A Non-FWLS Short Story By Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne
%%% The Only Sentient Being For Miles Around
%%% (v 1.1, cut and paste error fixed)
%%% (Copyright 1994)
You know, I'm wondering, why is it that all cars are shaped
like suppositories? I understand the technicals behind it, about
air flow and efficiency. That's easy. But why? Do people
really like driving around in identically shaped vehicles?
Doesn't it get boring? Aren't they sick of four lane wide city
streets, teeming with little brown/black/white/grey/tan blobs
that go here and there?
I am. But nobody seems to care what I think; I wonder if
I'm the only person that DOES think. I can't see inside other
people's heads, so I can't tell if there's anything there. Do
other people have consciousness? Do they question things around
them like I do? Do they try to understand?
I know that my schoolmates don't. Everybody who goes to the
high school in my suburb falls into the same cutout... the boys
wear t-shirts, long, baggy shorts and backwards baseball hats.
The girls wear t-shirts, denim jeans, little scrunched up fabric
things on their wrists and refer to everything as 'fuckin'.
(Example : 'That test was so fuckin' hard' or 'I was so fuckin'
The boys will talk about football, and the cruelty of the
education system, or their many varied and imagined sexual
conquests. Girls will talk about relationship rumors, the
cruelty of their teachers, or their many varied and imagined
romantic conquests. Teachers will shuffle from room to room, in
nice ties or dresses, and spew out the same lesson over and over.
The cycle endures and repeats. Nothing changes.
I remember a long time ago, when I was wandering away from
the playground equipment at my old elementary school. I was the
only person who didn't play on the equipment, the blacktop, or
the sports field... I tried to look around, near the trees that
surrounded us, in the big grassy back-lot field speckled with
dead earth. The recess lady would usually find me and deposit me
near the swings, but I always wandered... she never tried to do
anything other than relocate me.
But back to the fields. I recalled an ant hive, unless ants
don't make hives... what do they make? Whatever it is ants make,
I found one. I've seen ant hives before, but not with someone
The girl was in my grade, from what I recalled in our cheesy
little nostalgia laced elementary school yearbook. She was
standing over an ant hill, with a magnifying lens, burning ants.
"Why are you doing that?" I asked.
She looked up, since she hadn't noticed me standing there
for three minutes. "Huh? I dunno. I just am. There's nothing
else to do."
The ants would get burned, and the survivors would scurry
back to the hole. She'd remove the lens, and the ants would come
out again, and be burned once more once the lens was replaced.
She did this over and over again, and the ants just kept coming
back for more... they didn't learn, they didn't try to avoid it.
They just repeated the cycle, the stimulus/response of the animal
I keep seeing this over and over again in school. Kids may
stray topics, but they invariably swing back to the standard,
accepted subjects. Activities always consist of 'outings' to
what passes for a commercial zone in the suburbs, or 'innings' to
someone's house to watch movies and complain about things.
They used the excuse of nothing else to do to do the
strangest things. Most of them would get their hands on beer,
which is illegal for underage people to own, and drink so much
that they'd die occasionally. Others would get illegal drugs and
inject/smoke/inhale them, and die often. Why would anybody want
to do this to themselves, claiming there wasn't anything else to
do? I always had something to do. I'd read a book, or watch TV,
or go outside and find something interesting to draw (badly).
The kids don't seem to recognize these as activities, and reach
for the aluminum cans and syringes since they're bored. I just
I don't understand them, and they don't understand me. When
I try to talk to them about life and why things are the way they
are, they look at me strange. They don't understand my
questions, my musings on why people have to wear business suits
or why we rake our leaves, or why we use the right-hand side of
the road to drive on. When I try to discuss my feelings about
the construction crews and their noisy road-strippers or how I
reacted to the neat-shaped oak tree they cut down and burned to
widen the street, usually the person will walk away, bored,
claiming they have something better to do. When I get into the
aspects of neat color combinations for hats or how the peeling
paint in my room is starting to look like the Mona Lisa, I am
called 'weird' and outcast.
I don't fall into the accepted norm of kids. I want to,
since everybody says I'm weird and immature. I don't want to be
weird, even to people that may or may not be capable of conscious
thought. I try to join their clubs, I try to dress in their
styles, but no matter how many resume entries I make or how many
costumes and masks I put on, I'm still a curious person. I still
think and muse and ponder and consider, when others just repeat
and memorize and complain and obey.
I tried joining the Community Outreach program, which a lot
of students seem to like because it makes it feel like you're
doing something better for society than contributing to the sewer
systems after eating. I was in a soup kitchen, trying to make
people happy that don't have any homes. An old lady walked up to
me and asked if I had any sugar cookies, because she remembered
eating sugar cookies from when she was a little girl and she
couldn't recall what they tasted like anymore. I told her no,
but I'd buy her some, so I was taking off my apron (stained with
the green-gray soup I had dished to everybody, along with
identical slabs of bread) to go get some cookies when my
supervisor stopped me.
"What are you doing?" he asked, although it was pretty clear
that I was taking off my apron.
"I'm going to go to the store," I said. "The lady there
wants some sugar cookies, so I'm going to get her some."
My supervisor looked out at the crowd of homeless people.
"The one in the pink raincoat? She's... mentally ill. She
always asks for cookies."
"Doesn't she get them?"
"Of course not! She... well, she doesn't think like you or
I do. She doesn't seem to remember that we don't have cookies,
and asks each time."
"So why doesn't anybody get her some cookies?"
"This is a soup kitchen, not a bakery."
"But we give them bread."
"And soup," he repeated. "So, go serve her some soup."
"Why can't I just get her some cookies? It wouldn't take
long, and she says she can't remember how they taste. It would
make her happy."
"You want to work here or not?" he threatened, for some
reason. "Get your apron on and give the old bag some soup!"
So she got some soup instead, and didn't seem to mind, but I
knew she wanted cookies. I should have just gone and gotten her
cookies anyway and resumed soup once I got back, supervisor or no
supervisor. I was helping people; why would they stop me? I
obeyed, though, and did not question. I wanted to be normal. By
the end of the day I stopped volunteering, and got someone to
fill my place because I didn't want anybody to go hungry since I
wouldn't be there the next day.
The supervisor wanted me to fall into the pattern of soup,
bread, soup, bread, even if the people didn't want that. Maybe
when I grow up I'll open a free restaurant, and we won't have any
menus. We'll just give you what you want, even if it takes
awhile, because it's too easy to limit people to certain choices
instead of letting them decide. Yeah, a restaurant. That's what
I'll open. Me and her.
She meaning the girl I mentioned earlier, the one who was
burning ants. Now that you know about me, I'd better tell you
about her, since she's the other half of my philosophy and life.
I looked around for her each day after the ant hill fires,
because I was conducting an experiment. 'Did other people
think?' was my theory, and she was my test subject. She was the
only person I had met that didn't play at the equipment, the
blacktop, the field.
I saw her sitting on a wall-edge, the kind of brick thing
that juts out of the school for no reason, staring at the sky.
"What're you watching?" I asked her.
"Nothing," she said. Normal response; people that age were
expected to do nothing, say nothing, be interested in nothing.
Nothing not as in absence, but as in nothing that could be
considered dangerous or subverting for a kid to think about.
Whenever a grownup asked me what I was doing, I'd tell them and
try to explain the activity, and they'd try to cut the
"No, really," I insisted. "What're you watching?"
"Nothing much," she said, the other normal response.
"Okay," I said, and turned to leave. So much for that
"It's a bird," she said, before I could go. "It's that
little black bird perched on the air raid siren."
"Where? I can't see it."
"There," she said, pointing. "Here, climb up, you can see
it better from up here."
So we started talking about the bird, and about birds in
general. We spotted a few other birds, but didn't know their
official names, so we named them like you did in the cartoons...
Birdus Blackus Sirenus, or Birdus Yellowus Stormdrainicus. I
used part of my sandwich to get one to come closer, and I noticed
how it had feet like my Aunt Mae. It was a fun day.
Each recess we'd go off to the trees or the ant hills and
talk about stuff. She seemed like she could think; she asked
questions after awhile, when she loosened up and figured out that
the standard catch-phrase response to a question wasn't what *I*
wanted to hear. She'd tell me about her sisters and the stupid
outfits they'd buy, always with the little scrunched fabrics and
how they'd use this weird word Mommy said was bad, called
"Why is fuckin' bad?" I asked.
"It's bad," she said.
"Mom said it was bad," she said, and looked like she didn't
want to talk about it anymore. She looked around for other
adults, though, and didn't see any, so she continued. "I don't
know why. It's a adjective, like we're learning in Vocabulary,
but it's not a adjective people like to say."
"So why to they say it that often?"
"Teenagers like it," she said. "I guess kids and adults
don't. I don't mind it, because I don't know what it means. Is
it something yucky?"
I recalled past attempts of my own to ask adults what the
word meant, and instead of informing me, they'd yell or complain
or lecture me. It was a conspiracy, I determined, to keep kids
in the dark about the language. "I don't know. I guess it is,
since most people don't like it."
We watched the ants look for the sugar we had scattered on
the ground for a few minutes.
"You want to read a poem?" she asked, a bit afraid.
"Sure!" I said. I liked poetry; I always tried to buy books
of it, although mom and dad wouldn't let me get the REAL poetry,
like Frost and Cummings and the others that I have on my shelves
today. Kiddie poetry was all I was allowed, which was okay but
not as good as the stuff I own currently.
"Really?" she asked. "Weird. Most other kids go 'ewwww!'
when I ask that," she said, mocking the silly face of a grossed
"I like poems," I said. "Can I see?"
She nodded, and cautiously pulled a crumpled and folded
sheet of paper out of her pocket. I read it... I don't remember
the whole poem, but it was about her cat and how her cat used to
play on the porch before the truck hit it. It was pretty happy
and sad at the same time and MUCH better than the kiddie poetry I
"What do you think?" she asked. "You think I'm weird,
right? Nerd who writes rhymes."
"I like it," I said. "It's better than my stuff at home.
Got any more?"
That started the trend. At first every friday she'd bring a
few poems to school, carefully hidden in her pockets where nobody
could find them, but I suggested we just do it whenever she feels
like sharing it. Schedules weren't that fun, since it took the
surprise out of it. So every few days she'd bring a new poem,
and I'd read it and let her know truthfully how I felt about it.
Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was boring.
"This one's not very good," I said.
"You could at least be nice about it," she grumbled.
"I am. I could be like Benny the Bully and say 'it sucks,
stupid!'. Your other stuff is better, simply."
"You don't like it?"
"No. That doesn't mean I don't like you or your other
poems; just that this one doesn't read real easily. Don't worry,
you're still a good writer."
"You know, I did show this one and a few others to my
sister," she said.
"Really?" I asked, surprised, since she seemed reluctant to
show them to ANYBODY other than me. "Did she say they were
"No. She said 'Yeah, good,' after glancing them over."
"She was just trying not to hurt your feelings, I guess," I
said. "Although I wonder, is it possible to hurt someone's
feelings by lying to them and saying something that's bad is
good? Wouldn't that be worse than saying it's bad, because the
person wouldn't know how you really felt about anything?"
"My art teacher says 'good' at everything I do," she said.
"I wonder if she means it."
So we set out to ask people for the truth. Truth in
everything; art, words, vocabulary, world events, other people.
I always asked about the truth, since I wanted to know, but until
now she only asked me questions. Now she was asking adults the
occasional question, trying to figure out why things are the way
they are. We did this for a year or two and kept reading poetry
until the call came to my house and Mom talked to me.
"I hear you've been talking to that Jennings girl," Mom
"I have," I said. "She reads me poetry and we talk about
"Poetry? At her age? Odd. Well, anyway, that was her mom
on the phone. Apparently she just asked her what a very bad word
meant, and said you told her to."
"I didn't," I replied, which was true.
"Then why did she say that?"
"We decided we want the truth," I said. "So we're trying to
ask people more questions."
"But that's rude! Pestering adults with questions like
that! Questions little kids shouldn't be asking."
"How am I ever going to learn anything if I don't ask
questions?" I asked.
"That's what school is for, even if you are doing badly,"
she said, rubbing in my grades like she does in most
conversations, school oriented or not.
"But mom, they don't want you to ask questions there. They
just say stuff. It's neat stuff, but when I ask for more or
other stuff they get mad and send me to the office. Where can I
ask about things I'm not told in school?"
"Get an encyclopedia," she joked.
I did. I saved up some money and bought one, with help from
my parents who felt it would be good for educational use. I'd
take a volume with me to school and read from it, learning about
all sorts of stuff... did someone else who is sentient write it?
I don't know, and don't know to this day since there wasn't an
author's name on it like my other books. Whoever it was
certainly asked a lot of questions, and knew WHO to ask.
Anyway, she got older and so did I, and she'd still read new
poems as she wrote them. Elementary passed over to junior high,
and despite the more complicated work, I always found time to
wander around and watch the world go by. She had the same lunch
period as I did, and we'd continue the poetry readings. After
awhile, the poems started to trickle down to a slow flow, and
"Why?" I asked.
"Remember the day I wasn't here a week or two ago?" she
said. "Well, I fell going to lunch, and Benny... yeah, the same
Benny from elementary... he noticed some paper that fell out of
my pocket. He read a poem and laughed at me."
"It was embarrassing!" she said. "I went to the nurse's
office and went home, faking a stomach cramp. I didn't want to
be around him."
"You like writing, yeah?"
"And you believe the stuff you write, about how you feel
about people and things and how things happen?"
"So what's the problem?" I said. "Benny may not appreciate
poetry, but the poems or your talent or your beliefs haven't
changed. So he laughed. He's a jerk. It's no reason to stop.
Unless you don't want to write poetry anymore?"
"I do!" she said. "It's just that... well... my parents
have started to ask about what I do in my room, writing. My
sister's starting to call me Poe. Benny kind of added to that,
and I'm beginning to think that writing poetry isn't normal."
"Normal is a weird word," I said. "I've never gotten a
proper definition in any dictionary. Nobody ever called me
normal, in fact much to the opposite, and I haven't had any
friends but you. I don't mind. If normal means talking about
the same stuff over and over again and doing things without
thinking about them, I don't want to be normal. Don't let other
people keep you from doing what you like."
She started the poems up again after that. She was really
getting good, too; her poems were more deep, with a better
vocabulary than the semi-kiddie ones of days past. However, they
seemed restrained... she'd start in on a topic like death or
stress or peer pressure, then skirt away, touching lightly enough
to claim to have a topic yet not hard enough to talk about it.
"Why is that?" I asked.
"Why do all your sentences start with why?" she joked. She
had gotten a really good sense of humor; I chuckle over a joke
occasionally, but I'm usually too busy thinking about the joke to
"Hey, I'd like to know. Why not talk about death and stuff
"It's not... well... not right," she said. "I'd be morbid
and depressed. You should see my sister; she's on a serious
'angst' kick right now. Always moping around the house."
"Just because you write about darker stuff doesn't make you
dark," I said. "It just means that you see both sides. Here,
"Yes, now. I've got a pen on me somewhere..."
"But this is the LUNCHROOM!"
"Good of a place as any," I said.
So she wrote one, although she was always looking over her
shoulder. She thought it wasn't that good, but I liked it; it
was more morbid that usual, but a very, very good poem. I wish I
could remember it. I can't remember any of the poems she wrote
now, just how I felt about them. It's sad sometimes.
We continued on into high school. One day freshman year,
she asked me why I didn't write poetry myself.
"Aw, I'm no good at that," I said.
"Try it," she suggested.
"Yeah. In the lunchroom."
I wrote one. I'll show it to you later, I need to go find
it since I can't remember it. I didn't show it to her, since it
was so bad, but she didn't mind and we resumed eating and
talking. She was telling me how her sister was in college now
and had gotten into a sorority and was raped, and how her family
reacted with a mix of empathy and resentment. I didn't have
anything of that level to discuss, so I analyzed the silly mosaic
murals in the lunchroom and noticed how one of the marbleized
girls was supposedly in a 'thoughtful' position, but was picking
her nose really.
She had to be conscious. She asked questions, she broke out
of patterns with a little effort. Had I found another person who
was sentient, feeling, thinking, caring? I knew that I'd know
sooner or later, when the time was right.
Mom got off the phone again one day in junior year, and
called me into the kitchen.
"That was the Jennings," she said. "They say their daughter
is writing really disturbing poetry. She claims you encouraged
"WHY?!" she asked. "Son, this town has enough teenage
suicides. We don't need any more. Why on earth would you
encourage her to do that?"
"Huh? Did her parents say she looked suicidal?"
"No, but from this material one can only assume--"
"She was fine when I saw her last," I said. "Happy. Quite
happy, in fact. What's the problem?"
"The problem is that Mrs. Jennings thinks you're becoming a
bad influence on her. I want you to stop seeing her."
"Why? Because I said so!"
"Not much of a reason. Really, why shouldn't I see her
again? I don't follow."
"Do you have to question your parents all the time?" she
asked. "Every day, every issue, why, why, why. You're hounding
us on every decison we make for you. Don't you respect your
"Of course," I said, truthfully. "You brought me into the
world and taught me right from wrong. You're good parents."
"Then why do you have to pester us at every turn with your
"Shouldn't I be asking questions if I don't understand?" I
asked. "It's logical."
"Forget it. I'm sick of dealing with your attitude. You've
got stop questioning us all the time and learn some RESPECT," she
I didn't get that, because I did respect them. I just liked
to stay informed and understand the reasons behind their ideas,
just like any person would. They want me to be normal and comply
with everything without question, but sorry, I can't do that.
It's been proven time and time again.
However, I had other concerns than my parents. I was THIS
CLOSE to proving I wasn't the only sentient person in
existence... it would just take another step.
"Do you think?" I asked her one day at lunch.
"Think about what?"
"No, just think. I think you do, since I've read your
poetry and someone that just listens and repeats couldn't write
stuff like that. I'd say that all poets do, but most of the
poets I've read are dead and I can't ask them. I can't see
through anybody's eyes other than my own, since I'm just me, so I
can't prove anybody else thinks except by behavior, and I haven't
seen any behavior in people to show that they're thinking on a
regular basis other than you."
She nodded, trying to follow. I continued.
"So, I'd just like to know, to the best of your ability...
are you sentient? I can't tell from here, and I know I'll never
be able to prove it for certain, but it would be enough for me to
hear it from you. If I ask some other student, or a teacher, or
an adult, or any of the other popular social groupings, the
person will think I'm weird for asking and dismiss me like
everybody else does. You know me well enough to expect questions
like this, though, so... are you alive?"
"Yes," she said.
"You're not just saying that?" I asked. "I mean, I can ask
someone I don't know 'How're you doing?' and they'll say 'Fine'
just to get me off their back. Nobody's truthful about their
feelings, because it's not normal to ask 'How're you doing?' and
get 'Well, I was a bit sad this morning over a botched exam, but
I went to the movies and peppered up a little despite my earlier
"The questions is still 'are you sentient,' yes? Sometimes
it's hard to follow your conversations."
"Are you sentient, yes. Are they that hard to follow?"
"Yeah. But I don't mind; it beats the cut and dry of
scripted talking. So the answer is yes. I haven't felt more
alive in years. My parents know about what I write, and I don't
think I care... I don't care what anybody thinks, since that's
just me and if I can't let other people see me that'd be awful.
You've shown me how to look at the world with an observing eye
instead of a acknowledging one. It's great. I'm aware of
myself, of others and everything around me. I'm quite sentient."
"Two," I said. "So there are two sentient people. You know
what we have to do now, right?"
"Find more sentient people. If two exist there are others.
Maybe everybody is, they're just too scared to show it."
We set out on that quest through my junior year, and senior
year. We met a lot of people who were sentient and didn't know
it. There was this great guy who was too wrapped up in his
boozing and self-pity and medical problems to realize that he had
a sparkling wit and a critical eye. Another person was trying so
hard to be normal that he didn't try to see who he was, and
managed to mix the two really well in the end, one of the only
'normal' person who was also sentient. There was the guy who we
talked to that at first went on about the usual pop culture, but
admitted his tastes for classic music and eventually emerged a
I think the count was up to eight people, each with
differing tastes and opinions but all with knowledge of self
image. They didn't hide in the crowd anymore after bumping into
us. I was pretty happy about that, since the number was
We'll eventually split up when college arrives, going to
other places. Even her, since she told me yesterday that she got
into a major writing school and already got into a community
college. I'll lose touch with everybody after that more than
likely, but I don't mind; I know they're out there, personalities
burning through the fog of people that didn't want to show they
had any personality at all, denying the truth.
I'll never get to read another of her poems once she's gone.
I can't remember the old ones anymore either, which is a serious
bummer, but I can remember how I felt when I read them and look
back at those days with joy. The feelings are all that matters
after the words are long gone.
That's the story. Apparently, I'm not the only one and
neither are you. Revel in that.
I did find that poem I mentioned earlier, the only one I
ever wrote. It's not very good, but I don't mind, since my
entire self worth can't be judged on a few scrawl lines. I'll
just leave off with that and go back to what I was doing
(watching the faces of the other people in the computer lab as I
type this up, trying to figure out what they're doing and why).
My Only Poem
Being alone isn't as sad as it seems
Because there's no other sadness to compare it to
No accurate meterstick you can measure down to
So you just decide to be happy instead of sad.
It's hard to tell if you're really alone
People seem like sheep but that could be a ruse
So I decided to look around for other humans
Beneath those conforming guises.
I've found one other human
In a barren, blasted landscape
I know I'll lose her to the winds of time
But it doesn't matter.
Because finding just one
One is enough to prove I'm not alone
One leads to one more and to many more
Surrounded by all of us and no longer alone.