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“Do you ever have thoughts about hurting yourself?”
“Have you ever thought about harming anyone else?”
Doctor Osbourne leaned back in his green leather chair. His slacks slid up and revealed long dress socks with red and blue squares in a checkered pattern. They were pulled all the way up and rising out of black dress shoes. The way the man dressed fit the exact image I held for what a psychiatrist’s wardrobe should look like.
But his dress attire was the only stereotypical thing about him. Everything else was different. That much was clear from just his office space. A simple room with one rectangular window on the second floor of a suburban Chicago plaza. The reception had all but three chairs in the lobby for the empty welcome desk to monitor. Nothing to suggest the man was anything out of ordinary.
“Well, that’s good, Ethan,” he said. “I believe you. And that’s going to save us a lot of time.”
It was the day I had been both dreading and looking forward to for a long time. It was the grand finale. The final hurdle towards reclaiming my personal freedom.
Of course, it was also poised to be the biggest challenge yet. This doctor Osbourne was sharp. It was going to be tough to slip anything by him.
“Before we start,” he said. “Is there anything you would like to ask me?”
I gulped while I held his gaze. He was a young guy. No more than a few years older than me– thirty-five at the most. You could see the intelligence in his facial features. His chiselled jaw was clean-shaven and his deep brown eyes seemed to peer inside you. The guy was a prodigy. He wouldn’t have been assigned the task of clearing me if he wasn’t.
It was all about getting him to buy in. If I could somehow convince him that he had it all figured out, he was the guy that could get me out of this mess. He had the leverage to convince everyone that I was sane, that I had nothing to do with any of it and wasn’t a threat to the general public.
Then, I could finally have the pleasure of mourning in peace.
“Not really,” I said. “Do you know how many people I’ve been forced to sit down and talk to?”
“I’m the seventh.”
“That sounds right. And trust me, the routine gets old quickly. So perhaps it’s best we get on with it. Start digging up the same true story I’ve told everyone else.”
He smiled at me. Not a casual smile you would give to humour someone after saying something foolish. But a smile that said he understood and empathized with me. Like he knew exactly where I was coming from.
“Ethan, I need you to understand something,” he said, finally dropping his gaze to the floor. “I’m not here to incriminate you. I’m not here to try and make you slip and say the wrong thing so I can piece together some kind of crime. I believe you are innocent. I just need you to give me enough. Just help me understand so I can put this all behind you.”
I believed him. I straightened my spine and cracked my back on both sides and felt he genuinely wanted to help me.
“So, why don’t you start right at the beginning? Tell me right from when Holly Bridges, Janet Kristo, and Alex Han showed up at your house. It was close to five-thirty in the evening, correct?”
He said their names like he knew them himself. The guy had done his homework.
“Okay. So, tell me what happened. I must know everything.”
“If I do that, will you believe me? Will you finally set me free from all of this? You have no idea how hard this has been.”
“That’s exactly my intention,” he said. “And you need to understand something. This isn’t my first rodeo. You know that. If I hadn’t seen every sick mental illness the human mind is capable of manifesting, then I wouldn’t be here.”
I gripped the wooden handles of the chair. The burning sensation inside my mind ignited momentarily before extinguishing. I readied myself for the performance.
“Okay then, Osbourne. Here’s what happened.”
He grabbed the pen and notepad resting on the wooden slab beside him. He looked very eager to hear me speak.
“Holly came before the other two. Maybe twenty minutes earlier.”
“I see,” he interrupted. “That detail is in all the police reports that I’ve read. I’m sure there’s a reason for that.”
“Yes, there was,” I answered.
“Were you intimate with her?”
My lips twitched before going still. I wasn’t even close to being ready to think about my relationship with Holly.
“And that’s the reason she came over before the others, right? So you would have some alone time to be… intimate.”
“Yes, doc,” I said, trying to sound as if I had regained composure. “We fucked before the other two arrived.”
“Why isn’t that in any of the police reports that I’ve read?”
“Because it’s an irrelevant detail. It has nothing to do with what happened and I don’t like to think about it.”
“Every detail is important in a case like this, Ethan. Even if you think it’s nothing. But, please, continue. What happened after the other two arrived?”
“Janet and Alex showed up together. They had been dating for like three years and I hosted this little dinner party as sort of a couple’s thing.”
I noticed him jot something down quickly on his notepad. He looked up and gestured for me to go on.
“So, they take their shoes off and come inside. They come into the kitchen and I serve them some Australian red wine that I picked up for like thirty bucks earlier in the day. We started chatting while I checked to make sure the potatoes were cooked all the way through.”
“How much did you say the wine was?” he asked.
“Receipt in your apartment says it was eighty-five.”
“Really? Seems crazy I would spend that much. I don’t even drink wine. I only picked that one ‘cause all the Kangaroos on the label caught my eye. But sure, maybe I was trying to impress them. Kinda hard to remember things like that given what happened afterwards.”
“Hard to remember? Or hard to be honest about?” he asked as he cocked an eyebrow at me. I started to feel as if he wasn’t really on my side at all.
“Why would I lie about that?”
“Don’t know. There are a lot of things that don’t make sense in your story about what happened that evening. Just want to be sure you’re telling me exactly what transpired. The wine was eighty-five. And yes, it was Australian.”
Him knowing the little details like that made me nervous. Exactly how much time had this guy spent going through all the reports and case evidence? If he was going to pick up on things like that, then he was sure to pick up on the necessary alterations to the truth I needed to make.
“I’m telling you everything as I remember. And again, the price of the damn wine is irrelevant.”
“I think so, too. Please, continue.”
It was time for the hard part. I was going to try and tell the next sequence of events without actually picturing them inside my head. Thinking about being at the dinner table always brought back the burning sensation inside my mind. If I thought about it for too long, sometimes I would have the dream again.
I shuffled my feet against the wooden floor and braced myself internally.
“So, maybe five minutes later, I decide the potatoes are ready. The steaks were already cooked and left in the pan to stay warm. I started putting the portions together along with some asparagus from the steamer. I told them to sit down and I brought the plates over.”
“Do you think there was something in the food?” He asked. “And, no. I’m not accusing you of putting something in it. But maybe there was something off about it. Maybe by someone else’s doing?”
“That would mean someone at Trader Joe’s was trying to kill us, then. Cause that’s where I picked everything up from. Figure that would have shown up in some kind of toxicology report. And besides, I ate the same food. Nothing happened to me.”
“Of course,” he said while he rose from his chair. “I’m a little parched, Ethan. Can I get you some water while I’m up?”
“Alright, then. Don’t stop telling the story, though.”
“Well, there’s not a whole lot more to tell. It happened just after six. We just sat around the table and ate our meals. The food was good, I even had the lighting looking nice with a few candles on the table. We talked about the new apartment they started leasing. There was literally no warning before it happened. They all just kind of fell flat against the table.”
The burning inside my head came back strong. The image of us at the dinner table, the one I couldn’t keep out of my mind when forced to explain what happened, started to slip away. And that’s the worst possible thing that could have happened.
After it faded, I started to see the ocean with little waves breaking in the distance.
I pressed my face into my hands and held my breath. Painfully, I pushed the image out of my head before it could develop. If there was one thing I had gotten good at, it was clearing my mind before it had a chance to set in.
“Stay with me here Ethan, I know it’s hard,” I heard him say from across the room. “Tell me in more detail. Three people don’t just fall dead from simultaneous brain aneurysms. It just doesn’t work like that. Something else happened.”
I dropped my elbows to my legs and looked back at him as he approached with water glasses in his hands. It was the face he was giving me. For a moment, I could have sworn that he had somehow peered inside my head while it happened. As if he watched me suffer with the images like they were twisted short horror films.
If only he could have known just how close he was treading.
“There’s nothing else to tell, really,” I said. “We were just talking, laughing, just as people do at casual dinner parties. I saw it happen. They all fell dead, right at the same time.”
“Was there one who looked to fall first? Even if it was just by a millisecond,” he asked as he passed one of the glasses to me.
Images of the dinner party flooded back into my head. I couldn’t hide from it that time.
All three of their faces went blank and expressionless. Their bodies wavered and their heads fell forward into their partially eaten meals, cracking the plates below. Holly’s glass toppled over and red wine poured out and soaked through the white tablecloth.
The burning pain was back in full force. I tried to escape before the image changed to the ocean, but I wasn’t quick enough that time around.
I was standing at the end of the pier. I could feel the wind blowing through my hair and the gulls calling overhead.
“No,” I said while I tried to look him directly in the eyes. “They all fell dead at once. One communal bang against the table. And I’m going to tell you the same thing I’ve told everyone else. I think they must have been fucking around earlier in the day. They must have taken some bad pills from a shady drug dealer or something like that. Yes, I know none of them have a history of being users and yes, I know that drugs don’t just do that to people. I’m fully aware of how far-fetched all of that sounds. But it really is what I believe.”
The bait was on the line. I prayed so much that he would bite.
He sat in his chair again and took a long sip of water. His dark eyes stayed locked on mine while he swished his glass around. He appeared to be thinking over his next words over very carefully. Then, he chuckled.
“Figure if that were the case, then something would have shown up in the toxicology reports you seem to know so much about, huh Ethan? But you know what I find more interesting than that?”
“How you start to scratch your elbow every time you lie to me.”
I looked down and saw that my nail was picking at little shavings of white skin where my arm bent. I dropped it and looked back towards him.
“I don’t know what happened,” I said. “I can only speculate. Just like anyone else, I can’t say for sure. Please, just let me out of here. Give me my freedom. Then I can start to cope.”
I already knew that the nightmare was never really going to end. I was going to be living with the damn thoughts circulating in my subconscious for the rest of my life. But I figured saying something like that would let him take pity on me.
I couldn’t allow him to truly understand it. He didn’t deserve to be dragged into it along with me.
Yet, somehow, he seemed to already know.
“What is that you start to see inside your head, Ethan?” he asked me. “I see it every time you stop to think for more than a couple seconds. There’s something specific that goes through your mind while you pause. And it hurts you. I see two different facial expressions. Two terrible things are rattling around inside there.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do. There are two thoughts inside your head. I’m confident enough to assume one of them is the image of your friends falling dead around your dinner table. But there is something else as well. There’s a second image, thought, or idea that follows it. It’s troubling you deeply. It’s so much worse than anything you’ve ever experienced before.”
I couldn’t understand how he could have possibly deduced that. How could he know about the second image? The incomprehensible thought that burrowed its way inside my head and would never leave.
And that’s all it took to trigger it one more time. Just thinking about it the slightest bit would bring it back. It was always the same.
I was back on the pier. Again, the wind was cool and the birds called from overhead. I saw the sailor standing next to me. He turned in my direction. His weathered face was covered by a long, grey beard that grew down to his collar.
Ships coming to port, he said. That was always his line.
Then, on the horizon, it started to form.
It burned worse than it ever had before. I fell to my knees, pressing as hard against my temples as I possibly could. I pushed out all the snot and phlegm that was forming in my throat. I tried so hard to keep from screaming.
I wrestled with the image for at least a minute, writhing in pain and barely able to keep myself upright. He must have done something to trigger it. He must have understood it in some way to make it burn like that.
I felt his arms grasp around my shoulders and pull me up. He guided me back into the chair. My head rolled back over the edge and my arms flopped over the sides. I was barely able to drink the little bits of water that he drizzled into my mouth.
Finally, things started to cool, and he must have picked up on that as well, because he didn’t speak again until I had fully returned to his office.
“Ethan,” he said. “I know you’re afraid to tell me what it is exactly that you see. I know that you think it will hurt me. That’s what happened to your friends. You told them about whatever you saw inside your head. You tried to explain it to them and they all fell dead when you did. I’m correct, aren’t I?”
I nodded at him. It was comforting thinking that perhaps he did, in fact, understand. Perhaps somehow he did know that some sick, twisted image had invaded the confines of my subconscious the night before the dinner party. I had gone to bed early and somehow ended up sleeping for fourteen hours, eating into the next day’s afternoon. The entire night, I had the same recurring dream. It only lasted seven seconds. And it would just keep playing over and over. Like a broken film reel. Forever stuck replaying the same goddamn scene.
“You’re correct,” I said.
“Okay. So we’re getting somewhere then,” he said as he returned to his chair one last time. “So what will it take, then? What do I have to do to pry it out of you? I promise you I can help. Tell me and I can start to make your pain go away.”
Once again, I detected that genuine desire to help me. For that, I will always be grateful to him.
“It’s not that simple,” I said while I pulled myself up straight. “It’s not like a normal thought or idea. It’s like an infection. I don’t know how to explain it any better. It burrows into your head, and you can’t get it out.”
“Okay, I believe you. Please, describe it as best you can.”
“It’s dangerous. I saw with my own eyes what it’s capable of. It sort of ground away at my brain while I slept. It stuck itself in there, and it hurt me. I couldn’t get it out. I tried to explain it to them… and you see what’s happened. But it’s weirder than that. For some reason, I can live with it. It doesn’t kill me. Just hurts me horribly. I don’t know if it coming in via the dream made me immune, but somehow I can live with it.”
“So, you think it’s something that can’t be fathomed properly by the human mind– except for yours, that is…”
“That’s exactly it. At least, that’s what I think. It’s like some kind of incomprehensible image that short-circuits the brain. And I swear that it’s using me like a carrier vessel. I’m its fucking host brain and it’s using me to spread to other people. Yes, I know how insane that sounds, but it’s really what I believe.”
“How often does it come back?”
“Once a day at least. More if I think about the dinner party or try to remember how I even slept that night. As you can see, today has been particularly bad for bringing it back. The pain never gets any lighter, either. But, it never kills me. Even though sometimes I really wish it would.”
He wrote something on his notepad then set it down beside him. He leaned forward and used his hand to still my shaking knee.
“I don’t think you’re crazy, Ethan. I’m going to tell you something. I have seen something like this before. In fact, I’ve seen much worse. I’ve seen things that you wouldn’t believe someone could even make up.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Ethan. Believe me when I say that I’ve always been able to help the person dealing with it. So, I beg you. Please tell me exactly what you see inside your head. Before I can help, I must first understand.”
“I’m scared,” I said as I lifted his hand off my knee.
“I’m not,” he responded. “Now, let me in. Tell me every little detail.”
And then I did exactly what he asked me. I closed my eyes and let the scene play out inside my head. I told him everything exactly as I saw it. It was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt.
“It doesn’t last long. Seven seconds. Every single time. I start standing at the end of an ocean pier. It’s a beautiful sunny day. I see directly out over the horizon, right where the blues of the sky and ocean meet. The sun is hot, but the wind cools you as it blows by. It all feels real. Like you’re actually there.”
“Continue,” I heard him say. He sounded further away.
“Then, you see a sailor, just a little to the left. He’s leaning over the railing, looking out over the ocean, too. He turns to you and always says the same thing. “Ships coming to port.” Then, over his shoulder, you see this black blotch forming on the horizon. It’s got these long arms reaching upwards from its center. Kind of like the tentacles of an octopus. You can’t turn away from it, no matter how hard you try. For the rest of the vision, it gets closer to you. But it’s not floating atop the surface of the ocean. It’s more like it’s eating into the frame you’re seeing, slowly making the picture blacker.”
I had to stop talking. I clutched my sides and tried to withstand the pain. It was almost over. It was almost time to start pushing it out again.
“Then, it restarts. And it just keeps playing until you force it out. The longer it’s there, the more it grinds you down. At least, that’s how it works for me. For them, once I told them…”
I could feel tears starting to form at the corners of my eyes.
“Their eyes just rolled back before they died, you know. They got infected by this thing and it’s all my fault. I hate myself for telling them about it every day. So doc, if you are starting to picture exactly what it is I’m saying… you need to force it out right now.”
The seven-second clip played a few more times inside my head. At least, that’s how it seemed to go, but when I opened my eyes, the room was very different than it was before.
Much time had passed. The daylight streaming through the window was gone and replaced by a pale streetlight. I looked at my watch, and at first I was sure that it was lying to me. It said that it was 8:30 PM. At the very least, four hours after he told me to explain the vision to him.
Doctor Osbourne wasn’t sitting in his chair anymore. He wasn’t looking back at me all calm and relaxed, telling me that everything was alright and he was going to make it all go away.
He lay lifeless on the floor. His eyes rolled all the way back. He’d been dead for some time.
I hope you didn’t picture this story too clearly.
CREDIT: J.D. McGregor
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