When he finished gathering the bones, he settled back onto the stool, which suggested we were not yet ready to leave.
“Now what?” I asked.
“We wait,” he said flatly.
I hadn’t expected that. It was a risk for either of us to be there. The closer it got to dawn, the greater chance we had of being discovered, which wouldn’t have served either of our causes. What were we waiting for?
He looked at his watch.
“How long?” I asked.
He motioned toward the door. “Guards come through every forty minutes or so, give or take. We’ll wait for their next round.”
I studied the heavy metal doors. They were sealed, no doubt to keep in the cold. I could scream, I realized, and even if someone were standing just on the other side, it was unlikely they would hear, especially over the noise the air conditioners. It was a foregone conclusion they wouldn’t bother to check the corpse locker. Why would they?
When I turned back to him, my captor was giving me a curious look.
“What?” I snapped.
He shook his head. “Nothing. You’re not what I expected, that’s all.”
“Oh? And what was that?”
He shifted on the stool. “I don’t know if you realize it lady, but you have a helluva rep. To hear people talk, you’ve seen it all, you anticipate everything, and are darn near impossible to get around.”
“Are you suggesting I’m easy?”
He shook his head. “Not at all. I came over-prepared, that’s all.”
I glanced to the backpack by his feet. “I’m immortal,” I said, “not eternal. There is still a great deal I don’t know.”
“How old are you? Exactly.”
“Come now,” I mocked. “Surely you know better than to ask a lady her age.”
He smirked, almost in spite of himself. “So what’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“The coming back is nothing. I wake up. I suspect you meant the part just before the coming back.”
He waited expressionless for an explanation.
“I re-experience my life,” I said hesitantly. “Or long stretches of it anyway.”
“Like in a dream?”
“Of sorts. While I’m in it, it seems completely real, like a dream. But I’m not watching myself like we do in dreams. I am myself. And there are no strange nonsequiturs or surreal landscapes. It’s always the same—even though I don’t realize that until I wake.”
“So you’re made to experience it all over. Every time?”
“Not all of it. It starts at random points and rarely makes it to the end.”
“I meant all your traumas. Your loss. You have to suffer it all again and again.”
“Not just my traumas,” I objected. “All my joys, too. I get to see loved ones, long gone. I get to laugh with them. I get to lay with my husband for the first time. I get to stay up all night talking to old friends I just met. Sometimes I get to see my father. Very occasionally, I get to be with my mother. I can’t see her face, but I’m enveloped in her warmth. No words can describe it really—the feeling of someone else’s heartbeat surging through you in place of your own. I can feel her love permeating me, completely, into every single cell.”
“That’s good,” he said. “Hostage 101. Humanize yourself. Talk about your mom and your kids so that I’ll see you as a person instead of a job.”
“Worth a short.”
“Your mom die in childbirth?”
“No. But it wasn’t long after.”
“And it doesn’t bother you? Having to suffer that every time?”
“Well . . . no. I suppose it’s comforting, in a way.”
“Yes. Like how people can fall in love with their own melancholy.”
I could tell he didn’t follow. I took a deep breath. “I’ve lived my past so many times, it seems more solid, more real than the present. I sit here, talking to you, not knowing who sent you or what horrible things they will do when you deliver me, and it all feels very . . . loose. Unhinged. Leaky, even, like a poorly made boat. Nothing’s quite nailed down. But the past is set. It’s certain. And that makes it seem so much more real. Returning there always feels like stepping ashore after a long voyage at sea. Your body still rocks to phantom waves, but the ground under your feet is firm. Unyielding. And you realize you’d almost forgotten how sure it was. Welcoming, even. Like you’re back where you’re supposed to be. Like you’re home.” I was silent a long moment. “It would be easy to stay there.”
“So it’s true,” he said under his breath.
“Everyone says your life flashes before your eyes.”
“Did you lose someone?” I asked. “Someone close?”
The question seemed to make him uncomfortable. I wondered then if the person who had sold his pale flesh for cash had been a relative. Perhaps even his mother. Apparently, it can garner a small fortune, not that any amount of money could entice me to hack off the arms of a child with a machete.
“My ex-husband and I used to joke that someone or something wanted to give me the opportunity to diligently review my mistakes so that I could perfect the art of making them.” I smiled at my own joke.
“Is it going to be much longer?” I asked. “I’m getting rather cold.”
He looked at his watch. “Soon.”
“You could at least be a gentleman and tell me where we’re going.”
“I could.” He nodded.
The bank of refrigeration units near the ceiling switched to a high roar then, which made conversation all but impossible. Cold air blasted against my skin and I started to shiver. The metal gurney underneath me felt like ice.
After a minute or two, the machines returned to their prior rumbling chorus.
“Whatever happens, our time is a gift,” I said, staring at the bag of charred bones resting by his feet. “Our time with loved ones especially. Everyone pretends to know that, of course, but everyone also gets up every day and acts as if the world is supposed to have them in it—and the people they care about, which is why we’re always shocked when one is ripped away. I think that’s why every generation carries those homespun homilies. Deep down, we know we’re not prepared and we’re trying to convince ourselves.”
“You include yourself in that?” he accused.
“Oh, definitely. I’m very vain. I can’t imagine the world without me. That’s what makes being stuck here such a clever punishment.”
I smiled at my own slip. “For something that happened a very long time ago.”
“So life to you is a prison?”
I paused. “I used to think so.”
I couldn’t answer right away. “Until I really was imprisoned.”
We fell silent then. I think we both knew that torture and imprisonment might be my fate again soon.
“Can we just get on with it, please?” I asked.
He checked his watch.
Rough cut from the fifth and final mystery of FEAST OF SHADOWS. Part One is available now.