This story first appeared on the podcast Nighty Nighty with Rabia Chaudry
The first “Cancellation” I remember watching was hailed as an instant classic:
A small crew of death-row inmates, mostly serial killers, were let loose in...Redding…I think… Yeah, actually, I remember the TV’s advertising it with the slogan “Paint the Town Red…”
Almost nothing happened for the first twelve hours. Maybe a stabbing here and there...It turned out that these maniacs had been waiting for dark. They kept to the shadows, creeping in through open windows and basement storm doors...The home audience’s patience was paid off in full as screams rang out from nearly every house. The final survivor was stalked through the woods, ending up in an old, abandoned farmhouse.
That year, they set off fireworks as the last victim bled out, and then, timed perfectly with the explosions of color, the serial killers were each gunned down to carry out their death sentences.
I was seven.
I also remember the morning when the town found out we were nominated to be Cancelled. The news was on almost every station: our quaint little Brisbane Falls had made this year’s poll. Most people were too shocked to do much of anything, others, like myself, immediately turned our thoughts to the children, who, as always, would be exempt...Well, up to three-years-old, anyway. The rest turned into something of a stampede. Glancing out the window I could see my neighbors rushing out their front doors, some with hastily packed bags, leaping into their cars and gunning it for the town limits. As if that would do any good. You were just as likely to find yourself killed trying to escape.
The moment a town’s nomination goes public, the guards are already supposed to be on the scene, but hey, things don’t always go the way they’re supposed to, right? I heard that during the first Cancellation, almost half of Springfield escaped...Not that anyone officially admitted it. For the next few years they even brought the guards in a week early. To allow anyone to escape would defeat the whole point.
Still, that doesn’t prevent animal instinct from taking over.
When faced with death, people will do whatever it takes to survive, no matter how illogical. Unless, of course, you have a bigger concern than survival.
My daughter Terra watched the screens with me, a placid expression of enjoyment on her face. I usually don’t let her watch much TV. She had this look like she was getting away with something, and didn’t want to do anything that might risk ruining the opportunity to sit and stare at the screen. Thankfully...I don’t think she could comprehend what the talking heads were saying. They used the same script as the last time, and the time before that.
That holier-than-thou speech about how ‘the time has come for us to once again vote in the most important election. Every year, to ensure our survival as a species, a community will be elected to make…a sacrifice…’
I didn’t even need to watch anymore, but...curiosity. Results were a week away, but I knew...I knew I wouldn’t have much more time to spend with my beautiful, curious young daughter...and I had plans to make.
My partner used to make fun of all my scheming, but really I think I've just always taken advantage of the systems in place to get the best possible outcome for myself, or in this case: my wonderful little Terra. At some point that day, I remember trying to cry. Nothing came out. In some ways, I felt I’d almost signed up for what would happen next to my cozy town of Brisbane Falls. I’d certainly been a participant in Cancellations since I was a kid myself, anyway.
Every year for the past few decades, The Cancellation had been broadcast as if it were some exciting event, like the Stanley Cup or Wimbledon. Corporations competed for ad space, bidding higher and higher on 30-second spots to sell beer, burgers, or luxury sedans. And just like the rest of the country, every year I watched with my eyes glued to the screen, typically at some sort of Cancellation party, where we’d place bets on the Method, and the Last Person Standing. The Cancellations first started when I was a little girl, and I was just old enough to remember the outrage. For maybe the first five years, Cancellations were somber affairs. It was like going to church or something.
“Today we honor those who are to be cancelled so that the rest of us may be spared.”
Give me a break. It was human sacrifice.
Granted, it’s not like we offered the dead to some Old God, or as part of a satanic ritual or something, but rather for, well, population control. For too long, mankind ignored the signs as the seas rose and the weather began to destroy us. The people who finally stepped up to make a difference were surprising.
It was the most extreme of the tree huggers and gun nuts finally came together on climate change, presenting a new, controversial proposition. Fringe at first, it slowly took a foothold. In school, we studied the political ads extolling the virtues of “Hunting Season,” as it was first called:
“We keep the deer population in check, but we don’t have the stomach to control ourselves.”
My father told me that, like most insane ideas, it took a little time to seep into almost every conversation. Good luck keeping politics out of the office when your coworker blurts out that they believe we should kill each other to save the planet. I guess it was a little hard to sit on the fence. For the first few years, most people didn’t consider it a realistic option, but like the frog in the pot, gradually getting used to hotter and hotter temperatures, “Hunting Season” stopped being treated like a bad joke, and took hold. It probably didn’t hurt that the fires and earthquakes managed to get even worse…Losing Los Angeles had to have been something of a wake up call.
If I remember correctly, I think “Hunting Season” was meant to be an entire month where murder was legalized across the country (“no grudge killings” a senator offered on TV, as if that helped at all). Opponents to the concept warned that every major city would turn into blood-drenched hunting grounds...Death traps.
My dad moved us out of the big city to the small town of Brisbane Falls to get away from exactly that line of thinking. Ironically, just after we got settled, “Hunting Season” was repackaged (and passed) as “Cancellations,” a far more palatable, and impersonal, name.
The new idea was to, through the infallible democratic process, vote on a small city to eliminate entirely. Sure, it was still murder, but “Cancellation” sounded less barbaric than “Hunting Season,” and commentators on the TV insisted that wiping out a specific town would prevent anyone from taking it upon themselves to kill their friends, family, and neighbors for fun. Wiping out a whole town would mostly mean that families wouldn’t have to risk losing a member or two, they’d all be wiped out in the blink of an eye, meaning less mourning. No survivors. Maybe it would even lower the crime rate across the country! Cancelled towns would be honored as national landmarks, possibly even becoming tourist destinations.
The rules were simple: No hunting conducted by civilians was permitted. Cancellations would be carried out by the federal government, and just to help the bill get through, they added a provision that children three years old and younger would be exempt.
Oh wow, thanks.
Growing up in Brisbane Falls, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that we could one day be nominated, or even selected. Sadly, that was just a fact of life. In school, it seemed like almost everyone had a cousin or friend-of-a-friend who had been part of a cancellation. It was almost a normal part of life. Particularly in the middle of the country.
The only guaranteed safe havens became the cities themselves, though the cost and competition of getting a place to live was out of control. Ten thousand dollars a month to share an apartment with a dozen other people. You’d basically sleep shoulder to shoulder...but hey, you wouldn’t be Cancelled.
Actually, murmurings of adding city apartment buildings to the Cancellation pool had started recently. It makes a morbid sort of sense. I think most New York highrises probably have a higher population than Brisbane Falls, even…But no one knows if that’s really on the table.
And I guess I’ll never find out.
After a long, quiet week, Brisbane Falls won the poll by just three thousand votes, and you’d think we’d already been killed. It was like a collective hush fell over the entire town. Terra, staring out the window, said the town was glowing, and she was right: each house that night had every TV, tablet, and smartphone broadcasting the results.
I bet they could see us from space.
A sudden knock at my door nearly made me jump out of my skin.
I knew this was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier.
The blinding light attached to a film camera stung my eyes as a Cancellation reporter filmed every excruciating moment as the guards carried my Terra away…
It all happened so fast. Maybe they do it like this so the parents don’t have a chance to really fight back…or more likely it probably makes for good television.
Seeing her beautiful, bewildered face as they closed the car door and drove off...it nearly killed me. What could have been...If things were different.
The reporter, with an infuriatingly cloying, calm voice assured me she’d be okay...Her and the other kids...they’d live the rest of their lives with this moment hanging over their heads, sure...but they’d be alive. And I had the chance to make sure she had everything she could ever want.
A guard said they’d already reached out to my cousins, and they’d bring Terra to them. She’d live with them in another small town...A town I hoped would never appear on a future Cancellation Day poll.
Almost as quickly as they’d burst in, the reporters and the guards were gone…for now. I knew they’d be back soon enough.
My idiot neighbor Doug...I could kill him.
That night we planned it all out, when we were sure no one could hear us. The stooges guarding town spent hours combing through every household, removing anything we could use to hurt ourselves, from our kitchen knives to our bed sheets to our shoelaces.
With a wink, Doug told me they wouldn’t find his hidden stash.
Doug had worked on Cancellations himself, once. He was an Idea Man, pitching creative new Methods by which whole communities would find themselves eradicated. I remember a party where he bragged about the year they released lions and tigers into a small town in Missouri.
“Wild animals in Wildwood, get it?”
He was a monster, and like all monsters, what finally got him to see the error of his ways was when it finally hit close to home.
Doug’s mother and father were part of last year’s Cancellation. His own brilliant plans had killed his parents. They’d lived in a valley, which our government gleefully flooded. He told me that flooding was one of the first ideas he’d ever pitched.
“Real wrath-of-God type stuff.” How clever.
These days, Doug was a broken man. He quit his job, and conspiratorially, part of me wonders if Brisbane Falls was selected just so they could make sure Doug couldn’t share any secrets of how Cancellations operate. Who knows.
The night they dragged little Terra away from me, we watched the screen without watching, and suddenly the sun was up.
“They should have the Method poll up this morning. It moves fast from here.”
He was right. About the only thing Martin was good for, was a heads up about Cancellation Day information.
On the screen that morning, came four possibilities for how we might die:
(The town is forced closer and closer to the nearby waterfall, where Brisbane Falls got its name. Ultimately we’d all be pushed to our deaths.)
- Fire Falls
(A wall of fire surrounds us, gradually moving closer and closer to the center of town.)
- Hide and Seek
(A classic Cancellation favorite. Townsfolk are told to hide as “Seekers” are sent into the town with guns, knives, and whatever else they want, killing everyone they find.)
- Fumigation Day
(Houses are wrapped in tents, and gas is released inside. Anyone who breaks out is “swatted” dead in the street. The least dignified end imaginable.)
Alerts hit our phones as the poll went live, inviting us to vote once per day until voting ends in a week.
We could participate in our own execution.
Even Doug was surprised. I guess I just assumed that townies were exempt from voting somehow, but no...I had the four options on my phone, and whatever I tapped might actually be the way I’d be murdered.
That day we walked through main street, listening to the dinging of notifications on everyone’s phones as our neighbors debated the least horrible way to die…Or argued about the merit of Cancellation Day overall.
You’d be surprised how many people insisted that this was our ultimate civic duty. Some of the older folks had even voted for the politicians who introduced the Cancellation Day bills. To me, it almost felt like the guilt of voting in previous cancellations made a lot of us feel like we deserved it.
Having received our death sentence, it’s as though we each found ourselves becoming the embodiment of the stages of grief.
Plenty of people were locked in a stupor, just flat out refusing to engage with reality. My boss even called me to ask if I was coming to the office, which, more than it angered me, made me pity him for his denial. He’d probably still be at his desk when the wall of flame (or whatever), singed the skin off his bones.
Some people just define themselves by their jobs, I guess.
We saw more than a few fights break out, mostly over completely mundane problems. Someone bumped into an old man, who took the opportunity to lash out with his cane. The second someone drew blood, though, guards would rush in to break it up…We were expected to save any and all bloodshed for the cameras, or for the day itself. But who could blame them for being angry?
Our local politicians did what they always did best, haggled and bargained over possibilities. To hear the mayor explain it, some senator from somewhere had floated the idea of ending Cancellation Day altogether, and if their bill hit the floor in time, maybe our execution would be cancelled. This was perhaps the least realistic of the possibilities, but who could take away the bland hope of the people still clinging to our idiot mayor’s ramblings?
I’d say most people were fully trapped in their own despair, though. The streets, after all, were mostly empty, and if we hadn’t been elected to be ritualistically murdered, this would almost be a beautiful day. Most homes were dark, with their curtains pulled shut. Just dreary dens to wallow in depression.
Doug and I took it all in, and it felt like almost every emotion I witnessed, I related to intensely. I could feel the anger and the refusal to acknowledge the gravity of our situation. But somehow, I’d shrug it off easily. I knew the position we were in. I saw the poll numbers changing, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to dodge what was coming. Why not just accept it, and take advantage of the benefits?
With just a few days left on the poll, Fumigation Day took the lead, but it was mostly because of some streamer who, in addition to posting reaction vids and Top 10 lists of previous Cancellations, decided to demonstrate this year’s Methods for his viewers...
He had covered his bedroom in cellophane, including all the windows and doors, and released pesticide into the air. The challenge was to see how long he could last before cutting through the plastic sheeting over the window. Well...he spent a long time in there...
People endlessly shared the video, saying that he “won the Fumigation Day Challenge,” and so for a while, it was the most popular option. A day later, no one cared. A day later than that, and the options were all neck and neck again.
I still hadn’t voted, myself. Though my phone dinged every few hours to remind me I could.
The worst part of each option was the anticipation. I didn’t know how they planned to push us over a cliff, (maybe a gigantic line of bulldozers?), but I could imagine the scrambling and tension of people clambering over each other to avoid the inevitable.
Same with the fire. As the wall of flames grew closer, eventually we’d all be clustered in the middle of Brisbane Falls, clawing at each other to be the last to die.
Hide and Seek and Fumigation Day had a similarly horrible quality: the slow burn of individuals being caught, no doubt filmed from a million different angles and body cams.
By now, we knew the shape of it all, I’d certainly watched enough Cancellations to imagine the whole thing, which is why I finally felt my blood pumping as the first of the broadcast vans returned.
With the poll almost over, there was more to be mined out of the town’s misery.
It wasn’t enough, these days, to simply broadcast the Cancellations. They had to become more immersive. Whoever suggested interviewing the victims probably got a gigantic raise.
It was what I had been waiting for, though.
Somewhere, my wonderful daughter Terra had probably already been delivered to stay with my cousin and his family. Approaching the news van, I just hoped they’d keep her away from the TV...not that I had any say anymore. They wouldn’t let her watch her mother’s murder, would they?
As the door on the news van slid open, I locked eyes with a handsome, well groomed reporter. We scheduled our first interview almost immediately, as a line formed behind me.
Adopting my best, phoniest, camera-ready persona, I sparkled to life on maybe every screen in the country. I was told to repeat the question, in case they want to edit and reuse my footage. Fine by me. More videos, streams, broadcasts: good. The ad revenue would only increase.
The pressure was on to deliver what they wanted.
“How long have I lived in Brisbane Falls? Why, nearly my entire life. My father moved us out of the city to avoid ‘Hunting Season,’ but, well, you see how well that worked out for us!”
“What went through my mind when I found out we’d been nominated? I’m going to be honest: I didn’t think it would happen. Not to us. But I knew my beautiful daughter Terra would be cared for.”
“Have I voted in previous Cancellations? Of course I have! Every year I make sure to do my civic duty and help ensure that this planet we call home is a wonderful, safe place to live for not just my lovely Terra, but children everywhere.”
“What is my favorite Cancellation moment? It’s hard to pick, there are so many. I think Cancellation 25 comes to mind. The townsfolk looked out for each other, the way we do here, and I was just inspired by their resolve…Even when the bombs dropped.”
“Have I voted on the Method this year, myself? No...no...I just...I just haven’t been able to bring myself to do it. Not out of fear for myself, but concern for my friends and neighbors. It’s something I think we all have to take very seriously.”
“What Method do I hope takes the lead? Well, it’s tricky to pick, but gun to my head I’d say Cliff-Hanger. I just think all the folks watching at home would enjoy seeing the beautiful countryside we have here, especially our gorgeous waterfall.”
“Which Method was I the most afraid of? Maybe it’s obvious, but Hide and Seek! I’ve never been that good at hiding, but if that’s the option the country wants, I swear to do my best.”
It was then that Mrs. Nielsen from down the street interrupted. She said I was taking too long to answer, and that it was time for someone else to get a turn. Thankfully, and according to plan, the reporter assured her she’d get her chance, but that the camera loved me. Apologizing, he turned back, giving me one last question to answer.
“Do I have a message out there for anyone who might be watching? Well, as I mentioned, I have a two year old daughter, Terra, who I want to say something very special to...but I just...I don’t think I can bring myself to say it just yet.”
My session ended with the promise that we’d book another interview before the Cancellation (as if after could even be an option). A live one.
The reporter thanked me for my time and moved on to that ancient loudmouth Mrs. Nielsen, as a producer whisked me away to talk money.
A percentage of ads from my spot would be put into an account for Terra, untouchable until her eighteenth birthday. More, they wanted to schedule a string of spots for me in the final three days of my life, each with a fee payable to Terra’s account.
Doug congratulated me that night, though he gave me the intel that, though the money is good, barely anyone even uses all the footage of executed townies...as if the exposure is what I cared about.
“By next year, everyone’s just going to move on to the new batch of meat.”
Charming...Nice to know how people inside the system really feel about our noble Cancellation Day ritual.
The following morning I woke up to the sound of shouting.
A protestor had come to liberate us.
This was one of the rare times the cameras turned away, though I’m sure the folks at home would have loved watching as Martin found himself trapped. He had inadvertently volunteered to be cancelled alongside us. Well done.
To my frustration, I inadvertently locked eyes with Martin briefly, and he scrambled over to me. Turns out he had been watching me on his phone the night before. My story of losing Terra was part of what inspired him to rush out.
I thanked him for watching, and wished him the best of luck. From the look on his face, he was shocked that I hadn’t invited him inside. Did he really think he’d have been able to stop what was coming?
Nearly every year, some jackass decides to try and be a savior to the cancelled townies, and this year, we got Martin, screaming through a bullhorn about how Cancellation Day is nothing more than murder, and all the guards are complicit.
Was he wrong? No…no, I don’t think so. Was his protesting useless? Absolutely.
Martin chased after me, insisting that he knew how to get us out of town, that he could save my life.
Rumors of people escaping Cancellation almost always end with the escapee living the rest of their life running. Forget the legality of dodging your own cancellation, lots of people in the country don’t take very kindly to people who escape. You’d think maybe there would be some sympathy (and from some people there probably is), but after decades of cancellations, almost everyone has suffered some loss, and the idea of a person escaping seems to hit most people like a slap to the face.
There are even cases of escapees being murdered by just regular old people out in the world. Everyone else is either executed by the government or jailed for life.
So no, escape would not be an option. Maybe if I had gone with Terra we could survive just the two of us, but on my own without her? Not a chance. I couldn’t show up at my cousin’s house as if nothing had ever happened…I’d only be putting Terra’s life at risk.
The moment Brisbane Falls was nominated, most of my decisions had been made for me, and they all revolved around that kid.
I closed the door on Martin, though over the last days, I’d sometimes catch him staring in shock as I gave more interviews, sound bites, and even participated in videos reacting to moments from past Cancellations. Through the window, I could even see Doug next door shooting me looks of disgust.
Sadistically, they’d chosen to play Cancellation moments that resembled what Brisbane Falls was facing. Everyone loved watching whenever Hide and Seek won the poll…it turned reality into a classic horror movie, with crazed killers peering around corners, and average folks communicating only in whispers, only to inevitably watch a butcher knife slide into their bodies. The audio from these clips could nearly echo around town.
But I had to play the game. For Terra.
Even as I watched other people like me get dragged from underneath their beds, or cornered in a shower stall.
They had me narrate infographics: “Following each Cancellation Day, energy usage drops by several percentage points!”
“Did you know that for every cancellation, our government plants two trees?”
“The children of Cancellation Day are a core part of a better, more efficient future for not only the country, but the planet.”
They really loved me, to me each video was just Terra’s college fund, her wedding, her first house, maybe even her kids. She wouldn’t ever know me, but she would live a life built by the impossible choices presented by Cancellation day.
They offered me triple to announce the results of The Method, and delivered what I suppose was meant to be a compliment by saying they wish they had a figurehead like me for every Cancellation. I heard myself joke that I’d love to work with them again next time, and inside I cursed at myself for getting to be too good at playing their game.
That night, just after sunset, with my friends and neighbors assembled in the town square, they placed a microphone in front of me, and handed me a tablet. The screen gave me everything I needed to say. Lit only by powerful spotlights, I again pictured my baby’s future as I damned the people of my once peaceful community.
“Hello everyone, and thanks for joining me. Our beautiful community of Brisbane Falls has finally received the Method of cancellation, which I am proud to share with all of you.”
On screen, the words “And the Method is…” followed by a countdown. They wanted a dramatic pause. I could hear the town holding its breath, steeling themselves for how everyone would die. In the front row, Doug and Martin started daggers at me.
I saw the words and robotically delivered our fate:
“Hide and Seek”
The screaming started the moment I said “Hide,” and just after “Seek,” suddenly the spotlights cut out, plunging us into darkness. It was the last time I’d see most of those people.
The screen of my tablet was the only light I had, and it had a new message for me: “Make it good.”
The moment my legs allowed me to, I turned and bolted in what I believed to be the direction of my house. The guards had removed anything I could use to protect myself, and the entire town had instantly turned into an arena for bloodshed, but somehow the idea of “home” still meant some sort of safety. How long would my doors and windows realistically hold, though?
The laughter and cackling seemed to come from all around the town as inmates and killers were unleashed. Immediately, thuds, swipes, and slashes told me that they’d found more than a few victims. Gurgles of blood, shrieks cut short, and bodies falling to the ground scored my mad dash to get inside, as I threw the deadbolt and tried for the light switch.
To my surprise, the inside of my cozy living room lit up for just a brief moment before I once again flicked the lights off, realizing that in the absolute darkness, any sort of light was almost an invitation for the murderers outside. For all I knew I’d already given away my position.
The decision was made for me, I couldn’t stay here. The only choice was to assume someone saw as my house on the outskirts of town briefly lit up. Damn.
I left through the back door, taking only a minute to look toward the treeline…right there…the edge of town…but I knew somewhere in the dark there were guards watching the perimeter. If ever they were ready for attempts to escape it was now. Instead, I looked in vain at Doug’s house…He’d hinted to me that he had a secret stash of supplies and weapons. He might have been disgusted at my eagerness to play the fool for the cameras, but he had plenty of blood on his hands, himself. The least he could do now was offer a chance of survival to someone else.
A calm breeze blew through my hair, and a flashback of gentle times ran through my mind. My father installing a swing set for me; a party where I announced I was pregnant with Terra; my daughter taking her first steps. I was pulled rudely back to reality by the sound of glass breaking, a scream, and a crunch of someone landing on their driveway.
This was all really happening… As I crept through the backyards, I stumbled over something that turned out to be a dead body. Throwing my hands out to catch myself, I dropped onto grass wet with this person’s blood, though I broke my fall, I also broke the screen of the tablet… Turning my attention to the body, I thought of Doug, my boss, and even some of Terra’s friends’ parents, who had, by necessity, become the only friends I really had. But it wasn’t any of them.
Pushing off the ground to stand, I felt the lense of a camera, and realized this must be one of the film crew…occupational hazard, I guess. When “Hide and Seek,” is picked, usually all the footage plays out on TV thanks to security cameras placed around the town…This must be why.
Guess they don’t give the film crews a heads up…I dug through his pockets looking for anything to defend myself, but came up empty. I guess whoever killed this guy probably did the same.
But they missed one thing…In the grass near the body was some sort of headset. Grabbing it, I found it to be some sort of goggles.
With a whir, the pitch black darkness turned green and clear. Night vision.
Maybe the directors had asked for some boots-on-the-ground filming this year…or worse…maybe the crew had been creeping around in the dark filming us every night. There had always been stories about different kinds of footage hitting the dark web, but I thought it was all just an urban legend. Now I’m not so sure. When the entire world gets comfortable with killing for entertainment, is it that big a leap to think they might also be peering through your windows?
Whatever the case, the goggles gave me something of an advantage, not that I had much of a plan from here on out. Looking around, I couldn’t see anyone in the immediate area, but that didn’t mean someone wasn’t lurking just around the next corner. Of course, I could still hear the carnage. Who knew how many might be dead at this point?
Gathering myself, I approached Doug’s kitchen door, and was surprised to find it unlocked. You’d think with everything going on, everyone would have every door and window bolted shut, but here I was able to just walk in. Anyone could.
With the door closed behind me, the sounds of death outside were slightly muffled, and it struck me as eerie how quiet Doug’s house was. I figured he might have run home like I did, but I didn’t pick up on any signs of life. If Doug had a hidden cache of supplies, I’d have to find them on my own.
The night vision goggles made it easier to search the kitchen, looking through cabinets and even behind the fridge. Nothing.
A thud overhead gave me pause for a moment, but after several tense minutes of standing rigidly, waiting for another sound, I continued my search into the living room, and finally, I turned my attention to the second floor.
Making my way upstairs, I convinced myself that Doug’s secret supplies must be in his bedroom. My father used to keep a baseball bat just underneath his bed, in case he needed something to protect us with in the middle of the night. As I crept down the upstairs hallway, a creaking sound caught my ears, and I started wondering if maybe Doug did come home.
How much could I really trust someone who used to work on mass murder plots?
Running away now would likely mean putting myself in harm’s way just outside the front door…and if Doug was home (and dangerous), maybe I could still convince him to help me arm myself.
If it was Doug.
Wrapping my hand around the doorknob into the creaking room, I twisted and pushed the door open slowly. I wouldn’t want to startle whoever was inside, and still, maybe the night vision would give me an advantage.
Doug had come home.
The noose was tied around the rafters in his bedroom. The thud I’d heard from downstairs was probably the chair he’d been standing on. I suppose he kicked it over in the struggle. The rope creaked ominously as Doug’s lifeless body swayed gently. On the desk beside him was a notepad, with his final words scrawled across a page:
“Did you think I’d play by your rules?”
Looks like Doug was right…they hadn’t found his hidden stash.
That’s when the phone rang. It was an old landline just beside Doug’s bed. Part of me wondered what he had been using a landline for, but knowing I’d never get an answer from him, I simply picked up the receiver and heard a deep voice give me the instruction: “last woman standing doubles her earnings,” before hanging up.
They really wanted a good show. And they must have decided that I was the perfect star for their show.
Well fine…I’d give them what they wanted…Terra…Terra…She would never want or need anything for the rest of her life.
I would do whatever it took.
A sudden shattering of glass sent a shockwave down my spine, along with the reflexive, worrying thought that “they’ve found me.” It had come from downstairs. I heard another window break next door…my house.
The WOOF of fire started beneath my feet, in the kitchen, I think. They were burning down the neighborhood, and even smoking me out of my hiding place.
On Doug’s bed was a frankly pathetic array of weaponry: a butcher knife and a revolver…with no bullets. With no time to waste, I grabbed them, thinking at first about how my odds of surviving had at least slightly improved, and then reminding myself that there’s no way to beat the game, merely delay the inevitable.
No one gets out alive.
Looking out the window, I could see a small crew of maniacs lighting another projectile to throw into a house. They probably didn’t even know I was in here, but burned the house down anyway. Maybe to eliminate places for people to hide, or just as likely: for the fun of it. The killers released into Brisbane Falls have been behind bars for years or even decades. With a license to kill and sow chaos, they must be really enjoying themselves. A wave of unhinged laughter confirmed this theory.
I moved quickly down the stairs and out the front door before the fire had a chance to spread, and the version of my town that greeted me was like hell on earth. They’d systematically set fire to every building I could see. Forget the night vision goggles, the entire town was…Glowing, as Terra had said.
The bodies of dozens of residents were illuminated, their blood shining, reflecting the flames around them. To my left, someone was being dragged out of a burning building, the clothes singed and smoking. Their savior wasn’t saving their life, however, and with a gasp, I watched them plunge straight into the burning person’s chest.
It was effortless. Completely effortless.
I walked up to the killer, readying my knife. Just before I slid it into his spine, I noticed a camera following my every move.
This was what they wanted.
I would give them a show to remember.
Making my way through town, I stood by as my boss was dragged behind a car, and the mayor called for calm, while blood trickled out of the corner of his mouth.
For now, the smartest move was to kill the killers, as long as I could do it without making myself obvious. I needed them to take out as many townies as possible, of course, but I couldn’t risk having too many maniacs running around, or else they might get the better of me. I had to find ways to ensure I’d be the last woman standing…I scored my second kill just outside of the sheriff’s station. A cackling woman was crouched like an animal, choking the life out of Mrs. Nielsen.
I was able to slice the woman’s throat, but it’s not as quick a kill as the movies led me to believe. Her blood spurted and dripped onto Mrs. Nielsen, who looked more shocked to see me brandishing a knife than she had looked while being choked. The killer was still cackling, though now the laughs were merged with gasps of shock, each propelling blood from her mouth and sliced neck.
The woman turned, and with the last of her energy, lunged toward me, knocking me to the ground. Her blood-drenched hands slipped over my neck, but her strength was failing, making it too easy to slip my knife deep into her left side.
As she cried out in shock, I rolled her off of me, and pulled myself to my feet, finding myself standing over Mrs. Nielsen, who stared back unsure if I was her hero or her next attacker.
I wasn’t sure, myself.
For a moment.
I thought of Terra, and the phrase “last woman standing doubles her earnings” played through my mind as I stepped toward Mrs. Nielsen, weakened on the ground in front of me.
From behind me, a voice begged me to stop.
It was Martin the protestor.
He asked me to drop the knife, telling me we could get out alive…he knew a way.
But he didn’t know what I knew.
He didn’t know that I’d chosen to stay.
The day the town found out we’d been nominated for Cancellation, I’d already known.
Doug, it seems, still had some connections…It wasn’t much, but they gave him two hours to get out of town before the nominations were made public and the guards arrived.
He decided to confide in me.
I could have grabbed Terra and escaped with her, but where would we go? And once they realized we’d dodged Cancellation, how would we survive?
Terra was young enough to be exempt. I let them take her, and planned to put on the best show possible to raise money for her.
The fact of the matter is she’d have a better life because of the Cancellations. I’d made sure of it.
And there was Martin, who chose to come here. Who got himself locked up with the rest of us for no good reason at all.
Mrs. Nielsen could wait.
I took two steps toward Martin when I saw him look over my shoulder, eyes wide with fear.
How could I let myself get distracted by him?
Whipping around, I expected to see someone sneaking up on me, but instead…there was…
Just the woman I’d stabbed bleeding out on the lawn, and Mrs. Nielsen, eyes still wide in shock.
That’s when I felt the knife cut into my rib cage, scraping bone and carving flesh.
I dropped to the ground, as my lungs filled with blood, and rolled to my side to find Martin standing over me.
He tricked me.
Lowering himself over me, he yanked the knife out of my side, and leaned in close enough to let me hear him whisper:
“They said my family could have double your earnings if I took you out.”
Over Martin’s shoulder I could see another security camera above the entrance to the sheriff’s station, staring down at us coldly.
I imagined Terra for the last time, and finally had a message to share with her: “I’m sorry.”
With the last of my energy draining, I imagined the reaction videos, ratings, podcasts, and replays that were undoubtedly already being produced about this moment, as millions of viewers stared at me on every kind of screen possible...and then Martin stuck his knife into the center of my chest...and the show went on.
Another successful Cancellation Day.