Ayden watched the second hand of the wall clock ticking away. He scrunched up a piece of paper and aimed at the trash bin—another miss. Four out of nine.
Business was slow at the International Movie Theatre today. The three screening rooms catered to a German audience who simply couldn’t wait for the next big Hollywood movie to be translated. And Friday was usually their busiest night.
Outside, the rain sluiced into streams down the window, passing one another like race cars.
The clock read 8:50 PM. The movie would end in ten minutes.
Popping a hand full of buttered-flavored popcorn into his mouth, Ayden stilled his growing hunger. The popcorn had been in the machine for too long, making them drier than usual. Still, it tasted better than what mom had left him.
He washed down the saltiness with a swing of Dr. Pepper. The cinnamon-like taste was a weird reminder of home.
He yawned, shifted his weight and sunk deeper into the cushioning of the bean bag. The day’s meeting with Jane popped into his head.
Sometimes these things affect us on a subconscious level. We don’t even know how strongly they influence us.
He peered across the entrance, then to the three theatres. Apart from a few guests who regretted ordering the extra-large soft drinks, the place was empty. A soothing rhythm emitted from the raindrops that tapped against the window.
Ayden felt the heaviness of sleep lure him in. He closed his eyes. Just five minutes.
Ever so slowly, starting at the back of his mind, something began to take subtle hold of him. Like miniature bubbles rising from a glass of champagne, the image materialized before him.
Before he could contain his thoughts, the memory had seized him, as if he was no longer in control, but rather it was controlling him.
The howling wind had returned.
He opened his eyes and felt a hard, cold stone floor. He racked his mind for what happened—something about being lost in jungle… finding a ship.
As the ground stopped spinning, he sat up… and realized that he wasn’t alone.
Men and women with leaves and sown-together tree bark as clothes sat idly in a circle around him. Each member was painted with the same emblem—a pair of white wings. They examined him, probing him with predatory eyes.
Paintings of flying birds adorned the cavern wall. And through an opening, he saw the jungle far below. Scattered by the wind was a sickening sweet herbal scent that emitted from nearby torches.
He felt the cold and gasped as his own clothes were replaced with the same native attire.
From the circle, some pointed at him, speaking in hushed voices.
Slowly, he rose to his feet. Straining to remain calm, he surveyed his captors.
Sitting within the circle was another man—an elder with thinning white hair. His age carved deep wrinkles on his tanned face. He was so slender that each rib protruded from underneath his leathery skin. On shaky legs, the elder stood. Countless hands came to his aid; like an ignorant child, he swiped them away.
Without a word, the elder moved about him and reached to take his hand. Unfolding his palm crested with blood, the man traced along the crevices with a boney finger—all the while muttering something inaudible. When seemingly finished with the task, he moved around and examined his back. With the precision of a chiropractor, his fingers dug into the spaces between his spinal cord.
Fear squeezed his chest.
“You made a mistake,” he burst out. The voice was pitched, hoarse and even foreign to him.
He turned from the elder to the men and women in the circle.
“My family came here for vacation. We won a trip.”
With trembling hands, he mimicked the boat ride. “Please let me go. I won’t go into the jungle again, I promise.”
His eyes met one emotionless face to the next. “Do you understand me? I’m not supposed to be here. You’ve made a mistake.” He turned in the circle of strangers, hoping, praying to seek some sort of sympathy from them.
They gave no response, no gesture... Nothing.
He wanted to cry, to scream. Hopelessness clouded his mind. Nausea trickled in his chest.
But above the fear and confusion, another feeling roused inside him—one that even startled himself.
“Why am I here?” he yelled, the emotion taking hold. “What do you want from me?”
In a fit of rage, he turned and swung at the elder’s hand which was still inspecting his back.
His shout bounced off the stone walls with unnatural clarity.
The old man, surprised by the blow, stumbled to regain his balance. Two men shot forward immediately and approached him with menacing glares. At the wave of the elder’s hand, they halted and withdrew to their seats.
The elder staggered towards him. For the first time, he noticed the man’s fragile state and sorrowful eyes.
His eyes gaped open; he took a step back, stunned by the sound of his own name.
“How… how do you know my name?”
The elder didn’t answer and simply smiled. With one hand, he removed his necklace—one crafted out of bird skulls and bound together by tangled thread—and set it ceremoniously over his head. Patting his shoulder, the elder scanned his face, as if to appreciate every detail. Then, his gaze turned to one of remorse. His words were blended with a thick accent.
“I am sorry, but it’s the only way.”
On cue, two pairs of arms grabbed him by the shoulders and forced him to lie on his stomach. Another gentler hand fastened a wedge of bamboo between his teeth.
He tried to resist, kicking and squirming, yet the mountain of force didn’t budge. Submissively, he raised his head from his restrained pose; the elder’s callous feet were directly in front.
Around him, the men and women rose, each with a drum in their hand. In unison, the entire circle began to chant. Echoes of drums and hymns filled the void of the cavern. The chanting grew louder as the torches flickered.
An aura of white light flooded his periphery just as a wheeze escaped the elder. The excruciating pain that followed was unmatched by anything he had ever felt before. An inferno coursed through his body past his restrained arms, into his fingertips. His scream was consumed in the deafening chants. It felt like his skin was being peeled from his body.
He bit down hard on the bamboo, the stiffness slowly giving away under his gritted teeth. All other senses melted away—sound, sight, scent and taste. There was only the electrifying agony. He screamed and begged for it to stop.
I’m going to die!
Then as quickly as it came, the pain faded, leaving his body in tranquil paralysis.
Releasing the tension in his neck, he let his head sag to the side. In slow motion, he saw the two men leave his side as they reached for the elder’s lifeless body.
He rolled on to his back and stared directly at a figure that had emerged above him.
A breastplate covered his muscular frame; a helmet concealed his face. And on either side of his body, something protruded, ending in soft, light-permeating edges… something similar to…
Ayden jerked awake, seizing the bewildered expression of a middle-aged man with a bag of popcorn in his hands.
“The movie stopped suddenly,” he grunted.
“Sorry,” Ayden said, still feeling the heat on his back, “I’ll fix it in a sec.”
The man gave him one last glance before disappearing in the third viewing room.
Ayden shook his head as if the motion could clear the thoughts as it does a bad dream. Massaging his temples, he walked into the projector room.
The memory still flipped through his mind like a picture book, though each image was stamped with a sound and smell.
He opened the safety box and noticed that the fuse had blown, again. Mr. Peterson still hadn’t called the electrician to fix it. He twisted at a couple of knobs and heard the familiar voice of Christian Bale fill the screening room.
With a mop in hand, he dragged himself to viewing room one where the few movie-enthusiasts were leaving the theatre. The last two to leave were a young couple around his age. The girl’s hair was disheveled while the boy had an arm around her and a big grin on his face.
Ayden sighed as he took in the littered scene before him. The clock read 9:23 PM. The next viewing would start in thirty minutes. It was going to be a long night.