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Life Sentence

"What lurks behind the bricked up wall in E-Wing? There's only one way to find out."

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“What’s in cell 119?”

Albertson looked up at me for the first time since I’d sat down. I’d been building up the courage to ask about 119 for ten minutes, but his expression made me wish I’d kept my mouth shut. He leaned across the desk, examining me closely. I felt suddenly nervous, was I about to be fired before my probation period was even up?

“What did you say James?”

“It’s just, I was running over some of the blueprints in the library and-“

He interrupted me, his voice full of menace. “What were you doing with the prison blueprints James?”

I tried to cover my tracks, I hadn’t planned for him to pick holes in my story this quickly. “I was looking for possible escape routes, wanted to see if we’d missed anything. Anyway I found a discrepancy, at the end of E wing.

He leaned back on his chair, looking like a cornered animal, dangerous and unpredictable, liable to lash out any moment. I had to tread carefully. “What kind of a discrepancy?”

“On the 1910 blueprint. I noticed E wing has an extra cell that isn’t there on our evacuation maps - 119. I just wondered what was in there.”

He smiled. “Do you know how old this prison is James? The first inmates moved in here in 1824 and since then the site has been rebuilt no less than five times. The whole place is riddled with dead ends and empty rooms. If I had my way, we’d knock the whole thing down and start again. I wouldn’t give it any more thought.”

“That’s just it sir. I don’t think it’s an empty room. There’s a door down there, blocking the hall to 119 and the inmates say they hear things from in there when they’re in the yard. What if it’s an escapee hiding?”

“Do you think we wouldn’t notice an escapee? It's rats James. Nothing more. Now if you want to get on in this job I advise you not to nose around in areas that do not concern you.”

He ushered me out and I headed out into the yard. 01341 was waiting for me, the oldest inmate here. Everyone just called him Doc.

“Hello James,” he said, looking up from his seat as I walked by. “How did it go?”

“He told me to drop it.”

Doc chuckled. “I knew he would. Just doing his job though he doesn’t even know why. It was all before his time.”

“What’s in 119 Doc?” He motioned for me to sit beside him. “You know I can’t.”

“I forgot. No sitting with inmates. Things didn’t used to be like this but that Albertson sure has a rod up his ass about discipline.” He looked past me, checking to see if anyone else was listening. “I’d only been here six months when the wall blocking 119 fell down. I only found out because Harris was roped in to rebuild it. He was my bunkmate back then, a builder before he killed his wife. It was all a long time ago of course. I was barely out of my teens.”

I smiled, running my eyes across the yard to check on the other inmates whilst Doc wiped the sweat from his brow.

“Harris came back to our cell white as a sheet, trembling all over, carried between two guards. It was an hour before I got a peep out of him and even then it was barely more than a whisper. He stared up at me, his eyes watering. I still remember how scared he sounded. ‘There’s someone back there Doc,’ he says to me.

“I knew where he meant. We all did. The talk of ghosts in E wing was a regular topic in the canteen, not that any of us really believed it. I’d only ever been down there once and I hadn’t heard a thing. In my first week in here I tried to escape. Ended up down E wing when I ran up flat against that wall. It was the darnedest thing. The corridor just ended in a solid brick wall. It smelt of damp and something else, something I couldn’t put my finger on. They caught me down there and I spent a week in solitary for that little escapade.

“Anyway, Harris said the wall had collapsed when they took him down there. Dust and bits of brick piled on the floor. Everyone in uproar, the governor yelling blue murder as Harris is told to start rebuilding. No time to waste. All the while, the governor’s pacing up and down, gripping a revolver in his hand and occasionally pointing it down the hall to 119, past the pile of bricks.

“Harris started clearing the rubble to one side when the governor yells at him, says there’s no time but to just rebuild a foot further back. ‘I didn’t know what the rush was Doc,’ he says to me, ‘but I do now. I saw it Doc. The eye that watches.’ I’ll never forget that sentence. The eye that watches.”

He stretched his arms as another guard strolled past the two of us, nodding in my direction. Doc waited until he’d gone before continuing.

“He set the first course of bricks they brought him. They were laid out along the ground when he heard it.”

“Heard what?”

“A banging coming from 119. Said it sounded like someone was hammering on the door, trying to get out. ‘What’s that noise?’ he asked the guard bringing him another bucketful of mortar.”

“Let me guess,” I said, remembering my meeting with Albertson. “They told him it was rats.”

Doc nodded, mopping his brow again as the noon sun beat down. “So Harris kept building as the banging gets louder. ‘That ain’t no rat,’ he says but the governor just whacks him with the butt of his revolver. ‘Keep going.’ Harris looked up at me, his hands shaking as he seems to relive it all, his hands still coated in brick dust as I hold them in my own, trying to calm him. ‘It started wailing Doc,’ he says to me. ‘Like nothing I’ve ever heard before.’ Howling and screaming coming from 119 and the governor doesn’t bother trying to explain it anymore. Just points the gun directly at his chest. So Harris kept building, that wall went up course by course until it’s as high as his chest.

“The governor started to relax a little then but the wailing didn’t stop, not for a second, and as he pushed the last brick into place, he looks through the gap and the spyhole to the cell was open. ‘I saw an eye Doc,’ he says, beginning to rock back and forth on the bed. ‘It was watching me as I put that brick in place, screaming all the while. The governor tells me he wants another wall. One isn’t enough and all the time he’s pacing up and down.’ So Harris built another wall, knowing he was sealing someone up in there, entombing whoever was in 119. By the time he’s done, they can’t hear the screaming anymore and the governor’s finally walking away, still muttering about rats. I went to sleep with the sound of Harris rocking on his bed but next morning I wake up and he’s gone.”

“Where did he go?”

“I don’t know James but I never saw him again.”

“What’s back there Doc?” I asked, a shiver running down my spine despite the heat in the yard. “What’s in 119?”

“I don’t know James, but I think maybe there’s an inmate in this prison that’s been here longer than me.”

“But that’s not possible. Without food, without light. Trapped in there. He’d have starved long ago.”

“Maybe, or maybe it’s someone that doesn’t need food. I heard a story from someone once. They told me about an inmate that survived an execution. Survived three executions. They hanged him, injected him, even shot the bastard but he just wouldn’t die. Did you know 119 was the condemned cell back then?”

I shook my head. “I thought the condemned cell was in B wing.”

“What if you were misled James? Life is all about what ifs. What if I hadn’t taken the gun on that bank job? What if that cashier hadn’t tried to wrestle it from me? Maybe I wouldn’t be in here at all, maybe I’d be a free man. Now what if you tried to kill someone and they couldn’t die? A prisoner who couldn’t be executed. You couldn’t just let them go so what could you do? What should you do?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, feeling dizzy all of a sudden and having to lean on the wall to keep myself upright.

“Maybe you could lock them away and try and forget about them. And maybe that’s worse than execution for the man in the cell and you know what I think James? The thought that keeps me up at night, even now. I hope he really did whatever he was in here for and do you know why? Because to do something like that to an innocent man, someone we could be studying, find out just how they’ve lived this long. Maybe that’s the real crime here.”

I mulled over Doc’s words for a long time afterwards. What if there was someone back there? Kept locked up alone in the darkness for God knows how long. And what if they were innocent?

I had to see for myself. It wasn’t hard to talk my way into E wing. I made it down to the end, past 116, 117, 118 and then I stopped dead in my tracks. The corridor was blocked by a solid iron door, a piece of old black tape covering the keyhole. In my pocket was a key, a rusty old key Doc had given me, refusing to say where he’d got it from. Pulling back the tape I shoved the key into the door, taking a deep breath as it slowly unlocked. The screeching rusty sound of metal on metal echoed down the hall as the door swung open towards me. I had the strangest feeling I was being watched but when I looked behind me there was no one there. I was alone.

Behind the door was a brick wall, just as Doc had warned there would be. But the damp had done for the mortar same as it had all those years ago and a shove of my hand was all it took for the whole thing to crumble to the ground. I coughed as a plume of smoke filled the air around me. Waving my hand in front of me to clear away the dust, I climbed over the rubble and found myself standing in an empty corridor. In front of me was a cell door, 119 painted just below the spyhole.

I took a step forward and then jumped as the sound of banging came from inside the cell, loud and urgent.

“Is someone in there?” I asked, still unable to walk up to the door. The smell was too powerful, a ripe, rotten stench filling my nostrils.

The only response to my question was a high pitched wail, a long drawn out sound that rose and fell, making my ears ring and sending me staggering backwards, anything to get away from that terrifying noise. I stumbled back over the pile of bricks and fell to the floor, banging my head on the iron door. I turned to face it as I clambered to my feet. The door was closed. I hadn’t closed it. I shoved it with my shoulder but it didn’t budge an inch.

The wailing died down a little, just enough for me to hear the key being pulled from the lock, trapping me in here with whoever was in 119. Whatever was in there.

“I told you to drop it.” The governor’s voice reached me from the other side of the iron door, shouting through to me. “But you wouldn’t listen. Where’d you get the key James?”

“Let me out of here,” I yelled, hammering on the door as the wailing grew louder behind me. “Let me out!”

“You wanted to know about 119,” Albertson called back through to me. “Now you’ve got all the time in the world to find out.”

“Who is he?” I called, trying to keep my voice calm even as my heart raced in my chest.

“Someone who’s been here much longer than I have. Maybe longer than any of us.”

“But who is he?”

“Why don’t you go and ask him?”

I edged towards the cell, my feet moving against my will, drawing me towards 119. The spyhole caught my attention as the wailing reached a deafening volume. Leaning forwards I peered into the gloom of the cell. I could just make out a shadow moving inside and then I staggered back as an eyeball appeared at the other side of the spyhole, bloodshot and watery and impossibly old, staring out at me. I fell to the floor, sliding backwards, anything to get away from that unblinking gaze.

I only stopped moving when I came up against the iron door, yelling for help until I was hoarse but nobody answered my cries. All I can do now is hope somebody notices I’m missing and comes looking for me. Just sit here and wait with that unblinking eye watching me and a sound I think I recognise coming from behind the iron door. I can’t be sure of course but it sounds a lot like someone’s building a wall out there.

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