veteran freshman

Ten years ago, I taught sophomore creative writing. Two student stories still haunt me to this day.

Fresh out of college, I took a teaching job in a small town in central Wisconsin. In my sophomore creative writing class, I assigned a flash fiction exercise around Halloween. We’d studied urban legends and folklore, and it was the students’ turn to construct stories of their own.

Assignment length: 100-1000 words. Directions: Scare me.

The submission quality was as expected - these were sophomores, after all - but one story stood out halfway through my stack of papers: a piece by a quiet student named Jake. His first person flash fiction story seemed so real…like it was dipped in reality. A little too closely. Almost like he wasn’t making it up, but had been retelling something that happened to him. I put it aside, impressed.

Kate’s submission was the last paper in the stack. I remember the reading experience vividly: the beads of sweat accumulating around my temples, the clickity click of the red pen in my hand, and a weird feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. I placed it on top of Jake’s story, and I thought:

What the hell am I going to do?

I still have photocopies of the original stories, and I often wonder, why do I still have these?
But there is something about them - they are so interconnected, and there is something so raw and beautiful about them. I have a strong affinity for interesting student writing, and it’d be a shame to let the flames of these stories be extinguished.

I’ll share the student pieces, and the subsequent events that transpired, right here - I do enjoy a good story.

Jake’s Flash Fiction

My parents put Grandma Rosie in a home when she started to “lose her grasp on reality,” they said. I still found it cruel. But she seemed content. Content enough, I guess.

I remember visiting her. She had an old, wooden rocking chair that faced the window. Outside was nothing but flat, fields of green. The green would eventually fade, and when it snowed it was carpets of white for miles and miles. I’m not sure which season Grandma Rosie liked the most. She didn’t do a lot of talking. She mainly listened to her radio, and always one station: 89.1.

But 89.1 never had a signal. It was always static. Grandma Rosie listened to this static, all day, seemingly waiting out her life. No one could reach her.

I visited one day to drop off a box of chocolates. Grandma Rosie rocked slowly in her chair with large headphones over her ears, staring out the window, watching the snowfall. I couldn’t tell if she knew I was there. I walked over and placed the chocolates on a small table, and her hand suddenly reached across and snatched my wrist.

“Shhh,” she whispered. “Listen.”

Grandma Rosie leaned in close, and I put my ear to hers. I lifted up the cup of her headphone and listened. There was only static.

I was about to speak, but she covered my mouth with her hand.

“Listen closer,” she said.

I did, but all I heard was more static.

“Soon, they will come,” she said. “They will come to take me away.”

This freaked me out a little, and I went home. I told my mom and dad about what happened, but they didn’t think it was that weird.
I kept thinking about it. One night I couldn’t sleep so I buzzed my friend Abby on our walkie talkies. She lived across the street, and she somehow she knew all about 89.1. She told me it was an old legend in our town, and you needed two things to explore the legend further: a radio, and a closet with the door slightly open. Face away from the closet, tune in to 89.1, and listen very closely. At some point through the static, you’ll hear the faint sounds of an organ, distant screams, and the dragging of metal chains along a gravelly surface. The open doorway is an invitation - keep your eyes closed, and only if you keep your eyes closed - a figure will appear and drag you into the closet. From there, your fate is unknown.

“How do you know this?” I asked.

“I’ve heard about it,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone. The less people that know, the better.” I looked out my window and saw Abby in her bedroom. She put her finger up to her lips.
“This is our secret,” the walkie talkie buzzed.
For the next few days, I kept thinking about the ritual and Grandma Rosie. Why would she be playing this game? Why did she want to be dragged into an unknown fate?

I again told my parents that I was worried about Grandma Rosie. They were very dismissive.

“Ever since Grandpa died, I think she wants to let go,” my mom said. “She wants to be with him.”

I wanted to know more, so I decided to try the game myself. It was late at night, and I opened my closet door just a crack. I sat on my bed with my back to the closet, tuned my radio to 89.1, and put on my headphones. I heard the static, and I closed my eyes.

I sat there for a long time, focusing very hard on the static. The longer I sat there, the more it felt like my room was shrinking. Kind of like the space was filling up with something else, like I wasn’t alone.

In my headphones I heard the distant organ, and I heard the screams that seemed far away, but sounded like they were getting closer. The screeching of the metal began, and then I heard a voice:

“OPEN YOUR EYES!”

I jumped from my bed, very startled. Abby was laughing hysterically through the walkie-talkie. I looked around my bedroom. I was alone. I looked out the window and saw Abby, smiling and giggling. She brought the walkie talkie up to her mouth.

“I totally scared you!” she said. “There’s no one there! You’re such a wuss.”

I noticed the closet door. It was wide open. The static of 89.1 hissed from my headphones.
“I was only joking,” the walkie talkie chirped. But I wasn’t so sure it was a joke.

Grandma Rosie died two weeks later in her sleep. Her time had come. And I was done fooling around with legends and superstitions.
Jake’s story was the most interesting of the bunch. His writing needed some tightening, sure, but the ideas were there: a mysterious legend, sentimental characterizations, and an ambiguous ending. I truly thought he had invented the whole thing, until I read Kate’s submission.

Kate’s Flash Fiction

Panic. Fear. No one would believe me. Not ever.
I told him I was joking. About everything. It helps me sleep at night.

But I know what I saw. A young boy, a ritual, and death. Death itself. A black death with a clutching grip, an entity that surrounds its victim, dragging a companion to its secret and eternal lair.

But I was joking. Joking all along. Which made it okay.

I had to know. Know more. I went to her room. It felt recently vacated, like the plug had just been pulled from a sink. Headphones on the floor…static. Nothing but static.

Noises from the closet. Labored breathing. Fingernails squeaking on the door from the inside. I clutch the handle - something, something else. Something dark. Can’t open it. Won’t open it. Refuse to let it out.

I slowly back away. A tiny voice, squeaking.
Help me.

Static echoing in the small room. Nothing but static. I close the door on my way out. Won’t let it out.

Won’t tell. Will never tell. My story doesn’t exist. It’s simply not there.

It’s nothing but static.

Here I had two, seemingly intertwined stories - Jake’s more traditional folklore story, and Kate’s personalized flash fiction, focusing on emotion, regret and secrets. Perhaps I’d been swimming in urban legends too long, or maybe I’d been the victim of too many horrendous student essays and stories to count, but I couldn’t shake the notion:

This seems real.

A few days after Halloween, I kept Kate after school. I wanted to know more, specifically, was she the Abby character in Jake’s story, and was she confessing to visiting the grandmother in her own piece? I pulled out Kate’s flash fiction, and I asked about how she wrote it. What was her inspiration?

She shrugged. “I guess it’s avant-garde. I was just experimenting with ideas. Did you like it?”
I nodded. It was an interesting piece, I told her.
“Have you ever heard of 89.1?” Kate asked me.
I started to speak, but couldn’t. A few words sputtered out, but were interrupted by Kate’s laughing.

“Oh my gosh, Mr. Patrick, the whole thing was just a joke!”

Kate explained how she and Jake conspired to write multiple viewpoints of the same story, partially as a creative writing exercise, but mainly just to screw with me. The whole thing was made up. It was a Halloween prank.
“We SO got you, Mr. Patrick,” Kate laughed.
I smiled uncomfortably. It was a good one, and yes, they got me. I told her that I enjoyed her piece, lets continue developing your avant-garde writing, and enjoy your Halloween.
But something didn’t feel right.

I had drinks with a veteran, freshman English instructor - me the first-year teacher in a new town, and he the wily, old mentor. I told him about the assignment and the stories Jake and Kate turned in. He laughed, and thought about it a bit more.

“That just seems off,” he said. “You said Jake and Kate conspired to play a joke? They were thick as thieves in my class at the start of the school year, but in the fall they stopped talking. Wouldn’t even look at each other anymore. Had some sort of falling out. I guess they made up.”
For the next few weeks I watched Jake and Kate closely - in my class and in the hallways. They didn’t speak once. Never even looked at each other. I scheduled a story conference with Jake, and I let him know how much I’d enjoyed his growth as a writer, especially his Halloween flash fiction piece. I grinned and told him that his prank with Kate had totally burned me. Jake smiled awkwardly.

“We got you, huh?” he said. “It was Kate’s idea.”

Everything was made up, he claimed. There was no 89.1, and he had no grandmother who passed away in a home. All of the characters and situations were straight, 100% fiction.
I told him good job, and to keep writing.

Still, the situation seemed amiss. Like I was missing part of the act. Was it possible that these two were so committed to screwing with me that they wouldn’t even speak at school? Or maybe they were dating and didn’t want anyone else to know, so they played it cool in the hallways and in class. They were 15-year old kids, after all. That seemed reasonable.
But It was keeping me awake at night. Nothing else mattered. I taught during the day, and I obsessed over the stories in the evening. News, sports, and current events faded to the background. The real world slipped away. I pushed forward.

Armed with a couple of possible last names (thank you, school records) I called senior citizen homes in the area. I was trying to track down my mom’s old friend, Rosie, I told them. Each phone call followed the same script: the receptionist went through the files and found nothing. No one there by either last name I had.
I scoured the internet, and I spent too much time in the stacks of the local library. I found no folklore or urban legends relating to 89.1. And each time I felt like quitting, I pulled out my photocopy of Kate’s story.

She had visited Jake’s grandmother. It simply felt so real - I knew it wasn’t fake.

In a last ditch effort, I spent a lot of time alone in my bedroom, listening to the static of 89.1 with my eyes closed and the door slightly ajar. I’d hone in on the static, and I’d listen deeply and intently for the chimes of the organ, the harsh and troubled screams in the distance, and the clinkity clink of the metal chains. Sometimes I’d think it was there, and I just had to focus a little harder. And I’d sense a presence in my bedroom about to creep out of my closet - the dark mist waiting to drag me away. I wanted it to come, because I wanted this story to be real.
But it didn’t come.

One day at school I saw Jake and Kate smiling and laughing at Jake’s locker. I walked past them, and Kate winked at me.

That was the clincher. I finally succumbed to the notion that I’d been had.

It was over. I ended my search for 89.1. I had drinks again with my colleague - many drinks, this time - and I drunkenly told him everything I’d been doing. He found my investigation ridiculous, and ultimately dangerous.

“You like stories too much,” he said. “If I didn’t know any better, it’s almost like you’re trying to write one of your own. Just let it go.”

I pulled out the photocopied stories from my back pocket, and I pressed them down on the bar, staining them with splashes of beer. My colleague picked up Jake’s story, and he took a look at it for the first time. His eyes skimmed the page - and they stopped, cold.

“Wait,” he said. “You never told me about Abby.”

I shrugged. Abby was Kate, I told him. It was all part of the game.

“I wonder…,” he thought aloud to himself. “Hmm.”

He laid it out for me.

A year ago - about ten months before I moved into town - an eighth grader named Abby had gone missing. Seemingly vanished into thin air. One minute she was alone in her room, and the next minute, she was gone. Some suspected that she ran away, but there were no clues. No evidence of foul play. No suspicious or shady family members or neighbors.

She was simply, gone.

I read Kate’s piece again. My heart sank. The whole time, I assumed it was about her visiting the grandmother. But maybe I was wrong.
Maybe the squeaks and pleas coming from the closet were coming from Abby. Kate never specified who she was visiting or where she was.

I read the avant-garde flash fiction one more time, honing in on every word, just to be sure.
And at that moment, everything changed.
I spoke with the school administration, they contacted the authorities, and the police had conversations with Jake and Kate. It went nowhere. It didn’t matter that Abby had lived across the street from Jake. It didn’t matter that we had words on paper. They were just stories, the kids said. Only stories. Complete fiction. Jake had no grandparents in a home, anyway. They were sorry if they’d scared anyone. They were Halloween stories, after all. And pretty ambiguous stories, at that.

Jake even tearfully apologized for naming a fictional character after a missing girl - it hadn’t crossed his mind.

And I was now the monster for dragging two innocent kids into this mess. The staff ostracized me, and the town crucified me. I was done.

I left the teaching profession soon after that. I walked out of the school holding my small crate of supplies, and Kate smirked at me with a knowing glance through a first floor window. I haven’t seen her since.

I didn’t take much with me, but I did take the photocopies of the stories. I pull them out occasionally and relive the past. And sometimes, late at night, I’ll get a fire in my belly and a burning desire to travel back to that small, Wisconsin town. Maybe Grandma Rosie was a great aunt that Jake’s family referred to as Grandma, or maybe it was an elderly family friend. Maybe I missed something about the missing girl, about 89.1, about Kate’s intentions. Perhaps I can try the ritual a few more times, just to see what happens.

Or maybe it’s just all bullshit.

It was ten years ago. And I’m probably the only one that thinks there’s a shred of truth in those stories.

I’d be wasting my time.

But it still keeps me up at night - the slim chance that it’s all true. And oftentimes the idea of it is something I contemplate more than what really happened to Abby and the grandmother in the story: if it is true, why did the kids write it all down like that?

I don’t have a good answer. I’ll never have one.
I suppose that, just like me, they really just enjoy a good story.