Blaine groaned when Clara mentioned their creative writing assignment. It had gone out of his mind as soon as he’d left class and he’d forgotten to write it down.
“When is that due?” he asked.
“Tomorrow dork,” she said with a teasing grin.
“What’s the assignment again?” he asked.
Clara shook her head pityingly. “We had to create some kind of personal mythos for our main character,” she said, helping herself to the bottom of his bag of chips. “And remember he warned us not to take shortcuts by projecting our own onto our character. He wants us to dig in. Experience our character’s inner mind. Their impulses. Their terrors. Live and breathe…”
“I get it,” Blaine groaned. “That doesn’t make sense to me though,” he added, snatching the bag away and peering down the foil channel to the salty crumbs left in the unreachable crevice. “How’s he going to know if we use our own…” he thought through her colorful list. “Terrors,” he finished.
Clara shrugged and grabbed her coat. “You’d better get started,” she said. “I’ll see you in class.”
“Yeah,” Blaine said gloomily, waving the empty bag at her as she slipped out into the hall.
A swell of other peoples’ music filled his dorm room for a second. The door clicked shut, muting the noise again. Still he could hear someone exchanging banter with Clara on her way out. He chuckled, trying to imagine the stunned expression on whoever had just received her colorful retort. Nobody ever expected pretty girls to be able to hold their own. He couldn’t say he’d learned much at college so far, but that was a lesson, thanks to Clara, that he had.
“Alright,” he said to his fresh sheet of paper, “personal mythos. Here we go.”
The main character he’d created was named Joe Mama. He was a homeless beggar by choice, and his character arc would take him to the point where his street-hewn philosophy would reshape the world of the complacent, docile consumer. Professor Cruz had only awarded him a C on his character concept and if he didn’t do something to pull his grade up he was going to catch a whole lot of trouble from his parents. To be honest, though, he could barely concentrate during class with Clara and her subtle, exotic perfume sitting just ahead of him.
Clara had claimed that she was no good at this creative writing stuff and they’d started studying together. More recently she’d been in his dorm room daily as a matter of routine. He liked the new routine, except she was far more disciplined than he was and often had free time when he still had studying to do. She’d gloat for a while and then leave him to face his assignments with the added gloom of no longer being in her presence. Well, this time it didn’t have to go that way. Personal mythos? No problem.
Thirty minutes later he was still staring at the blank page. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the assignment. Well, mostly, anyhow. He was supposed to create that internal history that every person has. Not the beliefs and culture that they were raised in exactly, but that plus the personal experiences that solidified certain concepts that weren’t necessarily shared with others.
He thought of his high school girlfriend, Sarah. She’d believed all kinds of things. She’d even created an angel character that she called John, who she was convinced looked out for her. She’d claimed she’d always recognize him by his smile. As for Blaine, he didn’t have anything so elaborate. There had been this tree trunk that had a deep crevice at its base. One of his friends in grade school had joked that a goblin lived in it and Blaine had avoided walking too near even in his teens. It wasn’t that he believed in goblins, it was just a cold thrill that shot through his nerves whenever he got too close. He scribbled that onto his paper, followed by a guardian angel named John. What else?
Blaine shook his head. He’d had a decent childhood without big family dramas or anything like that. He hadn’t really had to do some of the weird escape fantasy stuff that Sarah had done. He thought about calling her but decided against it. He’d remembered another one.
“In high school Joe Mama had seen lights coming from woods where no houses were. He harbored a distinct dread of aliens from then on.” Blaine shuddered, and then added, “especially the thought of tentacles. It gave him all kinds of phobias of being constricted that eventually led to his choice to join the brotherhood of the freedom of the streets.” Figuring he should probably add something completely made up, he added, “the figure of John the guardian angel was always a mixed bag for Joe. On the one hand he knew that John was protecting him from what he couldn’t see. On the other, every time he saw John, he knew that something truly frightening was about to happen. We’re talking otherworldly, life changing and painful.”
Nodding with satisfaction, Blaine hurried to type up his report so that he could try to catch up with Clara before her self-proclaimed bedtime of 9:30 pm.
Professor Cruz’ class the next day was better than usual. He was animated and entertaining. Even so, Blaine barely caught a word of it. Clara was wearing some kind of pink fuzzy sweater that made her look like an angel.
“Did you hear about Cassidy?” Clara asked as they walked out together after class. “Apparently, she graduated early, the twerp. You’d think she would have said something to her friends.”
Blaine hadn’t really been friends with the girl Clara was talking about but he nodded in commiseration.
“I mean, what kind of fast track was she on?” Clara complained.
“And how do I sign up for it?” Blaine asked, picking up his cue.
“Exactly!” Clara said, laughing, and looping her arm through his.
Whatever else she said he didn’t hear. Her arm rested gently against his. It was the casual easy touch of friendship. How did she drift through life so effortlessly? So gracefully. Her hand smacked against his rib cage.
“Are you even listening?” she snapped.
“Don’t lie, you’re terrible at it,” Clara said. “I was asking if you’d heard about Professor Brown’s new class. It sounds intriguing.”
He hadn’t, but he declared on the spot that he was definitely signing up for it. With a shake of her head and a sigh to show him exactly how hopeless she thought he was, she split away to catch her next class. Blaine took the opportunity to go to the registrar and inquire about Professor Brown’s new class.
The next time Blaine stepped into Cruz’ class, the professor watched him with a gaze that called to mind vultures lined up studying their prey. When he passed out the graded assignments, he paused as he handed Blaine’s to him. The professor didn’t say anything. The grade was an A, though, so that had to be a good sign. Blaine left class that day feeling like he’d conquered the world. Clara had not fared so well, and continued to glance at the front of her paper as they walked. It had Cruz’ long scrawl all over it in red. Blaine couldn’t make out the grade but figured it couldn’t be good with that much feedback.
“I’m sorry, I’m not really up for talking right now,” she said, interrupting Blaine’s announcement that he’d joined the upcoming Brown class and that there were only a few spots left so she’d better get into the registrar. He watched her drift into a crowd of students just released from a lecture with the sense that it was the last time he might ever see her.
His sense turned out to be intuition. Without explanation, Clara dropped out. The next few weeks seemed washed clean of color. Studying took four times longer because he kept finding himself reading the same line over again and wondering what the point had been to the paragraph, or even the page.
Professor Cruz continued to watch him as if inspecting him with an eerily clinical eye. Blaine found himself suffering bouts of paranoia, particularly after he noticed for the first time a creepy old tree along the walk to his dorm. It had a deep crevice just like the old goblin tree back home. He changed up the path he took home, but found that there was one such tree on every path surrounding his dormitory.
He understood that it was madness to feel that Professor Cruz had anything to do with the placement of these trees. Still, he searched his mind for any kind of memory of having seen them before. It would have caught his attention. As much as he’d laughed at the concept of the goblin tree, the fear had never really left him. Still, how would a professor suddenly plant a bunch of giant, obviously ancient trees just to mess with him? He knew it was nuts. That didn’t stop him from thinking it, though, especially when he fell under that hard scrutinizing gaze. Besides, Cruz had directly affected Clara and her choice to leave. He didn’t know what he felt toward the professor, but none of it was good.
“Come on man,” his friend Mason said to him one day, jolting him out of staring distractedly out the cafeteria window. “You’ve got to let her go.”
“Who, Clara?” Blaine asked, trying to focus on Mason. “Yeah,” he said. “I know. I just thought she would have said something to me before she left, that’s all.”
“That’s it,” Mason announced. “You and I are going out on the town tomorrow night. We’ll swing by my buddy Lars’ pad for a little while. He’s got this amazing view, and three very lovely flatmates.”
“You were in London for like a week,” Blaine laughed. “Please don’t pretend that you went native.”
“Flatmates just sounds better than roommates,” Mason said with an embarrassed grin. “And apartmentmates isn’t a word. Anyway, I figured they could tell us what was up with the lights the other night.”
Blaine felt a crawling sensation on every inch of his skin.
“Lights?” he asked.
“You are so out of it,” Mason scoffed. “It’s only the thing that everyone on campus has been talking about. Mysterious lights in the sky. I say it’s aliens, dude.”
“Dont’ be… do you remember that tree being there?” Blaine pointed to the gnarled tree that he’d been studying through the window. It had a dark crevice at the base, open toward the nearby path.
Mason squinted at it. “No man,” he said. “Wish I’d seen it when I took that photography class though.”
Blaine sat there studying the tree for a long while after Mason left. He also listened to the conversations around the cafeteria, and found Mason’s claims to be true. There had been mysterious lights over in the trees past one of the sports fields, and then over the city. It was as if someone was working through the report he’d handed to Cruz as some kind of checklist to get inside his head. Somehow, impossibly, it all lead back to Cruz. He found himself unable to let the thought go.
An hour later he stood outside of Cruz’ office door. He knew that the confrontation he was about to have would likely land him in a counselor’s office but he didn’t care. He’d heard rustling from within the dark heart of one of those trees on his way over. Other things that bore no logical explanation had been happening around campus. Somehow it was all connected and he was going to stand up for himself. The campus. The world. Clara. After this he decided he’d go find her, wherever she’d gone. He’d find out what Cruz had written on her report and talk her into rising above it.
Cruz wasn’t anything so special after all. He was a skinny, bird-like professor who needed to be more respectful about how he looked at his students. And quite possibly he also got into their heads and planted suggestions that had to do with their worst fears, or their assignments. No, he needed focus. He was going to march into that office and tell Cruz what was what. Still his knuckles didn’t make it all the way to the door.
He briefly remembered Clara telling him how Cruz had instructed them not to use their own personal mythologies for the assignment. Why? The more he thought about it, the more that creeped him out. What difference would it make if he’d used his own experiences versus something made up? Unless Cruz was planning on these mythologies escaping into the real world somehow… but that was… His hand still hovered uncertainly when the door swung in on a man still talking as he left.
“She’s really promising,” he was saying. “And good work on the mythos. Rich entertainment old boy.”
“Now John,” Cruz laughed from behind his desk, and whatever he said next didn’t make it into Blaine’s ears.
All he could focus on was the man’s broad smile, and a sense of the world constricting.
You can find this short story in THE PARALLEL ABDUCTION:
Written by W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome! Please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog at http://www.farsideofdreams.com and buying W. C. McClure’s books at http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!