by Marisa DelFarno ’18
Three towering walls wrap around Henry. The dull, plain looking bricks laid out around him resemble grey fish scales. The fourth wall consists of thick rust-rotted bars lined up high in unison. The room is as cold as an icebox. A single dim light bulb flickers above. No windows or daylight can be found.
Henry defeatedly bows his head down and whispers, “Death row.”
“Henry, look at me. Look at me.” Doug pulls Henry’s chin up. “I am going to get you out of here. I promise.”
“But you’re an….” Henry sighs. “I don’t know the word.”
“Yeah,” Henry says. “I didn’t know people like you still existed.”
“We still do. Though there are less of us now since the White-Out Movement. It is much harder to persuade people now when your vocabulary is stuck at 20,000 words—less than what the average 12-year-old used to know.”
Henry turns his head away from Doug and mutters, “My limit is now at 2,000.”
“I know. I know. They shouldn’t have reduced it. The death penalty is enough,” Doug says.
“It doesn’t matter. I am already a dead man,” Henry coldly replies.
“Don’t you dare say that. I am going to help you. I am going to the judge’s chambers this afternoon. He mentioned an alternative,” Doug responds.
Henry shakes his head. “No.”
“There is no use. What’s worse? Death or losing your words? Do you know what this…thing is?”
“The alternative? Not yet. I am going to find out later.”
Henry spins his eyes away from him. Doug lights a cigarette. He takes a drag before looking up at Henry. His dark brown eyes pierce through Henry’s soul.
“You did do it, right?” Doug mutters with his cigarette dangling from his mouth.
“Yes, I was trying to…I can’t think of the word,” Henry says, weighing down his shoulders in defeat.
“Yes, they found me with it.”
Doug pauses for a moment. “How on Earth did you get the book?”
“I hid it years ago before all this happened,” Henry replies.
“And they said the book you were found with was…Fahrenheit 451?” Doug shyly smiles.
Henry lightly chuckles to himself. “Isn’t it…funny?”
“I think ironic is the word you are looking for,” Doug says. “Why that book? Out of all the books in the world?”
“Because like ‘that word’ you said. And also it was my favorite, and I couldn’t leave it so I hid it.” Henry points to the cold concrete floor stretched below him. “I hid it under the…ground of my house. Ten feet under.”
Doug scratches his chin. “Hmm I wonder how many other books are hidden?”
“Does it matter? Our vocab is getting smaller and smaller. We can’t even…” Henry lets silence finish his sentence.
Doug deeply inhales. “I know. Those nuts have ruined everything.”
Henry lies back on the thin mattress on his cot and stares at the pale, tiled ceiling. “How did it get this far?”
“You know. The White-Out Movement, anti-intellectualism, so on.”
Henry lifts his back up from the metal cot. “Wait. You still have that word?”
“Anti-intellectualism? Of course. It is a movement they are proud of. Why get rid of the word?”
Henry lies back down. “Ugh, they had to create that…that…that…thing and make us all dumb,” he says.
“I know. Remember. Never doubt an army of dumbasses. They’re loose cannons.”
Henry takes a long pause. “People are dumb.”
Doug scoffs. “Now we are all dumb…I didn’t know they could continue to limit your vocab. When did yours go all the way down to 2,000?”
Henry extends his arms out with opened palms. “When they put me here.”
Doug sighs. “They never tell me anything until after the fact.”
Their conversation withers into silence. Doug starts to pace around the compact cell. “We need a defense.”
“It is too late,” Henry replies.
“I’m going to talk to the judge. Somehow, he might understand.”
Henry shakes his head defiantly. “He has no say in it. They do.”
Doug doesn’t know how to respond. He lights another cigarette before shattering the silence between them.
“Henry, you are a lot like me. We were both educated before they stole our words. I understand your pain. I miss speaking like an adult. I miss reading. I miss holding a book. And I am going to continue to defend you from those morons. I am willing to lie for you.”
Henry wrinkles his forehead in disbelief. “How?”
“I would say that you simply found the book. It wasn’t yours to begin with. They can’t prove that it was yours.”
“That is just…dumb.”
Doug rubs his forehead.“I don’t know what to say. They burned all the books years ago,” he sighs. “I guess I am stuck telling the judge the truth, but I will make him understand why you were reading. He is—or was—a so-called ‘intellectual’ like us. Maybe he will forgive you. Remember, he mentioned an alternative to the death penalty. Any alternative means living.”
“Doug, just leave. You’re no help. I just…don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Henry turns aside on his cot with his back facing Doug.
Doug slightly opens his mouth to say something, but instead, decides to refrain from speaking. He keeps his feet planted to the solid concrete floor, and stares at Henry before the guards escort him out of Henry’s cell.
“Henry?” Doug says quietly.
Henry looks up from the shaded corner of his cell. He is crouched down on the grimey ground, holding his knees to his chest, convulsing like a leaf in autumn.
“Henry,” he sniffles. “Henry, I am so sorry.”
Henry’s baggy blue eyes stare at him, his pupils dilated with fear.
“If I could, I would continue to fight. I am a horrible, horrible lawyer….I am sorry. When I asked about the alternative, the judge promised you would live, but your vocab would have to be permanently limited. I thought he meant the limit it was at, 2,000. That is what he suggested. That is what I later told you before you accepted the alternative.” his voice shakes. “Henry, I am so sorry.” He pauses. “I didn’t know the judge would have them erase your entire vocabulary…Henry do you understand me? Do…do you know what I’m saying?”
Tears start to gently roll down Doug’s cheek. “Henry. Speak to me.”
Henry does not respond.