CHAPTER ONE

His mother stood at the kitchen window, watching; the boy was in the backyard, motionless, like a deer alert to every movement. He held his chin up, as though sniffing the air. His small, frail hands were at his sides, but the fingers were stiff, separated. Did he hear something? She held a plate and dishtowel, herself motionless, watching. It frightened her when he took on one of these spells, the four-year-old struck to stone-still posture, eyes slightly glazed.

She knew from past experience, at this moment she could scream his name and it would leave him unmoved. She had once rushed up to him in anger because he had not responded to her call. The memory of that experience stayed any repetition of such action. The boy had sucked air between clenched teeth, his eyes rolled back into his head, and he shuddered beneath her hands. When, finally, he looked her in the eyes, she was stunned with the malevolent fire in his expression.

“Never do that again, Mother,” he had said. His voice was deep, astonishingly bass for a child so young.

Now, at the window, she watched the frightening metamorphosis as her son stood transfixed. He had not moved for fully ten minutes. Then, slowly, like thawing sinew and bone, he visibly relaxed, the fingers of his small hands flexing slowly as though they had been cramped.

She had been debating the feasibility of taking him to a doctor. She had discussed it with her husband several times. His reaction was a fatherly scoff, “He’s just being a boy, Melba. Stop worrying about him. Boys play games with themselves; that’s all Damon is doing, playing a game.”

But this morning was different. This was the day that galvanized her to action. Damon had been acting strangely since breakfast. He refused oatmeal, protesting it was cold although she had just that moment scooped it from a steaming pot atop the stove. Melba was in no mood to pamper his idiosyncrasies this day and irately she snatched the bowl from the table admonishing, “Then, do without, Damon!”

“I’m cold, Mommy,” Damon had said. She felt his forehead and the calf of his leg. His temperature seemed normal. Nonetheless, she bundled him into a sweater despite the warm sunshine of this lovely spring day. She let him out the back door, instructing, “Don’t leave the yard, Damon.” Off and on, she had been making it a point to check on the lad. He was still there, standing alone, not playing, just there in that frozen posture she had come to dread. Then, finally, he relaxed.

Sometimes when Damon came out of these spells, he instantly returned to playing as though nothing had happened. Today, he seemed to linger in the effects of that frigid moment. Slowly, he walked to the lane which sloped gently toward the barn. Grandpa owned the barn, his property abutted theirs. Damon was not allowed to go down there during milking hours, or without the express permission of Grandpa Daniels.

The lane was narrow, hard-packed clay. On either side grew magnificent tangles of roses, the climbing kind, with thorned branches falling groundward, bowed by their length and weight. It was a seventy-yard stretch of red and pink flowers. The hedge was one of Grandpa’s joys. He had planted it nearly fifty years ago when he first came here with his new bride. He tended the lane and flowers as carefully as any growing thing on his two-hundred-acre farm.

Damon strolled toward the barn and his mother was about to go to the screened door and call him back when it happened. He was walking with his arms extended, somewhat as a child extends a stick in passing a picket fence. His hand was brushing the shrubs and he began to run, his fingers tracing the leaves and bumping the roses. He raced downhill and for an instant it appeared he might disobey his instructions and go beyond the fence into the barnyard. Suddenly he snatched his hand away from the shrubs, sucking his finger.

A jagged tear in his skin fell open where a thorn had snagged tender flesh. Damon stood looking at the injured finger, watching blood slowly well up in the wound, bulging above the pricked area in a shimmering orb. He sucked away the blood and repeated the process, watching new blood rising on his finger.

Even from her window, his mother could see he was disturbed by the unexpected hurt he had sustained from the bank of roses. He looked up at the shrubs, towering far over his head and extending all the way to his own yard. Then, deliberately, slowly, he walked toward the house, his arm extended again, touching flowers and rich green leaves as he moved. He was no longer playing, this was evident. He strode methodically, with purpose, one hand brushing along the hedge. His mother still stood, plate in hand, observing.

Upon reaching the yard, Damon turned full circle and looked back down the lane. Expectantly, it seemed, he watched. His mother’s eyes were on her son. She was held by his exaggerated posturing, back arched, chin tucked into the chest, looking through his eyebrows in the direction of the barn. Another spell? He was unmoving.

“Oh, my God,” Melba Daniels whispered. The plate dropped to the floor unnoticed. Her attention was drawn to the hedge, to Grandpa’s roses. She drew air into her lungs in short movements, her body trembling. “Oh, God,” she said aloud.

The roses, the beautiful budding roses, were wilting. Blossoms showered down in a silent fall that covered the lane in red and hues of pink, and Damon stood looking at the phenomenon in a strange, almost terrifying posture.

“Oh, God, no—” She raced to the telephone and dialed her husband’s office in Decatur.

She was so excited she had to repeat everything before he grasped the meaning of her words. She babbled into the receiver and cried as she spoke. When her husband promised to rush home immediately, then and only then would she hang up the telephone. She turned and gasped. Damon stood in the doorway. Had he heard? He was innocently observing her. She clutched her apron and stared at him.

“I’m hungry, Mommy,” Damon said. “May I have a peanut butter sandwich?”

Dr. Kyle Anderson Burnette matriculated at Emory University of Atlanta, where he received a doctorate in psychiatry. He interned at Emory University Hospital, later at Milledgeville State Mental Institution, and took a fellowship to continue his studies at Mayo Clinic for another eighteen months. He was psychiatrist and chief medical officer for the First Infantry in Vietnam for two years. When he returned to begin private practice in Atlanta, he’d been fortunate in choosing his associates. His partner was a noted neurosurgeon specializing in organic­ psychiatry. Their four years of practice had been financially rewarding and now there were four junior-level psychiatrists in the same clinic.

Dr. Kyle Burnette took the case because it had come to him through a former fraternity brother who frankly professed, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the boy organically, Kyle. He’s in excellent physical condition. He appears to have a high IQ, a good family situation, and yet he’s obviously under duress. His father is a moderately well to do attorney—a damn good taxman too, by the way. The boy has a rural background; the family lives on ten acres adjoining the child’s paternal grandfather’s dairy farm. The place is in a community called Panthersville, about fifteen miles out of Decatur. As for the grandfather, he still holds two hundred acres of land valued at close to ten thousand an acre. He sold twice that much a few years back for the same amount, so money is no problem. Jesus, I wish I’d bought some of that land fifteen years ago. Who would’ve thought it’d ever be so valuable stuck out there in the boondocks, eh?”

“Tell the Danielses to bring the boy in next Thursday for a preliminary examination,” Kyle had agreed. “It won’t be necessary for both parents to be here, but if they can make it, all the better.”

“Okay, Kyle. Thanks.”

“Oh, Bob!” Kyle said abruptly. “Send along the medical records, will you? No need going over the same ground twice at needless expense to the family.”

“Right, Kyle. Will do.”

Kyle Burnette thought no more about it until the day he met Damon Daniels for the first time. Mrs. Daniels was modestly attired, simple clothing, simple cut, but the texture and accessories indicated she had money. Her husband, Edward A. Daniels, was in court, she explained. If necessary, he would make arrangements to come by the doctor’s office on the next visit.

As was his custom when children were involved, Kyle spent the first half hour with both parent and child. His questions were of a general nature concerning family background, childhood diseases, the purpose being to break the ice, so to speak. Then he asked Mrs. Daniels to allow him a few minutes alone with Damon.

Children do not like to be pinned with an overt stare. Nor do they appreciate being questioned uncomfortably. The most advantageous approach is a subtle one. Preferably, let the child think he is bringing up the questions and providing answers of his own free will.

“What is your favorite animal on the farm?” Kyle asked idly.

Damon shrugged one shoulder and sat, hands clasped, his feet not quite touching the floor. His knees were knobby and scrubbed red where his mother had attempted to cleanse the ground-in dirt accumulated from play.

“You don’t have a favorite animal?”

“The goat.”

“The goat?”

“Yes.” Pause. “Sir.”

“I always wanted to live on a farm,” Kyle noted.

“It’s all right.”

“I should think it would be fun.”

“No” Damon said, seriously, “not always.”

“What about it is no fun?”

The child’s eyes followed the psychiatrist’s movements, broken only by long, lingering blinks, quite like an owl. He had huge brown eyes, obviously taken from his father since the mother’s eyes were blue.

“Don’t be condescending with me, please,” Damon said.

The unexpected vocabulary brought Kyle up short. “I’m sorry, Damon. I didn’t mean to be.”

“It’s all right.” If it doesn’t happen again, the tone clearly indicated.

A mental shifting of gears and Kyle took a different approach. “Your mother seems worried about you, Damon.”

“I know.”

“What do you think is worrying her?”

“She doesn’t understand me.”

“What is it she doesn’t understand?”

“My visions.”

“Your visions? What type visions do you have?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t want to tell me?”

“No.” Pause. “Sir.”

“Very well, let’s talk about whatever pleases you. Is there anything about the visions that pleases you?”

“Oh, yes. I like the feeling it gives me, sometimes. Not always, but sometimes.”

“What kind of feeling is it?”

“It makes me tingle all over, my tongue tingles, even. I feel it in my legs and stomach and it makes me start trembling inside. It feels warm. Sometimes it makes shivers go all down my back and arms. It feels good.”

“What else happens, Damon?”

“I make a mess.”

“What kind of mess?”

“You know—a mess.”

“You mean, like you have to go to the bathroom?”

“No. Yes. I mean—almost.”

“I don’t understand exactly. Can you describe it to me?”

“I make a sticky mess. Like I have to go peepee, but it isn’t really peepeeing. I don’t know how to tell you.”

For the first time, the child showed the slightest signs of discomfort. Kyle veered from the subject. “Do you like living in the country?”

“It’s all right.”

“Would you rather live in the city?”

“No. It doesn’t matter.”

“Why not? Wouldn’t you rather live where there are children next door with whom to play?”

“No.” The reply was adamant.

“Do you have friends with whom you play now?”

Damon shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“With whom do you play, then?”

“Myself.”

“What kind of games do you play with yourself?”

Damon’s eyes changed subtly. It was an expression Kyle could not read. Not anger, or wariness, not displeasure even. More like an alertness, a keener perception, suddenly. The boy almost smiled. “I play a game nobody would understand.”

“Perhaps I would understand.”

“Not yet.”

“What do you mean, not yet? Do you think I would understand it in time?”

“Oh, yes, someday.”

“Try me, then,” Kyle suggested. “Tell me about the game and let me see if I understand.”

“Not yet,” Damon said softly.

“All right,” Kyle concluded amiably. He jotted a note on his calendar pad and tore off the leaf. “You and I are going to be seeing one another for a while, Damon,” Kyle said, smiling. “I hope we can become very good friends. I want you to be able to talk to me. Everybody needs a friend. I hope to be your friend, somebody you can tell the deepest darkest secrets of your mind and they’ll be our secrets. That’s what friends are for, you know, sharing secrets.”

“Then,” Damon said soberly, “I look forward to hearing yours.”

Kyle was still thinking about Damon that evening as the patients began to thin out and the secretaries were repairing their makeup, preparatory to closing shop for the day. He sat at his desk, smoking, the bottom drawer pulled out revealing a miniature bar, although he had not as yet poured himself a drink. Ted Drinkwater, his associate, entered and collapsed in his favorite chair.

“My God, what a day!” Ted exhaled. “I have a neurophonia case that’s giving me the hives.”

“Drink?” Kyle asked.

“Two fingers,” Ted instructed. Ted was not married. “My wife is,” Ted was fond of saying, “but not me.” As for Kyle, he had no wife and had never had.

“This guy from Kentucky,” Ted continued, “the neurophonia deal; he barks. Have you heard him?”

“No.”

“Sonofabitch barks, I tell you! It’s the most acute case of aboiement I’ve ever witnessed.” He took a slug of the Scotch, winced, and opened his mouth in silent protest as the liquor seared its way to his belly. “Sounds like a Pekingese. Yip! Yip! You say something funny and the poor bastard barks at you. Of course, there’s nothing funny about neurophonia.”

“There’s a fair movie at the Fox. Want to have a bite and go with me?” Kyle asked.

“Sorry, I’m horny. Tonight is my Oriental night. I wouldn’t miss that for all the tea in China.”

“I had an interesting case today,” Kyle said, as they walked around the office checking to see that the doors and windows were secured. They still carried their drinks.

“Really?” Ted questioned, not the least bit interested.

“Four-year-old boy,” Kyle said. “His mother attributes supernatural powers to him. She says he can kill bushes by touching them.”

“If he works on weeds, send him to my house,” Ted said.

“I haven’t tested his intelligence yet,” Kyle continued, “but it’s apparently above normal. Anyway, he gave me a description of a condition, a feeling he has. I’d like your opinion on it.”

“So, shoot.”

Kyle recounted Damon’s version of the “feeling” which he experienced. “It makes him tingle all over, even to his tongue, he says. It begins in his legs and stomach and evidently wells up inside, making him tremble internally. He says it makes him feel warm, not unpleasant. He said it makes shivers go over his back and arms and that it felt good.”

“Sounds like orgasm,” Ted said, draining his Scotch.

“That’s what I thought.”

“Is he showing signs of attaining puberty?”

“I don’t know. I was wondering if you’d mind giving him an examination.”

“No problem. Well, enjoyed the drink. Can’t keep my lotus blossom waiting. See you tomorrow—no, this is Friday. See you Monday.”

“Okay, Ted. Good night.”

Ted Drinkwater’s examination was summed up tersely: “No hyper function apparent. Checked dentition, gonads, and body hair. Everything normal so far as I can ascertain. (signed) Ted.”

The second meeting between psychiatrist and patient started smoothly. Damon entered the office, eyes bright, smiling, took a seat in the same chair he had occupied the week before.

“How are you today, Damon?”

“Okay.”

“Did you have a nice weekend?”

“It was okay.”

“It doesn’t sound as though you had much fun.”

“No. Not much.”

“Do you ever have much fun?”

The boy met Kyle’s eyes squarely. “Not really.”

“Are you unhappy, Damon?”

“Not now.”

“Were you unhappy shortly before now?”

“Until I got here, I was. I like coming here.”

Well, that was good, anyway. “I’m happy to hear that,” Kyle noted. “What makes you happy about coming here?”

“I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you.”

“To meet me?”

“Yes.”

“You thought you were going to meet me?”

“I knew I would meet you. I even knew what you looked like. As soon as you relax, we can become better friends.”

Kyle studied the slightly bemused expression. “Damon, I have some games—some tests, actually.”

“I know.”

“Do you know? How do you know?”

“I just know, that’s all.”

“Very well,” Kyle said, “let’s do play a game. I’m going to think of a color and you tell me what color.”

Instantly, “Red.”

“Very good. Now, I’ll think of another—”

“Yellow.”

Kyle’s heart picked up a beat. He turned his mind to colors in rapid succession and as quickly as he did so, Damon named them, “Purple, green, black, blue!”

Without speaking a word, Kyle switched to fruits and listened enthralled as Damon recited, “Apple, orange, lemon, pear, grapefruit—”

“That’s extremely good,” Kyle said calmly. “Do you want to know how well you scored?”

“I got them all,” Damon laughed.

“Yes,” Kyle said softly. “So you did.”