Updated: Oct 12, 2020
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“Well, well, well,” said the detective. “It seems you lot have managed to cock up quite a bit in such a short amount of time.”
He was a tall man with dark hair, a wide frame, and a black goatee. He wore a three-piece pinstripe suit fitting the period of Bedside Manor, complete with a lilac bow-tie and matching pocket square. He stood in front of the fireplace as he spoke, one hand on his hip, the other clutching a pocket watch, which he inspected briefly before continuing, “Shall we try this again?”
The rest of us had formed a semi circle around him. Tobias and Loren refused to sit. Nathaniel smiled from his regular spot in the armchair. I sat on a loveseat. Jerry was relaxing on the arm of said loveseat. I didn’t really get a good look at where the others were, but the detective had us all together as his captive audience.
I mean that quite literally. We were captives here.
This group meeting was hardly a voluntary event. No, we fought it tooth and nail every step of the way. When we first saw the detective, when we saw his clothing and realized that he wasn’t a real police detective, when it clicked that this man was just a further extension of the game, we collectively lost our tenuous composure.
Jerry threw a chair. The detective knocked out both of his front teeth. Loren tried stabbing him. She had a busted lip and swollen eye to show for it. Tobias fired the last bullet remaining in his gun, but the detective still broke both of his trigger fingers. I’m not going to even pretend I tried anything valiant. The moment I saw him take a bullet without reacting, I decided not to waste the energy.
The detective pocketed his watch, smiled sinisterly, and said, “As you have no doubt gathered, the mystery of Bedside Manor spans further than any of you anticipated. But I’d like to simplify things. Here is what I propose: Solve the mystery, and you will be free to go.”
Loren scoffed, “Here’s a counterproposal. How about you go fuck yourself?”
Jerry spat another mouthful of blood onto the puddle on the floor and said, “Actually, fucking is a lot of fun. This guy doesn’t deserve it. Counter-counter-proposal. How about you go shit yourself?” Unlike his smile, Jerry’s perennial good spirits were still intact (even though his pronunciation made it sound like he was trying to say, “Tucking is a lot o’ tun. This guy doesn’t deserb it!” But we all knew what he meant.)
I held up my hand and said, “I second that proposal.”
Loren chimed in, “Thirded.”
“It’s oddicial. Sir. Go shit yourselp!”
A gunshot wound did nothing to hurt the man, but he wasn’t completely invulnerable. He could hide it behind a fake smile, but we all knew he was furious.
“I feel confident that this group will find its motivation in time. But until then, allow me to offer a few hints: There is no reason to venture outside the compound. Every action will have consequences. If you miss a clue, you will have a chance to--”
“Ah tuck all dis shit!” Jerry exclaimed, jumping to his feet and charging into the parlor.
“I wasn’t finished!” the detective yelled after him.
Jerry returned almost immediately, a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other. Given the circumstances, I don’t think any of us would blame him for getting his drink on, even if that was a truly counterproductive measure to take. Jerry spat out another mouthful of blood, took a pull directly from the bottle, and winced in pain. The detective snickered and continued, “As I was saying, you will need to hear every clue in order to--”
“Higher than eighty!” Jerry howled, filling the cup to its brim.
The detective snarled, “If you don’t stop interrupting me, I’ll have to put you in time-out.”
Tobias turned and gave Jerry a wink. I didn’t know what was about to happen, but I braced myself.
“What--pray tell--does ‘higher than eighty’ even mean?” the detective asked. Jerry walked up to him and splashed the contents of the drink in his face.
Jerry spat blood again and said, “Anything higher than eighty proop is plammable.”
As he spoke, Tobias dove for the fireplace, grabbed a burning log, pulled it out, and smashed it across the detective’s head. He instantly went up in flames. Jerry lugged the remaining alcohol at the ground. The bottle shattered, and the contents erupted in a tiny fireball. The detective’s skin bubbled and burned as he stepped forward and grabbed Jerry by the throat. I jumped up and charged as fast as I could, but the burning man was too fast. His free hand grabbed me by the shoulder and squeezed with machine strength, tight enough to dig his fingers through the cloth and skin, through the muscle and tendon, only stopping when it hit bone. I couldn’t even scream before he pulled me into the air and flung me like a ragdoll against the wall.
“Fuck!” I shouted, grabbing my shoulder. It didn’t hurt anymore, but the pain from the memory hadn’t yet faded.
Everyone was screaming, yelling over one another from their spots around the dinner table.
“What just happened?” I asked.
“Dude!” Jerry grabbed me into a bear hug. “I thought you were dead! Oh shit, my teeth are back too! I can finally say ‘fuck’ again! Double win!”
Eventually, the chaos settled down, and we were able to take turns explaining how we all died. Evidently, I was the first to go this time around. The detective killed Jerry and Tobias fairly soon after. Wolfgang and his mother made a run for it, but a pack of “eight-legged squirrels” tore them to shreds before they could reach the end of the driveway. Loren, Claire, and Bridget made an honest attempt to solve the mystery, but Jerry’s fire got so out of control that half the manor burned down before the rain could put it out. They sought shelter in the kitchen, but then the doors locked behind them and the room began to fill with water. Nathaniel instructed them to solve a puzzle before time ran out. The three of them drowned about an hour later. (Honestly, it seems like I got off pretty easy.)
The sound of a loud chime echoed through the house.
“The hell was that?” Jerry asked.
Nathaniel answered with a smile, “Ah, goodie! It seems that the detective has finally arrived. Perhaps he can help us sort out this ghastly affair.”
We didn’t attack the detective this time. We didn’t need to. Because this time, we didn’t even open the door. Tobias and Jerry muscled a barricade of furniture against the entrance, then we tied up Nathaniel, rolled him into a rug burrito, and shoved him into the parlor. It was probably unnecessary, but we turned off the lights behind us for good measure.
Next, we all gathered together in the dining room to take stock of our situation.
“Where are we on weapons?” Tobias asked as he pulled out his gun and removed the magazine. “And why am I out of bullets?”
I threw Wolfgang a dirty look, but decided it wasn’t the time or place for this particular battle. “We used them earlier,” I answered.
“So ammo is expendable? That’s inconsistent.”
Loren pulled out the blade hidden beneath her glove. “This is back, but I think we’ve already established it does fuck-all against these guys.”
“Tobias,” Bridget grabbed her husband by the arm and pulled him to face her. “What are these things? Tell us what we’re up against.” The way she asked made me think she expected him to know the answer.
He didn’t say anything. He was still hiding something. Perhaps even something important, but before I could call him out, Claire let out a painful scream and fell to the ground. Loren dropped down next to her, trying to figure out what was wrong. Everyone was talking now. Everyone was distracted. Everyone except for me. Because I could feel what she was feeling. I already knew what she knew. I recognized this buzzing energy in my stomach. Someone was about to die.
I looked at Wolfgang just in time to see him plunge the kitchen knife into his mother’s throat.
She fell in stages. First, putting both hands on the table. The reality hadn’t quite sunk in for her yet. She tried to speak. Blood poured from the wound. Her face turned ghost-white. And then, her legs gave way. I reached her side just in time to catch her. I went to my knees and held her head in my lap. She looked up at me with fear in her eyes. The hilt of the knife moved in tune with her weakening pulse as torrents of blood erupted down the front of her dress.
Wolfgang had already escaped from the room. Hope grabbed my arm and tried to form words but choked on her own blood. She didn’t have long left.
Before I knew it, Bridget was next to me, pushing the fabric of her own dress against the wound in a futile attempt to stop the bleeding. Hope recoiled in pain and dug her nails into my arm. She was crying. Not just from the physical pain. But for the emotional torment. The humiliation. The worst fear realized. Whatever Claire had done to me, it was in overdrive now. My mind was wide open, and Hope’s wouldn’t stop screaming into it.
She tried so hard to be a good mother. She wrestled with this demon for years. She built a wall around the truth, because that was the only way she could survive. Her perfect Wolfgang, her precious angel, was sick. And it wasn’t his fault. There was nothing she could do to make him better, so she did the next best thing. She protected him. She hid the evidence. The graphic drawings. The animal bodies. The truth. What other choice was there?
She didn’t truly understand what “choice” was until this moment, where all choice was truly taken away. It was almost a relief. There was a kindness in failure. Death was a mercy. Now she didn’t have to pretend. She’d done her best. And finally, she was allowed to rest.
“She’s suffering,” Loren said to us. “Why don’t we just… you know? I mean, it’s not like it matters. We’ll just see her again when the whole thing repeats.”
Hope’s eyes grew wide as the surge of terror went through my body like electricity. The last thing she heard before consciousness left her, the final lingering thought in this poor woman’s mind was that obscene reality. She wasn’t free from anything. She was still a prisoner. The idea was too much to bear. I almost screamed for her, but the instant she died, it severed the connection and I came up gasping for breath
There was no sadness left in me. Only pity and anger as I wiped the tears from my face and said, “Someone help me find that kid so I can fucking kill him!”
“Not worth it,” Tobias said as he helped his wife to her feet.
“Why not?” I asked. “I mean, if we’re just going to keep dying and repeating this pattern over and over, what’s the point of saving time anyway?”
“I have a theory about that,” Tobias said. “We all remember dying, right? But we also remember other things. Impossible things. Remove the impossible, and whatever’s left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll bite. What’s left?”
“Our memories are fake. See, memory isn’t some ethereal concept like a soul. No, it’s a physical manifestation--a chemical process caused by amino acid chains within our brains. Find a way to alter that process and you can convince someone that they experienced something they didn’t, or you could make them believe something didn’t happen when it did.”
Loren picked up his thread and ran with it. “You’re implying that somebody got us all together here and implanted the last few days? That we’ve been tricked into thinking we can’t leave and we can’t die? Why?”
He leaned against the table, put a hand to his chin, and stared at the floor for a long, uncomfortable moment before responding. “It might be worse than that. If we’re all victims of implanted memories, the damage could go way beyond just the short-term, last few days. Not a single moment before now can be trusted.” He slowly looked around the room, pausing to give each of us a few seconds of eye contact. Then, he asked, “Do any of you have memories before today that would objectively be considered ‘impossible’? Anything that doesn’t make sense based on our understanding of the universe?”
I looked to Claire. She was already looking at me. I heard her words without seeing her lips move. “Don’t tell him about me.”
Why not? I thought.
“Because,” she answered back, “he would kill and dissect me if he got the chance.”
“No,” I lied. “Nothing comes to my immediate recollection.”
Loren added, “Nothing too out of the ordinary for us, either.”
“Samesies,” echoed Jerry. “I’m just a boring old Instagram model with six million followers.”
“Well,” I said quickly, hoping to end this conversation before he wised up, “what’s the plan then?”
Tobias crossed his arms. “The most important thing we can do is contact the outside world. I can build a crude signal booster for our cell phones, but I’ll need some equipment. We’d probably find everything we need in the kitchen, but--according to our memories--the kitchen is boobie-trapped.”
“So... what do we do?” I repeated.
“We go to the kitchen,” he answered with a smile. “If my theory is correct, that memory was just a device to keep us out of the off-limits areas. If my theory is wrong, we’ll know right away when the room starts to fill with water.”
You’ll never believe it, but turns out, his theory was wrong. On the bright side, he was the only one to drown this time. We tried blocking the door open with a couple of chairs before he went in on his own, but when the door automatically slammed shut, it sliced through the furniture like a guillotine through hot butter. We stayed on the safe side of the kitchen door, trying to communicate through a series of bangs. He and Jerry were both fluent in Morse code for some reason, but it didn’t get us anywhere. An hour later, the banging stopped.
We tried to give Bridget a chance to mourn, but we had already wasted so much time. As soon as she seemed up to answering, Loren gently began.
“Bridget, I need to ask you a few things.”
She was sitting in the chair by the fire, shaking, staring dead ahead. Clearly traumatized, but functioning and just communicative enough. “I always knew something like this would happen.”
“What does that mean?” Loren asked.
Jerry handed Bridget a glass of alcohol. She took a gulp, then said, “It’s Lisa. I knew they would get him eventually.”
“Who is Lisa?” I asked.
“You mean you really don’t know? I thought… maybe that’s what all this was. Maybe you were all from the institute--that you were testing us, seeing if we’d break and give away the secrets.”
That’s when a big missing piece of the puzzle finally clicked into place. Lisa wasn’t a who. It was a what. L.I.S.A.--the acronym for some shadowy organization that Tobias apparently worked for. I knew he wasn’t just some lowly business consultant with a working knowledge of bomb schematics and Morse code.
Bridget took another drink. “He’s been with them since before we ever started dating, but I knew something was wrong. He talked in his sleep. He left papers out, emails open. I don’t know the full extent, but I knew enough to understand what my husband really did for a living.” Her eyes were red and puffy, tears welling up behind the weakening dam. “Tobias was a good man. But he worked for some very powerful people. That’s all I know, I swear.”
Claire took her spot next to Loren, right in front of Bridget, leaned down, and said, “Liar.”
Bridget looked at her in shock. “What?!”
“You’re a liar.”
Bridget shook her head. “No, no it’s true! All of it! I loved him. I… I…” She dropped the glass, put her hands against her eyes, and began sobbing uncontrollably. But then… the sobs changed, morphed into something else… something that almost sounded like laughter.
And then she took her hands away and revealed the huge grin on her face. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve been holding that in?!” Another round of delirious laughter later, she said, “Jesus Christ, I deserve an Oscar for that performance!”
I couldn’t believe the transformation. I couldn’t believe I ever felt sorry for her. “What the hell is going on?!” I demanded.
Bridget pointed at Claire. “Why don’t you ask the psychic? She ought to know.”
Loren pulled her sister back and stood between her and Bridget.
“Oh don’t act like it’s a big secret,” Bridget mocked. “You couldn’t have made it any more obvious. That’s the thing about secrets, sooner or later, they all come out.”
“And what is your secret?” I asked.
She sized me up, then she stood and squared off against me. Suddenly, I felt very weak and exposed, and I knew this woman standing before me could kill me ten different ways if she wanted to. “Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine,” she said.
Claire explained, “She’s a spy.”
Bridget sounded almost proud, “It’s a little more complicated than that, but yes. I think you have the gist of it. Tobias was my assignment. He may very well be the smartest person alive, but like most men, he has one weakness that was very easy to exploit.”
“And LISA?” I asked.
“The Liskov Institute for Societal Advancement. A global think-tank specializing in the application of the paranormal, in lack of a better word. This has to have something to do with it. As soon as the old crone died, Tobias called his handlers to let them know what was happening. He’s too important for them to leave in the middle of a small-town murder investigation. They should have had a rescue team here within the hour, but they didn’t. The only explanation I can think of is that they’re the ones running this thing. Maybe it’s all just a ploy to vet me, or get a confession. If that’s the case, I don’t care anymore.” She held her middle finger to the sky and shouted, “You hear that, you arrogant fucks?! I don’t care anymore! You win! I just want off this ride!”
As she continued to spiral, a thought occurred to me… I was right. Tobias called for backup when we were locked in our rooms. But that was before the first reset. Could the phone call--like our injuries--have been undone?
“I have an idea,” I said.
Bridget fell back into her seat. “Well, that makes you the one in charge, doesn’t it?”
“This might be the stupidest plan I’ve ever come up with,” I said. “But I think it needs to be tested at least.”
“I’m in,” Jerry exclaimed.
“I didn’t even tell you what the plan was.”
“You had me at ‘stupidest plan I’ve ever come up with.’”
“Well? What is it?” Loren asked.
“I think we need to try the landline again. Maybe we’ll get lucky and we can call for help.”
“Knock yourself out,” Bridget said. “But I’m staying right here until this is over. I’ve died enough times tonight. Now I just want to get drunk and sleep.”
Great, I thought. We’re splitting the party again. What could possibly go wrong?
I left Loren and Claire to keep an eye on Bridget and shout down the stairs in case they saw Wolfgang or the detective. When we reached the basement, I held my breath in anticipation of the door slamming shut behind us. When no obvious traps were engaged, I beelined for the phone, took it off the cradle, checked for bombs or needles, then put it to my ear. Amazingly, there was a dial tone. So far, so good. I nodded to Jerry; he gave a thumbs up.
Next, I dialed the number to my town’s sheriff station from memory. It rang so many times I’d almost given up hope, but then someone answered. Halle-fucking-lujah!
“Sheriff’s department,” she said with a cheerful voice and southern accent. I didn’t recognize her. She must have been new. “How can I help you today?”
“Hi, I need to talk to the sheriff right away. It’s urgent.”
“Is everything alright, hun?”
“Not in the least. Please, put me through to the sheriff.”
“I’d love to, but he’s not available right now. It’s the middle of the night, you know. But if you have a message, I’ll be sure to get it to him as soon as he comes in.”
I looked at Jerry and shook my head, No.
He made a jerk-off motion. Not really sure what that was supposed to mean.
“Fuck you,” I said into the phone.
“You went through all this effort to trap us, to build this house, to convince us all that we’re going crazy, and you couldn’t even do your basic research. What kind of Mickey-Mouse bullshit conspiracy job are you running here?”
“If this is some kind of joke, I’m not amused. I’ll have you know that it is a crime to call--”
“The sheriff isn’t a guy, dipshit. Her name is O’Brien.”
The woman on the other line didn’t say anything for a very long time. When she finally spoke again, the accent was gone, along with the good cheer. “What is wrong with you, Jack? Why can’t you just be normal and play the fucking game?! It’s not that hard! I’ll even make it easy for you, since you’re down a couple people. All you have to do is work together and find the attic key before Koda finds you. Simple, right?”
“Who the fuck is ‘Koda’?”
The line went dead at the same time Jerry asked, “Hey, Jack? Wasn’t there a stuffed polar bear in here earlier?”