by Stephen Howard
The cells are human-sized. The iron bars feel brittle and rough to touch but are sturdy. Two men, cold and exposed, sit across from each other, staring in the dirty, puffy, marked face of the other. They have seen their cellmates move on, one by one. It is unusual the cells haven’t been restocked.
“Do you remember fresh air?” asks one man to the other.
“Fresh air? No such thing. Never was. Don’t believe it. But I remember outside air. Damn sight better than this stuff.”
“I thought it was fresh. We used to run through the forest, where I lived. Thought it was untouched. Untouchable. Of course, that proved to be wrong. They came, in the end. But boy, they were some good times. Pleasant temperature, cover from the rains, the hum of wildlife. Boy, those were the days.”
A creaking from above. Both men notice the drip, drip, drip from between the stones of the ceiling. The droplets of water drift slowly down, the cellar being of vast size, and they echo hauntingly when they finally collide with the iron top of the cells. The water is tempting to both men, but it is out of reach.
“And the sex,” the man continued, “well, it was just constant. You weren’t tied to anyone unless you wanted to be. It was just wild. Wow, it was so wild. Was it like this where you were from? I’m Ron by the way.” Ron extended a grubby hand toward the adjacent cell. It was reluctantly taken.
“I’m Shah. No, it wasn’t like that. We lived underground. We were careful. There was a rule for this and a rule for that and a don’t do this and a don’t do that. It was all shit. We’d go above ground for fresh air and have to breathe in whatever they call that crap these days. And don’t get me started on sex. If there was any being had, it wasn’t by me. Damn place. Damn those things. My grandfather told me a story his grandfather had told him. He said…” Shah edged closer to the cell bars and pressed his face against them. “He said, humans used to own the world. Not those horrible things. We were in charge, called the shots, ran the show, all of it. And everything was perfect. There were schools to teach kids, and hospitals to treat sick people, and everyone had a house and—you’ve seen wrecked vehicles, right?—well everyone had one of their own and could get around much quicker than we can run, what with us being human and subject to fatigue and just plain limits. He told me this, my grandfather, said we didn’t always live in caves and forests, or get put in cells like this, although bad people did if they deserved it…”
Ron eagerly gazed in wonder at Shah. These were things he had never heard. He was evidently younger than Shah, his face fresher, less lined. “Wow,” he said, “that sounds amazing. I bet there was lots of sex going on then. But, wait. Bad people were put in cells if they deserved it? Does that mean…are we bad people, Shah? I never thought I was, nobody told me I was. It’s, oh I don”t know. Do we deserve this?”
The water continues to drip, drip, drip. Upstairs, above the chasm of the cellar, there are noises. Loud noises, heavy noises, like an awakening. Both men gaze upwards, wide-eyed.
“No, Ron, we don’t deserve this. No one does. Sorry. I ranted. Lost my way. This is just how it is meant to be. You can’t spend eternity frolicking in the forest. This is just where we are now, as people, time running out, just running and hiding that feels endless until you end up here in a wet, dark cell, and you see how infantile everything you were doing before was and how pointless it was. We’d end up here. We’d always end up here.
“You see those slits up there, Ron, letting those thin beams of light in? They’re there to taunt us. The beams of light only reach a little ways down, so we can see the light but never be in it, never touch it, never feel it or embrace it. It’s cruelty. It’s despicable. It’s monstrous. It’s what you would expect from monsters. If only they had never come along. No one seems to know where they came from, just appeared one day, decimated everything. Crashed round and turned everything to rubble and debris, feasting on people like the world was their own buffet. Yes, buffet, Ron. Lots of food all in one place. It’s. It’s. I don’t know. It’s just cruel.”
Shah shrunk back and closed his eyes. He breathed heavily and wheezed a little. The stress and his unhindered and unchecked ranting had left him with a tightness in his chest. He leant back and tried to relax. As he did so, a thumping noise came in a crescendo, bang, bang, bang, clash, thump. And then a heavy creaking and a crash. The door to the cellar was open. Gazing down was a giant, wild, human-like creature. Taller than the average human, many times over, it salivated. Blood stained its chin and appeared to be matted in its beard. Its gaze, fixed now on the remaining occupied cages, was hungry and wild.
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Stephen Howard is 26 years old and from Manchester. He studies English Literature and Creative Writing with the Open University whilst working full-time as a content marketing executive. He self-published his first novel, a comic fantasy called Beyond Misty Mountain, in 2013. He has been writing short stories and poetry among other ongoing projects.