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Leland Thoburn
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demons.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe 2011

Demons

 

Leland Thoburn

 

 

            The birds in the trees outside the classroom fell silent, as if on cue. Then, the screaming started.

          Mrs. Evans moved cautiously. She was smiling, but the corners of her mouth were twitching. Her hand trembled as she reached towards the ten-year-old boy sitting at the desk. Chalk dust lined her fingernails and dulled the sheen of her wedding band. “Give me the gun, Avery.”

Avery looked down at the blued steel pistol in his hand. He thought it felt heavier than when he had put it in his backpack this morning. It looked too big in his hand. He raised his eyes and looked at Mrs. Evans’ hands. “I don’t want to.”

          He thought it was going to be so simple. Now he was more confused than ever.

The school bell started ringing. It sounded too much like the screams to drown them out completely. Avery gripped the gun and pushed his glasses back on his nose. Then he looked around. His classmates were yelling, running, tripping and falling over each other as they tried to escape the room. He knew that events were no longer under his control, just as surely as if he had jumped off a cliff.

He also knew that he could not stop what was about to happen. He looked up at Mrs. Evans. He could see the moment she realized it too. She screamed and tried to turn away. Then the gun went off.

          Avery felt the shock wave concuss his face, like an unholy gust of wind. His body flinched and his ears rang. Mrs. Evans stopped screaming.

          Like the drumbeat of a primitive tribe, the voices in his head picked up their tempo. Kill. Kill. Kill. They were relentless. He had resisted them once. No longer.

          The voices had explained it all to him. Hadn’t Mrs. Evans taunted him and called on him to answer endless questions? Hadn’t her whole purpose been to shame him, to humiliate him in front of the others? Hadn’t the others collaborated with her, laughing at his every confusion, his every hesitation, his every mistake?

          There was one. Avery focused on a boy who was fleeing through the maze of desks. The boy stumbled over a chair and fell. Avery climbed over Mrs. Evans and stood above the boy as he scrambled, trying to reach safety behind a desk. Avery could see the worn out bottoms of his sneakers. He had once laughed at Avery. Never again.

          There was another. A girl sat, huddled and sobbing in the corner. Avery walked over to her. She was wearing pink hair bands, as she had the day she had called him a nerd. The memory of it brought pressure to Avery’s chest. She looked up and pleaded with him. Never again.

          Spent shells rang like little bells on the floor until the slide of the gun locked open, its magazine spent.

          Avery suddenly started to suffocate, like he’d forgotten to breathe. A wave of nausea floated through him. He sucked in air and looked around. He couldn’t believe he had actually done it. Months had gone by when nothing else seemed to matter except the thinking of it, the dreaming of it, the planning of it. And now it had happened. The reality was so different from his dreams that he was shocked, numbed by what he had seen. His deep breathing was now making him dizzy. 

          Part of him felt regret. This was soon washed away as he abandoned himself to the voices.

          The empty mag clattered on the floor as he reloaded and looked around. His was the only soul left in the room.

          He ran outside, into the spring sun. The brightness hurt his eyes, but this was one of the side effects he’d had to get used to when they changed his dosage. That and the change in the voices.

 

 

          For as long as he could remember there had been voices. They had been a background noise to his life, like a television someone had left on in the next room. Sometimes he would listen to them. Other times he wouldn’t. It didn’t seem to matter, one way or the other. He had names for some of them, names like Jupiter, Flash, and Angel.

He’d never given them much thought. Didn’t everyone have voices? He assumed so, which is why he hadn’t bothered to tell his mother. Then one day he did.

“Honey, go tell your father dinner’s ready.”

“Quiet mom.”

“Don’t quiet me…”

Avery held his hand up briefly and sat silently. His mother watched, her silence more a matter of surprise than Avery’s command. After a few moments, Avery spoke.

“Okay, I’ll go get him now.”

“What was that all about?”

“Angel was telling me something.”

His mother smiled a half smile – the kind where the mouth smiles, but the eyes still look concerned.

“Who’s Angel?”

He told her. Her face fell, like when she learned that grandfather had died. The next day, he was sitting in front of Dr. Anders.

He was afraid of the Doctor. The doctor was the only man Avery had ever seen up close who had a beard. It seemed to Avery like the beard was a mask, and that there wasn’t any person behind the beard, just a voice. Once, the doctor had tried calling him ‘Buster,’ just to ease the tension. It had only made Avery more uncomfortable. Avery asked his mother to take him home. Dr. Anders wouldn’t permit it.

“Tell me about the voices, son.”

Avery sat silently.

“Like you told your mother, remember?”

Avery just stared.

“You’re going to tell me sooner or later. You know that.”

Avery tried to avoid looking at the doctor. The doctor stared at him. Avery looked at his mother. “Can we go home now, please?”

“Tell him, honey. It’s all right, he just wants to help.”

There was moisture in her eyes that he hadn’t seen before. Avery sat very still.

After a few moments, the doctor spoke.  “I think it would be best if we had him committed for seventy-two hours, just for observation. Then we can see how he reacts to the medication.”

Avery looked at his mother.  “What does he mean, ‘committed’?”

His mother tried to explain. “He…” Her voice choked, and she started over. “It means they’ll take care of you in a hospital for three days, honey. Like if you’d broken a leg or something.”

“Can’t we just go home?”

“You can once you tell me about the voices.”

Avery looked at the doctor and realized he was trapped. He had to say something, and he wasn’t feeling clever enough to lie.

“They talk to me.”

“Who are ‘they’?”

Avery felt like he was betraying his best friends as he told the doctor about the voices and some of the things they had said.

He sat while the Doctor spoke past him to his mother as if he was only an object. The doctor said he would have to return every week, and that they would medicate him. The words made Avery feel like nothing he wanted would matter ever again.

Avery wanted to spit at the doctor. He didn’t, because he knew that would make his mother mad. He just wanted to have her hold him, for her to tell him that none of this meant anything, and that everything was going to be all right. He tried, but he found it harder to get close to her, and once when he did, he felt her go tense. He hadn’t tried again after that. 

          It was his mother who insisted he take the drugs.

          At first, with the Effexor, the voices became louder. They wore at him like a Chinese water torture. Avery tried to tell his mother.

          “Can I stop taking the pills?”

          “I’m sorry, honey, but the doctor says you need them. It’s only for a little while.” Avery could tell she was lying. “And besides, you want to get better, don’t you?”

          “I’m not getting better.”

          “You may not know it, but you are. I can tell. And your father’s very proud of you.” Once again, he knew she was lying. “The doctor says…”

          “I don’t care what the doctor says. I hate him. I hate…”

          He started to say that he hated her too, but something stopped him. He started to cry. He felt so ashamed that he ran to his room where he locked the door and hid for the rest of the day.

The next day he was at the doctor’s again.

“What happened, son?”

“You’ll have to tell him, Avery. Otherwise how can he help you?”

Avery knew with all his soul that it was a mistake to tell the doctor anything. He tried to stay silent, but again the doctor threatened him with commitment. Finally, Avery broke down.

“The voices. They’re louder.”

“All the time?”

Avery nodded.

“What are they saying?”

Avery knew he couldn’t tell him that.

“What are they saying?” The doctor’s voice was commanding.

Avery sat in silence.

The doctor sighed and took out a prescription pad.  “I’m going to add Remeron to his prescription. Sometimes it helps when they’re like this.”

“What’s Remeron?” his mother asked.

“Another anti-depressant. It helps to…”

“No!” Avery shrieked. He bolted from his chair. 

“Avery, don’t!” his mother yelled.

Avery ran for the door. The doctor moved quickly for a man his size. He reached the door before Avery could escape and grabbed Avery’s wrist.

“Let me go…” Avery struggled, but against the much larger man, he had little chance. Two orderlies ran into the office, and soon Avery was secured and lying on the ground. His glasses lay on the ground next to him. His mother was hysterical.

“We’re going to have to commit him now.”  The doctor’s words fell like the toll of doom in Avery’s ears. A needle sank into in his arm. 

 

 

Avery awoke, the next day, inside the ward. He was tired and wanted more than anything to sleep. When he couldn’t force his eyes to stay closed, he gave up and started thinking. He turned to look at the bed next to his. A boy about Avery’s age was sitting up, watching television. It was only then that Avery realized the television was on. Avery looked up. Godzilla was destroying Tokyo. Avery turned back and looked at the boy. He was staring blankly at the screen. There were dark circles under his eyes.

An orderly entered the room. “I’m sorry,” Avery said.  The orderly smiled, and checked on the boy in the next bed.  Avery looked away. “It’s my fault, isn’t it?” he asked, but the orderly had gone.

Avery tried to get out of bed, but he could not. He looked down and saw that his hands and legs were tied to the bed frame with leather straps. Avery panicked. Within seconds he was thrashing around, trying any way he could to escape. The straps cut into his wrists and ankles. The pain and the blood startled him and he began to scream, first for his mother, and then just to scream.

Two orderlies rushed in. They grabbed Avery and held him still, while a third orderly gave him another injection. Avery began to feel drowsy. He looked over at the boy in the next bed. The boy was still watching television.

Avery drifted off to sleep. He had nightmares of a monster destroying the hospital, his home, his school, crushing and killing everyone he knew – his mother, his father, the doctor, his teachers, his friends – even the boy in the next bed. In his dream, Avery believed that, somehow, the monster’s rampage was all his fault. Maybe, even, that he was the monster.

 

 

The voices became louder. Soon, they were overwhelming. After two weeks, Avery felt that his last connection to his life was gone. He could not remember when his mother had come to see him, though he was sure she had. Avery learned to cry himself to sleep silently at night, for fear of alerting the orderlies who would just give him another injection. He looked for ways to commit suicide, but could find none. Even at mealtime all he was given was a plastic spoon.

After two weeks, they released Avery to his parents’ care. He knew it had all been his fault, and that if he did anything at all he would just hurt someone. So, he decided to do nothing. From that point on, Avery became passive. His parents, his teachers, even the doctor – they all thought this was a sign that he was improving. Avery knew better. With his will submerged, the voices started doing his thinking. They told him what to do, what everything meant. They began to plan.

 

 

          Avery ran through the hall shooting into classrooms that were now as empty as tombs. He heard a scream and then scattered voices and scuttling feet.

          Turning a corner, he saw them. When they saw him, they started running. Avery thought they looked like a school of fish.

          He started shooting. Shells jangled on the ground as he emptied another mag. Gunpowder stung his nose and the ringing in his ears sounded like eagles. The screaming swelled in volume until it almost drowned out the voices.

          Avery stopped. He was surprised to find himself out of breath and sweating. His mouth was dry and his tongue tasted like pennies.

          Over the screaming and the voices now added a new sound. Sirens. There were many and they were getting louder. He hadn’t much time.

          Avery ran across the empty playground to the woods behind the school. He had often played in these woods. They would be sanctuary to him now.

 

 

          The sergeant explained to Avery’s mother only that there had been a shooting at the school and that she was needed. She passed the ride to the school in silent dread. Now, at the school, they told her the full story.

          “We’ve got six dead and wounded here. From eyewitness accounts, the shooter was your son.”

          She dropped to her knees. Her hands covered her mouth as tears covered her eyes.

          “Oh my God, no,” she pleaded. “Is he...?”

          “We don’t know where he is at the moment. We may need your help once we find him. Can you do it?”

          She numbly nodded her head. It wasn’t until she saw the SWAT team with their black sniper rifles, body armor, and helmets that she began to panic.

 

 

          Avery watched in amusement as the blue uniforms peered around corners and moved down hallways, kicking open doors. They looked like dolls. He began to feel drowsy.

          He decided to wait until dark when everyone went home. Then he would go back and tell his mother what had happened. She would pay attention to him now.

          He listened to the sirens. The police sirens were angry, like swarms of hornets. The ambulance sirens were mournful, begging, pleading to be let through.

          He counted off the ambulances. Four, five, six. So that’s how many, he thought. Six. He thought he had shot more than that.

          Soon he heard another sound. Dogs. The blue uniforms were leading two large dogs who were barking, straining at their leashes as they sniffed their way across the playground.

          Avery could see they intended to violate his sanctuary. The thought outraged him. He awoke from his languor and checked his pistol. Empty. He searched in his pockets and found one bullet. It must have fallen out of one of the magazines, he thought. Avery loaded it into the gun and looked up. He could see the dogs more clearly now. They were getting closer.

          Avery turned and started running. He knew these woods better than any dog, better than any policeman. And besides, he knew where he was going.

          The dogs exploded into full howl the moment Avery broke cover.

          He ran, stumbling over tree roots and rocks that had never tripped him before. His feet crunched on pinecones, twigs, and the occasional patch of snow.

          The dogs sounded closer. Avery looked behind. He could see nothing. Fear began to overwhelm him.

          The nausea came so suddenly he barely had time to stop before he threw up. He could see the remains of a small white pill in his vomit. The cooper taste on his tongue was stronger than ever. He tried to spit it out but he could not. He craved water.

          Avery turned around. Surely he could get some water from the policemen. Then, he saw the dogs. Their teeth were bared, and the sound of their barking pained him as if he was being bitten.

          In a panic, he turned and started running.

          There, up ahead, the old tree, his tree.

          He tucked the gun in his waistband and quickly climbed to the largest of the low branches. He had often escaped here from school when he needed to be alone. This was it. Sanctuary. Avery pushed his glasses back on his nose and smiled at the sound of a family of robins chirping happily in the upper branches. He had heard them before. He felt like he knew them.

          Soon, the sound of the robins was replaced by the barking of the dogs. They surrounded the tree. Policemen were not more than two hundred feet away. He watched them with a mixture of scorn and weariness. He closed his eyes. He felt sleepy.

          “Avery, please come down. Everything’s going to be all right.” He awoke with a start at the sound of his mother’s voice. It was magnified through a bullhorn. He could hear her voice break. He squinted and thought he could see her, but he couldn’t be sure.

          Although he knew she was lying, he wished with all his soul that she was not. He knew he would have to see the doctor again. He looked at his gun. One shot. He scanned the mob looking for a target.

 

 

          “We’ve got him sighted, Sir. Awaiting your orders.”

          A SWAT team member’s sniper scope centered steadily on Avery’s chest.

          “Oh my God no, not my son. He’s only ten. Please no, please God...” his mother started to cry. She threw the bullhorn to her mouth.

          “Avery, honey, come down now or they’ll shoot you.”

          She turned in desperation to the Sergeant. “He’s only a child.”

          “I’m sorry ma’am, but he’s shot six people already.”

          “But he’s my son.”

          “We’re all somebody’s son here, ma’am, and we’re trying not to lose any more. We’ll only shoot if we have to.”

          The policeman turned back to peer through his binoculars at the boy in the tree.

 

 

          His mother’s words shocked him. Shoot? Me? The voices became angry.

          Avery raised the gun, sighting on the blue uniforms that were milling about in the trees.

          Before he could do anything, the sniper’s bullet tore through his right shoulder, spinning him out of the tree. By the time he heard the shot, he was already falling. Time stopped and his world drew silent. The only sound that intruded was his mother’s screams.

          The silence shattered when he hit the ground. The pain from his shoulder was electric. Soon it overwhelmed the sound of the dogs, the sirens, almost everything. Almost. He could still hear his mother screaming.

          As he lay on the ground, he began to cry. He wanted to tell his mother that he loved her and to have her tell him that everything was going to be okay. He closed his eyes.

          He remembered the sound of his mother singing Happy Birthday to him. He remembered the smell of her hair when she had held him after he’d been crying. He remembered the way her caress felt, when he had been sick with a fever.

He tried reaching for her but his right hand would not obey. His left hand fumbled out in its stead. He was surprised when, instead of his mother, his hand found the gun. He had forgotten about the gun.

He could see nothing. His glasses lay broken on the ground, out of reach to his right.

Only the voices were there now, but there was something different about them. He listened intently, trying to understand.

The pain, the police, his mother’s screams – all receded as he focused on the voices. They were saying something to him. There was an urgency to them he had not known before.

          In a flash, Avery understood.

          A robin started singing in the tree. Avery smiled briefly. Then, he put the muzzle of the gun in his mouth.

 

THE END

 

 

Leland Thoburn has been writing fiction for two years, during which time he has had 29 stories picked up for publication in a variety of literary journals and magazines. You can read more at his web site at http://lelandthoburn.wordpress.com

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