By Emmanuel Kaison
Douglas Pagone staggered down the dizzying staircase, his breath a burning rustling snuffle. He hadn’t expected things turning this way. Not that he would be running down the longest staircase in the complex from his office at lunch hour, away from a bunch of his pursuers, and neither was he in the joke to stop all this running, and be a cultured man, handing himself into their hungry hands. He had children to look after. The stairs were bad for his fifty-year old body, but jail was definitely worse. Behind him, four police officers galloped strenuously down the bloody stairs, approaching faster than he could ever imagine.
For Pagone, making it to the landing, astride, would certainly warrant him a couple of broken legs but he would at least have tried. His hands swerved on the railing as they burned from the friction. And yet, the faster he threw his giant legs, hopes were thinning off into just a regretful whisper. Your weight is a liability, Douglas. He groaned at his overweight, desperately having to force himself remember how swiftly he used to run in the evergreen fields of the south when he was tender and energetic.
But nothing was helpful.
Sour mouths, burning breaths, racing hearts, legs feeling like cement on the eternal set of stairs, he kept stiffly launching himself forward, swerving against the railing, a desperate defense not to tumble down onto the dead concrete. The battering of boots back atop the staircase was growing louder.
“Pagone!” a gruff voice swore hard. “Stop or I will shoot!”
The words only flew past his ears. He still ran. His heart pummeled in sharp synchronicity to his breathy stride, and yet Pagone felt his overweight dragging him back to his pursuers, to the sound of the hoofing boots.
Then a deafening gunshot exploded.
Douglas Pagone flew his eyes open as he lunged up in horror, screaming in the bedroom’s darkness.
“My husband, what is the matter?!” Alice’s voice came from the bedside, apparently having been awoken by the scream.
Taking inventory of his body for any shot wound, Pagone was immediately hit by a stark realization he had been dreaming. They are looking for me, he wished he told her, feeling something troubling his conscience. “What’s the time?” he asked, his own voice coming out oddly.
“It is 2 A.M. Tell me, what is it, please?” Alice pressed.
Pagone fell silent for a long moment, imagining the whole hell he was about to go through for his mistake. It may no longer be a dream.
“Never mind,” he said instead. “Petty nightmares. Probably from this week’s stress. I need an annual leave, and__.”
“I need some answers, Douglas,” Alice snapped. “You cannot just tell me to never mind. What is exactly stressing you up?”
Pagone gazed blankly at her in the dark, weighing his options. He had sworn never to tell her the truth as a resolve to avoid having a spouse as a witness when things turned buckets. They already have turned buckets, he thought. I made a grave mistake.
It had transpired Pagone was to lose his job with many other officials for his involvement in a major public scandal. His heart raced at one legible prospect. Jail.
“It’s just work. I have to go back to sleep. I am really tired,” he mumbled, lying back in bed resuming the warmth of their blanket. Everything had been this warm in the government for the past eleven months with almost every day being technically a celebration for winning the national polls. Nevertheless, like in the previous regimes, corruption had infested the government machinery. Everybody in the system was virtually chewing, and the thin line between right and wrong had fast become obscured. An unsatisfied heart, Pagone realized, was the most dangerous predator in a damned world. Along with many officials, Pagone gnashed on the pandemic money while people died in hospitals and homes without adequate medical care or any care at all. Nothing blurred ethical lines faster than human greed.
Until a month ago.
All had taken a U-turn with a single audit. The wheels were soon hitting rock bottom. The center could no longer hold. Pagone was being hunted for embezzlement of public funds.
“No one is going back to sleeping yet,” Alice said, yanking the blanket off of him. In what world do I never mind hearing you all screams in the night, and then you, for the first time, mention an annual leave?”
“For God’s sake!” Pagone barked. “How is an annual leave a problem?”
“I am a woman, Douglas. I trust my instincts.”
“You of all people shouldn’t expect to get away with lying in my face, Douglas. Tell me what you are hiding is not something nasty.”
Pagone studied her in the dark. “What is wrong with you?”
“With all due respect, Sir,” her voice rose with annoyance, “you are insane to ask me that question when, in fact, I should be the one asking. You think I haven’t noticed your actions these days?”
“How am I acting these days?”
“Like a crazy dad! That’s how you are acting!” Alice shouted but lowered her voice abruptly to a note of concern. “Look. I feel like I am losing you, Douglas. What do you think I should be telling our children? Samuel for one? You know being only seven and the youngest, he needs you the most in your right senses, not talking about the other two.” Her voice changed to a gasping sob. “We have been married for twenty-five years and I have never seen you acting like this. You are terrifying me, Douglas. I am so afraid and I can’t honestly begin to…”
For Pagone, everything was becoming sleepy blurry and drowsy. As if hurled down by powerful hands, Pagone was falling into a bottomless void that even though Alice continued her heartbroken speech, her voice was a distant whisper, a soft sobbing femininity that echoed off across the bottomless space before it faded completely.
Soon images rematerialized. Pagone was on a beach, gazing across a whipping sea. But for some reason, instead of enjoying the sea leisure, he felt his pulse growing uneasy. Pagone’s heart threatened to beat out of his chest. He wildly wondered what was getting wrong.
And yet, squinting through the haze of the whipping sea, he then saw it.
Douglas Pagone jumped back in horror at the terrifying view. Pagone had seen some terrifying things in his life, but this, he could have sworn, was like none of them. Ahead, instead of water, the sea had turned into a voluminous sway of blood on whose surface human faces appeared that seemed to be struggling in agony, their bodies swimming desperately under the blood.
They all gazed at him with horror-filled eyes.
“Help us, Douglas!” The faces suddenly called. His body went rigid. They know me?! Pagone broke into a breakneck run. He ran as fast as he could away from the horror, and yet the faster he escaped, the more he still heard the voices and saw the lake vividly close whenever he glanced back.
“Help us!” The voices cried.
Get away from me! He tried to shout back, but his voice remained lodged in his throat.
As if somehow getting his reply, the voices continued in a boisterous rumble like a bashed piano. “You owe us! The money you stole was meant for us! Look at us now and our children, drowning in this cruel pandemic! Help us for once, you heartless thief!”
Douglas Pagone awoke with force and gazed around again breathlessly across the room’s darkness. He could see nothing except the silhouette of his wife lying beside him. Her soft slow peaceful breath told him she had fallen asleep. Pagone trembled with trepidation. There was no way he was telling her the truth. She was better this way, ignorant.
Glancing at the bedside clock, it read 02:30 A.M. He felt the demons wandering in the dark, encircling him like he was a sworn prey. I have been asleep for close to thirty minutes, he thought, and I still can’t find little peace.
“You heartless thief!” he heard the words repeatedly replaying in his mind, and his body was in perspiration.
Shivering, Pagone slowly slipped out of the sheets. He had made his mind. His destination was a few doors beyond the bedroom. Maybe he would find peace in that world, a world beyond the doors of a troubled life, a world without torment. As he exited though, he gave one more glance at his wife who was still asleep, and a strange thought gripped him sadly. It seemed it would be the longest day for his family.
Morning broke and Alice awoke. Her husband was not on the bed. A routine answer came almost instantly. He is taking a bath, she thought having twenty-five years’ experience of seeing him routinely having early baths.
Getting up and walking slowly towards the mirror that gazed back on the bedroom’s side wall, she paused abruptly, having a sudden wild thought. Pagone’s behavior had been overly strange last night. As a wife who cared for her married life, part of Alice was tensing with great suspicion. “Is he meeting other women?” Alice said audibly to no one in the room.
When she got in front of the mirror, her thoughts, however, dissolved quickly the way they came. Her forty-three year old beauty was still an appearance her husband bragged about a few weeks ago.
“Twenty-five years of bearing my children,” Pagone had affectionately joked, “and you are still this dazzling.” The thought made her twist a smile, her reflection in the mirror smiling back beautifully at her. She loved him and somehow felt consoled that he had loved her back the entire time. And yet in front of the full-frame mirror, Alice felt an untraced disquiet springing from deep within her core. An unexplained rush of adrenaline coursed through her body suddenly like a passing stranger.
Maybe I am all wrong about his love, she thought, beginning to grow impatient for his return.
Several minutes later, officially tired and angry of waiting, Alice exited the bedroom. Douglas was taking unusually long. What was wrong with asking him right in the bathroom? Last night’s conversation, moreover, had ended without answers. Stupid Douglas had fallen dead asleep. Alice paced quickly towards the bathroom. She passed through a set of doors along the silent corridor, too many questions bubbling in her mind. In the bright light, she could see the bathroom door at the far end of the corridor. Her pulse magically climbed further.
“Douglas?” she called a few steps before reaching the door, her voice echoing off the corridor walls with a seething rage. “I need to know! Is someone making you this odd?” But she was greeted by a ghostly silence.
“I know you are in there!” Alice continued more forcefully now. “Answer me so I don’t have to break the door!”
Again, dead silence. Alice took a slow breath. She was definitely not liking this. “Okay. If peace fails…” Then, with a surprising strength, Alice lunged back hard, launching her body into the plywood bathroom door with a crushing force. The door, instantly, flew open.
Regaining her balance, breathless, Alice surveyed the room. But to her dismay, there was no one taking a bath.
She wheeled. “Where are you hiding?! We are no children, Douglas!” Alice ran back crazed to the beginning of the corridor and began a mechanical search on each of the side doors which she had skipped. She still yelled off the corridor. As she opened the third door, Alice stopped in her tracks immediately, standing frigid in a jaw dropping horror. In the room’s deathly stillness, Douglas Pagone’s body dangled limply from the ceiling as a familiar chair remained collapsed directly beneath on the floor.
Frozen, somewhere in her gut, Alice screamed.