Choices define character.
Eldon couldn’t remember where he had heard that, but it meant little until a warm night in September, sitting with four friends at a table in the Student Union. Dr. Reese had assigned the composition of a Bach chorale, and Eldon complained good-naturedly as he pulled out several music theory texts and notebooks. They bought coffee and muffins, scattering their iPods about. It took a good ten minutes for everyone to settle down.
Everyone but Autumn.
She sat staring down at her open book, her long auburn hair falling forward as though to curtain her face. As the group conversed, Autumn was as disconnected from them as she was in class, where most days she appeared almost comatose. Eldon wasn’t sure why or how she had agreed to meet here that evening, or even who invited her.
He worked steadily, and before long thoughts of her were lost amongst chords and cadences.
“…and I can feel them rising, interlocution and the month of May. The sheep say ‘baa’ but I’m not ‘blah,’ I’m rather interesting, thank you very much…”
The group fell silent. Eldon blinked up at them. They were staring at Autumn, who continued: “You can see the master, but only when the tide opens, and I’m opening up, up and away with all of you.” Her eyes were vacant, fixed on her book, only rising to stare at them with a chilling question. “Have you ever killed anyone?”
Todd lurched back in his chair. Mary looked down at her hands, and Jim stared at Autumn with distaste. He was the first to speak. “I told you, Mary, I heard her saying these crazy things before. Do you believe me now?”
“Maybe we should go,” Todd suggested, reaching for his stack of books. “Yeah, let’s go. Library?”
Mary and Jim agreed and began packing up as well.
Although she had ceased her stream of unsettling words, Autumn seemed not to have heard Jim or Todd. She folded her arms and hunched forward, rocking back and forth.
“Hey, hold on,” Eldon said. “Are you sure we should just leave her here?”
“Dude, just come on,” Todd pleaded. “This chorale’s due in a week.”
Eldon’s hands were shaking but he answered, “I know, but…this just doesn’t seem right.”
Jim shrugged. “Suit yourself.” And they left.
Eldon could think of a million better things to do than stay with pale, muttering Autumn, but when he saw the desperation in her face, he felt convicted.
Swallowing with difficulty, he croaked, “Um…Autumn?”
Her rocking slowed, and she looked up at him with large, gray eyes. “Have you ever killed anyone?” she asked again.
His heart raced. “No,” he answered gently, “I haven’t.”
“I have. Whole populations, with just my thoughts. They want to kill me.”
Eldon’s arms were lined with stiff hairs; he even felt the tiny ones on the back of his neck start to prickle. “Who does, Autumn?”
“The creatures in the walls. They’ve walled me in, but I’m in here, no cheers, just forty-eight years, beers, Sears, jeers.”
“Autumn,” Eldon said, leaning forward slightly. “Is there someone we need to call? A friend, or a doctor?”
She nodded right away, tears in her eyes. “Yes, Dr. Forsythe. He’ll know what to do.”
Eldon took a long breath, closed his eyes for a moment in fevered prayer, and then said, “Alright then. Let’s call Dr. Forsythe.”
It would be weeks before she found a way to tell him what was wrong, and in that time Eldon learned how much she needed a friend. She sheltered in quiet, lonely places and could hide out for hours, sometimes days in her apartment. Now, he was by her side. He marveled at the strength she possessed to fight for lucidity; he listened as she confessed to a reality that was forever slipping through her grasp. On a chilly fall afternoon, as they sat on a bench across from the music hall, Autumn leaned her head on his shoulder and whispered the truth: schizophrenia.
“Are you going to leave me now?” she asked plaintively.
A few of their classmates passed, and Eldon watched their furtive glances, the way they shook their heads, the way they whispered. He’ll end up crazy like her.
Eldon put his arm around her shoulders. “No, Autumn,” he said. “No, I won’t leave you.”
“…I was sick and you looked after me…” ~ Matt. 25:36
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