20 Mar Book 159: 7 of Them
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"Book 159: 7 of Them"Written by Tim van Kessel (a.k.a. TvanK)
Estimated reading time — 50 minutes
I remember it very well, that one day in October. I came home later than I usually would. We were understaffed and I had to work over hours. What a night it was.
And here I am now, stuck in this cage. It’s an odd place I’m in. It has a feel of a prison to it. Well, it is a prison I suppose. I walk around the dark cell every now and then. There’s not much to see really.
There’s a small opening on one side, like a window, with bars in front of it. I assume behind those small bars lays the outside world, judging by the very distant sound of a soft breeze. I’ve contemplated destroying those bars multiple times. But then again, what purpose will it serve? I don’t know where I’ll end up if I do climb out that window. It’s always pitch black outside. The only sound out there? Wind. The blowing of the wind. On the other side of my cage is another row of bars, just bigger. I suppose that’s where I was brought in. I call it a cage, but it’s more like a cell. Stone walls and metal bars surround me.
I noticed once how immense the place I’m in is. It generally is pretty dark in the corridor just outside the metal bars, however on rare occasions the lights go on, just for a few seconds only to turn off quickly after that. I’ve been here for a few days now I think. Just once I was in time to view the surroundings of my cell. Normally I sit on my bench, thinking or sleeping, finding ways to pass time. But that one time I was there, clenching the metal with my hands. I don’t know why or how long I was standing there. But whatever the reason was, I was glad I stood there. The light popped on and I was able to look around swiftly. My eyes weren’t accustomed to the light after being in the dark for such a long time. Yet I tried my best to take in every sight I could see.
My cell faced another cell, or cage if you would. A few seconds won’t grant you many details of anything, be it the surroundings, or the face of a fellow prisoner. I could see that there was only a meter of walkway in between the opposite cages, however the corridor stretched for miles so it seemed like. I could look into the corridor quickly, my head pressed against the cold metal. The stream of lights in the corridor seemed to go on forever, as did the cells that were illuminated by them. I thought there were hundreds of them, if not more. From what I could pick up from the cages closer to me, each cage has its own number listed above them. The cage in front of me had the number 1953a on it, if I remember it correctly. Those probably are prisoner ID numbers. Inside the cage was a woman. She neither looked in my direction, nor did she ever say anything to me.
I’ve made multiple attempts to talk to her, to ask her why she was being held captive here. But she never ever replied. I never saw her again after that day. Of course, the lights did go on more often, but I never managed to get up in time to see her. Not one bit of noise came from her cage during the time that I’ve been here. It was as if she never even existed. Maybe she was part of my imagination. Perhaps I just wanted to see someone, or find someone to talk to at least. I still have a hard time understanding my own imprisonment. Why am I writing this down, I often ask myself? To make sure I stay sane is the answer. To make sure I remember everything correctly. And probably nobody will ever read this… but that’s alright. People would probably think I’m a madman.
In the glimpse I got from my opposite neighbor’s cell, I noticed a pen and a book lying on the ground of her cage, similar to the ones I’m using. Maybe the person who puts the people here wants the prisoners to write… But why? It’s a question I never have gotten answered so far, something I wanted to ask the woman as well.
It doesn’t matter anyway. The writing equipment is here for my own good. I don’t care what they will do with it. I will use it to document my story, even if it is just for myself. It will help me remember why I’ve been sent here, just in case I start to question my own sanity. I can’t read my own writings yet… it’s simply too dark in my cell. I’ll have to find a solution for that sooner or later. Right now I’ll just focus on writing by feeling and sensing the pages, the pen and my own memory. Write everything down… every thought, everything that happened that night and everything that’s happening here.
Let me go back to the beginning.
I came back home that one evening in October. The office wasn’t far from home, but still driving home after a 13 hour shift seemed to take an eternity. It was dark, as you would expect from a cold October evening. It was 9 pm when I pulled the handbrake after parking my car in front of my house. I got out of my car, slammed the door shut and walked towards my house where my wife would be waiting for me with a hot meal and some gentle kisses. She would always provide me with the comfort one would need after a long and exhausting day of work.
As I approached my house, I looked at the window and noticed that the lights weren’t on. At the time I didn’t think anything of it. She might’ve fallen asleep while waiting for me. I couldn’t blame her of course. Normally I would come home around 6 pm. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my phone to work today and I completely forgot that I could use e-mail to message her instead. I looked upwards and noticed that there also weren’t any lights burning in the bedroom upstairs.
I entered the house, closing and locking up the door behind me. After walking through the door into the living room, I turned on the lights. I let my gaze flow through the comfortably furnished area. My wife wasn’t there… I looked through the kitchen door’s glass display, into the kitchen that was slightly illuminated in green by the digital clock of the microwave, but she wasn’t there either. I put my suitcase down and opened the door which led to the staircase. I listened intently to anything that would sound familiar to me. I could hear some soft breathing coming from one of the upstairs rooms. I proceeded up the stairs and closed the door gently behind me so I could surprise her like I always loved to do.
I tried to make as less sound as possible, but the house we lived in was old and the steps were creaking lightly under my feet, even though I wasn’t quite the heavyweight. When I arrived at the top of the stairs I listened again… But the breathing had stopped.
Carefully, I opened the door to the guest bedroom where she usually liked to take naps.
‘Sweetie, you in here?’ I whispered.
No response. I flicked on the light and noticed that she wasn’t in the room. I turned off the light and closed the door. She had to be in the other room. Repeating the same actions as with the other room, I realized that our bedroom was empty as well.
‘Darling?! Come out, come out, wherever you are! I heard you breathing,’ I called out to her playfully. Once again, no response… Confused, I checked out the other rooms, even the rooms on the attic. But the house was empty. I took my phone out of my pocket and checked if I had received any new messages.
–Am out for a little while. Assumed you had to work overtime. Be back soon I hope. xx–
I read the message with a sigh of relief. That explained it. I went back downstairs, feeling a bit more comfortable, to heat up my dinner and start my night.
I came downstairs and turned on the light in the living room. I walked past the couch and table which had a lot of unopened mail laying on it. Before opening the kitchen door, I turned on the TV, situated opposite of the couch and table. The television showed the Disney Channel… Hell no, I thought and I quickly changed the channel to the news. I threw the remote on the book case next to the television.
In the kitchen laid a note, placed under a bowl of food that was ready to be heated up. While I waited for the microwave to finish its business, I opened a bottle of beer and listened to the news reporter.
“In local news, a series of persons have gone missing. So far it doesn’t seem there’s any link between the missing persons, however police officials have stated that kidnapping hasn’t yet been ruled out.”
“There is no indication that we are dealing with a serial kidnapper at this point. What we can tell you is that the missing person count is 10, 3 female and 7 male. Since no bodies have been recovered in the area, and trust me when I say we have been conducting very thorough searches, we are not excluding the possibility that these people have run off on their own. We are doing everything within our power to find these missing persons.”
“That was the statement of the chief of police. More on this subject later, we will keep you informed if there are any major changes in the case.”
Oh that message. I remember it well. Word for word. It sounded over and over in my head that night.
I took my food out of the microwave and brought it to the dinner table, the only piece of furniture in the front of the living room. I sat down and started eating while reading today’s newspaper. The news flash repeated itself on TV in the background, just with different people and on different programs. I put the TV on standby with the remote that was lying on the table. The television shut down and the small red light turned on.
Sensationalists, was the only word I could find to describe the famous people that were speaking.
I continued reading for a little while when I suddenly felt a weird vibe going through my body. A disturbing feeling which made me drop my cutlery on my plate. I sat up straight and didn’t realize how the thought suddenly came to me, but somehow I realized two things.
I never turned off the lights in the living room before I went upstairs, yet I flicked them back on after I came down. And I left the remote on the bookcase… not on the table.
I got the feeling I wasn’t alone in my house. I got up from my chair and looked around. The room was silent and empty, save for the furniture of course. I walked to the kitchen to put my plate and cutlery away. I scraped the rest of the food off my plate into the trash bin and placed the rest in the dishwasher. On the counter still laid the note. I completely forgot to read it.
–It starts today. We’re waiting for you. Come.–
The short sentences didn’t make any sense to me. I read it two, three, four times, but I still didn’t understand it. From the corner of my eye I saw the kitchen door slowly closing as I was sticking the note in my pocket. I didn’t know what was happening at the time. I couldn’t see much through the windows, since it was fitted with light frosted glass. Usually you could only see shadows and shapes vaguely moving around through it. But at that particular moment? Nothing. Nothing but darkness.
I was a hundred percent sure that I wasn’t alone in my house. I opened the kitchen drawer and took out a knife. I held it in front of me when I opened the kitchen door. The lights were turned off again and I slowly stepped into the darkness.
‘Who’s there? I got a knife,’ I spoke, trying to sound as confident as possible.
I tried to see into the blackness, but the only light that was shining into the room was the light from the kitchen, which didn’t get very far, and the light from the TV. I moved gradually towards the light switch in the front of the room, moving the knife around me cautiously, in case someone was about to grab me. I moved my hand across the wall to find the switch and when I finally found it, I immediately switched it on.
The light in the kitchen exploded and the lights in the living room slowly lit up. I looked up and noticed that they only lit up very weakly… It still was hard to see in the room, but I noticed something was different on the couch. I focused hard to see what was going on. All of a sudden the kitchen door slammed shut with an enormous amount of noise and startled, I stumbled backwards.
‘Hello Jason, glad you could join us.’
A woman’s voice filled the room while the sound of the door still echoed through the place.
‘Let’s lighten up this room a little.’
The silhouette of a woman in a dress was moving through the room, walking from place to place. Starting by the table in front of the couch, she lit a candle. She then moved towards other places to light more candles. Fear took me that moment and I couldn’t say anything. As the room lit up, I could slightly see four other women sitting on the couch. All of them were dressed differently. It looked as if they walked straight off different movie sets.
The woman walking around was wearing a grey dress, which was ripped and torn. One of the women on the couch was wearing a long skirt, her upper body clenched into a corset. There was a woman who appeared younger than the rest. She wore a tighter dress, made out of old curtains is what it looked like. The 4th woman had a hat with three large feathers on it. She was wearing a loose blouse, with wool pants underneath. The 5th woman wore a more modern type of dress with a colorful flower print on it.
Neither of the women on the couch were speaking. They were simply staring at me. They didn’t make so much of a noise, they didn’t move. They didn’t even blink. They just sat there…
‘What’s the meaning of this? Why are you in my house?’ I pointed my question towards the woman who was lighting the candles.
She looked at me as she sat down next to the other women on the corner couch. All of them were sitting in the exact same position. Their hands, some covered in light gloves, laid on their legs. Their faces looked like the faces of mannequins. Their skin was pulled back, as if it was fastened on the back of their necks, covered by their long hair. They were pale… and skinny. And their eyes, wide opened as if something startled them. Only the woman who spoke had a different look on her face. Even though she also didn’t blink the entire time I was looking at her, her face showed some emotion.
I couldn’t place the emotion at the time. She started speaking to me.
‘Jason, why don’t you take a seat? We have something important to talk about.’
Unclear as to how she knew my name, I shook my head slowly and started reaching for my phone to call the police. I nervously started to pat down my front and back pocket.
‘Looking for something?’ is what the woman asked me as she held the phone I was looking for. She tilted her head as she was waiting for my reply.
I didn’t know what to do, me and my wife decided months before that night to cut off the fixed phone line of the house, because we never used it. We always used our mobile phones. The only thing I could think of was to go outside the house and call for help at the neighbor’s place. I ran towards the front door and tried opening the door, but it was locked. I started patting down my pockets again when I heard the woman shouting to me from the other side of the room, followed by a jingling noise.
‘Jaaaaasoooooooooon? Do you need theeeeeese?’
In a moment of panic I rushed back inside, picked up a chair and tried slamming the window. I started calling for help, while nervously looking over my shoulder at the women, who were still just sitting there. The woman started talking again.
‘Jason, if you’re not going to listen to me, I don’t have any other choice but to do it this way.’
She started fiddling with my phone, pressing the screen, then holding it in the palms of her hands. She stretched her arms while the phone made dialing sounds, followed by ringing sounds and finally a click. A woman spoke:
‘Jason… Jason, is that you?’
‘Darling? Yes, it’s me. Where are you? What’s going on?’
‘Jason, listen to me. They’re not alone. I’ve been told to warn you about what happens if you don’t do what they ask.’
‘Hey… you’re not making sense.. Tell me where you are.’
‘I don’t know… I… Jason, it’s not just me who’s being held captive. You have to be careful and listen to them. Do as they say and we can all make it. They told me this.’
The woman on the couch abruptly ended the call.
‘That’s quite enough of that,’ she said.
‘Who are you people? What are you doing with my wife?!’
‘Don’t worry, Jason. You heard what she said. Do exactly as we say and everything will be fine. We just want to talk with you. Yes?’
I didn’t answer her. The other women still didn’t move, let alone blink.
‘Today, we are going to test you. Pass our test and both of you will be safe.’
The message of the news reporter echoed in my head as I realized what these people might be up to.
‘You… are responsible for all these missing persons in the area, aren’t you?’
‘Come on, Jason, don’t be ridiculous. We didn’t have anything to do with it. We’re not the only ones capable of things like that in this world, you know. But…’
She paused for a second and looked at the other women, a slight smile broke through her emotionless face as she looked upon them.
‘… those other people are the least of your concern right now.’
‘Really? Then since you are of my concern, how about you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just stab all 5 of you right here and now?’
She tilted her head.
‘One reason? That I can do. Let’s say you decide to cut our throats, it means you fail our test. If you fail your test, there’s no way you will ever see your wife again. You heard her, didn’t you? We are not alone. Is that reason enough for you?’
I hesitated to answer.
‘Come, take a seat. We’ll start our testing now.’
I backed away from the couch and reached for a chair that was near the dinner table. Without losing the women out of my sight, I pulled the chair to face the couch and sat down on it. The woman spoke again.
‘Our test is simple. You sit there and each of us will tell you a story about ourselves. These stories might not be all that pleasant. But trust me when I say they are as real as can be. If you can sit through all 5 of them, without interrupting us or doing… whatever you plan to do to us with that big knife of yours, you pass the test. Your wife will be freed and returned to you safely.’
‘And if I fail?’
‘Then your pretty wife will unfortunately meet one of the fates described in our stories. We haven’t decided yet which one that’s going to be. But that makes it all the more interesting.
Just you remember, you’re locked in here with us. You can’t break your windows either. You can’t call the police and the neighbors can’t hear you.’
I honestly felt desperate. I couldn’t take the risk of attacking them and jeopardize my wife’s safety. Only one thing to say came to mind.
‘What the hell are you?’
She looked upon me and the corners of her lips seemed to curl up the slightest bit after which she said:
‘We are the ones that decide fates.’
Suddenly the first woman who I had been talking to sat herself down, leaning backwards a bit. Her eyes opened widely like the eyes of the rest of the women. Her skin pulled back as well and her body took the same position as the rest.
‘Oh my, where are my manners. I haven’t properly introduced myself yet. Shame on me. Jason, I’m Rose. And I was born in the middle of the 19th century.’
A soft voice, almost shy sounding filled the room. It was the woman in the middle who started speaking.
‘People called me Rodent Rose back then. I don’t know why, but everyone in the village I lived in despised me. I can’t remember much of my youth, which I suppose is where the hate towards me started, but I do remember how the last 10 years I spent there were a complete hell.’
I interrupted her because I didn’t know if I heard her right. Her response afterwards sent a shock through my body, once again reminding me of what’s at stake.
‘I’m sorry, did I hear that right? Rodent Rose? Are you serious right now?’
Her eyes didn’t move and her focus almost burned through my own eyes. She lifted her arm, holding my phone in her hand. How did she…?
‘Jason, don’t interrupt me while I’m telling my story. Remember the rules. Now, where was I? Oh yes, hell. It was a complete and utter disaster to be living in the village. Nobody even as much as looked at me when I would walk through the street, save for one man. Oh, he was the most handsome and friendliest guy in the village. I knew he liked me, I could see it in the way he looked at me when we would take walks through the hills. You could say that things had gotten serious after a while.’
‘Of course, things didn’t stay that way. He told me he couldn’t be seen with me, otherwise the village would spit him out as well. I didn’t like it. I mean, was he ashamed of me? Who even does that to a girl he likes?’
I was listening to her nervously. As I write this, I can’t remember every detail of her story. She just went on and on about her feelings. Meanwhile, I wasn’t calm at all. With every word that the woman spat out, I was losing time. But I couldn’t risk interrupting her again. Every now and then, she would stop talking and ask me if I was still listening. I would then nod and she would continue.
‘One night… we had an argument. We were on the hills after a walk and we stood there fighting for hours it seemed. I got so upset with him that I slapped him in the face. He almost hit me back too… But he hesitated before he decided to walk away, leaving me there on that hill all by myself.
That argument. I was mad at him for his behavior in the village. He would treat me the same way every other villager treated me. But I knew he was a kind man with a good heart. But someone was playing him. Someone was telling him not to be with me. And I knew who did it. Of course, I could never prove it, but I knew. 3 women, living near my man.
They wanted him too, they wanted to be the ones he would take for a walk. And these women were the type of women that would do anything in their power to get what they wanted.
I ran after him when he walked off. I apologized for hitting him. He told me that he had a confession to make. I didn’t know why he suddenly told me, but I already sensed that he had a troubled mind. He told me… he told me that he truly wanted to be loyal to me. But he said that he made a few mistakes in the nights before that. And he didn’t need to say more. I knew it. I knew those women messed with him behind my back. Are you still listening?’
I looked up, realizing that I got so close again to the loss of my wife. Focus! Is what I told myself. Think about your wife.
‘Yes, I’m still listening. You were talking about your man.’
‘Right… Anyway, I got even more upset and told him that I would rather be spat out by the entire village, than to be with an un-loyal, sorry excuse for a human being that he was. And I couldn’t leave this for what it was. He insulted me, made me look like a fool. So I hatched a plan to take revenge. Everyone liked to call me Rodent Rose? Well, I wanted to let him and everyone in the village know that I truly fitted the nickname.
I asked him over for dinner at my house one night. I told him I wanted to talk about what happened. I prepared a meal for the two of us. We sat there and we talked. We just talked and ate for a while. But after an hour there was nothing left to discuss. I would’ve been better off just talking to myself, because the man I loved so much had been dead for 20 minutes after eating a soup that was spiced up with a lethal dosage of rat poison.’
She fell silent for a while after concluding her story. I didn’t know if I should say something. She closed her eyes. She was the first woman that night to even show the slightest movement in the eyes. Oh, that is one thing I remember vividly. She let out a sigh too, as if a burden was lifted from her shoulders. It surprised me at the time since none of them had shown any form of emotion. Except the one look in all of their eyes. I still can’t place what I saw in them that night.
Poison. It was the clearest thing that rushed through my head after I gathered my thoughts. I spent a few minutes looking at the women, realizing that soon one of them would wake from their… trance. They told me that the fate of my wife lied in one of their stories should I fail their test. People did always say that poison is a woman’s weapon…
The second thing that came to mind was that I dropped the knife when I fell over right before I saw the women in my house. The silence in the house was droning. Four mannequin type-like women were looking in my direction. The other one laid her eyes to rest while still sitting up straight like the rest. Of course, these women weren’t normal. But paranormal? I didn’t understand why they were so silent during that time. They came here, wanting me to listen to their stories, yet they weren’t telling them.
I slowly got out of my seat and started walking towards to the front of the living room. I kept my eyes pointed towards the couch as I crouched to reach for the knife. I couldn’t feel it in the place I dropped it. I turned around to look on the ground. The second I turned away, another voice filled the room.
‘Jason! Come back here!’
The sudden sound of the voice startled me and I jumped back on my feet. From this side of the room, it wasn’t easy to see the women in detail. The candle light only illuminated the objects and persons vaguely in that particular corner. I looked up to the ceiling and saw that the lights of the living room weren’t even on anymore. Slowly I started making my way back to my chair. As I sat down, the woman to the left of Rose started talking.
‘Jason, listen. I know the temptation of picking up the knife is very strong. But I really have to warn you that you better play by our rules. We are very trustworthy ladies. And being like that, means we stick to our word. So: what does this mean for you?
Attack us, and we will be forced to end your wife’s life. Or, you could keep your cool and let us continue our test and when we finish, we promise to undo all the inconvenience that we have caused you and your wife.’
Her word? Their word? It meant nothing to me.
‘Oh please, why should I believe the word of a bunch of lunatics who break into my house, who kidnap my wife and lock me up inside my own house, forcing me to play some kind of sick little game?!’
Silence followed my words for a few seconds. Until the woman replied to me.
‘You don’t have a choice I’m afraid… But, I see your point. Here, as a token of mutual trust, or should I say a token of my trust in your capabilities.’
She reached behind her and showed me the knife that I dropped earlier.
‘You… can hold onto this, while you listen to my story. Does that sound good to you?’
I got up from my chair and hesitated for a short while before I took the knife from her. She let out a small ‘yay’, without showing any cheerfulness on her face. I sat back down and looked at the edge of the knife.
‘I didn’t get the chance to introduce myself yet. Jason, I’m Annie. I personally think it’s very nice to meet you. If only it was under different circumstances. And it would’ve been nice if we had met 300 years ago.’
I simply looked at her, skeptically.
‘I’m glad you chose not to interrupt me. Your wife is happy about that too, I’m sure.
Jason, back in my days, I was a thief. I spent years robbing people, finding ways to enter the houses of the rich and the wealthy. I was infamous. Pretty much all of the land’s law enforcers were out looking for me. They called me ‘Anonymous Ann’. It’s pretty cheesy, I know. I personally never would’ve chosen that nickname. But I can’t say that I blame the people for coming up with that name, especially since I left my trademark at every place I robbed.
It was a compulsive action, I couldn’t help it. You see, what I did was, after a successful burglary or robbery, I would write my name in oil on anything that could easily be lit up. For example a carpet, or a curtain, perhaps some bed sheets.
For years, I plundered every house that had valuable items hidden inside them. I liked robbing and stealing, but ever since I started doing it, I didn’t have any purpose in life. I had no goals, no achievements, except for one thing. Jason, do you ever have the feeling that you never really achieved anything great, anything you can write home about? Be it at work, maybe in your social life or in a relationship?’
I didn’t respond to her. She spent forever reminiscing about the places she robbed, the precious items that she stole. It’s very hard to remember the details to every theft.
I still held the knife in one hand, my finger touching the tip of it.
‘Okay, that does it! You’re not listening to me!’ she shouted at me with a touch of anger suddenly in her face. She reached for the phone which she had hidden under the pillow next to her.
‘No, no, no! I was listening. I was just thinking.’
She held up the phone and I had the knife in my hand, waiting for her reaction.
‘Yes? I’m listening…’
‘Alright, alright. Before I met my wife, I didn’t have the feeling that I achieved much in my life. Sure, I had a good job. Sure, my life was in order. But my wife was the achievement I needed to complete my life, okay? There it is.’
She slowly lowered the phone and I lowered my knife as well.
‘That’s sweet. I never cared about relationships in my own life though. I simply didn’t feel that it was my purpose in life to make that special connection with someone. No, my greatest achievement was to rob the biggest house in the entire land. The richest woman of all time lived in that house, and she was surrounded by all the wealth she had collected over the years.
And I decided to make my life complete. One night, I snuck inside the house. It was a heavily guarded building as one would expect. I brought one of my fellow colleague thieves with me. We studied the house for a while and we found the perfect access point where it was completely dark and where there were no guards if you could time it well. So we climbed in through a window on the second floor. Once we were in, we looked around and everywhere we could see, there was gold, silver and jewels!
Of course we could’ve stolen the stuff that was in the room with us, but we wanted to see what else was kept in the house. We snuck into several rooms and noticed that none of them were even furnished. There were only riches. Riches everywhere.
Until we entered the sixth room on the second floor. We opened the door and there she was, the owner of the house. She sat in a chair made out of solid gold. The room was also unfurnished, just like the rest of the chambers. The woman looked at us and asked what our purpose was. We didn’t reply and she got out of her chair. She called us thieves, burglars and said that she’d rather die than that she would give up any of her wealth to us. I knew she was going to raise an alarm as soon as she could… I ducked down and picked up one of the solid gold bricks that lied on the ground. I threw the brick at the woman without thinking it through and I hit her right on the forehead.
The woman fell down on the floor and in her fall she dropped a diamond she was holding. It was bigger than any jewel I had ever seen. My colleague who had been watching me, picked it up and was just as astonished by its beauty as I was. She told me we should get out of the house, before anyone would notice that we were there.
The diamond wasn’t important to me though. It was the burglary itself and I wanted to leave my mark. I grabbed my small canister of oil from my belt and lit a match. I looked around me, but there was no furniture or anything to burn something in the room. My colleague told me to hurry up. I looked down to the ground and realized what I had to do. Without hesitating, I drew my name in oil onto the unconscious woman and dropped the lit match.
I do regret my actions of that night. But I had to leave something that would prove my presence there. It was my first murder. It was also my last.’
She finished her story and sounded very satisfied. This meant that there might’ve been a chance that they would set my wife on fire… My wife. Poisoned. Or burned.
‘Did you like my story, Jason?’
I sighed and buried my face into my hand.
‘No, Annie. No I didn’t. I’m very sorry, but I don’t enjoy hearing stories about killers, and… and poison and fire, while there’s someone out there who needs me. I am sick and tired of your fucking test!’
I shouted to her, I lost my cool. I stood up and threw my knife into the table in front of me.
‘Take it easy, Jason. Don’t ruin this for yourself,’ she said as she looked up to me.
‘Excuse me, but I think I have the right to lash out here. Up until this point I have been calm, and I’ve done what you said. Well, I am so tired of it!’
I started pacing around nervously, my eyes were focused on the knife, my hands put in my sides.
‘You know what? Fuck your test. If you don’t tell me right now where my wife is, then you’re going to be the first one to go down, Annie!’
I grabbed the knife in a moment of frustration and desperation. I looked at Annie and noticed that, just like Rose, she closed her eyes. I walked up to her and grabbed her by the hair. It was as if I was holding a dead body, she didn’t struggle and didn’t even resist.
I held the knife to her throat and when I was about to speak, I suddenly heard my wife’s voice again.
‘Baby, please… Don’t do it… They know what you’re doing in that house!’
I turned my head and I saw the first woman holding my phone. Her eyes full of the same emotion I saw before, the one I couldn’t place.
‘Sweetie, talk to me… Are you okay? What are they doing to you?’
‘I… I don’t know. They haven’t done anything yet. But they say that they know what you’re doing. I can’t see anything. But please listen to them, trust me. They say it’s over for us when you do what you’re about to do. Jason, what are you doing?.. Please be careful…’
I hesitated. But then I lowered the knife and let go of Annie’s head. She dropped down on the floor, but didn’t make any sound or movement. The woman hung up the phone.
‘Sit down, Jason. You’re not the one in charge here. Annie explained it very clearly to you before. We stick to our word. Mind your temper Jason, or this is has all been a monumental waste of time for everyone.’
Reluctantly, I sat down and pinned the knife into the table again.
‘I swear, if you hurt her, you’ll pay.’
‘Yes, yes, I’m sure that you’ll make everyone pay. But need I remind you that we won’t do anything to her, unless you step out of line? You’re the only one who could be the reason for any harm to come upon her. Remember, we’re watching.’
I looked at Annie and Rose.
‘Well, not them obviously,’ she continued after she noticed me looking at the two women.
‘Get on with it,’ I sneered at her.
‘You don’t trust easily do you?’ she asked me.
‘I have a hard time trusting lunatics and kidnappers by their word. So no, I don’t trust easily.’
‘Well, you don’t have any other choice than to trust us. Now, there’s something you must know about me. I too have been the victim of kidnapping once. So I know how you and especially your dear wife must feel.’
‘Then stop this! Stop it now!’
‘I can’t do that, this whole evening has been set in motion already. Now listen, Jason, my name is Marianne and I can safely say that I’m the oldest of the ladies in this room. It was in the first decade of the 18th century that I met the man who has haunted me ever since that moment.
One evening, I was on my way home when a man approached me. The sight of the man sent shivers down my spine. It still does when I think back to it. He wore a long cloak and he had an awful haircut. He had strings of hair popping out of his head. I think there were 6, maybe 7 plucks of hair, all combed backwards. It seemed silly to leave that few hairs on your head when the rest was already bald.
He asked me if I wanted to have a chat with him. Naturally, I refused, but he kept saying that he must insist, every single time I declined his offer. The man was about a head taller than I was and I felt threatened by his presence and his behavior.’
…I stop writing for a second. There’s a sound, coming from the far end of the corridor, distant at first, but slowly getting louder. It is the sound of footsteps. It’s the first sound I hear that sounds different from the regular environmental sounds, like the wind outside or the loud clicks of the light. I get off my bench to look at who’s approaching. Yet the corridor is dark as usual. I can’t see anything. The footsteps get closer and the faintest noise of breathing rises through the clacking of the soles. I don’t dare to speak up, I merely stand there and listen.
When the footsteps almost have passed my cell, the sound stops. I focus as hard as possible, but my eyes have never before been exposed to this much darkness. I can’t see a thing. I stand there for minutes, trying to catch a glimpse of what just passed my cell.
As I stand there, all of a sudden I feel a slight breeze rush into my nose holes. The foul stench that is accompanying the rush of breath makes me stumble backwards, realizing that the… thing stood right before me, looking at me, inspecting me as if he was able to read my every thoughts just by looking into my eyes. I back away towards the bench.
The breathing continues and I don’t want to hear the sound any longer. As I’m about to speak up and ask the person to reveal himself… or herself to me, a male voice coming from the same direction breaks through the wall of silence.
‘Jason… 79 years… 5 granted. Thankfulness.’
The words blow through the cell door and fill the room. 79 years? Thankfulness?
What does he mean by that? I want to get up and ask, but the breathing stopped before I got the chance to stand up.
‘Hello? Are you still there?’
No reaction… I walk to the bars to make another attempt at seeing the man, but it is futile. Although he has to still be here, I’m sure of it.
FLASH! The lights in the entire corridor light up for a split second, before immediately turning off again. The sudden amount of light blinds me, yet the silhouette of the man clearly lit up before I lost my eye sight by the explosion of light. I try to get the flash off my retina and right when it’s almost gone, another flash fills the area. But this time, there’s no silhouette…
Unsure of what I just saw, I return to my bench. I rub my eyes and try to understand what happened.
79 years… What… Well, back to my writings. Where did I leave that pen?..
‘I started to run. I wanted to get away from the man. As I sprinted down the dark road, I looked behind me multiple times and it surprised me that he didn’t follow me. I went home as quick as I could. My husband wasn’t there. He told me earlier that week that he would be gone for a little while. He said that he had to go to another town. Something about an important trade.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I was all alone in the house. All I could think of was the man in the cloak. How he constantly stepped in front of me when I was about to pass him. He seemed so abnormal, the way he dressed and his hair… And the things he said. All he said was: ‘Please, I insist.’ Over and over again. The greedy, aggressive look that he had in his eyes… argh even now it freaks me out!
I got out of bed and went to the kitchen to drink some water. I sat down and buried my face in my hands with my elbows on the table. The words of the man just wouldn’t go away, they kept flowing around in my head. His voice, calling out my name. Marianne… Marianne…
Until I opened my eyes and realized that his words weren’t in my head. I looked right in the eyes of the man. He was in my house, sitting right in front of me.
‘Marianne… Would you like to talk with me now?’ he said.
It scared me so badly that I jumped up out of my seat, tripped and fell over backwards. My head smacked against the wall and I slowly slipped into unconsciousness.
I honestly don’t know how long I was out for. It felt like weeks. But when I woke up, I wasn’t in my house anymore. I was tied up. My hands were bound to a steel pole in the middle of a square, empty room with a door on each side. And there he was, right in front of me. He sat on a wooden chair with his hands on his lap, looking at me intently, studying me. He had a book in front of him and every now and then he would start writing things down. I couldn’t see what he was writing, but I assumed he was writing about my behavior and the movements that I made.
‘I see you’re looking at my book, Marianne. I like to write things,’ is what he said.
‘People are afraid of me. Do you know why that is?’
His voice was very neutral, there wasn’t a trace of emotion to be found in it. I didn’t want to reply to him. My eyes were tearing and I tried to loosen myself from the pole I was bound to.
‘Would you like to write in my book too, Marianne? I can let you, but only if you truly want it. In this book I keep my observations of people. I write down their emotions when I talk to them, or even when I see them look at me while I’m walking outside. I’m not a bad person, Marianne. But people judge me by my looks. But… this is just who I am. I like to look like this. Stop struggling, you’re not going to get loose like that.’
Realizing that he was right, I sighed and stopped moving my arms. I looked at the man in desperation while tears ran down my cheek. I begged him to let me go…
‘You don’t have to beg. I just want to try something out with you. Something I came up with by myself. I wrote it down in my book as well, if you want to read it. But first, I need to try it. You can read all about it later of course. Right, now. I am going to untie you, but before I do that, I’m going to give you some options, okay?’
I nodded and continued listening to him.
‘So, I noticed that you’ve been looking around a lot. It’s in my book already too, I wrote it down. And as you might’ve seen, there are four exits out of this room. 3 doors will lead to death. Only one of them will lead to safety. And I’m going to tell you which exit to take as soon as I’ve untied you..’
I asked him if he was going to let me go, just like that.
‘No Marianne, I am not. I’m placing before you a choice and it’s not a very easy one. While I am still very angry about how you treated me, I can’t keep you here forever. And I’m not a fan of cleaning up bodies either. I’ve had to do that before. But before you leave, you have to ask yourself. Are you willing to place trust in the man who kidnapped and threatened you?’
I wasn’t willing, obviously. The man wasn’t sane, he held a grudge against me and he had to dispose of bodies before.
‘So, are you ready?’
The man got out of his chair, closed his book and walked towards me.
‘Be careful out there,’ he whispered in my ear as he was loosening the ropes, ‘the door on your left will lead to your safety.’
I came loose from the pole and I looked into the man’s cold, dead eyes. My face was mere centimeters away from his. He grinned at me while I was feeling the grating wounds on my wrists caused by the rope. From the corner of my eyes I could see the door open. I looked to my left and saw the dark corridor that stretched out behind the opening. There wasn’t anything to see besides blackness. I turned my head to look at the door to the right of me. The corridor was just as dark as the other one, yet in the distance I could see lights and illuminated houses. I didn’t doubt my choice for one moment. I pushed the man away as hard as I could and started running towards the door on the right. I didn’t consider the other two doors, I just needed to get to the houses in the distance. As I ran into the darkness, I looked behind me and saw the silhouette of the man standing in the door opening. I turned my gaze forward and ran as fast as I could to the houses.
The lights came closer and I knew I made the right choice. The darkness slowly faded away and the area became brighter with every step I took. After a little while I arrived in the small village, the room I escaped from disappeared from the view. I went to the first house that had light shining through the windows. I arrived at the wooden door and wanted to knock as hard as I could. My fist flew through the cold air… and air was the only thing it touched. I didn’t believe my eyes and I tried to touch the door, but I couldn’t feel it. I let my arms wade through the door, through the walls and windows, but the more I touched the illusion, the more the house started to vaporize, its visuals slowly taken away by the wind.
Panicky, I turned around to go to another house and before I realized what happened, I saw a knife flying through the air… I got stabbed many times that night by the man whose last words to me were that I should’ve trusted him.’
She sighed as she finished her story. I listened to it intently. Unlike the other women, she didn’t yet close her eyes. I looked around the room at the other women. The one called Annie was still on the ground, Rose had her eyes closed. The other ones still didn’t move a muscle, their eyes still following my every move. My wife’s voice wouldn’t leave my head.
She said that they knew what I was doing in the house. That meant they were watching me. I started looking around the room. If they were watching me, they would’ve placed a camera of some sort in the house.
‘Jason, do you understand why I know how you must feel now?’ Marianne asked me.
‘Uhu,’ I replied to her while I kept looking around the room for anything out of the ordinary. I was convinced that they had placed a recording device somewhere, that’s probably also why they cut the lights and lit those weak candles, so I wouldn’t see it that easily. I got up from my chair and started walking past the bookcase, my fingers touching the surface of the wood. I heard Marianne’s voice behind me, asking what I was doing. I didn’t respond to her question and continued touching the shelves.
‘Jason, I must ask you to come back here. It’s my turn now.’
An unfamiliar voice addressed me. I let my eyes flow through the room, past the bookshelf and the TV which I recognized in the darkness by the orange light that was burning, indicating that it was on stand-by. I walked back to my seat and rubbed through my eyes nervously, knowing that I was being watched. My heart was pumping harder than normal and my hands were sweaty. I didn’t know how much longer I could sit there, listening to those women. Goodness… fire, poison or a knife. With that thought in mind I turned my attention to the 4th woman, noticing that Marianne now too closed her eyes.
‘Hello Jason, I’m Iris and I was happily married once. I had found myself a man who would go through fire and flames to protect me. He did everything for me. We had been together for years and all was well until one warm sunny morning in October.
The sun was shining brightly. The rays of light shun through a tiny opening between the curtains. It felt really nice and warm. I turned myself around to cuddle up to my husband, but all I could feel were sheets and the matrass. I found it strange, because he would never leave without saying something to me first. I always would pretend I was asleep when he said sweet things to me in the morning… but I heard them.
I got out of bed and went to investigate. Perhaps he was in the kitchen, preparing some breakfast. But when I entered the kitchen, he wasn’t there. Puzzled by his sudden disappearance, I sat down on my chair in the living room. And I waited. And waited. But he never came home. So I went to my friends’ house to ask if she knew anything. Perhaps she had seen him that day.
It was in the late afternoon that I knocked on the door of the house. My friend opened and as soon as she saw me, she immediately embraced me.
‘Thank God you’re okay,’ she said.
I didn’t understand what she meant. Why wouldn’t I be okay?..
It was then that she told me she had seen my husband earlier that day, in the morning. He was apparently walking around anxiously on the edge of the town with an axe rested on his shoulder.
‘Listen, don’t go look for him. I found this note a few hundred meters away from where I saw him.’
I took the note that she held in front of me and read through it.
–Your sister has been killed. Come find me at the borders of the town. I’ll be waiting for you there to help.–
I asked my friend if she had spoken to my husband, but she hadn’t. She didn’t dare to. His face appeared to be full of rage, his knuckles turned white from gripping the axe too hard.
Concerned as I was, I ignored her advice about finding him and I ran towards the location that she described. When I arrived, I could see my husband from a distance. There was a woman talking to him. I came closer and as soon as she saw me she turned away, and sprinted into the forest that grew on the border of the town.
I didn’t think anything of it, until my husband turned around and looked me straight in the eyes. His eyes were filled with rage… and sorrow. He approached me slowly and started to talk to me.
‘You…’ he said, ‘You thought I wouldn’t find out?’
I was confused. I couldn’t find any other words than ‘I’.
‘You never liked her, did you? You hated her. I could always hear it in the way you talked with her. And the way you looked at her. You wanted to be her. Yes! You were jealous of her. So jealous that you killed her!
The sudden stream of accusations surprised me. He really thought that I killed his sister.
‘And you used this axe, didn’t you? Her blood is still on it… Look at it… Look at it!!’
I started to slowly back up as he came closer to me.
‘And guess where I found it? In our shed. Coincidence? I think not.’
Slowly I pointed to where the woman had run off to and asked him who it was that he spoke with. I assumed it was her who wrote the note.
‘She told me all about it. How you hacked and how you slashed.’
He reinforced his every word by taking another step in my direction.
‘You got home late last night. I could hear you rumble around in the shed. It was you. After everything I’ve done for you… How could you do this to my family? How could you?!’
In a moment of panic, I started running away. I didn’t know what to say to him, he seemed so convinced that I killed his sister. But I didn’t. I had no idea how that axe ended up in the shed.
The moment I ran off, he started to chase me, out for revenge with a blood thirst in his eyes.
I wasn’t used to running, so there was no way I was going to be able to outrun him. I could hear his breathing and his footsteps quickly coming closer and I knew that I couldn’t stay away from him for long.’
Something didn’t sit right with me. I was thinking… what did I miss? During her story, Iris didn’t look right at me anymore, she got so caught up in her own story that she started looking just past me.
I had to think that night through. How were they following my every move? I needed to retrace my steps. After I entered the house, I went upstairs. I came down. Turned on the TV, went to have dinner and then this whole ordeal started. Yet something wasn’t right, something was off.
Off? No, not off. Stand-by! The television! I put it on stand-by when I was at the dinner table. That was it. The light was burning red then, but what I saw before Iris started her story was a light burning orange!
I looked at Iris who still was talking and describing her chase. I got up from my chair without making much noise and walked towards the orange light that was shining in the other part of the room.
‘He started swinging his axe and I could hear the swoosh it was making as it cut through the air. He was so close that I could almost feel the metal touch the upper layer of my skin.
All of a sudden a screaming pain went through my ankle and I fell over. I could see the shadow of my husband as I raised my head up from the ground. Slowly, but steadily I turned around and I looked at my ankle which had the axe cleaved into it. The man who was standing over me pulled a knife out of his belt and pulled me up by the collar of my clothing.
‘You shouldn’t have done this,’ he said to me as he put the knife to my throat. I could feel the metal on my skin, closed my eyes and waited for what was to come.
A sound then rumbled through the area, echoing for seconds. After the echo faded away, I could feel that the pressure of the knife reduced and my husband’s grip loosened along with it. With his entire weight, he fell on top of me. His forehead touched mine and I could feel a warm liquid running down my head. I opened my eyes and looked straight into a dead man’s glazy and empty stare.
I screamed and pushed him off me. I got on my feet, struggling to stay up. Limping, I put a few meters between myself and the body before turning around to look at what went down.
My husband lay dead in the sandy road. Not far away from him stood another man, a pistol with a smoking barrel in his right hand and his other hand tucked inside his pocket, hiding a rectangular object. He didn’t look in my direction. He simply stood there, looking at the body he just shot.
I wanted to call out to the man and thank him for his help. But as I took a closer look upon him, I realized he didn’t deserve it…’
Another sigh flew through the room.
‘That was quite the story huh, Jason? I bet your wife would’ve loved to hear that one. Jason? Where’d you go?’
‘He’s over there, by the TV.’
A fifth woman answered Iris’ question. While she wrapped up her story, I went to the television to check out the orange light that was shining. I had a short time to inspect what it was. Just as I suspected, the light didn’t come from the TV itself. There was an object placed in front of it. I took it off the TV table and pulled loose what seemed to be a cable of some kind. I still couldn’t see it very well. As soon as I grabbed the object, I could hear the 5th woman’s voice.
From the corner of the room where I was standing, the candle lights illuminated the faces of the women. I had spent a few hours with those women in the room, yet I didn’t get accustomed to their eerie, emotionless faces. I could see that Iris had now also closed her eyes. The woman next to her, all the way on the left of the couch was staring at me. Never did I understand why each of them only spoke one at a time. I walked closer to the couch and my chair and stepped into the light.
I had reached the point where my fear turned into anger. Knowing that I found the device that kept me at a disadvantage, knowing that I destroyed the connection, gave me strength. That was what my wife meant… that’s how they knew what was happening in the house. Of course they couldn’t see anything in the darkness, but they could hear everything that was going on.
‘I found your little device near the TV…’ I said to her. ‘Have you been filming me? Have you been watching me?’
She looked at me, confused.
‘I… I don’t…’
‘Is this how you communicated with the ones who hold my wife? Is that it?’
She stared at me. I knew I had her right where I wanted her. The tremble in her voice gave away her insecurity about the change of the situation.
‘Jason, my name is…’ she started talking, but I didn’t want to hear it anymore.
‘I don’t care what your name is!’ I shouted at her.
I slowly walked closer to her. I held the device in my hand, the candle light illuminated it and I knew for sure that I was holding a camera.
‘The last hours, I sat here, listening to the morbid, disturbing and farfetched stories that you 5 threw in my way… And I’m tired of it. So tell me. How are you going to communicate with your accomplices now?!’
With extra emphasis on the last word I threw the device on the ground and stamped on it. The woman on the couch still only looked at me. Her expression didn’t change. The same emotion I saw in the eyes of Marianne showed in hers, yet it seemed stronger.
I walked up to her, grabbed her by the hair and pulled her off the couch on her knees. She didn’t struggle, yet she kept her head straight. I reached for the knife I stuck into the table and put it close to her neck.
‘Now, you are going to tell me right now where you psychos are keeping my wife!’
‘I can’t tell you, Jason… it’s not how it works.’
‘Listen to me. I’m changing the way this test of you works. Either you tell me where you are holding her, or I will kill 4 of you and take one of you with me to the place. And I can make it there before you all decide to finish your test. I’m sure that your fellow psychos will figure out that the connection was cut, but without some kind of struggle preceding the cut it’s easy for them to believe that it’s the result of some faulty wiring. Now. Tell me!’
She didn’t say anything back to me. She simply sat there, waiting, hoping that I wouldn’t do what I was about to do. There’s only so much pressure someone can take. And I had too much that night.
‘I’m going to count to 3. You know what will happen after 3.’
I looked through the room and noticed that the women had suddenly all opened their eyes again as if they were afraid of what was going to happen. Yet they didn’t look at the woman sitting on the floor, they were looking right at me.
‘1…’ I said as I glanced down to the knife. No reaction.
‘2…’ Still nothing… No word from the women on the couch either. I turned my eyes towards the woman on the floor. She still laid in silence.
Realizing that the room was completely silent after the final number I called out, I closed my own eyes and pulled the knife…
The head that felt so heavy before, turned lighter as soon as I made the cut. Kilograms of weight turned into mere grams and as I opened my eyes I saw that the hair I was holding in my hand vaporized into thin air. That which was a woman before, turned into… nothingness.
Unsure as to what happened, I looked up and saw the other women on the couch. Down all their cheeks rolled a single tear. I glanced at the knife and noticed there was no blood on it.
‘What the hell are you people?..’ I asked them again.
But nobody responded.
All of a sudden I felt some movement in my pocket. I took a few steps backwards and reached inside. I felt the vibration of a phone, my phone! Quickly and anxiously I grabbed it out of my pocket. Without looking at the screen, I picked up.
‘Baby… Is that you?’
‘Jason, what have you done?’
‘What do you mean, what have I done? Are you okay?’
‘No.. I’m not.’
‘Wh-what are they doing to you?’
‘Nothing Jason, nothing… They’re not doing anything. But he is. He’s doing the same thing he’s been doing for over 300 years.’
‘Marie… What are you talking about? Who is he?’
‘I’m so sorry, Jason. I was just looking for a way out. We all were… You had to be patient, that’s what you had to do. That’s why you were picked. But you couldn’t…’
While she was talking, I could hear her sobbing. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. It made no sense. I was pacing around the room while listening to her.
‘Darling, it’s going to be alright. I’m coming to find you, okay?’
‘No, Jason. Don’t you get it? All of us have to go. We have to, it’s his test. We all failed it.’
A short silence followed over the phone line. Until she spoke up again.
‘…I have to go now. He’s coming. Sorry Jason, truly I am.’
I wanted to say something to her, but the connection stopped. I tried calling her again, but it went straight to voicemail. Everything happened so fast. Desperate, I turned towards the couch again to speak with the women, but there was no trace of them anymore. Instead, a man in a dark cloak had appeared on the couch. The candles illuminated his pale face. He was staring at me. In his lap laid a book. He was writing in it without even looking at the pages.
‘What’s going on?..’ I hesitantly asked him. He stopped writing and closed his book.
‘You failed the test. They failed the test.’
‘What does that mean…’
He got up from the couch without replying to my question. He walked around the table and started to put out the candles. As he moved to the final candle, he replied to me. Total darkness surrounded us as he left his disturbing statement.
‘It means your fate has been decided.’
I lay down my pen and put my head against the wall. I’ve been writing for a few days now. Every time I remembered something, a detail of what happened that night, I wrote it down. But I still don’t understand where I am. And I have no idea if my wife is safe… Oh, Marie… what have I done?
The man with the book. He said to me that I failed. My wife said I failed… It wasn’t until I wrote it all down that I put the link between the man in Marianne’s story and the man that appeared in my house. But who is he?
‘Who is he…’ I mumble.
A sound, other than my voice cuts through the silence and I turn towards the corridor.
‘You’ve seen him in here, haven’t you? And out there too… Not many of us have.’
Surprised by the sudden question, I walk towards the metal bars of my cell.
‘Seen him? You mean the man with the book?’ I ask her. A moment of silence follows my question…
‘The man with the book you call him. We call him the warden. Not many of us have seen him. Neither when we were alive, nor when we were here.’
I try to see the woman who’s speaking to me, but the corridor remains as dark as usual.
‘You know, I… I mean Marianne, was the first one to ever meet the warden. It was more than 350 years ago that he started his tests. I remember the story so well. Marianne was the very first of his test subjects.’
Marianne… She was one of the five women in my house.
‘Marianne? Wait… You know her? Do you know something about the night at my house too?’
‘I know a lot about her, Jason. And about Annie, Rose, Iris. And yes, about Marie too… I’ve seen it all. Jason, I was there the night you got taken.’
A bell starts to ring in my head. She’s the fifth woman! The woman I tried to kill…
‘You’re the 5th woman… I put my knife to your throat, didn’t I?’
‘Yes… yes you did. My name’s Elizabeth. I never got the chance to apologize for the situation I got you into. Jason… I truly am sorry that you are locked in here and I’m very sorry for the night at your house.’
The woman didn’t make any sense. I need more information. I need to know what happened and I have a strong feeling that she can explain everything.
‘Wait, wait… You were at my house? Then what are you doing here? Where are we now anyway? Who are you? And who the hell is the warden?’
‘Alright, Jason. I realize you need some help figuring out why you’re here. Consider this my story then. Only this time there’s no test. There’s just you, listening to what I have to say. I’m sure it’s easier for you now, knowing that there are no lives at stake here.’
‘First off, let me answer your question about the warden. As I said before, more than 350 years ago the warden first appeared with his tests. His test subject was Marianne. As you heard from her story, she didn’t survive hers.
She got taken and was imprisoned. She was given 61 years, with 10 granted.
Now, the warden is a vile creature. Even to the ones who have seen him, it’s still unknown what he is exactly. Is he the devil? Is he a god of some kind? Nobody knows. It isn’t clear to anyone why he puts people to the test and locks them up if they fail. You, me and all the other women you saw that night at your house have been tested in the past. Most of them even multiple times.
Earlier, I heard the warden pass by your cell and give you 79 years with 5 granted. I’m sure you’ve been wondering what it meant?’
‘I have,’ I replied.
‘Most of the prisoners here didn’t understand what the warden meant with it. You didn’t either… But I’m sure you have come up with some theories, haven’t you?’
‘I figured 79 years was the number of years I had to spend in here. But the 5 granted I couldn’t place… I thought maybe it had to do something with parole, but why would someone who puts people in prison like this be using a parole system?.. It doesn’t make sense.’
‘Parole… You’re not far off though. You see, the prisoners are granted a chance of getting out of here. A chance in the form of a test.
Jason, do you remember the story that Annie told you? Annie was given that chance, or should I say… Marianne was given that chance.’
I look into her direction with a confused face. Then I realize she can’t see it through the darkness.
‘Whoa, hold up. You lost me there. What do you mean with ‘Marianne was given that chance?’’
‘It sounds weird, I know. The warden gives people a chance to… redeem themselves as it were. They’re given a chance to get out of here, but the only way they can get released from this prison is by doing a test. A test, just like the one you got. Only this time, they get to be the tester.’
‘But what does Marianne have to do with Annie?’
The area went silent for a moment.
‘You don’t think the warden will let anybody out of his prison without having a backup plan, do you? No, he’s too clever for that. When the warden first stabbed Marianne, he made sure not to trap her body in his prison, but instead he trapped something more important, something far more valuable…’
‘What was it?’
‘Her soul. Marianne was dead after he stabbed her, there was no way he could keep her body alive in the prison. Yet her soul kept on living. And that’s when he decided to continue his tests and keep on collecting souls in his prison. He gave Marianne 61 years of imprisonment with 10 years granted.’
‘Then what happened?..’
‘After so many years in a dark cage, with nothing to live for, you take every chance you get of getting out of it. After 51 years, the warden came to Marianne and offered her a way out. On one condition… she had to find a new test subject within 10 years back on earth, test the person and make sure he or she passed the test. Only then would she be released.’
‘Just like that?’
‘No, the warden doesn’t let any soul out of his cell until the moment of testing. So he made Marianne an offer. He would split her soul and let that soul go to the world of the living in her place to find the test subject. The soul would then be too weak to return to a human form and escape on its own.’
‘And Marianne accepted?’
‘She did. What else could she do? And that’s where Annie comes into play. She is part of Marianne and she is the one who got sent out to find a subject. But finding a subject is the only thing she had to do. The warden still models the tests, every part of it. And just like everyone in this prison, she was given a specific element to test on. I’m sure you can guess which one that was…’
‘That’s right… Once the subject was found and the test was prepared and put into place, Marianne could join Annie in the test. Unfortunately, the woman in the house who possessed all the riches there was to possess, would rather die than get split of a single part of it.’
‘But it’s an unfair test… I mean… what’s yours is yours, right?’
‘The warden has a sick mind. He puts people in situations they don’t have any control over. It wasn’t fair to have you listen to 5 people’s stories either when your wife was in trouble. Neither was it fair to test Iris’ husband for forgiveness. But we couldn’t say anything… I saw you look into our eyes so many times, Jason.’
I suddenly know which emotion, or emotions rather, I saw in their eyes. A mix of desperation, fear, compassion and guilt.
‘So all the stories that you told… actually happened?’
‘Yes. Naturally certain details of the stories changed, but the tests were real… After Marianne and Annie failed theirs, another 61 years passed until the next test. Of course you remember Iris’ story. Then after that was Rose’s, who had to test loyalty.
And all parts of the soul were there too. The three women who were tricking her man into being disloyal were Marianne, Annie and Iris. Another unfair test. After that it was my turn to be the tester, but I’m not going to bother you with the details. And then, finally…’
‘It was Marie’s turn…’
I finish her sentence without thinking. It’s hard for me to believe that I spent 10 years with her, while she was only there to provide an exit for herself. I turn my head away from the corridor and place the back of my head in between two bars. Behind me, Elizabeth continues to talk.
‘Your test… was patience. That was the one I got assigned, that was the test I sent part of me back to earth for. And that’s why there were 5 women on your couch on the night of the test. And 1 woman missing. All 6 the same person, all part of the same soul. I know I’ve apologized to you before. And I know it won’t help anything, but you have to understand that I’ve tried my hardest to make sure everything would be fine. If you had passed the test, I could’ve gone back to earth to live with you, as Marie. She was the last soul after all. And then all of us would be free. All 6 of me… And all 7 of us.’
‘Are all parts of your soul in here?’
‘Yes they are. The split is permanent… Unless you pass the test. Then all splits will be undone and you will get released in the form of the last soul. In my case, I would go back as Marie.’
I ask her the only question that’s left on my mind right now. If you spend such a long time with someone and you would be prepared to go through fire, or to kill for that person, it would at least be nice to know if I was just considered a tool… or if there was more to it.
‘Did she… or, you… ever really fall for me? Or was I just there for practical reasons?’
Once again, there’s the silence. This time it’s longer than before… Until her answer finally arrives.
‘I always loved you… It was so hard for me to continue this… test. And I was counting down the days I had with you until the day of the test. I couldn’t help it, I really couldn’t. I would’ve stopped it if I could. The whole test was set in motion and I never meant for you to end up in here.’
I return to my bench to write everything down that has been said. Even though it’s still hard for me to believe the entire story and all that has happened in the past days, I’m willing to accept it. It definitely beats any theories that I could come up with.
The warden, I saw him twice. He told me my sentence and my test. I understand it now.
79 years, 5 granted. My test: Thankfulness.
Well, I’m not going to condemn an innocent soul to this prison. The warden can fuck off for all I care. There is no way in hell that he is going to get any new prisoners through me.
I escape my own thoughts and turn my head towards the corridor.
‘I still love you. Please hold my hand…’
Even though I’m here by her doing… I can’t escape the feelings I’ve built up during the past 10 years. I failed the test, sure enough. I didn’t trust the people in my house and I wasn’t patient enough. The least I can do is learn from my mistakes. She explained everything to me. Elizabeth… Marie… She was a victim of the warden just as much as I was. I could be mad at her, but what’s the use?..
Although I can’t see her face in the darkness, I can’t help but still feel attached to her. After all, everything I did that night, I did to secure her safety. I walk towards the bars again and sit down. I put my arm through the bars and grab her hand.
I know it seems stupid and I understand that it’s not Marie in the cell opposite of me, it’s Elizabeth. Yet their souls are connected. They are part of each other. They are the same. I know that Marie can feel my touch as I hold Elizabeth’s hand. And I know that she can hear my every word as I close my eyes and reply to her.
‘And I still love you.’
The prisoner in cell 2014m once wrote that he wasn’t going to condemn anyone to my prison. That’s what most say once they figure out the way my tests work. Strangely enough he has held on to that thought longer than anyone I’ve ever put in here.
It has now been 64 years since his imprisonment and I can see that he’s contemplating going back to earth to try and free himself. Ah… yes. It’s because of that prisoner that used to be in cell 1953a. They have gotten pretty attached to each other since they met.
It hit me after I read his book. That’s why he wants to get out. That’s why he’s changing his mind. 3 years ago, prisoners of cell 2014a, 1953a, 1892a, 1831a, 1770a and 1709 managed to pass their test. I never thought that would happen. I suppose that those who have been here long enough have gotten used to the rules and have gotten used to my methods. Well I think it’s about time I change my methods then.
Good luck, Jason. You’re going to need it.
I’ll end the story, not you!
He sits at his old wooden table. His chamber is lit by candle light as always. In front of him lay 8 books. 7 closed, 1 open. He doesn’t even realize that he’s talking to himself.
‘Yes… this will make a good novel. I have to put their stories together. I bet he’ll love that. I might let him read it, but only if he really wants to. I better find some good entries,’ he says before he starts to flip through the 7 books that lay in front of him.
‘Oh… this is a good one. I’ll put that there. And then… hers. I’ll have to start with his story, that’s the basis. Oh yes, this will be great. Too bad he’s not good at remembering dialogue. Oh but I can use hers… And hers. Their stories are marvelous… So much more detailed than his. This is what I was looking for. Oh… I don’t really like that part. I’ll have to do something about that. He might not like it as much though… I just have to make sure I follow his story. That’s the most important.’
The warden has spent days compiling the 7 stories into one. He was more motivated than ever.
‘Ah… I need to start my new tests soon. Good thing I already have an ending for the story. Should I tell him? No, I shouldn’t.’
He starts flipping through his book to find a specific page.
‘Where did I write it down again? Aha! There it is. That will fit perfectly. Let me just rip that part out… and put it there. Perfect. Now it’s done. My best so far.’
With those last words, he closes his book and writes the title and his name on the cover.
‘It’s finished. My best so far, you can read it. It documents my work perfectly,’ he tells me. He gets up to pick up a new, empty book from his bookshelf. He sticks it under his arm and slowly walks out the room into the darkness, on to another series of tests.
I get up from my chair and sit at the desk. The stories that are told in the book that lies in front of me are very familiar to me. As I read through it, I realize it isn’t the warden who is responsible for the chain of events that is described on these pages. It is me. I made all that happen.
He came to me once. He said that he wanted to make me an offer. He asked me to find a victim for his test. What he asked me that one night he showed up inside my house, sounded too good to be true. Find a subject for his test and be granted… immortality. A deal of a lifetime he called it.
So I did. I did find him one. I told him that my wife would be perfect for his test. A few days after that, I told my wife that I had to leave town for a few days to take care of some business.
Well.. the warden kept his word and granted me immortality. However it wasn’t the immortality that I had hoped for. He put me in this room, where he spends most his time writing and compiling stories. I’ve tried to escape many times, but every time I failed. I’ve already filled many pages about my futile attempts in my own books. I won’t write them down again, not here at least.
I am the only one who knows why he does his tests. While most prisoners call him the warden, his true name should be the collector.
I’ve read many of the books from his large bookcase. All of them are filled with the stories of his prisoners. Thousands of pages full of misery and despair. But this book is personal. I am the one responsible for the start of this story and so I will be the one to end it, not him!
And I want to end this story by saying that I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Marianne.