He was my last patient of the day, Henry Greenfield, an emergency referral. “Come in, Mr. Greenfield. Have a seat here by my desk.”
“Thanks for taking me on such short notice. I saw my regular doctor earlier this afternoon, and he sent me straight to you.” Henry looked around my office, studying it carefully. “Where’s the couch?”
I chuckled. “Sorry, I’ve never found much use for one.”
He sat down. I mentally catalogued his appearance: about forty, medium build, receding hairline, nervous to the point of being agitated. “Trouble at home or work, I presume?”
He fidgeted in his chair a bit, then said, “Yes. I’m a design engineer by trade, and I can’t do it anymore. Not since lippa disappeared this morning.”
“And who is Lippa?”
“Not who. What. Lippa, the integer between three and four. As in ‘one, two, three, lippa, four, five,’ et cetera. It’s gone missing.”
Curious strange. Most disturbed people see things that weren’t there. This guy’s problem was that he didn’t see things that weren’t there.
I’d studied the faxes received from his GP before Henry’s appointment, so I knew there wasn’t anything physically obvious that could explain his sudden aberrant thoughts. No evidence of drugs or outliers in his most recent blood panels, blood pressure and pulse rate slightly elevated but not alarmingly so, everything else nominal. Henry was in excellent health. Of course, he might have suffered a mild stroke this morning, but I knew his GP had checked him carefully for that.
“Have you been under any kind of unusual stress lately, Mr. Greenfield?”
“Yes, but only because I can no longer do proper calculations. In my line of work, I guess you could count that as very highly stressful.”
I jotted down a pair of numbers on a notepad, 469 + 231, and handed it to him. He wrote the answer and handed it back to me. It was wrong. Furthermore, his answer included a strange, squiggly character, shaped a little like an upside-down “J.”
“And this character, I presume, is your missing ‘lippa’?”
“Of course. How can any sane person do math without it? It’s disappeared from my calculator, my computer keyboard, calendars, store price tags, elevator buttons, phone books—and I seem to be the only one who’s noticed that it’s gone!”
“I don’t know about sane, Mr. Greenfield, but you appear to be operating under a base-11 number system. The rest of the world around you is using a base-10 system. And I’ve never heard of the number ‘lippa.’ How do you explain that?”
Henry looked down at his lap, sighed and shook his head. “I can’t explain it. I can only surmise that some kind of major discontinuity in modal reality occurred this morning, and the world I now find myself in is . . . wrong, wrong, wrong!” He began to weep.
“There, there, Mr. Greenfield.” I reached over and handed him a tissue from the box on my desk. “We can figure out where this all emanated from, and resolve it. You came to the right place for that.”
I was lying, of course. For most of my clients, I failed to deliver much in the way of lasting succor. Mostly, I just prescribed happy pills. My profession promises a lot, but in the final analysis, delivers too little.
“I don’t doubt that I’m in the right place, Dr. Ware,” Henry said. “It’s just that . . . I’m not sure I’ve gone crazy. Can you convince me otherwise?”
I paused before I answered. Was he crazy? Too soon to tell. “I’m not prepared to make that judgment, not now. Lots of people suffer a similar . . . detachment from reality. Often it’s only temporary. But always, there’s a cause for it. That’s what we need to establish, in your case.”
I leaned back in my chair and pulled a prescription pad out of my drawer. “I’m going to write you a scrip for some mild anti-anxiety pills, Mr. Greenfield. There’s a pharmacy in the lobby downstairs. We’ll schedule a follow-up appointment for next week, where we can pursue this further. Is that okay with you?”
Henry grunted, took the scrip and rose to leave. He paused at the door to my office and looked back at me.
“Dr. Ware, I didn’t get a chance to tell you what worries me the most about all this.”
“Go ahead,” I said.
“With lippa missing, it’s a given that all engineering calculations done in this world are wrong. In light of that, things will begin to fail soon, from little consumer doodads to bridges and buildings, satellites, rockets and such. Fail catastrophically. It’s been weighing on me.”
I nodded my head slowly. “We’ll talk more about that next week, Mr. Greenfield.”
He left, and I looked down at my notepad for a long time, staring at that funny curlicue figure. It seemed to drill into my brain. Did I truly not recognize it? At length, my head began to ache. I got my coat, locked the office behind me and went home.
Or, rather to say, I tried to go home. I couldn’t find my home; it simply wasn’t there any more. To be sure, my next-door neighbors’ apartments were still there—except they were situated right next to each other: Apartments 233 and 234. Mine had apparently been squeezed out of existence—as if some sort of ontological puckering and refolding of the universe had occurred and spirited it away.
So now I’m dreading tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I’ll have to deal with lots and lots of emergency appointments.
What’s even worse is that, as of a few hours ago, I can no longer see the primary color huva. It’s gone missing.
Luckily, unlike the proverbial village with only one barber, psychiatrists have their own psychiatrists to help them deal with their problems.
For all the good that’ll do me . . .
Gary Cuba lives with the smartest person he ever met (his wife, that is) and a teeming horde of freeloading domestic critters in South Carolina, USA. Besides numerous appearances in Stupefying Stories, his quirky short fiction has been published in more than a hundred magazines and anthologies, including Nature Futures, Daily Science Fiction, Universe Annex/Grantville Gazette and Penumbra. See http://www.thefoggiestnotion.com to find links to some of his other work and to learn more about him.
Gary has been a regular contributor to Stupefying Stories and SHOWCASE since the beginning, starting with “Oogie Tucker’s Mission” in our third issue, continuing with “Going Out With a Bang” and “Nonsense 101” in the now out-of-print Stupefying Stories issues 1.9 and 1.10 and “Seek Vista” in SHOWCASE #1 (back when SHOWCASE was a weekly webzine), and most recently with “Bottoms Up” and “Product Flaw” in SHOWCASE and “The Anniversary Gift” in Stupefying Stories 1.14.
If the column alignment has worked as it should, Stupefying Stories 1.14 (March 2015, cover story “50-Foot Romance,” by Eric J. Juneau), should be visible in the right column right about now. Do us a favor and click through to it, would you?