Fifty years in the future…
…a rat comes out of a hole in the corner and runs across the cold concrete floor. It stops. Alan Peterson is glad to see it. He hasn’t seen the rat for a while. To him the rat means companionship. It means it’s still alive.
It means that he’s still alive.
“Where ya been?” he asks the rat, but the rat doesn’t answer. Not this time. No, instead it stands up on its hind feet and studies the man with the gray, scraggly beard.
“What’s the matter?” Alan asks. “Cat got your tongue?”
At first he doesn’t realize the little joke he’s made, but when he does he can’t help not to laugh. At least he can still laugh. Laughter is good. Especially in this dungeon or whatever it is that he’s been locked in for…how many weeks has it been? Months? He isn’t sure. All he knows is that it’s been a long time, and with no windows to see the light of day or the dark of night, there’s no way to tell anymore.
Except for the small grate in the middle of the floor that serves as his toilet, there is nothing else in this cell. No sink, no cot, no blanket. Nothing at all. He doesn’t need a blanket, anyway. The room stays the same temperature all the time.
Alan thinks about why he is here, wherever ‘here’ is. He honestly doesn’t know. Every two or three days when one of those men bring him some scraps of food and a small bottle of water and push them through the small hole at the bottom of the door, Alan asks, “Why am I here? What have I done?” But there is never an answer. Just silence.
Silence was alright. For a while, anyway. It was peaceful at first. But after a while it was maddening. After the first week? month? he found himself talking to himself more and more, and sometimes the rat talks back. Sometimes the rat tells him that he belongs here. Maybe the rat is right.
Alan doesn’t know. He doesn’t know if he wants to know.
Lately he’s started making animals to pass the time. Usually they’re just rabbits, but every so often he makes a dog or a snake, and if the mood strikes him right he makes an elephant, some even with tusks. Elephants are cool. The elephants talk, but not the rabbits or dogs or snakes. Just the elephants.
And the rat.
Before he learned to make animals, Alan would walk around the small chamber, counting each step and calling it out loud. The most he ever counted in one day? night? was twenty-four thousand, six hundred and fourteen. Thirteen miles, he figured. Not bad for an old man.
Fourteen hundred and twelve gray bricks make up this small room, except for the one in the corner that’s broken. That one is the rat’s own little ‘home’.
And there were six hundred and seventy three hairs on his left arm.
Before he pulled them all out.
He did a lot of counting. Sometimes he counted backwards. Sometimes he counted odds and evens, and once he tried to count just prime numbers, but that didn’t last very long.
One day? night? about a week? ago, the little light bulb in the ten foot high ceiling went out. It never went out. It was on twenty four/seven. Two men immediately rushed into the room, one with a flashlight, the other carrying a stepladder. One of them changed the bulb while the other one told him to stand in the corner and not look at them. The man said he had a gun, and if he tried to look, he would shoot him in the the head. Alan didn’t look, and after a couple of minutes they left.
Sometimes Alan wishes he would have looked.
God, he wished he would have looked.
Last night? day? he had a dream. He was a hundred-no-a thousand feet up in the sky, looking down at this place, wherever it is, whatever it is, and he was soaring along on the currents of a light breeze, floating in and out of the clouds, free as a bird, free to go where he wanted, whenever he wanted.
Free as a bird.
“Come check this out.”
Randy walks over to Paul’s station and looks at the monitor. “Is Peterson making his shadows again?”
“Yeah. I think he’s trying to make a bird this time. See how he’s using both of his hands? See there? See the wings and how he’s making it fly?”
Randy shakes his head. “The guy’s nuts. I wonder if he thinks he’s flying out of there,” he says with a chuckle.
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Paul answers. “Hey. Wanna have some fun? Let’s turn the light out for a few days and see how he does.”
“You’re cruel, man. Cruel.” Randy reaches in his shirt pocket, fishes out a pack of cigarettes, and lights one up. “Yeah, go ahead,” he says. “Maybe it’s for the best.”
Paul pushes a button on his console and swivels around in his chair to face his partner. “You gotta give the guy credit, though,” he says. “He’s lasted longer than anyone else has.”
Two days later the screams stop.