The air stills. The world quiets. Your breath catches in your chest; your lips part, ever so slightly.
You lean forward.
I’m about to tell you a story.
-step on stage, take a bow-
Already, you wonder if you’ve heard it before. After all, how could you not have? There are no untold stories left.
Or so they say. But they are wrong.
For I am no mere charlatan, spinning my yarns by the side of the road.
I am The Storyteller—capital T, capital S, no honorifics attached because none can contain my skill.
And I have the magic.
-let the curtain rise-
We see a college campus, the afternoon sun kissing the yellow-painted brick. Students mill about, chatting, laughing. A fall breeze stirs the leaves.
Cue the dramatis personae.
-raise the puppets, dangling from strings-
A girl, a boy. She’s short, blond, hesitant. Flinches when people get too close. He’s taller, brown hair a mess in the wind. They’re both in their early twenties.
They meet near the entrance.
It’s not a love at first sight kind of meeting. More a long pauses, hesitant chuckles kind of meeting. If they’re sparks, they’re weak and fuzzy.
But they give it a shot anyway. Why not? They’re modern day Millennials; they don’t believe in that Hollywood cliché.
He asks for her number. She reaches for a pen--
-now pluck the strings. make those puppets dance-
—and throws it at his throat, already rolling away. Ah, it’s a spy story! The drama! The excitement! He’s whirling, gun pulled out of a pocket, yanking back the safety--
-no. too much. too forced. back up-
—and scribbles a number on a piece of paper, and he doesn’t know that it’s fake; doesn’t notice the way her hand trembles. He goes back to the dorm, grinning stupidly, ignorant to the lie she’s told him.
You hate her. It’s OK; she hates herself. She goes back to her room berating herself, angry that she refused to give it a chance.
But at least she’s safe, she reasons as she huddles under her covers, arms wrapped around her knees as she slowly rocks back and forth. At least she’s safe, at least she’s safe, at least she’s safe.
Ah, but it’s too stale, isn’t it? You’re getting bored.
-so lift those deft fingers. weave a backstory-
She’s from a broken home. Mom and dad loved each other, but he’d gone to war and never come back. She still remembers the day they’d found out—found out that proud, strong, brave daddy was never coming home. The phone had rung, shrill tones piercing the all-too-silent house, and her mom had spun round, eyes wide and lips trembling; as if somehow, she’d already known. And the girl had been playing in a corner, she remembers, and she’d thought to herself then how funny it was—not a ha-ha-ha type of funny, a different kind of funny—that the phone could be so scary. It had rung before, obviously--bring bring bring,mommy, who’s on the phone--and it had been normal then, not scary at all.
But this time it was, and she’d known that.
Things weren’t the same after that. They still did the same stuff—school, Church, shopping, dinner—but it felt so distant, like an old painting with the colors bled dry.
College was an escape.
His story wasn’t so dissimilar. Mom and dad always fought. Well, not always, he’d say with a humorless chuckle; they must have gotten along once upon a time. But not since him. They’d thrown in the towel, eventually, surrendered to the inevitable in a messy divorce that spilled over to him. Terse dinners, angry words. Neither liked speaking about the other, each tried to pull him closer and ended up driving him away.
-enough. back to the story. pull at the tired threads, raise our weary puppets again. beat some life into our dead tale-
They’re outside a restaurant now, late at night, and they’re gazing into each other’s eyes. Only it’s not a romantic look at all. There’s something dark in his eyes, something hard in his smile, and she wants to run but she knows deep down that it would be a bad idea. He brushes back his coat, ever so slightly, and shows her the butt of his gun.
Smiles a little wider.
And now he’s beckoning for her to approach and she does, slowly, legs trembling. And her eyes are darting about furtively and she’s hoping that someone’s going to notice, that the old man on the bench with the newspaper and the couple by the traffic light with their dog and the businessman on the phone, talking way too loudly—that one of them will look up and stare at her for just a second too long and they’ll see, realize what’s going on. She waits for that slight widening of the eye, that parting of the lips, but it doesn’t come, and all too soon she’s by him and his hand is on her arm and his gun is pressed against her belly and his smile is far too wide, and she sees in his eyes that he doesn’t care, that even if they’d noticed he’d have killed them all anyway, that he likes the pain and the blood and the squishy little sound flesh makes when split by bullets--
-whoa, that got dark way too fast. back up. lighten the mood-
They’re back by the college, talking, laughing, and it’s going smoothly and freely and it’s all wonderful and not boring at all because--
You yawn, don’t you? Shift in your seat. Your mind wanders. I promised you magic, but all I’ve given you is more of the same.
Would it help if you knew that her ex was abusive? That he used to beat her when she came back too late? That she’s not interested in him because she hasn’t been interested in anyone for years? That the thought of going out at all makes her want to shrivel up and cry? Would it matter if you knew he’d been bullied all his life? That she’s first one he’s ever mustered the courage to ask out before?
You shrug. You’ve heard that story, too. OK, so I’ll inject some diversity. Boy meets boy. Girl meets girl. But no, you’ve heard that one as well.
But fear not. I am the master storyteller, after all. This is my stage. The magic is mine.
-give a flourish. peel back the layers. show what’s beneath.-
Can you hear crickets in a story, I wonder? You sit there, brow slightly furrowed, fingers tapping against your leg, and you wonder how long I’ll drag this out. When will I get to the point?
Witness. Witness the magic.
There’s nothing here. No magic, no secrets. How could there be? It’s just a boy meeting a girl. It’s happened trillions of times before. Endless roads branch out from that meeting, and you’ve been down every single one already. They don’t even have a name, because they’ve already been forgotten, lost in time. It’s happening as you sit here, eyes drooping as I ramble on. Already you forget the words you’ve read, already this story becomes buried under the weight of the thousands more being written, and it’s only a matter of time—days, weeks, years—before it’s gone, a vanishing speck to never be seen again.
Just like them.
The stage stands frozen, the boy and girl locked in an eternal stare, and they wait for the pen to write the words, to tell them where to go.
But my pen has run dry.
Or maybe it was always empty. Maybe it was all just an illusion. Maybe that’s all I ever had. But alas, even stale stories need an ending.
-raise the hands again. lift the puppets. will the magic to come.-
Like a charlatan exposed, I let my hands fall.
I have nothing left.
Except this. Just a boy and a girl, standing by a campus, a pen poised in her hands, the last whispers of a question on his lips.
She’s wondering why she can’t stop seeing her ex in the curve of his cheekbones, the line of his jaw; he’s thinking the tremble in her lips means he disgusts her.
So much unsaid, so much to be said.
It’s been a full minute since he asked. Then, as he’s about to leave, she scribbles her number down and gives it to him.
-let the curtain drop on this sorry act. a failure. time to move on to the next--
What was that?
-catch the curtain before it falls-
That smile. That timid, terrified smile. That’s not from me. What is that?
It’s . . . magic.
But that can’t be. There’s nothing special there. It’s the blandest of tales. Just a boy meeting a girl. It’s been told a trillion times over. It’s as boring as they come.
But looking at their tiny little smiles, it’s clear they don’t know that.
They’re idiots, but willing idiots. Ignorant, but willingly ignorant.
And it’s not a lot, but as I study that smile, I feel the sparks again at my fingertips. The traces of something old. Something powerful.
A dash of disbelief. A sprinkling of hope. A little bit of magic.