Wednesday, June 21, 2006


Chameleon (part two)

Following a snide comment by the intolerable Justin Barker, and a polite one by the much nicer Sam, I've divided this into two parts, so there are now two posts for you to skip rather than one.

The effort had been greater this time and the man felt compressed under the heel of fatigue; he sagged so that his head lolled forward and the chains took the full weight of his torso through his arms. He had felt the presence more keenly this time, behind his eyes, and though he had not seen the other’s face he had perceived the beginning of recognition in the flash-second before the communication had been broken, his concentration fracturing on the anvil of exhaustion. The blood soared in his face and his ears and his fingers pricked and tingled and flopped uselessly, cut off from the rest of him by the manacles, but he remained distant from the sensations, allowing his mind to sink into the healing salve of rest…
It was not to be. The door smashed open and the people reached him almost before their shouts, three of them, perhaps fifty, and his hair was grabbed and his head jerked upwards and it was all he could do to smile, not mockingly this time, not coldly, but with a radiance born of his knowledge that what he had done, he had done, and they could not undo it, no matter how they ranted and clawed.
He closed his eyes to await the first of the blows and when it did not come, kept them closed, assuming they were waiting for him to respond, to plead and grovel. But he sensed a movement away from him, the awareness of their proximity dwindling, and when he lifted his head and allowed his lids to part a fraction he saw that they were on either side and another had entered the room and stood at the door gazing at him. The newcomer was faceless as the rest, though with a bearing and an effect on the demeanour of the others which suggested a figure of authority.
The person watched him for a long time, then raised a hand and drew a forefinger across a pale throat and turned and walked out.

Jerry was late and stumbled into the staff room clutching a rueful smile to his face. He had overslept after lying awake until three, his mind awash not with computers but with psychosis, the disintegration of rationality, labels and drugs and prognoses and the awful shame and contempt he would see in Rachel’s pinched face.
The meeting had started already and Whittaker, the head master, flashed his spectacles.
‘I was just saying that the substitute for Shirley has cancelled at short notice.’
Friday, he promised himself. I’ll give it till Friday, then I’ll go and see the doctor.
‘So I’d like you to take her classes for the time being, Jerry.’
He felt as though something hard had lodged in his gullet. Taking on the extra load would mean doubling his evening marking, cancelling the half-day course he’d booked for Wednesday…
‘There’s no problem with that, I hope?’
He beamed. ‘No, that’s great. Be a bit of a challenge.’ Bryant could do it, he’d taught history before, he sat around on his backside all day – no, give him a break, he had some personal problems.
The meeting crawled on, Whittaker’s voice like the static on the fringes of a radio channel’s sound, and Jerry nodded and made the required noises and tugged a fingertip around the rim of his collar and wondered why he breathed as though through a grime-clogged gag, until movement at the far reach of his vision turned his head and in the mirror on the wall he saw his face, empurpled and bulging, and the end of his tie held aloft by an unseen force while the loop at the other end shrank tightening into his neck.

The suddenness of the connection made the man recoil, more even than the image he received, and the back of his head cracked against the wall. He sat staring at the ceiling, his heart clapping so that he was sure it would slip the smooth mechanism of its regular rhythm and jerk unco-ordinated and ineffectual in his breast.
It had been a single strobe-flicker in his head, the instant of communication, and he knew the bond was stronger and closer now because the other, the one with whom he had made contact, had anticipated, and unwittingly sent this awareness to him. His frustration was great, more intense than his fear, because the other was unaware of what he knew and the power he had, and would carry the seed of this knowledge and power in him, unfertilized by attention and unnurtured by the rain of purpose, while the man he could have saved slipped away into the blankness of non-being.
His gaze snapped to the door as it opened and the people came in, more of them this time than he could remember before, and he prepared his muscles and his jaws for a final onslaught, but their numbers were too great this time and they pinned him easily as they unlocked the fetters in silence and hauled him to his feet, their arms contributing the strength his puny legs lacked, and half-dragged him towards the open door.

Cold rain slick on his face as he leaned on the railing of the balcony and heaved in lungfuls of air. His top button was undone and his tie loosened but the pressure on his throat had not gone, though outwardly he seemed to reveal nothing, as nobody had remarked on his appearance in the staff room.
Doreen, one of the maths teachers, appeared at his side. ‘All right?’
‘Yes, fine.’ He glanced swiftly at her but it had been a general greeting, not a question. She was fifty, with a worn yet soft face, and eyes that made him uncomfortable because they seemed never merely to look at him but to see him.
‘Jerry, it’s not my place, but Whittaker really put one over on you in there.’
Go away. ‘Oh, I don’t know.’
She turned towards him and he twisted inwardly. ‘I’m serious. Covering for Shirley is Bryant’s job, and they both know it.’
He lifted a palm skyward in a shrug and hoped his sigh conveyed exasperated cheer. ‘It’s no big deal, Doreen. Besides, I’m at my best when I’m stretched.’
She watched him a moment and then dipped her eyelids and smiled. ‘Okay. Whatever.’ She started away down the corridor and he looked at her dwindling shape and for an instant so brief it was like a thought-fragment, she was not a short dumpy woman but a slight, bowed man in white, carried on either side by featureless figures towards a distant dreadful silhouette, and something stifled within him twitched violently.
Then the shocking howling of the bell on the wall behind him shook him upright and he pushed away from the rail and set off towards his classroom.

He did not open his mouth, for fear that his tongue would mock him by spewing a gabble of apologies and pleas; he did not close his eyes, in case the primal darkness drove him to seek escape by the same route. On the way, a hundred paces beyond the door, they had paused, and he had surged as they had wavered, but the journey had resumed and he had felt sick at how the imagination which had protected him throughout the years and decades in the room, was now ridiculing him with the sneer of false hope.
The man stood on the platform while the manacles were locked around his wrists behind his back. Before him, thrown by light from behind him, his thin shadow formed a grotesque hybrid with that of the scaffold above his head, man and the means of his death fused in an ironic whole.
The ground he had traversed was grey ash and the wall in which the door was set, the door through which he had passed, was of a dullness that made the inside of the room seem bright as dawn by comparison. He knew that the outside, the world beyond the door, had changed since he had been a child, that this uniform paleness was all that remained after its vividness and life had been leached away. He did not know where the colour had gone.
There was movement behind him and he started, but his attention had been caught by the impossible stirring of the wall beside the door, as though part of it were detaching itself. He saw the figure of a man standing against the wall, slightly hunched, the features unclear because of the similarity in colour between figure and background. Instantly, he realised he knew the man.
The contact was immediate this time, with little effort required on his part, and all at once he was inside the head of the man against the wall, and the sensation was unnerving. He was looking through the familiar stranger’s eyes, and his vision was not stereoscopic but seemed to cover two constantly-changing fields simultaneously, all incoming information being rapidly evaluated and, if it did not appear to signify threat, disregarded. His face felt compressed as if against imminent attack; his hands clutched themselves; his urge to move his limbs forced up against an equal compulsion to be still.
For a moment, the contact flickered, and the roughness of the people’s hands was upon him and the agitation of their voices was driven less by anger than by fear. He smiled, and drew the thin air in through his mouth until he could expand himself no further, and called out from the depths of his self.
The eyes of the other swivelled so that for the first time they focused in the same place, and through them he saw himself, the hurried fitting of the noose and the hand impatient on the lever.

Even with his eyes closed, he could see the sun burning a hole through the bleak swollen clouds. He raised his face to it, wanting to climb on the railing and reach for it, let it scorch his hands and his body, consume him.
He stared down the corridor. Doreen was at the end, unlocking a door. He called out and when she looked up, he ran towards her, laughing at her alarm.
‘Jerry, what - ?’
He stood before her, breathing heavily, tears stinging his eyes, not caring. ‘You’re right. Thanks.’
He turned, for the first time in his adult life not waiting for a response.
Whitaker was talking to a parent outside his office and held up a hand to warn Jerry to wait. When the woman had gone he raised a bland eyebrow. ‘Something?’
‘Two things, in fact.’ The enormity of what he was about to do was making him wheeze. He went ahead and wheezed. ‘Firstly, I’d rather you didn’t dismiss me as you just did, as though I’m one of the kids.’
Whitaker flinched as though bitten. He opened his mouth.
‘Secondly, I haven’t the time to cover for Shirley. I’m willing to help out in a pinch, as I’ve demonstrated more than once, but it’s time other people started pulling their weight.’ He paused. ‘That’s all.’
Terror clawed up at his throat from deep inside his belly, real terror, not the small dreary empty thing that had been clinging to him like a whining child for as long as he could remember. The pain of it was intense and pure, and good.
He was late for class, and two boys in the front row glanced round at him as he entered and then turned back to the telling of a story, each sentence punctuated by an obscenity. He approached, sweating, and stood over them until the silence of the others made them look up at him again.
‘I won’t have that sort of language in my classroom.’
One of the boys was cowed; the other held his hands up in pantomime horror. Jerry stood back and pointed at the door with his thumb.
‘Get out.’
A torrent of invective, but the boy left eventually with a final remark that his dad would sort Jerry out. Jerry smiled and sat down. Let him. Just let him come.

When the class had gone, the last of the girls peering at him in uneasy wonder as she passed his desk, he sat alone as he had never been before, and waited to be swamped with shock. He thought of Rachel, and the puzzled fearful look she would give him as he walked to her from his car that evening; of the conversation they would have, and the terrible exhilarating unknowability of the course their lives would take after it, together or separately; of the uncertainty and strangeness of a world in his hands and not under the stewardship of others.
He did feel shock, that which accompanies the experience of everything new that is of any value; he did feel regret for the dust of long-dead opportunities that whispered in the murmurings of memory that were now audible to him, no longer obscured by the chattering of impossible dilemmas and ridiculous, petty preoccupations. But what he felt most deeply was hunger, a hunger that was like a furnace the door of which had suddenly been flung open, with flames that needed constant stoking to prevent them from leaping out and consuming him and in return provided him with fuel without limit.
He picked up his diary and paged through it until the letters caught his eye and he looked at them for a long time, noticing two things: the handwriting was his own, and the words were no longer Help me but Thank you.

The man stood alone, the last of his captors having faded silently. To his left was the scaffold, a pathetic skeleton of corrupt wood and rope; to his right, the wall with its door, which stood ajar. Before him the ground stretched, still ash-grey but with a raw expectant character that suggested it was not dead, merely fallow. There was no path to speak of, or alternatively, there was an infinite number of paths.
The manacles were gone from his wrists and he found them behind the platform, rusted and cold. He slipped them into a pocket and when he straightened up, he saw that the door in the wall had opened further, and warm light spilled from the room beyond. Warm, colourless light.
He watched as the doorway was fully exposed and the impossibly large room was revealed, and even from where he stood he could identify childhood playthings scattered on its floor as the music of his own young laughter called to him. The toys were red and yellow and blue, but their brightness was desperate, as though it would slip free and dissipate at any moment.
He raised his head, and smiled, and turned his back on the door and began to walk away towards the horizon.

I've read it all, Foots, before you split it so my comment is on the last one. And I've just found out you're engaged. Congratulatons! This may be old news, but I'm relatively new. A Foot Eater and a keeper Vampirella, eh? I hesitate to ask where you're having your wedding reception.
Foot, I like this story very much. I'm not quite bright enough to completely interpret the events, but here's what I think might be going on:
1 - this thing had a very slightly Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge feel to it. more modern, and with two perspectives instead of one.

2 - Were both of these characters experiencing reality? What separated the two, time or space or both?

3 - What was the talk of "form 6" and "form 5"? Are we speaking of vocal protocols?

4 - Does it matter who or why the fellow is chained? I'm curious as to why he was prisoner his entire life as well as who his 'faceless' captors might be.

5 - On the subject of faceless captors: This story and woodborn both had a strong element of apparently ruthless fascism or totalitarianism. Is this a subject that captures you especially? In recent years I've been interested in the history and reality of fascism as my government seems to be doing its best to craft an American version of that modern political blight.

6 - Last on the subject of faceless other: I like how the 'bad guys' are handled in this way. It eliminates the possibility of the reader to view them as sympathetic and, in such a short work, provides an easy clarity. In longer works I find the faceless other to be a bit of a cop-out though, as I find it more interesting to approach evil in the face it wears to bed.
Sam, your review on the last post captures the essence exactly. Thanks.

SafeT: much of this story must remain for the reader to interpret, but as regards your third point: forms five and six are classes in UK schools, akin to your grades. And I am slightly obsessed with totalitarianism and fascism.
Pfagh! I type for fifteen minutes and get a two sentance response. I feel swindled. (fishwacker swindled?)

Obviously I need to take more care in crafting my questions as even I would take a pass on them as they sit.
If it makes you feel any better, SafeT, it took me twenty minutes to type that response.
Oh, since its open to interpretation, here's mine (the only one that matters, after all)

The fellow in the cell was specifically bred to be an attendant at a spa for the elite politicos of his dystopic totalitarian future.

Something went wrong, however, and as a child they identified his complete inability to rent out suntanning goggles.

It was at that time that they realized that he would need to be chained for a period of no less than 18 years in order to educate his cardiovascular system in the subtle art of Sliding The Case Open and Offering Customer His/Her Choice of Goggles.

While this was going on the teacher, a flub from the UK I'll affectionately refer to as "Whiney Limey", graduated from university and took a dead-end teaching job at a school for faceless children. Whiney Limey accidentally became psychically entangled with the failed suntan booth operator due to an accident with an American Express application form which had been cross shipped to both human creatures.

Thereafter the suntan operator began acting out in a way that showed his erstwhile trainers that he'll never be able to Warn Customer Not To Fall Asleep or Proffer Expensive Sport Drinks.

The trainers had no choice but to kill him.

At the time of death a hyperintelligent tanning booth from the far future opened a portal and carried the fellow forward. In leaving, however, the failed attendant felt it necessary to file a forwarding address with the phone and postal service directing all valuable marketing materials to be delivered to Whiney Limey.

Whiney Limey now bears the burden of purchasing Sharper Image trinkets in the name of melanine.
You see, SafeT? I don't need to respond when you've got it exactly.


.. I win a prize?
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