Today we publish the last of our top five stories in the 9th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest. Our first place finalist, Ally Sapienza’s “I Will Always Remember,” is a dystopian Sci-Fi thriller that approaches the theme of this year’s contest, “A Roll of the Dice,” through the eyes of a futuristic rebel. As our judge commented, “I was excited to see how you created a commentary on the ways in which systems are created to repackage/rebrand violence against disenfranchised communities. It reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and his use of magical realism to establish a similar critique. If we fail to remember, we’re doomed to repeat.” As a side note, Ally came in second in last year’s contest with her story, “Check Again,” and was featured in the Fall/Winter 2022 issue of the Blackbird Review with her story, “Yesterday’s Drive.” Congratulations to Ally! We hope you enjoy it!
“It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you.”
I reach down to the edge of my white t-shirt, now stained with deep red blood, and I use the rest of my strength to tear off a strip of my shirt. I ball it in my fist before placing it on the open wound on the arm of this boy I have never met.
“Don’t–” the boy groans as I apply pressure, attempting to stop the bleeding. “Just help my brother. Not me.”
I look to the little boy to my right who’s leaning up against the brick building behind him. I dragged both of them here when the bombs went off.
My eyes scan the boy before they land on the large chunk of glass protruding from his stomach. I didn’t know his wounds were this bad. His older brother–the one I’m tending to–only has some deep scratches from the windows exploding. But this child–
I slowly look back to the older boy next to me, pity and sadness in my eyes. My voice cracks as I speak to him. “I can’t–”
“Please,” he interrupts. “Just help him. Talk to him. I can’t move.”
I can see in his eyes that he knows his brother can’t be saved. I look between him and his brother again before nodding slowly. “Hold this against yourself and apply pressure,” I say, taking his hand and replacing mine with it.
I know this boy can’t be saved as well as his brother does, considering the fact that there are no hospitals, doctors, or anybody to rescue us right now. But I help him anyway.
I crawl over to the boy, appearing as approachable as possible. I kneel next to him and force a reassuring smile. “You’re gonna be alright,” I say softly, my voice barely above a whisper despite the loud sounds of screaming and bombs around us. I take off my dark green rain jacket, lightly laying it on top of the boy’s torso. “Just don’t look.”
“Is my brother okay?” the child asks me, his eyes hopeful, and his voice innocent and shrill.
I look at his older brother who is still gripping his arm with my t-shirt like I asked him. He turns his head slowly, making eye contact with me and nodding. “He will be,” I answer, turning to look back at the boy. “As will you. Just hold on a little longer.”
I look away from him, taking this opportunity to survey my surroundings and if there are any potential threats coming our way.
I watch in horror as I see buildings lighting up in flames, windows cracking, and walls turning to rubble. People are everywhere; running for their lives, dodging falling buildings and glass, and frantically searching for a way out.
I watch a family hold hands as they run past me so they don’t separate and lose each other. “I’m sorry,” I hear the older brother say in my direction, and I look over to see him studying me. “About your family.”
I look at him with an emotionless expression, shaking my head softly as tears line my eyes. “There was nothing I could do to save my family,” I respond, my voice tired and foreign. “So I will try to save yours.”
He looks at me, the same pity in his eyes that I showed him when I saw the state his younger brother was in. Then I watch as his expression changes in reaction to something behind me, and as he opens his mouth to yell something, a hard object connects to the back of my head.
And the world goes black.
A hand reaches out to touch me.
I lean into the comforting hand on my cheek, its warmth circulating through my veins, heating my entire body. I open my eyes, allowing them to adjust to the blurry figure in front of me.
“Finn?” I say breathlessly.
“I don’t have much time, Rue,” he answers, his voice serious. “I need you to listen.”
“What happened?” I ask, memories flashing through my mind of the two brothers I saved today. Or was it yesterday? How long has it been? “Where are we?”
I look around at the darkness surrounding us. The only thing present is Finn in front of me, and the rest of this place is black–empty. It feels like I’m just floating in the air. “You need to wake up before they get to you too,” he says, and I take notice of his echoing voice. “Don’t trust anyone.”
“What?” I ask him. “What’s going on?”
“Play along with it. With their games. Promise me you will,” he continues, ignoring my plea for him to elaborate. “Or they’ll kill you.”
“Who will kill me, Finn? Where are we? How did you escape the bombs?” I ask, a million questions in my mind as my memory comes back more with every second. I reach out to grab his arm, but my hand goes straight through, as if he were only wind.
“You know I’m not real, don’t you?”
I take a slow step back, attempting to collect myself and ease my confusion. “What?”
I shake my head as I feel bile crawl its way up my throat. Flashes of memories continue to come back to me.
Holding him in my arms.
I feel tears roll down my face, and before I can ask Finn another question, he wraps his arms around me. I feel the heat from his body, but when I move my hands to hug him back, I lose all I can feel of him. “When I let go, you will wake. I need you to promise me something.”
“Promise you what?” I ask, my voice cracking as tears clog my throat.
“That you’ll run like hell.”
My eyes shoot open.
My breathing quickens as I look around frantically, realizing I’m stuck inside a metal tube. There are rows of bright, blinding lights above me, burning my skin. I push my arms against the sides of the walls, forcibly punching the tube as if I could break through metal with my bare hands.
Tears roll down my cheeks as fear takes over my body and my mind is consumed with confusion and worry. When I feel my heart begin to beat out of my chest, I realize that freaking out and panicking isn’t going to save me. So I slow my breathing, and I close my eyes as I focus on the cool metal against my exposed skin.
Opening my eyes again, I notice that I’m in a different outfit than before–a white thick-strapped tank top with black leggings. My breath threatens to pick up again, and before I let it, I notice a large red button in the top left corner of the tube.
Not being able to reach it with my hands, I lift my foot up and press the button, praying to anyone that can hear me that the button isn’t for something bad. A sudden gust of air spurts out into my face, and I instantly cough in reaction, gasping for the air back that it took from me.
I feel the bottom of the tube begin to push outward, moving my body with it. After a few seconds, I find myself on the outside.
I lay there for a moment, too afraid to move as I stare at the tall, black ceiling above me. When I finally gain the courage, I lift myself up and sit on the edge of my tube. I take in the hospital-white walls, squinting as my eyes adjust to the brightness. I look around, attempting to become familiar with my surroundings.
There are tubes everywhere.
Hundreds of them, possibly thousands, line the walls all the way down an incredibly long hallway. I stand up slowly, walking silently to the nearest tube.
I put my face up to the cracks in the tube, squinting my eyes to see inside. There’s a person in there, sleeping as I just was. As I walk down the hallway, I realize that every single tube is filled with a sleeping person.
And I’m the only one that’s awake.
Just as I have this realization, gusts of wind shoot out of the cracks in the tubes, and all of them begin to open. I spin around and watch as every single one begins to move, pushing the people on the inside out into the hallway.
Play along with it. Play along with their games. Promise me you will.
Finn’s words to me in my dream replay in my head as I run back to my tube before anybody can see that I was awake before everyone else. I lay back down and close my eyes, only opening them when I hear scattered mumbles and conversations.
“Do you know where we are?” a blonde woman a few feet from me asks someone else.
“No, but I feel safe,” the other woman responds, her voice sounding robotic and trained.
“So do I,” the blonde woman answers. “I know the government has our best interests in mind.”
The other woman nods before asking a question. “Was there a yesterday? Or were we just created?”
My eyes widen as I look around, listening to the other conversations around me. The room is filled with people discussing their curiosity, talking about how they don’t know who they are or where they came from. Some are also just asking each other questions like, “How are you doing today?” or paying each other simple compliments.
“Oh my god,” I mutter under my breath, balling my hands into fists as I dig my fingernails into the palms of my hands.
They don’t remember.
Every single person in this room does not remember what they did to us. They don’t remember the pandemic or the bombs, the killing and the war. Their memories have been wiped.
Every single person. Except for me.
Before I can begin to break down with anxiety, a male voice comes on over a loudspeaker. “Hello, everyone. I know being here is very exciting, but please have a seat on your designated pod and a member of our team will come over to each of you and ask you some routine questions.”
Everyone immediately obeys, so I attempt to fit in without hesitation. I sit on my pod with a straight back, staring forward in the exact same way everyone else is. I attempt to watch what’s happening out of the corner of my eye, listening to whoever I can hear so I know how I should react.
Since I’m sitting in the middle of the room, it takes a few moments for someone to come up to me. As I wait, I close my eyes in an attempt to listen as hard as possible. “I’m sorry, I don’t know my name,” a young male says to the right of me. I try to hide my emotions and reactions to everything going on around me as best as I can.
“Hello, I’m just going to ask you a few questions. Is that alright?”
My ears begin ringing, the sound overcoming and distracting me. My vision blurs and I blink hard in response to regain my sight.
“Are you alright?” Suddenly, my vision and hearing come back to normal as I look at the older female doctor in front of me. I’m not sure if she’s a real doctor, but judging on her long white lab coat and light blue scrubs, she sure seems like one. “You seem distraught.”
I look around at everyone else, quickly matching their large and bright smiles and laughter. “Of course. I’m fine, sorry,” I respond, my smile reaching both of my ears. “How are you today?”
The doctor smiles back at me and any suspicion she has towards me disappears. “I’m great, thank you. So it’s alright if I ask you a few questions?”
“Yes, of course.”
The nurse smiles again and nods as she checks off something on the clipboard she’s holding. “What is your name?” she asks me.
I look at her for a moment, remembering how the people around me responded to their doctors. Play along with their games. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe I have one,” I answer, shaking my head with a small smile.
“You don’t have one? Or you just don’t remember it?”
Rue. I’m Rue Griffin. I’m 19 years old. I have two parents and a little sister. Had.
I shake my head again. “I don’t have one.”
“Are you sure you don’t have a guess?” the red-headed woman pries. “Or a small feeling about who you are?”
I’m Rue Griffin. I like reading and drawing. My favorite color is brown and I love trees and the beach. I wanted to be a teacher and to travel the world.
“I have no idea who I am,” I lie.
“So you don’t remember anything?” she continues.
I remember the pandemic. The sickness spreading to millions. I remember the bombs. The screaming and the running. Holding my family and my boyfriend as they all died. I remember the two brothers that I saved. I remember getting taken.
I remember everything.
“Remember anything about what?” I ask the doctor with a sweet smile, putting on the most innocent and naive face that I can.
She smiles back again. “Okay, great,” she says to me. “You’re all set to go back to bed.”
I give her a final smile before I watch her turn around slowly, multi-tasking as she checks off boxes on her clipboard. I notice a light blue face mask hanging out of the pocket of the doctor’s jacket, and I get a sudden and probably dangerous idea.
Before she walks away, I quickly grab the face mask and put it under me, sitting on top of it on my tube. “Attention everyone,” the same male voice as before comes back on over the loudspeaker. “Routine check is over, so you may all return to your pods and back to sleep.”
I obey like the rest of the group, laying down and closing my eyes. My tube begins to close, locking me inside. As soon as I’m in, I lift up my lower body and secure the face mask I stole around my mouth and nose. If I predicted correctly, then…
As soon as I put the mask on, a gas begins to shoot out and fill my entire tube. I push the mask harder against my face, closing any entrances the gas may find, and I breathe as little as possible.
Sleeping gas. Just as I thought.
When the gas is gone, I wait a few moments before I remove the mask again. I lay in the tube and allow some time to pass before I go back out into the hallway. When I push the button again and my tube ejects me into the large room, it seems darker than it did before. There are small, circular lights surrounding the hallway, but they are not bright enough to light up the whole hall.
I’m not sure how long I laid there. Seconds, minutes, hours. Days, maybe. However long it was, the air around the room has changed. It doesn’t seem as bright and cheery like it did when everyone else was awake.
It seems like a prison. Or a lab.
I stand up and check my surroundings, making sure that there is nobody around. As I’m surveying, I notice that there is a cart of medical supplies left by one of the tubes. I slowly walk over, checking behind me every now and then to make sure I’m not being watched.
From the cart, I take a small incision tool and hold it closer to my eye. If I need it, it seems to be sharp enough. I keep it in my leggings, resting it against my hip, and quickly do a silent prayer that it won’t cut me as I move.
Looking down both ends of the hallway, they appear to be identical. It’s hard to tell which way would have an exit, or which way would be the right one for me to take. I decide to go to the left, since the right way being the right decision seems too easy.
After a few minutes of walking down the dark hallway, my eyes adjust and see that the end of the hallway is a dead-end. I roll my eyes as I look down the other end, realizing that must’ve been the right way.
The small lights behind me flicker, and I look back down the dead-end to make sure that nobody is there. Right as I’m about to turn away, I notice a pod open in the dark corner of the room.
“Could you help me?” the voice calls out to me. Instinctively, I reach into my leggings and grab the incision tool, holding it behind my back. “Somehow my pants got caught on the tube when I was being ejected.”
“How are you awake?” I ask the voice, taking slow and careful steps towards them.
“I could ask you the same question,” the voice counters.
“Yes, you could. But I asked you first, so you have to answer first,” I respond, my voice sharp and powerful.
“I covered my mouth with cloth,” they respond. “I had a feeling there was something they would use to force me to sleep.” When I walk close enough to see the figure’s face, I feel my skin go white.
The figure is the older brother I saved after the bombs.
I take a step back in surprise, but he doesn’t seem to have the same reaction. “What’s wrong?” he asks me, and I look into his eyes to see a blue similar to his younger brother’s. My eyes move to his arm that I was tending to just before.
I clear my throat and shake my head, attempting to be subtle and not give myself or my memory away. “Nothing, I–”
“How did you get out?” he asks me, ignoring the excuse that was about to come out of my mouth. “Did you know they were going to put us to sleep?”
I nod. “I figured as much.”
“So you aren’t fond of the government like the rest of their minions are. Why?” he pries, still holding his pants that are stuck in between the wall of the tube and the bottom. “Do you remember?”
My heart stops for a moment as I quickly consider my answer. Do I trust this him? Do I give him information about myself?
Considering my options, I realize that if I were to get out of here, I would need some help. If this boy betrays me, I would have died trying to get out of this place anyway.
Recalling my memories oh him, he seemed trustworthy once before.
“Do you remember?” I ask him before giving him my answer.
“I asked you first, so you have to answer first,” he says, mimicking me.
I look away from him, not knowing what to say. “Everything,” I tell him. “I remember everything. Do you?”
“Bits and pieces,” he answers. “It’s all coming back slowly. But I remember most of it.”
But you don’t remember me.
“So,” the boy says awkwardly. “Can you help me?”
I grip the incision tool in my hand a little harder. “How am I supposed to know I can trust you?”
“Weren’t you taught to always trust a pretty face?” he says to me with a smirk. I nearly gag.
“I don’t trust anyone. Not anymore,” I answer, choosing not to match his energy.
He raises his eyebrows at me. “But you think I’m pretty?”
I narrow my eyes at him, letting the anger I feel from his cockiness overcome me. “I think that you’re a potential liability and that I need to get out of here.”
As I begin to turn away and walk down the hall, I hear his voice call after me. “Wait! I’m sorry,” he exclaims. “I’ll stop. Just please. Please help me.”
Please. Just help him. Talk to him. I can’t move.
I slowly turn around to face him. I stare at him for what feels like days.
Do I trust him? I consider my options; the roll of the dice, the good outcome or bad, a potential friend or an enemy.
I exhale. “Alright–but if I feel so much as a sliver of betrayal from you,” I begin, walking towards him and cutting his pants free with the incision tool in my hand, “I’ll kill you.”
“Noted,” he responds flatly, standing up in front of me. “Thank you.”
I nod half-heartedly. “Let’s get out of here.”
There are a few beats of silence as we walk down the hallway together, making our way to find an exit. “So do you really remember everything?” he asks me.
“Yes,” I answer. “How is it that I remember everything and you only remember some things?”
“I guess the serum they used works differently on people,” he says, keeping his eyes forward.
He falters for a moment before continuing on. “Yeah–uh, well that’s what I’m assuming they used,” he answers. “What else could it be?”
I shrug absentmindedly. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
“You’re sure there aren’t going to be any guards? Or doctors?” I ask him after about 10 minutes of walking around this lab together. “Nobody that might turn us in?”
“No,” he answers confidently. “Not at this time of day at least. There may be a couple of guards here and there to make sure everything is working soundly, but other than that we should be safe.”
“How do you know for sure?” I ask him, scrunching my eyebrows together in confusion.
He side-eyes me before answering. “I woke up yesterday,” he answers. “I’ve been memorizing their entire schedule ever since. When I got to the time I knew there would be the least amount of guards, I decided I would try to escape. That’s when I got stuck and when I met you.” I make a small noise in the back of my throat in response. He looks at me again with a distant look in his eyes. “You know, I don’t think I ever got your name.”
I look at him before looking forward again. “Rue. What about you?”
“Hayden,” he answers. Before I can respond to him, a guard stumbles out into the hallway in front of us.
The guard raises a gun at us and I immediately fumble back, preparing to run in the opposite direction. I watch in horror as Hayden lunges at the guard, securing the gun and putting the man in a headlock. After a few moments of struggling, the guard goes limp and Hayden drops him to the ground.
“Did you kill him?” I ask him, breathless even though I haven’t moved.
“He’s passed out,” Hayden answers as he searches the guard’s body. “Quick, we don’t have much time.”
“Time for what?”
Hayden turns around to face me, holding up a key card in his hand. “To escape.”
I laugh in disbelief before running quickly behind him. We dart down different hallways, all of which look the exact same, avoiding as many guards as possible. We finally reach a hall that looks different from the rest with a large metal door at the end of it.
I run up to it, eyeing the keycard scanner to the right of the door handle. “This has to be it,” I say to Hayden excitedly.
I turn around to look at him and notice the emotionless expression on his face.
“Okay, unlock the door,” I say to him, gesturing to the metal door in front of us.
He doesn’t move.
I shift uncomfortably. “Hayden, unlock the door,” I repeat, sharper this time.
Again, he doesn’t move. His face grows sorrowful and weak. “I’m sorry.”
I swallow a bit harder than I mean to as I shake my head slowly. “Sorry for what?” I ask him innocently, despite already assuming the answer. “We don’t have time for this. Open the door.”
I watch as Hayden reaches into the back of his waistband, not grabbing the key, but rather a gun. He holds it up, aiming it directly at my head. “I remember you.”
“What?” I exhale, stepping back in surprise.
“I remember you. And what you did,” he answers, taking a step towards me.
“How long?” I ask, holding my hands up. “Since you remembered?”
“Since the beginning. The first moment I saw you, I remembered. I lied to you,” he explains, running his free hand through his hair. “They–they told me that if someone woke up or if someone remembered, to shoot them on sight, but–then I saw you and–”
“Who told you to shoot?”
“The government,” he answers. “The guys in charge.”
My heart falls as I feel sweat roll down my cheek. “You’re with them?”
He hesitates before nodding. “I didn’t have a choice–”
“If you remember me, then you’ll remember that I saved you. And I saved your brother,” I begin, pleading. “Or I tried to. Just lower the gun, and we can both get out of here.”
“Do you think I like doing this to you? I’m doing this because I have to, Rue, not because I want to. You might’ve saved us by tackling us out of the way of the building, but ultimately I saved my brother,” he says, keeping the gun raised. “I remember you getting knocked over the head by guards, and then I begged them to save my brother. I told them that I would do anything for them, that I’d be anything, that I’d join them, granted they save my brother. And they did.”
“He’s alive? Your brother?”
“Yes. I’m not sure they’ll ever let me see him again, but that much I know. He’s alive. I have done everything they asked me to do for him to still be here,” he responds. “You would do that, wouldn’t you? Can you blame me?”
Confidently, I take a sharp step towards him. He falters for a moment before recovering. “Your people killed the people I love. I didn’t even have the chance to beg to save them.”
“We are building for a better future. We’re going to start over,” he says. “There won’t be any war or arguments. No fighting and no hatred.”
We’ve been building?
I look at his arm, the one that got cut during the bombs, confirming that it’s scarred. “Your arm. When I first saw it, I thought I was hallucinating, or maybe I was looking at the wrong arm, or maybe the government had some super healing technology we didn’t know about,” I begin. “How long was I in there? How long was I asleep?”
He blinks. “One year and three months,” he answers, and my mouth falls open. “The government needed time to rebuild so there was no questioning why there were bombed buildings and rubble.”
I attempt to hold myself steady as my brain fogs and I begin to feel dizzy. “How would you take it away?” I ask him, not hearing myself speak. “The war and fighting?”
“We take away the things that create arguments. We take away your memories and prior opinions. We take away your conception of religion, beliefs, holidays, history, relationships, social classes, etcetera. We take away negative feelings like grief, betrayal, anger, sadness,” he answers. I’m silent for a moment as I process everything he’s saying to me. All of a sudden, he steps forward and lowers his gun, forcing me to look into his eyes. “I can take away your memory, Rue. I don’t have to kill you. I don’t have to do this. It doesn’t need to be this way.”
I shake my head, breaking free of his grasp as he looks at me, his face filled with guilt. “If you take away all of those things, you may take away hate and fighting, but you’re also taking away love and dreams. You steal passions, courage, happiness, and friendship,” I say to him. “You make all of us survive, yes, but we won’t be living. I’d rather die. I’d rather die than not remember what your people did to us. What it felt like to live.”
He lowers his chin, avoiding my eyes. “I wish you’d never trusted me.”
I step forward, forcing him to meet my eyes as he did with me before. “So you dragged this out just to kill me?”
He gives me a soft nod. “It was inevitable, but I regretted it every step of the way.”
I nod in defeat, looking down at the ground when I notice the gun still in his hand. I consider using the incision tool I stole, but this idea could work so much better. Before he can pick up my thought process, I rip the gun from his hand and elbow the side of his stomach.
As I begin running, I hear Hayden groan and call out for me. “Rue, don’t do this,” he shouts, his voice getting closer. “They won’t show you mercy, but I will.”
I reach a hallway full of metal doors, and I rip open the second one on the right.
Running into the dark closet, I clutch the gun in my hands as I hide as far away from the door as possible.
I listen as Hayden begins checking the other doors around me, calling out my name as he searches for me.
I’d rather die than have them remove my memory, my spark.
“Rue, please don’t make this harder than it already is.”
They can’t make me forget.
“I will always remember,” I whisper to myself, my voice sounding more my own than ever before.
“It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you.”
And the door flies open.