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Faint of Heart

by Gigi Blackthorne 4 months ago in fiction

Being a psychiatrist for the dead has taught me that the afterlife, as strange and as enigmatic as it is, is not for the faint of heart

Faint of Heart
Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash

My first client of the evening is Marcel, a two-hundred-year-old pianist who has a habit of losing his head. Literally.

I watch patiently as he staggers into my office, arms outstretched and body clumsily bumping off the furniture, his disembodied head rolling across polished floorboards and stopping at my feet like a hairy, partially transparent beach ball.

“Would you like me to help?” I ask, barely getting the offer out before Marcel barks at me.

“No!” He blurts and then stops, suddenly looking sheepish, “No it’s fine, Dr. Reyes. I can handle it.”

Turning away, I stare out my window at the street below. Muted shades of lavender and periwinkle spill across the dreamy, evening sky, where clouds drift past lazily and birds soar overhead in perfect formation. The streetlights glow a dirty amber as a gust of summer air brings peach blossoms raining down onto the sidewalk. And strangers stroll past, completely oblivious to the sea of ghosts gliding past them aimlessly.

A loud screech interrupts my thoughts.

Returning to my office, I spot Luna, my pet barn owl, flapping her wings and squawking indignantly as Marcel’s head ping-pongs off her stand.

“No, you fool, over here!” he barks at his body, and his body finally stumbles over, scooping his head up into his arms and dodging to avoid Luna’s furious pecks.

Hurrying over to her stand, I stroke her wings and coo softly to her in a comforting, low voice.

“It’s alright, it’s only Marcel,” Luna clips her beak huffily as I continue in a murmur “Look, I know he’s annoying but if you can put up with him for the rest of his session, I’ll throw in an extra rat for dinner.”

Luna’s eyes gleam at the prospect of an extra treat and she folds her wings, settling on her stand obediently.

Sitting back in my seat, I watch as Marcel’s body rearranges itself on the armchair across from me, sitting his head on his lap.

“Shall we start?” I ask.

Marcel nods, or rather, the hands supporting his head shake in a movement of agreement and we begin our session for the evening.

We chat as we usually do; Marcel reminds me of his tragic beheading and how he gets teased by younger, more immature ghosts who imply he gives himself a blowjob, and I pretend to make notes because he’s already told me all the gruesome details before. The more sessions I have with him, the less he remembers from his past life. From living. It occurs to me that he’s forgotten how to live, and is simply existing in this shallow, cold world he and I are forced to occupy.

Being a psychic has taught me two unfortunate truths about being dead: one, the afterlife, as strange and enigmatic as it is, is not for the faint of heart and two, the longer you exist as a ghost, the more your mind becomes like a spindly, abandoned spiders-web.

I think an abandoned spider’s web is the best way to describe it, as overtime, the structure begins to turn brittle, deteriorating, until all it takes is a gentle breeze for it to tear apart and collapse in on itself. It is the same with the many ghosts that sweep in and out of this office. Each one seems to have a strong connection with their past selves, but the more they exist, the more they try to feel alive, the further they drift from the living, until all that’s left for them in this sad, lonely existence is regret. They become transparent but not fortunate enough to be invisible.

And, like I do with my living patients, I try to help the dead let go of their fear, their grudges, their resentment, and move on.

Just as Marcel’s session is about to finish, my assistant, Mitsuki, bursts through my door, eyes wide with panic.

“Luke,” she blurts, glancing at Marcel, “I mean, Dr Reyes, sorry to interrupt but…it’s Alma. She’s acting up again.”

My heart drops like a sack of twisted arteries and muscle, sitting heavily on the bottom of my stomach.

“Oh boy.”

Apprehension suddenly fills the room like a gust of mid-winter air. I realise that I’m sensing Mitsuki’s nervous energy, which pulses around her with mingled fear and urgency. I don’t exactly blame her; Alma is a deeply troubled ghost who has been haunting the empty house at the end of Green Street for nearly twenty years now. Owners cycle through the place as though it were a revolving door, too terrified by her haunting presence to stay for longer than a month or two.

Alma is a horrifying presence, the type of ghost that is portrayed as a vengeful spirit in supernatural horror films. She also happens to be my mother.

Springing from my seat, I mutter a quick apology to Marcel and follow Mitsuki out the door, past the haunted, broken-down elevator, and onto the empty street.

“Doesn’t look like anyone is around,” I note, staring up and down the street. Mitsuki hums in agreement.

“I think this street makes them feel uneasy, given that all the ghosts in London are drawn to you.”

Stepping into long shadows spilling over the cracked concrete path, I close my eyes and envision Alma's decaying house. Something like a strong breeze passes me, swirling beneath my long coat and raking through the short strands of my hair, and then–

Stillness. I open my eyes.

Alma's house reflects her melancholic, twisted soul.

Thick vines sprawl across the rotten, wood-siding, sharp thorns poking out from beneath blood-red roses. Shards of glass litter the front lawn where the neighbourhood kids have dared each other to throw rocks through the dust-covered windows. A rusted fence leads out onto a cobblestone pathway, smooth with age and mossy around the edges, cutting through the jungle of weeds that has swallowed up what was once a beautiful garden. The whole building exudes a miserable, lonely energy, distorting the air around it and scaring off anyone brave enough to trespass. Uncertainty and unease climb up the ladder of my spine as Alma's wail makes the house shiver.

A gentle weight lands on my shoulder, followed by soft fluttering of wings. Luna hoots encouragingly, tapping her talon gently as though she were offering her support.

I push open the rickety, needle-spired gate and step forward.

The energy surrounding the house instantly changes, like an attack dog alert to the invading presence of intruders. Alma knows that I’m here, can sense every shaky breath that rattles in my lungs, can feel the fear emanating off Mitsuki as she follows me into the gloom.

“I thought you said you exorcised her,” Mitsuki says and my jaw clenches, molars grinding as I chew back a snarky response. She sighs forlornly when I don’t answer and stops, reaching out and tangling her fingers with mine to pull me to her.

“I know it’s hard,” she squeezes my hand and I stare down at my shoes, “But you have to let her go. She’s trapped here–"

“She’s not ready,” I snap, firmly, “I think I’d know, wouldn’t I?”

Mitsuki’s expression sours into a scowl, “Luke, the longer you keep her here, the worse she’s going to get and then your dad’s going to come barging through your door trying to reap her soul–"

“Let’s not talk about that prick.”

“We have to, Luke! That’s what’s going to happen if you don’t exorcise her!”

Prickly agitation stitches its way beneath my scalp at the mention of my father, but a part of me knows she’s right. Sighing through my nose, I shake my head and stare back up at the house, “Sometimes, I regret telling you that I’m a psychic.”

A gentle smile flirts around the corners of her lips, “I would have figured it out eventually.”

My mouth curls into a lopsided smirk. Before I can respond, an otherworldly shriek rings through the house, reeking of decades-old anger and painful sorrow.

“You should stay here,” I say, and it’s more of an order than a suggestion.

Stubborn irritation and strong conviction flares to life, surrounding her like a fiery halo and overpowering her obvious fear.

“No,” she snips, sternly, “I always come with you to your appointments, why should this time be any different?”

“Because this time, I’m not sure if I can protect you.”

Mitsuki’s mouth drops open then clicks shut abruptly, moving around words she can’t seem to voice. Her eyes, molasses dark, seem to peer through me, as though she’s stolen my powers for herself.

“How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t want your protection, Luke,” she says, resolutely, “All I want is to help you, support you. Why won’t you let me do that?”

Mitsuki stares at me with such fierce determination, I start to think that maybe she’s right. Realising that she isn’t going to listen whether I’m right or wrong, I scrub my forehead with the heel of my palm as a subtle way to stave off my irritation.

“Fine. But take Luna. She’ll be able to shield you if Alma emits any dangerous energy.”

At the sound of her name, Luna flaps onto Mitsuki’s shoulder and hoots dutifully.

We continue up the crumbling, half-rotten steps, carefully trapeze over the collapsing porch, and cross the threshold.

The atmosphere is loud, oppressive, the weight of Alma's indiscriminate hatred pushing down on us as we walk down the hallway of her life. Photos, cobwebbed and covered with dust, hang from the walls beneath frayed sheets of peeling wallpaper. The floors are scratched and moldy, the ceiling weather-warped and sagging, and yet, it’s as though I never left, as though she had never died. There is still a sense of familiarity that’s buried beneath the lingering, unsettling aura. Somehow, my mother is still in there, rearranging things exactly as they were, even when new owners storm through her home and leave just as quickly.

I suck in a sharp breath, a swampy, triple-tied knot of unease tightening in my stomach.

Alma stands in the living room. In her rage, she seems to fill the whole room.

“Mama,” I rasp, and Mitsuki grips my hand.

Alma doesn’t say anything. My throat bobs, dry and scratchy, trying to dislodge the splinter thats tucked behind my tonsils.

“You nearly killed the new owner,” I state, firmly, “I told you that if you started killing people, I’d exorcise you.”

And I was serious, too. I’d lost count of all the people she had injured, sometimes leaving people so mentally and physically scarred, they wouldn’t be the same again.

Alma tilts her head. Her cracked, pale lip’s part and an unearthly growl issue from her mouth.

“Leave.”

An icy chill creeps in from beneath the door, crawls up my stiff body, and penetrates my chest, clutching my heart. I push on.

“I can’t leave. Not until I know you’re not going to hurt anyone again.”

Mitsuki squeezes my hand again. I know what she’s trying to say, but I can’t find it in me to do it. Sorrow seems to fill the gap in my heart where courage should be.

“LEAVE!” Alma bellows, and a blast of malicious energy surges toward me. Luna swoops in front of Mitsuki, spreading her wings and shielding her from the shockwaves.

Rooted to the spot, I stand my ground, forcing myself to stare into the chalky-white abyss of her eyes.

“Please, Ma, please don’t make me do this.”

Alma doesn’t register my pleading. It’s as though she’s so lost within the fog of her own mind, she doesn’t recognise anything anymore.

The air stirs.

The lights flicker.

And then she charges.

A harsh, piercing shriek punctures the air, followed by a powerful burst of energy that slams into me, knocking me off my feet and painfully forcing the air from my lungs. I gasp, gulping down air as Alma bats Luna aside and grasps Mitsuki by the neck, clammy, scarred hands curling around her throat like a noose.

“Mitsuki!” I rasp, scrambling to my feet. My head spins violently, vision swimming, the pounding bass of my pulse thumping in my ears as bile threatens to surge up my throat.

“GET OUT!” Alma roars, and she flings Mitsuki aside.

My stomach drops as I watch Mitsuki crash into the wall and sink to the floor, a thin tendril of blood trickling from her lips as her eyes slide shut.

For one horrible, heart-wrenching, stomach-twisting moment, I think she’s dead. But then her chest rises and falls, air flowing through her nostrils and blossoming in her lungs like wildflowers and the anxiety rushes out of me.

And then, the irony, the hypocrisy dawns on me.

It dawns on me how I’ve let this fear —the fear that I’ve learned to swallow, choke back, bury the dry, fragmented bones of— turn the space between me and my loved ones into a gaping, yawning chasm. The fear that I’ve spent years trying to guide others through is the same one that I’ve kept my mother trapped in until she’s become a warped image of what she used to be. A twisting, never-ending crypt of my own denial, bending the image of my mother until she becomes unrecognisable to everyone, including herself.

Resolution steels my spine.

For the last time, I call my mother’s name, drawing her attention, her fury, to me.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, voice strangled and chest cleaving until it feels like I’m choking, "I'm so sorry..."

***

“So you did it then?”

I pause, the scratchy fabric of Luna’s bandage slipping from my trembling fingers.

Mitsuki's awake, roused from her day-long slumber, sitting upright on the lounge chair pushed up against the back wall of my office. My eyes sting. Relief fills my chest like a helium balloon drifting past the clouds. I keep my back to her as I respond.

“Yes,” I whisper, cringing at how small and weak my voice sounds, “Yes, I did.”

There is shuffling, then the soft echo of footsteps padding across the floorboards before a small hand rests on my shoulder. The weight of it says more than words ever will: I’m here for you, I care for you, you’re not alone, you never were.

The pale, otherworldly, lilac-tinted glow of dawn swirls around the room, mixing with the silence and the mourning we both share. The gentle call of a skylark fills the air, slightly muffled by the closed windows. And my hand covers Mitsuki’s in silent acceptance.

Mitsuki smiles.

fiction

About the author

Gigi Blackthorne

A twenty-something mother of one (1) fluffy german shepherd. Collector of scented candles that i don't use and kawaii socks that i forget to wear. Coffee-addict, dreamy pisces with cancer energy, and a broke uni student bunking at her mums

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