Letters on a Wall
by Leanne Fitzpatrick
The bookworm knows. The bookworm always knows.
That was the message scrawled across the wall, hidden behind massive epithets of the terminally fed up, swearing, gang tags and the whitewash of the censors.
It was the third time Jacob had seen it- which was odd when the walls were either blank, or a mish-mash of conflicting images, threats and dire warnings…
But then, that was what the wall was for, a place where those desperate or sick of life scrawled or sprayed their messages.
Somewhere, beneath the white wash and tags, there were messages from most of his family. His father: Death before submission. His mother: I live while my thoughts are still free. His sister: We will rise against you.
His fingers tingled, and once again the urge to write his own message came… he was tired of life, yes. He was tired of the grind, of foraging on the outskirts of civilisation for everything and nothing, of wondering if the drones were coming, were they watching him… did they know what he was thinking…
The bookworm always knows.
It didn’t even make any sense. No one had books any more. Books were dangerous. Books made people into ideologues and demagogues and that brought society to it’s knees. Everyone knew that, which was why everyone had handed them in so many years ago.
People shuffled around him- thin, on the verge of starvation, tired and old before their time. Society was already on its knees, he thought, hand tightening around the paint-stick in his jacket lining. It was death if he was caught with it. He always carried it. Out here in the dregs death was certain, the timing was the only choice he had in the matter.
A bucket clanged and an old woman sunk her roller into it. Whitewash splattered the pavement as she painted over the graffiti.
The bo____rm alw_______ws.
He turned away from the wall, back to the hovel he called home. In a way, he was lucky. Restrictions on housing meant no one moved from their designated place without their application going through. He lived alone in a small apartment on the ground floor. No one else could move in without years worth of paperwork or his death. Some people would kill for that. Some already had.
He scanned his fob, the door buzzing open. Across the hall a young woman watched him. She always watched him. He supposed it gave her a small reprieve from watching the child that accompanied her everywhere. The door to her apartment was open and he smelled food cooking. His stomach grumbled. Their fare would be better than his. The government liked families- especially the breeders. They produced the cogs for the perfect machine. He was no good to them. Not until he took a wife and took his place on the production line.
At least they hadn’t started issuing matches yet. That, at least, was one small freedom they still had left.
The blast of the morning horn woke him from dreams as grey and boring as his life. Jacob lay in his bed for a moment, staring at the ceiling. The crack had grown longer, almost reaching the light fixture now. He heard the telltale creak of the bed above and, as soon as the light fixture started rocking, rolled out of his bed. He didn’t want to end up covered in plaster dust, or crushed under the falling ceiling.
He showered, brushed his teeth, and pulled on the clothes closest to hand. They didn’t stink, and that acceptable.
After that he left his little apartment.
She was sitting on the stairs again, watching him. There was no toddler this time, and somehow that made her even creepier. She was sucking a lollipop- the tiny globe of pure sugar rattling around between her teeth. God, he missed sugar.
“She’s waiting for you,” the girl said at last.
He paused. It was the first time he’d ever heard her speak. He waited. She said nothing else and he pushed the main door open, making his way out onto the streets and to his work.
Four hours per day was his allocation. He liked having the early shift. Most of the world hadn’t woken up yet, and there were times when the smog cleared enough for him to see the sunrise. Today wasn’t one of those days. He paused at the wall. Someone had already scrawled across the whitewash.
Why does no one remember ‘By the people, For the people’?
Because no one wants to, he thought sadly. We’re too happy being sheep.
He heard footsteps and turned away from the wall. It was never a good idea to show too much interest in the things written there.
The footsteps behind him were a little faster. Not enough to be worried- probably someone running late. He moved to the side so they could get past.
“Thanks,” came the muttered response. “Don’t waste her time. She’s waiting for you.”
He stopped dead, staring after the figure. Then he looked around. He was alone on the street. No soldiers or police anywhere. Not even the cameras were pointed his way.
It was as if the whole world was holding it’s breath, waiting for him to do something.
He took a step forward, intent on ignoring it, then stopped again.
What if there was never any other opportunity?
The ink stick pressed against his hand.
He swallowed, pulling the thread in his pocket lining loose.
Another look around. Still no one, still no cameras.
He pulled the cap of the ink stick and faced the wall.
It was a sea of perfect white, painted over so many times all the nooks and crannies had been filled in. It filled him with delight and terror in equal measure. There was something foreboding about marring something so unblemished.
His hand shook, so that the first letter he wrote was shaky, almost unrecognisable. How long had it been since he’d scrawled anything other than his signature when he got his weekly pay?
Who is the bookworm?
He stepped back, staring at the stark black letters. A shiver went through him and he shook his head, moving away from the wall and hurrying down the street. Any minute now, he knew, there would be a hand on his shoulder and a grim voice would ask him to come with them.
He made it to his shift with seconds to spare. The foreman grunted and slammed the gate behind him. He sighed with relief as he made his way to his station and began his work, trying not to look over his shoulder every few minutes.
He didn’t socialize after his shift, and that wasn’t unusual so no one took any notice when he hurried away.
His heart was in his throat as he made his way past the wall. The old woman he’d seen the previous afternoon was once more painting the wall. She glanced at him as he passed and his heart squeezed, but she said nothing.
He reached the part where he’d written his question. Dried paint glistened despite the smog. He swallowed heavily and looked around. People made their way too and from work, the police watched everything, the cameras recorded. He shoved his hands in his pockets, ignoring the pressure from the ink tube and trudged home. It was just another day. Nothing earth shattering had happened.
The toddler was playing on the tiles, small plastic toys scattered about and abandoned in favour of a tablet and stylus.
The girl sat in her customary place. There was no lollipop this time. She watched him turn his key in the lock and disappear inside his apartment.
He went to the shower. It was the only time he felt truly alone.
When he came out there was a scrap of paper on the entry floor. He swallowed heavily. Paper was a rarity these days. It was thick and creamy. He ran his fingers over it, remembering a story long ago that his mother had told them, when people wrote long letters to one another, before the invention of email, a time when personality and meaning could be seen through the handwriting alone.
He brought the paper to his nose and breathed in its scent.
He smelled the pulp, the musk of wood, but also the scent of where it had rested. He smelled spices and coffee- both only memories from when there was a family that lived in this place.
He unfolded it, and the world seemed to stop once more.
The Bookworm knows everything. She’s waiting for you.
It took him a moment to start breathing again and he wrenched his front door open.
The place was deserted. The stairwell was quiet. There was nothing on the floor.
Of course the person would be gone, he thought. He’d showered for a long time. There was no way of knowing when it had been delivered.
With a sigh he turned back to his flat.
The sound of the door opposite opening gave him pause. He turned.
She stood leaning against the door frame, hips at an angle, another lollipop in her mouth as she stared at him standing in nothing but a towel around his waist.
There was a slight smile playing over her lips and he had the impression she was sizing him up and dissecting him at the same time.
He swallowed again, thought that he should say something- it was polite after all, but what was he supposed to say.
“She’s waiting for you,” she said at last. He blinked and cleared his throat.
“You said the same thing earlier.”
“So you aren’t deaf after all,” she said. “Invite me into your flat.”
“Because you’re an eligible young man and I’m supposed to be looking for a husband.”
“Supposed to be?”
She grinned again, the lollipop moving from one side of her mouth to the other.
He thought about the state of his place- it was cleanish, but not exactly tidy or ready for receiving guests.”
“Would you like to come in?” he asked at last, confused, but intrigued by her forwardness. Every other woman he’d been vaguely aware of had either already paired up or acted so coyly he wasn’t sure if they were even interested.
“Ma,” the girl called. There was the sound of footsteps and an older, heavier woman came to the door. She was her daughter’s future in every way. She looked him up and down with the same dissecting gaze and then turned to her daughter.
“Dinner’s at seven,” she said, disappearing back inside the apartment. The girl grinned and stepped into the entryway, pulling the door closed behind her.
Still feeling somewhat bewildered he pushed the door open and signalled for her to go ahead.
He followed her, watching as she looked around the place.
“I’m not looking for a wife,” he said at last. She looked over her shoulder at him.
“Nor I a husband,” she replied. “But we must all be seen to be keeping up appearances. You live alone?”
“You ever see anyone else come in here?”
She grinned again, trailing her fingers over the tables and cabinets as she made her way through to the living room. She plonked herself down on his sofa without waiting for an invitation.
“How long do you intend to keep her waiting?”
“You know who.”
He grabbed a pair of jeans from the line across his living room and ducked into the kitchen to pull them on. When he came out she was holding the piece of paper in her hands, studying the letters. She looked up and smiled.
“At least you’ve made the first move,” she said at last. “That means you aren’t a complete waste of time.”
He frowned, insulted but not sure why,
“Look, who are you?”
“Dayne,” she said at last. “And you’re Jacob.”
“How do you know that?”
“Heard your parents calling after you often enough before they disappeared.” He winced. Even a decade later it was still a raw wound. “Sorry about your sister. I thought she’d make it through.”
“You knew her?”
“She said hello a few times. More polite than you.”
“Talking is… Talking gets people in trouble.”
He watched her looking around the flat. It wasn’t much different than it had been during his childhood. Everything he couldn’t bear to look at had been shoved into either his parents or sisters bedroom. The wallpaper was the same, as was the colour scheme and furniture.
“There’s a war coming,” she said at last.
“That’s been threatened for years. Every old man in the pub talks about the old days. Nothing will change. It never does.”
She stared at him.
“You sound bitter about that.”
He shrugged, dropping into an armchair and staring straight back.
“No point feeling any which way about it. Nothing changes. People grumble, but nothing changes.”
“What if it could?”
“Then everyone involved would disappear, just like my parents.”
“They were betrayed,” she said at last.
His heart pounded.
“They were stupid. So was my sister. They should have just kept their mouths shut. They should have stayed away
from the wall.”
“I asked a question. No one’s ever died from asking a question.”
“Shows how much you know. Most people die from asking questions.”
“I doubt that.”
“Really? Why do we need armed guards on the streets? Are we really free, or are we just part of a prison system? What happened to everyone that thought differently. Why don’t we have books any more? More importantly, what are they afraid of us learning from those books? Where are your parents? Did they cause harm? What happens to those that show an inkling of individuality?”
“You use a lot of strange words.”
“Go to any one of those guards and ask one of those questions and see how long you’re still walking around in this open air prison.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Are you really that cowed? What happened to the tearaway boy that was always asking why?”
“His whole family disappeared after writing threats on the wall. He learned to keep his head down.”
“Not so far down. You wrote on the wall.”
“How’d you know about that?”
“There are more of us than you’d think.”
“Well there was no point to that, was there? There’s still no answer.”
“You aren’t asking the right question.”
“I asked who the Bookworm was.”
“Irrelevant. Try another.”
“Why is she waiting for me?”
“Because she needs soldiers, and the tearaway boy is still in there. Somewhere.”
“What does she want from me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then what’s the point of all of this?”
“Maybe there is no point. Maybe there is. Only you’ll know once you find her.”
“Have you met her?”
“Oh yes.” It was wistful.
“Who is she?”
“Why did she want you?”
“Because I had a part to play.”
“None of your business. Ask another question.”
“Where is she?”
“That’s stupidly unhelpful.”
“She’s the writing on the wall, the unspoken thought. Some are closer to her than others. Learn to recognise them. They’ll lead the way.”
He let out a sharp snort of air.
“I think you’re full of shit,” he said at last.
She sat back on the sofa with an infuriating smile.
“And I wish you’d had the balls to start this years ago. Neither of us are getting any younger.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out a thick wad of paper. His heart rose to his throat.
She smiled, holding it up.
“A book,” she said quietly.
Despite himself, he leaned forward, reaching out to touch it.
She pulled away.
“Don’t,” she said quietly. “Once you touch it, there’s no going back. You won’t be able to ignore anything any more.”
“You can’t say that with any certainty.”
“Bet you a fiver.”
He gave her a look and held out his hand.
“I want it back,” she said at last. “You aren’t the only one I’m supposed to lend it to.”
“Fine,” he grumbled.
“And don’t- don’t let anyone else see it. Not yet.”
“You can have it back in the morning, okay?”
“You think you know enough words to get through it?”
“Either give it to me or get out.”
She grinned and stood up, dropping it in his hand.
“I see you in the morning then,” she said.
He struggled, some of the words to old or long for him to know, but he was surprised by how much he did know. Sometimes he felt a waft of familiarity and almost remembered nights around a candle when his mother or father would tell stories. They had been like these- full of blood and death, of animals that spoke and people that lied or told nothing but the harshest truths and he felt a stirring he didn’t think was possible.
The day wore on. He heard the bell ringing second and third shifts. He ignored them, pausing only when he was faint from hunger.
His mind was on fire. Words he had only ever heard in quiet shadows and flickering firelight swam through his head. Pictures formed, impressions of lands someone born hundreds of years before him had made up, or seen for themselves. He couldn’t imagine that- that there was anywhere different. He couldn’t grasp the idea of an ocean that filled the entirety of his vision. The idea of deserts of sand, of never ending jungle, or the endless blackness of space made his heart pound with terror, and yet he still read on, ignoring the headache, forcing his eyes to focus on the tiny letters that wove spells through his mind.
It was dark when he finished the book. For a moment he sat back in the chair, a strange sense of dis-ease filling him, and then he leapt up to pace back and forth, thoughts somehow firing away and sluggish at the same time. He ran to the bathroom, confused by his bodies reaction as he relieved himself, and yet- and yet.
When he was finished he went back to the book. It was easier to read the words this time. The pictures his mind conjured came easier, and he read into the night, over an over from cover to cover until he was drunk on the stories and could bring the images to mind without needing to read the words.
He felt the change in him, the yearning for more, and he cursed Dayne even as he paced around his flat waiting for the earliest, polite hour he could disturb her.
He heard movement in the communal hallway and raced to the door. His hand scrabbled with the lock as he saw, through the keyhole, Dayne leaving the block.
He caught the main door before it closed.
“Wait!” he called out in a harsh whisper. She stopped and turned to glance over her shoulder at him and smiled.
“I told you,” she said after looking him up and down.
“I need more,” he said.
“Don’t we all, unfortunately there’s a great shortage in these parts.”
“Please, you said she was waiting for me- how do I get to her?”
Dayne’s smile lost it’s teasing edge and was genuine for a moment.
“After your shift you’re going to be called to the foreman’s office. He’ll show you the next part of the path.”
She nodded, looked around and then stepped closer to him.
“There is a war coming,” she said as she hugged him. “And it’s one we can’t fight out in the open. You’re going to make a lot of enemies.” He felt her press something into his hand. “Carry it always, show it only when it’s requested. You’re one of us now.”
She pulled away.
“A long time ago we were truly free to think what we wanted. That was stolen from us in degrees, and we gave it away wholeheartedly. There are still some of us that want the right to think and say what we want even if there are consequences. The Bookworm knows everything, and she wants to share that knowledge with everyone. We’re her soldiers. We read. The older ones amongst us write. Some of us get impatient and are dragged away in the night never to be heard from again.”
“Were my parents-”
“Yes. Your sister too. Your sister gave me that book, gave me many more over the years I knew her.”
“Because we’re human and subjugation doesn’t sit well with us once we realise how enslaved we really are. There’s a class system in this world that needs to be destroyed, one that has nothing to do with the old demons of sex, race or religion. It’s Have’s vs Have Not’s and it took us too long to realise it. We demanded safety and paid a price that was too high, so now the only way to get our freedom back is by stealing back our stories, our history and our words and thoughts. We don’t have the firepower for bloody revolution.”
“I don’t understand any of this.”
“You will. Go with the foreman. I’ll come back this afternoon for my book.”
He watched her walk away. When he turned back to the block her mother was standing in the doorway. He swallowed, feeling guilty even though he knew he hadn’t done anything wrong.
“You get her hurt and I’m coming for you.”
“I- I barely know her.”
The older woman grunted.
“Your parents were good people. You- you ain’t prooved yourself yet.”
“I didn’t realise I was supposed to.”
“You ain’t the brightest then. You shoulda figured this out years ago.”
He was seven years old again, being told off for yet another misadventure that had caused havoc in the apartment.
“Excuse me,” he said firmly, realising he was an adult, not a child any more.
She grabbed his wrist as he pushed past, spinning him back round to face her.
He stood a full head and a half above her, and yet he had no illusion that she couldn’t beat him to a pulp if she had a mind to do so.
“I know what she’s doing, and I know it’ll get her disappeared or killed eventually-”
“Then why don’t you tell her to stop. She’s your responsibility-”
“Because she’s right, but you get her in trouble and you won’t need to worry about the guards coming for you. Understand?”
Her grip around his wrist tightened and he nodded, disgusted by his own docility.
She shook her head and dropped him in disgust.
“I hope, by the end of this, you have more about you. You aren’t the fighter your parents hoped you’d be.”
She turned her back on him and stalked into her flat. He stood there in the empty hall, cold from the tiles seeping into his bare feet, and he blinked.
“Okay then,” he said slowly, turning back to his flat.
He thought about going to bed, but he caught sight of the book on the arm of the chair, and couldn’t resist. He picked it up and took it to bed with him, reading through it again until the horn of the first shift forced him to come back to the real world.
There was a knock on the door and he rolled out of bed, book still in hand. Dayne stood there.
“Change of plan,” she said quietly. “Get changed and pack a bag. We need to go.”
“Because the guards took Dereck last night.”
She pushed in past him, snatching the book from his hand.
“Pack a bag. Clothes, food- anything that’s useful and doesn’t weigh much. We’re going to the Bookworm.”
“You know where she is?”
“No, but Dereck was a middle link. We need to get to the next one before they torture it out of him.”
“And you know who that is?”
“No, but I know the one between him and Dereck.”
“I told you this was war,” she snapped, throwing the book in the fireplace and setting a match to it. His heart bled to see the flame take and the pages begin to curl, the words disappearing. She saw his expression as he watched it burn and her own softened.
“As long as you remember the stories, it isn’t gone.” she said as she stood. “Remember the words, remember the message in them. Hold onto them and they can’t break you. You’ve got ten minutes while I say goodbye to my family. Say goodbye to this place. You probably won’t ever see it again.”
“But this is my home-”
“If they come for me, then they get you too. They’ll make me tell them, and you’re already on their watchlist,”
“Keep up!” she yelled at him. “Your parents, your sister- you know what happened to them, you really think they haven’t been keeping an eye on you too?”
“I haven’t done anything wrong!”
“You read an unsanctioned book. I told you there was no going back. Pack a bag and be ready. We’re running out of time.”
She stormed out of the flat. He stood there for a moment, gaping, and then something inside him made his back straighten and his bowels clench. He broke out in a sweat at the thought of them coming for him, and ran into his parents room.
There was no time for grief as he snatched up his fathers knife and his mothers backpack. He ran into his own room, grabbing underwear, clothes, and paused as his hand knocked against a small box. It had been amongst his parents things, labelled for him. He remembered his sister had been given one similar. He’d never had the heart to open it, not when they’d told him it was for an emergency. He guessed now counted.
He broke the seal and opened it up.
There were papers, travel permits, money. Everything he could possibly want. All he needed to do was add his photograph.
He grabbed it all and shoved it into his wallet, making sure it was chained to his clothes.
There was a bang on the door and his heart leapt into his throat.
“You ready?” Dayne called, and he remembered to breathe.
He cast about for anything else he could take but nothing came to mind and he stepped outside, locking the flat behind him. Dayne was impatient, eyes bloodshot. He looked past her towards her flat. Her parents stood there, also red eyed. He could hear the toddler crying further inside.
“Come on,” Dayne hissed.
He glanced down at her and then back to her parents. He recognised the quiet desperation in their gazes as they looked at him. He felt the weight of responsibility close over him, and was surprised at himself when he nodded at them, accepting their silent request.
Dayne grabbed his hand and dragged him out of the block.
“You don’t exist any more,” she said as they walked. “Neither do I.”
“My parents left me a box-”
She nodded. “I hope you had the sense to open it.”
“I just need to put a picture on it,” he told her.
“Then that’s our second stop,” she murmured, glancing up at him. “I hope you’re ready for an adventure.”
“I don’t know what one of those is.”
“Well, we’re both gonna learn the hard way. I get the feeling they aren’t as easy as in the stories.”
She grabbed his hand and pulled him down a side street, avoiding the view of the guards and the cameras.
“At best we’ve got a few hours. At worst, they already know and are waiting for us.”
“Why do they want us?”
“It’s the simplest thing in the world,” she murmured, watching the flow of people. “Control the flow of information and you control thoughts. Once you control those, people are easy to manipulate.”
“How do you know that?”
She glanced at him.
“I read the right stories. The sort of stories governments take as a manual and the people see as a warning. That’s why they want the Bookworm. She holds the key to the library of human consciousness, and if she gets the chance to share it worldwide…”
“There’d be chaos,” he murmured.
“Now you’re getting it,” she murmured. “Come on.”
She filtered out into the crowd. A second later he followed her, his stomach churning, his fingers twitching and excitement sparking through him. Something was happening. He didn’t know what yet, or whether he’d survive it, but that little fact alone made him feel more alive than he ever had, and it was a feeling he wanted to keep and experience for as long as he could.