On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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It was the fifth Wednesday of the year, Phillips noted as he looked at the wall calendar in the waiting room.
A new detail, he thought. It was something to relish; a rare experience for him. When the clock on the wall ticked over to nine AM, the receptionist told him to go on in, and so he did.
Dr. Hill was sitting in her chair, as usual, with her glass of tonic water on the little table beside her. She stood up as Phillips entered, as she always did.
“Mr. Phillips,” she said, smiling but not moving to approach him. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Phillips nodded. “Likewise,” he replied, then he went straight to the other chair that she always invited him to sit in. Hill watched him as he went, and she sat down at the same time as he did.
Hill opened her mouth, but Phillips spoke before she could say her standard opener — the one that asked, entirely unnecessarily, what he was hoping to get from these sessions.
“We both know why I’m here,” Phillips began, and Hill nodded, attentive but with a neutral expression. “But I’d like to deviate from that to talk about something else first.”
Hill nodded, as if this wasn’t an unusual request, and Phillips was inwardly amused. He’d said the same thing to her hundreds of times, and she’d always agreed. But of course she had no idea about that. She’d never met him before two minutes ago.
“And if you wouldn’t mind, I’d just like to jump straight into it,” Phillips added. He could say these lines in his sleep by now. They felt like a performance, which he supposed they actually were, when you got right down to it. “We can fill in all my background and so on later. I’d like to talk about a few specific things before we get more general.”
“That’s fine,” Dr. Hill replied, with a small smile. “This is a—”
Patient-guided process, and you should always feel free to set the agenda for each session, Phillips recited in his mind.
“—patient-guided process, and you should always feel free to set the agenda for each session,” she said, and he nodded in acknowledgement.
“Thank you,” Phillips replied, right on cue, just as he did each morning.
He’d made the initial approach to her during a time of severe personal crisis. He had no real idea how long ago it had been, but his best estimate was in the region of two or three years before today.
It was a strange word for him. It used to be a trivial, temporary sort of word, but it had grown so much larger. It was now more like words such as world, and universe, and everything. Or perhaps microcosm. The day that encapsulated his whole life, because it had become his whole life.
Phillips could still recall when he’d lurched into this very office, having made the phone call for an emergency appointment only an hour earlier, badgering the receptionist into putting him through to the psychologist herself, and rambling at her until she’d agreed to see him. That session had been just after lunch time. He’d got much better at making the initial phone call since then, and could now secure the nine AM slot effortlessly, every single day.
He had to lie, of course, which was what he’d been referring to when he’d said that they both knew why he was here. The standard lie these days was suicidal thoughts, and it was an easy lie because he’d spent months when it wasn’t a lie at all. He’d even spent weeks actually killing himself, slowly and quickly, but to no avail. And then he’d managed to get past all that, thanks to Dr. Hill’s help, day by day.
It would be enough to drive anyone to suicide eventually, Phillips had come to realise. Waking up one day and realising that it was still yesterday, repeating, and the same the next day, and the next, forever. He had lived through this single day that was his temporal prison thousands of times already. They had been dark days, for much of it. Perhaps he would talk about them, in time.
He had committed every kind of crime, when he was at his lowest point. He had shed every shackle of society in his desperation, knowing that tomorrow would never come and thus there would never be any consequences. He had ended the day in jail cells and hospital beds and lying bleeding in alleyways and burning vehicles. But then he always woke up in the same bed; the one in the shabby little hotel, just as he had eighteen hours earlier. Each day erased, and all the pieces reset, ready to try again.
Phillips had spent a month at some point trying to work out if there was some purpose he was meant to fulfil, but no matter what he did, it changed nothing. He had rescued stray animals, and helped old ladies carry things, and given money to homeless people, and even run into a burning building — which resulted in a particularly painful death, and the same reset as usual.
When even suicide had failed, again and again, he sought the help of a mental health professional, and he’d been going to her ever since. She met him anew, for the first time, every morning, and Phillips did his best to create some sort of continuity of therapy for himself. It was remarkable how far he’d come.
Dr. Hill — in what to her was always their very first hour-long session — had helped him to process his childhood, and the mistrust that came from several unhealthy relationships during late adolescence, and his flirtation with substance abuse during his mid-twenties. It would have been useful, once upon a time, to also deal with his profound dissatisfaction with his job, but of course he didn’t really have a job anymore. He hadn’t worked in years. Phillips had last been in the office two days ago by the calendar, but that time was remote and isolated from him now, as unreachable as a star system already farther away than the rate of the expansion of the universe.
“I really feel like therapy can be a huge help to me,” Phillips began, as had become his custom. “And I feel like I can trust you, Dr. Hill. I already feel a lot better just being here.”
She smiled, still a little uncertain but seemingly reassured, and Phillips settled back into his chair. He’d become very good at reading her facial expressions and body language. And he’d become fond of her, too; after all, how could he not? She’d heard so many intimate details of his life, even though she had no recollection of any of it, and he’d made enormous psychological strides right here in her presence. In truth, a part of him probably loved her. But that was a foolish thought.
“Today,” he said, ignoring the hugeness of the word, and the heaviness of it, and the way it held so much secret weight for him that no-one else could ever understand, “I think I’d like to talk about… my father.”
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