“We’re nearly done, Eric. What does this inkblot remind you of?”
Eric gave the doctor one of his trademark false smiles. It was shy and weak, but it always filled the analyst with relief.
“All I can see is mud.”
The analyst frowned. “Mud? Eric, the point is to get a deeper into your psyche. You can’t tell me the next one is mud.”
The doctor was a hack. Her coworkers knew it, most of her patients knew it. Eric felt like he was being punished for losing his mother. But his determination paid off. He knew she wasn’t supposed to tell him that. No psychoanalyst worth her salt would. He would finish the test and innocently have her fired.
“Now how about this one?”
It looks like someone failed art school.
“Like my mother crying from the window for help, flames burning behind her. I cry every night over it.” Eric examined his burnt hand for the sake of drama.
“I see! Yes, yes!” The doctor wrote everything down as though she had come across anything new. In fact, she was writing down the same misinformation as everyone else. As a mental security measure, he let the doctors believe his mother died in the fire. She died some time before when the firemen trampled her. If the doctor had any real skill, she might have had picked up that the first thing he said was the root of the issue.
He hated mud. Those careless firemen barged in with muddy boots. This whole town lacked professionalism, and with his mother gone, he had no reason to stay. His mind was set: he would leave the trauma ward and find real help. Not in this town.
Crossing her legs, the doctor put one boot on the table. She cared more for having her patients like her than helping them learn to like themselves. “It seems that you’re suffering from the loss of your mother, but you’ve come to grips with her passing.”
Eric was flabbergasted being in the presence of the worst analyst in the worst town. The first half of her statement was astoundingly weak. That was the reason his uncle had him checked in. The second half was not only untrue, but he had said nothing to lead her on.
“That makes a lot of sense.” Idiot.
“Anyway, you’ve made enough progress that we’re letting you go today.” She said this while inspecting her sleeve buttons. “Your father is coming in today to get you. We need to discuss further hospital care with you two. We have group therapy–”
“I WON’T NEED IT.”
The doctor was so alarmed by his tone that she made eye contact with him for the first time. She saw Eric’s eyes, bloodshot and buried under eyebrows of impatience. The doctor fell over and crushed her decorative eye frames.
Eric knew enough about group therapy. Maybe others would benefit from it, but with something as vague as the trauma ward, it would be impossible to relate to anyone else’s problems. He didn’t want to discuss his own problems, far less that of strangers.
The doctor sat on the floor, humiliated. Before heading to the front exit, Eric stopped off at the head doctor’s office and informed him of the doctor’s incompetence in the most innocent manner he could muster.
She was let go moments thereafter. Her fiance’s parents forced their son to break off the engagement. The only good fortune for her was purchasing a lovely trench coat for nearly half the initial price.
The ex-doctor became obsessed with easing her anger. Finally, she decided to get twisted vengeance through blowing up a french fry restaurant in another town. Fortunately, she was as terrible with bombs as people.
Eric found Derrick waiting for him against the door. “How are you feeling, Eric?” He looked worse than Eric. Everything about him was too long, exclusion belonging to the tormented bent spine.
“Well, I’ve set up my new place. Been there three weeks, I think. We’ll live miserably. No one tells us to ‘cheer up’ or ‘smile.’ Are you in?”
Eric couldn’t smile. “Okay, Dad.”
“Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!” Derrick clasped his ears with intensity more suited to an employee trying to leave work early. “From now on, I will not be called ‘Dad.’ I just feel like a failure as a husband and father, okay? Call me ‘Derrick.'”
“Okay, Daaaaaarrick.” Eric winced.
“Everyone remember the plan?”
“Yes!” Sandra found herself happy to retain information involving Eric. She was disappointed that the same was true for Harold.
“You mean your plan to save your father from his own depressed hubris by preventing him from creating a horrific mud duplicate using my ancient tribe’s spell that brought its own demise? No, remind me.”
On the final vowel, Sandra twisted his nose. “Why are you so jaded, Harold? What’s your sad backstory that you became… this?”
Harold sighed. “You have no idea how tough it was growing up gay…”
Eric tilted his head. Did they have to do this now?
“I just… just…” Harold wiped some tears in the direction of a translucent light. “Absolutely loved it!”
Sandra gaped. “Whaaaaa?”
“I have no idea how tough it was for others growing up liking boys. Me, fantastic. The girls liked me a lot. They asked me for all kinds of advice. Fashion, guys, occult for the goth girls. And the boys, well. They were envious. They stuck to me like glue, hoping to get some tips from me.” Harold snickered at his own memories. “I managed to turn three or six of them too!” Laughter and an unsettling light fled to the clouds.
Sandra bawled up her fists and swung them at her sides. “I hate you I hate you I hate you!”
Harold choked on a chuckle. “That’s a lot of hate for such a young baby.” He dialed it back. “Look, why do you want me to be sad? Are you two-faced? Do you want my misery over joy?”
“N-no. You just act like Mr. Perfect all the time.”
“Moi, perfect? Eric, better hold this one down or she’ll jump my bones!” He failed to notice Eric standing in front of the basement window.
“Shut up! I would do no such thing! I only have eyes for Eric!”
“Technically, your eyes were made for Derrick, not Eric. Babies usually latch onto things they see.”
“Fine! Fine, okay? I’ve only been alive for a month! Wee-hee! But I’m more human than you could ever be!”
“Okay. I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings. I never spoke to one of you long enough to know you possessed any.”
A bird chirped at a raccoon with a dirty rag. A plane with only five passengers flew overhead. Eric banged on the basement window. Sandra stood dumbly.
“I’m sorry too. I know you just want to help.” Eric was pulled further into the laundry room. “Maybe we can hang out or something after this.” She smiled, feeling ashamed.
Harold smiled, filled with self-worth. “Only if Eric comes.”
“ERIC IS NOT ALLOWED TO COME OUT AND PLAY ANYMORE!”
The two biggest fools on the block turned to the basement window. Eric had been scrawny enough to pull in without requiring a key.
“If you two petulant brats have talked things out in Lala Land, feel free to come in through the front of the house. I’ll let you in here.” Derrick eyed the pair. “You’ve not ruined my plan yet.”
Sandra shuffled softly, recalling that she was compelled to stand at the door of the laundry room right after her birth. When the door opened a month ago, Derrick had been smiling, only to fly into madness that she was a fraction of his wife. Only her inner traits remained, and only half of those resembled her.
She met Harold that day, who ignored her the entire time. Harold spoke to the man he believed to be her father. He explained in the stone room the secrets of his lineage, that a full duplication of being would be impossible as it had been for the Master of Masters.
Derrick knocked over some erotica and stormed off. He refused to permit Sandra’s entrance. She went to the house next door. The first few days she spent her time lying in her living room, the mud pit she had been born from doubling as her grave.
Her semi-essence of the woman she was based on forced her to live a life. She ate french fries. She read at the library. She accidentally walked in during Harold’s shift a time or two.
One day, she saw a glum young man walking around the stone house. She felt drawn to him, as though they were connected. The memory of Derrick rest in her subconscious, so for seven days, she waited to find him alone.
“But I’m not done reminiscing!”
The normal appearance of the laundry room was gone. The washing machine was ajar, mud dripping on the door. The dryer was filled with brown, murky gunk. Everyone recognized it as mud. Eric laid on the stone floor, without a gag yet remained silent.
“I know what was missing, librarian.”
Harold stood away. He sensed that Derrick was mostly out and something worse was in.
“The Master of Masters tried spawning life with mud. Wet mud.” Derrick’s glasses were on the ground, shattered. “But that was a mistake. The mud was not an element on its own.”
Harold put a finger to his chin. “Oh! I’ve heard that the four elements were required to create life. But distilled. That’s how Sandra’s magic worked.”
“Correct. Sandra is composed of water and earth, while air and sunlight reached her enough to create a tepid life form.”
“Hey guys, I’m more than the sum of my parts!” Only Eric laughed. That was more than enough for her.
“To create a true life form on the level of God’s ability, to rewrite death, more is required. More powerful than what is given to any fool after a rainy day.”
Harold stood his ground. “Exactly what is ‘more?’ You can’t exactly bring in a tornado, a flood, a drought, or an earthquake.”
Derrick’s body patted the machines. “This is enough.”
Sandra gasped. “That’s brilliant!” She turned to Harold. Confused look. She set her loving gaze on Eric. Confused look, too. “He’s using the washer and dryer in place of the elements! The washer give him water, the dryer gives him fire and air! They both have metal insides!”
Harold was about to praise her until she finished her thought. “Metal is not stone.”
“It’s mineral, though.”
“Sandra, you’re brilliant!”
“I am brilliant,” Derrick’s voice growled. “She is nothing more than a pale excuse for my lost love.” He checked the load. “Two minutes left. Should I have put in some bleach?”
“No!” Eric managed to stand without the use of his arms to lift him. “I miss Mom too, okay? But she’s dead! Maybe we we should move on and not buy creepy magical depression houses from an online auction!” He slouched back down.
“Enough of your prattle, boy.”
Sandra turned to Harold. “Hey, could I save everyone with the free wish the room gives people?”
Harold found tact in his veins. He lost courage and needed a distraction. “I don’t know if… your kind could take advantage of it. You’re still a partial creature.” He put a hand over his chest. “Anyway, Derrick’s too powerful. His sadness overshadows that of anyone else. He must have been like the Master of Masters and trained such depression for a month.”
“Maybe he can make a perfect duplicate of his wife after all?”
Harold burst open a scornful laugh. “The Master of Masters was the most powerful wizard in the world. He couldn’t master it. There’s no way that a mortal using stolen magic of wiser ones could succeed where they had failed.”
Harold rubbed his eyes, wishing he hadn’t been so cruel to his sons and husband.
“Let’s face it. We’ve lost this one. We’re going to die at the hands of Eric’s father.”
A rumble approached him. “WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?”
Harold collapsed and hurt his back. “N-n-n-n-oth-th-th…”
Eric stood up, slipped out of his binds, walked over to the remains of Derrick, and said,
“He said you’re my father, Dad. And Dad, you are my Dad. Because by being my mother’s mate, you, my Daddy Dad Dad, are forever my Dad. DAD DAD DADDY DAD DOO DAA DEE DUU DII DYY DBB DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!”
Sandra concealed laughter. Harold concealed tears. Derrick failed to conceal his gyrating body refuse a translucent light. Eric’s dad collapsed.
“…I never wanted to hurt you… I needed to get everything happy in my life out, and the only thing left was that you…” Eric’s dad choked on tears. “Eric, my son… was still alive and okay.” His nose grew moist. “I forgot that you were the reason I was doing all this. And I just, I just blocked you from my heart… I denied you were my family for mud! Mud!”
Sandra gave him a green tissue. Grass stains. “And Sandra! I’ve been abominable to you too! You, you were what Eric needed, not a clone of a dream!”
Sandra ran her hand across his head. She took off her jacket and covered Derrick in it.
Eric and Harold gave a glance to the dryer.
The dryer burst open. Out of the dryer and onto the stone floor emerged a petite woman with black hair and hazel eyes. She gestured towards Eric’s father with open arms.
“Derrick,” she cooed. “Derrick, my love. What has happened to you? Come, let me shave you.”
Derrick’s vision flooded. She was there, he saw her! But he created her! She wasn’t real. Was anything real? Could he have her?
Derrick closed his fingers around Eric’s own. He closed his fingers on the other hand around Sandra’s. Harold stood in front of the trio.
“I can shield you. I may have nothing to live for.”
The thing flashed her red eyes at them, teeth far too large for the mouth bared in amazing malice. She stood, head down. When her head lifted, she looked completely different.
“You did good, Eric. You peeled your dad’s banana back and exposed his merits.”
Eric couldn’t shut his eyes. Could she…?
“I’m just messing with you, boy. I can read minds. I ain’t your mom.” She laughed, whereupon all laughed, mostly out of fear, partially to be polite. “I’m outta here. I’m off to Congress.”
She stomped out of the laundry room, breaking the door in the process.
The magic, both of the key and the power to grant deep desires, went to their masters’ resting place.
The stars looked nicer to any of them than they had in a long time. The quartet sat in front of the basement window.
An uncomfortable silence left them alone. They needed a distraction and they needed it constantly.
Sandra: “If the room made the deepest desires true, could it make you a king or rich?”
Derrick: “It was mostly limited to manifesting things. You could be a king, but only temporarily. Sometimes, I think.”
Harold: “Right. One story tells of a patient who replaces a king. It turns out better for the both of them. Most of them have Deus Ex Machina, but that one stuck.”
Eric: “Mine was to feel alive again. Sandra was a huge factor in that coming true.”
Sandra: “Eric! Aw, aw! Eric!”
Harold: “That reminds me. I need to make a phone call.”
Derrick: “I’d like to vomit. Hey, son. Maybe we could fix this place up.”
Derrick: “With the magic gone, me as a licensed therapist, and you following in my footsteps back in med school, we could make this a proper clinic for sad people. Focus on patients one on one. Really focus.”
Eric: “It’ll take a while to get off the ground.”
Derrick: “Most great things do. I was once on the runway for ten hours. Pleasant flight, but I wasn’t even travelling out of the country.”
Sandra: “That sounds nice. The clinic, not the runway. Wish I could help out.”
Eric: “…Sandra, did you check out your mud carpet yet?”
Derrick: “You don’t ask a girl that question, boy.”
Sandra: “It’s stable now. There’s still a lot of mud, probably for years. I guess there won’t be any new mud people coming from there anymore.”
Derrick: “Are you suggesting…”
Eric: “Mud bath! Soothe them on the inside! Then go next door and soothe them on the outside!”
Sandra: “Would people really want to bathe in mud?”
Eric: “Sure! Don’t you know that when you’re in mud it feels good and don’t want to leave?”
Derrick: “Speak for yourself. I need a bubble bath.”
Harold: “Guys, I’m heading off. I’m getting another chance from my hubby.”
Sandra: “Ah! So you did have a sad backstory!”
Harold: “I broke up with him just the– I mean, yeah, I guess I did. Thanks, Sandra.”
Eric: “Hey Harold, we’re starting a–“
Harold: “Nope, nope. Sounds like a job offer. I am strictly a librarian and family man now. Shove off, secret society! But feel free to check me out at the library any time.”
Sandra: “I’d rather check out a book!”
Harold: “…Don’t make me regret befriending you.”
Eric: “Okay. I have a HUGE, STINKING BAG OF POT. I need to calm down.”
Sandra: “Oh, yeah man. I’ll take some.”
Derrick: “As your father and the one most tormented by these events, I deserve half.”
Harold: “Gimme some, I need an apology gift for my man.”
Eric: “WHO SAID I WAS OFFERING TO ANY OF YOU?”
“Thank you, hope you won’t need to come back!”
Eric loved saying that. He knew some patients would be offended, so he offered it based on the client. The laundry room had been renovated into six rooms for therapists hand-picked by Derrick. Maybe desires weren’t being granted, but hearts were being eased properly. Putting carpet over the stone floor helped.
The government caught wind of the small business and helped move it along, on the condition that they would take the occasional felon as a patient.
“Who’s next? Doctor Stoley? Is that you?”
“Ex-doctor. They took away my medical license. Trying to bomb the french fry joint got me put in the j–joint. May I?” She gestured towards candy dish. He handed her one. She already seems better than in the hospital.
Back then, she had every follicle in place, twelve different scents on her body, stiff nails. Now she had clumps of hair escaping, one scent (not appealing), and choppy nails. Her knuckles read “damn it”.
She was in his shoes now. He had a bad habit of taking them off as he sat down. “Sorry, it’s been a long time since I’ve worn comfy shoes. Wow, you have weirdly small feet.”
“I suppose I do, perhaps.” Or maybe you have weirdly big feet, Eric mused.
He cleared his head. She’s not the doctor anymore. She needs you.
“You say you haven’t worn comfy shoes in prison. Has that been bothering you more than anything else?”
Stoley was taken aback. “Yeah! No! What are you asking for?”
Eric breathed calmly. “I remember in the hospital. You always wore fancy shoes. Were those comfortable to wear?”
She smirked. “You kidding me? Torture devices! But when I lost my job and my guy, I didn’t bother dressing up for anyone.” She paused for oxygen. “I know I wasn’t in my right mind, but after that, even when I planned my revenge… I wasn’t scared of waking up anymore.”
Eric’s heart bled with remorse.
After the session, Eric decided to come clean.
“Look, I’m… I’m real sorry you got fired. You were a goo–you were a doctor.”
Stoley rubbed her forehead. “Look, Eric. I enjoyed the chatter, but let’s cut the chitter. You got me fired. The head doc told me. He’s not great at doctor-patient confederacy. I suck as a doctor, and I know it.”
Eric jumped. “If you knew I told him, why did you try to blow up Down-Fryzing instead?”
“Please, I saw you in there with some chubby chick. Nice choice, by the way.” Eric didn’t respond to that out of professionalism. “I went to pee in the bushes, but I guess you left. I wasn’t even mad at you at that point, but… I wanted to finish something I started for a change.”
Eric’s red hand twitched. He breathed in. Harold lent him a good book on meditation. “It’s okay.” It wasn’t. “We’ll talk about it next session.” She needed help. He could do this. Suddenly, he reached in his pocket.
“This is…?” There was a number on the card.
“Go next door, wait to be called. Sandra will lead you to our massage section of the business.” Heal inside and out. The government gave them the necessary permits. The new Congresswoman seemed eager to assist them.
“My girlfriend.” He might help Stoley, but he’d never like her.
“She’s the girl from the fry place, yeah? She’s cute.” At least she said it more politely this time. “Hey, this building is kind of weird. What kind of place is this anyway?
Eric smiled. Since meeting Sandra, he had smiled hundreds of times, but none were the same. This was a knowing smile, a smile kept among four people.
“Would you believe a laundry room?”