If I say I was innocent of the crime for which I was convicted and sentenced, you might perhaps be more readily persuaded, if not to excuse my subsequent actions, at least to see why I felt as I did. Then again, how many villains have claimed innocence? You will have to decide for yourself whether I did the right thing, or where I went wrong. If you are feeling honest, and courageously introspective, you can ask yourself what you would have done in my shoes, and if your path would have been better.
Night was the best time in prison, at least in Cell Block 9. Even before I met Audrey, lights-out and locked doors meant peace, quiet, and relative safety, for a few hours, anyway.
Half past one quiet midnight, a couple of months into my stay, boots sounded in the corridor outside my cell. It was not time for guards to make rounds. You would think they’d at least vary the schedule of the head count, but no. Apparently most geniuses do not gravitate toward careers in what is euphemistically called “the corrections system.”
I was still awake because I have always tended to be a night-owl, and also because it gave me time to contemplate the Riemann Hypothesis. It’s one of those famous math problems that nobody except a few nerds like me cares about, or even understands the question. And why should they, when they can go to the park and watch beautiful sunbathers? Not that I would ever solve it, I was good enough with numbers to program computers in binary code, but not good enough to solve the Riemann, unless I got really lucky, for a change.
“You’re not asleep,” she said.
I sat up. There were no female guards, none I’d seen, anyway.
“They didn’t tell you, did they?” She was only a dark outline, silhouetted by the dim light from the corridor. I could not see her face.
“Tell me what?”
“Right. They never do. Stupid rule.” She shifted her weight to the other foot, Faint stripes of light shone through bars somewhere and rippled across her thighs.
“Who are you?” She was no guard. None of their uniforms included dresses that fell to mid-thigh. It was red velvet, I would later see, but in the dim light it looked almost black.
“The world will end soon,” she said, seeming to ignore my question.
“Oh, you’re one of them.” She must be a self-appointed evangelist. The Bible-pushers couldn’t resist preaching to a captive audience. “How did you get in here after lights out?”
“There will be a door. It will be made of shadow and spider web. Go through it. Do not hesitate. It will not be unlocked for long.”
“What group are you with, anyway? Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
“Tomorrow. Around three. Between two and four. No later than 4:15, for sure. Sorry I can’t be more specific about the time. I complain, but it never helps.” She started to walk away.
“Wait, what’s your name?” I didn’t really care much about the answer, but her voice was sweet, like melted vanilla ice cream and hot fudge. And I didn’t get that many visitors, none, in fact, even crazy ones.
“Audrey,” she said, over her shoulder, still walking away. A scent of honeysuckle drifted through the bars of my cell. “Audrey Hepburn.” The dress swished around those thighs in a way to make me dream dreams.
“Like the actor,” I said. “Your parents were fans?”
“No. She was named after me. I’ve been around a lot longer than she.”
Then she was gone.
The world did not end for everyone. Probably just the ones who thought they
were ready for it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt ready for anything important, except morning coffee.
Audrey was right about the time. At three minutes past three, I was in the yard. Exercise time. The whole prison and the ground beneath it began to shake, and the demons came up and started taking people, or maybe they were angels, or just monsters. Whatever they were, they were gigantic, much taller than the fence and walls. One of them smashed a fist on top of the guard tower, splintering it like a child’s diorama.
When the shaking slowed for a moment, I looked at the prisoner beside me, a tall guy named Anthony, who was doing ten years for his second bank robbery.
But it wasn’t Anthony. It was Audrey, this time wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. “Your door is over there. You’d better take it.” She pointed at the wall behind the bleachers by the basketball court.
Sure enough, I saw a dark, cobwebby opening the size of an ordinary door. Nobody else seemed to notice. “What about you?” I said. “Aren’t you coming?”
“I’ll meet you outside. The door is only for you.”
Out in the yard, a piebald giant, maybe fifty feet tall, was stuffing prisoners and guards into a sack. Others were demolishing walls and ripping up sections of roofs.
“Are these angels, or demons, or what?” I asked Audrey. She shrugged, walking with confidence between their feet. It didn’t look safe there, but nowhere else did, either.
“An angel by any other name is just as deadly,” she said. “Call them what you will, but stay clear.”
“Clear? Where’s that?” The giants were everywhere.
“Follow me,” she said. I followed. Soon we were walking down the road that led away from the prison, in the direction if the interstate highway. I got a good look at her for the first time. She had red hair, pulled back in a ponytail, and blue eyes, tall, an inch more than I, lean but not thin. The prison jumpsuit had been replaced by a faded denim pants and jacket, with a white tee-shirt. I still wore orange, of course.
I asked, “Who are you?
“I told you. My name is Audrey.”
“Okay, I’ll rephrase. What are you?”
“A messenger, and sometimes, a guide, when there’s an apocalypse.”
“So you’re like an angel?”
“I said ‘messenger,’ and ‘guide.’ I did not say ‘angel.’
That seemed to be that on the topic of her nature. We kept walking.
As we walked, I told her the story. She didn’t ask to hear it, but she nodded at the appropriate places. It felt good to tell it. “Ron and I were best friends, once,” I said. “Or I thought we were. Then we met this woman. We were both in love with her. That’s a whole long story. Suffice it to say, she ended up with me, one hundred percent her choice. It’s not like I twisted her arm or anything, but she chose me over him. Her name was Tracie. Ron never forgave me. When Tracie and I got engaged, he vowed revenge.
“That, of course, is another long story. It ended with a significant quantity of methamphetamine being stashed in my car without my knowledge, but somehow the cops knew just where to look. I never touched the stuff, and neither did Ron, as far as I knew, but for sending an innocent man to prison, it sure got the job done. I was sentenced to five years.”
The mayhem lessened as we went farther from the prison. A couple of miles out, she stopped and took a bottle of water and a bag of something crunchy and salty from her backpack. She offered me the bag. I didn’t recognize the food, but I was hungry. I ate. The chips, as I decided to call them, were not terrible, but I was glad of water to wash them down.
Audrey sat on a large rock in the shade of big oak. “Room for two,” she said, patting the flat top of the boulder. “Rest your feet. We have a long way to go yet.”
“Figured out what you’re going to wish for?” she asked.
I looked at her stupidly. “Wish for? Well, getting out of prison would have been high on the list an hour ago. Or not going back to prison. Except I guess there’s not much prison to go back to, now.”
“So what’s your new choice?”
I continued to stare at her stupidly. I was getting good at that. It’s easy when the world gets suddenly strange beyond comprehension. Her blue eyes seemed more jade-colored in the shade.
“Choice?” I said, finally.
She sighed. “They really didn’t explain anything to you, did they?”
“Repeating everything I say does little to advance a conversation,” she said.
“Well, then, it’s a nice day for the end of the world,” I said, by way of conversation.
“Ones like you always get a wish. It’s another rule. I don’t make the rules. I
just follow them.”
“I would say ‘Ones like me?’ but that would not advance the conversation, either. So I guess I’ll just wait quietly until you explain why I get wishes.”
“Wish. Singular. One each for certain survivors. As for why, I don’t make those decisions. My guess is because you’re an innocent.”
“Well, it’s nice to hear someone else say that for a change.”
“Don’t get excited. Innocence goes hand in hand with ignorance. I didn’t say you were innocent. I said you were an innocent. Maybe. Innocence is generally overrated. Adam and Eve were so innocent they believed the serpent. Or so the story goes. But again, it’s not my call who’s guilty or innocent. I guess you don’t even know why you alone, of all the prisoners in that particular prison, were given a door.”
“Because I’m innocent?”
Audrey shrugged. “An innocent. And like I said, that’s not my call. But if I had to guess, I’d say you have a part to play in this apocalypse.”
“Whose call is it, then? Besides judges and juries?”
“Somebody else’s.” she pointed skyward. “Up there. So what are you going to wish for?”
“Well, that’s easy. Revenge.”
“Not wealth, or long life, or happiness?
“Revenge will make me happy.”
“No peace on Earth? Not even a harem of beautiful women–or men, whatever’s your taste, and a bottomless whiskey barrel?”
“The man who put me in prison for a thing I did not do–he has to pay.”
“Well, it’s your wish” She shrugged. “Just take one piece of advice–wait a bit to make your wish. Fools rush in. We’d better move. It’ll be dark soon.”
The giants seemed to have quieted down or moved on, at least near our big rock, but if Audrey said we should go, I was taking her word for it. This was my first apocalypse, but she seemed to know what she was doing.
Not until much later did I remember what she said about my still having a part to play in the apocalypse. Self-absorbed with my own guilt or innocence, I ignored the far more important question: what part?
So we moved. I asked where we were going. She said, “To a safe place,to shelter from the apocalypse.” She didn’t say more, and I was too glad to be out and on the move to question too much.
The safe place turned out to a cabin at the end of a gravel road. And yes, it was in the woods. But it was the farthest thing from haunted, or beset by ghouls, or equipped with a basement full of dark secrets. There were squirrels and raccoons and one skunk, but they did not seem to enjoy the company of humans or whatever species of being, natural or supernatural, Audrey was. It was just a cabin, a very cozy, comfortable one, too.
When we arrived, it was almost midnight, according to the tall clock that ticked in the main room. I wondered who wound it. No one seemed to have been there in a while. We pulled dusty plastic sheets off the furniture by candle light and went to bed soon–me in the narrow bed in the open loft above half the main cabin, Audrey on the couch by the cold fireplace.
The ticking of the clock was soothing. It made for contemplation and self-reflection. I finally admitted to myself that I am not a vengeful person. At least, not in the long run. Yes, it would feel momentarily good to take my revenge on Ron, but sooner or later, probably sooner, I would feel bad about what I had done. It doesn’t matter what someone else does, people’s choices are always a reflection of who they are. I was not a person who caused unnecessary pain and suffering to others, not even ones who might deserve it. I wasn’t even a person who wanted to judge what other people deserved, too many slippery slopes there.
In the morning, Audrey said, “So about that wish, time to get it done. I have other clients, you know.”
“That was good advice you gave me, about waiting. I wish for everyone who was ever unjustly imprisoned to be set free,” I said.
She looked straight into my eyes for five seconds. “Are you sure about this? Considered the consequences? You get one wish. No back-sies.”
“Considering consequences is why I’m wishing for this. And freeing the innocent is a good thing, so what possible negative consequences could it have?”
“I’m just the messenger, not a prophet. I don’t make predictions.”
“Okay then. That’s my wish. For all the innocents everywhere to be freed.”
“One more chance to change your mind. Your sincere wish is really that all the innocents everywhere should be freed?”
“Yes, that is my sincere wish.”
“Very well. Your wish, sincerely wished, will be granted,” she said, just before the giant’s fist smashed through the roof of the cabin, splintering beams like kindling, flattening Audrey beyond recognition.
I, of course, acted sensibly, and ran away screaming.
I ran a long way; I don’t remember exactly how far. The gravel road from the cabin branched into a lonely country road. The only signs of the giants here were uprooted trees and craters in the cracked asphalt. Trunks lay across the road. Too tired to run now, I skirted craters, climbed over trunks and under branches, and kept going.
I soon came to a church, a modest white wooden building with an unassuming steeple. A cemetery of about half an acre spread out behind the church. A curious noise came from that direction.
At first I looked around frantically, thinking of giants. But no, it was more a buzz than the thunder of giants’ steps. The noise sounded like a swarm of bees. I stepped to the grass on the edge of the cemetery and heard groans and screams, and realized the buzz was more like scratching.
I heard the sound of skeletal fingers scraping the lids of coffins.
The grass in front of the nearest gravestone began to heave, and a bony hand emerged, followed by an arm that pulled its way up toward freedom. The skull emerged, pulled the brown earth from its eyeless sockets, and grinned at me.
I turned aside and threw up, fiercely and thoroughly.
Gasping, wiping drool from my chin, I looked around the cemetery, where the same ghastly resurrection was repeated. The innocent, including the dead, were being freed. And what prison does anyone long to escape more than the final one…the grave?
In a flash of new horror, I knew it was my fault. I had asked for all the innocent prisoners to be freed, with no further thought of the consequences. I was too proud of my virtue in not taking vengeance on my double-crossing former friend.
Like a thin red tongue, an earthworm squirmed its blind way out of the skull’s mouth and dropped to the grass.
I had thought I was finished being sick. I was not. Not even close.