The Fourth Wall

Prologue: Smoke and Mirrors

She won't go away. It's just one picture, suspended in my mind, always just the one. I know this place, this door that opens beneath the dead weight of this woman, the woman who I tell myself is dead because it makes me sleep better at night. Dead is definitive. I would always know where she is. But there is nothing remarkable about this hallway; it could be any high school. But it could only be one woman. Her face. Anguish carves out the lines around her mouth mercilessly, age coming to claim the woman who tried so desperately to thwart time, revive her high school years again and again like an unsuccessful theatrical production until she died or got it right. Whichever came first.

She is begging for help, in that high, pinched voice that refuses the resonant timbre of grown women, but the words will not form in the air, unintelligible and wild. People have gathered around her, but they make no move to help, standing in an unnaturally perfect semicircle some distance away, watching. She is the actress; they are the audience. This has been decided. And the playwright is the little boy who cried wolf. The audience will not believe anything she says or does. They know better than that. Why suspend their disbelief? What comes up must come down. She slumps against the door, sunshine streaming in behind her like theatrical lighting. Her face is contorted in pain, wan and sickly as a bastard yellow gel.

A hungry-eyed boy of about eighteen rushes to the front of the spectators then stops abruptly. He has run into the fourth wall. Terror binds the hand he tries to reach out to her to his side. She is supposed to be the adult, to protect him. He's not that strong, you know.

There is a girl, too. Seventeen, spindly, and bespectacled, the expression in her fiery green eyes split down the middle. That is me; that is I. I want to run to her, rescue her, this woman I hate. How can they just stand there and watch? This is not one of her illusions; she's dying, she's going to die, damnit. She's going to die if they don't believe in her performance. Someone has to help, and it must be me, if anybody. She groans and crumples, head against the glass, sweat beading her forehead. Smoke and mirrors. I notice for the first time what a small woman she is. A cheap flyer on fluorescent paper blows in the wind and lands at my feet. Verity High School Productions Presents Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. I cannot move. Without seeing, without knowing, I am suddenly certain of one thing. She is pregnant.

The boy with the ravenous eyes is sweating too now. I can hear him breathing over her incoherent soliloquy, breathing as if he is running for his life, or wants to. I look down. Her stomach stretches the distance of her solitary stage. Without warning, a wild euphoria erupts within me, slicing a jagged smile across my face. I turn away through the muted cacophony, vindicated. She is disgusting, despicable, deserves this. Now everyone will know what she has done. And I will be gone, I've decided. I am going and never coming back. But then the hallway blurs hysterically. The pain is mine and hers and hers and mine, and I am an actress and a critic, and the doorframe pokes sharply into my missing, my brittle spine, and I want her to die and pay and live, and I want to save her and myself and myself and her.

I hesitate and look back, expecting to turn into a pillar of her favorite seasoning for truth, at the very least. But she has noticed me at last. Her eyes hold mine, huge in her ashen face, a theatrical ingénue's final, desperate appeal. Then her eyes shut, like a curtain dropping, and she collapses, head striking the ground. She has forgotten how to fall correctly. Applause—

And I awake with a struggle, sheets tangled beneath me in a merciless mirror of my mind. I have trouble persuading myself the dream did not happen. I still do.

I don't know if I wish that it happened or not. But if it did, everyone would know that I was telling the truth.