Friday, December 09, 2005
the child, part 3, chapter 8 - 'voices in the dark'
Surprise: A hushed voice, murmuring, 'I sure don't want to wake him.'
Bigger surprise: A second voice, replying, 'Yeah. Sleep's about the only respite you - we - they - get down here.'
In his half-sleep, he frowned. The first voice was that girl's voice, but the second was deeper. Male. The guy Stone she had mentioned? Probably.
The two of them were talking very quietly together. So they think I'm asleep, the man thought to himself. Hmm. If he went on looking like he was sleeping, they might keep on talking, and he just might learn something interesting.
He gave a small snore and snuggled deeper into the mire on the floor.
'...and you didn't find him?' That was the girl.
'Not yet. I didn't finish searching this level yet though.'
'Yeah,' the guy agreed. 'I can only hope...' Pause. 'Well, it sounds harsh to say it, but I can only hope that this awful experience works to change Walker's mind about a few things.'
The sleeper didn't hear the girl reply to that, so he risked cracking one eye open. Yeah. Just as he thought. She was nodding.
She stood to one side of the door, just barely visible in the tiny light that came through the small window in the door. Someone stood opposite her, also shrouded in shadow. A big lurking hulk was the impression the prisoner had of him.
So. That was Stone.
'What's next?' said the girl.
'Well...' Stone paused, then gestured towards the door. 'Sounds like things are starting to stir up out there. Hmm... You know, they'll likely be bringing this guy some food shortly - unless not feeding him is part of his punishment. And I'm thinking... we should make ourselves scarce.'
'Leave here? But where would we go?'
'One of the last cells I checked last night,' said Stone, 'was empty. I was thinking maybe we could take it over.'
Empty? The sleeper nearly gave himself away. There weren't any empty cells - except...
'Are there usually any empty cells?' Starr was asking.
'Not usually, no.'
'Then...' And she said the very thing the man on the floor was thinking. 'The empty cell you found,' she pointed, 'is probably his.'
'Yeah. I think you're right. For now, though,' and his voice dropped, 'we can't stay here.'
'Oh, but I don't...' Her voice trailed off, and the guy was silent for a bit too.
Then, 'Starr? What is it? What's wrong?'
And very hushed, she replied, 'I don't think I should leave him. Or maybe it's that - I don't think I can.'
More silence. Finally Stone said, 'You're sure?'
'I don't like leaving you here,' he answered candidly. 'It's too easy for the guards to find you when they come to see about him. And what if he turns you in?'
'Then... I guess... I'll find Walker.'
A sigh. 'I don't want you taken, Starr-girl.' A soft sound, and now when the sleeper risked a look, he could see their two forms blended into one. Hugging.
Stone released her, his fingers straying over her cheek. 'Well. I can't stay here. You can hide in the shadows and avoid being seen. But I'm too big.' Another sigh. 'You have your key?'
'Use it. If you at all think you're in danger, use it. If you get taken, shriek for all you're worth. I'll find you.'
'And if I need to find you?'
'The empty cell I found is the fourth hall that way, fifteenth cell on the right.'
My cell! Mine! the sleeper almost screamed.
'But I'll be searching for Walker still, as well as...' And now the big guy's voice trailed off. Finally, he added, 'Starr-my-girl. I love you. Be careful.'
'I will. And you know the vision I told you about, the one I had just before they brought him in here.'
'Yes. Your visions! I... Man, I would have a little more trouble than you do, just living on a vision, dear.'
'That's what this life is all about, I think. Living on his visions.'
'True. True.' Another sound of hugging, and then the guy Stone said, 'Loving you is good for me, Starr.' And now the sound of the door being unlocked. 'I'll be back for you. Always.'
'I love you, Stone,' she whispered in reply. And then the door shut, and he was gone.
Good riddance! the sleeper thought. He lay in the mire thinking over what he had heard. And the more he thought, the angrier he got.
Until finally he could stand it no more. He sat upright in the mire of the cell, glared at that precious little Starr-girl, and growled out, 'Liar!'
She blinked at him, obviously startled. 'Excuse me?' she said at last.
The prisoner scrambled to his feet. 'You heard me!' he hissed, cursing. 'You told me you were looking down here for someone your Master loves. But you weren't just looking for someone. You're looking for this Walker dude.'
She went on blinking at him, baffled. 'So?'
'So... so... I thought... I thought maybe...'
'You thought what?' she asked gently.
He collapsed into the mire again. Yes, what had he been thinking? That when she had said they looking for someone, she might have meant they were looking for...?
She knelt in the mire before him. 'We're looking for our friend Walker, yes. But that's because he was supposed to have come down here before us, to find that someone the Master loves. Someone else down here. But then...' She paused, thinking how to say it kindly. 'But then Walker got captured,' she said, deciding on a short version. 'And since we don't know where he was taken, we're searching for him, as well as the someone he didn't find.'
He scowled. 'You're making that up. Covering for your lie.'
She spread her hands. 'If you think I lied, there's nothing I can do to convince you otherwise. But I still wonder - why did it make you so upset, to think I lied?'
His scowl deepened. 'I don't wanna talk about it.'
'All right,' said she. And she retreated to her corner, snuggled in, and seemed to be about to fall asleep.
The prisoner stared at her. She was absolutely the strangest person he'd ever met. 'Hey!' he called. 'Hey! What do you think you're doing?'
She popped her eyes back open again. 'Oh,' she said affably, 'I just thought I might get some sleep.'
He pointed at the door. 'Don't you get it? Any time I want, all I gotta do is holler for the guards, and they'll come and lock you up in a heartbeat.' He frowned at her, eying her closely. 'Don't you care?'
She leaned forward, resting her chin on her drawn-up knees, her skirts smoothed down all the way to her ankles. 'You already know the answer,' she answered, smiling. 'You obviously overheard Stone and me talking earlier. So you know that if the guards come and capture me, I just expect to be taken where Walker is. So that's not a problem.'
'Yeah? And then what happens when you're a prisoner? Ever think of that?'
Just for a second, a cloud darkened Starr's face. And dissipated just as quickly. 'Not really,' she replied.
'Ha!' He leaned closer, his face looking especially pinched and wild just then. 'What about that boyfriend of yours? That big old,' and here he delighted in using a particularly vile term to label Stone. 'How about I turn him in too? I heard where he said he'd be - in my room!'
He glared at the girl, and she met that glare evenly, not the least hint of a cloud crossing her face now.
Instead, incredibly, a smile crossed it. And she said pleasantly, 'I know you'll do what you think is best.' And with that, Starr curled up in her corner, and in seconds was fast asleep.
He sat there for a while, staring at the sleeping girl, thinking. He was right; she was without a doubt the weirdest person he'd ever met. How could she just sleep like that? Why, he could be doing anything while she slept: calling the guards, rifling her backpack, anything! How could she be that trusting?
Of course, it wasn't that long ago that it had been him sleeping in this cell, with the girl sitting across from him, awake. But that had been different. He didn't have a thing worth stealing. And very likely - she did.
That sword, for instance.
He scooted closer, watching her intensely. Her breathing was slow and regular, peaceful and contented. A grown woman, but so much like an innocent child, she was. Sleeping on, while he plotted theft...
Oh! he thought, chuckling deep within himself. If he only had that sword, what things he could do! Several different faces flashed through his head as he slipped closer. Guards and fellow-prisoners, all of them guys who had bullied him, all of them guys he hated. All of them guys who would be so much better off with a sharp blade through their guts, he thought.
He grinned, licking his lips. He could all but taste the vengeance! Just gotta get hold of that sword, he thought hungrily.
Closer he crept, and closer. The sword was at her left side, so that he had to reach across her waist to get his hand on the hilt. He was face to face with her now - close enough to kiss her, if he was of a mind to.
He held his breath now, his hand just inches away. His eyes flicked between checking her face, and watching where his hand was going.
His fingers touched the hilt.
Starr's eyes flew open.
He froze, looking right into her eyes. She stared back blankly, unnervingly. Her lips parted.
And she let loose a snore.
He jumped backwards. Asleep! She was sound asleep; he had no doubt of that. But with her eyes open!
And they stayed open. She slept on, softly snoring now and then, but with her eyes wide open as if she was awake.
He scooted away till the far wall prevented him from putting any more distance between them. His eyes were fixed on her, and the chills in his spine didn't want to quit. How did she do that?
He sat there for what seemed like ages, not daring to move, barely daring to breathe. Till his stomach began to complain at him. What that big guy had said about the guards maybe not feeding him as part of his punishment came back into his head. Were they going to feed him? The noises out in the main area of this level had been getting louder for some time now - screams and all that - normal for here. The day had begun out there. When would his food come?
Time stretched out. More noise. No food.
The girl went on sleeping, eyes weirdly open, snoring through all that noise out there.
He was nearly dozing off himself when a loud rattle at the door made him jump. 'Look sharp, you!' a voice yelled through the small window in the door, calling him an evil name, 'time to eat!' And before the prisoner could quite react, a single small thing was thrown through the window into the cell. Laughing mockingly, the guard who had thrown the tiny thing immediately turned away and left.
The prisoner instantly shot out his hands, trying to grab the thing - whatever it was - before it could land in the...
He cursed. It had! It had landed in the mire. He fell on it, snatching it up, trying to wipe off the yuck.
It was a small piece of bread, no bigger than two bites. And it had mire all over it now. He wiped harder, using the ragged tail of what was left of his shirt. Oh, he wanted to eat - but not with all that coating the bread!
Tears sprang up, along with curses. He wiped harder.
'I have some water,' said a soft voice.
The girl! She was awake now, standing, unslinging the canteen from across her body. She held it out.
He held out the bread as well, and she carefully poured water over it to wash away the mire. Hungrily, he crammed the cleaned-off morsel into his mouth. A minute's chewing or less, and it was all gone.
She passed him the canteen then and he drank deeply, almost crying again. The guard, of course, hadn't bothered to give him any water...
'Still hungry?' the girl asked. She had the backpack off now, rummaging in it. 'A lot of what I've got here needs to be cooked - rice and like that - but maybe... Yes! I still have a few apples.' She pulled one out and reached it towards him.
An apple? He cursed in surprise. A real, honest-to-goodness apple? He hadn't had any real fruit in... in... he didn't remember how long.
A real apple! He could barely make himself reach out and touch it, for fear it would disappear and turn out to be a fantasy. A curse came to his mind - he had been disappointed by fantasies all too often in his life.
The apple was real! He took it in his hand, brought it to his face, sniffed it, almost fainting at how good it smelled. Bit it...
Bliss. Firm and tangy and sweet. Just like an apple ought to be. The juice ran down his chin and he wiped it back up into his mouth. When had he ever tasted anything so good!
She was watching. Just standing there, watching. Smiling.
'Ain't you gonna eat?' he said suddenly.
'I'm fine,' she smiled.
He frowned, his forehead wrinkling. 'Have you eaten anything since I got here?' he demanded.
She shrugged for answer.
Suddenly he shoved the rest of the apple her way. 'You eat!' he said. 'I'm not gonna sit here and eat, and you not!'
'I'm not hungry,' she said lightly. 'And, anyway, I've got a few more apples. You finish that one. And here,' she pulled another out of the pack, 'you can have this one as well.'
He took it and in very short order had reduced both apples to nothing but stems and seeds. 'Wonderful,' he muttered, eyes closed, still tasting the deliciousness lingering in his mouth.
And then he looked across at her. 'Um... thank you,' he said.
'You're welcome,' she replied.
Forest gave a low whistle. He had been guarding the door the whole time Stone had been relating the events of the day. 'So you think that guy's the one? The one Walker failed to find?'
'Starr thinks so.'
'What about you?' asked James.
'Yeah,' said Forest. 'What do you think? You gotta have some opinion.'
Stone gave a half smile. 'I think Starr probably knows what's she's talking about. Especially with the vision she had right before the man was dragged in there.'
'And Walker?' asked Forest.
A shake of his head. 'No sign of him. Yet. I've searched about half of this level already.'
'We need to go back and search our level,' Forest remarked. And swiftly, with some terse help from James, the boy brought Stone up-to-date on the news from upstairs.
'Aw, that's great about Rob! I mean Stephen,' the big guy beamed. 'I'll be looking forward to meeting him. Well, and all our new brothers and sisters the Master sent us to bring out of here, right?'
'All right then. Well... see you tomorrow night,' Stone said and shook both their hands. And while those two turned and went back upstairs, Stone went through the door and headed over to Solitary. He used his key to let himself in, then pulled the door shut behind him.
The dark in this cell was intense at first, till his eyes adjusted. 'Starr?' he whispered.
'Right here,' she whispered back. She rose from the corner where he liked for her to hide.
He smiled and took her hand, drawing her near. Softly, their heads close together, he related all that Forest and James had told him. The sparkle in her eyes, obvious even in this light as he told her about Stephen, made his own heart dance with joy. 'What about...?' Stone added at last, nodded towards the third occupant of this cell.
'Sleeping, I think.'
'He was only pretending earlier.'
'True.' They paused, both looking at the dark patch on the floor where the prisoner lay, asleep or not.
Stone pulled Starr a little further away. 'You really think he's the one the Master sent us for?'
'It's the only thing I can think. The way he was all but dropped into my lap...'
Stone was nodding. 'All right. Then that's what we go with.' He glanced out the window. 'I'm going to head back to his regular cell. I've made a place there for me to hide if any guards come in. You know,' he added, 'they won't keep him in here forever.'
'How long do they usually keep someone in Solitary?'
'Depends. Why did they bring him in here in the first place? Has he said?'
Stone thought. 'Hmm. You could ask. But the answer might not, uh... be anything I would want you to have to hear about. So maybe you shouldn't ask.'
He looked into her earnest, serious face in the slight torch light filtering in through the door's window. 'What happens down here?' she asked.
That got her a heavy sigh. 'Stuff that's really awful, sweetie.' He pulled her into his arms then, wrapping one arm around her shoulders and the other round her head, staring up at the ceiling above them. 'I really don't want to tell you, love. Just...' And now he loosed his arms enough to look into her face again. 'The Master set me free. He loved me free. From what you told me, that's what he's doing now, again. For him.' And Stone's eyebrows knit. 'Do you even know his name yet?'
'Hmm. That's a bit strange. Well.' Again he glanced out the window. 'I should head out now. You sure you don't want to come with me?'
She took Stone's hand and squeezed it fondly. 'I love you, Stone,' she smiled up at him. 'But for some reason, I,' and she shrugged, 'I know I shouldn't leave. Not yet, at least. But I know where you are, honey. And - remember, dear,' she added soberly. 'He knows too.'
Stone nodded just as soberly. 'Well, if he sends the guards after us, all we can do is go where that takes us, and do what we can from there. Right, babe?'
One more hug, and then he let himself out and was gone. Starr returned to her corner, tucked herself into it as far as she could, and began to pray silently.
In the middle of the floor, the prisoner shifted. The sweet way the two of them acted towards each other! Hugs and I-love-you's. Honey and babe. So sweet-sweet-sweet he thought he might puke. No one really loves like that, he grumbled to himself.
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