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This was originally a short story for my English class. It does contain violence, although I've tried to tone it down. All the same, if you're not one for violence, I'd recommend not reading this.
You are sitting in a chair, hands bound behind you. You’re aware of everything, from the beads of sweat running down your face to the blood coursing through your veins, aiding by a rapidly beating heart. You are aware of the twelve men next to you, aware of one of them praying quietly beside you, aware of your captors staring impassively at you like Judgment Day has come and they’re about to cast you into fire.
Above all things, you’re aware of the instinct in every living organism: to fight for life, to struggle and claw for it and hold on with every fiber of your being, because you’re dangling off the cliff. You’re right above the abyss. You can’t let go, you won’t let go. You’ll fight with everything you have and even if they push you to the brink, you will say nothing.
You stare at them. They stare at you. You’re at their mercy, but they’re at yours too- they need you and what you know. It’s not a comforting thought but it does guarantee that they can’t hurt you to the point where you can’t respond.
A man walks into the room and even your captors grow still. He looks at each of your compatriots, the same way a cobra pins its prey with its gaze before it strikes. Your enemy nods to the man three chairs away from you and your captors untie him. They take him away. You don’t know how long he was gone, but when he returns, you let out a small, strangled cry- bruises are starting form in a sickening spectrum of colors all over his body, dried blood is crusted around his nose and mouth, and he cannot walk without help. He looks broken but the defiance in his eyes is clear: he didn’t talk.
You see the pain he’s in. You know it’s only the beginning.
He is the one who chose the man in the chair. He is the one who watched as that man was beaten. Tell me what you know, he said. Tell me everything. He stared the man down, looking into wide eyes for any signs of lies or deceptions. It doesn’t surprise him that every word the man said was a lie.
Lies lead to truth eventually. It’s just a matter of chipping away at that resistance.
There are many ways to coerce someone. The simplest, of course, is to beat it out of someone. But he knows that beatings are a blunt tool, and to penetrate a web of deceit, sometimes a scalpel is needed. He is a surgeon. He can dissect their words and their behavior, he can find their fears, and he can use anything he finds with utmost precision. He is never the one inflicting pain but he’s the one they fear most.
He walks back out to face the thirteen men. Silent, all of them, the one he spoke to not even daring to move. He scans their faces. There is terror on every one, but the sparks of defiance are still there, a fire for him to smother. That one, he thinks, looking at a man staring at the ground. Yes. Him. His men grab the unlucky one.
Now. Pain threshold always makes this complicated. Not enough pain and the interrogator will be met with scorn and no answers, but too much and the interrogator will be met with an unconscious man and still no answers. But he’s had practice.
Five of your compatriots have been taken by your enemy. They have not come back. But if they had been broken, your enemy would not continue. He would simply kill you and the other twelve. So once more you have the satisfaction that your captors are at your mercy as much as you are at theirs. They need you alive and you’d like to remain alive.
Of course, the one downside is that they need you alive, not healthy or comfortable. So when your enemy comes for you, you struggle. You kick and you swear and you make it as hard as possible for his men to take you, but one man versus six turns out to be odds that you can’t beat. Who expects them to play fair?
By the time you reach the room, your ears are already ringing and there’s blood in your mouth. Your enemy’s men are not fond of those who struggle.
The room is dark and the captors are shades that dart around you. The only constants are you and the man across from you. Both you and he sit- him voluntarily, you shoved into the chair and tied to it. All but one of the captors leave; the remaining one stands in the corner, out of your view.
Your enemy just watches you for a minute, and something about the way he’s looking at you makes a shiver travel down your spine. He smiles slightly, noticing it.
“Comfortable?” asks your enemy, and you’re surprised that he knows your language at all.
You say nothing. You will say nothing. This man cannot do anything that will make you betray everything you care for.
“I hope we can avoid the… unpleasantries I’ve had with your comrades. As you’ve likely noticed, they weren’t willing to answer my questions. I’d hate to have to do this all over again.”
You say nothing. You will say nothing. This man cannot do anything that will make you betray everything you care for.
Your enemy sighs. “I see. Fighter to the end.” He nods to the man in the corner, and then it all begins.
You can’t move. Your arms are trapped at your sides and you can feel your own breath hitting your face. It’s impossible to slouch, let alone sit. And you’ve been like this for minutes, hours, days, weeks- who knows? It’s almost a relief when they interrogate you, even if they beat you or douse you in icy water and leave you shivering on the ground. At least you’re free of this… room, if it can be called that.
Five times you’ve been taken out. The first time, you were slammed against a wall. The second time, it was a conversation that lasted a few minutes. The third time, it lasted for hours. The fourth time, you were left trembling from the cold. And the fifth… the fifth time…
Your head is still pounding- the back of your skull hits the metal of the chair as you fall- and the metallic tang of blood is still in your mouth. A fist connecting with your cheek, a strangled cry escaping from your lips. It was an eternity and it was brief and it was everything in between. “I will bring you to the very edge of your limits,” your enemy promises. Dried blood is crusted over your lips, your nose, and your left ear. A crackling pain as the palm of a hand is thrust into your nose. Bruises mottle your chest, your arms, and your legs. A boot striking your ribs, your breath fleeing at the impact. And the memory of a vow echoes in your mind: “I will break you.”
And for the first time in years, you cry.
People have many, many differences from one another. Yet it’s surprising that with almost eight billion of them all, they have similar fears. The dark. Tight spaces. Pain. All things he likes to incorporate in his procedures. Already, one of his prisoners has tried to end his own life by bashing his head against the wall of the narrow confines. Fruitlessly, of course, but that just means that they’re close to breaking. He has a high rate of success when it comes to destroying a man’s defenses. This time will be no different.
You have lost track of time. Maybe it’s been hours. Maybe it’s been days. You don’t know, and what’s more, you’re not sure you care. All you have to go by are the screams- they come frequently enough. They’re a very chilling form of clockwork.
If it’s possible, you both dread and anticipate the time when they come to you. Dread for the obvious reasons: if the last visit wasn’t an indicator, then the screams definitely are. Anticipation for the less obvious reasons: you sit and you wait, you sit and you wait, you listen to the screams, and all you can think is, I’m next, I’m next, I’m next. You just want it done. Let them hurt you. Let them kill you. Just let it end.
When he comes again, your enemy interrupts you mid-prayer. He sits across from you at a table, leaning back casually in his chair, both of you looking each other dead in the eye. No one can turn brown into a cold color like he can, and to your embarrassment and anger, you look away first.
“You know how this works.” Concise, almost lazy. “I’m sure you’ve been hearing it through the walls.”
Your fists clench, nails digging into your palms.
“The others begged for it to stop. They’d do anything, they said, if the pain would just stop. Now, most of them broke that promise. But a few… they were very helpful. Tell me about your operation in Tal Afar.”
The blood turns to liquid nitrogen in your veins. They talked. They talked. They talked. But he doesn’t know everything, he can’t- he wouldn’t be talking to you if he knew everything. For that, at least, you can be grateful, even if your heart is still slamming against your bruised ribs.
“I won’t tell you anything,” you breathe. “I won’t.”
He smiles crookedly. “They all said the same thing.”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“You will,” he says, “by the time I’m done with you.”
You’re back in that room. You’re shaking and sobbing, heaving chest touching the wall as you breathe in and out. You can feel the blood drying on your skin, feel where it still oozes in some places. The men- you don’t know what they were saying, but they were amused. They hit you again and again just to hear you yelp like a dog, beat you raw until there was nothing left of your back but a bloody slab of flesh. Just feeling the air against your skin stings.
Tell me, he said. I can make this end. But you have to tell me.
You begged, you pleaded, and you felt the words rise to your lips: I’ll talk now, I will, just make it stop.
There is a stark difference between defiant men and broken men. He can tell by their eyes, their postures, their words, and their expressions. A defiant man will have righteous anger and bold confidence stamped on their features; a broken man looks resigned to his fate. His captive is close to breaking. So many days trapped in the dark with only pain for company makes for an efficient way to extract information.
The other prisoners are in similar positions: either brave to the end or ready to shatter. He knows that even the most courageous of them can be ruined, but it’s simpler to focus on the ones on the brink. And so he watches, the cogs of his mind turning, turning, turning as he devises a new strategy. The prisoner he’s observing now is shouting, screaming- Anything else, they yell. Anyone else.
When they take you from the cramped little space, you are dragged to the same room with the table and chairs. As usual, one is occupied by your enemy. But unlike the other times, the remaining chair is not meant for you. One of your compatriots is sitting there instead, eyes wide with fear. Your heart rate speeds up.
When your enemy speaks, it’s not to you. “You have a choice,” he says. “We can focus on you today, or we can focus on him. Either way, I’ll get what I want.”
Your compatriot says nothing. He just stares.
“My choice, then.” Your enemy turns to you, leans forward. “Remember when I told you that some of them would do anything to make the pain stop?”
And for the seventh time, his men fall on you like savage dogs tearing at a wounded deer. You writhe on the floor, twisting to evade their boots and their fists. But no matter which way you turn, you are vulnerable. Your ribs, your stomach, your shins, the base of your spine- you feel as though you are about to fracture into a million pieces. And what hurts most, what really drives a dagger into your heart, are the two men watching it all. One sits, calm and impassive like the devil observing his realm. The other is, like you, a man. A man who sees his brother suffering and says not a word.
Through the pain, you wonder which is worse.
At some point, no matter how much someone cares for another, the pain and fear will get to them. His prisoners aren’t family or lovers, but betrayal will hurt regardless. He saw the betrayed look on his captive’s face- shock first, then desperation and anger, then rage.
Some men end up feeling despondent, some keep their fury. He hopes for the latter. A despairing man is more likely to retreat into the shelter of his mind, where nothing matters, not pain or fear or desperation. An enraged man looks for revenge. Well, maybe his captive is in luck.
Through this whole ordeal, you’ve learned something powerful: the cramped room, the icy water, and the beatings are nothing. There is no pain that comes from those that can even begin to rival the knife in the back from the man who was like a brother to you. The guilt on his face doesn’t matter. He didn’t try to stop it; he just let it happen. You would have protected him. You would have done anything to save him. Your heart is pounding, but this time it’s not because you’re afraid.
A laugh snaps you out of your thoughts. He’s there, your enemy, standing alone in front of the door. He walks toward you, pulling out the chair and sitting down in one fluid movement.
For a moment, he does nothing but look at you. Then: “It hurts, doesn’t it? Not the physical wounds, but the selfishness. Choosing himself over you.”
You’re silent. Saying nothing, thinking nothing, trying to feel nothing. Failing.
“Tal Afar,” he says. “Tell me.”
“You’re protecting them. Why? They’ve hardly done the same for you.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand. You have no honor.” The words are meant to be passionate, insolent- your voice is as dull as lead.
“Honor has no place in war. Do you really think that your own leaders are any better than me? They’ve abandoned you to us. No one’s looking for you. At least I would try to rescue my men.”
“These walls aren’t soundproof. Have you heard anyone apart from my men and your comrades?”
“They’re looking for us.”
“Then they would have found you already.”
Everything he’s saying is true. You know it, you just don’t want to believe it. But there have been no rescue attempts. No one has come for you. There’s only you, your agony, and the man across from you.
“No one’s looking for you,” he says, almost gently, “and no one cares. One of the people you rely on to safeguard your life watched you bleed just to spare himself. The others told me about the operation for the same reason. They all betrayed you. At this point, only I can make your pain end.”
Tears sting the backs of your eyes. A sob rises in your chest. And you tell him everything.
“It’s time,” says your enemy. “Any last requests?”
You swallow hard, but your voice is even as you say, “I’d like to see the sky. One last time.”
He nods and tells his men to release you. You stand and are escorted outside. The sky is dark and there’s a lump in your throat as you look up at the stars. You’ll never see the sun again, but something about the calm of the night helps put you at ease. You kneel in the sand, close your eyes, and pray. When you’re done, you rise.
Your enemy sets his hand on your shoulder. “On behalf of the United States, thank you for the truth.”