Cemetery 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 —