Unless I was dead before that. Did the fall kill me?
“Does it count if it was an accident?” He gave me odd look and shrugged. “I thought suicidal people went to hell.”
“They do.” He said. The words rang with finality. Anguish and anger and loss and sadness.
"I ate a bullet, blood still flows into my mouth. I can't remember why I did it. There was a woman watching me, she was crying. I can't ever get the taste of blood out of my mouth or keep the woman from screaming in my ears." His baby face is tortured.
“It is said by the old ones, those who came before, that this is a place for the people who kill themselves without developing a soul.”
“What?”
“Those who have been here for centuries, the people who died before us.”
“What did you say about souls?”
“People aren't born with souls, they create them by going through life.” He paused for a moment. His hand darts into his pocket and pulls out a large jingle bell. “Anything reflective in this world shows through to the real one, look.” He hands me the bell and I see someone’s bedroom showing through the silver. Suddenly the image shifts and I realize I’m looking through someone else’s eyes. “We look through the eyes of the soulless because thats what we are and will always be. We are suspended bodies.” He paused again. “ Have you ever heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs?"
"Yeah, the steps to self actualization."
"They’re actually the steps to creating a soul. The first step is mostly physical and the rest are more psychological, we don't have physical needs because we're already dead. We can't fulfill our psychological needs because this place forbids it. We had the chance to live our lives but we wasted them. This is our punishment. We've been put in this place we can't touch. This beautiful place that highlights our flaws." This isn't fair,I didn't kill myself on purpose. "Get up, The old ones will want to see you.”
“Why would they want to see me? Have I done something wrong?”
“No, they are much better suited to show you the ropes than someone freshly dead like me.”
“How long have you been dead?”
“Couple hundred years I think, its hard to tell here.” Thats fresh? I pull myself to my feet. Circe starts to walk away and I hobble after him. I look at him and almost freeze in terror. The back of his head is a mass of bloody tissue. His hair is matted down and wet, some are strands are still dripping.
“How do you know all this? I thought you couldn't remember much of life.” I choke on the words, still shocked by his wound.
“I told you already, the old ones, they tell us everything. What can we do but believe them?” He said. “People stay basically in one area, as far as we can tell this forest goes on forever. Some have tried to find other places but they’re never seen again. It's possible they've found something better but then given the nature of this world we were too scared to follow them. We don't have houses or anything, nothing that would suggest growth. We wander regretting everything and wondering what kind of people we were.”
“Hellacious” I commented, he swiveled his head to give me a sour look. I move to walk beside him so I don't have to look at his throbbing injury. My wounds hurt less every step I take, even my ankle. This place is messing me up. Circe was right, the forest is beautiful, but it feels as if something is missing. After a while I realize that it's because it’s silent and still. There are no birds singing in the canopy nor any insects buzzing around the trees. There isn't even any wind making leaves rustle.
“Why aren't there any animals?”
“Nothing can live here. In all my years I’ve never seen anything grow. No new leaves or branches. Everything in this world is static and tragic.” He stares ahead blankly, not seeing anything he is looking at. I stay silent then. I don't want to hear any more.
###
Eventually we step into a clearing and I see several people in odd clothing sitting and staring. They were all facing away from each other. A few looked relatively unharmed but some sported gruesome wounds. There is a man with large bite marks all over his body and is missing an arm. A woman with what appears to be a broken neck, and horrible bruises. I’m getting nauseous. Any flower scent that may have been is overpowered by the stink of rot and blood.
Many don't react to our appearance and just keep staring, a few turn. One man’s eyes grow wide in burnt flesh. He leaps to his feet and dashes towards me. I recoil sharply, I try to run but I trip over my sprain. He falls on me and his skin is hot to the touch. He clutches my shoulders and shouts.
“You! You are alive! Why are you here? You are the reason we are stuck in this place! You have to go back! It is your fault! Your fault! Your fault. Your fault... my fault.” He slumped off me and sat defeated, whispering that something was his fault over and over. My shoulders appeared to be burnt but I could hardly feel any pain.
“You’re alive.” A woman breathed from the other side of the clearing. She looked slightly bloated and her skin had a tinge of purple in it.
“Circe, what is going on?”
“I don't know.” He sounded just as frightened as I was. I scrambled to my feet and backed away from the burning man, who still whispering to himself.
“You need to go, now! There is something we never told the others. There is actually a chance that we will leave this place.” The woman confessed “If enough people develop souls and live their lives however difficult then we will be forgiven and released from this godforsaken place. We thought the chance was slim to none so we decided not to tell the others. For our sakes and yours go, go back where you came from and live your life. If you stay too long you will die and any hope will be lost. Can you still feel your wounds? At the point when you become completely numb to your physical wounds you will know you are dead. Go to where you resurfaced and prove to the world you are alive.” I don't know what to do. I don't.
“Run! For my sake, for yours. Run!” With that I’m running, Finally I can feel wind through my hair in this stillness. Surprisingly, I feel good. In all this madness I can find a sliver on happiness in myself. I decide, this is my proof. If I can find joy in horror then I know that I’m alive.
I can't feel anymore pain.




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