The red pin of light streaming from my headlamp gave me a glimpse at the room—the tunnel? the cave?—surrounding me. The ground scraping against my knees felt soft, squishy, but with give. Like clay.
“What the fuck is going on?”
My voice echoed, the ‘on’ stretching for seconds. When I craned my head upward and rotated to make the light dance, I found it impossible to see the ceiling. Too far. Too high.
“You have five senses,” I heard someone say. “Five ways to suffer.”
I jumped from the sound, swishing my neck left and right, up and down, searching for the source of the crackling voice atop piles of rock and between stone crevices.
But the voice had come from my waist. A walkie talkie swung from my belt, the same brand I used in the theater to beg my bitch of a boss for lunch breaks.
“How did you get me in here?” I asked after unhitching the walkie and jamming a thumb down on the button.
I had been stopped at a red light on my way home from a house party when an androgynous figure in a jogging suit yanked my side door open and clambered inside.
I’d swung my arm back, reaching toward the backseat, groping for my Michael Kors. A pocketknife swam somewhere inside, drowning beneath stray lipsticks and granola bars and crinkled receipts.
By the time I remembered the pepper spray dangling from my keychain, the keychain attached to the ignition, the keychain much easier for me to reach in my panicked state, I felt a pinch. A needle against my vein.
My foot might have slipped off the break and rolled my Camri into the intersection. The stranger might have reached over the center console and yanked the emergency break to avoid causing a scene. I had no idea. The memory stopped where the drugs started.
“It takes 30 days for someone to go blind in this level of darkness,” the voice said, followed by a click. The faint light on my helmet blinking out.
Darkness wrapped its limbs around me. Not the kind of dark that comes after flicking a switch, where outlines of the ceiling fan and dresser drawers are still visible. Not the kind of darkness that greets you beneath closed eyelids, where you can still tell when headlights shine through your window.
This darkness stole the room away. It made the gray cracks in the walls and the piles of pebbles across the clay disappear.
Where the hell was I? My best guess was inside of a cavern, which meant the figure must have brought me further upstate. But why? Maybe they had a redhead fetish. Maybe they had a grudge against my father and his business, which had just laid off a couple hundred workers. Or maybe they spotted my car and chose me at random.
“And it only takes thirty minutes to go crazy from this level of silence,” the voice said, somehow shutting down my walkie.
I could no longer hear the hum of electricity, the bristle of static. The room went quiet. Not a speckle of sound. No background noise of birds chirping or cars passing or trees rustling. Dead silence. Like I had gone deaf.
I was stuck in an anechoic chamber with no sound entering or escaping. My girlfriend had paid to enter a manmade one in NYC for an article. She’d lasted seventeen minutes, but the hallucinations hit her at the fifteen-minute mark. They’d made her realize no article was worth subjecting herself to that kind of mental torture.
I tipped myself forward, onto my hands and knees, to crawl around and grope at the walls in search of a way out. I found a bump in the wall that felt like a security camera and a few cracks my fingers could slide through, but nothing wide enough to fit my entire body.
Was I dropped inside? Lowered down with a rope? Or was I brought in through an entrance that had since been covered with rocks too heavy to budge on my own?
After twenty minutes of searching (or ten? thirty?), the walkie clicked back on and a new voice said, “Anna. Annalia. Are you okay? Did this fucking psycho touch you? Where are you?”
I wrote off the plea of my brother as a hallucination. A side effect of the silence.
But then the jogger came through the speaker: “Your brother. Your mother. Your father. Your girlfriend. Your German Sheppard. Five loved ones. Five senses.”
The light on my helmet switched on, spilling a bright white instead of dull red, illuminating more of the cave than I could see before.
On the far wall, two lists were carved onto the rock in a vertical line with arrows connecting them. The chipped letters spelled out:
SOUND ——> BRO
SCENT ——> DAD
SIGHT ——> MOM
TOUCH ——> GF
TASTE ——> DOG
“Peter,” I said into the walkie, choosing to speak to my brother over the man holding me captive. “Are you at the house? Or are you in the caverns too? Where are…”
My brother released a gruff scream. A long grunt. Guttural sounds that could have been mistaken for sex in any other context.
“What are you doing to him? What the hell are you doing?” I asked, knowing he couldn’t hear a single word I said. I had jammed my thumb onto the button of the walkie to cut off the screams, to give myself a moment of the same silence I found so unbearable only a few moments before.
When I eased my finger off the button, expecting the screams to return, I heard coughing. Gasping. Gurgling. Like he was being strangled. Or hung. Or had his throat cut.
And then it went quiet. As if the struggle had ended. As if my brother had…
“Do you think sound is the worst form of torture? Or do you think another sense will be worse?” the voice asked, no trace of humor to the voice. Like he really wanted to know. “Let’s try scent next.”
Before I could take a deep enough breath to cry, to curse, to scream, the lights switched off and something thumped onto the ground. I crawled toward the direction I thought it landed, crinkling my nose once the smell hit. A flowery, sweet scent with an undercurrent of rot. Like spoiled meat.
I outstretched my arm and brushed my fingertips against something cold. A naked foot. I moved my hand up the body. The thick legs. The flabby stomach. The hairy chest. And the wide slit in the neck.
“No no no no no. Peter. No,” I said.
In the middle of a sob, I realized a fresh body would not smell this strong. And then I realized who SCENT had an arrow pointing toward. DAD.
How long was this shit planned for? My father had spent the last two weeks out of town on a business trip. He was supposed to come home three nights ago, but had left a message on the phone about broken contracts and having to stay longer.
After that, we hadn’t heard from him aside from an occasional text. Did the jogger have a gun to his head, forcing him to lie? Threatening to harm us if he failed to cooperate? He would have said anything if he thought he could save us.
“I don’t think scent is the most effective sense,” the voice said above a light scratching sound, like scribbling in a notebook. “Let’s move onto sight, shall we?”
My helmet stayed unlit, but a projector flickered on, brightening the room. The bump I’d felt on the wall earlier must have been the lens.
Without a screen, the image cast onto the bumpy wall looked colorless and distorted. But I could still make out my mother sprawled across a metal table with her limbs bound. She must have been knocked out, drugs pumping through her system, because I could see her chest moving in pace with her breathing, but other than that, she stayed completely still.
The camera must have been attached to the psycho’s body, maybe atop a helmet like mine, because I saw his gloved hands reach out to brush my mother’s hair behind her ear. Then I saw him wrap his skinny fingers around a scalpel and place it beneath my mother’s eyebrow.
No sound eked out of the screen or from the walkie. I sat in deafening silence as the man dug the tip of the blade into my mother’s blue eye, sawed around it like carving a pumpkin, and popped the ball out. It dangled by squishy red veins, falling off the side of her face, close to her ear.
He repeated the procedure with the next eye, cleaned his scalpel with a rag as if he were finished, and then slit her throat to stop her breathing.
I never heard her scream. Never smelt her dead body. But having a front row seat to her mutilation made me to vomit up everything in my stomach.
“Touch is a complicated one,” the voice said into the walkie, camera directed at his feet as he stomped into an adjoining room. Without my mother’s corpse stealing my attention, I scanned the background of the projection. Dirt and mud and clay surrounded his sneakers. He was in another section of the cave. A wider section with more room to work. “Even though touch is a big component of this next step, unfortunately, you’re still technically experiencing it via sight. But no experiment is perfect.”
Experiment? Is that what this was to him? A harmless science? Did he scribble down notes so he could write a dissertation on the human psyche and how it…
My brain ground to a halt when I saw her face fill the screen. The girl I had been in a relationship with for over three years. The girl I had moved into an apartment with, went on double dates with, cooked breakfast with. The first and only girl to hear I love you escape my lips.
Straps attached her limbs to a table similar to the one my mother had been sprawled on, except my girlfriend was flipped onto her stomach instead of her back, her cheek against the metal.
“Since this stage of the experiment is already faulty, I’ll allow audience participation,” the man said. “Would you rather have me kill her before or after?”
My mouth opened, not even an inch, before snapping shut again. What the hell was he asking me?
He slowed down his words, like speaking to a class of kindergarteners. “Would you rather have me penetrate her now, while she is fully conscious, and then slit her carotid arteries? Or would you rather death first, followed by the penetration of her corpse?”
My girlfriend thrashed on the table, her shoulder blades slamming against metal. I could see her mouthing something, but the walkie was off and I sucked at reading lips.
I wanted to keep her alive as long as possible to give us a chance to escape. To give the helicopters a chance to swoop down and scoop us from this hell. But he killed everyone else I loved without consequence. He would do it again. I had no doubt about it.
“Kill her,” I said, my voice rasped.
I saw her eyes widen. Her lips twist. Her head shake.
He grabbed a fistful of her hair to yank her head up, reached beneath her chin with the scalpel he was still holding, and slit her throat in one graceful movement, a ballerina of death. When he released her, her forehead hit the table instead of her cheek, saving me from seeing her eyes. All I saw was the blood billowing out from her hair in a thick, dark oval.
The guilt crashed over me, threatening to collapse me, but I hadn’t wanted her to feel what he was about to do. I hadn’t want her to hurt more than she had to. I had helped her in the only way I could.
When the stranger, the psycho, the dark figure in a jogging suit, violated the love of my life, I did what I was too stunned to do while he mutilated my mother. I closed my eyes. I refused to watch a second of it.
“Taste is the last one,” he said minutes later, wiping globs of white off his gloves. “And then you are free to go.”
When the brightest light of my helmet switched on, the one that illuminated the entire room, my dog sat in the corner, his head resting on my father’s corpse.
There must have been an opening somewhere in the wall. Someone must have removed a chunk of rock to let the dog through and then covered it up again. Which meant the psycho must have been working with a partner. Maybe with a whole team of people.
“Come here, buddy,” I said to Chester. He scampered over, but hid his tail between his legs. Even when I kissed his nose and ruffled his ears, he kept looking back at dad and whining. It took me a minute to notice the sliver of silver dangling from his collar.
A pocket knife.
“Cut off a piece of your canine and swallow it. A paw will due. Or a tail. You can choose.” The sound of a pen clicking. “You can also choose whether to let him live or die. He isn’t going to give out any classified information. I don’t mind him walking out of here with you. You’re a bigger threat than him.”
I ignored the walkie to scratch Chester behind the ear. “No way, buddy. I’m not hurting you. Don’t worry,” I said, voice hoarse from all the tears. “Do you think you can show me the way you got in here? Find the exit, bud.”
He tilted his head, confused, so I groped the wall to check for hinges again. If I failed, I could use the knife to chip away at a rock until enough rubble crumbled apart to fit me through.
“As earlier stated, you are free to go after this,” the voice said, more stern this time. “But if you attempt to escape you will be killed. And if you fail to comply with the rules, you will be left down here until you do.”
There was no way in hell I would hurt my dog. I spent entire afternoons apologizing when I stepped on his foot. I could never rest a knife against his fur. Never.
“You want me to see what flesh tastes like, right?” I asked. “Because this part is taste?”
The first twitch of a smile appeared on my face. The man might have been psychotic, but he was also intelligent. He had put this entire thing together without getting caught. He’d kept pointing out the flaws in his own system. He wanted to learn more, to become better.
So I asked, “Are loopholes allowed?”
“There aren’t any.”
I rested my left hand on a large slab of rock. Then I used my right hand to flick the blade from the pocketknife and rest it against four fingers, everything except the thumb.
“I see,” he said. “Proceed.”
I slammed the blade down, digging the blade deep into my flesh. It made it halfway through the skin, so I had to seesaw it through nerves and carpals and whatever other muscles I half-learned about in biology textbooks.
There must have been drugs leftover in my system–either that or the adrenaline wiped away the pain–because I felt numb. Nothingness. Just a strange mental sensation when I saw the four strips of meat that should have still been attached to my palm.
Before my brain could process any more of what I was doing, I shoved my pinkie into my mouth and chewed. The texture felt like uncooked meat or maybe stiff taffy.
Luckily, Chester lapped up my middle and my index finger and swallowed with single bites. The feast took him two seconds, but the pinkie took me at least two and the pointer took me ten. Every so often, bile rose up my throat, but I swallowed it back down.
“Thank you for your time,” the voice said during my final swallow. “You were the perfect candidate. Obedient, but intelligent. Cooperative, but cunning. The scouts did well with you.”
The wall behind me shifted. A six-foot space, where the projector lens was installed, swung open like a barn door and a hooded figure stepped through. I scuttled to the back of the room as my dog lunged and woofed, but the figure managed to stick a needle in my vein and turn my world black one more time.
I woke up on a bus stop bench with my dog nudging my palm, a bandage wrapped around my fingerless hand, and a pocketbook slung around my shoulders that didn’t belong to me. When I unzipped it, enough cash money for a bus ticket sat inside, along with a check for fifty-thousand dollars.
In the following months, after Google searching the information printed on the check and researching the coordinates where I’d been stolen and left behind, I figured out who organized the entire ‘experiment’. A well-known name in charge of a multi-billion-dollar company. A company that described itself as progressive and innovative. A company that reached across several brands, from developing humanoid robots to publishing self-help books about the human psyche.
I tried to sue, but no lawyer would accept my case. No news channels or magazines would listen to my story (other than tabloids nobody believed). Even strangers on Twitter called me crazy after I posted a thread about my real life horror story.
No one wanted me to challenge a man like that. No one wanted to believe that a respected company was capable of something so horrible. No one wanted me to be telling the truth.
So they called me a liar.