“You! Wake up!” a guard yelled, banging on the bars of the prison cell. “Need to check to see if you’re still alive.”
The man inside lifted his head and glared at the guard with eerie blue eyes. Even in the dark of night they seemed to glow.
The guard laughed and waved his finger at the man. “Don’t give me that look. You don’t want me to come in there, do you?”
The man smiled and stood. He walked to the bars and leaned against the cool metal. The guard took a careful step back, but the man raised his hand and waved his hand at the guard to move closer. The guard hesitated before moving closer to the bars. The man’s smile grew. He grabbed the guard and slammed his head into the bars then kicked him in the stomach. The guard gasped and stumbled back holding his head in one hand and his stomach in the other.
The guard took a moment to catch his breath and stormed up to the cell. “You bastard! I’ll kill you!” he yelled.
The man walked back to his spot on the floor and sat down, leaning his back against the wall. He closed his eyes, knowing the guard would soon be joining him and not having the energy to fight back. He knew the guard wouldn’t kill him. He was too important to kill, but the guard would beat him to near death.
The guard opened the cell door and walked in, grabbing a broken metal bar from the floor. He walked up to the man and raised the bar above his head. He brought it down on the man, but the man moved out of the way at the last second. He looked up at the guard and smiled. The guard’s face turned red from rage and he kicked the man in the side. The man fell to the floor and braced for the impact he knew would be coming.
The prison shook. The guard stumbled, but managed to keep his footing. He looked out the tiny window. “What the hell was that?”
The man lifted his head up quickly. He had heard it. Mixed into the sound of he earth shaking had been a terrifying roar. The man knew the creature’s voice well. It was roaming the streets of the city again, searching for food.
A sharp pain in the man’s side shocked him. The guard had returned to his quarrel. He brought the metal bar down on the man’s side again and again. The sound of bones breaking made the guard stop. The man was clutching his side where his ribs had been shattered.
The man coughed. It hurt and caused him to clutch his side harder. He looked up at the guard and a weak laugh escaped his lips. “Finished already?”
The guard sneered.
The man looked towards the window. A large shadow slowly moved across, casting a shadow on the floor. The man slowly began to crawl across the floor. He wanted to be as far from the window as he could. The guard, thinking the man was simply trying to escape him for fear of another beating, laughed and moved closer to the window. He couldn’t see the dark shadow outside the window.
“What’s wrong? Are you out of sarcastic words? Or are you simply ready for more?”
The shadow filled the window, blocking light from the moon. A small black hand slowly reached through the bars of the window. The attached arm stretched unnaturally, allowing the hand to enter the cell and move freely. It grasped at anything loose, but then continued its search. The man watched as a second hand gripped the bars of the window before moving into the cell. The hands searched the cell, the fingers being sure to touch everything.
“If you beg for mercy, maybe I’ll leave you conscious,” the guard said. He couldn’t see the hands feeling along the floor.
A third hand appeared at the window, feeling the bars of the window curiously.
The man watched the terror happening behind the guard, aware that the guard could not and would never see the thing at the other end. But that didn’t mean he was immune from its touch.
The guard raised the bar above his head. The man winced as he prepared his body for what would come next.
The bar came down, but missed the man. He had pushed himself to his feet and grabbed the guard by the neck. The guard dropped the bar in his hands in surprise. The man leaned close to his ear. “You never should have come in here.”
He threw the man at the window. The hands, sensing someone approaching grabbed for the guard. One grabbed his leg, another his chest, and the last wrapped across his face.
“What the hell is this?” the guard screamed. He could feel the hands on him, but there was nothing to be seen. He tried to wipe the unseen captor with his hands, but the hands were wrapping around him, covering his body in black. His wide eyes searched for the man and pleaded for help.
The man turned away, knowing what came next.
From the window something else snaked its way through the bars. It wasn’t black like the hands. It was dark red and clear liquid dripped to the floor as it stretched into the cell. It lowered around the guard and his screams became muffled.
The man squeezed his eyes tighter, fighting his curiosity to see the guard’s fate. A sickening sound echoed in the cell. It sounded as though something had been squeezed through an opening far too small. The silence that followed filled even the inside of the man.
He slowly opened his eyes and turned to the window. Red stained the bars and the stone. It would be gone by morning. The creature never left anything behind. Even as he watched the hands were back, cleaning the red away.
He lowered to the ground and pulled his knees to his chest, watching the hands clean what remained of the guard away. He wondered if when the creature was finished with him he would endure the same fate of many guards who had dared to attack him late at night.
“Hello, everyone. I am Professor Horvath and welcome to the first day of class. As some of you may be aware, this class deals with literature that some may view as controversial. But I hope throughout this course we are able to have open minded discussions about what makes them controversial and the relations of today’s society to the societies when and where these books were written. I have handed out the syllabus for the course and I would like to go over it with you.”
The class collectively sighed and looked at the small packet of papers on their desks.
Every class was the same. The first day was simply going over what was expected of them and how they were to be graded. For many it was what determined whether they would continue with the course or drop it. It was easy to determine how much work was involved in the class based on the syllabus and how the professor described the course.
Professor Horvath was a well-known ball-buster when it came to grades. He graded hard, but those who had taken his class, even those who failed, had only good words about the course and professor. He was well liked by students, but had trouble with other faculty and administration.
He was stubborn when it came to how he taught his classes and recently had gotten into a quarrel with the English department about his subject matter when he added a highly controversial book to his reading list. The school refused to provide the books so Professor Horvath went out and spent his own money to buy the books for his class. It was a brash move, especially for a professor who didn’t have tenure.
He was a campus hero for standing up to the school board. Faculty that didn’t despise him highly respected him and made efforts to speak with him about his work. He was young, only in his early thirties, but already he had published several books in regard to book bans, adaptation and interpretation of language, and telling of history based on place, time, and authorship.
However, he was a private man. He was unmarried and as far as anyone knew was not in a relationship. He rarely attended department meetings and when he did he would end up leaving early. He occasionally would be spotted sitting on the quad reading. Once a student even bumped into him at a restaurant. Outside of class he was a phantom. Even his office hours seemed to suggest he rarely spent time on campus when he wasn’t teaching.
All of these facts about the professor were only parts of the overall reason Leslie Witt had signed up for the class. The main reason was for the reading material. Leslie found controversial books intriguing. Namely those that were considered not politically correct and were banned from schools. She remembered getting into a heated argument with her high school English teachers about why she needed her parents’ permission to study books such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill A Mockingbird.
There had been a rumor going around that one of the books Professor Horvath was assigning for the class was a fiction novel that some believed to have actually happened. It was a controversial book written centuries ago, but only recently discovered and published. It would be the first time the book would be used in a college course and many students had signed up just for that.
As she scanned the syllabus with her golden brown eyes, she began to feel overwhelmed. She hadn’t fully grasped how much reading they would be required to do in the course. It was almost a book a week and after buying the required texts the previous day, she knew that most of the books were almost five hundred pages of small text. But her curiosity about the new addition to the syllabus outweighed her fear of late night readings and spark noting.
“As you are all aware, there is an addition to the syllabus from previous years. You are also all probably aware that the book was not available in the student bookstore. That is due to the school’s desire to keep students who are not taking this course from purchasing the highly controversial text. Therefore, I have copies for you and will hand them out when it is time to study it,” Professor Horvath said, finishing his coverage of the syllabus. “Are there any questions?”
He searched the room with his hazel eyes and then ran his hand through his blonde hair. “If there are no questions then class is dismissed and I highly suggest that you all begin reading the first text. It is one of the longer ones and will take some time to get through. Thank you.”
Chairs scraped on the floor and laptops were closed. Groups of students gathered and exited the room, speaking excitedly about the class. Professor Horvath packed the extra copies of the syllabi into his briefcase and placed the arm sling on his shoulder. His eyes locked onto Leslie who was still sitting in her seat.
“Class is dismissed and there are no more classes in this room for the rest of the day. Therefore I can only assume you are still seated because you wish to speak with me.”
Leslie stood quickly, her black hair bouncing on her head. “Ah, yes, professor. I hope I don’t come off as pretentious, but I was wondering, with all of the controversial texts out there, why are you deciding to include one that is clearly a fictional story blown out of proportion by a select group of, for lack of a better word, fanatics? Surely there are other books that would be far better discussion topics.”
Professor Horvath stared at Leslie in silence, his face showing no sign of any emotion. He slowly put his briefcase back on his desk and then crossed in front of it. He sat on the edge and crossed his arms across his chest.
“I can see you are one of the few who did not take my class solely due to the fact I was including this fictional story. I respect that you have come to me outspoken about this, but it will not change the fact that we will be reading it.”
“I just don’t understand where the controversy comes from. It’s a fictional story that has been accepted by a small group of non-influential people, who have no power or authority, as historical fact.”
“The controversy comes from the period it was written. Why do you believe it took centuries for a copy to be found and republished? All other original copies were destroyed and by studying the content of the story and discussing the words of those who believe it to be true we can discover why. But to clearly answer your question, the controversy comes directly from those who believe it to be historical fact. We will discuss this in detail in a few weeks when we begin our study of the book.”
Leslie rolled the syllabus in her hand into a tube and patted her leg with it. “That’s not a good enough answer for me, professor.”
Professor Horvath studied Leslie’s face. Then he sighed and squeezed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “What is your name?”
Leslie swallowed. “Leslie Witt.”
“Miss Witt, I’m having trouble understanding why you are so against the inclusion of this book.”
“You’ve read it.”
“Yes, have you?”
“No, but I have read articles and reviews about it.”
“No doubt you realize there are geological irregularities as well as irregularities of religious figures, societal hierarchy, even objects and machines that were not to be invented for centuries?”
Professor Horvath stood and grabbed his briefcase, slinging it onto his shoulder again. “Miss Witt, all of these things you are mentioning will be discussed in detail when we begin reading the book. However, I know this response is not what you are looking for and I can already tell that you will most likely have more to say about this particular novel in comparison to the others we are scheduled to study. Therefore, I am going to allow something that goes against all of my principles.”
Leslie’s eyes widened in surprise. She hadn’t expected him to say that. Hell, she’d expected him to kick her out after her first question.
Professor Horvath walked up to Leslie and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I want you to come to my office tomorrow at noon. I will tell you what I mean then.” He smiled and then walked out of the room.
Leslie took a quick breath. She hadn’t meant to trouble Professor Horvath. Now she only hoped he wasn’t going to give her more work than the other students. But she couldn’t have just stayed quiet and waited until they had started reading the book. She had to tell Professor Horvath how she felt on the first day.
She grabbed her bag and left the lecture hall. She joined the traffic flow of students walking through the hall and out the door. The sun blinded her for a moment before she put her sunglasses on.
The campus was crowded. The first couple of weeks of school would be crowded. After that, students would understand how their classes worked and the beginning of skipping classes would begin. Most of the professors didn’t care if students showed up to every class. They just cared that papers were turned in on time and tests were taken. Every now and then there would be a professor that demanded attendance at every class, especially if the classes were mainly lectures.
Leslie looked at her printed out schedule. She only had one other class. It was a class she was only taking for the extra credits. She put her schedule away and began walking towards her next class, but her mind was filled with thoughts of what Professor Horvath wanted to tell her the next day.
The rest of the day was uneventful and Leslie nearly forgot about her meeting with Professor Horvath the next day. She managed to find his office exactly at noon. The door stood open and she cautiously leaned her head in.
“Miss Witt, come on in.”
Leslie walked into the nearly empty room. The only thing inside was a desk, a single filing cabinet, and a bookcase. The walls were barren and a layer of dust covered everything.
“Wow. You basically live here, right?” Leslie joked.
Professor Horvath smiled and looked around the room. “I prefer working from home, myself.” He held his hand out to an empty chair.
Leslie shut the door behind her and sat down, beginning to feel uncomfortable. The empty room was unsettling and cold.
Professor Horvath threw a book onto his desk and stared at her. Leslie slowly looked down and read the title. End of an Unknown Age by B. N. Smith. Her heart pounded in her chest.
“This is what you wanted. The real reason you spoke to me yesterday wasn’t because you were against us reading this book. You wanted to read it as soon as possible. Correct?”
Leslie looked at him.
He motioned towards the book. “Go on. Take it.”
She slowly reached for the book sitting alone on the barren desk. As her hand touched the cool cover, Professor Horvath grabbed it. He leaned close to her.
“I trust it will live up to your expectations, Miss Witt.” He released her and she pulled the book quickly to her.
She looked at the cover. The outline of an unknown city was behind the silhouette of two men facing each other. She smiled and stood. “Thank you, Professor.”
She turned to leave.
“Don’t be afraid of what you think,” he said as she opened the door.