John, with an outward smile and an inward, troubled conscience, raised his glass of Sandeman port to a toast made in honor of his recent promotion and upcoming New Year’s wedding anniversary in Morocco.

Downing his sixth glass of port and taking a few puffs from his Monte Cristo, his left arm resting on the delicate, bare shoulders of his beautiful wife, Natalie, John tried in vain to wash out that vague, empty feeling of inner dread that something terrible lay inside him. What exactly that was, he did not know, but it was a heavy feeling he carried with him since his youth. And that voice, that wretched voice that haunted him all his life, a faint whisper in his heart, returned, ‘You’re guilty, you’re guilty….g-u-i-l-tyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.’ Sitting there among a small group of friends, in a Toronto restaurant overlooking the night lights of Lake Ontario down below, John smiled absently, his head still buzzing, while his soul ached with that dull, persistent pain.

A gruff looking man in a heavy, black, wool knitted sweater, wearing oversized black-rimmed designer Versace eyeglasses sat across from John. The man, in his fifties, a producer friend of Natalie’s from New York, was swirling a glass of scotch with one of his big craggy hands. He seemed to have been, not too discreetly, studying John, in between conversations with his friends. He noticed John looking in his direction and quickly leaned forward, taking a swig of his scotch.

“Have you ever thought of getting back into acting,” said the producer. His pale-blue eyes, unnaturally enlarged by his thick lenses, pierced into John. It sounded more like a statement than a question.

John was a bit startled by his directness. After a moment’s pause, he was about to answer when the producer interrupted him, “We’ll be shooting a film here in Toronto, and we’re casting for a scene where an American businessman chokes to death.” Wild tufts of scraggly, grey hair were flying all over the producer’s balding head as he stuck his large, red puckered nose a couple inches from John’s face. “I think you might fit the part.”

He wasn’t sure if he was mocking him or serious, but John felt uneasy. Did the producer know about his secret? Could he hear that faint whisper inside him? John suffered an uncomfortable laugh to mask the bitterness and irony he felt. He felt as if he had been choking all his life. Choking from the maddening voices of vacuous guilt and accusation that plagued him. Struggling and grasping for understanding, but always coming short, his own voice suffocated. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch playing the part, he thought.

“I can do that,” he grinned mockingly, matching the producer’s chutzpa.

Instantly John started coughing violently. He grabbed his throat with both hands as he desperately gasped for air, his face turning flush red. He carried on the act a bit further by trying to mouth the words, ‘help me, I’m choking!’ while sliding off his chair and placing himself on the ledge of the window beside him. Looking to his amused audience, his hands still on his throat, he feigned death, rolled up his eyes, and crumpled into a heap.

There were loud guffaws, applause, and cheers from the group as John, straight-faced, got up, sat back down, and crossed his arms, staring steely at the producer. John was secretly hoping he’d hear you got the part!

Instead, the tough producer just shook his head, laughed, and shrugged, “Always the comedian.”

He raised his glass of scotch and made a toast, “To John, the comedian!” Outstretched hands with drinks joined in, and the tinkering of glasses echoed out into the foyer.

Natalie looked at John with her stunning emerald green eyes. Graceful lines, ever so subtly, curled upwards at the corners of her sensuous lips.

“Don’t give up your day job, silly,” she giggled, in her slight French accent, as she leaned softly on his shoulder.

The party, with its clamoring of forks and knives, another round of drinks, misty cigar smoke rising slowly from the ashtrays, and senseless conversations, continued.

At forty, John was a wealthy man and happily in love, yet far from happy. Always he felt some dark impending doom about to envelop him. He felt a chasm in his soul, an unresolved conflict that would one day overtake him with a horrible fate and reveal the monster that he was.

He was handsome and athletic, of average height, with jet black hair and a pale olive complexion. The dark rings around his black sunken eyes, and his receding hair line and emerging baldness, were generally overlooked due to his matinee-idol good looks. He had a disarming charm and sophistication about him that masked a quiet intensity and aggressiveness that people found uncomfortable.

His father, Mr. Santorelli, a first generation Italian, was a wealthy business tycoon who owned a lucrative janitorial commercial cleaning empire that sprawled across two continents. Naturally, Mr. Santorelli wanted his only son to join the family business. John, on the other hand, had tried everything in his power to escape his father’s influence and reach, but could not break free – it was destined in his blood.

John had graduated from prestigious Queen’s University with a Bachelor of Commerce, because his father agreed to finance his education only if he chose a ‘practical’ profession. But instead of pursuing his MBA, John studied drama with the high hopes of becoming a professional actor. He tried several stints, acting in local theatres, working as an extra in television commercials, and getting bit parts in B films, while going through a string of dead end jobs that barely paid the rent. Nothing panned out.

The stars shone brightly on John, as they did on everyone, but luck was not on his side. He lacked the will and determination to pursue his dreams. In part, he felt it was due to that damned voice that kept reminding him that there was something wrong. Almost every night, within the abyss of his darkest hour, a murky shadow would emerge and point an accusing finger at him, whispering the demonic curse: ‘you’re guilty, you’re guilty….g-u-i-l-tyyyyyyyyyyyyy.’

Broken in spirit and out of money, he crawled back to his father and asked for a job, utterly humiliated by the experience. He had always loathed his father’s ruthless ambition. Although Mr. Santorelli was a hard worker, rumor had it that he got most of the large contracts through bribery and under the table payoffs to key individuals as ‘incentives’ for doing business with the Santorellis.

The rumor was confirmed within the first couple of months into his new position when the purchasing manager of a very large commercial building asked John, what the ‘incentives’ were for doing business. To which John replied there were no ‘incentives’ save the Santorelli name and the terms of the contract. That very same day the purchasing manager made one phone call to Mr. Santorelli. Incentives were arranged, and the contract tendered. Mr. Santorelli was furious at the naiveté of his son, and called him at once into his office.

“Listen,” Mr. Santorelli said sternly, “There’s the fairy tale world you can go back to where things ought to be. And then there’s the real world, where things are the way they are! It’s your choice.”

John stared coldly at his father. Mr. Santorelli did not flinch, and his trademark hard, ruthless stare hit John like a ton of bricks. John was the first to blink, and upon seeing his father’s deathly stare still fixed on him, he lowered his eyes. Not a word was said. His face flushed, his chin shaking uncontrollably, furious at his own weakness and at the sight of his father’s gloating eyes, John stormed out and slammed the door behind him. From that day forward he became his father’s lackey.

Although the janitorial business was dreadfully dull for his intellectual sensibilities and left a bitter, empty shell inside, John became a millionaire in just three years by observing the rules of the ‘real world.’ A short time after, he met and married the woman of his dreams. She was a French born model turned actress, and at least now he could live vicariously through her.

John sat there in a daze, his thoughts slowly returning to the party at hand. Numb from drink, he stared vacantly at nothing in particular. Things were taking a turn for the better he thought sarcastically; due to his recent promotion as Vice President, within a couple years he’d be a millionaire ten times over, and maybe he’d be able to buy-out the devil himself.

The party was still in full swing as fast acid jazz played in the background. The heady atmosphere, with its thick smoke and all the sounds melding into a dizzying frenzy of meaningless buzzing, became stifling and unbearable for John. He got up abruptly, indicating the party was over for him.

“Where are you going, old sport?” called a voice in the smoky haze.

“It’s getting late. We must get going. I need a bit of fresh air,” John mouthed as he helped Natalie with her cream cashmere overcoat.

“Have fun at your wedding anniversary in Morocco! Happy New Year’s!” another voice rang out behind him.

Natalie and John stepped out into the cold, crisp night air, and went for a walk along the harbor front, arm in arm. As they approached the pier, Natalie noticed something magnificent upon the moonlit waters, and her eyes lit up.

“Oh look!” she pointed out.

Two swans lay floating on the shimmering lake with their heads buried in their fluffy white feathers, looking like billowing swirls of cool whip in a black cup of coffee. John stooped to the ground and crushed some snow in his hand.

“Don’t, their sleeping!” she protested.

He hurled the snowball at one of the swans, but barely missed as it plopped into the lake with a splash, just between the two swans. Instantly both swans lifted their long graceful necks, revealing their full majesty with their mascara black eyes and bright orange beaks. One of them reached hungrily for the floating snowball but then turned away.

“You missed, silly! It’s a good thing you didn’t hit the poor thing,” she giggled.

They continued walking in silence, entranced by the bright silvery glow of the moon and alluring sounds of the lapping waves.

“You won’t find any swans in Marrakech,” she said, gently lifting her eyes to his.

He kissed her.

They made love that night at his waterfront condo. Between the red satin sheets and her embrace, the orange glow from the hearth warming his bones, John fell into a deep sleep…

A little boy of eight sat in the sallow shade of his porch, away from the bright scorching sun, petting his grey cat, Ashley. As he stroked her soft fur, he looked directly into her emerald green eyes for a moment too long and saw his own distorted reflection. He saw his own eyes staring back at him, and he became filled with hate.

He took the cat outside in the blinding sun to the side of the house, and let loose his fury. If he couldn’t destroy himself, he would destroy her. He grabbed the cat by the tail and swung her round and round, and let go. The cat smashed into the wall with a crack. The cat’s skull had fractured, and her forebrains spilled out as the white stone wall was sprayed with crimson red.

The boy at first was exhilarated from the sensation of death and the loud sound of the ‘crack.’ Yet at the very same time, he knew that something inside him had cracked. He felt for the first time an inner horror he could not describe with words nor care to explore. And so he thought he could forget. But when he looked up and saw the word ‘Murderer’ scrawled in hot blood across the wall, a new terror struck him, and he knew he would never forget…

John jolted out of bed, sweating and shaking.

“Honey, what’s wrong? Are you okay?” whispered Natalie in a heavy, breathy voice.

“Just a bad dream,” he said. “I’ll forget about it in the morning.”

But who was he kidding? He knew now that he was that little boy. For the first time in thirty two years he understood what he was guilty of, and realized, the nightmare would never end.

John took a couple sips from his glass of Alka-Seltzer to nurse his pounding headache. Natalie had gone out shopping on her own. His hands were shaking, and he was all nerves. The ticking of the second hand clock in the kitchen was driving him crazy.

It was already 12 o’clock, and he was getting hungry. He decided to cook the Northern Pike that had been left out to thaw overnight, instead of waiting for Natalie to return. John pan-fried the fish whole in butter and garlic, and served it with rice pilaf, a touch of parsley, and a sprinkling of lemon.

He sat there for a long time staring at the narrow pike head, a pale white film covering its dark, glistening eyes – its sharp jaws wide-open. It knew his secret. With his fork and knife, he dismembered the head and deposited it in the garbage. He began to eat. The fish, with its warm butter and garlic seasoning, nourished and comforted him. It was bony, but delightful, and he skillfully separated the bones in his mouth as he ate.

There was a ruffling sound outside the condo. A key turned in the lock. It was Natalie.

“Surprise! Look what I picked up at the pet store. It’s sooo adorable,” she said excitedly, holding on to a medium size grey cat, while designer shopping bags hung from both her arms. “You won’t believe it John! She’s got the same color as my eyes!”
The cat dropped silently onto the white marble floor and ran towards him.

John’s heart leapt. He became deathly pale, and began choking on a fish bone as he gulped and inhaled at the same time. He grabbed his throat with both hands as his eyes turned blood shot.

“Oh honey, don’t be silly,” she giggled and went into the bedroom to put her shopping bags away.

The cat was now at his feet, and she jumped on his lap. Wide-eyed with terror, John let out a pathetic, muffled scream, and in a frightful panic fell off his chair and landed heavily on the floor, head first – with a crack. A single vein chord swelled up in his forehead and began beating like a war drum as he turned blue.

Natalie came back to find his lifeless body splayed on the kitchen floor.

“What are you trying to prove, John?” she asked. A deep maternal instinct kicked in as she sat down beside him and gently caressed his hair. He’s just a lonely boy hungering for attention, love, and affection she thought.

The cat licked off the tiny morsels of fish clinging to the corner of his mouth and curled up beside him. With her emerald green eyes she looked into John’s empty pools of black and saw only her own reflection. She rubbed her head against his neck and began to purr.

Author's Bio: 

Sharif Khan is a professional speaker and author of, Psychology of the Hero Soul, a non-fiction, inspirational book about awakening the Hero within and rekindling people’s passion for greatness. As President of Diamond Mind Enterprises, an organization devoted to helping people awaken their inner potential to live their highest life, Sharif has dedicated over ten years research in the field of human development and studying great leaders. His vision is “to inspire the world and make a positive difference in people’s lives.”

A dynamic and highly engaging public speaker, Sharif lectures about topics on what makes great leaders, the winning qualities of leadership, success, and what makes a hero, to a wide range of audiences from university students to associations to the corporate world.

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