's 2016 Horror Write-off:

The Prison Game

Submitted by Joseph Hartman (email)

If there's one thing you've learned since you began your travels, it's that the world doesn't run out of experiences. Every new country is a new breath of fresh air into your life, each person you meet a kaleidoscope of perspective.

You don't know where the money came from, and you don't really need to know. Asking why it came in bundles of wrinkled bills and senselessly assorted change would be an insult to how it's changed your life.

Changed you.

Because while all of those new experiences are well and good, simply traveling ends up feeling... pedestrian, after a while. You start looking for something new. Something exotic.

And those things are easy enough to find; Look for key words: 'discerning' guests. 'VIP' ticket. 'Off the beaten path'. Catch the eye of the right person, say the right words. 

And you're off.

The northern border of Italy. High up in the Alps, there's a door in the side of a mountain. There's a local man who can take you there, living alone in a hut at the base. He doesn't speak english, but money is the universal language. You talk to him with ease.

You sometimes wonder if the person who keeps giving you this money wanted you to visit these places. Perhaps, in their mind, treading the ragged edges of this world was the greatest luxury.

Perhaps they're right.

Inside the door, there is a small prison, a wretched place of concrete and metal. No more than eight cells. The old man who brought you here couldn't tell you the history of this place, but you'd already heard all you needed to. 

This was an emergency outpost, to keep important prisoners of war. For some reason, the soldiers manning the prison had to abandon it. Probably for something petty, like a retreat order.

But they left the prisoners behind, and they slowly starved behind their prison bars. They could have screamed, but no one would hear them. No one could find them.

Local legends say that the spirits of the dead still haunt the place. Spooky. But not why you were here.

See, there was a small detail that your contact mentioned, in that seedy Swiss bar. Pristine and preserved, except for age, of course, she'd said. Not a scratch or a dent or a crack anywhere.

So in other words, no sign that the prisoners ever attempted to escape.

The other seven cells were occupied by other discerning guests. The guide closed the cell behind you, and you sat cross-legged on the ground. 

A stone box with a metal lid, no bed or toilet to be found. Dry stains, discolored and faded, were all that remained.

It didn't take long for you to memorize your surroundings. So you closed your eyes. Time to get comfortable. After all, you'd be here forever.

Everything went quiet. Acutely aware of the other seven, still in their cells. You draw in a ragged breath. Of course they're still there. You hadn't checked to see if they were breathing.

Your stomach hurts with hunger. Starvation. Lips cracked, from the dry and the cold. Oh, the cold, cold enough to kill bacteria. When they find you, your corpse will not be rotted. It will be dried and desiccated, like a mummy in prison garb.

If they find you. You're screaming, only on the inside. To make noise would be to disturb the others, and to hasten your own end, as if each cry was a flame on the wick of your throat, burning down to your heart.

With death so close, you can't help but cling to each heartbeat. With death so close, you have never been so protective, so desperately aware of your own life.

They're still here. After all these years, they're still prisoners.

The man opens the cell door to let you out. It's been about fifteen minutes.

Sublime. Rapturous.

Truly exotic.

Maybe you'll come back next year.