Thumbscrew

Violet Thayer woke to a bright, merciless light above her that sent razor-blade rays of pain through her eyes and into her brain. God, her head hurt. What had happened? Where was she?

She tried to get up and found she couldn’t. She couldn’t move at all. There was some kind of restraint around her forehead, she realized, strapped painfully tight. Neither could she move her arms or legs. “Hello?” she cried, finding her voice hoarse and querulous, like an old woman’s, which she was.

“Wakey wakey,” called a voice. It was weirdly deep, somehow distorted. The light above her dimmed and she saw that two feet above her head was positioned a complicated apparatus. She couldn’t quite make out what it was for, but it had two nasty-looking drills pointing downwards like accusing fingers. Set above this pair was an iPhone held in a simple clamp, and it was broadcasting via Facetime, like she sometimes did with her daughter in Portland. Even realizing this, however, it took her a minute or two to understand what she seeing on screen.

It was someone wearing a mask, a mask made entirely of curving spirals and spikes, glinting silver metal and black shadows. The mask was dominated first by two large protrusions on the lower cheeks, where the filters on a gas mask would be, and perhaps that’s what they were. Next she noticed the mirrored surfaces of the eyes, which were precisely engraved with black spirals. Gradually she realized that the whole mask was covered in screws, thousands of them in different shapes and sizes, so the mask’s edges were a blurred irregular outline no matter how the wearer turned.

It was familiar, somehow, but Violet’s head still hurt, and she couldn’t wrap her mind around it. “Where am I?”

“Not important,” said the mask on screen.

“Am I in a hospital? Did I have a stroke?” You never knew, at her age.

“Not a hospital. You could say it’s a private facility.”

“Where’s the doctor, then? Why are you talking to me on the phone?”

“Fine questions, all.” The voice sounded pleased. “I see the anesthesia is wearing off. I do my best to be precise about the dose, but I’m not quite a professional, and sometimes I overdo it. Always disappointing when that happens.”

“What do you mean, you’re not a professional? And what’s this thing I’m seeing? Some kind of TV show? Where am I?” Something was wrong. This wasn’t adding up, stroke or no. She tried again to look around. To her right, in her peripheral vision, she saw white walls, a windowless door. To her left there seemed to be another table, with another person on it. “Excuse me! Hello! Are you there? Whoever’s on that bed, are you there?”

“Take it easy!” her observer said. “We don’t want you to tire yourself out. We have important things to talk about. There are decisions to be made.”

She closed her eyes and hung her head, focused on just breathing. “Where am I?” she repeated.

“I’m happy to say that you’ve been chosen to be part of an experiment,” the voice said. “You can regard it as an opportunity. If you live up to expectations, you get to leave here unharmed. If you fail, well, let’s just say you’re screwed.

She looked up, eyes widening, seeing those drills again. They were positioned, she realized, directly above her eyes. All of a sudden she was fully awake, adrenalin spiking through her thin old body. She shuddered once, uncontrollably. “You’re the one they’ve been talking about on the news. That killer, what do they call you? The Screwball or something.”

“They call me Thumbscrew, thank you very much,” the madman growled. “Screwball seems a little undignified, wouldn’t you agree?”

Oh, she was in bad trouble here. She hadn’t been in trouble like this maybe ever, unless you counted when she’d run from Arnie, her first husband, after he’d smashed a beer bottle over her head when she was nineteen. That had been a bad time, too, but this was worse. “What do you want?”

“I want to show the world something essential about the human spirit,” Thumbscrew said. “Namely its utter emptiness. Its pliability. The darkness at its core. There remain those who believe in something righteous at the heart of it all, and I simply detest them. They’re either hypocritical or ignorant, every one, and the damage they do in this belief is simply incredible. So I like to take people of faith and goodness, like yourself, and give them the chance to open their eyes. To accept the reality of the world, red in tooth and claw.”

“Let me go,” Violet said suddenly. “If this is a joke, you’ve gone far enough. It’s not funny. Let me leave now, or I’ll call the police.”

Thumbscrew laughed. “You’re not going anywhere. Not until we’re finished.”

“Help!” she screamed, as loud as she could. “Somebody help! Anybody!” She struggled in her restraints, but she couldn’t move an inch. There was even a collar around her throat.

“There’s no one here to help you,” said her tormentor. “And Violet, the longer you go on like this, the harder it’s going to be for you. On the other hand, if you’ll just do something for me, one little thing, I’ll certainly let you go. Did you notice your friend over there?”

“Yes. But I don’t think I know him.”

“Can’t see very well, can you? Here, let me show you.” The phone cut to an image of a man’s face. He was white-haired, with a goatee and mustache. Not bad-looking. He looked dignified; she imagined him as a professor, or retired doctor. Around his forehead was a band of brown leather, cinched tight.

“I don’t know him.”

“Of course not. Though after today, I doubt you’ll forget him. Now, let’s begin.”

Above her, the drills began turning. They didn’t move fast, maybe one revolution per second. They didn’t look like medical drills. Their metal was dark, stained with what she hoped was oil but suspected now wasn’t. “What are you doing?”

“It’ll become clear. Look at your friend.” On the phone, she saw that there were also two drill bits in the picture there, likewise pointed toward the man’s eyes. And they too were moving.

Her eyes flicked back to the drills above her. Had they dropped, a tiny bit? Were they closer? They were! “What do you want?!” she half-screamed, muscles contorting involuntarily, desperate for escape.

“Feel under your right hand,” Thumbscrew directly. She scrabbled with her fingers, found a little handheld device. She grasped it, found a single button beneath her thumb.

“What is it?”

“Press it and see.”

She pressed it. The drills above her kept right on turning.Involuntary tears slipped down her cheeks. She pressed it again, and saw that while hers were unaffected, the drills above her neighbor’s face whirred to greater life.

“That’s clear enough, isn’t it?” Thumbscrew explained. “It’s sort of a race, really. With each revolution, the screws drop a little lower. If you do nothing, sooner or later they’ll reach your delicate little eyeballs and start doing what they do. Soon enough… pop! Although I seriously doubt you’ll die, at that point. No, they’ll keep right on drilling through the gooey mess until they reach your optic nerve, and while I’m not certain, I bet that’s going to hurt even worse than having your eyeballs burst. Then, finally, they’ll reach your brain, and you’ll die.

“I have to warn you, though: at their current speed, it’ll take at least half an hour or so.

“That’s all hilarious enough, but of course there’s a twist. I love twists, I live for them, really. The twist is that when you push that button, your partner’s screws speed up. They drop faster. And if you hold it down, he’ll be dead in, oh, probably less than five minutes. That’s all it takes: five minutes of pushing a button.

“The game ends when one of you is dead. Whoever lives gets to go free. Do nothing, and you both die. As it happens, you have something of an advantage, because Mr. Wassen here is having trouble waking up. Do it fast, maybe he’ll be unconscious for the whole thing. Wouldn’t that be a mercy? I suppose I should have waited, really, but I was impatient to get started.”

“Why are you doing this?” It was all she could think to say. Her brain seemed stuck on it. Her brain that would soon be just so much pudding under a mixer.

“I told you! You and your goodness, your churchiness! You work at a soup kitchen, you’ve done hospice work, you say kind words to strangers! I’ve been watching you, I hear what people you know say: Violet Thayer, she’s a saint! Kindest, gentlest woman you ever met. She wouldn’t hurt a fly.

“And I say, bullshit! You wouldn’t hurt a fly because there’s no self-interest involved. There’s nothing at stake. But I know that everyone is rotten at the core. Everyone will kill someone else to save themselves. It’s the truth!”

She tried to sort it out in her mind, but all she could focus on were the two drills dropping slowly toward her. They must have dropped an inch already. On the phone, the old man frowned, blinked his eyes. “Look, he is waking up,” Thumbscrew said. “John! Oh, John. You think you’re a goody-two-shoes, you should meet this guy. Runs a fucking animal sanctuary. Literally saves stray dogs and birds with broken wings. I bet he’ll decide to kill you in under ten minutes. John!”

The drills! Their dark metal shafts, their bright silver tips! What would it feel like? The button beneath her thumb felt large as a mountain. It felt magnetic, like it was drawing her thumbtip down without any conscious volition on her part.

Violet, no, she thought then. You know better.

“No,” she told her captor. “I’m not playing.” With an powerful effort of will, she lifted her thumb from the button. Then she let the device drop.

“You’re going to die a nasty, slow, violent death,” he said. “In unbelievable pain.”

“That may be,” she replied. “But I won’t participate in it. That’s what you want, I know. You want absolution. You’ve done unspeakable things, and to excuse yourself, you have to prove that anyone would have done the same in your circumstances, no matter how good they seem.

“I learned that from my first husband. He was always hurting me, and then trying to make it feel like it was my fault, somehow. Well, it wasn’t. It was all him, just like it’s all you now.”

The cut back to the man in the mask. “You’ll both die, then. You’ll be responsible not just for your death, but his too. You’ll be a murderer not once but twice.”

“We’ll both die, maybe, but neither of us is responsible. We’re only responsible if we join you. And I won’t do it. I refuse to share in it. Your violence is your own.”

“You’ll DIE!” he shouted. “You’ll have a drill in your fucking brain! Push it! Push the fucking button!

“No.” Spastically she scrabbled with her fingers, trying to push the button away from her, and succeeded in pushing it off the edge of the table. Above her the screws kept turning.

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