Gabriel paced the length of the dark cell. The same grim worry on his mind as the day he was first walked past the long hallway of doors.
They always said that the innocent have nothing to fear but, that night, when they came bursting into his apartment, he had run. Everyone in the building had run. No one seemed innocent enough to be fearless these days. He was one of the ones that they had chased after specifically. He hadn’t been fast enough. Each of those doors, he now assumed were cells like his. Each another life much like his. That first night as he glanced nervously at each closed door, was when he began to wonder. if they were here as well. Eventually they stopped him at one door, just like all the others, opened it and pushed him inside. The door shut. He began to pace, and worry.
In some hours, unable to sleep, he got to know about the cell. The walls were cinder block, and cold. The bed was a pallet on the floor in one of the back corners. A toilet, or what passed for one, and basin. There was dim light, barely enough to see by, coming from a fixture set recessed into the ceiling. That was all. Just himself, the chilly gloom and the silence.
After a time the door opened and a guard came in. He was relieved for a moment to see it was Michael. That soon faded as he looked into the hardened eyes of the man he had once known, and had spent a childhood with. Still he had to hope. Just maybe there was a chance that he knew, or cared.
“Have you any news of…”
“You must follow me.”
That was it. They walked silently through the long hall of doors. Stopping at one identical to the rest. Maybe they were here, Gabriel thought. Again his hopes fell as the door opened and instead of a cell there was a large room, with a table and with chairs on either side of it. A man in a suit was smiling at him from across the room. A small nudge from Michael urged him into the room. As he stepped in the smiling man motioned to one of the chairs.
“Please sit. I only have a few questions.”
“Please? If you…”
There was a brief flicker to the smile, but it was just long enough to show there was a second way things could be done. “I only have a few questions. With your cooperation I can have my answers. Then we can be done here very soon, and you can go home.”
The smiling man asked for the names of certain individuals, and locations where those individuals met. Gabriel did not have the answers the smiling man was looking for. The smiling man sighed and told him how very disappointing it was that he was unable to cooperate. He was brought back to the cell down the long hall of doors. When he was inside he turned again to Michael and pleaded.
“Please I’ve done nothing wrong. I just want to know if…”
“I can not help you.” Michael stared through him. “Just cooperate and all will be well.”
“Michael it is me, you know…”
The guard left the room.
The door closed.
In the darkness time stretched and dilated. Days, hours, and minutes didn’t truly exist for him here. The only punctuations to his life here were when trays of cold broth and bread were brought to him through a slot in the door, or when Michael or another guard would collect him from the darkness. And take him to the room with the smiling man and his questions. Sometimes there were other men in the room too. They didn’t smile. They didn’t ask the questions. They were the other way things could be done.
None of it seemed to happen at regular intervals. There was once an unimaginably long period where no one came. No guards, no smiling man, no tray of broth and bread. During this time he discovered his cell was one and a half steps longer than it was wide. It’s longest dimension was parallel with the door. Which itself wasn’t quite centered. It was a full third of a step closer to one wall than the other. After a while, when his hunger began to grow unbearable, he feared they had forgotten about him. That he had been left to waste away in the cool dark of this room. Then he hoped that they had. He felt for a time free of the menace of the unanswerable questions of the smiling man and his assistants. That was lost when the door finally opened, and he looked at the lighted hall beyond once again. This time it was a priest that cast his shadow into the room.
The priest entered the cell and sat chair that Michael brought in for him. He looked down at Gabriel lying weakly curled up on the floor and implored him to do the right thing. To look into his heart and see that it for the good of all. That God would forgive him his tresspasses if only he would unburden himself. Gabriel just lay there and wept quietly.
From then on the priest was added to the irregular rotation of events. There were so many days , after unkown hours, of questions and coercions, and of yelling and threats, he thought of just giving them the answers they wanted. Just giving them a name or two. He could, or so they promised, exchange his freedom for that of others. Surely, he thought, he could come forward with a name. Just a name. Someone distasteful, someone who deserved this. There were so many people he knew who had done something wrong, committed some petty offense against the state. He knew he couldn’t do it. There was too much uncertainty about who was working with them, and who, like him, they already had taken. Besides, it would only be a lie. He thought about this every time he walked back from the smiling man’s room.
Each time he made the long walk down the hall of doors, as he passed each one he wondered. Who was behind them. Which ones remained empty waiting for a name to be given. Behind which of these doors was the person who had given them his. Who, in desperation and in the false hope of freedom, betrayed him, or another innocent soul. He knew they had no intention of releasing him. No one who had ever been taken had come back. That was why he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t be part of the broken gearwork of this place, of the system of fear and hatred and lies that created it. Even if he did it. Even if he agreed to give a name. Even if that was the end of it. If they let him go, if they kept their word and released him, how could he go back? How could he look people in the eye knowing that it could have been their name that he had given in that lie, their lives he traded for his. That could hardly be considered freedom. If he gave them what they wanted he would always be their prisoner. He and his family would never be free again.
He wondered about them, all the time.
Every trip through this hall, he always wondered and worried if they were here. If they were behind one of those heavy black doors. Every time that Michael was the one walking him back he would ask. Michael had ceased to respond to the question long ago. So, he paced on in the constant doubt and worry that had been plaguing him for what must have been months.
The heavy door swung open once more. This time they all stood out there in the hallway. The priest, the smiling man and Michael. In seeing all three Gabriel knew that this would be the last time that he would be taken from the cell. The priest was the first to step in, making the final plea that he confess, that there was still time to save himself. When he had been silent for long enough for it to be acknowledged as a refusal They walked him down the hall of doors one last time. Michael and another guard behind him and the two other men leading the way. He counted the doors out of habit, noting to himself when they passed the room where the smiling man would ask his questions. They walked a longer distance than he had in all the time he was imprisoned. They stopped at yet another identical door.
The door opened and the light of the sun poured in. Gabriel’s heart pounded at the sight of it. His eyes were blinded by it for a moment as he was led outside for the first time in ages. He lifted his hand to shield his eyes, but Michael grabbed his arm and brought it behind his back. He felt his wrists being bound together. Gabriel squinted to see. In the brightness he walked past the other guards, each holding a rifle at the ready. He could hear the priest speaking something, words that he hadn’t heard since he was a small boy. His familiarity with the scriptures faded along with his church attendance in adulthood. He was led to the far wall of the courtyard. Gabriel fought against the panic and dread. He knew this was where it was ending, nothing could prevent that now. Still, as the blindfold was tied around his head he couldn’t help thinking of all the names he could of given. All of the people that could have been here in his place. Maybe there was still time. A name welled up in his throat begging to be spoken. Just one name. The name of a foul man, whom he had always suspected beat his wife. He could say his name and then maybe magically he would take his place. The name reached up behind his teeth. As it was about to escape, Michael whispered in his ear.
“There has been news. Your wife and son have made it across the border. They are safe.”
Tears welled up in the darkness of the strip of cloth covering his eyes. He swallowed deeply. He could die with at least an ounce of hope.
This story was written in response to a Flash Fiction Challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at his blog Terrible Minds. You can check out the other entries in the comments there