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You’re innocent. I tell myself that, in the semi-darkness. I echo the words my mother whispered to me, the soft silk of her cheek tickling my ear. “You’re not guilty. Remember you’re better than them.” Maybe that was true once, but now we’re all the same: nameless, faceless, without a past or a personality or any distinguishing features. I am, like them, a seven-by-seven foot cell, a number tattooed on my left biceps. I may be innocent, as far as that gets me. In here, I am as guilty as anyone else.
You’re going to get out of here. This becomes my mantra; it is my promise of salvation even in the unchanging twilight and the coffin-walls of my chamber. It was promised to me, that I would not be here forever – just ninety days.
I can do ninety days. With that promise of a court appeal, tucked away like a secret, I can survive this prison sentence. Unlike the others, who bounce wild screams and manic laughter across the halls outside my door, my confinement has a definable end, if not an official one. Who knows? Maybe this will be a blessing. I wanted to get away from my old life, didn’t I? How many times have I complained about never having time alone?
I’ll look at it that way. This can be a good thing – and if I can’t make myself believe that, well, it’s only ninety days.
At first, I didn’t really consider the real problem, in all my high-and-mighty psychological considerations. In the constant dimness, how to count the days? No light, and the screams of the other prisoners went on, unchanging, night and day, stopping my sleep and most of my thoughts. No matter what I ate, the shallow bowl by the slot in the wall was always full, and I never saw anyone refill it. And my mental clock was hardly accurate enough for my purposes. So, it had been a worry. There was no use at all to having a definable sentence if I couldn’t even count the days.
That first morning, though, when I was still awake after a long night of tired eyes and aching limbs, my eyes shot open at the sudden change. A light, red through my eyelids, and blinding when I looked at it directly. It flooded the room with startling brightness for five seconds, perhaps, filtering in through some crack in one of my walls. To my unprepared eyes, it was like the light of Heaven.
But when the illumination shuttered off and left me in the even-darker-than-before darkness, I couldn’t help but wonder if it had been just a leftover dream, an indication of my decaying reason. Perhaps I needed some relief so badly that my mind had produced it for me.
With that dread in the back of my mind, I waited up for hours, long into what had to be nighttime, judging from the sticky sleepiness of my eyes, as my breath hung in anticipation and my stomach churned acid. It took a long time to come, but when it did, my patience was rewarded. It was like my own personal sunrise, gold and white that set my small room ablaze, and it was gone again too quickly.
It came back, though. Once a day, unfailingly in the morning, regularly as any businessman’s schedule. Each time before it appeared, I felt that same stretch of tight-stomached tension. What if this time it didn’t come? What if I were left to fight the darkness alone, forever?
That absence hadn’t happened yet, at least, and as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t going to. And each time the darkness scattered before me, I felt the same rush of relief, a jolt of returning calm. I would scratch a prominent line in the crumbling cement of the bricks, one, two, three, four, five, and I would count the days until I would be released.
After listing the remaining days (seventy-five, three-eighteenths complete) there wasn’t much else to do. I ate, even if I didn’t enjoy it. The tasteless mush wasn’t really worth the effort, and Alice had always told me I could stand to lose a few pounds. This was better than a crash diet, at least.
I exercised, because I didn’t want to be too atrophied when I left this place. Crunches, push-ups, anything I could do in the tiny room. I would have washed, too (I caught a whiff of a truly awful smell now and again) but the best I could do was splash a bit of water from my bowl on my face. As for shaving… forget about it.
I refused to resort to counting the bricks of my cell, though. Too neurotic. Instead I slept, and if my dreams were on the edge of insanity, well… at least I knew they weren’t real. By now, the shrieks and cat-calls had faded into background noise, like heavy metal music. Sleep was almost too easy. Lying on my hard mattress, I would blink and wake to my five seconds of bliss the next morning.
I never slept through the light, which was a relief. It was enough of a change that I usually awoke in a panic, though the brightness calmed my nerves as soon as I opened my eyes. One time, though, I woke early to a particularly loud yell. In the darkness, missing my usual wake-up call, I sat listening to my heart beating, my chest tied up in knots.
Two thousand and nineteen heartbeats later, I had my paradise again.
The memories came upon me hard, juxtaposed with strangely lucid dreams. They took up most of my time, which was a mixed blessing. I had nothing else to do, but the pain those memories caused was perhaps a worse misery than simple boredom.
I saw my mother, my brother, my father (dead nineteen years), my boss at work. I saw my wife, her glossy chestnut eyes wide and liquid. Before I left, she had been crying.
She was crying now – I could hear it, mixed with the screams and shrieks of the other prisoners. I couldn’t tell why she cried, exactly, but it sent a pang of guilt through me nevertheless. I hadn’t done what the prosecutor had said. I wasn’t a murderer, I wouldn’t kill someone, much less a whole family. It wasn’t my fault, really, though perhaps I should have tried harder to prove my innocence.
Alice nodded solemnly. She had more wrinkles than I remembered, pencil lines drawn delicately across the edges of her eyes. She was beautiful.
“You should have done better,” she whispered to me.
The light was soothing when it came, something to wait for in this newly familiar world where nothing else mattered. When I awoke to the flood of white, I would try and savor every last second of it, basking in the glow of perceived warmth.
It felt like forgiveness.
There were sixty-five lines on the wall now, in neat crisp rows that I counted whenever I felt lonely. At first, it was just me in my cell, me and a bunch of memories I was tired of replaying in my head. I thought I would go crazy in my own brain, and I would have killed to hear another human voice.
It was a relief, then, when my mother came, her eyes transparent with tears and her chest swelled with love for her lost son, and she brought all the others. Alice also visited, although our conversations did not go so well.
It was something about her expression. Seeing her pain made guilt and anger swell in my chest, punch me in the gut – guilt at being the source of her problems, anger at her for reminding me of the past.
She leaned against the stone, all brimming eyes and choked breath. “You promised you wouldn’t go to jail.”
I turned away, hands over my ears, but I heard her anyway, her voice so close it felt as if it echoed inside my skull. “You promised.”
The last word, its edge of accusation, sends a ripple of resentment through my chest. I swing around with a broad stroke of my arm, a burning tide of rage in my throat as I make her silent. “Shut up!” But my hand just scrapes against the rough wall, and my shout reverberates through the empty air, swimming with the other cries out into the hallway.
“That’s right. Run away,” I mutter, rubbing my raw knuckles as I relax back into my solitude.
There’s something comforting about yelling out to the deaf world. I lie looking up at the ceiling and fill my lungs to bursting, and the words I have always wanted to say come spilling out, as easily and inevitably as exhaling. No one cares what I have to say, but, far from getting offended, I am relieved. I have nothing to hide.
No one else has anything to hide, either. Murderers, rapists, serial killers – we are alike now, comrades in arms, and the sound of my shouts mingling with theirs is a symphony.
Sometimes I lose my words and let a loose babble spill into the air, as soothing and nonsensical as a lullaby. And when the light comes, I cannot find a way to describe that flood of peace. Words are not enough, and perhaps I have used them all up anyway. That high piercing note, brushing up against the low ceiling, shows better what I feel.
Eighty-five days passed, five days left. My row of date-lines covers six of the one thousand, nine hundred and fifty four bricks. Five, four, three, two, one, I’m done.
I think I need to sing.
I woke up early this morning. I ate a big breakfast, like my mother always told me to. I am ready for this. One last day, and then when I see the light that last time, Alice will be reaching down through it to bring me home. She will carry me away in her warm embrace.
I will eat roast beef and mashed potatoes, and there will be a rich red wine to wash it all down (though, to be fair, I have gotten to like the food they offer here, like a slightly overdone rice pudding). I will run through the always-lit, narrow streets of our neighborhood, and I will gulp in the air that is fresh and new and hasn’t been breathed in by hundreds of other prisoners. And when I am done I will fall asleep in my own bed, with my wife beside me, and she will look at me with those big brown eyes and tell me that she forgives me.
It’s time. I am ready for my freedom. I hold my breath and stare at the wall, all tense muscles and frozen motion.
And it is only when my breath explodes out of me, my vision dancing with stars, that a crack splits my wall of confidence.
“It’s okay,” I whisper to myself. “I’m just wrong about the time. It’ll come, any minute now.”
I can hear Alice whispering to me as I walk around my room. Ten paces, twenty. Any time now, I’m ready. Any time now.
“It’s okay,” she murmurs, a wisp of wind curling in my ear.
Annoyance jabs me in the ribs. “I know it’s okay, of course it’s okay. You’re just late, that’s all.”
There is silence for a few minutes, so I kneel down by the wall where I have marked out the days and count them again, just to make sure. I have not relaxed for years, it seems. Yes, eighty-nine lines, and that’s what she said. “On the morning of the ninetieth day, I’ll be there.”
But she’s not here because it is not the ninetieth day yet, it cannot be the ninetieth day without the light telling me that it is, and the light isn’t here either. “Why not?”
I look around in surprise for a second before realizing that I was the one who asked the question. I am frantic now, because the light isn’t here and oh god I need to get out of here. I look for Alice, and sure enough, there she is sitting in the corner like she’s been there for hours, but that’s not good enough because she isn’t getting me out of here.
So I walk over to her. Of course I am perfectly calm (who, to look at me, would think I deserved to be imprisoned? Who would call me… what had they said? A psychotic, deranged killer?). I put my hands on her shoulders and I whisper to her, soft and composed, “Alice, dear.”
She looks up at me with all the innocence of a frightened mouse, like the one I once trapped in the basement for three days, until its tiny little heart gave out.
“Alice. I need to get out of here, and I think you know how to get me out, don’t you, sweetheart?” She doesn’t answer, doesn’t even offer the heart-breaking blame she’s been loading on me, memories that aren’t quite memories, for the past few days. “You were going to get me out of here, weren’t you? Ninety days. That’s what you said, wasn’t it?”
Absolute silence, except for the screams and the laughs and the shrieks of the others. “You were getting me out! You said –” shaking her back and forth, her skin soft and yielding under my hands, purple blooming beneath my fingertips.
“Ninety days! You fraud, you liar…” And obscenities are spilling out now, acid burning my lips, and I can’t hold any of it in and I find I don’t want to. I don’t think I’m even yelling words, now, just an incoherent roar of choking emotion that is sweeping me away, as my hands inch to her neck and I pull her closer to me.
As my roar fades into echoes, Alice falls to the ground, and I see the hand-shaped outlines around her throat before she evaporates, fades into the walls and leaves me behind, but I don’t mind: she is a liar and a cheat and I am better off without her.
The only question is what to do now, but that’s not a problem. I will have my steak dinner; I can smell it now, rich and pungent, and the mashed potatoes besides. And I can wash it all down with some red wine and go for a run along my street and then I’ll come home and lie with Alice, who will curl her arms around me and whisper her love in my ear.
And after that, who knows? Perhaps I will grow wings and I will fly across the countryside, because after all, I can do anything and I am sane and I am reasonable and no one can imprison me unless I allow them to do so.
In a dream, I hear someone calling to me, someone I might once have known. She says, “We’ve come to get you out of here,” but I laugh in her face because I am already free.