The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, available on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $4.99. Tales of Coles County, Illinois was originally published in 2004. A 10th Anniversary edition was released in 2013, but has gone out of print.
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.