The mountain bled into the trees. Beneath the surface dwelt an intangible hive, a pulsating mesh of nothing that radiated suffering onto all who walked in the mountain’s shadow. It was a sketch, but the feeling evoked by mere pencil on paper was enough to change a glance into a stare.
It was the period before lunch and science class was dragging on. The replacement teacher was nothing like Mr Williams. Ms Jacobs engaged the class with nothing but textbook work and notes from a faded marker on an old whiteboard.
Jordan blew aside his black hair and directed his green eyes towards the clock. He could have sworn that the hands hadn’t moved in hours. He lay his head in one hand and stared at Ms Jacobs who sat illuminated behind a laptop screen. The fans that dangled from the ceiling spun to their maximum ability, one off balance, looking ready to come apart. Jordan imagined that fan breaking off the roof and slicing through one of his classmates.
To Jordan, the world was a broken record of fingernails on blackboards, performed by every man, woman and child that existed in his life. The existence and movement of other people around him were enough for him to cause an explosion of involuntary rage. So far, his only mechanism for coping with being trapped in an infinite prison was through sketching.
That isn’t to say he didn’t like certain people. In fact, he liked a handful of people he interacted with, yet in many cases, he wasn’t able to express his feelings or control his relationships the way a normal kid could.
Jordan learnt to find reasons for his behaviour. If he felt depressed he began to search for abstract reasons to justify his mood to fix the puzzle in his mind. He would fuel his mood by attaching thoughts to dark emotions that began to serve as a loadstone for his everyday demeanor. He started to believe there was no meaning in life and so his mood darkened and he treated everyone like they were nothing, because to Jordan, they were.
Jordan looked over to the back of Damien North’s head. He missed sitting next to him, even though it was only a brief period of time when they were almost friends.
Early in the year, Jordan was outlining a sketch in a black sharpie in English class when Damien accidentally bumped Jordan in an eager attempt to answer a question. Jordan elbowed Damien in the face, which, miraculously, the teacher didn’t even notice as she continued writing on the white board with her back turned.
Damien never complained to the teacher and never tried to have Jordan punished. He just held his eye with his head on his desk, occasionally moaning in pain. Damien’s dad, an investigator for the NSW Police Force, squeezed it out of him. They were on Gabrielle’s doorstep with all hell’s fury precisely half an hour later, not by the will of Damien’s father, but his mother. Jordan was forced into counselling that day. Before long, Gabrielle began to attend her own sessions.
As his grades worsened, Jordan became more insular and closed off.
Up until a few weeks ago, Damien had continued to sit next to Jordan, despite being elbowed in the face. In fact, they had even started chatting in class and borrowing each other’s pens.
That all changed the day Mr Williams went to the hospital.
Finally, the clock ticked over and the bell rang marking the end of class. Jordan sat in his chair and watched the students rapidly throw their things into their bags to escape the classroom as quickly as possible. Jordan put his bag over his shoulder, having never unpacked it in the first place, and left the room after all the other students had long gone.
Jordan took himself to the back of the school. He climbed the stairs of J-Block, which was usually empty at this time. He put his bag on the ground and climbed onto the balcony rail. He moved his body up and around a pillar and climbed onto the roof. J-block was a two-story building that was built on a hill, so from the back of the building, it was 3 stories from the ground.
Jordan felt the free air upon his face. The wind amplified in his ears, the cold air hitting his face and chest. He blocked out all thoughts and memories, but his subconscious was continuing to recite the meanings of past experiences.
It was a Friday afternoon in February and Mr Williams was trying to teach a class of fifteen-year-olds the different body parts inside a rat ahead of their upcoming dissection. Jordan lay with his head on his desk, listening to the rolling sound of his glue stick going back and forth between his fingers.
He lifted his head to the whole class staring in his direction.
“Could you come up here, please? I need your help.”
Jordan unenthusiastically rose to his feet, half tucked in his shirt and walked to the front of the class.
“You look lovely dear, now hurry up.”
Mr Williams gave Jordan his tablet and pen, which was linked to a TV for the whole class to see.
“If you want to draw, then draw. But, you have to draw this rat.”
Mr Williams placed the textbook next to Jordan and tapped a picture with his index finger. It was a diagram of a rat with its internal organs showing.
“Draw it in your own style.”
No one in the class cared. That is, until the rat took shape. It was a giant rat chained to a bench by a mad scientist. Its expression was of genuine fear as its insides were exposed. The boys in the class looked on with amazement and awe, the girls winced, but were nevertheless captivated by the mad scientist’s face. A face strangely similar to Mr Williams’s. In fact, it was Mr Williams.
“Each student who labels a part can have a photocopy and chocolate.” He pulled out a box of small chocolates from behind his desk.
Hands shot up all over the classroom as Jordan wrote each part of the rat’s insides and Mr Williams threw chocolate all over the place.
Ever since that day, Jordan would do live drawings in the class of different scientific concepts. His presence in the classroom was acknowledged and other kids started to talk to him without fear.
This all came to an end when Mr Williams went to the hospital. Damien stopped sitting next to Jordan and reality started to shape back to how it had been when Jordan was invisible.
Jordan couldn’t tell how long it had been by the time he opened his eyes. He took a small step back off the ledge and sat down on the roof tiles. One of the tiles slipped and Jordan’s heart skipped a beat. He got to his feet carefully and walked to the side of the building to climb down.
He wrapped his feet around the steel column that held up the roof and slowly backed down until his foot touched the railing that ran along the second story of the building. He monkeyed his way down and brushed down his school uniform. The bell rang for the end of school and Jordan made his way to the front gate.
After the ride home, Jordan dragged himself off the bus and slowly followed Elizabeth down the street. Jordan noticed that something was wrong with his sister. She didn’t stop to wait for him to get off the bus, even though they didn’t talk on their walk home. Yet, that alone was a warning sign to Jordan that something was bothering his sister. He wanted to comfort her.
With an obnoxious, exhaust-spitting growl, the bus took off past them, annoying Jordan as he adjusted his bag on his shoulder. At the end of the street, he turned a corner away from Elizabeth, without starting the conversation that he wanted to.
He stared down at his shoes as he walked. The soles were worn down and the lace on his left foot was loose and dragged along the ground, bringing with it a small yellow grass root that was tangled up in the lace. He could feel a rock inside his shoe that rolled around, but he almost liked the pinching feeling it gave different parts of his foot on every step.
Jordan turned onto a street that ran slightly uphill. It was the town’s main row of shops. On the first corner was a fish and chip store where tradesmen were constantly grazing, trying to balance their elbows on the small steel tables in such a way as to keep the table legs stable on the uneven ground. As Jordan passed by, the smell of grease, barbecue sauce and onion made his stomach growl.
Jordan pulled out one of the posters from his bag. “Missing Dog – $500 reward. Call 0414-”
The picture of Whisper was an old one. The sun reflected in her eyes and there was a small kids-sized pool in the background. The photo looked like it was taken on a happy summer’s day. The perfect family dog was missing and needed to be found. As Jordan walked, he taped posters to each telegraph pole he passed.
Between the buildings was a small passageway that led to a few small offices. Jordan made his way between the buildings and slipped posters under several doors until he reached his destination; the counsellor’s office.
Inside the waiting room was a low coffee table littered with magazines, a splash of toys in one corner of the room and a small kitchen area with tea and biscuits. There was no reception desk, just a small bell next to the kettle that patience rang on arrival. Jordan grabbed a biscuit from a jar and rang the bell.
The waiting room was empty and as Jordan leant on the bench he could hear faint voices from the rooms beyond. It was like the walls were murmuring and vibrating, speaking a secret language. As he stared down at the small coffee table of trashy magazines and forgotten coffee mugs, Jordan thought of how ordinary it is for people to be broken and troubled in Blackwater.
A door opened from down the hall and Douglas appeared from around the corner.
“Jordan, come on through.”
Jordan left his uneaten biscuit on the counter and followed Douglas down the hall. They entered a small room filled with books, comics and comic book villains in glass display cabinets. It was the fusing between old philosophies and new imaginations in one room. At first, Jordan passed off the pop culture as a gimmick his counsellor used to gain the trust of his younger clients, but slowly he realised that Douglas was just a geek.
“How’s the start of term going? Well?” Douglas asked.
“It’s fine,” Jordan replied.
“Last week we agreed that you’d write down some new goals for this term. Why don’t you read what you’ve got so far?”
Douglas sat down without making eye contact. Jordan involuntarily looked at Douglas’s right hand. The hand with missing fingers.
Jordan would always be suspicious of Douglas. He didn’t trust anyone with his thoughts, let alone someone who seemed to have it all together. On this particular afternoon, Jordan could sense something was bothering Douglas. A heavy client experience would often occupy a large portion of Douglas’s mind, leaving Jordan free of a real therapy session. On those days he was safe from the watchful eye of the therapist. Yet, today wasn’t one of those days.
Jordan continued to decipher Douglass’s behaviour as he pulled out his shabby diary and opened it to the last written page.
“I just did a few dot points,” Jordan said.
“Let’s hear them.”
Jordan began to read in an even tone of factuality.
“I want to pass all my classes. I want to be a better brother. I want to stop being angry at mum.”
Jordan closed his diary, keeping his eyes on the physical space where the words had been. Beneath his hunger, he felt an underlying fear. Fear that his words would expose him.
He watched himself read the words that were never written down.
“…And I want to visit Mr Williams.”
The moments passed and the room remained silent.
Silent all but for the murmuring walls.
He looked up at Douglas. His expression of repressed pain confused Jordan. It wasn’t the normal look of sympathy or the blank stare of withheld judgement. It was a look that Jordan hadn’t seen on Douglas before. It was an expression Jordan recognised in students awaiting punishment outside classrooms. It was an expression he recognised in himself frequently.
“What did you do?”
Douglas didn’t respond. His eyes remained on distant abstract thoughts that Jordan couldn’t reach. It occurred to Jordan that this could be a lesson. A lesson to show him how hard it is to reach someone. It’s true that Douglas would often have difficulty counselling Jordan, because Jordan almost always knew what angle Douglas was going to take and would go ahead of him to lock all the doors before they could be opened.
“Are you trying to show me how hard your job is?”
His words disappeared into the room without response.
Confused, Jordan put his journal back into his bag and zipped it up. A tear ran alongside the zipper making it look like a mouth whose lips had been sown. Soon all the strands will snap causing everything to spill out all over the place.
Jordan was about to leave when Douglas spoke.
“I’m sorry, Jordan. He was my best friend. He’s in Ward C, third floor, bed twenty-three. I’ve been there many times.”
Jordan looked through the floor. A deep feeling of guilt plagued his body. Douglas got to his feet and left the room. After a few moments, Jordan decided he would too.
The afternoon sun cast long shadows as people walked up and down the small row of shops. It was three thirty, the time of day when mothers would pace around with their kids trailing behind them uninterested in whatever errands had to be done. In the carpark, you would see the older kids waiting in the car with the front door half open to let in a breeze.
Jordan walked downhill to the bakery and bought a croissant and a bottle of ice coffee. Gabrielle hated it when he drank caffeinated drinks, but she would turn a blind eye on Tuesdays because of his sessions. He left the bakery and made his way back up the footpath to the street corner at the top of the hill.
He sat down on an old wooden bench and took out the croissant from its paper bag. He didn’t want to call his mother to explain why the session was cut short. He didn’t yet know what to do. He couldn’t picture himself facing his mother’s confused and overly welcoming face. She always gave a false positivity when he finishes a session.
How would that conversation go, Jordan thought. “How was your session, darling?”, “Did you know Douglas and Mr Williams were best friends?”. The thought of Gabrielle taking that hit in the stomach was too much for Jordan to think about, let alone inflict.
Jordan couldn’t predict what tone he would say it in, especially since he didn’t want to say anything at all. “Call him, mum. Just call him and find out!” He’d probably slam the door to his room and feel ashamed of hurting his mum. Either way, Jordan knew he was going to disappoint his mother that afternoon. He prayed she’d have a late night at work.
Jordan’s mind was nothing but confused. He didn’t realise how much he looked up to Mr Williams until Gabrielle explained the allegations to him. But, they were just that to Jordan; allegations. What played most with Jordan’s mind were the looks of speculation that came his way. That alone was enough for him to feel a stain on his existence that wouldn’t wash away.
Even if he wanted to, how could he ever talk about what bothered him most when Douglas was Mr Williams’ best friend? How could Jordan talk about the fact that he was sure, deep down, that his father, Edward, was the one who put Mr Williams into a coma?