Down the rabbit hole
For as long as Mattie could remember, he felt the suffering of others. It was like nails on a blackboard scraping the inside of his brain. He would hold his head, or slap it and scream, trying to make it stop. And then scream some more as his father tried to beat the crazy out of him so he'd stop worrying his mama so.
When he was five, he realized that when he helped stop their pain, his own dissipated. More, he felt a pleasurable warmth that calmed and soothed him.
It was an accidental discovery. While kicking stones on the side of the road, he saw a stray puppy limping along. Mattie had to sit himself in the dirt and hold his head. The mutt came and licked his hand. He picked up a rock and smashed it on his head. He cried as he did it, that first time. But the dog's suffering ended. So did his.
It was a revelation.
A few days later, when their cook/cleaning lady/occasional babysitter, Mrs. Henderson, made lobster, Daddy was trying to cheer up Mama, Mattie was reeling with pain that dispersed with a warm release as he watched Mrs. Henderson drop them, one by one, into the boiling hot water. You want to drop one in the pot, Mattie? She held him up while he dropped one in. Their screams echoed in this brain. Until they didn't.
Mama wouldn't leave her room, though. Mattie's head pulsed with her pain. And then Daddy's as he threw the platter of lobster with butter against the wall. And then Charlotte's as she began to cry from her crib in the room next to Mama. She couldn’t talk, but Mattie heard her begging to be held. To be loved. He grabbed his head then toppled from his chair and ran from the room before Daddy relieved his ache by throwing Mattie, too.
He sat outside by the lake until his head didn't throb any more. And as he sat, soothed by the silence of the dark, he thought and he planned. When the moon was hanging heavy in the sky, Mattie approached the house. Nothing. A small sigh escaped as he entered and went to his room.
Over the next few months, Mattie learned to not show his pain at the same time that he practiced relieving it. Very soon an injured bird, a mouse in a friendly trap, a squirrel stuck in the chimney, a cat in a tree all served to validate his theory.
One day, he sat in the backyard and watched a bunny scurrying here and there. He could feel its anxiety. Hawk! Fox! Hurry! When he knew where the nest was, he crawled on his belly across the yard. Slowly. Inch by inch. Ignoring the needle-like pains in his head. He reached his hand down the rabbit hole grabbed and squeezed. He almost fainted when his pain turned to pleasure.
He was ready.
Mattie's happy memories with Mama were few and fading. He could still hear her sweet voice singing to him. Holding him as they rocked in the swing on the porch. Splashing in the lake. Then baby Charlotte came and Mama cried all the time. She barely left her room. She would lay in her bed with the shades drawn, a bottle of pills on the night table, something else under the bed. Even when little Charlotte screamed, Mama would just say, Mattie, tell Mrs. Henderson to get Charlotte a bottle or to change that baby's diaper, Mama's tired. Sometimes, she would let little Charlotte lay with her and that would calm them both. Briefly. Daddy wanted to get a nanny, a young girl from the country club, to come help Mama, but Mama screamed and cried so nobody came to help. Thus, it continued: Mama cried, Charlotte cried, Daddy threw things.
Mattie watched and waited.
One day, Charlotte wouldn't stop crying. Daddy was working in his office, I don't want to hear a peep, you hear me, Mattie? Unless the house is burning down I don't want to hear a thing. Mrs. Henderson was watching her soaps in the kitchen, don't bother me, boy, while my soaps is on. Mama had swallowed her medicine earlier along with half the bottle she kept under the bed. She was sleeping with her mouth open. Mattie had been watching her when Charlotte started crying.
Mattie dragged the chair over to the crib and picked her up. She was so little still. His head ached for release.
The police said it was an accident.
"It could happen to anyone, Mrs. Vogel. Mr. Vogel. I know it hurts, but don't blame yourself."
They said Mama had rolled over onto baby Charlotte, suffocating her.
Mama didn't remember anything. Daddy was ashen-faced, holding her, both inconsolable. Mattie sat by the lake, the smallest of smiles on his face as he waited for the pieces to click into place.
The next morning, Mama never woke up.
They say she overdosed on her medication. They found sediment from her pills in the bottom of her vodka bottle. Overwhelmed by grief while still suffering from post-partum depression. So sad.
A few days later, they found Daddy with a gun in his mouth, and the back of his head splattered on the wall behind him. What a tragedy, everyone said. Leaving that poor sweet boy all alone.
Years later, Mattie became Dr. Matthew Vogel, psychiatrist. He was one of the most successful psychiatrists in New York, known for his sensitivity and empathy. And a rather liberal dispensing of prescription anti-depressives. He had a thriving practice on the upper east side.
Until a young detective connected the dots between him and a puzzling suicide...and then a series of "suicides" going back 30 years...
But that's a story for another day.