Harold

A short story that finds a young man immersed within an unrelenting funk which speaks to the lengths one will go to relieve themselves from the anguish of boredom…

Trigger Warning: Particularly to those sensitive to stories revolving around self harm.

by: Chris Klassen

Experiencing what he would describe as more-than-significant boredom, Harold decided to conduct some experiments. “When in doubt, try to learn something,” he liked to say to himself.  

Harold was a fairly content person most of the time so, during the infrequent moments when he felt uneasy or distressed or bored, he was usually able to find something that would distract him from his moods and bring him back to peace. Over the last few weeks, though, his episodes of mild anxiety had been more frequent and that meant that he had had to work harder to try to get out of them. In his little rented room, he had already re-organized all the books on his shelf. No longer randomly placed, they were now arranged first by subject and then alphabetically by author. His music collection, too, was now sorted by genre then by artist and then by year. Harold didn’t have a lot of books or a lot of records but he had worked slowly and methodically and it had taken a few days for him to finish. He had also moved his small single bed a few inches away from the wall, close enough that it still looked proper but far enough away that he could more easily tuck the sheets in without hitting his knuckles. In his closet, he had shifted his clothes so that all the pants were on the left side, organized by color, and all the shirts were on the right, also organized by color. This didn’t take too long either because he didn’t have many clothes. His shoes, only two pair, stayed where they were on the floor. There wasn’t much else to do. Harold’s room was small and nothing else fit in it except for the little wooden chair and desk where he sometimes sketched or did puzzles, a small lamp, and a thin coat rack. He shared a bathroom with the other tenants that was down the hall. The common kitchen was on the main floor of the house but Harold usually chose to eat in his room.

Filling this void in me, that’s what I have to do, Harold thought. He had already read and re-read the books on his shelf multiple times. Going through them again wasn’t going to help. Sketching and puzzles, both of which he used to enjoy, were no longer providing much entertainment lately either. “Yes, this seems to be a funk,” he said out loud to his room, looking around abstractedly.

“What can I learn?” he wondered. That was when the idea of doing some experiments flashed into his mind. For several moments, he stood still in the center of his room, thinking. Then he took the few steps to his desk and opened the drawer on the left. Inside was his little black pocket knife he had bought it years ago at a garage sale. In those days, he was able to spend more freely.

Harold opened the blade and put it to his wrist. “I wonder,” he muttered. Very lightly, with only the slightest pressure, he started to move the knife across his skin, counting each back-and-forth motion. At first, nothing perceptible happened. He barely even felt anything other than a soft tickle. But when his count got to sixteen, a thin red line started to appear and he noticed a very slight pain. He continued to move the knife back and forth and the line thickened. At thirty-three, when a small amount of blood emerged and began to trickle out of the cut and down his hand, he stopped. Harold cut a short strip of cloth from his bedsheet and tied it around his wrist to stop the bleeding. Then he put the knife back in the desk drawer. “Most interesting,” he said. “Thirty-three gentle movements to cut skin with a pocket knife. Quite a resilient organ, our skin is. That’s good knowledge.”

There was a knock at Harold’s door. It was his landlady, Mrs. O’Keefe. Every afternoon at two o’clock, Mrs. O’Keefe brought Harold a cup of black tea. She didn’t have to do this and, as far as he knew, she didn’t do it for any other tenants. But Harold had lived in her house for many years and had never missed a payment or caused any fuss. As she was a very sweet and appreciative person, she provided him with this little luxury as a thank-you for his long standing residency and good behaviour.  

Harold opened the door and smiled. “Thank you for my tea, Mrs. O’Keefe. I always enjoy it.”

“You’re quite welcome, Harold.” She noticed the strip of cloth around his wrist. “Harold, what happened?” she asked with concern.

“Oh it’s nothing,” he replied. “Just a little experiment I was doing.” He smiled again. “I’ll bring my tea cup down to the kitchen when I’m finished like always.”

“Thank you,” Mrs. O’Keefe replied, glancing again at his wrist. “As long as you’re ok.” She turned and walked away. Harold closed his door and wandered the few steps to his chair. He sat and sipped the nice warm tea and felt momentarily content.

A couple days later, the more-than-significant boredom returned and it was stronger than before. “I need another experiment,” Harold acknowledged. “It’s important to keep learning.”

Two doors down from Harold, in the room at the end of the hall, lived a mousy, timid woman named Mary. In the eight months that she had been a tenant in Mrs. O’Keefe’s house, Mary had rarely said a word to anyone. The few times that she and Harold had passed each other in the hall, he had always smiled and nodded in greeting but she invariably looked away and walked past. Like Harold, Mary ate her meals in her room instead of spending time with the other residents in the kitchen. But Mary paid a few extra dollars every month to Mrs. O’Keefe to have her food delivered directly to her room. Everyday at six o’clock, her dinner was left in front of her door. It usually sat there for a minute or two, long enough for Mary to know that Mrs. O’Keefe had gone back downstairs and she wouldn’t have to engage in any conversation. Then she would open her door just wide enough to pick up the tray of food and carry it into her room to eat in privacy and silence.

The next day, a few minutes before six o’clock, Harold sat waiting in the bathroom across the hall from Mary’s door, listening for the footsteps of Mrs. O’Keefe.  From under the sink, he had found the jug of bleach next to the other cleaning supplies. “I wonder,” he said to himself.  He opened the jug and filled the cap halfway to the top with the clear liquid. Only moments later, he heard the clicking of shoes on the wooden floor. The sound stopped briefly in front of Mary’s room, long enough for Mrs. O’Keefe to place the food in front of the door before walking back down the hall. Quickly and silently, Harold emerged from the bathroom, poured the small amount of bleach into Mary’s meal, and retreated back into hiding. No more than half a minute later, he heard Mary’s door open and then shut again. Feeling secure that he would not be discovered, and confident that Mary, in her timidity, would be too shy to ever complain about odd-tasting food, he tiptoed back to his room.

For the next few days, Harold repeated this pattern, hiding in the bathroom just before six o’clock, emerging quickly when the sounds in the hall indicated it was safe, administering the small amount of bleach to Mary’s meal, and then going back into hiding until he knew he could return to his room without being observed.

The results of his experiment became apparent several nights later when he was awakened by a commotion. Harold got out of bed, put on his dressing gown, opened his door and looked down the hall. Mary was on a stretcher, looking tiny and even mousier than usual. Mrs. O’Keefe and two doctors were also there, staring down at her with concerned faces.

“Mrs. O’Keefe, what’s the matter?” Harold asked.

“Oh it’s most dreadful,” she replied. “Mary has become so sick. Very bad pains in her stomach and horrible vomiting. I had to call the doctors. They’re taking her to the hospital. She has no one to care for her. It’s most dreadful.”

“That is dreadful,” Harold said. “I trust she will be better soon. Try not to worry too much. The doctors in our town are very good.”

“Thank you, Harold. You’ve always been so kind.”

Harold turned and walked back into his room, shutting the door behind him. “Most interesting,” he said to himself.  “Nine days of adding a small amount of bleach to food can make a person of Mary’s size violently ill. That’s good knowledge.”

But just like after his first experiment, it didn’t take very long for the more-than-significant boredom to come back in full force. “This funk seems stronger than me,” he conceded.

A few mornings later, after a nice breakfast of eggs and toast, Harold put on his coat and hat. He left his room and walked downstairs. Two other tenants — he didn’t know their names — were eating in the kitchen. They both looked up at him briefly and then returned to their meals. Mrs. O’Keefe was standing next to the stove.

“Have a nice day, Mrs. O’Keefe,” Harold said. “I’ve decided to go for a long walk today so I won’t be needing my cup of tea at two o’clock this afternoon.”

“Thank you for letting me know, Harold. I hope you have a nice day too. See you for dinner. I’m serving roast beef with potatoes and gravy. I know it’s your favorite.”

Harold smiled and walked out into the cool sunshine. The town where he lived wasn’t especially picturesque but it was surrounded by natural beauty of mountains and rivers. He passed a few people as he walked, recognizing no one, being acknowledged by no one. People don’t greet each other anymore, he thought. “It definitely is a less-friendly world than before.”  The bistro tables out front the restaurants were all empty. The hosts and waiters stood by the entrances looking somewhat dejected, occasionally exchanging a few words. So too the shopkeepers, staring out their front windows, hoped the day would turn out to be moderately successful but accepted grudgingly that it most likely would not. Harold passed by, exchanging glances with no one. He crossed in front of the town’s lone church, a small stone-and-wood structure that was never more than half full on Sundays, unless it was Christmas or Easter.

At the edge of town, a large bridge spanned a very deep ravine. The river below, several hundred feet down, rushed violently. Harold loved this place and had come here often. The view was breathtaking. “I wonder,”  he said to himself. Climbing onto the bridge’s railing, he looked out with deliberation, then calmly fell forward into the empty space. He was able to count to six before consciousness vanished.

 

Chris Klassen is a hobbyist writer and resident of Toronto, Canada. After graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in history and living for a year in France and England, he returned home and worked the majority of his career in print media. He is now living a semi-retired life, writing and looking for new ideas. His work has been published in the online journals Short Circuit and Unlikely Stories.

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