Chapter Ten: Mr. Cuddles
I had finally done it. I was in the nut house. This place must’ve been filled with crazy squirrels fighting over the last nut before winter. I had the card for the shrink, Dr. Teresa, and made the call. Mom always made me make the calls concerning my health. She said it taught me good phone etiquette and how to self-advocate. I was cleared to leave the hospital and return to my job at the House of Seven Gables. Actually, I had to go back there or I would be in trouble for leaving and in even bigger trouble with the local police. Mom made sure the shrink session was set up and that I would be there. I think she had been overusing the tracking option on my phone. She could find my location anytime, anywhere. There was no escape this time.
I thought I was in the wrong part of town when I biked past my job at the House of Seven Gables and kept peddling toward the Atlantic Ocean. I peddled past the arcade, a creepy fortune-teller, and the wafting odors of popcorn, pizza, and Chinese food. My phone directed me to ride to the end of amusement park row, take a sharp right when I saw a long pier, and turn onto Beach Avenue. I didn’t see any doctor’s offices, only old houses overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and waves crashing against huge rocks.
I pulled up to the last house on Beach Avenue. The house was two stories tall with weathered gray shingles and black shutters. I locked my bike up against the mailbox post. The address on the business card matched the “33” on the mailbox.
“This must be the place.”
I took the first step onto her porch, and the wood let out a huge creak. It felt like any foot pressure was going to send me through the steps in an instant. The creaking became louder with each rising step as I finally reached her front door. My finger was about to hit her doorbell when I heard…
“Come in, Zander,”
I opened the screen door and tiptoed into the room. Dr. Teresa Storm whisked into the room. She was wearing a black robe or a cape. I could not really tell what it was. She had white hair with a startling black streak running down it. She was also wearing sunglasses, even though the room was extremely dark.
“Excuse me for my rudeness with the glasses. I just had my eyes dilated, and they are highly sensitive to light. Would you like some tea?”
I was visibly nervous standing in her foyer area. I saw mirrors, family pictures, and many lit candles. It smelled like one of those candle stores at the mall that I never wanted to enter. I heard a creak on the stairs and turned back to see Billy peeking in the screen door.
“Head on into my study in the next room and make yourself comfortable. I’m just getting my tea ready for our session.”
I saw Billy put his hand on the screen door.
“Billy, you need to stay outside,” I whispered loudly.
Billy let go of the doorknob and gave me a scowl. Dr. Storm turned toward me.
“Did you ask me something, Zander?”
“No, ma’am. Just clearing my throat,” I said. I hope she had not heard that. It would just add to the list of my already lengthy physical and mental ailments. After hearing the screen door bang a few times, I took a seat on her extremely comfortable sofa. I felt a rubbing on my legs and saw a cat massaging itself against me. Dr. Storm walked in with her black dress flowing behind her. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I was still fascinated by it. It was like she was floating across the floor. Her big bug sunglasses only added to the mystery.
“Mr. Cuddles, scram.” She stomped her foot down, and the cat went running out of the room.
“Yes, the name is Mr. Cuddles. I found the cat as a stray and called it Cuddles. I then had the veterinarian examine the cat’s underside, and we couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl. The cat is now the gender neutral Mr. Cuddles. It’s real sweet but gets into oodles of trouble.”
Mr. Cuddles scuttled out of the room. Dr. Storm offered me tea or water. I chose the water. I took a big gulp, and I could see the doctor with the dark bug-eyed glasses fix her full attention on me. She locked in, and there was nowhere to run.
“So, Zander. I had your mother as a student last fall. I don’t know how she manages the job, school, and parenting. She will be a great nurse one day. She contacted me while you were sleeping in the hospital. I see you are almost twelve years old and have had type 1 diabetes for almost three years.”
“Good,” she said.
“There’s nothing really good about diabetes, Dr. Storm.”
“Oh, you misunderstood. I only meant good that I had my facts straight. It wasn’t my personal opinion on the disease.”
“I’m glad.” I crossed my arms. I wasn’t really sure why I was giving Dr. Storm such a hard time. She was a bit quirky but seemed nice, and her house and paintings were keeping me thoroughly engaged.
“You manage this disease daily, almost hourly, and there is really no forgetting about it,” she said.
“Exactly.” I lifted up the sleeve of my t-shirt to show the bruise on my left tricep.
“That’s a nice bruise you have there, Zander. It looks like you must be right-handed and bolus or inject yourself into your left arm. Have you tried rotating your injection sites to not bruise so much?”
“I’m a creature of habit. I inject sometimes in the legs but never in the stomach or butt.”
Dr. Storm took some notes down in her journal. I couldn’t make out what she was writing.
“Zander, would you consider trying to rotating your injection sites to break or at least bend some of your habits?”
I nodded. “Why not? I can try.”
“Do you keep a journal to write down all your thoughts about your condition?” she asked.
“I wrote a little when I was first diagnosed. I was given a stack of coloring books, journals, daily food logs. It eventually all ended up all in a heaping pile in my room. My last therapist also asked me to write down some thoughts in a journal, and I just drew and scribbled.”
“It might help you to jot down a few notes on some of your tough days. Sometimes a person gets too stuck inside one’s own head with thoughts, and writing those thoughts down could help you get outside of your own head.”
Dr. Storm surveyed the bookcase behind her and pulled out a small notebook. She flipped through it and handed it to me.
“Try this one. I feel this will be more successful than the last one. You are older now with so much more to say. Next time I see you maybe you can share a few thoughts you have written. If this doesn’t work for you, some of my clients even type in some thoughts on their phones to share with me. I can evolve with the technology too.”
I thought this might be a bit more likely to add a few pithy comments on my phone whenever something profane popped into my head.
“I don’t want to spend our whole hour together talking about your diabetes. I bet you don’t like it when that is all your mother asks you? She may ask you what your blood sugar number is the minute you wake up or when you come home from school. She asks about the disease first and not how you are doing.”
“I don’t like that at all,” I said.
“That’s what I thought. You should not and will not be defined by your disease. You have to be known and recognized by your words and your selfless actions, Zander. Not by your disability.”
I never really connected diabetes to having an actual disability. Hearing Dr. Storm say that made me feel slightly better. I wanted people to know me for me and not for all the injections and finger pricking I had to do every day. I never wanted pity or sorrow from anyone.
“Your mom said something happened at the museum just as you were fainting. Can you tell me about that?”
Dr. Storm jotted down a few items in her notebook again. I really wanted to see what she was writing.
“I was not feeling so hot and getting a little dizzy when I was standing in the room with Cynthia at the Chinese house. I was talking to a producer named Ernie. He’s producing a zombie movie here in Salem. He was having a heated chat with some nut job on the phone, and then Ernie put it together. The nut on the phone was related to this nut, me.”
“How so?” she asked.
“The crazy crackpot was my disappearing dad. Producer Ernie showed me the phone, and I saw Zombie Dad. I will spare you the unnecessary questions and tell you that my father has been a zombie actor in Hollywood. I saw the zombie face on the caller ID, heard his voice, and then blacked out.”
“You had a physical and emotional reaction to seeing and hearing your father for the first time in almost three years.”
“Well, I heard him but only saw Zombie Dad. Come to think of it, it’s the only version of my dad I have seen since he left. I saw him on TV, and I saw an action figure of him as a zombie.”
“So, Zander, Zombie Dad is the only version that you know of your dad since he left. Did you talk to anyone about it?”
“Mom asked me how I was feeling. She did quite a bit at first when he left us. When I was diagnosed with diabetes I thought he would come home or call. He didn’t. Mom slowly stopped talking about him. She worked more and more to keep up with the growing bills. I talked to Billy—”
I gasped after I said his name. Now she’d know I really am a nut.
“Who’s Billy?” she asked.
I could not believe I actually said his name out loud. I am positive I have never said his name to anyone. Not even Squirrel. First the fact that my dad’s coming home, then the hospital visit, and now my secret was blown about Billy. I heard the screen door bang on the porch. I bet Billy was still mad at me and slamming it to get my attention.
I took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly through my nose.
“Billy is my brother.”
Dr. Storm reviewed her notes, and then flipped through a manila folder.
“You won’t find his name listed on any form,” I said.
“Okay, Zander. Now I am thoroughly confused.”
I heard the banging of the screen door again.
“Billy showed up when my mom and dad starting fighting. I mean really fighting, yelling, screaming. It was real nasty. He just sort of arrived. He watched TV with me. I talked to him. He would follow me to school and around town.”
“Is he here in the room with us?”
“No, I think he’s outside on the porch or should be there at least.”
Dr. Storm put her notebook down, and I knew she was going to ask me the question that I had been dreading since Billy showed up years ago. The banging grew louder.
“Zander. Is he really on the porch?”
I waited to answer her. I knew that what I was going to say would alter my situation. I needed things to change since whatever decisions I had been making were not the best decisions.
“He’s my imaginary brother.”
She stared politely at me for a while. It was a non-judgmental stare, and it gave me enough time to reach over to her coffee table and take a large gulp from a small water bottle.
“It’s perfectly acceptable for young adults to have imaginary friends. Most tend to outgrow them in adolescence, and the friend simply fades away. The friend is considered irrelevant. Do you want Billy to fade away?”
“I think so. I haven’t been very kind to him lately. I don’t spend any time with him anymore, and I think he’s mostly bored, angry, or both,” I said.
“Maybe this is a perfect time for you to say your goodbye.”
“Maybe,” I whispered.
“Billy is a coping mechanism, Zander. He arrived at a time that was very turbulent for you. You needed someone to talk to, a friend, a brother in your case. He was the brother you never had or wished you had if your family unit stayed intact.”
“I’ve been better this school year about meeting more people, and there will be some new classmates in September.”
Dr. Storm glanced discretely at her watch. “It’s about that time to wrap up our session for today. You have some work to do with Billy. We will get together at this same time in two weeks.”
“Sounds good, my dad will be in town next week for the zombie movie filming. I might actually take some of that tea you offered next time.”
Dr. Storm walked me to her front door, and I saw that the screen was slightly ajar. I hoped Billy hadn’t left it open with all the banging during our session. I finally needed to say my goodbye to him. I walked out onto the porch to see my bike right where I left it against the mailbox.
“Oh no!” Dr. Storm yelled.
I saw Dr. Storm pointing frantically out toward the boulders at the end of her front yard. The boulder field formed a natural barrier between Dr. Storm’s front lawn and the crashing waves of the ocean. She continued to point out toward one of the larger rocks. Perched on top of a boulder with striations across it sat Mr. Cuddles in all his feline glory. He was licking his front paw and staring back at us.
“He must have tiptoed out through the screen door. He’s a really good house cat but not well behaved outdoors. That cat gets into so much trouble.”
We both watched as the sporadic ocean waves crashed against her rock wall. The next wave hit Mr. Cuddles’s rock with a wallop. I was hoping he or she would make it through the deluge. I closed my eyes as the wave hit Mr. Cuddles. I slowly opened them a second later to see a dripping wet Mr. Cuddles clinging for dear life and slowly sliding off the rock into the dark, ominous ocean.
“We need a rope or a net!” Dr. Storm yelled.
“Do you have any of those items?” I asked.
“No, I don’t.”
Mr. Cuddles continued sliding down the rock. It was trying to claw itself back up the rock unsuccessfully. I tossed my journal and phone on the grass, kicked off my sneakers, and ran across the lawn.
“What are you doing?” Dr. Storm yelled.
“I’m going to save him!” I gasped out as I ran across the lawn. I probably should have made the decision to just get my sneakers soaking wet. I hit my first batch of small jagged rocks near the water, and my feet sent pain signals immediately to my brain. The feet of diabetics are a bit oversensitive. This was not a good activity for me.
“Ouch, ouch, ouch.”
Mr. Cuddles was very close to me now. The cat was just one more rock away when a wave hit me from the back and knocked me down. I slowly stood back up and wiped the stinging saltwater from my eyes. I could clearly see the rock, but Mr. Cuddles was not on it.
“Oh no, Zander look!” yelled Dr. Storm from the edge of her grass.
Mr. Cuddles was slowly floating out to sea with his front paws slapping at the water. His brown and black hair weighed him down. Its frantic feline face was bobbing up and down in the water.
“I don’t think Mr. Cuddles can swim!” yelled Dr. Storm.
“You think?” I yelled back, but the waves muffled my response. I couldn’t believe how much the water weighed down my shirt and shorts. I felt like I was swimming while wearing a winter blanket. My shorts seemed to fill up with water deep inside my pockets and force me under. Mr. Cuddles continued to bob up and down, but in just a few strokes I caught up to the wet beast.
“Take my hand, Mr. Cuddles.”
I don’t know why I said that since I didn’t think cats understood English, and Mr. Cuddles certainly would not be able to give me an appropriate response. I reached him and gently pulled him to me by the base of his furry neck. I’d watched enough animal shows and remembered how mamas successfully picked up their young even with their teeth by grabbing the layer of fur between the shoulder blades.
I expected a warm embrace for this nautical rescue. With his claws fully extended, Mr. Cuddles swiped viciously across my face. I turned away instinctively, but I felt a claw or two slash across my cheek. I pulled the ungrateful feline to my stomach, but I could feel it scratching away.
I was going to miss one of my favorite t-shirts featuring an “Everything’s Better with Bacon” tagline on it as Mr. Cuddles continued to rip it to shreds. I slowly walked out of the water. Dr. Storm was running toward us with a blanket.
I reached out for the blanket, and Dr. Storm quickly wrapped Mr. Cuddles in it. I was happy to give the frenzied wild beast back to her. It became quite docile and loving when the creature was back in the arms of its caretaker. Dr. Storm rocked the swashbuckling animal until it returned to a purring housecat. Dr. Storm put her face right up against Mr. Cuddles, and I feared for her eyes since my cheek was aching right now. Mr. Cuddles gave her a quick lick on the nose.
“You are a hero, Zander. You singlehandedly saved my family.”
“It’s no big deal,” I said as I wiped away a trickle of blood rolling down my cheek.
“You were selfless, Zander. Thinking about something else and not worrying about the consequences. You need to come in and get bandaged up.”
I waved my hand away. “I’m good, Dr. Storm. I don’t think Mr. Cuddles wants to see me anymore. I’m just going to bike home for a hot shower and a little bit of antibiotic. It’s been a bit too much excitement for one afternoon. The bike ride will help cool my nerves a bit.”
Dr. Storm waved a final goodbye to me as I unlocked by bike. I watched her walk in while snuggling her baby feline. I turned only to see Billy standing in front of me.
“Did you have a good time with the doctor?” He was not happy.
“Yes, Billy, it was pretty good. I just now have to figure out how to make some more money and deal with Zombie Dad coming to town. I have made one decision through all this, and you are not going to like it.”
Billy gazed up at me. “What is it?”
“It’s time for you and I to say goodbye.”
Billy kicked a few pebbles.
“Do you really mean it, Zander? No more talks? No more hanging out, comics, TV time?”
I stomped my sneakers only to see water drip out of them. My relationship with the fictional world wasn’t really helping me anymore. I had to take a baby step forward.
“I really mean it, Billy. We need to leave each other. I just have too many things to do. I have too many eggs to juggle, and it’s been scrambled for too long. I have to move ahead in my life, not backwards.”
“Can we talk about this some more another day? I am really going to miss you. Can I ever come back and visit?”
“I don’t think it works that way, Billy. It’s not going to help me become unscrambled if we keep bumping into each other.”
“Please, Zander. I like being with you,” Billy said.
I shook my head no. I hopped on my bike and peddled past Billy and down the driveway. Before I turned onto Beach Street, I looked over my shoulder at Billy, and he was gone. The waves across the lawn gave a loud crash as Dr. Storm’s screen door smashed against its frame. Maybe it was Mother Nature, maybe it was Billy. I would never see him again.