PseudoPod 528: Unsent Letter From An Unnamed Student
Pseudopod wants to direct your attention to a project by one of our Authors, Greg Stolze. This is a good time to go back and relisten to episode 317, Enzymes.
YOU is a novel, set in the universe of the democratic horror game Unknown Armies, which pits readers against a book that hates them while situating them in the person of a middle-aged businessman named Leo Evans.
Leo is divorced, a fan of racquet sports, and a cultist of the Necessary Servant—a quasi-religion he freely admits seems silly, except for the way it grants him extra senses and paranormal abilities. The chief cultist, however, is his ex-wife, and the two of them clash over a key question of what it means to truly “serve” with integrity.
In the process of hashing all this out, Leo must survive a couple attempts on his life, come to grips with an enchantment that makes him hate the person he previously loved most, and deal with lingering issues between himself and his son.
This novel is Kickstarting in February, check the trailer at www.gregstolze.com/you
Unsent Letter from an Unnamed Student
by Aaron Fox-Lerner
The first time you killed me was the scariest. Those large hands, holding me down until I breathed water and then nothing at all. Those hands that had previously stroked me and caressed me and ranged all over my body now shoving my head under the light ice on the pond, steadying me as my thrashing grew gradually more feeble.
A test of trust, you said, joking but not. To break the tension after our argument. I lay my head right by the water, and I even let you push it down, betrayed by the jocular smile on your face. It went on so long and became so hard to breathe and the water was so cold, but it wasn’t until I started to struggle and you refused to let me go that I realized I never should have trusted you at all, that was the test that I’d failed. That realization was the scariest part.
And after the enveloping terror and darkness, I came to in my bed early in the morning. Nothing wet, nothing cold, my roommate still asleep across the room. I thought it was a dream, a dream so powerful I had believed it to be real. I stayed that way, stalking disoriented through the school corridors until I came into your class at 10:30 and saw your face, looking as if you were the one who had been in the cold pond rather than me.
You do not hide guilt or surprise well, which is an unfortunate trait for a murderer. I’d previously thought of you as so unflappable. You were as uniquely stylish as ever, tight slacks and a powder blue blazer contrasting with your students’ bland uniforms, but everything else was off. Over the course of that class, I could see you change, your normal vituperative intellectual charisma gone, the other students exchanging silent, gossipy looks over your drained and distracted air. I was in the strange position of feeling that I simultaneously knew more and less than them. All I could do was look at you with mounting confusion and then uncertain dread. If your reaction meant what I thought it must, then the murder was no dream. And yet, nothing else was possible.
Here’s what I knew: there was no way, logically, that my drowning could have been real. People do not drown in cold ponds and then find themselves teleported into their beds the next morning. You should not have reacted to seeing me the way you did. Did we have some other fight I couldn’t remember? Did I simply invent the end to that night? Even if I had not truly died that night, it would still make no sense to me.
I was just as uncertain when you found me after the school day ended and asked if we could meet at our spot that evening. It’s funny how a feeling of disassociation can lead to greater clarity. My constant doubt came to feel like a lucid state. That unreal day, when I walked up to your cabin off school grounds, I had the obvious realization that I surely wasn’t the first boy you’d taken up there. That cabin you already had, perfectly placed and maintained but empty: no, I couldn’t have been the first boy you’d taken there. Nor was I likely to have been the first boy you’d invited to New York with you over the summer because he was just so cultured he needed to see some of the world’s greatest art while staying at your apartment, soft heavy steps coming into his room every night after visits to the Frick and Guggenheim and Whitney.
With the terror of the night before still a seeming impossibility in my mind, I only understood as I began the chilly walk up to that cabin, feet crunching over hard, crumbling early spring snow. Of course you played me, I was sixteen and you were a little more than twice that. I’d fancied myself the snake when I was really Eve. At the start, I’d even felt valued for having hooked up with you. After all, you weren’t just any teacher. You’d framed yourself as the most intellectually demanding at our already painfully elite boarding school, the young prodigy deigning to share his insight with the rest of us. You were the most popular here, too cool be considered simply a “cool teacher” (how you’d roll your eyes at the term!) You were the one who built a practical cult out of his intensive Honors Literature program, the one who had every wannabe writer and intellectual at our exclusive boarding school jostling to catch the attention of your alternately scabrous and rapturous passions.
What easy prey that must have made us. What easy prey I must have been especially, so scornful of my bland suburban background, so afraid that the “lower” part of my lower middle class upbringing would show. So desperate to seem a true cosmopolitan among the kids with vacations on Greek islands and no need for scholarships.
Is that what drove me into your cabin, what drove me to let you into my pants? Would I be taking that walk up to meet you one more time if I were tall and blond and had light skin and a summer house? I don’t think either possible answer would please me. To say no would be implying that I let my background determine me in ways that I decided it wouldn’t. To say yes would be giving you a degree of power I wouldn’t want to grant you. Regardless, there I was. Walking on the barely worn path up to your hideout (ours, I once called it). That cabin. Always so neatly turned out, clean but empty, nothing but a few chairs and the floor we had sex on. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that you were waiting at the cabin with an ax for my head, but I startled regardless.
I didn’t even get inside. The moment I turned the door handle, you came charging out, not knocking me over, just pushing me stiffly back. For once, you didn’t say anything, not a word, not even a sound. And there was that ax in your hands, swinging back and then toward me. And I raised my hands, but not fast enough. And right as the ax came to me, I had two simultaneous thoughts mixed with the flash of terror. The first: not again. The second: so it was real. My death was much faster the second time, almost instantaneous: you swung the blade, it hit me, and everything ended.
The murder was easy. It simply occurred. What followed was what scared me the most. Once again, I woke up in my bed the next morning. And you? What did you do in the meantime? What happened? Did anything? What could possibly have happened between my death and my awakening? Were there two of me? Two bodies? Did one come into being as the other disappeared? What did you do after? How did you sleep? How did I wake up?
And how did you feel the next day when you saw me again? You hid it better the second time, only stumbling slightly in your ecstasy over Hamlet, your eyes catching and dragging on me as you lay out the proto-postmodernist metatextuality of the play within the play. It’s too bad we’d already finished Death in Venice and Lolita, and I suppose Macbeth would have been even more fitting for dramatic irony, but what can you do?
I sat there in that class, watching you fumble just slightly, other students probably assuming you must be tired or simply going through an off day, and began, I will admit, to feel a sense of power. Now I knew that you really were unnerved. You were frightened. By me. I felt it as a kind of turnaround, seeing the fear you’d imposed so suddenly and horribly upon me now foisted back upon you. That vengeful pleasure helped me suppress, however unsuccessfully, the knowledge that if it had happened a second time and you truly were afraid, then it must also be real. The murders were now unquestionably fact.
Why was it that every time you murdered me, I came back? I certainly had no idea. It was this curiosity, more than anything else, that spurred me to stay after class. I had to know. And yet the minute it looked like you might be alone in a room with me, you fled out of it in a cold panic.
For you, I must have seemed to simply be a threat, albeit a frighteningly unreal one. For me, my very existence was an uncertain, petrifying limbo. I still don’t know what I am. If I’m a ghost, why does everything else in my life continue as normal? I eat, I sleep, I use the bathroom, I feel things, other people see me.
Do you want to know something odd, though? I had a scrape on my leg when you drowned me that first time. I’d gotten it earlier in the day during PE, ran into someone else’s cleat playing soccer. It never healed. It stayed exactly the same since you drowned me. It didn’t get worse, it didn’t get better, it just stays the same.
It was my curiosity that drove me to accept when you texted asking if I wanted to meet up and talk about things. It was pure thoughtlessness that led me to drink the coffee you offered me, though. I was so fixated on the physicality of my previous violent deaths that I accepted the cup without even noticing, until I was writhing and choking on the floor, your nervous, sweaty face peering down at me. Again, I thought. And afterward there were only more questions.
What happens after you kill me? What happens to my body? Do you have a bunch of my corpses all piled up in a ravine somewhere? Do they disappear once you’ve killed me, so that I can always reawaken in the same form? I have to come back like this, I have no choice in the matter. Why did you keep killing me when you must surely know that nothing changes as a result? Will I be able to grow up at all from this point? Will I be stuck with you? Will this end when you die, somehow? Am I supposed to drive you to your death? If I do, what happens to me?
When you tried to break up with me, you said it felt like I was stalking you. That wasn’t true. It was only after my third murder that I began to stalk you. All I wanted to do after you killed me was understand my situation – you of all people should have known how much I hated to feel ignorant – but I couldn’t get to you. You retreated from me in the halls, locked your door to me, sequestered yourself from all the students for fear of encountering me.
I’m sorry for burning down your car, by the way. Not sorry in the sense that I feel guilty for wronging you, but sorry that it proved so ineffective. I was hoping to create the fire as a distraction so I could sneak into your studio at the faculty housing and demand answers, but you made sure to stick with the other teachers the whole night. Safety in numbers, I suppose. Now I never see you anywhere but in public places surrounded by other people.
And then after weeks of waiting, once I finally did manage to catch you alone, stepping out of faculty housing at 3 am for a smoke, you killed me again. The minute I started to speak, you began bludgeoning me with a rock. Like the first two times you murdered me, there was something ferocious yet pathetic about it. It’s funny, when you bludgeoned me, I could hear you asking again and again: “Why are you doing this to me?” Yes, why am I doing this to you?
You must have hated the loss of control. That’s what I’ve decided these murders of yours must be, even though it seemed so deliberate when you pushed me under the pond. Now when I think back on it, I think of how angry you’d been when I said I would tell everyone about our relationship, your temper suddenly spiraling out at the idea that I would expose you. I think of how clearly you’d tried to regain your composure before suggesting the “trust exercise” only minutes later. More than any other teacher here, you exalted the life of the mind, and more than any other human being I’ve ever known, you’ve reverted to the animal.
Your attraction to me, or at least the fact that you acted upon it, must have been another loss of control. Do you hate yourself for what you’ve done? I couldn’t really know, but I imagine you do, with your long elegies to aesthetic appreciation for its own sake, your citing of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary on the essential meaninglessness of physical attraction. All that talk and you still find yourself a captive to base instinct: first sex, then violence. And it seems to be a habit you can’t break.
The next time I caught you alone took much more effort. I convinced the school I was heading back home to the west coast for spring break and convinced my parents I was staying at school, then took a Greyhound down to the city.
I knew where your apartment was from my previous visit, but you weren’t there when I arrived that afternoon. I sat down outside your door, waiting in the cramped, under-lit hallway for your arrival. You didn’t come back at all that night, your whereabouts yet another mystery for me. Eventually I dozed off and came to with you choking me furiously but silently in the early morning light.
The edges of my vision began to ease off, and my head was already throbbing from the moment I woke up with those big hands clenched around my neck, throat struggling feebly to pull down air against your thumbs. Not this time, I thought to myself, don’t let it be this time too.
I reached into my jacket for the thing I’d made sure to bring with me, smuggled all the way from our school’s cafeteria kitchen, a long knife wrapped in the folds of an old magazine. With both your hands wrapped around my neck, you didn’t stop my movements, but I still struggled to loosen the knife from the magazine taped around it. Finally I succeeded, my victory accompanied by the soft, understated sound of paper crumpling and falling. I hacked the knife against the back of your forearm.
You fell back with a single sharp yip! and I rushed to my feet, charging into and knocking you down a half-flight of stairs. You collapsed unevenly there at the bottom, and I staggered my way down the steps, gasping in deep, heavy breaths. I stood above you with the knife in my hand and realized this was the only course I had left. Maybe the only way to end our whole situation was to kill you in turn.
And yet as I leaned against the wall above you, ready to bring the knife down onto your cowering, tangled body, I couldn’t do it. I knew that I should, and yet I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything but teeter there and eventually throw down the knife in front of you as if I had no other choice in the matter.
I’d begun my confused, disappointed walk down the stairs away from you when I felt a sharp pain in my back. There you were, with my knife, doing the thing you always did. It was another painful death. I couldn’t say how many times you stabbed me. Nor could I say how you got away with killing someone in a crowded apartment stairwell in the middle of New York, but you seem to have. Because the next thing I could remember was waking up at school once again on the first day back from break, you leading your class and everyone acting as if things were normal.
So here we are. I don’t want to be writing you this letter, but I have no choice. You seem increasingly tormented by the fact that I’m still following you – tracking you through the school, loitering by your office, waiting for you to leave the staff building. I’m only doing it because having failed to kill you, I can’t conceive of anything else to do. Every time I catch you in class or in the halls, I can discern a whimpering terror in your eyes before you slip away, and I know you see the hatred in mine.
I’m not angered that you’ve killed me and gone unpunished, or that you’re too much of a coward to face me. What really enrages me, what hurts me and drives me and spites me and pushes me further still after you relentlessly even against my will, is this idea that I’m the one haunting you, and not the other way around.
About the Author
Aaron Fox-Lerner is from Los Angeles and currently lives in Beijing. His fiction has appeared in Grimdark magazine, Akashic Books, Thuglit, The Puritan, and other publications. His portfolio can be found here.
About the Narrator
Kenny Kinlund is a musician from Lincoln, NE. His band Warbonnet has a self-titled album out on iTunes with Tremulant Records, but he would rather you send your money to the ACLU or the Electronic Frontier Foundation right now. His twitter handle is @svenskjaevel.