The Second Door
READ BY CLAIRE O'CONNOR
MUSIC BY GOODMAN CARTER
They warned us about the darkness, but they failed to explain that sometimes it would feel like a starless space and sometimes it would be like a bag over your head. Nor did they warn us how cold it would be, how our hands would chafe, how our eyes would water, how our balls would shrivel up like rotten quail eggs, how our bones would gradually shrink, crushed by fathoms of water previously known only to tubular life forms that fed off of the heat of thermal trenches.
They claimed the miniature submarines were state of the art technology and would maintain normal pressure. But I knew that astronauts, their bones uninhibited in zero gravity, grow taller. The matter begins to stretch, to separate, and every part of them becomes airier, less dense. So wouldn\'t it make sense that the opposite would happen to us? After a month in the armpit of this unknown sea, I could feel my bones contract, my skin grow tighter. My hands began to curl like claws. At first I thought my eyes were watering because it was so dry in there, but I was beginning to wonder if I was being squeezed like an orange.
I never expected a vacation, but at the time I signed my contract, living in a mini-submarine near the ocean floor with another inmate seemed much better than my other option, which was waiting to die. After a month breathing the same air as Rex, I wasn\'t so sure.
"No," I said.
"I don\'t want to."
"Come on," said Rex. "I have a good one."
I restrained the urge to punch Rex in the face. His face had gotten thinner in the past month, but he still kept smiling like some baby-faced retarded Santa.
"You\'ll never guess it." The short red curls of his beard shook. His facial hair was the most colorful part of the room. You would have thought the psychologists would have painted the steel walls of our pint-sized submarine, but they remained silver-gray, efficient and lifeless. Even the clothes they gave us were boring as shit: black boxers, Hanes black tee shirts, orange jumpsuits, Nike white socks, and a pair of running shoes. Running shoes! Did they expect us to run in circles?
Rex kept staring at me. He was starting to bounce up and down. "I said, you\'ll never guess it."
"I guess not," I said.
"I\'ll give you a hint."
"I don\'t want a hint."
"Come on," Rex poked me on the arm. "There are six letters. There\'s an \'e.\' Actually, there are two. It starts and ends with an \'e\'."
"Don\'t," I said.
He knew better. He withdrew his arm.
"I\'m not playing hangman, you sick fuck."
Rex cringed. He stood and walked over to the porthole. The porthole had looked out at darkness for the past thirty-two days, ever since we\'d been ushered out of the prison in the middle of the night, so as not to arouse the jealousy of the others–the other inmates on death row who were angry because the volunteer slots for scientific experiments were limited, and the other inmates, who weren\'t on death row but were outraged because it seemed like we, the worst of the bunch, had gotten special treatment.
"It\'s just a game–"
"Don\'t be stupid."
Rex banged his head against the wall. The clanking made the whole mini-submarine seemed to quiver.
"I can\'t help it. I am stupid."
I sighed. "I didn\'t mean it."
Rex looked at me. "The word was \'escape,\' if you\'re interested."
I breathed in the stale air. "You\'re right," I said, studying the darkness behind my closed eyelids, which was somehow warmer than the gaping darkness outside the porthole. "You are stupid."
The submarine seemed to grow smaller every day: a twelve by twenty foot room with a pair of bunk beds, a loveseat, a pantry with a year\'s worth of dehydrated food and a compacting trash drawer, a bathroom with a shower, toilet, and sink. There was a filtering device built into the sink that converted the seawater into fresh water, and there was a suction device built into the shower and toilet that sucked all our dirt and flushed all our shit into the sea. One wall had the porthole and another had the monitor that beeped and gave us directions whenever they wanted us to do something.
We had to trust the digital clock on the monitor. All the mechanical operations of the submarine went on behind a welded wall; they controlled it all with remote computers. We had no control of the submarine\'s movements, no knowledge of our whereabouts. If we were being videotaped, they had hidden the cameras so expertly we could not see them.
Do you want to play tic tac toe instead?" asked Rex. I opened my eyes. Rex was biting his nails again. God knows where those dirty little slivers ended up. It was impossible to spot them in the monotone gray of the walls and the floor and the furniture. Even the wool blankets were a dirty snow shade of gray.
"Can\'t you leave me alone?" I shouted. "You\'re driving me crazy. Jesus Christ, I can\'t get away from you for a goddamn second. I\'ve taken shits that were bigger than this submarine."
Rex frowned. "It\'s not that bad."
"Not that bad?" I clenched my fist, then unclenched. Instead of pushing Rex into the wall, I knelt and did twenty push-ups. My hands kept slipping on the smooth metal floor.
In the beginning it hadn\'t seemed so bad. After the guards had whisked us away in the middle of the night and air-lifted us to the secret launch pad, they herded us onto the dock and down the throat of our submarine, then shut the door with a resounding metallic clang. As day broke the sea burned red and gold before relaxing into a flat blue plane that stretched to the horizon. Rex kept saying, "Let\'s get this show on the road!" and laughing, his red stubble of beard bristling.
Without warning the submarine lurched and dropped with a movement that was so sudden I was unsure if we had gone down or up; for a moment, I imagined we had leapt out of the sea and into the sky, beyond the perimeter of this world. I thought we had evaded the dull certainty of gravity, and that maybe, just maybe, we had transgressed the sad laws of this life and had shot straight up to heaven. But no: the submarine shuddered once more and began, truly, to descend. Water began to fill the round circle of the porthole until half the world was clear, the other half blurry. Then it was all a blur.
We were falling fast. For a long minute I watched the schools of fish in their endless hues and shades and tints–like a prism had disintegrated–weave in and out of the long, twining leaves of kelp. As we plummeted through swarms of fish it was as though God had dropped great handfuls of candy into the water and they had sprouted to life. We were lost in a forest of kelp beds, a forest studded with jewels that flicked their tails. The fish darted so close to each other and spun and whirled so fast that they seemed to slip in and out of each other, and I felt like I was being kissed, like they were slipping in and out of my brain.
And the jellyfish: diaphanous, fluttering like ghosts. A sea turtle soared by, close enough that I could see his crinkled eyelids wink, and a school of real barracuda shot past, glinting like needles in the sunlight that filtered through the blue water. And then we plunged through a cloud of plankton that swirled around us like a dust storm, and miniscule creatures bounced off my window in rapid succession as we fell faster and faster. And then the light blue water became a greenish glow, which gave way to a royal blue, then for a long time the window offered an endless glimpse of indigo, and we were falling and falling until we hit utter darkness. It was like falling in love.
And for the last thirty-two days there had only been darkness out the porthole. Once, years ago, I watched a special on TV where deep-sea anglers attracted their prey with little glowing lures. It\'s not only moths that are drawn to the light. The unwitting smaller fish gravitate toward the spark in the otherwise uninterrupted expanse of black, and in a single instant the jaws of the greater fish arch and close again. Then the predator extinguishes the light. All in the space of a second: a millisecond, a nanosecond, less. Two things came together to form a single entity. A miracle, in its own way.
We didn\'t see the anglers, but I knew they were out there, somewhere. What other creatures lurked in the depths, unseen? Enormous sperm whales. Blind sharks. Giant squid, their tentacles as tall as houses. Large enough to swallow men whole. Creatures who understood the necessity of killing. Predators need to kill in order to gain energy. So many people mistakenly equate killing with destruction. You can\'t destroy matter. It is simply rearranged.
We had been told that our submarine could go all the way to the ocean floor. That was the point of the experiment: to see if humans could spend a sustained period of time on the ocean floor. But we couldn\'t see a thing. In the pitch black, our mini-submarine seemed motionless. But motion is relative, according to those in the know. It\'s possible we were slogging along.
It\'s possible we were still falling.
I lost count of my pushups, so I did as many as I could until the ache in my arms became unbearable. Rex's eye was twitching, a nervous tic.
"Not that bad?" I said, pushing myself up from my haunches until I towered over him. Rex shrugged. "The food is tasteless," I said. "There\'s nothing to do. All we have are these little pencils to take our little tests." I took the mechanical pencil from behind my ear and wielded it in front of Rex\'s eyes. "I suppose I could write my life story on your forehead, but who would want to read that? I suppose I could stab you through your eyeball to your brain, but then your carcass would be stinking up the place for the next eleven months!"
Rex glared. "You couldn\'t kill me with that."
I clicked the pencil, advancing the lead. "I\'ve killed with less."
But then the monitor on the wall beeped. Dinnertime, said the screen. Select dinner.
Rex turned immediately and went to the pantry. He fingered the columns of dehydrated food packages, selected one, and buried it in the palm of his hand. As he brushed past me he tried to hide a smile.
"Is that my Chicken Cacciatore?" I asked.
Rex continued to walk away, now hunched over the package. He was so bony that the small wings of his shoulder blades poked through his uniform. "There\'s plenty left."
"Hand it over."
"There\'s Kung Pao Chicken. There\'s Salisbury Steak."
I held out my hand.
Rex continued to slink away. "There are Enchiladas Verdes. Or Pasta Primavera."
"You can have my last packet of astronaut ice cream. It\'s Napoleon-flavored."
"Neapolitan. They were all Neapolitan."
I lunged. Rex slithered out of my grasp and leapt over the small couch. I lunged again and chased him around in a tight circle. The slippery little bastard kept weaseling out of my hands, his elbows banging against the wall as he ran in circles around the room. Finally he collapsed and coiled in the bottom bunk of the bed. I held out my hand. He deposited the soap-sized bar of Chicken Cacciatore into my waiting palm.
As I tore off a corner of the package, he uncoiled and sat up.
"I\'m not hungry anyway."
I took a bite. It tasted like a memory of chicken, the hardened grease at the bottom of a pan, and nostalgia for a restaurant you\'ve never eaten at, all china and chandeliers.
Rex hugged himself. "I\'m cold."
"Mmm, mmm," I said, loudly.
"Actually, I\'m freezing."
He shivered and bounced up and down on the bed. Squeak, squeak, squeak. "They told us it would be dark. They didn\'t say it would be cold."
Squeak, squeak, squeak. The noise was a needle to my brain.
"There are other things they didn\'t tell us," I said.
The squeaking stopped. Rex\'s eyes got wide. "Like what?"
I shrugged. "That our bones would shrink."
"Our bones! Are you deaf? Can't you feel it?"
Rex held up his left arm, then his right. "I feel…itchy."
"They also didn't tell us that our skin would always be dry. I\'m practically shedding. My arms are flaking like I\'m some goddamn leper."
Rex scratched his left arm with his right hand. "Itch," he said. Then he scratched his right arm with his left hand. "Scratch," he said. He made it into a little dance. "Itch, scratch, itch, scratch."
"They also didn't tell us that our randomized test partner might be an imbecile. They didn\'t say that. And I read their fine print."
The monitor beeped and flashed. Evening Test.
The monitor printed out the usual short test with multiple-choice questions. There were some fill-in-the-blanks as well as short reading passages and some rudimentary mathematical tasks. As usual, Rex sucked on the end of his mechanical pencil and furrowed his brow and covered his paper with his left hand, as if I were going to copy off him. Sometimes I read the passages, which usually involved different colored dogs or seating arrangements at dinner parties and imagined the various ways I could torture the dogs or dismember the guests. And sometimes I didn\'t read them.
Rex hunched over his test. Psst, he whispered. "What\'s the best synonym for \'elucidate\'?"
I took another bite of Chicken Cacciatore. "Delicious."
"Is it \'clarify\' or \'complicate\'?" Rex frowned. "I thought you said you were sick of the food."
I turned the package over and read off the back. "Textured vegetable protein and special combination of herbs and spices." I smacked my lips. "Tastes like freedom."
Rex scowled. He leaned his head on his hand and exhaled. I shivered. It was getting colder. Rex moved his hand to his forehead. He clutched his own head as if it might roll right off. In his other hand his pencil hovered over the test. "What\'s the capital of Bangladesh?"
"What the hell is wrong with you?" I asked.
He threw his pencil on the ground. "I don\'t know if this triangle is isosceles or equilateral."
I gulped down the last bite of "chicken" and scrunched the package into a ball. I threw my trash in a perfect arc that pelted Rex on the head. "Who cares? These are just experiments. If you miss one, they don\'t blame you. They blame the conditions. Whoever is giving these tests doesn\'t give a fuck about you or me. We\'re just data. Repeat after me: It doesn\'t matter."
Rex frowned. "It doesn\'t matter."
"We\'re going to make it."
"We\'re going to make it."
"I smell like shit."
"I smell like–hey!"
"It\'s true. These pressurized air showers don\'t work so hot."
Rex sniffed under his arm. "That\'s not fair."
"Life isn\'t fair."
"Still, I miss it."
"Miss what? You\'d rather be in prison?" Rex shrugged and let his hair fall over his eyes. "What did you do, anyway?"
But like every other time I asked, Rex was suddenly reticent.
"What did you do?" I leaned forward until my eyebrows were practically touching his eyebrows. The whites of his eyes were lined with cracks. He blinked, and his eyelashes brushed the bridge of my nose. I waited. I whispered, "What did you do?"
Rex leaned back, and his whole face got pinched. Like a wad of dough that got pressed around the edges. He didn't look like a killer.
"I have to go to the bathroom," he said, jumping out of his chair and running the whole distance of five feet to the skinny door that led to our skinny bathroom.
I could hear him crying.
The last time I heard anyone crying, it was at my sentencing. It was the mother of my last victim. She cried just like her daughter had, another girl who thought she was too good for me. When I saw that girl\'s mother sobbing, I wondered where my own mother was. I hadn\'t seen her in twenty years. Even if she had been there, I bet she wouldn\'t cry for me. As for the victim\'s mother, tears poured down her face like fucking Niagara.
"Rex!" I pounded on the door. The crying had turned to squealing. It sounded like he had just given birth to piglets. "What\'s wrong?"
"Nothing!" he shouted.
"Are you okay?"
"You gotta finish your test."
The squealing stopped.
"You said it doesn\'t matter."
I should have seen this coming.
"It doesn\'t matter if we get the answers right or wrong. But we have to turn it in. It\'s in our contract. They won\'t let us go unless we–"
"Repeat after me—"
"Don\'t fuck this up for me! Rex, we signed a contract."
"Are you sure they\'re going to let us go?"
"Of course I\'m sure! Open up. Open up!"
I beat the door, to no avail. I kicked the door and practically broke my toe. Behind the door the crying changed to a kind of whimpering. I turned around and leaned against the door and slid to the ground.
Once in high school biology we had to dissect fetal pigs. I had begun to imitate a baby pig squealing, for kicks, but none of the other kids thought it was funny. I had opened up the little pig and studied the marinade of fetal pig organs and had thought of how the fetal pig had once nested inside a much larger mother pig, and how the mother pig dwelt in this much larger world, a globe itself that twirled inside an infinitely larger universe. Disproportionate Russian dolls that rattled inside each other, begging to be heard. By the end of the period the fetal pig organs were graying, and I couldn\'t help but sympathize with the mother pigs, wherever they were. I wondered if they mourned the loss of their unborn children, if they woke up after their abortions aware of the loss. Whenever my mother had been depressed, which had been most of the time, she told me she wished she had had one.
I leaned my head back against the door.
"Did you ever have to dissect anything in high school? At my school, we did fetal pigs. They were ugly things." I could still picture their soft, pink bodies. I could still smell the formaldehyde. "They got sacrificed for the sake of experiments, for the sake of mankind. There\'s only one real difference between us and those pigs, Rex." I could still feel, beneath the skin, the tender cavities that erupted when prodded with a scalpel. "The difference is…" I became aware of all the weight of the water on top of us. Miles and miles of pressure. "The difference is–we deserve it."
The solid space behind me opened up, and I lost my balance. When I fell backwards, Rex shot through the open door and pinned me to the ground and clenched his pincer-like fingers around my neck. He was screaming so close to my face that it took me a minute to realize what he was saying.
"Take it back!" he screamed over and over until the words blurred into one another. He was crying and snotting all over me. "Take it back!"
I couldn\'t shake him off. I bit his hand, drawing blood.
"What, you don\'t believe in justice? An eye for an eye? Hell, if that\'s the case, we\'re getting off easy!"
Rex didn\'t let go. Blood ran down his hand. I had almost forgotten the sour taste.
"I said, take it back!"
"Or what? You gonna kill me, too?"
A deluge of silvery shapes filled the eye of the porthole: a school of phosphorescent fish. Their fragile bodies glowed and pulsed in the darkness. They were like fireflies, but better–they didn\'t flicker. Their radiance was eternal, and gentle, and collectively they bathed us with a cool light. It was as though we had stumbled into the entryway to another world.
"Maura!" Rex yelled, releasing his grip on my neck and stumbling to his feet. "Maura!"
It had been months since we had seen anything other than darkness outside of our portholes. Now we were engulfed by lights.
"Wait!" he whimpered, his eyes darting with the movements of the fish. His whole body shook.
"Rex, shh, it\'s okay." I risked a hand on his shoulder.
"Dave!" he yelled, even though I was standing right next to him. "We\'re in heaven! I don\'t know how, but we\'re in heaven!"
And for a moment the lights did look like lost souls. But soon my eyes adjusted to the light, and the outlines of their fins and backbones and hundreds of tiny teeth became visible. The fish wafted toward us slowly, aimlessly.
"Maura, I\'m coming! Baby, baby, baby."
The fish floated by, oblivious. If anything, they were skittish of our vehicle, though a brave few investigated the metal lip of the porthole, drawn to the shiny yellow eye of our window. The closer they came, the more they materialized as recognizable but primeval fish-shapes, as if they had been swimming since the dawn of time. Their eyes were enormous–an adaptive function of the darkness, no doubt, but when they floated by us, unblinking, it was as if they could see into our souls.
"It\'s okay," I repeated. "We\'re not in heaven. We\'re still here, alive, in our little submarine near the ocean floor."
He shook his head.
"Those are just fish," I said.
He returned his gaze to the porthole. Already the fish had begun to disappear back into the darkness, their outlines lost in the dimming haze.
"Listen," I said, squeezing his shoulder. He was so thin. It would have been so easy to break him. "These conditions are enough to drive anyone crazy. No one\'s ever done this before. They don\'t know what effects this is going to have, and we have a long way to go. We have to keep our shit together."
Rex continued to stare at the darkness.
"Sometimes, if I wake up before the lights turn on, I don\'t know where I am."
That had happened to me, too. I said, "Sometimes I don\'t know who I am."
Rex\'s voice was cold. "Sometimes I wonder if I\'m already dead." He turned to me. "Why are they doing this to us?"
I shrugged. "Maybe the world is getting crowded, and people are going to have to live down here." And why not? It was a good place to hide. "People could escape down here. The ocean floor–it\'s completely out of any country\'s jurisdiction."
"What do you mean?"
"There are no rules down here. People could form whole colonies of, say, polygamists."
"Or pedophiles." Rex giggled.
"Satan worshippers." I laughed louder.
"Neo Nazis!" Rex howled. He clutched his sides and his laughter turned into coughing, briefly, then back into laughter again. Soon we were laughing hysterically.
We pointed at each other. "Murderers!"
We laughed and laughed until tears and snot ran down our faces. Gradually, gradually our laughter subsided.
"She asked me to do it," Rex said.
"Who asked you what?"
He stared at the darkness.
"Who asked you what, Rex?"
"Maura. My wife. I could never say no to her."
His nostrils flared. The bridge of his nose was lined with cracks.
"I didn\'t mean to get her addicted. I wasn\'t really addicted; I just liked to use a little here and there. I worked the night shift, and it helped me get through the night. I didn\'t think she\'d get addicted."
Rex made his hand into a gun and pointed it at his own head.
"Please. She begged me. She was nothing but a bag of bones. I waited for her to get better. But all day and all night she begged me. I don\'t want to live, she said. Please, please, please, please, please–
He pulled the trigger.
"I\'m sorry," I said. "I take it back."
"No, you were right."
"No, I wasn\'t."
"I deserve to die."
"No, you don\'t."
Rex bit his lips. They were chapped and peeling, as though pieces of him were trying to escape his body. The sound of his breathing filled the room.
Hanging on to air, then letting go. What a strange rhythm. I wondered what it was like to kill for love.
Then the ground shuddered. The sound of metal scraping blasted our ears, and the whole room shook like it wanted to burst open. Rex and I fell to the ground, tumbling into each other, then skidding into a wall. The scraping noise softened to a dull whine, and then it was silent. The submarine stabilized. I realized I was clutching Rex\'s arm, and he was clutching mine.
We helped each other stand up.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"I guess," said Rex. He had blood on his face, but it came off when he wiped it onto his shirtsleeve. It was just from where he had clutched his already bloody hand to his face. "It was like an earthquake."
"It can\'t be an earthquake if we\'re in the water." I punched Rex lightly on the arm, so he\'d know I was just teasing. He didn\'t smile.
"What was it?" he asked.
I looked out the porthole into darkness. "Who knows? We probably just bumped into something. An outcrop, or a rock, I don\'t know. Do you hear anything? A leak–water, air, anything like that?"
"No. Are we even moving?"
I looked out the porthole into darkness. "I can\'t tell."
"If anything were really wrong, we\'d know, right?"
The darkness seemed to be looking back at me.
"Right?" asked Rex.
"Right," I said.
Nothing in the submarine had shifted or broken because everything was bolted down or made of metal. Rex stretched all his limbs and marveled at their capacity to perform his will. I lingered by the monitor, waiting for instructions.
"Do you want to play a game?" asked Rex.
I did not want to play a game.
"We could play paper-rock-scissors. Or charades."
"How about twenty questions?" The monitor was blank. "You can choose first. Animal, vegetable, or mineral?"
"Animal," I said.
"Is it human?"
"Is it alive?"
"Is it male?"
"Is he lonely?"
"Is it me?"
"Are you talking about me?"
"No," I said.
"Are you sure?"
The submarine seemed colder. The cold smarted my eyes and made them water.
Rex sighed. "If I wanted to…escape." He looked at the bolted exit door.
"It\'s impossible," I said.
He sidled past me.
"There are two doors. If I walked through the first one, you could lock it and seal it behind me."
"We\'re a hundred miles below the surface, moron."
Rex began to strip. In a matter of seconds his orange jumpsuit fluttered to the ground like a cocoon, and then the rest. Although I knew better, I imagined him diving out of the submarine and shooting through the water in graceful arcs and spins, doing pirouettes with silver fish clasped between his sinuous, flipper-like arms.
I knew if he really went through that door and pressed the red button, there would be a noise like a vacuum cleaner as air pressure sealed the zone, and then I would hear him crawling around for a few moments like a rat stuck in the walls, and then there would be a great whooshing of water, not unlike an enormous toilet flushing, and then I would have to use my imagination, and my imagination–not a pretty thing–would tell me that Rex had been sucked away, that he had imploded from the pressure, and then I would spend eleven months cursing the fish that stripped his imploded flesh from his imploded bone fragments.
Naked, he looked absurdly skinny. All ribs and limbs, his body formed concave angles. His nipples seemed out of place, like insect bites. I was amazed he was alive at all.
He curled both hands around the thick lever that kept the door locked.
"Then I could open the second door."
The monitor beeped and flashed. Bedtime. The lights flickered, a warning, and as always, they began to fade to dark.
"I wouldn\'t drive you crazy anymore." he said.
I bent over and picked his jumpsuit off the floor. The folds of orange material overflowed between my fingers. It felt heavier than before, more substantial. As I stood, the blood rushed to my head.
"You don\'t drive me crazy," I said.
"Do you want to know my reason?"
I didn\'t care, as long as Rex was there with me.
"I don\'t want to."
"Come on," said Rex, releasing his grip on the lever. His body shook. "I have a good one." The short red curls of Rex\'s beard quivered. "You\'ll never guess it."
"I guess not." I wondered how long his beard would be in eleven months.
"I\'ll give you a hint." His eyes were wide and pleading.
I held out his jumpsuit. An offering. "I don\'t want a hint."
CLAIRE O'CONNOR is a fiction writer and aspiring playwright who has taught in one capacity or another in Morocco, Massachussetts, the wilderness of New Jersey, California, and Idaho, where she recently earned her MFA in creative writing. In between teaching gigs she has worked as a bartender, a dog walker, a tour guide, a youth worker, and a freelance music reviewer. She currently lives with her cat in Brooklyn and is the oldest part-time sales associate at a chain store in Manhattan. Recently her work was featured on Washington Heights Free Radio (www.whfr.org), and her story "Cape Town" will be featured in the anthology Best New American Voices 2010, coming this fall.