“I’m afraid of nothing.”
I look up from the notebook on my desk, peering over the rims of my reading glasses at the man reclining on thefaux-leather upholstery of my couch. “You’re not afraid of anything? Anything at all? Not death or taxes? Not big crowds, heights, or even small flying rodents?” My tone is light, but not mocking. Curious, without being pushy.
“I didn’t say that.” Curtis Smith (probably not his real name, but I understand that some people feel the need for anonymity) is my newest patient, a pro bono walk-in who is clearly trying out the whole therapist thing for the first time. He lies on the comfy couch, propped up enough on the raised part that he could claim to be sitting, his eyes wide open and arms tightly crossed. His whole body is tense, a spring wound tight, just waiting for an excuse to uncoil and flee the session. “I said I’m afraid of nothing. Nothing scares me.”
I shift position in my chair, slowly, giving myself time to process this information. Pop psychology is something of a specialty for me, it’s why I work part time in a public health clinic. There isn’t a lot of challenge there, mostly just talk therapy, listening to people air their complaints, making the usual reassuring noises. There’s some triage, some evaluation, referring them along to specific specialists if I sense anything serious. But mostly I just listen, provide a sounding board, ask a few leading questions, while they work through things for themselves. “Nothing scares you? Like, the concept of nothingness, of nonexistence?”
“Yeah, something like that. Only it’s more… specific.” His gaze darts toward me, then away again.
“Mm-hmm.” I lean back, nodding, fiddling with my pen. There’s been no need to take notes so far. “You know, oudenophobia isn’t that uncommon a fear.”
“Come again? Oudenophobia?”
“Or nilophobia. Literally, the fear of nothing. Lots of people experience it, most commonly linked to a fear of death, a fear of life ending, with nothing after it.”
“Oh.” He frowns, obviously thinking about what I’ve said. “I guess that’s part of it. I mean, yeah, I’m scared of, well, dying.” He moves on the couch, squirming sort of, the upholstery squeaking softly. “I’m afraid of what the Nothing will do to me.”
I pick up on the capitalization, like it’s a thing, an object that can be seen and touched. Feared, even. “The Nothing? Why do you say that like it’s a… something?”
“Because it is, Doctor. It just… is. It’s out there, waiting for me.”
Despite my jaded nature, born of many long years of doing this, I feel my professional curiosity being piqued. “Can you tell me exactly what you mean? What is this Nothing?”
“It’s just that. Nothing.” He takes a breath, lets it out in a sigh. “It’s been after me for a while now.”
“Hmmm. Let’s try something. I want you to attempt to recall the first time you saw this… Nothing. Tell me where you were, what you were doing.” Twenty bucks says this all started with drugs, a bad trip after experimenting with shrooms in college or something painfully similar. If so, I’m going to be really disappointed.
“I first encountered it a little over three years ago,” Curtis says. He pauses, licks his lips. “It was in a subway station. I’d just gotten off the train, at a little after two in the morning, and I was looking for a bathroom. The place was deserted; I must have been the only soul in sight. I saw the sign, the door, walked over and opened it. And there was… Nothing.” He shudders, his eyes widening. Clearly, even the recollection is disturbing. “It was a… a wall of blank gray. Like a fog just hanging there, or a broken TV screen. Just a featureless expanse of flat gray.”
That’s… original, I guess. “What happened next? Did you touch it? Try to move through it?”
“Oh, no way. It scared me. Scared the life out of me. It was just so strange, so unexpected. But at the same time, I knew what it was. I knew it was, well, the end. Like if I touched it, I would just… disappear. Become part of it. Become Nothing.” He heaves another sigh. “So, I slammed the door. Ran away, as fast as I could.”
I purse my lips, thinking. “And has this happened again?”
He nods. “Oh, yeah. It was pretty rare at first. Almost rare enough that I could dismiss it as my mind playing tricks on me. Rare enough that I could almost forget about it, if I tried. But it got more and more frequent. It would happen anywhere, anytime. I’d just open and door… and find the Nothing waiting for me.” He shakes his head, wipes at his eyes. “It’s ruined my life. I keep moving, from place to place, city to city, job to job. Trying to get away from it. But it’s happening so much now. I think… I think it’s getting closer to me, somehow. Like it’s been hunting me, and now it’s closing in for the kill.” He gives a shaky laugh. “I’ve taken to not opening doors for myself anymore. I leave them open, or let other people do it for me. Seems to work, so far, but everyone I meet thinks I’m crazy.”
“Mm-hmm.” I scratch out a note. I think I might have a real case on my hands. “And have you ever talked about this with anyone? Tried to show it to anyone?”
He hesitates, darts another look at me. “Yes.”
“Who, if I may ask?”
“A woman I liked. Wanted her to understand me better.”
I arch an eyebrow. “Did she see it?”
“Yes.” The word is clipped, bitten off and spat out, like he couldn’t get it out and away from him fast enough.
“What did she say?”
“Well, she was confused at first. Then she got excited. I tried to shut the door, but I couldn’t before she… she touched it.” He draws a ragged breath.
“She disappeared. Ended. Became Nothing.” The words come out as a whisper.
Now I’m leaning forward, hunched over my notebook, scribbling. This could be very interesting to a number of my colleagues. Not the whole Nothing thing, but this guy is clearly delusional. I’ll refer him along, they’ll probably want to start with tox screening, to find if he’s been using drugs. After that, there’ll be lots and lots of therapy sessions, maybe even a committal. Poor Curtis here clearly needs help, and as long as his insurance plan holds out, he’ll get it. And, of course, I’ll see something for my own efforts in identifying such a needy soul…
“You don’t believe me.”
I look up from my pad to find Curtis sitting upright, staring at me. He’s wearing an expression that’s almost comical in its disappointment, like a child whose parents don’t believe there’s a monster under his bed.
“I didn’t say that, did I, Curtis? Trust me, I want to help you. And I think I can, if you’ll let me.”
He gives that little laugh again. “And how are you gonna do that? Will you find someone to open doors for me?”
I smile, pretending he’s made a joke. “No, Curtis. I can put you in touch with people who specialize in treating disorders like this. They can—”
He stands abruptly. “I knew this would be a waste of time. I came here because my boss said I had to, if I wanted to keep my job. But I knew, just knew, that no one would believe me.”
“Curtis, please, just wait. You need help. This phobia, these hallucinations, could be the result of a serious medical or psychological problem.”
He doesn’t give any sign that he’s listening. Instead, he marches over to the office door, and stops there. “Open this door, please. I’d like to leave now.”
“Come now, Curtis. I really think I can help you—”
“Open the door. Now, please.”
I take a breath, trying to find a way to work this out. “Curtis—”
“OPEN THE DOOR!”
“Please, let’s just talk about this. You’re delusional, Curtis. What you think you’ve been seeing, it’s not real. It’s literally all in your mind. Now, I can—”
“Open this door, or I swear I’ll open it myself.” There’s a grim threat in his voice. “And believe me, you don’t want me to do that.”
“Curtis, you have to face the fact—”
“I have to face it? I have to face it?” He’s breathing heavily now, practically panting. There are tears in his eyes. “All right, Doctor. I’ll face it. But you have to face it, too.” He grips the knob, knuckles white. “I’m sorry.”
He opens the door.
And it’s there. The Nothing. A flat, blank expanse of grey, like a wall of fog or a broken TV screen. It’s just standing there, like it’s been waiting for someone to open the door and let it in.
And I realize that Curtis isn’t lying, isn’t delusional. He’s been telling the truth, and there really is Nothing to fear.
“Curtis…” I start to speak, but my mouth has gone dry, and I cough, try again. “Curtis, this is…”
“Yeah, it’s the Nothing.” There’s a world of resignation in his tone. “Still there. Waiting for me. Every time I open a door now, it’s there.”
“But this is extraordinary.” There’s something compelling, alluring even, about the Nothing. It almost seems to beckon to me, invite me to touch it, to join it. To become Nothing. Before I even realize it, I’ve stood up, walked around my desk. I’m only a foot or two from the doorway, my hand outstretched. “Amazing…”
Then Curtis grabs my arm, stopping me. “Yeah, it’s pretty unbelievable. But I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
I blink, my gaze going from Curtis to the door. I swallow, nod. “Y-you’re right. I shouldn’t.” The Nothing just hovers there, filling the doorway of my office. I almost get a sense of… disappointment from it. Like it wanted me to touch it, wanted to take me, and now… “You know, Curtis, I’m having a novel idea right now.”
“Yeah? What’s that, Doctor?”
I sigh. “Let’s try going out the window.”