Freebie Mondays: The Sum of the Stew

Freebie Mondays: The Sum of the Stew

I had no idea where this random picture prompt was going to take me when I started. I had a concept I wanted to work with, but it quickly took off in it’s own direction. It’s the first time I’ve allowed one of my major characters to appear in one of these (though just as a minor cameo). I’ve been trying to avoid letting ‘the crew’ take over these random prompts. BUT, the story felt incomplete without this walk on, so I decided to let it be.

In the end, I think the message that came out of my fingers while I was writing this scene ended up being the most important bit.
. . .

Consultation was such a bullshit term. One of those words that got slapped on a situation no one really wanted to think about so that everyone could pretend it was a good thing. And the tone with which people spoke of consultations seemed designed to add to the illusion that they were moments of hope and progress. Richard Winchester had been foolish enough to buy into those lies for the first five years after his initial discharge, gobbling down the testimony of numerous experts, laying his money on every bet that seemed sure because someone spoke the pitch with confidence.

Now he was done with all that. He was ready to call a chair a chair. You cold dub it a recliner – designed for lazing, you could call it a folding chair – designed for ease of transportation, or you could call it a stool – which just so happened to be taller and lack the back rest. They were all chairs, designed for the same purpose, no matter the level of comfort they provided. No matter how they were painted or upholstered or showered in praise, you sat your ass on them and that was that.

Consultations were the same, and every single one of them followed the same pattern. First, he had to show up early. Because if you showed up to the office so much as one minute later than the time on your card, the doctor wouldn’t see you. It didn’t matter if the office was running late that day, or that they tended to run later the later in the day your appointment had been scheduled for. Somehow, the secretary had always magically given away your timeslot during the sixty extra seconds it took you to reach the counter. And gods above forbid if there was a line when you entered the office.

Not that Richard had reasons to be late anymore. He hadn’t been able to hold down a job for more than six months, which left him plenty of time to schedule his entire day around rising early so that he could arrive in time. Before the office even opened seemed to work best. Though today, one of the receptionists had taken pity on him and let him into the waiting room before regular office hours were supposed to start.

That was the second phase of the consultation; sitting in the waiting room, surrounded by loud TVs and even louder children while he waited for them to call his name. He had long since learned that he could tell how things were going to go based on the local décor. If it was brightly colored, they probably dealt a lot with children or families. Whoever he spoke to would be polite and optimistic, even while they drained the most recent mote of hope from his life. If the colors were cooler and the decoration more somber, he could expect to meet someone with a stick up their ass who tended to deal with either hard cases or those that were loaded. They’d be honest – and Richard blessed them for that – but dreadful in just about every other way.

Hospitals were, simultaneously, the best and the worst. The atmosphere was grim, and there was no getting around that, but the experts in hospitals knew what they were talking about and didn’t have time to deliver it any way but straight. He had almost regained his faith in so-called consultations during his last one, until the surgeon showed him the results of the fancy – and expensive – brain scan revealing that surgery simply couldn’t solve his problem. Specifically because there was nothing on which they could operate, no tumor or growth that could possibly explain his problems.

So he was ready to call this consultation by the same name he should have called the others: a pointless waste of time. Even a man like Richard Winchester, who’s time could be considered largely worthless to begin with, knew how to value the passing of the hours. He might not be able to make something of himself, no, but he could usually find something to make a day worth noting. He still had some family who would talk to him, after all. And friends who understood – or tried to. Friends who had been through something similar. Except that they had been able to rise above the waves and banish the demons, while poor ol’ Richard just couldn’t seem to make the final thrust.

This waiting room was small and quiet. It almost convinced him that there were several private spaces for patients to wait, though he couldn’t imagine where the rest would be tucked. Except that there were a number of chairs lining the walls, and the usual magazines spread across the coffee table perched in the middle of the room. Perhaps it was merely the absence of the TV – replaced, instead, with gentle elevator music, that made it seem relaxing.

At least the nurse called his name before anyone else arrived. His blessings were small and few, but Richard was more than happy to accept them.

He expected to be led to a bog-standard doctor’s office with a paper-covered examination table, a computer console, and jars filled with tongue depressors and cotton balls. Instead, the smiling young man holding the folder with his name on it led him to what appeared to be a meeting room. There were no desks, just two large, plush armchairs and a pitcher of cold water waiting between them. Richard fingered the jug’s handle for several seconds before he decided to pour himself a glass. It would ease the next part of the process, even if he wished it was something far heavier. Whiskey would have been nice. Or vodka.

The usual series of awkward questions followed, and the nurse noted each of his answers in the folder. Was he taking his medicine? Was he sure he hadn’t accidentally skipped any doses? And the symptoms hadn’t eased at all since he started the regimen? When did it all start? Thank whatever gods there were they never asked for his medical history anymore. They’d be three hours before he caught a glimpse of a doctor otherwise.

Again, this place caught him off guard. When the nurse had finished making notes in the folder, he cast Richard a reassuring smile. “Are you comfortable?” he asked. “Anything I can do to make the wait easier?”

Off-balance by the break in the usual routine, Richard stared back at him with eyes wide as searchlights and slowly shook his head.

“Are you sure?” the nurse asked with a knowing smile. “How’s the temperature in the room? You sure I can’t get you a book or anything?”

“It’s fine,” Richard insisted, finally finding his voice. “I’m fine.”

“All right,” the nurse relented, moving back toward the door. “Drink as much of that water as you like. We’ll bring you a refill if you need it. And don’t be nervous. Doctor Krarastum is one of the best in the field. She regularly works with the Queen’s Division, you know. And they only accept the best.”

Richard grunted in response. The young man was too kind, too gentle to be told off first thing in the morning. And anyway, how could he know how miserable Richard was at the moment – or any given moment, for that matter? He wasn’t the telepath.

Not that it seemed to matter. The nurse had already turned and moved on to his next task, leaving Richard alone to sip cool water and stare out the nearby window on the courtyard below. This was actually the hardest part of every consultation. The part where he was left to watch the normal people move about their normal everyday activities and contemplate how he had arrived here, at this terrible turning point on the corner of hopeless and you’ll just have to learn to live with it.

Richard – Dicky to his old teammates – had never been the kind of guy destined for glory. He had neither the ambition nor the skill. He saw the big guys on TV all the time. Guys like Domerin Lorcasf, Rilan Moore and Valia Stormcrow who, between them, had probably saved the entire kingdom a dozen times or more. People who stared down elementals twice the size of his house and spoke about it as if they’d been exterminating rats. People who marched into enemy territory and came back with stolen kids. He was pretty sure Stormcrow had contained more rogue mages than any other member in the division’s history.

Dicky had simply been content to serve his duties to the best of his ability. Every mission he came back from was victory enough as far as he was concerned. He was doing good work, important work, and protecting innocents while he did it. He might not ever see an inch of spotlight for it, and that might have been for the best. He wasn’t made for that sort of thing. Didn’t even like talking about himself. He had always just been content with knowing the work was done.

And when the inevitable question came up of what he expected he would experience when he signed up for the military, Richard was always the first to admit that he knew he’d see some shit. He had never known what kind of shit – and certainly, he had seen far worse than he expected. But he had never imagined it would weasel its way so deep into his head that it held him in a death grip.

The disruptions started out small; nightmares, insomnia, anxiety. And he had tested all the coping mechanisms. The first few times they even worked. But eventually the nightmares turned into hallucinations. The insomnia turned into a schedule he couldn’t guess, let alone manage. And the anxiety turned into full blown panic attacks.

Post-traumatic stress disorder was what they called it. PTSD. Four little letters with the power to gut his life and turn it inside out.

He had tried every form of treatment under the sun. The pills had even worked at first, until something about his brain chemistry altered, as if he’d grown so used to the effects of the helpful medication that his body simply filtered it out and ignored it. Or perhaps his symptoms had worsened. He could never keep track of it anymore. There had been too many opinions and too few he understood.

He was broken. That’s what it came down to. He’d seen one too many kids get hurt. Experienced one too many knocks to the head. Lost one too many friends to the world’s relentless darkness, and his mind had given up, put its foot down and made it clear he’d had enough.

He doubted the big guys like Rilan Moore ever suffered from anxiety or insomnia. That Lorcasf fellow looked like the sort insomnia took one look at and ran the other way.

But Richard – Dicky – had only ever been average. And he supposed an average person could only do the kind of work he’d done for so long before it wore him down.

Now here he was.

When the medication stopped working and a mad search revealed none that could take its place, Richard started looking for answers elsewhere. He had been tested for every illness he could name, and several he couldn’t have pronounced if someone held a gun to his head and demanded a decent attempt.

Though he had never imagined relief as a viable response to cancer diagnosis, his heart soared when a doctor finally told him he might have it. Brain tumor was the perfect fit for several of his more severe symptoms. And what could it hurt to look for one?

When the first scan came back with shadows on the final image, Richard had been sure he was on the path to getting his life back. He might even be able to laugh at five years of tearing his life apart when all was said and done, especially if he had the kind of cancer that could be cured with a simple snip.

But if the last five years had taught him anything, it was that nothing in life was as simple as other people made it sound. An in any case, the shadows had been a mistake, caused by an off rotation of the hospital’s high-tech equipment. He didn’t have cancer, and the damage to his brain wasn’t physical, so no simple cut could set it right.

Telepathy had been on the tip of everyone’s tongue from the time his meds first went on the fritz. It started in the doctor’s office and worked its way down to people who passed on the streets, looking at him like he’d just clawed his way out of some kind of hell pit – if they only knew! But even five years ago, Richard hadn’t had the kind of money required for magical treatment. Now that he couldn’t even keep a job, he was lucky his veteran benefits covered decent housing, a food allowance and prescriptions or he wouldn’t even have any of that!

It was only sheer luck – and an act of desperation – that had won his way into Doctor Krarastum’s office. His medical history suggested that his condition had been caused, at least in part, by his military service. There was just enough evidence that the queen’s law decreed the crown should cover his medical treatments.

So here he was. Waiting to be told one last time that his situation was hopeless. And if it turned out that his condition had nothing to do with his time in the military – as unlikely as that seemed – he didn’t want to know how he’d ever manage to pay for it. One round of treatment from a telepath cost more than he’d made in the last three years. And it usually took three or four before the tone took a turn for the worst.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Richard.” The voice was low and much deeper than he expected. When he turned to watch the doctor close the door in her wake, he realized why. He had been expecting an elf, or some kind of fae creature. But Doctor Krarastum was a dwarf. Her hair was auburn, streaked with mahogany. It ran in long waves down her back, kept in check by a pair of silver pins. Which made it blindingly obvious that the hair adorning her cheeks and chin were, in fact, a beard and not a clever arrangement of braids.

Her limbs were thick with muscle, her cheeks chiseled before they disappeared into the bushy crop of hair that concealed the lower half of her face. It was so finely manicured that Richard doubted a single lock ever fell out of place, since not one obscured the bright smile splitting her lips. The lumbered her way to the armchair beside his, each step so obvious, he wondered how she’d made it into the room without his noticing. Perhaps he had been lost deeper in his thoughts than he realized.

When Krarastum had settled into her seat and flipped idly through the folder the nurse had given her, she poured herself a glass of water and lifted it as if to offer a toast. “It probably goes without saying, Richard, but I’ll be reading your mind for the duration of these meetings. Please don’t be alarmed. It’s simply the best way for me to offer you treatment. Everything I pluck from your mind is covered by patient confidentiality, and everyone has a few strays they don’t want anyone repeating back to them. My training allows me to distinguish between genuine thought and random speculation, so don’t let it trouble you.”

A deep crimson blush crept into Richard’s cheeks. She must be talking about the random impulse to kick puppies – or children – something he’d never done but had thought about during his worst moments. He nodded to show he understood, but couldn’t summon words to respond.

“I understand your frustration with your current situation,” the doctor went on, evidentially thinking it was best to get to the point. Richard wondered idly if she’d plucked that preference from his brain, or if having an open channel to another person’s thoughts simply made it easier to get on with things. “From what I can see in your records, you’ve had quite a battle. It therefore pains me to inform you that there will be no quick or easy fix for what you suffer.”

Richard braced himself the moment she said pains me to inform you. He had been expecting the usual spiel about doing everything possible to locate the source of the problem and provide appropriate treatment. But it sounded like this fancy telepath wasn’t even going to try.

He opened his mouth to speak but, before he had a chance, the dwarf chuckled.

“Of course I’m going to try, Richard. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.” She sipped from her water glass, then set it aside. “I simply want to set your expectations accordingly. Many people walk into my office believing that telepathy is a simple form of treatment. That all I have to do is snap my fingers and I can make your mind better. But brains don’t work that way. And besides, I’m not actually a mage. A touch of mind talent is nothing compared to the kind of talent our royal heir possesses.”

She smiled in a way that Richard found genuine. It wasn’t exactly reassuring, but it also didn’t carry any of the pretentious falsehood he usually sensed in the smiles of other experts. It was almost as if it were impossible for her to lie to him while his mind lay open to her perusal.

Or perhaps it was perfectly easy for her to deceive him because she could tell exactly what he’d accept. But he tried not to let his mind go too far down that path; that way lay madness greater than what he already lived with.

“I gave up on quick fixes a long time ago, Ma’am, if I can be frank. And since you can read my mind, I guess I’d better. I’m not even sure there’s anything can be done for me anymore. Part of me would feel better if you’d just say it.”

Another of those genuine smiles brightened the dwarf’s face. “I won’t say it, Richard. Because it’s not true. I think there’s a lot I can do for you. But it I want you to understand that it will take time. Here, look at this.”

She reached into a folder she had brought with her – not the one with his name on it – and produced a plastic-coated printout. Richard expected it to be one of those inkblots. He’d been presented with enough of them in his time that he thought the entire exercise was pointless. He always said the first random, stupid thing that popped into his head, because careful consideration hadn’t ever gotten him anywhere.

But there wasn’t a single dark blot across the paper. Instead it was a riot of color, a mass of different shapes intertwining with such complexity, Richard couldn’t begin to trace the various combinations. He blinked rapidly several times and glared at the doctor over his shoulder.

“What the hell is this?”

“Think of it as a map of your brain,” Krarastum replied, her tone gentle.

“I may not be a doctor or an engineer, Ma’am, but I know damn well this isn’t a map of anyone’s brain.”

Doctor Krarastum chuckled. There was no hint of mocking in her tone and, somehow, that diffused the growing tension gathering in Richard’s temples and between his shoulders.

“You’re right, Richard, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to take it so literally. It’s not a map of the brain’s makeup or chemistry, no. But you could think of it as a projection of your thoughts and feelings. If we could give everything you thought about on a day to day basis a shape, this is what it might look like.”

“This?” Richard exclaimed, staring at the mass of color and shape again. “But this is.. It’s, well…”

“Chaotic, isn’t it?” the doctor supplied for him.

Richard nodded. “And it’s so big. So complicated. If this is what the inside of a person’s head looks like to you, how do you ever find what’s wrong with them?”

“That’s the trick, isn’t it?” Krarastum replied. Leaning across the table between them, she lightly dabbed her pen against one branch of the chaotic pattern. The mark was so light, it nearly faded against the busy background.

“The mind doesn’t work as logically as anyone would like to think it does. It files memories via various forms of association. This is why your first memory of camping might be triggered by the smell of wood burning, especially if you ever sat in front of a fire roasting marshmallows and telling stories. Or if, say, you had a grandmother that wore lilac perfume, the smell of lilacs might remind you of dinners at her place, or some specific moment you spent together. These memories might be significant, important pieces of your history. But it’s just as likely the triggered memory will be insignificant, just a tiny piece of nostalgia your brain tosses in your direction whenever it encounters that smell.”

Richard rather thought he could see where this was going. “So you can’t use some kind of easy trigger to determine the source of my trauma?” He’d been through enough of these conversations to feel comfortable speaking the words, even if they rather stole the wind from his sails.

Krarastum shook her head. “Sadly, no. Even if I’m watching the shifting pattern of your thoughts while you speak about your experiences – which is something we will have to try, sooner or later – the origin point may not be easy to spot. It’s rare that problems like yours can even be traced to a singular origin point. It’s more likely that we’ll have many thoughts and feelings to work through before we can untangle the source of your troubles. And only then will we be able to work on better treatment.”

Of all the consultations Richard had attended, this was by far the most honest. But also the worst. Because there was hope in Doctor Krarastum’s voice, hope the likes of which he had long since shut out of his life. But it was far away, at the top of a high shelf, and he didn’t even have the first few rungs of a ladder he could use to get to it. And he was so tired of all this nonsense, so very tired.

Before he could tamp down on those feelings and lock them back in the box from which they’d escaped, the emotions bubbled and boiled from the depths of him, quickly overflowing. He set the printout in his lap and closed his hands into fists, shaking with the effort of containing the outburst he wanted to unleash. He wanted to yell and curse, though he knew nothing about his situation was the dwarf’s fault. Not even the fact that she couldn’t easily fix him. She hadn’t made the rules about how the universe worked, and it seemed she was as confined by them as everyone else.

“What if I don’t want to do it the long slow way?” he countered, his voice raw and thick with emotion. “Can’t you just use those fancy mind powers of yours to erase whatever did this to me? Or at least, suppress it? What if that’s all I want? To walk out of here like none of it ever happened. To be the me that I was before all this started. What then?”

He expected the doctor to lay a patronizing hand on his shoulder or, perhaps, his knee. He expected her to speak in a tone she might use with a child and explain that even if it were possible to do that, it certainly wouldn’t be moral.

Instead, the dwarf doctor pursed her lips and seemed to give the statement some serious thought. Then she reached back into the folder and pulled a second printout free. She set it in his lap, beside the first one, so he could compare them side by side.

Richard spent several minutes staring between them before he managed to speak. “What’s the point of the second picture?” it was hard not to spit the words. “The two aren’t even remotely alike.” He thought this was supposed to be one of those spot the difference exercises, but he couldn’t spot a single thing that was the same.

“That’s the point,” Doctor Krarastum said softly. “I could do what you ask, Richard. Maybe not today, or without any kind of delving into your psyche. But given a couple days of high-intensity examination, I could isolate, at least on a broad spectrum, the experiences that led you down this path and repress them.”

Richard’s heart skipped a beat, then began to thump loudly in his chest. He swallowed hard, trying to flush the wild sense of hope from his system before it could dig its claws into him. Because the doctor’s tone had not been the least bit optimistic when she said this. “Then why don’t we do it that way?” he insisted. “Even if it’s only temporary?”

“Because, Richard, you’re assuming that if I were to erase a little bit of information from the first picture, you’d end up looking exactly the same but with some gaps. But I used a computer program to map these fractals. The second one,” she tapped the new print out, “is made from exactly the same seed data as the first one. Except I went in and erased a couple bits of random data. Do you see?

“If I erase a part of you, even a bad part that you don’t want anymore, the person who walks out of this office won’t be the same. Your brain will piece your life back together from the remains of the information it has, but there’s no way to know for sure how many other memories or experiences have become linked with the ones you want me to remove. Even if I were able to isolate the one or two worst experiences from your life, you might leave my office viewing the world entirely differently than you do now.

“And the most insidious thing about that, Richard, is that you wouldn’t even know the difference. Not even if someone told you. We are the sum of our experiences. That’s why we can’t just subtract from the pot and expect the stew to turn out okay.”

An unfamiliar stinging sensation dominated Richard’s eyes, causing him to blink several times in rapid succession. He pressed his hands into tighter fists and drew several deep, ragged breaths, trying to ease the mad pounding of his heart. It took so long to find his voice, he was tempted to think his response in the doctor’s direction, knowing she would catch it. But she waited patiently, so he resisted the urge.

At last he managed to gasp and wriggle free of the emotion tightening his chest. “But what if…” he said, his voice sounding strangled as he forced it around the lump in his throat. “What if the person who leaves your office after the change is better than the one sitting here now?”

After all, wasn’t that the main problem? He was useless as he was now. Whatever made him this way hardly mattered. He needed to become a proper, contributing member of society again. He needed to do whatever it took to make that happen. Wasn’t that how things worked?

With a soft, gentle exhalation, the doctor leaned across the table and set one of her massive hands against his shoulder. She squeezed gently, allowing her fingers to dig just deeply enough into his flesh to draw his undivided attention.

“There is no possible way that would be true, Richard,” she said softly but with deep conviction. “I know you think you’re broken and that everyone would be better off with a replacement. But that simply isn’t true. You are who you are. And who you are is important. If I sent you away from here as a completely different person, even if I eventually put you back, how much damage would that do to your relationships? And during the transitions between personalities, you might not even remember what you did, so you wouldn’t be able to fix it.

“Bad things have happened to you, I can see that. And your road to recovery is going to be a long, slow climb. I wish, more than anything, I could take that pain away from you. But I know better than many what would happen if I did, and I am not prepared to do that kind of harm to someone who has come seeking my help.

“I know you probably came here hoping for better news. Or maybe just some kind of closure. But I assure you, if you stick with me through all the bitter obstacles, we will find a way to help you be the person you want to be. Together. No matter what it takes. If you can make that commitment to me, I promise I’ll walk every step of the way with you.”

“No matter how long it takes?” Richard stammered, raising one shaky hand to bat moisture from his cheeks. Since it seemed it would take well into his old age to rebuild the tattered shambles of his life.

“No matter how long it takes,” Doctor Krarastum agreed, squeezing his shoulder again. “But I don’t think it will take as long as you anticipate. These things are slow to start. But now that I can see into your mind, I think we’ll make steady progress.” She fell silent a moment, then shifted to the edge of her chair. “I think that’s all we should talk about for today. You have a lot to think about, and I don’t want to pile too much on your shoulders at once. Keep the print outs,” she added, “and feel free to linger as long as you like.”

She smiled one more time before she departed and Richard managed to nod in response. He didn’t like doctor’s offices and didn’t want to linger, but he didn’t want anyone to see him crying in the hallways either. He snatched a tissue from a box on the table and focused on deep breaths until the fire eased from his eyes and cheeks. He dabbed all the moisture from his face, then took one last look at the printouts before he slid to his feet.

There was no one in the hallway to take notice of him, but there were signs pointing toward the exit. It led a different direction than the way he’d come in, past a counter where a pair of clerks seemed to be passing paperwork to a small group of waiting patients.

One of them shot an annoyed look at a dark-skinned elf with midnight hair who looked like the hounds of hell had harried him through the streets for the better part of two days. “You really need to keep on top of these prescription refills,” she said through clenched teeth.

“I know,” the elf replied, his tone somewhat hoarse, his head bent in response to the chiding tone. “It just… slips my mind.”

The clerk bent forward to say something else, but Richard didn’t dare linger. Besides, he knew better than to eavesdrop on that kind of conversation. But he could swear when he passed that he recognized the dark-skinned elf’s intense blue eyes. He’d seen them on the news more than once, though far less haggard than they looked now.

As he stepped out into the courtyard behind the building, Richard pressed one hand to the pocket where he’d tucked the folded printouts. He hadn’t changed his mind about consultations – they could suck the big one as far as he was concerned. But it seemed there may have been a great many other things about which he had been gravely mistaken.

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