First there is a punch. Then a knee to Lloyd’s ribs. His legs give out. Sharp fingernails hook his armpits. Drag him down a hall. He closes his eyes against the lights. Only glimpses the steel door as he is thrown past it. Within the cell is perfect darkness. Lloyd lies still. Catching his breath. Searching for serious injuries. His ribs ache but his breathing is smooth. The cold concrete floor soothes a swollen cheekbone. Miraculously, all his teeth are still in place. Toilet stench tells Lloyd to roll left. Onto a thin mattress with a pillow and blanket. Neither feels clean but Lloyd immediately falls asleep.
The caged bulb in the ceiling blazes. Forces Lloyd to wake. Confirm all assumptions about the cell. Steel door. Threadbare blanket. A second door was not, however, expected. In the wall opposite his bed. Wooden, with a doorknob. And the word NO burnt into it. With discomfort Lloyd stands. The cell is eight feet square. From its center he inspects the wooden door. For spy holes. Booby-traps. Acknowledges its perfect fit. No gaps for light or sound. Eyes the handle. Round. Do they think he is stupid? Go ahead. Open the door. Be free. How ridiculous. But Lloyd is curious. And already in prison. What more can they do? No hinges are visible. The door must open out. But into what? Another cell? Is someone next door? Lloyd knocks. No reply. He grabs the handle. A shutter in the steel door opens. Two eyes on the other side. Can you read? they ask. Lloyd steps back. Yes. What does it say? NO. What does it say? NO. The shutter in the steel door slams shut.
Lloyd chews slowly. Methodically. To make his food last. Give his stomach the opportunity to feel full. It requires more concentration than he expected. But the distraction is welcome. The rest of the day all Lloyd does is stare at the word NO.
Lloyd does push-ups. Jogging on the spot. But with no windows, and only a tiny vent above the steel door, the air becomes too heavy to breathe.
His tongue pokes the new gap between his teeth. Last night Lloyd waited for the lights to go off, then turned the handle to the wooden door. Let go at the sound of the steel door opening. Lloyd thinks there were two guards. Sees his bloody tooth on the floor. When his head stops throbbing he’ll find somewhere to hide it.
Lloyd screams Hello. Waits for another prisoner to respond. Nothing.
The cell door opens. A black bag over Lloyd’s head. Six hands drag him down a hall. Yank his clothes off. Plunge him into cold water. Lloyd coughs. Splutters. Braces himself for torture. Waits. Lifts the bag above his eyes. Finds a room so dark he cannot see his own legs. Quickly scrubs his body. Soaks until six feet re-enter the room.
Lloyd cannot escape the word NO. Closing his eyes only makes his stomach growl louder. And such large letters refuse to blur no matter how hard he stares. NO is NO is NO. He chants the word. Hoping to distort its sound. Finds the cell has an echo. So loud that the word is still ringing in his ears after the lights go off.
Each time the lights come on Lloyd makes a scratch. In the wall above his pillow. Using his dislodged tooth. A tiny groove in the accumulated grime. To signal a day has passed. Hopefully a day. As Lloyd cannot see the sun. Hear birds. Feel the chill of night air.
NO to injustice, Lloyd shouts at the wooden door. NO to political weakness. NO to short-term gains. NO to education cuts. NO to pollution. NO to censorship. NO to not caring. NO to being afraid. NO to betraying your friends. NO to looking the other way. NO to believing you’re always right. NO to thinking the worst. NO to giving up your dreams. NO to perpetuating fear. NO to hatred. NO to cruelty. NO to lying. NO to lying to yourself. NO to … The bottom shutter in the steel door opens and a tray is pushed inside the cell. NO to bad cooking.
Lloyd presses his ear to the wooden door. Realizes it’s warm. Takes off his shirt. Holds his back against it. Feels the letters touch his skin. Turns around. Puts his chest against the door. Drops his trousers for his thighs to feel it too. Turns around so his buttocks will not get cold.
His stomach convulses. Twists. Pushes everything out. Lloyd cries for help. A doctor. He has been poisoned. Not enough to kill him. Just to make him wish he was dead. Lloyd presses against the toilet bowl. Hard enough for a curved bruise to form across his chest. Shoulder to shoulder.
The letters begin to glow. A subtle luminosity in the darkness of the cell. Lloyd pretends it isn’t true. Lights out is his time of refuge. When he can recall evenings spent in cafés and bars. Now Lloyd cannot help but see NO out the corner of his eye. He feels a wave of fear. Tears falling down the side of his face.
There are no cockroaches in his cell. Spiders. Or mice. In other prisons Lloyd has spent hours hunting bed bugs. Racing silverfish. Even a centipede can become a pet if the circumstances demand it. But the only thing living in Lloyd’s cell is Lloyd. He sprinkles crumbs at the foot of both doors. To lure something inside. And when the lights come on he sees the crumbs have not been touched.
Lloyd dreams of a busy restaurant. A waiter taking his order. The dumplings please. NO, the waiter replies. Octopus salad? NO. Roast lamb? NO. Linguini carbonara? NO. Lloyd points to a nearby table. What she’s having? NO. What he’s having? NO. Then just bread. Water. Anything. NO.
Lloyd’s clothes are wet. Spread out on the floor. The night brought another bath. Except this time they did not strip him. Clean clothes are a blessing. But Lloyd fears catching a cold. The only way to heat the cell is with sit-ups. Karate punches. But he is too weak to exercise.
Lloyd thinks he can hear his own pulse. Believes the beat sounds like the word NO. Laughs. Shakes his head. Knows it isn’t true. Listens again. Just a regular beat. Nothing at all like the word NO. How could it be? Silly to even think such a thing.
Lloyd scratches another line into the wall. Counts the total. Considers the possibility it might be his birthday. He knows the date of his arrest. The rent was due. And forty days later would make it his birthday. If indeed it has been forty days. Lloyd contemplates his thirty-nine years of resistance. Suddenly fears he has lost the chance to do anything else. There was once a woman. In an office. For a moment Lloyd thought he could live in her house. Help with her mortgage. Lloyd imagines the simplicity of such a life. Cannot understand why he did not grab it. Isn’t such an existence all a man should want? Need? Lloyd faces the wooden door. NO.
Lloyd stares at the letters. Inspects every millimeter. To better understand their message. Withstand them more effectively. Commune more harmoniously. So they will not wield so much power inside his cell.
Lloyd thinks there is less food. His stomach has shrunk. So the stew should fill him quicker. For longer. But Lloyd feels less full than he did a month ago. Starts counting the spoonfuls he eats each day. Observes how close the water is to the brim of his cup.
Lloyd masturbates. Two factors have prevented him from doing this before. Preservation of strength. And the oppressive atmosphere of his cell. The sensation builds. Lloyd is reminded that pleasure does exist. Recalls a woman’s perfume. Painted lips. Momentarily forgets he is in prison. Wipes himself clean. Sees the word NO. Smirks. Just like the priests when he was a boy.
Lloyd decides to write a book. Inside his head. To be transcribed after his release. He imagines a boy and girl in love. NO. Too obvious. A political parable? But in what guise? Fairytale? NO. Science fiction? NO. And wouldn’t it risk the attention of the authorities? Perhaps he should write about his life? NO. The pains of growing up have been forgotten for good reason. A poem? But Lloyd doesn’t read poetry. Comedy? So black it will appeal to everyone who recognizes the absurdity of his country? Lloyd is inspired. Starts with a simple sentence. Works it back and forth. Says it aloud to hear its melody. Comes up with a second sentence. A third. Races forward imagining plot devices. Structural left turns. Longs for a pencil to write them down. Wonders if he will become a famous writer. Travel to America. England. Lloyd refocuses. Tries to recall his first sentence. Finds it missing. Struggles to recover it. Fails.
Lloyd considers touching the wooden handle. He needs to hear someone else’s breathing. Feel their skin. Talk to them. Even if it is to cry out for the hitting to stop. He wants to smell their cigarettes. Beer. The sausage they ate for lunch. All Lloyd has to do is grab the handle. Turn it. He’s surprised to find the wooden door is unlocked. The shutter in the steel door opens. Two eyes appear. Two beautiful, angry human eyes.
His top lip is swollen. And Lloyd cannot get up from bed. But he gives the wooden door a wink. Despite everything, it feels like a victory.
For three days Lloyd has had a song in his head. He cannot remember its name. Or all the lyrics. But it is the best song he has ever heard.
Yes to courage, Lloyd shouts at the wooden door. Yes to integrity. Yes to honor. Yes to justice. Yes to thinking. Yes to thinking for yourself. Yes to kindness. Yes to politeness. Yes to social responsibility. Yes to political diversity. Yes to separation of church and state. Yes to education. Yes to a free press. Yes to accountability. Yes to the smell of rain. Yes to the feel of clean sheets. Yes to intelligent conversation. Yes to music. Yes to books. Yes to life.
Lloyd thinks he can hear a voice on the other side of the wooden door. Whispering NO. He waits. Hears it again. Hello? Is someone there? Are you a prisoner as well? Does it say NO on your side of the door as well? Please, my name is Lloyd. Do you know where we are? Who’s in charge? Hello? Hello? Is someone there?
Lloyd folds his blanket into a cushion. Kneels upon it. Presses his mouth to the fraction of space between the wooden door and floor. Hello? Is someone there?
Lloyd wakes up feeling good. During the night he was taken for another bath. Turns to scratch the wall above his pillow. Finds the grime gone. Could he have done it himself? In his sleep? But the smudge is too precise. A guard must have come in while he was taking a bath. Lloyd panics. Struggles to remember the total. Seventy-three days or seventy-four? He recalls saying seventy-three. But was it was yesterday? The day before? Lloyd is proud of the exactness of his tally. Wants it to be right. Seventy-three? Must be seventy-three. Making today seventy-four. Lloyd finds a different patch of grime. Scratches fresh lines. Repeats the total. Vows to do the same every morning. Is angry with himself for being so careless. Then realizes another human being has been inside his cell. The idea appeals. Makes Lloyd feel less alone. He touches the smudge. Last night someone else put their hand on the same place. For the rest of the day Lloyd stares at the wall.
Each meal Lloyd counts the same number of spoonfuls. But now he thinks his spoon is smaller.
Lloyd feels he has had less sleep. Suspects the nights are being shortened. Plans to count every second of light for at least two days. Fails. Laments his lack of concentration.
Less food. Less sleep. Are they hurrying to break him? Why? Change of government? People’s revolt? Lloyd believes he can sense the end of his imprisonment approaching.
The voice returns. Lloyd knows it is a trick. Waves at the wooden door. Yes, I know you’re there. Yes, I can hear you. Yes, I’m still here. Yes, you are all still criminals.
The wooden door is no longer warm. Lloyd presses his cheek to it. Remembers the first time he felt its heat. Held his bottom against it. Suddenly the cell feels colder. More isolated. Lloyd puts his eyes level with the base of the steel door. Waits to see the guard’s hand take his tray away.
No food has arrived for two days. Lloyd is forced to sip water from his toilet.
Has the prison been abandoned? Lloyd hears nothing. Smells nothing. A timer could turn the lights on and off. His stomach twists with hunger. Forcing him to contemplate the handle of the wooden door. If everyone has gone then no one will see him touch it. And if the steel door opens he’ll know this is just another tactic. Lloyd feels tired. Lightheaded. Does not know if he can endure another beating. But if he waits much longer he may grow too weak to move. Lloyd stands. Grabs the handle. Turns it. The shutter in the steel door opens. Food and fresh water are pushed inside his cell. Lloyd falls to the floor. Devours the meal.
Lloyd no longer believes he will be released soon.
Another bath last night. But this time there was no water. Lloyd shivered in an empty tub until the guards returned. The disappointment is heavy. Lloyd’s beard is thick. Toenails long. He stinks. Itches. Would give much for a toothbrush. Even more for soap. Lloyd is scared to imagine what he would give for soap.
If he closes his eyes. Concentrates. Lloyd can picture a beach. Blue water to the horizon. Sand between his toes. Tidal wash upon the shore. Lloyd dreams of diving in after he has been released. Swimming past the waves. Floating on his back. Of nothing hard beneath his body. Being out so deep he can never touch the ground again.
The NO shouts inside Lloyd’s head. Using a voice all its own. He presses his hands to his ears. NO.
Lloyd cannot stop crying.
He tries to masturbate. Fails. All memories of pleasure have retreated. The cell is too cold. The NO is too loud. Impotency makes Lloyd feel disconnected from his body.
The lights have stayed on for two days. Lloyd assumes it is that long because he has received two trays of food. Sleep occurs only a few hours at a time. Lloyd worries how much longer he can endure. Places his pillow over his head. Is disturbed by its stench. What do his enemies want? Information? Submission? There have been no interrogations. No demands he recant. All his captors ever say is NO.
The lights have been turned off. Lloyd is so happy he kisses the wooden door. Weeps upon it.
There is more food. Lloyd is sure of it. Has someone finally realized he will die if they persist with such brutal treatment?
All day the lights have been off. The only thing Lloyd sees is the faint glow of NO.
Still no light. Even when his food is pushed through. Lloyd worries about not being able to see what he is eating.
The lights are suddenly turned back on. It hurts Lloyd’s eyes. He screams and cries. Screams and cries.
Lloyd stares at the wooden door. Sees the NO for what it really is. A tiny word with a meaning that is determined by Lloyd, and Lloyd alone. The guards do not know what NO means to him. They can hope. And they can be wrong. NO, Lloyd says to the door. But this time with his own meaning. NO. He will not be told. NO. He will not give in. NO. He will not renounce. NO. He will not be fooled. NO. He will not follow. NO. He will not stay in this cell any longer. Lloyd grabs the handle. Turns it. Pushes. Enters another cell exactly like his own. With another wooden door. NO. Lloyd hears guards enter his cell. Opens the next wooden door. NO. And the next. NO. And the next. NO. The guards are trying to catch up. But Lloyd runs too fast. Opens too many doors.