Mattie Bachus’ fourth grade class was in chaos. The girls huddled terrified in one corner of the room. Their bodies were pressed close to the blind-less windows as if in an escape attempt. A cold, clear January afternoon taunted them from the other side of the glass. The boys stood stationed at their desks with no idea what to do. They glanced nervously at one another, waiting for somebody to get up some nerve. A scream from the girls coincided with the next long howl from the front of the room. “Today,” James had announced earlier from his center stage position, “I will be doing a scene from The Curse of the Werewolf. The one where Oliver Reed is moving on the rooftops in line with his next kill below—a fat, old drunk who has stumbled out of a pub and is walking home alone. . . In the dark.”
Mattie Bachus had instated
these little entertainment sessions to give the children a break from
the monotony of school work. The idea came to her a year ago as she was
preparing her lesson plans, her repetitive lesson plans, used year after
year. It occurred to Mattie just how exhausted she was with the yearly
duplication, and then it occurred to her that the students might be just
as tired of the standard lessons of
, Writing, and ‘Rithmatic as she was. So she decided to
give up thirty minutes twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays to anyone
in class who wanted to give a performance, any type of performance.
Singing, story telling, and acting—it didn’t matter as long as it was
not offensive. There hadn’t been many takers at first, but Mattie had
expected that. Children were usually shy about such exhibitions.
However, it only took one child to do it, and then others followed. The
little break from classroom humdrum caught on and had gone quite well.
And James Tanner had been the stellar performer. His imitations of
star’s voices were uncanny and kept the class either laughing at his jokes or mesmerized at his dramatic renditions.
That was until now.
Mattie was frozen in a state
of ‘prey faces predator’ fear. It was primal, that sound emanating from
the ten year old’s throat. How could he reproduce that horrible, baying
cry? How could an average, likeable, blond kid like James suddenly
terrorize her entire class, and herself, using only his voice for this
terrifyingly realistic lycanthropic presence?
“I’ll make him stop, Mrs. Bachus.” Mattie turned and faced Milton Bates, the largest boy in the class, the boy who had been held back and made to repeat the third grade and had all the signs he might have to suffer the same fate with the fourth. He was slow witted, but he was the dominant male in her class because of his real age and his size. But even with Milton ’s advantage of bulk, Mattie could sense the boy was only making an effort because he felt he had to, because he needed to show his courage to the other, younger kids in class. Milton ’s bottom lip curled upward over the top one as he walked away from his desk on unsteady legs toward the howling boy at the front of the room. James was completely lost in his imitation. In his mind, he was the werewolf stalking its victim. His face contorted in snarls and growls between the ghastly howls that sent shrieks up from the knot of shivering girls in the corner. And when James sensed the presence of something coming toward him, he opened his eyes. Milton was now only two feet away and about to lunge at James with the intention of taking him down. But Milton froze when his eyes locked with those of James. For a brief instant, James morphed into the werewolf’s image: hair covered face, pointed, short ears, feral eyes, jaws opened to reveal rows of vicious, sharp, lethal teeth dripping with slaver. It was just for a moment, and no one witnessed it except for Milton Bates— Milton , whose bladder and bowels relaxed in that instant of confronting the beast and filled the already overheated classroom with a shameful stink.
Alice Tanner was about to wrap
up her accounting figures for a fried chicken chain when her desk phone
rang. Cursing under her breath because she had to stop her
calculations, she begrudgingly picked up the receiver.
“Mrs. Tanner?” the voice on the other end asked.
“Yes, this is Alice Tanner.”
“Thank goodness I caught you at work. This is Mattie Bachus, James’ teacher.”
It was getting out of hand. Alice knew that. She had let James go on with his imitations because it was the only thing that seemed to comfort him, but now, it was getting out of hand. The blood won’t come off the wall! It’s still there, Mama! James’ screams haunted Alice ; his struggle against memories kept her awake even now. All those nights she had held him and turned on the television just to have something real in the room with them, something to drown out the shrouded terror of what had happened. And James had somehow embraced all the old movies broadcast in the early hours, especially the actors. He started to mimic them, and this preoccupation seemed to wipe out the bad recollections that had refused to leave his mind. So Alice never discouraged James. He would sit for hours during the evening or after bedtime lights out studying the characters on the screen: the old T.V. reruns, even the late night talk shows. Not only did he mimic the voices, he also emulated physical gestures, facial motions. This became his passion, and Alice thought it was a positive thing. James came out of his dark cocoon, re-established himself at school, and smiled more often than frowned. When he did sleep, it was deep and restful with no more night terrors. No more blood on the wall. And now this episode at school. Alice should have seen it coming after what she had witnessed him do at home.
“I let the children have their
fun time to break up the monotony,” Mattie Bachus explained. “James is
so talented. All his classmates would rather have him do his imitations
than anything else, although I do see that other children get to show
off their flairs as well. You can’t show favoritism. You understand.
“But then this .
. . werewolf thing. It was funny at first and then it just turned
horrific. Honestly, I was as frightened as the rest of the class. I mean
, it was only your James up there, but in a way . . . oh my, I realize
this sounds a little crazy, it wasn’t James up there either.” A shadow
passed momentarily over Mattie Bachus’ face before she continued her
conversation with Alice and the school principal. “And then the Bates
boy and his embarrassing accident . . . Well, you understand that I had
to report the incident. I hated to say anything what with James finally
getting back to school after a year’s absence, but I have to consider
the well being of the other children.”
“Mrs. Tanner,” the principal, a
stoic bespectacled matron with a clinging hair bun, offered after a
long, uncomfortable pause in the conversation. “The therapist you used
during James’ recovery last year. You might want to contact him again.”
stared at her hands and then said, “We see the doctor
every six weeks anyway. He was going to reduce that down to every three
months, but with this new occurrence, I suppose we’ll have to be more
active again.” She raised her head and addressed Mattie Bachus. “I’m
really very sorry. I thought he was ready to come back.” She then burst
into sobs, which prompted Mattie to come to her and hold her.
“Now, now, Mrs. Tanner,”
Mattie expressed through tears of her own. “We’ll set everything up just
like before. He’ll get his lessons done at home with a tutor. Don’t you
worry. Besides, it won’t be long until Thanksgiving and Christmas
breaks roll around, so James won’t miss that much at all.” Mattie kissed
lightly on the cheek and added, “You just see that he
gets better. He’s come so far, I’m certain this is only a minor setback.
So you just see he gets all the help he needs, and anything, I mean
anything I can do to help, you don’t hesitate to ask it of me, okay?”
Alice ’s sobs lessened. She looked into Mattie’s eyes and said, “Thank you” suppressing the real question she had wanted to ask the older woman: “Can you tell me how to get bloodstains off a wall?”
It so happened that the doctor
Alice had been taking James to see over the last year was currently out
of town attending a medical seminar. Due to the nature of James’ recent
felt she couldn’t wait until his therapist returned, so
she was referred to Dr. George Pritchard, who was highly recommended
and considered one of the best child psychologists in the state.
shouldn’t have been nervous, but she couldn’t seem to
stop snapping and unsnapping her purse as she watched Pritchard read
over James’ medical record. The doctor certainly had an intense air
about him. His hawkish face was handsome in a slight predatory way. His
thick graying hair slicked back in a bird-like fashion only added to the
effect and made him seem older than Alice guessed he really was.
Pritchard sat the medical record down on his desk and watched as
worried her purse snap. The doctor smiled briefly and
then asked her, “You have been under Dr. Terrell’s care for over a year
She nodded and stopped
fiddling with her purse. She noticed a framed photo of a boy about
James’ age on Pritchard‘s desk. The boy was smiling and dressed in a
baseball uniform. He was kneeling and held a bat across his shoulder,
the logo Stass Plumbing trailing across his jersey and hat. “Yes,” she
said, a little distracted by the photo. The boy must have been
Pritchard’s grandson as the doctor appeared too old to be his father.
“Dr. Terrell was assigned to us after my husband’s suicide.”
“Fine man, Terrell,” Pritchard
commented. “His notes are very concise. I think I’ll be able to jump
right in and help you and your son.”
suddenly felt she might tear up. All the work that had
been done in regard to her son’s mental state seemed in jeopardy.
Pritchard picked up a box of Kleenex from his desk, stood up and then
offered them to
. “I’m sorry,” she said as she took a tissue and dabbed at her eyes. “It’s just that we had come so far with James.”
Pritchard sat back down. “I’m
certain we’ll be able to get things back to where they were in no time.
Dr. Terrell pretty much covered all the ground needed for the road to
recovery. We just need to fine tune a few things.” He picked up the
medical record and remarked, “The impressions your son does, his
mimicking of famous people, mostly actors I see, Dr. Terrell seemed to
think this gift was actually quite therapeutic. He noted that James
should be allowed to keep doing these impressions as much as he wanted.”
He sat the folder back down and looked directly at
. “Dr. Terrell also stated that James’ impressions were astonishingly good. ‘Spot On’ was the term he used.”
nodded. “I was surprised how good his mimicking
became,” she said as she gripped the wadded Kleenex in her hand. Her
face relaxed a bit and she said, “And his involvement in this talent
seemed to block out memories of his father’s suicide. He hasn’t had any
bad dreams or even mentioned that day since he started doing his
“Yes, Dr. Terrell noted the
same observation.” Pritchard paused and then continued, “I know it’s a
very unpleasant memory, but I want to go over the day your husband shot
himself. I’ll be as brief and gentle as possible.”
hesitated, then nodded okay.
“Good,” Pritchard said. “Tell me exactly what happened. At least all that you remember.”
A sudden alarm came to
. She asked, “James won’t have to relive this, will he?
He won’t have to talk with you about that day again, I hope, because I
think it would send him into hysterics.”
Pritchard leaned back. “I
expect it will not be necessary for your son to go over that day again.
I’m pretty sure what information you have will give me what I need to
“All right. I’ll do my best.” She took a deep breath and started. “My husband Robert was a compulsive gambler, of course I’m sure you already know that from the medical file. Anyway, I’m not certain when it started. He never showed any signs when we were engaged or even after we got married and James came along. I think the extra expenses after James was born began to burden Robert. He managed a lumber yard and made a good salary. Good enough at first so I didn’t have to work. But after James was born, money got tight, mainly because James had a series of ear infections. The medical insurance Robert had was not very good, so we built up a heavy debt quickly from medical expenses. After James started school, I took a job in accounting, working for a company that kept the financial records for fast food chains. It was decent pay, but we never seemed to be able to get ahead. I suppose Robert thought he could make some quick cash gambling. It started with small poker games between Robert and his friends. But in time, his gambling escalated. He would make impromptu trips to Vegas and Atlantic City . Suddenly, our finances worsened because of his debts. Robert’s younger brother Michael tried to help me as much as he could with James and with what money he could lend us. He seemed to be around more than Robert, and more of a father to James in many ways. But even Michael couldn’t talk sense into Robert. My husband’s gambling debts brought attention from very unsavory characters. Robert was beaten badly one night. Bad enough to put him in the hospital for a week. James always adored his father. He could see no fault in Robert. To James, his father was a hero, a man who loved him even though he tended to be absent from James’s life. A month before his tenth birthday, James came home from school. He took his books out of his backpack, got a drink and a snack from the refrigerator, and sat at the kitchen table to do his homework as he routinely did as soon as he got off the bus and walked home. He heard a noise in the den and went to see what it was. About the time James entered the room he witnessed Robert pull the trigger on a .38 revolver that he had placed in his mouth, blowing his brains out. Bone, blood, and brain matter splattered the wall behind the recliner Robert had been sitting in.” Alice stopped talking. Her face froze in a distant stare.
“Mrs. Tanner,” Pritchard said softly. “If you need to stop . . .”
came out of her daze. She shook her head. “I came home
and found Robert dead in his chair. I couldn’t quite grasp it. I walked
back and forth across the room, thinking I would wake up from this
terrible nightmare. Then, I remembered passing the school books on the
kitchen table. I panicked. The horrible notion came to me that Robert
had shot James as well. I ran through the rooms of
the house crying out James’ name. I was almost in hysterics when I
noticed my son’s foot sticking out from under his bed. I bent down and
found James curled in a fetal ball. I pulled him out and held him. He
was trembling. He was sucking his thumb.”
took a deep breath and cast her eyes downward. “James
was in a catatonic state for a little over a week. He was given IV
therapy and a feeding tube was inserted. When he finally came around, he
did so screaming. After tranquilizing him, Dr. Terrell started the
therapy. The sessions were long and grueling, but eventually progress
was made, and after a year I took James home and got him back in school.
I wasn’t sure how he would take being in the room where his father had
killed himself. I had cleaned the wall as best I could and even
repainted the area, but the blood could not be completely removed or
hidden, so I hung a print of Van Gough’s Sunflowers over that spot on
“Did you consider moving, or have James stay with a relative until you could find another house?” Pritchard asked.
smiled. There was a look of defeat on her face. “With
James’ stay in the psychiatric ward, our medical expenses went through
the roof. I couldn’t afford a new home, and the only relative was
Robert’s brother. I was afraid Michael might remind James of Robert too
much. The brothers resembled each other physically.”
“I see. How did your son feel about going back home? Did he avoid the room where the suicide took place?”
“Not really. In fact, I was
surprised he was so calm about being there. James even said how much he
liked the sunflower painting. I thought he must have repressed the
memory. Then, the nightmares started.”
“That same day?”
“Yes, and there were awful
images in those dreams. Monsters trying to eat James. Monsters eating
the brains off the wall. Night terrors.” She shook her head. “James
would always wake up screaming the same thing over and over until I
could calm him. He cried The blood won’t come off the wall! It’s still there, Mama!”
then started crying. She wiped her eyes with the
crumbled tissue and then continued, “James said that again and again. I
don’t think he ever lifted the picture and saw the stain, but he somehow
knew it was there.”
Pritchard got up and handed
the box of tissues again; he gestured for
to keep them by her side. “And that’s when you and
James started watching television in the late hours? When he began his
impersonations of actors?”
nodded. “James seemed to direct all the horror away
from his memory and immerse himself in mimicking. I thought it was a
positive thing, and so did Dr. Terrell.” She hesitated, and then looked
up at Pritchard. “Until this new wrinkle occurred.”
“And that was . . .?”
She laughed nervously. “You’ll
think I’m crazy,” she said and then added before Pritchard could
respond, “James can not only mimic voices and gestures, he can somehow
transform . . . physically.”
Pritchard raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean by ‘physically’?”
lowered her eyes again. “It started at home. It was
only a brief moment and, at first, I thought I was just overly tired and
seeing things . . . but then the incident at school occurred with the
Bates boy seeing . . . what he saw. What made him loose control of his
bladder and bowels.”
“Surely James doesn’t actually change. That is beyond reality.”
Alice looked up, her face was set and serious. “I can tell you he changes all day, Dr. Pritchard, but there’s only one way you’re going to believe me.”
“Just here,” Pritchard said and pointed to the television screen. The tip of his finger rested just above the image of James’ face. “You see,” he said to Alice who sat next to him. “That was where I saw the change, but, as you can see, your son’s physical features really did not alter at all.” A shiver covered Pritchard as he remembered the session with James. The boy had sat on a large beanbag directly across from Pritchard in the therapy room, which was made to resemble any ordinary space: couch, recliners, television, and a coffee table with books for all ages spread across its top. Pritchard had approached the subject of impersonations slowly in order to gain the boy’s confidence. “Your mother says your impressions are quite good, James. Would you mind doing some for me?”
James had hesitated, a look of caution on his face. “I don’t know. I don’t want to get in trouble again.”
“It’s all right. I want you to show me. It will help me better understand what happened at school.”
After a few moments of silence, James had nodded his head and said, “Okay. Who would you like for me to imitate?”
“How about John Wayne? A lot of people do an impression of him.”
“Okay . . . Well,uh, Pilgrim, let’s step outside and settle this like men.”
The voice had been immediate and had astounded Pritchard. Even though James had not yet reached puberty, he somehow managed to recreate one of the worlds’ best known male voices with uncanny accuracy, but there had been no change in James’ appearance. “Very good. Now do Humphrey Bogart.” And that’s when Pritchard had felt the nudge. It was slight, like passing someone in a store and having them lightly brush your arm, only it wasn’t Pritchard’s arm, it was between his eyes like a momentary pressure in his sinus cavities. A sad face with basset hound eyes, cigarette dangling from a half grin, had flashed in front of Pritchard as the words ‘Hey, Mac, if you see Lauren, tell her I know how to whistle now’ drawled from Bogart’s lips. Then, the image had vanished and left Pritchard with a dry mouth and racing heart. When the doctor had gained control of himself, he asked James to do others: Peter Lorre—an exact ophthalmic copy complete with a sinister nasal voice; Rod Serling—the smoky words of countless Friday nights told of a signpost up ahead. Boris Karloff, Edward G. Robinson, Richard Nixon, Walter Cronkite . . . whoever Pritchard requested, James had brought that figure before him.
“It was Lugosi’s Dracula that did it for me,” the doctor said to Alice as he turned off the TV monitor. “I had never been so frightened in my life. I actually made the sign of the cross with my fingers.”
Alice raised her eyebrows. “Then you did see the changes in James. But why weren’t they on the DVD you recorded?”
Pritchard smiled. “Because your son didn’t actually change. He made us see his imitation in our minds.”
“No, that’s not possible. I saw those changes, and so did you.”
“Look at it this way. If I had asked James to impersonate someone I didn’t know, say some obscure actor he had been exposed to, I would not have seen any transformation because I’m not familiar with that particular person. Oh, I would have heard a change in your son’s voice, but I wouldn’t have the necessary image stored in my memory to pull up a matching face.”
Alice frowned and said, “I don’t understand. How could a ten year old make you think you saw something?”
“Evidently your son has a special gift. It’s not unique, but it’s rare.”
“What do you mean?”
“James possesses the power of suggestion. It’s like hypnotism in a way.” The word ‘hypnotism’ brought a vision of sideshows, fortune tellers, and hucksters to Alice ’s mind along with timepieces pendulously cutting the air. This idea that James could make you think you saw something was confusing. Alice had seen what she had seen. “I know he made great strides in his therapy with Dr. Terrell, and I realize the idea of going through more weeks of new treatment must sound almost unbearable, but I really believe I can help James control his ability and accept his father’s suicide without relying on this escape into mimicking,” Pritchard said.
So Alice had agreed to let James stay in the children's psychiatric ward under the care of Dr. Pritchard. She struggled with that decision, but the doctor’s allegation that the impersonations could ultimately become dangerous made her consider and ultimately consent to his wishes.
“Just think, Mrs. Tanner,” Pritchard had advised.” If he can use his power of suggestion on this small scale now, what will he be able to do as he matures and gains experience? I know this sounds absurd to you at the moment, but James could use this skill in the world of business and politics. Hopefully it would be for a positive cause, but you and I both know how easy it is for the unscrupulous to influence. Think of the possibilities in that regard. That is the reason I need to help him control this special gift of his.”
As Alice approached her house and turned into the drive, the knowledge that she was free to visit her son any time up to eleven pm on any day did bring a certain comfort to her. Before pushing the button on the garage door opener, she sat and took a long look at her home. She and Robert had chosen this area because the houses were spread out. You couldn’t ‘reach out the window and shake your neighbor’s hand’ as Robert had put it. The housing division had been constructed at the edge of the city limits. Most of the homes sat on extra lots to give the area an almost country atmosphere. The builder had loved trees and shrubs and had surrounded the houses with copious greenery, adding even more to the allusion of space and solitude. But as Alice looked now, she saw how her home had fallen into neglect. The misfortune of Robert’s decline into gambling and ultimate suicide, James’ witnessing the event and suffering mentally because of it, her own struggles to be certain her son received care and that their lives be kept in some kind of balance, not to mention her efforts to do enough work on the computer at home to keep her job, all these had taken precedence over the upkeep of the house. And now the neglect was painfully obvious in the weed infested yard, the peeling paint on the trimming around the brick, and the overgrown shrubs that had started to progress up the sides of the three bedroom structure, even reaching out with thin, expanding tendrils on the roof. And that was just the exterior. Inside, the floors were littered with errant paper, or advertisement flyers, junk mail that had somehow missed the trash and fell to the floor, a trash can always overflowing, and clothes left where they were removed, near a hamper or not. In the half bath by the front door there were even some leaves from last autumn that had blown in and gathered in a corner. And now, Alice would be apt to keep up the neglect of housekeeping since James was back in the hospital for another extended stay. She felt the weight of it all as she sat and reached to push the garage door opener. It was as if her arm didn’t have the strength to complete even that simple motion. She let her hand fall. She hugged herself and started to cry. She needed help and there was only one person she could ask as she had done before, back when Robert’s gambling had gone beyond control. And she wanted more than anything not to ask him, to let the house fall down around her in a heap if necessary. And she knew just as well it was not only the house neglected, but her as well, and that she would weaken, and that she would make the same mistake again.
The early May heat was steady. Not as hot as the coming months, but still warm enough to make people move thermostats in a downward direction. Alice sat on the couch in a pair of shorts and an oversized T-shirt. She wiggled her bare toes nervously as she waited for the doorbell to ring. Had it really been over a year since he had come over before? Michael, Robert’s brother, so like Robert physically: a little over six feet tall, same shocking blue eyes, and curly, auburn hair kept neatly cut against his skull. Michael was a little heavier than Robert, but the weight was muscle and not fat. Michael still did carpentry work that kept him in excellent shape. He and Robert had both apprenticed under their father, but Robert decided to take over a manager position at a local lumberyard rather than continue manual labor. What Alice remembered most about Michael was his callused hands, and the way those hands had once moved across her flesh. She hadn’t meant for it to happen. She had turned to Michael right after Robert suffered the severe beating from those men he owed gambling debts to. “I don’t know what else to do.” she had said. The strain from the money losses and the beating had put her in a vulnerable situation, especially with her young son to think of. Alice knew that the relationship between the brothers had been strained over the years, starting when Robert left working with Michael to become manager of the lumberyard. She realized that Robert’s gambling had only made matters worse. Robert had never spoken of Michael anymore and had made it clear to her his brother was not welcomed in their home. So she went about asking Michael for help cautiously, and she was quite surprised when her brother-in-law was receptive to the idea. When Robert was gone to one of his supposed Gamblers Anonymous meetings, meetings that seemed to last too long with Robert sometimes coming home in long after midnight or early the following day, Michael would come over to visit. James was particularly excited about his Uncle’s drop-ins and never questioned why he was not to tell his father that Michael had come over. Michael looked so much like his father, James felt he had his dad home in a way if only for a little while. Michael gave what financial aid he could and helped Alice with general house work and went over her fiscal statements to see if there were ways to further cut corners. He had never mentioned Robert until one night as he was leaving. “My brother doesn’t know what he has,” Michael had said before walking out the door. He then gave Alice a melancholy stare and added, “He never did.” It had offended her at first, and she didn’t respond in anyway to Michael’s statement. But as time passed and it was evident that Robert was deep in gambling debt once again, Alice started to think that maybe Michael was right. Maybe it was time to do something about the situation for James and for her.
It happened on a Thursday afternoon. James was in school and Robert had been absent for over two days. Alice called Michael and asked if he could come over for lunch, and that she had something to ask him, something she needed to talk to him about in person. She was going to ask Michael if he would help her find an apartment, that she was planning to divorce Robert but needed a little help to get out of the house. Whether taking Michael to bed had been in her subconscious all along, Alice was never sure of. But that’s where they ended up. Michael had been so gentle. His callused hands had explored her body with a rough trepidation, and she had responded as one who has hungered and thirsted and longed to be consumed in return. They never heard Robert come into the bedroom. The one memory of the moment that stuck in Alice ’s head and refused to ever leave her, even now, was Robert’s expression. Her husband had deserted her for his compulsive gambling, had betrayed his son by pretending to but never having time for him, but as Robert stood in front of the bed where Alice and Michael had been fucking, all the badness and harm that Robert had brought into their home was overshadowed by the look of despair and betrayal on his face. She felt so dirty as she stared at Robert. She could smell Michael’s sweat clinging to her, feel the wetness of his semen still warm and sticky inside her. She wanted to disappear, to somehow turn back time and erase what she had done with Robert’s brother no matter how right it had seemed at the time. Robert said nothing. His clothes were rumpled on his body as if he had been sleeping in them for days. His hair was a mess of curly tangles. A line of dried blood trailed down one corner of his mouth, and she wondered if he had been beaten again by men whose job it was to damage and terrorize. She had forgotten that Michael was next to her in bed, and she screamed when he laid his hand on her shoulder. Michael grabbed her with the thought of consolation, but she fought against him, hated him, and yelled, “Get out! Get out!” And when she looked back, Robert was no longer standing there. Alice jumped out of bed unconcerned that she had nothing on. She ran through house calling for her husband, but he was nowhere to be found. She collapsed in a heap on the couch and sobbed. Later, when Michael again placed his hand on her back, she did not jump, was not startled. She was empty of emotion by then. She never looked at Michael and only said, “Please leave and don’t come back.” He did not answer, and the last she had heard of Michael was the soft closing of the front door behind him. The next day, while she was at work and James had just come home from school, was the day Robert committed suicide. Alice was never able to convince herself Robert acted out of desperation from his disease of gambling. She knew irrevocably it was her adultery that had moved Robert to kill himself. And now, here she was, waiting for Michael to ring the doorbell. And when he did, she got up from the couch and quietly opened the front door.
“I was surprised you called.” Michael looked about the same. He had lost some weight, but not enough to make a big difference. Alice felt her breath catch. It was like having Robert’s ghost standing there. She invited him in. They sat next to each other on the couch. He tried to explain why he hadn’t been at Robert’s funeral, but it sounded forced and false. “I did stop by the funeral home late enough that I figured you wouldn’t be there. The casket was closed though.” A nervous smile danced across his face. “I started to open it, but the night attendant came in, so I didn’t.”
Alice nodded. She placed her hand on Michael’s. He took it the wrong way and scooted closer to her and she shook her head and moved away from him. “That’s not why I called you,” she said and lowered her eyes. Then she told him everything that had happened over the last week: the incident at school, the meeting with Dr. Pritchard, and James’ admission to the children’s mental ward again. As she was talking to Michael, Alice ’s eyes locked on the Sunflowers painting hanging on the wall across the room, and she thought about the dark stain still visible under all the coats of paint she had tried to cover it with.
“You want James to stay with me for awhile when he’s released?” Michael asked. “I thought you didn’t want me anywhere around him or you.”
“I didn’t. Not after what we did that day. Not after what we did to Robert.”
Michael shook his head. “You know that’s not true. My brother was lost in his compulsive gambling. He didn’t care about you or James anymore, he didn’t . . .”
She covered his mouth with her hand. He did not remove it, only stared at her. When she finally let her hand slip away, she said, “I need to get this house back into some kind of normal condition along with myself. I need you to keep my son for just a little while so I can accomplish this. James knows nothing about what we did. He still trusts you and asked, even during his rough time with trying to cope, about you.” Michael nodded. Alice got up and motioned him toward the door. “I’m going to discuss this with Dr. Pritchard before letting James stay with you, but he so much as hinted at such an arrangement himself. Since I can’t afford to get a different home right now, I plan to redecorate this one enough that it will seem like new surroundings when James comes home from his stay with you.”
As he was walking out the door, Michael turned and grabbed Alice ’s hands. “I have a house that’s big enough for all of us. We could be a family. You must know how I always felt about you. Why do think Robert and I had nothing to do with each other anymore?”
Alice pulled away. “What?” “Robert knew how I felt about you, even when you two were dating. I always wanted you. Don’t you see how right we are for each other? Don’t you remember me inside you?” She slapped him. It was hard and loud. Michael’s face transformed into a mask of fury. He raised his hand, and she backed away. His motion stopped in mid air. A terrible smile spread over his face. He turned and walked away and then swung back around and pointed a finger at her. “You know you liked it. It won’t be long ‘till you’ll be calling me again.” He laughed and walked to his car, leaving Alice trembling on the doorstep, her underwear wet and warm with urine.
“Think of it as filling a glass with water. You know when to stop, don’t you? You know the glass will overflow if you keep filling it, right?” James nodded. He felt safe in Dr. Pritchard’s office. The deep leather chair, the smell of books and pipe tobacco nestled around him like a comfortable fog.
“Is it wrong to pretend to be other people then?” he asked the doctor.
Pritchard placed his unlit pipe in the large, amber ashtray on his desk. He didn’t smoke anymore, but he still relished the feel of the stem between his lips and the phantom flavors embedded there. “Not at all, James. In fact, using that talent has actually been good for you. It’s just knowing when to stop before taking it too far.” Pritchard made the motion of poring invisible water into a glass on his desk. “Understand?”
“Like in school that day I made Milton poop his pants.”
“Yes,” Pritchard answered with a brief, unsuitable but good-humored smile. “You just have to know when its getting out of hand.”
James nodded. He gazed at the framed photo on Pritchard’s desk. “Who’s’ that,” he asked and pointed at a boy dressed in the baseball uniform.
The doctor took the pipe from the ashtray and placed it in his mouth. “That’s my son Hunter.” Prichard ’s brow creased. “He was about your age when that was taken.”
“He doesn’t look much like you,” James observed with the candor children seem to have the market on.
Pritchard smiled and put the pipe back down. “No, he was lucky enough to take after his mother’s appearance. He was even walleyed, just like her.”
James giggled. “Wall what?”
“Eyed,” Pritchard said. He laughed softly to himself and then stood up; he took the picture from his desk and handed it to James. “Take a close look at his eyes and tell me what color they are.”
James concentrated and could see no difference at first glance. He tilted the frame back and forth several times until he caught just the right angle. His face wrinkled with an astonished look. “Wow! One’s green and one’s gray!”
Pritchard gently took the photo from James. He glanced at it with a brief melancholy before replacing it on his desk. “That’s right. Walleyed,” he said and then added, “just like his mother.”
“That’s wild. Are they still like that?”
Pritchard hesitated, then said, “I’ll tell you all about Hunter some other time, but right now I want to go over a few mental exercises with you. I think they will help you learn to better control your talent.”
James frowned momentarily, but it was short lived. He liked Dr. Pritchard and wanted to please him. “Okay. What do you want me to do?”
The doctor pulled out his bottom desk drawer and retrieved a metronome from it. He placed the devise on the front of the desk directly across from James.
“I know what that is,” James announced. “We had one in music class. You keep time to it.”
“Very good.” Pritchard pushed a button on the back of the metronome and set the arm in motion. “I want you to watch the arm move back and forth. I want you to let your body relax as you do this, and I want you to listen to my voice at the same time.”
“Sure,” James said as his eyes spanned across the motion to the right, then back again to the left, over and over until his eyelids felt sodden and he began to drift into a state of tranquility.
Pritchard waited until James had closed his eyes. When the boy’s breathing slowed in time to the ticking movement of the metronome, the doctor suggested, “James, this is what I want you to do.” As James slid further under, he caught phrases coming across in Pritchard’s voice: Michael, betrayal, Lizzie . . . Lizzie . . . Liz . . .
Pritchard had done his research on Alice, Robert, and Robert’s brother Michael. He had scanned notes and statements for hours, and not just the records made after Robert’s suicide. There were even more extensive observations from police and hospital records that were made during Robert’s gambling days and his brush with local crime figures. So much personal information was available these days on the internet that privacy seemed only a false assurance anymore. Pritchard knew what was going to be best for James, and he intended to see that it was accomplished, even if it meant bringing the boy’s uncle into the picture.
“Funny you should be calling me, Doc.” Michael’s voice came over the line in a smug tone. “It just so happens Alice and I had a visit yesterday. And I’m thinking you’d be very interested in just what we had to talk about.”
Alice couldn’t believe Pritchard wanted to go with his earlier suggestion, especially since she had told him about Michael’s recent behavior. “I don’t see how it would be a good idea for James to stay with Michael,” she stated flatly. Alice came to talk with Pritchard with the knowledge that this was to be their last meeting before James was released. “I know I asked Michael to keep James, but that was before I knew what he really wanted. I realize now it was a mistake. What makes you think Michael would be a good influence?”
The doctor leaned back in his chair, took in a breath and then explained, “I realize the idea seems out of place. Michael’s expression of his wish for you and James to make a family with him does seem extreme, but I’m thinking of James’ interest here. You’re his mother, and he loves you, but there has been the lack of male influence since your husband’s death.”
“But Michael,” Alice said and blushed, lowering her head. “Well, he seems more intent on getting me back in bed than anything else. I think he would only use James as a pawn to try and force a relationship I don’t want.” She sighed deeply and shook her head. “I was so stupid to ever let him touch me.” She then looked directly at Pritchard. “How could I have done such a thing? How could I have been so weak?”
“You shouldn’t be hard on yourself. You were under a lot of pressure mentally and physically. It was only natural to turn to someone, a family member like Michael, for support.”
“I still don’t think James should stay with him. It sends the wrong message to Michael. He might actually think I really do want him in that way.”
Pritchard rubbed his brow. He picked up his cold pipe and bit on the stem. “What if I talk with Michael? Explain what is needed for James.”
Alice seemed to consider this proposition. “You said James is ready to come home. On my last few visits, I have seen a great improvement in my son. He never once attempted his imitations. It’s like he’s had a weight lifted from him. I can see it in his face. And for that I thank you.”
“He has come a long way in accepting his father’s suicide. And I think he doesn’t need the mimicking for support anymore. I believe we’ve got that out of his system, so to speak.”
“Then I have to say no to your idea of his staying with Michael.” Alice looked almost apologetic. “I appreciate all you’ve done, and I intend to keep the follow up appointments with you, but I just think putting him with Michael would be a mistake. James might even have a relapse.”
The doctor smiled and set his pipe back down. “Then, we will not speak of Michael again. I support your decision completely. It was just an idea on my part, but I would never try to force you to do something you felt harmful in regard to James. After all, Mother does know best.”
After Alice left, saying how much she looked forward to picking James up from the hospital the following day, Pritchard went to his desk and lifted the phone receiver. When Michael answered, the doctor said, “She reacted as I said she would. She’s going to be here at one tomorrow afternoon, so you should make plans to arrive much earlier. Mid morning would work out best, I think.”
The setting sun filled the house with a pale, yellow ruddiness. Pritchard sat in silence. He made no move to get up and turn on a light. Outside, a lively breeze stroked the trees and the blooming plants in the flower beds around the house. The scent of honeysuckle wafted under the doors and through the small cracks throughout the home, eventually making its way to where the doctor sat. With his eyes closed, Pritchard breathed the fragrance deep into his lungs. Its was like a wine bouquet, traveling across his senses, settling in the folds of his memory.
“It’s that time of year again,” his wife had said while Pritchard added the final touches to his famous chicken pasta before placing it in the oven.
“What, dear?” he had asked.
“I said it’s that time of year again. When the honeysuckle’s in bloom. The house is filled with it.”
Pritchard had wiped his hands on a dish towel. “It is lovely, that smell, better than any air freshener, that’s for certain.” He had taken down a metal straining bowl and started breaking lettuce leaves into it. “Don’t be too long picking Hunter up from little league practice. Supper will be ready in less than an hour.”
She had laughed and walked to him, put her arms around him from the back and hugged. “Not many women are lucky enough to have a shrink and a chef for a husband.”
Pritchard had turned and stuck a lettuce fragment in her mouth. As she chewed he had bent and kissed her and caught the green taste and a cold brush of water clinging to the leaf.
Now, sitting on the side of the bed in his son’s room, the last fragment of that kiss clung to the doctor’s memory and dry lips. His wife’s face had been completely smashed in the car wreck. The lips he had kissed that day became only a mass of crushed tissue. Somehow her eyes, one gray and one green, had been left intact and looked oddly out of place in what once had been a human countenance. As far as Hunter was concerned, Pritchard had recognized only the brown horseshoe birthmark on his son’s right calf. The rest of the shattered remains of flesh and bone had held no semblance to his son.
he last of the light fell and settled around Pritchard’s feet. His body began to shake. His morose sobs filled the otherwise silent room.
Alice was in a panic. “How could you have let him take James out of the hospital!?”
“Please, Mrs. Tanner, you have to settle down,” a male ward attendant pleaded. “Just sit here by my desk. Dr. Pritchard is on his way.”
The attendant reached for Alice ’s hand, and she drew it back as if to slap him. “No,” she yelled. “I’ve got to get my son right now.” She turned to run from the room and bumped into Pritchard, almost knocking him down. “Dr. Pritchard, how could you go against my wishes? I thought we agreed James was not to stay with Michael!”
The doctor grabbed Alice firmly by her shoulders. “Calm down,” he said with authority and directed her back into the chair by the ward attendant’s desk. Alice resisted even as Pritchard forcibly pushed her back in the seat. He let go and she jumped up, and he pushed her back down again. Her breathing was heavy. Her lips were clinched. She tried to get up and again was pushed back down by the doctor. “Let me up!” she screamed. Pritchard motioned for the ward attendant to close the office door. The staff and ward members had started to gather outside to see what the commotion was about. “It’s all right,” the attendant’s voice announced dully from the other side of the office’s glass windows. “Everybody go back to what you were doing.”
Pritchard locked eyes with Alice . The fury from her began to subside. Her breathing slowed. “That’s better,” he said and released his grip from Alice ’s shoulders. She did not try and get up again. “I’m very sorry for what occurred this morning,” Pritchard apologized. “And I take full responsibility for it.”
“But what . . . how could this have happened?” Alice ’s stare was incredulous. “How could Michael have been allowed to check James out and take him away?”
The doctor pulled up a chair and sat down. “After we talked yesterday, I was called to the ER,” he lied. “A teenage boy had overdosed because his girlfriend had broken up with him. As I was helping with the boy’s treatment, the girlfriend, her parents, and the boy’s parents came in. It was a mass of yelling and crying and confusion. By the time order had been restored, I had completely forgotten about coming back here and changing the orders I had written for James’ release. Originally, I thought you would agree to Michael keeping him. That’s why the orders allowed for Michael to take him. I shouldn’t have been so premature in my judgment concerning your decision.”
Alice managed a weak smile. She shook her head. “No, I guess you shouldn’t have.” A strangled sound escaped from her throat. “What gives you that right? You’re the doctor, I admit that, but I could sue you for this.” Her mouth settled into a grim line. “So, what do we do now? How do I get James back, if Michael hasn’t already run out of town with him?”
Pritchard held up his hands as if to defend himself from an invisible blow. “I have contacted the police. It should only be a matter of minutes before they intervene with your brother-in-law.” “You’d better hope so,” Alice said with a flat tone. She stood up and added, “I’ll go down to the police station now and wait . . . and file a formal complaint against you as well.”
A shadow momentarily crossed the doctor’s face. Lines of red creased his brow before he answered, “You have every right to do that, but I instructed the police to bring James back here to my office. I told them you were here and we could sort this thing out.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Alice blurted out and walked around the doctor. “I’m going to the police station.”
As she opened the office door, Pritchard’s cell phone rang. “Yes, this is Dr. Pritchard,” he said. “Wonderful, just wonderful. Yes, his mother is with me, and we’ll be waiting in my office on the third floor.” He turned his eyes toward Alice standing in the doorway. “That’s correct, office 319.” She reached for the phone just as the doctor closed it. “They’re already in the building with James in tow, Mrs. Tanner.”
Alice let out a sigh of relief. “Well, let’s go to your office then,” she said with a frown.
It was so sudden Alice only felt a slight sting on the side of her neck before the room collapsed inward, swallowing her. Pritchard stood above her, a syringe held loosely in his hand. After a moment, he recapped the needle and dropped the hypodermic in a Sharps container mounted on the back of his office door. Then, he bent down and lifted Alice ’s body from the floor and laid her on his therapy couch. Her breath came in soft, short inhalations. The doctor calculated with her weight and the dose he had administered he had about six hours to get Alice out of the hospital. It wouldn’t be hard to explain if someone questioned him. ‘I had to sedate her. She was uncontrollable. Her son, you see. I’ll be happy to show you the records. I just need to be certain she gets home safe and sound’. Pritchard sat at his desk and pulled out the middle drawer. He removed the DVD he had recorded during his first session with James, the altered one he had shown Alice with the actual physical transformations edited out so it would appear James was only using suggestion. It had not been difficult to edit the real mimics out, nor to fool Alice into thinking her son could not really alter his flesh and form. Pritchard felt a cold sweat move over his skin when he recalled that initial session. It was incredible, unbelievable, what he had stumbled onto with James. He worked hard with the boy over the next weeks, teaching him to control the manifestations. What a media circus it would have been if the knowledge of what the boy could do leaked out of the safety net Pritchard had put up at the hospital. And what if the government had become involved? No, Pritchard knew he must protect the boy. Wasn’t it possible James had been sent to him? Sent to ease Pritchard’s pain and suffering? His grief? Pritchard put the DVD in the disc tray of his computer, closed it, and clicked the erase option. He repeated his action until all video documentation concerning James had been wiped out. Then, he went out of his office, took the wheelchair he had placed in a nearby corner, reentered the office, and put Alice in that chair. He was never stopped or questioned on his way out of the busy hospital lobby or when he loaded the wheelchair and its occupant in the side of the hospital van he had checked out the day before.
James experienced a mixture of emotions. He was glad Uncle Michael had come to get him. He was happy he was going to stay with his uncle for awhile until his mother was ready to bring him back home. “She’s got a lot she wants to do for you, buddy,” Uncle Michael had told him. “Don’t worry, she’s coming by tonight. She can’t wait to see you.” James liked that his uncle called him buddy. It made him feel special. But there was still something nagging at James. Slight tugs in his head like fingers probing, like an impending headache teasing its victim. “I got the guest room all fixed up for you,” Michael said as he opened the front door and directed James down the hallway. James had never seen his uncle’s home. It was a ranch style house with a sprawling living room. The floors were deeply polished hard wood as were the dark wall panels. The bedroom Michael led him to was twice the size of his room back home. The same dark wood enclosed its space. The bed was a king size, oak-framed affair; the comforter a deep navy blue color—thick and inviting with large pillows covered in the same cloth. In the center of the back wall was an entertainment center—a forty inch, flat, wide screen television just waiting for someone to turn it own and watch the pile of DVD movies sitting nearby in a stand or to play the games on an Xbox system connected to it. James’ mouth fell open. All the little impulses bothering him flew away like a flock of birds. “Wow!” was all he could think to say.
“Dr. Pritchard wanted me to be sure you watched this one,” Michael said as he handed a DVD to James. “He said it’s part of your therapy.” Michel smiled down at his nephew and thought of Alice . It would be perfect, James and Alice living here with him. They could be a family. Michael was certain of it. He would talk about it with James later, maybe in a day or two. Approach the boy slowly; use James to persuade Alice to come over to Michael’s way of thinking. He knew his bed might soon be a lot warmer. It would only be a matter of manipulation and time. Dr. Pritchard had really come through for him. He might even ask the doctor to be his best man at the wedding.
The images from the DVD spun inside James’ mind. He felt dizzy. Nausea gripped him. A string of whispered suggestions spread throughout his brain. James got up and weaved toward the large bed in his uncle’s guest room. He fell into it as the world swirled around him.
“Poor kid‘s worn out,” Michael said as he pulled the covers out from under James. He then covered the boy with them. “Hey, buddy, you okay?” James mumbled something unintelligible, opened his eyes for a moment, then frowned and turned over, falling back into his fitful sleep. Michael smiled. “It’s okay, buddy. You get some rest.” He finished covering James, then went over and ejected the DVD from the player and flipped off the television using the remote control. He held the disc up and watched as the light played across its surface in a rainbow effect. He had an impulse to turn the player and television back on and watch the therapy disc Pritchard had instructed him to give to James, but he then lost the impulse, shrugged his shoulders, and replaced the disc in its plastic sleeve. “Probably just boring psychological gobbledygook anyway,” Michael said to himself. He checked James one more time, made sure that the night light was on in the guest bathroom, walked to the door and flipped off the room light. “See you later, buddy,” he said as he left, closing the door behind him.
A clattering invaded Michael’s peaceful sleep. He had fallen asleep watching the evening news. He was tired himself from the day’s activities and had sunk into the comfortable clutches of his familiar and well-worn recliner. Glancing at the wall clock, he saw it was almost nine pm . He mumbled and turned on his side, soon sliding back into a doze. The noise came again. It was the sound of metal being disturbed, of items searched through roughly. Michael sat up and let his mind clear. The direction of the disturbance seemed to come from the back yard. “Damn,” he said out loud. “Something’s got in the tool shed.” He cursed himself for not checking earlier to be sure the shed door was locked. He had a habit of working on a project and being so caught up in his wood work he would become absent minded, leaving the door ajar without locking it. Today with the excitement of getting James here and settled, he had forgotten all about the shed door. “Probably a raccoon or an opossum rooting around,” he said as he got out of the recliner. He went to the kitchen and retrieved a large flashlight from a drawer and headed for the back door. Before going out, he had a sudden intuition to check on James. He turned around and headed down the hallway. He entered the guest bedroom being as quiet as could so as not to disturb the boy. “What the hell?” he said, staring at the empty bed. The covers were a mess, rumpled and trailing down to the floor. It looked as if a fight had taken place in the bed. The hair on the nape of Michael’s neck bristled as he moved carefully toward the bathroom. He slipped his hand in and flipped on the light; he found the room empty. A heavy smell of ammonia permeated the room. Michael frowned and covered his nose. He saw yellow splatters on the sides of the toilet. When he moved closer, he found the bowl was filled with urine. “Buddy?” he called. “Where are you?” Michael noticed the shower door was slightly ajar and rushed to it and flung it open. James wasn’t there, but his clothes were. The boy’s underwear and jeans, tee shirt and socks lay in a lump. The middle of the jeans had a large, wet circle where James had wet himself before he could get to the toilet. Had James gotten sick? Had he been confused by where he was, the unfamiliar surroundings, and stumbled out of the house? Was James the source of the racket outside that had awakened Michael? All those questions filled Michael’s head as he ran from the guest room and headed toward the back door in the kitchen. And that’s when all the lights in the house went out. “What the Hell?” Michael froze and stood in the darkness. Eventually, light from the street lamps outside began to filter in dimly. He jumped as the back door opened. He squinted and saw a silhouette standing in the doorway. “Is that you, buddy?” he asked, then remembered he was holding the flashlight. He flicked it on. The sudden burst of light fell on the figure in front of him. It wasn’t James. It was a tall, young woman. Her dirty blonde hair rested in a thick bun on top of her head. Strands of it fell away from the mass of the bun, lying like tendrils on her shoulders. The woman was naked. Sweat collected and ran down and over full breasts, sliding in a glistening trail into her navel, then spilling over and accumulating in a mass of dark pubic hair. Michael was stunned, confused. “What the fuck is going on?” he asked. “Who the fuck are you?” The girl smiled and started walking toward him slowly. He put the beam of light directly on her face. She did not blink or cringe. She kept moving to him. A sudden recognition came to Michael. “You look just like that actress. The one on that old sitcom. Bewitched. That’s the one! You look just like Eliza . . .” His words were cut short by a swooshing sound that sliced through the air before landing sharply into the flesh of his neck, and then came back again and again and again.
Pritchard had returned the hospital van early that evening. He now sat in his black VW Jetta in Michael’s driveway. The doctor had pulled the house’s main breaker switch just moments before. He waited until he saw the pale, blood-stained figure stumble out of the back door before getting out to start his cleanup.
Alice Tanner was in and out of consciousness. She had moved from her bed to the couch, then to the chair by the couch. She didn’t recall being in any of them. She stood on shaky legs and tried to navigate herself back to the bedroom. She made it to the wall and guided herself using it for support. Every time she tried to raise her head, she was engulfed with vertigo and the sensation of being dragged down by a heavy weight. She fell twice before finally making it to her bed. She doubled over and vomited on the floor. The odor of bile mixed with the drug Pritchard had given her assaulted Alice as she fell on the bed. She groaned and felt herself being pulled under the spell of the drug again. Time slid by unnoticed. A distant rumbling rattled in her head. Eventually, she opened her eyes. Her vision had steadied. The lights were on throughout the house and the one directly above momentarily blinded her. Alice lay in the wetness of her perspiration. Her head ached unmercifully. Outside the bedroom window there was the sound of thunder followed by a sharp tapping of rain against the window panes.
“Is this where Dad found you and Uncle Michael?” Alice thought she was imagining the voice. It was so weak, so distant. “Is this where you were . . . doing something bad with Uncle Michael?” Alice sensed herself waking. Her son’s voice was like a cold splash of water in her face. She rose up, disregarding the terrible pounding in her head. At first, she could only make out a blur of something in the middle of the floor just in front of the bed. James came into focus slowly. He was nude and curled up in the fetal position. His skin was so ashen for a moment Alice believed it was his ghost lying there on the floor before her. She gasped and struggled to get out of bed. Her legs were wobbly so she sat back down on the edge of the bed to steady herself. “James?” she asked between breaths. “Is that you? Are you all right?” She turned her head and saw him rise up from the floor and walk slowly out of the bedroom. “No, wait,” she said and tried to get up. She took a few steps then fell hard to the floor. Black specs whirled around her, but she willed herself to get up again. She pulled herself up using the bed frame to bear her weight. The thunder boomed loudly outside, shaking the house. The lights blinked off momentarily then came back on. Alice could not steady herself, so she dropped to her knees and crawled toward the living room in pursuit of her son, or the apparition of him. This time a slash of lightning filled the house with a sudden burst of radiance, the thunder rolled after like an impending calamity. The house lights blinked again and then went out and left the house encased in darkness. Alice tried to adjust her vision. Guided by the sporadic illumination from shards of lightning, she kept moving toward the living room on her hands and knees “James,” Alice said weakly. “I need your help.” When she entered the living room, she saw a lighted candle sitting on the coffee table. Its flame danced under a gust of wind coming from an open window whose curtains flapped wildly. Her brow creased as she tried to make sense of what was going on. “Why did you open the window? It’s storming outside. James, where are you? Did you hear me? It’s storming. You need to close the . . .” she stopped talking when the candle’s flame jumped high enough for her to see the person sitting on the couch. A face peered from behind the candle light. The young woman was pale but lovely there in the soft shadows. In the dancing flame, her eyes glinted a bright blue. A mass of dirty blonde hair sat on her head. Unruly wisps of it settled in luscious curls on bare shoulders. The young woman raised herself from the couch. She wore no clothes. Full breasts swayed as she stood, their nipples dark and erect. Alice tried to focus. “Who are you? Where is my son?” The answer came from the young woman’s mouth. “I’m here, Mother,” she said with James’ voice. It came through the confusion in Alice ’s mind then that James was mimicking, suggesting what she saw. Isn’t that what Dr. Pritchard had said? The boy was only suggesting. But this vision seemed so real. How could James only imply her mind to believe a young, naked woman was standing before her? “James, please help me up,” Alice pleaded.
The young woman pointed to the wall behind Alice . “See,” James’ voice said. “Even with the picture gone you can still see it.” Alice ’s brow creased and she turned around to find Van Gough’s Sunflowers had been taken off the wall. If the room had been fully illuminated, one would barely be able discern the dark spot hiding under layers of paint. But in the gloom of the irregular glow from the moving candle flame and short bursts of lightning, the stain seemed to stand out as if it were a living thing, seemed to undulate in false movement from the optical illusion it created. The blood won’t come off the wall. It’s still there, Mama. The words came from the young woman’s mouth softly, almost in a whisper. “Dad killed himself because of what you and Uncle Michael were doing in the bed,” James’ voice said with sorrow.
Alice tried to get up. She grabbed the end of the coffee table and pulled. But she was still too dizzy and stumbled and fell down again, grazing her head on the sharp corner of the table. She started to weep in frustration. She turned over on her back. She tasted her own blood as it ran down the side of her head and into her mouth, and that action brought a sudden clarity to her. “You don’t understand, James,” she said angrily. “I don’t know who told you about your Uncle Michael and me, but they didn’t tell you the truth!” She thought it might have been Michael himself. After all, he had taken James from the hospital. But where was Michael now? What could have happened? Was her former brother-in-law behind this ghoulish display?
“You mean you didn’t FUCK him!” James’ voice screamed.
The sound of that scream coming from the image of the young woman was agonizing, malicious. Alice felt her breath catch in her throat. “James,” she said. Her voice trembled. “Please don’t talk like that.” She pushed herself up to a sitting position and fought the vertigo that followed her movement. “You’re so young. You don’t understand how things were. Your father’s gambling had just about ruined us. What happened between Michael and me was a mistake. I never should . . .” She froze when saw the young woman raise her arms above her head. Alice ’s eyes trailed up the long, rapturous torso of what her son mimicked and then came to rest on the ax handle clutched in its delicate hands. “Please, James” Alice begged as she placed her hands defensively in front of her face. “Please don’t.”
The young woman’s face took on a maniacal aspect in the bouncing light from the candle. “Lizzie Borden took an ax . . .” The blade sliced sharply through the air as it descended. “And gave her mother forty whacks!” Alice ’s scream was spilt in half along with her face. Blood gushed in an arterial spray upward on the frenzied form standing over her as James’ voice wailed over and over: “ANDGAVEHERMOTHERFORTYWHACKSANDGAVEHERMOTHERFORTYWHACKS . . .ANDGAVE . . .ANDGAVE . . .ANDGAVEHISMOTHER . . .”
Pritchard waited until he could hear nothing coming from the house. He closed his umbrella and walked through the front door. He took the blanket he had been holding under his raincoat and walked to the center of the room. He covered James’ shivering body, lifted him, and headed toward the bathroom.
Detective Frank Barnes leaned across his desk. He placed the folder in front of Pritchard who sat on the opposite side. “George, I think you’ll find all the information you need here,” Barnes stated. He and Pritchard had worked many times together over the years on crime related child abuse cases. “The Medical Examiner’s report, the police records on Robert Tanner’s brush with the mob in regard to his gambling debts, all the crime scene photos from Alice and Michael Tanner’s houses . . . Well, all this information and the fact the child has no direct surviving relatives should be enough to secure the guardianship for you.”
“What about the crime? Have you found any suspects as yet?” Pritchard asked as he picked up the folder and placed it in a brief case sitting by his chair.
Barnes patted an empty shirt pocket, then smiled. “Can’t stop reaching for my Camels,” he said and shook his head. “That horror show still has me on edge. Those bodies. Hacked to pieces.” Barnes sighed. “And the houses so clean of evidence, other than the victims’ blood of course. It’s damned eerie.” Barnes opened his desk drawer and took out a pack of gum. He offered Pritchard a piece. Pritchard declined. “We still think it has something to do with Robert Tanner’s debts to the local crime syndicate. Sometimes the relatives and spouses are fleeced for the money. We just can’t figure out why such violence was employed. Those thugs usually go for beatings, and if they do kill, it’s usually one shot to the back of the head. Clean and neat and effective.” The years on the job lined Barnes’ jowly, basset-hound face. “And why both Alice and Michael Tanner? As far as we know, Michael had no dealings with the mob. He had a few brushes with the law, but that was when he was a teenager. And Alice Tanner’s record is a pure as a virgin’s honey pot. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well, whatever the reason, it put the boy in sorry state. We were making such progress since his earlier set back this year. The poor child is in an almost catatonic condition now.”
“That’s a damned shame. He probably saw his mother killed before he hid under the bed. At least it looked that way by the expression on the kid’s face.” Barnes visibly shivered. “I’ve seen a lot of things over the years, but the look on that boy’s face was as close to a glimpse of Hell as I want.”
Pritchard stood and extended his hand. “Thanks for your aid, Frank.”
Barnes took the offered hand and shook it firmly. “If I can help anymore, George, don’t hesitate to call me. I can’t think of a better place for that boy to be than in your care.”
New Years Day brought a heavy blanket of snow. James watched it fall from the kitchen window of Pritchard’s home. He hardly remembered his mother , father, or uncle anymore. Occasionally, when he was drifting off to sleep or just waking, a fleeting face, a voice, would brush through his mind. But he couldn’t seem to hold on to it for longer than a second before it vanished and left a slight emptiness behind.
“James,” Pritchard’s voice called from the living room. He picked out a DVD case from a stand near the television. He opened it and saw the title The Legend of Lizzie Borden, TV movie 1975, directed by Paul Wendkos, starring Elizabeth Montgomery, Fionnula Flanagan, and Fritz Weaver. “I should get rid of this,” he chided himself, not really understanding why he couldn’t. “Or at least put it away from the other DVDs.” He sat it on a separate shelf and then grabbed the next disc in line in alphabetical order on the stand: Little League Championship 1990. He put the disc in the player about the time James entered the room. James sat on the couch. He had lost a considerable amount of weight, making him appear gaunt and his eyes distant and pensive. The DVD started. The camera focused on Hunter Pritchard—at bat, pitching, running the bases. The lens would swing occasionally to George Pritchard’s wife and her reaction to her son’s playing. Hunter and his mother’s expressions were filled with joy and trepidation, frustration and triumph. After the game was over, Hunter’s side winning by a one point margin, the camera caught mother and son as they laughed and hugged each other and then begged the man behind the camera to join them. Pritchard pressed the pause button on the DVD player’s remote, catching his wife and son’s faces side by side. Pritchard then left the room. He returned shortly with Hunter’s old baseball uniform and the dress his wife had been wearing on the day of that championship game. He placed both down carefully, one on each side of the chair next to the couch.
James glanced from the television screen to the articles of clothing. “Which one do you want today?” he asked with no emotion.
Pritchard stood next to the chair. “I’ll let you decide, James,” he said.
James stood up and walked to the side of the chair where the baseball uniform lay. Pritchard wasn’t disappointed or surprised by James’ choice. “Boys will be boys,” Pritchard said to himself as his son Hunter emerged.