You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d
–William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV, scene i
“We’ve done a complete workup—everything. Physically, he’s fine. No drugs in his system. And there was nothing in the MRI—normal blood flow, no tumors or lesions. That’s all very good.” Dr. Horvath spoke in her most soothing bedside manner, but there was no comforting the confused, anxious parents in her office. “So, in cases like this, where there has been a psychotic break and no clear precipitating physical etiology, uh, cause, we generally look for a significant life event. I want you to think carefully. Has anything occurred in Timothy’s recent past that you might characterize as especially traumatic?”
“Nothing,” said the mother.
“Mr. Laughlin?” Years of experience had taught Dr. Horvath that in most couples, there was one who took charge, who did the talking, and it was usually necessary to draw the other one out.
Mr. Laughlin shook his head, contemplated his shoes. “Nothing we know of. We’ve been ’round and ’round about this. But you know how it is with teenagers. They don’t share much with their parents. One day they are coming home and bubbling over with everything that happened at school, and then they turn 13, and everything’s a state secret.”
“How about friends? Romantic interests? Does Timothy have a best friend or a girlfriend or, uh, boyfriend?”
“Why would you suggest something like that?” said Ms. Laughlin. “Timmy is definitely NOT gay.”
“We don’t know that,” said Mr. Laughlin. His wife looked at him as though he were mold on bread. “We really don’t know anything about his private life. You know, I read recently that one of those school shooters in Arkansas had a whole arsenal under his bed, and his parents didn’t have a clue it was there.”
“Jesus, Herbert!” Ms. Laughlin was looking, now, away from her husband, at the corner where Dr. Horvath’s bookcase met the ceiling. Barely contained rage.
“What about the girl?” Dr. Horvath looked at her notes. “Laura Pitalli.”
“As far as I know, they were just friends,” said Ms. Laughlin, exhaling deeply.
“He said they might be going to one of those EMD concerts together,” Mr. Laughlin volunteered.
“EDM,” said Ms. Laughlin. “Electronic Digital Music. Herbert doesn’t even know his own son. Timmy spends all his time in his room, playing around on that Soundcloud program. Barely comes out of there.”
Dr. Horvath repressed an urge to tell Ms. Laughlin that EDM stood for “Electronic Dance Music” and that “Electronic Digital Music” was redundant. “The Principal, Mr. Jimenez. . . .”
“Assistant Principal,” Ms. Laughlin corrected.
“The Assistant Principal told the police that according to some of the kids, when Timothy had his breakdown, he was screaming at people, ‘It’s not her. What the hell is going on here? That’s not Laura. Can’t you see that?’”
“It’s not the first time,” said Mr. Laughlin.
“There was a previous incident? Tell me about that.”
“Well, I was going to the Lowes to get a cage for the dog. She’s getting old and has taken to peeing on the floor at night while we’re sleeping. But I wanted a really large one.”
“Jesus, Herbert. She’s not interested in all that. Get to the point.”
Herbert sighed. “I thought it might be too big for me to carry, so I asked Timothy to come with me, to help carry it. And as I turned onto Washtenaw, he said, ‘Where the hell is the ocean? The marina? What the. . . .’ He used an expletive.”
“Did he say anything more?”
“He was, like, really confused. He kept saying, ‘What the hell?’ and I asked him what he was talking about, and he said, ‘Dad. The ocean. Where the hell is the ocean? And the marina? And the boats.’ And I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about. And after a while he settled down, and we went on to the hardware store. But he didn’t say anything more. He just looked like . . . like he’d seen a ghost or something. When I asked him about this later, he said it was ‘Nothing.’ Clammed up and wouldn’t talk to me.”
“So, he thought that there was supposed to be all this—a shoreline, a marina—along Washtenaw Avenue? Where was this, exactly?”
“You know, over by Erewhon Estates.”
“I see. OK. We’re going to let you go in to see him now. He’s on a tranquilizer, to control his mood. So he might seem a little groggy. Do me a favor and don’t talk to him about any of this right now. He needs normalcy. But I would like you to do something for me.”
“Anything,” said Ms. Laughlin.
“Ask around among his friends. Find out what his relationship was with this Laura Pitalli. Maybe you could talk to her. This could help.”
_ _ _ _ _
Timothy turned off the television that his mother had switched on in his room. The last thing he needed was all that noise. He lay back on the hospital bed, stared at the ceiling, then closed his eyes. There had to be a way to make sense of all this. He would think it all through. Step by step. Each occurrence. There must be, he thought, some clue. Maybe they were right. Maybe he was just crazy. OK. The first time it happened, it was the cat, Mr. Peebles. Tim came downstairs in the morning and told his Mom, “There’s some strange cat on the landing upstairs. Did someone let a neighbor’s cat in?” His Mom had gone upstairs and come back a moment later and said, “It’s just Mr. Peebles, sleeping up there.” And then Tim had said, “But he’s got these white feet and a big white splotch on his head,” and she had looked at him like he was totally crazy and said,
“You mean to tell me that you never noticed those markings on the cat?”
OK. That was the first time. And then there was Mark Rafferty and the book. In Algebra 2, Mark was carrying around a paperback book, a collection of science fiction stories. He’d asked him about it because Mark didn’t read. He could barely spell his own name and only made it to 11th grade because the teachers were so lax. Tim figured that the book must have been loaned to Mark by the Reading teacher, but Mark had said it was his own and said he sure didn’t need a Reading teacher and what had Tim been smoking, anyway. Really weird. Then there was the new AP. Ms. Mantle was gone, and in her office, there was a different Assistant Principal—Mr. Jimenez—only the other kids all acted like Tim was crazy and didn’t know who Ms. Mantle was and said that Jimenez had been there all year, and last year too. And then everything was fine–just some weird additions to his EDM files–until the trip to Lowes with his Dad and, the next day, some imposter with blonde hair and a cheerleader look in the place of Laura. Laura . . . his Laura. It was too freaking much. Tim could feel his heart pounding and the tears, wet on his face. Control, he thought. Gotta think. Then, blackness.
_ _ _ _ _
Shares of Neutronix Fall on Update Glitch
By Lori Chiang, Reuters
Shares of gaming giant Neutronix fell sharply on Monday in response to frustration by users over glitches in its update of the popular SimSimile platform. Shortly after the update propagated, users began reporting random pieces of their simulated online worlds that had been previously deleted or modified reverting to previous versions. The experience of Lowell MacManus, of Brighton, was typical. “I had cashed in 3,000 credits to build an observatory in the desert, and when I logged on on Thursday, it was all gone, and there were just these random mounds in its place. like, system-generated stuff.” At press time, Neutronix had taken the entire system down pending modifications to the artificial intelligence program that generates users’ online worlds. Company spokesperson Anjali Chatterjee said that the glitch was “under investigation” and would soon be resolved.
Copyright 2018. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.
Art: Hanna lake Quetta. By Ayaz Shabbir Ahmed – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69321785
For more short stories by Bob Shepherd (and essays on the reading and writing of fiction), go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/short-stories/