Author's note and disclaimer: The reason I gave this an M rating is simple: it made me uncomfortable while I was writing it. I almost didn't even finish it. Now, it's worth keeping in mind that I've never really written anything like this before, so maybe that alone was the source of my discomfort. It may not be as bad as I think it is. In fact it probably isn't. But be that as it may, this is a dark story. The concept is twisted, and the content may be disturbing. I doubt it would give anyone here nightmares or anything like that - if you clicked on an M-rated horror story, I imagine you already know you can stomach this and worse. But, you've been warned. That being said, let me know what you think! All reviews welcome. :)

Essence of Fear

He watched her squirm and took notes…

She lied on a table in the center of the room. He stood at her feet with a clipboard and a pen. He had already filled three sheets of paper, and the night was still young; there was plenty more to see, and he intended to see it all.

The room was quiet except for the sound of her heavy breathing and his pen scratching on paper, dark except for a single light bulb hanging overhead. He would have liked to have more light for this, to see her better and make more thorough observations, but he had to keep the big picture in mind, and for that goal, the darkness was helpful. The meager light left much of the room covered in shadows she could populate with the phantoms of her imagination. Absolutely darkness might have been even better, but he needed to be able to watch her. Otherwise it was all for nothing.

He couldn't let this opportunity go to waste. Not after all the trouble he had gone through in order to procure himself this wonderful muse.

He had so much to learn from her. She would help him more than she would ever know.

His dream was to write a horror story. But not just any horror story. No, he wanted not merely to frighten his readers but to unnerve them, to disturb them. He wanted his story to send children running to their parents. He wanted to give the parents nightmares. He wanted a sense of disquiet and unease to settle over a room at the mention of his name.

He knew he could do it, yet so far his efforts had resulted in complete failure.

No matter how hard he tried, he never came close to capturing the sense of terror which lived so vividly in his mind. He had spent countless nights in front of his typewriter and tore up countless pages in disappointment and disgust.

It wasn't his imagination that was at fault, of that much he was certain. His stories were scary. The trouble was that he couldn't do the stories justice on his typewriter. He couldn't find the words to bring his tales to life. While the fear in his mind was like a dark forest of infinite depth and complexity, all he could muster on the pages was little more than a few rotting tree stumps.

He had tried everything to improve his writing. He had read books, taken classes, and attended workshops, all without seeing the results he was looking for. He had taken advice from every source he could find, but nothing seemed to help.

After many months of practice and disappointment, he decided that he finally knew what the problem was: in his life, he had never been face to face with real fear. He had read it in books, watched it in films, heard it in stories, but he had never truly experienced it.

He had lived a sheltered life, raised under the watchful eyes of his parents, his father a successful doctor, his mother the owner of a real estate agency. He was their only son, and they had always been able to afford the best for him, had always loved him and protected him. Upon their deaths he had inherited their fortune and their house. In this way, they continued to provide for him even in their graves.

His whole life he'd always had everything he needed. He had always been safe.

And that very safety was a poison in his veins, because it meant he had never tasted real fear. He didn't know what it really looked like, how it really felt, how it really manifested itself. Having always had the best private tutors, he could speak many languages, but fear wasn't one of them. How could he write it when it was, in so many ways, foreign to him?

That, he had decided, was the problem. And that was what needed to change. Until he became personally acquainted with fear, it would forever elude him in his writing. His masterpiece would be out of reach.

After much thought, it had finally occurred to him. The solution to his problem. What he needed was a live subject he could study.

So he watched her squirm, and took notes.

He had worried it would be difficult to get her here, but in the end it had been a matter of simply inviting her over. She was a girl from one of his creative writing classes, friendly and naïve, not quite poor but near enough to be easily impressed by his inherited wealth. On more than one occasion she had expressed an interest in seeing his house sometime. When the time came, she had been only too happy to accompany him home one day after class.

Standing on his front porch, she had even thanked him for the invitation.

Now she lied spread-eagled on the table in front of him.

She was naked but for the leather straps binding her wrists and ankles to the table. He had undressed her not for his own gratification but only to enhance her fear. Still, he let himself stare at her body, and he made no effort to hide his erection.

She was still, now, exhausted by her efforts against the leather, but she had thrashed about violently on the table for several minutes while he watched her. The struggle had left her winded and sweaty. He let his eyes linger on her exposed breasts, glistening with sweat as they heaved with her labored breathing.

She truly was a beautiful woman.

And he could see so very much of her. Only her lips and her chin were hidden from him; after stuffing her mouth with a balled up handkerchief, he had wrapped a thick black scarf around her head and tied it tight, covering her mouth and gagging her.

It wasn't strictly necessary. They were all alone in the house, and the basement's walls were soundproofed. No one would hear her scream.

But he didn't want her to have any freedom here. It was important that she should feel utterly helpless. The gag silenced her and stole her voice. Her screams became whimpers. Her curses and her pleas were transformed into gibberish, muffled and muted and meaningless. The last of her liberty robbed from her, she was rendered well and truly powerless.

He, on the other hand, had all the power in the world.

And she knew it. She had to. He never let her forget. He reminded her constantly of his power, reminded her by brandishing his knife, snapping his belt, clenching his fist. He reminded her by touching her as much and as often as he liked. He reminded her with his hands and his fingers and his lips and his tongue and his teeth. Everything he did reminded her. Everything he did assured her that nothing was sacred and nothing was safe.

He cut her hair off just to witness the humiliation and defeat in her eyes as she saw her new reflection in the mirror he held before her. He set her clothing on fire and made her watch it burn. Such was the extent of his power here.

And all the while he watched her squirm, and all the while he took notes.

There was so much to learn, to explore, to observe. A wealth of knowledge, an open book laid bare before him. He was fascinated by the manifestations of her fear. There were so many things he had never thought of in his writing, so many details he had missed.

It was the subtle things which struck him most.

Her eyes did a delicate dance of fluttering open and snapping shut. When they were closed, she squeezed them tight, tight enough to crinkle the flesh of her cheeks and forehead. Then, when they were open, she followed him with them. If he moved behind her, she strained her neck to keep watching him. Thus she alternated, following him desperately with her gaze one moment, trying to block him out entirely the next, as if she couldn't stand to look at him but was terrified to let him out of her sight.

There were times when her eyes didn't open at all. She kept them stubbornly closed for minutes at a time. On these occasions he waited patiently, watching her silently, wondering if this was what a person looked like when they were trying to wake up from a bad dream. Was she hoping that when next she looked he would be gone? That he would disappear and the nightmare would be over? Perhaps that was her hope.

But he did not disappear. When she opened her eyes again, he was still there. He smiled at her, and like distorted funhouse mirrors, her eyes reflected his smile with confusion and horror. Sometimes he waved at her. Other times he patted her on the shoulder, letting his touch assure her that yes, he was very much real.

Every time he reached for her, she recoiled from his touch, and he touched her anyway, reminding her that she had nowhere to go.

Sometimes he reached for her just to watch her try to flinch away from him.

It brought a smile to his face every time.

Another thing that made him smile was the way her toes curled.

He first noticed it when he took her breast in his hands and crushed it between his palms. The pain of it tightened her entire body – her muscles flexed, her jaw clenched, her hands balled into fists, her knees buckled, and her toes curled. Intrigued, he kept an eye on her feet as he continued with his experiments, and he found that it happened often, whenever she was in significant pain, whenever she struggled against her restraints, whenever she tried to scream at him. Sometimes there was no apparent trigger for it at all, and he supposed she was simply doing it because fear and pain had left her body tense.

It was something he had never considered. In his stories, many characters had clenched their fists or gritted their teeth, but he had never written of curling toes. He made a special note of it on his clipboard; it would make an excellent detail for his masterpiece.

And the sniffling. She sniffled as she cried.

Not at first. Her crying had been calm at first, the tears running silently down her cheeks, leaving little trails that glistened in the light. But the syringe had changed all that. She didn't know that the clear fluid he injected into her vein was only a sterile saline solution. She didn't know that it was totally harmless. Her mind swam in dark and terrible possibilities, and her fear reached a fever pitch. The moment the needle pierced her flesh and the unknown fluid was pushed into her bloodstream, her crying transformed into that of a child. Gone were the silent tears. Now she was loud and wet and sobbing.

And she sniffled.

It was obvious that she would, really; of course she would have to sniffle, her nose running like that. People sniffled when they cried. He felt foolish for having never thought of it. Nevertheless, he had never thought of it, and now that he saw it, he was fascinated. He had never really watched someone sniffle before.

She tried to turn away from him when he leaned over the table to get a closer look at her nose, but he grabbed her by the chin and held her face in place. Having his face so close to hers made her cry even harder, and the sniffling continued.

He noted that her nose quivered. It was a subtle movement, a tiny twitch you wouldn't notice unless you were looking for it, but he saw it. There was a slight ripple in the cartilage each time she sobbed.

He pinched her nostrils closed between his thumb and forefinger and watched the terror in her eyes as she realized she couldn't breathe.

He grinned to himself, almost laughed. He still couldn't believe she really opened her eyes wide with fear. He had always assumed the cliché was a lie invented by horror writers. Surely people didn't really do that. The idea was absurd, almost comical, even. Yet her eyes were opened wide, bulging as if trying to escape from their sockets. She looked almost cartoonish to him, a caricature of horror.

She tried to shake him off, but he held her firmly by the chin. He held her nostrils shut for a count of forty seconds. When he released her, she gasped for air, and forgot to sniffle – snot flowed freely each time she exhaled, wetting the scarf over her mouth. As she struggled to catch her breath, he noticed that his finger and thumb were also slightly damp with her snot. He wiped them off on her chest and continued to watch her nose. The way it contracted and expanded with her breathing. The way the nostrils gently flared as they brought her air.

He wondered if there was any way he could use any of this in his story. They were such small details, he worried he wouldn't be able to find room to bring them up. And yet small as they were, they were so very powerful. The sniffling, the quivering nostrils, the little drops of mucus that were pushed out and sucked back in as she exhaled and inhaled. He thought it all painted a picture of how delicate she was, how fragile, how helpless.

All the resilience of the human body, all of its ability to endure and withstand and survive, and yet in that moment it had been within his power to kill her with gentle pressure from his finger and thumb. It would have been so simple. If he had held on for another sixty seconds, she might have never drawn breath again. That was how brittle life really was. Whatever illusions humanity had of power, it didn't take very much or very long to end it all.

He thought there was something very poetic about that. Yes, he would have to find room for this in his story. He jotted some notes down on his clipboard.

Then he noticed that she wasn't sniffling anymore. Her crying had stopped.

He cocked his head to one side and stared at her, frowning. He didn't understand. Surely her brush with death should have made her cry more, not less. But rather than adding to her fear, the encounter seemed to have left her quieter.

Perhaps, he thought, the relief of being able to breathe again had been extreme enough to provide her with some small measure of comfort.

That wouldn't do.

He waited. When her breathing had calmed back down to normal, he plugged her nose again. This time he counted to sixty.

Her gaze was wild. Pathetic noises came from beneath the scarf as she wasted her limited breath trying to cry out for help through the gag. She shook and thrashed and struggled as much as she could, and still he held on. He didn't let go until her eyes began to water. When he did finally release her, she again gasped for air, but this time her gasps quickly transformed back into sobs. Her eyes closed. Tears began to flow afresh. Her shoulders shook. She seemed almost to seize, her body quaking with the intensity of her weeping.

He smiled. That was better.

He bent down lower and softly kissed the tip of her nose.

What happened next was unexpected.

Even as she gasped for air, she found enough breath to scream at him from beneath her gag. Her eyes flicked open and fixed him with a white-hot glare. She struggled against the leather straps that bound her, tugging her arms and her legs, yanking them against their restraints. Her body tightened again: her fists clenched, her muscles flexed. The veins in her neck bulged as she tried to sit up. Her back arched. She was red in the face. The table shook with the sudden ferocity of her struggle.

And oh, how she screamed. The noise was muffled by the scarf over her mouth and the bandana stuffed inside, but nevertheless he could hear her. It seemed every ounce of breath she drew was channeled into her shrieking.

She kept it up for longer than he would have thought possible.

She kept it up until he pressed the point of his knife against the base of her forehead, right between her eyebrows. He didn't press hard, but applied enough pressure to force her head back down to the surface of the table. A tiny crimson dot appeared where the blade met her flesh.

And then, as abruptly as it had begun, the inferno of her rage was extinguished. She stilled immediately, so that the only movement was the heaving of her chest as she drew ragged breath after ragged breath. The rest of her was limp.

Her eyes crossed, each trying to focus on the point of the knife between them.

He watched her with interest as her breathing slowly calmed.

The episode had been most enlightening – he hadn't expected such an outburst. It had never occurred to him that such rage could manifest itself in the middle of such fear. The girl was obviously terrified for her life, yet the moment he pressed his lips against her nose, her hatred and her revulsion had overwhelmed her fear. It was as if all of the fear in her had ignited and exploded. In that moment, she had wanted not merely to escape from him but to hurt him, perhaps even to kill him. He imagined that if he had loosened the leather straps around her wrists she would have immediately reached for his throat, or perhaps clawed at his face. He could almost feel her fingernails digging into his flesh.

It had been all too easy to quell her fury and force her back into the shell of her fear, but the effect had interesting nonetheless.

In his stories, the victims never had such outbursts. They never struggled as much as she did. He had always thought of fear as something cold as ice, had never known it could evoke a response as fiery as hers. He would have to make a note of it.

He kept the knife pressed against her forehead as he waited for her breathing to calm.

Then, when she had finally caught her breath, he leaned down and kissed her nose once more. This time there was no violent reaction. The blade made sure of that. Instead she just stared up at him. He had thought she might close her eyes, but she didn't. She just stared.

So he winked at her.

That was a nice touch, he thought, the winking. He would have to make the villains in his stories wink more often.

When he was convinced that she had given up her struggle, he finally pulled the knife away from her forehead and set it down. He picked up his clipboard and jotted down a few more notes.

Time rolled by. Seconds turned to minutes, minutes turned to hours. He no longer had any idea of how long he had been with her.

He wondered if she knew. He wondered if perhaps she had been counting the seconds. Was that something a person would do? Would she be acutely aware of each passing second? Or would time become distorted by her fear? Did she perhaps think she had been down her for days?

In the end, it didn't really matter how much time passed. He had all the time in the world, and she had however much time as he chose to allow her.

But time rolled by, and he kept experimenting, and he kept watching her squirm, and he kept taking notes. He filled ten pages with his notes. His mechanical pencil was almost out of lead.

It didn't matter. He was almost finished, now.

He had done almost everything he wanted to do. His fingers had explored her flesh. He had touched her and held her and caressed her and squeezed her. He had poked her, cut her, scratched her, hit her, bit her, bruised her, whipped her, choked her, and crushed her. He had hurt her and humiliated her. He had tasted her blood and her sweat and her tears. He had inhaled her every scent.

There was only one thing left to do before he was finished.

At first he hadn't been certain that he would do it at all. Maybe, he had told himself, it wouldn't be necessary. But now he saw that it was. Because in spite of everything he had done to her, he knew that he had not yet witnessed the pinnacle of her fear. He had pushed her to the brink of death, and in her eyes he had seen that in some way it would have been a relief for her. Some small part of her had wanted him to kill her, to end it all right then and there. Because as much as she feared death, it was not her ultimate fear. There was something else, something worse, something so bad she would rather die. A violation worse than death itself.

And in that moment, he had known what it was.

If he wanted to see true fear, he knew where he would find it.

He put his hands on her hips and held her down as he climbed on top of her. He unzipped his pants, and the sound seemed deafening in the silence.

She stared at him pleadingly, her eyes crazy and wet with a fresh cascade of tears. Her crying began all over again. There was the sniffling, there was the sobbing. There was the whining and whimpering. There were the pathetic squeaks of protest as she shook her head back and forth so hard and so fast that it had to hurt her neck.

He cupped her breasts in his hands.

She froze, then, and met his gaze.

He smiled at her as he slid inside her.

When the deed was done, he felt refreshed and satisfied.

It wasn't just the physical pleasure; it was what he had witnessed during the act.

He had seen everything he needed to see. He had seen every color in the spectrum of her fear. Her face had flashed every shade of human agony he could imagine: dread and hopelessness, despair and helplessness, hatred and disgust, embarrassment, anger, sadness, confusion, disbelief, insanity, and oh, yes, fear. Her terror became something tangible in the air between them and encircling them, pushing them together and pulling them apart, isolating her and laying her bare for him to explore.

And as his pleasure climaxed, so too did her terror. He watched her face the whole time, saw the essence of fear crystalize as something solid in her eyes. He watched her expression twist into a tortured mask of the deepest and most primal human horror. Her look said that she wanted to leave her own body. It said she would welcome death, would welcome pain, would welcome any other hell as an alternative to her current suffering. It said that what she wanted most in the world was release.

And he gave it to her. Having seen everything he needed to see, having scaled the summit of her fear and witnessed the black abyss in her gaze, there was only one thing left to do.

He sang her a lullaby as he cut her throat.

Later, he sat at his desk in front of his typewriter.

There was a body to be disposed of, but he would tend to that later. For now, his masterpiece awaited him. He was ready. Finally, he knew fear. He had peeled its masks away and looked into its soul, and he knew it. He was ready.

The typewriter keys began to click. Words appeared on the blank page:

"He watched her squirm and took notes…"