Duncan James touched the tender, bumpy flesh around his eyes. Carefully, he trailed his index finger from the outer rim of his left eye socket to the middle where his eyeball once sat. A razor-sharp sting of hot pain pierced the fragile area the second his finger made contact. He sharply tugged his finger away. The pricks of tears instinctively formed at the corners of his eyes, but he wasn't sure if they'd even leak out. The openings of the tear ducts were no doubt seared shut. And he was right. No tears came, but he'd give anything for even a few drops, anything to let him know he was still human.
Bowing his head, he carefully rested his forehead on his forearms, his arms on his knees. The corner seemed warmer today, more comforting. The way one wall pressed up against his back and the one running perpendicular to it was flush against the side of his thigh--it was almost like a hug. One final embrace until they'd kill him.
His son, Kyle, was somewhere in the cell with him. If Duncan remembered correctly, Kyle was over to the left, lying near the door. But only if he remembered correctly. Before the soldiers took his eyes, he made an effort to take a quick mental picture of the room. Then the lights went out. There hadn't been much to remember, thankfully. The cell--if this was a cell--was roughly twelve feet by twelve feet, the ceiling a stout seven feet from the cold and rough cement floor. The walls were made of concrete, worn and cracked, as if this place had been around for decades. Maybe longer. In the center of the room, on the ceiling, was a lone light bulb within a small circle frame, the light socket connected to a long and thick black wire that ran along the ceiling and out the door somewhere. The door was the only thing of color and even then it was a dark, rusty red, the paint peeled and chipped in places, revealing the dark gray of the metal beneath. There were no windows.
Taking a lungful of stale air, Duncan let out a sigh. Then, "Kyle?" His voice was barely a whisper. After having not eaten in four days, even mustering the strength to speak was difficult. He swallowed, cleared his throat. "Kyle?" A little louder this time but if Kyle wasn't awake, he knew his boy wouldn't hear him. Kyle had always been a sound sleeper. You could crash a pair of cymbals by his head and he still wouldn't stir.
Oh, Lord, please wake him, Duncan thought. But God had seemed suddenly absent ever since the arrest.
Six days ago Duncan and Kyle had arrived in Vietnam for a vacation. They'd heard the rumors of Christian persecution but trusted the Lord to protect them for the month they were going to be there. The arrest occurred almost immediately after getting off the plane. He had brought his Bible on the plane for the long flight over from Canada and didn't think he should have left it with the rest of his luggage. Their carry-on bags were scanned through customs for any hazardous materials and it was then the official in charge saw the dark, rectangular shape of a book on the scanner's screen. She opened the bag, pulled out the Bible . . . and just held it, as if captivated by it. The small woman placed the book back in the bag and waved Duncan and Kyle through. To this day, he didn't know how she did it but somehow--perhaps via some sort of secret airport employee code--notified the guards standing at the gate to the main airport. After that . . .
A loud ka-chunk echoed throughout the tiny room as the metal door was unlocked from the other side. It screeched on its hinges and footsteps let Duncan know he and Kyle were no longer alone.
Kyle let out a grunt as he was startled out of sleep.
"Kyle!" Duncan shouted. Immediately after crying out his son's name, footsteps rushed toward him and a pair of hands scooped him up from under his arms, hoisting him to his feet.
"Dad!" Kyle said.
The scuff of a shoe against the stone floor followed by a sickening smack of bone against stone made Duncan's insides jump. Kyle yelped.
"No!" Duncan screamed and rushed toward where he thought his boy lay. Four pairs of arms held him back--two under his arms, two coming out of nowhere at his front.
His son moaned somewhere across the way.
"Oh Jesus, please let me see," Duncan said softly, but blackness remained his only sight.
Footsteps neared him, quickly followed by the smell of sweat. Hot breath suddenly blew upon his face like a rank breeze. "He cannot hear you," came a voice Duncan recognized as Captain Tan's. Duncan's insides shook at the sound of the Vietnamese man's voice. Tan was there when the other men pinned him down. Tan was the one who leaned over him, and when Duncan didn't deny that Jesus was the Son of God, produced a knife from his pocket and slowly cut out Duncan's eyes from their sockets. Tan, who talked the whole way through the procedure, was the one who informed him that the wounds would be cauterized by the burning red tip of an iron poker. Even now the smell of smoldering flesh still filled Duncan's nostrils. Despite all prayer, the scent wouldn't leave him, as if a permanent reminder of that day.
"Where is your God now?" one of the soldiers across the room said. He was talking to Kyle because Kyle replied, "Here, even now."
Thumpk! Kyle coughed then spat. Duncan could only assume the soldier kicked his son in the head again, this time in the mouth, bringing up a gush of blood.
"I do not wish to do this much longer, Mr. James," Tan said.
Duncan hated it every time Captain Tan called him by name. The image of Tan pulling Duncan's wallet out of his back pocket while the other soldiers held him danced in his mind's eye. The way the Vietnamese captain said "Duncan James" the first time he read his passport made his skin crawl. "Duhn-cahn Jems" was how Tan said it.
"Then stop doing it," Duncan said. Try as he might, it was difficult to shove what was happening to Kyle to the back of his mind. The first night he and his son were in the cell alone together, they had a long talk and agreed to not watch, if it could be helped, whatever might happen to the other person. The two just didn't count on the soldiers making one watch the other while they meted out their torture. Duncan would never forget Kyle's cries when his son was forced to watch Tan remove his eyes. Kyle almost broke then, was about to give in to what the soldiers wanted: a renunciation of faith. Duncan had screamed at him through the pain and reminded him what they talked about.
"I'm afraid there will be no end," Tan said, "unless you state that your faith in this 'Messiah' is nothing more than an illusion the West concocted to make their people feel better."
"How could we have concocted it? You can't make something like this up. Besides, the Gospel started in the East." A quick whistle of wind as something rushed toward him then the stinging smack of an open palm against his cheek.
He expected Tan to say something . . . but there was silence. Just like Jesus said, when the time came, the Spirit would provide an answer that would be irrefutable to the accuser.
Tan huffed a heated breath of air at him, sending the hairs against his sweat-soaked brow partly to the side. It tickled. Instinctively, Duncan tried to scratch his forehead to get rid of the sensation. Instead he received a swift kick to the gut. His intestines jumped inside him, seeming to have been momentarily pushed up too close to his stomach. They lingered there for several seconds before settling back down again. The back of his throat constricted and his stomach tightened, yearning to bring something up. But there was no food in his stomach to appease him. Nothing but the anxiety of wondering how long this would last.
"Leave him alone!" Kyle screamed.
His boy must be on his feet or at least his knees. No one could produce that kind of vocal sound lying down.
"Quiet!" a soldier barked.
There was a loud wet thud, and Kyle said no more.