My seat is hard and unforgiving, and no matter how much I wriggle, I can’t get comfortable. All part of the torture, I guess. No sense in worrying about the comfort of a condemned man.
I glance at the couple sat opposite me. They look pale and worried, a mirror image of myself no doubt. We briefly make eye contact but then look away, neither party willing to initiate a conversation, despite our shared fate. You never know who might be listening. Besides, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see one another again. Better to maintain a position of detached aloofness. If you build attachments in this place it will make their suffering more unbearable.
The couple’s two young children are playing contentedly at their feet, seemingly ignorant of what awaits them. Their parents must have decided not to tell them what was happening; I’d have done the same thing. It’s better that way, otherwise they could turn hysterical. All that screaming and crying could cause a panic that would ripple through the rest of us in no time. Then it could turn ugly. I must be strong. I must control my ever-rising tide of fear for the sake of the children if not myself.
A middle-aged woman with a stern angular face, her hair tied back in a severe bun, eyes us all suspiciously from behind her highly polished and organised desk. A stickler for rules and conformity no doubt. She has a mean look about her that suggests she doesn’t tolerate dissent. She’s seen it all before and knows what’s going through our minds. To her we’re just names on a list. Cattle. There is no compassion in those cold dark eyes.
Her menacing gaze turns in my direction and I quickly look away, not wishing to draw attention to myself. I stare off down the long sterile corridor opposite me. The passageway is painted magnolia with just a couple of abstract paintings punctuating its blank walls.
Our detention room is quiet save for the occasional telephone call which is efficiently answered within three rings by the woman behind the desk. Even when she is on the telephone, she is scrutinising us, watching for anything that might disturb the well-ordered environment which she oversees. Even the two children play quietly at their parents’ feet.
The tranquillity is suddenly broken by a child’s pitiful wailing from down the corridor. What are those monsters doing to her? Nobody says or does anything. We are all too frightened, too worried about our own well-being to intervene. It’s the way of society nowadays to look the other way.
A young girl of perhaps no more than ten years of age, comes scurrying down the corridor towards us, quickly followed by a distraught looking woman, presumably her mother. The woman grabs hold of the girl before she makes it to the door, tantalisingly close to freedom. She whispers something in the child’s ear and after offering an apologetic smile to those watching, leads her back down the corridor.
This time I briefly lock eyes with a middle-aged man sitting in front of me and to the left. We don’t speak but the look we exchange speaks volumes. He looks as terrified as me and ready to bolt. If I make a break for it, he’ll follow, I’m sure of it. Who knows, perhaps if enough of us make a move, some will get away. I wouldn’t want to be one of those left behind though. There’d be consequences.
Perhaps sensing our growing unease, the woman behind the desk stands and glowers in our direction. She is larger than I thought, and like an iceberg, most of her bulk was out of sight. She is formidable, intimidating and she knows it. She is not a woman to be tangled with. I quickly flick my gaze in her direction and then back, silently warning the frightened man who has his back to her. He surreptitiously turns to look. When he turns to face me again the colour has drained from his face.
Satisfied that she has cowed us into acquiescence, the woman sits back down sporting a smug grin. I smile as I imagine I can hear her chair groan in protest, but quickly stifle it. It wouldn’t do to look happy. She’d jump all over it in an instant. Nip it in the bud before it spread.
A pretty, young girl in a loose fitting and unflattering two-piece blue uniform comes marching purposefully down the corridor and without looking up from the clipboard she is carrying, calls out a name. It’s not mine. I breathe a sigh of relief as the man opposite me gets slowly up. His wife clings to his hand reluctant to let go, testing clipboard girl’s patience. The ogre behind the desk starts to once again ease her bulk out of the chair, perhaps sensing trouble.
The man smiles at his wife and gently pries open her fingers. Then after gently ruffling the hair of his son, he follows clipboard girl down the corridor without looking back. I try to smile reassuringly at his wife, but I can tell that my gesture is in vain. She knows what awaits him. What awaits us all. I admire her fortitude. When my turn comes, I hope I meet it with as much courage and dignity as her husband just did.
As if sensing her mother’s anguish, the young girl climbs onto her mother’s lap grasping a book she has picked up from the floor and asks her to read to her. Reluctantly the mother begins to read a story about a frog which couldn’t jump. Her voice is thick, laden with emotion, though her daughter doesn’t seem to notice. We all listen; it is something to pass the time and distract us. The woman behind the desk glares at the young mother, irked by this unexpected disturbance. Any louder and the mother will draw a swift and pitiless rebuke from the overseer.
Time drags. There aren’t many of us left. After the third reading of the story, much to everyone’s unspoken relief, the young girl finally gets bored and resumes her place on the floor next to her brother who is still playing with his action figure. Lost in his own fantasy world populated by superheroes and power-hungry villains, he is oblivious to what is going on around him.
Soon it’ll be my turn.
Some of those called have met their fate with courage. Others not so much. One man tried to run but didn’t get far. His wife caught him and persuaded him to come back. Perhaps she shamed him into staying, I don’t know. She was heavily pregnant and couldn’t run. No chivalry there, just a self-preservation instinct. Shamefaced, he had accompanied clipboard girl down the corridor unable to look any of us in the eye leaving his wife to face the looks of pity and understanding.
I turn and look at the heavily populated fish tank to my right, the occasional burst of air bubbles the only noise. After a few seconds one of the larger fish, an orange one with a thick black stripe encased within two narrower white stripes, approaches the side of the tank and seems to stare out at me. He is as much a prisoner here as I. How many people has he witnessed taken down that corridor of dread I wonder?
The sound of soft footsteps on the laminate flooring catches my attention. Clipboard girl has returned. I avert my eyes as she calls out a name. No one moves.
My nerve gives and I look up and find that from behind her desk, the fearsome woman is staring directly at me. Clipboard girl speaks again and this time I hear my name slowly enunciated. I reluctantly get to my feet.
Praying that my trembling legs will support me, I follow clipboard girl down the corridor towards the sounds of torture and pain.
Halfway along the corridor I pass the mother and young girl from earlier. The girl looks up at me with tear-filled eyes. Her face appears swollen and she is clearly in discomfort. My heart breaks at the cruelty and pain they have inflicted upon her. I vow to go down fighting. I won’t make it easy for them.
Clipboard girl stops and extends her arm, inviting me to enter an open door, as if I have a choice. I take a deep breath, swallow nervously and enter.
Inside, another girl dressed in a similar uniform as clipboard girl, turns and smiles warmly, momentarily unsettling me. It must be some sort of psychological ploy to make their victims more malleable. Good cop bad cop.
She takes my coat and gestures towards a black leather reclining chair. Still smiling she tells me to take a seat and that the dentist will be with me shortly.
Nodding timidly, I do as I’m told and settle down to await my fate.
© Jeff Jones
Winning Story: Contest #2
The following stories are the Outright Winning Entries for the Monthly Short Story Contest
March 2020 onwards