Listen

written by David Boyle


    A favorite among students, Mrs. Charleston was patient, informal, and always ready to explain her lessons fully. The students at Brickmore High appreciated her acerbic wit, her sense of humor. She wasn’t without a knack for entertaining either. When the mood struck her, she’d come alive and almost forget where she was, surrendering to the joyful impulses of teaching. Whatever it took to help her students absorb the material, she was open-minded and resourceful, always going above and beyond to educate.
   The students were seated. Mrs. Charleston scanned the classroom and saw many fresh faces. A couple of students who had to repeat this course were seated in the front row: Kristine Warner and Brenda Taylor. In the middle of the classroom sat Margie Norman or, as the cruel students called her, freckled-faced Margie. She had long, curly red hair and her pallor suggested she never ventured outdoors. A great student, an intelligent and cheerful child, known for being the teacher’s pet, Margie naively thought that life was perfect, the world without flaws, the future pre-determined in her favor. Her mind raced with aspirations of college, then maybe a lucrative career that would make her parents proud.
   Across from Margie, Luke Morrison, a once outgoing boy who used to be the class clown. Over time, though, his personality changed radically. He became introverted. In the first three years of high school he had excelled in all of his subjects, outscoring his classmates in virtually every course, especially art. Unfortunately, though, Luke was not much of a conversationalist these days. Often he’d be seen drawing in class, or in the halls, or under a tree, anywhere he could concentrate. The solitude of art captivated him. A good many of his sketches—renderings of dragons, skulls, video game creatures, monsters—were admired by fellow students. Teachers, however, found his creations unsettling and pointless.
   Mrs. Charleston began her typical first day routine, going around the room and asking students how they’d spent their summer vacation. Getting her class involved in a discussion gave her immense satisfaction. She relished hearing about their life experiences, their overall well-being. Most of all, she prided herself on learning how her students unwound from nine months of intense education. In the back of the classroom a reserved, bright student, Brad Nealon, raised his hand eagerly.
   Smiling, Mrs. Charleston pointed at him. “Go ahead, Bradley, you have the floor.”
   “We spent the summer in Kansas with my grandparents and did tons of fishing!”
    His offering received little enthusiasm. One of the students mumbled “borrring” under his breath. A girl in the far corner of the room rolled her eyes and muttered sarcastically, “How special,” and continued filing her nails.
   Mrs. Charleston ignored the wisecracks and nodded at Brad. “That sounds like lots of fun. Thanks for sharing it with us.” Then she looked around the room wondering who would raise their hand next. If nobody spoke up, she planned on going row by row, giving each kid the option of speaking. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Luke’s hand spring into the air. She was already delighted by Brad Nealon’s contribution. And now Luke Wilson was about to participate? How splendid! She flashed her infectious smile. “Luke, thank you for getting involved! We’re all ears. How was your summer?”
    Luke was calm, cool. He stopped his doodling, tucked his sketching pencil behind his ear and closed the lid on his tablet, then got up. “Today I feel like speaking before my peers. Any objection, Mrs. Charleston?”
   “None at all, Luke. I’m glad you’re willing to do that. How nice. You’re such a bright young man. We’re all anxious to hear about your summer.”
   The classroom door was ajar and Luke closed it. “Hope you don’t mind. Some of the stuff I want to say is a bit embarrassing.”
   “It’s no problem at all, Luke,” Mrs. Charleston said. “What’s said here stays here, right kids?”
   Many of Luke’s classmates nodded in agreement.
   “Good,” the teacher said. “You have the floor, Luke. Please, class— direct your attention to your fellow student.”
   Luke’s lips parted, exposing some of his dingy teeth. “My summer was the best one since... I can’t remember.”
   His voice, drenched in unmistakable satisfaction, sounded steady and even. He leaned into the door and discreetly turned the lock with his fingers. Mrs. Charleston was aglow. She fiddled with the chalk in her hand, rolling it in her palms, causing white smudges. She walked slowly toward her desk, sat down. Grinning, Luke kept his eyes on the teacher, who lowered her glasses and folded her arms on her desk. “So, tell us, Luke, how did you spend such a remarkable summer?”
    Luke looked around the room. After a few seconds, he focused his attention on Mrs. Charleston. “I slaughtered my entire family.” The words slid casually from his mouth, without the slightest modulation in tone. His delivery would have been no different had he merely reported the weather. Mrs. Charleston stared at him. Her face, body language, and disposition were unflinching. She kept her composure. Was this all a sick joke? The air stopped moving in the classroom. Stillness pressed against the four walls and muffled its inhabitants. The horror on freckle-faced Margie’s features was bleeding through her milky pallor; her cheeks crimsoned. A couple of students giggled. Mrs. Charleston glared at them. “This is not funny, class. And I must say, Mr. Morrison, that you have a terrible sense of humor.” She rose from her chair. “Now why don’t you just sit—”
   Luke arched an eyebrow. He put his hand in his crotch and pulled out a small pistol, a firearm no bigger than the palm of his hand. The students gasped. Mrs. Charleston, for the first time ever, raised her voice. “Sit down!”
   Luke ignored her. This situation was far from over. He licked the handle of the gun, and, with pleasure and intent, pointed the weapon. “Nobody move… or bullets fly.” He leered at his teacher, his face flaunting calm intensity. “And with all due respect, Mrs. Charleston, if you think I’ve constructed a lie about killing my family, you are welcome to search for my parents’ bodies around town. I must warn you, though, you won’t find my dad. I buried him inside the foundation of a new home and then covered his corpse with concrete.”
   Seized by shock, the students sat unmoving. Mrs. Charleston’s stomach lurched. She refused to have her façade of power and strength breached by anyone, let alone a troubled, cocky student. She spoke louder than before. “Calm down, Luke. Put that thing away!”
   Luke decided to toy with her, push the envelope—find her threshold. How good a teacher and listener was she? What kind of guts did she have? Without having said a word, he had issued a challenge. “You see, Teach, I finally open up and the school’s knee-jerk reaction is to shut me up. You’re no different than they are. If you or anybody else makes a move or says a word…I’ll shoot until this fu—” He stopped himself from saying fuck. “Until this damn firearm is empty. Do you like that, Mrs. Charleston? I don’t have to curse to get my point across.”
   “Luke, your family is very nice, and so are you. As a matter of fact, I saw your father over a week ago in a gas station across town so I know you’re—”
   “Mrs. Charleston, pardon me for interrupting…But I am runnin’ the show here, not you. And as for your god damn stupidity—I murdered them all after that encounter. If you pay attention I’ll elaborate and this class will come to an end.”
    A dramatic pause. “I just want someone to listen,” Luke said. “That’s all I’m asking. You give me that much and…”
    Dots of sweat appeared on Mrs. Charleston’s forehead. She bit her bottom lip, took a few shallow breaths. Her chest was heaving perceptibly. She didn’t want to break down, not in front of the kids. She swallowed, cleared her throat. “And what, Luke?” she said in an unsteady voice.
   Luke remained unaffected. The kids couldn’t believe that she was going to let this continue. A stifled educator, Mrs. Charleston had encountered her share of students acting out for attention. She never gave in to their games. She prided herself on remaining poised, dealing with oppressed children and their outrageous antics. But this situation had taken a potentially disastrous turn.
   Luke smirked. The kids were waiting for him to expound. Thirty pairs of eyes and ears couldn’t turn away. Luke licked his lips. “It’s a long story. I’ll give you the condensed version of what started my madness.”
   As thoughts from the past overcame him he squeezed the pistol more firmly. “As I was growing up, my family systematically malfunctioned. My sister and I had a few good moments here and there, that little pain in the ass. We had dreams of a different world where a person could be whatever they wanted to be. I had short-lived aspirations of becoming an artist (he eyed his sketch pad): a drawer, painter…something. Sis had delusions of being a princess. She wanted to be swept off her feet by some man like in a steamy fantasy novel, the kind of crap you probably read, Teach. I told her the truth, that all women were brainwashed to believe in that fantasy garbage since they were old enough to tie their own shoes. I told her that you can’t force people to love you. Nor can you force yourself to love others.”
   Some of the students stirred, squirmed in their seats. A few hadn’t even blinked. Mrs. Charleston remained hushed.
    “However,” Luke said, “I still encouraged her against my better judgment because she was my sister, my flesh and blood. I soon discovered much to my discontent that the ideals I held so close were meaningless. Sis never supported my dreams. She started to become someone else…something else. She became incapable of demonstrating an interest in me or my art. To make matters worse, my sickening parents ended up ignoring me too. I became...”
    Luke put a finger to his chin in contemplation.
   “Nonexistent?


   “So I found an outlet…drawing. TV monsters, dragons, bloody gothic battles, dismembered bodies—weird shit that fed my surging desire to create; anything that allowed me to shape a world that was better than this one. But everyone was turned off by my pictures. So I squirreled myself away in my own little world. Yet many of the students in this school were intrigued by my craftsmanship. Not my family though. They were ashamed of it. My father destroyed my sketches and told me countless times to grow up. My mother was so embarrassed she rarely made eye contact with me. I was a fucking leper all of a sudden. How about that! It was hurtful how my parents adored my sister, gushing about every little thing she did. She was growing into exactly what parents dream of—she had tons of friends, and boys were hounding her for dates. My ignorant parents saw a promising future in her. They bought into that middle-class happy horseshit that the media indoctrinates them with. They only saw one thing in me... ruin. They never complimented me, not when it would have meant the most. They’d say, ‘Why does a kid who gets A’s draw this kind of filth? Do something interesting with your life, Luke.’ I don’t remember a pat on the back for my drawings, for not doing drugs, for going to class and receiving high scores. It didn’t take long for me to despise them all, to hate life and all those who cherish it. I started to think of ways to vent my hostility…make my point…make a stand.” Luke shook the pistol tauntingly.
   “Look, my father swung a hammer for a living. He was a carpenter. All he ever did was sit around and drink after work until he fell asleep. Although once he mentioned wanting to do something else with his life. That was ten years ago, before he packed on the pounds and became a chain smoker. He wanted to be a professional golfer, and all of it crash-landed because he was too fuckin’ lazy to practice and too ballooned up to be athletic. What a waste of life. What a role model, huh? I gotta hand it to him, though…he could build shit that would blow your mind. I used to tell him how good his carpentry was. He didn’t care what I thought. He would just say ‘It pays the bills, let’s leave it at that.’ Then he’d go back to pounding beers with the guys, or sitting in front of the television. When he was good and drunk he would snore like a pig in his rocking chair.
   “Anyway, one night my parents ripped my drawings off my bedroom wall. I came home, walked into my room, and the walls were stripped. When I confronted them they did nothing but shake their heads in disgust. But... hold your horses! When my sister came home with the class jock my parents acted as if they had raised a miracle. So… the more I seethed, the more I drew. I compiled a mind-blowing stack of art. The drawing teacher in this dump of a school would be in awe of my creations if she saw them. Though she probably wouldn’t appreciate their darkness, their majesty, their profound meanings.
    “One morning I woke up and my parents were arguing in the kitchen about me and my bleak future. I peeked around the door and saw my mom nursing a glass of wine with the bottle next to her, a third full. My dad had a Michelob in his grip and a trail of empties saddled up. My sketch book was opened and they were bickering while looking over my prized portfolio. ‘What the hell are we going to do with this kid?’ my mother asked. She took a long swig of her wine and raised her fingertips to her forehead, all stressed out. My father responded with that deep smoker’s tone he had so proudly earned. ‘I’ll be damned if I know. The guys at work think he’s got a few screws loose.’
   “Mom’s eyes opened real wide. She became very tense and said, ‘You told them about this?’
   Dad pointed at the book. ‘No, damn it! Luke came up to me on the job with this shit in his hand.’
    “The expressions on their faces carved out my soul. I felt like a monster, worse than the ones I depict in my sketches. Mom sat back in her chair and emptied the glass of wine, then refilled it. ‘I can’t talk about this anymore!’ she bellowed.
   “The discussion was unbearable to listen to. I barged into the room and they looked like they’d seen a ghost. When I got closer to their tired, lined faces, I smelled the alcohol on their breath. The room stunk.
    “I unloaded. ‘What are you so afraid of, huh?’
   “‘But Luke, you don’t understand the pressure,’ Mom screeched.
   “I cut her off, my voice climbing an octave. ‘I think you’re pissed that I might actually make something of myself, do better than you did. I don’t want to swing a hammer, Dad! I definitely don’t want to wait on asshole customers in a diner either, Mom!’
   “I was on fire, and they were stunned by my outburst. They became stiff… like wax statues; they feared what I was about to say next. I let go of more pent-up anger and enjoyed every second of it.
   “ ‘What’s so special about that two-faced bitch Wendy? TELL ME! That piece of shit sister of mine is getting C’s in school and dating a scumbag who has a hell of a reputation for getting what he wants from girls and then ignoring them. But you still encourage Wendy, and coddle her. I come home with A’s and B’s and you don’t give a shit. I loathe all of you! And one day you’re going to—’
   “I bit my tongue and stormed out of the room. I became bitter… and then I snapped. The time came to quit trying to appease my family—it was time to please me. Nothing or no one else mattered anymore. I ran away from home and plotted my revenge. Now Teach, I’ll get to their demise. My mom worked a late shift at the diner. She had a habit of leaving her cigarettes in the car to prevent herself from smoking like a fiend. Well… I hid behind a dumpster and waited patiently for the perfect moment to nail her. I bashed her over the head with a rock, then I watched her limp body collapse. She never knew who—or what—attacked her. I dragged her body into the back seat of her car. Then I drove it deep in the woods as far as it would go. No way will anyone ever find her body.
   “My father was the easiest to kill. I already explained that I buried him in the foundation of a home. That’s no lie. He was so drunk the night before I wasted him that he never realized he was in grave danger. His senses were dulled, his guard down. His death, or should I say, the leading up to, I’ll keep to myself—it’s too clever to divulge to you fuckers.


    “Wendy…she was the hardest to murder. We used to share a loving bond. Her biggest mistake was letting herself become a pile of shit. I remember trying earnestly to mend our broken bridge, to be closer siblings: I drew a picture of her and her asshole boyfriend (Kip) dressed in a tuxedo and gown. Her hair and makeup were rendered with perfect detail. The sketch was a prom gift. But things didn’t go as planned, my idea turned to crap. I handed it to her in school the next day when she was huddled with all those slimy friends of hers that don’t even like her anyway. She pushed the drawing away and her gal-pals chuckled like little school girls. Wendy looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Oh please, spare me.’ Luke wiped sweat from his chin. His skin glistened in the overhead lights. “Let’s just say this: She never made it out of bed on Monday. I sealed her nose and mouth with glue. Then I dragged her downstairs and tossed her head first into the fireplace. It was such a rush to mar those good looks she so often abused. That’s what I call retribution.
    “Afterward, I skipped town for a couple of days... and now...here I am. So here we are, Teach... What do you think now? Do you believe me, or do you want a longer version of the story? Better yet, I would like to offer a little show and tell, although the ‘tell’ part is already done.”
    Luke demanded Mrs. Charleston show his drawing tablet to the class. She followed his instructions. She held up his drawings for the students to look at. “As you can see, Mrs. Charleston, I have storyboarded the death of each family member explicitly. Take note of the detail. Show them! Be proud of them, damn it! Smile at my creative flair, Mrs. Charleston. My finger’s really slipping on this trigger.”
   Drawings in hand, Mrs. Charleston paced back and forth. “Notice the shading under her finger, indicating blood,” Luke said winking. “Oh, now there’s one all of you will enjoy. That’s the house that was built where my piece-of-garbage father is buried.”
   The students were unresponsive. The teacher took a deep breath, her Adams apple rolled in her neck. Margie broke down in tears. The sight of Luke’s dark art did more than traumatize the class; it shook Margie, who couldn’t stop crying. She couldn’t catch her breath. Rivulets of tears flowed over her quivering lips and down onto her notebook. Mrs. Charleston lost her composure, her courage. The strong walls she had built during a lifetime of teaching caved in as she went to Margie’s aide. She wrapped her arms around her, cajoled her. “It’s okay. Let it out.” Margie’s body throbbed in Mrs. Charleston’s embrace. Mrs. Charleston spoke soothingly to her student. “I know. It’s difficult to—”
   “Oh please,” Luke said. “all of you are so weak. But go ahead, Margie, you pampered little shit. Tell Teach why you’re crying. Go ahead, you freckle-faced dipshit.”
    Margie pointed at the picture on the drawing tablet. “Tha... that...that pic...picture...is...ma...my house.”
    Luke smirked. “See, Mrs. Charleston, art imitates life rather effectively. Oh, and Mrs. Charleston? Since you listened to me...I’m...I’m gonna end this, peacefully. Nobody has to get hurt, just like I promised.”
   Mrs. Charleston’s face was stained with tears, her hands were in spasm. Luke held the pistol upside down. “It was a piece of cake to get this gun, and even easier to sneak it in here. It’s 1987...time for kids to stand against authority, to seek rebellion.”
   Luke unexpectedly became choked up. “I wanted your respect and you gave...gave...gave it to...to me,” he said as his emotions controlled him. He opened the chamber of the gun and let the bullets fall out, scattering around his feet. “Are you ready for the big finish?” Luke said pointing at the bullets on the floor. “They’re…they’re plastic. Fake. Just like my whole story. Just like my drawings of the murders. It was all a complete fabrication.”
   The students gasped. Mrs. Charleston bit her bottom lip, scowled. Luke pulled the drawing pen from behind his ear and examined it. “My artistry has helped me channel my ill will into something harmless…imaginative. Yet all of you stood in judgment of my creativity—you and the rest of the faculty, Mrs. Charleston. You made me an outcast, turned my family and everyone else against me.”
   Mrs. Charleston put her hand over her mouth; her eyes widened, her eyeglasses drooped, her fingers twitched, her legs became wobbly, her face glazed over with sweat.
   Luke looked up and down the rows of classmates. “You guys were really listening to me. And do you know how I know that? Because you failed to notice that the bullets didn’t make any noise when they hit the floor. I…I had your undivided attention. That’s…that’s all I ever wanted. But look at the measures I had to take… for just a scrap of your time.”
   The students looked at each other, at Mrs. Charleston, back at Luke again, who stood staring at the floor. “I just wanted you…all of you…to listen. Listen. To focus on me instead of yourselves for once. Being crazy…exploiting your darkest demons…being a demon…is the only way to get attention anymore—even when you’re obviously afflicted with pain…relentless pain.”
   Luke’s eyes rolled back in his head and he fainted. Mrs. Charleston rushed to him and tried to revive him. “Somebody get the principal and the nurse, right away!” Two of the kids bolted down the hall. The rest of the students gathered around, murmuring to each other. The bell rang signaling the end of class. Kids, teachers, filled the corridors, none of them yet aware of the horrifying event that had just taken place in Mrs. Charleston’s class. A few kids in the hall noticed the commotion and stood in the doorway watching the action. Kristine Warner stroked Luke’s hair. “He’s a good kid. I knew he was troubled, I just didn’t know how bad it was. I feel so ignorant.” Freckle-faced Margie had stopped crying, and now she looked down at Luke’s prone body, wondering what it would take to be his friend, to earn his respect, to help him overcome his psychological damage— a damage unlike anything she’d ever confronted in her whole harmonized life.
   Luke regained consciousness; his eyes flickered, trying to adjust to the bright lights overhead. Mrs. Charleston hugged him. “Everything’s going to be okay, Luke. Help is on the way.” He cried forcefully on her shoulder. The healing could begin.