She no longer knew how long she had been in the cell.
It was a tiny cage, not much bigger than the bathroom in the apartment she could barely remember. This was nothing like that bathroom. In fact, it was nothing like anything she’d ever imagined, even in her darkest nightmares.
The walls received lackluster illumination from the single fluorescent bulb, wrapped in a steel cage in the center of the ceiling. The walls were steel; the floor bare polished, concrete. A paper-thin mattress covered a cold shelf bolted to the wall. Merely twelve inches from what passed for a bed was a toilet and sink—one piece and seatless.
A camera, built into the angle where one corner met the ceiling, offered no privacy. A thick door with a one-inch high slot faced the toilet, and occasionally admitted food through it’s cramped, slotted portal.
The cell was cold most of the time, but when it wasn’t, she thought they’d put her in an oven. The heat lasted about a week, and despite the camera she’d stripped to nearly nothing in an effort to keep the conditions tolerable. By the end of it, the thin mattress, stained with streaks of salt, reeked of sweat.
Of course, that was just one more odor in a symphony of malodorous sensations that assaulted her from the first day she’d been in the cell. She remembered coming down the hall outside—the thin, reedy pitch of antiseptic. In the cell, on entering, she’d been overcome by the thick tones of old urine. Her predecessor in this place, whoever he’d been, and wherever he had gone, had been none too careful in his aim at the bowl. Nor had the stage been cleared before her arrival. An old stain of vomit near the sink gave a cloying stench that resisted her efforts at scrubbing for days.
For the first few days in the cell she’d raged, cajoled, begged, whenever that slot opened. When would we she be allowed to see a lawyer? To call someone? What was happening outside? Would anyone talk to her?
No answers came through the tiny slot.
In the mornings—at least she assumed it was morning, because the light in the ceiling turned on—she would strip out of the prisoners’ jumpsuit and wash herself in the sink above the toilet. Shivering with cold, she palmed the water off her body, and then dressed. And waited.
The toilet presented a problem. She was an inherently private person. The idea of using that filthy device to see to her needs, all under the watchful eyes of that camera made her want to vomit. She tried different arrangements with the prison jumpsuit to retain some privacy; some shred of dignity, but in the end there seemed to be little she could do. Waiting for so long to void her bladder caused her so much pain she had no choice but to give in.
She’d never been charged with a crime. She’d never even been told why they had detained her, though that was easy enough to deduce. No one asked any questions. They were tearing her apart without even the courtesy of telling her anything.
Sometime in the second week, she counted the fasteners in the steel walls. Each wall had two rows of notch-less bolts, extending from floor to ceiling, with a bolt spaced every six inches; fifteen per column.
Sometimes, she crouched down beside the slot in the door, and waited for it to open, just to get a glimpse of what was outside.
There was nothing.
She begged for something—anything—to read. Then, during her third week in the tiny cell, something followed the food tray into the room and thumped to the floor. A book!
She pounced on the tiny book. It was a Bible.
She was not religious. Other than the occasional wedding or funeral, she’d barely ever entered a church in her life. Her father and mother had never discussed religion much: when they had, it was to share doubts and lack of understanding of religion. All the same, the book was salvation.
She read it from the beginning. Her exposure to this volume had consisted of a single introduction to world religions class at Harvard, long ago. To her, people of the book were the crusaders. They were the inquisition, the Ku Klux Klan, the religious zealots who denied science and evolution and a woman’s right to her own body. They were the suicide bombers and killers who fought wars over their interpretation of scripture.
All the same, the book was nothing more and nothing less than a life preserver. Because in the silence of empty days and absolute solitude, there was nothing else. If she had to choose reading someone’s else’s religion over insanity—little real choice, there.
Then one day she heard her father’s voice. It sounded as clear as if he stood in the room, his gruff southern voice more real to her than the cell.
He said, “I’m sorry, kiddo.”
The next night, as she lay in the absolute darkness and silence, she called out to him, again and again. Not just to her father, but to her long dead mother, to her old life.
No one answered.
Occasionally, she would hear noises. The sound of footsteps outside the cell door, or a cry in the night. But all too often, nothing at all. By her sixth week of isolation, she would sit for hours, eyes unfocused, mouth slack, unable to remember her father’s name, or where she had gone to school, or anything before the cell that comprised her entire reality, and the book that she had now read three times all the way through.
Sometimes, when she sat unfocused and staring, she could feel the floor vibrate. Not an earthquake vibration—she’d been through that a few times when visiting California during the life she could barely remember before the cell. No, this seemed more like the vibration of a heavy truck passing a building. But there was no sound. Nothing to hint at the cause of the occasional tremor.
Heat came into the cell by way of a one-inch wide grate in the ceiling. Sometimes the air, forcing itself into the cell through that narrow slot, hissed so loud that she couldn’t sleep. It sounded like the aspiration of a dying man, constricted; and false in a way that she couldn’t pin down.
One night she screamed and couldn’t stop. She tore the mattress off the shelf, convinced that underneath it she would find snakes.
She stopped washing herself in the mornings. She slept until she awoke, then often fell asleep again moments later. Days and nights ran together, her thoughts dwelling on the book and its words of plagues and murder and death, its words of love and fear and rage. Sometimes she stared at the veins in her wrist, and tried to figure out how to slice them open. Maybe then, someone would take her out of the cell.
She ate little, though the meals continued to arrive in the slot. Her jumpsuit seemed bigger than it should, but she couldn’t remember how well it had fit the first time she put it on.
Then one day something else came through the slot, something so miraculous and frightening that she simply stared at it, her entire body shaking, in fear that it would disappear like the mirages of her mother and father.
A folded sheet from a newspaper lay just inside her door.
Trembling, she approached it and snatched it away from the door. She unfolded it, her eyes coming into focus on the photograph of her father. She remembered the photo—it had been taken when he’d testified in Congress—last year? Last century? She didn’t know when, because time no longer had any meaning. But the headline did. Her eyes took in the words, but her brain would not accept it. Her heart could not accept it.
The meaning of the scrambled words came clear. Her father had been convicted of treason. She screamed, and threw herself at the door until she was bloody.
The day after the offending headline arrived through the slot, she lay in wait. Eventually the slot would open, and the tray would be shoved through, and she would be ready.
She heard the steps first, and the jangle of keys. Finally, the footsteps came to a halt outside her cell, followed by a metallic report, and with a rasp the slot slid open.
“Please,” she said through the slot. “I have to talk to somebody. Anybody.”
The first human voice she heard in weeks responded.
“Shut up in there.”