By: A. Elizabeth Herting
Once upon a time, I used to sleep.
Dull sunlight trickled into his cell. It was painful; a single yellow beam straining to be seen through a tiny, grime-encrusted window. The shadows of the bars crept over the floor and onto his cot like virtual spiders crawling on his face. Day bled into night here, on and on in an endless loop. Jim Benecke couldn’t remember a time before he was stuck in this hellish place. He had no idea how he’d ended up here, only that it was his entire existence.
His vision was distorted, like seeing through dirty water. Jim guessed it was from being stuck in near constant darkness, but even with his reduced eyesight, he’d still know her anywhere. Pale and serious, her face haunted him in disjointed slumber. She had a slight limp in her step and smelled of disinfectant, constantly poking and prodding at his body, never leaving him in peace. Lights shining on his face at all hours, ice-cold water biting his bare skin, her hands both urgent and relentless. Each day she’d forcibly feed him tasteless gruel through a tube, holding fast to her duty in order to keep him fed and locked away. Much to his perpetual agony.
Jim didn’t know her name, to him she was simply the Warden. The only human face he ever saw. At least, Jim assumed she was human. Her cheeks were sallow, no doubt the dreary atmosphere of the prison making her blend into her surroundings. She had intense green cat’s eyes and was always dressed in dingy white, going about her daily business with laser-like efficiency. The Warden’s constant ministrations tortured him. Jim spent every single moment out of her presence plotting his escape.
When the Warden was away and Benecke was feeling particularly strong, he worked on loosening the foundation in the corner of his rundown cell with a sharp piece of discarded rock. The wall was weak, allowing him to scrape and claw away at it, bit by bit and piece by piece. On the days when his joints were too tired to move, Jim thought about his family. He couldn’t quite remember them, amnesia racked his brain, but he knew they were out there. Somewhere.
He had a wife, of that he was certain. Jim could hear her singing, a snippet of memory, every evening just before lock down…Oh, Darlin’! Please believe me, I’ll never do you no harm! He knew his children. Jim could see them in his mind’s eye, a pair of blond girls running across a long green field on a glorious spring morning. When did I see them last? Benecke was sure that once he cleared away that
final rock and felt the first stirrings of freedom, it would all come back to him. He would finally remember them.
Jim tried reasoning with the Warden, but the words refused to come as she smiled down at him, tight-lipped and unmoved by his efforts. No matter how hard he tried, Benecke couldn’t break through to her. His arms were pinned to his sides, the tube roughly shoved down his throat. It was a well-timed dance: her grim persistence, his outraged, meager resistance. For there was no doubt whatsoever about who held the power between them.
What the hell have I done? Why am I here? Why, why, why?
She’d pat him gently on the head and leave him to his dank, lonely cell, only to start it all up again the next morning. What in sweet merciful Christ is the point to any of this?
Jim Benecke knew very little about his past or current existence, it was a dull fog. He only knew he was a man. A husband and father. He couldn’t quite place how he knew these things, he just knew they were so. That, and he should be allowed a little goddamned dignity.
The Warden must not be allowed to stop him.
Benecke kicked and kicked, the last reserves of his strength ebbing away as he finally broke through the crumbling wall. Pieces of his ruined cloth uniform flew in every direction, blood and skin and the sweat of desperation. Patches of open sky pierced the confines of his tiny cell, giving him a rush of hope. The Warden was due back at any moment. The thought of her gruel and tubes and torture gave him a burst of strength as he violently tore away the rocks and debris with his bare hands, ripping and tearing it just enough to force his way through.
Bloody and battered, he thrust his hand out, the cool night air on his skin giving him the first real feeling of euphoria in what felt like years. Years? A woman’s voice pierced through his confusion…believe me when I tell you, I’ll never do you no harm…voices calling out, my children? No, those aren’t the voices of children. A high-pitched wail assaulted his ears, sirens sounding the alarm! Jim felt his heart almost leaping from his chest in terrified anticipation. He heard her uneven footsteps rushing down the hall and Jim knew he only had precious seconds left.
The Warden stepped into the cell just as Jim tore through his final barrier like a caged animal, adrenaline rushing through his veins. In those final moments he swore he heard her speak. What is that I hear in her voice? Sadness? Compassion?
He saw the bright white light of the spotlights in the courtyard searching for him, illuminating his path to freedom. The Warden stopped, anxiously grabbing for him as he launched himself out into the darkness, laughing in joyful abandon. I will be free! I WILL BE FREE!
The Warden sighed in frustration, remorse washing over her as she watched Jim disappear into the night.
It was time to let him go.
Sandra reached out to him, trying to calm his sudden agitation as the noise of his monitors and devices exploded in activity. For better or worse, this was the family’s decision. She was just his nurse. She’d been doing everything for Jim since he’d been brought in over ten years ago, the victim of a brutal hit and run. Jim Benecke lapsed in and out of consciousness many times over the years, ending in a permanent coma. Nurse Sandra Freed was the one that made sure he was fed, cleaned and taken care of. Every single day.
She tried not to get too attached to any of her patients, keeping emotion at bay, but Jim was different. Something about him and his tenacity had really gotten to her. A decade of looking after him marked the longest patient relationship of her life. This was definitely the toughest part of her job.
The family gathered around the hospital bed, Jim’s wife and adult twin daughters softly crying. They’d worked their way up to this decision over many years, the choice to finally let him go.
“Godspeed, James,” Sandra whispered into his ear, shutting off the ventilator; the ever-present clicks and whirs slowly dying down into terminal silence. The girls stood quietly as his wife dabbed at her eyes, softly singing to him in their final moments together. A snippet of an old song, one Jim and his wife danced to when they were newlyweds. Oh, Darlin, please believe me, I’ll never let you down…
Sandra felt an overwhelming sadness as Jim took his final breath. The first and last breath he’d taken without the machine in many, long years. A sudden peacefulness overtook his expression and Sandra knew there was nothing more she, or any of them could do for him now.
Jim Benecke was finally free.
Once upon a time, I used to sleep.
A. Elizabeth Herting
April 2, 2020