Kansas City -- 1959
The Snake Man was drunk and slobbering mean, and the child feared what might be next, as the man who was his foster mother's current live-in companion hammered out the breathing slits in the Punishment Box. It was a metal trunk, just large enough to hold the eight-year-old child. The shirtless drunk, whose hairy upper torso and arms were writhing nests of serpentine tattoos, cursed and hammered. He'd made crude slits with a small cold chisel, and was in the process of pounding the razor-sharp steel edges of the openings more or less flat.
"I'll teach you to talk back to me," the man ranted. The boy, cowering with his mongrel pup on the urine-soaked floor of the locked closet, tried to swallow back his abject terror. The sound of the metal trunk slamming shut was followed by heavy footsteps. The door opened. Blinding sunlight. A rough hand squeezed his arm, jerking him painfully forward as the little dog whined in fear. The Snake Man, which was how the child thought of the monster with his blue skin-map of jailhouse serpents, held the boy in steely claws.
"Danny gets scared in the dark," the man mocked him in a harsh voice. "Little Danny cries for his mommy." He shoved the frightened boy into the metal box. "Let's see how he likes this. A nice hot, dark Punishment Box." The words made the child's skin crawl, as the lid slammed down on him. There was no air. He would die in the suffocatingly hot box. The metal seared his skin where it touched him.
The bright sunlight illuminated a crudely-made opening, and he put his face as close as he could to the lid of the box without actually touching it, supporting his little body so that he could breathe the foul air in and out, and he fought with what was left of his sanity to survive.
He had learned about the thing he had, which one day he would know was termed claustrophobia, while he'd been kept for hours in the pitch-black closet. To keep himself alive he had first learned to communicate with the little dog, whom the man also hated, and it was but one of many mental gymnastics Daniel would ultimately master.
For the sake of his survival, he'd learned about the secret room inside his head: how to enter it at will, where the trap door was, how he could mentally key it and walk down the long flight of black stairs that led into the core of the imagination, where his teachers lived. Crosshairs, the Buzzsaw, Big Sister, the Doctor, they were all there to hold his mind, to give solace and strength, to stanch the flow of tears, to teach him the ways of the dark places.
They'd taught him that claustrophobia, which he'd felt acutely that first day in the stinking closet, was at the front and back of the mind. In the center, one could escape it. Was there enough air in the closet to breathe? Yes. Was there not a crack under the door? Yes. Breathe the air slowly, the doctor told him, and as you take each breath into your lungs freeze the front and back of your thoughts.
He tried it, and it worked. He learned to slow ... still ... slow his vital signs, to freeze the panic, to control his thoughts, and he tried to teach Gem, but the dog never quite got the hang of it. He learned to comfort the animal with soothing, slow strokes, and whispered gentlings, which he communicated inside his head. His ability to speak to the dog, to make it understand, using only his brain, was quite real. Deep in the center of encroaching madness, he found his neural key, and unlocked secrets of the mind few would ever know.
Buzzsaw, the fearless one, the killer, taught him, as the child reached out for his comic-book friend in the screaming fear of the stifling metal box, what payback was. He would survive the Punishment Box, he would be strong, and then Buzzsaw would help him do what had to be done.
"The Snake Man will kill you if you do not do what I say," Buzzsaw snarled at the child.
"I'm so afraid," the boy said, crying inside the hot, airless trunk.
"Fear nothing," the killer said, and he showed Daniel how fear existed only as thought; it was not real. Heat was real, yes. Air was real. But the heat would not destroy him if he remained calm. The man would take him out of the box soon, if only to use him again. There was air.
"What can I do? He is strong, and I'm small."
"All is known to you, Daniel, all of the things that are. All secrets are in plain sight, you must look for them with your mind. You must remember. Where is there a weapon?"
"In the basement ... downstairs?" Daniel remembered a room of mysteries in the cellar of the old tenement building.
"The smoky bottles?"
"Yes," Buzzsaw said, helping the boy visualize the small pharmaceutical bottles with skull-and-crossbones warning labels. "Acid," he snarled.
Not long after that, Daniel Edward Flowers Bunkowski, age eight, was sent to a Kansas correctional institution for children for blinding his stepfather. The boy was said to be incorrigible.
Copyright © 1994 by Rex Miller