Suppose that Connor was a normal boy.
Twelve years old, discreet, quiet, the kind of boy parents would be proud of if not a bit disappointed in because he kept to himself so often, didn’t involve himself in sports and rarely talked to other children.
“You’re whose parents again?” was often the first question academy teachers asked at parent-teacher conferences whenever Connor’s parents sat down to discuss his middling achievements in social studies, English, math, or band (“he plays… well enough,” the director said after some thought).
Naturally, hearing such a phrase, their son’s mental stature dipped slightly, possibly two iotas, but certainly not below love status.
Being twelve, Connor had experienced twelve birthdays. On each, despite his mother’s heavy dosage of coaxing and even a dollop of pleading from her on the tenth (since, “it’s not every day a young boy turns the big double digits”), to which Connor made a decidedly frontal assault not many children make at ten years of age by saying, “actually, somewhere, somebody is turning ten years old every day, mother.” Had he not finished his expostulation with “mother”, disciplinary action might have been taken for squeezing a single tear from her right eye. The left rarely, if ever, got teary. It had only done so twice in her existence, both times in relation to some decision from the admiralty that, unbeknownst to Connor, more or less duplicately unearthed their lives before they found their resting place on the Island.
Predictably, he failed to smile in any of the pictures taken while he held his cake.
This year, his mother wasn’t going to coax. After all, she rationalized, he was turning thirteen, a big grown-up teenager.
His birthday was tomorrow. The cake was prepared.
Connor’s peculiar request rendered decorations absent. He had stated, “everyday is meaningful, some just have cake.” His mother’s right eye almost went teary hearing this but she knew it was not meant as a barb against her meticulous preparations. He would never hurt her that way.
Connor woke to his thirteenth birthday the same as any other day, his curtains bulging with the salt air. Upon gaining full consciousness, the strangest notion came upon him.
Had he heard a voice other than his parents? A deep baritone, filling his room completely. A brusque, forceful, oaken castle door voice that could knock a lemming off a cliff, setting off catastrophic chain reactions resulting in the voice’s body (surely he was not ephemeral in the actual, phantasmagorical sense) walking away stoically in John Wayne fashion with no second thoughts for casualties.
This voice was the Mao Zedong of indiscriminate voices. Illusive, seductive, noble, theatrical.
This was Macbeth from the Shakespearean masterpiece.
This was Morgan Freeman from March of the Penguins.
This was Jeremy Irons from everything.
All wrapped into one elegant, poetry-laced voice. The kind of voice presidents would pay to have voiced-in over their own during state of the union addresses. So they could just lip synch.
Hadn’t a voice said something? Connor stretched and climbed out of bed. There it was again. That voice. This time Connor had heard what it said.
“Connor got out of bed slowly, stretching his sleep-heavy limbs and rubbing his dull eyes with his knuckles. He wondered about the origin of the voice before dismissing it, considering it again, dismissing it again, asking himself if he was going crazy, if this kind of thing was what landed people in mental institutions. A shiver runs up his spine at the thought of four padded walls and leering psychiatric help at the Overlook Hospital labeling him as a new case study, worthy of countless hours of observation as the child who heard the voices.”
Connor froze and the voice ceased, as if waiting for him to take action.
“Connor wanted the voice to cease while he lingered at his bedside. Maybe it will go away if I wait, he thought?”
Connor waved his arm.
“Connor waved his arm once to see if the voice would recognize his action. He is equally stunned and surprised that it did and wishes it would stop narrating every last thing he did.”
Connor went to the bathroom and went through his bathroom routine. Urinate, wash hands with soap, splash water on face, brush teeth lightly in expectation of breakfast, go to kitchen to eat breakfast, return to bathroom, brush teeth heavily, breathe on back of hand once to determine halitosis level, step into shower, turn on nozzle, wait twenty-seven counted seconds for best warmth, shower for seven minutes plus or minus ten seconds, shampoo for ten seconds, wash hair for five, towel off for approximately two minutes twenty seconds, dress in one minute (outfit always preplanned mentally the previous night), and finally return to kitchen to receive “happy birthdays” from parents, this last step unique given the day of year.
All the while the voice narrated everything. Everything.Every last thing.
Around eleven in the morning Connor told his mother that he would be going out for a bit.
“Be back by lunch,” she warned him.
Something was different about the world besides the distracting voice. There was an icing to the air, a latent change glued to everything. Was turning thirteen one of those dangerous rites of passage? Were tigers and ostriches and other vicious animals around the next corner, waiting to strike him down, slay him where he stood? The voice in its unearthly precision caught Connor’s every movement and thought. He was perturbed already and wished it would stop.
“If you so wish,” the voice said.
Here was something new. Why had it said something he wasn’t thinking or doing? Connor was confused. His confusion heightened when a door appeared in the sidewalk before him. On the door was a gold nameplate. One by one, synchronized with an announcement by the voice, letters appeared. Eventually, they spelled out “Narrator’s Guild.”
“Please enter,” the voice commanded in a slick Harrison Ford-Liam Neeson-George Clooney trifecta that potentially made it the best voice Connor had ever heard.
He turned the knob and entered. Whatever Connor had been expecting, his mind was stunned when a large reception room greeted him. The walls were white and a man dressed in white, visibly distinguishable from the walls and desk only when he moved (so that he was mostly gesticulating hands and floating head amidst whiteness), sat behind a white desk. In white chairs along the wall sat an elderly man with white hair, his hands in his lap and his head drooping nearer his lap by the second as he nodded off to sleep. A white cane was propped against the chair next to him.
“Welcome,” the man behind the desk said.
“Hello,” Connor said.
“What brings you here today?”
“Well, in my head I had the thought that I wanted the voice to stop.”
“Oh dear, that’s very bad, very bad indeed. You mustn’t ever think that. Horrible things can happen when the voice isn’t there. Why would you ever want the voice to stop?”
“It was annoying, I suppose,” Connor mumbled, heavily embarrassed by his chastisement and at this very moment wanting to make an exit back through the door to save some face.
“Annoying? How old are you?”
“Thirteen,” Connor said.
“Thirteen,” the man considered the number, rolling it around in his mouth. “That explains things. Thirteen when?” he asked.
“Today. This morning.” Connor was perplexed. Why did his age matter?
“Oh dear, I suppose it had to be expected then. The fresh ones are always the most skittish, always wanting to keep the voices quiet. Can you blame them?” The man laughed loudly, suddenly affable.
Connor didn’t understand why the man laughed so hard and felt himself wanting him to stop before he woke up the old man. He suddenly wished the voice had narrated that thought for him.
Seeing his distress and knowing it’s cause, the man quieted. “Don’t worry, he won’t wake up, he’s much too preoccupied with other things at the moment.”
“Who is he?”
“Oh? Don’t you know that either?” The man seemed amused at Connor’s ignorance.
Connor did not find it amusing.
Something between them on the desk emitted a low beep and a smile spread across the man’s face.
“Ah, your narrator will see you now. Through there, two lefts, fourth door on the right. You’ll know which one it is when you see it.”
Connor started down a hallway he hadn’t noticed before, muttering the man’s directions under his breath, giving a perfunctory glance over his shoulder to see if the man was watching him. He wasn’t. Had, in fact, become preoccupied with the gentle snores of the old, drooping man. “Two lefts, fourth door on right. Two lefts, fourth door on right. Know it when I see it.” He kept his mind on the directions and his head to the pathway.
He passed door after door in the hallway, all of them plain white doors with knobs of all colors, shapes, and intricacies, and nameplates with different names. The doorknobs made rows and rows of rainbows throughout the labyrinthine passages that were branching every which way, not to mention continually left so that he had to backtrack to be sure he had taken the correct artery. “Fourth right, fourth right,” he repeated.
“One, two, three, four.” Here was the door. Had he been unsure, his name graced the nameplate. The doorknob was a dim blue. Not dark exactly, just cloudy, like a late day stratosphere or the edges of the Milky Way galaxy when viewed in picture format.Perfectly round. He looked left and right, the doorknobs beside the one for his door a pair of gargantuan animal representations. One a lion, the other a zebra. He felt like the space a predator was about to move through.
“Come in, it’s open,” a voice said from inside. The same voice from before, the narrator’s! His narrator’s.Mellifluous and jingly. Peanut butter pureed into the sweetest flowing milkshake.
Connor opened the door, feeling a bolt of electrical energy surge through him when he touched the doorknob. Something joyful had sparked from the doorknob into his arm, as if they were separated brethren, rejoined today, made more special by it being his birthday. Such a strange environment, he thought. Not much different from a dark ages peasant being thrust into a modern cinema. Instead of, “what in the name of whatever is holy are those moving pictures,” it became, “what in the world is this place?”
The room was smaller than the reception area. A normal-sized office, he supposed. White shelves filled with interesting items lined the walls. Peculiarly, items of interest to him in particular.
How strange. The room seemed to be a museum display of Connor’s interests, toys, memories, possessions, familiarities, and dreams. His existence condensed into objects and those objects into a room. His personality displayed. He wondered where the description card for him was for others to read and attempt to fathom.
“Welcome, Connor. Please, sit down.”
The voice issued from a man in white behind a white desk in a white chair. So much whiteness, the calm became calamity, the blankness began pulsating, and the smoothness twisted itself into roughness. He was gesturing to a white chair before the desk in the shape of a hand with the wrist plunging endlessly into the floor.
It was Connor’s ideal chair, headlining his Christmas list for seven years running. He was yet to receive one. The chair nestled him, homier than his bed after a long day watching clouds skid across the sky.
“Do you know who I am?” the man asked.
Connor responded by not responding with anything more than a meek grunt.
“I am your narrator. What do you think of that?”
“I don’t know, sir. What does a narrator do? And why do I have one?”
“Narrators are the running consciousness of each person’s mind. We are essential to your development, cognition, thought processes, psychological well-being, and physical happiness. Without a narrator, people would have nobody to tell their stories, and therefore would be alone, lifeless shells occupying an otherwise life-filled world. Nobody wants to be lonely. Even the wildest hermit in the wilderness needs company of a certain variety. Without a narrator, life would be impossible. Would any of it be happening if we were not there to confirm it?”
Connor thought for a bit. Did his mother have a narrator? Did his father? Did that man from the admiralty who always showed up unannounced at their door, usually on a weekend before Connor and his father were about to leave for a planned outing? “But why is it so annoying? It interrupts my thoughts and distracts me.”
“Connor, my boy, you are new at this. People acquire their personal narrator on their thirteenth birthday. Up to thirteen, it is only the rather lamentable cases that have no vital lifelines in the form of parents or close relatives. That’s what makes ignored children and abandoned children infinitely saddening. In most cases, they are too damaged to receive their narrator when the time arrives. We need healthy instruments to play and work with. To describe. The vessel must be accepting of the water. At thirteen, everybody gets their narrator and their narrator sticks with them for the rest of their life. Only you can hear me, your narrator, and it is the same for everybody else, your parents, your relatives, your friends if they are old enough. Very rarely do people admit the voices to each other. Can you imagine? Hearing voices? Quite an insane proposition isn’t it? Not so, my boy. Everybody is hearing voices and everybody is too embarrassed to mention it! Quite a joke our master has configured for us. Have you met the master yet?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, that’s unusual. Most people meet him when they enter this place. He vets admittances to the Narrator’s Guild. Mostly, they are young men and women like you who find the whole thing confusing, miraculous in the way you want nothing to be miraculous. Let me tell you something, my boy, there’s nothing less miraculous than you having a narrator. Nothing indeed. It is the most natural thing in the world. Most natural indeed. As natural as you turning thirteen. You aren’t really a person without your narrator. We play an essential role in the developing mind. Self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-image. Growing up is all about the self and we help develop that. You’re quite lucky even if you don’t realize it. You could have gotten one of those trainee cases, the new narrators. Never before have we been so stretched by the world’s growing population. There are more thirteen-year-olds than ever before. You are lucky, my boy. Did you know?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“You know why you are so lucky?”
“No.” Connor truly didn’t and was more beginning to feel bewildered by the whole ordeal and his eyes kept straying to a scuffed baseball encased in plastic on a high shelf in the corner of the room. Where was that from? When was that? His narrator traced his eyes, smiled, transfixed him with blue eyes beneath his tangle of grey hair, and continued as if nothing had happened.
“Because I’m a veteran of this field. Wouldn’t want a squeaky-voiced, Mickey Mouse narrator, now would you? Or would you maybe prefer Elmo echoing in your noggin all day long? I should hope not; you seem cultured. I picked your case out some time ago. Everything worked perfectly. My last case died just a few days before your arrival. Quite the gentleman. Self-made man. Much of it thanks to his stellar narrator.Millionaire by twenty, owner of his own company by twenty-six, billionaire by forty-six, inventor of multiple doodads and trinkets that some subcultures find essential. Quite the man.”
“Whom else have you been narrator for?”
“Let’s see. St. Francis Assisi. Paul of Ravenna. Copernicus. Theodor Hayek. Winston Churchill. Francis Crick. Just to name a few. I will admit my tracklist sounds better than it might actually be. Once you’ve been a narrator for four thousand three hundred and forty-four years you’re bound to strike gold at least once every five hundred. But it’s the mediocre, non-malleable subjects that teach you the most. You can practice the narrator voice more with them. Slip out of the norm more often. Really figure out who you are, who you want to be, who you want to help others be. Must drive some of them crazy…” he trailed off, looking suddenly wayward. Distracted.
He sat back, pondering his past charges, before leaning forward to address Connor.
Connor expected the chair to squeak but it didn’t.
“Well, now that that’s out of the way, you’re here for a reason. An important reason. You’ve mentioned wanting the voice to stop. Tragic, my boy, very tragic. Your wish is regrettable indeed. There’s nothing worse than a human rejecting his narrator. Of course it’s been done. Look at Benedict Arnold, Ronald Reagan, Saddam Hussein, Jack the Ripper. Rejecting your narrator is one of the worst mistakes you can make. Most rejections happen around your age. People think because they’ve started hearing somebody ethereal narrating their life they assume erratically something is wrong. Not at all. Something is very right, very right indeed. That’s undeniable. Nothing more right could ever happen to you than finally acquiring your narrator. Especially one as esteemed as me. I’ve had some real diamonds in my time. I would hate for you to go it alone. I’ve much to offer, you know. People never understand the power of the narrator, their necessary attachment to it, until they are bereft of it.
The hand motions accompanying the ramble began to be all Connor could see of his narrator. Like a many-limbed tree gone frantic in a storm. He was picking up steam.
“Then they miss it more than anything and try harder than anything to get it back. But it can’t be done, my boy, can’t be done!” His exclamation punctuated by a riveting jolt of his arms, straight out, mummified, entrapping Conner between their outstretched bounds.
“Once you say no, the narrator is assigned elsewhere and there’s no getting another one. One chance. That’s why you’re so lucky to get me. You could have gotten those fresh interns, newly arrived. Quite a poor job they’re doing. Sent three into complete madness already. If your narrator is bad you are in for a rough time of it, I’ll grant you that. There’s nothing worse than bad narration. What do you think, my boy? Want to stick with it? I really do suggest it.”
“I’m not sure. Must the voices always be so loud and all around me as if my mother or father were talking to me?”
“Now there’s an interesting proposition you’ve just brought up. No indeed, they mustn’t. Besides outright rejection, there is another option at your disposal.”
“What is it?”
“You can make the voices occur only in your head. Not so much racket but also rather caged. I’ve been through it many times, never as impactful. It’s also worth mentioning everyone is given the option of becoming a narrator when they die.”
“Then I would narrate other people’s lives?”
“Sure, how do you think we ever developed a conscience? People had to die to guide us down the road we’re traveling. What do you think separates us from the animals? Consciousness. Plain and simple, my boy. Think of the narrator as assisted consciousness. A friend in life’s perpetual dark alley. Not that I know anything about dark alleys, my boy,” he attempted to give Connor a conspiratorial wink.
“So how about it? What’ll it be? Make the voices go away, make them stay, or make them stay but only in your head?”
“Excellent choice, my boy, excellent choice,” his narrator kept repeating as they retraced Connor’s steps back to the lobby, past the man at the desk and still-drooping elderly gentleman in the chair. The only difference was now his cane had toppled to the floor. His narrator barely batted an eye as he ushered Connor past, toward the entrance, before spinning him about, squaring his shoulders and piercing him with his eyes, which were like two pools beneath the rocky outcropping of his hair. He nodded. Said, “Off you go then,” before giving Connor the about-face with a gentle shove in the back.
Connor took a few steps and found himself back on the vacant stretch of sidewalk he’d recently left. “How long had it been?” the narrator’s voice wondered. Connor turned, trying to convince himself there was never any door, never any sign reading “Narrator’s Guild” above it, never any encounter in that space of stark whiteness. The door was gone. He hurried home.
The island wind rushed him through the doorway and he heard his mother’s voice calling him into the living room. She’d drawn the curtains, placed thirteen candles into the frosting of his chocolate cake. His father stood next to her, arm around his mother’s waist. The candles burned softly as his parents started singing. “Connor wished for the singing to end,” his narrator said. Upon hearing it, he felt bad.
“Connor wondered how soon the admiralty man might show up and whisk his father away to some special assignment. That always seemed to happen right before big occasions. Or in the middle of them,” the narrator said.
Hearing that made Connor feel worse as his parents finished singing to him, prompted him with smiling faces to blow out his candles, to make a wish, to become a young man.
Michael Prihoda is the editor of After the Pause, an experimental literary magazine and small press. His work has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net. He is the author of eight poetry collections, the most recent of which is Years Without Room (Weasel Press, 2018).