I wake to the snick of the spy-hole sliding open, but keep my eyes closed for a few seconds, enjoying those last few dregs of freedom I only have in sleep. Ignoring the crawl of his gaze.
I open my eyes to slits. I can tell it’s night by the lack of light slicing between the rough boards the walls are made from. He’s started coming to stare at me more and more when it’s dark, and I know I’ll have to throw another fit soon or he’ll work up the nerve to come in again. But he doesn’t like the noise I make. He’s frightened by it, I think. Like some kind of scavenger that’s scared off when you bang metal bin lids together in your backyard.
He always comes back, though. Even if it’s just to stare.
He’s not brave enough to come in tonight, or he would have done it by now. Just in case, I lift the hand that’s holding the metal fork he accidentally gave me one mealtime, letting the light from the portal glance off it. Just a friendly warning.
The spy-hole snicks shut.
That little display’s lost me my evening meal, but it’s worth it. Anything’s worth it to have the spy-hole closed with those eyes on the other side of it.
I’m wide awake now, and I know it’ll be hours before he comes back with the morning tray. The sound of his whistling drifts up from downstairs, and I smile. He only whistles when I’ve upset him.
I whisper the word, knowing my friend will hear me if he’s nearby. I stay still, waiting for the telltale shuffle and scrape inside the wall nearest my bed that will be his response. If he’s there. He isn’t always.
Looks like he’s not around tonight.
I curl onto my side in bed, using my free hand to pull the blanket up around my neck. I can’t remember the last time the man gave me clean bedding. That must mean he’s not been inside for a few weeks, at least. My hand curls into a tight fist around the fork, holding it in the alcove my body makes in the bed.
I think that’s the right word. I try to remember to use words I didn’t often use when I was in the real world because it’ll be easier to leave them behind. A small part of me thinks that if I go back, I won’t think about this place as much when I use the regular words. I’ll keep this place in my life obscure, like every rare word I use while I’m here.
I can’t remember what ‘sanctuary’ means, but I can think of two uses for ‘corrupt’ so it doesn’t really count as losing a word. I wonder how many I’ll still have when I leave, if anyone will understand me or if I’ll be like some animal that uses grunts and snarls to communicate. I feel a bit sick thinking that I’m getting to be more like him the longer I’m here. But it’s probably because I’m hungry, too.
I used to think I was hungry all the time, back at the camp before the man came and got me. I didn’t know what hungry was, then. I didn’t really know a lot of things I know now, like how it feels to be angry and scared and to hate someone enough that you could stick a hole in them and watch all the blood run out.
Now I’m as addicted to words as I used to be to chocolate, before the man took me from the camp. Having lived with losing both, I miss the words more. It’s like having a rotting limb I can’t stand to cut off, even though I can feel it less and less everyday.
I can’t even remember what chocolate tastes like now.
I run through as many rare words as I can think of for as long as I can think, and eventually drift off to sleep again.
It’s still dark when Burl wakes me. He must have a gimpy leg or something, because one footstep always drags a bit longer than the other: shuffle-whump, shuffle-whump.
I lean up on one elbow and scratch my fork against the wooden siding by the head of my bed so he’ll know where I am. There’s a pause in the shuffle-whumping, then he moves until I hear him next to me on the other side of the wall.
“Got anything shiny for me?” I ask, knowing he won’t have come empty-handed. He’s like a magpie, always picking up things made out of metal, glass or shiny plastic – a marble, a coin, a little girl’s bead necklace. He holds them up next to a hole in the wall where the wood’s knotted, and sometimes he lets me keep them. I don’t always, because the man searches my room whenever I can’t keep him from coming in.
As long as I’m awake I hear him coming, and post my presents back through the hole to keep them safe. There’s another knothole in the wood low-down behind my bed frame, so I can sometimes get them back if they land okay and I use my fork.
A glint appears at the hole, and for a second I think it’s just Burl’s eye. But then it moves and plops down onto the pillow next to me, and I reach out to touch it. I can’t see very much in the dark, and I don’t want to cut myself if it’s sharp, so I move slowly. I’ve asked Burl lots of times to bring me a knife or a screwdriver or something I can use to help me escape, but he either doesn’t understand, or just can’t get me what I need.
“Whatcha got me, Burl?” I ask, more to fill the darkness than because I expect an answer. Like the man, Burl never speaks. I wish he would, because I’d be able to tell things about him that I can’t see through the hole in the wall - how old he is, maybe an idea of his size. I guess from the sound of his movements that he’s biggish, which is why I named him Burl. He seems to respond to it, anyway.
I wonder if he’s one of those ghosts, the ones who move things around in the houses they haunt, just so the people living there feel their presence. Or maybe Burl is someone the man kept here before me, someone who managed to escape but didn’t know how to leave the obscure behind, so he keeps coming back to the only place he can still be in the world. I’ve asked Burl about this, but as he never answers I can only guess.
I wish he’d talk back.
Between me, Burl and the man, I’m the only one with words. I suppose this makes me special, but it’s like I’m living inside my own head with the furniture disappearing around me.
My hand finds something cool and smooth lying against the linen, and I run my fingers over it to try and figure out what it is. It’s flat, not quite a circle, but the corners are rounded. I tap the nail of my index finger against the edge, letting the click-click-click tell me what it’s made from. I’m betting it’s glass.
“Thanks Burl,” I say. “This will be useful.”
I know glass can be used for lots of things, and it’s something the man never lets me have. My drinks always come in plastic cups, and they’re too soft and bendy to be any good at cutting someone even if you get a sharp edge. I’ve tried sharpening the tooth-bits on my fork before now, but it’s better for jabbing than cutting. I can hurt him with it, but not really do much damage - and he knows it. He still looks for it when he searches my room. He tries to coax it from me with that same chocolate bar he held out to me through the hole he’d made in the chain-link fence at the camp when he took me. The wrapper’s faded now.
But I hide my fork inside the bottom knothole in the wall when I hear him coming. My fingers are long enough and thin enough that I can reach further into the knothole than the man can, which is how I’ve managed to keep it this long.
I talk to Burl for a while, tell him about what happened when the man came to bring supper. He shuffles his feet at intervals, letting me know he’s still there. I don’t know whether he understands what I’m saying or if he just likes the sound of my voice, but he stays awhile even after I stop talking, like he wants me to say more. But by now I’ve told him what I can remember about the real world, about the people whose faces aren’t clear in my head anymore, and the things I used to do that made me laugh. The only times I get the urge to laugh now are when I do bad things that hurt the man, so I hold it in. I don’t want laughing to be one of the things I have to leave in this place as well.
The quiet is broken when Burl’s shuffle-whump lets me know he’s leaving. It stops after about half a minute, at some point in the house where he either stops or I just can’t hear him anymore. I hope that’s not as far as he can go, because that would mean Burl lives in the walls, and never leaves this place any more than I do. I want to believe he does leave the house, because that means maybe I will, too.
The fork’s teeth are bent all out of shape, and I don’t like it. I had to do it so I could use the teeth to carve bits out of the wood, but it still feels like losing a friend.
I put it carefully to one side, shuffling on my knees until the blade of sunlight slicing through a gap in the outside wall is just above my shoulder. I try to stop my hands from shaking as I move the glass lens into the glimmer – a remnant of someone’s spectacles, just like I’m the remnant of a life that doesn’t belong to me anymore. The lens must have belonged to someone full-grown, because it’s almost as big as my palm. The idea hurts like a hole in my chest, and my hands shake harder.
A few minutes pass before I’m able to hold the lens steady. The light plays through it, veering off in coloured slants until I move the lens closer to the pile of torn cloth and wood shavings I’ve hashed together in the corner. The sunlight focuses on the pile like it’s just noticed it, and I hold the lens so still that I forget to breathe.
It takes a long time for the first whisper of smoke to rise from the pile, but I feel like jumping up and punching the air in triumph when it does. I don’t, though. I keep the lens steady, the beam of light giving life to a spark, and then a flame.
I pick up the fork and back away slowly once I’m sure the fire’s taken, yanking the pillow from the bed and tearing the cover open. I pull the stuffing out and start feeding it to the fire. It’s growing steadily, the sharp spit and crackle making my heart jump every few seconds.
The smell of the smoke is exciting more than scary, and I suck in shallow breaths to savour it. With the window boarded up and the only airflow coming through those slitty holes between the planks, the room is already fuzzy with smoke. I go back to the bed, pulling the blanket free and setting one corner ablaze before adding it to the flaming pile. There’s no danger of it going out at this point, so I go and sit on the bed to watch it.
My eyes start to leak and I’m not sure if it’s from staring at the fire or from the smoke, but I don’t get time to wonder about this too much as the shuffle-whump announces Burl’s presence behind the wall next to me.
“Hey, Burl,” I say, then start coughing. I pick up the discarded pillowcase and screw it into a cone-shape before dunking it into the plastic beaker of water next to the bed. I wring it out over the cup and use it to cover my mouth. It gives the smoky air a soggy flavour as I breathe, but at least I’m not coughing anymore.
Burl knocks against the wall with what sounds like an elbow or a knee, and I wonder if he’s gotten stuck back there. The thought scares me, as I hadn’t considered Burl being stuck choking on smoke-fumes when I’d planned my attack on the man.
“You stuck back there, Burl?” I listen, and the knocking stops for a moment before he shuffle-whumps a few steps away from me. Not stuck, then. “You need to get out of there, Burl. The man will be coming soon.”
The flames have started to lick across the floor and up the wall next to the door, the dark patches in the flames making pictures dance in them. The air is almost black now, a cloud hanging above my head that almost manages to obscure the ceiling.
Obscure, I smile. The obscure will soon be no more than ash.
I must have fallen asleep, because I jump as the door is thrown open. The man stands in the doorway, shielding his face against the heat of the fire. It’s taken over about half the room by now, and the cracking and creaking noises of the building as it shifts are so loud that I’m surprised they didn’t keep me awake.
A scratching from behind the wall clears my head as I realise Burl’s still back there.
“Get out!” I yell from behind my now-dry rag, knowing the man won’t realise I’m not shouting at him. The man darts past the burning section of the room towards me and motions for me to get up. But I still have the fork in my hand and I shake my head, no.
His head moves back and forth between me and the blaze, his eyes looking like they’re on fire, too. He pulls his sweater up to cover his nose and mouth, exposing the mottled skin of his midriff as he edges towards me.
I see the moment when he moves to grab me, watch the muscles tense in that exposed section of flesh as it comes within arm’s reach. His hands grab my shoulders but I hardly notice as my arm jerks up in reflex. Now hot stickiness covers my hand where the fork is sticking out of his belly. I pull back in horror, the fork almost sliding free of my grip, but not quite.
The man grunts in pain and his full weight lands on me, pushing me against the mattress, and again my arm jerks once, twice, hard.
When the metal slides free of my hand, all I can see is the handle sticking out of his neck. I kick at his torso until he rolls off the bed, his head landing just beyond the edge of the fire.
I expect him to leap up, but he doesn’t.
I’ve lost my rag in the struggle and I gag on the thick smoke-cloud hovering only a couple of feet above the floor. A dirty, meaty smell overwhelms the smoke, and I realise I’m breathing in traces of the man as he burns. A thinnish liquid rushes up my throat and I roll onto the floor and heave.
“Burl?” I rasp when I’m able, not knowing if he’s still waiting for me or if he’s gone where it’s safe. “Burl?”
I hope he’s gone.
The floor seems to tilt, the house groaning like a capsizing ship. I know if I’m going to make it back to the real world, it has to be now.
I’m surrounded by towering trees, glimpsing fields through breaks in the forest as I run. Sunlight pours down on everything, on me, and for the first time in such a long, long while I can breathe without those bad things weighing on me that I didn’t understand before the man took me. I have no idea where I’m going, but I can feel the house burning and fading behind me. I wonder if Burl is running like this, finally letting the obscure become nothing but ash in his wake.
I don’t feel the urgent need to find people that I’d expected to feel. All I feel is the freedom of running, of letting go, of sanctuary…
I remember what that word means now, but it doesn’t matter. Joy bubbles up inside me, clear and crisp, finding form in only one way.
My laughter blends with the sunlight, accompanying my footsteps as they grow fainter, lighter, until I’m only a glimmer.