Niles was snoring, but he did that every night. The snorting reverberated off the concrete walls of our cell. I was used to it, we’d been bunkmates for a year, ever since his roomie got released and mine died from a beating in the prison yard.
Niles was an armed robber. I was convicted of manslaughter. The prosecuting attorney had hissed at me after the trial that I deserved murder two, but he wasn’t sure the jury would agree. We were both innocent of course.
Our seven feet by ten-foot cell was a bit bigger than those of older prisons, but still cramped. More so because Niles was a big boy, pushing three hundred pounds, less than a quarter of it fat. When he’d moved in, he’d told me to get the hell out of the bottom bunk, and I hadn’t argued.
I turned an ear into my pillow to muffle his noise. And winced at a new sound, a harsh chirring. I couldn’t tell if it came from inside my head or from across the cell. I shook my head a couple times and it was gone, the only noise left was Niles’ throat horn.
I worried about losing my hearing, but it didn’t repeat and I slept. The next morning, right after the five a.m. con count, Niles turned toward me.
“You gonna go down for breakfast, Leon?”
As I began to answer, the rasping shrilled again. I tried to focus, but couldn’t place the source of the sounds. “You hear that Niles?”
“Never mind. The line’s to long, I’ll go down later.”
He shrugged and walked out of the cell. The noise hadn’t stopped.
I took two steps over to our free-standing combination toilet and sink. Flushed the toilet, then turned the water spigot on and off. No hissing. The piping for the water and drain ran under the floor and into the wet wall that held the water and drainpipes for our section of the prison. I wondered if there was a leak, or if someone else’s flushing caused the noise. Or if something was wrong with me—degenerating ear bones or something in my brain.
One more step and I was against the concrete. I put my ear against it and held my breath. A sudden rasp made me lurch backwards, but I pressed back against the wall. The chitter resumed, louder and softer, higher and lower.
I thought I heard modulation in the sounds, like a madman’s refrain. I hoped that it was some termite thing living in the open spaces around the pipes and not in my mind. It stopped and I slowly walked down to the prison cafeteria and caught the tail end of the line and the leavings of the breakfast food. I brought my tray over to where Niles was sitting and sat down with him.
Niles and I both had prison reps, but his was serious. He’d busted up a guy who’d tried to cut into a food line, putting the guy in the infirmary for three weeks and himself into solitary for a month. He’d twisted the guy’s neck so hard the bones crunched, and the guy was still a shambling half-cripple. I only broke a couple teeth on a lifer who’d wanted me to be his love object. Even so I did two weeks of my own in solitary.
Niles never told me we were friends, but he kept an eye on me and the other inmates kept an eye on what Niles might do, so I was left alone.
“Niles, you sure you didn’t hear any funny noises the last day or two?”
“What? Nah, nothing. What kind of noise?”
“Like a pissed off bug, a really big one.”
“You’ve got screwed up ears, I didn’t hear anything but the guards shuffling around.”
He never said much, but he didn’t lie much either, so I quit asking about the sounds from the wall.
You going to eat those corn flakes, Leon?”
Niles believed in clean plate eating, both his and mine. I’d overload my tray with stuff I knew he liked. What little he didn’t eat he’d hide and take back to his cell to add to the home brew he had fermenting in his personal trash bag. It smelled like vomit, and when he cracked the bag open to get a little drunk, I’d hustle out of the cell if I could.
Niles left to go out to the yard and work out. The gangs usually commandeered the equipment, but Niles never had any trouble getting on. I never tried. No point pushing my luck.
After Niles left, Crazy George came over to me. He’d been sitting at the next table and must’ve heard me talking. He looked shit scared. “Don’t do what they tell you to.”
George was a loner who drew weird symbols on walls and in library books. He was undersized, but nobody screwed with him. Word was that if you did, bad things happened to you.
“Don’t do it, Leon. Put up with the pain, it’s better than the alternative.”
I figured he must be talking about the hissing. “What do you know about the noises?”
George was sweating. “Whatever it is that they ask, don’t do it. It’s the sure road to hell. I have to hide from you and whoever else they might recruit. I’ve already said too much.”
He grabbed my food tray, took two teetering steps over to the next table, and slammed the flat of the tray into a guy’s head. The guy swung around and dropped George with one ugly sounding punch, then started kicking his stomach and head.
George curled into a fetal position and held it until the guards backed the guy off him. As the instigator, George was going to be quick marched through the infirmary and into a solitary cell, where nobody but the guards could get at him.
Once the commotion subsided, I went to the library, which was usually almost empty. I took a thick reference book from the shelf and sat down in a corner. Then, as quietly as I could, I ripped out pages. I needed a new knife. I put the sheets under my shirt and went back to our empty cell. Once there I wet the sheets, layered them with stored up sugar water and spit, and pressed them between two book covers I’d also pilfered. Then I stuck the whole thing under my sheet. My body weight would do the rest, eventually. The dried, bonded paper would stiffen into something I could put an edge to. It worked for stabbing and cutting, but if it bent it broke.
The fierce static resumed just as I laid on the book boards. I listened, and thought I heard my name being repeated, “Lsseossn.”
Feeling like an idiot I cupped a hand next to my mouth and yelled toward the masonry. “Yes?”
“Ahs. Sgood. Mush to stell.”
I wondered if I was losing hearing or just going crazy and stepped back from the wall. Get away, I thought, and walked out of our cell and down a floor to the chapel. It had no doors, and opened into the main prison bay, but was at least nominally neutral. Two guys were standing together up toward the altar, whispering. I ignored them and sat to the rear, against a side wall. A mistake. I was next to the chapel’s wet wall.
I softly cursed. “What?”
The hissing seemed to clarify as I listened, leaving a background static over which I could hear words “You do something for us.”
Like shit I will. When there was no response, I guessed whatever it might be couldn’t hear my thoughts. And what kind of demented mind can’t hear its own thoughts? “Do what?” I rasped.
“One night, late, turn off lights.”
“Fuck you, crazy mind of mine, why?”
“Our presence strongest in the dark.”
“Must administer punishment.”
I jerked my head back and the hissing got louder.
“Not you, pelt-less ape. Another. One night you shut off all brightness.”
“Not a chance, hiss away. Better still, go pick on one of the Diablos”
“You hear us, Leon, because you are of our nature. We show you consequence of disobedience.”
The hissing shifted, higher, shriller, painful to hear. I clinched my hands so hard the knuckles cracked. The fillings in my teeth felt like they would split my teeth, the heavy metal ink in my prison tattoo hurt like it would spurt out of my arm. My brain, which has no feeling, screamed at me. I screamed as well, startling the two men up front just as they were passing a glassine packet. They cursed at me and ran out of the chapel. The pain abated.
“This your future, Leon, unless you agree.”
“I can’t, it’s impossible. And the emergency red lighting would come on.”
“That is tolerable. Do or suffer.”
The agony crawled back into me. My spine distorted and I fell to the floor. “Stop!” I gasped. It did.
I didn’t try to get up, the aching was almost as bad as the pain had been. “Why,” I muttered.
“Another must no longer live. Do or suffer.”
I needed to buy time, to think. “Okay, when.?”
“Before many days pass.”
“For how long?”
“Half the length of night.”
Thoughts skittered around my mind like pachinko balls. “It’s…” I stopped myself. If I said impossible again, I’d be punished. “It’s very difficult.”
“Do or suffer.”
“I need to think up a plan.”
The scritching stopped. I slowly got up, checking that everything still seemed to work. I doubted I was sane, but I couldn’t do to myself what had just been done to me. I slow stepped back to our cell, trying to think. There were four locked metal doors and that many guards between me and the electrical control room. There was almost no exposed wiring in the stir, except for some metal plated, armored cable that ran through common rooms like the dining hall, either full of people or locked up. Our cells would automatically lock if there was a power failure. But there was maybe an outside chance.
Niles came back from the yard, smelling like jammy armpit. “Going for a shower.”
“Good idea. Before you go, can I ask a favor?”
His look was stoic. Getting over on Niles was never a good idea, but some people did try. “Like what?”
“I need a shiv, solid metal, like a sharpened screwdriver.”
“You’re already making your paper special.”
“Won’t help. Could you get it from one of the crews in the yard? I’ll give you desserts for two months.”
His look shifted to sad. “Whatever you’re figuring on is a bad idea. For both of us.”
“Maybe, but I need it bad.”
He considered for the better part of a minute, then shrugged. “Okay. But three months’ worth of desserts.”
Two days later a member of the Diablo crew got hit from behind and almost totaled. The Diablos were ready to go to war, but the injured con hadn’t seen who’d hit him. A day after that Niles handed me a wide bladed wood chisel, its steel tongue sharpened, butt end wrapped in tape. “You go down for this on your own.”
“I know. Will there be any blow back to you from the Diablos?”
“Don’t think so. And the Hermanos figure they owe me a favor.”
That day I volunteered for extra duty cleaning the dining hall after meals. I told the guards I was saving the dollar an hour I made toward family presents. Except I didn’t have family anymore.
I put in two weeks there, and every night the shrill screech administered enough pain to remind me of my obligation. My solution, like most good plans, was simple. The worst, and last, chore in the dining hall was wet mopping the floor. As the new guy that was my job. The other two guys would go back to their cells, leaving me alone to finish up, which is what I needed. Once I’d cleaned up the dropped food, spilled drinks and tracked in dirt, I had about ten minutes before the guard checked on me. Over the next week, using a meat tenderizer to hit the chisel, I was able to cut through the armor wrapping and insulation of two adjacent power lines right at floor level, where hopefully it wouldn’t be noticed. That next evening, once the clean up crew had left, I wedged a twenty-pound block of ice between the cables on the floor. Then I called the guard. “I’m going to puke, something I ate. Can I go back to my cell? I’ll finish up in the morning.”
The guard rapped his baton on a table, but waved okay. I was ten minutes back in my cell when the power went out. Niles and I cursed in chorus and lay in the dark for four hours before the power came back up.
That next morning the cell doors didn’t unlock, and the prisoner count was conducted with us facing the bars. There was no breakfast. The warden come onto the PA system around 9am.
“There will be an immediate cell search. No one is permitted to leave their cells until the searches are completed.”
They got to us around 2pm, after we’d missed lunch as well. They found my paper knife without breathing hard, but the chisel had gone down a sewer drain the night before. Meanwhile a rumor spread from cell to cell. A guy had been found in solitary dead. He’d torn out his hair and run into the wall so hard he’d busted his skull. I asked a guard about it.
“It was crazy George. Had an expression on his dead face like he’d just shot his momma.”
As the last guy to leave the hall before the power outage I was given special attention. After I took a warmup beating from the guards’ batons the warden had them prop me up.
“All right, asshole, why cut the power?”
My lips and jaw were so swollen that I mumbled. “Din do it.”
I got hit a few more times, then-
“We found your knife.”
“Wount cut string. Was in my cell puking. Locked up.”
“You dumped water on those power lines.”
“Huw. Never even mopped.”
I got a few more whacks before they got tired and locked me up in a solitary cell next to the one the dead guy had been in. And neglected to feed me for another half-day.
That first night, after my lips had deflated, I put my mouth against the wet wall.
“I did what you wanted.”
The hissing was shriller. “Acceptable. To talk of this is to die.”
“No one would believe me. I’ll stay silent. But, in a prison full of hard cases, why me?”
“You already murderer. Already close to us.”
“It was an accident.”
“We know you lie, murderer.”
“So now you leave me alone?”
The hiss-chitter sounded almost like a laugh.
“Before you join us you will serve us.”
I pulled back from the wall. “But I’m not—whatever you are. I’m a man. A man you tortured.”
The next words were clearer, more resonant, as if a filter had dropped away. “As were we all. You are one with a great, terrible horde, for we are legion.”
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had almost four hundred stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of nine review editors. He’s also lead editor at The Scribes Micro Fiction magazine.