The man hung from a construct of evil. Arms and legs spread eagle, suspended in midair by thick chains that entered his wrists and ankles, his chest lay open, flesh pulled back like an exposed butterfly ready to meet the world for the first time.
Jossiah Harpman was the result of a madman’s desire to learn how to grow bones while still inside the human body. Because of this madness, Dr. Mauk Popearae had kidnapped him to test out his cruel experiment.
He couldn’t remember how long he’d been in this dull, dank dungeon that the doctor called his ‘lab,’ but it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that, after all this time, he had not been released, his wounds—though checked—had not been managed, and he’d been forced to live in a state that he considered not dead, but undead.
A zombie, he thought, looking up at the instruments of torture that lay on a nearby table. That’s what I am. A zombie.
How he stayed alive, he didn’t now. Dr. Popearae had told him not to worry about that because he ‘kept close eye’ on his condition. He regularly injected something into the veins on his arms, something that—supposedly, the doctor said—grew bones.
Doctor Popearae had not come in today, and he probably wouldn’t until much, much later.
Although Jossiah could not see the clock, cast in the shadow of a strange but otherwise-meaningless stone artifact that lay on the wall, he knew the time had not come. The doctor said he came in ‘early, but not early enough to make anyone suspicious.’
That also bothered him.
No one knew he was being experimented on.
No one knew what Doctor Popearae did in his spare time.
No one—not a single, living soul—knew about the bone-growing experiment a madman carried out in his lab.
No one knew about the way Doctor Popearae grew Jossiah’s bones.
At a time Jossiah couldn’t discern, the door opened. A small, short man with graying hair and a handlebar mustache walked down the stairs, opening his arms as though ready to embrace his captive.
“Jossiah!” he beamed, cheeks rising to make way for a grin. “How are you, my boy?”
As usual, he didn’t want to respond. The doctor took pleasure in having him answer such questions. Most days, he would just stand there—arms open and face lit in a derisive grin—until he answered.
“I…” he stopped, then breathed. “Fine.”
He tilted his head back and closed his eyes. If he looked down, he would be able to see his chest. He’d see his lungs expand with each and every breath and his heart throb with each and every pulse. That first fateful time he had looked down and saw his chest—opened like the butterfly that he so often thought about—he had screamed so hard that his whole body had hurt.
“That’s quite good,” Popearae said, grabbing a nearby clipboard and scribbling something down. They were notes, Jossiah knew, fresh with details about the patient’s health. “Are you feeling well?”
Single-word answers. Most of the time, they were the only way he could manage to talk. For some reason—whether it be from his chest laying open or as the result of the shots the doctor administered—he couldn’t speak in full, concrete sentences. He could think just fine, but not speak.
“Does anything hurt?”
He responded with a second no.
“Are you sure?” the doctor asked. “Because if you have any kind of pain, you must tell me.”
A shake of the head answered Popearae’s third question.
“You’ve got no lesions,” the man said, obviously referring to inside his body, not outside it. “And I see nothing of particular concern.”
Jossiah opened his eyes to see Popearae sliding a pair of rubber gloves over his long, thin-fingered hands.
“I’m just going to examine your bones,” he said, reaching forward.
The man’s hands slid into his chest, expertly moving around his lungs, heart, and other internal organs. When Popearae touched his back, Jossiah grimaced. It felt strange, being touched that way. He could even go so far as to say he was being molested by the mad doctor, except in a more inhumane way.
Popearae’s fingers rubbed over the stubs of bone that were just beginning to sprout from his spine.
“They’re starting to grow,” the man smiled. “This is quite good. Pretty soon, I’ll be able to prepare a paper that will convince the scientific department that I’ve found a way to grow bone from human cadavers.”
Though Jossiah didn’t speak, he pondered on the idea of the doctor writing a paper and claiming that he was a human cadaver. Whatever he was doing to keep him alive—because there sure wasn’t any blood inside his body—he didn’t know. In a way, he still felt that the injections in his arms kept him alive. At least once a week, the doctor would grab a needle and slide it into the base of his spine and inject something there. Then, when the medicine started to take effect, he would sleep for days in the worst medically-induced coma he had ever experienced.
“I think it’s time for another shot,” the doctor said, sliding dampened but bloodless gloves off his hands.
Jossiah’s single word came up his throat in a croak. He stared at the doctor, watching him, waiting to see how he would respond.
“No?” Popearae asked. “Why not?”
“I…” he breathed, “cannot… keep… doing… this.”
“And why not?”
In a slow and laborious process, Jossiah said, ‘You can’t keep me here. I have a life. Please, grow back my bones and let me go. I won’t tell anyone what happened, I’ll let you publish your research. Please. After my ribs are back in place, sew me up and let me go.’
When he finished—out of breath and throat burning from effort—Popearae watched him, eyes sparkling with interest. Jossiah didn’t trust the look that lay behind the horn-rimmed spectacles. Those cold, black eyes could watch him endlessly without any change in appearance. Jossiah knew this, because there had been a day when the doctor had studied him for what seemed like hours, scratching on a clipboard without even looking down. Did he know what he was writing when he set his ballpoint pen to the paper? Did he know where the exact locations his notes were placed, or did he just write without conscious thought, preferring to have the notes wherever he could or not at all?
“Please,” he said. “Stop.”
“You’re much too important, Jossiah. You’ve produced astounding results. My previous patients never made it past the first procedure.”
He shook his head.
“You’ve produced twelve sets of rib bones for me. You know how many bones that is in total? Two-hundred-and-eighty-eight. I can’t just let you go now. You’re much too valuable.”
But it hurts, he mouthed.
“And you think I care?”
This time, it was Jossiah’s turn to stare.
“I’m making money off of your bones. Do you know what you can do with bone marrow? They think it can cure cancer and AIDs. The Chinese say they can be used for medicine. And, maybe someday—with the help of my research—they may be able to be used for bone transplants. Imagine it, Jossiah! Imagine having your bones saving countless lives. Does that not make you happy, knowing that you are helping?”
Show me who my bones are saving, he said, and I’ll believe you.
“Not yet,” the man said. “I’m sorry, Jossiah. Everything’s just… not ready.”
The man turned, settling down at his desk. Complete with a computer, printer, and all the research manuals he could need, Doctor Popearae could look up at him anytime he desired and observe anything he may or may not see.
The idea left Jossiah with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
He closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
“Jossiah… open your eyes.”
Popearae’s face appeared as soon as Jossiah’s lids parted.
“Good,” the man smiled. “I need to administer the shot.”
Jossiah shook his head.
“I assume you don’t want to speak?” the man asked.
“That’s fine with me,” Popearae said, turning and grabbing a nearby needle. “But, in all actuality, you can’t stop me from giving you the growth serum. You know perfectly well that the chains go through the bones in your wrists and ankles. If I decide to let you go, I’ll have to cut them apart and surgically remove them from your body. But, really, that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that you’re held in place.”
“I’ll… thrash.” He gasped, inhaling a few breaths. His throat burned.
“I don’t care. In the end, it’ll only cause you more discomfort.”
Popearae walked around the manmade structure that held Jossiah in place, setting a hand at the base of his back.
“All right,” he said. “Don’t move.”
The needle—though thin—was enough to make Jossiah scream. When it slid into his spine, warmth sprouted near the area and travelled up the stem of his body before it hit his brain. There, something happened. Jossiah felt as though he had just worked a long, hard day, or had exercised for far too long at the gym. In response to this sudden pressure in the middle of his forehead, he shut his eyes, ever so slowly falling into a state of drowsiness that he wouldn’t be able to fight.
“Sleep well, Mr. Harpman,” Popearae said, stroking his back.
With that, Jossiah closed his eyes and fell asleep.
He thought of bones and needles just before he could fully fade away.
“Ronda! Ronda! Wait!”
His date—Ronda Cranberry—ran ahead in three-inch heels. How she accomplished such a feat was beyond Jossiah, but he didn’t particularly care. He had just said something stupid—something along the lines of her asking if her skirt made her hips look fat, to which he’d replied with an ‘uhuh.’ His distraction had been a 2007 Hybrid they’d been broadcasting on TV.
“Ronda!” he cried. “Come back!”
He gave chase, pushing people aside when necessary, grabbing nearby items when he felt he would slip. How ironic for the rain to start just when his date decided to run off on him.
She turned around the corner. Jossiah increased his speed, jumping over a box of items a man was preparing to push into a nearby store. Though the man screamed at him, Jossiah rounded the corner without a word of apology.
Ronda was nowhere to be seen.
“Aw, fuck!” he growled, kicking a nearby trashcan. Garbage spewed onto the street. He increased his pace—not to a run, but to a brisk walk—to avoid being charged with littering. “The fucking bitch!”
Of course, his reaction to a date running off was always to call her a bitch. Obviously, Ronda had been the one to ask the question while he’d been distracted, so he could blame her. He grabbed his hair, tugging at it. He needed to find her. He’d picked her up and driven her to the restaurant, had sat with her under a booth while waiting for her to text a friend, had waited for a cab to take them the next street over so they wouldn’t have to get soaked. How big of an ass would he be if he left her stranded in the rain?
I’m not going to do that, he thought, shoving his fingers into his armpits. I’m not that kind of guy.
He kept going, glancing into buildings to see if Ronda had gone inside to escape the rain. After a while though, he realized she wouldn’t be in one of the buildings—unless, of course, she didn’t mind going into sports stores or gyms.
“Come on, Ronda!” he called, raising his voice as loudly as he could. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to say that!”
He stopped short.
Had that been her fleeing into the alley?
No, it couldn’t have been her.
Why, of all places, would she go in an alley? There wouldn’t be any protection there. At least, not unless there was some kind of outcropping, which he didn’t think there was.
Instead of just standing there, he took a few steps forward and looked into the darkness.
Nope. No one had run down there.
“Ok,” he thought, pushing his hands into his pockets. “I just gotta—”
His fingers slid over his wet cell phone.
“Shit. I hope it’s not broken.”
He walked under a nearby business’ door jut and slid it out of his pocket. It showed that he had a text message—from Ronda, no less.
I gt a ride hm. Leav me alon, u ass.
“What the fuck ever,” he said, shoving the phone back into his pocket. I don’t need her either.”
He walked out from under the jut and down the street, where he intended on getting in his car and going home.
“Wake up, Jossiah. Wake up.”
Doctor Popaerae stood in front of him the moment he opened his eyes. Jarred from the sudden vision of his date with Ronda, Jossiah recoiled, crying out when the chains prevented him from moving.
“It’s just me,” the man smiled, reaching out to brush some sweat away from Jossiah’s eyes. “It’s Popaearae.”
“Fuck,” he breathed, “you.”
“That’s not very nice, now is it, Mr. Harpman?”
He said nothing.
“Now, now,” Popaerae said, reaching out to touch his shoulder. “There’s no need to do this to me. It’s time to clean you out.”
Please, he mouthed. Just kill me.
“Ah.” The doctor reached out to brush Jossiah’s hair out of his eyes. “So you’re not talking anymore.”
“It doesn’t hurt, Jossiah. Your esophagus is just raw from the exposure to air.”
Kill me, you bastard.
The next thing he knew, Popearae slapped him with his open palm.
“The first time may be cute, but the second time isn’t.”
Wanting to rub his stinging cheek but unable to, he watched the doctor turn and walk into another room—where, he knew, the man kept his sponges and sterilized water. It didn’t take long for Popearae to return with a bucket and a light cloth.
“You know what I’m doing,” the man said, dipping the cloth in water. “It’s just to make sure your organs are hydrated.”
How are you doing this?
“With the shots, of course.”
But those grow my bones.
“Yes, Jossiah, but they also keep you alive.”
The doctor slid his hand into the open cavity of Jossiah’s chest. Bracing the organ with his other hand, Popearae dabbed the heart with slow, gentle pads. The simple awareness of feeling his heart pulsing against the man’s hand forced tears from his eyes.
“There’s no need to cry. I’m not hurting you.”
Yes you are.
“I’ve taken care of you for this long, haven’t I?”
Again, Jossiah said nothing.
As Popearae continued to clean his beating heart, Jossiah closed his eyes, hoping that, somehow, he could will himself to die.
“Damn that bitch.”
He stopped walking and slid up against a nearby wall. Protected from the rain under a slanted roof, he waited for the urge to walk to come back. For some reason, he couldn’t bear to continue walking back to the car.
Yeah, I’m an asshole.
Regardless, he was a cold and wet asshole, one that wanted to go home and forget about the whole night.
“This really fucking sucks.”
“I’m guessing your girl ran out on you, son?”
An older man—possibly no older than his mid-forties, with a head of silver-grey hair, a jaw lined with the same color of stubble and a handlebar mustache—stood in front of him, umbrella poised over his head. The rain slid out and around him in a circular shape that made him look like a dark angel whose body water dare not touch.
Oh…kay, he thought, but merely nodded.
“Yeah. My girl ran off on me.”
“It’s a shame. You look like a nice young man.”
Smiling, the older man slid his hand out of his pocket.
“My name is Mauk Popearae, son.” The man extended his hand. Before Jossiah could reach out and grip it, Popearae added, “Would you like to have coffee with me? It’s colder than hell out here.”
“No,” he said, but shook the man’s hand anyway. “I mean, I don’t have time for coffee. I need to get going.”
“Where’s your car?”
“It’s not too far away.” He pushed himself away from the wall. “Thank you for your offer, sir. Have a nice night.”
“You too, son.”
When he was sure that Popearae had disappeared into the building, Jossiah increased the pace of his walk to a jog. While not one to be afraid of an overly-friendly stranger, he didn’t want to get involved with one either.
He’s just a short old man.
Still, short old men normally didn’t offer to buy coffee for twenty-year-old men they didn’t know.
With a snort, he continued jogging down the street, catching odd glances from people sitting behind the safety of glass windows and from his fellow, umbrella-toting passerbys. He stopped at the end of the block and turned, looking up and down the street before crossing.
Just as he reached the halfway mark, a silver car rolled by, as if making a move to parallel park alongside the street. He gave the car little notice until the passenger window rolled down and Popearae’s face came into view.
“Are you sure, lad?”
“Leave me alone!” he said, easing away from the street, closer to where the buildings stood. “I already said I didn’t want a ride.”
“Hey, I’m only offering.” Popearae raised his hands.
“Yeah, but I don’t want any help.”
He turned and continued walking back to his car.
The next time Jossiah opened his eyes, he started to wonder how he had truly ended up in this underground laboratory. The last thing he could remember was telling Popearae that he didn’t want a ride. He couldn’t even remember turning and continuing down the street.
Did he give something to me?
Had the old man somehow followed him and Ronda to the restaurant, then slipped something into his drink? Was that why he had accidentally called Ronda fat when he had been too busy watching the car commercial on the television sets across from them?
“Sir,” he croaked.
Rising from his place at the desk, Popearae crossed the room and stood before him. For a long moment, the man stood there frowning, as if he had found something amiss. Then, slowly, he reached out and set a hand on Jossiah’s arm.
“What is it?”
I don’t feel good.
“You don’t feel good?” the man breathed. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong with you, Jossiah? Tell me!”
It hurts, like I haven’t eaten anything.
“Dammit!” the doctor screamed, throwing his hands in the air. “Damn fucking it!”
“The medicine isn’t keeping you fed anymore!” Popearae roared, holding a fist up in the air. Blood fled from the knuckles, bleaching them white. Anger coursed through the madman’s veins, so much so that his face turned beat red and his eyes sparkled with hurt. “I can’t do anything about it unless I get you off that… that construct.”
You… you’ll let me go?
“Oh, no. I can’t let you go, not now. You’re far too important.”
“Don’t please me!”
With a final scream of anger, the man threw himself across the room, toward his table of instruments. There, he picked up the needle he used to inject the bone-growing serum into Jossiah’s spine, swiping a bottle of clear liquid and driving the needle into it.
“You gotta get down,” the man laughed, tilting his head back to reveal manic eyes and a terrified grin. “You need to lie somewhere where you can get better. That’s the only way I’m going to keep you alive.”
Keep on laughing, fucker, he thought, not even bothering to fight the tears that coursed down his face. It’ll be a sad, sad day when I leave the fucking planet and your ass in jail for illegal human experimentation.
He’d since stopped caring about whether or not he would live or die. It had been a long time since he’d kept track of time, and it had been an even longer time since he counted the days he’d been chained up like this.
Now, though, maybe it would finally end.
Sliding around the metal construct like a thief in a market, the doctor slid the needle into Jossiah’s spine.
He barely felt it.
Violet junipers grew along the eastern field near his small apartment. The Juniper Falls apartment building sat atop a large rise that allowed anyone an almost-perfect look at the Hollywood Hills, minus the cost.
Ronda stood in the nearby bathroom, half-naked in only her underwear. Jossiah, somehow, managed to keep his eyes away from her body and looked out at the country. From his apartment, he could just barely see the road and the cars travelling along it.
“Hey, Jossiah,” Ronda said. “Do you know a small old man that lives around here?”
“Uh… no.” He turned to face her, eyes gaining a will of their own and traveling along the length of her back. “Why?”
“Because he was snooping around before I got here. When he saw me, he looked at your apartment number and made off like he’d been looking for someone else’s place.”
No old men lived around here—at least, not as far as he could remember. The only neighbor he had any real contact with was his friend Marcus, who lived in the flat above him.
“No,” he said. “I don’t know anyone like that.”
“Don’t you find it creepy though?”
“No… I don’t.”
His girlfriend slid into a skirt and ran her hands through her long, straight hair.
“You think I should get a perm?”
“No, I like your hair straight,” he muttered, easing into the bathroom. “Why do you think the old man is creepy though?”
“Because he was snooping around your place. He was looking at your apartment number when I got here. Who knows what else he could’ve been doing before that.”
“He wouldn’t have seen much. Well, except me in my underwear. That’s it.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“Maybe this old man’s a perv who likes looking at hot twenty-year-old guys,” Jossiah chuckled, running his hands along her ribcage.
“Jossiah,” Ronda giggled, squirming under his tickling fingers. “Stop that!”
“What? Tickling you, or saying I’m hot?”
He laughed and pulled his hands away from her.
“Anyway,” Ronda said. “Come on. Let’s go.”
“I thought you were going to put a shirt on.”
“Wouldn’t you love if I didn’t.” She smacked the back of his head, running a nail through the thin stubble on his cheek. “I’m hurrying, I’m hurrying, don’t worry.”
Grabbing her blouse, Ronda slid it up onto her arms and buttoned it up, showing just a small bit of cleavage.
How beautiful things only seemed to last for so long.
Metal burned his entire back side.
Moaning from the initial realization, Jossiah opened his eyes and looked around. He’d been placed in a different room, one with white tile and blue counters. It took him a moment to realize that his chest had been stitched up.
When he reached up to finger the skin, a throbbing pain flared in his wrists. They, too, had been stitched, hiding any trace of the rings that had once threaded them.
He let me go.
Taking another glance around the room to see if Popearae might be sitting at a nearby desk, he tried to sit up, but stopped when an immense pain struck in his upper body. The scream that followed bounced off the tiles, echoing at least three times before the sound dissipated.
The bastard. I can’t move.
The doctor, while mad, was not stupid. But, really, who would be stupid enough to leave a valuable test subject in the position to run?
Not me, and definitely not Popearae.
“Sir!” he called, chastising himself for even beginning to think of asking the man for help. “Are… are you… there?”
The plea left him out of breath, but at least he could lie there and rest. For the first time in—weeks, months, a year?—he finally had something solid under his body.
Just lay there. It’s not like he’s going to come rushing.
Regardless, the doctor did run into the room.
“What?” Popearae asked. No emotion lay in his voice. Apparently, his manic episode had passed with time.
“What,” Jossiah started, then stopped. His throat burned, so he continued by mouthing, What’s wrong with me?
“Your bones still haven’t grown. But don’t worry—as long as you lie there, you’ll be all right.”
Are you making them grow faster?
“In a way, yes. I ran an IV in you earlier, but if your stomach keeps acting up, I might have to do it again.”
Where am I?
“Do you think I’d tell you?” Popearae laughed, slapping his thigh and leaning against the wall. “Let’s just say we’re in a nice, secluded place, with no one around but me.”
Jossiah looked up at the tiles in the wall. Littered with cracks and slightly discolored, the building had to be old. Maybe Popearae’s lab lay on the outskirts of town, near where the old hospital used to be.
Unless we’re in the old hospital.
The thought made him swallow. If they were in the basement of the old hospital, that meant they were right under the unstable structure of the building. Roots, bugs and water damage had made the building unstable and, technically, unsafe. It’d become a favorite hangout for the druggies, pedophiles and teens in the last few years, a place for lost or troubled souls to come and escape their lives, either in their own worlds or those of others.
Keeping his idea to himself, he turned his eyes back on Popearae. He smiled, knowing that he had one-upped the doctor after all this time.
“I’m guessing you’re pleased with your current situation. Correct?”
Yes sir, he said.
Yes I am.
Over the next little while, Jossiah rested on the table, while Popearae remained distant. He’d come in twice a day, helping Jossiah relieve himself and feeding him through the IV, then disappear for the rest of the day. The lights would remain on, constantly reminding him of his current situation.
He planned on waiting the whole thing out, because if he could wait, he could escape.
So far, he’d been perfectly fine with waiting.
There wasn’t anything up there in the real world he much cared about anyway.
Except Ronda, but she ran off on me.
Would his girlfriend be looking for him? Had she gone looking for him after he didn’t call to apologize, after he didn’t meet her for their usual morning coffee before work? Though he couldn’t be sure, he figured that his girlfriend’s heart of gold would lead her to find him, regardless of what had taken place on the night of their last date.
Glancing around the room, his eyes came to rest on the IV tube that, essentially, gave him life. The golden liquid snaked down the tube and into his hand, where it channeled to the rest of his body. Without that liquid, he knew, he would be dead, but that wouldn’t really matter.
I’ve got to hold on, if only for Ronda.
If he ever got out of here, he knew he would ask her to marry him.
After all the hell he—and, possibly, she—had gone through, they deserved a little happiness.
“The bones are coming in quite well.”
Hands poised on each side of his chest, Popearae traced the lengthening bones from underarm to nipple. Jossiah—watching the doctor with careful eyes—lay and waited.
Is something wrong? he mouthed.
“Not at all, son. It seems as though your bones are coming in just fine.”
You don’t know?
“I can only go by what I can feel. Before, when your chest was open, I could examine the growth. This, though—”
“I’ll,” he began, but stopped before he could finish.
“There’s no need to speak. Tap my arm if you want to say something.”
Of course, he wouldn’t—why touch the man who turned his life into a living, scientific nightmare?
I won’t, he thought, nodding to reassure the man that he had heard.
“Good.” Turning, Popearae scratched a few notes on one of his several clipboards, then grabbed an intravenous drip and switched it out with Jossiah’s current one. “All right. That leaves my work done for the day.”
Are you leaving? he asked, managing to fake a frown.
“Yes. Why? Did you need something?”
He shook his head.
“Ok, Mr. Harpman—you be good while I’m gone, and stay out of trouble. You hear?”
Once again, he nodded.
Popearae turned and left him to his meaningless existence.
He dreamed of Ronda and of how they’d met. At college a year or so back—before Jossiah had stopped going after he found he couldn’t afford it—they’d met at a party one of the fraternities had been throwing. Clad in a sexy black dress and red heels that seemed to bleed sex, she’d been speaking to a few of her girlfriends when he first laid eyes on her. Jossiah—unsure of how to approach a girl who seemed so confident and sure of herself—had stepped up to the plate with little more than a greeting.
Just before his vision could continue, a chill crept over his chest and settled in at the stitching, touching him in a way he never thought a person could be touched.
He opened his eyes to pitch black darkness.
What in the—
Popearae never turned the lights off…
Unless they found out what he was doing and turned him in.
If that really was the case, where would it leave him? Here, in the dark, he had no way to move, much less feed himself with the IV bags. If they only took the doctor in for trespassing or snooping around the property, how would they find him?
“They… will,” he gasped.
Using all the will he could muster, he fought an approaching panic attack that threatened to destroy the little bit of sanity he had managed to build over the last few weeks. This, here, was it. He had to be found, now that he was closer than ever.
What… what does that mean though? If I get out and my bones are only half-grown…
Could doctors somehow regrow the bones, or maybe make artificial ones out of metal wiring? Or, after all this time, would his chest be a birdcage, created not to keep something stable, but to force something in?
It couldn’t be.
Popearae couldn’t get caught… right?
He’s human. He can get caught.
After all this time, how could he even begin to consider the old man human? His cruel, savage nature set him apart from the average person, from the norm of society. What man would kidnap someone just to strip them of their bones, sell them to the Chinese, and make money off them?
“Popearae!” he called, forcing the word as hard as he could. “Sir!”
What was he thinking? Even if the man was here, how would he come to the rescue in the dark?
He won’t, he thought, closing his eyes, balling his hands into fists. He won’t…
Closing his eyes, he tried to fill the darkness with light.
If he couldn’t, he didn’t know what he would do.
“Damn you, Popearae!” he screamed. “Damn you fucking—”
Before he could fully finish, he started coughing. It took him several minutes to try and get it under control, but even after he did, he started sobbing.
The IV bag had stopped feeding him some time ago. The tight pain in his stomach had recently started up, which made him question how long he’d actually been in the dark. It had to have been days, because he couldn’t have gotten hungry in just a few hours, could he?
I’m sick and malnourished. Of course I could be hungry in a few hours.
Looking around the dark space, he decided to try something that could potentially do more harm than it could good. Slowly, he pushed himself into a sitting position, doing his best to ignore the pain in his chest. The excruciating fireball only seemed to get hotter and hotter until it finally exploded in a torrential firestorm when he sat fully up.
Oh, fuck yes, he thought, crying, but still happier than hell.
If he could sit up, he might be able to walk.
Easing his legs over the side of the metal table, he touched ground and tested the amount of weight his healing ankles could support. With hardly any pain at all, he reached down, felt along his hand, then pulled the thin layer of plastic away from the IV before sliding it out.
The little bit of blood that came shocked him into reality.
This is really it. You can get out of here.
If, he reminded himself, his body held him.
Slowly, he eased down off the table and gripped it with a steady hand, careful not to step away from it too quickly. If he fell, he’d have no way of judging his direction and might run into something he might not want to.
If I don’t want to? He laughed at the thought. I’m going to run into things.
Hopefully, those things he ran into wouldn’t hurt him any.
After making sure he could take a few steps without his legs caving in on him, he took his first few steps forward, releasing his grip on the table and reaching out in front of him. Blind as a beggar, he felt for a wall, a counter, anything that might help him judge where he was.
His hand came to rest on a smooth surface.
“Wall,” he whispered, tracing one of the tiles with his fingers. A perfect square, just as he’d thought. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
The storage room—while large—had only one way in. The large, square arch that opened up into the empty space where Popearae kept his construct would be easy to find, considering he’d slid off the table on the right side.
Now we go left.
Fingers tracing the wall, he made his way left, hoping that the room didn’t hold a surprise drop-off that would send him to his knees. With his ribs only half-developed, he couldn’t afford any kind of accidental collision.
He knew that if he ran into something, his ribs would not be there to absorb the blow.
His heart or lungs could easily explode.
With sweat coursing down his face, open air greeted his hand as he tried to ease himself further along. While still gripping the wall, he stepped forward, and—finding no sudden drop—took another step.
Why wasn’t I paying attention when I was chained to that goddamn thing?
He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the taste of salt on his lips. Tears, sweat, whatever it was, reminded him of the outside world, of how it felt to run along the shore of a pond or to wrap himself in a blanket and push his face into clean, lavender-smelling laundry. His fear—which had fueled him away from the table and out into the open—could turn the tides and do whatever it wanted, if only it chose to destroy what little bit of confidence he had left.
Come on, Jossiah, he thought, touching the large room’s wall. Ease to the right. You know the drill. Slow, baby steps. Don’t turn around though, otherwise you might confuse your right and lefts.
Back facing the tile, he eased himself along, extending his right hand first, touching the wall, then easing his right foot over and making sure he wouldn’t trip over anything before moving his left side along. He kept repeating this until he came to the far right wall.
Good, his conscience coached, the lightheaded angel on his right shoulder. Now you should be able to walk forward a little ways and come to where some stairs are. Guide yourself along the wall with your right hand while you feel with your left.
If he remembered correctly, the stairs had been placed right up against the wall, allowing anyone who made their way through the double doors to go either straight, left or right, depending on which area they wanted to wander into. Popearae’s desk was at his left when he’d been chained to the construct, so that would make his desk right around…
The right side of the room, he nodded. Right near the stairs.
The clock would be above the double-doors, so he’d have to listen for ticking. If he heard that, he’d know he was close.
Taking his next few steps forward, he did as his conscience instructed, guiding himself with his right hand while his left felt for the railing.
It won’t be much longer, he thought. It won’t—
The double doors opened.
A single, long bar of light went on above the door.
As quickly as he could, Jossiah eased his way into the thin space between the stairs and the wall, curling up into as small a shape as he could bear. Above, Popearae whistled a tune while he descended the stairs, snapping his fingers.
Oh God, please don’t be coming down the left, please—
Popearae’s tune lessened in pitch.
He had to have gone to his desk. He always went to his desk.
Come on, you motherfucker. Get what you need and go.
Just then, he realized Popearae had come in for one purpose—to switch his IV tube.
He was only gone for a day, but the lights, he wasn’t… he—
Now, he knew, was the time to fight or flee.
Turning, he eased away from the wall and peeked out around the last few stairs, waiting for the doctor to disappear into the storage room.
At that moment, he gripped the railing and forced himself to run up the stairs.
Ankles protesting the force, they screamed bloody murder, like they’d just been hit with hammers. Fresh tears coursed down his face as he made it up the last stair. Turning, he saw a light come on, then heard the most horrifying scream of anguish he’d ever had the pleasure to hear.
“JOSSIAH!” Popearae screamed.
Jossiah gripped one of the double doors and pulled it open.
Homerun, he thought.
Slipping out of the building that had held him hostage for God knew how long, he ran up the stairs with speed he couldn’t imagine, adrenaline piercing his heart with its thick needle and filling him with strength he could never imagine. At the top of the dirtied stairs, his toes squished into deep, gooey mud, but he took little time enjoying the luxury of actually feeling something other than pain.
In no more than a few moments, Popearae would be up the stairs and chasing after him.
The man’s car—hidden behind an open chain-link fence—would not offer any options. Even if he did find the key, where would he go—home, a hospital, a police station?
That single word forced his mind into overdrive.
Taking a deep breath, he sprinted right for the fence.
Something crashed not too far behind.
“COME BACK HERE!” Popearae screamed.
Jossiah made his way out of the enclosure and turned, slamming the gate shut and padlocking it behind him. Though he knew it wouldn’t slow the doctor down for no more than a few moments, at least it would give him a little extra time.
A long, dirt road would serve as his guide while he ran through the woods. Low branches reached out to embrace his skin, tearing gashes in his naked flesh. The wounds—though many—would do no more than bleed, and wouldn’t slow him down any.
Oh, no. The woods, the stumps, the logs, the—
“YOU CAN’T GET AWAY FROM ME! I KNOW WHERE YOU ARE!”
He won’t follow me in the woods. He wouldn’t dare, not after all he’s done to me.
Though injured and weak, Jossiah had the element of surprise. He’d already made it into the woods by himself, and he’d already slowed down Popearae a good deal by locking the gate behind him. If he could just keep going, if he could just keep moving, he could make it back to the road and wave someone down for help.
Would they help me though? A naked, bleeding man who just walked out of the woods?
Regardless, he had to keep going.
What seemed like hundreds of miles away, the sound of a gate being bashed into a fence rang strong in his ears.
“I’LL GET YOU, JOSSIAH! YOU WON’T GET AWAY FROM ME!”
No. Popearae wouldn’t catch him. He’d make sure of it.
Easing himself along the tree line—but not close enough to be seen by the road—Jossiah watched the ground, keeping his hands pushed out just in case he came into contact with a longer branch. Moonlight illuminated the woods in rough but visible patches, making even the darkest areas visible with just a bit of grey. Rocks the size of children’s hopscotch stones littered the ground, but didn’t give him any real trouble. The only thing that slowed him down were his ankles. While burning and in excruciating pain, the area where the metal ring had exited his foot near the sole seemed to hurt the worst.
Outside the forest, Popearae screamed and cursed things that Jossiah could only imagine were in some foreign language.
You’re not going to get me, Popearae. I’m too far gone for you to even begin to find.
Stopping to take a breath, Jossiah sighed and realized that he was truly free.
Now all he had to do was get back to the road.
Exhausted and near collapse, Jossiah stumbled out onto the nearby road. He checked to see if Popearae’s car had followed him, then to see if any cars were coming. A mile down, a larger vehicle—probably a truck or SUV—rolled at a slow, leisurely pace.
I gotta get in front of them, he thought, easing toward the northbound lane. They won’t stop otherwise.
With the possibility of Popearae coming out from the road and capturing him bright in his mind, he couldn’t afford to waste any more time. With his arms spread and his head held high, he stepped out onto the road, waving at the approaching vehicle.
“Help!” he sobbed, tears of blood and sweat coursing down his face. “Please, please!”
The vehicle—which had since come to reveal itself as a truck—slowed into a stop. Now, no more than a few feet from rescue, Jossiah waited, watching a man in the driver’s seat talk to his companion before stepping out of the vehicle.
“Sir,” a young man, possibly around Jossiah’s age, said. “Do you need help?”
“Yes!” he cried, stepping forward, hands instinctively curling as he started to breathe fast. “He tuh-tuh-tried to kuh-kuh-kill muh-me.”
“Who did? Who tried to kill you?”
“POPEARAE!” he screamed, grimacing when the man jumped back. “No, please… I… help me. I need help.”
The young man came forward and wrapped an arm around Jossiah’s lower back. His passenger—a slightly older man with a scruff of orange beard—jumped out of the truck and came around to help.
“What happened?” the scruffy man asked his friend.
“Someone tried to kill him,” the younger man said. “Sir,” he then added, setting a hand on Jossiah’s back. “We’re going to help you climb up here, ok? We’re going to turn around and take you to a hospital.”
“Yes,” he sobbed. “Thank you.”
With one hand on Jossiah’s upper arm and the other around his back, they hoisted him into the backseat. Jossiah’s nearly-nonexistent ribs throbbed in pain, forcing a scream out of his body.
“What’s wrong?” the younger man cried. “Are you ok?”
“It… it hurts,” he sobbed. “Please—”
“Get in the truck, Adam,” the bearded man said. “I’m driving.”
“What are you—”
Before the man named Adam could respond, his friend jumped into the truck. Adam soon joined him.
As the two strangers sped him off to a hospital, hoping to save the man they’d found on the road from a most certain death, Jossiah set his hands on his chest and sobbed.
“Ronda,” he said, picturing his girlfriend’s face in his mind. “I’m sorry.”
In the blink of an eye, his world went dark.
On a warm, summer day in the middle of July, Jossiah opened his eyes to find himself in a clean, white room. Burgundy chairs and couches adorned the one side of the room, while the other side had been arranged as a dining area. An octagon table and chairs shaped in the number eight stood no more than a few feet away from him, while a TV broadcasted the news of an eleven-year-old boy who had just won a local singing contest.
“Mr. Harpman?” a man asked. “Are you awake?”
“Wha… where am I?”
“You’re in the hospital, sir. Two men brought you here a few nights ago.”
“Is he… is he gone?”
“Is who gone?”
“Popearae,” he said “The man that did this.”
“Don’t worry. You’re safe with us.”
A young doctor reached out and set a hand on his shoulder. Jossiah found himself reaching up to place a hand on the man’s other arm, but stopped when he found a layer of bandage wrapped around his wrist.
“Something tells me you went through major hell with that man,” the doctor said. “Your wrists… your ankles… your ribs.”
“I don’t know how you managed to survive without them, much less get away from wherever you were being held, but they’re fine. We had a metal cage built to fill in what hadn’t been removed.”
“So I’m ok,” Jossiah said, more stating than asking.
“You’re going to be just fine, sir.”
The doctor stepped over to the window, where he closed the blinds a slightest bit.
“Please,” Jossiah said. “Open them.”
“You want them open?” the man frowned.
“Yes,” he said. “I was in a very dark place for a long time.”
Complying with his patient’s request, the doctor opened the windows to let the sun in. Jossiah caught the flicker of his photo ID, which showed his name to be Peters.
“Dr. Peters,” he said. “Where are the men who brought me here?”
“They went home after they brought you here, but not until after they were questioned by police. They’ll want to ask you a few questions as well.”
“I won’t be able to tell them much, other than what the man looks like and what he drives.”
“You can’t tell them what he did to you?”
“Yes,” he said, shaking after he said the word. “I don’t want to, but I’ll tell them anything they need to know to catch that mad bastard.”
Doctor Peters nodded. He stepped away from the window and walked to Jossiah’s bedside.
“Do you need me to call someone?” the man asked, setting a hand on his shoulder. “Anyone at all?”
“My girlfriend,” he said. “Ronda, Ronda Cranberry.”
“Can you give me her number?”
After he recited the number and the doctor scratched it down on a piece of paper, Dr. Peters made his way for the door. Turning, as if entertaining a second thought, he tilted his head and looked back at Jossiah.
“Everything’s going to be ok,” he said. “No one’s going to hurt you anymore.”
“Jossiah… Jossiah. Wake up, baby. It’s me, Ronda.”
The moment Jossiah opened his eyes was the moment he pledged never to say another mean thing to her again. The woman he loved leaned over him, a smile shining through the thickest of tears.
“I love you,” he said, reaching up to touch her face.
“I love you too,” she said, wrapping her arms around him. “I’m so glad you’re ok.”
“I didn’t think I would make it,” he said, bowing his head into her hair. He smelled lavender and closed his eyes, breathing in the scent as deeply as he could. “I almost didn’t make it.”
“The doctor told me what you said and what the men who brought you in told him, but he couldn’t tell me anything else. Jossiah… what happened out there?”
“I’ll tell you,” he said, “but not now. I… I just want to hold you.”
Sitting up, he wrapped his arms around his girlfriend and brought her as close as he could.
“Will you marry me?” he whispered.
“Yes,” she whispered, in the silence that followed. “I will.”