There is a fist-sized hole in the concrete floor and another in the ceiling. The hole in the floor is bearded with sunblack shit, and at night the beetles climb out of it and crawl across my toes. The smell is worse in the daytime.
Sometimes I stand under the hole in the ceiling and let the sun cook my scalp until I can’t stand it anymore, until I can feel the edges of my mind singe and curl back like paper held to a candle flame.
I do pushups, sit-ups, handstands. I hum songs, recite half-remembered lines of poetry. I think about my wife: the freckles on her bottom lip, and the way only one cheek dimples when she laughs. Around noon the men bring me food – a paper plate with rice and chunks of flavorless gray meat. I eat with my fingers and stuff the plate down into the hole when I am finished.
There has been no interrogation, no talk of ransom.
I awake to find the President of the United States looking down at me. He is very tall; even hunched over, his shoulders scrape against the ceiling.
“You’re taller than you look on TV.”
He offers a paternal smile. “That’s the first thing everyone says.”
I ask the President how he got in here with me, but he is evasive. He asks me if I knew that an octopus can squeeze through a hole no larger than its beak.
The President doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He fiddles with his American flag lapel pin, cracks his knuckles, holds them stiffly at his sides.
I ask him if rescue is imminent.
“If I could, I would have help on the way as we speak. A whole fleet of black helicopters, chock full of rough men. Real doorkickers.”
“Why can’t you?”
“The truth is, I don’t know where here is. I have the key, as it were. Now all I need to find is the lock.” The President pauses. “You know, I was a prisoner of war once, myself.”
“I know. I remember the campaign ads.”
“They pulled my fingernails out with pliers.” He holds up his left hand, taps the tip of his middle finger. “This one didn’t grow back. The nail is fake. Acrylic.”
I chew my fingernails down to nubs. The President writes his full name and phone number on a scrap of paper.
“My personal line,” he says. “In case you remember any details about the men who took you.” He offers me an after-dinner mint from his breast pocket.
The President comes and goes in the night. Increasingly, I find myself unable to recall what he has said to me. When he finishes speaking, I am left with only the vague impression of having heard his voice. I am starting to resent his presence in my cell. Because of his height, he is closer to the hole in the ceiling, closer to the fresh air. He tilts his head back and inhales deep, greedy lungfuls.
He has roped me into playing tic-tac-toe. We take turns scratching X’s and O’s into the wall with the point of his lapel pin. The President wins twenty games in a row. I have suspicions that an aide is whispering strategies into the earpiece he has taken to wearing of late, but he assures me that this is not the case, and I am in no position to make accusations.
He begins the twenty-first game by placing an X on an edge square, and I see my opening. I box him in and take the win. The President leans against the wall and slides down into a seated position. His face clouds over.
“It’s this heat,” he says. “I’m not thinking straight.” He produces an embroidered handkerchief and dabs at his forehead, his wrists, the back of his neck. He hangs his head.
The President is weeping. Tears are coursing down his cheeks. Despite his height, he seems shrunken down, a boy in his father’s suit.
He ignores me.
“Mister President, really–”
The wailing intensifies. I am gripped by sudden predatory urges, like a wolf watching a wounded sheep fall out of the herd. The first kick is weak, but I put my weight into the second. I hurl myself onto him and we roll across the floor together, punching and biting. I put my knee into his stomach while he crushes my knuckles against the concrete.
The lapel pin bounces into the hole in the ground, and just like that, the struggle is over. We lay side by side for a moment, wheezing and probing our faces for injuries. When we get up, we stand in opposite corners with our backs to one another, like two people pretending not to notice each other at a party.
The President has forsaken me. Days go by without so much as a word; I believe he is still upset about the tic-tac-toe. Any hope of a rescue mission is remote, and morale is low.
I find myself staring at the X’s and O’s scratched into every wall of my cell, wondering if they will blend together, coalesce into something meaningful.
At night, I walk in circles. I listen to the crickets sawing outside. I sit beneath the hole in the ceiling and look up at the stars, searching for the gleam of satellites that orbit overhead. I imagine an antenna sprouting from my head, projecting signals of fear and uncertainty into the dark, as if one of those satellites might pick up on them, might look down into the hole and see my face looking back, and the person watching the feed will say, This man is in trouble. This man needs our help.
Eric Shattuck is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. He studied at South Carolina State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and served as an editor for the Inkwell student literary journal. His work has been published in The Nottingham Review, 99 Pine Street, The Molotov Cocktail, Gone Lawn, and the Kentucky Review, among others.
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