Aphelion Issue 218, Volume 21
June 2017
 
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She's Real

by Charles E.J. Moulton




The chilly spring wind ruffled my hair, froze me to the bone, as it always did right before the real warmth of March set in. This time, in my soul, the ice age had begun. Past the corners of the gravestones in this deserted cemetery, the wind whistled an atonal arrangement, strengthening my depression. Unable to move, death pulled me toward the centre of this place, just like Hamlet felt pulled toward his father's shortcomings in the next world.

The undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returned, at least not until the next reincarnation, puzzled my will. Unlike the interpretation of Hamlet I currently rehearsed in my theatre, or tried to rehearse during this difficult time, I didn't want to bear the ills I had.

Where was he now, my father?

How odd. Me, the actor, reenacting the bard's most famous play in real life. A journeyman departed into the undiscovered country never to return again and I, poor soul, left with a never healing guilt, kissing the gravestones, puzzling the will. Hamlet, the murderer.

In my mind, I saw myself shouting at him, ripping the phone off the wall, leaving... leaving the house... oh, my poor soul... and then getting the phone call.

Heart attack.

The word repeated in my mind like the scratched LP of my youth. Heart attack. Heart attack. Heart attack.

Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.

Kissing the gravestones, screaming at the sun.

The echoes reverberated, gnawing holes into my heart. Inside, my scream penetrated an abyss into my soul. Almost as if reacting to that inner yell, small sprinkles of rain fell upon my head, the wind spitting in my face.

I took a look at the inscription.

Uriel Ludlow. Born 1936, Died 2013.

Falling down to my knees on the gravel, I hit the ground with my hands, feeling the hard, small stones bury their edgy corners into my skin, the breeze creeping up under my elegant black suit, tickling my bare back under a white shirt that hung loose on both ends. That bitter guilt on my tongue felt like the remains of a cheap cigar during a hangover. I felt everything else but elegant. I felt cheap, vile, horrid, and angry. I felt like a criminal.

"Dad," I sobbed, my sorrow burning a hole in my heart. "I love you. Why did I never tell you that?"

I looked up, slowly and solemnly, as if the answer to my prayers lay within the raindrops, as if my father's spirit lived in the water that dropped onto my face. With an open mouth, raised eyebrows and pain in my heart, I wept, not really knowing if the sprinkles on my face were cold raindrops or tears, feeling that pain rising to my head from the depths of what in my soul existed as a mysterious eternity.

There is a life beyond the next, my soul seemed to say, only that my heart never got the chance to tell him that I didn't mean to hurt him. I've been a bad son.

My sobs gulped up through my throat like guffaws. They sounded like Goofy's laughter in the Disney cartoons, the hot tears on my cheeks shoving a knife in my heart.

The slow crunching of gravel behind me shocked me to the bone, forcing me to turn around, sounding like the cracking of an open skull. Nearly jumping out of my skin, I spun around, staring into the empty space between the raindrops. I must've looked like a monster on my knees, my head facing backwards, my body facing front. In fact, I felt like a mutant midget from a second rate fantasy story. Hitting my back on the gravestone upon turning, the sensation made me yelp like a wounded dog, the dirt under the gravel now showing a dark spot, created by my heel. It resembled the dark infected sore of an old war wound. Me, Hamlet, the open wound.

Rosie's black nylon skirt swayed in the wind and with that sway love came showering onto my heart. One love, one healing affection. A piece of home in that stability. Sympathy--no, pity--shone across every feature of her face, her white blouse making little waves and turns in the wind, displaying her feminine grace. If I only could be more like her. If I only could be a woman.

Frozen still, aching with sympathy, she began to cry. Her cries began as small squeeks, which would've seemed humorous at other time. Squeeks that morphed into loud cries. Rosie trembled for one instant, her hands shaking. She dropped her handbag on the ground, dried off her tears with the right palm of her hand, and knelt down beside me. I felt her trying hard to shower me with her love, healing me with the love of a family. Why was I still here, her stare seemed to say. Why had I not eaten anything over at the gathering? Why had I sneered at everyone? Why had I asked my mother to leave me alone? Why had I rushed to the cemetery and not said goodbye to anyone, not even to her?

There are things only a sister understands, I thought to myself. My trembling fingers grabbed her hand, like a mountain-climber grabbing the last remaining rock before plunging into the deep. My ice-cold fingers cracked like crumbling stones of erosion and froze my hand like stalagmite formations hanging from a ceiling in my own Lucifer's cave, unable to attain flexibility.

My head falling onto her shoulder, my spirit hoping to find peace, leaning against her black coat, I let go of my shame and cried bitterly.

"For heaven's sake, Josh," she whispered. "Let go. Dad would not have wanted this."

I looked at her, seeking guidance, wanting to say something, unable to speak.

My sister nodded, closing her eyes, looking like an angel.

I sighed, supporting myself on the fingers of my hands, deciding to leave the past behind me and knowing fully well I had to face something else before I did: my own fear, my own guilt. I stood up, assisted by my sister's grasp, feeling like an old man, one life that crumbled rapidly from 31 to 97 years of age. Picking up her handbag, she pulled me unwillingly away from my father's grave and escorted me away to the parking lot. The wind blew past my ears, tickling the small hairs inside my head and made a howling sound only audible to me.

"Murderer," the wind hollered. "Bloody, frigging murderer. Criminal."

I realized that I had loved my dad after all, in spite of always claiming what a bastard he was in life, and I asked myself why hadn't I told him so? Holding on to her handbag like a librarian held on to her books, my sister resembled the stability I had never owned. Her fiancée's job, her own education, her job, her future children, they were signs of strength. And me? A loser, whose joy lay buried six feet under the rotting earth.

"Murderer," the wind whispered. "You deserve to die."

Rosie caressed my hand, glancing at me in an almost embarrassed way from the side, as we headed for her car, and led me carefully to her passenger's seat. As she stood with me for a second by the passenger door of her car, her concern for me stopped her from leaving me even for a second, she wanted to speak, but didn't. Slowly, she let me go, letting her fingers drift along my back. Her lost hope reached out to a lost cause for a moment, a hard rock leaving me standing like a soldier with an unsealing war-wound.

Rosie rummaged in her bag, looked at the keys, leaning against her side of the car. I stood there, as well, searching for answers.

No answers here in this reality.

Were the answers in the next world?

As if provoked unconsciously to react to my own silly thoughts, I saw a strange looking woman standing on the other side of the street. She gazed at me with an insane anger. No, I don't know what that was. A penetrating stare aimed to make me move, rush over to her, and slap her.

I looked away.

Looking over at my sister, who rummaged in her handbag for her car keys, I tried to forget this other woman in her negligee and her bare feet.

Her immobile frame served as a magnet. I had to look.

What on Earth was that woman doing there?

Who was that woman?

For heaven's sake, she was almost naked, save the underwear. Was she a loony, an escaped sociopath? What if a bus of mental patients were being taken out on a trip on the town? Then where were the caretakers? I looked around for guys in white clothes with straightjackets with weird smiles on their faces.

Rosie, seemingly unaffected by the woman that I thought would attract major attention, plucked out the keys silently and pressed the door button.

I raised one hand toward my chest, giving the strange lady a gesture that implied: "Do you want something from me?" Nobody seemed to take notice of her. Was it just me or were people walking through her? Let alone that if I had been in any sound mind, I would've asked myself why a barely clad woman at all stood in bright daylight waiting beside a cemetery. The woman pulled me into her grasp with her anger, gazing at me, making me wonder who I thought I was or what I had done to deserve being hated by her.

"Who are you gesturing at?" my sister inquired.

"Don't you see her?" I whispered, reacting to the hoarse sound of my own voice. In my face, my sister must've read a bitter plea of sympathy. "Please tell me you see that woman."

"Who?" my sister inquired.

I gave the woman at the other side of the street an up-nod, ignoring Rosie's question or simply overhearing it. Rosie stood there a while, asked herself if she might delve deeper into the subject, but finally decided not to, probably deciding to discard the matter as the whims of a desperate artist.

"The woman in the negligee over there," I said, pointing at the other side of the street.

My sister looked over at the other side of the street, said nothing, and sighed.

When she looked over at me again, she continued: "It's cold, baby. Step in."

Gazing over at the strange woman one last time, I opened the car door and stepped inside. The doors closed and here inside the spooky silence haunted me, taunted me, hated me.

The wind didn't whistle anymore. Not from here inside. The peace and quiet of the car scared me and soothed me at the same time. The closed nothingness of this car seemed to rob me of peace and give me peace at the same time. It never left me, though, that this woman might be a creation of my own guilt, and although it drifted away from my senses through the powers of a closed door, I cried again, this time in silence.

Like that woman staring at me, the wind waited. It sounded like a crying cat that, in an inaudible whisper, wanted to be let out of a cage. Miaaaauuuw, it mused. You killed your father. Miaaauwwww.

"Josh," Rosie finally told me, clasping her hands so tightly together that her knuckles whitened in her grasp.

"You're going down a downward spiral, seeing strange people staring at you across the street."

"She's real, Rosie," I said, my face facing the other way. But before I could look over, Rosie grabbed my head and forced me to look her way.

"Let ... go. I'm just afraid you will end up in the frigging funny farm."

My sister breathed so heavily, in fact, that she sounded like a fireside bellows. She took away her firm grip from my face and laid her hands in her lap again, fidgeting with her fingers. A blonde lock fell to her breast, her cheeks turning grey.

Biting my lip, I shook my head.

"I'm sorry I keep on doing these things. But ..."

I gave it a moment's thought.

"I ripped dad's old antique phone off the wall. I screamed at him that he had always been obsessed about me being gay."

Rosie grabbed my trembling hands so tight that her grasp hurt me. "It was dad's time to go. He loved you, Josh."

"I can't act, Rosie. I can't work. I have to solve this."

"Take this week off as a chance to get back on track."

Resignation hit me like a speeding train hits a canyon.

A bitter chuckle popped out of my mouth.

"'I love you' would've been enough."

Rosie grabbed me tenderly by my shoulders and ripped me toward her. This time, she was tender. So tender.

"How many times do I have to say this?"

She kissed my cheek, caressed my face, smiled, sighed, and trembled, one solitary tear taking a plunge down toward her mouth.

"It's not your fault."

I believed her. For one moment, I really believed her.

We sat there, both of us, in her Ford Fiesta, sobbing like little kids. I looked into her blue eyes and saw someone that loved me for who I was. She smiled, bit her lips, and dried off her runny mascara with the palms of her hands.

"Your weapons were words. Those weapons don't kill anyone, dear."

"Ripping phones off walls does kill," I added. "I'm the living proof of that."

"Come on, Josh. You don't believe that. Not really. Scraps could've ripped that thing off the wall. Scraps is not a killer," my sister giggled, blowing her nose. "He only kills his dog-biscuits with his teeth."

We both laughed at that. I saw my mom's Cocker Spaniel jumping up and ripping that phone down.

"Can you imagine Scraps ... and that phone dangling from his mouth?"

We both laughed heartily, again and again, for the first time actually laughing since ... we didn't know when. People kept walking by the car, looking at these two crazy, crying, laughing people.

Rosie laid her hand on mine and caressed it, lovingly.

"You two were tigers without claws."

"Tigers with claws, dear," I whispered. My head turned over toward the other side of the street. The woman still stood there, gazing at me. "Who's that woman over there?"

Rosie winced and looked over toward where I looked.

I smiled, knowing that getting into that would mean actually creating a new problem. I really needed only one problem at the moment. So, I ignored the fact that she obviously couldn't see that strange lady. But the fear in me grew stronger. My sister can't see her, I thought to myself. Is that woman only visible to me? Who is she?

The wind no longer cried.

It screamed.

Rosie looked at me again, this time with love and serenity. "You wanna have a girl's night out?"

I smiled a soft smile, a woman's smile.

"Dad wouldn't speak to me after I told him I was gay. He hated our 'girl's nights out'. He called me a dumb-ass sissy."

"He didn't understand you, Josh," Rosie smiled, bitter-sweetly. "Only because you were the first gay person he had known. He was afraid."

"After that conversation, I went home to you and got drunk on your couch. I got so stoned that dad threw me out. Then, I stayed out." After a short pause, I continued, pleading for my sister to give me an answer I possibly already knew. "Was he really angry at me?"

"At first, yeah." Rosie shook her head, laughing. "He hit you, remember?" She looked at me again. "But after that, he kept asking you to forgive him. He even invited your boyfriend to dinner, remember?"

I remembered. "Yeah. At the most expensive diner in town."

"Love has no gender."

I nodded, happily.

The car hummed as she started the ignition.

"Let's get drunk, bro, watch a movie, be two girls just having fun."

I nodded, play-acting happiness.

As we drove off, we passed the staring woman again. The howling wind ruffled her hair as the strange lady followed me with her stare. I didn't bother to talk with my sister about it again, although I should have. I didn't bother to point my finger at the woman and ask her if she could see the strange lady again, but in the corner of my eye, I saw the woman opening her mouth and getting ready to scream. In my mind, I heard her screaming: "Murderer!"

As the car drove off past the cemetery, Rosie chatted solemnly about all the wonderful things dad had done for us, in spite of everything. How he worked on my tree house until four in the morning until the neighbors called the cops, because of all the noise. How he and mom took us to Disneyland and added three days to our vacation just because we wanted to "Go see Goofy again!" How he made us turkey sandwiches with French fries or pancakes, at midnight and even on a night before a school day, just because we were hungry. How we played board games until we fell asleep in our chairs and how he had carried us up into our beds and sat there for hours afterwards.

I listened to her stories and smiled and giggled just like a girl would giggle.

In my heart, I trembled. I feared the worst.

That strange woman would soon return with a vengeance.

At home in Rosie's flat, she set me down on the couch and order me to stay put.

"Or else!" she said.

I did stay put, feeling like an invalid when I did. But when Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood were shoved into the Blue-Ray-Player and a six-pack of Bud appeared on my sister's couch, an ounce of joy entered my heart. And as we slapped turkey sandwiches, French fries and popcorn into our hungry mouths and "Awww"-ed and "Ooooh"-ed like two girls over all that romance, I smiled at my own fun-loving heart. For one moment, I smiled and forgot the terror I was about to face. For one moment, we were just two girls again, with one small difference.

Well, not so small.

Well, we sat there in our pajamas and just had fun.

After watching our third movie that night, I fell asleep. Tom Hanks sent Meg Ryan an e-mail. I had no idea what the e-mail said. Only that the people in the movie were happy and that my guilt became too overpowering.

I dreamt of the screaming woman, snoring on my sister's shoulder. Sis' must've laid my head down on the couch pillow and put a blanket over my body, because the next thing I remember, the sun flicked my eyes, asking me to wake up and smell the coffee. My sister's coffee.

I heard my sister's shuffling feet, wandering to and fro between her bedroom and the kitchen. That gave me a sad sort of comfort. Dad's death affected her, too. And yet, she kept a straight face.

She walked by the living room door, stopped for a bit upon seeing me, and smiled. Striding up toward me, made up and smelling like a princess as I lay there stinking on the couch, she chirped elegant words that made me feel how lost I was.

"Hey, stinker," she said, setting herself down on the couch next to me. "How you feeling?"

"Hangovered and rotten to the bone."

She nodded. "Try taking some aspirin."

"Rather not. That stuff is poison. I saw that on TV."

Rosie raised her eyebrows. "You sound like a five-year old."

"I am a five-year-old," I mused, amazed at the fact that I could actually be funny in my present frame of mind.

"Ah, I forgot," Rosie sighed. "Try some breakfast food. Watch a rerun. Bonanza or something. Michael Landon always makes me moist."

"Oh, I prefer Lorne Greene," I pouted.

"Then, greetings to the old west. I gotta go to work."

"When are you back?"

"Fourish."

She caressed my cheek.

"You told Bob that you want the week off?"

"I called him between movies yesterday. He knows I can't handle this. They're rehearsing the scenes without me this week. I hope I can get over this."

Rosie gently rubbed my forehead.

I liked the way she did that.

I bit the insides of my cheeks, fearing my own sound mind, looking out of the window and trying to decipher if that wind still whistled. How sad that sunlight looked.

"It's like a screaming demon. My acting teacher called it Actor's Block. I can't bring myself to feel anything anymore."

I looked back at Rosie, swinging my head back toward her in a lunatic way, looking like frigging Norman Bates.

"I'm going crazy."

Now, Rosie looked out the window, as well.

She caressed my cheek.

"Have you told mom about this?"

I nodded.

"What does she say?"

I smiled, imitating her posh British accent. "Work through this pain, Josh, express it. Use the emptiness in the portrayal of your Hamlet and that Hamlet will benefit from the change."

Rosie nodded. "That's the shrink talking."

"I have forgotten how, in spite of my master's degree and all that hogwash. This has left me powerless," I sighed. "This thing killed the Strasberg student."

"Tell ya what," Rosie chirped, cocking her head to the side. "Lance is in L.A. until Sunday. We'll watch silly movies just like old times. Sound good?"

"I'm getting tired of Meryl Streep."

She smiled and kissed my cheek.

"Don't think too much," she said. "Dance naked on the balcony, if you want. Just don't think too much. That is dangerous."

I wanted to speak, but Rosie sighed, her finger lifting to my mouth, shutting it for a moment. It looked as if she was thinking very hard.

The cartoon Balthazar that I had loved so as a kid, about the professor that could solve any and every problem, entailed this man that put on his thinking cap before coming up with a brilliant idea. Rosie looked like him just now.

"Can I really leave you alone right now? Like this?"

I nodded. "Sure," I lied. "I will run around eating Hershey bars, singing Cole Porter tunes."

She stood up, chuckling.

"I'm making pancakes this evening, okay?"

I nodded. "Thanks, Aunt Rosie."

After walking away a few steps, she turned around again and winked at me, giggling.

"Try not to drink any alcohol while I'm away."

I nodded, closing my eyes.

I blew her a kiss.

"We'll empty a bottle of Chianti tonight."

After her shuffling feet left the flat and after the door closed, I was alone with only a trace of Cartier as a memory that there had been a real woman in here once.

The guilt emerged with the silence again like a recurring pestilence. The other strange staring lady would be back soon.

I don't know for how many minutes I lay there, thinking dangerous thoughts, resting restlessly, listening to the silence. I thought of dad, spoke to him, remembered him, turned around, tried to sleep, looked at the art on the walls, tried to watch the news, turned it off and went to the fridge. I took out a beer, put it back, and took it out again. Walked through the empty rooms, scratched my toe, walked to the fridge, thought of calling my director, dialed, hung up, went to the fridge again, took out a beer, stood there for two minutes looking at it like an innocent child looked at a gun.

Right when I was about to put the liquid gun back again, I heard the sound. The murderous sound hinted by the lady close to the graveyard, just as we set off for home.

The shock of it made me jump, thinking that somehow, someone had entered the flat through the fire escape. Even the kitchen seemed ominous as the eerie ghoulish scream rang through the apartment. It penetrated my skull. My head turned to the hallway. With the sound, I dropped the beer on the floor and the can swirled around, spinning, looking like the indicator-dial of a fortune wheel.

We have the beer-wheel of death, ladies and gentlemen, my macabre head mused.

I left the fridge door open and ran out into the hallway, leaving the spinning beer on the tiles.

Forgetting the chill one senses standing in one's pajamas in a cold flat, I tiptoed down the hallway, feeling like Jamie Lee Curtis in the film "Halloween."

The familiar hallway now sported a sinister atmosphere. The faces of our family stared ominously at me from the pictures on the wall. The faces growled and I growled along with them. It sent me right back to the graveyard, to the guilt, to the pain. It symbolized everything about my pain. Not being able to change the past, but wanting to. Reaching out to dad and not being heard. Hoping to repair what seemed unrepairable.

No, that scream was too damn strong to be a pigeon. It came from... outside? No. The hallway? No. Not from the kitchen. Not from the library. Not from the bedroom. Not from the workroom or the salon with the Monet replicas and the Greek statuettes.

From everywhere inside and not from a single room.

That sound came from a woman's throat.

I was sure of it.

"My sister owns this place," I shouted back, "so if you know what's good for you, get out of here."

My heartbeat sped up, my throat swelling. My lungs throbbed, making me fear for my life merely from a medical standpoint. I felt like a monkey chased by a weasel. The more I shouted, the louder she yelled.

I had no unfinished business with any strange women. A gay guy, hated by some strange chick? Most women, strangely enough, seemed to like gay guys. This one? Not really. But who knew that for a fact? Maybe, just maybe, this chick liked stalking gay guys and forcing some SM on them.

Maybe the afterlife promised more joy after all.

The cold April wind bent the windows, sending the grey clouds flying across the horizon.

"Goddamn it," I screamed back, "show yourself."

The stenchy cigar-like taste of digested alcohol in depressed intestines rotted on my tongue and told me I had to lay down again. My feet cold and my brain aching, it made me too nervous to bear. Too afraid to be too loud, too edgy to be quiet.

"I'm calling the police, I have a gun," I lied, expecting my nose to grow.

My voice sounded strange, alien somehow.

Not my voice, I thought to myself. Belongs to that stranger that lives in my soul.

I'm here, Josh, that other guy that calls himself you.

The Stranger.

Wasn't that a Billy Joel song?

This time, however, that stranger was me.

Hamlet, the killer.

I threw myself down on the living room floor, bashing my head on the carpet. All the pain I had thought gone returned with a vengeance. Feeling like I had on my father's grave, I again felt the hot tears on my cheeks, too steaming hot for words. The stinging pain in my chest, the guilt in my feverish head and the burning sensation in my stomach, the emotions all returned. Guilt pounded its vile head against my chest. A scorpion resided in my soul. It nibbled on my intestines and laughed. No, it yelled, it screamed in spiteful mirth.

With that new painful emotion inside, the strange scream from that other person inside this flat rose to a completely new level. I shot up to my feet, threw myself at the wall, and scratched on Rosie's wallpaper, leaving traces of my fingers on the wall. I swung around toward the kitchen.

She appeared in the doorway, the strange lady, stood there, my hatred incarnated.

Her feet reeked of asphalt, dirt, and cars. Her posture indicated exhaustion and her cream colored negligee once elegant and now black with soot. Now, it had the color of crumbling buildings rotting somewhere in the deep corners of the slums of Afghanistan. Her hair a dirty red and a mixed grayish blonde, her looks posed an absolute opposite to my sister's sexy voluptuousness. This strange lady, a ghoul, her haggard face, and her shiny, cream-colored, knee-length negligee lay on her shoulders like a sack upon small potatoes. Her bare feet dirty, her drooling face staring at me and her muscles tense, she looked some escaped patient from a funny farm.

"Who the hell are you?"

The woman's eyes stared back at me, her eyes looking like black islands in a white seas, her mouth formed into a silent scream, reenacting Edvard Munch's weird painting "The Scream".

Rosie's flat, a breathing giant. Echoes of a spring night in the garden of yesterday. Pain dancing a jig on my rotting brain. The strange woman clutching my throat. The main entrance to my soul filled with dry autumn leaves. A few rats cruising my inner hallway, the garden dead.

I stood up, but fell to my knees again, slapped my trembling hands against my mouth, a muffled shout of trepidation escaping my grasp, left in the proverbial darkness again. The woman spat on my future coffin, rubbing her groin in the face of my sacrilege. I tried to stand up again, but found that my knees were much too weak to stand at all. I fell to the floor and tried to stand up again. But as I fell to the floor second and a third time, I hollered:

"Rosie, where are you now?"

I got up off the floor and took three angry steps toward the strange woman. She didn't move an inch and her eyes remained wide open, her mouth open. In fact, she even took a step closer to spite me. Cornering me back toward the wall, where I had been standing, she began screaming again, now breathing onto my face.

As she screamed even louder, every muscle of her body shook, they conveyed agony, as if she begged for me to understand her and die. The echoes of those screams reverberated in my heart, so I backed off, closing my eyes.

My body instinctively swung around and faced the wall. This time, her shouts produced a gliding glissando, one that commenced in low growls and ended up in a strange high C's. This almost atonal composition sounded as if Motörhead had written a twelve-tone opera. I cowered, embracing my head, hoping that this terror would stop.

Then, at once: silence.

A revelation. This silence surprised me.

Slowly, I removed my arms, feeling the hot breath emanating from my head. I felt her looking at me, her magnetic stare waiting for me to turn. Her presence behind me an obvious aura of heat. As I turned, ever so slowly, I saw her sitting suddenly in the corner. Like a little girl, she sat there, shivering, shaking, insecure.

Unsure of my next move, just as unsure as she was, I assume, we ended up sitting there looking at each other for an almost endless amount of time. In fact, I wondered if we were going to start talking at all. The noises from the street, the dripping of the kitchen faucet and some damn dog barking his ass off, all these noises were distant and unimportant. Right now, time ceased to exist.

When the woman finally spoke, her voice caressed me, felt familiar, homey, and friendly, as if I had known this woman all my life. No screams in her spirit anymore, just a woman sitting in a corner looking at a lonely man. No, wrong. A part of my soul? An emotion? My God, was she an emotion? My own imagination? This woman manifested my ...

"Guilt," the woman smiled. She smiled. A sweet, sad smile. No screams, no tension. Just a very sad smile. "Josh, I am so sorry that I have to tell you this, but I am the personification of your guilt."

Sitting there, looking at myself on the floor of my sister's apartment, alone... well, not really alone... it made me feel as if I were a part of some surrealistic Jean Cocteau movie.

Kafka. Exactly, this whole scene belonged in a Franz Kafka novel. My God, this whole scene, my manifested guilt, was Kafka all over again. I remember reenacting Josef K.'s strange life from the strange book "The Trial" in acting school.

Guilt?

"Um," I stuttered. "I don't get it."

"Guilt," she repeated. She leaned back against the wall. I found myself fearing that she would start to scream again, but then I realized that she had passed the point of no return. "You need to let me go, Josh. You are not to blame."

She seemed so casual, cool. Anybody looking at this would think we were a married couple. No, God in Heaven, we were sitting in our underwear on my sister's floor, conversing about my own guilt. Crazy crap, brother. Really crazy crap.

I cocked my head sideways in disbelief.

"A manifestation of my subconscious? Are you kidding me?"

She nodded, very dryly. "I will prove it to you."

"This will be interesting. Go ahead, make my day."

"Josh," my redheaded lady-friend named Guilt began. "I know that you fell in love with another boy when you were ten years old and that you carried a picture of him in your wallet. I know that you took this photo with your father's camera and that you had it developed in secret in a photo shop close to your school. You kept that photo in your wallet until you were sixteen. When your father found the picture of that boy in your wallet, he burned the picture and beat you up for telling him that you were gay. You carry a scar on your right leg to this day as a memory of that event. I know that you lost your virginity to a girl that you hated and who just slept with you to get back at her boyfriend. I know that you told your sister about it and that your sister actually had moved out of your parent's house at that time and let you sleep in her apartment two nights a week because of that. You actually slept in the same bed with Rosie the night after your father threw you out. You remembered thinking that you and your sister had been a married couple in an earlier life. What you never told anyone was that you felt amazingly guilty about not telling your father off for being a homophobic bastard. You kept talking about that to yourself while walking home from performances and even got caught talking to yourself one night when your boyfriend came back from work. The night you moved out of your parent's house, you treated yourself to a large meal at a Mexican restaurant. You bought a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label and five candy bars and you got so drunk that you had to cancel the performance of the play you were in. The director fired you from the production and you have never forgotten that."

I couldn't help myself but cry.

The thought came to me like a bolt of lightning.

"God, you were my ..."

She nodded.

"You created this image of me, your old kindergarten teacher..."

My left hand began shaking. The hand Mrs. Whithers had hit, because I had caught her fondling her... I saw her performing...

I swallowed hard, trying to remember what had happened back then. "My mother had worked part-time as an accountant in my kindergarten, merely as an act of good will. My best friend and I spent the afternoon together in his house nearby. When I returned to the kindergarten, I found my mother buried in her books. She reprimanded me for being too early and told me to wait in the hallway for a while. I remember asking her why she wasn't working as a full-time psychologist, having gotten her degree and all. She told me that I should mind my own business, so I did. But it was so boring, so I wandered around and tried to find something to do. I opened doors, searched drawers, looked inside closets. Then I found something I shouldn't have found ..."

"What did you find?" my Lady Guilt whispered, almost hoping to crack my nut.

"I found her," I finished. "Mrs. Whithers laying on the bed in the back room of my kindergarten, making hot steaming love to... someone. The janitor, I think. He was over her. She..."

My guilt nodded.

"I know the rest, Josh," she said. "She reprimanded you for catching her in her underwear and she hit your left hand, making it bleed."

I looked at my left hand again. It still trembled.

I remembered the stinging pain, to this day.

Now, my guilt stood up and paced the room, quicker by the minute, looking like a lawyer making her last speech before the judge pronounced his sentence.

Is the defendant guilty or not guilty?

Guilty for kissing the gravestones!

Guilty for ripping the phone off the wall!

Off with the murderer's head!

"You told your mother about it and your mother reported the incident and Mrs. Whithers was fired. Next time you saw her, Josh," my guilt said and kneeled down beside me, "was in the newspaper, hanging by a noose from her garage ceiling. You still remember the newspaper clipping with the picture of Mrs. Whithers dead body to this day."

I sighed, remembering the pain of that day. My mother going crazy, my father threatening to drag the kindergarten to the supreme court, Mrs. Whithers screaming, my hand bleeding, the janitor running out with his pants down, out onto the streets and even some pit-bull chasing him down the road.

"I have never been able to look at a woman sexually since," I said, sadly. "My father always blamed Mrs. Whithers for my homosexuality, which was hogwash, of course."

My Lady Guilt smiled a tender smile, a thousand years of pain flying through my heart.

"My dear boy," she said, my Guilt. "This guilt was never about your father's disappointment about you or your own reaction to Mrs. Whithers' sexual encounter. This guilt was always about you not being able to deal with the fact that you put someone in a bad spot. You never forgave yourself for that and have kept on blaming yourself for everything since that day."

My Lady Guilt kissed me on my cheek, tenderly.

This thin, ugly woman kissed me and I loved it.

"I absolve you, dear," she said. "You are free."

I looked into the eyes of that woman and suddenly saw joy in her face.

After that, I fell asleep.

I dreamt strange dreams. My father running backwards into the night and a janitor cleaning up Rosie's flat with a toothbrush. I saw Steven Seagal kissing Tom Hanks and Hamlet performed in Greek.

You know the feeling when you wake up and feel like you are dropping into your bed from above, as if you somehow drop back into your own body? Some people believe you have just come out of an out-of-body-experience at that point.

In any case, there I was, lying on the couch, sighing, panting, blinking into the late afternoon light, and sweating bullets, moist everywhere.

"Josh?"

I shook my head, my body aching.

As I opened my eyes, there she was.

Rosie, my heroine. My lost love.

"Don't tell me you have been laying here all day."

I looked around for the woman who called herself Lady Guilt. The spot where she had been sitting, the entire area where she had held her speech was empty, filled only by light and a Persian carpet.

I shook my head.

"I don't know what I have been doing," I said, truthfully, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. "I think I drank a beer and watched some TV. I dreamt strange dreams, though."

"Actors," Rosie said, smiling, her beautiful face an inch from mine. "Sensitive thespians who blame themselves for things they haven't done."

"What?" I said, scared and surprised and actually believing that I was still in this nightmare. But I was absolved, wasn't I? How wonderful would that be? Very.

"You are not guilty, Josh," Rosie said, still in her coat, with her shoes on, her handbag hanging from her shoulder, cold cheeks emanating how chilly the afternoon air was, smelling of cigarette smoke and collegial affection and Cartier. "Have you gathered some strength? Have you done anything besides sleeping?"

"I have been thinking."

"Uh-Oh. I told you not to think too much," Rosie sneered. "What about?"

"Mrs. Whithers," I whispered.

"How so?"

"I never got over that stupid incident in the kindergarten," I began. "I think I blamed myself for everything that went wrong after that."

Rosie kissed my cheek, tenderly. Ever so tenderly. "You are the victim, kiddo. Always have been. Don't worry too much."

With that, I embraced my dear sis', knowing in my heart that I had been absolved. I felt that my spirit now was free to go on to bigger, better things. I knew my father loved me and forgave and that, maybe, I could do an all right job of playing Hamlet, whatever that meant to anyone.

Career or not, I was free.

As we unlocked our embrace, my sister caressed my face again and then asked me, her keys still thrown onto the middle of the floor by the couch, what I had done all day.

"Sis', I can't begin to tell you."

And you know what?

I didn't.

Some things are better left unsaid.

But sis' and I got very drunk that night.

We had a girl's night out, we ate popcorn, and we watched the silly Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan-movie to the end.

I even saw what the e-mail said, the one that meant so much to everyone.

And it made me very happy.

When the movie ended, I carried the glasses and the plates to the kitchen, at last finding peace, almost sure that Lady Guilt had been my own imagination. On the way out, away out from the TV-room, my sister whistling a happy Cole Porter-tune in the kitchen, I stopped, froze, standing still, fearing my own life, fearing my own sanity. On the wall, I saw the remains of my own scratching fingernails on the wallpaper by the door.

My sister hadn't seen those fingernail marks and they could've only come from me.

These marks on the wall were proof that the terror of that had not been a dream. I trembled, shaking, shivering, dropping the plates onto the Persian carpet.

My sister came rushing in from the kitchen, her Cole Porter-tunes coming to halt suddenly, seeing me standing there with my mouth open.

"What's the matter, Josh?"

I couldn't respond.

For as I looked over at her, behind my sister, beyond all that spilled pop-corn and the spilled wine and the dripping fudge, I saw Lady Guilt standing there again. This time, she smiled, standing behind my sister, dirtier than ever before.

And Lady Guilt was getting ready to scream.


THE END


© 2013 Charles E.J. Moulton

Bio: Charles E.J. Moulton is a true Renaissance Man. An active stage performer since age 11, he now has over a hundred stage productions as well as 60 roles on his resumé. As an author, his work has been published in Skirmish, Cover of Darkness, Idea Gems, Pill Hill Press, Shadows Express and others. He is a part of The 4-Men Trio, works as a vocal coach, as a drama teacher, and paints. He is married and has a daughter.

E-mail: Charles E.J. Moulton

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