Spheres in a Pool
I sat on the edge of the luminescent pool, trying to will myself to dive again into that horrible liquid. Far below the surface lay the spheres piled and jumbled together. Those tiresome, vital, detestable spheres.
“Damn them,” I said. I never wanted to see another one as long as I lived. But in them, in one of them at least, lay the key to my escape from this concrete hellhole.
My cell was smaller than a college dorm room: a concrete cube with lichen growing on the walls. At one end was a locked gate and the way of eventual freedom. It led out to a hallway lined with similar cells.
I went to the gate. “Hey Jerry, you okay?” Jerry, the man in the cell across from mine, was lying on the floor. He raised his head and nodded.
“Just tired,” he said. “I might not pull up any spheres today. You want some bread?” He sat up and threw me part of a loaf of brown bread. Jerry had a friend somewhere that sent him bread down the chute in the corner of his cell. It was the only way things came into the cells; I received nothing beyond my basic rations from mine.
“I need to get at least two spheres today,” I said. I took a deep breath, again willing myself to go in.
The problem was that the liquid in the pool was not water. It was slimy and burned after long exposure. My first day in the cell, I had pulled out eight spheres. I did not pull another one for a whole week, as I lay with screaming, inflamed skin, red and raw from whatever the liquid had done to it.
Finally, I took a deep breath and dived. I did not dare open my eyes but felt around to where I had seen a red sphere. Someone, long ago, had scrawled on the wall, “Reds are the best bet” and I followed that advice.
I felt the sphere and heaved it upwards. It was light enough in the liquid, but slippery and hard to handle. I couldn’t get it the first time and had to surface for more air, but I got it on the second dive. I hauled it out onto the floor of the cell and began the process of cracking it open.
The reds had a tougher shell than some of the others and I used to spend hours prying one open with my hands. But then Jerry (who really had the best of friends somewhere above) slid me over an extra knife he had gotten and that helped a lot. I cut open the sphere, but of course it was empty.
Jerry tried for yellows. He had gotten a tip somewhere that they were the best bet. But I stuck with reds, because even if there was no reason for it, it was nice to think I had my own system.
I pulled another one out before I stopped for a rest. I sat with my back against the wall, fighting despair and panic. The worst thing about the whole situation was that I had put myself there voluntarily. I had been happy enough where I was—that life of low risks, low responsibility, and low pay. But then I heard word of an Opportunity. Some people called it a lottery, or a contest, or a competition. It seemed easy enough and the rewards on the other side were amazing. Just pick the right ball and you’re out, they said. You have all the time in the world to do it.
The reality in their words mocked me now. All the time in the world. All the time in the world. Fifty-nine scratches on the wall marked the number of spheres I had pulled out. I finished eating the bread from Jerry. I was tempted to give up for the day; two spheres was pretty good, but I decided to get one more, any color. I dived and grabbed the first one I felt, wrestling it to the surface.
It was a green one, slightly smaller than the reds. I cut it open and my heart almost stopped when I heard a clink as my knife hit metal.
It was a key. A real key after all this time. My hand was trembling as I fitted it into the lock. But a moment later, my elation changed to confusion and then fury. The key wouldn’t turn. I reached out and put it in from the outside but still nothing. It was the wrong key. I yelled and swore and kicked the walls until Jerry finally shouted at me, asking if I was okay.
“It’s the wrong key!” I shouted. “I got a key but it doesn’t work.”
I worked at it for another twenty minutes until I finally gave up. It wasn’t going to work. “Throw it over here,” Jerry said. “Let me play around with it for a while.” I threw him the key; what did it matter? He put the key in his lock and a second later, Jerry was standing in the hallway, a free man with a look of shock on his face.
“How did you do it?” I asked.
“Just how you did it,” he said. “Here, let me try again.” He put the key in my lock and wiggled it back and forth, but it wouldn’t budge.
“It’s not fair,” I said, beating my forehead against the concrete wall. “It’s not fair.”
“I’m sorry,” Jerry said. “I’ll go see if there’s a mistake. Maybe I can get them to get you out too, since it was you who found the key.”
“Do what you can, I guess,” I said. “And don’t be sorry, Jerry. I’m happy for you.” He smiled and we shook hands through the gate and then he left, glowing with happiness.
The next day, a loaf of bread and a new blanket came down my chute, wrapped in a plastic bag. On it was scribbled a note: Don’t give up. You can do it! – Jerry
So he was up there now too. “Good for you, Jerry,” I said. “And thank you.” Then I turned back to that hideous pool and prepared to dive again.