Mad Man Michael walked down main street, whistling a woeful dirge. Eyes downcast, he counted every crack in the sidewalk, rechecking this tally against the prior day. This daily routine occupied his mind and off the apparitions surrounding him. For Mad Man Michael could see ghosts.
Considered the town bum, Mad Man Michael slept on park benches, or down alleyways nestled up to dumpsters on beds of cardboard. During winter, he camped at Hobo Junction in an old, musty army tent, just off the train tracks. His drink of choice was Blue Listerine straight from the bottle, and he huffed rattle cans from a crumpled paper bag. Often, he was found hallucinating on the village green, his mouth and nose flecked and shimmering with silver and gold paint, his breath a minty wintergreen. Everyone thought Mad Man Michael was harmless, yet, insane.
As he wandered the streets, Mad Man Michael felt the outcast, living amongst ghosts populating the landscape only he could see. They glared at him with their dead hollow eyes; always leering, always whispering. His whistling would increase in volume, and clenching his fists tighter, he would flick the Zippo lighter, which never left his right hand.
Residents of Rock Harbor remember Michael Coloumbe, always being a little touched. As a child, he’d run down the sidewalks lined by elms and chestnuts, screaming in horror, yelling about the ghosts in pursuit. Neighborhood children would torment him, running behind wearing last years Halloween costumes, while they howled like wolf-man from late night creature features. After years of this, Michael became the town pariah, leaving his home only to attend school and church. His parents, just like any good parents would’ve done, sought help for Michael’s condition.
In 1968, The Maine School for the Feeble Minded was still in operation, despite a string of accidental patient deaths which occurred during treatment. Electric shock therapy. Faulty wiring. The papers reported that the patient’s charred from the inside out. Like overcooked baked potatoes, they burst open, spewing gore across the white tiled room. The scene grisly, the deaths tragic. There were even drownings from Ice Water Immersion therapy. Some patient’s died from hypothermia, left to shiver in their rooms in sopping wet clothes. The deaths were shrugged off by the public, mistakes a necessary evil in the treatment of the insane.
When Michael’s parents delivered him to the white coated doctors that fall, just before Halloween, he was unaware of the exact nature of this visit. Standing on the steps of the institution, flanked by orderlies and nurses uniformed in white, he watched the taillights of his parent’s car fade away into the winking twilight. Spirits whispered in his ear, and Michael cringed at the hiss of their voices.
Ghosts populated the facility, just as they did the outside world. As a patient of the asylum and ward of the state, there was no escape for Michael. At night, he found reprieve in his room. Locked away in the dark, he found peace from the malevolent spirits that stalked his every movement. When Michael would walk down the long corridors to his daily sessions, specters would gawk at him, their eyes jet, cheeks sunken, skin ashen and corrupt with decay and putrefaction.
When doctors asked questions of him, he answered truthfully. Yes, he saw ghosts. Yes, they followed him. No, they didn’t come to him in the dark at night. No, he didn’t know why. No, they never asked anything.
Michael became withdrawn as time went on. The ghosts remained, and he was trapped inside with both the living and the dead.
His room became his sanctuary, and the night his reprieve. Michael began to barricade himself in his room, wedging the metal frame of his bed against the door. After orderlies removed the door from its hinges, they’d drag Michael down the hallway. Kicking and screaming and squeezing his eyes shut, begging to be left alone, he shrieked like a vampire dragged into the light of day. Michael’s regression only angered the physicians, and they believed it was time to purify the patient of his poisons.
Ice Water Immersion treatment only instigated resistance from Michael. When orderlies arrived to take him away, he would lie on the floor, limp like a rag doll, refusing to cooperate. It was during one of these protests, that it happened. In the scuffle and struggle this day—as Michael flailed his arms and kicked his legs, giving up on the approach of passive resistance—a pack of cigarettes slid from one of the orderlies pocket, skidding across the floor unnoticed. Tucked away inside the foil pack of Luckys, was a book of matches.
When the fire alarm sounded, thick black smoke already seeped and snorted around the edges of Michael’s door, as if a dragon breathed on the other side. When Michael was dragged from his room, the orderlies’ white uniforms was blackened by sooty air, and Michael’s skin was charred and blistered in patches. When the fire brigade put water on the flames, the crackle and his of steam conversion drowned out the whispering voices, as Michael faded out of consciousness.
After Michael’s burns healed, his skin now like wax paper in large blotches, the doctors took the next drastic step to cure him from the evils inside. With each flip of the switch, Michael rode the lightning bolt. His body rigid, he’d feel the current course through muscle fibers, and escape from his curled toes. As time went on, he began to wander the halls, laconic and aimless between sessions, a bit of drool always hanging from the edge of his lips.
When the Maine School for the Feeble Minded closed ten years later, Michael was released back to his parents, no longer deemed a danger to society. Although he still saw ghosts, his parents thought him cured. His only function in life was to walk around in a daze, staring at the ground, as he remained almost catatonic, speechless, keeping hidden the ghosts that plagued him. His father referred to him as, dumb and mute, his mother, cured by God’s will.
One peculiar item no doctor could explain, was the constant whistle that passed through Michael’s lips as he ambled around, shuffling his feet. The incessant melody filled the halls of the institution after he began his electroshock therapy, irritating orderlies, infuriating patients, raising the ire of all physicians. Now, the same tune would flood the streets of Rock Harbor, a lingering whisper hidden upon a sharp gale, preceding a storm.
Parts of Michael’s mind had come back over the years, but nothing ever good, nothing close to the semblance of a functional human. It was as if the current that coursed through his mind had destroyed all rational thought, leaving behind a man hellbent on his own destruction.
Michael was older now. Huffing paint. Drinking. His parents long dead. Their inheritance squandered on frivolous endeavors and unscrupulous local businessmen. He was no longer Michael. That name had been replaced by Mad Man, Michael now nothing but a surname. So, Mad Man Michael roamed the town with no purpose, no seeming intent, just his whistling and self-destructive tendencies.
It was on a cold autumn day that Michael found himself in front of his childhood home. He hadn’t navigated there with purpose, but instead had chosen a turn at random as he always did, he the minotaur trapped inside the labyrinth of his burnt mind. A pull, a strong unmistakable pull, stopped him midstep, as if some magnetic force prevented him from moving. Standing there, marching in place, his whistling grew louder and more shrill. And then, something strange happened.
A voice, one of the hushed whispers which haunted him. It broke through his whistling, and wormed into his head. It was a familiar voice, one he hadn’t heard in years. And then he recognized it. The ghosts voice, the whisper, was his own.
Squeezing his eyes shut, the lighter flickered flame, as his thumb rubbed raw from repetitive action. The voices told him to look. To stop and watch. Open his eyes. Frozen in step, he had no choice, and opening one lid at a time, recognized his childhood home.
Looking up he saw his youthful self and his two parents. The three of them walking up to that once home of his, happy, laughing, joyful in a way he had never experienced. They entered the front door of the home, the lions head knocker thumping as they shut the door.
Mad Man Michael stared at the house, searching to see the three ghosts inside, but they did not exit again. One thing he was sure of, he saw himself, and his parents, and they were all spirits.
Later that night, Mad Man Michael dropped the crumpled paper bag on the ground. The metallic container empty, it rolled down the sidewalk away into the bushes. But it wasn’t a rattle can, it was a can of gasoline. With a flick of his thumb on the zippo’s striker wheel, Mad Man Michael watched the inferno dance and grow in intensity. He whistled as flames licked at the inky sky with wagging heated tongues.
The firefighters ignored Mad Man Michael as they ran past him, whistling from across the street on the sidewalk. He was such a fixture in town, no one really gave him much thought. And they had jobs to do, with focus and determination on one task at hand, put the fire out. As the sirens faded away to a faint yelp, the firefighters could hear the screams of the family inside, that and Mad Man Michael’s whistling. Flame consumed the young boy and his two parents. Melted their flesh from the bone, their fat sizzling and popping in the intense heat. The Jorgenson’s, who had recently purchased the house, only living there for a few months, were dead, burnt to ash and cinder.
Mad Man Michael stood across the street amongst the crowd that had gathered, gawking spectators in their pajamas and whatever overcoats they had thrown on to witness the chaos of tragedy. A slight smile, the tiniest of smiles, raised his lips as he whistled, altering the pitch of his tune imperceptibly. As he stood amongst the crowd of ghosts that had gathered around him, he knew he was right as a child, when he tried to burn down the Maine School for the Feeble Minded. Fire purges ghosts, and he was the only living soul left in town.