Pete Hamill Writing Challenge Winner
Prose – Adult
1st Place – Brian Trusiewicz from Waterbury
Embers in the Dark
We had this prisoner. That?s how it started. One prisoner, in a white cell at the end of the long black corridor beneath the Facility.
In the three months since being hired, I had walked the length of that corridor only once, when my supervisor was showing me the breadth of my domain. Back then, there were eight prisoners in the cellblock. Then, the Facility?s Interrogators would visit. Always the same two, with squarish faces, chalky skin, and ice-blue eyes that never blink. It takes both of them to carry the immense, bulky contraption they bring. They check in at my desk, which guards access to the cellblock. Then they disappear down the corridor. Later, they return to check out, and there?s one less prisoner in the cell.
A fine day! I remember thinking just before my problems started. I was tapping the keys of my desk computer, pleased that my job?s probationary period was over. Tomorrow I would be a card-carrying employee. To celebrate, I was looking forward to seeing a parlor movie later that night… when suddenly the Facility?s lights went out.
Darkness, so sudden I thought I had gone blind. The blue screen of my monitor still burned on the surface of my eyes. My fingers poised, invisibly, above my keyboard.
A second later and the red emergency lighting switched on. Somewhere in the Facility?s Hive, a fuse had blown. My desk phone droned; I lifted the receiver.
“Please do not panic,” came a soft, soothing voice like cool smoke in my ears. “Be still and wait for power to be restored.”
Why didn’t I comply with that simple directive? I don’t know. Filled with nervous energy, I was gripped by the need to walk. . . down the black corridor, now awash in a deep sanguine glow. Then my feet stopped in front of the lone cell, and I found myself gazing through the glass at the prisoner. She sat on the edge of her bed, her hands laced around her knees. The woman’s cell was bare, with several bunks (once occupied by the other prisoners) and a small bathroom cubicle. Her short dark hair framed an oval, appealing face. She glanced up at me.
“A blackout,” I told her. My voice carried through the air-holes that lined the perimeters of the glass. When she made no reaction, I added, “I just wanted to see if you were okay.”
“Thank you,” she replied at once. Her voice had the richstrength of an older woman, self-assured and polished. “It happens sometimes,” I continued. “Blackouts. A power surge overloads the circuits, the security shutters don’t react in time. Boom! We’re all in the dark.”
“I don’t mind,” she said softly. “Don’t you?”
She crossed her legs. “You do, I can see that.”
“No,” I retorted, offended by her observation. “I came by to seeif you were okay. Just common courtesy!”
“You don’t need to shout.”
“I’m not shouting!” I shouted. I couldn’t help it. The eerie reddish light was dreamlike. Oh, I’m aware it’s deviant to admit I dream sometimes. They sell pills, you know, to stop that sort of thing.
Composing myself, I asked, “Why don?t you mind?”
“The darkness? Because there was a time when there was no electricity. People coped with the night.”
I laughed. This was what I got for talking to a prisoner of the State! Lunatics, all of them. Malcontents who stockpiled books, who went down with their houses when the firemen showed up to torch it all!
“We?ve always had electricity!” I said, grimly amused by her delusion. “Just as there?s always been a State. And there always will be.”
“Electricity, or a State?” she taunted.
She closed her eyes, slowly, with a Zen-like concentration, and spoke her next astonishing words: “The bright sun was extinguished, and men lived by watchfires, and the habitations of all things were burnt for beacons.” Her eyes opened and fixated on me. “Darkness, a poem by Lord Byron. But they?re alien words to you. Literature?s all gone.”
“It is,” I said, defensively. “It served no one any use.”
“No use!” She gave me a cruel, hissing laugh. “Well that means your history is gone, too! In chucking Shakespeare, you threw out Socrates. Hemingway burned with Herodotus. Babylon?s glitter, the Greeks hauling their wooden horse to Trojan walls, the red banners of Rome, Mongolian hordes and Spaniards conquistadores, revolution and civil war and atomic bombs, rocketry, satellites, and the burning of the books…” She panted, fighting to regain her breath. “I suppose none of that is any use to anyone!”
“That?s what happens when you people get embroiled in your books,” I said thickly. “You start thinking all those fictional characters were real. Everyone knows the State was always here. Civil war? That would imply disaffection, and we don?t ?”
The world went black again. My heart ticked off the seconds, but in my mind I saw the lonely bonfires of Byron?s ragged survivors. Then the lights came back on. I heard the ringing of my desk phone, and dashed back down the corridor to answer it.
“Hello?” I gasped.
“Power has been restored,” the soothing voice told me. “And your shift, Mr. Brenton, is over.”
That evening, I couldn?t concentrate on the parlor movie.
I wanted to argue with her the next day.
I think I was feeling offended by the bizarre tongue-lashing she?d given me the day before. During the fifteen-minute ride by bullet-car to work, I practiced what I was going to say. Revolutions! Civil Wars! Ha!
“Good morning!” I began when I reached her cell.
“Have you ever kept a diary?”
She sat on the floor, facing me, and repeated her question.
“No,” I said.
“Then how will you pass on your history to the future generation? How will they know about your life and society?”
“Keeping a diary is illegal and a waste of time. Everyone works, settles down, watches parlor movies. They always have, and always will.”
She laughed icily. “You?re a child. Your society, all children, deprived of their past and taught that the future will be no different. How sad. Your ancestors might have charted unknown oceans, opposed tyrants, or wrote great books! But when you burn the books, you burn history, and you remain a child forever! Not me! I?ve read and memorized the words of my ancestors. I am history. You, you?re…” she didn?t finish.
I was silent for a long while. Why was I putting myself through this? I should be at my desk, processing the Facility?s files! At last I found my voice. “So then… was Byron describing a moment of history, too?”
“No,” she said with a light smile. “His poem was fictional, but prophetic.”
She stared intently at me. “He was imagining a future clad in darkness, where there is no illumination at all.”
She didn?t need to say anything more. I read her meaning.
And that?s how it started; for the next three weeks I was her captive. I punched into work, but spent most of my shift with her.
“Why are they holding you?” I asked her one day.
“Your Interrogators believe I know the location of underground libraries. They try to get me to reveal their location.”
Before I knew what I was saying, I asked, “And where is its location?”
Her gentle smile dissolved into creases of suspicion. “Why? So you can tell your superiors, and earn a promotion?”
Worried that I had ruined our relationship, I said, “Don?t tell me. Just… tell me what it?s like. I?ve never seen a library.”
Her frown faded, though I could sense she was more wary of me now. “A library is a great house with many levels, crammed with aisles of books. The old volumes are yellow with age, but somehow that makes them more precious, I think. I like to hold a book up to my nose and breathe their mildewy perfume. That?s the best way to study history… with a book that smells like the dust and petals of ancient cities.”
“Do you visit these libraries?”
“Not me,” she said flatly. “Maybe someday… if the darkness lifts. Then we?ll break open the locks, swing wide the library doors again!”
A soft humming sounded distantly.
I excused myself and returned to my desk. I lifted the phone. “Hello?”
“Mr. Brenton, the Interrogators are coming.”
My blood seemed to turn to ice, my heart thundering within that cold slush. I let the receiver fall back into its cradle. From somewhere above, an elevator droned.
I ran back to see her. “They?re going to kill you.”
I blinked. “You know?”
“I didn?t think I was being kept here for your amusement.”
“But… we have to get you out of here!”
She laughed. Actually laughed, while my body was shivering with terror and my mouth was running dry. “You?re sweet. But where would I go? They have Hounds to stalk me. Fire engines will sound in the night. Executioners will come. You can?t save me.”
I heard the elevator doors hiss open.
“But I have to do something!”
She placed her hands on the glass. Shaking violently, I mirrored this action.
“There?s a graveyard in the city,” she said quickly. “And a mausoleum with an old name.”
“What?” I cried.
Her lips smiled tenderly, but she didn?t explain.
“I?m not leaving you here!” I declared, my heart racing. It was a startling sensation. I realized I was willing to plant my feet like ancient tree roots and battle with those chilling, square-faced men.
“You know,” she said, “I don?t even know your name.”
“Marcus,” I whispered.
“Well, Marcus? If you oppose them, they?ll Interrogate you. Then my last hope will die. The mausoleum, Marcus. Now go!”
I could feel the Interrogators? arctic eyes on me while I dug out the sign-in book from the desk?s top drawer. They scribbled their ID numbers. Then they disappeared down the corridor.
Later, they returned to check out, and there was one less prisoner in the cell.
There was also one less employee at the Facility.
In the few weeks I had known her, the one question I had never asked was her name. I sobbed that night, replaying my thoughtlessness.
The next night, I went to the city?s graveyard.
Scrambling over its rusted fence, I landed on withered grass and stalked among the headstones. The half-moon winked at me while I approached the mausoleum, a dark grey house of cold granite. The heavy featureless door was ajar. The silver moonlight glinted on a name carved in the stone:
No, not the Byron. I chuckled, nonetheless, at my deceased friend?s in-joke. I slipped inside like a mouse through a crack.
From a pale lantern on the damp floor, I saw a slender man. Middle-aged, hair greying at his temples. A stoic face, with tranquil grey eyes that regarded me skeptically.
“I?m Marcus,” I told him. “And I don?t really know why I?m here.”
He regarded me for a long while, studying my eyes. “Did Vivian tell you about this place?”
I brightened, hearing the name. She had been a Vivian!
“Yes,” I said happily. “She did.”
His suspicion faltered. “So then… what book do you want to be?”
I grinned. I laughed. I understood.
“A history book,” I said at once. “Make me a history book.”
He sat down and folded his legs under him. He drew in a deep breath, as if inhaling all the atoms of the air that had circulated throughout ages lost. He cleared his throat, and began.
I listened, and have been listening for weeks now when I come here. I?m memorizing the old tales chapter by chapter, learning the forbidden chronologies. Ironically, while I become the new caretaker of history I don?t dream much of the past.
My nighttime thoughts are always of the future, when the library doors will open and drive away this darkness forever.