I just finished chapter 3 of the book I’m writing, and here’s a brief excerpt. Enjoy!
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“Sure, trust the crazy person,” I said. “You can’t make things much worse, after all.”
That must have stung, for he stood facing the library’s exit doors, but made no motion to go. “Can I tell you a story?”
“Only if it’s a true one.”
He didn’t answer, but began, “Once there was a man who lived in a prison. He didn’t know how he’d gotten there. Maybe he’d been born there, maybe he’d gotten amnesia from a blow to the head, or maybe he had been drugged and made to forget. Either way, the prison was all he knew. The prison, and the certainty that there was another place, a whole other realm he was not allowed to even see.
“The prison was not like any you or I know. It was immense—miles wide and miles long, and several stories in height. The prison might have towered into the sky, or been buried underground…the man could not say. There were no windows. Nor were there bars, gates, locks, wardens, or any other prisoners. Only miles and miles of walls—perfectly white, perfectly clean.
“The prison had many rooms. Some of them were living compartments, with beds and rudimentary bathrooms. Some of them were used for food storage, and there were enough supplies to feed the man for several lifetimes. And many of them were empty, awaiting a purpose or designation.”
“What exactly qualifies this as a prison?” I asked. “I’ve heard of countries that are smaller.”
“A country can be a prison if you’re not allowed to leave it. It was an existence bound by walls, and void of human contact. The prisoner went insane, as anyone would, but madness can serve as a buffer against reality for only so long, and thus his sanity returned, a reluctant prodigal.
“The man began to explore the prison. To thoroughly search even one of the levels took months, and he was very, very thorough. One day, at last, his thoroughness paid off. In one of the empty compartments, he found a way through to a new passageway, one which had no parallel on any of the other levels. This corridor ran the entire length of the prison, and there were similar entry points in several of the empty compartments. The wall across from these was blank, except at its middle point. At the center, there was a long hallway with a large, round, black metal door at the end, and the man knew instantly that this was the prison’s one and only exit.
“But he wasn’t out yet. The door was locked, held in place with thick steel bolts. The locks were coded to a numerical password entered on a keypad, one arbitrary number out of millions of combinations. He spent months at the door, sometimes trying to hammer his way through the walls or pry loose the bolts, but mostly just entering numbers into the keypad, one after the other, day in and day out.
“And one day, more than a year later, as he entered passwords on keys whose painted numbers had long since eroded, he heard a click, deep in the mechanism of the door. Silence followed, and he thought he might have imagined it, but then he heard the whooshing sound of air rushing to fill a vacuum seal.
“Next he heard metal grating, and the steel bolts receded, one by one, into the round, black door. There was a moment when the door seemed to be gathering its breath—and then it swung open on massive hinges.
“Frozen with awe, the man waited until the door had come to a standstill before stepping onto the threshold. He was blinded for a moment by the abrupt sunlight, but when his eyes adjusted and he saw at last the world he had been kept from for so long…he was filled with a profound and utter horror.
“You see, the building was a prison. There was no doubt about that. But what the man had never realized… the possibility he had never entertained…was that maybe, just maybe, he was already on the outside.”
I stood transfixed for a full thirty seconds before I realized he was no longer talking. “What—” I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry. “What did he see?”
Steven shrugged. “That’s how the story ends,” he said. “Perhaps some things are better left to the imagination.”
“Uh-huh.” I understand the power of the unknown, but it didn’t make me feel any less cheated. “So what’s it supposed to mean, or is it just more cryptic nonsense?”
“You’re the English major…you tell me.”
“It’s about expectations, I suppose. It means…” He picked a book off the floor. “…that sometimes the seeming madman is sanest of all…” The book was propped open, its covers resting on his thumb and fingers, the pages falling to either side of the spine. “…that sometimes the hungriest wolf has the friendliest smile…” He raised the book until it was at my eye-level. “…and sometimes, you can’t tell when you’re outside a prison—” His fingers snapped the book closed with a sharp FOMP that made me blink. “—and when you’re not.”
He made his way toward the door once more. “You promise you’ll come back?” I asked.
“Absolutely. I can’t tell you when…but I will be back.” I don’t know why, but I wanted to trust him. “One more thing,” he said. “What’s your favorite book?”
“What is your favorite book?”
A favorite book? As a kid, I’d had favorite books, books that I would read over and over, never getting bored, but now… “I don’t really have one,” I admitted.
“Too few you like or too many to choose from?”
“That’s good.” He nodded thoughtfully. “That’s very good. That should help a lot.”
I wanted to ask him what that was supposed to mean. I wanted to ask him so many things: What was he doing buried in books and quoting James Joyce? Why did he have to leave in such a hurry? Who was he? But I found that there was only one question I couldn’t bear to leave unanswered.
“That story you told, about the man in the prison…you made it up, right? It isn’t true.”
“Of course I made it up,” said Steven. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” He stood in the doorway, half-silhouetted by the afternoon sun. “All stories are true,” he said, with only the faintest trace of a smile. “It’s the only reason they’re worth telling.”