Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Fifth Circuit House of Horrors

Creakings, as of old wood, and groanings, as of souls long tormented, rise quavering through the dim, foggy air. A ghoulish old caretaker gives a yellow-toothed, humorless grin to his nine customers. “Welcome,” he hisses, “to the Fifth Circuit House of Horrors, Frights and Chills.”

Antonin gulps, and turns to Old Bill. “Bill,” he says, “maybe it’s better you wait here. With your health…” A moan echoes from the tottering structure looming before them. “You’re right,” says Bill. “I’m not up to this. I’ll sit here on this bench.”

The eight go on without him. The caretaker takes their tickets, and waves them into two rusty cars. Stephen, Ruth, David and John Paul climb gingerly into the first. Antonin, Clarence, Anthony and Sandra Day settle in to the second. The bars clang down across their laps. “I don’t much like that,” Sandra Day says, her strong voice sounding small and hollow as it echoes out into the gloom. The cars lurch forward with a screech, metal grating on metal.

A recorded voice comes over the speakers, the deep voice of a troubled old man. “Welcome,” it says. “You are entering the Fifth Circuit. Leave your hope at the door.” Doors crash shut behind them, and a cold breeze brushes their cheeks in the darkness. Anthony looks around in alarm, and draws his coat a little closer around him.

“If you listen close,” the spectral voice says, “you can hear the whisperings of the ghost of Charles Pickering.” An eerie murmur arises; a hushed, indistict, worried sound that is not quite human. “They say he has unfinished business here,” the speakers intone, and a series of bright lights and banging sounds startle the company.

The cars screech around a corner. Suddenly the air is very warm. A giant figure with bulging muscles and a costume of black leather straps holds a gargantuan battle-axe over the neck of a whimpering Mexican. Wailing faces become visible in the background, arms reaching out as if trying to grab the axe and stay its fall—the desperate faces of the International Court of Justice.

“What’s that, Mr. Medellin?” the giant booms, sarcastically. “You want to talk to your consulate?” The axe rises up, and Stephen notices that the giant has scrawled the word “consulate” on it, in what look like letters of blood. “Here you go!” The axe falls, and the Mexican’s head drops into the little basket. The faces of the ICJ wail louder.

“Did you see that?” gasps Antonin. “International law!” Antonin’s face is pale, and quickly begins to go green. Clarence throws a reassuring arm around his shoulders. “Don’t worry,” Clarence says. “There’s no such thing as international law.”

Antonin nods quickly, as if trying to convince himself. Clarence repeats himself like a parent singing a lullaby: “There’s no such thing as international law…there’s no such thing as international law…there’s no such thing as international law…”

The cars move on, and creak past a filmy window, opening on a tranquil view of the outside. A river is visible in the distance, and Ruth thinks wistfully of the First Circuit, where the winters are harsh but mental illness is blessedly rare.

Suddenly a fist comes from nowhere and bangs on the window, and a white staring face lurches up behind it—the crazed eyes of Priscilla Owen, mouth open, bellowing “LET ME IN!” The company starts back in horror as more wide-eyed faces appear at the window, fists banging.

Sandra Day notices the word “filibuster” engraved on the window, just below a great crack beginning to snake its way across the glass. “This glass isn’t going to hold!” she shouts. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”

She jumps out of the car and runs along the little walkway next to the track. But after three steps, she stops in horror. The track and the walkway dead-end, dropping away into a horrible void.

Clarence and Antonin are at the window now, their face inches away from the glass and the horrible faces outside. Clarence turns to face them, his face strangely unperturbed by the screeching and hammering just inches from his head.

“I’m afraid no one’s going anywhere,” Clarence says, an eerie grin playing across his face. Antonin flips a big switch. There is the distant hum of electricity flickering off. Lights flicker off behind them. The group is lit now only by the moonlight filtering in past the screeching creatures at the window. “Things are going to be a little different from now on,” Clarence says. “You might as well get used to the place. And to calling me Chief.”

The glass shatters. The ghouls swarm in.