Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Years After by Pathos

Pathos' character is visited by a child he used to bully in this creepy tale.

"Who are you?"

"You don't remember me?"

"You turned out the lights, how can I remember someone I can't see?"

"I wonder if you ever saw me."

"Who the hell are you?"

I remember feeling frustrated. This strange, dark voice taunting me with riddles of the past. The sun had been washed away by the storm. I could hear the patter of rain on pavement all around me, and I could feel the raindrops heavy upon me. They were different, room temperature, salty. A wail of despair like a clap of thunder startled me from above. And I could then hear it: the weeping. I could hear so many soft voices from the heavens: sobbing, sniffling, crying. This rain: it was made of tears. A monsoon of shame and sorrow beating down upon me, threatening to flood the world like in the times of Noah.

I tried to swim through the nebulous darkness which swirled relentlessly around me. Without light I was without hope. I could be doomed to wander aimlessly through this cruel abyss until I finally drowned in the tears of the forsaken.

"Are you controlling this?" I asked the voice.

"Could one pair of eyes shed so many tears?"

"Stop toying with me!" I demanded, "who are you? What is going on?"



I awoke with a gasp, the tears from my dream were the beads of sweat that slid from my brow and drenched my pillow. I arose from my bed, only half awake. I drew back the shades revealing a view of the street from my second story flat. There he was. A scrawny teenager, wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, sat cross legged on the sidewalk across the street. Even in the clear, summer night sky, it seemed foggy. Under the stark yellow of a streetlight, the teenage boy appeared as if dulled by a thin veil of crawling mist. He was motionless, staring at his lap, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. But he was stalking me. I knew he was stalking me.

I threw open my window, dazed from my uncharacteristic reoccurring nightmares that seemed to coincide with the boy's presence.

"What do you want?" I yelled, almost in a frenzy. He remained still, refusing to acknowledge me. "You! On the sidewalk! I know you can hear me!" I shouted at him in vain. The teenager did not stir. There was nothing really remarkable looking about him. But the way he sulked, his defeated posture, his virtual omnipresence outside my apartment, it all struck me as creepy.

"Little bastard," I murmured under my breath as I closed my window and locked it. I closed the shades as if they created some partition of safety between us, then I tumbled back down on my mattress, which was stained with a pool of sweat. I tossed and turned. My body felt foul and uncomfortable, my mind ran restlessly back and forth, as if pacing at the speed of a sprint. This made my eyes hurt from dreariness. The hot air oppressed me, but I couldn't open the window again. I felt as if my shield, my protection would be breached if I did that.

The clock didn't seem to move. It was as if I was caught in another nightmare, one in which I spent eternity trying to sleep, knowing I had finals in the morning, stressed out to the point that I felt on the fringe of freaking out.

With restless energy I thrust myself upright and turned on my lamp. I took a deep breath and tried to divert my attention. Six years in college. And one day to go. If I passed my finals, I'd have my master's degree in veterinary science. It had been a tough battle, a time of maturing and a coming of age. I would remember it fondly, but I was excited to get through it and turn the page on my life.

I picked up a picture of my fiancée I had framed on my nightstand and forced myself to smile. I'd put it there as a gesture of old-school romance. In fact looking at it when I felt lonely did at the very least no good, sometimes it made me feel lonelier. But I liked keeping it there, as a token of loyalty which I knew she returned. She was so beautiful. The future outlook seemed brimming with sunshine.

I turned off my lamp and hoped that I could revert to a peaceful sleep. But it did not come. I watched the clock for another hour before I finally began to feel my eyelids grow heavy.

Creeeeeeak...

My eyes shot open as I heard my front door being breached, even though I knew it had been locked. A feeling of dread washed over me. I could hear the steps coming closer, across my hall, and into my room. I was on my side, facing the opposite direction, but I could feel somebody hovering over me. I knew it was him.

I snapped my lamp on and leapt to my feet, turning to face my unwelcome visitor. Even though I already knew he was there I still jumped when I saw him standing at my bedside. He stood there, a look of vacant apathy on his face. I guessed he was around seventeen. He wore slim glasses with thick, black frames. He was lanky, his limbs growing clumsily around his skinny frame.

"Who are you?" I demanded.

"You don't remember me?"

He looked at me, and unlike in the dream I had light to see him. He had the expression of one sleepwalking, as if he didn't know he'd just broken into my damn flat and invaded my room. His voice was weary and faithless. His presence took another step towards the hopeless and melancholy as I saw tears slide down his face. He didn't quiver or sob, nor did he attempt to fight the tears, he let them drip freely off of his round face onto his shirt. It was as if with resignation, a weary refusal to acknowledge his grief, but with no energy to try to compose himself.

"I don't recognize you," I was still on edge, but his despair had altered the tension within me, reshaping it as if with clay, containing the same mass but with different dimensions.

"I guess people only remember things that are important to them," he tried to shrug, but he seemed too numb to even pull that off. "I wasn't important to you, Adam. But I still can remember everything you did to me."

"What? When?" During middle and high school I hadn't been the nicest classmate, to say the least, but I'd done a lot of maturing over the last six years. And this kid was way younger than me, there's no way I went to school with him. But he knew my name. Did he look familiar? Not really. Just a typical high school geek, if you disregarded his dismal body language.

"Maybe it's because you think I'm still alive," he mustered some genuine emotion into that phrase. But it was his suggestion that he was from beyond the grave that made my skin crawl. It was impossible. But somehow I knew it was true.

"I killed myself two and a half years ago by drinking a mixture of antifreeze and Coke Zero."

"J-Jeremy?" No further explanation was needed. I was in college when one of my former classmates had posted an article about Jeremy Black's suicide on her facebook page. I remembered him only vaguely at the time, he'd been a couple years younger than me. He was thirteen and fourteen when I'd known him. Seventeen when he died. But now I recognized him. Holes in my brain began to fill with memories like lost pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I gasped at the realization that, unless I was dreaming yet again, I was now talking to a ghost.

And his appearance seemed to validate it. I had not really noticed before how pale he was, with a nearly bluish complexion. Nor had I seen the dark circles around his eyes. He looked, at the very least, extremely sick.

"Why are you here?" I asked.

"I wanted to see if it was true," steadily tears continued to stream from his eyes.

"If what was true?"

"If the meanest kids really ended up with empty, broken lives," he answered, his voice flat, but carrying an increasingly woeful undertone, one that seemed to be snowballing and would soon break the boy's composure. "But it's not," he continued, "of the four worst, only one has tread a rough path. Two are overachievers. And you, well, you're on course for your master's degree, engaged, you have tons of friends. You still have all the things you had then and more."

"You consider me one of the four worst?" I said indignantly. "I barely did anything to you! I barely even knew you!"

The truth was, I could remember making fun of him to my friends a lot. But only when he wasn't around. I would have conceded to having heckled him a couple times. But I didn't even remember what I'd done specifically.

"You never beat me up," he admitted, "but you were always the most hateful to me. The most evil. You spread rumors about me right in my face. That whole thing about me being 'sub-human,' you started that when you refused to acknowledge me as a person. You started calling me 'it' and 'that thing'."

I kind of remembered that. But hadn't anyone ever taught Jeremy the "sticks and stones" rule? How could I be the most evil and hateful bully when I never beat him up? I'd never pantsed him, I'd never canned him. And damned if I was going to feel responsible for his suicide.

"Oh, geez, kid, come on!" fresh tears, like reinforcements to a warring army, flooded into his eyes at my voice. "My father died when I was fourteen," I said, "we've all got problems. The difference is I chose to turn the page and move on and you didn't!"

He was actively sobbing now.

"You took the easy way out," I capitalized on his inability to retaliate. He was obviously feeling sorry for himself because deep down he knew that I was right. "You committed suicide. You might have been someone if you'd just manned up and grown out of it!"

"I remember when your dad died," his face was towards the ground, "I remember all the cards and hugs you got. I remember how it became an unwritten law not to say anything bad about you, because you were suffering so much from your father's death."

His tone was meek and bitter at the same time. I thought I'd put him in his place, but his rebuttal stung me to the very heart. It was true. My father had been a slob, rarely even there, my mother raised me. I had a pretty big extended family on both sides, and my father's death had been welcome. I mean it was hard at first, but it was no surprise, he'd had cancer since I was five. And when he passed I basked in the attention I was given. And I used my immunity to bully other people. My father's passing was an excuse for me to be mean.

"What the hell do you want from me?" I demanded, "that's all behind me. Can't I move on with my life? I didn't kill you."

"I'm just surprised they all lied," Jeremy said, his demeanor increasingly sorrowful, to the point where I had to resist it like a contagion. "All the celebrities in magazines and on TV. All the public speakers. They all said bullied kids were the ones that succeeded and bullies failed. It seems like it's the other way around."

"You never gave yourself a chance to succeed! You killed yourself!" I couldn't give in to the overwhelming pathos that this pathetic ghost seemed to be stabbing me with, courtesy of his mere presence.

"I'll never forget that night," tears were now like waterfalls, his melancholy voice softer, more distant and fragile. "The week before the last friend I had was taken away by another group of kids that rejected me. I was getting all 'D's and 'F's because I didn't believe in myself, and nobody believed in me. My dad told me that exact thing the night I died. Everyone started to ignore me. I reached out one last time: I called everyone I knew, hoping somebody would just listen to me. Just acknowledge me and tell me it's okay. I really didn't have a lot of people to call, but I knew somebody would try to save me. To tell me I was a real person. To tell me my life was worth living. But nobody did. My aunt said, 'If I thought you were going to kill yourself I'd call the police. That's the kind of thing they deal with. So if you're serious, call them. But leave me out of it.' I remember that one the best. I didn't want the police to save me. I wanted somebody to save me because they loved me."

I hardened myself, trying to apply layer after layer of bricks over my heart while this kid was rapidly cutting through them with a mining drill. If I could even express how lost his voice sounded, it would bring almost anyone to tears. But I fought with all my might.

"After I was done, I just sort of went crazy," he continued, "I realized there were no happy endings. There was no magic in the world. I started shrieking. I couldn't control it. My mom came and told me to knock it off. She threatened to take me to the hospital if I didn't shut up. So I pushed by her and ran. I had my wallet with me. I ran to a convenience store and bought the Coke and antifreeze there. I couldn't stop crying, I could barely talk. People were staring as if I were just some crazy weirdo, but no one said anything. And I did it right there in the parking lot. I don't remember a lot. I couldn't feel the pain of the poison, because it didn't even compare to the pain in my heart."

"That's enough!" I cut him off at his pause, fighting back tears spitefully. "I can't bring you back to life and tell you it's okay! When you died, you made it not okay, so no one can tell you that anymore! Are you so vengeful that you won't let me move on without feeling guilty about something I had very little to do with?"

"No," he said, his voice so small and delicate he sounded like a young child.

"Then what the hell do you want from me?"

"An apology would be nice," the ghost of Jeremy Black told me, "and a hug. I can't remember the last time anyone gave me a hug."

I would have laughed if I hadn't been fighting tears. There was no way I was giving this creep a hug. I could have apologized, but the more I thought about it, the more stubborn I became.

"Look," I said, "I was a kid when I said mean stuff about you. I didn't even know you. If I apologized to you I guess I'd have to find every person I ever insulted as a kid and apologize to them as well. You live and learn. At least you're supposed to. And I've learned. I can't undo anything from the past."

"But you could say you're sorry and give me a hug," he said pitifully. He was pleading, begging.

"No!" I said with stony resolve.

And then, for the first time, he looked me straight in the eyes. That look, the broken heartedness that radiated from his soul, was the single most horrific thing I've seen to this day. The emptiness, the defeat, the disbelief. I then realized how easy it would be to make him feel better. All he needed to be at peace. But at that point I was paralyzed, stifled with an alien amount of emotion.

And he cried out. A shriek of madness, the same wail I had heard in my dream. And he ran. Suddenly, I was grasped by an overwhelming desire to give him what he needed. Whether I owed him an apology or not, if that's all it took to give him rest, would it really be that hard? I'd hug him too, if that made him feel good. All of the sudden it wasn't about the indignation I felt at perceiving that he was blaming me for his suicide. It was just about doing something nice for someone that needed it. The reparations to put Jeremy Black's soul at ease finally seemed so simple it felt petty to deny him.

I chased after him, yelling his name. I went up and down the street, calling, begging for one more chance to make things better. But Jeremy Black had vanished, never to return. I remember frantically running up and down the street looking for him that night, when, in mid-summer, a crack of lightning caught me by surprise. It started to rain. The rain was warm in the muggy night. The smell of salt filled my nostrils. And far, far away, in a place I could never reach, I heard the sound of sobbing.

7 comments:

  1. terribly, terribly sad. an insight into what it must be like for victims of bullying. very well written, really puts the reader in the room.

    well done

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. Some wonderful descriptions, true to heart emotions. Nicely done.

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  3. An impressive piece of reader manipulation. Until the third para from the end I like Adam was defensively dismissing Jeremy as a victim of his own neurosis. When Adam has a sudden change of heart I was really rooting for him to try to make amends...only to be left hanging in a state of perpetual guilt.
    Nice phrases; 'his limbs growing clumsily around his skinny frame...' and '...holes in my brain began to fill with memories...'

    Brooke Fieldhouse

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  4. An eerie story, a morning wake up call, alarms and alerts on the prowl for readers, this well-written story reminds me of The High Lama's words in an opposite vein (in Hilton's Lost Horizon): "Be kind," and it can be so easy. Bullying on the highest level.is to be noted.

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  5. At first I didn't like much of the passive voice used in the story, since bullying is such an agressive act. But when I reached the end, it worked. Adam becomes the victim of his own nature. At last something happens to him that can't be reconciled. Good story.

    James Shaffer

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  6. I didn't really like either character very much. I liked that Adam was very unaware that he had ever harmed anyone as I think most bullies do not see themselves as being especially mean, but his reversal did not seem very sincere and I kind of wanted something worse to happen to him.

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