A Web of Misunderstanding
by Chris Biles
Running. I didn’t fully understand why. Why me? Why that man? Why now? But I was running as fast as I could – tripping, jumping, falling – as fast as possible. All that I knew for sure: I had to get away. The streets were dark and it was both cold and late, perhaps no one saw me, but that didn’t matter. I simply could not be the one to take the blame for such a thing. I had to hide.
There: a large building – a warehouse, an office complex, a store – I had no idea what it was, but that is where I went. Up some metal stairs down the alley that led to the roof three stories above. Through a window on the second floor, cracked open, easily opened completely without much prompting. Inside a few very dim red lights cast shadows in their attempts at illumination: security lights. As far as I could tell no one was there, just me in that foreign red landscape: some luck at last.
I ran to the first room I could find, unable to tell what sort of room it was – a bedroom, a closet, a bathroom… I entered. It was dark past the door, no lights on in there. I touched something cold and smooth as I felt around, trying not to run into anything, wishing my eyes would adjust: a toilet. So, I was in a bathroom, and there were the whining cries, the sirens, starting up in the distance. Someone must have seen.
They were getting closer. Louder. Closer. Louder. My body felt as if it would disintegrate, skin turning numb. The worry churned inside, transforming the contents of my stomach into restless moths, swarming, trying to escape, trying to break free. Someone must have seen me running, even entering the building. How could there be any chance of escape? If someone had seen me on scene and told the authorities, there would be no forgiveness, no doubt in their minds of my complete guilt.
The city guard terrified us all for this reason – they enjoyed the accusations, assigning blame, carrying out the ordered executions. Fear: the goal of the government these days. And I felt it now, fueling the flapping of moth wings at the pit of my stomach. But I didn’t do it. They had to understand that. I would make them understand.
The sirens sounded outside my building, stopped moving. I hid in the shower, closed the curtain, and knew it wouldn’t be enough. I jumped as I heard their voices – downstairs, but too close for comfort. I heard two of them, a man and a woman. At that point, the what-ifs began to conquer my mind. Doubt is a powerful emotion: paralyzing, and therefore deadly.
The male voice said something about going upstairs, starting their search at the top and working their way down. I heard them approach the second floor, and then continue to climb the stairs up to the third. I sighed with relief. I knew however, that they would eventually find me inside that bathroom. I had to move.
I got up and looked out the door: no one. Moving down the hall, I was all too aware of the shuffling of my shoes on the thin and worn carpet coating the floor. Coming to a few more windows, I realized they were all strangely tinted. I could hardly see out of them, and was sure no one could see in. But what I saw made my numb body tremble.
Dozens of the city guard cars surrounded the building, apparently waiting for me. So those two guards were sent in to chase me out. And as I considered my situation, I saw no other end but to run right into the hands of those awaiting me. White-gloved hands, meant to symbolize peace, but too eager. No. I had to escape. I would escape. I would find a way, whatever it took. I wouldn’t get caught; I wouldn’t let them blame me; I wouldn’t let them kill me.
The guards started to descend from the third floor. Without a plan, I started to run down the stairs myself to the ground floor. This level of the building had a lot of bookcases, rows and rows of them. Perhaps it was a library, though to me in those red lights, it seemed more like a nightmarish maze. Rather than winding in between the shelves, I began to run around the outskirts of the room, following the walls. I saw the guards coming down the last few steps on the stairs, having skipped their survey of the second floor. They must have heard me.
The stairs descended into the middle of the room, facing away from me – as were the guards at that moment. I stopped and hid behind the end of a bookcase, daring to stick my head out enough to peer around it. They split up, starting to check between all the rows of books. I could see the man slowly working his way towards me. I slipped a few more rows down, and slowly climbed up on a worn, cushioned armchair for a better vantage point. There was the exit: a pair of large, dark wooden doors with two ugly sculptures of massive marble lions, sitting on a pair of platforms on either side. I tried to determine the quickest route to reach those creatures, frozen mid-snarl.
Absorbed in surveying my surroundings, I had neglected to track my hunters: the guard saw me peeking over the bookcase. We made eye contact and he put his fists on his hips, one nudging his white pistol, and shouted at me to “come here.”
I ran so fast. I can’t even remember where I ran. I just recall eventually getting tackled by the other guard – the woman. Lucky for me, when she brought me down, she hit her head on one of the numerous tables that lined the walkway from the great doors to the staircase – graceful. The table crashed aside, and some blood splashed down her face from a cut above her left eye. Besides a few bumps and soon-to-be bruises, I was fine.
So I kept running.
This time the male guard was after me. I ran ahead of him, but this was not a fair race. He had a gun and he was threatening me. Luckily, he quickly grew tired, and the few shots he fired were erratic. This allowed me to gain a lead. When I rounded the corner to enter yet another row of books, I stopped at the entrance and turned to face my attacker. He turned the corner sweating like a pig. I didn’t think, and a few milliseconds later I found my fist in his stomach. I stomped on his pudgy hand, took his gun from him, and left him grunting on the ground as I turned to continue running.
Realizing the white pistol had some sort of hand recognition technology and that I wouldn’t be able to use it even if I had dared, I threw the gun away down another row of shelves. Then I suddenly found myself stopped, standing in front of those big, dark wooden doors: the exit. I looked at the lion to my left, its mouth open in rage. I imagined something between and howl and a snarl coming from its jaws.
Standing there, I knew that freedom might just be possible through those doors. If I ran swiftly enough, dodged their bullets, took off into the larger maze of city streets… But I didn’t move, I couldn’t move. In all likelihood, I would be caught after two steps in the open air. I had to find another way out, another way to escape.
And then someone’s hissing breath filled my ear, and a drop of blood fell with surprising weight onto my shoulder.
A chill shot through my spine and my heart dropped deep into my stomach to be battered mercilessly by the wings of those moths. In my moment of contemplation over the exit and what my next steps should be, the female guard snuck up right behind me. She grabbed my shoulders just before I could start to run, but I wrapped my foot around her ankle and pulled. She fell to the ground with a curse and I stumbled away, almost falling as she grasped after my foot.
They were both behind me now, chasing. I darted between the bookcases, row after row, but then found myself trapped in one corner of the massive room. The two guards smiled at me, panting, just ten feet away. They mimicked my movements to keep me cornered, blocking me, getting ever closer. Soon they would have me. Finally, I faked a run to the left, tricking the male guard who ran smack into the woman who was not fooled as she tried to follow my actual movements away to the right. This gave me the gap I needed, and I did not hesitate to run.
Up the stairs I went as fast my legs could carry me, up to the third floor, which I had yet to explore. I hoped to find a window, or perhaps some stairs to the roof, anything that might offer a different attempt at escape. But there was only a small landing with one door at the top. And it was locked.
Trapped again. Both guards soon reached the second floor and were continuing up the stairs to me, clearly exhausted. I looked over the side of the railing at the edge of the third floor landing. It quickly became clear to me that the only escape from the guards was down, and the only way down was to jump. Thirty plus feet – would that kill me? The guards reached the top of the stairs and stopped, blocking my way, grinning, panting. They thought they had me.
I had eyes only for the woman. The blood from the shallow wound over her left eye had coated half her face. Still it glistened, mixed with beads of sweat to form tiny rivulets of red, and to then drip down the front of her white uniform. She spit at the floor in front of me. I supposed the blood ran into her mouth as well, and imagined the metallic taste. Blood. Glistening blood. Red on white. I had seen too much of it already that night. And they thought I was the source of it all. They would kill me for killing one of their own. But no, I would run and keep on running.
I finally felt whole again in my decided defiance. My heart beat in my chest again, having returned from the pit that was my stomach. No longer did I feel numb. I tingled with exhilaration. I would defy them. My mind was made up.
I looked at them, and a smile spread on my face. I am sure from their facial reactions that it was a disturbing smile, that of a crazy and desperate person, maybe in their minds that of a murderer. I put one foot up on the stair railing while still smiling at them. They didn’t move. I put my weight forward and began to jump, intending some sort of a rolling landing when the ground came to meet me. Right as I pushed off, though, there was a tug on my pants. The male guard had just barely grabbed me, setting me off balance.
I fell for what seemed a lifetime.
I fell headfirst.
The ground didn’t break my fall, but a table did.
When the knives of pain struck into my head and down my back, all went black. My mind wasn’t working. I only remember hearing foot falls down the stairs, feeling my limp body being “secured.” And then … nothing.
My eyes slowly opened, breaking through a thin glaze that had formed to seal them shut. I squinted into the dark room where I had been thrown to lay chest down on a cold hard surface, my arms above my head. It smelled like a sewer. I could see nothing. I dared not move my head, knew of the pain that would follow if I did so – it was waiting for me, at the edge of my senses.
The wheels in my mind began to turn.
I had been caught.
It was quite simple.
I had been caught.
Such a stupid mistake.
I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They wouldn’t accept that, though.
But it was true. It wasn’t my fault. Surely they would believe me.
They had to believe me.
I whispered out loud, as if to reassure myself, “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.” But there was no one there to hear my raspy, desperate voice. And I soon stopped speaking, closed my eyes, and allowed myself to simply float.
I remained there, in the same position, cold, swimming in a state that could not quite be considered sleep. My mind focused on nothing. Finally I came back to my physical self. I heard something. Without moving I tried to squint into the darkness. Nothing. I couldn’t see a thing. It was all black. I couldn’t even truly tell if my eyes were closed or not. Maybe the impact of my thirty-foot fall had knocked the vision from my head. Maybe the glaze that had initially sealed my eyelids was a layer of dried, crusty blood.
I heard it again: a soft shuffling sound. And then, the lights all turned on at once as the metal door banged open. I squeezed my eyes shut as the shards of pain that had waited at the edge of my senses flooded my head. I could hardly breathe. I tried not to move, but knew my muscles tensed. There were footsteps coming closer. The door closed and then I heard nothing.
I didn’t know how many of them were standing around me at that moment, nor how close they might be. I slowly opened my eyes. The light nearly blinded me and added to my now splitting headache. My eyes eventually adjusted so that I could see my surroundings. Three city guards, all men, dressed in their white suits, stood in front of me. Once they saw that I saw them, the man standing in the middle ordered the other two to pick me up. The intensity of the pain that sunk into my upper back and neck was nearly unbearable. I screamed. The guards paid no attention to my pain. They sat me down in a metal chair set against the wall, and handcuffed both of my arms and legs to the arms and legs of the chair. They stuck a needle in the back of my neck and the pain began to slowly numb itself away, though my head still swam. I looked around carefully, still blinking hard at the intense light.
We were in a small, concrete room. As for furniture, there was nothing but the chair to which I was chained. The man who had ordered me moved began his interrogation. I decided I would simply tell them the truth. I knew I wouldn’t be able to concoct a reliable and convincing lie with my head in its current state. And perhaps they might understand. Perhaps they would believe my story. Their understanding was my only hope, so I told them the truth of that night.
“I was walking down to the kitchens on 39th street to get dinner,” I told them. “I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going, though, because I… well I had some other things on my mind. I must have taken a wrong turn because I suddenly found myself walking down some dark, narrowing alleyway. I had stopped to turn around and go back, but then noticed something shining a bit on the ground next to the wall. So I walked over and kicked it into the light. It was a gun. I picked it up, but then all I could do was stare at it. It was a light silver color, with a blackened handle, old.
“Then I noticed something down the alley a bit further in the shadows by a doorway, so I went over there. It was a man, dressed in white, a guard, just lying there on his back, face up, eyes open. I noticed something else shining there too: blood. There was blood around him, from his back. His uniform had a hole at his chest, and there was blood there too. Red on white. So much red, though, so much blood. I knew soon all the white would be soaked red. Too much blood…
“I didn’t know what to do, so I just ran. I wanted to get away from that image as fast as possible. When I found my way out onto the main street again someone probably noticed the gun in my hand. They must have reported me. I just kept running and eventually ditched the gun. Then I found that building, and just hid. I needed to catch my breath. Think for a sec. Get that image out of my head…”
I could tell they didn’t believe me. I don’t know why didn’t. Perhaps they just didn’t want to. Perhaps they wanted an easy scapegoat to blame for the murder of their fellow guardsman.
They asked me who my parents were so that they could be notified. I knew what that meant: not notified, but brought in for questioning. I told them the truth again: I didn’t have any. They had both passed in a plane crash, a freak accident as I was told, three years earlier, a week before my thirteenth birthday. I was glad at that moment that my parents were no longer with me. If they had been dragged into this mess with me, I would never have been able to forgive myself. Better I face it alone. I went on to tell them that I had no other siblings or family members for them to contact: that was a lie.
My older brother, 23 now, had ditched me after our parents died, when I refused to go live with my rather crazy uncle in a city out west. He had said to my refusal: “Fine. You don’t wanna even try to find a life to cling to, it’s your choice. I need to follow my work South, and there’s no room for you with me there. It’s out West, or you’re on your own.” Our uncle was not a good man. I knew there was no life for me with him. I wanted to go South too, but before I could try to explain this, to beg my brother to take me with him, he left me. He was down there still, I was sure. I wasn’t so sure about our uncle. He had a habit of getting himself into sticky situations.
I realized they could look at my records, examine my claims of having no family. But I also knew they could get the details behind my brother’s abandonment as well. If they saw he didn’t want me, that he’d ditched me early on, they’d probably leave him alone. After my parents died and my brother left, I was entered into some government program to keep me in school. They’d told me back then that my good grades and participation gave me that opportunity. I had lived in their government provided dorms for three years now, without any contact from brother or uncle – they would know that.
After the seemingly endless questions, they took me away to another cell. This one was much smaller, the ceiling low. It had a dirty brown toilet with a matching sink and showerhead, a drain below. There was also a hard and narrow wooden bed with no mattress. A dim yellow light bulb lit the room. Before they closed me in, they threw some blankets, a pillow, and the clothes they expected me to wear onto the smooth and stained concrete floor. Then they slammed the thick, metal door shut. I was alone.
I didn’t see the outside of that cell for two months – or so I later found out. It’s impossible to count days without a clock when the light is always on up above you. They brought me meals at irregular intervals, probably trying to mess with my concept of the passing time. They also came infrequently to bring me fresh clothes, and to take away my dirty set.
I spent most of my hours sleeping, staring at the wall, or exercising. I couldn’t just sit there. I would have wasted away. The exercising provided me with a small sense of accomplishment, but still, the isolation consumed me: the light, always that dim, yellow glow; the infrequent sound of footsteps in the world beyond my metal door; the cold water that drizzled from the rusty showerhead. Why did the light never go out? Never even flicker? Why was it so yellow? Those footsteps – perhaps they would come for me one day, or perhaps they never would. I loved to watch the water drain beneath me after a shower. I wondered if I could simply melt, and then discover my escape through rusty pipes, merge with other liquids, dissolve, and then lose myself at long last to finally find the peace of nonexistence.
Every time before I slipped into a sweaty sleep, my mind wandered far away from my cell. I thought about everything. How my life would be different if… What people at school must think of me now. What my friends would believe. These thoughts were a form of torture, causing me great frustration, driving me towards madness, but I still could not stop myself from thinking them. Every time, my eyes watered, though no tear dripped from them. My jaw clenched, and all I could do was exercise out of frustration in my cramped room, and then sit there to think some more.
One cannot go back to change the past. I kept telling myself that. Still I kept thinking how I should’ve paid more attention to the streets as I walked to dinner that night; I should’ve just backed away from the scene, retraced my steps, even gone to report to the authorities; I shouldn’t have picked up the gun; I shouldn’t have run.
I knew I had to focus on the future, on how to get out of this mess despite the unfairness of it all. I had to forget about what truly happened, for the time being. I had to play their game, to stop my running, to warp my own identity into that of the person who they decided I was – that would be the only way to escape this.
I was polite to all of the guards who brought in my meals, though I never actually saw them as the food and empty plates, the clean and the dirty clothing were all placed through a slot at the bottom of my door. But it was the only human interaction that I had during those two months, so it was all that I could do.
Luckily, it paid off. One day, a city guard came into my cell, pristine in his white uniform. I couldn’t help but imagine red slowly spreading across his chest.
He had a different feel to him. He seemed almost… nice. Somewhat friendly even. It made me skeptical. He told me how the guards who brought my food and clothing said that I was always kind and polite to them, respectful, repentant, which wasn’t what they had expected. He told me since I had been such a good student at my school before “the incident,” and because I didn’t have any previous record, I was to be enrolled in a special government rehabilitation program. This program was “designed for young teens who got themselves into trouble with the law” (like me). It allowed for them to return to school or to some of their previous activities. It gave them the chance to continue their lives.
He said the program was completely optional, though the other option was to remain here. And he warned me in a disturbingly cheery tone that if I made one wrong move, the consequences would be severe. I knew then that he wasn’t on my side. He said with a knowing smile that he had confidence in me, and that he knew I wouldn’t mess it up.
I was apprehensive. I didn’t like this man, and didn’t want to play his game, but this was my only way out. So, I began the program right away. They still required I live on the prison facility, but they moved me into a much nicer room. It had a carpet, though rather thin, a new bright light bulb, a padded bed, and even a small window (barred of course). Still it was a life of luxury in comparison to my most recent abode. I settled in quite nicely.
They did not allow me to go back to school – starting up classes again would be something for a bit further down the road, they said. Instead, they allowed me to return to the school basketball team, to attend three night practices per week. I had been on the team for two years and loved playing with that group of girls – some of my best friends. The school sports teams were considered official national programs supported by the government. There were only six teams at each school – one girl’s and one boy’s team for three different sports: soccer, basketball, and track. It was considered an honor to be chosen for a team, to compete regionally, and then nationally if you were lucky.
I didn’t necessarily see it all as an honor, but rather just enjoyed playing with my teammates. The days following the announcement that I would return to play basketball, I dreamed only of running around on the court, playing with my closest friends in a seemingly endless game. I wasn’t sure if I liked the dreams or not.
The night I returned was eventful, and I am sure that my friends will always remember it well. I walked into the gym on the school grounds, accompanied by three city guards, their right hands each resting on white pistols. I paid them little attention, though I knew they would surprise my teammates. I didn’t care, though. My basketball shoes were in a red sports bag slung over my shoulder, and I was ready to play just like old times.
It was a Saturday evening, and my team sat in a circle at one side of the gym, talking over the game they played the previous night. The conversation stopped as I drew close. Faces turned toward me. I hadn’t seen my teammates since I was taken away, and I felt both excited and self-conscious to see familiar faces again. Still, a feeling of warm comfort spread through my body and I smiled. I felt at home.
But they seemed almost afraid of me.
A bit unsure, but still hopeful and trying my best to be my old friendly self, I brightly said, “Hello.” An awkward silence followed, during which time my throat dried up unbearably.
Coach was the first to speak, after giving the guards some serious consideration. She looked unsure of what to say to me, but sounded normal enough, “Long time no see.”
“Yeah…” I choked out, and then cleared my throat. “For real though… So how is everyone?”
My best friend on the team, Erin, answered lightly, overcompensating a bit: “We’re doing great. We’re 9-2-and 1. Just barely lost last night’s game.” She looked around at the others. There was a pause and then she asked in a more serious tone, “How are you?”
I knew that question would come sooner or later. I threw on a fake smile as I was so used to doing, shrugged, and replied, “What do you think? I’m fine. Tired of confined spaces is all… I am definitely looking forward to running around a bit.”
There was a period of silence. Some of them nodded. All eyes were on me. I stared at the floor.
I was not as fine as I claimed, and they new it. How could I be? At this moment, back in the old context of my normal life, I realized how much had changed. Reality struck me hard in the heart, almost buckling my knees. What the fuck had happened?
Coach broke the silence. “Hey you three,” she addressed the guards, “Could you go and guard outside of the door?” She flashed an understanding smile. Guys found coach fairly attractive so these three listened to her without question. They looked at each other, mumbled a few assents, then awkwardly walked away and stood outside the doors. I went and sat down to change shoes, feeling a bit more comfortable.
Fourteen girls made up the basketball the team at our school, and we played year round. Our ages ranged from twelve to sixteen, but age made little difference so long as a girl had talent. Needless to say, we were all very close, and we didn’t keep many secrets from one another. So when coach asked me to fill them all in, I didn’t really see any other way of doing so besides telling the whole story, the truth.
Nervously, I started from the beginning. I told them about finding the dead guard, of running from the two guards in the building, of how I fell over the stairs and blacked out. I told them of my couple of months in that dim room alone, though I didn’t dwell on any details, and of the new program that allowed me to be there. When I finished, everyone was silent. I soon grew sick of it and said, “But come on you guys, it’s not the end of the world. At least I’m still here to tell you that story.”
They nodded in agreement, but seemed unsure of what to say. My final words may have been heavier then I’d intended. They wouldn’t meet my eyes. I felt compelled to ask, though I didn’t really want to know the answer: “I didn’t do it. You guys believe me right?” Even though they all nodded, I could tell that they didn’t all trust me, perhaps because they didn’t believe my story, or they didn’t want to associate with one in trouble with the law. That hurt, but I tried not to let it get to me. When the government says you’ve done something, people have to believe the government. They have to.
After running a few simple drills and playing a half-hour scrimmage, we talked for the rest of practice. They caught me up on the news of the team. Everyone had a story to tell me about what was going on lately. I was feeling happy and at home as they all seemed to loosen up a bit. Towards the end of practice, however, the man in charge of the basketball teams at our school came into the gym. All conversation stopped. My friends looked at the floor as if they were terrified to make any sound. He slowly walked over and took a seat right next to me in our circle. My friends slid away to make room, then slid some more for good measure. I was uncertain of what was happening. A long silence followed.
Coach V wasn’t really a coach at all. He had never played a sport in his life, was rather un-athletic in fact, but the government appointed him to be in charge of the basketball teams, so he took that position seriously. He was a scary man, and he didn’t like troublemakers, or people who didn’t deserve to be there. I was a troublemaker. And to him, I didn’t deserve to be there.
Finally one girl, Laura, said something, trying to break the awkwardness. She was playing with Coach’s coat, which was on the floor next to her, and said, “I really like these buttons on your coat, Coach.” As she said this, she lifted the coat to show the rest of us, but then twisted one button just right so that it fell off.
Coach looked somewhat angry for a second, and then smiled, shaking her head, and yelled jokingly, “Oh, my God! You are so dead!” Coach reached over to mock-tackle Laura. Smiles broke out on the faces of my teammates.
Not thinking to stop myself, I entered the conversation. “Man, and I thought that I was in trouble.” Everyone started to laugh, everyone except Coach V. When the girls realized that he wasn’t laughing, they stopped too. Again another awkward silence took the floor. No one dared to speak. No one dared to look up.
After a while he turned to me and in a quiet voice started to speak. “So, how does it feel to have killed someone?” I didn’t look up. I knew what was coming and felt hatred growing, hatred for this man who was about to ruin the home I had rediscovered in my team. “How does it feel to sit in solitary confinement for two months?” Why was he trying to make me angry? “How does it feel to have no real reason to accept the way things have changed for you? You’re a murderer, and that fact will never change, it will haunt you forever.”
He was starting to get to me. He was methodically pulling at my inner confusion and pain, trying to make it resurface, and I resented him for it. I kept saying over and over in my head, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you… Everyone on the team was staring at me out of the corners of their eyes, trying to see the impact of his words. I think deep down they were all asking the same questions that he was. They didn’t trust me. They didn’t believe me. My eyes began to water at the unfairness of it all, but not one tear fell. My jaw was clenched. I stared at the ground. What vendetta did he have against me? I had never given him any reason to despise me like this before the incident. He was making this personal.
“You’ve done a great job of messing things up for yourself and now you think you can just come in here like nothing has happened, like you are the same person you were before you killed that man. How can you forgive yourself and move on so easily? You should never forgive yourself for a thing like that. You should never be able to return to your life because that man you killed will never be able to return to his. You took another’s life! They should take yours. You have no reason to live.”
That did it. I scrambled to my feet. He had gone too far. This was simply not fair. I succumbed to the unfairness and anger that threatened to blind me. What made him think he had the right to say these things to me? Just because he was a government man? Just because he had that power over me? The power of fear… A terrible weapon to wield. He did not know the truth, he could not understand, yet he pretended that he knew it all. I didn’t know what to say or how to act to such punishment. And what ate at me was the fact that he was right. I had no reason to accept the changes. To be honest, I feared them. I knew I could never be myself again because in the eyes of everyone but myself, I was a murderer.
His hard, empty stare made me boil, and the voice inside of me screamed.
My eyes stayed fixed on the ground as I stood there trembling. I tried to master my emotions. “Stop it,” I said with my teeth still clenched together, in a low, wavering whisper. The only thing that went through my mind was that he was right, and that it was all so completely unfair. No one believed me. They believed what the government said, and that was that. This was a new type of torture: words. Words had the potential to completely break a person down into nothing. And that’s what I was to him: nothing. I was just someone who deserved this, someone who deserved to fall, to die.
He started to say more, but before he could get out his next word, I looked down into his eyes with the coldest of stares – cold anger, numb hatred. It shocked him and he was quiet. I stared at him for quite some time in silence, feeling the helplessness growing inside of me. Then, I looked all around the circle at each one of my friends. Why hadn’t they stopped him from saying those things? Why hadn’t they called him out? While I felt indignant, I knew they couldn’t. They had to look out for themselves. But still I couldn’t help but ask: what friends were they? In their eyes was fear.
I looked at each and every one of them, disgusted at the injustice of it all. My jaw was still clenched, my eyes still watered. What was happening? Everyone was scared of me now. I realized that I was alone, but the most debilitating part of it all was that I was powerless to do anything about it.
The last person I looked at was Erin. Even she had a frightened look on her face. I didn’t know if she was scared at what she thought I’d done, or scared of what she thought I might do, but that was it. I started moving towards the doors. I walked away with the need to escape that scrutiny, and that need exploded within me as I went faster and faster. By the time I shot through the door, I was sprinting. Sprinting away from it all, helpless, slowly breaking down, ready to fall.
I ran right past the guards. They were confused at first, but then they got the picture and started to chase me. When I got to the end of the hallway where the doors to the outside opened, I stopped and looked back. In the hallway outside of the gym two people were staring at me: Erin, and one of the younger girls, Meghan. Still feeling betrayed by them, I turned and ran.
I ran straight, with a purpose, right out into the soccer fields. All three guards were in hot pursuit. They shouted at me to stop running. But I just shouted back, half crying, “You’ll never make me stop!”
It was getting quite late into the night when I made my breakaway attempt, and so it was dark, and except for the heavy breathing of the guards and the crunching of my feet on the icy ground, it was quiet as well. The three men eventually got the picture that I wasn’t stopping. There was a “killer” on the loose. When I reached the top of the hill overlooking the school, I paused again and turned around. At the doors into the school stood Meghan, watching the whole thing.
When I saw her, I realized I couldn’t keep running. I had nowhere to run, no one to go to, no place to call my home. I had nothing. My life had been stolen from me, and I knew I could never get it back. I was in the hands of the government now. Only one possibility was left to me. I felt so empty, so hollow.
All was silent until … the sound of a gun ruptured the night’s peace.
I staggered backwards, hearing Meghan scream, so far away. It felt like my shoulder had been ripped from my body. I looked at it, still standing somehow, surprisingly calm. Blood. Flowing blood. My black shirt soaked it in, black made even blacker, glistening. The guards continued to run towards me. I collapsed. It hurt. Darkness enveloped me. A strange silence filled my body. There was nothing. Not a thought. Not a whisper. Not a feeling inside. Just … a simple, welcome peace.
I heard sounds around me: busy sounds, working sounds. My left arm felt numb. I opened my eyes and found myself lying in a bed surrounded by bars: the hospital wing at the prison. My left arm: tied in a soft, white sling, resting on my stomach. My shoulder was wrapped up and I could see just a spot of dried blood that had seeped through on the bandage. Next to my bed was a small, plain wooden table. The only thing on this table was a bowl half-filled with pinkish water: bloody water. I leaned over. Inside the bowl was a small lead bullet. I backed away and sat up in bed, heart and mind racing.
Seeing the bullet sitting there was staring death in the face. That had been shot into my body. It could have so easily killed me. One quick shot, more perfectly placed, and I could’ve been dead. I realized then that I was glad not to be dead. This confused me. I knew I had nothing to live for, no life left to me because I had been transformed into a murderer. But I wanted to go on, not die. I wanted to live in the face of it all, to show the government that I did not care what mask they made for me, I wouldn’t wear it. They wouldn’t see me begging for mercy.
I stuck my hand into the bloody water and took the bullet out to examine: so heavy for something so small. It looked like a mini torpedo to me and had a little hole going through it, end to end. I realized then how much I despised guns – and despised how the city guards carried them wherever they went, for who ever they deemed worthy of dying. I was sure that the city guard who put this bullet in me that night had aimed for my heart. He was trying to kill me, and he wasn’t far from doing so. I wondered, though, why he hadn’t finish me off then and there, atop the hill, once they’d caught up to me.
If I had kept running, I would have made it. I knew that deep down. I had gained a lead on the guards, had almost run out of the range of their weapons. But then I had stopped to look back, to see Meghan standing there, so very far away. I had started running out of the debilitating feeling of helplessness, but that was also why I had stopped. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had gained some escape, the government would find me.
I looked around and noticed that the side of the old blanket that covered me was frayed. I pulled on a few of the threads and a thin strip of worn cloth ripped off in my hands. I slowly threaded the bullet, and then put it around my neck and tied it, wincing as I bent and raised my arm. The bullet came to rest against my heart. It was a statement. I had accepted the death sentence. I knew I could do nothing about it, but by acknowledging the power they had over me, I also rebelled. I was not afraid. In me, the government had failed its main goal. I did not fear the unfair end. Sure, I was helpless to do anything about it, but I could win by not feeling the fear they wished to instill.
I sat there paying no attention whatsoever to anything that was going on around me. A nurse came in to ask if I wanted something to drink at one point, but I didn’t answer. She changed my I.V. and left. I was so alone, but also at peace. I wondered what my brother would say if he could see me now. But he was very far away. I sat there, allowing thought after thought to settle within me.
One morning, the same man from the city guard who had explained the option of returning to basketball came to the hospital wing to see me. He pulled over a folding metal chair, sat down, and looked at me.
After a sigh, he spoke. “I am disappointed.” He allowed that to sink in hoping it would have a powerful impact. Who the hell was he to tell me he was disappointed. And why would I care about his disappointment anyway? He meant nothing to me. Thinking his words were moving me, he continued. What a pretentious bastard…
“You ruined this for yourself. Of course, I’m sure this was all a big joke for you anyway, a wonderful chance to get away. Play the good girl, and then we make exceptions for you, and then you have your chance to escape punishment for your actions.” I didn’t look at him. “Now, even though this is against my wishes, your punishment will come.” He went on in a quieter, less false voice, “You can’t make a mockery of us and not expect us to react.” I continued to stare at the cement floor. He raised his voice again. “I am sorry to be the one who has to tell you this, but you have been sentenced to death for murder and an attempted escape. You have thirty days.”
… Death. Is that what he said? Well, I knew it was coming. It was just a fluke I had not been shot through the chest that night. I thought of the bullet: the reminder of that night. I felt it hanging down from my neck. Despite my resolution not to feel fear, I felt a boiling urge to make him believe my story. I turned my gaze to the guard and found him watching my face intently, waiting for an outburst. This quite simply pissed me off even more, which I realized was most likely his mission. But I couldn’t hold myself back any longer. It wasn’t fear I felt, it was just anger, and hatred. “How can you possibly believe that this is a joke to me, that I am trying to mock you? I didn’t do it!” I yelled in a clear, deep voice.
He got up and started to walk away. “Evidence and your actions prove a different story.” Then he left, shaking his head.
My eyes returned to the ground, burning. They began to water, but not a tear fell from them. My jaw was clenched. Anger took over my body, making me shake as I tried to suppress the rage. All I wanted to do was break something, break lots of things. Then, suddenly, the fight left me and I felt weak, a fire slowly burning out, turning into ashes. But no wind came to blow me away.
I lay down in bed and pulled the sheets up over my head. In my weakened state, sleep easily filled my mind, my body. I fully welcomed it and apparently slept for a long time. I awoke at night. Only a few dim, yellow lights were lit. Sitting up in bed, I felt disoriented. Was it all a dream? No not at all. While I felt empty again, I didn’t rekindle any of my anger.
There was an illuminated button next to me and I pushed it. I saw a small light turn on at the end of the hallway and I heard a short ding. I had summoned a nurse. She came at once, smiling. I said I was hungry and asked for a little snack to get me through the rest of the night. In reality I was starving, having slept through more than a few meals. This must have occurred to her because she came back with a full tray: a bowl of soup, two fresh rolls with melting butter, cheese, an apple, and a cup of water. She sat in a chair by my bed as I ate. While I was grateful for the food, this annoyed me. I really just wanted to be alone.
She began to talk to me. I tried not to listen, but it was impossible. She told me that she had been watching me the past few days, especially after the guard came to see me. She said that she believed my story, said I was different from most of the others who came there, and that she understood how the government could manipulate people. I was shocked at her quiet, but bold talk – she spoke the thoughts others dared not utter. A small, warm light inside me kindled as she talked. It felt good to eat, to be warmed by her little speech. But I soon remembered my future, or my lack there of – it didn’t matter that this silly woman thought me innocent. I was going to die no matter what.
She stopped talking and I finished my meal in silence. When I was done, I looked at her directly in the eyes, said a sincere thank you, and she took my tray, leaving without another word.
When I could eventually move my arm well enough without much pain, I left the hospital wing. I was transferred to a cell similar to the one I lived in initially. The difference of my imprisonment was that I could go to the rec. room once a day for a few hours. I chose the morning because there were not many people there.
One day when I was in there, blindly staring at the cooking show on TV, a guard came up to me. He said that I had a visitor. I told him he must have the wrong person and that no one would come to visit me. He asked my name. I told him. This confirmed his earlier statement: there was in fact someone there to see me. I was both intrigued and quite confused. Who would want to visit me? Maybe Coach V wanted to come back and break me down once more with his words, take one last shot at me before the end.
I was brought into another room to sit and wait in anticipation. Then my visitor came in. It was Meghan. Why in the world was she there to see me? We each said hello to each other as she sat down across from me in the folding chair that had been placed in the room for her. I looked at her. She looked at me. I could tell she wasn’t afraid. Still, I was suspicious of her intentions.
“Why are you here?” I asked in a cold way. She looked at me a while longer before speaking.
“That night when you came to practice, I could see what Coach V was doing, trying to make you angry. And you were angry, but for good reason. You were different that night, but you’re not a bad person. You’re not a killer. You’re just … lost in the unfairness of it all.”
She was right, and we both new it. I said nothing so she continued.
“Listen, my Dad always says it’s never good to live in the past. If you could only get over the fact that people think you’re guilty, and accept that their ideas about you won’t change – at least not immediately – you could get yourself out of this mess. I know it’s not fair that these people along with many others don’t trust you, and that they think you’re a murderer. But you’re killing yourself by not even trying to move on from this.”
“Sorry to tell you this, but all this doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t have a future. There’s no getting myself out of this now.”
“You can get out of this, though. Just try! All you have to do is accept that people think you’re guilty and then play their game. Just don’t run away this time. You can get over this. You can take it. It’s simple. And then you can go on living. And you can come back to basketball practice…” She finished bashfully.
I missed my friends. Maybe I was keeping myself from moving on because I wanted to wallow in self-pity, in the unfairness of it all. But no, she did not understand the situation. They were going to kill me now because they thought me guilty. There was no escape. I couldn’t play their game anymore even if I wanted to. I had lost my one chance.
“Whatever this is, it’s not simple. Have you ever stepped out of your life and realized that a stranger is living it, that you’re a stranger to yourself because someone else has control over you, is manipulating you? I’ve changed. I didn’t want to, but I have. People think I’m a murderer, and then I pretended to be a murderer to play their game, but who can keep up that sort of façade? I’m done with that. I’ve remembered who I am and it’s not a murderer. And it’s not someone who fearfully plays the murderer to appease those who control me. There’s nothing I can do at this point.”
There was a silence. She still believed that I was just being stubborn, trying to prove my innocence when there was no hope for it, when there was another path that I could take that would free me, however cowardly that path may seem. That was not the case. I went on calmly.
“They gave me one chance, and I ran, I rebelled… There’s no turning back now. Playing their game again won’t do me any good.” I took a deep breath, then told her: “They’re going to kill me. I’ve been sentenced to death.” This opened her eyes. She looked at me in shock, her mouth falling slightly open. Yes, that’s right. That changes things a bit, huh? I continued.
“I have no control over the situation. I am what they say I am, and whether I acknowledge their claims as truth, or go on fighting the system, it doesn’t matter anymore. I’m amazed they didn’t just kill me there in that building after my fall that night. Or up on that hill after I ran from practice. They should’ve put a bullet in my brain then.” Another silence. There was a lump growing in my throat. I felt sick. “Got any bright ideas? Let me know.” I felt my eyes begin to water, but not one tear fell. My jaw was clenched. I leaned forward, looking into her eyes and whispered as a challenge, almost mocking, “Help me.” Then I looked away.
The silence that followed made me stiffen as I tried to control my emotions. She couldn’t do anything. No one could do anything. I was overcome with the knowledge that I would not be there in a few days. I wouldn’t be there to talk, to think, to breathe. Meghan saw the struggle in my face, and I don’t think she could take it anymore. It was just too unfair. She stood up and stepped out the door.
I looked at her, knowing what she wanted to do. “Don’t.” But she didn’t heed my advice. She looked around her at the guards, at the few other prisoners, and then began yelling: “This girl is innocent! Innocent! Why don’t you believe her? Why are you going to kill her? She didn’t do anything!”
I closed my eyes. I could feel her rage spilling out. I worked hard to control my own.
Two guards came over to her, grabbed her by the arms, and took her from the room still screaming. I saw her right before they dragged her out the door. Tears were streaming down her face. Our red eyes met. Hers were wild with fear, the fear that my life would be taken from me without the truth being accepted. Then one of the guards hit her on the temple with his baton and knocked her unconscious.
They put my story on the television. I was both afraid and hopeful that my brother would come to visit before the end. He didn’t of course. It was foolish to think he would. Why would he waste his time with me? The news anchors told the public of all that I had done, and of my fate. The government was making a point. They were in control. They had tried to help me, but I was beyond help. They told the people their story, and that is what everyone believed: I was a murderer, and therefore a person who deserved to die.
A few days after Meghan’s visit, three big guards brought me to a long, narrow, cement room below ground with my hands in cold, metal cuffs behind my back. There was only one light flickering above the heavy, metal prison door that they closed with a resounding bang behind us. I couldn’t even see the other end of the damp room. It seemed to go on and on into the darkness.
Walking forward into the room a few steps, I stopped, staring on at the nebulous end. A man wearing a tinted helmet entered the room as the three guards left. He had a simple rifle-like gun, white like his uniform. I was ordered to walk towards the other end of the room. He told me not to look back. So, with a surprisingly empty mind, with acceptance not fear, I began to walk towards the darkness. The cuffs were cold on my wrists. I thought how my body would soon be the same temperature. Staring at the damp, cement floor, taking one slow step at a time, I wondered where I would fall, where my blood would pool.
After walking about ten yards, I heard it: the crack. It ruptured the silence and echoed, deafeningly. I didn’t feel it at first, but it was truly a perfect shot. Against my will, I dropped forward to the hard ground and felt the warm blood begin to seep out. I no longer had control over my body, just like I no longer had control over my life. Suddenly very cold, I was somehow aware of the hole through my chest. I could feel its dimensions stretching through from one side of me to the other.
Just before losing consciousness, I felt something gently fall from my neck. It was the thin strip of fabric from the blanket in the hospital wing. My necklace had broken, and the bullet that had sat against my chest, my heart, was gone, shot away into the darkness. I lay there, stretched out on the ground, heart stopped, breath stilled, cold. I imagined a wind, lifting me up, blowing me peacefully away. I was ash, flying down that tunnel of darkness, reaching, not for some light that might await me at the end, but instead for a fresh breeze, for the gentle exhale of the world, for something to simply propel me further.