Musicophrenia

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by Patrick Redding

I think I was lying in the floor of my friend Callie’s living room when the shift happened. Something vital was taken away, to be replaced by something spectacular.

We’d been fooling around with our guitars earlier, and now we were stoned. We were listening to Heart; Ann Wilson was belting out “I’ve Got the Music in Me” – not a particularly profound song, I know, but I believe that’s when it happened. The music took over my brain.

I didn’t notice the change at first. It was getting late, and I wanted to get something to eat before I headed home, so I said my goodbyes and went out to my car. I laid my guitar case very carefully in the back seat, poked a CD into the player, and started the car.

Then I was in a boat on a river, and Lucille Ball was decked out in a diamond bracelet and earrings, flying an airplane in the orange sky overhead. I didn’t remember Callie having landscaping quite like this in her yard – and she didn’t live near the river, for that matter – but I figured it was the weed skewing my perception, making me see the flowers as being much taller and stranger than they actually were.

“This is some wicked stuff,” I thought. “Really creeps up on you, though. You think you’ve straightened out but then off you go again. Weird. Like… extended-release weed. Are they growing that now? I haven’t heard anything about it. Wow. Look at those little plastic dudes over there with the mirror neckties. They’re like some freaky new set of Lego guys. Wow.”

I sat there in la-la land, watching the parade of nonsensical visuals for several minutes before a sharp rapping on the car window got my attention. For a minute, I thought Callie’s eyes were spinning, speckled – like what you’d see in a kaleidoscope – but then that faded and I was able to focus.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I assured her. “No. What was in that stuff? Did you lace it with something else?”

“No,” she laughed. “Why?”

“I’m hallucinating.”

“It’s just some kind of Afghani stuff. It’s good, but it doesn’t cause hallucinations,” she said.

Then she was gone and I was sitting in school, and the teacher was yelling at me. That wasn’t cool. I was confused and getting really uncomfortable, and then Callie was back, leaning across me and popping my Sergeant Pepper’s CD out of the player. “You didn’t hear anything I just said, did you?”

“No,” I admitted. “I don’t think I should drive.”

“No. It’s probably where you came out into the night air. It just hit you again,” she suggested. “Come on. You can crash here tonight.”

So I went back in with her, and we ordered pizza and listened to more music, and over the course of the evening we managed to figure out that something in my brain was making me actually experience the music that I was hearing as a sort of hallucination. It started when a song came on; it went away when the song did. It was most noticeable on songs with weird lyrics. Like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” And it completely overrode any contradictory input from my other senses.

It was the weed. Had to be. Callie wasn’t experiencing anything like this (and was heartily laughing her ass off at me, cuing up every bizarre song in her varied collection). But it had to be the weed. Right?

Well… not really.

I ran my car into a ditch the next afternoon. I was driving home, totally straight and sober, having had a good night’s sleep on Callie’s couch, and without thinking, I clicked on the radio. The local classic rock station was playing “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, and the hammer of the gods drove my Toyota to new lands to fight the horde, only instead of singing, I was crying, because I hit the ditch with a crash, and found that rather than ice and snow or soft, green fields, my car was mired in mud and rocks.

When the cop showed up, he gave me a sobriety test (since there were no other vehicles involved) and a ticket for reckless driving (since I passed his sobriety test). I didn’t want to sound like a smart-ass or anything, so when he asked me what happened, I told him a bee flew into my car and startled me. I figured that would sound better than what really happened, and it did, I’m sure, but I still got a ticket and had to pay a tow truck to come and get my car out of the ditch.

The tailpipe was dangling and scraping the ground, so I had to have the car taken to a garage. I rode in the truck with the driver, and it was really unfortunate that he was an old-school country music lover. He blasted George Jones and Tammy Wynette songs all the way there. I became convinced that my wife had left me and I’d become an alcoholic with nothing to live for, and when the tow driver shoved me out of his truck at the garage, I was bawling like a drunken moose.

The mechanic was looking at me funny, so I asked to use the restroom, and spent a few minutes cleaning myself up and trying to pull it together. When I could act like a normal human being again, I asked the mechanic to take the radio and CD player out of the car when he fixed the tailpipe. He looked at me funny again and set a grimy-looking telephone on the counter and told me I could call someone to come and get me.

I didn’t want to bother Callie again, but I couldn’t get my brother on the phone, and I really didn’t want to try explaining things to him. He’s kind of a snot and I knew he’d say it was the weed even though it was perfectly obvious to me that this was something bigger than that. So I called Callie, and she came to fetch me, and very kindly didn’t play any music in her car on the way home. She suggested that I get some rest, and if this continued, I should probably see a doctor about it. “I’ll take you,” she promised. “It’ll be OK.”

The thought of having a doctor examine me wasn’t very appealing, but when it persisted for several more days, I realized she was right. I needed help. I’d been mostly all right at home, but when music triggers a bizarre, uncontrollable reaction in your brain, you begin to notice just how ubiquitous music is in public places. I guess it’s supposed to make things relaxing and pleasant, but the grocery store, for one, was a nightmare. After spending half an hour with their “Soft Sounds of the ’80s” in my head, which prompted me to fall in love with the produce manager and later propose marriage to a cashier, I was escorted out of the store. I’m not sure I’m allowed to go back there again.

Noise-canceling headphones, strictly speaking, don’t cancel all noise, but they did prove helpful. They muted the music sufficiently to allow me to ignore it when I had to go to Wal-Mart to purchase socks and underwear. I was doing just fine until the cashier got huffy with me. I removed one earpiece long enough to see what she wanted, and inadvertently caught a snippet of Lynyrd Skynyrd on their sound system. Then I was standing on the register area’s conveyor belt, flapping my arms and trying to fly away just as the lyrics insisted I should. I certainly wanted to fly away, but I wasn’t quite as free as a bird, and I still needed to pay for my socks. Being Wal-Mart, this behavior went more or less unnoticed, with the cashier merely sighing and muttering, “I’m gonna have to ask you to get down from there. Your total is $27.92.” I adjusted my headphones so the world became silent again, climbed down, and swiped my card so I could get out of there.

When Callie took me to the doctor, a guy in the elevator was listening to Aerosmith on his iPod, loudly enough that I could hear it. Callie had to whack me in the jaw to get me to stop humping her leg, but there were no hard feelings. Fortunately, the waiting room was devoid of music. There was a TV set in the corner, but Callie clamped her hands over my ears when the peppy little jingle for the erectile dysfunction drug came on the screen, and we avoided any further embarrassment.

The doctor, as expected, ran a bunch of tests (including drug screening, I’m sure), and couldn’t figure out what was going on, which clearly annoyed him. He seemed to think I was making it up, and when no simple answers came from the test results, I was pretty sure he didn’t believe me at all. There was some shouting when Callie overheard him drop the word “hypochondriac” to his assistant.

He referred me to a neurologist named Dr. Baggett, who did some more exams and scans, and also couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, but rather than get testy about it, he seemed curious and fascinated. He had me come back a few times, and he did some research, and had me try some different medications (which didn’t help and made me depressed) and tried some meditation exercises (which didn’t help either but made me feel like it was all going to be OK).

It stumped Dr. Baggett, which I think is probably pretty hard to do. His best guess was that it might have been a very unique combination of head injury, neurochemistry, and drug use. He cautioned me that because we didn’t know exactly what set it off, I should avoid recreational drugs for the time being. “Some people really shouldn’t take drugs,” he shrugged. “Everything’s fine and then one day they get a batch of something just slightly different, and their neurotransmitters go wacko. You may be one of them.”

I wore my headphones everywhere I went, trying to prevent further incidents. I declined offers to go out for drinks, regretfully sidestepped my cousin’s wedding invitation (earphones would’ve been frowned upon, and I was sure that wedding music would be a disaster, in light of my condition), and tried to get used to a quiet life.

I did occasionally listen to Yes or the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd. If I couldn’t enjoy a joint now and then, I could get stoned without the aid of chemical assistance just by listening to Dark Side of the Moon.

Needless to say, my musical aspirations were pretty much over. My guitar sat in the closet until I gave it to Callie so it wouldn’t feel unloved. She gave it a good home.

Gradually, through experimentation in the safety of my home, I learned that I could listen to certain specific kinds of non-lyrical music without incident. I’d never been a fan of classical music, but I grew to enjoy Bach and Schumann, although Liszt and Beethoven were too unpredictable and dramatic and I didn’t trust myself to have that sort of thing going on in my brain.

I tried checking out some music with non-English lyrics, but it seemed to have a similar effect. Even if I didn’t understand what they were singing about, my emotions ran amok. My mother was convinced that I’d miraculously found religion when I accompanied her to a Christmas cantata by a German choir and had to leave because tears were streaming down my face.

One day Dr. Baggett’s office phoned and asked me to come in for an appointment. When I arrived, he was very excited, and said he’d read about something that he thought could help. “It’s a drug that’s been used to control seizures,” he explained. “There are some off-label uses, but it’s mainly an anticonvulsant. That’s not why I think it could help. We don’t need the effect that the drug is used for; we want a particular side effect. It’s not a common one, but it’s significant enough among certain patient populations – and I think it might help.”

“You want me to take a drug just to get one of the side effects?”

“Yes! That’s it, exactly,” he beamed.

“What kind of side effect?” I asked.

“It seems to cause loss of perfect pitch in people who had perfect pitch before they started on the medication. I’m thinking it might disrupt the effect you get from music.”

I thought about it, listened to him explain the potential issues and benefits, and finally agreed to give it a try. I was pretty sure I’d never had perfect pitch, so I really didn’t have much to lose. The other possible side effects – nausea, headaches – somehow didn’t seem as worrisome as the possibility of having something much more than a feeling if I accidentally heard an old Boston song on someone’s car radio.

Did it work? Oddly enough, yes, it did. As Dr. Baggett had suspected it might, it disrupted the harmonics of the music enough to stop the strange hallucinatory effects.

And it had an unforeseen plus. You’d think that if everything sounds off-key, it would make horribly discordant noise out of whatever you listen to, but it doesn’t.

Everything just sounds like jazz.

 

 

© Copyright 2015 by Patrick Redding.


Header art via Pixabay.

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Beethoven’s Coat

Moths To The Light

by Patrick Redding

What I’m about to tell you may seem a matter of no importance, but it’s filled with great portents (and possibly some pretense). It happened one night not very long ago. Just happened. Past tense. In the past: gone but always with us. In all ways. I fell asleep under the stars – or in a tent, if you like, I could tell it that way but it wouldn’t be true. I wouldn’t mean it. Intent is a very important factor here. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, you know. Portents, oh yes, there were lots of them. I suppose you might find it easier to understand if you’d ever found yourself living with a whore in a tent. Not that I have, but just suppose. Just suppose. Juxtapose my brain on drugs alongside my brain without drugs (yes, they call them meds, preferable to reds, they say, they say, these educated shite-coats, I mean white-coats). The two halves, the hemispheres (hymns-of-fears) make a whole where once there was but a hole, and now I may tell a story. (And about time, get on with it, you say.)

I say that night began with a lot of standing around in the parking lot after work, a most useless operation, the work, I mean, not the standing around afterward. I was watching the moths annihilate themselves in the streetlights and wondering if they had near-death experiences of being sucked into great white tunnels of light or whether they merely sizzled for a moment and passed through to the other side and immediately began looking for the next streetlight. I am not a streetwalker, you know. I merely walk the streets to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk, to prevent mothers around the world from breaking their backs. They have no appreciation, of course, of the service I perform for them. They don’t make it easy, either, with all that bending-over-backward-for-you talk and what-not.

I was joined by Hutchins. Hutchins was a musician, a keyboardist, in a local band who rented rehearsal space in an empty office building near where I worked, or pretended to work. Counting tokens was not my real work, you know, it was only what they paid me to do. I do not know what my real work was supposed to be, only that it was not this, and that it was probably not avoiding cracks in the sidewalk, but these I did and did them both passably well, which is really of no importance. Of no portent. Let us not pretend it was. He was reminiscing, Hutchins was, in that coolly brain-fried way people on unforced medications have of meandering between inconsequential topics. We were talking about the lake where several of us used to go and get stoned before the state had it fenced off and gated. We were speaking of a holy place where we took communion and learned of sacraments before the First Amendment got out of line and found itself no longer First but somewhere down there among the other ones such as the Fourth. There is no privacy in public baptism, you know. There is no privacy in having unconsecrated wafers placed upon one’s tongue by white-coats bearing paper-cup goblets and pine-scented incense in mop buckets of unholy water.

“The lake isn’t fenced anymore,” he said. “You can drive right down to the water. We should go.” It was late by now, and the moon was out. I wondered if any misguided moths ever saw the moon and thought that it must be the streetlight to end all streetlights and set off to fly into it only to become lost forever in the cold blackness of space. Then I wondered if that was much different from what happened to the ones that went to their deaths with a snap-crackle-pop in the streetlights; maybe they just experienced a fantastic flash of fire and then an infinite cold darkness. My doctor called this “excessive existential anxiety” and gave me more meds for having too many X’s. I should probably take one now but no, I will wait. We are going to the holy place and the moon is out and perhaps I might be healed of my afflictions and affections if I touch the hem of someone else’s garment. I touched my doctor’s coat and all I got was four-point restraints. Whose coat must I touch to rid myself of all these X’s?

When we got there we saw that someone had cut down a lot of the trees, leaving the shoreline open so that it could be easily seen from the road. Hutchins said they’d probably done that after the fence came down, so people wouldn’t be as likely to go there and hang out after dark. A park is a park, but not after dark. The water level was low and Hutchins drove onto the hard-packed sand, pulling the van around sideways. We got out and smoked a joint, and then walked down the beach, smoking some more and drinking. I meditated upon the names of musicians I knew, and reflected that Hutchins’ name was very fitting; something about the way his nose twitched when he lit a cigarette made me think of rabbits. Perhaps his ancestors kept rabbits many years ago and that’s where their family name came from, as well as the resemblance of mannerisms. People come to resemble the animals they live with, or so I’ve heard. I didn’t mention this aloud; they can’t say I didn’t learn anything at all in there. I learned not to say out loud when people remind me of animals, despite how many X’s and Y’s we have in common with other species.

I didn’t notice how far we’d walked or how drunk I was getting until I sat down after awhile. I must have passed out. I might have flown and cracked my head on the moon. It definitely felt like I might have. I wondered if that’s where all the craters came from, drunken fools trying to fly into the master streetlight and banging their heads on the surface, trying to get in, looking for the light that so mysteriously disappears when you get up close. I woke up lying in some weedy, sandy area by myself, not quite sure where I was. It seemed to be just before dawn; there was starting to be a little light in the sky.

I didn’t see the van anywhere. In fact, I didn’t recognize this part of the shoreline, and guessed I must have wandered off in the dark. You look for the light, you know, but you never really catch up to it; it’s always over there somewhere, and you wouldn’t even notice it was there if it wasn’t so dark where you are. I heard an animal-like noise I couldn’t place, and it alarmed me just a little, not knowing what it was, exactly, so I got up and walked toward a shed I saw, which I hoped might be some sort of information station with a phone or something.

Then I noticed the birds – many, many birds – ducks and hawks and such – lying scattered on the ground. Some of them were flapping a little, making feeble squawks. They were covered with black gunk – as was most of the ground near the water. Looking down, I saw that my shoes were caked with the stuff too, and now that I thought about it, I could feel that the back side of my clothes was wet. I’d probably been lying in the stuff. I looked at the low water level, saw the shiny iridescent stuff on the top, and realized that the black stuff was oil. Sometimes shedding a little light on something isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Iridescent rainbows aside – a sheen of erstwhile beauty may cover an ugly oilslick. I’d been perfectly content to wallow around in the blackened mud until the sun came up enough to let me see what it was. A bird croaked hoarsely as I looked at the nasty water, and I felt sick.

My stomach twisted and threatened to empty itself; I crouched on the ground for a moment, trying to let it pass while I racked my brain for ideas about what to do. Those damned doctors with all their nice, neat answers were never around when you could really use a little help. Maybe there were some rags or something in the shed, I thought hopefully; maybe I could clean up the birds, wash the gunk out of their feathers, and they’d recover. Maybe there’d be a phone in the information station, and I could call someone – an animal shelter or a vet or something… maybe… I felt my throat close up as one of the birds near me convulsed, flapping madly in the sandy dirt for a brief few seconds, and then was still. Maybe everything would end – the birds, the water, time, even my oil-soaked mind – dying a torturous and brutal death, while I stood around trying to think what to do.

I’d started toward the shed again when I heard another noise that seemed to be coming from up in the bushes; it sounded like someone groaning. Shoving my way through the underbrush, I found a man lying in the leaves, grimacing and clutching at his chest. He wasn’t exactly dressed for the lake; he was wearing a dark three-piece suit and tie, and an overcoat. A hat had fallen to the side of his head. He saw me and began trying to pull some papers out of his jacket. It was difficult for him to talk and I had trouble making out what he was trying to say. “Let me help you,” I said, grabbing his arm and trying to haul him to his feet. He gasped as I realized, too late, that moving him probably wasn’t a good idea.

“Leave me alone,” he moaned, sinking back into a heap on the ground. “You can’t help me.”

“I can call someone for you,” I offered. “I’m sure there must be a phone around here somewhere…”

“You fool,” he hacked, “there’s no phone service out here. This is sacred ground. You don’t put a hotline to civilization in a place like this. Do you want to ruin everything?”

I thought it wasn’t looking too good anyway, but I didn’t want to argue with a dying man.

“I wanted to stop it – what was happening to the lake and the birds,” he coughed, “but I couldn’t…” He rolled onto his back, choking, and I tried to help him sit up but it was useless, just useless. Still, he persisted with a good ten minutes’ worth of plot exposition, so I left off trying to get him up and instead hunkered down on the ground near enough to listen.

Through his wheezing, I managed to grasp that someone had bought the land from the state. They were using tanks buried underground to store oil; some of the tanks were leaking, sending oil and sludge into the lake and saturating the shoreline. Complaints had been lodged, and ignored; apparently they were within tolerance levels, and couldn’t be forced to remedy the situation. The man had even approached them with an offer to buy the land from them, intending to take care of the clean-up himself, but they were unwilling to sell. He suspected there were illegalities involved, bribes and trafficking and the sorts of things that make people want to hold onto property which has no ostensible value to them, but he’d gotten nowhere with trying to persuade anyone to investigate this. “They’re all in each other’s pockets,” he hissed in disgust. “A nest of vipers, and heaven help the one who steps in it and doesn’t kill them all. That’s the only thing to be done, you know.”

Since he’d exhausted every legal avenue to get something done, he’d contacted someone to take care of the situation by other means. However, en route to pay the man and make the necessary arrangements, he discovered he’d been found out. Someone had tried to kill him, and he’d barely managed to make it here, deciding to make one last desperate effort to call attention to the situation by leaving his corpse to be found on the beach. Beached whales made the news. Surely a beached environmentalist was entitled to the same lack of dignity.

“If the man gets the money by noon, then our deal is on and he’ll take care of things,” he told me, but he was obviously not going to make it. I offered to help, and he agreed; as long as I knew the code words he’d arranged with the man, it wouldn’t matter who brought the money – he’d never even seen the man himself. The words I needed to know, he said, were “Beethoven’s coat.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, he sank back to the ground. Was he dead? I shook him, patted his face, did all the things you think you should do if you find yourself with a possibly-dead person in the woods in the middle of nowhere. He was definitely dead. I was freaked out, but thought I’d better try to keep my head together and get out of there. I went through the papers he’d been trying to get out of his pocket and found a hand-sketched map with directions noted in the margin. I turned it one way and another until I thought I knew where he was going. Looking back at the shore, I saw another bird thrash the sand violently for a few seconds before dying. Sizing up the man on the ground, I took off his suit and tie and put it on myself, wrapped him up in his overcoat, and rolled him back under the bushes out of sight.

His car was parked beside the road with the keys still in it. Following the cryptic map on the seat beside me, I found the house.

It was nearly full daylight by now. There were a lot of cars outside, and several big nasty-looking guys standing by the door. I felt conspicuous suddenly because although I’d donned the man’s nice coat and tie, I was still carrying my old green army-surplus coat. To my surprise, though, the goons just nodded and let me pass. Apparently there’s no dress code for going to pay off someone to “fix things.” I wandered uncertainly down the hallway, wondering if someone was just going to approach me and strike up a conversation about classical music or how this sort of thing worked.

The place was a huge old mansion, well-tended, lavishly furnished with antiques and deep, deep carpet. A nice change, I thought, from institutional floorwax, cracked sidewalks, and black sand. I recalled that I was supposed to be back at my token-counting job sometime today, but it didn’t seem real. In light of waking up on a beach full of dying birds, miles from anywhere, tokens seemed no more real than any of my other hallucinations the white-coats had attempted to banish for me. Was this real? I stopped and looked down at my grimy shoes on the nice clean carpet. I turned and saw sandy footprints leading from the door to where I stood. OK, yeah, this was probably real. I continued down the hallway.

From the sound of it, a loud party was going on even at this early hour. I followed the noise until I found the gathering in a large sitting room – a “parlor,” I guessed it might have been called, when more genteel people lived here. The guys around this door looked at me more closely when I entered but let me pass. There were maybe ten or so people, all well-dressed, sitting around an oversized coffee table, drinking and laughing and such. One was younger – my age or maybe even less – and she seemed very out of place and ill at ease. A man who seemed to be the host turned to greet me and I knew that he was the one I was supposed to see. He made grandiose gestures over my entrance, introducing me briefly (using the dead man’s name), then murmured, “That’s an unusual coat, isn’t it?”

“It’s Beethoven’s coat,” I said quietly. He nodded and indicated that we’d make the exchange later and that I should act natural and join the party. I took a chair by the window, putting the coat on the floor behind me. I noticed him looking at it again. Suddenly I realized that the money must have been in the dead man’s overcoat – how could I have been so stupid? Now here I was in this psychopath’s parlor with no money for him. What could I do?

Fortunately for me, he was enjoying his party and in no hurry to do business. I tried to stay calm, hoping I’d get an opportunity to slip out. Passing for the dead man to gain entry to this guy’s house was one thing; I couldn’t very well carry on the dead man’s business without having some money in hand.

I noticed the girl watching me. She had cropped blond hair and looked decidedly uncomfortable. My uncle always said that women cut their hair short when they’re unhappy. She had a wistful look, as though she’d rather be almost anyplace else. She also appeared to be the host’s girlfriend. I avoided her gaze; I was in this too deep already without misunderstandings over an unhappy girlfriend. An older woman beside me leaned over and told me with whiskey-breath whispers that I’d arrived just in time – our host always had his girlfriend to entertain at his parties, she explained, giggling.

Just as she’d said, in a few minutes he stood up and clapped for attention and announced that we would now be entertained. He put on some different music and nodded at the blond girl, smiling but giving her a threatening look to make her comply. She stood up on the coffee table and began to gyrate to the music.

The host disappeared into another room with a couple of other guys. The whiskey woman leaned over and commented about our host’s habit – a very heavy addiction, she gossiped; there were those who thought it was beginning to affect his ability to take care of business, she added, although it had done nothing to take the edge off his temper. Frequently, I learned, this need resulted in his disappearing from the party for good; the girlfriend would latch onto some guest she found interesting, and the party would continue without him. This sounded promising – maybe I could slip out unnoticed. Well, I had to, didn’t I? If I had no money, there was no business to be done, and even if I had the money, from the sound of things, there was no guarantee that he’d do the job properly.

I looked up; our host was still gone and the blond girl was now stripping down to her slip, still dancing on the table. Shortly, she had undressed completely.

Someone laughed and threw her a man’s shirt. She put it on, leaving it unbuttoned, and began to touch herself, to applause and cheers. She seemed lost, in a daze, then embarrassed when she caught my eye. She looked away abruptly and got up, strutting around the tabletop, moving around the circle of guests, giving everyone a closer look. The music pounded at a deafening volume.

She kept working her way around the circle, eventually getting to me. Latching onto my sleeve, she pulled me up and began dancing with me in a very sexual way. People shrieked and howled over this, laughing and whistling. I realized that she didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to be entertaining this godawful collection of degenerates, but she didn’t know how to get out of it. I began to kiss her; she was grinding against me, clutching my hips, then hanging onto my shoulders.

“You hate this, don’t you?” I remarked.

Her eyes rolled, they might have rolled back into her head for all the life left; she may as well have been dead, she was already dead inside. Dead eyes. She probably heard this at least once a night, this attempt at connection, protection – enticements to defect from men in love with her moral defects. I said it anyway.

“Why don’t you leave?”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“It’s complicated. Just dance with me.”

I tried. I don’t dance very well, even with a gifted partner who could do it in her sleep. Sleepwalking. Sleepdancing. Sleep…. I thought for a moment, the gears in my head groaning into motion above the grinding of the bodies. “I think I can get you out.”

“What – ‘save’ me?” She laughed. “You can’t even save yourself. If you could, you wouldn’t be here.”

I stopped. She grabbed my waist and pulled me into the motions again. No dance, no talk. There were rules. Heaven forbid the man should come out of his back room and find her conversing with someone; why, he might think she had a mind of her own. Couldn’t have that.

“People who can take matters into their own hands don’t come here,” she told me, her mouth close to my ear. “I can’t. Neither can you – or you wouldn’t be here… would you?”

We danced; no one was paying any attention anymore. More guests had arrived and the crowd filled the room now, the music blared and glasses were filled and drained, filled and drained. She was right. I could see right through all of them, now that she’d said it: no one here could help themselves. Not one person in the room knew how to take matters in hand and fix anything. Not one. They all just milled around, drinking themselves into a stupor, and waiting for the man to decide whose problem he might fix next – if he was up to it, if he wasn’t too wasted. She was right. She was absolutely right. And now she was pulling the jacket down around my waist, dancing hot and heavy, relieved that no one was watching her now.

Something hard pressed into the flesh between us and I looked down curiously as she pulled me closer. No one was watching, no one at all. I felt her hand slip under the jacket, and she leaned in tight. “Take care of your own problems,” she said, shoving my hand into the pocket of the jacket. “You’ve got everything you need. Do it yourself.” Confused, I pulled back slightly and looked to see what my hand had closed around. A gun. I stared at her, not quite believing, again, what seemed to be happening. Where were those guys in the white coats when things seemed to be happening that shouldn’t reasonably be happening?

She stepped back and gave me a shove. “Go on. Get out of here.”

I didn’t stop to think about it. I took her by the arm, pulled her off the table and got my coat. This would have created only a minor ripple in the crowd, but she started to raise a fuss, saying she couldn’t leave. What could I do? I pulled out the gun and pointed it at her. “Put this on,” I told her, tossing the coat in her direction. Now people were starting to take notice. Now it was going to get interesting. Now we’d really have some fun. Now was a good time to go. I gestured impatiently while she slipped on my coat to cover herself somewhat. “Does this window open?”

The whiskey woman, apparently delighted at the prospect of a departure from the usual “entertainment,” helpfully staggered over and unlatched the large floor-to-ceiling window, letting it swing open. By the time word filtered out to the heavies at the door, I had a firm hold on the young blond and the gun pointed squarely at her head as we stepped out the window.

She yelled at me all the way back to the lake, bawled me out all the way through the woods and down to the shoreline. I don’t know why I took her there, really, I just wanted her to see the mess I was trying to clean up. I’d explained it all to her, as much as I understood, and she got it but she couldn’t get past the idea that the guy was probably going to track her down and drag her back to the house. We were arguing like fiends when we emerged from the woods just above the shoreline. I stopped short, feeling a wave of disorientation.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, realizing something must be amiss. I waved her off, needing a moment to sort out things for myself.

There were no dead birds. No black sand. No oily rainbows on the water. I turned around and around, slowly examining the details and configuration, the shape of the shore, the thickness of the woods. Yes, this was the spot. This was where I’d woken up this morning. There was the shed. This was definitely the place.

“I didn’t imagine it,” I insisted. “I couldn’t have. Well, I could have, but I didn’t.”

“Do you think someone came and cleaned up?” she suggested.

“They could’ve cleaned up the birds – but there’s no way they could’ve cleaned up the water and the shoreline this quickly,” I pointed out. I retraced my thoughts, my mental deductions; yes, this was the spot, no, they couldn’t have cleaned up this quickly, I couldn’t have imagined it because I did use the man’s map to find the house, where I met the girl, who was clearly here, so that much was obviously not a hallucination – wait, what about the man’s body? I struck off through the underbrush, looking for it, looking for familiar twigs. The girl, still wrapped in my coat, followed me. Where was he? Sure, I’d hidden him, but not this well. I couldn’t have hidden him even from myself, could I? I stomped around through the brush, searching every square foot – nothing. I couldn’t have imagined that. I was wearing his clothes; I drove his car, I used his map. I pulled out a wallet from the inside of the jacket and showed it to the girl. “This is not me,” I said, waving his driver’s license at her.

“No,” she agreed. “This is some old guy.”

I looked around, bewildered. Could he have gotten to the shed, maybe? Surely not; he’d been dead when I left him. Still, I had no other ideas, so I wandered back down to the shed. As I did, it occurred to me that I’d meant to check it out several times when I was here earlier, but I’d never gotten around to it, what with the oil-soaked birds and the guy dying and all that. Where on earth could his body have gone? Dead guys didn’t just get up and wander away, and even if he had, I’d taken his car. He couldn’t have gotten far. If I’d known he was going to come to life and need his car, I certainly wouldn’t have taken it, or the map, for that matter, and that train of thought led me back to the girl and the gun. It always comes back to the girl and the gun, doesn’t it? Yes.

I saw her watching me from a safe distance. She’d taken off my coat and was carrying it, looking around at the deserted lakeshore and probably wondering if I was completely out of my mind or just using a story about dead birds as a poorly-thought-out excuse to get her alone in the middle of nowhere. Now that she wasn’t doing the bump-and-grind on a coffee table in front of a dozen drunken fools, she was rather attractive. “Are you going back to him?” I called.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. What do you think?”

“I think he’s a lunatic and dangerous as hell, but hey, I only just met him.” I do know about lunatics, however, I’ve a considerable amount of experience with that. I didn’t say that out loud. Instead I said, “It’s up to you. Your choice.”

“Yeah. It is,” she agreed. “So what about you? What are you going to do now?”

I was going to have a look in that shed, that’s what I was going to do. I didn’t need to find anything to clean up birds, or a phone to call an ambulance, but all the same, I wanted to check it out. It seemed like a good idea. It seemed like the right thing to do.

I expected it to be locked but the door swung open easily and I stepped inside. “Come in,” said a lilting voice from the depths. I walked in hesitantly, blinking to let my eyes adjust. The room spread out in front of me, filling my vision with bookshelves and comfortable furniture and fluorescent light.

The light’s always over there, you know; we keep it over there, keep our distance so we won’t bang our heads into it and annihilate our minds. You have to be ready to destroy yourself in order to go toward the light. You have to not mind the tearing apart and putting back together to make a better whole.

“How are we doing today?” Dr. Hawks inquired hopefully, tucking a stray blond hair behind her ear and straightening her nice white coat.

“Um… OK. Not bad, actually,” I said, settling into a chair as she reached to turn down the volume of the classical station playing on the radio. “You could leave that on,” I suggested.

“I thought you didn’t like music,” she smiled quizzically.

I shrugged. “It’s Beethoven. Number 9, I think.”

“That’s right,” she nodded, obviously pleased. She took up her pen and a folder of notes, and I took silent note of the ghostly pale band on her finger where her wedding ring had lately been and now was not. Past tense.

Intent is everything. It all comes back to the girl and the gun. I pulled my coat over my lap, to be less conspicuous, sat back and looked at the light, the brilliant white sunlight illuminating a halo around the edge of her hair. It was beginning to grow out since I’d seen her last, I noticed. She referred to her notes and reminded me where we’d left off from last time, and we began the dance.

Today, I decided, I might save myself.

© Copyright 2005 by Patrick Redding. Republished 2011, 2015.

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Winter Holiday Affective Disorder (WHAD)

xmasmeds

by Patrick Redding & Rob Colfax

Memo to staff psychologists: please insert the following sheet into your copies of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). At this time of year, it is likely that you may see an increase in complaints of depression. Be aware of the diagnostic criteria for the specifier Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) as well as this new category, Winter Holiday Affective Disorder (or WHAD).

Criteria for Winter Holiday Affective Disorder (WHAD):

At least five of the following symptoms have been present over the majority of a two-week period, and represent a change from previous functioning. At least one of the symptoms is either (1) Winter holiday-related complaints or (2) general lack of jolliness.

NOTE: Do not include symptoms that are clearly due to a general medical condition (for example, pregnancy) or delusions or hallucinations (for example, seeing dancing sugarplums during alcohol withdrawal).

1. Winter holiday-related complaints

2. Marked lack of jolliness and good will

3. Loss of interest in nearly all activities (do not include sitting in a stupor in front of the TV during football playoffs)

4. Significant weight gain or increase in appetite (especially cravings for “special” foods such as turkey, fudge, rum balls, etc.)

5. Insomnia (including sleeplessness due to carolers outside who just won’t shut up) or hypersomnia (including overdoses of tryptophan from excessive turkey consumption as well as repeated viewings of “Frosty the Snowman” reruns)

6. Psychomotor agitation (including twitching and “bite reflex” exhibited at the sight or sound of Salvation Army bell-ringers, but not including seizures due to those little chasing lights)

7. Repetitive vocalizations (such as “fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la” or “Ho ho ho!”)

8. Fatigue or loss of energy at the mention of weekend shopping at the mall

9. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt when unable to come up with “the perfect gift”

10. Discoloration of extremities (such as red nose – do not include redness due to excessive alcohol consumption from self-medication)

11. Paranoia, as evidenced by random vocalizations such as “He knows when you’re sleeping! He knows when you’re awake!”

12. Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, particularly when changing lanes in downtown traffic

13. Recurrent homicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a homicide attempt (including attacking the mall Santa with a picket from the fence around the “Santaland” display) or a specific plan for committing homicide (do not include shooting at the neighbor’s plastic rooftop reindeer)

14. Bizarre ideations (including, but not limited to, belief in elves, talking reindeer, and peace on earth)
Keep Calm and Hibernate

Statistics indicate that WHAD symptoms may be more apparent in individuals employed in retail occupations, but WHAD has been diagnosed over a widespread range of demographics.

In most cases, WHAD symptoms decrease significantly after 6-8 weeks, though flare-ups may continue until St. Patrick’s Day.

There is currently no treatment for WHAD, although symptoms may be alleviated by mild sedatives, antipsychotics, or a weekend in the Bahamas.

© Copyright 2003 by Patrick Redding & Rob Colfax. Republished 2007, 2011, 2014, 2015.

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The Narcissistic Parent’s 10-Point Guide for a Happy Thanksgiving

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by Patrick Redding

[Author’s note: I trust our readers to be intelligent enough to know that this is satire and intended to be humorous. Although it’s not my intention to offend, it could happen. Sorry about that.]

1. Invite all the relatives you can possibly think of, no matter how long it’s been since you saw them. If you haven’t seen them since a funeral, be sure to mention that. Forget love and money; guilt’s what really makes the world go ’round!

2. Invite some other people too – church acquaintances, people you see occasionally at work, your mail carrier – whoever you can drag to the table. Thanksgiving is about sharing. If certain family members don’t seem keen on traditional clan gatherings anyway, having strangers there is sure to put everyone at ease!

3. When people offer to help cook, twist it around and ask them why they don’t like your cooking. If they offer to bring some fancy-pants special dish like cranberry-nut-almond-brussel-sprout stuffing, graciously accept their offer but again, make sure they know that you know they don’t like your cooking. Don’t worry if you sound offended. They’re family; they should understand!

4. If you know that certain individuals in your family have special dietary needs, such as diabetics or vegans, be sure to go out of your way to let them know how special you think they are. Take pains to assure them that you’re making dishes just for them; ask them for recipes if you have no idea what they can and can’t eat. If they feel self-conscious or think you’re being a condescending bitch, that’s really not your problem, is it?

5. Alcohol or no alcohol? It really doesn’t matter; the alcoholics are going to drink in their cars on the way over anyway. If you don’t drink, you can self-righteously criticize everyone who can’t get through a nice family meal without self-medicating. If you load up yourself, though, you have license to say and do pretty much whatever you want and not worry about apologizing later – not that you’d do that anyway, because you’re always right.

6. Before you eat, make everyone hold hands and say grace. You certainly don’t need to kowtow to the sensitivities of a couple of atheists or pagans in your family. After all, they embarrass you every year by not showing up for your church’s Easter programs or Christmas cantata. What would Jesus do? Jesus was a hippie! Don’t listen to that long-haired peace-and-love crackpot.

7. If you skip grace, you can still make people wish they were somewhere else by making everyone around the table take turns telling what they’re thankful for. You may want to skip this part if you have any children who have recently married someone you don’t like, as they’re likely to gush about how thankful they are for their loving spouse, and no one wants to hear that crap at the dinner table.

8. Even though other people’s lives aren’t nearly as interesting and fulfilling as your own, make certain you include everyone in dinner conversation, even if you don’t know much about what’s been going on with them. Surefire topics to start a spirited conversation might include the recent elections, your son’s “friend” and how much he reminds you of that Boy George fellow, your youngest daughter’s weight gain, your oldest daughter’s failure to produce grandchildren. After all, just because you’ve opened a can of cranberry sauce doesn’t mean you can’t open up a can of worms too!

9. After dinner, insist upon making up take-home plates of leftovers for each and every guest, especially the ones who didn’t seem to eat much. There are starving children in Ethiopia who’d be grateful for a good plate of food, and you shouldn’t be shy about pointing this out to the uncooperative little brats who are trying to slip out the door before you’re done with them!

10. Once everything’s done and your guests have managed to escape, take a moment for yourself to reflect on what a good person you are to provide such a loving family home for such undeserving little buggers. Take out pen and paper and dash off letters to let them know how disappointed you are that they seemed upset with you for no good reason. Don’t forget to mention how they embarrassed you in front of everyone by not helping out with dinner or laughing at your jokes. Make sure they know that attendance at Christmas is mandatory and you expect them to be on their best behavior!

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This Week at Gatewood: August 30–September 5, 2015

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by Frasier MacKenzie

Hello, and thanks for stopping in!

This week we have a question for you, and we’d like to ask you to cast a vote to tell us what you think. But before you do, I should assure you that Dr Nicholas is not leaving Twitter. We’re just considering the possibility of adding a human presence, and would like your input.

 

Now, then, here are our features for the week of August 30–September 5:

Monday:Lunar Eclipse,” art by Eduardo Rodriguez Calzado

Tuesday:She Visits Her Beastmother’s Uncle,” poetry by F.X. MacKenzie

Wednesday:The Magic Door” photography by Hartwig Koppdelaney

Thursday:Musicophrenia,” short fiction by Patrick Redding

Friday:Perception and Memory,” photography by P.L. Miller with a quote from neurologist Oliver Sacks

Remember, the Friday photo can be downloaded for free as a meditation card for your phone, tablet or computer. Share, print, ponder… enjoy!

docBe sure to follow @docnicholas on Twitter for daily updates on Journal posts as well as humor, literary opinions, animal pics and rescues, and all your behind-the-scenes Journal action.

pigeon1Did you know you can subscribe to Gatewood Journal and receive a monthly newsletter with all our features for the month? Like a weekly wrap-up, only monthly, so your e-mail box won’t get cluttered. Like a magazine, only digital, because we love trees.

That’s it for the Gatewood Weekend Wrap-Up for the week of August 30–September 5, 2015. Enjoy your weekend, and visit us again soon!


Header photo via Stefan Schweihofer at Pixabay.

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This Week at Gatewood: August 16–22, 2015

squirrel-700100_1280

by Frasier MacKenzie

Hello, and thanks for stopping in!

The kids are back to school here, summer’s winding down a bit, and we’re starting to see the squirrels very industriously gathering and hiding nuts among the trees. Most of us here look forward to fall; we know winter’s not far behind, but for now, we look forward to that very brief time of the cooler temperatures and that certain stillness in the air. Unless you’re a squirrel, and then it’s really all about the nuts.

Here are our features for the week of August 16–22:

Monday:Appalachian Postcard,” art by Zengael

Tuesday:Arcade Funeral,” poetry by R. Kane

Wednesday:Bathroom Crucifix” photography by Nez

Thursday:The Duckling Says…,” some humorous short fiction of the supernatural variety by Patrick Redding

Friday:Sea Walls,” photography by P.L. Miller with a quote from psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison

Remember, the Friday photo can be downloaded for free as a meditation card for your phone, tablet or computer. Share, print, ponder… enjoy!

Be sure to follow @docnicholas on Twitter for daily updates on Journal posts as well as humor, thoughts on books, animal pics and rescues, and all your behind-the-scenes Journal action (or lack thereof). It’s like getting all the extras that come with a DVD, plus cat hair!

Did you know you can subscribe to Gatewood Journal and receive a monthly newsletter with all our features for the month? Like a weekly wrap-up, only monthly, so your e-mail box won’t get cluttered. Like a magazine, only digital, because we love trees.

That’s it for the Gatewood Weekend Wrap-Up for the week of August 16–22, 2015. Enjoy your weekend, and visit us again soon!


Header photo via Pixabay.

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The Duckling Says…

duckling

by Patrick Redding

There were three of us that morning, investigating the Other Side: Hart, Tabby, and myself. We’d met at 5:30 a.m., because that’s one of the times of day (at this time of year, in our hemisphere of the globe) when things are crossing over from being one thing to being the other. In this case, night becoming day. And if you catch it just right, you can jump the track and walk right into the Other Side.

At least that’s what Hart’s theory was. It made sense, I thought, although I’m aware that a great many people think the Other Side doesn’t exist. I was still kind of on the fence about that, but I’d seen enough weirdness in my life to figure it had to come from somewhere.

Of the people who think it does exist, nearly all of them will tell you that you can’t just willfully travel back and forth. The shell around reality is quite thick, they say. Here is here, and there is there, and the only time you get to see what’s there is if you’re near death, and even then it’s possible it might be neurologically-induced hallucinations.

There’s the occasional accidental trip, when you sleep – though I don’t think this happens for everyone, and it’s fairly difficult to control. I mean, you’ve had dreams where things seem perfectly real, right? Except more – vivid? Not the usual nonsense dreams – no showing up naked for an exam or anything. These feel like you’re awake here, except if it goes on long enough, you start to become aware of little differences. Like you bump into your dead father at a convenience store. Or you’re driving a car you haven’t had since it was hauled to the scrapyard ten years ago – but everything else is pretty much your normal, everyday life. That little discrepancy, that’s how you know you’re on the Other Side.

But Hart was convinced that you could travel freely between here and there, physically, only it had to happen in certain places at certain times. Certain places had what you might call a thinner shell between here and there – if not a hole, or possibly even a doorway – where it would be easier to slip through. Certain times of day, times of year, etc., were more conducive to slipping through because there’s a brief period when it’s not quite one thing anymore but not quite another yet. The solstices. The equinoxes. Dawn. Dusk. You get the idea. And so we wanted to test his theory.

This is why we were out in the woods in the pitch dark. I know it sounds strange. Believe me, I know strange when I hear it. I spent longer than I care to remember locked up in a hospital for having strange thoughts. Actually, they weren’t so much strange as interesting. And I wasn’t locked up for having them so much as telling everyone about them.

But just bear with me. It doesn’t get any less strange, but it’s a good story.

Anyway, I should tell you about our third person, the one who – in my opinion – thoroughly fouled things up. Tabby was Hart’s friend – not a “girlfriend,” he repeatedly insisted, though she seemed to have aspirations to that status. She claimed to be an herbalist who was studying to be an LPN at the community college. Actually, I think she’d dropped out of the nursing program and had gotten some sort of online certificate in herbalism. Apparently they let you have weed “for medicinal purposes” if you have the right paperwork, and she did.

I’m not sure what she really thought, belief-wise; she’d made the rounds of just about all of the pagan and new-agey groups in our area. She had some friends who were into Asatru, and I think she hung out with some Wiccans for awhile, and then dabbled in Santeria briefly, but she never seemed to settle on anything in particular, just sort of buzzing from one thing to another like a spiritual honeybee. The important thing, as far as we were concerned, was that she had an open mind about Hart’s theory. And she knew how to mix up teas, oils, salves – stuff like that. She seemed to know what she was doing; I mean, she made me some sort of tea last year that helped when I had a fever. So I tried not to judge, even though I found her pretty annoying sometimes.

So we three inquiring minds were up in the woods past the Widow’s House on Route 16. The house has been abandoned for years, but if you park at the gate, you can walk all the way up the drive, if you don’t mind the briars and nettles. No one takes care of the place anymore, and it’s overgrown with brush. The back of the house faces into the woods at the edge of a stream that used to feed into Berne Lake. The stream’s pretty much dried up now, unless there’s a really hard rain. So you walk up the old stream bed and it takes you into a ravine in the Berne Nature Preserve, and that’s where we were.

Why that spot? There were certainly places that were easier to get to, so why there? Well, that’s a little complicated.

Back in the 1900s, there was the Crown Bank Robbery. You’ve probably never heard of it. The Crown Bank and Trust was a local venture, mainly used by the handful of well-to-do families in this small company town. There was a strike at the local factory over the horrible working conditions, and during the week of the strike, the bank was robbed. It wasn’t clear whether this was planned or whether someone simply took advantage of the fact that all the police officers on the tiny police force were occupied with keeping order at the strike. Anyway, no one was ever caught and the money was never found.

When I was a kid, my father had an idea that someone involved had buried the cash near this spot, in the woods behind the Widow’s House. Again – why that particular spot? Honestly, I wasn’t paying enough attention to be able to tell you his reasoning. I think it had something to do with the fact that the land around there had been set aside as a nature preserve shortly after the robbery. And the widow who lived in that house had also passed away not long after that, following a period of apparently going senile and telling everyone she knew that there were men in the woods who were going to come down and kill her. Dad thought it was possible that she wasn’t senile, that she’d actually seen the bank robbers burying their money in the woods there, and maybe they’d threatened her and bought someone off to have it marked as a nature preserve to keep people away from the area.

Which is an interesting theory, but it doesn’t explain why we picked that spot for our experiment. I’m getting to that.

Dad used to take his metal detector and wander around in the woods there, looking for coins – and he did find a few old ones with dates that supported his theory. I’d go with him, usually, father-and-son bonding stuff, you know. And there was just something weird about the spot. Trees died. The stream dried up.

OK, it’s possible that the stream dried up because we’ve been in a drought for as long as I can remember. When you’ve got drought, trees don’t do very well. But there’s only one particular small area where the trees died – they’re healthy everywhere else along that dry stream bed. It just felt weird.

And things disappeared – plants, birds, stuff like that. More than once I remember watching a squirrel or a bird, and it would be there one second and gone the next. Even a whole bush, once – though I didn’t actually see that one go away, it was just there one time when we went, and the next time it wasn’t – no stump or digging around the area or anything. Just gone, as though it never existed.

Later, of course, after I came to know Hart, I had this thought: if that place was a spot where you could go through to the Other Side, then maybe the bank robbers had buried their money there, and it had disappeared – gone to the Other Side – and that’s why no one ever found it.

Anyway, I figured, if there were ever a prime spot to gain passage to the Other Side, that was it. So we gathered there just before dawn.

We didn’t really have a clear plan. We just figured that if you showed up in the right place at the right time and wandered around for a bit, you might stumble into a thin spot in the shell. A hole in the membrane. A hole-y spot – maybe that’s how so many religions and cults choose their holy ground, right? Pretty much any religion has some sort of supernatural belief about the Other Side.

We’d agreed that if anything happened and we got separated, we’d call one another at exactly 6:30 a.m.

Hart’s intention was to actually go through to the Other Side, and return, but we didn’t really know what the chances were that it could really happen. I was there mainly as an observer, someone to take notes. But since Hart figured that it could work both ways – that people or things on the Other Side could also come here – I also kind of hoped I might get to speak with my dad, who’d passed away a few years back. (Without ever finding any bank money, I might add.)

Tabby was along for her medical expertise, such as it was. In case there was more to it than just showing up, Hart had asked her if she knew any way to facilitate his passage with some herbal concoction. She’d mixed up something for him; I didn’t know what it was, figured it was probably harmless. In retrospect, I guess he may have invited her along because he wanted another witness, in case something interesting happened and I wasn’t considered credible. Due to my history of mental issues and all that.

I hoped it’d be handy to have Tabby around if one of us needed medical attention at some point. She might’ve been a little flaky, but I assumed she could at least perform basic first aid. Even if you aren’t trying to travel between worlds, you can sprain an ankle crashing around in the woods in the dark. And I assumed that we couldn’t depend on the batteries in our flashlights to hold up, in a place like that. I’d seen my dad’s metal detector go haywire there.

Anyway, when we got there, Hart gulped down whatever weird drink Tabby gave him. He walked a few paces away from us.

And he disappeared.

He actually went through.

Even though I’d picked out the spot because of its weirdness, I was really kind of shocked when he passed through to the Other Side. It happened right when I had my flashlight on him, too. He was just there one second and gone the next.

You’d have thought he might’ve faded out, or fizzled and disintegrated like in a Star Trek transporter, but no, it was like he just walked through an invisible door. No special effects at all.

So after we shook each other senseless and whooped and hollered and got all excited, Tabby and I parked ourselves and watched for him to come back.

We waited. And waited some more.

6:30 came and went with no contact from him.

At 6:33, I looked at my phone and figured out that there was no cell service here. Not even roaming. We were in a gully in the mountains in a rural area that had, at best, sketchy cell service if you stood out in the middle of a cleared field. I was kicking myself for not having thought of this beforehand.

I also wondered what we’d been thinking, agreeing on a 6:30 phone call. Had we really thought you could just make a phone call from the Other Side to this one?

Or maybe you could, but the time was different there. Maybe there was no time there, in the way we thought of it.

I don’t like to admit it, but I was getting sick-to-my-stomach scared.

At 6:35, Tabby and I were disagreeing intensely over what we should do. She had raised the possibility that he’d never had any intention of coming back through if he made it over. I told her that was nonsense. Why wouldn’t he come back? It was his idea to see if you could come and go freely, physical body and all, and if he didn’t come back, how could he tell us what happened?

I was more than a little irked that instead of getting to talk with Dad, we’d lost Hart. I left Tabby standing, and I went and crashed around in the woods, looking for any sign that he might have come back out in a different place. We had no way of knowing, really, how large the area was. For all I knew, Hart might have gone to the Other Side here and come back out miles away. If my father had been there, he would’ve had some good advice, I’m sure, but it didn’t seem that he was going to make an appearance.

At 6:38 I returned to find Tabby scavenging through my backpack. She seemed to be preparing to leave. We argued, rather heatedly. She was ready to get out of the woods, saying that Hart was gone, hadn’t contacted us, and we needed to go into town and report him missing or get help or something. I told her it was only 8 minutes past our agreed time, and anyway there was no cell service here. We should wait, I insisted, but after some further argument, she left. I could hear her crunching through the leaves as she made her way back out of the woods.

While I waited alone for Hart to show up, I noticed how dead-silent the woods were. I thought I heard some small rustling sounds very close by, but when I switched on my flashlight, I didn’t see anything. I figured it was probably a chipmunk or something, and tried not to think too hard about it. I filed it away in my mental notes to discuss with Hart if he showed up again. When he showed up, I corrected myself.

Then I heard a louder shuffling of leaves, and got my hopes up, but it was only Tabby coming back. She was carrying an old birdcage, which she said she’d gotten from the pile of junk on the back porch of the Widow’s House. I wondered what she was doing with it, and she said she’d decided to come back because even if she couldn’t save Hart, at least she could save the baby duck.

The… baby duck? What baby duck? I played my flashlight over the ground, and was surprised to see a single wild duckling waddling around near my feet. It was so tiny, I must have missed it when I’d been scouting around, looking for Hart.

Tabby said she saw it just after Hart disappeared, while I was wandering around looking for him in the woods. It must have come through from the Other Side, she figured; it didn’t seem to belong here.

I told her that it certainly didn’t belong with her, and I scooped it up.

We argued for awhile over that. She pointed out that there was no water for it, that it didn’t belong here, and that it probably couldn’t survive unless we took it someplace else – the lake, maybe, or a river, someplace with water.

I made the point that even if we did relocate it, the poor thing was probably too small to survive by itself. Besides, if it came from the Other Side, then whenever Hart got back here, it should go back there. Its whole family was probably waiting around for it over there, wondering where it was.

Maybe there’s some sort of balance requirement, I suggested, like if something comes in to the Other Side, something has to go out. Hart showing up over there probably displaced it.

She gave up trying to argue with me, grabbed up her things and started off down the hill.

I felt an idea suddenly flitting around the edges of my brain, and called out to ask her what she’d given Hart – what was that stuff she’d had him drink before he crossed over?

The duckling pecked at my hand several times, opening its mouth and then closing it again.

She sighed and rattled off the names of a few herbs and roots, explaining that the “elixir” was used to “bind body and soul.” A mixture sometimes used to help people stop sleepwalking, she said. In this case, she’d adjusted the formula slightly so it would let him physically go through to the Other Side, body and all.

I asked if I’d need to give some to the duck, to help it go back.

The duckling opened its mouth again and looked up at me. I could swear it had an expression on its fuzzy little face, something along the order of Are you crazy?

She thought about it for a minute, then decided probably not, since it got here without it. I asked her to at least write down the ingredients she’d used, in case Hart needed medical attention or something when he got back. She muttered and fussed about it, but picked a pencil and pad out of her backpack, scribbled a list and handed it to me, assuring me that there wasn’t really anything in the mixture that should cause a problem.

The duckling bounced up and down in my hand, and seemed on the verge of finding its voice. I stroked its head and tried to settle it while I looked over her notes by the yellowish beam of my flashlight. Most of the ingredients were ordinary herbs and such – as she said, probably not a big deal. There was one that I wasn’t entirely sure about, so I asked what it was.

She peered at the paper, and told me it was apitoxin, something she said was used in remedies to help with arthritis and joint pain. Bee venom, she explained. What you get when a bee stings you.

I stood there with my mouth gaping open while the duckling flapped its tiny wings. “QUACK!” it squawked. “QUACK QUACK QUACK!”

Hart, you see, is severely allergic to bee stings.

Tabby sort of stopped breathing for a minute when I told her that.

“QUACK!” said the duckling.

She wailed about having asked him about allergies, and said he’d told her he was allergic to ragweed, but he’d said nothing about being allergic to bee stings. Probably, I thought, because it wouldn’t have occurred to him that someone would bottle up the stuff from bees and put it in a drink. I mean, why would he think of that? I wouldn’t. An herbalist fiddles around with herbs. Weeds. Flowers. Not bees.

“QUAAAAACK!” said the duckling.

Tabby was stammering about having bound his body and soul together. I gathered that she was trying to tell me he’d gone to the Other Side, went into anaphylactic shock and died from the bee toxin once he got there, and was now unable to return. To put it bluntly, she’d killed him, and he wasn’t coming back.

“Quack,” said the duckling.

Or… he’d come back as a duck.

Really, now that I thought about it, that was the only thing that made sense, in a situation where nothing made much sense at all. Hart was here, and now he wasn’t. The duck wasn’t here, and now it was. And it was spouting its opinion of Tabby’s skills as loudly as it could.

“Quack. Quack. Quack.”

I carried the duckling as we hiked out of the woods. Tabby was so upset that she bawled all the way back to the car. I tried to console her (somewhat) by pointing out that she wasn’t a bad person, just an incompetent herbalist. The duckling added its two cents’ worth on every other step. “Quack. Quack. Quack.”

When we got back to civilization, I took the duckling to a wildlife rescue service. The rehab lady said it was in remarkably good health for being found by itself in a dry area. As I went back to visit over subsequent weeks, she did say that the duckling seemed oddly afraid of insects and had to be fed chopped fish and other delicacies. Eventually, though, it adopted itself into a mallard family living in a nearby park, and is doing just fine now.

Mutual friends told me recently that Tabby moved away, got a new phone and had her number changed. Apparently there was some problem with her getting prank calls at 6:30 every morning. No one ever said anything – just left her voice mail full of messages that sounded like a flock of ducks.

Quack.

 

© Copyright 2015 by Patrick Redding.


Photo via Pixabay.

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