MOLD ON THE CEILING by Katherine Tweedle

Sophie had never thought twice about the décor in her mind palace. That was, until her counselor barged into her secret space and perched in her favorite armchair. 

One moment, the women sat in an office tinted a chi-centering blue; the next, the room had transformed into a dim sitting room. Sophie blanched, her private life now public. Dr. Erwin seemed unabashed, if not actually bored, continuing to pull on a fountain soda the size of a prize pumpkin. 

The room was Yin and Yang: clutter and cleanliness; one half as immaculate as a museum, the other half, a virtual kaleidoscope of crap. A thick, musty smell crawled through the air.

Dr. Erwin’s eyes roved over their new surroundings and settled on a shaggy patch of mold inching across the ceiling. She spoke in a lazy drawl, the straw wedged between her lips. “I like what you’ve done with the place.” 

Sophie flinched at the quip. “Could we maybe—? Go back to your office?”

“You don’t like how I work?” The counselor’s tired eyes froze her. 

A flush rose up Sophie’s neck as her eyes slid from the pristine gallery on one wall to the other half of the room. Crowding around them lay piles of books like fallen avalanches, crumbling cardboard boxes of corroded spectacles, and ragged grocery bags bulging with splinters of previously-fine china.  

“Do you collect anything, Doctor?” Sophie asked, plumping a pillow beside her. A puff of dust exploded in her face.  

“Everyone’s got junk.” 

“I don’t know about junk. Lots of hobbies, maybe.” Sophie swept her arms wide, elbowing a stack of magazines that flapped to the floor.

Dr. Erwin waved a dismissive hand. “Baggage is normal,” she finally said. Then she pulled a face, her cheeks bulging, and Sophie realized with revulsion the woman was trying to smile.

Sophie reflexively perused the wall around them for the expected credential frames, but of course, if they’d been in Dr. Erwin’s office, she couldn’t see them now.

“Your room’s really something.” Dr. Erwin slid the straw from her drink and pointed it at the musty patch overhead. “Why do you figure that’s here?”  

Sophie frowned at the intrusive straw, but quickly recovered. “Beautiful plasterwork, isn’t it?” 

Dr. Erwin’s caterpillar eyebrows rose. “Is the plasterwork under the mold?”

“Mold? Oh that’s just—that’s been here forever. How about this?” Sophie scurried over to remove a glass box from the gleaming mantel and drew up a chair next to the counselor. The gold inlay gleamed when she lifted the lid. 

“Naughty Box?” the counselor asked, reading the inscription.

“Yes. It has…reminders.” 

“For?” 

Sophie paused. “Anyone ever insult you?” she said. She didn’t wait for an answer. “Everyone’s flawed. Even those people.” Sophie reached in, lifting a pink note from the well-thumbed stack inside. “This one’s Marjorie,” she said, waggling the note in the air, “who seems to find other people more interesting lately.” Sophie flipped the paper onto the coffee table.  

“Charles,” she said, extracting another note. “My cat passed away this year. I was devastated. Folks offer condolences, right? Not Charles. He didn’t care.” Sophie flicked through the pile and tugged another slip. 

Dr. Erwin interrupted. “I assume you drew up some contract with him about friendship etiquette?” 

Sophie snapped the lid shut. She rose to replace the box, taking care to ensure it was centered.  

“Did you confront these people?”

“I’d be wasting my time.” Sophie returned to the couch and stretched out. Her foot nudged a box beneath the coffee table. She stiffened, looking like she’d just swallowed an ice cube. 

Dr. Erwin leaned forward and squinted. “What’s that?”

Sophie shrugged. “That’s nothing. Not very pretty.”

Dr. Erwin’s eyes met Sophie’s, a controlled softness in her gaze. “Neither is mine.” The counselor’s exhaustion was radiating. It was a little sad; Sophie felt it too.

Sophie reluctantly lifted the box. It was glass like the first, but the panels were foggy with dust, the fastenings dark with rust. 

“I keep throwing this nasty thing out, but it keeps coming back.” 

“That’s your Oopsie Box?”

Sophie blinked away the juvenile term. 

Inside the box lay a stack of crisp yellow notes like citations. 

“These show up a lot,” Sophie said in a low voice. Her eyes scanned the first. “Sometimes I leave my shopping cart in the lot.” She flicked her shoulders as if shrugging off a fly. 

“You feel some type of way about it?” 

“Not really,” Sophie said, and that was that. “Mary. Once, I—this was just after my cat died—intimated to a coworker that Mary’d been withdrawn lately because of her husband’s affair. Apparently there were others in the breakroom, and by day’s end, those idiots spread it to everyone on the fourth floor.” Sophie rolled her eyes into her hairline. “It was…traumatizing.”

“I know what you mean,” Dr. Erwin said. Her eyes went vacant, as if she’d left her whole body sitting there, empty, to run some errand.

“I meant difficult for Mary. She was betrayed by everyone.” 

Dr. Erwin took a disinterested pull from her soda. “Next?” 

Sophie stared at this new note as if seeing it for the first time. Her face fell. “My sister’s blind in one eye.”

“How’d it happen?” 

“You know the thing that always happens to kids who play with sticks?”

They sat in silence a while. 

Finally, Sophie blurted: “She’s forgiven me, of course.” She squeezed the papers back in the decrepit box and stuffed it under the table. 

Something shifted in the room, like a breeze, and they both looked up to see the mold above them grow. Sophie scowled.

“That’s no normal fungus,” Dr. Erwin said. 

Sophie snapped her head back down to face her. “What isn’t?”  

Dr. Erwin’s caterpillars climbed up her forehead. 

“I don’t know what that is,” Sophie insisted.

“Then I’ll tell you; you don’t wanna let it sit.” 

Sophie set her jaw. “Just leave it.”

Dr. Erwin tapped the plastic lid of her cup. “You want warm fuzzy feelings, or help?”

Without a word, Sophie rose. She crossed the room and opened the door, temporarily forgetting which way to turn the knob. 

“I’m glad you came,” Dr. Erwin called. 

Sophie pivoted. Her eyes lingered on the mold looming heavy and low. The flesh on her face hung limp as if it too were tired now. She nodded and crossed the threshold.

In the room she left behind, the mold on the ceiling flickered.

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