A Random Title Challenge from Chuck this week. In keeping with my last several posts, I thought long and hard about how to attack this prompt, and then realized that the right way was literally right under my nose.
Here, then, is The Equal Amateur, a tale of a cold and heartless world where all your efforts and learning and experience don’t mean sharknado next to the bright and talented young upstart.
The Equal Amateur
“Son of a bitch,” Nick thinks, casting a subversive eye at the lump of protoplasm squirming in the holding unit at the far end of the cell. “What’s happening here?”
It’s swatting at imaginary flies now, but that always precedes the screaming. Sure enough, after just a few moments of flailing its stubby suggestions of arms (they look more like tiny, squishy marshmallows conglomerated on sticks to Nick), the lump begins to wail, a wordless, plaintive cry that somehow seems to permeate his consciousness. He sets down his brightly colored blue plastic floor-smasher and stares at her. He almost sighs and shakes his head, but he hasn’t yet learned the significance of such a gesture. “It’ll never work, kid. Words. Words are the future.”
But even as he thinks it, one of the Keepers hops up from the sitting apparatus and hurries — practically sprints — to the lump, scoops it up in loving arms, and begins to babble incoherent speech at it in a tone Nick sort of remembers in his own unfinished cortex. A tone of soothing, of comforting. Nick’s mouth hangs open and he stares, astounded, furious, perplexed. “I’ve got to throw myself on the ground outside — get all that painful red smeary stuff on my parts — to get that kind of attention. And the lump just has to whine a little bit?”
Time was, Nick reflects, that seniority spoke for something around here. When he could get the Keepers’ attention with just a cock of his head or an insignificant, purposeless spasm of his fingers. He’s put in the time learning their language, learning where the food is kept, learning which of the animals can be safely ridden and which scream and yowl when touched. Now all the Keepers seem concerned with is shoving a variety of foodstuffs under his nose or into his hands, removing the smelly brown goop from his privates when it inexplicably shows up, and making sure he sleeps more than he would particularly care to. Sure, they laugh and clap when he manages to pronounce some new word in their alien tongue, but their joy is fleeting and quickly forgotten.
Then there’s the lump. The lump has been in the detention center for only a few days, but has already started throwing her weight around. For some reason Nick can’t wrap his tiny cranium around, the Keepers respond to every twitch, every whimper, every little thing the lump does with a care and affection and concern he’s not known since he can remember, although to be fair, the rapid expansion of his brain and the constant barrage of new interesting information — new things to ingest, new words to try out, new colored sticks to rub against the walls to mark the period of his imprisonment — doesn’t leave a lot of room for memory and reflection. Still, it seems unjust. He’s put in two years with the Keepers, knows their routines, knows how to get a rise out of them, knows how to get them to leave him alone. Knows that if he ululates at just the right frequency, he can get the male’s eye to twitch, and then he can get anything he can find the word to ask for. Unfortunately for him, he only knows words like “popsicle” and “string cheese” and has not yet learned the words for “existential fulfillment” or “the sweet relaxing freedom of a nap among the daffodils.” Knows that if he pretends to be hurt, the female will hug him and squeeze him and tell him that she loves him, and then it’s time to ask for more popsicles.
No, the lump doesn’t even have to ask and they’re showering her with clean dressings. The lump needs only twitch and they pick her up and bundle her close. Should the lump begin to cry, they lock down the unit and find a way to make her happy, even going so far as to put her in the Swing. The thought makes Nick’s blood boil. He doesn’t fit in the Swing anymore, and they haven’t shown any signs of getting one that fits him. Funding, probably, or maybe they just don’t care. He’s tried to sneak into it anyway but the Keepers shout at him and threaten him with solitary confinement: the dreaded “Time Out.” Much though he loathes them, is frustrated by them, attempts to find ways to skirt their authority, the thought of their separation is more than he can bear. He shudders and bites back the bubble of indignant anger that chokes his throat.
The lump has quieted. The female Keeper puts her back into the holding unit and returns to her vantage point, failing to acknowledge Nick at all but for glancing in his direction to make sure she doesn’t step on him. He wistfully holds up a crayon to her, willing her to understand his plaintive desire to tell his story, to connect with another like him, to step outside and taste the freedom and run in circles until his tiny legs can no longer support him. “That’s a good crayon, Nicky.” The male keeper is falling asleep at his post. Typical.
Then it dawns on him. Maybe it’s not that the Keepers don’t love him anymore. Maybe the lump is just better adapted for the world than he is, for all his practice. Equal to him, perhaps, without the cumbersome training. He watches her with suspicious eyes. Is there something to learn from her? Fewer words, more inarticulate screaming? Less intelligent manipulation of the environment, more flailing and stomping and smashing? It’s a disquieting thought that all he’s learned can be overthrown by one tiny little infant, but it’s hard to argue with the results. With dawning terror, he realizes that he has a lot to learn from the lump.