by James Daniel Walsh
THE CONFESSIONAL is dark and quiet when I step inside. Every sound is magnified by the stillness of the cramped little room—the rustling of my jacket, the thud of my ass against the chair as I sit down, the breath in my lungs. The silence hangs in the air, the priest on the other side of the mesh screen waiting for me to speak. I know I’m supposed to say something, but I’m Jewish, and all I have to go by here in this, my first confession, are the second hand thoughts of a lapsed Catholic who hasn’t been to confession in years.
“I know you’re there,” the priest laughs. I don’t say anything. “Would you like to offer me your confession?”
I stare at the chipped black polish on my fingernails, waiting for the voice in my head to tell me what to say. “I’m Gina,” I finally mutter.
“Nice to meet you, Gina, I’m Father Vincent,” the priest says warmly. “Are you here to confess today?”
“No,” I admit. “I’m here to give exposition.”
“Excuse me?” Father Vincent asks with a chuckle.
“I’m here to tell you about myself, about the only two memories I have.”
The priest is silent for a moment. “Two memories?” he finally mutters. “You must have more than that.”
“You would think I would,” I agree. “But I’ve only been in two stories before this, so that’s all I remember.” There’s silence again, and I can’t help but laugh. “Oh, I have what some might call memories,” I explain. “I can remember my wedding, the birth of my children, stuff like that. I have a house down by the beach and a job. But those memories are vague, without any real shape. You see, those scenes were never written. Only my two memories were written.”
Father Vincent clears his throat. “Have you been drinking or using drugs today?” he asks me.
I lean back in the hard wooden chair and stare at the screen, unable to see the priest’s face through the clover leaf patterned screen. “Would you like to hear my two memories?” I ask. “We can call it a confession, if that makes you more comfortable.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, like I said, I remember a wedding,” I go on. “We had a whirlwind romance, my husband and I. He wanted to be a filmmaker. I don’t remember why I loved him, or if I even did. I don’t have that memory. No, the only real memory I have of my husband, if you can call it real, is of walking in on him in our bed with a whore.”
Father Vincent sighs sympathetically. “I’m so sorry,” he says, and I know he means it.
“Thanks,” I say, smiling. “I was pregnant with our daughter at the time. I don’t really remember the divorce, though I know we had one, and I don’t remember him abandoning our children, though he did. I just remember that one moment, standing in our bedroom, him not knowing I was there. Seeing my husband naked, fucking another woman, that was bad enough, but the things he was saying. He was so nasty, talking so dirty…”
My heart aches at the memory, even though I know that my husband and the whore don’t really exist. None of it was real, just like these walls aren’t real or the air I’m breathing. Still, the voice in my head tells me to feel betrayed, to feel pain, and so I do.
“Did you and your husband go to this church?” Father Vincent asks me. “If so, I might be able to help —”
“You wouldn’t know my ex.”
“I might. What was his name?”
“He didn’t have one.”
Silence invades the confessional again. “Excuse me?”
Father Vincent asks, confused. “He didn’t have one,” I repeat. “The writer never gave
Another long pause, and then the million dollar question is asked. “What writer?”
I lean toward the screen, putting my hands up against the sheet metal window keeping Father Vincent from seeing my face. “How many memories do you have, Father?” I ask. “Real ones, I mean, not just vague recollections of high school, or of eating breakfast.” I don’t wait for an answer. “We’re fictional, Father. You and I, this place, this whole world… We only exist in the pages of a book.”
Father Vincent laughs, but his voice is further away and I know he’s as far the hell away from the screen as he can possibly be. “And how would you know this?” he asks me. “Assuming it’s true, why would you be the only one in the world to know the truth?”
“Because the writer wants me to,” I answer with a shrug. “This is his new story. He’s out there, somewhere, making this up as he goes along. I was a character in two previous stories he wrote, though only a minor one. When I caught my husband in bed, I didn’t even have any lines. He just wrote me, standing there, sobbing and watching.” Anger wells up in me; a hatred I know isn’t mine but instead is written into me, like a tattoo on my soul. “The bastard made me watch…” I whisper, shaking my head. Tears prick my eyes. I want them to be mine but I know that they aren’t.
“You sound like you’re talking about God,” Father Vincent whispers, almost to himself.
I laugh out loud. “He wishes!” I exclaim. “No, Father, in our world even God does what this guy wants. But in his world I’m sure he’s just a little man at a computer, taking his frustrations and failures out on us.”
“I see,” Father Vincent says. He doesn’t believe me, but he wants to help, or at least the writer wants me to think he does. “What was your second memory?” the priest asks. He’s humoring me, so I humor him back.
“Her name was Michelle,” I say, the name sticking in my throat. “Michelle Crews.”
“Michelle Crews?” Father Vincent says, surprised. “The author, the one that disappeared last month?”
I roll my eyes and rest my face in my hands. “Oh my God,” I sigh. “That was the clunkiest, most heavy handed expository line I’ve ever heard. I swear—this writer is a fucking hack! ‘Michelle Crews? The author, the one that disappeared last month?’ My God, what lazy writing!”
“I’m sorry,” Father Vincent apologizes.
“Not your fault, his,” I say. “He puts words in your mouth, he should think of a better way of informing the audience than to have you say something so obvious, something that no real person would ever say.” I raise my head up with a shake and sigh. “But if you think that’s bad, you should try being in my head. I’m constantly narrating. From the moment I stepped into this stupid booth my first-person narration has been feeding the audience everything they need to know. It’s driving me bat-shit.”
Silence again, and then an uncomfortable chuckle. “Maybe I should call a doc—”
“Oh, you asked me about Michelle,” I remember, cutting him off. “My only other memory is of her— slapping her face, telling her how much she hurt me. I suppose I made quite the scene. She disappeared soon after. I feel bad about the things I said to her, even if she did deserve them.”
“Did you…?” Father Vincent begins cautiously, and then thinks better.
“No,” I answer. “I didn’t kill Michelle. I loved her. I was more in love with her than with anyone I’ve ever known, or so my heart tells me. My only memory of her is that last moment, screaming at the top of my lungs that I hoped she suffered the way she made me suffer, but in my heart I hear sweet words that were never really spoken. I feel her touch, her flesh against mine, her lips against mine, and I miss her. No matter what she did to me, no matter how bad it hurt, I miss her still.”
Father Vincent is quiet, and I await a self-righteous sermon about how my love for Michelle is an abomination. “If none of this is real,” he says instead, “then why should it hurt? Any of it? What your husband did, what Michelle did, it’s all just ink on a piece of paper, the imaginings of a silly writer.”
I smile, and a tear falls down my cheek. “I hurt because he writes me to hurt,” I answer, my voice breaking. “I suppose we aren’t all that different from people out there in his real world, assuming of course his world is any more real than ours. Even though it never really happened, I remember my husband being there when I gave birth. He held my hand, told me he loved me. We kissed. He made a promise to me and to our children, and he broke it.” Another tear falls, and another, and finally my fragile voice cracks wide open and a sob escapes.
“Gina,” Father Vincent says tenderly. “Gina, I’m not saying you’re right—that this is all just fiction—but if it were than this man, this writer, is building toward something with you. What is it, Gina? Where do you see this story ending?”
A tentative smile appears on my lips, washed away by a flood of mascara dyed tears. “I don’t know,” I answer truthfully. “All I know is that a moment ago I stepped into this confessional, and for the first time I was aware of the truth. I’m going to stand up in a moment, walk out of here, and head downtown.”
“Downtown?” Father Vincent asks. “What’s downtown?”
“I don’t know,” I sob, resting my head against the screen. “Something to do with the switchblade in my pocket, I suppose.”
“Switchblade?” Father Vincent says, raising his voice for the first time in our conversation. “Gina, what on earth are you going to do with a switchblade?”
A sudden terror grips me. What am I going to do with the switchblade? The confessional feels suddenly claustrophobic, and I push the door open and take a breath of stale church air. Through the blur of my tears I see a line of people outside the booth. They’re here to confess their pedestrian sins and beg a faceless man for forgiveness, none of them aware that their sins aren’t even real.
I wipe the tears from my eyes and take another look at those waiting to speak to the priest. I clasp my hand over my mouth to stifle my scream, but the cry that escapes from my lips echoes throughout the church just the same. These extras, nameless characters in a story where I’m the star, are blanks. They have no faces, no clothes, no color. They are mannequins, without features, without genitals, without movement, all lined up outside the confessional. The writer didn’t deem them worthy of description, didn’t feel they needed action, and so they just stand there, staring at me without eyes in their heads, waiting for me to carry out the plot.
“You’re like them, you know,” a voice says, and I scream again in fright. Standing up on the altar is a handsome man in a black trench coat, his hair and goatee as dark as his eyes. He lights the cigarette in his mouth with a silver lighter, twin flames igniting the tip, and he smiles at me. “He gave you a face and a name, poured his pain into you, but you’re nothing, just like those fake people behind you. You’re just a half formed thought, without a last name or a purpose for being other than furthering the story. Let’s face it, sweetheart—you’re just a bit player.”
A door opens behind me and Father Vincent steps out, his hands reaching for me. I step back and look at him, eyes blurring with tears again.
“Gina,” he says, and I’m relieved to see lips and eyes and the collar of a priest. Father Vincent must appear in other stories too, why else would he have features while those waiting in line have none?
“He knows!” I cry out, pointing to the man on the altar. “He knows! He knows! He knows!”
“Who knows?” Father Vincent asks soothingly. “Knows what?”
“Ask him!” I demand, pointing my finger at the phantom. “Ask him, ask him what’s real and what’s not, he knows!”
Father Vincent follows my stabbing finger and looks right at the stranger standing below the crucified Christ. “Gina,” he says, shaking his head, “I don’t see anyone there.”
I turn my attention from Father Vincent to the phantom. He exhales a cloud of smoke, and a laugh escapes his lips. I recognize him now. He was there, in the room with me when I caught my husband with that whore. He was there when I slapped Michelle across her beautiful face. He was there, in that confessional with me, stabbing the truth into my spine. He is the messenger, the voice of the writer in my world. He is Fear.
I turn and run, as if in slow motion—more dramatic that way, I suppose. Fear’s laughter echoes in the rafters of the church, pushing me forward like the blast from an explosion. When I finally reach the doors of the church and push them open, escaping from under the sign of the Omega, Fear’s laughter has permeated the very core of my being. My feet are moving against my will, taking me to a destination I’m quite unaware of. None of this is within my power to control, none of it! Then who am I? What am I? I think, I feel, but only because someone else tells me to. What does he have planned for me?
I run passed plain, windowless houses and colorless trees, none of which the author has bothered to describe to me. I’m suddenly, terrifyingly aware that I don’t know what color the sky is, or what a car engine sounds like. The writer never gave me those memories, and so my eyes see a half finished landscape, devoid of reality and the basic structure of truth. I’m surrounded by fiction. I am fiction.
I reach downtown in what feels like seconds when the distance should have taken me all day to travel on foot. I’m standing on Pine Avenue, shaking, crying, breathing in air that isn’t really there. The crowd moves around me, more mannequins, silent but for the clump clump of their footfalls. I reach into my jeans pocket and feel the handle of the knife. The writer tells me it’s cold, that it’s hard, and that I’m afraid of what I might do with it. He tells me to watch the building across the street, the glass edifice shining in the morning light. I watch, waiting, knowing someone or something is going to carry the plot along in a moment. I wait so long it becomes obvious that I’m waiting for the star.
Then I see her emerge from the alley and come around the corner toward the building. My breath stops in my chest. She’s beautiful—shoulder length auburn hair frames her young, porcelain face. She wears all black, and her hazel eyes are heavy and sad. She enters the building, and my feet are already moving, my heart skipping a beat. I don’t know what’s about to happen. Is this, perhaps, a love story I’m in? Is this the woman of my dreams, and I’m here to sweep her off her feet? Is the writer benevolent after all?
I enter the alley my angel emerged from, certain she’ll come back this way when she leaves, and I duck into a dark corridor inside the neighboring parking structure. There I wait, eyes closed, heart hopeful. Maybe this beauty is my salvation. Maybe she can make this revelation vanish, and I can live my life never knowing that I’m little more than a bit of ink on paper. We can raise my children together, my angel and I, and the sky will have color and the people will have faces and the breeze will move the leaves. Maybe, maybe, maybe…
I hold my breath for the hour that she’s inside the building, and don’t exhale until I hear feet coming toward me. What will I do when she passes by? I don’t know—I just wait for the plot to unfold, as an eager reader might.
When I see her pass by, time stops, and my heart sinks. Now I know where this is all going. This is not a love story. My hand goes into my pocket and pulls out the switchblade, and my other hand reaches out and grabs my angel by her arm, pulling her into the darkness with me. I throw her hard against the concrete wall and push a button on the knife’s handle. The blade snaps out and my angel’s eyes go from confused to scared. I grab her throat with my free hand, put the blade to her jugular, and press my body against hers.
“I saw you go in,” I say to her, my voice trembling as I speak words that aren’t really mine. “You’re beautiful. You’re so beautiful. I knew it had to be you. I knew you were the one. So I waited.” Tears begin to fall again as I stare into the terrified face of this poor, innocent girl, her eyes shut from me as if I were some sort of monster. Perhaps I am. Perhaps that’s my role. “I waited so long,” I say, crying, shaking, trying to break free. I can’t. “I waited so long!”
The angel jumps at my sudden outburst and holds her purse up. I blink tears from my eyes and slap the offering from her hands. I reach up and caress her tear streaked cheek, and I want her to not be scared. I want to put this knife down and hold her, tell her everything will be okay and that I would never really hurt her. I struggle against my fingers, trying to force them open so that I might drop the blade, but they don’t move.
“Have you ever been scared and you didn’t know why?” I ask, and I press the knife a little harder against her skin to remind her of the taste of fear. “Scared when you woke up in the morning? Scared when you showered? Scared when you ate breakfast? Every second of every day there was a terror you couldn’t explain, gnawing at you like a dog with a bone, and you knew you would never get away from it. It would eat you alive. Even then there’d be the nightmares.”
The angel opens her eyes and looks at me. I can see in her eyes recognition, that she understands what I’m saying, and I feel a sudden surge of desire sweep through me. I lean in and kiss her on the lips, my free hand grabbing her breast and kneading it with a passion I’ve never known before. Am I free right now? Is this the will of the writer or is this real? I want this woman. I want to taste her and fuck her and be free from all of this goddamn fiction. Am I in control right now or is he? Is this my passion or his?
“We’ll fuck him away, you and me,” I whisper between kisses, and for once I recognize my words as my own. I kiss my angel harder, teasing her nipple underneath the padding of her bra, trying desperately to hold on to this freedom I suddenly feel. “He’ll never find us if we’re naked and cumming and free. He’ll never get his hands on us if we can just feel safe in each other’s arms.”
I move my hand because I can, taking the knife from her throat. I feel her pull away, and I put the knife back. I can’t let her go, not now. We’re free, she and I. Right now, in this moment, we’re free. She doesn’t know it; she doesn’t feel the writer’s cruel story unfolding around her. When this is over, when orgasm has freed our minds and bodies and liberated us from our master’s service, my angel will thank me. My angel will—
“Gina,” a familiar voice says from the alley outside, “why are you doing this?”
My angel and I both turn to find Fear standing there, silhouetted by the morning light, climbing the three stairs into the corridor with slow, deliberate steps.
“No!” I cry out. “Go away! You’re not really here!”
I still feel passion between my legs, still feel freedom in my limbs, and so I attack. I swipe the knife at him but my limbs suddenly revolt and the attack is meager at best. Fear grabs me by the wrist and spins me around, holding me by my throat and relieving me of my weapon.
He leans in close to my ear and whispers, “Don’t you love me any more?” with a mixture of rage and lust. I try to fight, but can only moan in despair.
The angel snatches up her purse and runs, out of the corridor and away from me. Fear pulls me from the corridor by my hair, and the writer tells me for the first time what pain feels like. I hate him for that. I hate him for all of this. Was I free back there, or did he just let me think I was free? The sick bastard! The lying monster! Why is he doing this to me? Is this his pain he’s taking out on me? Are these his feelings I’m feeling—his fear, his impotence, his rage? Do I hate him, or does he hate himself?
“Now you listen to me, you stupid bitch,” Fear yells at me over the screeching wheels of the Blue Line in the street outside the alley, “we all have our parts to play in this goddamn story. You think you’re special?” I see my angel out of the corner of my eye, watching this drama unfold from a safe distance. Fear pulls my hair again, and my cry of pain is drowned out by the breaking train. “She’s mine, Gina. Mine! You’re nothing to me. You’re just a day player, here to help introduce me to the audience. Now is my time, Gina—my time with our little friend over there. It’s time for you to go.”
“Please,” I beg, the word barely escaping my mouth. “Please tell me what I’m supposed to do. Tell me where I’m supposed to go. I want out of here, I want freedom, I want—”
Fear slaps the switchblade into my hand and pushes me away. “Cut,” he says with a finger pointed in my face. “Cut until you find freedom.”
My eyes grow wide, and my feet move before he can explain his words. I run away, down the alley and behind a white van sitting there, waiting for me. I stare at the knife in my trembling hand, and then my free hand moves against my will and rolls up my sleeve. I stare at my wrist, the vein throbbing under the skin, and I open my mouth to scream. I have no voice. I’m not a part of the story any more.
Look for this story and others in Manic Expression: A Collection – Apocalypse, now on sale.
Copyright © 2017 by James Daniel Walsh. Library of Congress Control Number: 2008903178 ISBN: 978-1-5215-0387-4 (Softcover)
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.