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I Need Somebody

i need somebody


Estimated reading time — 30 minutes

I

This wall once held a chalkboard. The one behind me displayed a map of the United States with big red stars indicating state capitals. In the corner to my right, there was an old-fashioned, spinning globe – it was the type that my grandfather had in his furnished basement. I would spend hours spinning it and stopping it with my finger, fantasizing about traveling to whatever distant land on which I stopped. I would spend days at my grandparents’ house in the summer as my parents were almost always out of town traveling. I don’t really have many vivid memories of them but I have some hazy ones of my grandfather, Papa. I knew he could get angry and would drink a lot, but he was more of a parent to me than my actual parents. I just wish I could remember him more. Sometimes I try but I —

“Mr. Jenner… Mr. Jenner! It’s Casey! He gave himself a papercut again. It looks bad this time.”

I spin around in my chair, more hungover than I usually am on a Wednesday morning. What is typically no more than a general haze of regret and shame has become a cloud of acute headaches and pain in my joints. I know I need to cut back, but the constant clamber and chatter of the children leaves me mentally drained every day, and it’s the only way to turn off the noise.

“Where is he, Rose? Cubbies again?”

“Yes, Mr. Jenner. Same spot as usual.”

Rose has become an essential, yet arguably redundant addition to the staff here at Creekville Elementary. A graduate student, keenly aware of her role as an underling and assistant to whomever she is needed, she has quickly become instrumental in chaos reduction in my art class. I used to think I could manage them by myself, but Rose has proved otherwise in just a few short weeks.

By the time I reach Casey, who has a regular hideout behind the class cubbies where nobody can see him, there is a small trickle of blood making its way down his arm from his thumb. Fuckin’ origami. It’s usually so easy to put a sheet of templates on the classroom tables for them and let them get to work. It also provides me an opportunity to fuck around on my phone and daydream of anything else. Whatever that may be.

“Casey, what happened, buddy? Did you cut yourself again?”

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He is evasive today, not his normal hyperactive self. I glance down at his hand again, which is now growing concerning. The blood has turned from a trickle to a mild gush.

“Casey, show me your hand, pal, I need to know if you need to go to the nurse’s.”

“I don’t want to, Mr. Jenner. I’m okay, I think. I just cut myself while trying to fold the swan thing.”

“Okay, well let me see so I can at least grab some tissues and band-aids. You don’t have to go to Ms. Kebbel again. I know you don’t like going to see her.”

Casey is one of those kids who is constantly in a sling, cast, or wrapped up in some sort of bandage. A kid with no sense of his own mortality, constantly pushing the limits, trying to ascertain what he can get away with.

He opens his clenched palm, and, for a brief moment, I can barely put together what I am seeing. The webbing between his fingers has been separated, almost surgically, and the white fat and exposed tendons pulse rhythmically as a spurt of blood flies out from the wound. I turn white and my face feels numb.

I glance down to his other hand and see a pair of scissors in them. Not safety scissors, but proper stainless steel. I am almost certain that they are the ones from my locked desk that I use because the kid ones are hard for my fat thumbs to use.

I believe, in this moment, that Casey has done this to himself. He looks up at me and smiles, and I am transfixed by his eyes. Eyes that are filled with his evil intentions. At least my hangover has taken a back seat at this point.

I try to slowly reach for the scissors, but he immediately takes a few steps backwards. As he moves, spurts of blood shoot out from the gaping wound between his thumb and index finger. It is trickling down onto the tile flooring.

“Casey, I’m not messing around right now. What did you do? Give me those scissors, immediately, or you are in serious, serious trouble,” I say to him, undoubtedly without as much gravitas or power as I would like.

“Do you really think I care, Leonard?” he asks me, addressing me by my first name. How does he even know that? These kids never call me by my first name. It’s not even on my name-tag or nameplate on my desk.

“This is just the start. And, it didn’t even hurt. It never hurts anymore.”

He reaches up for my face and rubs his bloody palm across my cheek while grabbing at my glasses. I feel my face and wipe the blood away, disgusted by the feeling of someone else’s bodily fluids anywhere near my presence. I shudder and spit several times in case any got near my mouth, now shaking in confusion.

Eventually, Rose runs over as I start to raise my voice. She sees what is happening and starts to go into protection mode – she is wired in that way. I, myself, had never had instincts like that. She grabs the wired phone on the desk and – –

II

There aren’t any chairs in here anymore. There’s really not much of anything in here, anymore. Old remnants forgotten, at least temporarily. I listen for ghosts. I listen for the wind that breezes through a window with cracked panes and a burned frame.

I sit down on the ground against the back wall and take out my phone. I scroll to my messages app and check. Nothing. Perhaps it is I that is the ghost, and none of this is real life anymore.

I scroll to my news app to see what is happening in the world. Same old America as yesterday – a sitting national Senator on trial for second-degree murder, an update on the current flooding situation in Brooklyn, and another sex scandal involving names and faces I don’t recognize. Another story about the missing kids all over Philly.

I was born 38 years ago and feel as much of a stranger to both my country and county than I did when I was born. The way out of this is – –

Casey returned after only 2 days of absence. The general consensus among the rest of the teaching staff was that he was a victim of abuse and his lashing out was a result of whatever was happening at home. Principal Armand never even spoke to me personally about the incident. He supposedly had a chat with his parents about the situation after Casey was taken home from the hospital.

I put away the flask of Wild Turkey, stuffing it into my leather briefcase that spends more days empty than not. My father gave me this briefcase when I was in college, and my aspirations for it were beyond what it ended up becoming – a paperweight and mere reference to the idea of professionalism.

I still have 45 minutes before class begins, so I make my way down the hallway to Armand’s office. Something about the way Casey looked at me has me wanting more answers than the rumors from the underpaid and overqualified teachers that gab in the breakroom.

I knock twice on his door and step inside. He is leaning back in his office chair, eyes trained on the drop ceiling tiles overhead. He sighs and looks up from his yellow legal pad covered in doodles and spirals.

“Yes, Leonard? Something I can do for you? Obviously there is since you interrupted my train of thought.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. Just checking in, really,” I say, absent-mindedly fumbling the keys in my pocket.

“Oh, and I guess I wanted to see what was up with the whole Casey situation. Seems like he really hurt himself. Is he okay, ya know, like, mentally? Is he getting counseling or something?”

He finally looks up from his desk and takes a pause. His big, brown eyes droop into the bags underneath them.

“Leonard, it really wouldn’t be appropriate of me to get into all the details. He is fine, though. I spoke with his parents. This really isn’t a matter that concerns you, or the rest of the faculty for that matter. I’ve overheard the whispers and rumblings, and I think it’s rather horrid you all find the need to gossip about the boy.”

“I mean, Armand, I was there when it happened for Christ’s sake. The kid cut his hand open with a pair of scissors and bled on my classroom floor. I’m just checking if we’re taking the proper precautions around him. He said some really freaky stuff.”

He takes another pause, this one seemingly more out of surprise than annoyance.

“Oh yeah? Anything of interest? This seems like something you should have mentioned earlier to me.”

“You never even called me in to discuss the incident, what are you talking about?” I lash back. Like always, Armand is only pissed off because he doesn’t have the entire faculty’s transparency under the weight of his thumb. “And, for the record, he said ‘this was just the start’ and ‘it never hurts anymore’. That would say to me that there’s something a little more serious going on.”

“Just let it go for now, Len. The administration will deal with this as necessary, and if you are needed any further, you will be informed. I’d like some peace so I can work now, so please dismiss yourself.”

The “administration”. Literally him, and him alone. Even the Vice Principal was merely the most elderly woman in the building whom he gave the job to out of pity. Mrs. Narkawa had worked here since the late 90’s, so she’s been here at least 50 years at this point, maybe more. She taught my own mother math when she was young.

Okay, this seems like all I am going to get out of our little meeting, so I turn away without saying anything. Before I open the door, I turn to my left and see a small wastebasket behind the door. It is sparse except for a few paper towels or some sort of tissue paper. They are inked red with what I assume is blood. I quickly glance back as I leave and see that his hand has a few bandages on it near his thumb. I leave and don’t think much of it.

III

But what if there is more to do? What if my life has some sort of meaning beyond what happened here? Maybe there is more of my story to tell. Sometimes I look back and wish I would have just stayed home drinking all day instead of working. Maybe I could have coasted off of the kindness of strangers for a few years and maybe I could have taken out a few credit cards to fuel myself up with enough cheap whiskey and generic cola to kill my liver and myself within a couple years. It would have been sad, sure, in an existential way, but compared to everything that happened, maybe I would have enjoyed it more overall.
But that’s the thing, right? Nobody can opt out of this. My story is awful, undoubtedly, but is it not just a current product of the rot of this country? What have we become?

I know the truth inside me now clearer than I ever did – what happened here made it come to light. It’s like my father always taught me – you can’t trust anyone. I put my phone back in my pocket and wipe the snow-gray ash off of my shoes. I take the capped exacto-blade out of my pocket and place it on the floor next to my .357 magnum.

The next few days are fairly uneventful. I find myself drinking more than ever as I find myself waking up in the middle of the night from panic attacks and nightmares. They’re always about Casey and that day in class, and, honest to God, they feel as real as they did in the moment, just more slowed down. The only noise I can hear in them is his heart beating as the blood spurts from his hand. The alcohol helps me turn off my brain completely.

And then, out of nowhere, on a dull and hazy Tuesday, Casey asks to go to the bathroom. What I don’t realize now is this is the last time anybody will ever see him alive. Hours of searching turn into days of panic that turn into months of grieving for a family and a small community. We don’t see things like this happen around here. Kids don’t go missing, and heartbreak doesn’t bubble to the surface like this. He is found 5 months later, mostly-decomposed at the bottom of a well a couple of towns over.

And, with seemingly no second thought, the community moves on. The rumors stop after a few weeks. After a substitute is caught gabbing about “Casey, the smelly kid and his fucked up family”, there is a strict policy put in place by Armand and Mrs. Narkawa – no more talking about Casey’s death. We ignore the looming shadow of sadness and the mystery surrounding it.

One night, after hours of planning my curriculum for the final quarter, I get a message in my school email account. I hear the ding across the room from my laptop – it echoes in the silence of my depressing, unfurnished apartment. I pay it no mind as I take a swig from my bottle of bourbon. This is my third night of the week getting finished after 9pm – I will savor my freedom in front of the TV every second I can.

That is, until I can’t. I hear another ding. And another. I grumble as I stand up and walk over to my laptop, cracking open the chrome clamshell while furiously tapping the “brightness down” button, as my eyes are sore after hours of staring at my legal pads and printouts.

And then I see it – a .JPG attachment from an email account I don’t recognize – a series of random letters and numbers from a domain I don’t recognize. I download the attachment and double click it to open it.

It is a high-res picture of Casey at the bottom of the well in which he was discovered. The photo was taken in the daylight, and I can tell the person who took the picture had a high-zoom lens to be able to get this level of detail. All of Casey, or what Casey ever was, appears to be no more than areas of exposed bone, rotten flesh, and bloated extremities, looking ready-to-pop like nightmarish balloons. I choke back the bile rising in the top of my throat and rub my eyes. I feel my hypertension pump into overdrive, unsure if it’s my reflux or if I’m finally having that heart attack I’ve been dreading for decades.

I am transfixed by his decay for several minutes, even clicking the zoom-in icon several times to view various parts of his decomposition. There is something about this image that will stay in my mind for the rest of my life. A child, without protection, without parents who ever seemed to care about him – reduced to nothing more than nutrients for the wilted plants at the bottom of a well.

I click back to the other two emails in my inbox, both from that same account. The other is a small .TXT file which I download and open. The only thing in the text file are the words “it still doesn’t hurt. not even like this.”

The third email appears blank, but when I highlight over the body and double click, I see that it’s actually just written in white text so initially appeared imperceptible to my eyes. The text is a string of characters and numbers that have no meaning to me. They are in a pattern/sequence that seems to repeat every 20 characters.

I have no idea what to make of any of this, but, for weeks, I don’t tell a soul. I feel a connection and a sacredness with the picture of Casey. The image lingers in my mind, sometimes day-and-night, but I never muster the courage or interest to mention it to anybody. There is one night, maybe two weeks after getting the three emails, where I have this dream with Casey in it.

In the dream, he guides me through a quiet, largely deforested patch of land somewhere up north that feels familiar but I can’t place. The tree stumps guide our path through what used to be a densely-wooded area. I see a thick, black smoke in the distance that wafts its way in front of the setting sun, scattering the particles of light like a tin-can full of BB gun holes. He turns to me, wearing what looks like a black full-body swimsuit. His face has rotted off almost entirely, but he smiles softly as his eyes squint.

“Leonard, there’s nothing scary about dying just so you know. I’ve done it a lot, in fact. So has my sister, and so have my parents. Once you realize it’s actually happening, there’s really nothing scary about it.”

I gaze at him and the surrounding area, feeling unusually calm and at peace in the moment.

“It’s not even death that I’m afraid of, kid. It’s the world I’m leaving behind – and I don’t mean that in a poetic way. I hate this world and see so much darkness in it – but in my heart of hearts, I truly believe it can be a good place. But I never felt at peace here or like I needed to be part of this. You know what I mean?”

“I want you to think about something, Leonard.” He pauses as he steps to me, his palm as bloody as that day in class, and touches my face. “There is a chance that there is nothing good out there. There is a chance you will die as depressed as you felt the worst day of your life. But, don’t you sometimes feel like you were born for something else or meant for something greater? Like, there’s no chance you were born to suffer as much as you have for no reason at all?”

I stare at him, unable to put my words together. To be honest, I never really did feel like that. Sure, I can get cocky and narcissistic like the best of them, but I never felt anything like that.

“The school, Leonard. The scho–

IV

By the time the exacto-blade has pierced the skin on my hand, I am sobbing, full of dreams left unfulfilled and promises broken. Promises made to loved ones and the few friends that stuck by me for so many years. I rarely get emotional, but the size of this situation has really gotten to me. The blood drips down onto the ash-covered tiles, connecting me to everything that happened here.

I let my blood run freely and clear my mind of all negative thoughts. Maybe it is possible to build something beautiful from the ruins of destruction. I work the blade like a brush through oil-based paint, wistfully and with intention.

If it wasn’t for that god-damned kid, none of this shit would have ever happened. But, maybe it also means I would never have truly woken up. I can hear chittering from afar, likely a small animal in the distance or some falling bricks or debris. After about three minutes, I place a rag over the oozing wound on my hand. I stare at the pool of spreading blood on the floor, flushed with a feeling of lightheadedness and regret.

What the fuck have I done?

After a few weeks of nightmares, I decide I need to take a leave of absence from the school. I am vague when I pass along my request to one of our admins who handles PTO, but I hear back from Armand later in the day. I get a call on my office phone from him around 3:15 as the final classes are letting out.

“Leonard, it’s me. I saw that you put in a request for two weeks off starting on the 17th – I just wanted to clarify something. Was this for medical reasons or personal reasons? We don’t generally grant requests like this with such little notice. Would you mind reporting to my office when you get a second?”

Christ, “reporting”. Like I’m another one of the dozens of kids that Armand reprimands on a weekly basis for the most petty of offenses.

“Yeah, sure. I’ll be down in a minute.”

I make my way to his office, my mind a clutter of paranoid thoughts and agitated delusions. Sure, the drinking hasn’t been helping, but nothing has felt normal around here in a long time. The staff has become more quiet, almost restrained. There are hardly any faculty meetings anymore, and even the monthly school board meetings have been postponed for the past two months due to “scheduling conflicts” with the board. Nobody here really talks anymore.

On the way to his office, Rose stops me in the hallway. She walks briskly up to me, clutching her phone in her right hand. Her once optimistic and steadfast eyes had become shifty and impatient in the past couple of weeks.

“Leonard, I’m leaving the school. Well, more specifically, I’m leaving the program altogether. I’m not going into teaching. I’m taking time away from school. I just can’t do this anymore.”

I glance down at her hand, sporting a freshly wrapped bandage, all the say from her palm to the middle of her forearm.

“Do you mind if I ask why, Rose? You seem to have a knack for this stuff. Christ, there’s been days where I think you could lead the class a lot better than I can. Is there something I can d-”

She stomps her foot on the ground in the empty, silent hallway. Her heavy boot creates a deep, bassy thud that stops me cold in my tracks. She is crying and shaking ever so slightly.

“It felt good for a long time. I told myself that, maybe after a while, I could convince myself the pain would go away.” She rubs her bandage in a circular motion and plays with the frays on the edges. “Don’t believe them, Leonard. Don’t believe any of them.”

She turns away, almost jogging as she strides away. I follow after her, keeping pace while growing impatient.

“Rose? What are you talking about? What did you do to your hand? Seriously, what is going on around here?”

I turn the corner towards the parking lot, but she is long gone, just another passerby. I yell her name, but my pleas ring hollow, and fall on selectively-deaf ears.

I turn around to head back toward Armand’s office, so exhausted and numb that my head starts to ring. It’s Friday, and I want my vacation to start. I’ve earned some time off. I’ve been keeping it quiet, but I’ve considered not returning after break. I can make enough money by driving Uber or something for a couple months while I wait for something better, but I’ve been having bad thoughts about this place and am growing sick of people. If infinite universes really exist, I pray there is one of them where I have a job that keeps me sane, well-paid, and satisfied without having to compromise one or two of those.

I make my way back to Armand’s office and knock on the door twice, expecting an uphill battle from the second I walk in the door. I should’ve known how impossible it would be to get a second away from this place for my own sanity.

“Leonard, sit down, please. Thanks for stopping by. I’m sure you’re anxious to start your vacation, so I’ll make this quick-”

“Wait, you’re actually approving my PTO? I had assumed based on your call that it was too short notice or something.”

“No, no, really, it’s fine. Truth be told, I was a little taken aback at first. But after thinking things over, I realize that you need some time off. I’ll be level with you – some of the other faculty members have noticed some changes in you over the past few months, particularly around when Casey so tragically passed.”

I shift in my seat, my mind instantly cluttered with the emailed image of Casey’s rotted corpse. Christ I could really go for a –

“And, frankly Leonard, and I am going to let this remain in this room, I have heard a few complaints of you maybe drinking on the job.”

I nervously shift some more and gaze at his hands placed gently on his walnut desk. It is in this moment that I feel the savior that is the drink reveal itself to be the betrayer of all things.

He takes a long pause, waiting for me to meet his eyes, which I never do.

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“I will not even ask you about that. I will, of course, remind you that that is not an allowable behavior per our Employee Handbook. Of course, I have no proof of any of this, so I will just leave all this at that. You can have your two weeks of time, but I don’t want to ever hear any sort of rumblings of that nature about you. Those types of rumors create, well, problematic situations.”

“Thank you, Armand. I would really rather not discuss this any further if that’s okay. I think it’d be best to just head off. My work for the week is done anyway. I’ll still be available via phone or email if there’s any emergencies or whatever.”

“Of course. I do want to give you something, before you leave, if you don’t mind.” He reaches into the top drawer of his desk, pulling out a jewel-case containing some type of disk. “I think you should give this a watch. Without sounding judgemental, it seems like you’re going through a lot right now. I don’t want to assume you’re troubled or lonely or anything like that, but maybe give this a watch over your little vacation. It’s nothing mind-blowing. It’s more or less a self-help or meditation-type guide. I’m a spiritual guy, but if it’s not for you that’s okay. One of my buddies from the VA got me into it a few years back. Just give it a watch if you get a second. Now get outta here, enjoy that break.”

I take the disk from him, mildly confused and surprised with the ease of this entire interaction. Fuck, he entirely let me off the hook for boozing at work (which I promise I will never do again after this). I get into my shitty car and drive home with no plans but to drink and sleep for two weeks. Maybe I’ll catch a matinee and finally pick up my bass again and play. I’ll find something productive to do with my time. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. Fuck the drinking and sleeping, I can do more than that.

Before going to sleep that night, I decide to put in the DVD and watch it. More out of curiosity than anything, as Armand had never even extended a pleasantry to me before today, so the fact that he has given me some sort of pity present has piqued my curiosity.

I pop in the disk and am greeted by a man in a black crewneck sweater and neat khakis. He looks friendly, but in between his sentences are these pauses. I swear I feel the judgment of his eyes upon mine as he speaks.

V

“My name is John Bowman. I run an organization, primarily in the U.S, that helps people escape their feelings of grief, abandonment, or plain old confusion at the world.” A long silence as his eyes lock on to mine even more.

“At LifeSynced, we believe that we are all more than our worst mistakes and the most intense pain we have caused. We believe those that feel lost feel that way for a reason, and that there is a profound beauty to the suffering we must endure to create a better life for ourselves.”

The camera hard pans to another gentleman in a black crewneck with an equally blank expression. The name Rob appears briefly over his chest and fades as he speaks.

“You won’t find us on the Dow. People won’t be trading our stock on some disgusting, corporate smartphone app that makes billions selling your metadata to tech companies. But, if you bear with us for a little bit and hear us out, we think you’ll at least uncover a little more about yourself.”

The scene slow-dissolves as some slow, ambient jazz music begins to play. I am beyond baffled at this point as a series of credits and names appear on the screen over generic stock photos of happy people and celebratory moments from history ranging from the U.S moon landing in 1969 to the (supposed) liberation of the North Korean citizens in 2032. I decide to watch on to see if this is a sick prank or something genuinely kooky that Armand has stumbled into.

As the credits come to an end, the LifeSynced logo flashes on the screen, and John from the first scene is back, this time in a very plain white room. The shot is slightly askew, either intentionally or due to a lack of budget, and John is pacing back and forth. Finally, he takes a seat at the one table in the room, dramatically pausing before looking at the camera. While his physical presence is of almost no note, I do stop and marvel at the intensity of his eyes and their ability to pull focus.

“If you’ve been given a copy of this video, it’s because somebody cares about you. It’s because somebody you know or care about can see the pain in your eyes, clouding your ability to move on.” He pauses, now playing his fingers like drums on the table. “It’s not easy to see these things in yourself sometimes.”

I am growing a little weary of this self-help bullshit. I have tried so many avenues of betterment in my life, and, frankly, I’m not in any real pain. I just need some time off from everything to learn a little bit more about myself. Where does Armand get off even peddling this shit to me? The dude and I have had nothing but awkward interactions and a contentious strife for fridge space in the breakroom between us. Does he reall-

“There is more magic than you realize in the world. Sometimes, we must dig deep to find it, but it is there. For growth and self preservation, two key components are required – Number One: the Catalyst. Number two: the Awakening.

“At LifeSynced, the first step is easy. What is the Catalyst for all this change? We offer a very safe injection of a chemically-stable compound called Relay, that helps you uncover deep traumas within your mind’s eye and work through them in a positive way. We strongly believe in the nature of our message and product, and, while we have not yet offered a public version of Relay, you can find out more about it by contacting whomever supplied you with this video.

“As for the Awakening. We have developed a series of phrases and messages mixed with elements of audio and video that correspond with your dose of Relay. After you have taken Relay, you will skip to minute 46 of this video, and watch along with the messages. Before we get to tha-”

Bored and beyond creeped out by this pyramid scheme bullshit, I turn my Blu-Ray player off and grab my laptop to check if anyone in my online friend groups wants to game. Not a soul. Never is on a Friday night. I take a beer out of the fridge and wander my apartment aimlessly, mentally noting all the areas I need to be extra diligent with cleaning next time.

But I start to feel curious. For some unknown reason, I feel the urge to watch the messages in Armand’s movie. Something about the timing of everything in the past few months sends a chill through my heart that I know is a panic attack coming on. I get a notification on my smartwatch that my heart rate has increased to a “beyond desirable” level. Besides, I didn’t take the stupid Relay thing, so I’ll have an objective understanding of what I’m seeing.

VI

I turn the Blu-Ray player back on and hold the fast-forward button. I press play at minute 46. There is a brief screen of static, followed by a rhythmic pattern of hand-drums and other intermittent harmonic buzzing noises. A series of images, including pictures of war-torn Africa during WWII, bombings in Syria, and armed militia members stomping on protestors in Detroit, flash on the screen along to the strange, hypnotic music. These pictures are interspersed with images of different families, both happy and sad, along with short video clips of natural disasters.

I reach for my bottle of beer, more captivated than the montage than I thought I would be. It’s not moving me in a profound way, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t compelled by the collection of images and video. Over the footage, a man, not John, begins to speak.

“Please focus on the screen and music, and try to keep your mind as still as possible. I will be repeating a series of six phrases. If your trial of Relay was successful, hopefully one of these phrases acts as your personal Awakening. If you have trouble getting your desired outcome, don’t hesitate to reach out to whomever provided you with this video. We will begin now.”

I take a sip of my beer, my hangover from the afternoon finally starting to fade as the alcohol courses its way through me. I await the delivery of the phrases, transfixed on an image on the screen of a depressed-looking woman on a park bench with what I’m assuming is her son. The son, so full of life and wonder, is jumping in the air off of the bench with a frisbee in his hand, but the woman – she has baggy eyes and is slouching with a cigarette in her hand. She is looking toward the ground and nowhere near the boy.

“Phrase number one: The heartache caused by your lover is not your fault, and you will heal. Leave room in your heart for forgiveness and compassion.”

This phrase repeats several more times as the music starts to play faster and the images transition more speedily.

“Phrase number two: Even though you have lost someone, their life still has meaning, which means their death has meaning. You will heal, and you will keep them in your heart.”

Again, the phrase is repeated as the images and music speed up. I take another sip of my beer and scratch my beard.

“Phrase number three: The trauma in your past does not have to define your decisions in the present. You will heal, and you will learn to leave behind your crutches and regrets.”

I feel my forearms and chest start to tighten. I take a deep breath to try to calm myself, but I am certain that I am having a heart attack. My flesh feels ice cold and either the lights in the room have started to dim or my vision is blurring. I hear noises from the kitchen and am unsure if I am hallucinating or if somebody has broken into my apartment.

I try to stand up from the couch to grab the remote, but I feel heavy and weak, straining to even lift myself up from my slouched position. Each breath I draw is a struggle and is followed by an intense stab of pain in my chest and lungs. I finally manage to stand up after several minutes of mentally psyching myself up to move. I lunge for the remote on the table and press the power button. The video has stopped but my head is still pounding with the sound of the intermittent harmonic buzzing. It plays in my head every 7 seconds, just like it did in the video.

My extremities still feel weak and it is hard for me to move. I hear another clatter in the kitchen, and it sounds like glass bottles are being shuffled around. The buzzing grows louder and I start to tear at the hair on my head and arms as a way to relieve the agony from its deafening blasts.

I make my way to the kitchen and check the pantry, still clutching at my temples as the light in this room makes the pounding in my head increase tenfold. I turn around and see my grandfather standing next to my open refrigerator, reaching for a beer on the bottom shelf. The buzzing stops and I can finally make sense of things.

Except, it’s not my grandfather, because he died when I was in high school. My brain fails to make anything rational out of this situation, so I stand there, unable to speak and unable to take another step. I remain in the corner by the pantry. He looks the same as he did when I was young and basically lived with my grandparents. He takes a sip of the Natty Daddy and lets out a satisfied exhale after his first swig.

“Oh, uh, hey Len. You look well, I like the beard a lot. I remember you could barely grow a stache back in the day,” he says, resting the beer on the counter and fiddling with the watch on his left wrist.

“What the fuck are you? Are you in my head? What is -”

“Yeah, buddy, try not to freak out too much right now,” he says, cutting me off dead in my tracks like he always did. Even now, he is unable to not dominate a conversation. “I know this is weird and you’re probably super confused right now.”

“I asked you a question – are you in my head?”

“Sort of. Of course, I was real at a certain point, so this is the version of myself most accurate to you and your memory. It’s really complicated, but it’s me. I really have missed you, Jesus.”

His eyes start to well up as he takes a step near me. I take a step back, now with no room to move in the corner.

“Uh, right, yeah. This is a lot, I understand that, Len. Basically, you took Relay and watched the LifeSynced video. I am a manifestation of your consciousness, and I can give you the opportunity to work through any outstanding issues of the subconscious.”

“I didn’t take any of the fuckin’ Relay stuff,” I reply indigniatly. “I didn’t even sign up for this, I was literally given a video by a coworker.”

“You got the Relay through Casey’s blood,” he replies calmly. “This stuff is not a standard medical injection, it can spread once it’s been released into someone. It looks like some of his dose ended up in your bloodstream. But that’s not important, Len, I’m here and we ca-”

“Someone gave this shit to a kid? Someone gave this to Casey? Jesus Christ, I nearly died after I watched that fucking video, is this a joke?”

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“I really can’t get into all of this, Len. I am here for you. I am here to help you heal.”

“Yes, the healing thing is pretty obvious, this is really wonderful. Look, Papa, I love you and, yeah, I miss you a lot too. But how can you help me heal? Is this about my drinking? I know I have a problem, I’ve been told a million t-”

“I’m here to apologize, kiddo,” he cuts me off.

“What? Look if this is about you and your drinking stuff, you already apologized for all that when I was a teenager. You don’t have to blame yourself for what I became,” I say.

“It’s not about the drinking, Len. I mean sure, the drinking was always a part of it, and I’m glad I got clean, but it’s not about that. You need to let yourself remember. I am so, so sorry, and I know that that will never be able to scratch the surface.”

I stare at him and his impossibly lively eyes. There is a sadness and mournfulness to him, and I start to feel pity for him but I’m not sure why.

“You were…” he starts, now grabbing at his glasses, hands trembling. “You trusted me. You need to open your mind, Len.”

I wish I could understand what he is talking about. He approaches me, and I have nowhere to move. His eyes are full of tears, and he looks weaker to me now than when he was dying in a hospital bed two cities over. He places his hand on my shoulder and his icy palm makes me shudder. And just like that, I collapse under the mere weight of his touch.

VII

I don’t remember anything after collapsing. I wake up in my apartment, this time alone. Everything seems okay for the time being. The buzzing and throbbing in my head has subsided to a manageable headache. I pour myself a tall glass of water and chug it all, still feeling pain in my arms and legs. I drink it in seconds and pour myself another, this time mixing about ¼ part vodka into the water. I, again, gulp it down ferociously.

The next few days are fairly normal. I feel so drained from Friday night that all I can really do is lay in bed and endlessly scroll my streaming services. I can’t really talk to anybody about what happened because my friends and I don’t really talk like that, and I haven’t had a relationship in years. Everytime I think about going to therapy, I’m afraid they’ll lock me up for some of the things I think, and this whole fucking situation is no exception.

So I dwell. I spend the weekend cooped up in my apartment, drinking water but unable to stomach eating a single thing. Sunday night rolls around and I have a panic attack so severe that I nearly pass out. Near the end of my episode, I vividly hallucinate Papa touching my shoulder. The feel of his skin, Jesus, the feeling of the weight and dread his physical presence holds over me. It makes me sick to my stomach.

And then the buzzing comes back. This episode lasts for hours as at points I contemplate calling an ambulance or even a friend. The frequency is a horrendous, low, shrill scratch, almost that of a poorly trained violinist with a limp wrist. Without realizing, my clenched fists rip a patch of hair out from the back of my scalp as I hold on in agony. Immediately, the frequency and pain goes away as a flood of relief and ecstasy courses through my veins. I soon find myself distracting myself with pain every time an episode comes on.

I don’t sleep a wink out of fear of it happening again. I endlessly scroll Google, looking for any mention of LifeSynced or John Bowman and coming up empty-handed. On Monday, I decide I need to find Armand and find out what is going on. The video said if I had questions to see whomever gave me the video, and I sure do have some fucking questions.

I decide to forgo seeing Armand at the school in favor of something more private. I wait in my apartment, all the blinds drawn as the light has started to cause strain in my eyes that has left them bloodshot and completely devoid of moisture. I sit on my couch, anticipating the humming in my head and answering its call by pinching and scratching myself. I wait for hours in the dark until the clock strikes 3:00pm. I open the small lock-box under my bed and take out the handgun I bought from my buddy Mike with my last tax refund. I slip it into my coat pocket.

I drive the 2 miles to Creekville Elementary and idle at the edge of the shockingly sparse faculty lot until I see Armand get in his Volvo and drive off. I put my car in drive and follow him at a distance, occasionally slowing down to avoid any suspicion.

I wait for him to pull into the WalMart parking lot. I park a few rows behind him and wait for him to get out of his car so I can do the same. I see his door open and I hastily exit my crummy Prius and jog over to his car. He sees me as I approach and tries to close the door, but I am too fast for him. I grab the door as he shuts it and watch his hands to ensure he doesn’t make a move for the keys in the ignition.

“What the fuck did you do?” I ask him, not feeling the tears making their way down my cheek until they make their way to my chin.

“Leonard, a nice surprise. How’s your vacation going? Did you get a chance to check out the video I lent you?” he asks, shifting nervously in his seat. His nervousness accelerates my anger.

“I need answers, you piece of shit. I need to know how to get this buzzing out of my head. I need to know what the fuck happened to Casey! Is this a fucking cult or something? You need to tell me everything you know about Relay right now or so help me God I will call the police.”

He sighs, his nervousness shifting to exasperation. He steps out of the car as I am unable to make any movement to stop him. He grabs my right shoulder where I can still feel the icy-cold imprint of Papa’s hand.

“Leonard, I need to ask you something before I answer your questions: Were you at Creekville last night? Was it you?” he asks me.

“What are you talking about? I haven’t been to the school since Friday.”

“Christ, you didn’t hear, did you? Someone burned down the whole arts wing of the school last night. God Leonard, the entire back half of the school is ash and rubble. They canceled classes indefinitely and only a few teachers were even allowed to be back in school today.”

He takes a step back from me, reaching for something in his pocket. He pulls out a small exacto-blade, uncapping it with his thumb.

“Armand, what are you doing?”

“Look, Len, everybody at the school thinks it was you that burned it down. The timing works perfectly, and everybody has been talking about how strange and isolated you’ve become around other faculty members and students.”

I quickly punch his forearm, knocking the blade out of his hand. I kick it away from him and grab his shirt collars. I take the gun out of my pocket and put the barrel into his stomach, leaning into his right ear as I press the barrel harder and harder into his abdomen.

“Get into the backseat or so help me, Armand, I will blow a hole through your stomach in the blink of an eye,” I direct him, at this point feeling so manic I could empty this gun into other members of this parking lot and likely feel not an ounce of remorse.

He quickly opens the back door, and I take the keys out of the ignition and throw them into a nearby sewer grate next to his car. I keep the magnum trained on him as I enter the backseat with him. He is still devoid of emotion, more watching me out of fascination than fear. I collect my thoughts.

“What happened to Casey? And don’t lie to me, Armand. I’m already so fucked here, I’m pointing a gun at my boss, I have nothing left to lose here, man,” I sputter through gritted teeth.

“What we do, Len, what LifeSynced does, it’s all just healing. It works on people who have stuff they need to work through in some sort of profound way. Casey was a really troubled kid, Len. The shit his parents did to him? The shit I heard about and talked to him about? What was I supposed to do?”

I click the hammer back, now glancing to make sure this thing is actually loaded. I feel the grace of God welcoming me as I see a full cylinder.

“He was a kid, Armand. This is cult shit! Do you even know what this did to me? I can’t get the buzzing and pain out of my head and body. I feel like I’ve aged 30 years in a weekend! And he just so happens to have wound up dead? Do you know anything about that? What the fuck do you know about that, Armand?”

“You can kill me, Len, I really mean that. I am truly at peace with myself. But I’m not just gonna sit here and tell you my life story cuz you got a shiny gun pointed at me. You do what you want. But let me tell you: this shit really works. Which of the six phrases triggered the response? This process only works if you actually commit to working through your trauma. And yes, there are side-effects, okay? But there are only two ways to actually make them stop: keep distracting yourself with pain, or finally acknowledge the truth.”

The buzzing in my head turns to a whisper. I don’t know if it is saying “Kill Armand” or if that’s what I want it to be saying. It’s so loud I barely hear the bang. I don’t feel the same way looking at him like this as I did with Casey. I wipe off the chunks of glass and exit into a world of silence. I get in my car to go to the school. I still have so many questions that I don’t think will ever be answered.

Epilogue

I feel more at peace in this classroom than I did when it wasn’t full of ash and rubble. It’s quiet, and the pain from the blade has caused at least a temporary distraction. I don’t know why I came back here. I guess part of me thought Armand was lying and trying to make me go even crazier. Part of me wonders if it really was me that burned it down in some sort of blacked out stupor. I guess it doesn’t really matter, because it already happened.

But as I sit here, listening closely for any stragglers, clean-up crew, or other faculty members, it dawns on me that I can not run away from my pain forever. I can’t distract myself and hurt myself my whole life just to silence whatever demons are screaming in me. Maybe the video caused this buzzing and pain in my head, or maybe it was always there and I’ve run out of ways to ignore it.

I turn to my right and see Papa. He is silent, but I can tell he wants to apologize again. I can tell he wants me to understand and remember things. He is fiddling with the gun, clicking the hammer in and out and spinning the cylinder.

“Can’t run forever, Len. The guilt. The trauma. The mask you wear. Sooner or later, it all catches up with you.”

I know I have a choice to make, but I’ve been making choices my whole life. I chose to cause myself all this pain. I chose to abandon the few that loved me in favor of isolation and self-depravity. I’m sick of choosing what happens to myself.

So, for right now, I’m just gonna sit here and let the world keep turning.

Credit: Sam Wiehe

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