The Demons Within
09: Dancing on a Wider Stage

Copyright© 2017 by Vincent Berg

Work like you don’t need the money.

Love like you’ve never been hurt.

Dance like nobody’s watching.

Satchel Paige

“Well, you’ve done it this time,” Emma announced, after Phil picked up the phone.

“Okay, I’ll bite. What did I do this time?”

“After your show at your shrink’s, the Inquirer is full of testimonials detailing what a miracle worker you are. Given so many, I doubt you can ignore the subject anymore.”

“Damn! I was hoping to avoid that. I didn’t think I’d done enough to change anyone’s opinion. After all, I only took out a few from the worst cases, rather than curing the entire clinic.”

“Still, whether speaking of their own conditions or reporting on their friends’, there’s a whole string of letters about you. You’re going to have to deal with it.”

“What do you suggest?” he asked, suspecting she already had something planned.

“I’m glad you asked. I spoke to a reporter from the paper—she interviewed my brother and he had her number. She was trying to track you down since you’re using a new unlisted number.”

Phil slapped his forehead, groaning into the receiver. “What did you tell her?”

“Only that I’d speak to you, but I think you should consent to an interview; in person, rather than over the telephone.”

“And do what? Admit I can cure any mental disorder, despite my inability to justify how it’s possible?”

“Given the array of people making those very claims, I’d do exactly as you have, playing down your role. However, people are starting to ask what you’re doing. If you don’t address it, it’ll get out of hand.”

“So I’m supposed to meet the reporter for an interview, but not admit anything?”

“It’s not quite as straightforward as that. Like the old bait and switch, you should acknowledge the assertions, as well as specifying you’ve witnessed them yourself. Then explain there is no physical way you could accomplish it. That’ll diffuse the argument you’re trying to hoodwink the public while adding credibility to the claims floating around concerning your accomplishments.”

“You think she’ll buy it?”

“You’re pretty good at distracting people. It comes naturally to you. Maybe it’s all that time you’ve spent elbow deep in other people’s toilets. Yet if anyone can do this, you can.”

“I’ll have to consider how I’ll approach it. What did you tell her?”

“I only promised to give you her number. Her name is Anna Marie Flores. All you have to do is call and schedule an appointment. Only, insist on meeting in her office. That’ll give her a chance to gauge how authentic you seem. As I said, you’re effective at convincing people how little you do. I suspect you’ll have her eating out of your hand in no time.”

“I’ll need some kind of justification for everyone’s claims, though. How do I account for them, other than wishful thinking?”

“You’re not out to convince anyone of anything, you’re simply trying to direct the conversation: off you and onto what you’re achieving. If you insist you’re doing nothing special, people will buy that, but they’ll start looking closer at the assertions. However, the more they look, the more proof they’ll uncover on their own. Again, it’s like a bait and switch, you deny it, they’ll agree and investigate the allegation, only to convince themselves.”

“So what happens when they realize I’m lying?”

“But you never lied, you only say ‘there’s no way I could accomplish that’, which is the truth. At this point, you have no idea how you’re accomplishing what you’re doing. Just leave out the bit about tiny invisible monsters shouting at people. They won’t believe it, no matter how you dress it up.”

“You don’t think this might backfire, say, if she asks for a demonstration?”

“That would be even better. Give her one. Let her see what you do. That’ll explain why people were so upset, how you’re merely trying to bring some levity to people’s lives. Yet it’ll also add credence to the claims about what you’re accomplishing.”

“For all you say about my abilities to deceive, you’re quite deceitful yourself.”

“Hey, years of lying for my brother and his friends paid off. I’ve learned how they think. More importantly, how the medical experts consider these problems. You learn how to answer questions indirectly, working around obstructions to provide solutions. Instead of telling a shrink you’re cutting back your brother’s medication, you tell him how much better he’s doing taking less medication. Doctors love results. If I say, ‘Ethan won’t take your damn pills,’ they’ll throw a fit. If I present a ready-made solution, requiring no effort on his part, everyone wins.”

“You should become a lawyer. You’re too good at misleading people.”

“So are you, Phil, which is why we get along so well.”

“Up until now, mine consisted of pulling coins out of my kid’s ears. I’m not used to lying to thousands, especially when committing my words to the printed page.”

“It’s not like you’re deceiving anyone. You’re just not admitting to something no one will believe, anyway. You’re making the unbelievable easier to accept. In that case, it’s more like leading someone to the answer, instead of forcing it down their throats.”

“As I said, you’d make a damn good politician, though I’d never trust a word you say.”

“Call her. Grab a pencil and I’ll give you her number.”

“Ms. Flores?”

“Ah, you must be Phil Walker. Pleased to meet you. This is Alec Johnson, my cameraman. You don’t mind if we record this, do you?”

“Nah, that’s why I agreed to this interview. Ever since your paper ran the latest batch of letters to the editor, I can barely leave my room. Instead of being attacked by reporters and angry bystanders, I’m inundated with people pleading for me to heal them. I need to put these wild rumors to rest.”

“So you’re denying the claims about your ability to cure mental illnesses?”

“Please, how could my doing a harmless little dance effect what happens inside their heads? How can my acting silly correct the hormones their brains lack?”

“That’s what we were wondering.”

“There’s no rational explanation for why I could. The claims are a bit farfetched.”

“So you’re arguing that Peter and your friend Ethan are lying?”

“I’m not a psychiatrist, so I wouldn’t be a valid judge of their conditions. I don’t doubt Peter’s doing better, but according to the letter your paper printed, his new shrink claims he was misdiagnosed. Chances are, the drugs they put him on accounted for his mental state. It was only after he quit them for a sustained period that he recovered.”

“And what about Ethan Stewart? As a friend, surely you’d recognize whether he was lying.”

“Ethan’s a decent guy. He’s had his fair share of problems, but his sister kept him on the straight and narrow these past years. I’m no expert on schizophrenia, but I’m sure there are remote cases of spontaneous recovery. Two miraculous recoveries are unusual, but they’re not unreasonable either.”

“Then we have all the people from the Danbury Mental Health Clinic. Are you insinuating they’re delusional?”

“Absolutely not, but they’ve been dealing with chronic diseases for a long time. When they begin to feel better, and others are talking about a miracle cure, it’s understandable they’d hook their wagons to that caravan. I’m sure, if you talked to them, you’ll learn that most are still suffering from their original condition. I wouldn’t suggest any of them stop taking their medications because I did a little dance.”

“Speaking of dances—?”

“Pardon me; I wasn’t expecting this to go on so long. You don’t mind if I sit for a while, do you?” He approached a nearby park bench. “I’ve got a tricky hip. It’s better if I rest it as much as I can.”

“No, go ahead. As I was saying, can you explain why you perform these dances which draw so much scrutiny? From what I understand, you’ve paid a steep price for it. Your marriage of twenty-eight years ended, your business is suffering, and most of your friends have abandoned you. If that’s the case, why do you persist?”

“What started as a way to entertain others has become my only outlet. Without my performances, I wouldn’t have any social life at this point. They enjoy it, which makes me feel better about what’s happening in my life.”

“So you maintain these dances are a form of performance art?”

“They provoke an immediate reaction. It’s entertaining to see an old man doing a silly dance, and people appreciate it. I like seeing those suffering a hard time smile over my antics. Either way, my life won’t get any better if I hole up in my room, afraid to come out. As my friend says, ‘the world saw you tripping over your feet; it’s time you demonstrate you know how to dance’.”

“About that, what accounts for that one video? You appeared to be in distress, and you ended up bloodied and battered before fleeing the scene. You were right about the circumstances, early street footage reveals you unhurt beforehand. What caused you to respond like that. What did the cameras miss?”

“As strange as it seems, I was attacked by some type of insect. I’m not sure what kind, but there was a swarm attacking me. I was fighting them off. That’s why I walked into the street, to lead them away. When they dissipated, everyone reacted like I’d kidnapped a baby. Faced with that much hostility, I panicked and ran. It wasn’t my finest hour, but as I couldn’t explain my behavior, I wasn’t looking forward to being grilled about it.”

“Your swarm wasn’t picked up by any of the numerous recordings of the event.”

“No, which is the reason I fled. Everyone was demanding answers and I couldn’t explain why no one else could see what was attacking me.”

“Yet you weren’t stung and didn’t swell up. Instead, you suffered a series of cuts and bruises, as if you’d been in a fight with someone. How do you account for that?”

“You saw the effects, my response, my trying to escape, and the injuries I suffered. How else would you explain it. Frankly, it happened too fast to be sure of anything, although something was attacking me, whether others saw them or not.”

“Do you mind if I show you a few things?”

Phil frowned, settling back in his seat. “Is this where you try to ambush me with some hidden video?”

“I’m trying to understand what you’re dealing with.”

“Meaning you do have embarrassing photos. I can’t very well refuse, now that I’ve agreed to the interview, now can I?”

“Take a look at this first clip. This was taken during your first encounter with a homeless man in the park. The film was modified to play in slow motion. You’ll notice that, here,” she said, pressing the pause button, “your cane bends while you’re swinging it through the air. What could it have hit that would cause that kind of physical damage? There’s nothing it collided with?”

“Again, I’ve got no answer. I haven’t had a chance to study the film. All I know is, my cane bent. When I tried to walk with it, it gave out from under me. I guess I’d been using it for too long and it suffered structural fatigue.”

“Okay, something else readers were curious about. If you’ll examine this next clip, taken just the other day...” She played another one, which switched to slow motion when he pulled out his javelin cane, and paused just after it turned red. “I find this scene very interesting. It got a lot of attention, but here in this stop action photo, you can see what looks like blood dripping from it. How do you explain that?”

Phil laughed. “Sorry, it’s a trade secret. As I said, it’s performance art. In order to make it more compelling, I mixed in a little magic. I blended a little concoction which turns red under the right circumstances. You’ve got to admit, it’s convincing. I guess I used too much and it dripped. However, you’ll notice there’s no blood residue where I performed. It’s a stage act. If you want to speculate on how I do it, you’ll have to watch the performance. If I depended on my fancy footwork, people would tire of it quickly.”

“I don’t know, there are a lot of unknowns in your recollections, including why you persist in continuing with these acts despite the negative publicity they generate. You’ve got to expect a little pushback about what you’re hoping to accomplish.”

“What can I say? I like to see others smile, even as my own life collapses around me. It’s one of my few remaining joys in life.”

“All right, given all that, how about you demonstrate your act for us. I’m assuming that’s why you agreed to our meeting in a public park.”

“It is,” he said, leaning forward and standing, resting heavily on his cane, clutching his hip. “Sometimes, standing is more difficult than dancing is.”

“Yet you persist, despite your injury,” she pressed.

“It’s an intermittent problem. Most of the time, I’m fine. Every now and then, it’ll give way. Normally, I’ve got no problem doing a little jig. Every so often, I take a fall.”

“Wouldn’t a brace help?” Alec asked, speaking for the first time.

“No, what’s more, it only hampers my normal walking, inflaming the leg due to the increased heat and pressure. It’s more effort than it’s worth.”

“So do you plan to just dance, or do you have an intended target?”

“You wanted to see my act, so I intend to deliver the full presentation. Tag along, and I’ll pick a likely subject. That way, you can interview them and see whether they have any symptoms afterwards, or they only relaxed more because of some silly antics.”

“Lead on, I’m eager to see this after such a buildup,” she said.

Phil led the way, leaning on his cane. He saw a couple of likely candidates, but further down were a set of three dowagers. One was afflicted with devils, another by tiny pixies, which he’d never encountered before, the other had nothing afflicting them.

Approaching them while the reporter and photographer hung back, Phil introduced himself.

“Ladies, I—”

“Wait,” one exclaimed. “I recognize you. You’re that guy who cures people.”

Phil snickered. “Hardly, I just like entertaining people. Since my wife kicked me out, it’s one of my few remaining hobbies.”

“Can you help me?” one woman asked. “I have a ... shopping addiction, while Phyllis has a drinking problem.”

“Excuse me?” she objected.

“You know you do,” the first woman reminded her. “This is your chance to resolve it.”

“Maybe so, but your issue has nothing to do with shopping. You’re a damn kleptomaniac.”

“Ladies, let’s not get nasty. “I’m not a doctor, just someone who does a little magic. Pardon me, but you’ve got something in your ear.” He reached forward, and produced a small flower, handing it to her.

“Isn’t that sweet,” Phyllis said.

“Now, I’m sure you want to see my little dance,” he continued, taking a step back. Standing on one leg, he did a pirouette, jerking his cane up as he turned to face them again; killing one troll. He spun around, connecting with a single pixie. Spinning again, he waved the cane by the final woman’s head, halting at the last minute, lowering it to the ground.

Phyllis arched an eyebrow. “That’s it?”

“Sorry, if I do any more, I get winded.”

As he backed off, Anne Marie and Alec approached, introduced themselves and proceeded to ask them a number of questions. Feigning an aching hip, Phil hobbled back to a nearby bench and waited for them to finish. It took almost another five minutes, when they met him there.

“You were correct; two still have their original symptoms. The other claims she has no issues, though they all said they felt much better. They attribute it to your performance.”

“See, it’s the power of positive thinking and a powerful byline. Give yourself credit, but don’t blame those easily influenced by your reporting.”

“Phil speaking.” Since he now relied on a private line, he no longer bothered to fully identify himself when answering the phone.

“Dad, it’s me, Toni.”

“Toni, a pleasure to hear from you.”

“You’re sounding more upbeat than before, I take it things are beginning to improve?”

“They are, though there are many pitfalls remaining, not having you in my life is one. However, I imagine you’re calling for a specific reason, rather than inquiring how I am.”

“You’re right. I’m concerned with the deluge of letters to the paper asserting there’s more to your ‘acting out’ than you’re letting on. I’ve asked this many times, and you always beat around the bush to avoid answering me. What’s going on?”

“I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the news. It’s just a few people seeking hope in the suggestion of a few random cases. There’s no way my waving a cane around can alter the brain chemistry inside someone’s head.”

“There, you’re doing it again. Instead of answering me, you delve into a separate topic. I’ve long suspected you’re avoiding telling me certain things. While you’re right that it seems unlikely, your actions belie that argument. Besides, it’s more than a few isolated letters to the editor. The Inquirer’s webpage has many more entries than what they’ve printed, and people are comparing notes online.”

“I long for the days before people obsessed so much about minor issues.”

“You can’t stop progress, Dad, no matter how much you might want to.”

“All I can say is, there’s no physical way I can be accomplish what you’re suggesting.”

“Except, that’s another non-answer. Why can’t you just say ‘Yes, it is,’ or ‘no, it isn’t’? Why must you disguise your intent behind side issues?”

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