They ripped the blindfold off. Skinny squinted against the brightness of the room. It was unlike any he’d ever been in before. Smooth. Shiny. He strained against the pole he was handcuffed to.
“I’d get used to it if I were you. We’ll be keeping you a long time.” The one with the Beard said. The Red-haired one smiled at skinny.
The room seemed to be made out of a single piece of steel, like the inside of a bullet. Light beat down from a strip of fluorescent lights in the ceiling.
“Who are you?” Skinny asked.
The Bearded one cocked his head, glanced to the Red-haired one, and placed his hands on Skinny’s shoulders.
“In the end, we’ll be your only friends.”
He snapped his fingers, and Red-hair followed him out.
Joel was usually the last one up, because he never set an alarm. Marie loved to tease him for being such a late-riser, but Joel never tried to get up any earlier. Waking up late meant rising to the sound of his children giggling in the living room, to the smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen. It meant coming to when his wife kissed him awake.
Over coffee in the kitchen, Joel and Marie gave each other their plan for every day. Marie taught at the community college, and she had recently started teaching night school classes twice a week. Joel took the kids to and from their various practices; soccer, gymnastics, dance. He worked from home whenever he could.
On this particular morning, Sarah, the youngest of Joel and Marie’s three children, was offering a one-time-only sneak preview of her upcoming dance concert. Around minute fifteen, Marie shuffled Sarah and her unimpressed siblings off to the minivan.
“Save some for the concert, Sar.”
Sarah looked hurt, but she nodded. Marie jogged back into the house, grabbed her backpack, and kissed Joel goodbye.
“There’s a message for you on the machine, I think someone named Craig. Have a good day. I love you.”
“I love you too. See you at the concert.”
“Yesterday you chose something blunt. It only makes sense that today we use something sharp.” Beard gestured down toward Skinny with a scalpel.
Skinny blinked the tears out of his eyes. They rolled slowly down his face, over the bruised cheeks, past the missing teeth, into the collar of his shirt, now drenched with sweat and blood.
“Please, no. Why are you doing this? Please. I have money, I can pay you whatever you want. I just need to call someone. Please, please, please. Just need to call someone to get your money. Please.”
Beard crouched down and held the scalpel between Skinny’s eyes, expressionless.
“It’s not like that.”
Skinny brought his eyes to Beard’s.
“W-What’s it like?”
Beard stared past the scalpel’s edge to Skinny’s face.
“What’s it like?” Skinny asked again.
Beard plunged the scalpel into Skinny’s right eye and left it there. Skinny began to shriek, but Beard covered his mouth.
“This is all we want. We don’t want your money, friend.” He flicked the scalpel’s handle.
“You shut up.” He stood up. “This is all we want.” He yanked the scalpel out, the first inch covered in blood. Beard put his hands on his knees, his face by Skinny’s wounded eye. Skinny felt his breath as he whispered.
“Your pain, is all we want.”
Beard started slashing as though the scalpel were a paintbrush, a crimson patchwork of crossed lines and zigzags following his hand.
“THIS IS ALL WE WANT. THIS IS ALL WE WANT. THIS IS ALL WE WANT.”
“Thanks for keeping it a secret, Craig.”
“Oh, sure thing. We all think it’s such a sweet thing your doing. I couldn’t spoil the surprise.”
“Thank you all the same. Were you able to find the prices I asked you about?”
“I was. I was able to get you a deal at three-thousand-five-hundred, that includes air fare and lodging, meals for the whole family, as well as a guided tour of the country.”
“That’s a bit steep, don’t you think?”
“Not for the sort of trip you described.”
“Ah.” Joel paused.
“So is that a no on Italy?”
“Do you need to know right now? I need to think about it.”
“That’s fine. Take your time, I just need to let them know by the end of the month.”
“Thank you, Craig.”
“S’what I’m here for.”
Joel had hoped for two thousand. He really only had fifteen-hundred dollars saved as it was. But later that evening, with his wife’s hand in his, watching their youngest jump and twirl on stage, and their two other children dutifully cheering for their sister, he knew he would do it. He would bankrupt himself just to make his family smile.
They went out for ice cream after. Sarah had triple chocolate fudge with a caramel swirl, Blayne had junior mint and raspberry, the oldest, Natalie, had mango sherbet. Joel and Marie split a waffle cone of butter pecan.
The light in the ice cream parlor had a soft orange glow. The air was sweet and fluffy.
“Craig? That’s a yes to the Italy trip.”
Skinny kept track of the days for as long as he could. The stainless steel room offered nowhere to mark them, so he held the number in his head. Each time Red slid in a plate another day ticked away. A week. A month. Then it started to blur.
Red stopped looking like Red. It was slow at first, then it all happened at once. His face swirled and distorted so there was no face. He seemed to drip everywhere he went, fat droplets of blood. Beard became an infinitely black shadow. When he spoke, no words came out, just the sound of wind howling.
Asleep and awake blended together. When his head was clear enough to think, Skinny thought he was in a storm at sea with an anchor around his ankle, but something refused to let him drown. Every time he sunk to the point where he could just barely make out the light at the surface, when there was just a faint shimmer, and darkness was surrounding him in its warm embrace, something dragged him up. Back into the storm. Back into the pain. Back into the room.
“Pass me the little saw.” Beard removed a narrow strip of skin from Skinny’s armpit. Skinny stared at him.
“He’s gone numb. Let him recover a little.” Beard splashed rubbing alcohol over Skinny’s body, and left.
Red cleaned off the day’s instruments, swept them into a brown leather bag, and made to leave.
“You…said…you’d be my…friend.”
Red paused at the door and almost didn’t say anything.
The trees in Joel and Marie’s backyard were starting to change from green to red. The tree house he built when Natalie was little was ringed with scarlet. When he squinted, it almost looked like it was on fire. Blayne was lowering a bucketful of leaves from the tree house window to Natalie and Sarah.
“Marie, I don’t think I have ever been happier than I am in this moment.”
Marie walked up behind Joel, encircling his waist with her arms. They stayed there for a while, watching their children. On the kitchen radio, an old country song started playing.
“I love you Joel.”
He turned around slowly, not breaking his wife’s embrace, rested his forehead against hers.
“I love you.”
She pressed her lips against his, and for a moment all they saw was the orange glow of the sun, and all they heard was the gentle music, and time stopped. There was only love and heat.
Joel broke the kiss, and pressed an envelope into Marie’s hand. While she opened it, he called the kids inside. They gathered around the kitchen table, tears welling in Marie’s eyes.
“Is something wrong?”
“No, Natalie, nothing’s wrong at all. I’m just very, very, happy.”
Skinny stopped eating the food Red brought him. He pushed it through the drain in the center of the room until they caught on. Then Red watched him eat, made sure he didn’t try to cough it back up as soon as he left. They refused to let him die. Every morning, although Skinny was unaware it was happening, Red cleaned his wounds, stitched anything that was too deep, and took his vital signs. On days when Skinny was too weak, Red made him take a tranquilizer with his food and checked in the next day. On days when Skinny was stronger, Beard came in.
Beard rarely spoke when he worked on Skinny. He used his tools to communicate. A sharp pain to remind Skinny he was alive, a deep pain to remind him of his predicament, and a dull pain to drive it home. Beard kept death tethered to Skinny, brought it as close as he could, let Skinny glimpse it, hold its hand, but never let it take him. Beard worked with a smile.
Skinny used to beg for death, but his words had no effect on Beard or Red. He wasn’t even sure he was speaking, so unfazed were they by his pleas. So one day he stopped trying. He stopped trying to live or die, and just let himself drift in the ocean.
“Longest one yet.” Red grabbed a short knife, held it out to Beard.
“Let him do it.”
Red looked skeptical, but did as he was instructed. He uncuffed Skinny and pressed the handle of the knife into his hand. Beard pulled up a chair.
“You have a knife in your hand right now. You can kill us with that knife. You can cut our throats with that knife. Or you can kill yourself. We’ll let you kill yourself.”
Skinny looked at Beard, then Red, then the knife. Skinny raised it, a glimmer of hope in his eye.
Skinny ran the blade across his throat. A cascade of blood fell with him to the floor, and he died.
“So tomorrow everyone needs to be up and ready to go by 4:30, ok?”
Blayne was indignant. “So early. Can’t we leave later?”
Joel scooped him up. “Nope. But don’t worry, you can sleep on the way to the airport, and you can sleep on the plane. We’ll be there when you wake up.”
They were watching a movie in the living room after dinner. Sarah was playing with her slippers, her face covered in tomato sauce. Natalie was curled up on the couch with Marie, the only one actually watching the TV. A cartoon about vampires was on.
Joel carried Sarah and Blayne upstairs and tucked them in with a kiss on the forehead. He passed Natalie on his way back downstairs.
“Goodnight daddy. I love you.”
“I love you too sweetie.”
Natalie turned around at the top of the stairs.
“Are you ever gonna shave your beard?”
Joel smiled. Marie laughed from the living room. He walked back up to his daughter and kissed her on the top of her head.