Morbid Curiosity by Thomas Mills

“Do not turn the dial.”

How many times had she heard that voice? The same five words. She attempted to push the phrase aside. Consider something else. She considered her situation. How long have I been here? she thought“Seems an eternity,” she said aloud. Am I experiencing a syndrome? A deteriorating mental state? Is deprivation turning awareness of this dial on the wall into a preoccupation? She wracked her brain for definitive answers. My present predicament might reveal a subject I don’t want to learn about.

“Do not turn the dial.”

Far better…right now, in my present state of mind…in this situation. Concentrate on the bigger picture. Her greatest concern? This apparent incarceration. This claustrophobic cube space. Deprivation. Separation. Isolation. “Who? Why?” She voiced the words to anyone listening. No response. A lack of cogent answers tortured her. But not like the view screen. Insidious. Gut-wrenching. Images of her children playing a few feet away. Oblivious of her. It’s not a window. They’re not right outside. Not in my care. They could be anywhere. Her children, like herself…confined. They jumped around. Laughing, teasing each other. Scattered through a small area inside four, steep concrete walls. They ran up a small rise and rolled down the grassy slope. Entangled arms and legs. I miss them so much. 

“Do not turn the dial.”

She grimaced each time the demanding male voice uttered that perpetual directive. He made no other sound. Unpredictable. Frequent. Sometimes while she slept…he woke her. Sometimes when lost in thought. That voice. Crushing her spirit. Intruding. There were other noises. A stifled laugh. Questions. Like a microphone left on. Unnoticed for a few seconds. She was uncertain. Are they real? Am I imagining them? 

“Do not turn the dial.”

The cube measured ten feet across from wall to wall. She paced it again and again and again. Guessed the ceiling height to be ten feet, based on her 5’4” frame. A toilet sat beside a four-foot tall metal partition next to the view screen. The setup offered a modicum of privacy. A semicircular washbasin jutted from the adjacent wall. Together…they allowed her minimal means for cleanliness. The cube space had no bedding, no towels, toilet paper or soap. She received minimal food. Little water. No utensils. Metal bowls and cups. She’d thrown a bowl against the view screen. Once. Her fury resulted in no food for a protracted period. Small, round lights embedded in the ceiling maintained constant illumination. Always daytime. Never night. Time ceased to exist. The walls, floor, and ceiling were smooth, white, and cool to the touch. It feels like concrete. She’d noticed a small circular pattern of holes in the ceiling above the view screen. The repetitive sentence emanated at random from within. No other sound reached her through the seamless walls of the cube.

“Do not turn the dial.”

She screamed at the two sources of communication in her confinement cube. She spat at the screen. Pummeled it. Paced below the speaker like a suspicious, feral cat and cursed her captors. She breathed in and out. As long as I can breathe…I have one small measure of control. The only creature comfort in the cube was a simple plastic hairbrush. She considered it absurd. Deigned to touch it. A  large mirror covered half the wall opposite the view screen. She could see the dial unless standing directly opposite. The only thing the mirror offered was a reflection of her deteriorating physical condition. She had no need of that stark reminder. 

Her screams and epithets had not gone unnoticed. Of this…she was certain. Sometimes the view screen shared pathetic images of her children at quasi-innocent play. Oblivious of her. A few nervous, furtive, over the shoulder glances suggested her kids were influenced in some way. Why? Are they being held against their will? Or does it represent the difference between the watched and the watcher? I see out. Does someone see in? Does the dial beneath the images infer a means to an end? “BASTARDS! Let me go. Free my children. Why? Why are you doing this?”

“Do not turn the dial.”

She feigned ambivalence. ObnoxiousIntrusive. The phrase ensconced itself in her overall consciousness. It droned on. Repetitive. An overt threat? Goading her to action. Will turning the dial alter my situation? Will I go free? Will something terrible happen? She could not fathom the latter. This dichotomy fostered constant doubt. It permeated her thoughts. The ever-present dial,  centered six inches below the view screen, existed…always in sight…a silent cyclopean intruder.

The dial. A means to an end. Is it a tool of immediate salvation? Or irrevocable destruction? Logic failed her clouded mind. She could not know why, what, or how…she could only react.She’d touched it. More than once. Fondled the dial. Admired it’s black plastic surface and now seductive shape. The dial had attained supreme importance in her sequestered life. The dial had become her penchant. Her desire. Live. Die. Indistinguishable choices melded together. Punctuating her pallid existence.

“Do not turn the dial.”

She turned the dial.  It spun counterclockwise 180 degrees and stopped. Altered her life. Eradicated her life source. Her children ceased to exist. A deafening blast and blinding light filled the screen. She succumbed. Collapsed. Overcome by self-loathing, horror, and loss. Her screams and sobbing coalesced into pure, focused hatred.  She’d wondered if her provocateur would hold sway in the end. She would never turn the dial were the truth known to her. Push too many buttons and the machine breaks. It did. She did.

“The course is progressing Carol. Remember…you volunteered.”

Any semblance of normality in her behavior faded in an instant of agonizing pain. “Screw this!” This must end. Morbid curiosity reigns supreme. “The end defines the means,” she screamed. Still facing the view screen. She rose from her knees. Grabbed the hairbrush and jammed it at an angle against the floor and stomped it in two pieces. She swept the jagged-edged handle up and into the base of her neck. Blood spurted onto the screen and down her blouse. She staunched the blood flow with her left hand. Leaning against the screen she gasped in pain. Then, she drew crude letters on the viewing surface with her blood-stained right hand. They made no sense to the observers. TAR BAL RUOY TON. Sliding into unconsciousness, she slumped to the floor. Paramedics burst through the right-hand wall and attended to the fallen figure.

“The children are safe! The blast a simulation…”

In the classroom, students were gasping. Averting their faces. One shouted…“The letters. Look!” He pointed at the screen. “Look at the mirror. The letters reflect in the mirror. She wrote four words.” 

“NOT YOUR LAB RAT…” read the professor.

A gaggle of students followed those who’d bolted from the classroom. Calling after them the professor reminded the group. “Remember to review your handouts. When you return from break, we’ll spend the winter semester considering the behavioral aspects of insatiable desire. Once again, I’ll require volunteers from class.”

Thomas Mills’ slightly-dark urban fiction employs a laconic, staccato style. He absorbs everything and crafts his personal experiences into occasionally humorous, paradoxical irony. Mills is an author/artist/entrepreneur with more than 40 years’ experience as an independent visual communications specialist. Thomas creates with abandon and encourages others to see the world differently through his writing and artistic explorations. He lives in Michigan with his wife Kathy and two canine companions AbbyCadabby and Sully Theodore.

Mills work has been published by 365tommorows, Literally Stories, Potato Soup Journal, Bending Genres, and 42 Word Fiction. “Parallax” appeared in the Fifth Annual Tournament of Writers-Small Town Anthology V. “Chicken Jumbo” appeared in Potato Soup Journal’s 2020 print Anthology and “Neighbor” appeared in Bending Genre’s 2018/2019 print Anthology.

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