You don't have to be crazy . . . but what fun is that?

Things Worse than Madness
by Kyle Heger ©2016

My fear of madness is what kept me in this school after closing time tonight. When you've already lost as much as I have, wife, kids, savings, self-respect, career aspirations, hopes for a better world, you don't want to lose what little remains to you. For instance: the stub end of your sanity. But now, when push comes to shove and my bluff has been called, I'm beginning to wonder if sanity hasn't been overrated a bit. Maybe a little madness is just what I need to see me through eternity.

***

It all started this morning when a seventh grader with the unlikely name of Japheth Crane came to keep an appointment with me.

I'm long past trying to fool myself that I play a big role in these kids? lives. I'm not a therapist. For the most part, what I do here as a part-time school psychologist is a quick assessment, and out the door they go, either right back where they came from or to be warehoused in another part of the system. Out of sight. Out of mind. No pun intended. But I sometimes believe I am able to do a little harm. I believe it just enough that it worries me and keeps me on my toes.

I tell myself that I try to treat the students according to a certain set of principals not just out of professionalism or some abstract sense of fair play, but, more importantly, out of a sense of solidarity with them as fellow sufferers, fellow underdogs. Who knows? Maybe I do it mainly to keep my own conscience from getting any dirtier than it already is.

One example of how I try to take the high road is this: I do my best to avoid putting the kids into any more boxes than they're already in, you know: stereotyping. I hate labeling somebody with a diagnosis. But, of course, that ends up being a bit problematic because, if I'm doing the job I get paid for, that's exactly what I'm supposed to do. Slap diagnoses on them. So I compromise by at least trying to pigeonhole them with a grain of salt.

Toward that end, I try to keep an open mind, not to develop too many preconceptions about students before I meet them. I try not to take what's in their 'official' files too seriously. Of course completely avoiding preconceptions is impossible. But I do a pretty good job of keeping them to a minimum.

In this particular case, that was harder than usual. After leafing through the material in the manila folder with this kid's name on it, I developed an unwelcome but very clear image of him: a slope-headed stump puller in dirty bib overalls. His steps would be leaden. His muddy eyes would be downcast. His greasy, dark brown hair would be hacked into a hasty bowl cut. I'd seen a hundred like him.

Rarely have my preconceptions been so far from the mark. The young man who knocked on my half-open office door at the appointed time was neat and trim. He almost sparkled. His hair was blond and worn fashionably short. He wore the standard-issue blue jeans and tee-shirt and far-too-expensive basketball shoes. His eyes were clear and blue and curious. He was even smiling. Just a bit. I was struck by an aura of maturity and self-possession in his body language and facial expressions.

If I'm surprised when students first appear, I try not to let them see it. But I'm quite sure this boy did. He saw it in my eyes. And he looked almost embarrassed by it. Not for his sake. For mine.

I think that's when I felt the first stirrings of uneasiness regarding him, as if he'd seen inside me, seen my uncertainty, my insufficiency. I felt that the tables of our relationship had been turned before he'd even spoken. Although I usually try to maintain some sense of equality, or at the least the illusion of it, between myself and the students, the truth is that I am accustomed to having the upper hand. It was as if he were the one being diplomatic and generous, and I was the one being defensive and reluctant.

His voice was clear and confident.

"Dr. Severs?" he asked.

"Yes. And you must be Japheth Crane," I replied. My voice was neither clear nor confident. I was trying too hard to follow up on a resolution I had made earlier to say his name in a neutral manner despite how loaded with significance it must be for him, for his 'case.'

For me, his name had held a vaguely biblical ring, but beyond that, it had meant nothing until I had looked it up on the internet. It turned out to be the name of one of Noah's sons.

I wondered vaguely what it would be like to go through life with a post-apocalyptic name, to be cast from birth in the role of a handful of survivors, offspring of the elect in a world governed by an angry god. Trippy.

The manila folder had given me some of his history: itinerant preachers for parents (fire-and-brimstone exponents of some obscure sect, maybe something of their own invention), living for about a year on the poor side of town (or should I say the "poorer side?"), a long record of "trouble" with fellow students, usually, but not always, as the injured party.

Well, what could you expect with a name like that? It's like strapping a big old bull's eye on your kid's back and sending him outdoors to take his chances with the mob.

"Have a seat," I continued, standing up and gesturing toward a chair on the other side of my desk.

Gracefully. That's how he sat down. I can't think of another word. A natural, athletic grace, nothing self-conscious about it. Let's face it, I thought, this kid fits much better into his world, even with all his problems, than I fit into mine.

"Do you know why you're here, Japheth?" I asked, on the alert to see how he would react to his name. This is my standard opening line. It's not meant to be either condescending or intimidating, although I believe a few of the more sophisticated students take it that way. I try to ameliorate this feeling by smiling as I ask it. My purpose is to put things on the basis of the student's experience, the student's perspective, starting with the most immediate context: our relationship.

"Well, I guess it has something to do with the hex," he replied, coming out with that unusual word in a very matter-of-fact way.

"Yes," I said. "The hex. Can you tell me more about that?"

A bit of hesitancy entered his attitude. I wondered, a little too eagerly, what forces might be filling up that silence. Shame? Guilt? Calculation?

"Yes," he said a moment later. "I can tell you. The kids get on my case a lot because they know I'm different. I mean everybody's different in some ways, and everybody's the same in some ways. I know all that. But I'm extremely different in some ways. Some of the kids have seen me do things they can't do. Others have just heard about it. Maybe some of them sense it through telepathy . . . you know: ESP." There was another smile at the use of the word. A modest smile. Almost apologetic.

I nodded my head to show I understood, encouraging him to go on, but trying not to scare him into reticence by appearing too eager. The signs were there that I might be approaching familiar ground. Delusion, pathological lying, grandiose thinking: something along these lines might become evident any minute now. Then I could take back the initiative, become the understanding, commiserating, tolerant one. Do my usual politically correct, oh-so-sensitive act of going out of my way to not pigeon hole him. At least not completely.

He gazed back at me with a searching look of his own and continued.

"In a way I can't blame them," he said. "I mean, they're scared. First of all, they're scared of anything new. It's the whole peer pressure thing. But they're afraid of me in particular because they sense my power."

"But, you know, sometimes it gets to me. I can't always be patient and understanding. I didn't ask to be like this. I didn?t ask them to be like they are. I didn?t ask for any of it. Sometimes I lose my temper."

"Yesterday they were particularly hard to take, this bunch of tough guys. Somehow the rumor got started that I'd put a hex on somebody, this skinny redhead who'd called me "Jap" once too often. So, because of this hex, he couldn't leave school at lunch. Everybody else was walking out through the front door, but he couldn't. He was turned back by an invisible force each time he tried to leave. If he hadn't looked so scared, so scared he almost wanted to throw up, it would have been kind of funny. It was as if he kept running into a giant rubber band he couldn't see and kept getting twanged back by it. That's the story. Not a word of it is true."

"But they were all over my case about it, egging each other on, getting all worked up to show they weren?t scared (even though they were, of course, all of them), threatening me, saying they didn't believe in the hex, daring me to do another one. It's the old bit about drawing a line in the sand and daring somebody to step over it. If I didn?t make a stand, I figured, they'd keep pushing me, pushing me. You know: like Popeye, I had to say, "That's all I can take, and I can?t takes no more." Kid stuff."

"So I drew my own line in the sand and said, "O.K., you big, tough bastards. I've just put a hex on the whole school. Anybody who is in here on Thursday at midnight will never be able to leave. They'll be stuck in here forever. Maybe you believe me. Maybe you don't. I dare you to be here at midnight on Thursday. Any of you. That's all. Let's see how tough you really are."

He sighed and added, As soon as I had done it, I regretted it. It was childish, I know. It just sort of burst out of me. But still, I must have exerted a little self-control because I didn't just blow them up on the spot or something. His laugh was grim. In fact, I made a hex it would be pretty easy for them to escape, a dare that it would be easy for them to dodge. After all, nobody else is going to be at this place at midnight to see if one of them accepts the dare or not. Nobody except me. I might be here. Just in case anybody is foolish enough to show up, I want to be here to talk them out of it. Because I don?t really want to hurt anybody. Not anymore. Not that bad.

He stopped and looked at me searchingly again. What was he looking for? What was it he hoped to find or hoped not to find in my expression?

I nodded without returning his look, afraid of what he might see in my eyes, afraid that I would give him the wrong cue and tip what I sensed was a precarious balance regarding what he would tell me next.

But apparently, he wasn't going to continue. Silence pooled up between us. I looked at the edge of my desk. He spread his hands out on his knees and sat studying the backs of them.

That's when I knew why I'd been waiting so eagerly for him to reveal signs of mental illness, or at least significant maladjustment, some convenient way for me to explain away his hex. It was because I found that his story frightened me far more than my reason could explain. Somehow it seemed like a terribly real possibility, one that threatened everything I thought I knew about reality. I could not let it stand unchallenged.

I knew it wouldn?t be of any possible therapeutic use to him or of any diagnostic use to me to challenge his beliefs. I knew that actually such a challenge would be contraindicated, eroding whatever bit of trust he might have built up in me so far, or that he could build up in me. But I challenged them anyway. I wanted them to come tumbling down when brought into contact with the harsh light of common sense.

I cleared my throat and asked, "How exactly would your hex work, supposing someone did stay in the school past midnight? What would happen to them?"

"They would be trapped inside forever."

"If they tried to open a door?"

"It wouldn?t open."

"Windows?"

"The same."

"Let's get concrete. Say someone picked up something--the chair you?re sitting on--and smashed it against that window with all his might. Would the glass shatter?"

The boy thought about it as if pondering an interesting geometry problem, then responded: "The glass might shatter, I suppose. But they still couldn't get out. I don't know the exact details on how each hex unfolds."

"What if he used the phones or the internet to call for help? What if he set off the burglar alarm or used the school's video-surveillance system to alert the authorities to his presence? The police. The fire department. The National Guard. Nobody could rescue him? Not with dynamite and wrecking balls and whatnot?"

"No. I doubt they'd even know he was here."

"You've lost me. Would he become . . . invisible?"

"Not exactly. From my experience, I would say he'd simply no longer be in the same place as everyone else."

"So in the morning, when the principal and the teachers and your fellow students arrived . . . they?d find . . .?"

"Nothing out of the ordinary. Except perhaps a missing person . . . assuming it was a person that anyone would miss."

There wasn?t anything more to talk about after that, so I got through the end-of-session routine as quick as I could, confirming some facts, scheduling another meeting, etc., in as professionally detached a manner as I could muster.

He went along with it all, but he didn?t seem so confident, so cocksure now as he had when he had first entered my office. At the time, I thought that this was perhaps because I had succeeded, despite my own prognostication, in denting a bit of his belief system. Looking back on it though, I realize it is more likely that his changed attitude was for my sake. Because he knew what I was going to do. And he felt bad about it.

As he stood in the doorway, his hand on the knob, he looked back at me and spoke.

"The terrible thing about my hex is that, now that it's slipped out, I can?t take it back," he said. "It's . . . what's the word?"

"Irrevocable," I suggested.

"Yes, that's it. The hex is irrevocable."

Something passed between us through our briefly interlocked gazes, something that made goose bumps race up my arms.

He hesitated, as if he were about to say something else, but then he left, shaking his head.

***

That was at 2:30 this afternoon. Now, it's almost midnight.

I've been waiting in my office the whole time.

When the school secretary, old Mrs. McCourt, popped her head through my doorway before going home, I told her I was just going to spend a few more minutes catching up on some paperwork.

"Well, don't leave too late, or you'll trip the alarm," she warned.

I sat here in my swivel chair and watched the building empty of people, the parking lot empty of cars, the sky empty of sunlight. I saw streetlights come on and the moon come peeking over the gym roof. When I heard custodians rolling their big gray barrels through the hallways, I turned off my light so they wouldn?t know I was here. To reduce the chance of their coming into my office, I put my wastebasket outside my door.

But what if they did open my door to put the wastebasket back? I developed a number of contingency plans and excuses in case they did this and found me there. I wasn't looking forward to being extracted like a hermit crab from its shell and tossed out onto the street. But it turned out I didn't need any excuses, they emptied my basket and dumped it back where they'd found it with a thump.

Several times, I was on the point of ending my vigil. I left my seat and headed for the door with the intention of calling off the whole thing, telling myself that my plan was a ridiculous waste of time, that I must not dignify a story as wild as the hex tale with an attempt to refute it. But another part of me knew that if I left, I would be do it with my tail between my legs because I was scared that the story might be true. This part said that to leave would be to surrender a part of my sanity, to start on a slippery slope toward madness.

In each case, I forced myself to return to my seat.

Soon, I heard the custodians leaving the building. I could hear the big double doors that led to the outside closing with a bang. I sensed that I was the last person in the building. The alarm would certainly be set by now, even if it hadn?t been earlier. So I had already passed a kind of threshold.

As I sat in the dark, I comforted myself with dreams about what my life would be like after I had passed this test. I would experience renewed confidence, and with it, renewed energy and enthusiasm. I could regain some of what I had lost along the way and maybe also strike out in new directions. After all, I told myself, 52 years was not so old. There was still a lot I could accomplish. I don't want to embarrass myself, or you, by going into the details.

It was at 11:45 that I became aware of someone walking across the parking lot. It was Japheth, of course. I turned on the overhead florescent lamp to get his attention, but I think he had been heading for my office even before that.

With the light on, all I could see in the glass were reflections, including my own. But when I cupped my hands against the pane and pressed my face close to it, I could look past my own image and see the boy getting closer. He stood back a few paces and our gazes interlocked.

"I know why you're doing this," he shouted through the glass. "But you don't have to. Nobody but me knows you're afraid that I'm right."{

"Nobody but you . . . and me," I said. "That's why I have to step over the line you've drawn."

"But think of the price you'll have to pay if I'm right," he replied.

"You believe in the hex," I said. "That's why you're saying these things. But I don't. Maybe I'm afraid I will believe in it. But I don't believe in it yet. Not completely. I still have a chance."

"Yes, you do. You have a chance to leave. Now. Before it's too late. Forever is a long time. Much longer than you or I can imagine."

"That way lies madness," I told him.

"There are things worse than madness," he said.

An alarmed expression flashed across his face, and he leapt back, falling to the ground. He must have seen in my eyes the sudden urge I had to break the window with the chair he had sat in earlier, to leap out and pull him in with me. For his own good, of course, to confront him with the insupportibility of his beliefs and purge him of them. Not because I thought I might need someone to keep me company through eternity. Of course not.

To his credit, although he looked surprised, he didn?t look reproachful.

"Well, I tried, Dr. Severs," he said, picking himself up, dusting himself off. "Like I said, I didn't choose any of this. I can't let my life get ruined because of it. I think I'd better leave now." And off he walked. Just like that. I'm sure that by now he's put me in some very manageable compartment in the back of his mind where I won't bother him. At least not much. Although he's very extraordinary, he's also a very practical boy, I believe.

I sat back down and waited for the last minutes to tick by. 11:58. 11:59. Midnight.

***

Proud of my self-restraint, I have waited until 12:01. Now I slowly rise, slowly open my door, slowly walk down the hall to the front exit. These doors are chained and padlocked so I can't get out that way. No sign of magic there. Just run-of-the-mill early 21st Century security consciousness. Or should I call it liability consciousness?

Still moving slowly, I walk to the back of the building. The doors there are also chained and padlocked. Again: no way out, but, also no magic. No reason to freak out. Yet.

I know there are several fire exits throughout the building: single doors with the word "Emergency" above them, in offices, classrooms, the teacher lounge. I try those I can reach. None open. Even though they aren't chained or padlocked. They probably are locked by some other method, a key or an electronic system. There is still no reason to panic, I tell myself, but my movements become more hurried.

Next I head for the custodians room, hoping to find something there to help: a key, a control panel, even a pair of bolt cutters for the chains.

But the custodians door is locked too. I can always try breaking it down with a kick or a body slam, I reason. But it hasn't come to that yet.

I still have plenty of logical explanations left for why I haven't been able to get out. Ones that don't even touch on the supernatural. I still have plenty of recourses: the phones, the internet, the security system. I'm not dissuaded from these courses of action by the fact that they would involve an inevitable humiliation: an explanation of why I am still in the building, why I need help getting out. Rather, I am suddenly in just too damn big a hurry to try these methods.

The prospect of spending one more minute in this building makes my skin crawl. It makes me want to vomit.

I run back to my office and lift the chair that Japheth had occupied. I heave it through the window. To my great relief, the glass breaks. I stand staring out through a star-shaped hole in the window to a dirty little courtyard where the chair sits upended in a litter of broken glass that glitters in lamplight.

I laugh. But the laugh sounds too much like something I've heard on the other side of my desk once too often, so I cut it off.

I move up to the very brink of the window and stop.

I'm standing there still.

I think I'll turn around and try using the phones and the internet, setting off the alarms, try anything I can think of, until I've exhausted all my other possible methods of escape and am driven back here. And then, I believe, I'll put off trying this one last one means of escape for as long as I can. Because as long as I don't find out for sure, I can go on hoping that I can cross over the line that the boy drew in the sand. And I get the feeling that this hope is going to have to last me a long, long time. You see, staring the possibility right in the face, I have to admit now that the boy was right: There are things worse than madness.

x x x

Not sure about the premise of this one. Going mad is and has always been a fear on a par with or, perhaps, greater than death. Premise notwithstanding, this story earned its way to our lineup with its well wrought prose. Tell me if you agree on our BBS. - GM

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