This story got started a couple years ago. It’s still in the early stages of development, but this is my attempt at a Stephen King/Edgar Allan Poe/Nikolai Gogol kind of story.
The old cart creaked on a bad wheel as it rolled down the cell block. An unusual quiet permeated the long, multi-storied corridors, broken only by occasional whispers of conversation, snores, and the sound of various bodily functions. Against the backdrop of a slow buzzing from the few electric lights that remained on throughout the night, the wheel kept trying to assert its dominance, squeaking away through the cell block’s eerie gloom, adding to the sadness that already came with being locked in a metal and stone cage for the rest of your natural life.
The wheel kept beat with the sound of the guards’ metronomic footsteps on the polished blue main floor and metal catwalks interspersed throughout the cell block and acted as accompaniment to the pathetic whirring of the not-quite-functional air conditioning units installed on the roof of the block, units which did little more than increase humidity and tease the inmates and guards with the occasional whiff of cool air. Leading a quiet symphony of melodic noises, the damaged wheel continued its squeaky march as the cart was moved steadily toward a door on the far end of the block.
The cart itself was unremarkable. It had been manufactured by an inmate years ago and steadily, although poorly, maintained by its various users. It was a simple thing. Two rectangular wooden boxes hung suspended between four wooden legs worn smooth with years of use. A simple handlebar was nailed to the top of two legs to make the cart easier to push and turn. Metal and plastic wheels were affixed to the bottom of each of the four legs. Each of the rectangular boxes was stacked with a random selection of well-thumbed magazines and dusty old books, most of which only left the cart to get put back on the shelves of the prison’s main library.
The cart and its irritatingly noisy wheel were being pushed by a pair of bony and liver spotted hands that belonged in turn to a pair of equally bony and liver spotted arms. The arms and hands in question belonged to a smallish old man who, despite his behavior during his rounds, was not a screw. He was an inmate, just like the people in the cells that he attempted to peddle books and magazines to. His name was Edward.
Edward had been barely twenty-four years old when he had first set foot in the prison nearly forty years earlier. A few months before his change of residence, Edward had gone out drinking with his buddies. They had been out all day and night, hopping from tavern to bar and back again because all of them had a date with the Army the next day, courtesy of the local draft board. The world was barely six months removed from the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Edward and his buddies were patriots; young, invincible, and full of liquid courage. Not normally a bad thing in itself, but that night it became a nightmarish combination for the lone Japanese-American family in town. Edward and his buddies had spotted the Nakamura family leaving their home about ten hours into their draft induced binge and began shouting and harassing the whole family.
Edward didn’t really remember what happened that night. The confrontation with the Nakamura’s had escalated quickly and, truth be told, Edward was three sheets to the wind. He would later tell everyone how he had fought the Japanese in his own way, how he had exacted a small amount of revenge for those bastards that butchered his brother on some god-forsaken island atoll in the South Pacific.
Edward was really getting into his rage when it happened. He was taunting and pushing the Japanese father around while screaming an especially eloquent and drunken racial tirade when he felt just a small tug at his shirt. Edward spun, swung viciously, and felt the soft and sickening crunch as his fist plowed into the head of the family’s ten-year old boy who collapsed on the spot and never moved again. There was a brief second of complete silence before all hell broke loose. The boy’s mother screamed and threw herself at him. She swung violently, trying desperately to hit anywhere there was an opening. She fought like a prizefighter trying to avoid an upset as she pummeled him mercilessly. Edward’s buddies strained to hold back the boy’s father as the small woman did everything in her power to hurt her boy’s murderer. Edward knew none of this. All he was conscious of were the small explosions of orange and yellow light whenever she made contact with his head. The thought that she would kill him popped into his head, sobering him slightly.
Edward tried to deflect the blows as he reached for his boot, or more specifically, for the knife tucked into his boot. He never made a conscious decision to use the knife, it just happened. In one jerky motion the knife flew upward from his boot, directed by his hand, and plunged into the mother, just a few centimeters above her navel. She stopped swing her arms and looked at him in shock. The world seemed to stop as a single tear formed and fell down her cheek. Then it happened again. Her last defiant act as a living human being sent him into a rage that he never recovered from. She spat in his face and set her jaw. Pure hatred poured from her eyes as blood began to run over Edward’s hand. Edward snapped. He grabbed the collar of her dress and jerked the knife out of her. Then he stabbed her again. And again. And again. He went on erratically stabbing her until his arm could not function properly and they both collapsed on the spot. That is where the police found him, collapsed on top of the two victims of his stupidity and rage.
The coroner at the trial testified that he had stabbed this woman forty-seven times in that one minute of hate and alcohol induced rage. By the end of the week, he had been tried, convicted, and sentenced to two life terms in prison without the possibility of parole. The judge insisted on the parole caveat because of the heinousness of his crime.
All of that is why Edward found himself pushing this damn, rickety old cart with its damn, noisy old wheel down a cell block all these years later. Just like any inmate, he started doing the horrible jobs that other, better tempered inmates had worked their way out of. He did an extensive stint in the prison laundry, made longer by his repeated attacks from other inmates whose views on race didn’t quite match up to Edward’s way of thinking. His stint doing the truly “hard labor” kind of jobs was also made longer by his inability to refrain from loosing the frequent racial tirade, though he didn’t understand that. All he understood was that he spoke the truth and if others didn’t or couldn’t appreciate the truth, then they were more ignorant than he gave them credit for. By sticking to this logic, Edward was able to validate his beliefs in his own mind and was completely unapologetic in his dealings with all of the other races who, ironically, made up most of his book cart route.
Edward liked this job, if not the cart. He was able to taunt and insult the inmates freely because they were behind bars when he visited. The prison had a policy of sending the “librarians” to cell blocks other than the one they called home because it was less likely that they would assist an inmate they weren’t familiar with, or so the thinking went. This meant that there was very little chance of retribution from the inmates, a circumstance which only emboldened Edward and made his insults and wisecracks fly a little freer.
That’s how it came to be that Edward James McKinnon was pushing a noisy little cart down cell block “A” towards a little security door that led to an old tunnel which would take him back to the library on this hot, humid night at Stevensville prison.
He had spent the night insulting every ignorant inmate in every dirty cell. He made a special effort to use his more creative epithets for the inmates who were anything other than white. He was genuinely pleased with his performance and he chuckled to himself as he neared the door, recalling some of his more eloquent moments. He had been in rare form tonight, oh yes, rare form indeed. He chuckled again. He had reached the door and shuffled around to the front of the cart. He pressed the buzzer and continued reliving some of his better taunts as he waited for the guards to buzz him through the door to the tunnel. The door clicked and he reached out his bony arm and opened the door with his bony hands. He used his body to hold the door open and half pulled, half dragged the rickety cart over the threshold and into the dark tunnel. Edward was a very loud braggard. He was a bully in every sense of the word, an especially vicious one since his victims were nearly always behind bars. All of this made him a coward at heart, even if he didn’t quite see it that way. He saw himself as a brave defender of the white race who was afraid of nothing. There was only one thing. He would never admit it to a living soul, but he was deathly afraid of that tunnel. He hated the tunnel.
The tunnel in question connected the cell blocks to the building that had been the prison morgue and medical ward until roughly twenty years ago. The prison was newly renovated then and a bright, sparkling new medical facility had been built while the old morgue had fallen into disrepair. The ninety-year old building sat, gathering dust and cobwebs for five years before a visiting politician with gubernatorial ambitions decided that the inmates, guests as he called them, could do with a bit of education while they resided at the prison. The politician had successfully lobbied the state to part with a fairish bit of their budget to fund the renovation which turned the old morgue into a library. Much to the consternation of Edward, who had been assigned as a roving librarian shortly after the completion of the renovation and had been peddling books, magazines and insults ever since, the budget had not covered improvements to the tunnel. Lots of things had changed about the prison in his forty years here, but that damned tunnel remained as dark and forbidding as ever.
The tunnel had been part of the original design of the prison. Almost one hundred years old, the tunnel was one of eight similar paths that connected the seven outlying cellblocks and one administration building to the library in the center of the compound. The tunnel was about six or seven hundred yards long and ran slightly downhill for the first half of its length and then slightly uphill for the duration. The tunnel had never been properly lighted. In fact, the only real lighting came from the bright library lights at one end of the tunnel and the dimmed cell block lights at the other end. The walls, floor and ceiling were a mix and patchwork of cinderblock and cement which cracked and crumbled before being poorly repaired over and over again. There was a dank, musty, and earthy smell that permeated the entire length of the space. None of that nonsense is what really bothered Edward about the tunnel. It was the chill and the sense of being followed that really bothered him and cause him the most angst. It didn’t matter one whit how hot and humid it was outside, in here there was a chill to the air. It was hot, sticky and humid everywhere in the prison compound except here.
Edward reflected briefly that it was so hot and so humid that, had it been his shower day, he was certain to have never gotten completely dry after washing up. Not that that really bothered him. He only got to shower once per week and there was absolutely no privacy here. Sadly, even on the shower days, he usually only had the dirty clothes he had just gotten out of to put back on. Between the cold showers and the dirty, sweat stained dungaree uniforms, Edward hadn’t really felt clean in forty years. Those cold showers. Privacy or no, he could do with one of those right now. In these hot summer days, those cold showers could almost make you feel human. Not so during the winter, when the heat occasionally went out and the cold shower could damn near kill a man. The slam of the door closing behind him snapped him out of his reverie.
Edward stood there clutching the cart and listening to the sound bounce its way down the long, dark tunnel. He unconsciously gripped the handle of his cart a little tighter and backed instinctively toward the door. He breathed just a bit faster as he stood staring into the dark. His brain tried in vain to explain that tonight was just like every other night. His heart and gut were not really believing it. He told himself to stop being stupid and called himself a few choice names that he normally reserved for the animals back in their cells. It’s just six hundred yards of concrete and air. And mold. And mildew. And that damned unnatural chill. Edward grumbled in spite of himself. It’s damned near a hundred degrees outside, he thought, and this damned tunnel is nearly forty degrees cooler. Towards the middle, when you started back uphill, you could probably see your breath if they had ever installed light down there.
Edward stood there rationalizing his fear of the tunnel until the sharp rap of a guard’s nightstick on the small security window in the door to his back caused him to involuntarily begin moving down the tunnel and into darkness. He had walked no more than twenty paces into the tunnel when he stopped cold. No, he thought, those are my footsteps. That’s why they stopped when I stopped moving. He stepped off again, his footsteps echoed ahead and behind him on the cool concrete floor of the abysmal tunnel.
The cart’s wheels made a plastic crunching sounds as they ground themselves into the porous concrete and added to the cacophony echoing up and down the walls. He stopped cold again. All the noises abruptly stopped. He could hear his own breathing. He felt the slow contractions of muscle that caused the hairs on his arms and neck to stand on end. Despite the chill, he felt one solitary bead of sweat form on his temple and trace its was down his scruffy cheek, wrap under his square jaw, and drop off his chin to the concrete below. His eyes strained uselessly to pierce the darkness. He didn’t even try to look behind him.
Edward started to walk again. All of the old echoes returned. There was the gnashing of the plastic wheels on concrete. There was the damned squeaky wheel. And there, ever so faintly, was the sound of footsteps in the dark. It took all of his self control to keep looking forward. Every part of him yearned to turn and confront the gathering terror behind him. He felt the darkness behind him deepening and spawning god knows what new hellish creature. His brain went into overdrive as his imagination created every form of ghoul and demon. His pulse quickened. He gripped tightly to the worn wooden handle of the cart. He was sweating profusely in the damp cold of the tunnel. Finally, his control gave and he spun round on his unknown terror. Nothing happened. There was nothing there but the cool darkness of the tunnel. With his back leaning on the patched concrete wall, Edward the murderer giggled to himself. What would they think of him if they saw this? He tried to slow the breathing a bit and turned back to his cart. He took a deep breath and began to push.
It all started again. All of the menacing echoes returned, defiant. This time they sounded behind him, definitely behind him. The sense that something larger and more malevolent than the darkness itself gripped him from the inside. His mind screamed at him both to run and to turn and face the ominous threat at the same time. His heart beat loudly, seemingly trying to escape from his body to save itself. But from what unknown terror he walked, Edward did not know. He could feel the thing behind him. He could feel it growing, a vile menace that grew closer and closer. He knew that it had to be right behind him now. He could feel a coldness within the chill as the terror crept closer through the darkness. He fought mightily to control the impulse to turn around. His lungs burned as his breathing quickened. His pulse gained force as his old, crooked heart continued its efforts at self preservation. He quickened his pace to escape the darkness following him.
Then he felt it. Just a small tug at the hem of his loose shirt. No, he thought. I’m imagining it. It cannot be. He felt it again and sped up. There, again. Another tug at the edge of his shirt. He moved faster. Another tug. He knew what the menace was just as surely as his brain screamed that it was not possible. His heart raced as he sped forward. Another tug. He ran, abandoning the cart as he raced from the phantom of a boy, long dead by his hand. His lungs ached and his mind came unhinged as he fled from this demon child. Another tug. And another. His heart pounded as the terror pulled endlessly at his shirt. He was too terrified to scream. He ran. The pulling was more aggressive and violent. His chest was on fire. His heart misfired. No! His brain screamed. Not here. It can’t get me. He can’t get me. Not like this. The menace pulled and pulled on his shirt as his body began to shut down. Limbs failed to follow instructions from his brain. He felt the endless pulling by the boy whose ghost had haunted him for decades. His heart thundered on murderously and erratically in his chest trying desperately to save itself. Weakening quickly, Edward’s legs gave way and he fell to the cool concrete floor. The thing in the tunnel pulled one last time at his shirt as Edward McKinnon collapsed in a lifeless heap on the floor. The rickety old cart which had followed slowly down the tunnel stopped abruptly against the cold corpse of the man that the tunnel had finally devoured.
The next morning dawned eerily quiet and surprisingly cool at the prison. The inmates knew that one of their own had died. He had been found after roll call in the tunnel leading to the library. A heart attack, the coroner said. It seemed he had felt it coming and tried to rush to the library for help. The investigators found one curiosity. A single thread stretched from the shirt that Edward McKinnon was wearing all the way, almost two hundred yards back, to a single nail in the concrete wall.