What Happened at the Compound
“I tried not to show fear. I really did. My father always told me that I was the brave one, the one who would make it through. Looking back on it, I guess that’s a substantial burden to put on what is essentially a child.”
I looked up at her over my notebook. I’d been writing more than I’d been making eye contact, trying to get it all down verbatim, sure, but also not wanting to see the pain on her face. The notebook was better than a recorder for that, at least.
“Why do you think that’s a burden? Didn’t you appreciate that he had faith in you?”
“Well, no. It meant that I had to survive. All those times when I wanted to curl up and die, I’d think about his words and keep going. The pressure of it…”
“But, now that it’s over, aren’t you happy that you’re still alive? Out of all those people, that you survived?”
She didn’t answer me. She didn’t need to; her eyes made it all clear.
I’d first heard about The Compound three years ago. I was fresh out of my Ph.D. program, and looking for a case to really sink my teeth into. The Compound was it. I must have written half a dozen papers on it during my postgrad. How it could have formed, how people could have let those things happen to themselves and their children. It never really got any traction, though. I never ended up on any daytime talk shows, stroking my beard and pontificating about complex social psychology.
That’s mostly because The Compound never really made the news. It was alluded to a bit in some local papers, but the details were left out. It turns out that the general public loves all the gory details of murder, rape, and torture, but when it’s something like what happened at The Compound, that’s a whole other story. After that, it ceases to be entertaining and starts to be uncomfortable. Uncomfortable doesn’t sell papers.
I didn’t think we’d ever know the full story, though I’d been trying my damnedest to piece it all together. When Angela agreed to speak with me about her time at The Compound, I felt like I’d made real progress, that it was all going to come together. She could fill in all the gaps that three years of research could not begin to. She was the key to everything.
It makes me laugh to realize how naive I was.
Angela was the only one they pulled out of that cellar alive. The other twenty-nine people were just bodies in various states of decomposition. There’s not much information about how long she was in The Compound, or how her family ended up there. All anyone knew about her came from that long tracking shot on the news. That shot of her blinking in the sunlight, smeared with blood and covered in bruises. We all looked into her hollow, glazed-over eyes and turned off the television. Maybe if we’d kept watching we would have seen that expression turn defiant as she looked into the camera, holding eye contact with whoever was brave or sick enough to keep looking.
Somehow she managed to disappear after that. No interviews with furrow-browed, faux-sympathetic reporters on the weekday evening murder shows. No high-profile volunteer work with anti-cult groups. She just vanished. I think even the media wanted to keep away from her. She was uncomfortable like that.
It took the bulk of three years for me to track her down, and I felt like absolute garbage about it. She clearly didn’t want to be found, but curiosity gnawed at my insides until I couldn’t sleep at night. Suddenly my need to know what happened at The Compound became more important than this poor girl’s mental health. So, I called her.
“Hello?” the voice at the other end of the line was guarded and soft.
“Hi, is this--sorry--is this Angela Burdham?”
“Yes, to whom am I speaking?”
The formality caught me off guard. I hadn’t really thought about what I would say to her.
“Hi, Angela. Um, this is Dr. Hanson, I mean, Rick Hanson. I, uh, I’ve been studying your case, The Compound? And I--if it’s alright with you, I mean--I would like to interview you about your experiences. Please.”
The silence on the other end of the phone extended uncomfortably. I checked the screen on my phone, thinking that she might have hung up on me. Finally, she spoke.
“Yes, Dr. Hanson, I think I would like to speak with you.”
Angela lived two states away, just far enough to make meeting in person difficult. I couldn’t interview her over the phone, though. It just didn’t seem right. She suggested a local community center where I could rent out an office. Meeting in her house was out of the question, she said. She didn’t want those memories dragged into her home. I didn’t blame her.
I couldn’t imagine what she had been through. The research I did turned up relatively little about the monster who held those people captive. Adam Furlong. A middle-aged banker who vanished without a trace six years before The Compound was discovered. When the SWAT team raided The Compound, Adam, dressed all in white robes, charged the armed lawmen and died instantly. Suicide by cop. His life had been uneventful, would have been completely unremarkable, except for his moonlighting as a...whatever he was. Adam raised more questions than he answered, as the body he left behind was half-starved and battered itself. Those of us who studied the case assumed that there was an element of asceticism in his insanity. Perhaps he had starved and mutilated himself in a vain attempt at penance for the horrific crimes he had committed. We couldn’t be certain. At any rate, Adam Furlong was just one of many questions I had for Angela.
I flew out two weeks later.
I was surprised at how nervous I felt. All my questions, three years’ worth of work, all came down to this one person.
I met Angela at the community center as we had arranged. For someone I had spent so much time obsessing about, it was somehow shocking to see how nondescript she was. She was a pudgy woman with a soft, round face and limp brown hair. She could have been someone’s middle-aged mother if she hadn’t been in her mid-twenties. I did the math in my head; if she was fifteen when she went into The Compound, that made her only twenty-four. I guessed that what she went through would have aged just about anyone.
Angela greeted me shyly, with a practiced formality.
“Hello, Dr. Hanson,” she said, timidly extending her hand to me.
“Please, call me Rick.”
“I’d rather call you Doctor, or Dr. Hanson if you would oblige me.”
“Uh, sure, that’s fine. But you know I’m not here in an official capacity. I’m just a researcher, not a physician.”
“Regardless,” she began before trailing off.
I smiled at her, trying my best to set an informal tone. “That’s just fine! Whatever you’re comfortable with. Shall we go into the office and begin?”
Angela nodded and followed me down the hallway into the empty office I had reserved. Inside sat a white table with mismatched chairs on each side. The walls were blank and white. A fluorescent light hummed and spat above us.
“Please, have a seat,” I motioned toward a chair. “Do you mind if I take notes in my notebook?”
Angela shook her head and sat stiffly across the table from me.
“We don’t have to talk about anything that makes you uncomfortable. If I ask you any questions you do not wish to answer, just let me know and I’ll stop. Okay?”
“Yes, Doctor, I understand.”
I bristled slightly at her tone but smiled at her regardless. So what if she was a bit weird and socially stunted. Who wouldn’t be?
“Well, then, let’s get started. Can you tell me how you ended up at The Compound, and when?”
Angela sighed deeply and looked at her hands. “I was among the first, me and my family. There were so few of us then. I went with my parents. They said we had to go, my sister and I.”
“And why did your parents do that? What persuaded them?”
“Doctor, I ask myself that question every day.” She wiped the corner of her eye with one hand.
“Okay, that’s fine,” I said, writing her words down in my notebook. “Did you have any interactions with Adam, the leader of The Compound?”
“Did I? Oh, yes, but not at first. The children were saved for last, and the last took years. I was an adult in age when he got to me. We were made to watch, you understand?”
“What were the conditions like at The Compound? Were you all fed and given water? Did you socialize with each other? Were you ever allowed outside?”
“Doctor, I...I can’t.”
I swallowed. In my haste, I had overwhelmed her. “I can stop if you’d like.”
“No, I just...okay,” she exhaled a shaky breath.
“We lived together in the cellar. You’ve seen the photos? Well, that was it. The floor was dirt, and when we were hurt it would soak up the blood. A light was in the cellar so that we could see. We had to see.
“There was a second room where people were taken. It was dark and from the cellar you could hear the screams, as if they were in the same room with us. I’d rather have seen what was happening because imagining was so much worse. We toileted in the corner, and eventually, a bucket was given to us. When the people became bodies, they were stacked along one wall, and then another, until our space began to close in on us, and we couldn’t remember where the walls used to be. The smell went away after a time. There were rats who came and went, making burrows in the flesh of the walls that weren’t walls. We heard them chewing all day, even when we slept we heard them.
“There was water and some food, at intervals. I don’t know how often; there was no light to tell the days by. We were hungry and thirsty, but that isn’t what we died of, so we must have eaten and drank. We spoke openly and often at first, making escape plans and discussing our real lives outside of The Compound, then not really at all. We stopped looking at each other as fellow humans and saw only deaths that might precede our own. If we were unlucky. We all wanted to die. All of us. A man named Nick ate part of his dead wife, hoping that her rot would take him over, that her death might infect him. It did not. He had to wait his turn like the rest of us.”
Angela cleared her throat and looked down at her hands.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“No, no, no. There’s no reason to be sorry. I can’t imagine what this must be like for you...you don’t have to say any more than you’re comfortable with.”
“I just don’t want to burden anyone with it all. The things that were done…”
“It’s not a burden. I asked you here; you don’t need to worry about me.”
“Have you seen the photos?”
I nodded. I had seen the photos. The awful photos, horrors beyond description. It made me feel like a voyeur, listening to Angela tell her story with those images in my mind. I had seen the things she had described but hadn’t had to live them. They were burned into my brain, seared in like an afterimage. I couldn’t image how they haunted her.
We continued like that. Tentative questions and halting answers, all while I wrote down everything Angela said. I couldn’t fight the guilt I felt, documenting it all like a court stenographer while tears welled in her eyes. All for my research.
We talked for an hour or more. She eventually became comfortable enough to talk about the abuses inflicted upon her and the others in stark detail. It unsettled me, but I let her continue at her own pace. I thought it must be therapeutic for her, and tried not to let the horror show on my face. With each graphic retelling, I shifted my weight in my chair. If I hadn’t known better, I would have believed she relished in my discomfort, but her face showed no sign of enjoyment.
The question I’d wanted to ask the most I saved for last. The enigma that was Adam had gnawed at me since I’d first read about The Compound. How does a man with no criminal history become the monster Angela had described? And how does a person seemingly devoid of charisma lure thirty people into a cellar?
I waited until Angela had finished recounting a particularly heinous mutilation, and broached the subject.
“Can I ask you one more question, and maybe you’re as clueless about this as we all are, but why did he do it?”
Angela looked at me curiously and began picking at her thumbnail. She had something she wanted to tell me and was evidently debating it.
“It’s okay, Angela.” I sat my notebook down. “Whatever you have to say is between us alone.”
At that, she focused her eyes on me, a direct, naked stare that made me uncomfortable. She looked as if she were deciding something, as if she were weighing her options carefully. Her face shifted subtly, morphing from soft shyness to determination.
“Well, you asked. And I am hungry,” she said, giving me a cryptic look. “Doctor, are you aware of entities that consume human emotions?”
The question threw me for a loop. Whatever I was expecting her to say, it wasn’t that. I cleared my throat.
“I know that in some Judeo-Christian traditions, demons are said to grow stronger by feeding on emotions. Is that what Adam told you all?” I had suspected a religious delusion as part of Adam’s psychosis, and it made sense that he might try to envelop his captives in his own mythology.
“Adam didn’t tell us shit,” Angela replied, causing me to straighten in my chair. “I mean, he screamed, but he had nothing of value to contribute. You are correct, however, in your recollection of childish Bible stories. Some of us do grow stronger through feeding. Some anger, some lust, some greed. Fear, though, Doctor. Fear is the most delicious of all. It’s animalistic. It’s pure.”
I stared at her, confused. She relaxed in her seat, dropping her defensive stiffness in one fluid motion. She leaned back and studied me, a predator watching its prey. My breathing quickened in my chest as I began to put the pieces together.
Angela inhaled deeply and smiled.
“Can you smell it now? The fear? It’s wafting off of your skin like perfume. It’s simply heavenly, Doctor.”
I gaped at her. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through me, could smell my own sweat, and kicked myself for agreeing to meet in such a secluded environment. I surveyed the blank walls of the empty office, looking for any cameras that might have captured our exchange. There were none.
“I don’t understand,” I said, though I was fairly certain that I did. “Are you telling me that Adam wasn’t the leader of The Compound? That somehow you were behind it?”
“Is that so difficult to believe? You said yourself--out of all those people, I survived. Occam ’s razor, Doctor, or didn’t they teach you that in school?”
“A meek idiot I dressed in robes. He broke mentally early on. Fear didn’t seep from him like the others, though I tried my best. When the day came, I dolled him up myself. Feeble-minded creep. You can’t imagine my delight when he ran face-first into the first bullet he saw. The rest of them would have done the same, had they been alive. They all wanted to die, Doctor. Begged me to kill them. But why stop a good thing early? You don’t leave the buffet after the first plate.”
“But what about your bruises? Your cuts...the blood?”
Angela laughed. “Do you think I’m stupid? If I came out of that cellar fat and happy, there’s no way I would be able to disappear. A few sprints into a brick wall can quiet a lot of questions.”
I thought back to the crime scene photos. Angela had fresh bruises, open wounds. There were no scars on her, not like the others. It all started to make sense to me. The bodies stacked naked from floor to ceiling in that tiny cellar. They weren’t just stored in there--as if the cellar were a meat-locker--they were decoration, designed for maximum fear. The beatings and the mutilations weren’t meant to kill; they were public, meant to provoke terror in the others. The screams in the adjacent room carefully calculated. The stories she had been telling me: they were designed to increase my unease. Maybe they were true, maybe embellished, but they had done their job.
Angela rose from her seat and sauntered over to me. She leaned into my ear, purring her words.
“I learned a lesson from The Compound. A person can only stand so much fear until they shut down. It was an interesting experiment, concentrated fear in such quantities and of such quality, but it’s not a long-term solution.”
She breathed in deeply and moaned softly as she pulled her nose from my ear to the bottom of my neck. She licked her lips before speaking again.
“There’s so much more fear to be had out here in the world.”
I swallowed hard, trying to still the thudding of my heart. It didn’t work. Angela stepped back and smiled at me.
“Don’t be upset, Doc. I mean, sure no one will ever believe you and you’ll almost certainly be discredited if you try to share this. And, sure, you’ll live your life knowing that others like me exist in the world, ready to devour your mind. But think of how full I’ll be.”
Angela winked at me and walked out of the office door. I tried to move, to run out to catch her, but found myself frozen in place. I slowed my breathing and wiped my sweat-covered palms on my pants. I didn’t want to catch her, I realized. I couldn’t bear the thought of it.
Ultimately, she was right. I was discredited; no one believed me. She ruined my life more thoroughly than I could have imagined. I searched for years; nothing else mattered to me except finding her. I filed missing persons reports, hired private investigators, and scoured every inch of the internet. I spent every dime I had. I quit my job, severed my relationships, all to commit myself to tracking her down. She just disappeared from all public life.
It’s like trying to chase a half-forgotten nightmare. But I know she’s real. I know she’s out there; I know she’s feeding.