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Learned Helplessness

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“Stanley?”

It was unusual to hear him stray from the script, but perhaps this was a natural bit of dialogue he normally missed because he’d never stood here so long before. Stanley had no idea and he wasn’t really sure if it brought him any comfort. He stared out at the stone path, the grass and shrubs, that unearthly blue sky. It had felt real in the past, because he’d wanted it to be, but now… it looked like everything else. It was all a joke.

“Stanley, you’re allowed to keep going you know. You don’t need permission to step out there.”

His old life was hard to recall, a foggy memory, all that really existed was this building, but from deep in the recesses of Stanley’s mind, he remembered a phrase he’d learned in a required psychology course he’d barely passed. Learned helplessness. He’d been through the motions so many times and nothing had changed. What was the point of continuing to try?

“You’ve had a good run up until this point, listening to everything I’ve said, it would be a shame to throw all that away just because you’ve got cold feet. You’re free from the mind control, you can move on with your life. There’s no going back now.”

Stanley hadn’t thought anything could touch him through the numbness at this point, but somehow it struck a chord. He couldn’t move on with his life. There was nothing but another reset after this. He couldn’t keep deluding himself about that.

He sat down on the bottom step with a sigh. His feet were only a few inches from the moss-covered stones and seeing how realistic they were made his chest ache and throat throb painfully. Why him? Why did he deserve to be damned to this place? His only mistake had been, what? Mediocrity? Plenty of people were just as average and complacent as he was with meaningless lives, not to mention what was so bad about that anyway? There were so many humans around, they couldn’t all be great. The world needed people like him to keep things running, was that so terrible? Was he expected to run off into the woods to become a hermit, questioning everything and listening to no one? That’s no way to run a society.

“Are you going to cry?” The Narrator’s voice was hushed, almost tentative. How could he even begin to understand?

Stanley shook his head. He was too strong to cry. At least he had that.

“Have I upset you? Did I say something wrong?” The Narrator continued, “I thought I delivered it the same as always, but perhaps I misspoke…”

Stanley shook his head again, looking up towards the ceiling as he began to sign, “It was the same. That’s the problem.

Oh. Ohhh! I see now. That’s why you didn’t speak.” The Narrator said, sounding quite pleased now that he’d figured it out. When Stanley rolled his eyes, he decided to focus on the task at hand, “What’s wrong with the same thing again and again? Isn’t it comforting for you, a man who spends his day pushing buttons?”

Why should this make you happy? If you want to criticize me for how I live my life, practice what you preach.” Stanley’s gestures were becoming more erratic, anger roaring through him.

“Excuse me? Now what’s that supposed to mean! I’m nothing like you, I’m a creator, I just want my story to see a happy conclusion, that’s all!”

You do your job again and again but nothing ever changes. Reset reset reset! Even when you get your conclusion you keep running me through this damn story, a story about a man who starts off questioning nothing, and in the end, continues to question nothing. Where’s the creativity in that??

“Wha- it’s my story, Stanley, I won’t have you mocking it. It’s about you after all, it wouldn’t make sense if you suddenly started trying to find out the secrets of this place.”

A good ending to a story forces a character to subvert their own character traits to be successful, such as a greedy character ultimately committing some selfless act to save the day. This is just realistic. No one wants a realistic story.

“I never said anyone would be interested in it.” The Narrator sounded… weary. As if this was a hard truth he didn’t like having to face. “It’s simply… for me. It’s all I have, Stanley. Please, just step outside. It would make you so much happier.”

No, it would make YOU happy!!

“It would make both of us happy. It’s freedom. It’s a way to get to someplace that isn’t here. Don’t you want to get away?”

It won’t change anything. We’ll just go back.

“We’ll go back anyway. It hardly matters.” The Narrator sighed, “But it’s nice to know one thing’s going my way. I have you, I have my story. It’s all I have to hang onto. If you complete it, then… we’re accomplishing something. I’m accomplishing something.”

Your story is terrible.

“Please don’t say that. I just want this one thing.”

At my expense?

“What else is there for me to do? I have limited power, I can’t release you. There is no real freedom. Only the freedom ending.”

The end is never the end.” Stanley signed half-heartedly, then rested his head in his hands. At least before he could blame the Narrator for all this. But now, now he knew they were both stuck here, both victims, and he didn’t even have someone to pin the blame on. It made it worse.

It was a few minutes before the Narrator spoke again.

“Stanley?”

God, he was sick of hearing his own name.

“I’d like to try something. If... if you’d like.”

Stanley shrugged. What did it matter? There was nothing new here.

Behind him on the walkway he heard a click. A door opening. Stanley looked over his shoulder to try and see what was through it, but it was too dim. Maybe it was death. An ending where the Narrator was more sadistic, he’d seen enough of those to know how capable he was.

But between it and the ending ahead of him, it looked much more promising. Stanley stood, brushed himself off, and headed back the way he’d come, blinking hard as his eyes adjusted. Through the door, down a black hall. Ahead, another door.

Stanley stepped through and for several moments he forgot to breathe. It was something… new.

The first thing Stanley noticed was the tender, pre-dawn blue sky, like the day hadn’t yet begun and there were still endless possibilities on how to spend it. There was real, genuine sand beneath his shoes, soft from the tiny waves rolling in, perfect for building sandcastles, and he could sense a faint chill in the air, one could imagine from the night that was now fading away with the distant brightening horizon. Behind him there were trees, the door already gone.

Stanley could make out pink and gold reflected in those far off clouds and waves, it stole his breath away. A beach. An early morning beach just for him. He held a hand to his mouth, not certain what to do. Was he allowed to touch it? To reassure himself that what he was seeing was actually there?

“Look, I know it’s not the best, there’s no need to look so upset about it.” The voice didn’t come from overhead this time, it was a faint, slightly defensive murmur and it was right behind him but Stanley didn’t turn. He didn’t know if his heart could take seeing one more new thing after all this. He just shook his head, gazing out at the water.

“I… I tried Stanley.” The Narrator offered, “Is there anything you need me to change? I’ll see what I can do, if you want.”

Stanley shook his head again and things were silent for a time, but not really. The waves washed over the sand. Birds chirped back and forth. The trees rustled with an ocean breeze and Stanley felt it blow his hair back. He could smell the salt.

He’d never been a big fan of the beach, but he’d accept in a heartbeat if offered the opportunity to stay here.

It’s beautiful.” Stanley signed, shaking so much it was hard to make out what he meant. The sound of footsteps in the sand, a presence coming up beside him to get a better look at his hands.

I’ve never seen anything better in my entire life. My heart hurts. I want to cry. I love it here. I love what you’ve done.

A small intake of breath. He’d caught the Narrator by surprise then. If he’d been able to smile any wider he would have, but it was simply not possible.

You really are a creator. This is the best ending I’ve ever gotten. I love it. I love you.” And he did. They were trapped here, they’d both done terrible things to one another, but now he had this. Just one moment to break the routine. It was worth it. Standing here, it made everything feel a little less devastating. The Narrator had subverted his own character traits, he’d been selfless. Maybe they both could change.

“Stanley.” The Narrator was breathless, “You’re delirious, you’re not thinking straight…” He stopped, his next words coming out instinctively, “But even as the Narrator made his excuses, Stanley knew otherwise. He meant every word. What a silly thing to see in person, Stanley thought, the Narrator contradicting himself with what he believes and what is true. Perhaps he’s embarrassed by me saying it. Perhaps no one’s ever loved him before. Fuck, get out of my head!” The Narrator abruptly stopped speaking again, clearing his throat and straightening his tie to mask his discomfort. He’d never been called creative before. He’d never had someone love anything he’d made. He’d never had anyone love himself. Would Stanley ever stop surprising him?

Stanley smiled, feeling a little smug. He spared the Narrator a glance, just to satisfy his curiosity, then turned back to the water. Blushing, despite the scowl he was trying to cover it up with. Good. He was capable of emotion even when deviating from a script. He was real. They were both real.

The sun climbed higher, the horizon burned orange and gold. Stanley could feel the warmth of its rays on his face. Nothing would ever beat this. He sat in the sand, watching it all, feeling everything.

The Narrator lacked the experiences from the outside world that would help the scenery overwhelm him, but watching Stanley’s reactions was the closest he could get to the feeling. Someone liked what he’d done. Maybe he had more than just his story. He had his room. He had his Stanley.

They were going to be just fine.

 


 

A blank computer monitor in front of his eyes. A stiff office chair beneath him. The voice.

“He had been at his desk for nearly an hour when he realized that not one single order had arrived on the monitor for him to follow.”

Hang on.” Stanley needed a moment to process the change, it was so abrupt that he was reeling.

“No one had shown up to give him instructions, call a meeting, or even say “hi”. Never in all his years at the company had this happened, this complete isolation.”

Were they really back to the script? How disappointing.

“Something was very clearly wrong. Shocked, frozen solid, Stanley found himself unable to move for the longest time.”

Can you just talk to me?” Maybe he just needed to get through the first bit of dialogue before he could snap out of it.

“But as he came to his wits and regained his senses, he got up from his desk and stepped out of his office.”

Silence.

Do you need me to step outside before you can talk to me?

Silence.

Stanley stood and walked out of his office, trying to shake the deep sense of dread that was pooling in his gut. It was fine. Everything was fine.

“All of his co-workers were gone. What could it mean?”

Can we skip this? I’ve heard it all before, you know.

“Stanley decided to go to the meeting room, perhaps he had simply missed a memo.”

Narrator?” He held his breath, staring up at the ceiling. There was a long silence. Please god, let this work.

“Stanley stood for a long time in one spot. It’s part of a game. He likes to see how long he can go without dying. So far, he’s doing excellent. And if he just stays right where he is, I’m sure he’ll keep up that good momentum. Let’s observe the genius at work.”

He couldn’t give up just yet. Stanley hurried off, following the instructions perfectly. Left door, meeting room, up the stairs, boss’ office, keypad, mind control facility, turning off the controls. The door to “freedom” opened before him, Stanley stared at it.

If he just stayed here, the Narrator would come back to him with some genuine emotion. He’d become concerned. It would be real again.

He sat on the step and watched the too vibrant sky.

We have the beach.

Any moment now. Any moment now.

Remember that.

They were going to be just fine.

They can never take it away from us.”

Please come back.

I won’t ever forget.

Stanley began to cry.

Chapter Text

Stanley stumbled through the door again. He’d done so many speed runs that his body ached and his eyes were glazed over. But it felt like the right thing to do. The Narrator had told him, in his consciousness that… it was the one thing he had. Even if he didn’t remember, even if he didn’t speak freely, maybe a part of him was getting some joy from this.

The same dialogue began again and he was pulled down the path. Finally, his head was tilted back and everything faded to black as he stared up at the sky.

Freedom. Reset.

Stanley wasn’t sure if he’d ever be done crying. Just when he felt like he was completely dry, he’d remember his genuine but brief moment of freedom, and he’d be back to square one. Because even if he hadn’t really escaped, he’d really been free. Free in spirit.

He sprinted down the halls. None of the narration mattered anymore. He knew it by heart. Hurrying, always hurrying. Just going back to that place.

Sometimes Stanley also went to the starry room. Because it made the Narrator so happy. He could hear it in his voice, it hardly mattered that the words were the same.

But he couldn’t stay forever and the futility of suicide was only depressing, especially when he had to listen to the hysterical, then resigned tone in the Narrator’s voice. If only he didn’t have to wake up after he did it.

Freedom. Reset.

Back to his shitty office. Stanley stood as soon as he regained control of his body, pausing to consider acting out some violence on this room, before deciding against it. The satisfaction was temporary.

Run down the hall. Don’t think about anything. It’s a game. Just don’t stop or you’ll remember why and you’ll break down again. There’s no use crying.

There’s no use in any of it really.

Fuck, stop thinking that. Stanley scowled at himself, managing to blink back the tears that threatened to fall. What else was there? Standing around? Sitting around? Feeling sorry for himself? Nothing would change if he just wallowed, at least this way. Maybe. He was getting somewhere.

Now he knew how the Narrator felt about his story. Having it resolved felt like some accomplishment at least.

Freedom. Reset.

Stanley took a moment to catch his breath, then he was off again, blood pounding in his head.

Freedom. Reset.

He was stronger than this. Something had to change. Didn’t it? Did it?

Freedom. Reset.

He was determined to keep going forever if it was necessary. Why not? It was hell anyway.

Freedom. Reset.

I really hope you can feel this. I really hope you’re in there somewhere. I want to believe.”

Freedom. Reset.

Please stay strong. I won’t forget. I promise.

Freedom. Reset.

We’re making progress. I’m still here.

The freedom ending began again. Stanley was pulled through the door and down the path. His story concluded. Everything went black.

You’ve successfully completed five hundred consecutive runs through the true ending! Congratulations on passing the test. Please leave the facility calmly and return to your regular activities.

Stanley blinked at the words, even as the darkness faded from his vision and only their afterimage remained, then that too was gone. He was sprawled across some asphalt and as soon as he was sure he had the courage, he pulled himself up to look around. Behind him was his plain office building, the door he’d just been kicked out of now closed and locked tight. Ahead was a drab parking lot, empty save for his car.

There had never been a mossy pathway leading from his building. To be confronted with this, reality, no matter how dull it was, it made his heart stop. He choked on a sob. Knees buckling a little, but he managed to remain upright. Stanley stumbled over to his car, face streaming with tears, hand trying the door, then his pockets. He nearly dropped his keys as he crammed them into the ignition and tore off. As long as he got away from that awful place as soon as possible.

 


 

Everything looked the same, or at least where it should be. The first thing Stanley did when he arrived home was check the date on his computer. He wasn’t able to remember what it had been exactly, the month sounded about right.

Nothing was dusty, his food was still fresh. His landlord looked at him as if he was insane when he questioned her on when she’d last seen him, but she was adamant that he’d arrived back last night, but she didn’t know when he’d left today.

Stanley briefly did a little digging into his corporation, but every trace of it had mysteriously disappeared from the internet and the minds of everyone around him. But where did he get his money? The landlady believed he had a bookstore. His neighbor Raphael from across the hall told him he was under the impression that Stanley did movie reviews for some website. His parents told him over the phone that he was currently a temp.

Some familiarity should have been welcome. It was all back to normal, he was safe.

But something about it frightened Stanley. He was too used to seeing the familiar now. He needed something fresh and exciting.

What was the point of his experience if he didn’t learn from it?

Stanley packed his bags and bolted to the airport. The soonest flight to someplace warm and sunny. Tahiti is what they offered and in no time he was on a plane, stuck between a talker and a snorer. Wonderful. But it hardly mattered.

It wasn’t until the fourth week of being away that it finally sank in. Stanley had been staying on a hut on the beach, swimming and sunbathing in the day, drinking with the locals in the evening, passing out drunk in his bed. He’d been staring at himself in the mirror, at how tan he looked from the sun and how he had more definition in his body from the swimming. How his hair stuck up everywhere, completely unlike how he normally wore it for work. How he felt healthy for once.

He stayed the longest in Tahiti. Nearly a full year of working at the bar, hiking, making friends, reading books, working on his grasp of written French so he could communicate without signing, living his life. Stanley was completely disconnected from his old life and he’d never been happier.

Then he got an itch to keep exploring. So he did. He traded his suitcase for a hiking backpack and headed out. He flew to Europe. Walking or hitchhiking, sometimes taking a train. He went all over. Staying for a month or two, in a hotel or on someone’s couch. Then sometimes even in a tent when he bought one, so he could actually camp. He met people, he immersed himself in cultures, he learned different languages, he made memories and collected stories.

Some nights, Stanley would think of the Narrator. Wondering what had happened to him. If he’d even still been there in the end or if it had just been a recording. Where had the man that had created that room for him gone? Was he hurt?

Stanley tried not to dwell on it too long, it only made him tear up.

Chapter Text

It was nearly three years before Stanley returned. Of course he’d let his family know that he was safe in that time, it would have been cruel not to, but he’d just kept insisting that he hadn’t found what he was looking for yet.

The wilderness calmed his heart and Stanley had gravitated towards camping alone as the months had gone on. He still appreciated the company of the friends he’d made, but a part of him was in turmoil and could only be satisfied when he was alone. It was as if he was seeking something he’d only ever found when he’d been isolated from others. Something that cared enough to tie his story all together when he’d had nothing else.

Someone he’d abandoned.

What really settled it was a particularly vivid dream about the beach. Stanley woke up in a blind panic, a whispered help still ringing in his ears, and packed in seconds. It had been the Narrator, he’d been certain of it. He got a flight back home and as soon as he’d landed, rain pelting down on his worn jacket, he got a cab, giving the driver the address to the building that no one remembered him working at.

He’d never expected to go back and on the drive over, he couldn’t shake the intense paranoia that he was walking into a trap. Going back would push him over the edge without a doubt.

The building looked abandoned. The few planters outside were overgrown, none of the lights were on even in the downpour, no cars were in the parking lot.

Stanley asked the driver to wait for him to return, leaving his bag in the backseat before he climbed out and began to jog around the perimeter of the building, testing each door. Deep down he was praying that none would budge, afraid to venture inside should one do so, but when door after door remained shut tight… Was there a point to this? Had he come back home for nothing? Or worse still, perhaps the Narrator did need his help and he was failing him.

Stanley had just tried the final door, the one he’d left himself, and was on the verge of calling it a day and going back to his cab when something caught his eye. Huddled behind the bush not far from the door there was a shadow through the leaves. He could just pick up the sound of breathing. Stanley crept closer, not daring to hope. It was probably some homeless person.

There was a body slumped against the wall of the building. The man looked half dead, his skin pale from the cold of the rain, his eyes closed, but when he picked up on the presence above him, he stiffened a little, opening his eyes cautiously as if he expected to see a monster.

It was him. There was no doubt about it now, Stanley knew instantly. He didn’t look exactly as he had back in the room, but Stanley recognized the soul behind those eyes and his heart leapt.

The Narrator shied away, eyes full of pain and fear, “I don’t want to play anymore games. Just leave me alone, I promise that I’ll go through more runs after I get some rest.”

When Stanley reached out for him, the Narrator tensed but didn’t try to escape, too exhausted to bother.

“Narrator?” Stanley sounded so soft, not really sure what to do. What was going on? More runs?

“And there it is. You can never make a convincing Stanley, you don’t know how to do the hand gestures.” The Narrator murmured, looking away, “Please. I just want to sit. Don’t deny me that.”

Just for a moment, but then I have a cab waiting.” Stanley signed, moving to sit beside the Narrator with a long sigh, watching him without comment.

The Narrator seemed confused by the signing at first, taking some time to process it. Then it dawned on him what had happened, and he began to sniffle quietly, eyes filling with tears. Stanley had never expected to hear this voice sound so broken. Not when the Narrator was the strong one…

“I don’t know what to trust anymore. Why do you insist on tormenting me like this? Just when I think I have it figured out and then you do this to me. You want me to fall for it. To think that I’ve escaped and I’m free and he’s back... You just like toying with me.”

Stanley gently touched the Narrator’s shoulder, feeling a flash of concern when he made a noise like he’d just been struck.

“Go away. I don’t want to look at his face anymore.” The Narrator bowed his head, “I’m so tired.”

After a few moments, Stanley stood and went back to his cab to get his bag. He’d find his own way home, but he couldn’t keep the driver waiting forever, and who knew how long the Narrator would need? He’d give him space, but he wouldn’t just abandon him.

Stanley sat a small ways from the Narrator with his bag in his lap, enough room that he didn’t feel suffocated but close enough that if he needed something, Stanley could provide it quickly.

Even with the small shelter provided by the building, the rain was chilling. With some time, Stanley pulled out his sleeping bag and offered it to the Narrator, relieved when he took it and curled up inside.

Stanley listened to the rain and watched. He couldn’t help but wonder what had happened, but he didn’t dare voice his burning questions. Not when whatever had occurred seemed too fresh in the Narrator’s mind.

It was nearly an hour before he noticed how the man was holding himself tightly.

Are you injured?

“Just hungry.” The Narrator answered despondently, not meeting Stanley’s eyes.

I have some bread rolls in my bag if you like? And a bottle of water from the plane, I only had a little.

“Real food?”

Stanley tilted his head quizzically, then pulled out the bag of rolls and the bottle, “Of course it’s real food. Go ahead.

He’d never seen someone eat so fast. His suggestions that the Narrator slow down were completely ignored, the man tearing into the packaging like a wild animal and eating ravenously. Only after he’d choked down the last roll did the Narrator even touch the water, drinking it all in one go. When he finished, he coughed violently and set the bottle aside before wrapping back up in the sleeping bag, only his face visible.

I hope you don’t get a stomach ache. Do you feel better?

“Hm. Yes. A little.”

Good. I’m glad.” Stanley turned his attention to the rain, glad to have helped in some way at least.

 


 

“You look very tan.” The Narrator commented, looking half asleep.

I’ve been travelling. I couldn’t go back to a desk job.” Stanley signed, “Too boring now. And too many bad memories.

“What of?”

Honesty was probably best, “Of this place. Of you.

“Me? Why me?”

Abandoning you. And the times that you hurt me. Even after I left I kept having nightmares of resetting, I think working in an office would only make them worse. Look at that. I’m cured of being a tool.” Stanley snorted, unamused.

The Narrator seemed baffled, “I don’t understand.”

Really? With all the horrible, fucked up shit you put me through repeatedly, you don’t understand? Look, let’s not rehash the past. You seem distraught enough already.

“I… I don’t understand.” The Narrator repeated, looking crestfallen as he retreated into himself. Stanley stayed still.

 


 

The rain broke in time for the sunset and they sat together on the curb, watching the different hues of the sky. The Narrator had begun sobbing again and Stanley was too burned out from his flight and now emotional rollercoaster to try consoling him.

“Are you the real one then?” The Narrator asked between hiccups once he’d burnt himself out.

The real what?

“The real Stanley? The original one? The one that they took away?”

Stanley’s heart sank, suddenly realizing that things were worse than he’d thought, “There are others?

“There were.” The Narrator pushed the sleeping bag back a little so he could look at Stanley, “I was disobedient… I made you something, I don’t know if you even remember, it was so long ago, it was so terrible. A room. An ugly room, there weren’t even walls. I’m sorry about that, I’ve been fixed now. I don’t make new rooms now and if I have to, they’re only good ones.”

Of course I remember. It was lovely.

The Narrator shook his head, teeth gritting, “Please don’t say that. I won’t be tricked, I know what’s right. I made a horrible room and then I… And then I went in to talk to my main character. My Stanley. The first one. I physically interfered with the story, just because he didn’t like it. Now you see why I needed to learn the right way. I don’t know what happened to him, but they sent me to train with a fake Stanley… And I thought I was all better after a bit. But then they had a test for me and I failed. The Stanley went off the script and I allowed him to, I thought he was the first one I’d had without realizing…”

He trailed off, tears once again flowing freely, “So then I became the Stanley and someone else took over. And sometimes they try to trick me, making fakes for me to interact with, and I still fell for it at the beginning, but I’m all better now…” He glanced at Stanley, “But I guess if they give him a tan and some muscles, I’ll still go off script, because I think it’s real. I’m sorry. I’m trying to be better. Please don’t report me.”

I won’t report you.” Stanley signed slowly, sick with dread at the picture the Narrator had painted of the place he’d escaped, “Maybe we should get further from this place. Just in case.

The Narrator looked anxious but he nodded, “As long as we do as we’re told.”

Stanley stood up and helped the Narrator up, stuffing his things back into his bag before he took the man by the hand and began to lead him across the parking lot. The Narrator kept alert but he managed to keep pace, leaning into Stanley’s body for reassurance.

Chapter Text

Stanley hadn’t really expected to find himself here, in his old apartment with nothing but a bag of clothes, some leftover furniture, and a shivering traumatized man, but here he was. He hadn’t really been expecting to have to help the man in question undress, since he’d never had to do it before, then help him take a bath to warm up, but that’s how it worked out. Part of the way through, Stanley found that he was freezing as well and when the Narrator remained uncommunicative on if he minded, looking pretty distracted by how comfortable he was, Stanley joined him in the hot water.

If someone had told him he’d be taking a bath with the Narrator, he’d have laughed at them for being absurd. But this was how things turned out.

The Narrator’s body had scars on it. A lot of them, old scars, deep scars. One leg looked like it had nearly come off, whoever had reattached it had done a good job. Stanley stared and the Narrator flexed his fingers under the water, soaking in as much heat as he could.

Did they do that to you back at the building?” Stanley signed, then repeated when the Narrator actually bothered to look up.

“Oh.” He looked down at himself, seeming to just now notice, “No. That was from before.”

Before?

“Before I was there.” The Narrator said softly and tore his eyes away, “It’s not pleasant to remember, I’d rather not if that’s alright with you… Stanley.”

Hearing his name was both lovely and terrifying and Stanley nodded meekly.

“Thank you. Is there any more food here?”

Stanley shook his head.

The Narrator’s face fell but he didn’t complain, “What I had was more than enough. I’m getting greedy again, I know better.” When Stanley touched his shoulder, the Narrator sighed, “That sounds so manipulative, I should just stop talking. I’m sorry for being this way. Thank you for being around me.”

Stanley let the Narrator go.

Once they were both warmed up, Stanley drained the tub and dried them both off with some towels his landlady had left, then helped the Narrator into some of his clothes. They didn’t fit great, Stanley was much shorter than him, but they were thick and warm and the Narrator looked pleased. He got him set up in the bed, wrapped up in all the blankets he could find, with a space heater close by, then he left for the grocery store.

It had been ages since he’d been here, it was hard to remember where everything was. The fluorescent lights were a bit harsher than Stanley remembered. He ignored the paranoia that came with the irritation, his mind suggesting that perhaps he was back inside the building, but he forgot about it as he picked up what he needed.

When he got back, the Narrator had dozed off but he awoke quickly at the sound of a door opening. Stanley knew that feeling. Great, now there was another one. He just prayed they didn’t make each other worse.

Stanley made some grilled cheese sandwiches on the stove and stuck them on plates, feeling proud at the way the Narrator stared at them. At least someone could appreciate his cooking, even if they had to be starving for it.

This is for you.” Stanley passed a plate over, then got into the other side of the bed, sighing at how warm it was now.

“Because I asked for food?” The Narrator asked quietly, blinking at Stanley like he expected punishment.

No, just because I know you need it.” Stanley shrugged and began eating.

It seemed to be the right answer and the Narrator ate, this time with much more caution, half expecting it was the wrong decision.

 


 

It continued like that for a while. Stanley went out and found a job, he worked and paid for more furniture and clothes and other necessities. He didn’t expect the Narrator to contribute, but the man seemed to think he ought to. Even if he hadn’t been so altered by whatever he’d been through, there was still the fact that he didn’t actually know how the human world worked. He’d sit by the window and glare at the cars passing like they were monsters, he’d scream when startled by the doorbell, he was only just getting the hang of pants.

When Stanley would leave for the day, he’d put out food for the Narrator to eat while he was gone, and when he returned he’d make them both dinner. He worried that perhaps the Narrator would get lonely without something to occupy him, but when he finally got a television, the Narrator began crying upon seeing it and absolutely refused to watch anything on it. When pressed, he just said that he didn’t like being one.

Stanley had no idea what that meant.

But when it finally occurred that the answer was books, Stanley was beside himself. The Narrator could learn and entertain himself at the same time, it was a wonderful plan, and the Narrator loved it too. He read everything Stanley brought home and more, even finding the courage to venture from Stanley’s apartment to pester their next door neighbor for some reading material.

Raphael wasn’t fond of Stanley’s return, nor the new roommate he’d brought with him.

The Narrator read and read and read and when Stanley came home each night he’d cheerfully tell him about the things he read. It was nice to see him becoming more like he used to be with every day, Stanley thought, then blushed when the Narrator repeated his thoughts aloud. That was pretty inconvenient.

It was nearly a month before the Narrator asked if he could have some paper and a pencil. It was as if he’d been waiting to ask and now that he had it was a huge weight off of his chest. Stanley wasn’t really sure why it was a big deal, but he readily agreed and seeing the Narrator’s eyes light up made his heart ache. Things were getting better.

When Stanley left the next day, the Narrator fidgeted with his pencil for the longest time, feeling embarrassed and on edge. What if things weren’t real and he was punished for doing this? Creativity was wrong, he didn’t want to get in trouble. The thoughts frightened him away from it for another week.

The Narrator next tried while Stanley was home and in the kitchen cooking dinner, nervously scratching a little drawing onto the bottom corner of the page then scribbling it out before anyone could see. After dinner he gave it another go, this time copying Stanley’s profile as he played on his phone. This Stanley was different. It was obvious now.

He was much more confident and comfortable in his skin for one. It was nice to see a Stanley this way after the long line of copies. It was nice to see the Stanley this way. Because that’s what he was, wasn’t he? The original? The real one? He’d escaped that hell and he’d gone and travelled and learned how to live… He looked older too. The Narrator was frightened to ask how long it had been. He was frightened to ask most questions after all, he didn’t want to ruin everything. Stanley had already made it clear that he wasn’t too pleased about his behavior from before, the last thing the Narrator would want to do would be to piss Stanley off and end up fending for himself on the streets.

So he kept his head down and read and tried not to ramble too much. When he woke up screaming he did his best to shut up as quickly as possible and when Stanley sat up and tried to touch his shoulder he always remembered to apologize for waking him up.

Sometimes the Narrator slipped and let Stanley hug him after a particularly frightening dream. It felt so nice and sometimes he just didn’t have the courage to pull away. Stanley gave his whole life meaning, how could he not enjoy the moments where he felt just as special.

But when Stanley began to have nightmares again too, the guilt kicked back in and the Narrator started sleeping on the couch, even if it was closer to the television. Maybe this was real and he wasn’t going to go back, but if it was, he couldn’t just drag Stanley down with him.

Stanley’s nightmares persisted and when they woke the Narrator up, he’d want desperately to go to Stanley’s side so he could make him feel as special as he made the Narrator feel, but who would want to be comforted by the monster from their dreams?

After another month, the Narrator snapped over dinner.

Have you read anything new lately? You haven’t been telling me stories for the past few days, I miss it.” Stanley signed, smiling at the Narrator warmly.

“I realized I was talking too much. You don’t have to sugar coat it.” The Narrator murmured.

I like hearing you talk. It’s soothing. It’s just like the good old days.” Stanley persisted, “You don’t have to hold back.”

“The good old days.” The Narrator sneered. His tone made Stanley sit up instantly, eyes widening. He sounded like… a monster.

“Look at you. You hate me, I can see it.” The Narrator continued, “Just hearing my voice reminds you of what I did. And you haven’t been having nightmares in, hmm, how long was it?”

Two years.”

“But they’re back now. Because I’m here, reminding you of it all. And the worst thing is that you don’t want to yell at me to get out your anger and fear and resentment because I’m weak. Don’t try to hide it, I’m in your head. But don’t bother holding back. I want to hear it. I want to know the truth.”

What’s done is done.

“But we’re still here. I’m still unpunished.”

Whatever you went through after I left is more than enough, I don’t want to hurt you.

“But if you didn’t see what was done, how can you know it was enough?”

Seeing how you act now. I know. And if you have nightmares anything like mine, you’re already paying.

The Narrator looked away.

Stanley found his voice, “I do still blame you. But you were a victim of our circumstances as well. And I hurt you too.”

“You never hurt me.” The Narrator said, trying to sound unaffected.

“Remember how many times I went to the starry room without even really enjoying it, just so I could commit suicide?”

“I was following the script.”

“You loved it there. And it killed you to see me more willing to die than enjoy it too.”

“It’s sick that you would even need to commit suicide to get away from me in the first place.” The Narrator insisted, but his eyes were a little red.

“You begged me to stay. Was part of it that you wanted to save me or did you just want that room? Did you want to help or were you just afraid of a reset?”

“I don’t want to talk about that room anymore. I don’t want to talk about the past.” The Narrator blinked hard.

“You brought it up. Tell me the truth.”

“Maybe I wanted you to be happy there too. With me.” He admitted without meeting Stanley’s eyes, “I don’t want to keep dragging you down. You’re having nightmares again because of me, I’m ruining all your progress. This is supposed to be your happy ending.”

“Why did you want me there? Couldn’t you just visit that room whenever you wanted?” Stanley whispered.

“If you’re not there, it’s not the same. I tried going back after you left and before you ever came along. It’s not the same. I don’t… I don’t feel anything unless I have you. I never felt until you were there.”

“We can get better together. I promise.”