The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword

a/n: this was written from /u/nateyp123’s post on /r/WritingPrompts. You can see the post here (alongside a bunch of other responses to the prompt). If you want to see a continuation, please leave me a comment! I have a partially written “second half”, but I’m not sure what direction it should go in.

Dingy white walls, painted concrete everything. Four cameras, each mounted against the ceiling-side corners of the room. A cot, with scratchy sheets stained from too many years of use and too many bodies. A pillow, and nothing else. Absolutely nothing else.

It’s a meager, depressing existence. Solid foods–no ketchup, no salt, nothing that I could possibly write with. No pens or paper, of course, but that’s expected. They let me get books, at least, but certainly nothing I could type with. I told them that my power doesn’t work that way, but they don’t believe me. It would be nice to read the local news once in awhile, see what was going on in the outside world, even if I could never be there myself again.

It’s at ten o’clock sharp every Tuesday and Friday that Dr. Hatter walks into my cell. It’s one of my rare moments, seeing the outside world, even if that world is limited to a hallway, just as boring and dingy as my cell, lined with armed guards. He is young, a replacement for the retiring Dr. Blue. I like him enough to speak to him and to tell him stories, but never to tell the truth.

“So, Mister Kelley, how are you doing today?” he asks.

I resort to theatrics: “Awful, Doctor–absolutely awful. My head is full of something and it feels as if my fingers are about to explode and everything is awful.”

“Brandon, you know I can’t–” He says, amused smirk on his face. It took Blue about a month before my acting no longer made him laugh. Hatter has lasted two months, still going strong. I suspect that he’s developed some feelings of affection toward me.

I suck up my pride and let myself go; everything for the plan. I dramatically fling myself across the room, into his arms. He drops his clipboard and–even better–his pen on the ground, trying to catch me. I don’t doubt that he can support my weight. He’s taller than me and the guards don’t keep him on a minimal diet to prevent obesity, as they say, or any real muscle tone, as they intend.

“Brandon–” he says again, and I can feel my blush feeding into his own. He’s so focused on me that he doesn’t notice when I kick the pen under the bed. I smile a little, which he interprets as our physical closeness, not the closeness I feel to freedom. “Don’t be so dramatic, now,” he says.

“Why not? It’s been three years. I’m twenty-one. I haven’t had a life. All because of a fucking curse. I’d give anything–anything–to be back out there. To get to go to college and maybe meet someone,” I make sure to look at him, hard, maybe even dart my gaze down a couple of inches, “to live life.” I can see him falling hard so just a second, and then he gathers himself up together, flustered. Good young professional, keeping that code of ethics. Keeping to my plan.

“If you want to get a college degree, I can see what I can do for you. I doubt you can be in direct contact with teachers, but we may be able to get a college to grant a degree. Of course, you’d have to do all of your exams orally, but–”

“Oh god, yes. I asked Blue once, two years ago, and he said there was no way in hell. But maybe if I can make a call to professors or listen to an audio recording of a lecture, and the textbooks, of course. Maybe that would work.” I would normally be excited about this, but with freedom so near, it’s hard to be excited about such a small step. I’m faking it well enough, though, that Hatter is getting excited, too.

“Would this help, y’know.” He waves his hand vaguely at me.

“The theatrics?” I ask. He nods, and I think for a moment. “Probably. Sometimes it feels like the walls are closing in on me and it’s impossible to imagine life beyond the next second. So boring, boring, boring–just makes you want to scream. Being able to think about something else, that would help, I think.”

“Don’t you have books?” he asks, glancing at the stack in the corner. I amp up my enthusiasm a hundredfold. I have to keep him focused on me, thrown off from our normal routine. He so much bigger than me, I can’t overtake him. He could snatch the pen out of my hand in a second and then I’d be left with even less than I started with. If I keep him distracted, that means I have a chance.

“Yeah, but a class is just different. You have to keep moving. You have some kind of motivation, even if it’s completely artificial, superficial. Instead of just having a book, and knowing you can read the book, but also knowing that if you read the book, there won’t be a point. Like, what good is learning Newtonian physics or psychology if you’re never gonna be able to help anyone? It just makes me want to kill myself.” I had to be proud of the last line, a spectacular monologue I’d been working on since I knew Blue was retiring. Everything that would keep him hyperfocused on me, everything that would keep him concerned and off-balance.

“You want to kill yourself?” he asks, voice low. The books in the corner and the pen under the bed don’t have his attention, now; I am the center of his tiny, tiny universe.

I let myself relax a little, like I’m slumping into the bed. “Yes. Sometimes.”

He’s gentle now, trying to pull answers out of me like an old Russian woman carving gorgeous eggshells. Too bad he was a young man of dubious ethnic origins, and I was a superhuman mess. I comply, weaving the most convincing tale I’ve ever told.

He asks again: “Do you have a plan?”

I stare at the floor by his feet, putting my head in my hands. “Not really. Three fucking years and I haven’t figured out how to use anything in this room to doing anything. At best I might be able to bolt, but that’s not guaranteed. It’s not as if it’s gonna get any better. If I fail.” I look up again. He’s captivated. He believes every word that I’ve said.

“Are you willing to try medication? I understand that this is rather abrupt, but if you think it might help you feel–better?” He hesitates before he says the last word, like he’s afraid of offending me. Hah.

“Maybe. I don’t want to become a zombie. I don’t know,” I waffle. Keep him on his toes, keep him focused on me, not the floor where the pen feels like a laser beacon, shouting to the world Hey! I’m a weapon of mass destruction, and I’m just sitting under this fucker’s bed, waiting to get used in the weirdest jailbreak in the history of god-knows-when!

“I promise I can find you something that won’t make you feel like a zombie. If you’re willing, I can get you something with breakfast tomorrow. Try it out for a few weeks, maybe a few months–”

A glance to his watch proves that he’s nearly fifteen minutes overtime, and it’s time to start winding this show down. Ever so carefully. “Alright. If you think it’ll work?”

“Of course. I’m sure we can find something that will work for you.”

“Ok, alright then,” I say as submissively as possible.

He glances at his watch, face going pale. “Oh shit, I’m late!” he mumbles to himself, and I try not to hide my excitement. He looks at me like he’s incredibly sorry. “I have to go now. I’ll check back in with you next time, alright? Try to keep track of how you feel.” He gets up to leave, doesn’t even bother checking for his pen. I can barely hide my smile, but he doesn’t mention it. He probably thinks that I feel better already.

“See you, Hatter.” He leaves, and I watch him walk down the hallway lined with guards. I close my eyes for a second, review what I’m going to do, how quick my motions will have to be. I’ll have about three seconds, the time the door lock takes to disengage with an ID swipe or an emergency button. I can get the first sentence or so out in that time, but everything else will be a test of memory and speed. I take one long exhale, and dive for the pen. As soon as I have it in hand, I can hear alarms going off, louder than seems possible, ringing through my skull. It doesn’t stop me.

The door to the cell doesn’t open. It’s won’t crack under the weight of the bodies trying to get in. I stare at the scrawled words on the wall. The door’s lock doesn’t disengage. I breathe a sigh of relief. A notebook, college-ruled, with good paper, appears on the bed beside me. Beside it, a pen. I look beside me, to a spiral-bound notebook bound in matte black paper and a gorgeous fountain pen. I open up the book to find heavy, cream-colored paper. I don’t have time to admire either–I need to work.

The door is bullet-proof, and the roof is safe from any kinds of weapons. This doesn’t matter, though, because every one–the guards, the officers, the prisoners, everyone who knows about me and is going to try and stop me–falls into a deep sleep. They will wake up later, in twelve hours, not remembering that I’ve escaped, unable to view any video footage of me, and completely unaware of where I may go. When I put my right hand on the door, it will dissolve and I will walk right through. Every other door that I need to exit through will be unlocked.

I stare at the page. The words I had been dreaming about writing for years. Beautiful pen, beautiful words, beautiful freedom. I take a look around the room, and my entire life for three years. I won’t miss it. I write a few more words:

I am wearing a suit, perfectly fitted. Might as well get out of these disgusting prison jumpsuits. Back to something that makes me feel like a person.

I put the pen in my pocket, close the notebook. I had never realized how good ink smelled. How much I missed it. Stand up, inhale, exhale.

The door dissolves at the touch of my fingers. I guess Hatter was wrong; I was still going to be a little bit theatrical. Just a little, though. I has been trapped for three years. I deserved to have a little fun.

The walk down the hallway involves plenty of circumventing bodies. As much as I may have hated my captors, I knew it wasn’t their fault I was locked up. There were some bigwigs in offices somewhere that were to blame, and I wouldn’t hesitate to bring the full force of my wrath on them. Three years of my life gone, all because they didn’t want to let me help them.

The evacuation map shows where the stairs are, and I push the huge fire door open. Crumpled in front of me is Hatter. I let the curiosity get the better of me, stooping in front of him, reaching a hand into each pocket. All I find is a wallet and a phone. I turn it on, find that it’s locked. I don’t bother unlocking it. I flip open his wallet, then, and only find that his first name is Albert.

I open my notebook, uncap my pen again, jot him a quick note: Thank you for what you did, whether you know it or not. From, you know who. No declarative statements that will affect my plan, at worst he’ll know that he helped me escape. I fold the sheet and place it in his wallet, replacing each item on the right side.

The stairs have fewer bodies, and I leave the compound without issue. I could explore more, but I would prefer to get to a quiet place, map out a better future for myself, than learn about the soulless psychopaths who wanted to lock me up for the rest of my life. With that, I begin my journey on the sidewalk. Al had been happy enough to tell me about the outside: two miles away from the penitentiary and I would start to see more traffic, more trees. Five miles and I would end up in a forest, with plenty of space to write my next chapter.

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Squid in the Deep Blue Ocean

Pitch black. Perfectly black. Darkness that nothing can penetrate. Sinking lower down, feeling the pressure increase, going from swimming pool to hug to football tackle.

Don’t ever turn on a light. Don’t ever try to see what may lay beyond your own skin.

Against his better judgment, he turns on the light anyway. His flashlight sweeps an arc, not nearly wide enough or bright enough. With it comes all the crashing fears about what lives here; before it was comforting darkness where as long as he could see nothing, nothing could see him. Now, the blackness stretches above and behind and all around him, still unceasing, but enveloping him in a bubble. Vulnerability.

Moving his arm takes more effort. Not just the stiff suit, but the water, and the knowledge that this is an unknown world. The very thing he walked over, the very thing he sat above and looked down upon in boats and airplanes was what now surrounded him, capable of snuffing out his life at any moment. The suit could fail, or he could have a medical emergency, or some marine creature could attack.

The surfacers might not even known what it was, whatever attacked him. The grainy film could only be so accurate, so discernible. Speed could blur any images beyond recognition. Even if it didn’t, the creature could very well be a newly discovered species.

Now what would that be like? he wondered. The first human killed by an animal. Not really a new animal–that wasn’t a good way of putting it–but a newly discovered one. An animal that would never have seen anything like a human before, because it was adapted to the opposite of everything humans were supposed to live in.

Originally, contact had been made by a shaking guard shoving an envelope at him through the grates. A letter soaked through with body sweat and crumpled in shaking fists and against the curves of some stranger’s body. Funny how the things we store everything about ourselves on are so unlike us. It was on some official letterhead, with a signature, a real signature. It hadn’t really said much. Just that somebody like him might be a real good fit for the program, some kind of ocean research. Just in fancier words. He figured that was a nice way of asking him to clean out the shitter on some kind of research vessel. Saddest thing was, he would have taken that over any comfort the prison could have provided. Being back on the ocean–that was something to die for.

Funny how floating on top was a spiritual experience.

It felt like it was getting colder, but he’s not sure what might be causing it. He refuses to believe that there’s a problem with the suit. They promised him. The suit wouldn’t fail. He could survive as long as his body and the things living there would let him.

It was a week or two–time in the concrete and beige was so hard to tell–later that the man in the suit arrived. The guy across from him was hooting and hollering and causing a scene, the second the rich man came into sight. Probably a good thing, since he had been passed out awkwardly on the cot. After all, he didn’t know anybody would be coming, and there wasn’t a whole lot else to do. He still scowled at Brian. Putting on a show. That’s what his advisor called it.

That was before the walls had closed in over him: still bright-eyed and hopeful, in the thick of academia. Studying under the top in his field. Halfway done with his thesis. Living in a shitty apartment with an even shittier roommate, not making quite enough money, but still overjoyed with the prospects of what could be, what was to come. That potential–that was what kept people in schools. The proof that they could do anything, until they finally get out, and there’s only one thing they could do. Everything was decisions, and then nothing was.

Still sinking slowly down, ever so slowly. They had warned him: nothing they put on the suit could be guaranteed to get him all the way down. He could try to swim, too; get down lower that way. Or he could just sit there, suspended in the water, wondering and watching and waiting.

It was definitely colder. Maybe they didn’t correctly calculate the amount of insulation he’d need.

And there: he was still moving. Shining the light towards the ground proved that there was, in fact, ground. Something to put his feet on. Something to help him feel human again. Maybe that explained why kings got so power-hungry. Their feet didn’t touch the ground, feel the weight of their flesh and joints enough.

It was four days before his twenty-eighth birthday that he was woken up to crazed scrambling and was pulled out of his bed before he could begin to think. Explanations from then on out remained hazy and vague. He doesn’t remember agreeing, much less admitting, to anything, and yet here he was. In prison.

A flash of iridescent color. Panic sets in. Dying sounded okay in the brochure, when it was still a distant future. Not right now. Not for a little while longer. He doesn’t dare to flip the light back on, even though it’s the first thing he does. In the distance, he sees a giant squid, eyes as big as dinner plates, receding into the distance. Come to investigate, maybe, or just going where ever it is that squid go.

Slowly, breathtakingly slowly, he flexed his toes, waiting to make contact with the ground. Waiting to–

The tips of the suit, metal where his toes would otherwise be, brushes the sand ever so lightly and the ground erupts–a gaping hole swallowing the sand for nearly twenty feet around, gulping upwards to swallow him completely and there’s nothing he can do, even though this is his worst nightmare. The flashlight flips off and the hard-compressed flesh begins pressing against his suit. Nothing they said, nothing they could have said, could have prepared him for this moment.

The pressure gets a little lighter. The inside of the thing, maybe gets a little lighter, a different shade of pitch black. Sounds other than his pounding heart return.

A new life. Eyes blinking open. Nothing understood–everything to be understood.

NaNoWinner 2016

Winner 2016 - Web Banner

Well, you heard it here first, folks (or probably on my Twitter, but whatever).

NaNoWriMo finished up yesterday, and I’m very proud to say that I won! With 50,008 words at 11:40 the night of, sure, but I still made it, even if by the skin of my teeth.

While I won’t pretend that this novella is actually finished (or anything remotely close), I’m particularly glad because I’m a chronic procrastinator with a tendency to never finish anything, especially writing projects.

So, I’ll be heading back to posting once a week (at least, until next NaNoWriMo), and hope to see some new user icons participating next year!