First published by the Henshaw Press as Second Prize Winner in their June 2018 short story competition.
I had always thought I was my own worst enemy. That is what I thought, what I’d come to believe. Through school,university, Corps Training, and my time in the field. That is what they taught us, what they prepared us for. If we could face our very worst fears, we could face anything. So goes the theory. I had worked hard to become my worst enemy, practised, taunted and challenged myself, pushed to extremes. Until now. Until this.
I was now facing what I knew to be my worst enemy, not just mine alone, he had come to represent all that was wrong with the world, what we were fighting against. And somehow, by being in the right time, but the wrong tent, by doing my duty, I had come to represent all that stood in his way.
It is just a job, one tells oneself, and the very few friends who may have more than an inkling of what you really do for a living. Information management, I usually tell enquirers. For the government. That usually closes the conversation down, sounds as interesting as accountancy. But is just as subtly dangerous. And close enough to the truth, whatever that may be. I acquire information, extract it, by whatever means necessary. Others actually manage it. Dissect it, disembowel it, or distort and disseminate it. Repackaged for a different audience or played back to its original authors. Confusion, disinformation, doublespeak, smokescreen.
I should have registered the smoke. I should have thought ahead. Prepared. Getting lazy, getting careless, getting old. I can see the report now: recommended to be stood down from active service. To be given something nice, comfortable, back office. To be shipped to Cheltenham or Hanslope Park. But there would be no report. I knew that, I was just trying to inject some humour, some hope. I would be lucky if my remains were even found and flown back in some diplomatic bag.
The bag over my head is stifling. Hot, dusty, sweaty, I can barely breath. And I try and save my breath, I know I’m going to need it. But I can smell the smoke.It’s pungent, acrid, the stench of burning flesh. Mine. Open sores run down my legs, from bruised kneecap to broken ankle. The welts have faded from the foreground, the battering has stopped. I have forgotten how to hurt, the pain has been blocked by my inability to feel anything anymore. But I can take more, I know that, and will have to, I’m sure. But I am numb now. I am an empty vessel, strapped to a chair, thinking, listening, smelling the air. Straining for a sign, some movement, an indication of what’s next, so I can prepare myself, brace for impact.
I know I will die here. In this tent.In this foreign land. Surrounded by men who are just as scared and scarred as I. I know it makes no difference now what I say, what they ask. Both sides are now beyond the realm of sense. It is violence without purpose, torture without intent. They have gone so far, it is too late to turn back. To retreat would be shameful, as would my pleas. We both have to save face. He needs me to die quietly, quickly, so he can walk away.
But I am not ready to die. My training was good. Too good. We were built to survive, to reach deep-rooted resources,develop new synapses to bypass pain, forget self, block memory, negate truth, manage, misrepresent, repackage reality.
That is what he wants, that is all that he needs, that is why I’m here, with blackened knees, cracked fingers,peeling skin, burning flesh. Just a scrap, just a morsel, just a small piece of information. If I give it to him, he’s done, I’m done, we’re gone. But if I give it to him who dies instead, how many perish in my place, in return for my offering? In return for my treachery? Just a bad day at the office. It is never just a job. It is always life or death. For someone, somewhere, some day.
My turn today it seems. I’ve had worse than this, I think. I try to persuade myself. But I know I haven’t, not quite like this, only in my nightmares, and those exhausting training programmes. But they are never real, however hard they try to instil fear, to push us to extremes, to try and break us, they can never go quite far enough. We are not super heroes. We are made weak by our humanity.
I wonder what his weakness is, his humanity, his Achilles heel. I have been trying to find it for some weeks now,but nothing seems to work. The mind games we learnt seem like frivolous party tricks, play-acting, let’s pretend at being spies.
The hood lifts, I gulp involuntarily for breath. I am given one more chance, one last ask, and he may spare my death. But I know he is lying, I am spent, no value to them now, more of a liability than collateral. Not worth carting around as a potential bargaining chip. The only gain in giving in, and giving up my information, is a selfish one, to reduce pain. To no longer be his plaything, a voodoo doll, sliced and diced and stuck with pins. That is why people always give in, not because they want to live. For the awful knowledge at discovering what carnage your weakness has wrought, the death toll, the disaster, is a lifelong torture. They never let you forget how much you let them down, how far you fell, how endless your failure. People do not give in, in order to save their skin and sacrifice others, but because they want to die.They just want it to stop. There is a certain point where you would rather kill yourself, as quickly as possible, than choose to survive such an ordeal. Would I have killed myself by now? If I could, if I had the means. If the vial had not already been extracted from my teeth. Yes. Possibly. Probably. But my weakness was holding on to hope, clinging on to life, when most would know when to quit, when they had passed the point of no return, and to let go of the rope.
The rope around my wrists is biting in. Rubbing raw the skin. Someone behind me twists it round, an attempt to snap my wrists. It is excruciating, a pain so far beyond the sense barrier it no longer registers. I am immune. I am immortal. I can no longer tell if I am alive or dead, and the difference barely matters. This is all there is, all that’s left. Me and my torturer, and this strange intimacy between us. He comes to me now. Stands over me, then sits astride, across my lap, crunching my splintering kneecap. He motions to the others, those I cannot see. He wants to be alone. Just him, my pain, and me. He leans in close, he breathes on me and offers a cigarette. I do not want it, but he lights it and places in my mouth, pushing it under the rag that gags me and is tied tight behind.
So this is it, I think. A final parting, a peace offering of sorts. A last wish,my last breaths wasted on nicotine. Then what? Blow to the head, bullet to the chest, knife to the throat. I wait. Nothing more I can do now. I choke on the cigarette. I don’t smoke anymore, and even if I did, it would provide little relief now. Here, in this tent, tied up, body broken, bent out of shape, mind half-crazed, nearly gone, but not quite. Not yet. Still desperately, pointlessly clinging on to the rope. As I choke he takes the cigarette from my mouth, puts it to his own lips briefly, looks at me in a way I take to be curiosity, bemused by my perseverance and resistance, or perhaps just amused by my appearance. The ability for one to be stripped of all humanity, dignity, capacity, yet still somehow, remain human.
He takes the cigarette in his right hand, places his left upon my shoulder, and slowly, carefully lowers it towards me. I see its trajectory, a slow-moving missile. It’s red glow lighting the gloom around us. All is slow motion, a film of exposed ripped negatives cast upon the cutting-room floor. It continues towards me, in my direct line of sight. I should have thought of this, I should have been prepared. I barely have time to close my eye. The cigarette burns into my eyelid, but gently, he doesn’t push, there’s clearly no rush. The skin of the eyelid is thin, a delicate membrane, it is punctured easily. Its hot spear pierces into my eye. I feel my eyeball contract, my body convulse. My eye is an egg cut and fried, thick viscous yolk oozing out, blood red. My fibres pull away, skin tries to contract, shrink into the chair, but there is no escape, no letting go. I long to faint, I am unavoidably repulsed, I try to vomit. It is a technique taught for occasions such as these, although this is a scenario beyond the most extreme programmes, my most sickening of dreams. But there is insufficient bile, I have already brought it up, when they first applied the fire and the knife.
I try to focus on something else, anything but this. Still he twists, and gouges the cigarette butt deeper in. My other eyelid is squeezed tight shut, awaiting the next assault. I can hear him, feel him, smell him, breathing foully in my face. Close enough for lips to touch, if we should wish. I have no more weapons left, my mouth bound, my head held firm in place. I can resist no more, I am beaten. My muscles slacken, I relax. I want to weep, I long to be untied, I know I would welcome even his embrace. And that’s when I know I am finished, I am letting go of the rope. I am getting ready to die, I have at last given up hope.
I know he must sense this. He’s been well trained too. Probably the same programmes, the mind games, the pain response reframing. He loosens his grip, leans back and, I imagine, surveys his handiwork. I keep my eyes closed. But my bowels open. Suddenly, uncontrollably, and spill out whatever is left in there.The body emptying itself, in preparation for death. He scrambles off me, stands up, and kicks at my red raw shin. The smell of piss and shit fill the air,mixing with the sickly stench of burnt flesh, singed sclera, fried albumen. I am blinded. I don’t need to try to open my eye to test this, I can tell. It feels rotten, festering, shrivelled in its socket. I am done. He is done too.That was his parting shot. I know that now. I don’t speak, or ask for explanations, I stay silent, for there are no words, and for fear that he may rip out my tongue. That is more common we’re told. He walks off, leaves the tent, rejoins his fold. I’m left waiting, listening, breathing. It’s all I have left.
They remove the tent, they take the chair. I’m left gagged and bound. Burning in the midday sun.
I spy with my little eye something beginning with…