I’m afraid our 12-year-old son is a budding psychopath. As in he isn’t yet, but I’m scared to death. Hurting animals is a sign, right? I won’t say what he did because it’s too upsetting. Ruth doesn’t want to believe me until I show her what I found in the small lake in the grip of our subdivision. We agree Jacob should see a counselor.
I take Jake by myself to his first session with Dr. Penser because Ruth has a late meeting with her boss. Again. After my son and I sit with Penser together, the doctor asks for some time alone with Jake. The shrink brings Jake out to the waiting room about 30 minutes later. I give the doc a look that says “Well?”
“We had a nice talk, didn’t we, Jacob?”
I make a little head cock that would say “And?” to a normal person, but of course shrinks aren’t normal.
Penser puts his hand on my son’s shoulder. “Jacob said some interesting things. We’ll dig a little deeper next session, right Jacob?”
Back in the car, I ask Jake what he told Dr. Penser.
“I didn’t do it, Dad.”
“Isn’t that what you said when the Johansens’ car was keyed?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you didn’t do it, who did?”
“I don’t know.”
About halfway home, I notice a car matching my every turn. It might be the black SUV. I’ve been seeing it more often. I gun it.
“Go, Dad, go.” Jake laughs and whoops. He doesn’t realize this is serious. I veer right at a fork in the road. The car bears right. I make a couple more random turns. The car remains behind us. I pull into some driveway and sigh with relief when the vehicle, a black SUV sure enough, barrels past. “Ha! We lost the son of a bitch, Jake.”
When we walk in the door, Ruth taps her phone and stashes it in her purse. I arc my eyebrows at my wife. When she doesn’t get the message, I say “I thought you had to work late.”
“Hobbs cancelled our meeting. I was just now texting to tell you I was home. I hate that I couldn’t be with you. How’d it go with Dr. Penser?”
I give Jake a look that says he should answer his mother.
“A car was tailing us, but Dad lost the son of a bitch. So cool.” Guess I need to speak more clearly with my looks.
“Jake, watch your language. Paul, you thought someone was following you?” Ruth rolls her eyes, which I read as Again? “Why don’t you order a pizza? I’m going to shower,” my wife says. “Then let’s discuss the session with Dr. Penser.”
When I hear the water, I grab Ruth’s purse and put my finger to my lips to swear Jake to secrecy. I’m digging for the phone to check my wife’s texts and call log when I hear Ruth clear her throat. As in What the fuck are you doing, Paul?
“Oh. I … was just bringing this to you.” I hand her the purse. She holds the towel to herself with one hand and snatches the bag with the other. “Honestly, Paul, I think you’re getting worse,” she says and heads back to the bathroom.
Next morning Ruth, Jake and I are having breakfast when my son says “Dad, what you found by the lake … I told you I didn’t do it.”
“And I asked you — Who did?”
“I don’t know.”
I jam a half-slice of toast into my mouth and go out to get the paper. Our neighbor Jack Boswell is in his yard. He’s an asshole. A peeping Tom asshole. I’ve never caught him, but I’ve noticed he’s often in his back yard where he can look into our bedroom window. I go get in his face. Thanks to my weight lifting, I can be an imposing figure. “I know about you, Boswell.”
He steps back. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Peters.”
I figure he’s got the message and retreat. I need to get to the gym for my workout. My boss has it in for me, and I don’t want to risk being late to the office today because I’m having my annual performance review.
I’ve been thinking about buying a set of free weights and lifting in the basement. That would save some time plus I could better keep an eye on Ruth in the morning. And I wouldn’t have to worry about that Barnhart guy at the gym. He has the locker next to mine. I suspect he’s a padlock listener. He tries to count the clicks when I dial my combination so he can get in my locker. He’d deny it, but I’ve devised a trap.
Whenever I twist the dial on my padlock with Barnhart around, which is most days “coincidentally,” I sing Puff the Magic Dragon so he can’t hear the clicks. This morning, though, it’s going to be Sounds of Silence. As in I’m going to be quiet and catch him listening.
Barnhart’s already got his workout clothes on when I get to my locker. But of course when he sees me, he realizes his shoes aren’t tied. Right.
“Morning, Barnhart. Guess I’ll unlock my padlock now.” I proceed to dial in the wrong numbers. Without singing.
“I’ve come to talk to you again,” Barnhart warbles.
Is that some crazy coincidence? Or something more sinister. “Why are you singing Sounds of Silence, Barnhart?”
He stands up straight. “Not sure. Weren’t you humming it? Enjoy your lift, Peterson.” He heads for the weight room. I’m certain he gets my name wrong on purpose. And why was he acting as if he didn’t want to steal my combination? What’s he up to? I get so flustered, I forget the right combination and fumble with the padlock for a few minutes. I decide to skip my workout to be sure I’m not late for my performance review with Mr. Jenkins.
I’ve driven about halfway to the office, when I notice the black SUV behind me. Going into full evasive-action mode, I shake the vehicle but end up wandering in some subdivision and am a minute late for my evaluation. Just the excuse Mr. Jenkins is looking for. I’m sure he’s going to be a lawn mower. As in my ass is grass.
I take a seat in his office and brace myself. After discussing the year I’ve had, Mr. Jenkins says he’s glad I’m part of the team and gives me a raise. Is he toying with me? Setting me up for a bigger fall later?
Ruth and I are watching the evening news when Jake says he’s getting a glass of milk. He doesn’t come back after several minutes so I go to check on him. As I approach the kitchen, I hear him talking to himself and giggling. I peer around the door and see him slashing the butcher knife in the air. Then he presses the blade to his palm until it bleeds. He laughs.
“Jacob, what are you doing?”
He starts crying. “I cut myself putting the knife away, Dad.”
I notice a kid down by the lake. I try to sneak up behind him, but when I’m several feet away, he shoves something into a plastic trash bag and runs away. I want to hurry to our house — if Jake’s there, that means it wasn’t him I just saw — but my feet keep sticking in muddy ground. When I get to our place, I see a black SUV in our driveway and a figure outside our bedroom window. I creep toward the Peeping Tom, planning catch him in the act and beat the shit out of him. But it’s hard to fight someone when you turn to stone, which is what happens to me when I’m close enough to see through the window. Ruth appears to be in the middle of a strip tease. I can’t move as she finishes undressing and motions for the guy to come inside. He turns toward me and howls with laughter. It’s my boss, Mr. Jenkins. My wife points at me and starts laughing, too. “Jenkins, I’ll kill you. Ruth, how could you? No, no!”
I feel someone shaking me. “Paul, wake up.”
I sit up in bed. “Where … what time is it?”
“Two in the morning. You were having a dream.”
“You weren’t doing a striptease for Mr. Jenkins?”
“Oh, Honey, of course not. I’d never do such a thing. I love you. Paul, you have to do something about these crazy thoughts and suspicions. People following you. Your boss not liking you. He gave you a raise, right?”
Ruth kisses me and holds my hand. “Your delusions are worsening, Paul. You don’t want to end up like your father, do you? Maybe Dr. Penser could suggest someone you could talk to. And there are medications.”
I start to explain that almost all medications these days are placebos deployed for some secret government drug test, but I haven’t worked out the details. Anyway, I’m sure she’s trying to help. Pretty sure.
Ruth and I reverse roles for a few weeks. Desperate to keep my eye on my boss, I work late, and my wife slips out from her office early to take Jake to see Penser.
“I had an update from Jake’s psychologist today,” Ruth says after our son’s gone to bed.
I give her a look that says Tell me more.
“He thinks Jake is becoming neurotic. Not good but better than a psychopath. Jake told Dr. Penser that Robby Boswell hurt those animals. We’ve made our son a nervous wreck suspecting he did it. Also, Jake worries about being in a crash when you try to lose the black SUV you imagine is following you. And he thinks some kid in the gym locker next to his is trying to steal the combination to his padlock. He’s afraid his teacher has it in for him, and he imagines someone is watching him through his bedroom window … For God’s sake, Paul, does any of that sound familiar?” Ruth reads the guilt on my face and takes my hand. “Dr. Penser says they’re working through the issues, and Jake’s getting better.”
The next week, when Ruth is with Jake at Dr. Penser’s, I start making supper after I get home from work. I realize I have to stop blaming myself for my son’s neurosis or drive myself crazy. As I’m stirring the soup, some things Jake told Penser come to a boil in my mind.
My son said Robbie Boswell hurt the animals. Until we caught Jake in the lie, he claimed it was the Boswell kid who keyed the Johansens’ car. Also, Jake doesn’t seem worried about a wreck when I try to lose the black SUV. He cheers and urges me to go faster. And why would he think someone’s looking through his window when his bedroom’s upstairs?
I hate to think it, but Jake seems to be manipulating people into believing he’s an innocent kid. I flash back to the sight of him grinning then pretending to cry when I caught him cutting his palm with the butcher knife. Why was he so fascinated with that blade? What about those bloody hand prints I found on his bedroom wall? Wait … that was a dream. But those those poor little animals were real. Ruth saw them, too.
I hold my breath and check the knife block on the counter. There it is. And by is, I mean isn’t. The butcher knife is gone. My God, what is Jake planning to do? I call Ruth but get her voicemail. I pray it’s because she offed her phone in the doctor’s office … turned it off. I have to get to her.
In the garage, the car roof scrapes the bottom of the rising door as I back out. En route, I notice the black SUV behind me. Go to hell, Jenkins. I floor it even though a cop who has it in for me patrols this area.
I screech to a stop in the parking lot at Dr. Penser’s building, charge up the flight of steps to the entrance, burst into the waiting room … and find Dr. Penser and Ruth chatting. Jacob clutches his book bag to his chest.
My wife turns toward me. “Honey, I didn’t know you were coming. Dr. Penser says we’re changing to semi-weekly sessions.”
Semi weekly? Jake’s worse? No that would be bi-weekly. Those terms are deliberately confusing. Focus. The book bag. I try to snatch it from Jake, but he squeezes it, confirming it contains the knife.
I step back and consider my next move and watch as my son eyes Dr. Penser then Ruth. He’s sizing them up. He levels his gaze at me. The look on his face says I’m biding my time. Growing stronger. No one else sees it, and nobody will believe it. It’s up to me to stop him. For good. Need to play it cool. “C’mon, Jake-boy,” I say, “ride with me. Let’s go to the lake.”
“Aw, there’s nothing to see at our crummy little lake, Dad.”
“Not our lake, Son. The one outside town. The big, deep one.”
David Henson and his wife have lived in Brussels and Hong Kong and now reside in Illinois. His work has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions and has appeared in various journals including Idle Ink, Moonpark Review, Literally Stories, Gone Lawn and Fiction on the Web. His website is writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.