By Frank Kowal
Billy’s mother was struggling to catch her breath. She had just dodged four lanes of fast-moving city traffic and was now holding onto an old public phone across the street from her building.
But because a growing crowd was staring at her—she was wearing a bare-shouldered, sparkling red, floor-length evening gown—she kept her back to everyone even after depositing her change and pressing the numbers for the office of Dr. Carl Fenway, her son’s psychiatrist. Directly overhead a Coney Island subway train came rumbling into the station, forcing her to cover her free ear with her hand so she would be able to hear the phone ringing at the other end.
It was also just minutes before six at night—the hour the clinic closed—and she prayed so hard that the clinic’s answering machine would not suddenly come on, announcing that the office was closed for the evening, that when she did hear the female receptionist’s live voice at the other end she thanked god she had gotten through; by even greater luck Fenway was still there; and after being put on hold for several tense seconds, he actually picked up his phone and asked her, in his usual calm and soothing voice, “Eileen, what’s the matter?”
“Doctor! Billy’s having a terrible panic attack! And this time he’s not just staying in one room, screaming incoherently. Tonight he’s running all around my apartment, pushing furniture all over the place, and this time he’s screaming the same thing over and over and his words are clear: ‘They’re going to throw the moon at us!’ That’s what he said, doctor! So what do I do now?”
Fenway repeated Billy’s words quietly while jotting them down. “And what exactly prompted Billy to run around like that?”
“I don’t know. I was watching TV in my living room with my younger brother, Gilbert. Gil drove in from Chicago for Billy’s birthday—Billy’s going to be eleven in just two days—when Billy comes running in. He closes the blinds and pushes the furniture that’s near the windows closer to the windows. Then he starts pushing my other furniture. I tried to stop him but he shoved me away. He even tried pushing my refrigerator, only it’s too heavy. And meanwhile he’s screaming about the moon. So Gilbert told me to call you, but my cell’s not working, and he left his at his motel, so that’s why I came running over to this pay phone. So you got to come to my apartment right now, like you promised you’d do if I ever had an emergency and it was late in the day, ’cause I’m tired of taking Billy back to the hospital every time he has a problem.”
“But Eileen, this sounds serious. Billy might have to be hospitalized again.”
“No way! I said I’m not going back there.”
“Eileen, please, just listen to me. I’ll call an ambulance—”
“And I said no! I am not going back to that hospital. How many times do I have to tell you that?”
“Okay, okay, calm down. No reason to get so upset. Let me first check something, alright?”
Fenway typed in the name of Billy’s medication on his computer. And after seeing that no new side effects had been reported, he pondered over the current situation for a number of long, difficult seconds before speaking to Eileen again.
“Tell you what,” he said. “Go back to your apartment and wait there for me. Hopefully, by the time I arrive, Billy will have calmed down and he won’t have to go back. How does that sound?”
Eileen was satisfied with that and ended her call, and Fenway, feeling that he had responded to Eileen’s demand in the only way he could, immediately contacted the Children’s Pavilion at the Glenmore Psychiatric Center and requested that an ambulance be placed on standby.
While Fenway was giving instructions to the pavilion’s evening supervisor, Eileen came rushing up a second long flight of stairs in her stockinged feet while holding onto the bottom of her lengthy gown and her high-heeled silver evening shoes.
But she froze when she saw her apartment door left open.
And after hurrying into each room, she panicked because Billy and Gilbert were both missing.
Then loud arguing began outside, and she pulled up her bedroom window and stuck her head out. The commotion was coming from high above her—Billy and Gilbert were apparently up on the roof—so she put on her slippers and made her way up two more flights to the top floor of the building. But as she headed up the final staircase, the loose roof door was blown open and she saw Billy push Gilbert away before Billy rushed down past her, his eyes terrified.
Eileen leaned over the railing and ordered Billy to come back, but all she heard was the slamming of her door. Then Gilbert stopped next to her, nearly out of breath. “You got a strong kid! I tried to show him, at his bedroom window, that nothing’s happening to the moon, but he blocked me with his arms spread out, so I couldn’t open the blinds. That’s why I took him up to the roof, which wasn’t easy, but he’s still pointing up there and screaming his head off!”
“So what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know what’s wrong. I think it’s a full moon tonight, but right now it’s behind a large dark cloud and it’s also very windy.”
Just then they heard the distant siren of an ambulance, and Eileen’s eyes widened in alarm. “No way!” she protested. “I mean, Fenway gave me his word! He told me point blank that Billy is not going back to the hospital!”
“Billy’s been in the hospital?” Gilbert was stunned.
But Eileen didn’t answer him, for she was now recalling, with worried eyes, the brain scans, the blood tests, and the numerous psychiatric interviews she and Billy had to sit through each time they went to Glenmore, as well as the seemingly endless questionnaires that also had to be completed during every visit; and it wasn’t until Gilbert nudged her shoulder and pointed to the faces listening intently at their doors that she joined him in hurrying down to her apartment.
Only Billy had locked her door, and although she banged on it repeatedly, he did not respond. “I left my keys on the kitchen table,” she told Gilbert angrily, and then she banged on her door out of frustration.
The siren was much louder and closer now, and Eileen and Gilbert both pleaded with Billy to open the door. “I can’t handle this anymore,” she said, turning to Gilbert, almost in tears. “I swear, I don’t know what to do with this kid.”
Rapid loud bursts suddenly echoed throughout the neighborhood—the ambulance was apparently blocked in nearby traffic—but within seconds the wailing returned. And when it became so piercing that Eileen had to cover her ears, the siren was shut off, for the ambulance had arrived, and only a passing train outside could be heard.
“Billy!” Eileen screamed into her door. “The ambulance is downstairs! Open the door!”
She threw her arms out in exasperation and gave up; and when the buzzer sounded inside her apartment, she reluctantly sent Gilbert down to the lobby to let the paramedics in.
Then she banged on her door again. “For crying out loud, Billy, let me in!”
But the door remained locked; and while she stood there, angrier at Billy, perhaps, than she had ever been in her life, three paramedics reached her floor, carrying their gear. “We’re looking for a Ms. Weber,” the female captain said.
“I’m Ms. Weber,” Eileen said, but when she saw the two male paramedics admiring her gown, and heard them saying that she resembled Lady Gaga, Eileen’s face brightened and she froze, virtually mesmerized—a powerful rush of ecstasy completely overwhelming her psyche—and suddenly, despite being locked out of her apartment and an ambulance waiting outside for her son, she just couldn’t resist turning her body slowly to the left, and then to the right, while each time running a gentle hand down the side of her gown to highlight the sheer beauty of its silk. “Isn’t this just gorgeous?” she said. And then she tilted her head back slightly with a loving smile, as if she were a Hollywood starlet.
The two male paramedics exchanged strange looks while the captain whispered to them, “I heard about this woman. She behaves like this sometimes when she’s in front of people she doesn’t know.” The captain then asked Eileen, “Excuse me, miss, but you have a son named Billy Wagner, who is to be taken to the Children’s Pavilion at Glenmore, is that correct?”
Appalled at being asked such a rude question instead of being praised for the way she had just
posed in her gown, Eileen clasped her waist defiantly. “Lady, you have no business talking to me that way. And because of your loud voice, now everyone in this building is going to know about my son.”
“My apologies,” the captain said, lowering her voice. “So then you are Billy Wagner’s mother, is that correct?”
But just then Eileen heard Gilbert saying to Fenway on the staircase, “Doctor, my nephew has gotten worse. And I think my sister’s at her wits end with him.”
Eileen said to herself, “You got that one right.”
The two men reached her floor and Fenway spoke to the paramedics. But when he saw Eileen his face lit up and he came over to her. “Your gown is absolutely mag-nif-i-cent! What’s the occasion?”
“I have a coffee date tonight, so I decided to wear this gown early to see if Gilbert likes it.”
“It’s really beautiful,” Fenway said, smiling politely. “But Eileen, what I really need to know is if Billy—”
“And look at what you’re wearing. I haven’t seen that gorgeous tan sports jacket and my favorite brown tie in a long time. And I still love that brown swirl on your tie, although I still think you need a smaller swirl under it. Anyway, the brown matches your eyes, your hair and your beard. It’s simply perfect!”
“Eileen, what I want to ask you is important. Have you made any progress in getting Billy to open the door?”
“Are you kidding?” she laughed. “Has he ever listened to me?”
“Eileen, the ambulance is downstairs.”
Eileen looked confused; then she suddenly remembered why Fenway was there and her eyes grew angry. “Now just a second. You told me on the phone before that Billy would not have to go back to the hospital. So you lied to me. And for that I ought to report you!”
Fenway explained calmly, “I told Glenmore to put an ambulance on standby just in case we need one because they have a limited number of ambulances, but they sent us one by mistake. And getting back to what I told you months ago, I said if you called me late in the afternoon, I would try to come here after office hours and talk to Billy, which might save you a trip to the hospital. But again, based on what you told me over the phone, it sounds like this might be serious. Anyway, let me first take a look at him, okay? Maybe by now he’s calmed down and he won’t have to go back.”
Eileen closed her eyes. “Oh I hope so.”
Fenway knocked on her door. “Billy,” he said gently, “this is Dr. Fenway. I really need to speak with you, to find out what’s going on with the moon. So please, my dear friend, please open the door.”
But when there was still no response, Eileen turned to Gilbert. “Go down to the super’s apartment. His door is in the lobby. Tell him I’m locked out. But don’t tell him what Billy’s been screaming about.”
Gilbert headed down the stairs and Fenway reminded Eileen, “You’ve cancelled over three months of appointments already.”
“Like I keep saying in my emails, my part-time shift at the coffee shop keeps changing. It’s beyond my control.”
“I understand that, but our sessions are important. Anyway, how has Billy been since our last
session? At that time I increased his dosage to two capsules at bedtime.”
“About the same.”
“So the extra pill hasn’t really helped?”
“He still has panic attacks over every little thing, plus his fear of certain numbers, that if he ignores them, that they’ll seek revenge on him.”
Fenway began writing everything down.
“Also, something new started about a month ago: If he heard a number on the TV just as he turned it off, he panicked and had to turn the TV back on. And his teachers are now telling me that just as he hands in a paper, where everything is written on one side, that he turns it over repeatedly to avoid another attack because he wants to make sure he didn’t leave anything written on the back.
“By the way,” she added, “when I called you from the phone before, there were two half-empty soda cups on top of the phone with wet lip marks on them. I couldn’t catch anything from breathing in the air from the wet lip marks, could I?”
She sighed in relief. “Thank you. It was bothering me all this time.”
“Now, just to update my files, from Monday to Friday Billy’s still living with your older sister and her husband in their apartment near the Verrazzano Bridge?”
“Correct. I don’t understand it, but they seem to have a soothing effect on him. He seems to act calmer when he’s with them.”
“And your sister continues driving him back-and-forth to school when he stays with her?”
“But she still doesn’t want the responsibility of taking permanent custody of him?”
“And as far as his school is concerned, they’re not getting involved with your sister and her husband as his guardians? She even attends all the school conferences, is that also correct?”
“Yes. And by the way, he’s depressed right now because he can’t stay with them during his Easter vacation because my sister’s having minor surgery. That’s also why he’s here with me tonight. She doesn’t feel well right now.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Nothing serious I hope.”
“If it was, I’d be over there all the time, job or no job.”
“That’s good to know,” Fenway said. “Now, is Billy still making sure that every little microscopic thing in his bedroom is in exactly the right position before he leaves for school?”
“And when he leaves his classroom at three o’clock with his classmates, is he still looking back into the room, sometimes more than once, to make sure he put his chair upside down on top of his desk in just the right spot?”
“Yes, I heard he’s still doing that.
“Okay. And obviously you’re still getting panic attacks over health concerns. Are you getting better at controlling your behavior with strange people?”
“I’m trying to.”
“Have you met anyone in the last three months? You said you had a date for later tonight?”
“Just some customer I made friends with at the coffee shop. We’re going out for a cup of coffee, but not at the same place of course.”
Fenway completed his notes and put them away, and after several minutes had passed, Gilbert returned with the superintendent, a huge middle-aged man who was angry because it was past his quitting time. He glanced impressively at Eileen’s gown before inserting the correct key into the lock and opening her door. “Need me for anything else?” he asked, and when she shook her head, he left.
“I ran into the super on the stairs,” Gilbert said. “He was on his way up because of all the noise, so I told him you were locked out and he went back for his keys.”
Fenway said to Eileen, “May I go in by myself, just for a few minutes?”
“Go ahead,” she said, and he entered the apartment with his medical case and closed the door.
Suddenly the entire hallway seemed to vibrate as two express trains outside roared by in opposite directions. “It must be difficult sleeping here at night,” the captain said to her, but Eileen merely shrugged again, for the male paramedics were no longer admiring her gown.
Inside her apartment, which was dark and cluttered with old furniture, Billy was still trying to push the refrigerator to the kitchen window. But when his nervous eyes saw Fenway watching him, he ran into his bedroom closet and pulled the door shut.
Fenway jotted down Billy’s behavior and then entered his tiny bedroom for the first time. His three-inch reflector telescope, which he talked about frequently, was on a tripod in front of his window, which was in the corner of the room, next to his bed. And since his room was lit by a dim child’s lamp on a small desk across from his bed, his room was almost as dark as the living room.
Plus the cracked linoleum on the floor and the absence of any pictures on the dirty walls left Fenway with a poor impression of Eileen as a caring mother.
Nevertheless, he went over to the telescope. He knew it was aimed at a wide living room window near the top of a luxury high-rise several blocks away that reminded Billy of his aunt and uncle’s building, and that Billy was no longer looking through the telescope when people were in their living room. But right now Billy’s window blinds were closed.
He turned to the closet and said loud enough for Billy to hear, “So this is the telescope that you use to see into the window that reminds you of your aunt and uncle’s apartment.”
But there was no response from inside the closet, so Fenway put his medical case down. And after raising the blinds all the way, he looked up at the sky. A striking glow from the hidden full moon was brightening the top wavy edge of a large, dark cloud. Then he looked at the Y-shaped high rise. Yet when he looked through the eyepiece of the telescope, which was tilted upward, he could only see a tiny partial view of a bright living room: Above a beige couch hung a large oil painting, presumably an original and most likely costing a fortune. On each side of it were smaller paintings, probably originals as well. A designer lamp was alongside the couch, near the window, which was also lighting the edge of a dark side curtain.
Fenway stood up straight. “Come out of the closet, Billy. I was just looking at those windows through the telescope. And I assure you that no one is up in the sky, about to throw the moon at us.”
But Billy refused to come out, so Fenway went over to the closet and opened the door, only to find Billy’s short, skinny body trembling behind a row of hanging shirts. Never had Fenway seen Billy’s thin face so hollow and pale, which also made his overbite even more noticeable.
Plus Billy’s prominent blue eyes now looked so frightened that, for the first time, Fenway felt his heart truly breaking for his young patient.
“My dear little friend,” he said quietly, “please come out. You’ll be safe with me. I promise.”
But when Billy shook his head, as if shivering, Fenway gently pushed aside the shirts and extended a kind hand, then waited patiently until Billy took it and allowed himself to be slowly led out of the closet.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Fenway said. “Now was it?” But even as he said those words, he couldn’t help but notice how lonely Billy looked, and that he had also lost weight.
Billy swallowed nervously. “We should be hiding. They’re still up there. And I tried making friends with them too.”
“Why would you want to be friends with them?”
“Dr. Fenway, we shouldn’t be standing out here.”
Fenway put an arm around Billy’s shoulder and led him, slowly again, all the way to the window.
“We can’t see the moon,” he told Billy, who was looking up at the sky nervously, “because there are so many really dark clouds up there. But even if we could see it—let’s say that some gigantic creatures were up there—don’t you think that everyone else in the world would have seen them by this time as well, and that there would be a worldwide panic? But there isn’t a global panic because no giant creatures are up there.”
Fenway was confident that this simple, common sense explanation would get Billy to come to his senses, when Billy’s eyes suddenly widened in horror; Fenway also looked up but saw only the full moon shining brilliantly in the black sky.
Billy backed away, screaming that everyone was going to die. But when Fenway grabbed Billy’s upper arms and demanded that he come to his senses, Billy struggled to free himself—even trying to kick Fenway’s legs—until Billy bit hard on one of Fenway’s hands; Fenway shrieked in pain and let him go, and Billy dashed back into the closet and pulled the door shut.
Fenway sat down on Billy’s bed and examined his hand to make sure it wasn’t bleeding. His eyes then went to the closet, where they remained while he mulled over his options.
Eileen was staring out of a hallway window when Fenway came out of her apartment. He signaled the paramedics to wheel in their stretcher, and then he called Eileen over.
“Billy started fighting with me,” he told her, “so when he calmed down I gave him the same sugar-coated sedative, along with a small milky drink, that I sometimes gave him when he was feeling anxious, except the pill I gave him tonight is slightly stronger, so right now he’s sleeping. But because he’s had such a terrible hallucination, along with such violent overtones,” and he spoke carefully now, “I really think he should go back to the hospital tonight.”
“But you promised!” Eileen argued. “And he’s going to be eleven in just two days!”
“Then tell me this, Eileen. What are you going to do when Billy starts screaming and pushing your furniture around tomorrow morning? Or even worse, tomorrow night?”
“You mean his nonsense can start all over again?”
“But can’t you just give him some more pills or something?”
“I first have to find out what’s causing his hallucinations. That’s why he needs to be hospitalized. And his hallucinations, by the way, are among the weirdest I’ve ever heard.”
“I know. Somebody’s going to throw the moon at us, or something like that.”
Fenway scratched the back of his neck. “Do you want to hear what he says he actually saw?”
“I don’t know.” And then she shrugged. “Okay, so what did he see?”
Fenway took a deep breath and pointed up. “Billy says he saw two gigantic teenage boys swimming up in the night sky, hundreds of thousands of miles away, approaching the moon and maybe five times bigger than the moon.”
Eileen’s mouth dropped open.
“They were as bright as the full moon and they were doing something like breaststrokes in space.” He performed a few breaststrokes to give Eileen an idea of what Billy had seen. “But instead of wearing spacesuits they were wearing blue jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, like it was a summer day. And when they spotted the full moon they began playing a game of catch with it, the way athletes might toss a basketball back-and-forth at each other.”
Eileen was shaking her head slowly.
“So when Billy kept screaming, ‘They’re going to throw the moon at us,’ that’s exactly what he saw, because while those two boys were playing catch with the moon, one of them pointed to us here on earth, and then they both toyed with the idea of actually throwing the moon at us. That’s also why he closed all your blinds and pushed your furniture to the windows—to block the moon from crashing into your apartment. Billy told me all this after I gave him a sedative.
“Now as you know, Eileen, Billy’s never had any hallucinations. That’s why I feel that he should go back to the hospital, to undergo additional observations, of course, and maybe, maybe, for a few more tests as well. Otherwise, when he wakes up tomorrow morning, like I said, he might start running around your apartment again, screaming his head off. I therefore suggest strongly that you go with him in the ambulance tonight and stay with him. Are you working tomorrow?”
But Eileen swallowed, and her eyes were now wide and dreamy.
“Eileen, are you working tomorrow?”
She started blinking rapidly, as if coming out of a trance. “I’m sorry. I was thinking of something else. What did you ask me?”
“Are you working tomorrow?”
“Because if you go with Billy in the ambulance tonight and stay with him, tomorrow morning you can call his school from the hospital.”
“Okay. No wait. I have a date tonight.”
“Do you have your date’s phone number?”
“Yes. But I can’t call him. My cell’s dead.”
“So you can use mine. Also, Billy’s lost some weight. Is he eating okay?”
“Like I said, he’s depressed because he can’t stay with his aunt and uncle during Easter. I’ve been telling him to eat more, but he won’t.”
She suddenly began inspecting his tie. “You know, if you call the company that made this, they might be able to lower this swirl on their new ones, so it won’t need a second swirl.”
Fenway stood there, allowing her to conduct her examination, but he was clearly annoyed. “Eileen, please stop this swirl nonsense already.”
“No, no, just a second.” And then she kept her hands wide apart, as if she were a magician, just moments away from revealing the surprise outcome of an amazing trick. “Okay, I got it!
Now listen to me. If they just put a smaller swirl under this swirl, if they just put it here,” and she touched the spot. “Right here! Then it would really look fantastic!”
She kept smiling with the thought of how great his tie would appear if it were redesigned that way, but she backed away when her door was opened by the paramedics, who were ready to wheel Billy out. “He’s sleeping,” the captain told Fenway.
“Can I see my son for a moment?” Eileen asked her, and when they had wheeled Billy out all the way, she moved over to him. She quietly said a prayer and gave his forehead a slow, soft kiss.
Then she stepped back and wiped her eyes as the paramedics began taking Billy down the stairs.
“You are going with them, right?” Fenway asked her.
“I need to go into my apartment for a moment.”
“You really should, just in case you run into someone new at Glenmore. Anyway, if you want to use my phone to call off your date, I’ll be waiting outside by the ambulance. Also, where’s Gilbert?”
“He went back to his motel.”
Fenway nodded and followed the paramedics down the stairs.
“Just a second,” she said, and when he turned around, she asked him, “It isn’t too late for me to put Billy up for adoption, is it?”
Fenway looked surprised. “I thought you were against that.”
“I was,” Eileen admitted, “but I’ve had enough already. Okay, I made a mistake by having Billy when I was 14, I accept that, and I’ve paid the price for that mistake a million times over. I
mean, these past eleven years have been absolute torture. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Billy
dearly and I’ll miss him to no end if I do give him up permanently, but after all the problems I’ve been having with him lately—and it’s every single day now when he’s here—I think I should put him up. Dr. Fenway, I just can’t take it anymore. And my older sister has been telling me that she’s starting to get tired of driving him back-and-forth to school every day.”
Fenway looked down now, for he was suddenly troubled, and even when he faced her again he hesitated before saying, “I don’t know if I should bring this up, but, do you remember Billy once telling us that he wished he could live permanently with his former science teacher and the teacher’s wife? You were livid when he told us that. You said you never wanted to hear anything about it again.”
Eileen closed her eyes and nodded. “I guess I wasn’t ready at the time.”
“Billy said he met the teacher’s wife once in the school, who’s also a child psychologist. He had asked his teacher if he had any kids, and the teacher said they were thinking of adopting a child because his wife couldn’t have any children. His teacher also said that he would love to adopt Billy, if that were only possible, and that his wife might be able to help Billy with his anxiety. Do you remember all that?”
Eileen continued nodding.
“So, all things considered, would you like me to contact his science teacher, or do you want to wait for the final diagnosis on Billy’s condition? I mean, he might simply need to take a different type of medication.”
“You know,” she said, suddenly looking at his tie again, “a smaller swirl under that big swirl would definitely do the trick.”
Fenway repeated loudly, “Would you like me to contact his science teacher?”
Eileen checked her watch now, and after going into her apartment, she turned and said, “It hurts me to say this, but yes, talk to his science teacher. Because even if Billy only needs more medication, next month it’ll be something else, and something else after that, and I’ve had enough already. Like I said, I’ve reached my limit. By the way, a small swirl on your tie, under that large one, is all you need. And I don’t know why you’re getting so upset.”
“Because I’ve told you a hundred times already—”
But she slammed her door shut; and Fenway, shaking his head sadly, continued on his way down the stairs.
In her bathroom Eileen touched up her appearance. She put her red evening shoes back on in her bedroom and hurried into her kitchen for her keys and handbag.
Outside, as a crowd watched Billy’s stretcher being placed into the ambulance, Eileen rushed up to Fenway. She canceled her date on his phone, and after climbing into the rear of the ambulance and sitting down next to Billy, she called to Fenway. “How about my contacting the tie company? I’ll bet if I call them, they will put a smaller swirl under that large one. Now why didn’t you suggest that I call them, Dr. Fenway? Answer me that one. Why didn’t you suggest that I call them? ”