I don’t own any of the characters, I’m not trying to maliciously step on anybody’s copyright, and I’m certainly not making any money from writing this.
“More than ever before, Jessica’s physical peril is translated into a suspenseful physical soliloquy as she maneuvers to attract help to her plight …”
-- Notes on the
Jack Conroy found poor
her jacket tighter about herself in an effort to ward off the damp chill of her
prison, Jessica shuddered as she recalled her friend Eileen O’Bannon’s words.
It had been awful enough to think of Nan slowly dying in the dungeon of
little light there was slanted down from a tiny window set high in the wall a
good thirty feet or more above her, filtered through glass panes coated with grime. It was already
late afternoon; realizing she didn’t have much daylight left to work with,
Jessica set to exploring the dungeon to keep warm and possibly find some means
of escape. Her search turned up nothing: the panel door through which she had
entered could not be opened by any means from the inside, and the only other
door – the one that had betrayed
the sealed door Jessica found some runes scratched into the stone. Judging by
their relatively fresh appearance she figured that they were probably written
Will I be scratching my own last will and testament into the stone before this is over?
Turning away with a sigh, Jessica went over to a stone bench set in the center of the space and sat down upon it, trying very hard not to imagine what it had been used for in centuries past. Outside it was growing dark; inside it was growing cold. Jessica fished around in her shoulderbag and came up with one piece of hard candy, and of this she made her dinner.
As night fell the rats became bolder, even daring to scurry up on to the bench next to her. At first Jessica tried to shoo them off, but eventually she became resigned to their presence – there were too many of them to hold at bay, and after all she was the one invading their space, not the other way around.
She looked at the illuminated dial of her watch – it was half past six. By now Rory and Eileen must realize she was missing. They’d had plans for dinner and the theater this evening, and if she didn’t show up to head into town with them, surely they would be concerned … unless whoever had shut her in here had made certain that no alarm was raised. There were any number of plausible excuses that could be offered to explain her sudden absence; if that was so, it could be many hours – days, even – before anyone knew she was in trouble.
By then it could be too late.
hours wore on. As Jessica paced back and forth to stay warm she was finding boredom
as difficult to ward off as the rats. She didn’t like being cooped up with
nothing to do – this was one of the more unpleasant things she remembered about
being locked up in that jail cell in
Despair settled over her, a heavy black cloud that nearly drove her to her knees. She was going to die here, alone, and no one would ever find her … in spite of herself a sob escaped her as tears stung her eyes.
With a supreme effort of will Jessica reasserted firm control over her emotions before she could descend further down the spiral of despondency. Now was not the time to lose heart, not when her very survival depended on keeping a clear head.
Once again she looked at her watch, and then at the stone bench. It was getting late, she was very tired, and right now even sleeping on a rock was looking attractive. If she could sleep things might look more hopeful in the morning, and if nothing else it would kill a few empty hours of darkness.
But the rats were a problem … she mentally recoiled at the thought of the rats crawling over her while she slept. For several long moments she stood in the gloom, staring at the bench and trying to decide what to do, until at last exhaustion won out over trepidation. Using her shoulderbag for a makeshift pillow, Jessica curled up on the stone bench and lay there shivering, hoping for sleep.
As bad as the dungeon was by day, it was much, much worse at night. In the darkness rough-hewn patches in the stone walls looked like grotesque, shadowed faces that leered at her from every angle. She could shut her eyes against those, but she couldn’t shut her ears to the equally eerie noises that surrounded her. The sound of a water droplet hitting the stone floor in some distant corner was seemingly amplified a thousand times, as was the scratching of the rats’ claws along the ground.
A wind had sprung up after the sun set; it moaned around the castle, its seeking fingers finding every crack and crevice in the ancient stonework. It’s sighing lent voice to the twisted, tortured faces in the walls until it seemed as though she was surrounded by a throng of wailing ghosts, all of them reaching out toward her in desperate supplication. Jessica tried to shrink away from them, but they were all around her, drawing in closer, threatening to smother her …
A young woman, as transparent as a glass of pure water, parted the swirling phantasms, which retreated before her approach. “Bi samhach!”* she shouted, and the cacophony of sibilant voices ceased.
The rest of Jessica’s dreams that long night were fitful and fragmented, as snatches of conversations from the past few days echoed back and forth across her mind:
“You might live to regret it ...”
“Use your flipping brains, woman ...”
“He's lying ...”
“When he found
“... then again, maybe you won't ...”
She dreamt that Frank reached down and stroked her hair; it was with the lingering memory of his touch that she awoke.
Jessica opened her eyes to see a rat poking at the empty plastic candy wrapper that lay beside her.
"Stay away from my breakfast!" she hissed at it. A second rat was perched on her foot; she kicked it off without ceremony and sat up stiffly to reassess her situation.
The next day had dawned at last. Jessica looked up at the small dungeon window, and the sight of the pale morning light slanting through it lifted her spirits considerably. Absently she wondered who had ever bothered to put a pane of glass up there in the first place; so far as she could tell it served no useful purpose. Since it obviously hadn’t been cleaned in years, it was questionable as to whether Eileen was even aware that it existed. Probably the only reason anyone would give it more than a passing glance was if the glass managed to break somehow, and someone noticed the broken window from outside. But repairing it wouldn’t be easy, not with those iron bars …
A broken window … a passing glance from outside … All at once Jessica knew how she might arrange for her rescue.
"Oh, use your flipping brains, woman!" she reproached herself, paraphrasing Rory as the plan blossomed in her mind: she would break the window and hope that someone passing by heard the glass shatter, or came upon the broken shards in the garden below. Then they might look up and realize that the pane could only have been broken from the inside …
Immediately she began looking around for something she could use to throw at the window. It had to be light enough to throw that high, but heavy enough to break the glass. And owing to the lingering effects of her shoulder injury the year before,** it had to be something she could pitch underhanded.
Her eyes lit upon the rusted remains of chain and shackles that were bolted to the stone bench on which she sat. She picked up one of the metal rings and gave the chain a tentative tug, her heart leaping when she realized that the bolt, corroded by the passage of time, had some play in it. With the proper tool, it could probably be pried free.
Frantically Jessica upended her purse, spilling the contents out onto the bench and picking through what was there until she found a metal letter opener. It was the best tool she was likely to find. Pushing aside the rest of the things, she bent over and began to work at prying the shackles out of the stone.
Not daring to waste any precious time resting, Jessica worked at her task until her hands were raw and was rewarded when at last the bolt came free. She then picked up the chain and cuffs and stood beneath the window, weighing them carefully in her hands as she visually measured the distance to her target. Then she took a deep breath, and threw the shackles up as high as she could toward the daylight.
Her first throw fell short, and the chain clattered to the floor.
"Ball one," Jessica sighed, and she went to retrieve the shackles for another attempt.
Hitting a target as small as the dungeon window proved to be far more difficult than she anticipated. Jessica threw her improvised missile at the glass over and over again, coming close to it several times but never quite hitting the mark. She doggedly kept trying, stubbornness and a will to survive giving her strength long past the point where she would have been exhausted otherwise.
Another throw fell short.
"Ball three," said Jessica, who by this time had walked home several runs. Wearily she picked up the shackles and took aim yet again – but this time a gleam of light flashed in her eyes, and a new determination set her features. She raised the rings to her lips and kissed them, then threw.
The shackles sailed through the air in a long, slow arc and found their target: the glass over the bars of the prison window shattered.
"STRIKE!" Jessica cried.
No longer hindered by the neglected glass pane, fresh sunlight poured through the window opening and down into the dungeon. It felt delightfully warm on her unturned face, and for several long moments she stood in the pool of golden light drinking it in, reveling in a sense of mingled hope and accomplishment. She had done all she could do to save herself; the rest was now up to someone else.
Inevitably the sunbeam drifted away as morning melted into afternoon, leaving Jessica once again shivering in the cold twilight of the dungeon. Her earlier elation had faded along with the morning sunlight and she found herself once again struggling to keep at bay fear and dread of spending a second night in her prison. Getting through the first night had been difficult enough; she wasn’t at all sure she could take another.
That was when she heard the faint sound of someone pounding on the paneling of the upper walls, where the hidden door was located. The next thing she knew the panel burst open, revealing Rory Lanahan silhouetted against the light of the corridor beyond.
"Jess!" he exclaimed as he stepped inside. "Are you all right?"
Jessica shakily rose to her feet and stared at her friend, half afraid that she had dropped off to sleep again and this was just another taunting nightmare. “Rory!”
Rory let out a sigh of relief. "Aw, girl," he said. "We were afraid we'd lost you."
It was real – he was really there, and she was really safe. "I was afraid that I'd lost me too," she replied honestly.
Eileen appeared in the doorway beside Rory. "Jessica!" she exclaimed. "Are you all right?"
I'm all right," said Jessica, shivering, "except that now I know how
* Bi samhach! - “Be quiet!”
** I borrowed this detail from my fanfic “The Banks of Loch Lomond.”