It all started on the seventeenth of February in his junior year in high school. No, that wasn't right, it had started years before that, but Nathan Baldric had never feared it before that day. He'd been seeing strange things no one else could since he was eight years old, that was nothing new. That day, though, it had been far more than simply seeing. And when the vision left him screaming in the middle of his trigonometry teacher's lecture, Nathan got to spend the rest of the afternoon with his counselor and the vice principal. He told the touchy-feely ex-hippie counselor and the tough-as-nails career woman vice principal he had fallen asleep and had one hell of a nightmare. They swallowed the lie easily, since it was far preferable that he simply had discipline issues rather than a tendency to see otherworldly visions. The counselor asked about his dream, no doubt hoping to find some deep seated anxieties to cure, while the vice principal called Nathan's mother. Nathan told the man some bull scraped off the top of his head about monsters and trees grabbing at him. He sure as hell wasn't about to relate what he'd really seen and felt, what had really ripped the scream from his lungs and still had his hands shaking almost imperceptibly. When his mother arrived she too got the story, acknowledged it and took Nathan home. They said nothing on the short ride to their house, but Nathan knew without a doubt his mother had not believed word one of the nightmare explanation.
Once home Nathan went immediately up to his room and his mother started banging pots around in the kitchen. Cooking was her nervous habit, and Nathan knew they were in for a meal fit to feed an army that night. He tried to ignore the clangs from below and curled up in the thick blue comforter on his bed. The house was warm, but he couldn't shake the chill from his skin. The memory of the vision was still too close, he couldn't get it out of his head. He could still feel the repulsive and seductive touch of darkness clawing at him. The feeling was fading, but the darkness still reached for him even as it drew further away. When his ten year old sister Sara came in and asked him what happened, he couldn't bring himself to tell her. Amazingly able to keep a secret, she had long been in his confidence about the visions. She was also the only person to ever say she believed him. But even so, he could not tell her what he'd seen and felt. It was too real and too terrifying. Soon she left and Nathan was left alone with his thoughts again, at least until their dad came home from work.
Nathan wasn't crazy, or at least he didn't think he was crazy. He didn't feel crazy, just scared and confused. Still, didn't most crazy people protest that they weren't crazy? Even so, he wouldn't buck the trend. He'd scream that he wasn't crazy even as he raged against padded walls if it ever came to that. He knew the things he saw were real, he just didn't know what they were. His parents thought he was well on his way if not totally out of his mind already. The first few times he'd seen things he'd excitedly run to them, eager to tell them every detail. The first few times they had listened like parents humoring a child with a vivid imagination. After that they pretended not to hear, or that he had been speaking of the weather. If he tried to tell them more his dad would glare at him and growl that he shouldn't change the subject when his mother was speaking. So before long, Nathan simply stopped telling them. It did not mean he stopped seeing things. When Sara was old enough, it became their special secret and he told no one else. But still, there were times like this when his parents were confronted with the fact that Nathan was not normal. The last time that had happened Nathan had tried to explain despite his mom's determination to talk as if the heavy rain in the forecast was what he was talking about. When Nathan had pressed on he'd gotten his dad's fist in his face and his mom putting her makeup over the black eye in the morning before he went to school. He'd let her, and not washed it off later in the school bathrooms because he didn't want to answer any questions from his classmates. Sometimes he wished he had, maybe someone at school would believe him.
Eventually he had told his best friend Colter everything. They had met in second grade and had been inseparable since. Colter had shrugged at the story, said "My dad used to hit me when I acted up too, until I started to hit back. We're like buddies now." and that was that. Colter never said one way or another whether he thought Nathan was completely crackers, and Nathan had been too afraid of the answer to press the question. All that mattered was that his friend never judged him, never deserted him, and never told anyone else. For Colter it seemed the subject was completely off limits unless Nathan brought it up first. Now Nathan was unsure how he was going to explain this latest episode. It was hardly the kind of thing his classmates could ignore. Hopefully most of them would fall for the nightmare story as easily as the counselor. Only Colter and perhaps Joe and Paul would get the real story. Just then the firm closing of the front door told him inescapably that his dad was home. It was time to head downstairs and act out the charade that everything was fine. His parents would tolerate nothing less than the perfect, red blooded, suburban America household even if it was a sham.
He wasn't disappointed. Neither of his parents said anything regarding his strange visions that day or any other. Both acted as if nothing was amiss, as if a meal that could feed ten was normal for a family of four. It wasn't until two weeks later, after Nathan had finally quieted the last of the whispering at school with his nightmare fib that he discovered what the repercussions of his terrifying vision would be. He knew something was wrong when his mom came to pick him up from school. He had his driver's license because it was the normal thing for a teen his age to have, but his parent's would never consider letting him near the freedom offered by a car. Still, he rode to and from school with his friend Joe who had managed to scrounge enough money from his part time job for an old Chevy. So he knew something was afoot, he just didn't have a clue what until his mom started heading downtown. By the time his mom had pulled into the parking lot in front of the dun brown building, Nathan was seething. The brass plate above the door of the squat brick structure read 'Russel Behavioral Health: Center for Child and Adolescent Development.'
"Come on, honey. We're here." His mom's voice was tight, yet trying to be soothing.
"I am not crazy." Nathan sat firmly where he was even as his mom got out of the driver's seat and came around the car to open his door.
"A person doesn't have to be crazy to need help, honey." She was still using the cookie-cutter caring mom voice.
"I don't need that kind of help and I am not going in there."
"Nathan honey, I know it's hard for you, but can't you see how hard it is on your father and I, on little Sara? This isn't like going and getting your shots, this is just a chance to talk to somebody, to work out these problems. Just give it a try, that's all I'm asking today. If this doctor can help you even a little, make things just that much easier on all of us--"
"Yeah, 'cause it's so hard to keep up with the Joneses when your son is raving." Nathan had heard enough and stomped out of the car furiously. He knew his parents were worried about him, but he also knew they were more worried about how they must look in the eyes of the neighbors or the other families with members in the school board. He could just imagine his mom and dad debating about the embarrassment of having a son that needed psychiatric sessions and whether that was worse than having everyone in the neighborhood know they weren't doing anything about their obviously disturbed child.
Nathan wasn't tall compared to most of the guys in his class, but his mom stood just to his shoulder. Even though he wasn't hurrying, she had to trot to keep up with his longer strides. Her conservative height high heels clacked loudly on the cement of the parking lot. In truth Nathan looked like neither of his parents. Both of them had dark hair, while his was somewhere between brown and blonde. His dad towered over the rest of them, a solid mass of soggy muscle. His mom was short and just a tad heavy for her size, but with a crispness to her every movement that made her seem sharp edged and delicate. They both had brown eyes as well, though his mom's tended more towards hazel. Nathan's own were a light green. He'd been told he got his looks from his dad's dad, but Nathan had no way of knowing. His grandfather had died before he was born, and all the pictures of him were in black and white. At 5'11" he was about average in height, and running on the cross country team had kept him lean and wiry. He wasn't the best student, but he did well in school. If he wasn't stark raving mad he was sure his parents would be proud to show him off at every opportunity. He was an above average kid who stayed away from drugs and booze, who didn't get into trouble or stay out late. It was too bad they thought he was crazy.
Once inside the office Nathan let his mom lead the way. When she stopped at the receptionist's desk to fill out forms he stood to one side with his arms crossed over his chest. The waiting room was empty, and the receptionist looked bored. Glancing around Nathan could see various medical degrees framed on the beige walls. Was that supposed to make the patients feel better to see proof that their shrink had graduated from this, that and the other university? He certainly didn't care. The words on those certificates meant nothing to him. They could have been preschool diplomas for all he'd notice. There were three different names on the walls, briefly he wondered which one he'd be talking to. He didn't wonder very long.
"Alright." The receptionist looked at her forms quickly. "Nathan, Doctor Rose is ready for you. Take the hallway to your left, it'll be the first door on the right. Mrs. Baldric, you can just have a seat out here if you'd like."
As Nathan walked down the indicated hallway he couldn't help but wonder if Dr. Rose thought his or her name was as funny as Nathan found it. He supposed it was better than Dr. Love. He'd really have a hard time taking anyone named Love seriously. Well, it wasn't like he was going to take Dr. Rose entirely seriously either. He didn't want to be there, and he was for darned sure going to make the good doctor aware of it.
The first door on the right was wide open and Nathan stood in the doorway uncertainly for a moment. On the far side of the room, sitting at a large desk with his back to the door, was a round shouldered man who appeared to enjoy his wife's cooking just a little too much. Every part of him was just a little too round, but Nathan wouldn't have called him fat. His brown hair was short, curly, and probably would look poodle-ish if it were allowed to grow out. A pot of coffee sat at the doctor's elbow, but there was no mug to be seen among the papers sprawled across the desk. Even as Nathan watched, Doctor Rose pulled a sheaf of papers off the nearest stack and turned in his seat, glancing at Nathan over the rim of his reading glasses.
"Well come on in and close the door behind you." Dr. Rose then grabbed up the coffee pot and took a long drink right from the pour spout. Once he'd returned the pot to it's place on his desk he gestured to a well padded leather easy chair beside him. "Have a seat, son."
"Don't call me son." Nathan toed the door closed behind him then slumped into the leather chair, still with his arms crossed.
"Absolutely. Nathan it is then." Dr. Rose studied his papers for a brief moment. "Ever go by Nathaniel or Nate?"
"Ah, 17. You're just a few years younger than my son."
"Did he turn out well?" Nathan finally locked eyes with the doctor and was glad to see him startled out of his routine buddy buddy-ing.
"Well you are an expert aren't you? Did he develop any behavioral problems? Disciplinary issues? Trouble with authority? Popping pills or smoking grass? Or did you cure all that before he even thought to be a trouble maker?"
"I'm incredibly proud of him, in all that he does." Dr. Rose replied levelly. Nathan snorted in response. The man was evidently not interested in discussing his own life.
"I'm not crazy. And I'm not in denial." Nathan thought it best to start with what he knew.
"I know you aren't." The doctor's gaze was steady, unnerving.
"If you know I'm not crazy, why am I here?"
"I know you aren't in denial."
"So you do think I'm crazy." Nathan was almost enjoying the track of the conversation. He wondered if it was allowed for shrinks to call their patients crazy. He was certainly going to try for it. "Isn't that kind of contradictory?"
"I know you think you aren't crazy. If you truly thought you were and were deluding yourself into saying you weren't, then you would be in denial." Dr. Rose pulled off his glasses and cleaned them on the hem of his polo shirt. "From what I can tell you are absolutely certain that you are not crazy, and just as certain that no one understands you."
"And you think that you can."
"I make my living dealing with resentful, angry, and sullen teenagers and precocious brats. I've seen everything from kids just looking for attention, good or bad, to teens who are truly unbalanced emotionally or mentally. So far you are barely outside of normal. Everything you say here will help me to understand you and is said in strictest confidence." Dr. Rose dropped his glasses onto the desk behind him and gave Nathan a level and challenging stare.
"That confidence stuff is pretty serious, huh?" Nathan was in no mood to be cooperative. "I mean you could lose your job over that couldn't you? Somebody tells you something, you rat 'em out and you're looking at a lawsuit." The doctor said nothing and Nathan kept right on going. "What would you do if I told you I was considering suicide?"
"No, I'm not crazy, nor am I in the depths of depression. But if I was, wouldn't you have to tell somebody? I'm a minor for another seven months, wouldn't you have to tell my parents? You can't let me off myself knowing you could have told somebody and stopped it."
"If I believed you were serious, that would be reason enough to break confidence." To his credit, the doctor's voice stayed even.
"What if you told, and then I didn't try to kill myself? Couldn't I sue you for breaking confidence?"
"Try it, and see how well that'll hold up in court."
Nathan heaved a sigh. Needling the doctor wasn't fun if he was just going to stay deadpan. "So this is it? I just talk to you for however long and it's supposed to cure whatever it is I'm supposed to be suffering from?"
Dr. Rose actually smiled at the change of subject. "You're mother scheduled you for an hour session every two weeks."
"Jesus hell..." Nathan really should have known his mother wouldn't be satisfied with just one session. "For how long?"
"Until she or I feel that you don't need it, or that it's not doing any good." The doctor's smile remained fixed.
"She'll never admit that I don't need it. She doesn't acknowledge there's a problem, how's she supposed to see if it's cured?" Old familiar bitterness was rising in him. No matter what the doc said, his parents didn't understand, likely never would. "Guess I'll be stuck with you for a while."
"Your parents pretend there's nothing wrong, until incidents like the one at school force them to?" It wasn't really a question, and Nathan wasn't surprised the doctor had been told about his most recent vision.
"Yeah, and the last time I had an 'incident' like that, my dad gave me a black eye for trying to explain to him what had happened." Nathan couldn't resist throwing another barb at the impassive doctor. "Is child abuse something serious enough to break confidence?"
"Do you think your father abuses you?" Damn him, he wasn't taking the bait. Needling the doctor really was no fun. But then, Dr. Rose had probably had a lot of practice with wise-ass high school kids.
"He's never hit me before or since. And from that day forth we all pretended like it never happened. I went along with the lie and wore my mom's foundation over the bruise until it was gone." All the vinegar seemed to flow out of him as he admitted that to the doctor. Was that all his life really was? A fermenting mass of pent up bitterness? God he hoped not. He didn't want to think his parents had won. They could make him keep his secrets from them, but they couldn't take them away from him. They couldn't keep the visions from coming to him. They couldn't keep him from running the gamut of emotions from elated to terrified every time a new vision came.
Silence stretched between them after Nathan finished speaking. He couldn't tell if the doctor was surprised at the admission or simply studying him. Either way, the man was going to have to ask to get any more out of him. As Nathan by then was expecting, Dr. Rose didn't disappoint.
"Are you involved at school, Nathan?"
Well that was a bit of a topic switch, and at the same time lead right back to where they had left off. "When I first entered middle school my parents told me to pick a sport, a musical instrument, or a club to join. I'm not musically inclined and all the clubs I knew of sounded lame, so I tried sports. I wasn't about to go out for football, and basketball was dominated by another clique of jocks. Tennis really wasn't my thing, neither was swimming or baseball, so I tried track. I found I sucked at sprints, and joined the cross country team. I've been running every year since."
"Are you glad you did?"
"I enjoy it, and I'm happy to keep doing it, but I was pissed right the hell off when my parents put that ultimatum on me." Nathan sighed. "They didn't do it because they wanted me to be happy and find friends or anything, they did it because it got them a sign in the front yard saying 'proud parent of a RHS cross country student.' Every other house on the street had one for their band student or football player or cheerleader, so our yard needed one too."
"They like to keep up an image for the neighbors?"
"I think the only tv they ever got to watch as kids was 'Leave it to Beaver' and 'Father Knows Best.'" Nathan had rarely told anyone other than Colter any of this, but somehow he was ok with Dr. Rose hearing it. Maybe it was because the doctor seemed to show no reaction at all to anything he heard, or maybe it was because Nathan knew nothing he said here would ever be found out by his parents or anyone else. Perhaps being assured of confidentiality was letting him open up. Freaking hell, he didn't want to think his mom's 'send him to a shrink' idea was actually helping. "They want everything to be perfect. Perfect family, perfect kids, perfect house, white picket fence, manicured lawn, perfect potluck parties in the backyard with the neighbors bringing jello molds and noodle salad. They refuse to acknowledge anything that doesn't fit with that. We aren't perfect, far from it, but to keep the peace we all act out the charade that our family is as goody-goody as the Brady Bunch. Speaking of whom, I don't think my mom would be happy with the way our conversation is going." Bitter sarcasm fairly dripped from Nathan's voice. "Aren't we supposed to be discussing my mental problems not theirs?"
"Do you want to talk about your problem?" Even sarcasm failed on the doctor. He just stayed placid and impassive, prompting Nathan to talk simply by inducing a need to fill the silence left in the wake of his far too simple questions.
"Only very slightly more than I want to talk about my parents. What I want to know is what my mom told you is my problem. I've rarely overheard her and dad talk about it; I really want to know what she told a stranger."
"Very well." The doctor plucked his reading glasses off his desk and started sorting through the sheaf of papers he still held. "She said you see things that aren't there, that couldn't possibly be there. Whenever you've tried to point them out, no one else saw anything. You occasionally fall asleep during normal activities and wake up suddenly out of strange dreams similar to the sightings. In rare cases your reactions upon waking are stronger and disruptive to those around you. I assume she is referring to the incident in school two weeks ago. And finally, you firmly insist that everything you see is there, is real, and is affecting you somehow, be it emotionally or physically. She adds that you stubbornly refuse to admit the possibility that you are mistaken after these visions." Dr. Rose looked at him over the rims of his reading glasses, waiting for a reaction.
"Because I'm not." The irony inherent in his stubborn tone of voice did not escape Nathan. "And I don't randomly fall asleep. I just sort of space out for a bit because seeing a vision no one else does tends to distract you from what you're doing. The rest is more or less right."
"What do see in these visions? Is each different or do some repeat?"
Nathan just stared at the doctor for a moment. Buddy-buddy was gone and it seemed time for direct questions. Then he gave a mental shrug. If he cooperated and could convince the doc he wasn't crackers then maybe he wouldn't have to put up with the sessions for very long. "They're usually the same, just a colored sphere sort of thing hovering in the air, or sitting somewhere."
"A sphere? Like a ball?" Dr. Rose made a gesture indicating something the size of a basketball
"No, smaller, like a golf ball. And they're clear like glass. Usually red, often yellow, sometimes other colors. Sometimes there's an image in the sphere, but I can't always make it out clearly."
"Was it one of those images that woke you up screaming in trigonometry?"
"I told you before I wasn't asleep." Nathan felt his temper rising, both at having to repeat himself and at the reminder of that incident. "It wasn't really a vision, I didn't see much. The whole world seemed to go a little grey, but that might have just been me not paying any attention. But I could feel a presence on either side of me. One felt bright and had a soft touch, like they were trying to guide me somewhere or call me away. The other felt dark and deep and was clawing at me trying to get a hold so it could pull me down away from the bright one. Then they were both pulling at me, the dark one trying to draw me into it and the bright one trying to keep me from the dark. I could feel myself being torn in two between them. Like they were playing tug of war and I was the rope."
"That does sound pretty terrifying." Dr. Rose looked like he was about to say more, but Nathan didn't give him the chance.
"I didn't start screaming when they were ripping me apart. I screamed when I felt the bright one let go."
Dr. Rose blinked a few times and Nathan was a little satisfied to see him at a temporary loss for words. "Have you felt anything like that before? Or since?"
"I've felt the bright presence once or twice, but never that strong. And I haven't felt the dark presence before but I've felt it faintly a couple times since then." Nathan suppressed a shudder at the thought. The dark presence was oily and always came with the image of clawed hands reaching for him. "I don't know what any of it is, I can't explain it. But I do know what I see and feel, and it's not my overactive imagination." Nathan glanced about the room and found a clock on the wall above the doctor's desk. "Hour's almost up. Guess we're done with this farce for today."
"I know it wasn't your idea to come here, and I know how much you don't want to be here, but your parents and I are just trying to help. I look forward to talking with you again." Dr. Rose put the sheaf of papers back on his desk and set his glasses on top of the pile.
"Yeah, whatever." Nathan didn't bother with pleasantries as he strode out of the office as fast as dignity would allow. Once in the waiting room he collected his mom with a look and headed for the door.
"Did it go well honey?" His mom's voice was a sugary smooth counterpoint to the clicking of her heels.
It really was a struggle to keep his voice even when Nathan replied. "Yes mom. I feel so much more sane now."