Speaking With Your Demons
09: Things Don’t Always Go So Smoothly
One can never consent to creep
when one feels an impulse to soar.
Betty and Abe were accompanying Phil and Meg across the University of Washington campus, and were surprised by how Meg was treated by the students, who were mostly 18 years old or older. They’d expected Phil to be well-respected, but were surprised by the reactions to Meg.
“Hey, Meg! Hearing wonderful things about you.”
“Way to go, Meg! The entire campus is buzzing about your work.”
“Excuse me,” Betty said, pitching her voice low so it wouldn’t carry. “Why is everyone raving about Meg if no one knows what she’s doing? I thought the whole project was a secret, with strict confidentiality requirements.”
“Hey, Jonathon!” Meg called out, waving at passing students and the occasional instructor. “Looking good, Marcus. How’d the presentation go, Dr. Wilford?”
“It is,” Phil acknowledged, acknowledging many of the same people. “However, even on a campus this size, words gets around. No one knows precisely what the research is about, but enough people recognize me they have a general impression. While the staff can’t admit anything, they aren’t shy when raving about your daughter. She’s the new ‘wunderkind’ and everyone wants to associate with the latest rising star. She’s no longer seen as a young kid, but as an early-developing genius, which reflects well on everyone.”
“She’s only been here a week,” Abe reminded him. “Doesn’t it take time for that kind of information to spread?”
“Apparently not; both the trial and your daughter are attention getting.”
This was the first trip to the campus by either Abe or his sister. Abe had been reluctant to visit, afraid the students might recoil in horror and detract from Meg’s ability to establish herself. Betty hadn’t felt she was emotionally stable enough to risk exposure to a party atmosphere. However, they’d been receiving daily updates from Phil and Meg about the project’s progress. Phil repeatedly assured them it wouldn’t be an issue, telling Abe he looked gorgeous compared to Mizo’s sculpture. Mizo took it as a complement, since she felt the sculpture didn’t look fierce enough. He had also prepared the staff and subjects, going so far as showing family pictures and patiently explaining his heroic background and the struggles he’s overcome. In short, while they were both nervous, it seemed as good a time as any to come. As it was, none of the people waving hello gave either of them a second glance, treating them as just another set of faces on campus.
“How do you know all these people?” Abe asked, noting how many waved or smiled, over and above those who actually said something.
“I meet them in the cafeteria or in the quad.” Meg giggled, glancing at her mother. “A few even invited me to parties—though I don’t think they were serious about it.”
“Great,” Betty groused, “my daughter’s the new ‘party girl’ on campus before she’s even out of middle-school.”
“Nab those demons, Meg. Let them know who’s boss!” another teenager yelled, pumping her fist in the air. Betty and Abe looked to Phil for an explanation.
“I don’t know what her story is, as I’ve never seen her in the trials. I’m guessing she made the obvious leap given that it’s known I’m leading the investigation.”
“It seems to me someone wanted to remain anonymous,” Abe reminded Phil, frowning.
“Yeah. I mistakenly thought we could keep the information under wraps, but many students either suffer from mental illnesses themselves, or come from families with them. It’s natural they’d recognize me. Still, it’s a positive reinforcing appreciation. I doubt they’d willingly expose us to outsiders.”
“All it takes is one,” Abe pointed out. “You’ll never know who, or why they did it, either.”
“Mr. Fallows, Mrs. Whiting, I’m pleased to meet you.” Nancy Ellison, who’d been to every session so far, stepped forward to shake their hands and welcome them to the campus. “We’ve heard so much about you!”
“Sorry, but that just makes me wonder what tall tales my daughter’s been telling about us,” Betty responded playfully, though her nervousness was real. She still wasn’t used to social events with people who could form complete sentences.
“Don’t worry, they were all wonderful stories, and we’re tremendously impressed with your daughter. She’s been phenomenal, thus far, and we only expect to get better with more experience. If things continue as well as they have, she can write her own ticket anywhere she wants.”
Meg, still self-conscious about everyone ranting about her, was studying the text books arrayed on the bookshelves.
“As for you,” Nancy said, shifting over to Abe, “there’s absolutely no reason to be embarrassed here. We have a proud tradition of accessibility here at UW, and your exemplary service record speaks for itself. It’s a shame the Army didn’t help, allowing you to live on the streets because of what you suffered serving under them. If you’re interested, talk to me later. You might fit right in earning an advanced degree. Maybe something in a research field where you wouldn’t need as many face-to-face meetings—not that you have anything to be ashamed of, of course.”
“Thanks,” Abe said, not sure how to interpret the offer, “but for now, this galoot is keeping me gainfully employed and busy enough as it is. Believe me, I’m learning more following him around than I’m likely to in a stuffy classroom.”
“You don’t need to convince me of that,” she said, nodding sagely. “However, we’re hoping this training will help change that, as we finally learn to make a difference with mental health, we’ve been unable to impart before.”
“If you don’t mind my being presumptuous,” Tracy said, approaching Abe. “I’d love to invite you to my church so we can all pray for you.”
“Uhh...” he responded, unsure how to respond.
“Sorry, that came out wrong. It’s not like we’ll pray in order to heal your affliction. Understanding your nature of your injuries, that would be silly. Instead, I wanted to expose you to a welcoming community who’ll accept you regardless of how you appear or what your history is.”
“Gee, it’s not like I’m—”
“Don’t worry about your background,” she hurried to assure him. “We’re not concerned with your personal beliefs, but we like to reach out to those in need of a welcoming hand. We also like showing our youngsters the inner strengths of those we seek to help, teaching them we can all learn from each other, regardless of our background.”
Abe took a moment, uncertain how he felt about it, but came to a quick decision. “I’d be delighted to!”
Nancy turned to Phil, who was busy playing with his ubiquitous knapsack. “So, are you ready to meet our newest test subject and consider your strategy?”
“In a second, but I asked my other pals,” he said, waving to indicate the invisible creatures surrounding him, “whether they wanted their own public recognition. Slavsin is definitely interested. He’s eager to show what a noble and fierce species he represents.”
Phil pulled out another coffee stirrer and a spray can of insulation. “All right, Slavsin, on the table here so I can feed you this straw.” Everyone crowded around to witness the latest display. A second later, Phil shook the aerosol can. “Okay, now strike your most heroic pose.” With that, he began spraying the foam across a wide area, reaching around to cover each angle so none were left exposed.
Slavsin’s form was immediately apparent, his wings spread majestically, rearing back, his neck extended and the straw down his throat as his mouth was open in a full but silent roar. However, as the foam expanded, his shape was quickly obscured. As they all waited for it to harden, Phil explained what was happening. “From the sounds he’s making, I take it he’s reconsidering his pose—given the taste of the material.”
“He won’t ... suffocate, will he?” Betty asked.
“Without my touching it, it’ll quickly lose its physical connection to him. When it does—ah, here he comes now—he can just pass right through with no harm.” Phil chuckled. “He says the insulation tastes like szchtash, though I’m afraid to ask him what that is.”
“Szch... , “ Meg said, scrambling for her notebook, which she always kept near while on campus, “how do you spell that? It might come in handy.”
Phil took her pad, guessing the proper spelling, while responding to other unheard comments. “I warned you it was a bad idea, but you wanted to look fierce, and Tristan, I’ll spray you tomorrow. It’s best when you keep your audience guessing, not springing all your surprises at once.”
“While you’re busy translating,” Abe said, “I’m curious about their language. Don’t they have a written language?”
“They do, but they don’t use the same alphabet, and it’s hard to describe the shape of letters verbally.”
“So they do have a written language, even though the dragons don’t have fingers?”
“Yeah, Tristan took me to task after Meg passed Melvin that note, explaining how we lied to his demons. It turns out most of these species are literate, though they’re not native English speakers. The fairies invest years learning the intricacies of English, even studying Shakespearian English when assigned to actors. Luckily for us, Mizo reports that few of her kind are overly concerned with the details of their human hosts. While they possess extensive training material on the subject, few bother with it and the teachers knowledgeable in it aren’t in high demand. However, for those who can, they can read anything you do, so you extensively have little privacy—as they obviously see everything every time you visit the rest room.
“Still, the dragons have amazingly dexterous claws.”
“Well, that’s disconcerting,” Betty said, making a face. “There’s nothing like your enemies seeing you at your worst.”
“Except, in your case, your devils are no longer your foes, instead, they’re helping you rise from your depths, reaching new heights. You need to rethink your relationships. Right, Nekko?”
Betty cocked her head. “It’s always a little disconcerting when little voices agree with you from inside my head. I’m not sure I’ll ever adjust to that.”
“Get used to it,” Nancy said as Phil worked to loosen Slavsin’s mold from the table. “Phil keeps surprising us. Soon, we won’t recognize much of what we once knew.”
As they left, Abe reflected on the fact that Tracy never told him the name of her church, or identified their denomination. He wondered whether it was a genuine offer of inclusion, or only an attempt to impress her boss.
--- “So what do you think?” Tracy asked. While she still remained silent during discussions with the higher-level UW administration, she was much more forthcoming in her lab. “You look pensive. What’s the issue this time?” She stood beside Phil and Meg, considering their subject, Ted Boxor, while Abe and Betty sat with the other observers behind them.
“Today, we’re dealing with two unusual, highly aggressive and unpredictable types: berserkers and red devils. They’ll difficult enough on their own, but their victims are as likely to attack as they are—especially given their prodding.”
“Well, Ted’s an ex-cop who’s been repeatedly suspended for a high number of shootings. While most were justified, he won’t be allowed back on the force until his ‘problems are resolved’. If it doesn’t happen soon, he’ll be forced to accept a permanent disability with no hope of reinstatement. He’s ... desperate for a cure.”
“Yeah, the key word here is ‘desperate’. While he may want our assistance, he’s still highly susceptible to his tormentor’s suggestions.”
“Do you think it’s dangerous?” Meg asked, glancing up at him.
“These are always formidable, but I’ve dealt with them before. I’m sure I can handle it, but I’m glad you’re not handling this on your own. While the Berserkers and Devils can’t harm you, he could! Well,” he concluded turning away from the window, “let’s get this over with and see what happens.”
Entering the room, Ted seemed pleasant enough. He wore a hopeful smile, but also appeared nervous and slightly fidgety. Phil and Meg took up their usual positions, with Meg between Ted and the glass partition while Phil remained behind him, where the observers could see him but Ted couldn’t.
They stood in silence, but Phil didn’t see any openings. While the berserkers weren’t active, they were more alert than usual. Stymied, he held a finger up, signaling Meg.
She took a deep breath before starting. “Ankh!”
While it was in the wrong language, the two devils subspecies shared many words, so they understood it—even if they didn’t respond the same way. That’s why Phil was eager to settle this case, as he didn’t have either species in his posse.
A few of the devils glanced up—not all—but none of the Berserkers did. They continued to laze about, always a good sign, though they were edgy, meaning they were aware something was up. Phil still didn’t have an opening, so he hadn’t yet taken out any of them. Since he’d needed established a base line, he had to remove that many so they could compare results. He waited for an opportunity to strike.
“Listen up,” Meg continued. “We know you’re there, we know all about you.” The devils were warily listening, but the berserkers took notice for the first time, glancing around them rather than her, noticing Phil for the first time. “We’ve been in contact with your creators, and they’ve outlined your original mission. The fact is, while it takes years before your host might commit suicide, if you follow our guidelines, you can successfully return much sooner.”
Meg’s delivery was spot on, as she’d had plenty of practice over the past week. The berserkers signaled each other, which Phil took as a good sign. Meg had their attention, and hopefully the promised incentives would win them over. While Phil was supposed to take the lead, there was a greater chance of their cooperation if Meg handled things, so he decided to go with it.
As Meg spoke, two berserkers flew to the sides, apparently testing Meg’s focus. Phil indicating their positions, so Meg glanced there, recognizing their movement though they ignored her completely. Another two flittered between the devils, whispering to them. They exchanged a few words before moving on. Again, Phil took it as a positive sign, though he remained cautious. They weren’t convinced yet.
“The mechanism which controls your return,” Meg continued, “is geared towards helping humans, not hurting them.”
A single devil spoke up, flying in front of Meg. Since Phil couldn’t tip his hat yet, he signaled her, indicating the devil’s position so she would appear to be listening.
“What offer you?” he demanded. Phil indicated for her to continue.
“We want you to—” she said, before all hell broke loose. The four berserkers all stabbed Ted in the head at the same instant, and he leapt up, turned and attacked Phil. He wrapped his hands around Phil’s throat—who was caught by surprise, as he was still watching the lead devil. Phil dropped his cane, trying to pry the man’s hands from his throat. Meanwhile, the four berserkers flew at Phil from different directions. The devil who’d provided the distraction by questioning Meg, lobbed his trident at her. When it didn’t connect, they swiveled, ignoring her and turning on Phil, going both low and high to strike him from entirely different angles in a three-dimensional attack.
Meg, who didn’t comprehend what happened, spun in place, looking for help. She paused, seeing Phil unsuccessfully struggling to breathe, and blew her silent dog whistle—which had no effect. Someone behind the glass yelled, calling for security. Realizing her whistle was ineffective, Meg rushed Ted.
Phil, with the berserkers attacking his eyes, kept them tightly closed, his fingers curling under Ted’s, attempting to pry them loose. Meg started beating Ted’s back, repeatedly pounding his arm. Ted, in a burst of anger, twisted, releasing one hand and striking Meg, sending her tumbling to the floor. That gave Phil his opportunity.
Hearing Meg grunt, and understanding what was happening, Phil’s eyes flew open. As his rage exploded, he quit trying to escape Ted’s remaining hand—even as the other went back to his neck—and Phil smashed him in the nose with the base of his palm. He could feel the cartilage shatter under the impact, and Ted reeled back. As Ted’s hands flew to the side, attempting to maintain his balance, Phil lurched forward, throwing off the berserkers assaulting his face. Phil shoved Ted in the chest, sending him tumbling.
Turning, holding his arm over his face, Phil knelt, fumbled for his cane. Finding it, he stood, only then recognizing the screaming behind the Plexiglas partition. Stepping forward, he swung his cane, striking Ted in the side of the head, knocking him out cold.
The door was thrust open and Abe rushed in to Phil’s defense, but he stopped to consider the current state of affairs. Instead of defending himself with his cane, Phil’s anger erupted, and he reached out, grabbing a berserker flying at him with both hands, and ripped it apart. He tore one leg completely off its body, spewing its blood over his hands, even as it continued thrashing, screaming in agony.
Not done, Phil grabbed another, decapitating it and throwing the head in one direction, and the body in the other. Phil’s eyes now had a weird thousand-yard stare, his brows pinched, his eyes opened wide and his nostrils flaring. Meg, who’d already righted herself, scrambled against the far wall, terrified and unsure what had overcome him. She wiped her face, her hand coming away bloody.
The berserkers, despite their vaunted reputation, lost their nerve in the face of such savagery. The devils flew to Meg for shelter, promising to do whatever she wanted—though she couldn’t hear a word.
Phil, noticing, wasn’t worried, knowing she was safe and more concerned with the remaining. He picked up Ted’s chair, advancing on the two remaining berserkers. Abe hesitated, considering whether to intercede or not. He was concerned that his friend had incapacitated their patient, but knew it wasn’t wise to interfere while Phil was still under attack. Since Phil’s face was scratched, with several deep gashes in his cheeks dripping blood onto his shirt, he didn’t think it was worth risking—despite knowing there would be hell to pay when security arrived.
Seeing his chance, Phil slammed the chair against the wall, crushing one of the berserkers. He then broke off one of the fractured chair legs, chasing the last of the berserkers. It held its broadsword away from, indicating it was surrendering, but Phil wasn’t to be deterred. Watching him still advancing, it threw its sword to the side, fleeing towards the door.
Meanwhile, hearing the sound of boots approaching, Abe backed against the door, blocking it until he was sure Phil was safe. Seeing his escape blocked, the berserker turned, pleading for mercy as he flew higher. Swinging with his full fury, Phil swung his chair leg, striking it in the side, sending it rocketing against the wall where it dented the drywall, still not dying. As it fell to the floor, gasping in pain, Phil stepped forward, crushing it underfoot as security pounded on the door, unable to enter.
“Open the door!” the guard shouted. Abe considered Phil, the anger draining from his eyes. Phil glanced around, looking at Meg.
“Are you okay?”
“Uh ... yeah. I was surprised, but he didn’t hurt me.”
Phil took in the blood smeared across her face and the bruise on her shoulder and neck, but didn’t pursue the discrepancy. “Maybe not, but he could as easily have attacked you as he did me. Luckily, they saw me as the more active threat. They also demonstrated I can’t trust any of them. If I relented, saving any of them, they’d surely slit my throat as soon as I turned my back. Only, if they didn’t think they could take me on directly, they’d likely to go after those I care about. I couldn’t take the risk.”
Dropping the broken chair leg, Phil turned to Abe.
“Are you sane again?” Abe asked.
“Yeah, let them in.” Phil leaned against the table in the center of the room.
As Abe stepped away from the door, it burst open as two security guards rushed in. However, one was a young kid, barely out of school, while the other was at least fifty and even more portly than Phil. They took in the scattered remains of the room, the bloody Phil and Meg, and the unconscious Ted. Since they had no clue what happened, they weren’t sure who to confront.
“What happened?” the older man demanded.