HAPPY EVER AFTER
I WISH I COULD TELL YOU that my story ended here.
I wish I could tell you that this was my happy ever after.
Because it should have been, right? I mean, we were out. We’d been to hell and back but the important thing was that we had made it back. We’d slit open the belly of Furnace Penitentiary, spilled its guts all over the streets. It was dead, and we’d been born again, taking our first steps in a world we thought we’d lost forever. It had to be over. This had to be the end of it. All we had to do was run for the hills and live out the rest of our lives on fresh air and freedom.
But can a story like mine ever have a happy ending?
Does somebody like me ever deserve one?
There wasn’t much time for looking back as we ran from the broken gates, ushered on by the blinding brightness of the rising sun. But I couldn’t help it. Even as the sound of the siren faded into birdsong my mind replayed everything that had happened. I don’t know why, exactly. All I wanted to do was forget it, put everything behind me, pretend that it had never happened. But Furnace wasn’t going to let me. I may have found a way out of the prison but the prison was still buried deep inside my head, locked in every thought, every memory.
I pictured myself as a kid, walking streets just like these a lifetime ago, so obsessed with money that I didn’t care that I was a thief, a bully. I saw myself and Toby—a friend whose face I could no longer picture but who I would never forget—breaking into a house, hoping that we’d strike it rich. I saw us being cornered by the blacksuits, Furnace’s hulking guards with their cruel silver eyes. I watched them shoot Toby in the head, the same way I’d watched it a hundred times before; a thousand. I saw myself framed for his murder and sentenced to life without possibility of parole in Furnace Penitentiary. I saw it all in shades of black and gray and red that seemed so much brighter than the world through which I was running.
The flashbacks kept coming, bleeding into my vision like some kind of hemorrhage. It felt as though I relived every single second of my incarceration—the early days where I thought the only escape I’d make was jumping off the eighth level; my cellmate Donovan and my best friend, Zee, the only ones keeping me sane; lying in bed at night waiting for the blood watch to come, for the wheezers to drag me into the tunnels below; then discovering that crack in the chipping-room floor and blowing our way to freedom—only to find ourselves recaptured and snared by the darkness of solitary confinement.
There, with the weight of the world on our shoulders, we uncovered the truth about Furnace—the experiments that the warden and the wheezers were doing on the kids. They were pumped full of nectar, a black liquid full of tiny golden flecks, like distant stars. Then the wheezers cut them open and stitched them back together into something completely different. I still don’t know exactly how the nectar worked. If it was successful, then it turned its child victim into a superhuman blacksuit, packed tight with muscle and able to survive an injury that would kill a mortal. You had no memory of who you were, your past life. You became one of the warden’s soldiers. That’s what had happened to Donovan, but I’d killed him—I’d freed him—before he could turn completely.
The nectar didn’t work with everybody, though. Sometimes it had no effect at all, and other times it would go wrong, poisoning its victim’s soul, reducing him to a mindless, razor-clawed freak that stalked the corridors feasting on blood. A rat.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Some prisoners didn’t turn into blacksuits or rats. They became something else, something that shouldn’t be possible. The nectar chose them, flooding their bodies and causing them to mutate into immense beasts of unimaginable fury, killing machines known as berserkers.
There was no telling what you’d become with nectar inside you. It was the warden’s poison that decided your fate.
Zee and I had been down there, in solitary, for what seemed like forever, rescued by a kid called Simon who’d managed to escape the wheezers’ knives. He’d been halfway to becoming a blacksuit, his torso and one arm packed with muscle, his eyes turned silver, but he’d been discarded before the procedure could be finished. Once again we’d made a bid for freedom—climbing the incinerator chimney—and once again we’d failed. This time we’d fallen right into the warden’s lap.
The warden. I could see his face now: every time I blinked he flashed up before me, his mouth twisted into that soulless smile, his eyes black pits that promised nothing but pain. He had let his wheezers cut me open with their filthy tools and pump me full of their poison. He had let them stuff me with someone else’s muscles, someone else’s flesh. He had turned me into one of them. He’d given me silver eyes and a black suit and for a moment—for a single, horrific second—I’d almost given myself to him, I’d almost called him Father and myself a Soldier of Furnace …
But something had stopped me. Something had kept me human. And instead of making me one of them the warden had given me the strength I needed to make a final bid for freedom. Zee, Simon, and I, we fought our way up from the tunnels back into the main prison. The blacksuits hadn’t been able to stop us, the mutant, skinless dogs had cowered with their tails between their legs, the wheezers had been powerless, even the warden had run out of tricks.
No, only one person had come close to ending our dream of freedom. Alfred Furnace himself, the mysterious man behind the prison’s darkest secrets. He had sent two berserkers to stop us, and only by injecting myself with more of the warden’s poison, the nectar, had I been able to stop them. The battle may not have cost me my life, but it stripped away all but the last remnants of my sanity. Now the nectar is the only thing keeping me alive, but it’s also trying to turn me into one of them. It’s what drives the freaks of Furnace—and freaks like me.
* * *
WITH THE HELP OF THE INMATES we cracked the gates and stormed out into the world, hundreds of us, shouting and screaming as we flooded the streets, bleeding the prison dry. We were out. We were free.
That should have been it, shouldn’t it? That should have been the end of my story. But how could it be? Even now I can hear the sound of gunfire as the police start to round us up, the whump-whump-whump of helicopter blades overhead. Soon the entire city will be in lockdown. We haven’t escaped from our prison, we’ve just moved into a new one. And although there are countless places to hide, there’s still nowhere to run.
And that’s not all. Alfred Furnace is coming, and he’s bringing his army. I can hear his voice in my head, carried by the nectar, and his fury is almost enough to crack my soul in two. Yes, Furnace is coming. He will find us.
And when he does there will be all hell to pay.
Some happy ending.
Text copyright © 2010 by Alexander Gordon Smith