Written for The Unreliable Narrator challenge. No explanation shall be provided, as I’m not sure I can give an adequate one. But I welcome and appreciate any thoughts and feedback. So without further adieu…
A Portrait for Fools
“Please, we worked together once.” The woman’s voice, soft and pleading, still pierced the silence like a knife tearing through sheer fabric. I felt the edge of sophistication pressed against her tone, the persuasive manipulation trembling beneath her veneer of innocence.
The guard, evidently, did not. “Ma’am, he’s had no visitors in ten years. No family, friends, nothin’. And a pretty face like yours turning up out of the blue…“ He trailed off, or his voice fell out of my earshot. Not that it mattered, because his half-dubious tone said enough. This man did not have a quarter of the backbone needed to fight her wiles.
So I readied myself: ten years was generous time for perfecting my vacant stare.
“We had, well, a history.” She spoke haltingly. Oh, her façade was good, too. We made quite a pair.
“A history?” There was the dubious tone again, but the lilt in his voice suggested that he could not suppress a spark of interest.
Fools. They put the best of minds in here and leave the weakest to watch them. I graced the emptiness with a brief smirk.
“—was imprisoned for selling secrets.”
“We worked together before that. Office job, nine-to-fives. He didn’t always live that life.” She was insistent now, perhaps endearingly so. “Well,” she paused, “I don’t think he did.”
“Miss, I understand, but—“
“You don’t! He’s got no one, and I have to, I have to—“ The rest of her words died in a spasm of gasps.
The guard’s response was lost in the sound of metal grating against metal and the jangle of heavy keys. How intriguing—the smokescreen of naiveté, the lure of gossip, and yet it was mere hysterics that made him yield. No one ever taught men how to handle a woman in tears.
And there she was. I drank in the sight of her in one swift glance. Her lipstick was still the bright, blood red shade I remember, but her raven hair was swept back in a tight conservative braid. The black lace shirt offset her long skirt, a plume of white that fell right above her ankles.
She stepped towards me cautiously. “It’s me,” she whispered. “Catherine.”
I allowed my eyes to flit across her face before I returned to looking straight past her.
“They said you lost it—after everything.” She gestured helplessly. “I couldn’t work up the will to see you. Clinically insane. I guess it saved your life. They would’ve put you in front of the firing squad. God, you shouldn’t have done it. You always had these radical notions.” She stared at me, and even though my eyes swept past her, I felt the heat in her gaze. Like the fire they stoked beneath my house. Crimson and orange tides. Black smoke.
Her voice shook, like a thin leaf quivering under a water droplet. “But this isn’t living either, is it? Just a shell, when you were once so full,” she stopped abruptly, closing her eyes and sucking in her breath, before she continued, “so full of words and dreams and fight.” She exhaled the last word forcefully.
And her face and voice and words struck a match somewhere deep inside me, like a small candle held up in a vaulted cathedral. Memories surfaced out of obscurity, rising, crashing against each other and threatening to break the emptiness on my face into something deeply human. I ground my teeth and fought against it, but how do I beat something buried in my very bones? The blood hammered loudly in my ears. Unwitting images flashed through my mind, searing the blank white walls around me with sudden color.
Our small ship tumbling against the blue-green crests as they rounded on us, salt water flying against the mast—
The black uniformed guardsmen firing, and firing, and I was wondering when the bleeding would begin—
Catherine’s raven hair whipping against my back as they closed in—
Her blood red lipstick and brown eyes—soft when we murmured lovers’ things, but cut out of steel in my last vision of her—
Sweat clung to my skin as I fought down the images, struggling to swallow them, hating that they would not die. They never died. But I held my composure. She would not see the battle. No one did. I was still a shell, a statue, to her. Clinically insane.
“I think I’m the insane one, sometimes,” she was saying. Her gaze had drifted away from my face now too. “That I haven’t let this go. Ten years, and I haven’t let this go.”
My chest constricted, like iron bars bending against my breast. But all I said was what I said to every guard who ever tried to bait me into conversation.
“Am I dying?”
And I was almost pleased. Pleased that I managed to inject the right amount of perplexity and childlike artlessness into my voice in spite of the roaring and writhing inside. But it was a hollow victory.
She did not seem startled that I spoke. “Aren’t we all?” she returned listlessly. For a brief moment, our eyes met. My chest burned.
“But you had one hell of a life, Jude.”
It was the first glimmer of her old ardor and wit. Her real self, stripped of the masks she took on. And my name, rolling off her tongue like both a conviction and a curse. Before I could think too much on it, she closed the space between us. I felt her lips press just against the edge of my mouth. Then her feather-light breath brushed the tip of my ear.
“You can play the world for a fool, but not me.”