25 Jun The “Fear Itself” Game
“The “Fear Itself” Game”Written by Corpse Child Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 35 minutes
“… It is hope, not despair, that undoes us all…”
— Jennifer Donnely
Try having that sound wake you up. The way the metal screeches as it spins. Try having THAT wake you up, and then realize you’re bare-ass naked and restrained to a chair.
What would you be feeling? What would you do? Would you struggle; maybe try to get free? Would you cry, piss yourself and beg for mercy? Heh, that’s funny…‘mercy.’
Well, let me tell you right now, you do any of those, and you’d have only sped up your death. Whether or not that’s part of your intended goal, well…
I say all of this because that’s exactly the situation I was in at one point. I was tied, ball-gagged, to a chair by my wrists and ankles, pulling them in about four separate directions. Right in front of my face and directly behind my head were two fully automated buzz saws.
They spun furiously. The screeching metal damn near made me go deaf. I stayed still. I knew one move forward or backward, and that was it; I’d be ground meat.
Staring directly into the one in front of me, it almost looked like it was actually moving, inching its way closer and closer. I knew it wasn’t, but that’s eyesight for you, isn’t it? Always playing tricks, trying to get you to flinch. Trying to make you move…
I stayed still, though. I’d seen what happened to the others at this stage. Others who couldn’t take it, who couldn’t handle staring death right in his screaming metal face like this, only inches away from their own. I wasn’t gonna make that mistake, though. I couldn’t.
I had to get out of this alive…
The saws continued spinning for another three and a half minutes, teasing me, before suddenly powering down. For a second after that, I stayed stiff in the chair, holding my breath. My heart was pumping like a 10,000-horsepower engine. My eyes were concentrated on the saw blade as it slowed until finally stopping. That’s when I finally, slowly, started to exhale and relax in the chair.
Let me ask you something; have you ever felt, after something so exciting happen to you, that when things start to settle back down to normal, it actually takes a minute for you to process reality again? What I mean is, have you felt like the world wasn’t real for a while afterward, after everything goes suddenly quiet after being so loud for so long? Like you’re in another world, or another life even?
Well, whether YOU have or not, that’s what it felt like to me. Everything was quiet, still, like nothing was there. Like I hadn’t been so close to death.
I moved my eyes around, sporadically scanning the dingy white bricked walls. The words “Nothing to Fear, but Fear Itself” were on one of them. Under this was a giant yellow smiley face that grinned teasingly at me. It looked like it found me damn near being turned into choice cuts was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. The way it saw the others as well.
The way THEY see us.
I looked then to the wall at my right, seeing the tinted, bulletproof window. I couldn’t see anything or anyone from my end, but that wasn’t the case for them. They saw everything and anything. They watched from that window, savoring every moment with a shit-eating smile at least as big, if not bigger, than the face on the fuckin’ poster.
Eventually, the light clicked on from the other side, and I saw her, Director Web. At least, that’s what she likes us to call her. God only knew if that was her actual name. It didn’t matter, though. We, of course, had a different name for her anyway, a simpler one; “Bitch Widow.” She wore a black crop top and tight leather shorts with fishnet stockings. She dressed like this for two reasons; the first being because, according to what I’d heard, she used to be a prostitute. The second was so she could show off her spiderweb tattoo on her stomach.
It was her signature. Her trademark. Her display of dominance. You saw that, and you saw her, and then you prayed for whatever mercy you could. She stood with her thumb over a button.
“That get your blood flowin’, Tiger?” she said in a smooth voice through the intercom at the top left corner of the room. I stared at her coldly for a solid minute. She smirked. “You’re a quiet little bastard, I’ll give you that much.” I saw her step to the right and begin fiddling with, what I guess, was some kind of control panel or something. Suddenly, I watched the saw blade mechanisms start to retract into the walls.
“Well, in any case, congratulations. You’ll progress to the next round.” She then clicked a button mounted on the side of the wall on her end. “Sweet dreams, Tiger,” she said with a wink. In maybe two seconds, my eyes became heavy and the room felt like it was spinning. Then, everything was dark.
I didn’t dream. Honestly, I’d never really been one to have dreams, good or bad. Well, not like what most people say they have, anyways. I DO see things in my sleep. It’s always the same thing.
I see the faces of my fiancé Vanessa and my best friend, Brent. That’s it, just their faces; smiling, laughing. Screaming.
I don’t have any sort of vivid scenes play out or anything, either. No, it’s just their faces staring back at me, reminding me of why I have to make it out of this freakshow alive. Its what’s kept me strong thus far, what’s gotten me this far through the game.
I awoke sometime — don’t even bother asking me how much — later, sitting up on the cot in my little holding cell. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I just lay, looking up at the ceiling. The dark, ash-grey ceiling had bits of worn paint dangling down from places where it’d begun flaking. Sometimes I’d see this, too, in my sleep. Sort of a way of contrasting; the faces of my loved ones being the light at the end of the tunnel, while the weathered, decaying ceiling, the lifeless brick walls, acted as the reminder of what awaited me if I failed. It was the good and the bad. Hope and despair. Heaven and Hell…
At the time, I thought this gave me an edge. I was lucky to have something to fight for, something to lose. Like I said, I used it to fuel me as I endured one fucked up round. Looking up at the ceiling, I couldn’t help but wonder what some of the others felt. Others, most of which hadn’t progressed as far as I had at the time. I wondered who or what they were doing this for, if anybody. What did they have?
That I think of it now, though, I’m honestly not sure whether or not they were luckier for it; not making it as far as I did. As I continued the game, it made everything hurt much worse physically. I had something to lose, but that made things more painful for me later. Like I said; ironic.
“Fear itself, the greatest obstacle of man. Can it truly be overcome?” I remember hearing on the advertisements that promoted all of this.
I’ll tell you this much, there are FAR better ways to find out the answer to this question. It didn’t need a team of egghead scientists with a big ass facility like this, like Monolith, to answer this by concocting this “game.” They actually call it a “game,” you know, like we’re too stupid to know what it actually is. Like we’d be naive enough not to realize that we’re not people to them but monkeys; test monkeys for them to watch get mauled physically, emotionally, and mentally in some of the worst ways imaginable.
Of course, we didn’t know why they were pursuing this in the first place. Why “overcoming fear” was so important to them. I know I didn’t. Not like I really cared.
So long as she’s okay…
I heard the intercom blare. An announcement was about to be made by the ‘Bitch Widow.’ “ATTENTION! ATTENTION! Five more contestants have cut the next round! Congratulations on contestants A, C, V, U, and Z. You’ll all be progressing to the Nexus rounds! Sadly, some of your peers weren’t so lucky…” Sounds of crowd disappointment played before continuing with “Guess they just didn’t have the guts!” Sounds of laughter followed this. I’ll bet that was funny to them.
“Contestants D, E, and F will be progressing to the ‘Danger floor’ in two hours. As for our ‘Nexus Round’ competitors, rest up, enjoy whatever dreams you can because our next round will begin right after.”
The intercom went out after that. I laid back on my cot, staring once more at the depressing ceiling, my metaphor of Hell. I laughed hollowly. It was funny to me. I was slated to head to ‘The Danger Floor.’ ‘The Danger Floor,’ as if nowhere else in this place could’ve been nicknamed that, still fit just as perfectly.
I mean, for Christ sake, the FIRST level, ‘The Cradle’ they called it, was a series of tasks ranging from finding a crying babydoll in a web of razor wire to withstanding a heated room that escalated in temperature that maxed out (at least I THINK maxes out) at 10,000 Fahrenheit. If you thought it didn’t get worse from there, then you’re a fuckin’ moron, a naive, optimistic moron. And lest I forget the ‘Serpent’s Den,’ where I was forced to lie bare ass naked in a den of squirming cobras for ten minutes straight without so much as flinching or else I’d be impaled by the serrated needles that were positioned only half an inch above me.
Just like I was when I signed up for this. I thought things couldn’t be worse. I thought the worst it could get was when Vanessa got sick. Stage 2 Liver Cancer, as well as ulcers in her lower intestine. Doctors said there’s unlikely any real way to treat it thanks to the ulcers.
To me, as it would probably be to most people, that was the worst possible thing to hear. What was worse, of course, was that we didn’t have a lot of money to properly feed ourselves and keep the roof of our cramped one-bedroom apartment over our heads. MUCH less be able to afford medical treatment (especially not if funeral expenses were not long to follow). My dead-end job as a bouncer at the bar was also circling the drain at the time, which would’ve meant soon I wouldn’t even have that to rake anything from for her. In short, the love of my life was dying, and I needed a fuckin’ miracle to save her.
Then I’d find out about all of this. It was from a patron at the bar who I’d never seen around before. Keep in mind, the town I’m from is relatively small. I could tell you where at least half the residents lay their heads down at night and what time. I say that much to say that it wasn’t usual for me to see a new face, an outsider, coming into the bar.
What was even further out of the ordinary was the way the guy actually looked. To give you a reference of what I mean by this, imagine just about any seedy-looking biker bar you’ve seen in movies. You know the type. Dark, dusty wooden walls, two or three tables, two others on the side near the champagne room in the back that were booth seats, and the jukebox by the door that, if we were lucky, would work once every two or three months. Now take this and imagine the type of people you’d think come through there on a regular basis.
It wasn’t what I was expecting anyway, like I said. I bet a young, nerdy-looking kid in shades and a black dress shirt isn’t what you were picturing. But there he was, plopped on a barstool next to me. I was, for reasons already stated, plus the general bullshit from work that night, losing myself with shot after shot of Jack. It wasn’t working though.
It’s probably a safe bet to say I wasn’t doing real good at hiding it, either. At least, judging by the fact that, the next thing I knew, he turns to me and asks me if I needed a “Life-changing phenomenon.” I remember looking back at him (probably sloshed by that point) and wondering what to say or do. For one thing, it was abrupt when he said it. Completely unprovoked. I hadn’t, at least that I was aware of, made any attempts at trying to engage in conversation or even look in his direction before. In other words, in my eyes, he really had no reason to be interacting with me.
The other thing was the excited, sort of laid-back tone he took when he asked this. He sounded like he was about to rail on about some new thing that was on the market or something, the same way kids nowadays do when they’re gawking about some new viral video. He was gauging me, essentially. He had a purpose, and for some reason, he thought it’d be something I would be interested in knowing about. Well, I guess that joke’s all on me for thinking otherwise when he told me that I’d have the chance for 50 grand.
Obviously, my first thoughts were a combination of “What the fuck is he talking about?” and “Is this kid serious here?” I voiced neither of these at the time, though. Aside from the liquor setting in, making it hard to try thinking really deep into anything, I was also just generally not in the mood to hear his or anyone else’s horseshit. I had far more than enough of my own damn problems to be trying to hear this no-name kid’s propaganda. I was like this, too, when I heard him start railing for the next ten minutes about this contest, or “Tournament,” as he kept calling it, thinking it made it sound more “hip” or “cool.” It didn’t, but far be it from me to have given enough of a rat’s ass at the time actually to tell him that.
“So whaddya say?” he asked, “You think you got the guts?” I remember looking at him and going, “Huh? What?” Again, I’d only heard about half of what he was going on about. I heard the parts about it being a tournament to see if someone could “conquer all fear” or something to that effect. However, anything beyond that scope, such as any explanation for what that meant or how it worked, was completely lost on me. I wasn’t gonna ask, either, though. He wouldn’t give me a choice in the matter.
I tried to make it as clear as possible (or at least I thought I was) that I wasn’t interested. Still, though he kept pushing me about it, he made claims like “No one’s ever made it before. No one’s got the guts to go till the end.”
That was another line he seemed to like repeating. “No one’s got the guts to make it till the end.” Funny, isn’t it? Just how much that line fits, I guess, to his credit. I didn’t see any of that at the time, though. No, I just rolled my eyes and downed my last shot of Jack for the night. I was turning to leave for the night; back to the apartment where I’d likely either toss and turn all night or cry myself to sleep (whichever came last, I guess), when he thrust a business card at me, as well as pay off my, albeit pretty hefty-ass, tab.
Funny as this sounds, him doing that actually helped ignite my interest in his little pitch. See, by that point, I’d run up a good $700 – $750 tab. Again, for obvious reasons, I couldn’t pay that easily. Not without months of major cuts taken from my paycheck. But this kid just went and covered it all in one fell swoop.
“Heeey kid,” I slurred. He turned to me, noticeably parting the left corner of his lip. “Wheeerrree yyooouu ggeeett tthh-aaat kin’a mmonney ffrroom?” He didn’t reply. Instead, he just pointed to the business card in my hand and winked before getting up and leaving himself.
I just stood there (as steadily as I could, anyway), wondering now how this kid could’ve had that kind of money just on hand like that. That would, inevitably, lead me to start thinking how I’d be able to make this kind of money. Money that I’d be able to put towards Vanessa’s treatment. Hell, with any luck, I supposed the money could’ve helped us afterward as well when she recovered. She could come out of the hospital, refreshed and new, and we could take a vacation up to the mountains like we’d been wanting to. No, we could move to the mountains like she’d wanted to.
That’s what led me that night to come home and search up the information listed on the card. I wasn’t sure how much I expected to find, but I’ll say that it was at least a little more than just a single website. The card itself was plain, having only listed a website address and a sort of logo of a large black block or stone with the words “Monolith Corp.” written in bold, yet still tiny as all hell lettering under it.
Well, I say “website,” but it wasn’t even that much. Clicking the link directed me to a page with a single pop-up that read in bold red lettering that was designed to look like it was bleeding, like how commercials do on Halloween, “CAN YOU BEAT YOUR FEAR? FEAR, THE GREATEST OBSTACLE OF MAN, CAN IT BE OVERCOME!”
Below were listed three more things: an address and a time, as well as the aforementioned $50,000 which was actually slightly bigger in size compared to the rest of the text. The time was listed for 11:00 A.M. that Saturday morning. That was it, no other details, contact information, trailers, instructions, or even any pictures about the event or whatever the fuck it was anywhere; nothing. Now I’ll bet you think that I had a lick of damn sense enough to close the page, throw away the card, and just go to bed, right?
Well, I said it before; the joke was on me. Sure, I threw the card away and closed the page, but that wasn’t the end. I think I’ve made it clear that I was desperate. Out of curiosity, let me ask you something. If you were put in my shoes, hypothetically; you’re struggling REAL BAD for money just to barely get by, and THEN you find out that the person you love most in the world, your ray of sunshine, has fucking cancer, and then you find even a slight ray of hope (even if it was pretty spotty looking), would you have gone for it? Wouldn’t you be?
For me, the answer would be yes. Anything if it meant I’d get to make Vanessa come back. I’d sell my soul for that, for her…
The alarm buzzed through the holding corridor. I could hear the ventilation systems overhead kick in once again. My eyes became heavy again. It was time. Next time I’d wake up, it’d be to whatever horror they cooked up for ‘The Danger Floor.’
I was asleep a lot longer than the other times. A lot deeper. And just like me waking up was a slow reaction, so too was the realization of the actual situation itself. Apparently, I was out so cold this time that I didn’t notice until probably a good second or two. I was suspended upside down like a bat, strapped tight in a straightjacket with a muzzle covering my mouth, over a large vat of sizzling, scalding water. No, that didn’t kick in until ol’ ‘Bitch Widow’ Web herself snapped me to reality by blaring the intercom, sounding as smug and thrilled as ever.
“Wakey-wakey, sleepy heads! Welcome, Contestants D, E, and F, To the ‘Danger Floor!’” Sounds of “Oohs” and “Ahhs” played out before she continued with “Caution; HOT, HOT, HOT! Trust me, you don’t wanna take a dip in THIS hot tub…”
Following this was a ding sound, like an air fryer or something. I began moving my head around limply. To my right was Contestant D, with Contestant F on my left. Both were hanging upside down and muzzled over vats of scalding water. Contestant F was just waking up like how I was, while Contestant D, seeing the shit we were in, was already struggling, wiggling frantically against the straightjacket. I heard Web laugh amusedly over the intercom.
“The three of you will continue to be lowered towards the vats below you. You’ll feel like you’re in Hell as you feel the heat. Question is, who’s got a hot enough head to take the heat, or will you all fry?”
I heard from my right, Contestant D letting out muffled cries of panic. Beneath the muzzle, she sounded young, maybe 20 or 22. She was squirming harder and harder, her entire body swinging back and forth like a piñata.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be wiggling very much like that if I were you.” Web’s voice teased enthusiastically over the intercom. “See, those ropes holding you guys are old. Strong, sure, but old. They’re not meant for swingin’ around in.” She giggled after saying this. “Don’t worry. You’ll be just fine. That is, as long as you just relax and…chill out!”
Sounds of crowd laughter played out before she said “Good luck!” After that, it was quiet. Save, that is, for the violent hissing of the searing vats below the three of us and Contestant D’s muffled pleas. She continued swinging around. I could see the rope beginning to wear away with each swing of her body. ‘Bitch Widow’ was right about one thing, these ropes were old. “She’s not gonna last long…” I thought as I heard and felt the mechanisms the three of us were tied to begin lowering us down.
Before we’d even been lowered five or so inches, I was already beginning to feel stinging across the top of my scalp. Almost like it’s own reflex, sweat began forming and flooding from my face in bullets, raining down to the vat below me. I think I actually saw most of them evaporate in midair about three or so inches above it. This, as well as the blood rushing to my head, caused me to start feeling nauseous.
The room was already hard to distinguish anything in because of how dark it was, and the steam from the vats became blurry to me. The other two just looked like two white blobs dangling and wiggling beside me. Contestant F was now struggling as well, though not nearly as much as D was, who was now swinging so violently that I’m honestly still surprised the crane she was hanging from hadn’t already snapped. Not that it made much difference in the end, anyway.
I wanted to cry out to her, to both of them, tell them to calm down. I guess, though, the same reason I’d be able to withstand this particular challenge was also the same reason I’d be unable to try and help the other two. Unlike them, I was succumbing to the environmental effects. I knew, one way or another, sooner or later, I was gonna pass out. Whether or not I’d be waking back up again, that was just as much anybody else’s bet to win or lose as it was mine.
Either way, I’d be out soon. But not them. They somehow had enough energy to keep struggling, fighting, as if it would give them a way out. Contestant D gave one big jerk to the right towards me before her rope finally snapped and she plummeted like a stone straight down into the vat. I just barely saw Contestant D’s eyes as her milky white skin charred for a brief second. Despite being muffled and short-lived, her screams of pain, terror, and anguish will be something, one of the many “somethings” that will always haunt the back of my mind for every second I’m still alive, both awake or asleep. That’s also something I’ll never forget.
She was so young, so energetic…she was alive.
It wasn’t long after this that my own vision darkened. Shadows crept quickly from the corners of my eyes. I was only about four or so inches above the vat now. My head felt light. Everything was completely blurred. I lowered another inch. My face felt on fire now. I was so close to the vat. I could hear the liquid sizzling, wildly cracking and popping, before everything became muffled. I barely got one last glimpse at Contestant F, who had stopped struggling, and then…
I saw her face again. My sweet Vanessa. I saw her eyes staring back at me, frightened and sad. She didn’t say anything to me. She couldn’t.
She couldn’t speak, scream, cry, anything. She could only lay there, wired to a spiderweb of different wires and tubes, staring at me with the sickliest, ghostliest, most corpse-like face I’d ever seen. Her face was tired, anguished. I could see it. She was tired of fighting. Tired of trying. Tired of hoping…
She couldn’t speak, but I could hear it.
“Please, Eric…make it stop!”
The alarm sounded, and I jolted upright again in my cot. Pent-up adrenaline was causing me to hyperventilate, sweating profusely while throwing my head in every direction, alerting myself to who or whatever danger I felt was waiting for me. There was nothing.
I was in my cell again—my empty, dull, depressingly lifeless cell. I then heard the intercom sound off.
“Well, well, well, let’s hear it for Contestants E and F! Congrats to you two for making it past ‘The Danger Floor!’” She followed this with sounds of crowd cheering. “And let’s have a GIANT round of applause for Contestant V, the SOLE survivor of ‘The Nexus round’!”
The cheering played again, even louder this time. I finally laid back on my cot. I slowly started to relax. There was no danger. Not for the time being.
Only the ‘Bitch Widow’…
“You know what THAT means?” Sounds of crowds gasping in excitement. “That’s right, Contestant V will progress to the finals; the ‘Judgment round’! As for our winners of the ‘Danger Floor,’ you both will move on to the ‘Nexus round’ to see who will be facing Contestant V in the ‘Judgment round.’ And as for Contestants R, G, and L, get ready, because you’ll be up in one hour for ‘The Danger Floor!’”
The intercom went silent after that. It was quiet again. Dead silent. The only sound in the background was the air rushing through the ventilation and the static hum of the dim fluorescence from the hallway.
I laid still, my cot cradling me in a crude, ungentle embrace. I stared once again at the ceiling; at ‘Hell.’ This time, I could start to see the spots of chipped paint sort of shift, morphing to resemble Vanessa’s face. The same dead, sickly face I saw before. Sunken eyes, formed from the two largest exposed patches of the ceiling, stared longingly back down at me. I won’t lie. This was when I couldn’t help but shed tears.
For as much pain as I’d endured, both physically and mentally, up to that point, That sight alone was the most painful thing I could endure. It reminded me of Hell, just like the paint-chipped ceiling above me. It was the lingering dread of what waited for me if I failed, a life where she suffered until she was no more. It was my nightmare, as well as my single biggest motivation.
It was my worst fear.
“What’s your biggest fear?” I remember being asked that at the beginning when I was signing up. It was the last question on the form, at the bottom of almost fine print. I didn’t answer it, though. Funny enough, that was an optional question. I figured, why answer that? Why make anything any easier for them, just to make things harder for me?
I closed my eyes. It was hurting to think about. They snapped open again when I heard clicking footsteps coming toward my cell from the end of the hallway. I sat up to listen. I recognized them; platformed high-heels, slick and solid. My visitor was none other than ‘Bitch Widow’ herself.
“You look tired,” she said, crooning to me. “You should relax, Tiger. You look like you’ve lost something…” She came up to the bars of my cell, locking her eyes, her deceptively warm, inviting eyes with mine. Her face was one of longing, of hunger almost. “You have lost something, haven’t you? Or rather, someone…”
I didn’t answer. Not verbally, anyway. Instead, I simply turned away, laying down on my stiff cot and facing the opposite wall. I heard the bars of the cell slide away. Following this, I could hear her footsteps clicking toward me. In a way, I was like a child, trying to show grit against his parents by giving them the cold shoulder, even when, in reality, I was as tiny as ever.
I didn’t move. In a way, I knew this was just yet another trial. Just another part of the game. Another fear to overcome.
I flinched, however, when I felt her smooth, slender fingers pass slowly over my chest. “Shhh…just relax…” she whispered in my ear. “You don’t need to be afraid, Tiger. Trust me. If I wanted to hurt you, I’d have done it.”
I felt her tongue slide across my cheek, ending with a playful nibble on my ear. My body tensed as she did this. I felt excited and anxious at the same time. My heart started beating quicker and quicker. Her hand moved sensuously across my chest again, and I heard her softly giggle and whisper, “So tell me, who is it?”
I stayed silent, stiff. “Come on…it’s not good to hold it all in like that. Who is it? Who’s got your blood boiling and freezing at the same time?” Her hand passed from my chest and down the side of my leg. “Who is it that’s making you go through this? All this pain…”
Her hand passed down my thighs. “Is it a friend?” she whispers. “Is it family?” She let out a soft, almost ecstatic moan and whispered, “No… it’s not either of those, is it, Tiger? I’ll bet it’s a lover.”
My body seized up again, hard. I struggled not to lash out. I couldn’t give her that satisfaction; that she was right. That she knew, and I didn’t even have to say a word. No, I had to keep calm. I had to keep fighting.
She giggled softly in my ear again. “You know, Tiger, I know a lot more than you think I do.” Her hand continued caressing my thigh. “I know the look of someone who’s afraid to lose something. It’s why I like you. You’re different from these others. You’re fighting for something, or rather, someone. You have a purpose. You’re in this for more than a lousy 50 grand.”
She leaned close to my ear and whispered, “No…you’re fighting for survival. You’re fighting for what you love. I like that.” She wrapped her arm around me, spooning against me. “The only question is, who is it?”
The room was silent again for another minute. I felt her body nudge closer against mine. “It was my son for me.”
Her voice was different now. Her seductive guise was gone. Now she sounded small, pitiful. Vulnerable.
“I wanted him to have a home. A proper home, you know? A place where he could safely lay his little head.” She stopped for a moment. I heard her let out a heavy sigh like she was holding back tears. “I wanted him to have a life.”
A frightened little girl was clutching a stoic little boy. Her arms tightened around me. She was no longer powerful in that moment. She was tiny, like I was, like the rest of the contestants. Or at least so she wanted me to think.
I wouldn’t cave, though. I knew what this was. She was gauging me. She wanted me to spill my guts, give her ammunition to use against me later in the game. No, I wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t tell her why I was afraid.
“When his rat bastard of a father threw us onto the street, I did anything I could to scrape up enough money so he could eat. I hardly got to see him, always too busy with every man who was willing to kick a few bucks my way. I still see the way he looks at me, his little blue eyes. You know what he asked me once, Tiger?”
I stayed silent, clenching my jaws. I heard her choke back what sounded like a sob. Her fingernails dug slightly into my chest.
In an even smaller voice, she said, “’Mommy, when will this all be over?’” I felt a lump form in my throat. For an instant, I saw it again; Vanessa’s own longing face, begging for it all to end.
“You know what that feels like? Is that what it’s like for you? Does it kill you to see the person you love look so tired, so empty?” Her voice broke completely, and her grip tightened as she then whispered, “Are you so scared that you’ll lose them that you’ll break yourself in every way necessary just to hold onto them?”
Her body now seized up, freezing in place almost. My own heart was now jackhammering in my chest, desperate to punch straight through. I’d done it. I’d broken. I exposed myself to her, my enemy, to the ‘Bitch Widow.’ Time felt like it was frozen for a solid five minutes: no sounds, no movement, nothing.
Suddenly, I felt Web’s body relax again, even taking her nails out of my chest. She went back to softly stroking my chest silently for another minute or so before I felt her sit up and lean down close to my ear again. “It was nice to hear you talk to me for once, Tiger.”
With that, she planted a wet peck on my cheek before getting up and walking out of my cell. I was alone again. My body was shaking. I was nervous now.
In all honesty, up to then, I’d not really feared what I’d face in the next rounds. I knew that, whatever it was, however dangerous or life-threatening, it would be nothing compared to the fear of losing Vanessa, of failing her. But now that power was diminished. The ‘Bitch Widow’ now knew my secret and would now, no doubt, find a way to use it against me in the upcoming levels of the game. I guess you could say that my strategy, my ‘secret weapon’ was exposed.
I was vulnerable.
I could feel my eyes start to burn with tears. I knew I was essentially done for now. I’d lose; the game, my life, but worst of all, I’d lose her. She’d slowly and painfully die of cancer and wouldn’t even get a decent burial. And it would be all my fault. All because I cracked.
Because I was afraid.
The alarm buzzed. This time, for the first time, I was actually scared to go to sleep. More than that, I was afraid of actually waking up.
The air rushed through overhead again. I braced myself, waiting to be forced asleep, thrown into whatever freakshow I was slated for next. But nothing came.
I waited for about another ten minutes with nothing happening. I realized then that it wasn’t for me, not this time. I guess it wasn’t time for the ‘Nexus Round’ yet. I then saw two gorilla-sized men in gas masks and body armor stomp down the hallway to a few of the other cells at the other far end. I watched them open up and drag the unconscious bodies of the R, G, and L contestants out and back down the hall where they came.
I just watched numbly as they were dragged along. It was like how an animal would watch as one of their kin was being led to the slaughter. They’d know what would happen, that they’d never see them alive again, but at the same time, what the fuck were they gonna do about it? So they’d just sit and watch, praying they won’t be the next in line.
That said, the question presented itself to me again. What kept them going? What was keeping them from just hitting the “Fuck This” button and giving up, succumbing willingly to whatever they’d been subjected to? Did they, too, have someone they were afraid of losing?
These questions buzzed around wildly in my head for at least the better part of an hour. Though, being honest here, it felt even longer than that to me. Longer or not, though, My thoughts on this would be cut short when I’d hear the intercom buzz again.
“Give it up for Contestant R, everybody!” Sounds of crowd cheering played, sounding like whatever device they’d been coming from was just about out of juice. Web’s own voice even sounded noticeably less enthusiastic than it had been.
“We’re almost at the end, folks! Only four of you left. So far, only one has made it all the way to ‘The Judgment Round.’ So, the question for now is, who will contest them for the $50,000 grand prize? In just a few minutes, we’ll be finding out in our next, and last, ‘Nexus Round!’”
Like before, the intercom went silent after that. Only about two seconds later, the noise from the intercom was replaced by the noise from the door to the hallway opening, followed by the elephantine stomping of the men from before, dragging the sleeping body of Contestant R back to the cell at the far end of the room.
Once they’d dumped him back in his cell, the men then just stood in the middle of the hallway. They were waiting. I was, too. Like she’d said, we were almost at the end. In about another half hour, I heard the alarm sound, followed by the now all too familiar sound of the ventilation. “This is it…” I thought as my eyelids drooped heavily. Soon, I was out like a light again.
This was the first time since starting the game that waking up felt different. It felt peaceful. Quiet. No imminent danger like from before.
Maybe I shouldn’t call it “peaceful.” Quiet, sure, but not peaceful. To me, peaceful would’ve at least implied that all was safe. That nothing around was gonna hurt me. I knew far better than that, though. No, I knew it was only a matter of time before something, I didn’t know what, but SOMETHING would come out and ambush me. The only question I had, was what and/or where it was.
The second key difference was that Director Web hadn’t made her little announcement yet. I say this to say, the silence agitated and somewhat frightened me more. At least if I had woken up to immediate danger, I’d have actually half-expected it. But here, I couldn’t. Here, I felt exposed. Vulnerable…as vulnerable as I was in my cell with the ‘Bitch Widow.’
Then, almost an hour later, allowing for this disturbingly quiet environment to settle in, I heard the blare of the intercom.
“Here we are, folks, the ‘Fear Itself’ game’s last ‘Nexus round!’” Crowd cheering sounded all through the current room once again. Lights then flickered on, and I saw that I wasn’t in an empty room after all. Instead, it was actually a gigantic labyrinth.
I stood up slowly. Placing my hands on the walls and the floor below me, I felt them be solid steel. I could also feel some sort of movement behind the walls, like the whirring of some kind of machinery. It was moving all around, moving both from the walls and floor simultaneously.
“You three are the only ones left who’ve made it this far! Now, whoever makes it out of here will join Contestant V in ‘The Judgment Round’ to decide who will be crowned the ‘Conquerer of ‘Fear Itself!’” The excited crowd played out again as I felt an electric shock jolt through me from the floor. Despite the steel walls, I heard shrieks of fright coming from around me from the other two contestants.
“Oops, sorry.” She said, chuckling along with the laugh track. “Gotta keep y’all on your toes for this one! Your objective, contestants, is to make it to the labyrinth’s center. That’s it, easy-peasy, right? Shouldn’t take any of you more than about, oh, five, maybe six minutes to accomplish.”
Another electric discharge passed through the floor, causing me to jump and the others to cry out again. “But, of course, I’m not known for being real patient, and it’s no fun for me to watch you slugs drag your fucking feet, so should you decide to fall behind, well…” This time, the shock was low voltage, freezing me in place as electricity shook all throughout my body. “Then I guess you’ll just have to get used to being a human Christmas tree, won’t you? Don’t worry, though. If I see you falling behind, I’ll be on standby to get you moving along again. See, I CAN be generous if I wanna be.”
The intercom beeped off after that. The round had officially begun. Six minutes to make it to the center of this giant metal maze. “’Easy-peasy, right?’”
I was urged forward by a jolt through the floor. It was a high voltage shock that sent me leaping forward almost two feet, though causing me to slam face-first into the wall in front of me. I heard a laugh track play out over the intercom. “Was it that shocking, Tiger? You’re falling for me hard, one jolt through your legs from me.” I heard her chuckle deviously before adding, “How sweet.”
I picked myself off the wall. “Shit, this is bad.” I thought. It was only a crack, sure, but for her, for the ‘Bitch Widow,’ a crack was FAR more than enough. It was just what I feared would happen; I’d opened the door for her to get inside my head and royally fuck me. I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath. “Just relax, Eric. Focus.”
Opening my eyes again, I started heading to the passage leading off to the right. From there, I broke into a jog until I got about five feet down the passage and came upon a two-way intersection. For a second, I stood, looking back and forth between the two passageways to see which one was most likely to lead me somewhere other than a dead end. Unfortunately, I underestimated just how impatient Web was because, next thing I knew, I felt another spark of electricity sent me hurling forward another three feet.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one, either. I could hear one of the others cry out from my right. From how loud I heard it, whoever it was was close, just around the corner. Sure enough, I was right. The guy I vaguely recognized from the ‘Danger Floor’ level was stumbling around the corner as Contestant F.
I went over to him. He was wheezing and coughing, out of breath. “Are you okay?” I shouted to him.
He gasped and sputtered before saying “I can’t…I can’t keep on like this, man.” I put his arm around my shoulder.
“Come on, man, we gotta keep going!” He was too weak, though. Too exhausted. He looked up at me, wearing THAT look, the look of hopelessness.
“Why bother, man? She ain’t gonna let us go. One way or another, we’re just gonna end up –” He was cut short when a low voltage surge passed through the floor, electrocuting the both of us where we stood. This lasted for almost a full minute before finally ceasing, causing us to collapse to the floor. The intercom beeped again.
“I’m not sure how I feel about you holding someone else like that, Tiger. Oh, I wonder how SHE’D feel if she saw you right now; that ‘special someone of yours…” She chuckled again before the intercom beeped off again.
My heart was pounding furiously now, and it wasn’t the electricity either. No, it was panic. Yeah, I slipped that someone special to me was on the outside, but how could Web know it was a she? How did she know about her?
“Does she know who?!”
I shook my head, “FOCUS!” I looked down at Contestant F. He was barely conscious. Time was running out. I was about to try and get Contestant F to his feet when I felt him feebly push against me, trying to push me away. “Come on!” I shouted. “We have to get out of here, or we’ll get fried!”
He just kept staring at me with his glazed eyes. Very faintly, I saw his mouth begin to move, and I could hear him hoarsely whisper, “G-Go… g-g-get o-out of heeerrree.” He slipped unconscious after that. I shook him to try and wake him up again, to try and get us moving again, but it was no use. I felt his neck; his pulse was fading.
I wanted to get him out of there, but I knew I’d never make it to the center in time. I wasn’t gonna make it out in time, unless…unless, of course…
I left him.
I was torn once again. What was I supposed to do? I didn’t wanna leave him for dead like that, but at the same time, I HAD to get out! I had to make it out alive. I had to win.
I had to save Vanessa!
I saw THAT face again; both on Contestant F and Vanessa. I saw it on them, and then on others; Contestant D, Contestant A, who I watched get shredded at the beginning in ‘The Cradle,’ Contestant R, who was dragged gracelessly from ‘The Danger Floor,’ all of them, staring at me with THAT face. The face of despair.
The face of hopelessness.
“Why bother, man? She ain’t gonna let us go…”
I shook my head. “NO!” I screamed internally. “I can’t lose now! I can do this! I can win!” I started making a beeline down the passage and cut a sharp turn to the right. My heart was spiking. My eyes were wide. My blood was rushing.
“I can win! I have to win! I have to save Vanessa! I have to help her live!” A few more turns in each direction, and there it was, the center. I was gonna make it to the final round! I could make it! I could hear the hum of electricity kick up. Time was almost out. The floor started warming up beneath me. In just a few seconds, the entire floor would be nothing less than a hotbed, frying and barbequing the hell out of who or whatever was unlucky enough to be still standing on it.
I broke into a full-on sprint the rest of the way to the door. Despite it being probably only a foot or two away, it felt like the passage kept stretching, pushing the door at the end farther and farther away from me as I ran. Still, I kept running and, finally, with maybe a second and a half to spare…
I made it!
I squinted. Everything around me was a blinding ocean of albino white. It hurt to open my eyes. It was quiet, too. Silent.
Slowly, my eyes strained to adjust to the harsh lighting. Once at least semi-clear, I saw that I was now in a long, alabaster hallway. I started walking slowly down. All around me was nothing, just blank, white walls. I kept walking until my feet started to ache. Still, there was nothing around anywhere. Empty.
“Where am I?” I started violently when I heard the intercom beep.
“Take a right, and stop at the door at the end of the hall.” This time, her voice was hollow, monotone. Numb. I turned to my right and began walking. There it was, around the first corner, dead ahead at the end of the hall; the last door.
This was it; ‘Judgement Round.’” I walked anxiously towards it. I was about to grab and throw the door open when I stopped. My hand was clutched around the handle, but I just… couldn’t…
“… when will this all be over?’”
I see the faces again. All of them.
“Why bother, man? She ain’t gonna let us go. One way or another, we’re just gonna end up dead in here anyway…”
Vanessa. I see her. Her pale, sickly face. I see it start to decay, peeling like paper from her bones. Her eyes, her beautiful eyes, glaze over as she slips away.
“Please Eric…make it stop!”
She then fades completely, crumbling to dust before my eyes.
“Are you so scared that you’ll lose them and break yourself in every way necessary just to hold onto them?”
I screamed and threw the door open. On the other side, there sat a hospital bed, and in it was a little boy. We stood at the right of it.
I froze, the adrenaline taking a moment to die back down. “Hey there, Tiger.” Web said blankly. Her face was hollow. Dead, the way you’d imagine a puppet to look. I started looking around. I couldn’t see anything or anyone waiting. Of course, like I’d seen so many times before in this place, that didn’t mean anything. It was never that simple. There’s something, always something.
“It’s okay, there’s nothing here.” I looked at her. She turned and looked at the hospital bed, then to the boy. The boy then looked to me.
I looked at him, and something clicked. His face, his smooth, round face, his dark, hazel eyes. They were just like hers. This was her little boy.
The one she fought for.
His eyes were glazed, the eyelids looking like it was just about all they could do even to stay open. I could hear the E.K.G. monitor beep quietly. “This is…”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, he is. My little Brent.” She stroked his cheek, her face still cold as ice. I walked up to the bed. I was still looking around the room to see what was hiding, what implements ‘Bitch Widow’ planned to surprise me with. I didn’t believe her claim that there was “Nothing there.”
That said, I couldn’t see any sort of implements of torture or anything like that. That was, except for when I saw a needle on her side of the bed. My eyes widened seeing that. “Oh, God, what’s she got in there? Cyanide? Drugs? Truth serum?” My heart began beating harder and harder again.
“Calm down, Tiger,” she said numbly. “I told you, there’s nothing here to hurt you. That’s not why you’re here.”
“Then why am I?” I asked, still tense. She kept her focus trained on the boy.
“Because I need your help.” I frowned at this.
“My…help? With what?”
She ruffled the boy’s hair, sighing heavily. “He’s precious, isn’t he?” I just kept looking at her. I didn’t know what I was supposed to say.
“He was always a sweet little boy. Brave and strong, even when I wasn’t there for him. He was brave even when they hurt him. You can see it, can’t you; the way he’s fighting?” Her voice cracked as she said, “Mommy’s little fighter.”
I looked back at the boy. His face was pale and sunken. I realized he was sick. He was dying…
She reaches out to me. “Please, Eric…make it end…”
I shook my head. “But what am I here for? What am I supposed to do?” “Huh?” she sighed again. “What I can’t.”
“You’re here; your final challenge, Tiger, is to do the one thing I’m afraid to do.” She clutched the needle. My body tensed up as she held it up. “He shouldn’t have to keep fighting anymore, should he?”
“Wh-what happened to him?” The words seemed to almost jump from my mouth. She looked from the needle back to him, stroking his face again. Her eyes began to glisten.
“I owed a lot of people a lot of money. We were sleeping in dumpsters between the alleyways every night, and I was lucky at the time to ever have any money to scrape some food together for Brent. So I started borrowing money from some very bad people. Of course, I figured that everything would be fine if I could either do a few of their dirty little favors or give them back the money in pieces.”
“But it wasn’t enough, was it?” I said. She shook her head. Her lips began to pucker, and the tears were flowing freely down her cheeks.
“And it never would be. On top of that, prices for food started to go up, which meant it was damn near impossible for me to afford anything. I kept putting myself further and further into debt just to try and provide for him. Just so he could stay alive, live to maybe one day have a better future, you know?”
I looked to Brent again. I noticed then that he wasn’t moving at all, save for the very faint rising and falling of his chest. Not even his eyes were moving.
“But it didn’t matter to them.” she continued. “All that mattered to them was money. Money that, well, I couldn’t give them. It didn’t matter that I was just getting by in a miracle as it was. It didn’t matter how much I sold myself off to random men just to try making even a bit of that money back. And worst of all…” her face melted in tears. “They didn’t care that he was just a little boy!” She began sobbing quietly.
My heart stopped. I felt like my head was gonna spin right off my neck. This whole time, through everything I’d experienced up to the present, this was probably the most viscerally haunting moment I’d ever experienced. To this day, it still is one of the most emotionally damning moments ever for me. What comes next, however, is what continues to keep me from being able to sleep properly at night.
“Why didn’t you try to get help?” I asked, though, somehow, something told me this was a question that answered itself.
“And who was gonna do that, huh?” she cried, “The police? I wasn’t stupid. I tattled on them, and they’d have killed the both of us. Not to mention, they’d have taken Brent away from me. I couldn’t have that. He’s my world, don’t you understand? He’s the best thing I ever had, and I couldn’t lose him.”
“But here you are.” She melted down again. I just watched. I began to feel something deep within me start to burn, clawing at me. This somehow felt familiar. I watched Director Web, the cruel and terrifying ‘Bitch Widow’ herself, crumble into pieces, afraid. Not afraid of someone or something that could harm her. But afraid of something that was gonna happen, something that had to happen.
Then it clicked. It all finally came together. I could see the game, the sadistic challenges, that night in my cell, all of it come together to tie down to this very moment. She needed someone who could conquer fear, all fear. She needed someone who could do what she was afraid to do now. That’s why she created this game; ‘Fear Itself’. She needed someone who wasn’t afraid to make it all end.
I looked at her, a lump forming in my throat. “What do I do?” She sniffed and held up the needle again, “This has 75 mg of morphine. Enough to overdose a grown man.” She then looked at me and thrusted the needle out to me. “He shouldn’t feel a thing. It’ll just be him going to sleep, able to dream forever.” The lump hardened in my throat. My heart dropped like a rock into the pit of my stomach. I could see her eyes begging for me to take the needle. “Please,” she wept, “Help me. Help me make it end, Tiger.”
I felt dizzy now. I couldn’t do this. I mean, killing a little boy? I get it, he was suffering. Hell, he was a vegetable. But even still, how could I…take his life?!
“I…I can’t!” I stammered. Her face fell further.
“Why not?! I need you to! I’m a coward, okay? I’m not strong enough; that’s why I did all this. I need you now. You’re the only one who’s strong enough!”
I stared at her, my eyes beginning to burn with tears. She told me I was “The only one brave enough,” but she was wrong. I wasn’t brave enough. I was scared just like she was.
I was scared of having to let go.
It was then that I saw just how cowardly we both were. How selfish we were. We’d both been so afraid of losing what was precious to us that we were willing to do anything just to keep from losing them, even if it came at the person’s expense in the end anyway. We feared inevitability, and so we tried to fight it in any way we could. I did it when I joined the game, all just to try and keep Vanessa from succumbing to cancer, even though her every waking day had now devolved into constant misery. And Web had done it with the game, her attempt at finding someone who could let go of her son for her.
I looked at the needle. I reached out my hand, shaking and sweating. She moved it closer to me. Our eyes were locked on each other, both of us lost in each other’s frightened, anxious faces. My hand was only an inch away from hers. “Thank you, Ti–”
Before either of us could blink, I grabbed her wrist and jerked her arm towards the boy—the needle embedded into the center of his chest. Blood started streaming out from the wound as his body convulsed.
“NO!” she shrieked. “What have you done?!”
“Helped you face your fear.”
Brent’s body slowly began to relax, and I pulled Web off of him. She began frantically trying to plug the wound, to no use. She tried to struggle at first before finally going limp in my arms, burying her face in my chest and bawling.
I looked at Brent’s body. His eyes were closed now. He was gone, free at last.
Web clutched tightly to me, crying. This time, I knew it was genuine. The game was over now. I just held her back. It was all I knew to do.
I was free to go home after that. She led me out of the Monolith facility, and that was that. At least, as far as that part of the story goes. The story of the gam, of ‘Fear Itself.’
I’d never see Director Web again, not in person. It was a week after that day that I saw the news headline.
“28-year-old woman overdoses in middle of alley.” One look at the spiderweb tattoo on her stomach was all it took for me to recognize it was her. The obituaries came out the next morning with her face and name.
“Violet Hanna Webber, age 28, Loving Mother of Brent Webber (Deceased).” As for me, shortly before the suicide, I received a notification that $50,000 had been directly deposited into my account. Despite this, things were pretty bad for me for a while. Vanessa had been on chemo for the last three weeks since I’d started the game and wasn’t showing any signs of getting any better. I had the money now, but I still didn’t have Vanessa. And what’s more, I wasn’t sure anymore if I was ever supposed to.
She looked sicker and sicker every day, even worse than what I’d imagined back in the cell at Monolith. Though she wouldn’t say it, I could still see it in her eyes, just as I did in my dreams; her longing for it all to be over. And in another week, this wish would be granted.
It was late last Friday that I’d gotten the call. By that point, the tumor had metastasized well into Stage 4, and she’d been hooked up to life support for the better part of the past month. That night, however, was when her family decided to take her off. I remember how, all at once, every emotion imaginable burst out of me.
I remember flying into a rage, tossing everything around in my living room and shouting curses, which then transitioned to laughing hysterically, before then crumpling into a ball and crying on the floor. I got to the hospital about five minutes later. There waiting was her family. They said they wanted me to be there when they did it, let me be the last person she sees when she goes.
I remember how peaceful it was when it happened. She remained for about another two and a half minutes after they pulled the plug. I looked into her eyes. She was able to smile one last time. It was finally over. She could see it, and so could I. For that, I was able to smile back.
I realize now that that was when I truly won the game. That was when I conquered my greatest fear. For that, I can still smile.
It hasn’t been easy without Vanessa, sure. But at the same time, I can still be happy. I was able to save her, even if it wasn’t from death. I was there. I was able to make her smile, to give her peace.
I finally conquered my fear by letting go…
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Corpse ChildPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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