The applause in the concert hall lasted for a full minute before it subsided. The energy was unlike any Elias had ever experienced, and he shut his eyes to better let it reverberate through him.
Doctor Golan lit a Marb Red. The contradiction caught Elias off guard, and his anxiety kicked in at that moment. Every fiber of his being commanded him to march to the bathroom in the hallway and wash his hands thoroughly. He looked down at them. The skin around his knuckles was white, cracked, and brittle; it looked like a skating rink that hadn’t been smoothed by the Zamboni. Bits of dried blood and scabs crisscrossed like latticework.
He could never properly explain the feeling to people. His OCD was a constant irrational fear of death.
Elias gripped the arms of his chair and took a deep breath. He prayed the feeling would subside, or at least the volume would be turned down.
“It’s happening right now, isn’t it?” Doctor Golan asked.
There was a sheen on his teeth like Vaseline and Elias groaned audibly.
“Yes,” replied Elias through gritted teeth.
He didn’t remember exactly when these attacks started. He had just a vague notion from years ago. Now, it was like they’d always been there.
It would begin with a trigger; for example, he would grip a handrail while on the subway only to feel some sort of condensation. His mind would begin to ramble incoherently like a drunk who had attempted to prove his sobriety and had failed.
Scenarios were created in which he had contracted a life-threatening disease simply from touching the subway pole. He would imagine chancres opening on his body like flowers opening, and no matter how long he spent examining himself for scratches, cuts, lesions, any sign that he’d become terminally ill, it was futile.
Deep down, he knew it was all an illusion. His mind was a funhouse full of distorted mirrors which forced him to view everything through a skewed prism.
In the beginning, he could manage with therapy, then prescription drugs. His anxiety got worse over time to the point where his whole life needed to be changed. Eventually, he became a recluse.
His only salvation was music.
He’d spend hours playing his sonatas and requiems. Any money he got went toward accumulating vinyl LP’s for his vast collection. He’d shunned the advances in technology for the turntable he’d been giving when he first started playing the piano.
Music continually reverberated throughout his home. It came from either his fingertips or the speakers, and it filled him with immense joy. One day, he would play in the grand ballrooms. They would speak Elias’s name with awe and respect. It would validate his existence.
“Elias?” Golan said.
“Let me guess? The headshrinker you’ve been seeing hasn’t helped, and the medication you’re on barely breaks through the surface.”
“I’ve seen it all before,” Golan added. “Everyone looks the same. They have dread dripping from their pores.”
Golan’s voice changed to one of confidence.
“But I can help you.”
Elias faked a smile.
Dr. Adam Golan: Yale, Johns Hopkins, residency at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, indicted by a grand jury, and stripped of his license.
Elias imagined how Golan’s office must have looked at the height of his prestige. Now, in the aftermath of his plummet from grace, the man commanded a two-room office in a fifth-floor walk-up in an outer borough of an outer borough.
Elias had had to step over an unconscious derelict to use the stairs. Thinking of it now sent shockwaves through his nervous system.
“Imagine, never having to deal with this again.” Golan offered, stubbed out the cigarette, and laced his fingers behind his head.”
Elias licked at his lips and swallowed audibly.
“OK. What do we do?
His energy had been sapped, and Elias collapsed onto the couch. He didn’t know if he could suffer through two more nights. The performances should have been his greatest achievement. Sold out shows at concert hall; it was something he’d dreamed of since he’d started playing.
It took almost twenty-four hours to recover from the procedure. Elias was bedridden most of the time and wracked with fever dreams. He had trouble deciphering what was real. He was still in Golan’s makeshift recovery room, which was just his adjoining the office: a clothes hanger, which dangled from a coat rack, held his IV drip. Finally, Elias regained enough of his equilibrium to sit up. After a cursory examination, Golan seemed to be satisfied.
“Everything is on the mend.”
Golan hit the pack of his cigarettes with the heel of his hand.
“Have you experienced any anxiety attacks?” Golan asked.
Elias paused to think about it.
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, let’s find out; shall we?”
Golan reached into his pocket produced a soiled rag.
“What is that?”
Before Elias could reply, Golan threw the balled-up rag at Elias who caught it before it could hit his body. He braced himself for the recoil and the sensation of overwhelming fear he was certain would envelop him, but nothing happened. He examined the white rag, noted some discoloration, and calmly flung it back to Golan.
“Anything?” Golan said.
Elias grew animated.
“Nothing.” He could barely get the words out. Overcome with emotion, he had trouble maintaining his composure. However, Elias was disturbed by what he thought had been a faint moan coming from the main office.
Golan looked toward the sound.
“Well, then, I guess the two of you can go.”
Golan walked over to the door, opened it, and stepped back. Golan folded his arms across his chest.
A person filled the door frame. Except it wasn’t a person.
The Shape moved slowly and deliberately through the door as it pained him to do so. The right leg was so misshapen it dragged on the ground. Elias had been prepared for this moment, but it was nothing like he had imagined.
“A couple of things you should know,” Golan began, lit the cigarette, and took a deep drag. The cigarette stuck to his bottom lip as he spoke.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship. He can only exist if you are alive. When you die; he dies too.”
“How about the other way around?” Elias asked. The shape looked down at the ground as if ashamed for its existence. Golan laughed.
“Think of him as an organ, a kidney. You could live without one of them, but who knows what sort of ramifications it might have.”
“So, it’s like a living colostomy bag. Can I get it wet or feed it after midnight?”
The Shape looked up attempted what Elias could only imagine was a smile.
“Gremlins,” The Shape said.
Elias had experienced the euphoria almost immediately.
When they stopped at a gas station, he could navigate through a crowd of people and not worry about catching their germs. He was even able to use the grotesque-looking bathroom without flinching. It was like being born again, and he relished the feeling of being released from his shackles. He noticed, however, each time he came upon a situation that would have triggered his anxiety, The Shape reacted.
The Shape now sat on the couch in the living room; a weary look was on what passed for its face.
“I guess you can sleep on this for now, until we figure something else out.”
The Shape shifted its gaze to look from the floor to Elias.
“I’m going to play some music for a while,” Elias said.
For the past two days, he felt like he was going to burst at the seams unless he was able to play his piano. He sat on the bench and the world dissolved around him. He paused for a moment to gather his thoughts and calm his nerves, and within a few seconds, he was at peace. His fingers descended onto the keys.
The sound caused him to lurch back. He tried again, but the piano only returned dissonant notes. He made similar attempts for the next five minutes. His compositions regressed from complicated measures to basic scales. Through his frustration, he’d bloodied his fingers and crimson prints smeared the keys. He stood in shock and backed away from the piano. Then he saw The Shape. Elias lunged for it. It attempted to defend itself but was unable. Pustules ruptured, and ropey cords of mucous and blood sprayed from The Shape’s malformed nose like confetti. Elias flung The Shape onto the ground, backed away, and collapsed onto the floor.
When he awoke, he didn’t know how much time had elapsed.
His body was depleted of strength. It was the sound of the piano which stirred him.
A Concerto by Brahms had echoed throughout the apartment. It was so resplendent Elias felt he’d been picked up off the ground as if carried by the music. He watched in awe and fascination as The Shape sat at the piano and deftly maneuvered its hands over the keys.
“Right here, sir, seat number six.”
“Thank you.” Elias took the program from the usher and sat down. He was in the back row of the amphitheater. He wore dark glasses. Elias glanced at the program to see what pieces he’d be playing tonight, rolled it up, and put it in his pocket.
The lights dimmed a few minutes later, and the conversations ceased. Applause erupted when The Shape was led on stage with the help of one of the staff. They stopped in front of the grand piano, and The Shape took a bow. The roar subsided, and The Shape sat down on the bench.
It was The Shape’s idea to suggest a car accident.
“How else to explain the disfigurement?”
The days became weeks. Elias remained indoors. The Shape’s recitals were newsworthy, and his videos were soon streaming 24/7. The concert had sold out in about half an hour. Elias shut his eyes and listened to the creature play.
Andrew Davie has worked in theater, finance, and education. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant and has survived a ruptured brain aneurysm and subarachnoid hemorrhage. His other work can be found in links on his website https://andrew-davie.com/