Friday, January 20, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 14 - 'kicked out'


Green grass. Fresh air. Soft breezes on his face; soft sunshine warming his skin. Bright apples dotting the tree branches above him - all he could want! He plucked an apple and bit into it, feeling the firm skin against his teeth as he bit it through, savoring the tart flesh, the tangy juice. Mmm... Paradise.

He stretched.

And all changed. Clammy slime under him recalled him to where he really was, as he opened his eyes to darkness. His stomach cramped with hunger; his throat burned with thirst. Another day in Solitary...

Painfully, with a pain that was not entirely physical, the prisoner sat up and draped his withered arms over his drawn-up knees. His head sagged between them as he muttered bitterly and with curses, 'What good is it to have dreams like that? It's just torture!'

'Bad dream?'

He started. The girl! She was still here! For a moment, he had almost believed that she was a mere fantasy out of a dream as well.

'You all right?' she added.

Sprinkling in a few curses, he answered, 'It wasn't the dream that was bad. It was the waking from it.'

'Tell me your dream,' she encouraged.

So he did, slowly, grudgingly reliving for her the sights, the sounds, the smells. He didn't want to cry over it. But in the end, he did.

'It ain't fair!' he complained. 'Why do I go and dream stuff like that, when I can't have it?'

That strange girl Starr was silent for a bit. Finally, softly, she said, 'There's an apple tree growing not very far from here, maybe two or three hours' walk. It's on the path that leads to the Master's house. That apple tree is where we stopped and picked these.' She reached into her pack and pulled out yet more apples. 'I still have plenty. Which is odd, since I don't remember picking that many. But I've got a lot more here. Do you want one?'

His stomach turned over. Did he want one! Like he wanted to breathe, he wanted one! Eagerly he reached for it, tasting and smelling and feeling already what it was going to be like to take and eat...

His hand dropped. What good was it, to eat apples here? It was just a cheat, a big lie. Garbage. Filling up his head with thoughts of fresh air and open spaces - stuff that he wasn't ever gonna get to see.

Miserable, he huddled back into himself.

And still she held out to him that apple. 'I thought you wanted it,' she said.

'I thought I did too.'

~~~~~~~

A key twisted in the lock then. Starr scooted immediately back into her favorite corner, out of sight. While the prisoner stiffened. It was still very early morning; he could tell that by the lack of noise out there. Too early for any breakfast. And the guards had simply been tossing his food at him through the iron bars of the one tiny window in the cell door. So why was the door being unlocked? Was this the signal that some sort of malevolent 'fun-and-games' was about to begin? He'd been on the receiving end of that a few too many times in his life...

The door swung open, but not by much. A voice, very low: 'Starr?'

Oh. It was him.

He wasn't sure why he had such an aversion towards the big guy Starr called Stone. She obviously liked the guy well enough. But there was something about him that grated on the little prisoner's last nerve. And as Starr hopped up with a muffled squeal of delight, the prisoner shrank back. Away. Away.

He watched the two embrace. 'I wanted to come by and see you before the guards show up to roust everyone out for the day,' the man said, holding her in his arms. 'How's it going?'

'The way the Master desires it to, I hope,' she replied. 'Walker...?'

He shook his head. No. Glumly, she nodded.

'I've searched maybe three-quarters of the level now,' he added. 'I'll try to finish up before time to make our report tonight.'

'And maybe there will be good news when you make our report,' said Starr. 'Maybe someone upstairs will have found him by then.'

'That would be great,' said Stone. He glanced through the dimness at the other occupant of Solitary - then did a double-take. 'Hey, he's awake this time! I haven't gotten to talk to him yet. Hi, there.'

The prisoner made no answer.

Trying again, Stone said, 'Um, well, I'm Stone. And you are...?'

Still no reply from the little man crouching in the dark against the farthest wall.

Hmm. Glancing back out the door behind him, Stone said to Starr, 'No sign of the guards yet, so I think we can chance a bit of light...' He produced a stub of candle and lit it.

The tiny flickering flame played over Starr's features, illuminating the sweetness and hope dwelling there. Stone answered her smile with one of his own, then turned toward the little man, holding the candle aloft to get a good look at him.

From near the door came a gasp. And from across the room, from that far wall, rose a sudden growl of fury. 'You!'

Like a wild animal, the prisoner boiled up from his crouch and launched himself at Stone. His head caught Stone under the rib cage, whooshing all the air out of his lungs, sending him sprawling on his back in the doorway. The stub of candle went flying, landing in the mire, guttering out with a tiny hiss.

Starr, both hands flung over her mouth in silent horror, watched as the prisoner viciously kicked Stone in the head. Gibbering, raving, the little guy danced back, then came and kicked Stone in the face again. He was all but incoherent with rage; the only words Starr could make out clearly were, '...wanting to get you back for...' and '...that's for the time when...' along with a wide variety of frenzied curses. And also, repeatedly, she heard the name, 'Mitch!'

He danced in to deliver yet another kick. But this time Starr threw herself into the midst. 'Please! Please stop!' she implored - amazingly with enough presence to mind to keep her voice low.

Too late to pull his kick, his foot rammed into Starr's ankle, nearly toppling her. 'I can't believe...!' the prisoner raged on as, from the floor, Stone gasped out, 'To... To...'

Glaring, thrusting his face right into Starr's, the prisoner pointed at Stone and hissed, 'That's Mitch! I hate him! I've hated him for years!' A ragged breath, then, 'You lied to me. You said his name was Stone. Liar!'

'His name is Stone, now,' she said. 'The Master changed his name when he changed him.'

'Changed him? People don't change! He was a bastard when I knew him, and he's...' With a flurry of curses, the prisoner demanded, 'Get him out of here! I never want to see his stinking face again!'

Stone had rolled to his knees now, one arm still clutched across his assaulted belly, the opposite hand wavering between holding his head where he'd received the kicks, or pressing the floor to keep himself from keeling over again. Starr now caught at his free hand, trying to help him to his feet.

'And you,' the prisoner added, turning on Starr. 'If you're a friend of his, you ain't no friend of mine. You get out too!'

'But...' she protested.

'Out!'

Stone, now on his feet but bent over nearly in two, managed, 'Starr... let's just go...'

'And never come back!' the prisoner finished. With his own two hands he yanked the door of Solitary shut behind them. They heard only one more word from the little man. And it was not a nice one.

~~~~~~~

They stood there for a bit, stunned, staring at the slammed door while they waited for Stone to get his wind back. 'What happened?' ventured Starr at last.

Gingerly Stone managed to get all the way upright. 'Long story,' he said. 'I never expected... well, let's go.'

He took her hand and they crept through the still-hushed hallways. 'But go where?' she whispered.

'I'm taking you out of here, Starr.'

'What? No! I...'

'Starr, you can't go back there. And... well, I guess Forest was right: Walker didn't find anyone down here, because you and I are supposed to find Walker and rescue him.'

'But...' she said again, pointing backwards towards Solitary.

'Yes, I know you thought he was the one. I sort of thought that too. But that obviously isn't gonna happen now.' And under his breath he muttered, 'Man, did I blow that.'

'Who is he?' Starr asked.

'An old... acquaintance. I'll explain later. Let's get you safe first.'

'Safe where?'

'Starr!' He turned around to face her. There was a thin trail - black in the torchlight - oozing down the side of his face from all too near his left eye. 'C'mon, Starr, are you just going to argue with me? That's not like you.'

'I'm... I'm sorry, Stone,' she said meekly. And, 'Oh! Your head!' she added, reaching up to touch the spot that was bleeding.

But he turned away. 'We don't have time for that right now, Starr. The guards will be here any minute to start the roll call. And before they can come down the stairs, I want to get you up the stairs and...' But there he stopped talking.

'And...?' she prompted when he said no more.

He shook his head, frustrated - then immediately wished he hadn't, for the pain in his head exploded once again. 'And, um,' he mumbled, trying to collect his thoughts, 'probably drop you off with Lucy and Linda, I guess. Something like that. You can stay with them while I come back down here and finish searching for Walker.'

'But that will mean...' said Starr, and she halted suddenly in the middle of the hall. 'That will mean I won't be part of a team anymore, Stone. And the Master said we were supposed to go out in pairs.'

'I know, I know! Ow...' He pressed a hand to his head again. 'I'm sorry, Starr-girl. My head hurts and I can't really think this through right now. I just know I want you safe and out of here.' He took her hand again, his own hand now a bit bloody as well as coated with mire - not to mention the generous helping of sweat mixing in. 'C'mon.' He led her on towards the stairs they'd come down on. 'The guards will be here any minute, and I want to get you out... uh oh.'

For he saw now that he was wrong. It wasn't any minute.

It was any second.

The door was opening.

~~~~~~~

As the raucous voices of the guards began to clamor through this deepest dungeon, Stone dove behind a corner, dragging Starr after him. 'This way,' he hissed.

Hurry, hurry! Down to the fourth corridor, rounding that corner. Counting doors on the right. Losing his grip on Starr's hand and snatching for it again.

'Thirteen... fourteen...' he muttered. 'This is it.'

'The prisoner's cell,' whispered Starr. 'This is taking...'

'...an awful chance. I know,' said Stone as he unlocked the door. He rushed her through it, pulled it shut again, hustled her off to the left. In the barely existent light, she could make out little of the cell. Vague impression of a bed, a chair, a table.

And here, barely noticeable, was a blanket nailed up across the corner that was least visible from the doorway. Nailed up with...

'Two forks?' she said as Stone lifted the blanket and whisked her behind it.

'Yeah. I told you I made me a hiding place in here.' He spread out the blanket, checking to be sure it covered them well. It was a bit thread-bare and deeply stained - and very dark behind it. 'I've got my pack in here.'

'Where'd you get the other fork?'

'Well, you know, that's the weird thing. All this time, I've just had one fork in my pack. Well, it was all I needed. But when I started to hang up the blanket here and was looking for something to fasten it into place - suddenly there were two forks in the pack. Just what I needed, just when I needed it.' He was digging around in the pack now; Starr could tell by the sound. 'Ah,' he said.

And suddenly there was light.

'Stone!' squeaked Starr. 'We can't have a candle burning! What if someone looks through the window in the door? They'll see the glow right through this ratty old blanket.'

'Will they?' said Stone. His voice sounded so peculiar that Starr took a second look at him. He nodded his head towards the outside. 'Go have a look,' he said.

Baffled, she did. And was then even more baffled.

'You can't see the light from out there,' she said, coming back in.

'Yeah. I don't understand that. I noticed when I ducked out for a minute and left the candle in here. Anyway...' and he faced her squarely. 'I'm sorry, Starr-girl.'

The abrupt shift in conversation left her stunned for a second. And then came the tears. 'Oh, Stone! I'm sorry too. I never should have argued...'

'Now, wait. Hear me out,' he interrupted. 'I shouldn't have been so hard on you. Here you'd just had the rug pulled out from under you, and you were trying to find where you stood. And I was giving you a hard time.'

'But, Stone,' she replied, 'if I hadn't argued with you, we would have reached the stairs faster, and been gone from here like you wanted.'

'Or,' he countered, 'we would have reached the stairs faster and have been caught on the stairway when the guards came down. We can't know which might have happened. All we can do is deal with what is happening. Speculating on what might have happened instead - that just drives people nuts.' And then he asked, 'Um. What are you doing?'

For Starr had taken off her own pack and canteen, and was hunting through the pack to find... 'Here we go. A bit of cloth. Let's have a look at your head.'

Now he was the one stunned by a quick conversational shift. 'Oh, yeah,' he said. He lowered himself to sit in the mire of the cell floor as Starr knelt down at his side. Wetting the cloth, she began to gently clean the wound. There was only a very small tear in the skin by his eye, so she soon had all the blood washed away. He flinched several times as she worked, whispering to her, 'Sorry,' each time.

'I imagine this is very tender,' she sympathized as she finished daubing away the blood. 'I don't think it's bleeding anymore. But it's likely to make a spectacular bruise.'

'Yeah,' said Stone. Reaching for his canteen, he opened it and took a long pull. Then shook it. Then looked at Starr.

'Have you noticed anything weird about your canteen?'

'Weird?' she echoed.

'Yeah. Weird as in, it hasn't run low on water since we got here. Listen.' He gave the canteen a shake. Sure enough, the sloshing from inside it sounded nearly full.

Starr shook her own and heard the same thing. All this time, she had been carefully using as little as possible to make it last - but surely she hadn't used that little.

'You know, that reminds me,' she added. 'Do you still have some apples left from that tree we passed?'

'Yeah, I've got six left; I counted them last night.' But peering into his pack, he said, 'Wait a minute - I have eight apples in here now. No, nine - ten!' He frowned towards Starr. 'How could that be?'

Starr was frowning too. 'I think I remember something,' said she. 'Didn't... didn't the Master say something back when he sent us out, about how all that we would need would be provided us?'

'The Master? I remember Josh saying something like that.'

Oops. 'Oh, yeah... right...'

He glanced towards the door beyond the blanket. 'Sh...' They could hear the guards out there now, out in the corridors, yelling the prisoners awake. Wrapped his arm round Starr, he pulled her close, tucking her against his side. 'Might as well get comfortable,' he said. 'It'll be a wait before they clear out and I can try to sneak you upstairs.'

Resting her head against his shoulder, Starr said, 'What did happen just now, Stone?'

Oh. Suddenly he wished he hadn't promised her an explanation.

No. He'd put this off long enough. It was time to tell Starr the truth.


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