by Stuart Plotkin
My therapist told me that "living through" this abominable event will ultimately help me move on. It took 2 mg of Xanax to calm me down enough to think. I still feel the panic whenever the scenes flash through my brain. I have no control over this.
I was a third- year medical student at UC Medical San Francisco. I felt pretty lonely studying all day, and being shy did not help. Since I used to be a lifeguard in college I decided to teach swimming in the local pool. Maybe I would be able to meet someone? It turned out there was one drop-dead gorgeous girl in my class. After the lesson we used to swim laps together- boy could she move in the water. I purposely swam behind her just to watch her tanned body, snug in a white bathing suit, gliding through the water. She was pure poetry in motion. One day, while we were toweling off, I thought I heard her say that she wanted to go out with me. That was truly a good deal.
Penny was a first- year nursing student. It turns out we had been studying in the same library all semester. She'd had some trouble in anatomy and since I had just finished my cadaver dissection I was happy to help. I grew to like Penny. She was a little shy about her "good looks," and was uncomfortable about men staring at her. She told me she was afraid of "men" because she'd had a fiancé who started drinking and once beat her up badly. Jokingly, I once said, if she were afraid of men, then she either feels safe and comfortable with me, or she feels I'm not a man. Penny laughed at that.
She told me she had to work a full 40 hour waitress job to pay off her debt and pay for school. She had even taken it upon herself to repay her father's entire gambling debt, and the strain of so much work on top of her classes had been smothering her. She finally had to quit last week due to exhaustion and now she was panicking about her loans. She was behind in her payments and losing ground in school. I was spending more time in the library helping her now, than I ever did with my own studies.
She had the makings of a fine nurse. I could tell that she genuinely cared about her patients. I felt I had really lucked out in meeting her.
I still had this vague feeling she had a secret to tell me but was waiting for the right time. The trust was not quite there yet.
I felt comfortable enough with Penny that I told her about my secret. I suffered from panic attacks. When you are in the midst of one, you truly feel like you are going to die. Your heart pounds, your chest constricts, you want to run, but there is nowhere to go. The most foreboding part was the feeling of losing control. My therapist and I came to the conclusion that I had little self esteem and little confidence in myself. Since I was the first born, it was my parent's first attempt at parenting and somehow I felt that I had to be perfect. That meant perfect grades, perfect friends and perfect social skills, an impossible task I had set for myself.
We went out a few times and had a movie date for the weekend. In the middle of the movie, she excused herself for what I assumed was a bathroom break, but she did not come back right away. After a half hour, I started to become a bit concerned and confused. Was she OK? Was I being stood up right in the middle of the movie? Where had she gone? What was going on? The movie ended, and as I was walking out of the theater, she was waiting at the exit looking a little nervous. She said, "Let's go to this party I know about. It's pretty close." So we jumped in the N-Judah bus and went out towards the ocean and the fog. She said very little. This was way out of character for me -- being so spontaneous.
I am not a "party animal" but I actually felt a bit of male pride going to the party with such a pretty girl. You can tell when other guys are checking out your girl. You don't feel anger or jealousy -- quite the opposite; you feel lucky as you glimpse other men scanning down your girlfriend's body. Every square centimeter of Penny was just where it was supposed to be: small buns, nicely sized above, soft, moss- green eyes and gentle brown hair.
I knew no one at the party -- not a soul. It was at an upscale house right on the beach. I imagined the view must be pretty amazing for those few hours a year the sun actually breaks through the fog. I relaxed a little, thinking there was a lot of money here and a lot of shirts with ties. There was the familiar odor of marijuana but no hard drugs. Lots of bottles of wine, about half of them empty. I grabbed two glasses of white wine -- a Chardonnay. It took me a few minutes to find Penny. Déjà vu. Penny was outside on the balcony yelling into her cell phone over the background noise. I handed her a glass. She was clearly agitated. She said she had to "step out for a few minutes". Knowing what had happened the last time she stepped out, I offered to go with her. She looked palpably shaken but I insisted. I couldn't let her go off in that state. In retrospect, it was not one of my better decisions.
Penny took me to a waiting car. It was a black Cadillac with dark tinted windows, and one door was open, with a big man in a suit standing beside it. The car's interior was lush, with leather seats, a small bar, cell phone cradle sans phone, and room for four in the back. It smelled of cigarette butts and scotch. There was a stain on the back seat and cigarette burns around an overflowing ashtray.
A tough-looking guy in a dark suit sat behind the driver's seat. He lifted his chin in a "get in here" gesture, frowning as he caught sight of me.
I looked at Penny for some assurance but got none. I whispered to her, "Where the hell are you taking us?" She shushed me, but I said, "Time to go, the bus is waiting, got class tomorrow." I grabbed her hand and tried to pull her out of the car. But she resisted, and instead, she pulled me back inside.
The driver then violently slammed the door shut and locked it. Nonchalantly he eased the car out and started talking. "Your prettiness is not gonna help you with the Big Guy. In fact, I think good looks is definitely detrimental to your health." Then he said, "Who's the asshole attached to your hand?"
The driver now had my full attention. I couldn't think of anything clever to say. Luckily, I heard my mouth speaking for me. "Driver, take us to 12th and Irving and be quick about it." I thought it would make me appear a little more authoritative than I felt, but my bravado drew zero response.
Then Penny glanced strangely at me. Her eyes had a sad and nervous look to them. She said, "I'm sorry I got you into this mess. It's all about the money." Her anxiety was spilling over onto me.
We drove out of the city for a long time. My only guess was that we were going North on Rt. 101. Penny grabbed for my hand and the motion must have spooked the thug sitting in the back seat, facing us.
Instantly he flashed some metal. It was a pistol and it was pointing at my head. "Whoa" I said as I put my hands in the air. As he relaxed, Penny squeezed my hand even harder. I know it sounds chauvinistic, but I felt very protective of Penny. I also felt we were screwed big time but I didn't know how this was going to play out. When we finally stopped, we were unceremoniously pushed out of the car, and as I stood up everything went black.
I must have been there for a few hours because when I became conscious of my surroundings again, it was light outside. Then I thought -- Here? Where is here? And where am I? And why does my head throb? And whose blood is this on my shirt? It's funny I wasn't nervous at all. It was like my brain knew it was important to be alert and put anxiety aside for now. This was no time for panic. Plenty of time for that later -- I hope, I said to myself.
I decided to take stock of the situation. I felt okay except for my head. There was a little dried blood on my scalp. The epicenter of my throbbing pain was right on top of a bulging knot. No internal pain; just a skinned right elbow and a mild pain in my left ankle. But when I attempted to stand I experienced a sharp stabbing pain in one of my ribs. T-9 had either been broken or badly bruised.
I was lying on a small, impeccably neat cot in what appeared to be a basement. The blood on the pillow was mine -- its location matched the throbbing lump on my head. There were two doors which I soon discovered were both locked, and a bucket in the corner that I later figured out was for piss. The room was spotless. The walls were smooth concrete, and there were lines of holes in three of the walls. Something had been screwed in there. A cage? That thought didn't help the tingling in my spine. The side wall looked as if it once had a desk against it; there was an Ethernet cable running down from the ceiling, a USB cable on the floor under some crushed papers, and a dry ink cartridge. Obviously, a computer used to live down here. Some of the papers had emails printed out. At first glance it looked like porn, but the writing was that of an adolescent. Maybe the owner of the computer was an Internet sexual predator? Another electric bolt shot through my spine. It was not a comforting thought.
So far, no food, no water, and I was thirsty.
Something in the window caught my eye. It was a houseplant, healthy and robust but a bit parched, like me. There was no sign of Penny - none at all. Some blood stained the floor but I assumed it was mine. I checked the doors. One was rock solid, but the other's doorjamb was rotted. I shoulder-butted the door a few times and it finally gave way. There, lying on the cot was Penny. I started to walk in the room when alarms went off in my head. Every nerve fiber in my brain and body turned on. My sympathetic nervous system was on high alert. It reminded me of when Star Trek's USS Enterprise went to red alert. All sensors were on; weapons online, shields at maximum, engines ready and the captain prepared to make the tough decisions. Something was wrong. My nose was the first to notice just a few molecules of an unpleasant odor in the air. I heard my heart hammering in my chest; I could see the pulse in my eyes. Then I saw her.
I started to scream. It was a scream for the dead.
In an instant, I saw everything. Clothes strewn on the floor, the bed sheet crumpled around her. There was blood on her fingernails, blood on the wall, and blood on the axe. Axe? Then I saw her head and I reeled in disbelief and panic. What used to be her face had been split down the middle, one eye on either side, her brain exposed in the center. There was no movement, no life -- but her head!. The image was burned into my brain and shocked my senses. I could not understand I was seeing. Penny's beautiful hair was matted with blood, and that beautiful face, so recently full of life, was now virtually unrecognizable. I struggled to grasp the reality of this incomprehensible scene. On the floor I saw a crimson pool of blood that had not yet clotted. There was a gray smear on the wall. SHIT! I yelled out loud, it was brain. Her brain was splattered on the far wall. Then the smell hit me. It smelled like a butcher shop. The metallic iron smell of flesh and blood permeated the room. My ears detected a sound and my eyes followed the flight of a single fly buzzing over the wound. Another wave of visual information was being processed in my brain. One of her hands was tied to the frame of the cot; the other one was free. That hand had blood dripping from it, but no wound was visible on it. There was also blood surrounding her teeth. Someone else's blood?
Each second my brain was processing gigabytes of information yet it could not issue a single command. My feet were fused to the floor; I couldn't move. And then I screamed. I screamed so hard I tasted blood, my ears popped, and my eyes bulged, yet I continued to scream. Thankfully, my feet slowly backed me out of the room.
My scream apparently got someone's attention. It was the Big Guy, Ralph. He pushed through the solid door with the key in hand. "What the fuck is going on here?" he yelled. "Oh it's you. You know you shouldn'ta gone in that room until we had tidied up a bit. We hadn't decided what to do with you. We thought maybe we would play a bit and release you. But now you've gone and done it. You've seen her. Now we have to rethink this a bit." He stomped out the door and locked it behind him.
I could hear the click and then I heard no more. Who was 'we'?
Let me describe Ralph. Ralph was in his early 40's. He weighed 200 pounds -- not counting another 100 pounds of belly fat. He fitted the medical definition of morbid obesity perfectly- a person weighing 100+pounds over his ideal body weight. He was half bald and tried to cover the bare spot with his remaining hair. He wore a white shirt three sizes too small. The buttons were just about to lose their tenuous hold on their respective buttonholes, and his shirt was stretched tightly around his waist. It was funny: he tried to be obsessively clean, yet he sweated so much it made him smell bad, despite a generous application of Old Spice cologne. His breathing was labored, probably from his obesity and obvious smoking. His face was brick-red and there was a bluish tinge around his lips -- a typical indication of chronic bronchitis. His finger nails were perfectly manicured. His shoes shone beneath his stick-like legs and his skinny neck held up what I would call a "pinhead." His head was a good deal smaller and out of proportion to his body size. He had a blood-soaked gauze pad taped to his cheek and to his right ear.
I wondered how much brain he could pack into that tiny cranium. I wondered if Penny had wounded him before she died, and hoped that she had hurt him a lot.
He returned that evening. After waiting all of those hours in that tiny, locked room, I had become increasingly anxious and angry to the point of defiance.
He didn't look at me but headed for the houseplant muttering something like "All we wanted to do was have some fun. Now look at what she made me do."
He was about to leave the room when I shouted out, "What about me? I'm hungry and damn thirsty."
Ralph slammed the door shut. Two minutes later, I heard the door open.
Food, I thought, but I was wrong.
He tossed a book on the cot. "Interested in medieval torture devices?" he smirked. "Have a look, then, go on."
The book happened to open on a page that revealed an illustration of a grisly mask, clearly designed to cover a human face. Inside were sharp spikes that would do considerable damage when the mask was closed around some poor soul's head.
I could imagine Ralph upstairs polishing such a mask to a sparking shine. Well, he won't intimidate me, I said to myself unconvincingly.
The thought hit me. Why did this happen? How did we get into this horror story? I remember the driver of the car saying something about the "Big Guy." What had Penny done to deserve such horror? I had a vivid picture of the room next to me, where Penny had lain. I remember her purse lying on the floor, almost hidden by her clothes. Could I face my fears and re-enter the room to go and get it?
I steadied myself and walked in, my eyes tightly focused on the ground. I strode purposively into the room, grabbed the purse, and turned to leave. Something impelled me to turn and look at her again. It was a bad decision; the sight made my stomach heave, and I retched mucus and saliva. A great sadness overwhelmed me and I retreated back to my concrete prison, where I sank back into my cot.
Gradually the horrible truth of what had happened started dawning on me. The blood under Penny's fingernails and around her mouth and Ralph's gauze bandages suggested to me he had tried to rape her. She had struggled, scratched, and bit him, and in his rage, he had struck her with the axe. My mind reeled at the horror and desperation of Penny's final moments. I could feel waves of panic overtaking me. My heart was hammering and my stomach knotted up and then knotted again. My breaths came and went in shallow gasps and the hairs on my forearm bristled. I had this overwhelming feeling of impending doom. I was going to die.
Panic made it impossible for me to think. I was afraid of opening the purse, afraid to find out there was nothing helpful in there. I lay shaking in the cot for almost an hour, then finally opened the purse and shook out the contents. There was a paper nail file, lipstick, and a makeup contraption mostly unknown to males. There was also a hankie, papers in a rubber band, a cell phone, charger, and a prescription for Prilosec, a medicine for ulcers. Cell phone? That concept escaped me for a second. I grabbed the cell phone; no juice, the batteries were dead. Then I remembered the charger and immediately plugged it in. I allowed myself the tiniest optimistic thought.
I looked at the papers. There were liens against her, judgments requiring her to pay certain parties a great deal of money, or face jail. I guessed that her debts had driven her underground for a loan. And with no way to repay them she was thrown to the "Big Man." What a terrible price she paid.
The sound of the door being unlocked brought me to full alert. Ralph burst in with a bucket of water, a mop, some cleanser, and a hammer. The hammer got my attention but he barely looked at me. He just shook his head from side to side, and quickly walked into the next room. Through the door I heard him say "Knock yourself out with the cell phone. You'll get no answer from here." Then I heard the door being nailed shut, the sound of the body being dragged across the floor, and cleaning noises.
The following morning I was so hungry and thirsty I ate the plant, roots and all, and filtered any water I could out of the soil. It had a mineral taste but was tolerable. Then I remembered the phone. I grabbed it - it was fully charged. I flipped it open and the phone disappointed me a second time. This time there was no easy fix. No bars, no signal, no sound. Ralph was correct. This was a big defeat and helplessness overcame me. I tried everything to get a signal. I held the cell phone up to the window and to the ceiling. It was no good; there was no service. The phone was dead. And death was looking straight at me.
Ralph came back the following morning dressed only in a bathrobe. His hair was well groomed and his feet were bare.
Fungal infection, I thought -- his toenails were thick, yellow, and crumbly.
He took one look at the window and noticed the lack of plant. Furious, he cursed me and threatened to "kill me slowly." He took out a huge hunting knife and buried it in the door opposite him.
As he retrieved it, I realized I had forgotten to breathe during his tirade. I took in a full lungful of air and apologized profusely in an attempt to mollify him.
I tried to engage him in conversation -- both to calm him down and glean any information I could use to get the hell out of there. He did tell me he had once been a computer programmer but had been fired when his boss found out about the porn. His mother used to run a kennel in this room, which explained the concrete walls with holes in the cement that had held the cages in place. He said his mother had to stop the kennel when many of the animals became sick. She had died five years ago. It was apparent to me that Ralph was behind the animals' illnesses and I wondered whether he had a hand in his mother's demise.
He told me he was afraid of girls but always had someone else in his head who told him what to say. "This other guy in my head, he thinks of all this crazy shit. He just wanted to have some fun with her. This is what she gets for being late with the money. We were just trying to extract a little payment of the physical kind from her; she was broke. But she was so damned uncooperative. She scratched and fought me as if she were possessed by a demon. We finally had to quiet her down with the axe. Then we could get the payment we deserved." Ralph looked pleased with himself. "Now we have to decide what do to with you." Pinpricks crept down my spine and my mouth went dry. I tried to speak, but no words came out of my mouth. At least I knew why I hadn't been killed too. I had been unconscious all that time and hadn't caused either of him any trouble.
Now I knew whom I was up against. Or at least I thought I did until a half hour later.
The door jerked open. Ralph replaced the plant in the window. On his way out, he threw me two packages. One contained a bottle of water, an orange, and a granola bar. I was anticipating more goodies in the other bag.
Penny's head was in the other bag. I mean her skull. There was no flesh, just a skull with a deep crack in the center. It was Penny's skull. I stared into the empty eye-sockets, which those beautiful green eyes had occupied. There was nothing; no sign of skin, cartilage, or brain. Just a white, bleached skull -- my girlfriend's skull. A horrific shriek pierced the silence in the room. It startled me until I realized it was mine. This monster needed to be removed from the living, and I vowed to be his executioner.
Captain Kirk, of Star Trek fame, and I had a talk. He believed there was no such thing as a no-win scenario. "There is always a way," he said. Like the time he brought a whale back through time in a Klingon ship. Well I thought this was just the best hallucination I could have. I was curious as to who I was going to dream up next. The question was answered in my next breath but it wasn't a who, it was a what.
I was lying on the bed staring out the window when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a huge beetle some two inches long. My eyes focused on it but it disappeared. Did it climb under the cot? I took a long look, I was actually looking forward to the company but it was nowhere to be seen. I got back on the cot, assumed my previous position, and there it was again, just at the end of my peripheral vision. I looked for it once more -- nothing. It was then I thought I had to get out the very next time he opened that door. I was truly running out of time I figured the beetle was just another hallucination so I let it go. But then a grasshopper with only one leg materialized, followed by a butterfly with only one wing, and a roach with no legs. The strangest thing was that when I looked at them I couldn't find them. I could only see them out of the corner of my eye. When I focused on them, they were gone.
I thought about my anatomy lessons of the human eye. The two types of receptors in the retina are the rods and cones. The cones are the color receptors and are concentrated in the center of the retina where the lens focuses. The rods sense black, grey, and white only. They are scattered all over the retina but are concentrated in the periphery. The rods are much more sensitive to light compared to the cones. This is why you can see something in a mostly dark room using your peripheral vision but not when you focus directly on it. I thought I had solved this little puzzle.
I had more important things to ponder. My mind kept going back to the deformed insects. No not deformed, mutilated -- mutilated by a person. Each one had been torn apart in a brutal and malicious fashion. Then I saw one climb across my arm but I felt nothing. Nothing was there, I told myself. When I looked at the bug, it was not there. I concentrated on the spot on my arm where I had "seen" the bug. I guess I was staring for a while when, suddenly, there it was. I could feel it on the skin of my forearm and touch it with my finger. It was real. When I stared at where the other bugs were sitting, they too snapped into my reality. Were they looking at me?
Abruptly I started to see other animals out of the corner of my eye. They too disappeared when I looked at them. This blew my theory of overactive rods in my retina because it really wasn't that dark, and even if I couldn't see them directly I should have been able to feel them -- nothing. I thought I wasn't seeing something just out of view but that I was seeing something out of place -- like another dimension. By staring and concentrating on them, I brought them here.
There was a salamander without a tail, a snake without its back half, and then there was a small parade of mice. It seemed the bigger the animal, the harder it was for me to bring them into my reality.
Next, a cat appeared, then a bunch of cats, a rat, a squirrel a few canaries, and a bat. All of them were missing some body part or had been stabbed in some cruel way. These were very hard to bring into my reality, but I did. I noticed that even though there were clipped wings, wounds, and amputated limbs, they all moved normally. I sensed an expectation in their eyes.
I noticed a dog in my peripheral vision. It was a Golden Retriever with no apparent injuries at all. I recognized her instantly. It was Mrs. Peel, named after the old Avengers TV show. Her owner, Louis was a postdoc in the lab I had volunteered in. She was a beautiful Golden Retriever and I remember that she lived for contact with people. If you sat down and didn't pet her she would nudge your hand insistently until you acquiesced. Mrs. Peel had died two years ago. I concentrated hard on that spot. Never had the intensity of my thought been more focused -- and then she was there. My spirits soared. I now had a partner to aid in my escape. Mrs. Peel padded over to me gave me a single lick and nuzzled my hand to pet her. I remember Mrs. Peel as not being a tail wagger even when she was happy, but now she was wagging her tail energetically. I spoke to her. "It is good to see you again, my friend." And I gave her a huge hug.
It was a different feeling now. I needed her and she was here for me. Dead or not she was here and I could not have been more ecstatic.
Now that I had a plan, and 100 allies, my anxiety had disappeared. All that was left was a conviction that the next time that door was opened I would be free or be history.
It was time to put the plan into motion. I pulled down the Ethernet cable and stripped off both ends, exposing the copper wire. One end was attached to the plug from the cell phone charger. I had cut out the DC transformer. All of this was done with my bare teeth and fingernails. I remembered Ralph's barefoot appearance the previous morning and was hoping this was his routine. A watery yellow/blue light was starting to brighten the room. I did a quick check, yep all my allies were still here. I started to pour some water in the doorway but realized it needed some conductance. I poured the rest of the water through the new plant to pick up minerals through the soil. I laid the copper wire in the water and put the plug end near the outlet. The trap was set. It was time to go.
The key turned in the lock and I jumped to my position by the outlet. Yes, he was barefoot. One more step, one more -- then zap, I inserted the plug. And it worked, but it didn't have the desired effect. He did jump from the shock but all it did was enrage him. During that first instant the flying insects buzzed his face, flew in his nose and stung his exposed flesh. A bat circled and picked at his eyes. He swatted at it ineffectually. In the second instant the cat's claws pierced his calf and the squirrel was nipping at his feet. They both drew blood, a thin trickle, running down his ankle. In the next instant I caught a glimpse of a rat running up the inside of his robe.
Ralph jerked over in pain as the rat obviously found its target in his shorts.
My turn. I leapt up, pushing him back, and then I punched him in the belly.
His fat absorbed the blow. I never saw fat move like that. He pushed back with surprising strength.
I turned reflexively to protect my injured rib.
His face took on a freakish appearance. For a brief instant, we were locked in combat but I felt myself weakening despite the adrenaline flowing through me. A stab of panic said I wasn't going to make it out of here alive. Then I saw Mrs. Peel step behind him. She fit perfectly just below his knees. I channeled all my force into one strong push. He fell over Mrs. Peel and I was on him, my hands around his throat. His feet were kicking wildly but then they stopped. I turned my head and saw a translucent Penny sprawled out across his legs, her fingernails dug into his flesh. I was fighting for my life, and now so was Ralph. He was turning blue and making a gurgling sound, his eyes wide with fear.
His fingers desperately clawed at me but all he grabbed was air. Mrs. Peel clamped down on one wrist and another dog caught his other wrist.
He let out a weak, choking cry. My allies were all drawing blood. Captain Picard was standing behind him. I heard him say, "Show him mercy; you can't be judge, jury, and executioner. This man needs help." He was right, of course.
Then, overwhelmed by fury and pain, I broke his neck and snuffed out his miserable life.
Now he had the payback he deserved for torturing, killing, and maiming all the allies that had come to my defense. Nothing could bring Penny back but at least she had her revenge on him for her murder. Poor Penny.
There will be no more pain inflicted by this psychopath. I removed him from the living. I sighed and sagged to the floor staring at the dead man.
I looked around the room and my allies were gone. They had existed just for this moment and now they were free.
Except for Mrs. Peel. She wasn't part of his gruesome tale of gore. She was here for me.
I do feel better for finally getting this horrible experience off my chest. I feel permanently changed, a bit harder and more confident. Sometimes it takes disaster to show you what you are capable of.
I love dogs but they don't live long enough for me. It would be very hard for me to deal with my own dog passing away.
With Mrs. Peel, I have a dog that will stay with me forever. I found a dog that could never die. (again) When I am sitting and reading, with one hand behind Mrs. Peel's ears, other people must think me strange. That's OK, but if they were to look very carefully, out of the corner of their eye they just might see a beautiful golden retriever always sitting by my side.
© 2008 Stuart Plotkin
Bio: Stuart Plotkin lives a boring life as a Podiatrist in New York hence all his pent up imagination has gone into the dark side. His wife Paula, college senior daughter Elyssa, and favorite dog Halley fill up the rest of his life. He does get out once a year digging for dinosaurs which coincidentally is the name of his most recent book, DIG The Search for Dinosaurs. He has also published articles in scientific journals, and is the author of the book The Hiking Engine.
E-mail: Stuart Plotkin
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