“I,” he wrote in large, blocked script with a pen clenched between the stiff fingers of his left hand. A more definite pronoun had never before graced a blank page.
Except for every other page in the diary.
And every other diary of every other shelf in the small room, made even smaller by the rows of books- diaries, journals, notebooks- that lined its walls.
“I.” He traced the letter so carefully that it was as if he’d never before held a pen. The bold letter stared back up at him, an insolent black spot marring the snowy whiteness of the page, which crinkled in his grasp. His right hand quivered like an autumn leaf as he carried the Cyclops paper with its single monstrous eye to the far shelf. His left hand, still clinging to the pen, was steady.
The man ran an index finger, pale and icy cold, across the spines of the books, finally selecting one and tapping it several times before fumbling to remove it and set it on the desk. He took a rattling breath and drew back its covers, heart pounding in anticipation of what secrets might be sleeping between them. He thumbed through its pages, letting more and more slide past with each second, quicker and quicker until only one remained unturned. Yet not a single one remained unread. As the words had flickered across his vision, they had illuminated the dark recesses of his mind and a life had flashed before his eyes: his life.
But it was so unfamiliar! The people, the places, the great love for that one person and that one place that outshone all others were there before him in the words of the diary… all was so strange, but while human eyes are deceiving, written “I”s tell no lies and there, on every page of that simple brown book, were enough “I”s to have overwhelmed Argus himself. And they were all his. He remembered none until reading them, but they were unmistakably identical to the unblinking “I” on the crinkled page.
He slammed the book shut with a sharp snap, grunting as he shoved it back into its spot. He clenched his fists against his forehead, further crumpling the lonely letter in his hand.
“It can’t be. No. One letter cannot prove anything…” he muttered frantically. “I’ll just choose another…or several… Yes, a whole word this time!” His voice was harsh, as if from disuse, and echoed like scratching on a rough blackboard.
He smoothed the paper against the desk once more and held it as his ever-steady left hand wrote: “Y-O-U.”
“You,” he whispered.
Perhaps he was disappointed in himself for not thinking of a more profound term, for he sighed heavily as he limped across the room. There, he plucked three books from their shelf, all alike in their bright bindings and compact shape. All three nestled snugly together in the palm of his hand and he flipped through them as swiftly as he had the first book. Their pages fluttered, blowing gently up at him and ruffling the damp grey locks that hung over his forehead.
This zephyr failed to blow away the clouds in the man’s eyes, however, and tears threatened to fall as a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of lost innocence unveiled itself in his mind. As the final page exposed itself, he paused and looked at it with an anguished expression across his lined face.
“You,” accused the journal sorrowfully.
“You,” mocked the paper clutched in his shaking hand.
Again, the writing was unmistakably identical. The storm in the man’s eyes broke and a choked cry escaped his throat.
“My Word! My life…” he crammed the books blindly onto the shelf and swiped at his eyes. They fell to the floor and lay with their covers splayed, baby birds fallen from their nest.
“My Word!” he sobbed again. “What have I done? But I remember nothing, none of it. It’s all lies- it must be. Just one new letter…one odd word to set me free- one alone to prove truth or lie!”
He raked his damp hair from his face with a new aggression and shoved the wilted page back onto the table, muttering determinedly as he wrote the word he most desired.
He threw down the pen, took up the page in his unwavering left hand, and began to run about the room, bumping into shelf corners and smacking into walls, as heedless to his own pain as the fly that beats itself to death against its own reflection. He pulled five volumes from the five corners of the room and tucked them under his arm as he stumbled back to the desk where he threw them down violently. He continued to allow the single paper, now scarred thrice, to soak in the sweat of his palm. Still standing, he opened the first journal and fanned its pages, which turned eagerly at his touch.
The words spoke- no, sang- of simpler times, of childish games, silly flirtations, merry romps; teatimes, fairy tales, twinkling stars, camping trips. The letter “T” waved at him from its lines like an old friend and seemed almost to laugh at his distress. It smiled when matched to the “T” of “TRUTH” on the separate page.
The second diary was calm, solemn, fervent. Its revelations restored the clouds to the man’s eyes, which the first book, in its unrestrained mirth, had temporarily banished. This pious book too matched the paper, now bleeding ink mingled with sweat beneath the heat of his hand. Its righteousness and redemption bore the same “R” as “TRUTH.”
The “U” was present also, in the third book. This one was neither religious nor childish, but simply an eclectic collection of scribblings. And yet, umbrella, undergarment, ugly, underneath, up, and countless other bits of nonsense bore the recognizable vowel written by the man’s own pen.
The fourth volume was a ragged notebook covered with letters so cramped together that it was difficult to decipher them, but their form was obvious. Every character, although miniature, matched those of the now-tearing page.
The “H” and its host book struck more fear into the heart of the desperate reader than any amount of teatimes or umbrellas or even religions could. These “H”s were as uniform as soldiers leading funeral processions of letters. They were the leaders of hopes and heartaches, heavens and hells. They and the “H” of “TRUTH” were united in form and function, all simultaneously condemning their reader- and their Writer- to the realization of the truth, the realization of his life.
The last of the journals thumped closed, the sudden noise resounding like the chop of an ax in the tense silence of the room. A few moments passed and the stillness folded once more around the man, broken only by his uneven breathing.
“All of it…” he gasped finally, sucking at the air in desperation. “All of it true…every word my own, my own story…my life.” He inhaled sharply, struggling against the strangle-hold of his own despair. “Yet I recognize not a sentence, not a word. Am I so forgetful as to not remember myself apart from these books?”
Silence laughed at his question. Beside him, a book slide sideways on its shelf with a muffled thud.
“Yet,” he repeated, “it is all true; every jot, every tittle. All truth…all me.”
He grasped at his chest, releasing the abused paper to lie with its abandoned sisters. Tearing at the collar of his shirt, he cried out, but for once, it seemed, he had no words. He exhaled air and saliva through a clenched jaw and pressed his palms into the face of the desk until the knuckles of his fingers turned whiter than the spaces in his diaries. Harder and harder he pressed until his strength failed and he surrendered, collapsing into the chair and letting his head fall into his arms.
Had a clock been present, several hours would have ticked by as the man lay motionless at the desk, but the walls held only books upon books, entries upon entries. No windows offered consoling sunshine or even the sympathetic glow of the moon. The man was completely and utterly forsaken to ponder the past and future that belonged to him alone but did not seem to belong to him at all.
As outside the door-less, airless prison, the shadows lengthened and twilight settled, the man’s broken breathing became a shallow snore and his body relaxed, no longer racked by unutterable sobs. His hands were no longer veined with stress, but one, the right, continued to twitch. As the man snored calmly, the agitated right hand crept forward, apparently of its own accord, and dragged an empty notebook from the shelf above the desk. It flipped it open with a scarcely-audible click and, tiptoeing around it, plucked up the pen and began to dance across its pages. After a few practice twirls to get the ink flowing, the hand paused as if thinking, and began to write, the letters that bubbled freely from its pen the same as those of the man’s conscious left hand, but the words they formed told tales never before read or lived.
Just before dawn broke on the world outside of the man’s library cell, the right hand jabbed the final page of the notebook with a period, replaced the pen to its cup, and closed the book. It then crawled back across the desk, folded itself gently over the slumbering dominant hand, and grew still, no longer twitching. The only evidence of its nighttime activity was a small ink stain on its pinky finger.