Written and Read by M. Jones
Greg looked up at the tall ceiling, briefly catching the tips of snapped-off sparrow wings that flew on broken bones, their disembodied fluttering leaving bright red streaks on the white paint. He caught Dr. Herberte watching him and quickly averted his eyes.
“So what is it you want me to say? How constantly seeing things is driving me mad, how I can’t live a normal life, how all my relationships are negatively affected by it and there is no hope for finding my place in this world?”
Dr. Herberte clasped his hands together as he sat on the edge of his desk. “Is that how things are for you?”
There was a surprising amount of empathy emanating from the man and Greg bit down on his pride. “No. I actually function very well, I have a good job that I’ve been paid well for in the past and that I continue to do. I’m still waiting on my North Korea commission to come through, and when it does I’m buying a condo just off Wellesley station. I am not driven mad by the things I see, in fact, they have become nothing more than interesting background static over the years.”
Dr. Herberte pulled out a leather-bound notebook, clearly as precious to him as his damned pen. “They do not affect you but you were hospitalized this weekend. You were witnessed arguing with the invisible corpse of a murdered woman for hours.”
“That was taken out of context.” He could feel his knee shake as he thought about it, and while it was true what he said, that he really was ‘okay’, the image of that girl, tossed into the ravine like that, stomped into nothing like she was garbage, was still affecting him. “It was a side effect of a very grueling investigation.”
“I understand there were many man-hours involved. The news articles were quite specific.”
“We’d been chasing after Salvo for a while. I’d been helping out June on the down-low, since I was the one who first found him as a suspect, and I’m no cop. I caught him in one of my photographs of city life at night, just a candid shot done outside of my flat of a crowd coming away from an art house performance. And he was in the far corner, arguing with a scantily clad woman. When she showed up dead on the news, that was when I contacted June.”
“So you involved yourself in the case?”
“I have a lot of experience with using images to get to the truth. I’ve been to war-torn countries, I’ve seen things that would make anyone’s mind ache.” He gave Dr. Herberte a sheepish look. “I guess I was being an ass. I was between jobs and I was bored and… And I thought this would be easy.”
“Clearly you were mistaken.”
Greg ignored the slight dig. “I got to the scene after the fact, the tape was just freshly rolled up and they were done. But I knew I was going to find something important. It was when I was going through the surrounding reeds I found bits of grass snapped, a heavy depression in the ground like someone had been standing there in the one spot for a while. That’s what Salvo liked to do. He’d go back there and watch the body he’d broken, watch it sitting there, not moving, in the ravine. The pictures told me that, from the angle he was standing, from the length of time it took for that weight to get sunk into the earth, he liked to stand there and feel justified over what he’d done.”
“Do you believe that’s how Salvo felt?”
“I believe it’s what the environment he was in told me. What was really going on in that piece of shit’s head is anyone’s guess.” He crossed his legs, forcing his knee to remain still. “I knew he was going to put the next one in a ravine because it worked for him. I just wanted us to catch him before it happened again. We didn’t.”
There was a long moment of silence that stretched too long and Greg felt sick inside of it. “You are telling me you feel you have failed,” Dr. Herberte said, and Greg wanted to slap him.
“She was just a kid. It was sick as fuck what she had to do every night anyway and it was like pouring acid on a broken bone. It really bothered me.” He could feel her blood on his hands, the slick warmth as he pressed his palms together, his body shaking at the memory that constantly assailed him. “I’ve been to some pretty intense places in the world. I learned to never get too close to the story, to just get the relevant pictures and get out, that’s the easiest way to survive. But this kid was different. When I studied the first scene and the other ones before that…I had the story of these girls in my head. They had names. They weren’t numbers on a killing field’s body count.”
It made him nervous, the way Dr. Herberte was so intensely listening.
“It got personal, that’s all. I couldn’t just put it in the background like I usually do.” Greg sighed, and ran his hands across his face, feeling the thick stubble of his rough beard growing in. “I guess that’s why she’s in with me now and won’t leave. That image of her death is part of my subconscious wallpaper.”
“What you are talking about has nothing to do with hallucination, Mr. Wells. What you are experiencing is guilt.”
Emotion attacked Greg and a lump that felt like a sharp stone wedged its way into his throat. “I wasn’t the one who killed her.”
“You thought you could prevent it.”
“I should have been able to.”
“No one can predict the whims of the universe. What is it Kafka says? ‘My guiding principle is this, no guilt is to be doubted’. Kafka assures us we are perpetually guilty and it is pointless to condemn a man. So why, Mr. Wells, do you condemn yourself? The prison you are putting yourself in is where all of humanity belongs, for we are all guilty of something.” His stiff posture relaxed the more he talked, and he shifted his weight on the desk until his legs were dangling over its edge, a strangely whimsical pose. “When did your chronic hallucinations start?”
Greg shrugged. “About seven years ago, when I was nearly murdered in Darfur. I was in a UN truck, and they were doing a supply run for some of the refugees near the border. It had been a long week and I was trying to catch some sleep. We got ambushed and two doctors were shot and they found me when they raided the truck. All I remember was the kid, he couldn’t have been more than ten years old, and his eyes were so black, so empty… I know it’s such a cliché thing to say about a killer, but this was just a little kid…”
Greg took a shaky breath. “They say he put a six-inch knife into the top of my skull, pushed it right in to the hilt. Him and his bandit buddies ran like the devil was after them when I got up and started walking, calling me a ‘popobawa’. I don’t remember a thing after that, the UN survivors got me back to camp and got an emergency plane to take me to a hospital in one of the military bases in Dubai. My publisher, the one who sent me on the assignment, he told me I was in a coma for a month.”
“Did it take long for you to rehabilitate following the injury?”
“No. When I woke up everything was fine. No cognitive issues, no seizures or palsy, a big miracle they said. The hallucinations have been a gradual buildup, they didn’t start until a week after I got home. I woke up one night and saw the floor of my apartment turn into blood, and it was so real I could feel its heat and the chunks of tissue between my toes when I tried to get from my bed to the bathroom.”
“That must have been terrifying.”
“At the time, yeah, but once I figured out it wasn’t real not so much.”
“Are you still frightened by what you see?”
Greg gave Dr. Herberte a small smile. He watched, fascinated as a silver tendril, identical to a branch, began to expand out of the man’s ear, the bloodied sparrow wings transformed into metallic feathers as they blossomed from the knots on the root. “Not always,” he said, telling the truth. “And sometimes they’re even useful.”
“Of course they are,” Dr. Herberte said, and he braced his hands on the edge of his desk as he pushed back to sit more comfortably on its surface, his special pen and ink carefully placed to one side. A tangled knot of silver thorns erupted over his fingers, with flowers comprised of insect wings delicately blooming within it. “Your hallucinations are the creation of your subconscious. They give you insight into your feelings and impressions, I would even dare to say the deeper portions of your being. This may explain why you were affected so deeply after witnessing that murdered young woman. You denied your hallucination, tried to push her away, but she was woven in too tightly with your feelings of guilt. In terms of how you personally could best cope with the tragedy, not engaging with her would have been a terrible mistake.”
Dr. Herberte’s phone began to ring. “Désolé. Un moment.” He didn’t answer it, turning off the ringer instead. Greg noticed there were six other calls waiting for Dr. Herberte’s attention, and he had ignored them all.
“Someone really wants to get a hold of you if they are calling after hours.”
“Pas du tout…Cette personne only wants to talk to me to try to weasel their way back into my life to use me until there is nothing left but to threaten me. Such people… We love them even when they do not deserve it.”
Greg felt a pang of concern. “If they are threatening you, you should contact the police.”
“Non, c’est riens. It is nothing. But it does bring up the topic of unfortunate relationships, of which I was meaning to ask of you. Do you find it difficult relating to others?”
“No,” Greg said, thinking of his little flat above the bar, about how well he got on with the owner and even some of the regulars who perched at the stools at all hours of the day. Of the close bond he now shared with June and Rita, and even Rita’s stern father. “The problem is with other people when I tell them about my condition. They think it means I’m going to start asking to board the mothership and bring them along with me.” He grinned at the thought of June’s card and her words of warning. “I don’t have a problem making the right kinds of friends, they find me eventually. I’m pretty picky with who I want in my life. I’ve made mistakes like everyone else. I like my time alone and I like people who can respect that.”
“Have you been picky, as you say, with your romantic interests as well? Does your girlfriend understand the challenges you face every day?”
“I don’t have a girlfriend.” Greg narrowed his eyes at the question, wondering why it was suddenly brought up. “Much as I like women, sleeping with them doesn’t interest me.”
“Ah, bien sur, you are homosexual, non?” He watched Dr. Herberte reach behind him and make a note in pencil on a loose piece of paper. “Je suis désolé, I worded that question entirely inappropriate. Allow me to rephrase: Are you currently involved with someone?”
Aren’t you a cheeky little fish, Greg thought. He grinned up at Dr. Herberte, making sure his charm was in full force. It started working immediately, the man’s pride battling fiercely with a hidden shyness that expressed itself in his sudden need to busy himself with his notes. It was every inch of adorable to witness.
This was definitely turning into a much more interesting appointment than Greg had anticipated.
Careful, Doctor. I’m starting to think you’re cute.
“I’m not seeing anyone.” Greg sighed, and stretched his arms behind his head. “I was in love with my work for a long while, and the few relationships I have had involved me not giving the support they felt they needed. I can see how things fizzled out, they didn’t share my interests, and we ended up strangers at the end. Once the hallucinations started becoming a part of my life, it’s been very difficult trying to find someone willing to take that on. It was hard before, but now it’s even more complicated when I start arguing with my imaginary friends.”
“I argue with my cat,” Dr. Herberte said. “Some people may think that’s the same thing.”
Greg picked tiny, invisible beetles off of the knee of his jeans. “I don’t even have pets. Well, not real ones, anyway. I don’t sleep much, so some nights I go out into the alley behind the bar at early hours, like two a.m. or three. And there’s this coyote that comes around, poking at the garbage. There’s lots of them in the city; you don’t know they’re there unless someone bitches that they ate a toy poodle.”
Greg bit his bottom lip, not meeting Dr. Herberte’s gaze. “So, he’s kind of like me, this coyote. He’s part of this urban decay but there’s another part of him that isn’t, that’s still looking for the forest, that part of him that’s real. I’ve been leaving some dog food out for him when I see him, and while I know he’d rip my throat out at first opportunity, I understand that about him. That’s who he really is. There’s no illusion that he’s ever going to be tame enough for me to touch him without him biting me and taking off. I stay on the back stairs and he stays on the ground eating what I’ve offered him, and we’re peaceful like that. Just a couple of guys trying to make it through the mad shit all around us.”
Greg tapped his fingers on the soft leather armrests. “So. Is this the part where you start throwing pills at me and tell me the benefits of electrical shock therapy?”
“Such practises are no longer legal. You are not insane and you are not in need of medications. I am not even certain that therapy with me would be of any real benefit to you. I am curious, however, what things you do to help ground you to reality. It is common for those with your condition to experience very vivid waking dreams and these are usually quite frightening.”
Greg felt his mouth go dry. His eye itched and when he blinked he could feel the ghost of an iron nail scraping beneath the lid. “I tend to still have issues with that. I usually try to stay awake as long as I can so when I sleep it’s like the dead. There’s been more than a few really bad early mornings…” He gave Dr. Herberte a sheepish look, as though he had failed some unknown test.
But if he had, Dr. Herberte was clearly oblivious. “C’est normale. Do you have someone you can call?”
Greg shook his head. “Not really. Nobody likes being woken up by someone else’s night terrors.”
“I do not mind at all.” Dr. Herberte handed him a small white card, his name embossed on it in simple, elegant letters. “This is my professional card I use with fellow associates. As you can see, my home phone number is there on the bottom left. Do not hesitate to call me, day or night.”
“That’s very generous.” Greg took the card, his fingers brushing against Dr. Herberte’s just that little bit too long as he folded it within his palm. Was that a small twitch in the corner of the doctor’s mouth, a warning shot of electrical, inappropriate interest?
Greg certainly hoped so.
“Shall I pencil you in for next week? Same time?”
“Put it in ink. I’ll be here.” He gave Dr. Herberte a warm smile. “I’ll be an hour early next time. That’ll be my strict appointment rule.”
He was about to leave when the door was pulled open by a slender blonde woman brandishing a very large bottle of wine and a couple of spotty wine glasses. “Oh, sorry, Leon, I didn’t know you had company…”
“He is a patient,” Dr. Herberte quickly said.
The door to her office next door was wide open, revealing a larger, smarter space drenched in dark browns and black furnishings, and row upon row of leather bound law books. “Dana Countreau, Attorney At Law. When you need a lawyer, let me know.”
“I don’t need a lawyer…” Greg began, but she held up her delicately manicured hand, stopping him.
“Oh yes. You will. Trust me on that.”
With that, Greg bid them both a goodbye, his flirtatious mood somewhat quashed by her arrival. But it was clear that they were nothing more than platonic friends—no kisses, no hugs, just a bottle of wine and her laugh that was rough and ended in an ugly snort.
He wasn’t sure why he felt relieved.
Dana poured Leon a generous glass, one he wasn’t in the mood to drink. She ducked her head out of his office and when the coast was clear said to him, “That one was cute.”
Leon took the glass of wine and drank a large mouthful with annoyed pique. “He is my patient.”
“Refer him to someone else and jump him. It’s about time you put something in your bed other than Psychology Now.” Dana gulped at her wine, and flopped into the leather chair, spilling a good quarter of it onto the armrest. She delicately crossed her legs, her monstrously high heels happily discarded to free her aching, stockinged feet. She rubbed at her heel with her free hand, doing all she could to bring the feeling back into them. “Don’t just stand there, play the messages.”
“The walls are thin in this dump and she’s been calling all day. Beastie Badass told me it was nasty.” She took another gulp of wine. “You need to go to the police.”
Leon held the glass of wine with a slightly shaking grip. Dana had become his fast friend when he’d started his practise there over ten years ago, and there was nothing she didn’t know about him. It was healthy having a good friend whom one could rely on when backed into a corner, but the phone calls from Sabine were a worry he did not want to include her in. The fact that she dared to call him meant she was desperate, and he was loath to know what Sabine was capable of in that state. Right now the torture was fairly benign, she was simply pulling on all the old hurts and diving her hand into the wounds she’d given him in the past, newly infecting them.
“She is my sister.” The excuse felt sick on his tongue.
Dana was no fool. “Take a page from your own book, Leon; you’re rationalizing what you feel you need to do. The facts are she is a lunatic with a work ethic, and if she says she’s going to destroy you, that’s exactly what she plans on doing.”
Leon stared emptily at his phone, the six unheard messages taunting him with violence and hatred. He couldn’t understand how it had come to this; he had been a good man his entire life. He helped people. He helped her so much more than anyone else, his care spiraling into an endless chasm of constant need until there was nothing left of it.
A sudden, flashback rush of sibling history met him like teeth at his throat and he closed his eyes against it, his breath caught. He tried to prevent the sob from escaping, but it leapt out the moment he tried to breathe. His shoulders shook as Dana placed gentle arms around him.
“Go home, Leon. I’ll lock up.”
Dana opened her mouth, ready to argue, only for the effort to be completely deflated by Leon’s palpable pain. He was hurt for her having to witness this, the torture doubled when she sighed, her decision solely for the well-being of her friend and not for the instinctive fight she desperately wanted to have.
“Don’t worry about it, Leon,” she said. “I’ll get rid of them.”
© 2016 Copyright M. Jones
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