Dr. Albrecht bent over the new file. Larry Courtland, 19, first-year university student … The young man was brought in by his mother, following a suicide attempt. Depression, difficulty sleeping …
“Bertha,” he spoke into the phone, “is the next appointment here?”
Bertha, his secretary, appeared within seconds. Now, six months after Tilda’s death, Dr. Albrecht felt that open season had been declared on him. Bertha showed up at work in shirts that opened progressively lower, while her skirt hiked progressively higher. Occasionally, Dr. Albrecht wondered if they were destined to meet somewhere in the middle. Trouble was, he liked the gangly freckled Bertha, especially since she was so different from his sombre pale-faced Tilda.
“Looks good on you,” from the doorway, Bertha nodded at Dr. Albrecht’s blue sweater, “really brings out the colour of your eyes. And that cable knit. Only works for guys who are in great shape.” She smiled, showing a pretty dimple. The doctor ran his hand through his wheaten hair, to hide his embarrassment. He was going to let Bertha know that she was being inappropriate. Soon.
“The Courtlands?” he reminded Bertha.
“Oh, yes,” she shifted the grey visitors’ chairs pointlessly. “The two pm. Yes.”
“Two pm is now. Are they here yet?” Dr. Albrecht’s fingers automatically moved to fiddle with the ring that no longer bound his finger. He wondered if anybody had ever described phantom ring pain.
“Gosh.” Bertha seemed to remember her job description, all of a sudden. “They are in the waiting area. I’ll bring them in. The mother came too. Should I tell her to wait, or …?”
“No, family is good.” Dr. Albrecht liked hearing both sides of the story. Amazing, how frequently the two sides did not match.
When the Courtlands came in, Dr. Albrecht almost chuckled. No, these two stories were not going to match at all. Larry shuffled in, dark-haired and so thin he looked as if his bones were ready to tear out at the joints, next to his tall, ruddy-cheeked and triumphantly red-haired mother. Ms. Courtland’s handshake was as firm as Dr. Albrecht’s own. Larry let his limp hand slide against the doctor’s.
“So, how are you?” Dr. Albrecht indicated the grey chairs to the visitors and sat in his tall one, behind a grey plastic hospital desk. Perhaps this boy would be a good candidate to see in his home office, he thought. Now that Tilda had spent so much time renovating it. Dr. Albrecht did not like the stern solid furniture and the ludicrously traditional-looking leather couch his wife had put in, but he was not going to change anything, now that she was gone. Tilda had picked every item for his office herself, down to the letter opener, because she had loved him. So he was going to leave it be. He owed her that much, he had decided.
“My son is suffering from depression,” Ms. Courtland spoke clearly and decisively, as if informing the boardroom that her division’s sales were up by thirty percent in the past quarter. “He barely eats, he can’t sleep, his grades have plummeted, and he is in complete denial about his condition.”
“I’m fine, mom,” Larry scuffed at the floor with his keds. The floor apparently fascinated him, the way he kept staring at it, dragging his shoe back and forth across the grey carpeting.
“All right, any medical issues?” Dr. Albrecht poised his pen over the pad. “Because we will start with several blood tests, to rule out a number of non-psychiatric problems.”
After Ms. Courtland finished with the litany of her otherwise healthy son’s difficulties (she added mood swings, poor concentration and intermittent tics to the ones she had already mentioned), Dr. Albrecht asked her to step out.
“And what do you think about all this?” he placed his pen down, folded his hands on the desk and tried to catch Larry’s gaze.
“Nothing,” Larry continued to inspect the floor. “I’m fine. She’s making shit up.”
“Why do you think your mother would want to make shit up?”
“Daddy issues.” For the first time, Larry looked at Dr. Albrecht and a corner of his mouth twitched in a grin. The boy’s whittled face could have been handsome, if it weren’t for its unhealthy pallor and sunken eyes.
“Is that what you think? That your mother has daddy issues?” Dr. Albrecht made a mental note that the patient used humour to deal with a difficult question. A good sign, even if that humor was bleeding into sarcasm.
“I don’t know what she has,” Larry jerked his shoulder, indifferent again. “Maybe she’s overprotective. Or bored. Or has Munchausen by proxy. Ask her. But I’m fine. Nothing wrong with me.”
“Impressive that you know about Munchausen by proxy, but are you saying that your mother has made up your suicide attempt as well?”
“It wasn’t a suicide attempt,” Larry abandoned the floor to focus on stretching the hem of his baggy t-shirt, “I just took too many tylenols, is all. An accident.”
“Forty eight pills in one go?” Dr. Albrecht remembered the number from the file.
“It wasn’t like that,” Larry finally looked at him, and Dr. Albrecht was struck by how pained the boy looked. “I had a bad cold, a fever. So I took the pills. A normal amount. And then I passed out and woke up confused, so I took a few more. And a few more. And then I must have knocked the bottle over, because mom found it empty. I don’t know how she came up with ‘forty-eight.’ But I wasn’t trying to kill myself. Just got confused.”
They weren’t going to make any headway, Dr. Albrecht thought. Larry would deny everything, and he would make Dr. Albrecht chase him for the truth, merciless, like a hunter going after a deer in a forest. Dr. Albrecht did not like the image. He was here to help, not stalk his prey.
“All right, Larry, let’s say it’s your mother who is being fanciful here. But you do realise that as long as she believes that you are in trouble, she is unlikely to let the subject be? So we might as well begin with her. When did your mother start believing that something was wrong with you?”
Larry’s lips moved. He stared past Dr. Albrecht’s shoulder at the office window where maple trees swirled gold and burgundy of mid-October.
“It started last fall,” Larry’s voice changed, became a rustle of a frightened shadow, “when I came back from camp.”
The black gnarled lines of writing blurred before his eyes. Dr. Albrecht put down the pad, his mouth parched from an hour of dictating. When Tilda was still well, she would stop by his office sometimes, when he worked late. Only for a few minutes. “Just to say a quick hello.” It had been a bother, having to go downstairs and bring her up, with the after-hours security, and he’d resented this tacit hold his wife had tried to place on his life. But that was then. Now that she was dead, he could treat it as a fond memory. A sign of gentle affection, rather than a noose she had sought to tighten around his throat.
He was going to finish up with Larry’s report and go home. He had to stop by the drug store first. He was almost out of sleeping pills. He was going through the prescriptions faster than he had expected. Nothing wrong with that, his colleague, Dr. Silesian, had assured him. Tilda died of cancer, they had been married for five years, it’s been only six months. He was still in mourning. He had to get out and date more. But not Bertha. He’d been burned badly enough.
The night air pressed, cool, against Dr. Albrecht’s face. The round eyes of street lamps stared out at him from behind the black maple branches. The pharmacist at the all-night drug store recognised Dr. Albrecht. His jacket pocket filled with the comfortable weight of the sleeping pills in the paper bag, Dr. Albrecht headed up the stairs to his bedroom, happily noting that he had left the door to his home office shut. He really disliked that room, he thought, drowsy from the dose he had already tossed back before he had entered the house. Perhaps he could sell this place altogether. It had been Tilda’s choice, not his. He’d just got tired of arguing. He would have been perfectly happy in a small apartment.
He stretched out on the cool sheets the cleaning lady must have changed today. Black water rippled before his eyes. A face swam up at him, but before he could make out who it belonged to, Dr. Albrecht succumbed to the advances in psychopharmacology, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Larry shook the snow off the collar of his jacket.
“So how much longer do I have to keep seeing you?” His grin lifted the corners of his mouth with more assurance at each of their meetings. He was clearly putting on some weight and swore that he worked out three times a week, with his mother’s trainer.
“You seem to be doing well, on the whole,” Dr. Albrecht flipped through three months’ worth of his notes. “Semester going well, so far?”
“Yeah, I just had mid-terms. Really happy with the grades.” Larry sounded sincere when he said it.
“Then I really don’t see why you’d have to come here again. Your mother stopped by last week, incidentally. She reports the same things. That you are eating, sleeping and studying again. So what do you say we wrap it up, in this session?” Dr. Albrecht shut the folder, as if to indicate that Larry’s case was, indeed, at an end.
“What about … you know … pills?” Larry dropped his voice. He was still standing by the office door, taking his time to adjust his jacket on the wall hook.
“The sleeping pills? I’ll taper you off. It seems to me that your one real problem has been sleep disturbance. I’d expect you to adhere to good sleep hygiene, though. No computer for at least two hours before bedtime, no reading off electronic devices in bed. Your mother would be willing to help you, if you find it hard to be disciplined about it.”
It was as if months of successful therapy had curdled away. Larry’s hands shook, his eyes seemed to sink back into their sockets. His hands trembled so visibly, he stuck them into his armpits.
“Larry,” Dr. Albrecht pitched his voice low, enveloping Larry in the conspiratorial confidence of an older friend’s advice, “are you still afraid of these dreams? We have talked about this. It’s not your fault this girl from camp died. You said yourself that she wasn’t a very stable person. You said yourself that she drank. Yes, you’ve dreamt about her a few times, but it’s been a long time…”
“You have no idea what those dreams were like. It was like being in this black forest.”
“I know what the dreams were like,” Dr. Albrecht pinched the bridge of his nose to ward off a headache. He never felt well-rested lately. “You told me. Branches reaching out to suck your blood, animals that would gnaw at your eyeballs … very unpleasant, I agree. But what makes you think you’d get them back?”
Larry sat in the grey chair, leaned forward, as if to control an urge to vomit.
“Larry, are you unwell?”
“Look,” Larry raised his eyes at Dr. Albrecht, their expression nothing short of hunted, “I don’t want to seem crazy. I know there’s no such thing as ghosts. But that’s what it feels like, all right? Call me schizophrenic, if you want. But that’s exactly what it feels like.”
“How would you know what a ghost would feel like?” The logical questions Dr. Albrecht asked his patients were supposed to pierce through their delusions, but they could always turn their barbs back at him. Perhaps the boy had a point. Maybe he had been too blythe with the medication. Maybe Larry would have benefitted from a small dose of an antipsychotic. Coupled with a stimulant in the morning, to keep the side-effects to a minimum.
“I can read.” Larry scuffed the floor exactly as he had done during his first visit. It was as if all of Dr. Albrechts careful work—building a rapport, drawing Larry out, finding enough commonality to convince him that Dr. Albrecht wasn’t out to hurt him—had been undone in ten minutes.
“What have you read, Larry?”
“Victorian novels. All the Gothic shit. Pale maidens and white ghosts. And I don’t care how dumb that sounds, it was as if I was reading about myself.”
“All right, tell me what you’ve been reading.” Reading wasn’t too bad. If Larry’s morbid choice of literature was what fed his delusions, Dr. Albrecht could work with that. Larry was definitely at risk for psychosis, but he also had a supportive family—that counted for something.
“It’s just that all these books describe the same thing. It’s like you feel a presence. A cold presence. Malevolent. You are overcome with guilt, and you have this urge to beg to be forgiven, but you know that you are doomed. And that you are being watched—like those eyes in the forest in my dreams—and they all know you’ve done something terrible, and when you die to pay for it, nobody will be sorry.”
Dr. Albrecht opened his mouth to counter, but Larry rushed on. “And I know what you’re going to say, you’ve talked to me a great deal about how the brain works, and how it can trick us into thinking our hallucinations are real, but what, all these Victorian writers were nuts? It could be the other way around, just as well. There are ghosts out there, and we put up walls, to hide from the guilt, and we invent …”
“All right, all right,” Dr. Albrecht raised his hand, “I get your point. We can settle this very simply.”
“What?” Larry, cut off mid-sentence, forgot to close his mouth.
“If you say that you are seeing ghosts, I should be able to see them too, right?”
“What if I’m the only one who can see my ghosts?” Larry leaned in, interested.
“No. If nobody can see them except you, they are not ghosts. We call them hallucinations, and there are medications that would take very good care of them.” Dr. Albrecht had used this gambit on many of his patients. He wasn’t playing them. It was simple logic.
“All right,” Larry followed where Dr. Albrecht led, “and if others can see them, they are ghosts?”
“Essentially, yes,” Dr. Albrecht beamed, ready for what Larry would say next.
“But suppose they are real ghosts, and they only come out to haunt you when you are alone?”
“Then you get a girlfriend and start sleeping with her as soon as you can.” Dr. Albrecht winked at Larry. Perhaps the joke wasn’t in the best possible taste, but it still worked. Anything you could laugh at had less of a hold on you.
“It’s a real ghost I’m seeing,” Larry retreated back into his gloom. “And when I’m with you, I agree that it’s not my fault that Giselle died, you know. She was a drama queen, she drank, all that’s true. But I didn’t have to sleep with her at camp. I didn’t like her that much. Not enough to stay with her, once summer was over.”
“It’s normal,” Dr. Albrecht pointed out, yet again. “In our culture, that behavior is completely normal. To form short-lived attachments, especially when one is young. Even marriage …” he was going to say that even marriage need not be something permanent, and thought that a teenager was unlikely to be receptive to the idea.
“She comes out at night,” Larry stared dully at the shroud of snow pressed to the windows, “I skipped the pill, a few days ago, and I saw her again. She comes to my room, and she shows me her wrists, and she stretches her hands out to me. She bleeds onto the floor, and I can see the stains, only they’re not there in the morning. She tells me that I did a terrible thing, and that I broke her heart, but that she forgives me. She just wants me to know that what I did was terrible. And she just wants to talk. The other ghosts …”
“What other ghosts,” Dr. Albrecht found Larry’s conviction terrifying and amusing at the same time, “she has ghostly girlfriends?”
“Yeah,” Larry drew his eyebrows together, remembering, “that’s what it sounded like. Other ghosts. She talked about it, but I don’t remember much. I was too busy trying not to hurl.”
“All right, how about this,” Dr. Albrecht reached towards the phone, “I’ll see if there are any beds in the hospital, and you can spend the night here. I’ll sit in your room. If I see a ghost, I’ll eat my words. If I don’t see a ghost, we try antipsychotics. If antipsychotics don’t help, but another’s presence does, we’ll see if we can talk your parents into letting you sleep in your younger brother’s room. There are lots of ways this could play out.”
“What if you lie to me?” Larry asked. “What if you see a ghost, and lie to me that you don’t?”
“If I could see a ghost,” Dr. Albrecht laughed, completely sincere, “I wouldn’t be able to keep it to myself. Since it’d mean that most everything I believe is wrong.”
Several minutes later, he hung up the phone, crestfallen.
“We’ll have to put off the experiment, Larry. No free beds on the ward. ”
“That’s ok,” Larry’s animation winked out, “I didn’t want to do it anyway. I’d hate having to sleep at the hospital. I guess I’d just have to stick with the pills.”
It was the force of Larry’s belief that swayed Dr. Albrecht to take the logical—if unconventional—next step. That Larry was so convinced Dr. Albrecht could help him, he was willing to subject himself to a silly test.
“If you’re really keen to try, you can come to my place,” Dr. Albrecht said. “I’d rig up the computer camera to record the whole thing, you’d sleep on the office couch, and I’d keep watch. No pills. In the morning, we’d be able to examine the evidence, so to speak.”
“Done.” Larry’s wide grin was all the confirmation Dr. Albrecht needed.
Larry showed up at eleven at night.
“I told my mom I’m staying for a frat party and crashing at the dorms,” he bumped his boots against the threshold, shaking off the snow. “But it took me some time to get out here, driving in this blizzard. Did you move in recently?” Larry looked around the large hallway.
“No, I just got rid of some stuff,” Dr. Albrecht was struck, for the first time, by how bare the walls looked. The whole place had grown bare, clinical and unlived-in, once he took down those of Tilda’s paintings he had found most annoying, the long-necked dancers, mournfully doe-eyed. Perhaps that was why his real estate agent always went on about staging, and complained that she could not get buyers interested.
“So, where do you want me to, you know …” Larry gestured vaguely.
“Here,” Dr. Albrecht opened the door to the office. The room seemed strangely welcoming now, the table lamp casting an apricot circle of light, white sheets covering the huge idiotic couch. “You just settle down for the night, and I’ll come in with my book and my coffee, and we’ll be good to go.” He’d need the coffee. He had been skipping the pills, last few nights, but he had slept without the nightmares.
The green eye of the webcam winked, as if in agreement.
“All right,” Larry nodded. “And, Dr. Albrecht? I really appreciate all this. Thank you.”
Dr. Albrecht patted his shoulder. He did do a lot of good. One transgression—one—did not disqualify him from humanity. Got that, Tilda? He was a decent person, after all. Got it?
It was the cold that Dr. Albrecht felt first. Ice crystal formed over the door, over the windows, the wind howled in the room that had been completely quiet only a second ago. A white snow bank rose at Dr. Albrecht’s feet, snowflakes, crisp and freezing, shining in the lamplight. The bookshelves disappeared, replaced by black trees.
Dr. Albrecht pressed back into his chair. On the couch, Larry snored quietly, a smile on his lips, a dusting of snow on top of his blanket.
“Larry!” Dr. Albrecht’s voice rose, thin, almost hysterical. “Larry, wake up! Larry!”
“Oh, leave the boy be, Brendan,” she perched on the office desk, out of nowhere. Not thin, like she was in the last weeks before her death, but supple and glowing. Her black hair hung down to her elbows, exactly the way it used to, before the chemo made it fall out. She wore the plain white dress she had been buried in, and her neck was wound in a rope of what looked like pearls.
“Frozen dew,” Tilda touched her hand to the beads, “we are allowed these little luxuries, you know.”
“This is ridiculous,” Dr. Albrecht rose, drew a hand over his eyes, bit his finger. Tilda remained, as substantial as if she were alive.
Dr. Albrecht stretched out his hand, to touch her. It felt cold, as if he had plunged his fingers into gelid water, but that was all.
“That’s right, Brendan,” Tilda stood up easily, her bare feet hovering above the floor, “I am a ghost. A rip in your picture of reality.”
“Why now?” Dr. Albrecht sat back in his chair, weak. “Why? It’s been nearly a year.”
“But I did try, dear,” Tilda opened her eyes wide, the way she did in a fight, before dropping an especially stinging remark, “I tried all this time. I’ve got to hand it to you, though. You are a whiz with medications. I couldn’t get through even in your dreams.”
“If you wanted to talk to me so badly, what’s wrong with showing up during my regular office hours?”
“Aww,” Tilda cooed, the smile never reaching her eyes, “you are so cute when you joke, even when you’re ready to wet your pants in fright.”
“I’m not scared,” Dr. Albrecht stretched out his legs in the chair, “not at all. Big deal, a hallucination. I’ll see Silesian tomorrow, and he’ll sort me out.”
“You’ll be doing very different things tomorrow, trust me,” Tilda clapped her hands and the room began to fill. Faint women, pale, like congealed moonlight, crowded in, the snowbanks growing higher and heavier, their rustling sighs filling Dr. Albrecht’s veins with cold.
“We don’t show up on any kind of recording equipment, conveniently enough,” Tilda indicated the computer, its camera still a steady green light, an impossible beacon of normalcy. “Stand up, Brendan.”
“No!” Dr. Albrecht clutched the arms of the chair.
The pale women moved towards him, placed hands on his chest that made it hard to breathe.
“No!” Brendan pressed himself into the armchair with everything he had. He watched his arms unclench, beyond his control. His legs pushed off the floor, making him rise.
“Very good,” Tilda floated close, looked into his eyes. “Now, take the letter opener from the desk.”
“You are really dull, Brendan,” the ghost pouted, “Yes! Take the letter opener.”
Dr. Albrecht’s fingers closed over the thin edge. The tip of the blade gleamed, the makeshift weapon weighed down his palm. Dr. Albrecht slashed at Tilda, terror making his mind blank. He thought he heard the faint gasp of the other ghostly women. Tilda laughed.
“Why, I don’t believe you love me at all, Brendan. I don’t think you ever did. And anyway, if you did love me, I doubt you would have been fucking your secretary in between my chemo sessions.”
“I wasn’t fucking Bertha,” Dr. Albrecht tried to inch towards the office door. Or perhaps he could break the window.
“The door is frozen shut, Brendan. And yes, you were fucking her. On your office desk, after hours. You didn’t think I’d find out, but I did. You killed me, Brendan. Killed me as surely as if you had sliced open my throat.” Tilda drew a finger across her neck.
“You’re hysterical,” Dr. Albrecht tried to unclench his fingers, but the letter opener seemed to have frozen to them. “I didn’t kill you, your cancer did.”
“You did! You did! I had nothing left to struggle for, once I found out!” Tilda shrilled. The ghostly women moved in on Dr. Albrecht again, blocking out the light, sucking the life out of him.
“Fine.” Dr. Albrecht gasped for air. He tried to speak reasonably, as if he were calming a psychotic patient, “you can kill me. But it won’t change anything for you. I still will have cheated, and you’ll still be dead. On the other hand, if you let me be, perhaps I could work something out for you.” If logic and laws of the universe have been cancelled for the night, he was going to deal in what he had, “I could talk to a priest. Something to lay your spirit to rest. Or you could tell me what it is that would make you happier.”
“Oh, oh, oh,” Tilda’s ghost laughed so hard it briefly winked out of existence, “I’m not killing you. It’s you who will kill the boy. The police will see it all, on the recording. You rambling madly about cheating on your wife, talking to someone who isn’t there, and then taking up the letter opener and plunging it into your patient’s throat. You’ll be going away for life, trust me.”
“No,” Dr. Albrecht reached for Tilda, “he’s done nothing. He does not deserve to die.”
“Do you think I deserved to die?” Tilda arched an eyebrow. “Do you think Giselle deserved to die?”
The name made Dr. Albrecht scan the wan crowd of translucent women that filled his office.
“Giselle,” he called out. “You loved him, right? Don’t let him die. Please! If she’s that crazy and has to have a victim, it can be me. At least I cheated on the deranged bitch. What did Larry do?”
“I’m sorry,” a thin girl, one of the ghost women, became a little more visible, enough for Dr. Albrecht to make out the dark gashes on her wrists, “I can’t disobey her. I can’t.”
“That’s enough,” Tilda’s voice made swirls of snow rise from the floor. “When you acted, Brendan, you did not think about the consequences. You just did what you felt like doing. It’s you who have made me so powerful. My grief is bigger than their grief,” she swept her arm to indicate the other girls. “My pain is bigger than their pain. Kill the boy, Brendan. Now!” On the couch, Larry sighed in his sleep. Snowflakes, twirling prettily, fell from the ceiling of Dr. Albrecht’s home office.
Officer Hill rubbed his burly neck tiredly, and breathed in the scent of dead leaves and cold air, glad to be out of the house. He clambered back into the police car. Loys, his partner, rumpled after a sleepless night, had his hands on the steering wheel, ready to follow the ambulance.
“Think he’ll be pleading insanity?” Hill rolled down the window, then rolled it back up again.
“Who knows. What a perv. Not enough for him to have killed the poor kid, he also had to record himself doing it. I hope he gets put away for good. Psychiatrist, my ass. Crazy as shit.”
“You said it,” Hill agreed. “Crazy as shit. No other word for it.”