The Witness

(I wrote this short story and presented it to a critique group in Lawrence. This is a revised version based on the feedback I got.)

Jeremy arrived at the hospital at 6:15. When he told the woman at the front desk he was going to see his wife, she insisted that he sign the visitor’s log.

“It won’t take very long,” he said, and walked in anyway. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

After the door swung shut behind him, the ward stayed completely silent. The patients never made much noise, but the on-call nurse was gone. He looked in a couple of rooms, and all he heard was the sound of the life-support machines.

Abby’s room was the farthest from the desk. Now that she had spent 3 weeks in the coma ward, Jeremy had settled into a routine of making short visits in the morning. Abby would never have wanted him to spend days on end watching her sleep, and the longer he watched, the more it hurt. It was much easier to look at her surroundings instead.

When he entered the room, he noticed all of the familiar faces: the IV drip, the uncomfortable chair, the heart monitor, and the miscolored floor tile that ruined the pattern. He looked at Abby’s face last.

She looked young, and not just because she had lost so much weight. Her mouth was holding back a smile like she was trying to keep a secret. When her eyes weren’t taped shut, she seemed paralyzed with naive wonder. Right now, her secret was whether or not she would ever wake up.

Instead of starting his usual cleaning routine, he stared at her. He wanted to refill the already-full jug of water, open the blinds, and throw away the wilted flowers. For some reason, he just continued to stare.

“This isn’t right,” he said to himself.

He thought about the time they had visited her mother in a similar hospital room. She had always been a quiet woman, but her brain tumor made her talk constantly. She mostly talked about her dreams. When she was asleep, she got to be a normal person in a bizarre world, instead of being an insane person in a perfectly ordinary world. As soon as she started rambling, Abby would get flustered and start to cry. Jeremy really listened. Whenever he wanted to know how the story ended, Abby’s mother would inevitably get confused and stop.

So he had to end the stories himself. It was never quite as satisfying.

The best dream was about her marriage to Satan. She spent most of the time explaining the black roses, the blood-red cake, and the snake-shaped wedding ring. She wondered why the father of the groom had even shown up, because he clearly didn’t fit in with Satan’s other guests. Eventually, she talked about her vows, which she had written herself. They mostly involved forgiveness and understanding, but she could not think of a single reason to say “I do.”

Abby interrupted. “Are you saying Dad is like Satan? You are so happy together. You love each other!” She ran from the room, and her distracted mother started talking about the difference between drupes and berries. Abby’s father went after her. Jeremy was lost in his own thoughts.

He finally realized what had happened when he heard them arguing from the hallway.

“Daddy, I don’t want to see this anymore. Why can’t it just be over?”

“I never wanted to put you through this, Abigail. Your mother is already gone. The woman in there is all that’s left. Even though she looks and sounds the same, there’s nobody home. ”

She sighed. “It just gets harder and harder. I want to keep the good memories without adding all of these terrible ones.”

Before Jeremy could hear anything else, his mother-in-law shouted what she thought was his name. “Jeffrey! Come here!” He walked to the side of bed. She leaned over to him, and with a puzzled look, she said, “which one of them caught the bouquet?”

Before they left, he told Abby that he thought her mother might have stayed married to Satan. She refused to speak to him for the rest of the day. Her version must have ended differently.

His mother-in-law died the next day. Abby and her father were very relieved, but Jeremy thought that interacting with a crazy person hurt less than losing one. On the other hand, Abby finally started talking to him again.

Now she might be silent forever. Visiting Abby was more difficult than visiting her mother, and the silence was so much worse. Abby had always known how much he loved to talk with her. Whenever she was angry, she would sit silently as his pressured speech got more and more desperate for a response. Eventually, he would storm out of the room. He could always hear her sigh when he finally walked away.

She was much more beautiful when she spoke. She could be silly or sexy, angry or comforting, passionate or perfectly reasonable. She only had one kind of silence.

He took out a vial from his jacket pocket. He couldn’t remember where it had come from. He looked at the label, which read “potassium chloride for injection.” He got the syringe from his other pocket and watched as he started to draw the poison from the vial. “This shouldn’t be happening,” he said.

He walked toward the side of the bed and traced the IV line from the pole to her wrist. “I would never do this,” he told himself. His hand seemed to move on its own as he slid the needle into the hose and pushed the plunger.

After he watched the poison go in, he tried to think of a way to save her, but he remained immobile as the cardiac monitor slowed and ultimately flatlined. She didn’t move once.

He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t. He wanted to touch her, but all he could do was watch. His body mechanically turned away to go get help.

In the doorway, he saw the stoic face of his father-in-law.

“Just look what you did to my Abigail,” he said. He calmly walked toward her body. “You killed her.” He sighed.

“No.” Jeremy mumbled. “I didn’t do this. You were the one who poisoned her. I saw you do it.”

As he tried to move toward the bed, his heart began to race. He thought about holding his wife, and started seeing bursts of light. Just before he could finally move, he was overwhelmed with light, and in a flash, the world vanished around him.

Jeremy was left standing in an empty white room, completely paralyzed. His father-in-law was pacing nearby. “I was afraid of this,” he said. “You’re still attached to the idea that I killed my own daughter.”

“Because it’s the truth.”

“No. It’s a memory. Whether or not it’s true is beside the point. Now you have a new memory. It’s perfectly reasonable, and eventually, you’ll see for yourself that it’s better for everyone.”

“How did you get me to do this?”

“I’m running an important investigation. It’s my job to make sure we get extremely accurate testimony from murderers like you. Every time you relive this memory, we can extract more and more detail.”

“I know this isn’t what really happened. I’m absolutely sure of it.”

“Are you? Well, next time you’ll be a little less sure. After you kill her a few hundred times more, you’ll doubt the veracity of that one little old memory. Maybe you’ll even start to feel some guilt.”

“Why did they let you do this to me?”

“I insisted! No one knows this technology as well as I do, and I owe it to Abigail to determine the truth. When I found her, I was devastated. Naturally there was some confusion about which of us arrived first. However, my version of events was much more realistic. Once you see that, you’ll be able to corroborate my story in court.”

“I’ll never do that. I loved her. Don’t you understand? She would have gotten better eventually. She was improving!”

“She was breathing. Now she isn’t.”

Before Jeremy could respond, his body finally unfroze. His muscles relaxed and he fell to the ground. Before he slipped unconscious, he saw a faint smile on his father-in-law’s face.

Jeremy arrived at the hospital at 6:16. When he told the woman at the front desk he was going to see his wife, she insisted that he sign the visitor’s log.

“It won’t take very long,” he said, and walked in anyway. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

Last Gasp

(This is a 750-word short story I wrote as an exercise. The first sentence had to be: “I could only hold my breath for 2 minutes.”)

I could only hold my breath for 2 minutes, so my timing would have to be perfect. First I’d collapse on the floor loud enough for the guard to hear, then I’d hold perfectly still. When the prison doctor showed up, I needed to seem completely lifeless, so for the last six months, I’d practiced slowing my heart rate down to less than 40 beats per minute.

The doctor was notoriously squeamish about dead bodies, so he only did the bare minimum to verify a prisoner’s death. He’d just lightly touch their wrist to check their pulse and hold a compact mirror near their face to see if it fogged up. After a minute or so, he’d scurry off to fill out the paperwork. I heard he even threw up once.

Once the doctor signed my death certificate, the guard would toss my body on a gurney and move me to the morgue. After that, my buddy in the morgue had it all planned out. As soon as I got carted in, he’d arrange for a hearse to come and pick me up.

“I laughed at my cousin when he bought a used hearse,” he said. “Now we’re both laughing all the way to the bank.”

My wife paid him off with the last six thousand bucks in our savings account. He and his cousin insisted on getting the entire payment in advance.

“Escaped prisoners aren’t exactly trustworthy,” he said.

The plan was ambitious and a bit dangerous, but it would be worth it in the end. A death certificate meant a blank slate, and after all, what was the penalty if I got caught? Another consecutive life sentence? A bit less stew in the chow line? There was no harm in trying.

I woke up early on a Monday morning and took a dump. I pulled up my pants when I finished, but instead of flushing, I just turned on the sink and dropped to the floor, making as much noise as possible. The guard walked over, banged on the bars and shouted my name, but I kept my eyes closed and stayed silent. After a few seconds, he called for the doctor.

During a medical crisis, the guards weren’t allowed to open the cell or touch the inmate until the doctor showed up. While the guard watched, I took shallow breaths and focused on lowering my heart rate. After another couple of minutes, the doctor arrived.

“Mornin’, Doc,” the guard said as he unlocked the cell door.

“Good morning,” the doctor said. He sounded tired and a bit nervous. “Was the inmate like this when you arrived?”

“Yeah, he hasn’t budged.” They crowded into my cell. “Looks like he just took a shit.”

“I imagine he did. You’d be surprised how easily the heart can give out.”

I took one last shallow breath before the guard kicked me face up. The doctor knelt down by my side, took out his mirror and held it in front of my face. He touched my wrist but didn’t press down. I could feel him staring even though my eyes were closed.

I tried to count the seconds but kept getting distracted by the guard’s whistling. I figured about a minute had gone by when the doctor removed his hand. He was still holding the mirror in place, so I kept my heart rate down, just to be safe.

After another 45 seconds, my lungs were burning, but the doctor wouldn’t move the damned mirror. I couldn’t tell why he was taking so long until I realized he was panting for breath himself.

“Doc, are you okay?” the guard said. “You look a little pale.”

“Yes, yes. I’m sorry, I just, um, thought of something I need to take care of in the office.”

I was starting to see spots when the doctor finally took away the mirror, stood up, and said, “He’s as dead as a doornail.” He sounded queasy, but didn’t retch.

“Alright, Doc, I’ll call the morgue crew to come get him.”

The doctor left. I was relieved, but for some reason, I couldn’t start breathing again. My lungs were frozen, my chest felt tight, and my heart began to flutter. Panic set in. I needed to let the doctor know I was still alive, but I couldn’t even move.

The second before I blacked out, the doctor walked back in and whispered to the guard, “Make sure you break his neck, just in case.”

“I always do, Doc.”

How to Substitute Teach: An Informative Guide

I have now been certified as a substitute teacher for nearly 17 months, and I have spent no fewer than 8 days in class as a sub. I feel that these qualifications make me the perfect candidate to tell the world how to substitute teach. I have written a bulleted list of tips and other information on the art of subbing, so you can take the simplest and safest approach to the job. The list is not in any particular order, nor is it intended to be all-encompassing.

– As a substitute teacher, you must always remember that expectations are low. Extremely low. Unbelievably low. You will be considered “successful” if you avoid injuries, felonies, insurrection, alcohol use, and anything involving fire or explosives. Substitute teachers are considered above average if they have an 85% success rate or higher, based on these criteria.

– One of your most important duties is counting the hours and minutes until the end of the day. Try to know the absolute earliest you can leave, and be sure to use that in your calculations. There will usually be a schedule somewhere in the classroom, which will make it easier to count down to the end of the current class or lunchtime.

– Make sure the students know you do not want to be there. Various remarks or facial expressions can make this a great deal more apparent, but a general sense of listlessness and exhaustion is effective as well. Because the students do not want to be there either, this will garner sympathy. Sympathy and pity will prevent the students from acting out, because they will feel a great deal of guilt about making things worse. On the other hand, some students will sense your weakness and go for the kill. Students can smell weakness from miles away.

– Try to look young and naive or old and doddering, whichever is easier for you. This will also help the students feel sorry for you. If you seem to be incapable of controlling the classroom, the kinder students will do so, saving you a great deal of effort.

– Indifference is your greatest asset. As soon as you begin to feel anything approaching an emotion, think instead of what you will do after work, and you will immediately stop caring. Possible things to think about include alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, cable television, internet purchases, and being around people over the age of 18.

– At no point should you take an interest in the students. It’s really none of your business, and the district isn’t paying you to learn, just to be a teacher.

– The title “substitute teacher” is a bit of a misnomer. If you manage to teach anything during the day, you have probably made a mistake. Note the circumstances so you can prevent similar incidents in the future.

– At the beginning of the day, write your name and the current date on the front board. However, this will not prevent students from asking what your name is and what day it is.

– Around lunchtime, your eyes will no longer be able to focus. This is normal. Whether it is due to hunger or boredom, no one can say, but it will go away whenever you look at the clock, so it is nothing to worry about.

– Remember to appreciate that nothing you do matters. As soon as the regular teacher is back, you will be immediately forgotten.

– The students will try to convince you that their regular teacher lets them get away with absurd things. It’s best to just acquiesce to these requests.

– When students arrive for class, you can expect both disappointment and enthusiasm, which will always accompany the phrase “oh, we have a sub.”

– Students will just keep arriving throughout the day. This is impossible to avoid.

– Threats of violence against students are not unheard of, but are not recommended as a matter of course.

– Contemplating suicide is not out of the question either, but verbal threats to do so are only appropriate as a last resort.

– If you like teaching or being an educator, never become a substitute teacher.

Something Intelligent from 2006

This is my essay submission for Scholar’s Recognition Day. The topic is “contemplate a point in your life when you experienced or expect to experience complete fulfillment and describe that point.”

The phrase “complete fulfillment” strikes me as a contradiction in terms. I think that, as humans, we should continually reach farther and try harder for goals in the near and distant future. There is no point at which any person can honestly say that he has no problems or that he has reached the pinnacle of success. Life simply does not provide such opportunities.

There should be no limit to what someone can learn or accomplish. Whenever humans have reached goals in the past, they served only as stepping stones to something greater. Just as mankind does not cease to learn as much as possible, I try to learn all that I can in as many fields as possible. My main interests are mathematics and computers, but I learn things from social science to fine arts to cooking. I think that a broad range of abilities will help more often in life than an extremely specialized one.

However, there is no shame in a sense of satisfaction about short term goals. An occasional sigh of relief or pat on the back is often important in continuing good work. In spite of this, though, no one should stop learning because he has achieved a goal. The next step should be a more difficult goal, beyond his grasp, and then he can work to exceed his limitations. As one of my teachers said, “if you’re getting straight A’s, you’re in the wrong classes.” I think this philosophy applies in many aspects of life. If I’m not challenged in a class, I am less likely to achieve any sense of satisfaction in completing it. If I were in a more difficult class, I would work to get the best grade I could, which might be an A. However, the difficult A would be more important to me than one received in a simpler class, because I will have gained more from the experience. Then, after a sigh of relief, it would be time to move on to another, more difficult goal.

The Right Religion

Fortunately, I was born into the right religion. I was very lucky. My religion is different from other religions because we have the right book. It was written by the right prophet, an exceptional individual. No one before or since has been right about how the world works. Our beliefs make sense. All you have to do is think about them and they fit together perfectly.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who belong to the wrong religions. Their books were written by ordinary people with no idea how the world works. I can’t believe what they believe; it’s just so silly. All you have to do is think about their beliefs and they never make sense.

But I know how to help them. I have to teach them. Otherwise, they might not go to the right place when they die. The wrong place is terrible. It’s full of people who believed the wrong things. If they had just learned the right things, they would be okay. So I will find people who believe the wrong things and teach them. Once they believe the right things, they’ll be okay. They will read the right book and go to the right place when they die.

Everything will be all right if they can just see how wrong they really are.

A Poem

Our Life After Life

We’ll stoke the flames and curse our names,

But from time to time we’ll admit

With voices clear that our faith was sincere

And religion still isn’t worth shit.

 

We’ll rue our lives from 9 to 5,

Then head home and make love immoral.

If love is taboo then I guess we’ll have to

Fuck or have sex or just oral.

 

We’ll drink and curse, or do much worse,

At this point there’s nothing to lose.

It might seem odd, but soldiers for God

Have done worse than swearing and booze.

 

We’ll do our best despite failing the test,

And our future together is bright.

It would break my heart if they tore us apart,

But otherwise, things are alright.

 

In Heaven, they say, that day after day

Is supposed to be limitless bliss,

But if I were there and you were down here,

Then I would trade it for this.

Public Speaking – Final Speech

Today I want to speak to you about hope…unfortunately, I won’t be able to. I had a speech planned out, plotted out, practically perfect, but with no outline and no note cards.

It was simple. I was going to talk about the meaning of failure and the meaning of the word “play,” and then tie the two together. But procrastination kicked in. I know I’ve spoken about that before, but yesterday it wasn’t quite that simple. It was depression.

I left class yesterday thinking about what I was going to say. I kept putting off my work. I distracted myself, I tried to sleep, tried to play video games, ate with my family, played card games, and so on. Yesterday evening I baked six dozen cookies.

See, I wanted to finish this class with a positive message. My goal was to say that no matter what the outcome is, of this class or anything, you could be proud of what you learned and what you accomplished. I wanted to take the truism “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose; it’s how you play the game” and make it mean something.

Well, why didn’t I do it? I didn’t feel it. I didn’t believe it. I knew I couldn’t share a message I didn’t feel. I was in no mood to encourage others, much less myself. Instead, I moped, I slumped around, and I kept thinking about the very things I wanted to forget completely: negative thoughts, dark thoughts, and bad events from the past.

That’s just what depression is. It’s not just sadness; it isn’t a bad mood. It’s a battle within your soul. It’s dark and it’s unpleasant. You want to cut out your own heart just to stop feeling. A psychologist once told me that he was so depressed he had to decide between getting up to urinate and just going in his bed. If you’ve ever felt that way before, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

I’m not here to educate you about depression because there isn’t enough time. I want you to know what to do if it ever happens to you or someone you love. The easy advice is still the worst. People may say things like “just cheer up” or “do something you like to do.” In other words, they want you to magically change the way you feel. If people give you that advice, it’s a sure sign they don’t know what they’re talking about.

It’s easier to say “just say no” than it is to just say no. In the same way, it’s much easier to say “keep trying” than it is to keep trying. Depression is not a one-time thing, it is a lifelong struggle. Every day can bring a depressive episode or a terrible event, no matter how well you may have been doing.

What do you really do when you don’t want to wake up in the morning? You don’t just bake cookies, you talk about it. Just like the greenhouse effect, if those thoughts keep bouncing around in your skull, things will only get worse. Get it out. I can’t stress that enough. Eventually, the solitude inside your own mind becomes a prison, a trap you can’t escape from. Get out while you still can.

Etgar Keret put it perfectly: “you never know what goes on inside people’s heads.” Even so, you have to do your best. If you establish close communication with your friends and family members, you won’t have to guess what they’re thinking or feeling, you can ask. Be the person that others can go to, and I assure you you’ll have someone to go to when the time comes.

I wanted to talk about hope, but I can’t. I’m just not feeling it right now. But I can tell you that I have felt it before and I will again. Depression truly is a nightmare, but I promise you can wake up from it. Talk about it now and you’ll be ready if you ever start to fall into that pit. The rest of us will help pull you out.