FIRST DAY: I have awoken in a strange room, in an unknown city and country. I have no idea how I came to be here. The last I remember, I went to sleep in my own bed, in the house in Boston where I, my father, and his father before him, were born. My name is Paul Gray III. I am 37 years old. My father and grandfather were both Presbyterian clerics, well known for their sermons, upright behavior, and charitable works. I am known to be an amiable drunk.
The room I find myself in is sparsely furnished: besides the narrow bed, there is an old worn chest opposite, with a chipped porcelain bowl on top. To the left is a large dormer window, slightly open. Through it I can smell cooking meat, incense, and animal dung; also the mingled sounds of tinny music, banging pots, and barking dogs. It is insufferably hot and humid, so I suspect I am somewhere in the tropics. It is either early morning or twilight, I suspect the latter.
A quick check of my wallet has shown that I have some American currency, but also several bank notes of a garish purple color, with the smudgy image of some, I suppose, great man of the region. He looks like a sly enough old thief. I also found the small notebook and ballpoint pen I am now using to write this, on a wooden chair near the bed. I am dressed casually in thin cotton shirt and jeans, not mine but also quite my size. I seem to have no coat, hat, or traveling bag. The smell of meat is making me ravenous, but I do not yet feel sufficiently composed to venture out amongst my new compatriots.
After falling again into a fitful sleep filled with monsters, I was jerked awake by the sound of someone knocking on my door. I sat for a few moments, not sure if the knocks were from my dream, but when they were not repeated, I decided to check anyway. My legs felt rubbery, as if I had been drugged, but which could also be explained by my inaction: perhaps I have been ill for some time. Cautiously I approached the only door in the room, listened for another moment, then turned the rusty knob, which creaked and moaned. I opened the door part way, and peered out. The hallway was wreathed in shadows that seemed to whisper. I could just make out a bannister on the right, which led to a stairway. Then I happened to glance down and saw there a tray with something on it covered in a not too clean-looking and faded cloth.
Sitting on my bed, I did not hesitate to devour the plate of little sandwiches filled with meat and some kind of cheese. It was heavily spiced, which I understand is often used to cover spoiled food, but I was so hungry I didn't care. As I sipped the large cup of sour red wine, I wondered how long I had been here, and who my host was. I began to feel sleepy again almost immediately and this time undressed, used the chamber pot which I found in the cabinet and slipped under the light sheet.
DAY TWO: Woke early and forced myself to do some light exercises beside my bed, although I felt weak and nauseated. In my youth I had been something of an athlete, but drink and heavy smoking had robbed me of much of my natural talents. Speaking of which, I needed a cigarette urgently, and it was this, plus a vague restless curiosity, that finally impelled me to venture out of my room. The hallway was only slightly brighter, as there were no windows on my landing to let in the blinding sunshine that poured from my window. My room appeared to be the only one on this level, and as the stairs only lead down, I reasoned that I must be on the top floor. I started down the creaking steps but almost at once felt weak and unwell. The next landing had no rooms and just continued the stairway down. I began to lose count of the landings I had passed (was it four or five?) and yet the stairs just continued to spiral down. The one time I tried to peer down into the darkness of the stairwell, I became so dizzy that I had to grab the bannister to keep from falling. Clearly, I was indeed quite ill, and feverish sweat poured down my face, even as I trembled with cold. I barely made it back to my room and fell exhausted onto the bed. Once again, when I awoke it was evening, and again, the soft knock and tray of food. I had little appetite but was overjoyed when what I found included three soft packs of strong Egyptian cigarettes. The box of wooden matches with the cigarettes had the picture of a young woman with her finger pressed to her bright red lips. I took her advice, and quietly inhaled the smoke, as the ceiling above me gently disappeared.
DAY THREE: Felt a little better after a night of black, dreamless sleep. I lit my first cigarette of the day and went to the window. Black and purple clouds massed over a distant mountain chain but it did not rain. Down below, the narrow street was a mass of carts jostling around people, mostly young men dressed in white, giving the impression of a huge motley snake slithering between rocks. The air stank of humidity and unwashed humanity. I snuffed out the cigarette on the wooden sill and shut the window, which was so warped that it couldn't completely close. The room was now stuffy and airless, but at least the noise and stench of the street were somewhat reduced. I noticed that my body also smelled of sweat and wondered how I could wash myself. At that moment there was a shuffling sound outside the door and I rushed to open it before my host escaped again, but the hallway greeted me with its customary sullen silence. The tray this time contained a metal carafe of lukewarm bitter coffee, as well as another of water, a bar of crude brown soap and a small brush. Your every wish is his desire, I mused, that is, except the desire to know how and why I am here. After a quick cleanup, I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon lying on my bed smoking. At some point, it began to rain heavily and I fell asleep to the rhythmic rapping of the drops on the window pane.
Woke with a shout and grabbed at a shadow hanging over me to find my hand clutching a scrap of paper. The room was now dark, so I went to the window to look at it. Unfolded, it appeared to be part of an airmail envelope, the thin paper bluish with a red border where it had not been torn. The note, written all in caps with what looked like an old-fashioned fountain pen, the ink spreading like a floodwater over its banks, read: AWAIT FUTURE ORDERS-K. Something tingles at the end of my nerves.
Wish I had more of that dreadful wine.
DAY FOUR: Just finished the last of my cigarettes. I checked the hallway three times in the last hour and still no food or water. Have I been abandoned? The morning and afternoon have been a slow hell of boiling heat and boredom. With nothing else to do, I obsessively read and re-read the note, as if it might suddenly reveal the answer to all my questions. The fact that it was written in English somehow made me feel better, although I have no idea why. Perhaps it just felt like a link to my quickly fading past.
I paced around my small room, partly to stave off hunger and thirst, and also to relieve my jangled nerves. On the third time around the walls, my foot stepped on something soft and I leaned down and picked up a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. I asked myself how I could have possibly missed this item for so long, then decided that perhaps it had been left by whomever had slipped me the note. Like a child on Christmas morning I eagerly tore the wrapping off and was disappointed to find myself holding a dog-eared paperback book, written in some script I had no way of deciphering. The cover art was of the most lurid variety, very popular in the sixties, showing a scantily clad and quite buxom woman lying on the floor, shielding herself from some looming attacker, whose sole presence was revealed by an ominous shadow of an arm and clutching hand.
I sat on the edge of my bed and languidly riffled through the pages of my quite unreadable book, whose brown and spotted pages gave off the sharp odor of decay. Not so much as a stray illustration to break the monotony! I was about to close it and throw it back on the floor when something dropped from the last pages: a faded old photo obviously taken with a cheap brownie camera. It showed two soldiers wearing tropical weight fatigues, with a backdrop of dusty-looking palm trees and a looming monsoonal sky. They were both grinning under their hats and each gripped the other's shoulders. The one on the left was larger and powerfully built, with a somewhat dangerous set to his jaw, despite the broad smile. The other one was me.
DAY FIVE: It all started to come back to me that long horrible night. First, only in brief, jarring images, like an avant-garde film, then more consecutively. I tossed and groaned in my sweat-stained sheets, wishing I had some powerful drug that could carry me away from these memories or nightmares. Or at the very least some of that wine and a few cigarettes. But instead, I endured what must have resembled a life-long heroin addict going through violent withdrawal. My agonies were mental and emotional, running the gamut from fear, shame, remorse, and to sometimes a whisper of the nearest approach I had ever come to happiness.
My jailor has relented, or returned from wherever he had gone, as the tray of sandwiches, the carafes of wine and water, and, to my joy, four more packs of cigarettes have been left. As I ate, drank, and smoked, I reflected on the previous night with something approaching calmness, and perhaps even peace. I had been so young, and a little naively romantic, when I first met K in a noisy bar near Seventh Avenue. He regaled me over beers with a life spent living, as he called it, "on the edge of the precipice." I think I only half believed his wild stories, but at the same time, became captivated with the idea of a free and adventurous life, far from the dour and protected home of my youth. As he got ready to leave, he gave me his card, which just had the embossed legend, Have Guts Will Travel and a phone number, telling me to dial it when I felt ready to leave my previous life behind. Then he warned me that, once I did, there would be no going back. Smiling that crooked smile that I would come to know and sometimes fear, he patted my shoulder and sauntered out into the Manhattan sunset.
DAY SIX: Something is very wrong with my mind. This morning I woke to a sweetish smell that made me gag, an odor that reminded me of leaving a burnt-out village after we... well, after we were finished. And something else: As my eyes cleared, I seemed to catch sight of a shadow to my left, but when I turned my head, it was gone. I am quite feverish again and my hands are sweaty and trembling slightly. For the first time since I first found myself in this room, I can now hear noises from inside the house: squeaks and footfalls, someone coughing somewhere below, even what sounds like a radio or TV playing. I poured some water from the carafe and tried to drink it but almost choked and had to spit it out. It tasted... I don't know exactly how to put it... dead somehow. I stumbled to the window, flung it open and leaned out, trying to take in air and calm myself. It was midday by the shadows, but the street below was completely empty and the utter silence was deafening. I looked down at my shaking hands and saw that the sweat pooling in my palms was reddish in color, as if mixed with blood. I heard myself say, "Oh, god." Then something was pulled over my head and all was blackness.
DAY (?): I no longer know how much time has passed since that first morning, or twilight, as the room I am now kept in has no windows, and whatever drug is being injected into my arm at intervals leaves me disoriented and confused. I don't seem to be able to sleep, but at the same time do not feel any exhaustion. People are constantly coming and going, but they seem to flit across my field of vision like bats in a twilight sky, leaving almost no precise shape in my memory. For some reason they have left me my notebook. I feel as if I am being used in some sort of psychological experiment, whose purpose has not been revealed to the patient. Despite not eating or drinking, I feel quite strong and if I could make myself get up, I would of course try to escape, but somehow that particular act of will has been taken from me. I also can't say that I am afraid; rather, what I feel is something like relief that responsibility for my own life has been reduced to sitting and writing.
Later... hours, days... Time is but a meaningless concept we humans have invented to convince ourselves that we are actually alive. The pictures and voices in my mind keep up their relentless pace, but I cannot any more process them, so they arrive and pass before me like the monotonous murmurings of an idiot friend. At one point, inevitably, SHE came before me and I had to clamp my hand over my mouth to keep from screaming. She didn't speak, but we never did speak much anyway. Her body was as it was then: slim and lightly muscled, from years spent laboring in the penal camp where she was born. Her black hair cut short around a smallish head, the long neck I so loved to caress. Her eyes were deep brown, only now those eyes could not see me because they were dead. Finally, mercifully, she left and has not returned. I am empty.
When the door opened and K squeezed his huge frame through it, I was only mildly surprised. He had lost a lot of weight, but still looked like he could wrestle an ox to a draw. What age must he be now, sixty? seventy? He sat down in a chair opposite me and smiled his old pirate smile. I had to laugh when he offered me a cigarette. What, no blindfold? But I only thought this, as I was unable to speak. I took the cigarette but dropped it as I tried to bring it to my lips. He bent over and, quite gently, as if feeding an infant, placed it in my mouth and lit it with an old-fashioned Zippo, with the embossed image of some doubtless killer commando unit, all skulls and knives, on it. The smell of the lighter fluid revived me somewhat, as did the smoke I inhaled deeply. He looked at me, his smile seeming rueful now, and told me that he disliked what had been done to me, but that there seemed no other way to find out if I had truly lost all memories of our time together. "Yes, we could have just tortured you until you confessed, but I had trained you how to resist torture, how to lie convincingly, even when drugged. You recall those little sessions, don't you, kid?" He said these things with a look of bitter pride. "When you disappeared," he said, "when I heard you had gone home, had a massive breakdown, the shock therapy, I wondered, maybe I could trust you, but I had to be sure, not for myself, you understand, I'm done... cancer everywhere... but for what still needs to be accomplished. You used to believe in what we did..." Then he looked down, and when he raised his head, the smile was gone. "Kid, I know that she was the best thing to happen to you while I was the worst, but you would never have met her if you had not accepted my invitation to hell. She died because you became soft and sentimental at just the wrong moment. You could have been my successor, my heir. But you chose flight over fight. You disappointed me. You broke my fucking heart!"
Then, he reached out and placed his hand gently on my cheek, and tears were pooling in his grey-green eyes, tears I had never seen there before. I felt a slight stinging sensation, which told me everything I needed to know.
In a way, as I try to keep my eyes from closing for just a little while longer, I understand and even approve of what K has done to me. I did things that were evil and enjoyed doing them. I thought I could always make up for them, or that I was serving some higher good so sleepy
now no pain but there never was
**This diary was discovered on the body of an unidentified man in the village of Sahatru, in Southern Indonesia. The man was found lying on a cot in a small hut, dressed in camouflage fatigues and beside him were an AK-47 assault rifle and grenades. It is speculated that he was one of many mercenary soldiers that have been utilized by various factions and militias, during the recent violent and brutal civil war going on in the region. The dead man was Caucasian, about 60 years of age, and, despite the circumstances, appears to have died of natural causes. Subsequent inquiries have established that the man was not Paul Gray, the purported author. The family of said author had unsuccessfully attempted to block the publication of this work, but the editor believes that the historical interest of it outweighs any privacy concerns, on which point the court assented. Was the dead man the mysterious K of the diary? That question remains unanswered, and perhaps, unimportant. James McElroy, Editor.**
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Dan Tierney. All rights reserved.