Odors dredged her mind from the void.
Simone had given them up a decade ago, though the smell still meant breakfast. Dishes clanked beyond the room, but she lived alone, and her two dogs certainly weren’t cooking. She tried to move, and her body didn’t respond. Simone felt as if she were deep underwater… or underground… or just deep under.
What’s happening to me?
Her eyes opened slowly, not on her command. Something else controlled them. Dawn peering through ragged window curtains barely illuminated the room. Small hands reached up and rubbed her eyes. The ceiling sloped down to the bedside, inches above her head. A slanted Oprah Winfrey poster stared Simone in the face.
Where… where am I?
A woman’s voice echoed from somewhere below. “Amanda! Up ’n’ at ’em! ’T’seven a.m., girl!”
Simone’s body, remote and foreign, sat up and hung its legs over the edge of the bed. The feet didn’t touch the floor.
This is not my bedroom, not my world. I must be dreaming.
The body hopped out of bed, and Simone seemed to float within it. As the legs walked, one hand scratched scalp, the other opened the door. In the cramped hallway, feet felt rough boards of the cold wooden floor; ears heard cars passing outside on the street; eyes saw the dilapidated stairway; nostrils smelled Mr. Clean wrestling with the stench of the toilet.
This is too real to be a dream.
Simone could feel her essence melding with the energy of this body, a union and a separation at the same time—one doing, one watching. She sensed trepidation in the body, as if a cold breeze were passing through a place no breeze should be. The body jerked around and looked behind as feet stepped onto the stool in front of the sink. When the head swung toward the mirror, Simone expected to see her own angular, blue-eyed, 37-year-old face looking back. Instead she confronted a young teenaged, dark-skinned girl with chocolate brown eyes and tight black curls cascading to her shoulders.
What…? It’s my patient! The girl who doesn’t speak.
“Amanda! Breakfast’s ready!”
Fifteen hours earlier…
“Déjà vu Monday, in between a rock and a hard place. Coco Montague’s committed to ending her life, and Murray Spindler’s resigned to wallowing in his. I must remember to separate their sessions with another patient who I feel I might actually be helping.”
Dr. Simone Wellstone sat cross-legged on the redwood deck curving around outside her circular office/therapy room, a stand-alone structure fashioned after a Mongolian yurt with windowed walls and a white dome roof. She called it her “Sensory Sanctuary.” Crisp spring air nipped her nose. Setting sunlight warmed her hair. While recovering from the Coco and rejuvenating for the Murray, she chatted with Mac on her lap, who recorded her professional diagnoses and personal diatribes. Depending on the moment and her mood, she called it her Diary, or her Diarrhea.
“Today Coco asked if I could arrange a secret, assisted suicide for her, Kevorkian-style. Not my style. Could I kill her with herbs and words, music and massage, crafts and other crap? Spear her with 400 acupuncture needles, then roll her down the hill? Good lord.” She sighed and looked down at Mac. “What style will the world associate with Dr. Wellstone when I’m gone? Well-stoned?” Simone closed her eyes, leaned back her head, and took a deep drag on a joint from her preferred legal brand, Skywalker. “A drag a day keeps the doctor awake.”
She’d never been like other people. A true empath, certified at birth by the universe, Simone wasn’t merely empathetic with elusive abilities to understand and share the feelings of others. She felt her patients’ pain in her own body—real, live, immediate pain—emotional, mental, and physical. Before a person had uttered a sound, Simone might say, “You’ve got a shooting pain in your right leg. Right here, from your hip downward. Your foot is numb and feels dead.” And she’d be right on.
As a young child, she’d assumed everyone was like her and didn’t understand why people treated each other badly, or why they spoke with such cruelty. Simone had been a shy introvert who preferred the company of Mother Nature. Trees, fields, and animals just lived, without all the issues that haunt humans. Public places, malls, supermarkets, even crowded rooms were overwhelming.
Inch by bitter inch during her teens, Simone realized she vividly felt other people’s emotions and took them into her being as her own; separating them from her innate feelings still presented routine challenges years later. The sensitivity to her surroundings combined with compassion for the underdog became a magnet that attracted friends or strangers who burst open, spattering her soul with their worries, dreams, and nightmares.
Simone followed her destiny into counseling and psychiatry, but those fields didn’t cover her extensive gifts. The internet had revealed that the moniker “Empatherapy” was taken. Since the framed parchment on her wall confirmed doctoral status, she’d chosen the title “Dr. Simone Wellstone, Empathiatrist” and hung out her shingle. Word of mouth and heart spread. Her time became her patients’.
A light rap on the sliding glass door by her assistant and gatekeeper Ming signaled the approach of her next challenge. “Mr. Murray here. I send him in?”
Since arriving six months earlier, Ming had been a welcome rock in Simone’s wavering world—solid, efficient, stable. Bedrock. She took care of the business busyness which allowed Simone to fully concentrate on her patients. Ming added an Asian authenticity to the therapeutic modalities Simone practiced and to the oriental office décor. Twenty-seven, exotic, and winsome, she was genuine Chinese, descended from the Ming dynasty. Men manufactured ailments as excuses for appointments with the doctor merely to have a fantasy-filled moment with Ming. Best of all, she seemed emotionally inert. Simone might become nauseous several hours before an earthquake struck hundreds of miles away, but she could not sense what lurked behind this taciturn Great Wall of China.
Murray Spindler ambled into the room and collapsed on the couch. A lost rich kid buried in middle age, he crawled from one phobia, syndrome, or disorder to another in his search for Murray Spindler. He had no friends other than counter help or salespeople. He never wore any clothing more than once, but at least donated his daily disposal to charities or homeless folks. Simone was one of the products he purchased—a “friend” who had the patience of a stone and endured the tales of his trials and trivialities. Murray listened little, and if he ever took a shred of Simone’s advice, he disposed of it later in the day like another piece of used clothing. For her, every session was a depression as she felt his failures and failed along with him.
Simone pulled up a bamboo stool and sat next to the couch as a new tactic swirled in her mind. Today I’m gonna do the talking…
“Rough week, eh?”
“Brutal, just brutal,” Murray sighed, dragging his fingers through sparse wavy hair that seemed to be trying to escape from his head.
“I’ll bet. Too much booze, jail, bail, and back on Shit Street.”
The grimace on his face pleaded guilty as charged.
Simone forged ahead, trying to shake his anxiety out of her soul. “I have one question for you, and I want an honest answer.”
“Okay… fine… What is it?”
“Had you heard about Alien Hand Syndrome before you grabbed the woman’s breast on the bus, or did you discover that pathetic rationalization afterwards?”
Murray looked down, tapped his fingers on his knee, and bounced his leg on the ball of his foot while he pretended to think.
“Never mind. I don’t care what the answer is. I’m guessing you got it from a list I found on the web, ‘The 10 Weirdest Psychological Disorders.’” Simone flipped through her notes to find the printout and read aloud. “‘Alien Hand Syndrome occurs when an arm seems to have a mind of its own. It moves around, grabs hold of things, and might even start to strangle the person, all without the control of the person to whom it belongs.’ It’s on this list with the ‘Jumping Frenchmen of Maine,’ whoever they are.” She skipped down the printout and continued reading. “‘Boanthropy, a delusional disorder when a person believes he’s a cow or an ox and grazes on grass. The Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: space, time, or body image become distorted and objects may appear much smaller or larger than they really are.’ I’ve counselled couples living in that Wonderland. He thinks it’s huge, and she says it’s way too small.” She looked up and shook her head. “Face it, Murray. You’ve been going downhill for months, and last week dug yourself a deep hole in the bottom of the pit.”
“I’ll tell you what… today… let me do the talking. Today’s session is free. It’s on me. One friend to another. Is that all right with you?”
“Free…?” The shock squeezed out a smile on Murray’s face. “Sure!”
“It may be free, but it’ll be worth ten times that amount.” She grinned, pleased with her little joke. “You’re not a bad person, Murray, but you did a very bad deed. I like you in spite of your attempts to drag yourself into disorders or define yourself with phobias. You’ve had a rough life with no help from your wealth. Your father—an angry zealot and workaholic, determined to mold you into him. Your words, not mine. Your mother—a distant alcoholic dying under your father’s iron fist. Both taken from you at an early age.”
Simone brushed back her non-existent brunette locks that used to hang down into her face. Last week she’d chopped them into a razor crew cut, no fuss, no muss. She could pass as a man or a woman which suited her just fine.
“I can feel you’re a caring person… if you only had someone to care about. Grabbing a bust on a bus can be great if you’re both mutually consenting grabbers and grabbees. Murray, you’re intelligent and diligent. Your incessant research has taught me more about phobias than I ever wanted to know.” She turned the page and read again. ‘Allodoxaphobia: the fear of opinions…’” She looked up at him. “Probably petrified of my advice, eh? ‘Dextrophobia: the fear of having objects situated to your right.’ That’s me again. As the object, I object. ‘Sesquipedalophobia: the fear of long words.’ Did I pronounce it right? Sounds to me like a cruel joke. Have you tried ‘Chronophobia: the fear of time?’ You could spend 24/7 on that one alone. I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned the ‘Munchausen Syndrome: the sufferer feigns, exaggerates, or creates symptoms of illnesses to gain attention, sympathy, and comfort from medical personnel.’ Lookee here! There’s a picture of Murray Spindler right next to the definition!”
His face had fallen into a frown during her verbal journey through the truth, but Murray forced out a tight grin.
“Loosen up, dude. Your lips won’t rip if you widen that smirk. No doubt some of the phobias you’ve sampled have a modicum of validity, but how many were created by drug companies ready to sell their placebos? Or by shrinks with shrinking careers desperate to get their names in print? I can, but don’t prescribe drugs. You’ve never shown any interest in my alternative methods. So here’s my new ultimatum, again, one friend to another. We can meet for another month, no charge, but…”
Murray waited one taut moment, then searched her piercing blue eyes for the terms. “But? But what?”
“Three conditions. One, you spend your hundred dollars a week and start a Phobia Support Group. You’ll meet women… and men. You might enlighten them, just don’t infect them with your own phobias. You can help them and help yourself. Two, hang out with those homeless folks you give your clothes to. You’ll see your life, your being, and your worthiness in a whole new light. Walk a mile in their shoes… they’ll probably be wearing yours anyway.” Simone closed her notebook, stood, and looked down at Murray. “Number three: don’t drink and ride. Stay off the bus. Time-out for the Alien Hand. It’s grounded.”
“Okay,” he sighed. “But I can’t start a fucking support group. I’m only qualified to be in one.”
“Who says you can’t? I’ll make you an official certificate, sign it, and frame it. But it’s not a ‘Fucking Support Group.’ It’s a Phobia Support Group.” Speaking over her shoulder, Simone started toward the door and Murray followed. “Just do it and come back in a week. Or don’t do it and have a nice life… on your own.” She opened the door, gestured for him to pass, and patted him on the back. “You know the way out, Murray… and the way back in.”
The Sanctuary was located behind the office/patient reception room at end of a brick walkway lined with sedum and hosta perennials blooming red and white. Murray veered left and shuffled out to his black BMW parked in Simone’s three-space carport next her two-story house. After jotting notes on her final session for the day, Simone stopped at the office to bid Ming adieu.
“Now I bill Murray?” Ming asked.
Simone smiled. “No, you’re not Bill Murray.” Being the empath who relied on feelings and body language more than words, she loved the way Ming tore English apart and stuck it back together in the simplest sentences possible—a few conjunctions, lots of nouns and verbs, mainly present tense. “And we’re not going to bill Murray. He gets complimentary sessions for a month, starting today. A new tactic since the old ones tanked.”
“Okay, I not bill Murray.”
“No… you Char Ming. Don’t ever change.”
Ming’s expression turned mischievous. “Miss Simone, I have surprise. A man call on phone from Damian’s Deli. They start new home delivery service and choose your name for free meal.”
“My name? How?”
“You drop business card in bowl.”
“Hmm… I suppose I did…”
“They bring your favorite. Thanksgiving Déjà Vu.”
Simone’s eyebrows arched. “Really? Monday’s looking better as it slips away.”
“I walk and feed dogs and go home.”
“No, no, thanks. I need some time with ’em. You have a nice night now.”
“You too. Sleep good. See you tomorrow.” Ming slipped away to her bungalow tucked in the trees behind the house.
During the doggies’ daily stroll AKA Simone’s daily decompression session, she trailed behind her best buds, an eight-legged mirror of her personality. The Irish Setter—Brandy—reserved, neurotic, and needy. The Golden Retriever—Dammit—the world’s friendliest dog, who licked everyone into wet submission, and drove Brandy nuts. Simone tolerated humans and cherished helping them but could only take the species in small doses—two hours on, then four hours off, preferably alone. She kept a low profile in the neighborhood, but did relish yelling out the door to summon in her troops for the night. “Brandy, Dammit!”
Simone roasted fresh range-fed chicken and mixed it with their premium “Chicken Soup for the Soul” dog food, finished dictating to her diary, showered, then coaxed the day out of her soul with a yoga session until the doorbell rang. She yanked herself out of semi-meditation, padded to the door, and checked out the visitor on the security screen. She’d had the system installed after two incidents with unruly former patients appearing in the middle of the night.
A burly but beautiful man stood on the steps. Tousled hair, Cimmerian eyes, black leather flight jacket, seven o’clock shadow.
She unbolted the lock, removed the metal chain, and opened the door a crack. Both dogs barked, and Brandy kept growling until he left.
“Good evening, ma’am,” the man said. “Dr. Wellstone, I presume?”
“Certainly not Dr. Livingstone.”
Surprised, he laughed and said, “That’s funny.”
“Yeah, I borrowed a funny bone from a patient. Can I help you?”
“One Thanksgiving Déjà Vu for you,” he announced, “compliments of Damian’s Deli on the first day of their new home delivery service,” and handed her a large brown paper bag.
Simone opened the door the width of the bag and stretched out one hand. “Well, this is sweet, and I’m starved. Thank you very much.” Though the man tantalized her eyes, he seemed a bit seasoned for deliveries. And too perky for deadpan Damian’s. An icky sensation slithered into her stomach. “I don’t remember seeing you around the Deli… their Deli, as you say.” This beau is faux. Not fo’ real, not fo’ me.
“Well…” He hesitated and looked down, then spoke to his belt. “It’s my first day on the job, Dr. Wellstone. Name’s Hunter. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He tipped his suede beret and started to turn away. “Enjoy your dinner. I hope to see you again at Damian’s.”
I don’t want to see you again. With her tongue stuck in her cheek and squeezed between her teeth, she watched him lope down the street to the left towards a truck too large for a deli delivery van. Another man sat in the front seat. Something’s wrong with Mr. Right.
As Simone struggled to sort out the situation, a growl from her stomach quashed the churning in her gut. She shut and locked the door and checked it twice. On her way to the living room, she began to empty the bag, positioned the feast on the coffee table created from a rectangular antique trunk, and slipped behind it on the overstuffed beige recliner.
Mmm. A very merry unthanksgiving to me.
Sesame-grilled turkey slices on Damian’s home-baked bread made with stuffing and potatoes. One Styrofoam bowl of gravy for dipping. A side of green beans with crusty tamari almonds. A plastic glass of cranberry juice spiced with orange zest and cinnamon.
The sandwich tasted divine, and the juice hit that spot a pill can’t reach, but midway through the meal she began to feel fuzzy, like a river of bubbles was flowing through every vein. Her neck fought to keep her head upright but gave up and let it fall. Chin resting on her chest, Simone saw the floor recede into a blurry square floating in the distance.
Damn… Is this… Malice in… Wonder… land?
The words in her mind stretched out like Silly Putty, then broke apart, and bounced around inside her skull. The half sandwich in her hand grew vast in her vision as a wave of nausea swept through her body. Simone’s legs wouldn’t cooperate when she rose and stumbled around the coffee table toward the bathroom. In slow motion the faraway floor expanded into a gigantic platform that slammed into her face as she slumped onto the shag rug. Limp and unconscious, she dreamed of alien hands on and under her skin but was too far gone to scream.
Back to the present…
As the eyes stared at their reflection in the mirror, the second hand on the clock stuck on the moment. Familiar had become alien, known now unknown, right was left in the mirror and wrong in her mind. Comprehension floundered in the flood of confusion. Most people would likely panic from the realization that they were staring out from inside a foreign body. Not Simone. Her left-brain scientist stepped up to balance her right-brain empath. Unbridled emotions gave way to one analytical thought.
What the fuck is going on here?
Simone had been in plenty of situations where her role demanded she soothe the patient to lead them out of trauma, but this time she was the patient and the doctor. She closed her eyes and took a deep slow breath to relax, a second breath to release the terror she felt, and a third to gather information. During that third breath, she noticed the chest she inhabited had expanded and contracted according to her commands. She opened her eyes to see the eyes in the mirror open in unison. These observations suggested she had some control over the body. She raised one eyebrow, then the other, quickly, like twitches. The eyebrows in the mirror moved in the same manner.
No coincidence there. Some control confirmed.
She surrendered to the commands of the host being. Science discoveries come with step-by-step processes, but empathy demands compassion. Simone could imagine this young teen’s scream if she realized a foreign being was living inside her.
Thumps from a broom handle on the kitchen ceiling below vibrated the bathroom floor. “Hey, sleepyhead! You up yet?”
Amanda picked up the metal cup holding her toothbrush and tapped four times on the pipe next to the sink.
“Well, c’mon down quick. Your food’s gettin’ cold!”
As Amanda continued her morning routine and splashed water on her face, a whirlpool of questions swirled in Simone’s consciousness.
Is this what multiple personality disorder feels like? Schizophrenia? Or is this astral projection? Has my soul—whatever that is—separated from my physical body and attached to Amanda’s? Where the hell is my body? How do I get back to it? When? Will I be trapped here forever?
Neither her knowledge of science nor psychology provided any reasonable answers. Nor did her experience with paranormal and psychic phenomena. The final events when she’d been Simone alone flashed in her mind. The weird delivery guy. The disorientation during dinner. Collapsing onto the rug in a stupor and passing out.
Someone did this to me. Who? How? Why?