A year or so ago, I was teaching a college class, Introduction to Fiction. As with all such classes, the time came for a quiz—the first quiz of the quarter. Bright spring sunlight flooded into the classroom from a horizontal bank of institutional windows. Twenty-two eager, shiny young students sat three to a table, and I did my normal pre-quiz song and dance at the front of the room. Once the quizzes were distributed, the room went silent save for the occasional human sighs and the skritching hisses of moving pens and pencils. Everything was right with the world. Young brains burned calories working through the complexities of my carefully-crafted short essay questions. For a few precious moments, I felt a sense of order, personal value, and contentment.
Then, I heard a sound I didn’t expect—a muffled sob.
My teacher senses started tingling. I tracked the sound to a pretty young woman toward the back of the class. She was the kind of young woman you would expect to see standing in the sun outside the building and surrounded by a knot of three or four young men trying to get her attention any way they could. She had been quiet in class, but she had seemed to be keeping up. I had no reason to believe my five question quiz would bring her to tears.
I approached. Using my teacher stealth skills, I checked to be sure she was crying. It was spring. It could have been allergies, right?
No. Full-on, faucet-eyed crying. She shook in her seat. She swallowed gasps and stifled moans that would soon have alerted the entire room to her state of distress.
Gently, I whispered to her that we could go out of the room. I helped her up, and we walked out into the hall. My imagination flashed through possibilities: a nasty breakup, a dead parent, a diagnosis, an unwanted pregnancy—each and every thought one of the sad but all too common horror stories teachers encounter.
In the hall outside the classroom, she gasped for air. I looked into her eyes and realized none of my imagined demons held sway in her heart. Rather, I had a force 10 panic attack on my hands. The poor thing was a mess. Psychologically, she was being tossed around in chaotic hundred-mile-an-hour winds generated by genetics and experiences I could only guess at.
She asked to go to her car. I decided she was breathing fine and had calmed down enough to walk steadily, so I walked her out. After assuring me she did not intend to drive and giving me her father’s number, I let her get in her car. There, on a warm, sunny spring day, she locked all the doors, crossed her arms over the steering wheel, rested her head on her arms, and bawled.
I checked in at the office to let them know what was happening. One of the office women went out to sit with her. We called her father, and he came to take care of her.
It turned out she had a kind of agoraphobia. Every second she spent in the open air or in contact with other people was a second filled with agony. She was on medication and working with therapists and counselors. She wanted desperately to go to school—to be normal. On a beautiful, warm spring day, she walked a razor’s edge. On one side, sensory overload could overwhelm her with terror. On the other side, medication and will power could keep her moving through the day pretending to be normal—appearing to be normal to all onlookers. My little quiz tripped her. She fell on the razor.
When I was growing up, my father once said to me, “Eric, everybody in the world is crazy. The question is how much and can they get along.”
That’s what’s scary to me. All of us are that young woman. We all exist somewhere on the spectrum of disorders. In Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart,” the main character tells himself over and over that he is sane. While convincing himself of his sanity, he commits a terrible crime. That man scares me because I suspect we all cover both our flaws and our misunderstood strengths when we tell ourselves at one time or another that we are “just fine.” In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the poor woman locked in the room with the yellow wallpaper seems to truly believe that her husband, a prominent doctor, knows what’s best for her when he locks her away in an attic room. That scares me because I suspect she was quite healthy when they locked her up, but by the time the story is over, she’s slipped as far to the edge of her spectrum as she can get.
What scares me?
Two things terrify me. The first is that at any given moment, not one of us can truly be sure of the value and veracity of our own perceptions. The second is that as a culture, we impose an ill-considered set of constraints on one another. We call it the norm.
While most of my fiction cannot be called horror in the strictest sense, all of it tends to deal with my two fears.
I offer these links to a couple of examples. I hope you enjoy them. And, I hope that as you walk in your world, a world that no other human being actually shares, you’ll keep in mind the fact that every perspective is as true as your own. We human beings only seem to get into trouble when we decide our perspectives and beliefs are more true than someone else’s. As Steven Jobs said, “Here’s to the crazy ones…”
“Lost Island Story Hour,” Short Story America Vol. II. If you like this tale, I hope you’ll consider purchasing the full print (or ebook) anthology in order to support SSA’s efforts to promote the short story as a form.
“Mirages,” Published by The Writer Magazine in conjunction with an article I did, but the link is to the online proofs for an unpublished version intended for Vol. 7 of Polyphony from Wheatland Press, which was never published.
Watch this space for future releases. The next tales that address my fears come out in Vol. III of Short Story America later this year. They are called “The Cell Door Opens” and “Bosque Circular.” Both are what I call an upbeat horror story.