The air sat motionless in his room. It laid on his bed, covering the rough wool blankets of red and navy that Alfie would bury himself under at night. It sprawled across the blood orange rug and onto the dark wood floors, seeping into the knots in the wood. It hung off the walls as shadows danced across them. And the air brushed frigid up against the closed window, watching as Alfie played with Colin in the fort that they had made, pillows and blankets strung across two chairs in the middle of the room. Alfie, armed with an old roll of wrapping paper that he’d found in the back of the coat closet, stood guard outside the fort while Colin prepared them for battle. Alfie fidgeted, shifting his weight from one foot to the other again and again, occasionally bumping the cardboard tube against his pale, skinny legs. Alfie had been the one who decided to make a fort after the boys had eaten dinner. Colin, however, made sure Alfie did all the work and hit Alfie whenever he slowed down. That’s why Alfie had to stand guard. Colin was always in charge. Alfie’s mom, Eloise, called Alfie to come brush his teeth. Colin didn’t have a toothbrush, so Alfie told him to wait in their room. Colin kicked at the paper-thin walls between the bathroom and their bedroom as Alfie brushed. “Quit it!” Alfie yelled, mouth full of toothpaste. Colin kicked harder and harder, shaking the mirror on Alfie’s bedroom wall. Alfie hit the knob of the faucet and shut off the water, dropping his toothbrush on the cold tile floor. He threw open the door, turned sharply and stomped into his room. There was no door separating his bedroom from the hallway, just bare hinges. Colin abruptly stopped kicking and was nowhere to be seen. “Get out here!” yelled Alfie, angry that Colin had finally decided to leave him alone. Silence lurked underneath the bed and taunted Alfie as he desperately searched, flinging open his closet door. It hit the wall with a bang, and for a split second the knob nestled into the worn dent before springing back a few inches. “Where are you?!” screamed Alfie. He heard a chair slide across the kitchen floor, someone getting up from the dining room table, followed by his mom’s quick, worried footsteps. She often felt as if she were constantly running the distances of the house. His father, exasperated, was still sitting at the table, head buried in his hands. Alfie ducked into the closet and quickly closed the door. Among piles of clothes and a few wayward hangers, darkness surrounded him. He swore he heard Colin’s voice somewhere amidst the mess. He listened intently and heard a deep growl. He thrashed about, kicking a shoe rack that housed one lonely pair of tennis shoes without laces and a pair of sandals for the summer when Alfie refused to wear socks. Monsters couldn’t get to him if he kept kicking, hitting, thrashing. The door flung open, letting light flood into the tiny closet. Alfie shielded his eyes and tried to control his feet that were now tangled in a dark green sweater. He let out a guttural scream, trying to ward off whoever was pulling him, whatever monster had taken control over his knees. His mother’s tiny hands almost came to a complete close around Alfie’s skinny shins. She held them together firmly as the doctors had instructed her to. Alfie’s arms were spastic, but as long as she held his legs restrained, he could only cause harm to himself. His body seized up, tense, and after what had seemed like decades, relaxed in exhaustion. He finally looked up to see his mother, arms trembling, with her hands around his shins. Glistening beads of sweat graced her forehead and rolled down her pale face, some falling to be caught by her blouse and others clinging to her fine brown hair. Her chest heaved, forcing the stale air deep into her lungs. She had been an incredibly beautiful woman, but age had taken its toll. Her eyes that were once young and innocent now looked tired and sorrowful as she gazed down at Alfie. His eyes were wild and frantic, always darting to and fro, following his thoughts and the creatures that surrounded him. Their eyes finally met as Eloise waited for her son to recognize her. She slowly knelt down and touched Alfie’s cheek. She held her hand there for a moment, letting him breathe. He sat motionless, looking at his mother. He curled into her lap and laid there for awhile before she carefully lifted him, carrying him into the bathroom. Setting him on the soft, green bath mat, she turned to the medicine cabinet, grabbing the orange and white bottle precariously perched on the top shelf. Grabbing a paper cup from the cabinet, Alfie’s mom flipped on the cold water. As she turned the handle, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, noticing the dark circles under her eyes. A pang of exhaustion and momentary sadness pierced her strong-willed exterior. Icy droplets splashed up against her bare wrists as she filled the cup. Turning off the faucet, she approached Alfie, kneeling down to his height. She held him in one arm and placed the pill into his mouth. Alfie didn’t mind taking his vitamins. They didn’t taste like anything as long as he didn’t chew them, and he knew that they were special because his mom kept them on the top shelf in a bottle he couldn’t open. Colin was jealous of Alfie’s special vitamins, so he usually left when Alfie took them and didn’t come back until morning. Alfie crawled into his mom’s arms after swallowing the pill and she carried him to his bed. He nestled into the navy blankets, and pulled them over his small torso, up to his chin. His mother sat on the edge of the bed and recited his favorite story from memory. As Alfie drifted off, imagining a small, blue train climbing up a hill, the birds singing in the trees, the sunshine playing amidst the fields of flowers, his mother slowly lifted herself from the bed. She walked softly, her socks padding across the wood floor, and when she reached the doorway she turned off the light. A flood of relief came over her as she turned and saw Alfie’s tiny body, calm, quiet, and deep in slumber. He had been such a blessing to her. She never dreamed of having a child, but Alfie...he was unexpected. Always smiling, Alfie captured her heart in ways she’d never imagined possible. She spent months at home with him when he was a newborn, and as much as it pained her to watch her baby growing older, it was remarkable to see the world through the eyes of someone so pure and so innocent, someone so full of wonder and joy and awe. While on maternity leave, she searched for work elsewhere, somewhere where she could work fewer hours, or even idyllically, from home. When she landed a job in the north of Michigan, she was thrilled. While the pay was only moderate, she could work from her new home. A quaint house situated amongst the pines was exactly what she had always wanted and would make a great house for Alfie to grow up in. She wore a sundress to her going away party, toting Alfie around, saying her goodbyes to the friends and family in her parents’ backyard. She left the salty sea air, and whisked Alfie away to their new life in Michigan without thinking twice. Living in Michigan for only a few months, she took a trip to the grocery store where she met Dan. Eloise fell instantly for his burly appearance and kind demeanor. They dated for nearly a year, taking Alfie on day trips, going out to dinner, and barely leaving town so she wouldn’t need a sitter. They happily married that spring and Dan moved into their home, taking on the role of Alfie’s father. As Alfie progressed through his toddler years, the family grew closer and closer. Eloise felt weightless, each day a new adventure. Alfie eventually turned six. He was frequently crying, throwing himself into fits, kicking, screaming, pushing. He began to hit himself, blaming it on ‘the other boy’, even when the only other person around was Eloise. She wondered if this was his way of acting out, but she was fearful as he’d never been this way before. He’d never even went through the terrible twos, nonetheless thrown an full-fledged tantrum. She took him to several doctors, all of which ruled out any physical causes and assured her that it was simply a phase he was going through. Some even suggested he’d possibly learned the behavior at school and with discipline, would stop. The fits, however, became worse and worse. He began to wake up in the night, screaming and pulling his hair. He talked about the cats that lived under his bed and the monsters that stood in his closet and watched him at night. He gave ‘the other boy’ a name. Colin. Colin slowly became a part of their family. A part that no one but Alfie could see, but had to be acknowledged--at dinner, at church, during bath time and nap time. Eloise and Dan tried to discourage Alfie from talking about Colin, but that only seemed to make matters worse. Over time, Colin became more and more present in their lives. Alfie insisted that Colin have a place at the dining room table and that Colin got buckled in when they went anywhere in the car. One night after dinner, Alfie came to Eloise and whispered that Colin was scaring him. Suddenly, Alfie collapsed at her feet and began punching himself. He yelled “Colin stop! No Colin! Stop! Quit it!” Eloise yelled for Dan who was in the kitchen. He came running, boots stomping across the floor and stopped at the sight of Alfie. He crouched and grabbed Alfie’s tiny wrists, pulling them away from the boy’s face. Eloise stifled cries of panic as Alfie screamed, face contorting into monstrous shapes and forms, fighting Dan’s powerful grip to no avail. Tears streamed down her face as she ran to get her keys and her coat, each tear hitting the floor in a trail behind her. They loaded Alfie into his carseat, and Eloise revved the engine, coaxing the cold car to start. She was frantic, and stepped hard on the gas pedal to force the small car through the mounting snow. Dan sat in the back next to Alfie, holding his hands tight. They rushed into the hospital, running straight for the emergency room. Doctors, at first stunned by what seemed like a temper tantrum when Alfie was restrained, were shocked when Dan finally let go of Alfie’s hands. Alfie's screams and pleas begging Colin to stop echoed down the cold, white hallways. Pale fluorescent lights cast shadows on Alfie’s face as two nurses grabbed hold of him and put him on a gurney. The doctors that gathered in the hall repeatedly asked if Dan’s name was Colin, who Colin was, where Colin was, etc, etc. Eloise was practically shouting above the chaos, trying to explain the fits, the animals, the monsters, the hitting, and above all, Colin. Alfie was taken into a room at the end of a recovery wing. Nurses and doctors came in and out of his room, holding tubes and vials of his blood, medicine to give him, and sedatives to keep him calm. After hours upon hours of tests, the results all came up inconclusive. Eloise sat in the waiting room, clutching Dan’s hand just as Alfie had hours before. The sun was pushing the horizon, dawn breaking while wayward rays of light forced through the frosty windows and illuminated Eloise’s face. Dried tears stained her cheeks, and she trembled at the thought of taking Alfie back home. Tiny gasps for air came between sobs, her body jerking, heaving in the blue upholstered chairs. Finally, in preparation to get to the car, the nurses loaded Alfie, still drowsy, into a wheelchair. One of the more prominent doctors of the evening approached Dan and Eloise, asking them to step into his office for a brief moment. The nurses wheeled Alfie down the hall. Dan and Eloise sat, holding hands, across from Dr. Ploer, an elderly man with wiry hands and a sad kindness in his eyes. “I don’t usually talk with families like this unless it’s a life or death situation, Mrs. Corsch, and rest assured, Alfie’s life is not in danger.” He took a deep breath. “However, his case does interest me and I’d like him to come see Dr. Schefel later this afternoon if he’s up to it. Schefel is a close colleague of mine who specializes in neurological disorders and I’m sure he’d be just as interested as I am. Of course, he could also possibly assist you in dealing with Alfie’s case.” The months that followed still seem like a blur in Eloise’s mind. That afternoon, Alfie went to see Dr. Schefel. He requested that Alfie come once a week for testing. Appointment after appointment, week after week, Alfie’s condition never improved. Eloise fell behind on work, and Dan picked up a lot of the slack at home. Finally, on a fateful February day, Dr. Schefel explained exactly what they were up against. “First off, your son is absolutely exceptional. He’s tested higher than average in every area of cognitivity that we’ve been able to test him in. Unfortunately, he is the exception to the rule in more ways than one. Originally, we had begun studying his actions with the presumption that Asperger’s was the most probable cause of his intelligence, as he’s still in the age range for childhood onset. However, his language abilities and motor skills are both perfectly average for a boy his age. Also, his social skills with those in the office, including myself, are normal. Therefore, we had to reexamine our initial diagnosis. Now, Alfie has been having vivid hallucinations almost every time he comes to my office, which is something I am used to in this line of work, but only when treating adults. The characters he’s created have moral codes that they each abide by, some bad, some good. They’re all objects or animals, except for this Colin. Don't get me wrong, most kids Alfie's age have imaginary friends, especially those children who don’t have siblings or neighboring children to play with, but Colin is more than an imaginary friend. Alfie truly believes that Colin is real, and has given Colin aggressive, devious characteristics. Colin is a hallucination that Alfie has constructed, yet cannot get rid of. Alfie tells me that Colin tells Alfie to do " bad things" and hits him. I'm not even entirely sure if Alfie is able to comprehend that these cats and monsters and Colin simply don't exist in our world. It is for these reason that after much deliberation, Mr. and Mrs. Corsch, we believe that Alfie has early onset schizophrenia. It is extremely rare for it to occur in children Alfie’s age, but not impossible. It has nothing to do with the way you raised him, nor could it have been predicted, so please do not, I repeat, do not blame yourselves. I’ve prescribed medication that we’re hoping will be successful, but as with most neurological disorders, it will most likely take a few attempts to get it just right.” The weeks after the diagnosis were a haze. Emotional ups and downs were frequent and severe for all members of the tiny family. Strength and perseverance often gave way to despair and grief. Of course, time went on, and it became routine. The medication, the tantrums. Even the shock of the diagnosis wore off. But the disorder took its toll on their family all the same. Eloise battled Alfie daily, fighting to get him to take his pharmaceutical cocktail, which, at its worst point, consisted of four pills and that was before Alfie even knew how to properly swallow a pill. Dan accompanied Eloise to training, where the doctors showed the couple how to defuse Alfie to an extent and how to restrain him without hurting him or putting themselves in danger. Now, Eloise sat on the edge of her bed in the dark, deep in thought. The light from the hallway flickered, keeping her company. Dan was still in the kitchen, finishing off his third beer of the evening. She heard him get up from the table and his footsteps echoed down the hallway. She prayed he wouldn’t wake Alfie. Dan wasn’t the kind to get angry, but that didn’t mean he had been a loving husband lately. He often came home and drank, or stayed late at work to avoid coming home altogether. He left her alone with Alfie more and more often, and as Alfie got older, Eloise stayed up later, worked harder, and pushed for him to become better, futile as it seemed. Her time for Dan was less, and she knew that. Dan walked into the bedroom. He silently sat down next to Eloise, traces of alcohol on his breath. He wrapped one of his strong arms around her in an embrace and whispered, “I’m sorry.” He stood from the bed and reached beneath it, searching the cold floor. He grasped onto the handle of his suitcase, already packed and weighty with guilt. He set the suitcase on the bed and looked up at Eloise. She was welling up with tears at the realization of what was happening. The sight of her broke his heart. He turned from her, unable to watch her glassy eyes catch the moonlight, the moonlight that would guide him down the old pine road, away from his home. She stood and ran toward him, flinging herself at the doorway, begging him not to leave. Her right hand grasped at the bare hinges and her left rested where the door handle would’ve slid into place, had they been able to have doors in their home. They were all removed just before Alfie’s seventh birthday, after he locked himself in the bathroom for three hours and he hit himself so hard that he bruised his own rib. The painful reminder only made her clutch onto the doorframe harder. She could not raise Alfie alone. Dan brushed past her. Her thin, fragile body that he had held so many times before paled in comparison to his natural strength and size. She pulled on the sleeve of his flannel as he passed her, sobbing for another chance. For him to stay. Alfie appeared in the doorway of his room watching the events unfold in the hall. In his state of confusion, the medicine wavered. Hallucinations danced on the walls and disappeared again. He couldn’t make out what was going on. A small kitten leapt from his dad’s suitcase and hissed at him. Suitcase. Alfie ran to his father. “Where are you going!” Alfie didn’t ask, he simply stated it as though it was fact. “I’m--” Dan glanced up at Eloise. Her eyes were red and puffy, yet the begged him. Pulled him. If not for her, then for Alfie. “I’m leaving,” said Dan, remorseful yet determined. “Why?” asked Alfie, as he shrunk back, clinging to his mom’s pajama bottoms. A bird flew across the hallway in front of him, fell to the ground and turned into a little blue train. Dan looked at him intently. He finally bent on one knee and came close to Alfie. Eloise protectively put her hand on Alfie’s head, unsure of what Dan might say or do. “I need to take Colin far, far away, Alfie. I have him here, in this case. I need to take him far, far away so he can’t hurt you anymore, okay?” Alfie tried desperately to wrap his mind around leaving Colin. Around his dad leaving. Around his dad wanting to take Colin away. It was so much to think about, and Alfie was so sleepy. “Are you sure?” Alfie asked. “Yes, I have to take him, Alf. But, if I take him away I can’t come back so I need you to give me a hug goodbye and say goodbye to Colin, too.” Alfie slowly walked toward Dan as Eloise stifled tears and muffled her sobs. Three years...three years they’d been living this way. This wasn’t ever what he signed up for, Eloise thought. But none of them had. Alfie and Dan said their goodbyes and Alfie patted the suitcase, saying goodbye to Colin. Dan turned Alfie around and told him to get some rest. Alfie looked over his shoulder at Dan and the case one last time before padding down the hallway back into his room. The springs of his bed creaked as he crawled in and Dan held Eloise in his arms. Alfie sat upright in bed and watched as they whispered back and forth to each other. Words swirled around in his head as he fought off the drowsiness. I love you, maybe, sometime, I’m sorry, I promise, take care, soon, and goodbye came through the static of Alfie’s thoughts, yet the fuzziness of it all seemed like a dream. Alfie watched his mom and dad hug before his father’s hand grasped around the handle of the suitcase. Alfie’s eyelids came to a close as he watched his father walk down the hallway, hand in hand with Colin, chasing after the little blue train.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.