When they pulled him up, Milton was not sure if he was standing or floating. His sense of direction was lost. There was a door, true, and it had been in the wall before, but now it was clearly on the ceiling. Then it occurred to him that they had not pulled him up, rather they had pushed him to the ground. A sharp pain, and then down ceased to be down. He fell toward the ceiling, crashing into it again. The cycle repeated itself. The Thin Woman traced her finger along his bare back, and colors exploded all around him. The noise was a cacophony.
Gold Tooth had him next. The air vibrated, the ground shuddered, and Milton vomited the meager gruel they’d given him. Maybe that was a good thing. His body was willing to let it go this time.
“How’s the knee?” asked The Shabby Man. The cell was just a cell then, concrete walls, floor and ceiling. To his back, there was the door they came through when it was time to hurt him. In front of him was a huge pane of glass, probably inches thick. The Shabby Man’s voice came in over the speaker, lodged up by the ceiling, about fifteen feet high. Milton sometimes wondered – during Question Time, which was the only time he could really think – if the Shabby Man’s voice sounded tinny and rough as it did on the speaker.
“Fine, I suppose,” croaked Milton. He hadn’t spoken in… however long it had been since the last Question Time. This was their twenty-seventh session, so it was possible that it had been as many days, but judging from the number of times they’d shorn off his beard, it had to be longer than that. They’d actually fixed up his knee, extracted the bullet and sewn the wound shut. But they’d made a Game of it. The Thin Woman and Gold Tooth liked to play Games with him.
“You can walk?”
“Good.” The Shabby Man jotted down a note in the small pad he carried with him. “That’s very good. I’m glad they were able to help you with that.”
The Shabby Man sat in a wooden swivel chair. Behind him, the cavernous room in which he sat stretched on into darkness. He wore a ratty brown suit, with a million little fibers sticking out of it where the fabric was worn, which was nearly everywhere. He had longish white hair and a scraggly beard, also white. And he smiled far too often.
“Where is June Greene?”
Milton shook his head. This was always among the questions.
The Shabby Man shrugged innocently. “Maybe next time.” He turned to another page in his notebook. “When you visited our dear Ms. Greene in the lower block of Castlebrook Prison, what did you discuss?”
“I had nothing to do with the escape.”
“That was not my question.”
Milton hung his head. “I’ve told you over and over.”
“Where is she, Jack?”
Milton slowly stood. His lungs still burned from when they had drowned him. “Honestly, I wish I knew.”
“Where is June Greene, Commander Milton?”
Milton leaned on the window. The glass was cool. “I don’t know.”
The Shabby Man nodded. He looked almost sad. “I’ll see you next time, Jack.”
He walked away. The lights went out, and for some amount of time, Milton continued to stand there. The cool glass was a comfort. It was something solid. He slowly let himself slide down. His skin rubbing against the glass made a faint squeak. He dared not sleep, because in sleep time would move swiftly, and he would be back with his torturers, playing their Games.
He wanted the Shabby Man back. He’d tried lying, telling them something somewhat plausible, but they’d known it was false as soon as it left his lips. That time, they played particularly rough Games with him.
Milton couldn’t hold himself up anymore, so he let himself flop down onto the floor, his arm still against the window and his head pressed down onto his arm. It wouldn’t be long. Sleep was on its way. Cruel sleep. One time, while he slept, he woke up to impossibly bright lights. He assumed this was another Game, only to realize he had dreamt it, and the chamber was still pitch-black.
“I’m sorry to wake you, please, drink this.”
Milton jolted at the voice. Dread was all he felt. There was little joy to be had in wakefulness. The Games were about to begin once again.
“Don’t be frightened. Try to sit up and drink this.”
It was a different voice: soft, stately. But it was still dark. Milton strained to prop himself up. There was a terrible smell in the air, like burned rubber and cigarettes. “Who’s there?”
“Call me the Diplomat. Here, hold out your hand where I can see it.”
“How can you see anything?”
“It’s what I do.” The Diplomat’s hand had found Milton’s. At first Milton thought that there was something wrong with the Diplomat’s skin, but then realized that he was wearing leather gloves. Milton found himself holding a hot mug. “Now drink this.”
“What is it?”
Milton carefully brought the mug to his mouth. He sipped. The liquid was the bitterest thing he had ever tasted, burning as it went down his throat. He coughed, spraying some of the foul liquid from his mouth.
“I know it doesn’t taste very good, but you’ll need it. I should be going. It's important that it doesn't know I'm here. Drink the whole mug, Jack.”
“What is this stuff?” said Milton. There was no response. Slowly, he began to realize that the room was not completely dark. Far in the distance, outside of his cell, there was a faint, orange light. As his eyes adjusted, he found that his cell was completely empty except for himself and the mug in his hand.
There was nothing left to do at this point. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and downed the coffee. Suddenly it was very bright, the orange flood lamp, so far from his cell, igniting like a new sun, as if it were focused entirely into his eyes. And then the smell grew stronger – fire and plastic, coffee, oil, cigarettes. The light was blinding.
And then it was gone.
And right there, beyond Milton's window, standing mere inches from the glass, there was a man with no face.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)