In the beginning was darkness. John opened his eyes, blinked, closed them again. There was no discernible difference. He pushed himself into a sitting position, felt concrete rasp against his bare legs. Where was he?
The last thing he remembered was driving home from a client meeting in Cherry Hill. He had... well, probably too many drinks. Oh, God, where was he?
A sound, somewhere between a gasp and a sneeze, came from his right.
He held still, waited for his heart rate to return to normal. Wherever he was, he wasn't alone. Groping in the dark identified an arm, shoulder, bare breast. John sighed and relaxed against the rough wall. Lucy. He must have come home a little drunk, must have ended up taking Lucy down into the cellar. God, what a horrible place to make love. She wouldn't be happy in the morning.
But maybe tonight? John stroked her breast, leaned in, kissed her shoulder, worked up to the neck. She snorted and flopped her arm towards him. Her ear, and— rough scalp. Prickly fuzz of freshly growing hair.
He jerked away, shouted something.
Whoever was there with him awoke, flailed around, scooted out of reach. “Oh, God!” she yelled. “Please, whatever you're doing, please stop!”
“Me stop? Who the hell are you?” John crossed his legs, tried to hide his nudity, despite the total darkness.
“You were—you were rubbing on me!”
“No I wasn't! I mean, you were asleep—”
“And that makes it okay? The fuck is wrong with you? Where am I?”
“I—I don't—” The situation became clear to John. He was stark naked, in the dark, with a complete stranger. If she wasn't Lucy, this wasn't his cellar. If it wasn't— A deep disquiet rumbled in the pit of his stomach, and he felt a tremor pass through the walls of his reality. Slowly, he reached up to the top of his head. Nothing but stubble.
Now there was soft crying. “Oh, God, what is happening, what is happening... Please don't rape me, just let me go, I swear I won't tell anyone...”
“Whoa, hey, slow down, no one's going to, um...” he cleared his throat. “What happened before, I... I thought you were my girlfriend, I just woke up, I don't know what's going on...” he trailed off. “I thought you were asleep.”
“I thought I was just dreaming at first...”
They sat in silence for what seemed like hours. “Um, I'm John by the way.”
No response for what seemed like hours. “My name's Suzanne.”
“That's, uh, that's a bit of an accent you got there...”
That brought John up short. He never thought about it, but he guessed he did have a bit of an accent. Of course, so did almost everyone he knew. “It's not too weird.”
“It's just... I don't know, it seems really north-eastern. Where're you from? Originally, I mean.”
“Here. I've lived here my whole life. What do you mean, north-eastern?”
“Like somewhere around New York, New Jersey, somewhere in there.”
“Pennsylvania...” Nausea was rising.
“Right, something like that. But you say you're from Texas?”
John lurched forward, fell to his knees, dry-heaved onto the concrete. How much had he had to drink? Where was he, what was going on, what was going on, what was—
Harsh white lights burst on overhead, and both John and Suzanne yelled in pain, fell back to writhe blindly on the floor. What seemed like hours passed before John was able to blink away tears and look around. He was in a cube, maybe teen feet on a side, a large metal door imbedded in one wall. Overhead, almost lost in the glare, where row upon row of halogen lights. His vision drifted down to the nude woman laying on the floor an arm's length away.
There was no guessing her height, but her build suggested she was no more than average. Her flat, broad-featured face was topped by a fringe of black fuzz. Her skin--a dull chocolate color--contrasted sharply with his own milky paleness.
That wasn't right. He had never been very dark, but the last thing he remembered, he had sported a tan. Now his skin was pale and papery-looking, a matrix of thin scars spread across his chest and arms. “The hell...”
There was a dull clunk as Suzanne backed against the door. John looked up to see her trying to cover herself, to curl into a ball. “Don't look at me!”
He rolled over, tried to hide his unconscious reaction to seeing her; this was neither the time nor the place.
“So,” he said, trying to inject some cheer into his voice. “you're from Texas. You think this is Texas. I'm, uh, I'm from Philadelphia, and... Look, the last thing I remember, I was driving home from a business meeting. Um, what do you remember before waking up?”
She sniffed, cleared her throat. “Um... I was just at my apartment. I was finishing up a paper for school. It was, it was the last paper for the term. Oh, God, I need to get that turned in. I need to... Fuck!”
“Um... I hate to rock your boat, but isn't it a little late to turn in a term paper?”
“It's... It's July.”
“No it isn't.” Her voice was steely, and John didn't dare argue. “It's December.”
The pale skin, the scars— “You have plans for Christmas?” He couldn't keep a note of panic out of his voice.
“My, uh... My parents died last year. I was just... just going to stay around the dorms, drink a lot... You?”
“Oh yeah, I saw that.”
John clamped his legs tighter. He needed to think.
He played through multiple scenarios. Kidnapping? Most definitely. Someone who had access to people all over the country. That seemed to be outside the realm of the average private psychopath. Aliens? No. Just... no. The scars, the time jump... the night driving home, far beyond buzzed. There must have been a car wreck, he must have been in a hospital. Government? Had to be. Why?
Didn't matter; he had to escape, had to get back to Lucy. They were just months away from being married; she had already picked out baby names. Had to get back to Lucy.
He stood, unconcerned now by his nudity. It was just a fact of life, just something he had to get used to.
Suzanne looked up at him. “Um... what are you doing?”
He gestured behind her. “We need to look at the door; it's our only way out.”
“What about the drain?”
John turned and looked at the floor. There was indeed a small circular, maybe two inches across. He looked back to Suzanne. She dropped her gaze.
“I was just kidding...” She stood as well, and together they began examining the door. It was difficult to make out details, the light was so bright, but it seemed to be a solid piece of metal, with recessed hinges. It would be impossible to fiddle with the hinges as long as the door was closed.
They were stuck.
They sat in silence for what seemed like hours. The whole time, John continued to think of ways to get out, to get back to Lucy.
“Hey, uh, John?” Suzanne said.
John started. He must have dozed off, despite the lights.
“Look, I know we're uh, we're naked and everything, and we can't really be strangers, but I'd still like to ease into it, so... You think you could turn around while I use the drain?”
John complied. He heard footsteps, the sound of pressurized liquid spattering against a hard surface, then—
From somewhere behind the lights powerful jets of water blasted on, pelting them, bruising skin, spattering against the floor and ricocheting around in a stinging spray. Moments later it stopped, and they lay curled on the ground, trembling and whimpering.
“We're... we're being monitored,” John gasped.
“Could... could be coincidence. Two times, two times, we're monitored.”
“What the hell were you studying in college?”
Then the light turned off, and they counted it as morning and evening of the first day.
Sometime later the lights returned, just as sudden and relentless as before. John stood and approached the drain. “Get ready, I'm about to test your hypothesis.”
Suzanne nodded and curled into the fetal position.
He began to urinate, finished, waited, every muscle tense. “I think maybe you're—”
Water. John fell back on his heels, trying to keep as much of his body as possible away from the under-spray that reflecting from the ground.
When the water stopped, he looked up to see Suzanne staring back at him. “Okay,” she said, wiping water from her eyes, “we know how the toilets work. Now, we find out how we get food. There was no food yesterday, but I'm sure they're not going to let us starve.”
“We don't know if the dark/light cycle was a full day.”
Suzanne almost smiled. “What the hell were you studying in college? Anyway, it doesn't matter if it was an exact twenty-for hours or not, what matters was we have something regular to measure time by.
The lights shut off.
“Okay, now they're just fucking with us,” she continued.
John sat, edged his way back to the wall. “So, uh, it appears we're trapped here for the time being. We should probably get to know each other.”
“I'm not telling you any more until we see another person.”
“For all I know you're a serial killer, and this is just how you get off; pretending to be a prisoner, gaining the trust of your victims. If there's someone on the outside, I'm more inclined to believe you're a prisoner, too. Serial killers tend to work alone.”
“What the hell where you studying in college?”
He couldn't see her, but in the silence after his question, he could almost imagine a smile.
“While I'm waiting on verification that you're not going to kill me, why don't you let me get to know you.”
“Um, well...” With all the talk of serial killers, he was having his own doubts about Suzanne. Still, thinking about normal life might help him to keep a level head. So far, this was all too strange to accept, but he was sure that once he did accept it, he would well and truly panic. “My name's John Donalson, Jewish, age twenty-seven. I'm an architect living in Philadelphia. I'm... I'm engaged.”
Saying it aloud, acknowledging it in this strange place made it seem so distant, so impossible. He wasn't supposed to break this soon, his reality wasn't supposed to collapse after only a few sentences of his own biography. It was as if acknowledging what he had had before this cube only served to underline what was no longer his.
He didn't realize he had been crying until he felt the warmth against him and his tears stopped.
“If you really are a serial killer, you're doing a damn good job of getting my sympathy...”
And there was morning and there was evening the second day.
The next time the lights turned on, there was food.
“Did you see or hear anything?”
“No...” Suzanne was starring at the gallon jug of water. “You could have slipped out while I was sleeping.”
“You were on top of me.”
She didn't hear him; she was busy chugging the water. When she had finished about a third, she returned the jug to the floor, then slid the jug to John. He too drank greedily, only to be pummeled to the floor in a spray from the ceiling. When the water stopped he turned to see Suzanne, hunched over the drain, water dribbling down her chin.
“What the hell? That fucking hurt! Warn me next time, goddammit!”
She retched then scuttled away, fear visible in her eyes.
He sighed. “Look, I'm sorry, okay? I... I'm sorry. Here.” He placed the jug to the floor, then stepped away. “Just... just drink slower this time.”
She stood, half-bent, eyeing him warily, then picked up the bottle and sipped at it.
John turned to the small metal bowl that had been left beside the jug. It had turned over in the downpour, and whatever had been in it was oozing towards the drain. He scooped it up, shoved it in his mouth, gagged. It was some kind of bean paste, unseasoned hummus maybe, that had mixed with too much water. He used the bowl to scoop up the rest, then set it aside.
He and Suzanne took turns drinking the water until the jug was empty, then shared out the bean paste.
“So,” John prompted, licking the remainders of the paste off his fingers, “what's your story?”
She frowned, then nodded. “Alright. I'm a sophomore at Texas A&M, studying psychology. Nominally Baptist. Like I said earlier, my parents died. Car wreck.”
“I think I was in a car wreck. That's how I think I got here.”
“Car wreck in July? Alright, I'll take a wild guess and say dorm fire in December. Smoke inhalation. Those fucking hippies down the hall were always burning something. We had three small fires in the time I was there.”
“You think we're dead?”
Suzanne leaned back and regarded him. “Honestly, that seems a lot better than any of the alternatives I could think of.”
Then the lights shut off.
“Shit, that happens at bad times.”
“You think they're controlling the lights based on what we're doing or talking about?”
“You know one of those worse alternatives I mentioned?”
“I'm hoping I didn't get wasted and sign up for some really fucking weird experiment. No amount of extra credit is worth this.”
And there was morning and there was evening the third day.
And so life continued. Lights would turn on, lights would turn off, food would come, all without pattern. Sometimes the light would last for mere minutes. Sometimes it would strobe on and off for... some immeasurable period of time. Sometimes when the light turned on, there would be food. Sometimes, there wouldn't be.
And then came the time when the light turned on and they were not alone. Three humanoid forms stood among them, wearing a harness of armored pads, with thick metal bracing at the knees and hips. Their faces were completely obscured by helmeted gas masks.
Once they noticed the intruders, John and Suzanne scuttled away, pressed into the far wall. They waited, wondering if their presumed captors would speak.
They didn't. The humanoid—no, it had to be a human, there were tiny English words stenciled on the armor—closest to them raised a short club at Suzanne. He jerked the end upwards, waited a moment, repeated the gesture.
With a glance to John, Suzanne stood, her body trembling. The man nodded, turned to John, jerked the rod down. John sank to the floor, lay prone, looked back up to the man. The man nodded, brought his hands up to his chest, pushed them forward, returned them, repeated the gesture.
Unsure of what was happening, John pushed himself up, then lowered himself. He looked to the man, and the man nodded. The club pointed again, flicked back down and back up. Again.
Having no other idea of what to do, John performed another push-up, then continued, occasionally glancing up at the man for affirmation. The man wasn't nodding anymore, nor was he giving any other indications. John continued.
At twenty-five, his arms began to ache; at thirty-five, he was ready to collapse. He hadn't been exercising since his incarceration. Mostly, he had been eating and talking, trying to remain sane. At forty-five, his arms gave out, and he collapsed to the floor. He looked up to see the man's reaction.
The man stood for a moment, then approached Suzanne. She flinched away, but he lay a reassuring hand on her shoulder. She straightened, and the man struck out with the club, catching her just behind the ear, sending a spray of blood down on the concrete.
“No!” John found the strength for one final push-up, coming up to his feet and lunging at the man.
The two others stepped forward and caught John, holding him in place while the first man reached down and helped Suzanne to her feet. John noted with some pride that while her eyes glistened, she didn't cry. Quite the opposite; she fixed the man with a glare so fierce John was surprised the three didn't turn and leave right then and there.
The man looked away from Suzanne and repeated his earlier gestures to John.
This time, he made it to twenty before the man struck out at Suzanne again.
When they were finally alone again, John sat slumped in the corner, his arms hanging limp at his side. Suzanne, blood seeping from the four wounds across her head and right shoulder, lay curled up next to him, her head in his lap.
As John stared down at the glistening brown ridges protruding from the dark skin, he realized that he was never going to see Lucy again. All he had in the world was this woman before him. No matter what, he couldn't let her be hurt again.
The men returned, following no discernible schedule. On their first trip back, Suzanne was made to perform pushups while John was beaten. When he tried to fight back, the two followers held him while the head man beat Suzanne. It was the last time they tried to resist.
For the most part, the exercise/beating schedules were even. First Suzanne, then John, then repeating. But just like everything else in this private corner of hell, even that couldn't be counted upon. The longest run had been three sessions in a row where John was forced to watch Suzanne suffer as his arms gave out. Through it all, he couldn't help feeling as if he were the one hurting her...
When they were alone in darkness, or during the bright times when there was food, the two were never more than a foot apart, trying to remain in physical contact at all times. They had ceased to speak, to dredge up the past. All their communication was physical now. First, simple touches: I know how you feel, I'm there for you. Then, prolonged holding and caressing: I won't let you go, I won't let them hurt you. Finally, copulation: Why are you letting them hurt me, why can't you do better?
At some point amid the haze of light and dark and pain and pleasure there was a change: the visitors began to come during mealtimes. As John watched Suzanne work herself to exhaustion, as he flinched and fell under the head man's blows, he saw one of the other men stoop and proffer the bowl of bean past to Suzanne. As she ate, as she rested, as John continued to suffer, he hated her. He was hurting, while she was thriving.
As the pain and isolation continued to drive them together, the sudden lack of reliable nutrition drove them apart. Now, when a visit was over, and one of them was hurt and ashamed of their powerlessness, the other would be full and sleepy. The sex became rougher, became less communication and more accusation: You're doing this to me, you're the reason I can barely stand to live.
Then water became a bargaining chip. As the lights turned off, as the visitors left, the unlucky victim was forced to drag themselves to the drain, to summon enough blood and saliva to activate the flushing mechanism, to try to lap up some of the stinging water that bulleted from the sky.
Soon, even physical communication passed away. Between visits, John and Suzanne would huddle together in the corner, oozing with half-healed sores, each silently hating the other for what had been done, each silently feeling shame at what they allowed to happen...
And then the imprisonment ended. The lights turned on, and they shook themselves awake; it was the one routine they had left. They looked around, tried to see what was different. Food? No. Visitors? No. It took them several minutes to notice that the great metal door, the unmoving behemoth, stood open, letting their bright white world drift into the void beyond.
Almost as one they stood, crept forward, cautiously poked their heads around the corner. Outside was a hall of dark grey cement, a strip of fluorescent light locked behind a wire cage running overhead.
John took a step back, hunched his shoulders, drew in on himself. He wanted to be out there, to find Lucy, but the unknown outside this portal seemed too great compared to the relative safety of this little room. Here there was pain, yes, but there was food, there was water. What was there outside?
Suzanne glanced at him, back at the open door, back at him. The call of freedom was so strong...
Tentatively, all too aware of something like the flush mechanism laying in wait, she stepped through the portal. Nothing happened. She turned back to John, beckoned. He hesitated a moment longer, then stepped through.
They continued down the hall, slowly at first: there was so much to explore. Some twenty feet from their door was another, same size, same shape, but firmly sealed. Twenty feet beyond that, another, another, another... They were running now, doors rushing by on their left, never ending grey on their right.
They were three doors past it when they realized that they had missed something. Without speaking they both stopped, both turned, both walked back the way they had come.
There was a door in the endless wall. What's more, it was open. This time, there was no hesitation as they stepped through the portal, as they looked around at this new world. In many ways, it was like the one they had left: a cube, too bright lights lost in the glare overhead. In other ways, it was different: two low armchairs sat facing each other in the middle of the room.
Behind each chair stood a man, dressed in loose grey fatigues a shade lighter than the wall outside. To John's right, the man was short, wide-faced, with a fringe of red hair extending down in sideburns. To Suzanne's left, the man was a little taller, brown hair topping a square face. Both men were thin and bony, fairly swimming in their uniforms.
“Hello,” the redheaded man said.
John flinched; it was the first voice he had heard in... in... It was the first voice he had heard.
The man gestured down at the chair before him, and John felt a sudden urge to sit in it, to feel the smooth black material against his bare skin.
Beside him, Suzanne was stepping forward to take the seat the other man has offered her. They both sat, both sighed as the smooth coldness touched them, soothed them. They looked up, into each other's eyes, and John was almost willing to forgive her what had been done to him.
Then the taller man spoke. “You are now unable to move.”
John tried to look up at him, to try to pry meaning from his expression, but found himself unable to move. Oh.
“Only your left pinkie is able to move.”
John saw movement in his peripheral vision; Suzanne was testing.
“We're going to play a game now. You are both going to not move your pinkie. The first one who does, lives. The other dies. Your entire future is now up to you.”
John's body spasmed as the words sank in. He tried to breath, found only the smallest give in his diaphragm. Across from him, Suzanne's pupils widened, despite the brightness.
And suddenly, nothing else mattered except for Suzanne. John was determined to remain still, to let her kill him, to let her live, to survive, to find escape, to thrive—
To live on through whatever interminable hell came after this. If their time in the room had been any indication, this place was not one that accommodated the living. Death would be the greatest escape. Life... life would be the best punishment for her, after all the pain she had caused him. She deserved it for all the beatings, all the times he had gone hungry, all the times—
All the times he had failed, and she had been beaten. All the times he had eaten while she had starved. As much as he resented her, he realized that she must resent him just as much, hate him blow-for-blow, bowl-for-bowl... Feel the same guilt for failure that he did.
What could he do, what could he do, what could he do... He had to be sacrificed, he had to take the blame for all that had happened, he knew that, it was the only way. But which was the worst fate, which was the last parting gift he could give to her for all she had done to keep him sane?
Have to choose, have to choose, have to—
Suzanne slumped forward, slid from the chair, a pained groan escaping her lips.
John could move again. He threw himself forward, clutched at the limp body, screamed her name over and over again, began murmuring babbling, saying all the words he had held inside for so long.
Why? Why had this happened? He hadn't moved his finger, had he? He had still been thinking, still been trying to find a way out. No, it was too soon, too soon, he wasn't ready to be alone, not yet—
The lights turned off. There was the sound of boots scuffling on cement, of two heavy object being pushed aside, then the feeling of a presence behind him—
And there was morning and there was evening the last day, and then John rested.