Lethe by Isaac Birchmier

“Help!” Prints cried out, in medias res.

“There’s no clear way out of this one, Prints! You’re in quite the snafu!”

How will our dearly-beloved protagonist make it out of this one?! This is quite the rock and the hard place!

“‘I only see walls around me,’” Prints said, one of his catchphrases.

“Oh no, this is quite the bind!” announced the Stagehand to the audience. “The clock’s running thin, he’s bound to a chair, and the dynamite is about to go off! How will he get out of this one—?”

—when a voice announced from a loudspeaker, “TIME OUT!” and the silhouettes in the amphitheater gave a collective groan. “This is our mediated break,” said the loudspeaker. “Everyone enjoy your snacks — popcorn, soda...” and the curtains closed...

Mary and Trav reached under their seats in the bleachers and grabbed their popcorn and drinks and began munching.

“I’m surprised they let us eat in here.”

“Yeah, it’s such a fancy theater.”

“Why couldn’t we have gotten better seats though?”

“We forgot to reserve, remember?”

“We’ll need to be more expedient when we book tickets next time.”

“Honestly, Trav, I don’t think I want to go to a play after this one.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

“This has been such a bad experience.”

They both sat silently, empty of snacks, when Trav thought of something.



“How do you think Prints will get out of this one?”

“Trav, I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t think he does. We’ll just have to wait until after this break to find out.”

“I think,” Trav interrupted, “that Prints will cut the ropes that tie him down. That’s how they always escape these traps. It’s what Houdini did, David Blaine, Criss—”

“Trav, we’ll see in a few minutes.” Mary sighed in an annoyed tone.

Or maybe she was just being dramatic, this was a theater after all...

Why are we talking one-on-one still, Mary thought — that’s so antiquated? Why are we still inhaling oxygen? That doesn’t sound cool at all. Someone stop us. We should be doing new things. This needs to be updated. We’re out of date here. This is something my grandma did, and I don’t want to do that.

“Huh? What was that?” Mary looked on stage. “O! The play is starting again!”

“Back to our unfortunate hero, Prints! He’s locked in the impossible! It seems like there’s no way out of this one! He might end up being blown to bits — if he can’t move soon!”

Wow! Prints is in quite the pickle!

“Someone help him!” Mary cried.

Shhhhhh!” came a collective shush from the shadows in the audience. The audience was full of shadows. Trav swore he stared at one of the shadows for five minutes trying to discriminate a facial feature from the front rows but couldn’t do it. The shadow people were one-dimensional, basic, and simple. They were formless, they wavered with slight movements in the incorporated space. They were warped and danced in a rhythm like sine waves.

The audience were lotus eaters consumed by their own confusions. Their memories were hazed, never to return. Their external locus of control was nonexistent. They were encumbered with the miasma of lotus fog.

“How can he be freed from these troubles?” the Stagehand inquired.

“Someone save this man! Prints! Prints!” Trav cheered.

“Rescue me! Rescue me!” Prints shouted out.

“Should we rescue him?”

“What? Are you— No, it’s part of the performance.”


“Sorry, sorry.”

“I’m gonna die,” Prints cried out, “what are you all watching for?! Do something! Aiyeee! Come on, someone, anyone, you know what happens next? I can’t get out! I’m tired, so tired...”

“This is making me feel bad, Trav.”


“Shush yourself!”


“Why I oughta!”

“Trav, don’t, you don’t need to stick up for me. The people here don’t like us. In this theater, only bad people prosper, it’s a place for bad—”


“We need to get out of here.”

“Trav, Trav, we can’t leave until the performance is over. You and I both know that. We can’t switch horses when we’re halfway across the river. Hey, could you stop kicking the back of my seat..? I wish I could leave—”

“Folks, how will Prints get out of this one? ‘We don’t know,’ you all say — well, we don’t know either! That’s the fun of it! This is performance art, live action escapology! What a series of restraints! These traps are all so burdensome! They weigh down on body and mind! Only a true master will be able to get out of them!”

“Trav, this is inhumane, shouldn’t we go down there to the stage and — y’know — help him?

“But what about the security?”

“There’s security?”

“No, I don’t think so. But what if there is? And what about the dynamite? What if it explodes while we’re trying to release him?”

“That’s a risk we should be willing to take,” Mary said courageously.

“I don’t know, Mary. Even if there’s no security, let’s say, the crowd could still try stopping us. This isn’t the same kind of docile crowd we’re used to seeing back home—” Mary and Trav both couldn’t remember “back home” but nodded to each other as if they did. It was a mutual hole in their memory. “—These people are more militant and frenzied. They could turn on us at any moment.”

How will Prints get out of this one?

“Help!” he shook the cuffs around his wrists.

“The dynamite might explode at any moment,” the Stagehand spoke over the loudspeaker. “This dynamite contains nitroglycerin and it’s very unstable! This isn’t the homemade stuff! This is a pipe bomb waiting to go off! Prints could die at any moment!”

Should Prints begin his soliloquy? He was about to meet his maker after all — the great disappearing act.

“I look forward to meeting my maker, at least,” Prints said.

And of course, Trav had to give his own developer’s commentary. He really had something to say about what Prints just said: “Nope. When you die, you’re gone. I was pronounced dead a few years ago, and I sprang back to life. And you know what I saw during my death? I saw nothing. And that’s the nothing that awaits us. Man’s brain is charged with electricity called synapses and electricity is a nonrenewable resource.”

“That may be true,” Mary said, “but do you think everyone else in this audience has had those same experiences? No, they only know life — and they know how to steal life. You know the origins of animal sacrifice were to substitute the death of another—”

“Mary, you’re too smart for your own good. Let’s check back onstage to see how this all plays out.” Mary and Trav’s heads turned back to the stage.

How it would unfold, how it unfurled…

“This is a tough bind,” Prints said. “You know, my wrists are kind of sore. If someone could come down here to help me... I think this dynamite is faulty... O, speak of the devil!”

The dynamite exploded, but it was a small explosion, and it didn’t even come close to reaching Prints. It was like a puff of smoke with a firecracker bang. The firecracker rang out and made a plume of plaster and chalk which fell on Prints’ head, covering him like a ghost. The audience screamed in excitement.

The Stagehand stepped out from his hiding place in the void. “Sorry, folks, it looks like we used the corn starch dynamite, this stuff we’re using now is the real deal, the nitroglycerine, the stuff that’ll knock your socks off..! Now let me just light this... Oh deary me, it looks like I’ll need a better lighter, be right back...” — and the Stagehand went back from whence he came.

“Guys, now’s the time, come on stage and help me,” Prints whispered to the audience. “The Stagehand is gone.”

The audience became abnormally silent.


Backstage, the Stagehand was giving himself a pep talk, saying, “Come on Stagehand, you can do it, it’s all part of the performance,” but he was leaning against a loudspeaker button so everyone in the theater could hear his secret thoughts. “I always think of the sinister subtext behind everything, I guess you could say it’s one of my deepest character flaws.

“I’m not such a villain. You know, I was just shaped to be this kind of person by circumstance. The Stagehand is actually a good guy. I don’t even like dynamite. It was my father— wait, what—” and his voice cut off.

“I think he found out we could hear him,” Mary whispered.

“Man, that was a tragic story. I think the Stagehand is winning me over.”

“He seems to have had a rough and tumble life, that’s for certain.”

It was a long wait, Trav and Mary could tell you that much, before the Stagehand returned, but he made good with his promise, and came back with a working lighter.

The Stagehand came sliding so fast he almost tripped. “Please pardon the accidental disruption, the main character of this play is still the Amazing Prints, regardless of what you might’ve just heard. I now have a working lighter,” he said, and lit the fuse. “The fuse on this dynamite is shorter too, so it will take half as long.”

“Incredible! Where did you get your infatuation with dynamite?” Prints asked.

“Well, ever since... Hey, wait a minute, you can’t flip the script on me like that, I’m out of here!”

“No, wait, come back!” Prints whined.

“This dynamite will blow Prints sky high! Muahaha! Bullets may not have a name, but this dynamite does! See?” He motioned to the audience. “I wrote Prints’ name on it! Now, I make my getaway! See you folks at the finale!” And he hobbled trollishly off the stage while his assistants followed meekly behind.

Gadzow! We haven’t seen an act of cruelty of this magnitude since before Prints was born! This is really something else!) “That last fuse was the longest fuse ever made,” Trav noted.

“That speech from the Stagehand sounded real, Trav.”

“Of course it sounds real, Mary, they’re actors, it’s their job to make it sound real.”

“Are you patronizing me? Just because I don’t have a job, you think—”

“No, I’m just—”

“—you know I have chronic bronchitis and—”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Well, why would you say that then?”

“Can we just watch the play?”

Mary shrunk two inches in her seat and pouted.

“You know,” Trav scrambled to change the subject, “Prints is a great underdog story now that I think about it, I’m really rooting for him. You can do it, Prints!” Trav shouted. And the audience seemed to be more receptive to that. The shadows began shouting out, chanting “Prints! Prints! Prints! Prints! Prints! Prints!”

“No, I need your help, not your moral support,” said Prints, and the audience died down.

The audience in the theater were formless shadows, so it made sense that they wouldn’t do anything to rescue Prints. But what about Trav and Mary? They were made of substance; couldn’t they do something about it?

“You know, it’s my own cowardice that prevents me from going down there to rescue Prints, I’m afraid of the consequences.”

“Be a man about it!” Mary responded.

“Easier said than done...”

“We should’ve gone to the nine-o’-clock showing. There’s something off about this one. Aren’t you getting that impression..?”

“Yeah, I feel that way too. This performance seems watered-down somehow, even though it’s my first time seeing it.”

“No, I mean—”

“Actually, I think I’ve seen this play before.”

“No, you haven’t, it just came out. This is the first live rendition.”

“Well, I’ve seen a play similar to it then...”

“Help!” interrupted Prints — and this greatly annoyed Mary.

“Hey!” Mary yelled back. “We’re all in this in one way or another! It isn’t all about you!”

The Stagehand apparated from behind the curtains to offer his take on the subject — “Please don’t interrupt the live performance or it will disrupt the flow of the natural order of things, thank you.”

The whole atmosphere was held in abeyance, pending. This was Gehenna, this was perdition. This was the Iliad, this was an odyssey. The architecture of the theater was a sea of nightmares. This play might have been the aftermath of nuclear devastation, it might have been a place where the sun never sets, it might have been a ghost town, it might have been Sumerian. The audience’s vision felt so small, like they were staring through a crack in the wall to see what was happening around them, like there could have been predators in the incorporated space but they just didn’t have the sensory perception to recognize it.

There was a perfectly-balanced scale in the middle of the room. There was a teeter-totter on the far right of the stage which refused to fall to either side. These objects were separated from Prints by a white picket fence. They were nearly cut off from the audience’s view by the curtain, but Trav was able to pick the objects out, and he assumed Mary did the same.

Just to show that the dynamite wasn’t dangerous, the Stagehand pulled up a video to prove the play was a consensual act. He rolled out a monitor on wheels with the help of his two lovely assistants.

The Stagehand pulled up the video, but it arrived on screen, buffering. “Sorry, sorry, this will take a minute,” he said — and the wait was five hours.

“I feel like this is taking forever.”

They twiddled their thumbs and were on the verge of falling asleep when the video started.

“It’s starting!” Mary said, and she wished she had some popcorn.

The video on the monitor showed Prints, saying:

“I fully support being strapped to a chair with dynamite next to me. I understand what this implies, and I offer my full consent.”

The Stagehand shut off the video. “See? Prints volunteered to do this.”

“That wasn’t even Prints!” exclaimed Trav.

“That looked nothing like him!”

The Stagehand suddenly got nervous. “One second,” he said, and his beautiful assistants exited left, wheeling away the monitor.

This is next-level stuff! We don’t even know what Prints did!

“How am I supposed to get out of these cuffs with a hairpin?” Prints cried out. “I’m not MacGyver — and that wasn’t real, we all knew he was an actor! Someone help! These tools are no good! I feel like I’m drowning! My name isn’t Prints!”

“His name isn't Prints?!” Trav and Mary exclaimed, simultaneously.

“Wow, I never expected that.”

“Me neither.”

“To be honest, I don’t really care what his name is, I just think it’s bizarre. Yes, definitely bizarre. It feels like I’ve been lied to. Now I don’t know who to trust. All of this seems like a sham. He shouldn’t be misidentified like that — what should we label you?” She called out.

“My name is Prants!”


Trav and Mary were silent.

“I liked ‘Prints’ better. This whole situation is getting confusing anyway. Will there be another intermission or a pee break? Or was that last one ‘halftime’? It feels like my bladder could explode.”

“No, I heard that the Stagehand thinks you’ll make a run for it once you step out in the halls. And is he wrong? They won’t let us go until the lights turn out and the show is over. I don’t think we should test our luck.”

“Hurry up already!” Mary squealed.

“Sienna, why don’t you love me?” Prints cried out.

“Huh? Who is this Sienna?” Mary asked.

“I’m guessing it’s his love interest.”

Is this play finally getting a story? Let’s listen on…

“Am I not a good enough suitor?” Prints opined. “Was I born too much of a failure? O Sienna, Sienna! I love you and your girlish looks, you are everything I want to see and feel. Sienna, I wish you would love me, but I know you won’t. The romance that never was...”

“This is pathetic,” Trav said.

“Yeah, I’m getting queasy again. Is that dynamite even rigged anymore?”

“It looks like the fuse is still burning.”

“Can someone here turn the AC on? It’s so hot in here.”

Beads of sweat had formed on Trav and Mary’s faces.

“Yeah, this is too much. They must be cranking up the thermostat to kill us.”

“Sienna, what did I do wrong? Sienna, why won’t you show me love? Why can’t we be together—”

“That’s it, I’m out of here,” Trav said.

“No, Trav, don’t go!”

“What the—” and Trav found he couldn’t escape from his seat. “Why can’t I—?”

Suddenly a voice came from a loudspeaker in the theater, saying, “A reminder to all spectators of ‘The Daring Escape of the Amazing Prints!’ to not leave until the play is finished, thank you for your cooperation and enjoy the show!”

“We’re stuck here until it’s over,” Mary said.

“This is awful.”

“Hey, I don’t have to pee anymore, so maybe it isn’t all that bad.”

“What will happen next?” the Stagehand called over the loudspeaker.

“But I need to get out!” Prints said. “O what a shame that the viewers only arrived in medias res!

You just wake up some days and it’s not your day. For Prints, this was just one of those days... Bad luck!

“Does Prints have the escapologist’s maneuvers necessary to flee this predicament? Watch and find out!”

And what about the backstory of the Stagehand? Why was he orchestrating these torture schematics?

The Stagehand said he was from Levadhia, Greece. He called himself an oracle and referred to Prints as “The Migrant.” He called the stage “The Riverbank,” even though it was only a low-budget wooden stage. He said Prints was at the wrong place at the right time. He said Prints met the Stagehand and he thought they were buddy-buddies. Then, Stagehand said he introduced Prints to Dynamite, and the rest was history.

Wow, what a story! How does this escapology of Prints work out? Does he have to find a way on his own — or will a charming damsel come to his rescue?

A spotlight from the ceiling clicked on and pointed at Mary.

“Huh?” she said. “Not me! I’m not a part of this play!” and the light shut off.

“Phew, I couldn’t handle that pressure.”


“Don’t think I don’t see you, Trav, moving away from me like I was diseased.”

“Oh come on, why do we always have to argue?”

Mary sighed, “I couldn’t handle that attention. I don’t know how Prints does it, sitting up there for thousands of people to watch. It makes me feel jittery just thinking about it. I could never go on a stage like that.”

“Same, I guess we’re just unusual — maybe Prints is the only normal one,” and their eyes moved at once to watch Prints on stage.

“I’m surrounded by—” Prints began, when he was interrupted by—

“Meeeeehhhhh!” bleated a goatish cry from off the stage, and two satyrs galloped onto the wooden floorboards for the audience to see. Mary and Trav watched with surprise the shocking new development.

“This is new,” Mary said.

“Definitely new,” Trav said. “Let’s watch on...”

The satyrs circled to Prints and stood at both sides of his restraint.

“Welcome to the Riverbank, Prints,” Satyr 1 said.

“Riverbank,” Satyr 2 repeated.

“You were panglossian, Prints,” Satyr 1 said.

“Panglossian,” Satyr 2 repeated.

“Prints, you’ll never escape,” Satyr 1 said.

“Never escape,” Satyr 2 repeated.

And the satyrs scurried off, exiting stage left.

“Now that was unusual,” Mary remarked. “I wonder what the meaning of it was.”

“Did you hear what they said? He’ll never escape? That reeks of a script of some sort.”

“Remember, Prints,” said the Stagehand, “your participation is vital.”

“I can’t move!” said Prints. “If you untied my arms, I could just—”

“Sorry, that’s not part of the script.”

“SCRIPT?” Trav and Mary simultaneously.

“I knew this was an act,” Mary said. “I’m so gullible.”

“Help!” Prints called out.

“We fell for the Stagehand’s tricks... And I don’t know if the play gets better than this, and that’s what kills me inside. (But maybe everything will set itself right eventually.) I can’t keep avoiding these feelings — I want to pretend like something is happening, but the play is still the same. I’ve learned that letting these feelings wash over me is not poisonous but necessary. It won’t kill me.”

“Help!” Prints called out.

“It may just be an act but watching Prints struggle like this is making me sick. I feel nauseous.”

“I agree. He’s ruining the energy. This isn’t the life I want to live. These people around us are giving off the wrong frequency.”

“This play is too potent, it’s not sterile enough. More than anything, I’m afraid of what happens if Prints dies?” She imagined the dynamite exploding and everyone being covered in Prints’ guts, a rain shower of gore, and she shivered. “Doesn’t this make us complicit in the Stagehand’s crime?”

“Yeah, I guess it does. I never thought of that.”

“This is like a sodium overdose.”


“Yeah, salt,” then Mary yelled to the stage: “Prints, shut up!”


“Help! You, hey you, person who just yelled, help me!”

“Oh God, I hate this.” Mary covered her face.

“You, you,” Prints was looking directly at them. “Help me.”

“This play is too serious, it’s making me uncomfortable. There needs to be more jokes or a lighthearted atmosphere. It takes itself too seriously.”

“Prints, as a character, is deeply flawed. He’s horribly unrealistic, and nobody would say what he’s saying. Like, who would say ‘Help!’ one-hundred times in a row? There needs to be more diversity in this dialogue. People don’t repeat the same word over and over like that.”


“Ugh, see? He said it again. I can’t relate to this. These little details break the immersion.”

“Well, Mary, maybe we haven’t been giving him a chance. He might say something different, something we want to hear, something we can relate with, eventually.”

They listened.

“Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!”

“I think this is a cry for help, but I can’t quite tell yet. We don’t want to jump to conclusions. Let’s see how this plays out.”

“No, I want to hear more about Prints,” Mary said, “I want to know more about his story, how he got into this situation.” Then she called out, “Prints, tell us more about yourself! How did you get in this situation?”

“More about me? Well—”

And Prints told the story about his life. He had a general life but also an unusual life. He acted out of spite and he acted out of malice. He was an animal like the rest of us. He was a simple man with simple thoughts. But no one’s interested in those details. “O, I think Prints is saying something, let’s listen...”

“Can I control fate?” began Prints’ soliloquy. “The Stagehand has held me captive, and the people do nothing but watch. They believe this is performance art, but they don’t know the truth, I’m not sure if they’ll ever know. How could they know if they’ve never been here? Damn you, Stagehand! For brainwashing the audience and holding me captive! If only they could snap out of it and see the kind of person you really are!”

Now back to the story…


“Prints, why do you voluntarily wallow in your own misery?”

“Trav, I’ve felt such horrible reception since I entered this place. I just want this to be over already.”

“Don’t worry, soon the performance will be done, and we’ll be free. Just count the hours. What time is it?”


“When did they say this would be over?”

“I don’t remember. How long are most plays? Three hours? This one has felt like it’s dragged on forever.”

“I can’t feel my leg, Trav.”

“Really, would it be better if you stood up?”

“We can’t stand up, Trav, that would ruin the performance.”

Mary decided to intervene again and yelled, “Prints, what do you want more than anything?”

“Right now?” Prints thought. “Hmmm, it seems like I want personal comfort,” Prints responded. “And this restraint is taking away from that.”

Is this the only heirloom Prints receives? It looks like nothing can save him now!

“Well, that’s just a string of bad luck,” Mary said.

“I can’t believe he responded to you,” Trav said. “That’s meta.

“Honestly, this play is too meta,” Mary said, histrionically, complete with hand motions. “My book club reviews are going to give this low stars, and everyone in my friend group listens to my reviews.”

“To be fair, even Shakespeare was a postmodernist... Ope, he’s saying something again... Eh, but you know what? I don’t really care anymore. It doesn’t matter what happens at this point. I’m getting hungry, when does this thing end?”

“Trav, I found this candy bar on the empty seat next to me.”

“Really? O, give it here. Thanks, Mary. It looks in perfect condition too... This should quell me for another hour or so...”

The room suddenly got darker. Mary didn’t think life could get as dark as that room was. She couldn’t even see her hands in front of her. “Well, this is a new experience,” she said.

“There’s something in the air around here, making it hard to breathe, can you feel it too?”

“Yeah, should we ask the people behind us?”

“Sure, hey,” he leaned back in his seat, and said, “Do you feel like there’s something in the air?” and the black shadows in the row seated above them responded, “Could you please be quiet, we’re trying to watch this play!”

“Sheeeesh!” Trav turned around.

“The people here are so rude!” and Mary saw a shadow turn to her from the row below, saying something, and she exclaimed, “Not right now!” and the play returned to its aura of silence.

Mary and Trav sat pouting in their seats, when they heard Prints say something that peaked their interest:

“This juice has gone sour, and it doesn’t taste like wine.”

Incredible! Wow! Prints seems to be blossoming before our very eyes!

“Finally! A good line from Prints!” Trav remarked.

“Yeah, poetic. If he says more stuff like that, I’ll be more interested in watching.”

“I’ll be the proof that you can do everything right in life and still end up strapped to a chair with dynamite,” Prints added.

“You know, Prints is starting to grow on me...”

“I agree. If he can get out of this, it will be one hell of a redemption story.”

“Help!” Prints said, but his voice was getting quieter, the walls were moving away from him, “help,” and the amphitheater was a small box suspended in dark...



Isaac Birchmier was born in Mountain Home, Idaho, and raised in Helena, Montana. He earned a bachelor's degree in Creative Writing from the University of Montana with a year abroad at the University College Cork. He has published short fiction in The Lunaris Review, Sidereal Journal, The Oval, theEEEL, Scarlet Leaf Review, Caveat Lector, Calliope, The Commonline Journal, 101 Words, cattails, Theme of Absence, Eternal Remedy, Morgen Bailey’s Writing Blog, Funny in Five Hundred, and Short-Story.me. His visual novels can be found on Steam and a prototype of his dream journal, The Dream Boutique, is available for free on itch.io.