“Mr. Taylor, how do you do? My name is Mr. Trent. I’m the Lead assigned to your Experience.” Trent walked in, extending his hand to a rumpled Mark Taylor filling up the entirety of an oversized chair. “Has someone offered to get you something to drink?”
Mark nodded, “Yes, thank you. I mean, they offered… but I said no. Maybe I should have some coffee?”
Mr. Trent shook his head slightly.
“I… I didn’t sleep much last night.” Mark added nervously.
“Is this room acceptable?” the other man asked.
“Uh… yes. I guess. I didn’t really understand what they were asking about the rooms.”
“We offer several different environments for your Experience. We suggest the environment in which you would likely feel most comfortable.” Mr. Trent explained.
“Oh, well, this one is fine.” Mark said looking around. He laughed once, “It looks like my shrink’s office.”
Mr. Trent looked at Mark intently. “I can show you some other rooms.”
“No… no, this is fine. Listen, I’m kind of worked up here. Can we, you know, get to it?” Mark asked.
Mr. Trent gestured to the chair Mark had vacated and sat across from him on a couch. He opened the large file in his hand. “Mr. Taylor, I… “
“Can you call me Mark? This is starting to feel too…clinical.”
“I can call you Mark, certainly, but this Experience is not going to be easy no matter what I call you. I must tell you, my primary job is to give you your money back.”
Mark was confused.
Mr. Trent smiled and shut the file folder slowly, “I know, with all the money it costs and the work we have had to do so far, why would I try to get you to take your money back? Mr. Tay… sorry, Mark, this Experience always seems like a good idea but it is often more traumatic than most people expect.”
“I know this, I know all of it…you guys already fed me all this bullshit when I gave you my money in the first place. I know what to expect, I just need to… know, you know?”
“I understand that you believe you’ve thought this through, Mark.” Mr. Trent’s deep voice dropped another octave. “But no one is ever prepared for the result.”
Mark rolled his eyes and sat back forcibly in his chair. “I know all this. I know… “ he said, exasperated.
“Please, Mark, hear me out. You have questions you want answered. If they aren’t answered, you’ll be even more lost than you were before you went through with this. I suggest you form your own answers and walk away now.”
Mark, growing impatient, glared at Mr. Trent. Getting here had taken a lot of money and a lot of effort on many people’s part; he was dismayed by the delay.
“In addition,” Mr. Trent went on. “We’ve found that…”
“Why are you doing this?” Mark asked abruptly. “After everything I’ve been through, everything that’s happened, why are you sitting there doing… this?”
Mr. Trent’s demeanor changed. He looked about the room as if someone was watching. The paperwork emphasized there would be no recording of any kind in the Experience Rooms. Trent made a decision to be as blunt as possible. “Listen, Mark, when Dr. Attenberg perfected this technique twenty years ago, our company saw dollar signs so far into the distance we needed a telescope just to know where to put the decimal point. Look at this place.” He said swiping his arm through the air. “It’s a castle. And every brick was laid before the first case went live. That is how sure we were of what we were on to. And we did it; we make money hand over fist. But at what toll? Last week a gentleman pulled open a window and threw himself out of it before his assessor could get to him. One year, a couple sold everything they had – excuse me, gave it away – and no one has seen them since. Let’s not forget the woman who famously drowned her daughter in the bathtub not two months from her Experience. This is where it starts, Mark. This is where the Experience starts.”
“If you’re so sure I’m going to light something on fire, why offer it?” Mark asked angrily.
“We’re a private company listed outside the US. We have no federal regulations, we owe you nothing but what you’ve paid for. But I guess you could say some of us are starting to grow a conscience.”
“Grow it on someone else’s dime.” Mark said evenly.
“All right.” Mr. Trent sighed. “Now, you have two options: I have a transcript of the last 15 minutes or I have the microchip with the actual recording. My advice is to take the transcript and read it; we seem to have less…reaction to the transcripts. We would be able to refund a portion of your payment if you choose the transcript.”
Mr. Trent sighed. “Very well. Shall I lower the lights?”
“That’s not necessary.”
“I’ll be right outside. The recording will begin in approximately ten minutes. Please take that time to breath deeply and relax as much as you can. If, at any time, you change your mi…”
“No. Play the recording.”
Mr. Trent nodded and stood slowly. He opened the door and glanced back at Mark once more, “I’ll be right out here.” With that, he shut the door.
Mark got up from his chair and lay down on the couch Mr. Trent had vacated. He placed two pillows under his head and wound his trench coat around his arms as he stared at the ceiling. He breathed deeply as they had shown in the training seminars. He focused on a small crack in the plaster.
His eyes filled with tears – they had only been parents for 3 months; there was no reason to spend this kind of money on the baby’s 15 minutes. But to have 15 minutes of Annie back, 15 minutes of her still alive and here with him; and not just any 15 minutes but the last 15 minutes of her life.
The advice in the information the company had provided was to recreate the last day of their lives together. In the months leading up to the Experience, Mark had run through the day in his mind over and over; he did not feel it necessary to do it now. His mind went to the accident scene, Annie trapped in that mangled minivan they had just bought; the baby thrown from the car. He was glad he had not visited the scene until it had been cleaned up; by the time he got there, the rain from the storm that caused the accident in the first place had washed away the evidence of its crime.
A scratchy recorded sound started from the speakers, sending a chill throughout Mark’ body.
“…each time I tell myself that I, well I can’t stand the pain But when you hold me in your arms, I’ll sing it once again…”
Mark shuddered; it was Annie’s off-key voice, sounding distant, as if down a well. It was eerie, disconcerting. There was no warmth at the sound of her voice; and the image he held in his mind began to skew.
“I’ll say come on, come on, come on, come on and take it…”
Annie was singing at the top of her lungs, he could tell by the strain. There was pain in her voice, although Mark couldn’t tell if it was the recording.
Mark looked around the impersonal room. He had no sensation in his fingertips. This wasn’t right; this wasn’t what he thought it would be. Annie began to speak; Mark could tell the words were in her head because they sounded like someone muffling a phone call. He could hear them but they were hard to make out.
This wasn’t helping; this was not how he wanted to remember her. Mark made to rise, tried to make for the door but he couldn’t. But then Annie spoke aloud; the words were tinny and disconnected, but he could understand them better. As Annie spoke, her voice morphed, twisted, sharpened. He grabbed his ears to block out the sound. The only motion he could make was to rock back and forth.
Annie said a name in her head.
She repeated the name aloud.
She had known.
Mark begged her to stop but could only muster a whisper. Her voice warped further, the words turning over at the sides. He pleaded, but nobody heard and the tape kept running. He could not tell if she was crying; her voice was too far removed. And then she saw her death, their deaths.
“What did you do?” Mark gasped.
Unearthly screams spilled from the speakers. Annie screeched his name in a voice that no longer resembled anything human, and the thoughts she held in her mind as she neared the end of her brief life sliced through him like knives, thrown with perfect accuracy, all at once.
Trent fumbled with keys in the lock. His radio crackled as he shouted into the microphone to stop the playback. The operator asked him to repeat once, and then again.
His words were drowned by the screams of the man on the other side of the door.