July 16, 2008

Vanity Academy

"I have dreams. Powerful, terrifying dreams, but they're more like... visions. Of the future, of the end of all things. I see the world; the sun; the stars, all spinning out of control in this strange -- pattern, I'm sure it's a pattern, it means something -- and I can see myself in those fragments of the cosmos. I see myself as a young man, in the village where I grew up, burned to ashes, I see my adopted father, and I see the faces of my murdered parents, and I know, somehow, that I am destined for something important.
   "But now the dreams are getting worse, more intense, and every night I wake up in terror. I feel as though each night the dream is coming ever closer and that eventually I must face it."
   The girl reached a slender hand across the table and laid it upon his. "I can't imagine from where you still find strength. You live with such horror, in such tragedy... but a beautiful tragedy; there is beauty to it also."
   Seth, comforted by her touch, looked up at the girl, a mournful blonde, and let out a heavy sigh. "I wonder sometimes if I can do it alone."
   "You're such a fucking liar."
   They both turned sharply to the guy three tables away. His name was Scott.
   "His parents are not dead," Scott said to the girl. "He lives on a trust fund because his dad owns a four-star hotel in the financial district."
   The blonde frowned; her grip on Seth's hand relaxing. Seth, a rabid-looking kid with a soulpatch, slouched in his chair a little.
   "The only dream this guy has ever had," Scott continued, "was to pick up a waitress and do coke off of her body. Last year? He finds this girl at the diner, decked out in piercings, you know, dyed hair, couldn't have been older than sixteen, and he brings her back home. Gets her naked on his bed and he starts doing lines on her stomach. Chopping them up with an actual razor blade, so, you know, real smart. Some of the coke falls into her belly button so he sticks his face in there and he's snorting and shaking around trying to get it all, like a pig digging aroud in a trough" -- Scott making the motion himself -- "and he's freaking out so much that he rips out her navel piercing. So that's your big dreamer, cold and naked with blood and blow all over his face."
   Now the girl withdrew her hand completely. Looked back and forth between the both of them, not sure what to think, then she stumbled getting out of the chair in her haste to leave. Seth thought about pursuing her or punching Scott, but, too depressed to do either, he just left.

It was midnight on a Wednesday, which contributed to Scott's irritability. He was sitting in the ornate library of the Silverheart Academy, a military boarding school whose curriculum included the paraphysical sciences. Students tapped into the dormant parts of their brains to activate telekinetic and regenerative powers. Typically, men and women left home at eighteen to train for five years at the secluded mountain academy, where they chose to specialise in weapons training, psychic abilities or smooth-talking diplomacy. These elite soldiers were then dispatched all over the world, tasked with highly dangerous missions. If you made a list of all the heroes who'd ever saved the world or galaxy, odds are they'd be ex-Silverheart.
   Scott's world, right then, revolved around his history midterm on Friday. The decrepit textbook that he'd now read three pages of was a library copy and had been solidly on loan for the preceding month. This piece of required reading was, as the professors often said, one of the only copies in existence. Suspicious, Scott had written to the publisher to confirm this and got back a terse form letter explaining that they had gone out of business for unspecified reasons. Scott had made a note of the peculiarity in his journal. The textbook recounted the legend of a mysterious, ancient race who walked the planet millennia before humanity, going on to prophecise their apocalyptic return. Scott might have cared under different circumstances, but the book was a thousand pages and the hatchet-faced librarian would only issue it to him for an hour.

People never made Scott sick until he got here. Seth; the vulture who snapped up Scott's textbook before he was done; the new mailman who yesterday had laughed in Scott's face. Scott, who'd turned red at the disrespect, almost beat him into the ground. He'd held back because mailman's laughter meant that he was the only person in the world who agreed with Scott that Silverheart Academy was a joke. It really shouldn't be: its halls were the halls of palaces, chiseled from marble; adorned with gold-rimmed portraits of famous Silverheart alumni, and populated, always, with uncommonly talented and earnest people.
   At one in the morning, Scott was the only one walking the halls, and he liked it that way. The uncommonly talented and earnest people at Silverheart made him want to stand outside and scream. Silverheart was a wonderfully prestigious institution that attracted the world's greatest egotists. They came here to be the best. Scott had no issue with ambition, but these kids weren't thinking about graduating top of their class. Everyone assumed, and they didn't have the dignity or the respect to do it privately, that one person amongst them was special. Given the storied history of Silverheart, its escalating tales of student bravery and adventure, they all assumed that one person would break away from the rest of the pack. That someone here had been chosen for a great adventure. Someone with a destiny. A hero. Everyone wanted to be that person.

Though already loosened, the weight of Scott's tie -- a uniform requirement -- became an irritant to him. As he paced down the hall, he dug his fingers into the cloth knot and, after tearing at it unsuccessfully, pulled the whole thing up over his collar and dropped it to the floor. He made a motion to smooth down his tousled hair but decided against it. Scott couldn't stand the self-importance. Or the posturing. Or any of them, so singularly interested as they were in remaking themselves in the image of God. Scott didn't like the attitude; how their presuming to be 'the one' gave them license to treat the rest of the world like objects; accessories to their own grand mission, like they had no will or ambition of their own. As if their only value to the hero was helping him kill grunts, or as a source of cheap sex. Scott didn't like the detached smirk he saw when he talked to them; the look that told him he was already forgotten. Most of all, he didn't like the depths to which they would sink in their attempts at ascension. Scott wasn't sure who they were trying to convince of their significance, but sometimes he had a pretty good idea.

The wall over Scott's right shoulder was bare. Tomorrow, a faculty member would come by to hang up a safety placard detailing evacuation procedures in case of fire. Fire exits would all be marked and the students reminded that they should form an orderly, single-file procession out of the building. Within minutes of the sign's placement, a student would steal and hide it. From their perspective, the real plan was to be the one person absent on assignment while a mysterious dark force raided the academy and burned it to the ground. The student would return, look horrified, and embark upon a quest to avenge the deaths of his classmates. The hypothetical about choosing which friend to save in a fire was not a moral quandary around Silverheart, but a self-contained punchline.

Scott stood outside the office of the resident psychologist, the unusually empty waiting room lit up pretentiously by the moonlight. Students were in and out of this office all day claiming some kind of mental impairment that distinguished them from the rest. It was tough, searching for that very specific aberrant-in-an-heroic-sort-of-way diagnosis. Every day the psychologist would sit there and listen to these kids competing for his attention. They cheerily disowned their parents to claim they were the descendant of a dead god; the last of a tainted bloodline. Some enterprising kids would get the doctor going for ten minutes about eating disorders, then look up in alarm, pretending that they'd lost their memory and couldn't remember what the doctor had just said. They would feign panic attacks, scream and punch the walls, their shirts damp from tears, about how they couldn't remember anything, not even their own name. That was a popular tactic. On this campus, a psych referral for amnesia was like going to the doctor who'd write a prescription for the medical marijuana clinic.

"I operate by a moral code. I make moral choices every day." Scott hadn't checked the mail. "It's the difference between good and evil," someone had told him once, "for instance, if a beggar asks me for one gold, I'm going to give him ten. If I defeat an enemy in combat and he asks for redemption? I'm going to give it to him. If a woman in my company feels an attraction towards me then I'm going to give her professional respect and all the time she needs to make her decision. This is how we make our stand in the fight against evil." Scott hated that. He had sat there listening to that guy, who clearly wanted it so bad. He'd wanted to hit him, wanted to tell him, you're not better than me. He unlocked his mailbox. A letter from his mother. His birth mother, for sure: Scott looked so much like both his unexceptional parents, no one would ever think he was adopted. There was something else in there, a single piece of paper folded in half. "YOU HAVE BEEN CHOSEN," it read -- heart skipped a beat -- "to enjoy low interest rates on your home or boat loan." Scott put both letters back and shut the door.

In his cramped dorm room, the window was wide open, the curtains danced against the wall, and his girlfriend was asleep on the bed. He liked Deanna because she had a smile and didn't care about being any good. Sometimes that was all he needed in a person.
   He decided not to turn the lights on.
   Slowly, Scott walked to her side and lightly put his hand on her shoulder. "Hey," he said, softly shaking her. "hey."
   Deanna stirred a little.
   Scott crouched beside the bed, faces almost touching now. "Hey. Deanna."
   Deanna, frowning, eyelids flickering, let out a grumble that ended in a question mark.
   "Hey," Scott whispered. Staring at her. "I'm special, right?"
   "Yeah, baby," she said, and she rolled back over, nuzzling into the pillow.
   After a minute, Scott stood up and crossed to the far side of the room, where he folded his arms across the windowsill. The breeze touched his face as he held his gaze dead even with the horizon. Then he sunk into a chair and he sat there until morning.

No comments: