Small Town Mentality
Really old fanfic alert! This was written for class about a year and a half ago. I'm posting it under short stories because the subject is broad enough that it doesn't necessarily have to be a fanfic. Not a particularly happy story, but it deals with one of my favorite themes.
The young man had no doubt in his mind that he was in Love. None at all. How could he ever even wonder, with such beauty and kindness? The object of his feelings was a young, delicate blonde, with a keen mind and an artistic flare. She loved animals and nature, and her dark gray eyes were quiet, yet playful and intense. She shone around children, and children loved her back. She was devoted. Her name was Joy, and just being around her made him sense her name. She was nearly perfect. No, there was no doubt that the emotion he felt was Love.
He'd see her every time he walked into the schoolhouse, sparkling and glowing as she smiled at him. "Hello, Howard!" she would always say, "Looking forward to today? We've got some good things to teach!" He would always grin and nod affirmative. Yes, of course he was looking forward to today. Today was yet another fabulous day in which he could gaze upon her. Well, when he wasn't teaching. They taught together. He discovered when he reached the last grade in this meager school (a embarrassingly low fifth) that he wanted to learn more. That was before he had thought of her as anything other than a friend, one grade below him. They had taken over when the old school teacher retired; they had taken over together. Being a teacher meant that he had access to more knowledge. It meant staying away from the horrid manual labor and farm work he hated. More things to learn... and her. More science to discover... and her. Life was good, as long as his perfect Joy was there.
Nearly perfect Joy. No matter how much he wished she was the perfection he dreamed her to be, there was no convenient forgetting her imperfections. They were painfully obvious. One of her horrid blemishes was the young man that always led her down to the river on weekends for picnics. Howard knew that man wasn't him, no matter how much he longed for the privilege to take Joy to the river. But it would never be him, as shown by Joy's other blatant imperfection.
Her large, spherical belly.
Howard cursed that child. It was a constant reminder that he had lost his love. He had lost his chance, and now he was paying for it. He would sometimes go into the woods down by the river on a drizzly day, as that was the only way to be sure that there would be no one there. He would go there and moan to himself and God about the fairness in the world, or lack of such. He would whimper and cry and shout and thrash around. I cannot believe I am so stupid! he would tell himself. Now the other man, her "husband", has her; now he has her child; now he has the last chance of my happiness! I've lost my chance; I'm a dead man; I should kill myself now so that my futile, idiotic life will not go on... This he thought every day. He never actually fulfilled his wish. The maniacal energy that finds its way into the obsessed had discovered him. He lived on the small chance that she might change her mind; that she might decide that the life she had was no good for her. Obviously life with Howard would be much better. So he lived on. For better, or for worse...
Till death do us part.
Joy's doting husband was a short, happy man. Although at the moment he was slender and muscular, he was very much the type of man who would grow up to be small and round and merry, the type of man that children would want as a grandfather. He smiled and laughed very often. Despite the fact he was still young, thin lines of age were already beginning to mark emotion on his face. He was the village's butcher; a job that he took not because he enjoyed it, but because someone had to provide for his family. Of course, Howard hated him. Too loose and open. The man made others around him joyful for no reason. He was such a fake. He had no substance. He made Howard angry.
However, it was the child that hurt him the most. Why was the child so painful to think of? Howard tried not to see Joy's belly. When he spoke to her, he looked at her sweet face, and when he wasn't speaking to her he made an attempt to not gaze upon her at all. He could not do it. Joy's pregnancy was a permanent scene in Howard's memory, no matter how hard he tried to forget it. The child he hated more than anything else in the world. I will never teach him when he is growing up. I will never speak to him. The day of the baby's birth would be soon, and then he could again gaze on Joy without the pain he felt now. When the child is born, then maybe she will realize that her husband is not the one who truly loves her. Maybe then she will come to me...
The child was born in the evening late in February. Joy's screams wrenched Howard from his house and sent him running into the woods. There was no way he would be able to see her, for even her husband was not allowed in the house where she was giving birth, and if Howard could not help ease Joy's pain, he could not stand to hear it. He ran through the woods, out across the field of prairie grass, and to the trees by the river, where the noises of the town could no longer be heard. He collapsed on the ground and panted.
When Howard had caught his breath he sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees. Am I doing what I want to do? he asked himself in a moment of reflection. I am an intelligent man; I could go to the city and make money, learn more about science...but would it mean anything without Joy? He thought of the cries that had driven him out to the river, and shuddered at the thought of her in so much pain. This husband of hers had hurt her so much. He did not deserve her. He should never be able to see her again. He should never be able to see his child. The child...the original sin was heavy in this one. A child of such sin would pollute all that he came in contact with. Should such a child be allowed to live...? The child would help the world on its way to destruction. The war he had heard rumors about, that too must be a sign from God that this baby was against the Lord's plan and would disrupt this proven way of life. He must be killed when young.
In his rage and obsession, Howard never even thought that the same way of life the baby was out to "destroy" was the same life that Howard himself had been rebelling against since childhood. The small town ideal of shortsightedness had never fit with his want of science and progression. If he had not found his obsession in Joy he would have gone to the city and become a scientist, working for the good of science and the world. Now all he wanted to do was destroy lives... Joy's, her husband's, the child's, his own. He had become a broken man.
But the child must be destroyed before he hurts either Joy or me anymore...
Howard sat by the river and cultivated his obsession, watching the tannin-dyed water as it slipped slowly by.
Joy didn't come to school the next week, but she was seen around the town constantly, smiling and showing off her new child. Everyone loved babies, especially new ones, and so she never lacked an audience. When she talked of being woken up from the deepest sleep every two hours for feeding, the other mothers nodded in understanding, and the girls looked at each other in horror. Every two hours? No!
Even the men seemed to want Joy's company when they returned from the fields. The child was a healthy, big boy, and so they talked about what a great worker he would be when he got older. Joy's husband beamed. Since he was small in stature he was ignored sometimes; his son was a testament to his manliness, as well as his natural talent as a father.
Such a beautiful child. And a sweet one. He giggled and cooed and only cried when he was hungry or wet. He had thick dark hair that soon fell out and was replaced by very fine white-blond stands. His eyes were a pleasant blue-gray. No one doubted that he would be handsome when he grew up. He was still a baby, with all the annoyances and maddening behaviors of any other child, but he was his mother's in every way. Everyone adored him.
The more Howard saw Joy's husband with a giant grin on his face, the more he heard townsfolk jabbering about this fantastic boy, the more he heard toasts to the happy new parents' health, the more bitter he became. And the worst of all was Joy's face. When she held the sleeping child she got a look on her face of absolute treasuring happiness. Howard could not stand the thought of that look caused by anyone other than him. The idea of the child, that horrible, bald, devil child making her feel such contentment ripped him inside.
Somehow, he managed to continue teaching, though the children had started coming home with a touchier manner. It was as though they could feel their teacher's anger and terror though his words. The other townspeople sensed his thoughts as well, and avoided him, which was not common or easy in a settlement so small. The only one who never noticed anything bizarre about Howard's moods was Joy herself, as she was so wrapped up in her new boy and the exhaustion that he caused.
Howard never noticed the different attitudes of the townspeople. He was consumed with the desire to exterminate the boy. He was above what other people thought, now. He was above morals.
Joy returned to teaching at the schoolhouse a little over two weeks after the birth. The children loved having her back, and flocked around her singing little childish welcome-songs they made up on the spot. They all wanted to see the baby up close, and since Joy had brought him with her, she sat down on one of the benches to lower herself to their height. The children "oooed" and "aaahed" as they had seen their mothers doing. Joy smiled and looked up at Howard where he stood in the front of the room watching her. "He's so lovely, isn't he?" she asked.
"Yes," he answered, hoping she wouldn't hear the pain in his voice.
In the time before the child was born, Joy had considered Howard to be a close friend of hers. Although she didn't feel the evil of his thoughts, she did feel his reservation towards her, and she thought that it was due to the fact that she had not let him hold her baby. She had wanted to spend some time alone with her husband ever since the child had arrived, which hadn't happened because of the constant obtrusion the baby was. Maybe Howard would like to take care of my child for some time, she thought, A few hours, so that I could get some time away and so that he could see my beautiful child for himself. She looked up at Howard and smiled. He smiled awkwardly back.
"Howard, would you mind taking care of him for a while this afternoon? I'm just so distraught with all these new responsibilities," Joy asked, brushing several stray strands of yellow hair away from her face.
All the children in the schoolhouse immediately began jumping up and down, volunteering their expert baby-sitting skills. Joy was only looking at Howard though. She smiled widely. He looked up into her eyes and responded, "Of course."
Joy was happy. Maybe Howard would be more reasonable when he realized the amount of work that is needed for the baby and he won't feel like she was just ignoring him anymore. He would be more cheerful. "Thank you! I just need some time to myself," and my husband, "because of the energy he takes to handle. If you could come for him after class, I would very much appreciate it!"
A smile threatened to appear on Howard's lips. "Could I ever say no to you?"
Joy grinned at him, waved, and turned to leave the schoolhouse. A chorus of good-byes followed her. At the door she stopped to smile and say, "Good-bye, children!" before she walked out the door. Howard made all the children go to their seats and then he started class.
Howard could not believe his luck. When Joy had looked at him and asked pleadingly if he would take care of her baby for the afternoon only one thought passed through his head: This is my chance to destroy the child! He was so amazed that it was all he could do to stutter out an answer. Then as she justified her question all these fantastic ways of killing him leapt through his thoughts. He could drop the babe in the river. Maybe he could leave him far away from the town to die of exposure. It was possible to slit the child's throat with a knife. He might drop him in front of a bear den. He could shoot...no, a gun would be too loud and would attract attention. He had to be careful. If this was traced back to him there was no way he could escape alive. No one must know it was me! They must not suspect.
When he left the schoolhouse after a very strange day of teaching, he started at a quick pace towards Joy's house. Knocking on the door brought out her husband, who glanced warily at him as he handed over the little blonde child. "I don't trust you, even if my wife does," he growled warningly, "Nothing had better happen." Then he retreated back into his house.
Howard looked down at the bundle he held in his hands as he mulled over what the man had said. There was no way that this wouldn't be traced to him. He began to think, Even if I could somehow make it look as though it was an accident, he would still suspect that it wasn't, and just his testimony would be enough to get me hanged! I'll have to leave. I could go to the city; even though the towns-people would know what happened there would be nothing they could do to touch me. He smiled at the idea. I could start a new life, become a scientist...
The new plan pleased him. No more small town mentality! No more pretending to be interested in stories about sheep stolen by wolves! He would have a new life in a new place. And all he would have to do is destroy this child. He watched as the baby woke up and began to whimper for his mother. A smile started to spread over his lips. He turned and started for the woods, thinking of all the people that he would make miserable.
The light dimmed slowly as Howard trudged through the woods towards the river. He left the trees and gazed out across the prairie. This would be the best way to leave, he thought to himself. If I run, they will not even know I am gone until I'm at the next town north. And by the time they find the child's body I will be in the city! Still walking west, he watched as the trees that marked the river grew ever closer. He would do it at the river. Isn't that where the child was conceived? Isn't that where I was when he was born? Then it is only fitting that his death be there as well. Howard grinned in a way that he didn't know was evil.
When the young man and the baby were close to the rushing brown tide of the river, Howard drew his knife from his boot. The boy, whose cries had gotten only louder since they had left and now were at a pitch to destroy eardrums, was placed on a stump. Howard put his hands, one holding the six-inch knife, on the stump beside the child and stared down at the squalling mass. What a horrid creature. The boy unscrunched his eyes and hands for a moment to stare into the dark eyes looking down on him. He became silent, staring into the soul of the only man who hated him. His eyes, the color of the sky on a cloudy day, pleaded for his life. And, somehow, it broke through to Howard. He softened. Isn't this just a child? Isn't killing it just going to ruin the life of the woman I love? A single, pudgy hand reached up at his face. The tiny, incompletely formed fingers lifted and touched Howard's face.
Two men stepped out of the brush from where they had been watching. One was Joy's husband. He could not believe or understand what had happened. How had his child tamed this beast of a man? The other man, confidant that the danger was over, stepped forward to take the knife from the hand of a now trembling Howard. A branch snapped loudly under his foot. Howard swung around, and in his panic and surprise, the knife that he still held caught the man on the arm. He fell, yowling in pain. Joy's husband pulled his own knife and jumped at Howard. Howard swung out of the way, and the child's father, losing his balance, fell in the loam. Howard grabbed the baby boy and ran.
How could I have ever believed that this terrible child was not a demon?Howard asked himself as he ran. He dodged trees with the babe in one hand and the bloody knife in the other. He ran blindly north, trying to loose Joy's husband who had taken up the chase. I must get rid of this child! Then I can just continue on to the next town and I'll be free. He looked at the now screaming boy cradled in his arm. He should die if I just drop him. There is no way he could survive such a long drop.
He flung the child to the ground and dropped his knife as well, putting all his energy into sprinting through the evergreens.
The man, close on Howard's trail, saw his baby as he fell. "No!" the father screamed and leapt to catch the boy. The child landed in the dirt at his fingertips. Joy's husband tried to stop his headlong dive, but failed. The knife that he landed on killed him almost instantly. His body lay next to the form of his son he had died trying to save.
When the other man from the village managed to walk, despite loss of blood, to the place where the babe and the man lay, he gasped in horror. His friend was dead, lying in the pine needles face down, the blood slowly spreading around him. His son lay to the side, also limp. However, when he reached down to pick up the child, the baby whimpered and burst into tears at the rough handling. Howard had been wrong. The child had survived.
Joy would mourn when she discovered that she was a widow.