What follows are extracts from the journal of Dr. Boris Renderton, former Associate Professor of Chemistry at Hope College before his abrupt resignation:
October 25th, 2019
“It seems a rather curious thing to dwell over. It’s the end of October, just after midterms, surely there isn’t a student on campus who isn’t feeling mentally drained. What’s so crazy about that? They’re young students, they’re more than prepared to deal with 16-credit schedules and the ensuing stress! I know my students complain a lot, but I also know that, at the end of the day, they can take whatever I throw at them. Perhaps they’ll miss a few hours of sleep here or there, maybe suffer from a bad headache now and then, but that’s the worst of it. And maybe, and the most extreme of situations, they’ll…see things, or feel things, things that exhausted, anxious minds will sometimes make up. But nothing crazy happens! All they need is some hot tea, a stop at CAPS, and they’re fit as a fiddle!
I remember one student—God bless her—who, in the midst of her harried finals week, was in that state of half-dreaming and half-awake, and mistook her roommate for her mother! And another student, this one struggling to prepare for his Organic Chemistry exam, completely forgot who I was when I saw him in the hallway, and stared at me with flinching, unseeing eyes as I said hello! What trivial things these students can do when pushed a little harder than usual! But they are more than capable of handling these sorts of situations, and their minds are more than elastic enough to deal with it- for why else would they go to college? But still, this last instance rattles me, for some reason I cannot understand yet. Ashley is a good student; a fantastic one, in fact. I’ve known her since her freshman year, and from the very first day of Gen Chem she proved herself to be extremely competent of anything set in front of her. Even buried under all the stress Hope College can put her under, she’s always acted in a right, strong mind, and has shown none of the angst of her peers. I’ve been able to rely on her quick mind, but now I fear that maybe she’s been pushed a little too far, has inched maybe a little too close to the edge. Hazily thinking a friend is a parent, or forgetting the faces of your teachers, I feel like I can understand to an extent.
But seeing figures vanish out of paintings? What kind of convoluted mind makes that up?”
October 27th, 2019
“Ashley seems better in class than when she privately talked to me in my office and discussed some rather odd matters a few days back. Although she messed up a few times during lab, that’s to be expected when learning this type of spectroscopy. I try not to think too much of what she told me, though I can’t help but notice the bags under eyes, and the pale shade of her skin, as if she’s not eating or sleeping very well. She is also acting somewhat…restless, jumping when someone walks up behind her, or begins talking after a long period of silence. It’s not something I’d usually notice about a student unless I’d had them in class or had performed research with them as much as I had with Ashley. I know how she works; even two years ago, when there had been a death in her family, she’d powered through her projects with capability. This isn’t like her. She’s been dreadfully rattled by something, and I can’t help but think—Ah! But what use is this strange talk? I must be losing my marbles as well! I obviously did not press her strongly enough to talk this through with CAPS the other day, kids these days are so dangerously stubborn about receiving help. When I see her for class tomorrow, I will make a point to tell her, and implore her to get some help. Maybe I’ll give her an extension on her paper…. Or maybe I’ll just direct her to CAPS.”
October 28th, 2019
“My talk with Ashley did not go anywhere near as planned, and I fear I may have made everything a little worse. I underestimated how stressed her schedule must be this year, how much weight is on her at all times. She’s a senior, of course she’d be tense beyond her wits at all times. But still!
I felt like I was talking to a completely different student, one I’d never met before. She looked even more fatigued than the day before. When I’d politely asked if she’d gotten any sleep that night, she made a weak excuse of waking up several times in the night. When I’d asked if she’d eaten recently, another lame excuse ensued. Well, after that, I took her up to my office, closed the door, and earnestly asked her what was going on. She was reluctant at first, still muttering her excuses and refusing to meet my eye, her gaze flirting around the lab that had become a second home to her over the years. She kept flexing her fingers, clasping her hands tight enough to drain them of blood and then releasing to scratch at her legs or pick at a strand of hair like tow very active, pale wriggling spiders. She was always shaking her head, as if she wasn’t doing intentionally and instead it was a physical expression of her mental refusal to confide in me. But finally, she broke when I’d insisted she go to CAPS, to discuss her hallucinations. At that she sprung to her feet, and stared at me with crazed eyes. She began spouting nonsense, some I understood and some that was too jumbled to comprehend. She complained about how I didn’t believe her, so what was the point in telling me anything?
“What don’t I believe?” I asked
“You don’t believe I’m seeing people move around in the paintings,” she replied.
At this, I felt enough was enough. Despite the bewildering cold shiver that trilled through my very bones at the mention of the paintings, I slowly stood, and calmly reiterated my desire for her to get help. Wary of her sensitive state, and spoke as if to a child, reassuring her that she was just tired, and stressed, and had too much going on. Of course, I’d offer her an extension on her paper, what kind of taskmaster did she think I was? At last, she seemed to agree with me. Her shoulders lowered, and her eyes regained their usual calm. Although she didn’t speak much, she nodded at what I said, and I took that as good enough. With a gentle hand on her back, I guided her out of my office, and bid her have a good day. I watched her walk from my office, trying to convince myself I’d done a fair job.
But she’d set me on edge for the rest of the day. Her chilling observations had seeped like icy groundwater into my heart. As I taught the rest of my classes, I began to feel uneasy for some strange reason. I found myself looking over my shoulder, expecting…nothing. Nothing! There was never anything there, just as it should be! I hate to say I taught some unfortunately poor classes, as I could never seem to get my thoughts into any coherent form. As I walked through the Pinegrove, a very unusual presence befell me. As if there was something there, flickering in and out of the tree-casted shadows. I stopped, and listened. And there it was! A black squirrel, dashing down from the branches and prancing across the grass. Laughing (uneasily) to myself, I continued on my way through the grove. But the feeling did not fade until I’d gotten to my car, and had driven off campus.”
October 30th, 2019
“I did not see Ashley in class today, which I took to mean she had gone to CAPS, and they had ordered her to rest and destress herself before jumping back into the rhythm of school. I sent her an email, wishing her a good rest and pleasant dreams. Feeling much relieved—and now much satisfied with how I’d handled the situation—I was able to focus during my classes.”
October 31st, 2019
“Ashley did not show up for research at her regular time, which I thought was odd, for she’d never skipped on any commitment she made. I had expected her to cancel, on order from CAPS, but I awaited her email all day, and received none. Feeling a little confused and forcing down the sliver of apprehension that attempting to rise in my throat, I sent her an email, if anything just to make sure she knew what she’d missed. I spent the day awaiting her deeply apologetic reply. But it didn’t come. I didn’t hear from her for the rest of the day. Unable to shake a primal fear that refused to go away, I got out of phone and texted her (something I was loath to do when communicating with students, but at this point I did have her number). I texted her several times, and then called her. I got her voicemail. I waited well into the evening, when all other professors had gone home, and campus was deserted of students, all off celebrating the Halloween night in various unhealthy ways. Still, I had no answer from Ashley.
Very concerned now, I left my office unsure of what to do. She’d mentioned many times before that Lubbers was a frequent study spot of hers, so I made the trek across campus to make a harmless stroll through the building. I walked in, turned right at the painting of the Lubbers’ playing chess, and peered into the common area. No Ashley. I checked the first-floor rooms, to no avail. Making the climb to the second floor, and then the third floor when I found it similarly empty, I stood still for a long period of time, attempting to reason through the situation. I ignored the part of me that whispered a certain idea, and instead forced into my mind the thought that Ashley was off partying and wasn’t able to contact me. And good for her! After the week she’d had, the poor girl deserved some fun. Even though Ashley wasn’t the “partying” sort, everyone needed to let loose once and awhile.
Finally, somewhat at-ease, I made my way back down to the lobby and out into the night. As I passed by the painting of the Lubbers’ for the second time, I noticed something that made me sprint out of the building, something that caused me to abandon all human thought and revert to the primitive urge to flee, to race away with all the energy and vigor one can manage. Something that made me race across campus, my feet flying and heart pounding, back to my office, where I promptly shoved everything in my briefcase, and ran to my car. Something that made me speed home, too mortally terrified to look in the rearview mirror for fear of what could be lurking around me in the dark night shrouded in fog and gloom, illuminated by a weak, shrinking light of a cat’s-eye moon.
Usually, the face of Mrs. Lubbers is turned down, concentrating intently on the game of chess she is playing with her husband. But I swear, as I turned out of the building, her face had changed orientation, and was staring straight at me, an insidious little smile curling at her lips.”