A man in his mid-thirties stood before his sixteen students. He was a respectable man, a man of class who had been working for his department for many years. His salt and pepper hair was combed neatly to the side and his face was cleanly shaven. His outfit included black suit pants and a dark red shirt, on a nearby chair his black jacket rested casually. With the simple tap of a pencil onto the podium that stood before him, he captured the class’s attention. In a smooth voice he began his evening lecture.
“What is pain?” He asked. As the words brushed against the classes eardrums, behind him the projection screen lit up. The slide was black with the word 'Pain' in white letters.
“What causes pain? Where do you feel it? Is all pain just a physical sensation?” He clicks a button on the remote in his hand. The slides flashes out. Now there was an image of two small boys smiling and hanging on each other. The smaller of the two wore bright red gloves. The atmosphere in the room felt off, something was wrong, but no one could put a finger on it.
“Today I'm going to tell a story about the little boys you see on the screen." He paused for a moment. "Their father was a boxer and an unsuccessful one, at that. He left their family to remedy this.” The slides flashes out, on the screen is a young man dressed in a boxer's uniform. A girl in the front row raises her hand. He points to her with a blank expression, he seems neither upset nor glad that his students have questions for him. As he waits for her to speak he walks slowly to his jacket and reaches into it.
“Professor, I don’t remember this being on the syllabus for today.” She says as she watches him, a look of confusion on her face. The professor nods thoughtfully.
“That is quite correct, it wasn’t on the syllabus, but some things change.” As he speaks he pulls something small and black from the inside pocket of his jacket.
“Sir, is that-”
“Yes, yes it is.” He glances over at his small class. “A personal favorite of mine.” He walked back to his podium and pulled out of his pocket a handful of bullets. He carefully placed the small gun on the podium and carefully one by one lined the bullets up on the edge of the podium. The students watched this with a mix of reactions on their faces. Some seemed scared and others confused, but not one dared to open their mouth. After he had finished with his display he continued on.
“Lined up on the podium are sixteen bullets and by the end of the lecture there will be none.” He picked up the first bullet on the podium and grabbed the gun. He loaded six bullets into the gun and pointed it at the girl who had questioned him. Her face went white and before she could even move the gun went off with a crack.
What the fuck is going on? My teacher is a psycho. I thought to myself as the blood from the girl in front of me trickled down my cheek. My hands were shaking and my ears were ringing, the whole room was spinning, girls were screaming and I couldn’t move. I stared at the gaping hole in the back of the girl’s head. Her body slumped forward and I was staring straight into the barrel of the loaded gun in my professor’s hand. I couldn’t breathe.
As if nothing had happened the demented man went on with the presentation. Just as he picked up the remote and to click to the next slide a guy stood and ran towards the door. I couldn’t even figure out who he was before he was on the ground flailing. I hadn't heard the second shot, but the blood spraying from the wound assured me it had happened. His hand clutched his throat attempting to staunch the blood, but it...Just. Kept. Coming. It flowed between his fingers and stained the floor red.
“He never came back.” I tore my eyes away from the kid as he thrashed around in his last throes of life. I focused my attention back at the man who stood at the front of the class as he began speaking again. He looked like the professor I had seen a few days a week for the past month, but at the same time something was different about him. “Which meant that their mother had to work day and night shifts to support them. Which meant that ‘the job’ fell to the older brother. The job was time consuming, annoying, and went like this: the younger brother stood in his underwear, and the older brother looked at his younger brother’s body, from a distance of one to three inches. Here is a brief list of what the older brother was looking for.”
In front of me the projection had changed again, there were bullet points that my eyes couldn't focus on. I could barely comprehend what my professor was saying. I couldn’t focus. There was a dead girl in front of me and a gurgling guy, scratch that, dead guy, on the ground. I hadn't been able to tear my eyes from my teacher, even as my classmate lay dying, clutching at his neck.
We’re stuck in this room with this maniac until he is done with this presentation. If we try to leave he will shoot us. If we question him he will shoot us. I felt my throat close and my eyes began to sting like I was going to cry and I did. A few tears slipped down my cheeks and I couldn't move to wipe them away. My body had froze to the spot and I worried that if I did, I might be his next target.
“The reason for this was thus: the younger brother had been born beautiful, healthy, and entirely without the ability to feel pain. Thus what to us would be like this…”
Another shot rang out, I heard it this time. A girl to my left yelled out in pain as she doubled over, her hands pressed to her stomach. Slowly, very slowly, I began pulling my hands towards my body. Towards my pockets where my phone was hidden.
“To him this would be…like nothing.” The girl who had just been shot, what was her name? Mary...maybe? She was on the ground trying to keep her hands pressed tight against her stomach, but the pain she was in was clear. Her eyes met mine and we both knew that she wouldn't be leaving this room alive.
I finally slid my hand into my pocket and my fingers grasped my phone. I glanced up at the man seated beside me. A close friend of mine, Freddy. He was staring at me with fear in his eyes and his head was moving back and forth. I was so dazed, that, at first, I couldn’t quite figure out what he was telling me not to do, Then, it dawned on me: the phone. I began to nod at him and pulled my empty hand out out of my pocket in an attempt calm his fear. As I did so, another shot rang out.
This bullet went through my friend’s temple. I watched as the bullet entered one side and exited the other, along with brain matter, skull bits, and blood drops. His entire body jerked backwards before he fell forward. His head cracked against the desk and his dead eyes stared directly at me. My stomach churned and I gagged nearly evicting my dinner. Despite there being no life in his eyes anymore, his stare bore into me.
“Pay attention.” His cold voice froze my limbs and a girl behind me starting bawling. “Every night of every day of the older brother’s life was devoted to scanning over his younger brother’s body, like the way you might search for a difficult word in the dictionary.” The slide flashed out. One of the little boys from the first picture appeared on the screen. He was a little older and this time the boy was grinning ear to ear, red, gloved hands on his hips, flashing a deep purple bruise on his chest. He didn't seem to be bothered by it.
Thankfully for some of them, there really was no time to feel pain. I glanced at the body by the door, the man who had been left straining and gurgling, unable to speak, let alone breathe. Then, I looked back to the girl, propped against the wall. She was still breathing, but her eyes were heavy and drooping.
“There was a mutation in his genes and something wrong with his brain, but the older boy never really understood the second part. What he understood was that his brother’s condition, combined with his father’s absence and his mother’s brutal work schedule, meant that any and every responsibility that placed one within any distance of a heated stove, a bladed knife, a lawnmower, etc. was up to him. So while the younger brother came home from school and did this…” The slide flashed out. A new picture of the little boy with red gloves came up. This time, there was a long scratch on his cheek.
There was a ringing in my ears that drowned out the professor's words. While the professor was speaking I had been sneaking glances to my left and right to see if anyone else was trying to contact someone, but from what I could see everyone else was just as terrified as I was. I had managed to remove my phone from my pocket. I now clutched it in my hands, which were pressed against my lap to suppress the shaking. I flipped it open, but I was having a hard time trying to figure out who I needed to contact. I couldn't think straight and I was too worried about who was going to be executed next.
“The older brother came home from school and did this…” I looked up and my blood ran cold. My professor was staring directly at me. His dark eyes bore into mine and I couldn’t tear my gaze away as he lifted the gun. It was pointed directly at me. I knew the next bullet was destined for right between my eyes. My chest tightened and my mind stopped functioning.
“And more importantly this…” He switched the slide and pulled the trigger on the gun at the same time. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for the end, but it didn’t come. I tore my eyes open and looked around frantically. The girl behind me was on the ground, a single hole was in her chest. She was still alive and was staring at the girl beside her. I watched as the dying girl tried to reach out, but to no avail. She began coughing as the blood flowed into her lung. Tiny red droplets spewed out across the grey carpet. She sat, gagging for what seemed like a lifetime, before she finally hit the ground. I watched as her chest stopped moving and her body went limp.
There was, now, one bullet left and the room was a bloodbath. Everyone around me was dead. I didn’t, no, couldn’t, understand what had possessed this man to do this. I couldn’t understand the point of this presentation. I couldn’t understand why he had saved me for last. I stared at this man. His shirt made it look like he was clothed in blood. I was beyond terrified. I could no longer move. My body was numb and it felt like my heart had stopped.
“It is astonishing to me what people assume about children. About what children are and are not capable of.” I stared unseeing at the projection screen. It flashed, but I could hardly make out what was on the page.
The image of a flailing body flashed through my head. The man on the ground, who now had not moved now for more than an hour. The blood had long since stopped flowing from his neck. Next a picture from one my textbooks, A pair of lungs. The girl who was shot through the chest. She choked to death on her own blood. She had stopped breathing some time ago.
“The older brother wanted to give his younger one a gift. A gift given, as many gifts are, that it might benefit, not only the receiver, but the giver as well.” Flash out. What gift do you speak of? The one where you gave my friend a quick death? Or the one where you took these people from their families? The entire class panics. The professor watches. No one in this room will ever see the stars again.
"The older boy believed that if the younger brother were to be scared deeply enough, he might regain his ability to feel pain.” Flash out.
The girls were crying. I was crying. The man was gurgling. The girl was choking. Their heads had smacked the desks.
“And if he regained his ability to feel pain, he could be as afraid of it as the rest of us.”
As afraid as the rest of us? The rest of us? The rest of us are dead. I am the last of us. There is no us, only you and me. I realized now that I had failed to contact someone.
“And if he was as afraid of pain as the rest of us, he would seek to avoid injury.” Flash out.
A girl on her knees next to her dead friend. Her hands covered in blood. The gun. The black gun. My hands had stopped shaking now. I looked down at my phone and began writing a new message.
“And if he sought to avoid injury, it would no longer be necessary for the older brother to carry the entire load of the house upon his back. Taking care of everything, all without a mother or father around to guide, to assist, to encourage, to offer more than a symbolic presence in his already ancient-feeling life.” Flash out.
‘I won’t be coming home tonight.’ I swallowed the lump that was in my throat as I typed out my message. I needed to fix things.
“And then, as if adding one last insult to the labor of his days, to check for injuries every night upon a body that ought to know its own damn surfaces by now.” Flash out.
‘My professor has gone crazy.’ I took a deep breath. They do say life is short.
“A gift. To them all, but the factor the older brother had failed to account for was the sheer disorientation that occurs when one is submerged underwater with no air and no light. Meaning that, once he slipped under the tarp, the younger boy had no way to judge which direction to swim towards to safety.” Flash out.
‘Tell Mom I love her.’ This sounds so cliche. I wanted to laugh at the way this sounded, despite the situation. Would it really even matter if I did at this point?
“So when it came time to lift the corner and pull it back, to expose the younger brother to the moonlight and stars and above all air, when he finally pulled it back...his brother wasn’t there.” Flash out.
‘I didn’t mean anything I said earlier.’ I needed him to know.
“He reached into the black water then, frantically searching for something, a blond head of hair, a goofy ear, a gloved fist.”
‘You’re my little brother and I could never hate you.’ My eyes filled with tear and blurred my vision. I couldn't even count how many times I had cried at that point.
“He strained until it hurt, until every fiber of his arm, from the shoulder blade to the fingertips, was alight with what all but perhaps the lobster would recognize and categorize as pain. Nothing. There was nothing he could reach.” I clicked send and lifted my head to see my professor staring at me and for the first time since he started teaching this class his face showed emotion. There was a somber expression on his face and his eyes were becoming red around the edges.
“In studies of the subject, the distinction is often made between two different components of pain: the physical and the emotional. The physical component is where the sensation comes from, but it is the emotional component that makes the sensation a bad one. A lobster in a pot may struggle and slam itself repeatedly against the sides, the lid...but we do not know whether the slamming and struggling comes from the experience of a bad sensation, or simply from the automatic response of its muscle fiber to a substance that is rapidly enveloping and destroying it. You will notice that nowhere in there does anyone so much as mention the third possibility: that the lobster might actually be afraid.” I stared back at him, my mind turned off and I stood. My phone, which had been sitting in my lap, fell and bounced along the ground.
“This is what the older boy reminded himself as the police hauled back the black tarp and shined their lights down on the body of his little brother. Floating facedown, gloved hands red and weirdly reminiscent of those of a smaller, more chitinous animal with whom he seemed to have a few things in common.” He loaded the gun once more as I began to walk towards him.
“The older brother reminded himself that he had almost certainly failed. That his kid brother, who had always been so brave, so reckless, moving through the world with the eager abandon of childhood naivety...that his brother probably didn’t feel a thing. And was, up to and including the final moment of his life, almost certainly not scared.” He paused. “Remarkably the word ‘deliberate’ was never used.” I stopped when I was directly in front of him. He held the gun pressed to my chest.
“The older brother was assumed not to have committed the crime on purpose, in much the same way that he was assumed not to have written an opera. And the events of that summer fell away, brushed slowly aside to rest beneath the category of ‘neighborhood tragedy.’ Which all had a strange effect on the older brother.”
“He found himself unable to feel anything about the situation. One way or the other. He recognized the absence of his brother. He recognized that at one time he had both adored and despised the little boy in an ever-shifting, ever-changing mixture. But now, he could feel nothing. No guilt. No sadness. And though it probably goes without saying, certainly no pain.” A pause. “The older brother grew up to be a professor, and now, he is trying to find a way to regain his emotions.”
BANG! The bullet entered my chest through the breastbone. I stumbled backwards. At first my body didn’t register the pain, but it quickly flowed through my limbs and I dropped to my knees. I looked up at my executioner with tears running down my face. The man kneeled down before me and touched my face gently.
“If you ask me, though...I'd say the man will never find a way to fix that hole. It will be there until the end.” I watched, with fading vision, as the tears began to flow down the man’s cheeks. "The first time I saw you I knew, the effects of what transpired that night can never be reversed."
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