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Jan 22, 2021

Contemporary Suspense


Max was only three weeks into his new job at Caresoul, but had already seen and heard enough to know he did not want to stay. The irony that working for an organisation dedicated to helping people manage their mental health was causing such a detrimental effect to his own was not lost on him.


“Goodbye Max! Have a careful evening!”


Max jumped in his seat and quickly tried to convert the motion to an enthusiastic farewell salute to Alyssa, who flashed him a toothpaste ad smile while securing her bike helmet. Of all the staff he had been introduced to (forgetting the names of immediately) she seemed like the most real. He dubbed them the Lost Souls.


He watched Alyssa’s figure shrinking as she paced quickly down the corridor, gradually disappearing into the darkness where most of the building’s lights had already been turned off. Alyssa had been the only one to giggle at the dumb jokes he had made in his first few days, his usual self-deprecating puns Max liked to make to ingratiate himself to new colleagues. The rest seemed mildly confused, as though he were wildly deviating from Act 1 Scene 1 of their New Team Player script.


He sighed and turned back to his computer screen, open to page 210 of a document called Mental Health Legislation in Practice, section 27 point XXIV, ‘Removal of mentally disordered persons without a warrant.’ He could envisage no time in his role (team administrator) where he would ever need to use it, but he had to follow the instructions given by his supervisor, who would be testing him on it the next morning. Everyone had seemed very impressed with Max voluntarily staying late several days per week, but the truth was the documents he was forced to read before he could get stuck into doing what he actually applied to do, helping people, were boring as shit and thick in legal jargon, taking him an average of five re-reads before anything sunk in.


Reading, tests, feedback. Reading, tests, feedback. That was all it had been for three weeks, save for the half hour per day he got to sit shadowing a Lost Soul while they processed the referrals. Being a speed reader, Max had already got a feel for the types of personalities reaching out to Caresoul, sitting there silently praying Caresoul’s ‘interventions’ wouldn’t fuck them up even further.


The window beside him rattled with the wind. The morning’s light drizzle had evolved over eight hours to sleet, then onwards to a freak howling blizzard. Max was in no rush to be outside in it, walking the twenty minutes it took to get back to his flat. A distance that had seemed like a wonderful perk at first, before he started wanting to put oceans between home and work.


He could only see the street lamp directly outside the window. The usual landscape he snuck looks at while being lectured by one of the Lost Souls on how to assign priority to GP referrals landing in the team inbox, wishing he was out there doing literally anything else, was just swirling dark grey fuzz. His reflection stood out sharply, however. He regarded himself grimly.


“How did you end up here?” he asked it. The reflection shook his head sadly.


Max rubbed his face, feeling emerging stubble exfoliating his palms.


“Decaf. Let’s go get some,” he ordered himself, picking up a mug with SELF-LOVE emblazoned on it in the company’s rainbow colours. Walking along the corridor to the kitchen, he snickered as it struck him if the psychiatric workers only knew how much he spoke to himself he’d probably find himself overseeing a referral with his name on it popping up on a screen.


Waiting for the kettle to boil, Max thrust his chilly hands in the pockets of his jeans (another benefit that had initially interested him – no dress code) and wandered into the adjoining break area. ‘Soothe Spots’ the Lost Soul assigned to giving him the tour on his first day had called them, with Max nodding in what he hoped looked like appreciation while he suppressed the rising vomit.


He picked up one of the balls off the pool table, thumbing off a thin layer of dust. His interviewers had been so proud to list all the elements that brought relief to what could be a demanding and distressing job. Yet in reality, they were hardly used. Max felt like he had to raise his hand even if he just wanted to use the toilet. The sheep in headsets remained fixed to their desks all day, except for the stampede to the nearby express store for a snack come the thirty minute lunch break. Max had wasted the first ten minutes of his early ones trying to navigate his way out of the building and swiftly learned to bring his own food in. He’d had to duck out of the local store’s long queues a couple of times, empty-handed, so he could be back at his desk on time. Lateness and early arrivals were recorded on a whiteboard with J and L by people’s names. 


The kettle boiled, bringing Max away from reliving the lunchtime trauma. Or ‘obsessive rumination’, as it would be called in mental healthcare lingo.


Cradling the mug in both hands to warm them, Max began the journey back to his desk like a man going to the gallows. His walked slowed to a crawl as he passed the mysterious room known as the Peace Pod. An invention of the wizened hippie couple Caresoul consulted, as had been explained to him by Josh or Justin. Nora and Frederick Scheller had dedicated their lives, as told to Max in hushed reverent tones, to travelling the world and learning the different methods employed by various cultures to calm troubled minds. Returning from a Scandinavian trip, they ordered one of the rarely used Soothe Spots be converted to a room painted with mountain scenes, carpeted with artificial turf, decorated with bean bags and musical instruments on which patients (‘service users’, Max quietly corrected) could pluck their problems away. Optional white noise at the touch of a button. Foam cushions in cloud shapes for users to scream into or strike the walls with. Only trained PWPs (Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners – one of about a million abbreviations Max had come across so far) and their damaged clients were allowed in. And the Schellers, on the rare occasions they weren’t globe-trotting. The juju of the Peace Pod had to be preserved.


The blades of fake grass looked eerie to Max, highlighted from the glow coming from an office at the back of the Peace Pod he hadn’t noticed before. Someone must have left a light on. Rather shameful, he thought, for a company so quick to boast about their green credentials.


Max started turning away. There were many sections of the Mental Health Legislation module still to be ticked off. Annoyingly, he found himself twisting to face the Peace Pod again. It was the light. It was begging him to come in and switch it off.


He tried the door. Unlocked. Whoever had been in there last had probably been in a rush to get home when they noticed the blizzard beginning.


“Commander Max Telford is entering the Peace Pod,” Max informed the empty room. He gingerly stepped on the fake grass, enjoying its soft bounce, before cursing as he tripped on a discarded harmonica, spilling some of his drink. “Mayday, mayday, light activation required.” He fumbled around for the switch, located it (a crocheted pull string) and the Peace Pod was thrown into technicolour. Max surveyed the clashing colours, the assortment of furniture, and wondered how the room didn’t cause more panic attacks than it cured.


Remembering why he’d come in, Max headed towards the back office. Under the glowing frosted panel he saw engraved on a nameplate:


PRIVATE

Frederick and Nora Scheller


Max may have spent the last few weeks being drilled in matters of confidentiality and data protection but a waste of electricity was his biggest bugbear. He remembered how his parents would turn everything off and unplug items from the walls before going up to bed at night, commenting on the money they were saving by doing so. Besides, Max figured, if somehow he got caught, he could spin it as having done a good deed so he would have something to contribute to the Monday team ‘huddle’.


“Not that you guys need to save any more money,” Max muttered. He suspected a good chunk of the donations Caresoul received went into fancy murals, team building away days and stocking the kitchen with top end appliances.


Or they could just tell him he had committed a punishable breach and he would not be passing his probation period. News he would welcome with open arms. They liked to be touchy-feely with each other. He’d probably get a hug back.


He entered the hippy duo’s office, and felt like he’d been beaten around the head with a sack of incense sticks. The walls were covered in framed photos of the crinkle-eyed couple with their long white braids that looked like they had been cut from the same wig. Here they were holding hands over a babbling brook. Over there, they were sitting in a circle with a bunch of other cross legged people in a yurt. There they are at a book signing, holding copies of their co-authored book, Existence, Not Resistance.


There they are on the desktop background of a computer they have left unlocked. Max sighed. First the lamp, now the PC.


He bent to push the button on the monitor, but saw a name on a folder which caught his eye: ‘First Draft New Book’.


He knew he shouldn’t click on it. But he also knew he’d be quitting after his first paycheque and going back to temping at companies where they didn’t time toilet breaks and had vending machines instead of bowls of sunflower seeds and dried fruit lying about. Where he could ask a co-worker how they were doing that day without fear of being blackmarked in a personal development portfolio for timewasting.


It was also the perfect evening to stay in and read.


Max lowered himself onto a yoga ball trying to pass itself off as a desk chair. He double clicked the icon, the resulting sound in the office’s quiet reminding him of the expression “shots fired”, and started to scroll through the 250 page document.


Chapters had names – patient names? Surely these ought to have been changed to protect identities? – and accompanying illnesses.


Nico – manic depressive

Ant – narcissistic personality disorder

Trudy – PTSD

Rajeev – trichotillomania


As he Max skimmed through the case studies, certain words and phrases began to jump out at him. Specifically ‘vibrator’ and ‘clitoral stimulator’ when reading about Letitia, who had a problem with hoarding. He recognised the back story from the referral letter in her name he’d seen in his first week that had stuck in his brain because he hadn’t realised until that point what a serious problem hoarding could be. He felt for this woman who was living in a house share, so was already limited on space for all the junk she was compelled to collect. Only the Schellers had replaced the clothes and magazines with a vast array of sex toys.


“What the…?” Max murmured.


The next chapter he paused on was Noel’s, labelled Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He choked the chicken so often he ended up beheading it.


“WHAT.”


The volume of Max’s incredulity rose with each sordid story. There was the schizophrenic who couldn’t decide whether to be a sub or a dom. There was an anorexic into food play.


It dawned on Max that the Schellers were branching out. Bestselling self-help book? Check. Erotica fiction ripped off from patient’s fears and addictions? Check.


Max had almost reached the end of the document when the next and newest chapter title extinguished his monosyllabic outbursts.


Max – dissociation disorder


Unaware he was doing so, he protectively crossed his legs.


It began:


Max was only three weeks into his new job at Caresoul, but had already seen and heard enough to know he did not want to stay…

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9 comments

Tom .
15:06 Jan 26, 2021

I loved the meta ending. This is a great story. In my opinion if you very subtly foreshadow that am I a character in a story ending with little nods earlier it would really stand apart. This is where Karen reads TOM comment and says to herself, I did do that is he an idiot and missed them. Good Job

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Karen Mcdermott
09:47 Jan 30, 2021

Hah! Good advice, thanks Tom. I must admit the idea didn't strike me until I was writing the ending and by that time I was conscious of the deadline approaching and bed calling me. In future though I'll try to work some hints in throughout a tale. Cheers for reading!

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Heather Mcquaid
17:17 Jan 22, 2021

Hi Karen, I liked the story--you did a good job describing the 'new-agey' feel of the organisation and people. The ending was a bit cryptic...I think I got it eventually--Max is the author of the book/article? He's reading something he wrote, but doesn't remember because he has dissociation disorder, is that right? If so, I'm not completely sure that works, and it raises more questions, like did he imagine the photos of the Schellers? The common theme in most of my critiques is trying to make sense of the story--and sometimes stories aren...

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Karen Mcdermott
09:45 Jan 30, 2021

Hi Heather, Thanks for the feedback :) I was able to make a few tweaks before it was approved. Thought I'd wait to see what any others made of the ending before I replied. My honest excuse was I'd just finished reading a book of short stories which were all steeped in magic realism, so I thought I could just end the story when I got bored of writing it and pass anything mysterious off as 'magic realism'. I know, I'm terrible and I apologise, haha. And I also thought "hey, I'll let people make what they want to out of this". This is a story...

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Heather Mcquaid
14:43 Jan 30, 2021

Oh no worries, my brain tries to make sense of stuff, but sometimes things aren't meant to be rational, which is fine. 😂

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Sam Ackman
21:28 Jan 28, 2021

Great story! I liked the character and the work feel environment. Once you brought up the room it was a really easy read. If it or something else is eluded to a bit earlier it could give a bit of a hook earlier on. Loved the ending! Expecting him to get caught it was a nice surprise to see it go a different way.

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Karen Mcdermott
09:49 Jan 30, 2021

Hi Sam, thanks for reading! Good call about mentioning the mysterious room earlier on. I'll try to work in a hook earlier next time I try to write something like this :)

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Sebastian Ehlke
19:41 Jan 27, 2021

This is a great story. Throughout it, Max seemed alone despite surrounded by others and the whole thing gave off an eerie vibe. The ending was unexpected but totally works and was great.

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Karen Mcdermott
09:49 Jan 30, 2021

Thanks so much for reading! :)

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