From the author: Jeffrey Harlacker is seeking therapy to get over a fear of spiders. Another patient seems to have more unusual fears -- like the lowercase "t" -- and odd allergies to garlic and sunlight. Perhaps the therapist can help.
I usually leafed through a National Geographicwhile I was waiting for Dr. Ishkanian – looking over the Table of Contents, first, to see if any articles might be about creatures with way too many legs. Once I hadn’t thought to check, and came across a huge picture of a honking giant tarantula. I made a sound like the one you make when you suddenly wake up after one of those suddenly-falling dreams, and flung the magazine across the room. It hit some lady and knocked her glasses off. So now I check.
The waiting room was dimmer than usual, the dried flowers in the vase along the wall hardly casting a shadow. I had to tilt the magazine just so to catch the light. I looked around. The fluorescent lights were crappy, but usually I had no trouble reading. Then I saw the window’s blinds were down, shut tight.
I got up to open them, when I heard, “Please – no.”
I hadn’t even realized anyone else was in the room. But there was a guy, maybe around my own age, sitting in the corner.
“Oh. Sorry. You’d prefer I left them shut?”
You met all kinds of people in that place. But if I couldn’t read, I’d have to find another way to kill the time. So I sat down next to the guy. The green leather or whatever it was that covered the sofa creaked.
On closer inspection, I guessed he might be older than I thought. His face was lined, crow’s feet around the eyes, strange for a guy with hair as dark as his. But maybe he just squinted a lot. Or dyed his hair.
“Hey,” I said. “Jeffrey Harlacker. Nice to meet you.”
He took my outstretched hand hesitantly. “Val Sklar,” he said. His skin was cool, but not clammy.
“I don’t blame you, about the window. We’ve all got some kind of issue, coming here, right? What is it – heights? I bet it’s heights. Well, at least that’s a rational fear.”
“It’s not heights,” Sklar said. He said nothing else, just brooded, looking at the patterns on the carpet. I always thought the circular swirly shapes on the carpet looked like dried blood against a background the color of old linoleum.
Not a talker. So -- no magazine, no conversation. Well, maybe the wait wouldn’t be too long.
But then Sklar looked at me again. “Have you come here before, to consult with Dr. Tanya Ishkanian?”
“Oh, yeah,” I smiled. “I’ve been coming here for a couple of months now. Dr. Ishkanian is the best. She’s helped me a lot.”
“If you wouldn’t mind telling me a little, what is your--”
“My fear? I don’t mind. It’s spiders. I just can’t take the sight of one. One on the floor, and whoop! I’m up on a chair, like a housewife in one of those old shows. I just can’t control myself.”
“I understand,” he said. “Do you also – eat – the spiders?”
“Eat them? Of course not! Why would you even think of that? It’s horrible.”
He half-smiled. “A story handed down among my people. Apparently it has happened before.”
“I guess.” I looked at him sideways, but his attention was back on the carpet. So I continued. “Yeah, so the doctor, she’s been helping me. First we talked a little about spiders, then she started showing me pictures of other things – not spiders exactly, but like insects and crabs and things. Then she started bringing in, right into the office, some of those creatures. Next we’re going to look at pictures of spiders themselves, and eventually – well, I hope I can stop being the butt of jokes.”
“There is no shame in fear.”
“Oh, I don’t blame myself. It’s just the way I was made, right? But I do house inspections, sometimes. Part of my work. So I go into attics and basements – spiders are a real problem. Sometimes I can close my eyes for a second, and then look somewhere else, pretend to myself they’re not there. But sometimes I just seize up. I was rooted to the spot in a crawlspace for a half hour, one time. Lying there in the cold dirt.”
“I know the sensation.”
“So this is a real problem for me. It affects my livelihood.”
“I feel the same way. Not as – my livelihood – is now. People neglect the precautions. But if I, and my people, become more active, people will remember, and use the old ways.”
“So – Var, was it? I told you my dark and dirty.”
“Val. I have – issues – with certain foods. Among other difficulties.”
“Fear of foods? That’s pretty uncommon, I would imagine. Like what, you’re made nervous by pancakes?”
“Not pancakes, no. It’s actually a problem I share with others. If I can be helped, maybe they can be, also. Also, certain shapes are a problem.”
“Shapes? Like what?”
“You know. Intersecting, ah, straight lines.”
“Like an X, huh?”
“No – intersecting at right angles, but vertically and horizontally.”
“Oh. Like a T.”
“Well, yes. A lower-case t.”
“Huh. Now that one, I haven’t heard about before. Now what about your window thing, though? If it’s not heights.”
“That’s not a fear, as such. More of an allergy. I am attending another clinic, in hopes they can help me with that. I have no problem at night.”
“Well, you’ve got a full basket, sounds like.”
“It is a curse. It has been difficult, finding help. I’ve been trying various therapies.”
“Oh, yeah? Like what?”
“First it was the Emotional Freedom Technique.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard of that. Is that like some California thing? It sounds like it could be a California type of thing.”
“I do not know where it originated. Its theory is that the energy field of the body can be accessed through tapping on acupressure points, to alter the field and reduce anxieties.”
I nodded. “So it’s one of those California things. I get it. Did it work?”
Val shook his head. His gaze tilted downward. “No. It seems my body has no energy field.”
“Bummer. Hey – maybe it’s just that they tested you on a Monday! Ha.”
“I tried others – aromatherapy, hypnotherapy, primal scream. Nothing worked. Then I heard from a -- a colleague, who suffered from an eating disorder, about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.”
“Then the other one – anorexia. I always get confused about which is which.”
“She became queasy at the sight of blood.”
“That’s not really an eating disorder, though.”
“My friend’s difficulty was – one unique to our people. But I decided to try Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and that led me to Systematic Desensitization. And so I have come to see if Dr. Ishkanian can help me.”
“Uh huh. Well, like I said, I think you’ll get good help here.”
For the first time in our conversation, Val looked into my eyes, I mean really looked into them. Crazy intense. Complete focus, like a cat looking at a moving piece of string. I fidgeted.
“I do hope so,” he said, urgently. “The constraints that hamper my way of life, even my very existence – they have become all but intolerable.”
“Yeah, well, don’t get too down, OK? I mean, life goes on.”
Val looked down again. “Not in my experience. Existence, however – indeed so.”
I finally had to stop seeing Dr. Ishkanian. A shame, too, because we were really making progress. In my last session she had a spider in the other corner of the room, and I managed to control myself pretty well, kept breathing. But then everything went to hell, with those godawful things roaming the streets day and night, and there was hardly anything we could do to stop them.
I don’t go out anymore. I stay in my apartment with the doors locked and try to stay quiet, living off whatever’s in the cans in the pantry. But I guess it’s only a matter of time.
Well, at least spiders are no longer a concern. So there’s that.
This story originally appeared in Weird Tales.