When it comes to breaking a habit, possession is nine tenths of the law …
Tell Time: 12 minutes
Scare Rating: 3 of 5
Robbie sat quietly on the far end of the soft couch, as far away from his mother as he could get, his backpack across his lap like a shield. His fingers instinctively sought out and found the tail of cloth sticking out from the bag’s zippered mouth, and he tugged and twisted it as he listened intently to everything said about him, only a few feet away.
“Until this year – until last week – this hasn’t been an issue for him. It hasn’t been an issue for his father and I, either, I want you to know,” Mom said, with some defensiveness. “Sure, he’s probably a little too old to still be carrying a security blanket around with him, especially to school where he could get teased for it.”
Robbie studied the tiny specks of dust drifting silently through beams of sunlight from the nearby windows. Staring at them intently, he tried to be somewhere else. His eyes traveled from the dust to their destination: rows of dark wooden shelves that lined the walls.
On one, a diploma propped on a small stand read, “Brian Binder, Doctor of Psychiatry.” Every shelf was filled; most with textbooks and reference manuals, some of them ancient-looking. The shelves also stored a number of bizarre tribal artifacts from around the world. He’d overheard his dad suggest that his mom take him to see a “head shrink,” but had she really brought him to a witch doctor?
“We all knew that Robbie would figure out on his own when he was ready to get rid of his security blanket. But with the teasing and bullying …” His mom reached across the long couch and stroked Robbie’s hair back from his face.
“He’s ready, but we think he needs some help.”
“I completely understand,” Dr. Binder said, addressing Robbie instead of his mother. “Can you show me your blanket?”
Robbie looked at his mom for permission, then slowly threaded the thin, small cloth through the small mouth of the still-mostly-closed backpack. The soft, blue fleece was smooth and shiny with age and wear. One end had blue satin trim, and the other end probably had had it, too, at one time. His mom kept it as clean as she could, when she could get it away from him to launder it. Robbie clutched the blanket on his lap, rubbing the thin, worn fabric between his thumb and fingers.
“In most cases, a lovable item like a favorite doll or a blanket like yours is our first friend, and we stick close to our friends for company and feelings of affection, don’t we, Robbie?” The question was a rhetorical one, and Dr. Binder didn’t wait for a response. “Usually – about the time we start school – human friends are there for us, and our need for our pretend friends passes away. Like that wonderful invention of ‘self-melting snow;’ this if often a situation that resolves itself on its own and in its own due time.
“When it doesn’t – or when we want to speed up the process – people like to ask doctors like me to help. Your mom probably told you that I’m a psychiatrist, which I am,” said Dr. Binder. “But I prefer to be called a ‘Mental Magician.’ The psychiatric help that I provide works like magic – and that title looks a lot cooler on a business card!”
Robbie let a small smile show, and looked up from his blanket at the doctor.
“I use what’s known as aversion therapy. I can bore you with the scientific details, but here’s the bottom line: through a bit of trickery – the magic that I mentioned – we’re going to make it so that all of your experiences with your beloved blanket become … well, not good. Maybe you‘ll experience discomfort, maybe mild nausea, maybe a sense of danger – what you might experience is different for everyone. After a handful of these episodes, over a few days, you’ll no longer want your blanket with you. At all. Ever again. “
“This will all be in his imagination, though, right?” Mom asked.
“It will be very real to him,” Dr. Binder replied matter-of-factly, but without answering her question.
“Let me show you both something I’m quite proud of.”
Dr. Binder stepped out from behind his desk and opened a door to a small closet in his office. Inside were more shelves, but these were painted a bright, antiseptic white. Each shelf was stuffed with ragged and well-loved artifacts of childhood: toys and dolls, stuffed animals, blankets, teethers, video game controllers, and more.
“Here’s the proof of my technique,” Dr. Binder said with pride. “Hundreds of playthings that their previous owners finally decided to move beyond. I’d suggest that with my method, your blanket can be added to my collection, soon, if you’d like.”
Mom looked over at Robbie. A small smile pulled up one side of his face. He was ready.
Robbie sat on a stool in the center of the room, clutching his blanket in his lap. His mom remained on the couch, watching nervously. As Dr. Binder approached, he withdrew a twig-like object from his sleeve.
“My wand. I find it adds a bit of theater,” he whispered to Mom over his shoulder, adding a wink as well for a bit of theater for her benefit.
“Robbie, with my help, you’re about to undergo a bit of mild hypnotherapy,” Dr. Binder explained. “I’ll put you into a deep trance. While you sleep, I’ll place some suggestions into your subconscious. Then, I will remove you from the trance. Over the coming days, you will find that your desire to seek comfort in your fleece friend will grow less by less each day.
The doctor raised his arms as a music conductor might, wand twitching in his left hand as if animated by an inner power. “Are you ready?”
Robbie nodded. Dr. Binder glanced over his shoulder, and when Mom nodded, he began.
“Sleep, young Robbie,” he intoned. “Find a moment’s rest from this island of light and life! When you awaken, you’ll take on a profound fear and hatred for your favorite blanket, never before experienced!” He was instantly entranced; the boy’s head dropped into his chest, and his grip on his blanket relaxed.
With an additional flourish, Dr. Binder stretched his arm straight out, pointing the wand at the blanket itself.
“Witandunon … valthyrial … impositian … Plyantium!” the bizarre chant started quiet and low, but was almost a shout by the last word. As he chanted, a crackle sound buzzed from the wand, and he leaned in slightly, touching the blanket at the exact moment that he spoke the last syllable of the mantra. When he did, a spark of static electricity popped loudly. Mom jumped, startled.
“Wake up, Robbie!” Dr. Binder said with authority, “Wake, go home, and find your new peace!”
Mom let Robbie sit in silence on the car ride home, but that didn’t stop her from stealing glances at him in the rearview mirror. Clearly exhausted from the afternoon’s events, she saw him pull his security blanket from his backpack and curl up with it against his chest. She frowned that no improvement had been achieved yet.
Robbie was momentarily comforted by his familiar blanket, and doubted that anything that witch doctor had done to him would work. He held the blanket out in front of him to examine it; it looked the same as it had before. He pulled it back in close, then nearly gagged on what was a sudden, sour, sulfurous smell.
A small cloud of green dust puffed out from the blanket, along with an audible “pffft!” sound. Did his blanket just … fart? He pinched his nose and looked away, holding his blanket as far away from him as possible as he shook it out.
Had the smell passed? He looked at the blanket suspiciously, then put it back up to his nose to sniff it. “Eghew!”He snapped his head back in reaction, his nose wrinkled and his eyes pinched shut from the stinging stink. The blanket still smelled disgusting! He tossed it to the car floor, just as his mom peeked back at him in the mirror. She smiled; she would wash it for him before bedtime, but it was possible that the mental magic was already starting to work!
Robbie packed the blanket into his backpack the next day, just as he had all year. He definitely wasn’t ready to give it up, even though he thought he’d imagined some weird “behaviors” from the blanket the night before. Had it really growled at him when he went to pick it up? This morning’s itchy rash across his body was also bizarre, but Mom blamed it on the new dryer sheets she’d used, gave him some allergy medicine, and put him on the school bus.
In class, Robbie reached into his backpack for his notebook. His blanket seemed to be peeking out, as if curious to see what classroom life was all about. Robbie looked around to make sure no one had seen – he definitely did not want to be teased again – and pushed the blanket back deep into the pouch from which it had risen. Oddly, when he did so, the blanket seemed to push back against him – with some force. Robbie quickly zipped the bag shut, then flipped his notebook open to take notes.
As Mr. Culver droned on about the rebels in the Revolutionary War, giggles and laughter suddenly broke out, first behind him, then all around him as everyone looked and saw what was happening. Wanting to be in on the joke, Robbie looked around, then was mortified when he discovered he was the joke. He found his blanket hanging from the corner of his seat back. Somehow, it was folded into the shape of a tricorne hat of the type popular in Colonial America.
Robbie coughed in his sleep once, then again. He turned, his sleep fitful, then roused after another bout of coughs. Awake now, he found that he was dizzy and confused. By the dim night light, saw that he was in his bed at home, and place where he should feel safe, especially with his security blanket around him. Then why was he scared? He coughed again, reflexively, and with it, pulled in a dose of fresh air – and in doing so, realized that he’d not been breathing before; had not been able to breath before.
Another reflexive cough drew a small amount of air into his lungs, but the growing panic quickly consumed it all. His brain desperately needed oxygen, and without it, he was getting more and more confused.
His hands moved to his throat, clawing at whatever was obstructing his airway. His fingers felt the soft folds of his blanket, and with it, he felt a moment of peace and relief … until he realized that his blanket was tight around his neck, choking and suffocating him. Robbie kicked and panicked, trying to free himself, but as he did so, he could feel the blanket’s death grip around his throat draw tighter and tighter. He tried to scream, but only silence came out.
He needed help. He tried to climb out of bed, but fell onto the floor instead. He crawled out his door into the hallway, steadily making his way to his parent’s bedroom. Hot tears streamed down his cheeks as he feared for his life. In the darkness, he could see stars dancing in front of his eyes. Would he make it to their room in time?
Halfway down the hall, the blanket’s grip suddenly relaxed. Robbie wheezed and took in large gulps of fresh air. His body shuddered as if new life had entered it, and his raspy gasps of air turned into cries for help. Mom and Dad rushed into the hallway to find their son sobbing and gasping for air. His neck was red and raw. At his feet laid his blanket, still in a tight tangle as it had fallen from the boy’s neck. The near-accident was over.
Robbie’s stride into Dr. Binder’s office was determined; his mother hustled to catch up.
“Welcome back.” The psychiatrist greeted Robbie with a knowing smile – or was it a smirk? “Am I to guess that we’ve had some success with our experiment with your security blanket?”
“I’d say so,” Robbie replied firmly. He slid his pack from his back and dropped it at his feet, opened it up, and pulled the blanket out. Only Robbie seemed able to hear a low hiss emanating from deep within the cloth folds. Instead of holding the blanket close for comfort, he held it in his outstretched arms, while turning his face to the side to protect it. He looked as though he was holding a skunk out in front of his body.
Dr. Binder chuckled. “Well Robbie, I’m happy to hear of your success. Would you like to keep your old friend, or would you like to add him – er, I mean, ‘it’ – to my collection?”
“It’s all yours, Doctor,” Robbie replied, carrying the blanket toward the closet. His mom watched the bittersweet moment from across the room, proud of her son’s resolve, but sad at the passing milestone.
Dr. Binder led Robbie to the closet and pointed out a spot for his blanket. As he stepped forward, the blanket started to buzz and shake – as if it was wrapped around an angry hornet’s nest. Although he wasn’t surprised by this at this point, Robbie was in an even bigger hurry to be rid of the blanket as a result. He tossed it onto the shelf as directed, then took a large step back.
Robbie took a final look at his old friend, and noticed all the other toys and blankets had started to shake and bounce about, as if to welcome a new member to their clan. As he scanned from shelf to shelf, Robbie saw that each one was alive in its own way, seemingly possessed by some dark inner spirit designed to haunt their former owners. He glanced up at Dr. Binder, who smiled back knowingly. As the door closed on the scene, he looked over his shoulder at his mom, to see that she had not noticed anything.
Though the hypnosis was a sham, the magic had worked. Only by this haunting could Dr. Binder compel his patients – so many children who had stood in that very spot in the weeks and months and years before – to give their favorite objects this twisted form of freedom. By dark magic, they had been wrested away from the dependency as familiars to their human hosts, and were now forever a part of the dark collection of one highly effective and successful mental magician.