Without further ado, here it is.
The Last Laugh
Laughter is my weapon.
Laughter is my freedom, for if I can laugh who can call me a slave? Would you dare to a call a woman beaten when she can look you in the eye with a triumphant smile on her face? Born on the orphan world, I have seen little reason to laugh. My people are a wreck. We live in ruins, dressed in rags and shivering against our fires, hoping to eek out another day in the cold and the hunger and the misery. The mines claim new victims every day, and the children are uneducated and confused.
Laughter is my weapon. It’s how I fight the oppression we live in. It’s how I have tried to enact a change. I have done my best with the kids. I have taught them how to read, and I have tried to make them laugh. Those are the only gifts I have to give. They were gifts given to me by an old woman, a thirty-year old who had suffered through over a decade in the mines before finally succumbing to black lung. In her last days, she had taught me how to read spacer, the language of the stars. She wanted to leave behind a greater legacy than years of service to our masked rulers the warts.
I still remember her last words to me. “If you can laugh, they don’t own you.”
“No, Janice, you need to finish your breakfast,” I called, a toddler on my hip. I didn’t know where the boy—Nick— had come from, I just did my best with him. Janice was four years old, and becoming willful. It was warm out today and she wanted to play, but I couldn’t have another child stealing her food. The kid was skinny enough as it was.
“No Pennappy,” she replied. She couldn’t pronounce Penelope— my full name— yet. “‘M going to play.” I didn’t know why she tried to call me Penelope. Most everyone called me Penny.
“Oh, are you?” I replied, rising from the rickety table to regard her. The hovel of a room where we lowly humans ate was its usual drafty disaster area. I could see shafts of sunlight shining through the ceiling, and we weren’t even on the top floor.
“Yes Pennappy,” she said. “You can come too,” the little girl added generously.
“What about the dinosaurs?” I asked, putting Nick down on the floor.
“Dinosaurs?” she asked, wrinkling her nose.
“Mmhmm, the ones that will come and eat your food if you don’t finish it. Remember dinosaurs from the book?” I asked. I’d used a few ratty old books to teach the kids about animals.
“Long neck dinosaur or sharp tooth dinosaur?” she asked.
I considered. I didn’t want to scare her. Much. “Long neck.” I raised one my arms in an imitation of a brontosaurus and made my hand flap like a mouth. “He’ll just swoop in”—at this I darted the brontosaurus’s mouth toward her bowl of gruel and pretended he was eating it— “and gobble up your food! Nom nom nom!”
“Ok,” she said flatly, and turned to leave.
You leave me no choice. Still keeping my brontosaurus arm up, I darted toward her. “Brontosaurus is going to get you!” I cried, picking her up and carrying her back toward the table. She giggled and squealed as I hefted her in the air, carrying her back toward her food.
“Finish your food, then you can play outside, sweetie.”
“Ok, Pennappy,” she said. She put a little hand on my arm. “I’m glad you’re my mommy,” she said before picking up her battered steel spoon.
“Oh honey, I’m not-” I began. But I couldn’t bring myself to finish the sentence. For some reason I felt like the illusion should stay. I couldn’t tell if it was for her sake or mine.
Nick was getting fussy. He was just standing where I’d put him, looking like he was about to cry, though I had no idea what for. I was about to go to him when I heard loud footsteps shaking the mouldering wooden floorboards.
No, I thought. Please no. It had only been a week or so since our last summons. I glanced around at the few other orphans in the room. There was Jonah, a nervous kid who had a crush on me, and Dante, an older boy due to be sent to the factories or mines any day now. If anyone was likely to be summoned, it was Dante. I didn’t think about the other likely possibility. That at fifteen I was only a year younger…
A wart stepped into the room and glanced around, examining us through the lenses of its gas mask. Somehow they always knew exactly how to find us when the time came for a summoning. Every few weeks a wart would come to the building and hand one of us an envelope, an envelope that contained a very simple message. A note that simply said “Come.” It was a summons that could not be ignored. A few had tried, and they just got dragged off anyway. No one ever came back from a summons. That was the kicker. It was impossible not to consider that little piece of paper a death warrant.
A moment later, I was holding a dirty, tattered envelope. Nick was crying, and the stomping footsteps were receding.
The summons was for me.
I held the paper in my outstretched arm for a long time before I slowly let it drop to my side. I’m going to die, I thought, but immediately I clamped down on that kind of thinking. I had children to be brave for. Jonah and Dante were staring at me with concern, Nick was bawling. Janice gaped. Her spoon dangled from one hand, a bit of khaki-colored glop hanging off the edge.
“Don’t go, Stomper.” I called after the wart. “Stay for tea and cookies.” I looked back at the other orphans. They were still staring at me. Say something clever, I told myself.
“It must be my birthday,” I said with a forced chuckle, tearing open the envelope. We didn’t know our own birthdays. We couldn’t even keep track of the dates very well. The joke fell flat on its face. The kids kept staring.
I wanted to say something funny, something that would make them laugh, but my eyes were glued to that word. That deadly word.
I didn’t let myself react to the news. I wanted to rage, to scream and cry and toss tables over, but I didn’t do any of those things.
I plastered a big, fake smile on my face and picked up Nick, rocking him gently in my arms. He calmed down pretty quick. The warts weren’t too scary anymore. I’d made up stories about them for the younger kids. We called them silly names like Stomper and Trompy Boots. When your overlord was named Trompy Boots and he was looking for a special flower in a meadow, he wasn’t quite as frightening.
“Finish your food, Janice! Last time I’m telling you!”
An hour later I was stamping my way through eight inches of snow, the weight of farewells heavy on my mind. Tears stung my eyes every time I thought about the kids. I hadn’t really told them goodbye, and I hadn’t said anything at all to the others. Most of the orphans didn’t even know I’d been summoned. I felt it was best to leave that way. No scene, no fuss. One day I was there watching out for the little ones, next one found me tramping a snowy wasteland toward an uncertain future.
I could only hope Jonah or Dante or one of the others would step up. Jonah I knew had a fierce soul. He was timid and useless with children, but there was a lion in there waiting to be woken up. I had more hope for him than Dante, who had already given up. Most of us got cynical the closer we got to leaving for a short, brutal life in the mines or the factories.
Or a summons.
Wart headquarters loomed ahead of me, a tall, rectangular building that could be seen from the orphans’ dwellings. The lobby was warm when I stepped inside, almost uncomfortably so after the long, cold walk. There were two elevators opposite the entrance. One of them opened with a loud “bing!” as I arrived.
I sat down against the glass wall next to the door. Through my thin sweater the surface was cold against my spine. I watched the elevator, wondering what would happen if I just stayed right here. No one had ever done that, not that I’d heard. Some tried to run away, and got caught. Some tried to stay in the tenements, and got dragged off. The rest just admitted defeat and went into the elevator. But, I suppose if they had tried to wait right here I never would have heard of it. And there was the matter of food… I was already hungry.
With a sigh, I rose to my feet. “They better feed me,” I muttered. When I stepped into the elevator, one of the buttons was already lit. A sideways 8 was printed on the white surface. It glowed with blue light. I was going to the top. After a short, smooth ride, the doors slid open.
The room beyond was misty. I stepped out of the elevator without hesitation. The doors slid closed behind me with a squeaky rumble.
“Something wrong with your ventilation?” I called. Shapes emerged from the fog. Six warts stepped forward. One of them was an oddity. Instead of the usual black, his body armor was silver, and his helmet was red.
“Subject 1-4-9-8 stretch out your arm,” a robotic voice commanded. I couldn’t tell which wart it had come from.
“Can I have a sandwich first? I’m quite famished.”
“Subject 1-4-9-8 stretch out your arm!” Definitely the wart on the far right. I… didn’t want to. I was still trying to figure out how cooperative I actually had to be. I had come willingly to avoid getting stunned and dragged off in the night. The kids didn’t need to see that. Now that I was here, there was nothing left for them to hold over me, no threat that could scare me.
“Sandwich first.” I replied, folding my arms tight across my chest.
“Do it,” the silver wart commanded.
“Sir?” one of the others replied.
“Make her a sandwich.”
“Really?” I asked in shock. At least two warts expressed their own surprise.
One of the warts sighed and clomped off, muttering.
“Extra cheese, please!” I called to the being as it retreated into the mist. “And mustard!”
A few minutes later I was chomping on the most delicious sandwich I had ever eaten while a syringe was inserted into a vein on my left forearm. I held my food in my right hand, taking huge bites. The bread was soft and fragrant, and the meat was spiced perfectly. I couldn’t tell what kind of meat it was but that didn’t matter. It was so good! Best of all, I got the mustard and extra cheese.
My head began to swim. I took another bite, determined to enjoy every morsel of that damn sandwich.
“Wat you gonna do ta me?” I asked with my mouth full of food.
“Come this way,” one of the warts commanded. They led me through the fog to a row of glass-walled chambers. Six little rooms with beds and different equipment in each.
They led me into the chamber on the far left of the room. I was lowered into a bed. One of the warts started to reach for my sandwich, but I shoved its hand away and took one final bite. There was nothing but a crust left. I dropped it to the floor, amused at the prospect of one of the warts having to pick it up in that heavy and very inflexible-looking body armor.
Another needle went into my arm. This one didn’t come out. I was about to go under. I could feel it, like an avalanche rumbling down a mountain. A bright lamp shone into my eyes as I lay back, pressed down by one of the warts. They surrounded me, glass eyes staring. My mouth suddenly had a metallic taste, like copper.
I blinked against the light, and forced myself to laugh. It was a choked, pitiable sound, but I knew if I could find humor here, if I could laugh here, I could really win everything. I pictured the wart stomping off to make me a sandwich and let out a loud, clear laugh.
“What is wrong with her?” one of the warts asked.
“You should see your faces,” I said, chuckling. I was still laughing when a third needle went in, this one into my neck. Then the avalanche claimed me, and everything that made me Penny was buried under a deluge of needles and the whir of a bone saw.
I got the last laugh.
This is not the end of Penny’s story… to find out what happens next, read Earthbound, coming soon!