And Bananas for All is a story told in six episodes, posted serially by me, your extraordinarily rendered host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Related reading: Night Flight Mike, The Reaper's Coleslaw
Warning: This week's installment touches on some unpleasant subject matter which may be disturbing to sensitive readers. Discretion is advised.
Our tale continues:
Mike's sessions of interrogation with the salivating jackals of Allied Intelligence were, in a word, disheartening.
The jackals had been tossed so little for such a long time. They were hungry and restless. Before his capture Mike had noticed them sometimes, keeping to themselves, eating in a private huddle on the furthest edge of the clearing where the troops choked back their emergency rations. They wore no badges for company or platoon, no emblems identifying their branch of service. They were clean-shaven, low-talking, expressionless aliens buzzing sullenly on the periphery of camp life.
The British handed him over to the jackals who housed him in the makeshift plastic prison Mike himself had helped to erect. The cell smelled like poo. The walls were thin, and he could hear his captors brief his keepers. It was otherwise quiet, because Mike was the only person locked up. He heard one of the jackals say, "Rest assured, he'll get our full attention."
Mike steeled himself. He knew his eventual exoneration was inevitable, and he was prepared to undergo some discomfort along the way. He was a team player. He knew the jackals were just doing their jobs. They were guardians of the West, like them all.
"Lieutenant Michael Zhang Cuthbertson?"
"Do they call you Mike?"
Mike stood at the lip of the little plastic bench he'd been hunkering on. The jackal stood in the doorway, two grim military police flanking his back in the corridor. "My name is John," he said, slipping a polished flask from his breast pocket. "Are you thirsty, Mike?"
Mike drained the flask gratefully. "Thank you."
John tucked it back into his pocket, then buffed his fingernails absently against his lapel. His face was smooth and clean, his blonde hair oiled and neat, his uniformed unrumpled. "You know, son, this is some fairly serious business."
"Yessir," agreed Mike miserably. "What's going to happen now?"
"You're going to have to answer some questions for us."
"I'll do anything I can to cooperate, sir."
John's hard, moss-grey eyes rested on Mike for a long moment. "That's good, Mike. That's very good to hear indeed. It really would be best if we could clear this mess up straight away, without any nonsense."
"This is what's going to happen, Mike. I'm going to go out there and tell them you're willing to come clean. I'm going to remind them that you're one of our boys. And you, in turn, are going to expend every possible effort to make this as simple as possible for everyone involved. Are we agreed on that, Mike?"
Mike nodded. "Yessir. Absolutely, sir."
John offered him a wan smile that did not crinkle the skin beyond his neat, thin-lipped mouth. "Let me see to those manacles," he said. Mike held out his cuffed hands and John touched a contact on a palm-sized device strapped to his belt. The cuffs clicked twice and then snapped open, dropping to the plywood floor. Mike rubbed the welts on his wrists, wincing.
"I'm afraid that not all of this will be pleasant, Mike. I do feel I need to tell you that. We have to be sure, you must appreciate."
"I know, sir," replied Mike, looking up. He swallowed. "I know you have to do it, sir. I'm sorry, sir."
Again came the wan, isolated smile. John knelt down to collect the discarded cuffs. "Someone will be with you presently," he said, straightened, and left.
Mike felt they were off to a good start.
He was further buoyed when his next visitor turned out to be Nurse Phelps from Philadelphia with whom Mike quite got on. She and Mike liked to kid around when they bumped into each other. She always told Mike what a pity it was that he wore a wedding ring, and though it was only harmless flirting it made Mike feel warm. For his part, Mike had a series of recurring jokes with her asking after the Kwanzaa holidays. "Is it Kwanzaa yet? Are the generals airdropping in wax so we can make some candles? What's the inside word, Nurse Phelps?"
Nurse Phelps would smile: a band of tall white teeth blazing from her dark face. "You're belittling my racial dignity, Cuth. There's a form for that, you know."
But when Nurse Phelps entered his cell in the plastic prison Mike didn't joke and she didn't smile. "Roll up your right sleeve," she said, eyes on her instruments.
"Hi," said Mike.
"Arm," said Nurse Phelps. She took his blood pressure, made a note, then pressed a cold stethoscope into his shirt. "Deep breath in, deep breath out," she commanded.
"I can't talk to you," she whispered harshly, making another note and then shining a light into each of Mike's eyes.
"Okay," conceded Mike, blinking away the afterimages. "Why the check-up?"
Nurse Phelps took her own turn at a deep breath. Her brown eyes flicked up to meet Mike's very briefly, quivering. "They need a baseline," she said crisply, looking away.
"So they know how far they can take it."
Nurse Phelps dropped her instruments back into her bag, then tucked her clipboard under her arm. Mike could see the taut muscles in her neck, working at choking something back as she straightened and briefly faced him again. Her lips twitched. She hissed, "They're going to hurt you, Mike."
"But I don't have anything to hide," he breathed.
She gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head. "Doesn't matter," she murmured, then slipped out the door.
As the day aged it became very hot inside the cell. Mike took off his shirt, which made his skin stick to the plastic walls when he slumped against them. In the distance he could hear the muffled strains of rock'n'roll mixed with the keening or banging of tools at work toward the ongoing recovery efforts after the Axis attack. He tried to make out which songs were playing, but the mutters that reached him were too mushy. His mind played tricks on him, and so it seemed that when he could identify a brief passage of melody it was unfailingly a song about being trapped.
At twilight an emergency ration envelope was stuffed through a one-way slot in the door, followed by a transparent sac of tawny, speckled water. Shortly thereafter the buzzing fluorescent lamp inside a wire cage on the ceiling blinked out.
Mike ate in the dark, then curled up on the short plastic bench, trying ineffectually to use his elbow as a pillow...
A short but fuzzy time later the light stuttered on again. Mike blinked, furrowing his brow. The door banged open and a tall, stern-faced man stepped into the cell carrying a folding chair. He kicked the door closed behind him, and then unfolded the chair and planted it in the centre of the cell facing Mike. "Get your arse in this chair," barked the man. His accent was Australian.
Mike stumbled off the bench and shuffled over to the chair. He cast an uncertain look up at the grim man and then put his back to him to sit down. He rubbed his eyes, trying to squeeze the sleep away.
He suddenly found himself spilled to the floor, grunting as he jammed his shoulder painfully. He squinted back at the Australian, who appeared to have yanked the chair out from under him. He now righted it gingerly, then stepped back. "Get your arse in the chair," he repeated.
Mike hesitated, then hauled himself up and sat down in the seat once more. The man kicked the chair out from beneath him immediately, sending Mike sprawling toward the bench. He fell rudely, bouncing his forehead against the bench's rounded plastic edge. His nose started to bleed.
"My nose is bleeding," he said.
"Get your arse in that chair," said the Australian.
"Why?" growled Mike. "What's the point if you keep knocking me off?" he challenged, the sight of his own blood on his fingers causing a spurt of adrenalin to waft through him. He didn't wait to cringe, and this was appropriate because the Australian's response was to gallop forward with a terrifyingly decisive vigour and club Mike repeatedly about the ears with his balled fists.
When Mike fell to his knees the Australian stepped back again. He took a moment to dust off his polished boots, then straightened and flexed his hands methodically. He looked at Mike. "Get your arse in this chair, soldier."
It was a game. It was a dark game, because there was no way to win. The game was a matter of processing, of preparation, of framing the situation just so. It was a trial to be endured and Mike endured it. He closed his eyes and thought of Christmas. This jackal could hit him, but he couldn't touch Mike's mind.
Or so Mike thought. In thinking this he had perhaps underestimated the wear and tear of the ongoing trial, the unbroken cycles of obedience and abuse, obedience and abuse. Time unspun, and the night became endless. Something inside of Mike became desperate and craven, and his heart was squeezed by storms of emotion that moved inexorably further away from anything tied to dignity.
Mike dragged himself up on the chair again, a dime-sized drop of blood landing between his shaking hands. "Please don't kick me over," he whispered hoarsely. "Please don't do it again."
The Australian hooked his thumbs into his belt. "You like that chair, huh?"
"You want to keep sitting in it, is that right?"
"Yessir. I'll answer anything. I'm not trying to make this hard."
"It is a pretty good chair," said the Australian with a philosophical air, examining the wall idly. He turned back to Mike, his eyes dark and inhuman. "But I don't think you love that chair enough yet. No, not quite enough."
"I love this chair," claimed Mike. He really, really did.
"Not yet you don't."
Mike was sent careening into the wall. The chair was righted. He crawled back aboard, then was spilled roughly to the floor. He crawled back in position to sit again even before the Australian had righted it this time. He waited until the Australian had stepped back, then climbed on.
After a moment he looked up again. The Australian crossed his arms. "Okay, here's the deal, pally: if you want to sit in this chair, you have to keep sitting. I'm going to go have a little something for breaky. When I come back, I'd better find your arse nailed to that chair or there'll be some hell to pay. You got that?"
Mike did. A thousand horses couldn't drag him from his beloved seat.
The Australian left. Mike cried.
He was left alone for a long time. He had not previously appreciated how painful something like sitting on a hard chair could become until the fourth or fifth hour when his thighs, buttocks and lower-back burned with constant embers of hurt. A ration envelope was slipped through the slot, but Mike didn't dare move to touch it. His throat became dry and cottony, and then it became hard to swallow. Still, Mike would not give up his perch to retrieve the drink sac. He was determined to prove to the jackals whose side he was on.
Come noon perspiration was running off Mike's body like rain. His head sagged. He was desperate to slip off the chair and snatch up the dirty water. His dry tongue rasped as it passed ineffectually over his cracking lips.
John entered the cell. He tugged on the pleats of his trousers and squatted down beside Mike's chair. "Here now, son," he said, nudging Mike with the polished flask.
"John," gasped Mike after he'd drained the flask again. "John, he hasn't even asked me anything."
"I know, Mike," said John, straightening. "He says you're fighting him."
"I'm not, I swear. I just want to get this over with. I just want to help."
John nodded slowly. "I think you're telling the truth, Mike, I do. And, candidly, I think my colleague is off the mark with you. I think this all boils down to a stupid mistake compounded by a big misunderstanding. Is that right, Mike?"
Mike nodded, his eyes locked on John's. He felt as if John were the last sane man left on Earth.
John offered him his curious smile, then stood up straight and sighed. "How long have you been in that chair?"
"I don't know. A long time."
"You must be starting to feel the pinch by now."
John appeared to hesitate, then cleared his throat and said, "Well, I think whatever point my colleague was illustrating here has already been amply made. You're released from the chair, Mike. Go lie down on the bench. I'll go have a word with him and see if we can't expedite things a bit. How does that sound?"
Mike gratefully collapsed on the plastic bench, his muscles twitching and his pelvis numb. He looked over when he heard the cell door open and close, his heart skipping a beat when he saw that his latest visitor was the Australian. His face was pulled into a tight, sour expression.
"I gave you one simple thing to do, soldier," he said slowly. "And this is how you handle it? By giving it up as soon as my back is turned?"
"I'm sorry," stammered Mike. "John said --"
The Australian snapped, "Who the devil is John?"
Mike stared back blankly. "Your colleague, John, said he would talk to you..."
"There's no John here. You're playing games with me, pally."
"I'm not, I'm not -- I'm really not. I'm sorry."
The Australian sniffed, then took a quiet step backward around to the far side of the folding chair. He put his hands behind his back and looked up. "Get your arse in this chair," he said.
And so it begun again.
When it was all over, and Mike had proven beyond any doubt his dedication to keeping his seat, the Australian brought a second folding chair and set it up directly opposite Mike. He sat down, then straightened his shirt and brushed dust from his thighs. "Name?" he asked flatly, not looking up.
"Michael Zhang Cuthbertson."
"Serial number?" Mike recited it. "Date of birth?" Mike recited it. "Date of enlistment?" Mike supplied it. "Rank and function?" Mike answered quickly, a strange, giddy feeling of relief washing over him as they proceeded through each question and answer set without Mike ending up punched or tossed to the ground. He felt buoyant and he fought not to smile. A warm ripple of delight rose up his spine and tingled out through every hair on his head. "Where were you trained?"
"When did you first make contact with the enemy scout?"
"Three weeks ago."
"What were the circumstances?"
"I found a sentence carved into a baobab tree. It said, Is the whole world crazy? So I carved in an answer underneath. I'm not sure what made me do it."
"What was your answer?"
"I said, Yes, it is."
"Then what happened?"
"We started exchanging notes."
"What did the notes say?"
"Nothing, really. He complained about their beds, I complained about our food. Neither one of us wanted to get in trouble. But we just sort of became friends, I guess."
"So you admit you formed a relationship with an enemy soldier?"
"I felt bad for him. One time he said his gums hurt and he thought he was malnourished, so I left a package of vitamins inside the tree for him to find."
"Where did you get the vitamins?"
"They were mine. From breakfast. I just felt sorry for him. It's so shitty out here for all of us."
"You pitied the enemy?"
"I guess I was relieved not to have to treat him as an enemy. I guess I was relieved that I didn't feel like I had to kill him. We'll all stranded out here together, kind of in the same boat, in a way. I was...I was just being nice because it felt so good when he was nice to me."
"Are you homosexual?"
"No. I'm married. Um, to a woman."
Mike's euphoria waned as the hours passed and the questions merely changed order, never discovering an answer that would put any of them to rest. The Australian pestered Mike over the same topics over and over in an uninflected monotone. There were clots of micro-questions probing to the depths of the most irrelevant detail, but only vague, brief queries about things Mike could securely disavow knowledge of, like Axis secrets and the conspiracy to distract, disarm and destroy the Allied camp while the Axis boats made a run for the harbour.
Any time Mike said, "I don't know," the Australian changed tack and directed his questions back at something they could agree upon, like the GPS coordinates of the baobab tree or from which direction Mike saw the first Axis fighter crash. "I don't know," was a poison phrase that drew Mike further from his goal of advancing the investigation.
"How many non-rigid structures are there in the Allied camp?"
"I've never counted. I'm not sure. Eight?"
"What access to potable water does the Axis camp have?"
"I don't know."
"Describe your footwear at the time of your arrest: size, style, condition."
When the Australian left John came to visit. He offered his flask as usual and opened the ration envelopes because Mike's hands were shaking too badly, then helped Mike hobble over to the plastic bench. "How are you holding up, son?" he asked.
"How long have I been here?"
"I can't tell you that."
"Are you giving me drugs that screw with my sense of time?"
"You know I can't discuss it, Mike. There's a war on. Our very way of life is at stake. Our methods must remain secret."
"I feel really weird."
"You're a good lad, Mike. You're going to get through this. Tell them everything. Don't leave anything out. Don't try to decide for them -- they know what's important. Give yourself up to that, Mike."
"I'm trying to, John. I really, really am."
Mike awoke when the Australian returned. The Australian was outraged to discover Mike off his chair, so he beat the crap out of him. Mike lay on the plywood floor and drooled. After he heard the door close he crawled over to the chair and pulled himself up onto it. He lay his cheek upon the seat, which was the best he could do.
The next series of interviews with the Australian were wearying, maddening, unrelenting. There were traps in the questions but Mike was determined to be consistent, to be truthful, to represent his innocence as completely as he was able. The nerves in his brain burned with the effort. He felt like a living bruise.
When he became too good at it the Australian changed the rules: now Mike had to supply a satisfying answer within a count of five or he'd be doused in a splash of ice-water from a series of pails the Australian wheeled in on a steel cart. Incorrect answers included, "I don't know," and "I'm not sure," and "How could I know that?"
Soon Mike was shivering, his lips blue, his teeth clanking together. His legs became numb, and he slipped off the chair and crumpled at the Australian's feet. The Australian turned away in disgust, slamming the cell door behind him. A few minutes or hours or days later John returned.
Mike looked up at him from the floor. "John," he wheezed. "Oh God, John. I'm so glad you came back. Please, John, please help me. Please make it stop. I can't...I just can't..."
"Come come," said John soothingly. "There there now, Mike. Here, have some warm tea." Mike drank. "You trust me, don't you, Mike?"
"The Australian says you're not real. But I think you're real. I think he's just trying to make me crazy."
John nodded. He knelt down on the floor next to Mike. "Mike, give me your hand."
Mike put his right hand in John's left without hesitation. John turned it over slowly, as if evaluating the need for a manicure. "I want to be able to help you here, Mike. But my colleague says we're not making the progress we should be."
"What can I do? Just tell me and I'll do it. I'll do it for you, John."
John nodded again. "I know, Mike. But, to be candid, all of these delays are making things difficult for me. I want to be able to go out there and tell them we've gotten somewhere substantial, you understand? I want to be able to go out there and give them some good news."
"How can we do that? What should I say?"
"I need your assurance that you're being entirely forthcoming."
"I am, John, I really, really am."
"Yes," he agreed quietly. "I believe you. But I'm not sure the others do." He held Mike's hand gently, his own skin warm and soft against Mike's. "We have to be sure. You can appreciate that, can't you? These are life and death times we're living in. The West could be destroyed, and then we'd certainly regret having given an inch, wouldn't we?"
"So, this time, you're going to answer a few questions for me rather than for my colleague. How would that strike you, Mike?"
"It sounds really good, John. Ask me anything."
John drew a slow breath, looked Mike in the eye, and then took a hold of his pinky and snapped the bone with a decisive twist. Mike screamed. "Look at me, Mike," commanded John. Mike's eyes moved down to his hand. John barked his command a second time, and Mike's gaze rose to him like a magnet, his lips quivering.
John snapped his ring finger. "Look at me, Mike," he repeated. "Just keep looking at me. And then when we get to the last finger, you can start telling me things."
"No," begged Mike. "No, John, don't."
"I have to, Mike. I'm sorry." He broke Mike's middle finger.
"John, I love you John!" Mike heard himself screech, immediately ashamed of his inexplicable confession, lost in a wash of self-loathing.
John didn't laugh or shout. "I know," he said quietly. "I know. Just two more to go, Mike. Stay steady." Mike's index finger crunched loudly as it fractured.
Mike was blubbering. Tears ran down his cheeks. He felt as if his heart were being torn from his chest. He wanted to hug John, to tell he was sorry, to make everything somehow alright again. He hungered in a bottomless, desperate way for the final digit to be snapped, so he could start talking again.
His thumb was bent over backward, strained until the skin turned white, and then at last released with a satisfying gush of red hot pain. Mike didn't even hear the crack. His hand felt giant-sized and distant, a part of someone else.
"There," smiled John. "You passed, Mike."
Mike couldn't speak.
"I never even had to restrain you. You didn't once try to pull your hand away. Now I know you really do trust me."
Mike nodded dumbly.
"Alright then," pronounced John, gently releasing Mike's mangled limb. He cleared his throat. "Now -- let's talk."
Mike talked. When he ran out of things to say he made new ones up. When these didn't earn him any progress he embellished his inventions, his words falling out on top of one another in an eager stream, the lies becoming increasingly broad until he heard himself confessing to a secret double life as an Axis spy, recruited before the war, brainwashed by undetectable harmonics in pop music. He repented aloud his every sin, from the time he stole five dollars from his mother's purse to his dedication to overthrowing the West from the inside out. He wept openly when he told John about hitting a dog with his car, and he tried to apply the same convincing drama when he lamented his role as an Allied Judas.
He began to wonder if it were true. He began to wonder if he had been brainwashed and that perhaps John and the Australian's cruelties were in fact designing to help him snap out of it. He began to think of his confessions as cathartic acts of deprogramming. "I stole the Prime Minister!" he wailed. "I poisoned all the babies at the nursery! I helped Santa Claus attack Baron Toys!"
"What else?" asked John, his voice hypnotic and syrupy.
In the morning Mike was seen by Nurse Phelps again. She avoided his eyes. "Is it Kwanzaa yet?" asked Mike blearily, then cackled. "It's going to be Kwanzaa soon and then they'll let me go home."
But it wasn't Kwanzaa. When the Australian came again he kicked the chair out from under Mike, who yelped miserably as his splint-fingered right hand glanced off the floor. "Get your arse on that chair," pronounced the Australian with apparent relish.
"Not this again," begged Mike. "Can't we move on? I've told you so much."
The Australian shook his head. "Not enough, pally. Not nearly enough."
Something inside of Mike failed. It was clear to him that there was nothing he could do to advance his cause, no words he could say that would bring him freedom. The jackals, left so long with no plaything, might have no objectives for him to reach rather than helping them pass the time until the next supply plane made it through. They were sick, all of them: John, the Australian, even Nurse Phelps whose fickle mercy didn't extend to him any longer.
All will to cooperate evaporated. Mike became limp. He was determined never speak to another human being so long as he lived.
His eyes became windows through which he looked out indifferently, a passenger observing the world's scenery. He saw the Australian beat him, and watched with detachment as John's lips moved saying some twisted or teasing something. Periods of heat and cold alternated. Someone tried to heave him into the chair again, but Mike slid off liquidly. The Australian and John argued over him, in the same room together at last.
"You gave him too much. He's bloody catatonic, James! Where else do you expect to go?"
"The plane's not coming until the sixth, John. Let's see if we can't shock a reaction out of him. Get Phelps to set up some electrodes."
"She won't do it. She was friendly with him outside."
"Good. Let her refuse, and then we'll get her in a cell as well. It's been a long time since I worked on a female."
The worst part was that Mike knew he didn't remember the worst parts. He had scars and tenderness he could not explain, and cringe-inducing quasi-recalled flashes that filled him with fear. Nightmare and experience had become mutually indistinguishable. The only thing to do was to stop thinking at all, to drift along with the current like a loose pebble or a piece of trash.
One day he was wordlessly fitted with a black hood. He was manacled at the wrists and then dragged outside, shoved up the cargo gangway of a thrumming aircraft. He was pushed into a metal stall whose floor rang hollowly under his stumbling feet, then he was strapped much too tightly to a thin-cushioned seat. Doors were slammed and metal latches clanged as they were dogged fast for the trip. The engines revved louder, exhausts screeching.
Mike's stomach lurched as the airplane began to move. He was on his way somewhere, but he didn't care.
It was cold in the air. He wondered if he were expected to freeze to death. Perhaps he wasn't being transported but merely discarded. Who could know the minds of monsters? Mike slipped deeper into himself, living in a veil of scintillating darkness and thoughtless oblivion...
He was roused when the plane banked sharply. The engines rose in pitch, then the plane banked the other way, tossing Mike against the sides of his hold, the straps biting into him. A distant thumping resolved into the crisp stutter of machine gun fire. The plane bucked -- evasive manoeuvres.
The next volley of fire shook the craft, punctuated by a series of loud bangs followed by the scream of new winds. The cabin was depressurizing. Mike heard the pilots yell. Seconds later the plane dipped into a steep dive.
Mike recognized that they had been shot down, and that he was experiencing his last few moments of life, shaken like a ragdoll strapped to a seat in a rolling and pitching metal box falling out of the sky.
Mike felt a certain freedom knowing he wouldn't have to answer any more questions.
Metal shrieked as it tore, and then Mike began spinning more rapidly. The plane was coming apart. Fields of hallucinatory colour washed over the darkness inside his hood. He saw stars, and he dreamed he was plummeting through outer space.
He admired the nebulae.