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A Nightmare, Live on Vocal+

Do You Read the Fine Print?

By Michelle TrumanPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 15 min read
9
A Nightmare, Live on Vocal+
Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash

Sunday - 11:52 PM

"The End."

As I type what is easily the most sought-after phrase in all of writerdom, an immense sense of pride and accomplishment washes over me. After all, I have just completed a story! So many writers, aspiring authors, and other wordsmiths can only dream of besting such a herculean feat. A whole story! I cheer for myself, vain though that may be, as I click my way through the all-important button sequence and eagerly await my fame and fortune.

"Save Changes"

Why yes, of course.

"Submit for Review"

Isn't that what I said I wanted?

"Submit to a Challenge"

The checkbox winks at me from the dropdown menu, its sultry, red-clad corner full of promise and temptation. Don't mind if I do, thanks.

Then, I get to a new page—one I've never seen before:

"Do you accept the terms of the challenge?"

Obviously, I do. If I felt otherwise, I wouldn't have entered. Who wouldn't accept a $10 monthly subscription that meant regular opportunities to win thousands of dollars just by writing stories? That's one of the best deals I've ever seen. I click the box and type my name—another new addition.

With the final submission hurdle cleared, my entry is complete. Off the tale goes to the moderation team, just under the deadline, and off I go to bed to entertain sweet dreams of swimming in ten thousand dollars like a manic modern Scrooge McDuck. That prize money will be mine. All mine.

Monday - 05:03 AM

I check my email for the confirmation of submission, and there it is, bright and full of light and promise. I have a good feeling about this one. I really do.

I've had issues with my stories not quite landing before. Sometimes I miss the mark, sometimes, I miss the point, and sometimes I neglect to read the fine print. That's okay, though. No harm, no foul, right?

I scroll through my inbox to search for the approval email, but it's not there.

No worries. Sometimes it takes a few hours or even a few days. I still have a good feeling about this one.

Later That Day...

Still no approval email, and not likely to get one. It seems like the protocol has changed.

I got a cryptic message from the team relaying their condolences earlier today, and that has never happened before.

In the past, they would say I needed to make an edit or that the story wasn't a good fit for the challenge. It was never an outright rejection—just ways to make it right.

But the subject of this email was direct and a bit rude if I'm being honest.

"You Lose: Your Story Failed the Mephistophelean Challenge."

It doesn't get much more outright than that, but I clicked on it anyway, just to make sure.

"We regret to inform you... blah, blah, blah." I never read rejection emails.

I'm a little disappointed, but I still have my pride. I think I'll take the evening off from writing and then get a fresh start on a new story tomorrow. This funk is nothing that a bubble bath, a bottle of wine, and a good night's sleep won't cure.

Tuesday - 06:25 AM

I had a hard time waking up this morning. I think I might have overdone the wine last night. Still, I'm up, and I'm working on a new story. Trying to anyway.

Every time I start to type, my muse abandons me. It's like the ideas in my mind are seeping out of my ears as soon as my fingers touch the keyboard. Maddening, really.

To make matters worse, my computer is conspiring against me as well. Files say they're saving only to later evaporate from my hard drive with nary a trace remaining. Word processor programs, both online and local, delete any words I'm not looking directly at, then the rest decay as soon as I walk away.

I think my laptop may have a virus. Maybe it's some kind of ransomware installed remotely by some hacker mining their fortune from a damp basement office chair. If so, the joke's on them. Without the payout from the contest, there's no way I could afford any ransom. Still, I want to try again. The next challenge hasn't started yet, but I could still publish something noteworthy in the meantime.

I also saw a few more emails from the team, but none of the subjects struck me as something I wanted to read.

"The Cost of Competition"

"On Honoring Your Debts"

"Soul Exchange Rates"

They all sound like titles for sour grapes rants from rejects like myself and weird stories—especially that last one—and I've had my fill of both. So I'm going to try writing my stories by hand for now; I'll take them to the library later and type them up for the site.

Wednesday - 7:21 PM

When I tried to write a story in one of the notebooks I had in the house, I literally couldn't. My pen hovered above the page like my hand was frozen in place. I gave up after twenty minutes of trying to force my hand to write and moving the pen further from my fingertips. I tried several pens and several notepads, thinking it might be some strange magnetic repulsion reaction, but no dice. It just wouldn't work.

I went to leave to head to the dollar store for some new stationery supplies and to the library to write up a story about this series of unfortunate and incredibly bizarre events unfolding when, lo and behold, another strange and mysterious event slotted into the lineup. When I opened my front door, there was a box. It was a plain and very boring brown cardboard box with a label for my name and my address but nothing else.

No return address. No brand markings. No clues as to where it came from, who sent it, or why it was there. I haven't ordered anything in ages—no money, remember? I don't have any friends or family who could have sent it. My whole life is just a hermit's existence, locked away in this apartment, eking out enough to pay the bills by selling little bits of my soul one story at a time.

There isn't even a postmark. It must have been hand-delivered. But no one has knocked on my door or rang the bell all day. I asked my neighbors, but they said the box just showed up in the middle of the night. No one knows who buzzed the delivery person in; no one remembers seeing a van or a truck of any kind. Maybe it arrived via drone. The corridor window is broken, and the lady across the hall said she heard a buzzing noise around midnight.

The only clue the building has to offer is a vague, unpleasant smell lingering in the corridor outside my door that has never been there before: rotten eggs. I don't eat eggs, so it couldn't be from my trash (though that's what my neighbors think it is—they told me so, repeatedly and angrily), and I don't know how it could have just appeared. But it seems to be attached to the box, as strange as that sounds. Even now, hours later, I can smell it.

The box contained a notebook bound in leather with yellowed pages and a quill but no ink. So, resuming my plan to find a way to share my words once more with the world, I made my way to the craft store to buy some ink. But when I returned and dipped the quill into the ink bottle, it came out clean! Not a drop of ink would stay on that sharp silver tip, no matter how many times I dipped it, dunked it, or doused it with the iron liquid.

To make a strange matter stranger, the paper wouldn't take the ink, either. I tried a brush, a blotting paper, and even my finger, which is now stained black, but nothing worked. Instead, the ink simply slid off the page as though someone had painted the pages with clear wax.

Yesterday, I thought it was coated in wax. I slung as many liquids as I could at the stupid book, but none of them soaked into the creamy, thick pages. If wax were the culprit, though, the pages would feel smooth. They would have a sheen or a shine; even if the finish wasn't bright, it would be there. But the pages were toothy and matte, like vellum or rawhide. They had a strange weight to them, though they were thin enough to see through when held up to a light.

It wasn't until I gave in to the seething rage building in my heart that I discovered the secret. After yet another failed attempt this afternoon, I tried to break the pen. Incredibly, it wouldn't budge.

The feather, though soft and silky, was as strong as steel. I gripped it tighter and tighter as my frustration mounted, and then it happened. A spine pierced my fingertip, so sharp it was almost painless. Blood pooled around the wound and was wicked into the spike. I watched, fascinated and horrified, as it flowed down into the nib and dripped onto the first page.

I expected the blood to roll off the paper as everything else has, but it didn't. Instead, the drop splattered across the page, clinging to the tooth of the antique paper. Then it sunk in as though the book was ravenous and the blood a hot meal.

Once the page absorbed the drop, a sentence appeared, written in red, at the top of the paper. It was the most beautiful sentence I had ever read, but it was not mine. The handwriting was mine. The idea was mine—in fact, it was a new twist on the story I had submitted for the challenge—but the words were not my own. I closed the book and threw the pen away, screaming in terror.

Once I composed myself, I tossed them both into the smelly, unsolicited box. Then I lugged the (suddenly-much-too-heavy-for-what-it-held) box down to the dumpster in the parking lot. The disgusting rotten-egg smell is gone. The freaky ink-proof notebook is gone. The sinister carnivorous pen is gone.

And I don't feel any better.

This is simply too much to take. It can't be happening; it must be a hallucination. I need to sleep, or maybe I need to wake up. Either way, I think I need a new career.

Thursday - 8:17 AM

The menacing weirdness continues, and I'm convinced that I'm losing my mind. I'll just have to make the most of it, though. After all, there's nothing I can do to stop it at this point. I can't even leave my apartment.

Before, that might have been an exaggeration: a reference to my crippling agoraphobia or my intense desire to stay indoors, where the air feels safe. Now? No hyperbole necessary. That's not the way things are anymore, and I'm more afraid of what's inside this former sanctuary than anything or anyone that lurks outside. But I still can't leave.

My door has sealed itself shut. So have my windows. So have my vents. I spent three of the last four hours trying to pry them open by any means necessary. My umbrella? Snapped in half. My silverware drawer is full of bent and broken cutlery. There are no rulers, rods, or staves left unscathed, and there has been no movement.

The air is thick and heavy, like a sauna, and the smell is back. Only now, it's much, much worse without any ventilation.

The box reappeared just inside my door this morning. It was empty.

The notebook and the pen lay on my desk as though they had always been there. The notebook lay open to the page with the single line of sanguine text, the quill with its vampiric nib resting at the end of the sentence. To anyone who didn't know better, you would think that I had written the line, marked the period, and laid the quill down peacefully to retire for the evening and resume my tale in the morning.

But that's not what happened.

I don't think. That's not what I remember, anyway.

I tried to ignore the flat-out insanity. I chalked it up to a bad dream; I had just imagined the events of yesterday. The little pinprick on my finger was just a bee sting. I'm allergic, so that must be the reason for the vivid nightmare. But there would be swelling with a sting, wouldn't there?

Wait, I've got it! Swamp gas! Swamp gas must be building up in my apartment; that explains the hallucinations, the smell, and the humidity. The latter must have caused some inexplicable vapor-lock vacuum effect, which explains the sealed exits. Never mind that there are no swamps within a hundred miles of this city. In the movies, when crazy things are happening, it's always swamp gas.

I tried to call my landlord to tell him about the doors and windows, but my phone wasn't dialing out. The internet is down, too. Maybe some kind of swamp-gas-related outage? I don't know.

I've been kicking my door, banging on my windows, and screaming into the vents for an hour. No response so far.

Friday - 9:36 PM

No one came to my rescue yesterday. No relief, no release of the stagnant air and its sulfuric stench. The silent isolation is suffocating. It's one thing to avoid the outside world of my own accord. It's quite another when that choice is taken from me by forces beyond my control. Perhaps it's the universe itself seeking to sequester me—a punishment for some unknowable crime.

The only thing I do know is that the book is alive. It called to me, whispering promises of forbidden knowledge and hidden insight. It called to me with my own voice.

At first, I thought that I was just hearing my own thoughts. My inner monologue, as it were. Then I realized the voices were overlapping, out of sync. I couldn't control the cadence, the rhythm, the words. The strange song grew louder, more insistent the further I got from my desk.

The book almost seemed to glow as I drew near.

I couldn't resist its siren song this morning, yearning for something to quiet the panic in my mind. It promised sweet release through the power of story. The barb slid in so easily the second time I hardly noticed the sting. I wrote line after line, paragraph after paragraph, page after page. Write isn't even the right word. I may have penned the words, but such succulent prose never rose from my subconscious. I was merely supplying ink and a mechanism to transcribe the tale.

Hours passed before I noticed the blur in my vision. The paleness of my hand, my arm, my face in the reflection of my monitor. Forty pages of poetic plot, delicately crafted and character-driven, lay in my wake as my grip weakened and I dropped the quill. The moment the barb withdrew, the spell broke.

I retched, nauseated with pain but too empty to produce more than a pathetic noise. I couldn't even cry. Exhausted, I dragged myself to my bedside. Unable to make the climb onto the mattress, I pulled the blanket down to the floor.

I haven't moved in hours, but I watched the sunlight paint my wall crimson in its dying moments before the darkness swallowed us both. I know it's night, but sleep is eluding me.

The book is calling to me, even now. Perhaps just one more chapter.

Saturday - 10:01 AM

How long have I been writing?

How long has it been since the madness began?

Two hundred pages.

One drop at a time, one drop per line.

The plot thickens as the clots thin, and I can't tell if it's day or night now.

Everything feels dark.

The deadline looms.

Sunday - 11:45 PM

I can't move.

I don't remember when I fell to the floor, but the book came with me.

I must finish the narrative. It is my curse, my legacy.

The story is nearly complete, but my hand no longer traces the words as they appear on the pages. My blood, what little remains of it, flows from the nib into the narrative.

Too weak to close my eyes, I read the tale's climax as it writes itself far more eloquently than I ever could have done. Its conclusion, my conclusion, approaches rapidly.

It will be over soon. I can hear the whispers of the book: reassuring, vague, and threatening all at once. The voice is different now that I can't refuse the call. Eerie and ephemeral, it taunts me with promises of damnation and warnings of fame.

Ten thousand souls await my company, each with their own opus of blood. The cost of competition, buried in the fine print. Our souls, poured into pages, fulfill the debt to the sponsor and fund the prize. One dollar per soul, one dollar per story.

The quill falls.

The book quiets.

Our contract is complete.

The End.

fiction
9

About the Creator

Michelle Truman

I fell in love with speculative fiction and poetry many years ago, but I have precious little time to write any. I hope to share the worlds I've built and the songs of my heart with all of you here and that you enjoy them as much as I do.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  3. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  1. Expert insights and opinions

    Arguments were carefully researched and presented

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

  4. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  5. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (9)

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  • Jennifer Plate VanHoy21 days ago

    This makes me so very sad….

  • Denise E Lindquistabout a month ago

    Wow!💕

  • Roger Chappellabout a month ago

    One of the very few stories on here that I kept reading after the first few paragraphs. I think I even get the whole story - Such is how it feels as a writer, all-consuming when you bleed your soul into your work... Thank you :)

  • Whoaaa! This was so creepy! I am agoraphobic but it was so scary to be trapped inside when we don't wanna be. Loved the carnivorous concept you went with. Brilliant and unique!

  • Lilly Cooper2 months ago

    I've often said I leave a little piece of my soul on display when I publish a story! I love the totally different take on the challenge.

  • Jordan Twiss2 months ago

    I absolutely love the slow build of tension and horror here. Really masterfully executed, and a perfect metaphor for what writers truly do.

  • Excellent story and I used to have loads of arguments about fine print when I worked for EE, but some American company gave away $10,000 to someone when the hid a phone number in the fine print that said "The first person to ring this number will get $10,000"

  • Cathy holmes2 months ago

    Holy moley! This was fantastic. A definite contender in my eyes. Also, I need to start reading the fine print. yikes!

  • Gideon 6ix3 months ago

    This was enthralling and I felt tension building with every word. Excellent!

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