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The Blank Space

This is the short story I'm planning to submit to the Lit Mag this year. If you guys have any suggestion, especially anything I should cut (it's 400 under the word limit but I still feel bad about it being so long! 

I'm going to submit in a day or so.


The Blank Space

Caitlin Donovan

The girl stared up at the blank white ceiling that had been her sky for the longest time. She only knew a few things. One was that she didn’t belong here, but then, she doubted anyone did. The other was that she had something she had to do, but she had been abandoned, somehow. And finally, she knew she should have bled to death a long time ago.

“Half my insides are hanging out,” she announced from her position on the floor.

“We know, Ghostie,” the lanky man leaning casually against the white wall to her right said with his usual lopsided smile. “They’ve been doing that since we met.” He was playing with his damn gun again, the clacking of the cartridge echoed madly across the empty space as he slipped it in and out.

 “I hope you blow your hand off with that,” the girl snapped. “And my name’s not Ghostie.”

“You don’t remember your name, so it’s as good as any. You’re undead and all,” he slipped the cartridge in once more. “And I’m way too good at this to ever mess up.”

“You don’t even remember what kind of gun you’re holding,” She poked at the hole in her stomach.

“Doesn’t matter, I’m still incredible,” the man smirked, cocking his gun “Hey, maybe I was a secret agent?”

“You couldn’t be subtle to save your life,” the girl shot back, wiggling her thumb in her wound.

Please don’t do that, Ghostie,” The woman sitting beside the gunslinger shuddered. She practically glowed beside the gangly man with his shaggy gray hair and worn out black leather ensemble. Her waves upon waves of golden hair were topped with an ornate crown. She wore an equally elaborate purple dress, brocade and all, which suited her slim form perfectly. She sat with her legs curled neatly under her spread out skirt, her hands demurely folded in her lap.

The girl rolled her eyes over at the proper lady.”C’mon, Princess, you’re calling me that too? Look, it doesn’t matter if I mess with it, I’m not going to get worse and it doesn’t really hurt after all this time- my brain may have shut off the pain bit in self defense or something…”

“I know, but it looks horrible, so please…”

The girl obliged, pulling her thumb out and wiping the blood on the floor. The woman pulled out an embroidered handkerchief and gagged into it politely.

“Princess? Now you’re doing nicknames too, Ghostie. You have no place to talk,” the man tossed his gun up and caught it.

“Actually, I’m fairly sure I am a princess,” the woman informed him as she folded the soiled cloth and set it off to the side. “Princess Johanna” is embroidered on my handkerchief, though I can’t seem to remember my courtly life.”

“Plus the crown, dingus,” the injured girl called.

It was one of their breaks that they could only fill up by talking. The princess had come up with the plan. The three of them would spend a short amount of time slamming their bodies against the walls, and then they would shout until it became tiresome. After that, those who could would walk around the room and do exercises. Then they would try to keep a conversation going for an hour, hoping the endless talk would help them remember. It got pretty mind numbing after a while, but at least it gave them purpose. Maybe it would work. Maybe someone would hear them, maybe they’d break out even though the wall hadn’t budged one bit, maybe they’d remember. The girl had done her share of screaming and sobbing when she first arrived here, and it had accomplished nothing. The best thing to do was keep distracted so something awful didn’t wake up inside her.

“Ghostie?” The princess cut into her thoughts.

“God, is that really my name now?”

“Sorry, how about….” The princess bit her lip, her eyes shining a little. “I can’t…I can’t remember any names…”

“Ghostie’s fine,” the girl said quickly. “What’s up?”

“I just…do you want to be bandaged up?”

“What’s the point?”

The Princess looked down, and Ghostie saw her skirt was tightly wadded in her hands. “It…would give me something to do…”

“Okay,” Ghostie said softly. “But what the hell could you use- AHHH!”

The princess tore at the bottom of her dress, ripping one jagged strip of purple fabric clean off, then ripping another, her eyes hard.

“Ahhh! Your pretty dress, don’t! It’s got to be expensive and junk!” Ghostie propped herself up on her elbow, waving a hand frantically.

The princess shrugged. “What use is it in a place like this?” She smoothed down her now knee-length and tattered skirt, cradling the pile of fabric in her other arm. Then she stood up and strode purposefully toward the girl on the floor. Ghostie blushed a bit as the older woman gently propped her in her arms and lifted her tank top to reveal the wound. It was like a little window had been cut into her flesh so spectators could view the pulsing red inside, and Ghostie was sure the princess would gag again. But she just clamped her jaw shut and wrapped the cloth tightly around the smaller girl’s waist. The lavender silk remained the same, no spots of blood soaked in to break up the color scheme. It seemed like Princess Johanna would have preferred it to ooze, her face just grew paler as she examined her clean work.

The two women jumped as a shot rang out.

“Jesus Christ, warn us before you do that!” Ghostie screeched. “You know it’s pointless anyway, come on!”

“It’s all I can do!” the man snapped as he leveled his gun at the opposite wall. He fired again, but his bullet simply vanished when it reached the wall, like the white expanse had absorbed it. “You said you wanted to figure a way out! This is our only tool! The only thing we have!”

Ghostie heard his voice crack a little.

“You’re going to run out of bullets,” she tried to keep her own voice steady.

“It never runs out. Just like you never bleed out. Just like we never need to eat or sleep or…” He slid down to a sitting position and the gun fell from his limp hands with a clatter.

Just keep talking, Ghostie thought, biting her lip as she felt the princess’s hands tighten on her shoulders. “Your gun’s a Colt 1911, by the way.”

His head jerked up and he narrowed his eyes at her. “You don’t know your own name, but you know something like that?”

“I seem to be pretty knowledgeable about weapons and stuff, yeah. I might be the real secret agent here.”

“If you are, you sure got your ass kicked by the enemy,” the man snorted.  “Well, at least I’m still one up on you in the name-remembering department.”

The princess perked up. “Really? You’ve remembered?”

“Well…not exactly…” he scratched his neck, his forehead creased “It’s…I seem to have a bunch of “sort-of” names…which supports the “me being a secret agent” theory a bit, by the way…”

Ghostie rolled her eyes. “Just pick your favorite.”

“Actually, they all sort of suck…boring stuff like “George” or “Mike”,” he shrugged. “I guess George is fine.”

“Okaaaaay… Georgie Porgie will be your nickname then,” Ghostie declared.

“Now you’re just being childish,” he sighed as the princess giggled.

“You started it,” she stuck out her tongue.

They continued their verbal sparring match until they both ran out of ammo. From there, the princess tried to keep the conversation going with questions. (She’d come up with random things like “What are our respective ethnicities, I wonder? I think I’m some sort of white European…it’s very vague... Ghostie?”  Ghostie thought she had Thai ancestry, though she couldn’t remember where she had lived. So then it turned to “Have you ever been to Thailand, George?” No, he hadn’t, and he was pretty sure it had been painfully white wherever he came from.  Ghostie couldn’t help chiming in that that sure explained a lot about his personality, and they were off arguing again…)

 Ghostie felt like an hour had passed by now, though she couldn’t know for sure, but the other two seemed to be tired of wall-banging and she couldn’t blame them.

Even though she had no idea, Ghostie liked to imagine it was night. She mostly hoped there was a night, that there was a world outside this place where the sun set and rose.  It would also give her an excuse for feeling so tired. The princess even told her to close her eyes, despite the fact she couldn’t fall asleep.

“Even though nothing’s normal here, an injured person should rest,” she admonished. “Rest your head on my lap.”

“Okay…er…Your Highness…” she uncomfortably adjusted her head.

The princess gave her tinkling laugh. “Just Johanna is fine. Being royalty is pretty meaningless here, and for all I know, I could have stolen that name.”

“I really doubt that- what are you doing?”

 George was staring down the barrel of his gun, examining it with dull eyes.

“Stop it!” Johanna cried. “You have to be careful with that! Stop it!

George blinked, looking up hazily like he’d forgotten they were there. “Oh. Sorry.” He dropped it, and the metallic thunk echoed around their blank space of a room.

“You really don’t know how to use that properly,” Ghostie felt like some creature that had been sleeping patiently in her gut was now awake, crawling around and clawing at the walls of her insides. Her voice came out hoarse and shaky.

George put his hands around his face and spoke slowly from behind the cage of his fingers. “Ghostie…you don’t think I shot you and just don’t…don’t remember?”

“What?” Ghostie shot upright and winced a little. Apparently, some pain still remained. “No! This is a knife wound, dingus.”

“It is?”

“There’s no bullet.”

George let out a long breath that whistled between the cracks of his fingers. “I was afraid to ask.”

“Why would you even think…?”

“I feel like…I’ve shot people with this gun…or I’m supposed to. I’ve got this…purpose with it. You’re right, I’m too stupid to be a secret agent or anything…I was thinking, I’m probably a killer and this…this is some sort of prison.”

The creature had reached up from her stomach and was now strangling at her throat from the inside so she could barely speak.  “Oh, c-come on…”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Johanna said softly.

“Exactly, that’s-

“I think we’re dead.”

The creature punched straight out of her stomach. Her whole body quaked. “Wh-Wh-what?”

“Think about it. Ghostie has a mortal wound. There’s no time in this place. George’s gun never runs out. We only recall shadows of who we were. We don’t know how we got here. We don’t eat, we don’t sleep, and we don’t do anything normal people do. We’re eternal. We exist outside life.”

“Quit it!” Ghostie clapped her hands to her ears, squeezing her eyes shut. “No! No, I don’t want to think about it, I’m not-

“Yeah, it makes sense. This is Hell. We’re going to stay here forever with nothing to do, our voices echoing off each other, until we lose it,” George gave them an empty smile. “I am a killer, and this is my punishment.”

Stop it!”  Ghostie jerked off the princess’s lap and she crawled toward one of those walls that made it seem like they were merely being caged in by massive blank sheets of paper. Tears were spilling down her face and expanse of the floor seemed to absorb them just like the rest of the room absorbed bullets. She banged her fists desperately against the walls. Whatever material they were made up of felt almost insubstantial against her skin, but she wouldn’t stop, she couldn’t stop, she’d keep going until her knuckles spit, she’d prove they were alive!

“We tried that before,” George repeated her words in a flat voice.

“I. Don’t. Care!” Ghostie screamed. “There has to be hope, there has to be!” She pounded harder and harder, cursing the other two for waking up that terrified animal part of she’d been keeping distracted so well for so long.

Surprisingly strong arms grabbed her hands and forced them down. Once Ghostie stopped fighting her, Johanna cupped the girl’s chin in her hand and wiped the tears off her face with the lacy corner of her sleeve. The gesture was so achingly motherly that Ghostie collapsed, sobbing into the older woman’s chest.

“There is hope,” the princess said, her jaw set as George watched them blankly. “George, I don’t know about you, but I for one think we’re good people. We’ve been trapped in here for who-knows-how long but we haven’t starting beating on each other. You haven’t shot at us. I like both of you and I feel that I’m not a monster. I think this must be some sort of limbo. Purgatory if you will. That means Heaven is just on the other side.”

Ghostie’s inner monster backed off a little, its hackles still raised. “But…wh-what are we supposed to do?” she asked, clinging to the princess like she was a life raft.

Johanna’s mouth slackened a little. “I don’t know.”

“Yeah, that’s because God or whoever is just screwing with us! Sounds a lot like Hell to me!” George spat.

“You’re NOT HELPING!”  Johanna slammed her first down on the floor. Ghostie squeaked and jerked off of her.

“Sorry,” Johanna hastened to say, wiping her forehead. “I just…I think all that we can do is wait…and try to remember.”

“I’m sick of waiting,” George hissed. He picked up the gun on the floor with a shaking hand and turned it toward himself again.
No!” the other two shouted together. Johanna swept to her feet and Ghostie tried to do the same but ended up falling back on her rear. “What are you doing?”

“We’re acting like we’ve tried everything, but we haven’t. Let’s test if this place really is limbo. Let’s see if someone can die.”

“That’s ridiculous! What if that’s the test?” Johanna cried “What if that’s why the gun is here? If you shoot yourself or someone else with it, you go the Hell!”

“At least I’d be going somewhere,” George said, and pulled the trigger. Ghostie screamed and slammed her eyes shut.

There was no sound of a bullet exploding out a barrel. Just a couple more clicks. Ghostie tentatively opened her eyes to see George staring dully down the gun, continuously pulling the trigger to no effect. Johanna was fuming beside her.

“It won’t even fire,” George snorted, finally throwing the weapon down. “Probably wouldn’t if I pointed it at you two as well.”

“Why don’t you test it, then, asshole? Just so you can try everything!” Ghostie hoped she sounded scathing, but all the trembling she was doing was probably ruining the effect.

“Of all the- I ought to go over there and hit you in the head with that gun!” Johanna’s face was so red that against her golden hair it gave off the impression of a sunset.

“Go ahead and do it,” George said flatly, pushing the gun across the floor. It slid to a stop at exactly the halfway point between him and Johanna. “Or are you afraid that’ll cancel your ticket into heaven, Princess Purity?”

Ghostie wrapped her arms tightly around her knees and buried her face. She wanted to go back to arguing about who was a super spy or who to give dumb nicknames. They were probably going to rip each other apart in this place just to shut each other up. They’d cannibalize each other without being hungry. All that would be left would be scattered body parts, forced to live on for eternity and-

“Agh!” The princess screamed suddenly and fell to her knees, her crown going lopsided.

“What is it?” Ghostie said urgently, reaching for her, but the woman shook her head with such great swivels that the crown fell right off. She tugged frantically at her collar, sweat shining on her neck. “Something’s…pulling me…”

“Are you going to heaven?” Ghostie’s eyes welled up, her hands not knowing what to do. “No, don’t leave me-“

“It’s…It’s not heaven…I’m…it’s like I’m being called back into service,” the woman doubled over, gasping. “I-I…”

“C’mon, hang in there!” Ghostie grabbed her by the shoulders and shook. Even George left his post to hover hesitantly over the two of them. The princess was going limp, her hair draping over her face and shielding it from view.

“You have...to stay…here!” Ghostie punctuated each work with shake. She pressed down hard on Johanna’s soldiers; as if she wanted to keep her grounded so she didn’t take off and fly right through the ceiling. But her hysterics were stopped cold by a hand clamping around her wrist. It took Ghostie a disorienting second to realize it was Johanna’s. Her brown eyes peering out of her sweaty curtains of hair were flashing in and out of focus like a broken stoplight.

“Ah. It isn’t real,” the words drifted out like they were only empty breath. The princess’s mouth turned up sharply, but it gave the impression that someone has simply made an upward slash with a razor at both corners, and merely created the illusion of a smile. “None of us are real. That makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“What are you talking about?” George said.

Johanna’s grip on the younger girl’s wrist tightened until Ghostie cried out in pain. “I remember now…I’m just the main character in some twee and sugary fairytale. One day, my story just…stopped being written. And that’s… how I got stuck here, in limbo…a discarded character with no story to live in…” she inhaled sharply, her breath whistling through her teeth and her body buckling a little.

George’s face sagged. “Oh. This is just a psychotic break.”

Johanna shook her head jerkily. “No…I’m about to vanish. Whoever’s in control…they’ve decided to finish their story, they’ve started thinking and writing again. I-I’m going to forget all about you two…forget I’m a character…once I re-enter…but…I don’t want to…”

“Please,” Ghostie squeaked. “Please! We don’t want to be alone here; you have to take us with you!”

“You’re such a sweet girl…” the princess  ran her fingers through Ghostie’s short black hair, smoothing it off her forehead. Then she looked to the dumbstruck man, “And George, it was nice to know you, even if we had out differences.”

Ghostie let out a little cry.

“…It’s all right,” Johanna continued with a shaky smile. “I’m sure your writers will use you again. You’ll see. You’ll go back to where you belong. I’m sure whoever was amazing enough to create you will give you the happy ending you deserve…I’m sure…eventually…” Ghostie tried to hold on tighter to Princess Johanna, but it was like the woman was sand sifting through her fingers. “I’m sure…”

Ghostie was left clawing at dead air.

George dropped to his knees.

“I can’t believe this…” his head hung so low it threatened to fall off his neck. “She’s really gone. What was that crap she was spewing?”

Ghostie was trying very hard not to cry. She hugged herself in an attempt regain some facsimile of Johanna’s warmth. “It…it makes a sort of sense though. Maybe we all came from the same lazy author. It would explain why I don’t remember my name…maybe I was never given one? And you, with lots of names…maybe your author never decided which one to give you. I could have…it seems like I was a plucky girl detective or something…my author got to the point in the plot where I was stabbed for dramatic effect and then left off…so I’m stuck like this forever? I just…”

George shook his head with a croaking laugh. “We’re real. We couldn’t be characters in some person’s story.”

“That sounds like something a character in a story would say,” Ghostie murmured. “You know, for dramatic irony.”

George shook his head again. “You realize how ridiculous it sounds? And even if it’s true, we can’t prove it either way. What can we do?”

“I don’t know,” Ghostie repeated Johanna’s words flatly. She hugged herself tighter.

“Your bandages…they’re gone,” George said suddenly.

Ghostie looked down, her arms sliding off her shoulders. It was true. Somewhere, on the other side, Princess Johanna’s dress must be whole again.

She jumped at the sound of a jacket unzipping. She looked up and her eyes widened as she saw George slide off his jacket and then pull off his white T-shirt, which he promptly started ripping up.

“Here,” he said, offering her the strips of fabric. “Replace your old bandages. I’ll help you.”

“Thanks,” she said as he pulled his jacket back on.

            He helped her tighten the cloth around the bloodless wound. Ghostie noticed Johanna’s handkerchief had vanished as well. The gun was still a few feet away from them. Maybe George had been a secret agent…or a policeman…all that was clear was he’d been holding a gun when everything had stopped. But she knew neither of them would ever touch that thing again. What was the point?

            He finished up tying the cloth, and began to move away from her. She grabbed his wrist. “George…” she hesitated. “I’m cold. Would you let me lean on you…like Johanna did?”

            He shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

            She rested her head on his shoulder.

            And they waited.

It was all they could do.

Notes (won't be included in submission, just fun facts):

George is unclear on his occupation because the author was as well. Kept changing their mind. He's unaware about what type of gun he's using because the author wasn't aware when they were writing him. They'd researched weapons a little more by the time Ghostie was created.

Pretty much all of the author's stories were "painfully white", hence George's statement. But they grew up a little, and decided to start adding some diversity and making main characters PoC. Ghostie has actually been discarded because they're procrastinating on actually having to do research on the experience of a Thai person.

I recently imagined my cats as human characters, and used that template for Ghostie and George- but they ended up very different in personality, but that's where the general appearance and bickering relationship came from (George is actually in his twenties, he went gray early). Also, the princess in the other short story I'm working on is called Johanna, so it's sort of a mythology gag except I don't actually have a mythology, just a weird sense of humor. Abandoned characters, oh noes!




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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
k9feline
Jan. 21st, 2012 02:11 pm (UTC)
I think this is a much better story than the one you submitted last year.

The 3 characters are distinct and vivid, the situation is mysteriously intriguing, the dialogue is believable sounding, and the explanation makes sense within the story.

If there's anything I'd cut (and this is just because you especially asked if there was anything to cut) it would be references to Ghostie's inner monster. There's a chance that'd be taken too literally by the reader. I don't feel that strongly about cutting it, though.

Good luck on your submission. I hope it gets through.
nevermore999
Jan. 22nd, 2012 03:45 am (UTC)
Thanks K9! I'm glad you like it better.

I'll try an change the monster bit so it's clear it's a metaphor (too much of HP rubbing off on me?) I can't really think of another way to express her panic. I've got another story going too that I might be able to finish on time, and I'm submitting the comic book nonfiction as well as a couple poems, so hopefully something will get though! I'm doing a one credit internship as an editor for the mag as well, should be fun.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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