In Character

Ian was waiting for the next show to start. It was a rerun, so it wasn’t likely that he would have to do much, and of course it had already happened. Even so, when he was in it he couldn’t remember the future. The screen flashed on and he was there again, doing the same thing again, hopelessly in love and screwing everything up again. While he waited backstage, off to the sides of the big rectangle that comprised his world, he fidgeted. He could see Emily across the screen, waiting to come on just like he was. She didn’t look so nervous, but then she always looked calm and collected. Her skin was always smooth, her hair always curling neatly, her smile always intact. His face went crooked and twitched before he could get a grin together, and he always tried to madly pull his features into obedience while she waited with such gentle pity it broke his heart.

It was nearly time to go on now. She had the first scene, in the kitchen for a while before he burst in with, what was it this time? Something about a test he failed, maybe. He’d remember once it had happened. Once he had to go tell her it happened, anyway. As soon as he was onscreen the story settled into place and took him over. Emily was stepping on already, moving so certainly into place. The lights flared and settled on her, shaping the shadows under her chin and between her lips. She froze in place and the screen lit up. There she was. He watched her smile and turn, furrow her brow in concentration, move her hands with quick easy movements.

Even offscreen he was in love with her. Offscreen she smiled at him with the same soft look, that understanding smile that meant she thought he was a nice friend, maybe a brother, but definitely nobody beautiful. He wasn’t lovely to her the way she was to him. He had a suspicion, though, that sometime around season six she would warm to him. If she loved him back onscreen then she would at least like him offscreen, he thought. She’d lean against his shoulder, maybe, while they were waiting together before the lights went on. There was a blurred memory of that, so maybe it was going to happen. Damn, he had to go on now. He flailed into the kitchen, wincing a little at the clatter of his entrance. She was calm, just bent to pick everything up as though she expected it. Perhaps she did by now.

“Emily!” he said, catching his breath. “Emily, I have to tell you something.”

She turned to him and placed her hands on her hips. “Yes, Ian, what is it now?”

He looked at her face, turned to him with such expectation. The words almost stopped in his mouth, almost changed before he let them spill out. Her eyes were so intent on his that for a moment he felt he could say anything. He couldn’t, of course. Even if he really wanted to, there was no other way than to follow the script, keep to the story, stick to the show. At least he never forgot his lines.

Inside and Outside a Story

The teacher was saying something now, hoarsely and without much conviction. The young man paused to listen to her, the brush motionless in the air an inch from the canvas. He was impatient and wanted to keep going, but she did keep talking. The sudden desire to paint had nearly overwhelmed him, until it had soaked into him and he had always wanted to paint. As a kid in school he had dreamed of being a painter. That was how it had always been. Sometimes it nudged at his brain, a tickling feeling that told him he wasn’t always like that, but he ignored it. Ever since he’d gone to find a painting class he’d been so motivated, it was like he was an entirely different person.

There was a full paragraph now on the page. It looked so neat there, pressed against the margin, black letters marching in clusters only to hit the edge and fall onto the next line. Amy was pleased with the way it looked. It took her a minute to get back to it. She had to shake herself, to stop looking with eyes unfocused at the shape of the paragraph. It didn’t even say all that much yet.

The story was really just starting. She was writing about Luke, a young man learning to paint. He wasn’t very good at it yet, but he showed talent. He loved to swipe a brush across the canvas and see the color blaze on the white. It was satisfying, like banging a cymbal and sending a streak of noise through the air. The teacher was a bent old woman, who had a hooked nose and skin sagging from her face and a scraping quiet voice. He was a little afraid of her. She told him that he would never quite be good enough at it for his own standards – she hoped – and that was what made him an artist.

Amy nibbled on her thumbnail. Maybe that wasn’t right. Oh well, she could change it later. She typed a sentence, and then deleted it with an impatient tap of the keys. Was he impatient really, though? She couldn’t decide if he was in respectful awe of the teacher, or if he was bored and contemptuous.

There was an awful turmoil in his chest, so fierce and sudden that it nearly hurt. Luke swallowed, and wondered at the emotions warring in him. Fear and hatred, it seemed, and he couldn’t think why. Neither of them seemed particularly appropriate at the moment. The lovely old lady had finished speaking, and he was painting again after smiling wide at her. She had shuffled off to the kitchen, and he was alone with the soft melody and the rustle of the color against the canvas. He wished that he could just keep doing what he was already, without his mind and emotions all turning over and tangling.

Probably contemptuous, she decided. That really made more sense, and that way they could grow from that to a friendly relationship. Those things always seemed to start out like that, edgy and prickly. Later their relationship would develop. They might even be friends.

The teacher’s voice rasped from the kitchen, and Luke rolled his eyes at the ceiling. A pang of disdain struck him, and he felt he might stagger from the blow. What a dotty old lady she was! If this was how he had to learn he didn’t know how he would stand it.

That was a bit of an abrupt change. The bitter feeling replaced his amiable contentment so queerly and quickly that he stopped what he was doing, and stared at the rectangle of blurred attempts before him. Where had that come from? The glad feeling was gone, and he had been happy with it. This scorn sat in him like a bad meal, heavy and uncomfortable. It didn’t quite fit. A sigh heaved through him. He would just have to get used to this, perhaps.

The air was soon thick with paint fumes – did paint really smell so much? She thought about it for a minute, and then decided to leave it. If she had to, she’d go back to it later. Something had to happen, though.

His jacket was in front of him, and without willing it he saw his hands before him, swinging it over his head. The paintbrush lay on the paper towel, doused in turpentine and drying. At least he could be considerate enough to clean up after himself. He struggled with the knob for a moment, and pushed through the door and out. The teacher was walking carefully back into the room, stepping slowly so as not to spill the coffee, and looked up just in time to see the room empty and the door swing closed. Outside, Luke strode away, cringing at himself. He didn’t know why he had to go, to leave the poor woman like that, and he felt like he wanted to cry.

That was enough for today, her fingers were practically cramping. Amy flipped closed her laptop and smiled, satisfied. That was a good start to the story.

The Second Half of the Story

I went to see Adam again. It feels like I need to be there as often as possible, just to make sure he’s eating and sleeping and whatnot. He’s a dreaming child stuck in this young man’s body, and he doesn’t have a mother to tell him to do his homework. He’s more emaciated than he was, which is really scary to see. He looks too tired and sad to walk, let alone write for hours on end. Not really sad, though – I suppose it’s that when I see his face, pared to the bone and grinning, it makes me sad instead of him.

The picture of Theo that he sketched is taped to the wall. Theo looks more like Adam used to look than Adam himself by now. Young, smiling, just handsome enough to deserve the word. I told Adam he needed to let Theo alone and get back to his own life for a bit. After all, the character would still be there after a meal, a shower and a nap. The expression on his face was so incredulous, for a moment I felt like I had actually said something crazy. The way he’s working, it seems that he thinks Theo will dry up and disappear the moment he’s left alone, and the only way to keep him alive is by feeding him words constantly.

It’s becoming part of my daily routine to drop by Adam’s place after work. I fix him some food, drag him protesting into the bathroom and then tuck him into bed. It’s a bit like being someone’s parent for a few hours a day. I certainly worry enough about him. Mary says I look worried all the time now, and my forehead is beginning to feel tense and scrunched. I can’t remember how to relax my face, to not look anxious. I suppose Adam feels like this, but more. And instead of worrying over a friend, he’s worrying over a person he invented who lives only in his mind. It’s so frustrating – something has to change.

***

I just got back from Adam’s place. Adam wasn’t there today.

When I pounded on the door – usually he leaves it open for me – nobody answered. I kept on, and eventually I heard a muffled voice. The door clicked and swung open, but instead of a skeletal jumpy Adam I found myself looking at some man I’d never seen before. He looked vaguely familiar, so I thought perhaps he was a friend of Adam’d whom I’d only met once or twice. He smiled to see me, though, so I smiled back and went inside.

I asked him where Adam was, hoping that he was sleeping already. It was a guilty sort of wish that I wouldn’t have to deal with him at all today. This man just looked confused, though. There was nobody in the bedroom, and the silence was stretching. There wasn’t an answer.

I looked everywhere – in all three rooms, not that there were so many places to look, and checked the closets. Adam was nowhere. I felt an irrational paranoia, an unease that whispered perhaps Adam had collapsed, was in the hospital, had simply died and was twisted at the bottom of a river or someplace similarly lost and hidden. The feeling was growing and halting my breath, fluttering against my heart. The strange man was just looking at me, calmly and curiously, as though I were something new and odd to him.

I thought maybe he would have answers, so I asked, “Who are you, then? I mean, why are you here and he’s not?”

He looked relieved that I had spoken first, and said, “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know why I’m here, it’s different. I mean, I came from here, or someplace like here. But I don’t know this place.”

That was not helpful at all, so I went into the kitchen. It occurred to me that Adam might have left for something, and stuck a note to the fridge. He’d done that once or twice before, and it would be a good sign. It would mean he had left the building for groceries or errands or some other normal human thing. There was no note anywhere.

The realization that the man hadn’t answered my questions swept over me, and I turned to him. “You never actually did tell me who you were.”

“Oh,” he grinned. “Sorry. I’m Theodore. Call me Theo.”

I left after that, and I won’t go back.

I’ve been reading too much Borges

I went to visit Adam today. He’s been so busy lately, though there hasn’t been anything to show for it. Every time I’ve seen him he’s been typing furiously, pen scratching on the paper and head bent over the desk. There’s a mountain next to him, a pile of crumpled paper on the desk that’s nearing his head. It’s been threatening to fall for a while now, and today it had actually started to drift to pieces. Adam didn’t look so well either.

He’s gotten a bit haggard. When I knocked he opened the door and I was shocked, breath pushed out of me. His eyes are so wide, and ringed with shadow. It looks like his skin is bruised, and I swear he’s gotten thinner in the past few days alone. He smiled when he saw me, though. He stepped aside and ushered me in, and started to talk.

“I’m breaking through it, this stupid writer’s block. You know it’s not something that happens much to me. Just the past couple weeks, and my god I’ve been going crazy.”

“I know,” I said. “I know you have.”

He snorted, and plucked the paper from his desk with a flourish. It was a gesture at odds with his appearance, like a beggar bending in a courtly bow. I took the paper from him, and the words rushed from him.

“I’ve come up with this new character. Theodore, I think his name is. Theo maybe. He’s brilliant, just the answer to everything. I’m sure I’ll figure out his story – I think probably he’s a writer too, don’t roll your eyes, but he’s a writer and he’s having this trouble with, I don’t know, someone. Anyway he’s clever and a bit disheveled and all kinds of screwed up, the kind of guy you can’t talk to for five minutes without wanting to edge away a little. You know what I mean?”

I nodded, and skimmed the paper he’d given me. It was a description, simple, of the person he’d just described. It didn’t seem like much to me, except that it was the first paper in a long while that he hadn’t crushed into a wad and tossed on the top of the growing pile. So I gave him a hug, and told him I was glad. I didn’t stay long, because Mary was waiting for me. We were going to go out to dinner.

***

Yesterday I saw Adam again. When I headed over there I was thinking that he’d be so much happier, looking healthy, smiling. Once I saw him, though – he was smiling, but he’s shrunken and shriveled more than ever. It looks like his skin is withering on his bones. He was so enthusiastic though, jumping around and talking, a prancing skeleton with a mop of unwashed hair. He was telling me about Theo – he had to remind me, that was the character he’d made up. This guy lived in a little apartment, and he was dealing with his father’s death only a few months before. He had a situation with a woman that he wasn’t quite sure of – I interrupted here to ask Adam, pointedly, how he was doing. He really just wanted to keep talking about how Theo was doing.

I could see, clearly, that having something like this to focus on was giving him energy. The motivation, the drive that I’d always seen in him was there, stronger than ever. He practically quivered with the intensity of his excitement. It looked like that energy was disappearing from his body even as it filled his mind. He kept babbling about Theo, and waving his arms. I thought he might fall.

After a bit I got him to sit and eat some cereal. There didn’t seem to be much other food in the whole place, though I searched the cabinets. I found some old cereal, sour milk and a rotten bunch of grapes in the fridge, and a drawer full of dry spaghetti. He was eating cereal when I put some water up on the stove, after washing out the pot. The spoon shook as he brought it to his face, and he had to concentrate on feeding himself like something he was remembering how to do. I made him a pound of spaghetti and put it in the fridge, and I didn’t leave before I made him promise to eat some at least twice a day. I think he only waited for me to shut the door before going back to his desk and his pen.

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To be continued, once I have written more of it. Also! A drawing of mine and an accompanying snippet of words were published today here.