“Yes, I have a two o’clock appointment?” I leaned over the desk of the health center, trying not to be nervous as the nurse confirmed my appointment, and asked me to wait and the doctor would see me shortly. I sat, and flipped through one of the magazines on the table. It was at least 3 months out of date, and I put it back.
“Mr. Peyton? The doctor will see you now. Please come this way.” The nurse smiled, and held the door open. She smiled, and I tried to return the gesture. I sat on the padded chair, trying my best not to shift so that the wax paper they had spread on it wouldn’t crinkle unnecessarily loudly. I loosened my tie, and wondered what to say to the doctor that would get me a blood test and a referral without making me look like a basketcase. Just as I was about to hop off the table and begin pacing the room to let off some excess energy, the doctor bustled in, gave me a quick professional smile, and sat down.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Peyton. It looks like you made this appointment to, err, discuss some mental health concerns you have, and to look into your options for a referral.” He consulted his clipboard, and made a small notation. “Now, what seems to be the problem.”
I cleared my throat nervously. “Well, uh, I think I may be having a bad reaction to stress. I’ve always had a pretty good imagination, but…well, I tthink it’s getting out of hand. I’m pretty jumpy, and I keep thinking that…that I see things, but when I look again, they’re not there.” I shifted my weight, and the paper crinkled loudly in the quiet office.
The doctor looked at me for a moment, then leaned forward. “Has anything like this happened to you before, son? Any history of mental illness in your family?”
I shook my head. “No, not that we know of.”
“Energy levels? Are you feeling tired a lot? Exhaustion or muscle pain?”
“No, not really.”
“Hmmmm, ok. Any dizziness or stomach cramps?”
He scribbled some more notes on the forms, then sat back in his chair. “I’m going to go ahead and recommend some basic blooddwork for you, but I really don’t think we’ll find anything. Is it alright if I go ahead and refer you to a psychiatrist? It’s likely that this is nothing more than stress, but we don’t really want to take any chances.” He pulled a carbon copy of the form out of the clipboard and handed it to me. “Just give this to the nurse at the front desk, and she’ll schedule your blood work and help you find a psychiatrist that will take your health plan.” He smiled and stood to go. “I think you’ll be fine, you probably need rest more than anything. You young guys are always trying to do too much.”
I nodded, and stood up to go. He opened the door for me, then disappeared into another room off the main hallway. I made my way back up to the nurse’s desk, and handed over my paperwork.
“Oh, you need to schedule blood work? Ok, well, it looks like we’re free at 7am on Thursday if that works for you. Be sure to drink some water before you come in, it’ll make it easier to draw the blood. Don’t eat anything, or drink anything but water before you come, ok? Great, here’s your appointment card, and we’ll see you on Thursday. I’ll pull the list of psychiatrists covered by your insurance, and have that ready for you next time. Have a great day!’
I walked out of the health center into the warmth of a March afternoon. Scores of students were walking by in both directions, laughing and chatting, most of them with headphones dangling from their ears. I wondered how many secrets their happy faces hid.
I crossed the plaza under the bell tower, and made my way up the stairs of Northman, pushing through a crowd of students coming down from a class session that had just ended. I knocked on Dr. Russel’s door and ducked inside.
“Good morning, Mr. Peyton. We missed you in the afternoon class, did your appointment go well?” He had his usual gruff expression, but he didn’t seem upset.
“Yes, sir, thanks, it went well. I’ve got an appointment on Thursday at 7, but I should still be able to make morning class without a problem. I’ve got the graded essays for tonight’s class, and here’s the forms for the next test for 103.” I pulled a sheaf of papers out of my bag, and handed them over. He took them without a word, and set them in a folder on his desk. “Mr. Peyton, take a seat for a minute.”
He took off his glasses, and rubbed his temple contemplatively. “Your help has been invaluable to me in my classes, but James, I am worried about you. No, your work isn’t slipping, you’re too good to let that happen, but you seem on edge, and not your usual self. The James Peyton I know is a confident young man, who isn’t afraid to give his all for whatever comes his way. A happy man, a generous man. The James Peyton I see today is jumpy, tired, and almost morose. I know you’ve had a difficult year, and I’m not insisting that you hide any problems you may be having. But I am concerned.”
I leaned back in the chair, and looked out the window to the plaza below. “I’m not sure what to tell you, sir. Yes, things have been difficult. But it’s not just losing Angie. It’s…well, it’s other things that I’m not sure I can talk about. I’m getting blood work done on Thursdahy, and making an appointment with a psychiatrist. I’m going to get this straightened out, I promise you.”
Dr. Russell smiled slightly, and nodded. “I thought so. But let me know if there’s anything you need: time off, a raise, reduced schedule.”
“Sure, sir, I’ll do that.”
“I mean it.”
James shut the door and walked down the hallway. It was crowded with the usual groups, classes entering and exiting, and students simply sitting around and chatting. He walked down the stairs, and out into the plaza. The weather had turned suddenly cooler, and clouds had drifted in to cover the sun. A soft grey light shone down, and all colors were muted. James stood watching for a moment, then turned left and walked under the bell tower, and across the main walkway.
My nose twitched with the scent of rain in the air: something soft, like violets, but wild and tangy like gunpowder. The entire atmosphere was pregnant with the smell, and the air hung heavy and cold, like a washrag waiting to be wrung out. The wind picked up, dashing the scent past my nose, and like bullets, the first drops fell. I could hear several girls shrieking as they ran for cover, but most students simply kept walking.
I turned and stood facing into the wind, letting it blow my hair away from my face. The water splattered against my cheeks, and ran from my forehead down into my eyes. With the wind came smell, sight, touch, and taste, four horsemen riding the air.
The storm’s small fury was spent almost as the first drops fell. The sidewalk glistened lightly, but already the large open areas were beginning to dry. The asphalt steamed lightly as the sun broke through again, and the smell of rain in the air gave way to the tamer smells of wet concrete and washed grass. The sun’s fresh rays made everything gleam as though newly scrubbed, and the trees stood out brightly against the background of dark cloud.
As I walked across the secondary plaza, a few stray raindrops were still falling into the fountain. I walked down the concrete steps, and into the walkway: the blue plastic shades over the walkway were dripping from the edges, but little water had seeped through. A gaggle of student streamed out of th coffee shop, where they had ducked to shelter from the rain. After they left, the room was almost empty, and I slung my bag into an empty armchair. As I waited to order, my eyes drifted over the art displayed on the wall. Stephan mocked most of the art that was displayed here, saying it varied from pretentious crap to sentimental nonsense. I usually didn’t take much notice of it, but this month’s exhibit seemed to be a display of photography. The warm toned pictures depicted one of the most rugged landscapes I’d seen: hills, valleys, and even caves, all made of dried dust. A few scraggly plants sprung from the soil, but the ground was parched and cracked, and even the little that did grow was the color of dust itself. The sky was cobalt blue and intense, contrasting starkly with the pale earth. The hills rose up in structures like abandoned necropolii, ruined castles, and ancient mountains worn down to nothing. Just looking at the pictures made your mouth dry up a little, and you could feel the heat beating down from the invisible sun. Simple paths led through the desert, and the pictures progressed through the paths, from the top of the hills, down through the caves and canyons into the heart of the earth, where little light shown., Then, morning broke across the silhouetted hills, blindingly bright and warm. The pictures came up from the earth again, seeking out the light, climbing the blasted hills. In one frame, a single figure clothed in a red coat stood in a corridor made of dried dirt, the earthen walls reflecting light oonto each other until the entire corridor was aglow with a yellow light. From there, the path lead up to the top of the hills again, culminating in an explosion of light as the early morning sun shone on the clouds that streaked across the sky. The tops of the mountains smoked with morning light and cloud, and the clouds were pink ribbons streaming across the sky. In the final image, the edge of the sun’s disc peeked over the crest of a hill, and a jet contrail shot upwards like a rocket. The spirit soared just looking at the images.
For some reason, I found myself drawn to the images of the blasted desert. The landscape appeared to be swept clean of almost everything that was recognizable to ordinary modern human existence. It looked like a foreign planet, one that did not welcome humans, but which held great promise for any one who would dare take up the challenges it offered. I thought of the verse, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord,” and felt like I understood what it meant for the first time.
“Excuse me, are you ready to order?” I jumped slightly; I’d gotten so engrossed in the pictures that I’d forgotten that I was waiting to order coffee. I was embarrassed that the barista had had to call me twice, but place my order and paid cash. I picked up my coffee and settled into the chair and pulled out the stack of papers from my bag. There was an essay from each student in one class, as well as two short essays from several other classes and test papers from another. I wanted to get a head start on some of them, though most weren’t due back to Dr. Russell for a few days.
The door to the coffee shop swiffed open, and out of habit, I glanced up to see the young girl from Stephan’s art class come in. She wore tattered jeans, a grey sweater, and a long striped scarf that wound several times around her neck before it draped down toward her knees. She walked quickly up to the counter, and ordered. As she waited for her order, she stood back and studied some of the pictures on the wall. She spent most time in front of one of the simplest images—a simple shot of a faint gleam of sunlight coming in through a sky light in the top of a cave. The image was faint, but clear, and she seemed captivated by it for a few moments.
“Tall vanilla latte!” The barista called out the order as the cardboard cup was set out on the counter. Corinne picked it up and carefully took a sip before slipping a plastic lid on the cup. She settled in a chair across the room, and pulled out a tattered paperback book. With a sigh, I went back to grading papers. For a few minutes, I worked in silence, but slowly I became aware of a low humming. I tried to ignore it, but it would dart in and out of hearing—just when I thought it had gone away, it would start up, and the tune seemed to be always out of reach.
I looked up again, and realized that Corinne was humminh under her breath as she read. I ducked my head to get a better glimpse of the book’s cover: Jane Eyre. I realized where I had heard the tune before—Angie had loved the music from the musical version of Jane Eyre and had often sung it, though I never really took much notice.
“Excuse me.” I noticed that Corinne was looking towards me. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Oh, thanks. I have a painting class in a half hour, and I didn’t want to be late for it. I guess I’ve still got a little while.” She settled back into the chair, and sipped at her not lukewarm drink.
“Would that be a class with Stephan?” I asked. “I believe he’s your professor for an early morning drawing class.”
“oh!” She sat up a little straighter, and leaned forward. “Yeah, he’s my prof for Drawing 101. He’s really tough, but I like learning from him. He’s not as cynical as a lot off artists I’ve met, and he’s really hekped me improve my work. I just transferred into his painting class. It might be a little ways beyond my level, but he approved the transfer, so I guess it’s ok.” She looked at me curiously. “Do you know him?”
I laughed. “Yeah, actually. We went to school here together, and we’re housemates now. He’s a great guy, and you should definitely learn all you can from him. His senior show was amazing, but you’ll never get him to tell you about it. Find someone in the department who really knows art, and ask them about it. Truly incredible.”
She smiled, and bounced slightly in her seat. “I’m so happy to be here! There are so many interesting people here. I really enjoyed class the other morning. Professor Stephan was taking us around the campus to try to show us how to really see, how to really look at the things all around us everyday. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
“I noticed. Were you looking at the grass that morning?”
She grinned, and turned a little red. “Yeah. Well…I was trying to see if I could see the sun through the dew on the grass. It didn’t quite work, but the dew did look really nice, and I enjoy looking at grass.” She looked a little uncomfortable, and came to sit in a chair nearer to mine. “I hate to ask this but…does he ever talk about the class at all? Not that I want him to talk about me or anything, but the class seems a little odd. No-one seems that interested in beauty, or life, or the things around them. I’m not sure what they’re interested in. But it always seems like the only things that they like and get excited about are things that nobody else has heard of, and they hate the things that other people like. I dunno, I just don’t get it.”
I sighed, and leaned forward in the chair. “ Corinne—your name is Corinne, right?—you should talk to Stephan about this. Trust me, he’d love to know your thoughts on this, and as an artist, he has some really good views on the subject that are far more informed than anything I could say. Just ask him after class if he’d be willing to chat about it. I garuntee you that he’ll be happy to talk to you about this.” She looked a little skeptical, but perhaps a bit relieved that I hadn’t launched into a tirade about how she needed to learn to improve her artistic taste.
“Oh, drat, I’ve gotta run. I need to get to class a little early to get some paperwork signed for the registrar. Thanks so much for chatting! See you around!” She grabbed her bag and book, and dashed out the door. As the door swung open, I could see that full daylight had returned, and many of the clouds were gone.
The rest of the week was pretty quiet. A few odd sights came and went, but no more of the blue-robed figure, or the red robed skull. The bloodwork went well, and I made it to Dr. Russell’s class on time, and was able to hand back some of the test papers earlier than expected.
Sunday rolled around again, and I almost felt like my old self. Whether the things I was seeing had any bearing on reality or not, I still wasn’t sure, but they didn’t seem to be hurting anything, and if modern medicine could drive them away, I’d find out next week when my appointment came up with the psychiatrist.
As I drove up the hill to church, with Erin, Jason, Erin’s fiancée, and another student I didn’t know, the hills were shrouded in the last remants of low-hanging cloud, and the sunrise touching it turned the atmosphere to gold.
We unpiled out of the car at church, and erin and her fiancée headed off to the nursery to take care of the children during the service. Jason and I made our way inside, and sat down. We were a little early, so I took a few moments to glance through the bulliten. As I opened it, a piece of green paper fell out. I puicked it up and glanced at it. “Parish Retreat,” it announced. “Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Retreat house in Santa Barbara. Two weeks from now. Cost is $90, please have a check ready when you go.”
Underneath the headline was a blurry Xeroxed photo of a house with gardens. But it was really the word “retreat” that caught my eye. Jason saw me looking at the paper, and nudged me. “You ever been to one of those? I hear they’re pretty amazing, but I’ve never gone. I usually can’t get the money together, or I have something planned on the weekend they’re going.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I know a lot of people really get a lot out of it. I think Marie and her husband usually go. Yeah, see, they’re the contacts for it. I might actually go this year. I could really use some time away for a while.” I folded the paper, and stuck it in my pocket as a reminder.
After church, I found Marie in the fellowship hall. “Hey James, haven’t really had a chance to talk to you in a while, how’ve you been?”
I always enjoyed talking to Marie and her husband. Marie is the sort of person whose face lights up when she sees you, and her husband was always willing to go out of his way to help, with anything that could be done. When I moved in with Stephan, he and Marie had wrestled my couch into the back of their ancient station wagon and moved it for me.
“I’m ok, thank you for asking. I actually wanted to check with you about the retreat. Is there still room?”
She nodded excitedly. “Yeah, we still have a lot of spaces open, we’d love to have you come! It’s amazing what a weekend away from everything can do for you. Personally, I find it incredibly relaxing. It’s so quiet, and of course, since it’s a silent retreat, there’s no talking and during lunch we usually just read from a book. It takes some getting used to, but it’s so rewarding. Do you want me to go ahead and put you on the list?”
I nodded. “Yeah, that’d be great. I think I could really use some time away from everything right now. Need to get my head clear. I’ve got some vacation time coming up, and I think this would be a great way to use it up.”
Marie fished around inside her purse for a pen and paper. “Ok, fantastic! Let me go ahead and get ylour email address, and I’ll add you to the update list. We usually leave for the retreat house around noon on Friday, but you can also take the train—just let me know if you need someone to pick you up from the train station in Santa Barbara. Or, of course, you can always drive yourself. If you can give anyone a ride, that’s good too.”
“my car porbbaly won’t make the drive, but I’ll take the train or get a ride here. Let me do some checking and get back to you.” I saw Erin and her fiancée start heading for the parking lot, and waved to let them know that I was coming soon. “Hey, I’ve got to go, but I’ll watch for the email. Should be fun!”
She smiled and nodded. “Great! I’ll let ? know, he’s always happy when other men are on the trip. We tend to have a lot of girls go every year, but not so many guys.” I scribbled my email address on a piece of paper and handed it back to her.
As we drove home, I wondered why I’d signed up for the retreat. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go, just that it wasn’t the sort of thing I usually did. I like being around people, and the idea of being around people and not being able to talk to them seemed like it would be [pretty difficult. But I did need a break.
“Jason, are you going on the retreat,” asked Erin. “Jared and I are signed up to go, and it would be totally awesome if you were there, too.”
“I’m thinking about it,” he replied, unwrapping a muffin he’d brought from the fellowship hall. “It sounds nice, but I don’t really have much time on the weekends and I’m completely broke. Father Tim said that I shouldn’t let the cost worry me, that the church would be happy to cover the feee if I really want to go. ?i’m just not sure yet.”
Erin nodded and resumed her conversation with Jared, most of which seemed to involved whispered giggles.
When we arrived back at the campus, I dropped the three of them off near the cafeteria, and circled back toward my apartment. Stephan aleways eats lunch at his church, and usually isn’t home until much later, so I was surprised to see someone waiting for me at the top of the stairs. I approached the steps carefully, ntil I saw that the figure was Scott Harkness. I would have turned to go, but he had already seen my car pull up, and was coming down the stairs.
“Hello Scott,” I said rather dully. I didn’t want to give him the impression that he was in any sense welcome.
“Good morning, James. Church go well this morning?” He grinned. He had a very nice, open face, but something about his grin disturbed me. It was nothing I could put a finger on, but something was definitely not right about his smile.
“Yes, and don’t do that.” I pushed past him, and pulled my keys from my pocket to unlock the door.
“Do what,” he queried, following me up the staircase.
“Act like you know something I don’t. Use your bizarre and slightly freaky abilities to freak me out by telling me about my own life. Just quit it. I’m not interested.” I shoved the key into the lock roughly, causing it to jam. I jiggled it until it finally popped free, and tried again.
“I’m not trying to disconcert you, you know,” he responded. “I just don’t want you, or anyone else to have to make the same mistakes some of the others of us have made. You have a special gift. I’m trying to help you use it. That’s all.” He stood directly behind me as I pushed the door open, and walked inside. I would have had to slam the door on his foot to keep him out, and he was inside the apartment before I could make up my mind about the ethics of doing so.
“Look, I told you, I already know what you’re seeing. I’d bet you’ve already moved on to seeing the figure in red, as well as the creature in blue, and you don’t know what either of them are there for, what either of them mean. Over the next few weeks, you’ll start seeing more and more. Even now, you could see more than you do if you wanted to.” I went into the kitchen nd loudly began washing the ddirty dishes in the sink to avoid listening.
“James, you are going to hav e to pay attention at some point. Unless you really just want to get so doped up that you can barely feel anything, you’re going to keep seeing things. It’s part of your life, no matter what. But it’s up to you how you use that part of your life. You can try to ignore it and dope yourself up or jump at every unusual thing you see. You can accept it and try to be normal, which you’ll never be. Or you can leasrn to develop it, like any other skill, and make yourself useful to society.” He paused, as I turned off the water in the sink and looked at him. “What, you thought this was all about us? No! We’re not interested in using this to promote ourselves, we juist want to help people.” His dark eyes met mine. “What if I told you that one of us saw that a maniac would set fire to a building? We took care of it, and the building still stands. We’ve been able to find criminals and prevent suicides.”
He stood, and began pacing, intensity radiating off him in waves. I could see the atmosphere around him ripple and waver, murky forms moving beside him. I could almost make out the shape of towering wings and rippling robes, but the overall figure eluded me.
“Why would I join you? You’ve been practically stalking me, intentionally playing head games with me, and yet you claim you just wwant to help people. Why in the world should I believe you for even an instant?”
He stopped pacing for a moment, and seemed to be listening. “Just come to one meeting. You’ll see what it’s like. It’s almost…” he paused, struggling with his words. “Okl, this will sound completely strange, but it really is almost like being a superhero. We really do believe that with great power comes great responsibility. That’s why we do this. There are others out there, who don’t believe the same thing. They’ve caused a lot of damage, but mostly to themselves. I don’t want to see that happen to you if I can helpo it, so let us help you.”
He stood still, waiting for me to respond. I was still up to my elbows in soapy water, trying to finish cleaning up the dishes that had been sitting in the sink for days. It sounded so bizarre. Super heroes don’t exist. I just see things. That’s it. I didn’t want to get involved in anything weird, I just wanted to settle into a good life. I didn’t ask to be special.
I sighed, and dried my hands off on a dish towel. “No. I don’t want to. I just want to live my life. I don’t want to become some sort of super hero, because that’s idiotic, insane, and smacks of megaolomania.” I got a little mad and slammed the towel down on the counter. “Now just leave me alone! I don’t want to join your damn group of wannabe power rangers, and I want you to stop bothering me! If I see you around here again, I’m calling the police!”
The air around Scott flared up, making me take a step backward. For a split second, I glimpsed a flash of red robes, black wings, and the empty eye sockets of a grinning skull. Then the air in the apartment was still again, and Scott nodded. “Fine. It’s your own funeral. But we’ll always be here. Whenever you finally realize that you need us, that you can’t do this all for yourself, then we’ll be around to help.” He turned and left, closing the door behind him.
I dashed over and threw the lock on the door, breathing a sigh of relief as the deadbolt slid into place. I backed over to the couch, and let myself fall onto it, the springs croaking in protest. I threw an arm over my eyes, and just tried to get my brain to slow down.
Ten minutes later, I was in the car, pulling out of the driveway. I needed some peace, and needed to be in a place where the insanity that my everyday life had become couldn’t touch me. Angie’s grave was in a cemetery only a few minutes away, but once inside the gates, it seemed like a different world. Where the town was a rushing world of concrete, metal, and sound, the cemetery was silent, immobile,, and full of green grass and old stone. In fact, Angie and I had even visited the place aa few times when we were dating. She always liked cemeteries and found them incredibly peaceful. I wish I had thought ot bring a flower, but my main concern was simply getting out of that apartment, away from Scott and his society, and away from everything but the silent eternity of the graveyard.
Angie’s grave was right under a tree, and it was usually cool in the shade. I pushed a few trailing branches aside, and crouched near the headstone. A few leaves wrere resting on the top of the stone, and I brushed them away.
“Hey, Ang. It’s me. I’m sorry I haven’t been around much lately. It’s been really busy, and…” I sighed, and rubbed hands over my face. I never was comfortable talking to dead people. Angie had always enjoyed talking to those who were buried here, and she was always confident that they could, in some sense, hear her or at least receive her appreciation and gratitude. I had a hard time believing that anything I said could be heard by anyone on the other side of death. I’ve always believed in the afterlife, and even in a bodily resurrection, but it never seemed to make much difference to anything I did. Even Angie, the one person in the world who knew me best, who would reach out to me if she could, was cold, distant, and out of my reach. I leaned forward, and touched my forehead to the cold stone. “Ang, I don’t feel like you can hear me but I’m going to talk to you, because I seem to have forgotten how to talk to anyone else. I’ve always had more friends than I can count, but now I feel like I’m alone all the time. I work most of the time, and the rest of the time I’m so tired I don’t want to do anything else, and I don’t know what to do with myself. I need people, but I can’t seem to be around them right now, because every time I see people outside of class, weird things happen. I…I see things, and I can’t explain them. They seem to be real, but I can’t be sure. I don’t know what any of it means. I never wanted them. I don’t want them now. I don’t want to be special. If this is a gift from God, He can take it back, because I’m never going to do anything with it. I will ignore the things I see, learn to live with them, whatever, but I’m going to do what I want to do. I wish you were here to help. You wouldn’t be weirded out by this, and you’d know what to do. You were always so open to the wonder in life. You should have been the one to start seeing these things, you would have known what to do with them.”
I idly traced the dates on the stone with my finger. It felt good to just rant for a while, even if no one heard. There was a fine layer of dust on the headstone, and the light touch of my hand sent small specks tumbling down the steep granite face of the rock. My hand brushed the trailing edge of a blue robe, and I looked up.
The creature in blue was standing on the headstone, but instead of dwarfing the stone, the headstone seemed to have become a mountain of immovable rock, and the creature in blue stood at the crest, arms uplifted to the sky. A song of incredible sadness and almost unbearable ecstasy poured from under the veil as the figure sang of things lost and things gained.
With a sudeen roar, a lawnmower came to life a few yards away, and the headstone was again the small stone it had always been. I leaned back on my heels, and looked across the expanse of stone-dotted grass. I did not want to see that figure in blue, but it had suing of the same loss I felt when I stood here, and I wanted to know about the things found.