In Between and Neither
The surface I'm lying on is very cold to the naked skin of my back. To my fingers which are lying on it, it feels like a metal surface. I feel like every bit of warmth is being sucked out of me. From the darkness surrounding the bright lamp which is suspended above the surface a number of faces appear, moving in closer, though I can never tell exactly how many faces there are as I can't seem to focus clearly, and my head feels all weird. One of the people to whom the faces belong to is holding up some kind of tubular device and mentions something to the others about the values clearly indicating that there is nothing unusual.
Then another face to my right moves in closer and says something to me which I don't fully understand, but which seems to involve surgery, and cutting and reassigning things. A sense of terror begins to form inside my chest, as I try to overcome the numbness in my head and limbs. Suddenly I find the strength to get up and get off the metal table I was lying on. Sliding off, onto the cold floor with my bare feet, it takes me a few steps to realize that I'm dragging along a collection of tubes and wires. Pushing on, my steps become more and more stable as I hear things behind me fall over and break. People are yelling.
As I begin to hear rushed footsteps behind me I increase my pace, until I am more or less running. Dashing through one dark, grey corridor after another I can begin to hear the footsteps behind me slowly fading away into the distance. For a brief moment I feel a surge of hope inside me, then I notice the lights in front of me from flashlights and realize they are trying to cut me off. In desperation I dodge into a corridor to my right, take a right-turn and find myself facing a blank wall. A dead end.
Turning around, I can see the lights moving around the corner and towards me. At the front of the mob is a single person whose face I can somewhat make out in this near-darkness. He is grinning at me, or maybe at the things he has planned for me. As terror's icy fingers clasp around my throat I sink down to the floor, leaning against the cold wall while all I can mutter is:
“No... please... no... not again... please... no...”
Then rough hands grab me in a most painful way.
Silence. Then the sensation of slowly merging with reality again as the images of the nightmare get reshuffled mentally to indicate that they are not real. There are no monsters hiding underneath the bed, or in dark rooms. I kind of wish I had to deal with those kind of monsters, though. At least they could be dealt with with a fierce kick to the head.
I notice that I have my arms crossed over my chest and my hands tightly balled into fists. As I relax them I brush along my forehead with one hand and confirm that I'm literally covered with sweat. I guess I'll have to wash my pillow again today. Old sweat isn't really among my collection of pleasant smells.
Sighing, I get up as I glance at my alarm clock. Right on time, as usual. I don't get up right away, though. Instead I keep sitting on the side of my bed. I'm really not sure what to feel or think right now. I know what the source of the images in last night's nightmare are. They're every single one of my experiences with doctors and psychologists in this country combined and filtered through my collection of traumas until all that remains is the script for a ghastly and terrifying slasher movie, about on-par with The Silence of the Lambs. And I don't even like scary movies.
I also know what triggers nightmares like these. I know what triggered this one. What is currently happening in my life is every bit a nightmare scenario. It's apparently not enough that I get terrorized during my sleep, but now people are trying to physically harm me in real life as well.
The past weeks with Catherine seemed to compensate for the things which happened with Bruce. Me getting beaten up did bring me into contact with Catherine after all, and Bruce threatening me was more of an annoyance than really a problem. But this... I'm not sure I can go to school like this. The letter mentioned the end of this week as the limit which probably means Friday, and today is Wednesday. Two days to go. Then again, explaining why I don't want to go to school won't be easy, and I don't think the problem will just go away if I don't show up this week.
Reluctantly I decide to get up and get dressed.
My walk to school isn't as tranquil as usual. Many unpleasant thoughts keep flashing through my mind and my steps are heavy. The closer I get to the school, the stronger grows the feeling that something is suddenly going to happen to me. The certainty of merely existing seems to have vanished, and no matter how much I may have resented only existing and being kept from actually living, the thought of my existence being threatened, with the ease of a candlelight suddenly snuffed out, sends chills down my spine.
When I get to the school everything seems to be the same as usual. There are the other students who seem to ignore me as usual as well. Yet I can not shake off this feeling that something has changed. Maybe I'm just paranoid, but the atmosphere seems to be different, somehow. Heavier. Other students seem to be looking up from their conversations as I walk past, giving me strange looks. Or it really is in my mind. I suddenly feel the strange desire to burst out in insane laughter as the absurdity of the situation hits me. One could call my situation tragic, but then again many tragedies are merely an absurd meeting of circumstances.
The first class goes by without incident. Nothing happens while I make my way to the next classes. I'm almost beginning to think that whoever threatened me is going to stick to their promise and will wait until Friday before carrying out their threat. Usually bullies aren't that patient, though, so I force myself to stay alert. As long as I'm surrounded by people I should be fine.
Lunch break starts and I head towards the infirmary to share lunch with Catherine. As I make my way through mostly empty corridors I begin to feel quite nervous and make sure I don't spend any longer out of sight of the nearest group of students or teachers than absolutely necessary. Part of me tells me that this is ridiculous, that nothing will happen to me inside the school, yet the other, more primitive part ensures me that it would be perfectly fine to start running now.
To my partial surprise I reach the infirmary without anything happening. Opening the door, I am greeted by Catherine who is tending to a female student I don't know.
“Thank you, nurse.” The girl says.
As she walks past me I try not to look at her, but something makes me look sideways anyway at which moment it seems like she winks at me, before leaving the room. I feel confused about what I saw and what it could mean. I consider telling Catherine, but it just seems too paranoid to me.
“Hi Alice, how are you doing?” Catherine asks me.
I return her smile with a wry one.
“As well as can be expected with everything that is going on, I guess.” I respond. “To be honest I have no idea what to expect and it's making me feel very paranoid.”
Catherine nods in understanding. Walking over to the nearby bed she sits down on it and pats next to her.
“Let's discuss it over lunch, shall we?”
During our lunch break Catherine explains to me that the principal more than wants to do something to help me, but that he is bound by the regulations of the school, and that since there are no suspects, nothing to substantiate a threat more significant than bullying and basically nothing to indicate a real threat against me, there is nothing he or anyone else can do.
While Catherine explains this to me I can feel what little hope I still had slowly take on water until it's well on its way to the ocean floor.
“So there's nothing I can do but wait for something to happen?” I ask, trying to keep my voice steady.
“There is the option of having a teacher or similar accompany you when you're not following classes, and I could pick you up from your house and return you there after school. The problem -”
“It's not very auspicious, right? Questions would be raised and it might make things even worse.” I put it bluntly.
Catherine sighs. “Pretty much, yes.”
For a moment it looks like she is going to say something else, but then she just sighs softly and looks absent-mindedly at the remains of her lunch. I must admit that I'm not very interested in my unfinished sandwich either at this moment.
“It's all too familiar for you, isn't it, Catherine?” I ask, gently.
Catherine seems to not hear me for a moment, then she nods slowly and turns towards me. I can see tears forming in her eyes. Putting away my lunch, I move closer to Catherine.
“It will be fine.” Catherine says, trying her best to smile even as her voice quivers. “It has to turn out fine.”
“Of course it will be. I won't be caught alone like before with Bruce and his mob, so the worst that could happen is that they tell everyone about me. And who would believe it?” I say, defiantly. There is only the slightest hint of the uncertainty I feel inside.
Catherine nods and smiles, somewhat more steady now. I wish I felt inspired by my own words. In the back of my mind there is the thought that maybe Bruce and whoever else is behind this may have an ace up their sleeves. When Bruce managed to knock me out I have no idea what happened between that time and when I was found. If they took photos or so, that would complicate things.
I look up, my contemplations disrupted.
Catherine looks uncertain for a moment, then seems to find her resolve again and continues.
“What if you just told everybody about what is going on with you, your body and everything? Wouldn't that be a good thing? Being honest and open about it?”
My first impulse is to discard Catherine's idea, to ridicule it as a terrible idea. I mean, who would accept it? I'd just get ridiculed and become even more of an outcast. Everyone would be laughing behind my back because I'm just a horrible freak, something which doesn't belong here or anywhere else.
Yet... I can feel how an inkling of a brand new thought begins to emerge. What if other students, other people would show sympathy? Even understanding? What if instead of protecting myself by keeping things a secret, I'm actually worsening my situation by keeping it to myself? What if telling others would gain me actual friends I could relate to? Maybe...
“I... I'm not sure...” I say. “It doesn't seem like a bad thing to try... I mean, it couldn't make things worse, could it?”
“Do you want me to organize it? You won't have to say or do anything if you don't want to. I'm sure the principal will be more than willing to go along with it.”
It seems that Catherine at least seems to be convinced of this plan. I'm not entirely sure whether I'm in favour of it, but what options do I have? If I don't agree to this approach, I'll just be waiting for something bad to happen. If I do agree, I'll either experience a level of acceptance I have never experienced before, or nothing will change significantly. In the latter case I would still be an outcast. My time at this school would still be pretty much over and I'd have nothing significant lost or gained, aside from perhaps another piece of my dignity as a person.
“Let me know when you have it arranged.” I say, finally sounding as though I'm certain of something. It's a refreshing change from being all lost and confused, I guess.
Catherine nods and then smiles at me.
“How about tomorrow? Feeling up to it?” She asks me.
I return her smile before embracing her tightly.
“Thank you.” I tell Catherine, as I feel fresh tears welling up from deep inside me.
The rest of that day suddenly doesn't seem so tough any more. With the situation to be resolved one way or another tomorrow, I feel like I can handle things until then. It's a good feeling, I find myself thinking as I look outside at the sight of yet another bright summer's day.
As the school bell indicates that class is over, I make my way towards the exit together with the other students who are done for the day. I don't care any more if any of them might be whispering about me behind my back. It's all going to change.
Even while walking home it seems like the world is a lot brighter, louder and... real, I guess. It's probably going to be quite difficult to fall asleep tonight with such a major event coming up, I find myself worrying. Talking about which, what will I tell my mother? That tomorrow Catherine and I will be informing the entire school about my condition? I haven't told her so much by now, it'd probably be a very long conversation. Yet again I don't think I can avoid it much longer.
By the time I get home, my mother is home already as well, busy preparing dinner. Now is as good a time as any to break the subject, I think, as I approach my mother while she's stirring something on the stove. After welcoming me home, she then asks how my day was, something she asks every time I return from school. Usually my response is along the lines of: “It was okay.” or something very much like it. Only when I met Catherine did I actually have something to tell which wouldn't have been very depressing. I hope that today's news isn't depressing either.
“You know... tomorrow there's something big happening at school.” I start.
“Yeah, we... Catherine and I have decided that we will inform the entire school about my condition, to help with my situation at school.” I wisely decide to omit details about the threatening note.
“You think that's a wise idea?” My mother asks.
“I... I think so, yes.” I say, feeling somewhat put off by the distance in my mother's voice.
“That way I might finally gain the understanding and acceptance I have always wanted. If the other students accept me the way I am, I could finally feel like I'm a part of everything.”
“Well, just be careful. You never know what might happen with all those weird people out there.” My mother says, matter of factly, indicating that there is nothing more to be discussed.
Over dinner neither of us says much.
The next morning I am woken up by a phone call from Catherine. Drowsily fumbling about with my cellphone, I manage to press the right key and mutter something which could be interpreted as 'Hi Catherine'.
“Hi Alice! Can you be ready in about... fifteen minutes or so? I'll be picking you up then. Everything has been arranged at school, but we want to run through things with you first, if that's alright with you?”
Feeling torn from my slumber at the sound of Catherine's energetic voice, I confirm that I'll be ready and waiting by then. As soon as I put down my phone I nearly jump out of my bed and rush to get dressed and brush my hair. After establishing a new personal record in finishing a breakfast and brushing my teeth, I grab my bag and after a quick greeting to my mother I leave the house via the front door. Before I have walked two steps towards the road Catherine is already there with her car.
Fortunately I don't have to pry anything from Catherine. Enthusiastically she tells me about the positive response from the principal who immediately made the auditorium available and arranged to have all students be present there first thing that morning. Just hearing about all the things which have been arranged for my sake makes my head swim. For a moment I feel embarrassed for being responsible for all this. When I say this to Catherine she just waves it away.
“What is there to be embarrassed about? We all do it for you because we care about you and because we do not tolerate anyone being treated unfairly. You're not afraid to accept kindness from others, are you?” Catherine asks with a smile.
I shake my head while I'm busy trying to describe my own feelings. I figure I feel happy, somewhat giddy and above all grateful to be able to just let go of things for a moment. The realness of the world I felt yesterday seems even stronger today. The world is brighter, more solid, smells are more intense and impressions are more... impressive, I guess. I must also admit that I feel very anxious about how the other students are going to respond.
For a short while neither of us says anything, then Catherine asks me, in a gentle tone:
“So did you tell your mother about today?”
“I did, yes.”
“How did she respond?”
I stay silent for a moment, while I try to find the right words. Playing back the conversation if you can call it that between my mother and I yesterday, I feel overwhelmed by a strange kind of sadness.
“She is okay with it, I think.”
“I see. That is good.”
It's always strange to walk through a building outside the normal hours when one usually is there. So too when Catherine and I arrive at the school building, nearly an hour earlier than usual for me, although Catherine assures me that it's a regular time for herself. Inside the building everything is quiet and empty, further strengthening the sensation that something big is about to happen. The silence before the storm, if you want.
I take a few deep breaths to calm down my racing heart as I make my way at Catherine's side towards the auditorium. Pushing open the double doors, we are greeted by rows after rows of empty seats and a stage which is also empty aside from a few people who are busy doing things which are probably very important.
To our left we hear a voice suddenly proclaim Catherine's name. Turning around, we can see the principal make his way towards us, followed by another man.
“Good to see you this early. I assume you told Alice the basics about what we have planned?”
“Everything which we could plan, yes. I take it all the teachers are standing by just in case?”
At this question the man behind the principal nods and says: “We are fairly sure it will go fine, but we are ready.”
“Thank you, Mr Kessinger.” Catherine says, smiling at the teacher.
“So this is the famous Alice, right?” Kessinger says, as he moves closer to me. When he gets near enough, he extends his hand and smiles at me. I shyly shake the offered hand.
“A lady's handshake, indeed. I see that Catherine has picked a worthy opponent. If only Alice was in my class this year. I could have taught her a few more tricks.” He grins, then ruffles my hair.
“Take care, okay? Everything will be just fine.”
I try to say something, but all I can do is nod and smile. I never knew that there were people at this school who thought so kindly about me, aside from Catherine of course. And the principal, but it's his job.
I cradle this bit of warmth deep inside me, as I follow Catherine and the others towards the stage.
Author: Maya Posch In Between and Neither – Part 4 Date: 2011/03/29