Katy Stanton blinked herself conscious, to become aware that she had stuffed herself into the corner of her cell. Wedged between illuminated steel plates, she stared at the console in the middle of the room. Beyond its three buttons stood only another illuminated steel plate wall. She scanned the room, yet again, hoping to locate anything resembling an exit, but, beyond an obvious slot at the bottom of the far wall, the room was featureless save for the speaker holes in the ceiling.
“Mrs. Stanton, you’ve been asleep for a long time.”
The voice was dead, the same dead voice that had welcomed her into the hell hole and explained her options for leaving.
“Are you ready to make a decision and press a button?”
Katy could not decide whether she heard actual glee in her tormenter’s voice or whether it was all in her head. She braced her hands against the walls on either side of her, her wrists still wearing the rope-like burns, and she pushed herself up.
“Who are you?”
“The rules of the game are very simple, Mrs. Stanton. Press any button on the console for your freedom.”
“Where am I?”
“If you press the first button, we will kill your older daughter. Press the second button, and we will kill your younger daughter. Press the third button, and we will decide which of your daughters to kill.”
“What have you done with my daughters?”
“Any button releases you from this room. You will be free.”
For the first time since awaking in her steel box, Katy Stanton stood up. The pain in her right eye and in the back of her skull intensified, but she stood erect, still wedged into the walls. The dead voice rang around the square room, and she found herself backing up, wedging her slender aching body into the corner even more, as if seeking an escape from the voice or perhaps comfort in the confinement of the walls. “Why?” meekly escaped her lips.
She waited, but received no response. There was only the room. There was the console, the non-specific lighting source, the slot at the bottom of one wall, the speaker holes, and her choices. That was the reality of her disbelief. She took a step out, wincing in pain as her red, raw scabbed wrist peeled off against the wall. She slowly paced the room, skirting along the outer walls far from the console in the middle of the room. She ran her fingertips along the wall, only to find smooth, cold steel.
As she reached the end of one wall, her hand ran into the corner between two plates, and the feeling of enclosure ripped her mind from the room to sitting in her minivan, in her driveway, her hand in her purse clutching her keys. Sarah and Beth were in their usual seats, and, behind Beth, her school project — large ant mandibles and all.
“Mom, are you okay? We’re going to be late.”
“Yes, Beth. Sorry, I guess I wandered off there. Have we got everything? Sarah, did you grab your lunchbox?”
“Yes, Mommy!” Sarah Stanton proclaimed with lips that, despite her best efforts, still betrayed her dive into the powdered sugar donuts earlier. Katy could feel Sarah kicking her seat with her red tennis shoes with the blinking lights in the heels.
“Okay, well, maybe I’m not forgetting something. Team Stanton, let’s head to school.”
It was that day. That was the last day Katy Stanton could remember before waking up in this place. Her fingers still wedged into the corner, she withdrew her hand and turned to face the console. She was driving her daughters to school, and now she was facing a console with, apparently, the power of life and death. Nothing existed between those two things.
Katy looked up at the speaker holes in the ceiling, again finding herself suspended in a reality of disbelief. Her right eye socket pulsed, shooting pain deep inside her head. The pain obliterated all thought except one: How does this tormenter connect this steel cell and her morning drive to her daughters’ school?
“Mrs. Stanton, you have not yet pressed a button on the console.”
“I’m not going to press a button and kill my own child, you asshole.” Katy Stanton heard herself, and could not believe her words . She could not access sadness, she could not cry, she could not bargain or beg, she could not understand anything but to lash out. The pain in her wrists, in her eye, and in her head made her nauseous, but not as much as the knowledge of the choices before her.
“Mrs. Stanton, please sit down. For your daughters’ safety, you will do as I say.”
The dead voice had come alive, agitated, almost defensive. It was a small victory, a small level of control, however fleeting, but Katy surrendered that modicum of power, as any parent would, and slid down the wall, surrendering her damaged wrists to her knees.
“Now, Mrs. Stanton, perhaps I have not been clear: we have your daughters.” And with that, the slot at the bottom of the steel plate on the far wall raised two feet off the ground with surprising speed. The view was unmistakable: six legs, two black patent leather tap shoes, two red sneakers illuminated in the back with blinking lights, and two other legs wearing white pants and white shoes, obviously an adult.
“Sarah! Beth!” Katy exploded off the wall, crawling like a wounded big cat, tripping and stumbling as her damaged wrists failed to support her weight. “Mommy’s here!” was her cry as she staggered across the room. As Katy bounced across the floor, her right foot knocked against the bottom of the center console with the three buttons, causing her to fall to the ground with a thud. “I’m here!” was Katy’s cry as she hit the ground, never losing sight of the six legs revealed by the two foot-high opening in the wall. She saw Beth’s legs shifting her weight, crouching down to peer in and find her mother. As Katy finished her fall, with the rest of her weight collapsing and pushing her body forward on the slick floor, she saw the seashell curls of Beth’s hair begin to dip below the bottom of the wall. “Beth! Baby!”
But, as she screamed and called to her older daughter, Katy also saw the stranger’s legs shift his weight, followed by the unmistakable scream of Beth. And, then, as soon as it had dipped below the wall, Beth’s hair withdrew from view. The white trousered legs stepped in front of her girls, little Sarah began to wail, and the slot slammed shut.
“No! No, no, no!” Katy screamed as she gathered herself and made it to the wall. Her hands frantically pulled at the seams of the panel. She dug her fingernails between the wall and the panel, pulling and pushing so hard her nails broke and bled. The dark red scabs on her wrists combined with the bright red flowing from her fingertips in a profane tapestry. “My babies. My babies.” The pulsing pain in her right eye arrowed deep into her skull, gathered power from the injury to the back of her head, and surged through her body, climaxing in her bloody, weakened hands pounding against the wall as she released a gutteral moan.
“Mrs. Stanton, do I have your attention now?”
Katy stopped willing her body to move, but she shook and pulsed uncontrollably as she again slid down the wall, utterly spent.
“Mom,” Beth cried out over the speaker, “Help! Sarah needs her shot!”
Katy snapped away from the throbbing horror dictating her body’s movement. She instantly knew Beth was in the same room as her tormenter.
“Beth! I’m here! Oh, please, oh please,” Katy began to sob and find the resolve and bravery to beg. “My daughter is sick. She needs albumin injections to live. Beth knows how to do it. Please let me talk her through it. I’ll do anything. Please.”
Katy Stanton was greeted with silence. No hiss of empty air from the speakers above. Nothing.
And, then, finally, “Mrs. Stanton, you can do something. You’ve known all along that you can do something. You may press one of the buttons on the console.”
Katy fixated her gaze on the console. It stood four feet off the ground, supported by a thick pillar. The dark gray of its hard plastic base and outer console shell resembled the wall color to such a degree that she could squint her eyes and render it part of the far wall. It was a cruel feature to be able to visually wish it away. The upper console was a foot square, with three small green plastic illuminated buttons sitting atop a black background. There was no text on the console, no direction as to the impact of each button, but, in Katy’s mind, reading left to right, she clearly saw “Beth,” “Sarah,” and “Beth or Sarah” above the buttons. The console’s absence of distinguishing features stood in stark contrast to its quite specific impact.
“Mrs. Stanton, you now have 15 minutes to make a choice. If you do not, I will kill both of your daughters and make you watch.”
Katy Stanton was in a place of three dimensions. Her prison had width, height, and depth. All the same, all cold steel. There was no escape. There was no difference, no matter where she looked. And her tormentor had just added a fourth and crueler dimension: time.