Structure & Strangeness


(a morbid little short story)

I am trapped. I live inside this room, staring at the walls for entertainment. The flesh coloured walls are drab, unadorned. They are barely illuminated by the small lamp I have, and my shadows cast gruesome images on them. I cannot move. I only take what is given to me through a small hole in the wall. Sometimes they give me a book to read or a picture to look at, but mostly it's just the same old gruel they call 'food' around here. It tastes the same everyday. It looks the same every day. It smells the same every day. And every day I eat it, because without it, I would die. My body cannot survive without the gruel, yet I know that it is killing me slowly. I can feel my energy, my will to live, draining away ever-so-slowly each day. But it's not all bad. When I get a book I consume it voraciously, staring at each word for stimulation, trying to wring its meaning from the page. I try to post the pictures I get on the walls, but while I'm sleeping (I guess that makes it night), some of them disappear. I think they come in and take them down, just to keep me from making this dismal hole too pleasant. Sometimes I hear music too, and I know that there must be something pleasant going on outside. Something special that only special people are allowed to participate in. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does, I imagine myself frolicking with the friends I once knew. Playing chase in the field or climbing trees or eating sandwiches, all while the music plays in the background. Sometimes, when the music is especially wondrous, I imagine myself flying or something else silly. I don't really think I can fly, but sometimes it's fun to think about what it would be like.

But then I remember where I am. And I look around at the walls, and down at the bowl of slop in front of me. I try to go back to that brief moment of happiness, when I wasn't trapped in this room, but it's no use. Reality forcefully drags me back, telling me that I'm a fool to be so idealistic and childish. Damn Reality, and his biting truths.

It hasn't always been this bad though. At first it was easy; the gruel wasn't that bad and the distractions were frequent. I'd get a book or a picture or hear music, sometimes twice between meals. I didn't realize how great things were then, or how bad they'd get. The food steadily got worse, and more monotonous. It was like the chefs stopped being creative and just stuck to the easiest thing they could do: sickly green slop. So much for onions and peppers and things that taste like something other than cardboard. But even cardboard is better than the stuff they give me now. Maybe the chefs didn't lose their creativity, but were struck with a vindictive streak. Sure seems like this stuff is a masterpiece of disgustingness. But I eat it anyhow, because I have to eat.

This stuff makes me sick. Sometimes I can't stomach it, and it comes back up. I can't believe they actually expect me to eat this stuff. Even the books I've been getting have been worse lately. They're all about flat characters in static situations with sex thrown in just to give it a little character. Take the last book I read.

I knew what was going to happen before I'd gotten through twenty pages. Joe sleeps with Valerie, who's actually engaged to Frank. But Frank's a lawyer tangled up in some underhanded corruption with Joe's father. Just a big nasty circle of messiness. By the end of the book, half the characters are dead (killed violently, of course), several large buildings have been destroyed (blown up, demolished) and the hero barely manages to get away from the villains, but ends up with the woman he's been chasing the whole book anyway. I hope it's just me who's been reading this crap, because I can't imagine anyone who writes like that getting much published. Then I stare at my food and remember that the chefs are getting paid to cook my meals.

How long have I been here? I wish I knew. Time long ago lost its meaning to me. I used to try to keep track of the days, by counting meals. But it's been so long that even that doesn't work anymore. Now I sleep when I need to, which is most of the time, and eat when I can force myself to stomach the crap they give me. I wonder if its been months or years or decades. Seems like my own little eternity, just being here, in this room. The monotony overwhelms my already numb mind.

Sometimes I fantasize about being let free. Being let back out into the real world where people are enjoying themselves, and the enjoyable things about life. I'd give almost anything to see a tree again. You'd be amazed at how much a difference just seeing something green would make after all this time, staring at the flesh coloured walls. It's like my eyes have forgotten what it's like to see anything other than the walls. Even the pictures, what few they've left me, look flesh coloured.

My lamp flickers. Is the power going out? Are they going to leave me in the dark again? I may have been here for perhaps years, but that doesn't make darkness any better. At least with the light I can look down and see myself. At least with the light I know I'm still there. But the darkness also brings a little comfort. My eyes don't have to look at those walls anymore, and the slop isn't green. I can't see how thin I've gotten, how my bones show through my skin. At least there's not a mirror in here. That would be the worst torture, to see myself; my face. The most terrible experience is to see yourself age. To see your bones poke through your once wholesome flesh. To see your cheeks and eyes sink inward. To see the face of death slowly taking over your own face until you know that the end must be near. Thank goodness that I don't have a mirror.

It's dark now. The lamp went out, and darkness once again embraces me. I hold up my hand in front of me, vaguely seeing the outline of it, but not really seeing anything. No matter. I can still see how the veins and tendons look without the light. I put my hand down and feel a luke-warm wetness on the fingers.

I forgot that the slop was down there, and now my hand is going to smell. I wipe the stuff off on the floor and carefully feel where the bowl is. I move it aside, away from me. I hear the sound of the bowl touching the ground, and the sound pierces the silence of the room. And it gets louder. And louder. And a little louder. The brush becomes a whisper, and the whisper a muttering. The muttering grows into a rumble and the rumble changes to a loudness. The floor begins to shake, slightly at first, but definitely there. I can feel bowl jostle under my hand, shaking in response to the floor. The loudness becomes a roar, and the bowl leaps into the air, out of my grasp, splashing green slop all over. I go down on all fours, as the floor begins to leap beneath me. What is this? An earthquake? A meteor shower? Armageddon? What is this?!

And then there is silence. The quietness seems almost deafening in comparison to the roar that just stopped, as suddenly as it had begun. I can't feel the floor beneath me, yet I am not falling. The darkness seems different now, not the stale blackness of the room, but a fresh, vivid darkness. I hear something whispering in my ear, or perhaps it's in me head; I can't tell anymore. What's it saying? I can barely make it out...

"Jim, he's dead. Must've died from just plain lack of stimulation. Here, look at this, he was sitting in this chair, watching television and he just pitched forward, right into his bowl of Cambell's soup."

© 1998, Aaron Clauset

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updated 7.16.01