Adam sits in the chair in the gray holding cell with his hands against his knees. He keeps his eyes closed and listens to the movements out in the hall.
“Stand up,” says a distant voice. “Hands out.”
“Stick out your tongue… clean.”
“Move forward,” another voice says.
Chains jangle again.
A cell door slams shut with a metallic clang. Chains clink and jangle closer and closer down the hallway.
Adam opens his eyes as the noise moves toward him. Two guards, dressed in black and wearing black face veils, escort another prisoner past the iron barred door of Adam’s cell. The prisoner is an old man with phlegmy eyes and narrow shoulders. Head as bald as a billiard ball. As they march the man along, he looks down at his toes, and his whole body slumps forward.
“There goes Stumpy,” thinks Adam, and he closes his eyes again.
The jangle of Stumpy’s chains move down the rest of the hallway and then are swallowed by the resounding boom of a door.
The last time Adam spoke to Stumpy he had been afraid of this– this moment of truth, as Stumpy called it.
“I don’t think they’re going to let us out, old man,” Stumpy said.
“What do you mean?”
“The ones that never come back– the ones that go alone– we tell ourselves they’ve been freed. We hope that they have been. But I don’t think that’s the truth.”
Adam has considered this possibility himself, but unlike Stumpy, he doesn’t possess the courage to voice his suspicions.
“Goodbye, Stumpy,” Adam whispers. At least now he can discover the truth for himself.
Adam, on the other hand, can only wonder, and the only possession left to him is time to indulge his wondering.
He lets his mind drift off and follow Stumpy down the hallway. He imagines him walking through the next corridor, stamping awkwardly down a flight of stairs, and coming to the same dreary room where they were received. Here they remove Stumpy’s shackles and hand him the same bundle of clothes they confiscated from him at intake. They motion him toward a flimsy white curtain where he can change.
After that, Adam’s imagination goes fuzzy. He drifts into his half sleep world and loses track of what little grip he has on time.
Stumpy comes to him in his dream. “It’s all right,” he says. “It’ll be alright. As long as you hold on to yourself, there’s not much they can do. What’s the worst, anyways? To die? To give in?”
Adam jerks awake.
The sound of boots echoes in the hallway.
Adam sits up in his chair and blinks the sleep out of his eyes. Glancing around, he tries to determine how much time has passed, but the flat white light tells him nothing.
The boots pound closer.
Just like every time before, Adam’s heart expands with nerves and fear. The pressure builds inside his chest. The guards pass down the corridor a couple times a day to pluck individual prisoners out of their cells– never to return– and although freedom is all the men dream about, they all fear the unknown of what really happens to The Chosen.
The boots slow as they near Adam’s cell. Two faceless guards appear on the other side of the barred doorway.
“Stand up,” one of them says.
Adam obeys. The sound of his own shackles clank against each other. They make it so he can’t move toward the door. He can only reach the chamber pot beside his chair, take two steps this way or two steps that way.
“Hands out,” says the other guard.
Adam raises his arms to a T.
The guard taps him down his sides with black gloved hands.
Adam isn’t sure what prisoners are supposed to hide on their persons, but guards check for it every time.
“Stick out your tongue.”
Adam shoots it out, and the guard grabs it with thumb and forefinger. He moves it left, right, up and down.
The guard unlocks the chains that keep Adam tethered to the wall. “Move forward.”
Adam obeys. Now that they’ve finally come for him, his worries and the pressure in his chest dissipate. How many other times has he done this drill– marching off into the unknown future to an unknown fate herded by people with unknown intentions?
His whole life has become a question mark somewhere. He figures at some point he’ll either go free again or die. He can’t imagine a third option.
The guards march him along the corridor, past the other cells of men breathing sighs of relief, and out the heavy door. The next corridor sports more cells, but these cells are locked behind solid doors. When their footsteps move past, Adam hears cries, shrieks, and moans that swell up, muffled by the steel.
At the next door, they find the stairwell. The two guards prod Adam to ascend.
So Stumpy didn’t go home, he thinks, although a part of him holds on to that image of Stumpy slipping his scrawny leg into civilian trousers. It’s comforting.
Adam reaches the top of the stairs out of breath. His body no longer possesses any stamina.
The guards shove him along anyways. They step out into a small room that’s bisected by a glass wall and a doorway. On the other side of the doorway sits a metal chair like the one in Adam’s cell.
The guards march Adam through the door and into the second half of the room.
“Sit,” one of the guards says.
The other leans down to secure Adam’s chains to a metal ring in the floor. Adam follows their orders, watching them with detached curiosity.
Is this what they did with Stumpy? With the others?
The second guard wheels a metal cart out of the back corner of the room and connects a long plastic tube ot a portal in the wall. The tube runs to a canister on the base tray of the cart.
Adam looks up into the veiled face of the nearest guard. For a moment, he pretends he can see features there– his father’s, his brother’s… Stumpy.
The second guard connects an oxygen mask to the canister and lays it on top of the cart. He turns his featureless face to Adam.
“If you want to pray, now is your last chance,” he says.
Adam frowns. Every day has been a prayer! “Can I ask one thing?” he says.
The guard doesn’t move, but he doesn’t shake his head so Adam takes this as permission.
“What is my sentence? My crime?”
The guard cocks his head and a puff of disbelief escapes from beneath his mask. “You’re unclean… of course.”
The guard picks up the oxygen mask and slips it over Adam’s head, secures the straps above his ears, and then leans down to tighten the chains so that Adam cannot lift his hands from the chair arms.
The two guards exit the room and seal the door.
Adam feels like laughing or crying. He doesn’t know. He hears a loud buzz and out of the corner of his eye he sees a trail of white smoke roll along the plastic tube coming from the wall. The canister on the base of the cart hisses suddenly, and Adam smells something hot.
He watches the white vapor curl through the smaller tube leading to the mask.
Adam closes his eyes.
At least, he never gave in.
© 2021 Katie Baker