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The cell was cold.
It was always so, but as she stared sullenly out from behind her long bangs she wondered whether it was the darkness that seemed to bring with it yet another surge of icy misery. With a shudder, she buried her face farther beyond her crossed arms until she felt her knees press painfully against her closed eyes—but the attempt was in vain; however much she wished it would bring her some shred of warmth, nothing came but the sound of a turning key—of a creaking door.
The faintest sliver of light spilled across the stone, dancing upon every shadow of rust—every stain of the filth that had gathered there over the decades—and she curled deeper into the corner of the cell with her face contorted against the blinding glare. “It’s nighttime,” she muttered in a voice hoarse from disuse. Indeed, the window that cut through the thick stone so high above her allowed the moonlight to stream through the glass crusted with dirt and soil, and on even the foggiest of nights she could not sleep; on the rare occasion that the moon and stars chose to hide behind their veil of gloom, it was the blazing lights of Chengdu that took their place.
“I know that, funnily enough.” The low grunt was one that she vaguely recognized, and she lifted her head to stare blankly up at the silhouette of a man now standing before her with his face consumed in darkness. Even so, she could see that his large hands were empty as they pushed the iron grill farther against the wall.
“Then you’re not here for food?” she asked quietly, and she felt her muscles tremble in protest as she lowered her feet from the bench to the cold stone floor. Strewn about her were the skeletons of trays and food untouched that had gathered there over the endless days and nights of restless terror. She studied the man critically from the stretch of molding wood, as though examining his shadowed eyes for some hint of falsehood.
“It seems you already have a collection started.” His tone was not humorous, but it was not cold either—and as she gazed wordlessly up at him she wondered whether the guard had ever met human emotion at all. Before she could open her mouth to respond, however, he pushed the door back until it met the adjacent wall to let another stream of stale light filter through. “You’re to come with me.”
She felt her eyes narrow in caution as she murmured, “Why?” But her only answer was an indifferent shrug, and with an attempt at absent grace she rose to her feet and staggered awkwardly toward the entrance. It was only when she reached the boundary of iron spikes—of those cold, dull blades that stretched toward the ceiling far above—that she paused to look up at him once more, as though searching his face for some sign of knowledge or understanding.
It was the first time she had truly seen his features beyond the gleaming light of the jail corridors, and as she stared into his dark, slanted eyes she could not suppress a shudder; his gaze was utterly empty, devoid of life or pain—wreathed in the absence of mortality. And then the rush of fear was gone, and with a small nod in her direction she was urged onward by the man who could not feel into the light she hadn’t seen in a lifetime.
The branching cells passed by in a blur of fear and confusion as the guard led her through the winding bowels of the sleeping building. His hulking form seemed to shroud the dim corridor in darkness that went untouched by the bare, pulsing bulbs of light overhead, and she felt herself trailing ever farther behind in a futile attempt to evade it. As though he could somehow sense the growing distance between them, however, he turned to cast her a blank stare. He did not need to speak; her pace quickened until the creeping shadow spilled across her frail form once more, and she continued at his heels past the iron homes of men and women—past the echoes of every ringing accusation that had been read at her hearing so long ago…
When the sound of creaking metal met her ears she flinched and looked up from the stretch of grime and stone underfoot to find herself staring into eyes that she did not know, and for the first time in what seemed like millennia she felt the threat of a smile pull at the corners of her mouth. This was a gaze that knew kindness, that believed in mercy—and yet the man’s dark features were doused in an expression of grim defeat.
“Good evening.” The voice, at least, held some hint of emotion; it flickered with a kindling flame of promising life before being doused once more in the waves of surrounding gloom. “You seem…tired.” She scarcely noticed the absence of the guard’s empty face as she stepped forward and into the dim room.
“Who are you?” she asked in a hesitant voice.
“My name doesn’t matter,” he said softly, and as though he could feel the tumbling swells of her terror, his face split into a reassuring smile before he gestured at a lone chair just behind him. It sat in utter isolation in the center of the small chamber, a skeleton of wood and nails and misery. Even so, the sight was more alluring than that of her cell bench—but still she did not move.
She continued to study him with suspicious eyes and, after a moment of deafening silence, he shifted uncomfortably beneath her critical gaze. His voice shook as he murmured, “I’m just a doctor,” and it was with a trace of amusement that she nodded slowly and sank into the crude throne’s grasp.
“A doctor,” she repeated, and she watched him for the briefest of moments before asking tentatively, “Why are you here, then? I didn’t think the government paid for doctors of—of the accused…of criminals.” It was as though her faltering words had sparked within him some shred of understanding, for he gave an uncertain chuckle and ran a hand through his ebony hair that shone darker than even the darkness of her cell.
“I don’t deal with the accused,” he said quietly, “not even the sick ones.”
Her dry laugh was swallowed almost instantly by her pressing fear. “I’m not sick.”
“Nor are you accused.”
The echoes of his words had almost faded into silence before she seemed to wake from her trance, and after a long moment she murmured, “You know nothing.” Although an alien desire to laugh was curling somewhere deep inside her, she forced herself to give a pained grimace. “I was arrested a century ago for not paying my taxes.”
His smile was pitying, even pained. “It was scarcely a week ago, but after seeing this place I can understand your—” He stopped short before coughing nervously. “I can understand.” When she did not respond, he took a deep, shuddering breath and added, “You’re young.”
“And you’re old,” she said flatly, but he spared her not so much as a smile.
“You’re too young to be here for such a small reason.”
It was with a fruitless attempt at an indifferent shrug that she muttered, “My dad is dead. What more of a—”
“Is that it, then?” he pressed. “Is that why you’re here?”
She blinked. “Then you aren’t a reporter?”
“I told you that I am a doctor.”
“Sure, but…” She paused as though she were considering her words carefully before she finally asked in a low voice, “Are you a priest?”
His face split into a wan smile. “Why? Would you like to make a confession?”
“I don’t believe in gods.” Her tone was almost as dull as that of the guard that had led her there, but in response to her boredom the man’s smile only widened.
“Neither do I.”
“Then you aren’t a—”
“No, it doesn’t look like it.” She sat in a brooding silence for a long, lingering moment, as though waiting for him to explain himself. When he did not, she muttered grudgingly, “I thought you were here to ask about the hearing.”
“Unfortunately, no—I had no idea until it was too late,” the man said in an almost gentle voice, “although I swear I would have if I had known it was a little girl that was facing the death penalty. No one tells me anything anymore.”
“I’m eighteen,” she snapped angrily. “I’m old enough to know what’s going on.”
The doctor gazed pensively at her for a long moment with eyes that shone with sadness. “What happened, then? You’re father’s debts—you couldn’t pay them, could you?” She did not bother to answer, but merely shook her head. He gave a slow nod as he pressed on, “How did he die?”
She seemed not to want to speak at all, for it was with a note of finality that she muttered, “The same way as I’m about to. He owed too much—there was too much to cover.”
Although he seemed to fight the urge to correct her words, he swallowed and asked quietly, “And so he was killed?”
“Murdered, actually—shot by one of the guards ambling around outside the door.” She paused to take a shallow breath before adding, “For all I know, it might have been the one who brought me in here. They say it’s a quick death—merciful, even—but it’s…it’s not like I care.” His features darkened with a fresh wave of pity as she added, “He’s dead, isn’t he? And now I have to pay for it.”
And again descended a cold silence so absolute that the room itself seemed to ring with its chilling force. She pursed her lips into a thin line as she stared blankly up at the doctor, who was gazing at the stained wall behind her with unfocused eyes. “Did you know,” he said slowly, and for the briefest of moments his face seemed to glow with a glimmer of alien strength, “that hearings last for months—years, even—in some countries? In—in America they’re even fighting against it.”
“Against what?” she asked sullenly, although she could not pretend to feign interest in his meaningless attempt at hope.
“Execution.” No sooner had the single word left his mouth than the girl gave a wild laugh so sudden that the doctor took a startled step back.
“Do you honestly believe that?” she cried. “Could anyone ever be ignorant enough to think that a government would let people get away with—”
“It is inhumane.”
“Life is inhumane,” she snapped, “and this is only the beginning. We live in a world so smitten with the prospect of success and that abstract hope of power that the people—those useless stepping-stones—pass by in nothing but a blur of grime and filth. My life is nothing but a speck on a picture that’s been painted for years—for centuries on end—and the paint’s still wet.” She had risen to her shaking feet, although she could not remember doing so—and yet even as she spun around to stare down at the raw skeleton of wood and nails she did not bother to regain her composure. “All around us are—are people who care so much about what’s above them that they forget what’s still on their level—beneath them, even…that system of blind support…”
“You’ve really thought this through, haven’t you?” the doctor said in a dry voice, and she gave an almost maniacal laugh.
“If you had seen the judge’s face when he condemned me, you would understand,” she whispered. It was only then that she lowered herself resolutely into the chair once more and fixed him with a steady stare. “That’s all I am—a source of money, a number on a levy table. That’s all any of us are good for—you, as much as anyone else.”
The doctor gazed down at her with a trace of ineffable sadness before murmuring, “Perhaps, but I think I would understand. I think I understand far more than you at this moment.” He seemed to be fighting the urge to continue in a steady voice, but instead he took a deep, shuddering breath and turned slowly away from her.
It was at that moment that she seemed to drink in her surroundings—the source of the swallowing shadows that lurked all around her in phantom wisps of death. Hers was not the only chair in the room; in a far corner was another that sat occupied, and before she could pull her gaze away her eyes met those of another alien—of yet another emotionless being. His face showed no sign that it was alive at all, and if not for his shifting hands she might have thought him a ghost. His fingers were cradling an object that shone in the light of the single naked bulb above and, as she gazed blankly at it as though from another body, she saw that it was a needle.
The doctor did not look up as the second man rose from the chair and stood, motionless, in the embrace of utter darkness. “Who is he?” she heard herself whisper, and she flinched at the sound of her shaking voice. “Why does he have—”
“You’ve been acquitted,” the doctor said sharply, and the girl looked quickly up to find herself staring at the man’s grave face. “The hearing was held in your favor.”
“I—I don’t—” she stammered. “What? What are you—”
“You are free,” he said simply. “You’re to be released within the day. That paint?” He gave a halfhearted laugh that did not match his despairing eyes. “It seems it’s started to dry.”
There were so many questions unanswered—so many emotions unbidden that were now climbing within her like spiraling beams of light and life and the promise of a future—and yet the words that tumbled from her mouth were not what she had expected to hear. “Who is he, then?” She felt her head jerk toward the second man, who was now approaching her with long, slow strides. His eyes remained utterly black and empty, devoid of the compassion in those of the doctor now watching from several paces away.
It was only when her gaze fell once more upon the long, shining needle that his words seemed to reach him from far above—from beyond the surface of the waters in which she was drowning so slowly. “There are rumors of rats in the prisons. Rats, roaches, and other—other infestations.” She did not attempt to answer, but merely watched in mute astonishment as the second man drew to a stop at her side and knelt slowly down so that his bottomless eyes were at a level with her own and, despite how much she tried not to, she felt herself tumble forward into the abyss of his nonexistent feelings, of his blank, inhuman stare…
“This will not hurt,” he said in a voice as dry as his grimace.
“I—I don’t understand,” she murmured, and she turned to gaze up at the doctor to find that he had turned away and was now gazing at the wall in brooding silence. “I’m not sick, I—I told you I wasn’t. I’m not dangerous.” But she felt cold fingers grasp her jaw with alien strength, and then she was drowning once more in those pools of inky death.
“It will not hurt,” he repeated slowly. His every syllable pierced the still air and seemed to push away the rays of light, enveloping her senses in an inescapable darkness. “You must relax.”
And then she felt the smallest flicker of pain streak through her with the grace of a bird—of a soaring dove, a plummeting raven. She blinked, straining desperately to pull away from the depths of his gaze, but then the room tilted around her in a blur of dirt and gloom that seemed to stretch like fingers across her vision, her conscience, her soul…
The doctor watched as the girl’s head rolled forward onto her chest and her body sagged from the crude throne of splinters and mold. It was his colleague that caught her, and with robotic calm he lowered her to the floor strewn with the dancing shadows birthed by the single light overhead.
“Acquitted,” the man repeated dryly. “That’s a new one.” The doctor, however, did not answer for a long moment as he stared wordlessly down at her skeletal frame that stretched motionless across the dark expanse of stone.
“It will never dry.” The words escaped him before he could hold them back, but he made no move to mask the ensuing silence as the man glanced up at him.
“Nothing.” The man did not spare him so much as a glance as he lifted her limp form from the floor, and the doctor tore his gaze from her pale face to stare once more at the white walls—at the stains that seemed to shift like phantom brushstrokes upon a canvas of glistening dye.
He did not move as the door opened, bringing with it another surge of immortal gloom, and both man and girl—living and dead—vanished from sight; nor was he aware of how long he remained there, framed by the sea of white plaster—of dripping canvas—with his lips pressed into a grim line. It might have been days, years, decades—but then he saw the man reappear from the corner of his eye, and he watched as his colleague retreated wordlessly into the shadows once more. He could not bear to meet his empty gaze—those eyes that shone in the flickering darkness like pools of sin, like dying stars…
It was only then that the sound of approaching footsteps met the doctor’s ears and he closed his eyes wearily. Even so, the web of bright, interlaced strands spread across the vast expanse of his clouded vision. Try as he might, he could not force the haunting sight away.
And then the footsteps died to be replaced by a turning handle, a creaking door.
“Ah,” said the man, and his bored voice seemed to reach him from miles away—from beyond even those thick, impenetrable prison walls. “Here comes the next one.”
Note: “Acquitted” is based on vice president Jiang Xingchang’s recent statement concerning the method of China’s swelling executions for reasons of taxes, debts, and other questionable crimes. The Supreme People’s Court has declared that they are currently considering the use of lethal injections (as opposed to guns) for the murders of those on death row. Although official numbers have not been released, it is widely suspected that China has executed more people in the past decades than every country in the world combined.