The bastards have moved you. You don't have to open your eyes all the way to know that. You know because of the light - that there is light. There's a window. There's no window in the cell you've been in. It's always pitch black. It's dark here, too; the window is covered, but light glows at the edges. You see it.
You'd go to the light but your eyes won't stay open. Your arms are heavy, your body won't move. Your wrists ache where the ropes held them. Lay still now. Give in to sleep; let yourself surrender to oblivion.
Later you drift back. Float up from black depths, as in a night swim toward a murky, shifting surface. Open both eyes. How long have you been out? Hours? Days? You're lying on your back in a dark room. But then you see it. There it is: the light. You didn't dream it. The window is really there.
Roll your shoulders, flex your neck. You're strong enough to get up, but you know to hold back. Get your bearings. Don't move until you know the situation.
The room is silent. Darkness surrounds you. Breathe deeply. The air is fresh, not the stench you're used to. They've moved you. They've taken you out of that putrid cell you've been in all this time, with its stained walls and dirt floor and reek of waste, and moved you. Why? They brought you - here. Where? What is this place?
In that cell for so long; God, how long has it been? Bastards. That's how they break you down. They take you out of time. Wake you at odd hours, stymie sleep. Day is night. Night is day. You try to keep track but can't. Last time you knew, it was 1942.
Too much sleep. You must've really been out for the count if they moved you without waking you. How long...? This grogginess, you can't shake it. Thoughts flicker away They must've spiked that swill they fed you, slipped you a mickey. Or maybe you're punchy from being beaten senseless too often. Wake up. Time lost; you hate to lose time. This bothers you the most, blacking out, left helpless. What do they do to you? They're capable of anything.
The room is still. The only sound is your own breathing. Lift yourself up on one elbow. Easy now. Pain slices through your arm, makes you wince. You risk a whisper. "Thumper?" No reply. "Zeke?" Only darkness and silence answer.
If Zeke were here you'd know it. His snoring would give him away, that concert of snorts and wheezes he lets out with, like a broken organ at the county fair. "Christ, Zeke," Thumper told him once, after you'd both endured a night of it, "I'm gonna fight my way out of this hellhole just to get away from your damn racket!" That Thumper. Crazy son of a bitch. Always joking. He'll laugh off anything. Like after one particularly bad session, so bad you came back surprised to still be alive. You lay curled up on your bunk, nursing your wounds, and there was Thumper, across the room smiling, proudly displaying his bloodied mouth and missing teeth. He lost them for talking back; they knocked them out with the butt of a rifle. They propped you up and made you watch, helpless to stop it. That's what defiance gets you. Or bravery, depending on how you look at it. Thumper's a farm boy from Arkansas, a big beefy kid, even manages to look beefy when he's been starved. Always joking. You laughed at his joke about Zeke's snoring despite yourself, and Zeke laughed too. He still could, then. That was before that last beating. Zeke hasn't been right since
God, the way they treat you here. There are rules, dammit. Nations have protocols for situations like this, conventions for humane treatment of troops detained in a war. But these fools ignore them, do whatever the hell they want. When you get out of here, you'll bring charges. But first you'll want a few minutes alone with those little bastards, a chance to pay them back, give them a taste of -
Enough. Stop. Getting worked up won't do any good. You need your wits. No snoring. No snoring means no Zeke. Thumper would've answered straight out. So that means no Thumper. You're alone in the dark in this strange room. Thumper and Zeke are gone. Where are they? The three of you were captured together, grilled together, tortured together. Why separate you now?
To break you down. There's strength in numbers: together you can boost each other. There's hope. Apart, you're vulnerable. Any soldier who's been through boot camp knows that.
Maybe that's why Thumper and Zeke aren't here. Maybe they didn't pull through. Maybe Thumper and Zeke are dead.
No. Get that out of your head. Take a deep breath. They're alive, you tell yourself. Zeke and Thumper are alive -
Can't just lay here. You have to act, do something. Shifting brings another shot of pain up your back. You almost cry out from it, but bite down hard on your lip instead.
Grip the sides of the bed. It's an honest-to-God bed, with a real mattress, not that shitty pile of palm fronds in your cell. Christ, there are even sheets. Swing around. Bedsprings creak. Easy now. You ache all over; every joint moans. Soon you're sitting. Your bare feet flatten on a cool, solid floor.
Hold up your hand, make out its dim shape in the darkness. Stretch your fingers. Bones crack, knuckles throb, swollen and stiff. Did they take the wire to you last time? That's a favorite of theirs: they bunch up strands of barbed wire, wrap a rag around them so they don't cut themselves when they whip you with it. The bastards howl like hyenas. Did they? No, doesn't feel like it wounds would still be raw.
Your lips are cracked and dry. Your cheeks are scratchy with stubble. Graze the top of your head. The knots, the bumps. The hair has grown in some. They usually keep it shaved down to the scalp. They just enjoy seeing the marks they've left on you.
Squeeze the bridge of your nose. It's bent from the last time they broke it, but there's no new pain. Tongue at your teeth. Some are loose, some gone. But no twinges, no taste of fresh blood. They must've spared your face in the session yesterday. Or was it the day before?
Bastards. They don't care where they hit you anymore. When they first brought you in, they acted like pals. They plied you with kindness. Tell us and we'll let you go. We're all men, aren't we? Be reasonable, they said. They smiled, you smiled back. They asked platoon size, position, firepower, and you answered as you were trained to, with name, rank, serial number. Your country has forgotten you, they said. What do you owe it? They're not even trying to find you. You are abandoned. Tell us. Name, rank, serial number. Soon they stopped smiling. They got rough. First with insults. Insults became slaps. Slaps turned into punches, punches into... something worse. Outrage. Humiliation. What would you call it, what they did to you? There's a word for it when it's done to a woman. What's the word for a man? For a soldier?
But you stood firm. Thumper and Zeke, too - they took the worst that was dished out and didn't buckle. Name, rank, serial number. That's all they gave. They made you proud. They were kicked and probed and cut, put up with hurt so bad it would've broken other men. But not your guys.
Your stomach grumbles. How long since you've eaten? Rub your belly. You're naked, as usual, except for the standard issue cotton shorts. One of the few shreds of decency they leave you. Feel between your legs, as a man does when he wakes up it's only when you touch that you remember to go cautiously. There's less of you there, since they took the tools to you. Thumper would joke about that, too, say: "So long's they leave me enough to piss on them when our boys break us out of here." What's the worst pain a man endures? Pain down there. It hurts in ways beyond words, cripples what's essential about you, goes straight to your soul. The bastards know this. That's what they want, your soul. They want you to remember them, for the pain to remind you as long as you live, provided they let you live. Every time you twinge there? That's them. Every time you piss blood, that's them. Every time you go into a woman - they'll leave you just enough to do that - the pain will remind you of the damage they caused, what they stuck up there and snapped off inside. And even if you could, by some miracle, manage to make the woman pregnant, that child would be born out of deep and searing pain. That's what they want.
But you showed them. You already have your miracle. You have Joey.
Thank God for Joey. Thank God. The two of you, Mary and you, made Joey on your wedding night, the one night you had together before parting. Mary clung to you, heartbroken, convinced you'd failed and left nothing behind. But you knew it had taken, you felt the seed take hold. Joey. Thumper loves that story, roared when he heard it. "What're the odds?" he laughed. "Y'know, I worked on a stud farm once, for racehorses. This one stallion, he was the star. Hit the bulls-eye the first time, every time. Called him 'Just Once,'" Thumper roared. "We'll call you that, Cap. Just Once." You smile now, recalling it. Hell, it wasn't proper, an enlisted man addressing an officer that way, and it was kind of an insult to Mary. But hey, it was Thumper. Thumper means no harm.
Zeke laughed, too, but you knew his heart wasn't in it. Zeke's more serious minded. He's hard to get close to, keeps to himself, much as you can in a ten-by-ten cell with two other guys. Zeke's a city boy. He kills time drawing on the dirt with his finger, then erasing it and drawing again. He'll hum a tune you think you know. "Fascinating Rhythm"? you guess, and he'll give a little smile and say "Mozart," or somesuch. Then he'll stop humming.
Zeke's taken the abuse as well as the rest of you. But that last session changed him. Back in the cell you saw it: his whole one side purple and yellow, one ugly bruise. His ribs collapsed, sunk in; they sagged at a touch. Since then, you hear it in his snoring. Then the coughing starts, sounding like he's turning inside out.
Thumper and Zeke. Brave men, the finest you've ever commanded. They obey your orders, put their faith in you. They looked to you to lead them, and you let them down. You led them here.
A letter came a couple of months after your hitch started: Mary telling you she was pregnant. The picture came later, in another letter. Mary, smiling, on a hospital bed in Seattle, holding a bundle in a blanket. Joey. That picture gave you a reason to go on. Finish this damn war, get home and hold your son. The picture made you strong. It'd be making you strong now if the bastards hadn't taken it away. It would've been better to have destroyed that picture - eaten it, even - than know it was in their grimy mitts.
Get a grip. Clear your head. Fight your anger - Anger blinds you and makes you careless. You need your wits now. You have to figure out where you are.
Reconnoiter. Stare hard and shapes emerge. You make out - what? - furniture? There was no furniture in your cell. It was always empty; the walls were bare. All that was there was your cots and a pot to piss in, when they gave you that much.
Two guys torture you. It's their job and they do it well. They're twisted little bastards, with their ropes and sticks. They're barely human - you'd swear they had beaks. Thumper calls them Heckle and Jeckle, after those crows in the cartoons. Wait, they're not crows; what are they called? Magpies. That's it; that's what they are. You saw their cartoons at the show, when you went with Mary. And after the cartoons they showed the newsreel, showed you the war. Soundless, scratchy pictures of our enemies and the Allies fighting them. You swelled with pride and signed up to fight for liberty. They sent you to the Pacific. Ah, liberty! Well, the war - and your liberty - came to a screeching halt when you were captured and brought here.
Heckle and Jeckle have your picture. They bring it out after they've worked you over. They rope you down so you can't get at them, then they show you the picture. The one called Jeckle holds it up, shows you Mary and Joey, and then he licks it, tells you what your wife tastes like. He says that when the war is won and he gets to America, he'll have her. Why not? he says - everyone else has. Your Army told your wife that you're dead, Jeckle says, and when she heard that news she became the slut of the city. Jeckle tells you your wife is a whore and your son calls strangers "father." For that, you will make him pay.
They're monsters. They're everything you despise. How can people behave like that, treat their fellow man like - like -
You jump up, too fast. Your heels strike the floor with a loud clump. No. Noise lets them know you're awake. And they'd come and do whatever it is they have planned for you
And what do they have planned for you? This room, this comfort what does it mean? Maybe they're cleaning you up. Why? To show you off? They've paraded you in front of brass before, made you stand at attention while they made their speeches, rattled on in that strange tongue of theirs.
Or maybe this is just a way-station, a limbo between here and there. Maybe your journey's not over. What more can they do to you? How can they hurt you in a way that they haven't already?
Except to kill you.
You know now. That's why they took you away from each other: to dole it out to each of you in your turn. It all comes back to that, doesn't it? Nothing else makes sense. You've learned their cruelty too well to believe otherwise. They're going to kill you. That is, if you give them the chance.
You've got to act. Step forward. Steady. Your head swims. You stumble. Careful. Your legs are stiff. They creak like bad plumbing. Sweep your hands in front as you go, like a blind man. There's a wall. The plaster is smooth, not the stone walls of the cave. Some object hangs there and you bump it lightly as you pass.
What's this? A light switch. God, it's a light switch. Well, flip it on - No. They'll they see the light and know you're awake. The dark buys you time.
Besides, there might be a mirror. With the lights out you don't have to look at yourself, see your ruined body, all the evidence of what they've done to you. Why put yourself through that? Better to think of yourself whole and strong.
Move carefully. Make your way along the wall with your hands. Here's a door. A wood door, not metal. Solid, no bars. They must not want to watch you. They must figure you're not a threat, that you're too weak to fight. Let them think that. That'll be their last mistake.
Press your ear to the door, listen for sounds on the other side. Nothing. Grip the knob and start to turn Stop. It's got to be locked. And if it's not, there's a sentry there, posted right outside. There has to be. They wouldn't leave you unguarded. Listen hard. Hear anything? Hard to tell. The door must be thick.
Keep going. Follow the wall again. Run your palms along it to the window. A thick shade covers the pane; light seeps around its borders.
There's a drawstring; give it a yank. Too much - Damn! The shade rolls up with a loud snap. You rear back. They had to hear that! Are they coming? Panic screams in your ears, but you have to listen for an uproar outside.
Nothing. No footsteps pounding. How can that be, after the racket you just made? The whole place should be up in arms. But no. Your eyes sting, you're clenching them so tight. Open them slowly. The shade is up. Outside it's night. The moonlight washes over you.
Spread out your fingertips on cool glass, press your forehead against it. It quenches a fever you didn't know you have. A cool tear runs down your cheek. You're crying, you can't help it. Moonlight. You haven't seen it in so long. It glows between your shattered fingers. Then you realize: the light is unbroken. There are no shadows. And there are no shadows because there are no bars.
What? You leap away as if stung. No bars. What's going on here? Who puts a prisoner in a prison with no bars on the windows? What keeps you from escaping? Are they toying with you?
Concentrate. The window's clear, so you check your environment. Shapes outside silhouette the sky: rooftops and chimneys all around. And beyond them there are hills, vague in the fog. The rooftops aren't high. Is that a village down there? A compound? Thumper and Zeke - are they out there somewhere? Are they alive?
Yes. They're out there. They're alive. It hurts too much to think otherwise. Thumper and Zeke are out there in the compound somewhere, in a room like this one. And they're alive.
So what now? Rescue them. How? Walk out the door? It's a trap. The bastards are out there, waiting for you. That's what they want, for you to pull a bonehead move like that, play the hero and rush out of the room. Sure, that'll be their excuse. He was trying to escape. We had to kill him. He left us no choice. You can just hear them. Well, you won't give them the satisfaction.
The window. You're banged up, sure, but you're not dead. You can do this. Climb out of this window, get to the ground, search the place and find Thumper and Zeke. Then get right out of here before anybody even knows you're gone. Zeke can't walk; carry him out on your back if you have to. And if it is a trap, and they're waiting for you, you'll fight with everything you've got. You'll go down fighting, like a soldier, and do your country proud. But somehow you don't see that. What you see is yourself standing on that distant horizon. Safe and free and heading home. Mary and Joey, here I come. And Thumper and Zeke are with me. Damn right. If one of you is coming back, you're all coming back.
You can do this. There's no time to waste. Grasp the windowpane and heave. Nothing. It won't budge. It's locked. Of course it's locked. Feel for a bolt, something. Nothing. You know windows, and this one would have a lock. The frame is sturdy, seamless. Is there a crank? How does it open out? Along the molding you find a flaw, the barest hint of a lip, and dig in your fingernails. It's tight, there's not much to grip, but you wedge your fingertips in there and pull at it with all your might.
No good. It's too tight. Break the window. No - the last thing you need is more noise and broken glass on the ground below, with your bare feet.
Press the glass, test it. It's solid. The workmanship is good, much as you hate to admit it. You've hung windows yourself; it's a skill you'll teach Joey someday, when he's older. All right then; consider your options. You can dismantle the frame, jimmy out the molding. Pop out the sash - except there isn't any sash. The pane runs in a track embedded in the frame itself. You'll have to take the pane off the track. Pry it off. So you'll need something to pry with.
Turn back to the room. Sweep the air. The flat surface you used to guide yourself here - it's a table of some sort. There's a drawer in it. Yank it out and - it spills over, its contents crash - things clanging, smashing, skittering between your feet and across the hard floor. Too loud! Swoop down, gather what you can, when -
A sound: a voice. From the other side of the door.
Catch your breath - don't move - strain to hear it again. Pain rips your back, your pulse pounds. The damn racket. Now they'll come. Brace yourself. Now the door will burst off its hinges, they'll find you -
But nothing. No bursting hinges, no voice. You know you heard something. Listen harder. Still nothing. How can this be? What are they waiting for? For you to make the wrong move?
Well, then don't disappoint them. There's no turning back now.
Work fast. Kneel down. Sift through the mess on the floor. Sharp edges jab, scratch, but then you find -
A screwdriver. A fucking screwdriver. Exactly what you need. Whap it against your leg. Hard steel. You dive back to the window, slip it under the pane and press down. Nothing. It's jammed tight.
Pop the casing and run your fingers along the edge where the window meets the wall. The frame is flush and tight. Whoever put this in knew what he was doing, no denying it. It's good but not perfect. Your fingers find a flaw, a crack just wide enough, and - aha! - you slip the screwdriver in. Pound at it with the palm of your hand, bury it deep. The wall shakes. More noise. But now you don't care.
The screwdriver's impaled; posthole it, work it back and forth, drive it down. The wall's flimsy. It crumbles easily, spewing a light dusty mist. There. Now wedge it in and pry the frame out enough to get your fingers under it. You get in to the second knuckle. Concentrate. You can do this. Once a woman lifted a whole car by herself because her child was pinned under it. Thumper talked about it; she did the impossible, called up the strength of ten men in an emergency. Well, this is an emergency. You can do the impossible too. Bring your foot up on the sill, brace for leverage and - pull. Strain. Fingers burn and pinch. Ignore it. You're so close. Sweat sprouts on your forehead and tendons in your neck go taut as cables. Your bare foot cuts against the sharp sill. Your nails crack and split. Then - you can do this - summon the last ounce of might in your ravaged body - give one last good heave -
And it comes away. The frame tears away from the wall, splintering wood and cracking plaster. The pane pops out, whole, into your arms and you cradle it like an infant. You can't believe it. Look at what you've done. The window hole is open. You did it. You want to roar.
Night air sweeps in. Cold air rouses you. Lean out, look down into the fog. The buildings are close, but too far to jump to. You're two, three stories up. Too far a drop, too risky with your bad legs. But with a rope you can make it-
Freeze. The voice again. Closer now, just outside the door. And using your name, your first name. Nobody uses your first name but your loved ones. Shifty bastards.
But why aren't they breaking in? Maybe with all the noise they think there's more than just you in here. Maybe they're scared. Good. They should be scared. You're strong. The window's open. You got this far. Let them try to stop you now.
Work fast. What can you use for a rope? The sheets on the bed. Leap over and tug them off. Rip them with your bare hands. Faster. There's a knock at the door. Don't stop. Tie the ends of the sheet together, test the knot. Faster. Heave off the mattress and box spring, lash the rope's end around the bed frame. Toss the other end out the window, into the black night. It flutters down like a bird finding freedom. You whoop.
Faster. Hoist a leg over the sill. Can't stop now. Grip the rope. Will it hold? It'll have to hold. The doorknob turns. Faster. You're halfway out. The door is opening. Too late. They're here.
Out on the rope is no good. You'll never shimmy down in time - you'll be at their mercy. Swing back into the room. Grip the screwdriver with one hand and yank the doorknob with the other. The door flies open. Somebody stumbles in, knocked off balance, and you seize the person in a headlock, forcing a soft grunt, as you pitch both of you back against the wall, frantic, your bare heels slipping on the slick floor - Thumper and Zeke - pinning yourself in the shadow of the door, you point the screwdriver straight at the throat, brace for the others, the rest to come in, holding on for dear life- forgive me for failing - your hostage's jugular throbs under your blade - Mary and Joey - the screaming in your head - you'll kill this one if you have to -
Your name again. It startles you. You look up to see - nothing. There's nobody else in the room. There's just the two of you. It's your hostage who says it. You hitch up, tighten your lock on the windpipe, get a gag in response. The body is light in your arms, nearly weightless. A boy? They'd send a boy - ?
A ragged choke. The hostage's hands clutch at your forearm, weakly softly familiar a smell a fragrance you know stirs something buried in you, some inkling -
"Gordon?" the voice says again, and you know you have to see your hostage. Lift the screwdriver off its throat and reach for the light switch and flip it up
The room bursts into clarity, sudden light throwing everything into stark relief: the upturned bed, the table, the hole where the drawer came out and its contents strewn on the floor. The clock. The sports pennants and posters What? The wrecked window, the night streaming in, cool breeze rustling brittle shapes dangling from the ceiling - Where? - Model airplanes, authentic scale replicas, kept there, suspended, for Joey when he went off to college, so he'd have them to come home to
You know where you are. This is Joey's room.
And with that realization, something in you detaches. You drift. You're back in your night swim. You never stopped drifting, you know that now. Never reached that shimmering surface, never quite broke through. You glide up, through murky depths. Up. And the more you ascend, the more the visions pass you, like shimmery fish: events, memories, milestones. Float up - past your release, your return, a hero's welcome. The Silver Star for valor. Float up - college on the GI bill, your father's business, your first house - up, up, up - baptism, graduation, retirement -
And then you break the surface, and come fully, finally, awake.
Your hostage sobs. The head under your nose, the soft gray hair. That fragrance. Her powder. Mary.
Loosen your hold. Mary doesn't pull away, in fact clings to you, sobbing, and collapses in your arms. She's soft, clad in her favorite flannel nightgown.
Look around. You see it clearly now. Joey's room. Joey's desk. The bookcase you built for him, all his trophies proudly displayed. The nightstand, gooseneck reading lamp toppled, amber prescription bottles scattered.
And the window: it's a double-pane thermal. Tight as they come. You installed it yourself when you built this room.
Your fingertips burn. Hold up your hand. It's knotted, sure, and marked. It's worn and it's torn but not broken. It's just old.
A car door slams outside.
Thumper? Zeke? No, you know now - it won't be them. It can't be. They're gone. Zeke never did recover from that last beating; he died in the cell. Cancer took Thumper a good ten years ago, just shy of his retirement. You're the last of them, the only one left.
The front door opens downstairs.
"Mom?" A voice calls up. "Dad?"
Joey. Mary called him. Of course she did. She's scared enough, sleeping downstairs alone, since you started sleepwalking. Or what the damn fool doctors say is sleepwalking Mary's call must've caused a ruckus in Joey's household, woken Lisa and the kids.
Footsteps pound up the stairs. Joey's coming. When he steps into the room, how old will he be? Middle-aged? Two? Twenty? You can never be sure.
But you can be sure he'll lecture you. This is where he scolds the old man. The doctors You have to rest You have to remember to take your medicine, Dad.
Not that it would matter. This is how your life comes to you now, in luminous, fickle waves. Images, incidents, whole episodes returning, with the clarity and each familiar emotion preserved, good and bad, all coming back to be lived again.
Mary burrows into you. She tucks her nose into your neck, and her tears wet you both. She trembles. With love. With fear. With all you inspire in her these days.
Are you afraid? Yes. Yes, you are. You watch the moments of your life drift away from you, beyond your grasp, only to tumble back in, like breaking surf, in a crazy order all their own. This can't be the reward for living a long life: to make it all this way, through all that, only to lose yourself. Of course you're afraid. But you're grateful, too, that they come back at all. That's what scares you most, that they'll stop coming. That they'll slip away forever and leave you floating, unmoored, your only anchor this loving woman, sobbing in your arms.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Chet Kozlowski. All rights reserved