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Empty Walls

Author's note: I wanted to write a story about what can drive a person to the edge and how love can bring...  Show full author's note »
Author's note:

I wanted to write a story about what can drive a person to the edge and how love can bring them back. As someone who has social anxiety, I felt that representing a character who went through similar issues of overthinking was important. Not only did I want this represented, but I wanted it to be represented by a protagonist of a story. In fiction, I find that protagonists are typically easily able to take agency over their life. I wanted to have a character who didn't find this simply, who froze in place from time to time.

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Chapters:   1 2 3 4 5 6 ... 22 Next »

The Taming of the Shrew

When he was sixteen years old, his younger brother had been cast as a small role in The Taming of the Shrew. He remembered it well. Chris came home with a script in his hand and gushed about the opportunity to play Biondello.

James patted beside him on the couch at the slummy new apartment and asked him to explain the plot to him. Chris didn’t sit, instead, pacing while he spoke.

James knew while Chris went into every detail of the plot that there was no way their father going to be able to. Yet he decided to allow his brother to speak much too quickly in his excitement.

“The leading guy is named Petruchio, and he’s really smart, and really drunk, and my character works for him.” Chris spoke quickly and loudly, moving from side to side in a manner similar to a windshield wiper.

James laughed. “You got cast as a slave? You’re excited about being a slave right now?”

Chris wore an attempted irritable expression, though a smile peeked through. “You just don’t get Shakespeare. Slaves are everywhere in that, and they’re always the smart ones. I affect the main plot, y’know. I help carry out Petruchio’s scheme.”

James groaned, resting his head back on the couch. “It’s a friggin’ Shakespeare show? You know I’m not gonna be able to follow that. That isn’t exactly my style.”
Chris finally plopped beside him, frowning in the supportive-little-brother way that he always did. “You’re smarter than you think. I think you’ll be able to follow it just fine. And – And I can explain it to you while you learn it so you can enjoy it.”

“Fine. Fine, alright.” He responded shortly and hoped it would fade from Chris’s mind.

So of course, for the next month, James ended up roped into reading some stiff Shakespearean script from the copy they had taken from the school. Most nights saw him making mac and cheese staring at the ripped up, yellowed pages from the script. Every night, he rehearsed with Chris. Every night, James tried to make mac and cheese exciting in that kitchen. Tried to keep Chris focused on the new weird ingredient in the mac and cheese or the torn script so he wouldn’t ask about Dad.

They began to rehearse the script so frequently that James swore he knew Chris’s scenes by heart. He had no idea what the meaning was to what he recited, but he knew all the nonsense words inside and out. Chris had made fun of him for it.

“You’re a closet theatre geek, I know it.” He said one night with a sarcastic grin.

James shooed him out of the kitchen in response. If he was a little proud that he could recite one stupid scene, no one needed to know about it.

One night, Chris went into theatrics about his teacher, Mrs. Lee.

“She literally walks into the classroom in a red cape. She says it’s an overcoat, but it’s a cape, James, I swear.”

James snorted. “I gotta see this in person. She wear it all the time, or what?”

“All the time. And she pronounces theater the-a-ter. She’s the most dramatic human being I’ve ever met. And I know you.” Chris wore a cheeky grin.

James punched his shoulder and Chris let out an exaggerated, pained noise. And Chris thought he was the dramatic one. Then, he dug into food, and the two fell into a companionable silence. Eventually, Chris spoke. “Dad…He’s not gonna come, is he?”

The older brother looked up, blinking at the abrupt shift in mood, speaking quietly. “I, um… I don’t think he is.”
Chris nodded once and didn’t bring the topic up again. He seemed in a more sullen mood for the rest of the night, though, and James tried to call Dad at work that night to ask. Of course, no answer.

He finally reached his father the night before the performance. He begged him to come. Told him that Chris was doing so well. That he was putting his heart and soul into his scenes. He didn’t have a lot of lines, but he practically buzzed as they got closer to the show. In hindsight, James had rambled to his father.

Maybe that was why his father’s response had been “James, a middle school production of Shakespeare ain’t more important than the safety of others. You need to sort out your priorities and get over your damn self.”

Maybe that was why his father had hung up his phone before James could get another word into the phone.

  He never told Chris about that night. But the next day, he made a big breakfast for Chris and sent him off, wished him good luck.

Finally, the night of the show came.

James wore his only dress shirt with a proud smile as he sauntered into the auditorium. A pale green, scuffed shirt earned him some distasteful looks from the parents who chattered about their darling children. He snuck backstage with flowers he stole from the neighbor’s yard, planning to brighten Chris’s night with them.

Instead, the sight of a positively green looking Chris comforted by his drama teacher greeted him. His first thought was that Mrs. Lee really did wear a cloak.

James waited for a split second before interrupting her attempted breathing exercises. “This is my brother. I think I might be able to do this a little better.”
Her eyes widened almost comically, and James cut into the spot where she had stood before she had time to react further.

He rubbed Chris’s shoulder, offering a smile. “You got this, man. We know you know the lines. Heck, I know the lines, if you need me to step in and get my spotlight.”

Chris almost cracked a shy smile, still looking ill. “I…I’m scared. What if I fail?”
James’s snarky expression moved to a softer one. He patted his brother’s head. “Then people think you’re the cute kid who messed up. And they remember you that way, dude. No one remembers the one who said all the lines perfectly, do they?”

Mrs. Lee finally moved from her still position in the background. “Excuse me,” she said, her voice exactly as he had pictured it in all its melodrama. “That isn’t true. Plenty of people remember performances where things don’t go wrong. And you aren’t allowed back here, young man.”

Chris’s expression shifted to a more anxious one immediately. “Gonna - get in trouble. James, please.” He swallowed thickly, taking a deep breath.

James immediately felt protective, stood up a little straighter, and shook his head. He pulled Chris into a hug. Chris stilled, looking surprised at the open affection.

He then proceeded to vomit all over James’s dress shirt.

James looked down at his shirt. He blinked. He blinked a few more times, as if closing his eyes and opening them again would make the vomit disappear.
It did not.
  The vomit brought out the green in the shirt, he observed numbly. Looking back on that night, what he remembered most was the permeating smell of bile. The smell was the type to make  a person sick to have contact with, and it was seeping through his shirt.

Chris wore a mortified expression, and Mrs. Lee took the moment of stillness to force James out of the backstage area. He heard a stage manager announce “Places” frantically as he walked into the audience, stunned.

If the parents concealed their distasteful looks before, they were out in the open now. He looked down at his bile-covered shirt and laughed a little. Nothing about the situation should have been funny. In the moment, however, he thought of how ridiculous the situation was. He took a seat.

The woman beside him scooted to another seat at the sight of him. James wore a face-splitting smile in response and held eye contact until she looked away uncomfortably.

The lights dimmed and the show began.

James watched the show silently, and, as predicted, understood nothing. Perhaps the fear that his brother passed out backstage consumed the majority of his thoughts.

Painted cardboard and gawky teenagers took up the stage. James tapped his foot on the floor throughout the scenes.

Again, that same mother glared at him.

He intensified his tapping as a response.

The tapping came to an abrupt stop when Chris came on stage. He looked like Chris again, and not the zombified version.
James leaned forward in his seat with wide eyes, mouthing the other character’s dialogue. Chris stared out into the audience for a moment, and James started mouthing his line. After that, he tried to send him his line through telekinesis.

Finally, Chris spoke. He delivered his lines with fervor. James felt like he could breathe again and may or may not have cheered at the top of his lungs when the scene ended. They were going to the next town in a week, anyway.

He had the impression that mother would remember the vomit-covered, toe-tapping shouter that ruined her child’s precious performance long after the performance no matter what he did. He had a legacy, he thought to himself with a slight smile.

The vomit on his shirt, the disdain from his father, and the pitiful stolen flowers all seemed worth it after the performance when Chris entered the audience after the performance.

He was so happy looking. No, he was so normal looking. Chris had always striven to be normal after everything in their lives existed outside of any normalcy. Somehow, by being in an embarrassing play with awkward teenagers and vomiting on his sibling, he achieved it. James wondered briefly if he’d ever have that normal teenage experience that Chris reached, if only for a fleeting moment.

He shook his head quickly and finally walked over to Chris, wearing a proud smile. Chris beamed at him in return as if James had written the piece himself. James swore he’d remember the warm feeling in his chest forever. For years, he looked back at that night with pride.

Now, the thought of it left him with a guilty pit in his stomach. He stared at his call log on his phone, at the twenty missed calls from Chris in the past month. Why couldn’t Chris stop? More importantly, why did each dodged call have to remind James of a time when things were different?


He turned off the phone, wishing he felt angry. Instead, the creeping feeling of guilt and nothingness took hold as he turned up the volume on the TV. He lied on the lumpy couch and allowed a loud television to silence his overbearing thoughts.

Chapters:   1 2 3 4 5 6 ... 22 Next »


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