Recession USA 2020
Self help

Do You Want To Play The Devil’s Game?

This whole thing started when I got my first Rubik’s Cube. Once I learned the algorithm and figured it out, I was able to solve it in record time. After some time, it became too easy for me, and so I started seeking out more challenging and exciting puzzles to solve. That’s how my YouTube channel was born. You may be familiar with Glen’s Games; I would take challenge requests and solve the Rubik’s Cubes and other puzzles with impressive speed, adding in quirky challenges to make it more difficult for me. Soon, my followers started sending me requests and turning me on to different and more complicated puzzles. My following grew quickly, and soon I had every puzzle and brain teaser you could think of on my channel.

I solved each and every one of them with ease.

I loved it. I got to solve problems and play games, all while making a little bit of money. It made me feel good and gave me some self-confidence, something I’d always struggled with. I was a scrawny college kid just trying to figure out my way through life, just like every other 21-year-old kid. But once Glen’s Games was launched and saw some success, I didn’t feel so invisible behind my messy hair and wire-rimmed glasses. I felt important. I had a following that craved my every video, and they were excited each time I solved a new puzzle or beat a new game.

That was nine months ago, my little rise to fame. Here, now, the way things are… I’d have never started this. I’d never have touched that goddamned puzzle. I’d give anything to go back to being that scrawny little loser. But that’s hindsight, and it can be a vicious thing.

It was early on a Tuesday morning. The rain trickled gloomily down my kitchen window, inviting me to stay inside for the day. I’d gotten up early to get a head start on my classwork, but as the minutes ticked by, I realized that I had no desire to write a paper or to attend my classes. I decided that I’d email my professors later and treat myself to a mental health day.

Pushing myself away from the old, creaking dining room set, I padded across my kitchen to start my second pot of coffee. Kyle, my roommate and best friend, was still asleep, and so I worked as quietly as I could in the darkened kitchen. It was a breakfast blend from my favorite local coffee shop, and as the dark liquid brewed, my small apartment filled with the rich, sweet scent of my favorite morning beverage. I chose my favorite mug and filled it up just enough before topping it off with a bit of French vanilla creamer. I sat down, watching the black and white swirl together like an artisanal black hole. I let the colors blend for another moment before dipping my spoon into the liquid and destroying the flow, creating a dark tan.

“You’re up early.” Kyle startled me as he shuffled into the kitchen, yawning and wiping sleep from his eyes. I jumped, nearly spilling the hot liquid on my lap.

I flashed him a tired grin. “You scared me. And so are you, by the way.”

“Yeah, well you woke me up.” He grabbed himself a mug and filled it up, skipping the cream and opting for three generous spoonfuls of sugar. I turned my attention away from him and opened up my laptop. Kyle took a seat across from me and took a generous sip from his mug, finishing it off with an exaggerated sigh. “Nothing like a good cup of coffee first thing in the morning, am I right?”

I ignored him, typing my way through my computer password and into the depths of the internet. I pulled up my YouTube channel and started scrolling through my notifications and comments from my most recent post. Kyle was chattering away as I opened up my private messages. His one-sided conversation served as white noise as I clicked on a message from a user I’d never heard of or interacted with before.

HAVE YOU PLAYED THE DEVIL’S GAME?

That was it. No description, no challenge, no further information; just that one question. I clicked on the username to check out their channel, but there was nothing there. No uploads. No photo. No subscribers. Nothing. They were subscribed to only one account, and it was mine. I felt an unsettling chill run through my spine and settle into my stomach, but I paid it no mind. I shrugged it off and opened up Google, entering The Devil’s Game into my search engine. Nothing came up, and I mean nothing. Zero search results were found. Odd. I typed it again, assuming I’d made a typo, and hit enter. Still, nothing. I was confused but unconcerned. Whatever, I thought, snapping my laptop shut and turning my attention back to Kyle who was still chattering away about his endeavors from the previous night.

“I’m telling you, man, you have to come out with me next time. It was a night I’ll never forget!” He downed his mug and made his way to the counter for a second drink.

“We’ll see,” I muttered. I wasn’t much for going out to clubs or bars. As I said, I was scrawny and quite shy and typically didn’t do very well in the dating scene. Kyle rolled his eyes as he slid back into his seat.

“Glen, you’re never gonna meet someone if you don’t get out there. I’m going back tonight, you should come with me. In fact, I’m not giving you a choice. You’re coming.”

I groaned. “Kyle…”

“I’m not taking no for an answer! We never go out together, this is going to be great!”

I stared at him, knowing he was being serious. He wasn’t going to let me get out of this. If I knew anything about Kyle, it was that he didn’t take no for an answer. He was strong-willed, popular, athletic, and handsome. Everything that I wasn’t. “Well,” I exhaled, “I suppose I don’t have a choice.”

“That’s my guy!” He cheered excitedly before bursting out of his chair and heading towards his bedroom. “I’ll catch you later, Bud, be ready at nine!” At that, he skipped off to do whatever it was that he did during the day.

Nine?! I groaned. I’m normally settling in for the night by that time. I took a hearty swig from my mug and resigned myself to my new plans.

I lazed about for most of the morning, delving deep into the internet and the fractured world of social media. I watched a few episodes of The Office before peeling myself from the couch and venturing out to get some lunch. The rain was still coming down in sheets, washing the earth with nature’s tears. I wasn’t normally one to brandish an umbrella, but today I really wished I’d owned one. My small college town was normally bustling and alive, but the cruel weather cast a gray film over my world, alluding to the despair and pain that existed behind the veil of the shadows. People who were normally friendly and talkative rushed from cafes to their cars and didn’t stop for idle chit-chat. It was rare for a rainstorm like this, and when it happened, the entire city seemed to recede into itself. As I made my way back from my favorite Mexican joint, I stole a glance at the University student union and found that the parking lot was nearly empty. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to abandon my academic responsibilities. I felt better about my choice and my guilt faded. I chuckled to myself at the thought of my professor standing before an empty lecture hall. I pulled my clunker of a car into my driveway and braced myself for the short walk to my first-floor apartment. Barely able to keep my burrito from the watery assault, I tucked it into my jacket and made a mad dash from my car to the front steps.

I almost didn’t notice the small brown parcel sitting on the steps, and god I wished that I hadn’t. But I did. Just as I was cursing the lack of gutters on the house and stepping through an onslaught of falling water, I noticed the package. It was small, maybe the size of an orange, and the brown packaging that wrapped it looked like it had seen better days. I picked it up with hesitation and found that my first name was scrawled on the paper in loose, curly handwriting. I pushed inside my house and made my way to the living room. I plopped the parcel on the coffee table, no longer interested in my burrito. I turned it over in my hands, looking for a return address, but there was nothing else written on it. Only my first name. There was no postage on it so I knew that it had been hand-delivered. That made me uncomfortable. I felt that familiar cold sensation run down my back into the pit of my stomach once again, and this time I found it much harder to ignore. There was something about this package that elicited immense fear deep inside me. I knew I should open it, and yet I really didn’t want to.

I screwed my eyes shut and pressed my fingers into my temples. I felt a growing ball of anxiety forming in my stomach. It was only a package, and yet something about it unnerved me. It felt like every horror movie I’d ever seen had trained me for this, and yet I knew that I couldn’t ignore it. I snatched the small, brown antagonizer from my coffee table and held it in both hands. I rolled it around, examining every last inch of the old and dried packaging, and finally, I took a breath. I tore at the paper like it was Christmas morning, desperate to learn of the mystery inside.

Once it had been stripped of its wrapping, I had no idea what I was looking at. It was… a ball, maybe? It was a dull, clay brown; basically flesh-colored, yet sickly looking. As I turned it over in my hands, I found that it had odd glyphs and symbols scratched all over its surface in a sickly yellow. I let out a gasp and realized that I’d been holding my breath.

“What’s that?” I jumped so hard I nearly fell off the couch. My heart was pounding and I pressed a hand to my chest, mumbling a series of curses under my breath.

“That’s the second time today, Kyle. You trying to give me a heart attack?” I snapped.

Kyle, calm and cool as ever, chuckled as he crossed the room to join me on the couch, handing me a half-smoked joint. “Relax, dude. You need some weed to calm those nerves.”

Frustrated, I waved him away and jammed the odd sphere into my jacket pocket, turning my attention to my now cold and forgotten burrito. I snatched it off the table and made my way to the kitchen to reheat it. I rummaged loudly through the cabinets, searching for a clean plate, obscenities falling past my lips as I tried to get my thoughts in order.

“Kyle, where are all of our dishes?” I slammed a cabinet shut before resigning to wrapping the food log in aluminum foil and setting it up in the toaster oven.

“What’s with you today?” Kyle said from the couch, wide-eyed and confused. His normal grin was replaced by worry that rippled over his dark features.

I sat next to him and buried my head in my hands. “I don’t know. I’m just on edge today. I got this weird package and I guess it’s just distracting me.” I handed him the odd sphere from my jacket pocket and he examined it quickly before handing it back over.

“Isn’t this just another one of your puzzles?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. It was on the doorstep when I came home.” I set the sphere back on the table, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. That chill in my stomach lingered and worsened each time I looked at the mysterious object.

“You let these things stress you out way too much, man.” In one swift motion, he swiped it from the table and dropped it into the trash can. “Problem solved.” His grin was back.

I shoved my growing anxiety deep inside myself and met his grin. He was right. It was just a puzzle; a game. And I didn’t need it if it was causing me stress. “Okay, okay. I’m going to take a nap if you’re gonna make me come out tonight.”

“That’s my guy!” Kyle cheered. I grabbed my burrito and retreated to my bedroom, trying to clear my spinning mind.

* * *

We’d only been at the bar for an hour and I was already yearning to get back home. I sipped my beer with disinterest as I watched Kyle flirt and schmooze as he waited at the bar for more drinks. I wished I had what he had, but it just wasn’t in my blood. I was no virgin, but I certainly didn’t have the game that he did. He was leaning on the bar and handing the bartender a 20 when I noticed he now had two beautiful women on each arm. He turned and caught my eye, flashing me his pearly whites and one of his infamous winks. I blushed as the girls followed his gaze and the brunette gave me a little wave. My stomach fluttered and my palms went clammy almost immediately.

Goddamn it, Kyle.

I downed my beer quickly as he returned with a fresh pitcher, the girls following him in youthful excitement. This was his world, not mine, and I felt my pulse quickening. Before I knew it, the three of them were sliding into the empty chairs around my table and I hungrily refilled my glass as the brunette sat next to me, pushing her chair closer to mine.

“Ladies, this is my boy, Glen,” Kyle slurred, “And Glen, this is Sarah and Rachel.”

I forced a crooked smile as I took another sip of my drink.

“Kyle tells me you’re a gamer,” the brunette, Sarah, said to me.

“Oh,” I stammered. “No, no. Not quite. I run a YouTube channel where I solve puzzles and challenging games.”

She grabbed my arm suddenly, startling me. “Oh my god, so you can, like, solve Sudoku puzzles?” Her voice was smooth and silky and hid her intoxicated state almost entirely.

I laughed. “Something like that, yeah.”

“Oh, come on,” Kyle nearly shouted, “Don’t be so modest! You solve Rubik’s Cubes like they were made for you. Really, girls, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Immediately, my thoughts raced back to the odd puzzle sitting in my trash can at home. I’d nearly forgotten about it, but now it was all I could think about. I felt Sarah rubbing my bicep, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t focus on her. I suddenly felt an insatiable need to get back to the apartment. I wanted to get that sphere, that thing, back into my hands, and I needed to figure out what exactly it was. I needed to solve it.

“I think smart guys are so hot,” Sarah whispered into my ear, and it was all I could do not to brush her away. I turned away from her, feeling hot with aggravation.

“I need some air.” I finished my drink and slid off the rickety bar stool. Fumbling with my pack of cigarettes, I pushed my way out the front door of the bar and sucked in a lungful of cool, October air. I lit my smoke and exhaled. My mind was spinning at the mention of a Rubik’s Cube and I didn’t understand where this anger was coming from. Sarah was cute. Really cute, and I may have squashed my chances with her. I found a nearby bench and sat down, barely registering the water that soaked it from this morning’s storm. I took a few more puffs of my smoke before stomping it out. As I stood to go back inside, however, I was nearly knocked back on my ass as Kyle stormed over to me.

“What was that about?” he hissed. He was drunk. Kyle never got angry unless he was drunk.

I groaned and spread my hands. “I’m sorry. I’m stressed out and a little… distracted. Sarah’s great, but I-”

“Oh, no. You’re not leaving now. She likes you, dude. Man up and get in there.”

For a moment, I thought about turning on my heel and running the six blocks home. Instead, I found myself walking back inside the bar with Kyle at my heel, his hand slapping enthusiastically at my shoulder and chattering away.

I didn’t understand what had Sarah so infatuated with me. I’d been a complete ass to her all night. All I could think about was that sphere. And that message I’d gotten this morning.

The Devil’s Game.

I decided I would reach out to that unknown user the moment I got home. Hopefully, that would be soon. I checked my watch and groaned internally. It was only 10:30; the night was young and it would be hours before I was alone again.

“Glen?” A soft, gentle voice shook me from my thoughts. I looked around the table and found that everyone had their eyes fixed on me, expecting something.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I guess I was spacing out,” I muttered, forcing a weak smile. My cheeks were growing hot and I felt irritation coming from both Kyle and Sarah.

“The girls would like to go back to our place,” Kyle said, offering a less than subtle wink.

“Oh, absolutely.” I agreed. I could work with that.

It was a long night. I couldn’t get a moment alone, and the second I thought I did, Sarah walked in on me digging through the trash for that damned puzzle. I made some excuse about dropping my phone in there, but I was certain she thought I was insane at that point. Finally, at nearly 1:00 a.m., the girls left and Kyle went to bed. Despite everything, Sarah still gave me her number and told me that she really hoped I’d call. For a few sweet moments, I had forgotten about the puzzle, but that bliss was short-lived.

The moment they shut the door behind them, I was on my laptop, typing furiously into my Google search bar. I tried every single variation, including three different languages, of the phrase the Devil’s Game. Still, no results were found. Frustrated, I navigated my way to YouTube and pulled up the strange message from this morning. I clicked on the user but found they had deleted their account just hours ago. I slammed my fists down, confused and getting angrier by the moment. I made my way back to the kitchen and began tearing through the trash can. That sphere had to be in there somewhere. I watched Kyle throw it away. I felt my blood getting hot and realized that this thing was making me crazy. I stood up and took a few steps away from the can. This wasn’t me. Feeling like an absolute idiot, I poured myself a glass of water and took the long walk of shame to my bedroom. Alone, when I could have had the company of Sarah if I wanted. I shrugged out of my clothes and collapsed into my bed, feeling an immediate shock of pain in my rib cage.

“Son of a bitch!” I hissed as I jumped up and fumbled for the source of my now throbbing side. Tangled in the sheets was a small, round object. It was the puzzle, sitting right there on my bed. My mouth went dry and my heart started thundering in my chest. I knew Kyle threw it away. I watched him do it.

Unless…

Kyle. He was messing with me. That had to be it. I buried my face in my hands, hiding an involuntary smile from myself, and I could feel the blood returning to my face. He was messing with me; it was just like him to pull something like that. I shook my head and allowed the tension and anxiety in my body to dissolve. After a short moment, my attention was back on the puzzle. The symbols along the surface of it now seemed to be glowing. I fumbled with it for a moment, turning it over in my hands and examining every inch of the thing. Like a bad drug, I was sucked right back in, and yet I didn’t know where to start. The surface of it was smooth, other than the symbols, which were indented slightly. I swallowed hard. Now that I had the puzzle in my hands, the icy pit of unknown fear returned to my stomach like food poisoning. Did I really want to engage with this? I wanted to get rid of it, but I knew it would eat away at me until I at least tried solving it.

I sat up and planted my feet on the floor, fishing a cigarette out of my abandoned jeans. Lighting it up and keeping it firmly between my lips, I started examining the puzzle more closely. There was nothing I couldn’t solve. I had a way around these things, and I wasn’t going to let this strange little ball be my endgame. Regardless of its haunting name, I was going to solve this damned thing, put it on my channel, and earn myself another badge. Maybe even take Sarah out on a proper date.

As I imagined all the possibilities, I realized the sphere had moved, Or, more accurately, vibrated. I snapped to attention and realized that I had put the slightest bit of pressure on two of the symbols, causing the sphere to adjust ever so slightly. It didn’t look or feel any different, but I could sense that something had changed. It didn’t make any sense. The glowing yellow symbols pulsed, urging me to play on. A wave of adrenaline washed over me as I scooted back on my bed and immersed myself into its world. My cigarette sat forgotten between my lips until I burned myself. I didn’t care, though. I was making progress and I was feeling on top of the world. How many people had solved this thing? Maybe I’d be first.

I kept going.

Before I knew it, vibrant orange rays of sunlight peeked in through my blinds and I hadn’t made any more progress. I wasn’t concerned about my lack of sleep, more that I wasn’t able to figure out more of the puzzle. I’d lost an entire night only to solve a fraction of the odd game. I heard Kyle bouncing around the kitchen, slamming cabinets and humming loudly as if it wasn’t six o’clock in the morning.

“Asshole.” I hissed. I stomped into last night’s jeans and grabbed a flannel as I trudged out into the world. I found Kyle standing before an array of fresh fruit, knife in hand. I noticed the blender on the counter next to him and wondered what the occasion was. I’d never seen him make a smoothie in his life. I asked him as much and as he turned to me his eyes went wide.

“Dude, what happened to you? You look like… shit.”

I was a bit taken aback, but not offended. I forced a laugh as I helped myself to some coffee. “Yeah, I didn’t get any sleep last night. At all.”

“Oh? Studying or talking to Sarah all night?” His face brightened at the mention of my new friend.

“Studying?” I cocked my head at him and then felt all the color drain from my face. “Oh, no.”

“You forgot!? Oh, you are fucked.” Kyle laughed as he tossed an array of berries into the blender. He turned to me, a wide smile plastered over his face.

“I can’t believe I let myself get so distracted.” I buried my face in my hands.

“You’ll be fine. You’ve never failed a test in your life.”

“Kyle, I failed one last week.”

At that, he cackled and smacked me on the shoulder. I wanted to hit him, but instead, I sulked as he poured me a large glass of his purple breakfast drink.

“Come on, you and I worked on this the other night. Drink this and you’ll feel better.” He took a sip from his glass before something seemed to amuse him and he spoke again. “Probably won’t hurt to hit the books before we leave, though.”

I studied for an hour, but it didn’t matter. All I could think about was the Devil’s Game. Kyle talked the entire way to the science hall, but I didn’t hear a word of it. Even when we got to class and the exam was placed in front of me, I couldn’t stop thinking about the puzzle. All I wanted was to get back home and continue working on solving it. I scribbled my way through the exam on autopilot. I don’t remember a single question, and I’m certain I failed. Halfway through the period, I noticed a girl sitting across the room. She had a distant and blank look on her face, but her eyes were fixed on me with an unnerving intensity. She wore a tattered green hoodie that looked about three sizes too big for her, and her messy brown hair was tied in a knot on top of her head. She looked like she hadn’t bathed or slept for weeks, and yet she maintained an unwavering focus, entirely on me. I was unsettled, to say the least. I rushed my way through the rest of the exam and headed to the car, where I waited another half hour for Kyle.

I had a message in my inbox waiting for me when I got home. I noticed it was from the user who had originally messaged me, and I opened it with haste. Disappointment washed over me almost immediately, as I found it was a completely blank message. I noticed that the user account was still active, and so I decided to send a message to them.

I NEED SOME INFORMATION. WHAT IS THE DEVIL’S GAME?

I felt that familiar ice rushing through my body as familiar pulsing dots appeared on the screen. This mysterious stranger was typing out a response, and they were really taking their time. I tried waiting patiently, but I couldn’t. I tapped furiously on my keyboard, asking every question I could possibly think of. Minutes passed, but they felt like hours. I was desperate for any information I could get, but this person seemed content with their little bread crumb clues that were getting me nowhere. Again, they appeared to be typing, but I never received a response. Only those three pulsing dots.

I nearly threw my computer across the room. “Well, that’s just fantastic. What am I supposed to do? Who the fuck are you?” I realized I was screaming at my computer and quickly straightened myself. I stared at the puzzle and decided that I needed a shower and some food in my stomach before I got sucked back in.

I forced my way through a microwave dinner and barely remember taking a shower. All I could think about was solving that puzzle. Nothing else seemed to matter. Still wrapped in my towel, I sat on my bedroom floor, furiously examining the strange sphere and testing every combination that I could think of. It worked as if it had pressure points; the previous moves I’d made were the result of pressing my fingers into the glowing symbols. I managed to figure out that it was some type of code, and so I started writing down every combination that worked, and each one that didn’t.

It was painfully tedious. At some point, Kyle came into my room to tell me he was ordering the fight and having some friends over for wings, but I wasn’t interested. He made a point of telling me, again, that I look terrible. In an uncharacteristic moment, I wanted to bash his head in. As he stalked off, clearly upset with me, I followed him to the door and slammed it shut. I looked back at the puzzle and shook my head.

“Shit.” I breathed. My head felt three sizes too big and my adrenaline was pulsing, almost in sync with the glowing symbols. I stared at the intrusive orb sitting on my bed and the violence in my head stirred once again.

With more intention and speed than was necessary, I marched over to my bed and snatched the puzzle up in one hand, pulling my phone from my pocket with the other. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of this sooner. I took photos of every single symbol on the puzzle and quickly uploaded them to my computer. I got out my notebook as I began a reverse search on the symbols.

I found that they were runic symbols; an ancient language used by pagans. The ice in my stomach returned and I immediately knew that I’d stumbled onto something I shouldn’t have. I suppose the name should have given that away, but again with that vicious hindsight.

I scribbled down each of the symbols with their names and meanings before snapping my computer shut and nervously pacing my room. This wasn’t right. I had to stop this right now. I never had the stomach for anything paranormal or occult-related and I wasn’t about to start now. I couldn’t even muster up the courage to decipher the pieces I’d already solved. Later. I’d come back to this later, I desperately needed some rest. I put the puzzle in my desk drawer before collapsing onto my bed and opening up a book that I’d been meaning to read. Out of sight, out of mind.

“Hey, you want some wings before we finish these off?” Kyle’s voice snapped me out of a trance I didn’t know I was in and I nearly fell off the bed when I realized that I was holding the puzzle. I put that away… I was reading.

“No,” I muttered in a hushed whisper. Kyle put his hands up and confusion rippled across his face.

“Alright, man. Just offering.”

“No, wait. I do.” I slid off my bed, allowing the damned thing to tumble to the floor. “I’m just struggling with this stupid thing.”

He laughed, a bit of relief flashing through his eyes. “Well, maybe some spicy food will knock you out of that trance.” He patted my shoulder and began to turn into the hallway. Before either of us knew what was happening, I swung back and punched him in the jaw. His head jerked sideways, blood and drool flying from his lips. His eyes were wide with shock and hurt. And then I punched him again. And again. Before I knew it, I was on top of him, my blood-soaked fists hammering into his bruised face. I felt a pair of strong hands pull me off of him, but I fought back relentlessly.

“YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!” I was screaming. He was nearly unconscious. His face was a broken mess of blood and drool, and yet I was like an animal, desperate to pull myself free and get my hands back on him.

“Glen, stop. Fucking STOP!” I heard one of his friends shout as they tightened their grip on my squirming body. The sound of his voice barely registered. I was in a dark tunnel, receding farther and farther away from reality. Even as my conscious mind caught up with my actions, my body just wouldn’t stop. I felt possessed. My arm jerked back and I felt the blow of my elbow colliding with someone’s nose. I heard a crunch and felt a sharp pain that I registered, but didn’t care about. I heard a loud gasp, and then more yelling. I was determined, though. I struggled hard and finally felt their grasp loosen. I was free, and I couldn’t stop myself from moving back towards my roommate. Despite myself, and despite what I really wanted, I was intent on taking more of his blood. I took two steps forward before I felt something meaty slam into the back of my head followed by intense and agonizing pain. And then I succumbed to the depths of the tunnel, swallowed by blackness.

I woke up at some point in the middle of the night. My head swam and my mouth tasted like I’d been chewing on dirt. I willed myself to open my eyes, but my body was still not quite listening. I sat up, forcing my eyelids to part. My room was pitch black. Even the sky was so clouded that the moonlight was nothing more than a white haze over an ebony backdrop. The icy pit in my stomach remained, a sensation I wasn’t thrilled about getting used to. There was an eerie yellow glow in the room that made me sick, and I realized I was experiencing more terror than I’d ever imagined. My eyes cast down to the floor to find the source of the glow: the puzzle. The runes were glowing and pulsing brighter than ever, as if inviting me in to play.

I pressed my hands to my temples and brought my knees to my chest. I felt horrible. Immense guilt coursed through my body as the memory of this evening’s fight flashed through my mind. Before I had a chance to second guess it, I opened my window, scooped the ball off the ground, and chucked it outside into the bitter autumn air. I was done. I was not a violent person, and I couldn’t bear what I’d done to Kyle. That wasn’t me. I’ve never had a violent thought in my life. Hell, before today, I’d never even thrown a punch. Realizing how exhausted I felt, and satisfied that the puzzle was out of my reach, I settled back into bed and shut my eyes. There was nothing else I could do right now.

A sharp pain woke me up. My bedroom was now bathed in warm sunshine, birds were chirping outside, and I could smell the rich aroma of brewing coffee. It was a short-lived moment of comfort before the rest of reality crashed into me. I quickly realized that I was sitting in the middle of my bedroom floor with my legs crossed in front of me. My back was screaming; my muscles were so stiff I thought they would tear if I moved. My entire body begged for relief, and yet I seemed to be locked in place. My eyes were burning, having been open all night. It wasn’t the pain, or even the fact that I was on the floor, that scared me. It almost wasn’t even the fact that I was holding the Devil’s Game in my hands. It was the puddle of blood that I was sitting in. Dark crimson covered the floor, my pants, a little bit on the front of my shirt, and it ran all the way up my forearms to the source. My fingers were raw, nearly to the bone. Blood poured from my ruined hands, and yet they were still fumbling and working away at the puzzle, which was also covered in blood. Horrified, I stared at my hands as if I were watching a bad horror movie. I didn’t know what to do. My fingernails were cracked and bruised, some of them missing altogether. My mouth gaped open as I processed the gore, and then the rush of pain came. Like hot steam, my fingers were suddenly on fire and I couldn’t help but scream through the agony. I managed to push myself out of my seated position, but my legs may as well have been made of wood and I went back down hard. My shattered fingertips were no use in shielding the blow, and my head bounced off the floor, a wave of stars lighting up my world.

“My hands!” I shrieked, rolling over on my back and nearing complete hysterics. I was shaking uncontrollably as waves of torment flowed through my digits. I heard Kyle muttering angrily down the hall, his heavy footsteps heading my way. I couldn’t let him find me like this. He’d have me committed. Christ, I would. I took a breath and sat up, taking it slow through the pain that existed in every fiber of my body. I wasn’t sure what scared me more; the injuries I’d sustained, or the complete mystery as to how I got them.

I managed to stand up with more effort than it should have taken. Nonetheless, I did it.

“You up, asshole? We need to talk.” Kyle yelled from the hallway and pounded on my door.

Okay. Okay, I can handle this. I grabbed the tissue box from my nightstand and made sloppy work of bandaging my wounds. My knuckles were purple, bloody, and raw from last night’s impromptu beating, so I wrapped my hands all the way up like a boxer. I knew I looked ridiculous, but it would have to do for now. I stripped off my ruined clothes and pulled on some fresh jeans and a T-shirt. Finally, I tossed a towel over the bloody mess I’d left on the carpet. I’d have to deal with that later. I took a deep breath and braced myself, opening the door to enter the harsh world, but I didn’t make it far. Kyle’s fist planted into my nose with unexpected speed and power. I stumbled backward but managed to catch myself before falling back on my ass. An awful new understanding of pain exploded from the center of my face and fresh blood poured from my nose like a crimson waterfall. I covered my face with my already destroyed hands.

“You’re lucky that’s all I have the energy for. And that I didn’t call the cops.” He appraised me with disgust. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that you look like absolute garbage. Coffee’s in the kitchen.” He stomped off towards the kitchen and I knew that I was expected to follow. I grabbed a rag for my nose and cursed; at Kyle, at myself, and at that fucking puzzle. I looked down and found that a second shirt had been ruined. I cursed that too. I pulled it off, replacing it with an older one I didn’t care about. I couldn’t afford to bleed all over another good shirt. Holding the rag to my nose, I made the dreaded trek to the kitchen, where I was sure the fun would continue.

Agony rocked my body with every step I took. My head was throbbing and my fingers ached viciously. Slowly, I made my way towards the kitchen and found Kyle waiting at the table, sour look and all. He made eye contact with me as I crossed the room towards the cabinets. My hands shook as I tenderly grasped for a mug. It was all I could do not to scream as I steadied the porcelain mug onto the countertop.

“Hey, jackass, I poured you a cup. Figured your hand might be broken.” Kyle said through his teeth, not bothering to look up from his own coffee. His voice was laced with rage and I could almost see the steam coming from his ears.

I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to do it myself. I slid into the chair across from him. “Thank you.”

For a bit too long, I felt his heavy gaze piercing through me. Each time I took a sip of my coffee, he would do the same. His dark brown eyes were fixed on me for what seemed like hours. Surely, it was only a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity.

“So,” Kyle started, leaning back in his chair and allowing a frustrated grin to spread across his face. “Are you on drugs?”

“What? No, of course not!”

“Then what the fuck happened last night?” he hissed, slamming a hand onto the table.

My heart was pounding beneath my ribs and I felt my mouth going dry.

How are you going to explain last night?

“Kyle, I-” I took a deep breath and a deeper swig of my coffee. “This is hard to explain. This puzzle I started, no matter what I do, I can’t get rid of it, and my hands…” I held up my hands and immediately wished I hadn’t; the makeshift bandages were now caked in red and seeping through. Kyle went white and his jaw fell open.

“What did you do to yourself?” His voice was now void of anger but rippled in worry and fear. I saw exactly what he saw. My fingers were broken and destroyed, and I could feel the agony to prove it. Before I could stop him, he was calling an ambulance for me, and I sat frozen as he told dispatch our address and asked for EMS.

I felt numb. “What do I tell them?”

“You stuck your hand in a blender. Now get your shit together.” He grabbed his mug and retreated to his bedroom. I sat in the kitchen to finish my coffee alone. It was only 10 minutes later that lights and sirens arrived and I was whisked away to the hospital.

It took 56 stitches, a great deal of gauze, and six hours, but I was finally on my way out of the hospital and back to my apartment. The hospital staff wanted to keep me for a psych evaluation, but I adamantly declined. My fingers were pretty much useless, so I was feeling confident about not getting sucked back into that puzzle again. As for dealing with Kyle… well, that was a different story. I was not looking forward to continuing that conversation. To my relief, I arrived home to a dark apartment. I pawed my way through the kitchen and managed to get myself a glass of water without spilling half of it on the floor. Getting my prescription bottle open was a bit more of a challenge, but I managed. The pain pills they had given me were huge and intimidating, so I decided on taking half of one before settling onto the couch. I made it 10 minutes into an episode of Cops before I fell asleep, succumbing to some much-needed rest.

It was late when I woke up. I’m not sure exactly what time it was and I didn’t bother to look, but the moon was up and shining brightly. The lights were off in the house and there was an eerie silence that made my mouth go dry. I slowly pushed myself off the couch and made my way across the room to peek out the window. Kyle’s car wasn’t in the driveway. I was worried but quickly distracted by an eerie glow that seemed to creep across the apartment and cloak me in its ugly white. The ever-familiar icy dread washed its way through my bloodstream until it got to my stomach, filling it until I was nearly sick. I turned around to find that the source of the light was coming from my laptop, which now sat open in the middle of the living room floor.

I ran my ruined fingers through my hair, the pain completely lost on me at this point, and stared at my computer. It wasn’t there before. I screwed my eyes shut. This was insane. I marched over to the laptop with heavy heels and scooped it off the floor. I felt a stinging in my fingertips as I carried the computer over to the couch, but I didn’t care much about that. I didn’t have time to, anyway. I sat down on the couch and found that my YouTube account was open and there was a message waiting from the unknown user.

IT’S BEGUN

The message was simple, and yet it sent a thousand rusty needles down my spine and into my gut. Despite the searing pain in my hands, my fingers flew across the keyboard as I typed a series of insults, questions, and then desperate pleas. I needed answers. What’s begun? Who the hell was this person and what kind of sick game had I been dragged into? My thoughts spun wildly, a carousel of anxiety and confusion, and there were no answers to ease my worry.

Three pulsing dots appeared on the screen, indicating that whoever this person was typing a response. I leaned in and waited. And waited. And then I realized that this was just another mind game. There would be no answers. This was something I was going to have to navigate on my own. I leaned back on the couch and closed my eyes, feeling an immense rush of despair and terror that I had never known before.

I covered my face with my hands, stifling an immature groan. I sat in miserable silence, unsure what to do next. I was afraid that if I moved from the couch, I would end up picking that puzzle up, and then…

Before I could finish my thought, an offensively loud buzzing sound shocked me out of my trance and I nearly fell off the couch. My heart was pounding and my blood rushed through my body with uncomfortable heat. I snapped my eyes open and whipped my head around to find the source of the mind-numbing racket, but the apartment was dark and still. I discovered that the sound was coming from my computer, and as my gaze made its way to the screen I felt myself becoming dizzy.

Playing on my laptop was a horrifically graphic video of a woman lowering her hand into a running blender. The whirring hum of the appliance went from a steady buzz to a shrieking resistance as her fingers met the metal blades. A mess of blood and flesh spat and flew about the blender as she lowered her hand deeper still, obliterating her fingers. I looked at my own gored hand and couldn’t help but make a comparison. What had Kyle said earlier? “Tell them you stuck your hand in a blender.” She didn’t scream or react. She held a steady gaze, her blue eyes piercing the camera as she gored herself. She sunk her hand deeper into the mess of spinning blades and the last of her fingers were separated from her hand. Still, she continued to lower her arm into the appliance until there was nothing but red and ruin.

A wave of adrenaline took over and I sprang from the couch, raking my hands through my hair as I tried to calm myself down. Those images were stuck in my head like a catchy pop song and I felt traumatized.

“Jesus Christ.” I hissed through my teeth. I was now pacing my living room and muttering obscenities. What’s happening to me?

I shook my head and barely noticed myself sinking back into the couch. I was done with this game. I wanted out. If I could have cried at that moment, I probably would have, but I felt completely raw. All I could focus on was the very real terror I was feeling and the possibility that I was stuck with this thing. I took a breath.

When I opened my eyes, I noticed that the woman was staring at the camera through her blood-splattered face. I jumped and my heart rate flew upon seeing her sapphire blue eyes staring into my soul, but what scared me worse than anything was the sudden recognition I felt for her. I’d seen her before. I knew that face because I’d felt this exact wave of discomfort before.

She was the woman that had been staring at me in the lecture hall that day.

I slammed my computer shut and buried my face into my hands, sending a painful shock through my hand. What was I supposed to do with that? I paced about my living room, raw fear and sweat pouring from every inch of my body. I tried to remember if she had both hands when I saw her at the university, but I was too distracted. I didn’t pay her enough attention. It had to be fake.

Before I could process much more, an angry and ear-splitting groan came from my bedroom. It was as if the audio from a horrible car accident was slowed down to amplify the metal grinding and crashing into itself. I immediately covered my ears and turned towards the direction of the offensive screeching. It stopped for a few seconds and then started up again louder this time. I knew I was screaming, but I couldn’t hear myself over the paralyzing racket. I cautiously staggered my way towards my bedroom where I found the sphere sitting on my desk, glowing a brilliant orange. It seemed to be the source of the noise as the symbols flared in conjunction with the grinding report.

“I’ve HAD IT with this god damned thing!” I yelled once the sound paused. I picked it up and held it in my shaking palms, anxiously anticipating the next deafening round. I cringed right as I expected it to start up, but nothing happened. The puzzle was still glowing, but hardly as brightly as it previously was. Now that I had it in my hands, it seemed to be calming down. I stared at it with horrified fascination. It could sense when it was being handled or touched. I looked around my dark apartment, feeling more alone than I ever had in my life. Clutching the game to my chest, I made my way out of my bedroom. I felt an ugly presence in there, and it felt like the walls would begin closing in on me at any moment.

Back in the living room, I put on a late-night sitcom and settled in to appraise the enigma I held in my hands. I wondered if that grinding noise would start every time I left the game alone for too long.

I felt my heart surge as I wondered what this all meant. I had no idea how this thing worked, why I couldn’t get rid of it, or what that horrible sound was. I felt lost and confused. And so afraid. I didn’t know where Kyle was, and that unsettled me as well. I didn’t know what to do, so I leaned back and made sure to keep the game firmly in my grasp. I wouldn’t let it go, but I didn’t want to play tonight. I didn’t even want it in this apartment, but I wasn’t sure what would happen if I tried getting rid of it again. It didn’t take long before I felt my eyelids getting heavy. I allowed them to fall shut as I sank deep into a world of unaware slumber.

I was absolutely freezing when I woke up. I reached for a blanket, but quickly felt my blood drain when I found mud and grass beneath me. I opened my eyes to find that I was sitting against a tree in the middle of a park. Ominous, crooked trees lined my vision in every direction I looked. I looked down to find the puzzle sitting on my lap. I’d solved a few more moves. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but I just did. The puzzle never changed in appearance, save for the color of the glowing runic symbols. Instead of moving pieces like a Rubik’s Cube, it was like I was gaining knowledge and unlocking something forbidden within my own mind.

I felt a piercing ache rocket through my head and I cursed. I took a deep breath and tried not to panic, but it was a difficult task. I was more than halfway across the city without a jacket, shoes, or a cell phone. I had no idea what time it was or how long I’d been out here. An eerie chill shot through my body and I decided it was time to start finding my way home. I thought about finding a payphone or borrowing a stranger’s cell phone, but quickly resented modern technology and my lack of ability to remember anyone’s phone number. I wouldn’t know how to get in touch with anyone, and we certainly didn’t own a landline for me to leave a message on. I pushed myself to my feet and scanned my surroundings. It was morning, I assumed early, as a light frost painted the tips of each blade of grass, and the sky was a deep purple, slowly welcoming in shades of orange. I wrapped my arms around myself and shivered, groaning at the long walk I had ahead of me.

I’d only been walking for about 20 minutes when I noticed a figure sitting at the edge of the park. I slowed my pace and kept my eyes trained on the person as I got closer. I realized it was a woman huddled with her knees to her chest. I felt my panic recede a bit as my stride picked back up. Once I got close enough, I recognized her to be the woman from the lecture hall, and from that gruesome video.

“I’ve been waiting for you for hours.” She spoke without looking up at me. Her face was hidden behind a tangle of mousy brown hair and the hood of her oversized sweatshirt was pulled up. She looked like she’d seen better days. My eyes drifted down and I realized one of the sleeves of her sweatshirt was especially baggy and loose. She tried hiding it with her other arm, but it was clear that her arm was gone from the elbow down. I gasped, unable to hide my shock.

“Who are you?” I asked through trembling lips.

“I’m Ash. I’m not really anyone. Just a curious girl who made an incredible mistake.” She shifted her gaze and her eyes traveled up to meet mine. “It’s not important. What matters is that you solve that puzzle.”

My jaw fell slack. “You were the one who gave it to me? You’re the unknown user who started all of this…” I felt rage boiling inside me.

“I’m sorry.” She turned her eyes downward once again. “I truly didn’t want to get you involved in this, but I didn’t have any other options.”

“What are you talking about?”

She sighed. “Can I give you a ride home and I’ll explain as much as I can?”

I reluctantly agreed. I was more than hesitant to get in a car with her, but I was otherwise stranded and she had the answers that I desperately craved. I followed her to the parking lot where she led me to a surprisingly nice car. I slid into the front seat and felt my body sigh at the warmth and comfort of her car. She soon got in next to me and gave me a wary look before awkwardly starting up the car with her one arm.

“I know what you must think.” She finally said.

I stared at her, wracking my brain. “I don’t even know what I’m supposed to think anymore.”

She let out a breathy laugh. It was refreshing to see her relax, even for a moment. “Yeah, I get that. I was exactly where you are only two months ago.” She must have caught the alarm in my eyes and allowed herself another smile. “I know what I look like. I’ve never coped well, and I guess I get a bit… obsessed. That’s why I sent the game to you.”

“Why? So you could pass off the anxiety and torment to someone else?” I felt my skin getting hot.

We came to a stoplight and she turned to me. “No! No, it’s not like that at all. Once you start the game, it has to be played through. I knew I had no chance at solving it. And, well… they say you’re the best.”

I groaned. I was exhausted. “What about that video? Your arm?”

I saw hurt and pain ripple across her face before it returned to that familiar vacant gaze. The light turned green and she stomped on the gas pedal. “It needs blood. If you can’t solve it, it takes from you.” I thought I heard a faint sob escape her lips. “Glen, you have to solve this thing. I know you’ve experienced its ways. It’s only going to keep getting worse, and fuck, look at me. Look at my arm! I don’t want that to happen to you or anyone else. We have to end this.”

I didn’t know what to say for a long time. After a few minutes, she pulled up in front of my apartment, and I didn’t have the energy to ask her how she knew where I lived. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. I turned to her after some time. “Can’t we just destroy it?”

“I’ve tried. I burned it. I ran it over with my car. Sank it in the ocean. It always comes back. There’s only one way, Glen, and I need your help.” She had desperation in her voice, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t say no to her.

“So what do we do?”

“Let’s meet at the park tonight at 10 o’clock; same place. I have an idea.”

I reluctantly agreed. I pushed the car door open and slid out into the cool autumn morning.

“Glen,” she called as I was turning towards my home.

“What?” I growled. I was exhausted, confused, and in need of a shower, food, and some decent sleep.

Her eyes darted back and forth and she lowered her voice. “Make sure you come alone.”

“Right.” I nodded and turned my back to her, trudging miserably up my walkway. I was grateful to see Kyle’s car parked in the driveway, but my relief faded the moment I walked into the house.

Kyle was in the kitchen with Rachel and Sarah sitting at the table. A stack of pancakes and coffee was spread out before them and the sweet scent was luxurious. Kyle was mid-story and the girls were laughing so hard they almost didn’t hear me enter the house. I shut the door a bit too hard and Kyle’s gaze snapped up to meet mine.

“What happened to you?” His voice was only a few decibels over a whisper.

I kept moving, scanning the room anxiously, meeting Kyle’s eyes all too often. I just wanted to go to bed. I met Sarah’s eyes and she had confusion written all over them. I ignored him and kept walking, intent on getting to my bedroom.

“Glen! Hey!” Kyle was on me in an instant, snapping his fingers in my face.

“WHAT?” I didn’t mean to scream at him, but I did. He stepped back a pace but didn’t waver from my sudden explosion. I could tell that the girls were uncomfortable, trying not to look at me in my ruined state. I pretended to ignore them, but I felt sick at the thought that I was scaring them. He stood there wordlessly. His face was written in shock, fear, and confusion. “I’ve had a long night and I just want to go to bed.” I stared at him with an intensity that I didn’t know I was capable of. When he didn’t respond, I turned my back on him and made my way down the hallway.

Behind the closed door, I felt a sudden urge to cry. The weight of everything seemed to finally sink in and I felt helpless against the pressure. I dove into the safety of my bed and let myself process everything. I allowed myself to cry, the gravity of my situation sinking in deeper with every passing second.

Sleep came like an absent parent; far too late, far too brief, and with much disappointment. In those brief moments of quiet and darkness, I experienced many wild and unsettling nightmares. The sun was still up when I peeled myself away from my bed. I checked my phone and found that it had only been a few hours. I rolled my eyes as I journeyed out into the apartment. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had until 10 o’clock tonight and it was only 11 in the morning.

Upon entering the kitchen, I found that Kyle had written me a note explaining that he and the girls had gone out for a bit and would be back later. I wasn’t looking forward to that. I wanted to be alone in the worst way, but I would take what I could get.

Realizing I still hadn’t eaten anything, I made myself some eggs and coffee and sat down at the table to eat and try to take my mind off the situation. I shoveled the food in my face and quickly returned to the fridge for more. I was absolutely starving. After another round of eggs, some avocado toast, and three oranges, my stomach was still screaming for more, but I resisted. Instead, I got in the shower and let the hot water wash over my body, wishing it would wash away the terror that reeled in my mind. I scored a few moments of peace before I heard Kyle come back home. Once I was dried off and dressed, I crept quietly from the bathroom to my bedroom, where I spent the next few hours staring at the puzzle.

The day slogged on and I spent it in anxious misery. If I could have slept through until 10 o’clock, I certainly would have. My mind was far too busy for that, to my dismay.

At some point, I emerged from my room to use the bathroom. On my way out, I was hijacked by a very concerned Kyle.

“Dude, we need to talk. I’m worried about you.”

“I don’t have time for this today.” Even I was taken aback by the venom and grit that existed in my voice.

“Then make some. You haven’t been yourself since you started messing with that thing. And not to mention the impromptu fight night…”

“Kyle,” I hissed through my teeth, interrupting him. “Please. Not today.”

“No, Glen, this is happening whether you like it or not. You need to tell me what’s going on, because if not, I’m going to have to start looking for a new roommate.”

I wanted to hit him again. I wanted to break his fucking jaw.

“Let’s go,” he said with ice in his voice. He made his way to the kitchen and I reluctantly followed. I was grateful to find that he’d made us a plate of nachos and poured some beers. I was still starving and could certainly eat, so I sat down across from him and filled up a plate. He took a heavy sip of his beer before appraising me with exhaustion and worry. Finally, he spoke. “Look me in the eyes and tell me honestly that you’re not on drugs.”

“Oh, come on, not this again.”

“Look at my fucking face! You did that! And last I checked, you were a quiet nerd that had never been in a fight before, so you tell me how that happens.” His voice escalated from worry to anger, standing abruptly at the end of his sentence. I felt my face going red, and for once it wasn’t born from rage. I felt horrible. Kyle was the best friend I had, and I was destroying our relationship.

I buried my head in my hands and took a deep breath. “Kyle, I promise I’m not on drugs. There’s been something weird going on.” I didn’t know what else to say or how else to explain it. I saw the disappointment in his face and felt myself deflating. He couldn’t possibly understand. I popped a few nachos in my mouth and took a few timid sips of my drink.

And then I told him everything. I told him about the strange events surrounding the puzzle and how I couldn’t get rid of it. I told him about the anger and violence I’d been feeling and the horrific video. Finally, I told him about Ash, the girl in the park.

By the time I finished telling Kyle everything, his jaw was slack and he looked at me with a fearful intensity. He was speechless, but he seemed to believe me. The silence was a bit too long for my comfort, but it gave me some time to scarf down half the nachos and finish my beer.

“So, what now?” he asked finally.

I shrugged, debating whether or not I should tell him that I was going back to the park tonight. Deciding that keeping secrets wasn’t doing me any good, I answered him.

“Well, Ash asked me to meet her back at the park tonight. She said she had an idea and I don’t know what else to do.”

“Well,” he turned at glanced at the clock on the microwave, “that’s in just a few hours. We’d better rest up before heading out.”

“Wait, what?”

“You think I’m going to let you go alone?” He scoffed.

“Kyle, she told me to come alone.”

“Yeah, and that’s exactly why I don’t want you going by yourself. You have no idea who this girl is. After everything you just told me, that sounds like a suicide mission. You need some backup on this, and now I’m involved.”

After a bit more bickering, I finally agreed. I was silently grateful that I wouldn’t be alone, as I was starting to dread the rendezvous more with each passing second. While Kyle had a heart of gold, he was an intimidating man by appearance and he could hold his own when he needed to. I felt a little safer having him on my side, but I couldn’t stave off the pit in my stomach. I didn’t want to put him in danger, and I had no idea what I was walking into.

He went off to his room to take a nap while I spent the rest of the evening fiddling with the puzzle. I managed to solve a bit more of it and noticed that the symbols were now glowing a crimson red. I cringed, somehow knowing that couldn’t be good. I put it down but found it back in my hands only a few moments later. I was never one for praying, but I found myself staring through my window at the moon and begging whatever god existed up there to help me through this. The sky stayed as it was, the apartment remained still and quiet, and I remembered exactly why I wasn’t a religious man.

Once nine o’clock rolled around, I couldn’t take my eyes away from the clock. Every minute that passed seemed to be an eternity, and I just wanted to get it over with. I had already changed my clothes three times and packed a small backpack with water, a knife, and the puzzle. I paced until I couldn’t stand it anymore and burst into Kyle’s room.

“You ready?”

He jumped, startled awake by my abrupt entrance. “Ugh, yeah… we have like 45 minutes, though.”

“Well, I’m anxious. And I want to get this shit over with.”

“Alright, well, just give me a few minutes to get dressed and ready.”

I nodded and shut his door. I half expected him to convince me not to go.

We rode in near silence the entire 40-minute ride to the park. Neither of us knew what to say. A few times Kyle suggested stopping for food, but it wasn’t food that we needed. He was just stalling. I could feel the nervous energy in the air, but I didn’t have it in me to try and calm it. My heart was pounding in my chest and my ears were ringing. I don’t think I’d ever been so nervous — no, terrified — in my life. More than a few times during the commute, I thought I would have to tell Kyle to pull over so I could throw up. Thankfully, I managed to keep my dinner in.

The whirring headlights, the fast-food restaurants, and the shopping plazas diminished in frequency as we drove. Instead of the bright lights and vibrancy of the city, we soon found ourselves surrounded by dark forests and untreated roads. The silence grew as Kyle’s car crept down the road. I didn’t remember it being so dark and abandoned out here, but then again, everything seems to look a little more ominous in the dark of the night.

The ground underneath the tires turned from pavement to dirt abruptly. My stomach dropped; we were at the park. Kyle seemed to know we were close as he shot me a few wide-eyed glances. He was scared. I’d never seen him like that; he was the strongest person I knew. It shook me to see him so freaked out, but I knew I had to stay focused. I directed him into a parking lot where I spotted Ash’s car. I looked hard into Kyle’s eyes and took a deep breath. I had no idea what was going to happen next, and yet I had a horrible feeling deep in my gut that this was a huge mistake. It was too late to back out now, and so I swung open the door and heard Kyle following me. Before we made it halfway to Ash’s car, she was already storming towards me.

“I told you to come alone!” she hissed, her eyes wide and shifting between Kyle and me. She was manic and I noticed that her face was especially pale. She looked a few steps away from death itself. She had dark circles around her eyes and her hair was greasy and tangled. I noticed she was twitching and I wondered what she was on.

“I didn’t know what I was walking into.” I met her with a stony gaze, puffing out my chest and standing tall. Deep down, though, I was terrified. Her eyes shot to Kyle and pierced him with her venomous gaze. He narrowed his eyes at her, but I could tell that he was unsure, maybe even regretting his choice to come here. After a few moments, she huffed.

“Fine,” Her eyes locked into mine and I thought I saw violence in them. “Let’s go.”

She led us down a long dirt bike path. We walked for what felt like an hour, and my feet were screaming by the end of it. I wasn’t exactly the hiking type. If the darkness and silence weren’t enough to drive me mad, the Devil’s Game sat in my pocket, vibrating and pulsing with its evil glow. After some time, my ears started ringing. I knew this was going to be bad. The further we walked, the more dread I felt. The ringing in my ears was turning into an awful screech, and my hands were shaking beyond control.

After some time, Ash had stopped. She stood before a cluster of large stones and boulders. It was seemingly nothing to the naked eye, but it held dark and vicious energy that sank my stomach.

“We’re almost there,” Ash said flatly. She pushed ahead of Kyle and me and seemed to focus on a spot in the dirt just in front of the towering masses of stone. “Come on, Glen.”

Kyle and I exchanged glances for the first time since we’d begun our trek, and I stepped ahead of him, approaching Ash with hesitation. He was close behind me, unwilling to let me shoulder this on my own. It made me feel better. I didn’t think this girl could, or would, actually hurt me, but I couldn’t be sure of anything anymore.

“So…” My voice shook when I spoke. “Now what?”

Before either of us could prevent it, she had pulled a pistol out of her baggy sweatshirt pocket and shoved it into my temple. She pressed it hard into the side of my head until I fell to my knees and my hands went up. The barrel was cold against my skin and all I could think about was how easily she could end everything for me. I was shaking, and it was all I could do to keep my composure. She started screaming at me.

“I TOLD YOU to come alone and now you fucked this all up.” Spit flew from her lips and onto my face as she yelled. “Why? Why couldn’t you just listen to ONE THING?” She suddenly swung the butt of the pistol across my jaw and I instantly tasted blood pooling in my mouth. Stars exploded across my vision and my head pulsed with agony. I let out a gasp and spit a mouthful of blood onto the cold, forest floor.

I hung my jaw open, letting blood and drool spill from my mouth before I tried to stand. Before I knew it, Kyle was on Ash with all of his strength, wrapping his muscular arms around her.

“Drop the gun! Now!” he screamed. Ash, despite having only one arm, squirmed and struggled against his hold. She bucked her body forward, and with all of the strength in her frail body, she slammed the back of her head right into Kyle’s nose. He let go and backed up a few paces while holding his hands to his face. I saw the anger in his eyes and he was ready to grab her again when she slammed the pistol into the side of his head. She was stronger than she looked and he went down quickly. He was out cold, and now I was alone with this stranger with a pension for violence. She had one arm but was managing to dominate two full-grown men.

“Okay, okay.” I had my hands up and was breathing heavily. “What do you want?”

“What I wanted,” she hissed, “was for you to come alone. But I think I can work with this.” Her focus turned to Kyle, who was clutching his face and slowly coming back to consciousness. As his eyes drifted up to meet hers, she planted her foot into his crotch, causing a painful whimper to escape Kyle’s blood-soaked lips. Ash knelt down next to him and pushed the pistol into his face. The barrel was pressed against his cheek, and I saw his eyes widen and then search for mine as the weight of his fear took hold. My stomach lurched. I was desperate to help my friend but I didn’t know what to do. I considered grabbing the small pocket knife from my pack, but I knew it was no match for her firearm.

“Ash, stop!” I pleaded, absolutely terrified for my friend’s life. Kyle’s breath hitched in his throat as he tried to maintain composure. I saw his eyes watering and his lips trembled with wordless pleas.

Her eyes locked on mine and I saw pure hatred in them. “Whatever happens to him tonight is on you. Now let’s go.” She held the gun aimed at Kyle’s head and urged us forward. I wasn’t sure where we were going and it was too dark to make sense of my surroundings. We were going deeper into the woods—I knew that much, at least. After some time, we stopped in a small clearing, and Ash seemed to be getting more nervous by the moment. She scanned the area and let her bag slide off her armless shoulder and onto the ground. She turned back to Kyle and me and held the gun in my best friend’s face once again.

“Where’s the game?” she snapped.

Flustered, I fumbled for the zipper of my pack and rushed to grab the puzzle and show it to her. Out of breath and raging with adrenaline, I was able to muster a response. “Here. It’s here.”

“Good. Now fucking solve it.” She forced Kyle to sit down as she pressed the gun into his lips. My stomach rolled when she sat down on his lap and began playing with his hair. She had the barrel firmly in his mouth, and I could hear him mumbling something around the cold metal. When I didn’t move or respond to her in due time, her eyes snapped over to mine and violence grew over her features. “NOW! Before I kill him.”

I nearly dropped the damned thing as I fumbled to place my fingers around it. I found that I was shaking profusely. The pulsing glow of the runic symbols seemed to react to my touch and they cast an unsettling red across the clearing. I had never seen it glow so brightly, and it almost hurt my eyes to focus on it for too long. I fumbled with it and pressed my fingers into all the familiar pressure points of the puzzle. Beyond everything I’ve ever believed in, I invested every ounce of my energy into solving the puzzle and being done with this nightmare. I don’t know how long I’d been tinkering with it when Kyle finally found his voice again.

“Get OFF of me!” he screamed. When my eyes found him I saw that Ash was tracing the gun down his chest and landing at his crotch.

“Shut up, pig,” I heard her mutter. That was it. I was done. I let the puzzle slip out of my hands and before I knew it I was tackling her to the ground. Blindsided, she let out a scream that almost broke my heart, but I quickly remembered that only moments ago she had a gun in Kyle’s face. I had her pinned beneath me, but after that, I was lost. I didn’t want to hurt her. I couldn’t; it went against everything I believed in. But she had hurt both of us, and now I was at a stalemate. I felt Kyle standing behind me, and fear rocketed through my stomach once again. I felt him push me away from her as he replaced me, landing a meaty fist into her small, bony face.

“How do you like it? How do you like it, you fucking bitch?” He was screaming now, but the sounds of his voice were quickly shadowed by the familiar, awful grinding noise. It was loud and intrusive and my hands quickly slapped against my ears, a weak attempt at blocking out the screeching hell. I noticed that the puzzle was glowing and pulsing erratically, as if it were angered. I crawled my way over to it; the sound of the grinding metal was now splitting my ears into an unbearable headache. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ash writhing on the ground, clutching her face in pain and rage. I ignored her and grabbed the puzzle with desperation and quickly began fidgeting with it, praying to a God I never believed in to please make this end.

I pressed my fingers around the smooth surface of the sphere and the grinding screech intensified. I didn’t think Kyle could hear it, as he was still grappling with Ash, the two of them screaming profanities and threats at each other. I spun the game around in my hands, hoping for anything, when suddenly I felt something. I’d done it. I figured it out. In disbelief, I stared down at the puzzle as the glow of the symbols gradually changed from dark crimson to a soft yellow. It was…satisfied? The horrible grinding stopped but was replaced by the deafening bang of a gun being fired. I turned and instantly felt the blood drain from my face. Kyle was lying on the ground, his face gored and pouring blood from a fresh wound right below his eye. Ash stood over him, panting and wiping splatters of my best friend’s blood from her face.

I screamed something wicked. It was a noise I didn’t know the human body could possibly produce, but I was beyond control of myself. Ash had killed him, and now she had her sights on me.

“What did you do? What the FUCK did you do?” I screamed, spit flying from between my lips as I completely lost control of myself. Ash stared at me through her brilliant blue eyes with hate and a glimmer of arrogance. Before I could say anything else, though, the sound of grinding metal returned, and this time, she heard it, too. We both pressed our hands against our ears and screamed over the noise, but it was no use. It was louder than anything I’ve ever heard in my life. Ash was staring at me, yelling something I couldn’t hear or understand beneath the deafening shrieks. She seemed to be instructing me to do something, but I couldn’t even begin to understand. Suddenly, both of us looked to the sphere and noticed that it was moving on its own, rolling around in the dirt and pulsing desperately. It seemed to be rolling towards Kyle’s dead body. Towards his blood.

“This has to stop,” I whispered through my grinding teeth. I stormed over to the puzzle and picked it up with hatred. I walked it over to a nearby rock and began smashing it into the boulder, destroying the puzzle and my already ruined hand. I wasn’t sure it would help, but I wasn’t done. I had noticed a large hole in the ground on our way out here and I stormed my way over to it, throwing the pieces and shards of the Devil’s Game into the black abyss. It seemed to fall for a long time, quickly being swallowed up by the pitch black of the mysterious hole.

For a short moment, the grinding stopped, leaving us in an empty, bleak silence. I met Ash’s eyes, and for a brief moment, my fear had overcome my hatred for her. I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could get a word out, the moment of silent reprieve was replaced by horrific, loud, and tortured screaming. It was as if we were standing right at the mouth of hell itself, experiencing the agonized sounds of our future. I couldn’t tell if Ash was screaming too, but her jaw was open wide and she seemed to be tortured by the shrieks.

The wailing was endless and deafening. It just wouldn’t stop. I realized I’d been squeezing my eyes shut, and when I blinked them open, I noticed something that brought bile into the back of my throat. Emerging from the hole that I’d thrown the game in was a horribly deformed hand pulling its way to the surface. The hand had three fingers and all seemed to be broken and bent at unnatural angles. Attached to the hand was a massive arm, bigger than any bodybuilders that I’d ever seen. It crawled clumsily, but it was slowly making its way out. The creature’s skin was a sickly gray and freckled with boils and blisters. A second arm emerged from the hole and slammed its deformed arm into the dirt. I felt Ash suddenly grip my arm, but I quickly shook her away. I wasn’t here to comfort her. The screaming was getting louder. The creature’s three gnarled fingers dug into the dirt and pulled itself forward, revealing something that I’ll never be able to unsee.

As it pulled itself from the hole, I realized that it didn’t have much of a head. Rather, it was a series of fangs and jaws that snapped and growled. When it opened its mouth, revealing rows of teeth all down its throat, I saw that the creature had a single, bloodshot eyeball in the back of its throat. It dragged two small, pathetic legs behind its muscular upper body, but despite that, it moved fast. I wanted to scream, to run, to do anything, but I was rooted in place as if I’d grown from the earth itself. I couldn’t move. The creature snarled and gnashed its teeth together as it awkwardly crawled towards Ash and me. Suddenly, I felt a surge of adrenaline and snatched the gun from Ash’s grip. My hands were shaking and sweating uncontrollably and I struggled to get a firm grasp on the pistol, let alone aim it. I’d never shot a gun before, but I knew this wasn’t the time to consider my qualifications.

“Shoot it, Glen! Do it now!” I heard Ash scream beneath the orchestra of tortured cries.

I took a breath and squeezed the trigger, stunned for a moment at the enormous power I held in my hands. The creature shrieked and slowed a bit, but continued moving towards us. I pulled the trigger again. And again, and again but the horrible beast wasn’t fazed by the bullets. It continued moving towards us, despite the fresh wounds in its body. It bled a terrible white ooze and twitched horribly at each gunshot, but still, the creature was undeterred. I squeezed the trigger again but found I was out of bullets. I dropped the gun and found myself stepping backward, still unable to run or take my eyes away from the monster. I was in shock and utter disbelief. Ash seemed to be in shock as well—her face was pale and her jaw hung open. Her hands reached for my arm again, and this time I didn’t push her away.

“What is that thing?” I yelled over the chorus of screams. Ash didn’t answer. She was frozen in terror. The beast opened its jaws wide and let out a gurgling moan, its single, bloodshot eyeball rolling wildly behind rows of sharp, jagged fangs. It continued dragging itself closer, stopping at Kyle’s dead body to inspect it for a moment before deciding that he wasn’t worth its time. It kept crawling closer and closer until it was only a few feet from us. It let out a wet growl, and I could feel the heat of its rotted breath on my skin. I noticed that Ash was sobbing and trying to hide behind my body. I stepped aside, remembering what she’d done to Kyle. I remembered that she was the one that brought me here and she was the one who caused all of this. I turned and grabbed her by the shoulders, looking deep into her eyes with more venom and hate than I ever had before.

“This is all your fucking fault,” I hissed. Realization bloomed across her features as she seemed to understand what was about to happen. She cried and begged, but I didn’t pity her. I shoved her small frame ahead of me and she fell to the ground before the monster. The full weight of her body landed on her arm and broke with an incredible snap. She howled and writhed, trying to escape the inevitable. The creature let out another wet bellow before slamming one of its titanic arms down onto her torso violently. I could almost hear her ribs break and she shook with pain, an agonized howl escaping her. She looked at me with pleading, tear-streaked eyes, but didn’t have enough time to say a word. The creature slammed its great fist down on her body once again, this time breaking her and causing a steady flow of crimson to fall from her lips. Tears and blood dripped from her face and she weakly fought to escape the horrible creature. Her cries were blood-curdling, and I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t bring myself to. It slammed down on her one more time, completely incapacitating her before it finally sank its vicious teeth into her stomach and began to consume her from the inside out. It ripped out her organs, sucking in her intestines like spaghetti before moving upward and breaking into her chest cavity.

It took a while, but the monster had devoured every last inch of her. Blood covered the earth around me and I realized that the unknown screams had dissipated. It was only my raw and aching throat that was producing a weak scream at this point.

The beast had finished its meal and let its jaw fall open, revealing blood-soaked fangs and that terrible red eyeball. It stared at me for a long moment, and my chest felt so tight I couldn’t breathe. I could hardly think. I felt like I was in a vacuum of torture, unable to fight back or do much to help myself. It felt like a lifetime; my eyes locked on the creature’s one gored eyeball. Finally, and to my absolute disbelief, it let out a gargle and began turning its odd body back towards the hole. I watched the beast drag itself away from me and then disappear into the crevice. It was gone, and so was Ash.

I stood there for eternity in uncomfortable silence, staring at Kyle’s lifeless body. I wanted to cry, but my body was in so much shock that I was unable to move or speak.

After some time, I numbly reached for my cell phone and called the police. I knew they’d never believe me about the game, the screaming, or the monster, but I could at least tell them about Kyle’s murder. After I hung up, I realized I’d fired the gun and my fingerprints were all over it. Quickly, I dug through my pack for a T-shirt I’d packed and carefully wiped down every inch of the piece. Once I was satisfied, I threw it down the hole where the monster and the Devil’s Game now lived. I felt confident enough that the police wouldn’t search down there, and if they had, they wouldn’t find any evidence. They’d investigate and search for Ash, but I knew they’d find nothing. At least Kyle’s family could have a proper service and find some type of closure for his untimely death. I hoped, anyway.

The police questioned me for hours, and I wasn’t able to go home until late morning the next day. My story was simple: we’d met a girl and planned to light a fire out in the woods. There was an argument and she snapped, shooting Kyle dead. I don’t know if they bought it, but they certainly weren’t going to believe the truth, and I couldn’t afford to land myself in a psychiatric hospital. During the hours I sat in the interrogation room, I couldn’t help but wonder why Ash was so adamant about me coming alone. What did it matter? It bothered me to the point where I was having trouble focusing on the officer’s questions. My story wasn’t changing, and my prints weren’t on the gun, so eventually, they had to let me go.

It was during my walk home that I remembered something that Ash told me when I first met her.

It needs blood.

At that revelation, I felt my heart sink. She had intended to kill me that night. Once I solved the puzzle, she was going to shoot me dead and offer up my blood. After that realization, I didn’t feel so bad about letting that monster eat her alive.

I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from that night. I was left with a lot more questions than answers, and I can’t sleep or even shut my eyes without seeing Kyle’s face, or hearing the screams, or seeing that monster’s awful, searching eyeball. I still don’t fully understand the Devil’s Game, or even what Ash’s true involvement in it was. What I do know is that you never, ever get to escape the Devil’s Game.

The apartment was far too silent and awkward without Kyle. It was painful to stay, so I dropped out of college and found a studio apartment across town. It wasn’t much, but it worked for me. With my best friend six feet under, I struggled to find the good in life and fell deep into a depression. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. Except for one thing. I don’t remember when the Game found me again, but I came home from work one afternoon to find it sitting on my countertop. At first, it felt like a stab to the gut, like a life sentence in prison. I was never getting rid of this thing, and so I found there was no reason to hide from it anymore. I was able to learn a bit more about it. If you neglect it for too long, that’s when the screeching starts. The more attention you give it, the easier it is to solve. I don’t know if there is an end or a true solution to it. I think it just wants to be… played with. It’s been a few hours now and I really don’t want that horrible noise to start. I’m going to play with my game now.

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