The Prisoner’s Dilemma

by Christine Lee
Art by Cynthia Shi
Issue: Paracosm (Winter 2017)

Once again cornered by the overwhelming wave of fear and trepidation, the boy squeezed his eyes shut and, in the darkest pit of solitude, withdrew deep into himself. Only this time, when he did, he felt what seemed to be the soothing touch of a cool breeze, caressing his wounded cheek, and his eyes fluttered open in astonishment.

The boy found himself sheltered beneath the shade of an apple tree dripping lavishly with red fruit, and his back, which had been pressed to the rear of the closet that he cowered in each night, now up against dark rugged bark. Bewildered, he sat up, squinting past rays of sunlight at the vast sky overhead as the wind playfully tousled his downy beige-brown hair. Surrounded by a sweeping meadow of purple and golden yellow flowers in bloom, he was speechless at the surreal turn of events, yet delighted nonetheless by the vivid dreamscape of the idyllic garden. He stood up, laughing a little to himself, eager to test paradise’s newfound boundaries, but before he could take another step, he froze in place as soon as his eyes fell upon a figure up ahead.

The first thing that caught his attention was that the girl was barefoot, and he couldn’t help but feel envious of how unshackled she was from self-consciousness and obligations. She wore an ethereal dress of the purest white that fluttered in the wind like a restless ghost. Although her hair was light-colored like his, his eyes nearly overlooked a ribbon, black as death, gripping her long locks tightly as they trailed over one shoulder. She was unbearably familiar to him, yet an utter stranger.

The girl was deeply engaged in her gardening. Carefully cradling seeds in the palm of her left hand, she used her right to lift a few at a time, settling them gingerly into the fertile soil with a soft expression of maternal affection, as if she were a mother laying her infant into its crib. She pulled the blanket of earth over the slumbering seeds, tucking them in while the sun lit up the world like the moon would at night.

She halted in the midst of her labor and looked up as she sensed the boy’s eyes on her. Her eyes widened in surprise before her lips lifted into a warm, but bitter smile. She gestured for him to come closer and he cautiously approached and settled down beside her. “I’m Noah,” he offered uncertainly, not quite understanding why trusting her came so easily, and waited anxiously for her to reveal her name to him.

Instead, her gaze left him to focus on his wrist and she murmured, “That watch… ”

Noah glanced at it, as if he had forgotten its existence, before replying, “It used to keep time, but it’s broken. It’s been broken for a while now.” He hesitated a bit, then added, “It was a gift from my mother. The hands stopped when she passed away.”

“Why doesn’t your father buy you a new one?”

“He hasn’t got the means to,” Noah answered sheepishly. “He lacks the money and the inclination to. I don’t think he even has one himself.”

The girl’s unsatisfied stare traveled to his face as he spoke. Her eyes hardened and she reached a hand out and brushed her fingers gently over the contusion on his cheek. “This bruise,” she demanded, sadness and horror growing in her eyes, “did he—?”

Noah flinched away from her touch. “N-no. It was from a fall,” he cut in hastily.

Without a word, the girl stood and sorrowfully studied the sky, which had turned grey and cloudy during their brief conversation. “The sun and the rain are both essential to help the flowers grow,” she said to him, “but too much of one or the other can end up killing them instead. They can be scorched from overexposure to the sun’s rays, or they can drown when showers escalate into harsh downpours.” She turned to face him now, her eyes meeting his steadily. “We can only hope that conditions can be kind to us so that we can continue to live. What else can we do in order to survive?” She smiled at him as the first drops of rain touched the ground where the seeds still slept. “You’ll need to find out for yourself.”

With those last words, Noah awoke.

Awake and alert, he couldn’t shake away the words from his dream; they reverberated in his head and made him dizzy with wistful longing. Quivering, he crawled out of the safe haven of his closet, dressed, and stole down dark hallways until he reached the front door—the exit from a chilling household frozen in time and the entrance to the fast-paced, careless world where freedom waited and beckoned to him. He reached his hand out for the doorknob, hesitated for a heartbeat, then swiftly unlocked it, grabbed the handle, twisted, and jerked it open.

“Noah?” It was his father’s voice from the other room, lethargic, heavy and slurred. For a moment, Noah stopped and looked back. He saw cast aside garbage and empty glass bottles with remnants of their contents’ pungent odors littering the floor. He saw a cardboard box of personal belongings and a glaring pink slip—both untouched ever since his father came home late one night, stricken with despair and delirium—resting on the dinner table next to a tray of burnt lasagna that had been a vain attempt at replication. He saw a vase of golden and purple flowers, maintained hopelessly with utmost care, and yet they wilted. He heard his name being called again, desperately, fearfully, and with greater urgency.

Noah turned and ran. He fled from the pale and weather-beaten place where fragile flowers withered, dying from relentless torrents of adversity. Tears blurred his vision as he hurled himself down the pavement until he crashed into someone. As luck would have it, it was a police officer on patrol; the prison warden of the public, who was compelled by his duty to impose laws that solely considered the breakage of social ethics, but not of the human soul. “Whoa, slow down kid! Tell me, what’s wrong?”

“Help me,” Noah pleaded. “Please!” As tears fell from his face, the stilled hands of the watch began to tick forward again, and when the sun rose, bathing the world in all of its brilliance, it would continue onward, marking time as it elapsed, and counting down toward the sentence from society for the pair of prisoners.

Wilting flowers in a cubical, glass vase. The vase is filled a little over a third with water.