“Remind me to never again disagree with Beth when she says I’m too drunk to go out,” William said to no one in particular, his head sunk all the way down to his shoulder, his back pressed against the hard stone wall.
“I’ll be sure to do that,” a voice unexpectedly replied from the shadows. Startled, Will snapped his head to the sound’s source, but winced at the sudden movement. “Careful there,” the voice scolded. “That looks like a nasty cut on your head, don’t want to aggravate it.” The voice was female and educated, two qualities which individually would be unexpected enough in these dungeons, let alone when combined together.
“No,” William agreed, “I don’t.”
“You made quite the ruckus when they brought you in here…” the voice trailed off, inviting a response. It wasn’t strange for the comers and goers at the jail to strike up conversation with one another, but William was still surprised with the unique qualities of his companion here. It wasn’t just the oddity of a voice so silky and smooth where one usually encountered a rough scratch. More so it was that her tone was entirely at ease, as if entirely unperturbed about being held in such a filthy cell. He tried to peer again through the darkness to catch a glimpse of the speaker, but to no avail. The only torch in the room was directly above his head, and as a result left the rest of the room in darkest contrast.
“I was resisting their injustice,” he finally decided to respond. “They grabbed the wrong man.”
“They said something about a fight?”
“Yes, well I had to start a fight. There was another bloke who I was playing cards with until I decided I hated him. You see, he only managed to beat me because he was cheating.”
“You mean he beat you because he was cheating better than you were?” the voice countered dryly.
“And there’s no better reason for hating a man,” he said, then chuckled just as dryly. He let his head slump down again, trying to find a position that was comfortable. It was no easy task given that his hands, chained above his head, required him to be in a constant sitting position. “They tell me ‘sleep off your alcohol’,” he muttered, then turned to the heavy oak door and shouted to any guards present in the adjoining hallway “BUT HOW IS A MAN TO SLEEP IN THESE CONDITIONS?!” The muffled thud of a rifle butt slamming the door was his only response. “Ohhh, poor William,” he sighed in mock-pity. “Such potential, yet you’ve squandered it for naught.”
“That’s a rare stroke of honesty in you,” the voice chimed in again. “But can you go a step further and admit the reasons why?”
William’s earlier amusement was replaced with irritation now. This was one too many jabs at his expense. “Listen here, lady,” he stressed the term sarcastically. “I do not care for your prying. Or would you have me asking how such a posh aristocrat got herself condemned to a paupers’ prison?”
“Ask away, I have no shame to hide. Unlike you, I’m here by choice.”
“By choice?” he laughed spitefully. “You enjoy the squalor, do you?”
“No. But it is worth it to finally meet you, William Ballows.”
The use of his full name brought a full stop to the laughter still on his lips. “Who are you?”
“Come and see. Your chains aren’t on your arms anymore.”
Dumbfounded William glanced upwards and found that the statement was true. The shackles lay open around his wrists, the awkward position he had been maintaining entirely unnecessary. He slowly lowered his hands, but did not yet rise to investigate the shadows. “But they were chained. I know they were, I tugged on them when the guards left.”
“Yes, and in so doing confirmed to your mind that reality. But when I told you that they were not, I introduced a new possibility to your imagination. And to your credit, you opened yourself enough to the idea that the change took effect.”
William shook his head, apparently not composed enough to wrestle with the strange statements. “No riddles, please. I’m in no mood.” He slowly stood and took a few cautious steps towards the edge of the circle of light, clearly a little unnerved.
“It’s simple,” the voice tutted. “I decreed that they would be open, you did not outright refuse the possibility, and so, like magic, that reality manifested itself.”
“I don’t believe in that magic nonsense,” he stated flatly.
“Oh no? Then how have you disregarded the ball and chain? They put it on you after you kicked at them, remember?”
In an instant, William suddenly felt the return of the weight he had forgotten, tugging powerfully against his ankle and pulling him down horizontally on the hard, stone floor. He cried out in pain and tasted blood, his already reeling mind now aching even more. He cradled his skull and remain motionless. For the time being it was best not to think at all, not to try and move. Just let the throbbing subside and the world stop spinning. Wait for numbness, that was the ticket.
“I know you think I am mocking you, but I’m not,” the woman’s voice echoed from the walls again, and there was a sincere sympathy to it. “I want to help you, I want to give you a gift.”
William swallowed the blood down, his eyes streaming angry tears as he pushed himself once again to his feet. “Listen, you,” he breathed out threateningly as he began walking forward, now taking halting half-steps as he waited for the heavy iron ball to follow after him. “I am finished with your games. I will tell you politely only once more, I am in a foul mood and I want to be left alone!” Up until the final word he had maintained a constant, seething tone of rage. But then, on the last syllable, all emotion evaporated from his voice as he came into full view of the dark wall and saw…nothing. No one was there whatsoever. His shock subsided as he realized he must have been hallucinating. Cupping his calloused palms to his forehead, he sank down to his knees. “My mind is unraveling!” he wailed.
“Then weave it into something new.”
His hands shot down from his eyes, and before him he saw a woman’s face, seemingly etched into the very stone in front of him. Etched, except for the fact that the expressions of its eyes and mouth were as freely moving as his own, like a living sculpture. There was no hair or neck, only the front of the face, where the tall forehead stood as a featureless sheet over eyes that were haughty and a thin nose and mouth that were curved to one side in a smirk.
“I know, very strange, of course,” the voice understated, its mouth forming the words in perfect time to the sounds emanating from it.
Though he had recoiled in horror, William did not dare turn away or even blink his eyes. He swallowed hard, as if trying to plunge his throat down far enough to find his voice. It seemed to have succeeded somewhat because after it returned he was able to hoarsely whisper “Are—are you a ghost?”
“Hardly,” she scoffed. “Although, I suppose if it helps you make sense of things, that’s not the worst analogy. Think of me as the ghost of a still-living being, as though my body pushed out its essence into these walls to speak with you.”
“You do have a body then? You are, in fact, a person?”
Her eyes glanced towards a barred window in the wall. “Have a look for yourself.”
He still didn’t dare take his eyes off of the disembodied face as he stood and took his weighted half-steps over to the window. Gripping the bars with his hands for support he peered down to the cobblestone bridge that flowed from the prison’s main level. There, at the bottom of a gas-lamp, stood a hooded figure, barely visible against the black of night. The figure raised a single hand in salutation to him.
“That’s you?” he snapped his head back over to the inner wall, again regretting having moved his neck too quickly.
“Yes, as I said. And really, why don’t we take care of that pain in your head? Feel that soothing warmth?”
“What–” he started to say, but then paused as the most pleasant low heat settled on his forehead, seeming to melt away every twinge of pain, inside and out. He touched his hand to his head but could feel no source for the heat, nor indeed could he any longer feel the cut on his brow, it had been replaced by smooth, unbroken skin. Even the hangover had subsided.
“And there’s no need for that chain and ball, either. Really, I am sorry about that,” she said sweetly.
He hardly was surprised anymore when, glancing down, the clasp around his ankle was open. Using his newfound freedom he began pacing the floor while muttering to himself like a nervous animal. He was, in a word, dumbfounded. In two words he was dumbfounded and speechless. Try as he might, he could not form a single sentence to say to the specter, though a great number of questions were teeming in his mind. Every time he thought he must say something, another part of him—the part that recalled his 32 years of life upon this earth with varied and numerous experiences, but never a one that compared to this most singular occurrence—that part was insisting there was no room to accept the reality of this moment. Either it was a dream or a hallucination, in either case any continued interaction with the fantasy could only do harm.
“Don’t,” the voice said in a sudden, cautionary tone.
“Don’t what?” he asked, his curiosity instantly getting the better of himself.
“Don’t write this off as a mere delusion. If you don’t accept it then it won’t be real anymore, and you’ll be snapped back into those chains, an iron ball clasped to your foot, and your head streaming blood.”
“Maybe—maybe it’s better that way.” The skeptical side of him decided to speak the words, but the curious side of him provided the uncertainty to his tone.
She grinned. “If that’s truly the reality you prefer, then you may have it, but I seriously doubt that’s the option for you.”
“Well…and just what other options are there, then?” his curiosity now had the reigns of his words, but the skeptical side still kept the tone uncertain.
“I offer a world just like my very own, complete with all the power you have been witnessing. A world where walls cannot keep you in…or out. A world where other men cannot put you in chains against your will. Where they cannot cheat you in cards and steal your paltry pay. Where they cannot pay you less than they promised after a hard day’s work.”
He smiled ruefully, impressed at how accurately she had recounted his day’s events in reverse. “It seems you know me very well.”
He sighed, glanced down at his hands, then back up to her, self-doubt scrawled across his face. “Then you know what I am. I’m no hidden gem with deeper depths to reveal, I truly am the human debris every passerby on the street judges me as. I may get angry and loud and fight them, but I only do it because I know they are right.”
The unspoken question was obvious, why would she waste her time with one such as him? She did not say anything for a long while, only staring coolly at him, as if to allow her next words to carry the added weight of all the preceding silence. Then, finally, “But you do fight them, nonetheless, and that’s why I have come to you. The fact is you’re one that believes his reality, yet fights against it anyway with all his strength. That’s just the sort of brash stubbornness that can share my secrets.”
He gave a wry, distrustful smile. “Why? What’s in it for you?”
“Oh yes, I won’t deny it. I have personal gain in this, absolutely. And I will gladly discuss that point, once we get you out of here.”
He looked away towards the heavy, oak door. His furrowed brow seemed to reflect the dividing indecision that stood in his mind right now.
“I understand. You don’t fully know what you can gain from this, or even if you believe any of it. But as you yourself have suggested, you are nothing. You have nothing, and therefore have nothing to lose. What reason is there not to let me help you?”
The brow smoothed and he turned back to the face. “Alright.”
As I said in my Monday post, a tried and true method for introducing your systems and rules in your story is to first provide the bare fundamentals, then add one concept on top of another, and finally combine them to teach a penultimate lesson. In this first part of the story I have tried to fulfill the beginning criteria. I have introduced that there is a system by which the reality of the world can be bent and even broken. I have hinted that it has to do with accepting another desired reality instead of holding to the current one.
In next week’s continuation of this story I will move on to the second point, adding sequential steps one after another to better familiarize the reader with the finer mechanics of the system. In so doing, our main character William will be departing the familiar and comfortable for the strange and new. That’s a common theme in stories, and one that I feel deserves further examination. Come back Monday when we examine more closely the principle of taking a journey from the familiar into the unknown in stories.