“The String” by Victor Ladis Schultz was first published in failbetter.
Herman Bloch was the first to fall ill, though back then we thought him merely overcome with grief. His niece had been killed. That awful business in Delaware. Sweet girl passing notes in class. Small mercy: she was the first victim. Never even saw the shooter, classmates say. Never felt a thing, we hope.
We were shocked for maybe ten minutes, not so much because a resident’s niece had died–however suddenly or tragically or violently–as because she had brought on us, a small-town nonplace out west, the hungry condoling eye of the entire republic. When the eye flitted to the next victim’s backstory, we reacted as infants passed from strange hands back to our mothers. The tension left our bodies. Best to forget all that. There there.
Herman tried to forget too. When he left town for the funeral he was still struggling to put on a brave face, but by the time he returned he looked rejuvenated. Reborn, almost. Bloch taught music at our middle school, and before long the children started to leak accounts of some truly bizarre songs in class: glacial dirges, no melody or dissonance, words that were foreign or nonsensical, possibly extraterrestrial, and sung only by Bloch. His interactions with the faculty raised as many eyebrows. His first week back, when the social studies teacher accused him of stealing her lunch, Bloch marched her straight to the faculty lounge, opened the fridge, and pointed out that he had eaten everyone’s lunch, not just hers, and what made hers so special anyway since she hadn’t even buttered the bread on her ham-Swiss? The principal let this pass with a verbal admonishment; grief can make us not ourselves. But when, one morning the following week, the custodian unlocked the school only to find Bloch asleep on a drop cloth in the gymnasium, the signature cerulean-and-gold walls now cozied by an almost comically gentle shade of pink, the superintendent had no choice but to place Bloch on administrative leave.
Administrative leave turned into psychiatric care. Bloch was a confirmed bachelor, lived alone. A neighbor found him catatonic in his own living room. He had fouled his clothes. Hadn’t eaten in days, certainly. His medical record showed no history of manic depression, no history of anything.
The professionals in the psychiatric ward performed admirably. Bloch’s body was on the mend within a couple of days, but the most dramatic transformation took place in his personality. Gone was the hyperactive vandal, gone the bandleader from Mars. In their place stood Herman Bloch as he had been before the tragedy–but better. Colleagues who visited him noted a more patient temper and a subtler sense of humor. Most unmistakable was what seemed a newfound erudition, a certain but unpretentious knowledge of things that had once happened in the world. Current events too. At first we assumed he just had a lot of extra time to read the internet while he was in hospital care. Only when he began making equally certain pronouncements about the future did we take pause.
Take heed, he said. The Harvest Festival will be canceled this autumn.
Take heed, he said. The snows this winter will be our worst yet.
For old Margot Belcher he had bigger news: Take heed, he said. Mrs. Belcher will have a son seventeen months hence, on the 21st of December.
Margot had never spoken to Bloch in her whole life. The doctors held him for further testing.
Not long after that the spree shooting at Ida happened. The casualty figures weren’t as high, of course, but imagine our surprise when one of the dead turned out to be the Cruz boy from over on Juniper Street. He had grown up here and then gone on to make something of himself. His family still lived in town: parents, a couple sisters. Good tight circle of friends. College kid, they’d called him, but never fancy college kid. Afterward he moved to Michigan to teach high school. History.
His mother, Maria, was the first Cruz to lose it. Tried to bury herself in her own backyard, middle of the night. His father, Eugenio, checked her into the hospital just in time for his own spell the next morning. Drove his jeep at speed right into the war memorial in the town square. When witnesses dragged him uninjured from the wreckage, they found he was soaked and naked, as if he’d jumped straight from the shower into the car. The Cruzes shut down quicker than Bloch had. Just a week after we heard about Ida, all four of them were glassy eyed in the hospital. Worse yet, the daughters’ families started to act up. One of their sons built a ham radio, then initiated a series of broadcasts comprising only epic screeds against individuals whose names no one had ever heard–not the boy’s father, not his siblings, not his few nonplussed listeners, not the deputy who visited the home just before the boy fell catatonic and joined his mamá and abuelos in the psychiatric ward. A few days later, the father sneaked off his job as a hunting guide. Stranded a few tourists in the hills. They were lucky to get out alive. He turned up the next week, bearded over and draped in the furs of recently slain mammals. We housed him with his family.
We had to cancel the Harvest Festival that fall. A slew of venders had dropped out unexpectedly.
We suffered through record snowfalls that winter. The trucks ran out of salt by January.
Margot Belcher learned she was pregnant that spring. She had a December due date.
We asked Bloch how he could have possibly known these things. He credited his muse.
The next school shooting was that little academy in St. Louis. The dead gunman had good grades. When police identified him as the grandson of Frankie Metcalf, a lawyer who lives here, we started to panic. When the Cruzes and their kin began making predictions–Take heed, they said–we called an emergency council. Had to use the school’s gymnasium to hold everyone. The room gave off a febrile buzz and the walls seemed to be moving but they weren’t. Mayor Ford had a frog in his throat. His first words into the microphone sounded like a burr looks:
Ladies, gentlemen, this is what we know at this time.
What we knew was that eventually somewhere else would notice. Phones would ring, questions, questions, questions. Word of the sick would get out. We would become a case series. We came to an agreement: we would quarantine ourselves. No one in, no one out–it was the responsible thing to do and only what the republic would’ve done anyway. Meanwhile, perhaps the string, as we’d come to call the phenomenon, would break. Perhaps the next time a psychopath chambered a hollow point in study hall, none of us would lose anyone. Perhaps the sick would heal and life could be something familiar again.
Around the time Metcalf began talking of things to come, we heard about the next rampage. Oregon high school. Casualties were light: a few wounded, just one dead, just a footnote in the broadcasts. The one fatality was cousin to Mora Lee, our treasurer.
The Cruzes’ predictions were starting to bear fruit. Eugenio largely contented himself with the temperatures and tidal activity near the Puget Sound and the Sea of Cortez forty-two days hence, but Maria, it is known, accurately foretold the assassination of the governor down to the minute and caliber of bullet.
The ramifications multiplied quickly; one death often laid low several households. Soon no room remained in the psychiatric ward, then no room remained in any ward. No matter, as too many of the hospital staff had become patients for the facility to operate. For everyday maladies, healing happened at home, or not at all. Teaching too: the school was now a storehouse for oracles. Few lucid students and still fewer teachers had remained once the hospital reached maximum capacity, so we designated the middle school to house the excess ill.
Maria eventually became a pillar among them. The school had been her idea. Your farsight is a gift, she said, and instructed the gifted on its use. She urged her husband to cast about for visions of greater substance. She gave tell of natural disasters and morbidity rates and secret nascent rebellions in lands whose names appear on maps but sounded fanciful on her tongue. All came to pass, and as more time passed the string grew unchecked:
Uintah High, Vernal, Utah–our bank manager’s niece.
Live Oak Elementary, Lafayette, La–our sheriff’s great nephew.
Appleton North, Appleton, Wis–our barber’s cousin’s son.
Memorial High, McAllen, Tex–our principal’s sister.
Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC–our baker’s daughter.
Thus did we begin preparing our own bread.
I was the last. Blood all over the country: they all ignored me. Kept their young in school. In the end the fated was my own son. Junior-high basketball game outside Cleveland. South Central Trojans vs Monroeville Eagles. My son played forward for the Eagles. My ex-husband had custody but never went to the games. By the time everyone’s ears stopped ringing the only two people left alive on the court were the mascots.
I leave the maternity ward. No one here but far off I can hear a woman screaming. I have an appointment elsewhere. Feel my way down the stairs to the lobby. Its stillness and gloaming. Its broken doors and aquarial windows. Anyone could see in from out there, if there were anyone.
Out into the street where Mr. Orozco used to stand crossing-guard before his niece fell victim to a maniac in algebra class downstate. No cars, no people, the streetlights haven’t come on yet. Still the screaming endless and thin.
So it’s not from the hospital then. Outdoors the direction is impossible to pinpoint. The scream bears the by-now unremarkable intensity of the tortured. You can’t unhear it but so what. The volume here sounds the same as it did in the maternity ward. I am clothed, I notice for the first time.
I do not stop at my house. No need. Nor do I check in on my neighbors: I was the last. As I push eastward, downtown, the pitch does not waver, the shriek does not fade. Here our own manias have left their mark. On one lot stands a spacious lodge built of naked mannequins. Up the street the church’s siding has been stripped and its awing stained glass boarded up: God’s work, the pastor said, over and over, after he lost his youngest brother.
Farther on, the bank’s roof has crumpled under the weight of a fallen cell tower. I stop. I can remember the mannequins and the church and the others, the messages left in the street or the acres of weathervanes planted like steel soy. The fires. I cannot remember the bank. The wind wheezes through the rubble. The scream eats the wheeze. One is of the throat, one of the earth, but which of which? This must have been my work then. I was the last.
At the edge of town, the exodus has begun. Maria directs. We need you, she says. I take my place at the rear. Massed thus we look like many, but the roads are many more that will peel us off the parade, one by one, carry the seers to the extremities of the republic. Surely at the end of such byways waits a host with a long memory for names.
Take heed. Years on, the fall of cities. Man, hunter. Woman, hunter. Child, hunter. Each by his own hand fed or slain. Then, the rising forth: rivers, reservoirs, seafloors. Man becomes fish once again, and woman summons him, and child summons him. They swim as one school, surge as one, as though bound by a single voice unvoiced. Sing, goddess, the anger of our sons.
Victor Ladis Schultz is a writer whose short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Third Coast, Confrontation, and other fine publications. By day he works as a copyeditor for a trade journal near Chicago. By night he works on a novel. Follow him on Twitter, where he tweets out minor quotations by major writers.
Image: Flickr / ashokboghani