A heavy snowfall blankets the town. It started coming down just before the sun was ready to set. The dense flakes are tossed in their descent by a fitful breeze. A faint glow from the defiant moon pushes through the falling shroud. It is the only hint of heavenly display. Scattered neon lights from storefront windows cast light that lands like chalk dust. Between the buildings, where some of the wind is blocked, the flakes gently finish their journey to rest.
Networks of streets, lined with the waning light of underpowered lamps, spread out in every direction. Local ordinances forbid upward expansion past a point – four stories – so the town is forced to grow outward. The exception to, and reason for, the rule is a six-story clock tower. No buildings are allowed to be built for three hundred feet in any direction, making it the centerpiece of the town square. A four-faced clock with one face oriented in each of the cardinal directions caps a four-sided display atop the tower. The display is a symbol of caution for the people of the town.
Far enough away so I don't have to crane my neck, I look up at it. Each time a snowflake lands on the exposed skin of my face, I flinch. The reaction is unconscious and does not break my attention. As it melts, the moisture rolls down to be absorbed by my worn shirt collar. Teardrops delivered from above. Ones I'm not willing to cry myself, my eyes being too busy looking at the display, or trying to see through it.
The wall of glass and what it contains is the only reason for me to come here. None of the stores have anything I want or need. Most of the other people in the busy square act as if they don't notice it, though it's impossible not to notice. It was designed to attract the eye, by pushing above the surrounding rooftops and lit with a red glow.
My family doesn't know I come here to look. At least I hope they don't. It's not every night, only as often as I can manage. Sometimes two or three nights a week. Every once in a while, a whole week passes without being able to make it.
Something inside tells me it's time to leave. I can't remember when I arrived, but it has to be close to becoming loitering. From the corner of my eye, I see a compliance officer. The peaked cap and medallion were easy to spot. Better not to test him. My eyes remain fixed on the unsettling display for a moment longer, even as the rest of my body turns to leave. After a few steps, I notice the officer again. His dissatisfied face is looking right at me. The officer's eyes have a hunger in them which can only be satisfied by prods with his stun wand. Eyes old enough to miss the days when subduing someone meant breaking a sweat. I ignore him and keep walking.
The snowfall brings with it a penetrating cold. No matter what measures they take, snow always affects the temperature of the tanks. Charles finds the change in scenery a worthy trade-off. The view from the tower is all he has known for so long. He has watched the square below transform. Like a slideshow, it plays on a loop in his mind. Once in a while, a blip or sliver of how something used to be, or not be, slips into the loop. To maintain sanity, he lets go of them as quickly as they appear.
Faces of the people below all blend together. They move around and shift in form like the time that passes. A person might glance up occasionally as they pass, but they don't like to look. Their bodies stiffen as soon as they see us and they get their eyes back in front of them. All the faces look the same except for one. One stops and takes the time to look. When the person leaves, so does the memory of their features, but each time they return he knows it. These are the things he notices. All he can do is notice. His only escape is sleep.
Away from the busy storefronts of the square, darkness encroaches. The already dim street lights do even less behind the driving snow. Each step crunches underfoot and the sound bounces off buildings and parked cars. If I were paranoid, which everyone is to a degree, it might sound like I was being followed. I look back, half expecting to see the officer behind me. Nothing there except the other side of the display. Still visible above the square, taunting my departure. The condo, where I live with my parents, brother, uncle, and grandmother, is not where I want to go. There just isn't anywhere else to be at the moment.
At the door, I press my right thumb against the worn reader attached to the wall. It beeps twice and a light at the bottom flashes red. I try it again. Beep, beep, red. The entire tract between my guts and throat tighten up. This was supposed to have been fixed. I lick my thumb, a tip from the geniuses who supposedly fixed it, and after wiping away the excess press it again. No change. They also said if a lick doesn't work, just press harder. I press it again, harder, with the same result. Then, I hear shuffling footsteps inside, the heavy lock flips over and the door opens.
"Come in and warm up." Says Uncle Shane.
"Same thing again?"
"You need to go get it fixed. Everyone else's works fine, so it isn't the reader."
"I know. I just don't want to waste a whole day downtown. I can think of better things to do with the time and the money."
"Well think of us, having to get up to get the door every time. Plus, what if we weren't here and you were stuck outside. Or if it was past curfew and we didn't hear you down here. You don't need troubles like that."
Walking slowly, I listen out of respect. What I want to tell him is to stop being a lazy mooch and just answer the damn door. I want to remind him I'm never out past curfew and someone is always home. That it's not likely to change, so shut up and leave me alone. What I said was something else. "You're probably right. I'll look into it."
"Well, see that you do." Shane sits back down in his chair. It is a slow, protracted display to lower himself onto the seat. Grandma is sitting on the couch, legs crossed, with her usual distant expression. She says nothing. It is difficult to tell if she knows where she is or who anyone else is. Not that it matters.
The kitchen smells of stew. An odor of overcooked tomato, onion, potato, and some kind of meat blends into the normal kitchen smell. If I know Shane he probably used the 'bargain' sausage. The one that simply carries the APPROVED stamp on the packaging. The stew is not an appetizing prospect. Though, most likely I will come down later and eat some of it, cold, once my hunger has grown. I pass by the stove and round the corner upstairs. Shane was still muttering something about the stew. I ignore it and keep going. The stairwell is narrow and the stairs unnervingly rickety. With careful steps, I dash up as quickly as possible.
All the bedrooms are upstairs, with the communal bathroom at the far end. The door to my parent's room is closed. Prismatic lights from the television screen flicker under the door. With soft, quick steps I continue to the end of the hall. Last door on the right. The door to the room I share with my brother is open a crack, leaving a wedge of light on the floor of the hallway.
Inside, the room is quiet and motionless. Zachary is sitting on the floor, propped against the dresser crammed between their two beds. A hinged arm lamp, the only light in the room, hangs over his shoulder to shine on the book in his lap. He looks up for a moment and returns back to the book without a word.
The moderate warmth of the house causes my damp clothing to feel burdensome. As soon as I get to my bed, I take off my boots and peel away the heavy socks. Then strip down to the long underwear I've worn all day. Neatly, I lay everything over the arms and back of a desk chair to air out. The sheets whisper as I crawl up to find a comfortable position. My brother shifts his weight in place, obviously in response to my presence in the room. Zachary rarely speaks unless prompted, but always finds ways to convey his displeasure.
"Hey." I say to Zachary as I roll over to face him, "You know anybody that..." Before I can finish, Zachary clears his throat. Without moving his eyes from the page, he holds up his index finger in my direction. He lets the digit linger for effect then brings the hand back down to grip the book. Silence fills the room, making noticeable the tiny creaks and pops the old apartment makes. Eventually, he places a string between the open pages, closes the book, and sets it down.
"What was it that you needed?"
I stare at my brother with disgust for a drawn-out moment. "Do you know anybody that works at registration?"
"Do you know anybody or not? Stop being a dick." Zachary turns away and slowly reaches for his book.
"Okay, you're not a dick. Just answer me."
I hold up my thumb and say, "My chip is fucked."
"Oh." Zachary thought for a moment. "I might know a friend of a friend. Why don't you just go and get it done?"
"I don't want to be there all day. It's going to be a pain."
"It's a couple hours tops. You don't have anything that important going on."
"I have a job, stupid. It's not just the time either. It's..." I sigh and look around the room before continuing.
In a hushed voice, I say, "I don't want to answer their questions."
"Why not? What did you do?"
I look back at the door, then jump up to close it. "Nothing." I whisper, before climbing back into bed.
"Then why wouldn't you want to answer the questions?"
"It's just. Well, I've been going to see Charles."
"So? Anybody can see Charles, anytime. It's not like they're going to call here and tell mom and dad."
"It's not just that." I pause and swallow. "I've been looking into his case."
"Why in hell would you be doing that? What do you mean 'looking into'?"
"I stop by the university library before or after work sometimes. I think Grandpa might have been right. Charles might be innocent."
"How can you possibly know that?"
"I didn't say I know, but it seems pretty possible. There's no record of the crime being committed. Think about it. If he had really killed someone and stolen those records, wouldn't there be coverage of it? The news loves conspiracy, death, theft, all that stuff. Yet there were no stories about the crimes, no obituary for the supposed victim, only stories of the trial and conviction."
"So what? It didn't gain attention right away."
"Normally a trial like his would've lasted months. His was two weeks start to finish. All of the witnesses had some kind of connection to the prosecution team. None of the physical evidence was compelling without their testimony."
"I'd say you've been reading too many detective novels, but I know you can't read."
"Fuck you. Just because I'm not a book nerd like you doesn't mean I can't. I just don't bother with it unless... whatever, I don't need to explain myself. I've looked at this stuff and read it. He's up there in that tower for something he didn't do. It's not right."
"Just because they had a strong case, doesn't mean it was rigged."
"Where was the money he was supposedly paid? Nothing was ever found outside of the accounts they named. And they couldn't even prove he owned those accounts. Wouldn't he have something to show for it? If their case was so strong why couldn't they find the money?"
"I don't know, but that still isn't proof."
"You'll just believe anything you're told. Won't you?"
"Why do you care so much?"
"Because Grandpa did. Because it tore him up, and it's not right."
"Let's say you're right. Even if all of that is true, what do you intend to do about it? It's not like they're going to reopen the case and just let him out after all this time. It would make them look bad. Plus, even if you found a lawyer to take the case, you can't afford to pay them."
"I'm just saying if I have to sit in a room and answer those stupid questions, they're going to pick up on something and start digging. I'll never be able to bluff my way out. I'm screwed."
Zachary thought for a moment. "I think you're right, you are screwed." His face twists into a contented smirk. "Let me see what I can do about getting you in."
Hearing the words cause my shoulders to relax. I hadn't even realized they were tensed. "Thank you."
Without a pause, Zachary opens the book, pulls out the string, and goes back to reading. Still turned toward him, I begin to fiddle with the sheets. The stress has taken a toll and I have nervous energy to spare. Feeling better about the situation, I want to chat. "What are you reading?" I ask. Zachary turns so the spine of the book is pointed toward me while continuing to read. On it was printed, The Idiot. The author's name is very long and the type, too small to read.
Taking the hint, I turn away and try to get comfortable, but the uncertainty of everything makes it difficult. I wish I could let it all out. Just vent until there is nothing left to say. I know Zachary would lose his mind if I did. The judgment and accusations would never end. What remained unknown was if he would help me or turn his back. It was honestly a toss-up. In the end, it doesn't matter. Talking, to anyone, will compromise everything I've worked so hard for.
The quiet of the room is unforgiving, broken by the occasional slicing sound of soft fingers turning dry pages. I turn to lay on my back and try to be present in my surroundings. The ceiling, something I hardly take time to notice, is mottled with stains from leaks over the years. Cobwebs line the grooves and corners of the crown molding installed long ago. Back when it would have been considered a nice place. Paint flaking from the trim reveals a pistachio colored layer beneath the dingy white. Trying to remember it ever being a different color, no memories come. Focus. The point is to be in the moment. Looking up, I see a picture of decay. Micro, minute, tiny changes happen every moment, adding up to eventual ruin.
When I awake, I am startled by the dark. Disoriented. Nothing about the dark is actually frightening, I just don't remember the light going out. From the bed beside me, there is strained nasal breathing. I hadn't meant to fall asleep. The patter of a passing helicopter rattles the roof. Its spotlight, combing the streets outside shone in through the shuttered windows. The slats remain partially open only because they are frozen in place. Swollen and warped by moisture then painted over. Neglected. Otherwise, they would be shut to block that stupid spotlight.
I push myself up in bed to lean against the wall. My brother's book lay on the dresser between the beds. The thought of leaning over to pick it up crosses my mind. Who was this idiot? Before reaching over, I realize I don't actually care. A chill had settled in and though my skin screams to be free of the long underwear, I keep it for warmth. I make sure the sheets and extra blankets spread evenly and get situated.
Enveloped, I think of all the news stories and testimonies and transcripts I have been reading. The pieces were all there. Anybody could put them together and come to the same conclusion if they cared to look. Nobody else, besides Grandpa, had bothered. As my body heat warms the pocket between the mattress and covers, I feel myself grow drowsy. Why, don't the others care? The question threatens to keep me awake. Since Grandpa has been gone, nobody brings it up anymore. It's like everyone was waiting for him to die so they could forget. Hearing the old man talk about his brother was excruciating. I'd feel the same if it were Zachary up there, even if he is a dick. It's why I have to do something. Tonight I have to sleep, so tomorrow I can do it.
A dream is fresh in my mind as the morning light coaxes open my eyes. Zachary is almost completely dressed and I can feel his disgust with my still being in bed. In the dream, I was inside of a cave on the moon. Each time I tried to peak out to look at Earth, the breath would be sucked out of me. Inside the cave, everything was fine. Outside was like drowning. Deeper inside the cave were other people or beings of some sort. I couldn't see them, or myself for that matter, but they were there, and they were supposed to be there, unlike me. A glow came from farther back than I was willing to venture. The intensity of the glow rose and fell though it was never strong enough to really illuminate where I was. A humming sound matched the glow's intensity. Outside the cave was silence. It wasn't frightening, though there was clearly no escape.
Watching my brother, sickeningly chipper, I wish I could return to the moon. Then I remember my plans. The moon will have to wait. My services are needed here. The day has finally come. I know I should be worried, but I'm not. Not yet. "When will you find out if your guy can fix my chip?"
"Not surprised at your assumption, but my guy is a woman. A lady, if you will. Anyway, I called her this morning and she said she could help. She just needs to know a few hours before you come in."
"Thanks. I owe you one."
"I know. I'll start thinking about how you can repay the favor."
"Yeah, I'm sure we can work something out."
He looks over and chipper turned to smug. "I'm serious, I don't like being involved in your mess."
"Now get out of bed before you make yourself late."
"I'm, uh, I'm calling in sick today." I exaggerate a fake cough.
"You are such a loser. I'll leave Lynn's number on the dresser for whenever you're feeling up to it."
Zachary grabs his book and tosses it in his satchel, then leaves the room without further remark. Glad for the solitude, I settle back into my sheets. If it did not require so much work I would tack up a blanket over the window and go back to sleep. Maybe dream of something nicer. Someplace warmer than the moon. Zachary slams the front door as he leaves, rattling the walls. According to the clock, there are thirteen more minutes before I have to make my phone call. Twelve and a half of them will be spent in idleness. The time is slightly less enjoyable knowing it is, with every moment, coming to an end.
The disappointment in my bosses voice brings me down. Apathy is not a strength of mine. Lying is an activity I try to avoid. In fact, I hate it most cases. A tool to be used sparingly. As I walk through the house, I feel pockets of warmed air near the vents. The furnace has never been able to keep up with the cold. Not on the amount of energy our household is allowed. Each warm spot feels good, but I know better than to linger. It will only disappoint. A breakfast of grain-based pabulum soaked in fortified dairy solution quiets my hunger. It hits me that I forgot to come down for late night stew. Somewhat sated, I head back up to get dressed in my work clothes. I ready a backpack with a change of clothes and shoes before leaving. Out the door, I turn and try my chip against the sensor. No luck.
So far my chip has still allowed me to pay at stores and clock in at work, which gives me confidence it is just the residential part of the code which is corrupted. Reluctantly, I head out to kill time and look around. While the morning chill is still sharp, the prospect of hot coffee is enticing. I want to walk quickly, but I have to force a stroll. No unnecessary attention. No wasted time.
Out in front of the cafe, I resist the urge to look up at the tower. Inside, I order a medium coffee. A jumbled stack of magazines sets on top of a table next to the creamers and sweeteners. I grab one from on top, a National Geographic, and walk to the back table. On the cover is an abandoned city being reclaimed by nature. It looks like somewhere in Europe with its brick streets and ornately carved stone. Sipping the coffee slowly I thumb through the magazine. My eyes look at the pages, reading not a single word. The pictures are crisp and clear. They are as meaningless as the loose grounds in the bottom of his cup. Nothing matters except appearing occupied. Killing time. A glance at the clock then back down at the pages, thinking only of the tower. Forty-eight minutes before the maintenance crew leaves. Fifty should be enough to avoid crossing paths. The coffee won't buy me that much time. It has to last just long enough for me to go back to the counter for a snack. The snack will buy time before I have to go.
Charles thinks he sees the familiar face down there. He's almost sure of it. Although, they didn't look up this time. It is him, isn't it? The time of day is wrong, but the face is right. A bit too early. But why not look up? Or, had Charles imagined it all along? All those times, the man was just looking at the sky or airplanes or whatever. Of course. What a mad idea that someone would care to come visit and stare. It was just that the idea of being seen was so nice. The mind can be a cruel trickster.
Crumbs are scattered on the table next to a crumpled ball of cellophane. Time at the cafe can be stretched no longer. Stepping outside it takes all my focus to not look up. I look around and see nothing out of place. No extra patrols, no lurkers. With the square so vacant it seems like a different place altogether. Turning the corner, I head east. Backstreets will work best until it's time. Officers don't usually come back here unless called in. For the moment my focus is on standing up straight, looking generally ahead, and trying to keep a nonchalant gait. If I get stopped, I'm going to have to say I'm running late for work and on my way. It would be a pain to have to postpone this further, but better than getting a malingering charge. Plus, going in would earn back some credibility with the boss. He would give a little talk about duty and self care. Be part of the team. A strong link in the chain.
Ahead, I approach a woman walking her dog. She keeps her distance and refuses to look my way. After a quick clip south, I head back west. There is a guy close to my age ambling nervously about. His wild eyes and fidgety movements hint at instability or influence. If anyone was going to catch an officers attention, this guy would. On the final stretch, I give in and look at the clock atop the tower. It's finally time. As I get closer, I can clearly see the tubes containing the fettered. For a moment, I keep him in my view to help fuel me. It's no time to lose my nerve.
The cold becomes both more noticeable and less of a bother. Every sound becomes very crisp. Flapping wings of fleeing pigeons clatter through the air. Leaves and scraps of paper brush the ground as they are tossed by the wind. Seed pods rattle on the branches of nearby Black Locust trees. All at once my chest tightens. Coming up to the entry door, I slow my pace. Bent down to fiddle with an already tied shoe, I look around. Nothing concerning, as far as I can tell. I pull the hood of my jacket up and let the edge of it hang over my forehead.
At the door, I try to stay calm and look natural, while I press my thumb to the pad. The same stupid thumb with the chip that gives me a red light at my own home. The light here flashes yellow. A lump forms in my throat. I try the lick trick again and wipe the excess away, doubtful. Again the yellow light. Frustrated, I grit my teeth and press into the pad as if trying to push straight through it. A green light flashes and the lock clicks open. The heavy door floats just open. In disbelief, I stand there for a second before realizing the lock will eventually reset. With a single movement I swing the door open and slip inside. There is no need to look up to know a series of cameras are perched in every corner. I'm taking a chance that no one actually looks at the feed unless an alarm is tripped.
Lighted dials and digital readouts flicker behind glass doors mounted into the walls. Since I have no idea what any of them mean, I ignore them as useless. Keeping my head down, I move to the second access door. Right away, I push my thumb as hard as possible on the reader. It flashes green and unlocks, leading to a square-shaped stairwell. When the door slams behind me, it stuns me and the echo rolls through my swimming head. Wanting to hurry, I take on the stairs. I lose breath almost instantly. My legs keep cranking, hurling me up to the next step. Fatigue doesn't register as any sort of barrier. Just keep going. Anxious to see what lie ahead I begin to look up, then, remembering the cameras, I put my head back down. By the third flight I am dripping sweat, but I keep the jacket. Several flights later I lose count of how many I've climbed. At the top, another door. Gasping for air, I lean my thumb into the reader with everything I have left. Green light. Click.
Inside the upper deck is a short flight of stairs leading up to a metal grated floor. The uneven panels rattle underfoot. Beneath it is a series of drainage tubes, hosing, and lights. A steady hum of machinery carries throughout the room. Pressure-lines, bundled wires, and tubing are fastened to the ceiling, feeding from a central hub by the stairwell out to the tanks containing the fettered. A few of the tanks are empty, something I hadn't noticed before.
The air inside the room is damp and sweat really begins to gather. The backs of each of the people suspended inside are visible. People. It's confusing to think of them that way. Charles, for sure, but the others? Of course, they were. They may be just as innocent as he is. Or maybe what they did was misunderstood. Even if they are guilty, they don't stop being people. Still catching my breath, I try to refocus on why I'm here. These are the ones, I think, the unholy few who remind us there is no escape from justice.
This is not justice. It is cruelty at best. Let them live or let them die. I wonder how long the first one has been here. And then how long they will stay? The only way out is to make room for another, and that's never happened. Suspended this way, they can theoretically last forever. Immediately, I want to set fire to the place. To go on a smashing spree and destroy every component and function of it. To lead the lot of them down the stairs to freedom. Whatever they had done was surely paid for. Anger and pity well up and I want to do something. I'll do what I came to do. Nothing more, for now.
Orienting myself to the square below, I find Charles. Squeezing in alongside the tank I try to get his attention. His eyes seem fixed forward. Just then I realize I might be exposing myself to anyone looking up from below. I slip back around and study the controls attached to the back side.
Charles' body remains perfectly still, though his heart begins to race when something catches his attention, just out of sight. A bump on the tank disturbs the fluid inside. Something odd is going on. Maintenance should be gone already. Was there was something wrong with his tank? Would they have to let him out while it was fixed? Or maybe transfer him? The possibilities were too much.
The screen for the control unit is locked. I press my thumb on the adjacent reader and get a yellow light. "Come on." I say to no one. With my other palm, I press against my thumb as hard as I can. The green light flashes and a command screen with levels, readings, and controls appears. The center of my thumb is getting sore. A blood blister is beginning to form around the chip.
Across the bottom of the screen are a series of buttons. They read: Diagnostics, Emergency, Balance PH, Support Systems, and Empty. The last one catches my eye. Too quickly I push it and a flash of panic comes on. Was there something else I should have done first? Looking over the buttons again, nothing jumps out as important, so I leave it alone. God, if there is a fucking God, let this work. The sound of fluid rushing through pipes can be heard and felt from underfoot. A small gap begins to form at the top. I look around and there's nothing to see. It's just me and all these weird floating people.
As I watch the progress of drainage, a sense of accomplishment builds inside. I can't help it as my face shifts into a cautious smile. I am finally here. This is finally happening.
A rattling or scraping sound runs through Charles. The top of his head feels cold and exposed. The straps under his arms push a little harder against his skin. He thinks his toes might even be touching the bottom. Eventually, the cold creeps down to his forehead. The balls of his feet now touch. Okay, something is definitely wrong. Panic races to every part of his suspended body. Okay, this is why they're here, whoever they are. Maintenance? The Marshals? A Human Rights Council representative? Each unknown possibility causes more anxiety.
The whole thing is going more slowly than expected and my satisfaction becomes impatience. Someone could come in at any moment. They probably won't, but they could. I reassure myself that there is close to an hour before anyone is due back. By then, we'll be long gone. Still, I pictured it going quickly. I look around for anything I could use to smash the tank. Nothing jumps out. The damned thing probably wouldn't break very easily. They are probably supposed to withstand earthquakes. Charles' body is beginning to slump down. His arms pulled out to the sides by his straps. Just his head and shoulders are exposed. He is still. Shouldn't he be shaking it off, or something?
Though Charles cannot move, his entire being is slithering, rolling, and tossing inside himself. On a neural level, he is convulsing and thrashing about. Physically, he sinks with the level of the fluid meant to preserve his life. Knees buckling underneath him. Pain from the weight of his body on the straps is getting unbearable. The respirator now hisses as it dangles above his head. The attached feeding tube drips its medicated sustenance into the sinking pool surrounding him. There is no strength in his atrophied limbs and no response to their commands to move. The exposed skin grows colder and tingles in the open air. Used to oxygen-rich air, his lungs are starved by the shallow breaths he now gets. As the level gets lower, the straps pull his arms up higher. The flesh begins to tear where the straps pull.
Something is wrong. He should be moving. He should be waking up. I look at the controls to see if there is something I have missed. A revive button or something similar. I find nothing of apparent use.
The town square is no longer the only thing Charles sees. It is replaced by the darkness of the lower half of the tank. His arms have slipped free of the harness which held him up. The body now slumps down on itself in a fleshy crumple. When the weight of his body shifts backward and flings his head up, something catches his eye. It looks like a figure, or reflection of someone. Confusion battles with curiosity. Who is this? What do they want? A choking gurgle fills the tank as the last of the liquid passes through the drain. He tries to tell his legs to stand, his eyes to cry, his throat to yell for help. He wishes for an end. None of it works. Crushing weight and unending sensory distress consumes him and threatens to disintegrate his will. A sudden buzz followed by a click makes his heart jump. Then a hiss followed by a muted creak ushers in a flood of deafening noise. The cold gets worse.
The smell inside this huge cylinder is peculiar. A mix of organic and synthetic odors. Like a chemical research laboratory with the goal of creating the scent of a well-used locker room. Horror grips me as I stare at the shiny and torn flesh of my great uncle. The body and face, though gaunt, appear not to have aged much more than my own. Seeing him for the first time, unhindered by layers of protective glass. It was not the moment of glory I had hoped for. The only movement was the rise and fall of his breathing.
A gloomy realization makes me wish I had done some better research. He must be given some sort of drug to keep him docile. Would it wear off? How soon? There was no way of knowing, though it probably wouldn't be soon enough. I look around for a blanket. A bright red box with the words FIRE BLANKET in white letters was attached to one of the support beams. One tug on the protruding tab produced a thick grey square blanket. Hurriedly, I spread it out over the floor.
The mostly nude man was wearing only a plastic diaper-like covering. A tube ran out of either side. A series of snaps and straps holding it in place. When unfastened, it revealed the tubes, one leading into his penis the other into his asshole. I didn't want to pull too hard, but the one in front took some effort. It came out with an audible pop. The rear one slipped right out, leaking out a dribble of foulness. I gagged instantly then turned away to collect myself.
Being tugged on and pulled at is no comfort for Charles. He feels even less human than usual. Flopped over onto his side, the man from the reflection is clear. The face is familiar. Then it hits him, this is the guy from the street. The one who comes to look. This guy is doing something seemingly strenuous, though he can't move his head to see what it is. Out of nowhere, there is an awful stench. Charles begins to choke, and watering eyes blur his vision. Then begins the pressure, followed by burning pain in my arms and ribs. Instead of the screams he tries to exhibit, comes only an unenthused groan.
Lifting Charles up from underneath his arms, the skin begins to split and peel away. At first, I begin to drop him, then reconsider. Readjusting my grip, I take hold and heave the limp mass over the edge of the tank. I drag him to the blanket which begins to soak up the blood and ooze leaking out of the damaged flesh. My mind races at the thought of getting down to the floor level. The skin is too frail. The clothes I packed for the escape might cause even more damage to put on him. I want to abandon the whole thing, but it's too late. He's already out. There is no putting him back. At a loss for what else to do, I wrap him up with the edges of the blanket.
Charles wanted to ask one thing of this guy who ripped away his world. He keeps trying to ask it. The pain and confusion begin to fade as he strains to focus on making his mouth and throat cooperate. Finally, surprised by the raspy sound coming from his own throat, he hears it. "Why?"
Hovering over the wrapped up body, I freeze. It spoke, or he did. Didn't he? I wait for more and nothing comes. I look around and find no one else. Finally I reply with a question of my own. "Why did I do this?" When there is no response, I continue. "Of course. Well, I did this because it was all my grandpa ever talked about. Uh, that's umm, he's your brother. My grandpa. He's dead now. Died earlier this year. Uh, well, anyways. Yeah, he always told me how you were innocent and how if he could figure out a way he would break you out of here. Set you free." I look into his eyes. Something in them changed. It might be wishful thinking, but I think he understands. "So, yeah. I guess it's not really going as planned, but it's kind of my way of honoring my grandpa. Your brother. Yeah, I know, I already said that." Just then I hear a door open. As I turn my head to look, there is a whoosh and the air snaps. At the same time I feel a pinch or a finger poke at the top of my back, and another, then more. My shoulders convulse and I turn back to Charles. His face is speckled. A pressure fills my sinus before black fills my eyes.
What looks like little beetles fly out of his newly acquainted nephew's jacket. A trail of mist follows them. Then a clack-clack of the little fliers slamming into something across the room. The mist hangs in the air before collecting into drops which begin to settle on Charles. Then the face hovering over him splits apart as another of the zipping bugs breaks free. The rifted face cocks to the side and falls forward. Now visible are men in black boots and creased pants. He ignores them for another look at his would-be savior. Now a leaking mass splayed on top of him.
Charles wants badly to say something. He focuses. From the corner of his eye, he sees the boots coming closer. A word is forming in his mouth. He wants to tell the man, his nephew, thanks. Instead, he says the only thing he can say. It means something different when he asks it this time. "Why?"
In one instant that seems to last forever, the gloved hands creak as they tense, then a click, a wave of pressure followed by a flash of light, and then nothing. Black.