I thought I found a toy raygun. It looked like a toy, at least. I’d been rummaging around in Dad’s backyard workshop for props when I found it in a dusty black briefcase wedged between an old laptop and a beige filing cabinet. Chisel-like marks cut into the scuffed leather and busted brass latches, as if someone had broken into it. Nestled in emerald velvet, the raygun’s body was orange and blue-painted metal and was shaped more like a glue-gun than a Glock. It also had a marble-sized glass ball plugging the hole where the ray would come out. On the side of the gun was a dial that went from 0 to 5. Bingo-bango, I thought. This is exactly what I need. And I should have remembered then that I was never a good thinker.
Despite that, I couldn’t help thinking anyway. It was weird that the workshop hadn’t been locked. Everything inside it had a mother’s-worth of warnings: watch fingers, sharp objects, do not use while intoxicated, may cause dizziness. Dad had rarely let me past the tiny welcome mat, and never alone. But he was gone and I was curious and in need of cool shit for the play. I hoped he’d left the raygun for me, though I couldn’t imagine him doing that.
Before I left the workshop, I tested the door to the glass and metal cabinet. Behind the glass were machines that looked like football helmets crossed with MRI machines. Dad had explained what they did after a salvo of begging, a slight smile on his normally unsmiling face.
Each helmet had a warning on a business-card-sized placard with a number in the 700s. The 700s meant that the invention was in “the series of inventions that alter consciousness through emotional stimulation,” he’d told me. 712 made you believe you were an empty suit of clothes. 722 made you feel like someone was watching you. 738 made you feel like you were watching everyone, your sight divided like a dragonfly’s.
“These aren’t dangerous,” I had said to Dad, disappointed.
He had replied, “Altered states of being are the most deadly things of all.” A very Dad-ly thing to say. I remember being impressed by his high-falutin’ words, though I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, nor did I really believe him. It’s hard to take souped-up helmets seriously. Ditto for a raygun. Yet, the number 743 was etched into a brass plate on its briefcase’s cover: the highest number I’d ever seen. He had taken the higher numbers in the 700 series with him. The other series, he had dismantled or melted down.
I left the dusty workshop, turning the raygun in my hands, and looked round the backyard for something to test it on. The raygun must have been one of the last inventions Dad made when he was here. He’d made hundreds, and not a single one was made as a joke, or art, or decoration. Each one did something. But how did I safely find out what the raygun’s something was?
The backyard was a square of yellow, brittle grass hemmed by a high wooden fence. The fence had targets painted on the slats, asterisked with scorch marks. Where Dad had poured his chemicals was bald dirt in which grass would never green again. A brave, gnarled redbud tree by the workshop had been left alone. Under its scant shade, my friend Michael chanted his lines. “Elementary, dear Wallace. Not Middle School. Elementary School.” Dad’d built robots that could emote better than Michael. But he was still my best bud and I didn’t want to test an unknown invention on him unless I absolutely had to.
While Michael gestured at an invisible audience, I clicked the dial to one and aimed at one of the targets on the fence. When I pulled the trigger, a green beam of light fell on the target like a flashlight. No sound. Nothing happened. A perfectly cromulent outcome for an invention that affects the brain. But it’s best to first test gun-shaped things on things that don’t bleed.
But all things that bleed have brains. Now, I needed a new target. A squirrel flicked its tail near the wooden fence. I beamed the squirrel. It froze. When I released the trigger, the squirrel bolted up the redbud and scampered to the roof.
The squirrel zooming past Michael’s ankle made him yelp and jerk his leg to his chest.
“Perfect,” I said. “Do that when the corpse is revealed.”
“Willie, what the fudge are you doing?” he asked indignantly.
“Testing something.” I held up the raygun. The squirrel had not died or acted in non-squirrely ways, which was a positive sign. It was possible that the effect took a while to work. But none of Dad’s inventions were zap-and-done deals. The 712 helmet, for example, required at least an hour of wearing before the user tried to fold themselves into a drawer. I just needed to know enough to make a good guess. “Go stand in front of the tree. I need to know what this does.”
“Aw, I don’t want to be nobody’s lab rat. Especially not your Dad’s. Why me and not you?”
“ ‘Cause your family has better health insurance than mine.”
“I don’t want to be no lab rat,” he repeated. “You know how I feel about animal research.”
“Then I’m out of the running, dude.” He sniggered. But I wasn’t done. “Listen: Dad invents stuff for medical research. His stuff is saving lives around the world right now. If you don’t want a guinea pig to be a guinea pig, you gotta be one yourself.”
He considered this. Then he positioned himself in front of the trunk. He stuck out his hips and pointed at me in a dramatic pose. I beamed him.
When the green light hit him, he made a funny face. I released the trigger.
“That felt weird,” he said. “Do it again.”
His expression this time was near a scowl.
“I don’t know what I’m feeling, man.”
“Lemme go up a level.” I dialed to level two and beamed him again. He shuddered. If his expression on level one had been like that of a pedestrian running into a stranger, his expression on level two was of that same pedestrian being told he had nice skin.
“One more,” he said cautiously.
I dialed to three and hit him again.
“Woo!” Now his expression was that of the pedestrian returning home to find the stranger waiting for him with lotion and rope. “It gives you the heebie-jeebies! Let me try.”
I handed it over and braced myself for the beam. But Michael shoved the gun under his chin and pulled the trigger. He paled and his skin pimpled. He held down the trigger so long that I said sharply, “Dude?”
“It feels good when you stop.” He smiled goopily. “Try.”
He beamed me. The level three setting made your brain feel like a pot of water over a blowtorch. My thoughts boiled. Oh God, I should not have taken it out of its case. This is why Dad left. Because I touched all his stuff. He’s watching through the cameras he left in his workshop, the mirrors Mom covers up, and the squirrel, and he knows I touched his stuff.
Michael released the trigger. The relief washed over me, cool and sweet and soothing. “Daaaaaang.”
“Why’d he make it?” Michael asked.
We beamed each other back and forth until we agreed. The first level made you feel like something was off. Level two stirred your thoughts into an anxious simmer. Level three made the hair on the back of your neck rise. I eyed that squirrel watching us from the workshop roof. Who knew what insane thoughts churned behind his dewdrop eyes?
But the bigger question was: why had Dad made a gun that scared people? Trying to figure out what Dad was thinking had obsessed me since I knew what thinking was. This was a man who’d stay up late in his workshop with his hands running through his thinning brown hair over questions with more Latin than English, more numbers than letters, whose answers were more confusing than their question. Late enough that the sun had quit the sky and the yellow light from his window threw a bright square on the grass, and I’d fall asleep with my cheek against the night-chilled window. He’d beat me to breakfast, scratching out his thoughts on the dining room chalkboard. I’d ask him what he was working on, knowing that by the time he’d finish answering, the school bus would be grumbling past the house.
“School is important,” he would mutter as he drove me to school. “I know you’re curious about my work—it makes me happy that you want to follow in my footsteps. But you can’t miss school, you understand? You need to learn everything you can.”
I could not imagine Dad being so careless that he’d leave an invention behind by accident.
When Michael’s mom dropped us off at the high school auditorium the following night, she caught me just before I got out of her van.
“Have you heard from your dad?” she asked in a deceptively casual voice.
I had prepared sassy retorts to stupid questions like, “Where’s your dad?” or “How’s your mom doing?” But Dad hadn’t even responded to my own texts and voicemails, like, “Mom’s not mad anymore”, “Are you alive?”, and “I’m sorry.” I wanted to retort now, “No, he’s busy researching ways to heal Mom.” But I didn’t know if he was doing that anymore. So I just said no.
Her nostrils flared. She had showed up on our porch a week after Dad left, holding a covered casserole dish.
I’d been standing behind Mom when she answered the door, so I only saw her stooped back, like a parenthesis missing its partner. Michael’s mom’s eyes drifted to the wreckage behind us: bloated trashbags of Dad’s clothes, the big, crumbling hole in the wall where Mom had thrown a plate at his head, and the small crumbling holes dotting the walls where she had drilled for the listening devices she accused him of hiding. I imagined Michael’s mother could pick up the remaining psychic vibrations from the last words Dad had said: “I can’t take you people anymore!”
Michael’s mom said, as we clambered out of the van, “You’ll both steal everyone’s hearts tonight.”
Our play was called, “The Curious Case of T.B.D.” It had started as a joke name as we brainstormed suitably funny names, but none tickled us as much as T.B.D. So we had the houndstooth cape, the deerstalker caps, the British accents and pipes, and now the gun. All we needed now was to fix Michael’s tendency to freeze before groups larger than three people.
Michael stared at a point in space, pale and clammy. I would’ve encouraged him to take deep breaths, but backstage was as odoriferous as an armpit.
“You practiced real good,” I said.
He didn’t respond.
“Listen, we’re not the best anyway. Nobody will remember us! So do your lines, we get our extra-credit from Mrs. Green, and we can go to Wendy’s afterwards.”
Nada. It was time to bestow upon him my secret technique.
“Imagine the audience naked,” I said. “The energy keeping you afraid will flow to your boner. And nobody in the crowd will notice your lightswitch dick.”
He peeled open his gnawed-bloody lips. “This is why your Dad doesn’t fucking love you.”
I felt like he had shot me. “You know what? You know what?” I said as I cranked the dial to four. I beamed him. Immediately I wished I hadn’t. His skin grayed. His mouth gaped, and his pulse fluttered in his throat. When I released the trigger, he gasped, color flooding his cheeks.
“Dude?” I said after a beat. His gaze unfocused and relaxed. My heart galloped in my throat. Stupid, stupid, stupid. “You okay?”
Our names blared over the intercom.
“William and Michael, starring in ‘The Curious Case of T.B.D.’” I was supposed to lead Michael on-stage, where my fat ass would shield him from the audience long enough for him to stammer his first lines: “Wot’s all this then?”
He checked the audience through the curtain, not with the mortal calm of a man being led to his execution, but with bewilderment, as if he had been asked something he hadn’t expected. Without waiting for me, he strode out to center stage. The spotlight set him ablaze, and he planted his hands on his hips, drank in the audience, and projected his voice, “So what the frick-frack-snaps happened here?” The audience roared, and a huge grin opened his face.
Michael pranced around the stage. He ad-libbed quips that seemed bespoke, as if a Hollywood writer’s spirit had possessed him. He did a goddamn backflip! People rocked and screamed with laughter.
After the show, other students slapped his back and tousled his curly hair. In the stage wings, he glowed.
“Dude, the beam did something to me,” he said. “It cured me!”
We’d both beamed each other multiple times before the play and nothing had happened. What did the level 4 setting do? Dad’s voice echoed in my thoughts: we need a larger sample size.
I scanned the talent-show hopefuls left. There, just about to go onstage, was Jenna. She swallowed as she peeked through the curtain. Even in the wan light, she looked green.
I said, “Hey Jenna, would you like to contribute to science?”
She dropped the curtain. “Is your dad looking for test subjects? Didn’t he get a warning from some medical group about not taking the right safety measures?”
“Those charges were unsubstantiated,” I snapped. “I’m testing something. You just need to stand still.”
“What does it do?”
“It might make you the best performer of all time.”
Jenna, an honor student destined to be called Your Honor, who couldn’t read a newspaper without a red pen, whom Dad would have loved to swap me for, narrowed her eyes. “Okay.”
I beamed her. She dropped the tennis balls she was going to juggle. She wilted and whimpered. I felt awful seeing her eyes well up, but I knew it wouldn’t hurt her. After five seconds, I released the trigger. She dragged herself upright. Wonder stole over her face, and bemusement. She snatched her balls and ran out on stage, where she murdered our murder mystery in skill, humor, and balls.
To any student who looked nauseous, I cajoled, “You sir! Do you want to be a star? Young lady! Care to turn your stage fright into stage love?” In total, five students, plus Michael, went on stage like they were born for it. Their stage fright vanished the moment applause crashed over them.
Except Nancy. Seeing the formerly weak-kneed and spotlight-shy transform, she demanded to be beamed. I obliged her. But when her eyes rolled back in her head, the front of her jean skirt darkened. I stopped beaming her at once. Before I could apologize or offer my hoodie to tie around her waist, she fled the wings, sobbing. Oops.
Why hadn’t it worked on her? I needed to know for myself. Before we went back onstage for the winner’s announcement, I told Michael, “Beam me.” He did.
Level 4 was like being an ant frying under a little boy’s magnifying glass. And the little boy was me, telling me in the voice of Truth that I was destined to fail and be failed. That God had skipped me when he was supposed to put in something to love. That God’s face was Dad’s face, distant and cold like the moon. He had turned from me and he would never look back.
When the beam stopped, the sunlight of clarity flooded the canyons of my brain. It had all been my imagination. I floated out on stage to receive our Audience Favorite award, waved dreamily at the applauding audience, and puzzled languidly as Michael did another backflip to sonorous applause.
Following instructions from a Youtube video, I picked the lock on Dad’s filing cabinet. I found folders fat with schematics, instructions, graphs, and notes. Each was labeled 0-100, 101-200, etc. The one for the raygun (which I named the Heebie-Jeebie Beam) had papers thick with gibberish: ‘elevate cortisol’, ‘mild hypnosis’, and ‘transformative events’.
I snuck the file out of the workshop and spread my desk with my calculus homework in case Mom came in. I hid the Beam in its case behind my bookshelf. She checked on me every fifteen minutes through the crack in the door. Sometimes she stared wordlessly when I yelled at her to go away. I felt guilty for yelling. I used to yell at her all the time, especially when she started to refuse to leave the house. She’d developed a fear of computers, phones, and appliances, and unplugged them when she could. The manager at our local grocery store had banned her when she unplugged a freezer. So now I had to bike across town to the other grocery store. And I’d had to help her design and build an icebox that didn’t use electricity, because we couldn’t live without cold milk. It took weeks.
Now I couldn’t stop thinking of the time her psychiatrist had caught me in the waiting room after one of her sessions and told me to be patient.
“She needs you right now,” she had said. “You’re the man of the house.”
“But that’s supposed to be Dad,” I said. I had been thirteen then, and felt like I was wearing Dad’s huge lab coat and drowning in it. The psychiatrist reminded me of a kindergarten teacher, all gentleness and cheer.
“He’s not here right now. Somebody has to help her.” Obviously, Dad would say. Dad had tried to fix Mom. They’d spend hours in his workshop. She’d come out all quiet and blank, and he would be tight-faced and brooding. When I asked if I could help, he said, “And what would that accomplish?”
“I’m not asking you to fix her,” the psychiatrist had said, as if she could read my mind. “Sometimes things can be not our fault and still our responsibility. Her condition is not her fault, nor yours. Still, it’s hers to manage. And she needs your help. You’ve already helped her, by telling your teacher what was happening at home.”
When I had complained about my arms hurting from mixing adobe, digging trenches for molten ice, and trying to source goat hair, my teacher overheard and asked, “Son, are you building a yakhchāl?” I didn’t want to tell him. It’s embarrassing to have a crazy mom. People pity you. Then, they wonder if it’s genetic. But the bags under my eyes, mud caked in my hands, and wealth of knowledge about ancient Persian architecture for refrigeration gave me and her away. That, and because I cried.
The psychiatrist had said, “I don’t doubt that you need help too, William. You’ve already done oodles on your own. More than many of the adults in the same situation as you. Right?” I shrugged-nodded-wiggled in embarrassment, mystified. “Once we find the combination of medication, therapy, and social support your mother needs, things will get much easier. Remember to be kind to her, and to yourself.”
So I chewed my cheeks when my anger rose, and sometimes I could hold it in, and sometimes I couldn’t. Strangely, she seemed to relax when I yelled. Her shoulders would lower from around her ears and her tightly held mouth would ease. That made me feel a billion times worse, and I couldn’t figure out why.
Why don’t you understand this, William? Dad’s voice cut through my thoughts, rapping on my skull as his knuckles used to. You can do it. You just aren’t trying hard enough. I was dangerously close to thinking, If you couldn’t help her, I totally can’t. But seeing how Michael and the other theater kids had transformed for the better, I thought instead that maybe the Heebie-Jeebie Beam could do the same for her. I had his notes, dictionary.com, and a new pack of colored highlighters. I might not have his big brain, but I could tickle the keyboard until the search engines gave me what I needed..
But he hadn’t made understanding his notes easy. The instruction manual was crammed with sentences like this: “A transformative experience is marked by both a personal and epistemic metamorphosis following the experience.”
And reading that smug middle-finger of a sentence, I thought, Why didn’t you just explain it to me in a way I could understand? Instead of leaving mysteries everywhere, or your family’s future TBD?
I skimmed. I translated paragraph by paragraph. I googled, googled, and googled, and wept some. A few days later I had hit the last page and found a note in his perfect loopy handwriting: Invention 743 is a failure.
The Heebie-Jeebie Beam turned out to be the perfect name. The Beam stimulated fear and anxiety in the recipient. Dad had built it as a nonviolent defense for the CIA. Scare a pursuer silly and skedaddle. But because he had been researching emotions, he thought he might use it to change people. An unexpected side effect of the Beam was a sort of artificial catharsis. The list of suggested changes included things like: more reflective, more compassionate, and more respectful of the advancement of humankind and the demands caused by the pursuit thereof (that last one was circled).
Dad hypothesized that strong emotion—like birth of your firstborn, death of your parents, ghost pepper-strength emotions—coupled with some kind of catalyst would snap people into turning their lives around. He thought the catalyst would be some sort of experience, but what kind, how long, where, and when?
Sucked that he’d never been able to figure out how to use the Heebie-Jeebie Beam to get people to change. He’d tested short and long term results on subject ‘M’ without success, though the page detailing the results was ripped out.
Bupkiss, he wrote.
Had Michael and I accidentally discovered how to make the Beam work? The five kids with stage fright who’d been beamed joined the theater club, cheer, and formed bands. Maybe that was why the Beam hadn’t worked on me. I didn’t have stage fright to begin with, so there was nothing to transform.
But there was the fifth level, just a click of the dial away.
I didn’t have time to read deeper than the methodologies section of his notes. Mom demanded I help her sweep the house for recording devices, and I had to hide all my notes. We rummaged in the back of the cabinets. We parted each leaf of our house plants. We took down pictures on the wall, checked inside their frames, and rehung them. The family we had been in those pictures was looking weary of her antics.
I played with the idea of telling Mom I’d found an invention. But lately she wouldn’t even respond to what I said. She’d stare at me from across at the dinner table as I shoveled casserole into my mouth and until I escaped to my bedroom. Sometimes I caught her checking dishes I’d just put away, or peeking under folds of laundry.
As I did dishes, I wondered how to get her to be normal again. I used to imagine her at her power plant job standing in front of dials, gauges, and control panels, pressing the buttons that told electricity to zap here or there. She’d won a mug for it. It said, World’s Best Nuclear Power Plant Controller. I scrubbed it free of tea stains and put it on the shelf next to its mug friend, Meltdowns Are Only Good with Cheese. It wasn’t her fault her brain didn’t regulate its own chemicals right.
Could the Beam work on her? She was definitely scared of something. But then I imagined how it felt to get beamed at level 5, and the hair rose on my arms. I couldn’t do that to her. I felt sick for thinking it. But I couldn’t imagine that the lower levels would be strong enough to cure what ailed her.
I got why Dad had left her. I just didn’t get why he’d left me. I kept thinking about how Dad had said, “I can’t stand you people.” I was in that people. What if the Beam had been meant for me? To wrinkle my smooth brain like a reverse iron, and make me into the son he wanted?
“Will?” Mom asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I lied. “I have a project. Scary stuff, big part of my grade. I’m going to Michael’s.”
It was easier to run away to somewhere where a mom or dad could shoot me finger-guns and ask, “What can I do yah for, my dude?” And dream of the day where I could say “Nothing,” and mean it. I was afraid he would never come back, and that day would never come.
A few days later, I came home from school to a bonfire roaring in the backyard. It chewed on bookshelves, made charred lace out of documents. Mom carried an armful of old notebooks out of the workshop and dumped them in the fire. The pages shriveled; a diagram of the human brain blackened. Her fly-aways smoked. She panted, wide-eyed.
I ran to the workshop. The shelves inside were bare, dust marking where books had lain or cabinets had stood. She’d swept all his chemistry glassware into a cardboard box by the side of the door. The pieces sparkled. The odor of chemicals stung my lungs.
I demanded in a high voice that didn’t sound like mine, “What are you doing?”
Her face slacked. She began the staring I hated.
“Spring cleaning,” she replied, scanning my face.
Stay frosty, I told myself. What would Dad do? Think. Dad would think.
“Let me keep his files,” I said.
“Why do you need them?” she asked suspiciously.
“I— I want to read them.”
“You don’t read.”
“I’m going to,” I said honestly. “New Year’s Resolution.”
She stared at me. If she had been angry, scared, worried, or something, I could have talked her down. But her face was blank, as it was more and more these days.
My throat clenched. But I asked jokingly, “Why do you need to burn them?”
“Because I’m burning everything.”
Then I saw the picture frames. I had mistaken them for branches. I had mistaken the charred dress shirts for part of our shadows, and the chair Dad liked to sit in as more branches. A weird roaring filled my ears.
Mom pointed inside. “Go get the rest of the pictures off the wall. I’ll get the workshop.”
“But—” I thought, if I got the workshop, Mom might find the Beam in my room. But if I didn’t save the workshop, Dad might never come back.
Maybe there was a way I could save both.
I ran to my room. The hallways were patchy where pictures had blocked the sunlight from dulling the paint. My room hadn’t been touched. I yanked the case from its hiding place and the instructions fanned upon the floor.
I dialed the Beam to level 5 and jammed it under my chin. There had been no scale or description for the levels in Dad’s notes. I didn’t even know exactly how it worked, except that it worked best when you were afraid. My heart raced as if trying to escape from the raygun in my hand. Negative effects? What could be worse than what was happening? Than what had been happening since Dad left? Please work, I thought. Help me understand.
I must have pressed the trigger. I don’t remember. It was only after, when my hand fell and the Beam dropped in my lap, that I came to.
Level 5 showed me something that had already happened. Level 5 was a molasses dream, a slowed down vision, of Dad endlessly pushing the key into the house’s lock for the last time. I’d been standing stupidly (the only way I stand) with tears and snot running down my dumb face, while Mom stormed off to her room. Level 5 showed me things I’d noticed, but not put together. That Dad had filled his car with gas, some notebooks, some inventions, some laundry he didn’t bother to fold. On the table were the math workbooks he’d go over with me, me squirming and not getting it, him hawkish and sharpening with irritation. He pushed the key into the lock, like a dagger into the heart, knowing I was still inside.
Lifting Level 5 did not bring relief. It brought clarity. It emptied the nothing I had cottoning up my brain and replaced it with more nothing, so that I could remember what had really happened without my fear getting in the way.
The worst had happened when Dad had left. But the worst needed to happen to show us why him leaving was actually the best thing that could have happened.
I don’t know how long I slumped there on the floor with the Beam in my lap, pondering this, coming down from the effect. The sound that brought me back to reality was Mom’s footsteps coming close.
“William, what is taking so long?”
I had a hunch, but there was no time to test it. I no longer hoped Dad would come back, or that I would become smarter, but I was still afraid Mom would be lost. What the Beam did—what I thought the Beam did—I hoped would bring her to reality, the way it had for me.
She opened the door to my room to me pointing the Beam at her. I reasoned I’d only pull the trigger for five seconds. But her face, pulled long in horror and anguish, made my stomach quiver. She sagged against the door.
“I didn’t pull the trigger!” I said. “I didn’t!” I threw the Beam on my bed and held up my hands.
She drew herself up with visible effort and towered over me.
“I knew it! I knew he swapped you! How has he been talking to you, huh? Where did he plant them?”
Her open palm cracked against my cheek. It was the first time she’d ever hit me.
“I didn’t… He didn’t…” I sobbed. Had the trigger been pulled somehow? Mom saw me glance at the Beam and dove for it.
She beamed me.
Like before, Level 5 showed me nothing new. But what it did show multiplied exponentially like a face in a broken mirror as she trained the seasick-green light on my head. Her white-rimmed eyes moist and red-veined, over the dinner table, across the hall, over the kitchen counter, through the windshield, and craning over me as I lay on the ground. The sun was one of her eyes, and the moon was another one. The eyes of squirrels were hers and so were Michael’s. They winked in the reflections of the floorboards and shone in the holes of the wall siding as she dragged me out of the room. They winked in my brain as my head bounced down the steps and filled my vision as she tugged my leg, grunting, to the bonfire.
The social worker told me later that a neighbor saw her, tackled her, and threw me in his pool to put out the flames. He then had to fight Mom off when she attacked him with gardening shears, and then save me from drowning because I was still unconscious.
“I wanna be him when I grow up,” I slurred from the hospital bed.
“Me too,” the social worker agreed.
Mom told the police that her husband had kidnapped me and replaced me with a robot. I’d been acting strange since Dad left. Helping her clean. Doing homework. Reading. She didn’t know for sure, until I pointed her husband’s raygun at her. She said Dad had been using the Beam on her for a long time. She knew the real William would never point the gun at her. He would never pull the trigger. Her worst nightmare had come to life. But also, joy: it wasn’t me. And she needed the police’s help to find her husband and real son.
“I didn’t pull the trigger,” I sobbed. And a little voice inside me replied, But you pointed the Beam. I sure didn’t look like William or Willie anymore. I looked like an action figure left on its side on a hotplate. When the doctor ordered some x-rays, in case I had worse injuries, I felt relieved that I had bones, not articulated plastic joints. Still, I asked Michael and his parents to call me Will.
In the following weeks I stayed with Michael and his parents and helped him start his band, Micycle Ride. He swung his microphone around on its cable, thrust his hips, and sang like he’d die without music, his glasses streaked with sweat and his smile ear to ear. Sometimes he’d surprise me into smiling too. In the notebook my therapist gave me, I wrote song lyrics, how I felt about it all, and what I thought happened. I also reread the instruction manual and research notes for the Beam, googled some more, and thought about how it worked. When I wrote my hypothesis in my notebook and felt its rightness like a tuning fork, I decided that I would never shoot anyone with the Beam again.
I guess Dad really did have us bugged, because his Volvo rolled into Michael’s driveway about a week after I left the hospital. Michael’s parents came to my bedroom doorway to tell me, like the very incarnations of motherly and fatherly concern.
Dad stood on the front steps. He looked shrunken, and the lines between his eyebrows had deepened. When he saw me, his eyebrows jumped. I had not gotten prettier since leaving the hospital.
I said nothing and waited.
“William,” he said at last, awkwardly. “How are you?”
I raised the eyebrow I had left and didn’t reply. His starch dissolved as he perspired before me. He dropped his gaze to the welcome mat.
“Well… come along,” he said, gesturing to his car. I snorted. He had the gall to look startled. Emotions passed across his face. I didn’t know what I wanted to say to him. I felt almost sorry for him. I almost wanted to apologize for snorting. But what I actually wanted was too numerous to list, too huge to name, and too painful to speak aloud. At last he looked at Michael’s parents. They put their hands on my shoulders. I felt my heart overflow, even as he said to them, “I’ll send a monthly stipend for William.” And he turned to get back in his Volvo.
Fear clutched my heart, and that clutch was broken by rage. He could not get away scot-free. He would be the guinea pig this time.
“Hey,” I said, my voice cracking. He paused with the key in his hand. “Did you ever use the Heebie-Jeebie Beam on yourself?”
His eyebrows quirked. “The Fear Gun,” he said in the voice of impending snark. “No. Why would I use it on myself?”
His tone harmonized with the past tones he had used when he asked questions, questions with unspoken contempt and judgment that crushed me small and made me believe I was smooth-brained, simple-minded. But since he had been gone, I had grown as tall as he was. At eye-level, I could truly see what I had always known. Dad had remained Dad, backwards and forwards. Mom’s condition and mine hadn’t changed him one bit. I felt then what he must have felt looking at me while my tears wet my calculus homework. It was so simple, what I needed him to understand. I threw back what he gave me in his own word: “Dumbass.”
Dad’s face whitened. It colored in patches as his eyebrows drew together and his mouth opened, but my ruined body denied his words, and he dropped his eyes. He raised a finger to shake it in my face, but then made a fist, made a strangled noise, and made an expansive gesture—at what? I didn’t care.
When he left, I could see him with his knuckles raised to his mouth in his little dinged-up Volvo.
Watching him leave made me feel a curious lightness and nausea. The lightness left me undone, and I went upstairs to cry privately and write in my journal: Dad’s actions confirm my hypothesis about the Heebie Jeebie Beam.
The Heebie Jeebie Beam worked, but not the way Dad thought it would. The Beam didn’t work by stimulating fear. It stimulated the recipient’s strongest belief. Specifically, it manifested the worst-case scenario of that belief—being booed offstage, your husband and child being imposters, your hero abandoning you. The levels manifested the beliefs at different strengths, for those that need more neurochemical power to unroot. When paired with an experience that showed that what happened was different from how you believed it would go, the belief broke, and the recipient was altered. Not in the ways Dad thought they would be.
But that’s the kicker. You have to face your fears. And you can’t make someone do it if they don’t want to. Worse, sometimes what you think people are afraid of isn’t actually the thing they’re afraid of. Frightening someone without showing them something that neutralizes that fear is just torture. You don’t need the Beam to know this, or even cause someone to change, as my experiment on Dad confirmed. I hypothesized that Dad called me stupid and experimented on Mom because he himself felt stupid and broken. So when I called him a dumbass, his reaction proved it.
It was hard to write this hypothesis in my composition notebook. It meant that what happened to me and Mom wasn’t what he was afraid of. I don’t know what would change his ways, if what happened to us didn’t.
The more I thought about the Beam, the more I marveled at it. Man, he hadn’t known what he had. A tool that confronts you with what you believe? How many people live their lives not knowing what they believe? Or their deepest fear? What had he been thinking?
In the weeks and months following Dad showing up and dipping out, I got really into song-writing. I thought about writing non-fiction, investigating all the ways people do or don’t change. But singing came easy to me, and I needed something easy in my life. Making bangers in the basement on an old synthesizer and howling out my feelings was good medicine. Anyway, I wrote some ditties about everything. When my burns are better, Michael and I are gonna try to get some gigs. Though, getting up on stage, getting gawked at, and then singing about my feelings? And what if we get famous, and Mom hears our jams? The thought of going on stage and fumbling my slippery heart gives me the willies.
Yet, one night, under the yellow light of the lamp, at the hour ruled by crickets and owls, I had been thinking about fear, and Mom, and Dad. Word by word, I wrote the final lines to a song I’d been waiting to hear.
What are the Heebie Jeebies but knowing you’ve got something to lose?
Loving each other is how we’ll survive
To fear is to know we’re alive.