Lenny Dodd didn’t know where to start. The beginning – that's what Dr Paxton used to tell him. And the beginning would’ve been logical, only he wasn’t sure where that was anymore.
Dr Bruner waited, his face – with its deep, craggy lines – grizzled and embraced in a pair of outrageously shaggy sideburns. His large lips were pursed, his matinee blue eyes unblinking, making Lenny wish Dr Paxton was still here with his big, crooked grin and his explosive, infectious laugh. Or even Dr Cook, who was stern but reassuring and reminded Lenny of his grandfather. But, nope. It was Dr Bruner, whom he’d never seen before, and whose look made Lenny feel as if he was crazy.
And Lenny knew he wasn’t crazy.
Lenny shifted his gaze to Dr Bruner’s mahogany desk, which was big enough to play table-tennis on. Between Dr Bruner’s phone and a word-a-day calendar sat a cradle of balance balls. Lenny wanted to pull on the ball closest to him, to see it cannon into the others and begin their dance.
‘You see,’ Lenny said finally, looking up, Dr Bruner’s blue eyes capturing him like twin spotlights, ‘there’s a problem with my brother. Malcolm.’
‘Your brother?’ Dr Bruner looked down at the overstuffed file in front of him. Lenny knew it was his, although it was so out-of-date it might as well have been obsolete. How long since he’d been here? Since Dr Paxton and Dr Cook? Six or seven years? Longer maybe? Lenny was a new man now. It was Malcolm who needed the help. He needed to make Dr Bruner see that.
‘He’s out in the waiting room,’ Lenny said, half-rising. ‘I can get him, if you don’t believe me.’
‘How about first you tell me what the problem is, Mr Dodd? Then maybe we’ll bring him in and have a chat.’
Lenny sank back into his seat. Have a chat. Lenny hated the vernacular. So patronising. So condescending. So … so … he didn’t know what else it was so, but he knew he didn’t like this doctor who was judging him on his file, on the strength of stark black words on old white pages. At least Dr Paxton and Dr Cook understood the context behind what Lenny told them.
‘My brother,’ Lenny said, gripping the armrests of his chair, ‘hears voices.’
Lenny nodded so vigorously he felt his forehead judder. ‘He sits there, in the corner of the room and holds a conversation with somebody that nobody else can see.’
‘And what’re the nature of these conversations?’
Lenny shrugged, his chair creaking as he clawed the armrests. He could imagine the chair coming apart in his hands – not that he was a violent or destructive person.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, forcing his hands to loosen, his shoulders to slump. He needed to relax. His eyes returned to the balance balls, and he quelled the urge to pull on that last one. ‘Most of the stuff I hear … it’s … it’s …’
‘Yeah, that’s it! It’s inconclusive. Most of the time he’s just yeahing. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah—’
‘I get the idea, Mr Dodd.’
Lenny froze as Dr Bruner consulted that damn file again. Why did he need the stupid thing anyway? This wasn’t about him! It was about Malcolm! Surely Dr Bruner couldn’t think Lenny was making him up, not when Malcolm was sitting in the waiting room.
‘Maybe I should get Malcolm—’
‘A moment, Mr Dodd.’ Dr Bruner’s head remained tilted toward the file, but his eyes rolled up to look at Lenny. ‘Have you ever asked your brother Malcolm what these conversations are about?’
‘He doesn’t tell me,’ Lenny said, recoiling, the front two legs of his chair briefly leaving the floor, but his eyes fixed on that balance ball. It was so tempting. ‘He just babbles. Like an idiot. I have no idea what he’s on about at the best of times. Because this is him. He’s all over the place. He never listens to anybody. He does what he wants. And he babbles. Did I mention that?’ He scowled at Dr Bruner. ‘All. The. Time. You try asking him a question, and who knows what you’ll get?’
‘From your observations, Mr Dodd, do you have any idea what these voices are communicating to your brother Malcolm?’
Lenny remembered his own voices years ago. They’d only ever been indulgent. He could’ve just as easily been talking to friends over a beer. Sometimes, they told him to do things – good things, like to help a little old lady load her groceries into her car. But doctors had told him the voices were bad, they were wrong, they were destructive, so they’d been medicated and shocked into silence. He missed them … sometimes. But they seemed back now. With Malcolm.
‘No,’ he said. Then he shrugged again, his eyes darting back to the balance balls. ‘I don't know.’ He shrugged once more, his whole body rocking. ‘But they’re not good, are they? That’s what …’
‘What, Mr Dodd?’
‘That’s what Dr Paxton and Dr Cook used to tell me – that the voices were no good. If they weren’t good for me, how can they be good for Malcolm?’
Dr Bruner’s big lips puckered almost as though he was preparing for a kiss. He turned a page in the file; he was reading what Lenny had told Dr Paxton and Dr Cook about his own voices. But there was nothing bad there – other than for the existence of the voices themselves.
‘Does your brother give you any idea who’s speaking to him?’
Lenny snorted through flaring nostrils. ‘Who knows? Could be anyone. Anything! He has no concept of reality! Like … he’s always seeing things. Things that aren’t there, Dr Bruner!’
‘What sort of things?’
‘I. Don’t. Know. I ask him sometimes. I push him! Like those lawyers you see on television when they’re in court with a witness. I push him and I push him! But then he gets upset. He screams at me! Sometimes he even attacks me.’
‘He attacks you?’
‘He attacks me all the time, Dr Bruner! I’ll be sitting there and he’ll jump on me, or wrestle me to the ground. He wants to prove he’s stronger than me. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning and he’ll be sitting on my chest, choking me and laughing!’ Lenny leaned forward, and his voice dropped to a whisper. ‘I think he hates me.’
Lenny nodded once more. ‘I’m sure of it. He’s always bad mouthing me. To my friends. To our parents. To our cousins and everyone! Always telling them I’m stupid, that I’m crazy. Do you know what that does to me, Doctor? They believe him … I’m sure they do.’ He pointed repeatedly at the file in front of Dr Bruner, his finger just a blur. ‘Because of that. And him? Nobody ever doubts Malcolm! It’s me. I’m the crazy one! Not him! Me! He’s trying to break me!’ Lenny pitched his head into his hands, palmed his eyes, and repeated almost inaudibly, ‘He’s trying to break me.’
Lenny didn’t move. His mind fixed on just this morning when Malcolm had grabbed him in a headlock, had choked and choked him while cackling in his ear. But that was also Malcolm. He didn’t care who he tried to hurt, or what he did; it was all fun to him.
Lenny pulled his hands down and, through the line of balance balls – oh, he so wanted to start them rocking – looked at Dr Bruner, whose face remained as aloof as ever. But now his big froggy lips arched into a smile, and for the first time this session Lenny felt a connection, felt hope, felt that maybe all this might just be okay.
Dr Bruner closed the file. ‘How about you bring your brother in?’
Lenny was bouncing out of his chair before the sentence was finished. He thought Malcolm might’ve gone – he did that. He never listened. You told him to do something, and he wouldn’t, or would do the exact opposite. He was always bucking authority. But when Lenny opened the door, there Malcolm was, right where Lenny had told him to sit and wait.
‘Malcolm, the doctor wants to see you.’
Malcolm didn’t move. Lenny thought maybe he’d be trouble. But then Malcolm jumped from the chair and waltzed ever-so-sweetly into the office. Lenny clenched his teeth until they grinded in his head. So this was the game Malcolm was going to play.
Lenny watched as Malcolm clambered into the chair Lenny had occupied just moments earlier, sat up straight, and beamed at Dr Bruner.
Dr Bruner gaped, his eyes like big saucers, his mouth hanging wide open like one of those ceramic game clowns you might pop a ping pong ball into at a carnival.
Lenny’s hands balled into fists. Dr Bruner’s expression was exactly the same as everybody else’s. The moment Malcolm had looked at him, whatever credibility Lenny had built, had enjoyed briefly, evaporated. It always happened. This was Malcolm at his best.
‘Yes, Doctor?’ Lenny asked.
‘Your brother …?’
‘Your brother is a child.’
Lenny frowned as he came to stand behind Malcolm, gripping the headrest of his chair. ‘Excuse me, Doctor?’
‘Your brother, Mr Dodd. He appears to be a five- or six-year-old child.’
Lenny’s frown deepened until his eyes narrowed into slits. He thought of Malcolm holding conversations with thin air, of Malcolm interacting with things only he could see, of the way Malcolm would jump on him and laugh and laugh and laugh.
‘So?’ Lenny asked.
‘So? So?’ Dr Bruner shot to his feet. ‘You’ve described symptoms common to a childhood’s imagination, common to a child playing, common to … to … to childhood!’
‘So when I lose touch with reality, when I hear voices and talk to things that aren’t there, then I’m crazy!’ Lenny shook his head indignantly. ‘But when Malcolm does it, it’s because he’s a child?’
‘Malcolm, come on, we’re leaving!’
Lenny turned for the door, then twirled back to Dr Bruner’s desk, leaning over and plucking the last balance ball so that it clicked into the row of others and started their merry dance back and forth, back and forth. Then, he spun, pausing only to call to his brother.
Malcolm got down from the chair and looked at the doctor. ‘Just between us, Doctor,’ he said, ‘I do believe you have your work cut out for you.’