This story is by Heather K. Bradley and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My father was a watchmaker. Our home was a museum of timepieces: wrist-watches, stop-watches, cuckoo clocks, alarm clocks, grandfather clocks. My heart did not beat; it ticked. The relentless passage of time enthralled me. And so, when they threw me into that room, and stripped me of my watch, it was a mockery, and the sorest of trials. And then they put off the lights and I was lost. I began to drift in a timeless ocean of darkness. I lost all sense of the passing of days. I refused to admit the possibility of months. To do so would be to court insanity. “Surely by now,” I thought, “someone has considered a ransom.”
I’d been living in Mexico for five years. Kidnappings were almost the order of the day. I’d grown accustomed to glossing over them in the news. You never imagine anything so absurd could happen to you. And then it happens, and you can’t believe how normal everything seemed leading up to that defining moment. It was November 4th. My predictable morning routine was progressing smoothly: a 5:30 start; thirty minutes of coffee-drinking and newspaper-browsing on the terrace; fifteen minutes of vigorous exercise; a five minute shower. At 6:20, I donned a suit and tie and wolfed down two eggs, two pieces of toast and a banana. Then I fed the fish and headed out the door. 6:45 a.m. It was the same every weekday, like clockwork. It was rare that I met anyone else on my floor at that early hour. That morning, however, I rounded the corner leading to the elevators and bumped into one of the building custodians who was pushing a cart of cleaning supplies.
“Perdoneme, Rico!” I said, and side-stepped him. Rico grunted, which was his normal response, and shuffled passed me. My presence seemed to offend Rico, but I paid him little mind. His partner, Videl, was more talkative, but equally unpleasant. Was it my smart suits, sleek car, or cheerful greetings that caused such displeasure? As a man with no enemies, I often pondered this unfriendliness. That day, however, my thoughts shifted quickly to all the work which awaited me at the law firm where I had just been made junior partner. I pressed the elevator button, waited a minute for the door to open and then, just as I stepped over the threshold, a painful thud on the back of my head caused me to crumple to the ground. When I awoke some time later, I was in a pitch dark room.
And so this small space became my entire world. I had never seen it, but I knew every contour. I traced the walls every day, four times, as soon as I woke up. The room was rectangular. The walls were rough and uneven, like large blocks of natural stone. They stretched up as tall as I could stand, so I presume they were at least six feet high. On one of the long sides, there was an opening about two feet square with a wooden door on the other side. My wall-tracing became the first hour of my day.
At some point, after the wall-tracing ended (give or take a few real hours), my scant meal arrived with the empty latrine pail. I called the second hour of the day, my “waiting hour” because I always found myself waiting expectantly for the door to open again to get just a peek at the world beyond. But I was never able to see more than a foot or a door frame. The door would quickly bang shut and I heard a padlock clicking.
In the third hour, I exercised. I was determined to keep myself strong for the possibility of an escape. In the fourth hour, I strategized how I would do it or else I sat with my knees under my chin and alternately wept and brooded.
My fifth hour I devoted to God and prayer. This solitary confinement reconnected me with long-forgotten catechism lessons which I now found comforting. I remembered that God sees all, hears all, and knows all. I felt like a monk in a monastery cell. How easy it was to hear God there in the dark silence. There was nothing to distract, except the incessant scratching of the unseen mice and the distant hum of some machinery. Yes, I prayed with focused attention there and the answer was clear: survive! Have hope! Fight!
From the sixth hour to the eighth hour, I cleaned house, so to speak. I took my mattress and beat it against the walls and did the same with my one thin blanket. Then I smoothed the blanket out over the mattress. I was meticulous about those creases. It gave me pleasure to imagine the pristine state of that bed. My mother would have approved! Next, I took off my leather shoes and I gave them a spit shine with the corner of my shirt. I did this until they squeaked. Then I replaced them and carefully tied my shoe laces. Last, I would attend to my hair and beard with a small wooden comb I always kept in my back trouser pocket. My hair had reached my shoulders; my beard was mid-way down my chest. If I had water to spare, I’d splash a few drops on my face.
The ninth hour I dedicated to music. My parents had taught me the value of a musical life. When I first came to that place, there was only silence, except for a distant hum and the muffled conversation of my captors. I had distinguished two voices. To me, a word was never spoken. When I began to sing, I felt my soul awaken. There is nothing like music to lighten a situation. My assailants were roused to speech now. Sometimes, they shouted at me to “shut the hell up!” Other times, they laughed deliriously. I sang everything I remembered from the entire span of my life: from nursery rhymes and lullabies to hymns to old country to pop music. I sang it all loudly, at the top of my lungs, and it alleviated the weight in my heart.
At the tenth hour, I recited speeches and poems I’d learned in my youth. Oh, the value of a classical education!
At the eleventh hour, I traced the walls one last time to be sure I was still where I was at the beginning of the day and they had not changed anything. I thought of it as getting my bearings. It gave me a sense of stability in that dark, moorless world in which I lived.
At the twelfth hour, I prayed fervently for strength and release and then, wearily, I dropped down upon my bed and slept the indefinite sleep of the drifting soul.
This is how I kept the time, imperfect as it was. It satisfied a craving in my being for order and meaning.
My system had only one downfall: I was never certain of the length of the hours. An hour might be longer or shorter depending on my mood or the interest I had in the ascribed activity. I was never certain, for instance, how long I’d actually slept. How much time elapsed between my “days”? Time became something fluid and unreliable. But some order is better than no order, and my system saved me from descending into insanity.
And then, one day, I awoke sensing that I had slept deeply. Every fibre, every sinew, felt rejuvenated. For the first time since my capture, I felt rested, strong, and happy. I lay on my mattress pondering over these new sensations of well-being. There was no gnawing ache in my stomach, no parched feeling on my tongue, no piercing stab in my head and side. The room was awash with light. I turned my head towards it and saw my prison as through a veil. I was looking through the walls of my cell. Next door, Rico and Videl were playing a card game at a square table. So, I thought, their dislike for me must have turned to hatred. That thought did not disturb me.
Neither did the realization that I was dead disturb me. I had felt death approaching slowly over the past few days. I’d responded by intensifying my activities to showcase my will to live. Nevertheless, during my sleep, it had come. “Very well, then!” I said aloud, “It is not so bad. I had feared death before this. Now, I see that it is not a prison, as I’d often thought, but the gateway to freedom.”
“Jeremy!” I heard my name for the first time in ages. I turned my head to find another familiar face: my father’s—yet not the wizened face I’d seen lying on a silk pillow ten years before, but youthful and joyful. “It’s time, son. Time to come home.” He held out his hand and I grasped it.