My name is Perry Verdilay. In a single act of reckless desperation, I changed my perception of the world. And maybe gave myself a condition, a curse, a burden that I may not be strong enough to bear. I can see things that others can only feel or imagine. I’ve been this way for about nine months now. And something happened recently that made me doubt myself, made me doubt what I’d been seeing. That made me think it was about time I asked for help. That was an easy decision. The hard decision was choosing whom to tell and whom to ask for that help.
I looked down at my phone again, at the digital sticky note on which I’d written the name and address of my second appointment of the day. I’d already gone to see the psychologist—my psychologist, I should say. It was only the first session, so she said all the things I’d expected her to say. She believed that I believed what I was seeing. She was glad that I was aware that others were not seeing what I was seeing and that I realized that was odd. I was surprised she’d asked if I saw anything in the room during our session. I did and I told her I did. I’m glad she didn’t have any embarrassing or horrid things in her office. But then, that’s part of the reason I chose her in the first place.
I walked up the five steps and through the front door of the corner office building. There was a small lobby. A coat rack, a shelf with books and magazines, a couple of couches. A waiting area of sorts. Past all that was a desk, behind which sat a young man with a cloud of chestnut-brown hair atop his head. He glanced up when he heard the tinkle of the bell that was attached to the door to announce comers and goers. He rose as I approached the desk.
I opened my mouth to announce myself and the time of my appointment, but he held up his hand as if to stop me. Then he flourished that same hand to point behind himself.
“Go right in,” he said. “He’s expecting you.”
I thanked him and walked around his desk. Behind him, to his left and right were a series of doors, leading to offices I presumed. They had no nameplates on or beside them. There were only numbers. And I’d been pointed to Room 5.
I knocked and waited for the invitation to come in before opening the door and closing it behind me.
He was handsome. Jet-black hair. Sparkling blue eyes. For a moment, I hesitated. Was he real? Or could he be some angel of beauty? I reached out and shook his hand and knew he was real. I let out a breath of relief. I saw the tiny crinkle in his brow as he noticed my reaction.
I took a breath to replace the one I’d let go. “My name is—”
He held out his hand. “If I take your case, then you owe me a name. Not before.” His voice was a soothing baritone paired with an English accent. I nodded and smiled politely.
He gestured to the seat across from the desk. I sat down, then he sat down. When I didn’t say anything right away, he smiled and produced a bottle of water from the miniature fridge that I just then noticed sat on a counter behind him. He placed the bottle on the desk and slid it toward me.
“I’ll just get to it, then,” I said.
He smiled. “Please do.”
Funny. I hadn’t been nervous with the psychologist. But then, I knew she was expecting me to say crazy things. But so was this gentleman. And yet…I took the bottle of water, uncapped it, and took a sip.
“I can see things that other people can’t see,” I said, easing into things. “At first, I could tell the difference between the things that only I see and the things that everyone sees. But something happened recently that…I’m concerned that I’m beginning to confuse the two things. And that has cast doubts on whether or not I’m actually seeing reality that others just can’t see, or if it’s my imagination, vivid hallucinations maybe.”
“What is it that you see?”
I took a deep breath. He was probably expecting me to say ghosts or demons or something to that effect.
“Despair,” I said. I swallowed. “Fear. Doubt. Self-loathing. Failure. Joy. Misery. And more. Feelings and ideas. In literature, they’re called personifications. And I can see them. And for the most part now, I can identify them.”
“Why are you shaking your head?” he asked.
I stopped. I didn’t realize I had been doing that. Shaking my head. A gesture of denial. He leaned forward in his chair.
“Tell me. Tell me your story.”
And I told him my story, from the beginning…
The current chain of events started a year ago, when I decided that I was finally old enough and strong enough to do what I believed (at the time) I was born to do, my primary task, to save my sister. My sister, Tima, is five years older and since I was old enough to remember, I’ve looked up to and adored her, for the most part. But I’ve also been disappointed in her sometimes. In my youthful selfishness, I hoped for a trailblazer who would guide me along my own life. But I’ve gone ahead of her in so many things, graduating school, moving out.
One of my earliest memories is of my sister having an episode. I don’t remember how old I was, but I sensed that my sister wasn’t having a mere tantrum. She started crying. When my parents sequestered me away from her, my first thought, in my youthful selfishness, was a hope that I wasn’t going to get in trouble or get punished for whatever my sister was doing. I was in school already, the first or second grade. I knew something was wrong when I didn’t see her for a few days.
My parents told me that my sister was “sick.” They wouldn’t say anything beyond that, thinking me too young. But I soon figured out that it wasn’t a sickness of the body. It was something wrong with her mind. And because they didn’t tell me what, I was afraid that my sister would hurt herself or someone else. She would cry and rage, and walk around in her pajamas during the day, and forget what year it was. It was as if a different person took over her body. The sister I knew and loved and admired was gone and some weak and weepy usurper had taken over. And this usurper took my sister’s dignity. And I came to pity her because it wasn’t her fault. And I came to be angry in general because I wondered why she of all people had to suffer such a fate. And I came to be angry at her, because I wondered why she couldn’t just calm down and find a way to get a hold of herself. When I was old enough, I found out that my sister suffered from neurosis and depression.
I seemed to suffer none of these conditions. Neither did my parents, though one of my paternal grandparents may have had some mental illness. When I was still in high school, our last grandparent passed away, my mother’s mother. My sister had always been close to her. The death hit her hardest of all and she didn’t seem to recover. She had to drop out of school and be hospitalized because she could not handle her grief. She couldn’t handle the hospital either and she raged at our parents for leaving her there. She clung to me though and called me her haven. I was terrified of everything that I saw, of my sister. I knew that my parents had tried and had failed to find a way to permanently cure their eldest daughter. They had done all they could. And I realized that it was my turn, that I was the one who must save my sister, cure her. Over time, I convinced myself that it was the reason I’d been born in the first place, that it was my primary purpose. And I began to think…and to plan.
I started reading and doing research on therapies, medicines, clinical trials—practical things at first. But all such attempts would require my sister’s consent and participation. And that posed a problem. (A couple of years back, I had convinced my parents to let me set up an appointment for her with a psychiatrist. I tricked her into going. I think the session helped her, but she never went back except when she had to refill her medications. She wouldn’t go anywhere with me or speak to me for six months after that. The holidays were awkward that year.)
So I moved on to more unorthodox options like herbs, tribal medicines, mind-altering drugs. And then outlandish topics, like the occult, alchemy, astrology, paranormal things. One night when writing in my notebook, I scrawled the outline of my plan. It was Problem-Solving 101. And the first step? Identity the problem. Physical illnesses could be detected and identified. An x-ray could reveal a broken bone. A microscope displayed cancer cells. Chemistry could be used to detect dangerous molecules and foreign particles. But how could one see mental illness? Despair? Anxiety? Fear? Self-loathing? There was no imaging technology for such things. That was point. If I could see what was causing her torment, if I could l see the problem, that was the first step in solving it. Once and for all. Solving it. Curing her. Not just treating her. I needed to see what was making my sister suffer. And then I needed some way to root it out, destroy it.
I don’t remember now how I found the woman. I’ve looked through my notes to trace what led me there, but I can’t find anything so far. And I haven’t been able to find the woman again.
But I found her and went to her. She had what I needed for the first step of my plan. I remember a room that looked like it was set up for some psychic readings. And there was a beaded curtain. The woman came through the beaded curtain and handed me this ornate bottle, fluted glass banded with silver on the top and bottom and sealed with a cork painted blue. The Potion of Allegory, she called it. For it would allow me to see feelings and ideas, that which we call personifications. I had figured that mental illness was a result of thoughts and ideas and feelings going wrong and out of control.
“Remember, you will only be able to see, not touch,” the woman had said.
“Is it permanent?”
“Yes.” She handed over the bottle. “And you must drink every drop. So after you drink it all, fill the bottle with water, swish it around, and drink that too.”
When I went home, I followed her instructions. A crawling feeling climbed through my gut into my chest, up through my throat. I breathed shallow, heavy breaths. I tried to slow my breaths, deepen them, to keep the feeling down, to push it down. I suddenly felt exhausted. My eyes were raw and heavy and sore. I lay down on my bed and slept.
When I woke up, my muscles felt sore, as if I’d been swimming. Arms, legs, back. Sore. As I rose, I saw a figure sitting on the floor at the foot of my bed and I yelled out. I grabbed the nearest thing I could find, a curtain rod that was propped in the corner, and I swung it. And it went right through the figure. And I stopped and looked at it. It wasn’t an animal. It was humanoid. It had arms, legs, but it was small and shriveled, like a goblin or gnome or something from fairy tales. It was grey, all grey. And it was hard to tell if it had tattered clothing on or if the folds of grey that I saw all over it was its own skin. It turned its bald grey head and looked at me. Its eyes were human-like too. They had whites and irises and pupils. And they too were grey.
And it came back to me what I had done. I glanced at my bedside table and saw the bottle. I crept toward the bottle, keeping an eye on the creature. I lifted the bottle and it was real and solid. I set down the curtain rod, keeping an eye on the creature, uncorked the bottle and took a sniff. It was empty and smelled of nothing. I re-corked the bottle and shifted my attention to my uninvited visitor.
“Who are you?” I asked it. “What are you? Can you speak?”
It just looked at me. But I figured it was a personification. I wondered of what. As the only person in the room, I must have been the source. The most intense emotion I felt at the time was fear.
“Are you Fear?” I asked. It didn’t seem consistent for the emotion of Fear to be represented by such a shriveled and pathetic creature. But when I said the word, the creature turned toward me. It didn’t look at me or shake its head, but I sensed a negative response. It wasn’t Fear. I took a few more guesses, but I was so wound up that it was hard to think clearly and at last, I realized what I was really feeling. When frustration forced me to calm down just a little, I recognized the twisting in my gut, the pressure in my chest, the jittery muscles.
“Anxiety,” I said. And the creature turned to me and looked me in the eye in response to and recognition of its name.
And when I sat down to try and calm myself further, I saw another one. I don’t know when it appeared or if it had been there all along and I just hadn’t noticed. It was on my cluttered desk. Smaller than Anxiety. A tousled-looking thing. It was rodent-like. It had a long and fluffy tail with grey and brown fur that looked unkempt. Confusion, it was.
And so I saw.
That first night, I saw maybe half a dozen as the day wore into night. Anxiety became smaller as my feeling of anxiety began to fade. I couldn’t bring myself to go to the bathroom because some of them followed me in and one was just in there. Shame, I think it was. None of them spoke or made any sound. I told them to leave me alone, but they didn’t seem to respond to anything but their names. When my bladder was about the burst, I finally gave in and went, telling myself they had always been there, that it was like having a bug in the bathroom with me.
I started writing down and sketching what I saw and writing down the names of what I thought they were.
Then I went to visit my sister.
She had gotten engaged and was living with her future husband, working part-time, going to school part-time. I hadn’t seen her in weeks. And I didn’t know how she was doing, if she was taking her medication. She was in her kitchen, experimenting with some recipe. She had always loved to cook and was a superb one. She could be a chef in a restaurant if she wanted to. I had called ahead, but she still smiled as if she were surprised to see me. And a bright blue-and-pink thing, like a tiny friendly dragon wrapped itself around us when we embraced. The Happiness of Greeting. It faded away as we broke apart. And for a heartbeat, I had hope because I saw nothing else, until she turned around and I saw it on her back.
It was a desiccated thing. Pale, so pale it had no color. I could say white or grey-white, but those are colors and they have life. Its body was a husk with thin sharp projections like a system of branches. One of its hands lay on the back of her head, the other on her back, right behind her heart. It moved and seemed to be taking a breath and as it took a breath, my sister exhaled a breath and her back drooped just a bit.
And I thought I had found my enemy.
It was a real thing, this creature. Despair, I thought it was, though now I’m not sure. Maybe it was Depression, if the two are different. I watched it drain the life out of my sister as she went about her day. If I hadn’t seen it, I would have thought she was having a hundred-percent day. She must have been struggling so hard. And I was helpless to help her. She caught me glaring over her shoulder and asked me what was wrong. She ended up asking me a few times if everything was all right before I left that day. And I saw Fear. In her eyes and sitting beside her. It was a spiky thing. Not charmingly spiky like a porcupine. It was flat and lay over the sofa beside my sister as if ready to prick anyone who tried to sit there. It was me she feared for. And I wished she hadn’t seen the look of bloody murder on my face when I saw the thing that was sucking the vital energy from her mind and heart and soul.
I tried to move on to the next step of my plan, finding a way to touch the thing, destroy it. All the personifications I saw were creature-like. Familiar shapes, with arms and legs, humanoid or animalistic, but not human, not animal. I knew my sister struggled. But so too did I struggle to live my life while seeing personifications everywhere. I would see that sometimes a shadowy figure would be on someone’s back, and I would say something pleasant and the figure vanished, for some of the personifications were momentary woes or joys. And I experimented. Heat, electricity (static, that is), water. When applied to the human body, they had some effect on a few of the personifications. Aromatherapy. Stress balls. They worked to some extent. But even when they did, the effects didn’t last. Some balms were temporary.
It seemed that as time went by, I was able to see more and more. The world seemed crowded. The irony was not lost on me. I wondered if this was how it felt to be seriously mentally ill. To perceive things that no one else perceived Not just flashes and glimpses. But solid things. Things that sometimes sat in my way. Things I had to pass my hand through to get things done in my day.
Unlike my sister, who had no choice in the matter though, I had done this to myself. And though I still disagreed with her resistance to seek help, I began to understand it, at least to some degree. I questioned myself. But I was also certain that what I saw was real. And sometimes I was overwhelmed by the conflict between the two, Doubt and Conviction. Overwhelmed by knowing that the stake in that conflict was my very identity. I didn’t think anyone would understand or believe me. At times, I didn’t think anything was wrong with me at all. I wondered if my sister’s struggle was anything like mine. I imagined it was worse. So I began to understand her resistance.
And it surprised me when she told me one day that she had a psychotherapy appointment. She asked me to go with her for moral support. I sat in the waiting room, trying to ignore all the personifications that waited alongside the patients. The doctor put her on some new medications. And on a schedule for more therapy sessions. I wanted to know what had made her decide on her own to seek help. After all the time I wanted her to talk to a therapist or something, here she was doing it on her own. Maybe it was my future brother-in-law. Maybe my sister had finally decided to take some control of her condition on her own. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing and ruining what she was doing. So I never asked. And she didn’t tell.
I stopped my own research for a while. It was a relief to just live my life and worry only about myself. But I did keep watching her. And I felt the awe of seeing another sight I wasn’t sure I’d ever see. The dry husk of the personification on her back, Depression or whatever it was, began to dissolve and disintegrate.
It only took a month. I went over one day and saw there was nothing on her back, no creature sucking the life out of her. When she smiled at me, her eyes were bright with good cheer. Simple and daily good cheer. And she stayed that way for a while. I went over to her place every day, sharing hopeful looks with my future brother-in-law. The doctor had warned that she had to maintain her treatments. But my sister started feeling normal and she missed a dose of medication here and there, and a therapy session or two. Sure enough, the creature returned. I saw it growing back on her like a creeping fungus. It looked a bit different, as if it had mutated. It seemed my sister’s efforts had indeed destroyed the first one. But another had taken its place.
My sister became discouraged. But she had tried and was still trying. And I took up my mission again, chiding myself for becoming complacent. I was so sad for my sister. So angry for her. She had earned a cure. I tried again to find the woman who had given me the potion in the hopes that she would be able to give me another or send me to someone who could get me another. A potion to make the personifications tangible. So I could fight them.
And then it happened that one of them spoke to me, and I heard. He—I think of this one as a “he”—looked more human-like than any of the others I’d seen so far. He had just started appearing shortly after I’d taken up my mission again. So I’d been too busy to figure out what he was. He was taller than me and lithe and he had one wing with feathers the color of storm clouds. His eyes were bright black and inscrutable.
“You haven’t named me,” he said. It was evening and I was writing in my notebook and his voice startled me. It sounded pleasant but firm. “You don’t recognize me.”
“I haven’t seen you before,” I said after I’d recovered myself.
“No, but you do know me. You have called me a friend in the past. A teacher.”
I looked at his eyes then, and they cleared up. They changed color, lightened to a dark, dark, green. And they weren’t so mysterious.
“Failure,” I said.
We spoke for a while, all night in fact. He told me that some of the personifications could speak, those that were more complex ideas and feelings. Love. Hate. Destiny. I had never seen those. I had only been seeing primitive thoughts and feelings. And a few of the complex ones, like my sister’s personification, that creature made of despair and depression and things I couldn’t fathom. He told me that those who could speak could also be reasoned with to some extent, like being told not to follow me into the bathroom, and obeying. He told me that he was there because I was failing in my self-assigned mission. And that I was not learning from my failure, because I was refusing to accept it. When I told him I could not accept failure this time, his eyes became black and inscrutable again. And he went silent again. And he faded before I went to bed that night.
I should have known, after that. I should have known better than to continue on. But I was even more determined, so blinded by rage, that I heard Failure’s words as a provocation, not as a warning. I imagined myself ripping that parasitic personification from my sister’s back and throwing it into a black hole from which it could never return to trouble her again.
I helped her as best I could while I searched and searched for the Potion of Tangibility as I came to call it. And sometimes seeing the personifications helped guide me to know what she was going through. I learned that if I called on Failure, even if I was not failing at something, he would come. And as he did when I was young, he taught me how to learn from the mistakes I had made. But the biggest mistake I was still making, one that I wasn’t aware of and therefore he wasn’t aware of, was in keeping all of it to myself. I told no one about the potion and the personifications. No friend. No stranger on the street. No one.
So it was that I set myself up for what happened next.
I was waiting for a friend in a coffee shop, sitting at a table. I’d been there a while, reading a magazine, glancing up every now and then when the door opened to see if my friend had arrived. I’d seen the man, sitting just by the door at a table with two others. He didn’t have a drink. When he caught my eye a time or two we smiled politely at each other. I had my head in some article about modern monster myths when the man walked up to me and pardoned himself, and when I looked up, he apologized and asked for the time.
“No problem,” I said. “It’s four-fifteen.” Then I watched in horror as the man stepped away and two people passed right through him.
He was a personification.
He left the coffee shop. I was still stunned, but when I looked around, most people didn’t seem to have noticed me talking to thin air. But one of the baristas gave me a strange look.
I frowned at him. “Did I just say that out loud?”
When he confirmed, I shook my head at myself. I made up some cockamamie story about rehearsing an imaginary conversation I wanted to have with my boss, and I claimed I should go home and sleep instead of trying to cram more caffeine. The barista bought it, looking relieved to discover he was dealing with an addlepated but normal customer, not a madwoman. I ran out of the coffee shop and tried to find the personification who had looked just like a human being and sounded like one.
“What was he?” I asked aloud, half addressing the figures that surrounded me. None of them answered. They couldn’t. In the end, my personifications seemed only to know what I knew. I saw soft and furry Calm shatter and vanish. Fear appeared, its spikes growing longer and larger. And as I drove home, for the first time, I wondered. I had never exhibited symptoms. Never suffered from the pathological versions of the typical human emotions, sadness, nervousness, fear, panic, and the like. But I wondered how alike I and my sister were. I glanced over at the black-eyed figure that rode shotgun and wondered if I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing.
And that night, I dreamt that all my personifications began to chatter. It was a dream and even in the dream I knew it was a dream, but it such a clamor. I heard them all then, everyone’s personifications, in the streets, barking, crying, moaning, howling, talking, talking, demanding, begging. I walked and walked, trying just to go home to some peace and quiet.
And I woke with a start in the middle of the night. And though I didn’t hear them, as I had in my dream, I knew they were there. I turned on the light. Shriveled little Anxiety. Two-faced Doubt. Frustration, with its boiling red complexion. Many-spiked Fear. I clapped a hand to my mouth and felt tears drip from my eyes.
I had no control over any of it. I would not save my sister. Could not save her. It was not in my hands to do so. I had failed to save her so far. And I hadn’t stopped to learn why. And I still didn’t know. I suspected maybe it was because I needed her help. Because what I needed to do was help her to save herself. Or maybe I had just missed something in my reading of myth and legend and the occult and alternative and emerging medicines.
I wept and wept. But as the pile of tissues in my wastebasket grew, the number of personifications in my bedroom shrank. Doubt and Fear receded. Misery vanished. They were washed away in salt water.
Plans don’t always work out. They must be adjusted if needed, changed. And sometimes, they must be abandoned altogether.
And so, I abandoned my mission.
The next morning when I woke, there was something furry and almost pleasant-looking at the foot of my bed. Calm. I knew I had work ahead of me but I felt as if a burden had been lifted. I had never seen the personification of that burden, strangely enough. But it was the burden of my self-made mission. And I had thrown it off.
And I, who had decided I had to be strong enough to handle it on my own because there was no one who could help me, decided I needed help. And I decided I needed help on multiple fronts. I needed loved ones. And I needed professionals. And I needed objectivity. And I needed open minds. So I made a new plan. I chose one friend to whom I would reveal my secret. I chose a psychologist who seemed to have the least number of negative personifications clinging to her. And I chose a man who had a reputation, a solid one, for studying unusual phenomenon.
“And that is how I came to walk through your door.” I took a deep breath and exhaled.
“That’s quite a tale, Miss…?”
I huffed out a breath. He’s taking my case.
“Verdilay,” I said. “Perima. Perry, most call me.” I held out my hand.
He shook it. “And you know me, but for the sake of politeness, Alastair MacAlastair, paranormal investigator.” He released my hand and cocked his head. “You’re a great maker of plans, aren’t you, Perry? The plan to save your sister. Now the plan to save yourself.”
“I wasn’t able to face it before, but my sister’s illness is more complex than just getting rid of her despair. There may be only so much I can do. I think…I think for some people, like her, it will be a constant struggle.” I glanced at the figure that sat beside me, the one the handsome PI could not see. The lithe boy with the bright black eyes and the single stormy-grey wing. “I went out of order. I can’t save anyone else, if I can’t save myself first.”
“And I may fail again, but if I don’t screw up too badly, at least I can learn from it.”
Alastair inclined his head. “An admirable strategy. First, we have to find out if what you have is an illness or an ability.”
“Or both. You want us to track down the woman who gave you this potion?”
I nodded. “That. And if you can find someone else who can see what I see—someone credible—then that would help to start convincing me that I’m not just imagining things. And…convincing you and others.”
“And this Potion of Tangibility, as you call it. Do you still seek it?”
I shook my head. “Not anymore. It would be too dangerous. I can’t always tell if what I’m seeing is a person or a personification. I was planning on attacking my sister’s despair. But that was before I knew that personifications could look human. What if I had made a mistake? Attacked a person instead? At least right now, when I try to touch, it becomes clear which is which.” I sighed. “Then too there is the danger of the personifications touching me. Ideas and emotions have a powerful enough effect on us as it is. I don’t know what would happen if they became tangible to me.” I looked up at Alastair. “I was desperate. And angry. I’m still angry. And frustrated. And confused. Not enough to manifest creatures I can see. But enough to decide that I need people to help me. People I can trust. To help me and to watch me.”
Alastair leaned forward again. “If we determine that the personifications you see are in your mind, then our association will be over, at least in this case. But if we determine that you are seeing what is truly there but invisible to others, then is that a bridge that you plan to cross when you come to it? Or do you have a plan?”
As he spoke, a figure entered the room. The door never opened and Alastair never stirred. And so I knew it wasn’t a person. But even if I hadn’t known, I would have recognized him. He stood behind Alastair and smiled at me, but said nothing. It was the man, the personification, from the coffee shop.
Alastair noticed that I was looking over his shoulder. “What do you see?”
I felt a stirring in my chest. And it wasn’t anxiety or panic or worry. And it wasn’t hope. It was, I think, curiosity.
“I don’t know yet. But I have a feeling you could help me find out.”
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.