Fiction: “1,000 Ghosts” by Diana Clark

He insists on lying down. Dr. Greenwood tells him, “That’s only in the movies, the couch part; you’re more than welcome to sit up,” but then she remembers how much he loves movies, his Air Force One comment from 2015, remembers Harrison Ford in his interview on Studio 10, and decides not to push the matter. Whatever gets him talking. No, wait. That’s not right either. He loves talking. That’s part of the problem. What she needs is for him to start talking honestly. And not in the way his followers perceive him, that “he tells it like it is” rhetoric. No, that’s pandering. Propaganda. She needs anything that isn’t that.

“I think I might be a ghost.”

Well, that’s certainly new. “A ghost?”

He shifts his weight. Reaches for something in his pocket. Dr. Greenwood tries to determine how admitting this to her makes him feel. She’s not entirely sure he has the emotional capacity for shame, yet another part of the issue, but here she feels grateful for his missing filter, for whatever in his head does not stop to examine his thoughts before speaking. “Do you mean that metaphorically, or—”

“I mean exactly what I said: I think I’m a ghost. Or 1,000 ghosts. It’s really hard to tell.” 

One . . . thousand . . . ghosts. Dr. Greenwood writes this down in her notebook, conscious of the scratch and scrape that is pen against paper, how the sound has agitated him in the past. “It sounds like ants,” he said once. “Like mice inside a wall.” 

“You grew up quite wealthy,” she had said, “I’m surprised to hear you make such a comparison. Have you been in a living situation before where pests were a problem?”

He had ended their session early that day.

“Why do you think you’re a ghost?” she asks.

“Because,” he says, “there are still people who don’t like me, but I’m the most likeable guy there is. I’m rich, I’m attractive, I’m the most powerful man in the world. There’s nothing not to like.”

Dr. Greenwood writes. “So because there are people who don’t like you—”

“I’ve decided it has to be for a reason. I’m very self-aware like that. But I haven’t done anything wrong, so it has to be something else. Something I can’t help.”

“Something out of your control,” she says.

He nods encouragingly. “Yes, yes! Something out of my control. People are scared of ghosts. They don’t see.” 

“The people or the ghosts?”

He squints at the ceiling, pretends not to hear. Dr. Greenwood makes a note of his silence, the question that prompted it. She tries not to feel disappointed. She thought they were getting somewhere, that today’s conversation would lead to something new. But it’s just the same. Ego and deflection, narcissism and delusion, more and more of that tired grandiloquence. 

“People . . . do not . . . like me . . .”

Dr. Greenwood looks up from her notebook. His hand is out of his pocket, fingers clicking at the keys of his cell phone. He does this sometimes. Thinks of what he considers a good tweet during one of his sessions, cannot wait till the end of his appointment before sending it out into the world. He reads aloud when he’s typing, words oddly interspersed. “They’re . . . all . . . losers . . . because . . . they don’t . . . realize . . . that I . . . am a . . . ghost.”

“No!” Dr. Greenwood leans forward, grabs the cell phone from his hand. The room is frost. She should have let him do it, let him press “Tweet.” It would have destroyed him. 

Oh sweetheart, you know that’s not true. That’s part of the problem.

Dr. Greenwood closes her eyes. Not now, please.

“You’re my therapist, not my keeper,” he barks. “What do you think you’re doing? I’ll fire you if you do that again, do you understand? I’ll fire you. I can do that. To whoever I want, whenever I want. I’m very powerful.”

“Yes, my apologies. I was just concerned. If you let the people know you might be a ghost, they’ll . . . You’ve seen Ghostbusters, right? And Back to the Future? Our best scientists are making hoverboards a reality. Surely they can make the Ghost Sucker a reality, too. You need to be prepared in case that happens. You need to be absolutely certain you’re a ghost—or not a ghost—before you let people know.” It is a ridiculous response, but the only way to pacify him in these moments is to speak his language, to step out of reality and into the world of fiction.

As predicted, her reasoning calms him. He settles back onto the couch, choosing again to lie down. “Hmmm . . . good thinking. Yes, very good thinking. I’m so smart for hiring you.” 

“You didn’t,” she almost says, “Your predecessor did.” But Dr. Greenwood knows better. Stops herself. What she doesn’t know is why she stopped him from tweeting out his ghost story. 

You’re a doctor, baby. A therapist. It’s in your nature to protect people, even people you don’t like. Remember when we used to meditate together? You’d always focus on sending positive thoughts to those who’d hurt you. I could never do that.

Dr. Greenwood swallows. “That’s not the same,” she wants to say, and, “I don’t do that anymore.”

“Am I the first president to ever have a therapist?”

It’s odd, she thinks, how proud he sounds of himself, as though he is expecting some kind of award. “No,” she says, “Most sought light counseling of some kind, especially the last few presidencies, with mental health slowly becoming less and less stigmatized. Except Nixon, of course. Nixon had a psychotherapist.” 

He brightens at this. His hands are folded neatly across his stomach as he stares up at the ceiling, face stretched into mania. Dr. Greenwood wants to end the session. She wants to go home. She wants to go home and . . . and what? Make tea, stare out the window, avoid calls from friends she hasn’t heard from in years. They don’t call to check on her, not really. They call to make themselves feel better. They call so they can get off the phone and pat themselves on the back for being such good and attentive people. 

Baby

Dr. Greenwood can’t help it. Her eyes flick to the corner of the room. 

Elena stands at a strong 5’11”. Lean, dark-haired, and alarmingly pale. She had always joked about her skin tone: Ghost-white, you can even see the veins. A laugh turned sour in the throat. Dr. Greenwood wants to die. She wants away from him. She wants to stand in the corner, take her wife’s hand, leave that office and never come back. “I am done with saving souls,” Dr. Greenwood wants to say, “I just want to be one.”

How do you think that makes me feel? I’m sorry, I know. If it was you instead of me—

I wish it was.

If it was you instead of me, I’d be gone already. But you can’t, hun. You can’t. It’s not your time.

It wasn’t your time, either. Did you know? They won’t even call it a hate crime.

Elena nods. Her eyes are full and sad and trying, trying so hard. I do know. That’s why the world needs people like you in it. Stay. Stay, baby. Please.

I don’t want to talk to him.

Ask about the ghosts.

He can’t know you’re here.

No, not me. His ghosts. The 1,000 ghosts. Keep asking. It’s important that you keep asking.

Dr. Greenwood shoots Elena a look, and for a moment in time, she forgets. She forgets that her wife is dead, forgets that they’re not having a small tiff in the kitchen of their home, forgets that she and Elena will not reunite on the couch, will not watch reruns of Parks and Recreation and The Office and Cheers, hands folded into the others, fingers laced together, while the pad of Elena’s thumb draws small circles onto her skin. 

“They’re here.”

Dr. Greenwood turns from her wife, looks at the man on the couch. He’s sitting up now, something he’s never done during an appointment. Not until the last minute, not until it’s time for him to go. His eyes are big and terminal, his usually arrogant composure now one of nervous sweats and sagging shoulders. “Who’s here?”

“The ghosts. The ghosts that make up my body.”

“I thought you said you were the ghost.”

“I never said that.”

It’s astonishing. After a year of these sessions, Dr. Greenwood is almost convinced that he doesn’t know when he’s lying, at least not anymore. “Okay, so you’re not a ghost, but you’re home to one.”

“Many.”

“Many. So what you’ve been trying to say, really, is that you think you’re possessed?” 

“Not just possessed. Made.”

Dr. Greenwood writes this in her notebook. She is surprised to see a hand—her hand— white knuckling the pen. The room has the energy of a broken beehive. She feels scared. Static. Anger that is hers but also isn’t. She looks to the corner of the room. Elena’s body is fading. I can’t stay when they’re here. I have to leave. For their sake. It takes all of them, together, for him to hear their voices. 

Don’t, please.

You’re going to be okay, all right? You’re going to be okay.

Elena is gone but the president isn’t. Elena is gone but the president isn’t. Elena is gone but the president isn’t. If she let herself, Dr. Greenwood could paralyze her heart with this fact. Keep it from pumping. She could stay here, drown in it, let the hard truth take her away into permanence, into Elena, out of this world and into the next. 

“‘We made you.’ That’s what they always say. But they’re wrong. Wrong! I made me. I made me. Me, me, me, me, me, me, me—” 

Dr. Greenwood is stunned. She did not think he could do that anymore, shock her, but the president’s hands are covering his ears. He is hunched forward, eyes shut, rocking into a place here and not, words on repeat, one “me” tripping over the next. The air in the room feels tight. Cemented. Dr. Greenwood wants to run. Instead she pushes. “What else are they saying?”     

Her question reaches him. Penetrates through his chanting. “They say I’m cursed. No, that I am the curse. That I’m not what America needs. I’m what America deserves.” 

“Who’s saying that?” It is barely above a whisper. Dr. Greenwood feels a pressure in the room. So much pressure. He must feel it too, but he is not Dr. Greenwood, no, and suddenly he is on his side again, legs thrashing, hands still covering his ears. He screams murder. He screams slaughter. He screams and screams until Dr. Greenwood is calling security, until they are all flooding her office, until they are calling for sleeping aids and drugs, more drugs, until someone is on the phone with McDonalds—“two fish-fillets two big macs one chocolate shake hurry hurry”—until he is being carried away, the president still shouting, “I am not a curse! I am not a curse!” until it is just the silence and the empty office and the sound of nothing but her beating, stubborn heart. 

Dr. Greenwood is sitting on the edge of her desk. She cannot remember doing that. She is sitting and thinking and trying not to think, too. She is sitting and breathing and remembering. Remembering Elena and their one-bedroom bungalow with the mini dishwasher and linoleum floors. She remembers their floral sheets with the primroses and the equally pink duvet. She is remembering Elena and the breakfast she made them the morning after the election, her eyes puffy from crying all night, the way she walked into the room with her robe half open, holding a tray of warm food: “I call these ‘It’s-all-going-to-be-okay-waffles’ and these are ‘one-day-at-a-time-biscuits’ and this is ‘shrimp-and-grits-resist.’” She had smiled then, and Dr. Greenwood had smiled back. Wanting to please Elena, she had taken a biscuit. Nibbled. But the bite felt too thick, too present. Even with Elena watching, Dr. Greenwood could not keep it down. 

 

 

***

Diana Clark is an elephant enthusiast and an MFA fiction candidate at UNCW, with special love for LGBTQIA+ literature, magical realism, and sci-fi. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Broad! (a gentleperson’s magazine), Crab Fat Magazine, Peach Mag, The Passed Note, and more. In 2015, her piece “Singed” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find her in Wilmington, North Carolina, wasting time watching YouTube videos with her cat, Emily D.

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