He Used To Be The Bearded Baby

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(11,000 words approx)

Jack Hope Junior was born with a gargantuous red beard.  It was already perfect (as beards go) at the moment of birth.  On both sides of his face, the hair was sumptuous and layered, and at the base of the chin it hung low with the swagger of a rock star.

Of course, the Bearded Baby’s birth inspired a medical hullaballoo.  Here was a newborn child with something in between a hipster and a lumberjack beard stuck to its face.  And everybody knew that wasn’t right.  Almost as soon as he arrived, experts were brought in from around the world to examine the extraordinary child and these included medical specialists with decades of experience in extreme abnormalities and genetic disorders.  In particular, the hospital sought those with expertise in polygenic diseases, as well as single-gene disorders.  But after much poking and probing was done at the poor child’s expense, nothing abnormal was found.

Which meant the Bearded Baby was normal.  Normal that is, apart from the beard.

Extensive blood tests were performed on Jack Hope Senior and his wife Hattie, who the hospital staff had requested should remain as ‘guests’ in the aftermath of the birth.  Mum and Dad had been as shocked as everyone else at the sight of their newborn son but that initial horror had passed quickly.  Although they didn’t see much of Jack Jnr in those first few days of his life, what with all the tests being carried out on him, they loved their son and wanted nothing more than to take him home and get on with the rest of their lives.

Jack and Hattie were subjected to intense interrogations about their respective family lines, and in particular the hairiness of each one.

‘Did your father have a beard?’

 ‘Are you prone to coarse body hair Mrs Hope?’

 ‘Was your mother a particularly hairy woman?’

This went on for several days but the Hopes bore it well and after hours of interrogation, nothing unusual could be discerned about their family lines.

By then, news of Jack Jnr’s birth had spread all over the world.  Someone in the hospital had taken photographs of the Bearded Baby on their iPhone and leaked them onto the Internet.  After that, all hell had broken loose and the media had promptly surrounded the hospital in their droves, all desperate for a glimpse of the Bearded Baby and if possible, an interview with his parents and a selfie with the kid.

As the news spread, the world began to react and speculate about the meaning of Jack Jnr’s beard.

In the Vatican, the Pope interpreted the Bearded Baby’s birth as a sign of divine intervention.  “Clearly God is sending us a message,” the Pope said to his followers in a hastily arranged live broadcast. “Who does that beard remind you of, if not our Lord Jesus himself?”

“You think this is it?” asked one Roman Catholic viewer to another as they were sitting on the couch at home watching the Pope’s broadcast.  “Do you think this is the Second Coming?”

“Nah,” said the other one. “He’s ginger!  I mean c’mon.  Whoever heard of a ginger Messiah?”

The scientific community also chipped in with their opinions on the Bearded Baby.  Leading anthropologist, Dr Patrick Docherty, from Harvard University, suggested that Jack Jnr was indeed a sign but of another sort.

“What this tells us,” Dr Docherty said to reporters, “is that humans are evolving at a phenomenal rate.  We have clearly taken another step forward on the evolutionary ladder and our bodies are now maturing in line with our increased intellect.”

Other anthropologists disagreed with Docherty’s theory.  “At last,” said Dr Roger Fielding, of the University of St Andrews, “here is evidence of humanity’s regression.  We are regressing back to the primitive age from whence we first came.  Why?  Who knows?  But Jack Hope Jnr is indisputable evidence that for whatever reason, we are reverting back to our original animal selves.  If the Bearded Baby is indeed a sign, then he is a sign of humanity’s de-evolution.  I tell you, it won’t be long until we as a species are throwing off our suits and ties and crawling back into the swamps.”

By now, Jack Snr and Hattie had had enough of the circus surrounding the existence of their son.  They weren’t criminals and they had done nothing to warrant a lengthy detention in the hospital.  All they really wanted was to get their son back home, away from the prying eyes of the world and return to the sanctuary of their normal lives.

So they told the people at the hospital – the doctors, the scientists, the whatever elses – that they were going.

There was much resistance from the medical staff.  But the Hopes gathered their things together and left anyway and there was no legal reason for others to stop them.  Jack Snr discreetly ordered a taxi to come to the rear entrance of the hospital, and so they took their baby and went home, all three of them.

In the days and weeks that followed, Jack Snr and Hattie resisted every lucrative offer that came their way.  And there were many of them.  They turned down multiple book deals and even their own reality television show, to be called Living With The Hopes.  They turned down countless interviews, all of which would have earned them a small fortune for less than an hour of their time.  But the Hopes were intent on shunning the media attention and living a quiet life.  It wasn’t always easy but they forced themselves to spurn these tempting offers.  They knew the importance of being a good mum and dad to little Jack and that was all that mattered.  It was the simple things.   They had jobs and didn’t need the extra money to be happy.

But life in the spotlight was hard and things began to change quickly.

The paparazzi were a major problem for a start.  They hounded the Hopes from first thing in the morning to last thing at night, camping outside the house and it seemed like they were always on the tail of either Jack Snr or Hattie whenever they tried to go somewhere.  They followed Jack Snr to his office in the city and were frequently seen within the building masquerading as janitors, postmen and cleaners.  Whenever they managed to catch up with Jack Snr in the corridor or in the bathroom, the lucrative offers would come flooding in.  If only they would give up little Jack to the public eye.

But Jack Snr said no.  He always said no.

The paparazzi however, wouldn’t take no for an answer.  When Jack Snr continued to rebuff them, they tried harassing his work colleagues and offering them money to help change Jack Snr’s mind.  Eventually it got out of hand and Jack Snr was called into the boss’s office.

“I’m sorry,” his boss said, sitting behind a wooden desk and chewing anxiously on the tattered end of a Bic.  “But you’re just too damn famous Hope.  I’m going to have to let you go.  It’s not you – it’s those damn bloodsucking reporters – they’re following you everywhere, prying into this and that and I’d err…rather people weren’t probing our affairs here at the company.  You understand, don’t you Hope?”

Jack Snr nodded. “Yes sir. I understand.”

Meanwhile, Hattie Hope had taken maternity leave from her part-time job as a veterinary nurse.  The vet who she worked for, a lazy old man called Mr Rabey, had replaced Hattie with a younger girl while she’d been detained in the hospital.  This girl, who just happened to be a part-time catalogue model, was also an outstanding nurse too.  When Hattie found out what was going on, she was concerned that her maternity arrangement would end up becoming more than just temporary.  And she was right to be worried.  Not long after the Hopes returned to their house from the hospital, a letter came for Hattie, informing her that due to the extreme publicity surrounding the Bearded Baby, her presence would be seen as a disruptive force in the clinic.

She was dismissed, and now both the Hopes were left jobless in the aftermath of little Jack’s birth.

As these things were happening, Jack Jnr was growing up fast.  He was by now nearly three months old and his beard had thickened with age.  The fact that his parents had resisted all media attention only increased the demand for news about him from the outside world.  There were many other things going on at that time, such as war, poverty and climate change.  But it didn’t matter.  The Bearded Baby was hogging the headlines and that meant he mattered more than all those other things.  At least that’s how it seemed, judging by the way people were always talking about him and not those other things.

Meanwhile, the Hopes felt the financial strain of no longer working.  There was a mortgage to pay, on top of countless other bills and they also had a growing boy to feed and clothe.   It didn’t take long for them to work their way through their savings and every day they looked on in horror as their bank balance made the slow and painful descent down to zero.

Jack and Hattie began to panic about the future.  About Jack Jnr’s future.  And still the bills kept on coming, as did the warning letters that reminded them they hadn’t paid the bills.  It wouldn’t be long now until somebody was knocking at their door.  Until the electricity was cut off.  And God knows what else would go wrong?

It didn’t take long for the media to find out about the Hopes’ problems and in particular, their piling debts.  The old offers came flooding in once again – thicker, faster and fatter than before.  They came in from all over the world.  It was a thousand golden carrots dangling on a stick and the Hopes no longer had the luxury of choosing to ignore them for the sake of their principles.

The family were backed into a corner.  They didn’t want to give in and sell their son’s privacy, but what choice did they have?  None, not if they wanted to put food on the table for the baby and themselves.

“What harm can it do?’ Jack Snr said to Hattie, one night as they were sitting at the kitchen table, picking away at a dinner of one slice of toast each and a half a tin of baked beans.

“Let’s do the book deal then,” Hattie said.  “What do you think?  I’ve always wanted to write a book.  Look here Jack.  It says a quarter of a million dollars in advance.  We could push them for half a mil, right?”

“Right you are,” Jack Snr said.   Both his face and heart lit up in unison.  He realised that he was enjoying talking about these things – about money and negotiating deals and even the thought of fame didn’t seem too bad anymore, not if they could keep it under control.   Hattie was just as thrilled as her husband.  And with the thought of a bright future ahead of them, they tucked eagerly into their toast and beans that night.

Hattie and Jack Snr agreed to the book deal.  After cashing that first cheque for half a million dollars they quickly became open to other deals too.

Suddenly, saying yes seemed like the smartest thing in the world.

“Whatever we do, “ Hattie said to a gang of reporters as they were moving from their little house into an exclusive West End property, “we’re doing it for Jack Jnr.  The money we earn will keep him secure in later life when you know, he’s just a normal guy with a big beard.  He’ll thank us for doing all this stuff now.”

“For Jack Jnr,” said Jack Snr, standing beside his wife.  “We’re doing it for Jack.”

The Hopes made regular TV appearances from then on.  Baby Jack had come out of hiding at last and the world was thrilled to say the least.  The Hopes did it all – talk shows, panel shows, cameo appearances and a particularly nice little earner was the commercials for beard grooming products and shampoos.  This went on for several months and the money kept pouring in.  So much money that the Hopes eventually had to hire people to keep track of it for them.

Their most significant TV appearance was on the hugely popular, ‘Jimmy Ferguson Live Tonight’.  For this, the Hopes were flown to Los Angeles in the United States and put up in a luxury hotel of their choice (they chose the Four Seasons).  As well as talking to the Hopes on air, Jimmy had devised a little segment for Jack Jnr called ‘Who is the Hairiest?’  For this, the Bearded Baby was placed on a table next to a young Bonobo monkey and an Old English Sheepdog puppy.  An audience member was selected to come down and while blindfolded, she had to feel the face of the three living stage props and say which one was the hairiest.

Jack Jnr won.

It was a glorious night for the Hopes and after this, they were easily the most famous family in the world.  On the morning after their appearance on ‘Jimmy Ferguson Live Tonight’, Jack and Hattie were flooded with more lucrative offers and they became dizzy with the amount of dollar signs flashing before their eyes.  They discussed their future plans over a luxury breakfast in the hotel’s dining room.

“We should have done this ages ago,” Hattie said.  “We’re millionaires Jack!  Or are we billionaires yet?”

“Not quite darling,” Jack said. “But it’s only a matter of time the way things are going.  Let’s see what’s on the table this afternoon and how long it will take us to get to what do they call it?  Billionaire status!”

At 1pm that afternoon, the Hopes received the offer of a lifetime. They would indeed be set for life and then some, but getting the money came down to one condition.

They had to give up their baby.

Maxine Isserley, the world’s biggest pop star had seen Jack Jnr on ‘Jimmy Ferguson Live Tonight’.  She’d fallen head over heels in love with him at first sight.  Now she wanted to buy the Bearded Baby and bring him up as her adopted son.  To get what she wanted, she was prepared to offer the Hopes a whopping $100 million dollars to adopt him.

“He’ll want for nothing,” said Maxine’s representative, a slick clean-cut young man dressed in a designer black suit.  Maxine had sent her best man to LA to seal the deal.  Now he was sitting on the other side of a table in the Four Seasons’ restaurant, looking back at the two chalk white faces belonging to Jack Snr and Hattie.

“Maxine will give him the best life that anyone has ever given a child,” said the rep.  “He’s the luckiest boy in the world.  Before she saw Jack, she was going to adopt at least five African babies.  Not anymore.  Now she’s smitten by that cute little ginger teddy bear.”

“But he’s our son!” Hattie said. “You can’t seriously be asking us to give him up.”

“He’ll travel the world,” the rep said.  “He’ll be exposed to all kinds of cultures.  He’ll grow up surrounded by music, not to mention great artists and cutting-edge ideas.  Smothered in greatness and innovation – how does that sound?  Oh my!  What a human being he’ll become.  So wise and worldly. What an opportunity this is, wouldn’t you agree?”

“We’ll never give him up,” Jack Snr said.  “And that’s final.  Go tell that to Maxine Thissserley or whatever her name is.”

The rep sighed.  “Very well Mr and Mrs Hope,” he said.  With a delicate sigh, he got to his feet.  He reached down for his briefcase sitting beside the table and then stopped suddenly.  It was as if his entire body had just been turned into stone.

“Oh yes,” he said.

The rep straightened himself up and seemed to get bigger, like one of those inflatable wacky waving tube men that somebody had just blown air into.  “There was something else.”

“What else?” Hattie said.

“Oh it’s nothing really,” the rep said, sitting back down.  “I forgot to say that on top of the initial $100 million that Maxine is willing to pay you for Jack, she’s also offering $2 million dollars per year for the rest of your lives.  That’s guaranteed.  So even if a terrible accident was to befall Jack two months from now – and I’m sure it won’t – you’d still get the money.  $2million a year till you are both deceased, which I sincerely hope is a very long time from now.”

Jack and Hattie looked at one another.  Clearly this additional offer, combined with the original one had taken a grip on them.  A long moment passed in which they seemed to communicate without words.  They turned back to the rep at exactly the same moment and smiled at him.

“Supposing we say yes,” Hattie said. “Just supposing that is.  If we agree to this whole adoption thing and allow him to become this great human being – can we still see him?”

“As much as you want.” said the rep. “Please believe me.  Maxine does not want to take your son away from you.  She just wants to buy him and relocate him.”

And so it happened.  Jack Hope Jnr, aka the Bearded Bay was sold for $100 million dollars and an additional guarantee of $2 million dollars a year for as long as Jack Snr and Hattie were alive.

The press wasted no time in vilifying Jack and Hattie.  But the controversy soon disappeared as these things always do because something else always happens to distract people.  The Hopes disappeared from public life too.  Not long after the sale of their son to Maxine Isserley, they retreated to their own private island in the South Pacific.  They made no plans to see Jack Jnr again, such was the depth of their descent into selfish gain.

It was official.  Maxine Isserley, a twenty-three year old pop singer superstar with more social media followers than anyone else in the world, was now the adoptive mother of Jack Jnr.

Unfortunately, little Jack was terrified of his new mother.  For the first few weeks of his new parental arrangement, he cried every time the six-foot tall woman, who was covered in tattoos and sporting an electric blue Mohawk, came anywhere near him.  She was always singing too, and she sang as loudly as she spoke.

“You call me mommy now,” she said, cradling the screaming child in her arms.  “MOMMY, MOMMY!” With that she burst into a verse from her latest hit, ‘You’re the Reason I’m Crazy’.

“Ok sweetheart?  Me Mommy!  You’re going to be something special baby.  Something special!  You are.  Yes you are!”

Thanks to Maxine and her PR staff, the Bearded Baby brand went through the roof.  His new mother quickly set him up with his own Facebook page and not long after that, he was also on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, and all the other social media platforms of influence.  He gained hundreds of thousands of followers on each platform in a matter of hours.  In a day or two, he was into the millions and catching up fast on his mother.

When Maxine took him with her to the Grammys as her date, she dressed him in a diamond laced baby sling.  Jack (Now Jack Isserley) was front-page news all over the world and other more pressing concerns, such as rising tensions in the Middle East and the nuclear weapons debate, were pushed back to the middle pages.

The only thing that mattered – or so it seemed – was Jack and Maxine, or Jaxine as the press labelled the celebrity mother and son pair.

In the following days, weeks, and months, an entire industry arose around Jack Isserley.  False beards became the number one big seller on Amazon.  Some adults even tried to pass their infants off as being bearded by shaving what little hair they had on their heads and then gluing it onto their baby’s face in a shameless profit-seeking enterprise.  Many a poor child was hospitalised in the wake of the Grammys with facial injuries but it didn’t stop parents torturing their children in a bid for instant fame.  Bearded baby merchandise sprung up everywhere – t-shirts, hats, and guidebooks on how to increase your chances of conceiving a baby with facial hair – all were big sellers.

The initial medical concerns about Jack’s facial hair were no longer considered important.  Although a few noble workers still desperately sought answers as to why a newborn child had popped out of the womb with a fully grown beard on its face, most other scientists had given him up as a rare freak and moved on.

Time passed.

Jack Isserley continued to grow up in the spotlight.  Throughout his childhood, the boy’s beard became an even more magnificent thing – its original reddish colour had now dulled to a most regal shade of autumn brown.  Those who got close enough to Jack’s beard would wax lyrical and compare its power to objects such as the mythical Golden Fleece.  All across the world, artists painted it.  Sculptors sculpted it.  Writers wrote stories about it, and singers sang songs.  Sick children were brought along to touch it in the hope of getting better.  People confined to wheelchairs were convinced that a simple lock of Jack’s beard attached to their legs would make them able to get up and walk as if it were a miracle.

Bearded Baby mania was a legitimate phenomenon.  Not surprisingly, Maxine and her staff made sure to capitalise on everything, ensuring not only the continuation of Jack Jnr’s popularity but also her own.

By the time he was eleven, grown women were chasing after Jack Isserley.  He had become the most sought after bachelor in the world and they came from everywhere just to flirt with him – they came from the wealthiest families and even royal princesses from Europe made the trip to meet him.  They were all desperately hoping for a marriage proposal but for the time being at least, it never came.

When he was twelve, Jack Isserley was voted the world’s most eligible bachelor.  He came top in People magazine’s list of sexiest men alive, pipping George Clooney and Chris Hemsworth to the number one spot.

His life was indeed a magnificent thing.  It was just like Maxine’s rep had promised Jack Snr and Hattie that it would be all those years ago in the Four Seasons Hotel.

But then, that same year, something terrible happened.  It was truly catastrophic.  It was something destined to change everything.

Jack’s beard began to fall out.

It happened on the morning of his thirteenth birthday.  Jack was sitting in front of the mirror as two of his personal assistants were grooming his magnificent beard.

“Is it just me?” Jack said to one of his attendants. “Or can I see a lot more of my face today?”

The two world-class beauticians charged with grooming the beard became immediately flustered by the question. Of course they’d noticed the increasing sparseness of Jack’s beard over the past few days, but they had been too frightened to even consider the possibility.  Let alone say it out loud.

“Oh no,” said one of them, finally breaking down under the pressure.  “The hair is coming out! Mr Jack sir. Your beard is falling out.”

The other beautician screamed.  The one who spoke fainted at Jack’s feet.

Meanwhile Jack looked closely at his face in the mirror.  A trembling hand went to his beard and tugged gently.  His fingers came away with a massive clump of brown hair.   The hair itself seemed to have lost its shine and now it lay there in his hand like a wilting flower.

“This can’t be happening,” he said.  He felt sick to his stomach.  “What am I going to do?  What will Mommy say when she sees this? OMG, OMG, OMG! Hashtag Scared! Hashtag Despair!”

It happened so fast.  In just over a fortnight, Jack Isserley’s face went completely bald.  As this unfolded, he spent hours hiding away in front of the mirror, avoiding all company and having the most desperate Gollum-like conversations with his face.  With all his might, he willed the hair to grow back.  But the beard looked back at him and said no.  He prayed to God, but God apparently had better things to do than worry about the fate of an ex-beard.

Maxine Isserley was of course, horrified at the transformation in her adopted son.  The increasingly normal looking teenage boy who had taken the place of her unique and social media friendly Jack was disgusting.  By this point in her career, Maxine had moved away from music and had been concentrating on becoming an action movie star.  Her trademark Mohawk had long since been replaced with a more conventional platinum blonde crop with a side-swept bang.  But she still took her image more seriously than ever.  Maxine had also become obsessed with bodybuilding in her quest to look like an authentic female action star – and one who could genuinely kick male ass.

As Maxine had transitioned from music to movies, Jack had travelled with her occasionally, but the truth was that as he’d gotten older, the less of a novelty he’d become to her.  There were many distractions in Maxine Isserley’s life, boyfriends mostly, and Jack was just another thing that got in the way.  Maxine never anticipated that motherhood would be this demanding and that the child would change so quickly.

And now he was downright hideous.

“He’s soooooo normal,” Maxine said to her PA one morning, while she was working out on the heavy bag in preparation for a new movie called 88 Explosions. “The beard is gone.  He’s just a regular spotty Joe teenager now.  Tell me Ricardo – am I still paying two million dollars a year for that thing?”

“Yes you are,” Ricardo said. Ricardo, like many of her members of staff and regardless of gender, resembled whatever look Maxine was sporting at that moment.  The wannabe action movie star liked her assistants and staff to mimic her style in clothes and hair.  It made her feel important.

“The contract is watertight,” Ricardo said.  “There’s no way out of it.  You were willing to do anything to get him back then.  Remember?  Oh and for heaven’s sake Maxine – you’ve stopped punching the bag.  Throw some jabs!  You think Jason Statham is out there taking a break right now?  The Rock?  Huh?  Do you want to be in the next Expendables movie or not? Punch, punch, punch!”

“Fine,” Maxine said, getting back to the jab.  “But try and get word out to his parents that if they want him back, they can have him.  Will you?  I’ll even keep paying the money – I just want him to stop following me around like a demented puppy.  If that fails, then stop all his privileges, his income, the tutors, and the gifts.  Maybe he’ll get bored without all that stuff and just walk away by himself.  That would be awesome! Until then, keep him out of my sight.  I can’t be seen with him anymore – he’s just hideous Ricardo.  And suspend all his social media accounts.  People won’t notice anyway – not now the beard’s gone, right?”

Maxine’s people tried to make contact with Jack’s parents in the South Pacific.  But the Hopes were gone.  Messages were sent to anyone in the region who might have seen them, but nobody had heard anything from Jack’s parents in years.  The main problem was trying to locate which island in the South Pacific they were on as Jack Snr and Hattie had made a determined effort to disappear off the map.  The $2million dollars Maxine was paying them every year went into a Swiss bank account.  All Maxine’s people knew about the location of the Hopes themselves was that they were somewhere near the Cook Islands or French Polynesia, where amongst other things, it’s rumoured that cannibalism still takes place.

Jack stayed with Maxine for several more years.  The gifts and privileges did stop, and eventually his adopted mother and all of her staff largely ignored him.  He became like a forgotten toy that had been shoved to the back of the wardrobe.

By the time he was sixteen years old, Jack Isserley was neither tall nor short.  He wasn’t ugly, but he wasn’t particularly handsome either.  When Maxine stopped providing him with personal groomers, he took care of his own appearance, sculpting himself into a perfectly average specimen.  His reddish brown hair was cut short and he no longer wore Armani suits – he wore jeans and t-shirts.  He looked like a lot of other people.  In fact, the only unusual thing about Jack Isserley was that he couldn’t grow a beard.  Not one single hair would sprout on his face.

Eventually Maxine got so sick of him hanging around that she decided to pay him off.  It seemed like the only way for sure of getting rid of him without committing a criminal act.  One morning, a household lackey gave Jack a blank cheque with Maxine’s signature at the bottom.  The lackey told him to take whatever he wanted – but on two conditions.  The first condition was that he left the house and never came back into her life.  Never.  The second was that he stopped using the surname Isserley.

Jack was heartbroken.  Still he took the blank cheque as instructed, packed a few things into a rucksack and left the house.  He didn’t know where he was going to go next.  He could remember little of his life that didn’t involve living with Maxine, although there were some vague memories of two other people who must have been his real parents.  But nobody knew where they had gone.

He wandered the streets of Los Angeles in a daze.  No one gave Jack a second glance these days.  It was such an unusual experience for someone who had grown up in the limelight.  Nobody looked at him, nobody at all.  He had been celebrated his entire life, from the precise moment he was born to be exact.  He had been so many things all at once – a sign, a sensation, and extraordinary.  Even divine.

But now at sixteen years old, he was ordinary.  And every face that passed him by without as much as a glance in his direction felt like someone sharpening a dagger on his heart.

He decided to leave Los Angeles.  He would go somewhere far away from all the things he knew.  He had to leave the city behind – he had to go north and find himself, and the best way to do that was to lose himself in the natural world.

Jack Hope Jnr, formerly known as Jack Isserley, formerly known as the Bearded Baby, disappeared.  He went completely off the map and not long after he made the decision to travel to the icy northlands, he shut down his neglected Facebook page, as well as his Twitter account, Tumblr, You Tube, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Periscope, and all the others.

Soon afterwards, a cheque arrived at the headquarters of a large charity for orphaned children.  The cheque was made out for one hundred million dollars and it was quickly reported in the news as being a gift from Maxine Isserley.  Confronted with the news about her donations, Maxine had looked very shocked indeed.  So much so that she’d fainted in front of the cameras.

Not long after the news broke, Maxine Isserley was reported to be in dire financial circumstances – her generosity it seemed had gotten her into a bit of trouble.  To survive the crisis, she made a rapid series of well paid but terrible action films.  Her credibility as an actress plummeted and when she tried to get back into music again to reenergise her bank account, there was surprisingly little interest from record companies.  Her stock was ruined.  Still, she was in good stead with the public who believed that she’d given all her wealth away for the sake of helping children.  That was of little comfort to Maxine.

Meanwhile Jack travelled into the frozen wastelands that stretched way past the reach of the big cities and the concrete towns.  He hitchhiked for the most part and was fascinated as he sat in the passenger seat of many a car, watching the landscape change from industrial grey to a rich, mysterious green and white wilderness.  The further north he travelled, the colder it got and although these kinds of temperatures were unusual to him, he seemed to like it.  It felt almost welcoming.  Clean.  Soon he could see snow on the tips of the mountains in the distance.  It felt as if he’d left the world behind, or at least the world that he knew – that of noise, instant communication, and everything in a hurry.

Following his last ride, Jack got dropped off at the side of a long and narrow road.  All around him was the icy wilderness of the north.  It was at once majestic and humbling.  His intention was to walk and to keep walking.   There was no plan.  He would keep going until his life started to make sense again.  He carried a one-man tent on his back and some meagre supplies that would keep him going only for a short length of time.  He held no fear however, despite the lack of practicalities and preparation.  It was as if something bigger was calling him there.  Into that place.  He could hear it – almost as if it were a real voice speaking in his head.

Jack. You are closer now Jack. Closer than you have ever been.

He walked further into the wilderness.  Black spruce trees offered him protection from the biting cold air.  There were icicles hanging from the branches, like white crystal glittering in the sun.

For the first time in his life, Jack was truly alone.  Things had never been quieter and yet he’d never been happier.  He’d been in and around cities and large crowds of people all of his life.  He hadn’t had the opportunity to see how beautiful the simple things were, like the sound of the birds singing.  Now at last he was beginning to see the something that existed in the nothingness.

There is gold in this silence, thought Jack.

Winter closed in around him.  At night, the temperatures dropped well below zero but Jack didn’t seem to mind and in fact didn’t seem to notice at all.  He spent his days sitting atop a particularly steep hill in quiet contemplation.  He discovered meditation and began to spend hours exploring the inner workings of his mind.  Soon he had forgotten all about the magnificent beard that he had lost.  The people who had abandoned him slipped further back into his unconscious mind.  It didn’t seem important anymore.  It had never been important.

He ate and slept little, surviving on water and berries for the most part.  Soon he was nothing but skin and bones.  But Jack wasn’t hungry – in fact, he had never felt more full in his entire life than he did sitting atop his hill and exploring the inner world.

He returned to the hill every morning and stayed there all day.

And that’s where the old man found him.

Jack slowly became aware of somebody standing behind him.  He turned his head, surprised to find somebody else wandering around in such a remote location.  He had only seen a few other people since he’d gotten lost in the wilderness and that was back in the early days, not too far from the road.  But he was deep into this place now and not another living soul had been since then.

Until now.

The old man looked strange.  Not quite human.  He was dressed in sort of dark, monkish robe and stood tall, his face a bizarre combination of sharp angular features, with green piercing eyes and jagged ears that pointed to the sky. He also had a long white beard that flowed down to the waist. If he had to pin it down, Jack would have said the newcomer looked like a cross between a man and a cat.  A Cat Man.

catmonkcolored

 

“May I sit down?” Cat Man said in a silky voice.  He sat down without waiting for an answer.  “I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you Jack.”

“Do you know me?” Jack asked.  Was the Cat Man one of his old stalkers who’d tracked him down at last?  In which case he deserved an award for finding him in such a desolate place.  “Nobody knows I’m here.”

Cat Man pressed his finger against his lips.

“And yet here I am,” he said.

“And yet here who is?” Jack said.

“Someone who has been watching,” Cat Man said.

“Watching what?” Jack asked. “Watching me?”

“Mankind.  Watching all of mankind.”

Jack screwed up his face. “Why? Are you with WikiLeaks or something?”

Cat Man smiled.  As he did so, he revealed a pair of upper canines that looked like two long ivory needles.

“We are deciding whether or not to invade this world,” Cat Man said.  He looked up towards the sky. “My people are up there, watching and waiting. Always watching. Always waiting.  That’s what we do.”

Jack looked up at the sky, half-expecting to see someone looking back at him.

“You see,” said Cat Man. “Our own world was lost to us.  We’ve travelled across several galaxies searching for a suitable alternative upon which to establish a homeland.  We’ve found some wonderful planets, but all of them were already inhabited by good people. We wouldn’t dream of pushing them aside for us.  No, if we cannot find a beautiful planet that is vacant, what we need to find is one inhabited by a race of complete and utter fucking idiots. The sort of people that we’d have no qualms about evicting.  It’s rather like finding a nice house, but one full of flies you see.  One must dispose of the flies before moving in.”

“Are you an alien?” Jack said.

“On this planet?  Yes I am. At least for the time being.”

“You said you were looking for me,” Jack said.  “Why?”

The Cat Man sighed.

“We are not an evil people Jack.  Like I said, we will not steal a planet from another species if we think it’s wrong.  If the people are worthy of their world – if they are good people, then we will depart.  We have done this many times before.  It is not our mission to invade, but rather to improve.  In order to do that, we need to find an inferior species – the fucking idiots as I called them.  We may just have found them too but we need to test them first.”

Jack scratched at his naked chin.  Even after all this time, it still felt strange without the beard.

“You think humans are bad?”

“Humans are a pest,” Cat Man said.  “Even some of their own kind label them as a cancer on this planet.  Rapid overpopulation in most areas is destroying much of the ecosystem and natural habitats of local wildlife.  There is a strong argument that in order to save the planet, human beings must be exterminated.”

Jack shook his head furiously.  “No,” he said. “There are good people out there.  I think my parents were good people, even though I never knew them for long.”

The Cat Man laughed.  It was an unpleasant rasping laugh, dripping with scorn.

“Your parents sold you for money as a child,” Cat Man said.  “Your second mother used you as a fashion accessory to make herself more famous.  And isn’t it true that she and the rest of the world have since disowned you because of nothing more than a lack of of facial hair?  Because you grew up?”

Jack shrugged.  “I suppose.”

The Cat Man nodded.  “We are the ones who watch,” he said, pointing to the sky.  “You are the last chance for the residents of Planet Earth.  You will go back and tell them what I told you.  If they listen to you and treat you with kindness and dignity – if they give us some assurance that this world is in good hands, then we will leave.  And we’ll take you with us.”

Jack had been staring at the horizon.  Upon hearing this last sentence, he turned to the Cat Man, his eyebrows standing up and his mouth hanging open.

“Me?” he said. “You’d take me with you? Why me?”

“Because you’re one of us of course.”

Jack gasped.  For a moment he thought he’d imagined that last sentence.

Cat Man looked up at the sky once again, his eyes softening as if he were gazing upon something dear to him.

“You were created up there,” he said.  “Once you were but a little egg in our laboratory with all the right ingredients to make you what you are.  We inserted that egg into your mother…”

“How?” Jack was horrified.

“One day when she was alone, we drugged her.  She passed out and we underwent the procedure.  When she woke up, she must have thought she’d fainted.  Nine months later you were born.  And because of the beard that we implanted in your genetic code, you became the sensation that we knew you would.  But the real test – the reason you were born Jack, was to see how they would react to you when it was gone.”

“You knew it would fall out?”

“Yes,” the Cat-man said.  “It was all arranged.”

Jack put a hand to his empty face.  It was the weirdest thing – he felt like he was touching someone else.

“I’m an alien?” he said. “No wonder I’ve always felt so different.”

Cat Man nodded.

“But I don’t have sharp teeth like you,” Jack said.

“In everything else, you resemble a human,” Cat Man said.  “That way you would pass all their tests when you were a baby.”

The Cat Man leaned in closer to Jack’s ear.

“You are of tremendous importance,” he said. “What happens now – it all depends on how they treat you when you go back.  If they behave like a bunch of dick weeds then how can I say it?  They’re fucked. ”

“Dick weeds?” Jack said.

The Cat Man shook his head. “Sorry,” he said.  “My swearing is getting worse.  We get their TV channels up there on our ship.  We’re watching The Wire at the moment and although it’s brilliant, the language is atrocious.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Jack said.  “You said go back. I don’t want to go back there to Los Angeles. I’m happy here.”

“Go back Jack,” the Cat Man said.  His voice was stern now, the silk being replaced by iron.  “Tell them what will happen.   Once they hung onto everything you said and your words made headlines.  If you are no longer considered worthy because you lost a bit of hair on your face, then we will make our move.  Such a shallow breed of people – they are not worthy of this wonderful fucking world.”

Jack shook his head.  “They’ll reject me,” he said.  “Again.”

The Cat Man blinked slowly.  He cast his eyes upon the wilderness below.

“Do you still not understand Jack?” he said. “This is your destiny. Your beard was only ever there to fall out.  To make you suffer and to bring you here to me in this lonely place.  And now that I’ve found you, I must send you back to the world with our message.”

“The beard was my gift,” Jack said, talking to himself for the most part.  He hated the Cat Man at that moment – he hated him for speaking about Jack’s beard as if it were an afterthought.  And he hated himself for being unable to let go of that younger version of Jack – the Bearded Baby that everyone had loved for so many years.  Was growing up always this terrible, or was it just like that for him?

“No,” the Cat Man said.  “This conversation. The message.  This is your real gift.”

Jack felt physically sick at the thought of going back to Los Angeles.

“They loved you when you were young,” Cat Man said. “You must try to make them love you again.  Or at the very least – make them listen.”

***

Jack left the wilderness and returned to Los Angeles.

His first stop was at the home of Maxine Isserley – his former stepmother.  Despite everything that had happened, some part of Jack still regarded that place as home.  Unsurprisingly however, whenever he came near the mansion in Beverley Hills, he couldn’t get anywhere near her.   But he soon found out the reason for this was that Maxine wasn’t living there anymore.  The house had recently been sold to an up and coming Hollywood movie star – a necessary sale that was triggered by Maxine’s ongoing financial difficulties, which could be traced back to that charitable donation that had shocked the world.

From there, Jack managed to track her down to a rundown hotel elsewhere in Los Angeles.  He sat in the lobby, waiting for her to make an appearance on the stairs.  When she finally showed up, he was horrified at her appearance.

Maxine was now morbidly obese.  Not fat, but obese.  It hadn’t been so long ago she’d had the body of an action movie goddess.  But all the muscle that she had worked so hard to gain had turned to fat.  Now she waddled down the stairs like a hot-air balloon with legs.  She was out of breath by the time she’d reached the bottom step and had to cling onto the bannister, wheezing for dear life as she fought to keep herself upright.

It seemed the rumours that Jack had been hearing about his adopted mother were true.  That Maxine’s career had suffered a serious nosedive, that she’d taken some questionable roles, hit a career slump and that she wasn’t taking it too well.

Seeing Jack tipped her over the edge.

She saw him standing in the lobby.  Her eyes, two little peepholes buried deep beneath a seething mass of pink flesh, turned red at the sight of him.  For a moment, those red eyes reminded Jack of something – it was the two Terror Dogs from the original Ghostbusters.

There was a man standing beside her – a thick lump of a brute who might have been her boyfriend or even her bodyguard (she used to have six of those).

“Tony,” Maxine said.  Her voice was shaking with rage.  “It’s him.  It’s HIM!  Take him outside and do a number on his baldy little thieving face!  I’ll be outside to watch, just as soon as I catch my breath.”

 Tony, who looked a lot like the fictional Tony Soprano, started walking slowly towards Jack.  There was an evil grin of anticipation on his face and as he approached the young beardless man, he cracked the knuckles on both hands and let out a primordial grunt.

Jack didn’t hang around to find out what was going to happen next.  He turned tail and ran straight out the hotel and onto the hot streets of Los Angeles.  He didn’t stop there – he kept running, his eyes streaming with tears, not only at the sight of his mother, but that she’d ordered someone to hurt him.  Why would she do that?  As he ran, he heard Maxine’s voice screaming down the street after him.

“GET BACK HERE!” she yelled.  “I’m going to kill you you little creep!  You ruined my life!”

Jack gave up on Maxine right there and then.  He’d have to find some other way of getting the Cat Man’s message out there that didn’t involve the help of his former mother.  So he reactivated his social media accounts.  Maybe people were still interested in him enough to listen.   He started again from scratch as Jack Hope and in the biography section he wrote – ‘I Used to be the Bearded Baby’.  He began to send out a flood of tweets and Facebook posts with such eye-catching headlines as ‘The World Has To Change!’, ‘The Cat People are Watching Us’, and ‘Aliens Will Invade If We Don’t Fix Things!’

But for some reason, he found that people were no longer interested in what he had to say.

By the end of that first week he had amassed a grand total of seven followers on Twitter.

He gave up on social media and decided to try and get himself on TV.

After much hustling, he landed an appearance on a TV show called What Happened To Them?  In this episode, Jack would appear alongside some other child stars, mostly kids who’d appeared in classic 1980s movies – the type of kids who’d gone weird, turned into Goths, fell into drug abuse, or become porn stars ever since the disintegration of their cute looks had sent them off the mainstream entertainment radar.

The host was a smarmy and moustachioed middle-aged man called Chad Ronson.  Ronson was a veteran news anchorman who’d been big in the seventies and eighties and who now hosted crummy TV shows that hardly anyone ever watched.  Despite his smooth exterior however, Ronson was a seasoned interrogator and he gave Jack a hard time from the start.

“Jack,” Ronson said.  “Let’s not beat about the bush.  According to news reports and based on the sort of content you’re posting on Twitter these days, it appears that you’re now a crackpot.  Am I right Jack?”

“No,” Jack said.  He sat up straight in his seat and looked Ronson dead in the eye.   He was wearing a suit and tie, trying desperately to look like a respectable young man.  His hair was combed neatly and he’d scrubbed himself clean for hours in the bath of the hostel that he was staying in.

Of course he didn’t need to shave anymore.

“I have an important message to share with the world,” Jack said.  “That’s the reason I’m here today.”

“Oh yes,” said the host with a smirk. “I noticed that you’re trying to tell people on your flagging social media accounts that the – and I quote – ‘Cat People’ are on the brink of invading the world.  That’s absolutely fascinating Jack.”

The studio audience howled with laughter.  Jack tried to ignore them and to make himself heard.  He repeated everything that the Cat Man had told him in the wilderness.  But it was no use.  Nobody was listening or maybe the ones who wanted to listen just couldn’t hear him over the constant sniggering and giggling in the audience.

He kept trying though.  Not long after his first TV spot, he landed a guest slot on another show.  It was a pathetic excuse for entertainment – something that was broadcast in the twilight hours and that only drug addicts and insomniacs watched.  The studio wasn’t really a studio either – it was a crusty little man cave in somebody’s mother’s basement.  But Jack knew there had to be somebody watching.  After all, every little bit counts when you’re trying to save the world.

“But Jack,” the dishevelled presenter said, wiping the back of his hand over his nose.  “Isn’t all this just a cry for attention ever since you lost your beautiful beard?  The rumour mill’s been saying that you’ve been strung out pretty bad on crack cocaine lately.  Is that true?”

“No that’s not true,” Jack said.  He looked at the tubby, forty-something presenter who was dressed in a dirty white vest with something that looked like dried snot stains on the front.  “If all these bad things – these terrorist acts, the mass shootings, the hate, the ignorance – if we don’t at least try to get better then the Cat People will take over.  They will evict us from Planet Earth.  Trust me, this is real.”

The presenter nodded.  He appeared to be studying Jack’s face closely.

 So what did happen to the beard Jack?”

Jack screamed.  Literally.  Then he got to his feet and stormed out of the studio/basement, muttering something incomprehensible to himself under his breath.  As Jack walked, the presenter pushed a button on a console at his feet setting off a loud chorus of fake studio applause.

“So sad to see,” the television presenter said, cutting the applause to a sudden stop.  “Now let’s move onto our next guest.  You might remember Amy Dempsey – she was the cute blonde kid from Midwest Junior High and boy oh boy, does she have a serious crystal meth habit these days.”

Jack was at his wits end.  Nobody in the world was willing to listen to him anymore.  All they wanted to do was talk about the beard and past glory days.  The present was about to catch up with them in a big and terrible way – the Cat People were coming, but it seemed there were more important things to worry about.

But there was one final glimmer of hope.

Word reached Jack that his parents were in Los Angeles.  It had all been arranged by a tacky daytime television show called Rivera, which specialised in reuniting estranged family members.  Truthfully however, Rivera was nothing more than a circus style freak show that revelled in setting up confrontational encounters between people to attract ratings.

The producers of Rivera had seen Jack on the TV circuit second time around and had concluded that a reunion between the ex-Bearded Baby and the parents who ran out on him would make for good TV. Explosive TV – that was the term they used.

They weren’t wrong.

The producers spent a lot of time and money tracking down Jack’s parents in the South Pacific.  It certainly wasn’t an easy task but that’s how committed they were to putting this episode together.  They were almost on the brink of giving up when at last they found Jack and Hattie Hope residing on a small island in the South Pacific.  Unable to persuade the Hopes to return to Los Angeles, they settled for Plan B.  Plan B was kidnap.  They organised for the Hopes to be abducted and from there, a ship took them far away from their idyllic surroundings and back to the west coast of the United States.

It was all set.

For the first half-an-hour of the Rivera episode entitled – He Used To Be The Bearded Baby, Now He’s Crazy, Jack Jnr sat on the stage and was interviewed by host John Rivera about his past life as the Bearded Baby.  Rivera was a seemingly genial, middle-aged man with round spectacles, who gently probed Jack about his past life as the Bearded Baby.  He asked about Jack’s relationship with his parents and with Maxine Isserley.  Everything seemed to be going well but when Jack tried to bring it up to date and talk about the Cat People and the threat of invasion, the topic was brushed aside amidst yet another barrage of sniggers.

Finally the moment that everybody was waiting for arrived.

“Jack,” Rivera said. “Your parents are backstage.  I bet you’re dying to meet them, aren’t you?”

“I am,” Jack said.  The smile on his face was genuine.  It was perhaps the first time that he’d truly smiled since walking out of the northern wilderness.

Looking down, Jack saw that his hands were shaking.  He could remember so little about his real parents and he’d never dared to hope that he’d ever see them again in this lifetime.  “If anyone will believe me about the Cat People,” he said, talking to himself more than anyone else, “then it’s Mum and Dad.”

“Then what are waiting for?” Rivera said. “Let’s get them out of here.  Mr and Mrs Hope – come on out here and meet your son.  Again!”

A deep booming sound came pouring out through the studio speakers.  Drums.  The rhythm was primitive with an underlying hint of danger.  It was the kind of thing you’d have expected to hear the grass-skirted natives playing on a Pacific island in the eighteenth century as they welcomed the European explorers arriving in their giant and outlandish ships.

Jack also noticed that John Rivera was discreetly making himself scarce from the main stage area.  The television presenter shuffled along the floor, moving with haste towards the studio audience and positioning himself behind a large wall of security.

Jack tilted his head.  There was a lot of security on duty.  Who was coming out to greet him?  His parents?  Or the President of the United States.

A screen door slid open at the edge of the stage.

There was a loud gasp from the audience.

Jack Jnr nearly fell off his seat in fright.  He couldn’t remember what his parents had looked like, but their appearance was shocking to him nonetheless.  Jack Snr’s long grey hair ran all the way down to his back – he looked like a middle-aged Tarzan who’d acquired a beer belly with age.  He was deeply tanned and wearing only a dark loincloth to cover his modesty. Hattie also had long flowing grey hair, brown skin and she was wearing a short skirt made of withered grass and flowers.  Her large breasts were exposed for all the world to see.

But that wasn’t the most shocking thing about the Hopes.

Jack Snr and Hattie were carrying long wooden spears.  Not only that, they were wielding these sharp looking objects over their heads and running at full pelt towards Jack.  They were screaming some strange gibberish in a foreign tongue, something tribal that fell perfectly in line with the fierce rhythm of the drums, and much to Jack’s horror – their mouths were watering.

The audience screamed with delight and chanted along with the spectacle.

“RIVERA! RIVERA! RIVERA!”

Jack Jnr leapt off his seat.  His mother aimed her spear directly at her son’s heart but his father was quicker and got in there first.  Jack Snr’s spear came whizzing past Jack Jnr’s head.  It made a terrible whooshing sound as it travelled through the air at a hundred miles per hour.  Had Jack Jnr been standing a couple of inches to his left, then it would have been the end of him.

Jack was horrified.  He was trying to come to terms with the fact that his parents wanted to kill him.  Not only that, they wanted to eat him too judging by the way that their mouths were leaking drool like waterfalls.  Jack understood now that this whole thing had been a big set up from the start.  The producers of Rivera, not to mention the genteel and smooth talking John Rivera himself, knew exactly what was going to happen.  They were the ones who’d found Jack’s parents living on some godforsaken cannibal island.

“RIVERA! RIVERA! RIVERA!”

It was at that precise moment that Jack Hope Jnr gave up on the people of Planet Earth.  There was nothing he could do for them. They were doomed.  Let the Cat People come down in their spaceships and fire their rockets and blast them off the face of the earth.

But first, Jack had to get out of the television studio alive.  He ran full circle around his parents and made towards the screen door at the edge of the stage.  His parents were hot on his heels.  Hattie still had her spear raised over her head, waiting for the perfect moment to throw it at Jack.  But Jack was quick – he ran behind the sliding door and into a backstage area, sobbing and searching frantically until he found a spiralling staircase that led downstairs.  He threw himself down the stairs until he reached a fire exit.  He pushed the door open and ran outside into the fine California sunshine and for a moment it felt like waking up from a terrible nightmare.

But he couldn’t shake it off – the sight of his parents’ drooling mouths and the sound of the crowd chanting like it was all a game.  Jack had little doubt they would have sat there and watched his parents tear him to pieces and gorge on his raw and bloody innards on live television.

The young man formerly known as the Bearded Baby dropped to his knees.  All the buried emotion – the resentment of a lifetime’s worth of exploitation came bubbling up to the surface.  He screamed and hollered and cursed.  He looked up towards the sky, calling to the Cat Man and the Cat People, telling him that he’d tried his best to save these people but that the world had gone deaf, dumb and blind.

“They won’t listen!” he yelled.  “They don’t want to listen!”

His eyes searched the skyline of the City of Angels, waiting for the first signs of the incoming apocalypse.

“Come on!” he yelled. “Cat People. Do it now!  Bring down the ships.  Attack! Kill them all!”

He remained there on his knees in the middle of the streets.  A large crowd gathered around him and many of them pulled out their phones and began to film the young man who appeared to be having a nervous breakdown in the middle of the street in broad daylight.  It was almost a certainty that this footage would go viral before the end of the day.

Jack didn’t notice – he didn’t see any of them because he was too busy waiting for the Cat People.

He looked towards the sky.  But no one came.

 

***

 

Three years later.

 Jose-Luis Rodriguez worked as a night-shift guard in one of California’s most notorious lunatic asylums.  It wasn’t the greatest job in the world but it paid the bills, put food on the table and all that important crap.  On top of that however, the gig had some great perks and like on so many other nights, he was making the most of its greatest asset tonight.

He led the young couple down the long and white-walled corridors of the asylum.  Jose-Luis could sense that they were nervous and excited all at once.  All the people he brought here for his special after-hours tour were nervous.  It was all fun and games until they heard the crunch of that steel door slamming shut behind them and realising that were locked inside a lunatic asylum.

Sometimes they could hear screams coming from deep inside the building.  High-pitched, terrible screams – like the wailing of the damned.  When this happened, Jose-Luis’s clients would gasp and move ever so slightly closer to him.  This always made him smile.

Still, the fact that this young couple – like so many others – were uneasy alway reminded him that he wasn’t supposed to be doing this kind of thing.  But it was such a profitable side gig – the money that these people were willing to pay was ridiculous.  The income that he’d acquired from these twilight tours had brought him several steps closer to that dream Lincoln MKS.

He’d keep doing it just a little while longer.  Get enough money for the car and a little extra, and then knock it on the head before his supervisors found out.

He turned back to the young couple, keeping his index finger pressed against his lips, a sign to the young honeymooners that they weren’t to speak.

Not yet.

Eventually, at the end of a narrow passageway that cut off from the main corridor, they reached a door. Jose-Luis dropped his finger from his pursed lips and reached to the set of keys dangling at his side.

“Not a word until we’re inside guys,” he whispered. “Okay.”

The young couple nodded.  Blond and blonder, thought JoseLuis.  Rich and dumb, just how he liked them.  Their eyes were wide open with excitement, not quite believing that all this was happening.  That they were here.

Jose-Luis opened the door and led them inside.  He turned on his flashlight and the young couple entered the room behind him.  They found themselves standing in a padded room.  It wasn’t very big – about ten feet long and eight feet wide and it looked like something out of a bad horror movie.  The walls and floors were covered with thick chunks of white padding.

Jose-Luis pointed his flashlight to the corner of the room.  A young man was sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth in a steady motion, his hands wrapped around his knees. His eyes looked straight ahead, straight through them – two black flying saucers that saw nothing.  There had been no response to the arrival of the others – it was as if he hadn’t seen them enter at all.

“That’s him,” said Jose-Luis.  “That’s the Bearded Baby.  Now here’s the deal folks.  You got five minutes to look at him, but don’t touch.  If you want to touch his face that’s another ten dollars. Each.”

The young woman put a hand over her mouth.

“Oh my God,” she said.  “This is so sad.  I used to follow him on Instagram.  Look at him now!”

“I heard they found him in the middle of the street,” said the husband.  “Said he was trying to communicate with aliens or something like that.  Can you believe it?  How the mighty fall huh?”

The young man in the corner of the room continued to rock back and forth.  Occasionally he’d stop suddenly and look up at the ceiling.  It was as if he’d seen something up there.  Then he’d go back to rocking again, oblivious to the conversation that was going on around him.

“Can you blame him for going crazy?” Jose-Luis said.  “What a shit life, huh?  Maxine Isserley kicked him out when he was just a kid.  His parents sold him and when they came back they tried to eat him.  Sweet Jesus.  No wonder he’s crazier than a zebra in a horse race.  Poor son of a bitch.”

“I feel sorry for him,” said the man.

“So do I,” said the woman.

“Can we touch his face then?” the man asked.

“That’s an extra $10 dollars each,” Jose-Luis said. “Like I told you.”

The couple were happy to pay Jose-Luis the extra money.  As they touched what had once been the most famous face in the world, Jack Hope Jnr didn’t respond.  He just sat there, locked in that eternal rhythm of back and forth, while the three onlookers stood gawping at him.

Jack stopped moving for a second.  He glanced up towards the ceiling and the faint hint of a smile appeared on his lips.

Perhaps the Cat Man will come back tonight, he thought.

Maybe tonight.

 

 

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