Chapter Twenty-One

I CAN'T STAND MUCH more of this. It must be hours since Mallon left me. Can't smell the food anymore, but I know it's still there, and I want it. My guts feel like they're somersaulting one minute and being ripped open the next. The pain's unbearable, almost like my body's eating itself from the inside out. I try to put the hunger out of my mind, but frustration takes its place. The frustration turns into confusion; then the confusion turns into fear. The fear makes my aching shoulders, arms, and legs feel a thousand times worse. I try to lie still, but even the slightest movement is agony.

What the hell was that? Something's moving over me. It feels like there are insects crawling over my itching leg. Maybe there are? I haven't looked at my legs since I woke up strapped to this bed. Who's to say that itch isn't an open, untreated wound? Who's to say I haven't got some kind of infection, that there aren't maggots and worms and Christ knows what else feeding on my flesh? I can feel them wriggling and squirming inside the cut, digging deep into me, boring through my skin.

Then it stops again.

Am I just imagining things? Or was it something bigger? A mouse or a rat?

The dripping is the only distraction. It's constant now, almost like machine-gun fire, and it never fucking stops.

I could end this. All I have to do is talk, he said. Just give him that one small victory and I'll have some light and food and water. Christ, I need to drink something so badly...

I open my mouth to shout for help, then stop myself. What the hell am I thinking? Have I forgotten what Joseph Mallon is and what his people did (and are still doing) to my kind? They're the reason all of this happened. If it wasn't for them we wouldn't have had to kill and my family would still be together. We had to kill them for protection. This whole war has been fought in self-defense... that's the only reason. They made us do it. And to think, I was about to beg one of them for mercy... Christ, what kind of a person would that make me? I'd be pissing on the memory of all those who've already died in the fighting.

But why not?

Why shouldn't I talk?

No one's going to know, and what are my options? Do I lie here and starve to death or swallow my pride and cooperate?

No... no way... they almost had me then. That's exactly what they want me to think. They're trying to get me to crack under pressure and submit. Why should I? I'm stronger than all of them. I'll outsmart them and outlast them. I'll break them, not the other way around. When all of this is done, they'll be the ones lying broken on the ground, not me. I'll be standing over them, their blood on my hands.

Except right now I can't stand up. Right now I can't move. Right now I can't do anything without that fucker Mallon's say-so. For Christ's sake, I'm lying in a bed of my own filth, and I can hardly think straight. I don't know what time of day it is, where I am, who's holding me here... and none of that's going to change unless someone gives way. They've got nothing to lose. Unless Mallon gets some twisted kick out of doing this, if I die it's just one less of us for them to worry about. But what really happens if I keep refusing to cooperate and fade away to nothing in the endless darkness here? I'll never see Ellis again. Chances are I won't find her anyway, but the fact of the matter is I'll definitely never see her as long as I'm locked up in here.

And I need to eat and drink. The hunger hurts.

Going to do it.

I clear my throat, then stop myself.

More indecision.

Bottom line-what use am I to Ellis like this?

Someone has to give way.

I try to shout, but my voice is hoarse and hardly any sound comes out, just a pathetic, strangled whine. For a second I'm relieved; then I tell myself I have to do it. But now I can't even build up enough spit in my mouth to make a decent noise. Frustrated, I try again, this time a little louder. I manage something that's half a word and half a cough and immediately wish I hadn't. I feel like a traitor, colluding with the enemy. Maybe that's it? Could this place be run by Chris Ankin's people? Are they testing my loyalty?

I wait and listen hopefully. Over the dripping of water I can hear distant fighting, the occasional burst of gunfire and shelling, a jet scorching through the sky. But the rest of this building is silent, quieter than ever. Am I on my own here? For all I know this might be the last occupied room in a crumbling ruin. Joseph Mallon might be long gone...

One more shout, this time so loud it feels like it's ripping the inside of my throat apart.

I lie back on the bed, freezing cold, smelling of piss and feeling pathetic. Am I really stupid, naive, and desperate enough to believe that Mallon's going to come back and feed me?! I yell again, this time more in frustration than anything else, then stop. Did I just hear something? It's so quiet and faint that I convince myself I'm imagining it. No, there it is again... the definite sound of approaching footsteps. I feel relief and fear in equal measure.

Joseph Mallon marches into the room, carrying a flashlight. He shines the light into my face.

"Did you say something?"

I'm immediately gagged by my emotions again, too angry and full of hate to respond. He waves the light toward the food on the chair. It's cold now, but I still want it. The light makes the water look sparkling, clear, and pure. He walks up to the window behind me, looks outside for a second, then turns around and shines the flashlight back at me again.

"I thought I heard you say something?"

Still can't speak. The words are stuck in my throat, choking me. It's like the strap across my forehead has slipped down across my windpipe, stopping me from speaking. I want to, but I can't...

"My mistake," Mallon sighs. "Sorry to have disturbed you."

He steps back out through the door.

"Don't..."

My voice stops him. He turns back around to face me. The weak yellow light from the flashlight makes him look old beyond his years and tired, but slowly his expression changes from a scowl to a smile, which becomes a broad grin.

"Good man! I knew you'd do it!"

He doesn't say anything else. He doesn't try to get me to talk like I thought he would. He doesn't try more of his stupid mind games. Instead he just picks up the plastic bottle of water and squirts it into my mouth. It tastes so good... stale and warm but refreshing. I swallow and feel it running down the sides of my throat. Thank God...

The bottle empty, Mallon does the same with the cold soup, ladling several spoonfuls into my mouth. I almost gag on its cold and lumpy, gristly texture, but I force it down, knowing that every mouthful helps replace the nutrients and energy I've lost since being held here. As I finish eating he loosens the chains on my wrists slightly. They're still attached to the bed, but at least now I have some limited freedom of movement. The relief I feel when I finally move my shoulders and arms is indescribable.

"Didn't hurt, did it?" He grins before he leaves and locks the door.

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