Pleasant Purgatory - Cover

Pleasant Purgatory

I’ve been here for three days, I think. My only judge of time are the frequency and perceived time between the meals they slide along the dirty floor through the bottom gap in my iron door—that and my biological functions. Yesterday, one of the guards got chatty, grinning eyes through the viewing slot, banging on my door with a baton. His attempt to bait me was a poor one, repeating the circulating rumors regarding my capture. And a heroic capture it was! After walking barefoot for ten miles, I had to beat on the gate of this fine establishment for several minutes before someone finally opened it.

All in all, it’s not too bad here. I have a private room with everything I need—a sink, commode, a mirror—all shiny stainless steel, no exposed pipes. I don’t know why there’s a mirror. Though a window would be nice. The bed is a tad more comfortable than the seamless, hard-slate floor—no pillow, no blanket. I’ve lived in worse places. They even met my request for reading material. When asked, I told them the first book in the library would suit my small needs. An hour or so later, a volume slid under the door of my retreat: Zoology. Either they have a rather small library, or someone thought it was a fine joke. I don’t care. I’ll probably have time enough to read every book they have … perhaps twice.

I’ve made a thorough study of my crypt. Knowing the exact length of my bare feet gave an advantage: exactly twenty-seven cubic meters—a cube—about the same size as the quarters had been on my ship. It is all mental mathematics. They don’t trust me with a pencil or paper … or razor. I eat with my fingers.

I persevere. My thin, one-piece coverall, dirty when given to me, has no visible stitches or seems. Yesterday I worried it enough to create a small hole at the boundary of the sleeve and shoulder. The resulting sleeve-rag has become my means of washing without splashing the floor with an overabundance of water. A fellow could break his neck slipping on the already slick floor. Or is it a deck? I guess it depends on who runs the show here.

✽✽✽

I wake sitting up, chest restrained, not in my cell. They don’t trust me enough to move me when I’m awake. I don’t blame them. The inspection of this new place was brief—bare, windowless room, a slightly swaying, cone-casting overhead light. It was too much of a cliché, a trope, a laughable attempt to make me talk. They hadn’t needed to go to such bother. I was going to talk. You bet your ass I was going to talk.

After so many years since the void-crash, it's a release of sorts just to see another human, hear a human voice. I want to reach across the scratched wooden table, touch my interviewer’s skin, make a connection, even if a vile one. Perhaps, after we’re done here, they’ll let me scratch my initials in the faded wood, joining the dozens of others. New grooves to distract the eyes of the next victim.

“So, you actually expected to get away with it?”

“Get away? No, I didn’t want to get away. I’ve been away for too long.”

“Where did you hide it?”

“What do you mean by ‘hide’?” My inquisitor’s fingers drum the table, a rapid, staccato beat of nail clicks. Mine remain below the edge. His are clean, mine not.

“Where did you leave it? Where did you see it last?”

Leaning forward, I whisper, “In my dreams.” His fuse is short, but I resist the urge to ask for a light—saving the thought, savoring it. Patience.

“We know where you went before you left, who you talked to. You think we’ll give up. You hope to outlast me. You think being coy will delay the inevitable … It won’t.”

“If you’re going to speak for both of us, why am I here?” Tick-tock, tick, tock—some clocks run fast, others slow. Before he speaks again, I ask, “What would you do with it if you had it?”

“None of your business. I’m asking the questions.”

“I’ll answer them.”

“Do you know what it does? What it’s for? How to activate it?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Okay, smart ass. What does it do?”

“It takes me places.”

“What places?”

“I’m not sure … Just places I’ve never been before. Places I didn’t know existed.”

“For instance?”

“Twisted places.” He will learn more than he cares to, more than anyone should know.

“Can you be more descriptive, more precise?”

I bring my hands to the surface of the table, enjoying the feel of the open wood grain, tracing the etchings others had made.

“Have you ever been to one of those crazy houses? The ones for tourists, built with weird angles, skewed perspectives, not knowing if you could or should trust your eyes?”

Impatiently, he replies, “I’ve heard of them. Seen photos.”

“It’s like that, only more so.”

“What did you do there? How did you cause such—”

I cut him off. “All I did was travel. Met a few … Uh, people, I suppose you could call them. I learned a few things.”

“Back to business now. Where is it?”

“I already told you. Would you like to see it? Touch it?”

My inquisitor’s eyebrows raise, not expecting my offer so early in his attempts. I suspect he’s been looking forward to an extended interview. After a moment, he smiles. “Yes, I would.”

“You would what?”

Briskly, angrily, he replies, “I want to see it, touch it.”

He’s made the same mistake I did long ago. My left hand opens, allowing the marble-sized sphere to roll toward him. A slow journey, bumping over the defects in the wood. Such a small, dull thing, seeking its new owner. Triumphantly, he scoops it up. His fuse burning hot—a sparking flame advancing to the inevitable results. His explicitly voiced demand has freed me from that thing, broken my bondage.

“How does it work?”

I shrug. “It doesn’t. You do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think of something pleasant.”

I wait a few minutes, savoring my freedom. Chair creaking, the scrape of my nails on wood, my breath, the only sounds until I bellow, “Hey! We’re done in here.”

Keys jangle, lock tumblers pull back, door hinges screech. From the doorway, the blue-jacketed jailer looks around, seeing me, the single table, two chairs—one empty. Finally, he asks, “Where’s the colonel?”

“He stepped out. Won’t be back for a while.” A very long while, if ever.