It was cold in Montreal, and it felt even colder in Allan’s office. He’d never expected to be rich, but he’d at least thought he would be able to keep the heat on. Business was not good. He needed more patients; there just weren’t enough traumatized children in this city. What an ugly thought. What a cold and ugly thought.
He was about to call it a day when he heard a knock at the door. He situated himself importantly behind his mahogany desk and straightened his name plate.
The door opened. It was a mother and her son. The mother was young, and might have once been beautiful. But as she stood there before Allan, she seemed like a woman who had lost herself in some great calamity, and whose existence now relied solely on the care of her child.
He had seen this before. Guardians who take on the world, and the world breaks them. What confused him more was the boy. He was almost a young man, his awkward adolescent body trailing behind her, bad posture and a few blond hairs on his chin. Allan could tell the kid wasn’t happy, but neither did he seem capable of causing a life-sized disturbance.
“Dr. Tish?” she said, her voice barely a whisper.
“Yes? Can I help you?”
She introduced herself, then her son. She said they’d been travelling, and had just recently settled in Montreal. She made reference to her boy having gone through a traumatic event, and needing counseling. She asked if she could trust him. Allan wasn’t sure if she was referring to him, or to her son.
The boy, for the most part, remained silent. His eyes darted around the office, never resting on any one thing for too long. He looked over his shoulder once, and at his mother’s face often.
“I am a professional,” Allan assured her, as if that should answer all her questions.
“But can I trust you?” she asked, this time more pointedly. There was something odd about all this, for sure, but he needed the money.
“Yes, of course.”
She hesitated a minute and shared a look with her son. He shook his head. Allan could tell this was not the boy’s first trip to a shrink. Real trust was hard to find.
The mother sighed, then took a deep breath. “Do you believe in witchcraft?”
And just like that, things came into focus. Her mannerisms, her broken nature, the boy’s aloofness. Whatever they have been through, they must have believed the child was cursed. A light of excitement flickered in Allan’s mind. This would make quite the study. He could possibly even write a book.
“I believe I can help your child,” he said with a confident smile. And the mother’s shoulders relaxed.
Seven months later and the nice weird kid who thought there was a witch inside him was Allan’s most interesting patient by far (really his only patient).
According to both the mother and her son, the boy was under the control of an ancient witch named Demdike. Allan didn’t really believe in all that. He did, however, believe that the boy believed. And that was just as relevant.
By focusing his work on how the boy’s fantasies affected his mental health (and vise versa) he seemed to possibly be getting somewhere. Or at least it didn’t appear to be getting worse. The boy’s condition ebbed and flowed. The mother, at times, let her anxiety abate. And there still could be a book in all this.
Allan sure hoped there was. He needed something like that — or at least another half dozen kids haunted by made-up witches — if he was going to keep on paying the rent.
He was waiting for the witch-boy and his mother to knock on the door, when Allan heard the phone ring. He picked it up, and there was a voice from the past: Dr. Amanda Stuart. His old mentor. From what, twenty years ago? She sounded as sharp as ever.
They did some quick, only slightly awkward, catching up, as he tried to guess to himself what this was about. She asked how his practice was going, and he lied efficiently. Then she started talking about her own: Her partner was retiring, and they had too many patients as it was... He hummed empathetically. She knew it was a long-shot, since he had his own practice now, but…
“I’d love to,” he said.
“Oh. What’s that?”
“I’d be honored to come work with you in Vermont. I’d love to.”
She was very pleased. Surprised and pleased. She asked how long he thought it might take — to find other care for all his patients in Montreal, to close down the firm.
“Not long at all,” said Allan, already packing up the office in his mind. By the time they hung up, his apartment was all packed, too.
Then came the knock on the door, and Allan’s one and only patient stepped into the office with his mother. The doctor did his best to hide his own grin.
Chittenden, Vermont was as pleasant a town as Allan could ever imagine. It was beautiful, quiet, and welcoming. Dr Stuart introduced him around and he settled in quickly. A year seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, and he had become a beacon of the community.
The work was rewarding, too. He was finding his stride with a host of new patients, making real progress.
Only rarely did he think about the boy in Montreal — his sad mother, and their strange self-delusion. Surely the care he was receiving now, from Dr. Goldberg (who Amanda herself had recommended), was as good as whatever Allan could have done. If not better.
Allan focused on the people around him: the children in his care, and the beautiful English Literature teacher he’d met. Wilma Waters. A striking name for a striking woman. He was going through books faster than ever — one from the library every few days — though sometimes he only skimmed the pages. It was working. Wilma Waters was warming up to him. The whole town was. Life was looking good.
How did he ever get so lucky?
For a while now, Allan hadn’t thought of witch-boy at all. He was wholly invested in Chittenden: his career, his relationship, his new friends. He’d even bought a house. And working with Amanda was better than he could have hoped for. They consulted with each other on difficult cases, researched fascinating studies, and he was still learning from her every day.
He was happy — happier than he ever remembered being.
So when the phone rang on an especially hot day in July just as he was getting ready to head home, Montreal was the furthest thing from his mind, and it took him a moment to recognize Dr. Melvin Goldberg’s voice.
“So you haven’t heard from him?” asked Dr. Goldberg, for the second time, a tinge of worry in his clinical tone.
“No we haven’t even been in touch since Montreal. You said he’s been gone how long?”
“Six days… And the mother?”
“Beside herself with worry.”
Allan started to sweat. Sure the kid had bad days, but he had never exhibited symptoms that suggested he would run away, especially not from his mother. Where would he even run to?
Allan agreed to contact Melvin, and the police, the moment he heard from the boy. Then he hung up the phone. Something had started to gurgle in his guts. It felt like dread. And also, maybe, a small amount of guilt.
As he walked home from work, guts still gurgling, Allan told himself he’d done his best. Melvin was an excellent doctor. The boy was in great hands, probably. Definitely. He repeated these sentiments over and over, so that by the time he got home, the scent of Wilma’s stew wafting through the open window, his mind was again wholly in Vermont.
The story was in the local paper. Not front page, but a decent-sized column on page 3, considering it wasn’t local news. The only reason Allan even stopped on it was the name. Witch-boy’s name.
There’d been a murder in Louisiana, a gruesome killing in broad daylight, in front of a crowd of witnesses. Around noon in a heavy-trafficked plaza, the boy crept up behind his victim with a hammer and bashed him repeatedly on the head, until the man no longer looked human.
The police were there within moments. They arrested the boy and charged him with first degree murder. He was to remain in custody until the trail.
It felt like the air was being sucked from the room. He read the words again and again, hoping their meaning would change, that he’d somehow misread. But there it was, in clear 11-point Times New Roman, the horrifying fate of the gentle, weird boy who thought he was possessed by a witch.
It looked like a random act of violence, but Allan knew better. The victim’s name rang a bell: Arthur Nowell. He ran to his office to find his notes and felt his stomach turn as he flipped through the pages. On his bad days, the boy would rant about the injustice Demdike had suffered at the hands of a Nowell.
Allan closed the notebook and sat on the floor. His heart was pounding, a thin film of cold sweat coating his skin. If he showed this to the boy’s attorney, whoever that may end up being, it’d surely be enough for an insanity defense. Though he wouldn’t be off the hook, it might at least help the boy get the care he so clearly needed.
But a murder trial could take months. Allan would be asked to testify. He would be away from his patients, away from Wilma, away from his beautiful life in this beautiful town.
Later that night, after a number of scotches, and in the familiar darkness of his backyard, Allan lit a fire and tossed the notebook in. He watched the pages go up in flames.
Wilma sat across from Allan on the couch and let out a deep, exhausted sigh. It was only seven o’clock, but she was already in her pajamas, ready to turn in. Something had been weighing down on her, and Allan knew exactly what it was.
“How was Clayton today?” he asked.
“He is such a good kid, I don’t know what’s gotten into him. He was throwing scissors in the classroom! We’re all so worried.” She closed her eyes and let her head drop onto his shoulder.
“His parents seem nice, but maybe there’s trouble at home...” Then finally she side-stepped into the point:
She and the other teachers had been talking, and they all thought it would be a good idea — if Allan would maybe visit the boy. It was, after all, his specialty.
“I know you’re so busy already and you barely have time. But he’s such a good kid, Allan.” She squeezed his hand.
Wilma Waters could make him scale a mountain with a single bat of her eyelids.
“Okay. Let’s arrange a meeting as soon as possible.”
“I’ll call the parents first thing tomorrow and give them your number. Thank you, Allan.” she beamed.
One week later, Dr. Allan Tish had his first appointment with Clayton Barnes.