We were doing a booming business when Jessica came along. I got the idea from those pills on the commercials. Perhaps you've seen them. We were watching Star Trek when they came on. They advertise a cure for social anxiety, then warn that the side effects "may include dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, shortness of breath..." and so on. I turned to my best friend Dirk. "Damn. If I had diarrhea, nausea, and all that, I'd be pretty socially anxious, too."
"Well, that's the thing," said Dirk. "Social anxiety isn't the problem. It's unreasonable social anxiety. So if they put you on this pill and it gives you the runs, you're perfectly reasonable. You're cured."
I am absolutely sure that a glint appeared in my charming blue eyes. "Dirk, my lad, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Unless it involves pepperoni and extra cheese, I doubt it," he said. I filled Dirk in, and the partnership was born.
It's simple, really. All of the psychiatric problems we deal with are problems of perception, and we fix up the world to match the perception. Socially anxious? We have a little pill that causes explosive flatulence. Depressed? We'll come in and smash up your stuff and cause all manner of inconveniences to your family. Paranoid? For a nominal fee, we'll have someone follow you around.
"But you haven't really fixed my problem!" wailed one customer, farting loudly. She blushed bright scarlet.
"Of course we have, my dear," I told her. "If you went to one of those traditional shrinks -- which, I admit, you could -- you'd have to change all sorts of things. We, on the other hand, make sure you know that it is perfectly appropriate to be yourself. Your behaviors are welcomed. Your choices are the logical ones. You have explosive flatulence -- of course you're anxious about being out in society. You are, in fact, the soul of rationality. Is that a small feat? And for such a nominal retainer per week!"
She agreed -- as many of them did -- that it was no small thing. The money trickled in.
I thought Jessica would be our ultimate challenge. She was our first delusional patient. Dirk wasn't sure we should have taken her on, but I told him a consultation couldn't possibly hurt.
"Now, what seems to be the problem, dear girl?" I asked.
"I see little green men following me around."
"Little green men," I said. "I see. How little?"
"Well, not very little, actually. About my height."
"And you're about five feet and six inches?"
"I see, very good. And how green?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"What shade of green are they? Kelly green, mint green, forest green...?"
She thought for a minute. "Sort of that slime green that you see on TV. Do you think it's a media-related phenomenon? Am I watching too much TV?"
I waved a dismissive hand. "My dear girl, I am sure that is a red herring. Pay it no mind. Do they have other distinguishing features?"
"The little green men -- are they just like other men only green, or is there something special about them?"
"Well, their noses are quite small, and the tops of their heads are very wide. And they wear shimmering robes that are kind of white and kind of rainbowy."
"White and rainbowy, wide heads, small noses," I said, jotting it all down on a notepad. "Very good. I think when you come in for your next consultation, we will be able to demonstrate that all is, indeed, well. You may pay Mr. Albers on your way out."
"I already paid him on the way in."
"I suppose in that case it's not strictly necessary." When Jessica had left, I called Dirk in and described for him what he needed to do.
"Why can't you dress up as a little green man?"
"Dirk, Dirk, Dirk. As you can see, I stand six foot two in my stocking feet. Young Jessica is not seeing big green men. It will have to be you."
"I'm five foot nine!"
"You can slouch a little. The white shimmering robes will hide many faults."
"I think we should hire an actor."
I sighed, leaning forward. "You've done the books this week, Dirk. We do not have the money to pay the bills, collect good salaries, and hire an actor -- unless, of course, you can find one who works for less than union wages."
"I'll see what I can do," Dirk grumbled.
We worked out a schedule whereby the little green man (presumably Dirk) would show up at Jessica's home, peeking in her windows periodically and tapping on them if she didn't look out. He would also follow her to the gas station and make at least one appearance at her place of employment before the week was up.
I began to consider expanding the operation to more delusionals. But Dirk didn't show up for work on the following Monday. I let Jessica in myself and started temporizing. "Have you been seeing the little green men this week?"
"Oh, yes. They were at my house and at work, and I think there was one when I went to the movies on Friday, and I'm sure there was one hiking in the park on Saturday."
Dirk had surpassed himself! I was almost willing to forgive his truancy. "Were they just the same as before?"
Jessica nodded adamantly. "Absolutely. I mean, they varied, but I've seen more than one before. They're obviously individuals, like us, not just one little green man stalking me."
Hmm. I wondered if Dirk hadn't found the actor after all. "Do you find that their presence makes you anxious?"
Just then, the door of the outer office banged open. I was sure it was Dirk, and not a moment too soon. But the person who burst into my office was not Dirk at all. I assumed it was the actor. He was certainly a little green man -- no taller than five feet, and as bilious a shade of green as any children's show ever featured.
"Doctor," whispered Jessica, "I see one now."
"You mean this fellow here?" I said.
"You see him too?"
"Of course I do. He's plain as day. Sir, what is your name?"
"I am Grathnarg," said the green man.
"Grathnarg," I said. "There, you see? We have retrieved your green man. You see green men? Perfectly natural. Because here's the green man himself."
"Oh my," said Jessica faintly. "Do you mean I'm not crazy?"
"Not in the slightest," I assured her.
"Perhaps a bit," said Grathnarg.
I frowned at him. "I will remind you that this is a little green man, not a psychological practitioner. His existence is not in doubt, but his credentials...."
"I am quite an accomplished psychological practitioner among my own people," insisted Grathnarg. Well, I thought, it's not hard to be the sane one in a group of actors. Still, I don't like anyone stealing my show.
"Well, I'm afraid that we have no way of --"
"I will take you to my ship and show you my diplomas," he said.
I looked around for Dirk to appear and rescue us from the situation. Dirk was not forthcoming. If he had paid extra for this gentleman to simulate an alien spacecraft interior, I would be moved to violence. I realized that Grathnarg and Jessica were both waiting for me. "Very well," I said stiffly. "Show us your ship."
I felt a shimmering around us, and then my office disappeared in favor of flashing lights and numerical displays. "My God," I said.
Jessica's eyes shone.
I looked around the interior of the craft and spotted Dirk, crouched miserably at the console that let him look out. "There's Earth," he said mournfully, pointing at the console.
Sure enough, our planet hovered beneath us, blue and green and shimmering. I steadied myself on the bulkhead. Jessica wandered off to look at the rest of the ship. Grathnarg stayed close to Dirk and me.
"It appears that we have our very first truly well-adjusted patient," I said. "What an amazing thing! We should seek out more like her!"
"If that's the case, why should she pay us?" asked Dirk with implacable if ill-timed logic. "What have we done?"
"We've shown her her aliens," I hissed.
"They really existed. They could have shown themselves at any time."
"Ah, but we flushed them out."
Grathnarg looked from one of us to the other. "Perhaps a finder's fee would be in order?"
"She pays us for finding you?"
He shook his head. "I pay you for finding her. I would be much obliged to you if you could find others like her, who see the unusual things that are really there. I can help her, and then I can use her."
"For what?" I demanded.
"Exploration," he said softly.
Jessica didn't return with Dirk and me, but we put word out that we were interested in more delusional patients. They've trickled in a few at a time, and soon one of Grathnarg's sisters will be along to take the first load of explorers out there. Jessica will be with them.
I'm a little bit worried, though. We just got a client who sees killer robots, and Grathnarg has no idea what to do with him.