“Holen Sie sich auf die Füße!“
The raucous voice rang sharply in his head and he sat up, his thoughts a jumble of confusion. Blood rushed to his face, heat blooming, his head swimming, his stomach lurching with nausea. It was dark, and his vision was blurred as he strained to pierce the gloom, trying to identify the source of the yelling. A cacophony of noise penetrated his head, pounding in his brain, the sound of metal slamming, a rush of footsteps getting closer, more shouted voices.
Shaking his head, he glanced around, his heart rate skyrocketing, his eyes still not working quite right, an out-of-body feeling making it hard to think. Where am I? Putting his hands down beside him, he realized he was sitting on a thin mattress, elevated slightly off the ground. There was a cover of some type on the mattress, cool beneath his palms. A thin blanket lay tangled around his waist, his chest bare, the air cold and prickling at his skin. He felt the rough blanket on his legs and realized they were bare as well, though he was wearing what felt like a thin pair of shorts. A cinderblock wall was on his right side, close enough that his shoulder brushed it, the wall rough and cold against his skin. On his left, through the semi-darkness, he could just make out another wall maybe ten feet away, beyond the edge of the elevated bed.
“Achtung! Holen Sie sich auf die Füße!“
The voice was coming from in front of him now, and he jerked his head up. A man stood in a doorway in the cinderblock wall. The door itself, metal and painted a dull red, a window inset at the top with vertical bars running through it, was standing open. The man in the entrance, the source of the yelling, stared at him with an icy glare. He was tall and thin, wearing some sort of uniform, a metal badge on his chest gleaming softly in the dull, dim light, the source of which was still unclear. On top of the man’s head was perched a flat-brimmed cap like he’d seen in old movies, the type police officers wore in the 1920s and 1930s.The man was carrying a hefty, wooden club, and he now struck it against the metal door, the loud clanging noise reverberating in the room.
The cell, a voice in his head whispered.
The man shouted again, words he recognized as German, though he didn’t speak the language and didn’t understand the meaning.
The fog began to lift from his mind, the walls became clearer, and the room seemed to lighten as if he was waking from a deep sleep. He clearly wasn’t waking though, because he’d fallen asleep on the couch in his office and this was definitely not his office. Which meant he must be dreaming, and this felt like a nightmare. The walls of the cell became clear, cinderblocks stacked neatly, thin mortar lines perfectly troweled. The man, he realized, was a guard of some type, an officer, and he slammed the club against the metal door again, the noise echoing through the small room.
The officer turned abruptly and shouted to someone out of his view.
“Entering cell 249!”
Where am I? the man thought to himself again, and then, disquietingly, Who am I? He shook his head, and the room brightened further, the fog receding from his vision. Sam, he realized abruptly. Sam Cohen. But not really. Not at the moment anyway, the voice in his head whispered.
A loud yell from somewhere off to Sam’s right responded to the guard, and Sam had just a moment to realize that the officer’s last command, had been in English.
“Bist du taub? Are you deaf? On your feet, maggot, before I beat you where you sit!” The officer strode into the room, scraping his wooden nightstick along the concrete wall. He stopped at the foot of the bed and glared at Sam.
It’s not English, it’s still German he’s speaking, Sam realized with alarm. Yet I can understand it…understand it as well as if he was speaking English.
The officer began to raise the nightstick and Sam rapidly pulled the covers off his legs, swinging them over the edge of the bed and standing up. The officer was taller than he’d realized from his bed, towering over him. The bed was also higher off the floor than it had appeared, and the contrast between the actual height of the officer and his perception of that height when he was sitting on the bed, began to make his head swim. He thought he might be sick and he closed his eyes briefly, fighting down the nausea. When he opened them again, the officer had taken another step forward and was staring down at him.
“Are you sick, Erich?” he asked, the question loud and menacing. Although Sam was sick, something told him he shouldn’t let on.
“No,” he replied, or tried to reply. The word that came off his tongue was “nein” and he frowned as he realized he’d answered in German, though his thoughts were in English.
“Then get to the door of your cell and stand at attention for the count!”
He saw it coming at the last second, but it was too late to move out of the way. Pain flared up as the rounded end of the baton bashed into his stomach. He doubled over and fought more waves of nausea, his eyes closed, the officer’s boots clicking loudly as he marched back out of the cell.
Catching his breath, Sam slowly stood up straight, his hands holding his stomach, rubbing it, still in pain. He stepped to the doorway and peered out into what was clearly a prison. What kind of nightmare would allow me to feel such pain?
He was on the second floor, an iron-bar railing directly in front of him, rows of cells across from him separated by a large gulf of empty space, dropping off out of his range of vision. A courtyard of some type, he realized as he stepped closer. By looking across the courtyard, he could see four levels of the prison, dozens of cell doors, most with a prisoner in varying states of dress standing under the door frame. To his right, Sam could see there were only four cell doors before the terrace ended in a white-painted cinderblock wall, an arched and open doorway leading to a darkened room beyond. To his left, he counted an additional eleven cell doors before a walkway crossed at right angles, the cells continuing on beyond that walkway, disappearing into the gloom of the half-lit, cavernous building.
Set above the walkway was what appeared to be a guard station, elevated approximately ten feet above the level his cell was on. It was a round room with windows that reflected the dim light like mirrors, prohibiting him from seeing inside. Surrounding it was a metal catwalk with railings and two sets of metal stairs, descending from each side down to the catwalk. From the round room, which was centered over the courtyard, Sam could see that the guards would have a view of all of the cell doors, both on his wing, and on the wing that ran perpendicular to his.
Guards walked each of the catwalks on all three of the upper levels, carrying clipboards and pencils, batons swinging from their utility belts. Occasionally one would stop and yell into one of the cells, waiting for the prisoner to come to the door before continuing on.
Sam, confused, his heart beating wildly, tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
What was the last thing I remember? he asked himself, his mind racing.
He’d been in his office, his office at the University of Michigan where he was a professor, a professor who had just recently received full tenure. He shook his head again and stared across the courtyard to the cells on the far side. He remembered finishing a lecture. He’d returned to his office and had decided to steal a quick nap on the leather couch. He remembered lying down, closing his eyes…
A klaxon sounded, loudly but briefly, startling him. He observed the prisoners across the way disappear back into their cells. Glancing left and right, he saw the ones on his level had also left the doorways. Unsure of what to do, he stepped back to his bed and swiveled around, his eyes searching. There was a rather large window set into the back wall, wide, flat, iron bars on the outside of the window confirming that this was a prison cell, though a rather nice one from what he could tell. Curtains, opened and tied back, hung from the window so that he could see a dark sky outside, a faint glow of pink on the lower edge cluing him that dawn must be arriving. This realization made him queasy again; it had been well into the afternoon when he’d lain down on the couch in his office.
A small writing desk was across from the single bed where he’d awoken just minutes earlier, an old, wooden chair pushed in neatly under it. On the desk was a lamp and a small notebook which was open, an archaic pencil on top of the page. Beyond the desk was an antique wardrobe, its doors closed.
Sam stepped over to the wardrobe, intending to open it and look for some sort of clue, but he never made it. As he passed the desk, his eyes were drawn to a square mirror mounted on the wall above the writing surface of the desk. It was cheap as far as mirrors go, no ornamentation or even a frame, just a square pane about two feet by two feet. It was not the sort of thing Sam would have expected to see in a prison cell, in fact, it was the exact sort of thing he thought wouldn’t ever belong in a cell, the sort of item that prisoners might use to create weapons like the shanks and shivs that were ever popular in prison movies, though Sam had absolutely no knowledge of their actual popularity in real prisons. Regardless, it wasn’t the mirror that made him stumble over his step, catch himself, and turn to gape into the glass. It was his reflection.
Sam was fifty-two years old. He’d been staring at his reflection his entire life, and there had certainly been mornings, particularly in his younger years, where he’d hardly recognized the bleary-eyed, hungover person staring back at him from the bathroom mirror. It had always been him, though, despite the damage he’d done to himself from a hard night of drinking the evening before. This, however, this was not him, not remotely. The person staring back at him was a complete and utter stranger, a man Sam had never seen before in his life.
Sam’s hair was on the long side, mostly gray streaked with the remainder of the dark brown hair of his youth. Sam’s eyes were brown, his face round with a prominent nose. The man in the mirror was in his late twenties or early thirties, his hair blond and buzzed short, military style. His face was angular, his jaw square and jutting, his nose sharp and crooked, as if it had been broken. The stranger stared back at him with piercing blue eyes that seemed to bore into Sam’s own.
Sam’s mouth dropped open, the mouth of the stranger in the mirror falling open as well, seemingly mocking him. He felt his vision blurring again, his heart rate, which had mostly settled, climbing again, his palms getting sweaty. He shook his head, trying to clear it, the now foggy stranger in the glass mirroring his every move. Some part of him realized he was fainting, and he reached for the wooden chair to steady himself. He missed it and felt himself falling, his clouded vision seeing the edge of the desk approaching at a speed much too fast for his wobbly arms to grab onto. His last sensation was acute pain as his forehead struck the edge of the desk, and everything went black.
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