Spooktober Prompt #31 – Horrific Habits
“I’m the Sole Survivor of an Experiment Known as the Soul Paradox”
by Penny Tailsup
This is not a story I wanted to tell.
I’m the sole survivor of a social experiment known as the Soul Paradox. I’ve been in hiding, and though it pains me to say it given the circumstances… “soul searching”.
I’ve been presumed dead for some time. It’s better that way.
When I signed on for the experiment back in 2006, I didn’t have much to live for. Participants were offered food, water, and shelter for the duration of the experiment. There was supposed to be cash at the end, though it wasn’t much.
Participation meant cutting off ties with my friends and family. I had none to start with, which might be why I didn’t see the requirement for the red flag it was. I’d recently dropped out of college. My parents disowned me, angry to be on the hook for student loans while I “amounted to nothing”. None of that matters now.
As I tell my story, I realize there’s not much I can tell you about the experiment itself. This is partly because I was misled about the true nature of the study. Even at the time, I didn’t know what was happening. I’d go in for regular “tests” that lasted hours at a time, but I’d come out with a hole in my memory.
It’s not that I forgot exactly, because I never lost my sense of time. When I try to remember, there’s a black space– a long stretch of blackness with nothing except Time. I remember the Time with great significance. When the black stretch of Time ended, I’d find myself signing a clipboard just outside a door marked “TESTING IN PROGRESS”. I was always tired after.
Aside from the tests, I felt like I was living on the set to some Big Brother type reality show. I remember that much. I lived on location with the other participants. We were given roles and had to go to counseling sessions once or twice a week.
The participants were extremely diverse; Not just race, but also religion. It was impossible not to notice the emphasis on religion. A few people even tried converting me! It didn’t work, though I was always receptive to the discussion. As an agnostic teetering on atheism, I was interested in everyone’s beliefs. Though I wasn’t sure what I believed, if anything, I found it fascinating to listen.
We didn’t have much else to talk about anyway. No one remembered what happened during the tests. We were forbidden from discussing them with one another… Not that it mattered; all anyone could say was “I don’t remember,” and “I’m tired after.”
Another popular topic of discussion was dreams.
If I remember correctly, a Buddhist woman named Chunhua was the first to have recurring dreams. At least, she was the first to talk openly about them. She’d tell us of a dream where she was reborn as a tiger. At the time I found it fascinating, though I had a feeling she was leaving something out.
Soon after this, there was an “incident” where she attacked herself and others. I wasn’t in the rec room at the time, but I heard she’d carved stripes into her skin with a knife she’d smuggled from the kitchen. She attacked three people. I never saw her after the “incident”, my counselor said she’d been removed from the experiment. Three other participants were also “removed from the experiment” at the same time.
By then, I had the sense to be afraid. I feared I’d made a terrible mistake and had suspicions that the doctors were lying to me. They made it sound like Chunhua and the others were sent to a hospital for their health and safety, but I was convinced they were dead. I wasn’t wrong, though the doctors made me feel crazy and explained away my fears as “paranoia” resulting from “sleep deprivation”.
I wasn’t lacking in sleep, but with the testing I never felt rested. The testing started to freak me out more and more. It was mandatory. I’m not even sure how I was forced to do it, I only know the Black Space with a sense of Time and the exhaustion that followed. Exhaustion and fear.
The other participants were afraid too. We all started to have dreams where Chunhua would attack us with wild eyes, bleeding stripes and inhuman strength in her small hands. I vividly remember my flesh between her teeth, and the strange agony of my belly being split open and eaten. The last thing I remember of these recurring deaths was the wet sound of her chewing.
After we “died” in our dreams… we wouldn’t wake up right away. We’d be sent to our respective afterlives for Judgment. The other participants always described being sent to Hell or some equivalent…That’s where my experience diverged.
Having no religion, it was different for me. No less terrible, but different. I wouldn’t go anywhere. What happened to me can’t be explained with words, or feelings, or pictures, or… anything, because it’s not something you can experience with your senses or your mind. Except that I did… in those “dreams”.
The closest I can come to explaining is by comparing it to the Black Space with a sense of Time, except there was no “Black Space”. There was nothing. Nothing is … nothing, not even black. But there was Time. I was aware of every passing second in the Nothing until I woke up. Nothing but nothing, and Time, and an eternal hum I somehow understood to be like “cosmic electricity”, or a “generator”. This would last hours until I woke up, and I’d feel every maddening second of it.
I started to get angry.
I’m angry now, because I know I’m not coming across “right”. There’s no way to explain what I experienced, which is frustrating. But it wasn’t just that; my anger only grew over time… I became jealous of the other participants.
They each had religious revelations… I didn’t. Even when those revelations lead them to end their lives or the lives of others, the certainty and substance that came with their religion was more than I had. At least they had something.
I stopped caring about my suspicions. I stopped caring about the doctors, the experiments, the participants or the tests. I only cared about religion, hoping I might avoid the fate my agnosticism afforded me. I didn’t believe in anything. But I also didn’t… not believe in anything, which I’m sure is what brought me to that horrific trap in Nothing Time.
Of course, with the chaos and death around me I was in no position to try on religions. It wouldn’t have mattered if I could. With what I’d experienced, I couldn’t put my heart and mind into truly believing anything. As much as I didn’t want it to be true, I’d already found my Truth.
By this time, participants were dying in droves. I didn’t die, but… I was mistaken for dead.
One morning, I woke up and couldn’t move at all. I couldn’t even open my eyes. I distinctly remember the sound of the nurse as she came in and said “We have another one!”. She spoke with casual indifference, or maybe resignation.
I was one of many “deaths” discovered that morning.
I know this because I found myself tossed on top of a pile of bodies. With my eyes closed, I couldn’t see them… but I still felt them; clammy, wet bodies that stank of feces and blood. No one checked to make sure I was actually dead.
I was dumped with the bodies somewhere in Michaux State Forest, where I stayed for days in that state of paralysis. The bodies rotted around me, but I could only lay there as the flies bred, fed and multiplied on and around me. The incessant buzzing, blindness and paralysis reminded me of Nothing Time. It was better, though, because even if my eyes were closed I knew things were there. It was better than Nothing.
I could still think, smell, feel and listen. I wasn’t dead, but given where I was, yet another body in a mass grave… I didn’t expect to live long. That should have been the end of me. In a way, it seemed a merciful way to go. I was being eased into Nothing Time with my experience in the woods.
Then one day, the paralysis ended. Perhaps it was the rain… I can’t be sure. I can only say that It was raining when I finally opened my eyes. Mercifully, my eyes were left uneaten by the insects or wildlife, though my arms and legs were riddled with holes.
Though I was weak with hunger, I was able to dig myself from the grave and finally see the spot where I’d had so much time to think. By then, I wasn’t even shocked by the bodies– the bloated, ugly corpses that they were. I recognized them, and internally gave my congratulations. They’d died with answers, after all. There was a certain peace with that. A peace I didn’t have.
Death had been everyone’s answer, but the dread of Nothing Time left me restless. I can’t say I didn’t feel the pull of death. I still feel the urge sometimes, like a reflex to jump in front of oncoming traffic. It was an itch I didn’t scratch, perhaps because I had no god to tell me I should.
I left the bodies and the forest, alive but in a strange state of decay. I couldn’t go public like that. For all intents and purposes, I was dead. I made a home in rural Alaska where no one asked questions. The people who lived there were also trying to disappear.
Unfortunately, the wounds from the Soul Paradox aren’t the kind that can be healed with time. In the time since, I’ve tried and failed to find religion… It’s too late for that. I’ve known since I first experienced Nothing Time, but I still had to try.
I’ve concluded that the only thing life has in common with death… at least for me… is Time. Time is the same whether you’re dead or alive, and now I spend my time keeping track. My tongue ticks out the seconds, flicks at the roof of my mouth. With the constant clicks, I know I’m still alive.
Fearing death like I do, I won’t end myself. Yet I know I need to prepare myself for Nothing Time… The hum of The Eternal Generator. I spend days buried under a loose mound of dirt or snow with my eyes closed. It reminds me of my time in the forest. Corpses rot under my body; my “immersion therapy” in preparation for the inevitable. The buzzing of flies is the closest thing to The Generator’s hum.
One day, I won’t be able to leave the mound. It won’t be my choice that it happens, but I do feel some measure of peace knowing where I’ll rot… and that I won’t rot alone.