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To Own the Wind

They own you, the masters of whispers, always listening. How can you hide from the wind?

I watched my copper mailbox dangle from the door of my bar through the blurs of my windshield wipers. The rubber gripped the glass, not a forgotten drop or streak. They were new. The car was new. The mailbox was rusted and tarnished. 

 

    It was Sunday, I’d just gotten out of one of those fancy Catholic Cathedrals I’d found in inner-city Moscow,  and as I trudged through the rain, I begged God that the mailbox be empty. It should’ve been empty, like everyone else's. It wasn’t. 

    

    The envelope was green, like the rest. The color of money. And of poison. I shook off the rain and locked the door. I poured myself a drink, Basil Hayden’s and Dubonnet, and sat at the bar, the customer’s side. I ran my fingertips along the edges, to the corners. They were sharp, hard. Paper knives. 

 

    There was nothing written on the outside. There never was, because that’s exactly who’d sent it. No one.

 

    The Kuntsevo District locals, the ones who believed the legends, called them Tikhiye Vory — Silent Thieves. Really, they had no name. They didn’t need one. They were ghosts. Shadows. Whispers. 

 

    They communicated through typed letters. No stamps, no addresses. They didn’t need the Russian Post. Moscow’s homeless delivered their commands. Money meant nothing; it was a flimsy paper shovel to dig up what really mattered. Information.

 

    They called us their svideteley — witnesses. That’s what each letter donned as a heading. Dlya Svedetel — for the witness. We were information sponges. Secret peddlers. We could be your high school janitor, your barber, your pastor. Your bartender. They were Moscow’s puppeteers, and we gave them the strings to bend anyone to their will, to make the city dance.   

 

     I’d gotten my first letter about a year after moving to Moscow and opening Frankie’s Tavern in the Kuntsevo, and at the time I thought it was a miracle. For a while, I’d made an honest living. I had regulars; we’d share a drink early into the morning, talk about sports and guns and cars. I made friends. Hell, I even made enemies. I called them enemies anyway, the guys you jab with empty threats and laugh when your friends call your bluff. The best type of enemy. The type that reminds you in a backward way that you don’t really have much to worry about at all. 

 

    Even with the thirsty Russians and rich tourists, I was barely making enough to keep Frankie’s open that first year. Business was steady, but I was already shin-deep in bills when an electrical shortage scorched half my bar. I was a broken man. My insurance was useless. Never ending investigations and postponements. For months I was penniless, bankrupt. You never really know helplessness until you have to ask yourself what you can live without, what you can pawn off to pay for a meal.

 

     I sold my car, my appliances, most of my furniture. I had no family in Moscow, and I never went to college. Bartending was really all I knew, and Russians aren’t quick to hire Americans on the spot. I had no family in Moscow. I remember using what little whiskey I had left to get me to sleep at night. One night I remember crying after getting fifty dollars for groceries from a former Frankie’s regular. It was the end of January, and by the time I’d walked home the tears had frozen into my beard. 

 

    Then about five months after the fire, my doorbell woke me up around 3 a.m. My head throbbed from the night before, and I opened the door to a blind man in rags holding an envelope. It was green. He never said a word, never smiled. His eyes were wrapped in white cloth. I asked who it was from, what the hell he was doing at my house at 3 a.m., but he just shook his head, waved the letter until I took it, then hobbled his way back to the streets.

  

    The letters were always short. To the point. It said a friend had a simple offer: meet people, ask questions, take notes, and never worry about expenses again. The letter said the friend would cover Frankie’s damages and pay me a grand for each report. All I had to do was leave my notes in the copper mailbox and wait for the next set of names.

 

    Of course, I thought it was a joke. Probably one of the local patriot runts having a laugh at a struggling American. I’d heard the legends at the time, but never gave them much of thought. Guys would laugh about the Vory at the bar when they couldn’t explain something like they were the Russian Freemason’s or the New World Order or something. The inside joke of the Kuntsevo. An American embassy secretary goes missing? Vory eto sdelali. The thieves did it. A movie star hangs himself in his mansion? Vory eto sdelali. 

 

    I guess the best hiding places have always been in the daylight. 

 

    The offer was too ridiculous to take seriously anyway, so I ended up trashing the letter. But two days later I found another green envelope. No note this time, just ten thousand U.S. dollars. Beautiful, crisp, green notes.

 

    After I riffled my thumb through those bills, I didn't give it a second thought. Couldn’t. Swing information and get Frankie’s back? Plus another thousand dollars every time I gave them a few notes on some random Joe? It sounded like a blessing from God Himself. Then again I guess most deals with the Devil do.

 

    It was blackmail, what I was doing. For a while, I told myself quick lies, called it insurance, necessity, secondary employment — whatever would get me through the night. The letters would appear a couple of times a week, and sometimes, if I stayed late into the morning at Frankie’s, I’d see the same blind man hobble to my door and drop the next letter through the slot. One time I called after him as he walked away, asked him his name, but he either didn’t hear, didn’t care, or was too afraid to say. They were the same green envelopes every time. The same stiff, sharp U.S. hundreds inside, and the same black ink with two new names. 

 

    This letter looked the same. Clean on the outside. Bright green, smooth paper. No wrinkles or stains. Almost cheerful, like a gift or an invitation if you didn’t know. But I knew. 

 

    It looked foreign against the deep, rich grains of the oak bar top. It looked ugly. I sipped my Manhattan, wondering. It’d be different this time; there wouldn’t be any money. My last report didn’t have the notes they wanted. I wrote them one sentence: ya khochu vyyti I want out.

 

    Everything had been fine for about three months after I reopened Frankie’s. Sure, it felt wrong, dirty, but it was all so surreal, so mystic, really, that it never ate away at me much. It felt like a game — I wrote my little notes and left them for the ghosts to sweep away, and as long as no one was getting hurt I slept just fine. Better even, with fatter pockets and under softer sheets. 

 

    Then I was asked to target one of my long-time regulars: Victor Pavlov, a thin, pale man. He was a firefighter covered with clumpy, black hair that puffed under his clothes. He threw his head back when he laughed, his adam's apple would shake, and you couldn't help but stare at his white teeth shining against all that hair on his face.  

    

    Victor would swing by on Wednesday and Friday nights after he went to the dog tracks, and the last Friday I saw him, he was practically giddy. The man was just born jumpy, but that night he couldn’t keep still long enough to nurse a beer. He went straight to the shot glasses, all laughs and white teeth. I didn't have to ask him what he was so worked up about; he spits it right at me. Said he’d been saving money to get his daughter out of waiting tables at Angely Nochi, a club in downtown Moscow. 

 

    ‘Waiting tables’ was his weak attempt at a euphemism for ‘prostitution,' just like ‘club’ was mine for ‘whorehouse.' Not that I had anything against Vic or the gal, that’s just what it was.

 

     He said he’d just won big at the tracks, and he’d finally gathered enough to send her to art school. We shared a drink. We laughed. He threw his head back. I didn’t press for more information; I just couldn’t. It wouldn't have been right to dig up something rotten on that glowing smile. 

 

    So I wrote he was sending his daughter to art school. Didn’t even mention the money at the tracks. But I guess it didn't matter, because the wind swept it away and two weeks later his wife found Victor locked in his garage, the engine humming, the doors shut. She said she opened the door and the exhaust fumes rolled out thick, like oil floating up from Hell. She said she saw the back of his head slumped against the window and she dropped to her knees and almost suffocated in the smoke. No note, no reason, nothing. 

 

    It kept me awake for the next three nights. My lungs would burn from bourbon, and I’d stare at the panels in my ceiling while the room spun. I’d count them. Then I’d count them backward. I’d count them until the sun shone through the curtains and my eyes were dry and stinging like my brain was yanking them through their sockets. 

 

    Every person before Victor was just a customer. They'd come and get drunk and tell me their sob story; then they'd leave. Some came around again, some wouldn’t, but they were just customers. Now they were people. They each had stories, and those stories had endings.

 

    The next day I got a letter with two more names, but I never responded. Two more letters came in that week, no money, just names. I talked to the people, listened, laughed with them. But I kept everything to myself. I could be saving their lives. I said it over and over, and I tried to ignore the rot in my stomach reminding me of the shit pile I was diving into. It was like sprinting down a staircase, three, four steps at a time, my lungs crashing into my stomach, waiting to fall with each step, every day.

    

    Then the stairs vanished into a pit. It was almost elegant, the way they threatened me. A gift was sitting on the bottom step of my front porch. White wrapping, green bow. Inside were a set of molded keys: to my house, my bar, and my car. They owned me. At any time, wherever I was, I was theirs.

 

    The next day I left them my first report that week, my one sentence.Ya khochu vyyti. I want out.

 

    Their reply sat in front of me. A bit more blurry, now, a bit less sharp. Every bit as green. I pulled my pocket knife from my jeans and sliced the top. Inside were two cards, one had a name and a time: Professor Alexi Volkov, noon, Sunday. The other had a single sentence: net vykhoda — there is no way out. 

 

—-

 

    I slept off my buzz and awoke to Frankie’s door cracking the wall. I nearly fell off the stool and thought I was still dreaming when I saw what was waddling toward me. He was half a man, a dwarf, and God, was he bizarre. 

 

    He was shaped like a baseball and wearing a vomit green peacoat with red bezels and handkerchiefs in the pockets. His golden glasses had dark oval lenses as he stole them from a gag shop and he wore a white silk hat that made him look like an 80’s pimp. 

 

    He shouted ‘Oy!’ as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, then he plopped down at the bar and clapped the table with both hands, which I translated as ‘I’d like a drink, please, sir.' 

 

    I stumbled behind the bar and poured him a stout. He swallowed the pint in one breath, wiped the foam with his handkerchief, and introduced himself as Professor Volkov. Then he reached into his coat and pulled out a letter. Green envelope. My stomach started to burn. 

 

    He spun the envelope between his fingers and said he knew who I was and that I’d been extremely helpful over the last few months. He said he was a businessman with an expanding market, and he needed a trustworthy English translator for a negotiation with an American investor the following afternoon.

 

     Even behind his gimcrack glasses, I could tell he had shifty eyes, so I asked what if I wasn't interested. He said if I were to translate, I’d begin earning an extra fifty percent per report. 

 

    It was a hell of a lot of money. Money I could put to good use. Still, I waited, thought it over. He was tapping the bar like it was his own piano. 

 

     After about a minute, he just shook his head and said he'd see me at the Regis Hotel in downtown Moscow at noon tomorrow. Then he slid the envelope across the bar, laughed, and said, “O, da. Net vykhoda.” Then he hopped off the barstool, a long fall for half a man, and waddled out the door.

 

    Net vykhoda. No way out. I’d be their sponge until I was dry, then I’d be useless. A loose end. A dead man. 

 

    I’d have to disappear. I’d have to vanish into thin air, a new name, new home, new country. It wouldn’t be easy, and it sure as hell wouldn’t be cheap. I’d need thousands of dollars. Hundreds of thousands, maybe, but the only way to hide from the ghosts was to become one.

 

    I picked up the green envelope. It was thick. Weighty between my fingers. I hated these things. They were my curse. And my key. I tore the seal. Inside were fifteen fresh one-hundred dollar bills. 

 

—-

    

    I met Volkov the following day outside the revolving door of the Regis. He told me the American’s name was William H. Barth, and that I didn’t need to know anything more than he had money. Lots. 

 

    We were to meet Mr. Barth at the Ryby Net, a restaurant on the twenty-first floor of the Regis, and he was to be seated alone in the furthest corner, overlooking Moscow. 

    

    The restaurant was sparkling in crystal from the chandeliers to the centerpieces, and Volkov looked like a misplaced blueberry in his blazer. It was about half full, and we made our way to the rear of the restaurant where a thin man with bright red hair and a neat beard sat sipping white wine. 

 

    Volkov leaped into his chair and told me to introduce him. I did, and Mr. Barth pursed his lips and extended an outstretched hand. Volkov shook it furiously. 

 

    Then the negotiation started. Barth told me to translate that the meeting needed to be short, and Volkov, with a charming smile, muttered something along the lines of ‘inconsiderate fucking Yankees.'

 

    He told me to inform Mr. Barth that he planned to offer a five percent royalty on all sales if Barth immediately cut all investments with other competition in the region. ‘Learn where the power lies, boy, learn well.’ 

    

    I translated, omitting the last bit, and Mr. Barth simply nodded and listened. Volkov waited for a response, then went on to say that the deal was foolproof, and after monopolizing Moscow’s market, the profits would cover the losses in just a few months. 

 

    They were dodging the words, but surely it was drugs. Drugs or guns or both. The more Volkov danced, the more I was sure, and the less I liked the situation. Still, Barth was silent. 

 

    Volkov expressed some colorful Russian before threatening that the opportunity won’t be offered again, and only a fool would attempt to divide the industry when it could be dominated. Barth just listened and sipped his wine, his pupils sharp, locked behind his wireframes. ‘Are you listening, you pretentious baboon?’  Volkov asked, eyebrows raised and with a gaping smile. It was masterful, really. ‘Are you going to sit there like a spoiled child?’ 

 

    I cleared my throat.Professor Volkov is incredibly interested in your opinion of the situation,” I said.

 

    “Please ask the professor why, exactly, I should transfer my alliance? Why not just increase funding to my current clients and spread him thin?”

 

    ‘Idiot Americans. He thinks I just throw dollars around and hope they fuck like rabbits? We’re completely changing production. Three times as fast! At a fraction of the cost!’ 

 

    Volkov chuckled and raised his glass to Barth. ‘Salyut!’  The man was a hell of an actor.  ‘Tell him if he continues to be a coward, he’ll be the worst kind of coward. A poor one.’

 

    “The professor says he plans to produce three times as fast, and reduce production costs.”

 

    Barth bunched the white tablecloth between his lanky fingers as he peered over Moscow. The sky was blotching in spots of grey. “Pity. The rain is coming,” he said. “Ask the Professor if his changes will compromise security.”

    

    Volkov dabbed his forehead with a pink handkerchief. ‘Well, well! The American does have a brain! They may send some red flags, but I’ll have my profit withdrawn well before the investigations roll in. But we need him to trust us. Oy, tell him that’s the best part! Tell him I’m eliminating human error and the manufacturing is untraceable!’

 

    For the first time, Barth’s shoulders sunk as he leaned back and drew a breath. I paused and gnawed my bottom lip. Their game was dangerous at this point. They were wrapped in the filthier side of the business, and Volkov was making me plunge head first.

    

    Barth let his head fall into the crux of his chair as he watched the showers pelt the glass. 

 

    ‘Well, boy? Translate it! What are you waiting for, why do you think we’re paying you? Don’t you fuck this up or I’ll make sure the next time you sleep, you wake in a grave.’

 

    “Professor Volkov says,” I paused, and Barth looked at me with a raised eyebrow above a thin smile. His eyes were an acidic shade of green. “He says he was promised production would be untraceable, but he invites you to hire investigators to look into it yourself.”  

 

    “Yes, yes,” he said, “A wise decision.” Barth raised his glass by the stem and swirled the golden drink, breathed in the fumes, and sipped. “Tell the Professor I’m overwhelmed at such an opportunity, but we need to be strategic. Tell him to proceed, and once he begins the operation, I will cut my ties and fund his project. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m afraid that’s all the time I have. Thank you, Mr. err —”

 

    “Murphy,” I said, “Francis Murphy. It was a pleasure, Mr. Barth.”

 

    “Please, call me William,” he said as the waiter brought his slip for the wine. “I trust you can mediate for Professor Volkov in the future? I will certainly be in touch.” He signed his bill and stood stiffly. Then he handed it to me. “Would you please give this to the waiter for me? I do apologize.”  And he walked out, pencil-like, his loafers clicking the marble floor as if to let everyone know he’d gone.

 

    ‘Well? What did he say? What did he say?!’

    

    I told Volkov he’d agreed, and he would fund his operation once it had begun. 

    

    ‘Ah, excellent! Wealthy men we shall be! And you! You’ll be paid soon, in advance even!’

    

    He hopped down and stumbled when he landed, before trotting through the restaurant, whistling, his head cocked upward.

    

    The storm was heavy outside now, and just before I got up to leave, I glanced at Barth’s check and laughed as the rain popped against the window. On the bottom, with excellent penmanship, he had signed his name, William H. Barth. Below the signature, he’d left his phone number, and then, in perfect Russian, uznayte gde sila —learn where the power lies. 

 

—-

    

 

    I sat there in the Ryby Net awhile and watched the rain blanket the city. As long as I was in Moscow, I’d be a puppet until I was a corpse. I was trying to outrun the wind, and I had to use the only ammunition they gave me. The bullets they trained me with: information. 

    

    I had a face and a name, Professor Alexi Volkov. And now, for the first time, I had a weapon for the bullets. William H. Barth. My temples were pounding, the rain was mocking me, but past the city, I saw the sun piercing the clouds in thin rays. Volkov was right. There was no way out. But there was a way through. 

 

—-

 

    I called Barth the next morning. “Ah, Mr. Murphy,” he said, “I’ve been expecting your call.”

 

    “For the record, I had no idea what Volkov was planning. He kept me in the dark.”

 

    “Oh, I know, you're not to blame at all. In fact, you acted quite wisely.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll cut to the chase, Francis. You’re in a perfect position. I need to stay one step ahead, and you’re the perfect tool. I need you to play a role, Francis. I need you to play the translator, make Volkov trust you, need you.” 

 

    “You —” I paused. I didn’t like where this was going, but maybe I could make something of it. “You want to make me a mole?”

 

    “If you want to call it that, yes. But I assure you, you will be safe. And you will be paid.”

 

    Bingo. “Paid?” I asked.

 

    “Handsomely. Tell Volkov I asked that you attend our meeting next week. Tell him I trust only you, but ask that you won’t comply unless he fills you in on the operation. Then, when he lets you in, report back to me.”

 

    “And what if Volkov suspects I’m lying? You heard him. I’ll be shot if he thinks I’m crossing him.”

 

    “Believe me, Mr. Murphy, whatever power you fear Volkov has, it is nothing. Smoke and mirrors. Prove yourself useful, and you’ll be perfectly safe. You’ll find your first payment as soon as I hear back from you.”

 

    The line went dead. The call had gone perfectly. Barth trusted me, agreed to pay me, but it wouldn’t be enough. 

 

    He was right. I was in the perfect position. And I planned to make it count. So I wrote Volkov a letter.

 

    I fumbled through my drawers for a pen, and my handwriting was jagged from the adrenaline. It was risky. Stupid. But if it helped me vanish, it was fucking brilliant.

 

     I wrote that Barth contacted me and asked me to spy. I said I’d never bite the hand that fed me, but I couldn't turn Barth down. Instead, I’d work undercover. A double spy. Barth would believe whatever I told him, and for a small price, they’d own him. I’d tell Barth anything they wanted. They could control everything he knew and didn’t know.

 

    I sealed the letter and left it for the ghosts. It was like heroin, the power. I was invaluable to both sides. They’d use me against the other, play their games, load their words, and tell me where to shoot. But as long as I did the talking, I controlled the missiles. 

 

    I knew it was risky, but it was my best shot. The deeper into the shit pile I dug, the closer to the surface I felt. I had a hand in both pots, and I’d pick from whichever gave me a chance of survival. It couldn’t last, I knew that, but at least it would keep me alive. Alive and paid and hopefully, sooner rather than later, I could squeeze enough cash to vanish. To start over. I slept that night. Actually slept. No counting ceiling tiles, just silence. 

    

—-

 

    Morning thunder rattled my eyes when I awoke. I creaked out of bed and shuffled my way into the living room. My eyelids drooped half open, and my vision was blurry, but I didn't need to see to know they were sitting there. I felt them. I felt them like cold steel ripping into my spine. Volkov was sitting on my couch with Barth across from him, legs crossed. They’d made themselves coffee.

    

    “Ah, we didn’t wake you did we?” Barth asked. 

    

    My heart plummeted into my stomach. I was closer to the door than they were. I took a step toward it. 

    

    “Ah, ah, ah,” Volkov said, then, in English, “you know the rules.”

    

    Barth’s lips, thin and pale, crept into a sick smile, before saying, “Net vykhoda.”

    

    “What is this?” I asked, hoping, praying that I didn't already know.

    

    “Did you really think we couldn’t find a more trustworthy translator?” Barth asked, “One that didn’t just ask to be released?”

    

    “And did you really think a man with half a brain would insult a business partner?” Volkov laughed, “Idiot Americans.” He threw back the rest of his coffee. “Come, sit Francis, we have a lot of talking to do. And you do love to talk, don’tcha boy?”

 

    I took a seat next to Volkov on the couch. He didn’t quite seem like half a man anymore. 

    

    “I’ll admit, Mr. Murphy,” Barth said, “it was a clever effort, pitting us against one another. I only wish I could say you were the first svidetel to try it. It was a shame what happened to Victor, really, it was. But you have no idea how much we learn from the girls at the Angely Nochi. If you think drunk men have loose lips, you should hear the things a man will spill on his back.” Barth crossed his legs and cleaned his glasses with his shirt. “You see, the witnesses always tend to get a little rattled at times, and we have to make sure they’re smart enough to land on their feet.”

    

    Volkov laughed a heavy, Russian laugh. “They usually end up choosing you, you ugly bastard!” 

    

    “Only the smart ones,” Barth said, “then again, intelligence isn’t always helpful in positions like yours, Mr. Murphy. Plenty of people have intelligence. Now loyalty, that’s a bit harder to come by, isn’t it?” 

    

    They were batting me around like a cat with yarn. I had to think fast. “Listen,” I said, “I don’t know what you want, but I can help you. The police. The police think I’m working for them against both of you. I’ll tell them anything you want. You can run them from the inside. I’ll tell them — ” 

    

    “Oy!” Volkov shouted, “The police! No, no, you didn’t call the police! Don’t you think, by now, that we’d know? You just don't get it, do you? Think boy! We burned half your bar to the ground to hire you, and you don't think we have men in the police? Electrical shortage, b’lyad!” Volkov laughed, “Insurance companies call that arson! The fools! Idiots!”

    

    Barth stood up and took a knee in front of me. I could smell my coffee on his breath. “And even if you found a decent agent, what could you tell them? What exactly was it that we were selling again? What was our business? Who are we? Barth? Volkov? Don't you get it? We’re no one. Tomorrow we’ll be William Burdette and Alexi Ivanich.” 

 

    He chuckled, and his eyes narrowed behind his glasses, toxic green. Piercing. “Oh, the svideteley love their secrets so much don't they. They think they can do anything they want with their words. There are the smart ones, and the loyal ones, but do you know who’s the most useless? Why that’d be the greedy. You were a bit greedy, weren't you Mr. Murphy, playing both sides? Yes, I’d say that’s a bit greedy indeed.” 

    

    I felt the sweat dot my forehead. “Look, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it, anything. I swear —”

    

    Volkov cut in, “Eto derr’mo, bullshit! That road is long gone. What is it you Americans say? Knowledge is power?”

 

    “Yes,” Barth said, “Knowledge is power. I guess we were a bit at fault, letting you think that. The witnesses always overestimate their knowledge. They think their secrets keep us held together. No, Mr. Murphy, knowledge isn’t power. Power is power. And, such a pity, you seem to have misjudged where it lies.” The curtain flashed white, and Barth’s head fell toward the window. “Ah, the rain is here once again. And I’m sorry for you, Francis, because it hasn't really seemed to stop. And for the greedy, well, it never really does.”    

    

    Barth stood and walked to the door. Volkov followed. “Well, boy,” he said, “Get up. Let’s go.”

    

    “Where are we going?” 

    

    “Oh no,” Barth said, “I think you’ve had quite enough information for a while.”

 

    I glanced toward the door, and Volkov pulled a revolver from his coat. He flicked the chamber, and it clicked when it spun like rattling teeth. “I’d follow if I were you. No need to make a mess.”

    

    I followed them outside, the rain washing the sweat from my face. The three of us stuffed into the back of a black sedan, and the second the door slammed, a bag was thrown over my head. No one spoke as the car sped through the storm. The only sounds I heard were the rapid blades of the windshield and my heartbeat. I’m not sure which was louder. 

    

    The car screeched to a stop, and the door opened. Someone grabbed my shirt collar and drug me to my feet. They ripped the bag off of my head, and the light tore into my eyes. 

    

    We were in the middle of nowhere. A massive field. An abandoned warehouse. “Come, come,” Barth said. Volkov poked me in the back with the barrel of the revolver.

    

    I followed him inside. It was dark, and you could hear the streams of water slide along the copper roof and crash onto the asphalt. “Where are we?” I asked.

    

    “We are many things, Mr. Murphy, but we are not wasteful,” Barth said, “you can still be useful to us.”

    

    “Just not quite as you are,” Volkov said. He laughed. It was an ugly, inhuman sound. “But don’t you worry,” he said, “we’ll fix you up.”

    

    And as my eyes adjusted, I saw them. In the corners. In the darkness. They sat on tattered mattresses lined along the walls. Dozens of them,  a hundred maybe. They all had white bandages on their eyes. 

    

    “Don’t let them scare you,” Barth said, “after all, they were like you, once. They don’t talk much. Not anymore. They don’t need to. I suppose that is the idea, isn’t it? The perfect listeners. The perfect messengers. Not hindered by faces or names or tempted by words.”

    

    I grabbed my stomach. Jesus. The mailman. I was going to puke. “Where ” I started, then I gagged, “what is this place?”

    

    The men along the walls started beating the metal. One or two at first. Then the rest joined in. Louder. Harder. Pounding. The drums of Hell. I couldn’t breathe. I fell to my knees. 

 

    “Ah,” Barth sighed, “isn’t that nice, your neighbors saying hello.” 

 

    It was all around me now. Fists to metal. I could feel the quaking in my temples. Behind my eyes. My ears rang, and I tried to get up, to run away, but I fell back to the concrete. 

 

    “Why don’t you return the greeting? Tell them your name, maybe? Take a look? Remember their faces? You’ll only get one chance.” 

 

    “Please,” I was in tears now. “Please — ”

 

    “Shhh,” Barth knelt down, his face close to mine. The walls were shaking. Every fist was pounding, thumping the metal like they wanted to break through. They weren’t saying hello. They were telling me that these walls were solid. Nothing leaves. 

 

    My face was drenched. I was choking on my breath. Barth ran his fingers beneath my eyes, wiping the tears away. His fingers were long, cold. Nothing but ice and bone. “Why cry, Francis? You’re home, now. You’ll be safe here.” His words were soft. Whispers. “You’ll have nothing to worry about. You’ve won! Isn’t this what you wanted? You’re free!” 

 

    The words were dull, and they dug their way into my skull. He spoke slowly, and his breath was acrid. “Finally free, finally home. Right where you belong.” 

 

 

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