How it Works by Ryan Bowd
How it Works
by Ryan Bowd
She caught Jake’s eye like she must have caught everyone’s: a young woman in a classy red cocktail dress and fur coat, ripped right out of a detective noir film and dropped into a drudgery grey room of empty chairs and plain wallpaper. Jake was dizzy and his walk stuttered, lagging, but he found his way to the woman on the other side of the waiting room.
“Seat taken?” he said.
She was thumbing through an old magazine and didn’t look up. “More times than you can imagine.” She turned the page and exhaled through her nose. Jake sat down before his legs gave way.
They stayed quiet while she read and Jake looked around for some kind of receptionist, but there was none. The place looked normal but Jake couldn’t shake loose the pervasive feeling that it wasn’t; he was still dizzy. A corridor led off from the opposite side with one door at its end and nothing in between.
Jake picked up a magazine but didn’t recognise it; the cover showed a hand-drawn woman in a long blue dress and matching shawl. He checked the date: April 1947. He stole a glance at the woman next to him and put the magazine down. A man came from the corridor, he was dressed in white scrubs. He pushed a metal trolley and on top of the trolley–floating above it–was a small, glowing orb. In the corner of the waiting room the man transferred the orb to a small table, using a set of metal tongs. Only then did he turn to Jake and the woman.
“Got some more company, Roxy,” he said.
She smiled behind the magazine then folded the corner of a page and put it down. She looked at the orb. “You know, sometimes I think I’d be better off if I just took the damn thing.”
“If you were gonna take it, you would have done it a long time ago.”
“Yeah, yeah. So, he in for the long haul too?” she jerked her head towards Jake, who carried on listening.
“Who knows?” The man grinned.
The man pulled a magazine from his own front pocket. He offered it to Jake, who took it. “Here, this might be a little more to your taste. Sorry, Roxy thinks she owns the place.”
“I might as well,” said the woman. “Been here long enough.”
The man in scrubs laughed and wheeled his trolley back down the corridor. Jake looked at the new magazine and saw that he recognised the celebrities on the cover. This one’s date was February 2013.
“Who was that?” Jake watched the man all the way down the corridor.
“That?” said Roxy, with a shrug. “That was Max. The steward here.”
Jake looked at the orb for a few seconds. It was hard to look away. “And what’s that?”
Roxy dropped the magazine in her lap. “So, how’d you get here? What happened to you? I hope it’s interesting, the last guy that was here said he ‘fell down some stairs’. Real dramatic.”
“What?” Jake tried to think. “I don’t…I can’t…”
“Ah it’s alright. It’ll come back to you sooner or later. Did you ask something?”
Jake felt light-headed and closed his eyes. When he opened them he was again looking at the orb. “I wanted to know what that is.”
“Oh, right. That’s just a short-cut. They use it to deal with people who don’t need to be seen to be validated.” Roxy leaned in and cupped her hand over her mouth. “If they had paperwork, it’d save them a bucket full.” She winked.
Jake felt out of sync with his surroundings. With Roxy. He tried to retrace his steps from before the waiting room but couldn’t.
Roxy tapped him on the shoulder and turned fully in her chair to face him, elbows on her lap and palms cradling her chin and smooth jaw-line.
“Wanna know what happened to me?” Before Jake could answer, she was off. “It was my fault, really; too much cash and too much charm. I was trying for a career in Hollywood, like everybody else. I had a few auditions here and there but nothing happened. So one night I thought: hell, let’s take the easy way in. I was drinking in this real swanky place, full of hot shots, and I managed to break into a cute little party with this up and coming director. We hit it off, I could have made him give me anything I wanted. But then I got too drunk. Guess he didn’t go for the ‘fun’ type. He ditched me and I ended up staggering through this sleazy alleyway singing some jingle I’d heard on the damn radio that day. Anyway, my purse must’ve caught these two crooks’ eyes, ’cause they swooped in from right out of nowhere. Things got heated; I was too smashed to just let ’em have the damn thing and one of them had a gun. I’m pretty sure he just had it for show. But I guess it doesn’t matter now.”
She signed off her story with a smile and wink, then sat back in her chair. Jake stayed put. Charming wasn’t the word. Her clothes, her lipstick, her hair. She would have looked good on screen. Jake laughed to himself and Roxy raised her plucked brows.
“What,” she said, “heard it before?”
Jake smiled but wasn’t looking at her. “How long have you been here?”
“You know, I used to laugh at that question but it just ain’t funny anymore.”
“That long?” He turned to her with a smirk and she laughed at that. “It must be awful.”
“Time has a way of numbing you to a lot of stuff.”
Jake nodded; contemplated. He saw Max hanging a canvas on the wall down the corridor. He caught Jake’s eye and waved.
“So,” said Roxy, “remember yet?”
An image of a dark, concrete room and a metal chair flashed into Jake’s head. It was blurry and vague, but it stuck. “I’m sorry, what?”
The entrance door opened and a large man in a string vest walked in. Roxy looked up, looked at Jake with a stifled laugh, then went back to reading. The man nodded to them and started walking towards the empty seats. But he stopped, and stared at the bright glow of the orb. His muscles went visibly lax. Roxy tilted her head towards Jake and whispered:
“Fifth one this week. Just watch.” The man walked to the orb; slow and heavy steps. Jake watched closely as the man stopped and dropped to his knees. He shuffled nearer so that his face was almost touching the orb’s surface. “Take it?” Roxy whispered, “he’ll probably eat it.”
The man reached out, hovered his hands over the orb, then snatched it. The orb burned white and the man snapped from his trance. He screamed as it shone fierce white; Jake covered his eyes and Roxy used her magazine. When they looked back the man was gone and the orb was floating happily above its table. Max rushed from the corridor and crouched near it.
“Wow, what is that, five this week?”
“Yep,” Roxy said. “Shame, he looked nice.”
Max gave her a look and she pouted at him. He walked back down the corridor, shaking his head and smiling. Jake waited for him to leave.
“So that’s it for him? He’s just gone?”
“He ain’t gone, he’s right there. Look, you can even wave to him.” She gave this loose and sexy wave, her hand flat and fingers floating, wiggling up and down, pointed to the orb. She blew a kiss and laughed.
“Cut it. You know what I mean. He just touches it and he’s finished? He doesn’t even get a second chance?”
“Second chance?” her eyes went wide and she smiled at Jake. She licked her lips. “There ain’t no second chance. Everything’s already been decided. This place just validates it.”
The concrete room and metal chair came into Jake’s head again, this time with a repeated screeching. He shook it. “So what, we get sent through and they just sign you off? We don’t get to say anything about it?”
“You can say all you want. They just don’t have to listen.”
Jake thought it over. Down the corridor Max was writing on a clipboard. “And he told you all this?”
“Well yeah. I’ve been here for so long it’d be rude if he never talked to me.”
She laughed again and Jake gritted his teeth. She went back to her magazine and Jake thought it pointless to ask her any more. The way she just read whatever she was reading, whistling tuneless to herself and licking her red lips every now and then; brushing her hair back when it fell nonchalantly over her face. He left his seat.
He walked to the orb and crouched in-front of it, just like the man had done. It was pure white; no trace of the man in the vest or any of the others Roxy and Max had mentioned. In the centre, though, after looking at it for long enough, Jake made out a faint pulsing.
“Just what are you doing anyway?” Roxy said.
Jake ignored her. He thought about how the man in the vest had waddled towards the light. His slack jaw and vacant stare. He thought about how Roxy had made fun of him; how she sniggered and whispered funny jibes when she knew exactly what was about to happen.
“Well?” Roxy folded her magazine on her lap.
Jake kept thinking. He imagined her as the person she’d talked about: the star struck girl trying to get a break the easy way. He pictured her laughing at anything some halfway successful guy said, a ditzy smile and mascara eyes making him feel special. Jake figured she was the type who didn’t care about self respect or dignity if she saw an opportunity. And everything was a joke. Even if she failed she’d laugh it off and move on, back to the start with a quick dolling up in the bathroom then back out the door and ready to try again. She could go for years, life a long party and even when some poor slob is about to be sucked into nothing and kept there, all she needs to do is smile, lean over with a soft touch on somebody’s shoulder, lick her lips and say something funny. And everything’s fine, and that’s all it had ever been.
“Okay, be that way. I’ve got plenty of other people to talk to, you know. I’m practically spoilt for ch-”
“So this is all fine with you?” Jake jumped to his feet and advanced towards Roxy. She arched up in her seat. “We come here, we wait and then we get thrown out someplace and we have no control over any if it? We can’t leave, but we can’t explain it or even discuss it?”
“Back off. Just sit down or something.”
“What do you think gives them the right to do this to us?” He was in her face now, but she just stared at him; patient. “It isn’t right,” he said, “that guy, the one that got sucked away, who’s to say he deserved that? He didn’t even know what was going on! Do you think he deserved it?”
Barely moving her lips: “I don’t know.”
“And that’s all you need, huh?” You could have stopped him or warned him. But what, just because he wasn’t some middle aged hot shot recruiting for some skin flick, you thought he wasn’t worth your charm?”
Roxy slapped him hard, the hand-print fading away and leaving a red scratch where a nail had hit.
“Sit. Down.” She was shaking. “You don’t have a damn clue.”
Jake stepped back and turned around, pressing a hand to his cheek. Max watched from the corridor and turned his head quickly when Jake looked over. He flicked through some papers on his clipboard then hurried through the door at the end. Jake didn’t feel much like being near Roxy for the moment.
“Sitting around won’t get me anywhere,” and he started off fast towards the door. He tried the handle but the door was locked; he knocked. Nothing. He kept knocking, progressively harder. “Hey, I need to talk to you. Max? Let me in.” Jake put his ear to the door and eventually made out the sounds of a struggle – some heavy grunts, the scrape of metal on concrete. A muffled yell. “Hey,” Jake said, more hesitant, “what’s going on in there?”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Roxy grabbed his arm and turned him around. “You can’t just do that.”
“I’m not waiting for them to call me in. And what do you care, anyway?”
“What’d you hear?”
“You were listening, weren’t you? What did you hear?” Roxy folded her arms and stood rigid. Jake sighed.
“A fight, or something. I’m not sure. Something’s going on in there. See if you can hear it.”
“Come over here.” She walked back down the corridor and stopped halfway by the canvas Max had hung up.
Jake stayed by the door. “Look, I’m sorry for what I said, okay? Just help me out.”
“I am. Come over here.”
No sound came from the door anymore but Jake hung around for a while as Roxy waited by the canvas, straightening her clothes and checking on her long fingernails, one of which now partially broken. Eventually Jake gave up and walked over, making a point of checking his cheek for blood. She pointed him to the canvas.
“Look at it for a minute and tell me what you see,” she said.
“What is this?”
“Just do it. Like I said, I’m helping you.”
Roxy gave him some space and Jake warily studied the canvas. Blank, same as the walls. He could feel Roxy watching him from behind and he couldn’t focus. It made him itch. He turned around.
“Can you stop staring at me, please?” But she was gone. The corridor was gone. In front of him, sitting tied to a metal chair, was a man with a burlap hood over his head. His feet dangled in dried blood and in Jake’s hand was a stained meat cleaver. Jake stepped forwards and the man started to struggle; rocking the chair until the legs scraped against the uneven concrete floor. Jake found himself alien to his own movements: his right hand rose up and struck the man with the side of the cleaver. The man yelled from underneath his hood, and stopped rocking.
“Dammit, answer me,” shouted Jake.
“I did. I told you, I wasn’t staring at you.” Roxy was back. It was all back.
“What? Where’d you go?”
“You left,” said Jake. “Who was that man, in the chair? And the blood?”
“Look, I didn’t go anywhere. Just calm down. Think it over, remember what you just experienced. That’s how it works. I saw the alleyway. It took me a few minutes to piece it together after that, but it worked, it made me remember. What do you remember?”
Jake backed up against the wall, out of breath and light-headed. He looked at his hand but the cleaver was gone, though he could still feel its weight. He thought the whole scene over again, all the while uncomfortably aware of Roxy again staring at him.
“Go back and sit down,” he said. “I need to think.”
“Alright,” said Roxy. “But don’t take too long.”
Jake watched her go, grinding his teeth again. It was far too easy for her. She’d given up long ago.
He thought over what he’d seen and more images of the room presented themselves. He caught a glimpse of the man’s face under the hood, familiar, then he felt a hand on his shoulder and a ringing in his ears.
“It’s a trick,” said Jake, and he shook the images away. If the orb is a trick, he thought, then why not the canvas? Why not this whole damn waiting room? He peered down the corridor at Roxy. Why not her?
The door opened and out came Max. He passed Jake with a smile. He took the canvas off the wall and he nodded to Jake but didn’t speak. Roxy watched them both. As Max walked back towards the door, Jake felt the pressure of building silence. He needed to break it.
“Hey, Max. So, what did that thing show you, huh?”
“Doesn’t work like that buddy,” Max turned with a smile.
“Yeah? So how does it work?” said Jake. “I mean, I know it’s a trick. I get that. But are you in charge of it? Or is there somebody else? How does it work?”
Max put the canvas down carefully against the wall. He approached Jake, who stood firm; tensing his muscles.
“There’s no trick. The canvas just helps you remember things. Important things. There’s a tendency for people to come here a little confused. You understand that, right?”
“All it is, is something to clear the confusion. Once people remember, it’s easier for them to come to terms with being here.”
“And that’s what you want, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“What about Roxy? I guess it made things so easy for her that she doesn’t even care about getting out of here. What are you doing to her? Why don’t you just let her go? What the hell is going on here, Max?”
Max waved Roxy over. “Listen. We know exactly what the canvas showed you. My advice: accept it. It’s only going to make things harder if you don’t.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Roxy stood between the two and Max picked the canvas back up. He disappeared behind the door with a smile and a nod.
“What was that about?” said Roxy. “What’d you say?”
“Nothing. C’mon. Let’s sit back down.”
Roxy questioned Jake as soon as he took a seat. He refused to answer. He ran through the scene again and tried to shun its sense of familiarity. But he couldn’t fully shake it. That’s part of their trick too, he thought. Familiarity by design. Manipulation.
“At least tell me what you saw,” said Roxy.
The entrance door opened and another man came into the waiting room. Jake watched him, ignoring Roxy’s touches and pulls of his arm. The man nodded to them and approached. Then he stopped and turned his head as if magnetized towards the orb. Jake sat up straight and Roxy finally paid attention.
“Six now, right?” Jake whispered to her.
“I guess so.”
“Wrong.” Jake stood and rushed to the newcomer, who was crouched and holding a hand above the orb’s smooth, curved top. Lines of light rose to meet his skin and the orb started to pulse. Jake pulled him by his free arm, stood him up and turned him around. “Don’t touch it. Listen to me, it’s a trick. You touch that and you’re gone. Gone.”
Roxy came over and pulled Jake away. “Leave it, you’re not allowed to do that. You can’t. This is how it’s supposed to work.”
“But we can change it. It only works because nobody’s stopped it. We can stop it.”
“Stop what? This is just what happens. We can’t change it, because that’s how it works. This is always how it’s worked.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’ve been here long enough you don’t even give a damn anymore. You don’t care if they’re manipulating thousands of people, you don’t care how immoral this is. You don’t care.”
“I’ve just been here long enough to know what’s what. Like I said before: you don’t have a damn clue.”
A white light shone from behind them and Jake turned back to stop the stranger. He couldn’t see a thing and when the orb dimmed the man was gone. Jake looked into the orb closely and again made out a pulse. Stronger, he thought. He turned to Roxy and she backed off. He advanced.
“You distracted me. What would’ve happened if I’d saved him? Is it really so important that I can’t keep one person alive?”
“It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Listen to me again: this is how it works.”
“You said that.”
“Because it’s true! What the hell is wrong with you?” She looked at him with narrowed eyes. “What did the canvas show you?”
“’The man in the chair’? ‘The blood’?”
“It doesn’t matter what the canvas showed me. It’s all a lie. They’re manipulating everyone who walks through that door. Think about it: they’ve had you here all this time, they haven’t told you why but you accept it. Because the porter is charming. Because they give you magazines you like to read. Because you’re the kind of girl who can entertain herself with a constant stream of temporary strangers. They know you. Your story, the party and the alleyway? That’s something they created for you because they know it appeals to you. You’d believe it just like that. You keep everyone who comes here happy. You distract them. You tell them how it all works and they believe you because they don’t know any better. Whoever’s running this place, having you makes their life easier, just like the orb. These people are killing us, and they’re having a damn easy time of it.”
“Forget about Max.” Jake grabbed Roxy by the shoulders and put his face level and close to hers. “I am the only person you can trust. If you don’t cut this place loose, I cannot help you.”
Roxy stared at Jake for a while, then she took a staggered walk to her chair. She picked up a magazine and held it in-front of her face. Not close; at a distance. She let it fall open by the front cover and the contents dropped and flailed like a body on the gallows. She looked at some of the pages and shook her head slowly. Then she ripped the cover from the rest and continued to tear until only confetti sized pieces remained. Jake smiled at her, and she bowed her head and closed her eyes.
Max entered the waiting room to immediate confrontation. Jake grabbed him by the shoulders and forced him against the wall. Max tried to fight out but Jake was far stronger.
“Roxy,” said Max, “Roxy, give me a hand.” He strained his neck to see her stood still on the other side of the room. Arms folded, she caught his eye and turned away.
“You’ve lost her,” said Jake. “She knows what this place is now. She won’t be used anymore.”
“Really.” Jake slammed Max against the wall and pinned him to it by thrusting an arm underneath his chin. Max tried to talk but Jake had his jaw locked. “You’ve said enough. I’m going through the door down there and I’m getting me and her out of here. And I’m going to make sure that this place doesn’t have a chance of carrying on. Now I’ll let you go, and you will get me into that room, okay?”
Max gave as much a nod as possible and Jake released him, laughing while Max rubbed his throat.
“Lead on,” said Jake.
“Fine. You’re the hero.” Max started off down the corridor.
The lights in the corridor seemed to dim and flicker as Jake walked. He stopped. A hand on his shoulder. Jake spun around to see Roxy, talking to him, but all he heard was a ringing in his ears. The lights came back, full.
“What’s wrong?” said Roxy, her voice as clear as ever. “You ready?”
Jake looked at his hands and saw them empty and clean. “Yes,” he said, and started walking. “Follow me.”
At the door Max took a key from his pocket. “I know what you expect to happen in there but I’ve already told you: we know what the canvas showed you. What you’re doing now, with her, this mission? It’s useless. You won’t listen to me but you should: you can’t change what’s happened. You can’t change how this place works. All you’re doing is making it harder for you and for her.” Max looked at Roxy, who held his glance for a second but looked away sharply after that.
“What I’m doing,” said Jake, “is saving her.”
“You can’t save anybody. And we both know it.”
Max unlocked the door and Jake pushed him aside to open it. Max went to Roxy. “Don’t go in there with him. Please. Just stay out here with me.”
Roxy held a hand over Max’s chest and looked up at him. She opened her mouth but said nothing. Jake went through the door and she followed.
They were shut straight into darkness. The door locked and for a moment there was no sound at all. Roxy stumbled as close to Jake as she could. He barely paid attention to her as he tried to find a light switch. An intermittent clang started up close-by, then the metallic scraping on concrete accompanied by grunts and footsteps.
“What’s going on? What is this place?” said Roxy. Jake held an arm across her and told her to stay back.
Jake followed the sounds, which repeated and looped, starting with a long screech of metal then three or four loud grunts of exertion. Another screech and footsteps, ending with a muffled yell. Everything went quiet as Jake approached and he could feel many eyes watching him through the dark.
Jake heard heavy breathing. He took a step forwards and his foot kicked through a shallow puddle. A staccato yelp sounded from a few feet away and Jake stopped. A weight came back to his right hand. It eventually became lighter; more comfortable, and Jake examined it with his other hand. He ran a finger down a wooden handle, wet, until he came to a cold metal blade. He held it pointing straight in-front of him, aiming it low, level with his stomach. He couldn’t see anything. But he didn’t need to.
“We’re turning the lights on now. Are you ready?” The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, echoing around Jake and catching him off guard. The blade felt heavy again and Jake struggled to keep it straight. The lights came on and Jake dropped the cleaver to the concrete. A hooded man strapped to a metal chair sat listless just a few feet away but Jake kept his head down, looking only at his hands – covered in dried blood – and feet, submerged in a gathering pool of it.
“Jake?” Roxy stayed back; her hands over her mouth.
“Or,” came the voice again, “would you prefer it if we keep them off?” Out went the lights.
“Jake,” said Roxy, “what’s happening?”
“Nothing. It’s another trick. Stay calm and listen to me. It’s the only way we’ll get out of here.”
“But that man. The blood.”
“Quiet. It’s all a trick. Trust me.”
Again the lights returned, revealing a far different place than before. Jake and Roxy stood, still apart, on a clean white floor stretching on seemingly infinite. No walls, no ceiling, just a multitude of overlapping, grey clouds. Nothing more. Roxy ran to Jake who was looking at his hand which, seconds ago, was stained and sticky with blood. But now it was as pristine as the sterilised floor. There was no trace of the cleaver or the man. Not even concrete. Only Jake, Roxy and the voice from nowhere in particular.
“This is it Roxy. You have to listen to me. They’re going to say a lot of things to try to make you change your mind. They will lie, that’s all they do. That’s all they’ve ever done, you know that. I’m helping you, I’ve helped you since I got here. Remember that.” Jake’s instructions came rushed and breathless. But he stared at Roxy with an off-putting focus.
Roxy looked at him but gave no discernible sign of assent. Jake continued, calmer:
“I don’t know anything about that man or the blood. That room…I do know that they have the power to create something like that and then replace it as quick as they can turn out a light. They have all the power here, all I have is my own mind, but I need you too. Please.”
This time Roxy nodded and put a hand on his shoulder. He smiled at her and she smiled back, from the edge of her mouth. Jake breathed deep.
“So you’re still not ready to accept things for what they really are?” The voice came through clear. Quieter than before.
“I know what things really are. You can’t change that. You can’t punish me for something I didn’t do, I’m leaving here of my own free will.”
“This is pointless, we know who you are. You know who you are and you know we know who you are. Why are you keeping this up? How? You must have a strong mind to convince yourself of innocence after all the things you’ve done.”
“My mind is strong because it’s still mine; not yours. These false memories? They haven’t worked. You can’t restrain me.”
“Then what does your mind say about you? If it is still your own, tell me who you are. In your own words.”
Jake glanced at Roxy who watched him intently. “I’m a good man,” he said.
“Of course you are. You’re a good man that we have tried to ruin. You’re a good man that we have targeted and tried to chisel down into a murderer. A man who operates in dank basements and deals with those who have been unfortunate enough to cross paths with the wrong people. You are a good man that we need to turn bad. In order to…what, exactly? What is our goal, in the end?”
Another glance at Roxy and Jake wiped his forehead. The voice continued:
“We’ve been doing this job for a long time. It’s a vital one and over that time certain methods have been developed to make the whole process more efficient. Everything that happens here is inevitable. You decided your fate the way you lived your life. There is no clean slate here, you are still the same person you were and you cannot escape that. How many times do you have to be told? Sincerely: you cannot change things here. This is how it works.”
“But it isn’t fair. We come here confused and helpless and you take advantage of that. We deserve to have our say, we deserve an impact on what happens to us.”
“But you have! More than an impact. You’ve moulded your end with every decision you’ve ever made. Do you think you’d be doing this if you hadn’t chosen the profession you chose? It isn’t morality that’s driving you, it’s guilt and desperation. You’ve made bad decisions. You’ve done terrible things. You know what’s going to happen to you and, just like in life, you will do anything to avoid it. ‘Saving’ Roxy and ‘fighting injustice’ won’t make up for the people you’ve hurt. The people you’ve killed. Because there is no injustice and Roxy doesn’t need saving. For the final time: nothing you do here can change what will happen to you. This is how it works. Do you remember the advice that Max gave to you? In the corridor?”
“I remember,” said Jake, his voice weak and crackling through numb lips.
“’Accept it’. You have to accept what you’ve done and accept what’s going to happen if you want things to be easier. Trust me, you will suffer more than you can imagine if you cannot come to terms with the fact that you are as far from being a good man as can be. And you accept the fact that you deserve what has already been decided for you. That isn’t a threat, Jake, that is simply how it works.”
“But..,” Jake was perceptibly shaking. Roxy moved to him but hesitated and stayed put. She looked worried and scared, as if the only thing she saw when she looked at Jake was a bloody cleaver attached to his hand.
“I know it’s tough and we can’t blame you for trying to run from all the things you’ve done. But you have done them. Now accept it so you can move on properly. In your own words, and your mind is still your own: who are you?”
Jake looked to Roxy and bowed his head when he saw her eyes. They were full. Scared. Vulnerable.
“I’m a killer.” he said. “I have tortured and maimed many people. Innocent people. I have killed for money and for pleasure. The men I work for are criminals and so am I. I’ve never been a good man. Because I never wanted to be.”
“But you never can become one, you realise.”
“Good. You can return to the waiting room. We’ll call you back shortly.”
Jake had dropped to his knees and his head was buried almost fully in his chest. Roxy didn’t go near him but every now and then she tried to speak, but she couldn’t find any words. Max approached from behind and he put an arm around her.
“Come on you two. Follow me.”
Max led Roxy off slowly and Jake took his time to get to his feet. When he did he saw the two of them walking together, huddled close to each other. Jake looked around to see himself alone, and in the thickening grey clouds all he saw was the dark basement where his and so many others’ lives had ended. He heard the ringing in his ears again, but he didn’t try to shake it. There was no point.
Max left them alone on opposite sides of the room. Jake sat in the shadow of the pulsing orb and stared at the carpet, his body withdrawn into a reclusive curl. Roxy read a magazine, intermittently eyeing Jake over the front cover and turning the page every two or three minutes. Finally, with conviction, she threw the magazine on a chair and stood up. She walked over to Jake and stood directly in-front of him, looming, so he was looking at her shoes. She was shaking.
“How long had you known?” she said. ”When did you remember?”
Jake lifted his head slowly but couldn’t hold eye contact for more than a few seconds. He dropped again. “The canvas made me remember.”
“So you lied to me? Everything you said about me and them was just to try to save yourself?”
Jake didn’t react. “So you’re going back to normal now?”
“Now you know that I was just trying to save my own skin, you’ll just forget everything I said about them? You believed me when I said they were manipulating you. You saw something in that.”
“But I know it’s not true.”
“Do you?” Jake looked at her square and kept looking until she turned away. “You can’t want to stay here for eternity. You can’t enjoy this.”
“What the hell do you want me to do? You tried to get out of here, it ain’t that easy. Hell, you heard them: it can’t be done; it’s not like I can just waltz out the front door you know. There’s a reason for them keeping me here like this. Like they said, we get exactly what we deserve.”
“Nobody deserves that,” said Jake. Roxy paused, about to answer, but instead she sat down next to him. Shoulders touching. “I’m sorry for using you,” said Jake, “but I would have helped you if it had worked. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. You don’t deserve to be imprisoned like this. Like all those people I…”
“But I can’t leave. There’s no way.”
“There is. Just one.” Jake turned to the orb to his right and the two watched it pulse, floating over its little table like a bird at its perch. “How many has it taken this week?”
“Six,” said Roxy.
“Make it seven.” Jake looked her in the eyes again and nodded.
Roxy watched the orb. Then she looked around the room, the familiar room, and she looked back at Jake. The unfamiliar man. She nodded back slowly, a small smile growing across her face.
“Jake. We’re ready now. Just down the corridor.” The voice came soft, soothing, and it didn’t take either of them by surprise.
Jake stood and walked straight for the corridor. Roxy watched him go from behind. He didn’t look back at her and she didn’t call out to him. He turned down the corridor and out of sight. Roxy jumped up. She looked around the corner and watched him, getting further and further away until the door at the end opened for him and Max invited him inside. Jake stepped right through and Max closed the door behind him.
Roxy went back to the waiting room to find it empty once again. She imagined a million more people coming through that entrance door, all coming in, walking through, sitting down and leaving. Like they all left. Except for her. She looked at the orb; it was brighter than she’d ever seen it. Its pulse seemed to synchronise with hers and she found herself gliding along the carpet over her favourite magazine to see the light up close. She looked deep inside and saw a whole new world. A whole new life. Tantalising, she wondered how she’d never seen it before.
She reached out a hand and it became warmer with every closing centimetre. Her whole body grew warm, then hot, as the orb glowed and burned a searing white until Roxy couldn’t see or feel anything at all. The light engulfed the room and took a while to release it. And when it did, the room was empty.
After a long time the entrance door opened again. She was a young woman in a classy red cocktail dress and fur coat, ripped right from a noir detective film. She took a drunken, dizzy walk until she fell into an empty chair. A while later she recovered and looked around the waiting room. Her eye was drawn to a small, floating orb in the corner. She crooked her head and stared at it.
“Cute,” she said.
On the floor was a pile of magazines. She picked the top one up, flicked through it and smiled. She leaned back in her chair and started to read.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Ryan Bowd 2014