This story is by Michelle Glassley and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Day ten with no food, and just enough water to relieve her constant thirst. Shawna’s captors pushed her ahead of them, to yet another cell in the long stone corridor of the crumbling tower. She stumbled, reeling, summoning every bit of her strength just to remain upright. They’d been betrayed. Their mission to retrieve the secret files had failed. Ten days, and they had not yet asked her a thing. That would change soon. She held the third and final piece of the puzzle in her head, and if her captors solved it, they would find the files.
They reached the last cell on the left, where the door stood open. The guard she feared the most, the one with the piercing blue eyes and short pointed beard, seized her arm and yanked her around to face him. She could smell the whiskey on his breath as he pulled her close. “You’re no stronger than the others and you know it.” The others. Tony and Zach. Pointy beard had forced her to watch the torture, turned her head back when she tried to look away, pried her eyes open. In the end, both had given up their pieces of the puzzle. Even Zach, who was the toughest of them all.
Now his expression changed, as if he was deciding something. He turned to the other guard. “You go on back. I’ll be there in a minute.” He watched until the other guard rounded the corner, then turned back to her. “It doesn’t have to be that way.” He stroked her arm from her shoulder down to her fingertips. “Just tell me. I can’t let you go free, but you can live. Unhurt.” Shawna looked away, but he took her chin and turned her head back. Those piercing blue eyes were almost pleading. Almost. “We’re going to find out, either way.”
The other guard poked his head around the corner. “You coming?” The pleading look was gone and he shoved her backwards into the cell. She tripped over something on the floor and landed on her butt, her breath knocked out of her lungs. The door slammed shut and she heard the snick of the lock. This place may be crumbling down around them, she thought, but that sounded solid.
A low moaning sound snapped her to attention. She crawled toward it, and realized she’d tripped over Zach. Another one of their mind games? She cradled Zach’s head and pulled his shoulders onto her lap on the cold stone floor, his ragged breaths the only sound in the tiny cell. She squeezed her eyes tight and reminded herself that those files were not just about money. The secrets contained in them, if exposed, would destroy her people, who were more dear to her than any family ever could be. Betray her people and die, or betray her people and live. How could she choose?
She looked down at Zach’s face. He hadn’t been given that choice. One of his eyes was swollen shut, the other drifted in and out of focus as he tried to hang onto this life just a little bit longer. His lips moved as if in attempt to tell her something, and though her own strength was flagging, she bent close so she could hear.
“The rats.” A gurgling sound accompanied his next breath, and blood dribbled from his mouth and down his chin. She wiped it away with the frayed cuff of her sleeve. “They’re yours now.” His one eye focused on the wall. She followed his gaze and in the fading light from the barred window, Shawna could see that he’d worked a large stone loose. Large enough to climb through? His focus shifted to her face, and he reached up and tried to grip her wrist, his touch light as a feather but nonetheless urgent. “Eat them They’ll give you the strength you need.” He drew in another shuddering breath. “I ran out of time.” His fingers slipped away and his hand fell limp to the floor. She felt his body relax as he gave in, but she held on until the cell descended into pitch blackness, unable to pinpoint the exact moment when life left him.
Was there really a third choice? Maybe. She eased Zach to the floor, then shifted onto her knees. Her head spun and her legs trembled, the lack of food taking its toll. She’d never gone hungry a single day before this, had never known what it was like to feel true hunger. When her head cleared, she pushed herself off the floor and stood, reaching out to the wall for support. She searched with her hands for the loose stone, to the left and below the window. When she found it, she pushed at it, felt it give just the slightest bit, but she was too weak. She turned her back to the wall and slid down its rough surface, back to the floor.
Rats. There had to be rats here somewhere. She felt around until she found them. Two. Their necks dangled loosely when she picked them up, and she imagined Zach wringing them, their little bones snapping. He meant for her to eat them. She dropped them and covered her mouth as bile ascended, and she gagged, but there was nothing in her stomach to come up. Even the efforts of the past few minutes were sapping her strength, though, and she knew he was right.
Revulsion shuddered through her, and she was glad she couldn’t see their furry little faces in the darkness. Her stomach churned. She swallowed hard, then took a deep breath and raised one to her lips. She tasted dirty, musty fur, and lowered it, retching again. Her heart pounding, she felt cold sweat trickle down her sides as she ripped through the skin, then jammed it into her mouth before she could think about it further. Hunger took over, and she found herself gobbling it down, yet fighting back the thought of what she was doing. When she’d finished as much of it as she thought possible, she flung it aside. She stuffed the other one into the waistband of her jeans, loose on her now, and felt crazy laughter bubbling up inside her as she felt energy course through her body. “The rat diet,” she said aloud, then clapped a hand over her mouth. She imagined the guard’s ears perking up and pushed herself to her feet.
She found the loose stone again, shoved at it with all her newly acquired strength, felt it give just a little more. Another minute of intense effort and it fell through to the outside. She poked her head through the hole, feeling wind on her face. Though she could see nothing in the black of night, the height of the tower was palpable. On her first day here, she’d pulled herself up and held onto the bars, looking out at the barren countryside, and down, down, down, to the jagged rocks below.
Yes, there was a third choice. Could she do it? She’d backed down from just a small leap into the swimming hole back home, and that was safe. Relatively speaking. She swallowed hard, the rat threatening to come back up.
A clanging from the corridor set her heart pounding. Footsteps approached. It was now or never, so Shawna made her choice. Adrenaline came to her aid as she scrambled through the opening, and she heard a key rattle in the lock. She kicked her feet free and fell, her last thought a prayer that another would succeed where she had failed.