A Stretched Mind.

The wind woke him. He had left the window half open, his air conditioner wasn’t working, it was supposed to be fixed the day before, but the electrician had cancelled the appointment. The summer was always hot, suffocating. Sleeping without that cool air was impossible. The room was cold, strangely cold.

“The temperature must have dropped! In the middle of July. Perfect!”, he said to himself out loud.

He got up slowly, still groggy from the sleep. He looked at his phone, it was 2:45am. “What an interesting time we live in when the first thing one does is to check their phone as they are getting out of bed. Narcissists, that is what we are.”, he said even louder than before.

There were no messages or news however. He checked to see if his fiancée was sleeping. She always enjoyed her sleep. She was such a deep sleeper that she looked dead. But she was breathing, her chest was going down and up regularly. He smiled at the idea of her being dead next to him. They were in their early 40s so it may not happen for another 50 years, at least. He walked towards the window and closed the window slowly.

“Peter”

He turned around and looked at his better half. She was still asleep.

“Peter”

Did she just call him and pretended to be asleep? She couldn’t have because she was facing him. The moonlight coming through the window illuminated her face like that lamp you see in cop shows when they are interrogating the suspect.

“Peter”

Same faint voice, he couldn’t tell if it was feminine or masculine. He turned the light on. There was no one else in the room but him and his better half.

“Peter”

He was getting irritated with this invisible person calling him. Was it a recording? He started checking the bedroom. He went into the walking closet and found nobody. He then went to the bathroom and it was as empty as the closet. Finally, he looked under the bed, reluctantly. “This is not a goddamn movie, for me to be looking under the damn bed!”, he said while grinding his teeth out of frustration. He found nothing under the bed. She was still asleep, all the noises he made didn’t even make her move. He checked again if it might have been her. She was still breathing. He called her to see if she might flinch.

“Peter”

He had his mouth open, ready to say her name and he stopped. Right before he called her, he was looking at her and he clearly saw that her lips didn’t move. “It is not her”, he whispered to himself. The frustration had vanished, it was curiosity and fear that had taken over. He turned off the light to better concentrate on his hearing. After a minute (he counted that using his phone that he still had in his left hand), he opened the bedroom door and went down to the living room. He walked slowly, went from room to room. No one was there and the calling of his name had stopped. Maybe it never existed. He went back to bed and he fell asleep right away.

“Peter”

He jumped up and his fiancée screamed.

“What is the matter with you, Peter?”, she asked him after she calmed down and caught her breath.

He decided not to tell her.

“You startled me babe.” Good a lie as any he told himself.

“I startled you? I call your name softly and I am the one startling you?”

“Yeah, you’re right babe. I am sorry. I didn’t sleep so well.”, that looked believable because he was tired as hell.

“Your case at the hospital keeping you up?” she asked him while walking towards the bathroom.

“A bit, yes.”

The rest of the morning went on in silence. Peter didn’t say much. He just kept nodding along and answering questions with a yes or a no. He left first. The drive to the institution center was 45 minutes long, but with the morning traffic, it took him an hour. He walked in, directly to his office, said good morning to the staff and his assistant, Hernan and asked about any updates on his schedule. There weren’t any. He still had that session with young Xi.

“Will you be needing anything special for this session, sir?”

“No, Hernan. My notepad, my pen and my recorder will do just fine.”

“Yes, sir.” He walked out, but as he was near the door, he stopped.

“Sir, if I may.” He said with great hesitation.

Peter was already impatient and not in the mood for chit chat. He looked up, stared at Hernan, took a deep breath and waited.

“What is it? Please do ask your question and be quick about it.”, his tone was sharp. It reminded him of his own father, the career military man who never repeated himself.

“Why not film your session with Xi? It could provide more information on his behavior, body language, attitude and help you keep accurate archive. The voice recorder does all that but having tape that can be watched and could potentially be better, no?”.

Peter thought about the question for a few seconds while sitting back in his chair. He let go of his pen and got up. He walked towards Hernan with extreme confidence in each step, went by him, closed the door and turned back to face the young man.

“What is your occupation here?” he asked sharply while folding his hands behind his back.

That took Hernan aback. He almost stepped back.

“I am your assistant, sir.”

“Precisely. And what is your background?”

“My background, sir?”

“Please stop repeating whatever I say otherwise this conversation will take an eternity. Yes, your background. Let me be specific. I meant your academic background.”

“I majored in psychology from Yale sir. Summa cum laude, second in my class and…”

Peter interrupted him by raising his right hand and keeping his left behind his back.

“In the three seconds that it took you to get the last sentence out, here is a very small list of what I noticed: You smiled while saying you were second in your class and your honors, which showed pride on your part. Without knowing it, you puffed up your chest which, in turn, was yet another physical manifestation of pride. You looked at me straight in the eye when you were giving your answer, which shows good manners, most likely a result of an upper middle-class upbringing, which would in turn could explain your good education at an expensive Ivy league school. You were afraid of my reaction and you didn’t know where this conversation was going but you answered nevertheless because, in that moment of stress, you trusted me.”

Hernan just stood there, surprised, with his mouth open, yet again. This could very well be the thousandth time Peter did his “magic trick” but it seemed like the first one.

“How hasn’t he yet gotten used to these stunts that I put him through monthly,” he wondered.

“The not so subtle point I am trying to make is…Trust is paramount in our field. Xi needs to trust me before he can open his heart to me and, while I find technology to be a fantastic tool, in this case, I have opted not to use it. Trust takes time to build. Thankfully, we have time. Do you understand now?”

Hernan looked down, ashamed.

“Yes sir, I understand. Thank you and my apologies for wasting your time.”

“Hernan, don’t look at the floor when you are talking to me. Try to keep your composure. Do not be afraid of me and talk to me like a man. Look me in the eye.”

He did as he was instructed and asked to be excused. As he walked towards the door, Peter felt guilty.

“Hernan.”

“Yes, sir?”, this time, he turned around slowly and did look Peter straight in the eyes.

“It is I who must apologize for being rude and hard on you. I have had a rough morning and I should have been more patient. I stand by what I said however, I am sorry for the manner it was delivered to you. I want us to be partners and trust, once again, is of critical importance.”

“Apology accepted sir”, said Hernan while smiling.

Peter couldn’t help but smile himself.

“Ok, thank you for being so gracious. Now get out of here and let’s get back to work.”

Hernan closed the door behind him. Peter went to the window, and just stared at the rain fall on the window. He couldn’t stop thinking about the voice that kept calling him. He couldn’t identify it. Was it a female or male voice? Where the hell did it come from? Was he going insane? His line of work brought a lot of trauma daily and that, potentially, could be hurting his psyche in the long run.

The alarm on his phone rang, and he knew it was time to go see young Xi. He walked out of his office, grabbed his notepad, pen and recorder that Hernan handed him and walked to the end of the hallway, turned right, went down one flight of stairs and went to interview room 105. Xi was already there, seated, calm, and psychologically absent as he had been for the past eight months since he had been brought there.

“Good morning young master Xi. How are you today?”

He liked using the fancy “young master” to call Xi. It was a sign of respect. He respected his patient and wanted him to know it. One of his rules was to always give automatic respect to his patients and wait for reciprocation on their part. Young master Xi took his sweet time but ended up calling Peter “sir” within five weeks of their exchanges.

“I am feeling a bit down today, sir.”

“Why is that?” asked Peter while setting down his pen.

“My mother’s birthday is the day after tomorrow. I don’t know if I should celebrate it in my heart or mind.”

“Do you want to?”

“Yes and no”. Xi seemed to have binary answers. There was little room for gray in his thought process.

“I see. Which way are you leaning towards though?”

“I don’t follow.” He raised his head to stare at Peter as he was saying that. Young master Xi was an open book when it came to his emotions.

“Do you want to celebrate it or not? Which option will bring you more joy? Or sorrow? You must know that.”

Xi thought about it for a good minute and Peter didn’t take his eyes off him. Xi suddenly slapped the table with his open right hand in frustration.

“Why would I celebrate the birthday of a woman who abandoned me? She left me with a madman who abused me. How can I celebrate a woman that forgot to be a mother?”

“You do have a point young master Xi. Your anger and frustration are normal. If you don’t want to, then don’t celebrate it. I will find you tasks to do on that day to keep your mind busy. What do you say?”

“You insist on forgiveness. Why should I forgive her? How can I possibly forgive her?”

The concept of forgiveness was unknown to the young lad and understandably so. He had seen too much painful things.

“You should forgive her to let go of that anger. It will consume you and burn you to the ground. Your whole life will be defined by her and your resentment towards her. As to the how, I have only one answer: time. To be precise, time and practice. It will take a lot of time. You are still young though. You will get past all this. I can assure you of that. But you will have to work at it, every day. I can help you, but I won’t do the work for you. I cannot do the work for you. The healing is yours and yours only. “

They talked for another hour. Peter was very happy with the progress Xi had made. When they brought him, young master Xi was a special case of abuse. Xi was fourteen and very tall for his age, over six feet, he came in weighing ninety pounds, skinny and frail from the chronic malnutrition his father had put him through. He had bruises on his torso, cuts on his belly, his left arm had been broken in two places and his right arm in one place. However, neither of them had healed properly because he was never taken to the doctor. They had to operate on him to realign the bones in his arms.

His mother had left the family three years ago and disappeared. Her whereabouts were unknown, even the police couldn’t find her. Her case had been classified as a disappearance and it was still a missing person case, three years later. Peter couldn’t understand how a mother could leave her child behind but, as he kept talking to Xi, he understood her instinct to put any distance between her and her husband. However, by doing so, young master Xi was left by himself to deal with a psychopath with a rare penchant for extreme sadism.

The man in question was a piece of work, a chef d’oeuvre of evil. He was a bully, a true psychopath, with zero empathy or remorse. He was always short on temper and had a unique gift for manipulation, for intimidation and for violence. He blamed his wife for getting pregnant when they were in their early twenties and insisted that Xi wasn’t his. His abuse was a corollary of that mistrust that existed between him and his wife. Xi’s father often accused his wife of cheating on him and never hesitated to beat her in front of his son.

Xi grew up accustomed to the violence and it consequently became his reality. His father was always careful to not hit any of them in places where bruises would be visible. In eleven years of marriage, no one in the neighborhood suspected anything and spoke highly of Xi’s father, especially with him being a doctor, the profession that brings more respect than being president.  One day, the mom vanished, without leaving a single trace and the father’s wrath reached its peak and he went crazy on his son. The beatings became a daily routine and the last one had been particularly cruel. The young man paid for all this mother’s sins, real or imaginary.

Xi was tied up by his wrists and strung up in the garage, his feet not touching the floor. He was stripped naked and beaten with his father’s titanium golf club. After he was done beating him, he sat there, talking to him, watching him, not caring at all that his son was crying and bleeding. He ended up getting his hunting knife and red pepper. He cut the young boy on his torso, just small openings and filled them with pepper. The excruciating pain that came out of this torture made Xi shake and scream so hard that it broke the timber beam supporting the garage roof and it partially collapsed. Neighbors called the police and the rest was history. Xi’s father was in jail for attempted murder and wouldn’t get out for another fifteen years or so. There was some karma in this world after all…

Peter was driving back to his house. Whenever he spoke to Xi, time would slow down in that interview and go faster than ever once out. He was mentally exhausted and his body was equally affected by the fatigue. He did have a lot of patients, each with different needs but…it took a toll on him. Would that be the reason he might have been hallucinating? Or hearing voices?

As he got into the house, he saw his better half was watching tv, pizza was on the coffee table along with an almost empty bottle of red wine and she was watching scandal.

“Tough day, babe?” he asked.

“I don’t even want to talk about it.” she responded without taking her eyes off Kerry Washington’s performance.

“Ok. I m just going to take a shower. I will be down in a few.”

She just nodded. She ignored him on occasion and every time it irritated him. He would always voice that but tonight, he had neither the time nor the energy to start a fight. He took a long and burning shower. He did his daily yoga routing for half an hour, went down to the fridge and ate a banana and a yogurt. She was still glued to the tv when he went back up. He lied on his bed and closed his eyes. It was 9:03pm. Too early, yet, he fell asleep right away.

“Peter”

He slowly opened his eyes, expecting his woman to be messing with him but she wasn’t in the bed. He got up and went downstairs. The tv was still on. She was asleep and snoring like a drunken overweight sailor. He covered her with a blanket and sat across from her.

“Peter”

It was the second time his name was uttered, and it wasn’t her. What the hell was going on? He went to the window, stared outside, expecting to see someone or something, yet, nothing.

“Peter”

He couldn’t help it.

“Who is it? Who are you? What do you want?”, he asked out loud.

“You don’t need to shout. You are the only one who can hear me.”

He was going crazy. The voice went from saying his name to a full sentence. He turned around, looked outside, inside, started feeling dizzy and he had to sit down.

“Catch your breath Peter. I will be here for a while. Take your time.”

It was a man’s voice. He was sure. How could it be? He was alone. No other man was in the house. What the hell was going on?

“You are not going crazy. My voice is real. The problem is, you are the only one who can hear it.”

“How is that possible? Who are you? What do you want from me? LEAVE ME ALOOOONE!”

He screamed that last part and woke her.

“Babe?! Why are you screaming? What’s going on?”, she asked, concerned.

“Go ahead Peter. Ask her if she can hear me.”, said calmly the voice.

Peter didn’t know what to do. There was no outcome where he’d look normal. She’ll say he is crazy and his work finally got to him, messing up his mind inexorably. They always talked about him retiring early. She had read a study saying that psychiatrists ended up experiencing PTSD because of the trauma they encounter daily in their professional lives. She had implored him to consider the option. Since he had become director of the institute, he had changed. He was more volatile, more tired, absent at times, nervous, anxious, irritable, particularly impatient and it hadn’t gone unnoticed. Their relationship had suffered, and he knew it.

“Did you hear that voice babe?”, his voice was trembling, and she noticed. You can’t be in a relationship with a psychiatrist and not pick up a few of their skills.

“The only voice in this house, except mine, is yours Peter. There is no other voice. What’s going on with you?”

He was trapped. How could he explain hearing a third voice when only two people were in the room? He hated lying but admitting you are going crazy wasn’t an option, not tonight at least he told himself.

“I am sorry honey. I am just tired and a bit stressed. I am on this deadline and I can barely keep up and it is even keeping me up as you can see. Sorry to have woken you.”

She looked at him with her big eyes. She was worried, he could read it on her beautiful face. She finally got up and came and sat on his lap. She put both hands on his face and looked deep in his eyes.

“If there was something, you’d tell me, right?”

He took a deep breath and realized how hard lying to her was.

“Do you love me babe?”

She let go of his face as soon as he asked her the question.

“Please answer me.”

“You know I hate that question.”

“And you know I don’t care that you hate it.”

He would always say that. Whenever she didn’t like something, he would say he didn’t care. It was cold, but it was the truth. She knew he didn’t mean any disrespect but that took a dozen fights before she understood his meaning.

“Yes, I love you.”

“Do you love me enough to trust me that I will tell you when I am ready?”

“Why do you always do that? Everything is according to your timetable. You know I hate that the most about you! Damn you Peter.”

“I know you do. But I need you to trust me.”

“No babe, you are not asking for trust. You are asking for faith, blind belief in you. You are not God and I am not your disciple.”

She took a deep breath and wiped away tears rolling from her right eye.

“Fine. You leave me no choice. I shall wait for you, Your Majesty. When Almighty and all knowing King Peter decides to share his issue with his common servant, I shall be available at a moment’s notice.”

“Thank you, Babe. I am sorry I made you cry.”

He did feel bad. He’ll have time to apologize. It was a selfish tactic, but he needed to find out what was going on first. Telling her anything would only add to the confusion.

“Apology not accepted. Have a good night.”

He listened to her going up the stairs and slam the door behind her. He closed his eyes and used his breathing exercises to calm himself down.

“You could have told her the truth.”

How could he ever do that? She knew his whole professional life was filled with mental disorders, criminals, mentally ill patient and all kinds of studies. She was aware of what that line of work did to a doctor’s psyche.

He didn’t know where to look so he could answer. He just closed his eyes and just spoke out loud.

“What is going on? Who are you and how the hell do you know what I am thinking?”. He was scared like he had never been. He was a scientist, a rational man. Hearing voices had always been a symptom of disease. So, he was sick. But what ailed him???

“I can’t read your thoughts. I just know who you are and what you do for a living. I guessed you were worried about hearing voices. Isn’t that usually a symptom of schizophrenia?”

The voice sounded amused with Peter’s predicament.

“Who are you? What are you? And how are you doing this?”

“We have so much to talk about Peter. Who am I, is not important at this point. As to what I am, that is quite impossible for me to say. I don’t know what I am. I couldn’t quite define it myself.”

“I don’t understand.”, the situation made less sense with each passing second.

“There is a lot you won’t understand. I will do you a favour however. You can just whisper your questions. I will hear them anyway. You already lied to your woman. I think it would look mightily awkward if she came back and found you talking out loud to yourself. She’d feel vindicated about that early retirement request.”

He hit the coffee table with his fist out of frustration! He was losing his mind. How could this voice know all this?

“How do you know all this stuff about me or my fiancée?”

“A voice from nowhere is talking directly in your head and you obsess over what I know about you?”

The voice had a point. It was fair to accept that nothing made sense.

“Forget everything you thought you knew. Embrace that things you will never understand are happening. Your rational mind will fight you every step of the way, but you’ll just have to try.”

His breathing was back to normal, as if acclimatized to this science fiction-like situation.

“What do I call you? For conversational purposes, I’d rather put a name on your voice to try and make sense of things a bit. Otherwise, I might go officially crazy.”

“Fair enough. Call me Martha.”

“A woman’s name? Your voice is clearly a man’s.”

“What did I say about forgetting what you know and disregarding any rational thought?”

It was hard to argue with that statement. As far as he could tell, nothing made sense. Might as well roll with the ball, see where it could lead him.

“What do you want from me?”

“Well, I was given a chance to help a person, I have two hours and I chose you.”

“What? Help me how? And why me?”

“You will find out soon enough.”

“You said you were given a chance. Who gave you that chance?”

He heard Martha laugh. It was weird hearing a laugh without anyone physically laughing around him. A long silence fell afterwards. Peter waited. That was the only thing he could do.

“When you commit suicide as I did, you don’t go to paradise or hell. There is no purgatory either. The afterlife is quite a strange place, indescribable. It looks like nothing you were taught by religions or other myths. I could spend days trying to paint an accurate picture of what goes on in the afterlife, but I don’t have that kind of time.  Let’s just say that your spirit stays alive until you wash out the bad deed with a good one. That is why I am here.”

Peter was intrigued and had a thousand questions.

“Before you ask the million questions you most certainly have, remember, I am only here for two hours and I am here to help you, not the other way around. I believe we have less that an hour right now. “

“You keep saying you are here to help me. I don’t need any help. I’m doing just fine.”

Martha laughed again.

“Are you, now? If you are fine, why did your fiancée ask you to strongly consider early retirement?”

“That is proof of nothing.”

It was proof of everything he told himself. He knew it will be hard to argue for long.

“What were the reasons for her request?”

There was a certain confidence in Martha’s voice. As if, he knew what to ask and what the answers would be. As a psychiatrist, Peter was always in control of the conversation. Now, he was at the voice’s mercy. It made him feel quite uncomfortable.

“She read in a medical journal that psychiatrist have a hard time coping with all the trauma they encounter and are sometimes, not often, prone to depression.”, he said, citing word for word his fiancée when they had the argument after she read the study.

“And you don’t think she might have a valid point of concern? How has your work affected your personal life? If I’m not mistaken, you don’t sleep well, and your mood has drastically changed. You are more impatient, nervous, anxious and, not only with her, but with your coworkers. However, given that you are their superior, they can’t or won’t say much about your attitude. I told you I know a lot. You’re sticking to your guns that everything is OK?”

That whole speech reminded him of the last fight he’d had with his fiancée. It had been an ugly one. Words were said, hurtful ones. She moved out and went to spend the weekend at her sister’s. She confronted him about his gradual change and he had lost it. He called her names, refuted everything she was telling him. He took it as an accusation, an indictment on his person. He really handled that argument like an amateur. His training as a psychiatrist had completely deserted him and he behaved like a lunatic. He did call to apologize but the damage was done. His better half had spent most of her time lobbying for him to consider the early retirement option. She told him their relationship wouldn’t survive another fight. She was right.

“Things can always be better. But quitting my job isn’t an option. Being a psychiatrist is all I know. What would I do?”

He had never considered quitting. Even during all the fighting, he never thought about it.

“You can’t teach? You are still young, you are brilliant, you have all those commendations and qualifications. Teaching wouldn’t be the end of the world. You might get easily bored, that is a reality. In your case, avoiding patient contact could tremendously help you.”

“I can’t teach. I need patient contact. I help my patients. I assist them in improving their lives. It is what I do. I am a healer.”, he said that proudly. He was always proud of his work and enjoyed helping people overcome their personal trauma.

“What about your life? How has it improved in the past year? If having fights with your woman is an improvement, then you have improved exponentially. Why do you care about your patients so much and not about your own health? What is this obsession with helping people?”

He always helped people. That is who he was. Peter was always the go-to-guy. People depended on him. His institute had a staff of a hundred people and about sixty patients. All these people depended on him. Kids with unspeakable trauma, adults with mental illness. He couldn’t just get up and leave.

“I help people. I became a doctor to help people. Please spare me the Messiah complex psychoanalysis or the wounded healer phenomenon. I am a psychiatrist, I know all about those. I just help people. It is what I do.”

Was he being psychoanalyzed? And by a voice? Slowly and surely, he was revealing who he was.

“Is it also who you are?” asked Martha.

He paused for a minute.

“I sometimes have a hard time knowing when Peter starts and Dr. Peter ends.”, he admitted reluctantly.

“I am thinking it all goes back to Oleg.”

Peter opened his eyes. All this time, he was talking with his eyes closed. He sat up. He started looking around, searching for a presence, when knowing that Martha was an invisible entity, a ghost or a hallucination or maybe his own subconscious. He couldn’t wrap his head around the fact Oleg was mentioned. How was that possible? Who is this Martha talking to Peter as if he (or she) knew everything about him?

“How the fuck do you know about Oleg? Who the hell are you?”, he said out loud while holding his head with both hands and rubbing his temples to calm himself. He closed his eyes and did his breathing exercises to calm himself. Once his breathing was back to normal, he got up, put on his shoes and went outside, for a walk. He was certain that escaping his house would bring back some of his sanity. He couldn’t be certain, but he had to try something for crying out loud!

“I understand you have questions but, please do remember, our time together is limited. You are going to feel your sanity evaporate. I can assure you it will come back to you.”

Uncle Oleg. The dearly missed uncle that died in a car accident.

“Please leave my family out of this.”.

Peter was tired of this mind game. He wanted it to end. But the voice was in his head. Even if he left, he wouldn’t escape it.

“Your family might have everything to do with your current state of mind. Oleg would agree with me if he were alive.”

Uncle Oleg. What would he have thought of this whole situation? Not much most likely with his condition.

“Oleg died in a car accident, didn’t he?” asked Martha.

Peter decided to talk, he had nothing to lose. He wanted to let everything out.

“Yes. His car hit a tree at 100mph, died on impact. He shouldn’t have been driving at all, his disease was too far advanced according to the doctors. No one knows how he got the keys to his car. His wife still drowns her sorrow in prayer daily. She became very religious upon his death. It was ruled as an accident by the police.”

While answering, he realized he was slouching his shoulders. His whole posture had changed, he was letting things out. He wasn’t Dr. Peter anymore. He had just become another patient, with his own personal trauma embedded in his mind.

“I have a feeling you don’t agree with the police’s theory. Am I wrong?”

The voice was right. Peter always found strange how Oleg got the keys, drove forty miles out of the city in afternoon rush hour traffic, up into the countryside with no incident and then, after all that time, he hit a tree and died. His schizophrenia had been far too advanced at that point. He would rarely speak, his cognitive skills were all but gone, he could barely stand, let alone walk. The question that tormented him was to know how uncle Oleg had gotten that far.

“I was thirteen when he died. I had already taken a lot of interest in mental disorders and I wanted to know all there was to know about schizophrenia. It was the eighties; pre-internet era and neurology knew almost nothing about mental disorders. I compiled all the information I could find about schizophrenia, after spending most of my afternoons at the university’s library where my mother taught philosophy. I put together a list of his symptoms, a chart to see how those symptoms advanced, his outbursts, his moments of clarity, his motor skills, his routine. I spent the last two years going to my uncle’s house almost everyday since they lived down the street from us. I even spoke to several neurologists at the university to get their expertise. After all that, I concluded that uncle Oleg committed suicide. I had no proof, no recordings, no notes from him. I had only a feeling.”

Peter smiled as he remembered how funny and goofy his uncle was. He missed him. He was such a positive person to be around. Peter’s father adored the man as little brothers do with the older sibling. Peter saw his uncle deteriorate, become a shell of his former charming self. That had been particularly ugly and painful to see.

“You think he was aware enough to know his plight?”

 “Yes, I think he knew what was going on with his mind. I believe he saw how much his illness affected him and especially his wife and kids. The last three years of his life, he had only a few moments of clarity and he wouldn’t stop talking about the voices in his head. He almost seemed aware of his condition. However, those rare moments, only lasted a few minutes at a time, a half an hour maximum. Those instances were immensely pleasant, and I cherish them to this day.”

He wiped a few tears off his face. He felt awkward crying by himself while talking to a voice in his head. Science had made quantum leaps in understanding diseases. Genetics, studies, clinical trials, have contributed tremendously in understanding our bodies and the diseases that affected them. There seemed to be a link between mental illness and genetics, therefore it could very well be hereditary. It was often shown that mental illness runs in certain families, going back generations. That is what Peter feared the most. He was in his early forties and schizophrenia mostly appeared in the early teens of subjects, some albeit rare cases did appear in early adulthood. Peter was out of both ranges but, in retrospect, it could be that cursed disease that made the damn voice appear from nowhere.

“You are thinking you might have it too, aren’t you?”

“How are you doing this? How are you able to know what I am thinking?”

“You are assuming I just appeared from nowhere. I have been watching you for a while now. I am a part of you somehow, I’m not able to explain how or why. I was chosen to help you. “

“Help me how?”

How could a voice help him? Intentions can’t help. Only actions do.

“By making sure you are connecting the dots. You have been doing this since you were a teenager. You have succeeded academically and professionally. I am just worried you might miss out on the personal side.”

“You are talking about Anastasia.”

At the thought of his better half, he cried and stopped walking. He had gone down the street and was coming back to the house. He had his earphones on, that way, it would look as if he was having a conversation on the phone. He never worried about appearances but, this case was sensitive in his eyes.

“Yes. She has been by your side through thick and thin. She always had your back. But for the past six months or so, you have turned your back on her. A woman like that comes along once in a lifetime. She has overlooked your life obsession, the search for a cure or better understanding of mental disorders. She is hurting Peter. You are a healer, yet you are not healing her. You are hurting her. You will end up driving her away.”

It became clear to him. Perhaps it always had been clear, he was just unwilling to see it. He had taken her for granted.

“Why do you care about my personal life? What’s it to you?”

“Well, when I was alive, I had a great wife and an awesome family. Your Anastasia reminds me of my Helen. Both strong women, stronger than most men. Resilient, decent, willing to take hits if it serves a greater purpose, pillars of their home, patient, independent. I could go for days about their qualities. We have less than ten minutes at our disposal, let’s finish up now shall we?”

“Certainly. But finish up what exactly?”

“You don’t have the disease Peter. I have no proof of that, since there is no genetic test that would confirm you don’t have it. You’ll have to trust me.”

Sure. Let me trust a voice in my head instead of my years of training as a psychiatrist. This must be the wildest night of my life!

“Go back to Anastasia. I strongly suggest you consider the early retirement option. Start a family, go teach, do research. This job will eat you alive. You also bring your own baggage at your job. You think it makes you a better scientist, and maybe it does. However, it also stretches your mind and it will implode, sooner rather than later. I know it is a drastic change. But it is worth it. Put your life in Anastasia’s hands and you will not regret it. Just think about it.”

“Maybe you are right. You have given me a lot to think about.”

The stranger laughed. He couldn’t describe the feeling of hearing a laugh in his brain. It was the craziest night of his life.

“I told you I just want to help you.”

“But why do you want to help me? I don’t even know you and I am not even sure you know me. you said you were assigned to me. By whom?”

“I am just helping you the way you helped me once.”

That was a long list. He had seen hundreds of patients over the years. It could be anyone, a parent, a former patient, a colleague, a student. He would never be able to pinpoint who Martha represented. He got to the house and went to the kitchen, he was thirsty and a glass of Glen Livet would help.

“Wait a minute! You said your wife’s name is Helen?”

“Yes.”

Peter stopped everything. He had taught himself to not believe in coincidences. This could not be a coincidence. All the information the stranger had about him, his family, Oleg, his wife being named Helen…

“Uncle Oleg… Is that you?”

He asked the question mechanically; the words came out of his mouth with disbelief.

“Uncle Oleg? Please tell me it is you.”

“You were always so smart, Peter my boy.”

Peter my boy…

It resonated like an echo.

Peter my boy…

Impossible. It couldn’t be. Only one person ever called him that.

Peter my boy…

He started sobbing. He didn’t care if this whole thing was a nightmare, a game, schizophrenia, the end of the world, a prank or a psychotic episode. He sobbed like a little boy, he fell to the floor and he could barely breathe. He went to the kitchen, got some tissue and wiped the tears. He took a bottle of water and drank it in one shot. His head was pounding, heart rate was through the roof, legs were shaking, mouth trembling, he was sweating profusely. He needed to calm himself. He went back to his breathing exercises to calm his nerves.

“We have barely a minute left. It was not an accident. I did kill myself. I wanted to spare my family the indignity of becoming a burden to them. It was happening slowly and surely. In retrospect, maybe I would have made a different choice. Peter, my boy, I am so proud of you, of what you have become. I also feel guilty. Perhaps, if I hadn’t committed suicide, your life would be different today. Do me a favour my boy. Just go be happy with your better half. Enjoy life, you are still young. Cherish your woman and what you have. She is the only wealth that matters, nothing else. I can’t tell you how I know but I do know that you don’t have the disease. Preserve your mind, you have helped more people than most doctors ever will. It is time to stop and live your life. I beg you, live your life.”

“Please uncle Oleg, don’t go. Please stay with me a little longer.”

Silence.

“Uncle Oleg?”

He started crying again. He couldn’t help it. All the stress and anxiety that he had accumulated for two decades practicing medicine were washing over him. He threw the glass against the wall. It broke in thousands of pieces.

Then, he sat there, replaying all the conversation in his mind. He was happy and sad. He felt vindicated about uncle Oleg’s death. That vindication also made him sad. He was gone. He came back for him, to save him, to help him. How was he going to explain all this to Anastasia?

He went to the room and slid in the bed. He hugged his woman. She hugged him back.

“You are awake babe?”

“How can I sleep with you being the way you are? You have become a madman Peter. I don’t know if this wh..”

He interrupted her.

“You were right. Tomorrow, I will apply for early retirement. And I also have a crazy story to tell you baby. This is going to be a wild one.”

She turned around and stared him in the eyes. She hugged him and started laughing and crying at the same time. Peter couldn’t help but cry himself. Uncle Oleg had made him happy, once again, exactly the way he always had, since Peter was a little boy.

Brave uncle Oleg…May he be blessed wherever he is.

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