by CARIE JUETTNER
t's like a shadow,” Kent said, “in the upper left corner of my vision.”
“A shadow,” Dr. Branson mumbled, peering into Kent's eyes with his pen light.
“Or, or sometimes it's like a—a dark cloud, that passes over that side of my face, just for a moment.” Kent waved his left hand above his head in a vaguely circular motion. “Or a black flag fluttering in the breeze, just outside my periphery.”
A shadow, a dark cloud, a fluttering flag… The ophthalmologist turned his back to his patient and rolled his eyes. Kent Baker had always had a tendency toward poetry. His English students may have found it to be an asset, but it annoyed the doctor. Last year, during his annual exam, Kent had claimed the “thickness of his lashes” was making the world “a bit fluffier” than he’d prefer. He’d asked if it was okay to pluck a few of them. And Kent was the only patient Branson had who described the letters on the eye chart as firm, slender or crisp if they were in focus as opposed to pudgy, drunk, or foggy if they weren’t.
Branson turned back around and caught Kent glancing over his left shoulder. Fearfully, it seemed. When he saw the doctor looking at him, Kent blushed. For some reason, in that moment, the doctor remembered that Kent wasn’t a teacher anymore. Terrible thing, he thought, the way that all went down. He remembered how public it had been and his annoyance softened a degree.
“It's not that I can't see,” Kent said. “As far as I can tell, my vision hasn't changed at all. It's just that I'm constantly looking over my shoulder. This—this shadow or whatever it is, keeps making me think there's something there, just out of my line of sight, in my blind spot. I'm about to give myself a crick in the neck trying to catch it.”
“Well, yeah,” Kent blushed again. “It's so... solid. I can't help but think it's really there—something that hides when I look. I keep thinking if I just turn fast enough, at the right moment, I'll see it.”
The doctor felt his annoyance rise again. Kent was overdramatizing, as usual, and this unnecessary appointment was eating into his lunch hour. “And just what do you think you'll see?” Branson asked, glancing at the clock.
Kent remained silent for a few moments. Then— “So, is there some sort of test you could do?” he asked, avoiding the doctor's eyes.
Kent walked north up Main Street, unaware of the people he passed, or the cars, or the store windows. He stared straight ahead, frowning, fingering the business card in his coat pocket and reading the words over in his mind. Dr. Teasdale, Clinical Psychologist. Dr. Branson had said there was nothing wrong with Kent’s eyes, besides the bags underneath them and a touch of dryness. He’d instead commented on the chewed fingernails and “nervous twitches of the head” as he’d called them. He’d ushered Kent out, hurriedly, with no advice except the suggestion to call this Teasdale guy. Kent gritted his teeth. He wasn’t crazy—he knew that much. There was something there in his vision. He stopped at the next garbage can and threw away the card.
A breeze lifted the collar of Kent’s shirt and he realized what a lovely fall day it was. Crisp, cool, with blue skies and puffy white clouds. Though a darkness in the west suggested there might be a storm on the horizon. He turned his head to the left to better gauge the possibility of rain and saw only blue skies, puffy white clouds. He’d been mistaken; the storm was in the south. He turned again. Blue skies, puffy white clouds. The storm had moved east. He turned again and… Kent clenched his fists and continued north up Main Street, looking only at the sidewalk in front of him.
Later that night, a storm did develop. Kent didn’t know from which direction it came, but the wind whipped the branches of the pecan tree in his front yard, and the thunder rumbled in the floorboards and the walls and Kent’s heart until, finally, one window-rattling clap knocked the power out, plunging the entire house into a silent darkness.
Kent didn’t mind. He didn’t even bother lighting a candle or turning on a flashlight. Darkness meant no shadows. Not on the floor, not on the walls, not over his left shoulder. The blackness was solid, complete. No shades darker than the rest, no room for movement or degree. Kent took a deep breath and sighed. For the first time in weeks, he could relax a little. He sat in a chair, eyes open, staring at nothingness.
As the storm dwindled to a drizzle, Kent’s thoughts drifted back to his last months of teaching, half a year ago, and to Brady Fisher, the twelve-year-old boy whose untimely death had caused Kent to leave the classroom.
Brady had been a good kid and a clever student, sharp enough to get Kent’s jokes, but aware enough to realize that he shouldn’t laugh at them in front of the class. He’d wait until the bell rang, take his time gathering his materials and then, as he passed Kent’s desk, he’d roll his eyes, smile, and say, “Good one, Mr. Baker.” Never a teacher’s pet, never a kiss-up, just a kid who possessed the rare ability to connect with both peers and adults alike.
He was a pretty good writer too. Brady’s poems, though rhyming and boyish, had always made the class chuckle, and his essays were surprisingly poignant for a seventh grader. Kent wondered if the boy’s uncommon view of the world had been born, in part, from his cousin’s recent death. The young man—only nineteen when he drove his car off a bridge—was a frequent subject of Brady’s essays.
Teachers never admit to having favorite students, Kent thought, but they do, and for him, Brady Fisher held that title.
Then, in April, things had changed. Brady changed. He became paranoid, always accusing the other students of plotting against him, tattling about the smallest things. At first, Kent had chalked it up to middle school hormones, but when it persisted, he became concerned. Most days, Brady sat hunched over in his desk, tense-looking, and when he left class, instead of commenting on Kent’s jokes, he complained that the other kids were tapping him on his left shoulder and then ducking away. All the time, he’d said. They won’t stop.
Kent had never seen anyone do that, though he knew they probably did sometimes, especially after Brady became obsessed with it. But the finger-pointing and distraction from lessons continued until Kent finally changed Brady’s seat, moving him to the back left corner of the room where he would be, in the boy’s own words, “safe from the torture” of the other students. In addition, he’d sent a note to the counselor’s office, asking her to check in on Brady, whose witty smile had become buried under a sullen, haunted expression.
He’d made a phone call home too, but the message he left was vague and no one ever called back. Secretly, Kent had been relieved. He’d never been very good with parents, preferring the awkward middle school animal to the full grown beast. Parents were always so quick to judge, to point the finger back at him.
Of course, that’s where it ended up pointing anyway, in the end.
As one last far-away thunder rumbled through the window, Kent chastised himself again for not following through as he should have.
He remembered the day Brady came to class late with a pass from the counselor’s office, the way he glared at Kent and growled, “I’m not crazy. I don’t need a freaking therapist. Just leave me alone,” before slumping into his desk at the back of the room. Kent had never suggested the boy was crazy, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter. In Brady’s eyes, Kent had betrayed him. After that, he quit telling Kent that the other kids were picking on him. He quit telling Kent anything at all. He was usually the first one out the door when the bell rang.
Kent gave the boy the space he desired but tried to reach out to him in other ways. He made bad puns in class to see if he could get Brady to roll his eyes and assigned essays on topics he knew his favorite student would like, trying to win back his approval.
None of it worked. Earning back the trust of a pre-teen is more difficult than domesticating a wild animal.
Then Brady’s writing began to take on a worrisome tone.
In an essay response to Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Brady wrote, “Frost is an idiot if he ever thought there was any gold to begin with. The world is a dark place and all silver linings are lies.”
He ended his sci-fi short story with his character saying, “What is the point of hoping for a better tomorrow when we can’t escape the tormentors of today? Life is hell and that is that.”
And then there was the poem. Kent had assigned a poem on the topic “Someone I Admire.” Brady’s take on the assignment had caught him off guard. He’d read the poem so many times now, he’d committed it to memory.
Someone I Admired
Kent had been torn by these glimpses into Brady’s psyche. He could tell the boy needed help, but his first attempt had solved nothing, only made things worse. He wrote encouraging feedback on the work, keeping copies of the pieces and telling himself he’d involve someone else if it went too far. Meanwhile, he kept hoping Brady would open up to him again, let him in.
And then, just three weeks before the end of the school year, Brady was dead. He’d darted across a busy road—frantically, witnesses said—and was struck by a delivery truck and killed. No charges were filed against the driver, who called 911 while trying to stop the bleeding from Brady’s fatal head wound. No one could guess what had caused the boy to run into traffic or why he was wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up on such a warm spring day.
The rain had ceased. The sporadic tapping on the roof now came from the water dripping off the pecan tree. Kent’s body sagged and he pressed his palms over his eyes and he remembered what happened next—the investigation, the police questioning, the confiscation of the folder of Brady’s work, the angry letter the boy’s father had sent Kent threatening to kill him for his negligence. Then more police questioning and a restraining order.
Kent had been forced to resign from teaching. It all happened so fast, he didn’t have time to wonder if he would have chosen to quit on his own.
He pulled his palms away from his eyes, wincing as he did so. He’d had the feeling that the lights had come back on while his hands were covering his face, but he was wrong. He blinked into the darkness.
The power was still out an hour later as Kent brushed his teeth in front of his bathroom mirror. He couldn’t see himself, of course, but he stared at the place where the reflection would be, a creature of habit. He wondered, if the power stayed off, if he’d still have the dream. The dream of the dark presence. The dream that made him sleep on his left side, head forcefully pressed into the pillow’s protective softness. It made no sense for the power outage to affect his dreams—he slept with the lights off anyway. Then again, it made no sense that he’d gone to Dr. Branson claiming to have a problem with his vision when whatever this thing was appeared to him even in his sleep.
None of it made sense.
Kent spit toothpaste into the sink. He was fumbling for the towel on the hook and wondering whether he should have kept the psychologist’s card when—without warning—the power came back on. Illumination flooded the small room.
He sensed it before he saw it. There, in the mirror, just over his left shoulder, stood a motionless figure, the black hood of a sweatshirt pulled low over its face. Kent felt a mix of recognition and relief. Curiosity teased his mind and the tiniest of smiles played at his lips. Then the thing that used to be Brady lifted the hood, and absolute terror electrified Kent’s body, colliding and exploding in his chest.
The faucet was still releasing a steady stream of water, and the green toothbrush was still clutched in Kent’s fingers when his landlady let the policemen in two days later.
“It’s good to see you, Bob,” Dr. Edson said, “but what’s this about you suddenly needing a hearing aide? You’ve never spoken of any trouble before.”
Robert Branson shook his head and touched his left ear with his index finger. “I never had any trouble before. But now, just lately…” Robert took a deep breath and stalled, letting his gaze drift across the walls of the office, over the framed diploma from the same medical school he’d attended. Finally he let his eyes meet the ENT’s. “Lately, there’s this persistent sound in my left ear.”
“What kind of sound?” Dr. Edson asked, peering into the ophthalmologist’s ear with his otoscope. He couldn’t help but notice how much gray had infiltrated his friend’s once black hair. “High-pitched?”
“No,” Robert said, “not exactly. It’s more like a voice.” He blushed and dug his fingernails into the fabric of his pants.
“A voice?” The ENT’s brow crinkled. “What do you mean? What’s it say?”
Robert chuckled softly and shook his head. “It doesn’t say anything.” He looked up into Edson’s face and shrugged. “It just laughs.”
Dr. Edson took a step back. He slowly set his instrument down on the table.
“Yep, just laughs and laughs. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast. Sometimes like it can’t catch its breath. It’s doing it right now. You don’t… you don’t hear it, do you?”
Edson reached to put a hand on Robert’s shoulder, then thought better of it and shoved both hands into his pockets instead. “When’s the last time you took a vacation, Bob?”
But Robert wasn’t listening. He clenched and unclenched his fists, a lopsided smile pulling at one side of his face. “You won’t believe this, but—it’s the damndest thing—the laughter, I think I recognize it. I swear it’s the voice of this patient I used to have.”
“You know, Robert, I’m not sure this is my area. Maybe this is something you should talk to Teasdale about.”
“His name was Kent Baker. He died, six months ago. Heart attack while he was brushing his teeth. Damned way to go, huh? You know, he came to see me the day he died. Said there was something in his vision. It was nothing, really, all in his head. He was pretty worked up about it though.”
“Here,” Edson said, “let me write down his number for you.”
“The strange thing is, I don’t think I ever even heard him laugh. He certainly wasn’t laughing that day.”
Dr. Edson held a piece of notepaper out to his friend. Robert ignored the gesture. Hand cupped to his left ear, eyes staring into the space between them, he whispered, “But now… now it sounds like he can’t stop.”
Carie Juettner is a writer of poetry, short stories, and children's literature in Austin, Texas. Her short fiction has appeared in Dark Moon Digest, MicroHorror, and Darker Times, and her story “The Devil’s Plaything” won first place in Writers Weekly’s Fall 2013 24-Hour Short Story Contest. Her poetry has been published in the Texas Poetry Calendar, Red River Review, and di-verse-city, among other places. Carie blogs about reading, writing, and her years teaching seventh grade English at www.cariejuettner.wordpress.com. You can follow her on Twitter @cariejuettner.
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