Original image by Christian Senger on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
That is three years, eleven months and seven days, including one leap day. That is also 124,156,800 seconds. Despite being miserable at math, Saul knew this because he had 1,437 days to work it out. There was little more to do in his tiny cell of bland cinder block walls and concrete floors than meaningless calculations and musings. And to wait patiently for death.
Few people are cursed with the knowledge of their impending demise and Saul wished he were not one of them. But he was. He knew the day. He knew the hour and the minute and the second. He knew how it would happen. He knew where. And he knew why.
He would die tomorrow. Twenty-four hours and 17 minutes were all that remained for him. The pages in the book of Saul were flipping by faster and faster toward the conclusion of his short and wretched story. There was some talk that his death would be painful, but he had stopped worrying about that. His greatest concern was beyond that. He wanted to know what came next. If there was a next. He wanted to know what was on the other side.
At some point in his last night, despite a certainty that the sandman would never come, he peacefully resigned himself to the inevitable and had finally fallen asleep. He did not realize it, of course, until he woke up to the sound of birds chirping. It was an odd sound to wake up to. Death row was tucked away in a dark windowless corridor and he had not heard a bird chirp from here in nearly four years. He opened his eyes, wiped away the sleep and stared at the cell door. It was wide open.
He brought himself to a sitting position on the cot and listened. There were no footsteps. No sounds of guards laughing or talking. No other prisoners yelling for their breakfast. There was nothing but the pleasant call of the birds from somewhere just beyond. A strange mixture of fear and excitement wrapped itself around his chest like a python and he wrestled with the obvious question. Should he attempt to leave the cell? It might be a sick final joke. The guards might be waiting just outside the door, prepared to give him a massage with their nightsticks for attempting to escape.
Curiosity finally won the day and he eased himself off the cot and approached the door. He listened closely, expecting to hear the hog snorts of one of the overweight guards’ heavy breathing. But there was only silence. His heart pounded as he stepped over the threshold into the corridor. A flapping sound to his left made his heart skip a beat and he turned just in time to avoid the large black bird that was flying by his head. Saul stumbled backward into the wall of the hallway and winced as a heavy echo reverberated down the hall. Still, there was no sign of other people.
A thought burrowed its way up from deep in his brain and he was at once certain that he was dreaming. It was the most natural of dreams for someone in prison and especially someone facing the needle. It was vivid, but it was obviously a dream. The birds were the giveaway. His fear gave way to appreciation of his mind’s wondrous creation and he strolled leisurely down the corridor, passing empty cells and flickering lights that burned securely behind wire mesh enclosures.
He finally reached the end of The Row and paused, considering the open guard gate that separated his corridor from the greater D Block thoroughfare. The gate was never open without at least three guards present. Even in his previous dreams, the ones where he managed to escape his cell and run down The Row’s corridor, the gate was always closed. In his mind, deep down in the most basic parts, he knew that door would never be open. A tinge of excitement coursed through the top of his brain and Saul slid through the open door with a huge grin. He waited on the other side to see if an alarm might sound or a guard may come running down the hall. But there was nothing. After a moment, he continued left down the hall of D Block, passing windows that overlooked the exercise yard.
In his peripheral vision, as he passed the last of the windows, he thought he spotted movement from the far corner of the yard. He backed up and leaned in against the metal bars that protected the window’s yellowed glass. Through squinted eyes, he watched the corner. There was nothing there, or anywhere in the yard, and after a moment he continued his stroll down the hallway. He continued through all the open guard gates between cell blocks, through the family meeting room, along the hallway of the administrative offices and up to the entry checkpoint, all the while expecting to encounter a fellow prisoner, a guard, the warden, the governor, his mother, Vishnu, someone. Anyone at all. But there was no one at every turn.
The air outside was crisp and cool and brought goosebumps to his flesh. The smell of freedom was floating aloft on that gentle breeze and it sent a shiver of happiness down his spine. He walked through the open gates and stood at the edge of the blacktop road that stretched from the left-most edge of the world to the right-most. The road that would take him back to his life. But not the same life. It would be different. It would be better. He would be better.
The patter of his soft-soled shoes on the blacktop greeted his ears before he was even conscious of stepping onto the road. He had started his trek to the right. He didn’t know where it would take him but damn he couldn’t wait to get there.
Hours drifted by and he continued to walk, occasionally whistling, sometimes stutter-stepping to a beat in his head. After a long while, he took a seat on the grass, in the shade of a large tree beside the road. He wiped away the tiny beads of sweat that had formed on his brow and tried to determine how far he had come already. He hadn’t passed a sign indicating what the next nearest town was. Come to think of it, he also hadn’t seen a car or truck pass by him while he had been on the road. A rotten thought sank into the pit of his stomach. Perhaps he had chosen the wrong direction. Maybe the road went nowhere this way. It was not only a disturbing thought given how far he had already traveled, but he also could not imagine turning around and passing by the prison again. Besides, it would be dark soon.
Or would it? The question popped into his brain like an invisible companion had just piped up. The sun was still in the center of the sky, more or less, though many hours had passed since he had started on the road. It should have been late afternoon at least. Larger beads of sweat were gathering and rolling down his face as he contemplated the meaning of the sun’s position. He tried to figure out the earliest time he could have left the prison to still have that much daylight left. There was no way around it. The numbers didn’t add up.
Distraught, Saul got to his feet and started back toward the prison. He wanted to find some place more familiar. The world was becoming increasingly alien to him. Groves of trees along either side of the road watched him with an eerie stillness, echoing his quickened footfalls back to him. There were no birds now, he noticed. They had all stayed behind at the prison. They were wiser than he was.
In the distance ahead, he could just make out the shape of a dark figure standing in the grass to the right of the road. His pace quickened and a smile came to his face. The crushing sense of isolation fled as he approached. It was quickly replaced by an even more debilitating sense of dread. He could see the figure was tall. Possibly nearing seven feet in height. And dressed in dirty denim overalls. It waited patiently for him, never moving. When he got close enough to see that the thing had no face, Saul stopped. His knees buckled and he nearly collapsed in the middle of the road. This was no dream. It was a nightmare.
There were still a few dozen yards between the two of them when the figure began to take long strides toward Saul. He struggled to move his legs. The fear had settled into them and they felt as though they had been cast in concrete. A hellish screech from the Faceless thing got him moving and he ran as fast as he could back the direction he had come. Away from the prison. Away from anything but fields and groves of trees and a never-ending road.
His chest ached as he ran. His lungs burned, his heart pounded. Screeches came from behind him. There were more now. At least three, he figured. But he dared not turn to see his Faceless pursuers. He knew they were bearing down on him. He sensed their presence at his heels.
Then the unexpected happened. As Saul reached the crest of a hill, he saw the prison. It stood like a dark stone monolith on a flat green field that stretched off forever in every direction. He didn’t question it. He couldn’t. He had lost touch of all his faculties and was unable to tell up from down, right from left, or reality from that which was not. All he knew was that the prison was his solace. His protection from the world. The irony was not lost on him.
His legs churned as a new surge of hope rose up in him. They carried him down the slope of the road at a dangerous speed and when one foot caught on a crack in the asphalt, he fell forward at an even more dangerous velocity. He managed to get his arms out in front of himself to help break the fall, but it could not stop his chin from making contact on the ground with violent, bone-cracking force. A flash of white faded into black as the world fell away from him. He held onto consciousness with a fierce tenacity and concentrated on the bitter taste of blood that filled his mouth.
He scampered awkwardly to his feet and continued running, but the landscape was heaving to the left and right around him. His head throbbed and sharp bolts of pain shot through his teeth. He closed one eye and tried to stop the world from teetering in front of him. A series of screeches from behind gave him the push he needed to continue down the hill toward the prison. He stumbled like a three-day drunk, mumbling things to himself. Or maybe he was trying to yell at his pursuers.
Against his better judgment, Saul looked back over his shoulder and saw at least five Faceless things lumbering toward him. Their arms hung limply and swayed in a circular manner as they ran along on their hideous stilt legs. There was no mouth for the screeches to come out of, but the ear-piercing cries came nonetheless. The sight was sobering, even in his concussed state. The voice in the back of his head — the sane part, the part that remained after his head hit the ground — was yelling the word Run over and over and over again.
He crossed the grassy field and entered into the shadow cast by the prison’s great walls. Without losing a step, he passed through the open gates and made his way back through the labyrinthine corridors until he reached death row. He felt the sharp tips of claws grasping at his back and neck. The birds were also screeching and calling out now, drowning out the sounds of the Faceless. They began to fly in large black swarms through the hallway, beating their wings against the walls and the cell doors and pecking at the top of Saul’s head. He looked back and saw the Faceless were gone.
With a final burst of energy, Saul threw himself into his cell and kicked the door closed with a heavy slam that echoed through his head for minutes afterward. He put his back against the door and listened as the birds finally calmed down. The silence settled over the hall once again.
* * *
2,920 days. That is how long Saul has been sitting in his cell, listening to the screeches of the Faceless outside the cinder-block walls. 2,920 days since the world lost all sense. He long ago cast aside the foolish hope that this was only a dream. You have to sleep to dream. And he no longer sleeps. He has no feelings of hunger, or thirst, or fear. There is nothing left. Nothing but time. Time to wait patiently for death and for wondering what comes next.