Short Fiction – Auto Pilot (By Melissa R. Mendelson)
By, Melissa R. Mendelson
“How was your father’s funeral?”
“It was fine.”
“Just fine, Gary?”
Gary stretched out on a brown, leather couch. He turned to look at the older gentleman sitting near him with his legs crossed and a notepad and pen in his lap. His brown eyes held his gaze, and then Gary resumed watching the ceiling fan spin around and around above him. He gnawed on his lip before looking back at the man. “Why weren’t you there?”
“Your father and I really have not spoken for some time now, Gary.”
“I wonder why that is.”
Gary’s eyes roamed over the small office. He noticed two gray cabinets nearby, full of information on this man’s patients including him. There was a small grandfather clock near the desk that ticked away his time. Papers piled high on the desk, burying a black phone, but right out in front and undisturbed was the gold nameplate. It read in large letters, Dr. David Kaplan.
“Are you still mad at me, Gary?”
“You almost had me locked up, doc.”
“That was nearly ten years ago.”
“So, what? I’ve not forgotten, and obviously my father never forgot that too.”
“So, you’re mad at me.” Gary sat up on the couch and stared at him. “Why come back to me then? Why come back to me now?”
“Always the shrink, aren’t you?”
“It’s what I am.”
“There’s something else that you are.” Dr. Kaplan stared at Gary, waiting. “But we both know how I took care of my problem.”
“Ah. That. Well, I thought that maybe in a better place, you could get the proper help to deal with that problem.”
“Cut the bullshit. You just thought I was nuts.” Gary rose from the couch and paced around the office.
“I prefer the term crazy.”
“I don’t care what you prefer.” Gary shot a look his way. “If it had been today, you would’ve just popped me full of pills rather than talk my father into nearly committing me.”
“I thought I was doing the right thing.”
“Sure, you were.” They studied each other for a moment, and then Gary cleared his throat. “You would still have been wrong.” He resumed pacing around the room.
“So, remind me again how that problem ended.”
“Always the shrink.” Gary looked at Dr. Kaplan, who remained seated in his chair, watching him like a hawk. “Always the shrink.” He walked back to the couch and sat down.
“There must’ve been a reason why you decided to walk into my office out of the blue, or did your father’s funeral bring back memories that you want to talk about?”
“You would love to get back inside my head, wouldn’t you?”
“Look, obviously, I can’t do anything about the hatred that you feel for me, but you must know that I can help you. Otherwise, why are you here?”
“Where are your other patients? Did you mess up their lives too?”
“Gary, you caught me on a day that I had no appointments.”
“Right. No appointments.”
“Why are you here?”
Gary looked at Dr. Kaplan. The urge to strike him was still strong after all these years that went by in trying to forget him. Another urge was surfacing, an urge to talk, but how could he talk to him? How could he forgive and forget when this man almost ruined him? He did ruin him. “The problem’s back.”
“I thought you took care of it.”
“So did I.”
It was Dr. Kaplan’s turn to stand up from his chair. He stretched his arms out over his head and let out a sigh. Then, he paced around the room. He may as well have been a cat, grooming itself after being pleased with its game of cat and mouse. “How long has it been since it returned?”
“And during those seven years, it never reoccurred?”
“So, why now?” Dr. Kaplan rubbed his chin. “Is it because of your father’s funeral?”
“Maybe, or maybe because I now have to go through the process of cleaning out his house and selling it.”
“How long has it been since you stepped foot into that house?”
“About the same time.”
“I see. How did you solve your problem? If you could remind me again, I would really appreciate it.”
“I was in a car accident. The sonofabitch flew through the red light and slammed into my car. I smashed my head against the driver side window as the car was sent spinning halfway across the road.”
“I bet that wasn’t pretty.” Gary glared at Dr. Kaplan. “You were in the hospital for awhile after that.”
“Yes, I was.”
“And the problem just disappeared afterward?”
“Yes. I almost felt like thanking the asshole that caused the accident.”
“But you didn’t?” Gary glared at him. “I wouldn’t have either, and now it’s back.”
“With a vengeance.”
“That’s one way of putting it. I’m even afraid to go to sleep now.” Dr. Kaplan sat back down in his chair. “Every time I close my eyes, it happens.”
“What else would it be? It’s always the dream.”
The dream. Every time sleep came, Gary would open his eyes to find himself walking up a red-carpeted staircase. It would lead him to the center of a room with a large glass window. He heard thunder rumble and saw lightning flash, and someone would come up behind him, placing a torch in his hand. He would then turn left and see nothing but darkness, and it was in that corridor that he had to go. With every step, he stumbled, holding onto the torch for dear life, but he was forced forward by some invisible hand. And as he entered the darkness, he would disappear. “I can’t have that dream again. It never ended until I struck my head, and now it’s back.”
“I told you once before that your subconscious is trying to tell you something.”
“Yeah. It wants me to disappear. I’ll tell you, doc that it’s a scary feeling to not exist.”
“So, that’s why you came to me? For help?”
“I just want you to prescribe something, anything that could block this dream.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why? You owe me.”
“I don’t owe you anything, Gary.”
“Fine. You know what? I’m sorry that I wasted your time. Excuse me.” He bolted from the couch.
“Sit down, Gary. I’m not finished.” Dr. Kaplan stared at him and watched him slowly sit back down on the couch. “I’ll prescribe something, but only after our second session.”
“I don’t want to see you again especially professionally.”
“Then, you have wasted my time. Good-bye.” Dr. Kaplan rose from his chair. “I have to close up for the day, so if you could please leave, I would really appreciate it.”
“Are you kidding me?” Gary watched Dr. Kaplan walk to the office door and open it. “You’re not kidding me?” Dr. Kaplan only stared at him.
“You have a choice. You just have to stop being afraid to make it.”
“You’re an asshole.” Gary rose from the couch and stormed over to the door. “No wonder you don’t have any patients.”
“Good luck with that dream. Maybe, one of these days, you’ll have the guts to go face whatever it is you are running from.”
The office door slammed closed behind Gary. His hands clenched into fists. He gnawed on his lip. Shaking his head, he moved away, but then he cursed under his breath. Throwing open the office door, he saw that damn look like the cat that ate the canary. “Alright. Alright. You win.”
“Tomorrow at one, Gary. Now, get out and close the door behind you.”
“Yeah. Nice seeing you again too.” Gary left, closing the door behind him. “And I’m the canary.”
The soft purr of his car softened Gary’s nerves as he drove away from the office and over to his father’s house. He didn’t pull into the driveway. Instead, he maneuvered the car alongside the curb and then stared at the front door. He sat there for awhile as his mind mulled over his meeting with the doctor. He should never have gone back. He shouldn’t be here now, but he was. “Damn it. You’re not going to win this time.”
Slowly, Gary slid the key out of the ignition. He looked down at a manila envelope stuffed into his cup holder. Opening it up, a silver key dropped into his hand. “Okay, dad. You left me the house, so I have to go in.” He remained in his car. “Or do I?” His hands tightened on the steering wheel, and he bit down on his lip, drawing blood. “I can’t do this. I’m sorry, but I can’t.” And the car revved up in response.
“So, you didn’t go into the house?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you do know, Gary.”
It was already the next day. The days just blurred into each other, and here he was back on the couch. “I was afraid.”
“Afraid of what was waiting for you inside?”
“There’s nothing inside that house now but dust.”
“So, what are you afraid of?”
Gary sat up on the couch and looked at Dr. Kaplan. He folded his hands together in his lap, gnawed on his lip, and then just shook his head. “I guess that I was afraid of the memories that I had of living in that house.” He sat back against the couch. “Want to hear something funny?”
“When I fell asleep at the motel last night, I didn’t have that dream.”
“Why’s that funny?”
“Because after I received the news of my father’s passing, the dream started and has not ceased until last night, so maybe, I am not meant to go into that house. It’s a sign.”
“A sign? You’re not the type that strikes me as believing in signs.”
“So, explain it to me, doc. Why did I not have the dream last night?”
“I honestly don’t know.” He placed his pen down against the yellow pad of paper. “Maybe, your mind needed time to process everything that took place yesterday. Maybe, your father’s funeral, seeing me again, and returning to that house after all this time rattled whatever it is hiding in your subconscious.”
“We’re back to that again.”
“Don’t be fooled, Gary. Whatever is trying to surface has not gone away. I bet you anything that you will have that dream again.”
“Not unless I don’t go back to that house.”
“Why did your girlfriend leave you?” Gary stared at him in surprise. “You said that the two of you were together for almost five years, so what happened?”
“Switching tracks, doc?”
“Was it you or her?”
Gary gnawed on his lip. His hands clenched together. His eyes moved over to the grandfather clock. He frowned as he realized that he still had ten minutes left with this man. “Do you really want to know, or do you just want to get further into my head?”
“I’m already in your head, Gary. You opened the door for me, and I’m sorry to say that you can’t close it.”
“Yes, I can.” He remained seated on the couch. “But you’re probably right. That dream will come back, and I can’t have it again. Not again. It’s too strong.”
“So, where does that leave us?”
“Oh, you’re loving this, aren’t you?” Doctor Kaplan shrugged in response. “So, let me read your mind. You want me to go into that house.” He nodded. “Today.” He nodded again. “And then I’ll see your sorry ass tomorrow.” His smile quickly vanished.
“Careful, Gary.” He glanced over at the grandfather clock. “Well, we’re out of time.” He rose from his chair. “I’ll see you tomorrow, and you can then fill me in on what happens later today.”
“It was me. She left because of me.” Gary stood up from the couch. “Until tomorrow, doc.”
“Until tomorrow, Gary.” He watched Gary walk out of his office. “Until tomorrow.”
A little while later, a soft click was heard as the key turned in the doorknob. The front door gently swung open. Dust rose up from the floor and greeted the one wavering in the doorway. A foot slowly rose in the air and stepped over the pile of mail that had gathered behind the door, which then slammed closed. Gary was home, but every bone in his body screamed to run, run as fast as he could back into his car and to the motel.
Walking into his father’s den, Gary remembered how his father always told him to stay out. This was his father’s personal space, and he didn’t want his son destroying anything. Gingerly, he pulled back the heavy, leather chair and sat down at the now empty desk. He slowly ruffled through the desk drawers, and in the last bottom drawer, he found a framed picture of his father, his mother, and himself at age seven standing together outside the house.
The warm smile on his mother’s face held Gary’s attention for a long moment. Then, he realized that his father was also smiling. Funny, he hardly remembered seeing such a smile on his father’s face. Was it because of what happened afterward that would make his father so sad, so stern? Would they still have been happy, if things were different? Shaking his head, Gary gently placed the picture back into the drawer. He started to close it but then noticed a small, black journal pushed toward the back. It was his father’s journal.
Gary wanted to read it. He always wanted to get into his father’s head. They never understood each other. They were too busy arguing or avoiding each other. This was his opportunity to know what his father thought of him, but what did it matter now? His father was gone, and he couldn’t say good-bye or say, “I’m sorry.” Gary slammed the drawer shut instead.
It was a long day, and he knew that he was in for a long night. There was a black, leather couch in the corner of his father’s den. Without thinking about it, he rose from the desk and lied down on the couch. He crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. He could almost smell his father’s cologne, a trace of his cigars, and as he fell into his father’s ghostly embrace, the dream pulled him in.
A musical jingle echoed throughout the den. Gary’s eyes snapped open. He sat up, shaking off the dream. He reached into his pocket and withdrew his cell phone that continued to jingle, and he raised it up to his ear. “Hello?” He swallowed hard. “Heather? No. No, I’m just surprised that you called. I mean that I’m happy that you called. No. You didn’t catch me at a bad time. I’m fine.” He listened to her voice, missing her deeply. “The funeral was fine. I didn’t recognize half the people there, but it was a large turnout. I actually went to see an old friend afterward. No. A guy. Someone that owes me, but that’s another story. I wish you were here too.” He closed his eyes as she spoke to him, imaging her sitting right next to him instead of being so far away. “No. I won’t be home for another week or so. I have to go through my father’s house and get it ready to be sold. No. I don’t want the house or its memories. Because I don’t!” He caught himself, but it was too late. “I’m sorry. I know that I have to work on being more open with you. I just can’t right now. No. That’s not true. You just pick the wrong time, so you’re just going to go? That’s it? End of conversation? You’re just going to go…” The phone call ended. “And she went.”
Later on, Gary found himself back at the motel. He ordered in Chinese food. It wasn’t great, but it filled him up. There was nothing on television, so he stretched out on the bed with his father’s journal beside him. He wasn’t going to take it initially, but then he changed his mind. He wanted to know more about him, and he did not want to sleep.
“I tried talking to him today. I tried to talk to him about her. He wouldn’t listen. Before I knew it, we were arguing. He’s so like her, and I know he’s hurting. So, why can’t he let me in? Why must we fight like this? He’s not the only one hurting here. I am too, and I need him now more than ever. And he needs me. He just won’t let me in.”
Gary slammed the journal closed. He tossed it onto the table nearby. He wiped some tears away, cursing at himself for crying. Then, he turned on the television set and tolerated the Reality TV crap that played out before him. He would rather that than read anymore of his father’s journal, and time slipped away. And he slowly fell back into the dream.
The crimson carpet hugged Gary’s feet. With every step, he slowly made his way up the staircase and toward its center. The window rose up into view with its thunder and lightning, and he shuddered. The torch was forced into his hand, and his feet turned left, pulling him into darkness. He struggled to move back, but he stumbled forward. As he moved forward, his feet vanished beneath him. Then, his hands, and his body followed. He screamed before fading away.
“Heather called me yesterday.”
“And she missed me. She wanted to know how I was doing.”
“Did you two fight?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I was just asking, but guessing from your reaction, I would say that you did. What was the fight about?”
“It was about me not being open with her. She’s very emotional, and I’m not.”
“If you’re not going to be open with her, Gary, then you should let her go.”
“And here I thought that you were a shrink and not a love doctor.”
“I’ve been married a few times, so I know what I’m talking about.”
“Are you still married?”
“No. So, how did your conversation end with Heather?”
“She hung up on me.” Gary noticed a small smile on the doctor’s face. “Let’s talk about the dream. You were right. It came back last night.”
“The dream was the same as always.”
“Okay. Can I make a suggestion, one to think over tonight, and then you could give me an answer tomorrow?”
“It depends on the suggestion, doc.”
“Let me use hypnosis on you.” Gary jumped off the couch and glared at him. “Only to help you face whatever it is that is screaming for your attention.” Gary was shocked. “If there are any problems, I’ll pull you right out of it.”
“No! You did that shit to me once, remember? The next thing that I know is you are talking my father into putting me into a mental institute because I was emotionally damaged, remember? There is no way in hell that I would ever let you use hypnosis on me again. EVER!”
“Then, I can’t help you, Gary. I enjoy talking to you, but your problem is buried deep in your mind. The only way for me to get at it is if you let me put you under.”
“You can go to hell, doc. We’re done.” Gary now stood beside the office door.
“And the dream, Gary? Will you cause a car accident just to slam your head again into the driver-side window?” Gary glared at him. “There’s no other way but through me.” Dr. Kaplan now stood only a few inches from him. “You have to let me in, Gary.”
Gary punched him in the stomach. He watched the doctor fall to the ground. He then stared down at his clenched hands. Unclenching his hands, he tried to help the doctor up from the floor.
“Get away from me!” Dr. Kaplan stood up from the floor. His face twisted into a rage. “Get out of my office!”
“I don’t care. Get out!” He pointed to the door. “The next time I EVER want to see you again in this office is if you take me up on my suggestion. Now, leave!” He held his stomach as Gary left the office. “You probably won’t be back anyway,” and the door slammed closed.
“I’m surprised that you called, Gary. I mean it hasn’t even been more than a few days since your father’s funeral. Are you sure that you want to go ahead with this?”
“I’m sure. How soon can you show the house?”
Gary was back inside his father’s den. He lied against the couch, staring up at the ceiling. He didn’t want to call the real estate agent, but he couldn’t do this anymore. He had to leave. He had to close the door on his past and hopefully that dream forever, but what if he couldn’t? What if Gary still needed him?
“Before I show the house, is there anything that you want from it?”
“No. How soon can you show the house?”
“I could do it first thing on Monday. I mean that it’s almost the weekend, Gary. I don’t know if I could get anyone before Monday.”
“Could you try?”
“I could try. Why are you so anxious to sell the house? Aren’t you happy to be home?”
“This isn’t my home, and I would like to leave here as soon as possible.”
“Gary, your father and I have… Was very close these last few years. I would almost like to think of you as a son, despite not really meeting you until now, but I’m here for you, if you want to talk.”
“Are you? Even at the funeral, you seemed distant. How about I come over tonight and cook you dinner? Would you like that?”
“You don’t have do that for me. I appreciate it, though.”
“Are you sure, Gary? I would like to.”
Gary closed his eyes and sighed. He just wanted this over with. He wanted to go home. He wanted to try to reach out to Heather to see if they could still work out their issues. Being here was killing him, and he needed to leave. “How about a rain check?”
“Sure. Look, I’ll see what I can do. Maybe, there is one couple that I could bring over tomorrow.”
“That would be great. Thank you.”
“Anytime, Gary. You know that, and I’ll give you a call early tomorrow morning.”
“Night, Gary.” The call was disconnected.
Holding the cell phone against his chest, Gary shook his head. “Damn it!” He stood up from the couch. “Just take one look, Gary. Take one last look, and then leave. Go back to the motel, and then go home tomorrow. We’re done here. We’re done.”
The red-carpeted staircase led Gary up to his bedroom. He stood outside its door, but he didn’t go in. There was nothing left in there for him. He turned right and walked through the darkness and down to his parents’ bedroom. He touched the doorknob but then froze. “Go in,” he commanded himself. “Just go in.”
The door slowly swung open. A large, king-sized bed met his gaze. It was made up of brown and green sheets, pillowcases, and a heavy cover. A leather chair stood nearby with his father’s coat hanging over it. Pictures of Gary and his parents decorated the walls, but Gary refused to look at them. He just stared at the television set that rested on its small, black table, and then he slowly retreated out of the room and closed the door behind him.
A moment later, Gary threw open the door. He marched over to the leather chair. He had seen something, something that he nearly missed. It was a large, white envelope sticking up out of the coat, and the envelope had his name on it. Without hesitation, he tore it open, and a single sheet of paper fell into his hands.
“Dear Gary,” the letter began, and Gary fell into the chair. “It took you long enough to find this, but I knew you would. I don’t blame you for hating me. I’m not angry with you, even if you don’t take the house or what’s inside it. Just promise me one thing. Keep my journal. I know you found it, and I want you to have it.” Tears slid down Gary’s face. “As for the ghosts, my dear son, I’m so sorry that I did not believe you. In my last days with this cancer, I realized that you were right, and Dr. Kaplan was wrong. Maybe, now, you can finally stop running from them. It’s time to start living your life. I’m proud of you. Love, your father.”
“Gary?” Dr. Kaplan opened the front door. He stepped forward but then stepped back. “Are you going to hit me again?” Gary shook his head. “Good. What do you want, and how did you know where I lived?”
“My dad had your address in his journal.”
“Dad? You just called your father, Dad?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Come inside, Gary.” He led Gary into the house and toward the den. Someone was in the kitchen, cooking something that smelled amazing, but then the doctor slid the door to his den shut. “Now, what is this about?” Gary handed him the letter. “I see,” he said as he stepped closer to the fire burning in the fireplace. “You know this doesn’t change anything.” He glanced over at Gary. “I still want to hypnotize you.”
“Then, let’s do it.” Dr. Kaplan was shocked. “Right now, doc. Right here. What do you say?”
“Can’t wait until tomorrow?” Gary shook his head. “Well…” He glanced at his watch. “Dinner won’t be ready anytime soon, so get comfortable.” He gestured toward the couch nearby. “Just no shoes.” Gary kicked off his shoes. “I do have to ask this, Gary. Are you doing this because of your father’s letter?”
“Yes.” Gary lied down on the couch. “I’m trusting you here, doc.”
“I know. You’re taking a very big step, and I’m proud of you. Are you ready?” Gary nodded. “Then, let’s begin.”
The red-carpeted stairs kissed Gary’s feet as he made his way up the staircase and toward its center. The glass window rose into view with its thunder and lightning, but he refused to shake at the storm stirring outside. The torch was placed in his hand. At the doctor’s command, he finally turned around to see who it was that was always behind him. It was his father, who then disappeared from his sight.
Gary’s feet turned left, pulling him into darkness. He struggled to move back, but he stumbled forward. As he moved forward, his feet vanished beneath him. Then, his hands, and his body followed. He screamed as he faded away.
“I’m here, Gary. Relax. Breathe.”
“I can’t do it, doc. Wake me up. Wake me up!”
“You’re not disappearing, Gary. You’re still here. Look. Look!”
Gary opened his eyes. The darkness clung to his skin, but he was still here. He had not faded away, and then he noticed a dim light up ahead. “I see something,” he said, and he stumbled forward.
“What do you see? Gary, what do you see,” but Gary did not answer him.
Someone appeared before him. It was Gary at seven-years-old. They were standing inches apart and outside their parents’ bedroom. The boy peered inside, into the darkness, looking for someone, but Gary only stared at him. Then, someone else stepped into view. It was Gary’s mother.
“You should be asleep, Gary.”
“I was worried about you, Mom. Why’d the doctor tell Dad that it was only a matter of time? What was he talking about?”
“Do not worry about it, Gary. It’s okay.” She picked the boy up into her arms. “It’s okay,” she whispered into his ear. “I love you, and I always will.” She hugged him tighter. “Now, go to bed, and sleep the sweetest dreams.” She kissed him on the cheek and then lowered him to the ground. “Go to sleep,” and she stepped back, disappearing into darkness. A moment later, she was gone.
“I saw my mother die.” Gary woke up. “I was only a child when it happened, so I didn’t understand. But now I do.”
“You made yourself forget. That dream didn’t. I told you, Gary. Your subconscious was trying to tell you something.”
“I know that now.” Gary sat up on the couch and put on his shoes.
“I was wrong.” Gary froze with one shoe still in his hand. “I was wrong, Gary.”
“Your debt’s paid, doc.” He rose up from the couch and walked over to the door. “We’re done.”
“Gary.” He rose from his seat and handed Gary his father’s letter. “Take care.”
“You too, Kaplan,” and he left the den.
“Do they want the house?”
It was now the next day. The real estate woman had shown the couple the house. As they toured through it, Gary packed up his car with a few things from inside. “Do they want the house?” He slammed the trunk closed.
“Yes,” the real estate woman said.
“Good. Then, let’s sign whatever paperwork I need to. I have a flight to catch.”
“Okay. Let’s go to my office then.” She turned toward the couple and gave them a thumbs up.
“Sounds like a plan.” His cell phone jingled. “Excuse me.”
“Coming home soon?”
“Heather?” He smiled to himself. “I thought you left.”
“Me neither. How about dinner tomorrow night? We could talk.”
“Yeah, about my parents.”
“I would like that, Gary.”
“Me too. I’ll call you after my flight lands.”
Gary turned toward his house. He stared at it for a long time. “Good-bye,” he whispered. “Good-bye.”
Melissa R. Mendelson graduated college with both an AA in Liberal Arts and BA in Mass Communication: Critical Analysis. She was a Long Island news reporter from 2002 to 2004 and later went to work for the State of New York. She has written a variety of writing that continuously is published by the Antarctica Journal News, and she recently finished writing her first Horror/Sci-Fi novel, Lizardian, which can temporarily be found as an E-book on Amazon Kindle.