“We’re on an adventure,” Eric says as he tears the blindfold away from your face. “Called the Trial.”
It was a long trek with the blindfold, and you blink as your eyes adjust. Here you are, standing in a row with the other boys, and though there’s a light raining down from above you, you’re doused in near-darkness. It’s a mellow, flickering light, the color of spoiled milk, and there’s something pressed into the palm of your hand—another light, giving off a soft orange glow. A glow stick? A flashlight? Before you can be sure, Eric jerks the cloth back down over your eyes and ties it.
“It’s something of a family tradition,” Eric continues, but you aren’t listening; he’s told you about it before, all of it. The Trial. The Den. The Beast.
“That light’s the moon,” your brother cuts in, pacing in front of you.
“That cold air? It’s a breeze, an’ those things in your hands, they’re torches.”
The wind scrapes through your hair, tossing it against your forehead. Ever so slightly, you shiver. You are here; you are really here. You can barely feel your fingers, and the dirt beneath your feet, frozen to smoothness, numbs your bare toes.
“A’right,” says Eric, his grin sliding up as the four of you stiffen. “Let’s hear it one last time. An’ remember, it’s bad luck to break the Chant.”
Though you can no longer see the others, you can hear their labored breathing, and out of sheer habit, you lapse into a whispered recitation of the Rules. You know them by heart, of course. You have recited them again and again and again; Eric has drilled them into your skull like a prayer.
“One. Enter the den of the Beast.”
Gritting your teeth, you stare at the cloth before your eyes.
“Two. Do not wake the Beast. If this occurs, the Gate will be sealed.”
Now others in line are chanting. You can see their torchlights bobbing through your blindfold.
“Three. After three hundred and twenty-one counts, come back through the Gate. No sooner. After three hundred and twenty-two counts, the Gate will be sealed and the Beast will wake.”
“Four. If the Gate is open and the Beast is awake, run for the Gate. Don’t let it see you.”
“Five. If the Gate is sealed you are trapped, lay down on the ground. Do not run, do not hide. Do not cry for help. It will find you.”
“It will find you.”
“It will find you.”
“Six. Bring forth one item. Money is rewarded. Trinkets are acceptable. Clothing is useless, and will be punished.”
“Punished,” says one of the boys. His hushed voice teeters on the brink of hysteria. “I bet you just throw us right back in.”
Your breath catches in your throat. You can feel heat from the torches blistering against your cheeks, raising sweat on your brow.
“Don’t you know it’s bad luck to break the chant?” you snap, and start up again.
“Seven. No less than one item. No more than one item. Bring the first thing you pick up.”
“Eight. Any light will wake the Beast. Extinguish your torch upon entering.”
“Nine. Failure to obey the rules will result in punishment.”
“Ten. The Beast is hungry, and must be fed.”
A click from somewhere in front of you, and a gust of wind blows out your torch, leaving you with nothing but a wisp of smoke to fight off the cold. Silence weaves through the air like knotted fabric, and your heart pounds in your chest. A few of the others gasp.
“Just thewind.” You can hear Eric’s voice.
Seconds pass. Minutes.
And at last, the gentle creak of the door opening echoes through the air. You hear paces, shuffling, and at last there are two hands on either side of your face, and the blindfold comes off. You peer into the doorway. The light of the moon disappears on the other side. Pitch-black, soul-black. Beast-black. Is it just your imagination, or do you hear a growl from the darkness? It doesn’t matter, for the count begins, and panic hammers in your chest.
The sound seems to come at once from everywhere and nowhere, from the darkness and from Eric and from the Beast itself.
You step forward into the Den, and the chill traces a path down your spine. It’s colder here; the wind bears down on you, stopping just short of aggression. Dark shapes are littered across the floor—you can barely make them out—and there’s a pounding that seems to come from somewhere above, as if someone, something, bound and gasping, is hammering at its chains. The Beast hisses from the corner, at once rhythmic and unpredictable, and you can almost make out its form in the darkness. It’s asleep, you have to remind yourself. It’s asleep.
You take a step forward, and the other boys flood in. Eric doesn’t close the door completely, leaves it open, just a crack, and he holds it steady as he counts.
“Seven. Eight. Nine.”
You cluster near the doorframe, all four of you, the meager light that comes through breathing like a halo. A safe haven. You close your eyes and cling to Eric’s steady voice, his count pulsing through your veins. The others are moving, moving forward.
You drop to your knees and scramble in the darkness, towards the corner where the beast is not, your hands scouring the floor for something, anything, that will allow you to leave this place…
Is it just your imagination, or are the Beast’s groans growing louder, his breath tunneling through the room, the only sound, the only feeling… You squeeze your eyes shut, and your hand bumps against something cold and hard, sends it skittering towards your knee. You grab it, lift it, hold it to the light of the door—a coin. A quarter. Money! You almost laugh with relief, jumping to your feet and preparing to run.
You hear it even before you see it. A shuffling from the door, then a slam, loud, and the crack of light disappears. The sound of a key turning in a lock. The count can’t be over. Not yet.
“Eric?” you breathe, but there is no reply, only a long, aching groan from the corner. A clattering, and it hits you.
The Beast is awake. It must be.
It feels as though the water has been sucked from the air, as if the floor is falling out from beneath you, but you scramble towards the door—or, at least, what you think is the door. Three steps, four, and your foot connects with something slippery, something that splatters as you slide to the ground, on your back.
Are the others still here? How can you know? You can’t hear them, can’t see them. Your eyes are fixed on the ceiling, and there—out of the corner of your eye, you see that something is stirring above you, pivoting towards you…You roll over onto your stomach, tucking your legs underneath your chest, and a sickly-sweet scent invades your lungs, a burning floods into your eyes. You look down to see a growing stain on your white shirt, barely visible in the darkness…
The Beast. It’s closer now, almost breathing down your neck. Cold, so cold, and growling. Hissing. Spitting. Your choked breaths echo in time with the Beast’s groans, and your eyes flutter closed. Idly, you wonder what dying feels like.
A click, a groan, and a flood of red. You wait for the pain, but none comes; it takes you a moment to realize that there’s no blood. Only light burning through your eyelids.
You scrape open your eyes. Wood floor beneath you. Lift your gaze a little, and the first things you notice are the clothes strewn across the floorboards. Orange jersey, ripped t-shirt, blue, baggy jeans…all Eric’s. Did the Beast take him, instead? Your heart jumps into your throat.
It takes you another moment to notice that there’s a fan above, thumping and whooshing—that’s strange, you don’t remember that being there…
Oh. Blood rushes to your cheeks as you realize: thismust have been the creature on the ceiling. And…you look down. The puddle around you, the sickly-sweet smell, the stains on your shirt—it’s apple juice. Grimacing, you pull yourself up.
You glance around. All three of the others, your cousins, are crammed into the corner across from the door, their hands trembling and they pull themselves to their feet. But…you can still hear the groans, still feel the cold air pressing against your skin…
You look around, searching—and there it is, an air-conditioning unit, crackling and groaning from the corner. Set to maximum blast.
The Beast. That’s the Beast.
And, of course, Eric leans against the doorframe, one finger still poised on the light switch. He’s gasping, doubled over, wiping tears from his eyes. Cackling.
Prisha Mehta is a passionate writer and a high school student from Millburn, New Jersey. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and she has pieces published or forthcoming in a number of literary journals, including The Baltimore Review, Ginosko, Asymmetry, The Copperfield Review, Gravel, Five on the Fifth, and Déraciné. When she isn’t writing, she might be found scrolling through psychology articles, sketching in her notebook, or (of course) reading. You can find out more about her at prishamehta.com.