Chapter 2


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At first I thought I’d dragged something into Doctor Campbell’s office with my sneakers. It’d rained earlier today. Some of the stubborn leaves, which had so far managed to stay clinging to the tree branches despite the low temperatures, had been forced to give up. The whole walkway leading from the parking lot to the building had been covered in drenched, fallen leaves. Who knew what else could’ve gotten stuck to my shoes beside them?

I glanced down, carefully keeping the hood on. The little sharp squeak came again, making it clear that I hadn’t imagined it. I had to rub my eyes to make sure I’d actually seen what I thought I’d seen. But there it was.

A tiny brown mouse. That pointed snout. The round nose. The long tail that took some time to get used to, but once you did, could be quite cute too.

Unmistakable. A mouse. In Doctor Campbell’s office.

Slowly, I looked up, then left and right. The receptionist hadn’t noticed a thing. He was on the phone, telling a Mrs. Henderson to please not be late for her next appointment. The other patients who waited here hadn’t heard the mouse either. One had buried her face in a magazine. Another dozed off. The third one was murmuring something incessantly, glancing every which way at the walls and the ceiling except at the mouse.

I gazed down at the mouse again. Its snout never ceased sniffing, in that characteristically busy way of mice.

What an adorable creature. This was a healthy one, its brown coat smooth. But what if someone saw it? Killed it? Dying out here all alone, away from its folks, seemed like the most terrible thing. And die it would, if they found it.

My lawyer had recommended Doctor Campbell. He’d mentioned some things about “very experienced” and “very discrete.” I hadn’t really listened. My head had been full of What matters isn’t your sanity on paper, but Darla’s well-being. If I was going to lie, what did it matter who wrote down the sentence: “It is my professional opinion that Elmer Warde is crazy”?

But I suspected that my lawyer wouldn’t have recommended Doctor Campbell, had her office been known as a mouse playground. Yup, I was one-hundred percent sure: the receptionist, if he spotted the mouse, was going to kill it.

Gingerly, I moved one foot sideways, hoping to block the view to the mouse. But the mouse refused to cooperate. It circled around my foot, to the middle of the room. I almost gasped, “No!” but stopped myself. Even now, nobody had noticed this mouse. If I played this right, I could get this little one safely out of here.

Or not. By now, the mouse ran in circles all over the place: around the table with the magazines; around a tall vase, close to the receptionist’s desk. Nobody flinched, winced, cringed.

Only I jumped up from my seat. My hood fell off. I stared at the mouse with wide eyes.

“Mr. Warde?” the receptionist said, having put down the receiver.

I looked up.

“Is everything all right?” he asked.

“I… What… I…” I pointed at the mouse like a total fool.

From his chair, the receptionist regarded me with that infuriating patience that people used when dealing with crazies who hadn’t yet come to terms with their craziness.

“Please sit down,” he said.

“But that…”

“There’s nothing there, Mr. Warde.”

He’d said this sufficiently sternly but not coldly. He was used to this—people seeing and pointing at nothing. Maybe he recognized me from the many Youtube videos where I was crying, screaming Darla’s name.

Not even the others waiting in the same room seemed surprised. The one who’d buried her face in a magazine still kept it buried. The one dozing off still dozed off as if he’d keep on doing so through a zombie attack. The third one was too busy murmuring, presumably seeing things of his own that no others could see.

My shoulders slumped.

“Everything’s fine.” The receptionist said this with a little less graveness.

He wanted to ease up on me, now that he concluded that I wasn’t going to be much of a trouble. He didn’t need to stand up, throw his average-strength arms around my own skinny arms, trying to stop me from attacking others until the building guards came running and used a stun gun on me. I wasn’t about to refute him, argue that there was something there, in the middle of the room, sniffing and scurrying in circles.

Maybe this was a good thing. Saying that I was insane wasn’t going to be that difficult after this. My sincerity would simply pour out of my eyes. Doctor Campbell wouldn’t have a difficult time diagnosing me. Plenty of people checked in and out of their heads. Just because they were sometimes home didn’t mean that they were sane.

But did this mean…

Could it mean…

Had I really imagined everything?

No. No. No. No. White-hot panic rose from the core of my abdomen to my face. My head suddenly seemed to blank out.

This was what it felt like to be truly alone. Now, finally, I understood that. True loneliness doesn’t come from the absence of other people, even when those other people are Mom and Dad and Darla. True loneliness comes from not knowing yourself. Not recognizing yourself. Not being sure if there is a “yourself.”

“Please sit down,” the receptionist said again.

I nodded slowly.

It was then that the mouse darted toward the wall across from the receptionist’s desk. I watched, gaping. From the corner of my eyes, I could see the receptionist follow my gaze following the mouse.

The mouse didn’t slow down.

It didn’t even cringe.

The wall was centimeters away from it—

The mouse disappeared through the wall. I pressed my hands against my mouth, suppressing a scream. All over my body, I shivered. I hadn’t experienced this kind of shock since I’d first seen Jangmi looming over Darla on a bed of blood-red roses. That’d been inside the closet.

“Mr. Warde? Mr. Warde!” the receptionist’s voice sounded distant.

“What…” I pointed at the wall where the mouse had disappeared to. “What’s there?”

“That is the restroom, Mr. Warde.” Now the receptionist was adopting a very slow, very low, very patient voice. To him, I was the rabid dog who might start barking and biting at any time. “Do you see that door?” It was located a couple of feet away from the spot where the mouse had disappeared. “We use the door to get from one room to another.”

Right. That’s what you’d do. Normally.

“I have to go pee,” I said.

The woman with the magazine looked up, finally joining us in this world, and laughed hysterically.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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