The Phantom and the Imaginary

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Quill 164 Phantom Imaginary Image 1 FinalHis best friend insisted that he go see a therapist.  Jorge was surprised and disappointed because his buddy was a believer in unusual phenomena, and if there was anyone who wouldn’t think he was off his rocker, it would be Bradley.  But he said they had to be sure it wasn’t all in Jorge’s head.  They had to be sure, despite the demonstration Jorge had provided, that there really was something otherworldly going on.

“But isn’t a shrink’s job to find a rational explanation?  Won’t she be assuming that it is in my head?  Shouldn’t I be checked out by a doctor?  Get x-rays or something?”  Jorge thought Bradley would suggest a psychic, a paranormal investigator, a shaman, witch doctor, maybe even an outcast professor who studied subjects the other professors found troubling or a waste of time at best.

Bradley frowned.  “Firstly, she’s not going to shrink your head.  Don’t worry.  What century are you from?  Therapy isn’t anything to be ashamed of.  I still go, even though things are going well for me now, wouldn’t you say?”

Jorge nodded.  In the ten years he had known Bradley, they had quickly become and remained best friends.  Bradley was the first person who extended the hand of friendship to Jorge during his first weeks in the new city.  Jorge had no friends or family there, but he hadn’t really considered how lonely he would feel, since he’d been self-sufficient and had always liked keeping to himself.

Bradley was in his last few weeks at the company where Jorge had just started.  They came to stand next to each other at the bar during a happy hour that Jorge had decided to attend.  Jorge bought Bradley a farewell drink, which impressed Bradley, the generosity of a near-stranger when colleagues who’d known him for years had given him nothing but grief about leaving.  He was well-liked because he worked well with everyone, but a few people found him to be weird, and some even thought he was somewhat creepy.  Jorge saw why.  Or he thought he did.  Bradley had a deep and intense stare at times.  He could focus so well that he shut out all distractions, which was good in some ways, but not in others.  His boss often found himself standing over Bradley and giving his shoulder a nudge to get his attention.  So while Bradley had many casual friends, he didn’t have many close ones.  Jorge was one.  They were a trio once, but their third member moved away and they only heard from her once in a blue moon.

So it became just Jorge and Bradley.

***

Jorge was half an hour early, so he sat waiting in the lobby, absently flipping through a magazine, checking and re-checking his phone to make sure he’d put it on silent.  He had never been to a therapy session before.  He had considered it, when he first moved to the city.  But he thought it would be kind of pathetic, as if he were paying someone to be his friend.  That’s what friends were for, listening to one’s whining and moaning, to one’s dreams and aspirations.  Anyway a therapist wouldn’t indulge in occasional trash-talking.  Well, the therapist would listen, but not participate.  That’s what Jorge needed.  He needed friends, not a therapist, he decided.  That was that, but things were different now.

He was called in to the office of the same therapist Bradley saw.  She was a tall woman who added a bit of flair to an otherwise drab gray pantsuit with a dark red silk scarf tied loosely around her neck and a pair of dark-red-rimmed glasses.  She shook his hand firmly and asked him to make himself comfortable.

“I don’t know if I should sit down or lie down,” Jorge said taking a seat on the plush and remarkably comfortable coach.

She smiled.  “It’s up to you.”  Her name was Doctor Garber.

Jorge hesitated.  Doctors always made him feel self-conscious and somewhat insecure.  “I wanted to ask you, doctor.  Is there any…conflict of interest or ethics issues with me seeing you, since, you know, you see, or my friend, sees you too?”

Doctor Garber took a seat on a chair across from him.  She crossed her ankles, folded her fingers together, and rested them on her knees.  Not necessarily,” she said.  “So long as I remain professional and keep what any of my clients—even those you happen to know—private.”

“Well yeah, but I know he’s told you about me.  Why else would I be here?”

“I’d like for you to tell me.  Why are you here, Mister Montoya?”

“Bradley asked me come.”

She nodded.  “A show of respect for your friend and his advice is a strong reason.  But I imagine that’s not the only reason you’re here.  I imagine you have something weighing on your mind.  If you feel comfortable enough during our session, we can discuss it.”

Jorge gulped.  “I was surprised he suggested this.”

Doctor Garber smiled again, a professionally kind and understanding smile.  “Why so?”

Jorge took a deep breath.  Maybe Bradley really was trying to eliminate the more mundane explanations.  After all, suggesting therapy was not the first thing he did when Jorge told him what had been bothering him.

***

“You have what now?” Bradley had asked.

Jorge started to recall for the doctor the conversation he’d had with his friend a week prior when they sat eating lunch at their favorite burger place.  They were in their usual corner booth.

“I think I have phantom limb syndrome.”

Bradley looked at Jorge, glanced at Jorge’s arms, leaned to the side to look under the table at Jorge’s legs.  “Unless my eyes aren’t functioning, I can confirm for you that they’re all there.”

Jorge began his story by reminding Bradley of how he hadn’t taken a travel-abroad type of vacation since he moved.  When he was young, he used to dream of traveling the world.  Then he developed a fear of flying and got busy with school and work.  But he’d recently started feeling the itch again.  He’d started watching documentaries about the Far East, movies made in Iceland, internet video logs of people in vacation in Europe, Japan, Thailand.  He routed drives to Canada and Mexico.

He even dreamed about traveling, mostly by driving somewhere.  In one such dream, he lost control of the car’s steering wheel when his car hit a bump at high speed and his hands were jarred away from the wheel. Before he could move his hands back into position, he found that he already had a grip on the wheel again, with his second pair of hands.  And that second pair of hands were connected to a second pair of arms just under his normal pair.  No big deal.  It was the kind of stuff that happened in dreams.

When he woke, he didn’t immediately remember the second pair of arms thing, and even when he did, he was more focused on the other elements of his dream.  He’d been caught in a snowstorm on a remote road flanked by high sharp hills.  He was in a foreign land.  He sensed that much, but he didn’t know where.  And at first there were friends in the car with him, but by the end of the dream, he was alone.

He had different variations of the dream for a week before he started actually feeling the strange sensations on his sides.

“What do you mean by strange?  You, you actually feel the arms?”  Bradley asked.  He shifted in his seat.  He leaned his lanky self over.  He had grown a thin mustache.  If he’d been wearing a dark suit and a top hat instead of a hoodie, he would have looked like a silent movie villain, the type who tied girls to train tracks.  Jorge stifled a smile at the thought.

“I can feel them,” Jorge said.  “I can feel with them too.”  He glanced around.  The place was starting to fill up.  He and Bradley had come earlier than the lunch crowd so they could grab the booth.  But even if someone was watching, there was so much movement in the diner by then that it would be easy to play it off as a trick of the eye.

“Watch,” Jorge said.  He raised his arms up as if stretching, clasped his hands, and slipped them behind his head.  “You like that shake?”

Bradley frowned, then raised a brow.  He got the idea though.  He watched the half-drunk glass of chocolate-banana shake.  He watched as it trembled slightly, then slid across the table, away from him and toward Jorge.

Bradley’s eyes widened.  The glass floated up for a moment.  Jorge tilted his head forward, took a sip from the straw, twisted his mouth in disgust, and leaned his head back as the glass descended gently to the tabletop.

“Dude!” Bradley whispered.  He looked up at Jorge, eyes wide and smiling with delight.  “Please tell me that wasn’t some Vegas magic trick.  Please tell me that was real and you are now telekinetic.”

Jorge opened to his mouth to speak.  Bradley held up a hand.  “Wait, what have you been eating and drinking?  Have you been exposed to anything recently?  Have I been exposed with you?  Did you get any shots lately?”

“Bradley, stop.  Before you start asking me to list every animal I’ve been bitten by in the last week.”

Bradley raised his brows.  “A list?  How many times do you get bitten by things?”

“Never mind that.  It wasn’t a trick and it wasn’t telekinesis.”

Bradley peered at him for a moment.  Jorge figured that his friend had momentarily forgotten the main announcement in the excitement of seeing that demonstration.  But he would work his way back.

“Oh, right.  Arms.” Bradley smiled, but he was shaking his head.  “You don’t have phantom limb syndrome, bud.  You have imaginary limb syndrome.”

***

Jorge had started feeling the heat of embarrassment rise in his face when he first made mention of the duplicate pair of arms in his dream.

“Keep going, Jorge,” Doctor Garber said.  “What happened immediately after this revelation?”

“You don’t want to ask me how I really lifted the shake?”

“We’ll get to that.  Please, go on with your account.”

Jorge crossed his arms, then shook his head at himself.  He crossed them higher up his chest than he normally did.  He felt the other pair crossing just underneath.  He was still getting used to them.  He slowly lowered both pairs of crossed arms until his shoulders were no longer tensed.

He dared a glance up at the doctor’s face.  She was leaning slightly forward.  Her gaze was riveted on him.  She appeared engaged and focused.  There was no sign of skepticism in her expression.  But then she was probably trained how to control her expression so her clients wouldn’t know what she was really thinking.  He did see a touch of concern, probably professional concern, and caution.  Nothing unexpected there.

“We went back to my place and Bradley started scouring the internet for answers—even though I told him I’d already done that.  I performed another demonstration.  He was convinced that I wasn’t pulling an elaborate prank on him.  I was hoping he would find something I’d missed.  He didn’t.” Jorge chuckled.  “He said maybe I was a mortal incarnation of an ancient god from the Far East.  Maybe one that no one believed in anymore.”

He scratched at his side.  “Actually, he finally settled on some form of limited telekinesis.  He thinks maybe my mind is trying to make sense of a new and abnormal ability by fitting it into my existing understanding of the world.  It’s not weird for a person to move a glass from one end of a table to another using his hand and arm.  So my mind is making me think I have…a psychic hand and arm, I guess.”

Jorge glanced up again.  Doctor Garber’s brows flinched up for just a second.  Her gaze was still locked on Jorge.  There was, he could swear, the hint of a smile in her eyes.  She rose from her chair and took a deep breath.  She slipped her hands in her pockets.  In that pose, she seemed more like some kind of cop or agent questioning him than a therapist.

“What would you say if I told you I could answer all of your questions?” she asked.  “That I know what is happening to you?  Why you feel the sensation of an extra pair of arms?”

Jorge sat up.  He shifted forward on the sofa and gazed up at her.  “I would say what anyone would say.  I’d say, ‘Please tell me what you know.’”

“I’m supposed to be helping you keep your mind healthy.  What if I told you the answers might break your mind or unravel it?”

Jorge felt both a spike of fear and the prick of an insult.  He frowned.  “Are you saying my mind’s too weak to handle it?  Whatever you have to say?”

“On the contrary, Jorge, your mind is far more powerful and far more resilient than you now know.  But even the strongest most robust structure will collapse if it is sufficiently overwhelmed.”

“So it would be too much all at once.”

“Exactly.”

“So you have answers, but I have to get them bit by bit.  I don’t understand.  Are you worried about telling me the name of the condition or syndrome I have and me going home and looking stuff up on my own and getting freaked out about it?  Diagnosing myself and all that?  Because I’m pretty level-headed about that stuff.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about.”

“Then what?”  Jorge realized they had skipped over the part where he asked if she believed him.  Maybe she was doing some kind of therapy technique on him now, pretending to believe him and answer his questions.

“When Bradley told me what happened with you at my last session with him, I asked him to urge you to come see me.  You know him.  He became suspicious.  He wanted to know what my angle was.  I had to go to extreme measures to convince him.”

Jorge frowned.  “What did you do?”

“I gave him a demonstration of my own.”  Her eyes shifted to the left and she turned her head slightly that way.

Behind her, on her desk, a glass orb paperweight rose into the air, seemingly of its own accord.  It floated toward Jorge.  He lifted his hands—his physical hands—to receive it and felt something brush against his arms—his phantom arms.

The desk and the orb were much farther than arm’s length away.

“You did that?” Jorge asked.

“I have a phantom limb of sorts as well, a prehensile limb.”

Jorge raised his brows.  “Like…a tail?”

Doctor Garber sighed.  “If that’s what you want to call it.”

“This isn’t a coincidence.”  Jorge rose.  “Was this…some kind of setup?  What is really going on here?”

“Jorge, please.  You’re going to keep remembering.  Someone will have to help you.  Someone who knows what you’re going through.  A friend won’t be enough in this case.  Even a friend as a loyal as Bradley.”

“Remembering?”

“You were right.  About your phantom limbs.  You were right.  You once had another pair of arms, right under the ones we can both see now.  They were removed surgically about ten years ago.”

When she mentioned the extra pair of arms, Jorge’s mind went to a terrible thought.  Maybe he’d been born with the “abomination” of extra arms the way some people had extra digits, and his parents had elected to have them severed before he even had the sense to know they were there.  He had no scars because he was so young that they faded before he could see them.  But even as that story flashed through his mind, he heard her say it had happened ten years ago.  That’s when he knew she had to be lying.  He would have known if he had an extra pair of arms his whole life and someone hacked them off.  He would have had scars.

“You elected to have this surgery.  Phenotypic surgery, we call it.  It changes your appearance.  In some cases, the surgery is not so extreme.  In yours, it was.  The reason you don’t remember is that you also elected something else to go along with the surgery.  A procedure known simply as a memory lock.”

Jorge stood aghast for a moment.

“Assuming I believed you,” he said, “why would I elect to do these things to myself?”

“Because the alternative was far more terrible.  Because you were going to be living in a place where your true appearance would not just be judged, it would be unacceptable.”

Jorge felt a broiling within himself.  It should have been anger, confusion, suspicion.  But it wasn’t any of those.  He wasn’t sure what he was feeling.  It was familiar and forceful.  “That ugly, huh?”

“Not ugly.  Just different in such a major way that everyone would know.  There are many, like Bradley, who believe.  Then there are those who know.  Believing and knowing are different burdens.”

Jorge frowned at her vague words.  “Believe and knowing what?”

Doctor Garber took a deep breath.  She took off her dark-red-rimmed glasses.  Behind them were eyes that were a color Jorge had never seen before, ever-changing gleams of blue, green, orange, and purple swirling around her pupils like a nebula orbiting a black hole.

“That there is life beyond this planet,” she said.

***

A sudden realization dawned on Jorge.  He immediately started calming down.  “Wait, he thought I was hoaxing him,” he said.  “He’s getting me back.  He’s hoaxing me now, isn’t he?”

It was far-fetched.  Bradley getting his therapist to risk her career on a prank.  His therapist agreeing to it.  Unless the woman before Jorge was not the real Doctor Garber, or whoever Bradley’s real therapist was.

“Who are you really?” Jorge said, pointing a finger at the so-called Doctor Garber.  She was probably just an actress.  Those eyes were some kind of new contact lens technology.  This was an amazing setup.  The glass orb, the contacts, the authentic—as far as he knew—therapy session.

“Do you really think your friend would be so cruel as to set up a hoax to toy with your mind?”

“If he thought I was faking it, then yes, because then he would think I was mocking all the stuff he believes in.”

“Has he ever played such a prank on you before?”

Jorge shook his head.  The calm was retreating again.  But that didn’t make sense.  He had figured it out.  “We used to prank each other all the time.  I made him think this house was really haunted once.  And he…”

Jorge remembered.  He thought it would be fun and games.  That Bradley would just shake his head when the prank was revealed, call Jorge an idiot, and get on with believing what he believed in.  Bradley’s faith in otherworldy events and phenomena and beings was unshakable.  But Jorge remembered the look on his best friend’s face.  He had expected disappointment, annoyance, and anger.  He had expected momentary confusion.  He hadn’t expected the lasting confusion of days and days, of doubt, and dejection.  Bradley didn’t refuse to speak to Jorge.  He didn’t break off their friendship.  But he became aloof, distracted.

Jorge remembered not knowing what to do to snap his friend out of it.  Jorge didn’t believe in ghosts, vampires, alien abductions, or any of it.  But he accepted that he might be wrong.  That Bradley might be right.  He realized that believing all that stuff was real was a part of who Bradley was.  And he hadn’t just shaken that faith, he had damaged it, perhaps permanently.  There was nothing Jorge could do.  Bradley eventually found his way back on his own.  One morning, when they met for breakfast before they headed off to other plans—Bradley with his family, Jorge with his then-girlfriend—Bradley casually mentioned he was planning on visiting some cornfield several hours north of the city where a farmer claimed to have witnessed a crop circle.

Jorge was relieved to have his friend back.  He vowed never to play another prank on Bradley again, even if Bradley pranked him every day of their natural lives.

But Bradley wasn’t much of prankster.  So that was the end of it.  No more pranks.

***

Jorge sat back down on the couch.

“I’m not—I’m…I’m an alien?  An alien.”

Doctor Garber knelt before him.

“You could be lying,” he said.  “I wouldn’t know.  The past ten years could be a lie.  My mind’s all scrambled.  I can’t find the truth.”

“The truth is right before you.  Start with that.”

“What do you mean?  You said you ‘locked’ my memories.  Then I don’t know who I really am.  I don’t know what I am.”  He felt his phantom hands curl up into fists just like his physical hands.  He wanted to hate those phantom hands.  But he didn’t.  They were a part of him.  And they were also an echo, a remnant, of another part of him that was lost now, forever.

“They’re not gone,” Doctor Garber said.  “Just locked up.  Your memories are not the entirety of who you are.  Your experiences mark more than just your memories.”

“I don’t know what’s real right now.  I don’t even know if I care, if it matters.  You were right.  I can’t handle this.”  Jorge rose again.  The air felt cool and he realized that his face was covered in sweat.  He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.  He was too distracted to note which hand it was.

A flood of questions washed through his mind.

Am I really an alien?  There is life beyond Earth?  How did I get here?  Why am I here?  What’s my real name?  What do I look like?  Where did I come from?  Who else was there?  My people?  Did I leave anyone behind?

He felt a sinking sense of dread at the last thought.  He couldn’t look at Doctor Garber.  She had put her glasses back on and he was sure if he did look at her, he would see human eyes, a lovely and normal shade of blue.  But he couldn’t.

It’s a hoax, he thought.  He didn’t believe it was, but it was dizzying how his thoughts were turning and whirring and flashing in an out of existence.  Or a dream.  Or both.  Did I take something?  Did someone spike my food, my drink?  What’s the last thing I remember?

He remembered everything he did that day and the days before.  In fact, the more he focused, the more clearly he could remember for days and days going back.  No one had drugged him.  And he wasn’t dreaming.

It’s a hoax.  Bradley did this.  Bradley.

A sudden quiet came over him, as if he were in the eye of a storm.  He felt an overwhelming need to go see his friend.

“May I leave?” he asked.  “Is our session over?”

“Of course.  But I hope you’ll return.”

Jorge turned and walked to the door.  He closed his eyes.  He felt the weight of the phantom arms at his side.

 

***

Before he could knock, the door opened and Bradley stood there, hood on his straggly hair, holding a tablet in his hand.  He stepped aside so Jorge could come in.

“Sorry,” Jorge said.  “It’s late.”  He wasn’t sure why he was apologizing.  Bradley was the only person he dropped in on unannounced.  All the time.  He didn’t even do that to his parents.  His parents.

Who are they?

Bradley threw back his hood and shrugged.  “I was up.  Want some food?”

Jorge shook his head.  He sat down on Bradley’s couch.  It was lumpy and uneven.  He lay down on it.  He knew he would be falling asleep on it and that his back would hurt in the morning.  Yet, he began to relax.  He closed his eyes and folded his hands on his stomach.  Then he heard Bradley speak.

“I’m sorry I didn’t warn you about the tail thing that she did,” Bradley said.

“That was—”

“Yeah.”  Bradley sighed.  “But that’s all I knew before you went in there tonight.  I swear on my beautiful hair.  And then this arrived at my doorstep right about the time your session was supposed to start.”

Jorge opened his eyes and glanced over.

Bradley raised the tablet he’d been holding.  “A friendly female voice activated and told me that there was information on my beloved pal Jorge on this tablet, but if I wanted to access it, I would have to go through the proper clearances first.  I had to sign fifteen documents, get my retina scanned—yeah there’s one of those on this tablet—pretty cool and creepy all at once.  I even had to prick myself and submit a drop of blood.”

Jorge’s eyes widened.  “And you did it?”

“Hell yes.  I’ve been reading for hours.  Doctor Garber called a few times after you left her office.  But I tracked your phone and it didn’t look like you were walking into traffic or jumping off any bridges, so I told her I’d keep an eye on you.  She thought you might come here.  I was afraid you’d be walking around all night.  Thanks for not making me stay up.”

Jorge smiled.  He took a deep breath and exhaled.  That something that was broiling within him, it was merely simmering now.  He could put a lid on it, at least for the time being.  He sat up.  He felt better, but now he felt wired and jittery.

“Before tonight I thought you might be some kind of cryptid,” Bradley said.

“And now?”

“Let’s just say you give ‘resident alien’ a whole new meaning.”

Jorge started laughing.  He bent over, still laughing.  It was the laughter of relief and the laughter of joy at the familiar and welcome cheesiness of Bradley’s joke.  By the time he stopped, he found himself calmer, calm enough to begin facing what he would inevitably have to face whether or not he was ready.

He glanced at Bradley, then the tablet.  “So did you finish reading it all?”

“Not all.”

“But enough to know more about me than I know right now, is that right?”

Bradley nodded.

“That’s weird.  For you to know who I am, and for me not to.”

“You know who you are, bud.  I don’t need to tell you that.  But I can tell you who you were.”  Bradley hesitated.  “And what you can do, beside the psychic arms thing.  But this tablet is just the beginning.  I get the feeling you won’t want to hear this, but I think Doctor Garber can help.  I trust her…for now.”

Jorge rose from the sofa and stepped toward Bradley and the tablet, at once afraid and eager for the answers it held.  “She’s probably the one who arranged for you to get this.  She’s been your therapist.  She knows you.  She trusts you too.  But…I don’t know if I can do that again.”

“I’ll help you the best I can, but I may not be equipped to help you with everything, you know?  Maybe she can.”

Jorge sniffed.  “Are you going to keep seeing her?”

“I don’t know,” Bradley said.  “I mean, I have no problem with a non-human therapist.  But I think some boundaries may have been crossed.”

Jorge threw up his hands.

Bradley smiled.  “Okay, never mind anyone else for now.  Just remember, like always, when the going gets rough, you know where to find me.  That hasn’t changed.”  Bradley turned to the laptop on his kitchen counter.  The tracking application was still online.  “And I know where to find you.”

“I could have ditched my phone tonight.”

“Never.  You’re in love with that thing.”

“She’s the best thing in my life.”

“Is she?”

Jorge stepped closer to his friend.  He wrapped all his arms around Bradley as tears sprung to his eyes.

“Second best.”

 

 

Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel

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