Chapter Twenty-Two

I OPEN MY EYES again, and this time the narrow room is full of long shadows. Rain is hammering against the window, and the water in the corner is trickling constantly now, no longer just dripping. I tilt my head back as far as it will go and see that the board over the glass has been moved. Mallon must have done it when he was last here. It's only been shifted slightly, but it's enough to let dull shards of light slope across the opposite wall, stretching almost halfway from the window over to the lopsided crucifix. I must have been asleep.

Wish I'd never spoken. Feel like a traitor, like I've betrayed myself and my kind, like I'm somehow now less of a man because I spoke to Mallon. But if I hadn't done it I'd probably still be in total darkness with my ankles and wrists bound tight and my stomach still empty. I tell myself that I didn't give anything away (not that I have anything to tell) and I haven't compromised anyone but myself. It's survival of the fittest now, and if I stay stuck here like this I'll be fucked when the next fight begins. And there will be another fight...

I can hear something happening outside, someone moving on the other side of the door. Suddenly it's unlocked and thrown open and Mallon barges in, the loud noise startling me. I curse myself for not concentrating and realizing he was close. Can't afford to let my guard down like that. Lying here I'm vulnerable and exposed. If he decides to turn on me I'm dead.

He puts a fresh bottle of water down on the chair, then locks the door.

"How are you this morning, Danny?"

I won't answer. He leans over me and looks into my face. Instinctively I try to attack, forgetting the chains that still hold me down. My arms are yanked back down, my already aching shoulders feeling like they've been pulled out of their sockets. Mallon, standing a little farther back, is unfazed. Fucker. I want to see fear and hate on his face, but there's nothing. More games. More fucking games.

"Let's get some proper light in here so we can see each other," he says, walking over to the window. He moves the board completely, and for the first time I can properly see every corner of the small rectangular room I've been held captive in. It's grubby and well used, with dirty handprints all over the door like someone's been hammering to get out. And the walls are pink, for Christ's sake! Christ knows what this place really is. I know it's not a prison (there are no bars on the window), but this room is definitely a cell.

Watching me with caution, Mallon crouches down at the side of the bed and reaches underneath it. He's pulling on the chains, probably tightening them again. He gets up and moves away, and I find that I can now move my left hand with a little more freedom than before. He tosses me the water. I'm just barely able to catch it, open the lid with my teeth, hold it to my lips, and drain it dry. I crush the empty bottle and throw it back at him with a flick of my still-restricted wrist. Smug bastard just smiles.

Mallon moves the chair marginally closer, carefully positioning it as if there's a specific mark on the floor at the point where he's safe. He sits down and looks long and hard into my face. I hold his gaze, determined I won't be the first one to break. He makes it easy for me when he's the one who looks away.

"You've been here for almost two days now, Danny," he says, "and you haven't had any answers to those questions of yours, have you? I'm also betting that if you're anything like the rest of your people I've gone through this with, you're probably not ready to start asking yet. In fact, if I was to loosen your chains just a little bit more, I know you'd try to get off that bed and kill me."

Damn right. There's nothing I want to do more than wrap these chains around his windpipe and choke the life out of this vile, pathetic bastard. But I know it's not going to happen. Not yet, anyway.

"Now what I want this morning," he continues, his voice low and infuriatingly calm, "is just for you to lie still and listen to me. I want to tell you my story. It won't be anything you haven't heard a hundred times already. Well, maybe you won't have heard a story like this, but I'm betting you've seen plenty of similar things. Hell, I'm sure you've done worse things yourself than what I'm going to tell you. You see, Danny, you and your kind ripped a hole in my life. I lost everything because of you. You tore my world apart."

What the hell's he expecting from me? Pity? An apology? It makes me feel good to know that we've made him suffer, and I want to hear more. I want every detail. I want to know exactly how we hurt him and what we did.

"Picture the scene, Danny," he begins, his voice almost too calm. "It's a Friday night, and I've just got home from work. I won't bore you with the details about where I lived and what I used to do for a living before all this because, if I'm being honest, it was boring. Thing is, it was my life and my routine and I was happy with it. And you and your kind took it all away from me."

He remains composed, but I sense raw emotion bubbling just under the surface. Is he going to crack? I want to see this bastard's pain, want to see him hurt. He stops speaking, closes his eyes, takes a breath, and then continues.

"It was pretty early on, I suppose. You remember what it was like in the early days when we thought there wasn't really a problem and that the streets were full of copycat vigilantes fighting just because everyone else was? Before we knew that people like you were actually changing? Back in the days before we all got too scared to even look at each other? Remember?"

He automatically looks at me for a response, but he doesn't get one.

"Anyway, like I said, it was a Friday night. We'd just finished eating, and I was watching the news on TV, hearing about how bad everything was starting to get. My wife was in the kitchen, arguing with Keisha, our seventeen-year-old, about going out. She was going through the whole protective mother routine, you know? Telling her how she didn't like her going into town on weekends anyway, but especially not then with all the trouble going on... you get the picture. Now I'm sitting there with my feet up, trying to block out the noise and concentrate on the TV, but it's getting louder and louder in there. Keisha's shouting at Jess, Jess is shouting at Keisha, then Keisha's shouting back again, and I'm just staring at the screen, wishing they'd both shut up..."

His voice trails off again, and in the sudden silence I remember all the TV and kid-oriented arguments that used to grind me down in my dead-end former life. I check myself quickly. Am I identifying with this fucker? Maybe that's what he wants? This is probably just more calculated bullshit to try to get me on his side.

"The shouting gets louder and louder," he says, "and I hear the back door swing open, then slam shut. I think that's it, that Keisha's stormed out, but then I realize I can still hear both their voices. Then I hear a crash and one of them starts screaming, then a thump and another crash. And then all the screaming stops."

He looks straight at me. There are tears rolling down his cheeks. He wipes them away with his sleeve.

"I get up and start walking toward the kitchen, and there's this guy just standing there in the middle of the room with his back to me, both my girls lying at his feet. I know they're dead as soon as I see them. He's got a baseball bat in his hand, and there's blood dripping off the end of it. I can only see Keisha's legs, but Jess is lying on her back, her head just a yard or so from where I'm standing, and her face... Christ, there's nothing left of it, like her whole skull's been caved in. Just a dark, bloody hole where that beautiful face used to be...

"Now our house was just a small, modest place-narrow, middle of the block, you know the type? I start backing away from the kitchen, praying the killer's not gonna see me. I'm halfway across the living room when he starts to move. We had a closet under the stairs with one of those slatted louver doors. I drop down to my hands and knees, crawl behind the sofa to the closet, then shut myself inside. And the worst thing is, when I get in there I've still got a clear view of everything. I see the man step over my wife's body and walk into the living room. Bastard was crying like a baby. I can't even remember what he looked like now. I just remember him wailing and sobbing like it was him that had just found his family dead. I reckon the Change had just hit him, you know? It was like he was regretting what he'd done, like he was trying to work out what he was and come to terms with it. Tell me, Danny, was it like that for you?"

I think about the nervous panic and confusion I felt immediately after killing Harry, but I don't tell him. Mallon wipes his eyes again and continues.

"Anyway, after a while he started to calm down. He sat down in my seat like he owned the place and watched my TV. Even helped himself to a couple cans of my beer from the fridge. He stayed there for hours, and I stayed shut in the closet, just like you're stuck in here now. Except you don't have to look at the battered bodies of the people you loved most in the world, do you?"

A trace of bitterness has crept into his voice, but I still don't react. I'm just wondering how long this pathetic sob story's going to go on.

"Eventually he just got up and left. Didn't even look around the rest of the house. He just upped and went, and I didn't have the balls to stop him or try and fight back. I wanted to stay there with my family, but I couldn't, not when I saw what he'd done to them both."

If they were Unchanged, they had to die. Simple as that. I'm on the verge of telling him as much when he starts speaking again.

"Like I said," he continues, a little more composed now, "it's nothing you haven't heard before. But after it happened I decided your kind wasn't going to get away with it, and I went out looking for revenge. Hard to believe when you look at me, but I went out onto the streets, looking for trouble. Wasn't long before I realized it wasn't working. Got myself mixed up in all kinds of nasty business. I never killed anyone, but I came close to dying a few times... You can imagine what it was like. I latched on to a group of vigilantes. A couple of times things got really bad, and you know why? Because people thought we were like you! They saw us trying to take a stand and fight back, and they thought we were the Haters! And then after a couple of weeks I stopped and took a step back from it all and I realized they were right. There was hardly any difference between us and people like you. And I thought about the man who killed my girls and how he cried, and I understood. He didn't want to kill them, he thought he had to do it."

Joseph gets up from his seat and crosses over to the window, making sure he stays well out of my limited reach. He stands on tiptoes and looks down.

"And that leads me to the main part of my sermon this morning." He grins. "Pay attention, Danny, you need to listen carefully to this! You see, when I stopped trying to fight, life started to get better again. That might sound like bullshit to you, but it's true. I was already resigned to the fact that things were never going to be easy again and that nothing I could do would bring Jess and Keisha back, but I realized that revenge wasn't the answer. You can't fight fire with fire, you know what I'm saying?"

He moves away from the window and paces the length of the short room.

"Then I found the people here, people who'd all reached the same conclusion as me. And I realized that it doesn't matter what made any of this happen, all that's important now is putting a stop to it before it's too late. So that's what we're doing. We're trying to end the cycle. I think of us like a firebreak, you know what I mean? When they're trying to stop a forest fire spreading, they sometimes burn a strip of land farther ahead. Then, when the fire finally reaches it, there's nothing left to burn and it dies out. We're like that. We've all done our share of fighting. Our battles have been fought. So when people like you reach us with your hate, there's nothing left to burn. We're putting the fire out. Stopping things from getting any worse."

He sits down again and stares straight at me. What's he thinking? Does he actually believe any of the crap he's just been spouting? I look back into his dark brown eyes, and all I can think is that I want him dead like I've wanted all the rest of them dead. But there is a slight difference here. All the others I've killed looked back at me with hate in their eyes, but not Mallon. There is something different about him. Is there any truth in any of what he's just said, or is it total bullshit? Is he just preying on me? Wearing me down and fucking with my mind before he goes in for the kill? He's probably trying to catch me off guard. As soon as I lower my defenses, he'll attack.

He starts speaking again.

"Doesn't matter who you are or what side you're on, everybody is conditioned to react to the hate in the same way. It's all about self-preservation at the expense of everyone and everything else. Everybody fights. Everybody wants to survive. That's why everything fell apart so quickly-at the first sign of trouble we all turned on each other to protect ourselves. And despite all the noise and bullshit that was thrown around at the start, do you know which side was worst of all?"

Instinctively I shake my head, still held down by the wide strap.

"We were," he says, answering his own question. "And we still are. Did you see anything of the massacres we carried out? Gas chambers, for crying out loud! We spend years educating generation after generation about the Holocaust and how we can't ever let it happen again. Then, when it suits us and we're the ones facing the threat, we forget everything we've always believed in and resort to genocide. Thousands upon thousands of men, women and children slaughtered... I tell you, Danny, it makes me feel ashamed to be human."

Christ, could there actually be some substance to what this guy's saying? Don't be stupid, I tell myself, he's Unchanged. In the sudden silence I try to concentrate on the dripping water in the corner again, doing all I can not to let myself get suckered in by Mallon and his mind games.

"Question for you," he suddenly announces. "What's going to happen if we just let things run their course?"

He waits expectantly for an answer, knowing full well I won't give him one. More to the point, I can't. The future is something I've only dared to think about in my quietest, darkest moments. Until recently the virtually constant adrenaline rush of fight after fight after fight has been enough of a distraction. Surviving today has been more important than thinking about tomorrow.

"What happens if we don't break the cycle? Where's this all going to end? If I trusted you enough to take off your chains and let you walk outside, all you'd see would be rubble and ruin. We're not safe here-no one is anymore-but we're in a better position than most. The world's falling apart, but the people here are getting stronger. We've been sifting through the debris looking for people like you, Danny, to rehabilitate. We're going to form that firebreak and stop the pain and hate from spreading."

He gets up quickly, as if he's just remembered he's supposed to be somewhere else. He moves closer to the bed as he pushes the chair back, and his sudden proximity makes me react. I quickly reach out for him with my left hand, but the chain snaps my wrist back when it reaches full stretch. Mallon doesn't flinch, but I can see him watching me over his shoulder. He did that on purpose to see if I'd bite. I watch him intently as he moves toward the door and try to maintain my aggression. I've been forgetting myself.

"That's enough for now. I might bring you some more food and water in a while. Until then, just try to relax. Build your strength up. You'll need it later."

What the hell did he mean by that? He quickly crosses the room again and replaces the board over the window. The impenetrable blackness returns. Can't stand it like this. Don't leave me in the dark again, please. He stands in the doorway, looking at me, waiting for a reaction. He starts to close the door.

"Wait-" I say, surprising myself with the sound of my own voice, but it's too late. The door's shut and Mallon's gone and all I can hear is the dripping in the corner.

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