Excerpt from Roll Them Bones by David Niall Wilson

Excerpt From:
Roll Them Bones (Novella #12)
by David Niall Wilson

Jason pulled his sleek black Volvo in beside a faded, rust-pocked Chevy truck in front of Macomber’s General Store and killed the engine. He couldn’t suppress a shiver. If it hadn’t been for the peeling paint on the side of the building, and the new feed and grain store across the street, he’d have believed the trip was all a dream and he was twelve again. So little had changed.

Old Bob Macomber was on the porch of the store, rocker creaking slowly as he took in Jason’s car with a dubious stare. Curiosity, like everything else in Random, was slow to blossom. Jason stepped from the car and closed the door slowly, turning to scan Main Street. The Post Office and the Sheriff’s office were one building, a duplex, grey-concrete blocks bonded with cement and too-thick coats of paint. The American flag hung at a forty-five degree angle beside the front awning of each door.

“Hasn’t changed much, has it boy?” Old Bob’s voice broke the silence like a stone through glass, and Jason started, turning back with a sheepish grin.

“Not much at all,” he agreed, stepping toward the porch, and the store. “It’s been a long time, Bob.”

Bob nodded toward an empty rocker a few feet to his side. “Sit a spell, Jason. It ain’t every day one of our wandering sons returns.”

Jason stepped up to the porch and took the offered seat, watching the old man with a slowly spreading grin. “Don’t even offer a beer?”

“You know where the beer is boy,” Bob rumbled, “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll bring two. It’d damned hot out here. And don’t be thinking ‘cause you’re Glen Stiller’s boy you’ll be running a tab. Ain’t nothing free here.”

Jason laughed. He rocked forward and stood in an easy motion, turning to the store and pushing through the door. The cooler stood along the wall, just to his left, as it had stood when he’d gotten his first Coca Cola about twenty years in the past. The hum of electricity and the sudden sense of deja vu nearly stole his breath.

It was like stepping through a time-warp portal into another place. Hank William’s Sr. yodeled from an ancient, RCA radio on the counter. Flies buzzed around a barrel of apples in the corner, and on the wall above the cooler, James Dean winked at him slyly from a poster advertising a brand of cigarettes that no longer existed.

Jason leaned on the old cooler for a second, the cool porcelain supporting him easily, then he lifted the lid, snagged a couple of long-necked Budweisers and turned toward the door. The cooler closed behind him with a soft “whoomp.”

He handed one to Bob and returned to the empty rocker, unscrewing the top of the bottle with a quick twist of his wrist and tossing the cap in a lazy arc toward the can beside the door. It clipped the rim, then rolled in.

“Lucky,” Bob grunted. “Always was lucky.” He flicked his own cap into the can with practiced ease. “I guess you’re lookin’ for Ronnie?”

Jason stared at the bottle in his hand. Condensation had beaded the deep brown surface and dampened his fingers. He nodded. “I guess I am,” he said softly. “He called me about a month ago.”

Bob rocked, sipping his beer. He didn’t speak for what seemed hours and was probably not a full minute.

“He called some others, too,” Bob said at last. “Lizzy is here, and Frank. Ain’t seen a one of you since you graduated high school, but here you are.”

“They’re here?” Jason said, maybe too quickly.

Bob looked around slowly, then laughed, tipping the beer bottle up and draining it. “You see ’em?”

Jason smiled despite himself. “Nope,” he answered, swallowing his own beer in a single gulp. He rose, taking both bottles and returning to the store.

As he slipped through the door once more, Bob called after him. “Lizzy is here. She’s staying over at Mae’s. I reckon there’s a couple more rooms. Frank is due in tomorrow, or so Edna says.”

Jason grinned again. Edna would know. Edna knew everything that happened in Random, or nearby. The only contact with the outside world was the phone lines, and the phone lines went through Edna.

“They ever put in that automatic switchboard?” Jason called, as he grabbed two more beers from the cooler.”

He slipped back out onto the porch, noting that the sun had dropped a little closer to the skyline. It was a deep orange sunset, seeping over the tops of the trees and staining the black asphalt of the road as it stretched away across endless miles of open farmland.

“Nope,” Bob answered with a chuckle. “Edna couldn’t figure how to tap into it, so she put them off another year.”

“What is that, about fifteen years she’s ‘put them off,’?” Jason chuckled again. This time his bottle-cap sailed into the can cleanly.

“Something like that,” Bob answered, and for the first time, the old man grinned. “It’s good to see you boy. Don’t you think for a minute I’ve forgotten you owe me for ten comics, either.”

This time Jason’s laughter was clear and loud. “Let’s see,” he replied, “at twelve cents apiece…”

The silence that followed was deep and comfortable, and Jason sipped the beer, rocking gently and letting the voices of a thousand crickets calm him.

Mae’s was just down the street, and Jason let his gaze fall on the faded, white-washed front of the old building. In it’s day, the place had been a saloon, a flop house, even a temporary school. Now it served as motor lodge, hotel, boarding house and general rent-all. Whoever needed a room, for however long, was welcome. Jason felt welcome, and he hadn’t even left the store. It was good to be home, odd as it felt, out of place as he was in his Ralph Lauren Chaps and his Italian leather shoes.

The trees were painted with all the colors of autumn, and the air was brisk, but not yet cold. The high school would be getting ready for homecoming soon, and the scarecrows and fake spider’s webs already lined the street. Jason glanced over at old Bob and grinned.

“What’s the going price on toilet paper and paraffin?” he asked.

“You better believe it’s gone up,” Bob laughed. “Won’t be too many kids can find the price of a good paraffin stick this time of year.”

Jason grinned and drained the beer, standing quickly.

“I’d better get on over to Mae’s,” he said. “Don’t want to miss dinner. I’d hate to have to come back and wake you up.”

“Don’t sleep so much these days,” Bob said softly, more softly than Jason had anticipated. “Seen a lot of sun ups, and sun downs, boy. Reckon these days I prefer to be awake for both. You get on over to Mae’s, but you need a beer, or a sandwich, or a pair of ears to yak at, you come on back. Reckon I’ll be right here.”

Jason nodded, then took the space between them in a few quick strides, extending his hand.

“It’s been way too long, Bob,” he said. “I’ll be back to take you up on that beer before I head out. You can count on that. Likely be here for a couple of those sunrises, as well.”

“You do that, boy,” Bob smiled, showing that at least two of his teeth had not weathered the test of time. “You bring that Frank with you. I’d like to see how old Jim Moss’ boy turned out. Seems everyone leaves Random before they get old enough to have any sense, and those that stay. . .”

Tom’s words trailed off, and Jason didn’t question him. He turned with a quick wave and headed up the block toward Mae’s, leaving his car parked where it was. No sense starting it up to drive 100 yards, and for some reason he didn’t want to crawl back into the stuffy interior of the car just then.

The loud jingle of a bell startled him as gravel shot out of a too-quickly turned tire as a boy, maybe ten, sped past on an old Schwinn bicycle.

“Jeez, Mr.,” the boy called back, leaping the bike onto the sidewalk and whipping around the first corner with practiced ease. “Watch where you’re goin’.”

Jason laughed, trotting the last few feet to Mae’s. He hesitated as soft laughter floated out through the screen door. The voice was familiar, achingly so, and moments later he heard Mae’s throaty chuckle joining in. No mistaking that voice.

Jason knocked, then pulled the screen door open and stepped inside. Back in New York this would have been rude, but as each moment passed, he felt the sense of home more strongly. Etiquette in Random was a wholly different animal, subject to an older set of rules.

Those gathered around the dining room table fell silent as Jason entered. Lizzy looked up, then down to the floor with a shy blush that made Jason smile. He knew it was her. He hadn’t seen Lizzy in over twelve years, but he knew that smile, and that blush.

“Hey Lizzy,” he said softly, then turned to the head of the table. “Mae,” he nodded.

“Hope you got a room with a soft pillow and a real air conditioner.”

Mae laughed, standing slowly. She flowed from her chair, flowered dress spinning out around her in a whirl of color. To say Mae was a large woman would be like saying the Ocean was a big pond. The floor groaned with her weight, and her rumbling laughter rattled the china in the cabinet along the wall. Long, braided red hair fell over her shoulders and tumbled across her breasts. Her eyes flashed green across the room and Jason tumbled back through time.

“You’ll be lucky, and happy, to get a bed with clean sheets and a room with a ceiling fan,” Mae asserted, hands dropping to her ample hips. “And if you don’t sit that skinny butt down in about two seconds and start eating, you can say ‘excuse me, Mae, for missing dinner,’ and high-tail it back to that store for Doritos.”

They all burst out laughing at that, and Jason regained enough control of his limbs to seat himself next to Lizzy, letting his gaze trail over her soft features. She still wasn’t meeting his gaze, but she was smiling. Jason glanced instinctively down to her finger. No ring. That would be a tale for later, he guessed.

Without hesitation, Jason grabbed a plate and spooned a generous helping of mashed potatoes into the center. There was gravy for the potatoes, meatloaf, corn and a casserole of mushrooms and spinach coated in thick cheese that had Jason’s mouth watering just from smelling it. Some things never changed. No one could eat a meal at Mae’s table and really wonder how she’d reached such prodigious girth. The real question was how those who surrounded her avoided it.

“You want to pass me that milk?” Jason asked, nudging Lizzy gently.

As she moved to grab the carton, he added. “You look great, Lizzy.”

“You leave that girl alone,” Mae called from the end of the table. Her eyes were twinkling, but it was clear that she wanted Jason to know she was looking out for Lizzy.

“Um…” Jason laughed, “I can’t reach the milk, Mae.”

Lizzy slid the carton within reach and Jason poured the glass full with a smile.

“You know what I meant, son,” Mae chuckled. “You just mind your manners, and we’ll all get along fine. She’s been through enough.”

“Mae!” Lizzy cut in quickly, the pretty blush returning.

Mae didn’t answer, but she let it drop. Jason watched Lizzy for just a second, then smiled and turned back to his food.

“Frank will be here tomorrow,” Lizzy said softly.

Jason nodded, not looking up.

“Ronnie will probably be here later tonight. He’ll want to talk to you, Jason.”

“I know,” Jason replied between mouthfuls. “I guess he’ll want to talk to us all, eventually. Isn’t that why we’re here?”

Lizzy looked away again, and Jason sighed. “It will be okay, Liz,” he said softly, laying his fork aside for a moment and placing his hand gently on her shoulder. “We’re not kids anymore, you know? Even Ronnie must have grown up. He did actually write the letter.”

Liz nodded, and Jason saw the hint of a smile crease the corner of her lips, but she didn’t really laugh. He watched her for a moment longer, then turned back to finish his food in silence.

He wasn’t really looking forward to seeing Ronnie either. Ronnie Lambert hadn’t been anyone’s close friend when they were younger. They’d hung with him because the alternative was to have him beat the crap out of them every time he saw them for not hanging with him. Besides, Random Illinois didn’t boast a huge population of kids at any given moment; their options had been limited.

Now here they were, Jason, Lizzy, and pretty soon Frank, all gathered together like a bunch of school kids because Ronnie Lambert had called them. Red-neck Ronnie still had that control, that tone in his voice, even when the words were written and not spoken. Jason felt suddenly foolish, and pushed back from the table and his empty plate with a sigh.

“Was a time you liked my meatloaf,” Mae observed, cocking one eyebrow.

“You know it isn’t the food, Mae,” Jason said thoughtfully. “It’s been a long time, is all,” he added lamely. “Guess after driving fifteen hundred miles I’m finally asking myself what I expected to find here.”

Lizzy turned, suddenly reaching out and laying her hand across his.

“I’m glad you came,” she said softly. “Very glad, Jason. I was worried you wouldn’t.”

It was Jason’s turn to blush.

“Hell,” he said softly. “What fun would it be spending Halloween in the city, alone? It was about time I got back here anyway.”

Mae watched the two for a moment in silence, then cut in.

“Kids are like really good books, you know?”

They all turned to her, and Mae nodded, continuing. “You read the dang thing once, and it’s wonderful. Every bit of it sticks with you. Then it’s out of sight, out of mind. You get to living and learning and forget about it, but flashes of what you read stick with you all your life, until one day, there it is. You have some time, and you pick that book back up, and damned if you didn’t miss a lot the first time. I can read an old book over and over, Jason. It’s good to have you home.”

Jason smiled. Mae could always put a thing into words. Among the kids, it had been Frank who had that gift, tall, bespectacled Frank. Of them all, it was Frank they would recognize most easily. His face was splashed regularly over the New York Times book review pages and the novel racks at every bookstore, airport, grocery and news stand in the country. Skinny little Frank with his piles of spiral-bound notebooks and his wild ideas.

Very suddenly Jason missed Frank. He had the urge, quickly stifled, to lean over and hug Lizzy. Whatever happened over the next few days, he knew he was going to make certain it wasn’t the last time he saw them. All his life he’d been running, running from the little dead-end town, running from relationships and responsibilities. He’d run to college, run out with a degree and found a good job.

In those days, the job had been the bottom line. Everything would be fine as soon as he had a job that paid him approximately twice what his small-town parents had made and let him have shiny cars and shinier women. That had been the formula for happiness. Life, add money. Live and learn.

The door opened again, and before Jason could pass on his new sentiments, there were quick, heavy steps and a hand smacked down on his shoulder.

“Hey, Jason,” Ronnie’s voice boomed too loud in the once-comfortable silence. “Good to have you home.”

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Excerpt from Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished by Rocky Wood with David Rawsthorne & Norma Blackburn

Excerpt from:
Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished
by Rocky Wood with David Rawsthorne & Norma Blackburn

Wimsey is a story fragment from the Lord Peter Wimsey novel King worked on in late 1977. The piece is a double-spaced, typewritten manuscript, containing the first chapter, of fourteen pages, and only the first page of a second chapter. Although it has never been published copies of this fragment circulate in the King community.

The attempted novel was the result of both the King family’s abortive move to England and a discussion between King and his editor of the time, Bill Thompson. The discussion revolved around the writing of a novel using the detective character, Lord Peter Wimsey, created by Dorothy L Sayers. More of Wimsey and Sayers later.

The King family moved to England in the Fall of 1977. King was reported in the Fleet News as saying he wanted to write a book “…with an English setting.” The house they settled on was Mourlands, at 87 Aldershot Road, Fleet in Hampshire. Beahm reported that the Kings had advertised for a home, reading: ‘Wanted, a draughty Victorian house in the country with dark attic and creaking floorboards, preferable haunted.’ King’s US paperback publisher, NAL, issued a press release stating King had moved to England to write “…a novel even more bloodcurdling than the previous ones …” Although this does not sound at all like a genteel British detective novel, we can perhaps forgive the publisher’s enthusiasm for its best-selling writer.

Once in England King did not find the inspiration required for an English novel, perhaps explaining the fragmentary nature of Wimsey, but he did begin one of his most famous novels, Cujo during the three months the family remained in the country. One story based in England did result from the trip, however. In mid-October 1977 the King family had dinner with Peter Straub and his wife in the London suburb of Crouch End. This resulted in King’s Lovecraftian story, Crouch End, originally published in the 1980 collection New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and in a heavily revised version in 1993’s Nightmare and Dreamscapes.

Of course, the best result of the England trip may have been the beginning of King’s long and fruitful relationship with fellow author Straub, which has so far resulted in both The Talisman and Black House, with a reasonable likelihood that a third Jack Sawyer novel will be written.

Apparently King sent the fragment of Wimsey to Bill Thompson for review but Thompson’s reaction is unknown. We can only presume it was either not positive or King himself had lost interest in the concept. In retrospect this is likely to have been a good thing. Despite King’s typecasting as a horror novelist, which resulted from Night Shift, The Stand, The Dead Zone and Cujo being the books to follow Carrie, Salem’s Lot and The Shining, it is likely King’s career has been all the more fruitful as a so-called horror novelist than as a so-called detective or mystery writer, along the lines of Sayers or Agatha Christie (although King’s take on Death on the Nile might be interesting, to say the least).

In what we can read of this aborted novel Lord Peter Wimsey and his servant Bunter are on their way, through ‘beastly rain’ to a party at Sir Patrick Wayne’s estate in the country. Wimsey had last met Sir Patrick in 1934. Wimsey and Bunter discuss the foul weather and the death of Salcomb Hardy, which has put Wimsey in a funk. During the trip the two men’s dry sense of humour becomes apparent.

After they cross ‘…an alarmingly rickety plank bridge which spanned a swollen stream…’, Wimsey calls for a toilet stop and, alerted by the contrast to its more solid nature the previous time he had crossed it, looks at the bridge, only to find that the supports had been cut almost through. Somehow this dangerous discovery seems to have enlivened Wimsey, who calls with ‘…more excitement in his voice than Bunter had heard in a long time … he could not remember how long.’ However, Bunter thinks this flash will pass, ‘… gleams of what Wimsey had been and could not even yet deny utterly. It would pass, and he would become the Wimsey that was in this dull aftermath of the war that had made their war seem like child’s play  a dreary ghost-Wimsey, distracted and vague, a Wimsey who did too much solitary drinking, a Wimsey whose wit had soured.’

Returning to the car Wimsey states that if the heavy weather continues the bridge will collapse. When they return to the road Wimsey even wonders if ‘Sir Pat’ was not himself responsible for trying to isolate his home from the world, considering in particular his ‘…invitation, renewed so tiresomely over the last month and a half, until we quite ran out of excuses. It began to take on a … a flavour, did it not?’ Wimsey and Bunter begin to consider that Sir Patrick might have a problem ‘…requiring certain detective talents…’ Then, ‘Wimsey said quietly, “I don’t detect. I shall never detect again.” Bunter did not reply. “If I hadn’t been off detecting for the British Secret Service, I … what rot.”’ Apparently Wimsey blamed himself for his wife’s death in the Blitz.

Now their thoughts turn to Miss Katherine Climpson, another of Wimsey’s employees. Wimsey tentatively asks how ‘she’ was and Bunter does ‘… not affect to know of whom Lord Peter spoke’. We discover that Climpson is mortally ill with cancer in a hospital near Wimsey’s Picadilly flat and that he had ‘…gone to visit her himself in the first nine weeks of her stay, but at last he had been able to face it no more. He cursed himself for a coward, reviled himself, called himself a slacker and a yellow-livered slug … but he did not go.’ The slow decline of Climpson was, ‘Too much. Harriet was dead; his brother was dead; even Salcomb Hardy was dead; Miss Climpson was dying and Sir Patrick Wayne, a rich old bore who had been knighted for making himself richer at the expense of thousands of lives, was alive and apparently doing fine. “Is tomorrow Halloween, Bunter?” “I believe it is, my lord.” “It should be,” Wimsey said, and helped himself to a cigarette. “It bloody well should be.”’

As Sir Patrick’s house approaches the brakes fail and their Bentley crashes (Bunter, still in character, laconically comments, “We appear to have lost all braking power, my lord”). Chapter One ends at this point.

In the aftermath of the crash and the beginning of Chapter Two Wimsey wakes and calls for Bunter. At this point what we have of the story ends.

Although Wimsey is relatively short there are a number of interesting facts to report.

Sir Patrick Wayne’s estate is seven miles from Little Shapley, England. If the bridge collapsed, there was only one other road, barely a cart track, out of the estate. Wimsey and Bunter were driving to the estate on 30 October 1945 (“is tomorrow Halloween?”), less than six months after the end of the Second World War in Europe.

The only details of note that King provides us with about Wimsey himself are that he was formerly a detective with the British Secret Service, that his wife Harriet Vane Wimsey had died during the German blitz and the reader’s presumption that the elder Duke of Denver was Wimsey’s brother.

Wimsey’s nephew, the current Duke of Denver (‘Jerry’) had visited Sir Patrick Wayne’s daughter until she had become engaged to another man. Jerry had served in the RAF during the Battle of Britain and was one of the relatively few survivors of that action.

Katherine Climpson seems set to be an important character in the novel. She ran Wimsey’s typing bureau, was unmarried, and was dying of cancer in a hospital on Great Ormond Street, London. Salcomb Hardy, who had recently died of a stroke, was a crime reporter and heavy drinker. Wimsey read his obituary in The Times.

King adopted a style for Wimsey that is indeed very English in tone, including a rather dry tone of exchange between Bunter and the title character. It is clear that King was quite capable of delivering in this style, as one might expect from a premier novelist. In one passage, as Bunter pulls the car over for a comfort stop, he reminds his employer, “If you would not take it amiss, my lord, your heavy overcoat is one the hook directly behind you. I’m afraid of the effects of the rain might be on that worsted.” In another Wimsey says, “Let’s go back to the car, Bunter, before we take a chill,” in the best of British aristocratic tones of the 1940s.

Wimsey is mentioned as a literary character in both Bag of Bones and Apt Pupil. Adding this to the fact that King attempted a Wimsey novel leads us to speculate that King is probably a fan of the Wimsey series. King listed Wimsey’s creator, Dorothy L Sayers, as one of the authors he most admired during an interview for The Waldenbook Report in late 1997.

Sayers’ character, Lord Peter Wimsey was immensely popular in the 1920s and 1930s and the books are still read avidly today. The BBC made two successful television series based on the character, starring Ian Carmichael and Peter Haddon in the lead roles, and there were also 1935 and 1940 movies based on two of the novels.

The fourteen novels and additional short stories were all published in the 1920s through the early 1940s and feature Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, the younger brother of the Duke of Denver and a World War I veteran. His manservant is Bunter. An avid rare book collector, Wimsey develops a penchant for investigating crime, often assisting Detective Inspector Charles Parker, his brother in law. Sayers’ imaginary life of Lord Peter ends in 1942, with Wimsey married to Harriet Vane and the father of three sons. From the Author’s Note in Thrones, Dominations we know that he served in Military Intelligence in World War II.

It seems that King has been faithful to the Wimsey mythology, as we would expect. He has Wimsey married to Harriet, although he extends the mythos by having her die in the Blitz. He also has Wimsey serving in the British Secret Service during the War, linking the note of his serving in Military Intelligence. Readers will conclude from the text that he is the uncle of the current Duke of Denver, which is the way Sayers had it.

Sayers herself was acquainted with a number of the literary circles of her time, being a friend of T S Eliot and C S Lewis. She was a figure of some controversy, having had a child out of wedlock in 1924 and being accused of anti-Semitism in her writing. Apart from the Wimsey and Vane stories (Harriet Vane was also an amateur detective), which set her up financially and which she then retired from writing, she also wrote religious essays and plays in an orthodox Anglican manner; and translated some of Dante’s writings. Interestingly enough, she also translated the Song of Roland from the Old French. That work is an anonymous Old French epic, dating to the 11th Century and is regarded as the first of the great French heroic poems known as chansons de geste. Born in 1893, Sayers died in 1957.

King has continued to show an interest in crime and detective stories and has presented his Constant Readers with a limited but quality selection, including The Fifth Quarter, Man with a Belly, The Wedding Gig, The Doctor’s Case and Umney’s Last Case. The Colorado Kid, King’s novel, published in October 2005 was specifically written for the publisher, Hard Case Crime, which has revived ‘the storytelling and visual style of the great pulp paperbacks of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s’.

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Shivers 5 Free Read: “One More Day” by Brian Freeman

chizmar14Cemetery Dance Publications is proud to announce the fifth entry in this award-nominated and best-selling anthology series!  Shivers V contains over twenty short stories from today’s most popular authors, including Stewart O’Nan, Graham Masterton, Mick Garris, Chet Williamson, Simon Clark, R. Patrick Gates, Ronald Kelly, John Skipp & Cody Goodfellow, Al Sarrantonio, Rick Hautala, Kealan Patrick Burke, Robin Furth, Nick Mamatas, Scott Nicholson, Del James, and many others.  Featuring original dark fiction with a handful of rare reprints, Shivers V is available only as a beautiful perfect-bound trade paperback from Cemetery Dance Publications.

Today we’re pleased to present Brian Freeman’s story “One More Day” for free here in the Free Reads section:

“One More Day”

by Brian Freeman

Michael wasn’t sure exactly how long he had been chained naked to the floor of the Big Man’s Punishment Room, but he did know the Big Man would be coming back soon.  Then the bleeding and the screaming and the torture would start again.  Michael wasn’t sure he could survive another night.

The coldness of the Punishment Room had long ago seeped through his skin and taken hold of his bones.  The smooth concrete floor and the metal drain near his feet were stained with dried blood.  On the wall across from him was the wide mirror that relentlessly showed his reflection.  He couldn’t help but stare into it, watching himself deteriorate.

The hallucinations were growing stronger and more vivid with each passing day.  His body was exhausted and his eyes burned from the horror of the things he had seen and done… but still, he prayed to live for one more day.

That was how you made it through this sort of thing–or so he had decided early on as the days and the nights blurred together.  There were no windows in the Punishment Room, of course, just that damned mirror, but Michael believed the Big Man didn’t come to see him until after dark.  It was just a hunch, though.  The time between visits was horrible and the nights were full of their own terrors, but now the nightmares weren’t nearly as bad as what happened when Michael was awake. In fact, the nightmares were almost comforting in their own bizarre way.  At least in his dreams, he was in control.  He didn’t have to do the terrible things the Big Man demanded… or face the consequences for non-compliance.

Assuming Michael managed to escape this hellhole with his sanity and his life–and those odds were looking worse and worse with each passing visit of the Big Man–he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to go on living with the knowledge of what he had done to survive… but then again, that was a dilemma he wouldn’t mind being forced to deal with, given the finality of the alternative. He took the pain and the punishment one day at a time, hoping each day would be the last time he ever came face to face with the Big Man.  And when the Big Man entered the Punishment Room like clockwork and made his unspoken demands, Michael would do what he had to do to keep on living for another day, his eyes never leaving his own reflection in the mirror.

Every night the Big Man gave him the same two options, and Michael hated the cold eyes staring back at him in the mirror as he made his choice.  He never stopped staring at himself, judging himself for what he had done, contemplating how he had ended up here in the first place.

Michael knew he might eventually escape from this endless Hell–there was always a slim chance, he was certain of that–but there was no escaping his own tired, bloodshot eyes.  Some days he gazed at his reflection for so long he felt like he was watching someone else, a spooky feeling under the best of conditions.  The growing darkness in his eyes scared him, but what else could he do all day long?

So he sat and he waited and he watched the mirror.  He barely recognized the man in the reflection, the man sitting upright against a bloodstained cinderblock wall.  The prisoner’s hands were chained to heavy anchors in the floor, but he had enough range of movement to do what the Big Man demanded… if he didn’t want to suffer more than necessary.  If he didn’t want to choose his other option.

Day after day after day passed.  The nightmares grew worse, the Big Man’s terrible choices became more maddening, and soon Michael saw movement in the mirror when he was all alone.  Darkness shifting and jumping in the corners.  His own eyes, big and red and tired, peering back at him, searching for some escape from the terror.  The eyes in the mirror moved while his own eyes remained still.

And as always, after another string of endless hours spent staring at himself, watching those strange eyes he didn’t recognize, Michael heard the footsteps echoing down the stairs.  Then the door hidden in the corner of the room opened.

Michael’s heart began to race and he closed his eyes.  He didn’t want to know what the next punishment would be–and he definitely didn’t want to see who the Big Man might have brought with him today.

Yet keeping his eyes closed meant nothing when he heard the small voice whisper: “Mikey?”

His eyes flew open and he stared in horror at his little sister.  He had practically raised Alicia.  He had changed her diapers and taken her to the doctor when she was sick; he had enrolled her in elementary school and helped with her homework; he had explained the real reason why the boys on the playground were picking on her; he had encouraged her to make friends and learn as much as she could and to take chances and think for herself.  Alicia meant the world to him and he would have done anything for her, to protect her.  He would never hurt her… and she would never hurt him.

Alicia wore her best Sunday dress and she had obviously been crying.  She knew why she was here.

Towering above her was the Big Man dressed all in black with the mask protecting his face.  He led Michael’s little sister by the hand–his gloved hand was huge, engulfing her small fingers–but his grip wasn’t tight and Alicia didn’t struggle the way Michael had when he first awoke in this terrible place.  Her eyes were big, yet she showed no fear.  She understood what had to be done.

In her left hand, Alicia held a pair of pliers.

“Oh Alicia, no,” Michael whispered.  He tried to believe that she was a hallucination–maybe he had finally lost his mind for good, maybe this was just another nightmare–but he had known the truth the instant he heard her voice.

The Big Man let go of Alicia’s hand and she crossed the room and sat down on the floor in front of her big brother.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He began to cry.  So did she.

The Big Man watched the events unfold with his usual detached silence.  This was his room–he controlled what happened and when, yet he said nothing.

“I am, too,” Michael replied, staring at the grimy metal drain in the concrete floor.  He couldn’t even look his little sister in the eyes as he considered his options one more time.  He could finally take his own life and end the pain for good–which would also allow his little sister to go free without suffering through the horror of what was to come–or he could do what the Big Man silently asked him to do.

These were the same two options Michael was presented every evening–just with a different person waiting in front of him, holding a different tool or weapon–and as Michael grew more tired, as the eyes in the mirror became darker and darker, the two options seemed more and more similar.

Michael looked at Alicia, and she nodded and tried to hand him the pliers.

She was closer to him than anyone in the world, but deep down Michael knew he wanted to live for another day.

Another hellish, terrible day.

Another day of hoping to escape.

Another day of praying to live to regret what he had done.

Just one more day.

So he looked up and he watched in the mirror as the stranger he didn’t recognize took the pliers and did what needed to be done.

#

Later, after the Big Man had disposed of yet another body, the pool of Alicia’s blood continued to drip down the metal drain while Michael stared at the stranger’s eyes in the mirror.  He didn’t blink for the longest time, but his mouth moved silently.

After a few minutes of this unspoken conversation with his reflection, Michael pulled his left hand close to his mouth, the security chains growing taut between him and the heavy anchor in the floor.  He began to chew on his wrist.

The blood came soon after.

#

“Oh my God!  I can’t stand to watch this anymore.”

Like always, the gray haired lady had been given the best seat in the house: she sat in a stiff, plastic chair directly on the other side of the large two-way mirror facing the prisoner.  The viewing room was cold and sterile, and the witnesses for the State murmured at the latest development occurring before their eyes.  Michael Cooper, prisoner 82726782B, really was chewing at his wrist.

“That’s acceptable, Mrs. Lawson,” the Government Official said from his chair in the control booth.  “You know Mr. Cooper’s punishment ends as soon as you tell us he’s been rehabilitated and your family is satisfied that society has been repaid for his crimes.  Is this what you’re saying?”

The little old woman rubbed her face with her brittle fingers and contemplated what had happened since the prisoner ran out of appeals, what had been done on the other side of the mirror, the horrors she had witnessed.

She whispered: “I just never imagined it would be so… gruesome.  The way he keeps staring at me….”

“You can set him free whenever you’d like.  That is how the system works, after all.”

The old woman sat behind the mirror, watching the boy who had killed her granddaughter.  She watched him and her heart dropped into her stomach and she heard her granddaughter’s sweet laughter at a Thanksgiving dinner long lost to the past.

The old woman flinched as the boy chewed at his bloody arm, and she asked herself again and again how much more she could really stand to see, to hear, before she’d go mad.  How much more punishment did this boy deserve until everything had been made right?  And how much more could she take?

Then she heard her granddaughter’s laughter again, and she remembered that cold day many years before when she found the little body huddled on the bedroom floor, stripped and broken.

There had been so much blood.

Her little granddaughter never had a chance.

The old woman remembered all of this for the millionth time and then she said: “I think I can stand the sight for another day.  Just one more day.”

And then she watched the prisoner consume his own flesh while the witnesses for the State whispered their words of reassurance.

— end —