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Konstantine Paradias is a Greek science fiction and fantasy writer. His short stories in English have been published on OHP's Petulant Parables Anthology, Breathless Press' Shifters anthology, EveryDayFiction.com, Schlock! Magazine, Static Movement's Behind Closed Doors and Long Pig anthologies. His first fantasy ebook, Stone Cold Countenance, has been published by bibliocracy. com.
I started collecting secrets when I was just six years old. It began when Jeannie Wilks, the blond-haired girl with the ocean-blue eyes leaned over her desk and whispered in my ear:
“I soaked my stepmom’s catnip in bleach this morning” and then leaned right back, a gret big smile on her face. I did not say a word at the time, only nodded and looked back to the blackboard, where the teacher was busy inscribing the alphabet, teaching us the secrets behind language that need not be spoken to be comprehended.
I tried talking to Jeannie again, when Bob Holding walked up to me during recess, pulled me by the arm and whispered:
“I put lighter fluid in my dad’s whiskey bottle last night, when he passed out. You think he’ll choke on it?” again, he did not stop or wait for my reply. He simply kept on walking, as if he was oblivious to the power this secret had given me over him.
It happened twice more that day, little secrets that were passed to me during class. Joe Schmidt had a crush on the teacher. Eleanor Brisby was infatuated with her babysitter. I merely nodded and accepted these secrets, stashing them in some dark recess of my brain.
When I returned home that day, I did not feel the secrets crush me but I did not forget them either. Like spiders, they spun their webs inside my skull and dwelt there in peace.
At dinner, I asked my mother what a secret was. She forked the beans inside her mouth, chewed thoughtfully for a while, then said:
“A secret is something that is shared by people who want nobody else to know. Why do you ask, sweetie?” she said and smiled at me. When I asked if it’s bad to keep secrets, my mother arched her brows the way she always did when she knew I had been naughty and asked:
“Depends. If someone has, for example, taken cookies from the cookie jar before dinner or if they have cheated on their history quiz, then yes, it is bad. Has anyone you know done that kind of thing? Hmm?” she asked and leaned closer, her eyes looking into my heart and looking through my childish mind.
I assured her that no such thing had happened. I only feigned ignorance and did my very best to finish my peas (which I hate as a dish to this day) in an effort to appease her.
By the time I was seven, the entire class had entrusted me with a dangerous little tidbit of information. I’d found out about secret kisses by the riverbank, stolen toys and game cartridges broken out of malice. I’d learned about the secret hate twin siblings felt for each other and in one case heard Morgan Lee’s terrible little side surfacing, a secret self that needed to be let out, smothered by cuteness and parental conditioning.
Like a trustworthy listener, a proper psychologist or an excellent priest, I held the secrets and nodded silently, filing them in the back of my brain where they multiplied and thrived, living in perfect harmony. Unlike those professionals however, I did not promise to alleviate their pains or offer forgiveness. I merely gave them a vessel for their secrets; a safe place where they would remain unspoken until the end of my days.
But the really important secrets, those lethal growths of the soul that could only be excised by being spoken aloud, were not shared to me until I was eight.
It was during P.E. class, when I broke from the cluster of children that were busy tossing balls around, clawing and pushing in an attempt to win at a loosely-defined game of football that I saw our teacher sitting in a corner bench, her eyes staring madly into space, her lips muttering endlessly in a repeating pattern.
I approached her then, thinking that should she become agitated, I could use the excuse of a bathroom break. But as I walked closer and saw the familiar red stains on the cuff of her sweater, standing out against her coffee-colored skin, I knew and I was afraid.
“I stabbed the cheating son of a whore. I stabbed him thirteen times in his belly and then I stuck the knife inside his lying mouth. He’s on the kitchen floor since last night and I don’t know what to do.” she said and by the minute she was done speaking her secret, the terror had lifted from her heart and returned to her duties, restoring order to the jungle of the playground.
The secret had nearly crushed me, its terrible weight pushing every other secret down, its bloated belly resting against my mind. I could hear it lick its lips and click its teeth inside my thoughts but I was too afraid to let it out.
Our P.E. teacher gave herself up the next morning, openly admitting the brutal homicide of her unfaithful husband. But the secret stayed in my mind, its terrible power undiminished.
I became afraid of secrets for a very long time and refused to hear them. I avoided my friends and shunned every adult as I struggled to keep my mind to myself. It took me two years until I had found the way to quell the beast in my mind and I did it thus:
Closing my eyes, I imagined that I could look inside my head and that what I saw weren’t magical fields or impossible creatures or strange lands and other manifestations of escapism. What I saw instead were archive drawers, rows upon rows of them each unbelievably tall and stretching out toward every direction, to infinity. Each drawer was labeled with a name and a classification of a secret (from harmless to horrible) and inside each drawer were stacks upon stacks of paper that were just bursting outward every time I would open each one.
There was order in my mind and calm and above all, silence, each secret kept inside its own little holding pen to be content and contained. Every secret, except the harmful ones.
My P.E.’s teacher wasn’t the only terrifying secret I’d ever kept. Even though I did my best to avoid it, some of them would still slip past my guard and inside my ear before I even knew it. I would cross the street and a woman, friend of my mother’s would tell me how the child she bore was not her husband’s. I’d take the bus and the conductor would tell me how he fed his ex-wife’s cat to his dogs, to make her pay.
The harmful secrets I’d keep in an entirely different part of my mind. It was a large chamber that was built in the furthestmost reaches, its walls hewn from the living rock, iron chains dangling from the ceiling with links thicker than a man’s arm. It was closed off from my archiving haven by a great wooden door reinforced with iron, an exact copy of the door from my Young Kings playset, barred and bolted and locked. There I put and chained the harmful secrets, let them snarl and scream and claw, to torment each other for eternity.
By the time I was eighteen, the archiving system was filled. The drawers, magically vast though they were, were already bursting at the seams. The vast space inside my head which once seemed infinite, now was barely adequate. I found myself desperately trying to reminisce now, but failing miserably, stumbling on secret upon secret trusted to me by others.
It was on my 18th birthday that I discovered that things were nearing collapse. I opened my eyes one day and rushed out of my bed, looking for the cat’s feeding dish, so I could throw away the bleach-soaked catnip before she poisoned herself with it. It took me an hour to realize that we did not have a cat and in fact had never had pets of any sort.
By midday, I was searching frantically in the liquor cabinet, looking for my father’s whiskey bottle so I could replace it before he accidentally swallowed the lighter fluid I had spiked it with, before I remembered that my father had died of cancer before I was even born.
I tried to walk off my confusion, finding a secluded little bench in the snow-covered December park, when one of the policemen on patrol strolled up to me and said:
“I knew the son of a bitch had killed my little girl, so I planted the razor he’d killed her with in his house. I made sure I was there, when he got the chair. Pulled the switch myself.”
I screamed and ran away from him, deeper inside the park, among the trees. It was there that I met a girl, crying. I tried to swerve, to avoid her, when she said:
“I just left him in the dumpster, my little baby boy”
Her words froze me in place, even as she immediately stopped crying. She got up, wiped the tears from her eyes and gave me a smile, the weight lifted from her shoulders and deposited in my mind without my consent.
By the time the sun went down I had been Joe Schmidt and had sneaked a peek inside our elementary school teacher’s bedroom, her elderly form somehow appealing to me, spurred by some leftover infatuation. I was Eleanor Brisby for a moment, as I walked up to her babysitter, now a married woman and a mother, and looked at her with uncomprehending lust.
I was my P.E teacher at 5 p.m., as the sun went down, looking at a spot in the kitchen floor, seeking the remains of a chalk outline where my husband had lain, stabbed thirteen times in the belly and the mouth.
It was a good thing my mother had been away that day, or she’d have seen me speak in different voices, looking to right the wrongs others had committed so many years ago. By the time I had reached into my mind and had managed to stop the endless rioting of secrets and reset the padlock on the door where the dark things were kept, I was exhausted.
It was at this moment, as I desperately needed sleep that my friends visited me to celebrate my birthday. But I use this term loosely. They were no more my friends than acquaintances, enjoying the privilege of burdening me with their terrible secrets for years, secure in the thought that I would never release them.
I felt bile build up in my throat at the sight of them, a desperate need to let out the terrible knowledge and expose their true selves, the sides of them they didn’t dare to divulge, even to themselves, never mind to each other. I sweated and panted as they entered my home and gave me their best wishes. Their touch was repulsive, now that I could no longer hide their secrets from myself.
Clara kissed me on the cheek and on her lips I could feel the touch of a hundred men whose hearts she had broken. Jeremy shook my hand and there was the heat of his siblings’ cheeks, tormented and beaten by their bully of a brother. There was Simon, the closeted homosexual who used his suppressed urges against every one he had ever known, poisoning the waters with every word he spoke. Then came Jason, the racist; Carmilla, who heard something bump against her car and smash against her windshield as she was crossing a back road and didn’t even stop to check even though she knew it was too small to be a deer and too big to be a dog.
They were halfway through singing Happy Birthday when it came out of my mouth, a sweet release of acidic hatred, a venom that I didn’t know existed within me:
“Thank you Clara, how’s the hubby? Still suffering from those crabs you gave him? Jeremy, how’s your sister? I heard she finally got away from you, you sick tormenting bastard. Simon, how’s my favorite drag queen? Still hate Michael for turning you down? Carmilla I was wondering: how did you get the blood off the windshield?”
And then it began, the outpouring, the terrible cataclysm of hate and horror. The drawers burst open one by one in perfect synchronization with a symphony of rage that was echoing in my mind. It felt like some sort of inverted musical, where the pinches of violins and the bellowing of trumpets heralded horrors instead of release.
First came the horrible secrets, bursting from the vault of my mind, fluttering down my skull and through my mouth. I dialed numbers I hadn’t dialed for ages, let them slip through the telephone lines and knew, by the time I set the phone down, that a little taste of Hell was erupting on the other end.
Then the harmful secrets came out, slithering like snakes, as I walked across the street of my neighborhood, screaming them for the world to hear; the terrible people who had made me a victim to their secrets hot on my heels.
Lastly, the harmless ones, that I whispered to them and made me smile. But as I stood there, the archives of my mind emptied, the drawers broken, it was then that the padlocks of the terrible secrets gave way and I knew that inside their containment, the chains had rusted into nothing and the walls had given way. I thought of the doors bursting open and the bloated things inside move.
I let them out in the police station, at the desk clerk, unable to control them. I saw the woman behind the counter look at me even as she wrote them down in horror, as she found out about the unspeakable vices of priests, the revenge schemes of policemen, the hidden crimes of teachers and doctors alike.
I let them all out and by the time I was done, my mind was empty and I was alone inside my head, with my memories and thoughts. I collapsed and slept on the floor of the police station.
I was thankful for the cell they’d provided for me when I woke up the next day. I could already smell the taste of bile and poison in the air and knew that my hometown was struck with a terrible disease: the disease of secrets unleashed. I imagined them released now, coiling long snake tails round the backs of every man and woman, their fingers forcing their eyes and mouths open, pinning down their arms so they could not shut themselves out from the world.
I did not feel regret or remorse. I was dragged from one police investigation to another, from one court trial to the next and there I was, testifying and turning secrets into well-known truths. By the end of the year, my home town had turned into a quiet little Hell. By the summer of the next, it was empty as if the soil had been poisoned by pesticides and the water by deadly contaminants.
My mother took this disaster as bad as everyone else and blamed me. I do not blame her. After all, it was I who tore down the place she had lived and loved. But I have no regrets. People do not entrust me their secrets now. If anything, they avoid me. I have found myself enjoying this isolation, this silence and calm both inside and outside my mind.
I sleep now and dream that I am myself, untainted by their secrets. It’s lonely, but it’s peaceful.