This story is by Mary E. Humphrey and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lieutenant Carl Ryerson opened his eyes to another day with the singleness of mind -to survive it. Ignoring the pang in his gut, he rolled off his pallet and came face to face with the rat waiting for him to die since held captive in that hellhole. The rat eyed him before scurrying off to the other side of the room. “Yeah, I’m hungry too, rat. But I ain’t on the menu today.” Though he despised the creature, he was grateful for the pitiful company it offered.
As he rose to stretch out the kinks from his body, the chains outside his door jangled. Carl’s blood ran cold. Several days had passed since his captors harassed him; he knew it was only a matter of time. The men entered, their expressions grim as they screamed words he didn’t understand. Carl tried to understand, to reason with them, but their anger only grew hotter. They prodded him with sticks forcing him into the corner, their faces twisted in vile contempt. When the man unbuttoned his pants, his intent was clear.
Adrenaline surged through Carl’s veins as his fists slammed into their faces. He fought with all he had as they kicked and beat him down to near unconsciousness. He lay in a heap on the floor, unable to comprehend the indignity they afflicted upon him. Once the door clanged shut, he released his caught breath. Pain shuddered through him when he drew in a ragged breath. Cracked ribs, most likely.
Pulling himself onto his knees, blood dripped to the floor from his forehead. The rat scurried closer to investigate, his shiny black eyes watched Carl, probably disappointed with the outcome from the attack. “Not today, rat.” Carl had no intention of becoming rat food anytime soon.
Carl braced himself against the wall and managed to rise to his feet. Searing pain in his chest nearly doubled him over, but he constrained himself to remain upright. Oppression burned like bile rising to his throat. He choked, praying for relief but none came. He looked out the window at the clear blue sky. Are you out there, God? How long must we wait for deliverance?
He limped across the room, holding his burning side and scratched another mark in the wall plaster with his thumbnail, counting off the days since capture. The days ran into months, and he wondered if rescue will ever come. He shot that thought down; he clung to hope.
Carl concentrated on his regimented routine of walking the length of his eight by ten-foot confinement and then back again twenty times. The discipline kept him from dwelling on the agonies he and his fellow comrades have suffered since their plane crashed behind enemy lines. He refused to let the bastards break him despite the ravages of despair that tormented his mind daily.
Anxiety pricked at the sudden rattle at the door until he saw the bowl of slop and cup of water shoved through the slot near the floor and then slammed shut. The irony of feeding him after degrading him sickened him. He stared at the lumpy substance, hardly able to stomach it after what just happened. Seeing the rats sudden interest, he grabbed up the bowl, having long resigned himself to eat whatever they offered if he wanted to stay alive. Cupping his fingers like a spoon, he raked the tasteless gruel into his mouth and swallowed. It took only moments before he convulsed and puked it up.
He continued his regimen, limping the perimeter of his cage, but his determination waned as the pain staggered him to ease down on his pallet. Unable to find a comfortable position that might offer relief to his injuries, he settled for lying on his back. He tried to relax, but his heart hammered like a freight train while every jagged breath stabbed his chest with pain.
As his misery escalated, Carl became acutely aware of the growing wails of the other prisoners in the warehouse structure where they were held. His mind wandered to the last time they were together. Kept isolated, they only saw each other when hauled from their cells and lined in single file against a wall. Stripped naked, they were hosed down while the enemy mocked them. Forbidden to speak, eye contact was their only communication. What Carl saw reflected his own pain -anger, fear, anxiety -forgotten. He wanted to scream at them ”Don’t give up! For God’s sake, don’t let the bastard’s win! But he remained silent as ordered.
The final humiliation came when their enemy leveled their weapons at them in a sick form of Russian roulette to claim a solitary comrade. He looked over at Jonesy next to him, so young with everything to live for, his eyes filled with resignation. Feeling helpless, Carl wanted to scream. The excruciating wait drove Carl to pray they choose him just to have it over and done with. When the shot came, Carl gasped. Jonesy fell with a thud at his feet. He wanted to wretch. He agonized over Jonesy’s death while repulsed in shame by the relief that it wasn’t his turn.
Carl pushed those horrific memories away. The day will come soon enough when the scenario will repeat itself, ending in the death of a different comrade. Dwelling on it beforehand did nothing to keep him alive, though their dire situation challenged his thoughts from going there every waking moment. He squeezed his eyes shut in a vain attempt to shut out the atrocities they’ve endured. He knew their torment, their despair. The seed of it festered inside the groaning of his own heart.
Jonesy’s hollow eyes haunted him as the room grew stifling hot, the stench of fear suffocating him. He moaned as he fought the desire to surrender his will to live. His head reeling, temple throbbing, heart pounding, pounding inside his chest. Can he endure another day of hell on earth? Tears slipped from the corners of his eyes as futility filled his head with thoughts he didn’t want to think. If only sleep came and he never woke up.
Carl heard the command inside his head like a thunderclap, his eyes sprung open. What was he doing? He needed to calm down, focus, and concentrate on the things that made his life worth living. His enemy can beat him, demoralize him, humiliate him and ultimately kill him, but while there is breath in his body, they can never destroy the one room where peace, joy, love, and happiness awaits him whenever he chose to go. The room was safe and secure, guarded against enemy invasion.
Closing his eyes again, he stepped inside his safe room and locked the door. His lovely wife, Sadie, awaited him there. Her bright shining eyes sparkled whenever she looked at him, her sensuous lips always ready to welcome his kisses. He ran his hand through her silky blond hair, lingering with the scent of strawberries. They danced, holding her so close their bodies melded into one. Making love to her, sensing her pleasure in being one with him.
He held his baby, sweet Caroline, her chubby cheeks and tiny fingers and toes reminding him of perfection. Her downy hair so soft to his cheek, her scent fresh and clean with a hint of baby shampoo. Her gurgling and cooing thrilled him as she grasped his finger. A tear slipped from his eyes.
I can’t give up! God, you’ve got to help me hang on. I have to live. I have to get home to my girls. They need me, and I need them to make me complete. I need to be there for my little girl to watch her grow up. Oh, God, won’t you have mercy on us and send us a deliverer? We all need to go home to our families.
Carl awoke the next morning, realizing he had somehow drifted off to sleep. His body was stiff and sore, but he managed to stand. He marked another day on the wall with his thumbnail and began his regimented walk. When the sun rose high enough to shine through his narrow window, he stood in the sunbeam to absorb as much vitamin D as allowed in the short time the light shown in. He closed his eyes and basked in the warmth of the morning sun. He thought of his cat, Bongo sunning himself back home in a similar sunbeam. It made him smile.
Carl finished his routine with another walk around the room before easing down on his pallet and leaned against the wall. Pulling his knees up, he rested his arms against them. The rat stared up at him as if dismayed Carl made it through the night. “Too bad, rat. I ain’t done yet.” Carl was determined to survive – one day at a time.