Jen took his seat, perching on the edge of the chaise lounge. Its dark upholstery and mahogany legs stood in contrast to the rest of the furniture in the room. Jen sensed, almost as soon as he had walked in, that the room’s minimalist design had been chosen for a reason. The neutral tones created a calm, distraction-free environment. The walls had been painted magnolia to avoid the clinical-ness that white suggested. It was the kind of room that could have been inside any building, in any place, and if you weren’t careful, you would forget where you really were.
But when Jen saw the chaise this illusion was shattered. In its silent voice it reminded him, you Jen are in therapy.
As if on cue, the therapist entered the room. She was smartly dressed, hair tied back into the tightest bun Jen had ever seen. He couldn’t be certain of her actual age – most people had cosmetic surgery by the time they reached their thirties – but she had a middle-aged air about her. Faint lines ran over her brow and deeper ones curved across either corner of her mouth, emphasising her serious expression. Even when she sat down in the chair nearest Jen, her posture remained upright, as though the top part of her spine was a metal pole. He wouldn’t have been surprised if it really was. Her eyes, an unnatural steel colour, already revealed one form of body modification.
She introduced herself as Marion Burke and stretched out a hand for him to shake. He took it. Her grip was firm and her metallic eyes never left his face. Here was woman who planned on succeeding where other therapists had failed. Not only did she want to get to the root of the problem, there was also something about her persona which suggested once she found it she would rip it from its soil and choke the life out of it.
His father’s secretary had really outdone herself when she found this one.
“Can I get you something to drink, Jenario?” the therapist asked.
“Jen,” she corrected herself as she reached for the intercom on her desk.
“Coffee. Three sugars.”
“Louise, could you bring in a coffee, three sugars, and tea, no milk.”
Jen shifted in his seat. He tried his best to appear unbothered, but the truth was Jen really hated therapy. He had been in and out of it his whole life, but in the last few years things had gotten worse.
“Would you like to sit in a more comfortable position for the hour.”
Though it was phrased like a question, the therapist wasn’t asking. Her eyes flicked down to where his nails had started to dig into the chaise’s padded leather.
“I want a different chair,” he replied.
The leather felt sweaty against his palms, but the chaise was still far too comfortable for someone who hadn’t slept in weeks. The thought of falling asleep filled him with dread. He stood up.
“Take my chair,” the therapist said.
They swapped seats.
Louise walked into the room, balancing a tray that held their tea, coffee and a handful of biscuits. She placed it down on the table and left. Jen took the coffee and drunk it all as quickly as he could without scolding himself. The therapist watched him as he did so.
“I understand that for the past three years you have been suffering from an extreme case of hypnophobia.” When he didn’t respond she continued. “Which has been caused by reoccurring nightmares you describe as ‘vivid’, ‘real-life’ and ‘inescapable’.” She paused. “You have been taking a new brand of sleeping pills for the last two weeks. Are you finding them helpful?”
“Sometimes,” he lied.
His eyes moved over to the large window on his right which looked out onto the city. They were fifteen stories up, but the skyscrapers that surrounded their building made them seem closer to the ground.
He could see himself reflected in the window’s glass panel, sitting on his therapist’s seat. Lack of sleep had given his complexion a sallow quality, but his reflection made him look paler than ever. His black hair drained whatever colour he had left.
“Sometimes?” the therapist enquired, trying to draw his attention back to their session.
He nodded in reply. The pills worked in the sense that he had a few hours of peaceful sleep, but eventually he always returned to that place. The Nightmare, he called it.
“Your file says that over the past few months your appetite has fluctuated, but that most of the time you avoid food?”
Jen shrugged. The only time he felt hungry was when he woke up. The rest of the time he could go without eating much for as long as he could go without sleep. As a result all of his clothes had begun to hang off his body.
“When was the last time you ate?”
He thought for a moment before responding.
“I had a bowl of cereal for breakfast.”
It was true, he had eaten a bowl of cereal for breakfast. Yesterday. Her eyes bore into him once again. She wasn’t fooled, and she didn’t like being lied to.
“Tell me about your dreams. Are they all nightmares? Do the same events keep reoccurring?”
She picked up a note pad and pen from her desk. Jen said nothing. He just stared down at the tops of his trainers. It felt more like an interrogation than a therapy session.
“How often are you having these dreams?” She continued. “How do you feel after you wake up? Your file says that you sometimes experience ‘a tingly feeling’. Is this always the case?”
There was something in her tone that sounded hurried, as though she was running out of time, but it could not have been more than ten minutes into their one hour session.
“You know I can’t help you if you don’t tell me anything.”
Then I won’t tell you anything, Jen thought.
“Don’t tell me anything.”
Jen looked up in surprise and almost toppled off his chair when he found her face inches away from his.
“What –” he began, but she cut him off.
She indicated to a camera in the top corner of the room. It was pointed away from them, but it was still recording. He hadn’t noticed it until now.
“They’re listening,” she hissed.
With their proximity he noticed something different about her. Her eyes. They were a tawny brown. He blinked.
When he had opened his eyes again he no longer saw his therapist crouched in front of him, but another woman. She looked to be in her late teens, about the same age as him, but the years had been tougher on her. A scar on the left side of her face ran from her forehead and stopped just as it passed her eyebrow.
“Don’t tell them anything,” she repeated in a low tone.
One of her front teeth was missing and a couple more from the bottom row. She shoved a piece of paper that she had torn from the note pad into the pocket of his jeans.
“Read it when you wake up,” she instructed.
“But I am awa-.”
Jen awoke to find himself back in the same room, slumped over on the chaise. He leapt up.
His hand brushed against his jeans. He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the piece of paper. He paused for a moment before opening it. Scrawled onto the paper were the words: stop taking the sleeping pills. He recognised the handwriting. It was his own.
He quickly put the paper back in his pocket. As he did so his eyes wandered back to the place where he had seen the camera. The space on the wall was empty.
The door in the room suddenly opened. Jen spun around.
“Uh, no need to be alarmed!”
A squat man in a tweed suit and horn-rimmed spectacles shuffled in. He put his hands up in a submissive gesture before coming over to greet him.
“Hello Jen. Is it Jen that you like to be called? I’m Michael Burke. Would you, um, like to take a seat so that we can begin our, er, session?”
“Michael?” Jen repeated.
Jen stared at him for a moment, and Michael stood there awkwardly, waiting for him to speak. He shook his head.
“Er, um, okay,” Michael looked at his client, confused. “Well then. Shall I ask Louise to bring in a cup of tea?”
“Coffee, three sugars,” said Jen.
He sat back down on the chaise, trying to take in all that had just happened. Where was Marion (if that was even her real name)? Who was the other girl? Who was listening? Why were they listening? Why did he need to stop taking the sleeping pills? All of these questions swirled around in his mind so that for moment he forgot about where he was until Michael nervously patted him on the shoulder.
“Shall we, er, begin?”