I hear tiny voices. I’ve been hearing them since I was a little kid. They don’t buzz in my head twenty-four hours a day. They don’t tell me to do crazy things, either. They don’t tell me to whack the mailman over the head with a pickax and slit his throat and cut him into tiny pieces. Nothing like that at all. They seem to come to me at given moments and tell me things I need to know. For instance, once I wasn’t watching as I started to cross a street, and a panicky voice shrieked in my head, Watch out, stupid! I froze in place as I was about to step off the curb, and a newspaper delivery truck sped past, narrowly missing me. If it hadn’t been for that tiny voice, I would have ended up squashed under the truck tires.
Over the years I have discerned four distinct voices. The first, the one that saved me from the newspaper truck, I named Angel. I really thought she was my guardian angel, too, because she always seemed to speak to me whenever my well-being was at issue. The second voice I noticed I named Joker, because she would always tell me to do silly things, like little practical jokes to play on my parents and friends. Joker has been the voice that always cracked me up in school, making fun of the teacher or the other students, funny little remarks that nearly had me rolling around on the floor. Joker has been responsible for my getting sent down to the main office quite a few times. Then there is Grumpy, who seems to hate everybody and everything. Often I have the impression she resents being stuck in my head. She certainly has got into many arguments with the other voices, especially Joker, usually keeping me awake all night, forced to listen to them insult each other, while Angel will try in vain to calm them down. The last voice, the one that really scares me, I call Lurker. It is the only male voice in my head. He doesn’t say much, but I always know he is there, listening. When he does speak, he tells me creepy things. I try not to listen to him, but I can’t help myself. Maybe this is why he has always scared me; I fear he may actually gain some control over me and force me to do things I don’t want to do.
So now I am sixteen years old and I have four people in my head. I have got so used to them, I probably wouldn’t be able to bear the silence if they were suddenly gone. Sometimes, I wonder if other people hear tiny voices, too. It is impossible to tell for sure. Who wants to admit that kind of thing?
Other than the voices in my head, I think I’m pretty normal. I have friends-- well, a few friends, anyhow. I attend school, a small country high school, and I get good grades. I am not altogether sure I deserve my grades; I do get help from four other people, after all. Angel is very good in English and History, while Joker seems to have a talent for Math and Algebra. Whenever I take test, they whisper answers in my head-- as though somebody else might actually hear them. It is all so sneaky, I usually feel guilty of cheating. Sometimes, I feel like confessing to my teachers, but what am I supposed to say? It isn’t me but tiny voices in my head that keep giving me all the answers?
My best friend in all the world is Jackie McCord. We have been BBF since first grade. I am her only friend. Though she is pretty and looks meek and mild, she always manages to get into fights. She has never got any good at fighting, though, and has the scars to prove it. They are not horrible scars, just a little nick on the chin and on her forehead there are a couple slightly larger ones, shaped like half-moons, which she covers with her brown bangs. I suppose she has other scars, too, on her back and other places covered by clothing, but none of the scars remind her that she is no good at fighting. So still, now and then, she gets into a fight she ends up losing.
I think her combative nature stems from her home life. She has a mother but no father. She never talks about her father, who has been absent forever. I once asked her about him, but she wouldn’t give me any answers. I thought for sure she was about to start a fight with me just because I asked. So I let it go; I didn’t want to be the next in a long line of girls who have kicked her ass.
Jackie is the only person in the world I told about the tiny voices in my head, but I don’t know if she believes me. I think she does, or maybe she wants to believe me. When you get down to it, Jackie, not me, seems much more like the type of person to hear voices in her head. I wonder if she does. It sure would explain all those fights over the years; the voices told her to start them. Yeah, sure-- it made perfect sense. So maybe she does really believe me-- only she doesn’t want to admit she hears voices, too.
Spring has come early this year, and at school every day after lunch, Jackie and I wander outside. We sit on the stairs at the side entrance of the school. We finish our drinks-- which we are not supposed to take out of the cafeteria because the lack of garbage containers outside leads to littering-- and look out across the school grounds. The grass is still a sickly shade of green, with big yellowish brown patches. In the distance, a traitor is chugging along slowly, kicking up dust. It is not the grandest scenery in the world, but a lot better than the view from the other side entrance, from where you can see cows lowing in the distance.
It is not easy being trapped in a school that is caught between cornfields and cows.
“We need to do something,” Jackie says. She says it abruptly, as though it’s an emergency. I guess the older you get, the more urgent it is to do something-- anything-- if you live in a place where there is nothing to do.
“Like what?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she whines. “Think of something, will you?”
I thought a moment, and said, “I got nothing.”
“There has to be something.”
Yeah, sure, there are things to do. You can go to ice cream socials or while away hours at the roadside arcade just out of town. You can walk down the road a couple miles to the apple orchard, and just go wild…. But that isn’t what Jackie means. She means something that will let off the steam that builds up inside you until you can no longer bear the pressure inside and you think your guts are about to split wide open as everything inside you spews out. That is what she means. It has to be something crazy and fulfilling, something that may hurt you and start trouble that never sees an end. If it isn’t dangerous in some way, why bother even doing it?
“I don’t know,” I say.
“You must have some idea,” she says.
“I got nothing.”
I can’t look at her. I can’t stand to see anybody look at me in certain ways, like when they expect something from me, especially something I can’t give.
“Then ask them,” she says.
I have to look at her now. Her eyes are large and desperate.
“You know who,” she says.
“No,” I say dully.
“Come on,” she moans. “I’m bored-- I am soooo bored!” She stands long enough to chuck her empty soda bottle out onto the lawn. When she sits, she edges closer to me, as though she is about to make some shocking confession. “Are they saying anything now? Can they give you some kind of idea.”
I can’t answer. I still find it hard to talk about the voices, speak of them out loud to another human.
I sigh. “They’ve been quiet.” This is a partial lie; although the voices are silent now, they were jabbering among themselves during lunch. Joker said something so funny I nearly choked on my corn bread.
“Well, can’t you just ask them? Can’t you get them to start talking?”
“I don’t know if that’s a good thing,” I say.
“Come on,” she coaxes.
“They wouldn’t come up good with anything, anyway. I may be a little crazy, but the voices in my head are pretty sensible.”
“That’s not what you told me before,” she says. Her eyes burn briefly. For a second I think she may take a swing at me. That is how fast she can lose control. I’m surprised she hasn’t taken somebody by surprise and won at least one fight. “That’s not what you told me at all. You said sometimes they tell you to do crazy things-- that’s what you said. The one you call Joker is always telling you things.”
“Yeah, she does,” I confess.
“What kind of things? Does she tell you to get up in the middle of the night, take a butcher knife from the kitchen, and then go visiting your parents’ room?” she asks in a low, creepy voice, but she’s just kidding-- I think she is, anyway.
“No,” I whisper. “Nothing like that.”
“Then what?” she demands.
“Just little things-- harmless things. That’s all Joker ever tells me.”
I am reluctant to tell her the last suggestion Joker made to me. It was rather grand compared with her other ideas.
She leans toward me, whispers in my ear, “Tell me-- what is it?”
Just then the voices come alive. They sound as though they are in my head, but they also sound as though they are coming from everywhere, from inside the school, from across the open field where the traitor is chugging along in perfectly straight lines.
What’s the harm in telling her, Joker says. It’s all in good fun, so tell her.
And Angel chimes in, Of course, it‘s not harmless. Any of these things we tell you are just for you and nobody else. It is like giving away dreams.
Grumpy grumbles, Bored? Bored! Why are teenaged girls always so damned bored? Build a bridge, and get over it. All life is boring. What did you expect?-- to be entertained every second of the day.
Tell her, Joker says sweetly.
Don’t, Angel warns.
I turn my head to look at Jackie. Her face is right there. Her large brown eyes seem to be staring right through me, and then, as though they have just spotted something joyous, they brighten.
“It’s a good one, isn’t it?” she says. She is all smiles now, though she doesn’t yet know why she is so happy. She is my friend, and seeing her so happy, makes me happy. When Jackie is smiling you never see her scars. She looks perfect.
Then the voice that scares me speaks. Jackie is such a pretty girl, much prettier than you, Lurker says. Look at those eyes! And that mouth-- her lips all soft and luscious. Why don’t you lean forward and kiss her? You know you want to do it. Nothing wrong with that. Girls kiss girls all the time--
“Shut up,” I hiss
Jackie shifts away, and stares at me.
“Are they talking to you now?” she asks. “What are they saying?”
“Never mind,” I tell her.
She looks hurt, but only for a second, and then her scowl returns and she stares at me hard.
“It’s crazy,” I say.
“That’s what I want. The crazier, the better.”
“You know the church?” I ask.
“The church? Which church? There are only about fourteen churches around here. I always wonder why the town needs so many.”
“The church down the road from my house,” I say, and I can hear Joker snicker in my head. “The white one, with the tall steeple.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jackie says impatiently. “What about it? We burn it down?”
“No, no, we don’t burn it down.”
“You sure?” she asks. “There hasn’t been a good church burning in years.”
“Just listen, hunh?” I say, getting annoyed. It is my idea, after all-- after Joker gave it to me, that is. I hate when somebody horns in on my fun, and now I am beginning to regret saying anything to Jackie. “You know how people are when they leave a church?”
She looks at me dully, and shrugs. She is sort of a heathen.
“They are all dressed up and-- I don’t know --and something else. I can’t quite explain it. It’s like that are happy and don’t think anything bad will ever happen to them. You know what I mean?”
She shrugs again.
“Well, that’s the way they are,” I assure her.
“So that’s the exact moment to surprise them.”
“Something shocking,” I say. “Something outrageous.”
“Like somebody running down the street buck-naked,” I say, and allow it to sink in.
She mulls over the plan, and then says, “Who were you going to get to run naked down the street?”
“Me,” I said, thinking how dense Jackie can be sometimes. What?-- do I have to draw her a picture? Can’t she imagine the shocked expressions on everybody’s face? Eyes will pop out, and jaws will drop. Little kids will hide their faces behind adults, and they will never forget the sight. They will talk about the episode for years.
“But that’s stupid. You’ll get caught. You live right down the road from that church.” Jackie says, and I can’t believe how ignorant she is.
“Duh! Nobody’s going to recognize me. You think they’re actually going to look at my face?”
Jackie thinks about that. An impish grin spreads across her face.
“It’s the perfect crime,” she says.
“Not quite,” I say. “There’s a problem with the get-away.”
“What? You keep running, right?”
“Everybody will be shocked at first. Then the shock will wear off. They have cars, the police have cars, and somebody will end up catching me. Even if I manage to make it home before they come looking for me, how many other people will see me along the way. No, I’d need a car to get away fast, a car parked round the corner, out of sight. It has to be, like, naked girl running, shock, and then poof she’s gone. You know what I mean-- it has to leave them wondering whether it ever really happened at all,” I explained, the way Joker explained it to me when she first came up with the idea. “But I don’t have a car,” I say. “I don’t even have my driver’s license yet.”
“I have a license,” Jackie offers.
“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” I say, as though it’s news to me.
“And I can get my mom’s van, especially on a Sunday morning-- she usually stays in bed until noon.”
“Really?” I ask. I try not to sound too bright and bubbly. “Then we can do it-- the perfect crime.”
“The perfect crime,” she echoes, finally sounding satisfied, finally not too bored.
The class bell rings just then, and we get up to go back inside to our next class.
As I follow Jackie through the door, Joker says warningly, You can’t trust her. It’s perfect only if it involves one person.
You told me to tell her, I think.
But she seems too interested.
Of course, you can’t trust her, Grumpy says. People will stab you in the back every time.
Oddly Angel remains quiet. I wonder what she is thinking.
And all Lurker can say is, You should have kissed her. Why didn’t you? You know you wanted to….
I tell them all to shut up, and start heading toward my next class.
Over the next couple days, Jackie and I work out the details of the plan. It is our plan now, not just my plan, and at moments that rankles me. One of Jackie’s failings as a human being is that since she has so little she can call her own, she tends to cling to things that belong to other people. I figure she is a born boyfriend-thief, which is why I never even tell her who my crushes are. If I did, I am certain that I will eventually catch her behind the school as she’s sticking her tongue down the throat of some guy I am madly in love with. I mean, really, who needs that? Still I allow her to be my friend. I don’t know why. She really is a horrible human being, but, for some reason, I forget that whenever I talk to her.
We have lunch together every day. We are like two comrades at war with the rest of the world. The food is lousy, and the lunchroom is filled with enemies. Some genius decided that it would be a good idea to put a mural on the lunchroom wall, but it is a mural of a pasture-- a red barn and a silo in the distance and cows grazing in the foreground. Why would anybody want that on the wall? I mean, you can go outside and see the real thing.
“Did you decide yet?” Jackie asks, through a mouthful of food. She is a pig, the way she eats. She talks with her mouth full, and now and then a bit of something flies through the air. Even when she swallows her apple juice, she makes weird, gurgling sounds.
At first I don’t know what she means. Then I realize it is about the shoes. Will I wear shoes when I run naked past the church?
“It doesn’t seem right,” she says. “You won’t be completely naked.”
“You think somebody’s going to be looking at my feet?” I say.
“I’m just saying…”
“I have to wear my gym shoes. There’s a lot of rocks and stuff along the roadside. What if I cut my foot on a piece of broken glass. That would be perfect, wouldn’t it? Me rolling around naked on the ground, with blood spurting out of my foot. The idea is to do it, do it fast, and get away. I need the shoes,” I say, resentful that I have to explain it all to her.
“Okay, okay, chill,” she says, and then resumes rooting through her food like a wild boar.
“We doing it this Sunday?” she asks.
“Not this Sunday, no.”
“Why not?” she demands.
“You see the weather report?” I immediately regret asking that; Jackie never watches the news or reads the papers. “It’s going to be cold, with freezing rain.”
“Wouldn’t it be better that way?”
“Better how? I just want to shock some people who look like they need to be shocked. I don’t want to end up getting a pneumonia,” I say, getting thoroughly aggravated. Why did Joker encourage me to tell her? I wonder if he’s playing a separate joke on me. She knows how Jackie can be. She knows that Jackie is going to be nothing but a pest until it is all done. “Just--” I start, now fuming. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I’ll let you know what Sunday, all right?”
Jackie stares across the lunch table at me. Although I snapped at her, she isn’t mad. She looks more hurt than anything else.
I hear Tsk, tsk, tsk in my head. I can’t tell which voice did it-- probably Angel; she is the only voice who can make me feel guilty about something.
“Sorry,” I mutter, but it doesn’t sound sincere. I wish I never told her about the plan or the tiny voices or anything; it was like giving away a piece of myself that I will never be able to get back.
Days come and go. The warm spring days descend back into cold wintry days. A layer of powdery snow covers my world, making it seem the more depressing. You can get used to the fact that you live in a small “there’s nothing to do” town, but somehow it’s all worse when everything is covered in icy white.
I go through my classes in a daze. Teachers lecture, and their words are like the plinking of water dripping far away. I don’t have the mental endurance to listen. I don’t have the emotional endurance to care. Who gives a damn that somebody shot whom two hundred years ago? Is anybody ever going to stop me on the street and ask about the square root of pi?…My mind drifts, drifts through the window and into the cold white world. I know that nothing good is ever going to happen to me. I will languish and perish in the waste lands between cornfields and cows pastures.
I can barely listen to the tiny voices. They seem to want to cheer me. Even Grumpy makes a half-hearted attempt at humor. But nothing works.
I think about the plan. I try to play it all through my mind, as though it is an event that has already been captured on video and uploaded onto Youtube. I try to imagine millions of people seeing the video and sharing in its hilarity. But now it doesn’t seem so funny. The idea has lost its edge since I disclosed it to Jackie-- that idea-glomming, boyfriend-stealing heifer!
Suddenly I know what will happen. It all flashes through my mind, as if it is history, like who shot whom two hundred years ago.
She will completely steal the idea. She has the car and driver’s license. She doesn’t need me, like I would need her, to accomplish the feat.
It feels as though I have lost everything, somehow, and really I didn’t have the strength to care much about that, either.
Sundays come and go, but the conditions never seem right to me.
Jackie has turned hostile. She accuses me of being a coward. I figure let her think what she wants. I am definitely not a coward. I have no problem at all running around naked in public, and as long as I know that, it doesn’t matter what she thinks.
Every day at school, she harps at me. “Does this Sunday look good?”
“No,” I always say, and give her a different excuse. The real reason I keep to myself. The real reason is now, since I told her everything, it doesn’t seem as much fun as when nobody knew.
Every Sunday, I leave my house and wander down to the church. I watch the people pour out of the large double-doors after service. They mill around outside the church. They loiter in the parking lot. They all look so clean, so chipper, so… normal. They pray and they feel better. Whenever I pray, I still feel like shit. Maybe this is why I hate them so; even prayer cannot make me forget that the world is an awfully gray place.
Sometimes, I wish I was born utterly stupid.
Each Sunday I expect to catch Jackie as she steals my plan. I know she will do it, sooner or later. One of the troubles with this world is that there are too many Jackies, too many thieves, too many sappers of life. They end up taking little bits and pieces of life that belong to somebody else, and they don’t care-- they never even think about it.
Then one Sunday it happens.
I have watched all the good people left the church. Some gather in small cozy groups in front of the church. They speak in a neighborly way. Others are drifting toward the parking lot, where their cars are waxed so shiny that the glare from the sun bouncing off windshield and chrome is nearly blinding.
I turn away, to go back home, when I hear the first screams. Gooseflesh rises on my arms. Suddenly I am a raging fan, craning my neck to see the game. Although Jackie has stolen the idea from me, although I hate her for that, I still wish her well. That is the thing about friends: sometimes you love them, sometimes you hate them, and the rest of the time you wonder why you ever bother with them.
At first, I can’t see her; she must have appeared coming round the other side of the stodgy white building. But then she comes wheeling round to corner to the side I can see. I start to laugh, along with all the tiny voices in my head, at the sight of her just then. She is running faster than I thought she could and, boy, does she ever need a sun-tan. I can see the contorted faces of all the good people as she passes them, and even though I am not the one causing their shock, I feel somewhat gratified. She bolts along the side of the church, over the long narrow patch of grass, heading more or less in my direction. Her eyes look wide and rounded, filled with terror, as though she has realized too late this was an awful idea. She looks white as a sheet that has flown off a clothesline, except for-- Damn, girl, I think, didn’t you ever hear of a Brazilian?…
And then I see why she looks so scared. Two church guys, dressed in somber gray suits, come running round the corner of the church. They are actually chasing her! I can’t believe my eyes. I watch in horror as they slowly catch up, and then one of them, like a former football hero, makes a driving tackle, grabbing her around her ankles and bringing her down on the grass. The other guy is already pulling off his suit coat to throw over her, while several of the women walk quickly toward the bizarre scene. Once they get Jackie on her feet, they all huddle around her and slowly lead her back toward the front of the church.
I jog over to them, yelling, “Hey, leave her alone! Leave her alone!”
But they don’t hear me. They have formed a protective ring around her.
I get close enough to hear a couple people saying sympathetic things, like, “Are you all right, dear,” or “Has somebody hurt you” or “Don’t cry. You’ll be fine now.”
And she really is crying. She’s crying and trying to explain why she did it. “I get these tiny voices I my head… they tell me to do things… I can’t help it…”
Outraged, I watch as they lead her into the church, all safe and cared-for and loved.
I am left standing outside, looking up at the closed church door, my mind screaming, But they’re my tiny voices! They’re mine! She stole them from me!
And then Joker says meekly, Well, that didn’t work out so well.
You didn’t like her anyway, Grumpy says.
It’s probably for the best, Angel finally says.
You should have kissed her while you had the chance, Lurker says in disgust.
I tell them all to shut up, and then start walking home.