Aphelion Issue 254, Volume 24
September 2020
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The Counselor

Matt Spangler

His gaze drifted past the unblinking eyes of the other applicants to a gardening magazine centered on a table in the waiting room. He saw the finish stripping off, wood fibers reassembling on the unsanded top and legs, which then separated from one another, the wood pieces sailing backwards down a conveyor belt, a tractor hauling logs in reverse down a South American highway, a mahogany tree standing up to meet a chainsaw gripped by a man in a hardhat, and the man gunning down an indigenous activist in a rainforest. He shook his head and tried not to focus on the trees ground into pulp so that uptown socialites could stay abreast of the latest trends in Scandinavian home décor.

The counselor emerged into the waiting room, which appeared to have been ripped from the pages of the magazine, and he knew right away it was her, the polished skin and chiseled cheeks and blonde pixie cut, and he wondered, as she approached the front desk, why he, as a white man, deserved to be here. She bent over the receptionist, a black woman, probably hourly with no benefits, and complained that the air conditioning wasn’t working, and for a moment the counselor was clothed in a bodice and hoop skirt, cooling herself with an embroidered hand fan, as her servant dutifully lowered her gaze.

“Mr. Evans?” He stood up and walked past the eyes, fixed forward, never fluttering, and followed the counselor past the desk and into the hall. “I’m Marlena. Did you find us alright? And apologies about the air; I’ve been complaining about it for weeks.”

“Thanks. Doesn’t bother me at all.”

“Right in here.”

She seated herself across the desk and locked her gaze with his, his eyes only straying to the digital frame rotating photos of her and the perfect family with the whitest teeth and beautiful homes and cars and vacations.

Her eyes merged with the computer screen. “Just taking a look at your file.” The delicate alabaster joints fingered the mouse. “You’ve been unemployed for over two years. And before that,” click, “you were in sustainable finance,” click. “You want to tell me what happened?”

The air cut off and he suddenly noticed there had been a crane being raised onto an office building outside the window. He had a recollection of sweat pooling on his back from another visit to another office like this one. But not a single bead formed on his skin.

“I had a bit of a breakdown, so I went on disability.” He forced himself not to look down.

“I see that. That ran out after a year, and since then you’ve been collecting workers’ compensation from the state. Food, transportation, rent –“

“I’m eating less, and I got a smaller place. And I barely turn on the air or lights.”

There was pity behind the eyes. Pity, not sympathy. Because it should have been easier for him. “Nevertheless, your state benefits will be terminated in about six weeks.” The fingers formed a triangle. “Now, do you want to tell me what’s going on?”

He thought of sighing, but then decided it was better to pause. “I’ve been doing some research online.”


Shift the legs. “And, well, I think I may have developed a disorder.”

The brows may have fluttered an instant. “What sort of disorder?”

How far should he go with it? He needed to share his findings. “I noticed that my worldview had started to darken, become more polarized. So I did some digging online, and from everything I read, the symptoms I was experiencing matched perfectly with cognitive distortion disorder.”

“Okay. I’m a social worker, not a psychiatrist, so please explain what you mean.”

“Well, the condition is a sort of warping of environmental cues that leads to negative thinking and anxiety. So, you might make a simple mistake at work and think your career is over. Only in my case, I think I have a disorder that has yet to be defined by science. One where I see everything in life as a sort of transaction in which somebody, or something, has been exploited for the benefit of another.”

The ice thawed. She sat back in her chair. “Can you give an example?”

He couldn’t stop himself. “Oh, I suppose, at the risk of getting personal, one could take a social worker who helps struggling people transition into the work world. But if you peel back the layers, you see a white woman whose expensive private school education was underwritten by old wealth, which was in turn generated by land stolen from natives and then worked for centuries after that by slaves.”

The lips pursed slightly. “If you’re referring to me and my family –“

“Not at all. I don’t know your family. I’m just giving you a hypothetical for how the disorder works.”

“Interesting choice.” She leaned forward again. “Have you tried to reason through it? That maybe life is inherently unfair and our society is doing the best it can with the historical hand it was dealt? That you were in sustainable finance, which ultimately makes the world a better place?”

“Certainly. But then you start turning it over in your head, how you’re printing everything on paper, supplies are delivered to your office in diesel trucks, you fly around the world for meetings, you make a quarter of a million while the people you’re supposed to be helping have no running water and only scraps of food to eat.” He noticed his heart pounding, and it surprised him. “It seems pointless to continue.”

She looked up and reflected on his predicament. “I see what you mean.” She opened her desk drawer, removed a small Mylar package, and he thought of a seal choking on it. “I don’t ordinarily recommend this for my cases, but I have an advanced strength benzodiazepine that I can administer. It should help alleviate your symptoms within a few hours, and if you feel like it’s working, we can see about getting you on a more long-term course.”

The animals they tested it on, the poor people who couldn’t afford it, the beaches the syringe washed up on swirled before him. But if it could normalize his thinking … “Alright, let’s give it a try.”

He rolled up his sleeve and watched as the needle plunged into the vein. “Usually people look the other way,” she observed.

“It should only be a few minutes now.” Her words slowed and a veil came down between him and the office and her words. He recalled how nice it once was to sleep and dream.

He slumped in the chair, and hands gripped his arms, hairy hands attached to arms in white sleeves. “I think he’s a Class II WC model.” Her words seemed to come from far away. The hands and white sleeves helped him into a wheelchair. “The low food consumption and lack of temperature regulation suggest it to me anyway. We’ll get him into the lab for further tests, and if I’m right, with a little antivirus treatment he should be back in the office within a few weeks.”

They wheeled him down the hall and other counselors and their assistants regarded him knowingly but he didn’t care. He drifted past the eyes in the waiting room, which stared straight ahead without blinking.


© 2020 Matt Spangler

Bio: Matt Spangler is a freelance writer and playwright based in New York. His stories have been published in Scarlet Leaf Review, Blood Moon Rising, The Horror Tree, and Red Fez. He ran the Washington, DC-based theater company Next Day Theater from 2015 to 2017, and launched the audio fiction podcast series Parabasis in 2018.

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