“Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, the people you hear laughing are dead.”
—Chuck Palahniuk, "Lullaby"
"We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to, of course."
"I thought that's what your job was about: talking?"
"Actually Mrs. Chelsea, I would say that my job is about trust. I can't expect people who don't trust me to talk about sensitive things with me. So this session is entirely in your hands."
"I'll talk about it. Therapy was my idea, after all. They said that since there was just the one incident it wasn't really necessary but...I thought it was a good idea."
"All right then. Tell me what happened."
"It was just a drawing on the sidewalk. A stencil, you know? Artists leave them around the city, sometimes, and I was out shopping with my family when my son pointed it out. It was a skeleton wearing a top hat, and it had the word 'Saturday' underneath it. What do you think that means?"
"It sounds like Baron Samedi."
"He's a loa; a voodoo spirit. He watches over the dead and he's usually represented by a top hat and a skull. 'Samedi' means 'Saturday'. So this drawing frightened you?"
"I had a kind of fit when I saw it. They called it an anxiety attack. They even took me to the hospital."
"And what did they find out?"
"They said there's nothing wrong with me physically. They talked about stress and lack of sleep. And they said I should take it easy but not to worry unless it happened again. But I'm worried anyway."
"Has anything like this ever happened before?"
"Once. The same day...that my son died."
"You said your son was the one who noticed the stencil?"
"That's my youngest son, Dylan. I had an older son, Jonah. But he's not with us anymore. He was murdered five years ago."
"I'm very sorry, Mrs. Chelsea. Can I ask if you received any psychological counseling afterwards?"
"No. I was busy with Dylan, you see. Isn't it strange? The day Jonah died was the same day I found out I was pregnant again. And I guess I just...poured everything into managing the pregnancy. So that I wouldn't think about anything else. And for years, I didn't. Not until this week. Should I talk about the murder?"
"As I said, you don't have to talk about anything you don't want to."
"I...I'll talk about it.
"Jonah was fifteen; I had him when I was still in high school. He was very gifted. He played the cello, and the piano, and they made him the organist at our church. That was what got him into trouble.
"The minister was friends with my husband, Jonah's stepfather, and he loved to hear Jonah play, so he put him at the organ. Everyone loved him. It wasn't just that Jonah was talented, he was...I guess you could say he had a performer's charisma. I...I'm sorry, it's hard to talk about..."
"It's all right, Mrs. Chelsea. Should we change the subject?"
"No, I've already said this much. Something people liked about Jonah, he would always play the hymns but he'd play some of his own music too, before and after the service. He composed his own material; it was very strange sounding, but everyone liked it. Well, almost everyone: One day a man came to us after church and told him to stop."
"Told him to stop playing?"
"Told him to stop playing his own music. He was very upset. He looked like he hadn't had much sleep; he might have been drunk. He told us that the song Jonah played that day was...wrong, somehow. That it was driving him crazy. He was screaming at us in the parking lot, telling us that we didn't realize what we were doing, that he'd spent his whole life trying to get away from that music. It didn't make any sense."
"Tell me about the song?"
"It was very odd, now that you mention it. It was...bouncy. It made me think of the circus, for some reason. It made sense if you knew Jonah, though; he was always playing for laughs. I heard him practicing it in his room. It made me feel...unsettled, the first time I heard it."
"Hmm. And what about this man?"
"Well, that day in the parking lot he just ran off, after scaring the daylights out of us. But the next week, he came back. ...with a gun."
"It was the Day of the Dead. November 1st. I remember that. Someone had left something on the organ for Jonah, as a joke. You know those Day of the Dead decorations, the little statuettes of skeletons doing everyday things? Skeleton housewives cooking or a skeleton barber with scissors and a razor or—"
"I have one that's a skeleton therapist, with a skeleton patient on his couch. A client gave it to me. It's actually quite funny."
"Oh. Well, this one was a skeleton playing the piano. Jonah thought it was hilarious. He showed it to everyone. Nobody would admit to leaving it. Then he started playing. Everyone was enjoying it. He was coming to the end of the song, and then that man from the week before stood up. And then..."
"...where is that man now, Mrs. Chelsea?"
"In a mental hospital. I've visited him a few times. He cries a lot and tells me he's sorry, but he says, 'You must understand why. You of all people must understand why I did it.' I don't know why he says that. ...but the thing I remember about that day now that I never remembered before is that little Day of the Dead statue. The skeleton was wearing a top hat, you see."
"Ah. So the stencil drawing reminded you of it."
"No, that wasn't it. I mean, I suppose it did, but...doctor, I've never told anyone this before, but the day that Jonah was murdered, everyone assumed I was hysterical because of what happened, and I was, but it started before that. It started when I saw that little statuette on the church organ.
"Something about that figure, the skeleton and the hat, it terrified me. It scared me so bad that I wanted to stand up and shout to Jonah to run away from it, but I was too frightened to even move. And by the time I could, the man with the gun had already...he'd..."
"It's all right, Mrs. Chelsea. ...but you're sure that your fear response started before the shooting? Not after?"
"Yes. Yes, I'm sure."
"Hmm. So the skeleton and the hat: That image upsets you. Do you know why?"
"I can't imagine."
"Can you think of the first time you ever saw it?"
"Well... when I was a child I used to have a nightmare. There was a little girl in a room—"
"Was it you?"
"It might have been, but it was hard to tell. Whoever she was, she was in a dark room, and she was crying, and all around her there were these...I guess puppets, or dolls? And they were screaming."
"The puppets were screaming?"
"Yes, all of them, screaming and screaming, and the little girl was crying."
"Did you have this nightmare a lot?"
"All the time, when I was five."
"What does this have to do with the skeleton in the top hat?"
"That was one of the puppets. That's the first time I can remember seeing that image. Well, not seeing exactly, but that's my earliest memory."
"I see. What did your parents do when you told them about this dream?"
"They took the TV away."
"They said that I had the dream because of something I saw on TV."
"Do you remember that?"
"No. And I didn't at the time either. But they insisted. It was...actually very strange, now that I think about it. It seemed to scare them, somehow. Of course, it's hard to remember. I was so young, you know?"
"Of course. Do you still have this dream?"
"No. That is...not until very recently."
"But you've had it again?"
"Yes, just after the stencil drawing, and the anxiety attack. That same night, actually. But only that once. And that was the first time in, oh, forty years, I guess. It's normal, right, to have that dream again, after seeing something that reminded me of it?"
"We don't really deal in words like normal or abnormal here, Mrs. Chelsea. I would say that it is noteworthy that you had the same dream after so long. But I don't think it's something you have to worry about. Can I ask, was anything different about the dream this time?"
"And what was that?"
"One of the puppets. It looked like...it looked like Jonah..."
"It's all right to cry, Mrs. Chelsea. Here, dry your eyes. I can imagine it was very upsetting, but it's important to remember that dreams are your mind's way of trying to tell us something. Can you remember any other strange dreams about your oldest son?"
"For a while right after he died I would have one where I was standing on the shore, watching him sail away on a big ship."
"That's a very common image."
"No, not like this; there was something wrong with that ship. Something terrible. And the people on it with him...they weren't people. Not normal people. I had the feeling they were, you know, kidnapping him. Carrying him away, like they were—"
"Yes, that's it. And I heard music too: strange, jumbled circus music. It sounded a little like the song that Jonah played in church. And you know, come to think of it, he told me that the song came to him in a dream first. It might even have been a dream about a ship. I didn't pay much attention. I remember I even faked having to make a phone call so I could leave the room and stop listening to him talk about it. Isn't that terrible? But at the time, hearing about his dreams upset me very much."
"Let's move on: Have there been any other incidents lately that have upset you? Anything unusual that's disrupted your regular routine?"
"I'm not sure what's important."
"Anything might be important. We won't know for sure unless we talk about it."
"Well, a few weeks ago—this was before the panic attack—I was at a toy store, trying to find something for Dylan. He was turning five that week. And I found this...thing. It was a doll, you know, but not a normal one. It was like a little pirate, but its head was one from a porcelain baby doll, the old kind? It looked like something a serial killer would make in their basement."
"And that bothered you?"
"Well it was horribly ugly. I asked the owner and she said she'd found it when she was cleaning out the storeroom. She had no idea where it came from. She wasn't sure whether she should sell it or not. I told her to throw it away. It scared me. I guess it sounds silly now. Why would something like that get to me so much?"
"To grind your skin."
"I said, things get under your skin."
"I thought you said...never mind.
"There was something else too: As I was cleaning my son's room the next day I thought I saw that same doll in there."
"Thought you did?"
"As I was cleaning under his bed something caught my eye: It was that red bandana. And I saw that doll's little face staring at me, with those cracked, painted eyes, and I swear I just about screamed. But when I looked under the bed again it wasn't there. And I told myself I just imagined it, but...are all these things really important?"
"Oh yes, Mrs. Chelsea. I'd say we're making great progress. With these sorts of things, you have. To go. Inside."
"...What did you say?"
"You have to go inside. Of your mindset, you know, inside of your issues."
"But why did you say it that way the first time?"
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"Let's move on. It seems that your anxiety is being triggered by some very specific imagery. Tell me when else it's come up."
"Tell me, Mrs. Chelsea. Please."
"...My neighbor, she had Halloween decorations up on her house for weeks. And there was one that was a kind of skeleton that hung in her window, the sort of thing you'd buy at a drugstore this time of year. It startled me when I looked out my window and saw it. It was like it was looking right into my house. It had big glass eyes that were too large for its skull...that bothered me.
"I had such a strange feeling when I saw it. The first time I thought to myself, 'He's found me.' It just popped into my head, and a second later I couldn't have told you what it means. But that's not what scared me."
"My neighbor took all the other decorations off her house after Halloween, but she kept that one. Every morning I'd see that thing staring into my window. And finally one day I mentioned to her, very casually, you know, that it was almost Thanksgiving and she really ought to take that last Halloween decoration down. And she said, 'I don't know what you're talking about? It's been gone for weeks.'"
"Was it there when you looked out the window again?"
"Do you think it was ever really there to begin with?"
"I...I don't know."
"What else has been on your mind?"
"Dylan. He's a very bright child, like his brother. And they look a like. But he's not a musician; instead he draws."
"Has he been making strange pictures?"
"How did you know?"
"A lucky guess. Do go on, Mrs. Chelsea."
"I feel sick. I feel like...the room is moving?"
"It's your imagination. Tell me about Dylan's pictures."
"They're of...a sailing ship. But not a normal one. It has a, you know, a figurehead at the front of it that's too big. And it talks."
"The figurehead talks?"
"How do you know that, if it's just a picture?"
"I just know. And he's been drawing it for weeks and weeks, over and over. And sometimes he draws other things too...strange things...terrible things..."
"But things you recognize."
"Where have you seen these things before, Mrs. Chelsea?"
"In my dreams. And...on the television. When I was five years old. The show came on everyday. And I was scared of it, but I watched it anyway. And when I tried to get my parents to watch it with me they said...they said..."
"What did they say?"
"...that there was no show. And I didn't understand what they meant. And that's when the nightmare began. And I remember now, that's where I first heard that song, the strange one that Jonah played. That's why I was upset when I heard it, because it reminded me of that show. And I thought maybe that's why the man at the church was upset by it, too. I guess as I grew up I kind of forgot about the whole thing, but..."
"But you didn't forget, did you? You never forget the things that are really important in childhood."
"I guess you don't."
"And we didn't forget about you either."
"I said, they didn't forget—"
"No you didn't. You said 'we'. 'We didn't forget about you?'"
"...Well, it's true. We didn't forget. We've been waiting for you, Janice. All this time."
"Dr. Horace, why are you laughing like that? Dr. Horace?"
"I'm not a doctor. And you see this isn't a doctor's office at all, is it? It's the cabin of a ship, that's why it's moving, that's why you started to feel seasick."
"What's going on?!"
"You're off on an adventure on the high seas, Janice, just like the ones on television when you were a little girl. The ones we made just for you."
"Stop talking like that. And stop calling me that too, my name isn't Janice."
"But it could be! You'd make as good of a Janice as anyone. And think how much better life would be if you were? Janice never had a murdered son. Janice never had to worry that she was losing her mind. Janice only had adventures all the time."
"But they were so awful, so frightening..."
"Well, being a child is always a little frightening, isn't it? But you won't be alone here; all of your old friends are onboard. And we have some news ones too. Even Jonah is here..."
"Oh yes. He's been just the best little crewmember for us. And he's been waiting for you. Just think about how wonderful it will be to see him again, and to see everyone else too. All one big happy crew together."
"But what about Dylan?"
"Your other boy? Oh, don't worry about him. We'll get around to him, in due time. But do you hear that, Janice?"
"I...I hear a voice..."
"And what is it telling you?"
"I don't want to listen to it! I don't want to be here, I want to go home!"
"This is home, Janice. This is the home we made for you, the home that's been waiting for you, the home that you'll be in forever and ever. The voice that you hear, why, that's the voice of your new home. And what is it saying?"
"What's it saying, Janice?"
"It's saying that...
"I have. To go. Inside."