As an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College, Clementine Hamilton had majored in psychology. For the department research requirement, she had pursued her studies in abnormal psychology, so she was aware there was no formal diagnosis for what she was. There were elements of obsessive-compulsive disorder in that her need for constant stimulation was recurrent and persistent, and the impulsivity aspect of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder characterized past behaviors. If she had been forced to ascribe a name to it, it would have been something like ‘stimulus deprivation disorder,’ and the symptoms that had manifested themselves over the years were readily measurable.
Clementine’s parents were attuned to the differences between their infant daughter and their then three-year old son when he was a baby from the start. Clem’s actions went well beyond the normal self-soothing of babies. Her temperament was more mild than insistent, yet she required constant stimulation, whether or not fretting or fussing accompanied it. When she was old enough to speak, the demands made in her squeaky little girl voice weren’t for anything other than the typical toddler fancies: books, stuffed animals, a kitten, and so on, but there was an urgency to her desires that simmered just below the surface.
Around age eight, Clem began to engage in the bad habit of picking at the cuticle skin around her fingernails. Her mother found this to be a particularly worrisome practice, as her daughter often peeled the skin back to the point of drawing blood, but after consulting with her pediatrician, who inquired into the girl’s disposition, eating and sleeping habits, and ability to get along with other children, the doctor quelled her fears by convincing her Clementine would grow out of the nervous tic. When Clementine was thirteen, she appeared to be nothing but cheerful and well-adjusted. The worry stone her mother had given her to discourage the ongoing cuticle picking was transferred from pocket to pocket, perpetually untouched. Clem was self-reflective enough to realize that the picking was in direct correlation to the droning chatter that took place in her head, but was at a loss for how to assuage this problem, and was still happy enough to more-or-less ignore it, or at least accept it as her inevitable state of being.
The summer Clem turned fourteen, she traveled to Boulder to spend a week with her cousins. The youngest of the three boys, Brent, was Clementine’s age, and had concocted a plan to tag along with his brothers to a house party that evening. Clementine was uneasy at the prospect, her nerves accelerating the frequency at which she shredded the skin around her purple-lacquered fingernails, and heightening her sensitivity to detail. The Prairie Style home, framed by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains as charmingly as the cover of a Colorado-based bestseller, was antithetical to any sight she’d seen in Eastern Pennsylvania, yet the buzzing in her brain whirred on.
When Brent handed her a chilly beer and told her to ‘take it easy,’ the consummate silence that descended over her after the first few swallows initiated a frenzied quest for a stillness that would engross Clementine for the next eight years. Her drinking was sporadic for the duration of her high school years, unceasing for her college ones, and only when confronted by her parents with the prospect of entering a treatment center after graduating did Clementine find opportunity to examine her problem with a critical eye.
With the help of therapists, Clem determined that her drinking was not co-morbid with depression or anxiety; once sober, she did not find it difficult to abstain from alcohol. However, once committed to sobriety, it was only a few months before a new season of discontent blew in to settle over the landscape of Clementine’s mind.
Contrary to the definition of an alcoholic, for which willpower boasts no control over the afflicted, Clementine was able to keep from picking up a drink through sheer force and strength of character. Her downfall revealed itself after an ugly breakup too hastily actuated for her fragile coping mechanisms, and in a fit of nausea coupled with a thirst for self-pity, Clementine brought about a violent episode of vomiting, her face streaked with tears and jet black mascara when she was through.
For the next year, Clementine quieted the always-whispering voices in her head by purging them in a manner synonymous with a bulimic’s. If she’d been pressed to explain the reasoning behind this, her answers would have nothing to do with food, weight, or body image (few eating disorders are actually about weight, and more about control), and everything to do with reprieve from her ‘stimulus deprivation disorder.’ Purging was something to do, that was all. Like picking. Or drinking.
Ultimately, Clementine wasn’t pressed to explain her reasons; there was no one aware of her new-found condition to explain things to. If anyone was suspicious, they needn’t have worried long. Clementine’s eating disorder, for lack of a better phrase, was cured not with any psychiatric intervention, but by the trading of one disorder for another.
On a bright spring day, the kind of day where the imprisonment of winter can no longer be recalled, Clementine was in a hurry to get outside when she slipped on a wet floor in the foyer of her apartment complex. Breaking the cardinal rule set forth by gym teachers and sports coaches everywhere, she caught herself with hands poised behind her back, straining her left wrist in the process.
The doctor Clementine sought out when the wrist was still throbbing hours later asked few questions about her medical history, and even fewer about her substance abuse past, sending her on her way with a thirty-day supply of opioid-based painkillers. Though not as immediate as the beer had been ten years earlier, the subsequent quieting of Clementine’s mind was akin to hitting the mute button in a crowded concert hall. The Percocet lent itself to OxyContin, Clementine found a doctor who was exceedingly loose with the prescription pad, and five years floated by with all the urgency of a placid daydream.
In keeping with the pattern of her disorders, whenever employing a new method to avoid the terror of stimulus deprivation, all of Clementine’s previous coping ‘skills’ fell away, save one. Once she had graduated from drinking and purging to opiate use, she was never tempted to do either of the former again. The one constant was the excoriation, or skin picking disorder.
Eventually, family members stockpiled enough evidence of Clem’s drug problem to stage an intervention that even she couldn’t rationalize her way out of. She endured the seven-day detox with minimal distress in the face of withdrawal, emerging none the worse for the wear, as long as one did not behold her ragged fingers.
Weeks passed, and though her family regarded her with concern, hyper-vigilant to the warning signs of an impending relapse they’d learned from counselors trained in family support, Clementine couldn’t muster the same apprehension. Rather, she was waiting for the next obsession in a long string of fixations to sweep in and consume her. It got to where anticipating the rearing of the malady’s ugly head became an obsession in and of itself. In the interim, her spinning mind was determined to cajole her into mutilating her fingers down to the bone.
Between picking her fingers and picking up the pieces after her most recent bout of addiction, between waiting and watching for the next malignancy to creep into every crevice of her life, she began to fear for her very sanity. Her dreams became dismal chambers of mist and mirrors, where floors dropped out from under her feet and friendly faces devolved into grotesque masks of death and decay. She stopped going to work, stopped going out. Three months after being discharged from detox, the absence of vice only a vacuum for potential ruin, Clementine began to contemplate suicide. Early on the eve before she was to enact her plan, she lay on her couch, berating herself for her weakness, and fell into an unexpected, fitful sleep.
She was awakened by someone shaking her shoulder. She looked up into the familiar face of her cousin, Brent, who had handed her that first beer over a decade ago. She sat up, confused. Brent was a Captain in the Navy now, and would be overseas at present. If his deployment had been cut short, he’d be home with his wife and young children, not here with her.
“What are you—” she began. He held up his hand.
“Clementine, I know what you fear. I know that this fear has become paralyzing, a shroud that hangs around you, blocking the sun from your view, and the light inside you from others. You can be free from this, this cloud that will otherwise follow you around until your last days on earth. You can be free from this with one small sacrifice. Would you like that freedom?”
“Yes… of course. But I don’t understand. What are you talking about? Why are you here?”
Brent continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “You can be free from a lifetime of unrest, from turmoil and strife. From addiction. You only have to agree to a small matter of payment, due upon your death.” He stopped, gauging her reaction.
“Upon… my death?” she asked, feeling her freefall to the bottom of the rabbit hole complete.
“Yes. If you agree to the terms of the deal, then upon your death you’d be required to fill an essential position. No more commitment than any job really, but you’d be required to maintain the position until someone else agreed to the same deal in life, and took your place upon their death.”
“What position?” Clementine asked, fearful of the answer, but acutely curious to hear the cost of peace and tranquility.
“The details of the job are not for me to reveal. As far as the level of intensity you should expect… think of it as no more difficult than working at the DMV. You’ll be in charge of… distributing things to people. A small price to pay for a happy life.”
Clementine’s thoughts raced. She remembered the scene in The Little Mermaid, when Ariel makes a deal with the octopus, Ursula, signing over her voice for human legs. A deal with the Devil. She’d be foolish to accept, but as she processed this very thought she remembered something else about The Little Mermaid. How she’d watched it repeatedly as a child, unable to sit alone with herself, with just the thoughts in her head.
“If I accept, I’ll never suffer with addictions, obsessions, or compulsions again? I won’t unconsciously pick my fingers, I won’t be forever searching for things or people or objects or states of mind to console myself?”
“No,” Brent said.
“I accept,” she said, without further hesitation.
“And so it will be.”
Although Brent disappeared from her living room then, vanishing like a specter, Clementine was unconvinced their interaction had been a dream. Her hazel eyes darted around the familiar room, certain they’d light on her cousin, who was maybe waiting to jump out at her from behind the loveseat, laughing at her gullibility, for falling for the elaborate joke. The apartment, however, was empty.
In the morning, after Clementine awoke from a surprisingly restful sleep, the events of the night before seemed even more tangible than upon first reflection. She’d made a pot of coffee and begun breakfast before she realized that her hands hung loosely at her sides. She’d refrained from picking the cuticles all morning! Furthermore, her suicide plan seemed like more of a dream than the memory of her conversation with Brent. Could it have been true? Could it be possible that by accepting the terms of the agreement, she had shaken off the chains that had dragged behind her for as far back as her memory went?
Clementine was forced to abandon these questions when her cell phone began chirping, text messages coming in too quickly to count. She picked up the phone, scrolled down the line of messages from her mother, her brother, her aunt and uncle. They’d gotten word that morning. Brent had been killed during his latest tour of Afghanistan two days ago. The funeral was to be later that week.
As devastated as her family was over Brent’s death, they fussed and crowded around Clementine, certain she’d slip and return to her self-medicating ways to quiet her grief. Their worry was unfounded. Though heartbroken by the death of her closest cousin, Clementine did not falter, nor did she ever falter again.
Clementine went back to school and become a successful college professor at her alma mater. In addition to her more advanced courses, she taught Psych-101, and was both adored by her students and revered by her colleagues. She covered the 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but was known throughout Bryn Mawr as a professor who made connections between black-and-white diagnoses and her own students’ mental health and personal experiences. She validated her students, and subscribed to the approaches of positive psychologists. The more she put forth that people could lead meaningful, fulfilling lives, cultivate what is best within themselves, and autonomously enhance their experiences of love, work, and play, the less she attributed her success to that long-ago night when her cousin had come to her, to a bargain she’d cemented with the words, ‘I accept.’ Some nights, when sleep eluded her and she lay under the covers, stroking the smooth, unblemished skin of her fingers, she convinced herself that it hadn’t happened at all. That the triumph had been hers alone.
Clementine married, and her calm demeanor made for a long and blissful partnership. She lived with her husband in an old farmhouse in Pennsylvania, her grown children nearby, the dogs and horses she loved so much filling her idle hours away from the college, and well into her retirement. Seemingly good on his word, Brent’s promise to Clementine remained fulfilled until she was an old woman, content and surrounded by loved ones, on her deathbed.
Before Clem passed over from this world to the next, after goodbyes were spoken and she’d resigned herself to succumb to the ever-slowing breaths, an icy fear gripped her heart as Brent’s words came back to her: “You’ll be in charge of… distributing things to people. A small price to pay for a happy life.” The moment had come to discover what that price would be.
Before another thought could occur to her, she was gone.
When Clementine opened her eyes, she thought she had made a mistake. She wasn’t dead, she was in the same place she had always been. Only… she wasn’t in the hospital room, she was in a cavernous, official-looking building, with a counter like that at a bank. The window at this counter was unoccupied, and a sea of rope stanchions snaked backward from a ‘Please Wait to be Called by Next Available Clerk’ sign. Clementine was aware of a sound like a dull roar, and for one terrible moment, was certain that she was about to descend to a Hell where the previous unquiet of her mind would devour her. She whirled around to run, and was shocked to come face-to-face with Brent.
“Hello Clementine. I see you have reported for your first day of work.”
“I… I suppose I have. What is that sound?” Clementine asked in a weak voice.
“In time, Clem, all will be known in time. But first, I must explain to you your duties.” He ushered her around to a door she hadn’t noticed before, and they went through it together. He walked her to the desk behind the glass partition, and began to show her how to pull each client’s file, what lines she would need to fill out, and where to file the record when the client had dispensed.
“Do you understand?” Brent asked her, and she told him that she did. It wasn’t difficult, after all.
“But what exactly do I write on the form? What am I distributing to these ‘clients’?”
Brent smiled then, and it wasn’t her cousin’s smile, but that of something subhuman. A snake, perhaps, if a snake had managed to twist its fanged jaw into a misshapen smile.
“Why, you’ll be distributing their addictions of course. Their fixations, their hang-ups, the monkeys on their backs. You’ll be the one to choose which perversions to bestow on all of humanity. The ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is as old as time, but no one has ever contemplated the possibility that the unwanted traits come from nothing more than a commonplace assembly line. And you are the last worker on that line my dear! The artist to brush on the final stroke.”
He did not seem to see the look of horror that clouded Clementine’s features, features that had regressed to the age she’d been when she’d accumulated the debt that was now being collected on.
“You will have repeat customers often, so make sure you keep the files well-organized.” He placed his hands on her shaking shoulders, and guided her to her place behind the window.
“Now, now,” he said. “Don’t be upset. Remember, you are only under contract until your replacement has struck the same bargain you made. We don’t have any new applicants at present, and once we do, they’ll have to live out their remaining days on earth, but no matter. All jobs must come to an end eventually.”
Brent made his way back into the vast waiting room, heading for the exit. Even from behind the glass partition, she could sense the size of the horde pulsing against the building’s door. The droning increased, seeming to fill her head until it was the only thing she was conscious of.
The man who was supposed to be her cousin opened the double doors, and the infinite horde descended on the waiting room. The clerk would be seeing clients now.
Header photograph: By Filip Maljković from Pancevo, Serbia (Nails and nature) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons