People know me as Reggie, the eleven-year-old boy that drowned a puppy. Ten years ago I was a guest on The Dr. Lydia Show. I typically get asked one of two questions about the episode: 1. “Did you get paid for your appearance?” 2. “Why did you drown the puppy?”
And I don’t know.
“You’ve got to take responsibility for your actions,” Dr. Lydia said on the show near the conclusion. My mom, who watches religiously, was weeping in the chair next to mine, her mouth stuck in a strange shape I had never seen it make before. Dr. Lydia’s hands were clasped over her chest, and I was looking at my feet — hands tucked under my thighs. They had gradually slipped under there over the course of the show as Dr. Lydia kept talking about my hands and what they had done.
If you’re a regular viewer of the show — and I was for a good chunk of my life when I was trying to sort things out — you’ll find she applies this phrase about “taking responsibility” to just about anyone or any situation she comes across: drug abuse, hoarding, bullying, self-mutilation, animal killing.
I’d filled up our big industrial sink with lukewarm water, and I had a bottle of pet shampoo on the washing machine, which I had intended on using on our dog. He was a mongrel, dark brown with white spots. Haiku, I called him. When Mom found me, I was sopping wet, and Haiku, he was floating there, my hands hovering over him like I’d been laying on hands. I had cried throughout the whole ordeal, but my mom didn’t notice that detail when she burst into the laundry room. And Dr. Lydia didn’t believe me. She said mutilating or killing animals was one of the early indicators of future psychopathy. “Moreover,” she added, “it’s common for budding psychopaths to engage in compulsive lying.”
The studio audience shook their heads, appalled.
When she asked me, “Why, Reggie, why, why did you do it?” I had to look away from her and down at my shoes. The television doesn’t convey just how intimidating Dr. Lydia is in person. She may not seem charismatic on the TV because she’s so hefty and has that shrill laugh, but in person she is charming and in total command of the studio, and you really just want to please her, make her approve of you. The producers and crew, the guests, the audience — everyone’s hanging on the tiniest little expression or catchphrase.
When she smiles, everyone smiles.
When she laughs, everyone laughs.
When she accuses, everyone hushes the fuck up.
People know me as Reggie, the eleven-year-old boy that drowned a puppy. Everyone in my hometown does. And in the county. And just how far beyond I couldn’t say.
One day (a school day), when I was seventeen, I took my mom’s van and drove seven hours north and over into Kentucky, and I walked into a Waffle House and ordered hash browns and eggs and bacon, and when the waitress brought me my food, she said, eyes bright, “You look so danged familiar. Are you famous?”
I said, “No. I’m nobody.”
But the next time she came to the table, it was like she’d been replaced by an impostor, all that warmth dissolved, leaving only a cold and stiff automaton. She never refilled my Coke.
Even now, ten years since the show, my body hasn’t changed all that much. I just look like an elongated version of the eleven-year-old Reggie. No beard to speak of, muscles don’t take hold on my frame, fat slips off me. It’s almost as if my body is punishing me, preventing certain hormones from acting, genes from being expressed. If it can preserve the appearance of the child that drowned the puppy, it will be of some benefit to society and the human species. I will be shunned, forbidden from procreating, and therefore my ilk will not be a problem to future generations.
After we flew out to LA, a chauffeur drove us to the studio. (“Imagine,” my mom had said. “You murder a puppy and get to ride in a limousine.”) Dr. Lydia met us in the green room while we were waiting to go out onstage for taping.
Friendly as could be, breezy you might call it, laughing and joking around with us.
At one point she placed her large, manicured hand on my shoulder, and gave it a supportive squeeze. I never felt so good about myself before or after that one time she touched me. Can still feel her hand when I close my eyes. Then when we came out for the taping, a curtain fell across her personality, and it was the TV Dr. Lydia — serious, only smiling occasionally, her voice inhabiting a higher register. In the last minute of the show, there’s what she calls a moment of reflection, where she says a brief prayer to a non-specified deity, then lowers her head for a moment of silence. She did this with one hand on my mother’s shoulder and one hand on mine, in the same spot she had squeezed a few hours earlier. But now the hand was a different creature: a talon clawing into my flesh as if trying to rip something out of me.
Whatever it was trying to tear out, I still can’t say, but I think it got what it wanted.
As I drove back that night from the Waffle House, to my home, where the vandalism, the eggings, the spray-painted threats are still just as common as they were in the weeks after my appearance on The Dr. Lydia Show, I asked myself, “Why did you do it? Why did you do it? Why would you do such a thing? Why? Why? Why?” And no one was there to witness the hot stinging tears, but you’ve got to believe me that they were there, you’ve just got to.
Tim Boiteau is a Writers of the Future winner with short fiction appearing in Daily Science Fiction, Deep Magic, and Dream of Shadows. His horror novel Iltday is coming soon in 2022.