Stronger Than Iron

Day 1 -

John stumbled forward, catching himself against the back wall. The iron door rattled home behind him, locking him into the jail cell.

Marguerite landed hard on the cold stone floor of the adjoining cell. "Easy," she warned.

With a dust of his hands, John said, "That went well." He gave his companion a hard stare through the bars.

Her eyes flew wide with innocence. "Don't blame me!"

John swatted his hat against his dusty trousers, holding Marguerite with a doubtful look. He pushed back his dark hair and secured it under his hat.

"I don't suppose they'll have room service," she said, with a coy shrug.

"Just once, Marguerite–"

"Oh, please! Can we skip the part where this is all my fault?"

He shook his head. "What good would it do anyway?"

"Exactly," Marguerite nodded. "Now we can spend our energy on getting out of here." She ran her fingers across the bars between them.

John reached up to the barred window at ground level; he pulled himself up and looked out at the thick vegetation. "It would take a decade to work these bars loose." He dropped back down to the cell floor.

Day 2 -

Marguerite lay on her bunk, she stretched and flopped a lazy foot onto the floor. For an instant she had forgotten where she was, and then she snapped awake. She sat up with a start and looked around her small prison.

John was in his cell, sitting on his wooden bunk, watching her. "It may not be room service, but at least they're feeding us." He held up a plate of fresh fruits and dried meat.

"I don't like the sound of that."

"You'd rather starve?"

"No, Roxton, I'd rather be released… You don't feed a caged rat – unless you plan on keeping it."

Roxton looked down at his plate. She had a point. He set the food aside.

"That pump works, if you're thirsty." John pointed to the far corner of her cell. "At least mine does." An iron pipe rose from the stone floor, topped with a pump.

Marguerite stood and pumped the handle a few times. Cool water filled the spillway and splashed into the corner. An open drain ferreted the water below the cell.

John gave her an embarrassed shrug, as if he were apologizing. "If you need to… I can turn away… you just – I'll just turn away." He crossed to the far side of his cell.

Marguerite shook her head, staring down the open drain. "Oh, they are going to lose a full star for this."

Day 3 -

"Hey! Somebody out there must hear us," John shouted out his barred window.

Marguerite rattled her cell door, calling up the empty corridor. "Enough's enough! We'll be good little boys and girls. We've learned our lesson!"

"It's no use, Marguerite. Those walls must be three feet thick, and I'm yelling at trees. No one is going to hear us."

"Where's the bloody Cavalry? Shouldn't they be rescuing us by now?"

"Challenger and Veronica weren't far behind us; they're probably plotting a jailbreak as we speak."

"What kind of prison is this, anyway? –no guards for me to seduce –no flunkies for you to crack over the head. How do they expect us to escape?"

"They can't keep us locked up forever, Marguerite. We'll make our move – the first person that comes down here." If a person comes down here.

Day 4 -

"Did you see who brought the food?"

They sat side-by-side on the stone floor sharing breakfast through the iron bars.

"No. Both plates were sitting just as they were yesterday – right at our cell doors." John slipped a slice of apple onto her plate.

"Hey, how are you cutting that?"

Roxton winked and held up a crude knife. "I pulled in a few branches." He pointed to his barred window. "I sharpened them on the stone." He handed her the wooden tool. "This one is yours."

"How sweet – do you make keys?"

Week 2 -

"I am pushing, Roxton," Marguerite growled, through clenched teeth.

John stretched his arm as far as he could. "Just a bit closer… got it!" He locked his grip onto her bunk and helped her slide it up against the bars. "Perfect. Now, I'll pull my bunk next to it, and we have a bed built for two."

"–With a row of bars down the center." Marguerite flopped heavily onto her side of their makeshift bed.

"Oh, I don't know Marguerite – all alone for weeks, the moon highlighting what little you have to call bedclothes, your soft whispers in the night; let's just consider these bars our… chaperone."

"Why, Lord Roxton, are you flirting with me?"

"Every chance I get." He folded an arm across his waist in a dignified bow, and then slipped into the bed.

Month Two -

They lay together on their bunks, John's arms twisted through the bars, holding her as best he could. Marguerite slept soundly, her bare leg peeking out from under her blanket. Roxton wrestled against the bars, throwing an elbow into the most annoying one. Frustrated, he spun away, and pressed his back to hers.

Through his window, he watched the moon slip slowly below the tree line. The light pooled near his cell door. He watched intently, hoping to see a figure beyond the bars. His attention wavered for an instant, and without a sound, a tray of food sat haloed in the moonlight. Why should tonight be any different?

He rolled back over and watched the fading shadows drift down her leg.

Month Six -

John pulled himself up to his window ledge, gripping the bars tightly; slowly, he lowered himself just above the cell floor. He pulled himself up again, and again, again, again...

"Really, Roxton, all this grunting and sweating, it's not very flattering."

"The gentlest of willows will eventually tear apart all the mighty sewers of London."

"Well, that explains the smell."

He dropped to the floor. "We need the exercise, Marguerite, and truly, time will wear down these bars."

"I hadn't planned on being here this long. Have you noticed how cold it's getting at night?"

"I'll give you my blanket for the winter; just promise me you'll tuck that one foot back through the bars – warm against my leg."

Year Two -

She slept through the days.

He sang. He danced. I need you, Marguerite.

She went days without eating.

He dug at every stone, twisted every bar. Dear God, I can't make it without her.

She cried tears of hopelessness.

He held her close, through the bars. He shared the last of his strength with her – quietly, he cried for them both.

Year Three -

Labor made life bearable.

They farmed tree branches through their windows, never taking more than the jungle could replenish. The green bark was stripped away and the timber seasoned. With sharpened stones, they carved the wood. The shavings were burned to render fat from their rations into tallow. Water was strained through the ashes for lye. Nothing was wasted.

Simple items sometimes brought joy.

Soap for bathing, candles to hold back the night, cups, bowls, stools, and their prize collaboration: a table that dovetailed together through the bars, each having their own side.

But, their only true peace – was found in each other.

Year Four -

"…happy birthday to YOU… happy BIRTHday dear John-on, happy birthday to you!" Marguerite swayed her shoulders coyly, her arms crossed behind her.

John pulled himself into the bars, leaning close to her face. "So, what makes you think it's my birthday?"

A twinkle lit her emerald eyes. "What makes you think it's not?"

"Fair enough – It's my birthday." John smiled at her. Damn, she can be intoxicating.

She swung her arms around in front of her. "I made this for you." She held out a belt woven from fine strips of tree bark.

He took her hands in his. Her skin was rough and cracked, her fingernails brown from working with the lye; each year in this prison was harder on her than the entire three years they had spent in the jungle.

He looked into her eyes. "Thank you, Marguerite."

"I spent hours braiding those threads of bark together – I'd pretend we were back home, at the tree house, and I was braiding Veronica's hair."

"I don't recall you braiding her hair?"

"I didn't… but I should have." She pulled her eyes from his, holding back a wave of sorrow. "You'd better put that belt on now," she tried to sound lighthearted, "those britches aren't staying up where they used to."

"No, I guess they aren't," he agreed, as he ran his thumb along his baggy waistband. This prison is feeding on us both.

Year Five -

She lay on her bunk, her back pressed into the bars – eyes wide.

"Did you hear me?" John sat on his side of their bed, watching her shoulder rise and fall, unable to see her startled expression. "I love you, Marguerite," He said it again.

Her mind raced. Any kind of rejection in these small quarters could be disastrous. "All the other girls will be so jealous." She tried to lighten the mood.

He ignored her diversion. "From the moment I sat behind you in that canoe and we paddled up the Amazon together: your dark hair spilling across that white lace, the way you wore your hat – tipped back too far to be of any real use."

She rolled toward him, warming to the flattery. "Go on."

"I've loved you, Marguerite, from that moment – and every moment since. I want you to be my wife."

"Come on, John." She sat up. "What's the point? It's just the two of us here."

"Is marriage ever more than two? –a commitment to watch over one another –to put someone's wellbeing in front of your own."

"It's sweet John, but it feels a little like giving up!"

"Fine!" He crossed to the far corner of his cell.

"Fine!" She lay back hard on her bunk, her back pressed into the bars – her eyes brimming with tears.

Year Six -

Year Seven -

Year Eight -

Marguerite paced in the darkness, her blanket draped around her shoulders. John slept fitful, pulling in ragged breaths. His lungs had wheezed for months, so loud at night now, she could no longer sleep.

Only a small portion of his blanket covered him, most of it was pulled through the bars, onto her side of the bed. Carefully she reached back through and tucked the blanket around him.

John stirred, and then sat up abruptly in a fit of deep coughs. He leaned over the side of the bed, his lungs on fire, choking out bits of phlegm.

"Easy." She reached her hand to his back, in this nightly ritual.

"I'm alright," He lied, "I'll be fine in a day or two."

"John, you're burning up." She went to her pump and drew up some cold water onto a cloth.

He rolled to face her as she caressed him with the cool rag. "Thank you," He murmured, as he drifted back into sleep.

She lay down next to him, "Please, please, please… don't take him from me."

Year Nine -

Marguerite squealed, half in delight, half in agony. "I don't like to be tickled, John!"

He held her tight to the bed with one arm, and walked the fingers of his other hand mercilessly across her ribs.

She squirmed hard against the bars separating them; a loud PANG jolted the room.

They both sat up, startled, looking at the bars between them. The most annoying bar of all, the bar John wrestled against every night, sat distinctly askew. Together, they reached for it, the bar rattled free at its base, held only from the top.

John stood, almost frantic, pulling his bunk away. He grabbed the bar with both hands and tore it to one side.

They looked at each other through the space. John's eyes clouded, and Marguerite rushed through the opening.

Their bodies touched and they fell into one another. For the first time since they met – there were no walls between them.

Day Two: Just Outside the Prison -

"You understand what you have to do?" Challenger asked.

Veronica paced urgently. "I'll be quick, and I'll stay back as far as I can."

"I have no idea how stable this field is, or what its boundaries are." Challenger was a mix of fascination and concern. "A time dilation bubble exists only in theory, if you're caught in it, anything might happen."

"I'm just going to unlock the door, George, and then run back out."

"Good girl."

Year Ten -

"John… the door is open."

They lay together on their bunk; the cells arranged differently now, one as a bedroom, the other as a workspace.

He blinked a few times, to set his mind right; but, the cell door truly stood open.

Marguerite swung her feet onto the cold stone, and charged the open doorway. She spun, gripping each side of the doorframe. "We're free."

She raced up the corridor. With every stride she took, the years fell away.

John stood to follow her, but he stopped for a moment to look around this prison that had become his home. He saw his braided belt on the floor beneath their bed; carefully he slipped it through each loop of his loose trousers. Then he turned to go. Nothing will ever be the same.

By the time Marguerite reached the exit she was ten years younger. She fell into Challenger's arms, so happy to see the man, yet the memory of why, receding.

Roxton stepped out into the light, shielding his eyes, every bit the confident hunter he had always been.

Veronica reached out to the two of them. "We didn't know what to expect, Challenger thought you two might be caught in some sort of temporal bubble."

Marguerite smiled. "It was just a night in jail…" She turned to Roxton, questioning her recollection. "Wasn't it?"

The last of John's memories drifted away. He held Marguerite's eyes, his mind grasping for more. "…just a night in jail." He loosened his belt a bit, and looked back down the dark corridor. A distant voice haunted him – I'm leaving the best part of myself behind.

The Tree House -

As time passed, it was the little things they noticed. The way Roxton saved his food, to be sure she had enough. During the nights, the slightest cough would bring Marguerite to his side.

"What's happened to them?" Veronica asked Challenger quietly, the two of them watching as John and Marguerite silently shared a late supper – an intimate ritual that only time could perfect.

"I don't think we'll ever know for certain," Challenger admitted, with a sleepy yawn.

The tree house grew quiet; one-by-one they said their goodnights and drifted off to their rooms.

Marguerite tiptoed across the darkened living room and peeked in on Veronica, her lamp was still burning. Marguerite held up a brush, and there seemed no need for words. She sat on the edge of Veronica's bed and drew the brush through the young woman's soft flaxen curls. Carefully, she separated out three even lots, and began to braid.