The Story So Far - Chapters 1 - 21
by Branden Hart

Branden is off this week. We'll take this opportunity to bring the entire story so far - the first 21 chapters - in one sitting.

Chapter 1

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.

Damn medicine.

“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.

Open the bedroom door.

One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand...

Open the fridge and get out shot glass. One one thousand...

Open the cabinet, get out vodka. One one thousand...

When I hear the tequila bottle break it ruins everything. Who knows what will happen next? My dad might clean it up. He might still be drunk from last night. I don't really know what time it is; I haven't had a working clock in my room since I was ten. But I wake up every morning when he gets out of bed. I hear the creak of his mattress through the apartment's thin walls. That's the longest count: forty-five one thousand. I picture him sitting on the edge of the mattress, head in his hands, wondering whether or not he'd hit me the night before, although, I had to admit, he was probably most concerned with how he'd gotten home and why he hadn't gotten laid, whatever that meant. After this, I hear him thud across to his bathroom. I can actually hear him taking a piss. I used to hold off counting at this point, until I realized that every morning his piss lasted between twelve and fourteen one thousands. Never the full forty-five he always took up on his mattress. Everything else in the bathroom; brushing, a quick shave with a dry razor, was twenty-nine. Still, nothing stood up to the time on the mattress.

That morning, I waited to hear the door shut to the outside. I started counting once the bottle had dropped. By ten one thousands, he had done nothing.

By twenty, I was getting a little worried. What was he doing, just standing there? I hadn't seen my father in over two weeks and had no desire to confront him now.

At fifty one thousands, I got out of bed, left foot first, took three large steps to the door, and opened it. I walked through the doorway one, two, three times, each time setting my right foot only outside in the hall and then turning swiftly on it, only the last time leading out with my left foot and down the hall, five steps, across the doorway three times, and finally into the kitchen, left foot first.

He isn't there.

Wondering how he managed to get away from the kitchen without me hearing the creak of the floorboards horrified me. I should have heard that. Because there was only one place he could go.

He's in his bathtub. I should have been able to count the steps. Had he treaded so lightly on purpose? Did he know my routine as well as I did?

"What," he said, drowning the last bit of liquor in his glass.

I stand, like I always do, ashamed to ask a Question. One of those Questions that I know is stupid, that I know isn't worth anything, but that something inside compels me to ask. My psychologist tells me that if I listen to that something, I'll never be able to live life to its fullest. I tell her that she needs to find a way to shut that something up.

"Dad, if I masturbate while I'm in the shower, and it gets on the shower curtain, do I need to wash the shower curtain? Can people get germs from me that way?"

I stare at him, waiting for his reaction. He might just answer nonchalantly, tell me I was worried about something that wasn't important, and encourage me to use my brain in more productive ways. He might ask me why I thought that was important, and help me figure out why I was concerned about it, and whether that was warranted. But those were fantasies. He would probably go nuts on me. Maybe he would break my nose, I think. Then I could go to the hospital, they would say, "My, this fine young man lives with such a monster. He would do so much better on his own; we should put him up in a nice apartment and see how he does for himself."

Who was I kidding. I would go straight to a psych ward.

"Jesus Christ," he mutters, his face covering his hands.

He says nothing else. Just sits. And I'm standing there, wondering whether he thinks I've asked a stupid question, or whether his amazement is an indication of something I've done wrong. Guilt flows from the wellsprings of my mind. Wellsprings of serotonin and GABA receptors.

He leaves that morning without saying anything to me. In fact, we missed each other, as he left while I was cleaning my toilet. And then I had to clean the gloves I used to clean the toilet, which took the longest, but then when I was done, I had to use the toilet, and the cycle started all over again, until I was late for school, and decided that instead of going to learn about chemical reactions and attending driver's education in the afternoon, I would clean the whole fucking house. Then, my father and I would at least have something to talk about that night.

The kitchen, my room, the living room, and the hallways took about an hour. Disinfecting spray, a quick vacuum, more disinfecting spray, and a final vacuum (with a new bag). His bedroom was messy. It took an hour to do that, then another hour for me to get myself clean, and then clean my bathroom again. The last room was his bathroom.

It's the most disgusting thing I've seen. Ever. Mold grows in every crack and corner. I see some of it pulsating. The bottom of the bathtub, which is visible from where I stand in the doorway, has dirt in it. Dirt from the old man in the bath tub. The dirt of his life.

One thing that happens when I'm in unpleasant environments is panic attacks. And the biggest cause of these attacks is germs. Germs, dust, and dirt. So when I see the bottom of his bathtub, I feel a throbbing pain in my chest. And by the time I register all the mold, my left arm is numb.

When he finds me after he gets home that night, I'm in bed, curled up. There's nothing else I can do.

"Have another attack?" he slurs. Even feet away, the liquor on his breath makes me gag, and I can't answer. After a moment,

"Did you take your pills?"

I don’t even have the mind to remind him that the last time he managed to steal Xanax for me was several months ago. He used to buy it. But now…

Only the black tells me that the door has closed. He leaves the conversation with no goodbye, no wishes of a good-night's sleep. He just leaves.

The next morning, I wake up without knowing what time it is. I listen for his first movements.

Open the bedroom door.

Open the bedroom door.

He never sleeps late.

Open the bedroom door.

Open the bedroom door.

By the time I realize the apartment is empty, the phone is ringing. I pick it up.

"Hello, this is H. Ellison High School, and we just wanted to confirm with your father that you are absent from school today. Can we speak to him?"

"My father's gone," I say as I hang up the phone once, twice, three times, using my left arm first...

If you have to think of the word you use the most, the one single word in the world you use the most, what would it be?

In a survey of one hundred people, one percent may say fire (as in "You're Fired") or God (as in "Praise Be to God") or freeze (as in "Freeze—you're under arrest"). The other ninety percent will say hello, or one of its many variants.

As if everything isn't a variant of something it isn't.

Any conversation anyone has usually starts with some sort of greeting.

The word I use the most is quirk. When someone asks me why I walk through the door to a classroom three times, I say, "It's a quirk." When they ask what I'm counting, I tell them, "Just counting my footsteps--it's a quirk."

"Why are you washing your hands again?"

"Well, I touched part of the towel dispenser, and it might be dirty. It's just a quirk."

Nobody ever says hello to me. Their greeting is always a variant of "Why are you doing that," and I answer, "Quirk."

My own little variant of goodbye.

Because anytime anyone hears that it's a quirk, they shut down. Everyone is concerned, not for me, but themselves. "Why is he walking through the door three times? Is it for any good reason?" No, just a quirk. "Phew," they think, "as long as it doesn't have anything to do with me." Their faces are all compassion.

Feigned pity and madeover relief are the two emotions I get from people.

At my new school, the one I go to after my father leaves and I'm shipped to a "Home for Displaced Children" across town, things are the same. I hear people talking to each other, saying hello-goodbye, then people talking with me in the why-quirk language I'm accustomed to.

Familiarity with ritual breeds surprise when that ritual is called into question.

"Why did you do that?"

I turned. I'm in the library at my new school and was putting a copy of The Stranger back into its spot on the shelf one, two, three times.

"Quirk," I say out of habit.

"Oh," she says, coming to stand beside me. "I like quirks."

She's not looking at me; she's searching the stacks for something. It looks like an attempt to be close to someone, but nobody has ever tried that with me before.

"Have you ever had naked lunch?"

My heart pounds, my stomach wrenches tight, a clamp on itself. I'd never been hit on before. My tongue swells up in my mouth, my brain goes crazy/ier trying to figure out when to kiss her, hold her hand, do all the things I had to admit to myself I knew nothing about.

"No," I manage. "But I'm up for anything."

It's the kind of line that I always hear guys in the movies saying, but it comes out as a strained jumble of words I'm certain she won't understand.

"Well you should try it," she says, and leans up close to me, where her breasts are touching my arms, firm beneath the fabric of her shirt, and I think I'm going to come right then, and then she leans the length of her body against me, her breasts pressing against my arm, my first contact with that flesh, and I do come, right then, in my pants.

"Burroughs is an amazing writer," she says, looking at the cover of the book she's just pulled from the stack right above the copy of The Stranger I was looking at. She hands it to me before walking away.

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.

For one brief moment, I have an independent thought—one that doesn't stem from my disorder at all. In that second, I forget that I'm walking through a door only once. I forget that I have a disgusting mess in my pants that I have to clean up. I forget everything besides what I observed during my conversation with a beautiful woman:

It's amazing how much 'read' can sound like 'had' when you want it too.

Another part of me says it isn't amazing, not at all.

Just quirky.

Chapter 4

What my father won't tell me is where he keeps his porn.

This was long before he left.

"If you want to know about sex, read a book," he yells through slurred words and the aroma of malt liquor. "They've got books about stuff like that in school"

Not in our school, I tell him.

"So make friends with some older boys. Ask them. That's what a boy’s friends are for."

What my father won't tell me, I decide to find out for myself.

After he's gone, they let me go back to the apartment. I'm sixteen now, and that's old enough for even that bit of autonomy. "Give him time," I overhear one of the case workers saying, just right outside of the distance adults think they have to get so kids won't hear their conversations, just inside the distance she truly needs to be.

I go to the closet in the living room. Inside, under mounds of old clothes and packed boxes, I find the slab of whitewall that had been removed so many years ago, I'm assuming to hide what was inside from my mother.

What was inside fit on a film reel that he kept in his bedroom. After my mom died, we used to watch home movies on that reel and sit up in bed. He would drink beer. That was back when he might drink a six pack of beer a night, get smiley and happy, and sit with his arm around me, telling me he loved me. That we would be alright, that things would change, that see, he wasn't even hitting the hard stuff, just enough beer at night to help him relax.

Just two months later, when my father wouldn't tell me where he kept them (insert aroma of Wild Turkey), when he wouldn't talk to me about sex (insert the smell of Mad Dog 20/20), I spent my two hours between when I got home and the earliest he ever stumbled through the door looking for them. I found them, without incident, underneath the boxes where he kept my mother's things.

This afternoon, I found them where I had left them the last time I used them. Underneath the boxes, which were now underneath all the clothes my father had become to thin for. I used to think his skin just melted into his clothes when I was younger. I was old enough to know now that it was the alcohol that absorbed every part of his body.

I put one of my favorites on the old newsreel. Two men, one woman. The men were fucking her hard. I knew that much, because the woman kept saying it. “You are fucking me so hard,” she would say as she spit on her hand and wiped it on the other one's penis, dick, whatever, same thing, and started to jerk him off. I knew she was jerking him off because he said how good she was at jerking him off. I'm pretty sure what I was doing right then as the film spun and clicked and clacked beside my head was jerking off, but I wasn't sure if it made a difference since I didn't have a girl and another guy there, or a girl and a girl, or two girls and a guy, or two guys, or any one of the myriad other assortments and arrangements of partners I had seen on these films, my outlet to the world of fucking.

It was all I knew, because I had no friends to ask about it. People treated me like I was invisible. I was quiet, I kept to myself, and there were other people to pick on. The geeks, the dorks, the fags, they were all more valuable fodder than some kid who walked in the door weird every now and then. The fags and dorks walked around weird all the time. No use picking on the guy with the quirks.

I sufferred this shit in silence, anger welling up. The anger was fueled by not being able to go to some guy I knew, some guy I called a best friend, who knew me, who cared about me, who loved me as a friend, and say, “Hey man, do you know what making love is?”

What about fucking?

Ass fucking?

Sucking off?


Because I do. I hear the people on the pornos I watch talk about it all the time. I can tell you about them, if you tell me something.

This is the kind of friend that would say sure in a heartbeat, say lay it on me, what do you want to know, my big brother's told me everything!

And I would say, what's sex? Because that's the thing I hear people at school whispering about the most, gigling about, talking about after seeing the new couple walk down the hallway, holding hands. I would see people watch them, “Do you think they're having sex?” and giggling, and I know it has something to do with what the people on the pornos are doing, but it's the one word I never hear them say.

Chapter 5

My art teacher tells me it has to stoppp. The threes threes threes. They have to stop. They have to stop. They have GOT to stop.

I tell her with the way she's talking, it sounds like my quirk is catching.

This is from the day when I meet Mr. Granger.

She sighs and tells me to follow her. We march down to the school office and she signs me in, then says she has a class to attend to and leaves me there. The secretary tell me I'll have to wait, he has a scheduled appointment, and I say that's fine. I've been waiting my whole life. She gives me the very funny look I've become used to and I smile and wait politely, patiently.

In about an hour, after kid after kid walks out around me, some through the office because its a good shortcut, some to see the principal, or one of the three vice principals, and even after that, when the halls are calm again and the final bell for third period has sounded, finally Mr. Granger calls my name. His blue eyes peek out at me from behind horn-rimmed spectacles, which I immediately notice need cleaning very badly.

"Well, let's see here. Miss Finney seems to think you may have an addiction to the number three."

I laugh. I tell him Miss Finney has an addiction to ignorance.

Despite my expectation of scowl (a variant of “You know better than that you little smartass”) he laughs softly and smiles.

"Well, she does think she knows a little more than she really does, in some cases, though as a teacher, she is extremely competent. Why did you walk through the doorway three times when you came into my office?"

"It's a quirk I have."

He writes this down.

"Right, I understand that. But why do you do it?"

I shrug, frustrated.

He writes this down.

"You see, your identifying this as a quirk is fine and good, but identification is a far reach from explanation. I want to know what compels you to do it."

I shrug again. "I don't know what to say, it's a quirk, I just feel I need to do it. Like breathing, or taking a shit."

He writes this down.

"I understand you are probably upset right now," he tells me, "but if you wouldn't mind, I take offense to the words fuck, shit, piss, pussy, cunt, dick, cock, or asshole." He looks up from writing. "I'm not partial to tits, or any other variants on breasts."

As if everything else isn't a variant of something it isn't.

What about damn and hell? I ask him.

"I can get into trouble for even mentioning those words, let alone forbid their use. They are tied very deeply in religion," then he stops, remembers something, and begins writing again, "and it is my job to stray as far away from that as possible when talking to you kids."

“How do you do that?” I ask him.

"Do what?"

“Write while you’re talking. How do you separate those two functions?”

He shrugs, then starts writing again. "I don't know. How do you not know why you walk through the door three times?"

“You ask that as if the answer to both questions are the same.”

He shrugs again—this time while he's writing. It doesn't affect his output. "Maybe it is," he says, and then, with grave finality, closes the notepad he's been writing in and says, "Listen. I've seen your scores on the Iowa tests. They're good. Have you ever had an IQ test before?"

I shake my head.

"Would you be willing to take one?"

I nod.

"Good. I'll have to clear it with the State, since they are technically in charge of you now, but I'll arrange it. In the mean time, tell me about your parents? About your father. How are you holding up after the loss?"

There is a whirr of the fan in the distance that I just notice. It makes an unsteady tapping noise that I can easily divide into threes if I concentrate hard enough.

"I said how are you holding up?" asks Mr Granger after the third set of threes weighs down the silence between us too much.

Solid, I tell him, somehow dividing my mind between my counting task and his question. I'm holding up fine, two three, six, two three...

Chapter 6

There is a language besides English that I am fluent in. It's spoken in every country in the world, and I assume on any other world in the universe where people say things in front of people they don't want them to hear. It's called Hushedwhispers.

It took me longer to learn Hushedwhispers words than it did to learn English, mostly because the words in Hushedwhispers aren't spoken at all sometimes. It's a language of nodding heads, or arching eyebrows, or clever smiles. It's a language of deception. There is no Hushedwhispers-to-English dictionary; don't look. It is a language you have to learn on your own. And you only have a chance to learn it when people are talking about you in Hushedwhispers. It's hard to tell sometimes. My trick is to find two people talking in Hushedwhispers and walk toward them, concentrating on the face of the person looking in my direction. If that person looks to me quickly then goes back to the conversation, I don't have to worry; I’m not being talked about. But if he or she smiles, goes out of his or her way to say hi to me over the shoulder of the other person, or moves the conversation to another location, I can be guaranteed that the conversation is about me.

You get better at it as you go along. The first few times you try this, the people will move away. Make sure this isn't because you're creeping them out. Don't stare at them, just make obvious attempts to gain attention. Look repeatedly over a small period of time—you'll always catch someone's eye. Smile a little, just a friendly, how-do-you-do-sorry-didn't-mean-to-stare-I-was-zoned-out smile, and then see what happens.

Of course, none of this will be necessary once you begin to understand your name in Hushedwhispers. The audible language of Hushedwhispers is, in its English equivalent, composed primarily of hard sounds made with the tongue, for example, 'S' or 'Ch'. Don't expect to hear this right off; it is very muffled and hard to detect. But slowly, the more you listen to conversations in Hushedwhispers, the more you understand. Pretty soon, words will come together. They may sound like English words, but if you spelled them out phoenetically you would see they are quite different.

When you can hear and understand Hushedwhispers (nobody actually speaks the language) you have to learn the other 'words/phrases/sentences' used commonly in Hushedwhispers. An eyebrow arched in your direction, combined with the correct Hushedwhispers translation of your name, means either "That guy over there" if you are not acquaitances with the people talking, or "[Insert your name here]. Look, he's sitting over there." Arms up in the air in a shrugging motion can mean "I don't know" (or variation); "I don't know what he was thinking" (or variation); "I don't know why in the hell he did that" (or variation); "I don't know who the fuck he is" (or variation) and so on.

When you have reached a casual listening level, you can begin listening to conversations for extended periods of time, as long as you look natural and occupied around the people in dialogue. I like to carry one book for pleasure, at least one piece of homework to work on, and a pad of paper. You can carry more, but the rest of my bag is filled with handi-wipes, antibacterial soap (I keep it in a glass jam jar), and Kleenex. I need those things more.

Because I can't forget, you can't forget, that nothing in my life at that point is a priority, NOTHING, except remaining clean, pure, through physical cleansing, as well as careful evaluation of and repetition regarding the events of any day.

With all the other shit going on here, it may seem like that's in the background sometimes.

And sometimes, for small fleeting moments, during a sitcom you like, or when you're talking to someone, or when you're doing something mindless, like a crossword puzzle, it is. But only for a second before it comes screaming back, and you chastise yourself when you realize all the things you're going to have to go back and do again because you didn't do them in threes that time, or didn't wash your hands before picking up the soap, or you touched your eye with a finger that clearly brushed up against the backside of a man in the elevator seconds before, and how the hell are you supposed to clean out your eye?

And on and on. Throughout the day. Always there. It becomes a friend. But not all friends are good for you.

You have to remember, you are seeing a rare few moments where my mind gained a little solitude from Friend. And even then, as I look back, I'm doing some fucked up shit. But not as fucked up as what I'm doing right now.

My girlfriend, who I shot in the head from point blank range no less than five minutes ago, just coughed.

Chapter 7

It's one thing when people can tell just by looking at you that you're different.

Not me, though. I wear the same t-shirts, the same baggy pants. My style is non-descript. Blend in. Camouflage for the unwashed masses.

Short hair, nothing fancy, nothing I even need to run a comb through in the morning. People used to call it a buzz cut, but now so many people I go to school with sport them that it's become the norm, and there is no reason to distinguish the norm from the abnorm with a name, because it blends in. It's ignored.


You can only tell I'm different by really watching me, and high school kids are about one step below paramecium in their ability and/or propensity to pick up knowledge through careful, analytical observation. Plus, I have my 'quirks,' and I have them so rehearsed that I can pull them off naturally. I watch people walking into the classroom, waiting for a time I can go in and stop-start-stop-start in the doorway--my prerequisite number of times to enter any room—without anyone knowing any different. Touched a desk without wiping it down? No problem! I just head to the bathroom, act like I'm taking a piss, and then wash my hands. Nobody will bother someone because they washed their hands after taking a piss. A couple of people have said things about my hands being too dry. So I started lathering them in Vaseline and sticking them in socks at night. Dry hands equal attention. No dry hands equal just another guy at school.

That day, I'm going through my ritual in the parking lot. After waiting for most of the students to leave, I begin my walk past the rows of parking spaces. I'm walking by, doing my look right, look left, look right, look left, look right, look left, alright next two rows, look right, look left thing, when I hear someone running up behind me.

"I'm Melissa," pants the girl from the other day in the library.

Somehow I manage to spit out a garbled version of my name. I don’t see how she can understand what I said, but she repeats it. It's been a long time since anyone has introduced themselves to me--no reason to introduce yourself to something in the background.

We stand there for a second. I shift on my feet. Ok, who's job is it to start the conversation? Anyone? Anyone?!?

"So you like Camus?"

I hear camels and think she's asking me out on a date, which makes me even more nervous and I slide back into a car and the alarm goes off, and I stutter, and she walks over to me, pulls at me to get me standing up.

"Are you alright?"

I tell her I like camels.

She laughs. "Me too. Maybe we should go to the zoo sometime. But I saw you taking Camus out of the shelf the other day in the library. Wondered what you thought of it?"

I panic. First I think she asks me on a date, panic, then find out she wasn't asking me, but then she does, and now I feel like a complete fool fool fool...

She doesn't call after me as I run. Just stands there, silent, watching, observing. More than I'd ever seen any of her peers observe anything. A part of me, a part I think used to speak up a little more a long time ago, screams for me to turn around, to get back to her, she obviously wanted to talk.

But the part of me I listen to at this stage in life says to run, and to count your footsteps in multiples of three, six, nine, yes that's right, eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-four...oh yeah, you know the way to rock my world...

Chapter 8

It isn’t long before I have tax-break foster parents. What that means is that the people who take me away after I’ve been in the foster home for a couple of months take in foster children for the tax breaks. In my short time at the home, I saw fifteen through seventeen year olds snatched up every day. You'd meet one, the next day they'd be gone. Most of them had been to jail a few times, and talked about life 'on the outside', and how rough it was, and all they wanted was a couple of tax breakers and a room of their own. Just kind of chill until eighteen. I always said it sounded good to me.

The thing is, the rest of these kids that I watched come and go every day, they were off the streets. Or tossed out by some other foster family. But me, my father had left without a single word. That meant baggage. That meant that I would be upset—possibly suicidal—and upset kids meant trouble. Most of these kids talked about doing nothing but sitting in their rooms, smoking dope, just relaxing until they could turn eighteen and hit the streets to be on their own. Because the tax breakers didn't give a shit, as long as you didn't give them any trouble.

"You don't talk much, do you," asks my foster dad Edward on our way home from the home.

I shake my head.

"That's a nice change of pace," he laughs, slugging his wife Tillie a little on the arm. She laughs too, and slugs him back.

"You can't hit the driver!" he shouts, happy as a little boy wrestling with his best friend. I have to smile a little.

She turns around. "Eddie thinks I talk too much. I say it's all relative. You like Einstein?"

I actually do. "Yeah."

"Smart kid. Well listen, let's get home, and you talk if you want, don't if you don't. What do you feel like eating?"

I shrug.

"We were thinking pizza."

I haven't had a pizza in over a month. I want it like dogs want bones.

Over pizza and a little beer, we talk about the rules of the house. Come and go as you please. In their opinion, my way of paying rent is the tax breaks they get, and they tell me that point blank, and that is that. But the only way it will work out for all of us is if I obey their rules. No smoking indoors (but I can do what I want with my lungs outside the house, even in the backyard). No parties (but I can have one or two people over at a time if I ask them and we stick around upstairs in my room). I think it's bullshit until they show me the eleven-hundred square foot loft that would be my home for the next two years. Last: use common sense when interpreting the rules; just because they didn't say I shouldn't smoke crack doesn't mean I should start up.

I like them because they don't say things over and over, and they make sense, and most of all, they seem to respect me.

What I see in my room now is a wall. There is a large vagina on the wall, the largest I've ever seen. That's because it's the biggest wall I've ever been able to use the projector on. I'm jerking off, watching these two men shove a beer bottle up this slut's pussy. She's not shaven, which I dig, and the guys are hung like horses, which I also kind of dig in a weird, guilty way. She's really getting off, and pretty soon, her juice is everywhere, all over the guys, and they're licking it off of her, and she's still moaning and cumming and the juice is running everywhere and the guys are both jerking off and then they cum, all over her tits and face and she's lathering herself up with it, rubbing it all over, massaging it into her skin, the whole time still moaning, and then I cum, all over the place, an unexpected, TNT-type of explosion, and just then the reel runs out and starts fap-fap-fapping on it's roll, and my eyes are closed tight throughout, and when I open them, Tillie is standing at the edge of my bed. The top of my erect cock hides her face from view, but the curly red hair is a dead giveaway.

She's looking at me, panting, and I search her face for anger, but I can't really look at her eyes, because she's looking down, but not down at the ground in shame of finding me this way.

She's looking at my cock.

"You can watch anything you want," she says. Her voice is sultry, different from when we were in the car earlier. Then it was chirpy, PTOish. Perfect mother. Now, she uses a voice I only hear on the porns I watch. "Just keep the volume down a little. Edward needs to sleep."

She looks me in the eyes for one second before she leaves, and smiles. Then, on her way out, she pats my bare foot a little. It almost feels like she rubs the bottom of it with her thumb, and this immediately makes me hard again. I watch her walk out, hips swaying underneath the shiny fabric of her gown. Her tits swing a little, and I realize they were a little bigger than I initially thought.

I listen to her go down the stairs. I count her steps. When she gets to thirteen, she stops. There are nineteen steps.

Shaking and thinking of her, I reach up and rethread the film. In less than a minute, it's ready to play, and she hasn't moved from the thirteenth step. I start it up, with the volume turned very low, so the only noises are so muffled I can barely hear them, and lay back down on the bed. She's left the door open. I start to jerk myself off again, a little sensitive to the touch after the first session, but get into it pretty quick, and I listen, and then she's moving down the stairs again, onto the carpet, where I can't hear her walking, but she's in my head, and there, I can see her naked.

Chapter 9

"Have you ever heard of obsessive compulsive disorder?" Mr. Granger asks me when I finally make it back to his office for our next meeting. I shake my head.

"Let me ask you something." He leans up on his desk, supporting himself with his hands. "Do you ever do anything that you don't think is necessary?"

"I'm here, aren't I?"

I didn't really mean it, I explain. Just seemed like the right answer at the time.

"I appreciate your honesty, but that isn't really what I mean. You know, like counting things, or washing your hands, or anything else that most people would not do?"

I nod. "Everyone has their quirks."

He shakes his head. "You use that word a lot, quirks. I do not think it means what you think it means."

"So what does it mean?"

"A quirk is a habit or practice someone has that may seem abnormal, but doesn't do any harm. It doesn't get in the way of normal life for a person."

"I don't see how my counting gets in the way."

He writes this down.

"So you do count things, is that what I'm hearing."

"Well, everyone counts. You can't make it through the day without counting."

"But you can't make it down the hall, correct?"

He's looking at me over his glasses. I feel like he's asking a rhetorical question.

"It's not that I can't, it's that I don't want to. I want to know what's there, I want to count. It's my meditation; it's the way I relax on the way from one class to another."

He shifts in his chair. "What about talking to friends? Do you ever talk to friends in between classes?"

I look down. "I haven't been here that long, and haven't had time..." but I can't finish because he's already writing.

"Can you stop that!" I yell.

He looks up. I'm more shocked by the outburst than he is.

"I'm sorry, but..." I sigh. "I'm supposed to be talking to you and I don't even feel like you're listening to me. Just writing things down. I can't even see what you’re writing down?"

He writes this down.

"No, you can't. I know it's frustrating, but I have to work like this. I can't tape you—because that's illegal—so I have to write down what you say because I may not remember it later, and it's later, when I'm pouring over all of this, that I really start listening to what you say. You might as well think of this time as me just collecting information."

"Then what the hell do I get out of it?"

He writes this down what seems like four or five times.

"You will hopefully get some decent advice and guidance by the time all of this is over. But for now, I have to learn more about you, about who you are, so I can try to figure out how to help you. Now, have you met any friends at school?"

Just a girl that turns me on so much I want to fuck the shit out of her every time I see her. I want to grab her tits and shove them in my face and suck until they're bright red with the blood running to the surface. I want to plant my dick so far inside her she screams with pain but asks for more. I want to make her feel me.

"Yeah, a girl."

"What's her name?"


He does not write this down.

"Melissa who. Is she your year?"

"She's a senior."

He puts down his pen and stares at the wall, over my head. I turn to see if there's anything of interest there, but it's just a blank wall, covered with the institutional white paint that lined the halls of the school.

"Melissa Cantrell?"

It catches me off guard. "Actually, I don't think I know her last name. I mean, I don't know her last name."

He writes this down. I wonder if he's left her name out.

"Good. Friends are good. Melissa is a good kid. Tell me something, how is your life with your new foster parents?"

Seems okay, except it seems like my foster mother is kind of kinky, and I'd like for her to come up to my room one night and watch some pornos with me, and then fuck me, I want her to fuck me, to fuck me rotten, to leave me so sore that I might have to call in sick from school the next day, or at least walk around kind of funny.

"Fine, so far. Nothing special. They give me my space."

He writes this down.

"Now you know that nothing you say here goes anywhere else, right?"

I don't give much thought to the question when I shake my head yes.

"Good. So how is your sex life?"

"My sex life?"

"Yes. Are you sexually active, or not?"

It catches me off guard.

"You mean, do I have sex with people?"

He nods.

"No, I've never had sex with anyone," I say.

He writes this down. Then he takes off his glasses.

"You don't have to answer this question if you don't want to. I really shouldn't be asking you, but I trust you. I don't think you're the kind of kid who's going to run out of here shouting that you were asked an uncomfortable question. I don't think there are uncomfortable questions for you.”

He waits for me to say something, but there’s nothing for me to say. He’s right.

"Do you think of sex as something dirty?"

My answer is no. He sighs, relieved. The bell for lunch rings, and he asks me if I'd like to see him again the next week, and I say yes, because I have a couple of questions to ask, and as far as I can tell, Mr. Granger is the only person who might give me a straight answer.

Chapter 10

There are three main places you touch a woman to get her off. I know this because it is what my foster mother tells me the first night we fuck.

Tits: you touch the tits how the woman wants you to.

"In fact," says my foster mother as she slides into bed next to me that night, "you do everything like the woman wants it. Let her tell you. As for you…"

I feel her hand on my crotch. My dick immediately leaps from the front of my open boxer shorts. She laughs.

"That's the thing about you young men—you're always ready for action. Now relax, and..."

I come. I come all over the place, all over her hands, the sheets, myself. She giggles--she stifles her giggles, they are so powerful--and just starts wiping me off on the sheet.

"Don't laugh at me!" I whimper, still conscious of the importance of keeping volume to a minimum while Edward sleeps below. I finally know what it is like to be on the other side of a conversation spoken in Hushedwhispers. I start sobbing like a baby, and she turns sympathetic, and holds me, lets me cry into her, and I don't know for how long, but by the time I am done, the film on the reel we'd been watching is flapping.

"Feel better?" she asks.

"I'm sorry," and I start to stand up and take the sheets off the bed.

"Wait," She orders.

I stop.

"You haven't learned your lesson."

For a second I think she is going to spank me, and I try to decide whether that's something I want or don't want, but then I remember the three places.

"Oh," I manage.

"Now, for review," and she walks toward me, "What is the first place to touch a woman so she comes?"

"Tits," I smile.

"Very good. The second place is her love button, way up inside the pussy. Sit down, I'll show it to you."

She pushes me down on the bed so I'm laying down, then straddles my face and sticks her fingers inside her pussy. She separates the lips and asks if I see a little button. I tell her that it's too dark. She tells me to feel for it.

I probe softly, exploring. She lets me. I study the outside with my fingers for a while, and eventually go inside with one, until I find a small, hard nub in the soft flesh, and when I probe at that, she lets out a moan like I'd never heard on porns. She begins to buck against my finger, moaning in rhythm, until she bites her finger so the moans aren't so loud. Finally, she bucks so far forward that she almost falls. Holding herself against the wall, she makes a noise almost like someone choking, but inside out.

She looks down at me, a lone tear falling down her cheeks. "Amazing," she says, her hand finding my cock through my shorts, "You are a clever one," and then she gives up the search altogether, rips my shorts down my legs just past my knees with both hands, and starts sucking me off.

Right when I'm so hard I think I'm going to bust (except, after the initial explosion, I don't have anything to bust with) she takes her mouth off and jumps on my cock, and I feel myself in her, and she starts to buck immediately.

"You have a decent-sized cock," she says nonchalantly in the midst of moans of pleasure. "But that doesn't mean you can work it. You have to be able to feel where to put it in any woman to really get her off, and for me, its right here!"

She bucks a little bit farther forward than she had before, and then comes down hard. I feel the tip of my dick hit something, and on the second thrust I come, a flood of it from I don't know where, and the more there is, the more it seems to like it, and she bucks a couple more times, but by this time I'm done and so spent that just the feeling of being inside her has me shaking, and she gets off and collapses on the bed.

"I came too quick," I say.

"No, no, that's the beauty part!" She turns to me and puts her head on her hand. "You got me off before you came—that's the important thing! Because I told you how. But some girls, they aren't comfortable enough with themselves, or they just don't know their bodies well enough, but they won't tell you what it takes to make them feel special inside. So it's your responsibility to be able to figure out, instantly, how to get them off. And I'll teach you that while you're here, if you want."

I consider this for a millisecond and turn back to her. "I need a towel," I say.

"Use the sheet."

I need a towel, I want to yell. You don't fucking understand! I can't use a sheet that you are laying on naked to wipe off what I piss with. No way!

I stop then, realizing that, in the court of law, this is my mother telling me what to do.

A legal guardian can go a long way.

Under her advice, I wipe off with the sheet, three good swipes, and turn back to her, trying to avoid the wet spot. "What's the third place?"

"I thought you'd never ask!" she squeals. "Turn on one of your movies and I'll show you."

I stand and get out my favorite, "Surprise Party," and set it up on the reel. From behind me, my foster mother says, "And skip it to the juicy stuff, huh?" and I nod, not looking back, because I can tell she is moving around on the bed, and something tells me it would be wrong to look at what she's doing. It is only when I hear her squirting some of my lotion out that I turn around. She's in doggy position and reaching back, rubbing lotion all around her asshole.

"It's a fact of life," she says when she notices my shocked face. When my expression doesn't change, she says, "Trust me. You're going to love it. The guys on these movies do."

I look at the film. The surprise party is in full swing, and the host and guest of honor have just been matched for seven minutes in heaven, but decide to go at it in front of everyone. Right when everyone else joins in on the orgy I feel her hand on me.

She leads me to the bed and gets back into position. She pulls me further. I get up on the bed, awkward, almost falling, so she scoots up a little, and then I have plenty of room (I found out the next time she had intended me to stand, but didn't have the heart to say) and she guides me into her. I shiver at what I'm doing, but my 'mom' told me to do it, she said it's ok, and somehow, repeating that thought throughout the act, I'm able to forget about all the germs and shit and everything else and realize that what she said earlier, it's right.

I love it.

Chapter 11

I know the girl sitting outside Mr. Granger's office the next day.

"Hey you!" she says. "Like Camus?"

Sounds a little rehearsed, I say.

"Well, it's just that I've been trying to ask you about it for so long, but you keep ducking me. I thought," she said pensively, "that maybe there was something wrong with the mirrors in my house."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I mean, I thought, maybe these mirrors are tricking me, you know? Like, maybe I'm not a beautiful girl after all. Maybe the mirrors are programmed or enchanted or something to show me a beautiful girl, when I'm really an ugly piece of shit. Then I thought, no way, what about all the other mirrors in the world, but then, what if there is a curse on me, so that every mirror I look into shows me what I wish I looked like, but then I thought no, what about my family and friends, they wouldn't lie to me, but maybe they would, you know?"

She stands there, as serious as possible for a second, then bursts out laughing. "Good one, huh?" she says.

I look at her, speechless.

"You know, you know," she says, waving her hands in the air and rolling her eyes. "I'm acting crazy? I kind of figured you thought I was waiting to see Granger and supposed I was crazy."

Still blank.

She sighs, gives me that oh-I-forgot-you're-new-here look. "The only people who see Mr. Granger are kids the teachers think are crazy. You know, nutballs?"

I nod. I know nutballs, alright.

She shakes her head. "Anyway, what are you here for?"

First thought that comes to mind. "Just passing through."

"It is a good shortcut," she says. "Walk me to class?"

She takes my hand and leads me off in the opposite way from where I was headed. I turn around to look at Mr. Granger's door, and he's standing there with one of those I'm-disappointed-but-that's-too-cute-to-get-mad looks.

"I want to see you sometime," she says as we file past the other ants on their way to second period.

Now I know she's asking me out, so I start counting steps, one, two, three...

"You know, a date. How about tonight?"

I nod.

"Well?" she says after a while. She's still not looking at me.

"Yes," I gulp.

"We're here."

People are filing into the class, all seniors. She turns and looks me in the eyes. I'm trapped in her gaze.

"Here's my number," she says, pulling out a marker and grabbing my hand. When she's done, she caps the marker, and kisses me on the lips. Oohs and cat calls spring into the air around us.

"Shut up," she says to some of the passing people, laughing. Then she turns to look at me again.

"Call me after school," she says. "I want to see you."

She touches my hand and before I know it, my dick is standing straight on end. As soon as she's out of sight, I run, covering my crotch with my chemistry book, to the bathroom. I jerk off really quick in one of the stalls without a door before going to see Mr. Granger and try to explain to him why I missed our appointment.

I call Melissa as soon as I get home from school.

"That was fast!" she says.

I explain that I live really close to school.

"Me too. You aren't in the Contour complex, are you?"

I tell her no, I'm not sure what a contour complex is.

"My apartment complex. I stay here with my mom."

The way she says 'stay here' makes it sound like she's more tenant than daughter.

"Why don't you come over to my place first?" she says. "We'll have a drink or something before we go out."

I ask her how to get there from school. She tells me, says she needs to shower, cook dinner for her mom, who works nights, and eat with her, and then she'd be ready, probably around seven.

I'm pretty far from my house, and I only have enough cash for a taxi one way, so I slink around that part of town for a while, walking, counting, trying to find patterns of three in things around me. I have to stop every now and then to use a bathroom and wash my hands, though most of the places I stop are so dirty they leave me with a worse feeling of filth than I had going in.

I start walking to her place at about fifteen until seven, and by the time I get to the complex, find her building, and scale the steps to the third floor, it's three minutes after seven.

"Come in!" she yells when I knock on the door.

The apartment is nice, average. There is a light on under the door of a room down the hall.

"I'm back here!" she yells.

I walk back and open the door, then immediately close it. She is standing in her bra and panties in front of a mirror.

"Sorry, sorry, sorry. I should have knocked."

She pads to the door and throws it open. She stands in her bra and panties, staring at me like I'm an idiot.

"Come in here silly," she says, and drags me into her room by my hand.

She turns around, faces the mirror, and begins combing her hair.

"How's it going?" she asks.

Fine, I manage while I take in the contour of her ass.

"You get here ok?" she asks.

I nod as I trace the lines of her back all the way down her legs.

"Geez," she says, and I realize she is looking at me looking at her. "It's like you've never seen a woman before."

I instantly realize that I've been so nervous and concentrating on counting steps that I didn't enter any of the doors in her house three times and I jump up and yell that I'll be right back, and run out of the room, three times, and out of the apartment, three times, back in, three, in the room, three, and then I sit down on the edge of the bed and make an effort to avoid her gaze.

"You are truly bizarre," she says. It doesn't sound admonishing. In fact, it sounds kind of like a compliment.

She turns around and begins work on her hair again. She applies a small amount of makeup while she talks, but not too much.

"I was thinking about Campisi's," she says. "It's an Italian restaurant down the road, pretty nice. You like Italian?"

"Yeah," I finally manage to speak.

"Good deal. Let me put on my clothes," and she looks at herself in the mirror, licks her lips, turns to face me and claps, "And we'll be ready to go!"

I'm ready to go right now, I think, hoping my erection will go down before I have to stand up.

Chapter 12

"Why?" asks my girlfriend, blood spurting from her mouth when she says it.

To answer, I point the gun at the guy lying on the ground next to her, but then I realize she can't see, what with all the blood in her eyes.

"Why did you fuck him?" I yell.

"Same reason I fucked you," she manages. "For fun. For the hell of it."

I ask if she had sex with him.

"They're the same fucking thing!!!" she screams. She's said it to me time after time; this is the only time she's mad about it.

"They're the same fucking thing," she repeats, coughing in the middle on a stream of blood shooting out of her mouth. "No matter how much they mean to a person, sex and fucking boil down to the same thing."

I put my head in my hands, let out a scream. "But they aren't—they may be the same physically, but even then, there are times..."

"Just because there is emotional meaning behind a sex act doesn't make it different than any other sex act."

I scream again, and, not realizing I have my finger on the gun trigger, squeeze, and fire a shot into the ground next to me. The mystery comes back then: how many shots do I have left?

"What the fuck!" yells the bastard. "What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck! What the fuck is going on?!?"

"We're dealing with a really messed up guy here," says Melissa. "Not only has he learned about sex..."


"Fucking!" she blurts, a bubble of blood forming around her mouth, and as she breathes out, it expands, and the portion of our world that it highlights turns a ghastly red. She breathes in and it collapses on itself and into her mouth, and she gags, then continues. "Not only has he learned about fucking solely through watching pornography, he's got some mental disorder."

"It's called OCD," I mumble.

She laughs through her blood. "It's called fucked, that's what it's called."

"It's called obsessive compulsive disorder," said Mr. Granger about a month before all this gunplay and attempted murder (at least up to this point) had started. Before the really intense fucking happened, before I got so deep into sex that I couldn't climb out, I went in to see Mr. Granger. This was the night after I fucked my foster mother.

"That sounds bad," I reply.

"It can be, if it isn't treated. It can seriously impair someone's quality of life and ability to think logically, to extrapolate the right data from erroneous conversations."

I nod, understanding what he's talking about, especially the last part. He stares at me. "What?" I say after a few moments. "Am I breaking out?"

"How did you understand the last thing I said, um, I can't remember it exactly..."

" 'Extrapolate the right data from erroneous conversations'? "
"Yeah," he smiles. "That."

I shrug. "Well, I could be wrong, that could mean a couple of different things, but given the context, and some things I might have said to you before, I thought it was about me listening in on Hushedwispers conversations."

He nods. "It was. Those are just words that most people your age aren't familiar with."

He is careful never to say the word 'kids' or children. Always, 'people your age,' or 'people between the ages of x and y'. But never anything demeaning, patronizing, like kids, or my personal favorite, young'uns.

"I used to read a lot."

"But you don't anymore?" He begins to write again.

I shake my head.

"Why not?"

Because in the life of a book, more than five hundred different people touch that book. More if you get it from a library or buy it used. Not to mention the number of machines that touch it when it's made, or the people who made those machines, the people whose hands they shook that day, and on and on until infinity. Touching books is just one more thing I can avoid, that I don't have to mess with, that life doesn't force me to mess with, and I let them go.

"No time."

"No time," says Granger, and he flips back through the leaves of paper in my file, "and yet last Tuesday you said you had '...nothing but time. Time to count. Counting time fills it, and vice versa.' I'm still a little unclear on that last part..."

"Filling time counts it," I interrupt. "If you fill time with action, then dividing time between different actions is implicit. This is where you start doing one and stop doing another. Sometimes they overlap, but mostly it's a pretty clear start and stop. Counting is simply division of a whole into understandable parts; acting in time, or filling it, is the same."

"I see," he writes furiously, then looks up. "But that wasn't what I was going to ask—you interrupted me."


"That's ok. What I want to know is why you said you had nothing but time on your hands last week, and now you can't even pick up a book because you're so busy?"

"Things have changed in this past week."


I shrug.

He closes his file. "I think you should go see a psychologist. This obsessive compulsive disorder, I think you might have it. In fact, I'd bet my job on it. If you can get help there, things may start going better in other parts of your life."

"I don't believe in psychologists."

"Oh, they exist, I guarantee. I'm married to one. But you won't be seeing her. At any rate, this could help you immensely. I think you should go."

I stare at him.

"You realize I'm talking to you as a friend now, don't you? I can't force you to do anything. You can go or not go—it's up to you. And your foster parents, of course, but from what you said about them, I don't think they would care much."

That last part is almost hurtful. Then who?

"So you decide. Sleep on it—this isn't something that has to be taken care of overnight. But the sooner the better. Because when you let something like this get a hold of you, when it takes over," he sighs and looks down at his hands, "it can ruin a lot of different parts of your life."

He's still looking down at his hands when I decide to ask my question, the question that had been bothering me for years, but seems so much more important after I fucked my foster mother.

"Mr. Granger."


I sigh. I hope this isn't a question I should know the answer to. I don't feel like it is. "I've seen plenty of people fuck. I mean, I've watched the videos. And I fucked someone myself last night, and it was fun and all, but I'm waiting for this one great thing—sex—that everyone keeps talking about. I kind of think it's like fucking, but it's different, you know?"

He looks up from his hands.

"Mr. Granger," I ask, hoping I will leave here with more knowledge than I had when I came in, "What the fuck is sex?"

Chapter 13

Melissa fucks different than my foster mother.

It's hard to say what the difference is exactly. I don't have too much to compare it with. Forced to describe it, I would say Melissa is sort of clumsy, but a little more enthusiastic. With her, things feel more…organic.

During our dinner at the Italian restaurant, Melissa talks constantly. As much as I try to listen and participate, I can't keep my mind off the utensils in front of me. How could I know if they had been cleaned properly? In the life of a restaurant fork, thousands of people put that fork in their mouths. A restaurant plate, which usually has a longer life then the fork, can have tens of thousands of meals served on its surface. A restaurant glass is the worst. They are never cleaned properly. More often than not, they are simply emptied, dipped in a vat of tepid soapy water, rinsed, and left out to dry. The glass is the Petri dish of the restaurant world.

Even though I barely touch my food and have to leave three times to go to the bathroom and wash my hands, Melissa assures me that she is having a great time. When we walk out of the restaurant and get in her car, she asks me if I have to go home.

"Well, I have to go home at some point…" I answer, confused about the question.

"You are so weird," she says. As usual, it sounds like a compliment coming from her. "What I mean is, can you come back to my place for a little bit?"

She puts her hand on my leg, and rubs it a little with her thumb. I smile, and mumble that I suppose I can come over.

About an hour later, we're in her bed, and she's going down on me, and I'm thinking about two things: how good it feels, and how she washes her sheets.

Anything that comes in contact with your body, in my opinion, needs to be washed with the hottest water possible, as well as antibacterial laundry soap. And you can't simply throw the laundry into the machine and assume the water is hot enough. After all, if someone has just taken a shower, there may not be any hot water left. To make sure all bacteria is destroyed; you have to make sure that the water coming out of the washing machine is as hot as possible. It only took me a little bit of time at the foster home to realize that not everyone shares the same opinion as I do when it comes to washing things. And that's scary.

When Melissa quits going down on me and gets on top of me, I start to forget about laundry.

This is after Mr. Granger told me that he couldn't talk to me about sex—it could get him fired. This is after I tell him I don't know who to ask, and he tells me I should talk to my foster parents. This is before I decide to find out for myself what sex is all about.

The lights are off in Melissa's bedroom, but when she gets on top of me, she says she wants to turn one on so she can see me and I can see her. She reaches over and turns on the lamp on her bedside table. The room fills with shadows. Our audience.

As I stand at the top of the hill, the gun heavy in my hand, Melissa's labored breathing sending ripples through the pools of blood collected beneath her, I wonder how things would have been different if I had learned about sex before I went on my date with Melissa. Before I went on my date, I knew two things about sex: it was something people liked to do, and it had something to do with fucking.

After my date, I go home. My foster parents are out for the evening. I decide to find out for myself, once and for all, what sex is.

I go to the computer and type the word into a search engine.

It turns out that I had been having sex. I'd had sex with my foster mother, as well as Melissa. Sex and fucking, for the most part, are the same thing.

That's interesting, I think, as I browse through more pages on the subject, reading about positions, legal implications of sex (I laugh when I realize that, in some places, having sex with my foster mother would be illegal because of my age), and sex in religion. It's interesting, and for a brief moment, I relax in my newfound knowledge, happy that an answer to a question nobody would answer for me has been discovered.

But only for a brief moment. Because the next topic on the page I'm reading is "Sexually Transmitted Diseases."

Something in my stomach twists, and for a moment, I think I'm going to throw up. The feeling increases as I read.

Chlamydia. It can cause infertility in women. In men, it can cause painful discharge from the penis. An estimated three million people in the United States have the disease. One out of every one hundred.

Gonorrhea. In men, it can cause painful, colorful discharge from the penis. An estimated one million people get this disease every year. That's one in three hundred people.

Viral hepatitis—you can die from this one. It affects the liver. It's all over the place. Even being in the same house as someone with hepatitis puts you at risk of contracting the disease.

Genital herpes. The most common STD there is. One out of every five adults in America has it. And you can't get rid of it.

Before I can read anymore, I'm in the bathroom. Checking to see if my eyes are still white (the liver problems associated with hepatitis can make them turn yellow). Looking for spots on my dick with a magnifying glass. Forcing myself to pee so I can find out if it stings. I think it does, but I'm not sure if it is because I've caught something, or because of the force I use to get it out.

That night, I sit in the shower until all the hot water is gone. No matter how much I scrub, no matter what I do, I can't feel clean. I've exposed myself to disease. After all my work, after everything I've done to make sure I kept germs and bacteria out of my body, I've made the one mistake that could completely fuck me over. For good.

The website assures me that if I take precautions such as wearing a condom, I can still have a healthy and satisfying sex life. Which raises the question—in the life of a condom, how many people come in contact with it before I use it? Because if just one of those people has one of these diseases…

When my foster parents come home that night, they find me still in the shower. The water is cold, but it doesn't bother me. My foster mother turns it off and stands me up, wrapping me in a towel, while my foster father keeps asking what's going on, what's wrong with me.

"I think I want to kill myself," I finally explain to him.

The next day, I don't go to school. Together, they drive me to a small office in a strip mall. That's where I meet my psychiatrist.

Chapter 14

Part II

"What does it feel like?" asks Melissa.

"I don't know."

"What do you mean you don't know?"

"I mean, I don't know. I don't have anything to reference it to."

"Because you've always been this way?"

I nod. We're walking down the street at dusk, passing storefronts that have been closed for two hours now. The restaurant we're going to, she assures me, is very clean. This is a couple of days after my first appointment with my psychiatrist.

That first day, I walk into the office with minimal apprehension. I feel blank. I feel like there aren't any feelings inside me at all. Just me, peeking out through my own eyes at a world that wasn't really a true representation of itself at all.

As if everything isn't a variant of something it isn't.

There are all sorts of colorful toys lining the walls of the waiting room. Big wooden platforms with squiggly metal bars drilled into them. On those bars are small little shapes that you could push up and over one squiggle, only to watch it fall victim to gravity as it careened down to the bottom of the loop. The entire thing is bolted to a table. And why not? Who could trust kids with mental problems? If that thing wasn't bolted down, some messed up bastard could pick it up and throw it across the room.

There are colorful magazines. One of them is even named Rainbow. Under the title is the tag line, "Because every child is special."

Special is one of those words that mean something different to the person saying it than it means to the person hearing it.

"You're just special," says my foster mother on the way to the doctor's office. "And we want to make sure that since you're so special, you're happy."

This from a woman who was fucking my brains out three nights before. A woman who is supposed to care for me and make me safe. Now she's calling me 'special' like I have a fucking disease. She can't even look at me. She didn't have a problem looking at me the morning after I was balls-deep in her asshole; but now that I'm 'special,' she won't meet my gaze.

There are stuffed animals in the waiting room. Most of them look worn out. They have been touched by the hands of thousands of children, in my estimation. Grubby little hands that probably hadn't been washed after they wiped an ass. There is one teddy bear in particular that rests up against a plush unicorn. The bear looks worn out, tired. It's missing part of its bowtie and an eye. The fur is worn and dingy, blackened from years of handling by children who just didn't understand what germs are, what they can do to you.

A small child waiting in the office is staring at me. I stare back. He's sitting next to the only available seat, on a small leather couch facing the receptionist. We just look at each other for a moment. Then he sneezes. Snot comes out all over his hand, which he wipes on his jeans and on the couch.

"You can sit anywhere you like," says the receptionist, not looking to see that there is only one other place to sit, whether I like it or not.

"I'll stand, thanks."

My foster parents are working on the papers with the receptionist when my name is called.

"Dr. Norovim will see you now. Third door down, on the right."

Well, this will make things easier, I think. Three doors, I can handle that, and so I walk through the first door into the hallway, one, two, three times.

I don't realize that there is a woman at the end of the hallway, outside the third door to the right, watching me. I stand still.

"That's ok. Keep doing what you're doing. Just walk down here like you would normally walk everywhere."

I walk up to her door. Will she try to shake my hand? Will she understand if I refuse to shake hers back? I'm thinking about this as I walk through the door to her office one, two, three times. When I get inside, she follows, closes the door, and sits across from me.

"Hello. I'm Doctor Norovim. I understand you're suffering from some anxiety issues?"

I shrug. "I haven't had anymore panic attacks, if that's what you mean."

She starts writing this down. Again with the writing. Won't anybody just listen?

"Your foster parents said they found you last night curled up in the bathtub with ice cold water running over you. You wouldn't call that a panic attack?"

"A panic attack is when you feel like you're going to have a heart attack. I didn't feel like that last night. I just felt…numb."

Her pen scratching against the paper is the only sound I hear.

"Panic attacks are very strange," she says as she writes. "Some of them feel like what you described first—a heart attack. But others can feel different. Did you feel like yourself last night when this happened?"

I answer immediately. "I didn't feel like anything at all."

"Tell me about the way you walked in here, just a second ago. Walking through doors three times. Do you do that all the time, or just when you're nervous?"

"I do it all the time. It's when I don't do it that I start getting nervous."

"What other things make you nervous?"

How much time do you have? I think to myself.

"We have plenty of time," she says, reading my mind. "And we'll talk again in the week, so don't feel pressured to cover everything today, because we won't. Now tell me, what else makes you feel nervous?"

"Germs," I manage. "Just the germs that are everywhere, waiting to infect us. Things not being clean. Screen doors that let too much air in from the outside. Talking on a telephone that hasn't been properly disinfected. The idea of running out of soap in the shower—that's terrifying."

"What about…"

"People not keeping to their schedules," I continue. "People who act like my schedule doesn't matter. They're the worst about it at school. You can sit all day in the office, waiting to talk to someone, and it's like they don't even care that you're waiting there, that you may have something else more important to do."
She's writing feverishly.

"I don't like not knowing things. Not knowing how people feel about me. Not knowing why people talk to me the way they do, or what they're saying in Hushedwhispers."

She puts the pen down for a second. "Hutch wispers?" she says, as if it's in a foreign language.

"No, hushed whispers. The language people use to talk about you when they aren't sure whether or not you can hear them."

"Did you come up with that name by yourself?" she asks, writing again.

"Well, kind of. It's from a book. The Castle in the Sky. I can't remember the author. The line goes something like, 'He could barely hear what they were saying in their hushed whispers, but he knew it was about his family.' "

"So people talking behind your back makes you nervous?"

"It isn't even that. People talking behind my back wouldn't make me nervous if I didn't know they were talking behind my back. It's just knowing that they're talking about someone behind their back, and not knowing whether it's me."

"It sounds like you care a great deal what people think about you."

"That's just it—I don't. I don't give a shit whether Sally Whatshername thinks I'm weird, or whether Bobby Jockhead wants to beat me up. I don't care."

"Then why does it make you nervous?"

"I don't know!" I say, frustrated, louder than I intended. "Sorry."

She puts down her pen and looks at me. "That's ok. You can yell at me—I won't get upset. Sometimes everyone needs to yell."

She's nice. By the time we're done that day, I feel comfortable with her. She tells me that she wants to talk to my foster parents, and that I'll see her again in a week. In the meantime, she gives me some pamphlets to look over: "The Obsessive Compulsive Personality," "Depression: Don't Suffer Silently," and "Anxiety and You."

In the days before my date with Melissa, I thumb through the pamphlets and discover that I have almost all of the symptoms they talk about.

"Will they give you medicine for it?" she asks as we get closer to the restaurant.

"I don't know," I say. "Some of the pamphlets said that sometimes you can get over it with therapy. Sometimes you can't."

She hooks her arm around mine and leans in closer to me. "I went to a psychiatrist once. He said I needed Xanax. You ever taken Xanax?"

"Never heard of it." Cars screech past, one two three, one two three. We walk together. I time my steps with hers, one two three one two three.

"I took one, didn't like it. Felt like I was all messed up. It's supposed to relax you, but they say some people get even more anxious because of it."

"That doesn't sound any good."

"Well, it wasn't for me. I ended up just letting my mom have it after she begged me for awhile. Now I just go back to the psychiatrist to get the prescription refilled so she can have more. Tell him it's working, blah blah blah, I think next time it might be my breakthrough. God, it sucks that you have to lie to please people in this world."

When we arrive at the restaurant, my first thought is that it isn't as clean as Melissa originally insisted. As we sit down, Melissa asks a question that raises another thought:

"What will the medication do to you?"

It isn't long before I find out, because it isn't long before my doctor puts me on Prozac. Now, up on this hill, with my almost-dead girlfriend and the bastard she was sleeping with, I can't help but think that all of it—all of this, all of what I've become—is because of that Prozac.

That goddamned medicine.

Chapter 15

It's been a week since my foster parents found me in the shower, and my foster mother still won't look at me. I walk downstairs and see her sitting in the living room, and she buries her face in the newspaper. She didn't even read the newspaper before all of this started. I walk in from school and see her standing at the window in the kitchen, looking out on the neighborhood, and she doesn't say hi. I try to start conversations with her, but her answers are always monosyllabic. Uncaring. Unsympathetic.

One night when my foster father isn't home, a night that up until that point would have meant vast amounts of sex in every position and place imaginable, she's washing dishes. I don't know what she had for dinner, because we don't eat together anymore.

"Why won't you look at me?" I ask, startling her.

"Jesus Christ!" she yells, catching her breath. "Don't sneak up on people like that!"

"You barely even talk to me anymore. Why?"

She sighs, and looks down at the sink.

"You know damn well why," she says, then begins scrubbing again.

"No, I don't." I walk around the table to stand beside her, where she can't help but see me, even if it is only out of the corner of her eye. "That's why I asked."

Silence forms a barrier between us. She breaks it at last. "You've got enough going on in your life right now. The last thing you need is for me to get involved."

She downs what remains in her wine glass, and with a shaky hand, fills it up again.

"But I want you to be involved. If you weren't involved, I wouldn't have gone to the psychiatrist in the first place. I would have gotten frostbite or died of hypothermia from sitting in that ice cold water too long."

"Yeah, well, maybe that would have been better."

I didn't think I had any emotional attachment to her. I didn't think I had much emotional attachment to anyone. I had my quirks to deal with, and they didn't give me much time to worry with things like friends, or love. So I was a little surprised when I felt tears well up in my eyes after she said that.

"Look," she said, then downed the new glass of wine. "You are a sweet kid, but you are seriously fucked in the head, and I know what it's like. I know…" She stops, and stares out the window over the sink. I don't know if she's thinking, drunk, or both.

"I know that what's ahead of you, what you're going to have to go through—I know that there will be times when it seems like it's too much for you to handle. There will be times when you think that it would be better if you were just dead. If there was no more you, no more 'quirks', No more anything. And I just think it's a shame you're going to have to go through that."

I listen silently because there isn't anything for me to say.

"And the last person you need trying to guide you through all of this is me. Jesus, I slept with you. You aren't even sixteen. Have you ever asked yourself why a woman my age would sleep with someone your age? Would sleep with someone they took in as a charge, when they were that someone's legal guardian?"

I shake my head.

"I'll tell you why—because you aren't the only one here who is fucked in the head."

I back away and watch her as her head falls forward on a loose neck. And while there is no sound, I know from my training in Hushedwhispers that she's crying. The way her head moves up and down, the way she is breathing. And though crying and laughing often look and sound the same, there's no mistaking that the way she shrugs her shoulders with every movement isn't a sign of joy.

"Just go," she says. "You probably have homework or something to do. Maybe a girlfriend to see. But just go. And forget about all of this."

I do have a girlfriend I can see, but I can't talk to her about fucking my foster mother. So when Melissa finally answers her door after I've been knocking for five minutes—hair a mess and clothes askew--and asks me what's wrong, what I'm doing there without telling her I was coming over, I say, "Panic attack."

My newest variation of "Hello."

"Jesus," she says. Something in the way her frame stoops down while she's talking indicates that she doesn't sympathize with me. "I, um. I have someone over. We were studying."

"I can come back?" I offer, thinking a walk around the neighborhood might be a good thing.

"Yeah, do that, would you? Come back in about fifteen minutes."

The stars aren't out that night. Masked by the dark clouds. The moon shines through only a little bit, and the pools of light on the street are from street lamps and storefronts, some of which close down as I walk past. Almost as if I have the plague.

My mind starts to run with that. I always think that other people think I have some sort of illness they can catch. Some of the pamphlets call that "awfulizing." They say that someone like me takes an idea and turns it into something horrifying. Instead of looking at my watch to see that it is nine o'clock sharp and coming to the rational conclusion that shops are just closing down, I think of it as a sign of something far worse. I think that people are putting themselves in quarantine when I'm around.

"Which is simply not the case," says a part of my brain that my psychiatrist will eventually call Rationality. But it's been so long since that part of my brain has said anything that it almost doesn't even register. Instead of listening to Rationality, the other part of my brain grabs onto the one word that will give it the footing it needs to be the One Voice again: quarantine.

Which then brings me full circle to STDs, which I think about all the way back to Melissa's house. I can't fathom how, with a couple of rash decisions made without decent information, I have put my health, and the health of other people like Melissa and my foster mother, in jeopardy. The phrase, "It isn't fair—I didn't know any better," cycles through my mind like a carousel. But the comfort it offers is minimal, at best.

"You have to call if you're going to come over," says Melissa as she lets me in. "What if I hadn't been here?"

I shrug. "I could have waited. I didn't have anywhere else to go."

She shakes her head. Whether or not it's what she wanted to hear, it was the only thing I had to say.

"This…panic attack," she says, leading me to the couch. "Was it a bad one?"

Again, I shrug. "Same as usual."

"Well," she says, smiling wryly, "I know something that might make it better." With that, she starts kissing my neck, slowly working her way down.

"Stop," I say finally, when I think I'm going to be sick. "Just stop. I don't feel like it right now."

She sits back in a huff. "You've said that every time I've tried to make love to you for the past week. What's going on?"

What isn't going on, besides the fact that I'm still grappling with the possibility that through my behavior, I might have caught a disease that could kill me slowly and painfully? And since I've had sex with multiple partners as well as unprotected, I might have passed that on to someone else. And that with all of that weighing on my mind, I can't even bring myself to get an erection, let alone make love to someone.

"So you don't want to talk about it," she sighs as she stands up. "You know, maybe we should take a break. Until this all works out for you."

This doesn't have the emotional impact I think it should. She's breaking up with me. My first girlfriend, is breaking up with me.

Yet, I have a hard time finding the energy to care.

It isn't a long walk back to my foster parent's house. When I walk in the front door, I hear sobbing, and smell something very strange—something familiar, but I just can't quite place it.

The sobbing in from my foster father. I follow the sound until I find him in his bedroom. He's looking at a piece of paper, reading something on it, and mouthing the words. I only catch the last part, but in Hushedwhispers, I can tell exactly what he's saying: I fucked him. I'm sorry. I just can't take it anymore.

The smell, I don't know what the smell is. Hours later, I understand and remember where I first smelled it, when I was with my father years ago. But at that moment, it's still a mystery. Had this all happened after I was up on this hill, I would have known it instantly. The smell is gun powder.

My foster father looks up and sees me. "Go," he says. "Get the fuck out."

"Where do I…"

"JUST GO!" he roars.

I go upstairs and get what I think I need. Thinking about what you need for the future and procuring those things is usually done in vain, because you are rarely correct about what it is that will eventually come in handy. Nonetheless, you do it, because you have to. Because, like so many other parts of your life, you can't imagine doing anything else at all.

Chapter 16

“How are you handling all of this?” asks my psychiatrist on my second visit.

‘All of this’ is a phrase people use when they want to let you be the one who actually brings up a problem. Most people don’t want to point out problems they see other people as having—they want those people to provide those problems themselves, and then begin their criticism.

“You’re going to have to be more specific,” I reply.

“Let’s start with how you feel about the death of your foster mother.”

Oh, the woman I lost my virginity to? The first person in this world to show me the carnal side of life, who took advantage of me, who could go to jail for what she did if she wasn’t a coward and hadn’t offed herself? How do I feel about the fact that she wrote a letter to her husband and told him we had been together and that’s the reason she put a bullet through the back of her head?

“I feel fine. I mean, it sucks, but I feel fine. I didn’t know her that well.”

“It must have been difficult to leave that night. The state gave me a little information. You were picked up by police?”

Literally. When you walk around for nearly ten hours without anything to eat or drink, your body breaks down. I had been walking all night, since I left my foster parents’ house. I didn’t have any other idea what to do, had no place to go. I couldn’t go back to Melissa’s—it was too late. I didn’t have any friends, family, anything. I just had a change of clothes, Kleenex, and antibacterial hand sanitizer. And that was about to run out when I fainted.

“Yeah, they took me downtown until my foster father could come pick me up. I tried to tell them that there was no way he would pick me up, that he had kicked me out.”

Not only had he kicked me out, he had displayed quite a bit of control since he hadn’t picked up the gun and shot me in the face for fucking his wife.

“And why did he kick you out?”

I shrug. “I guess he blamed me. For his wife dying.”

“Why would he blame you?”

I could feel heat rise in my cheeks as I blushed. “Hell if I know. Had to blame someone, I guess.”

She writes for several seconds, then puts her pen down. “But your foster father did pick you up, didn’t he? Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be here.”

Surprisingly, she’s right. He came into the station less than an hour after they called him. I heard him tell the clerk that I had run away that night, that we’d had a misunderstanding after he found my foster mother, and that he’d been out looking for me.

“Yeah, he did.”

“And how are things going between the two of you? What did he say to you?”

He told me that he’d be damned if he lost his tax breaks because of this. He said that I needed to stay the hell out of his way and not to make a sound. Told me I should start seriously thinking about coming home as late as possible and leaving as early as possible to avoid seeing him, because he doesn’t know if he’ll snap the next time he sees me. He told me that he’d still pay for my psychiatrist. When I asked him why he would do that, he said, “Because that only costs me ten dollars. That’s nothing compared to what you save me. And I don’t want to come home and find you in the shower again.”
“He just said that he probably wouldn’t feel like talking to me for awhile.”

“So how are things for you now?” she asks, writing more.

Oh, just dandy. I get up at 5 in the morning so I can avoid my foster father. I walk around aimlessly until it’s time for school. I go to school and spend the day worrying about what I’ve touched and who’s touched what and was that just a stinging in my dick and oh my god I must have caught something and maybe that’s the reason my foster mother killed herself because she found out she had something or holy crap could she have been pregnant? Then it’s off to the bathroom to either puke or have diarrhea because I’m worrying myself so much my stomach is doing horrible things. I spend time after school wandering around town, stopping at a phone every now and then to call Melissa, to see if she’s around, but I only get her the first time I call, and then she says she has work to do and tells me she thinks we should take a break and shouldn’t talk, and then I ask her why and she hangs up. So I continue to walk until it feels like my feet are going to fall off. I usually make it home around 10, quietly make a sandwich, and try to wash off all the dirt and grime from the city with a long, hot shower.

“Things are fine.”

“You aren’t talking much today,” says my psychiatrist as she’s writing.

“Not much to say.”

Or not much I feel like I can say. How can this woman who doesn’t even really know me help me with these problems? The counting, the germs, everything else, I’m sure she can help me with that. But not this.

“I can’t help you if you don’t talk,” she says.

“Talk about what? You know my problems. It’s your job to fix them.”

Writing. “And I want to, but you have to be open with me. You know, other parts of your life are affected by your disorder. The way that you deal with those other parts--that’s part of your disorder as well.”

I break. “What, are you saying that the way I deal with the fact that my foster mother and I fucked like rabbits for the few weeks before she offed herself has something to do with my disorder? Are you saying that the fact that I can’t even look at my girlfriend without wanting to vomit because I found out exactly what kind of disease can be spread through sex has something to do with my disorder? How about the fact that I’m starting to wonder if she has another guy on the side, and I’m scared what I’ll do if I ever find out that’s true. Does that have something to do with my disorder?”

She looks up from her pad. “Not something—everything.”

I’m not sure what I expected, why I didn’t tell her these things before. Maybe I was worried she would turn against me. That she would find me disgusting. Maybe I was worried that she would tell me she couldn’t see me anymore, or send me to a psych ward, or call the police and tell them about all of this. But I realize I was worried about something, and as I sit there, staring at her staring at me, watching her face free of all emotion, I realize that all that worry was in vain.

I realize she isn’t here to judge. She’s here to help.

“Well,” she says, looking at her watch, “we’re out of time today. But I want you to come back next week. We have a lot of ground to cover, especially in light of what you’ve just told me. In the meantime, I’m going to write you a prescription. It’s for Prozac. Prozac is an antidepressant, but it helps people who don’t necessarily suffer from depression. People like you. I want you to take one capsule—twenty milligrams—every day. You probably won’t notice anything at first. You might not even notice anything before you come back next week, because it is a time-release medicine. But it will start working soon.”

She hands me a piece of paper with illegible writing on it.

“Don’t worry,” she laughs as she sees me trying to decipher her handwriting. “Take it to the pharmacy next door—they know my chicken scratch.”

How could she be like this? I just admitted what horrible things I had done over the past few months. And now she’s joking with me?

She stands and sticks her hand out. I shake it, trying to repress the anxiety that causes. “Take care this week, ok? I think we had a really good conversation today. And don’t forget to take your medicine.”

It takes them fifteen minutes to fill my prescription at the pharmacy. I buy a water and down my first pill in the parking lot. I take the second one when I wake up the next morning. I take my pill every day, every day, waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever does.

And then one day, about two weeks later, after I’ve been back to the psychiatrist and told her I’ve noticed nothing whatsoever, I wake up and find importance in the nothingness.

For the first time in years, I don’t have the urge to wash my hands. I sit there on the edge of my bed, and think, “What’s the use? There are germs everywhere. Washing your hands fifty times a day isn’t going to do anything to keep you from getting sick. Just wash them when they’re actually dirty. But that time isn’t right now.”

It’s a familiar voice. But this is the first time I’ve actually been able to listen to it.

And that’s when things start getting weird.

Chapter 17

When Melissa first asked me what it felt like when I was on Xanax, I told her it felt like I was drunk. She said, “I thought you’d never been drunk before. I told her she was right, but that my dad had taken one of my pills one day and told me it made him feel drunk. For me, it felt good, like my head might float away, or my limbs were rubbery. But really, the only thing that I cared about was that when I was on the pill, I didn’t have to worry about panic attacks. The point is, when you are on Xanax, you know you’re on Xanax.

The same doesn’t go for Prozac. You don’t feel anything. You simply wake up one morning, like I did, and realize you don’t care about doing some of the things you normally do anymore. Activities or situations that used to terrify you just aren’t that big of a deal after you’ve been on the medicine a couple of weeks. You sit on the edge of your bed, reeling from the fact that you don’t care about whether or not you wash your hands before you go eat breakfast. Then you realize you didn’t wash your hands the night before either. You’re a little frightened about the fact that not only didn’t you wash your hands before bed, but you didn’t think about the fact that you weren’t washing them.

But pretty soon, that fear subsides as well.

In the middle of second period, you realize with a start that you haven’t used your hand sanitizer all day. You would have used it countless times just yesterday. But here you sit, not concerned about the germs crawling around on your hands. They might make you sick, but who cares? Everyone gets sick every now and then.

You walk down the hall and touch things. You explore the texture of surfaces that used to make you gag. You use the water fountain by the bathroom--the one you wouldn’t even go near a week ago, even if you hadn’t had water in days—without worrying about who else might have had his mouth on it, or whether germs from the bathroom had migrated out, just waiting for an unsuspecting victim to pounce on.

At lunch, you buy your food from the cafeteria for the first time ever. You don’t worry about whether or not it was prepared in a sanitary environment. After all, you’ve never heard of anyone getting food poisoning from the food at school. But even if you get food poisoning, it doesn’t matter. Pretty much everyone gets food poisoning sooner or later.

Pretty much everyone.

You walk up to a table of guys and girls where there is an empty seat and ask to sit down. It isn’t something you’ve ever done before. They look at each other and eventually invite you to join them. Before you know it, you’re eating pizza that tastes like cardboard and laughing it up with everyone. You make jokes, and you don’t worry whether or not people are going to like them. In fact, the one time you do make a joke that nobody laughs at is when everyone (yourself included) eventually laughs the hardest.

You make plans to go to a party that weekend, and go to your next class feeling excited. You don’t even notice that you touch something wet on the garbage can when you’re throwing away your fruit cup. You just wipe it off on your jeans and keep going.

That afternoon, you go to the library and pick up a book. You don’t look on the inside front cover to see how many people have checked the book out before you, then calculate how many hands that means have touched its pages. You flip through, page after page, until the pages are screaming by, then you put it back and get another one. You do this with several books until your hands feel grimy. And even then, you never think of reaching in your bag for the hand sanitizer.

You check out several books. You write your name on the sign-out card using a pen that’s probably been touched by hundreds of different people. You don’t really care. You carry your books to the bathroom and drop one on the floor. You pick it up without even thinking about what’s on the bathroom floor. After taking a piss, you consider washing your hands. It is the first time this has happened to you for as long as you can remember. Washing your hands after going to the bathroom has always been a necessity—not a consideration. You leave without doing it.

Of course, this doesn’t happen in just one day. It happens slowly, over a period of weeks. But looking back, I can see what a drastic change it was, and it almost feels like a day, it happened so quickly. How the medicine turned off whatever switch it was in my brain that served as the conduit for all my obsessions and compulsions—in hindsight, I still perceive it as something that happened overnight. Prozac is a hindsight drug. You don’t even realize it’s working until you look back on your actions and thoughts and examine them.

One would think that such a change would be constructive and meaningful. That whoever this is happening to would be grateful that they are “better,” that their “sickness” has gone away.

But there’s one missing variable. People like me—the obsessive compulsives of the world—we love control. Losing control over any situation creates a significant level of anxiety in us.

I didn’t notice that the medicine had stolen control from me for the first few weeks. I didn’t notice it when I was going through my day and leaving behind rituals that had become my companions. When I was at the party, dancing with Melissa, telling her I was better and planning a date with her for the following evening, I didn’t notice it. Over the next two weeks, when I started making new friends at school, hanging out with different groups of people, raising my hand and talking in class without the least bit of anxiety, it never registered.

Then one day, Mr. Granger calls me into his office.

“It’s been awhile,” he says. “How are you doing?”

“Great!” I answer happily, smiling. “Better than ever, in fact. I’m on Prozac. It’s doing some amazing things.”

“I can tell. You only walked through my door once!”

It wasn’t supposed to be a remark of any significance. In fact, it was supposed to be comforting. Mr. Granger was simply highlighting the progress I made. I understand that now, but it doesn’t change the way I felt when he said it.

What I felt when he said that was a complete and utter loss of control. I understood then that the medicine was controlling my mind. I felt like I wasn’t me anymore. The person that I had been no longer existed, and it scared the shit out of me.

When I leave Mr. Granger’s office, I run to the bathroom. I begin washing my hands. I dry them off. I wash them again two more times, each time using three paper towels to dry off, each time motioning toward the waste basket three times before actually pitching the used towels inside.

It isn’t that I need to because I’m worried about getting sick. I don’t care about that anymore. Germs are the farthest thing from my mind. The only thing I’m thinking about is control. The control the medicine takes away from me, and the control I intend to take back.

I pull the bottle of Prozac out of my backpack and empty the contents into one of the toilets. I flush it away. Then I go back to the sink, where I wash my hands one, two, three times…

Chapter 18

What I don’t understand when I flush the medicine is that Prozac is a time-release drug. That means that even when I quit taking it, it stays in my system for awhile. So it really shouldn’t have surprised me when I woke up the next morning and still felt no desire to wash my hands.

But it does.

“I thought this was supposed to go away,” I say to myself.

“Residual effects. Probably soon,” my say to Iself.

For obsessive compulsives, internal dialogue is an extremely important part of every day activities. We rehearse possible situations, practice possible conversations with other people, even practice exactly how we’re going to say something that we plan on saying. For an actor, rehearsal gives him control over his lines, the movement on the stage, his interaction with other actors. For the obsessive compulsive, our internal dialogue gives us a false sense of control over the world itself. We plan out a situation with a conversation like this, all taking place in the comfort of our own brains:

A play in one act

Cast of characters:





ME: So, another party tonight.

OTHER ME: Yup. Should be fun.

ME: Yeah, but there are going to be a lot of people there.


ME: So, what if you get into a fight?

OTHER ME: Why would I get into a fight?

ME: Why does anyone ever get into a fight? It isn’t because they want to.

OTHER ME: Well, there are some people…

ME: You know what I mean. You get in a fight because some jackass has something to prove to some chick. And guys like that are all over the place at parties like this.

OTHER ME: So I’ll walk away, tell him to fuck off, no big deal.

ME: But it is a big deal. What if you walk away and he throws a bottle at your head and knocks you out. Hell, if it hits you on the temple, you could die.

[Cue Anxiety, enter stage left.]

RATIONALITY: [To himself.] Well, that may be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard.

ME: Come on, seriously? Why would anyone do that?

OTHER ME: [Shrugs.] You got me man. All I know is that I’ve heard of that kind of thing happening before. But even if that doesn’t happen, what if you take the other option you mentioned and tell the guy to fuck off.

ME: What about it?

OTHER ME: Well, maybe he’s got a girl there and decides he doesn’t like some little shrimp saying stuff like that to him, so he decides he and his friends are going to rough you up a little. Things get out of hand, you end up in the hospital with a coma.

RATIONALITY: [To himself, words muffled by Anxiety’s hands over his mouth.] I spoke too soon.

ME: God, how embarrassing would that be.

OTHER ME: You’re telling me. I mean, you’re telling yourself. You know what I mean.

ME: I gotcha.

OTHER ME: And you’re going to be there with Melissa. Which makes it even more likely that some guy is going to try to show you up. You'll want to be on the lookout. Because what would you do if she got hurt?

ME: Got hurt because of me?!?

OTHER ME: Exactly. How are you going to feel riding in the ambulance with her mutilated body on the way to the emergency room, trying to tell paramedics exactly why you couldn't stop a gang of thugs from raping her.

RATIONALITY [Barely a whisper.]: That's ridic…

ANXIETY [Loud and authoritative.]: How would you feel?

ME: I'd feel…I'd want to kill myself.

OTHER ME: And we can't have that.

ME: What if we just went to the movies?

OTHER ME: What if you sit in front of some thug and crunch your popcorn too loud and it pisses him off?

ME: We could always go to a restaurant and then go back to her place?

OTHER ME: Why, so you can make a fool out of yourself and drool all over her only to vomit when she mentions sex?

ME: Christ, what am I supposed to do? Sit at home and play with myself?

OTHER ME: In all honesty, that's probably the safest bet.

ME: [Screaming.]: But it isn't fair! I deserve to go out and have a good time. I deserve to do the things other people want to do. I want to live like a normal person goddammit!

OTHER ME: A great man once said, "You can't always get what you want."

ANXIETY [Soothing and calm.] Here, it is safe and comfortable. If you stay here, no harm will come to you.

ME [Taking off shoes and jacket.] Dammit. Where did I put Melissa's number? Think she'll buy it if I say I'm sick?

OTHER ME: Assuredly.

ANXIETY [Trailing off.]: Safe and comfortable…


That’s the way these conversations with yourself go most of the time. I imagine, had I been off the medicine, that’s almost the exact dialogue I would have had before taking Melissa to the party. But even as the days go by and I keep searching for the effects of the goddamn medicine to wear off, I can’t get nervous. Anxiety isn’t there. I think about getting beat up and immediately throw the idea off as ludicrous. I think about going back to Melissa's place after having a few beers and having sex with her and the only feeling in my stomach is excitement—no nausea. What I had control over before I was taking the medicine—the only part of the world I had control over—is gone. There's something else in control now. Because this is the conversation I have as I lace up my boots and get ready to go pick up Melissa:

ME: This is going to be fun!

OTHER ME: I know I shouldn't, but I'll probably get drunk tonight.

ME: S'okay. Everyone needs to take a load off now and then. We can take a cab. You have cash right?

OTHER ME: Of course.

ANXIETY [Timidly.]: But what if…

RATIONALITY [Booming.] There is no "what if." You will have a good time. You are, and always will be, safe, secure, and confident. No need to worry—everything is going to be OK.

Rationality. As I lace up my shoes and put on my jacket, I realize I’m really starting to hate that motherfucker.

Chapter 19

No matter where or when they happen, panic attacks are not fun. They are probably one of the most difficult experiences someone can go through. The hardest thing about them is, there’s almost nothing you can do to stop them, unless you've been trained in relaxation techniques. They’re monsters that don’t really do anything. Just sit in the corner, freaking you out, threatening to come and get you. I’ll take a real monster clawing at me from under the bed over the corner monster any day of the week. Then, at least you know for sure what you’re dealing with. But with the monster in the corner, you don’t really have a clue. You’re pretty sure he isn’t going to come after you, but he keeps telling you he’s going to get you, and it’s confusing and scary as hell at the same time.

Panic attacks come in many shapes and sizes. Some people, there are particular places or situations that set off a panic attack. Maybe they’re claustrophobic, so being in a big crowd is what gets them going. Maybe they’re scared of heights, and one look out of the airplane window is enough to set them off. I always think that I would prefer it if my attacks were like that.

My attacks, just like a lot of people out there, come from nowhere. That’s the scariest thing of all.

That night, I go pick Melissa up. We have sex before we leave, something that still kind of bothers me, but Rationality and a little foreplay easily relieves that feeling and makes me second-guess my decision to stop taking my meds. We head out into the night, her driving her mom’s car.

On the way we talk—really talk. It’s the happiest we’ve been in weeks. It only takes a few minutes to get from her apartment to the party. Somebody’s parents were out of town, obviously, because the house was gorgeous, huge, and there were already at least thirty people spilling out from the inside to the front lawn.

As we approach the front door, a streak of white darts into the night. Instinctively, I reach down and grab it just as it passes my feet. It’s a small poodle, and it squirms in my hands—so much so I almost drop it.

“Goddammit, I told you motherfuckers to keep the door closed!” screams a beautiful girl who has just emerged from the front door of the house. A few people groan as she approaches us.

“Thank you so much,” she says to me as she relieves me of the squirming tangle of white hair. “This little shit has been trying to get away all night.”

“What’s his name?” I ask, feeling like it’s an important question.

“We call him Ollie for short, but his full registered name is Oliver Crandall Dannington. Weird, I know, but that’s my dad for you. Little Ollie definitely has a mind of his own.”

I know the feeling, I think to myself as the girl leads us into her house.

“Well I’m Tracey, and please let me know if you see anyone going upstairs, ok? I never got the stains out of the linen from the last party. The drinks are in the kitchen, and no smoking in the house.”

Tracey leaves with Ollie under her arm. The house is filled with people. You can’t get past anyone in the kitchen to get a drink. The line for the bathroom stretches into the living room, which is occupied by about thirty people when it probably only has room for ten or so. Melissa and I find some people we know, I go and wait in line to get beer for all of us, we talk for awhile, they introduce us to some of their friends, and we basically have a damn good time. The music is good, I feel like I’ve found friends I can mesh with, and I feel ecstatic.

And that’s when it happens.

“Ow,” I say, feeling a sharp pain in the upper-left side of my chest. I grip it and shake it off, but then Melissa says, “Are you ok?”

“Yeah, just a little pain.”

If Melissa hadn’t said anything, I think I could have ignored it. But as soon as I reply, Other Me asks a question.

“Are you sure you’re ok?” asks Other Me. “Maybe you should go to a hospital.”

I ignore it at first. “Another beer,” I say, leaving the group, hoping the alcohol will calm me down a little. When I walk into the kitchen, it’s filled with even more people than before.

Then my left arm starts tingling.

“Heart attack,” mutters Other Me. “Should have gone to the hospital.”

“Shut up!” I yell. People turn and stare.

This is when things start going downhill. Now, the pain in my chest is pulsating, and I can’t feel my left arm at all. My heart feels like it’s beating at a thousand miles a minute, and my brain shuts down except for the voices inside screaming “OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT” all at the same time. My first thought is that I need to run, to get exercise, fast. That should have tipped me off—exercise isn’t the first thing to come to mind for people having heart attacks. But my mind is going so crazy I don’t hear that, I just keep hearing the “OH SHIT” mantra.

I try to get through the crowd. I need fresh air now. I need to get outside in the open. But every time I push, the crowd seems to draw in tighter around me. I’m stuck in the middle of a goddamn Chinese finger trap, and I can feel everything closing in. In seconds, my vision begins to blur. I can’t catch my breath. Both those things worry me to the point that I no longer register any pain in my chest. My focus is now on why I can’t see straight and what that means. Stroke? Aneurysm? Anything's possible.

Once I break through the crowd and out into the front entrance, my way out is blocked by Tracey standing in the door, lecturing somebody about puking in the rhododendrons.

"Those fucking flowers are older than you are you ass! Get the hell off my lawn."

I bump her out of the way and stumble out onto the sidewalk. "Oh no you don't!" she yells, grabbing my by my collar and turning me to face her in one deft move. "I'm not having someone else puke on my…Jesus Christ."

She's looking into my eyes.

"You look like shit man. How much did you have to drink?"

"One beer. Maybe two."

Before she can respond, I start to see blue and red lights out of the corner of my eyes. These, it turns out, aren't just a manifestation of my panic attack.

"Hurry, everyone out!" screams Tracey, leaving me and running back inside. "The cops are here!"

The people streaming out the front door are windy blurs whizzing by me on either side. At one point, I'm knocked into the grass. This is where I am when Melissa finds me.

"Shit," she says. "You're white as a ghost. What's wrong?"

I can't see her or who she's with. I still can't see anything too clearly.

"Panic attack," I mutter. "Please…"

She's kneeled down next to me. I put my head on her leg, and I know I'm safe. Rooted to the ground. She's an anchor of sorts—for a moment, I don't feel lost at sea.

Things fade to black after that. I really come to when I'm in her apartment and she's feeding me ice cream and hot tea.

"I was worried about you," she says when I open my eyes.

"That's something new."

"What do you mean? I worry about you all the time."

"I meant something new for me—not you."

She lets me fall asleep on her shoulder that night. I don't remember my dreams, but I did wake up feeling warm and happy the next morning, if not tired. Of course, all of that is dashed when the front door to the apartment opens.

"GODDAMMIT MELISSA!" screams a large, brash woman silhouetted against the bright sun outside. "I thought I told you no more guys sleeping over?"

Melissa's voice comes from her bedroom. "Be right there! I can explain everything."

My voice, weak, barely squeaks out of my mouth. "No more guys?"

Some words change the meaning of an entire sentence. In this case, had Melissa's mother left out "more," I might not have thought anything was up. I might not be here right now, looking down on a now-shivering Melissa and the bastard she was sleeping with, who has been unconscious for the last ten minutes or so. But "more" means that there were guys before me.

The question is, how long before me?

Or whether they were "before" me at all.

Chapter 20

"I don't buy it. I don't buy it for a single second."

What Melissa's mother doesn't buy is Melissa's assertion that I'm just a friend from school who had a misunderstanding with his parents and needed a place to crash.

"You're trying to say this isn't one of your fuck buddies?" asks her mom, looking between the two of us.

"Fuck buddy?" I ask.

"MOM!" Melissa yells.

Ms. Cantrell just laughs. "Hey, I told you before, if you want to slut it up with whoever walks down the street, that's your choice. I'm not paying for no baby or no STDs though."

I look at Melissa—her head is in her hands. "No Ms. Cantrell, you don't get it—I'm her boyfriend."

This time, Ms. Cantrell shrieks with body-shaking giggles. "Boyfriend? Oh that's rich. Now don't tell me this girl actually convinced you that you were the only one."

I just stare.

"Well hell—I guess she did. Maybe I should give my daughter more credit in the future."

"Are you saying…"

"Don't listen to her," says Melissa, "she's just being a bitch."

"Woo hoo hoo!" says her mom. "Just a bitch, huh? Let me tell you something," she says, turning to face me. "You ain't the only one I've caught like this. You're the first one I didn't catch naked in Melissa's bed, or in the shower, or on the kitchen table—that's for sure. But you aren't the first."


"There was that guy a few months ago. Jesus, I could hear them going at it when I pulled up in the parking lot. So loud they didn't even hear me walk in."


"Then there was that girl I found her with in the shower. That was a weird one."


"Or what about that guy last week? She had his cock so far down her throat she almost gagged when I walked in."


My eyes are filled with tears. Ms. Cantrell swivels her head from me to Melissa, me to Melissa, then smiles—an evil smile. "Oh dear. I've said too much."

Melissa is staring at me with a pleading look in her eyes. "I'm sorry," she manages. "I didn't want you to find out this way. I was going to tell you."

"I need to go," I say, feeling the pain in my chest begin to throb. My heart starts beating faster and faster. I reach to pick up my watch on the table, but my hands are so sweaty it slips from them, as if I'm grasping for air.

"I'm coming with you," pleads Melissa.

I rarely yell at people for things they have done to wrong me. With the amount of time I've spend worrying about what I've done to other people, I've never felt it necessary to put them through any grief over their mistakes. Which makes what I say next so surprising.

"No, you aren't. You can stay here, find some more dick to suck. Another girl who wants to mess around in the shower. Find someone else to fuck you in the ass, to pull your hair. Someone else to call you 'daddy' when you're bucking on top of him like a professional bull rider. Moreover, find someone else willing to listen to your problems, someone else to sit and listen to you bitch about your mom. Find someone else to watch you at a party, to make sure you don't get so drunk you end up naked in a pool. You can just stay here and find someone else, cause that someone sure as fuck isn't going to be me."

Her mother's ghoulish laugh fills the air as I storm out of the apartment.

Melissa catches up with me in the parking lot, as I'm walking away, trying not to cry, and trying to ignore her shouts insisting I stop so we can talk.

"Wait," she says, grabbing my arm and turning me around. Her face is coated with tears—her hair clings to the wet spots, and she pants heavily as if she's been running for hours. Or fucking for less.

"I'm sorry. I have a…problem."

"We all have problems, Melissa. But for most of us, those problems don't involve the inability to keep sexual organs out of various bodily orifices."

Her face changes to one of anger and disbelief. "Oh yeah? Is that why you were fucking your foster mother and me at the same time?"


She laughs deeply. "What, you think that's a secret? You think nobody at school has heard about your foster parents? You aren't the first guy to live with them, you know. A couple of perverted fucks, those guys. Mom fucks the guys cause Dad likes to watch."

"Likes to…"

"Likes to watch, yeah. You think he didn't know?"

"If he knew, why would she have killed herself?"

Melissa shakes her head. "Most guys they kept used to come to school and tell stories. 'Man, you won't believe this crazy bitch. She lets me fuck her up the ass while her husband crawls up in the attic where he can watch us through a hole in the wall. But fuck, what do I care if some old pervert likes to watch a kid fuck his wife.' "


"Then there was the guy who actually wanted her husband to join in. Husband kicked him out when he heard that."


"But you—you aren't like those guys. You didn't even know that there was a difference between sex and fucking! You were naïve, you were innocent, and most importantly, when you found out all about sex, it seriously fucked you up, didn't it? That's why you didn't want to have sex with me for so long, I imagine. She didn't kill herself because she fucked you. She killed herself because of what happened to you after she fucked you."

"Melissa, it was…"

"So don't you lecture me about appropriate bedroom behavior."

We stand for a few moments, just looking at each other. The scent of bread floats through the breeze from the bakery down the street.

"Who was he?" I ask.

"Who was who?"

"The guy with his cock in your mouth."

"What the fuck do you care?"

I look her in the eyes. "I care, because I'm going to kill him."

I turn and walk away. When I finally venture to look behind me, to see if she's still there, I'm greeted with an abandoned parking lot.

Back on the hill, they are both conscious. Melissa coughs a lot, and the bastard she slept with continues to whine and protest. The pools of blood around them have grown larger. They shine black in the moonlight, stretching so far across the dirt between them that they almost touch.

"Is this the guy?" I ask Melissa.

"WHAT GUY?!?" she screams in a blood-soaked voice.

"The guy—the one with his dick in your mouth."

At this, the guy laughs. "Buddy, that's a pretty long list you're looking at there. We've all had our dicks in her mou…"

The blast deafens me for a moment; the instant light blinds me. When I regain my senses, I see blood bursting forth from the hole in the guy's head. I hear Melissa screaming, or at least, trying to scream. But above all that, I hear Rationality—a Rationality that has taken on a morbid life of his own—asking me over and over again:

"How many bullets left?"

Chapter 21

In the dark, in my foster father's house. Not a light on in the place.

The week before, after I left Melissa in that parking lot, Mr. Granger says there's something different about me.

"You look like something's on your mind."

"There is. I know my purpose now."

He starts writing. I'm tempted to ask him how many pens he goes through in a week. I remain silent.

"Your 'purpose,' well that's good. What is it?"

"Making things right."

"You mean, like a police officer?"

"Yeah," I say, almost a whisper. "Something like that."

He smiles. "That's a noble profession. You know what? There are personality traits that all obsessive compulsive people have that aren't negative. The more you learn how to control those, well, they may be very helpful in a line of work like that."

"How so?"

"Say you're a police officer approaching a house where a crime has taken place. Someone without obsessive personality traits might not think about everything involved—maybe he would just bust in the front door without asking himself questions you would. 'Is there someone inside? Is it the time of day that person might be asleep, and if so, how long do I have to take him by surprise?' That kind of thing."


I stare at the air conditioning vent. Momentarily, it turns on and emits a low, steady buzz. I feel the cool air caress my face, my hair—too long now—barely touching my forehead.

"Are you sure there isn't anything wrong right now?"

He's looking at me. Maybe he can see through it. Maybe he knows there's something else underneath it all. But maybe he's just a hack—just a guy with a specialized degree and a little knowledge of how to get information out of people. Maybe this is just part of a script.

"Well, I am missing Algebra."

He looks at his watch. "Oh crap, I'm sorry. We've gone over. I'll write you a note."

"We've gone over." The phrase repeats as I sit in the darkness, the nondescript bottle by my side, a soft cotton hand towel in my lap.

The day after Granger, I see my psychiatrist.

"You look different somehow," she says as I sit down.

"Been hearing that a lot lately."

"Why are you so vengeful?"

So, Granger was a hack. This woman immediately sees in me the emotion that I tried so hard to hide from the world.

"Don't ask," she says, writing. "It's something I've seen a lot. I've experienced it myself. I can tell. That's all you need to know."

"I just want to right what's wrong," I say in what I hope is a confident voice.

"And what makes you the authority on right and wrong?"

I think for a second. "How do I know how you exist?"

"Many scientists place a good bit of confidence in empirical evidence. You see me, therefore, I exist."

"But what if my senses are wrong? You see things all the time that don't exist. Mirages, shadowy figures in the corner of your eyes. Who's to say that you aren't the same?"

"Who's to say you aren't a brain in a vat?" she asks.


"You aren't the first person in the world to ask these questions. Descartes, the French philosopher, said 'I think, therefore I am.' Otherwise, he doesn't think there's anything else he should believe is a reality."

"Sounds like a smart guy."

She shrugs. "It's debatable. He bent to the Roman Catholic Church and changed his conclusions in what he touted as a proof that God exists. Pretty pathetic if you ask me."

She continues to look at me. It's the longest I've ever seen her go without writing things down.

"Anyway, it's the first argument that's interesting. How are we to know that anything exists besides us? And if we can't make that assumption, why have any regard for the things that our mind leads us to believe exist?"

I nod my head in agreement.

"That's an extremely dangerous attitude to foster," she continues.

I stare at the leather on the chair. It is defined by its wrinkles.

"When you disregard the value of others, their rights, their very existence, you're left with a way of dealing with them that can lead to consequences which, if your theory proves to be false, have terrifying consequences."

The carpet is worn by the thousands of feet that have trampled it.

"This is what Kant called a necessary postulate. Whether or not you believe what you're saying is true, you can't practically act as if what you're saying is true."

Her chair is perfect. It is new. It's newer than the one she had last week. Which is newer than the one she had when I first began seeing her.

"You're subscribing to a point of view that, if you allow it to infiltrate your life, will produce actions that you may regret one day."

With these three things, I can see…

(One two three…)

"I think I need to see you later on this week…"
That she cares more about her than me…

(One to three…)

"Please schedule an appointment. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with where you are now."

Where I am now is in the living room of my foster father's house. There's a steady wind blowing through the large oaks in the front yard. I hear his car pulling into the cul-de-sac where the house sits. I hear him pull into the driveway. I hear him wait. He does this every night. He'll come in stinking of booze. He'll stumble through the doorway, and will probably fall down. If I look outside, I'll see on his car the damage done from the dozen or so curbs he's run up against this week. But I won't look outside. There isn't anything for me out there.

He sits out there for an eerie amount of time.

Forty-seven seconds.

Inside, he stumbles as expected. His senses are dull. He doesn't notice me approach him from behind. He doesn't notice anything at all…

…until he wakes up in the attic. In my room.

There's a mirror on the wall in front of him—the mirror my foster mother used to dress herself in front of. A mirror where he can see all of himself. It's covering the hole where he used to put his eyes.

He's naked, and tied to a chair. There is a handkerchief in his mouth, gagging him. He begins to struggle. And I'm standing behind him.

"So," I say, running the edge of my knife against my palm. I make a small knick in the fleshy part under my thumb, but the pain seems enjoyable.

"So," I repeat. "You like to watch?"

He starts struggling more, and I let him. The rope is already tearing his flesh—I can see the rawness begin to develop on his neck. He fights and fights—an animal caught in a trap. Though he knows it's useless, he continues to fight.

"So," I say finally, "You like to watch?"

He begins to cry.

"Well, watch this," I say calmly as I stab the knife into his sternum one, two, three times…


An Audience of Shadows will continue next Wednesday.

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