IES: Second Excerpt
Part I - Admissions
Chapter 1 – Dreams of War
It was snowing on Christmas Eve for the first time in Proof’s life and the snow has complicated the drive to the Ryders who are hosting the neighborhood Christmas party this year. Earlier, Allan had informed the family that the family SUV, a late-nineties Ford Explorer, was more than up to the task. He’d purchased the car new (it was the first and only car the ever-frugal Allan King would purchase new) nearly a decade ago in anticipation of a larger family that never happened. Most days he regarded the Explorer with disdain, as poetic reminder of what had not materialized, of a time when his rise had seemed a foregone conclusion.
Though it was now nearly a year before the worst of what would eventually be called the Great Recession, Allan sensed the gathering storm, felt it in his bones as a dog feels thunder, and like his childhood Labrador he felt the urge to hide in the bathroom. His stock options, which had for years amounted to steady increases in yearly income, were on the verge of worthlessness and his company had issued an email before the holiday that there would be no year-end bonuses for executives. This meant that Allan now had to pay for his family’s well-being exclusively off his own salary, a six-figure sum of dizzying proportions to most Americans. But Allan was not most Americans. He was a member of that dirty lower-upper class which stretched itself thinnest over the course of the nineties and early naughts.
As they plodded over snow-covered roads, slicing virgin tire-marks which under the heavy snowfall disappeared in a quarter hour, Allan fiddled with costs in his head while half-engaging Moira in her neighborhood gossip. “George is going to be there,” Moira said. “You know what that means.” Allan thought he did, nodded reflexively at least but could not have commented on the subject. He was trying to calculate the total cost of their new master bath, kitchen remodel, the impending finishing of the basement. At the time these had all seemed like wise investments in their relatively safe, fixed-rate mortgage home (Allan had been wise enough to stay away from ARMS and other alchemical mortgage schemes), but he had planned to pay them off with his quarterly issue of options. Now that he was not receiving those, he’d have to pay off the balance of the work with his salary. This was a daunting actuarial task because already their day-to-day costs ate up most of his paycheck. There were three car payments: Allan’s BMW, Moira’s BMW, and Proof’s Toyota (mercifully, their winter car, the Explorer, had been paid off); there was the insurance on all those cars; there was the mortgage, the housing insurance; there was health insurance and dental; the looming orthodontist bill to remove Proof’s retainer; Moira’s seeming inability to spend fewer than a thousand dollars a month on groceries for their family of three; there was more, much more, that he couldn’t think of right then but had in other nervous, idle moments. He would have to write it all down. That’s what he would do, no more mental calculations. After the New Year, he would write all their expenses down and start trimming. They’d cut back, they had to. Otherwise the most important expense of all, Proof’s college tuition, would cripple them. Allan did not want his son to suffer the same realities of student debt that he had.
While Allan was losing himself in the anxieties of middle-aged breadwinners, Proof sat in the very back row of the Explorer’s seats and stared out the window at the snowfall. He was entranced by the white motes which refused to plummet, clinging gracefully to the sky. This made him think of Lucent, the latest superhero shipped to Iraq. Lucent could fly, which was Proof’s favorite superpower, the one he would have chosen for his own.
Back at home on his desk was a comic book about Lucent (Marvel Comics most recent issue). Like all new superheroes, he received a graphic novelization of his life story which most of the public understood was, like professional wrestling, fictionalized. Serious adults like Proof’s parents would read the facts in the paper. If you were a longtime superhero, you had a ghostwriter write you an autobiography or novelization of your exploits (Roloron and Protolex already had three volumes of published memoirs, each of which were number one bestsellers). But Proof no longer read books. He hadn’t since his Moment had ended seven years ago. Something about returning to his imagination scared him; it scared his parents too, which was why they never pressed him to read.
This was an overwhelming disappointment for Allan, less so for Moira (she was too in love with the idea of her boy, the projection of him, to care that he was not cultivating the rich interior life his parents had always prided themselves on possessing). Allan tried never to voice all he felt his son was missing in avoiding books but it came through now and then, in a comment here or there, at dinner or on car rides like the one they were taking now. And Proof was not the kind of young person on whom those comments, however subtle, were lost.
What his father didn’t understand, what Moira didn’t even concern herself with, was that Proof still loved books and even missed them. But every time he picked one up and flipped to a page, he felt his palms moisten, heart rate quicken; he was reminded of something terrifying, something ominous and overpowering which made him set the book down in favor of a comic or a TV show or a movie. It had been a long time since he’d even bothered trying to pick up a book.
Naturally, this reading impairment had made school difficult, especially English. He could digest his math and science textbooks just fine and the wordier pages of history weren’t too bad so long as he leaned on lecture notes and PowerPoints, but English was impossible. He couldn’t even bring himself to finish a book as short as Of Mice and Men. This had led to all sorts of trouble in the early part of high school when grades had first started to “matter.” His English teacher hadn’t bought his excuses and eventually Moira had to get involved with the school administrators who were similarly unaccommodating. Eventually, a psychiatrist settled the dispute. Proof, the shrink informed the school, suffered from severe reading-induced anxiety, a rare but real affliction likely stemming from his Moment and the resultant suffusion of mirror neurons which Moments were known to produce. Proof’s mirror-rate, as it was called, might be low but the psychological trauma stemming from the experience was very real and very powerful.
In plain speak, he was not to be forced to read books.
He was, however, often reminded of the books he used to read. He thought about the Harry Potter series and The Hobbit and the other science fiction and fantasy books he used to devour. Perhaps because he so often recalled the sensation of reading, the sheer imaginative power of it, the total emersion (or submersion?) in his imagination, perhaps because he was so prone to remembering these episodes, he thought for a moment he was lost in the memory of a book as the Explorer’s rear tires slipped sideways on the icy surface of the road.
Until then, the Explorer had ambled boldly over the four to five inches of snowfall accumulated on the roads, but as they passed over the bridge which joined the other side of the neighborhood, where the Ryders lived, the Bridgestone rubber of the Explorer’s all-season tires lost grip and the ponderous green SUV began fishtailing wildly into the oncoming lane. As the all-wheel drive system rudely sprayed snow into the air and Allan frantically did things with the steering wheel, his money-worries fluttering back into the ether of his subconscious, Proof was certain he was remembering a scene from a book, or at least a scene from the period during which he used to read books.
Moira was screaming, the Explorer was spinning, the railing of the bridge was approaching. Proof thought: No, this isn’t happening. This isn’t right. For an agonizing moment, everyone in the car but Proof was certain they were going to slam into the guardrail and possibly tumble over onto the parkway below them. Only Proof, for whatever strange reason thought otherwise, somehow knew—somehow believed that the Explorer would stop, just short of the guardrail.
And he was very nearly right. The Explorer’s rear bumper just tapped the guardrail but did not come close to tumbling over as Allan and Moira had feared. The road was empty, thankfully, and they all sat there for a moment in awe of what had just happened, silently thanking a god which none of them admitted to believing in they were still alive.
“Is everyone okay?” Allan said first and then Moira unbuckled her seat belt and went to Proof in the back seat. “Are you okay,” she said frantically. “Are you hurt?”
She wanted him to check himself, to make sure so she could feel less worried. He could tell she was terrified, for herself residually and now for him. “I’m fine, Mom. I’m okay.”
“Moira, get buckled. Someone else might come through and have the same thing happen to them.”
“Why weren’t you driving more carefully,” Moira said with the flatness of a statement.
Allan, who had seen this attack coming, defended himself. “We hit a patch of ice. There was nothing I could do. I was going forty.”
“Forty is fast in the snow, Allan.”
First names were being used. This meant the discussion had taken a downward turn.
“Can we just get to the Christmas party? The one you insisted we go to.”
Moira, from the second row of the Explorer, her body still facing Proof but her face, full of reprove, turned to Allan. “You still want to go to the Christmas party?”
Allan threw up his hands. “You want to turn around? Everyone is okay. You wanted to go. You talked about it all week. We’re already over half way there.”
Moira shook her head and turned back to Proof. She cloyed at him in a way that made him want to barf. “What do you want to do?”
Ordinarily, he couldn’t have cared less about a Christmas party and earlier that week he had insisted he not be required to go despite Moira’s irrationally strong desire to “show him off” to the other moms. But a few days ago he’d overheard her talking on the phone with Mrs. Ryder and he’d heard the words “the Shipmans” and “daughter” and was suddenly inspired to be a good son and appease his mother.
The Shipmans’ daughter, Dahlia, was a year older than Proof and for a long time had been the subject of neighborhood gossip. Other than Proof, Dahlia had been the only kid in the neighborhood to experience a Moment. For three months, she fell victim to an uncontrollable somnambulism that sent her on long, creepy nighttime walks around and often beyond the neighborhood. The first time it happened she’d been found two miles away, her feet bare and bloodied, still wearing her pink pajamas. The Shipmans did everything possible to keep her in bed, at first locking her room, then bolting her window shut, and eventually tying her down with medical restraints. These measures would work for a few days and then, somehow, Dahlia would find her way out and be discovered somewhere the next morning. Every night Mr. and Mrs. Shipman went to bed terrified that their daughter would escape and sleepwalk in front of a fourteen-wheeler, but there was nothing more they could do. They had resolved to send her to an institution, but the Moment naturally ended and Dahlia returned to normal.
By the time Otto Denbrough became a household name, Dahlia was already exhibiting strange abilities. At school she transformed overnight from mediocre student to a perfect one—literally, for an entire quarter she did not miss a single question on test, quiz, or homework assignment. She seemed to age faster than her peers, rocketing through puberty from sixth to seventh grade so that by the time she reached high school she looked several years older than her birth certificate indicated. It wasn’t long before her parents had her tested for abilities and pulled from public school. They never told anyone precisely what those tests indicated but the neighborhood had its theories.
As Allan had suggested to Moira, many thought Dahlia’s insipid abilities posed a danger to her peers. Still others concocted outlandish conspiracies in which she was a government test subject or, even more outlandishly, had already been sent to the Middle East on secret missions. Moira in particular had a strange experience with Dahlia. She’d been on her afternoon walk with the dogs when she’d spotted Dahlia by the pond in the neighborhood park. This was an ordinary enough sight if not for the fact that another mom, Mrs. Jenkins, reported with certainty that she had seen Dahlia and her mother at Whole Foods during the same time. This confused Moira but the more she thought about it the more the memory of Dahlia sitting by the pond, tossing pieces of bread at the geese, began to feel not like a memory but a dream. Maybe she’d imagined the whole thing. But it was enough to make her wary of Dahlia Shipman.
Proof’s attitude towards Dahlia could not have been more different. He was infatuated with her, not the least because she was the beautiful, mysterious, unattainable girl-next-door. She was also an embodiment of all those things he yearned for: she had rent herself from the droll routine of public school and evidently possessed a powerful supernatural ability. Proof wanted to meet her, to talk to her about what it was like to be a super, to have abilities. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be with her or be her.
Needless to say, Proof’s opinion of Dahlia was a minority one and there were more than a few families who quietly objected to Dahlia’s prospective attendance at the Christmas party. In an email blast, Mrs. Shipman had informed everyone attending that she and Norm would be bringing Dahlia with them to the party. It was quite safe, she wrote, and there was nothing to worry about. She wanted to see all her friends one last time, to be a normal family for once before they shipped themselves to the Shenandoah where Norm would continue his research and Dahlia would become a part of what was then known as the Denbrough Project. Openly, the neighborhood mauled Mrs. Shipman with expressions of compassion. “Of course we want all three of you there,” Mrs. Ryder said in a “Reply All” message, neglecting to mention the nervous emoticon she’d sent to Moira.
So as the tiebreaker in dispute between mother and father as they sat motionless in the oncoming lane of a snowy, icy bridge, Proof sided with his father because he wanted to see Dahlia. Moira took this as betrayal since, after all, she had borne him for nine months and how could that not permanently ally them? Allan slipped off the parking brake and put the Explorer in drive; the transmission thunked into gear and they were on their way. A short while later, they arrived at the Ryders’.