My name is Alexander Gordon Smith, the author of the YA horror book Lockdown. I’m thrilled to be able to blog on Tor.com, and I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about writing, horror, books and hopefully loads more too. But I wanted to start by posting an exclusive bonus chapter!
Lockdown follows teenage criminal Alex Sawyer as he attempts to escape the hell on earth that is Furnace Penitentiary. Life inside Furnace is worse than your most terrifying nightmares—savage gangs, brutal guards, skinless dogs and the filthy Wheezers who drag you kicking and screaming into the blood-drenched tunnels below. Not to mention the warden, who may or may not be the devil himself.
But it isn’t all violence and heartbreak. There may not be good days inside, but there are okay days, days when you can almost forget you’ll never see daylight again, never talk to your parents, never eat macaroni and cheese, never kiss a girl. On those days, you can almost convince yourself you’re still free.
Take a look below at this bonus chapter—not in the book—for a glimpse of humanity in the most inhuman place on the planet.
I probably don’t need to tell you that personal grooming isn’t a top priority in Furnace.
I mean, most of our time here is spent trying to stay alive. You don’t really give much thought to how your hair looks when you’re bolting from a mutant skinless dog that wants to tear out your throat. And who cares whether your clothes are ruffled when you’re in a skirmish, punches and blood flying in every direction.
It’s not even like there are any girls here. So having clean teeth and minty fresh breath, who cares?
There aren’t good days inside, but I guess there are okay days—days when you don’t have the crap kicked out of you, or when you don’t see somebody get dragged off by the blood watch. And on those days I can almost kid myself that I’m glad to be here—I mean, I think about all the boys my age who get forced to make their beds in the morning, who have to brush their teeth before they go to sleep, who get yelled at by their mum if they don’t wash behind their ears.
We may be prisoners in the worst hellhole on Earth, but in some ways we’re free.
That’s not to say there aren’t ways of keeping yourself smart in Furnace. We’re teenage boys, yeah, but we know that if we don’t brush our teeth they’ll fall out. That thought doesn’t bother the Skulls much, and it’s not like we need to chew the slop they serve as food here, but nobody wants the nickname “Gums,” right?
It was Donovan who taught me the ropes, the same way he taught me pretty much everything about being a prisoner. We were in the showers one day, exhausted from a morning of chipping—digging out new rooms in the prison with pickaxes. Washing in Furnace is not a pleasant experience, I can tell you—a couple of minutes being blasted by freezing water. It’s all you can do to move, let alone rub yourself down.
I caught Donovan wrapping something around his finger and turned to him, shivering.
“What’s that?” I asked through chattering teeth, thinking it was a bandage. “You cut yourself back there?”
“Me, cut myself?” replied D with a laugh that echoed around the shower room until it was swallowed by the roar of the water. “You kiddin’ me? I am iron man, I don’t bleed.”
He knotted the strip of cotton—he must have pulled it from his prison uniform—then raised his finger to his mouth. And there it was, his official Furnace issue toothbrush.
“There’s a reason I got these pearly whites,” he said, flashing me a grin. “You better start brushing too, kiddo, or you’re gonna look like my nan, if you follow me.”
He hid his teeth behind his gums and wrinkled up his face, causing me to laugh so hard I almost choked on the shower spray.
A few days later—I must have been in Furnace for a week, although it already felt like a lifetime—D strutted into the cell with a hell of a lot less hair than I’d seen him with that morning.
“That’s better,” he asked, giving me a spin. “Tall enough as it is without two feet of ‘fro on top.”
“How did you manage that?” I asked, genuinely astonished. I ran a hand through my own tangled mop of greasy hair. I hadn’t given much thought to it since I’d got here, but now that the subject had come up I did wonder how on Earth people kept their hair under control. It’s not like we could head down the mall for a short back and sides.
“What, you think we never get a hair cut in here?” he asked, beaming that same smile. “You didn’t think it was strange that everybody don’t look like ZZ Top?”
I didn’t know who or what ZZ Top was, but it was odd that Furnace’s inmates didn’t have hair down to their ankles.
“Welcome to the next stage of your education, Alex,” Donovan said, ushering me out of our cell. “Personal grooming.”
We jogged down a couple of levels, the vast bulk of the prison laid out before us, the immense underground yard teeming with life. The motion of the inmates—a thousand or more boys my age running, yelling, chasing, fighting—was enough to make me giddy and I had to grip the handrail hard or risk toppling over. So many lives cut off before they’d even had the chance to properly begin. So many kids who would never again see the sun, or feel their mum’s arms around them.
Like so many times before, the weight of the world pressed down on me, a billion tonnes of rock seeming to compress the air, making it impossible to breathe. I gagged, doubling over, my head ringing, and it was only Donovan at my side, hooking a hand beneath my armpit, which steadied me.
“Deep breaths, remember,” he whispered. “Plenty of oxygen in here, plenty of space.” I inhaled for as long as I could, until my lungs were screaming, then breathed out slowly. Sure enough the panic began to subside, the wild orbit of the prison grinding to a halt. Donovan patted me on the back. “Come on, you gonna stumble round here like a zombie all day or you gonna get your hair cut? Never gonna look as good as me at this rate.”
He led me down the next set of stairs to level three, then along the landing to a cell. It didn’t look any different to the other cells in Furnace—a shoebox almost entirely filled by a set of bunk beds and a toilet. Except the floor here was covered in hair, piles of it, all different colours, like strange fungal growths in the rock. There was a boy of maybe eleven or twelve sitting on the lower bunk, and behind him was an older kid, armed with a long, steel shank that glittered in the burnt light.
Now, when you see someone with a shank in Furnace, the best thing to do is run. These homemade blades, sharpened from pieces of bunk, slivers of rock, even shards of human bone, mean only one thing—trouble. Even in the week I’d been here I’d seen a couple of skirmishes where kids got cut, one so badly he was dragged off to the infirmary beneath the prison—the place you don’t ever come back from.
And run is what I did, almost automatically, but a hand on my overalls and a deep, booming chuckle meant I didn’t get far.
“Settle down, kiddo,” said Donovan, nodding a greeting to the kid with the shank. “He’s gonna cut your hair, not your throat. This here’s Oli, he’s the best slicer in the prison. Hey Oli, you take care of my man Alex here?”
“Sure thing, D,” the barber replied, tilting his head at me. He didn’t know me, didn’t trust me, but in Furnace Donovan’s word was solid. “You wanna trim or a shave?”
“Yeah right,” Donovan said, grinning. “Like there’s a difference.”
I watched Oli work, using the blade to hack and saw at the kid’s hair. It wasn’t the neatest cut in the world: there were haphazard tufts of all different lengths, and in some places the shank had shaved the head right down to the scalp. I saw a thin trail of blood winding its way down past the boy’s ear from a careless nick. No wonder he was grimacing.
“He’ll just have the usual,” Donovan answered for me. “The Oli special.”
Oli gave the kid a tap on the shoulder to signal that he was done. The boy ran a hand across his head, and I wasn’t sure if his winces were from the pain of the grazes or the fact that what was left of his hair was an utter mess. He muttered a thank you which was weighted with sarcasm, then trudged from the cell.
“Oli here’s one of a few slicers—barbers—in the prison,” Donovan explained as I sat down on the bunk. I felt Oli grab a handful of my hair, pulling it roughly, then the pain as the shank began its work. Immediately my eyes began to water, the sensation like somebody dragging a razor over my skull—which, come to think of it, wasn’t far from the truth.
“Don’t the blacksuits know about this?” I asked, thinking of the silver-eyed guards who patrolled the cells with their shotguns. “I mean, we’re not supposed to have knives.”
“They know, but they pretend not to,” Donovan replied, staring out the cell door into the yard beyond as if he couldn’t bear to watch my hair being butchered. “Warden understands we gotta get our hair cut somehow, and he’s okay to let us do it ourselves, just so long as there’s no trouble. Guys like Oli, they’re happy to have something to do, and it keeps the gangs off their backs, ain’t that right?”
“True that,” Oli replied. “Don’t nobody mess with a slicer.”
White-hot pain exploded through my head, radiating from my left ear.
“Whoops, sorry about that,” said Oli. “That bit’s always awkward. Don’t worry, it’s still attached.”
I raised my hand to check but Oli knocked it away.
“Don’t put me off or next time you might lose it,” he said. There was laughter in his voice, but not much, and just in case he wasn’t kidding I sat as still as I could until he’d finished. I don’t know how long it took him—it felt like a month, only it must have been twenty minutes or so—but when he gave me a tap on the shoulder I felt like my head had been boiled in acid.
“Beautiful,” he said, brushing the hair off my shoulders. Donovan turned back into the cell, trying and failing to keep a straight face.
“So, how do I look?” I said.
“You look ” began Donovan. “It’s I mean ” He surrendered to the laughter, his words tumbling out in pieces. “Let’s just say it’s a good thing there aren’t no mirrors in this place.”
And there it was, my first Furnace haircut. And as I stepped out of the cell, my head pounding, the inmates jeering at my uneven buzz, I vowed it would be my last.
Because the horrors of Furnace—the mutant dogs, the guards who would shoot you as soon as look at you, the gangs who stabbed their friends in the back just for fun, the wheezers with their rusted gas masks sewn into their wrinkled faces, and the warden who may or may not have been the devil—they were all bad, really bad.
But if anything was going to force me to make a break for the surface, to get the hell out of here, it was the thought of having to go back to Oli and his blunted shank.
Alexander Gordon Smith goes by “Gordon”; his parents thoughtfully arranged the name they wanted so his initials wouldn’t spell “GAS.” Find out more about Gordon and his books at www.furnacebooks.com!