By Tim Frank
My childhood was filled with joy, and I got the audience I deserved. I grew up in a loving family, had loyal friends, and drew crowds that could fill cinemas.
I had a privileged life, but it was not always easy being so popular. I had to sleep with a pillow clamped over my ears as the audience squatted around my bed, chattering. They loitered in the dining room and analysed me while I ate dinner with my parents and my little sister, Abby.
When I hit fifteen, Abby lost a long battle with leukemia. My life was rocked, and my audience transformed. A large portion of my crowd deserted me, and the remainder took no notice when I held a knife to my wrist.
A few years later, as I walked home along the streets where Abby and I would climb trees, clambering so high we could see roads snaking through the city, I recalled how my audience cheered from all over town, thronging the roofs of skyscrapers and waving from the summits of football stadiums.
But by the time I attended university, my audience had shrunk to fit the size of an elevator. They were an anxious crowd—biting their nails until they became bloody, breaking into cold sweats, and suffering panic attacks. They disconcerted me. I wanted my old crowd back.
As I searched for the type of audience that had sustained me before Abby died, I decided to visit the church confessional every day to try and lure an audience with my secrets. Two or three spectators always lurked inside with me. Their breath ruffled the hairs on the back of my neck. As time passed, my stories created a buzz, and a smattering of people spilled out into the vestry. But I realized if I wanted to draw a greater crowd again, I would have to tell more detailed and outrageous tales.
So, one afternoon, I told the pastor my girlfriend went missing recently. My friends and I searched for her in the suburbs and by the sea. We finally found her in a clearing in the woods at night, and we drove her home as she fell in and out of consciousness. We tucked her into bed, and she murmured to us her insides had been prodded with metal instruments. She said aliens abducted and impregnated her.
These words had an immediate effect on my audience. When I walked home, the streets were filled with a new crowd, chanting my name like protesters at a political rally. There was a sense of unease in the air, however, and the thrill caused by my lie was short-lived. My audience soon became restless, dwindling in size again. I decided to spin another tale.
“The real truth is, my girlfriend wasn’t abducted by aliens. My friends drugged and raped her. I have been protecting them, but I can’t anymore. I won’t be bullied; I won’t be cowed. Now, what do you think of that?”
My audience immediately grew, but they were a rough and rowdy bunch. Some piled forward, causing the mob to tumble against the church’s altar. Fights broke out in pockets of the audience—teenage boys spat into each other’s hair and ripped each other’s shirts. I was shocked by the brutality and decided I needed to be alone, so I sneaked out of the church.
I returned to my university halls, unable to shake off a motley crew of vagrants cradling dirty sleeping bags and junkies vomiting into trash cans. In my room, car crash victims haemorrhaged blood on my bed and teenage girls cried inconsolably, suffering from their first periods. Audience members outside attempted to break down my door.
“Leave me alone!” I raged.
“Just tell the truth,” said a starving woman, with a swollen belly and a rounded skull. So I did. I didn’t see any alternative.
“It was me that got my girlfriend pregnant—no aliens—no rape. She wanted to keep the baby. I didn’t. That’s all.”
My audience vanished, and there was a cold silence. Then a spotlight emanated from an unknown location and picked me out like an actor on a stage. My voice echoed around an auditorium, “Is there anybody out there?”
A female voice, softly spoken, said, “You used God to further your ends when you could have reached out to me.”
“Abby, is that you? I don’t understand.”
“I want to be your audience, just me, no more, no less. I think that’s what you need now.”
Feeling my sister’s strange and penetrating glare, I reminded her she was dead and that she couldn’t expect me to treat her like a real sister.
She stood and said, “Is God real? Are your friends and girlfriend real? Are any of us more or less real than your beloved audience?”
“You don’t know about my audience.”
“I know audiences come and go; you can’t rely on them.”
Abby was right, and although I couldn’t quite explain her reappearance, I decided not to question it. Maybe it was time for some faith.
As I walked through the high street months later, the dregs of my old followers shadowed me from bus stops and idling cars, wearing sunglasses and baseball caps, trying to remain anonymous. They kept their distance, knowing that all I wanted was to be with my sister, so we could climb trees together like we used to and watch the sun go down over the city. Alone.