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The Words on the Walls

Brynn MacNab has been reading speculative fiction since before she knew there was any other kind, and writing it for almost as long. You can find links to more of her published work at brynnmacnab.blogspot.com

The prisoner had literally written in circles--well, thought Myra, literally in squares--pacing around and around to fill the stark white walls of the room. The place was barely the size of a good shoe closet, with no windows and no bed. A camera, disconnected now, perched in one corner. The drop ceiling hung low, close, and the two doors--reinforced outer, inner with its dog flap for food and waste--finished the oppressive atmosphere. The man's looping handwriting looked tiny, cramped as he must have been.
"How are you supposed to lie down in here?" Myra said.
The trustee shifted on her understated heels. Instead of answering she said, "Repaint it before you move in. It might help with the smell."
"I think the writing is a good conversation piece. Have you read it?"
"No. I don't get much time for fiction."
Myra quirked an eyebrow. "Isn't it some kind of journal? The story of what happened in here?"
The trustee shook her head. "The papers called it 'fanciful.' Would you like to see the rest of the house?"
Nice of your cousins to let you live in it, she had said back at her office. Probably wouldn't sell for much anyway. Myra had clenched her teeth and ignored the condescension. It would be worth it to have a place to herself.
His bare feet made little shushing sounds on the sleek dark floorboards as he moved. His throat was dry, his tongue thick and thirsty. The bucket he'd been forced to use as a toilet sat open, stinking in the corner, and he felt as if the stench permeated through the walls and through his own body until they were all together a unified landscape of sewage-reek. His head pounded dully. At first he had let it stop him. He had waited to be released, returned to good health and his laptop and his favorite chair. But silence and stillness could drive a man mad, and he wasn't that stubborn. When the boredom had reached a crescendo higher than all his discomforts, he had taken the pen from his pocket and begun.
His captor's motivation remained obscure. He frowned, tapping the back of his pen against his last written line. He didn't have enough money to warrant a bid for ransom. As far as he knew he'd made no particularly bitter enemies--a few rivals, perhaps, and more than a few critics dearly hated his books, but they took revenge in more conventional ways. Pens being sharper than swords and all. Mightier than chloroform.
A psycho, then. But didn't those bastards normally go after women or kids?
He thought of Lillian, at home. Frantic, or by now maybe past that. How many days had he been gone? His pen stilled. He read the line again. He'd gotten his protagonist stranded with a cliff dropping off just behind his heels and a horde before him. Maybe the man would be rescued by birds? An airplane? A cliff-scaling friend? Should have written in the cliff-scaling friend earlier.
An hour later, when the outer door slid open--presumably to deliver another uncooked TV dinner--he snapped, "Not now. Can't you see I'm busy?"
There was a short silence, and he scribbled on while feeling his captor's presence like an itching weight across his shoulders. Then the door closed again, and the deadbolt slid into place.
In a few more moments he stopped and stared at what he'd put down. Another twist? He eyed the space remaining on the walls.
You couldn't hear anything from the little room upstairs. Uncle Cyrus had made sure of that--and had described the soundproofing process in self-satisfied detail during his trial.
Myra leaned against the kitchen sink, tipping her face up to the morning sunlight. The little creaks she heard could not be footsteps, even remembered ones. The distant scrape of ballpoint on drywall could only be imagined.
She turned back to her task, plunging her hands again into the warm, soapy water. Her tumblers stood in ranks across the counter, freshly unpacked. Everything would be clean, she thought, everything would be new and bright. A house of her own, and damn its memories. Perhaps she should have that closet repainted after all.
He felt light. Light-headed, light-bodied. Feverish. Perhaps he should have eaten when it was last offered, he thought, as his stomach cramped fiercely. But that had been just at the revelation of the traitor, and he hadn't had the attention to spare for his body's wants.
Now he stretched and went to piss into the bucket, in an anemic saffron stream. He ought to have more water. A chill ran over the flesh on his arms, and bile rose in his throat and subsided. But they felt a little distant, these physical ailments, and mostly he felt light and clear, and he knew what the love interest had to say next.
His handwriting had never been neat, but on the white expanses of the walls it looked small and flowing. The most beautiful story he'd done. Until you read it, he told himself, a lesson learned from experience. Until you send it to Richard and get looped up in edits. So he didn't read it, not just yet.
Uncle Cyrus had been downright placid. When they asked him why he did it he said, "I wanted to see what kind of man he was."
Of course everyone knew he had been school friends with the victim's wife, Lillian. She said in court they had dated a few times, although Cyrus denied it. Not that it explained his actions, and he didn't either. When the cancer completed its conquest in prison, just weeks after the trial concluded, it took his life, his reasons, and the location of his victim's body.
Myra closed both doors to the prison and locked them before she went to bed. She didn't want the room gaping, shadowed and sad, while she slept.
But she was up again in an hour, pacing the hall between the little prison and the master bedroom. Finally she flipped the switch to the room's overhead lights, unlocked it, and strode in. She stood with her hands on her hips, not daring to speak to the dead but thinking furiously, I'm not Cyrus, so you might as well let me sleep.
She got no answer, but her eyes were drawn to a corner by the top of the doorframe, and she started to read.
His hand looked odd. In the corner of his vision it seemed thin and almost translucent. But he couldn't spare the time for it, not just now. There was a second traitor, looked like. The protagonist's love interest was mixed up in it somehow, and he dearly hoped her name would be cleared, but it looked like this might be a tragedy after all....
Before long he didn't notice his hands at all, or the cramps come to that, or the headache or even the stench. There was just the story, and the dark words flowing across the shrinking pale expanse.
When she finished reading, Myra sat on the dark wooden floor. The fluorescent light above buzzed thinly, the dead camera's eye stared past her, and beyond the doors the world lay dark and peaceful. She stood up, rolled her shoulders, and folded her arms over her stomach. How awful to run out of room mid-sentence like that. She wondered if he'd cursed then, beaten his fists or his head on the floor.
She wondered if her Uncle Cyrus had gloated, watching perched at the screen with the feed from the camera, or if he'd felt any pity or any comradeship with this man whose life he'd chosen to truncate so shortly before his own was cut off.
She started to read again, from the beginning.
He was nearly to the end of the wall, and he felt a little panic coming into his fever. No way he could resolve this all so soon, and the floor was so dark his words would not show against it.
But as he reached the last corner, another bit of wall opened. Another little stretch of white and he wrote on past the joint of the walls and the love interest redeemed her error but now she was in mortal danger. And a little more wall opened to him, and a little more.
For seven nights she came into the room and read the story. The lingering scent of sweat and human waste crept over her skin and through her hair. Her eyes got lost in the words, her mind wandered through the twisting, looping plot and danced with the characters during the days. If only she knew how it turned out. She made up an ending every lunchtime, shaking her head in frustration at their inadequacy.
For seven nights she came back to the little room with its wide story, and then at last she saw the wall expand as she came to what she'd thought was the end. And she followed the words through the corner of the walls.
The trustee shifted, one short heel tapping demurely against the floor. "You'll paint the room, of course."
Bradford squinted at the words on the walls. "Have you read it?"
"No. I don't have much time for fiction."
"It's a great conversation piece. Creepy as hell, but fortunately for me, I'm not superstitious. And a ghost story is a selling point, to the right buyer. We'll leave it here. I'll bring in some candles for the smell, though. Maybe one of those air fresheners you plug into the wall."
He led the way out of the room. "Thanks for your help with the old guy's estate. I guess you didn't expect to be back through here so soon, but you can't blame Myra for skipping town, considering the family disgrace. I was surprised she ever gave living here a shot."
The trustee turned off the overhead lights as they left, plunging the room into windowless darkness. Their footsteps retreated downstairs, and there were a few minutes of silence. Then the sound of the pen, scratching softly across the wall, began again.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 6th, 2015
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