“How do you like your new wilderness group?”
“I really like them. Well, not all of them. But Paul is great – he’s new, you might not have met him yet. He’s really funny. And I like Clara, too, although she’s a little bit stiff.”
“She’s hard to talk to. She can be very formal. Follows all the rules and all that.”
I’m sitting in Dr. Chase’s office, staring around at the photographs of scenic beaches and forests and mountains and wishing I were in those places instead of here in this office.
“Do you feel comfortable talking to her?”
“Umm, not really, not yet. But it’s only been two months with this new group. I think I’ll get to know them better.”
I had to be switched out of my old group after I tried to throw myself off a cliff. The counselors thought that some of the other kids had been mildly traumatized, so they moved me to a new group with “fresh faces,” as Dr. Chase put it.
“Have you had any more nightmares?”
Dr. Chase asks this question every time we meet together. I open my mouth to respond no, as I have done so often recently. Truthfully, I dream about the shadows almost every night. But I stopped telling my therapists about them when I realized they didn’t believe that they were real. No, no more nightmares, they’ve gone away now, I’ve been lying for months. But since I’ve finally admitted to myself that there is no escape from this world, I have to try again. I have to tell someone about the dreams.
“When?” she asks, her blond hair reflecting sunlight in the afternoon glare.
“Last night. It was bad.”
“Tell me about it.”
“It started off like a normal dream. I was in a forest, a bamboo forest. And then the bamboo changed into columns, and then the shadows on the columns started growing, like they always do.” I hesitate before my next words, knowing I’m risking being labeled schizophrenic again. “They do that in real life, too.”
I’ve talked to my therapists about the shadows before. I’ve even talked to Dr. Chase about them, a little bit. I’ve described, as best I can, what it feels like when they grow and swallow me, the blackness, the darkness, the helpless sense of nothing that is inescapable. But I’ve never really gone into physical detail, the feeling of it, the look of it, at least not since I was little. No one ever imagines that I’m talking about something real.
“What do you mean, Noomi?” Dr. Chase’s tone is puzzled, curious. Neutral. She doesn’t believe me. But I plow ahead anyway.
“On Sunday, on the mountain, as we were coming down, the shadows on the trees started to…detach. They grew until they were all around me, like fog. I felt like I was being swallowed.”
“What does it feel like when they surround you?”
“Like emptiness. Like nothingness. I feel like I’m being drained away and there’s nothing left of me.”
She cocks her head to the side, a little frown on her face.
“What do the shadows look like, Noomi?”
I stare at her.
“Like shadows,” I say. “Normal shadows. From trees, or buildings, or people. But they grow and get bigger and detach from the real houses or trees or whatever, and…” I don’t want to say they come after me, because I know how childish that sounds. Like monsters waiting in the dark. I’m not a child, I think, ashamed of my own fear. My voice comes out in a whisper. “They attack.”
“What does it feel like when they attack?”
“It feels like there’s a curtain, a huge, enormous, black curtain being pulled down over my eyes, over my brain. Like I can’t see anything but blackness, and then it’s not even black, because black is a color. It’s just nothing. And the same thing happens in my mind. I can’t feel anything. I can’t move, or think, or feel. I stop being Noomi and I start being nothing.”
“Let’s go back to the dream. What happened when the shadows started growing?”
“It was almost like a lucid dream. I could control it.” This is the way all my dreams are, every night, but Dr. Chase doesn’t need to know that. “So I asked them what they are.”
“What did they say?”
“Usually they don’t talk back, they don’t say anything. And, see, we weren’t talking, in the human-to-human sense. They don’t communicate like we do. It was more like speaking through feelings. Emotions. They said, ‘We are growing stronger.’” I pause, straining mentally, trying to remember what else they said. I want to be convincing, too. I want to convince Dr. Chase that these beings are real, that they’re not just my imagination, that they are dangerous. I try to pick out the parts of what they said that were the most tangible. “They said, ‘You are our portal. We will enter your world and drain you from it.’”
I pause. Saying it out loud, in the light of day, sitting in this office, it sounds silly, even to me. How do I explain it to someone who has no idea what I’m talking about? How do I make her believe?
“What do you think that means?” she asks.
“To me it means they’re becoming more and more real. Dangerous. That they can hurt me.”
Dr. Chase nods.
“What do you think you can do to stop them from hurting you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know what they are.”
“I know you used to take medicine for schizophrenia. Did that help at all?”
“No,” I say, emphatically. “No. The shadows never went away when I was on the medication. That’s how I know they’re real. They’re not imaginary. I’m not making them up.”
“I don’t think you are, Noomi,” she says, patiently, kindly. “I think they’re totally, absolutely real to you.”
“‘To me?’” I say desperately.
“Yes. And we’re going to fight them together.” I sit up a little straighter. Does she believe me?
“When you see these shadows, in the real world and in your dreams, they can hurt you, and that makes them real.” My heart seems to fill up with fizzy soda, an excited bubble. She believes me! “So what we’re going to do is figure out how you can fight them.”
Why didn’t I let myself trust her before?
“How are we going to do that?”
“We need to figure out why they’re bothering you. What do they want from you? Why are they haunting you?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I think they’re trying to use me. To come into this world.”
“Okay, for starters, here’s what I want you to do. The next time you see the shadows growing and you feel like you’re in danger, I want you to stop whatever you’re doing and do your ten-breath counting exercises. Make sure you’re calm, composed. Strong. And then ask them what they want from you.”
“But I’ve done that already,” I protest. “I did it last night in the dream.” The happy bubble inside my chest is starting to deflate, replaced with skepticism, and the old worry.
“And they answered, right? For the first time. So maybe if you do it again, you can get a more tangible answer from them.”
“Dr. Chase,” I blurt, “do you really think these things are real? Or do you think they’re just a part of my mind?”
She stares at me for a moment. It looks like something behind her eyes, beyond her calm demeanor, is working really hard to figure out what to say. Finally she responds.
“That’s a hard thing to answer, Noomi. Of course I think they’re real. To you. I can’t see the shadows, and nor can anyone else, which means they probably aren’t a part of the physical world. And in some sense, that’s what ‘real’ means. But they’re a part of your world, Noomi, and that’s what’s important. That’s as ‘real’ as anything. They’re real to you, and they’re hurting you, and it’s our job to work through that together.”
“Why do you think they’re haunting me?” I ask, my voice quiet. Again, she pauses a minute, watching me carefully, before responding.
“Sometimes, things can bother us so deeply inside of us that they manifest in a physical way. It could be a sadness, or a fear, or guilt, and sometimes, when you’ve buried it deep enough inside you, it has to come out another way. So our minds create a projection, a physical manifestation of that sadness, or fear, or guilt, that feels and looks totally real—but that no one else can see.”
“This isn’t like that,” I mutter.
“I know you think this isn’t like that. Of course it feels real to you. It is real to you.”
I lit myself on fire two days ago and I didn’t die, I want to spit. Explain that. But saying that out loud will get me hospitalized again, so I bite my tongue and let the bitterness and fear fester inside me.
“They’re hurting you, and I don’t want to let that happen.. But we have to fix the problem from the inside out, okay?” Dr. Chase leans forward in her chair as she speaks. There’s compassion and kindness in her eyes. I sigh. I can’t really be mad at her, because it’s obvious that she does care about me and want me to get better. She just doesn’t have the solution any more than I do.
“Okay.” I nod, swallowing my anger. I drop my eyes. I feel lost. I don’t know where to turn. I can’t leave this world and I can’t find solace within it.
Dr. Chase is saying something to me, something that I’m ignoring altogether, and I notice that the afternoon light is slanting through the window at such an angle that it creates a prism, a rainbow of light on the desk next to her chair. It reminds me of something. The oil-slick colors in the boy’s eyes that brought me back from the shadows on the mountaintop.
You don’t need my help, Noomi. Not in this world.
I have to talk to Silas.
So, that’s it for chapter four! What do you think? I know this chapter was a little longer – I promise they won’t all be that way, but that was just the way this chapter flowed. I thought it was really important to showcase the psychological aspect of Noomi’s dark inner world as well as the paranormal, and I wanted to show her relationship with her therapist. We still don’t know if the shadows are real or not! Our only clue into the idea that they might be ‘real’ is Noomi’s strange invincibility – and even that could, possibly, be the result of her demented interior telling her that she’s doing these things when really she’s not.
Special thanks this week go to Mark T. Conard (@MarkTConard) and Rena Olsen (@originallyrena) for their help with the psychoanalysis in this chapter. Having never undergone therapy before, I only knew what is displayed in the movies and television shows, and these two really helped me sharpen this chapter. I love the reader-driven part of this serial – there are so many great resources in the world to draw from!
On that note, how are you feeling about the story so far? Where would you like to see it go in the next few chapters? Are there things or ideas you’d like me to hit on that haven’t been discussed yet? Please share, and thanks for reading!