Part 2 picks up with Jim Branden entering the 'prestigious' school. What he'll find inside is a world akin to the Stanford Prison Experiment, while also in the vein of bad acid trip as narrated by Tim Leary. Take this journey, child.
of the Arts
by Oscar Lopez Jr.
(Part 2 of 3)
“So,” he attempted to initiate a conversation with the big bald guy leading him towards his final destination, but it came to no avail. “Where are all the students?”
Jim Branden found himself in a corridor with baby blue walls, something that was a little off-putting, considering how menacing the place looked from the outside. He was on the second floor now, walking over floor paintings of hippos casually sunbathing. Every fourth step he took his shoe landed on water lilies, a flamingo, or another cartoonish looking hippopotamus. Wherever he was headed, he figured there was no way it could get any stranger than this, and stepped over a crocodile sneaking up on a small indigenous child at the edge of the river.
“Some interesting artwork,” he turned to his chaperone, studying the big guy with a mild gaze. “Worked here long, my man?” My man?That was awful.
Baldy didn’t reply, instead walking forward heavily, pondering over the thoughts a man of his stature ponders. Jim pictured the guy as the hippo in the painting, and he the flamingo atop his head annoying the shit out of him.
“There’s a really interesting ambiance about this corridor. Is this the Tim Leary wing?” Right over his head, Jim thought, blowing warm air from his puffed cheeks.
“He won’t talk to you.” A feminine voice spoke up, appearing from one of the rooms as he passed it by. There were several wooden doors on either side of the pathway leading into rooms filled with who-knows-what, and put there by who-the-hell-knows. “He gets paid to look menacing and lead you places. Did the doctor tell you to not make any sudden moves?” She snorted, “He does it to everyone that comes here. Like anyone is actually going to try to steal from this place. We all bring something of ourselves, so there’s really nothing to take. You’re leaving here with what you came in with, your life and body.”
“Oh . . .” He immediately liked this girl.
“I’m Angela— Resident Researcher here at Addleton.” She flicked the shiny plastic name tag above her breast plate. “It’s nice to meet you, stranger.”
“Jim.” He said quickly. “Jim Branden.”
“See you’re off to meet the guy in charge, Jim.” She said with a warm smile that drew him in like warm butter over fresh popcorn. “He’s a little into himself, so just follow along with everything he says, and you’ll be fine. Also, watch out for his boy toy.” She waved and disappeared off down the hallway.
“Boy toy?” Jim thought for a second, watching her roll out of his life same as she’d entered it.
The big bald guy laughed, before straightening up, coughing into a balled fist.
“You know something about this boy toy, don’t you?” He said to the Hispanic guy, eyeing him closely.
“We’re here.” Baldy opened a small door to a rather large and extravagant room. “Have a fun trip, Leary.” He said with an awkward smile, before closing the door behind Jim, leaving him alone in the room.
All around him, he had been surrounded by books; lots and lots of books. Some heavy, others light, but all, every one of them, hardcover. There were four walls in all. Three of them had enormous shelves stacked to the brim with literature.
Between the shelves were odd portraits, mostly abstract works by artists whose names he couldn’t even pronounce. The fourth wall, the one facing west, was a grandiose window carved up around the edges with flowers and a sun at the top left corner.
“Admiring the hall, I see.” A voice called from the top of a staircase, looming over a bookshelf. A man dressed in rather queer fashion, a cigarette between his fingertips, stood at the top railing, peering down upon his young guest.
“A bit under-dressed, aren’t we?” He lit the cigarette with a crimson candle. “Or are you not here to enroll in our fine school?”
“I am.” Jim replied halfheartedly.
“Are you fond of literature?” The head honcho marveled at his own collection, descending the steps, cigarette firmly between his index and middle fingers. He never brought it up to his lips to take a drag. “I witnessed you pouring over them.”
“I have a degree in English Literature.” Jim considered the flamboyant head master. “It’s a pretty exquisite collection.”
“And how old are you, James?” The Head Master walked around the new young student, evaluating him like a farmer did a heifer.
“Seems you’ve done your time of college. Why than this sudden interest in our humble school?” Head Master grilled on.
“Well . . .” Jim took notes from Sheryl’s hastily written book on responses.
“No honest reply ever begins with, ‘Well’, drawn out in such a manner. Frankly, it makes me feel as though you’re only using this institution as a means to an unsavory end. To impress someone, perhaps, rather than to actually feel, taste, and breathe the salty air of this endless expanse.” He gave deep and mighty exhalation of air. “Students here become one with all that we offer. If that does not happen to be the case with you . . . That is just as well, because, there is nothing that I relish in more than a challenge. I will make you see, no! Feel it within yourself precisely why this is the perfect school of the Arts.”
“Just like that?” Jim cut the Head Master off. “Don’t I have to take a test? Talk about how a semester here is going ravage my already meager wages?” He scratched the back of his head, confused, a little cold.
“You are a special case, my boy.” He embraced Jim at arm’s length. “Like a mama bear picking her long lost child out of the sea of a dark morbid world, I will guide you.”
“Okay . . .” Jim wasn’t sure what the hell was going on here.
“We will hold a trial of sorts.” He moved away from Jim now, turning slightly.
“If you pass this specially crafted segment, then admission costs shall be waived, and you will be accepted with open arms as I have just embraced you now.”
“I’ve never been to a school this . . .” peculiar, “interesting.”
“Irrelevant,” Head Master walked over to a rotary phone beside the fireplace. He wound the dial, red receiver pressed to his ear and shoulder. The cigarette was snuffed out into a checkered ashtray beside an unopened bottle of mineral water and several clear water glasses. “Come in,” he spoke firmly, and then hung up with a clang.
When the hell had this place become a David Lynch film?
“To truly get the most out of a person, man in this case, we must first break him down.” He drew another cigarette from his jacket pocket, beneath the lapel. “Once we understand how a person acts when all restraint is gone, only then can we know how much he or she holds back when in every day society.”
“I’ve taken child psychology. I still remember some of the root elements.” This wasn’t that, whatever this was.
“There are no children here, Mr. Branden, just two consenting adults with much to do,” he lit his cigarette, “and precious little time to accomplish it. Do you think I have read all of these books in this library?”
“I doubt it.” Jim replied honestly.
The Head Master grinned.
“My dear, I’ve come.” A different person entered this time, gaunt, with noticeable pock marks in his face. He twirled a rose from the garden outside.
“Just a moment, Arthur,” Joseph, the Head Master called, crossing his left leg over his right.
“Where was I? The books, right. With one having a considerably large collection of something, most would assume he is infatuated with it. A monomaniac, if you will, my young friend.”
“I’m not sure what the meaning of this is?” Jim let out, trying to keep up.
“There is a difference between a man who has a lot of books because he loves to read, and a man who has a lot of books because he wants others to assume he is an intellectual.”
Jim shrugged, “To each his own.”
“How many of these do you think I’ve read through?” Joseph inquired, uncrossing his leg and beginning to stand.
“I don’t know.” Jim watched the man move about in his purple tie, not quite matching the red suit. “Maybe a little over half of them,” He said amused by the sheer multitude of literature surrounding him.
“I’ve read none of them.”
“I’m sorry?” Jim stared in confusion.
“They are not real.” Joseph walked over and revealed them to be stand-ins; every last book on every last shelf was a fake. “I have deceived you. Deceit became my ally. You were quick to accept that these were all real books, and never questioned if there was any possibility that perhaps I am a fraud, reeling you away from thoughts that are yours alone, and bringing you into mine. I reeled you into a trap, ensnared such as a restless rabbit in a hunter’s hands.”
“. . . Okay.” Jim started to rise. “I think I should be going. My cousin’s coming back for me soon.” He walked towards the door, but Arthur blocked it, smiling a derisive smile.
“We haven’t started, yet.” Arthur laughed wickedly, “It’s far from over.”
“That’s enough.” Joseph intervened. “Please take a seat across from me, my young friend.” He cracked open the bottle of mineral water and pouring a glass which he handed to Jim.
He couldn’t take his mind off of the books. It worked. This weird old bastard’s trick had actually worked, and now he couldn’t stop thinking about those goddamn stand-ins. He took a long swallow of the mineral water.
“This isn’t actually a school.” Joseph, the Head Master, spoke with some disdain. “It is a research facility, and you have just unwillingly become a candidate for our next experiment.” He held the cigarette to his pale thin lips. “This mansion will act as a maze, with each corridor either leading you a step closer to freedom or perhaps landing you into a trap. Each time you become ensnared, something shall be taken from you, and depending on how much you care for your body, it may be something you will miss . . .”
“Messing with me, right?” Jim took another sip of the mineral water, starting to feel a little off. He peered down at the glass, looked up at Joseph, and then over at Arthur.
He rose, letting the glass fall and shatter upon the ground.
“You accept everything as it is, despite your distaste for your mundane existence. That is your fatal flaw, my young friend. I hope to break you out of this routine, make you less likely to accept things for how they are. Each one of us has that something that we do not fight against, and that is yours. That is your demon, your crutch, and we must exercise it. Not just for you, but for Sheryl as well.”
“She set this up, didn’t she?!” Jim felt betrayed, no other way about it.
Joseph put his hands together, “Her intentions were pure, James, I assure you.”
Jim no longer felt in control. Whatever was in that mineral water made him feel he could fly, but only if he concentrated adamantly.
“She was once an unscrupulous, jealous, woman. She confided in us that she often stood over you with a pillow, deciding if tonight would be the last of your pitiful existence . . .”
“Wait, what?!” Jim screeched, bared his teeth. “She tried to kill me?”
“She did not wish to share you with the world.” Joseph spread his hands calmly.
“Share me?” He screamed, feeling lethargic. “I don’t fucking belong to her!”
“You get so excited, my boy.” Joseph edged to his side, leaning against the armrest. “Much like Sheryl before her transformation, you are quick to temper.”
“Quick to goddamn temper?” He had another word for it, “You just told me that bitch tried to kill me!”
Arthur giggled, hiding his lips behind the rose.
“If this exercise proves successful . . . as it has each time before, you will abandon these demons to which you cling, that forbid you from achieving great success.” He held a moment. “You will no longer need to rely on your father’s help. You are educated, yet you work at an office supply store.”
“How in the hell is torturing me going to lead to success, you bastard?!”
“When the soul is cleansed, then too can the outer shell be preserved. There is no good to be found in mediocrity.”
“Look, Ayn Rand . . . What the name of God are you even talking about?”
“The exercise has begun.” Joseph spoke, ignoring Jim’s words. He signaled for Arthur to open a small door, three feet in height, separate from the one where he had entered. It led into a great hallway, where any one of the doors could lead to salvation, and the others to traps.
“Break a leg.” Arthur gave a slow clap.
“What are you doing?” Jim sat in the chair as Angela had asked of him. So far he’d gone through three doors leading to more corridors, all on the same level, each of them trap-free.
Now he’d caught up with the girl from before. “What’s up with this place?” He took it all in, a room akin to a doctor’s office.
“I don’t know. It’s like some kind of research facility disguised as a school, and the guy who runs it, Head Master Joseph Crane,” She said with some minor disdain, “is really weird.” She searched around in the room for something in a small cabinet against an off-white wall.
“He was saying something about books and deceptitrons . . . next thing I know I was running. And now here I am,” Jim studied his hands, the way they waved like dandelions in the breeze, “in the tundra.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about him getting to you here. We’re safe, because this room is like a vault. No one can get in or out unless they know the secret knock.”
“What’s the secret knock?” He inquired fully invested.
If this secret knock could somehow teleport him into his cousin’s Prius, it would be something worth memorizing.
“Double tap three times . . . No. Double tap . . . Then you hoot like an owl . . .” She scratched her head in defeat. “It’s still in beta testing.” She glanced up at him for a moment, and then turned her attention to the task at hand.
He started hoot hooting in a low voice, but nothing happened.
Angela huffed with a hint of boredom, “What do you do for fun, Jim?”
He looked at her, thinking it rare that anyone asked what he did in his free time. “I usually volunteer down at the elementary school on Jointner and Pine. Play basketball with the kids, help with homework, and all that good stuff. Wanted to be a robot initially, but my dad got me off of that wagon. He wants me to go back to school to become a bounty hunter, like him.”
“Hold your head still.” She scolded him. A sound like clippers clicked on, and before he knew it, she was shaving his head. “I was going to be an accountant.” She spoke morosely. “But then I came here, and met Joe. I mean, I still study, but not really like I used to. I’ve been making a lot of money doing this research for him.”
Part of Jim’s mind was lost in some strange abyss, still trying to figure out how to fly. While that part of him was away, the part of him still on earth tried to figure out how to escape. Summarily, each door led to another door, with no staircases in sight. So what about the deceptitrons?
“By the way,” he coughed to gain her attention, “what kind of research do you do here? Seems like an odd location for a research facility.” He felt the clippers pressed cold against his right temple, which to him resounded like an earthquake.
“I don’t know . . . I just do as I’m told.” She said sincerely enough. “I haven’t seen my parents in months . . . Maybe it’s been years.”
“Said you were the Head Researcher, right?”
“It’s just a title . . . like being a dentist.” She smiled thoughtfully, “Or an Astronaut. I just suit up and do my job.”
“Why are you shaving my head?” He didn’t remember asking her to. “Is it that time already?” He knew he was going to need a haircut sooner or later. “Might as well, I’ve never gone full buzz cut.”
“You’d look great with a Mohawk.” Angela smiled at him, seeming so beautiful in that moment, and the way she articulated her thoughts made her evermore so.
He smiled back, feeling there was an obvious connection, like there once was with Sheryl, before she stopped being herself.
“Can I dissect your brain?” Angela turned off the clippers.