His breath hisses an inch from your cheek. Your eyes are stuck on his dinner, dripping from the wall. The crack of plate beneath. Blood, life, drains from your skin into your toes. You are empty. A shell. Filled with stinking fear.
"You have no right to question me." His voice crawls into you. Emptied smiles beam down from the photos on the wall. Watching.
Your hands press flat against your thighs. Holding on.
A second ago you had returned his smile, him coming home late, sagging at the kitchen table. You noted the weary lines intersecting at his eyes. Delivered his dinner with a playful question – you can't even remember –
His hand pincers into your wrist. Just hard enough to hurt.
"Who the fuck do you think you are, questioning me?"
His eyes dig into you, screwing in. You feel sweat wet your top lip, your underarms. See his nostrils flare.
His voice is a caress. "I'm waiting."
Your brain crackles. Static.
"Sorry," you breathe.
A heartbeat, two, while he examines your sincerity. "Don't I get a smile with that?"
A smile ghosts over your face.
Slowly he releases you. "Clean it up."
He looms into the lounge. You hear the television talking softly to him. He changes the channel to raucous laughter and turns it up.
The orange linoleum, the lacey kitchen curtains stare.
The ghost of a smile fades. You breathe. Shiver. Pull your sleeves down over the red marks. They are already fading.
Who are you? His words eat into your mind. I am me, you want to whisper back, but have long since forgotten even the words. Let alone the meaning.
No one. Less than no one.
"Who do you think you are?" Her nasal voice reaches a new height of mildly offended disapproval. "Really." Her tongue clicks. In that click is an ocean of disgust. Regret. A mother-load of disappointment, he thinks, ha. Only his mother can deliver all that in a single tut.
Her hand flicks in his general direction. "Put something else on, dear."
Donny's hands crush the back rung of the dining room chair. He fights the urge to rub his neck, tug on the talismans around his neck. He waits til his anger is manageable. "No."
"Oh, darling, please." Mother and Father exchange a glance over the paperwork spread over the shine of the mahogany. They don't need to roll their eyes. It's understood.
Donny feels his anger rising, a whale about to breach. He is careful to talk calmly, though his breath steams between his teeth. "I have the right-"
"Darling, don't make a scene." His mother's lips press.
Father's throat clearing bulldozes right through their words. "You know nothing about rights, son."
You're just a child. It's unsaid, but he hears it anyway. A child is not really human. Not really.
Donny peels his fingers away from the chair. They leave mists of skeleton bones on the wood. "You can't tell me who I am."
"I can, actually." The back of Mother's hand finds her hip. But it's casual. They have no need to actually try. That's how low he is. How impotent. His blood rages with hormones and he may as well be a gelding. A toddler. A child. "You're my son. What if Reverend Scoville sees you in that get up?"
He feels his cheeks burning as their gaze slither down him and up. The sarong wrapped around his thighs felt so right in his room. He refuses to entertain the thought it feels different now. "I can wear what I want."
Father grunts. "You kids. It's all about what you want, isn't it? All rights and no responsibilities." He picks up a pen and returns his attention to important things.
"Darling, you look ridiculous." There is no arguing with that tone. It is the tone of absolute certainty.
Donny argues anyway. "I look like me." Hates the rising whininess he hears in his own voice.
An incredulous look is passed between Mother and Father. They dissolve into giggles.
In the face of their ridicule, he is powerless. He waits but it is useless. His feet return him to his room. He swelters beneath the fumes of his anger. Burns beneath his shame. Collapses at his desk. Picks up a pen, just to mangle it tween his fingers. The square of paper gazes blankly at him from his desk. Humans rights, the title of his assignment says. The page is blank. Images of torture, of religious freedom had flooded his mind, of muddy bellied children and indigenous people staunch by their trees, their rivers, their land. Now, there is a white, empty fury.
His hand shakes, his stomach quivers with rage.
Human rights, his hand writes, human rights are the right to be human.
A paper. White square. Pure, untouched. My fingers are haunted by the need to fill it, to pour out the maelstrom from my head. The white square hazes, becomes two. My heart leaps. Two! But with a blink, there's only one. I swallow. The sides of my throat are swollen and dry. One. One is enough.
The sergeant's knuckle implants on the page. Her breath clouds around my head. The planks of the chair eat into my thighs. Hers is the only voice in the room.
"You asked for paper."
I can smell her last meal on her breath. A few scant molecules, but they make my stomach wring tight as a vice. I hardly feel it. Paper!
My breath puffs in front of my face. My ears throb with cold. The room is a freezer. A concrete tomb. I don't see it any more. Just the paper. The pure white possibilities. My hand moves of its own volition, floating towards the pen. I don't care that they're watching. Characters are heaving from my ears. The pen falls into my icy hand like a sigh. My fingers hug its sides. My chest wells with pleasure.
Her finger taps the page.
My breath stops.
Characters run away screaming. Words evaporate.
The paper waits.
"Names, addresses, that's all. Let's start with names."
At last my voice breaches the silence. "I…"
Her face is stretched with anticipation, almost popping off her skull.
My chest is empty. The pen falls unnoticed from my hand.
"You asked for paper. You are a writer." The corner of her lips hold a twist of spiteful humour. I had proved that well enough. They hadn't been able to shut me up, before. Writing this, writing that. Flaunting their censors, ducking their bans. They try to scare you into silence. I refused to accept that fear. But now I was silent. Now I refused to write. Part of me could understand their frustration. "Write."
I force my jaw to work words past my tongue, my clamping teeth. "I asked for paper to write a complaint. A, a complaint against the conditions-"
She shoves the paper away with a growl of annoyance. "You prisoners are always complaining!" It flutters to the floor in waltzing arcs. I watch it like a leaf over a waterfall. It is gone to me. Lost forever. My bones ache with loss.
Automatically, I sit on my hands and zone out the sergeant's rants. My weight presses the last of the blood from my fingers. I have a right to complain, and they know it. It scares them. They will strike back. They have to, or they will crack. Watching us, day after day, refusing to lower ourselves to their level. It scares them bad.
And I don't even have to do anything.
What I do is push my fear deep and survive without killing anyone else. It's harder than it sounds.
The cold is a useful method of persuasion. It's very economical. The guards don't have to do a thing. In fact, the less they do, the better.
How much can you give up, and still be human? I find my eyes still stare at that paper. I force them to my lap.
No one else seems to see my thin cotton smock. No one seems to notice they all wear layers of knits, felted coats, lamb's wool hats. No one seems to notice our breath puffing into mushroom clouds. My skin is clamped to my head with cold. My nose brittle, my skull like crystal: a touch and it will shatter.
A heavy, drawn breath. The lecture is over. A gesture for a guard to attend. The guard bends and smoothes the paper back in front of me. The sergeant leans closer.
"Names." Her voice is dangerously low, dangerously slow. The same question, always, and one that I have never answered. To give them the names of my fellow writers, to spread the pool of suffering beyond the body I can control: the ramifications are unknowable. Uncontainable. I can't put my name to that. I can't.
"You will write, or you will go back to your cell."
My chest shudders. I can't.
A spasm constricts my heart. I c-
"5 days low rations." Low rations is water every second day. I have had three months of full rations, and my knees are the largest part of me.
Inside me, silence answers her. I search, but I have nothing.
My hand picks up the pen. Each breath shakes me.
The point scratches letters into the page.
You have no right to question me
AN: written for the Review Game's Writing Challenge Contest (link on my profile).
(and 'Human Rights is the right to be human' is a quote from Upendra Baxi, I cut Donny off before he had time to do a proper reference ;) )