This story is by Darrell Eugene McGuire and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Five and twenty years. The ruling is harsh. And now it’s down with me into the dungeon of Chateau d’If. Here by my own action. Alas. My future is splashed upon the rocks of fate.
How long to this epoch have I been thus caged? Time has rushed past me, gone to my great loss of what might and should have been.
No chains upon my feet do bind me. Free to move about this tiny chamber, but the whole of it wrapped within this stockade, this brig, this pit of gloom, beached as it were on this unholy rock amidst a lonely and bleak sea.
With the dim light of day now gone, the dark falls even blacker than before. The walls are so thick, so high, impenetrable. The lone window up there barred, the world without is curtained off from my view. Is there hope to find a seam to break open? A fissure through which to slip? Escape is said to be impossible, any attempt a master puzzle yet to solve.
There’s only then to wait out the term? How old will I be when the end falls due?
Lying here on my sleeping sack, I can but wonder for what grave and egregious sin have I been rendered so. Think upon it. Ah. The injustice of it all.
It was a foul blow given thus by me upon a fellow traveler through this life. But was that blow properly warranted? True, I delivered it with righteous resolve. And it was received in suitable anguish. Of that, I fret not.
What! A meal there is put within, amid stealth and cunning. Not a word uttered, merely the hushed motion of the door. A dish quick-deposited and then a quiet exit without conversation or notice given. I’ll not partake of it. Let them understand the tenacity with which I hold to my free spirit.
And now, as time served builds on, I close my eyes even while my mind wanders over days gone by. Days when I was free.
This intolerable solitude, the isolation, desolation, and loneliness, such as I’ve never before known haunts me day in and out. My grief swells throughout my soul. Horrible dreams plague sleep-deprived nights and longer still days.
I dig at the textured mass beneath my sleep space, ever searching for whatever I may find there. A furred creature shrieks and scurries from my reach. And here! Perchance a weak bit of flooring that would offer passage to the without. Anything that might suggest some degree of hope to the morrow next.
And then …
There. What’s this, then? Writing implements? Joy, I think like none ever before imagined, sweeps over me. Now there is something to trace my sorrow that I leave behind and put hope in the beyond. I can scribe my name and begin to count the days and hours there upon the tablet before me. Keep track of what comes next in store for the tomorrow on the other side of each coming day. Plan my utilization of whatever opportunities may step up.
How to begin. That is the next challenge.
To survive. That is the surest goal, the only quest for sanity in this dank environment. Except, perhaps, to escape? Is escape impossible? So it is said. But even at the risk of a lost survival, it promises at its end: freedom.
The past now drops behind me as I scribe out the events and non-events that fall abaft me, one by one.
And then! That! Is it a feeble scratching I hear? Scratching at the wall there before me? A desperate scritch-scratch. A scraping. Indeed. It could be a similar heart longing to be free, must it not? An essence pure and unjustly imprisoned as I. A faceless compatriot in search of escape, flight to the outerland.
But wait! Can I trust such a one jailed for I know not what? Can that one offer a means to pass beyond the walls without placing a claim on my spirit?
A digging now at the thick partition anext my door. More scratching. A panting! The labored breathing of one so weary with desperation falls heavier to my ear now than before. A light wail of distress escapes from there, cut short only to rise again.
Now, then. Look there. A bright beam from beneath the door does shine. The light of freedom awaits me, could I only but dig below the wall right next to it.
Aah! A specter doth creep up behind me! Ah! Ah. Oh. ‘Tis but my own shadow made evident by the ray that’s come from under the door.
Dig deep, then. Hard. The floor of the cell is so hard. The softer texture above it comes away easily enough, but the tiling itself is far too rigid. And I am distracted by the continued heavy breathing coming from without.
I call out softly so that the guards will not hear me, though still hoping to catch the attention of the one who breathes so harshly: “Who is there? Are you able to dig through this wall? What are you using as a tool? You cannot use your hands, for your fingernails will be ravaged.
Whoever is there does not respond, only digs and scratches and pants. Desperation must be driving him on. And if he makes it through to my cell, what then? He will only be trapped herein with me. To what avail? Perhaps he has another conduit through which the two of us can dig from his cell.
The thought strikes me: I’ve heard of a prisoner in Chateau d’If who has secrets of buried wealth, a treasure hidden away on some distant isle. What? Could it be this very soul trying to reach me, gather up a fellow companion with whom to make way to that treasure? I dig more eagerly that I may break through the floor tile and reach under it to him.
Dreams of a treasure to be found roll through my mind. A chance to purchase my way back to the rightful home and to those who have placed me here. Justice for this false imprisonment.
Hark! The sound of a heavier foot approaches. Likely it is the warden of this prison. I must turn away and pretend to sleep or to be else wise occupied. But my accomplice must not be revealed. I call out softly to him: “Wait! Wait! Stop your digging, lest you be found out and destroy our dream.”
An unseen hand flings open the door!
The warden speaks!
“Mercedes? My goodness. Why are the lights out in your room? Must you keep it so dark? Abbie has been digging at your door ever since you were sent in here. She won’t shut up! She just pants and whines and digs and scratches. I think she may have left her squeaky toy in here. Oh, and look! You haven’t touched your dinner. Must you always make everything so dramatic? Turn on a light.”
“You may come out now. I hope you’ve learned your lesson. Do not hit your little brother! And for goodness sake, turn on some lights! Put that rug back where it belongs. And bring your dinner downstairs with you.”
But lay he a greased hand on my books again, and mighty will be the force of my blow on his brow!