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The Oldest Solution, ©2020 Rachel Quinlan

Content warning:

Dr. Olk rarely took new patients.  They liked him so much that his schedule was booked. I got lucky when one of them had to cancel due to having their brain turned inside out.

I arrived half an hour earlier because my brain always liked to assure the rest of me that twenty minutes late was always acceptable. This was not a doctor that I wanted to disappoint.

The parking lot was large, muggy and grey with puddles. All of the corners were marked with yellow caution tape; that was a good sign.  A Mother of Pus crew was managing a sewer main outside, creating a peat moss smell. I parked and gave a cautious wave to the man who handled the rattling jackhammer.

The building was a quaint colonial brick number, which seemed practically deserted. Other offices included Tax Refunds Assistant, Siobhan Cosmetic Dentistry, and Yidra Bodily Possession Extraction. I walked into number 404. When the glass doors closed, they muffled the jackhammer vibrations.

“Good morning,” a secretary called. She fidgeted with her rumpled hair.

“Good morning,” I said. “I’m Nisha. I’m here to see Dr. Olk.”

“Yes.” She handed me a clipboard. “Just fill this out and he’ll see you shortly.”

The questionnaire asked about my height and weight, if I was on medication or if I had undergone any stresses recently. I chewed my pen when debating about if an infestation of corners counted as an illness. It didn’t, I concluded.

When I finished, I gave the clipboard to the receptionist. Pen stains covered my fingers; I got up and went to the water dispenser in the waiting room, running my fingers under the stream.

Squeaks met my ears. I turned. An aquarium with inky-black slugs and neon blue jellyfish occupied the round end of the room. The slugs rolled towards the glass, with opal-colored stalks gleaming. I walked toward them, hand clenching a cup of water. The stalks quivered the closer I walked toward them and changed from opal-black to yellow. My breaths became more even, and I felt calm rushing through me like waves in the ocean. Only they would not drown me as I walked through them, towards the slugs that danced in the current….

“Nisha?” a weathered voice called.

I turned, hand poised over the tank’s latch. A tall, stocky man stood dressed in red flannel and black jeans. He seemed kind enough.

“Yes,” I said, offering my hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Doctor Olk, I presume?”

“Yes. That is who we are.” His hand froze my fingers.

I pulled away, brushing frost off my palm. The dazed feeling faded.

“Come.” He gestured to a room down the hall. “Take a seat wherever you like.”

We walked in silence.  I landed on the fraying blue couch. It was embroidered with patterns of tiny black octopi. I touched them. Pure fabric, not like the creatures in the aquarium.

“So.” Dr. Olk smiled. He had a waxen face and shags of grey hair. I could pinpoint the exact moment where the pupils had taken in too much cosmic light, and to save his soul the Old One had to adopt him.

“So,” I responded.

“Why don’t you tell me about why you came here?”

We surveyed each other in silence. He was supposed to be old, but I had pictured "old" as in slightly wrinkled but grandfatherly. This was the face of a middle-aged man who swallowed and seemed to hold a black hole inside of him.

“I need a minute, but thank you for taking the time to see me,” I said; my voice was raspy.

"You're welcome. How was your drive?”

“It was all right. No one on the road tried to eat me.”

“That’s good to hear. Normally we specialize in couples, and yet we only see half of you here," he responded.

"Funny." I sighed. "That is the issue. It's not my girlfriend; it's me."

"Oh? Tell us more about it." He started writing on a clipboard. If I twisted my head, I could see ciphers and not Roman letters. Decoding them would turn my brain inside out.

"I'm having commitment issues," I confessed. "We talk about our future, and I’m scared to introduce her to my parents. My mom, she’s the worst kind of homophobic, the kind that doesn’t see it when it’s in front of her. It’s like talking to a wall with sharp corners because she doesn’t listen and denies who I am, not even knowing that she’s cutting me. Khala’s worried that I don’t trust her enough, and I keep trying to explain that it’s not her. It’s not her at all; it’s me. And my stupid parents.”

“Ah.” He kept writing. “Tell me more about that.”

“It’d be different if I was living on my own, but I can’t afford that. I should be, but with the recession I haven’t found steady work. I’m a contractual worker, and that means while I have savings, I don’t have enough to live on for the long term. In a few months, I’ll be searching for a new job, and then what? The job market sucks. And my parents are talking about how lazy unemployed people are but then saying I don’t count because I had a regular job before the layoffs. And I can’t commit because I can’t even guarantee a stable future for myself. The only reason I could come today was that I got some extra money from freelance work.”

“Commitment is a hard thing,” Dr. Olk responded. “It is hard to grasp forever and finite at the same time. Coming here to see me is the first big step. What exactly sparked these worries between you and your girlfriend?”

“We were having a conversation about adultery,” I said. “You remember the scandal where that adultery dating site accidentally leaked the souls of all its users? I was talking with Khala about it. And Khala said that she thought it wasn’t fair that most of these people were judged on the merits of their character. I said that was the point, that a soul revealed who they really were. She’s never been that unreasonable before.”

“I remember the scandal,” he said. “This is why Old Ones should never possess activists’ souls. All that energy and power can go to a mortal’s head.”

“I’m with you on that,” I admitted. “But adultery like that is very clear-cut. You had to pay to use the site specifically to cheat. And there were allegations that the site created sentient bots that nibbled on the souls offered while flirting. And I don’t get why someone would do that.”

“And what did Khala say in response to that?”

“That it’s not that simple. She brought up a bunch of articles where happy people cheating on each other. I said that was ridiculous, and we started yelling at each other. She accused me of calling her ridiculous and asked if I thought she would ever cheat on me or vice versa.”

Her lips had curled in disgust. We had shouted late into the night, getting more impassioned, but in the end we lay in her bed, holding each other while grumbling under our breaths. My parents thought I was sleeping over with a friend who had gone through a bitter divorce.

“And the thing is I want this relationship to work, but I don’t trust her, or myself, to be forever. And I know it’s not her, it’s me. I want to trust in our future together. But I can’t.”

Dr. Olk stopped writing. The ciphers on his clipboard danced. I slumped forward on the couch, eyes shut.

“Accepting uncertainty is challenging,” he said. “Humans want to believe in forever and stability.”

“And you have a means of helping me get over my fears? They seem so small and silly.”

“Don’t say that,” he said. “You are worried about your financial future, your parents’ views of you, and if you can give yourself to someone who loves you. Those are not trifles. That you can maneuver and maintain a contractual job and work for this relationship is remarkable.”

My eyes refused to open. So much working, so much commuting, so much worrying.

“What am I going to do?”

“One option is that we could possess you,” he said. “It is a viable and valid treatment method. You would become symbiotically bound to an Old One. It would handle your worries and your commitments. You would have perspective to ground your anxiety.”

The memory of his freezing hands came back. I opened my eyes. His fingers were an inch in front of me. People said it didn’t hurt to be possessed, I never wanted to feel like ice was coating me from head to toe.

“That’s a kind offer, but no, not now anyway. I want to work through it first.” My voice quavered; I actually didn’t think it was kind but it was best not to tell my therapist who was possessed by a cosmic being.

“That is fair.” He withdrew his hands.

I slid back on the couch and tucked my arms around a cushion. Cold had gathered on my sleeves, and I brushed off ice particles.

“Then what are the other options?”

“Have you ever been in the cosmos?”

“I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid, but no.” I tried to joke. “I’ve always wanted to see outer space.”

“Yes. Right this way.” He stood. I followed, knees wobbling.

This door was a darker wood, and it had a clawed door handle. Dr. Olk reached into his shirt’s chest pocket and pulled out a brass key as long as a ruler, with moving gears. Its clicks echoed when he pressed it into the lock.

“Hold on, Nisha,” he instructed, taking my arm. I flinched at the cold touch.

A breeze that smelled of stale rock salt came through the door. Dr. Olk pushed past it, dragging me along.

“What the hell?” I managed before swallowing a mouthful of dust. The coughing hurt.

Stars burned orange and green gases. We walked down a corridor made of space and stars. Rather, Dr. Olk walked and held me. I froze and stumbled. Even though I felt the ground below, I could not see it. If Dr. Olk let go of me, then I would fall and suffocate.

“This is the cosmos,” Dr. Olk says. “It’s a way to get a measure of who you are and what you want in life. Ultimately, humans are insignificant. You all get one life. You will feel pain, sometimes disproportionate to what you think you deserve, and you will feel joy. And you will feel the emotions in between.”

I stumbled to keep up with him. My feet kept slipping on floating ice flakes.

“The question is this: faced with insignificance, how are you going to manage your joy and pain? You cannot control who you are or where you are in life, but you can control what you do. You fear commitment, but more than that you fear that nothing you do will matter. And nothing you do will matter, because you will become the dust that feeds stars.”

“But I’m not insignificant,” I said. My voice shook against the stars.

Dr. Olk observed me with mild curiosity.

“My worries may not matter to the cosmos or the Old Ones, but they matter to me,” I said, my voice getting louder. “I want to fix them.”

“Then you have a long road ahead of you,” he said. “because it’s all about fixing who you are and controlling what is uncontrollable. We have a long journey ahead of us.”

“We only walked a few feet.” Even I knew how stupid that sounded. He obviously wasn’t being literal.

“This is thousands of kilometers in light-years.” He pointed. “See that sparkling object? That’s Venus.”

I turned. The planet looked like a photograph in an encyclopedia, but its surface erupted with hot gases.

The open doorway gleamed the brightest. We walked back to it. I hustled ahead of Dr. Olk. My shoes hit the solid ground so hard that they cracked. I stumbled and clung to the wall. Dr. Olk slowly closed the door and locked it.

“We’re ten minutes past our session,” he sighed. “Are you available for a follow-up?”

“A follow-up?”

“You’re not interested in being possessed, and it seems we have a lot to work through. We recommend that you come back biweekly for the next year while we work through your issues.”

“But I thought you could fix this.” I gestured, still clutching the wall. “I thought that’s what you were good at.”

He gave me an indulgent smile. He moved his hand forward, as if to pat my head, and stopped an inch short. Ice and space dust blew off his fingers.

“No Old One can fix a human being, Nisha, even if they have a PhD. We will try talk therapy for this one. We do sliding scale, so bring stubs of your paychecks to get a reasonable fee. Talk with Lennie and she’ll set you up.”

I dawdled to the reception area, feeling cold crawl over me, and dread. The doctor sat back in his chair and reviewed his notes.

“Give me a minute,” the secretary called. She had one hand in the aquarium, wrapped in jellyfish tendrils.

I sat and waited. She eventually withdrew her hand, clutching something slimy that dripped blood and brine. My eyes closed before I registered what they were.

“Happens sometimes,” she said.

The slugs and jellyfish twirled within the water, squeaking their innocence. I looked away and stared at my shoes.

She gave me a workbook titled You Are Significant: A Study in Human Syndromes. She took my credit card and swiped it through. The sound was crisp with finality. So was the blood dripping from the fingers she had rescued. They went into a rubbish bin marked Biohazard.

“The doctor will want to get you started on homework,” she said, ignoring how I shuddered. “Bring it when you arrive in two weeks. What day and time works for you?”

I told her, shuffling from one foot to the other. The slugs squeaked, in rhythm to the secretary typing a date into her computer. I would come again, facing their hypnotic gaze as I faced my flaws, to be a better girlfriend, and a braver person. There was a future, with or without the cosmos.

A 2016 MBA graduate and published author, Priya Sridhar has been writing fantasy and science fiction for fifteen years, and counting. One of her stories made the Top Ten Amazon Kindle Download list, and Alban Lake published her works Carousel and Neo-Mecha Mayhem. Priya lives in Miami, Florida, with her family.
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