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Silent Night

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"It's gonna work, kiddo. It has to work."

The three boys huddled in the cell, shivering despite the suffocating heat. Adam sniffed, wiping a hand across his face. His eyes scrolled back and forth like he was reading some invisible text, but Donovan knew he was thinking, always thinking.

"Cool your jets, Adam," warned Batek, glancing through the open door of the cell. "Got to be careful what you say here. Walls got ears."

"Ears and eyes," said Adam, nodding as he turned to Donovan. "And teeth too. Eating us all alive. You in or out, kiddo? Your plan, but if you're serious about it then you gotta let me know one way or another."

In or out.

Donovan took a breath of stale air, barely finding a scrap of oxygen in it. After nearly five years he should have been used to the heat down here, but there were some things that never felt right. This place was cruel like that. Just when you thought you had a grip of things, it changed. Some days were hot, some days were cold. Some days seemed to pass in a flash, others seemed to drag on forever. And with no way of looking outside, maybe they did. Maybe the Warden just made up the rules as he went, simply to torture them.

He was a monster, after all.

This place was a monster.

"In," said Donovan, the word out of his mouth before he'd even given it permission. "I'm in."

Adam slapped him on the shoulder, hard enough to release a pistol shot of sound that echoed out into the yard.

"Good man," he said. "This place ain't got us beat yet."

Not yet, Donovan thought. But it was close. He could feel it taking a little more of him every day—his memories, his dreams, his hopes—and he wasn't sure how much he had left before he vanished entirely. Just an empty set of bleached prison overalls that trod ghost-like from his cell to the canteen to the chipping rooms to the showers over, and over, and over.

The panic was a depth charge that exploded in his chest, filling him with cold darkness. He stood, planting a hand on the rock wall to keep his balance.

Breathe. Just breathe.

"Breathe," said Adam, like he was reading his mind. He stood up too, planting a big hand on Donovan's shoulder. "Plenty of air here, even if it stinks of Batek's BO."

"Hey!" Batek said. He sniffed his armpit, pulling a face. "Actually yeah, fair point."

Donovan managed a laugh, and with it came a rush of oxygen. Adam squeezed his shoulder, holding him until Donovan nodded his gratitude.

"I'll draw up a list," Adam said. "Work out what we need. But be ready, it could happen any time."

Somebody out in the yard screamed, the noise followed by a shout of anger. A rush of cries swelled like a wave and Batek ran through the cell door onto the metal platform that overlooked the prison. He swore, glancing back.

"Skirmish," he said. "Goddamned Skulls. Gonna run before they lock it down."

He vanished before anyone could reply, and Donovan could hear the thunder of feet on metal as anyone with a shred of sense made a break for the stairwells. Seconds later there was a sharp report from a shotgun, and another scream.

That was the other thing he could never get used to. That symphony of terror.

"Place ain't got us beat yet," Adam said again, climbing onto his bunk. "Stay away from the door, Carl. No point getting popped this close to Christmas."

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