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Town Z

You and Bromwick set the town afire. Crumbled dwellings backdropped to curtains of smoke. Because you were sick. Are sick. Because—you can’t remember why you did it.

You remember The Fire, but dissociatively, like a nightmare. Like you and your brother weren’t really there. Out of bed, out in the road, after curfew. Dirt caked in the hollow under your cheekbones. In the thick of thin folk. Torches crackling in your hands. Lighting an angrily shouting crowd with screams. Together. Always together, as boys—and you are still not men. You’re only fifteen. Bromwick is, by two years, your elder. But, neither of you has outgrown your committed sin.

For everyone’s sake, you have been locked in the reformatory. In the only building uncrumbled.

For your own sake—devil’s words, Bromwick says of it. You’re remembering wrong. A trick’s been played on your mind.

On the top bunk bed in your cell, on the guardrail, you balance on dirty-nailed tiptoes. Reach up in weighty darkness while Bromwick crouches on the floor. Dim light lines your gaunt, rag-dressed bodies; the light creeping through bars of the door where, any moment, an orderly might look in on you performing an act you shouldn’t be.

“You haven’t long,” Bromwick whispers. He keeps an ear to the bars, listening for footsteps over scurrying rats.

Fingers slippery with sweat, heat roaring overhead, you feel for a vent’s cover. Twist to unscrew it. How long’ve you two been in this infested building? Little, long-tailed vermin hissing, afraid and hungry as you are. Brick warm as hellstone. Doors creaky as malnourished joints. Day indistinguishable from night. Bromwick says, Time means nothing here.

You’ve been told it is so dark to calm you. So hot to sweat out your sin. Outside, everything, everyone, gone. Fields burned. Not that they ever grew much. Folk disintegrated; your mother and father among them. Not that you ever cared for Mother and Father. Always drinking themselves into violent stupors. Always filling their mouths with vile spirits rather than yours with food.

Until your toes give, until your fingerprints blister, you pick at screws that won’t budge.

“It’s no use.” You climb down from the bunk. “I can’t do it.”

“Quiet,” Bromwick says roughly, yet he holds your thinner shoulders ever so gently. “There are other vents, easier to open, that you can fit throu—”

“No,” you cut in, “I can’t do it.” A teardrop stings your eye, leaks onto your dry lips, iron-tasting. A teardrop of blood. You hear torches crackling. “I can’t leave you here.”

“The only way out’s for you.” Bromwick lets go of you, as if in goodbye. “He’ll keep you here forever if you let him, Edwin. He’s a real devil, you know?”

You know.

The devil brings you into his office. Or, an orderly does for him.

You’ve a routine with orderlies: they unlock your cell; Bromwick says, “Stay back,” and puts you behind him, puts up what fight he can; with stronger hands, with heavier meat on their bones, they push past him, and drag you off; screaming; off, off here.

Here, you are made to stand. Head reeling. Shadows flit from torches lit on either wall of a big wooden desk, buried in files, where he sits.

“How are you feeling, Edwin?” the devil asks, his voice warm as poison. “How are your eyes?”

Mr. Hall is not really the devil. He might as well be. His hair slicked back as serpent’s skin. His eyes black as a bottomless pit. Not a bead of sweat on his forehead, Mr. Hall half-minds you, reading through file after file on his desk—through blurry vision, of which, you discern. Files on townsfolk. On everyone who died by your hand.

When you don’t answer, he asks of your eyes again.

“They haven’t bled, of late,” you lie, red threaded over your conjunctiva like spiderwebs, probably.

Mr. Hall does not look up at you with his pit-black eyes. He doesn’t need to. He says, “Lying is a sin, Edwin. And you—and your brother—have sinned enough, have you not?” Sweat drains from your pores. You hear folk screaming. “I will no longer allow Bromwick to share a cell with you, if you do not behave during your routine cleansing tomorrow. Understood?”

Mr. Hall reads on through files on the deceased.

Blood wells up in your eyes.

After an orderly locks you back in your cell, rehooks the keyring to the belt strapped around his well-fed waist, remarking on what good a cleansing will do you tomorrow, and his footsteps thud away, you tell Bromwick of your agreement with the devil.

“You can’t, Edwin.” Bromwick paces in circled thought, in and out of barred light. “Mr. Hall is a man of tricks. He is playing a trick on you.”

“I’ve a trick myself.” Woozy, you reach for the lower bunk, lie down. “A way we can both escape.”

Bromwick does not sleep. He sits up, watching over you, while you toss and turn, blanketed in sweat. Vent roaring, you faint. Fall away. Fall deeper, and deeper, until you are no longer in your cell but . . .

. . . in the thick of thin folk. Torch crackling in your hand. All around you, people shout—loud for starved throats. Everyone has gathered outside of somebody’s home—you can’t make out whose.

“Can you see now?” Bromwick asks in a voice distorted, deepened.

You turn to him in the crowd.

Your torch lights him, lights everyone, in flame. Melting like candlewax figurines, they scream.

You don’t tell Bromwick of your nightmare. Should you tell him, you feel harm will come to him. And you’re not escaping without him.

You say so, as heavy footsteps approach your cell.

Bromwick says, “You shouldn’t damn yourself for me . . . ”

For this part, you would normally throw a fit. But you are limp, as an orderly drags you from Bromwick. Too hard by your bony wrist to a room even hotter than your cell, where vents roar across walls like mouths of Hell; rattling, some of them, like loose teeth.

You’ve entered the cleansing room many times. Have you ever left—unchanged? A little number to the achy emptiness inside you. A little less yourself.

Spotlit amid the room is a table with a medical tray; with a syringe loaded with devil-knows-what; you never know what. Beside the tray awaits a chair without straps for the arms and legs. For you will behave. Or you and Bromwick will be separated. No longer cellmates.

You sit, trembling despite the high temperature. Can’t you be strong for Bromwick? He is always strong for you.

You cannot see him but Mr. Hall’s voice clicks on from above, like God’s, from an intercom speaker, “Do not fear, Edwin.” He can clearly see you, by some means. Some wall really a two-way mirror. “Let go of your sin. Let go . . . ”

You dig your fingernails into your palms because you hear it . . . torches crackling . . . folk screaming . . . the orderly flicks at the prepared syringe . . . aims its fine-point needle at you . . . at your eyes . . . vents roar and rattle—loose screws.

What little muscle you have tightened, you wait until the needle is but an inch away to do it. To kick with what strength you can muster between the orderly’s legs, leaning sideways in the chair. He doubles over. In his moment of weakness, you grab the syringe from his hand—stab him in the eye. When you rip the needle out, his eyeball is plucked along with it, rolls along the floor. While he is cursing, screaming, blood spurting from an empty socket, you unhook the keyring off his belt.

You don’t look back. Not as you push the chair—legs screeching—to the wall, climb it, reach a chattering vent cover, twist off screws with shaky fingers. Nor as Mr. Hall bellows for, “Help!” over the intercom, your heart banging against your rib cage. Only when orderlies march into the room behind you, when you’ve lifted the vent’s cover and crawled partly in, and hands grip your sticklike ankles to pull you back out, do you turn and jab madly with the needle, yelling, “How’s it feel to be cleansed?”

Hands letting up, bloodied, you take the syringe—and keyring—with you into the ductwork. You will need these items again.

Nothing could’ve prepared you for how hot the ductwork is. How it would feel to crawl through it. Knuckles and knees blistering. Baking—like you’re in a labyrinthine oven. Sweat running down your face, syringe gripped in one hand, keyring in the other, you crawl.

You navigate blindly, if not for light creeping through vents covers here and there. Peeking through, there are doors chainlocked, or stairwells leading up or down into dizzying darkness. Never your cell. Never Bromwick.

You keep crawling. Keep . . . until someone—or something—crawls after you. Panicking, you flip onto your back. Ready the needle like a knife, listening . . . a hiss . . . tiny claws scurry over the rise and fall of your pronounced rib cage . . . leap off . . . squeak . . . only a rat. You take a deep breath in, though the heat takes it right back out.

Stay calm, you imagine what Bromwick would say to guide you. You’re safe for now—the only one small enough to fit in the ductwork. Apart from rats. There must be a way out.

Not that you’d know what to do if you made it. Out. Your mother and father, and that rotten roof they drank—and never fed you—under are burned to the ground. All the town is. You do remember what you did even if you don’t remember why you did it. There is nothing for you now.

You’re remembering wrong, Bromwick shouts, impossibly, loudly, between your ears. You must escape this maddening place while you can. You mustn’t come back for me.

Shaking his voice from your head, blood dribbles from your eyes. More than the normal tear or two. Never this much.

“Attention.” Over the intercom system throughout the reformatory, echoing throughout the ductwork, Mr. Hall makes an announcement, “Tonight, it looks as though everyone—” Everyone; you forget of other reforms; you and Bromwick’ve never seen another soul, only heard clamoring and clanging corridors over from your cell. “—will be sweating out more sin than usual.”

Intercom turned off, an unholy stench flares your nostrils, clogs your lungs with memory. Burning flesh. Your own flesh.

He turned the temperature up, that devil. He is trying to blast you out.

Wheezing, chest tightening, you crawl as fast as you can.

Narrowly, to the next vent cover, you make it. Face pressed to branding-hot metal, gasping for air, you peek through, praying from within—emptier and weaker-feeling than ever—to find your cell, find Bromwick—

There is a corridor of single-bedded cells withholding anyone but him. Folk who, like you, are near-skeletons dressed in rags. Are banging his head into brick, a man, complaining of the turned up heat. Are spinning and laughing, a woman, dancing with a pretend-partner. Are rambling of hunger in poor dreams, sweat pooled darkly as blood beneath others. And there, on their skin . . . rough patches . . . burn marks.

Blood overflows your eyes.

They were there . . . with you and Bromwick . . .

. . . in the crowd . . . torches crackling in your hands. Many hands. Everyone is shouting outside of a home. You can’t make out whose . . . until Bromwick pushes a way for you to the front.

You are outside of Mr. Hall’s home.

Bigger—and less an eyesore—than the rest of your decrepit dwellings, its cupboards and basement are stocked fatly with black, gooey vegetables; with what the earth gives back when you plant seed, of any kind, in its soil nowadays; and there is not much of it to go around.

Wood creaking beneath him, Mr. Hall takes a nervous step back on his front porch, putting himself behind the burly frames of his orderlies. Men who, on any other night, would be holding their noses and chewing dinners thrice the size as what the rest of you get. But, tonight, they aren’t eating. Gripping torches of their own, they shout back. Fending off the likes of you. If they can. There are less of them. More of you. All the town appears to be here, demanding more food. All except your mother and father who, earlier in the night, rambled drunkenly, “Let him and his men eat the bigger share of what plague-filth God provides . . . just allow us our drink,” and “It doesn’t matter how many torches you bring . . . you can’t burn a devil.”

You asked Bromwick if that was true. If you could see for yourself whether devils burn or not. And, he agreed to take you.

And, there you are, seeing for yourself as Mr. Hall thunders, “Enough!” giving the OK to his men.

Oil is thrown—everyone drenched in their rag-clothing. Orderlies stomp forward. Bromwick backs away with you—or, tries to, desperately—but you’re crowded in.

All Bromwick can do is shield you with his body and say, “Stay back.”

You’ve come to know the love in those words. In all the times he has spoken them.

Stay back, when Mother clawed her fingernails to strike you for complaining of a grumbly belly—Bromwick stepped in the way.

Stay back, when Father sniffed through your home like a feral animal, hunting for anyone to take his drunken anger out on—Bromwick hid you under the splintery bunk bed you shared, which only one of you could fit under.

Stay back, as orderlies torch everyone. Anyone. Grabbing whoever won’t burn. Grabbing you.

You remember.

More than ever, your vision is bloodied. But, it is clear—you and Bromwick are in great danger. Peeking through at celled reforms, you know, you all are.

You’ll be burned before fed, as equals.

You’ll be suffocated in the vents.

So be it—if Mr. Hall wants you to come down.

Keyring in your fist, you hit the vent’s cover. Hit again, again—AGAIN—until your knuckles crack and the cover creaks open. Gasping for air, you let yourself down. Gasping again, as a bone in your leg breaks. Snaps like a weak branch.

Teeth gritted, you limp. Try different keys on the ring, until one works. Until you’ve unlocked every last cell, and look back from the fork of new corridors. Out break freed reforms, crying, or laughing, or rambling. Or, all three. Not altogether there in blood-leaky eyes. They don’t notice you. They notice only orderlies who round the end of the corridor opposite you, come to inspect the noise, come to collect everyone back in their cages. Like they’re misbehaving rats.

Like rats, they perform. Biting, clawing, drawing blood from their would-be handlers.

You limp away. Your and Bromwick’s cell must be close.

By the time you find your cell—the only with a bunk bed—you throb leg-to-eyes. It is difficult to stand on broken bone. To see through all the blood.

“Bromwick!” You go to fit the key in the lock, hit by dizziness, corridor spinning. As the door creaks open, you’re uncertain if you unlocked it. Or, if it was already unlocked when you got here. It is open, either way.

“Bromwick?” voice cracking, you push the door open further, the silhouette of him standing there. Waiting for you to come back. Or to never. Only—you wipe blood from your eyes . . . and his dark outline is wiped with it . . . was an illusion in the darkness. You wonder if this is how Mother and Father felt when they drank. So disoriented. So agitated.

“I know you can hear me, Edwin,” Mr. Hall booms over the intercom, his voice pouring warmly down the back of your neck. “I believe you have caused enough trouble for one night.” He is a false calm, boiling. “By now, you do not feel well. You should not have missed your cleansing.” There is another voice beneath his—Bromwick’s voice, muffled, gagged. “If you want to see your brother again, you will come to my office. At once.”

Intercom clicked off, you are left with the invitation. You are a broken-legged, sweat-ridden, bloody-eyed mess. You will oblige Mr. Hall. Go to his office—not falling into whatever trap this is—and set Bromwick free. Set everyone free.

You pocket the keyring. Grip the syringe. Limp toward the end.

You’ll kill the devil yourself.

Nothing keeps you from Mr. Hall. Not that he doesn’t want you to come. Not that he knows his men have their hands full trying to recage reforms who, by now, you pray, have survived their rabid performances. You’ll put on quite a performance yourself because Mr. Hall is alone. Nobody to protect him.

Quietly, you limp to the edge of his office door—it is open—and peek in.

In, where Mr. Hall is . . . hunched over his desk . . . flinging files of the deceased left and right . . . making a terrible mess . . . looking for something . . . looking irate . . . broken out in sweat, forehead-veins bulging. When he does find what he is looking for—a particular file—he knocks the rest onto the floor. Hair disheveled, muttering madmanlike, his undone state is most enjoyable to watch if not for the voice beneath his. Bromwick’s voice . . . weak . . . fading. With all the blood in your eyes, you can’t make out where it is coming from. It is hard to see.

Hard to wait for Mr. Hall to poke his head out of the doorway—calling out for where the hell all of his men are—so that you can stab him in his chest, the syringe missing his heart, if he has one, by an inch or two.

Mr. Hall stumbles back. Back, back, BACK off the needle, tripping over files onto his rear end, landing propped against the wall.

“Where is he?” You limp into the office, needle trained on him. “Where’s Bromwick?”

Mr. Hall studies his chest, blood dampening his attire—much finer than your stitched-together rags. Shock pales him, as though he didn’t know he could bleed. Finger-pointed at his desk, he says, “There.”

Keeping an eye on him, you limp, careful to avoid tripping, too, expecting Bromwick will be tied up on the floor behind the desk, wrists and ankles bound, cloth stuffed into his mouth—

He isn’t there. Nothing but that single file on the desk is.

A file with Bromwick’s name on it.

Drawn to it . . . you pick it up . . .

Open it.

There isn’t much inside . . . not even a photograph . . . only notations that despite a healthy supply of alcohol, your mother and father weren’t sterile enough to not bring two more mouths to feed into town . . . that the older of said boys attended with his younger brother, with you, a riot punishable by law . . . that—

Your eyes bleed onto the page . . . sting unbearably . . . paper reddened.

“You’re a liar.” You reread the last part of Bromwick’s file. Reread it again, and again, and again until your head cannot fit anymore pain. “This is a lie.”

The part that says Bromwick burned to death in The Fire.

“This is what happens . . . ” Mr. Hall gathers his breath, blood branching over his chest. “ . . . when folk get out of control. They get hurt.”

Crumpled by your grip, you drop the file to the floor. “You’re full of tricks.” You bring the needle to Mr. Hall’s throat. “I remember what you did. I remember The Fire. You—”

“Did what had to be done,” Mr. Hall lashes out, yet he makes no move to stop you. “Nearly every hand in this town forced mine into committing the heinous act—yours, included. Or, should I have let everyone raid my home, take over and eat what they like? Is that it? Let my men eat less so everyone starved the tiniest bit slower? Even a boy can understand the earth has nothing left for us. It will not feed us . . . feed our sin much longer. We must be cleansed—made to need nothing.

I can cleanse us.” Mr. Hall glimpses the syringe in your hand, his voice rising in excitement, “Think of it: have you anything to eat, or drink, while undergoing treatment here?” You realize you have not. “You need only the drug I have created, now. To keep alive your body and your mind. Hallucinations—the ghost of a loved one, in your case—become unstable, if you are not injected regularly.”

“No . . . no, you give him back.”

“I am trying.” Mr. Hall stares at you, unwaveringly, with black-magic eyes. “Make me pay for my sin.” Eyes you do not trust. “Stab me. Kill me. Or, let me save who is left of us. The choice is yours. But, understand, Edwin: you can live forever. Bromwick can live, in a way, too.”

You cry. You know you’re crying because even with blood overwhelming your vision, the taste of salt outweighs iron on the back of your tongue. Hand unsteady, mind torn, you press the needle to Mr. Hall’s throat . . . pressing hard enough to kill him . . . almost.

“You are a real devil, you know that?” you ask.

Mr. Hall says nothing because he already knows what you’ll choose.

About the Author

Ash Caballero can be found online at or on Twitter @halfdeadz. Her flash fiction has appeared in the Tales to Terrify podcast.