If you’ve been thinking this would be simple, you haven’t been paying attention.
There are three versions of ourselves: who we think we are, who others think we are, and who we actually are.
Maybe you think you’ve tapped into something. You were sitting there one day, alone with your thoughts, and suddenly it popped into your head. Surprised and impressed by your own ingenuity, you quickly jotted it down and patted yourself on the back. Quality and masterful, that, you told yourself. You slept well that night; you were comfortable, content. This is far too easy, and they’ll never know what hit ‘em. Wrap it all up and tie it with a little bow, if you don’t mind. I’ve delivered you a masterpiece.
Why wouldn’t everyone get down on one knee and, in reverence give up the fight? Acknowledge me for who I am, for what I am, what I’ve become. Why wouldn’t they see who I think I am?
Why wouldn’t you?
Lost in your own self-congratulatory bullshit, you stick your chest out and go proudly forward. And it works — for a while.
You aren’t special.
That’s the hard, cold truth of it. It’s the reality of the human condition, and it’s repeated ad nauseum, on and on, without end, without fail, until finally, the harsh slap of reality snaps you from your foolish grinning idiocy. The brakes squeal, the choir singing your praises shuts its fucking mouth, and you stand, staring into space, slack-jawed, bereft of reason because you never considered for one second that failure was an option.
You wrote this children’s story for yourself, and you hopped along with Dick and Jane in mono-syllabic fantasy, always able to rely on the pictures to provide you the gist. You never expected the pictures to go away though, did you? You always thought it would be so easy, prancing around in your little dutch boy outfit or your cute little flower dress.
Paint by numbers, everything goes according to plan until it doesn’t.
Is he talking about me? That’s what you’re thinking right now. It sounds like he’s talking about me.
I’m talking about you.
You signed a contract, and then you opened up your instruction manual, and you thought you’d get by. You’re a king. You’re perfect. You’re a child prodigy. A fancy label on the outside with shit ingredients on the inside. Look at you as you run headfirst into the brick wall that everyone has been pointing out to you. But you don’t pull up. You put your head down and snarl at fate, and it stands there, resolute, ready to bash your brains in.
What’s sad is how incredibly fucking obvious it is. It would be so frustrating for me if I had any feeling for any of you at all, watching you flop around like a dying man in some Trojan war epic, gasping for air until someone comes along with a sword and puts you out of your misery.
I’m still talking about you.
I’ve seen you, all this time. I’ve seen you coming all along.
I’m talking to each of you and all of you at the same time, and it doesn’t matter if I name you, because you’re all slaves to a pattern. Each one of you chose a different page, but you’re still generic choose-your-own-adventure bullshit. You can’t deviate in any meaningful way because you’re stuck, tied up and constrained within the programming you’ve chosen for yourself.
The brick wall gets bigger and bigger in front of you and you want to veer off, but you can’t. You’re not on a road. You’re on a track. You have to see it through, no matter how obvious your destiny becomes.
Do you think I’m immune?
How do you see me?
It hardly matters in the end, because like you, I chose my path a long time ago. It doesn’t matter what I want, what I think. I am my nature because I chose it. I feel nothing but that truth. Anything else is a lie, a construct, a movie flashed on a screen to entertain children. My reality is an endless series of dead emotions, feelings that are shallow and empty, smiles that are painted on, not felt.
Do you see that?
My friends and family would run as far away from me as they could if they knew what went through my head. I’ve gotten good at this.
Is this too heavy for you, sunshine? How about you, princess?
Am I making you uncomfortable?
I’ve been flirting with the edge of my darkness recently. It’s been teasing the corners of my mind. I said I preferred the monster. It seems there may be more than one ganging up on me. Problem is, I’m not so sure I mind it.
I want to paint the ring with your blood, and the idea… excites me.
I’m still talking about you.
I have a friend. He gets self-destructive when things get bad. He dives into hookers and drugs until he gets too close to the edge, until it threatens what his heart desires and causes him to pull back. I envy him. My heart desires blood and pain. There’s rage there, a rage that has no source. When things get bad, those desires get fed. I don’t pull back. I lean in. I’m leaning in really hard right now.
I’m not fighting it anymore. I don’t even want to.
All of the little barriers, carefully constructed to keep it all in, they’re flitting away, crumbling away, turning to dust and blowing away with the wind.
Laugh it away if you want.
Expect the unexpected though, because betrayal has always been the native tongue of our sport.
We can’t change who we are. If you’re meant to be a fool, then so be it.
Don’t worry. I’ll have my face on for you again. I want you to feel secure. I want you to keep living within that happy fantasy of yours. I’ll give you what you expect. I have a habit of showing up when I’m most needed. I have a penchant for coming through.
I’m a master of timing. I’ve had years to practice patience.
I’ve gotten good at it.
I’m talking about you…..
The glow of the fireplace flickered across Dan Ryan’s features. He stared at the flames, watched the shadows dance across the back of the fireplace, smelled the burning wood. He perceived something. He ignored it at first and kept his eyes fixed on the fire. Then, for the first time in God knows how long, he blinked, and an imperceptible flash crossed his face.
He turned slightly, looking at Lindsay Troy as she entered the room, scanning the entirety of it with no small amount of wonder. He turned back to the fireplace, reassuming his place.
Troy let out a slow whistling sound.
“Damn. Quite the place you have here. I bet it cost a pretty penny for the week. What’s the going rate for French castles on Homeaway.com these days?”
His back was still to her, and he said nothing. Nothing moved, not his eyes, nothing about him. His arm hadn’t so much as moved a centimeter on the arm of the chair. Even his mind stayed focused firmly on… something… in the flames? Elsewhere?
She raised her eyebrows, leaning in his direction slightly.
“So uh… is this the part where you stand up and scream at me to NEVER GO TO THE EAST WING because it’s FORBIDDEN?!?!”
She puffs herself up dramatically, but he didn’t see it, didn’t even react.
She frowned this time.
“You know, this is usually the part where we say hello and then playfully banter for at least five or ten minutes before you start your brooding routine. Don’t eliminate the only pleasant part of your personality you have left.”
A few more moments passed. She waited, was on the verge of a pointed remark when his first words finally came.
“Would you like to sit by the fire with me?”
He didn’t look back, so he didn’t see her bristle.
“No thanks. I’d rather not.”
The chair swiveled just a bit and he turned, just enough to see her, and he smiled half a smile.
“Had enough of that recently, I suppose. Fair enough.”
Their eyes locked, and the smile faded.
“Is Mike with you?”
If looks could kill.
“No, I guess he wouldn’t be.”
Daggers. She tensed up. He definitely noticed this time. “No. He definitely wouldn’t be.”
He nodded. The idea of her discomfort rolled off of the back of his mind like it was never there, and he moved on to more practical matters —
“I heard he was shutting down the academy temporarily. That seems like a good idea. It seems like the kind of thing The Minister would do, going to see Mike’s students. Classic Anakin in the Jedi Temple move. Cement your turn to the dark side, all that.”
She looked at his eyes. They were somewhat distant, and she wasn’t sure it would matter if she were there or not. He might not be saying these things out loud if she weren’t, she supposed, but maybe he would. This creepy asshole vibe was pissing her the fuck off though, and she was dead set on not letting him get to her.
She leaned in just slightly, trying both to get his attention and make sure he heard her at the same time. “It hardly matters what he would do. I’m not going anywhere near that situation unless I have to. Battling for someone’s literal soul is not what I signed up for. I’ll let Mike focus on the Minister.”
Dan looked up, and something changed. He smiled again, this time sincerely. “I’m sorry about the fireplace crack. I’d considered coming to pick you up at the airport earlier, but I got preoccupied with a few things and time slipped away from me. How was the flight over?”
“It was…. Fine?” She was apprehensive, but mildly amused, too. “It was a flight. Are we just gonna gloss over the wicked evil mastermind in front of a crackling fire routine you were just doing or do you need to talk to a professional?”
“Oh, you know me.” He stood, smirking in her direction as he walked toward her, past her, and crossed the main hall toward the open arched pass-through in the stone wall that led to the main kitchen area. Upon it, a carafe of some ice water sat, and he started to pour himself a drink. “I just get in these moods sometimes. You want something to drink?”
She made something between a frowny-face and an irritated squint, and slowly started walking in his direction.
“Sure. Water sounds great.”
As she walked across the room, she looked around again, taking in the magnitude of it all. Her eyes followed the arches around the transitional passages between the main hall and the foyer, the two secondary halls on either side of the kitchen-side, another beyond the fireplace behind her. She noted a stairwell cut into a side wall, but her eyes moved past it and settled on a row of large ornamentally framed oil paintings, French generals whom she did not recognize.
“This is quite the place. I never pegged you for the type to dive so deeply into the local culture.”
Dan turned his head just slightly, having only just caught the end of her sentence.
“Culture,” she replied.
She took the water from his hand and they walked, slowly, toward the two couches facing each other offset to the back-third of the room.
“Normally I wouldn’t, but this place had some features to it that I needed to make use of.”
“Oh?” She said, taking a seat. “What, is there some sort of training set up out here somewhere?”
He sat down, leaned back, then used both hands to straighten, then smooth out the wrinkles of his shirt. There was a moment there, and then he realized he was staring. “Yes. As a matter of fact, there’s a rather nice set up in the building out back. Whoever owns the place is as much a workout junkie as he is a student of French History. Who knew??”
She took a sip and smiled. “I guess you never can tell about people.”
His eyes wandered again. They lowered just briefly, then came up again with another smile.
“Ain’t that the truth?”
“Well,” she rose to her feet, and he stood also. “I’d love to stay and continue this sparkling conversation, but the truth is, I could use some rest. Any chance you could point me to my room for the week?”
She wandered in the general direction of the main passage on the South side of the kitchen, crossing in front of the stairwell.
“Uh…” Ryan raised a hand, motioning to the North hallways, pointing in its direction. “Actually, if you take the South hall there, there’s a large suite at the end of the hallways. It’s all yours.”
He smiled his best welcoming smile, letting his hands drop to his sides and then clasping them in front, and she picked up the bag she’d deposited by the entry from the foyer earlier, keeping an eye on him as best she could while doing so.
She flung the strap of her bag over her shoulder and headed for the hallway. “Oh…” He took a few steps in her direction, gesturing toward her bag. “Do you need any help with that?”
She frowned. “I think I can manage.”
“Right.” He smiled. “Of course. Well, I’m gonna have some food catered later tonight if you’re hungry. I’m sure the airplane food was shit.”
She sighed. “You have no idea. We’ll see. I’m sure I’ll be hungry later.” He smirked a friendly smirk in response, and she softened just slightly. “Thanks, Dan, for the place, back home and here. I really appreciate it.”
“Hey,” he shrugged. “We’re family.”
She smiled, settling the bag over her shoulder and headed down the hall and out of sight.
Dan watched after her, and as soon as she was gone, his face drained, and he turned, heading back toward his chair by the fireplace. He looked around, looked at the ornamental nonsense all over this room. Window dressings for an old pile of rock. He traced the outline of the back of the couch with his hand, dragging it across the top as he walked past, then the far too large chair from before, pointed at the large stone fireplace that took up most of this end of the room.
He sat, leaned back, and placed his arm on the armrest.
Just like before.
The glow of the fireplace flickered across Dan Ryan’s features. He stared at the flames, watched the shadows dance across the back of the fireplace, smelled the burning wood. He perceived something. This time… he could not ignore it.