The Pen is the Key

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The guard visits my cell each morning with the rising sun. He refills my water, delivers my porridge and asks a single, particular question. I answer honestly, the only way I know. He observes my answer and writes it in the ledger. My response determines whether the me on the other side of my glass-walled box turns left or right.

"Are you happy?" the guard asks.
"Yes", I answer. "Last night I witnessed a comet with the most glorious reddish-orange tail scorch the black night sky." I am aware of so many such things.
He doesn't care why. He scrawls 'yes' on the ledger.
I race to the glass to watch what you do. Yes, happy, always equals left, so that is the way you turn. The guard watches too, and jots 'left', but left means so much more. It means everything. On this day, left means you call your mother to tell her you've published a paper. She smiles.

"Are you happy?" the guard asks.
"No", I answer.
Today I am not happy. There was a nightmare. Two suns collided in a giant ball of heat and light. Many great things were lost. The gift of awareness can also be a curse.
I race to the glass. You hesitate over the sink drain, turn right, then pour the questionable smelling milk into the cat's bowl. Unhappy equals right, which today could equal a turned feline stomach.

Happy cannot beget right, and unhappy cannot beget left, but anything is possible before the sun comes up. In the wee hours, before the guard's pen seals my fate, everything is true.

"Are you happy?" the guard asks again today.
"Yes", I answer.
My porridge is warm. Warm porridge makes me happy even when it fails to stop the butterfly wings from flapping in my gut.
I race to the glass to spot you turning left into a theater. You buy a single ticket for a sappy movie about love. I thought you hated movies that ply love on your heartstrings. Something unseen has moved you.

"Are you happy?" the guard asks.
Every day is the same. The guard records my state and together we peer out to see how you react.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason, only connection. The registration of my happiness makes you choose, which makes the deciding not a choice. Entanglement is a vice.

Today, through the glass, you take a knee in a sunny spot in your love's favorite park. Rays of light set wisps of her luscious blonde hair ablaze. You turn and take her soft left hand in your own with a smile, making sweat leap to the surface of my skin. My heart pounds in my chest. Yours beats the same. I hammer my fists against the one-way mirror that bifurcates us as surely as the span of a universe. The wall between us is impermeable to sound, light and all other means of communication, save the spooky strings I hold as your reluctant puppeteer. Nevertheless, I shout, "Stop! She will say no!".
"There are only two possibilities: yes or no," you ask through the slits between your clenched teeth.
She blinks slowly, again and again. Her eyelids wash in and out like waves dragging sandy treasures out of reach, into the depths of her hazel seas. Her lips twist into knots. You have made your choice. I have made your choice over a heartwarming bowl of porridge. How can our world be rigged this way?
"No," she's forced to say.
The velvety box slips from your fingers to the grass. The lid snaps shut--an oyster gagging on its own pearl. You sink out of my sight like a torpedoed boat sucked into the undertow between swells.

There are things I yearn to see us do, but so often we do not do those things. A bit of happiness or a fragment of sadness, always the fulcrum. She'd have married us if we only gave her the space and time. We are one, yet paradoxically I know this and you do not.

"Are you happy," asks the warden, "the guard is sick today."
"Are you?" I bark back with a scowl.
The warden freezes. His pupils collapse to pinheads as if my face has become the sun. "Yes," he whispers. He bows at my feet and holds up the key, the pen, and the ledger. I take them. I ink down his 'yes', unlock the cage, and float out into the vast, undetermined unknown. I feel disentangled, yet I've merely closed my eyes and passed through the glass. A figment of my own ignorance.

About the Author: 
Zack Vogel is an aspiring fiction writer living in upstate New York with his wife and two young sons.