The first big lie I discovered was “it gets better”. They tell you that so you’ll keep going, like a carrot dangled in front of a crippled mule. Mom and Dad thought it’d be different at the new school. All new kids, nobody knew me, a chance to start over with a clean slate.
“Don’t worry, they’re all Christians here.” I might’ve figured that out for myself, because as we approached I spied a sizable cross protruding from the top of the building. I felt some amount of guarded optimism then.
I was never exposed to much church type stuff until Mom found religion in a big way upon becoming pregnant with what will soon be my baby brother. So far, all I really know about Christianity is that Mom says it turns bad people into good ones. Sounds like what the world needs more of if you ask me.
When Dad found out there’d be a new mouth to feed, he said he wanted to turn a new page in our lives. That meant moving us all into a new, larger house. One I learned by eavesdropping on their occasional fights that he can’t really afford on top of the baby. He keeps saying he’ll make it work. I don’t see how, but Dad’s a smart guy. He must have some plan I don’t know about.
The next big lie, really just a variant of the first one, is “time heals all wounds”. It doesn’t. There’s a point of diminishing returns past which the pain does not continue to measurably shrink, but it’s small enough that you’re functional. Like a toothache or a splinter, but in your heart.
There are brief, precious periods during which something else distracts me enough that I truly forget it’s there for a while. But when it’s over, it trickles back to the forefront of my mind. Jennifer. “It’s just a crush, you’re too young to really love anybody” Dad told me, imagining that would somehow help. But reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, does not go away.
I still love Jennifer. I’m not supposed to. I know enough about how this sort of thing works to recognize that I should’ve moved on by now. It’s not healthy to linger, but I am powerless to forget. She’s there whenever I close my eyes, in searing detail. Every last strand of golden hair, every little freckle.
She’s there when I dream too. That’s what really hurts. Because there, she loves me. I have no defense against this, as of course I don’t realize I’m dreaming. I would be content to stay there forever, but I must eventually awaken. Oblivious, in those first few seconds, to who I am and what’s happened.
But the memories return soon enough. I rocket through the five stages of loss in a matter of seconds. In a very real sense, she leaves me every day. And the pain is as fresh and visceral each morning as it was when it actually happened. If only she’d stay out of my dreams! I am haunted by the living, and see no prospect of escape.
I hang onto things. It’s in my diverse portfolio of character flaws. Uncle Michael once told me a riddle and made me swear not to look up the answer. I was at it for several weeks, thoughts consumed with the matter day in, day out. I finally blurted out the answer one night at the dinner table, having suddenly figured it out while eating.
We pulled into a parking space and I piled out of the car, fully laden book bag straining uncomfortably at my shoulders. “Be on your best behavior” Mom whispered. “When am I not?” In answer, she scowled. Then licked her thumb and used it to wipe some unseen dirt from my face.
How easy to just go and do something to somebody else like that. I’ve never been able to make it clear to her how much of an ordeal even small interactions with another person are for me by comparison. Dad would tell me I’m whining, and that whiners get nothing, quitters get even less. So I endure it quietly as she herds me into the little office.
As I shed my pack, I envision little people easing it to the ground with great complex scaffoldings and cranes. Then moving it along on rollers, teams of twenty or so pulling on each carefully woven miniature rope. “I’ve heard a lot about you from your mother and father, young man!” The grownup addressing me is tall, bespectacled and balding. His every movement, however subtle, is uncannily rigid.
I reluctantly extend my hand towards his. Imagining it is a false wooden hand the little fellows built, extended on my behalf by crank driven scissor jack mechanism. That I might be spared the discomfort.
“Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself and why you’d like to attend our fine school.” I realized he was prompting me and froze. When free to formulate my thoughts, I can readily explain them. But when put in the spotlight… “I...suppose...I’m hoping there will be nice kids here I can make friends with.”
He seemed delighted, though it proved difficult to discern his true feelings as the more I spoke to him, the more I realized he always looks like that. Big smile, immaculate white teeth, eyes wide as though excited about everything. So long as he’s not frowning, I must be doing well.
It’s Russian roulette to try and guess what they want to hear. I used to think it was easier just to speak my mind. I owe many of my worst days to that naive decision, but at the time felt I’d rather be rejected for who I am and what I think than embraced for some carefully cultivated false impression. I didn’t realize then that being able to tell the truth is a luxury I wouldn’t always be able to afford.
“That’s as good a reason as any. And indeed, our students live their lives by the teachings of Jesus Christ, our lord and savior. Whatever troubles you may have had at...secular institutions….” His voice dripped with disdain for a moment. “...Will be but a distant memory, like a half remembered nightmare once you’re settled in here.” Just what I wanted to hear. Which troubled me, as I know what that usually means.
But, not wanting to sour the occasion nor to make enemies before I even started my first class, I mustered as much cheer as I’ve ever been able to. Not really a lie so much as an exaggeration, I told myself. It really did sound like an improvement to hear him tell it. The prospect of a school free of ogres powerfully enticed me.
“There’s just the matter of the statement of faith”. He slid a paper across the desk to me along with a fountain pen. I carefully read it all, then scratched my head. “I dunno if I believe most of this.” His formerly bright, immaculate smile now faded as the corners of his mouth crept downwards. Looking over at my mother, I discovered she too did not expect such a reply. I must’ve really put my foot in it somehow as there were tears in her eyes.
It began to dawn on me then that all of this, the school, the move and so on, was being done to me rather than for me. Nobody ever asked what I wanted, rather the plan had long since been finalized and now I was being wedged into it whether or not I fit. I must’ve appeared lost in thought as the suited fellow once again asked me to explain, in my own words, why it is I want to attend this school.
Deceit is a practical life skill they really ought to teach you early on. It turns out lies make for a powerful social lubricant. I’ve also learned recently that honesty is worse than useless when you’re dealing with people who all but demand that you lie to them. Who often will punish you if you don’t. So I carefully formulated my next sentence, balancing what they wanted to hear with what I could stomach saying.
“I don’t really know what I believe, never thought about that much. All I know is that for most of my life, with only a few exceptions, the world around me and everybody in it has seemed hostile and poisonous. I don’t know where my home is but I’m not a native of this place, I’ve never felt like I belong here. When I seek out people with the power to help, I instead find them aligned against me. I often wish I had an ally, stronger than any of them.”
No reaction was apparent for several seconds, save for his inscrutable, news anchor style empty grin. He simply studied my face, hands arched on the desk before him. Then at once his tone of voice changed. As best I could tell, he was sincerely pleased with my answer.
“That’s good enough for me! Young man, I think you’re in exactly the right place. I’ll save this form for you. If I’m right, before long you will sign it wholeheartedly and with as complete an understanding of why as we can give you.”
With that he folded up the form, tucked it into a manilla envelope, then stashed it in his desk. It was a tense ride home, though I couldn’t figure out why. I’d apparently said the right words. Perhaps they knew that’s what I did and were upset? Mom turned back once, eyes still a bit puffy, to remind me that I’d promised to be on my best behavior. Hadn’t I been?
I spent the afternoon as I often do as of late, searching the field and charred remains of the forest for miniature settlements. Finding none, I’d begun to fashion my own. Breaking up twigs to the appropriate size, painstakingly building little chairs, beds, cabins and the like. Hoping I might persuade them to return. Couldn’t imagine what someone might think if they should happen upon me during the act. Probably that I’ve lost it.
The third big lie is “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Like how a broken bone heals to become sturdier than before. Not so with the heart or mind! Asylums and cemetaries are filled with evidence to the contrary.
As I put the finishing touches on another little cabin, my mind helplessly dwelled on memories of Jennifer. Of that single, cherished Summer for which life loaned her to me, only to then snatch her away for good. I am past those desperate, pathetic fantasies that she will somehow return to me one day. If I wait ten, twenty, fifty years for her heart to miraculously change. But I still hurt.
I was never a strong person. Like a damaged spiderweb, a sandcastle or ship in a bottle, even the most skillful repair attempts can’t restore it to exactly how it was. With no option to start over, I could only feebly set about rebuilding the collapsed parts of myself as best I could. A rickety patchwork, barely functional, and liable to be destroyed by a stiff breeze.
My fault of course. Many things are. I’d come out of my shell and finally begun to connect with another human being. To grow around her like a tree grows around a boulder, such that it becomes a critical structural element. A load bearing pillar that, once removed, leaves the tree irreparably weakened and not long for the world.
That hollow space has a very particular shape that nothing else will fit into. However my parents insisted I would heal, I just never improved. What little confidence I’d accumulated until then blew away like the ashes of the burning forest. Maybe that’s why they won’t appear to me now.
Their settlement is still in the lake. When I bike over there at night I can see lights down there, so somebody’s home. The pier is intact, there are occasionally boats or submarines docked, but they don’t come out. I sometimes catch a glimpse of their faces through the submarine portholes or the window of the adjacent shack, waiting patiently for me to leave before resuming work.
During my last visit I found something new next to the pier. A three inch tall statue of me holding aloft the baseball bat, Winston at my side. When I visited Winston’s grave in the remains of the woods, a similar statue stood atop it. So they remember! Perhaps as a legend now? I don’t blame them if they don’t believe in me anymore. Neither do I.
As we pulled into the driveway, Dad told me he wanted help unloading some stuff from the back. I peered over the seat and sure enough there were three crates of what the logo identified as motor oil stacked behind me. “That’s a lot of oil. Do we really need that much?” He lightened up a little, laughing at my apparently foolish question.
“It’s not for us. I’m going to sell it. With your baby brother on the way I took on a second job to pay for all the stuff we’ll need.” Mom beamed at him and cooed about what a hairy chested breadwinner he is. It was terribly heavy and even a single crate was about my limit. Nonetheless I managed to move two out of the three from the garage to the master bedroom without help.
He explained it all to us over dinner. “It was a heck of a bargain, only fifty bucks plus the cost of the oil to get started. I bought a lot because they said to make the big bucks you’ve got to go all in. Dave recruited me, so he gets a small cut of my sales. But I also get a cut from the sales of anybody I recruit. The more people you bring in the more money you make, and everybody gets to be their own boss.”
Mom’s eyes sparkled as she listened. She said it sounded too good to be true, but was plainly already sold on the idea. I wondered aloud why, if it was so ideal, everybody didn’t do it. They both became quiet and Dad frowned at me. “Wait and see, Mr. Negative. They warned me about naysayers, I can deal with that. I don’t wanna have to in my own home though.”
He had me there. I’m hardly an optimist, anyway. Mom told me to head upstairs and load all the additional school supplies she’d recently bought into my already overloaded backpack. I had a lot of fun with it, thinking about the prospect of starting at a whole new school the next day. All too soon! A tornado of butterflies twisted up my stomach. Equal parts excited and apprehensive.
Somehow the butterflies only multiplied overnight. It was tough to keep my cereal down on the drive over. I resolved to have fun, first and foremost. Whatever was different or unfamiliar, I would embrace it. Do as the Romans do! Even try to be the best at it and make some friends along the way. “I learned so much from my old school” I thought, “All I have to do is not make the same mistakes here.”
The principal met me in the parking lot and stiffly escorted me to the cafeteria, where I’d just missed breakfast. No big tragedy to me as I was far too nauseous to eat. He introduced me, the familiar agony gripping my body as all eyes in the room studied me for any flaw however small. I’ve long since learned to always be vigilant for attacks that can come at any time and from any direction.
Then some of them smiled. Briefly, it occurred to me that I might be misreading their intentions. It was only a room full of other students, after all. They looked either friendly or indifferent, none of them menacing as of yet. So I scolded myself for assuming the worst and picked a table to sit down at.
Naturally I picked the one with the prettiest girl. It happened as though on autopilot and I regretted it even as I began to sit, remembering what sort of trouble I’d invited. It turns out I’d gotten well ahead of myself though, as she initially wouldn’t even let me sit there. “Ew” she muttered. “Go sit over there.” She gestured dismissively to a table with no obvious open seats.
“It’s...It’s full up” I whispered. “I don’t mean any disrespect. I’d just like to sit.” She heaved out a disgusted sigh. “Fine, whatever. But don’t look at me.” So I didn’t. It proved difficult, as she really was intensely lovely. A shocking sensation to feel after all this time, in spite of my conviction that I was no longer capable of it.
Scandalous how little control we have over that. The body just picks someone out of the crowd and decides that’s who it wants, wrestling the uncooperative brain into submission using hormones. However you consciously know that it’s a poor choice, the body just indifferently plows ahead until it tumbles over a cliff.
“Don’t mind Heather. She’s like that to everybody. My name’s Tyler.” A very sharply dressed, distressingly skinny boy next to her extended his hand. I took it and shook vigorously, relieved to be welcomed by anyone.
Though he had a crooked nose, his hair was immaculately combed, his teeth sparkled when he smiled and I glimpsed a pink plastic barrette behind one of his ears. “That’s a nice hair clip. Is that a butterfly on it?” He froze and looked panicked. The principle turned to look at us, then came over.
“We talked about this Tyler. You know I’ll have to tell your father.” He plucked the hair clip from the boy’s head and pocketed it. “If you have any more, tell me now.” Tyler’s lip quivered. I couldn’t understand why a piece of plastic was such a big deal. When the principal left, Tyler appeared resentful until I apologized and insisted I didn’t remotely understand what just happened.
“It’s alright, I believe you. That was my favorite though.” He got up looking morose, and took his empty tray up to the counter for washing. Heather snickered. Here for five minutes and I’d already upset someone. A personal record. Keen to make friendly conversation that the incident might be forgotten, I looked around for some clue as to what the popular fads were at this school.
“There’s no Pocket Creatures” I said absentmindedly. The boy next to me, spotty faced and with a patchy mustache beginning to come in, explained that Pocket Creatures are based on evolution. I pretended that explanation made perfect sense to me and, with some sense of what they didn’t like, moved on to ascertaining what they did. Every other student had a Bible open on the table before them.
That was someplace to start. “So, the Bible huh. There’s a lot of stuff about the concept of God that makes me wonder. Like, what is God made out of?” Mustache kid looked at me like I had two heads.
“That’s a silly question” he asserted. Oh, so it’s common knowledge? But when I pressed him for the answer, he clarified that the question itself wasn’t valid. “God’s not made out of anything. God is just God, don’t overthink it.”
How could something not made out of anything exist? It didn’t line up for me. “So wait, how does God receive our prayers if he’s not made out of anything but we are? A prayer is brain activity, our brains are made out of atoms, so-” Mustache kid cut me short, informed me that you simply pray and God hears it, then called me a weirdo.
That seemed to settle the matter for him, but I’d never actually gotten an answer. So it excited me to learn that the next class would involve Bible reading followed by writing a short essay about what we read. Finally, some real answers! We filed into a classroom that a sign on the wall informed me was “core”, the general purpose room most of our classes would be held in.
Before I sat down, the teacher informed me there was “assigned seating”. That explained why everybody paused to study a wall chart on the way in. The concept delighted me as I could see how it would break up the disruptive cliques that otherwise form. But it also meant that should I make any friends, I’d not be able to sit next to them consistently. Fair trade, I concluded.
Once seated according to the chart, I and the other students were instructed to open our Bibles to Genesis. As it was the start of a new school year, she explained for the new students, we’d start with the first book of the Bible and progress through it at the rate of one full reading per year.
I love to read. It’s one of my precious few escapes from monster world. A good book is a kind of nourishment, so the prospect of immersing myself in what looked to be the thickest one I’d read to date tantalized me. At school, no less! We were to remain silent during this period too, a nice respite after the relative bustle of the cafeteria.
However, right away I spotted problems. The narrative laid out an order of the creation of the universe which even I knew to be wrong. The Earth was created before the sun and all other stars in this story, birds before land animals, plants before sea creatures as well a number of other, smaller errors. I raised my hand to ask the teacher about it, but when she came over she just told me to include the questions in my essay.
So I did. Anticipating eventual clarification, not the trip to the principal’s office that I got. I’d turned in my essay nearly an hour ago and was enjoying an interesting history lesson when a teacher’s aid appeared in the doorway and beckoned to me, frowning. Some of the other students looked at me the way they tend to when they know you’re in trouble.
“Would you care to explain what led you to write this?” The principal peered at me over his bifocals as I fidgeted nervously, dwarfed by the swiveling leather chair I sat in. “I dunno. We were told to read as much of the Bible as we could in an hour and write down our thoughts, so I did.” He sighed, then stared expectantly as if I’d been obtuse.
“I agreed to give you a chance here under the assumption that you’d make a sincere effort to grow, spiritually. These answers come from a place of rebellion. A boy your age is in no position to say that the inspired word of God is wrong about anything. I fear your thinking may be backwards.”
I explained that the sun could not have originated after the Earth as planets form by gravity building up discs of captured debris and dust around them which gradually amass into planets. “And has anybody seen this happen?” he pried. I said that in fact they have, and photographs of distant accretion discs taken by space probes could be easily found online. This only further incensed him for some reason.
“What you’re doing is looking at the world through a secular lens which assumes no creator exists. That’s the starting point of the atheistic false scientists who’ve made such a mess of our country.” To me, that seemed to be the conclusion which observation led them to rather than their initial assumption, but I bit my tongue as he continued.
“Instead, use the Bible as your starting point. Look at the world through a Biblical lens, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” I asked if he meant I should first assume the contents of the Bible are true, then fit everything else I encounter into that framework. He perked up. “Yes, that’s it exactly. But it is not an assumption, it is a fact.” I asked how he knew this, and was instructed to have faith. It was a frustrating non-answer, like the one I’d gotten from that kid in the cafeteria.
When I returned to class I found I’d completely missed the rest of the section on the Roman aqueduct and other crude technologies. It really put me out as the topic fascinates me. I recalled building similar contraptions for the Homunculi settlement. The smile that it brought to my face was swiftly erased by resurgent memories of the forest fire. I suppose sometimes you can’t have the good without the bad.
As I studied the textbook before me, I imagined teams of little fellows swarming all over it, taking notes before cooperating to laboriously turn each page. Some cried out as the falling page draped over them and despite myself, I chuckled. It elicited a strange look from the girl next to me. When I returned my gaze to the book, they were gone.
So instead I peered out the windows. A whole wall was comprised of them, inviting distraction. The field of tall, dry grass waved as a gentle wind tossed it about. On one side, the parking lot. On the other, a playground with a small forest immediately next to it. The only divider was a modest wall of stone blocks perhaps up to my waist, easy enough to surmount.
Something jumped out at me from the corner of my vision. A detail of the field I’d overlooked at first. I looked over it again and again. Until I noticed some strange tangled mass near the center, laying atop the grass. Somebody’s kite? A model airplane, maybe. The teacher’s shrill command to return my attention to the front of the room interrupted my speculation. Oh well, it can wait until recess.
The textbook cover read “A.C.E: Accelerated Christian Education”. Sounds good to me I thought, seeing no downside to learning more quickly than usual. The font looked larger than I’m accustomed to, and each page was replete with cartoon illustrations.
Some took the form of two or three panel comic strips stressing the virtue of obedience. “You cleaned your room so well!” a mother says to her daughter. She replies “Yes, I am glad I obeyed. Obedience makes everyone happy. Can we go to Bible study now?”
A few were pretty abstract by comparison. The one that caught my eye depicted some sort of laughable amalgam of animal parts with a caption that read “The missing link???” What did the artist mean by it? I knew of no such creature proposed by science and couldn’t see how anything remotely like it could fit into established taxonomy.
Other strips depicted conversations between eerily wide eyed children in old fashioned clothing with a sort of forced quality to the dialogue. Not the sort of conversation anybody would ever actually have, but the one the artist wanted to portray for whatever reason.
“Tommy, may I introduce you to my best friend, Jesus?” The other boy excitedly welcomed it without question, though Jesus was not physically present to meet with anybody. There was no punchline and I wondered if the author had forgotten partway through that comics are supposed to be funny.
Another below featured a woman holding a bundle of several protest signs, hair frazzled. Her infant daughter sat at her feet, asking “Mommy, now that you’re liberated, who’s going to feed me?” I didn’t get any of ’em so far, so I gave up on it. The relentless focus on total obedience unsettled me for reasons I could not yet articulate.
“Now at the time”, the teacher explained, “it was falsely believed that the Earth was flat. This is just what the scientists of the day believed. They keep getting it wrong, but still want us to believe them. It was also widely believed by scientists that flies and maggots are spontaneously generated from within meat. This was their theory of how life began, later renamed the theory of evolution.”
None of that seemed right. To my knowledge, science didn’t exist until relatively recently in history unless very loosely defined as “attempts to figure things out”. On top of which I’d recently read a detailed description of a flat Earth covered by the vault of the sky, within which the sun and the moon move about...in the book of Genesis. Somehow I doubted science was to blame for that particular error. But she pressed on.
“Today we are meant to believe that all life originated from rocks. Rocks! That one day, nothing exploded, then pieces of it started circling around each other for no reason. Then lightning struck a slimy puddle on the early Earth and some rocks in it came to life, turning into fish, then frogs, then lizards, then mice, then monkeys. And then us! From goo to you, by way of the zoo!”
Everyone else laughed at the last part but I only sat there staring, intensely disturbed by the spectacle. Either the blind leading the blind, or willful deceit. “This belief that we’re only animals, that man can be his own God and nothing matters, is responsible for every ill in the world today. Before long, if we’re to save this sin cursed nation, Godly men will have to rise up and take control of it back from the secular humanists.”
I’d never heard of secular humanism before then, but based on the tone she took while talking about it, I assumed it must be something like a mixture of leprosy, acid and angry bees. “Besides which, it doesn’t even stand up to the simplest questioning! Like for example, if human beings came from monkeys...then why are there still monkeys?”
More laughing followed. The discontent percolating within me until then finally boiled over. I simply couldn’t sit there listening to lies forever without saying something. “It was apes”. The teacher was the only one to hear me over the laughter.
“Could you speak up?” I hesitated. I don’t do well when under the spotlight. But standing there, wondering whether to continue, I recalled something I once read in a book given to me by my father: “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes”.
So I did, firmly asserting that humans descended from apes and in fact taxonomically still are apes. Also that we did not come from modern monkeys but rather share a common ancestor with them. “Other primates still exist for the same reason that wolves still exist even though we have dogs now”, I concluded.
Several awkward seconds of silence passed. Basic science was always something Dad made sure I knew alot about, as his Dad also made it a focus when he was my age. It’s why my birthday and Christmas gifts have always tended to be educational. Little model steam engines, telescopes, crystal radio kits, stuff like that. I wondered now if it’d been a mistake.
That’s when I first heard it. A low, experimental chant at first. As if she was testing the water. Heather from lunch, I think. “Monkey boy” she said. “Monkey boy. Monkey boy. Monkey boy.” Other students near her began chanting as well, and it took on a rhythmic quality. “Mon-key-boy! Mon-key-boy! Mon-key-boy! Mon-key-boy!”