I was honored recently to be asked to review an ARC of a collection of short stories by Michael Chambers. It made me remember how much I used to love writing them myself and it sparked a desire to write a new one. Then fellow author Lincoln Farish pitched an elaborate idea for a psychological thriller and it spawned this little baby.
Without further ado (or edits of any kind, since I literally just wrote this a second ago), I give you…
“By signing this you are giving consent to participate in this study, as outlined in the documentation we gave you. You understand what it entails?”
“Yes,” Tessa said.
“Do you have any questions?” To his credit, this intern was a lot more personable than the one who’d first interviewed her. He looked her in they eye when he talked to her, not at the clipboard in his hand, and he seemed to genuinely want to hear her answer. His name was Anthony. Nice name to go with a nice Italian American face. Sadly, no accent, though. That was a shame.
“No, I think I got it.”
Anthony smiled a little. “Sorry, but this is serious enough that I can’t accept ‘I think.’ We’ve had some folks have some pretty strong reactions in there, and I need to verify you fully understand all the ramifications. You will not be in any physical danger at any point during the experiment. You will not be restrained, or subjected to duress of any kind, and you will be released the second you give us the signal that you’re done.”
Tessa licked her lips. Or tried to, anyway. Her tongue felt sticky and she reached for the glass of water on her side of the table. She saw Anthony note the way her hand quivered as she brought the glass to her mouth. He didn’t write anything down, but Tessa knew his hand itched to do it.
His kind smile gave way to a more serious expression as he said, “Look, if you don’t want to go through with this, it’s fine. Tell me right now and I’ll escort you out to the lobby. Sometimes we get people in here who lost a bet or want to prove what tough guys they are. Trust me, it’s not worth it. If you’re not sure, just walk away. No one here will think any less of you, I promise.”
Tessa set the glass back down and squared her shoulders. “No, I’m fine.” She picked up the consent form and read the last paragraph out loud: “I, Tessa McMahon, certify that I have been fully informed on all pertinent details regarding the study in which I am about to participate. I have read and understood all literature given to me and all of its implications. I agree to participate to the extent of my ability and give full consent to the UC Davis Psychology Department to use and publicize any and all data concerning my participation, excluding my name and identity.” She signed her name and wrote out the date where indicated, then handed the form back to Anthony.
He nodded as he placed it into her file, aligning it just so with the rest of her paperwork: interviews, questionnaires, basic physical tests—they really covered all their bases. She supposed it made sense. When you’re about to scare the holy Bejesus out of someone, you’d better make sure they won’t have a heart attack on you first. The guidebook alone was a serious eye opener. What Tessa was about to do was basically a sensory deprivation study. They’d put her into a pitch black chamber specially designed to eliminate all ambient noise, and let her stay there as long as she could take it. Like Anthony had said, she would not be restrained in any way, no one and nothing would be in the chamber with her, and the second she couldn’t take it anymore, they’d get her out.
Easy enough. Unless a person was scared of the dark, which Tessa most definitely was not. This would be a walk in the park.
“All right,” Anthony said, pushing away from the desk. “That concludes the clerical part of the process. Now it’s time for the hard part. Follow me.” Handily enough, the locker room was right next to the interview office. “You can leave your things in here. There are sweatshirts and sweatpants stacked over there, grab the size you need and change. You can keep your socks, but you’ll have to leave your shoes here.”
“Wait, why do I need to change at all?”
“It’s just to keep things consistent. We want to avoid as many outside distractions as possible.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
Anthony gave her a searching look. “You okay?”
“Huh?” Tessa yanked her thumb nail out from between her teeth and clutched her hands behind her back. “Yeah, fine. No problem. They’re all clean, right?”
He grinned. “Totally. Washed in hypoallergenic detergent, just to be extra sure. I’ll wait outside for you whenever you’re ready. No rush.” He closed the door behind him, leaving Tessa all alone.
Man, not even out of her civvies yet and she was already starting to get nervous. The anticipation was a real mind-fuck in and of itself. Logic said that there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. But then, it was hard to argue logic when her heart was racing so hard she could feel the blood thumping in the veins in her ears.
For crying out loud, get it together, woman! Just because you’re all alone in the building with an intern and a dark room does not mean he’s trying to kill you! Though it would have been more reassuring if there were other people around. Hell, even a radio playing the latest of the lame would have helped. She’d never much liked crowds, but the total silence in the locker room made her wish for company.
Tessa closed her eyes and took a few deep, measured breaths to calm herself. It didn’t get her quite as far into her meditative state the way it usually did during yoga class, but her heart rate mellowed out and her nervous jitters eased enough for her to take out her cell and type out a comprehensible text to her sister, Claire, to let her know that she was about to go in, and she’d call as soon as she was done. Then she turned off the phone and opened one of the two lone lockers in the room to put her things away.
After stashing her wallet in the bottom of her purse and her purse in the far back of the locker, beneath her jacket and neatly folded jeans and sweater, Tessa padded over to the stacks of clothes. Drab gray. Fantastic. She rifled through them to find her size, getting more chilled the longer she stood there in her underwear and socks. She could tell some of them had been worn by how faded the fabric had become, but as Anthony had promised, they were all clean, and carried a faint scent of dryer sheets.
By the time she was fully dressed again, Tessa’s hands were cold as ice. Anticipation sucked. Ready to just get it over with, she checked to make sure the locker was latched closed, then walked out to meet Anthony.
Tessa nodded. “Yep!” She even managed a brave grin for his benefit.
“No second thoughts?”
“Nope! Le’ts do this!”
“Okay, tiger, take it easy. Come on.” He led her down a long corridor to a door marked EXAM ROOM 2. It had a gurney waiting against the opposite wall, next to what looked like oxygen tanks and defibrillators. The cabinet in the corner was closed, but she could still make out small bottles and syringe kits through the glass doors. On top of it were stacks of blankets and a tray of bottled water. Add in nurses in scrubs and it almost felt like an ER.
Oooookay… More mind-fucks. Awesome. They were trying to scare her before she even stepped foot in that damn room—and she was letting them! Tessa was so done with it she actually reached for the handle to walk right in, but Anthony stopped her, pulling a plastic wrist strap out of his pocket, like one of those exercise things that were supposed to count footsteps. “Standard equipment,” he explained as he attached it to her wrist. “When you feel yourself starting to freak out, I want you to push this button.”
“I won’t freak out,” she assured him. Liar, her heart accused. But no, that wasn’t fear, that was just frustration. Why was he still stalling?
“Listen, sensory deprivation is no joke, okay? As soon as you step in there, your mind will start playing tricks on you. You’ll think you’re hearing things, seeing things, even feeling things. And you won’t have any frame of reference to tell you otherwise. Believe me, you will freak out. When you do, push this button and I’ll get you out.”
He looked serious enough that Tessa made herself listen. She took a few more of those deep, meditative breaths to get herself under control, then nodded. “Okay. I’m ready.”
Anthony nodded. “Yeah, I think you are. I’ll be just outside the door, but it’s soundproof. I won’t hear anything unless you push that button, got it?”
“Good luck.” He opened the door for her and the hallway light reached just far enough inside to illuminate blackness. The walls, the floor, the ceiling were all painted black. Not that it would matter in total darkness, but Tessa still noted it as an interesting choice.
She rubbed her cold hands together and stepped inside. Then the door closed behind her with a soft thud.
The vertigo hit her first. Without anything for her senses to focus on, she swayed on her feet and had to catch herself against the door. It gave a little, like industrial foam, which Tessa supposed made sense. It provided additional insulation and soundproofing. She felt along the walls to place herself in the space available and discovered all the walls and the floor were the same texture. It threw her off balance a bit and she decided it’d be smart to just stick to one corner. Three solid points of contact were better than one.
Okay, this wasn’t so bad. Just a decent-sized, pitch black room. Nothing to it.
It didn’t take long for the weird noise effects to start. First, it was just her breath. Her ears heard it so much louder without any other ambient noise, like when she got a cold and her ears felt stuffed. Then it was her heart beat. Soon, she heard herself blink, and her hair rustle when she moved her head. Clicking her nails together sounded like a woodpecker right next to her ear. It was trippy! But kind of cool in its own way.
She was smiling to herself when the humming started. Soft, at first, then louder and louder. “Hey, I thought you said there’d be no noise!” Her voice sounded muffled, but still louder than the hum. “Hello!” The drone continued, and Tessa couldn’t figure out what it was. It was too steady to be a generator or fan, too uniform to be coming from a speaker. “Doesn’t matter. It’s just noise.” How long had she been in here, anyway? Ten minutes? Piece of cake.
When the dull pounding began, she thought it was another mind-fuck until she realized she was thumping her head against the wall. Okay, this was ridiculous. Tessa got up, paused for a second to steady herself, then set out walking the perimeter, tracing her hand along the wall. Within a few steps she started seeing weird colors clouding her lack of vision. She closed her eyes and breathed through it. Just stood up too fast, that’s all. But when she opened them again, those colors were still there. “Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.” She looked down at where her feet ought to be and picked up her step to the other side of the room, around the corner, and on to the next.
Out of habit, she looked up to see where she was going before she hit the next corner and her own scream scared the crap out of her. “Who’s there!”
“Show yourself! I saw you!” She’d definitely seen a shadow moving through the color clouds. There’d even been a little red blinking light like cameras had. “Are you recording me? Where are you!”
Being in a closed room by herself was one thing, but having someone else there with her was something all together different. She hadn’t signed up for this! Letting go of the wall, she put her hands in front of her and launched straight away from her only point of balance, chasing that stupid, blinking red light. “Knock it off, dammit! Stop!”
The light disappeared, stranding Tessa alone in the middle of the dark room, breathing so hard she wheezed. Heart racing, hands shaking, she clutched the bracelet on her wrist without actually pushing the button, whipping around left and right. There was nothing to see, except for those colors. Nothing to hear, except that hum. She must have stood there for a good fifteen minutes, waiting for her heart rate to slow the hell down, and she’d almost gotten herself back under control, too.
Until something… chittered.
Oh God, not rats. Please don’t let it be rats! Tessa hated rats, mice, and anything in the rodent family. They knew that; they had her list all her phobias on the twenty-page questionnaire. And like an idiot, she’d answered honestly: rats, heights, clowns, and porcelain dolls. A lifetime of watching horror movies and late night specials, and she hadn’t been able to shake a single one of those fears.
Something squeaked and Tessa heard scratching. “Ohmygodohmygodohmygod…” This isn’t happening. It’s just your mind playing tricks on you. CALM THE FUCK DOWN!
She was shaking like a leaf when she reached out again to feel for the wall. It felt a mile away and when she finally reached it, she felt like crying. Her jaw clenched tight, she made herself breathe through the lump in her throat. “Never should have left the corner,” she grated to herself. That corner was her safety net. Things made sense while she was there. Three points of reference. That’s what she needed.
Almost losing it, but Tessa wasn’t ready to give up yet. How long had she been in here now, half an hour? From what they’d told her, that was twenty minutes longer than anyone else had lasted before. She was a badass! She would not be panicking over a few random lights and sounds. Pfft, this was child’s play—
Something small ran across her foot and Tessa screamed, leaping away from the wall again, hopping in place, all while screaming bloody murder. And she couldn’t stop. A stranger had taken over Tessa’s body, making her do things. Her chest hurt, her eyes stung, her hands cramped into tight fists, and still she screamed and screamed until she ran out of air and collapsed on the floor in a shivering heap. Part of her wanted nothing more than to curl up in a tight ball and die. But some evolutionary instinct for self-preservation forced her to get up to her hands and knees. Her elbows buckled twice, and she was bouncing up and down uncontrollably as she crawled, but crawl she did, blindly, in what she hoped was a straight line. Her mind imagined the wall even farther, moving away from her as she crawled toward it. Damn it, where was it? The room wasn’t that big; she should have reached the end already!
Tessa crawled faster, mewling, weeping, staring straight ahead through those floating lights in desperate hope that she would suddenly see something.
That’s how she hit the wall face first. She barely felt the pain of her nose squishing harder than it should. The whispers were starting to seriously freak her out. They damn well hadn’t been there a second ago and they sure weren’t speaking English!
Get up! Get the fuck up! Using the wall to steady herself, Tessa pushed to her feet, put one shoulder against the wall, and started shuffling forward. “Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. Get to the corner. You can do this.” One foot in front of the other. Slide forward, ignore the awful-smelling stuff she was walking through. It wasn’t real. Neither was that red light growing bigger and bigger, shining from behind her. Or those whispers that were starting to sound more growly, more aggressive, and kind of demonic.
Just a trick of the mind.
Except it was starting to feel really hot in that room, and she still hadn’t reached the corner.
Tessa picked up her step, moved faster, faster. She should have found the corner already. Jogging now, she risked a glance behind and saw the blackness cracking through with light, like lava burning its way to the surface. She tripped and fell, a desperate cry sticking in her throat. It took her five tries to get back to her feet, and then she ran, one hand on the wall, one in front of her, desperately seeking the corner that wasn’t there. The room had no end, except the one behind her, crumbling in a dull roar of falling rocks as a hot blast of air brought with it a strong smell of sulfur.
The voices were chanting, hissing, screeching all around her, and behind her, that fiery maw grew fangs. “God, help me!” Tessa screamed, running not only for her life, but her very soul. Running as fast as she could with her chest squeezed so tight she could barely take a breath. And when she couldn’t run anymore, she collapsed, wailing desperate prayers into the darkness, clutching her hands together. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to go to Hell,” she repeated over and over again, slurring her words more and more, until all she could manage were desperate sounds a wounded animal might make.
Tessa couldn’t breathe, and she was exhausted, feeling so light and at the same time so heavy, as if she would sink through the floor and disappear. The pitter-patter of rodent feet all over her body brought her screaming back to consciousness for one frantic moment as she hit herself over and over, trying to get them off before they bit and clawed their way under her skin. They were eating her alive when the red light reached for her, engulfed her, dragged her into its depths, and the fight went out of her as quickly as it had come on and everything stopped.
* * * * *
“Charge to three-fifty! Clear!”
“Tony, stop. We did everything we could, it’s time to call it.”
Anthony bowed his head in defeat and put the paddles away, turning off the defibrillator. “Damn it!”
His supervisor checked his watch and made a note in his file. “Time of death: 10:27am.” He shook his head. “Three minutes. She was only in there for three minutes. How could she have done that much damage to herself in such a short time?”
Tessa McMahon’s body was covered in red welts and scratches. She looked as if she’d tried to beat and claw her way out of her own skin. “I told you changing the room shape was a bad idea,” he said. “They always go for the corners.” That was what had sent the poor girl over the edge. As soon as she’d let go of the wall, Matt had flipped the switch and moved the gears to change the room’s layout from square to circular, and Tessa had lost her mind. They’d watched it happen on the video feeds—she’d lost it so big she’d started beating herself, somehow managing to accidentally hit the panic button in the process. But by the time they’d opened the door…
“It shouldn’t have made that big a difference,” Matt insisted. “None of the data we collected so far shows any correlation that could have predicted this.”
Matt gave him a stern look. “She was aware of the potential risk and signed the release form. We did the best we could to bring her back; she was just gone. We’re on the same page on that, at least, right?”
Anthony rubbed his forehead. “Yeah, I’ll corroborate your version of events. You’ll give the tape to the authorities and handle the EMTs and legal paperwork, and I’ll notify the next of kin, as always.” He took off his name badge and slapped it against Matt’s chest. “But I’m done scaring people to death.”
“You seriously think you can walk away? I own your career, Hanesley. I say one word to the board and you will never get near a patient again. What will you do then, huh, smart guy?”
“Flip burgers,” he called back, already walking out the door. “At least they kill people kinder.”