THE WORDS NOT THERE
By: Sara Raymond + Illustration by Sherry Melvin
“All right, guys. Pass your vocabulary sheets in.” Mr. Monniger addressed the dismal 8th grade Language Arts class with a joyless, deadpan tone.
“Get out your green books now, and please turn to page 354.”
Ben scrambled to complete the last entry in his vocabulary worksheet. He was pretty sure that the word pithy did not mean “rectangular in shape,” but he was out of time and it was worth a shot. He handed his paper to Simon and reached for his book in the metal bin beneath his desk.
He brushed a swath of mud colored hair out of his eyes as he arched his back and sat upright. Norah, two rows away, caught his eyes and smiled shyly. Ben considered himself to be charming and good-looking enough, if he could just grow into his face a little bit and find a pair of glasses that didn't reduce his blue eyes to watery pinpricks. Although he was secretly a nerd at heart, he had the gangling yet fine-tuned body of an athlete. Norah was clearly into it, at any rate.
Ben regarded the musty, faded, lime-green textbook as he slapped it onto his empty desk. It was a relic of the 70’s, a testament to a cruelly underfunded English department in a dying school district. The school had of course purchased the proper English textbooks as required by State, but had been limited to only providing each classroom with a pathetic set of four glossy guides to literature and writing. Teachers had been left to supplement this dearth of reading material with their own creative means. Mr. Monniger was lucky enough to inherit a full set of 24 dated editions of “The Young Readers Focused Guide to Short Fiction” from a neighboring town’s defunct library. It was the go-to book for every daily lesson plan.
“The green book,” as they called it, was comprised of 50 short stories, each one written before the sixties by writers no one had ever heard of. Ben nudged the cover open carefully, noting the terrible condition of the spine. The binding was due to fall apart at any moment. None of the students were looking forward to this. The stories contained within the green book were notoriously tedious. Last week, they had read some cruelly pointless story about a man obsessed with growing the perfect lawn. That was it. Fifteen pages of inner monologue while a guy obsessively measured and trimmed his front yard. Riveting.
Mr. Monniger paced the front of the room, hands clasped behind his stooped, wiry frame. The man looked a lot like some version of Mr. Rogers that had been soaked in vinegar and nuked in the microwave for a few minutes.
“Today, we are reading “The Sky Swimmers” by Holly Ebbersol. You know the drill guys. Starting with Ashley, you will take turns reading each paragraph out loud. Follow along, and be ready to read, or you can expect supplementary homework for the story.”
Ben sighed and rolled his eyes. It was going to be a murderously dull afternoon, it seemed. Monniger was famous for days like this. Ben’s friend Trish reached across the aisle and slipped an orange starburst onto his desk. He smiled at her, and she returned a goofy, freckled grin. Ben popped the starburst in his mouth and focused on the story, not wanting to be caught off-guard. Monniger gestured for Ashley to start reading. She daintily cleared her throat and began, “There were five of us that summer. Billy, Kate, Franny, Todd and me. It was a summer that now seems so long ago, but has frozen itself like a crystalline shard of a perfect, glistening memory…”
“Blah, blah, blah...ugh,” Ben whispered to Trish. She shook her head and put a finger to her lips. The story proceeded from student to student, going down the first row, and then the second. Simon gutturally stuttered through his paragraph with great effort. Ben braced for his turn.
“…The b..b..birds flew through the…g..g..grove and shot…upwards.”
Mr. Monniger curtly nodded toward Ben. He cleared his throat and started the short paragraph that was designated as his.
“Into the sky, these birds like fish with shining scales leapt higher and higher into the endless horizon of blood.”
Monniger was quick to correct him, “Blue, Ben.”
Ben blushed, embarrassed to make such an obvious mistake. He returned his eyes to the previous sentence and read it again, “…into the endless horizon of blue.”
He continued, “These birds like fish danced and reveled in the blood. The blood that flows through the hearts of all children and…”
Monniger was annoyed and losing patience, “Blue…it’s BLUE, Ben.”
Ben blinked and studied the page. The blood that flows…
“Mr. Monniger, it says blood, though! I think I have a typo version or something.”
Trish, ever the nosy nelly, leaned across the aisle and sneaked a peak.
“It says blue, Ben…see?” She pointed a cherubic digit at the page…The blue that flows…
Ben felt spooked. He was certain it had said blood before. In fact, he was sure it had read blood the previous time as well. He apologized and rushed to finish the paragraph.
“…the miraculous creatures led us through the forest, winding through brook and mossy slope.”
Ben shut his mouth and buried his head sheepishly into the green book. He removed his glasses and quickly polished the lenses. He located the current sentence in the story and listened along with greater scrutiny. Tom was reading, his round apple face bobbing as he spoke.
“…the creatures had left our sight, but we could still hear the sweet singing of the kindly old woman…”
Ben bolted forward and slammed his hands on the sides of his desk. That was not what his book had read. Not at all. Tom kept reading, but Ben swept back and reread the last sentence. The creatures had fed. We could still hear the sweet screams of the old woman. Ben waved for Trish’s attention and all but slammed the book in her face, pointing to the sentence that he had just underlined. She just shrugged and silently motioned him away. Ben angrily withdrew and checked the book again. The sentence had changed. It now matched what Tom had read aloud, word for word.
A few minutes later, it happened again. Sindi had read, "Thick vines of twining ivy cascaded down the side of the little cottage. Pots of fragrant herbs sat, propped up in neat little rows."
Ben scrutinized his warped version of the passage. Thick ropes of rotten intestines cascaded down her side. Corpses sat, propped up in rows, crows pecking lovingly at the feast of carrion.
The words in his book were all wrong. The mistakes were getting steadily worse
A cold shiver ran down the length of Ben’s spine. “What the crap?!” he silently mouthed as he rubbed his eyes and continued reading along. Trish began her paragraph. She was describing a flower garden or something. It was hard for Ben to pay attention. The paragraph he was looking at nowhere remotely matched what Trish was reading. He leaned in closer and scanned the passage with a growing sense of trepidation.
The flesh and sinew lay strewn across the meadow as if vile cyclopean vultures had fastidiously shred whatever beings dared to cross the rotten field. Cries of agony echoed in the distance as the fading sun cowered behind the impending darkness. We are lost and without hope, as you soon shall be too.
Ben slammed his book shut. He was certain that no one else was seeing the same words. A quick glance showed a room full of bleary eyed kids bored out of their minds. Mr. Monniger slowly turned and began to pace back toward his side of the classroom. Ben quickly flipped his book open again but firmly covered the text with his hands, trying not to glance at the few words that were peeking out from between his fingers
Mr. Monniger was uncomfortably close to Ben’s desk. He was an infamously strict teacher and all the kids knew when it came to discipline, he wasn’t playing around. Ben removed his hands and bowed his head low, keeping his eyes shut. He decided he only needed for this stupid freaky story to end, and then he would switch books with Simon tomorrow. Ben lost track of time; he had been blocking out the voices of his peers. The low grunts of meathead Simon meant his turn was next. Ben gritted his teeth. He knew that if he refused to read aloud it would be a surefire detention sentence. He opened his eyes and blinked.
Everything on the page was banal pastoral descriptions. Flowers and birds. Butterflies floating over pleasant ponds. Ben considered the possibility that maybe he needed a new glasses prescription. Maybe he had just seen one too many late night horror flicks. Mr. Monniger abruptly disrupted his contemplation.
“Your turn, Ben. Go on.”
Ben took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He placed the flat of his hand directly below the first sentence in the paragraph.
“We found Billy behind the great apple tree. He was sleeping peacefully in a soft bed of dandelions,” He began with a quavering voice. It seemed harmless so far. He squinted his eyes and continued, willing the words to remain in this innocent state.
“The bright warmth of the summer sun embraced us as we flopped down beside him, sinking into the soft, shimmering fluff of the dandelions.” The words seemed to pulse and darken. Ben continued to read as if in a trance. The words escaped his lips before he had a chance to register that the ink beneath him was swirling, blinking into different arrangements.
“I propped up on an elbow and leaned over Billy. He had grown so pale, so cold; his skin was starting to flake off in grayish patches. His peaceful visage seemed to twitch and shudder. A torrent of pulsating worms poured forth from his ears, his nose, his mouth. He had been dead for weeks. The flood of worms surrounded him and…”
“That is ENOUGH, Ben!” Mr. Monniger loomed over the desk, beet red nostrils flaring, a look of apparent disgust on his sagging face. “Take your book and finish the story in the hall; we will talk after class.”
Uncomfortable silence flooded the room, but it was hard for Ben to feel anything other than relief. He awkwardly apologized to Monniger, who responded only with a contemptuous grunt and a hand waved toward the door. Ben gathered his belongings, reluctantly picked up the book and exited the room.
He plunked himself down in the vast gray hallway and slapped the green book against the floor, leaving a wide berth between it and him.
Time clicked by with agonizing slowness. Ben stared at a grayish blue tile inches in front of his left foot. Curiosity tickled the back of his mind and after a few more minutes he scrambled for the green book and flipped it open. He shrank against the wall in horrified fascination. The story had seemingly warped and stretched. The happy summer story about children and magical creatures bore no resemblance to this new, unexplainable revision. Ben flipped back to the beginning of the tale. Only the title remained the same. “The Sky Swimmers.” Everything beneath that had become a twisted splatter-fest. Cascading paragraphs describing horrific scenes of death and decay leapt from the pages and burned into the young boy’s mind. Ben was shaken, but he reminded himself that he had always liked scary stuff and tried his best to shrug it off.
Franny handed me the knife, curved inward with a wicked flanged blade. She peered at me through wide, hollow eyes as she tried to speak. Blood dribbled and frothed from her lips as she produced a choked croaking sound. She had amputated her tongue in a joyous fervor only moments before. I tilted my head back and pressed the blade against the soft pallid flesh of my inner elbow. The dark beings trapped within my blood pushed outward, straining for release. I cut slowly, enjoying the pain as it blossoms through me. The inky creatures escaped from the slit in my skin, spilling into the air with my blood.
“Jesus Christ! What the crap?!” Ben’s voice echoed down the corridor. He sat transfixed by the letters before him that now seemed to be freely floating, swaying eerily on the page. He skipped ahead, skimming the gruesome passages until at last, his eyes snapped to one lone sentence at the bottom of the page.
The boy who is reading this now, cowering in the gray corridor, the doomed inheritor of this endless nightmare, draws closer to the darkness, the inescapable end.
Ben instinctively ripped the page from the book, crumpled into a ball and threw it against the wall.
“This--this is bullshit! I am DONE with this!”
The bell pealed loudly. Ben frantically grabbed his backpack and hopped up, pausing to turn and forcefully kick the sinister textbook down the hall. From behind him, pushing through the rapid current of students, Mr. Monniger cleared his throat. He silently walked past Ben and picked up the book. He turned on his worn loafers and handed the book out to Ben, expectantly.
“Due to your outburst in class today, you unfortunately missed the pop quiz that concluded the lesson. You are going to finish that story, Ben. I don't think I need to remind you that your grade in my class has been falling perilously close to failing these past weeks. I will generously give you one night to make up the quiz by writing a two-page essay on the main theme of ‘The Sky Swimmers.’”
Subdued and defeated, Ben took the book and shoved it into his backpack. Monniger leaned in and lowered his voice, “I don’t know what all that was about, Ben, but I can tell you seem to be going through something. Just get it together, kid. If you fail to hand in that essay tomorrow, it will result in three days of detention.”
Ben swallowed and nodded. What could he say? Any explanation he could provide would sound like mockery or madness. So he lowered his head and slinked away. He spent the bus ride home in a glossy daze. As the trees and rows of houses flashed by his window, Ben couldn’t shake the images of crows and carrion, worms and decaying, peeled skin. He stumbled off the bus and bolted for his house. Up the stairs he flew, into his room. With the door slammed behind him, he flung himself onto his bed and buried his face in his pillow. Ben dozed off as the sun inched out of sight.
“Ben! Dinner!” He snapped awake at his mother’s summons.
“Dangit! The essay,” Ben lamented as the trials of the day swarmed his mind. He soundlessly sulked downstairs and slurped a shallow bowl of beef and sweet potato stew. His mother flitted around the kitchen and stopped only briefly to ruffle his hair. She was oblivious to the air of palpable dread that hung over her son. Ben dumped his bowl into the sink with the other dirty dishes and retreated back to his room. He opened a blank document on his laptop and tentatively placed the green book on his desk. He typed a heading and title, then turned and hovered his hand over the book, working up the courage to open it one last time.
He flipped it open and landed somewhere in the middle of the tale. The children were picking wild strawberries and attempting to feed them to birds. Ben knew better than to allow himself to be caught off guard.
“Yeah, right, ‘Sky Swimmers’…strawberries…” He groaned sarcastically, “…probably will turn into blood and guts or something. Too easy.”
He flipped the page to reveal a full-page black and white illustration of rosy-cheeked children laughing in a wooded clearing. A feeling of unease rolled about in the pit of Ben’s stomach.
“Shit. Not pictures, too?”
As if in response to his thought, the ink on the page swirled darkly. The picture became a grisly scene. One little girl lay in the dirt screaming, while a boy pinned her down. Another girl kneeled beside her with a curved blade gripped in both hands, poised high, about to plunge into the exposed stomach of her helpless, screaming victim. A fourth child, impossible to say if boy or girl, lay discarded to the right side, a bloody pile of gore and viscera. The grinning faces of the girl and boy disturbed Ben more than anything else. The same rosy-cheeked faces, filled with insane sadistic glee.
His phone rang, startling him. He shut the book and dove to answer it.
“H—uh—hullo?” he panted breathlessly.
“So, what the crap was all that about in Monniger’s class?”
It was Trish. Ben was relieved to hear her confident, cheery voice.
“Oh, hey Trish! Yeah…uh,” Ben immediately realized that the shifting horror story was not something he would ever feel comfortable sharing with anyone. He evaded with ease, “Man…I was just joking around. I was so bored and that story sucked balls, y’know?”
Trish laughed, “Omigod, yeah, that one taught me the true meaning of ‘dull.’ That was kinda freaky though, dude. Ashley thinks you’re the Antichrist or something now, haha! Did you get into big trouble?”
Ben explained to her the scolding from Monniger and the essay he now found himself burdened to complete, then got an idea.
“So…what was that story about, anyway? I forgot to bring the green book home. Help me out?”
His old friend related a story about children getting lost in a forest and discovering some sort of magical creature.
“…so in the end the fish-bird things were really just these miniature kites that the old woman had made. Why do all these old stories always end in disappointment?”
Ben was anxious to get off the phone now. “Man, thanks, Trish, but I really gotta go now. It’s already eight and I’ve got to get this dumb essay over with.”
“No problem!” Trish paused for a moment, then responded thoughtfully, “Y’know though, you should just google the theme of the story, or find like, an interview with the author or something. Anyway, bye Ben! See ya tomorrow.”
Ben set his phone down and faced the white, glowing screen of his laptop. It beckoned to him. He leaned in close and whispered, “Okay, Holly Ebbersol, what the hell is your deal?”
Two quick searches on separate tabs of his browser revealed a scholarly synopsis of “The Sky Swimmers” and a website dedicated to the author. The Holly Ebbersol site had painted a brief picture of a lonely, reclusive, underappreciated 30’s-era woman. Ben breezed through the synopsis just long enough to find mentions of a main theme. He decided to settle on innocence as the main point for the essay. It seemed standard and simple. He closed that tab and was about to do the same for the biographical website when he noticed the bold, red hyperlink near the top of the screen. It read The Tragedy Surrounding “The Sky Swimmers.” Ben tensed up and clicked the link. The article described a failing female writer slowly descending into madness. An interview with Ebbersol’s editor explained:
She became more and more withdrawn into a macabre fantasy world. It wasn’t until we were working on a revision of “The Sky Swimmers” that I finally realized that she had become completely volatile and dangerous. I remember her storming into my office, screaming unintelligibly at me and waving a crumpled revision of the manuscript in my face. She was shaking and had that gaunt, dark-eyed look of someone who had not slept in days. She was raving about words changing, screaming, “This is NOT the story I wrote! Don’t you see it!?” She would talk about passages that had mysteriously changed and point them out to me, but I never saw whatever it was she saw. She sat there spouting obscene descriptions of murder and bodily harm. This mysterious “other” story she claimed was taking over her book. It was meant to be a novel, you know. But after what happened, I just polished what we had and retooled it as a short story. It’s what she would have wanted.
Then, following the interview, the website detailed the grim ending of Holly Ebbersol.
“The Sky Swimmers” would be her final literary contribution. Holly spiraled deeper into madness and depression, completely abandoning her writing. On October 26, 1939 she was discovered dead, having hung herself in her room. We will get you too, Ben.
The light from his laptop screen flickered. Individual pixels winked and sputtered.
Ben held his breath for nearly half a minute, stifling a scream. He flipped his laptop shut and, for extra measure, unplugged it from the wall. His eyes floated toward the book laying a foot away. There was pure evil emanating from those pages, and he had had enough. In a surge of panic, he swept it up and flew downstairs into the den. It was a chilly evening, and he could smell the smoke from the fireplace. Without hesitation, he threw the book into the roaring autumn fire and watched with relief as the pages blackened and curled. Wisps of ash drifted up, hopefully purging whatever demons had lived within that nightmarish tome of horror.
He slept in the den that night, but not before hastily scrawling a lackluster two-page essay on loose-leaf notebook paper. He knew it was a C at best, but it would at least clear him of detention and save his grade in Monniger’s class. He struggled to pay attention in school the next day, but managed to make it all the way through to Language Arts without a hitch. Mr. Monniger greeted him sternly at the door. Before the teacher could question him, Ben held out his two-page report, relieved that the entire ordeal was finally over.
Mr. Monniger idly accepted the essay, and then glanced down. His jaw dropped. Ben was attempting to slide past the door to his desk when Mr. Monniger called out, “Ben! Get back here!”
Something in the sound of Monniger’s voice filled Ben with immediate panic. He steeled himself and turned around.
“Do you think this is funny? Is failing funny? You will be getting detention and an F for the quiz grade, you can be sure of that. You can expect a call to your mother…” Monniger continued his verbal assault, spitting at Ben with apparent disgust. The words were lost on Ben. He could only focus on the two pages Monniger was waving spastically. There was something horribly wrong with this situation. Ben lunged at his teacher and snatched his essay back. His hands trembled violently as he poured over the two pages. One was nothing more than a single question repeated, front and back, crudely scrawled in black ink.
Won’t you join us, Ben?
The second page was a drawing of a dead woman hanging from a noose in a 30’s-era dress.
Ben’s jaw slowly lowered in a silent scream. The blood drained from his face. He looked up at Mr. Monniger with tears beginning to leak from the corners of his eyes.
“But…that's not what I wrote…”