Aaron J. Como lives and writes and works in Milwaukee, WI. In addition to Red Fez his work has appeared in magazines such as Drunk Monkeys and...read more Five:To:One's #sideshow. Find him on Twitter @aaronjcomo.
Usually, he hears the footsteps before the he sees the light.
This time he does not.
The light clicks on and he scurries across the concrete floor to his thin mattress in the corner, shielding his eyes from sudden and blinding brightness.
“Hello again.” He hears the man’s voice but does not look up. He hears the metal dragging slowly across the concrete. The man sits down with a sigh.
“You’re shaking,” the man says. He feels the man’s hand on his knee. He flinches and pulls his body tight against itself. He locks his arms around his knees and buries his head as far into his legs towards his lap as it can go.
“Yes, well,” the man withdraws his hand. “I can understand. None of that today, I assure you.” He doesn’t believe it.
They sit in silence. He knows the man is looking at him. He can feel the man’s eyes on him. He knows by now that the man is waiting for him to ask. He knows he should not ask. He knows the result of asking the question will have the same outcome. He wants to ask, but doesn’t. But the longer they sit, and the longer it is silent in the small, dank and airless room the more he convinces himself that it could be different this time. And he really wants to ask, because if he does not ask, how he know? The question is not always the same. He tries to vary the wording of the question, as if this will somehow change the answer. He knows the answer to his question, whether there is an answer given or not. Still, even now he holds on to a flicker of hope. So he asks, and he does so knowing there will be a consequence after he does.
He hears his voice, though he hardly recognizes it. It’s barely above a whisper, and the sound that he has made is more of a squeak than an actual word. He hears the man shift slightly in the chair.
“Hmm? What was that?”
No, not ‘can.’ That’s the same. It needs to be different.
“Can…I mean…when…” Yes. When, he thinks. That sounds better. It’s hard to get the entire sentence out. He should just stop. But he still holds on to it. Hope. But it’s false, probably.
“Ah, yes, there it is.” He hears the metal squeak even closer. There’s a pause. The man doesn’t usually pause. Maybe he’s considering.
“Today, something different.” The man speaks, but does not answer the question. He thought the man might answer it, if just for a moment, and if the man did answer it, he hoped perhaps the answer would be different. But he’s fooled himself again.
“Today you’re in control,” the man continues. “Today, you get to choose. Three choices, actually. What do you say?”
He says nothing.
“Good. Here they are. You get to pick one of them. Sound good?”
He says nothing.
“First choice. I’ll tell you if your family is still alive, and if they are ok.”
He says nothing.
“Second choice. I’ll tell you if your family is dead, and how they died.”
He flinches again, but still says nothing.
“Third choice. I’ll let you talk to them.”
He lifts his head slightly. His mind races. He tries to understand how that is a choice considering the other two choices, and if he picks this third choice how the second one could be true. He does not understand.
They sit in silence for a few moments more. “Look at me,” the man says. He lifts his head above his arms. He opens his eyes slightly. The light hurts them, but he tries to look. He can’t bear to look directly at this man anymore, and even if he could bring himself to look the light does not allow it. He’s become accustomed to the dark. The light only serves to confuse him.
But he can make out the phone in the man’s hand. He knows this man. Well, he doesn’t know him, not really. He still does not know who the man is, or the man’s name, or why all of this has happened. He has stopped asking those questions. Questions have consequences.
But he knows that the man likes to play these games. He knows that the man will soon withdraw the offer. And then it will be something else. Something worse. So he tries to decide. First, second or third. First, second or third, he thinks. He needs to answer.
The man smiles, he thinks, and holds out the phone to him. The boy leans forward, grabs it, and withdraws back into his protective shell. He hears the man stand up, dragging the metal chair behind him, the legs squealing on the concrete as he walks towards the door.
“Oh, one thing,” the man says, pausing in front of the door and turning back towards him. “The people you talk to may or may not really be the people you want them to be. They may be your family. Or maybe there are people on the other end of the phone. Maybe they are impersonators who sound exactly like your family. Maybe your family is gone. Maybe before they died they told us everything we would need to know to convince you that it is them. Maybe it’s them, maybe not. Maybe they’re dead. Maybe not.” Another moment of silence, then the man turns and goes through the doorway. The door shuts and the light clicks off. He hears the man’s footsteps, shuffling off up the stairs. Another door shuts, and it’s dark and quiet once again.
He sits in the corner on his thin, dirty mattress for minutes, or hours, or days. He’s never sure how long anything is. There are no markers. He sits and he stares at the tiny screen, scrolling though the names. There are only the names. There are no numbers on the phone. He goes over and over the names. Mom. Dad. Sister. Brother. Scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll. As he scrolls, he thinks about what the man had said. He had said ‘we.’ He had said ‘us.’ He wanted to know what that meant. He wanted to ask, but he knew he shouldn’t. But maybe he would.
After however long it has been, he clicks on one of the names and holds the phone to his ear. It rings a few times into it. Then he hears a voice. It is familiar. His breath catches.