This was the first short story I ever September 6, 2004, I filmed part of it for a school project. It's a little old, andI can see a lot of places that could be improved, but it still entertains me and that's all that matters in the end. I've been trying for years to think of a better title, yet this one still keeps coming back like a boomerang.
The Blue Van
The van comes to the schoolyard every day. When we look out the window in third period, bored of our teacher's robotic voice and the meaningless scribbles on the blackboard, we see it out there on the street beyond the fence. It glides up at 7:30 without fail and departs at exactly 3:30 until the next day. None of us can remember it not being there; none of us remember the first time it came here.
The van is a deep blue colour. The doors are streaked with mud, and the metal above the worn wheels is being eaten away. The license plate is too dirty to read. The front and back windshields are coated with dust and speckled insect guts, yet the other windows though darkened are always clean. Nobody has ever seen the driver. He, or she, has never come out of the van. Sometimes you can see vague shapes moving inside, but nobody has ever gotten close enough to find out what they are.
This afternoon I am eating lunch by myself, in a desk at the back of the English classroom. I am usually seen with Carla or Mark, the other two of a well-established trio of delinquents. However, Carla is sick today, as she often is, and Mark is probably under the bridge with a can of spray paint. Without them there is really no point being in school today, but I have nothing else better to do.
I am holding a tuna fish sandwich with my left hand and doodling on a scrap of looseleaf with the right. I am sketching a creature called a Cthulhu. I've heard the Cthulhu is from a horror novel by some guy named Lovecraft, but I've never read it. I think I heard of it from an Internet site.
Skulking behind me is Mrs. Anderson. I try to cover the picture with my forearm, but it is too late. She sidles up to my shoulder, scouring my drawing with her watery eyes.
"Why, Jack!" she says with what I take to be surprise, "You amaze me. You really do. This is some beautiful artwork."
Hoping to turn her off, I mumble an unenthusiastic response. Unfortunately, this never works with adults.
"No, I absolutely mean it," she says, taking my disinterest to be modesty. "You will go places with this, Jack. I really think so. Keep it up!"
She puts my hideous doodle back on my desk and strides obliviously out of the room. I crumple up the drawing and stuff it in my pocket.
As I walk out of the building, relief abounding in my chest as it does at the end of every school day, I spot Mark standing on the grass. He is smoking a cigarette, which he raises to me in greeting. "Hey, what's up?" he asks, falling in step with me.
"Nothin'. Whaddya wanna do today?" The afternoon stretches languidly ahead of us, devoid of care or responsibility.
"I dunno," he says. "Hey, what's this?"
Mark has picked something off the sidewalk and is smoothing it out on his thigh. My Cthulhu! It must have fallen out of my pocket while I was walking. I try to snatch it back but Mark is too quick, even though his system is probably sluggish with whatever he was pumping into it while I was in school.
He is looking at it with his back turned to me. "Cool," he is saying. "What the hell is it?"
Inspiration strikes me. "Mrs. Anderson?" I suggest, smirking.
Mark guffaws and then, to my horror, lights the paper with his cigarette. I jump at him. "What the hell did you do that for?" I shout, not knowing why.
"Uh… I didn't think you wanted it anymore. I mean, it was all crumpled up and stuff…"
He's right. It was just a stupid doodle. Mark is saying something like "It was really good though," but I don't want to hear it. The day is still before us, and I want to get a chocolate bar and play video games on Mark's Playstation 2 and throw rocks at Carla's window until she screams at us to leave her alone. I want everything to be the same.
I wake up at 11:24 AM. Birds twitter outside. My mom is nowhere to be found; she usually wakes up early to cook breakfast and grab a quick smoke outside, but she must be looking for work today. What a crappy life. I grab some toast and wander towards Mark's place.
He is waiting outside. Together we shamble to the mall, hoping some gory movie will be playing at a cheap price. We're old enough that we don't have to play games with the ticket sellers, but unfortunately we also look too much our age. I guess we couldn't keep paying children's ticket fees forever.
There's nothing good playing except for some chick flicks only Carla would see, and an art film called "Leg - !11! Doll's Face". It looked really weird and the only reason Mark wanted to see it was because it looked like it had a lot of nudity in it. I pointed out movies like this always had male nudity, which put him off the flick in a hurry. I thought maybe I would come back and watch it later. We leave the theatre.
As I scratch something into a park bench with a rock, Mark leans back and utters the unthinkable:
"Have you ever wondered who lives inside that blue van?"
Nobody ever questions the blue van. It's like unspoken tradition or something. I put the finishing touches on my little piece of vandalism and sit up. "Why? Do you?"
He tries masking his curiosity with an uncaring shrug. "It's kinda weird how it's always there. Like someone's just sitting inside, watching all the students go in and out, every single freakin' day…"
A shiver went up my back. It might be true. "You wanna check it out sometime?" I ask guardedly. Not even the parents had ever gone as far as to raise a complaint with the blue van. It was our job not to ask any questions. "We could follow it when it leaves on Monday."
Mark laughed throatily. He clearly enjoyed the idea. "That is so awesome. This is gonna be sweet. Let's drag Carla along."
"I dunno. Why would she wanna come?"
"Because. She's a freak. You phone her, man. I have stuff to do tonight."
Carla is willing to come, if only because I said it was Mark's idea that she should. She has a crush on him, or respects him, or something. I like being with Carla when we're alone more than I like her when Mark is around, or when she's stoned, which is becoming more and more frequent.
We skip fifth period to stakeout in Mark's old Ford, which we have hidden around a corner of the building. Mark's car is ankle deep in trash, and we fling things at each other until it gets boring.
The blue van lurks out there, almost like a living thing. It reminds me of this movie I saw with Mark on TV, about a guy being chased by a huge semi. You never see the driver. Mark fell asleep halfway through ("It was just these guys driving stuff for two freaking hours!"), but thinking about it now made me apprehensive. What if there really is no driver? What if there is a driver, but he turns out to be psychotic and catches us while we are tailing him?
If the driver of the van suspects he is being followed, he gives no sign. He never slows down or tries to lose us. We maintain a good distance and once Mark actually drives ahead of the van and parks in front of the library until it passes us again.
To our surprise, our hunt takes us past the city limits. I suddenly begin to fear; what if the driver really is psychotic and is luring us out here so he can butcher us and scatter our body parts across the prairie? Carla, in the backseat, is voicing my trepidation: "Omigosh, this is SO freaky," she squeaks.
Eventually, the van pulls off onto a dirt road. Mark drives past it, and it's obvious why- with all this space, the unseen driver is bound to notice a car following him now. We silently agree to observe at a safe distance on foot.
We park the car off the shoulder and set out, each of us mentally kicking ourselves for not thinking to bring along some binoculars. Dust settles around our ankles, bringing a grainy, musty smell. We can still see the van, now a square-shaped blue speck, as it heads towards a lonely little house far out to the horizon.
None of us say anything as we prowl through the tall grass. It is too late to run back now. There is an extra thrill of adrenaline involved with this little trek, because it's broad daylight and we have no idea what we're getting into. Even through the prairie haze, everything looks a little bit brighter, a little bit sharper. None of us had been out here before, tailing unknown prey. It made me feel like a secret agent.
We can hear someone getting out of the van, but they were doing so on the far side, facing away from us. Mark breathes a silent curse. We can see nothing from our low viewpoint. Something skitters over Mark's foot, but he doesn't seem to notice. I see the tops of the yellowing grass poking up into the sky like a jagged wall, keeping us locked in our brittle prison.
Suddenly, with a rustle, Carla is on her feet and running stealthily towards the house. Mark and I lie there, horrified. "Carla!" Mark hisses, but she has stopped and is standing totally erect, her hair blowing crimson round her head. She looks as exposed as a giraffe in a parking lot. I want to shut my eyes.
Then we are all running, pelting back towards the car. We don't care who sees us now; it is like when we were egging Sally's front door a few months back and a police cruiser pulled up just as Mark fired the first missile. We just scatter.
The next few moments are a mess. We pile into the Ford and Mark hit the gas and we fire back onto the highway facing in the wrong direction. Mark yanks the steering wheel and we speed back towards home.
It is only a few minutes into the city limits that we start laughing. Mark pulls over and we start pushing each other and screaming about how stupid we were, until one of us has the sense to grab Carla and ask her what the hell was wrong with her.
"I couldn't help it," she giggles. "Oh, shit, I was so freaked out… I just stood up…"
"What did you see?" I demand. I am jealous of her. Mark leans forward in anticipation.
Carla fights to keep herself under control. "Why would you want to know?" she grins. Her hands arch up to claw the air. "I didn't see anything. The door opened and closed, almost like… he was a GHOST!"
Mark pushes her as she cackles. "Cut it out!"
"Okay, okay. I'll tell you. He was an old man… that's all. Just some old guy in these gross overalls. He went inside. He was like, sixty…"
We stare at her. We start laughing again, unable to stop.
After it all blows over and I am lying in bed in my clothes, I realize the mystery isn't over. I thought that if we found out who drove the creepy blue van, the impenetrable aura surrounding it should have evaporated somehow; but for me at least, it hadn't. Why would an old man drive all the way out here, just to sit and watch a bunch of drugged-out high school kids smoke and spit and swear at each other? I felt irritated. I knew that's all we did, but it was our life, and it wasn't anyone else's business. And for this guy to watch us every day, to judge us inside his cozy little van from behind darkened windows, just made me mad.
At first I agreed with the others; that the old man is a pervert who likes 'em young. But there is still something strange about the whole thing. The urge to know more about this old man and his lonely little house way out in the boondocks feels alien in my chest, like something the rest of me should be suppressing.
And then, as the midnight dreams overtake me, I succumb to the pressure. After all, what harm could I do?
The next day I feel like a convict on death row. I am filled with the knowledge of what I am about to do and, even worse, the knowledge that I am about to do it without my friends. This is possibly the first time I have undergone anything like this without at least Carla in the backseat, but not even this can change my mind.
At lunch my doodles are erratic and distracted. Mrs. Anderson asks me if anything is wrong; afraid my feelings might be that obvious, I try to calm myself down. Still, my thoughts weigh like giant ice cubes in my chest.
All too quickly, I have escaped fifth period for the second time and am sitting in my own car. Mechanically, I fall behind the blue van as it pulls out of the school grounds.
Everything happens exactly as it did yesterday, which is comforting. My hands are still slick on the wheel. The sky races overhead, but everything else holds steady.
And then the worst happens. Instead of following the road out onto the highway, the blue van parks in front of a dirty old building. "The Lord Welcomes You" is printed unevenly in the window. A soup kitchen! The old man eats in a soup kitchen!
Panicked, I keep going. I keep going until I am out on the highway, where the blue van should be. I can't believe I am doing this anymore and I want to stop, but something inside me keeps pushing me on, like clockwork that has been over wound.
The prairie rushes by, a blur of grey and pale yellow. Dust peppers the windshield. Time blurs itself in my rearview mirror. Now I am parked right outside the door. Now I am standing on the porch. Now I am reaching out for the door handle…
I am inside the old man's house. And I am frozen with disbelief.
The outdoors, with its expansive horizon and the dome of the sky overhead, suddenly seems like it no longer exists. I can't see the walls or the furniture for the paintings. The paintings cover every inch, every corner, of the old man's house. They litter the stairwell and stare down from the walls, each a window into an entirely different world.
I tread carefully, astonished. I cannot believe these were all done by the same person. One painting by my foot shows the downtown district. The strokes are broad and muddy, but I can make out vague figures, as if my eyes are wading through the mire to find them.
Another is a painting of the prairie itself. It seems to be a watercolour, bisecting the canvas with yellow and blue. As I turn into the kitchen, a larger canvas fills my vision, depicting nothing but a green line atop a series of multicoloured zigzags. It looks like the world's ugliest sweater.
I keep exploring, unable to stop my head from turning, my eyes from staring. I move from each painting to the next, some elaborately framed, some painted on nothing more than a scrap of watercolour paper. I find myself threading my way upstairs into the darkness.
Soon I am standing in the attic. It is darkest up here, the only light coming from a small, dirty window in the right wall. Colourful blotches cover the bare floorboards. Bits of rubbish crawl around my ankles.
The paintings here are unfinished. Some of the canvases are completely blank. A few look like the old man started to paint something, but then grew frustrated and sloshed his paintbrush over everything.
One canvas sits on an easel at the far end of the room. Tubes of acrylics lie scattered around it, as if worshiping an altar. I step towards it, hesitant for the first time since coming here.
It is the school from the outside, surrounded by the front lawn and chain link fences. He has been painting students in various stages of activity: leaving the school, getting into cars, smoking, just hanging around. The sky is greyish blue in the world of the painting, and clouds dot the upper half of the canvas. But something seems wrong.
I lean forward to closer scrutinize the tiny figures, and gasp. The people have no faces. All of the students are totally featureless; where their faces should be, there is just a gaping space the colour of their skin.
I take a step back. The panting now seems tainted, horrific. From this distance the faceless students have the smooth features of ants.
I have to wonder; was the old man planning to finish it later? I find myself pulled back towards the canvas. My hand reaches out. My fingers encounter the old man's brush, the slender wood, the fine hairs…
Then I remember where I am. My heart leaps in shock and I nearly trip over a painting of a young girl in ponytails as I flee the attic. I have to get out of here. What the hell was I thinking?
"You haven't been coming to school lately, Jack," Mrs. Anderson says disapprovingly. I don't know why she cares, and I say so. This surprises both of us. Most days, I would be more likely to grunt dismissively, or just ignore her. But I think I've changed somehow.
Mrs. Anderson speaks from her desk. "Well, you're a pretty good student, Jack. But I think you need to admit it to yourself. You have a lot of talent, but I have my doubts as to where it's going."
I stare at my uneaten lunch, my blank looseleaf paper. I don't doodle much anymore.
"Maybe if you took an art class," she continues, "or something else that would help you to cultivate your individual skills, you would realize what kind of opportunities await you. You don't have to listen to me if you don't want to, but I personally think it would be a great idea."
I nod. I leave. I have to talk to Mark.
"Hey man. Where the fuck have you been?" Mark greets me outside. He sounds unnaturally whiny today.
I heave my backpack higher up my shoulders. "Hi."
We walk to the 7-11 together. I hear Carla OD'd on something two weeks ago. Mark said he'd been visiting her last night in the hospital, but I know for a fact he was on the overpass, chucking things at the speeding cars.
Mark gets a Coke slushie from the machine and we sit on the curb outside, him sucking on the straw. A fat woman with a dog walks by on the opposite side of the street. Finally Mark turns to me and asks "So where've you been?"
I shrugged. "In school," I reply, truthfully. Lately I've been working on my homework a lot, but I don't want to say this out loud. I needed to keep my mind occupied with something, but Mark won't understand why and I will never tell him.
He nods his head but doesn't look at me. "School sucks ducks," he says. "Why don't you come hang with me more often? I can show you some pretty cool shit tomorrow."
The fat lady has stopped right in front of us. Her dog is pissing on a tree. I can't think of anything to say.
Mark finishes his slushie and tosses it behind him, where the remains spill out and lie glistening stickily on the dark tarmac. He nudges me in the arm.
"Hey," he says in a conspiratorial tone. I have a leaden feeling in the pit of my stomach. "Wanna hear a great idea?"
"On Saturday, let's go to that old pervert's house and set it on fire."
I stare fixedly at the tree. "That's a lame idea. We could end up setting the whole field on fire. We could accidentally roast some bastard's cow. We'd get caught for sure."
He laughs in my face. His laugh makes him sound like an idiot. "Okay, okay. Shut up already. We'll go pour water into someone's gas tank or something. Don't be a spazz."
That night I pour water into someone's gas tank. It feels like I am trying to prove something to a cardboard box. But my best friend Mark is there watching.
Some months later, I am standing outside in the sharp breeze, watching the leaves twist from their branches and spiral to the ground in their death dance. The air smells earthy, and for a moment I feel the weight of the soil beneath me, and how it presses on the soles of my sneakers. I have been away sick for almost a week, and this is my first day back. I haven't seen Mark all that time, and nobody has heard anything from Carla. I overheard one of the teachers say she had transferred schools, but unless this is another euphemism for 'she's dead', I couldn't care less. The day feels scooped out and hollow inside.
Something rustling towards me. It's Mark. He has a disturbingly gleeful look on his face, like he gets after he cracks someone's windshield with a falling rock. "Hey, guess what," he says to me.
He points to the blue van, sitting like it always does in the street, and I get a funny feeling in my chest. "That van has been there for like three days straight," Mark says quietly. And now I notice some of the students staring at it, ranged in a loose semi-circle about thirty feet out. The feeling in my chest increases.
"It hasn't budged from that spot. It's been sitting there straight through the night. None of the teachers wanna do anything about it, but I think they're getting someone to tow it tomorrow. It's about freakin' time, if you ask me."
I say nothing. I am numb. I try to stare through the van's darkened windows, but see nothing.
Tonight is like a bridge under a river, a tunnel carved through a mountain. I get out of my bed, put on my shoes and jacket, and walk outside in the dark. The neighbourhood is etched in black and white, and it feels like I've been transported to another time period. Dark leaves swarm insect-like over the pale sidewalk.
Like a beacon of blue, I see the van far ahead of me. I stand before it, scared, but resigned. Nobody else is going to do this. Not Mark, not Carla, not the teachers, or the tow-truck drivers. Nobody's hand but mine is reaching out towards the door handle, and then pulling… pulling…
I gag as something rushes out of the open door and fills my nostrils. The smell is awful. The keys are in the ignition, and I yank them out. Then I circle around to the back doors.
The smell is stronger here. I marvel at how the stench was trapped for so long in this van without anyone noticing it. I unlock the doors and fling them wide.
A flurry of white swirls out of the van, momentarily blinding me and pushing me back. The whiteness batters at me with the duration of the wind until, flapping disconsolately, the sheaves of paper drift dying to the ground. I look down at them. They are sketches, thousands of sketches, of boys' faces and girls' faces. Some of them I even recognize.
The old man lies crumpled in the corner. A soft pencil is tangled in his cold fingers. His face is still and pale, and a smeary handprint languishes on the inside of the window where he must have slid down it. He is dressed in an old baggy brown overcoat and ratty, stained trousers.
He looks like one of his own paintings, preserved in another world forever. I softy shut the doors. I gather up all the sketches and climb up into the driver's seat. The engine starts with a burr and I pull the blue van out of the schoolyard for the last time ever.
I roll down the windows as we head out of town. The traffic dwindles down to a few meaningless points of light zooming ahead of us on the road. I am not heading for the house of paintings. Nobody could judge in the place I was taking him.
The pond lies a few miles south of the city. Deeper and wider than a pond should be, it is more of a swamp. It's full of mud and mosquitoes and rusted junk. The tires sink as I drive under the overhanging branches, and birds squawk sleepily in their invisible nests. I stop the van at the water's edge.
The keys hang in the ignition, swaying slightly in the building winds, as if in farewell. I close the door with a final-sounding thump and move to the back of the van. On the wild ground surrounded by blackened trees, I turn the sketches to ash with my lighter. The smoke drifts up into the eye of the moon. I watch for a moment. Then I stand and shove the van with my shoulder as hard as I can.
When the van's tail lights disappear from view into the darkness, I begin the long walk back. My hands are covered with dirt.
I am content that they won't find the missing van until it's too late; and it will be a while until they investigate that lonesome old house in the middle of the field. I am the only one who knows what really happened. I know why that house is full of paintings that touched nobody's hearts but mine. I know why that nameless old man sketched us from afar, behind darkened windows only he could see through. I know why the faces of the students were left incomplete. He never planned to finish them, I see now.
The sketches of us existed only as a hope, or a message to me. I saved one from the swamp and keep it rolled up in my pocket. It's a familiar face. The lips are derisive and apathetic, and the pencil has made the eyes look almost desperate. But Mark and I no longer see each other, so his face captured in the paper remains a memory.
I am standing in front of the library. The day stretches before me, longer and filled with more possibilities than I have ever imagined. The day seems longer, but life seems somehow shorter. I am seriously thinking of joining an art class. I think I have what it takes.
But first, I want to read some H.P. Lovecraft. The Cthulhu calls.