's 2018 Horror Write-off:

Obligate Rules

Submitted by Samuel Peterson (email)

I'm trapped in a loop, repeating the same few hours over and over again, and nobody knows it except me.

I know this for the same reason anyone knows anything: I have eyes, and I use them. Arguably a brain, too, but I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking I'm brainless all the same, let alone spineless.

See, there's this monster running around my workplace, terrorizing everyone in here, every single loop. This big blob that usually maintains a sort of bell shape, and lumbers about like it'd be made out of slime, except there's no real texture to it; the thing's just coated in this impossible galaxy-colored static, like wherever it is, there's a hole in its exact shape leading into a spinning void of space. It's also nearly the size of a car, yet as best I can tell, it can squeeze its gelatinous body through virtually any opening.

Not that it always needs to, mind. Just as its preferred killing method is bludgeoning people to death, it can break down just about anything in its way by growing, and consequently swinging, any number of huge blobulous tentacles at it. Walls, cubicles, and doors are by no means an effective hiding place from or deterrent against this alien beast, something I know all too well.

But all of that is peanuts to the fact that the monster remembers each loop, and believes it's the only one who can remember -- or something thereabouts. See, it doesn't always do the same things, which tells me that either it must remember each loop, always trying new ways to wreak havoc in our office, or something else is remembering for it, and tells it what to do each day. Whichever it is, it's not as relevant as the part about thinking it's the only one.

As I said, normally it just bludgeons people to death. And normally people can't see it, even when it's right in front of them. They'll just keep going about their repeated daily lives, even as this monster stomps right through the middle of them, only ceasing their same old song and dance once they're dead. But if the monster catches wind that someone knows it's there, or maybe just acts too differently -- like someone aware of these loops might -- it suddenly changes. That galaxy static goes from having all the dazzling hues you could ever find in space to a bright green-and-white static, and one touch from its tentacles means you just... disappear. Instantly, and forever.

It's happened to a couple of people, most prominently Dave, one of my coworkers, when one day he suddenly shrieked at the monster crashing through the wall beside him, a reaction no one else near him shared. Maybe he had only gotten the ability to see it that day, or better yet had just started remembering the loops -- assuming that's what lets me see the monster. Whatever the case, as soon as it registered with the monster that he wasn't standing peacefully by the water cooler like everyone else, it changed colors, shot a tentacle at him faster than he could run, and poof! No more Dave. He was simply gone; deleted. And thankfully, I suppose, no more green static monster. Just regular galaxy static again. Just a regular otherworldly beatdown for the rest of us.

I was mostly frozen in fear the first few times I saw the monster, which worked out in my favor since I was almost always sitting at my desk, or standing in place by the cooler when it made itself known. That, combined with Dave's disappearance, and the fact that nobody else can see it, is how I realized in only a couple loops that I needed to play dumb in order to survive. That is, maybe not survive the individual loops, but still come back on the next one, like Dave never did.

It's cowardly, I know, but what else was I supposed to do? I don't have any weapons; I was never a gun nut or a prepper, and even if I was, even if I could hurt it somehow, the thing would probably just erase me from time the moment it realized something was fighting back. As miserable as it is, at least I'm safe as long I pretend not to know it's there, hiding in plain sight among everyone else who fails to see it altogether.

They really are persistent, too, the people who can't see it. Or rather, they seem to be so unaware of the monster and the loops going on that they'll hold conversations with people who aren't even there, either already dead that loop, or in Dave's case, erased from our offices entirely. Granted, I do that too now -- I've had plenty of time to learn the script -- but it's a little depressing how when I try to change the conversation, I just get instantly shot down, everyone else either ignoring what I said or pretending I said something different altogether.

I've been waiting a number of loops recently for someone else in the office to realize what's going on. Someone besides Dave, and hopefully someone I can talk to about all this before they see the monster, freak out, and permanently vanish for it. I mean, maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think the monster has an especially refined understanding of our language, nor our exact body movements. If it did, the couple of times I flubbed the conversation while it was nearby would have totally given me away -- never mind every time I've stared right at it, completely petrified otherwise, before it beat me to death.

So, given that, it's not unreasonable to want to talk about something else during these loops, right? Something, anything other than the same boring crap about how our company is doing, how Debbie might be getting a promotion soon (it's been "soon" for about a hundred loops now), or the water tasting a little funny. We might even be able to plot an escape, dangerous as that sounds. I just need one person who sees what's going on, like I do, and even if we couldn't escape, at least we could keep each other sane.

It's seemed my only option for a while now, because whatever's causing us to loop in this office, perpetually repeating the hours of approximately 11am to 2pm... I don't think it will let us leave while it's happening. Believe me, over several different loops I have tried every window I can get to without being seen (out which one can only see a terrifyingly empty void), and even a couple exit doors, but none of them will budge. I've even thrown various office supplies at the windows a couple times, but they might as well be made of steel now for all the good it does; I've sooner destroyed my computer -- and nearly alerted the monster for it -- than leave so much as a scratch on any of them.

That's what led me to my current decision: the next time it's just us on this floor, no monster in sight, I'm going to see if I can snap anyone out of it. Maybe just by touching them they'll be able to see the monster too, and finally remember these loops, or something. I don't know if they'd forgive me for cursing them with that kind of awareness, instead of continuing to blithely go about their day, but I have to try. And if I'm unsuccessful, then it would still be valuable to see how far their programmed behavior goes; would they just keep talking like nothing had changed if I dragged them away, or would they try to walk back to their spot first, and then keep talking?

I got my perfect opportunity a dozen or so loops after deciding. Right before noon, when we all meet up for our break, I saw the monster slowly slither past all of our cubicles -- seeming to turn its head as it did, like a tyrannical boss who would snap at even the slightest sign of slacking off. But, apparently opting not to kill any of us just yet this loop, it ended its walk by squirreling itself away in an overhead vent, audibly plunking off through the ducts to a higher floor.

Only minutes after that, it was the four of us at the water cooler again: me, Diana, Greg, and Debbie, with an empty space reserved for the late Dave. All eating what we'd packed for lunch or bought from the vending machine, all sipping water from the cooler, save for Greg, who'd brought a thermos full of soup. He was busy talking about his dogs again, and I knew he had about a minute-long dominance over the conversation near the start, so I took that time to act: I set my cup down on top of the water cooler, held my sandwich in my mouth, and grabbed Diana by the shoulders.

To my instant surprise, she resisted when I tried to drag her toward the break room door, shoving me off of her with a hushed, "What are you doing, are you crazy?!" I nearly choked on my sandwich at that, and sputtered for a couple moments while she carefully retook her position.

When I finally caught my breath, and removed the sandwich from my mouth, I gasped out a question: "You know what's going on?"

"Of course I do, I've known since Dave!" Her voice was still hushed, apparently all too aware of the monster that was lurking around somewhere. Then I realized what she just said.

"You've known that long?"

She looked like she wanted to slap me, but restrained herself. "Yes! We all have; everyone in the office! Obviously including you, if you remember him."

I was dumbfounded by that. I looked at both Debbie and Greg, the latter of whom was still doing his spiel, but they were both glancing at me worriedly, turning their eyes but not their heads. Had I really not noticed they were all playing dumb all this time, just like me? Had they all known from the beginning -- even Dave?

Diana didn't give me time to process it: she grabbed my shoulders now, and planted me square where I'd originally been standing. "Now stop being an idiot and stick with the script, unless you wanna go bye-bye too. Haha!" she busted out suddenly, looking at Greg, "you can never really tell what a pup's going to be like when they're older, can you?"

Greg chuckled in turn with an, "I guess not. Although there are some trainers I've met who..."

I couldn't believe this. Never mind when this mess first started; my whole worldview had just been utterly obliterated all over again. But, I suppose it was kind of a win for me? I didn't need to worry about waking anyone up to what was happening, and possibly losing them forever if they freaked out. It was kind of a relief, actually! I decided to let them know the good news: "Well, guys, I think the monster can't understand us, so we don't have to--"

"That's nice shut up," Diana snubbed me. She said more sweetly to Greg, "Do you have any recommendations for me? I was actually thinking about heading down to the shelter myself, recently."

Debbie was a little warmer than Diana while she and Greg kept talking, briefly putting a hand on my shoulder as she murmured consolations to me. "Sorry, sweetie. You can do what you want, but we don't want to take any risks. We'd like to make it to the other side of today in one piece. I hope you understand. Oh, you know!" she chuckled, clapping her hands to the group. "My niece has the cutest little thing, I think she told me it was called a 'scotty dog'? That name always cracks me up!"

Everyone laughed, including myself on what I could only describe as a reflex, only now that I knew everyone else was faking it too, it sounded more hollow than ever.

That was about when it truly hit me. This... this was it, wasn't it? Nobody wanted to risk that monster killing them for good. I didn't, either, but now that I didn't even have the possibility of genuine conversation? Now that I knew there was no one to heroically awaken and try to talk strategy with, maybe eventually figure out an escape plan with?

It was crushing, all of a sudden, realizing that I was trapped, that there was no way out, and everyone knew it. Everyone had known it, and instead of being the one on top of things for a change, I was lagging behind, just like always. It made me wonder, shivering as I tried to pick up my slack in the conversation:

If everyone knew that these few hours were repeating, including the monster... could it really think we didn't know? That we genuinely couldn't see it? It seemed more impossible than if it did. I couldn't shake the thought: what if it had simply been toying with us, all this time? Not in any way fearful of us knowing about its existence, or that it had trapped us, such that it had to eliminate those people the instant it detected them; what if it was merely playing with its new toys in the most sadistic way imaginable, and throwing out the ones it didn't like?

With an even greater influx of free time on my hands now, potential plans of escape no longer occupying my mind, it occurred to me that, maybe, it was never about knowing. These loops, this now-inescapable office, the exact nature of why it only erased certain people...

Maybe the monster didn't delete people just because they knew, about it or about the loops. Maybe, just maybe, the monster deleted them because this was all a game. Because acting out of turn was against the rules. Because if anyone broke the rules, it only made sense to immediately remove them from play.

Even more than I hoped the penalty box was not the afterlife, I hoped the game would end before I found out.