The Last Writer

Chapter 6: Unlock the Unknown
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Synopsis

Eliot King, a senior high school athlete, is stuck picking up the pieces his sister left behind after her arrest and execution. In the year 2052, the New American Government (N.A.G) has forbidden practicing Dark Artists by penalty of rehabilitation, or in most cases, death. Two years after his sister’s death, Eliot discovers three illegal Artifacts, actual Writer’s notebooks, hidden in his sister’s old desk. “Nobody”, the mysterious Writer speaking through these pages, poses the question–who is the real author of this hidden work? Is Art actually as horrible as the world says? Despite the call of the pages, Eliot knows he must burn the books to protect what is left of his broken home. When the deed is done, a close friend betrays Eliot and alerts the N.A.G. Protectorate forces and Eliot is forced to flee his school. While on the run, Eliot learns of a secret Dark Artist society hidden in a mountain sanctuary for all kinds of Artisans. Embarking on a journey to find the clues "Nobody" left behind and escape his own terrible fate, Eliot rushes to unravel a world-ending prophecy hidden within the magical notebooks and within the confines of his very own unconscious mind.

Chapter 6
Unlock the Unknown

Over the next week, nothing much happens.  Cross Country has two meets.  I take and pass two tests in math and science.  I get my results back from the retest we all had to take in New American History—a 95% after Mr. Scrotemp graded on a curve due to “The event.

After the incident, West Grove American High School, WGAHS, continues on in monotony.  I maintain my GPA and run.  Unlike other schools, we have Cross Country year-round.  Sure, most meets are in the fall, but the “training season” happens from early spring to midsummer.  Since football season is over for the year, my athletic schedule isn’t as intense as it used to be, but in order to start on the team in the fall, I now need to keep up with my previously rigorous weight training.  I’ve been letting it fall recently.

“What are you repping at, man?” Nate slaps me on the shoulder.

“Well, in the fall, squats piqued at 255. Press hit 200,” I say, racking the bar.

Nate whistles. “What’s your go-to dumbbell?”

I load my barbell with plates and look over, shrugging. “Eh.  Whatever I’m feeling for the workout.”

Nate nods as if I imparted some sage wisdom onto him.  I shake my head, getting in position to bench press.  Part of me wishes that I had invited Duke to come workout, but being on the basketball team, he doesn’t lift quite as much as Nate and I do.  Plus, I’m not sure if I want too much time alone with him right now.  Don’t want any rumors spreading if he’s picked up for an Artifact.  I was already too close to Caroline as it is.

Besides, I run with him after school a few days a week, so I don’t feel that bad about excluding him.  I’ve even brought Nate on to run with us so that Duke feels more “a part of the team.”  Plus, with Nate, we don’t talk about anything as heavy as his confession from a week ago.

Nate and I lift late into the night.  We started this routine our eighth-grade year in preparation for high school, and now we have perfected it.  While I do my sets, Nate spots me (if I was lifting a new PR or some absurd amount of weight to failure), and then we’d switch.  More often than not, we’d would work on active recovery.  Nate would do reps while I would jog on a nearby treadmill and then we’d swap.  Sometimes we’d jump rope in between sets. Both of us agree that just waiting to rep again for the three minutes in between sets is mind-numbingly annoying.  And so, our workout regimen became our common practice.

I will say, I have more stamina than I once had three years ago.

“Run tomorrow?” I call on my way out of the weightlifting area of the school’s gym.

“You know it!”  Nate points at me with both hands, wide grin plastered to his face.  He does a stupid jig and I laugh, shaking my head.  Seeing him high on happy endorphins from working out reminded me of that scrawny kid I had met in elementary school.  Nate wore the same beat-up sneakers despite his parent’s money.  His feathery blond hair would blow into his eyes as he would explain, “Mama says they have senty-mental value.  She says I gotta say that when people asks why I don’t change ‘em.”  He was serious and silly.  And now, cocky and a charming.

We walk out of the school’s weight room together and shove each other, joking about stupid gossip and Natallie’s weird feet on our way out of the school.  He says that he isn’t sure if it’d last, again, especially since she is way more self-conscious than she lets on.

“They’re like long-long, man.” Nate shoulders his bag.  He puts his pointer and thumb together, expanding them way longer than Natallie’s toes could feasibly be.

“Her toes?”

“Yeah,” he snorts. “They’re like ape toes—almost hands.”

“Ew man, why are you talking to me about it?” I say, laughing quietly.  The halls feel wider when no one is in them.  They feel almost watchful.

He tsks at me. “Well, who else am I supposed to tell?  Natallie?” We look at each other in the quiet.

“Yeah, I mean...maybe she’d show you some foot tricks that you can really get into.” I keep a straight face.

“Eliot—dude no.  You know I’m never trying that shit again, not after Lauren.”

“Oh my God, I forgot about her!  You really did like it when she—"

He chucks his gym bag at me, almost knocking me to the ground.  The bag hits the floor with an airy FWUMP.  We laugh.

We leave out the entryway to the main parking lot.  Students are allowed to be here after hours so long as they scan into and out of the building.  There’s even overnight security if there are any disturbances or if someone needs help.  In every bathroom and at every water fountain, the number for the on-campus services is posted.  Many students come here later or earlier in the day to study, prep, or workout.  Everything is monitored through our keycards.  They let us into and out of the buildings with a simple swipe.

Beep.  Beep.

The doors unlock and we exit into the cool spring air.  Goosebumps pop up on the back of my neck with the breeze.

“Alright, see you tomorrow, man,” Nate calls from his car.  He throws his bag in the back seat and hops into the driver’s seat.

“See you!” I reply.  I slide into my own car, tossing my bag into the passenger seat next to me.  Nate’s car turns on and he peels off into the night.  As he turns to pass my car, he flashes his lights twice.

. . .

At dinner, I told Mom I’d be out late with Nate at the gym  She’s used to it. She must be asleep by now, but I hear the news on in the other room.  Dad must be watching.

“Hey champ,” Dad calls.  “Do you feel the burn?”

I roll my eyes, grabbing a Gatorade from the fridge.

“Sure, Dad.  I feel the burn alright.”

Sitting next to him, I look on in confusion.  There’s a story on about some person named “Nobody” infiltrating social media accounts left and right.

I ask, “What is this about?”

“Nothing to worry about, the Protectorate will find the son-of-a-gun soon enough.” He pauses. “But this Nobody is apparently a rallier of Dark Artists or something.  Now, he’s reaching out to your generation through social media.”

I don’t say anything.  This is the first I’m hearing about Nobody.  Good thing I got rid of social media after Nakita’s arrest.  Not many of us have it anymore.  Especially since it’s a risk now.

“That’s weird.  I haven’t heard anything about Nobody in school,” I admit.

“Good.  We don’t want nobody, anybody, or somebody, anyway.  Plus, if the news outlets aren’t picking it up or sanctioning shutdowns, we’ll be fine,” Dad says, wiggling an eyebrow.

Again, I roll my eyes.

“Gnite— I’m going to head up and get some homework done.”

“Sleep well, son.”

I jump in the shower and then complete some studying for my Artistic Perversions II class.  Tomorrow, we focus on all types of Performance Art from Shakespeare to Broadway to Cabaret shows.  It’s late, but I feel punchy from working out.  If it wasn’t after ten, I’d go for a run and finish the work during study hall in the morning.  But I know at this point, I’m better staying up late and sleeping in.  Besides, I’m running with Nate and Duke tomorrow.

Instead of setting up in my desk like I normally do, I set up camp in Nakita’s room.  I’ve done this once or twice after she left on days where I’m feeling particularly lonely.  It’s nice to sit in a space that used to be hers.  Even though it looks nothing like it used to—sanded and painted white to remove traces of her magic—her desk is still the desk that she had once sat at to do her homework, paint her nails, and even...to make Art.  Everything else is replaced, but still, the air of her lingers, a ghost in the doorway.

I swipe away my sentiments and turn to the study guide for Artistic Perversions II.  I finish up the few problems I left blank in favor of meeting up with Nate.  As it goes with the night, I forget the time and start working on assignments not due until next week, letting wakeful night air breathe into the obsessiveness of my focus.

By the time I wake from my trance, I realize that I had actually fallen asleep on my Deception in Art textbook, the page glued to my cheek.  I try to stand up, unsure of where I am, and fall backwards.

WHAM!

Shit!”

I land on the floor awkwardly, one of my knees slams against the underside of the desk, the other braces my fall.  My knee throbs from the impact, the left one, solidly pushed through the underside of her desk, wood cracked around it.  Even the chair looks like an injured animal, toppled on its side.  I hope Mom and Dad didn’t hear.  Last time they caught me working in here, I was grounded for a week.  I scramble to sit up and manage to rip my left knee from the wood.  Unfortunately, I end up banging the same knee a second time on the leg of the desk.

“Ugh.” I rub both knees while rolling to sit on my butt.  I angrily shove the carcass of the chair further away to sit up.  When did this room get so damn small?  With the chair gone, my legs are free enough for me to lie under the desk on my stomach to grab some of my notes that had flown amuck in my fall.  I’m not getting points off for my clumsiness—I had paid enough in physical pain.

Wait... what’s that? There are white paint flakes on the carpet.  Wow, I had really gone through the bottom of the desk.  Since it’s too dark to see the underside of the desk, my fingers trace the surface of it and—Shit.  There’s a massive whole.  More of a deep crack, etching a crooked grin to feature some of the original solid oak of the desk.  As I finger the opening, twisting to my back to get a better feel of it, I remember Dad sanding down the desk with his industrial-strength sander.  Did he not finish the bottom?

Wait... how could the bottom have this opening?  I thought that it was solid wood with no interior drawers besides the two on the sides... did Nakita—?

I stay on my back and try to force a finger through the wider part of the crack.  It gives a little, but I’ll need more force to get a finger in.  As I grope the opening, some wood chips fall onto my face.  Coughing and spitting the dust, I dig into the carpet for further leverage, pushing my knees up to set my feet solidly on the ground.  With the use of both hands free, I manage to force the gash open, edging the crooked smile into a grin.  I slide in a finger to inspect the hollowness of the desk, a hollowness that I hadn’t known was there before.

What is this?

Paper?  It feels like paper.  It doesn’t feel like a textbook.  My stomach drops.  My fingers slide in further, but the—the book—skitters deeper into the compartment.  There’s a cover on it, but it’s leathery, like the face of a wallet.  With my stomach down to the floor, I wonder: could Nakita have left a sketchbook here?  There isn’t even a drawer here so how did she get one in there?

My stomach drops.  If someone other than me, Mom or Dad or a guest staying over —my grandma or my cousins— if they saw the hole and got in... the whole family would be in jeopardy.

The scene of Nakita’s trial and arrest play out in my mind.  I can’t... I can’t let this happen to us again.  She tore us apart once, I need to save what’s left of us.  Of me.

I have to get in somehow to get whatever it is out.

But I can’t rip apart the damn thing; my parents would notice that, even though they hardly come in here anymore.  There must be a false bottom with a locking mechanism of some kind.  If I figure out how to open the desk’s compartment, then I can get the sketchbook out.

Hastily, I pack up all my homework.  I take care that each paper is in the proper folder before zipping up my backpack.  Then, I strip the desk of all its items, removing the small placemat, the desk lamp, and the fake plant.  I gently put the placemat and plant on the bed.  I turn the lamp on with three increasingly bright clicks and aim the head of the lamp towards the underside of the desk.  Then, forgetting that however alone I feel in the intense grip of midnight, I shut the door as quietly as I can.

And I lock it.

(And double-check it’s locked.)

For a few seconds, I simply stare through the desk, head tweaked to the side like a cockatiel, bent at the neck.  How does it work?  Where’s the switch?  The lock?  The pulley?

I sit up and move forward on my knees, lifting the desk and pulling it farther from the window.  I draw the blinds and begin to empty out every drawer, careful to keep the contents in the proper order should Mom ever piece through them.  Taxes, my birth certificate, some social security information sit piled behind the desk.  I make sure to set items by drawer in neat stacks.

The desk is much lighter with all its contents on the floor.  This will make moving it easier.  To confirm my theory, I turn the desk on its side, then flip it to the other side.  Sure enough, something slides within a hidden compartment.

Now, to begin.  I put the desk back on its legs and crawl underneath it.  The crack grins at me, grotesque and disfigured in the shadow cast by the lamp.  I frown.  I rub my palms along the underside of the desk, looking with my hands rather than with my eyes.  My palms softly shushhhh against the stifling silence of the room.  I even close my eyes as I lie, on my back, trusting my hands to find the secret of the thing—the switch that needs flipped.

Nothing.

Nada.

I don’t feel a ridge, bump, or button underneath the desk.  It couldn’t be that easy, right?  I scoot further under the desk and run my hands along the backside of the desk.  My legs are straight out, and my abs are on fire while I grapple and reach to every corner of its back.  Again, I find absolutely nuh-thing.

Well, I could just tear the damn thing apart...but I don’t have time to fix it or trash it without making too much noise.  What would my parents say?

Maybe the mechanism is more obvious than that?  I mean, it is a desk.

It’s a desk!  That means the drawer needs to open out somehow.  Right?

I grab the chair and sit on it.  I put my hands on top of the table.  Desks are used for things like homework, work, uhh— what else?  Taxes?  So, why would the lock be at the back of it?  Especially if it’s pushed to the wall. The lock needs to be easily accessible to Nakita every day, especially if she was such a dedicated Dark Artist.

I swallow, throat dry from the wood dust and paint chips.

Letting my hands wander, I scour the front of the drawers, the top of the desk, and even the two legs closest to the front.  After finding no ridge, no secret button, or even an uneven coat of paint, I slump back into the desk chair, truly stuck.

Do I really have to demolish the desk?

Well, do I really need to know the contents of it?  If no one in my family had found out or realized what was inside, it must be dumb luck or pure stupidity that I managed to literally break through the desk to find it.  Would they even see the dent?  What if I just fixed the crack and left well-enough alone?

A voice in my head whispers: This was Nakita’s desk.  You owe it to her.

A little voice inside my head says: You don’t owe her anything.  She owes me freedom and peace of mind at this point.

What if it’s her work?  What would I do with it?  What if it’s a note goodbye?  The last thing she meant to say to me?  If anyone found an Artifact in our home, it could be confiscated by the government and demolished.  My parents would lose their jobs and home, and I...I could kiss college and athlete career goodbye.

I close my eyes.  Where would Nakita hide a latch?  How would my sister, my best friend of all time, think to open the desk?  I know her.  Come on, I know her.

With a mind of their own, my hands trace the lip of the desk.  The top of the desk juts out a tad more above the drawers.  My right hand follows the ridge to the top right drawer.  I keep my eyes closed, seeing only with my hands.

Where would she...?

My hand pushes the right drawer open just a little.  I feel around the inside of the drawer: first the bottom, then the front and back, and finally the left side of it.

...hide it?

Now that’s curious.

I’d get in trouble for thinking that.  It’s Creative Invention.

At this point, I can’t stop myself, though.  I need to scratch the itch.  I need to know what’s inside the desk.  I don’t care if it’s dangerous.  I just need to solve this puzzle, to get into her head and figure it out.

The right side of the drawer is solid, but the left has a little opening knicked into the side, as if sawed out with a sharp pocketknife.  It’s the size of a quarter but squared off.  The opening isn’t jagged, like it’s been made with care and sanded to the perfect side.  A larger die could fit into the hole easily.  The most interesting part of this clue is that the incision is about four inches from the back of the drawer.  I don’t feel anything strange about the wall behind the drawer, where the compartment would be.  But if I pull it further out?  I slide the drawer out slowly, leaving the pad of my finger in the square cut out until I feel something cold and hard against the side of the drawer.  It must be made of metal.

Withdrawing my hand, I peer into the desk.  It’s too dark to see what it is.  Groaning, I grab the lamp and move it closer, but with the desk pulled from the wall, the cord is too short.  Just my luck.

I groan, again.  With both hands, I lift the desk and slide it back against the wall again, right drawer still ajar, and lift the lamp to look inside.  A little symbol is nailed into the compartment, the same size as the hole in the drawer.  Sliding it has allowed the opening to reveal the symbol in its entirety.  It’s metal too, almost like...a magnet?

Somehow, the symbol is familiar to me.  I feel its familiarity like the tickle on the back of my tongue.  It’s a backwards “N” that looks more like two triangles joined by the diagonal line pointing up to the right.  The first triangle is open on the top with one carved dot in the middle of it.  The second is raised with the entirety of it carved out, save a dot in the middle.

I trace the strange “N” with my middle two fingers.  The back of my mind itches in a way that makes me feel ill.  Why do I feel sick?  I raise my hand to my temple and I scratch my scalp clear through to the back of my head.

Where have I seen this before?

This is Nakita’s desk.

Nakita.

I keep tracing her name over and over in my mind when it hits me.  I’ve seen this before a really long time ago.

Excitement floods my system like Vicodin.  Cautiously, I exit the room, shutting the door behind me, and bolt to my bedroom.

Where is it?

In my closet, I pull out three storage boxes with childhood mementos in them.  The first is filled with old baby things.  I quickly put it aside, knowing that what I’m looking for is more recent.  The next has old school binders and projects with varying comments but similar red “Excellent” markings.  I set it aside.  The last is populated with trinkets of all curiousness, some of which would have me arrested had the government looked through my belongings.  There are old drawings from kindergarten.  A short story I had written in elementary school.  Even a longer creative essay that got a teacher fired in middle school.  With all my genius, I had titled the essay, “Sherlock Holmes and the Cat of Whiskerville.”

I shake my head... that poor guy.  He should have known assigning students to write a mystery inspired by the excerpts of Sherlock Holmes would have detrimental consequences.  My parents were horrified, my classmates were infuriated —simply completing an assignment to maintain their GPA— and when we learned what we had been forced to do, our parents were up in arms.  A government representative even came into the class to warn us all of the dangers of Dark Artists and creating Artifacts.  The woman warned that we had almost succumbed to evil.

I shudder.  Moving on.  You have a mission, Eliot.

Each questionable item from the bin makes me cold with sweat, but I find nothing to unlock the compartment.  Collapsed on the bed, I wipe a hand over my exhausted eyes.  They sting as I squint to see the time:

2:37 A.M. 

Frick.

Should I pack up now?  Pick up this quest tomorrow?

A large part of me says yes go to sleep you idiot.  Another part, a teeny sliver, says but what if you didn’t?  What could you find?  The question hangs in the air.  Delicious delirium seizes me.  I know where it is.  The key.

I rip open my own desk’s junk drawer and reach into the deep recess of its chaos.  Like Nakita, it’s the right drawer.  I pull out what must be the key.

YES!

We had made them at some summer camp a few years ago.  Her bracelet was lost when she was taken. But mine sits here, in my open palm.  I never could throw the thing out.

The symbol on the bracelet matches that of the symbol in the desk.

An italic N.

Connected at the point of intersection.

And two triangles, one filled, one open inside it.

I shut my eyes, running a finger over the design and then I flip the bracelet.

What’s this?

A little compass is on the back.  A little working compass.  It must be from the camp.  It was a nature camp or something.  I roll the beads of the bracelet over my hand and slide it onto my wrist.

I peak out of my room, looking left and right.  Dad doesn’t get up until 6:00 and Mom until 7:30.  Weekends are a different story; we all sleep in.  Sometimes I’m the first up.

Each step out of the safety of my room is eternity.  Each shift of weight intrudes on the silence as the wood beneath the carpet protests against my weight.  I wish I could tell it to shut up.  Finally, I reach Nakita’s room and turn, shutting the door quickly and quietly.

(And locking it.)

I take a deep breath, sit at the desk, find the carved opening in the drawer, and shut it just enough to let the symbol peak through.  Taking off the bracelet, I put the face of it against the symbol on the inside of the drawer.  It has to work!  I have nothing else!

Click—pop!

A hidden drawer pops open from underneath the center of the desk.  I slide the bracelet back onto my wrist.  I shoot up a quick prayer and rub the heels of my hands against my eyes.

Carefully, I shimmy the wooden compartment open. It’s a little jammed from the crack I made in it.  Then, wood slides against wood and the drawer shushes open.

Inside, three books sit, bound by leather.  They’re somewhat thin and no bigger than my portable screentop.  One of the books has a washed-off reddish tint, another is a deep black with a natural hazelnut color underneath, and the third is navy blue, a little worn.  I shake my head.  These are unlike any textbooks I have seen.  There’s no warning label, no government issued stamp with “PARENTAL ADVISORY, CONTAINS MAGICAL PERSUASION.  READ AT RISK.” No bright red stamp with the Protectorate symbol on the corner to show it’s standard government issue.  There’s nothing besides the worn leather.

I lift the black one and gingerly flip back the cover.  On the first page, facing the cover, is written:

nobody.

“Nobody?” I whisper to myself.  Who?

I flip to the next page and read.

And read.

And read.

And read for a page and a half later.

Everything spins.  I’m going to throw up.

I flip through the rest of the black book, grab the red one, and flip through its pages.  Both books are filled with entries.  These aren’t sketchbooks.  They’re journals!  All entries signed and dated.  Then, I grab the blue and flick each page over the other in quick succession.

What!? How is this possible?

This book is only half-filled.  The last date, a week ago.

Who could write in this a week ago?  Who could write in this?

Nobody could, I guess.

Wait... isn’t that the person Dad was talking about?  On the news?  Did Nakita know the person behind the name?  Could she know the Writer?

I throw the journals onto the bed, lock the compartment back up, and shove the desk’s contents back into the correct drawers.  I don’t even care if they’re correct.  But, after a moment’s hesitation...I make myself check whether or not the items are back in place.  I even pick up the paint flakes on the carpet and shoo them into the air vent where no one will find them.

About the Author

Julia Otto

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Julia Otto is a writer and artist located in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. By day, she teaches English and marching band. By night, she bikes with her fiancé and unravels plotholes in her YA fantasy novels. Julia graduated from West Chester University with a bachelor's in Secondary English education in 2020, and from Drexel University with an MFA in creative writing in 2023. Her favorite flavor is peach, and her favorite movie is August Rush.

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