There are two great days in a person’s life
the day we are born and the day we discover why.
Phil Walker’s perception of reality shattered one balmy autumn day. His understanding floating away on the breeze like fall leaves in the wind.
“Hey, Toni, this is Phil. Do we have any more appointments?”
“No. We sure don’t. It’s dead as a doornail. Doug is sitting here twiddling his thumbs.”
“Alright. I’m still downtown. It’s a beautiful day and I figured I’d have lunch and enjoy myself. Let me know if anyone calls.”
Toni was his daughter, who took over after his receptionist quit unexpectedly years before. Since she didn’t have a job and he worried about keeping her busy, he offered her the position as a temporary fix. “It’ll help us both,” he explained. “You’ll earn a decent salary, better than your friends’ nickel and dime jobs, and I won’t need to call a temp.”
She’d accepted reluctantly, but had proven so adept, everything worked out. Not only was she diligent, reliable and personable, but she noticed discrepancies while updating financial and payment details. She reviewed his books, found numerous errors, and revised and corrected the entire thing. His customers adored her. Instead of a bored housewife snapping at them, she flirted with the men, and told the women how to fix the simple problems, saving them money. She was a natural and earned decent money for herself. Everyone was pleased, and Phil’s company hummed like a fine-tuned engine ever since.
Walker Plumbing—a business he’d inherited from his father—was a local shop in a suburb of Philadelphia. While struggling in school as a teen, he’d taken the job with his father. Aside from a short stint in the army, he never glanced back.
Toni didn’t have his problems. She inherited her mother’s gift for fine detail and was working on her graduate degree. When he asked if she really wanted to continue wasting her time, she insisted she loved working for him. “The job allows me to interact with a variety of people, instead of the stuffed shirts at college. It gives me time to keep up with school while letting me decompress while my mind drifts. It’s the best of both worlds, and I get to work for a terrific boss.”
He knew she’d eventually move on to better things. His son Taylor had, and was a dentist in Baltimore. But for now, she seemed happy living and working with him.
“I doubt we’ll get any calls, Dad. If there are, I’ll call, though if it’s all the same to you, I might call it a day and send everyone home if business doesn’t pick up.”
“Wait until after lunch. If we don’t get any new calls, you may as well. It’s been slower than usual lately. In the meantime, Doug can clean out his truck and you can get back to your studies.”
She laughed. “I keep telling you, I’m better off focusing on the office. That keeps my mind off my studies, so ideas can percolate. Don’t worry about me. I’m doing fine working here. Grab some lunch and I’ll wrap up the rest of this week’s paperwork.”
Phil ended the call and lowered his phone when struck dumb in the middle of the sidewalk. A lancing pain pierced his forehead, blinding him with its ferocity. His vision went white as he winced in agony. His knee buckled and he struggled to remain upright as his sudden stop put pressure on his old wound. Then the pain evaporated as suddenly as it appeared.
“Are you alright, mister?” a young man asked, grabbing his arm to steady him as Phil teetered on his cane. An old shrapnel injury from the first Gulf War made his knee unreliable, necessitating his cane, though he rarely needed it. What incapacitated him a moment earlier was gone, and he had no idea what triggered it.
He blinked away a few tears and took in his surroundings, trying to reorient himself. “I … I think so. I … don’t know what happened.”
“Whatever it was, it didn’t look pleasant. I thought you were having a heart attack.”
“It felt like it,” he replied, not bothering to correct him, “but it’s gone now.”
That wasn’t completely true. His head still ached, a dull reminder of the incident, yet it was tolerable, better than when his leg acted up.
Phil was 48 years old with unkempt wavy hair, a beard going white before its time, wrinkles, and the paunch and butt cheeks plumbers are notorious for. He worked hard, took pride in his work and concentrated on one task at a time, rather than worrying about jobs he hadn’t lined up yet. People respected his honesty. If he couldn’t get to a job right away, he’d tell you. He’d also refund money he didn’t feel justified in keeping.
He was heavy set, walking with a bit of a waddle, more like a tall Penguin—Batman’s nemesis—than a veteran of a past American war. He played up the image for all it was worth with the kids, surprising them with his occasional deft moves.
“Well, if it happened once, it’s likely to again. You should get it checked, whatever it is.”
“I will,” Phil assured him. “For now though, I’m okay. Thanks for your concern.”
“You sure you don’t need any help. It might reoccur.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got my phone. If it does, I’ll be sure to call 911.”
As the man walked away, shaking his head, Phil tried to recall what he was doing. Instead of continuing along Market Street to Guido’s Pizza, he searched for somewhere to sit for a few minutes. He then noticed his eyes playing tricks on him. He saw ‘floaters’, little black shapes obstructing his vision. Stopping to focus, it took a few seconds to realize the floaters didn’t actually float. Instead they remained steady, dancing in place, even when he turned his head. Glancing around, he noticed multiple isolated individuals had multiple dark forms swirling around their heads. Curious, he headed towards one, a man sitting in front of a shop, holding a cup and soliciting donations.
The dark shapes came into focus as he drew near. He recognized them, but they didn’t make any sense. They were demons, three in all, each about eight inches tall, fluttering around the man’s head. The beggar didn’t appear aware of them. Making the situation even stranger, they were naked, their tiny demon junk flapping with their motions. It was a disturbing display, but as much as he wanted, he found it difficult looking away.
He paused, gawking at the dancing figures until the beggar looked up, realizing he was being stared at, and lifted his cup.
Embarrassed, Phil dug in his pocket for some change. Approaching, he offered the man a ten-dollar bill as he studied the demons from close up out of the corner of his eye.
Rather than being black abstract shapes like floaters, or fuzzy and ill-defined like imaginary dream creatures, they were surprisingly realistic. The detail was amazing, including stubble on their chins, jiggling potbellies and twitching tails.
Having been caught once, Phil left the man behind, but began surveying those around him. He noticed other figures floating around other people. One woman coming out of a coffee shop had tiny dragons circling her head, while another had miniature fairies buzzing hers. Phil shook his head, trying to clear it, but they didn’t go away. Curious, he approached the woman, and when close enough, flicked one fairy dressed in a dark green dress.
He assumed they were figments of his imagination, but she felt real.
The fairy spun, glaring at him. Surprised by her reaction and the concrete, corporeal contact with a flesh and blood being, he took a step back. The tiny fairy, only about three inches high, flew towards him, only to veer away when she realized he was tracking her movements. She paused, mid-flight, and considered him, waving a hand to determine whether he could see her.
He did, and she fled when she realized he was aware of her, skittering to the others harassing the woman. It was then he noticed the sounds, as the one fairy yelled to her kin.
Phil was familiar with fairy lore because of his family’s background. He considered these more faerie than fairy. Fairies are light, humorous creatures featured in cartoons, while the ancient Irish faeries are dark, brooding and dangerous.
He considered that difference as he backed away, monitoring their response. Phil kept an eye out for more like them. The fairies in question, alerted, seemed to have a discussion, lowering the volume to whispers he couldn’t hear. A moment later, they rose in the air, observing him. When they did, the woman’s eyes opened wide and she paused, blinking as if surprised. She then shrugged and continued on. Her faeries followed, hovering in place watching him.
Phil considered whether he’d suffered a stroke. His head still ached, but it was a dull throbbing now, a steady reminder of the piecing pain before. His visions, aside from the multitude of fantasy creatures he now saw everywhere, were corporeal rather than ethereal and seemed tied to specific people. His lunch and responsibilities forgotten, he studied them in more detail.
He walked for blocks, studying the variety of critters. Each took on a familiar theme. The fairies surrounded creative types, the dragons concentrated on those looking blue, fat little trolls hovered over businessmen, while the demons focused on the homeless.
He’d been heading for lunch at one of his favorite spots in Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. He’d been walking along Market Street and ended up at Roosevelt Plaza Park, a small grassy square facing City Hall. The green was a popular place for the civic employees during lunch, but Phil headed to a corner where he knew the druggies and homeless often congregated. The area was clean and well monitored, but the more nefarious types hung out along the sides until chased away, at which point they’d congregate somewhere else. Ignoring a discreet drug deal and the paranoid stares of the dealers, he took a seat where he could observe the creatures near the addicts and disturbed individuals. They each attracted a different type of imaginary creature. Many, but not all the homeless had the same demons, while the addicts had tiny devils, each wielding minuscule pitchforks. The devils repeatedly stabbed those in desperate need of a fix in their heads, while the others waved their pointed implements at their hosts. Phil assumed there was some significance to the difference, but was so overwhelmed by everything, none of it made much sense.
After studying everyone and their associated otherworldly creatures, he remembered his other commitment and glanced at his watch. Standing, he decided to head back to his car, ignoring these side issues and focusing on reality for the rest of the day. However, in his hurry to leave, he passed one homeless man sitting cross-legged on the ground, and overheard the demons berating him. They screamed in a chaotic, unorganized chorus, “Kill Yourself! Kill Yourself!”
Having lost so many of his vet friends to suicide over the years, Phil was incensed. He spun, watching the demons tormenting the man, his grip tightening around his cane. The man appeared dazed, his shoulders slumped, his eyes unfocused and not paying attention to anything around him. Phil decided he needed to stop him from acting on his unseen tormentor’s advice.
Without thinking it through, he grabbed his cane and swung at the nearest creature. The cane hit it in the back, sending it flying, screaming as it went, which caused its companions to turn on Phil.
Their eyes widened, shocked at a human recognizing them. It took a moment, but with a unified cry, they all screamed “Kill Him!” which the man was disoriented enough to ignore, but they attacked Phil, flying at his face. Realizing he’d bitten off more than he anticipated, he was forced to defend himself. Waving his cane again, he caught another, breaking its back, though he didn’t have time to consider its fate as the others continued to attack.
He defended himself, swinging wildly at each. The man, waking from his confused and distracted state, cowered below him on the ground, screaming “Don’t Kill Me!”
All eyes were on Phil as he battled for his life against the tiny creatures. As he struck one after another, the park’s patrons gathered, watching the event unfold. “Hey, leave the man alone!” one yelled. A drug addled man nearby screamed “What’s wrong with you!” but Phil fought on.
He caught another demon in the face, killing it instantly. It simply vanished without a trace of its previous existence. He struck another with a backswing, caving its little head in. As ferocious as these tiny creatures were, they certainly weren’t organized fighters and had no coherent plan of attack.
When he eliminated the last one, and no more came after him, he became aware of the man cowering below him, quivering in fright. He noted that nothing remained of the demons, neither their blood, nor anything indicating they’d ever existed. Glancing around, Phil noticed the many stares and lowered his cane.
“Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said, but the onlookers were livid.
Hoping to make amends, he pulled a couple twenties from his pocket, tossing them at the man, but another nearby homeless man shouted.
“We don’t want you stinkin’ hush money. You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Embarrassed at being caught attacking imaginary creatures no one else could see, Phil realized he faced an untenable situation, so he turned and fled.
However, when he put his weight on his cane, it slipped and he stumbled, catching himself on the pavement. Glancing at it, he noticed it was bent, no longer able to support him. Clambering to his feet, he rushed away. Not relying on his cane, he listened to jeers behind him, the blush of a thorough public humiliation weighing on him.
Making it out of the park—despite numerous pieces of trash thrown at him, Phil hurried as quickly as his injured leg allowed. While his knee was tricky, failing on him at unexpected times, it was rare enough he could still perform complicated tasks—like defending himself. Using it for a prolonged time, though, was risky. As his leg faltered repeatedly, he worked up a sweat, growing exhausted.
Reaching his car, he discovered unticketed by the local traffic cops. Unlocking it and climbing in, he breathed a sigh of relief and considered his next actions. Remembering what he was doing before the attack, he pulled his phone out again.
“Walker Plumbing, no job too hard or complex.”
“Toni, this is Phil.”
“I was wondering when we’d hear from you. Where have you been, Dad? It’s almost three.”
“I’ve been … busy. I got sidetracked with another task.”
“Well, if it’s business related, I need to enter the project so we can generate an estimate.”
“Don’t worry, it’s not,” he said, putting his keys in the ignition, aware the longer he waited the likelier a traffic cop might notice his vehicle. “Could you do me a favor? Can you call my doctor and make an appointment for me? You have my phone book on your system.”
“Dr. Johnson? What’s this about?” she asked, concerned. “Is it anything I should be worried about?”
“It’s nothing,” her father insisted, “at least I don’t think it is.”
“What should I tell them your issue is?”
“I need a referral. What do you call those brain doctors?”
“A neurologist? Dad, you’re scaring me. In either case, Doctor Johnson needs a description of your symptoms to make a recommendation. Your insurance requires a preliminary diagnosis, otherwise they won’t cover it.”
Phil considered it, frowned and realized he needed time to formulate what he was suffering from. “It’s nothing. I was just curious about someone I know. I’ll check it online instead of asking an expert.”
“Except you’re helpless on the web. Describe what he’s facing and I’ll research it from here.”
“Nah,” he said after a moment’s hesitation, “it’s a private matter. I don’t want to reveal his personal details until I’m sure what he’s dealing with.”
“If you’re sure, Dad. You sounded worried a minute ago.”
“It’s nothing to worry your pretty little head over. Go ahead and send everyone home. I’m heading back myself. I’ll be home shortly.”
After she signed off, Phil pulled out of his parking spot and headed for the North-South Freeway. He hoped to escape the city before he encountered any other angry residents or their demons, fairies or dragons.