The prison smelt awful, consisting of the hard smell of urine and vomit. Its walls were painted a pale yellow as though the owner had wanted to create a fair version of sunshine for his prisoners. It usually worked in the days when hope melted like snowflakes on the tip of his tongue. In those days with his hands all peeled and swollen, he would touch the walls and imagine he was standing beneath bright lights and being asked about work. It usually worked except for today. Today was different, hope was lost.
He called his owner monster. The monster never appeared in the room, never felt the need to inhale the horrid smell of others who had come before the new prisoner. The monster had left a bucket in the room for the new prisoner if he wanted to urinate. When he wanted to eat, the monster would slide the plate of beans and bread through a small hole he had opened up for the previous prisoner. They did not talk and even when Nine had asked for more water, the monster had said nothing.
His days were spent the same way: waking up with his dirty pants wet with piss and inhaling the same smell over and over again. Food was brought through the same hole, the pattern never changing. The food was always beans and bread, never changing, always the same. The nights didn't change either. It followed the same pattern: lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling, reimagining his wife and son, wondering what they were feeling.
Today was different, hope was lost. He was lying on the bed staring up at the paint on the wall and thinking about home. The food slide in and then he heard footsteps disappearing. He sat up in bed and pushed the food closer. The rice smelt good. He looked at the door, felt shocked at the change, and inhaled the smell of the food. It smelt great even with the stench of the room. He did not eat immediately. Instead, he walked to the door and knocked sharply. The footsteps began to come back.
"You changed the food." He said.
The monster was quiet, breathing deep.
"Eat the food, Nine."
Nine stopped. The voice was soft, almost feminine and Nine had to retreat in surprise.
"You're a woman." Nine whispered daringly.
"What do you want, Nine?" She asked.
"Please open the door."
The monster apologized; an apology that fought it's way out through coughs and deep breaths. Behind the door, he felt the monster go weak to the knees. Her head hit the door softly and her breathing softened.
"Please open the door." He said again.
She did not. She said, "I can not do that, Nine, or you'll leave. I can't take the chance."
Nine let himself crumble to the concrete floor. With his head against the door, he said, "I am tired of this, please. I won't run away, I swear."
But deep down, Nine knew he would run away if given the chance. He just had to let her release him from the room that tore his hope in shreds.
She opened the door. Nine walked out, his feet heavy and his hands half dead. She stood away from him, knife in hand, smiling awkwardly. Her hair was golden, falling over her shoulders with ease. But it was her eyes that held him in place, struck him with a beautiful urgency.
"Nine." She whispered.
"Who are you?" He asked. "And why do you keep calling me nine?"
She said nothing. She turned around and began walking through the dimly lit hallway. Nine followed behind, keeping a safe distance between the Monster and himself. At the end of the hallway, she stopped and turned around. His breath caught in his throat.
"Your eyes are beautiful." Nine said. He looked away, half embarrassed.
"Thank you." She said at last. "Close your eyes, Nine, and imagine happiness."
Nine did not close his eyes. His eyes dared her to move and she did. She moved towards him and circled him twice. His hands instinctively moved forward and took hold of hers. She did not pull her hands away from his, did not let him let go of the grip. Nine pressed her hard against the wall. She could have hit him with the knife but she did not. She let it drop to the floor by his feet.
"You smell bad." She said to him. His grip tightened but her eyes did not widen in a surge of panic nor did her lips open in surrender. A smile lit up the corners of her mouth and as he let his gaze adapt to the calmness of that smile, he felt himself begin to drown. The drowning feeling felt familiar like he had fallen into the sea before and had died and resurrected. It didn't feel new or pushed and slowly his grip on her loosened. His face grew pale.
"What was that?" Nine asked.
"Close your eyes and think of the time you were most happy." She said.
And this time, Nine closed his eyes and began to search wildly. His mind burst open with thoughts, high like a fever raging into the darkness. He searched and searched and ached until he was ten again. His mother was at the kitchen, her phone in hand.
"Mother?" He called.
She looked at him then smiled. "Oh, my boy." She said.
He reached forward but she caught someone else in her arms. She raised the young boy up and twirled around laughing. Nine stared blindly. He said, "Mother, I'm right here."
She stopped. She turned to him with a slow smile. It wasn't his mother. It was her face, the monster, with the same smile that made it hard to look away.
Nine blinked hard. And at once he was back in another time, another place. He was standing on the back of a car, retelling a tale that had grown stale. A girl was laughing at the story, easing towards him. He jumped down from the car, grabbed her, and crushed her lips in a crazy kiss. When he let go of her, the smile appeared. The girl's face had disappeared, replaced by the Monster's.
"What are you doing?" He screamed.
Then he was back at the dimly lit hallway and she was staring at him. Hard.
"What do you want?" He asked.
"Come with me, you must be starving and you stink." She led him out of the building. For the first time in forever, Nine looked up and saw the stars and wondered at the moon. The night was simply beautiful. At once, he had the need to push her away and runoff. He could already picture his son laughing and his wife, kissing him. And as much as he wanted, no, craved for those, he couldn't. The lady in front did not force him to follow her past the open field nor did she point a gun at him but he wanted to be with her, to understand her, to know why she called him Nine.
They came upon a house. She opened the door and asked him in. He went in. She turned on all the lights until it began to blind him. The place was warm, smelt like heaven, and joy began to intoxicate him. She took him up the staircase and pulled open a door. The bed looked good.
"The bathroom." She said to him with a short laugh.
He went in alone. He pulled open the pink curtains and stepped inside. He turned the shower and at the blast of the water on his skin, he started to laugh. This was heaven. It was only after the long shower that Nine realized he had no clothes. There was no towel there too. He sighed.
He stepped out of the bathroom and walked into the room. She was standing there, watching his naked frame. He did not seem bothered about it and neither did she but she handed him some nice new clothes that smelt strangely of Royal Blue cologne. His favorite.
"I'll be downstairs, cooking. Come join me, Nine." She said.
He nodded and reached for the clothes.
"You look good, smell nice even. Maybe because you are naked."
He smiled. Her eyes swept over him calmly. Then she was gone.
He looked at the shirt. He wore it on, it was about his size and it worried him. The trousers, on the other hand, was a little large and it made him laugh. He stepped out of the room, made his way down the stairs, and let the smell of burning food lead him to the kitchen.
She looked up at him apologetically and he laughed. She said, "I am usually a very good cook."
"Then what happened?" He asked. He leaned against the kitchen cabinet and watched her.
"Maybe I keep thinking about you in the room naked." Her eyes met him again but this time she was the first to break it. Her ears turned red like an overripe tomato.
He said nothing.
She made tea and handed it to him. He drank from it and kept the cup down. Then he said, "My name is Tim."
"Why am I here?"
"Why do you think you are?"
"I remember I was in the parking lot. It was night. I was going home."
"So why are you here?" She asked. The smile was gone.
"You tell me. I want to know."
She eased down on the floor.
"Why am I here? What's your name? Did you drug me?"
"You have a lot of questions." She said. The smile had returned.
"Maybe if you started answering me, the questions will be less."
"I am mostly stupid." She said.
"That's not surprising." He said, "I want to know what I'm doing here."
"My name is May and I'm your friend." She said. She stood up from the floor and added, "I should start all over. I am starving."
She looked at him. He saw her eyes, saw that it flashed the color green, and nodded. He said, "I'm starving too."
She put the pot on the stove. The water began to boil in about a few minutes. She put noodles in and closed the lid. She turned back to him, her eyes sparkled. She said, "What do you want to know, Nine? I call you nine because you are the ninth person to come here."
"I am Nine." He repeated as though drunk.
"Your eyes are really beautiful."