“Escaping Purgatory,” by Lucy Zhang
The problem with the room was not that there was no exit, but that there was one—it seemed to lead back to the same room, the same walls on which still life paintings of apples and skulls hung, the same half-empty glass of red wine on the counter, the same four vintage chairs surrounding a table, and this bothered the boy who knew only the logical order of things: an exit cannot be an exit if it does not lead to a way out, and maybe he did exit the room and arrive at an identical-looking room—wormhole theory, surely.
Because you are deaf, you cannot tell when someone creeps up behind you. You can only wait until they tap you on the shoulder after which you’ll turn and look surprised even though you are never really surprised because you’ve been trained to expect these intrusions into your physical space. Because you are deaf, you don’t like to speak because the words embodied by your monotone, guttural voice twist people’s faces into grimaces, but you make a good listener, attentive and quiet, not really listening but lip-reading, constantly searching for meaning you’ve missed when your eyes dart around, trying to pick up on shifts in this space-time continuum.
They used to play Shogi together. The boy would always be memorizing checkmate strategies from a book he carried everywhere—to school where he read it behind the cover of a propped-up textbook, to the girl’s birthday party where he sat on the couch next to a pile of guests’ jackets. The girl would approach him, one hand clutching a stuffed bunny, the other waving to get his attention and look towards the group of kids painting birdhouses with acrylics, wondering if he’d like to join. He’d push her hand away and glare at pages of board layouts and kanji, unwilling to make eye contact. Then she’d sit next to him and read along, and no one else would bother them—because of course, the girl who couldn’t hear had nothing to say, and the boy who refused to take part had no say.
It is just you two. Him, pacing back and forth, trying to find a clue even though he has already scoured the place, every hidden corner, every unturned surface, every box of cards dumped onto the floor to search for secret messages—mostly empty decks save for a King and Queen.
The girl could swim freestyle for a straight hour in the recreation center’s pool. She could tread water long enough to withstand waves crashing over her head. Except not that one time when the waves plunged and surged without rest, choking her with saltwater, and she flailed her arms, breaking the water surface in increasingly short bursts, but she stayed silent, her voice buried beneath sand and silt. She could only hope someone would see.
Do you regret reaching for my hand? You sign. But he doesn’t know sign language. You tap his shoulder and mimic mouth shapes you have committed to memory, try to conceptualize inflection and tone so you sound more normal, less mutilated. “No,” he says.
A stuffed rabbit sat on the rock, its ear stained with dirt and chlorophyll, its pink vest and bow tie frayed at the ends. A Shogi tactics book rested beside it, corners of its pages bent and torn. Their colors clashed against the grey, muted stones and rotting flowers.
You’ve lost count of how many times you two have gone through an exit. You’ve stopped trying to pick up on changes in furniture orientation and playing this Waldo-less version of Where’s Waldo. You just follow now.
He tells you his theories: the singularity of a black hole, a split-second time capsule in a wormhole, a new state of quantum consciousness, a side effect of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. He wants to know your thoughts.
About the Author
Lucy Zhang is a writer, software engineer, and anime fan. Her work has appeared in Back Patio, Maudlin House, Parentheses Journal, Gone Lawn, and elsewhere. She can be found at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.