Chinese Water Torture Cell

“This is the last stop of the night,” the conductor stated. The only passenger left on the subway car was a woman who had been asleep since the fourth stop of the day. There had been people boarding and departing this car for hours, but nobody cared enough to wake her up. They all assumed someone else would.

“What about SOMEWHERE FAR AWAY FROM WHERE YOU CAME?” the woman asked, using her coat sleeve to wipe the saliva which had collected in her dimple. Her left foot had fallen asleep precisely two-and-a-half hours ago and her back ached from the tensions of contorting her limbs to fit a seat which was not crafted with the human body in mind.

“We passed that stop over three hours ago,” the conductor walked down the aisle, removing the paper scraps of the day’s tickets from the edges of the seats. He didn’t look at the woman when they spoke—he had seen this happen all too often. He just wanted to end the day so he could go home.

“Well, where are we now? Are we anywhere close to SOMEWHERE FAR AWAY FROM WHERE YOU CAME?”


“What should I do?” the woman asked, expecting that the conductor would have an answer. It didn’t matter if he did or if he didn’t, though. He was tired of putting too much thought into things.

“You missed your stop. This is the last stop of the night, so now you have to get

off. I don’t see how this is so complicated.”

“Is there no way to make one extra trip tonight? I’ve gone through a lot to be this far away from where I began.”

“Listen, I’m sure you’ve sacrificed a lot to be here, or that there’s no going back for you,” the conductor started, “but we all have our own lives to live. My life is making sure that this subway operates safely and properly.”

“This is a one-way trip,” he continued as the woman sat dumbfounded. “After

this stop this car will be decommissioned. Dematerialized. Zippo. Gone. So I’m sorry, but you’re out of luck. There may be other lines that stop here sometime later, but, for now, this isn’t the line for you.”

“Please, mister—you must understand what it feels like to make an oversight that keeps you from going to where you wanted. I’m sure of it,” the woman begged.

“I’m nothing but a rule enforcer.”

So the woman gave up her battle, grabbed her bag, and left the subway car.

It was an unusually timid subway station. The walls and the floor were lined with the same mint green tile, with a dull brown tile thrown in every once in a while

for some spice. There was a mural on the wall of a cowboy on a horse. It seems to be the centerpiece of the station, the woman thought, but what a strange place to have a mural of a cowboy on a horse. Defeated, the woman sat down at a bench in front of the cowboy mural.

To the left of the cowboy mural was an old-fashioned sign which proclaimed Arrivals and Departures. There was a man who seemed to be taking down the last and only posting on the board. After his job was done, the man sat down next to the woman and stretched his legs out.

“So, what are you doing here?” the man asked, a little bit too friendly for the woman’s taste. “It seems a bit too early to be doing any holiday traveling.”

“I’m just passing through,” the woman lied. “What about you? I think it’s awfully rude to interrogate me before even introducing yourself.”

“I’m the Custodian. I’m in charge of maintaining this station. Not many people come these ways, though, so there’s not much for me to do here. But every once in a while a subway will pass by and I’ll get to change the postings on the board.”

The Custodian cracked his knuckles and took a deep breath. “Be honest with me—what are you really doing here? No one comes this way just to pass through.”

The woman sighed.

“I meant to get off at SOMEWHERE FAR AWAY FROM WHERE YOU CAME, but I fell asleep, missed my stop, and now I’m here,” the woman confessed. She held her hands tightly together in her lap, so much so that her fingers began to turn white and then purple. The beating of her heart was so out of rhythm that a melody began to form in her lungs. Her foot tapped ad nauseam on the polished tile floor.

“You seem pretty worried about this all,” the Custodian said matter-of-factly.

Well, no duh! the woman thought. At least I know he passed his first grade skills of deduction test! and she sat in a stubborn silence, waiting for the Custodian to leave to go clean up some nonexistent speck of dust on the ground.

The two sat in a stalemate for a long time. The woman’s face was beginning to turn red like a child throwing a tantrum. Maybe she is a child, the Custodian thought. But he couldn’t think of any parent who would let their child wander so far away from home. So he deduced that she was simply a grown woman throwing a child’s fit.

“Listen—when I first got on that subway I was meaning to get off at I WANT TO RIDE IN THE SUNSET WITH THE WIND IN MY HAIR, but when we got there, I was

enjoying the ride so much that I figured I’d stay on instead. So I ended up riding the subway all the way here, and when I got off I heard that they were looking for a new custodian.”

“Why do you stay?”

“Where else would I go?”

“Surely there must be places you’d rather be than taking care of a desolate subway station, things you’d rather be doing?”

“I guess sometimes I dream of becoming a cowboy and riding my horse through the prairie, escaping from the gunshots of other cowboys I had managed to piss off.

But I’m happy to leave that as a dream. It’s comfortable here. Every morning I wake up and I know what to expect. And when things start to get too boring, it never fails that a lost person like yourself finds their way here”

The pair sat once more in silence. But this time it wasn’t a stubborn silence. It was a comforting silence. The woman hadn’t realized it, but her posture had changed. Her hands were gracious to be able to breathe, and her heart was excited to be playing at its normal tempo once more. The tappings of her foot against the tile floor no longer echoed down the long, dark tunnels.

“How long do you think it’ll be until another subway stops here again?” the woman asked, breaking the vow of silence.

“It’s never more than a week,” the Custodian answered. “More people end up making their way here than you’d think. They all claim it’s an accident, but I think most of them secretly wanted to end up here.”

The woman nodded her thanks. She stood up and exchanged see-you-laters with the Custodian and walked up the stairs of the station, waiting for that all-too- refreshing splash of sunlight that shocks your eyes after you’ve been living in fluorescence for too long. But today the artificial light just gave way to darkness. And it was cold. Not the type of cold that makes your whole body break out in the shivers, but rather the kind of cold that reminds you of the feeling of being left out at family gatherings when you’re the youngest child and still sitting at the children’s table and you can see your siblings flirting with the adults a table over and you no longer feel connected to them in the same way you used to.

The air was dusty. The woman looked at her hands and they were dusty, too. The Custodian ought to come up here and clean up a little, she thought. Her eyes attempted to give her a sense of placement but all they found was a single flickering light, dimmed

by the thick dusty air. Since there was nothing else to do but stand still, the woman walked in the direction of the light.

Eventually, she walked far enough to make out what was casting the flickering light. It was a candle-lit table. Not a Paris bistro kind of candle-lit table, but more of a folding table kind of candle-lit table. It was the kind of table that reminded the woman of summer camp lunches—the kind where everyone could gather to eat outside on those cheap paper plates that only allowed you to get halfway through your lunch before the flies would infest your potato salad and the mosquitos would make just as much of a lunch out of you.

There was a man sitting at the table, too. He played with matches, blowing life into the smoke they emitted and giving birth to images that floated away into the blackness. It appeared that the man had been there for quite some time, since the remnants of matches littered the table and the ground with a layer of cheap wood and ash.

The woman stood on the opposite side of the table, waiting ever-so-patiently for the man to acknowledge her presence. After a precisely respectable amount of waiting (three minutes), she made herself known: “Hello, can you help me?”

The man changed his focus mid-match and smiled a great, theatrical smile at the woman. “Welcome to the FAR SIDE OF THE MOON. THE PLACE WHERE THINGS GO TO BE FORGOTTEN. What can I do for you?” he asked.

“I’m lost.”

“I’m Harry Houdini. Pleasure to meet you,” the man kept smiling, despite the fact that the match he had previously lit and then forgotten about was seconds close to burning his right hand’s pointer finger and thumb. “Are you here to see a magic trick? I can do whatever you want, as long as it’s from my prescribed menu of things I can do.”

“No—I’m not here to see a magic trick,” the woman said in frustration. “I just wanna know how I can get out of here.”

“Where would you rather be than here?” Houdini asked. “It must be someplace grand.”


“What happened?”

“I fell asleep and missed my stop and now I’m here.”

“I don’t believe many people intend to find themselves here. But I have discovered that people always seem to find that here is much better than there. Tell you what—to cheer you up, why don’t I show you a magic trick?”

The woman opened her mouth to refuse, but the magician was already reaching

in his coat pocket. He lit the match and let it search for a breath, closing his eyes to focus on his newest magic trick. He blew out the match and the smoke manifested itself into the shape of a man, held upside down in a chamber of water, struggling to free himself.

“CHINESE WATER TORTURE CELL,” he announced. Houdini waited for the woman to clap and to tell him how amazing his magic trick was, but the look on her face was anything but amused.

“This was one of my most impressive escape acts,” Houdini attempted to explain to the woman who was apparently too daft to understand his art. “See—the human body isn’t too big of a fan of being held upside down. The blood rushes to your head and your eyes and ears start to pound. Your body keeps telling you this isn’t right, this is very wrong and you forget about everything other than simply surviving.”

“It’s an absolute magnificence of human nature,” he continued. “I’ll never get tired of the rush of terror and adrenaline when you’re unsure if you’ve just signed

your death warrant or not. It’s truly is the greatest form of art mankind has ever produced.”

“Why escape tricks?” the woman asked.

Houdini stared back, confused. “What do you mean?”

“Why not card tricks or mind reading? Those are a lot less dangerous.” “Because I’m no good at card tricks or mind reading. I’m good at escape tricks.

It’s as simple as that.”

Houdini grabbed another match from his pocket, let it burn until his fingers were almost burnt, and extinguished the flame. This time the smoke transformed into a townhouse, lined with pretty flowers and the warmth of familiarity. The magician allowed the woman to admire the sunlit scene for a minute before brushing the smoke out of the air.

“There’s another subway coming in an hour,” Houdini announced. “It’s heading for THE PLACE I SHOULD HAVE BEEN. It’s not exactly SOMEPLACE FAR AWAY FROM

WHERE YOU CAME, but I think you’d come to enjoy it. There’s only one rule—you can’t sleep during the ride. They’re pretty strict about that one.”

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