The Demons Within
02: Wrestling with Demons

Copyright© 2017 by Vincent Berg

The most worthwhile thing
is to try to put happiness
into the lives of others.

Robert Baden-Powell

Phil considered, once again, what to admit to his family. He didn’t want to undermine their confidence and shake their faith in him. Opening his front door, he forced himself to smile.

“Hello. How’s everyone doing?”

His unexpected greeting surprised Toni and his wife, Jane. More than anything else, as it wasn’t his typical approach.

“I’m glad you enjoyed your afternoon off,” Toni replied. “I hope you got it out of your system.”

“Why? Is there more demand than usual?”

“Uh, not particularly,” she hedged. “A couple calls came in, but your older customers appreciate a familiar face.”

“I suspect they’ll survive if they don’t see me for a day or two. I’m sure the rest of the crew can handle things. I may take another day off, just to clear my mind.”

“Does this have anything to do with your friend?” she asked, arching her brow.

“Not specifically, but it’s given me a few things to consider.”

“Well, whatever you’re doing, I’m off.” Jane announced, coming down the stairs with her purse. “I’m meeting my girlfriends. Dinner is warming in the oven.”

“Don’t worry, Toni and I will clean up. Have fun.”

Jane Walker was a pleasant woman, but just as he had past his prime, age was beginning to show around her eyes. She’d reached the ‘pleasingly plump’ stage, and it wasn’t unusual for her to disappear with friends. In fact, Phil and she spent ever decreasing amounts of time together over the years. He missed their old intimacy, but at the moment, was relieved he wouldn’t have to account for his day with her.

He tried keeping the spark of romance alive, but after suffering from early menopause, Jane was uninterested. As her mood worsened and she attacked him for minor issues, he’d stepped back, giving her room to live life on her own terms.

Phil’s trip home was unlike his time in the city. Driving home, he didn’t notice anything unusual. Whatever strange creatures might be tormenting the other drivers, they weren’t obvious through their car windows. He wasn’t sure why, though he suspected the tinted windows on most modern cars had an effect. Either way, he was relieved not to be confronted during his drive home. He wasn’t sure how he might respond if challenged while driving. Still, he kept his vision focused on the cars ahead of him, not risking glancing at pedestrians or into the passing vehicles.

It was reassuring imagining his earlier adventures were merely a bad dream. He realized he had to face them again, but wasn’t prepared to deal with customers wrestling with the same tormentors.

Toni waited until her mother left. “I’ll reschedule everyone to take up your slack. I hope you won’t get too distracted. You’d tell me if there was anything to worry about, wouldn’t you?”

Toni looked much as her mother had when they were younger. She had short, dark curly hair, rosy skin and a bright smile. Unlike her parents, she was thin, without a spare ounce on her entire frame.

“Don’t worry,” he answered, leaning in and kissing her forehead. “Why don’t we enjoy dinner? Better yet, since the cats away, why don’t we mice take the opportunity to pig out in front of the TV and watch some old movies?”

Toni looked askance at her father, but shrugged and followed him into the kitchen. She realized her parents had grown distant over the years.

Now that their children were grown, her mother wasn’t fond of Toni working for her father. She felt it kept her tied to the house instead of developing her own life. Jane had wanted to start a new life herself once the kids moved out.

The fact Phil was taking time off—without explanation—instead of taking his wife on a cruise like she’d been hinting, didn’t bode well for their relationship. Toni planned to drop a few suggestions, but he didn’t seem inclined to talk, so she wasn’t expecting any breakthroughs.

Phil, meanwhile, while relived he’d escaped detection this time, realized he was skating on thin ice with his family. Phil paused, remembering the incident in the park, though instead of recalling his anger, saw him catering to his mother, trying to get her to eat, worrying about finishing his school assignments so his teacher wouldn’t ask any embarrassing questions, his father being nowhere in sight.

His mother was severely depressed for most of her life—to the point of being unable to cope with much of anything. Even as a toddler, he knew to treat her like he was walking on eggshells. The simplest comment might send her into a spiral where she couldn’t climb out of bed for days. Jane and Toni were peripherally aware of her illness, but since he never spoke of it, they never really questioned him about it.

The situation only worsened over time. He was not only responsible for feeding himself and getting her to eat enough to survive, but he had to keep his mother safe from anything which might set her off: sales calls, comments from others, the daily mail, even notes from school.

Another image popped into his mind. He was struggling to complete a model of Fort Ticonderoga for a school project. His mother had promised to take him shopping for supplies for weeks, but they’d never gone, and he was busy trying to slice the phosphorous off the safety matches to construct the logs when a stray spark caused his soup can full of shavings to explode in his face. The project never got turned in, and while the other kids understood his singed brows—having experienced it themselves—he couldn’t explain why he hadn’t done it sooner, or even asked for an extension. What’s more, he definitely couldn’t ask his mother to sign a note about the delinquent assignment.

So he did as he always did. When she was particularly out of it, he slipped her the note.

“What’s this?”

“Nothing. It’s far a school trip to the museum,” he answered, not bothering to specify which.

“Long as I ain’t got to takes ya. It’ll give me a chance to sleep in!”

And like that, she signed it without ever glancing at it.

Yet, as bad as his mother was, his father wasn’t any better. A notorious alcoholic, his wife’s illness sent him seeking the refuge of the bottle—which left his son to clean up the empties so the house didn’t reek like a still. Because he never encouraged anyone to visit, he became renowned for someone who valued his privacy.

Phil never admitted what he faced at home, no matter how close he was to anyone, so it was natural for him to keep most other things to himself as well, but he was well-aware of the cost of mental illnesses both to them and those around them. While the trigger to his anger was over losing his army buddies to suicide, the rage which overtook him had more to do with his residual anger over his parent’s helplessness.

When he started dating, he’d casually mention how he learned to fend for himself because his mother was mentally ill, but he never shared the details. What’s more, he discovered early on that no one really cared. If one didn’t feel the need to confess, few ever pressed the issue. Even if they did, they’d end up more upset than if he’d never volunteered anything in the first place. What’s more, he’d then spend more time trying to defuse their anger than addressing his own. In fact, they were more upset over his inability to show his own anger. So those few minor episodes reinforced his tendency to clam up. It was clear no one wanted unpleasant news, no matter what they claimed, so Phil always made it easy for everyone else by taking the load on himself.

That wasn’t to say he was a slouch when he started his own business. Having been self-sufficient his entire life, he had little patience for anyone who couldn’t pull their own weight. If they had problems of their own, he’d give them leeway for a few days and encourage them to seek help, but he emphasized they needed to work as much as everyone else if they expected to survive. That was something everyone admired about him. He was always sympathetic, but it didn’t change how he treated anyone. If you had a problem, you could come to him and he’d help you resolve it, but it never changed their underlying relationship with him. He never treated you with kid gloves afterwards, and never held your failures over your head by continually asking how you were or sheltering you.

If you screwed up, you knew you had to admit it and make amends, but from that day forward, you had an entirely clean slate. This ability to take a person, no matter their background, at their word and move beyond it, endeared him to nearly everyone.

It had caused some problems in his relationships, when the women he dated asked why he never expressed his concerns, but over time, as they became inured by his taciturn behavior, they relished his listening to their every word. When required to talk about his own day, few cared for details of his time spent dealing with shit, so they wouldn’t press.

In short, as long as everything worked, no one ever complained about his behavior. When trouble brewed, he’d work overtime to allay everyone’s concerns, rather than focus on his own problem—which he always saw as his problems—something he had to resolve for himself before he could alley their concerns. This was especially true, from his perspective, since they couldn’t do anything about his problems anyway.

Even now, although Toni was concerned about his responses, he knew she’d blow up if he as much as hinted at what had really happened. No, this was his cross to bear. It wasn’t fair dumping it on anyone else’s shoulders.

Phil ventured into Center City, Philadelphia the next day. After considering his many mistakes, he planned to rectify them. Instead of studying everyone surrounding him, he strode directly to the Woodlands Community Gardens, staring straight ahead rather than getting distracted by what he might witness in transit. He was looking for the most extreme cases rather than the milder, more successful ones. He didn’t think anyone would appreciate his attacking invisible entities near them, but those better off were more likely to file charges. He was still likely to be arrested, but there were fewer chances of his being held for any length of time. Worst of all, he didn’t know whether harming the imaginary beings only he saw would have any impact on the people they threatened. However, the only way to determine whether it would was to test the premise and see how much trouble he could get himself into.

He found the Woodlands an ironic choice, since it stood next to the Philadelphia Veterans Administration offices. Although they didn’t have much success curing the homeless residing so near their mental health services, he hoped to have better luck.

He picked the new location in the hope no one would recognize him from the day before. He again headed to the less-public areas of the park where people went to escape scrutiny. He strolled among the various park denizens before selecting a prime subject afflicted by demons, but also alert. He didn’t know if the combination was any better than the others, but he hoped so.

Biting his lip and hoping for the best, he approached the man. Handing him a twenty-dollar bill, he struck up a conversation.

“Excuse me. I hate to disturb you, but I was wondering whether you’d care to talk?”

The man, thin, wearing threadbare clothing but protecting a wheeled cart containing several bags of goods examined him skeptically.

“I’m always willing to talk, but I can’t help wondering what you’re after.” The man was clean, but had long hair and an uneven beard, with wild eyes which kept flicking about, following random things around him. “Are you selling God, trying to make yourself feel good, or pushing some agenda?”

Phil laughed. “No. I’m a plumber by trade, but I noticed you seem bright and capable. I’m curious what brings you to living in a public park.”

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