“Mrs. Holmes?” The therapist stuck his head out of his office tentatively. “Would you mind coming in here a moment?”
Catherine Holmes stood and straightened her coat as she walked into the small room. Her youngest son sat cross-legged on the far end of the couch, picking at his nails nervously. She frowned, wanting to calm her son by gathering him into her arms and hugging the bad away. Instead, she sat next to him and put an arm around his shoulder.
“Mrs. Holmes, you asked me to speak to Sherlock because he was having asthmatic attacks at school, yes?”
“And we’ve taken him to doctors, but there’s no medical reason. We were referred here by Dr. Sherman last week. He said you’d be better equipped to identify the reason for his asthma.” Several times over the last few months, Sherlock had suddenly become short of breath and struggle to breathe until he passed out in the hallways of the school and woke up in the nurse’s office. It was scary for a mother to constantly hear that her 7 year-old was passing out at school multiple times a week, and a few times at home, too. Mycroft had had to call an ambulance just a few weeks before, causing their frantic doctor visits to find an answer.
“Sherlock doesn’t have asthma. He’s been having dangerous panic attacks these last few months, and I’m confident that he has a severe anxiety disorder.”
Catherine was confused. “What’s triggering this?”
The therapist flipped through his notes from the last hour. “Your son is exceptionally bright for his age, but he’s also small for it as well. These two factors can cause bullying amongst kids his age. Also, his mind rushes out of his control. It’s a sign of high intelligence, but it’s also very hard to control, especially in someone his age. The feeling that his thoughts are spiraling away from him, and the teasing from the children at school are a little too much for him.”
Sherlock looked like he was about to cry, so Mrs. Holmes gathered him into her lap and kissed the top of his curls. “What can we do about it?”
“I have two suggestions. Having him skip a grade next year will provide him with enough intellectual challenge to slow his thoughts a bit, reduce the boredom, etc. But, for children with severe anxiety, I always recommend a service animal. Sherlock would be able to take it to school with him, and the animals are trained to be very relaxed and soothing, they’re also trained to see an attack before it comes and act upon that. Simply petting the animal may help him to calm down and avoid a panic attack.”
“Let’s do both. Anything to stop the attacks.” And with that, Mrs. Holmes accepted the business card for a service animal shelter on the other side of London.
“Go look around the store, honey. Mummy’s going to talk to this employee.” Catherine sent Sherlock off, running up and down the aisles of service animals. “He suffers from severe anxiety. I want to get him an animal for that.”
“Those are going to be over this way.” The trainer led her down an aisle and towards a row of glass cases along one of the walls. “Dogs and cats, mostly. But we do have an anxiety hedgehog, though he doesn’t get adopted. Which is kind of sad.” The trainer, Frank, waved at an annoyed-looking hedgehog through the glass. “These animals are specifically trained to be extremely calm and loving when they have their work harnesses on. They can sense an attack before it happens, and will often cuddle up to their patient to prevent the panic before even the human knows he or she is about to have one. When the harness is taken off, they behave like normal pets. Energetic, warm, playful, etc.”
“Mum, they have a talking parrot on the other side of the store. He mimics everything I say!” Sherlock had made his way back to his mum, tugging on the sleeve of her coat to come see the parrot.
“Sherlock, why don’t you take a look at the animals in these cages and pick one out?”
Sherlock looked ecstatic as he went from cage to cage, looking at the cats and dogs in fascination, even rapping on the glass of the hedgehog’s case a few times, until the trainer warned him not to do so. Finally, he came to a cage toward the end of the rows that stopped him in his tracks. Inside, a small, 2 year-old Irish Setter with a sleek red coat sat patiently in the middle of his cage, head cocked to one side as he regarded Sherlock happily. “I want this one.” Sherlock sat back on his heels to look at his mum.
“Are you sure?” Catherine wanted Sherlock to be absolutely positive with his choice of companion.
The trainer went into the back and took the setter out of his cage, gathering his things, and preparing him to be taken home. Once out front again, he took the harness off the dog and it went sailing across the gap between him and his new friend. The setter practically knocked Sherlock over trying to give him kiss after kiss. Sherlock giggled in delight, squealing, “OK, OK! Settle down! I love you, too, Red Beard!”
“Red Beard?” Mrs. Holmes asked as she took her wallet out.
“That’s his name, Mum. Duh.” Sherlock laughed again as he took off running down the aisles of the store, the Irish Setter following closely at his heels.
At first, it was hard to get Sherlock to understand that Red Beard was not a pet when his harness was on. He couldn’t play fetch or run around or let other children pet him when the black and white harness was around his middle. Not that Sherlock wanted other children to pet his dog, anyway. Red Beard was his. He purposefully put the harness on the dog around the house when Mycroft was home and in the living room, just so his older brother couldn’t pet or play with the dog. And if he tried, Sherlock would immediately tattle on the eldest Holmes, earning Mycroft a scolding.
Red Beard would sit calmly in class with Sherlock, his head on the boy’s knees under the desk and enjoying the gentle petting he would receive while Sherlock solved maths problems or ignored his english teacher. Once they were out of school, the harness would come off, and Sherlock would race his friend all the way home, collapsing in a heaving, giggling heap on the front lawn, Red Beard trying to lick every inch of Sherlock’s face that he could. Any time an anxiety attack began or hit him blindly, Sherlock would kneel on the floor, his arms around Red Beard’s neck, breathe deeply, and pet the dog until he calmed once more.
On weekends, Red Beard spent every hour without a harness on (Mycroft stopped even trying to pet him after the second week). The two played pirates in the yard, finding buried treasure and sinking other ships in daring high sea adventures, until it was too dark to see. They did chemistry together in the kitchen, until Mrs. Holmes banned them from doing so after Sherlock burned a hole in the wooden table with hydrochloric acid. Sherlock took Red Beard every where with him, told him everything, and trusted whole-heartedly in his only friend.
The attacks became fewer and fewer as the years progressed, and by the time he was 14, Sherlock had stopped having them at all. Just merely having Red Beard in the vicinity calmed him enough that his anxiety was almost unnoticeable. Then, one day, it all came back in a head-splitting rush.
“NO!” Sherlock screamed, throwing himself down to the living room floor and wrapping his arms around Red Beard’s greying neck. “You’ll have to take me, too!”
“Sherlock, please.” Catherine Holmes sat down on the carpet next to her teen. “I don’t want to do this. It’s the last thing I want to put you through, but we have to.” Sherlock began to cry and let his mother rub circles into his back. “But Red Beard’s cancer is too much for him any more. He’s going to die soon, dear, and if we don’t help him go, he’ll be in so much more pain before he can rest.”
The 9 year-old Irish Setter whined softly and licked his master’s arm slowly, carefully. “But... He’s my only friend, Mum.” Sherlock looked up at Catherine with blurry eyes and raw hurt in his face.
“And he’s been such a great friend. We have to let go of everyone we love at some point in our lives, Sherlock, and unfortunately, this is Red Beard’s time.”
Sherlock couldn’t cry anymore. He wanted to scream and yell and sob and throw himself into emotion, but he couldn’t find the ability to do any of those things. All that remained in his head was the thought of being alone again. It crushed him, stole his oxygen, and stars swam through the room as he fought to find his breath, his dog, his life. Sherlock couldn’t breathe. But all he could think about was Red Beard.
The next morning, he woke up early and sat next to the front door for hours on end with Red Beard’s head in his lap, a contented smile on the canine’s lips as his friend scratched behind his ear. At 9AM, his father came down the stairs to take Red Beard to the vet. Mr. Holmes didn’t say a word to his son as he gently lifted the dog from his lap. Red Beard couldn’t even walk anymore; he was in that much pain. The Irish Setter whimpered a bit as Sherlock kissed the fur on his head and watched his father carry him to the car.
Sherlock could feel another attack coming on as he let out a choked sob and tried to breathe. A hand on his shoulder calmed him down a bit, even though it did belong to Mycroft. “It’s exactly as Mum said last night, Sherlock. We must let go of everyone we love at some point in our lives. Caring is not an advantage. It’s just more goodbyes.”
Sherlock sobbed again and put his head between his legs and tried to stop his attack. It’s what Red Beard would’ve wanted.