Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
Therapist: So…how are you doing today, Patrick?
Patrick: I’m doing fine. Same as last week.
Patrick: Yes, really.
Therapist: You seem more agitated than usual today.
Patrick: I’ve…been seeing the signs again.
Therapist: What signs?
Patrick: You know what signs. The signs that take me back there…to what happened
Therapist: I want you tell me in your own words what you mean by that. I want you to be specific.
Patrick: Come on you’ve heard the story a thousand times.
Therapist: So you already know what my response is to that: the more you tell it the more ordinary it becomes and the less power it has.
Patrick: Ugh, God. Fine. But don’t blame me if it gives you nightmares.
It was late summer, about to turn to fall, and the reservoir was almost dried up. My brother and I really wanted a summer storm so we could go for one last swim before we had to go back to school.
My brother had been seeing this girl that summer who was going through a witchy phase, dabbling in the occult, as teenage girls sometimes do. He’d recently dumped her but while they were together, she’d shown him some “spells” she had learned. I guess he was bored that day because he…suggested we try one. I was his little brother, I would’ve followed him into a burning house if he asked me to, so I was all in.
He said that for this “ritual” we needed candles (she always used candles no matter what the spell was), and we needed to do it somewhere we could feel the presence of water. It was the end of summer so there wasn’t much water around, but our house had this damp, mildewy basement with these pipes that were always leaking, and we thought that would be the perfect place to do it. Really set the mood.
So, we gathered some candles from around the house and went down into the basement. I wasn’t really paying attention as he set up and before I knew it, he had set the candles in the shape of this five-pointed star and was standing in the center of it. He pulled out his school notebook where she’d written the spell for him and started to read.
Patrick: As he read the candle flames started to look brighter and brighter, it was hurting my eyes, but he didn’t seem to notice. I started to get this bad feeling in my stomach, but I-I couldn’t close my eyes. My thoughts weren’t even coherent enough to want to. I was just…stuck. Whatever power he had tapped into was holding me there. It was like when someone gets electrocuted and their muscles tense up and they can’t let go of the live wire. They stand there, smelling their own flesh burning, feeling the electricity tear them apart from the inside out. All I could see was the warm glow of the candles filling my vision. It was just fuzzy yellow light and terror. And the drip…drip…drip…of those leaky pipes.
Then I felt a…shift. Whatever was holding me loosened its grip for a minute and I blinked. But when I opened my eyes again something was different. My brother was…wet. Not like standing-in-a-dank-basement-damp, but soaked to the bone. His hair was plastered to his head, rivulets of water streaming down his grey, waterlogged face. He was still staring directly at me, but his eyes were cloudy, and there was no life in them. His drenched clothes sagged, adding their own drip…drip…drip to the chorus. He swayed gently for a moment, as if being tugged by an invisible current. Then his jaw fell open. A river of water poured from his mouth, splashing around his feet, the puddle extending towards me as it grew.
I didn’t know what was happening but I knew I didn’t want that water to touch me. He stood there as the water continued to come and he didn’t react. He didn’t cough, he didn’t choke, he wasn’t really even there. The pool grew and grew, crawling across the basement floor in all directions, inching towards me. Just as it touched the tip of my sneaker, I blinked again…and he was back. My real brother. My normal brother. He was frozen for a second and then he was laughing. Smiling. And the water was gone. His brown hair was sticking up in all directions, his hazel eyes were bright with excitement, and the basement floor was no more damp than it had been before. For a moment I couldn’t speak.
Brother: Dude. Did you feel that? That was so weird.
Patrick: F-feel what?
Brother: I don’t know it was like I was in a trance or something. You didn’t feel anything? It kinda tickled.
Patrick: I had felt something though. More than felt. I’d been consumed by something from the inside out. But whatever he had felt, whatever he had seen, I knew we hadn’t experienced the same thing. Because no one could have seen what I saw and reacted that way. Laughed at it.
But I couldn’t tell him that. If I had opened my mouth to try to utter a word of what I had seen I would’ve started screaming and wouldn’t have been able to stop. So, I followed him up out of the basement, away from the candles and the dripping pipes and said nothing.
Later that week we got the rain we’d been hoping for. A proper summer storm–thunder, lightning, torrential rain–the whole 9 yards. We ran outside and got drenched, gasping and laughing, opening our mouths to catch the raindrops. And I thought I really might be able to forget what I’d seen.
Art by Danny Ingrassia
But I would never be able to forget. Because that weekend, he disappeared. One night he was in his bed, just down the hall from me. And the next morning he wasn’t. Our parents were furious, thought he’d snuck out. Gone to see that girl, maybe; she’d been pretty pissed when he dumped her so maybe he had gone to try to make amends or get back together or something…
It was a Saturday, one of those breezy late summer days where you just can’t stay inside. I wasn’t going to waste it waiting around for him to show up, so I decided to go down to the reservoir where he and I always hung out, until he got bored of his teenager things and came back to do kid things with his kid brother. I skipped rocks and walked slowly along the shore and then jumped in to enjoy the water the storm had replenished. And then I saw something…floating…just a couple feet away.
They never wanted me to talk about it but I was the one who found him, I was the one who saw. That same waterlogged, grey skin. Those same cloudy, unseeing eyes in that bloated face. And it wasn’t the first time. No, when I saw him drifting face up with his mouth hanging open just below the surface of the water, I knew that I hadn’t imagined it. And that it hadn’t been an accidental drowning like they said. We’d caused it, the two of us. The power we’d tapped into had shown me what it was going to do.
And as soon as I saw him I…I was stuck again. It was like I was right back there in our basement. Eyes frozen open. I was surrounded by the sparkling water and the rustle of trees in the breeze, but all I could see was the glow of candle light around his face and all I could hear was that drip…drip…drip.
Ugh God I can hear it now.
Therapist: Actually that’s not in your head Patrick, it just started to rain.
Patrick: Oh…good. Well you know how the rest of the story goes. Haunted by the signs of that day, can’t see a lit candle or hear a leaky pipe without being 11 years old again, frozen in the basement with my brother’s dead, waterlogged face staring out at me. And I definitely can’t go back to that reservoir.
Sometimes it feels like they’re following me. You know Sarah at the reception desk has a candle lit out there right now? Today of all days.
Therapist: I’m sorry about that, I’ll ask her to put it out. And you know what I always tell you about the candles and the pipes and the reservoir. It is perfectly normal to have negative associations with the things you saw and heard during what ended up being an incredibly traumatic period for you. Perfectly normal.
But it’s not something that you have to live with forever. Through a little exposure therapy and a little vulnerability, you can free yourself from these phobias. You can teach your brain that there is nothing about a tea candle or a dripping faucet that can hurt you. And that your brother’s death was absolutely not your fault.
Patrick: Yeah you do always tell me that. And I guess I’ve started to listen. I took your advice and did that stupid spell this weekend so I could “experience it again with a sense of safety and control.” I did it word for word, I don’t think I could ever forget it. I set up the candles in a star, I heard the dripping water. I was covered in a cold sweat the entire time but…when I opened my eyes nothing had happened. You were right.
Oh don’t give me that look.
Therapist: I’m not giving you a look, I’m just proud of you is all. You’ve come so far in our time together.
Patrick: I guess I just…I don’t know…I just miss him, you know? He died right around this time of year, the final stretch summer.
Therapist: It wasn’t just around this time, was it? It was today, the 25th, when you found him?
Patrick: …Yeah. The 25th. It just hurts. All I want is to just be with him again. To go swimming in that stupid reservoir like we used to. I almost wish there was some mysticism out there. Something more than just…this. That would mean someday I might be able to see him again. I haven’t been back there since everything happened, even though that was where we made all the best memories together. Seeing him there…like that…it just ruined it forever.
Therapist: No. Not forever. That part is up to you. You’ve conquered one fear this week, why not go for another? Go to the reservoir. Reclaim it for all the good times that you had there. Remember him, feel his presence. Release yourself from the fear, from the negative associations and be with him again.
Patrick: You know what? You’re right. I did the ritual and nothing happened. Nothing. It was meaningless, powerless. I’m going to go out there, bring a speaker and a six pack, play some 80s hits like we used to and pour one out for him. Hey, maybe I’ll even go for a swim.
Therapist: I saw that wink.
Patrick: Yeah, alright maybe I’m not quite there yet. Maybe next year.
Thank you…for everything. Seriously. I wouldn’t have—couldn’t have—done any of this without you.
Therapist: I’m really impressed with the progress you’ve made. Truly.
Patrick: Well…time’s up. See you next week doc.
Therapist: I look forward to hearing about your trip to the reservoir.
Therapist: Come in Sarah.
Receptionist: How literally have you been taking exposure therapy these days?
Receptionist: I mean seriously, you have to be more careful!
Therapist: What? What do you mean?
Receptionist: That guy that just left! He looked awful, like he literally looked like he’d been through the wringer.
Therapist: Sarah what are you talking about?
Receptionist: Dr. Kim I’m serious. He looked…almost dead inside, and he was soaking wet.