Escape from Furnace 3
By Alexander Gordon Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2009 Alexander Gordon Smith
All rights reserved.
I DIED IN THAT room.
I died there among the corpses in the darkness at the bottom of the world. I died with the fires of the incinerator still burning on my flesh, like the devil himself had his fingers in me. I died with the warden's howls of laughter ringing in my ears.
But it wasn't a merciful death. My heart didn't stop beating. My lungs didn't stop clawing at the hot air. The white-hot pain didn't leave my muscles, my skin, my bones. And I didn't drift into oblivion the way I'd always dreamed death would be. No, I was in Furnace Penitentiary. And here even death doesn't dare show its face. The Grim Reaper had abandoned me like everyone else, leaving me alone with my nightmares.
They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die. Well, that's only half true. You don't see the happy times, the laughter. You only see your failures. Lying there with the thunder of the blacksuits raging above my head and the smell of burning flesh in my throat, I saw the endless mistakes of my life laid bare.
I saw my crimes, the night my old friend Toby and I had broken into our last house. I saw the blacksuits, Moleface pulling the trigger that reduced Toby to a stain on the carpet. I saw my trial for his murder, the way the world turned against me with the crash of a gavel. I saw my first day in Furnace, buried forever beneath the ground.
I pictured Donovan, and Zee, our plan to escape. I saw us smuggling gas-filled gloves from the kitchen into the chipping room and blowing out the floor. I saw our punishment for trying to escape — trapped in the guts of the prison with the rats hungry for our blood, and the lightless coffin of solitary confinement.
I was forced to relive the horror of what they'd done to Donovan. Stripped of everything human, packed with muscle and gristle and something bad that dripped darkness into his veins. Then the horror of what I had done to him. Pressing a pillow to his face until he was no longer a monster, until he was no longer anything. I saw it all, the worst bits of my life paraded in front of me by my own stuttering heartbeat.
I tried to remember something good. Something hopeful. I mean, we'd almost made it after that. Me and Zee and the kid called Simon. We'd almost climbed our way to freedom up the incinerator chimney. I still had that splinter of daylight in my mind. I had seen the sun, and it had seen me, and maybe that was enough. Maybe I could die now knowing I'd broken Furnace, knowing that I had breathed fresh air once again.
Except the death Furnace had in store for me wasn't a genuine one. The blacksuits had lit the incinerator when we were halfway up, and they had pulled us from the flames with hunger in their silver eyes. And I knew what was coming.
My my, look what the rats dragged in. Get them into surgery, prep the wheezers. We can still use them.
The echo of the warden's voice, one of the last things I would ever hear. Because I died in that room. Like all the other lost boys of Furnace I would soon be reborn, but I wouldn't be me. I would become a blacksuit, my heart as dark as my jacket. Or I'd become a rat, trapped in the tunnels of the prison and feasting on those I had once called friends.
But even as I felt myself dragged off to the infirmary I swore that it wasn't over.
Just don't forget your name, Monty had told me. I wouldn't.
I died in that room.
I would be reborn as something else, something terrible.
But I was Alex Sawyer.
And I would have my revenge.
WELCOME BACK, OLD FRIEND.
I thought I heard the tunnel walls laughing as I was carried through them — deep chuckles that could have been distant earthquakes. Somewhere inside I knew it must have been the echo of the blacksuits, but the injuries in my mind were just as bad as the ones on my skin and reality was a distant memory. I was living inside a nightmare now, a place where Furnace was a creature that howled with delight as we were pulled back into its belly, dragged to the infirmary.
Every atom of my being was in agony. God knows how badly I'd been burned when I'd hit the incinerator flames. I would have opened my eyes to see if I'd been barbecued, but they wouldn't obey. I would have lifted a hand to check that I still had my eyes, but I couldn't find the strength. I would have screamed, but there was barely enough air in my smoke-ravaged lungs to breathe.
So instead I tried to shut down my brain. Tried to forget that I'd ever been alive. Tried to flood my body with absence — a black tide that would douse the pain in my flesh. Maybe if I could do that then death would sneak in, snatch me up right from under their noses. It worked for the fraction of a second until I heard the voice.
"Oh no you don't, Alex," the warden hissed, snapping me back into my body. "Death can't have what belongs to me." The whisper grew louder, accompanied by wicked shrieks I knew all too well. "Get those wheezers to work. We haven't got long. And find me an IV, now!"
I was lowered onto something that should have been soft but which felt like acid against my burnt skin. I tried once more to leave my head. Maybe if I could just escape my skull for an instant then death would take me, carry me up through the rock toward that sliver of daylight I had glimpsed only minutes ago.
Then I felt the needle in my arm, and something cold rushed into my veins. I knew exactly what it was. I'd seen it before on Gary, on Donovan — a drip full of evil, not quite black, not quite silver, with specks of starlight floating in its dark weight. It was the warden's poison, the stuff that turned you into a monster.
I tried to fight it, to buck my body until the needle came out, but the pain was too great and I could feel the leather straps holding me tight against the infirmary bed. The panic grew like a living thing in my chest and I made one last mental effort to escape, to leave my flesh behind and vanish like smoke. But the liquid nightmare flowed into me like molten lead, filling my veins and arteries and weighing me down. And it's impossible to escape anything when the chains are inside you.
It was only a matter of seconds before it reached my brain. To my surprise it numbed the agony. I felt the same way I had years ago — a lifetime ago — when I'd broken my wrist and the doctors had given me morphine. It was like I was no longer connected to anything physical, like my mind was free.
I should have known better than to hope. For a blissful instant I felt nothing, then the floodgates opened and something far worse than physical pain burst into my head.
This time I managed to scream.
* * *
It was as if the warden had ridden into my mind on the wave of poison, because I could swear his voice came from inside my skull.
It's over, he said, the sound of him causing rotten images to sprout from the shadows in my head. I saw something that looked like flyblown meat, something else that could have been a dead dog, there for only a second before evaporating. The warden continued: Everything you ever were, everything you are now, and everything you ever wanted to be, it's over.
I wanted to argue, wanted to open my mouth and tell him he was wrong, but his words were like maggots burrowing into the flesh of my brain. They gorged and grew fat on his dry laughter, revealing visions so horrific that I couldn't bear to make sense of them.
There is nothing to be gained in fighting. What flows inside you now is far more powerful than that fallacy you call a soul. Let it take you, for without it you are nothing.
"I am something ... I am Alex ..." I tried to say, but even inside my own head his voice was stronger than mine.
You are nothing, you can be nothing. Surrender yourself and be done. You were never Alex Sawyer, because Alex Sawyer never existed.
"You're wrong. I'm ..." I began, but my words were so weak I could barely hear them. He cut me off with another laugh, and this time when he spoke his voice was like fingers sliding into my brain.
Alex Sawyer never existed. You are one of us.
The fingers flexed, as if they were pulling something out of me, and with nothing more than a whimper I fell into the gaping emptiness that had once been my soul.
* * *
I was standing in a muddy trench, and for a moment I thought I was free. Then I glanced up at the sky and saw an endless void of darkness and knew that I was dreaming.
To my left and right were slick earth walls the color of blood, sheer and too high to climb. Not that I'd have wanted to — beyond I could make out dull explosions that shook the air and caused a fine rain of soil. I was about to take my eyes from the sides of the trench when I noticed a vague shape in the mud. I couldn't quite make out what it was until two slits appeared and a pair of eyes stared back at me.
By the time a mouth had opened up beneath those eyes and unleashed a groan of desperation I was already running. The ground gripped my feet the way it always does in dreams, slowing my escape. And when I looked down it was hands I saw pushing from the mud — cracked and broken fingers snatching at my legs. I kicked out at them, trying not to lose my balance, trying not to fall.
But there were simply too many, dozens of hands and faces emerging from the soil like the living dead. I felt the world spin, saw the ground rush up to meet me. There was no impact. Before I could land, the trench seemed to freeze — all except for a puddle of filth right beneath my face. The muddy water bulged up, then slowly parted to reveal a face beneath, caked in dirt but still familiar.
"What do you want?" I asked it, although my voice made no sound.
The mouth opened and moved as though it was speaking, but again I could hear nothing.
"Who are you?" I asked wordlessly, studying the eyes, the nose, trying to remember where I'd seen the face before. It didn't stop talking, but there may as well have been a sheet of soundproof glass between us. I focused on its lips, caked in mud but visible.
Don't ... I made out, reading the way they moved.
forget ... It could have been any of a million words but somehow I knew. Just like I knew what was coming next.
your name, the figure mimed. I opened my mouth to reply, but before I could do so the face morphed into an expression of pure terror, its eyes like diamonds set into the wet earth. It was only then that I recognized myself in the mud, the face a mirror image of my own. It — I — tried to say something else, but my mirror face was sucked back into the ground, mud filling its mouth and nose, flowing over its still-open eyes until nothing remained.
"Wait!" I yelled. "Wait!"
Then the rest of the trench once again found life, zombie hands grabbing my legs and clothes and head and pulling me down into the grave. My heart lurched, the sensation of being buried alive too terrifying for my sleeping mind. The trench exploded into dust, darkness flooding in like water and propelling me back to the surface. I rose from the dream like a drowning man, gasping for air and clutching at the night.
It didn't take long for me to remember that the real world was even more horrific than my nightmare.
But far worse was the fact that, for several seconds after waking, I couldn't remember who I was.
UNDER THE KNIFE
EVEN THOUGH I WAS still blind I knew the warden was watching me. I squirmed, like an ant trying to escape a lit match, but the bed held me tight in its leather grip and his only reaction was another hateful laugh.
"Did you dream?" he asked, his voice at once distant and whispered in my ear. Part of me was glad that I couldn't see. It meant I didn't have to look at his eyes — or the place where his eyes should have been if anybody had been able to meet them. "Everybody dreams the first few times."
I opened my mouth, hoping that some words would tumble out, but it was so dry that my defiance lodged in my throat.
"Dreams of dark places," the warden went on. I could hear the tap of his shoes as he moved around my bed, right to left. Behind that was another sound, a heart monitor matching my own weak pulse beep for beat. I remembered the machines I'd seen by the beds in the infirmary, knew that's where I was now, just another test subject for Furnace's bad science. The thought should have terrified me, but the poison in my veins imprisoned my emotions the same way the straps gripped my body.
Again I tried to speak, spitting out a dry husk of a word that even I couldn't have interpreted. But the warden seemed to know exactly what I meant.
"Zee? Yes, he is here. And that freak who let you out of your cage. But they, like you, are about to pass from this fitful existence into something far more meaningful. Tell me" — the bed creaked as the warden sat on the edge of the mattress — "tell me what you saw when you slept."
Already the dream had drained from my mind, leaving nothing but a residue that sat in my gut like a cannonball. I remembered a trench, bodies buried in the mud, and my own twisted reflection sucked down into the grave. I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to give the warden the satisfaction of an answer, but again he seemed to scoop the thoughts right out of my head.
"The trench," he whispered, the glee in his voice like rancid honey. "The fallen army. Fascinating. But then I was expecting no less from you." The bed shifted, the rustle of the warden's suit as he once again continued pacing. "That's twice now you almost escaped. Once, that was impressive."
For the first time since I'd been caught I heard an edge of anger in the warden's voice and I pushed myself back into the bed to escape it. But I could sense his face right above mine, his foul breath on my skin.
"Twice? That was just rude."
He spoke again and I struggled for a moment to hear what he was saying until I realized it wasn't directed at me. A wheeze rattled across the room and I felt the panic rise up even through the cloud of poison. The warden spoke a few more whispered words before his voice returned to me.
"Of course it all seems to have worked out. I have you to thank for leading the vermin to us. We managed to cull quite a few of those rat bastards, and others have been rounded up. You'll see them again soon. A few of my men perished, and a few had to be ... put down. But we can always make more." He laughed, a childish snigger that made my charred skin crawl. "Speaking of which, we should get started. The nectar will keep you alive for so long, but only the knife can save you."
Another wheezed groan cut across the room, followed by one echo, then two. Against the black canvas of my blindness I pictured the creatures staggering toward me, gas masks stitched onto rotting faces, filthy needles strapped to their chests, and scalpels held out to my face. I fought against my restraints until I felt the leather cut my skin, until my muscles cramped, but I was powerless.
"Don't fight it," the warden said, his voice fading as though he was walking away. "It is a new birth."
Then something cold pressed itself against my mouth, gas choked its way down my throat, and once again I tumbled into oblivion.
* * *
This time there was no trench, just a bare room. Lined up facing one wall, on their knees, were six figures. Each had his hands cuffed behind his back and his forehead pressed against the chipped bricks. I couldn't see their faces but, this being a dream, I knew what they looked like — all boys about my age, their expressions drawn from hunger and stained with tears. They were dressed in dirty cloth overalls that could have been Furnace uniforms except there were two numbers stenciled on the back of each. The same two numbers: 36. And beneath them, almost unrecognizable against the filth of the fabric, a symbol that sent chills down my spine even in my sleep.
Swastikas. The unmistakable insignia of the Nazis.
"Who are you?" I asked them, but nothing escaped my mouth. I shouted the question once more, then screamed it, but the room's heavy silence remained undisturbed. There was no movement, either, the scene as still as a photograph — until one of the boys started to move. It began as a tremor that made his overalls ripple like water. Then his head started to shake wildly from side to side, his body soon following until he was thrashing against the wall. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Death Sentence by Alexander Gordon Smith. Copyright © 2009 Alexander Gordon Smith. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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