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An Audience of Shadows: Chapter 1
by Branden Hart
An Audience of Shadows
by E. Branden Hart
This novel is dedicated to my mother and father. Without the support they gave me throughout my battle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the story below could have been my own.
“This ain’t funny so donthca’ dare laugh.”
--Slick Rick, the Ruler
For the first time in a long time I can't remember a detail: How many bullets do I have left?
I fired one into the air, one into the head of my girlfriend, and one into the leg of the bastard she was sleeping with. Keeping up with what's been discharged isn't the problem; it's how many bullets I loaded in the first place. Had I loaded a full clip? Or were there some missing from the time I'd spent practicing? I can’t remember the details, and I'm pretty sure it's from the goddamned medicine.
I might as well be a librarian, or a researcher. My aptitude tests say either would suit me fine. I spend most of my time collecting information.
What I remember about walking down the hall at school:
Three doors on the right.
Four on the left.
Total of fifty-seven steps and counting...
I used to try to count the lockers as I passed them, but the numbers got jumbled up with the doors and the steps, and I ended up having to go back to the classroom I started in and go through the whole process again. After that, the lockers laughed at me when I walked by. You can't quantify us, they mocked. We are here, and you won't ever know how many of us there are.
When this fact bothered me to the point of stomach upset, I went to the school office and asked to see the blueprints so I could count the lockers. When the secretary I spoke to looked at me like I was crazy (an accurate perception, according to most) I said Just go ask Mr. Granger, Ok?
When she returned, she had the blueprints in her hands. "I'm sorry," she said, "I talked to Mr. Granger, I didn't know." Not sure what to do, she rolled it to me across the desk. It was like a steamroller; every inch of it came into contact with years of germs and microbes, except the area right around the rubber band, where it was raised just enough to save that virgin white from being contaminated. That’s where I picked it up, using two fingers.
"Thanks," I said. She smiled, visibly relieved; she'd done her job and done it well. She told me with her actions she didn't want to touch me; what she didn’t say was why. Was it because she knew about my phobia? Was it because she was afraid she might catch whatever it was that I had?
"Whatever it is" is the name a lot of people give to my disorder. Disease is another. Most people think I deserve a handicap-parking sticker. I’m not handicapped, I tell them; I can still walk. I just have to be very, very careful where I step.
Dirt is where I'm standing right now. Lots of dirt, with thousands and thousands of years of microbes and germs and god knows what else waiting to be stirred up with just the kick of a shoe. A thought comes into my head: how many feet above sea level are you? It makes a difference. Some germs die at higher altitudes...
The screaming brings me back, this infectious high-pitched laugh of a scream. That's coming from the guy she's been sleeping with. I used to know his real name, but it's the one detail I'm happy to forget this evening.
He stamps his leg, screaming over and over about hospitals and tests and IVs and all we had to look forward to after this night. Jail cells, thin cotton sheets on even thinner matresses, we got 'em all. Come on down.
His stamping is stirring up dust. I don't notice this as immediately as I should; damn medicine. I watch the thin spirals burst into the night sky, up and up, riding on the light air at this height (I should have remembered the altitude) thousands of years of rot and decay looking for a place to rest, and more than likely, at least some of it would end up in my nose, in my lungs, a part of me.
I put the gun to my side for a second. I realize that I just thought "at least some of it would" contaminate me. But some of something every day gets into our bodies and roots around. ‘What good is all of this,’ screams a part of myself I had successfully shut up years before, ‘if you can't even be conscientious of the most important means of preventing infection?’
It's a voice I've heard so often in my life. My psychologist calls it Rationality. Rationality, she says, is almost like another person in my head, and he just can’t let himself be heard over all the commotion of the main part of my head. She doesn’t have a name for that part. She says once the medicine starts working, I will be able to listen more carefully to Rationality and leave old What's-his-name? behind.
Rationality makes sense tonight, for the first time ever. The guy is still kicking around, stirring up dust; I lean over into it. Tendrils of the stuff caress my face, and I breathe in, soft at first, until Rationality says, "Go for it. It won't hurt. Most importantly, it won't kill you."
That last part's the kicker. My psychologist says that half the reason for my disorder stems from an unwarranted fear of mortality I haven’t dealt with. I tell her I've dealt with death my whole life. She isn't talking about just experiencing it, she says; she’s talking about incorporating it into my ideal self, into the person my soul wants me to be.
The dirt tickles my nose, and I sneeze, and it feels good; I don't sneeze that often. I keep a list of places and situations that can cause sneezing, as well as remedies to arrest the urge, in the "Things to avoid and ways to avoid dealing with them" part of my brain. It's the biggest part of my brain, I think. And I wonder if, after tonight, there’s going to be any use for it.
“Who's fault is it?" asks the guy my girlfriend's been sleeping with. "Is it mine? Or hers? Is either one right? Either one to make you feel as though you aren't the one to blame. Well you know..."
I put another bullet into his leg to shut him up. The screams multiply. It sounds like there are two voices screaming. I look at him and realize he isn't making a sound. His mouth is open, but nothing comes out.
I turn around. I'm caught between the warring factions of my mind, watching, listening, as sirens and blue and red lights slowly work their way through the town laid out below us. I have to think, and the screaming in my head doesn't help. I have to think back over what's happened, what led up to all this. Then I can decide whether or not to kill the bastard.
That is, says one of my minds—I'm not sure which—if you still have any bullets left.
Which I had not thought of when I shot his leg.
I'm breaking apart here.