The following is an excerpt of a short story from a previous edition of my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon and other retailers. Tales of Coles County, Illinois was originally published in 2004. A revised and expanded edition was released in autumn 2020. Order it today!
As Halloween neared that October of 1980, the typical orange and black decorations appeared in store windows, and pumpkins began to be displayed on porches adorned with fake spider webs. For the students of Eastern Illinois University, it meant a Vincent Price film festival, haunted houses, and of course, renewed interest in the ghost that haunted Pemberton Hall.
There was nothing out of the ordinary going on for one university student and Mattoon resident who found herself in her usual hiding spot, doing what she usually did: writing in her journal. As she sat on her bed reflecting on the past week, only one thing came to her mind: the question her professor had posed before they left class on Friday.
He asked us what the first conscious thought was, Natalie wrote. When our long-gone ancestors were crawling around the underbrush. She paused for a moment to brush a hair off the page. Was it a primitive feeling of love between two of these walking apes? The realization that they desired each other and no one else? She thought for a moment. No, she wrote. Some birds do the same thing. She turned the page.
Was it the first person who realized that they could use a stick to get food? she wrote. No, there are animals who use crude tools too. Natalie looked up at her reflection in the long mirror on her bedroom wall. Was it the first person who looked down into a calm pool of water, and instead of thinking that there was an animal staring back, thought: “is that me?”
Her mother’s voice echoed up the stairs, interrupting her thoughts. “Natalie, honey?”
“Yes?” she yelled back.
“Do you need a ride to school?” her mother asked. “I’m going to be leaving soon.”
“It’s about time,” Natalie muttered under her breath. She slammed her journal closed and stuffed it in her book bag. Natalie was a sophomore at Eastern Illinois University, but she had lived in the town of Mattoon for as long as she could remember.
She decided to go on to college to find a way to get away from her parents, who had asserted an overbearing influence on her ever since she was a baby. They are so afraid of me getting hurt because I’m their only child, she thought. She had also chosen to go to college because she had seen too many of the kids with whom she went to high school graduate and then remain in their hometown, getting married and working minimum-wage jobs.
Her mother and she were exact opposites. Her mother, whose name was Kate, was the “popular girl” when she was younger, and she still enjoyed a large group of friends. Natalie’s parents always invited friends and neighbors over to their two-story ranch house, but Natalie preferred the sanctity of her bedroom. She was not the social type. She had never believed she was very attractive. She lacked any feminine curves, and her reddish hair was always messy and dry. She had given up trying to do anything about her appearance a long time ago.
Her perspective began to change after she had taken a philosophy class her freshman year and met a young professor with a glowing personality, who had haunting green eyes and wore a tweed jacket coat with patches on the elbows. Of course, what attracted her the most was his intelligence. It was the way that he would ask questions that led her to discover the answer in herself.
Every time she passed him in the hallways of Coleman Hall, the building that housed the History, English, Philosophy, and Political Science departments, she blushed and looked at the floor, but he would always say hi to her anyway. She took every class he taught, and he never failed to tell her that she was his brightest student. He was the first man who had ever really paid any attention to her.
The scenery rushed past as Natalie and her mother drove down Route 16 on their daily trek to Charleston. Natalie opened her journal as she sat in the back seat (her mother said that it was safer for her to be back there if they got into an accident) and started writing. It had been years since her mother and she had a conversation on one of these trips.
“Freedom,” her professor had said to her. “Is freedom what makes human beings so different from animals? Are we free to make decisions that run counter to our instincts?” Natalie wrote the words down as best she could with the car rattling.
“What evidence do we have of this?” her professor asked. “Do we even have any? Can you deny that most of what you do is the result of some need or a response to some action directed at you?” Natalie couldn’t think of one, but the question fascinated her. By the time her mother dropped her off outside the University Union, a smile had grown across her face.
Her mother’s voice quickly removed it. “Remember to call us as soon as you’re done with classes,” she reminded her daughter for the thousandth time. “Don’t talk to any strange kids,” she warned. “Drugs and cults are everywhere these days, and I don’t even want to think about what all these guys have on their mind.”
“Whatever, mom,” Natalie said through her teeth as she slammed the car door. She didn’t look back as she marched across the lawn in front of the library, past some students tossing a Frisbee and others who sat under the oak trees doing their homework. She walked with her head down, holding her books tightly against the front of her old, faded sweatshirt. It was late October, but it was still nice enough to be outside without shivering, although gathering cloud cover indicated that it might rain.
“Did you get the tickets for the show next Tuesday?” she heard someone ask as she passed by a group of kids standing in front of the yellow bricks of the Biological Science building. The band Molly Hatchet was coming to Eastern next week, but Natalie had no intention of going.
She arrived outside of her classroom a few minutes early, so she stood against the wall and skimmed through her notes. Every once and a while, she would look up and see her professor walking back and forth in front of whatever class he had in the previous hour.
Three other girls stood nearby and were trying to hide their excitement. Apparently one of them was trying out for the Coles County Beauty Pageant. Natalie shook her head. “Don’t you care about anything else?” she turned and asked them bitterly. “Like the election or the Iran-Iraq War?”
The girls broke out into laughter. “Why don’t you try out for the pageant?” one asked. “Oh, that’s right,” she replied, mockingly brushing aside her carefully permed hair. “Not everyone can look like me.”
“Oh, that was so mean,” her friend said, but her expression showed that she had also found it funny. Natalie wasn’t paying attention anymore. She was accustomed to the constant insults, and she buried her head in the pages of her notes. Finally, students started to filter out of the classroom.
“Good afternoon, Natalie,” a familiar voice said.
Natalie barely peeked her eyes over her notebook. “Hey,” she replied. She brushed some of the hair away from her face and tried to smile, but by that time her professor had gone. Natalie slowly got to her feet and headed into the empty classroom, where she took a seat by the door. The room was small, with only about thirty desks and a large chalkboard behind a short podium, which was placed on a desk to bring it up to chest height. After a while, more and more of her fellow students strolled into the room. One of the students was an older woman, probably no more than twenty-five, who had come to Eastern to finish her education after working for several years. She usually sat next to Natalie and borrowed her notes.
“You always take such good notes,” she would say. “You write down almost everything the professor says.”
Natalie would never tell anyone why.
The clock struck the hour marker and their professor came into the room holding his coffee mug in one arm and papers and folders tucked under the other. He smiled and nodded to everyone in his usual way. “I want to begin by reminding you all about the camping trip this weekend,” he began. “Remember that you should bring your own tent and that alcohol is strictly prohibited.” He gave the class a smirk. “But, of course, if anyone was to bring some they might end up with extra credit.”
“What if it’s Stag?” someone shouted from the back of the room, referring to a brand of beer that had a reputation of being an old fisherman’s drink. The room erupted in laughter, although Natalie just rolled her eyes.
“I guess that might bring some negative consequences for your grade then,” their professor replied, using that rebuttal to launch himself into his lesson of the day. “Speaking of consequences,” he began, while furiously guiding a piece of chalk across the chalkboard. “Why do humans consider the consequences of their actions to go beyond just simple cause and effect?”
Natalie started writing intensely too, and before she knew it, the period was over. As everyone packed up their books and papers to leave, she grabbed the woman next to her. “Are you going on that trip this weekend?” she asked.
The woman, whose name was Lana, looked back at her with surprise. “Are you?”
“That depends on if I can get a ride,” Natalie responded sheepishly.