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The heat was torturous. I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, and the smokiness of the air burned my throat. The sickening smell of rusted smog made it hard to hold down my weak excuse for breakfast. It tasted sour too; sour like I’d been handling coins and then licked my fingers. God, it was hot. A sickly yellow light came from the small window I could barely see out of and made the sogginess of my cell more visible. The cell was a muddy gray color all over: the walls, the floor and ceiling, the patch of moldy straw I slept on. I sat, facing the window. It was so small and so far above me I could only see one star when I looked through it at night. There were no stars tonight. The air was so thick it blanketed the entire universe in a mass of sweaty cotton.
I twitched slightly at the sound of footsteps outside. I was sure it was the others. Though I could not see my star, I knew it was the middle of the night; I guess you could call it my internal clock working. I could sense the others peering at me through the key hole in the door. I was never sure why the others were allowed to converse with each other. I didn’t mind though, they spied on me often and I preferred my solitude to the awkwardness of their attention. I wondered if they spied on each other as much as they did me. Probably not. I figured their only reason for spying was to see me in solitary. I paid them no mind and continued to wallow in the misery of the heat.
I was beyond thirst. My mouth was like a desert with no oasis for thousands of miles, but I barely noticed. I forced myself to ignore the way my tongue seemed to have turned to paste and I stared straight forward in a kind of trance at the gray corners of the wall, my face and body numb. I had no inkling as to how much time had passed when I came out of it. I awoke because of the sound of guards sliding a small cup full of water through the door. I turned and crawled stiffly across the cell to the over-turned mug. Most of the water has spilled on the floor, but there was enough left in the bottom to turn the paste to slightly dampened muck. A piece of the handle had chipped off from the guard’s careless toss. I scooped it up in my hands like I’d just found a perfect diamond and examined carefully. It was relatively small, but pointed at one end and just wide enough at the other to hold onto with two fingers. I immediately thought of the pick I used to use to play my guitar before I was captured. I buried it beneath my straw bed so no one could find it, not as if anyone ever came into my cell anyway. A piece of maggot infested, ages old bread and a cup full of water were thrown through the door once a day and that was it. They didn’t even come inside to collect the mug. When finished, I was expected to slide it back. I figured I could find a use for the broken piece later.
I looked up at the window and couldn’t see anything, let alone my star. A gray color that matched the interior of my cell filled the small hole. I could no longer tell if it was day or night. I watched the sky through the window as it slowly faded to black. I was sure it wasn’t night yet because the guard came back to collect the cup. I tossed it through the doorway and turned to the window.
I turned back toward the doorway.
“What happened to this cup?!”
“I don’t know. It was like that when you threw it to me.”
My voice sounded raspy from going so long with use. I couldn’t even remember what it sounded like before I came here, to my own personal hell.
“Like hell it was! What’d you do to it?!”
“Nothing,” I rasped. I wished he’d quit talking to me; the sound of my voice was unsettling, “Why don’t you see if one of the others broke if off?”
“Don’t you order me about!”
“I’m not,” I’m not sure what possessed me to talk so much. I’ve never been outspoken, even around those I knew rather well, “I’m just saying maybe one of them knows what happened to it.”
He came inside.
“Fine already. I was just trying to help.”
Why did I keep talking? He came at me and I was afraid he’d kill me right then. I guess I got lucky, if that’s what you can call it.
“That’s it! No water for five days!”
I tried to keep my face impassive, but my insides filled with panic. The guard left me without waiting for a response and slammed the cell door on the way out.
I looked back up at the window; the sky was black. A storm? No, I couldn’t dare to hope, but it was too late. Memories of getting caught in a summer thunder storm, the sound of rain pattering on my window in the winter, God I missed the rain, especially now that I was wasting away in this torture chamber.
I was in luck. The sound of rain broke through my daydreams. Oh beautiful rain! If only it would come through the window. I could collect it in my filthy rags and drink it over the next few days, as I was to be without water! The sound of the thunder rumbled like pounding feet on their way to freedom. I wanted that freedom more than I wanted water. I turned to face the window and noticed a crack in the wall with water seeping through. It gave me an idea.
Days. No water for three days. I thought I was thirsty before, but that was nothing compared to this. I swore the days were getting hotter as they passed. Even in the evening when I tried to distract myself by looking at my star, the heat still burned my throat, seeped beneath my closed eyelids, and scorched the insides. It felt as though my entire body was in an oven. Sweat poured from face, but evaporated before I could drink it. Dehydrated, I couldn’t even salivate over the thought of the food I used to eat. Only a small drip of water seeped through the crack in the wall. I licked it often to soak up any moisture, but to no avail.
Seeing the crack in the wall made me think of the broken piece of cup hidden under my pallet. I quickly began to scrape away at the wall. Even the smallest amount of rain made the packed sod in the wall softer. I kept my mind off water by occupying my time with scraping the sod out of the wall like dirt out of a grave. My only time of pain was at night. I couldn’t risk working while the others came to spy on me.
One particular evening I lay on my pallet with thoughts of escape fizzing around my brain. I could hardly stay still, my mind and body restless. I waited out the entire night my body tensed with anticipation. I moved my pallet so that I could look out the window and see my star. I watched it move slowly across the sky as I waited for the sun. As dawn came and the familiar nauseatingly golden hue came through the window to turn my cell to mud, I sat up, cringed with stiffness, and began my work one final time.
I had acquired a rather large pile of dirt that I shoveled into the only corner to which the sun did lend no light. Despite my suffering days without water, it was a blessing because the guards never looked into my room. The crack in the side of the wall slowly expanded from a hollow to a tunnel that was just wide enough to fit my waning body through. The tunnel went straight ahead for about five feet and then curved upward to meet the old waste chute. My cell was once the “dumping room” of the prison. I figured I would move up the chute, out the hole near the rear of the prison, and sneak out under the cover of night.
I spent the entire day working. I made sure the tunnel was wide enough all the way through and practiced climbing the chute. I was relatively confident in my plan despite the fact that I’d never had to sneak out of anywhere. I didn’t have to worry about the guards because my punishment was still going on.
Finally, my star appeared through the window. I waited until the guards were finished locking the others into their cells. When all was quiet, I crawled into the whole in the wall. I moved slowly through the tunnel careful not to make a sound. I made it all the way to the base of the cute when I heard the sound of a door close. I froze. I was sure the sound of my pounding heart would give me away. After a few seconds of silence, I made my way back to the cell with my heart slowly sinking to the pit of my stomach. I peered through the opening of my tunnel into the cell black as tar. I heard footsteps coming toward my cell and the jingle of keys. I counted out the footsteps in my head. After the steps reached fifty, I knew they were headed to my cell. I had about forty-five seconds. I pounced on the pile of dirt in the corner and began frantically tossing it by the armful into the whole. Tears began to pour from my eyes and blind me further. My heart ticked away with the seconds as they passed. I scrambled to fill the hole with the last handfuls of dirt.
As I punched the now almost solid wall of dirt as silently as possible to pack it in, I heard the final footsteps. I threw myself onto my pallet and tried to calm by breathing while I listened to the sound of the lock opening. I held my breath as the door creaked open. I jumped at the sound of something hitting the floor.
I didn’t let myself breath until the door was locked again and the footsteps died away. Anger and agonizing pain overwhelmed me. I let the tears fall uncontrollably as I thought of my almost escape.
I lay awake until my star disappeared at dawn. I stared at the disgusting golden haze that filled my cell and turned it to mud. God the heat was torturous.