Is That You?
He had been kept prisoner there for three years. He thought it was three. He lost count after the first few weeks, when the days started blending into one another and he stopped looking longingly, hopefully, vengefully at the gates. He stopped thinking about escape the first time when he woke up with a jolt to the sound of gunfire outside.
He closed his eyes and moaned as he thought of the muffled thud the body had made. That had been the next sound he heard. “Oh, God,” he moaned. Tears rolled down his face. He had never even seen the body. Anymore, he wondered if it really happened, and the keepers had just staged it to break their souls.
“But I found where they shot him,” he said. “Red, in the dirt, where they thought they covered it all up.”
He looked to the wall, to the air slit in the floor that he used to speak through to the prisoner in the next cell. He thought he heard her moving towards the slit. Then he heard her ask, “What did you say?”
“But I found where they shot him,” he said, and repeated the rest too. “I was just reliving an old conversation.”
“Some of us remember our families. You remember conversations.”
As far as he was concerned, life before they brought him here didn’t exist anymore. “All that I have that I treasure, now, is what I found in here.”
“We need to get you out, then,” she said.
“They both chuckled. It didn’t work that way. They got what they wanted out of you, or maybe they didn’t, and then they let you out.
“Cedric was taken out after he told them where his brother was.”
“That wasn’t why. His brother lived where he always lived.”
“So what difference did it make?”
“None. All I can think of is, they wanted to break him.”
“Well, they haven’t tortured me yet. It’ll be a few hundred years before they break me if they keep this up.”
“Speak for yourself. My children are growing up.”
“Not me. This is a vacation compared to where I came from.”
She was silent. He was making her sad. “I miss you,” he said quickly. “It’s been a long time since they let us see each other.”
“Careful. They might hear. Then we won’t see each other for years.”
Or maybe just wearing masks, or some ridiculous shit like that. That was how they worked.
The Talking Game
The next day Whitaker heard footsteps outside his cell. A truncheon knocked on his cell door. Whitaker sprang up. He put his hands against the wall and spread his feet even before he was told, “Prisoner. Assume the position.”
The door opened. Whitaker didn’t look. It would be three guards. One in the hallway, two inside. He could hear them moving behind him.
“Prisoner. Turn around.”
He did. Two stone-faced guards addressed him. You almost never saw their faces. The one on the left had a thick, trimmed beard with no mustache. The one on the right was shorter, stocky, built like a pile of bricks. The guards were never nice, but Whitaker had never been beaten, either. The truncheons were out and ready.
“Hands behind you,” the guard on the left said.
Whitaker did so. No doubt Gruber was playing a game today. The guard on the left walked behind him. The guard tapped the floor behind him. He tapped it like a metronome as the guard on the right hooked his truncheon to his belt and took out a roll of black tape. He ripped off two pieces and taped Whitaker’s mouth shut. The first guard kept tapping in time.
Whitaker heard guards up and down the cell block tapping in time as they led the even-numbered prisoners out to the exercise yard. He wanted to tap his feet. He saw a prisoner start to do it and get his foot smashed by a truncheon. Damn it damn it damn it all.
The odd-numbered prisoners were brought out. Marina stood across from him. Their mouths were taped as well. So Gruber didn’t have anything against them talking, did he?
He had forgotten how pretty her hair looked. It was the color of brushed leather, a rich brown, where weathering had only given it character. She had told him horror stories about her home. He could see it in the waves of her hair. Her eyes were hazel. Cat’s eyes.
He ached to say something to her. He would have killed to hug her. Literally. He thought she trembled. Her hands formed fists.
The guards walked behind them, within arm’s reach, tapping the ground.
Whitaker had to say something. He had to let her know it was good to see her.
Behind the tape, her mouth curved up instantly.
A tear fell out of his eye.
Oh, crap. Oh, no. He heard a whistling sound and a truncheon struck the backs of his legs. Whitaker hit the ground screaming through the tape.
Marina’s knees buckled. She cried out. She started towards him but the guard stepped over Whitaker’s body and blocked her way. Another guard stood ready to hit Whitaker again. The rest of them kept walking and tapping their eerie music.
The muscles around Marina’s eyes bunched. She started daggers at the guard. She stepped back. She looked at Whitaker’s face. This might be the last time they would see each other for months, or it might be the last time they would see each other, period. Whitaker put his hand on his chest as if he couldn’t breathe. Then he looked into her eyes, rubbed over his heart, and nodded.
Her body language softened. She made soft fists, rolling her fingers. When she released her hands, they opened towards him, just for a moment.
A whistle blew. The guards heaved Whitaker to his feet. He tried to steal one last look at her and thought he saw her give him a wink. The guards walked the prisoners out of the yard, even numbers first.
Is That You?
The guards tossed Whitaker into his cell and slammed the door shut. He rolled back and forth on the ground. His legs weren’t broken, but the backs of his thighs had to be black and blue. Each pulse of blood through his body brought agony, ripping maws of pain on his legs. They twitched. The pain radiated up into his spine and down into his toes. Every time he moved it hurt more.
He heard other cell doors being opened and closed. The guards continued their music with the truncheons. Whitaker pounded his head against his arm. Hot salty tears poured down his face.
It had been good to see Marina. He didn’t regret it for a second. He told himself that he didn’t regret it. The other half of his spirit told him that he was crazy, that he shouldn’t even look at her again.
He heard the door to Marina’s cell open. He held his breath. The pain still cascaded all over him. He waited to hear if anything happened with her.
Footsteps, then her door closed. Other doors on the cell block closed too. The music stayed in the hallway.
Whitaker dragged himself over to the air slit between the cells. It was a little over half an inch high. Even pressing his face down hard into the concrete, he could barely see anything.
Marina was looking, too. He saw part of her eye and her hair. She whispered, “You fool.”
Whitaker was about to respond and realized he still had the tape across his mouth. He peeled it off. “It was good to see you,” he whispered.
“And you. Don’t do that again.”
“I won’t promise that.”
“You’re going to get us both in trouble.”
“We’re already in trouble. He’s watching us. You know that.”
Marina made quiet, fussing sounds. He didn’t know what she was doing.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Will you be sorry when they take you away? Put you in another cell?”
Whitaker’s heart almost broke. The sound of the tapping truncheons outside filled his ears. Good God, it beat in time with the pain from his wounds. Was he dreaming? Was this real?
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
They lay there in silence, separated by a foot of concrete, with only their feelings connecting them. Whitaker felt guilty for not thinking of the rest of his family. Having a friend inside had kept him going. She meant more to him now.
“If I never see you again…”
“Don’t say that.”
“Would you take my hand?” he whispered.
He reached his hand under the wall. He couldn’t see her his hand in the way. His hand was getting stuck on the knuckles, like trying to put on a ring that was just barely too small to fit.
“Stop! They’ll break your fingers. Or mine.”
He kept reaching.
“Are you trying?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m trying. I can’t…” He heard scraping from her side too.
He winced and breathed in and out, pushing his hand even farther in. He was going to get it stuck, and they’d break his fingers pulling him out. Or they’d leave him there. Yes, that’s what they’d do. Whichever was the most indignifying. He didn’t care. He didn’t care. He felt himself move what had to be an ungodly quarter of an inch.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“Right in the middle. My hand hurts.”
“Mine does too.”
“I can’t move any farther.”
“I can’t believe you’ll…”
Let me down like this. No! “You won’t fit in there.”
“I’m trying. Wait. Wait!”
He felt the tip of her finger. Both of them hushed quiet. He wasn’t sure at first, if he could be that lucky, to finally feel what he had dreamt of for the past three years. He choked back something that was half sadness, because he felt just how desperate and lonely he was, now that he knew the other feeling. The other feeling was joy.
“Is that you?” he whispered.
Hushed, he said, “Thank you.”
There was only enough room to press their fingertips against each other, and to caress them against each other. He couldn’t move his fingers any closer. He doubted she could. It was like sipping sweet nectar. This simple act of affection, physical touch, was like being given a look at the sun after being shut in a pit for years. Tears were falling down his face. He would have wept aloud if it wouldn’t have brought the guards.
Equal Shares of FateThe next day, the guards blindfolded him and brought Whitaker to the talking room. He recognized the sound of his feet on the floor. It smelled like old socks. He didn’t know why. It was clean like a hospital room.
The guards removed his blindfold. As usual, Whitaker saw a room with white tile floor, white painted walls and ceiling, and lights that were just barely too bright. There was one table in the room. Gruber sat on the opposite side. Today there were two chairs, not one, on Whitaker’s side. The guard walked out.
Whitaker stayed standing. Another guard brought in Marina. She looked at Whitaker, then at Gruber. Whitaker jumped when the guard clanked the door shut.
“It’s a lovely day,” Gruber said. He gestured to the seats. “Please. Sit.”
“I’ll stand,” Whitaker said.
Marina looked at him. Gruber chuckled. “Marina usually sits. Whitaker stands or sits, depending on how adversarial he wants to be with me. I haven’t figured out a pattern with him yet. Will you sit, Marina?”
She dragged her chair away from the table. Marina sat down. She looked ready to jump across the room. “Why are we both here?” Marina asked.
“An excellent question!” Gruber said. He folded his hands. “Well. I’ll get to the point. It’s no secret that the two of you are fond of each other. I’m here to make you both an offer. You can both be released, today. You will be sent to Sovo Prospekt.”
Marina’s hands went over her mouth. She brought them to her sides and made fists. She shook her head. “No. I won’t go back there.”
“Don’t be silly. It’ll be fine. You won’t be there alone. Whitaker will be there with you, along with his family.”
“Free in every way.”
“Whitaker, this is his game. Sovo’s ruled by gangs. We would be living from day to day. You can’t imagine.”
“What’s the alternative?”
“That you never… ever… leave this place. You will both be locked in a cell, together, for the rest of your days. I will give you no contact with the outside world. You can be fond of each other, and only each other, for the rest of your lives.”
“What about my family?”
Gruber shook his head.
“You have no right!”
Gruber stared at him.
Whitaker looked at Marina. “Once we’re in Sovo we can leave. We’ll get a car.”
She shook her head. “We would be gunned down before we left city limits.”
“But people survive there. How did you?”
“I was one of them! I was the worst!” Whitaker felt like she’d thrown cold water into his face. “I gunned down a family of three because they wouldn’t give us their food. I deserve to be here.”
Whitaker sat down in his chair. Gruber smiled.
“Both of you must agree,” Gruber said. “Before you leave this room.”
Whitaker rubbed his hands on his face. Marina sat still as a statue. He wasn’t looking at the same woman who’d been his friend on those dark, hopeless nights.
“This is your game. Making us hate each other.”
“I’m showing you the truth. You need to understand why your being here is necessary.”
Whitaker wanted to yell, For her! Not for me! He punched his right fist into his left hand. No. That was the point. That was what Gruber wanted.
“Both of you must agree,” Gruber said.
“I do not agree,” Whitaker said.
Gruber frowned. “To stay, or go?”
“I do not agree,” he repeated.
Marina nodded. “And I do not agree.”
“To… fine. I can play this game as long as either of you.”
They said at the same time, “I do not agree.”
None of them said much to each other for the next six hours. An ironic advantage of having a minimal diet was that neither Whitaker nor Marina had to go to the bathroom. Gruber paced the room. Whitaker had never seen anything like this. He sweat. He swore at them. He promised that Whitaker would rot in his cell, and Marina would walk grandly into the town square at Sovo Prospekt, naked and unarmed where every enemy she’d ever made could stone her to death.
“I do not agree,” they both said.
Six hours after that, the guard opened the door. They blindfolded Marina and Whitaker, and took them back to their cells.
The New Prisoner
The door opened before dawn. Whitaker woke comfortably. He’d been expecting it, really. Time to disappear. There was nothing more that Gruber could do to him. There were still stars outside, and the birds had only just begun singing.
The first guard handed him a set of clothes, including a wallet and an envelope–travel papers, he saw–and shoes. The other stood by the door.
“Get dressed,” the guard said.
“Can I bring my–”
He thought not. Just like they had ripped him away from everything when he was brought here, he could keep nothing when he left.
He dressed and fixed his hair. The second guard stood out of his way to let him walk through the door. They were leading him out of the cell block.
They crossed the courtyard without pausing. Whitaker looked up. With every guard, he only saw the backs of their uniform shirts, the belts, their hats, and the business ends of their rifles. None of them cocked their heads toward the strange sound of gates closing at this hour, or of footsteps across the courtyard, though Whitaker knew they had heard and responded to much softer sounds than these.
“Where is Gruber?”
“I want to know.”
They reached the outer wall. The first guard inserted his key, spun the lock and pulled back the gate. Whitaker realized that perhaps he had been right, literally: the guard held this key. He had never seen Gruber holding a key.
He had stopped without realizing it. The other guard pushed him through. Quickly he started moving again. Whether or not Gruber really was a prisoner was a worthy question to bandy about some other time. Some other time. When he was through the door, it clanged shut behind him. Whitaker took only one look back, to look at the faces of the guards on the walls. Still they were hidden.
Marina stood outside. She was dressed in a free person’s clothes, too.
The guards never told, but some prisoners say that Whitaker and Marina were running less than ten yards after they left the prison, and they were laughing and crying for joy just after that.
Others also say that the door to Whitaker’s cell opened again just after he left. Say, maybe, in about the time that it takes to walk from the warden’s office to Whitaker’s cell, if he started walking when the outside gate was closed. They say that someone heard the slow clopping sound of expensive shoes, not work boots, on the concrete, and maybe the sound of breathing. Whitaker’s cell was opened again–that double squeak, at the start and at the end. And then, they weren’t sure, but some said that they thought they heard a creaking sound, as if someone just walked in and sat down on the bed.