This story is by Gayle Woodson and was a runner-up in our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Gayle is a semi-retired surgeon and professor. She and her husband reside in Florida, Newfoundland, and Tanzania and enjoy medical outreach in Central America, the Middle East, and Africa. After a successful career in academic medicine, she is finishing up her first novel. One of her short stories placed third in the 5th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can read more of her writing on her website.
I can’t see a thing. Maybe I’m dead.
I sigh. Nope. Not dead. I can still breathe. “Joel, are you here?”
No answer. I know he’s not here, can’t be here. Unless it was a dream—a bad dream.
Whatever drug they gave me, it’s worn off. They’ve moved me again. This place doesn’t smell so moldy. I sit up, slowly, then stand, cautiously. Don’t want to bump my head on something. Stretching out my arms, I gauge the size of this space. About 6-foot square, it’s the smallest room yet. But plenty of room to lie down. Curled into a fetal position, I try to go into meditation mode again. Sometimes I play old songs and movies in my head–anything to pass the time, to pretend I’m not who I am, where I am, to forget how I got here. Memories hurt, prayers have become hollow words. Consciousness gradually slips away; the line between reality and horrific dreaming blurs.
The door bursts open, flooding the room with blinding light. A huge man enters, brandishing an assault rifle. By now, big guns have lost their shock value, but the bright sunlight does stun my eyes. A girl or a woman–it has to be one or the other, under that burqa–slips past him and sets a tray on the floor. Fresh baked bread, soup, and a bottle of water, with the seal still intact. A momentary flash of gratitude—warm bread, how thoughtful. I quash that sentiment. No Stockholm syndrome for me.
The door slams shut, followed by the clunk of a dead bolt. A strip of light glows under the door. There is a square patch of light on the wall, coming through a small window near the ceiling. The water soothes my dry throat, but I have no stomach for the food.
Just bad luck. That’s what Joel said, in the back of the van, our heads covered by black hoods, our wrists bound. We huddled, back to back, desperately clasping hands and souls. I haven’t seen him since then. Until yesterday.
I’ve lost track of time. I wish I could mark on the wall to count the days, like the Count of Monte Christo. But I have no pencil, no chisel. Besides, there is no consistent wall. They keep moving me to different places. The Count spent his days plotting revenge. I don’t care about revenge, not even after what happened yesterday. I just want to go home.
The light through the window is glowing pink when the door bangs open again and the burqa clad figure slips around the big guy with the gun. More soup, more bread, which I still cannot eat, and another bottle of water.
My mother worried that something like this could happen. But we were safe in the compound. It was just bad luck that we happened to go to the market on the same day that these trolls were trolling for hostages. That was the last thing I heard Joel say.
The people in this country had always been so warm, so kind. Patients and families were grateful, even for little things, like vitamins, skin lotion, cough syrup… Some patients had diseases I had never seen before, only heard about in medical school. Like diphtheria. Textbooks say it smells like a wet mouse. Who knew what a wet mouse would smell like? I know now.
A wet mouse smells like that poor girl with blue lips who honked like a goose with every breath. I plunged a scalpel into her windpipe and saved her life. After a few days of antibiotics, she was right as rain, except of course for the scar in her neck. We just don’t see diphtheria in the States. Everyone gets a DPT shot.
Even after they took us, I told myself that it was all worth it, that eventually we’d be home and feeling happy, satisfied by all our good deeds. I believed that until yesterday.
The sun sets and darkness descends once again.
This is getting old. Day after day, the same thing. Food comes twice between dawn and dusk. Today the gun is slung over the guy’s shoulder. Both hands are free to hold a piece of paper. He reads, speaking each word as a single utterance.
“No. More. Hunger. Strike.”
Then he puts the gun to my head and the burqa brings in more food.
It’s hard not to laugh. Seriously. If I don’t stop trying to starve myself to death he’s going to shoot me in the head? Put me out of my misery? I think, but don’t say, “Don’t throw me in the briar patch.” He wouldn’t understand anyway. I’m sure he’s not familiar with the Uncle Remus tales of B’rer Rabbit.
I’m not on a hunger strike. I just don’t feel like eating. But I don’t want to die, yet, so I take a big bite of bread and chew slowly.
He pulls the gun away, steps back, smiles broadly, and gives me a thumbs up. “Good, good.”
Door closes, dead bolt clunks. For some reason, they want to fatten me up. Like Hansel and Gretel. Joel didn’t look like much of a Hansel when I saw him yesterday. It was obvious he had not been eating many cookies. In fact, he was so thin that I didn’t recognize him at first.
It’s not a bad idea for me to eat, to get stronger. Maybe strong enough to escape from that window. It’s not a very big opening, but I think I could fit through. The real challenge would be jumping high enough to grab the sill. A big “if.” I’ll start out with yoga, then move on to wall squats and pushups. It’s good to have a goal, to aspire to something, however pie in the sky. Sure beats just waiting around to die.
I’ve jumped a little higher each day. Now I can reach the window. I grab the window sill, then step my feet up the wall until I can hang my head and shoulders outside.
Wow! I know that mountain. I recognize this village. There is a school just beyond that mosque, where we gave immunizations to the students. That was a while back, when it was still relatively safe. Even then, we traveled with armed guards. This road leads all the way to our hospital. I could get there on foot, but it would take at least three days. I scooch a little further out the window. Dare I jump? It’s not too far down. But It would be SO stupid. Someone could walk by at any minute. I wouldn’t get far before someone caught me. My blonde hair could be an asset at a check point. Anywhere else, I’ll just stick out like a sore thumb. And I won’t get far without water.
I drop back to the floor of my cell, stumble against the wall. The guy with the gun jerks open the door to see what all the racket’s about. I smile and do a couple of jumping jacks. He grins and does the thumbs up thing again. The door closes and the bolt slips into place. They’re watching all the time. I would never get away. Unless… maybe at night.
I’d feel guilty, leaving without Joel.
Then I remember. He’s already gone.
I didn’t recognize him at first—emaciated guy in an orange jumpsuit. When they pulled off the black hood, his hair was long and skungy and he had a full beard. But then I saw Joel’s eyes and he saw mine. The corner of his mouth twitched, almost a smile.
The sun was intense. A mountain loomed in the distance, beyond miles of sand and rocks. They trained a video camera on Joel and demanded that he read from a piece of paper. He shook his head, kept staring at me. They recorded me, once. I wouldn’t read anything either. I called out for my mother, telling her I was still alive, that she should please try to save me. That was stupid. If I had just read something, maybe people back home would actually see the video. Proof of life.
I thought it was just theater when the man started waving a sword. Saber rattling. They wouldn’t really use that weapon. Even after the first slice, I didn’t believe it. Joel winced but kept his eyes locked onto mine. The cut was not deep—I could easily sew it up, but there was a dark rivulet dripping down his neck. I struggled to get to him, to staunch the bleeding, but they held me fast. The next slash opened his windpipe. He sputtered and sprayed but did not look away from me. I desperately focused my gaze in a futile fantasy that my vision was a tractor beam, keeping him tethered to this world. The sword swung again and crimson fountains burst from his neck.
Patients who have survived a cardiac arrest often recount everything that happened, as if they floated above the fray. I looked up, knowing that his soul was invisible. I wanted him to see me, hear me cry out for him.
Then everything went black.
Evening meal is here. The food is actually tasty. As usual, the bread is warm. Tonight there are chunks of meat in the soup. And, inexplicably, there is a flower on the tray.
The door closes. I wait for the clunk of the deadbolt. But I don’t hear it.
I wake up from another terrifying dream, heart pounding, bathed in a cold sweat.
It’s not so dark. Moonlight filters in through the window.
I’m curious. I never heard the deadbolt. Is the door unlocked?
I push on the door and it moves, creaking slightly. I open it slowly and step into an incomplete courtyard, walls on only three sides. There is a goat pen on one side.
The big guy is supine on a pallet, sound asleep. The gun across his belly rises and falls with his snores. A knife on the ground next to him gleams in the moonlight. There are wood shavings scattered about. He has been carving a wooden truck—a toy, perhaps for his son.
It’s not a big knife. I pick it up and test the blade. It’s pretty sharp.
His Adam’s apple protrudes just above the perfect spot to plunge the knife. Then I could pull it across his pulsating jugular, sever his carotid artery. It would be precise, efficient, and humane. The man would be dead before he could grab me or aim his gun.
I hesitate. I don’t want revenge. I am a healer, not a killer.
I hear a rustle behind me. The burqa floats, like a blue ghost. I brace myself for her scream. Seconds seem like hours. She remains silent. Raising one hand to show I bear no malice, I slowly stoop to lay down the knife. Then I stand and turn back toward my cell.
I’ve lost my chance.
She grabs my arm. The burqa is off and her pale skin glows in the moonlight. Her hand rests briefly on her throat, near a familiar scar. She hands me a sack stuffed with bread and a large bottle of water. She tosses the blue cloak over my head, tugs on it until I can see her through the eyeslit. She steps past me to close and lock the door to my room.
“Kheily mamnoon,” she whispers. Farsi words for “Thank you.” I watch her scamper silently away.
I bow to the sleeping guard, before I make my way to the road and walk out of the village. The burqa is my force shield, my disguise, my armor.
A huge orange moon dangles near the horizon. The east is still dark. I’ll be miles away before they realize that I am gone.
I’m still alive. Maybe I’ll make it.
I hear Joel’s voice, which is my voice, our voice. “Let’s go home.”