Awakened by the nauseas smell of a damp, sweat-stained mattress, its bare-ticked covering seemingly alive with vermin that squirmed against his fully-clothed body, John jumped from his bed. Heart pounding, he crouched in the corner of a room he’d never seen before.
He heard laughter, hollow, distant, provoking, and he uncovered his ears and looked around. He was in a cell, black iron bars on one wall the other three of gray cinder block towering some 40 feet above him. In the ceiling, a roof hatch. It was opened, framing a tease of blue sky and yellow hinted sunlight.
The laughter abated and John got up. Wobbly and disoriented, he made his way to the iron bars and source of the laughter. Beyond the bars was a dark hallway, lit by a singular naked bulb from a low-hung ceiling. His cell seemed to be at the end of the corridor as it dead-ended to his left. Directly across from him another blank wall.
He moved to his right and clutched the iron bars. “Hello, anybody there?” His voice came out parched and strained. He tried to control the panic he felt behind it.
There was movement in the cell next to his. An arm, skinny and dark with bruises appeared with an unsteady arthritic hand holding a small shaving mirror. A near toothless man, haggard in face and bald but for a few wisps of gray hair reflected out from the glass.
The man in the mirror laughed, the sound familiar to the one heard earlier. “Kind of scary lookin’, huh? But livin’ in this place will do it to you.” He grinned. “Once was good-lookin’ like you. But can’t never seem to sleep ‘round here - accommodations bein’ what they are.”
“What is this place…where am I…what am I doing here!” John’s words came out staccato like, tripping over one another in unmasked terror.
The face squished up, almost translucent with pain. “Been askin’ the same question since I got here.” He squinted an eye. “Can’t recollect how long that’s been. Don’t know what I ever done neither. Ain’t guilty of nothin’ - I swear. And even if I was, ain’t no rest for the wicked. Least ways that’s what the jailor says when he comes ‘round with the mash he feeds us.” He broke out in a phlegmy laugh.
“Are you telling me were in Hell?” John looked around in confused disbelief.
“Nah, ain’t hot enough. You’ll see later when you try sleepin’.” A strange look flashed across his face. “Need to ‘scuse myself. Nature’s callin’. Don’t know what they put in that mash, but it’s a constant torment - ‘bout like ever-thing else ‘round here.”
“Wait!” John cried. But the man in the mirror was gone.
But his voice sounded out moments later. “That jailor, he’ll come to ‘splain things, ‘specially ‘bout some rumor -‘bout guilt and somethin’ called condemnation. Gossip is its key to getting’ outta here. Don’t pay it much bother myself - bein’ guiltless and all. Jailor says it’s a lie anyways. Likes to be upfront so as not to get your hopes up. Somethin’ to chaw over while eatin’ the mash he dishes out.”
John moved to the center of his cell and looked up. Sunlight streamed down from the roof hatch, warming his face. A lone sparrow had found its way inside and flew down, circling the cell.
The quiet air became filled with its fluttering wings. The dark, piercing eyes of the bird seemed to awaken a reminiscent memory in John’s soul. It flew within inches of his face, its grace and freedom of movement captured in John’s imprisoned eyes.
The bird carried a simple crust of bread in its beak, John reached out, and the bird placed it in his palm. A soliloquizing confession of his heart began – Eucharistic, instant and complete.
To his left, John heard the sound of hollow footsteps followed by the banter of the mirrored man next door.
“Got some mash for the newbie.” A new voice hissed.
“He’s ‘spectin’ you. No problem him believin’ ‘bout that rumor – you know ‘bout getting outta here.”
The voice laughed. “No one hardly ever does. Confessin’ you’re wrong too hard for most; ‘sides no rest for the wicked anyway. No difference in bein’ guilty and admitin’ it – both the same. Doomed either way, I say.”
Contrite, John took the bread and ate. The bird flew away, back into the open sky.
The jailor came to John’s cell. It was empty.
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