On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published three ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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Today’s brief tale is of a type that I particularly enjoy: a self-contained, quiet and mundane scene with a twist. I sometimes wonder about the kind of people and problems that psychotherapists have to deal with, and in particular I’d love to know who their most unusual patient was. As a writer, I think I’m allowed to speculate about that.
The small silver clock on the mantlepiece had only just ticked over to ten o’clock exactly when there was a knock on Sarah Mullen’s office door.
Punctual, she thought. It was usually a good sign.
Mullen was a therapist, specialising in anxiety, depression, feelings of inadequacy, and a cluster of related concerns. The patient who was presumably now standing on the other side of her door was new to her, and this would be their first meeting. He had provided only the name Smith, and had been entirely flexible as to the time of the appointment, but utterly firm regarding the date. Thankfully, Mullen had been able to accommodate him.
“Come in,” she said, and the door opened.
Smith was tall, and somewhat slender. He had dark hair and dark eyes, and he looked a little pale in the bright mid-morning light from the bay window opposite. To Mullen’s mild surprise, he didn’t immediately look at her; instead, his gaze moved slowly around the room, drinking it in, as if he were returning to a beloved place not visited in years. Then at last, he met her eyes.
“Good morning, Dr. Mullen,” he said. His accent was unplaceable, and had a hint of the exotic.
There was always a degree of uncertainty when meeting a new patient, but Mullen felt all of her usual tension fall away. This was clearly a man of intelligence and focus. She was dimly aware that she had no particular basis for that conclusion at this point, but before she could pursue the thought further, he was walking across the room.
Smith didn’t approach her to shake hands, instead going directly to the armchair positioned across from where she stood. There was a small table beside the armchair, equipped with a fresh glass of chilled water and a box of tissues, which Smith glanced at but didn’t otherwise remark upon. He sat down in a single smooth motion, and looked at her.
“Good morning,” she replied at last, sitting down onto the chair behind her and crossing one leg over the other. “It’s nice to meet you. Do you want to start by telling me a little bit about why you’re here?”
Smith nodded. His movements were languid but precise; efficient and unhurried. “I am here regarding my work,” he said.
Now it was Mullen’s turn to nod. It was a common factor in people seeking guidance or assistance. Work-related pressures were some of the most significant and persistent sources of emotional difficulty.
“What sort of work do you do?” she asked, and she was intrigued when he answered indirectly.
“My role is a critical one,” Smith said. “It occupies every moment of my existence.”
“That sounds burdensome,” Mullen replied. “Work is an important part of life, but not the only one. Do you find your working schedule stressful?”
Smith inclined his head. The question seemed to momentarily puzzle him. “Not at all,” he replied at last. “My work is essential, and correspondingly fulfilling. Do you find your working schedule stressful, Dr. Mullen?”
Mullen smiled. It was also common for patients to redirect questions as a way of deflecting. “Sometimes,” she said. “but I have the rare luxury of some degree of control over my work hours. I do find that my job is consuming, though. Would you say the same?”
Smith nodded again, just as slowly and carefully as before. “I would. I am nothing without it.”
A workaholic who has no interest in changing, she thought.
“A workaholic is a person displaying a compulsion; I am merely devoted to a purpose,” Smith said, startling her.
“I didn’t say you were a workaholic,” she replied, and Smith glanced off towards the window.
“You were thinking it, however,” he said.
Mullen had the unpleasant feeling that she was losing control of the session’s direction, which was a warning sign. Patients didn’t tend to be evasive about the purpose of seeking therapy; that usually came later, when confronting difficult personal issues or realisations.
“You said you were here regarding your work,” she said. “but you don’t seem to feel that either the nature or amount of it is a problem for you. Tell me more about what your goals are for our sessions, so I can work out how best to help.”
Smith stood up now, and for a moment Mullen wondered if he was going to simply leave — which was rare, though not unheard of — but he just moved to the bay window and looked out at the street below. After a few moments, he spoke.
“My goal is only to continue my work,” he said. “I have met people from all walks of life, in all situations, and in all places. At every age, and every state of health and of mind. I derive an immense satisfaction from these encounters. It is a privilege to even briefly touch upon the experiences of other souls. I imagine you feel the same.”
Mullen frowned slightly, trying to understand what profession would provide the sort of encounters he was talking about, but her mind was drawing a blank. “I suppose I do,” she said.
“I particularly enjoy meeting those who bring peace to the troubled, such as yourself. You and I are in the same line of work, in a certain way. And that is why I chose to meet you here, in a professional context, on this day of ultimate significance for you.”
Mullen now knew that something was wrong here. There was nothing significant about this day, but Smith had insisted upon it for their first session. It now sounded almost like he was toying with her. But he believed they were in the same line of work, for some reason. She mentally reviewed the position of the panic button she’d had installed a few years earlier, but using it would be premature.
“You help people, then? In what way?” It was the safe question to ask first.
“I help them meet their end in peace,” Smith replied, in exactly the same calm tone as before, and then he turned around.
He was no longer a man, exactly.
There was the general approximation of the slender human figure that had walked into her office shortly before, but the detail of features and fabrics was all gone. Smith was now only the barest suggestion of any particular form, and even his outline was indistinct now. Where a man had been, or the facade of one, there was now instead an area of darkness within the bay window. It was somehow cold, even from across the room where Mullen sat paralysed with shock and alarm, and its utter lack of light seemed to bleed out from its centre, dimming everything around it.
Mullen saw that there was a halo of colour around its moving edges, and she knew that light was being refracted from behind, where the sun’s rays entered from the sane sky, through the sane and ordinary window, and encountered something very much not for any sane being to see.
When it spoke, its voice was more of a reverberation in her mind than any words of human language, but she understood its meaning perfectly.
Today is your final day, Dr. Mullen, it said. I have come to bring you peace.
The shape moved towards her, as she somehow knew it had done untold times before to everyone who had ever lived and died, and she suddenly found that her fear evaporated like dew in morning sunlight. The panic button was a distant and irrelevant thought, unnecessary and useless. She knew the absolute truth of its purpose, and she understood. She knew that anyone would.
It was a blessing, she thought as the shape advanced upon her languidly and precisely, that one’s final moments could be so filled with wonder. It was a final precious gift from existence.
Mullen didn’t even stand up, and she knew there was no need to. The light from the bay window — the last light she would ever see, she realised — was almost entirely obscured. The shape that had been Smith and endless other names across millennia was now upon her.
She breathed once more. She was grateful.
And then its darkness was all she knew.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.