Wake up, wake up, wake up.
He squeezed his eyes shut, imagining that when he opened them, he’d be back at the house, safe and warm and in friendly company.
Please, wake up…
Nothing that had happened in the last twenty-four hours made sense. One minute, he was in the woods with his son, and the next, bullets were whizzing past his head, and he ran until he was lost.
And then those strange men appeared, almost out of thin air.
He peeled his eyes open slowly. Tears and panic cinched his throat—he was still in the closet-sized cell, and outside was the same darkened hallway, dimly lit by a window he couldn’t see. The same iron bars.
To prove to himself they were real, he wrapped his tied, shaking hands around one; the rusted surface was rough and cold on his palm. He pulled and pushed to jostle the bar loose, but it didn’t budge. His fingertips tingled and a hopeless, desperate shuddering began in his lungs; he was going to hyperventilate. He took slow, steady breaths, sucking in the frigid, damp air. His heart slowed from a rapid fluttering to a heavy, uneven drumbeat.
He couldn’t lose his mind. When they brought his son back from wherever they’d taken him, the boy would need a comforting, firm arm around his shoulders. He’d need reassurance that his father would get him out of this place.
Unless this was a nightmare, as he’d told himself over and over again. A vivid, persistent one, but a nightmare all the same. He bit the inside of his cheek until he drew blood and tears came to his eyes.
Still, he didn’t wake.
The shuddering in his lungs intensified, and he grasped the iron bar again. This wasn’t a nightmare, but how could it be real?
Sometime between the moment he dipped his hands into the creek and when he ran into those men, everything around him had changed, the familiar warped and twisted invisibly into the unfamiliar. It was as seamless and subtle a transition as from waking to sleep.
Like a dream. It had to be a dream.
He pinched the tender skin beside his knee and felt the bruise forming beneath his nails. But he remained in that cell, the stone beneath him as cold and solid and real as the breath in his chest.
Not a dream.
He closed his eyes. In his mind’s eye, the strange men descended upon him in their red coats, bright against the snow and ice. One of them had beaten his son with a wooden club. He’d felt the hard crack of something against his skull and woke up in a wagon. The wagon led them to this place, an imposing building that looked both freshly built and hundreds of years old.
He let go of the iron bar, brushed flakes of rust from his palms. Blood caked the skin, filling the creases and lines and his knuckles, clinging to the fine hairs on the backs of his hands. He was wearing red gloves.
If he ever saw his friends and family again and tried to describe the experience, no one would believe him. The vile voice of doubt responded to this thought, taunting him: You’re never going home.
He brought his bloodied hands to his forehead and rubbed between his eyes, fighting that breathless shudder in his lungs again. There were only so many explanations for what was happening. He could be hallucinating. Or he’d died, and this was a purgatory. His gut dismissed those answers, for no particular reason other than they didn’t feel right.
And then it came to him like a slap on the cheek. The sting took his breath away. He wasn’t relieved, having thought of it. In fact, he’d rather that he’d died. Death he understood. His feeble mind couldn’t comprehend this.
“Wake up, wake up…” he muttered to himself.
As if in answer, his son screamed from somewhere deep inside the prison. He frantically twisted his hands and feet; the rope binding them burned his wrists and ankles. He grabbed the bars again, pulling on them desperately.
“Don’t you touch him!” His voice tore from his throat.
Footsteps thudded down the hallway toward his cell. A hulking shape lurked over him, a cruel face gazing down.
“Shut up, you,” he growled.
The man drew back his rifle and struck his fingers hard with the butt. He yelped but didn’t let go, so the man smacked him on the head. He fell back onto the cold floor. The small room swirled around him, consciousness ebbing in and out of his body.
“Don’t touch him!” he whispered. And then, softly, “Help us…”
His son wailed again, drowning out his own fruitless mumblings. His uselessness and cowardice were a sharp stab in the heart, and he sobbed.
Their voices echoed through those callous halls, out the windows, and into the cold, snowy night, meeting many ears along its path. But none of those who heard their cries cared about their toil or would help.
Father and son were alone in every way a person could be.
Photo Courtesy Shelley Livernois-Hazen