Writing Prompt Response – For Your Instruction

The Writing Prompt was: You awake in an inescapable room that contains a keyboard, a TV with the news on, and a brief paper book. The first page of the book tells you that every button on the keyboard, when pressed, will cause a tragedy, but a button combo potentially exists that will set you free.


Disoriented.

That word describes my first hour or so in the room I awoke in. My eyes opened, expecting some semblance of normality, only to find a room that was unfamiliar, with no visible exits for me to leave through. I was trapped, without knowledge of how I arrived, explanation of why I was here, or information about what I was expected to do. Was I supposed to just die?

Confused.

Why was I here? Was I kidnapped and being held hostage? Was I being held for some other nefarious or diabolical reason? What was the reason I could not leave? I couldn’t seem to find much in the way of answers while I searched every crevice of the walls – smooth stone, as though crafted for a purpose – and scratched at every seam – where the smooth walls met the floor and each other – though I found no respite. I left some blood in some of those seams, as my searching became scratching, and my measured approach became madness. But eventually I reigned it in with some slow breaths and an attempt to approach my forced solitude with my mind and not my hands. It was only then, after I calmed down to a less frantic state, that I realized I wasn’t alone in an empty room with a bed.

There was a flickering I hadn’t really consciously paid any attention to on a table in the middle of the room, which was emanating from some television news program I wasn’t familiar with. I didn’t watch much news in my daily life, so this wasn’t a shock, but it was curious that it was on at all. Upon further investigation, I couldn’t seem to alter the TV in any fashion. I was unable to turn it off, alter the channel, or even unplug it – my guess was that the cord ran through the table leg or it was battery powered – but I could change the volume. That was helpful. I tended to prefer subtitles, but for live programs, subtitles were always off by just enough to be irritating.

Curious.

Next to the TV with the flickering news program, showing random news images and stories from around the world, I saw a keyboard. This keyboard was your standard QWERTY keyboard with 100 or so keys, a full numpad, and nothing else. No volume buttons or shortcut keys or anything that was more standard and expected in current technology. Just a boring old QWERTY keyboard. It was in flawless condition, probably was never used, but did not give me any other visual information to tell me its purpose.

The only other thing of note was that it appeared to be embedded in the table, unmovable, and had no visible cord or power source. I also had no indication what it might be connected to. And then I saw the last thing that was in the room with me. I didn’t know it at the time, but beyond the TV, the keyboard, and my bed, I was alone in this room with a notebook. Really it could barely be called that, it only had a few pages, maybe 15-20. Nothing special about it to mention, a standard notebook you might have taken to school.

FOR YOUR INSTRUCTION

The notebook had only those three words inscribed on the cover. They weren’t handwritten and looked as though they had been impressed with some kind of printing press-type blocks. It was really quite peculiar, but still not as peculiar as what was inside.

USE THE KEYBOARD TO SET YOU FREE

WHEN USED CORRECTLY

The rest of the notebook, some 20 or so pages exactly the same as the first, were blank. I re-read those four lines, with no punctuation or indication of any kind of clues or further instruction, at least 20 more times. They were my only quantifiable instruction, my only clue, my only evidence that there was at least some way to escape.

Anger.

What did ‘correctly’ mean? How can I use it correctly without any idea what I should use it for, or what is incorrect? There was nothing visibly different about this keyboard to set it apart from any other keyboard I had used a million times without thinking. Fingers on the home row, watch out for Caps-Lock, thumbs for space bar, all of that. Nothing unique.

I screamed. First I screamed to let out the rage that had been building, just because it felt good to expel energy. Then I screamed again because the rage kept building. I screamed and screamed and screamed until my throat was raw. I coughed and sat down on the bed, breathing hard, feeling my body straining from all of the screaming.

My ears weren’t happy either. The room functioned like a cave and every scream echoed back to hurt. But I didn’t care. This was absolutely insane. At first it might have been a dream – a nightmare even – but it had gone on too long to be anything more than some kind of sick experiment or kidnapper’s delight. So I tried screaming again but nothing came out. My throat had given up and a hoarse whisper was all that echoed.

“I won’t play your game. Whoever you are. I refuse.” I don’t know who I was talking to. I couldn’t seem to find any cameras or any kind of indication that anyone was watching. I didn’t even really have any idea how the room was lit up, as the light was uniformly all over the ceiling and it was at least 20 feet above me.

So perhaps the camera was hidden among the lights. So I laid down in my bed and used my middle fingers to inform the person watching the feed what I thought of them. And I informed them hard. My veins were popping in my neck from my impassioned display of anger. But there was no response other than the ever-present flickering TV.

Acceptance.

I decided I had been defiant long enough. I received no visible response to my inaction or my ‘flipping the bird’, and it was clear that wasn’t working. Trying to sleep didn’t help either, the hum from the lights and the TV was just perceptible enough when I closed my eyes that I couldn’t drown it out in the complete silence. I also liked sleeping with white noise like a fan, so doing so without is not really a thing.

The TV indicated that only a few hours had passed but still the news was moving along. A ticker on the bottom, talking heads in the middle, some story and then another story and then another. Endless.

So I went back to the desk, realized that a stool was hiding under it for me to sit on, and took a moment to try and understand what the notebook meant.

USE THE KEYBOARD TO SET YOU FREE

WHEN USED CORRECTLY

So, clearly the intent of this room, of my captor, of my predicament, is to use the keyboard to get free. I imagine most people would have jumped at this set of instructions, but it just infuriated me that I had no choice in the matter. I probably would have at least considered this experiment if given a choice, but forcing my hand was a sure way of convincing me to do the exact opposite.

“But oh well. I’ll do it. You a-holes.” I somewhat muttered this, hoping that their monitoring system picked it up, but saying it more for myself than any onlookers. The notebook was sitting nearby and I looked at the keyboard, unsure really what to do or why I was here, but knowing that I needed to try something.

“I guess I’ll just … start with … “ I pressed a key on the keyboard. It was the letter ‘Q’, as I figured I’d just start with the first of the letters.

I paused. No sounds other than the brief clicking of the key, and no movement that I could discern, beyond the flickering of the TV. I had hoped for a spy-show style panel opening in a wall for me to escape or eat something or who knows, but … nothing. Nothing at all.

So I pressed the next letter. ‘W’. Same clicking sound, no other noticeable difference. I had cringed and hesitated each time I pressed a letter so far, but without any way of knowing anything was happening, I felt that frustration building.

E
R
T
Y

I’d now pressed the whole QWERTY start to the keyboard. Once per key, unsure what I was doing, and now I’d completed 6 keystrokes with nothing to show for it. Silence. Just my breathing and the barely perceptible hum of the lights and TV. I slouched a bit and looked at the TV, trying to figure out what the heck to do next. I had no frame of reference for my actions, no clue about what keys to press in what order, and nothing to do but think.

Breaking news!

The TV was blaring in bright red letters across the top with a splash graphic. The camera zoomed in on the good looking man in a sharp suit who was speaking in grave a tone about something. I realized I needed to turn the volume on to avoid lip-reading – which I couldn’t do.

“We have breaking news for you now, again, dear viewers. I wish I could tell you that, unlike the other tragedies we have experienced recently, that this was – “ He cleared his throat and continued. “– something good, but sadly it is another tragedy on this heartbreaking day. A passenger train in Nevada has derailed, sending its 154 passengers and cargo careening off the rails. At this time, based on the damage to the train and the fire which quickly spread over the cars, there are no believed survivors. Please, stay safe dear viewers, in this uncertain time.”

Wow. That’s horrific! So many lives lost. It was awful to see stories like this. Always another life lost in another tragic way and there was nothing I could do about it. And this was why I didn’t watch the news.

Breaking news!

Another splash of the graphic. This time I heard the trumpets that played with it to signify that I should pay attention, though I was still emotionally reeling from the derailed train. This time the camera zoomed in on the attractive woman and she was preparing to deliver what appeared to be equally tragic news.

“Yellowstone Caldera, the super volcano located in Yellowstone National Park has erupted, sending ash high in the sky and visibly as a mushroom-style cloud. Drones have been used to validate that lava is flowing but is far enough and slow enough that most people should have little trouble escaping the effects. The ash is the bigger concern, already responsible for damage of local fauna and wildlife, and causing at least one death – when a tourist stumbled into Old Faithful while trying to escape the ash. Our prayers are with the surrounding counties and communities in Wyoming as rescue workers and emergency responders begin the arduous task ahead.”

I was at a loss for words. I wasn’t stupid. I could put it together that the two tragedies I had heard about were about a train and Yellowstone. The last two letters I pressed were T and Y. I wasn’t prepared for this to have an actual effect though. Certainly nothing of this magnitude.

“What the hell is going on?!” I yelled at the lights, the presumed location of the captor’s cameras and any monitoring equipment. I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I was somehow, some illogical how, the cause of those tragedies. And presumably tragedies I didn’t witness, as I didn’t see the ones likely associated with the first four letters I pressed.

I backed away from the keyboard, turned the sound down on the TV, and sat down on the bed with the notebook in my hands. There had to be another clue I had missed. Some imprint of text that I didn’t see before, some writing or information that would help me. Help me escape, help me survive, help me to keep other tragedies from happening. I scanned the cover carefully, and the back of the notebook, and found nothing I had not seen before. Opening the notebook to the first page, I read the following again:

USE THE KEYBOARD TO SET YOU FREE

WHEN USED CORRECTLY

YOU WILL CAUSE A TRAGEDY

IN ORDER TO SET YOU FREE

I dropped the notebook out of surprise and shock. Those last two lines were not there previously. I wouldn’t have missed them. They weren’t there.

“What kind of game are you playing?!” I screamed again, some of my voice having returned, and feeling helpless rage rising within me once more. “What do you want?!”

Resignation.

It took at least another few hours before I had finally calmed down. I might have even drifted to sleep finally, out of sheer rage-induced exhaustion, but I couldn’t tell. There was no visual indicator of time passing other than the TV. So I turned over and sat on the edge of the bed, looking again at the notebook. At the words that were there and the words that weren’t there before. And I slowly picked it up again, like I was picking up some sharp object.

No punctuation, no visually obvious order, and no clues to help me understand what I was expected to do. The only thing I was starting to believe was that somehow I was causing some tragedies to happen. Which is completely ridiculous. But why not? With everything else insane happening presently, why couldn’t I be causing these things?

“Because it’s frickin’ stupid and insane! That’s why!” I yelled to no one. I held the notebook in my hands, looking at the words of the four lines over and over, until I had had enough once more, and threw it on the other side of the bed again. I let my head fall into my hands and felt tears of frustration and anxiety mixed with hopelessness. This was not happening.

And yet, looking at the TV briefly, those same two news anchors kept reminding me it was, via the ticker at the bottom and occasional brief snippets of video from the tragedies. The six tragedies that had happened in quick succession, all because – somehow – I pressed some keys.

I turned to look at the notebook and noticed it was open. Open to another page I had looked at previously but had nothing written on it. I hated mysteries and this was just another one layered on top of the others. The many questions I had weren’t answered on this page.

t w y r t t w y re ree

Gibberish. Nothing I could understand just by looking at it anyway. I felt frustration building again, but calmed myself down, trying to figure out what was happening. When I couldn’t see any patterns or information that was useful on that page, I turned to the next, hoping for more magical words to have appeared.

And they had.

After four blank lines on the page, a fifth one listed the following:
E – Electrical Fire in Mall of America – 594

Eleven more blank lines, then the following:
Q – Quarry Collapses in Badlands – 9

Right below that:
R – Rocky Mountain Avalanche – 82

One more blank line and then:
T – Train Derailment in Nevada – 154

Two more blank lines and:
W – Wild Animals Escape St. Louis Zoo – 47

One more blank line and then:
Y – Yellowstone Caldera Eruption – 1

I was trembling as I read every line. It only took me a moment to figure out what those numbers meant, and they all added up to six keystrokes and 887 lives.
And when I turned back to the prior page, it clicked.

t w y r t t w y re ree

I was playing the most horrifying game of hangman that I (and likely anyone) had ever played. I wanted to scream again, to tell my captor’s that I was done with this game, but I had tried multiple times now to no avail. I could try the silent approach, but that made no difference earlier. If I’m being honest with myself, I wished I had some way of just killing myself instead of continuing this game, but there was simply no easy way of doing that. Nothing sharp, nothing easy, no simple way of ending this game besides more keystrokes.

Defeated.

I gave up. I looked at my hangman letters and tried to figure out what words they might be hiding, to minimize the keystrokes – tragedies – and lives I would be taking, even as I literally constantly questioned my ability to do so. If I was a stronger person, one not so selfish and focused on self-preservation, then I would have just let myself starve. I would have found a way to avoid any further actions. But I am weak. I am a coward. I am – or I have decided that I am – willing to let others suffer so I can leave.
They won.

I pressed another key. I’ve watched Wheel of Fortune, I know you go for certain letters first.

S

And I checked the notebook again, simply avoiding the TV. I couldn’t turn it away or off, so I just let it stay in my peripheral.

t w s y r t t w y re ree

A new letter. Okay. Ignore the red splash page on the TV.

A

Back to the notebook.

t was a y r a t t w y are ree

Red splash page on the TV. I realized I could hear the trumpets and turned down the noise all the way, forcing myself not to look at the words or pictures being shown. The results of my actions.

I

After every letter it was back to the notebook.

It was a y r a t t w y are ree

It’s a sentence. It’s making more sense, even as vile as this whole thing was. Keep concentrating. The only thing you can do is keep pressing keys.

O

It was a yo r a t t ow yo are ree

It’s coming together. Keep breathing, keep pressing keys.

U

It was a your au t ut ow you are ree

Another splash page. I turned to look, a moment of curiosity and weakness, and had to rip my eyes away. A few more letters to go.

B

It was a your au t but ow you are ree

When I turned back, I realized I was sweating pretty badly. It wasn’t overly hot in the room, but I was losing the battle of wills with my conscience. I slipped.

I really don’t know what keys I pressed. It was a bunch though. A bunch of lives. Probably a lot that were entirely wasted if not entirely innocent. Maybe a few criminals but mostly – if not all – totally innocent. Not deserving of death for my life. If this was real. If this was actually happening.

It was a your fau t but now you are free

My hands were shaking again. I knew what the sentence was and what letters were missing. I closed my eyes, took a breath to steady myself – and avoid extraneous keys – and pressed it.

L

It was all your fault but now you are free

I couldn’t believe it. I had finished the sentence, and it was another taunt. But it was done. This had to be the end of it all. It had to be the conclusion. The finish line. I couldn’t keep going. And then I looked. I looked briefly at the TV which seemed to be just showing more of the same. The anchors were clearly losing their practiced cool, with tears flowing openly. Tragedy after tragedy would do that to you.

I realized that there was one other place to look. I was both curious and hating myself for wanting to look, but I had to look at the page with the … with the tragedies. And there they were.

I had used 21 total letters. I counted. I needed way less than that. I couldn’t even read each line, as my eyes were blurring at each tragedy. The lives that were ended so I could keep mine.

I totaled it all though. The total loss of life for my 21 keystrokes to save my life: 9,557 lives.

My head hung low and I grieved openly. Sobs wracking my body. I was absolutely horrified at myself, even though it was exactly what I knew I would do – for fear of losing my own life. And the notebook dropped from my hands so I could wipe my eyes and try to figure out if I was now free. Maybe a door. Maybe a panel. Maybe a rope or something or someone.

Nothing. Nothing had changed about the room. The only thing I did notice was that the notebook had defaulted back to its first page, the one with the four lines. That were now five.

USE THE KEYBOARD TO SET YOU FREE

WHEN USED CORRECTLY

YOU WILL CAUSE A TRAGEDY

IN ORDER TO SET YOU FREE

END THE TRAGEDY PRESS END AND BE FREE

I didn’t even hesitate. I didn’t even have much emotion left inside. I stood up and walked the steps to the keyboard and waited only a moment before pressing the ‘End’ key on the keyboard. My heartbeat quickened, my mind raced, and I felt the click before the sound deafened the quiet room. And the lights went dark. The TV turned off. And I felt nothing.


And for those of you wanting just a ‘bit’ more, I wrote a poem in response to a question about what happened at the end.


At first there was a curse,
Explained with a verse,
A truth without context,
An exit in reverse.

Then there was confusion,
A moment of abrasion,
Emotions in a spiral,
Eureka after aggravation.

The exit was obscured,
Motives seemed absurd,
The options were limited,
But an ending was assured.

Keystrokes causing death in a sense,
Innocents chasing innocence,
A click and a horn and destruction unleashed,
An exit hidden by a hangman fence.

The game was played,
The toll was payed,
A world in turmoil,
A soul was flayed.

In concert the letters revealed,
A symphony of awfulness concealed,
Release from the cage came swiftly,
Clarity about the source never unveiled.

If it had no motive or clear meaning,
And the story was empty seeming,
Maybe you have not yet found the order,
In a world of chaos teaming.

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