The door would never open.
The prisoner accepted that now.
How old was he? He couldn't be sure. Another mooring post that had drifted out of sight in this windowless cell. One thing less anchoring him to the world beyond these walls. This cell where the lights were never off and time had overrun its banks and flooded his minutes, hours, and days so that he could no longer tell where one moment ended and the next began.
Meals arrived in his sleep. Always while he slept. Sometimes he would pretend. Simply to see a human hand would be a comfort. To know there was someone on the far side of the door. He hadn't heard a sound from outside since they'd put him here. Not even when he pressed his ear to the door and strained against the silence. Not a voice. Not a cough or a prayer, a footstep or any proof of life. So he would mimic sleep like a child on Christmas morning, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone, anyone. But they always knew. How did they know when he lay so still?
Were they inside him?
The meals never varied. No breakfast or lunch or dinner. Laid out on the floor—no tray, plates, or utensils. He ate with his fingers, the same tasteless bars, processed beyond recognition, for every meal. He couldn't say he ate three times a day, because what was a day? When the food came, he ate. When it was gone, he didn't. Never hungry until the food came, and then ravenous, as if it had been a lifetime since his last meal.
No mirror—he longed to see his own face. To confirm he was still himself. Maybe they had changed that too while he slept. Were these his arms? His legs and feet? His stomach? His chest? They looked familiar but maybe only because they were all he ever saw. Was he he? If he could only see his face, he felt reasonably certain that he would know the answer. He knew the question itself was madness, but it ate at him until sleep claimed him. Blessed sleep.
This was hell, and the door would never open.
The prisoner accepted that now.
If he died, would anyone come? Would the door open at last, or was this also to be his tomb? No, the door would never open. He accepted that now.
In despair, he had run at the wall, slamming his forehead against the unforgiving cinder block. He woke on the floor in a halo of blood. His meal waited in the usual place.
The blood had long since flaked away, leaving a rust-hued outline. He found it pretty and adopted gnawing his arms until he broke the skin. Dripping blood on the floor carefully to see what shapes he could make from it. Cave paintings of himself.
When they'd put him here, he had yelled defiantly. Sworn that they would pay. That he would never break no matter what they did.
He was broken now, and they had done nothing.
His cold fluorescent sun reflected off the white walls of the cell, seeped between his fingers, through his eyes, and cast shadows on his mind.
He longed for a moment of darkness.
Afraid of what the dark might bring.
At first, he could sleep only with an arm draped over his eyes, but now nothing prevented his sleep. Sleep was all he had, and he embraced it. Waking became a hateful thing.
To survive, he retreated further and further into memory. Reliving the finest moments of his life over and over. His wedding. Kissing Nicole at the altar. Their first night together in their home. The birth of their daughter, Eleanor. Adding new chapters, rewriting the past. Unmaking his mistakes. He and Nicole were still married. Still living on Mulberry Court in their sturdy, two-story Cape Cod. He could hear Ellie playing upstairs, but she never came down, and he never went up.
Eventually he began to talk to his memories and to the people in them. Living inside them. They made good company and would sit silently while he ate, listening to him ramble on. On one level, he knew they weren't real; on another, they were all he had. Did not wanting to be alone mark you insane?
Then came the time when the memories spoke back. They took the guise of Suzanne Lombard—his Bear. She was a little girl again, before tragedy struck, as he needed her to be. She told him about the secret passage. That she could take him away. As long as his body stayed behind, the guards would never know that he had escaped. This he knew to be a dangerous precedent, but he didn't hesitate. He preferred madness to the lonely white walls.
The first night, Bear took him by the hand and led him away. She led him out through the secret passage to her family home in Pamsrest. They found a comfortable chair, and he read to her as he had when he was a boy. Nestled against his shoulder, Bear turned the pages for him.
She told him that Ellie was doing well, growing up. Healthy and happy. He asked if he could see her, but Bear shook her head and told him it wasn't possible. The prisoner wanted to argue but knew it was for the best.
Bear squeezed his hand. "You have to survive," she said. "For her."
"The door will never open," he said.
"She's all that matters now."
Bear turned the page. When she became sleepy, he folded a corner to mark their place. She took him back to his cell but promised to return soon.
The next night, the prisoner followed his father to the old diner in Charlottesville. Their Sunday-morning ritual. They sat at their regular table and ordered from a waitress who looked delighted to see them. It was the week before his father died, yet somehow his father knew everything that had happened in the years since his own funeral. When their breakfast came, his father told him why he was there.
"The man who put you here."
"Damon Washburn." The prisoner whispered the name like a prayer in an abandoned church.
"He has to pay."
The prisoner agreed but explained that the door would never open, that he'd accepted it now.
His father winked his trademark wink. "Our time will come."
The prisoner didn't believe that, but planning revenge helped to pass the intervals when sleep would not come. So together they began to strategize. Eventually it was all they ever talked about. His father had an incredibly cunning mind, and the cruelty of his plan shocked the prisoner.
His father saw it on his son's face. "I'm done with people pushing our family around and getting away with it. Do you understand me?"
The prisoner looked away, ashen-faced and ashamed, but his father wasn't finished.
"This is all because you let her live. After what she did to me, to Bear. You let her live."
The prisoner, knowing better than to speak her name aloud, said only "I'm sorry."
"Yes, sir." The son followed the father back to the cell. He tried to apologize again, afraid that his father might abandon him in this place. His father only smiled and hugged him.
"I won't die again. Because of you."
It was true. The following week, when the son came home, he didn't discover his father hanging from a rope in the basement. Instead, beer in hand, his father was turning thick steaks on the grill in the backyard.
"Your mom will be down in a minute," his father said. "Why don't you set the table for three."
His mother, who had passed away when he was three, would be down in a minute. And even though she never did come down to join them, it was a comfort knowing she was close by.
Through the secret passage, the world existed only as the prisoner needed. It was a seductive power—to experience his life as he wished it had been—and he used it to escape his cell at every opportunity. Why shouldn't he? If he could, he would gladly die to end this solitary existence. To escape this hell. He would do anything his keepers asked. If only they would ask. But they never would. The door would never open. He accepted that now.
And then, after a thousand years or perhaps only a single day, something unforeseeable happened.
The door opened.
Excerpted from Cold Harbor by Matthew FitzSimmons with permission of Thomas & Mercer. Copyright © 2017 by Planetarium Station Inc. All rights reserved.