Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Write What You Know

I had this story idea. The main character (told in first-person, of course) was going to be wandering their old elementary school when they remember that, as a kid, they never went into their school’s basement. Nobody did. Because, you know, of what kind of story it would have been, when our main character inevitably explores that lower level, they come across all kind of demonic imagery. There would have been blood, either molded or crusty with age (I didn’t do any research and wasn’t sure) all over the walls, sometimes forming a pentagram, sometimes, just there because, well, that’s what you write about when describing a room like this.

There was going to be something else in the room, too. Something alive. Something contained in that basement that, now that the door had been opened could escape and enact whatever sinister plan it had.

I never got that far. I never even knew what the creature was going to be. I just knew how I would have felt descending into that basement, and I knew what had to be at the bottom. You see, I never had to deal with demons or other such monsters in elementary school, but I did have to deal with my third-grade English teacher.

Nancy was, from what I remember of her, an okay English teacher. Like, she certainly didn’t go above and beyond fostering her students’ latent interests in writing, but she, you know, did teach us the ins and outs of sentence structure and hey, I guess that’s all you can ask for in third grade. And by the way, Nancy’s not actually her name. But if I’m going to speak ill of the dead, I’d rather not use more identifiers than I have to. You see, Nancy had an, ah, other side to her. And when trying to remember events from my elementary-school life, she tends to dominate my thoughts.

Sometimes, for example, Nancy told these old wives tales. Which, you know, is fine. But to impressionable eight or nine-year-old minds, well, when you tell them that cracking your knuckles leads to brittle bones and your mother cracks her knuckles all the time, well, it just might drive a kid to tears.

But there were also these other, more sinister moments. We were talking about street names once, and Nancy polled the class asking what type of street each person lived on. “A street? A road? An avenue? A boulevard?” I never raised my hand to any of those. I lived on a “Way.”

Nancy never asked what I lived on, though. At the end of those four questions, instead she said, “Well, I don’t know what else you could live on unless you lived in a bag.” And I didn’t know how to respond to that. Because I knew I lived on a way. But I didn’t have the words to express that at all.

In my story, the demon was going to torment the protagonist in largely the same way. The demon was going to present these illusory worlds, at once both grotesque as they were beautiful, and it was going to be these visions that would prompt the protagonist to investigate in the first place. Because the world couldn’t be wrong by itself, right? Somebody had to be at fault, right?

There’s this recurring dream I remember having during my time as a third grader. I don’t remember too many details now, obviously, but I do remember lying on my back, arms outstretched like some sort of horizontal crucifix, being bathed in a dim red light. And then, well…

So the basement at my school was full of rumors. Nobody ever seemed to go down there, and the few times that somebody did open the door, there was this weird red tint over everything, like somebody had put red tissue paper over the single lightbulb down there. And the smell! The rumor going around was that teachers like Nancy snuck down there to smoke cigarettes.

It always smelled like brimstone to me, though.

• • •

There’s one specific moment that sticks out when I think about Nancy. I remember staying a little after class as a sort of detention for not turning in homework on time. Now during this detention I remember Nancy not really referring to me by name at all, just saying things like “Sit here and do your homework.” Which, you know, is fine. She was mad at me. Whatever. But as I was packing up and getting ready to go home, she said, “See you tomorrow, Finlay.”

My name’s not Finlay. But when I said that, she said, “Well, you don’t deserve your name.”

In my dream, I remember a claw reaching out and making a cut right around my left temple, tracing my face in a single blood-red line down to my chin, then back up and around, following my hairline just so before returning to its original starting point. I remember how loose and ill-fitting my face felt in that moment, and how I tried to scream as the claw started peeling it off. But I couldn’t. That’s the thing about dreams, if you’re not lucid, you’re completely helpless against them.

I wanted to translate that feeling to the protagonist of my story, too. I mean, if I was basing it off myself it should have been easy, right? I could have this character who would lose his sense of place and identity to this… this thing, and I mean, I still remember those feelings well enough, right?

• • •

There’s one final story I remember about Nancy. You see, near the end of the school year, she would lead all the third graders on an overnight field trip up to the lake. This was “the big thing” back in third grade. Kids spent a month preparing for it and even longer talking about it. It even infected schoolwork, with science classes spending time talking about fish biology and all the math word problems having a “lakeside” theme to them.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a great time! I mean, when you’re nine, every time is a great time, but this was one of the first times I had ever been up to the lake, and with so many different things scheduled, it was hard to not enjoy it. But at the same time, there’s this one moment.

It was late. I mean, I don’t remember exactly what time, but I had just woken up to use the restroom, and Nancy was standing there right over me. There was a dead look in her eyes, like this time, of all the times, she had slipped a little bit further into the abyss.

“Nancy?” I said.

And she just kept looking at me for a long while, as if she was still deciding what to do with me. For the longest time, neither of us moved. We just stared at each other, me. helpless, barely under the covers and her, well, I don’t even have the words anymore to describe her. But then she spoke:

“The angels are gone,” she said.

It was barely a whisper, but it was deafening in the silence.

The next thing I heard was Nancy slowly turning and shuffling back out of the room. In the morning, she was fine! I mean, she didn’t mention anything about the previous night (and I didn’t dare bring it up) but she was, you know, normal! She was back to telling us how dangerous leeches were and how her sister once nearly got eaten alive by the things, back to getting overly fussy around docks and all those other things old teachers do.

• • •

Nancy retired a couple years after I graduated elementary, but when I was in college, I would come back and volunteer with the after-school program. It was easy enough, take attendance and then play with the kids until their parents and/or guardians picked them up. After that, I just had to clean up a little and I could go home.

I never had to go in the basement, but it always tempted me. I could always see that familiar red tint under the door. But I always told myself it was none of my business. And it never was.

One day, though, well, I figured just a peek wouldn’t hurt, right? I mean, Nancy had tormented me, not just in these moments during the school day, but in my dreams as well, right? I had to know what was going on down there because there had to be something. She was down there all the time! What was she doing? Acting solely on this whim, I marched straight to the basement door, threw it open, and went down those final stairs.

But there was nothing. It was just a smokey old storage basement. And when the door creaked closed behind me, I was left alone, just me and my thoughts.


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