"That's not something you can blame yourself for. You did what was best for you."
Atul attempted to push his lips to form a response, but he hadn't even decided if he wanted to just agree with Dr. Bishop or oppose. Either way, he would have to use mental energy that he just didn't have at the time. He hadn't even felt like going to his appointment that day, but he figured that maybe once he sat down on that velvet green couch, the words would flow from his mind. They hadn't. Instead, answering every question felt like trudging through snow.
"Did I?" Atul ended up saying, "Not many people would say dropping out of college is best for them."
"That's a common misconception," said Dr. Bishop, "It's unfortunate that we live in a culture that values academic success over mental health, because you need good mental health above all else."
"I guess that's why I'm here," Atul chuckled bitterly.
"It's not," he thought, "I just need someone to talk to. The pills are nice, but I ain't looking for anybody to fix me."
Dr. Bishop nodded.
"And it was a smart thing for you to do. Good mental health is like gasoline to a car," she said, "And if you don't have it, how do you expect to go anywhere?"
Atul nodded back, his dreary eyes apathetic.
A pause sat between the two, Dr. Bishop eyeing the man with her head slightly tilted.
"I want to ask you something."
Her statement shook the cobwebs from Atul's eyes, and for once he looked interested in the woman had to say.
"Huh? Uh sure, shoot."
Dr. Bishop put her pen down and interlaced her fingers across her notebook.
"What do you think constitutes a broken promise?" she asked.
It was such a simple question with an obvious answer, but Atul knew that it was meant to get a certain mindset from him. How he answered would let the therapist know his train of thought.
"Any time someone can't keep a promise," he said with a shrug.
"Can't?" Dr. Bishop echoed, "So if I promised to bring you an apple on Thursday, but a dog took it just before I could give it to you, is that considered a broken promise?"
"You didn't deliver, so yeah. It is."
"Even if forces beyond your control intercept the promise, it's considered broken?"
"Yes, because you disappointed the person expecting something from you."
Dr. Bishop lifted her head as if watching a thought bubble forming above her, and her mouth opened in a silent "Ah-ha!".
"So you're thinking about it from the promised person's perspective," she deduced, "Have you thought about considering the perspective of the person who made the promise?"
Atul looked at his watch, pretending to chew on her question. His time was almost up. If he looked outside, there might have been another client waiting outside to unload the gibberish in their mind and have Dr. Bishop translate it into something readable.
"I guess not," Atul said, "I should start, though."
Dr. Bishop's smile told Atul that he had sold the act well. He also has no problem mimicking her hopeful expression throughout their closing statements and confirmation of the next appointment. As he typed in a calendar notification on his phone, he brushed on the idea of going into acting.
Almost as soon as he stepped out of the cozy office and entered the stairwell, the purple apparition of a woman's face flowed from the nape of Atul's neck and rested on his shoulder like a cat. Her high cheekbones and narrow face mirrored that of the man, but in a more feminine shape.
"That lady doesn't know what she's talking about," she scoffed, her voice followed by faint echoes and the sound of whirling wind.
"Ma! You said you wouldn't eavesdrop on my appointments."
"Not the entire thing. Just the last bit," said the spirit, "I know how to keep my promises, after all."
The emphasis in her words grated on Atul's ears. He groaned and wasted no time descending the stairs to leave the building. His mother only talked to him when he was alone, since talking to a spirit no one could see would make him almost indistinguishable from the classic Hollywood lunatic.
As Atul made his way down the sidewalk, his mother's attention immediately adjusted to the passerby.
"Oh my god, does that girl really think she can pull off that shirt? She needs something loose-fitting and dark to hide that gut. What do people like that even think when they leave the house? And look at that guy across the street. He's totally gay. Just look at the way he walks and holds his head up. I mean, it's okay if you're gay, but you don't have to be a queen about it. Oof! Dear god, what happened to that girl?! Are those burn marks or something? Why didn't she put on makeup?"
"It's vitiligo," Atul murmured, "It's that skin condition that makes your skin different colors."
He winced when he noticed the confused look from the guy sitting at the bus stop.
"No, I wasn't talking to you," Atul thought, "I just don't know how to keep my mouth shut sometimes."
"She should still put on some foundation or something to cover it up," said Atul's mother.
She gave similar exclamations of the people around Atul, making the man lower his head with guilt and shove his hands further in his pockets. Even though no one could hear her except for him, hearing her harsh criticism while looking at the passerby made him feel like they were coming from his own thoughts.
Over time, he found that one of the few places he was safe from the criticism was the bookstore between his home and Dr. Bishop's office. There weren't many things inside to trigger her negativity. She had already seen all of the employees and given her opinions long ago. As for the few customers that visited, not many of them caught her eye. So long as he stayed near the fiction books and avoided books about lifestyle choices or academics, Atul could earn some peace and quiet.
Before that, though, Atul would always grab something to eat from the small cafe in the corner. Today was no different.
He walked towards the counter where the same server always stood. She was a petite girl with large rimmed glasses and a mousy air about her. Atul's mother thought that she looked like the target demographic for this bookstore, which was one of her lighter assessments.
As always, the server gave a polite smile when Atul reached speaking distance, and nodded in greeting.
"Hi, how are you?" she asked.
"Decent enough. You?"
"Very good, thank you! Do you need a moment to order?"
"Nah, I'll take the usual."
The server nodded and turned to brew a fresh pot of coffee before crafting a croissant sandwich.
"Coffee dulls your teeth, you know," Atul's mother said, "Your teeth are already crooked. The least you could do is keep them white."
The server looked up, still smiling.
"She doesn't seem very nice," she said.
Atul's lax posture stiffened and his mother's fluid form became jagged for a brief second. Both looked at one another before looking around themselves for another possible "she".
"The ghost on your shoulder," said the server.
The spirit gasped and Atul's eyes widened.
"Wait a-you can see her?" he asked, pointing to his mother.
The server's gaze lowered shyly as she finished wrapping the sandwich.
"Yeah, I always have, but I didn't feel like it was my place to say anything."
Atul couldn't contain the laugh at the girl's meekness. Though, part of it was also a form of relief. Finally, someone could see her, the spirit that weighed heavily on him every moment of everyday.
"Oh my god…" he said, covering his eyes in disbelief.
The girl fumbled unsurely.
"S-Sorry, it's just," she started, "I've overheard some of the things she says to you, and you don't seem very happy."
The purple spirit scoffed, "Excuse me? Who are you to make wild assumptions about other people? I could assume you dropped out of college, too, if you're working alone at the dusty cafe."
"Ma!" A fiery red flushed Atul's copper brown face.
"It's fine," said the server, "My parents taught me not to be hurt by hateful people."
"Well, they sure didn't teach you any manners. If anyone in our family spoke like that…"
"If you don't mind me asking, is she your mom?" the server spoke over Atul's mother without raising her voice.
The patience and tranquility with which she was able to do so shocked the man.
"Uh, yeah," Atul said, struggling to focus on his words with his mother's scolding, "She died three years ago."
The server nodded, repeating, "Three years…" as she looked sadly at the spirit.
"She must have a reason for not letting go and moving on," she said, "I don't mean to get too personal, but is there unfinished business between you two? Is she holding onto something related to you?"
Atul hung his head, shaking it solemnly.
The server couldn't see the look of anguish on his face, but she could sense the distress.
"A grudge, definitely," the man said sarcastically.
He lifted his head up and spoke up in a slightly louder volume.
"Had a mental breakdown in college and dropped out." He gestured to his mother. "She said it broke a promise we made when I was a kid."
"To finish college?"
Again, Atul shook his head, this time to signal, "No," instead of in defeat.
"To not break her heart like everyone else in her life," he said, "The whole family saw her as a piggy bank and left her out to dry. I was supposed to graduate and get a job that would put her back on her feet, but…"
Atul's mother, who was just shouting about being ignored and having their family secrets told, was now wailing.
"You just took advantage of me like everyone else! I worked for every penny I earned and you threw it all away because you were weak and selfish!"
"That's all I needed to hear," said the server.
She set the sandwich aside and stepped around the counter.
Atul watched curiously as she approached him, and was surprised when she reached up to take a hold of both sides of his head.
She stared straight into his tired eyes with her doe-like ones. Her short height made Atul crane towards her at an uncomfortable angle.
"Almost empty," she said, "She's nearly drained all of the life out of you."
Atul attempted a sarcastic joke, but the server said, "Hold still, even if you see anything weird."
A red spirit rose from the server's back, dwarfing her and darkening the area around them. Atul was too close to the server's face to see its full inhuman shape, but the aura it created tingled his nerves.
Atul's breath quickened, and he barely managed to utter the phrase, "Wh-What the fu…."
"He'll take her away from you," said the server, "He only looks scary, but he won't do anything harmful. I promise."
For once, Atul noticed a silence in his left ear. His mother, the purple spirit, did not speak or make a single noise. He could still see her from the corner of his eye, but she was only staring up at the red spirit.
"I need to ask you now," the server said, "Do I have permission to remove this burden?"
Atul swallowed thickly, tears brimming his eyes. A shaky smile formed on his trembling lips.
"Y-Yes…" he answered.
The server, Camille, and Atul sat in the dining area, two cups of steaming coffee sitting between them as they watched the pedestrians outside.
"This may sound weird, but I'm really glad to see you smile for once," Camille said.
"What's weird about it? We've known each other long enough for you to have memorized by order."
Camille gave a shy giggle, smiling into her coffee cup.
Atul leaned forward in his seat.
"So, what was that thing anyway? Did you make a deal with the devil or something or…?" he asked.
"That's pretty close, actually," she said, "I'd like to consider it a promise on both of our ends, though. And he's not the devil, per se, but he does punish malicious souls until they've learned whatever lesson needs to be learned. The greedy learn to be charitable. The abusers learn to love. And the list goes on"
"Mm-hm," said Atul, "Well, it's good to know my mom won't be damned for eternity. She was awful, but not that awful."
"Yeah, she shouldn't be in there too long before she's ready for the real afterlife."
Atul looked out at the window, able to observe the passerby without judgement.
"So why is he attached to you?" he asked.
Camille put her coffee down.
"I was on the verge of dying from a tumor," she said, putting her hand on her side, "And I was willing to ask anyone for help."
Atul looked back at Camille.
"Pretty dangerous risk," he remarked, "Though I guess you were already in a pretty dangerous situation to begin with."
"And if I get to live my life helping people like you, I can honestly say I'm pretty happy with my decision."