The coals of an Adderall fire are sustaining me for now. To my surprise I don’t feel like adding any fuel to it nor do I want to crawl back upstairs. The forced exposure has broken the spell. To celebrate the unshackling I propose a tour.
“You wanna look around?”
“Yeah! If you’re up to it.”
“Don’t worry about me. Tough as nails.”
Especially while holding a shotgun in a secured, empty prison.
While Kristine waits for me to slurp a litre of room temperature spring water from the corridor stand she reads the rules stencilled on walls and nervously eyes dead cameras that occupy every corner of every room.
“These corridors are plenty long enough if you wanna go for a walk or a run. Maybe you could write on the whiteboard near the fridge. I’ll worry otherwise.”
I evade her bemused expression by turning away to demonstrate which circuit breakers do what. Flipping them activates banks of lights and powers dead machines that reanimate around the office with clicks and beeps. We wander the floors discussing elaborate escape routes that I have used a marker pen to modify on each floor’s evacuation placards. Abruptly I forbid her to open any external fire doors without me with her.
My admonishment makes me feel like a father giving his daughter the car keys, and then only allowing her to drive around the block; with him in the passenger seat. I tense for an argument about ‘who do I think I am telling her what to do’. Instead, my protectiveness gains me a grin and a brief hug. It conveys her feelings more than words could. I’d given her few other reasons so far to show me any affection so far. I cough to get a lump from my throat.
We soon exhaust the banal treasures of yesteryear’s trinkets. Now, only two areas remain to be shown. One of them stains my unusually sunny temperament with a dark cloud. The cell blocks that contain a shocking discovery I’ve worked hard to repress.
I know Kristine will use her new freedom to explore all areas, even if I tell her not to. She’s curious as a cat. She’ll discover the doors even if I try to hide them and her inquiring mind will wonder what I am trying to hide. There is a nasty truth behind some of them that I can’t allow her to discover alone.
Like I had.
I have to tell her the truth. But first I bring her to my special place. It is somewhat better place to tell her foul news than anywhere else in this grim building. I have often used its calm beauty as a place for reflection.
The architecture of the Detention building is a big square box based around an open, central void. The internal courtyard supplied natural light to the offices and cells and was also utilised as a visiting area for low-risk prisoners. There was around two thousand square metres of grass here, scorched by the imposing, tinted windows all around. It had all the charm of a football field when I first found it as the specification would have banned any hidden corners, or concealing undergrowth.
I had remade it. I took native trees and shrubs from the external grounds and planted fast growing hedges to line winding paths of crushed volcanic rock. The concrete tables and benches, originally fixed in rows are now scattered about the grounds randomly.
We enter through a security check point. The offensive detectors of metal beep irately as we take forbidden items into ‘Sam’s Safe Zone’. The words are painted sloppily across the glass sliding doors that trundle open when I slap a swipe card against the monitor.
I am pleased to see the garden is presentable. Several weeks of neglect and dry weather have had minimal impact on my low maintenance design. I fret about parts of the lawn that have burned but I know a shower or too will put that right. After it rained I used to get rolling drunk and cruise around on a ride-on mower. Power gardening is something I really enjoy.
Kristine does not nit-pick the small imperfections. She’s delighted to be stepping on grass and feeling the sunshine on her skin. Our abject fear of attack that wrings the enjoyment out of these simple pleasures has no place here. The need for such vigilance is cancelled by the sheer, mirrored glass all around us
We find a bench beneath a sapling and kick off our boots. Kristine wriggles her toes in the long blades of cool grass and I watch the play of dappled sunlight on her face. The corner of her mouth lifts in a lopsided smirk of satisfaction. I continue to stare at her profile until she senses my scrutiny and turns. Embarrassed, I look away and mess about removing the plastic armour, self-consciously leaving my sweat damped shirt on. I lie back on the warm concrete table and watch clouds drift slowly overhead.
“This place is awesome, Sam. How beautiful. I could spend all day here. I get pretty low when I’m closed in.”
“I know. Well, I know now. I haven’t given that much thought to your needs I guess. Sorry.”
The apology slips out awkwardly. She deserves a more heartfelt contrition.
“I noticed,” Kristine says dryly. “You’re hardly there at all most of the time. If you want to talk about it...?”
I sigh loudly. A deep and meaningful conversation is not what I had in mind. Heaving myself up I break in before she ignites my anger with that psycho-analytical drivel she loves so much.
“Please just stop! Firstly; I don't need another grief management session. I never planned to unload my story on you like I did before. Those are my problems. Secondly; I’ll never be the ‘new age guy in touch with his emotions’ like you want me to be. That’s just a metro-sexual’s way of getting laid. And lastly; I like shutting shit out. That’s how I deal with my problems. I don’t care what your psycho-babbling lecture taught you. If you want to have a real conversation, let’s talk about us. You’re afraid of me, you don't trust me and you don't know what to do about it.”
Whoops. That last bit kinda just fell out of my mouth.
Kristine shades her eyes with one hand and peers into me.
“Can I trust you Sam?”
I should have known she’d turn this back on me. Shit, why can’t I stop talking so much? Are these the side-effect of a sympathetic ear attached to a beautiful listener? She draws feelings from me like a lance draws pus from a wound? Brutal bitch.
She strikes a vein of honesty this time.
“I don’t know; sometimes I don’t think so. Not filling you with confidence, am I? All I can say is make up your own mind. For what it’s worth, I want you to stay even if your being here complicates something I’ve already gotten worked out.”
“Am I allowed to guess what you’ve got worked out, Sam. Depression and fear can make suicide appear to be the only answer. Don’t keep it all inside. Men are allowed to have feelings too, you know?”
I’ve read the same books and I must admit she’s learned the techniques well. I swim against her current.
“I don’t know how to put the feelings I’ve got into words. It’s bad enough the keep remembering all the bad things that have happened to me, and that I’ve done since the Parasites came. Sharing them only doubles the pain.”
Angry that she has broken through to me again I punch my chest hard.
“My mind is a whorehouse of every disaster I’ve ever collected. They’re in there now, fucking each other and filling me with cross-breeds so I don't even know what my nightmares are about anymore. I only know they scare the shit out of me.”
Shut up, shut up! I’m spiralling out of control again.
I dig out the trusty tin of pills and rattle them in her face.
“If you think Calm and Stupid is hard to put up with? You should see me without these. Paranoid and Violent wouldn’t be much fun for either of us.”
I leave off my rant there. There’s nothing more to add. My flaring anger melts the hard-edges of misery until I just feel empty again.
Kristine shakes her head unhappily and she thinks deeply for a long time without looking at me. If she regrets her assertiveness she can at least remind herself the option to leave is now possible.
Our long silence is interrupted when I stop playing with the pill container and unsnap the top. I move the contents about with a forefinger and find my rough handling has cracked two of the capsules. A wetted finger picks up most of the mixed powder and I lick at its bitterness. .
“Ohhh, yeah, while I still feel like shit, there’s something else you should know. But I’m only going to tell you if you’re gonna stay. If not, I’ll keep it to myself since I’d rather you didn’t know.”
My wish to spare her from the knowledge is also a shameless attempt to fish for clues of her future plans.
“Don’t tell me; you’re gay too.”
It isn’t an answer I’d expected. Her flippancy is an uneasy peace offering that I take by smiling weakly. The return of my previous grave expression cause her heels to drum divots in the grass.
“I’m sorry Sammy. You’re so miserable it scares me. Tell me this thing. We’re in your safe place and I’m listening to you.”
Kristine’s nights are about to receive a new assignment of nightmares. What I’m about to tell her is unforgivable but, for once, the act is not tied to my doings. I’d like to think it is beyond my scope to do anything so cruel. My face works hard to reflect these thoughts. I gaze at Kristine like an executioner sizing up the condemned. She shrinks away from me, defensively clasping her biceps and shivers in the warm sunlight.
I spill the story fast, before I lose my nerve.
“When the last guards left this place, they probably had a lot on their minds, you know, Parasites, riots, all that shit...”
Kristine waits apprehensively while I clear my throat.
“...they probably just didn’t know what to do…or figured someone else would…um, Jesus, there’s no excuse really. The last guards who left this place didn't let all the kids out. Some are still here. In their cells.”
Kristine covers her mouth that has dropped open in horror.
“Oh, shit, they starved to death?”
“No Parasites got in here that I can tell. I haven’t moved the bodies out… there’s so many…I couldn’t do it.”
Admitting this weakness shames me.
Tears are a given with Kristine’s sensibilities. Refusing to match her tears I stupidly attempt to squash her sympathy. “They’re probably all thieves and murders.”
My voice cracks, damaging the tough veneer of my belief.
“You don’t know that! They might only have been homeless or abused; besides, no one deserves to die starving!”
Her damp eyes flash angrily for a second, relenting when she sees my obvious sorrow. My dry eyes burn when Kristine’s fingers links between mine.
“You aren’t so tough.”
“You better not believe it.”
I jump up and do a few Mr Universe poses, flexing muscles, clowning to mask the misery I’ve caused. The mood lightens, but not much. I discard my iron front.
“They haunt me; those kids.”
That difficult, single admission closes a single door on a closet full of monsters.
“That doesn’t make you less of a man, Sam. It makes you human. Show me where they are. Maybe I can do something to purge their spirits. I started training as a witch you know.”
I leave her last remark alone for now. I know her well enough to determine her request is not made to satisfy a voyeuristic streak. She radiates empathy, and if her strange New Age religions help convert her sorrow into positive energy, I’m not going to take that from her.
“We do this once, and then I’m never going there again, OK?”
She dips her chin in agreement.
I take us on a lengthy journey which requires us to cut through a chair and table maze in a giant cafeteria. Kristine stops walking and ask the obvious question in a tone I find irritating.
“What’s with all the surfboards?”
Yes, well, the room is filled with about one hundred colourful boards. They lean against walls, are screwed to the ceiling, and are piled upon tables. The reason for the montage evades me. I’ve never even ridden on one of these bloody things. Somewhere deep down I must really want to.
I shrug; disparaging the hours I’d put into this pastime, and lead her to another hefty door. I slap it lightly as if testing for heat, belabouring the need to keep the entire place locked down in case humans or monsters break in. I prefer to obstruct their every move and give ourselves time to fight or get away.
Kristine nods grimly, knowing I’m stalling.
I keep more than human remains locked in this crypt. The dregs of my sanity was spilled in here.
The day that I’d found this cell tier, a fringe of despondency had already hung about me. Lonely and searching for a reason to stay positive I wandered aimlessly into these silent, dusty corridors that I had not yet explored. The garden project was finished, contingencies covered, and lists were completely crossed off. I was growing tired of waiting for a cavalry to march into town and return my world to normal. My faithful foundations that relied on these saviours to rescue me were cracking into chasms each day that they did not appear.
Then I’d stood at this door, and ventured beyond to those small rooms of terrible sadness. Not every cell was populated with a corpse, though I couldn’t stomach making a proper inventory. I had moved faster and faster between the viewing slits in the hope that the first, then second, and then the third and forth were isolated cases.
I remember every detail. The bedding torn by their impotent frustration. The slow starvation prolonged by drinking water from the sink or, if the taps had stopped flowing, the toilet. The one who had cut an artery and painted walls and floors with black, frantic smears.
I’d shut this door on those vivid memories and switched off the power and air-conditioning.
For quite some time the ghosts of agonized cries attach themselves to my every waking moment, and then they would wail bitterly through my nights of exhausted sleep. Visions of inconsolable spirits swirl in dreams of dead children who plead and call for their mothers. I would wake in a cold sweat and clamp my lips on a last harsh cry.
The sleeping pills I found during a hollow eyed search for liquor got me through the worst days. I’d seen many corpses in my travels but the utter helplessness of these slow deaths affected me deeply. Now sleeping pills, and many others, provided such comfort I can’t cope without them.
And here I am, about to open the door once more.
With gritted teeth, I roll the lock. Riveted steel swings towards me and exposes the musty corridor of numbered doors, blank walls and caged lights. Kristine clings to my arm, needing support than I’m unable to offer.
It’s dark in there. Weak sunlight pushes through rectangular observation slots from high-set windows inside each cell. That will have to be enough to illuminate the contents for her purposes. These are sights she’ll later wish were further drowned in murk.
Kristine tugs me forward but I hold my ground and shake my head, refusing to forsake this post. I will not cross this threshold on a promise I’d made to the dead inside.
She unpeels fingers that have dug into bone and enters alone. Without boots to boost her, tip-toes are employed to peer into the first cell. A brief look back ensures I remain in place before she moves to another and she gazes within for a long time. Here, I recall, her focus will be a rumpled husk, pressed to a corner. With a quiet tread, as though afraid to wake sleeping beasts, she proceeds to the next and the next.
It’s too much for her.
She pushes away from the glass and throws up wretchedly, holding onto the wall for support. I remain rooted to the spot, and watch her run blindly towards me. She runs past me and I wish I knew when to open my arms to her for comfort. I listen to the echoing slap of her feet against hard walls as she leaves the confinement area, weighted by each sorrowful tales told to her in dried blood and contorted limbs.
I swing the door shut with a hollow boom. There’s much ceremony involved with the retying of bootlaces and adjusting surfboards to perfect my display. I let most of an hour go by before I venture into the garden’s afternoon shade. I knew she’d return here to bathe in its liveliness. Even my unworthy troubles are soothed here.
Sitting cross-legged on a far off table, head bowed, she glows in a last rays of sunlight.. I hang back; absorbing her distress. Eventually she looks up and waves me to her.
“It’s so sad,” she says softly when I have sat close beside her. “They suffered terribly.”
I nod silently.
“We should bury them. Out here.”
Although I understanding her reasoning, I will not afflict our one protected place with such wretchedness.
“We aren’t doing that. This is not a graveyard.” I jerk my head back towards the cellblock. “We can pity them, but they’re dead and gone so why disturb their tombs.”
She straightens indignantly; ready to argue, then slumps.
“You probably right. I felt a presence in there. I know what you’re thinking, Sam. What a bunch of crap! Right? There’s hate and terror in those cells. I don't know what can release them. I’m not sure I have the strength.”
“If you have the gift then you should use it. Bring those souls into the light.”
I’ll not degrade her good intentions. Besides, that place does have the power to send a chill down my spine.
Standing is the signal that she wants to leave. I take a hand to assist her step down from the bench. She lets my fingers go and trails behind me, the excitement of exploring crushed.
My key jams for a moment in a door and I am reminded of the Oxy/acetylene sets I’ve hidden in each sector. I point out these hidey holes and explain the reason for them.
“We’ve had a nasty day but I need to show you this before we leave. What would you do if one of these door locks broke, or you lost your keys?”
Kristine looks dubiously at the heavy bottles I roll out but she obediently screws hoses to fittings at my direction. A metal shelf crashes over in a jumble of loose objects and I ignite the tip to cut the thin steel. Aggressive talk persuades her to don the gloves and goggles although she stubbornly refuses to light the torch. I rise up in anger and hit her where it hurts most. Her heart.
“You wanna end up like those kids in there? Starving to death within metres of food and not able to get at it? All because you’re a useless, limp-wristed, little girl who wants to be looked after!”
This disgraceful tactic shocks her. Determination to prove me wrong replaces her fear of the scary pop of igniting gas. I’m impressed when she does manage to light the acetylene without squealing or throwing the hand piece away as it ignites. I laugh, and she complains, but finally she shows an understanding of its operation. I pack up the set and hide it, salving her lingering hurt with my respect.
“I don't really think you’re useless. You just needed a prod, that’s all.”
“You could try using kindness and understanding instead of hostility.”
“My way’s quicker.”
“I’ll forgive you; again! You sure do think of everything, don’t you. Obviously your brain isn’t completely unwired.”
My brain can’t take all the credit. Mr Paranoia loves listing things that can go wrong for me, and sometimes I listen to him closely.