The Record Card

The following is another short story that I’ve written as part of the ongoing ‘Write with Chris and Millie’ writing prompt exercise. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week we take a wrong turn down Memory Lane…

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Photo by Sanwal Deen on Unsplash

He clutched the record to his chest, and the tears that he’d held back for so long could be held back no more. He’d finally found it, tucked away in a small drawer in a forgotten corner of this derelict orphanage. The record was a tiny thing, a small rectangle of index card with faded numbers neatly typed across it in regimented rows. Here and there spots of mould obscured some of the numbers entirely, but it didn’t matter. Every single one of the numbers were indelibly etched on Peter’s heart.

“Again!” the doctor said.

“34…2…” began Peter, before pausing to draw in a huge sobbing breath, his young chest heaving with the effort.

The nurse holding his hand open struck his palm with a wooden cane, instantly leaving a red mark across his young hand.

“Again!” the doctor said, looking down at a small rectangle of card in his hand.

3421170679!” cried Peter hurriedly. That held back the cane, for the moment at least.

Peter wandered the halls of the dilapidated orphanage, taking in sights and smells that flung him violently back to his childhood here. The place was long abandoned; water dripped from brown ceiling tiles and the wind sighed through broken windows. He’d expected to find ghosts, but they’d left too. There was no-one here for them to haunt.

“8628034825!” gabled Peter as fast as he could. The doctor nodded solemnly, satisfied for the moment. The cane hovered like a hawk that had spotted a mouse peeking out from under a stone, biding its time.

Peter stopped and touch a faded display of photographs stapled to a soggy noticeboard. The pictures showed children who had been adopted and escaped this place. The pigments in the photographs had started to wash away in the dripping water, their beaming smiles becoming grotesque smears. The colours came away on Peter’s fingers as he gently touched their faces, staining his skin with the memory of happiness. He’d found a new life too eventually, built something for himself, found a wife, someone who could love him despite all his pain. But that was all gone now, the search for the truth had cost him everything. Only the numbers remained, ticking over and over in his brain.

“0628620899!” yelled Peter. The whine of the electric generator set his teeth on edge and he could smell a copper tang in the air. The nurse was wearing thick rubber gloves now, holding him down. The electrodes pressed uncomfortably onto the bare skin of his torso. It felt like he was being held gently in the teeth of a giant predator, kept alive long enough to be carried back to her hungry young.

“And then?” the doctor asked calmly. Peter yelled another string of numbers as fast as he could, not daring to pause for breath.

The numbers had to mean something. He’d be forced to spend the coin of his childhood on memorising them and repeating them over and over. The beatings, the electric shocks, the endless pain; it had all been a sharp-tongued teacher. He had never forgotten any of the numbers since then. Not one. But what did they mean? During his lowest points Peter would comfort himself with the idea that there were some important knowledge. Coordinates perhaps, or a formula to something that would change mankind forever when the time was right to reveal it. He had exhausted his meagre life savings trying to find out.

Peter wandered the silent corridors of the derelict building aimlessly as he relieved each triggered memory in turn. Maybe there were ghosts here, hanging around just long enough to taunt him before finally fading away. Suddenly he snapped out of his introspection when he realised exactly where he was. The door to the “Teaching Room” stood before him. If ever there was a euphemism to send a shiver of ice down a man’s spine… The very sight of the doorway invoked a visceral horror in Peter, carrying him back to his final session in that benighted room.

“Alright,” said the doctor patiently, looking down at Peter, “all together now. One final time.”

“31415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679!” shouted Peter hysterically, not missing a single one of the one hundred digits. The doctor looked at the small rectangle of card that he always carried with him and nodded in satisfaction. The nurse lowered the cane, looking disappointed, and began to unstrap him from the chair. She would give him one final beating later that evening, just to be sure.

This had all been over fifty years ago. At first he’d tried to forget. The scars had healed, but the numbers had remained in his head, lodged like a thorn in his brain. By the time he’d come to pursue the truth the orphanage staff were long dead and the records of that time long lost. He hadn’t even really known what part of the country the orphanage was in, just that he had travelled a long way to meet his new family after finally being adopted.

Peter lingered on the threshold for a few moments more before finally overcoming his fear and slowly opening the creaking door to the Teaching Room. This room was just as dead as the rest of the orphanage. No lingering menace, just the silence of the grave. There were no answers to be found in here, he already had his answers, clutched tightly in his hand. Peter sat down in the chair in the centre of the room. The tiny child-size seat groaned and shifted under his adult bulk. He looked at the index record card in his hand one more time, just to check that he’d finally understood.

Child experiments in corporal punishment as a memory aid, it read, Subject: Peter-J, Topic: Memorisation of Pi to one hundred digits. Note, for reference, digits are as follows: 31415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679.

Peter let the index card record fall from his hand as the tears ran down his face. It gently slid to the floor of the Teaching Room, joining the collected debris of his broken dreams.