Imagine a woman. And not just in the abstract; see her in your mind. Her hair, the clothes she’s wearing, her jewellery and makeup, the colour of her eyes. But imagine more than her appearance, because people aren’t their features, not really. To do this properly, you have to ask the most important question: Who is she? What kind of person is she?
It helps to start nearer the beginning. First, imagine her childhood. Something ordinary, the type that’s sometimes happy and sometimes sad, that doesn’t have to lean heavily in either direction, at least at first glance. She had parents who were there for her, but not always. School friends and a pet turtle. There’s more to her story, of course, and we can make it interesting. Add some drama. That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?
Perhaps she lost a relative when she was young. An uncle who started drinking after a crippling injury. Maybe that’s not enough, though. Spice that up with a dash of organized crime. He used to take her to the track as a little girl, let her lay a small bet on the prettiest horse. Put a smile on her face while he sold himself down the river.
The broken kneecaps lost him his job, but couldn’t stop him from hobbling to the edge of a railway overpass.
What kind of person is she now?
This girl grows up. Fill in the blanks there. Maybe a first kiss in the musty secrecy of her best friend’s unfinished basement. The sparks of crude adolescent love. Give her a part-time job in the summer, a sixteenth birthday party that didn’t go at all according to plan. Was she the one who kept a diary where she wrote newer, darker lyrics to her favourite songs as a cry for help more depressing as a banal suburban cliche than any of its sources ever could be? Or maybe she was the one who threw herself into social activities early and would later think of her teens as the best years of her life. Probably, she fell somewhere in the middle. Most do, right?
Do you see her yet?
Assume she ends up with decent grades. Not spectacular, but good enough for consideration. Good enough to apply for a scholarship. Which she gets after the more qualified girl backs out citing family trouble of her own. Something related to the letters she got in the mail? Those were threats, but you know how that works. Words formed with magazine clippings, no return address. Who knows who sent them? Nobody, really, but you can speculate, imagine the possibilities. You’re supposed to ask yourself who benefits. That’s how you find the suspect.
So think about it. That’s what you’re good at.
Her scholarship gets her a degree, but the overwhelmingly enthusiastic recommendations from her professor are what land her a dream job. It could only be that because her grades remain middling. Though she manages to barely pass her tests, nobody would call her top class. There are rumours of affairs, of blackmail, maybe of other, darker things. But there always are. “Correlation does not imply causation,” they say. But they also say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” What you believe is, of course, up to you.
So, what do you believe?
You might think it’s still too early for a pattern, but you’re wondering what kind of person she is now. They say that you can judge a person by the quality of her enemies. By now, she has many of those. Their quality? That is yet to be determined.
She climbs the corporate ladder, and it seems that she never forgets to step on some fingers with each new rung she reaches. And there’s something else to her. You need a reason, so there has to be something else. Nobody is that lucky, or that unlucky. Not without some purpose.
But maybe you think she was just a regular person to go along with her regular life. So what else is there? Do you go back to the uncle? Was he a man who passes his mistakes down through the generations like bad genes?
Or a man who taught her a lesson that nobody could ever forget.
She has to take something from that, from knowing him in life and experiencing his death. So you decide how much she knew. Does she love her uncle, remembering him as a kind man, always ready with a story about his latest adventure? Or does she remember him as a perpetually irresponsible victim? Did he spare her the worst, or lie to her face? At a certain point, would someone go out of her way to make sure she would never be in that position herself? Social Darwinism as a defence mechanism.
The effects of trauma are unpredictable.
And people get hurt every day, whether you think about them or not.
But does anyone go through life without someone, somewhere, thinking about them, imagining what is happening to them, where they’re headed and who they really are?
That’s a topic for later. You should know enough about this woman now to make this next part work, and the next part is why you’re so necessary to this process.
Sure, everyone dies, but not like her. This isn’t old age or a sudden and tragic illness. It’s not some existential terror, either. Not the blind groping of fate in the form of a stroke or a bolt of lightning or a swerving drunk in a pickup truck. Her death is a deliberate effect derived from a certain cause.
Find her body in her bed as if it’s part of a presentation. The body is what we’re really here for. Are there signs of a struggle? Blood?
Does she deserve it?
How did she die? You have some leeway there, so you may as well use it. Get as creative as you like, make it as graphic as you want it to be. Does it hurt? Does she scream?
Does it last a long time?
Does she repent?
Think about it. As long as we’re left with the body, you can do what you want to her. Just the body in the bed. That’s all I need.
I’ll give you a minute. Stop and close your eyes if you want to. Imagine every detail. The details are important, are what makes it real. What does it sound like? Picture her last breath, the smell of her apartment as she says her final words. If she can still talk at that point. Do your best. Or your worst. Either works for me.
Take your time. I’ll wait for you to finish.
Did you feel anything? I’m not sure how that works for you. Did you tell yourself she deserved it, or will she always be an innocent victim?
Now it’s over, I’m actually a bit curious myself to see what you came up with. I’m confident you won’t disappoint. People like you never do. I’ll have to wait for the headlines, though.
You’re starting to figure it out, I’m sure. So ask yourself if it really matters. There are people dying everywhere, all the time. Roughly two people kick the bucket every second of every day. In the time it takes you to boil an egg, more people have died than all the friends and family you’ll have during your entire lifetime. And certainly, you’ve never met this woman outside of your imagination. When you see those stories in the news, the ones with the tragic death tolls from some disaster in a country you’ve never been to, in a village that may not even be on a map, are they any more real to you than the characters in the last book your read? I’m not talking about the ones who end up in the Pulitzer-prize winning photograph that gets plastered all over the news, either. I mean the ones you never see or hear from, the ones, whose bodies are never found, who don’t even have names.
You know that in private moments you’ve rephrased the question to, “If a tree falls in the forest and I don’t hear it, does it make a sound?”
But we don’t have to go there. I’m not trying to make you feel any better or worse about this, I just thought you deserved a bit of reality. If we can use a word like that at a time like this.
Maybe you’ll still end up feeling used, feeling manipulated. I wouldn’t blame you, and it’s not untrue. You might take some comfort in knowing that I couldn’t do it without you, or that might make it worse. I can’t help that. We can divide it 50/50 if you want. I had a job to do and I aimed the gun, you just happened to wander by and couldn’t resist pulling the trigger.
You can tell yourself nothing actually happened if that’s your thing. Tell yourself she was never a person, just a story, as you pretend solipsism is just a word you saw in the dictionary. That’s how this always works. That’s the great part about imagination: nobody thinks it’s real.
You can even go back and do it all over again if you really want to. She’ll always be there.
This story is written as a response to a challenge to create a new genre. Obviously, meta-fiction isn’t new. Nobody is really creating a new genre, but the idea was to get out there and be creative, which I’m always willing to do. Let me know how it turned out.