THE NIGHTMARE WITHIN
The memory of heat and burning, of smoke and searing pain, shaped every moment of Maury Bennett's life. When he was eight years old, fire gutted his family's apartment building, killing seven people before the firefighters, some from two towns over, could contain it. Maury was lucky enough to regain consciousness in the hospital, thirty percent of his body charred black and nerveless, his skin as crisp as fried chicken. He had been the first of his family to smell the smoke and to see the flames as the living room curtains caught fire, the first to feel the raging heat bursting down the hallway, throttling his body like a malevolent spirit. Flames quickly engulfed everything, forcing Maury, his younger brother, and their parents to run with their heads covered with soaked bath towels through a gauntlet of swirling flames to reach the front door. The shared hallway outside their apartment was little better, the old faux-wood paneling a mass of tumbling embers and seething smoke.
Upon reaching the sidewalk outside the apartment building, the fresh air was intoxicating. But Maury was on fire, his Incredible Hulk pajamas combusting, his throat hoarse from smoke and screaming. Shocked neighbors stood on the trampled courtyard grass, their glassy eyes reflecting the shimmering fire consuming their homes. Maury's father pulled him into an unyielding embrace. He rolled on top of him, smothering the fire.
Maury had lost all sense of reality. Only momentary fragments rooted him to the conscious world. His father, still struggling to choke out the flames feeding on Maury's flesh, whispered repeatedly into his ear: "I never should have left you alone, never should have left you, never should have left…"
Rosemarie Clement reclined her ample body on Maury Bennett's leather office couch. She was staring into a panel of drop-tile ceiling, not focusing on anything in particular. She was trying to probe her soul, searching for a meaning to it all, trying to figure out why she had to be such a perfectionist. Why did she have to iron her bed linens? Sure, a small segment of the population ironed their bed linens, but she felt worthless if she didn't strip the bed naked before it had a chance to cool after her husband got up for work. Why did she incessantly wash, iron, buff, shine, scrub, boil, sanitize? Does asking that question lead to answers that she didn't want to face, that she couldn't face even if she wanted to?
Maury wondered how a woman could let herself become so insignificant.
The couch hadn't been a part of his practice during the early years. But he learned the hard way, that even when he wanted to, he couldn't accomplish the simple act of looking at his patients as they spoke. His palms would become clammy, and he would wait for the subtle hint of pity in their eyes. They would twitch after glancing at his melted-wax scars and then look away, ashamed. Their self-consciousness offended him more than if they gaped without giving it a second thought.
"I'm on the edge of this cliff…" she was speaking about a dream she had the night before. As if it were interesting enough to bring up in a meeting with her psychiatrist.
Maury closed his eyes and thought of his younger brother, and the night of the fire. Little Dale, with his dark brown hair covering his eyes, cowering in their mother's lap as she tried to soothe him. Maury remembered hearing the shrieking sirens and seeing flashing lights washing across the slate gray apartment building in chaotic waves. His father was resting his cheek on Maury's forehead. He cried as he held Maury, rocking him against his chest. The flames were gone; the searing pain attacking his skin was nearly gone, too.
Maury heard his skin crackle under the pressure of his father's touch. When he looked down he saw the scorched flesh of his arm crack and split, saw blood seep and bubble from his wounds. The worst part was that he felt nothing.