Case Study

📅 Published on April 16, 2021

“Case Study”

Written by Mark Towse
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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Tarmac turns to dirt, and the van bounces across uneven ground, causing my pen to roll off the passenger seat and the hanging cross to swing violently from side to side. There he is, walking straight towards me, about a hundred yards head, swaying his schoolbag back and forth and gazing at the sky. My adrenaline is in full flow now, nerve endings prickling, not a drop of saliva in my mouth.

Shit, am I really going to go through with this? Will he run?

No, he’s probably seen workers here before; perhaps they’ve even shouted warnings that the place isn’t supposed to be used as a shortcut. Get a grip!

Likely hearing the engine, the boy glances towards the van. Part of me wants him to turn around and race back to the safety of smooth tarmac. But I’ve spent weeks on this, observing the builders’ comings and goings, planning which roads to take, following the kid home—always alone, always the same route—as if it was meant to be.

“He’s just a child, Samuel,” my mother’s voice rings in my head.

I need this, Mum!

I pinch the cross between my fingers to stop its movement. The chain it hangs from is cheap and tarnished, but it still means the world to me. “He’ll look after you when I’m not around,” my mum said from her deathbed as she weakly folded my fingers around it. I catch sight of my reflection in the rear-view mirror, and it sickens me.

The kid’s eyes begin searching the sky again, probably wondering what snack to grab when he gets in, which video game to play. Christ, what it must be like to live without anxiety. I roll the car to a halt and slide the mask on, taking another look at the boy, still in a dreamworld, mouthing something to himself. Perhaps, he’s singing. That’s it, kid; it will all be over soon. I slide the door open and scurry to the back of the van, sneaking another glance.

Even though I’ve checked it over a dozen times, I can’t help but do a quick inventory. It’s all there, in place. A wave of dizziness washes over me, and I reach an arm towards the van. I wait for it to pass and grab the small brown sack and needle from the toolbox.

Come on, Sam, you can’t quit now!

I try and steady my breathing but end up making it worse. It feels as though my legs are sinking into the ground. Fuck!

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale.

Gravel begins to crunch only a few years ahead. Shit. Shit. Shit. He’s mumbling; something quick, incomprehensible. I run a finger under my collar. It’s impossibly hot all of a sudden.


What am I doing?


I must be out of my mind.


I step out in front of him.

He stops, expressionless, eyes on the piece of canvas in my right hand. Guilt instantly washes over me, but I remind myself that I need this, that I need his fear. It’s a tense stand-off, full of doubt and confusion. What happened to fight or flight? Is this shock? Fear? Does he not know what is going to happen?

I make my move, and finally, he takes a step back, mouth hanging open. My hands clasp around his left arm, and I almost apologize for my roughness, noting the long scar that runs down his pale flesh. Get with it, Sam! Urgently, I slip the bag over his head and slide my right hand across his mouth, prompting his body to spring into action, kicking up dust and thrashing his arms around wildly. His muffled pleas vibrate through my hand as I drag him back to the rear of the van.

I give a quick and hard shove that sends him sprawling across the van floor. Taking the opportunity, I sink the needle into his thigh and step back to study the kid’s squirming motion. I thought it would be instantaneous, but it takes a while for his writhing to cease. From the hook to my right, I grab the length of rope and tie it tightly around his wrists. To my left, a strip of black masking tape is already cut, hanging loosely from the side of the van. I grab it and place it across his mouth. Steps that are likely unnecessary, but I’m not taking any risks. The coolness of the breeze rushes across my face as I remove the mask and search his pockets, finding a phone with a cracked screen.

It’s done.

Closing the doors, I take a final look around. Clear. I get back into the van, reach down for the pen, and scribble some notes across the pad on the passenger seat. I turn the engine over, flick the stereo on low, and pull away.

Traffic in the main street is flowing well. The plan couldn’t be going any better. I run through the abduction multiple times, trying to pick up something I might have missed. I’m already constructing new sentences in my head, but they still feel as though they lack in some way. I need to dig deeper, get into his psyche, lift each layer of fear.

Lighter and sweeter air soon begins to seep through the half-open car window, bringing me out of autopilot like a dose of smelling salts. Lush farmland on both sides marks my departure from suburbia to country, and narrower roads and sharper turns demand my concentration as the light begins to fade. I turn the stereo off, letting myself enjoy the peacefulness. I used to love this part of the journey, but it’s been tarnished of late by bouts of anxiety and frustration at the inevitable lack of productivity on arrival.

The canopy above begins to thicken, and the road narrows further into the final stretch. There is a quiet innocence here that weighs heavy on me today but does not extinguish the excitement and the prospect of breaking through. It’s the first time I’ve felt—well, something—for so long.

The cabin is hidden behind the row of trees ahead. Bec and I fell in love with it after renting the place for a long weekend umpteen summers ago. It was ours within weeks for an exorbitant price. We used to spend many weekends here until the writing took over. When I got the extra wall put in for the study, she stopped coming. She said she still loves me but that she’s lonely. We have a child on the way now.

Just one more book and I’ll quit.

I roll up the makeshift gravel driveway and let my head come to rest on the steering wheel. Taking in deeps breaths of the earthy fragrance, I guess I have about thirty minutes before the child starts to come round. Reading through my scribbled notes fills me with renewed urgency, and I slip the pad and pen into my pocket and head inside.

The woody smell of the cabin taunts me; endless days spent pacing up and down, trying to add life to my second novel. On the table in the corner, empty liquor bottles sit next to the laptop, further reminding me of my failures.

I carry the boy through to the study and drape him across the small sofa, removing the sack and the tape from across his mouth. There’s a glimmer of sympathy, but I can’t be clouded; I need to document everything if I’m ever going to make pages come alive again. All of my fear, all of my pain, were poured into my first novel, and it left me exhausted, depleted of all emotions, incapable of writing anything else with weight or substance. It was like therapy that worked a little too well, removing the dark cloud that hung around like a tumor, leaving me with a best-selling novel and nothing else to say and nothing else to feel. That was five years ago, and the soporific cloud has followed me ever since.

Poor kid will have no idea where he is or why he’s been taken. Is that worse than knowing your fate? At least you can prepare yourself mentally if your future is already decided—but not knowing?  Will he try and escape? Will he call for help? Will he cry? Perhaps in the first instance, he might think it’s all just a bad dream? I shut the door and lock it behind me, eager to go on this journey with him.

I boot up the laptop and initiate the software for the camera. Everything is set. The experiment is ready.

It’s 5:20 pm, and the light outside is fading quickly. His mother will be on her way home from work. I hope I gave him the right amount. I slip my hand in my pocket and bring out the notepad and pen.

I need a whisky. Only one, though. A treat for a successful abduction if you like.

As I relax back into the couch with my heavy glass, I stare at the screen, hoping that all of this will be worth it. It has to be.

Over twenty minutes pass before the kid’s first real movement. I wonder if he’ll call out for his mum first.

He puts a hand to his head and takes his first proper look around. His gaze stops at the camera. Now he knows. His head begins snapping in different directions, eyes widening once again, mouth partially open. He must be eleven, twelve at a push. Night terrors may be a thing of the past, but he’s still at an age where fear can easily be implanted: noises in the dark, a scary movie, a sinister mask. Smells will be different—alien, disorienting.

Another pang of guilt strikes as I observe his confusion, but this is five years of desperation, and I need to push through.

He climbs on the bed, peers through a gap in the boards, and screams into the fading light.

My pencil almost punctures the paper as I continue to document every little move and whimper. It’s been a long time since words have found their way so easily and quickly, and a shudder of excitement works its way down my spine. All this time, I’ve resigned myself to being the one that wrote that book, but now I feel another is within reach. Living through this kid will give me what I need to inject real fear and wonder into the manuscript that has been sat untouched for too long.

His screams are relentless, and only when his voice finally gives up, the tears begin. They took much longer than I thought. He sits down on the bed, puts his head in his hands, and begins to mumble something. There’s a sudden sharp intake of breath, and his eyes widen again. He thrusts his hands into his back pockets and now the front, no doubt searching for his phone. Disappointment leads to more frantic sobbing.

He begins to gently rock back and forth, the weeping intensifying and heading into full-blown hysteria. His left leg is tapping wildly, and it seems to be getting faster the more worked up he gets. I can make out a string of saliva hanging from his mouth. This is raw fear, raw panic, his body losing control.

Keep with the program, Sam; he’ll be home in the morning.

Holding the laptop, I tiptoe across to the door and give it a firm rap. His head immediately snaps up, and there’s another intake of breath. I observe the puffiness of his face, tears still racing down both cheeks and eyes as wide as the first time the realization washed over him. He appears to be holding his breath as if suddenly frightened to make a sound, his face becoming redder by the second.

“Kid,” I say.

He’s trying so hard, but the convulsive whimpering gets the better of him again. I give him a few seconds.


His legs are still tapping, and he’s shaking gently, but the crescendo of fear seems to be passing, and the crying phase is winding up. Is it the human voice? The ignorance and innocence of associating a fellow human with anything but compassion and empathy. How small his circle must be?

“Quit sniveling,” I snap.

“I—I’m trying,” he replies, sniffing back the snot that was beginning to well in his nose.

“You have two minutes to stop, or I’ll come in there and give you something to cry about. Do you understand?”

“Y-Yes,” he croaks.

I observe the kid closely as he tries to get himself together. He stands and wipes his face with the back of his wrist and sniffs loudly three times. He begins to tap himself on his right thigh, perhaps some mechanism he uses for self-soothing. Rushing back to the couch, I pick up the pen and scrawl down more notes.

He’s pacing up and down now, looking around the room. Is he searching for a way out? Something he could stash away as a weapon, perhaps? The room is stripped bare aside from the blankets on the side of the sofa.

“What are you thinking, kid?” I ask.


I walk back to the door and give a gentle tap this time. “What’s going on inside your head?”

He sniffs loudly and wipes his hand across his nose. “I’m scared and confused. I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know who you are.”

“Is there something you want to ask me, kid?”

He stops pacing, gives a violent shiver, and screws his eyes up.


“There is! I can tell. Don’t lie to me, or I’ll have to come in there!”

He turns towards the door, opens his mouth, and closes it again, pinching some skin under his armpit. I make more notes.

“Who are you?” the kid finally rasps.

“Come on, kid, ask me the question that is really on your mind, the one that is bouncing around your head like a rubber grenade.”

Sucking in some air, he takes a step back. “Are—are you going to kill me?” He screws his eyes shut even more tightly as if the act will somehow ensure a more favorable response.

Intentionally, I leave a long pause. I note every tremble that he makes, the changing hue of his skin, and the variation in his breathing, both frequency and length. Eventually, he opens his eyes, but his face is still taut with anxiety and anticipation. This is first-class stuff.

“Who is your best friend, kid?”

He crinkles his forehead and shakes his head slightly. “Wh—”

“Your best friend. Who is it? Which one would you miss if you never saw them again?”

He wipes back more tears and swallows hard. “I—I—don’t have any friends.”

“What about school friends.”

“I have issues with school; move around a lot, you know.”

I let out a sigh. “You’re going to have to make one up then. And I’m going to need you to sound convincing. Got it?”

The screen shows him nodding.

“You’re going to call your mum and tell her you are at a friend’s house.”

“She’s not my mum; she’s my foster carer.” There’s a pause as the kid looks down to the ground. “My parents are dead. And the others didn’t want me.”

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Of all the kids, you went and picked a fucking lonely orphan. Kudos, Sam!

Stick with it, for Christ’s sake; there’s too much at stake.

“What’s her name?”


“You’re going to call Jessica and tell her you’re at a friend’s house, that you’re staying over. There will be no whiney voice, no stuttering or sniffing. If you even look like you are going to cry, I’ll inflict more pain than you ever thought possible. Do you understand?”

I hear him take a deep breath, but there is no reply. The screen shows him opening and closing his mouth as he tries to speak.

“What’s your name, kid?”


“I’ll ask this only one more time, Tommy. Do you understand what I’m requesting you to do?”

“Yes,” he finally manages to spit out. “What—what if she says no?”

“Well, that will be a problem, Tommy.”

I scroll through the handful of contacts on his phone until I find the entry named Jess and tap the call button. As it begins to ring, I slide it under the door. “Anything but what I said, and this will not end well, Tommy.”

He picks up the phone and looks at the screen. Frantically, he begins strumming his left thigh with his free hand as he holds the trembling phone to his ear.

“What if—Oh, hi, Jess… Yeah, I’m—I’m fine, good… Okay… Yeah, I’m at a friend’s—”

He pauses to look at the camera.

“—Jake’s. Yeah, I was hoping I could stay the night? …Yeah, I went home first to get a change of clothes… Yeah … No, his mum said she’d drop me back… Okay… You too… Bye.”

“Good, now slide it back.”

The kid did well. A little shaky at times, but it’s a pass. I exchange the phone for a bar of chocolate, which he quickly grabs and moves back to the bed. He places it on top of the blanket, beginning to kick his legs alternately back and forth. I can tell that he wants to ask what is going to happen next, but either he hasn’t got the nerve or is too afraid of the answer. He continues to kick, but now his legs are crossed together. I write it all down. Perhaps such entanglement is comforting; another trusted calming mechanism.

The experiment has already been so rewarding. I probably have enough to make my character tug at even the coldest of hearts. Just a little more.

There’s only a little light left outside now, so I strike another match and light the kerosene lamp. It fills the cabin with a warm glow. Tommy notices, too, and crouches to the floor, placing the side of his head against the warped boards.

I tiptoe across to the mantelpiece, grab the mask and slide it on. Edging carefully against the cabin wall, I drop to my knees and rest my head against the floor. Our eyes meet. It’s an explosive moment, as though a fog lifts and the seriousness of what I’m doing churns my stomach. Tommy gives a sudden and sharp intake of breath and disappears, feet scampering towards the relative safety of the sofa. I can hear his breathing, loud and irregular, and I have no doubt his heart rate is just the same.

Adrenaline is fading, quickly being replaced with the knowledge this will stay with Tommy, the orphan boy, long after I’ve dropped him back in town. It’s too late to stop, though—one last push.

“What are you feeling, Tommy?”

“I want to go home.”


“Because I’m scared.”

You’ll never live this down, Sam. “What does it feel like, Tommy?”


“Your fear. Describe it to me.”

“I feel sick.”

“Is that why you’re not eating the chocolate bar?”


I can feel myself caving. It’s too much. So close, though. “What can you smell? What can you taste?”

“Metal. Like metal in my mouth. And smoke. I can smell it and taste it. Salt, too—Jessica said there is salt in tears, but not like the stuff you can put on your chips. Mostly metal, though,” he croaks.

“What else? Tell me everything. Convince me that you fear for your life, and I may let you live.” My voice already feels weaker.

“Blood—pumping in my ears, and there’s a ringing sound. I’m shaking—so cold.”


“My mouth is dry. I need the toilet. My legs feel weird.”

I’m pathetic. All this for ego. “What about in your head? Not the physical stuff. Your thoughts! What are your thoughts?”

“I’m worried that you might be one of those strange men that like little kids. I’m scared you are going to kill me. Normally kidnappers ask for money, but I don’t know what you want. What do you want?” he spits, the words rolling into each other.

“I’m not a pervert. What else?”

“Are you going to let me go?” he asks.

I’ve been blinded by desperation and a selfish desire for fame. “You have to answer my questions, Tommy,” I croak.

“I have answered your questions, Mister. Please,”

Just a heartbroken kid. “Tommy.”

“I just want to feel safe.”

And that’s it. The trigger that prompts me to scream and throw my laptop against the wall. All for the sake of ego. What the fuck have I done? How did I let myself think this would be okay?

“What—what was that. What’s going on?” Tommy’s voice cries.

All this preparation, all the weeks of planning—did I ever really consider the long-term repercussions? Obsession possessed me, all for a few words that people will forget shortly after reading.

“We’re leaving,” I say.

* * * * * *

We drive in silence as the blackness of night swallows the headlights. Not one word has been spoken since I informed him of his early departure. Perhaps, he thinks I’m going to stop near these woods.

Fidgeting nervously, tapping his hand against his thigh and crossing and uncrossing his legs, he’s pretending to look out the window, but I’ve already caught him on at least two occasions analyzing my reflection.

“Where are we going?” he asks softly.

Has the mask now lost its menace? I keep my eyes on the road and reach for the kid’s mobile phone in my jacket pocket, causing the notepad to fall to the floor.

“Here’s your phone.” He grabs it, but I don’t let go. “Tommy, I’m making you a promise that if you mention a word of this to anyone, I will bring you and Jessica back to the woods and make you dig each other’s grave. Do you understand?”

He nods. “You should really be wearing a seatbelt.”

Fuck, kid. “It’s broken,” I say, releasing the phone.

He turns his attention to the cross that hangs from the rear-view mirror and follows its gentle swing with his eyes. “Thanks,” he mutters.

“For what?”

“Not killing me.”

“The night isn’t over yet.”

We drive in silence for a little longer until we see the bright lights of the city. Everything feels a bit like a dream now, as though none of it really happened, but I know the events will haunt us both for a long time to come.

“I’m going to pull in for petrol now, and you’re going to get out. Don’t look back, just go straight home, okay?”


I draw to a halt near the pumps. “Go.”

As Tommy opens the door and steps out, a police car rolls up to the adjacent pump. Instinctively I turn away, ripping the mask from my face, heart-pounding and skin-crawling with dread.

Tommy turns to look at me for instruction, and I nod for him to carry on. I watch as he makes his way to the pavement, nervously glancing over his shoulder at the police car. A car door opens, and I turn to see the female officer reaching for the pump. Her male counterpart on the passenger side is looking directly at me. Shit! Quickly, I turn away. Did he see me take off the mask? See the kid get out of the car? Is it the plates?

I turn my attention back towards Tommy as he approaches the pedestrian crossing.

Stay calm, Sam.

Just as I turn the engine on, I hear another door open, and from peripheral vision, I see the other officer stepping out of the vehicle. “Hey!” he calls.

A haze shrouds me, and my foot instinctively slams against the pedal, the sound of burning rubber exploding around us. From the protection of the canopy, the car skids onto the glistening wet tarmac and immediately begins to fishtail. I’m heading straight for the kid. He turns and freezes, eyes wide. Knuckles are white as I wrestle with the steering wheel, but it’s no good; there’s no traction on the road.

Our eyes meet as I continue to veer towards him, his now glowing bright red. He smiles, lifts a hand, and begins to mouth something, and suddenly, I’m spinning off towards the edge of the road in slow-motion towards the barrier, the squeal of tires becoming a drawn-out orchestra of smashing glass and twisted metal. I feel something begin to search inside me. My lungs feel like they are caving in, and I can’t feel my legs—something wrong with my head, too—afraid to move it. I’m not even sure I could lift it from the hood. The taste of blood fills my mouth—thick and coppery. Metallic. Or perhaps it’s the smell of fear like Tommy described.

I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!


He walks towards me, still carrying that smile, but he shouldn’t be walking; I was heading straight for him.

I remember. He—he lifted a hand and—his eyes. “You—you did this!” I rasp.

“Tell me. Is the blood pumping? Are your ears ringing? Are you cold?”

Only the cold. Nothing but the cold.

“Stop sniveling,” he says, eyes glowing red.

“I don’t understand.”

“Didn’t you ever wonder why I took the long route home every night?”

As the sirens approach, I can’t take my stare away from those eyes.

“I could smell you; everywhere. Who’s been tracking who?”

“What are you talking about?” I wish there were some pain, but nothing. That’s the worst part. All I feel is the ice-cold grip of fear.

More voices, close but distant at the same time, and bright lights that begin to blur into a single color. Fuck! I’m scared. No, it’s more than that. You couldn’t simulate this. You can threaten, pretend, but there’ll be a reprieve for me.

I’m broken; this is it.

He steps forward, reaching through the broken windscreen to grab the cross. He snaps it off the chain and holds it towards the sky, chanting the same incoherent nonsense as before. The cross fizzes in his hand and turns into black ash that carries away on the slight breeze. “What are you feeling? What are your thoughts?

I try and speak, but only a garbled rasp emerges.

Around me, the voices are getting more urgent. In the distance, I can see Bec; she’s smiling and stroking her bump. Olivia, that’s what we’re calling her—our little girl. They both crumble to black ash and float away on the gust.

“The notepad on the floor; that’s what this has all been about?”

“Who—who are—”

“It has an energy, doesn’t it? Fear. But I’ll never get to find out what’s going on inside their heads. You finally know now, though. What’s it like?”

It’s getting harder to breathe, and I think I’ll stop trying soon. So goddamn cold.

“Was I everything you hoped for? Plenty of material? Shame you’ll not get to use it.”

As he steps in closer, blackness begins to fill the outside of my vision. He leans over, bringing his face only an inch from mine. “Got a real story for you, mister.” He offers a smile. “I slit Janet and Trevor’s throats and ate ice cream while watching them bleed. I even sliced open my arm to make it look as though someone broke in. And then there was Denise, who had a fall while putting up Christmas decorations. A sudden gust of wind shook the ladder. It took a long time for her to die, even had time to make a cheese sandwich during that show.”

I’m fading fast, my heart slowing to a dampened thud.

“Was I convincing? I think I’m getting better all the time. Practice makes perfect and all that.”

More car doors slam shut. “Police! Stand back!”

“Jess is kind of sweet, but I crave it, you see.” His eyes burn red as he continues to study my fear. “I can smell it, taste it, and it will never be enough.” He drops his gaze to the floor. “You got blood on my new shoes.”

Voices slow to a drawl.

“Kid, you okay?”

He begins to sob, eyes as blue as they come.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 2 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Mark Towse
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Mark Towse

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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