Authors: Daryl Gregory
* * *
Amra followed me down the dimly lit stairs, one hand on my shoulder. Sometime during the run to Jewel, she and Lew had decided to stay the night instead of driving back to their house in Gurnee, about an hour away. Dinner had become a slumber party, and slumber parties required board games. Amra was trying very hard to treat me the same as she did before she knew I’d escaped the loony bin.
At the last step, I reached out and found the lightbulb chain. “The vault,” I announced.
The basement was a maze of shelves, and the shelves were stacked with the treasure of our childhood—Lew’s childhood and mine. Mom saved everything, not only every GI Joe and Matchbox car, but every Hot Wheels track, Tinkertoy, and puzzle piece. Anything that didn’t stack neatly was sealed in clear plastic tubs. Farther into the dark were our baby clothes and old toys, Dad’s army uniforms and paraphernalia, Mom’s wedding dress, boxes of letters and books and tax returns, and odds and ends with irregular silhouettes: elementary school art projects, bicycle parts, an arbor of golf clubs and fishing poles. I was itching to explore farther, but not with Amra.
“The games are over here,” I said.
I led her past the comic collection—eight long white cardboard boxes and one small brown box labeled in Magic Marker block letters: “DeLew Comics.” The small box was more than big enough to hold the complete output of our short-lived company. The winter I was in sixth grade and Lew was in eighth, we’d tried to sell our self-made comics for a quarter apiece to our friends. Our biggest seller,
made us maybe a dollar fifty.
“I never come down here,” she said. “I can’t believe your mother still has all this stuff.”
“The Cyclops sees all, saves all.”
She frowned at me—she hated that Lew and I called her that—and then spied a box on the game shelf. “Mousetrap! I used to have this!”
We pulled games from the shelf, comparing personal histories. I couldn’t believe she’d never done battle with Rock’em Sock’em Robots, and we set it aside to bring upstairs. The games, I knew, were complete, down to every card and counter, even the gazillion red and white Battleship pegs.
“Here’s the masterpiece,” I said, and unfolded a massive, asymmetrical playing board taped together at odd angles. The tape was yellow and cracking. “Life and Death.”
“What did you
?” she said.
“It’s a game we made up, Lew and me. We cut up boards from Monopoly, Risk, and Life and—”
“Your mother must have killed you!”
I grinned. “Yeah.” I sat down and pulled out Ziploc bags full of plastic pieces and dice. On the bottom was a sheaf of handwritten pages illustrated by pencil sketches of my preteen obsessions: soldiers, trains, and superheroes. The Official Rules.
Amra was oohing and ahing over her finds. “Ker-Plunk, Stay Alive, Don’t Break the Ice—unbelievable.” I flipped through the faded pages, trying to remember how to play.
I looked up, and Amra was aiming the slingshot at me, the rubber tube pulled back. There was nothing in the pocket, but she looked at my face and lowered the weapon. “What?” she said quietly.
I stood up, too quickly, and my pulse thumped in my temple. “Just put it back.” My throat was constricted, and my voice came out strange. “That shouldn’t—I didn’t know that was down here.”
I took it from her. The homemade weapon was small in my hands, just a Y of tree limb, a strip of black rubber, a patch of leather for the pocket.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” I tossed the slingshot back into the open box she’d found. I took her hands, dry and smooth and cold. “You just have to promise me one thing.”
“You’ve got to let me win in Rock’em Sock’em Robots. I’ve got a frail ego.”
* * *
I lay on top of the covers in my sweats and T-shirt, staring at the nighttime shapes surrounding my bed, waiting for the house to quiet. Mom had made my room into a sewing room, and the walls were lined with Rubbermaid boxes and stacks of fabric. Bolts of cloth leaned in the corners. When I was a kid, the walls were covered by my drawings, my homegrown superheroes and supervillains. In bed I’d stare up at RADAR Man and Dr. Awkward and Mister Twister, imagining them in motion, even when—especially when—the lines were too faint to make out. The pictures were better in the dark.
In the hospital my walls had been perfectly plain, though some of the long-term people had taped up posters (but no framed pictures: glass, nails, and framing wire were all big no-nos). I’d had no trouble falling asleep, though. At 9:30 every night they gave me two big yellow pills, and by ten I was unconscious. The nurses locked me in anyway: my shrink had told them about my sleepwalking problem, or as I liked to call it, wolfing out.
Every night since leaving the hospital I’d held a strategy session with myself. Did I need one pill tonight, or two? When should I take them? The last six capsules of Nembutal were in my duffel bag at the foot of the bed, and I didn’t have a prescription for a refill. I was on war rations.
I hadn’t taken anything tonight. I didn’t want to fall asleep yet, and if I waited I might get lucky. The noises, usually most persistent after dark, were quiet for the first night in weeks. Maybe coming home had given me some control.
Around midnight, Lew finally clicked off the living room TV and clumped to bed. Mom and Amra had gone to bed hours ago. I waited a half hour more, breathing. The thing in my head kept still. I sat up slowly, afraid to wake it.
I opened the door and stood for a long moment peering into the dark, listening. Then I walked down the hallway with short steps, trailing fingers along the wall until I’d passed the bathroom and found the corner at the end of the hall. I turned in to the living room. Moved past the couch and around the end tables and footstools, navigating by the moonlight silvering the edges of the furniture. In the kitchen, the vent light above the stove had been left on like a nightlight. I unhooked the basement door, stepped down, and shut the door behind me. The stairs creaked as I went down.
I walked through the vault, the cold cement stinging my bare feet.
I went past the comics and the board games, past the box where Amra had found the slingshot, and turned farther into the maze, down a narrow path between the wood veneer cabinet stereo and the orange crates full of phonograph albums.
Two green dry-cleaning bags hung from a black pipe: my father’s uniforms. The workbench was just behind them, against the far wall, near the water heater and sump pump. Tools hung from a peg board that had been screwed into the cinderblock. Only a few silhouettes were empty. The bench held the heavy red toolbox and stacks of Cool Whip containers full of screws and nails and orphaned hardware. A red Craftsman hammer lay on the bench like he’d left it minutes ago.
The safe was on the floor, under the workbench. It was a small steel box, about twelve inches to a side, painted black. I squatted down, and pulled on the door’s little silver handle. It was locked, as I expected.
I leaned down on one forearm, and looked up at the underside of the workbench. It was too dark to see. I ran my fingers along the lip of the bench until they found the cuts in the wood. I smiled. I couldn’t read the numbers etched there, but I didn’t need to—Lew and I had memorized the combination long ago. Not that my father had made it difficult: 2-15-45 was my mother’s birthday.
I leaned sideways to let the light hit the dial. The safe didn’t open, and for a moment I wondered if Mom had changed the combination. I tried again, and this time it opened.
The inside of the safe seemed much smaller than the outside. A shelf divided the space into two small compartments. On top was a dark leather holster, flap closed, and a small box of ammunition. On the floor of the safe was the pistol swaddled in an oiled rag. I moved my hand under it, lifted it out like a baby, and unfolded the cloth with my free hand. A gleaming black .45 automatic, my dad’s service sidearm in Korea. I fit my hand around the stubbly grip and aimed at the white cylinder of the water heater, feeling the weight of the Colt tug at the end of my arm. Before Lew and I had cracked the safe we’d held only plastic toy guns. The heaviness of the metal had come as a shock.
On the other side of the basement, the door to upstairs creaked open. I quickly folded the rag back over the gun and set it in the safe.
“Del?” It was my mother.
“Down here,” I called. I was afraid to close the safe, sure that the metallic click would be immediately recognizable. I pushed the door to within an inch of closing. “Don’t worry, I’ll turn off the lights when I’m done.”
The stairs complained as she stepped down. I did the only thing I could think of: I coughed and pressed the door shut. When she turned the corner I was walking toward her, a short stack of vinyl LPs in my hands. “I hope I didn’t wake you up,” I said. “You know, you could sell these on the Internet.”
She was dressed in a housecoat and thick blue woolly socks. She glanced at the albums, then at my face. “You haven’t slept at all yet.”
I shrugged. “My circadian rhythms are all messed up. I don’t sleep much anyway.”
“I used to hear you walking around the house at all hours,” she said. She took the top album from me, a painted photo of Bing Crosby in a Christmas stocking cap, and turned it over in her hands.
“You could have told me,” she said.
“I would have come.”
“I know.” She would have. She’d pulled me back from the brink twice before, and she could have done it again. She would have flown down, cleaned my apartment, counted out my pills, rubbed my head through the night.
But I couldn’t tell her. I’d talked to her on the phone almost every week, and I’d never once said, Hey, I’ve lost my car and my job and my mind. And by the way, I’m calling you from the crazy house.
I almost said it aloud:
It’s not just noises.
I felt…vertiginous. Like my heels were rocking on the edge of a balcony rail. All I had to do was lean forward a few inches and let myself fall.
The thing’s inside my head, Mom, and it’s trying to get out.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to tell you,” I said.
She picked up the hammer and hung it in its silhouette on the pegboard. “Well, you’re home now.” She touched my arm as she passed. “Don’t forget to put everything back when you’re done.”
When I was fourteen I became famous in my high school for leaving so much blood in the pool that they had to drain it.
It was a fabulous head wound for such a stupid accident. I was at the side of the pool, trying to pull a canoe paddle out of another kid’s hands, when I stepped back and put my foot down on a foam kickboard. The deck was wet, the kickboard shot out from under me, and I went down. I smacked my head against the cement lip of the pool and fell into the water. I didn’t lose consciousness. I don’t remember being afraid. I floated facedown for what seemed like a long time, unable to push my head out of the water. The bottom of the pool turned black, but maybe that was blood loss or oxygen deprivation.
Then a brilliant light as my classmates hauled me out. The gym teacher, I can’t remember his name, laid me out on the deck and pressed towels to my head until the paramedics came.
The blow swelled the side of my head to the size of a softball and blurred my vision. But I wasn’t paralyzed, or even badly injured. They kept me in the hospital overnight just to make sure, but they said I’d be home in the morning.
It was that night in the hospital that the “noises” began. The first thing I felt was a thump, like someone in the other room had knocked the wall behind my head. I turned, and it happened again, and this time there was nothing behind my head but my own room. I called for the nurse, asked her if someone was in the room with me. She thought I was dreaming.
Then the intermittent thumps grew louder, more frequent, and changed in character so that now it was like a baseball bat slamming repeatedly into a tree trunk—with the sting and burn of each impact running straight into my head.
I freaked out. They held me down and gave me something to knock me out.
The swelling from my concussion receded, my vision cleared, but the noises kept coming back. Sometimes it was the pounding; sometimes it was just a wordless whisper that scritched and scraped inside my skull. They took blood, made me lie still in expensive machines, changed my diet. Mostly they fed me pills. If I was asleep, I couldn’t run out of the hospital.
Mom and Dad were there—Dad was alive then—but it was Mom I remember sleeping in the chair beside my bed. The doctors decided it wasn’t a physical problem—not internal bleeding, not brain damage, not tumors—and it wasn’t like any possession anyone had ever heard of. They suggested that it was time to bring in a psychiatrist. It was Mom who found Dr. Aaron.
* * *
Her office now was in an elegant two-story Victorian, a block from the train station. A big improvement over the flat-faced brick building she’d rented space in before.
“Is this it?” Lew said.
“This is the address.” I levered myself out of the Audi.
“Comb your hair—it’s sticking up in back.”
I’d had trouble getting up this morning. I’d taken two pills to make sure I’d stay out, and it had worked. Lew had started pounding on my door at 10:30—he couldn’t understand why the door was locked—and I’d finally stumbled out like a zombie.
“I’ll be back in an hour to pick you up,” Lew said.
“Is that a therapy hour or a real hour?”
“A TV hour. I’ll see you in forty-two minutes.”
Inside, the house seemed empty. There was no receptionist at the tiny desk out front. On the wall were a dozen plastic in-box trays labeled with other “doctor” names. I stood for a while looking up the big staircase, wondering which room might be Dr. Aaron’s. It was a Saturday—maybe she wasn’t even here yet.
I sat on the couch in the waiting room, a converted living room with a long-dormant fireplace and big windows that faced the street. I stared at the front door for a while, then picked up a copy of
Marines were still in Kashmir. The Church of Scientology was suing the Church of Jesus Christ Informationalist for copyright infringement. Critics were panning
Exorcist: The Musical.
The issue was a month old, but it was all news to me—I’d lost touch with current events just before Christmas. I wondered if the demon from the airport had showed up in today’s papers.
Somewhere upstairs a door opened and closed. I looked up, listening to the steps. A large woman in a black, knee-length sweater coat came down the stairs, and there was a moment before she turned and saw me.
My God, I thought, she’s gotten fat. And then: I am such a jerk.
I stood up, stepped awkwardly around the coffee table. “Hi, Dr. Aaron.”
I hadn’t seen her since I was in high school. Then she’d been trim, serious, and in my fourteen-year-old eyes, seriously older: at least in her forties. But she was no older than forty-five
Back then she would have been in her early thirties—probably only a few years out of med school.
I took her hand, unsure what was permissible—were we old acquaintances, or doctor and patient? Her open smile disarmed me. I leaned in and hugged her with my free arm, and she patted me on the back.
“It’s good to see you, Del.” Her face seemed to come into focus. Short black hair, thin dark eyebrows like French accent marks, pale pale skin. The woman in front of me overlaid the hazier version in my memory, replaced her.
She led me up the stairs. “I’ve thought a lot about you over the years, wondering how you were doing.”
“I’m doing okay.”
She glanced back, judging this for herself. “Come in and catch me up.”
Her office was anchored in heavy colors: dark red walls, deeply stained oak floors and wainscoting, a barge of a desk. Everything else in the room strained to lighten it up. A Persian rug shot with Pepto-Bismol pink, pale floral loveseat, lacy white drapes and lamp shades. The only thing that remained from her old office that I remembered was the chocolate leather armchair.
She took my jacket and hung it behind the door. I sat on the loveseat, she sat in her armchair.
We smiled at each other again. Old times.
I said, “You’re not going to take notes?”
“We’re just visiting, right? Besides, I don’t scribble as much as I used to. I found out I listen better without a notepad.” She shifted her weight, crossed her legs. “So you live in Colorado now. How did you get out there? The last we’d talked—well, I got a letter from you when you went to college. You couldn’t decide what to major in.”
“I opted for a degree in Starving Artist.” I shifted into Amusing Summary mode. After a dozen “Hi, my name is Del” introductions with doctors and fellow patients and various small groups, I’d decided that this was the least painful way to cover the arid territory between college and my current life. The long job hunt to turn my Illinois State graphics arts degree into a job offer, the ignominious move back into my mother’s house, the series of low-paying jobs. I highlighted the most humiliating moments, such as deciding to move across the country with my girlfriend, then getting dumped as soon as we arrived.
“I think it was thirty minutes after we’d emptied the U-Haul that she broke up with me.”
She laughed. Thank God she laughed. “Well, she wasn’t going to break up with you until you unloaded, right?”
“Oh no, I only date the smart girls. Anyway, I decided I liked Colorado. I went through another string of dead-end jobs, office temp work, a few months at a web development shop that went bust, an even shorter stint drawing farm equipment ads for the PennySaver. My last job was at a decaling shop in Colorado Springs.”
“It’s like an automotive tattoo parlor. I tweaked the graphics files, managed this big Agfa film printer. And if I was a good boy, every few months I got to make up a new logo. I’m very proud of my Beaver in Hardhat with Wrench.”
“You said, ‘your last job.’ You’re not working there anymore?”
“Ah, no. They fired me officially a couple weeks ago. Of course, I’d stopped showing up weeks before, so I can’t blame them.”
She nodded. “When you called, you sounded upset.”
“I did?” That night I’d made sure to calm down before I dialed. “I may have been a little stressed.”
“You said you needed a prescription refill on some sleeping pills. What are you taking?”
“Okay.” A slight pause, enough time to start me worrying. “When was this?” she asked. “How many milligrams?”
“Fifty, at first, though he upped me to a hundred. This was probably the middle of January.” Her expression didn’t change, but something made me backpedal. “Maybe the end of January. But not every night—just when I need it. Occasionally.”
She frowned. “So that would be before you lost your job, then. What happened to make you look for a doctor?”
She hadn’t said whether she was going to give me the prescription or not. I felt like a junkie on a job interview.