“It doesn’t matter now.” Foci leaned forward, xyr pink glasses slipping a millimeter down xyr nose. “Your past is in the past.”
The client sighed and smiled downward, shaking his head slightly. “Just like that? A new life?”
“All yours,” xe smiled and slid the document toward him.
He glanced once more at xem before tracing his finger along the dotted line.
“Two cases done already?” Eglin, xyr manager, said when xe dropped the signed paper at eir desk.
“That last one was a breeze.” Xe opened xyr hand for xyr next assignment.
Eglin examined the new signature and eir eyes widened. “He just took his own life—you convinced him to start a new one in less than an hour?”
Foci opened and closed xyr hand. “I can get a third in this morning if you have another you think I can handle.”
“Wow,” e slipped eir fingers over a stack of papers and lifted the first from the pile as if e had been waiting for xem to ask. “But you have to be careful about this one; two counselors from other branches have already failed them. They might need a few days, so don’t chug through your usual routine, okay?”
Foci clamped xyr hand on the document and walked toward xyr office, granting em a brief wave in place of a thanks.
Though Foci had no doubts in xyr mind, xe remembered how difficult xyr first time in the counseling firm had been. Xe had passed on too soon in what people from xyr last life’s hometown referred to as a tragedy. Foci shook off the memory; it was years ago, and all stories eventually fade from a soul’s reality.
After the two weeks Foci spent bouncing off six counselors, xe finally hit a wall and cracked open to expose a runny yolk of trauma. Xe took an offer to train as a counselor instead of claiming a new life. In these glass walls that looked into ocean, xe took on every difficult case until xe was known for handling tough souls, talking off their rough edges, and easing them into their next lives.
Foci heard xyr office door click shut as xe sat down and gazed into the blue water around xem. Their next client would arrive at any moment. How tough could they be? Xe glanced at the document and read the name: Perigee (they/them/their).
The door shut suddenly, and Foci adjusted xyr glasses and looked up at the soul who was draped in black smoke that billowed from seven feet off the floor. “Draped” was the wrong word; they were smoke. Since a soul could choose their visual manifestation in liminal spaces like the counseling firm, many of Foci’s clients appeared as some reflection of how they saw themselves. One client who had issues feeling out-of-place presented as an elephant who barely fit in the room. This new client’s smoky appearance was creative, and Foci wondered if Perigee had only recently accomplished the effect; they had been at the firm for at least two days already.
“Welcome, Perigee, please take a seat.”
The smoke column made no move.
“If you prefer to stand, I should tell you that this meeting might be long, so if at any point you feel inclined to sit, you are welcome to the chair across from me.”
Still no movement except for their perpetual smoke curls.
“I’m told you’re different.” Xe folded xyr hands on the desk. “I want to make clear that I have dealt with hundreds of so-called difficult cases, so have no fear in confiding in me; there’s nothing I haven’t seen.”
At these last words, Foci thought xe saw the top of the smoke column—where a head might be—tilt upward.
The next three hours passed with no words nor gestures from Perigee and only two prompts from Foci who was quickly learning how tired xe could become of xyr own voice. The prompts were vague and open-ended; Perigee had probably heard enough pointed questions from other counselors. By the end of the workday, xe resolved to be patient with this client. After all, they had infinite time. Xe shook xyr head when Eglin asked if xe wanted to pass Perigee on to a different counselor, answering none of eir questions about them.
The second day passed with no words from Perigee, and though Foci had never spent more than a day on any client, xe was certain xe could convince this one to pass into their next life. On the third day, Foci decided to transition away from long silences.
“So far it appears you are uninterested in speaking, so how about I tell you a story? This way you won’t need to speak much. I only need you to tell me what sort of story you want me to tell.” Xe leaned forward only with xyr head, wanting to maintain an appearance of leisure.
The column of smoke scoffed, releasing a puff of black, which Foci viewed as progress. Perigee was silent after, and Foci waited in that silence for xyr next idea. Xe turned toward the see-through wall, the corners of xyr lips falling.
A minute of silence passed before Foci was startled to hear Perigee’s soft but unimpressed voice for the first time: “The other counselors tried the story thing too.”
Foci kept xyr eyes on the ocean, afraid xyr gaze might send Perigee back into silence. “You weren’t interested in stories?”
“I had already heard them ramble on for hours by the time they offered.”
Foci tried to keep the eagerness out of xyr tone, “So, what would you like to hear about?”
“It’s a technique, right? A tactic to make me think or feel some way?”
“More or less,” xe turned to face them. “But since you’re talking now, why don’t you tell me a story instead? Or tell me anything you like.”
The smoke column had shrunken a foot, and the billowing had ceased, so now the smoke hung like thick mist. “Are these real windows? Are we really in the middle of the ocean, underwater?”
“No,” xe spoke slowly but without the intention to sift details. “We’re in a space that doesn’t exist in the same space as earth, so these blue waters aren’t part of any ocean you knew in your last life.”
“But they’re not really there at all, right?” They didn’t wait for xyr answer. “I know because I punched through a wall on my first day here, and the glass shattered, but no water came through.”
Foci smiled. “It’s a sort of mirage—a moving picture meant to be calming.” On this last word, xe raised an eyebrow briefly.
The two of them talked for the last hour about the false space, whale sightings, and why most souls feel compelled to move on from this liminal counseling firm.
The next day, Perigee was the first to speak, no prompt necessary: “If we are in a space that is not a space but just a transition, then how is today not yesterday? What’s the point of time in an invented place?”
“Same reason there’s an ocean around us: it feels right. You probably heard on earth that the body needs rest, well, so does the soul, so there’s a time here for rest.”
“What about you? Why haven’t you moved on from this ‘liminal space’?”
Foci laughed once, “Such a personal question.”
“Right! as if your whole purpose isn’t to learn all the most personal details about my life and use them to shove me into some other life.” Perigee’s smoke pushed out of their column formation into what could have been two arms if they weren’t comprised of black vapor.
“I stayed here because I had a hard time with many counselors, and I wanted other souls to have an easier time.”
Perigee was silent for a moment, and then Foci watched as they lowered into the seat across from xem. Xe was surprised at how normal a seated mist looked, as if clouds were commonly seen sitting. Realizing xe was staring, xe tried to think of something else to say but instead felt the silence was more comfortable than polite but meaningless words.
“Could I stay here too?” Perigee asked.
“You could, but you have to open up first, to face whatever you’re holding on to from your past.”
“Hm,” they sunk an inch in their chair.
At the end of the day, Eglin stopped xem in the hall before xe left.
E whispered hurriedly to xem, “Foci, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but my supervisor says that Perigee is going to change counselors at the end of the week if they don’t sign something before then.”
“The end of the week? That’s in three days.” Xe titled xyr head. “They never change a client’s counselor without the current counselor initiating the change.”
“I don’t know what, but something is different this time.” E glanced around even though there was no one in the hall. “Don’t tell anyone I told you; rule changes like this one are usually for everyone’s benefit.”
Xe nodded but left work with gears turning over how to make Perigee move forward in the following days. Pushing the process would likely cause them to close themself to Foci, but xe wasn’t ready to give up on this client and wouldn’t be ready by the end of the week. Xe had never failed a client before, had never asked to have someone assigned to a different counselor. What was different about Perigee?
The next day Perigee arrived looking nearly human in shape, each finger made of mist.
“Perigee,” Foci began. “Tell me what plagues you about your past life.”
Perigee didn’t flinch or stand from their chair. They exhaled softly and began their story, selecting each word slowly: “Where I grew up, no one expected me to live very long. I was raised in bad conditions. My parents—”
Perigee froze and let the silence lengthen. Foci could see in their misty face that they weren’t ready to speak of those details.
“You don’t have to put it into words,” xe assured.
Perigee shook their head. “ I want you to know. I—”
They stopped again, and xe let the silence distance them from their words.
“When I was twelve, I ran away after my father killed my older brother. He was never found guilty, and when I left, no one bothered to look for me. One night in August I froze to death.”
Foci remained quiet for a moment out of respect. “So that’s how you died, but that’s not what’s keeping you here.”
Perigee’s head moved suddenly upward to face xem. “How do you know? Wouldn’t it make sense that my brother’s death kept me here?”
Foci knew xe was risking them completely shutting down the conversation, but xe moved forward anyway, sensing they couldn’t lie now that they had begun to open up, “Do you want to see him again?”
“No,” Perigee responded so quickly that they looked startled.
“Do you want revenge?”
“Do you feel responsible for your brother’s death?”
“No.” Astonishment swept over their foggy features.
“That’s all as I suspected.” Xe resisted the temptation to explain xyr guesses.
“Well, don’t you just know everything.”
Foci almost fell quiet, almost let Perigee’s sarcasm be the last word. When xe began again, xyr voice was gentler, “Tell me about your nightmares. What do you think about when you can’t avoid your feelings?”
Perigee looked down at their hands in their lap. “When I was much younger, I punched down when things were really bad at home.”
Suddenly Foci and Perigee were no longer sitting in the office surrounded by blue water. They were on a gravel road with yellow stalks on either side. Though Foci could hear the tones of Perigee’s voice, xe couldn't discern clear words. In place of their narration were two children—maybe seven or eight years old—speaking in semi-shouts. One of them wore plastic glasses, and the other was slightly taller. The taller one pushed the one with glasses into the ditch between the road and the field. They lost their balance and fell hard on their head. The taller child laughed, but after a moment they stopped and developed a look of concern that devolved into terror when the small body remained still.
Without warning, they were back in the office, sitting as before as if nothing had happened, Perigee still speaking.
“I ran for help and said xe had fallen, so naturally no one suspected it was my fault.” They looked up suddenly, their eyes narrowing slightly. “Why did I say ‘xe’ right there? Xe wouldn’t have gone by xe at that time.”
Foci stood abruptly. “Excuse me.”
Xe scrambled out of the office, leaving Perigee to ponder pronouns: “In fact, I don’t know why I would think xe uses xe now, wherever xe is…”
Foci half-sprinted to Eglin’s desk. “I know why they’re only giving me until the end of the week with Perigee—actually, they shouldn’t have assigned them to me at all.”
“Whoa, slow down.” E put down the document e was scanning when xe began pacing in front of em. “What do you mean?”
Foci stopped moving long enough to look Eglin in the eye. “We knew each other in life.”
“Oh no,” eir eyes widened.
Xe resumed pacing. “You know that whole memory teleportation thing that only happens when two souls share a memory?”
“Foci, this is bad—”
“I know, but I can convince them to sign a contract now that I know what’s keeping them here.”
“No, listen to me, I’m your manager; it’s my responsibility to report this sort of thing. As soon as my supervisor knows, your client will be moved.”
“Right, right, but why did management assign them to me at all?”
Eglin looked at the ceiling for a second and bit eir lip before saying, “Foci, there’s something I haven’t told you.”
Xe stopped pacing again and looked into eir face.
“I mean, I’m not supposed to tell you, but now it seems relevant that you know.” E met xyr eyes. “Management has noticed how well you’ve been doing, and they have an order to their ranking system that keeps newer counselors from climbing the ranks too quickly, so they’ve been assigning you some of their most difficult cases to slow your growth and keep the order predictable.”
Foci’s back straightened. “If I succeed with this assignment, their gamble will have backfired.”
“Yes,” Eglin said. “And they set you up to fail by assigning you a soul you cannot help.”
“Can’t help?” Xe grinned. “Just watch.”
“You don’t even have until the end of the day,” e called as xe walked toward xyr office. “I have to report this!”
“I don’t need until the end of the day!” xe called back.
Foci sat down loudly, palms on xyr desk, shoulders jutting up, “Perigee,” and in xyr excitement, xe forgot to face the difficulty of the same past that had once kept xem talking to counselors for weeks. Xyr face fell, and xe froze, xyr eyes sinking into dimness.
“We must have known all along.” Perigee was becoming a darker and thicker vapor again. “Some part of us separate from thoughts recognized each other.”
“Yes,” Foci regained a relaxed posture. “It’s not unheard of for the soul to know something before the mind.”
“You must hate me.” Perigee shook the top of their seated smoke column. “But somehow I know you don’t.”
“I can’t hold hate for you the way you might expect me to.” Xe looked toward the ocean. “Even when I first arrived here, I only despised myself, thinking I deserved no life.”
“No, no.” They darkened into a swarm of black. “I would never want you to—can’t you see it’s my fault? It’s all my fault.”
“No, Perigee,” Foci suddenly shook off xyr own memories and grasped determination. “You have repented enough for your mistake.”
Perigee lifted slightly, but Foci was afraid xyr words weren’t enough to convince them they deserved life.
“You have endured some of the worst parts of life at no fault of your own, and you have emerged and faced your worst fears.” Foci gestured to xemself. “You are stronger than any soul I have counseled, and you would do yourself a disservice to not claim your next life.”
As Perigee’s smoke parted, xyr eyes widened to see a face unrecognizable from the child xe once knew, and yet they were familiar.
“How do you know my next life won’t be as painful as the last?”
“There are no guarantees.” By habit, Foci slid Perigee their document.
As they reached for it, the door opened and banged against the wall, startling both counselor and client.
Two figures entered and one shouted, “This client is to be reassigned immediately.”
The other figure shuffled to one side. “Sorry for the sudden entrance, but this particular case must be handled now.”
Behind them, Eglin mouthed, “Sorry.”
“Wait,” Perigee stood up and faced their palms outward.
“There’s no time for protest,” the first figure shouted. “Follow me.”
Perigee snatched their document from the desk and traced their finger over the dotted line. The figures stopped, stunned, and watched as Perigee glowed for a moment and disappeared. Before they were gone, they turned to Foci, and xe was certain xe saw them mouth, “Thank you.” The signed document fluttered to the floor.
“Well,” the second figure mumbled and then cleared their throat. “Great job, you’re clearly a top counselor. I suppose there is no need for the reassignment now.”
As they lowered their heads and turned to leave, Foci stopped them. “Actually, could you find me a contract?”
“Of course. Whose?”
“Mine,” xe removed xyr glasses and exhaled. “It’s time I moved on to my next life.”