Lingo's Teddy Bear
© Chris Castle
That's what my son, Mike, called me when he was ill. Not troubled like now, but just normal, kid-sick. He was running a temperature and seeing elephants in the corners of his room and he looked me straight in the eye and said those three words. It was the craziest feeling; even though I was worried for him, watching the sweat run on his brow, holding him and feeling how light and limp he was, I laughed out loud. I bellowed so loud it made Mike flinch, as if a firecracker had gone off somewhere close. I went on long and hard and Mike even managed to smile a little, in amongst all that sickness he must have been feeling. Man, I just couldn't stop laughing.
That was then and this is now.
It didn't start like it does in the horror films; no furniture was flung across the room and Mike didn't start to talk in tongues. It was more like a slow and steady stream of moments; the first thing was funny, almost, the second a coincidence but then the third, the fourth…Over the months it felt like a wave rising up in my gut; slowly understanding what it meant and being in constant denial at the same time. The only other way I can describe it is like knowing for certain you're in love with a girl and pretending she doesn't exist.
Kathy looked at every medical journal in the library, when she wasn't checking the internet. In the beginning, we joked about the printouts, picking ‘disease of the day' and checking ourselves for symptoms. Mike got in on the act too, giggling as we ran crazy, pointless tests on him; tickling his armpit with a silver spoon, leaving emery boards coated with honey between his toes. On and on it went, the three of us, a merry family of disease hunters. It became a family endeavour and much more educational than hiking, I guess.
Sorry. I lapse into dumb jokes when I get anxious. So, bearing in mind how I feel right now, I should be performing stand-up at Carnegie Hall. In the beginning, the jokes were a good thing. I would send Mike into fits of giggles with my doctor's voice, explaining each half-assed procedure in clipped tones and with a spoon balanced on the end of my nose. It worked for Kathy, too. I would read out the symptoms but add my own ideas and smile as her face slowly shifted from a brow-busting frown to a long, perfect grin. She would slap my forearm and shush me but immediately after we would kiss and for a moment we were just a normal, simple family.
In those first few months I used to spend each day waiting for that kiss. I would close my eyes and feel my wife's mouth and everything would just slip away; Mike was just a regular kid, my wife and I still made love; all we had for worries were phone-bills and teacher-parent evenings. In my mind those kisses would go on for hours, months even. And then Kathy would gently pull away and my beautiful lie would disappear. Mike's laboured breathing would fill the baby monitor and real life would crash back down on our shoulders.
How long did we wait until we called in the circus? We exhausted every doctor's opinion a long time before we went down that path, I know that much. For Kathy, it became a point of principal; she needed to hunt down every avenue before her life, her actual, real, day-to-day life descended into some sort of John Carpenter flick.
After the doctors, we went down the homeopathy route, which did little for Mike but wonders for his skin-boom, boom-I actually harboured more ill feeling against these people than anyone else; they were so clearly selling so many well intentioned people down the river with their crap, I'm surprised they could keep a straight face half the time. But by then, if nothing else, we were a family who could keep a straight face under any circumstances. The time for me and my jokes were long gone by then.
Have you ever tried to look up an exorcist in the phone-book? No, I'm not joking. The day I did just that, two books hit me in the face. The first, the phone book, Kathy hurled into my face as she stormed out of the room. The second, and I swear to you I'm not lying on this, was when I edged the dictionary off the top shelf, which promptly smacked me square on the forehead.
‘Exorcist' is a bitch of a word to spell as well as locate; by the time I'd worked I worked out the spelling out, I realised there were no listings for them in the book. ‘Paranormal investigators,' in case you're wondering. I wrote them all down and marched over to the internet, my pencil sharpened, my forehead bleeding. Upstairs Kathy and Mike were silent, the baby monitor registering nothing but the sound of their twin breathing. The sound I used to hear in our bed on winter mornings before it all started. My favourite sound in the world and my reason for living.
I went to see the two most viable candidates in their offices; neither fitted my fright-flick expectations. I guess the horror film that reflected real life wouldn't be much of a ride. Both places were tidy, orderly outfits, the people perfectly sane and rational. I had chosen an out-and-out paranormal investigator, a thoroughly charming old lady called Grace Lyons and a scientific outfit run by a gentleman called James Smith. One thoroughly dismissed the other to the point of contempt, which in my mind made them a perfect combination. ‘One man's beef is another man's bread and butter,' as my old man used to say.
All the stuff with Mike got me thinking about my old man. He died over ten years ago and I miss him every day, sometimes more now than when it all happened. I think about what's going on with Mike, what it could mean, you know, in the long run and all the rest of it and I cry. I know it should give me hope, maybe, but instead I think all it could do is just about drive me crazy. And that's all I have to say about that.
I talked with Kathy and she agreed to it. Crazy on two levels, but she said ‘yes' all the same; crazy with me for pursuing the idea, not too crazy on having ‘witch-doctors'(her words) in our house. A small, hateful part of me kept biting at my brain, wanting to add a third level to all that insanity; your boy might just be crazy, too but I kept a lid on it. The date's set.
We started to clean up the house; in a warped way, it's the first time we've thought about taking on house guests for months. I made a gag to Kathy about what finger food we should lay on and she stopped as if struck by a bullet; when she turned round her eyes were swollen with tears but her voice was perfectly even; for those of you who are not married, that is a perfect description of something very bad just about to happen. She spoke very clearly and very quietly and when she was done she left the room, still clutching the duster in her hand. She left me in little doubt that whatever the results of the clinical trials our marriage was all but over.
She didn't mention the finger food.
Well, seeing as I'm writing about my possibly possessed son, my soon to be ex-wife and my old man as a ghost, I may as well go the whole hog and state the moment when Mike tipped over from being unwell to being…something more.
We used to have a dog, Cody, even though none of us went by his formal moniker. I used to call him ‘the mutt,' Kathy went for ‘pooch' and Mike called him ‘Codes.' The three of us loved that dog. When he got sick, we marched him straight over to the vet and I don't mind admitting, my eyes were carrying the biggest tears. So, anyway, we went and the doc gave us the bad news; he had a month left, tops. He was being as tactful as he could be, but he'd somehow managed to say ‘Incurable Cody' in a sentence and that somehow set me off; I had to run to the bathroom stalls to laugh out what got into my head; I almost stuffed toilet paper in my mouth I was howling so bad.
He got worse and worse, that mutt of mine, until it got cleat that he only had a few days left. We sat him in his bowl and treated him as best we could and tried to keep Mike away as best we could. Both of us talked to him about what was going to happen and he seemed okay with it. In a weird way, Cody had kept Mike's problems from manifesting themselves. I thought he may have turned a corner somehow. I was just about as wrong as could be.
I found Mike downstairs a few nights later. Kathy was asleep and I had woken suddenly, feeling something like lightning in my stomach. I padded down the stairs, thinking that Cody had finally passed on. I was braced for it by the time I reached the room. This is what I saw:
1.) Cody was vomiting.
2.) Mike was tilting his head back, so the vomit sluiced back down the dog's throat.
3.) His arms and legs were gripped tightly around the dog, set, holding him in place.
4.) His body was strong.
5.) His eyes were lit and not my son's.
6.) That poor dog choked and whimpered and then died with a gurgling sound, that as I write this, I can still hear.
7.) When it was done, Mike walked away, his eyes still lit, without seeing me.
In the morning, I walked into Mike's room and sat on the end of his bed. His arms trailed outside the duvet and were back to looking like limp noodles. He looked up at me weakly and smiled and reached out for my hand.
He had no idea.
I never told Kathy about it; I went online and looked into sleepwalking etc. but nothing said anything about abnormal strength. I understood that Mike did not have a medical problem.
I also understood it's a terrible thing, for a father to fear his son.
The two parties arrived at our house and began their work. ‘The scientists', as I have bracketed them, have trailed wires and gadgets all over the place and were pissed that we tidied everything up, as they feared it may have swept away some ‘telekinetic forces.' To me, this sounds like they were already covering their asses against failure. Grace, on the other hand, simply walked around the house, as if she was seriously thinking about buying the place, collecting up cushions, Mike's comic books, his nick-knacks. I followed it all, re-filling coffee mugs, while Kathy looked on from Mike's room, pale and tired and looking how she did after she had once caught glandular fever. Mike was in bed, barely registering what was going on. The house had finally descended into madness. All we needed now was a priest.
A Quick Note on Religion: I've never really gone for it, though Kathy does, in a kind of ‘brought up that way' fashion. Personally, I've never bought into something that's caused so many wars, but then I'm nothing but a heathen, I guess. All I'm saying, is why can't you believe in God and Buddha? The Koran and the Bible? Whenever I've seen religion I've always equated it with power, not love. To wit: ‘When the power of love is stronger than the love of power, the world will be at peace.' Jimi Hendrix, R.I.P. I said this to Kathy soon after we started dating; she laughed and said it was just like me to base my moral ethics on a rock star; I was hurt when she said that, more hurt than I let on, though I laughed right along. Later, when we slept together, I got the last laugh: I've got that quote tattooed on my arm.
So priests weren't on the agenda, as yet. Instead, the scientists hooked everything up and then decamped to the spare room. Kathy and Grace talked for a long time and despite Kathy's initial reservations, the two seemed to get on well. The two of them talked about science versus belief and all that jazz. Grace slept in the other room that night and Kathy had a merciful pretence to sleep in Mike's room; partly due to space and partly to show she wasn't scared of whatever it was that troubled Mike.
I lay on the couch and wondered how it came to pass that the love of my life had chosen to risk the wrath of god knows what rather than lay next to me and I laughed, before quickly stifling it. The smile slipped away and the tears came next, but I didn't try to stop them; what the hell, I thought defiantly; let the ghost-busters watch the hubby have a breakdown in high definition.
This went on for two days. At the end of it, as the scientists grew more disillusioned, Grace became more and more intense. At first, I dismissed it as some sort of perverse one-upmanship, but then realised there was more to it than that. As the electronics fizzled and hummed, Grace clutched harder onto Mike's trinkets, her knuckles growing white. On the second evening the men packed up and accepted their deferred fee-it was good to know that the paranormal were still flexible about no-shows and discounts-while Grace asked if she could stay the evening. The three of us sat in the kitchen and Grace explained what she felt. The two of us listened, clutching our coffee cups instead of each other's hands and looked at each other at the end. We agreed to it the way people do when there are no other options; with a quick nod of the head and no words.
Mike sat in his favourite chair as Grace very casually set up the few things that she needed. We treated it like one last test and Mike seemed to accept it with good humour; truth be told, the old girl was charm itself, coming across as a kind of Mary Poppins with tools kind of thing. The slasher flicks let me down again; there were no straps or tithes, no dramatic pronouncements; when it began, she talked conversationally, as if she were reading out a recipe from memory.
I sat on the left of him, Kathy on the right. Mike himself seemed to lull, as if dozing, while Kathy was full on swaying. More than once, I edged over, ready to catch her and then shuffled back when she righted herself. Grace went on, mumbling, cajoling, before finally steeling herself suddenly, her words becoming inflected with passion, tighter and more focussed than before.
Mike began to stiffen in the chair. I heard Kathy gasp and then Grace leaned across him, though I wasn't sure if that was to take him or block Kathy off. The words became repetitive, though I didn't recognise any of them and they seemed to tighten around Mike, the same as if she were shaking him. This is really happening, I thought and insanely, almost giggled. I stood up and reached out for Kathy, to hold her in place. At first she fought me but then she settled. The two of us stood, stunned and stilled, as the old lady went on. We watched as our son soundlessly began to rock, his skin shifting somehow, everything changing. It went on and on and I watched, aware that my wife's nails were drawing blood from my skin and not feeling a thing. I stared as my son became used up and grey and then full of light in the same instant. My eyes were open and I saw something that was not possible and I did not look away.
A shudder and then it was over.
Grace fell back as if pushed and Mike slumped into the chair. Kathy broke away from me, the blood trickling off her nails and onto her fingers, as I caught Grace. I watched as Kathy drew Mike up and took his face in her hands; he was breathing; big, deep gulps of air and his eyes looked alert. I felt myself smile, flinching almost to the feel of it; an honest, actual smile. I felt my body soar and it was the same sensation as when Kathy and I used to kiss. It was over. And then I felt the old lady shiver and knew something was still terribly wrong.
At first, I tried to convince myself she was simply worn out. I drew her in and hugged her; I kept saying ‘thank you,' over and over, not knowing what else to say. But after a while I realised she was still shaking, shaking badly – trembling like the dog when it was being choked -and I held her at arm's length. For a second, horror film logic screamed at me that she had absorbed it somehow, but when I looked at her, I knew that wasn't true. Kathy was mumbling to Mike, saying a thousand things and I couldn't bring myself to talk over her and drown out all her…happiness. I kept looking at the woman and she looked at me and she went on shaking. Finally, she broke free. Grace stepped away and I looked back over to my wife and son. His cheeks were smeared with my blood, though she did not seem to notice that at all.
Kathy took Mike to bed and was still talking to him as I led Grace to the door. The old woman looked older, older than when all this had started, a whole hour before. She had stopped trembling, in her body at least, but her eyes were still flickering and almost wild. I walked with her to the door and she didn't look away from the bedroom once. I looked at her and went beyond scared; I was horrified now, even though there was a part of me that was simply waiting for what came next.
‘Can you tell me?' I heard myself say. The words made her jump and she forced herself to look at me. She began to speak but then the words trailed away. Instead, she simply looked at me for a long time. When she was done looking, she glanced back to the bedroom once more and then turned and walked out of the house. I watched her go and then I looked back to the bedroom. She had said seven words:
“Why must the ghost always be bad? ”
I understood that the face I saw in the bedroom was the same one I saw that night Cody was murdered.
I understood that my wife could not see it, though the old lady could as clearly as I did now.
I understood that maybe not all ghosts are bad. That maybe, the ghosts are the good holding back the evil inside the living.
And now that ghost was gone.
I understood all of this and I closed the door. I looked over once to the grey tinged face where my son used to live. I saw my wife, smiling as she clutched the creature's hand. Her blood stained nails against ashen skin. I brought my head back round and pressed it against the door; it was cool against my burning forehead. I understood it all. What did I do next? I laughed. I laughed long and I laughed hard. Man, I just couldn't stop laughing.