Ricky was a connoisseur of your-mom jokes, but this was apparently more than he could take. He sprang out of the chair and shoved me so hard I almost fell off the roof. I yelled at him to get out, but he was already going.
It was months before I’d see him again. So much for having friends.
* * *
Eventually, my parents did take me to a brain-shrinker—a quiet, olive-skinned man named Dr. Golan. I didn’t put up a fight. I knew I needed help.
I thought I’d be a tough case, but Dr. Golan made surprisingly quick work of me. The calm, affectless way he explained things was almost hypnotizing, and within two sessions he’d convinced me that the creature had been nothing more than the product of my overheated imagination; that the trauma of my grandfather’s death had made me see something that wasn’t really there. It was Grandpa Portman’s stories that had planted the creature in my mind to begin with, Dr. Golan explained, so it only made sense that, kneeling there with his body in my arms and reeling from the worst shock of my young life, I had conjured up my grandfather’s own bogeyman.
There was even a name for it: acute stress reaction. “I don’t see anything cute about it,” my mother said when she heard my shiny new diagnosis. Her joke didn’t bother me, though. Almost anything sounded better than crazy.
Just because I no longer believed the monsters were real didn’t mean I was better, though. I still suffered from nightmares. I was twitchy and paranoid, bad enough at interacting with other people that my parents hired a tutor so that I only had to go to school on days I felt up to it. They also—finally—let me quit Smart Aid. “Feeling better” became my new job.
Pretty soon, I was determined to be fired from this one, too. Once the small matter of my temporary madness had been cleared up, Dr. Golan’s function seemed mainly to consist of writing prescriptions. Still having nightmares? I’ve got something for that. Panic attack on the school bus? This should do the trick. Can’t sleep? Let’s up the dosage. All those pills were making me fat and stupid, and I was still miserable, getting only three or four hours of sleep a night. That’s why I started lying to Dr. Golan. I pretended to be fine when anyone who looked at me could see the bags under my eyes and the way I jumped like a nervous cat at sudden noises. One week I faked an entire dream journal, making my dreams sound bland and simple, the way a normal person’s should be. One dream was about going to the dentist. In another I was flying. Two nights in a row, I told him, I’d dreamed I was naked in school.
Then he stopped me. “What about the creatures?”
I shrugged. “No sign of them. Guess that means I’m getting better, huh?”
Dr. Golan tapped his pen for a moment and then wrote something down. “I hope you’re not just telling me what you think I want to hear.”
“Of course not,” I said, my gaze skirting the framed degrees on his wall, all attesting to his expertness in various subdisciplines of psychology, including, I’m sure, how to tell when an acutely stressed teenager is lying to you.
“Let’s be real for a minute.” He set down his pen. “You’re telling me you didn’t have the dream even one night this week?”
I’d always been a terrible liar. Rather than humiliate myself, I copped to it. “Well,” I muttered, “maybe one.”
The truth was that I’d had the dream every night that week. With minor variations, it always went like this: I’m crouched in the corner of my grandfather’s bedroom, amber dusk-light retreating from the windows, pointing a pink plastic BB rifle at the door. An enormous glowing vending machine looms where the bed should be, filled not with candy but rows of razor-sharp tactical knives and armor-piercing pistols. My grandfather’s there in an old British army uniform, feeding the machine dollar bills, but it takes a lot to buy a gun and we’re running out of time. Finally, a shiny .45 spins toward the glass, but before it falls it gets stuck. He swears in Yiddish, kicks the machine, then kneels down and reaches inside to try and grab it, but his arm gets caught. That’s when they come, their long black tongues slithering up the outside of the glass, looking for a way in. I point the BB gun at them and pull the trigger, but nothing happens. Meanwhile Grandpa Portman is shouting like a crazy person—find the bird, find the loop, Yakob vai don’t you understand you goddamned stupid yutzi—and then the windows shatter and glass rains in and the black tongues are all over us, and that’s generally when I wake up in a puddle of sweat, my heart doing hurdles and my stomach tied in knots.
Even though the dream was always the same and we’d been over it a hundred times, Dr. Golan still made me describe it in every session. It’s like he was cross-examining my subconscious, looking for some clue he might have missed the ninety-ninth time around.
“And in the dream, what’s your grandfather saying?”
“The same stuff as always,” I said. “About the bird and the loop and the grave.”
“His last words.”
Dr. Golan tented his fingers and pressed them to his chin, the very picture of a thoughtful brain-shrinker. “Any new ideas about what they might mean?”
“Yeah. Jack and shit.”
“Come on. You don’t mean that.”
I wanted to act like I didn’t care about the last words, but I did. They’d been eating away at me almost as much as the nightmares. I felt like I owed it to my grandfather not to dismiss the last thing he said to anyone in the world as delusional nonsense, and Dr. Golan was convinced that understanding them might help purge my awful dreams. So I tried.
Some of what Grandpa Portman had said made sense, like the thing about wanting me to go to the island. He was worried that the monsters would come after me, and thought the island was the only place I could escape them, like he had as a kid. After that he’d said, “I should’ve told you,” but because there was no time to tell me whatever it was he should’ve told me, I wondered if he hadn’t done the next best thing and left a trail of bread crumbs leading to someone who could tell me—someone who knew his secret. I figured that’s what all the cryptic-sounding stuff about the loop and the grave and the letter was.
For a while I thought “the loop” could be a street in Circle Village—a neighborhood that was nothing but looping cul-de-sacs—and that “Emerson” might be a person my grandfather had sent letters to. An old war buddy he’d kept in touch with or something. Maybe this Emerson lived in Circle Village, in one of its loops, by a graveyard, and one of the letters he’d kept was dated September third, 1940, and that was the one I needed to read. I knew it sounded crazy, but crazier things have turned out to be true. So after hitting dead-ends online I went to the Circle Village community center, where the old folks gather to play shuffleboard and discuss their most recent surgeries, to ask where the graveyard was and whether anyone knew a Mr. Emerson. They looked at me like I had a second head growing out of my neck, baffled that a teenaged person was speaking to them. There was no graveyard in Circle Village and no one in the neighborhood named Emerson and no street called Loop Drive or Loop Avenue or Loop anything. It was a complete bust.