Introducing Professor Appleby
|Professor Appleby stared into the crackling flames of the camp fire, lost in the vast confines of his own mind. “It’s here,” he said, “I know it is. I can feel it.”
“What was that?” Gary asked.
The Professor looked up, surprised, as if he didn’t realize Gary had been there all along.
“It was nothing really. I was just thinking to myself that there is a good chance we will find it tomorrow. Heroditus's memoirs, the village, the local mythology, it all fits perfectly."
The Professor’s casual tone did nothing to suppress the cold shiver of anticipation that ran up Gary’s spine. Years of searching and they were now a day away, just because of some fluke tip. It seemed to be too good to be true.
Appleby began to rummage through his satchel. “I was going to save this until then... but, well, no harm in a little early celebration.”
Gary was caught completely by surprise when a bottle of Crown Royal Select materialized in the Professor’s hand. Though the teacher’s assistant rarely drank, he took the offered tin cup eagerly. Never in all his years with the notoriously solitary Princeton man had he ever been offered something so simple and sociable as a drink.
They sat and appreciated the cold burn of the fine whiskey, and as Gary felt a rush of blood suffuse his face, he loosened his polo’s collar in an attempt to quell his reddening complexion. The movement caused the silver rosary - a gift from his Catholic grandmother - to fall loose and dangle over his shirt.
“Still praying to the old torture device I see,” said Appleby, motioning towards the cross. Gary looked down at the heirloom and couldn’t help but smirk.
“You of all people should know the value of symbols.”
Appleby guffawed. “Oh, the things that symbolizes. Were you a lieutenant in Saladin’s army, or one of Fodio’s jihadis, you may have been less inclined to worship such a symbol as that.”
“I have faith that the values of my religion are just, even if unjust actions have been done in its name,” Gary said.
“Ah faith, the ultimate antithesis to any good religious argument. Why don’t you formulate a more eloquent response than the bumbling sycophants who can’t even manage the faculty of skewed rationalization?”
Gary felt blood again suffusing his face, but this time for a very different reason. “Call me foolish if you like, but it’s my opinion that it’s better to believe in something and be proven wrong than to believe in nothing and be proven right.”
The statement had a gratifying finality to it, and for the first time in Gary’s recollection, Appleby paused a moment to consider. “That is a more effective defense. Good show Gary, good show.”
Silence followed for a while and the two men drained their cups and refilled them again. Gary felt a window of opportunity closing. Appleby was always something of a mystery at Princeton, even to his fellow teachers. It was uncharacteristic of him to seem so... human. Maybe this was Gary’s chance to find some of the answers to the many questions he had about Appleby.
“Professor,” he said tentatively, “why do you hate Christianity?”
Appleby choked a little on his whiskey, showing how much the question had caught him off guard. Purposely taking his time to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, he readied an answer.
“Well, I view all religion as a dangerous means of self delusion that makes easy the way of societal manipulation by ambitious and self righteous tyrants. But then again, I suppose that Christianity does have a particularly low place in my esteem. Maybe that’s the result of being raised by a preacher.”
“Your father was a preacher?” Gary asked, poorly concealing his incredulity.
“Foster father. And I didn’t have to put up with him for long, so it's probably not that.”
“Wait, why didn't you have to put up with him?”
Just then something deep within Appleby began to advise caution and he paused. He took a moment to look at Gary’s open, honest face, and despite himself found that he wanted to tell someone about his life. As sad as it was, his former student was the closest thing he had to a friend.
“Alright,” Appleby said,“I suppose if anyone deserves to know about me it would be you. You’ve been a loyal colleague for the last, what has it been, five years?”
It had been seven, but Gary wasn’t going to risk his good fortune with a correction. He just nodded silently.
“I trust you will be discreet about anything I tell you here?”
Again, Gary nodded, more fervently this time.
“Well then,” said the Professor, “where to begin?”
"I was adopted by Father John Marsh in June of 1963. I was maybe eight years old, quiet, naive, and presumably stupid. Father Marsh, good Christian that he was, had taken it upon himself to save the everlasting soul of the bastard begat. He was a real man of God, a firm believer in the mighty hand of the Lord.” Appleby smiled at this, widely. It wasn’t a pleasant smile.
“Anyways, we didn’t get along well. By fifteen I was fed up with it. I stole 300 bucks from the dear Father, and left on the first bus out of town. Spent two years on the streets and anywhere else you can imagine. Found places you wouldn’t believe existed in America. When I slept, I was likely as not to be woken by a rat’s nibbles or a cockroach’s sticky little feet.
Oh don’t give me that look, it wasn’t all that bad. Humans are infinitely adaptable. You’d be surprised how quickly these things stopped bothering me. Believe it or not, I was happy most the time. It felt liberating to not own anything, to not know where you’re going to be tomorrow. I was completely free.
I know what you are going to ask Gary. How’d it happen? How did a bum become a Princeton grad? You have to understand this, I was always smart. As a kid I saw things that other people didn’t. When I told them about it they would either make fun of me because they thought I was wrong, or hate me because they knew I was right. So I stopped talking altogether. Out on the streets none of that mattered anyways. You survived or you didn’t, end of story. For me, it was better that way.
But it all changed one day. I had been living in Chicago for a couple weeks, and that night I was scrounging in an alley for something to burn to keep warm. This big guy came walking by with rings, a gold watch, and a big thick jacket. He didn’t belong there, but he didn’t look like he was lost either.
I watched as someone came up to him out of the shadows. They started talking. Something went wrong because the big man shoved the newcomer down hard. At first he just seemed to sit there and then it all happened. The new guy was standing up and the big man was flat on his back with a growing dark spot on the front of his jacket.
Whoever the guy was, he ran away when I came over. I tried to help the other one, but there was blood everywhere, and his eyes, I have never seen so much fear. It was pitiful. Do you know what it is to watch a man die, Gary? Can you imagine what it is? The enormity of it, of all the complexities of the human mind vanishing in an instant?
Its not like the movies. There isn’t a sudden stillness and then peace. Even when the brain starves to death from lack of oxygen, the body is still trying to keep going. He twitched so much I thought he would wake up, but those eyes, all I had to do was look at them. There was nothing. They were empty and he was a sick puppet of flesh.”
There was a stunned silence and the Professor laughed cruelly, “I then took his wallet and ran. I ran until my feet had blisters all over them. Then I went into a restaurant and ordered a big old hamburger, some french fries, and a chocolate shake. Just sat for a while, and a couple hours later I decided I would have to make something of my life.
So I changed my name and started picking up any textbooks I could find at the public library.”
“Wait,” Gary interrupted for the first time, “Your name isn’t Appleby?”
The Professor smiled and said, “I’ll give you one guess what the restaurant I ate my burger at was called.”
Gary shook his head back and forth, still stunned.
“But that doesn’t matter, a caprice on my part. Anyways, I started studying, aced the high school equivalency exam, got perfect SAT scores, learned a reasonable amount of Turkish from some audio lessons I found, and bull shitted some extra fluff on my resume. A representative came to see me to ‘gauge my financial situation’. When he saw how I had been living the last few years... well, they offered a full grant to be renewed annually. I’ve been at Princeton ever since.”
Finishing his story and the last of his whiskey, Appleby said, “Well enough of that, its all ancient history by now. See you in the morning, we have a long trek ahead of us.” And with that, he disappeared into the tent. It was a while before Gary could clear his head enough to do the same.
The wind was biting his ears, a deep sharp tingling. It was cold, so cold, and the fire was made of ice. A tin can falling, clanging. He looked sharply. It was a furtive, animal look. Shadows lengthened and fought the light freckles of snow. The sinking pain came again, like a balloon popping in his belly.
Hungry, so hungry. But he could not remember the taste of food, only the taste of cold and bile. It whined loud when the man passed, “Give me food, please, just some.”
The face was featureless, like a doll's, but it still seemed to say no.
Life was being eaten, his own life, he could feel his body feeding on itself inside. “Please, please.”
A sharp push, he bled. Another, more. He couldn’t spare any more, it was his last sustenance. His hand raked over something, a nail. A large, rusted nail. In and out it went. It was like butter. His hands then, so warm.
The face grew features far too real, expiring and scared. “No, no, no, no” said the boy, and the man expired, still. Too still, and then not. His face melted, to the high and wide forehead, to the hated spittle spewing curved lips and weak chin. Revolting, but he couldn’t let go.
“Murderer” sighed out Father Marsh, lightly, maybe just the wind. “Murderer!” Louder. “MURDERER!” Eyes popping screaming, “Damned eternal, damned is your soul to the fiery pit, burning agony for your sins! Such a pathetic boy, always a pathetic boy, a waste, a sinner, demon, murderer!”
He was scared. He closed his eyes to shut it out, but was instead transported to another place, another time. Looking through the golden sliver of the closet door. He heard the promise of the belt snapping, and the footsteps inching up endless stairs.
“Stay awake” he told himself, “think, run, fight. The nail, remember the nail.” He had it again in the cold and he stabbed at the figure on the ground. It was nothing like butter. It was like frozen meat. Neither warm nor cold, just numb and wet and silent. Only wind and the crushed heap before him, he was gone. But then the whisper; menacing, mocking, “murderer”.