A Mute with a Megaphone
by Shane Fraser
The first day of school is nerve-wracking for anyone of any age. For Hunter Smith, a sufferer of social anxiety, it felt like suicide.
After finishing high school with respectable grades but poor attendance, Hunter delayed going to university solely out of fear. He stayed at his parents’ house for that year, spending most of his time in his room playing video games and watching movies. He worked as a cashier at one point, but quit after only two months—again, out of fear. The fear stemmed from the anxiety, but where the anxiety stemmed from he didn’t know. All he knew was that it started in his teens.
Anxiety was a covert thing with Hunter. He didn’t let it be known to many, and was able to conceal it quite well as long as he wasn’t forced to speak. When he spoke he was always hyper aware of the words he chose, his insufficient or excessive eye contact, and his involuntary movements, much to his detriment. He always left the conversation analyzing the things he did wrong, the things he could’ve done right, and the numerous hypothetical ways he unsettled the converser, and this would drive him to break. When he broke, it was always internally, so Hunter was regarded simply as shy, both by his peers and his parents.
With his parents’ patience waning at his perceived laziness, Hunter applied for university in the spring. He only had to submit a form online, so it wasn’t hard and didn’t feel real. When he found out he was accepted, the notice was sent to him through the mail, so it wasn’t hard and didn’t feel real. When he realized he would have to move to the neighboring city, his dad found him an apartment through his real estate company, so it wasn’t hard and didn’t feel real. When he moved in, he didn’t have to talk to anyone, so it wasn’t hard and didn’t feel real.
Reality struck three days before class. He had moved a week earlier, and was content spending that downtime playing video games and watching movies uninterrupted. When he checked his fees online, and saw a newly-added list of textbooks he was required to buy, was when he started to panic. Buying those books would mean driving through the yet mapped out campus in an attempt to find the bookstore amongst throngs of unfamiliar people doing the same. And entering said bookstore, which would doubtlessly be packed with hundreds—if not thousands—of excited students who had just seen the same post, would be like wriggling through a field of locusts.
Hunter couldn’t do it. Every time the topic rendered in his mind, it would lock him down, and the only key was to stop thinking about it. He could control its exit but not its entrance, so the thought continued to torment him until he decided against going…yet. ‘Yet’ was always the optimal word—he never used ‘never’, although it usually proved to be the correct choice. He was convinced that he could delay purchasing the books until after class had started. That way he could familiarize himself first to alleviate the stress of having to find the bookstore and walk amongst the people; he would already be acclimated. Also, he thought he wouldn’t need textbooks for the first classes, figuring that they would consist of introductory remarks and course outline reviews. This did not solve the issue of how he would will himself to class, and this problem replaced the one concerning the books.
He thought of alcohol. The few times he had consumed alcohol he transformed into the person he wanted to be. He became outgoing, talkative, funny, and everybody seemed to like him. No one was uncomfortable talking to him, and he wasn’t uncomfortable talking to them. The only thing that kept him from adopting the bottle permanently was his fear of alcoholism. Its effects had been in his mind and his life since childhood. He thought it was better to be nervous and sober than drunk and confident—until he came to university, where a person does not exist without others.
The plan was forged. There was a small liquor store only two blocks away from his complex. He would go tomorrow morning, when there would certainly be no foot traffic. He would buy the largest bottle of hard liquor in the store, along with a couple bottles of soda to mix. He knew from prior experience that it does not take much alcohol to affect him; he hypothesized that about a third of a tall glass would make him comfortable. He would fill his tall glass-sized travel mug with the mix and take it with him to school. He was afraid of driving drunk, so he couldn’t drink before he left. It would be when he had parked that he would chug the cocktail, just as a person would quickly finish their coffee. He would then go to each class a changed man, a stronger man, a better man. He had no intention of making this a routine. Hunter thought once he established himself, his whereabouts, and his peers, he would no longer be scared. It was the unknown that most worried him, and as soon it was revealed, his sober self could take over. He could coast off that initial high for the rest of the semester.
He drove to the store at the planned time. No one was inside except for the attendant, and Hunter paid for the liquor and soda without making eye contact. He returned to his apartment and made his first mix, to be absolutely sure he would have the right measurements to get inebriated for school tomorrow; enough to be calm and uninhibited but not enough to be mentally impaired. He needed to be able to see the board, to take notes, and to retain information. He couldn’t stumble or fumble—he had to function properly. He needed to be an inconspicuous drunk, for he was going to have to hide it from the entire university populace.
He filled the glass a third of the way with vodka and covered it with lemonade. He took it all down in about five minutes, with coughs and winces separating the sips. It started hitting him halfway through the glass, and after slurping the final drops, he felt it in all its potency: a perfect euphoria. He tested himself with the methods he had seen on TV—walking in a straight line, standing on one leg, reciting the alphabet backwards—and aced each one. Then he played video games for a half an hour, and his performance did not differ from when he was sober. After viewing his score, he turned off the game and sat back in his chair. He sat still and absorbed the intoxicants with a smile, as fear separated from reality.
The majority of the high had dissipated three hours later, which was perfect for Hunter, as he had three hours’ worth of classes tomorrow. Upon sobering up, he gathered what he needed for school—notebooks, laptop, pens, pencils, and the like—and packed them away. He studied his schedule and campus map, memorized building locations and room numbers, and stuck them in his backpack with the others. He went to bed early and slept peacefully, for he had found his safety blanket.
The morning came. He filled the travel mug and put the lid on, threw his backpack over his shoulders, and carried both out the door. After pulling out of his parking space and turning onto the freeway, he started thinking. The thoughts came, and the nerves followed. They increased in ferocity with every block he moved closer. He saw the campus emerge over the hill and his heart raced. He saw the people lining the streets, bags and books in tow, headed for school. He saw the tremendous queue of cars waiting to turn, and through his transfixion he nearly missed joining it. Two light changes later he was on one of the main campus roads and headed towards the Life Sciences building—or where he estimated it was. Every thirty seconds he had to stop as students crossed from parking lots to buildings and vice versa. At the first three student crossings he was many cars deep, but at the fourth one he was the first to stop as a gaggle of undergrads ambled across. A girl in the group looked at him and he looked down. After she passed, he wondered what was so wrong with his appearance that warranted a glare. He heard a loud honk and realized that he had not moved, so he accelerated at a speed unacceptable for the area and conditions, just to appease the driver behind him. This resulted in him clambering violently over a speedbump, which rearranged the contents of his car. The mug toppled out of the cup-holder and onto the passenger side floor, where it rolled under the seat.
More panicked than he ever thought possible, he prayed for solace in the Life Sciences parking lot. After many U-turns and incorrect lot entrances he found it, though it took over five minutes to procure a space. Upon parking, he read the clock and almost threw up. He had seven minutes to down his drink and get to class—a class in a room he still needed to find. He unbuckled himself and retrieved the mug from underneath the seat. Luckily the lid held firm. He unscrewed the lid with shaking hands and lifted it to his lips. He coughed and shook but continued draining the mug, and in only two minutes’ time, it was empty.
He returned the mug to its holster and took a packet of mint gum out of his pocket. He deposited two pieces into his mouth, returned it to his pocket, and retrieved his backpack from the rear seat. It settled onto his shoulders and he left the car.
It was as if the sharp edges of reality were rounded—rounded by a blur in his peripheral vision, which extended to his entire consciousness. He wasn’t seeing out of his own eyes anymore, instead he was living in third person point of view. No longer the subject, just the spectator. He could view the world in its entirety, unconscious of the fact he was in it.
He walked through the parking lot and regarded the layout of the campus for the first time. It was beautifully designed; Hunter smiled in its presence—he felt honored to behold it. As he walked on, he breathed the detoxified air—so different than downtown, he observed. He joined a group of fellow students at the crosswalk, who were all two dimensional—not physically but emotionally. He understood them—all—as he understood himself. They weren’t complicated; they were just like him, trying to figure out life and what to do with it. They were scared, excited, overwhelmed, lonely, and anxious. Many of them were from other cities, even other countries. They didn’t know anybody either, and were hoping to form relationships—social, romantic, and working—that might last a lifetime. University was the place for that. Like-minded people in a like-minded environment—thousands of them. Hunter was overjoyed to be sharing the same experience with the people at the crosswalk.
The light changed and they walked across. He followed their gait past the marble sign and towards the impressive doors of the Life Sciences buildings. The group separated once inside, as each person hunted for their respective rooms up and down corridors and flights of stairs, like various stages of Algernon towards the cheese. Hunter was only vaguely searching for his. He was too busy cataloging each image that manifested in his brain. As the herd of fascinating people thinned, and the architecture became monotonous, Hunter switched focus and thought of the room number. Noticing all the rooms in his vicinity began with the number five—indicating the floor number—he turned into a stairwell and ascended to the proper floor. Once on six, he following the odd numbers towards the end of the hall, where he found a match.
The door was closed. He opened it and a giant classroom, thirty rows deep, came into being. He looked for a seat that wasn’t occupied and found one adjoining an aisle next to a particularly attractive girl. He walked up to the seat in a room full of silence. He sat down and glanced to his right. She was looking at him. He smiled; she did too.
“As I was saying, I am Dr. McKenzie, but for those who come on time, you can call me Tom.”
There was a light chuckle throughout. Hunter didn’t even hear him; he was focused on the girl.
* * *
Hunter finished Biology and his other two classes without issue. Once he found his car again after the long day, he felt a barely perceptible high still lingering in his midst; just enough to get home calmly and not enough to be a liability.
The next day he followed the same practice for buying textbooks. With his travel mug in its holster he went to the campus, and upon finishing the drink, navigated the packed bookstore without a single self-conscious thought; whereas before his transformation, he would obsess over how he was being received by every person that he passed. Only twenty minutes had elapsed when the cashier bagged his books and handed him his receipt, and this posed a problem: there was no way he could drive home. He needed to kill time, so he attended two random lectures and learned more on the subjects of philosophy and anthropology than in his entire preceding lifetime.
He decided he should leave for school much earlier on Wednesday. This was to avoid being late to Biology again, but also to have a chance of talking to the girl whom he sat beside. His drunken self decided the latter part, because the thought of striking up a conversation with a stranger would’ve been quickly destroyed by his oppressive insecurity.
* * *
With the liquor in his corner, Hunter did go to school early and did start a conversation with the girl. Her name was Kaitlyn, he learned, and the conversation went swimmingly. They even exchanged numbers a week later. He met people in other classes, too, and he made them comfortable, made them laugh and kept their attention. He answered questions that the professors asked, and had a few spirited debates with some who had opposing views. This was in front of hundreds of other students, but he did not notice them.
The semester trotted along. Never did Hunter go to class without a .08, or anywhere in public, for that matter. His grades were fine, as he did most of his work at home, where he was always sober. He saw people he knew in the halls regularly and received many pleasantries. He also obtained a handful of numbers and texted them from home. Though stimulating and amiable, none of these relationships were as strong as the one with Kaitlyn. Her sober self was very much like his drunken self, and they connected on many different topics. By the middle of the semester, their in-class chatter could barely be contained. This blossomed into an invitation to a post-finals party hosted by a friend of hers, and Hunter agreed to go.
* * *
It was early December; the week before finals. Hunter was late to Biology again due to an impromptu mad dash for more liquor. He didn’t realize he was dry the night before, so he rushed to an off-sale in the morning and procured a bottle on the way to school. The bottle had to be taken with him, and he made the mix in the parking lot while shoulder-checking every second for onlookers. After the mug was full, he chugged it entirely and nearly threw up, but his reinforced will prevented that from happening.
He entered the classroom while Dr. McKenzie was handing out reviews for the final exam. He passed him on the way to his seat and sat down next to Kaitlyn.
“Late again.” She shook her head playfully, “And right before finals, too.”
“Yeah, I know—slept in,” he feigned exasperation. “Up all night with chem homework.”
“Leave it to you to put it off.”
“Do you want me to mention who has the better mark?”
She made incomprehensible noises as a way to simultaneously mimic and mock what he said, then laid her warm eyes upon him.
He laughed, as did she.
There was a thud beside him. Papers were strung upon the floor of the aisle, and Dr. McKenzie was groaning and commenting on his clumsiness. He kneeled down and began collecting them and Hunter leaned over to help. They managed to get the papers back in their pile, and Dr. McKenzie lifted his head to thank Hunter, but words did not come. Instead, the professor’s face assembled a curious expression.
He fucked up. He forgot the gum. Dr. McKenzie knew. His nostrils expanded and he searched Hunter’s eyes. The admission of guilt was stamped on his pupils. He whispered to Hunter, “Stay after class,” and stood up.
“What was that about?” Kaitlyn asked as Dr. McKenzie moved to the next row.
Hunter covered his mouth and leaned away as he spoke, “I have no idea.”
The liquor-built wall of protection had been smashed. For the first time this schoolyear, Hunter was terrified.
* * *
The professor excused the class. Hunter remained in his seat as the rest of the students shuffled away. Kaitlyn scooted by him and said, “See ya.”
“Bye,” he replied solemnly.
After the last student exited, Dr. McKenzie shut the door and regarded Hunter, who had not moved from his seat in the middle of the room.
“It’s Hunter, isn’t it?”
He wanted to reply with confidence, but his voice betrayed him and his speech was soft.
“Why don’t you come down to my desk?”
The desk looked like Father Mapple’s pulpit; a fixture of complete power presiding over the class. Situated right in front of the board, it felt as an idol without real purpose, only to be revered. The professor never sat at it, and besides his laptop, briefcase, and a picture of his wife and two daughters (which could not be seen from where Hunter sat), the desk was bare. Hunter got up and followed the aisle toward it, where Dr. McKenzie was already seated at its rear. The professor motioned to the chair at its front, and Hunter sat down as well.
Dr. McKenzie was a middle-aged man, in good shape, with a full head of styled brown hair. His features were sharp and he had a goatee. He wore suit jackets most of the time, but never sported a tie and only wore non-collared undershirts. He emanated high intelligence and strong convictions. Only half of the students liked him, but all respected him. Hunter was one of the half—until this very moment.
The professor folded his fingers and leaned back in his chair, as a way to receive the full impression of Hunter, who was seated the exact opposite way.
“Do you know why I asked you to stay?”
“No,” Hunter lied. He felt flushed.
“I smelled alcohol on your breath.”
“Oh,” he said, and looked down at his hands.
“Yes. Do you know the university considers that a serious offense? Which is punishable by suspension, expulsion, or a statement on your record that will hinder your ability to attend other institutions?”
“I figured as much.”
“Then you admit it?”
Hunter shrugged his shoulders and sat back in his chair. He wasn’t terrified anymore; he lost, there was nothing else at stake.
Dr. McKenzie sighed forcefully and leaned forward, putting both elbows on the desk.
“Why?” he asked.
“I didn’t admit it; I’m just not going to fight you. If you say I have alcohol on my breath then what can I do? There’s no real evidence either way, just your word.”
“I didn’t mean why did you admit it, I meant why did you come to class intoxicated.”
Hunter didn’t reply.
“But in response to your statement, what I can do is call upon another professor to observe your condition, or even another student. They will confirm my suspicions. Honestly, I can smell you from here. Plus your face is red, and your eyes look like they’ve been watching the sun for six hours. All this would help the academic board convict you.”
Hunter again didn’t respond, but was trying to appear unfazed. He was fixed on the professor.
“Or I can call the police, considering you probably drove here, and they can test your blood alcohol level and have you arrested. Also, I can have them inspect your car, and who knows: maybe they’ll find a bottle or two.”
He did not speak and eye contact was still not broken.
“If you leave and do not submit to these procedures, then that’s admission enough.”
Hunter opened his mouth, stopped himself, then tried again. “I didn’t drive drunk,” he finally said.
Dr. McKenzie held the edge of his desk and leaned even closer. “So, again, Hunter: Why?”
“I have anxiety.”
Hunter appeared to shrink under the weight of the hardest admission. His head lowered and his body tightened up; his clasped fingers almost broke from the increased pressure. Hunter expected Dr. McKenzie to laugh, or at the very least smirk, but a look of surprise assumed his face and he regarded Hunter as curiously as ever. He sat back in his chair, put his right foot on his left knee, and appeared deep in thought. Ten seconds passed before he spoke.
“Why don’t you take medication?”
Hunter looked up. “I have. A couple kinds.”
“They didn’t work?”
Hunter shook his head. “Not in the way I needed it.”
“They didn’t take your anxiety away?”
“Sure they did, but they took everything else away, too. I didn’t care about anything, I couldn’t focus on anything; it was like I was in a coma. Sometimes, I couldn’t remember what happened when I was on them. It took time away, which was the hardest part to handle. That wasn’t living.”
Dr. McKenzie didn’t do anything but listen. Hunter continued on: “I need to be able to talk to people and go out and do things and laugh and be happy.”
“And alcohol does that.”
Hunter nodded and lifted his eyes towards the professor’s. “Alcohol does that.”
Dr. McKenzie didn’t know what to say, so silence spoke for him. Hunter had nothing left to say, so the silence answered all remaining questions. Hunter looked away while Dr. McKenzie studied his face.
The professor made the first motion. He backed up his chair, fished into his pocket, and reached down. At the sound of wheels squeaking, the fidgeting of metal, and a drawer opening, Hunter raised his gaze and followed the movements. A couple clinks were heard and Dr. McKenzie closed the drawer. Instantly, a large bottle appeared on the desk, followed by a glass.
Hunter was shocked for only a fleeting moment, and then he understood. He observed the bottle and saw that a third of it was filled with a brown liquid that Hunter construed as whiskey. Then he looked at its benefactor, and noticed, for the first time, the state of his eyes.
“I won’t tell if you won’t,” Dr. McKenzie said, and a sad smile appeared on his face.
Hunter reciprocated the smile.
The professor unscrewed the cap, poured some into the glass and pushed it towards Hunter. He grabbed it and knocked it against the bottle that Dr. McKenzie held out for a toast. The professor brought the bottle to his mouth, drank for a second, but hesitated before bringing it down, and Hunter knew why. He lifted his own glass to his mouth and lingered in its wake.
The bottle hit the table with a thud and Hunter’s glass followed. They tasted the liquor in their mouths and felt the burn in their throats. With averted eyes, they waited for the first opportunity to lift again, and many times after that, until they can lift no longer, because life looks easier through the bottom of a glass.
◊ ◊ ◊
Shane Fraser has had fiction published in various publications and previously in The Flash Fiction Press.