Saturday, September 17, 2016

Room without a key, Part Three


So I haven’t gotten out of the bed in a few weeks. Maybe months.
            No, that’s not right. I have to get up to go to the bathroom sometimes. Then I stumble to the desk and fold down another page of the Bible. Then I collapse on the bed.
            Rachel looks down at me. Come on, you asshole. When you are going to get up? She punches my shoulder. I can almost feel it.
            Every once in a while I crawl to the fridge for some water. Sometimes I eat part of a sandwich, but most of it ends up on the floor.
            I try to move around, but I’m so tired . . .
            I count the pages I’ve turned down in the Bible. Ten, 20, 30 . . . 51. Oh hell! A month and a half? What will Rachel say? Oh, wait . . .
            You idiot. She’s right behind me, but I don’t want to look. I don’t want her to go away again. What are you doing here?
            I’m sorry. I crawl back to the bed. I’m sorry . . .
            My mother is singing. The curtains are wide and the sun is streaming in. Then she’s driving away, and I’m watching her disappear down the street. I wave as the car fades out.
            Then I’m in an alley. It’s the first time I ever saw a monster, back when I was a reporter. A black shape lurches away from me, crawling up a building. No one believes me.
            I slide off the bed without feeling anything. When I blink my eyes, a vampire is gazing down at me, fangs wide.
            I raise my hands. Get away, get away!
            The vampire turns into Rachel. I can see her hazelnut eyes, her fire-red hair. I reach up for her—
            But she shakes her head. Then she’s gone.
            No. No . . .

Okay. I push myself up. I’m getting out of here. Somehow.
            Water keeps me going. The sandwiches? I need something in my belly, so I force myself to eat the meat, and I throw the bread away.
            Bathroom. I stand under the shower in my underwear. I’m not sure where I left my clothes, or why I need them. Let them look at my scrawny ribs. It can’t be that much of a thrill.
            I sink into the chair at the desk and open the Bible. How many days? I’m not sure I remembered to fold each corner down every day. But even if I didn’t . . . it’s hard to count. Ten, 20, 30, 40 . . .
            “You can’t do this to me!” I slam a fist on the desk. “Are you listening? You can’t do this!”
            No reply. I lay my head on the desk next to the Bible.

I sit up. Finn. Finn Markham. I remember the name. But what does it mean?
            Rachel. Oh, god, Rachel. Her hazelnut eyes. I sit up. What the hell is going on?
            For one moment I remember everything. Judith, her parents, Diane Atkinson, Rachel . . . Rachel . . . and Finn Markham.
            Then I’m spiraling down again in a dizzy spell that sends me spinning around the room. Wait a minute . . . wait . . .
            I clutch the desk. For a moment I feel steady. Then it hits me again. I fight the nausea, except my stomach is empty because I haven’t eaten anything in days. I lean down, choking, until I can breathe again. I try to sit up.
            I can’t stand this much longer. Judith—is that her name? She lived here for 200 days. How did she do it?
            She almost died. I don’t think I can do a hunger strike that long but—
            I rub my face. No, not 200 days. She was very exact. It was 193 days. How could she know that?
            I read one chapter of the Bible every day. There was one in the desk, like every hotel room has. I know about where I was when I got home, so I counted.
            Judith counted the Bible chapters. She didn’t read her Bible enough, her father said. Maybe she learned her lesson.
            I open the Bible.

One hundred and ninety . . . One hundred ninety-one . . . I can barely keep counting. How long have I been here? With a pen and a piece of paper I could do this in a minute, but the desk has only the Bible. I have to count, one chapter after another, trying to stay awake.
            I’m in the book of Joshua. Didn’t he make the sun stand still? Time stands still in here. Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe . . .
            I jerk my head up. I can’t fall asleep now. I don’t remember when I ate last. I’m thirsty, but I’m afraid if I stand up to get another bottle of water I’ll fall down and I won’t be able to get up again.
            I flip the pages, my eyes cloudy, until I reach Joshua, chapter six:

March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.
Six days? I don’t have that long. But maybe . . .
            I lurch up and open the door. The same gray wall greets me. I almost fall back, as if it’s pushing on my chest. But I grab the edge of the door and take a deep breath.
            “HA!” I shout. The force of my own voice surprises me. I don’t quite believe I have that much strength left. “HA!”
            Five more times. I feel stupid. But I lean back, drawing all my breath into my chest. My feet wobble on the floor. I grab the edge of the bed.
            “HAAAAA . . .!”
            I shout at the top of my breath for as long as I can. My lungs hurt, and my throat aches, but I keep going. Mostly because I’ve got nothing left. If this doesn’t work, I’m going to just lie down and think about flowers and unicorns and Humphrey Bogart movies. And Rachel.
            But my voice keeps going. I’m staggering on my feet. I might as well give it everything I’ve got. It worked for Joshua. Maybe it worked for Judith. Maybe . . .
            The gray wall crumbles.
            What the—? I stumble forward. This can’t be real. It’s another dream. It can’t—
            I push my hands forward. The wall crashes back, dust swirling around my head. I push forward, still shouting, waving my arms. Yes! Joshua! Yes!
            My knees give out. I twist around, looking back into the room.
            The TV flickers one last time, and then it falls over. The screen cracks. The door slams shut behind me, and now I’m in some gray space with no ceiling or floor. I close my eyes. Okay, I’m fine. At least . . .


I opened my eyes and rolled over on the bed.
            The blankets and sheets felt strange. Clean and familiar. I managed to sit up.
            My Casablanca poster hung on the wall. My one cactus plant sat next to the window. The clock radio next to my bed said 4:10 p.m. I stared at it until it clicked over to 4:11.
            My keys and wallet were back in my pocket. So was my phone. I punched the wrong buttons two or three times until I got it right. Please pick up, please
            “Yeah, what?” Rachel sounded annoyed. “I’m kind of busy here with—”
            “H-help me!” My voice sounded like a hoarse puppy. “Help me!”
            “What the—” But she could hear the fear in my throat. “Okay. I’ll be right down.”
            Thirty seconds later she was holding me as I cried. “Oh, god, it’s you, it’s really you. Don’t go away. Please, don’t go away . . .”
            “I’m here, Tom.” She hugged me. “I’m not going anywhere. It’s okay.”
            “Sorry.” I wiped my nose on my sleeve. “I guess I should change clothes.”
            “Yeah, you stink.” But she didn’t let go of me. “What happened?”
            I sighed. “I was in the room.”
            She stroked my arm. “How long?”
            “I don’t know. A month, maybe two. I don’t know . . .” I shivered.
            “How did you get out?”
            “The walls of Jericho.” I remembered that much.
            “Huh?” At least she didn’t punch me.
            “I’ll tell you later. I think I need a shower.” I stood up.
            “Yeah, you do.” She led me to my bathroom. “Something to eat? You look a lot thinner than yesterday. You want a sandwich or—”
            “No!” I pushed her away. “No sandwiches! A salad, fish sticks, raw eggplant, anything but a sandwich!” I sighed. “Sorry.”
            “Okay, I’ll order pizza. Geez.” But she kissed my cheek. “Anything else?”
            “I really want a beer. Please?”
            “Sure. You want me to bring it in the shower?”
            “Yeah.” I clutched her hand. “I might be a long time.”

Two days later we were all in Diane Atkinson’s office: Me, Atkinson, Rachel, Judith—and although they didn’t look like they wanted to be there, both of Judith’s parents.
            “Thank you for coming.” Atkinson looked at her client. “I’ve been working with Judith for several weeks, and I think she has something to say to you.”
            “Who are you again?” Joe looked unhappy.
            “Joe . . .” Gwen patted his knee. “Just listen. Please.”
            We’d talked this over—me and Judith and Atkinson. I’d given Gwen a heads up about what we’d be talking about. Joe? Well, he was being ambushed, a little bit, but I couldn’t really find it in my heart to care right now.
            Rachel hugged my shoulder. I still felt a little shaky. Rachel likes to insult me and punch me, but she’s usually there when I need her.
            “Mom? Dad?” Judith took a breath. “I can’t live with you anymore. I don’t think I can see you anymore, at least for a while—”
            “What? No.” Joe shook his head. “You’re my daughter! You belong with—”
            “Joe?” Atkinson’s voice was quiet but firm. “Judith is talking.”
            “I was in a room for 193 days because you made Finn take me there.” Judith’s voice trembled, but she stayed calm. “And I was all alone. Do you know what that’s like? I read a play that said hell is other people, but it’s not that. Hell is nothing. No one. Can you even imagine? I can’t. I’m sorry, but . . .” She grabbed for a tissue. “I just can’t be with you anymore.”
            “Oh, come on, baby.” Joe leaned forward, reaching for her hand. “It was for your own good—”
            “Joseph, for God’s sake, shut up.” Gwen pulled his hand away from Judith. “I’ve lived with this, and you, and . . . and . . . I’m sorry, Judith.” She grabbed a tissue too. “I should have done better. I really should.”
            For a moment the room was quiet.
            “Nothing can replace the word of God.” Joe’s voice was low. “Not you and your new age therapies. If you really believe—”
            “Joseph.” Atkinson raised a hand. “We’re just talking. We just want to understand each other.”
            “Oh, I understand you fine.” Joe jabbed a finger at me. “But you? What business do you have meddling with my family? Judith is my daughter. I’d do anything for her.”
            For a moment, yeah, I almost felt sorry for him. “She needed help, Joe. I’d do the same for anyone.”
            Joe shook his head, “Not your help. I can take care of my own.”
            “With Finn Markham’s help? Who is he, anyway?”           
            Judith shuddered.
            Joe grimaced. “It doesn’t matter. He does good work. He helps the families around the neighborhood—”
            “He’s a monster, Joe.” Gwen clenched her hands in her lap. “You know that.”
            Joe’s face grew red. “We talked about this, Gwen. You never said . . . I only wanted to help my little girl. Is that so wrong?”
            “When she’s 25 and a grownup?” Rachel was ready to leap up and slap him. I flinched. She looked at Atkinson. “Sorry. I have issues too.”
            I didn’t want to tell Joe how I’d dreamed the last two nights about going to Finn Markham’s house and shooting my Taser repeatedly into his genitals. But someone—“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Rachel warned me—had called the police. Maybe he needed time to set his trap, because instead of ending up inside a room, together or separately, the cops had managed to search his house and apparently find enough evidence of abuse to arrest Finn and lock him up without bail. I hoped he was in solitary confinement.
            But Joe was different. He wasn’t necessarily a monster, just a seriously misguided parent. So I had only one response.
            “Let me put it like this, Joe. Judith?” I looked at her. “I was almost crazy after two months or so in that room. You survived there for 193 days. How did you do it?”
            She smiled at me, as if the answer was obvious. “I had my faith.”
            “Did you hear that, Joe?” I sat back on the couch. “Faith. Maybe you should have a little more in your daughter.”
            “I don’t need to listen to you.” Joe glared at me and Rachel and Atkinson. “Any of you! The hell with all of you. Come on, Gwen.” He reached for her hand and lurched to his feet. “Let’s go.”
            “No.” Gwen snatched her arm away. “No, Joe. I don’t think so.”
            He blinked. For a moment I expected him to explode with righteous anger and a whole bunch of Bible verses. But in the end he just gazed at Judith one last time. Then he turned and lurched from the office as if wounded inside.
            A moment later we all heard the front door slam like a clap of thunder.
            “Well.” Atkinson sighed. “I’m sorry. That didn’t go exactly the way I’d hoped. Judith, are you all right?”
            Judith was crying. Gwen put an arm around her shoulder. “It’s all right, honey. I’m here.”
            Rachel nudged my arm. Gently, for once. I stood up. “We’ll leave you alone to—talk, or whatever. Judith? I’m sorry.”
            “Oh, no!” Judith jumped up to hug me. “Thank you so much! I don’t know what I would have done without you! And you . . .” She shook Rachel’s hand. “Take good care of him. He believes.”
            “Uh . . .” Rachel glanced at me. And smiled. “Yeah. I guess.”

But when the game is over, I won't walk out the loser.
And I know that I'll walk out of here again.
And I know someday I'll walk out of here again.
(Bruce Springsteen video)

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  1. Damn - shades of 'reprogramming" camps and faith as a stick to beat you with. Beware the love that is "for your own good", the love that decides to make choices for you. Scary stuff - I'm glad Tom is one smart and tough guy. The Taser idea sounded FINE to me. Ripping good yarn.

  2. I should mention that I've always wanted to do a story based the song "Trapped." Jimmy Cliff wrote it, so I credited him first, but it's Springsteen's version that made it powerful.