Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
I hate my teacher. It’s a small school, so Mr. Morgan is the only available option as an English teacher for the ninth graders. There’s no way around taking his class, so every weekday, I go into my last period and quietly hate his guts.
The thing is, Mr. Morgan is actually pretty nice. He’s good at his job. He doesn’t hassle any of the kids. He doesn’t give too much homework. He’s not the most popular teacher, but he’s far from the least favorite. Nobody else seems to have a problem with him, except me.
I hate him and I don’t know why.
The first time I met him was months ago, at Freshman Orientation Night. He smiled at me and told me how nice it was to meet me. He said he was excited to have me in his class. It seemed like he really meant it, too. I looked directly into his kind green eyes and wanted to tear him apart. I wanted to shake him, make him rattle inside. I still do.
Maybe I hate him because he brought the nightmares back, or at least that’s definitely what it feels like. I used to have them when I was little, but they stopped years ago. I had them again on Orientation Night though, and so many nights after that.
It’s always the same, vivid as a memory. I’m swimming around in a cool, rushing river. There’s another kid there, too. I think we’re friends or maybe even family, but I know that he’s mad at me right now. I think maybe I wrecked his bike earlier. He’s playing too rough. He’s older. He’s bigger. He pushes my head under the river’s surface. He’s just playing; I know he’s just playing. Except it lasts so long. Except I need to breathe! I gasp only to choke on water. He won’t let me up! It’s agony. It lasts forever. Until finally everything goes black and I feel myself slip away.
These nightmares used to end with me crying for my parents. I still remember one particularly bad night when I was inconsolable. “I died,” I had cried to mother, over and over again. “He held me under and I died!”
This was coming from a four-year-old, so you can probably imagine how freaked out both my parents were. When the nightmares didn’t go away after several months, they finally decided to make me see a child therapist.
Her name was Doctor Harper. She was probably too young to be a grandma, but she kind of reminded me of one anyway. She was really sweet. I don’t remember everything, but I do know that we talked about how I was afraid of water and the way I didn’t always feel like myself.
I told Dr. Harper about the face in the mirror, too. The boy I saw in there had lighter eyes than mine, and he was older than I was back then. He had a sharper face and a lot of freckles. When I looked at him, he was very pale and his lips were blue. Those eyes looked haunted and sad, but they blinked when I blinked. That was the freakiest part.
There were terms thrown around that I didn’t understand at the time. Dissociative Identity Disorder. Hallucinations. Schizophrenia. They really couldn’t make up their mind about me. Eventually I decided to just not talk about it and pretend it wasn’t happening anymore. I figured if I didn’t talk about it, if I didn’t think about it, it would just go away. And I was right! Sort of. There were whole years that I didn’t feel like I was in the wrong skin. There were years when I had no nightmares about a river ending my life.
These days when I wake up gasping, I just try to push it out of my head and go back to sleep. I remind myself that nightmares aren’t real. Dreams aren’t real. The face I used to see in the mirror wasn’t real either. I had learned to ignore it all.
Then I started the ninth grade and I met him. Mr. Morgan.
He makes me want to scream and fight when I’m near him, but I can’t do that. I’ve never been a bad student or a problem child, so I force myself to resist. Just like I’m doing right now. I sit at my desk, a couple rows from the back. He’s standing there by the whiteboard, enthusiastic as ever. His grey hair and beard are kept short. I don’t really know how to judge how old people are, but I guess maybe he’s in his fifties, even early sixties. I hate how grey his hair is. I hate his wrinkles. I hate that he seems to be enjoying his life, even while teaching a bunch of mediocre kids.
“I want you all to write a story,” he says. His voice grates on my nerves. “It’s to show off your unique voice. I want you to tell a story that only you can tell.” None of the other kids look the slightest bit bothered by this. At least a few even look excited. This is much better than writing some kind of literary analysis or something, which is what we’ve been doing for the last couple weeks.
It sounds easy enough to me, too. I’ve always been a pretty good writer. There’s no reason that the assignment should piss me off. Except it does because Mr. Morgan is the one making us do it. I feel myself seething. I wonder if I’m making some kind of noticeable expression, because Mr. Morgan’s gaze suddenly flickers to my face. Our eyes meet. The rage burns hot in my chest. My fingers twitch as I imagine wrapping my hands around his throat and strangling him. I know it wouldn’t work. I’m not big enough or strong enough. A voice whispers in my head: I will never grow strong enough to hurt him. I will never grow old at all.
I don’t understand what it means, but it feels true. And it makes me suddenly, unbelievably sad. The bell rings and I swallow back the anger and pain that doesn’t feel like my own. Am I going crazy?
That evening, I sit alone in my room with a blank notebook page in front of me. None of my first ideas for a story feel right. I think maybe I should make something about a dragon, or an astronaut, something epic and cool. Or maybe I should write something really creepy. Creepy like a clown, or giant spiders. Something terrifying like a boy drowning in a river.
The idea hits me like a punch. Mr. Morgan’s words play through my head, loud and clear. A story only I can tell. That’s it! That’s the one story I want to tell, the one story I need to tell. I want Mr. Morgan to read it, and I get some sort of sick satisfaction thinking about him being horrified by my very own nightmares. He’ll probably tell my parents that I’m deranged but I don’t care. This is my story.
At first, it’s weird to start writing it down. It’s not something I tell people about usually. I don’t want this to be my life. I don’t want to admit that there’s something wrong with me. But these last few months, it’s gotten harder to ignore. I force out a few sentences, and after that it becomes much, much easier. Soon enough the pen is flying across the page. With every word, every line, I can see things more clearly than ever. It’s a wide river under a clear blue sky. A beautiful summer day. There are two boys there, one older and one younger, and they look a little similar to each other. They are brothers. I know that now. But what are their names? Everyone knows characters need good names.
Alexander, I think suddenly. It’s perfect. And for the other, older boy—
I feel a little sick thinking that name. My head is spinning but my pen never stops. I write about the struggle, the younger boy thrashing and fighting, then going limp. I hear a scream in my head and I write that part down too. Someone is crying, begging for him—for me—to wake up. I never do.
Finally, finally, I’m done with my work. I set my pen down and read it over. My handwriting is messy due to me going so fast, but it’s still legible. I don’t know if the story is any good or not. It doesn’t really matter.
The familiar nightmare returns that night. Me and Roger, pushing each other playfully until it isn’t playful anymore. Then I’m struggling and fighting for real, but Roger is thirteen and I’m only nine and he’s so much bigger than me. Later, much too late, Roger lets me surface. I think I hear him scream my name, but I’ve slipped too far away by then.
I wake up drenched in sweat. My heart hammers in my chest, but I breathe in slow to try and calm myself. It’s been a long time since I’ve had one that bad. I make my way to the bathroom. I figure if I can just splash some water on myself and cool down, everything will be alright and I can go back to bed. I turn on the light when I get to the sink.
It’s a big mistake.
I barely stop myself from screaming. No, no, I don’t want to wake my family. I don’t want them to know that he’s back. It’s been years but he looks exactly the same. Unlike me, he hasn’t aged at all, stuck forever at nine years old. His eyes are still sad. His lips are still blue. I place a hand up to the mirror and press against the glass. The boy does the same. Not real, I think. Not real. I turn away from him. I don’t want to see him anymore, so I stumble back to bed reminding myself to ignore it all. This will go away if I can just pretend a little longer. The rest of the night, I toss and turn instead of sleeping. It’s exhausting but better than going back to my nightmares.
School goes pretty normally for most of the next day. In my last class, I turn my story into the homework basket on Mr. Morgan’s desk. I’m nervous as I set it down. Part of me thinks I should tear it up and take a zero on the assignment instead. Then, Mr. Morgan, who had been writing on the board before, returns to his desk just in time to catch my eye.
A familiar swell of rage and fear washes over me.
I made the right choice. I know I did.
What’s the worst that can happen, anyway?
Well, it turns out, it’s this:
Two days later, Mr. Morgan asks me to stay after class. I could probably get out of it if I needed to. I could probably lie and say that I have to catch the bus, even though I actually walk home. What would be the point though? Besides, I want to know what’s going to happen next. It feels important, somehow.
Mr. Morgan doesn’t dance around the subject. “I read your story last night, Dominic,” he says. His expression is sour, his eyes blazing. I’ve never seen him looking this angry at anyone, let alone a student. “How did you know?” he asks harshly.
The question goes right through me. I don’t understand it, and yet…
There’s a war happening inside my head. A whisper and a yell at the same time. Two names, two faces, two whole people trying to fight for the same space. “I don’t know what you mean,” I reply.
Mr. Morgan doesn’t like that answer, so he ignores it completely. “Did you find it online?” he demands. “Was there some news article about it?”
I fix him with a hard stare. I’m angry again, just like Mr. Morgan is. Angry and scared and defiant. I’m on the edge of something monumental. “It’s from my dreams,” I tell him truthfully.
Mr. Morgan’s eyes nearly pop out of his head. “My brother,” he says, pointing accusingly at me, “drowned in a river when we were kids. You found out somehow and wrote this for me. Why? To taunt me? Because you think it’s amusing to bring up bad memories?”
Everything clicks in my head, even if I’m no less shocked by it. “You…are you…Roger? Roggie?”
I don’t know where the nickname comes from, but it feels right.
Mr. Morgan goes pale. His grimace turns to open-mouthed shock; the angry look in his eyes is replaced by sudden horror. He takes a step back from me. “How do you know that name?”
I feel different. My head is pounding. The Dominic part of me fades a little. I’m fourteen but I’m also nine, and I am alive and I’m dead and I am furious.
“You killed me, Roger.”
Mr. Morgan winces. “I—I didn’t.”
“I remember it now! It was summer. We were playing in the river by our house like Mom and Dad always let us. But you were annoyed at me for something. We started to fight. Did you think it would be funny to hold me under so long?” My voice cracks at the edges.
Mr. Morgan—Roger—stares at me. “Alexander?” he asks, practically choking over the name.
I nod. He takes another step away from me.
“No. That’s not—You’re not him. You can’t be.”
I wonder what Roger must be going through, to see me again so many years after he did that awful, stupid thing. I know I look different. He looks different too. Maybe he thinks he’s going crazy.
Tears form in my eyes, out of both rage and grief. “You should have known better, Roggie,” I tell him. “It wasn’t fair what you did. I wanted to live and grow up!”
It’s true. I wanted so badly to live in those last few minutes. To see my parents again. To not die like that.
Roger struggles for words. His breathing is ragged and pained. “I’m sorry, Alex. It was an accident, I swear! I tried to do CPR, after, but you were already—”
“Did Mom know you were the one who did it? Did Dad?”
He shakes his head. “It was an accident! They never would have looked at me the same! I couldn’t tell them!”
As I stare at him, I ache for my family, for my losses, for an unlived life. But it’s all long gone. Roger is crying now, but my own grief settles cold in my chest. Part of me knows I made my peace years ago. Seeing Roger again had made me spiral, but not anymore.
My brother is pitiful like this, disheveled and snotty. He’s hard to look at.
Outside the window of the classroom, I can hear cars in the parking lot—idling engines and the occasional honk from an impatient parent. My own parents, Dominic’s parents, whatever, will be wondering why it’s taking me so long to get home if I don’t leave soon.
Life goes on, even when it doesn’t.
I’m tired of holding onto this.
“You know what, Roger?” I say finally. “I’m done. I’m not going to have the nightmares anymore. But you will.”
Roger closes his eyes as though pained, and as he does, the Alexander part of me just slips away. Slips away like he did that summer at the river. Slipping, slipping, gone.
My name is Dominic. I’m fourteen years old, watching a grown man cry, and I almost feel bad for him.