On Your Life by Julia Wren

            “Ready in 5…4…3…2…” a younger woman with a raspy voice in an all-black outfit says to a crew member above the curtain, “1.”

            The curtains move to the side, and the lights turn on from above. My skin feels warm already from the glare. Fake clapping is played on the entire stereo system around the room before the tall man I saw before walks over to his chair. He smiles, flashing the white pearls behind his lips as he waves to me. The beat and clapping die down.

            “Hello, everyone, and welcome to—“ he pauses, raising his left hand to his ear dramatically.

I look out beyond the stage, instead of people, I see a blank brick wall. A hunched over man just behind the camera clicks a button on a soundboard.

            “On! Your! Life!” a crowd of people say, erupting into cheers before going silent once more.

            “I’m here with—“ the man says, holding out his hand to me.

            “J-James. James MacLean,” I say.

            “Well, James, I’m assuming you know how the game works?”
            “Afraid not, coul—“

            “Well, all you have to do is answer a series of questions. Get them right, and you can move on,” he clears his throat, turning towards me with an unbreaking smile, “But if you get one wrong… Well, just try not to get any wrong. Are you ready?”

            “As ready as I’ll ev—“

            “Terrific! James, did you pick your nose as a child?”

            “I… What? I mean, of course. All children had to, right?”

            “Hm…But did you eat the sweet rewards of a nose well cleaned?”

            My eyes crinkle, pursing my lips as I shake my head, “I mean… as a young child, sure?”

            His head turns towards the camera, suppressing a laugh, “Fair enough, but, James… Do you still fall into these habits?”

            I shake my hands in front of me, “Of course not! What do I look like? A child?”

He smirks, holding out a small blue box towards the screen behind us. With a push of a button, a compilation of videos and pictures catching me in the act appear on the screen.

            “That’s one strike, James! But we play for three. But you still must be punished!” his arm stretches towards me, pressing another button on the remote. Two cold, metallic bracelets clasp over my wrists on the table that separates us. I yank my body back, but the clamps keep my limbs in place.

            Heavy footsteps settle behind me. I twist my head but can’t see the figure on the other side of my chair. I look to Neil who nods at me and smiles at the person just behind. His smile seems too smug. A click and buzzing can be heard. It’s like a mini chainsaw is being held to the nape of my neck. Suddenly the pitch changes to a low vrrrrr and before I realise, chunks of my dirty blonde hair fall from my shoulder to my lap.

Hair falls on me like a blanket or a freshly sheered sheep. Cold air touches places of my scalp that I hadn’t felt since I was a boy. The noises and falling particles cease. A glaring handheld mirror is presented in front of me as the clasps release my wrists. I take the mirror and reach to run my fingers through freshly cut hair. In place of my mop is now barren scalp. The remainder of hair feels like a dull cactus. My eyes flicker to Neil who shrugs.

            “Two strikes left, MacLean!” he says.

I nod, folding my arms close to my body, “Go on then.”

“Have you ever watched something not suitable for you?”

“I watched R movies all the time?”

“Oh, no, James. Far worse,” he says turning towards the screen.

A clip of me biting my lip and shaking vigorously appears. It flashes to the screen my past-self was gazing at.

“Kiddies, huh, James?”

My face goes white. My left hand is pulled into the lock again. I look blankly at Neil who cringes at me.

“Kids, James? How sick. We’ll make sure you watch nothing like that again.”

A hole opens on the edge of the table. Two jagged ice cream scoopers sit just in front of my gaze. Neil taps his fingers on the wood as I back into the chair as far as I can. The man behind me grabs my shoulders, sitting me straight to look at the twisting utensils.

My vision is bloodshot and filled with shades of red and fall to black. My throat burns with screams as I feel the strings of my eyes being pulled form my skull. A whirring noise marks the retreat of the device. I reach up with my other hand. My face feels wet, but dry. It reeks of iron. I want to cry, but it burns as all that flows is my blood.

            “Have you ever stolen something?”

            “Y-yes,” I answer through my sobs

            “Have you ever stolen from your family, James?”

            “No…”

            “What about a friend?” he asks, creaking the chair as he leans forward.

            “I don’t think so,” I say.

             “Wrong again, James,” he says, tapping the plastic button. I hear giggles of an old female friend fill the room. She’s laughing. Suddenly, her laughter turns to struggled breaths and rustling. Something is overcoming her. The screams and frantic gasps as I ripped away her innocence on the living room floor echo around the room.
            “I never said it had to be entirely tangible, James,” Neil says. He’s enjoying this torture porn.

I stand, almost leaping out of my chair to make a rush for the exit. My arms out, trying to feel my way around the table. Two weights sit on my shoulder, dragging me down to the chair once more. One of the giant hands pushes my right hand into one of the constraints. A metallic slicing sound rings in my right ear.

Julia Wren, Author

Julia Wren is an author, storyteller, and cat-enthusiast. She spends her spare time with her cat, Maya, and filling paint-by-numbers. If she’s not binge-watching Netflix movies or ordering pizza in her sweatpants, she’s traveling the world’s reaches with her inspiration, and father, James.