That was the text from my friend James.
I remembered where I was sitting at the time, as if the whole memory was a Polaroid, it would stick with me for the rest of my life as a milestone for the trauma that was to be inflicted. I was sitting in the armchair nearest the front door, watching TV – Sons of Anarchy to be precise.
I picked up the phone and rang. James didn’t answer. The next hour or so was a blur. I messaged and called everyone that knew him. I was the sole recipient of his text. His mother had no idea what I was talking about. I tried to play it off as some sort of joke. The call ended with her shouting at me, telling me how horrible it was for me to play such a sick prank. I took one for the team and apologized.
Two days passed and I didn’t hear from James. I was doubting myself, doubting I ever received the message in the first place. I opened my phone and stared at it, and as I did, it rang. James’ name appeared on the screen.
“Are you okay, man? I’ve been worried about you!” I said, wanting to be angry, but unable.
“He has returned!” James said, an excitement in his voice made it rumble, as if he were about to cry.
“Yes, you have. I’m glad you’re okay.”
“I’ve never been better, Thomas.”
“I’m very happy for you,” my initial relief turned to irritation, that he’d left me in the dark for so long, “are you injured at all?”
“I am not worried about the ills of the flesh. He has returned!”
“The Lord, our Savior.”
James was very religious, bordering on the fundamental. This wasn’t the first time he’d mentioned his faith to me. I tried my best to accept it, and not judge. He knew I was an atheist, and he didn’t afford me the same respect. He thought everyone needed saving.
“You’re okay, right?”
“I’ve never been better,” he said, chuckling uncomfortably.
“He was looking out for me. I shouldn’t have been drinking,” he said, his tone suddenly serious, “You know I don’t drink often, right? It was only a couple. I am so thankful.”
“You’re worrying me now,” I said, concerned he was in trouble.
“You have nothing to worry about. I was travelling along the country roads, and enjoying the sunset. I think it was a sign, you know, like the star of Bethlehem? I lost control of the car. The light was so blinding. If it weren’t for Him, I’d have gone head first into the stone wall.”
“What do you mean, if it weren’t for him?” I felt my heart begin to race.
“How did he save you?”
“He was standing in the road, holding out His hands.”
“You hit someone?” I said, startled.
“It was our Lord, come to save me.”
“James, tell me you reported this?”
“I couldn’t, I’d been drinking.”
“Jesus, James,” I realized I’d begun to pace the room, “what did you do with him?”
“I didn’t leave Him in the road, if that’s what you mean, He’s our Lord.”
“Fuck, man. What have you done?”
“Why are you getting upset? This is wonderful, amazing!”
“You fucking hit someone with your car. Did you take him to hospital?”
“Of course not!”
I felt my legs give way, I fell back into a chair, placing my free hand on my forehead, feeling a clammy sweat gather.
“Where’s he now?”
“At my house,” he said confused I was so concerned for him.
“I’m coming over,” I said, and picked up my coat.
“I was hoping you’d offer. This is so exciting; I’d hate to keep it all to myself.”
It then hit me, much like the crash hit him, he must have been concussed. Can that last days? He was out of it, he needed medical attention.
“How did you know He was our Lord?” I said playing alone.
“His name is Jesus. When I came to, I rushed out of the car. He was laying there silent, just like He would, He never made a fuss.”
“You hit him!”
“He was there to save me, and He did. I carried Him back. He didn’t make a sound.”
I got into my car.
“I think you are going to be in some trouble, James.”
“He’s fine now. We’ve been talking.”
“About how we are going to announce His second coming.”
“What’s he said?”
“He doesn’t believe it. Though Jesus didn’t want to accept His calling at first. He will in time. I’ll prove it to Him.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to prove to you, that He is our Lord.”
“Don’t do anything until I get there!” I demanded.
I don’t think I’ve driven that fast before. I hesitated before phoning the police, but I had to. If what he told me was true, he’d effectively kidnapped a car crash victim. I relayed to the responder what James said to me. They asked if I thought anyone was in immediate danger, and I said no. My God, the damage one small word can do – no. I wonder today if everything would have been different if I said yes.
I arrived at his farmhouse close to ten o’clock at night. James wasn’t waiting for me. I saw the lights on throughout the house and banged on his front door. James greeted me, his arms behind his back, and a broad smile that mirrored the large reddened wound that festered on his forehead.
“James, we need to get you to a hospital!”
He touched his fingers to the wound, winced mildly and licked his finger.
“I need not a doctor, I have our Lord and Savior in the house.”
“Where is he?” I said, pushing past him, my concern for the unfortunate stranger and not my friend.
“What’s the rush?” he asked quizzically.
I jumped when I saw his arm jut out at an awkward angle, his hand swollen purple.
“Fuck, your arm?”
“T’is but a wound of the flesh.”
“You’ve broken it.”
He glanced at it without a shred of worry on his face.
“I have faith. I’m being tested.”
I doubted he could have lifted a fully-grown adult into his car with his arm in that condition – maybe it was a child. Whatever sympathy I had for James vanished, and all I could think about was finding this person he had in his house.
“Where is he?” I demanded.
“Calm down, now if you had faith like me, you wouldn’t be so upset. I’ll prove it to you.”
He hobbled past me, holding his flailing arm with his good hand. It made a crunching sound as he rested it on his chest, like that of a pestle and mortar grinding grain. He entered the kitchen and poured himself a glass of red wine, letting his arm go limp again. I shuddered at the sound.
“For the pain,” he said, “I think He would approve. Would you like one?”
“No! Tell me where he is!”
“Oh, you are excited,” he said, confusing my anxiety and panic for elation.
James walked to a wooden door in his kitchen and opened it. A cold, damp air rose from within.
“You put him in your cellar?”
“It’s the closest I have,” he said trailing off.
As his broken body descended the stairs, I thought about pushing him. All the scenarios ran through my mind, him hitting his neck on the way down and snapping it, or landing in a heap at the bottom. Each one would be justified if he was keeping someone prisoner, but if not, I’d be the guy who killed or maimed a defenseless man in urgent need of medical attention.
A single bulb lit the dank cellar.
“I had to improvise,” James said proudly.
“Oh Christ!” I exclaimed.
A makeshift crucifix fashioned from pallet wood rested in the corner. I didn’t even pay attention to the faint knocking from upstairs, nor Thomas leaving, nor the door at the bottom of the stairs closing and being locked shut.
“What the fuck have you done?!”
A thin man hung from the cross. Large nails had been driven into his wrists, the wounds reddened and scabbed, a congealed blood had dripped down his arms. A burlap sack rested on his head. I thought he was already dead.
I fell to my knees, all my impetus melting away. The man’s gaunt body was swathed with a bedsheet peppered in blood stains. His bare feet pointed towards the floor, pale and blotched by bruises.
“Hello?” I said, forcing myself to my feet and shuffling towards him.
I held out my hand as if feeling in the dark. I touched his abdomen; he was ice cold.
I was shaken out of my numbed state by a knock. I turned; James was nowhere to be seen. I ran over to the door and pulled on the handle. It barely moved.
“Thomas,” I heard James say, muffled by the door, “did you phone the police?”
“I had to, I was worried about you,” I replied, holding my ear to the damp wood.
“Why? I said there was nothing to be concerned about, did you doubt me?”
Slowly I became aware I was locked in by a man who wasn’t himself.
“You’re quick to use the Lord’s name in vain. They came to my door, MY DOOR” he screamed, “They’re gone now. I only had to poke my head outside. They saw my face, much like you did. I have to say, I got a little lucky. It was John, and I know John very well. We’re tight. I told him there was nothing to worry about. And do you know what, Thomas? He believed me, not like you.”
I pulled on the door handle.
“Stop doing that. I said I’d prove it to you, and if that means I need to lock you up in there as well, then that’s what I’ll do.”
“I’ll starve!” I shouted.
“You have the Lord, our Savior in there with you, you’ll be protected.”
“Have you gone insane?!”
“Quite the contrary, I have never been so focused. He was placed in there tonight, so you only have to wait three days. Isn’t it exciting?” James cackled, “I envy you.”
That was the last words he said to me. In shock, I heard his footsteps get quieter and quieter, then the single bulb that lit the room went dark.
I don’t know how long I’d been in there before I thought about my phone, my heart skipped a beat as the surge of adrenaline shot through my system. I patted my pockets, searching. I even checked my socks, my mind already warping. A crystal-clear image came into my mind’s eye. The passenger seat of my car. The phone resting there, from where I’d taken it out of my pocket to call the police. In an instant, my freedom was taunted in front of me and then pulled from beneath in the same breath.
I sat with my back against the wall, feeling the dampness soak into my coat, and I screamed. No words, just a wail of pain. At first there was denial. I couldn’t believe what had happened. It had to have been some sort of joke, with a very unfunny punchline. James would open the door soon and say, gotcha, though that never came.
The longer I sat still, the colder I got. I stood up and walked back and forth, grasping the wall for purchase, hoping I was on the other side of the cellar to the dead body. In the dark, I felt isolated and alone.
I soon tired. I found something soft in the corner and laid on the floor, almost instantly turning my already wet back ice cold. I closed my eyes, not seeing a difference. It wasn’t long before I didn’t know anymore. Didn’t know if I was staring into the dark, or keeping my eyes shut. Blobs of color swirled in my vision as my brain tried to come to terms with the lack of light. I saw fractured images of loved ones and random freeze frames from earlier in the evening. At some point sleep took me.
I woke disorientated. Immediately I panicked, thinking I was blind, blinking rapidly expecting my room at home to suddenly come into view. Within moments, reality came crashing down, and with that anger erupted.
I was parched, but I didn’t care. The ire that grew in my stomach drove me forth. I found the door and rained down punches.
“Let me out!” I demanded.
“LET ME OUT!” I screamed.
“Let me out,” I cried.
Though no one heard me, and if they did, they didn’t respond.
“Fuck you, James!”
I slid to the floor.
I wasn’t aware of the time or the day. Time was abstract then. It meant nothing. The only thing that signaled the passage of time was my growing thirst and hunger. If I was to be here for three days and three nights, I could probably make it without food, but not without water. Though the hunger grew in tandem with the thirst.
Sometime later, when the urge became unbearable, I licked the stone wall. I was repulsed by the bitter slime that met my tongue, but I continued. I made my way along the wall getting as much sustenance as I could. I didn’t care it could make me ill, that overpowering need to survive took over. That’s all I needed, water, and I was getting that. That’s what I needed. I’d be okay, I’d be okay.
For hours I lay on the stone floor, my hip numbed from the hardness. Aches and pains announced themselves in different parts of my body. When I turned over, I relieved some, and produced more. I’d never known what it was like to be depressed before. This was the closest analogue to it. A sense of despair, and a willingness to do nothing. Even the pain didn’t bother me, in fact, I savored it, something to concentrate on, like a mantra. Pain meant nothing to me then, except as proof to me that I was still alive. If I was in pain, I was still alive. There was a comfort in that. Pain is existence, existence is pain.
I heard a groan. I wasn’t aware it was me at first. I no longer could tell if I was part of myself. I didn’t trust the feelings in my hands. I didn’t know what my hands were anymore. The concept of them confused me. I moved my tongue around in my mouth, swollen and dry, trying to find any sort of moisture. Sharp stabs of pains woke me more as it cracked and bled with every movement.
“Are you awake?” I head softly.
“James?” I replied, my mouth having trouble forming the word.
“Who are you?” the voice said again, so serene and calm.
“My name’s Thomas,” I said, talking through the pain, “who’s that?”
I heard no one in return. I was hallucinating. I was surprised it hadn’t happened sooner.
“Jesus,” the man said.
This is fucking great. I thought to myself.
It then made sense to me. Why people become religious, how people find faith after all the horrific things that happen to them and to the world. The mind wants to save itself, to feel safe.
“I think I’m dying,” I said, letting out a laugh, feeling my ribs and hips ache.
“I am too,” he replied.
“You’re supposed to be dead already.”
I laughed again. I had begun to accept my fate. I had so little energy left. I’d long since given up trying to lick the walls. It was only delaying the inevitable. What was the point?
“I can help you,” he said again.
“Can you open locked doors?” I said, chuckling to myself.
Then there was silence. Even my hallucinations were giving up on me. I coughed and felt liquid come up with it. I didn’t need to bring my hand to my mouth, the odor of copper wafted up my nose. I expected dying to feel somewhat more painful.
I sat in the quiet of the cellar, mentally counting down the seconds, knowing each was one closer to my demise. That was true, it’s true for all of us, whether we want to believe it or not. Tick tock. One step closer to the veil. Tick tock. One step closer to the grave.
“Truly, truly, I tell you,” the man said.
“I’m already dead,” I replied, getting annoyed at my own mind for trying to soothe me. I’d accepted my fate, why hadn’t it?
“Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you have no life in you.”
I shook my head in the silence of the cellar. My stomach rumbled. My throat cried out for water.
“Please don’t taunt me,” I said into the darkness. And I sat.
I heard another voice. This one didn’t bellow out from the darkness, but came from the hellish depths of my own psyche, from the limbic cortex I came to learn. A cry for help. A cry of help.
There’s food in here. – it said, a voice all too familiar to me, my voice, albeit lacking emotion and monotone.
There’s food in here.
I brought my hands to my ears as if to quiet it, though it grew louder.
Flesh and blood for us.
“Stop it!” I shouted, pleading with the voice to relent.
Succulent flesh for us to feast on.
It hit me like a freight train that sent my stomach lurching and my mouth salivating. I knew what it meant. I didn’t want to, but I knew. I couldn’t stop myself. I was like a primitive animal. Suddenly on all fours, sniffing the air impotently. I wanted to stop. I couldn’t. A ravenous hunger enveloped me. I’d found the source before I had time to change my mind.
My teeth sunk in and I groaned, not from pain but from pleasure. I didn’t think I had the stomach, nor the strength. My need outweighed my disgust. I ripped off the flesh and chewed. It satisfied me more than any food had ever done in the past. I tingled all over and took another bite. I said to myself I’d only have enough to stave off the craving.
I ate so fast. So fast that by the time I was done, I was bloated. I rested against the wall and held onto the pallet wood as an act of solidarity.
“Thank you,” I said into the darkness.
“My flesh is real food, and My blood is real drink,” I heard in the ether. I ignored it, knowing it a product of my ravaged mind.
I let out a huge sigh. A sigh of relief, I wasn’t going to die here. I waited for the remorse. I waited for hours. It didn’t come.
I probably could have left it there; it would have been enough to sustain me. But I’d made my choice, and it hadn’t repulsed me. It wasn’t my fault. There was no harm in having more.
I wasn’t scared when I woke to hear the door open. It barely registered. It was the light from the stairs that blinded me. I put my hand up in front of my face. James was ill. He shuffled into the room. He didn’t even notice me move.
“Jesus? Are you awake?”
I stayed as still as I could. I waited until James passed me before I began to crawl for the door.
I tried to stand up, and fell to the floor. Even through the pain I was suffering, I wanted to announce myself, to tell James I was still alive, but I heard the voice again. It came from the air itself.
“Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him.”
“Did you say something?” James asked, not looking at me, but at the mangled mess of a man that hung from the crucifix in the corner, “what happened to you?”
James turned. Points of light reflected in his startled eyes. I crawled up the stairs and shut the door behind me, reaching up with all my might to lock it. James didn’t have the strength to bang on the other side. I waited. I wanted to hear him cry for help, but he didn’t give me the satisfaction.
I called the police from James’ phone that sat next to the front door. I thought about waiting, so I could see justice served, but that voice, in the back of my mind, told me to leave. I’d come to listen to that voice. He saved me. I drove home slowly; I don’t think I’d ever driven so slow before.
It felt odd to be home again. I’d already come to terms with never seeing my bed again. It felt uncanny, like it wasn’t real.
In the following days I saw the news reports. I shook my head.
The headlines – Man dies after locking himself in cellar
I expected it was some sort of cover up, so that the locals didn’t get scared. Cannibalism isn’t something people want to hear about. I was glad it didn’t lead back to me. I waited for a call from the police, asking me what I knew, as I was the one to report him in the first place, though it never came.
I was getting myself back on track, dealing with the trauma well. Anxiety and panic didn’t leave me for very long each day. I felt as if something or someone was looking out for me. Then a text arrived that questioned everything I knew.
John 6:56 – from a withheld number.
If only James were still around, he’d like to hear he was right.