This story is by Victory Jo and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It’s been years since I’ve seen another’s face—more than I can count. The solitude is deafening, yet the screams are etched into the crumbling brick walls. Whomever says walls don’t hold memories has never remained confined to a cell like this. The blood, the tears, the anguish, and pain, nothing good was ever born here. The rusted pipes disappear into a gaping hole in the wall, and the wall sconce burned out long ago. Even the rats have long gone. Torment loves the dark. And so alone I sit, with only my memories to keep me company.
A small table and a couple of stools lay strewn about the broken floor. Splintered and silent, I can’t even see them without the sun. Does that even shine? They offered a sort of comfort to others that I could not—a drink, a crumb, a false promise of escape. My legs are stiff, covered in bloody secrets and splinters; my arms clawed and scratched. The screams, oh the screams, I would wail if I could. The years, maybe even decades, have held them close; there is no telling if they will ever fade. I’ve been used to extinguish cigarettes and suffered knife wounds at the regular, but I didn’t complain. At least I had company. At least I wasn’t alone.
And the secrets—oh, the secrets I could tell. Whispered and screamed, I’ve heard every one. Most of them were guilty. Most deserved the pain, deserved to suffer. I didn’t love it. Hell, I abhorred it, yet I couldn’t stop it. But there was one who was different from the rest, one who hadn’t lied, who hadn’t deceived. I would have taken his place if I’d been able.
Jack, a small-town man, not from here I was sure, found himself inside my cell. He’d be just like the rest, I told myself. How long would he last before he spilled? At one point or another, they all did. Alone, weakened with food deprivation and dehydration, he cried out, beseeching to go home. His incoherent ramblings filled my cell with musings about cherry orchards and Sevastopol, Wisconsin. Interrogations generated little. Jack was a simpering man, but I believed him; Léo did not. Cigarette burns and broken bones hadn’t yielded any results. Maybe the knife trailing down his skin and counting out each finger would. It did not. On the last, Jack screamed, then fainted.
The sizzling sound gave way to the odor of singed skin. Léo had grown too accustomed to it, no longer reacting to any sight or smell. His backhand to the face jarred Jack awake. Inches between them, Léo pressed on, his face going crimson. “Let’s try this again. Who are you working for?”
“No one. I’ve told you.”
Léo slammed papers on the small side table, spilling what little water was there to keep the prisoner going. “What brought you here?”
“A vacation. I don’t know anything.” Jack tensed.
“Vacation. Ha! That’s a good one.”
“I tell the truth! Please…”
Léo grunted, sweat falling from his forehead, and another finger dropped to the floor. Sizzle and singe. Jack slumped again. Léo exited, extinguishing the light, leaving the severed digits on the floor.
I wished to embrace him, tell him everything would be okay, but I couldn’t promise that. They all left here the same way. I wanted to give him something, anything, but I had nothing but wooden silence to offer. Sobs hung in the air, low, barely covering the dripping from the pipe. “I don’t know anything. It’s fiction. Why won’t they believe me? I made it up.” Only his whispers escaped.
Jack tried to kick his foot, pulling tight the metal rope connecting him to the wall behind me. He’d managed maybe three inches. Those more athletic than he couldn’t do better. The ties around his waist, wrists, and opposite ankle kept him bound in place, no room to move. He couldn’t even relocate to relieve himself, what little he had. The night absorbed his sobs, erasing their existence, until the captor made his return the next morning, if it was the next morning. Time had a way of slipping away here.
Léo’s slender six-foot frame dwarfed the child-sized stool he perched on. Brandishing a cleaned blade, he examined it at eye level. “Tell me what I want to know, and you’ll be free to go. I’ll even see that you get medical care for your injuries.”
Jack pulled at the restraints. “I’ve told you I don’t know anything. I swear.” The knife moved closer. “No! No! I’ll say anything you want. Just tell me what you want me to say, and I’ll tell you.”
“It’s easy. Who sent you? How many of you are here? What are their names?” He stared at Jack, moving closer to his face. “When is the assassination attempt to happen?”
He shook his head and licked his lips. “It’s not like that. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know anything about an assassination.”
“Who is your contact?” The knife pressed against Jack’s abdomen; one drop of blood crawled down.
“My contact? What are you talking about? I live and work alone.” The knife pierced his skin; he cried out.
“What’s your job?” The questions came quicker.
“So, you’re the financier?” Léo cocked an eyebrow.
“What? No! I’m an accountant. I file people’s taxes. That is all.” Another stab to the abdomen. The breath caught in his throat.
“Then why are you here?”
“I… I told you. I’m just on vacation. I wanted to see someplace new.” Another stab. Pain swallowed him as he grew weaker.
Léo threw the paper stack on Jack’s lap. “Then what about this?”
“That… That’s just…” He took a shaky breath. “That’s just a manuscript for a novel… A fiction novel I was working on.”
“But I thought you were an accountant.”
“I am. Writing is a hobby.”
Léo slammed a fist on the small table, something I wish he wouldn’t do. “Rubbish! This is a playbook for a detailed assassination.”
“Where do you get your information?”
“I make it up.”
“It’s… It’s not what…” Jack’s head dropped to his chest as he struggled to stay awake.
“It’s not what?” He leaned even closer, the knife touching another part of Jack’s abdomen, ready to strike.
“It’s not fiction? I already know that.” Another knife wound.
Jack groaned. “No, it’s fiction.” He coughed. “The entire story. I made… I made it up.” He closed his eyes after the knife pierced him yet again.
How much longer could Jack last? It couldn’t be much longer. Could I just end his suffering? No, it’s impossible for me to do more than give him a splinter. I just sit here, immobilized.
“Lies!” The captor stood and swung his hand, overturning the table into the wall. “It’s a play-by-play of how to assassinate Mathéo Toussaint, a person with an uncanny resemblance to the President, and Henri Beaumont, likened to the Prime Minister.”
“Now I ask you again, WHO IS YOUR CONTACT?”
“No… No one.” He gasped after Léo stabbed him again, blood dripping from his mouth. “I…made…it…all…up.” Jack’s body fell limp, passed out but not dead. It wouldn’t be long.
Léo backed up, wiping the blood off the blade with a cloth from his pocket. He shook his head. “Another one lost. It didn’t have to be this way. I pray the Lord is merciful to your soul.” He walked out, leaving the poor man to his fate.
Once Jack expired, the men unstrapped his body from me and took it away, just like the rest. Then some other poor sap found himself bound to me. Many more would come and go until eventually there was no one left. Was he innocent? I wish the table and stools could share their sentiment as the walls deteriorate around us. It is not to be. Now I remain, decaying in my solitude, tortured by the truth.
I absolutely love your story. From the get go, it is gripping, giving little by little. Poor Jack, he chose the wrong place to vacation.
Susan Pugh-Rankin says
What an incredible story. I loved how the “main character” was revealed, splinter by splinter. The development of the story was very well thought out. Well done