Something Deeper Than That

 Prose Revisited Series #3

Michael sits at his desk in his black swivel chair, fumbling with his quill pen. He has been at this for 10 hours, fidgeting about and biting his lip, thinking, thinking. Michael cannot write, it seems. He figured using a quill pen this time might inspire some feather-like, floating, magical words in him, but thus far: nothing. Michael continues to rock back and forth in his chair, swivel, swivel, fumble, and fidget until his alarm goes off at nine o’clock p.m.

Without bonking the off button to his alarm, Michael finally says, “I’ve got it!” He begins to scrawl notes fast and jittery, ink splattering itself across the rich wood of his desk, contrasting itself immensely upon the once pure whiteness of the page before him. Finished, he lays his palms flat on the desk and looks at his handiwork. Chicken scratch, if he ever saw it.

-Go off meds! THIS is where you’ll get your start.

(Reading through this again, Michael remembers to lay a hard thwap on his alarm clock, extinguishing the obnoxious bwahhh bwahhh bwahhh of his daily reminder to take his stupid pills.)

-Let the voices in!

-What are they saying?

-Write your book, Michael. Voices. It’s got to be about the voices.

-Write what happens to you.

-Write what has happened to you.

-Stay up until story is FINITO.

Michael nods his head in approval, as if the paper and the feather pen really had done all the work for him. Well done, he thinks, well done. Then he signs the contract, binding himself to the list:

I promise to fulfill this contract or DIE before I take any more meds or go to sleep. I will write this story. I will finally become a writer.

Agreed—Michael Nathaniel Mortinson

Now all there is to do is wait, wait for the voices to come back, the ones he has evaded for seven years now with a pill a day to keep the crazy away. Michael leans back in his chair, hands behind his head, feet in black sneakers perched up on the desk like large, awkward crows. He thinks he’ll close his eyes for a while—not to sleep—just to play a memory or two back through his mind before yesterday’s meds wear off.

***

Michael, back from school-

“Father, father! I finished it I finished come read it please please please I promise it’s really good I spent all day on it and it has dragons and magic spells and lots of sword fights and slime and evil cupcakes and you and mom are—“

“Hold on, Michael. What have we got here?” Michael’s father was not amused. Despite all Michael’s jittery excitement, his father remained perfectly still, facial expression unchanged from the slight frown that occupied it five seconds, five minutes, and five years before—basically since Michael can remember. Perhaps his eyebrow flickered upwards a moment, but Michael cannot be sure. Hand held out, Michael’s father accepted the sheets of scribbles with a limp, most uneager hand from the small, fragile, shaking hand.

Michael bit his lips, licked them with nervousness. What’ll he say? What’ll he think? I hope he—He hasn’t even started. He could tell this. Michael’s father had just been turning the pages over and over for ten seconds, looking in disgust at the pages, a scowl in place of his usual frown. “Michael, why the hell is this so messy? I could read it better if you wrote in another language.”

Michael shrank. He surely resembled the size of a mouse, his voice too, “Well, my eraser ran down…I didn’t have any more, so I just kind of had to smudge the mess-ups and write over it. But I promise it’s good! I just didn’t get to—“

This is when Father looked him straight in the face and said it, “Then Stop Making Mistakes, Michael.”

***

Michael glides his hands over his face, as if attempting to wash the memory and frustration away. He’d been falling, failing since then. Really. He’d always wanted to be a writer, but he’d stopped taking chances. He didn’t even show his mother his stories after that; he was too afraid of being shut down, of being wrong, of making mistakes. The years went by, and stories of evil goo and Mr. Cabbage Man stopped making their debuts on the refrigerator and Father continued to watch TV with frowns and Michael started hearing voices and came to sit a failure at his desk, where he is now, at 10:27 p.m. Michael’s eyes snap open.

Who are you? Michael is it? Is that your real name? You’re Nobody, Michael. Nobody. I don’t think you really know who you are. Stop it Michael, stop thinking. It’s not even worth it. You don’t know who you are. Who are you?

Ah, the voices rush back, filling his brain to capacity like a beautiful, destructive flood. The voices jam together, running over each other. The voices are not considerate, never were, stepping all over each other, interrupting, trying to be the most prominent for Michael to hear. His head speaks confused and jumbled, no, no, it’s overflowing with brilliant ideas, he thinks. Better start writing now

“What are you doing Michael? You’ve no idea what you’re doing. Stop now. Who are you? Who are you?”

“I know perfectly well who I am!” Michael says.

“Oh really? Do you Michael? Are you sure? Are you sure?”

“Yes, and I’m going to start writing who I am now.”

“Really I wouldn’t do such a thing Michael. No, definitely not. Listen to her Michael. She’s right. And I’m right too. Me. Don’t write Michael. Don’t think Michael. You can’t do it. You don’t know who you are. Listen to me Michael: you can’t write. You never could. You never will.”

“Watch me.” Michael turns on his computer. Typing will be faster than the old feather anyway, and he has the feeling he needs to be fast. The voices are relentless already. And this way, he doesn’t need to worry about having an eraser.

“I’m starting with this conversation by the way. Page 1, front and center. You wanted attention? You’ve got it,” Michael says to The Voices, who are chattering away in his head. And Michael starts to ticka ticka tap tap away at his keyboard, while his head starts to thud thud thud like the old days.

***

-Michael, in the kitchen-

What Michael remembers most is the bang bang bang his head used to make against the wall when he first started hearing voices. It felt like little oompaloompa men were taking turns slamming frying pans into his skull after they’d run in one ear and out the other whispering maddening, frightening things. These were not the happy oompaloompa men that Willy Wonka bragged about in his factory. Surely, these were the turned-aways, the not-good-enoughs, the good-gone-bads.

The heat had made everything worse that day. He couldn’t take it. Michael was trying to work on some drawings he was doing—doodles mostly because he knew he couldn’t actually finish a complete drawing. This was the summer the voices started to visit him. It wasn’t so bad at first, but then they were there every day, a part of him, further distracting him from his writing, from everything. He’d been too afraid to tell anyone about The Voices, so he didn’t. He’d kept them to himself like his thoughts and his feelings and his refrigerator writings. But then he couldn’t ignore the evil sppp sppppp sppppp’s any longer, and he started bang bang banging the voices away, or trying to anyway.

The first time Michael’s mother caught him in the kitchen banging his forehead upon the wall, she thought it was the neighbor, knocking on the back door asking for something innocent like a helping hand in the garden or a cup of sugar. What she hoped and expected is not what she found though when she saw her son on the kitchen floor crumpled in a ball, like a scrap paper about to be tossed in the trash can in Father’s study. A shriek later, and Mother was down at her son’s side, pulling him away from the wall.

“What in God’s name did you do?!”

All Michael could do was cry.

“Michael, answer me. What did you do?” She’d calmed down a bit now, falling to the ground and hugging her son to her, hoping he’d be safer in her arms.

And all Michael could do was cry.

“It’s okay, baby. Mother’s here now. Mother’s here, and everything’s going to be alright.” She wasn’t sure, of course not, but she hoped and she wished and she prayed.

It’s the voices, it’s all the voices, and they won’t go away, he’d told her.

“You’re not going to rid yourself of them that way, Michael. They’re something much deeper than that. You’ve got to dig deep within yourself to fight them. You can’t just beat yourself senseless. They’ll come back. They always come back.” Mother hoped her son hadn’t inherited the family’s curse. She hoped and she wished and she prayed. And Mother began to rock Michael in her arms, to rock and rock and rock him toward safety.

***

Michael rocked back and forth in his chair, looking at what he’d written so far. He remembered word-for-word what his mother had told him that day, after he’d finally confessed to her about the voices, telling him he wasn’t good enough, telling him he was a nobody, he was Nobody.

“That’s only because you are Nobody, Michael. You should just accept it. That would be the easiest way. Yes, definitely the easiest.”

“You don’t understand, do you? You guys are just giving me more material, helping me find myself.” Michael continues to type away, scribbling a note to himself to add these latest thoughts into his work here. “I’m going to finish this novel whether you like it or not.”

Michael allows his eyes to wander over toward the alarm clock on his left. In bright red: 5:35 a.m. Well, I’m getting there, he thinks. Michael has not stopped writing. He is writing for what his mother said to him, and he will finish for what his mother said to him. Michael rubs his temple now. The Voices are quieter now, a mere whisper, but they’re all on top of each other.

He always thought his voices were like when the cyclists have an accident at the Tour de France. See, it’s not so bad for one guy. The cyclist might bang up his bike, bang up his knee, but it’s really not that bad. It’s when a whole bunch of those guys get into an accident ramming into each other, flipping over one another, marking faces and bodies with the tread of the rubber tires that it gets bad. That’s when the news people get carried away and blow the accident out of proportion making it seem like a derailed train and a mad, frothy-mouthed black bear got into the mix. Michael can handle one whisper, one voice maybe, but everything gets amplified when all the voices band together to make his mind one miserable hellhole of madness. And the nosy, news-seeking voices can sense when he’s giving in; that’s when they get the better of him, make a whole head-thumping headliner of it. One thing Michael has learned about The Voices is that they don’t give up. Well, I’m not giving up, he thinks.

Good. We’re not giving up either. Not in the slightest. You know why? Cause you’re nobody. You’re Nobody. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody…

“I’m writing this goddamn story, people. One word at a time, one page at a time.” Michael presses save, looks at the 12 pages he has written, and gets up from his desk at 8 a.m. Michael needs to think. He walks away, hands in pockets, thoughts and Voices to accompany him.

***

Michael, in his Father’s study-

Michael walked in with measured, cautious steps, closing the door with a light click behind him. He swallowed hard, taking a seat in front of his father’s professorial, intimidating desk. Hands immediately dart underneath his behind, like a child attempting not to fidget, desperately trying to be serious.

“Michael, do you know why I’ve asked you up here today?”

Michael grinded his toes into the nauseating green carpet below his feet. He would not, could not meet his father’s eyes. “No, Father.”

“Do you know what this is?” Father laid before Michael a copy of his grades. Michael looked down, and with his eyes he traced the green swirls of the carpet into Nausea Land, away from his Father’s snarling, unforgiving eyes.

“Michael. I’m going to ask you again. Do you know what this is?” His voice is stern, full of gravel and darkness and insults.

“No, Father.” Yes, Father. Michael knew what it was. His father’s chair squeaked with a tinge of anger; the room wreaked of disappointment. Michael could feel this, and so continued grinding his toes into the ground.

“You disappoint me Michael. Four failing grades is enough to let a father know he’s been a complete failure. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, Father.” This was how the conversations always went. Yes, Father. Disappointment. No, Father. More disappointment. But never, never once was there this: honesty.

After Michael said this last yes, he chanced to glance straight into the eyes of his father, attempting to feign a semblance of honesty. But Father could sense this; he always could.

“You know what I hate more than failing, Michael?” Silence. “Lies.”

Michael’s face turned beat red, all the heat of Mt. Vesuvius flowing into it now.

“You can’t fool me Michael. You may be able to fool your mother with these voices of yours, blaming everything on them, even grades in school, but you can’t lie to me, Michael. You can’t lie to me.”

“But I’m not—“

“Stop the lies, Michael.” He looked hard at his son for a moment.

“It’s a shame you take after your mother so much. In looks and lies,” Father said, He started to file the failure grades away in a cabinet behind him, as though this conversation were already well into the past, checked off his to-do list. “You see Michael, she started lying to me too. She talked to me about these stupid voices, trying to convince me it was real and worthy of a doctor’s visit. She’s lucky I already married her, or I would’ve been gone in a second. It’s all bullshit. Seeing as you’re my son, I’m stuck with you, but by God, if you don’t stop this nonsense—“

Michael swallowed hard again. I’m not lying. I’m not lying. But Michael couldn’t say so. He knew his father would jump down his throat, choking the very life out of him, sending him to his death. Better to stay alive and lying, he thought. There are no voices, as it concerns Father. There never were.

***

The sun’s afternoon rays splinter in through the blinds, finding Michael’s dry, red eyes. Michael lays on the ground with his notepad, scribbling notes about lies and life, figuring what to write about next.

-Why did he think I was lying?

-Why would he want to believe I was lying?

“You know why, Michael. You know very well why. He couldn’t deal with her, and he couldn’t deal with you. Too many Nobodies for a man. Too many Nobodies. Nobodies.”

“We weren’t lying. Hell, you’re PROOF we weren’t lying. You’re still here, aren’t you?!” Michael throws his pencil down, sits up. He scruffs up his hair in frustration.

“You just don’t want to see it Michael. You don’t want to deal with it. Why don’t you deal with it like your father dealt with it? You know you’re why he did it, right? And that’s why you’re Nobody. And that’s why you have to stay Nobody. Nobody, Michael. You and your mother. Your father deserved better.”

“Shut up! Shut up! You have no idea about my father.”

“We know what you know. And we know what he did because of you.”

Only for a second, Michael considers thud thud thudding his head against the wall to quiet them down for a little. Only for a second. Instead, Michael writes. He writes because he’s a writer, and because the truth must come out, amongst all of the lies. And by dawn the next day, Michael begins to write the truth of what happened.

***

-Michael, entering his parent’s bedroom-

He heard a sort of gurgling sound coming from the bathroom that day. Normally, Michael went straight to his room, headphones blaring in his ears, drowning out all the disappointed insults his father was likely to be yelling at him. But today was not normally. His stupid headphones had broken, and he’d have to fix them himself. No way Father was going to waste money on the non-necessities of a failure. That’s what he’d imagined he’d say anyway. Michael climbed the steps heavily, just short of stomping, waiting for his father to complain. He reached the top, and heaved a heavy sigh, rounding the corner to head to his bedroom at the end of the dark hallway. He tripped over the loose board that Father had yet to fix and that Michael continued to trip over every day for the past three weeks.

“Who’s the fucking failure now?” Michael muttered under his breath, as he pulled himself up off of his knees. And that’s when he heard a sort of gurgling sound coming from his parents’ bathroom. Michael had only entered his parents’ bedroom a handful of times in his entire life. Most times these entrances ended in scolding, so Michael wasn’t about to enter now for a plumbing problem. Father could take care of it. Father could take care of anything.

Two steps away from his parents’ door, Michael cringed as he heard his mother’s shriek, not unlike the one years ago when she found her son bang bang banging his head upon the kitchen wall. Michael halted. Another shriek. He sprinted back to the door and opened it and inside the bedroom door were his mother’s legs shaking in violent spurts and in time with the body on the bathroom floor just below those shaking legs. She fell to the ground, and Michael heard words he’d heard before, heard words he’d remember for the rest of his life.

“What in God’s name did you do?!” Mother asked Father.

All Michael could do was cry.

“Babe, answer me. What did you do?” She’d not calmed down at all, falling to the ground and hugging her knees to herself, hoping she’d be safer in her own arms.

And all Michael could do was cry.

“It’s okay, baby. Mother’s here now. Mother’s here, and everything’s going to be alright.” She wasn’t sure, of course not, but she hoped and she wished and she prayed.

It’s the voices, it’s all the voices, and they won’t go away, he’d told her.

“You’re not going to rid yourself of them this way, babe. They’re something much deeper than that. You’ve got to dig deep within yourself to fight them.” Mother was sobbing now. “You can’t just beat them senseless. They’ll come back. They always come back.” Mother hoped Father would not die on the floor in front of her. She hoped and she wished and she prayed. And Mother began to rock her knees in her arms, to rock and rock and rock herself toward safety, as Michael looked at his father’s dying body, mouth foaming over with putrid puke and ears stuffed full of cotton balls.

And all Michael could do was cry.

***

Michael dries his cheeks with his sleeves, after writing this last part. His clock reads well past midnight and he’s been up for, well, much too long now, writing, thinking, feeling. Michael knew it all along, but he didn’t want to see it. He didn’t want to have a reason to forgive him for being a failure of a father.

His father was just like him.

Michael shakes with sobs now, hugging his knees to his chest for safety like Mother had done so long ago. Here is a grown man, crying like a child. Here I am, he thought, Father was too proud for help. He was too proud for doctors and feelings and talking and pills. He was just trying to be brave, but he wasn’t smart. In denying The Voices’ existence, he succumbed to the power of them. Even with the cotton balls in his ears, he listened to them and swallowed a bunch of pills, trying to get rid of them. I’m sure they told him he’d be okay after that. I’m also sure what they didn’t tell him is that the ambulance wouldn’t get there in time and he would die and They would live on in his son even if he’s gone, and he is and always will be a failure if he gives up now.

It’s not too late for you to give up too, Michael. You can deal with us like your Father dealt with us. He only has the burning flames of Hell surrounding him. No more voices. Now doesn’t that sound exciting? Hm? Hell. It’s where all the Nobodies go. You belong there with your father. He went there because of you.

“Wrong. He went there because of you. Because he couldn’t accept what you were and fight you.”

And with that, Michael types the last sentences of his story, looking past the voices to finish his first story since the dragons and magic spells and lots of sword fights and slime and evil cupcakes story disaster. On the bottom of his writing contract, he writes a message to his father.

I absolve you of your sins against me. You are free. You are free.

Michael finishes his story, presses save, and picks up his bottle of pills. And Michael knows that in about thirty minutes The Voices will fade away. They will stop asking Who are you, Who are you? and he can stop answering Not my father, Not my father. Then he can work on revising and publishing his story and continue living his life the way his father never could: Free of The Voices. Michael swallows the pills, leans back in his chair with closed eyes, and begins to dream of a time when Mother read his stories with a smile upon her face and Father smiled too, just for a second, because he saw Mother happy, because he saw Michael happy. Because maybe he wasn’t a complete failure after all.

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Love,

Ochwoman

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