“Doctor Alex,” the patient said, “do you think there really is such a thing as karma?”
Looking out the window at the heavy clouds and the occasional and improbable snowflake drifting by, the doctor seemed to be considering the question but was actually thinking about the drab, young woman lying on his couch. Gabriele Taylor recently moved to Miami and claimed to possess a unique phobia. If she turned out to be half as interesting as her preliminary workup made her out to be, she might be an entire chapter in his next book. While not the top of his class as a psychiatrist, he’d written a couple of successful self-help books and was always looking for new material.
“Karma, Miss Taylor?” He took a seat at his desk, resisting the urge to turn up the thermostat again. “Do you feel you’ve done something you need to make amends for?”
“I must have.” She looked up at him with big brown eyes. Gabriele Taylor was in her mid-twenties, although she appeared older. Limp brown hair framed a thin and tired face, and her body was soft and padded in all the wrong places. “Why else would this be happening to me? Other therapists laughed at me. Said they didn’t even have a name for my phobia.”
“Really?” Dr. Alex asked. He suddenly paid attention. “Well, I’ve been able to help a lot of people, Miss Taylor. I believe by working together we can wrestle that demon of yours into submission.”
Her eyes opened wide, and he saw they were no longer brown but the same muddy gray as the sky outside the window.
“I hope so,” she said. “I’m at the end of my rope. If I look for anyplace warmer, I’ll have to leave the U.S.”
He gave her his biggest smile, a smile that worked well with his female patients. “Miss Taylor, may I call you Gabriele? I am intrigued by your case. On the phone, you said that the cold is trying to kill you?”
“Winter,” she corrected. “Actually, my grandmother.”
“Which is it?” he asked, picking up his notebook for the first time. “Is winter or your grandmother trying to kill you?”
“Both.” She seemed embarrassed. “I suppressed my grandmother trying to kill me —”
“Let’s start with the phobia,” he interjected. “When did you become afraid of winter?”
“When it tried to kill me. I was working in a New England summer camp. I was in two bad car accidents, months apart, both of them due to snow and ice.”
“New England does have blizzards,” he said.
“It was summer.”
“Oh. Were you hurt?”
“No. I managed to get my seatbelt off and jump free.”
“I still don’t understand what this has to do with your grandmother.”
Gabriele took a deep breath. “My grandmother is winter. Wherever I move, she follows me. It’s only a matter of time until she succeeds in catching me.”
“Why would your grandmother want to kill you?” He took more notes. This girl’s unique phobia, along with its background, could be his entire next book.
“She has to kill me so I can become winter and take her place.” Gabriele sounded sincere. “It’s a family thing.”
“Yes. I keep going south, thinking it will be warmer and harder for her to kill me, but so far all I’ve done is cause unseasonable climate changes. Look out that window if you don’t believe me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Those are snow clouds! In Miami. She’s going to get me this time for sure.” Gabriele twisted a large ring on her finger and glanced at the window.
“Where does she live, your grandmother?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ve not seen Granny Grizz since I was a child. I didn’t remember her much at all until I recalled the day she tried to kill me.”
“Let’s pursue that. Why does your grandmother, who you believe is the spirit of winter, want you dead?”
“I told you—it’s a family thing,” Gabriele said, shuddering when a gust of wind made the window rattle.
He stopped writing, wondering if Gabriele needed to be hospitalized. “You believe you’re winter’s replacement?”
Gabriele nodded. “Oh, yes. She’s supposed to kill me so she can pass on the mantle of perpetual cold and ice. It’s easier to transfer to a family member, I guess. My mama had a touch of mountain magic, and she said there might be a way to transfer…” She gave me a peculiar gaze and stopped talking.
“Tell me a little about your grandmother,” he said. “Why do you hate her?”
“I don’t hate her! She hates me. My mother’s family is from the Appalachian Mountains and Daddy was from the city. When he married Mama, my grandmother never forgave her.”
“No, for marrying above herself. Grandma called Dad uppity and me a spoiled princess.”
“It must have been difficult growing up in that environment. Was it unseasonably cold even then?”
Gabriele stared at him. “Of course! She was WINTER â€“ cold, gray, and bitter. I don’t know how many centuries she’s been the cruelest season. All I know is that when I turned seven she wanted me to take over.”
He frowned. It was obvious she was delusional. “So she was a mean old woman when you were growing up in a poor, disenfranchised community. You blamed her for your situation by creating a fantasy of her being a higher being of some kind?”
“Poor? No, I was raised in the city with my dad’s people. We hardly ever saw my evil grandmother. Mama didn’t go visit very often because of the mean things Grandma said about Dad and me. It surprised my folks when she offered to watch me for a week when Dad was working out of state. Grandma suggested Mama go visit him.”
“Did she molest you?” If she had, Dr. Alex would have a bestseller on his hands.
“No!” Gabriele made a face. “Mama had a dream about Granny Grizz taking me to a big stump in the forest and slitting my throat open with her claws. Mama arrived just in time to grab me off that stump. She never went home again.”
“Children’s memories are not always accurate, Gabriele.”
She sat up. “You’ve got to believe me! Jenny Kominowski, a woman I met in my office, said you were good.”
He stopped writing. If he’d known Gabriele was a friend of Jenny’s, he’d never have accepted her as a client. Things had not ended well with Jenny, although he was in no way responsible for her suicide. He’d dropped her as a client before they’d slept together. It wasn’t his fault fragile Jenny had seen their relationship as something more permanent.
What had Jenny told Gabriele about him? Did the winterphobe know about the lawsuit?
“I cannot discuss previous patients, and I’m not sure how I can help you with your grandmother. Who thought there may be a way out of this family curse?” They always imagined if they could do something—find the Holy Grail, discover the right therapist, rebalance the karma—they could solve their problem. Fortunately for his bank account, they couldn’t.
“Mama,” said Gabriele. “She said if I could find someone as cold and heartless as my grandmother, then Granny Grizz might leave me alone. It’s old blood magic.”
A gust of icy rain splattered against the window and made him jump.
“If she doesn’t find someone soon,” continued Gabriela, “she’ll be stuck as winter forever. She’s getting desperate if she’s come this far south.”
He shivered and said, “Well, Gabriele, I’m afraid that our time is up this week. I think you’ve brought up some very interesting ideas, and we’ll work together to determine what is causing your problem and how we can deal with it.”
She nodded and stood before walking to the window. “Thank you, Doctor. Maybe I won’t have any bear dreams tonight.”
“You dream of bears?”
“Grizzly bears,” she said. “That’s why she’s called Granny Grizz; she turns into a grizzly bear in the winter. Sometimes in the snow and sleet, I can see her big lumbering form in the distance. Funny, I don’t see her now.”
Before he could comment, she took his hand in a strong, warm grip. He felt a sharp pain in his palm and jerked his hand back.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Gabriele said. “This is grandmother’s old ring. It’s always snagging on something. Are you okay?”
He pressed his thumb against the scratch. “Yes, I’m fine.” He didn’t feel fine. He felt strangely flushed. “You say you know Jenny Kominowski?”
“Very well,” she said with an evil smile. “Thank you for everything, Doctor. I’ll make an appointment with your secretary for next week if we’re not snowed in by then.”
“This is Miami,” he said, rubbing the cut on his palm. “I’m sure this odd blizzard will be over soon.” He looked out the window at the unlikely snow flurries batting against the glass. As Gabriele left, he spotted a large dark shape in an alley across the street, an enormous bear shape that stared up at his windows and waited.
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