Empty Whispers

Submitted into Contest #9 in response to: Write a story about unrequited love.... view prompt



Protective stone walls stood vigil above the overgrown treetops, proud despite the cracks and dirt that coated their every inch. Once, this place had been grand, with each inch of every building intended to represent the best, most well-maintained prison that ever stood. But now, Jeremy could hardly recognize anything. 

“Hello everyone! Welcome to Stillwater Penitentiary! One of America’s most haunted locations!” The tour guide said, the sweetness of her saccharine smile leaking into her words. 

Rolling his eyes, Jeremy looked up at the clocktower. It was frozen now, merely a decoration for all the good it did. But still Jeremy heard it, the phantom sound of something lost to time. 

Sixty years had its toll on them both. 

“Now if you’ll follow me, and be careful not to bump into the ghosts! They’re especially active this time of year…” 

He knew she said that regardless of the season. It wasn’t even summer yet, despite the protests of the cool morning breeze. But disregarding the discontent with his guide he followed, wishing he was free from the chains of hospitality she led him with.

He didn’t need a guide. He could navigate this place blind. He knew secrets about these walls that she’d never imagined. And yet he followed her, along with the rest of her mesmerized flock.

“Now, established in 1836, this penitentiary was once the…” 

She droned on and on about history no one cared about. History hadn’t drawn them here. Hope had. Whether or not they believed, or even if they were aware, they hoped. They wanted something to happen. They wanted to be special, feel chosen. The ghosts brought them here, and none would leave satisfied unless they encountered one of the fabled specters. 

Not that Jeremy was any different, but at least he acknowledged it. 

Walking through the halls was an ethereal experience. He recognized everything and nothing all at once. The same floors with new cracks and discolorations. Every stone in its place, but each marred with scratches and peeling paint. Everything was familiar, yet nothing was as he remembered. 

He had walked these halls once. Not as a tourist in his striped button-down and faded slacks. Not a powerless member of the masses strung along by a syrupy chaperone. But as a guard. Someone respected. Someone hated. But someone. 

Although the lack of jeers from the hollow cells was, albeit, refreshing, Jeremy couldn’t help but long for those days. He was young then. So full of life. And of course, there was her…

“And here lies the ‘Dead End,’ where some of the most infamous prisoners were kept.” The guide said, her honeyed voice impeding her attempt at an ominous tone. “Murderers like Frederick Nell or even some notorious gang members like Roy “Nine Lives” Hayes…”

434… 438…. Jeremy counted the numbers that lined the cells, knowing all too well what was coming. 

“And here in cell number 442 was one of Stillwater’s most famous criminals.” The lady said, leading the group to a halt. 

Jeremy didn’t have to hear her name. He didn’t need to see which cell the tour guide stopped in front of. He knew where they were— and who used to be. 

“Maggie Warren, the writer, arsonist, and murderer.” 

He could almost see her there. Her smile, that spiteful glow in her eye...

“Now, the nickname ‘Dead End’ came about because most of the prisoners kept here also died here. Some died of natural causes, others were executed. They were the worst of the worst, the most brutal criminals. And Maggie embodied this.” 

The tour guide went on about Maggie’s history, giving every boring detail, but Jeremy didn’t listen. He didn’t need to hear what he already knew. 

His memories were vivid. Her burning amber eyes, her untamable curls, her innocent childlike face… She was larger than life, yet she had been here, right before his eyes. 

It had all started when he read her books. Her prose had a simplicity, an honesty that seemed to confront both the reader and the society that surrounded them. They were far less flowery than other books he'd read, and he thought them better for it. Each word felt expertly chosen, perfect.

He first read them when he was sixteen, and they spoke to him. He devoured each one, and when he was done, he hungered for more. 

She was always at the forefront of public consciousness. She was a revolutionary writer, an icon of the era. And even as Jeremy got older, he followed her. He read her books immediately upon release. He slept with them under his bed, never feeling secure if he wasn’t there to protect them. Even once he became a prison guard, he always held his adoration for her, a secret he kept close to his heart not because others would criticize him, but because he felt connected to her. Hearing her name escape other people’s lips made him feel defiled somehow. So he never mentioned her, and no one ever knew his passion. 

But he hadn’t known that one day he’d guard more than just her books. 

Maggie Warren Arrested for Arson- 10 People Dead, More Injured. 

14 Unsolved Murders with Strange Connections to Maggie Warren.

Maggie Warren Sentenced to Life in Prison for Arson. Murder Trials to Follow.

While the rest of the world was busy condemning her, turning their backs on her, trying to forget they had ever enjoyed her books, her words passed through Jeremy’s mind. 

“Life and Death are only different in suffering. Why we fear peace and adore suffering I'll never understand. Not that I welcome death. But I believe life is only made enjoyable when you do as you wish, disregarding the fear of death.” 

He hadn’t known before how much of her writing was truth and how much was fiction. But when he heard about the charges, he realized that every word she’d said, every page of honest, harsh prose was true. It really was her. So instead of shoving his collection into a corner somewhere and trying to wipe their author from his mind, he kept them closer. He’d wake up in the morning with one lying open on his chest or clung tight in his grasp. He kept a small notebook filled with her quotes in his back pocket, never letting anyone else see.

And then she was sent to Stillwater. 

He could still remember the day he’d gotten the news. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Stillwater was respected back in those days, a correctional facility of the highest order. Many of the inmates here had notorious pasts. But when another guard told him his idol would soon be his prisoner, he didn’t know what to do. He stood there, dumbfounded. Unresponsive. Awestruck. 

He remembered the first day he’d seen her in her cell. He hadn’t been on duty for the transfer, but as soon as he was assigned to walk “Dead End” that night, he was ecstatic. He could finally see her, face to face. Finally know her. Finally look into the face of the one he was certain knew his soul. If only she could see it too…

The first thing he noticed was her smile. Most prisoners looked dejected or angry. But not her. Her expression was joyous as Jeremy walked by that night, although wide and unnatural. She reminded him of the Cheshire cat, with her piercing eyes and that blinding smile. 

Her expression lit up when she caught his gaze. “Curiosity killed the cat you know. Or maybe the cat killed the curious.” 

She had this way about her. You could never tell if she was reading your mind, or if it was all just an eerie coincidence. The things she said were always spot on, always deliberate, as if with a single glance she could know your soul’s every vulnerability. 

He must have reacted— given some subconscious flinch or twitch— because she laughed. “I cannot tell if I frighten you, or if you just want more. Maybe a bit of both.” She said, her eyes sparkling with a wild amusement.

Jeremy quickly turned away, not wanting anyone else to think he was giving Maggie any special interest. But he did turn back after he passed her cell to find her staring at him, that wicked grin almost glowing through the bars. 

Every night, if he was assigned to the Dead End, he’d sneak a glance at her. On rare occasions, she was sleeping. But most often she called out at him. Sometimes she’d say crazy things, trying to get a rise out of him. Other times she’d quote her books, and it took everything Jeremy had not to give away all he felt about her. Not to bring his copies down here, to try and discuss them, or maybe even get her autograph. 

One night, when the rest of the inmates were asleep, and when the next guard wasn’t scheduled to walk through for another ten minutes, he glanced into her cell and immediately met her gaze. She was leaning against the bars, giving him that same impish grin.

“Why do you always stare at me?” 

Jeremy at first tried to ignore her, to keep walking, but his heart began to race. 

“You know, my murder trial is coming up. I’m anticipating it, really. I’m excited. After all, I believe life is only made enjoyable when you do as you wish, disregarding the fear of death.” 

He stopped cold. That line. It was the quote from her book...

  “I wonder what it feels like? Maybe death will be fun.” 

He turned to face her. “Are you planning on pleading guilty?” 

She shrugged. “I don’t know yet. I suppose I’ll decide that on the court date. Keep my lawyer on his toes.” 

“Why did you do it?”

She laughed. “That was forward. But I’m not admitting anything incriminating.” She leaned in closer. “Well, maybe if I whisper…” 

Jeremy’s mind screamed at him, telling him not to move. But everything else inside him begged to get closer, to look into those warm eyes directly. To study every feature. To know her the way he knew her words. 

Without realizing the decision was made, his feet began to move, entranced by her presence. She smiled as he approached, growing tense and still like a snake about to strike. 

When he finally got close to her, she opened her mouth, leaned her head out the bars, and whispered in his ears. “I do whatever I think will be the most fun.” 

She spun around, something in her hands. He squinted, confused. He stared at the object she held, knowing it looked familiar, but only too late realizing what it was. 

“This is almost flattering. I thought you were familiar with my work, but I dare say you might be my biggest fan.” She laughed. “I can’t believe you keep this with you every night!” 

“Hey, give that back!” He said, reaching through the bars for his notebook. 

She flipped through the pages. “I was hoping for more juicy information, but I suppose I’m still satisfied.” She threw the book over her shoulder, and he grabbed it, pulling it close. “So that’s why you’re so interested in me.” She turned once more to him, her malicious eyes blazing. “You really are infatuated, aren’t you?” 

They stayed like that, locked in each other’s gaze far too long before he finally turned and sped off, the sound of her mocking laugh echoing behind him.

“And folks, if you’re a bit squeamish, I might stay outside of this next room…” The tour guide said, snapping Jeremy back to reality. He hadn’t even realized they’d moved, and yet now he was already there, led by the invisible puppet strings of the subconscious. This part of the tour he’d been anticipating, for better or for worse. 

“Now this room was one of the last rooms constructed. It housed one of the first electric chairs in the country, but only about twenty people died here before the prison shut down in 1923.” 

Jeremy walked in, and once more the memories flooded over him, drowning out the tour guide’s speech. 

There was a chair in the room, although Jeremy knew it wasn’t the chair. It was too new, too well kept. And the wood color was wrong. And yet it seemed so similar…

Maggie had pled guilty. And during the trial, she explained every gory and gruesome detail of each murder. She claimed she wasn’t sorry, and she’d do it again if she got the chance. The jury had no mercy. Maggie Warren was sentenced to the death penalty. 

By some cruel twist of fate, Jeremy was on duty that night. And he was assigned to bring her to this very room. 

It had been a long walk. The cold hallway felt endless that day— each second inching by slower than the last. Maggie was laughing hysterically, her smile growing with each step. 

“I’m ready.” She repeated over and over. “Bring it on.” 

“It’s her way to cope.” His boss had said. “Everyone on death row has either accepted their fate or tricked themselves into believing a lie.” 

But Jeremy wasn’t so sure. Her fiery eyes blazed with anticipation, and when she looked at him, she added satisfaction to the flames. 

“At least you’re watching.” She said. “At least I have a captivated- Oops! I mean, captive audience.” 

The other guard gave him an odd look, but Jeremy kept going, keeping his head down.

Strapping her into the chair was the hardest thing he had ever done. 

Finally, when everything was set up, she said. “I’m ready for the next adventure. But don’t think you’re rid of me. I’ll be around.” She gave Jeremy one last smile. “We all live. We all die. I lived for fun, and now I’ll die for it.” Her eyes glowed brighter than ever, two cruel hateful stars burning through him. 

He turned away once the chair started.

He could almost feel it when she died. Something was gone. And yet, traces of it still remained. 

Even now, standing in the room, he could still feel her. There was chaos in the air, a callous sense of pride and fun that was intimidating, but somewhat comforting at the same time. He couldn’t understand it, but even now, after she’d been dead for sixty years, he felt close to her here. 

“This is where a lot of people say they see Maggie.” The guide said. “There have been sightings of her since her execution. Many guards of that time reported seeing a girl with curly brown hair or hearing laughter when no one was around. Some people say they feel like laughing while in this room, and many believe that Maggie herself haunts this place, and enjoys tormenting anyone who stays here too long.” 

He remembered when guards first reported seeing Maggie. It was several months after she died. Jeremy had stayed at the prison, hoping he’d see her too, hoping he’d hear her laugh and know she was still there, but he never did. With the end of each shift, his hope dwindled. 

But now, being here, he could feel her. Someone was watching him. He started to feel warm, and at once he was reminded of the glow of her eyes, those beautiful blazing eyes. He wanted to laugh. To burst out in an uproar like he hadn’t in years. But he stifled his desire, looking instead at a plaque installed on the wall. 

And there she was. It was her mugshot. He’d seen it a thousand times in the old newspaper clippings he kept, but somehow this too seemed unfamiliar to him. Her face was always smug in this picture, but now he could swear she was smiling at him.

“Did someone touch me!?” A woman called from the other side of the room. Jeremy turned but saw nothing. 

“Maybe that was Maggie.” The tour guide said, but her expression revealed her doubt. 

Jeremy looked back at the picture. The smirk was gone— if it was there in the first place. It was probably a figment of his imagination, a daydream. 

The rest of the tour, Jeremy was waiting for something to happen. A clue, a hint. Anything. But just like back then, he walked alone, unimportant and ignored.

When the tour ended, the others wandered through the gift shop or chattered about how they felt a presence in the place, but he was sure they were making it up. Or maybe he just wanted to be sure. He didn’t want to think Maggie had interacted with them, especially not while he was there. 

But as he was leaving, and he took one look back to the cold, hollow building, he swore he saw something in a window. A face, amused and sadistic. He once more felt the familiar heat pierce him, but with one blink, it all vanished.

He shook his head. He must have been imagining things. She wasn’t still there, taunting him at every turn. She wasn’t giving him glimpses. She wasn’t messing with others just to remind him of his own insignificance.

No, he hadn’t seen her smile. He’d just seen his own desires reflected back at him. Things best left long forgotten, but that his mind would never let go. 

All he had were the memories; the cold empty whispers of a voice long forgotten. 

October 04, 2019 19:15

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