UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 09/2011
STRANGE EVENTS OF THE SENIOR YEAR
There was no explaining the gruesome trend that grabbed hold of high school seniors in the small town of Solon Springs, Wisconsin smack in the middle of an unusually mild winter.
Solon Springs was a miniscule microcosm compared to its nearest big city, Chippewa Falls. Named after French fur trader Daniel Greysolon Dulhut (who came from Montreal by way of the Great Lakes in 1680), it was a terribly scenic place dominated by towering pine trees. The town was home to Mom and Pop stores as opposed to chains and mini-malls, barber shops as opposed to beauty salons, and determined parents who were opposed to sending their children to out-of-state colleges.
The victim of the first shocking incident was Sherman Quisenberry, an above average student who worked part-time at the Dairy Queen and sang in the church choir. His body was discovered on a quarter-mile stretch of highway 53 that narrowed to a single lane going north and a single lane heading south. The Greyhound bus that struck him was travelling twenty miles per hour above the speed limit, but this seemingly significant fact didn’t faze the citizens of Solon Springs. It was commonplace for anyone traversing that stretch of lonesome highway to exceed the speed limit.
Still, the tragedy was major news. Despite the fact that traces of marijuana were found in the boy’s blood, the residents of Solon Springs mourned the loss of Sherman Quisenberry as if he’d been a member of their immediate family.
The next tragic incident occurred precisely ten days after the first. The body of Priscilla Swanson was discovered on the same desolate stretch of highway that claimed Sherman Quisenberry. Soft-spoken and shy, Priscilla loved hot cocoa, Elvis, and cutting herself. She had a habit of puncturing her pale skin, small areas on her arms and legs. She claimed these were accidental wounds but the wise kids suspected she was doing it on purpose. The Greyhound bus that ran her down had been roaring along the road at fifteen miles per hour above the speed limit.
Both Sherman and Priscilla were short, introspective, and didn’t draw unnecessary attention to themselves (except when Priscilla displayed a new bandage), so when the body of third victim, Andrew “Grunt” Galloway, was discovered ten days after Priscilla’s, the authorities were confounded; this notorious “bad boy” didn’t fit the mold. Cocky, tall and confident, he swaggered down hallways, skipped important tests and propositioned the babes who sometimes said yes. According to several colleagues, Grunt was always a little high, so it was no surprise that a large amount of marijuana was found in his system. The Greyhound bus that hit him had been zooming down Highway 53 at ten miles per hour above the speed limit.
There were only a handful of lampposts dotting that particular stretch of Highway 53, each exploding in a burst of yellow phosphorescence that almost seemed a waste of energy. Nothing grew, nothing thrived, there was no scenery to admire, not a solitary shrub. The light faded fifty feet from its source, allowing the darkness beyond to thicken and seem ominously alive. Only the moon, when it wasn’t hidden by clouds, brightened the forgotten patches of road. After the third tragic incident, the region had undergone a major transformation; it resembled a veritable arboretum with roses, tulips, hydrangea, lilies and orchids lining the highway for what seemed like miles.
The town flew into an absolute frenzy when the body of Evan Smiley was found ten days after Grunt’s. Evan was an outstanding student and an affable guy primarily known for his musical ability and garish socks. He taught himself how to play the piano and the guitar, and he was often asked to perform at local functions. The Greyhound bus that hit him had been moving down Highway 53 at five miles per hour above the speed limit. Traces of rum and Coke were found in his system. He was wearing bright orange socks with a navy blue butterfly pattern.
Teachers were instructed to discuss these tragedies in their classrooms. Parents were urged to speak candidly to their stunned teenage children, to remind them that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. A grief counsellor from Madison was hired to appear at the high school every Monday and Friday. Black funeral dresses were in such demand that Ella of Ella’s Boutique had run out. It became commonplace for small groups of women to drive to Chippewa Falls, enjoy a tasty lunch at Bridgewater Restaurant, and then shop for funereal garb at the popular Fashion Bug. They made an afternoon of it.
High school principal Sidney Tomkins called a special assembly, mandatory for all students. Standing on the stage of the auditorium, he read the mission statement of the Solon Springs Area Unified School District: “In partnership with the community, we are committed to excellence, empowering and challenging all students to learn while preparing them for an ever-changing global society.” These words were met with scattered applause, mostly by teachers and cafeteria workers. Tomkins scanned the blank faces of the students. “If any of you is unhappy about something, my door is open. If you don’t like the lunches we serve, if you think our fitness equipment should be upgraded, if you’re having a problem at home, I’m available day or night.”
“Fitness equipment?” Gail Reinjohn whispered to Marshall Calabrese who was sitting next to her in the back of the auditorium.
“Pathetic,” Marshall replied. “He doesn’t have a clue.”
The principal continued. “You’re at an age when you’re trying to make sense of your life, and it doesn’t make much sense, does it?” These words elicited a few tepid laughs. “But death is not an option. Even if your problems seem insurmountable, you have to face them. You can’t decide to skip the hard part. The hard part is what develops character.”
“Who developed his character?” Marshall whispered to Gail.
“They forgot to give him one,” she whispered back.
When the assembly ended and the students began to disperse, Gail and Marshall decided to meet for a quick bite at six o’clock.
“The adults are in such shock,” Gail said over a garden salad. “Did your parents talk to you?”
“Nah,” he said over a well-done cheeseburger. “They never talk to me unless it’s to stop practicing the trumpet.”
“My mother asked me if I knew any of the kids,” she said with incredulity. “The seniors at Solon Springs High are killing themselves. I’m a senior at Solon Springs High. Does she think there are two million of us?”
“Did you tell her they were all in McKenna’s class?”
“It’s only a matter of time,” Marshall said.
Gail found Marshall immensely attractive and entertaining, but she suspected he was gay. He never made a pass at her, didn’t like football and ate low-fat yogurt. In any case, she felt safe and comfortable with him.
Ten days after Evan’s body was found, the bodies of Melinda Early and Davis McCaffery were discovered side by side on Highway 53. This double suicide, the first of its kind in Solon Springs, stunned an already unnerved community. The two seniors had been dating for over six months and the relationship seemed to be getting serious. Rumors that Melinda was pregnant were quickly denied.
“They had their whole lives,” Melinda’s mother sobbed to a reporter. “I can’t understand it.”
“This has got to stop!” Elena Kroll declared to the rolling camera of the local news station. “We’re losing our children and we don’t know why. Someone has to know why. Whoever you are, please talk to us!” Elena’s two daughters were only nine and seven, but she wanted this suicidal trend to stop before they entered their teens.
When Gail heard the news, she immediately called Marshall. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “You sound terrible.”
“I don’t know if I can deal with this anymore,” she said in tears.
“Meet me at the benches near the bookstore in ten.”
“Fine,” she told him. Even though she lived only five or six minutes from the bookstore, Gail grabbed her wool coat and headed out the door. She was restless; she couldn’t sit still.
The air was cold. In fact, the temperature was the lowest it had been all winter. She reached for her gloves in the side pockets. The left glove was in the left pocket but the right pocket was empty. No glove. She looked behind her to see if it had fallen to the ground. She checked all pockets thoroughly. The right glove was gone and she was going to have to deal with it.
When she arrived at the benches, Marshall wasn’t there, so she paced. Back and forth, forth and back, from one tall pine tree to the next, about six feet apart. As she tried catching her breath, she imagined how her family would react to her suicide. Her parents would never get over it, Gail thought. They would be destroyed, haunted and pained for the rest of their lives. Her little brother wouldn’t understand, but when he got older he would be deeply sorry he no longer had a sister to confide in.
Marshall walked quickly toward the pacing girl. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Gail responded. “She was pregnant, you know.”
Marshall stopped in his tracks. So did Gail. “I thought they said she wasn’t.”
“They said she wasn’t, but she was. Janet Arliss told me. She was Melinda’s best friend.”
“Shit,” Marshall whispered.
“Look, I don’t believe a fetus is a baby,” Gail stated with conviction. “A fetus is a fetus and a baby is a baby. But still, there was something growing inside her, and it was on its way to becoming a baby. And the notion of killing that along with herself is just overwhelming to me. I can almost understand how she could kill herself, but not the fetus.”
“I hear you.”
“This is insanity because I am so pro-choice. Why am I so upset?” she cried.
“You just are. We’re all in a little bit of shock and we react in unexpected ways.”
“I think I’ve lost my mind.”
“You’re just a little confused. We all are.”
“What the hell is going on, Marshall?”
“I’m not sure. But it’s pretty shitty.” He took a deep breath, tried to focus. “How about a movie later?”
“I’m so not in the mood.”
“That’s exactly why we should go.”
Light snow flurries began to fall while Marshall and Gail were in line for tickets at the local Cineplex. “In the middle of dinner last night,” Marshall said, “my father said to me, ‘Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. You know that, right?’”
“What’d you say?” she asked.
“I said, ‘I didn’t know that, but thanks.’”
“Did he realize you were mocking him?”
“I’m not sure. You have to keep in mind that my father’s an idiot.”
“You feeling better?” he asked with hesitation.
“A little, I guess,” Gail reported.
“Two for the Tarantino film,” Marshall said to the balding man when they arrived at the ticket booth. Gail dug into her bag, but Marshall said, “I got it.”
“Thanks,” she replied. She honestly hadn’t expected him to pay, and this made her wonder if Marshall was straight and this was an actual date.
When they sauntered into the theatre, the lights were still on and the screen was blank. “Where do you like to sit?” Gail asked.
“Aisle seat, like on an airplane.”
They took two seats in the third to last row. “I prefer window,” Gail offered.
“You want to move?” he asked with a straight face.
“I think all the window seats are taken.”
“We could ask a flight attendant to see if anyone wants to switch.”
“You say everything with such a straight face,” Gail remarked. “Do some people think you’re being serious?”
“Yeah. I don’t hang out with those people.”
The lights slowly began to dim.
“Who do you miss the most?” Gail asked out of the blue.
The question instantly changed the carefree mood. “I guess Evan. He was a cool guy.”
“Oh yeah, you were friends, right?”
“We hung out sometimes.”
“He was so great on the guitar.”
“And he taught himself. He was a fucking genius.” Marshall recalled the first time he heard Evan play. It was in Stuart LeSage’s basement, and the half dozen kids in attendance were mesmerized. “Who do you miss?”
Gail took a moment to think. “Priscilla, I guess.”
“It wasn’t true about her being related to the Swanson TV dinner family, right?”
“Right,” Gail said. “I have no idea who started that stupid rumor.”
“I think it might’ve been me,” Marshall confessed.
Gail chuckled. “Why do I believe that?”
The coming attractions were lame, but the movie was engrossing. Afterwards, Gail and Marshall strolled slowly in the brisk night air. The snow had stopped falling, and only bits of it were still on the ground, looking as if sections of the town had been salted by the sky. The clouds looked frosty. “What do you think of McKenna’s theory?” Marshall asked.
Gail thought carefully before responding. “I don’t buy it. Not a word.”
“I’m glad you said that,” Marshall told her. “I think there’s some validity to it, but everyone’s taking it way too seriously.”
Gail hesitated, then blurted out the words that were on her mind. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Sure, but I’ll tell you right now that I’m not gay, if that’s what you were going to ask.”
A warm grin lit up her face. “So how did you like the movie?” she inquired.
In the following morning’s newspaper, a front page article stated that the police continued to gather evidence. It was determined that all the victims had been on some kind of antidepressant. There was only one psychiatrist in Solon Springs, but there were seven in Chippewa Falls and dozens in Madison. “Teen suicide is a major problem, not only in our community but in our country,” Dr. Laurence Davenport of Chippewa Falls was quoted. “It’s a very difficult, turbulent period of life. You must remind your growing children that suicide is not the answer.”
Ten days after the double suicide, a group of six sets of distraught parents decided to be proactive. At eight PM, they drove to the lethal stretch of Highway 53 that narrowed into two lanes, and parked their vehicles on the shoulder of the road. With them were lawn chairs, flashlights, paperback books, blankets, radios, bottles of pop, cups of coffee, and turkey sandwiches on white bread. On the other side of the guard-rail, they spaced themselves out so that most of the quarter-mile of road was covered. They ate their sandwiches, read their paperbacks, listened to their radios, and waited.
A few minutes after midnight, the Greyhound bus zoomed past them, travelling at the speed limit. Not one student was seen anywhere near this stretch of highway. When the big white bus had passed, the last set of parents, all twelve adults burst into wild applause. With pride dripping from their pores, they lifted their arms, danced to the music in their heads, and rejoiced. They were certain they had saved the life of a Solon Springs youngster.
But late Sunday morning, a bit of news made its way around the community like a fast-spreading virus. David O’Shaughnessy had jumped from the roof of the tallest building in town. Despite having been caught stealing small items from local stores and pieces of jewelry from the homes of neighbors, he was well-liked by his classmates.
How David got to the roof of the eight story office building was a mystery. One theory was that he hid in a bathroom on Friday night and spent the next day prowling around the floors. Another theory was that the security guard had been drinking on the job and neglected to lock the front door. To the people of Solon Springs, none of this mattered. Another teenager had ended his life.
There was something about David that Gail liked. He was a bit of a firecracker, threatening to explode at any moment, but underneath the brash exterior Gail saw a sweet young boy who just needed attention. His parents had been divorced for years, and his mother worked such long hours at the hospital that she was hardly ever home. “The rest of his life,” she whispered to herself. “So much potential, despite what McKenna says.”
Without analyzing, Gail grabbed a piece of typing paper and a pen, and began writing. “The dead students were all in McKenna’s class. You might want to check that out.” She didn’t sign her name. She folded the sheet of paper and put it in an envelope addressed to the local police station.
It didn’t take long for Mr. Theodore McKenna to be called into the station for questioning. McKenna, a graduate of Brown, had been teaching science and psychology for fifteen years. Divorced, he lived alone and was considered a personable, polite member of the community. Standing in front of a classroom, he had a charismatic, big brother appeal. Some of the female students wanted to sleep with him. Some of the male students wanted to play basketball with him. “I understand you dabble in hypnosis,” Officer Herbert said.
“I don’t dabble in it,” McKenna responded. “I’m a licensed hypnotist and have cured people of smoking, drinking, and other unhealthy vices.”
“Do you practice this on a regular basis?”
“Not in the past few years. Too busy teaching.”
The police found no evidence that linked McKenna with any of the suicides. Still, every student in every one of McKenna’s classes was called in.
“He taught science, mostly,” Gail told Officer Herbert. “But he had a way of conveying his beliefs in the facts that he taught.”
“I’m not sure what you mean by that,” the officer said. “Religious beliefs?”
She hesitated. “No.”
She hesitated. “No. Beliefs about life in general.”
“Don’t all teachers do that to some degree?”
“No,” Gail stated. “They don’t.”
“Can you give me an example?”
Gail fidgeted in her chair. “He once told us that wherever we are in our lives right now, that’s where we’ll be when we’re forty, fifty and sixty…that nothing will change… that we’re already the people we’ll be. If we’re stars on campus, we’ll be stars in life. If we’re misfits and losers, we’ll be misfits and losers in life.” Gail waited for the officer to comment, but he was writing all this down. “Mr. McKenna has an odd way of looking at you. I mean literally. It’s like he’s hypnotizing you. I never look him in the eye. I think he’s a little strange. But some of the other kids, a lot of them actually, look up to him like he’s some kind of guru.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because they need some kind of guru, I guess.”
“Do you think the students who killed themselves looked at him that way?” Tears suddenly exploded from Gail’s eyes. She shook her head affirmatively, then buried her face in her hands. “I know this is hard,” the officer said. “But it’s very important. Did Mr. McKenna talk about the suicides with your class?”
“After every one, he asked us to take part in a moment of silence. But that’s about it. Then he continued teaching like nothing happened, like it was just another day.”
The following morning, the local newspaper reported that Mr. McKenna and every one of his students had been interrogated by the police. A major part of the story was that each student who committed suicide was in this teacher’s class. All of a sudden, public opinion took on a ferocious life of its own, and McKenna was guilty before proven innocent. The community needed a scapegoat, and he was their man.
Parents forbade their children to attend McKenna’s class. Still, some devoted students showed up and McKenna taught them as if nothing unusual was happening in the outside world. As each day passed, the residents of Solon Springs became more agitated. On the tenth day after the previous suicide, people prayed no one would die. Parents made sure their children were safely at home. Some parents stood guard all night. The rapid heartbeat of the town was almost palpable. Everyone waited with bated breath for morning to arrive, dreading any news that might be travelling through the community like a snowball gathering speed as it rolled downhill.
When Gail’s cellphone rang at nine o’clock the next morning, she rushed to grab it. “Thank you for telling me,” she said. Then she clicked off. Immediately, she dialed Marshall. “Did you hear?”
“No,” he said.
“Fuck,” he muttered. “Who?”
“You won’t believe it,” she said.
“McKenna. He shot himself.”
“That son of a bitch.”
Expectedly, the news spread like fire on a gasoline leak. The entire town was stunned and buzzing. Parents of deceased children were up in arms, now knowing that McKenna must’ve been responsible for the suicides. “The guilt must have eaten him alive,” one parent was heard saying at a community memorial service.
No one would be the same - not the parents who lost children, not the surviving students, not the colleagues of Theodore McKenna who wished they’d sensed something. After a few days, the tremendous initial shock diminished. As the weeks slowly passed, not one suicide was reported. The black cloud that was devouring Solon Springs had moved on.
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