So that covers most of the assets. Tim gets everything, and Kalvin inherits from Tim if anything should happen. Kalvin will finish college no matter what. I have big hopes for him. Not hopes—plans. I guess they’re kinda the same. “Plans” suggest that what you want will happen eventually; “hopes” sounds like I’m tossing pennies in a fountain. I don’t know what I’m saying. I talk when I get nervous.
<Why are you nervous?>
I just thought about something happening to you. I’ve been so focused on myself that I didn’t even think there was a chance we’d both pass away before Kal. That’s horrible. I don’t even know what I’d do if you passed away before me.
<Would you remarry?>
Fuck that. I’m not doing this again. I probably shouldn’t have said “fuck” on this. Make sure you edit this out. Stop laughing, Miranda.
Hard to Swallow
Owls perched overhead; their number incalculable. None moved, staring down at Kalvin with empty eye sockets, their beaks agape in mid-scream. The rafters bent with their weight; some the size of men.
How did they get inside? thought Kalvin. His hair brushed the floor as he shook his head no. They won’t hurt us if we stay in our cages. Ashes poured from holes in their faces, coating Kalvin’s sweat-soaked skin. Maggots burrowed therein, twitching against his shivering body. You know this isn’t real. Say it isn’t real!
Footsteps echoed, scattering the parliament, rafters, and filth. Kalvin sat up to see where they had gone, but only darkness remained. He returned to his contorted slump, struggling to keep his injured leg rigid inside his cage.
The prison door rattled as light crossed the threshold. There were no cane thuds—only the awkward cadence of uneven legs. A mining lamp affixed to the jailer’s cap guided him in his task, doling slices of stale bread and switching out buckets of waste with buckets of rain water. Paper crinkled—stopping abruptly as the jailerreviewed his instructions. The light jostled about before finding each prisoner.
Bernie was revealed first—her back flat against the wall with bandages engulfing her eyes and ears. The jailerspied her a moment before opening the front of her cage. He may have suspected Kalvin of eating her food, placing the bread and bucket where he could not reach. Kalvin watched as the jailer pried her mouth open with his fingers and dropped two pills down her throat. Had she not been feigning unconsciousness, the fool would have killed her.
Kalvin was next. He recoiled as the light burned his eyes shut. He listened to the padlock snap open before receiving his meal as well as new rags for his leg. When the light had left him, Kalvin blindly devoured his bread, and whatever floated in his bucket.
Finally, the jailer’s light found the Finisher. Kalvin looked up from his bucket to find the man curled like a question mark with his clothes still marred in tar-colored streaks. He was brought nothing for his wounds, but bread still piled near his feet. The only sign of life came from the whistling of his broken nose. Kalvin soon remembered his name—he had called himself Walter.
Before the jailer left, his light lingered in the cell next to Walter’s. It housed piles of soiled blankets and the stench of decay. He avoided the cage before leaving them again in total darkness.
With the area clear, Bernie spat the pills into her hand. Her fist poked Kalvin in the shoulder, and he took the medication immediately. He did not know what kind of pills they were, but they offered the only respite from the searing hole in his leg.
“Do you think he knows you’re faking?” said Kalvin.
“As long as he doesn’t change my dressing we should be alright,” said Bernie. “The stains make it look worse than it is.”
“Won’t they be able to…you know, smell it on you?”
“There’s a lot to smell down here, Kalvin. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Maybe they’ll release us if they knew you were one of them.”
“I may be infected, but I’m not one of them,” said Bernie. “Howard has torture methods reserved for infected—it’s how he keeps them in line.”
“Howard never came back down. Do you think he forgot about us?”
“Howard never forgets. Maybe someone wised up and killed him—a lotta good that does us.”
“When the owls come back, they’ll lift us out of here—cage and all.”
“What owls? What do you mean?”
“They wait in the rafters.”
Bernie extended her arm into Kalvin’s cell again, feeling his forehead and the side of his face. Her caress reminded him of his mother. For a moment, death seemed like the only option.
“Do me a favor and dunk a rag in your bucket, then drape it over your face,” said Bernie. “Just take it easy for a bit.”
He did what she told him. It was unclear if the pills took effect or if the rag cooled him down, but he slept at last.
Voices rumbled from the vent—too many to understand. Kalvin questioned most of what he saw and heard in the bowels of the complex, but it sounded as if hundreds were chanting.
Kalvin turned over to tell Bernie, but he heard something more curious within the room. Gulping filled the air, punctuated by hoarse gasps. The bucket clanged against the floor of Walter’s cage.
“Is someone there?” said Walter.
Kalvin stayed quiet, propping his shoulder against the fencing. He had waited an eternity for him to wake up.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” said Walter. “Not of me, at least.”
“You’re a Finisher, like Eustace?” said Kalvin.
“What’s your name, son?”
“How long have we been down here, Kalvin?”
“Days most likely.”
“Good. That’s good. They want us around for something. Maybe a ransom—“
“Why did you come here?” said Kalvin.
“Same reason as you— I’m here to help Danny.”
“Bull! Shit!” said Bernie. “You can’t hide here, Walter. I know the Finishers have been stalking Danny and my niece for days if not weeks. You destroyed my home to get where you are now. Don’t think for a second we don’t know what you are.”
“Everything I do is for the protection of innocent lives!” said Walter.
“You shot a little girl to watch her die. You said as much to Howard.”
“It would have killed each and every one of you if it had the chance! Look around! This place is the work of monsters!”
“And what about Tim? Was his life not worth protecting?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Tim Lucero was my father,” said Kalvin. “His last message to me was sent by one of you. I just want to know what happened to him.”
Walter took time to choose his words. “Things got out of hand.”
“What happened to Tim Lucero you piece of shit!?” said Bernie.
“Tim is dead.”
The words repeated in Kalvin’s brain. He felt a sensation worse than pain; he felt nothing. “Tell me how he died,” said Kalvin.
“He was shot in the head by a man named Jake Reto.”
“Jake Reto was killed years ago,” said Bernie.
“Reto is painfully alive! Any Finisher will tell you that! He ordered ALL of this just to kill Dan Bully, but I can make it right, Kalvin!”
“How can you possibly make it right!?” said Kalvin.
“I’ve been watching the guard. He makes the same rounds in the same order every time he comes in. Can you see my hand, Kalvin?”
Kalvin squinted to find the waving shape five feet from his cage. “I see you.”
“Toss over your extra rags. I can fashion them into a rope.”
“And then what?” said Bernie.
“I strangle the bastard, right when he opens my cage. Then I’ll free you both, and we’ll all escape. And once we’re free, I’ll take you to him, Kalvin. You can do what no one else has been able to do. I’ll give you Jake Reto’s life for the price of a few rags.”
“ENOUGH!!” said Kalvin. “I know what monsters are—people who’ve convinced themselves that the only lives that matter are their own! People like you who murdered my mom and dad! I don’t need revenge! I need my family back!”
“I refuse to die here,” said Walter. “You’re going to help me escape, or I’ll tell the guard of Aunt Bernie’s miraculous recovery. I’m sure that little troll would be all ears.”
“Your plan is idiotic!” said Bernie. “You’ll get us all killed!”
“Give me the rags, Kalvin!”
“I’m sorry, Bernie, but I can’t lose anyone else.” Kalvin reached for his rags, sinking his fingers into a pile of maggots. The owls had returned, and they were inside his cage.
“Kalvin? What’s happening in there?” said Bernie.
A new voice made the owls vanish—a weak whisper Kalvin had never heard before.
“The rags won’t be enough,” said the whisper.
“Who’s there?” said Walter.
“I’m in the cell next to you. I’ve been kept here for days without food or water. I have blankets you can use for your rope. Hand me a slice of bread and they’re yours.”
“Come closer to the fencing,” said Walter. “You can have it all.”
“I can barely lift my arm, please reach in deeper.”
“Walter,” said Bernie.
“Looks like I won’t need either of you,” said Walter. “There, can you see it—“
Walter’s cage shrieked as it dragged across the ground. “NO! LET GO GODAMNIT!!” Walter screamed as his body collapsed against steel. He wailed and cursed as the whisperer returned to his mound of blankets.
Much time had passed before the jailerarrived. The light followed a stream of blood from the prison door to Walter’s cage. The Finisher lay there, gripping his hand to his stomach and trembling. The light moved to the cage nearby. The whisper belonged to a frail man with a muzzle strapped to his face— his eyes wily in the light’s reflection. He wiped the blood from his muzzle and slid his fingers between the bars of his mask.
Two guards were called in to take them away. They removed bones from the cannibal’s grasp before dragging him out of the room.
“You saw that too, right?” said Kalvin.
“I wish I hadn’t,” said Bernie, “But you know what they say, ‘When life gives you lemons…’” Bernie reached her arm out into the walkway and scooped up Walter’s finger bones.
“You’re not gonna chew on those are you?”
“Pay attention. I bent the hinge on my water bucket into a serviceable torsion wrench. It’ll fit inside the padlock on my cage, but I didn’t have anything to use as a pick.”
“You can pick a lock with a bone?”
“I’ve never tried to before. The tricky part will be grinding it down thin enough to fit, but sturdy enough not to snap off inside the lock. It may be impossible.”
Bernie said little as she set to work on the pick. She would hide it under her dressing when the jailerwould come to switch out their buckets.
As time went on, a prisoner was escorted to Walter’s cage by three guards. Kalvin’s vision was obstructed, but the prisoner was much larger that Walter or the cannibal. After the guards had left, Kalvin pressed his face to the fencing.
“Eustace! Eustace, is that you!?” said Kalvin.
“FUCK!” said Bernie.
“What happened!? Did it snap!?”
“No. Walter had tiny hands. It won’t reach the fourth pin.”
“Is there something else we can use?”
Bernie held the pick against her middle finger and sighed. “Yes there is.”