Content Warnings: Torture (emotional, physical), blood, graphic violence.
This story is set in 2011.
Zebra’s voice carried, sing-song, through the house, and Katters considered jumping out a window.
Zebra had been bored, lately, and he acted that frustration out in ways that usually ended poorly for her. Whatever he had cooking this time, she wanted no part of it — but before she could even leave the bed, he was at the door.
“There you are.”
“I’m reading.” She held her book up before obstinately settling herself against the headboard.
He walked into the room with the confidence of a pick-up artist on a bus and sat himself on the end of the bed. He had a plastic bag with him, and he let that hang between his knees.
“I want to play a game,” he said, cheerfully.
Katters pulled her feet up, closer to herself, away from him. “Computer’s all yours.”
“No, no, I want to play a game with you.”
“I told you, I’m reading.”
He smiled, producing a box from his bag and setting it on the bed. “Don’t be stubborn. It’ll be fun.”
The box was black and covered in what looked like silk. It opened via a hinge, though there was no latch or any other closing mechanism that Katters could see. She assumed the lid was weighted.
“What’s in it?” she asked, despite herself. She nudged it with a foot, half expecting it to bite her, or explode.
It was heavy.
“I want to play a game,” he repeated.
Katters considered. He would have some way to force her hand, she knew. But she wasn’t going to make things easy for him — not today. She leaned into her pillow, opened her book, and stuck her nose back into it. “I’m reading.”
Zebra sighed and his smile mutated into a faint scowl. Like he’d caught a whiff of something unpleasant, but was too polite to do anything about it.
He opened the box and pulled out a gun. A revolver.
Katters froze. She again thought about making a break for the window, but she didn’t want to do anything that might provoke him. She hid behind her book, instead, subtly. Making it a shield.
He pointed the gun at her like it was nothing, like it was a pencil, or a cigarette, or a knife. Suddenly, he had all the power in the room. In the house. He would like that. Katters wondered if he had counted on her refusal. If this was the result he had been hoping for all along.
“Stand up,” he said. “We’re playing in the basement.”
Refusal meant pain, if not death, so she complied. She stood, and turned toward the basement, even though doubt and worry sat heavy in her stomach.
When they were in the house, they went easy on each other. But there was no need for that restraint in the basement. The basement encouraged excess. Carelessness. Extremes.
It was easier to clean up blood down there.
That was where they kept the medical supplies.
It was very easy to dispose of a body in the basement.
Zebra followed Katters down the dark, concrete steps. There was a time they would have had to take that slow, but years of navigating the stairway had lent them confidence, and they descended at a normal pace.
At the bottom, Katters turned the lights on. The basement was cavernous, with a tall ceiling and far-flung walls, but it was well-lit. Shadows were harsh, but small, in the basement. There was nowhere to hide.
“What are we doing?” Katters asked.
Zebra considered. After a moment, he gestured his gun at another door, across from them. “Let’s get chairs.”
Of course, by “us”, he meant “Katters”, so Katters brought two cantilever chairs out from the laboratory. After more of Zebra’s gesturing, she set them up around one of the autopsy tables. One at the end, the other to the side.
“You didn’t want to cooperate,” he said, motioning for Katters to sit in the one at the head. “So, we’ll have to be a little rough about this. Sorry — that’s just how it goes.”
He kept the gun levelled at Katters’ head, his finger resting alongside the trigger guard. He pulled her arms — first one, then the other — out to the wrist straps on the sides of the table, and strapped her down.
It was an uncomfortable position he’d put her in. The table jabbed into her stomach, the ridge of it pressed against her ribcage. It was difficult for her to hold her head up for any length of time.
Zebra raised the gun, now that his prisoner was immobile, pointing it at the ceiling. He sat in the other chair.
“I don’t like this game,” Katters said.
“Well, you had to be difficult.” He admired the gun. “I just wanted to play with my new toy, and I wanted you to share in that enjoyment with me. I wanted you to share in my enjoyment.”
“Yeah,” Katters said. “Real creepy. I’m super impressed. Scared. Whatever reaction you’re looking for, here, with your god-damn weird, amiable routine.” She tapped her claws on the table. “Can we get this over with? I’m super uncomfortable.”
The gun was suddenly at Katters’ temple, and Zebra’s grip on it was so tight that she could hear it creak. He bared his teeth, his eyes wide. He was trembling.
Then he calmed. He sat back, recomposing himself and smoothing out his expression. He still didn’t look happy, but “anger” was no longer the word that came to mind. Contempt, perhaps. Disgust.
He smashed Katters’ left hand with the butt of the gun. It came down square on her knuckles, and she screamed as he ground it in.
When he lifted the gun, her hand was smeared with blood. It was broken, she was sure of it. At least one metacarpal, possibly more — the pain was making it hard to tell.
Flexing it hurt like a motherfucker and drew fresh rivulets of blood from her torn scales, so she tried to hold it still.
Zebra wiped the gun off with a handkerchief, then lay that over her tense, twisted hand, like a shroud. “Are you ready to behave?”
“Are you ready to go fuck yourself?” she snapped. “Yeah, I’m in a real fucking cooperative mood right now. Go shit on a cactus.”
“Go piss up your mom’s leg.”
Zebra twisted a hank of Katters’ hair in his fist and bashed her face into the table.
He pulled her head back, straining her neck. “I’m trying to be nice.” He sounded weary, tired. “I just want to play a little game with you, and you’re making things much more difficult than they need to be.”
“Fuck you,” she said through clenched teeth. Her voice was strangled — too high. Not at all intimidating.
He kept her head up. Her neck muscles burned and her oesophagus ached, pulled taut as it was. She kept needing to swallow, and that hurt, too.
He set the gun down, right in the middle of the table and right in the centre of her vision. He rested his hand over hers, the one he’d mangled.
“Katters,” he said softly. “Let’s not fight.”
His fingers curled under her palm and she gritted her teeth.
“I just want to play a game, that’s all.”
He increased the pressure gradually, taking her broken hand in his. Gentle, but firm.
“Won’t you play with me?”
He squeezed. Her bones ground together.
She choked down another scream and what came out instead was acquiescence. “Fine!”
Zebra let up but didn’t let go. “You’ll play? You’ll stop whining?”
“Yes, fine, I’ll play!”
He pressed a thumb into her palm — on the surface, a friendly, reassuring gesture. But this distorted her broken bones, and she wailed. A reminder, of how far stubbornness would get her.
“Good!” He grinned. He let go of her hand and her hair, and picked the gun back up. He flipped open the chamber and removed all but one of the bullets.
“No,” she said as he closed and spun the chamber. He couldn’t be serious.
“I’m not playing Russian Roulette with you, Zebra.” She pulled against her straps, but hissed when this aggravated her injury and stopped.
“Have you ever played it before?”
“Then how do you know you won’t like it?”
“Never was too keen on dying.”
“Don’t lose, then,” he said, cocking the gun.
It was an Arminius HW7 — a sturdy gun known in part for having much less firing power than the average revolver, though it was definitely still lethal at point-blank range, as Zebra planned on using it. It was also just over an inch longer than the average revolver, giving it an intimidating — if overcompensatory — air.
He held the barrel to Katters’ temple, and Katters shied away from the cold metal.
“Zebra, don’t,” she said.
“Come now, there’s only a one-in-eight chance this’ll be the unlucky shot.” He paused. “That’s almost a ninety-percent chance you’ll live. The odds are very much in your favour.”
The hammer cracked and Katters jerked away, pulling at her restraints and digging the table even further into her stomach. But the gun did not fire.
“Lucky you,” Zebra said. “I told you, you’d be fine.”
Katters felt cold and hollow, and also like crying. She was relieved and terrified, all at once.
He was serious. It was hard to believe he actually intended to kill her — or, that he was willing to let it happen. It was harder to believe he was willing to let himself die.
The pain in her hand had vanished, though she knew it would be back very soon, and in spades.
“What do you want?” Zebra asked.
“What?” She snapped back to reality from where-ever her consciousness had drifted off to.
“For winning the round. We should have prizes for winning the round. What do you want?”
“I want to not play Russian Roulette.”
“Sorry, no. You already said you would play.”
“I’ll play something else.”
Zebra put a hand on her shoulder and she flinched. “I don’t want to play something else. And, anyway, we’re already playing this. We’ll play something else later.” He squeezed.
“I don’t want to die.”
He frowned, and his grip on her shoulder tightened painfully. “Let’s not dwell overmuch on what you don’t want.”
“I want to not die.”
He let go of her, but not before giving her a disgusted shove. “You get that automatically by winning the round,” he spat. “You’re being uncooperative, again.”
He leaned back, out of Katters’ field of vision. She let her head fall to the table, resting it against the cool steel. An ache was building in her hand. The adrenaline was wearing off.
She had to be missing something. Something obvious. The reality she was seeing couldn’t be the reality she was actually in.
“Let’s see,” Zebra said. There was a long pause while he thought, but eventually he leaned forward again, grinning. “How about we go out for dinner, on me.”
“I can’t imagine I’ll be up for that.”
“It doesn’t have to be tonight. Whenever — for every win you accumulate, there’ll be a standing offer to go out to eat. Where-ever you want. What do you think?”
“I think I’d have to be an idiot to be happy about risking my life for a night at Denny’s.” She mock-smiled back at him.
“I didn’t hear a no,” he said, contemplating the gun. He put it in his mouth, angling the barrel parietally — toward the top of his head.
“No— Zebra—” She moved to stop him but, of course, couldn’t.
He cocked the gun and immediately pulled the trigger — it didn’t fire. He dropped it to his lap, grinning.
“Isn’t that a rush?”
“Zebra — if you die, who’ll untie me?”
“Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that, hmm?” he said, still grinning.
“Okay — we both won. Can we stop, now?”
“Nonsense, there are still six chambers left.”
“Zebra, one of those chambers definitely has a bullet in it!”
He shrugged. He stood up, and for a moment, Katters thought he might set her free. But, instead, he disappeared behind her. She could hear him walking toward the alcove next to the stairs, where the scrubs and tools were kept.
She tried not to panic, pulling thoughtlessly at her restraints. They jangled against the table, heavy metal rings as sold and unbreakable to her as anything.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I won a round,” he said, re-approaching her. “So, I get a prize.”
He stopped behind the chair and reached over her to set the gun on the table. She could feel him arching over her back, stabilising himself with a hand on her shoulder.
“What are you doing?” she asked again as he removed his hand.
He plucked at her shirt. “I want a scale,” he said, conversationally. Then: “I have to ruin your shirt.”
“I’ll replace it,” he said, generous in his sadism. Her shirt fell loose around her sides as he cut it, and soon she was left with just the sleeves.
“What do you mean you want a — ah!”
The largest of the overlapping shield-scales running down her back were about the length and width of a hand laid sideways. Zebra had his thumb at the edge of one and was prying it — just so — up, a feeling akin to someone trying to pry up a fingernail. He slipped the blade of his scalpel under it and started cutting.
He was slow about it, delicate and precise, removing the scale as though he had all the time in the world. Katters clawed at the table and her legs tried, of their own accord, to run away from the man injuring her. Her feet slipped along the floor, kicking the chair backwards, into Zebra, who showed no signs of caring.
He kept the chair more-or-less in place. Planting himself behind her as he worked.
A year later, and he was done. He came around Katters’ side, tossing the scalpel and scale onto the table. The scale had pale and bloody flesh stuck to its underside, in grotesque contrast to the brown polish on the other.
Sitting, he wiped her blood off his hands with the soiled handkerchief.
Katters dropped her head back down to the table. The new hole in her back was just below her left shoulder-blade, stinging and bleeding. A trail of blood ran down and around her ribs, to get soaked up by the ruined fabric at her side.
Zebra was not thorough in his cleaning job. Drying blood remained in the creases and wrinkles on his hands, around and under his fingernails. He put the handkerchief back down and picked the gun back up.
“Next round,” he said.
“It’s not fair of me to take your turns for you,” he said, toying with the gun’s hammer. “Why don’t we try this?”
He twisted her hand sideways, and the sound that ripped itself from her throat was hoarse and tired. He pressed the gun into her palm and the sound rose in pitch, becoming a definite whine. The diamond pattern on the grip dug into her fingers as Zebra pressed them around it, feeding her index through the trigger guard.
He forced her to aim it at herself.
It was an awkward and painful position. To get the right angle, he had her pulling her arm forward, tugging at her shoulder and spreading the wound on her back. The table dug into her stomach, and she could feel her heartbeat against it. Her wrist was bent so severely, she was worried it might also break.
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Katters knew he would make her hold that pose until she fired the gun.
She pulled the hammer back. It took several tries — she felt embarrassingly weak — but it eventually clicked into place.
The smell of metal, and oil, and gunpowder mixed sickeningly with the smell of her own blood.
She tried to will herself to pull the trigger, but the signal was having trouble reaching her finger. She was shaking so much, if Zebra hadn’t been steadying her aim, there would have been a good chance she’d have missed herself entirely, anyway.
Her eyes darted away from it, like she was trying to stare into the sun, and instead caught Zebra’s eyes.
She pulled the trigger.
Zebra let go, and she dropped the gun and collapsed to the table.
“God,” she said. She wasn’t sure whether or not she was praying.
She wasn’t sure whether or not she was cold, either. She was shaking, but everything was very far away, even herself.
Zebra took the gun and put the barrel in his mouth, pulled back the hammer, and the trigger.
“We’ve reached the hump,” he said when the gun didn’t fire. He looked almost disappointed. “There’s a better than half chance that each of the remaining chambers has the bullet in them.”
Zebra frowned and nudged her shoulder with the gun. She flinched away.
“Are you not having fun, anymore?”
She raised her head to stare at him, again meeting his eyes. She let out what might have been a breathy laugh before letting her gaze slide away from him and her head float back down to the table.
“I know what’ll perk you up,” he said, taking the scalpel.
She didn’t respond. He moved around behind her and began peeling away another scale — the right-side to match the left he’d already taken.
This did perk her up, in a way. She screamed — keened — tried to get away from him. He took his time, again, relishing in her pain, and it again felt like an eternity before he dropped the second scale, and the scalpel, next to the first.
His handkerchief was soaked with her blood, now, and becoming less and less effective at cleaning off his hands. He didn’t seem to mind.
There had to be some way to end this. There had to be some way out.
“It’s your turn, again,” Zebra said.
What was it Zebra wanted?
He smiled. “See? You’re learning to cooperate.”
What was he after? Not death, not really. He wanted something else, from her.
He slid the gun over to her, stopping it just under her nose, then reached over and unstrapped her left hand.
“Play,” he said.
She pulled her hand back from the loosened strap, tucking her elbow in close to her chest. Her hand was swollen, but no longer bleeding. Blood had dried around the scales, outlining them — standing out against the paler tone.
She picked the gun up and turned it on herself.
Then she turned it on Zebra.
“Whoa, hey,” he said, standing, his mouth twisting into a nervous grimace. “That’s against the rules.”
She followed him with the gun as he stepped behind his chair and backed away, probably banking on her aim being terrible in her condition. He wasn’t wrong.
“You know where you can stuff your rules?” She also stood, keeping the gun on Zebra while she moved around the table to the side to which her hand was still strapped.
She hesitated, and Zebra stopped moving. He had his hands raised to his shoulders, and was staring at the gun. It was wobbly in her hand, and at that distance, even if she managed to shoot him, she might not kill him. She set it down and fumbled with the remaining strap.
He stepped forward and Katters picked the gun back up. “Stay there. I’ll deal with you in a minute.”
The only exit was behind her, or he’d have already made a run for it. But he stopped, and she unstrapped her wrist. Taking the gun in her right hand, she held her left close to herself. Her aim was much steadier in an intact grip, and Zebra paled.
She approached him.
“What’s the matter, Zebra? There’s only a one-in-eight chance there’s a bullet in this chamber. You should be thrilled at those odds.”
She pulled back the hammer.
“There’s a one-in-eight chance there’s a bullet in that chamber,” he said slowly, “but a sixty percent chance I’ll be shot if you fire it.”
She pulled the trigger and Zebra flinched so hard he fell backwards, yelping and landing hard on his ass. But the gun did not fire.
“What’re the odds now?” she asked, pulling the hammer back.
“Seventy-five.” He got to his knees, his hands still raised. Placating. Begging.
She was close enough, now, to hold the barrel against his forehead, and he made a high-pitched, whining noise as she pulled the trigger. Still, nothing happened.
“There’s two left.” She pulled back the hammer. “You still want to play?”
“No,” Zebra squeaked.
She pressed the gun harder against him and he winced. He was forced back, off of his knees and onto his ass and then propped on his elbows.
Katters lowered the hammer and he relaxed, collapsing to the floor. She flipped the gun around and hit him with the butt of it — he yelped again and rolled to the side, shielding himself with his hands, and Katters hit him again, and again.
Finally, she walked away from him, back to her chair.
“Which chamber was it in?” he asked.
She flipped the cylinder open. “That one.” She sat down, exhausted. “It was the next shot.”
Zebra considered. He sat up, holding his palm to his forehead. He was bleeding, but would probably be fine.
“Thanks for not killing me,” he said.
Zebra brought the first-aid kit into the bedroom. Katters was curled around her pillow and wrapped up in the sheets. Bleeding all over everything. Zebra tsked.
“Sit up,” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed. He had put a bandage over the lacerations on his face, at Katters’ direction.
She sat up, dropping the sheet from around her shoulders but keeping it clutched around her chest, just because that kind of felt like being held. She leaned against Zebra and he scoffed again.
“I can’t reach your wounds.”
“Your wounds,” she corrected. “Technically.”
“I gave them to you.” He pushed at her shoulder until she bent at the waist, laying folded and exposing her back. He started cleaning the injuries there.
She hissed, flinching away from the cold water. “I didn’t want them.”
He shrugged and taped gauze over her back.
“You’re an asshole.”
She pulled her broken hand out from under the sheet and showed it to him. “I can do that one. You don’t have to.”
He grunted, taking her hand — roughly at first, then gently. He started with cleaning and bandaging the cuts on the back. When he was done, he lined a splint up with her forearm and taped it in place.
“We can’t do that again,” she said as Zebra handed her a bottle of painkillers. “I can’t do that again.”
He closed the first-aid kit. “Do you need anything else?”
“No,” she said, wrapping herself, burrito-like, in the sheet. She felt warm, and still shaky, but in a way that was almost nice. The adrenaline had left her system, but now she felt safe and comfortable, instead of tired and scared.
Still tired, though.
“Just—” She closed her eyes. “I’m gonna sleep a minute.”
Katters fell asleep.