by Jennifer Martin
There is writing on the walls.
I’m going to die today, it says.
I’m going to die today.
I can’t breathe.
I’m going to die today.
The other prisoners are still working. I can hear their tools striking rock, their chains scraping against the ground. I can’t hear their voices though, but that’s because they’d just passed a man along the line like an orange, each person taking a piece of him, peeling another part away, until he was just a bunch of broken bones in a sack of skin. And nobody talks much after a mob murder.
I was supposed to be next.
I’d looked into the eyes of someone pleased by the prospect of my death, felt his pick grow warm at my throat. All I could think was, Welcome to Sirona. It spins on its axis of suffering and shakes people up so bad that they can’t crave much beyond the power of death. Theirs. Mine. Somebody else’s – it doesn’t matter.
Part of me must still want to live despite that because I ran until I lost them, and now I’m hiding in some scaffolding I found behind a haphazardly placed wall panel. That’s one good thing about prison labour, I guess. It’s not the most thorough.
The writing is everywhere.
I can’t breathe. I am going to die today.
It fades in a gradient of age that I won’t try to measure. Death has failed this person, which is no surprise. Here, people only die when they want to live, when they fear the end, when they’re driven by survival and not the exhaustion maddening their minds and turning their muscles to acid.
Where do I stand? I don’t know. I’m glad to live, afraid to return to the rest of the living. Behind me, the distance I’ve built muffles the noises into quietness but they still find their way beneath my skin.
So does the repetition of those words. Until new ones begin to pour down the walls, anyway.
My Trev is broken and the damn guards won’t replace it, they read.
Those arseholes say it’s good enough to get me where I need to be if I run, so I’ve got to do that now.
Trev is what we call our breathing masks; it’s short for The Breath of the Treveri or something like that. They keep us breathing for about 30 minutes when they’re working, less when they’re not. Nobody really likes thinking about that though so we don’t.
Or, we don’t usually.
This person did. Sprawled beneath their last words in a blacker, larger, messier script is:
I let a girl die today. She broke her leg on our way to the mines. We sat together for a bit. She was pretty cool. I would’ve liked her if I didn’t need her Trev so bad.
I can breathe now.
My own Trev rests heavy at my hip. Circulation here is worse than anywhere on Sirona, and I can taste the dust in the air. It’s gonna hurt to cough that gunk up later but not as much as it’d hurt not to breathe, so I keep the mask by my side as I move to the next block of writing.
Hello, it begins. Like they’d found a confidante in the stoicism of rock.
I have another Trev.
1 + 2 makes three. Three Trevs. Did you know that if you kill a guy during meal time, you can snatch his dinner? Gotta remember that the next time some jackass gets our rations docked.
Beside that they wrote, Some guy just died.
His body gave out on him in the mines. First time that happened. The guy chained to him got his mask but I can’t let him keep it. Seven isn’t enough. You can’t survive on seven masks. Not here. Those assholes want us to die here. Like the guy today. Murder-not-murder. Murder by negligence. Murder by torture.
Murder, murder, murder.
We’re all murderers, we’re all gonna be murdered.
This is where I want to stop reading; this is where taking in somebody else’s madness starts to mould it into mine. But I can’t turn away. People crack here all the time and I’ve got to get used to that.
The guy they offed today was one of them. At night he’d wail in his sleep and he never looked away from the ground anymore, never met your eyes. Never spoke much either, just sort of floated along in his own sphere of existence. Kinda like this person, I suppose.
Is anybody out there, the writing continues.
Because screw you. I have 29 masks now.
“Screw you too, buddy,” I say.
There’s only one block of writing left. The letters break at odd points. Their straight lines curve, their shapes are incompletely formed. No dots, no crosses. I have to think hard to make sense of what’s written here.
My chest hurts.
I haven’t slept in days. How am I still standing? It’s not the Trevs. They’re gone. Except one because I need one. Traded them to some new guy. He’s working my shift now.
That sounds nice.
I could s
The swirl of that last s repeats itself. I count 32 times; 32 moments before this person lost the energy to keep their marker pressed to the wall, to keep their arm raised, to keep trying.
I don’t know what happened to all those masks but their power didn’t carry forward. Brute strength makes kings of murderers here – not cunning or resourcefulness. But maybe, I think, if I follow this person’s lead, maybe if I find something I can use as leverage to save my arse, then I can figure the rest out from there.
It’s a plan. It’s a life I didn’t have when I first came here. It’s enough, it’s got to be.
As I leave, one thought repeats itself in my mind:
I’m not going to die today.