I would absolutely love to hear any feedback, postive or negative. This isn't my first story, but it is from my first complete novel - I'm anxious (and a little nervous!) to have some comments thrown my way.
The artificial luminescence of street lamps and stop lights shone down on a main intersection of small-town southern America. It was late, well past midnight, so the streets were nearly empty of traffic, which was usual at this late hour.
This only served to accentuate the oddity of the solitary figure sitting on a bench at one of the four corners. He sat with his head bowed and his hands in his lap, never bothering to look up when cars passed. On rare nights, people would pass by on foot. Even more rarely, some would stop and sit with him. On such occasions he treated those passers-by and tourists-to-his-bench with the same indifference as the cars on the street, knowing that any attempt at acknowledgement on his part would be ignored anyway.
But not tonight. Tonight, he felt like talking.
So when a man stopped to rest, sitting next to him with a tired sigh while rummaging in one pocket for what could only be presumed to be a cigarette, he began to gather his thoughts. The man was bleary-eyed, swaying slightly from side to side as if the bench were a gently rocking boat. At this time of night, it seemed likely that the last words the man had heard were, ‘last call’.
He didn’t know the man and it really didn’t matter. He would have spoken to anyone who’d stopped at his bench tonight.
“I don’t know why I’m bothering to talk to you,” he began. “I know you won’t be any help. I know you won’t answer me.”
Staring intently, he waited for any flicker of acknowledgement, anything at all.
So he continued, almost helplessly, with long pauses between everything he said. “It’s the same every night. I know this is a dream. Not like one of those dreams you wake up from and think, man that was crazy
. Not even close. Everything is too normal.”
No flicker in the man’s eyes. Not even a squint like maybe he’d heard but was trying to ignore this annoying nobody next to him. Nothing.
“I know I’m asleep and I know this isn’t real, but that doesn’t make any difference. Why should
it make any difference? It isn’t like knowing changes anything. It’s not like I could make it better.”
Sighing, he turned bodily toward the man, tucking one leg up underneath himself and leaning his head forward as if he had some sort of chance to really explain. “But then, ‘making it better’ – that’s not really a fair way to describe what I’d like to do with this dream. There’s no real way to measure it.” He paused, searching for the right words even though he already knew what he wanted to say. “It’s not a good dream and it’s not a bad dream - it’s just the same
dream. Sure, there’s some variation here and there, but more or less it’s always the same dream, and it always will be. Nothing I can do will make it any different or stop it from happening.”
Sweeping his arms in either direction to encompass the street and the corner where they sat, he said, “Every night, without fail, this is where I end up. At this bench. In fact, I’m here so much that now I think of it as My Bench. You know? With a capital ‘M’ and ‘B’? Get what I mean?”
Chuckling for no real reason, he stood up and began pacing in front of the bench as is if he were lecturing.
“Every night I get out of bed, leave my house, and come into town. Sure, for the first few months, back when the dream was still new, I wandered a lot trying to find someone, somewhere that would talk to me - tell me if maybe I was crazy - but no one ever did.
“I wander around this town from sundown until sun-up, ignored by everyone. Just like you’re doing now. I just sit – sit and watch people like you go about your evening the way that normal people usually do. And it makes sense. Of course I know what most normal people do at night, so why would seeing you do those things seem strange?”
The man belched, scratched under his jaw, and got unsteadily to his feet, looking both ways down the street.
strange,” he told the man, now face to face, almost whispering. “Of course it isn’t. But then again it is.”
Raising his voice, he yelled directly into the man’s face, “Because I shouldn’t be here! Not like this! Not watching people do what I suppose
they’d normally do!”
Ignoring him, the man turned and stumbled away, the night swallowing him as made his way toward wherever it was that he was going.
Sighing as the man faded from sight, he sank back down on his bench. It was pointless.
The problem wasn’t that every night wasn’t what he would imagine a normal night in Radcliff to be, just like any other night in a small Kentucky town. It was that he, himself, was not normal. Because even though he spent every night among people he had known his whole life, only on rare occasions did he have the chance to spend an evening with
any of them.
What made it so unreal was how ordinary everything around him seemed. The only giveaway that always made him realize that he was dreaming was a slight shade of gray that washed everything out. Just a little, not a lot. Almost like the world had been doused with dirty dishwater and left to drip-dry.
Of course, the fact that no one ever spoke to him was definitely a red flag, too. And if he was being completely honest with himself, not being spoken to really was the worst part. It was like he wasn’t there, and no matter how hard he tried people just looked right through him. Even in his own head, here in his own dream, he couldn’t make himself important enough to notice. And it wasn’t that he wanted to be important, that wasn’t what really mattered. Just being noticed and accepted would be enough but he couldn’t even get that far.
Unfortunately, he knew that his lack of remark ability carried right through into the real world as well. Because no matter how resolved he became upon waking, no matter how strong his conviction that he would take steps to change the way he was viewed and become more noticeable, more substantial to the people around him, he was never able to succeed in making that change. It was like his dream was the determining factor in what characterized him as a person and no matter how hard he tried he just couldn’t break free from his curse of introversion and blandness.
Breathing a deep sigh that no one heard, he punched the wood planking of his bench and turned his head to face east, waiting for the dawn so that another long, lonely night could end and he could begin the cycle again at sunrise.
Paul woke from yet another dream-filled night, having once again fallen asleep early and slept straight through into the morning hours. He blinked and stretched as he rolled diagonally on his bed, trying to find the will to pry himself from his mattress and face another day of high school. Although his body was aching and tired, it was his mind that was most exhausted. He felt as if he had spent the entire evening cramming for a big exam.
How was it that he could sleep for ten and sometimes twelve hours a night and wake up nearly every morning feeling as if he had not slept at all? He’d tried to find something to fix the problem, but no amount of doctor visits, talks with trained professionals, or pills had ever been able to make any difference for him. It had been that way going on five years, now.
Every night, he would begin to nod off around seven o’clock in the evening, as if just knowing it would soon be dark created a subconscious trigger in his mind that would shut him down. He could be sitting on the couch with his mom watching a movie and even though he fought against it, he would still nod off, waking stiff and sore on the couch the next morning.
The worst part was that it happened no matter where he was or what he was doing. The first few times that he’d tried spending the night at a friend’s house was all he needed; particularly the time a couple of summers ago, when his best friend Steven decided that it would be fun to shave his eyebrows after he fell asleep and couldn’t be roused. Paul had woken up and left Steven’s house without knowing what his friend had done. It wasn’t until he was in line to pay for his breakfast burrito that he noticed all the stares and snickers from the people around him. It took a week for Paul to get the nerve to leave the house again and two months for him to reestablish his friendship with Steven, who had always been the kind of friend that took every chance he could to pull a prank.
The only time he was ever able to fight against falling asleep when he was with Stephanie, who was also one of his best friends. She’d been his across-the-street neighbor when he moved on to First Street in the third grade, and although he and his mother had moved to another rental across town by his ninth grade year, he and Stephanie had remained strong friends. There was something very safe about his chick friend (her term – not his) that he knew he could never find in any of his male friends. He certainly would never find any kind of comfort zone from a joker like Steven. He and Stephanie had fun, of course, like normal friends did, but they also talked about the deeper things in life. He never felt embarrassed when he told her how he was feeling or what he was thinking.
Sitting on the edge of his bed, rubbing his sandy eyes and trying to get rid of the cottony, morning-brain feeling that accompanied the first hour of every day, he squinted at the clock. Just after seven in the morning - the same time that he always woke up this time of the year. No matter what time his alarm was supposed to go off, it was always just after sunrise when he opened his eyes. Summer time, winter time – it didn’t matter if daylight savings had just kicked in; he was getting up when the sun came up and that was that. This caused him no end of detention at school, because when he was on the wrong end of daylight savings, he inevitably ended up late for school for literally months at a time.
Pushing himself up onto his feet and scratching at his tangled mess of hair, he made his way downstairs into the kitchen for something to eat. Breakfast with the Cap’n - hard to beat
, he thought, and lost himself in the sound of his own crunching for the next fifteen minutes.
* * *
It wouldn’t really be fair to say that school was the same every
day, but it would be pretty close to the mark. Depending on what time of the year it was, Paul either found himself sneaking in the back of the school through the band room door to start his day in second period, or beginning it like everyone else by jostling his way in with the rest of the poor unfortunates that were supposed to be his peers, doomed to another seven hours of monotonous classroom diatribe. Although he had a strong dislike for all things high school, he didn’t fight against being there and always arrived as soon as he was able. He recognized the need earn his diploma and was resigned to sticking it out, even though just about anywhere else would have been preferable place for to him to spend five days a week.
As far as grades were concerned, he was neither a good student nor a bad student. He had a remarkable gift of memory that he didn’t advertise because he didn’t want the attention, but because he could recall nearly anything he saw or heard he aced any test thrown in front of him. This was balanced out by the fact that he rarely did homework because he resented being given work on things he already knew. At one point in his freshman year, he had tried to explain his perspective to one of his teachers but that had only earned him detention, so he’d learned early on to keep his mouth shut and do what it took to just get by.
As far as trouble, he kept out of it for the most part, but didn’t avoid it either. If he found the kind of trouble that was appealing, he joined in.
He really didn’t fit any mold. That was probably why his two best friends were a girl and the school rebel-slash-dork.
Because it was that time of year, today was a sneak-in-the-band-room-door day. He was already late for school by almost an entire hour, which was normal when daylight savings was “on”.
On the door, he saw that Stephanie had come through for him yet again; a pink post-it note was stuck on the outside next to the handle. This was the same signal they’d used since ninth grade. It let him know that she’d made a change to the attendance roles taken in first period and that he was in the clear. There was almost never a day that she failed him, which was how he was able to get through his high school career spending only some of his time in detention or suspended.
Letting himself in and making his way through the maze of bass drums, tympanis, kettle drums, and all the other percussion instruments that perpetually cluttered the back of the room, he didn’t notice the grim-faced assistant principal, Mr. Paine, leaning against the wall near the room’s exit until he was almost on top of him.
“Good morning to you, Mr. Bennett”, said Mr. Paine drily.
Mr. Paine was a cross between the principal from Back to the Future
and Agent Smith from the Matrix
; he was always stern, always fairly intense, and as such most students took him very seriously – but he was still an assistant principal and that made it difficult to take him completely
serious all the time. He was a tall, skinny man with a mostly bald head and a pair of thick black glasses which always made his eyes look slightly smaller than they must really be. This gave him the look of a perpetual squint, which in turn gave him the look of perpetual anger. You never really knew for sure where you stood with Paine, but the safest bet was to assume that he was displeased. If he wasn’t … it was like a get-out-of-jail-free card for the day.
“Good morning, Mr. Paine.”, Paul said in a carefully neutral tone.
Paul was neither a rebel nor a butt-kiss. He was somewhere in the middle. He had respect for the job that people like Mr. Paine had to do, but because Paul spent most days in a state of perpetual fatigue, he probably came off as indifferent to a person in Paine’s position. People like Mr. Paine demanded to be respected and wanted that respect to be obvious from those they demanded it from. Undoubtedly, Paul’s neutral tone was being taken as disrespect. The truth was, it wasn’t that Paul didn’t care that he was busted – he just didn’t know how else to be. And he wouldn’t try to fake it even if he did.
Mr. Paine spoke slowly, articulately, to accentuate the intensity of the message.
“I’ve been watching you, Mr. Bennett. I’ve been watching you for quite some time, now. I’ve watched you stroll in this back door – late – every single day for the past nine days. And although the fact that you’re late every day doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, given your history here, there are
two things that truly amaze me
.” He stared intently into Paul’s eyes as he spoke, dragging out the last three words. “The first is that I can count on you to show up every day like clockwork within a few minutes of the day before. Astounding. Usually my chronically tardy students show up whenever the mood takes them, if at all. But you – you show up at nearly the same time every morning. And the second thing, the second thing is even more amazing. Somehow, your first period teacher has forgotten to record the fact that you are not present for class almost every single day.”
Paine once again spoke the last three words very slowly and very distinctly.
Paul stood mute, waiting for Mr. Paine to finish his speech. He didn’t hang his head; he looked Mr. Paine in the eye with his own tired gaze and took the verbal lashing without flinching. It didn’t matter that Paul couldn’t help the fact that he simply could not wake up until dawn; he knew that anything he said would be seen as belligerent, and would only further add to whatever punishment Mr. Paine chose to mete out. Isn’t that what the criminals in the movies always said? If you get pinched and the cops start in on you, don’t say anything. Just keep your mouth closed. Maybe he wasn’t quite to criminal status yet, but right now – at this moment – he felt like quite a rule-breaker. So he kept his mouth shut. The guys from Goodfellas
would’ve been damn proud of him.
“And so, Mr. Bennett, this leads me to two conclusions. One; that because you show up at the same time every day, you have something that you feel is more important than school to attend to every morning. Are you on drugs?” Asked so quickly, it was a rhetorical question and Paul knew it, so he continued to keep his silence and let Mr. Paine continue. “And two; that you have found a way to doctor the attendance records, which is an even worse offense than tardiness.”
Paine stood, arms folded, staring at Paul, waiting for a reply. Maybe he was even hoping for a reply, but he didn’t get one because Paul didn’t have one that Paine would believe. The two of them stood like that in the band room near the door to the hallway for a solid sixty seconds without saying a word. It took everything Paul had not to look down, shuffle his feet, or swallow – but he did it. He just stared back at Paine as Paine stared at him.
This was Paul’s strength. His zone. He didn’t need to speak and could spend time for hours in the same room with any manner of people without saying a word and be perfectly comfortable. It unnerved Stephanie to the point that she felt there was ‘something wrong with him’ and Steven called it ‘creeper eyes’ when Paul looked back, clear-eyed, without speaking. Paul never spoke just for the sake of speaking because he disliked those who did. He didn’t see anything wrong with not filling in the empty spaces of silence – in fact he found that he enjoyed sharing time more with people when he wasn’t talking than when he was.
Finally, the awkwardness of the silence must have been too much for Paine. He narrowed his eyes, shook his head sadly, and sighed through his nose as he told Paul to follow him to his office.
* * *
As usual, the main office was crowded, loud, and bustling with people. For a place that represented the epicenter of an institution that put discipline as one of the cornerstones of its values, it always amazed Paul how loud and chaotic it was.
Following in the wake of Mr. Paine, Paul listened as the man continued to berate him about his ‘chronic’ tardiness. What a perfect word – chronic – to describe Paul’s inability to wake up before dawn. He’d always felt like his disorder was some sort of disease. It certainly had never helped him in any way except to increase his feelings of isolation.
“How is it,” Paine went on, “that a student such as yourself – one that almost never shows up on our radar as a trouble-maker – can allow himself to be late every single day of class. Average grades, no extra-curricular activities, you’re never seen with ‘the bad crowd’. In fact, you’re never seen with much of anyone.”
Following in the wake of Paine’s monologue, Paul couldn’t help but notice a dark-haired girl at the front desk staring at him with the biggest, most beautiful brown eyes he’d ever seen. He’d never noticed her in school before and with eyes like that he was sure he would have. She had a slightly olive skin tone, jet black hair, and full, lush lips. From the looks of it she was just finishing enrolling with the secretary.
He felt himself blushing to his roots and tried to stop staring, but he couldn’t, and she stared back just as directly, her brown eyes holding his own. He was unable to hold back a very foolish-looking, sloppy smile. She didn’t smile back, but she didn’t stop looking, either, which made Paul get that warm, dizzy, and not altogether unpleasant feeling in the pit of his stomach, making his sloppy grin sloppy to the point of dopey.
That is, until he ran into the back of Mr. Paine who’d stopped to open his office door.
Looking down at Paul, Paine once again narrowed his eyes, “Bennett, is everything I’ve said to you in some way amusing? Do you find the fact that you’re about to enter into my office under very serious circumstances funny? Understand, sir that this is not a matter that will be taken lightly.”
As Paine opened his door and motioned Paul inside, Paul took one last look toward the front desk and the girl with the big brown eyes, but she was already gone. Heaving yet another sigh, he followed Mr. Paine through the door to receive whatever punishment the man deemed to be justice.