We finally arrive at the top of a gentle rise, the desert expanding around us—the view fifty miles in every direction.
The evening is warm and the sun, now perched on the horizon, feels good in our faces.
I love you, brother, I say, but when I turn to face him, I find that I’m alone.
I sat up suddenly on the bench seat in a cold sweat, tears in my eyes, and my leg on fire, realizing I’d dreamed of my brother. Orson had often haunted my dreams since that summer in the desert eight years ago, but this was the first time I’d ever woke up missing him.
Luther was awake. I could hear him moaning on the other side of the warehouse.
I could barely walk, my right leg stiff and hot and the raw flesh beginning to scab over.
I limped over to Luther, sprawled on the gurney but looking better than I would have imagined. I’d hurt him, but inflicted no broken bones, no life-threatening puncture wounds. My greatest fear had been losing him prematurely.
“You’ll never guess who I dreamed about,” I said.
He managed a weak smile.
“He’d certainly be enjoying this.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s what worries me. Do you think you can stand?”
“You haven’t even come close to hurting me.”
I walked over to the control panel, pulled open the bottom drawer, and took out a stainless-steel Spyderco Harpy that looked more like a talon than a knife.
Back at the gurney, Luther looked confused as I unbuckled both ankle restraints and one of his wrists.
“What is this?” he said.
I was walking away from the gurneys, out into the middle of the warehouse floor.
When I stopped and turned around, he’d already unbuckled the last restraint and was painfully prying his skin off the electrodes.
He finally broke free and swung his legs off the gurney.
Naked, tall, pale, and covered in cuts, burns, and bruises.
He looked monstrous.
“What is this?” he said again.
I reached into my pocket, took out the Harpy I’d liberated from the control panel drawer.
Now I held a knife in each hand.
I swung my right arm back and sent the knife sliding across the concrete, until it finally collided into Luther’s bare feet.
“I can barely walk,” I said. “And you aren’t so pretty yourself.”
“I’d say we’re evenly matched.”
“Not even.” He knelt and lifted the Harpy off the floor, opened it with a subtle flick of the wrist. “I’ll f**king take you apart.”
“Then let’s do it,” I said, opening my blade and starting toward him. “One of us has to die.”
HE doesn’t know how long he’s been chained up in darkness.
He barely remembers his own name.
Almost all of the time, he is cold.
All of the time, he is thirty and hungry.
There is no day or night here, down in this cold, dank room in the basement of the factory. He thinks he may have been here for months, but it could be longer. Much longer. He fears that his mind has lost the ability to reason time. That years may have passed.
His beard is six inches long.
He is skin and bones.
The slash he received eons ago is now nothing more than a raised scar across his abdomen, and he fingers it obsessively, constantly replaying the knife-fight like a piece of botched choreography.
Every other day, his captor brings a pitcher of water and a plate of food.
Several times, he was asleep when the food arrived and awoke to find a giant rat feasting on his meal.
The first three times, he shooed it away.
The fourth, he crushed it and ate it.
His former life only visits him in dreams—bright, vivid, blue-sky dreams.
He has long passed the point of wanting death and he couldn’t effectuate such a plan regardless. He is forced to wear a helmet to prevent braining himself. The few times he’s tried to starve himself or go without water has resulted in force-feeding. In one paining session, his teeth were removed so he couldn’t bleed himself to death.
His captor has informed him that he intends to keep him alive for twenty years, and while he feels certain that his body will last, he wonders about his mind. Already, it is breaking down. To know and understand that you’re going crazy is perhaps the worst brand of torment he has ever withstood. He’d rather spend a year in the gurney.
And so he is essentially a soul trapped in an earthbound body.
His approach to living could almost be described as Zen.
The ten square feet where he eats and sleeps and shits is his world.
He has an intimate knowledge of the cracks and fissures in the concrete beneath him—studies their patterns like the word of God.
The space beyond his length of chain has become as mysterious and unreachable as the universe.
Occasionally, screams trickle down from the warehouse several floors above, but mostly, there is only silence and darkness.
Recently, his captor brought down an antiquated typewriter and ten reams of paper.
A sick joke, but more and more he’s considering writing if for nothing more than the diversion of something new to pass the hours.
He talks to Orson all the time.
He tells himself stories that he may one day write.
In the strangest of them all, none of this is really happening. He’s just a character trapped in the twisted story of a semi-famous writer who lives on a lake in North Carolina. He keeps trying to finish the story. To write in some weakness in the chains, some error in judgment on the part of his captor that might allow him to escape, but nothing ever seems right.
At last, on the story’s hundredth incarnation, he arrives upon the answer.
A character returns unexpectedly to the warehouse and saves him.
As the story closes, he’s lying in a luxurious bed, drifting in and out of sleep.
He hears approaching footsteps and smiles.
Because the covers are warm.
Because he feels no pain.
Because those footsteps belong to Violet.
She’s coming to nurse him back to health.
Momentarily, she’ll be through the door.
And she’ll sit on the bed and feed him from a bowl of steaming soup, and when she’s finished, crawl into bed with him and run her fingers through his hair and whisper that he’s safe now. That the pain is behind him, behind them both, and in this warm, soft bed—everything that matters.