Sometimes Even Mamas Make Mistakes

The first word that came to mind when I met Jeremiah Goodwin was small. He was a short man with close-cropped, pale hair and a hunched posture. He looked almost childlike sitting in the office chair, save for the fact that his hands were shackled to his waist. I’d been told it was for my protection, but looking at him then, I found the idea laughable. The mental health facility he was being kept in, one that specialized in caring for violent criminals, didn’t appreciate my skepticism.

Neither did the prosecution, who had hired me as an expert witness to determine if he was competent to stand trial.

“Hello, Jeremiah,” I said, sliding into the chair across from him.

“Hello,” he replied. He even managed to make his words sound small.

“I’m Dr. Barrone, a psychologist. I’ve come to talk to you today about the charges pending against you.”

Jeremiah shifted in his seat and the shackles clinked, his only response. He kept his eyes turned to the floor and his face blank. I took a recorder from my bag and placed it on the table between us.

“I’m going up be recording our conversation and taking notes while we speak,” I continued, undaunted by his silence. “Do you understand?”

His head bobbed subtly.

“Can you say your answer aloud?”

“I understand,” he mumbled.

I sat back in my chair, a professional, but relaxed pose that was meant to help put my patients feel at ease. Jeremiah remained stiff and hunched. I allowed the silence to stretch between us for a little bit, waiting to see if he might speak first, but his lips remained closed in a thin, anxious line.

“Do you know what charges I’m referring to?” I asked at last.

More shifting. More chain clinking.

“Jeremiah?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Why don’t you tell me, in your own words, why you’re here.”

He picked absently at his arm with his nails, digging them into his flesh, pinching, and pulling. I waited.

“Because of Dustin,” he whispered.

“Please repeat that a bit louder for the recorder.”

“Because of Dustin.”

“And who is Dustin?”

“Dustin Claremont. He is…,” Jeremiah trailed off and his chin quivered just slightly before he collected himself. “He was my boyfriend.”

“And what happened to him?”

Jeremiah finally lifted his gaze to meet mine. Dark rings circled his eyes and his expression was tight and haunted. “He burned.”

I didn’t react to his statement except to make a note on my pad. “Can you explain the events leading up to his death?”

“It would take a while,” he said despondently.

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Because it didn’t start with Dustin.”

“What didn’t start?”

Jeremiah placed his hands, closed into white fists, upon the table and rested his head between them. I allowed him to take a moment. Sometimes patients such as Jeremiah became overwhelmed easily and it was best to give them a chance to collect their thoughts.

“I already told people.” His voice was muffled slightly and I nudged the recorder closer. “The cops, other doctors. It’s in their reports.”

He was right, and I’d already read those accounts, but I wasn’t there for other people’s second-hand retellings. “I want to hear it from you.”

“No,” he said. “You don’t.”

“I need you to help me understand what led up to the events on February eighth. I understand that it’s a painful subject, but —”

“I loved Dustin,” he interrupted. “I loved my mom, too.”

I stayed quiet and just waited for him to continue.

He tapped his forehead against the table, as if he were trying to knock his thoughts loose. I monitored him closely, ready to jump up and intervene should he start to cause himself harm. But he remained gentle and controlled, so I allowed it as a coping mechanism.

“You know about my mom?” He asked.

“What about her?”

“That she’s dead, too.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You know how she died?”

I did, but I wanted him to tell me. “How?”

“Fell down stairs. Broke her neck. That’s what her death certificate says.”

“You don’t sound like you believe that.”

He continued to tap his forehead against the table.

“What do you think happened?” I pressed lightly.

Jeremiah sat up and pressed his fists into his eyes. His cheeks were wet with tears.

“Waddles,” he said.

I waited, my pen poised.

He took a deep, shaky breath. “There was a book we used to read when I was little. I don’t know it’s real name, but we called it ‘Sometimes Even Mamas Make Mistakes’. It was about a kid whose mom was wrong about the little stuff sometimes, like whether they had cream cheese in the fridge, so maybe she was wrong about monsters being real. I made her read it every night, until I memorized it.”

“And the book has something to do with your mom and Dustin?”

“Kind of,” he said. He sounded exhausted and aged. “I don’t really know. Maybe it led to Waddles. All I know is it started showing up after we’d been reading it for a while.”

“I’m sorry, but what is ‘Waddles’?”

He sighed again, and started over.

Jeremiah’s dad had left him and his mom when he was six. The two of them had had to move into a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in the heart of downtown. It was a dirty, dangerous area and Jeremiah hadn’t been allowed outside much. To make him feel less closed in and depressed, his mom had started reading to him. It was one of the only things that brought him joy. He would beg her to bring home new books from the library two or three times a week, until she brought him ‘Sometimes Even Mamas Make Mistakes’.

From the very first read-through, he was hooked. He loved the story and the illustrations and only wanted that book.

Every night after they finished reading it yet again and his mom tucked him in, he’d ask, “There aren’t any monsters here, are there, Mama?”

She’d kiss him in the middle of his forehead with a laugh and assure him there were not.

This went on for a month or so, until the voice started.

His mom had just shut out the light and closed his door. Jeremiah was beginning to fall asleep. He was used to the sounds of the city by then: cars going by, stray animals yowling and howling from alleys, and the voices. People talking on the sidewalks far below his window.

At first, he thought that’s what it was. The distant sound of someone talking outside the apartment building.

But, little by little, it was getting louder, and he realized it was just whispering the same phrase over and over again.

Sometimes even mamas make mistakes.

He sat up in bed, his sheets hugged to his chest, and he looked around his small room. In the corner behind his door, where the light coming in through his window didn’t quite reach, was an unfamiliar shadow. It was short and wide, as if very fat. When Jeremiah looked at it, it twitched slightly and spoke in a burbly hiss.

Sometimes even mamas make mistakes.

He gasped, and the thing in the corner started to scuttle toward him in a jerky, quick waddle.

Jeremiah threw his comforter over his head and screamed until his mom came running. The light came on, she gathered him up, and the monster was gone. He tried to tell her what he’d seen, but she said it was just a bad dream.

“There’s nothing there, Jerbear. Monsters aren’t real.”

She stayed with him until he was just about asleep, and then left to return to the pullout couch she called her bed. At his request, she left his door open. As soon as he was alone again, the voice returned. This time, from under his bed.

Sometimes even mamas make mistakes.

He launched himself as far from his bed as he could and ran to his mom’s, where he spent the next few nights.

She stopped reading his favorite book to him.

His mom finally coaxed him into returning to his room by filling the underside of his bed with books and toys.

“No room for any old monster under there,” she’d said.

But after he’d been tucked in and left alone, Jeremiah heard it again.

Sometimes even mamas make mistakes.

He insisted his mom sleep with him for the rest of the night. She wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but cuddled up next to him.

“You know what might help?” She’d asked. “Giving this bad dream a silly name. Then it won’t be so scary!”

They’d tossed ideas around, until they came to settle on Waddles due to how it had moved.

Jeremiah now believed giving it a name had been a terrible idea.

“It’s like we’d fed into it. Made it more powerful,” he said distantly. “As soon as it had a name, things got worse.”

His mom still insisted Waddles was just the product of a nightmare, but Jeremiah was certain it was real. He’d see it, lurking out of the corner of his eyes, always a fat, dark shape in the shadows. If he listened close, he could hear its reedy, whistling breath while it watched him. He tried pointing it out to his mother, but she said nothing was there. Whenever she’d leave the room, Jeremiah heard it.

Sometimes even mamas make mistakes.

The neighbor’s cat, Colombo, disappeared first.

Jeremiah had finally got on the half-feral feline’s good side after bringing it treats every day on his way in and out of the building. Colombo had trusted him enough to eat right out of his hand. But the last time he tried to feed the cat, it backed away, hissing. Jeremiah followed, his hand outstretched, and Colombo had swiped at him. His long claws caught Jeremiah’s forearm and left a trail of bloody streaks in his wake. Jeremiah shrieked and Colombo ran off.

Behind him, from an unlit corner of the hallway beneath a broken bulb, Waddles burbled with cold laughter.

Missing posters went up a few days later, calling for Colombo’s return. His owners went door to door asking if people had seen their pet. Jeremiah’s mom was not happy when they showed up. She told them that their cat had scratched Jeremiah and was dangerous. They got into a shouting match, until his mom slammed the door in their faces.

The smell led to Colombo’s discovery about a week later.

He’d been hung by an extension cord in the janitor’s closet just down the hall from Jeremiah’s apartment.

His owners came back to their door with a vengeance. They accused Jeremiah of murdering their cat. He’d been the last one seen with Colombo and they said he probably wanted to hurt the cat for scratching him. His mother said they were crazy, Jeremiah was only a little kid who loved animals. He’d never hurt Colombo. They then suggested she’d done it herself as payback for the scratch. Again, his mom slammed the door in their face.

“It was Waddles, Mama,” Jeremiah tried to tell her, but her temper was still flaring and she snapped that Waddles wasn’t real and stomped to the bathroom.

Jeremiah slapped his hand over his ears when he heard the satisfied hiss coming from over his shoulder.

Sometimes even mamas make mistakes.

No matter how he tried to insist Waddles was real, his mom wouldn’t hear it.

“It’s not, Jerbear,” she’d repeat with growing weariness. “it’s just a dream.”

But the more she denied it, the more active Waddles became. Accidents started happening around the apartment. Toys Jeremiah hadn’t played with were left out for her to trip on. The gas stove was left on while they were gone for the day. The plant pot they kept on the windowsill fell to the street, almost hitting a passer-by.

And every night, Waddles would remain beneath Jeremiah’s bed, gleefully mumbling its phrase.

Sometimes even mamas make mistakes.

He woke one morning after another restless sleep to his mother screaming. He ran from his room and found her standing in the kitchen, staring down at the floor. He said her name, but she didn’t turn, and he crept closer, until he could see what she was looking at.

Insects, cockroaches and flies and spiders, were laid out across the floor. They were each missing appendages. Beside them rested a pair of headless rats tied together by their tails. Their blood had stained the floor a deep red.

“What is this, Jeremiah?” She’d asked.

He didn’t have an answer, except the one she didn’t want to hear.

She yelled at him to go to his room while she cleaned up the mess. She’d have a serious talk with him when she was done, she’d warned. He could hear her crying quietly over the rustle of the plastic garbage bag, and then the front door opening and closing.

In the silence that followed, he whimpered and buried his head under his pillow, but it didn’t stop him from hearing the voice.

Sometimes even mamas make mistakes.

Waddles, too, went quiet after that.

He waited for his mom to come back. And he waited. And waited.

It took a long time for his grandparents to come collect him. They said there’d been an accident. His mom had tripped going down the stairs and been hurt. He was going to live with them now.

The last time he saw his mom was in casket, wearing a high-necked dress.

As his family shuffled around the funeral home, offering their condolences to one another, Jeremiah sat in the back, where he cried while a hissing, burbling breath brushed the back of his neck.

“I decided I’d never tell anyone else about Waddles,” Jeremiah said. He’d become even paler, a feat I didn’t think possible, and he raked his nails up and down his arm while he rocked in his chair. “It was still there. Always. Always. Just behind me. But I didn’t tell. No, no, I didn’t. Not a word. I couldn’t. Mom hadn’t believed me, and it…I don’t know, made it more real, somehow. If I didn’t tell, no one could deny it, and it couldn’t hurt anyone. I let them think I was crazy. I let them think I did bad stuff.”

“Your record shows you’ve been in and out of prison,” I said gently.

“Yes.”

“A lot of drug-related charges.”

“I wanted it to stop. To leave me alone. The drugs helped me sleep.”

“Did you see any doctors about it?”

He shook his head. “No. I didn’t want to tell. I didn’t want to give it a chance.”

“But you’re telling people now,” I pointed out.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said quietly. Tears had appeared in his eyes and he let his head hang. “It’s not going away. It never will.”

“What made things change?”

“Dustin. I met him at a halfway house. It was a court-ordered thing. He was a volunteer. He…he took care of me. He was the nicest person I ever met.”

The pain that twisted his face was deep and raw.

“What happened to Dustin, Jeremiah?”

He swallowed hard.

“We started seeing each other, outside of the halfway house. He took me places, doctors and stuff, but then to dinner and movies. Date stuff. It was nice.” He paused, the ghost of a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. “I was staying on my meds, he made sure of it, but Waddles doesn’t care what I’m taking. It came everywhere with us, always just off to the side. Fat and mumbling and following.”

His rocking was becoming more rapid as he spoke.

“When I got out of the halfway house, Dustin invited me to stay at his place. It was an apartment, but real nice. I thought maybe I could be happy there. Dustin made me happy. And maybe…maybe Waddles would go away if I was happy. It’d shown up when I was sad, so maybe happiness would drive it away.”

“Did it?” I asked.

“No,” he said dully. “It made it angry, I think. It was getting louder every night. I couldn’t make out what it was saying, just that it was mumbling and breathing. It started breaking things, glasses and stuff. It poured bleach into Dustin’s fish tank. Killed all the fish. Dustin got frustrated. He thought it was me. I didn’t want to tell him about Waddles, but I didn’t want him to leave me either.”

“I begged him to forgive me. He took me to new doctors, I got new meds, but Waddles just kept messing things up. There were more dead things, bugs and stuff. They were in food and Dustin’s clothes. He was getting madder and madder. He finally snapped when…when his dog…”

Jeremiah choked on a sob and tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling.

“Gypsy was a little thing. A chihuahua mutt or something. I’d been taking a nap, the meds made me tired. Dustin woke me up. He was crying and screaming about what I’d done to Gypsy. I didn’t know what he meant until he dragged me out of bed and brought me to the bathroom. Gypsy was…she was in the toilet. She’d been drowned. Dustin thought I did it, but I didn’t! I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I loved Gypsy.”

“What happened next?” I kept my tone soft and non-judgemental.

“He was throwing all my things into a bag and yelling at me to go so…so I told him. I told him. I didn’t want to, but I was going to lose him. I told him about Waddles and what it had done to Colombo and my mom. I told him.”

“Did he believe you?”

Jeremiah barked a single, humorless laugh. “No. No. Of course not. And every time I tried to explain again, he’d just say Waddles wasn’t real even louder. He just screamed it at me. He said I was sick and needed help and he couldn’t give it to me. Waddles wasn’t real. Waddles was me. But it’s not me. I tried to tell him, I tried. He wouldn’t believe me. I locked myself in the bedroom so he couldn’t throw me out. I had to make him believe me.”

He trailed off for a moment, his throat bobbing with poorly contained emotion.

“He was swearing a lot. Dustin didn’t swear. He stomped around for a while. I heard him. I heard Waddles, too. I begged Dustin to listen, but he told me to shut up. It went on for hours. Then it got quiet. I guess he fell asleep on the couch. I don’t know. He just got quiet. Waddles, too.”

“And then?” I coaxed him to finish his story.

“Then Dustin was screaming. But not angry, like before. Like…hurting. I ran out to see what was going on and there was already so much smoke. It stank so bad. And Dustin was…he was running around. He was screaming. And there was fire. It was all over him. I couldn’t put it out. I couldn’t. I couldn’t.”

I let him cry for a while. He hugged himself while he rocked sharply back and forth.

“And you claim Waddles did this to Dustin?” I asked when his sobs had quieted into hiccups.

I’d seen the photos of the unfortunate Dustin. It had been a terrible, painful way to die.

“It was. It was. It’d been so long since I’d told anyone…it must have been waiting. Just waiting. It wanted to hurt Dustin. It likes hurting people. It will again. I know it will. It can’t be stopped. I know that now. I gotta tell people, I have to make them believe. The more who believe, the weaker Waddles will be. Then it’ll go away. It has to. It has to.”

“Alright,” I said soothingly. “Alright.”

I didn’t need anything more from him that day. I packed up my belongings, wished him well, and prepared to go. He watched me with a sunken, dark expression.

Outside, I met with his primary doctor, Judy Ashandi. She smiled sadly.

“Awful, huh?” She said. “He hasn’t changed his story once. I’ve heard it at least a dozen times.”

“Do you believe him?”

“That he’s being stalked by an obese poltergeist? No. But I do believe he’s not aware of what he’s doing when he’s acting as Waddles.”

“Dissociative identity disorder?”

“Maybe. It’s rare, I know, but I’ve not ruled it out yet.”

I thanked her for her time and scheduled a follow up appointment for the next week to continue my observation of Jeremiah.

Two days before I was scheduled to meet with him, I received a call from the facility. In reserved tones, I was told there had been an incident between Dr. Ashandi and Jeremiah. They suggested I come down right away.

I arrived less than hour later to find Dr. Ashandi’s body being wheeled out on a gurney.

“What happened?” I demanded to no one in particular.

A nurse motioned for me to follow her.

“Dr. Ashandi had just finished a therapy session with Jeremiah,” she explained in a quavering voice. “She’d put in a call for an orderly to come escort him back to his room. Jeremiah hadn’t been violent at all since his admission, so we’d been giving him a bit more freedom and…”

She stopped talking and pushed open the door to Dr. Ashandi’s office. Dark drops were splattered across her bookshelves and floor. Papers were strewn about, chairs overturned. I put a hand over my mouth.

“Where is Jeremiah now?” I asked, fighting back to bile that had risen in my throat.

“Sedated in solitary. He won’t be able to talk for a while. I can call you when he’s awake?”

“Please.”

I hurried out, eager to be away from the grisly scene, and had to steady myself in the elevator on my way back down the parking garage. The idea that Jeremiah could have killed Dr. Ashandi in such a brutal manner seemed so contrary to the man I’d met. He’d seemed so genuine and heartbroken.

I was thinking of how I’d need to re-examine my interview as I approached my car. I rounded to the driver’s side and was so distracted I didn’t notice it at first. Not until I was reaching for my handle.

The message scrawled across the doors in dripping red.

Sometimes even doctors make mistakes.

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