“The earplugs aren’t workin’ anymore, Doc,” Bert explained to Dr. Carpenter. “They helped for a while, but the voice found a way through. It always finds a way through.” He sank deeper into the plain grey armchair, so that his head was resting horizontally along the top of the back cushion. He looked to be on the verge of tears.
Dr. Carpenter tapped her pencil repeatedly on her legal-size notepad. Tap tap tap. “Have you been taking your medication?”
The tap always preceded a question. Bert hated that. Sometimes he thought she knew he hated it and did it on purpose to piss him off. Then again, he was supposedly paranoid, so maybe it was just his mind playing tricks on him. “Yeah, Doc, every day, like clockwork.”
Tap tap tap. “Good, and how is the medication making you feel?”
“About the same, I guess. No change.”
Tap tap tap. “Same voice as always?”
“It’s only ever been the one, I told you.”
Tap tap tap. “Is the voice still telling you to do things?”
Bert gulped and broke eye contact with Dr. Carpenter. It seemed the floor to his left had suddenly become intensely alluring.
Dr. Carpenter laid her notebook and pencil to the side and leaned forward, eyebrows raised. “Bert? Is the voice telling you to do things? Have you done something?”
“It was before we done the earplugs,” Bert answered without looking up.
“Go on,” Dr. Carpenter pressed.
Bert looked up in time to see her lean back in her chair again and reclaimed the pad and pencil. He winced in anticipation of the tapping.
Tap tap tap. “Bert? What happened?”
“The voice told me I should smother my son.”
Dr. Carpenter said nothing, but began to chew on the eraser of her pencil. She nodded for Bert to continue.
“I woke up in the middle of the night, sweatin’ real bad, and it was screamin’, ‘ TAKE THE BOY’. It was so loud it hurt. It was more than loud, Doc. It was powerful, like I couldn’t resist. I had to do what it said.”
Tap tap tap. “Bert, did you-“
Bert shut his eyes to keep from screaming and cut Dr. Carpenter off. “It was so strong, Doc. I got up and walked into my son’s room. ‘THE PILLOW,’ it screamed at me. I pulled the pillow from under my son’s head. I guess I was pretty rough because he usually won’t wake up for nothin’ but he opened his eyes. He looked at me, standing over him with a pillow in both hands, and Doc, he was scared somethin’ awful. My own boy was terrified of me, Doc.
“Somethin’ in his eyes might have snapped me out of it, or maybe the voice done what it set out to do for then, but I felt like I was let go. Like when you take off a pair of pants a size too small after a long day’s work and you feel not just relieved but released, you know? I dropped the pillow and walked out the room without saying anything, and got back in bed. I didn’t sleep no more that night, but I done a good bit of cryin’.”
Tap tap tap. “Bert, why didn’t-“
“WOULD YOU CUT OUT THAT FUCKIN’ TAPPIN’ FOR FUCK’S SAKE?” Bert screamed.
Dr. Carpenter recoiled in her chair. Her pencil and pad fell into her lap and she gripped the arms of the chair as if it was trying to get away.
“I’m sorry, Doc. I shouldn’ta done that,” Bert said softly.
Dr. Carpenter appeared to collect herself, but continued to draw back from Bert. She once again picked up her pencil and pad. She raised the pencil to perform her pre-question tap, but realized what she was doing and stopped herself. She frowned and took a deep breath. “Bert, is the voice telling you to do something right now?”
Bert sighed. “I thought you’d ask that. No, it’s not even talkin’ right now. Look, Doc, that’s the thing. This voice- it’s not always around, but it’s not going away. Like when it released me the other night, I felt like it was just showin’ me it could make me do whatever it wanted. And with the earplugs- seems it went away at first when I put ‘em in and let me have relief just so it could rip that comfort right away from me. I feel like it’s playin’ with me. It’ll bring me right to the edge of thinkin’ I’m crazy, then withdraw to make me feel like I’m better. The things this voice says to me, Doc- I don’t think it’s this paranoid what have you like you think, or else the medicine’d be workin’, right?”
“Well, Bert, what do you think the voice is?”
Bert’s features softened, his head lowered, and his face shrunk in fear. Dr. Carpenter though he looked like a dog that had been beat too many times.
“I think it’s the devil, Doc,” he said quietly, as if he didn’t want the voice to hear him.
“Why do you think it’s the devil?”
Bert scooted to the edge of his chair and leaned toward Dr. Carpenter. He swallowed and winced as if what he was about to say pained him.
Bert nodded and looked up at Dr. Carpenter. “Because he tells me he’s God.”