Officer Kirsch, or Officer K, as he was called, had once told Norman that there were no secrets in the maximum security prison. That was putting the matter nicely, Norman had thought. There were rats in every crevice in the prison and seemingly nothing went unreported. “There are no secrets in this place,” Officer K had said proudly, with conviction.
Norman was working in the prison’s Sign Shop, which made the street signs and license plates for the State. He was in the basement packing defective signs when he stumbled upon the tunnel. It was behind an old furnace that had obviously been forgotten. This wasn’t surprising. The prison was old. It looked like a medieval castle. Not surprisingly, there were long forgotten tunnels under it. Few prisoners had access to the basement. The Sign Shop was one of the few areas in the prison where the basement was utilized and thus provided access to prisoners, although this access was minimized and generally supervised.
Office K was the Sign Shop’s supervisor. It was ironic that he had told Norman that there were no secrets, because the guard himself couldn’t hold water. He had told Norman his wife’s name, as well as his children’s. He had even shown Norman pictures of the family. The wife was pretty in an incestuous way. Officer K had shown Norman his vacation pictures, the wife and kids on the beach in bathing suits. The kids were cute little devils, took after their mother.
In a way, Norman felt responsible for the family, like he was the breadwinner, since his imprisonment provided Officer K with the wherewithal to provide for his family. Norman didn’t know how to interpret this shared intimacy with his keeper. At first he had thought that Officer K was maliciously showing him what he was missing, but the guard genuinely liked him and wanted to share this happy moment in his life with him for, after all, Norman was as close to a fellow employee as Officer K had. He often praised Norman as a good worker. Norman didn’t cause any problems. Officer K had a great deal of trust in him. Norman, however, betrayed this trust. Whenever he masturbated he conjured up images of Officer K’s wife in the bathing suit and called out her name.
It had taken Norman three years to gain Office K’s trust. It was a whole year before he had left Norman in the basement alone, and even then he would sporadically check. Only in the third year did Officer K cease checking on Norman altogether. Thus he began his journey into the tunnel. It was a veritable maze. It crisscrossed under the prison, leading to the cell blocks and other points of the prison. One path led to the front of the prison. Behind sturdy bars Norman had looked up at the parking lot. On that occasion a woman, her heels clacking against the pavement, had walked past. Norman lustily watched her shapely legs. He had wished he could see her face. He wondered if she was Officer K’s wife, since she worked at the prison too, as many of the guards’ wives and girlfriends did.
When Norman first discovered the tunnel he was like a kid exploring. The con in him though hoped that one of the paths would lead out of the prison. He had vowed to search every nook and cranny of the tunnel to see if there was a way out. Some days he got frustrated, going around in circles, but he had vowed not to leave one stone unturned. Every workday if he was able to go down to the basement, he was in the tunnel searching. One day his persistence paid off. He saw the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. He followed it. He had to restrain himself from shouting “Eureka!” He wasn’t long for this world. He would leave as soon as possible. It would just be his luck that after more than one hundred years the guards would rediscover his entrance to the tunnel. Their aptitude for serendipity was amazing, and frightening. If they stumbled upon this tunnel it’d be after he had left. He would make his preparations and leave in a week.
That week passed agonizingly slowly. Norman was on edge. At night he couldn’t even masturbate to the image of Officer K’s wife in her bathing suit.
The day before Norman was going to leave there was a flood in the mess hall. Norman learned about the deluge and thought it was an omen. A guard had journeyed into the basement to check on the flooding. It wasn’t too bad. He wouldn’t even have to assign any prisoners to mop it up. It was awfully musty in the basement and he didn’t relish having to oversee the operation if he reported that work had to be done. He was off the following day. If any work needs to be done, he thought, my relief can do it. It was too God-awful smelly down there.
The guard had returned to the mess hall and reported that the flooding in the basement was minimal. No prisoners were assigned to mop up.
The day Norman was going to leave finally arrived. This was the first time in prison he had actually looked forward to going to work. It would be his last day. He would leave as soon as he could, get as great a start as he could before the authorities realized that he was missing.
In the basement Norman squeezed behind the furnace and entered the tunnel through the hitherto long forgotten entrance.
He ran toward the proverbial light. As he got closer the light became brighter. It was blinding. He put his arm in front of his eyes. He stumbled and fell. He kept falling. There seemed to be no end to his falling. He finally hit the ground after what seemed an eternity. His head was aching from the brilliance of the light. He picked himself up and looked around. The light was still blinding. And it was hot. God it was hot! And what was that sound? It sounded like a waterfall. What was that? He almost stopped breathing. He listened. Someone was approaching.
He heard the steady tread of feet. He looked around him for a place to hide, but there was no hiding place. He looked up. The first thing he saw emerging from the light was the shoes. They were black and polished to a spit shine, exactly like the fanatical go-by-the-book guards polished their shoes. From the shoes he looked up. Razor sharp creases in navy blue pants. A sky blue shirt. Shit, a guard! Where was he? He looked at the face. He had never seen this guard. He was an albino, with woolly hair.
“Where am I?” Norman muttered.
“Hell,” the albino said.
Had he said “hello?” “What did you say?”
“Hell,” he enunciated clearly.
“I’ve always thought of prison as hell,” Norman said out loud but though he had said such to himself.
“No, you’re actually in hell.”
“I can’t believe this!”
“You mean to tell me you’re a…fallen angel?”
“Far from that!”
“So you belong here! Rarely do we get someone who doesn’t belong here.”
“I just thought I’d escaped!” Norman thought he said to himself.
“From one hell to another?”
“If you want to look at it that way. Hell has been given a bad name by all of your poets. I like to think of it as paradise lost.”
“How did I get here?”
“You followed the yellow brick road!” He chuckles. “How in hell do you think you got here? Didn’t you know that prisons are built right over hell?”
“I must be dreaming.”
“Life is a dream. This is better than life itself! You’ll like it here. A lot of interesting people, especially the advocates.”
“No, lawyers. We hold mock trials down here.”
“So nothing’s changed?”
“On the contrary, a lot has changed. Down here the acquittal rate is well over ninety percent.”
“Down here we are honest.”
“I never met an honest lawyer!”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything. Would you like me to show you around?”
“Call it whatever you like. You can wander around if you desire.”
“Be my guest.”
“Are you what?”
“No, you’re here for eternity.”
“So I traded in one life sentence for another?”
“This is nothing like where you’ve come from!”
“What’s the difference?”
“In this world there are no restraints. You can do whatever you want. That’s why I like to think of my abode as paradise lost.”
“I can do anything I want?”
“Without fear or reprisal. As long as you can live with yourself afterwards.
“Are you serious?”
Norman follows the albino dressed like a guard. Men in three-piece suits, the advocates, wave to the albino as he takes Norman on the grand tour of hell. In a corner a dirty child is gnawing on a rat. Norman averts his eyes.
“Come now,” the albino says, “hell isn’t for the squeamish.”
They walk for about a mile. For Norman the tour is surrealistic. He keeps thinking that it’s nothing but a dream. However, certain scenes are realistic and reminiscent of the streets. There are bands of youth roaming the streets of hell; there are homeless people; there are unspeakable crimes being played out right before his eyes. The albino stops. “Look!” He expansively extends his arms. “All this is yours!”
Norman looks. Beautiful women in bikinis are on what is unmistakably a beach. For years he had only seen bikini-clad women on beaches in beer commercials!
“You can have any one of them,” the albino continues.
“Are they prostitutes?”
“No, they’re ordinary women who’ve found their way to hell. Many women are fascinated with evil, with evil men. Pick the one you want, follow her and take her.”
“Take her, rape her. I don’t care what you call it. Here nothing is forbidden!”
“But I never raped a woman!”
“There’s a first time for everything!”
“But I never –“
“Oh shut up! You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but anything you want to do you can. By God! you’re the most squeamish person we’ve had down here in quite some time. Normally, when people find out the true nature of hell they are ecstatic. They celebrate this new freedom with excess. ‘Indulge excessively’ becomes their motto!” Looking at his watch. “Well, you can make up your mind on your own time. I have things to do!” He goose-steps away from Norman and into the bowels of hell.
Norman sat down on the sand and watched the women. He watched them for quite some time. Actually, he lost track of time. His mouth was watering and it wasn’t because he was watching a beer commercial. He had singled out a woman he would take or rape, whatever one preferred. He just knew that he had to have her. He was going to have her. She reminded him of someone. He couldn’t put his finger on whom. Maybe it was one of the women in the beer commercials. God, she was a pretty woman.
The pretty woman was leaving. Norman got up to follow. He couldn’t believe what he was going to do. He had always despised rapists. In his ignorance and arrogance he had believed that a real man could have any woman he wished if he was willing to take the time to woo her or whatever it took. Now, he was stalking a woman.
The woman turned slightly and he saw her in profile. That’s when it dawned on him who she reminded him of. Officer K’s wife. How could she be in hell? Was she attracted to evil men? Officer K, despite being a keeper, seemed to be a decent human being.
Before he knew what he was doing he called out her name. First softly, and then loudly.
She turned. There was no recognition in her eyes. Of course she didn’t know him. What did he expect? He approached her and she bolted. He chased her, his eyes on her fine long legs. She was fast as a filly. But he knew that she couldn’t outrun him. He would track her down. He was in very good shape. He kept a steady pace, slowly closing the gap between himself and his intended victim. It was just a matter of time before she fell from exhaustion. He wouldn’t pounce on her. He would enjoy her to the fullest. It had been a long time.
She finally collapsed after a number of miles. He stopped running and approached her. She was on her hands and knees gasping for air. He grabbed her by the hair and turned her face toward him.
“Please!” she gasped out, still trying to catch her breath.
Her helplessness was arousing him even more.
“Please don’t hurt me,” she managed to get out between breaths.
“What’s your name?”
“You called me by my name!”
“Are you married?”
“Do you love your husband?”
“Do you have any children?”
“Will he forgive you?”
“Please, you’re scaring me!” Her eyes pleaded with him.
“I won’t hurt you.”
She started to cry. He let go of her hair. He sat down next to her. Suddenly, she bolted again. He got a hand around her ankle and she fell. He fell on top of her.
Office K came upon Norman in the tunnel where he had fallen. He shook his head. He was disappointed. He radioed for assistance. Only then did he check on his prisoner. He was semiconscious, moaning something. Officer K leaned toward him. First it was a whisper. He wasn’t sure if he had heard correctly, but then Norman practically shouted it out.
Help finally arrived. The now unconscious Norman was taken to the hospital where he journeyed in and out of consciousness for a few weeks, replaying his descent to hell for the nurse and the guard that watched over him. During that time Office K came to the hospital often. He was waiting for Norman to regain consciousness. He wanted to tell him one thing.
After a little more than a month, Norman regained consciousness. The hospital was brightly lit. He put his arm up to shield his eyes. Peeking under his arm he saw a sky blue shirt. He looked up and saw the face he had dreaded to see.
“Good to have you back in this world,” Officer K said. “I just wanted to tell you one thing: there are no secrets in this place.” With that Officer K walked out the hospital.