First Place Winner *Warning: This story is a bit gory.*

Hailey Robbins, Class of 2019

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It’s a rainy Saturday in November, cold and dismal, the kind where everyone stays inside and seeks warmth. The city is bustling as everyone hurriedly rushes from place to place under umbrellas, rain boots sloshing through dirty puddles. You’re sitting in your apartment, staring out over the mad rush outside. You sigh. You had hoped to go for a walk in the park this morning, but it looks like that’s not going to happen. You sit down in an armchair, annoyed but glad you’re not outside. The shrill ring of your cell phone pierces the quiet of your living room, making you jump. You pick it up.

“Hello?” you say. It’s your friend Jessica. She asks if you’d like to go to the science museum today. She’s an environmental scientist, and they have a new exhibit on renewable energy she’s dying to see.

That doesn’t sound too bad, you think. Better than sitting here alone all day.

“Sure!” you say. “Give me half an hour to get ready and I’ll meet you there at 10:30.”

After getting your ticket, you spend the morning looking at models of windmills, water wheels, and solar panels, smiling and nodding and pretending to care about sustainability as Jessica pulls you eagerly through the exhibit. When you’ve finally reached the end, Jessica takes another half an hour to talk to a tour guide about the necessity of the Paris Climate Accord. You stand there, bored out of your mind, pacing back and forth.

Finally, you step out the door of the exhibit and step into the spacious hallway outside. You see a sign advertising: “New Exhibit Today! Human Bodies: The Nature of Movement!”

Hmm, you think. That actually sounds pretty interesting. You step back inside the renewable energy exhibit.

“Hey Jessica,” you say. “Want to go see the Human Bodies exhibit?”

“Um… Is it okay if I stay here? I’m not really into this medical stuff. It gives me the heebie-jeebies,” she says. “How about we meet in a little while and get lunch at the museum cafe?”

“Alright,” you say. “I’ll see you in a little bit.”

You open the door and step out into the hallway. You follow the signs for the new exhibit down the hallway to a door, in front of which stands a woman wearing a white lab coat.

“Welcome to our exhibit! Be careful inside. The exhibit is kept at a cold temperature and with dim lights to preserve it. Oh, by the way, are you an organ donor?” she asks. There must be a confused look on your face because she smiles and chuckles. “Don’t worry, we ask everyone.”

That doesn’t make it any better, but you show her a picture of your driver’s license, complete with the little red heart that shows you’ve pledged. The woman grins and pats you on the back. “Wonderful, right this way,” she says. This is all a little odd, but you smile and nod as she opens the door.

She wasn’t kidding about the temperature. As you step inside, an icy blast of air assaults you and you recoil. The walls and floor are painted a grim black, and the lights are so dim you can barely see. Lining the room and in the center are brightly lit glass cases, each one with a model of the human body. You walk over to one and peer inside. The model is all sinewy muscles, bones, organs, and completely devoid of skin. It is positioned to look like it is dancing with one leg outstretched behind it. The model had piercing green eyes that seem to bore holes through you. You shiver and step back, but something catches your eye. The bones and muscles are so lifelike. Each muscle is a red, stringy mass of flesh, each bone a yellowing, hardened mass of marrow. A sinking feeling settles in the pit of your stomach as you realize these bodies are, in fact, real.

Come on, breathe, you think. Stop being such a coward. It’s just an exhibit. If you think about it, that’s kind of cool. Besides, that explains why it’s so cold in here. You take a quick breath to compose yourself and move away from the case.

In the next case over, a body is displayed in a seated position on a chair, its elbows resting on its legs and its hands propping up its head. You shiver. A piece of its skull has been removed, so there is a clear view of its brain. You take a step closer, and as you do, you swear you see the brain pulsate slightly.

You jumpt back abruptly and shriek before clapping a hand over your mouth. Get a hold of yourself, you think. It’s just a museum exhibit. You turn around and begin to walk to the next case, but you can feel the eyes of the model boring holes through your back. You glance quickly over your shoulder to see it sitting in the same position. You take a deep breath. You need to stop being so paranoid.

The next case holds a body with its arms extended up above its head with a flourish like an Olympic gymnast. Its face is in a glaring grin, its sharp teeth snarling in an open sneer. You’re starting to get a little nervous. Now that you think about it, it seems a little odd that there’s nobody else in this exhibit, especially since it’s new. In fact, it’s rather creepy. Maybe this exhibit wasn’t for you.

You turn to walk to the next glass case when a loud noise tears through the silent room. Thud. Your entire body tenses as you whip around to see that the hand of the model that had been posed like a gymnast is now pressing against the glass. You scream, but quickly clap your hand over your mouth. This is irrational. This can’t be happening. You’re breathing heavily now, and you’re beginning to think that this might not have been such a good idea. You tell yourself to think logically. The body must have undergone rigor mortis or something, or you must’ve accidentally jostled the case as you walked away. All the same, you’re ready to go. You frantically scan the walls for any sign of an exit, but you can barely see in the darkened room.

Another noise erupts behind you. Thud. You turn and see the seated figure is now standing, leaning against its glass case, its beady black eyes looking right at you. Another noise follows, and the leg of the dancing body is on the ground, seeming to take a step toward you. Thud. Each body beings to move in some manner, creating a chorus of thuds. These bodies are not dead. They are alive.

Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. each body is moving now, their eyes all following you as you desperately search along the walls for any sign of a door. There is none. You tear through the exhibit, back to where you came from, but when you find the door, it is locked. You’re trapped. Your breath comes in short bursts as you turn every which way, looking for some, any way out. There is nothing.

You scream a bloodcurling scream, sinking to your knees and covering your ears with your hands as the chorus of thuds surrounds you. You shut your eyes tight, hoping you’ll wake up from this sick nightmare. You pinch yourself, hard, but nothing happens. You’re still stuck in the exhibit, the darkness enveloping you. Without warning, the thuds suddenly cease. A deathly silence descends on the room, and you feel a cold hand grab your shoulder.

An ear-shattering scream rips through your body and soul as you feel the long, cold fingers gripping your neck. Your entire body tenses and in one motion you whip your body around. Standing behind you is the woman in the white lab coat from the beginning of the exhibit. You gasp in disbelief as her face curls in an eerie smile.

“Sorry dear,” she says, “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

You open your mouth to try to speak, but it feels like your tongue is weighed down with bricks. No words come out. The woman’s smile grows even larger and she takes a hold of your shivering arm.

“Let’s get out of this exhibit,” she says. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

You still cannot bring yourself to speak, and your body is quivering. What is real and what is not? You manage to nod silently and let the woman pull you across the room. She drags you to a wall behind one of the cases, her sharp fingernails tearing into your freezing skin. Set into the wall is a door, painted entirely in black, knob and all, that you could have sworn was not there before. Maybe you missed it in your panic?

The woman lets go of your arm and reaches inside her lab coat to pull out an enormous ring of keys. She selects one and puts it inside the lock. She turns the key and swings the door open, holding it as you stand there, staring.

“Well come on, aren’t you going to go inside?” she asks. “You don’t want to stay in here, do you?”

A million thoughts race through your head as you consider your options. This woman is odd, but she seems a lot less terrifying than staying alone in this dark, frigid room. You manage another nod and step through the door.

The room you are in seems to be the opposite of the one you were in before. It is all white, with lab tables and benches everywhere, illuminated with bright white fluorescent lights that burn your eyes. There is a row of chairs resembling that of a hospital waiting room, and you sit down to catch your breath. That couldn’t have been real. You must have just let your imagination run away from you. But as you look up, you realize that something is not quite right. You hadn’t noticed before, but on every surface there are tools, medical and otherwise, that look perfect for dissecting animals … or humans.

Come, on, really, you think. Seriously? This must be where they prepare the exhibits. It’s no big deal. But still, you can’t shake the feeling that something’s not right.

“I… I’m sorry, I should go,” you say, your voice finally returning. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“Oh, no worries, honey, we love visitors. Here, come, you look terrible. Come here and have a drink of water,” the woman says. She turns her back to you and grabs a paper cup from a cabinet, filling it from a large jug.

“Oh…uh, thank you,” you say. You walk over, take the cup from her, and drink. Something’s still nagging you, but you can’t figure out what it is.

“My, what a beautiful set of muscles you have. I can tell,” the woman says.

This is getting weird. “Um, thank you, well, I, uh, best be going. Can you just tell me where the exit is and I’ll get out of your hair?” you say.

The woman smiles, showing her pearly, perfect white teeth. “Oh, no dear. We can’t have that,” she says. “Not when you’re so clearly agitated.”

“No, really, I’m fine. I feel great. I’ve actually got to meet a friend for lunch, so I’ll just be going.”

You walk over and try to turn the knob of the door she came through, but it won’t budge. The woman chuckles.

“No, no, you can’t leave,” she says.

“Why not?” you say.

“You can’t. You just can’t leave,” she says, her smile instantly flipping to a grimace.

You push and pull at the door now. You have to get out of here. But as you try the door, you realize you’re feeling very tired all of a sudden. Your eyelids begin to droop. Why should you bother to try to get out anyway? This is just an overzealous scientist. The woman smiles as she sees you pull away from the door.

“That’s a girl. Good girl. Good girl,” she says. She grabs your arm with a firm hand and leads you to one of the lab tables. “Here, why don’t you just take a nice nap,” she says. That sounds nice, you think. Just a nice little nap, just for a few minutes, and then I’ll go meet Jessica.

You lie down on the table, and the woman smiles and covers you with a blue plastic blanket. “That’s a dear,” she says. As your eyes begin to slowly close, you see the room go dark as the woman shuts off the overhead lights. You’re disoriented and dizzy. The woman sees your confusion and comes to pat your head.

“No worries honey,” she says. “Thank you for being an organ donor. You’re so kind and generous.”

What is she talking about? With a sinking feeling in your stomach, your remember your conversation from earlier and the little red heart on your driver’s license. No… no… The water… your dazedness… You go to move your arms, but you realize they are stuck, strapped down to the table. You flail haphazardly, but your legs are bound too. And then there is a flash of silver above you as the woman raises a scalpel above your head.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “This won’t hurt a bit.”

Your eyes open to the dark gloom of a room, painted entirely in black. It is freezing, and the dark envelopes the walls and floor. There are four thick walls of glass around you. Your body is in agonizing pain. You realize in horror that your arms are raised above your head with a flourish like an Olympic gymnast. Except you don’t remember putting them there.

You look down to see a mass of sinewy muscles and bones, red and raw. You are completely devoid of skin. Your entire body thrums with an agony more unbearable than you’ve ever felt before. You hear the creak of a door and you see Jessica walk in. she is calling your name. She looks at her watch, clearly frustrated, and you realize that you were probably supposed to meet her for lunch a long time ago. You open your mouth to speak, but it is dry. Your tongue is weighed down by bricks again.

The agony increases as you try to speak, and no sound comes out. Jessica peers around the cases, calling your name, but you cannot answer. In desperation you push your arm down hard so it slams against the glass.



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