by Alex Artukovich Alex Artukovich

Alex Artukovich received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film and Television from Chapman University in California. He resides and writes in Los Angeles. His short stories have appeared in Writers Weekly, Midwest Literary Magazine, Fiction on the Web, and Frontier Tales.

Stress, anxiety, depression, Bob Coleman had it all. It had become so bad he sought the aid of a physician. His doctor prescribed a new, cutting edge pill recently allowed on the market, Zolexabaltazac. Along with reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, it boosted mental clarity and increased cognitive function. Bob took a twenty milligram pill before bedtime and fell fast asleep.

The following morning he was awakened by a loud, ear-cringing noise. It sounded as though a hard, blunt object were being dragged slowly across the pinewood floor. Bob's eyes shot open. They must have been sleep-worn because he couldn't believe what he saw—his wife straining to traverse the room with an enormous cross strapped to her back. She wore nothing but a soiled, knee-length Roman tunic and sandals. Wrapped around her forehead was a crown of sharp thorns. Dried blood ran down to her eyebrows.

"Carol?" Bob uttered in stunned amazement.

Bob's wife stopped dragging her cross and turned to him. Since her arms were tied to both ends of the cross, she had to turn with her entire body to face him.

"What?" She replied, peeved by the halting of her progress.

"Why are you dressed like that?" he asked, trying his best to remain calm.

Bob's wife took a moment to view her tunic and sandals. She didn't notice anything unusual.

"What's wrong with what I'm wearing?"

Bob's restraint finally broke. "You're in a tunic with a huge cross on your back!"

Carol stared at her husband, stone-faced. "Are you done? Is joke time over? Cause I've got a lot to do today. Not that you or the kids ever notice."

His wife was through talking and directed her body towards the door. Her muscles strained and pulsated as she dragged the cross behind her. On her face was a look of both self-pity and resentment. In order to get her body through the doorframe she had to rotate sideways and crab walk into the hallway. Bob watched her departure in amazement. Although she left his sight, he could still hear the bottom of the cross scraping against the hallway floor.

Bob frantically rubbed his face. He gave himself a light slap. This did nothing. He gave himself a hard slap. This did nothing but sting his cheek. It wasn't a dream. There were only two possibilities then, he thought, he was going crazy or his wife wanted him to think he was going crazy. But the latter didn't suit his wife. She would never go to such extreme lengths to play a trick on him. Even the simplest of pranks she found taxing and pointless.

Bob pushed his blankets aside and quickly realized he was wearing a completely different set of pajamas. Before he went to bed he was wearing a solid blue pajama set. Now he had on pajamas with large black and white stripes running horizontally across his body. He fingered his new outfit in bewilderment. He felt a patch on his chest. He looked down and saw an inmate number. He turned to a nearby mirror. Sitting atop his head was a striped, brimless cap.

"Carol," Bob shouted.

"What," his wife answered from another room.

"Why am I in an old-fashioned prison suit?"

"Can you please give me a break?"

Bob quickly got out of bed. As he did so he heard a metallic clinking noise near his foot. He looked down. Strapped to his ankle was a manacle. He bent down and grabbed the chain attached to it. His hands followed the four-foot chain until it ended at an iron orb the size of a bowling ball. He knocked on it curiously. The ball definitely wasn't plastic, neither was the chain. This dispelled his theory that he was wearing a Halloween costume. It was a genuine nineteenth-century prison suit, ball and chain included. Bob ran to the sink to splash his face, thinking water might help reduce his insanity. But he was halted four feet from the bed. Something was grasping at his ankle. He returned to the bed and picked up the iron ball. It weighed over thirty pounds. He lugged the ball with him to the bathroom sink, set it down, and turned on the faucet. As he was splashing himself with water, he heard a booming round of ceremonial trumpets. He picked up his iron ball and wandered back into the bedroom. Passing his bedroom door with her nose tilted high in the air was his teenage daughter, Marian. Atop her head was a diamond tiara and in her hand was a golden scepter. She wore a lavish gown of exquisite fabric and extraordinary length. After she passed his bedroom door, the back of her dress continued to follow her for nearly ten steps.

"Hey," Bob called and chased after her.

Marian languidly turned. "Yes?"

"What in God's name are you wearing?"

"It's a dress," she sardonically answered. "You're not going to tell me it's too short, are you?"

"Short? If anything it's too long. And where did you get that tiara?" He stepped closer to get a better look. The diamond tiara reflected light so brilliantly that he was almost certain it was real.

Marian sighed at her foolish father. "Most people call them headbands."

"You call a diamond tiara a headband?"

"No," she replied dryly. "I call a plastic headband, a headband."

She tilted her nose high in the air, arched her back, and regally descended the staircase.

Bob returned to his bedroom and rushed to the medicine cabinet. He snatched the Zolexabaltazac bottle and closely examined the label. He groaned and tossed the pill bottle aside. He threw open a bathroom drawer, groped inside, and seized a folded paper. He opened the paper and feverishly read the Zolexabaltazac data information given along with the filled prescription.

He scanned through all the common side effects: insomnia, headache, fatigue, dizziness, constipation, dry mouth. Not one mention of hallucinations. Bob straddled the ends of his bathroom counter. His eyes turned to the mirror and he closely studied his reflection. He glared at his prison cap and knocked it off his head. It landed in the far corner of the bathroom. He blinked his eyes and suddenly the cap was back on his head. He flinched in awe.

He knocked the cap off a second time. Again, the moment he blinked it was back on his head. He tore off his prison clothes and threw them aside. He held his eyes open so they couldn't blink. But his eyes couldn't stand the dryness for long and he allowed them to shut. When he opened them, every article of his prison suit was back on his person. "Bob," his wife called. "Are you coming down for breakfast or what?"

Bob scooped up his iron ball and cautiously left his bedroom. He descended the stairs and found his family at the kitchen table. In spite of having a cross strapped to her back, his wife was performing her morning rituals quite well. Not only did she cook omelets for the entire family, but she set the table and served the food. When Bob entered, she had a pitcher of orange juice in her bound hand and was filling each person's glass. It was a highly rigid operation that required her to tilt her whole body along with the pitcher, as though she were a giant pitcher herself.

His daughter Marian was seated perfectly balanced in her chair with her chin held skyward and her hands decorously folded. She wasn't deigning to eat. Not until the servant before her, her mother, finished her duties and moved aside.

Bob gingerly set his iron ball on the floor. Marian amusedly watched. "What do you got there dad, an invisible pet?"

His wife sighed exhaustedly. Bob pointed at the iron ball in disbelief. "You don't see it?"

"See what," his daughter asked.

"The ball, the chain, the . . ." Bob's voice trailed off since he could tell instantly by his wife and daughter's judgmental reactions that they saw nothing.

"Bob," he wife scolded. "The joke has gone far enough. Now cut it out."

Bob woefully nodded, loving nothing more than to obey her command. He pulled out his chair and sat down. His wife sat down as well but with much more difficultly. In order to get into her seat she had to first hunch, then twist, follow it up with a weave, and end with a squat. After she was seated she craned her neck sideways so the top of the cross could project over her shoulder. Eating was an even bigger challenge. She couldn't use her arms and hands since they were strapped to opposite ends of the cross. Instead she had to tilt her head downward and bury her face into her food like some kind of animal. His daughter Marian's eating style was the complete opposite. She handled her knife and fork with the utmost poise. When she cut and chewed, she did so in the most quiet, dignified, and graceful manner. And after each bite she delicately dabbed her lips clean with a napkin.

His wife lifted her head from her plate. "Shari," she shouted. "I'm not going to tell you again. Get off the computer and come to breakfast."

In all the confusion Bob hadn't even realized that his eldest daughter was missing from the table. A groan was heard from another room, followed by approaching footsteps. Bob forked a tiny bit of egg and curiously nibbled on it, wondering if food still tasted the same, which, even in his jumbled mental state, it did. He began taking larger bites, hoping food and drink might quell his lunacy.

Suddenly Bob felt the table rattle and heard a chair creak and splinter. He looked up. Sitting across from him was a massively overweight teenage girl. She wasted no time shoveling food into her mouth.

Nobody made any attempt at an introduction so Bob took it upon himself. "Hello. Are you a friend of Shari's?"

The overweight girl sneered and continued to devour her omelet. Bob was put off by the girl's rudeness. "A friend of Marian's then?"

The overweight girl bitterly dropped her silverware and crossed her flabby arms. "Dad," she snapped. "What is this? I don't get it."

Bob's mouth dropped open. "Shari?"

The overweight girl turned to his wife. "Mom, what's dad's problem?"

Carol lifted her face from her plate. "Seriously Bob, what's a matter with you?"

Bob couldn't get over how humongous his eldest daughter had become. He gawked at her belly rolls, peered at her double chin, and even looked under the table to examine her ankles.

"Shari," he began in astonishment, "you must have put on like three hundred pounds!"

His wife gasped. Marian chuckled.

Shari leapt from her chair, causing a shudder amongst the glasses and plates. "I'm not hungry," she bitterly announced and sprinted to her bedroom.

Bob watched in amazement as this enormous version of his daughter plowed over everything in sight and loudly bounded up the stairs.

"My god, Bob!" His wife shouted. "How could you say that? You know she has a weight complex!"

"But she's humongous!" Bob exclaimed defensively.

"Oh my God!" His wife yelled. "She is not. She thinks she is, but nobody in their right mind would ever agree with her."

"Well I'm agreeing," he declared. "That is an obese girl."

Marian placed her hand over her chest and laughed. "Dad, you're awful."

"Would you knock it off," his wife shouted. "Shari isn't fat!"

"Yes," Bob agreed. "Shari isn't fat. But that fat girl who stampeded out of our kitchen and nearly demolished my stairs, she was fat."

Marian could hardly contain her laughter. "Dad—Stop—I'm gonna pee my pants!"

"Stop laughing princess," her father barked. Marian's laughter immediately halted. She tilted her nose and huffed. "I still want to know where you got that tiara," he said.

"What tiara," Marian replied.

"Bob," his wife sharply interrupted. "Is this for real? Are you really sick?" Before he could answer, his wife launched into self-pitying mode. "Why can't I have just one normal week without some enormous problem to deal with? I do everything I can for this family and still I get racked with headaches."

Bob couldn't stomach the sight of his wife moaning on a cross. "I'm fine," he snapped.

He got up from the table and tried to flee the kitchen, but only traveled four feet. He cursed under his breath and looked at the iron ball. He returned to the table, scooped up his ball, and promptly left. Carol and Marian shared a puzzled look.

Bob headed straight for the computer. He logged on to the Internet and opened the Google web browser. In the search field he typed "Zolexabaltazac" and "Hallucinations." There were a few reports that anti-depressants, in very rare cases, could cause slight hallucinations, such as hearing things that weren't there. But that was the extent of it. While browsing he did find a great deal about all the amazing things Zolexabaltazac could do for the brain. Enhance mental clarity, increase cognitive function, sharpen awareness, etc.

Bob wondered if just maybe the drug was boosting his brain to some abnormally high level, allowing him to pick up on things other people couldn't, see images others were incapable of seeing. But why those images, he asked himself. Why was he seeing his wife on the cross? Why was his daughter a princess? Why was his other daughter obese? And why was he dressed like a prisoner? Then it dawned on him. It was because he felt like a prisoner.

For the past decade he had thought himself incarcerated. Incarcerated in endless work hours, incarcerated in poor health, incarcerated in mounting expenses. His world was a cage and it was growing smaller every day. When he looked down and saw a prison outfit, he was merely seeing his self-perception in physical form. But it wasn't simply his own self-perception he was seeing; he was seeing the physical manifestation of everybody's self-perception. His wife, who thinks she is the family martyr, appears as Jesus on the cross to him, because that is her self-perception, a noble victim constantly under duress for the good of her ungrateful family. His daughter Marian, who thinks herself a princess, appears to him as an extravagantly bejeweled member of the royal family. His daughter Shari, who thinks herself overweight, appears to him as an obese diabetes case waiting to happen.

He shook his head shamefully. He had gone too far into the realm of science fiction. It had to be merely random hallucinations brought on by a bad reaction to the new pill he was taking, nothing more.

Bob glanced at his ball and chain. He lifted the chain and passed the links between his fingers. The metal felt so real. He peered at his prison outfit. The symbolism couldn't be ignored. This was his self-perception. This wasn't any random hallucination. And the images of his family, those were their self-perceptions. The pills gave his brain power, and the power it was given was to see self-perception, see it as though it were a real thing standing right in front him.

Bob laughed at himself scornfully. He was being absurd. He hadn't the slightest clue what was happening to him. All he did know was he wanted it to stop. Hallucinations, super-human brainpower, whatever it was, he wanted it gone. He needed help. He needed his doctor.

Bob left the computer and strode into his bedroom. He went to his bedroom closet. He knew he wasn't able to take clothes off but he wondered if he could put them on. He put on a sweater, stood in front of a mirror, and closed his eyes. He slowly opened them. The sweater was still there. Bob smiled. It was the first small victory he had over his condition.

He grabbed a pair of pants. He bent down and lifted a foot. This caused the chain attached to his foot to jangle. Bob rolled his eyes. He couldn't put on pants with a ball and chain attached to his leg. He tossed the pants aside. He didn't need them. He was already wearing pants. To him they were prison pants but to everybody else they were probably the pajama bottoms he went to bed in last night. There was no law against wearing pajama bottoms to the doctor's.

He snatched his wallet and keys and headed for the front door. Just as he was about to leave, he heard a loud scraping sound. He turned. His crucified wife was behind him.

"Where are you going," she asked.

"I'm not feeling well. I need to see my doctor."

His wife moaned. "I knew it. Let me change."

Bob put up a halting hand. "No, it's okay. I can go by myself."

"Don't be stupid. I've got to go with you."

"You can't."

"Why not?"

"Cause you can't fit in the car," he said, looking at her cross.

His wife scoffed. "I think I can fit in a car."

"Just stay here," he insisted. "I'll be fine by myself."

He opened the front door. "Wait," she exclaimed. "You're still wearing you're pajama bottoms."

"It's fine, just let me go!"

She reluctantly conceded. He thanked her and swiftly left, being sure to close the door behind him.

He hurried to his car and hopped inside. He set his iron ball onto the passenger seat and pulled out of his driveway.

Suddenly he heard his name. He stopped the car and looked about. He spotted a woman flagging him down from across the street. From a distance it looked like Mother Teresa had risen from the dead and was waving at him. But as the woman came closer he realized it was merely his neighbor dressed in Mother Teresa garb. She wore a white hooded robe with blue stripes along the ends and matching shawl. A crucifix hung off her neck and her folded hands were entwined with rosary beads.

"Bob," she greeted warmly. "I'm glad I caught you."

Bob examined her robes in fascination. "Hello Sara. This is going to sound like a crazy question but . . . how would you describe your current outfit?"

Sara was thoroughly lost but wanted to be helpful. "I'm not sure how you describe a t-shirt and jeans. Leisure casual, maybe?"

Bob nodded thoughtfully. She thinks she's Mother Teresa. "So," Sara began, "did you hear about the recent tragedy in the news?"

Bob had lived near Sara for ten years and for ten years she had been starting their conversations with this very same question. He kept up with current events on occasion, so sometimes he knew to which tragedy she was referring. But others times he hadn't the slightest clue. This was one of those times. He was in a hurry, though, so he decided to lie.

"Yes," he answered. "It was terrible."

"Wasn't it," Sara replied sorrowfully.

Bob glumly nodded. "I'd like to talk about it more but I got to get to a doctor's appointment." He waved goodbye and let his foot off the brake.

"Wait," Sarah shouted. Bob stopped the car. "They need your help," she implored.

"Oh," Bob replied and impatiently reached into his wallet. He pulled out some cash and extended it to her. "Here you go."

"God bless," she said with a benign bow.

Bob stepped on the gas and sped away.

When he got to the doctor's office and hurried inside, his eyes were instantly drawn to a sickly man seated in the middle of the reception room. He was disturbingly gaunt and colorless. He coughed repeatedly into his sleeve and every time he did so specks of blood flew out of his mouth. He was fully reclined in his chair, as though he were too weak to sit up. Below him was a small plot of dirt. The rest of the floor was white tile, but just below the ghastly looking man was a rectangular block of earth. Sticking up at one end of the dirt was a tombstone. It dawned on Bob that he was viewing a grave. Then he noticed the sickly man had one foot buried ankle deep inside the grave.

Beside the sickly man was a female doctor. Bob figured the man's situation was so severe that a doctor had to come out to the reception room to be by his side. But after he heard their conversation, he realized this wasn't the case.

"Stop it," the female doctor said to the sickly man. "You're not going to die."

"Yes, I am!" The sickly man insisted. "I've never felt this awful in all my life."

"It's the flu," the female doctor said. "That's all."

"How do you know? Are you a doctor? No! So you don't know what's wrong with me."

"I've been to enough doctors' offices to know the difference between the flu and a life-ending illness," she replied.

"You don't know anything. It's probably some new incurable flu and I'm the first one to get it. I'll be lucky if I make it past tomorrow."

"Stop being so dramatic."

The sickly man moaned and placed his weakened hand faintly over his forehead. Bob surmised that the sickly man wasn't nearly as sick as he appeared. He was merely a hypochondriac. And the woman sitting next to him wasn't a doctor. She was his wife. But she probably spoke of illnesses so often with her hypochondriac husband that she imagined herself to be a doctor.

Bob passed the sickly man and approached the reception counter. A long legged, stunning beauty strutted forth. Her walk was smooth, sexy, and confident, as though she were walking down a catwalk. She wore four-inch stiletto heels and an overly styled, overly intricate dress.

The moment she reached the counter she threw her shoulders back, pushed her pelvis slightly forward, and flicked her hair.

"Which doctor are you here to see," she asked. Her voice was drab and lifeless, not at all how Bob had imagined it would sound.

"You work here," he asked in bewilderment.

The ravishing girl snidely waved at her outfit, "What do you think?"

"I think you look like a runway model," Bob replied.

The girl arrogantly flipped her hair. "I know. You're not the first to tell me that."

Bob began to believe this girl probably wasn't as gorgeous as she appeared, she merely thought she was that gorgeous. "I need to see Dr. Edmunds," he said.

"What time is your appointment?"

"I don't have an appointment. But I need to see him. It's an emergency. I'm having a real bad reaction to the pills he prescribed me."

"Okay. Just have a seat and I'll see if he can see you."

Bob thanked the girl and found a seat. He set his iron ball onto the seat next to him and waited for nearly thirty minutes.

"Mr. Coleman," a female nurse called.

Bob nodded.

"Right this way," she invited.

Bob looked at the nurse carefully. Out of all the people he had seen thus far, her appearance was the most unusual. It was unusual in its lack of unusualness. She wasn't clad in any outrageous outfit, she didn't resemble any notable historical figure, and her physical features were perfectly normal. Was it possible, Bob wondered, that she had no out of the ordinary perception of herself? Or were the effects of the pill finally wearing off? He desperately hoped this was the case. He couldn't tolerate these wild images much longer.

"Mr. Coleman," the nurse repeated. "You can come back now."

Bob picked up his iron ball and approached the waiting nurse.

"Follow me," she instructed. "We're going to room six."

She turned to lead Bob down the hallway. As she did so she revealed the most enormous ass Bob had ever seen. It was so big it should have belonged on a mythical woman fifteen feet tall, not a petite five-foot-five nurse. It was like a gigantic trailer of flesh. Bob wondered how she kept herself from constantly tipping backwards.

She continued to lead Bob down the hallway, knocking over a few hallway planters and a water cooler. Bob followed the titanic rear end in a trance, baffled by the sheer enormity of it. When she reached room six, she moved aside for Bob to enter first. He entered the room and sat on the examination bed. The nurse tried to follow but was halted at the doorway. Her mammoth behind was so big that it got stuck in the doorframe. The nurse wasn't surprised and simply pushed a little harder till her rear end popped through.

She asked a couple of standard questions about allergies and current medications. Bob gave slow, distracted answers; his mind was fixated on her mutant anatomy. She retrieved the cuff next to the blood pressure monitor and wrapped it around his bicep. As she took his blood pressure, she sat down in a nearby stool. The stool seemed to disappear the moment she sat on it.

The entire time they were together, Bob's eyes never left the nurse's behind. Finally she snapped. "What are you looking at?"

Bob quickly turned away. "Nothing."

"I know it's big," she said, "but you don't have to stare."

"Stare at what?" He guiltily asked.

"My ass."

"Big," he said with a pretend scoff. "No. It's not big."

She gave him a cut the B.S. stare.

"It's huge," Bob confessed. "It's the biggest ass I've ever seen."

The nurse woefully buried her face in her hands. "I know! It's like bubble mountain back there!"

Bob nodded shamefully.

She tightened her fist in frustration. "I swear, it's like whatever I eat goes straight to my ass!"

Bob consolingly patted her shoulder. She stood and the stool reappeared. "The doctor will see you in a minute," she said dolefully.

She tried to leave the room but was once again halted by the doorframe. She gave a hard push and her rear end popped through. She closed the door behind her and left Bob alone. After twenty minutes, he finally heard a knock, followed by the door opening.

With a blink of an eye, the lights were off and a spotlight appeared. The spotlight was aimed directly at the doorway. His doctor burst into the room with a microphone in his hand. Instead of a white lab coat and slacks, he wore a hip sports coat, vintage t-shirt, and stylish jeans. He beelined for the stool, which changed from a short, steel legged stool into a tall wooden one with a glass of water sitting on top. The spotlight followed the doctor wherever he went. He took a sip of water and set it back down. Then he pulled a stack of index cards from his back pocket. He casually flipped through them.

"Just taking a gander at your folder," he announced.

Bob looked all around in amazement.

The doctor returned the index cards to his back pocket and lifted the microphone to his lips. "So what's up? Beside your blood pressure?"

Suddenly Bob heard a collection of laughter. The laughter seemed to be all around him, as if he were sitting in the middle of an audience. But there wasn't anybody else in the room. It was just him and the doctor.

"You feeling a little stressed," the doctor asked.

Bob nodded. "Absolutely."

"You know what stress is?"

"What," Bob replied, all ears.

"Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize you haven't fallen asleep yet."

The room filled with laughter. Bob finally figured it out. His doctor imagined himself to be a standup comedian.

The doctor chuckled at his own joke and took another sip of water. "So really, what's stressing you out? What brings you back to my office?"

"I'm having hallucinations," Bob confessed. "And I don't know if it's a side effect from the pills you had me start taking or what."

The doctor pulled his index cards out of his back pocket. "The Zolexabaltazac?" The doctor asked, reading off one of his cards.

"Yes," Bob confirmed.

"Not likely, unless I made the prescription out for shrooms by mistake." Laughter bounced off the walls. "What type of hallucinations are you experiencing?"

"Very distinct, very real, very bizarre hallucinations," Bob answered.

"When did they start?"

"The moment I woke up. And since then I've been seeing the weirdest things I have ever seen in my life."

The doctor tucked his microphone under his arm, placed his hands on Bob's face, and pulled down one of his eyelids. "Look up," he instructed. Bob did so. The doctor carefully examined his eyes, then his tongue, and then checked Bob's reflexes.

"Congratulations," the doctor said. "You passed the Dr. Edmunds physical challenge." This joke received a light chuckle from the invisible audience. "Nothing wrong with you that I can see. Do you feel detached or light-headed at all?"

"No. I feel exactly like I always do, except I have hallucinations."

"Can you tell me more about these hallucinations? What are you seeing exactly?"

"That's the strangest thing. I think there's an actual pattern to them."

"How so?"

"I think, somehow, I'm able to see people's . . . self-perceptions."

The doctor was lost. "What do you mean?"

Bob paused, unsure how to explain. "Well, however somebody sees themselves in their head is how I see them in real life. So if they think they're enormously fat, I'll see an enormously fat person before my very eyes. Or if they see themselves as Mother Teresa, I'll see a version of Mother Teresa sitting right before me. You're receptionist nurse thinks she's a runway model, so that's how I saw her, with a runway outfit on and everything. Your other nurse thinks she has a big ass, so I saw her with a butt so big that it could barely fit through a doorway."

"That's nothing," the doctor interrupted. "My wife's got a mouth so big it could barely fit through a hanger door."

The invisible audience roared with laughter. The doctor apologetically put his hand up.

"I'm sorry. Go on."

"Well that's it," Bob concluded. "I see everybody's self-perception as clearly as you see me right now."

"That's very odd. I've never heard anything like it. Can you see my self-perception?"

Bob peered at the doctor holding a microphone and standing in a spotlight. "Yes."

"What do you see? What do I perceive myself to be?"

"You think you're a standup comedian."

The doctor's face suddenly soured. A bitter smile curled on his lips. "I think you're the standup comedian."

Bob was confounded. "Huh?"

"You do all this," the doctor said with a contemptuous flick of the hand, "waste my time, waste my staff's time, waste everybody's time, for a joke?"

Bob tried to speak but the offended doctor wouldn't let him get a word in. "You're a grown man," the doctor remonstrated. "Don't you have better things to do than make up stories about hallucinations just to insult me?"

Bob raised his hands in defense of himself. "I'm not making fun of you, I—"

"Yeah, I like to tell a few jokes. Day in and day out I get some of the saddest cases you could imagine. I see people with diseases that can't be cured, people with pains that never go away, people with no quality of life. And sometimes the only thing in the world that can make them feel just this much better," the doctor dramatically held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart, "is a little joke, a little humor, something to brighten their dreary, hopeless existence. But I guess you think that's something to make fun of."

"No," Bob exclaimed.

"I'm sorry I'm not Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock. I'm sorry my jokes don't amuse you. I am only a doctor after all. But I do my best. And you know what? Most my patients actually like my humor. So I don't care if you don't find me funny. But don't invent fake illnesses to tell me that. Just be an adult and say, 'Doctor, can you please refrain from telling jokes.' And I will. You didn't have to come up with this elaborate, mean-spirited prank."

"Doctor," Bob passionately shouted. "I really am having hallucinations!"

"That's enough," the doctor disdainfully replied. "Call me if you have any real side effects. But in the meantime, why don't you grow up."

The doctor left the room in a huff. The second he did so the lights turned back on and the spotlight vanished. Bob slunk off the examination bed in despair. He waited a moment for somebody to stop by, but nobody came. He walked out of the examination room and passed reception. He averted his eyes so as not to view anybody. He didn't want to see the weird and fantastic characters any longer. He just wanted to go back home.

Not viewing anybody on the car ride home was difficult. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a man who looked like Hercules, a woman who looked like an alien, and a little boy dressed as a western gunslinger. When he reached his home, he dashed inside and ran upstairs. His crucified wife tried to stop him but he ignored her and kept on till he reached the bedroom. He slammed the door behind him and crawled into bed.

There was a knock on the door. "Bob," his wife called. "Unlock the door."

"Go away."

"What happened with the doctor?"

"Go away," he repeated.

"Fine. Don't tell me what's wrong. I'm only your wife. I'm only the one who has to deal with your crisis."

"Just shut up and leave me alone. I don't want to see anybody right now."

"Good! Then you can deal with it all on your own!"

Bob heard a resentful door smack and the sound of her cross being dragged away. Bob woefully lay under his covers. He glanced at a family picture on the dresser. He got up from the bed and viewed the picture. It was a photo of the entire family at an amusement park. Neither he nor his family had been altered. His delusions must not extend to pictures, he concluded. He turned on the television to see if the images on the screen were normal. They were. Bob got back into bed and watched television for six straight hours. He found comfort in viewing all the unaltered people on screen.

Around midnight he heard a banging on the bedroom door. "Bob, I've left you alone long enough," his wife yelled. "Now let me in. I want to go to bed."

"Can you sleep on the couch?" Bob asked hopefully.

"Open the door!"

Bob reluctantly got out of bed, crept to the bedroom door, and opened it. His crucified wife appeared before him. Her martyred figure looked even more ominous without the daylight. "Thank you," she said bitterly and began sidestepping through the doorway.

"Wait," Bob said, looking at her cross. "I'm still not feeling well."

"Well what's wrong with you?"

"I don't know."

"You went all the way to the doctors and don't know what's wrong?"

"I just need some rest," he replied.

"Well so do I. So let me in the room and we can rest together."

"You don't understand. Just your presence is going to make me feel uneasy."

"I spent the entire day cleaning the house, doing laundry, and ironing your shirts. My back is killing me. I'm sleeping on my bed!"

Bob glumly moved aside. His wife crab walked through the doorway and dragged her cross to the bathroom. She changed for bed, but when she reappeared, Bob didn't notice any difference. She still had on her crown of thorns, soiled Roman tunic, and sandals.

His wife and her gigantic cross took up nearly all the bed. Frustrated, Bob seized his pillow, snatched a blanket, and barged downstairs. He turned the living room couch into a bed and tried to go to sleep. By not taking the Zolexabaltazac, he hoped and prayed the hallucinations would be gone by morning. It wasn't easy for him to fall asleep with so much on his mind, but after a few hours he eventually dozed off.

He was awakened the next day by the morning sunlight streaming through a nearby window. He shifted his leg and heard a clinking sound. Bob moaned woefully and looked down. He was still in his prison outfit; the ball and chain was still fastened to his ankle.

Bob began screaming like a madman. His alarmed family ran down the stairs, one by one. The first family member to arrive was his four-hundred-pound daughter, Shari.

"What the hell, dad," she shouted.

Bob scowled at the obese image of his daughter and screamed even louder. She tried to grab hold of him with her plump little fingers but Bob violently pushed her away. A quick round of trumpets was sounded and his daughter Marian arrived. She was dressed in fine jewels and a glittering gown. The glimmer from her dress and jewels enraged Bob further. He hysterically kicked over furniture and smashed any ornaments he could lay his hands on. His crucified wife came down last. She tried to subdue her incensed husband but with both her hands bound to a cross she had little success.

Eventually Bob ran out of gas. Tired and panting, he drifted to the corner of the room and flopped onto the floor. He curled his body into a tiny ball and miserably moaned for the rest of the morning. His family looked on with fright and concern.

Four years later.

Bob looked through the viewfinder of his digital camcorder. On the pint-sized screen was a middle-aged woman seated in an armchair. She had a slim body and a mousy face. Her hands were tucked between her thighs, her shoulders were meekly hunched, and her gaze was soft and pliable. Bob turned away from the camera's viewfinder and looked at the woman with his own eyes.

She was now a doormat with arms, legs, and a face. Across her doormat body was the word, "WELCOME." Bob reflectively leaned back. Behind him was a wall covered with psychology degrees and a multitude of accolades.

He cleared his throat and spoke in a practiced, confident tone. "It's obvious to me that you see yourself as a doormat."

The doormat shamefully nodded.

"But that's okay," Bob comforted. "It's merely your self-perception. And self-perceptions can be changed. I once perceived myself as a prisoner, stuck in a miserable, oppressive life. Now when I see myself, I see a free human being. Not only that, I see a worthwhile psychologist with a singular gift to help others."

Bob was not fibbing. He no longer appeared in a prison outfit. He wore a smart sweater vest, academic blazer, slacks, and penny loafers. Bob crossed his legs, toked on his pipe, and continued.

"Through our sessions what I'd like you to grasp is this: self-perception is the root of our emotions. How you feel about yourself and how others feel about you all starts with how you see yourself. So you must start seeing yourself in a happier, healthier light. If you see yourself as a doormat, then you're going to feel like a doormat, and everybody is going to treat you like a doormat. See yourself as a strong, confident person, people will respond to you as a strong, confident person. But it all starts with discarding that malignant self-perception of yours. Change that for the better, and a healthier, happier life will follow. Believe me. I've seen it happen to members of my own family, and I've seen it happen to my patients, time and time again."

Bob took another toke on his pipe. "So as we move forward our main focus is going to be on your self-perception, and on how we're going to change it to a more pleasing, comfortable, healthier you. I'll have you come back for another appointment, and another, and another, till your self-perception changes."

"But how will I know when it's changed," the doormat asked anxiously.

Bob leaned forward, unworried. "I'll see it."

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