Scribbles on the Walls


I don't think I had ever noticed the markings on the walls. How I missed them in the first place is beyond me. There they were in plain view, unapologetically childish scribbles on the bathroom walls. Many had begun to fade. Some had been traced over, pathetic attempts to preserve the fading drawings. These traces, these new lines, were never as graceful as the original ones. The originals were spontaneous and flowed smoothly, as if drawn in a single daring sweep. The new ones were timid, calculating, desperately trying to follow the originals, to not deviate from the course. And as such they ended up destroying any charm the original lines may have possessed.

One drawing that soon caught my eye didn't have this problem. On the farthest wall, under the only window, was a design. Calling it a design might have been too flattering. It was nothing more than a tangle of lines drawn in a roughly circular manner. At the center, I could barely discern another drawing: a definite shape hidden underneath that tangled mess. I knew something was there because the lines were too perfect. But since I didn't know what to look for, I really couldn't make out what it was.

I shouldn't have given it much thought. It was little more than vandalism. But there was something sad and deliberate about it: something I hadn't seen before. The markings held no anger or warning, no rebellion or hope. They were there, they were fading, they were being preserved.

I asked one of my co-workers about it. She shrugged and left without answering. Her attitude failed to surprise me. I had learned quickly this was not the place to ask questions, no matter how trivial or innocent.

One rainy morning a new worker was brought in. Lucky for him, he was quiet and learned quickly. Despite this, he was, as they all were at some point, curious about certain things and asked certain questions. They answered him as best as they could, which usually meant a shrug and a fearful glance over the shoulder. He seemed to have resigned himself more quickly than most, for they never saw him struggle or complain. This made him a favorite: he was frequently sent down to the cellars. Although he appeared unchanged, if one looked closely, one could catch that glimpse in his eye. Such a commonplace occurrence affected them little: it happened to all of them. It was hard enough carrying one's own burdens without having to worry for another's. There was nothing to be done anyway.

Between hours, they noticed him visiting the deserted fourth-floor bathroom more often. The markings on the walls kept him entranced for hours. Everyone else had learned to ignore them. The markings were there, and they were painted by one of their own, and nothing more needed to be said.

I found him one day, the person who drew the scribbles on the walls. It was either very early morning or very late night. I wasn't supposed to be awake. I could think, and I needed to clear my mind. There was a strong pressure on my chest that prevented me from breathing. I couldn't force myself back to sleep; I was afraid I'd suffocate. Something inside was choking me. I dropped from my bed and wandered around my room. The room was too small, too cold, too dark, and I still couldn't breathe. The ceiling was too low, the walls too close, and I couldn't stand properly any more. I had to get away from the walls, away from the ceiling. Away from the doctors I saw through the window, the doctors in their pristine white crossing the dark grounds—they looked like two lanterns—holding a sheet between them, something carried on it. Something, something I didn't care to know about. They walked so casually. Something, something I didn't want to think about. I fled my room.

The door gave way, no lock held me back. My nose was assaulted by the common smells found here. Those, those I didn't care to think about. Or didn't know or want to know about. They're sharp and metallic, and they smell like something in a hospital or church or morgue. There's something hidden underneath the smell. Something, something I don't believe in. I hadn't been afraid of the dark since I was a child.

I ran down the halls. Softly, quietly, fearfully. What if they found me? I was meant to be in my room. But my feet moved on their own. I needed to go back, but I couldn't stop. I was moving: I couldn't stop. Not now. I arrived at the fourth floor, down the hall, to the right. Light filtered in through the window now, the only window in the bathroom. How long had I been there? It felt like only a few seconds, but I had been told my perception of time would alter. How long have I been here? My feet were numb on the tiled floor. Sunrise, it never is glorious. The light is never golden and warm. The light is blue or green or gray. I can't much tell the difference.

I don't know when I saw him. I was carried over somehow. He hadn't turned around. He must have known I was there. But it wouldn't make a difference if I was here or not, or if he was there or not. I think I talked to him. I don't remember exactly what I said or what he said but that doesn't really matter. He stood at that tangle and held out a marker and drew over it skilfully and with confidence. And then I realized there were certain parts he never drew over and others where he only touched lightly. He may have pointed this out or not. I don't remember. And I confirmed my suspicion that there was a meaningful drawing behind it, but I still couldn't see what it was.

We talked about some thing or other. We weren't supposed to talk much. I think I asked him why I hadn't seen him before. He said, I think, because he worked on another level. Sometimes, I think he said, he was assigned to my floor, and that's when he came here to draw. He must have been working here for years, I figured. Then he left and, I guess, went to his room. I did the same.

The next day, they discovered I had wandered.

After the wandering incident, he lasted little. He was taken more often to the cellars—to calm down, it was said. They saw less and less of the man who drew on the walls until they stopped seeing him altogether. Such a commonplace occurrence affected them little. He asked them about that man one time. They told him no one had seen him in years, and reminded him he had been told his perception of time would alter.

The bathroom hadn't changed. A blue light bulb, shamelessly not attempting to mimic real sunlight, hung in the center. A cold sun, shamelessly not attempting to mimic real sunlight, filtered through the window. My feet were numb on the tiled floor. Just last night I had first seen him, and the day before that, I had seen the drawings. That was years ago. I had a bucket and a rag: I was to erase drawings from the walls. He wouldn't be back they told me. Someone needed to clean off his memory. Unmoved, I began. It didn't matter any more, I don't think. He wasn't here to complain. There was nothing to be done anyway.

They come off easily. One or two swipes of the rag, and they're gone. But if I squint, I can still make them out. I don't think anyone will squint and see them; they won't see them if they're not looking for them. I don't need to exert myself. I'll be all right. Maybe one day they'll discover my secret. They'll come into the bathroom, years from now, and squint and see that I didn't erase them completely. One wall, two walls, three walls. The drawings appear gone. I won. Under the window—there they are! Those scribbles he had given extra care to. I approach them as I had done that first day I saw them. But this time, I think, I can tell what they are if I tilt my head, and if I squint, and if I know what to look for. The undecipherable tangle fades away, and I can see straight to the figure below: a perfect representation of madness.


A/N: I wrote this about six or seven months ago and only edited and rewrote it recently in the last couple of months. I've the nagging feeling each subsequent rewrite made it worse. Eh, I've lost interest in it. Feel free to rip it to shreds. If anyone wonders about the odd setting, it's meant to take place some time in a distant, dismal future.