Tour of the Jailkeeper

Don't bother looking for the door you just walked through. Your door's gone. My door, however, is right there, wide enough to fly a hot air balloon through. Wasn't so invitin' when I first came here.

I've been waiting a long time for you. I've been waiting a long time for anything. Seems like the age of the sun since the last time I saw light. Didn't expect such a young one. Just a baby, you are. Not much under your eyelids, I imagine.

They sent you down here 'cause it's my time to go, and believe me, I've been in wait for this hour longer than most people can conceive. I think I reached my point a hundred yesterdays ago. Time is always stretching, but never passing.

Bardam, name's Ridlo Bardam. Shoot, been so long since I've used those words I'm surprised I remember them.

Been the jailkeeper here, what, 20, 25 years. Probably only an hour or so up there on World time. Soon as I found out I was getting set free, getting a replacement, I wanted to run outta here with horse blinders on. But I promised the Powers I'd give you a looksee around, tell you what's what before I go. It won't ease your slip into the walls' song, but it'll hopefully give you an idea of when to cover your ears.

Now I ain’t teaching, that's gotta be known. Reason is you'll be reinventing how things are run here as time goes by, so to speak. First you'll be soft, careful not to make enemies, not to make scars. After a bit, skin gets hard, mind gets hard. The cells will get monotonous, the people in 'em jus' clones that make noise and repeat the same phrases, pleads for mercy, testimonies of touching God.

First of all, this place, and I know you're confused 'cause I was my first night in the dark, this place ain't Hell. It's a damn close cousin, could say it's adjacent to it, but it's not Hell itself. I don't think anything alive can dare make that claim where they stand. Sure ain't Heaven, either, though I'm sure you figured that standing there for the two-odd minutes you've been. No, this is jus' a jail you can't never find if you spend your whole young life tryin', but one that's easier to get to than your mama's kitchen.

This place, between upstairs and down, as far as I know ain't got a name. Least not in the years I've been here. Don't need one. People here don't stop to think of what to call these walls. Those who call themselves wise up on the World call it Purgatory. River Styx. It's all bullshit. Jus' some fancy scare words for people who need labels. They can't comprehend this place where we stand.

The reasons people are here really ain't too important, but you'll learn 'em soon anyhow. There's a different reason for every being that lives, countless stories. They're all a hoot, though, shit you don't see in no dime-store spook novel.

From where we stand you can see all of 'em in this circular moss-ridden dungeon. Looks like something from a Mad Max movie. That's probably where they got it. Someone got sent down here, got fixed up good, went back up and wrote those damn movies. Wouldn't be the first time this jail's been ripped off for art. That's good, though. Spreadin' hearsay images of my jail causes dreams, stories. Might educate a few smart souls, keep 'em from being candidates for the next vacant cell.

Let's go over to this cell here, since we're so close. He's sittin' in the corner covered with those shadows. Yeah, that's all him. Fat, gross bastard.

This is Charles. He's been here a while now, broke a long time ago, not that it shortens his stay or nothing. Up on the World he had this real crud job shuffling paper for a trash dump. Took care of the books for garbage collection, had an office with rusty, year-stained walls. The desk jockey for Rice Road Dump.

Everyday he'd come home and beat the crap outta his two kids. Jus' little tikes, they were. The boy's six, the girl's four. Six-year-old hasn't even started school yet. When Charles was at work he'd leave the kids at home to fend for themselves. Wife passed on years ago, tragic thing. When he got home he didn't fix 'em food, didn't bathe 'em. Sent 'em to sleep cryin' every night.

Now Charles wasn't drunk or nothing, his friends say he's alcohol-immune, anyway, from the war and its many adventures. No, everything he did was under his own free will, a natural thinking. The neglect, the beatings, all of it done with open eyes.

Sober beatings really catch our attention here, though toasted ones don't slip away none, either.

The tikes being' so young, so loyal, don't tell no stories about their pop. They don't lie when asked, but they don't demand anything or volunteer information, defending him when they feel they need to. They're confused, stuck between their own happiness and their tie to Dad.

The grandparents, Momma's folks, take Charles to court all the time. Being that he's their sole parent, and being that he can put on a good show for the judge, the grandparents always lose. Kids do, too, if you think about it. The big factor in the cases is that there's never any proof. There's piles of testimony, opinions of scores of neighbors and acquaintances, coworkers' observations. Yet, there's nothin' concrete.

What's probably Charles' one talent is that he can beat a child like he would a man in a bar and not leave any marks, least none that could be interpreted as only a beating. Sometimes I think he should be warden down here.

One night while romancing a $30 bottle of whiskey, he passed out and woke up with me. To his shock, he found himself chained to his cell, restrained by the pain of his children.

Chains here are made up of all sorts of stuff. There's demotions, a big favorite of mine, always does the job. You can take emotions from anyone in the prisoner's life and they'll hit home jus' the same. Then there's memories. Could be the prisoner's own, or that of someone else, or even a collective of many. These chains aren't as quick to work as emotion chains, but they do work, and they work hard once they get going.

Those are the most common, but there's others. Regret. Guilt. Future. Future chains show what can happen, what will happen, in the prisoners' lives, and it's never good. Otherwise, they wouldn't be down here sharing my company.

The thing with guilt, however, is that I never personally use `those chains. Well, sometimes, depending on who we're talkin' about. They jus' seem mild next to the eels.

Over here next door, we got a special one. Reason I think he's special is 'cause he's got some odd disease. Terminally ill, you know, least till they find a cure. Adam's the fellow's name.

Adam sat in another jail up on the World, a short skip from a life sentence, thinkin' about his condition. He figures he ain't no fag, he don't deserve to die, and damned if he's going out alone. A lot of suckers lower on the pole than him, he thinks. It'd be a shame to have their faces be the last thing he saw before he died.

With his logic, he went out to the bullpen with a knife he stole from the kitchen, cut himself, and gave his fatal blood to a few others. Three or four, I'm not sure. All I do know is that one of 'em was this nineteen-year-old kid, doing' time for petty theft. Something we've all done. Everybody's stolen something at least once in their life.

I normally wouldn't mention things like this next part, even I value life, but this is what brought him down here.

The other cons that got Adam's disease, well, they were old, used up, nothing but the rest of a life term in front of 'em. Murderers. Real pieces of work, they were, jus' might take a trip down here one day. But the kid, he didn't belong with 'em. It was a bold thing he did, against the law, but harmless nonetheless. Had only a couple more years before parole, and he woulda made that parole, too. We know things like that here.

Now time hasn't passed enough yet, but that kid's gonna die. No cure in sight for him, he's gonna die.

So we brought his killer, Adam, down here. He ain't got much time left himself, but these walls can stretch time to whatever I need. Ten minutes he'll be dozed off asleep in his cell on the World, a few years he'll be with me. This old boy got a couple of bucketfuls soon as he arrived. I was actually about to give Charles his right now, too.

These buckets will be yours in a bit. They're all full of eels for the prisoners. Eels are the next step up from chains. The ones I use the most are lies. Lies about one's life, the lives of their loved ones, about their deeds, lies that could be true.

Now those eels slither for a while, registering in the subject's head. Once accepted, they clamp down with their jaws, wigglin', suckin' the life out of whoever's in the cell, drivin' those lies into 'em. They're almost always accepted, makin' 'em go nuts. In a place like this, hope is pretty scarce. We don't brainwash 'em, though, jus' make 'em see what they should've seen up there a long time ago.

The truth is another eel. It's jus' like a lie, except it doesn't slither. It strikes fast, hittin' right for the neck, stickin' good and hard until the stay is done, don't waste no time. Those hurt the most, I think.

This next cell is also a special case. Guess it's fitting I show you the specials, most of what we have down here run the same ground. Adultery, theft, murder. Got lots of murderers here.

This next boy, Billy, was jus' tryin' to fit in with his buddies, or at least who he wanted as his buddies. That was his first mistake.

On a dare, he went down to the shopping mall and stole a car. Nothin' fancy, jus' something easy to get into, little econo-box car. Stealin' it gave Billy a high; doing something wrong, knowing that he'd be let into the cool crowd, all that shit.

On that high, he decided he wanted to do something that would attract attention, that would be seen by his new pals. Something they would talk about at school for weeks, putting his school, and himself, on the map, under the glass. He decided to turn his little joyride into an Indy 500 through suburbia, racing down narrow residential streets, running stop signs, maybe hopping a few lawns. Broad daylight an' all, didn't think nothing tragic would happen.

Swerving around a blind corner, Billy slammed into a man walking a dog. He hit that man hard. Hell, I felt it. The dog managed to avoid the scrape, but his owner died instantly. That's probably the only good thing about this particular story, that he didn't suffer. Not alive, anyway.

Half confused, half chicken-shit, Billy put the gas to the floor on his econo-box, without using any mirrors.

There were no witnesses to the hit, but there was a cop car nearby, looking for the reported madman driving through all the neighborhoods. They found the run down man, they found his dog, and a half-hour later they found the econo car. It seems that, having thoughts about leavin' the man to die, not checkin' to see if he was alive at all, Billy panicked and parked the car not even five blocks away.

He got out and ran, and he ran good. He footed it through backyards, down alleys, scampered behind anything bigger than him. He spent the night in some suburbanite's tool shed, waiting for the dawn, praying not to see a cop's flashlight first.

Now this ain’t even the worst part, him gettin' away with it, 'cause what he didn't know at the time was that the cops didn't bother to comb the area for him at all. The first thing they did was look up the license plate of the car, tracing it to its owner.

The owner unfortunately lived only a few streets from where the car was dumped. He had jus' got home from walkin' the six miles from the shopping mall when the police arrived to arrest him. Apparently, the computer that told the cops who the car belonged to also told them about his criminal past. Nothin' to base a movie on, jus' petty stuff like stickin' up a convenience store when he was a kid, a spot of vandalism to boot.

Cleaned up since then, he became a salesman of some sort. A respected one, too. Sold toiletries to small businesses; toilet paper, soap, commode covers. Cops didn't give a fuck about all that. They didn't believe that the little gas-saver car of a con was the object of another thug's desires. They cuffed him, closed the books, and went for cruellers.

Mr. Toiletries went to trial, where he still is, and is probably gonna get a stiff penalty. I don't know about death, but it'll definitely be something he don't deserve, something no one aside from a true murderer deserves.

At the moment we pulled Billy down, he was sittin' in a wicker chair in front of his TV, a couple of dimes of heroine in his arm, watching coverage of the Trial of the Sadistic Salesman. Big media thing, opened up new questions about the way criminals are treated, how they're judged fit to rejoin society or not. The man that was walking his dog during Billy's race against peer pressure turned out to be a BMOC; Big Man Of the Community.

The drugs made the pull on Billy all the more easier. First thing I did was sick a couple of buckets on him, watch the guilt pile to his shoulders. With this boy it wasn't a chore, 'cause he already had a trace of the bug in his head. Little bug gnawing at his mind, replaying everything over and over.

The moment he hit that man, the moment after when he realized what happened. The windshield didn't get touched, jus' the grille. The snap and twist of a torso as it bent impossibly over the hood. Slow-motion, it seemed. Billy felt his heart race from the moment, ready to collapse as he fled the bloody car, hurdling the endless fences in near-dark, wondering what to do, debating what to do. Nowhere to go, no hiding spots, no excuses. That open shed he eventually discovered was more a curse than a salvation.

Those bugs, like the one Billy's got, we don't stock away any of those down here. Everyone's got one in their head already, so we jus' work with those. The more dirt, the more chewin'. The more messed up an individual is, the harder and deeper that bug bores, straight into your mind till it can lick the rocky core we all try to cover up.

Like I said, we don't have those bugs down here, but what we do is take 'em out of these poor bastards' noggins and give 'em the strength of a swarm. We put 'em back in good and tight, seal it up and let 'er rip. Make the chains and even the eels look like fat-free cotton candy.

These brain bugs ain't all bad, though. You see, sometimes they're sleepin', like hibernating'. Could be happiness, could be ignorance, both maybe. It's never innocence. Innocence doesn't exist, really. I know.

What brings folks down here? One reason, a million reasons. I ain't no expert, despite my soon-to-be-ex-profession, but this is how I see it; no one has the Guarantee of Life. That is, no one has the guarantee that life will be perfect or anywhere close to perfect. Same goes for one's afterlife. Especially no guarantees there, no matter how much faith you've drowned yourself in.

Only exceptions are pitiful employees like me.

Being jailkeeper pays spit. The paycheck is being made to witness and create the suffering of countless people, having no concept of time, makin' it oceans worse than it could be alone.

It's the benefits that make up for everything. Benefit, I should say. Jailkeeper position gets the Guarantee of Life. You serve the Powers, you know your future is on a velvet cloud.

I was there, now you are.

That's down here, of course. Up there ain't no one, I don't care if you're the Pope or Beaver Cleaver, no one has that piece of paper.

Exceptin' maybe little kids and retards. Retards don't know enough to get rejected or accepted, so they get in by default. That ignorance-is-bliss thinkin', it's their life. It ain't no lie, either, nothing's truer.

With kids, little kids, that paper sticks with them from the womb. They got the Guarantee of peaceful existence, up there, down here. But somewhere around adolescence, eight or nine, that paper starts to fade and fall apart. By the time they're twelve, their innocence is all used up. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, but jus' not being whole anymore spoils the paper. Seems to happen earlier each generation. Whenever it happens, though, rest assured it always does.

This little thing, Lily, has the next cell. Now she had the Guarantee for a long time, longer than most. Even in her teens, that paper still held strong. She always did her work in school, always minded her parents, didn't wonder too far about the workings of the world and its peoples. She went to church and blindly followed her faith like she was told to.

Something happened later on. I guess being so good and innocent, you can get hooked up with the bad seeds faster. They have a wider canvas to splash their corruption on. It seems they show you things you ain't never seen, and in concentrate.

When she was twenty-three, Lily got involved with a piece of shit, an addict that abused his substance and eventually her. She closed her eyes jus' like in church and let the rocks fall where they did, not questioning, not doing anything. Pretty soon, she began denying what she couldn't hold back covering her eyes with her hands. How could her first true love do things like that? She must have exaggerated her pain, she thought. She must have deserved it.

We have yet to drag her man down here. He still has a few things to do before we have enough to dump on him. You see, this jail, being here, is like a vision. A revelation. An incomprehsible nightmare that hopefully has the grits to kick you in the right mind slot. But you only visit these walls once. No one sees visions more than that. You can get high and pretend you can, but that's all bullshit. The don't make a pill for instant miracles.

There's a difference between a drug screwin' with your senses and my clammy hands wrapping icy sorrow chains around your feet, making you immobile, a statue. Can't even scream till I make you.

Now in Lily's case, the only person getting violated was her. But letting someone drown you is just as bad as drownin' someone yourself. After all, you gotta count number one as a person, too. Besides, through her silence, that bastard is free to destroy others.

When we were lookin' towards her way, we had a few things planned. Nothing big, jus' some bug maintenance, chains, a spot next to the fat man. I had my hands out to her when she got into an accident. Weird thing, too, 'cause I can normally foresee things like that. Figure I must have slipped or something.

What happened was that she got hit by a semi-truck. Got banged up bad, put her in a coma. When she came out of it, she wasn't right, missin' something. A vegetable, spends her days sittin' in front of the hospital TV or sometimes a real window, a fixed gaze on her like she was made of wax. She gets fed through her veins and probably will for life.

Being the novelty she was, we didn't know what to do with her. Discussions took place and theories were made. First thought was to bring her down here and re-hab her, bring her out of that pathetic state of living. We'd sick the demons on her once she was through. This way, she'd come out of her sunlight grave pullin' her hair out, swimmin' through all the regret and shame we could muster. Wonderin' about what she could've done, what she still can do. If only it wasn't too late, if only she wasn't an invalid. Awakening every one of those dead senses with more fire than any of them could handle over countless lifetimes.

I voted for that one.

The second thought was to bring her here as is, pumping the nightmares into that white sand desert of a girl. No point to it, really. You can't suffer if you're already living a nightmare, or if you're a slab of stone. It's like takin' a shotgun to a hunk of Swiss cheese. Already has holes, just a waste of buckshot. Hell, she ain't gonna understand anything we might do.

But the Powers decided to go with the latter plan. I listened and did my job, threw her into a cell with a couple of bucketfuls. Tossed those eels on everyday for the past year, a few days of her coma up on the World. They jus' slide right off her pale wax body and crawl along the floor. There ain't nothing to hook their fangs onto. Too clean. Comatose is too much a neighbor to being a retard, least for this young thing.

It's as though the Guarantee she had for so long and then lost, well, it's like it got renewed. Sounds impossible, but that's the way it seems.

So now I'm handing these buckets to you. You're the one in charge now. I don't remember what my predecessor told me as he left through his door, but it musta been decent advice 'cause they kept me here so long, longer than you'll be here, hopefully.

As for me, I'm headin' back up there to live out the rest of my physical life till my afterlife comes callin'. Got the Guarantee in my back pocket, and I plan on keeping it whole till I die.

I tell you, though. Sometimes I feel like this is my bucket of eels and chains. Sometimes I feel like they brought me down here to supervise all the pain, years of it, as a punishment for a crime I committed so long ago I can't remember. Makin' me jailkeeper and savin' my soul, thinkin' I was given exception to the Guarantee rule, was the grand torture.

Years will go by up on the World, I'm gonna pass on, and I'll realize it was all a big lie. A huge demon clamped onto my neck for decades.

I consider myself saved, whatever the truth is. Not the type of saving that they pipe into you up there; the Messiah saved me, the Lord saved me, I confessed my sins and now I'm born again to sin some more. Goin' to church is fine, but it don't save you. A lot of bastards down here can tell you that, including the priest in the next cell.

No, it's when they toss your ass on this cobblestone and show you wonders you can't see in church or in drugs or in anywhere. That's the revelation. You discover it for yourself. It ain't spoon-fed in a sugar-coated package labeled “Good kids go to Heaven, Bad kids go to Hell“.

Damn shame it takes pain to make most people stand, see the sky and everyone livin' under it. Damn shame it takes your blood and your mind, most of the time nothing less will do. A soldier in a foreign land, facing his own death, surrounded by men trained to hate him, is closer to the Almighty than any bible-toting suburbanite. That soldier keeps his eyes fixed on the heavens while lying face-down in his own hell.

I won't dismiss the possibility that the existence of this jail is all a sham, that I'll be in a cell when the charade is done, maybe sooner. All the ooze that poured out through these bars during my tour of duty will be my blood in another life. The things I was told to do become the things I'm damned for, all under the same roof.

But I'm pretty confident that I'm saved, more so than most anyone can imagine. So I guess I'm back where I was to begin with, before they gave me this job. Back with the masses, where they've always been and always will be.

I guess I'm jus' clingin' on to faith.

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