by Hamen Cheese
Chapter 24: Illusions of Grandeur
I had, at some point, started eating my wiener because I was already wiping away the spilled sauce on the plate with the buns in my hand. It wasn't like I was hungry or anything but I just found myself eating over time as I spoke to Dr. Baker about anything and everything to do with Charlie.
I don't know why I suddenly found myself spilling my guts to this horrid… I mean… respectable woman, but I did. Perhaps it was the lack of conversations with my best friend that lead me to talk about him instead. I wasn't harsh or anything as I thought I'd be. Sure, I still felt angry over what happened but still, too many good things had happened between us that it somehow felt silly to remain angry at him, you know? I really couldn't explain it. It was like if I focused on the recent events, I was angry but when I remembered all the other times we'd done stuff together, it was like I kept asking myself you're angry at him over that?
Once I had started talking about Charlie, Dr. Baker didn't switch topics anymore. She just sat there asking question after question about things Charlie and I used to do and all the trouble we got into (here, I had the distinct impression that she knew all the… questionable things we did). Sometimes, she'd ask super specific questions like what Charlie was wearing when we snuck out in the middle of the night to visit a convenience store or what he ate for lunch after he won a competition for the Middle School Science Fair. With my perfect memory, I could remember every little detail, even the proportion of ketchup and mayo he had used on the cheese sticks he devoured to celebrate his win.
It appeared that Dr. Baker was looking for something because whenever I said that I couldn't really remember the details, she would expound on her questions as though trying to force the memory out of me. I wondered if my mom had somehow told her of the brief memory loss that occurred when I found myself stranded in the middle of the road because I certainly did not bring that topic up. Dr. Baker seemed to know though because her questions seemed far too leading to remembering things that I otherwise couldn't remember.
Like things about my dad. I had told her about how my dad was a busy man and would usually come home on weekends to have dinner with us. He would always bring home a present for me like it was my birthday every week. And then… it just stopped. One day, it just stopped. I couldn't be sure when it was so Dr. Baker kept asking questions in that annoying, laughing way of hers as though I was being silly for not remembering something that happened almost a decade ago.
It annoyed me the way she kept asking and asking but I guess I was grateful for it in the end because some details did pop out after so many related questions. I remembered that the last weekend that he regularly came home happened when I was eleven years old, around the time Middle School started. He came home and I had dinner with him and my mom. That in itself was strange because Charlie and Mrs. C always ate dinner at our house when my dad was home. I couldn't remember exactly why they weren't there. I just knew that they weren't.
And the strange thing was I couldn't really remember what else happened that day. I knew I went out of the house at some point but I couldn't remember where. I knew Charlie was with me but I couldn't remember what we did or talked about. I did remember something about watching a movie though. But as to what the movie was, I couldn't remember. It was like there was just a day that somehow went missing in my life and I wondered if even then I'd been having those odd episodes without even realizing it.
It made me wonder what had really been causing my blackouts. At first, I entertained the idea of remorse. But if that was the case, then how come I had the same thing happen when I was eleven. And the strange part was that I couldn't remember forgetting. I know that sounds outlandish but if you had my kind of memory where every single thing that happened was presented in crisp detail, you would find it odd too.
I guess it was quite unsettling for me to realize that even my perfect memory had holes, holes that I apparently brushed off over time.
We were in the middle of discussing events that lead to that mysterious missing day when I heard a disturbance by the door. Dr. Baker and I turned as one towards the closed door where voices could be heard on the other side.
"Mrs. Hampton," came the distraught camel-like voice of Karen, "really, these are closed sessions for a reason!"
"I want to see my son!" my mom said. Even with her voice so low, there was no mistaking the fury fueling it. "It's been three hours. I want to know what's happening in there!"
"Three hours?" I asked no one in particular. I looked at my watch and my supposedly one hour session had somehow grown to three.
"I must insist you return to the lounge," Karen reasoned.
"Out of my way!" my mom said loudly just as the door to Dr. Baker's office came swinging open. My mom burst into the office, her eyes flashing dangerously around the room until they landed on me. She sighed briefly before her eyes turned to Dr. Baker and her jaws dropped open.
"You must be Derek's mother," Dr. Baker laughed as though my mom was a very amusing joke. She stood up, causing all the jewelry across her chest to jangle cheerfully. She jiggled her wrists as though she was about to start belly dancing and made her way towards my mom, her hand outstretched in a friendly manner (or deadly depending on whether on not those gems could cut).
"You're Dr. Baker?" my mom asked without taking the offered hand. Karen stood in the background, looking totally put out.
"Yes," Dr. Baker said pulling back her hand to whip her hair behind her ear, exposing dangling marvels from the tiny exposed flesh. "I must say you are the first mother I've had charge into my office in a long time." She laughed making me wonder exactly how long ago it was that a parent charged into her office.
Probably the day before.
"That's it! Derek, we're leaving," my mom said waving an impatient hand towards me.
Unexpectedly, I sat there gawping at her rather than doing as she said.
Dr. Baker recovered first. "But dearie," she said which looked odd since she looked years younger than my mom. "We were just making progress."
"Progress?" my mom demanded. "What kind of progress could you," she waved her hand all over Dr. Baker's jewel-encrusted shell, "possible accomplish? Derek, come on, we're leaving."
"Mrs. Hampton!" Karen cried in indignation.
"It's alright, Karen," Dr. Baker laughed. "If Derek wants to go, he can go."
"Derek," my mom said again waving her hand to me. "Let's go."
My eyes swapped between her and Dr. Baker. My mom had an expectant and annoyed look on her face while Dr. Baker remained cheerfully unaffected by the former's behavior. "But, mom… We weren't done talking."
"Talking?" my mom asked. She still looked tense but I could tell her voice was more controlled. Her eyes roamed across the kitchen table where two nearly empty plates sat next to glasses of lemonade. "What were you talking about?"
I sat there staring at her. What was I supposed to say? Was I supposed to say that I apparently had a blackout episode when I was younger? She would have probably assumed the worst. She would fret and worry about me even more than she was doing already. And I couldn't give her more things to worry about. That just wouldn't be fair for her.
Dr. Baker took the problem out of my hands. "I'm afraid that's between the doctor and her patient."
"Doctor?" my mom asked disbelievingly. Her eyes lingered disapprovingly across all the glittering gems. "Of what?"
"Psychology, of course," Dr. Baker laughed. "I would have thought that was obvious."
"What nutcase institution would give you a doctorate degree? The University of Tralala?"
"Harvard actually," Dr. Baker smiled. This time there was no laughter in her voice. "My degree is over there by that wall if you don't believe me."
My mom pursed her lips as though she was trying to bite down a retort. I had a feeling she was resisting wholeheartedly from looking towards the wall which would indicate that the psychotic-looking woman in front of her actually did have a doctorate degree. I, on the other hand, couldn't resist so I found myself looking at a framed diploma that had the unmistakable imprint of the Harvard emblem on it. "Doesn't change anything," my mom said, "my son and I are leaving."
"Again," Dr. Baker laughed, "if Derek wants to go, he can go."
"Derek?" my mom asked as both women looked expectantly at me. Karen was in the background looking down as though she was admiring her toe.
My mouth hung open for a few seconds longer before I turned to Dr. Baker. "I think my mom and I should get going."
"There," my mom said triumphantly as she glared at Dr. Tralala. "We're going."
"Of course," Dr. Baker laughed. I had a feeling that laugher was grating on my mother's nerves, like it did to me hours before. I don't know what had her so upset. I'm sure waiting three hours must have been boring but it couldn't have been that bad to warrant her storming into the office. "But, Derek, if you ever feel the need to come talk to me again, you are most welcome to come back here any time for another session."
"I will certainly not pay for another session. For that matter, I have half a mind not to pay for this one!" my mom said.
"You know, I sometimes do pro bono work," Dr. Baker laughed.
I nodded to her somewhat apologetically. I didn't know what had my mother so hacked off but the choice between staying or going was downright obvious.
"We can have a second date!" Dr. Baker's mad laughter followed us down the entry hall. "You know what happens in second dates!" My mom turned her head towards Dr. Baker. I was sure that if I had looked at her face, her eyes would be narrowed to slits.
"Come back soon," Karen said as she rejoined her herd at her table. She sounded like she had achieved some sort of personal triumph or something.
"I can't believe this," my mom said as soon as we had reached the hallway outside the office. Her steps were hurried as though she was trying to put as much distance as quickly as possible between Dr. Baker's office and us. "THAT was Dr. Baker?"
"She wasn't that bad," I said as I walked beside her. "We were talking about stuff that kinda helped I think. And, Mrs. C recommended her."
"THAT too!" My mom said as though she was compiling a list of things she hated about life. "I can't believe she recommended us to that crackpot doctor. What in the world was she thinking?"
"Honestly, mom," I said in what I hoped was a soothing voice. "She really wasn't that bad. I think it was helping."
"We're going to see another doctor as soon as I find a good one," she said, mashing the elevator button madly as soon as we reached it.
"No," I said. "I'm not seeing another shrink."
"Derek," my mom said as she rounded on me. "We agreed..."
"…that I would see a shrink," I said interrupting her, "and that I would give it three sessions. That was my first session back there, one that you cut short by the way."
"Derek, that could not possibly have been one session. Did you see that woman? Maybe we should have your eyes checked as well."
"My eyes are fine mom," I said, just starting to get annoyed. It wasn't I who wanted to see a shrink and just when I actually saw one and sort of thought it helped, she wanted to cart me off to another one. Somehow I had a feeling that a different shrink wouldn't have helped me as much or at all.
"Mom, if you don't want me to see a shrink anymore, then fine, I won't. But we agreed that I would give a shrink three sessions for me to decide if I wanted to continue or not. We didn't say anything about you picking shrinks until you found one you liked. That could be ten or thirty sessions from now. If you want me to stop, I'll stop. But if I stop, I'm not going to see a different shrink."
My mom chewed on her tongue and I knew she had some things to say but was just holding it back. She looked deeply upset and I was feeling guilty for her mood even if I really had no idea what had started it. Fortunately, the elevator dinged open and it was empty. "We're going to talk about this later," she said as the elevator doors closed.
"Whatever," I replied as I tried to find something interesting on the wall to distract me. Unfortunately, my mother's next few words were far too distracting for anything interior design could offer.
"Your father called," she said stiffly. I could tell she was as happy about it as a toothache.
"What did he say?" I asked trying to sound indifferent, though probably failing at it. My father calling was a rare occurrence. Hell, he didn't even bother calling me on my eighteenth birthday so him calling then was shocking news.
"He wanted to talk to you," she said somewhat nervously. "But you were in there so long he had to attend a meeting. He said he will call again later in about an hour. He was… quite displeased that you didn't have with you the phone he gave."
"I came from training at school," I replied scowling at her. "You're the one with the strict rule not to bring my cellphone on campus."
"I told him that," she said just a bit defensively. "But you know your father."
"Yeah," I said bitterly. "So, why does he want to talk to me? Does he want to find out how screwed up his only son is?"
My mom pursed her lips and I felt my stomach fill with lead. I wasn't really being serious about what I said but suddenly being confronted with the possibility that my father really thought I was screwed up was quite disturbing. "I didn't tell him," she said after some time passed.
"Didn't tell him?" I asked as we reached the car.
"About your session. About seeing a shrink. I… I didn't think he needed to know about this," she said nervously as though she was beginning to doubt her decision.
I stared out the window as we drove away from Dr. Baker's building. I was unsure of what I was feeling. I mean, I suppose I was glad that my father didn't know about it. I hardly saw him and I didn't want him to think that I was some crazy kid he wouldn't want anything to do with. But if it wasn't about the shrink, then why did he call? He never called even out of the blue so him calling then had a sort of foreboding aura about it. In the end, the only words I could find for my mom were "thanks" even if I became even more worried on why he wanted to speak to me.
"Would you like to get some food?" she asked after about twenty minutes of complete silence.
I was about to say no when the car suddenly jerked as my mom stepped fully on the breaks. We went from seventy to zero in the span of a few seconds and the car was filled with the acrid smell of burnt rubber. I buckled hard on my seatbelt, which I was glad I had decided to do because I could very well have regrown the bump on my head if not. I looked up just in time to see the red light turn green.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," my mom cursed as we both stared up at the stoplight at the famous Mile Five Intersection.
"Mom," I said turning to her.
"It was green and then turned red and then it turned green AGAIN. This damn stoplight is broken and if somebody doesn't fix it soon, someone's going to end up in an accident here!"
"Mom," I repeated.
"Urrrrgh, I'm going to write the mayor as soon as we get home. This kind of broken equipment should not be used!"
"Mom," I laughed.
"What?" she said heatedly as though it was my fault.
"You cursed," I grinned.
"What?" she asked perplexed. "Oh... OH!" She then covered her mouth as though she had said something deeply offensive. "I'm sorry, honey. I didn't mean to."
"Mom, it's fine," I chuckled. "It's just I don't think I've ever heard you say a curse word ever, even so much as fudge."
"That's a curse word?" my mom asked with a frown.
"Well, no," I laughed. "It's like the censored version of the other F word."
"Fudge," she said as though trying out the word in her mouth. "Fudge."
"Mom, you can say the other word you know," I said with a mischievous smile.
"You behave, young man," my mom said again as she shifted gear. She glared at the stoplight as we passed as though daring it to change colors.
"You know," I said with a smile, "I think burgers sound quite good right about now."
My mom and I had entered an unusual state of euphoria on our way home. It was as though a good mood was suddenly thrust into both of us forcing us to enjoy each other's company, which we actually did. We did stop by a drive by burger place which had very large and very greasy burgers. For the first time in a long time, I didn't cringe at the sight of the heart-wrenching crowd favorite and actually enjoyed eating my way to obesity. I didn't even ignore the large packet of fries which I usually did. My mom and I had a surprisingly light trip home as we ate our way through two thousand calories.
But the sight of our house, contrary to what I expected, was quite sobering. The reality of what was about to happen weighed heavily on me. It returned me to the truth that the laughter in our car was temporary and that I was just making a very short trip towards talking to my father, an activity which I somehow doubted involved laughter in it.
The sky was ominously overcast as we stepped out of the car. It looked like it was about to cry.
We both sat around the kitchen table. My phone, my mother's phone, and our cordless landline were set side by side in front of me while my mother sat across looking quite anxious. We didn't know what phone my dad would use to call me so we made sure we had all three covered. We knew better than to call him. He would call when he was ready.
I sat there staring at the three phones, wondering what in the world he would want to talk to me about. If it wasn't about the shrink then it must have been something about school. Was it about my suspension? I mean, he would have heard about that much sooner from my mother. I glanced at her wondering if she had also kept that secret from my father. I was tempted to ask her but I wasn't sure if I wanted to know the answer. If she said she had kept it a secret, then it would just lead my mind to darker, worse paths for our conversation.
But then, a slight hope blossomed in me with the possibility that my dad just wanted to talk to me. Maybe he just wanted to talk to catch up, to find out how I was doing, to maybe share what he has been up to the last few years. That would have been nice. I might have liked that. But I didn't let the hope grow too far because knowing my father, it was unlikely a social call.
My mom was tapping her fingers nervously on the kitchen table. The tension she was experiencing was contagious and I found myself looking anywhere else just to find a distraction. "Mom…"
"Yes, honey?" she asked in that soothing voice. She seemed relieved to do anything except sit there and wait.
"Why do you keep all those old cans?" I asked as my eyes roamed through the various shelves in the kitchen.
"Old cans?" she asked as she looked where I was looking.
"Yeah. Most of the stuff in our shelves is expired, for years even."
She stared at the shelves and I got the impression that she wasn't really looking. It was like she had gone somewhere else.
"Mom?" I asked uncertainly.
"They're a reminder," she said, her voice tinged with sadness.
"A reminder of what?" I asked curiously.
"Oh, I have a surprise for you," she said suddenly excited. A bright smile filled her face.
"Surprise?" I asked confused by the sudden change in her behavior. I had a very distinct impression that she was desperately trying to change the topic.
"I found…" she said but stopped as the landline for the house suddenly began ringing. It resonated loudly in the suddenly still and silent kitchen. It took a few rings before my mom spoke again. "You should answer that, honey," she said in what she probably hoped was a comforting voice but only made me more nervous as though she was wishing me good luck in the gas chamber.
The handset beeped jauntily as I pressed the on button cutting off the persistent ringing. I placed it against the side of my face and heard the slight hum indicating that the line was connected. "Hello?"
"Hello, Derek," came the cheerful voice on the other side.
I frowned at the receiver. After all the expectations I had in my head on how the conversation would start, I was certainly not expecting the voice on the other line to sound cheerful. I was also most certainly not expecting it to belong to a woman. "Uhh, yes, who's this?"
"Hi, this is Carey, your father's PA. He wanted me to talk to you," the woman on the line said lively.
I frowned deeper against the receiver. I didn't know that my father had a PA (though I really should have expected it). That little discovery wasn't the part that was bothering me so much though. "He wanted you to talk to me?"
"Yes," she said. "As I'm sure you know, your father is a very busy man and he no longer had the time to call you again today. So, he entrusted me with the task to speak to you instead. He wanted me to tell you how proud he was of your recent actions at school."
"Your recent actions at school," she repeated. "He heard from some very good friends the actions you took regarding that boy, who is your neighbor. His name is Charlie, I believe?"
"Yes," I said, my brain feeling exceptionally slow. "But…"
"Well, he's very proud of what you have done, even if the administration has presented a less than favorable response to your actions. He wanted me to tell you not to worry about them and that he will keep them in place."
"Keep them in place?" I asked still not fully understanding what was happening.
"Yes, but you need not worry about that," she laughed, a pleasant naïve laugh so far from Dr. Baker's. "Oh, he also wanted me to tell you that he is taking steps to ensure that Charlie and his mother are removed from your neighborhood. It must certainly be distressing to have such unpleasant people live so near to you."
"What?" I asked startled.
"Oh yes," she said approvingly as though taking the upsurge in my voice as excitement. "He expects they'll be homeless within a few weeks once all the paperwork gets through. He's always known that that boy was a bad influence on you. And now that that boy has shown his true colors, there would be no need to have him or his mother interact with you and your mother ever again."
"Wait, a minute…" I said heatedly.
"Don't worry," she interrupted. "No one would even suspect that your father was involved, so as long as you don't tell anyone prematurely, no one would be any wiser."
"Okay, stop!" I said angrily into the phone. "Just stop, okay?"
"What's the matter, Derek?" she said. I could clearly imagine a confused frown on her PA face.
"No one," I said dangerously into the phone, "No one, not even my father, is allowed to touch Charlie, you hear me?"
"Oh, Derek," she laughed. "He won't be directly involved. You don't have to worry."
"NO!" I yelled. In my frustration I had slammed my fist into the table, clipping my cellphone and causing it to crash loudly onto the ground. "You don't get it. No one touches Charlie. I don't want to get rid of him. Charlie is perfectly fine where he lives. Tell my father to stay as far away as possible from Charlie. Tell my father to stay far away from me and my family!"
"I'm sorry, Derek," Carey said, "but I don't understand. Don't you want them removed from your neighborhood?"
"No! You don't understand because we've never met! You don't know me. And for that matter, neither does my father. You have no idea what I want and what I want right now is for you to tell my father everything I just told you. Also, I want you to tell him that if he ever, EVER wants to tell me anything again then he better have the nerve to tell me himself in person. Not over the phone. And especially not through his goddamn secretary! You hear me? Tell him that, Carey! Goodbye."
I clicked off the phone and let it clatter onto to kitchen table as though it had burnt me. I took deep, steadying breathes as I replayed the conversation over and over again in my head. My father wanted to get rid of Charlie and Mrs. C. The dreadful part about it was that I had a feeling he could do it if he wanted to. Was he going to not do it just because I told him not to? And what did this mean for my mom and me? Would he still be "proud" of me once he found out what I said to his secretary?
I looked at my mom, worried I was about to get a lecture for the way I spoke to my father. To my great surprise and bewilderment, there was a soft smile on her face. "Your father's not going to like what you just said when he finds out."
"No," I said. "I can imagine he won't."
We stared at each other for a moment longer before both breaking out in uncontrollable laughter. We were both grasping our stomachs tightly as we filled the house with our joyful screams.
"So," I tried to say between breaths. "So, you're okay with this?" I knew she didn't hear exactly what my father's secretary had said but I was sure that my words were enough to give her an idea of what the conversation was about. "You're not mad at me?"
"Oh, honey," she said as she stood up. She went around the table and took the seat next to me. She sat on it so that we were facing each other. She took my hands in her own and smiled, her eyes shinning brightly. "You're growing up to be a good man – a man that I had always hoped you would some day become. I had feared that your father's influence would not make it so but I am so happy to realize that you've grown strong and independent of your father's beliefs. Know that I have always been proud of you, of the things you've done and the things you've accomplished. But I have never," she paused as she took my face in her hands and kissed me in my forehead, "NEVER been as proud of you as I am at this very moment."
"Thanks, mom," I murmured as I looked down. My eyes were disturbingly misty and I was struggling to prevent tears from forming. My mom's words were encouraging and exactly what I needed after such a bad conversation with my father (well… his secretary).
She hugged me tight against her. "I love you, Derek. I always have. I always will. You remember that, okay?"
"Yes, mom," I said unable to hold back the tears anymore as I made two wet spots in her blouse.
I sat there for a while in her embrace. I found it oddly comforting even though I had grown much bigger than her over the years. It was like I had missed it all along without realizing it. "Hey, mom, you said you had a surprise for me?"
"Yes," she said as she pulled back. She smiled brightly despite her tear stained eyes. We both wiped at our cheeks furiously. "I found your old jacket, the Chicago Bulls one. The one you loved so much when you were little."
"Already?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "It wasn't particularly difficult. It was tucked in one of the boxes of your old clothes."
"Where is it?" I asked excitedly. I really did love that jacket and knowing I was about to see it again brought a pleasant sense of nostalgia.
"Just a moment," she said as she stood up and walked into the hallway towards her room.
As I waited for her to come back, I noticed my phone on the floor. I picked it and noted immediately that something was wrong. It was chipped on the side and cracked down the middle of the screen. The normally bright LCD display was dark and looked as though it was stabbed with a knife and was bleeding black from the way the screen had stretched outward. I looked upon my father's gift, for which I was happy with once upon a time, knowing that it was at that moment broken beyond repair. I threw into the kitchen trashcan without a second thought.
"Here it is," my mom said as she walked back into the room with a package wrapped in plastic. "It's a bit dirty though. It looked like you fell into mud and packed it without bothering to have it washed." She clucked with a disapproving but nonetheless amused smile. She handed me the package like it was an extra special and extra early Christmas gift.
"Thanks mom," I said excitedly as I took the jacket out. I could feel the soft nylon in my hands and could already remember all the fond memories I had in my youth involving the jacket. I unfolded it and hung it in front of me grinning madly…
And then I froze.
The front of the jacket looked like it was once caked in dirt. Dark streaks leaked down from the top where it looked like black mud was pressed onto the surface before being swatted off. Some of the stains looked like it was absorbed into the fabric over time. It gave the eerie impression of two blackened eyes crying.
"See?" my mom laughed. "I didn't clean it yet so that you could see. I can somewhat understand why you'd want to hide this away. It's a mess! But really, you could have given it to me to clean. Mud can be removed if you scrub hard enough you know." She laughed. "Derek… are you alright?"
I had just sat there and continued looking at the dirty jacket. I felt sick and I could feel all the blood draining for my face.
"Honey," my mom said sounding concerned, "What is it? Are you okay?"
"Yeah," I whispered, though I didn't mean for my voice to sound so weak.
"Honey, it's okay. I can still clean this. It won't be a problem. It will look as good as new after I've washed it."
"Yeah," I repeated. And then I stood up abruptly, startling my mom. "I think I'm going to lie down for a bit."
"Derek," my mom said, sounding very worried. "Are you alright? You're turning pale."
"Yeah," I repeated for the third time. "I'm just… it's been a really long day."
She studied me as if trying to figure out what was wrong but in the end she conceded and nodded. "Okay, you lie down for a bit and I'll save you some dinner for later if you feel hungry, okay?"
"Yeah," I said yet again and made my way to my room. I closed my door behind me and sat down on my bed. However, I didn't lie down as I didn't feel remotely tired. The day had been long, yes, but it was the jacket that made me feel the way I was feeling that very moment.
I didn't know how or why but I was quite certain that mud did not make the dark stains that marked my old childhood jacket.
It was blood.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]