February 20, 2018

“The School Therapist” by Sheila Martin

“The School Therapist” is an excerpt from the as-of-yet-unpublished novel, The Time Artist.

Rachel sat on a threadbare gray loveseat in the waiting room for the school’s psychotherapist. Rarely had she seen a room more likely to increase your depression or anxiety or whatever the fuck was wrong with you: vomit-green walls, scuffed linoleum the color of diarrhea, Salvation Army furniture. Worst of all was the single fluorescent tube casting soulless glare over everything.

But her eyelids were burning from lack of sleep— except those dreamless naps, little snippets of non-existence. Was it dangerous to not dream? She felt dreams piling up in her head, pressing against her skull.

She took out her little sketch pad and started drawing spiraling lines with a felt-tipped pen. This always made her feel better.

She heard someone enter and looked up. It was Arnie, an engineering student who lived across the hall from Morgan. He was pathetic, but at least she wasn’t the only lunatic in the waiting room.

When his eyes met hers he stopped short, let out a nervous laugh, then waved at her. She managed to wave back. She had to learn to act normal again.

She focused on Arnie. The guy was short, skinny, somehow undeveloped, like he’d been born too soon. He was a study in uncoolness in his penny loafers and white socks. Really, he needed a makeover. First she’d swap the too-short ironed chinos for jeans … no, let him keep the chinos but get better fitting ones. And that haircut, that definitely had to go—it emphasized his praying-mantis face and squashed-looking head. Had he looked this weird before the Bad Trip? She tried to think back but couldn’t seem to remember.

“Should I just …” He hunched his shoulders and looked at his knees.

“Grab a seat,” she said. “I think there’s someone in there—the door was closed when I got here.” See, that wasn’t so hard.

She felt a momentary distortion: a wave through space-time. She bit her knuckle and took a few deep breaths like she’d learned in yoga class. She noticed Arnie walking across the room, glancing back at her, pushing his glasses up. When he got to the other side he dusted off a stained upholstered chair and sat down.

“No fucking way!” a girl’s voice shouted from behind the therapist’s door.

Rachel glanced at Arnie, hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh. He just looked down at his hands.

She started scribbling on her pad again, heard movement, looked up. Arnie had changed seats, moving closer to her. She looked back down, scribbled some more, heard Arnie moving, sitting down again, then moving again … shit.

The cushion shifted as he sat down next to her on the loveseat.

“Hi there!” he said, really loud.

“Hi.” She inched away.

“So!” he said. “What are you here for?”

She pointed at the therapist’s door.

“No, I mean …”

“Bad drug experience,” she said.

“Oh my.” He looked around the room and his eyes fell on the body-in-blood painting propped against a chair, still wrapped in a sheet and taped closed. He pointed to it.

“Is that yours?”

She wished she’d left it in the closet, but … well, she needed it. It was her only evidence.

“Yeah,” she said.

“It looks like a painting,” he said. “Can I see it?” He slid to the edge of the loveseat, leaned toward her.

“Better not. It’s horrible.”

He flinched. “You think I wouldn’t get it, right? Not like your artist friends?”

“No! I just …” She sighed. “Oh, all right.”

She got up, tore the masking tape off. She’d have to do this anyway to show it to the therapist. She unwrapped the painting without looking at it, then held it out in front of her.

“Oh my gosh.” His mouth dropped open, then he put his hand over it. “You’re too modest. I wish I had your talent.”

“Thanks.” She quickly wrapped the sheet around it and put it back before sitting down in a chair next to the loveseat.

“I can afford a real psychiatrist, you know,” he said. “My parents are well off.”

“So why don’t you?”

“I don’t want my brothers to know. They’re older, bigger than me. Girls always go for them.”

She felt a wash of sympathy.

“You know, not all girls go for big brutes,” she said. “I know I don’t.” Like Morgan—he was just the right size, the right everything. There must be someone right for Arnie. And this thought, the thought of Arnie with the right girl, maybe not pretty but really nice, filled her with unexpected warmth. She tried to think if there was anyone she knew.

“I can never tell if someone likes me or not,” he said.

She shrugged. “You could just be friendly and see if they’re friendly back.”

He was quiet for a minute.

“You’re not like the others, are you?” He bit his thumbnail. “Not cliquish.”

He was wrong, but she was glad he couldn’t see it.

The door to the therapist’s office banged open. A skinny girl, jeans, T-shirt, power-to-the-people button, stood there staring into the waiting room for what seemed like a long time before she turned back to the therapist and shouted, “Fuck you!”

Rachel and Arnie followed her with their eyes as she stomped out. They looked at each other, then at the therapist behind the desk.

She was really young, with big teeth in a big mouth and big pink plastic-framed eyeglasses, her small colorless face topped by a big head of permed blond hair. She was scribbling in a notebook.

Rachel wondered what the protocol was here. Should she just go in, or …?

A few minutes went by, then the therapist called out, “Next!”

“Wish me luck.” She smiled at Arnie, but he seemed transfixed by the young woman behind the desk.

Rachel picked up her painting, walked in, and shut the door behind her.

The windowless office was even smaller than the waiting room, which made the overhead fluorescent glare even worse and her stomach queasy.

“Have a seat.” The therapist continued to write.

Rachel propped the painting against the wall and sat down on the gray metal folding chair opened in front of the gray metal desk. In her mind she did a sketch of the therapist’s face as she concentrated on whatever it was she was writing—the harsh effect of fluorescent light on her nose and cheeks and chemically altered curly blond hair.

Finally the therapist looked up.

“I hate it,” she said, “all the paperwork. So what can I help you with?”

“Well, Dr. …”

“Just call me Ginny. I’m an intern from City College. We get to practice on students before we treat people with real problems.”

“But I have a real problem.”

“Oops. Just a second.” She wrote something in her notebook. “Oh, and do you mind if I record this?” She touched a tape deck already spinning on her desk. “I need it for a grade.”

“Um … okay, I guess.”

“So?” Ginny waved her hand.

“I have a really weird problem,” Rachel said. “It’s so weird I doubt you’ll believe me.”

“That’s what I’m here for.” She smiled. “Weird problems.”

“Okay.” Rachel sighed. “I dropped acid and I time-traveled to the future where I was standing over a body in a pool of blood with a gun in my hand, then three days later I went to the future again.”

Ginny made a note.

“The worst part is that the timeline has gone unstable,” Rachel said. “No, wait, that’s not the worst part. The worst part is I might shoot someone and that someone might be my boyfriend, who I love, which is ridiculous because I’d never hurt him but I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop myself. Is that possible? Could I be so crazy I’d kill someone against my will?”

Ginny fidgeted with her eyeglasses.

“Let’s look at this. You saw a body in a pool of blood under the influence of LSD and three days later you had another hallucination. I understand you experienced these things, but take my word”—she pointed a finger—“they were not real.”

“They felt as real as anything that’s ever happened in my life.”

“But they weren’t.”

“Wait,” Rachel said. “I have evidence.” She walked over to the painting, unwrapped it without looking at it, and propped it up on the desk. “This is what the body looked like.”

Ginny took it out of her hands and held it at arm’s length. She shook her head.

“I get a lot of drug-related problems but they’ve never come illustrated before.”

“So what do you think?”

“I don’t know much about art, but I’d say you’re good at it.”

“No, I mean about the body. Do you believe I really saw it?”

“You saw your boyfriend in a pool of blood?”

“No. It was just a blur in my peripheral vision, it could have been anyone with long dark hair, but I’m afraid it might be my boyfriend because I was in his room.”

Ginny slid the painting toward Rachel.

“This isn’t evidence of anything. You just painted your hallucination.”

Rachel picked up the painting, wrapped it, and propped it back against the wall again.

“You’re going to have to accept that it wasn’t real,” Ginny said. “Or I don’t see how I can help you.”

“But it seemed as real as you do now. Am I hallucinating you?”

“Of course not. But what you saw under LSD was definitely a hallucination. The real question is why you saw this. A lot of research indicates that LSD unlocks the unconscious.”

“So you think I subconsciously want to murder someone?”

“Not necessarily. It might just be repressed anger.”

“What about the second trip to the future? I got a phone call in that one and that was totally real too.”

Ginny pulled her huge eyeglasses off, rubbed her eyes, slid them back on.

“It was most likely HPPD—Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder.”

“So you think there’ll be more?”

“There usually are. They think it’s caused by a traumatic event in the brain.”

Rachel felt a stab of pain in her right temple.

“You mean my brain might be damaged?”

“Um … let’s not explore that possibility yet. You seem to accept that your visions aren’t real—”

“NO! I don’t accept that at all.” Wasn’t she listening? “That’s why I’m here.”

The fluorescent tubes shot a quiver of zigzag arrows so sharp Rachel shielded her head with her arm. That’s the way migraine auras looked to her, totally real, like her time trips.

“Are you hallucinating now?” Ginny’s voice came out high-pitched and shallow. “Are you having feelings of violence?”

Rachel shook her head, which brought on the headache.

“Can you just get me a prescription for Valium? That’s all I need. Really.”

“Is that why you came here?” Ginny squinted at her.

“That’s not fair. I just now thought of it.”

Ginny wrote something in her notebook.

“I’m recommending further testing. It will go faster if you’re treated as an inpatient, but—”

“You mean have me committed?” Rachel grabbed her shoulder bag and painting.

“Where’re you going? I’m not done with you.”

Rachel leaned towards the tape recorder and shouted into it.

“Give her an F!” Then she turned and ran out.

About the Author: Sheila Martin was born in 1946 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Even before her first finger painting she knew she wanted to be a painter.

In 1971 she graduated from New York University, where she earned a B.A. in fine art.

From 1971 to 1979 she worked as a graphic designer in New York City.

In 1979 she moved to Ithaca, New York with her husband Jim Blythe. Here she started a successful graphic design business which specialized in not-for-profit organizations and painted in her spare time.

In 1992, Sheila and Jim moved to Memphis, TN, where Jim landed a job as a medieval history professor. Here she phased out her graphic design business and started painting full time. Shortly thereafter she developed an intense interest in writing and has been writing ever since.

In 2006 she started working closely with master fiction editor Renni Browne coauthor of the classic, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, who helped her write The Coney Island Book of the Dead, An Illustrated Novel which she independently published and has won the 2017 McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns First Novel Prize and is a finalist for the Midsouth’s Darrell Award—to be announced March 11, 2018. She’s also written a second novel, The Time Artist, for which she is seeking an agent.

In addition she writes short stories, which she’s recently started sending to literary magazines. She has pieces in the current issues of five literary journals

Sheila Martin Author Photo

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