Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
I’M ABOUT TO TELL MY therapist something that I’ve never told anyone before. I shouldn’t be nervous because it’s Ms. Hazel (she’s heard it all by now), and nothing matters anymore anyway. But still, it’s going to be strange admitting this out loud for the first time.
“Can I tell you something?” I ask.
Ms. Hazel pauses from unwrapping her caramel hard candy to offer her full attention.
I clear my throat. “I think… I’m lonely.”
She pops the candy into her mouth, smiling. “It’s terrific to hear you say that.”
My forehead crinkles with confusion. “I don’t know if I’d consider it terrific.”
“It’s not terrific that you’re lonely,” she clarifies, shattering the caramel between her teeth. “It’s terrific that you told me.”
I like Ms. Hazel. I knew I would on day one. Oddly enough, it started with her office. You know how they say people look like their dogs? I think therapists look like their offices, and a therapist’s office can tell you a lot.
Take Dr. Oregon. He had deep wrinkles carved into his face, like the cracked hardwood floor he insisted I sit on cross-legged and shoeless. I quit after our first session, not because I don’t want my therapist to have wrinkles, but because I appreciate chairs. Mr. Ramplewood had chronically bloodshot eyes and only wore gray, which matched the vibes of his dreary, water-damaged basement clinic. If he ever quits being a therapist—and he really should—I’d suggest Mr. Ramplewood follow his true calling and become a haunted house tour guide.
But Ms. Hazel’s has a real Museum Collector Meets Amateur Hoarder energy, and for whatever reason, I dig it. We’re sitting in identical brown-leather chairs separated by a coffee table covered in ancient psychology magazines, candy dishes to feed her self-diagnosed sugar addiction, and discolored rings from decades of coaster-less drinks. Faded floral wallpaper is hardly visible between rows and rows of shelves housing worn books and broken trinkets, and there are enough crookedly hung photos to sufficiently fill the interior of an office ten times larger than the one we’re in. It may be a minimalist’s nightmare, but I could tell, even during our first session, that the room’s noisiness strangely helps in quieting my mind.
And Ms. Hazel, dwarfed in a waffle-knit sweater and yellow scarf despite the late-summer heat, is an extension of the elaborate room she’s spent decades curating. An immovable gray crown of hair rests atop her head, and sparkly earrings shaped like ice cream cones dangle on the outside of her gargantuan glasses, which look like they were custom made for a beach ball with eyes—not a shrinking sixtysomething-year-old (though, somehow, they suit her.)
Sure enough, unlike Dr. Oregon and Mr. Ramplewood, I’ve enjoyed my visits with Ms. Hazel. Not necessarily because she’s a better therapist than they are—although I think she is—or because her office is more comforting than theirs—although I know it is. I like Ms. Hazel because she gives it to me straight. Like I’m sure she will right now. So I ask, “Why did you suspect that I’m lonely? What gave it away?”
Without a moment of hesitation, Ms. Hazel breathes, “Everything.”
My eyes pop at her bluntness, but Ms. Hazel doesn’t seem to care as she springs up and starts busying herself around the room yet again.
During our first few sessions, I got a bit irritated having a therapist who apparently couldn’t focus on me longer than thirty seconds at a time before bouncing off to a different task. But I grew to appreciate this eccentricity as I realized Ms. Hazel could be tinkering with a lampshade or pulling apart nesting dolls and still absorb my every word. She’s not interested in performing the part of Good Therapist just to make me happy. And come to think of it, I sort of despised how intently the other two would stare into my eyes while pretending to care about the words coming out of my mouth. In their offices, I felt like I was on display, but in Ms. Hazel’s, I feel like I’m just a part of it. And I like that.
She stops at her desk and starts rifling through paperwork before finding my session notes. “Here they are,” she sighs. “Clark, I first suspected that you’re lonely because you’ve mentioned that you’ve been feeling down since Sadie moved across the country, and that developing new friendships has been tough for an introvert like yourself—understandably so. It doesn’t help that Sadie appears to be, as you once put it, living her best life without you in Texas.” She emphasizes living her best life like it’s an important clinical specification.
“But then your mom and dad are in the middle of a divorce, which, as we’ve discussed before, can bring about feelings of abandonment,” she continues. “And, as I noted last week, it seems as though you’ve been succumbing to staying within an increasingly small comfort zone, which, I’ve found, ironically leads to more discomfort, like loneliness.” She looks up at me with a sad smile. “All of that is to say, it sounds lonely in that head of yours, Clark.”
She’s entirely correct, but Ms. Hazel doesn’t even know the half of it.
The half of it being the biggest source of my loneliness.
It’s not worth bringing that up to her now, though. Believe me, I’ve tried. Three times. The first resulted in a concerned phone call to my mom, the second sparked a surprisingly hearty laugh—immediately followed by her choking on a caramel—and the third concluded with Ms. Hazel gently suggesting I watch fewer sci-fi movies. And since I’m actually hoping for some clarity today, I’ll pass on an attempt four right now.
“How do I beat loneliness?” I ask. Her answer won’t change my predicament, but knowing Ms. Hazel, it’ll at least be interesting.
“Aha!” she squeals, pointing at me from across the office with a stiff finger.
I jump. Ms. Hazel never squeals.
“That’s a great question,” she says. “I love that question, Clark. Because it shows you understand that loneliness can be a somewhat fleeting, fluid feeling, and not a chronic, immovable state of being. Many people aren’t so convinced.”
I’m not as convinced as Ms. Hazel seems to think I am (but I keep my mouth shut).
“Clark, I know what I want your homework to be this week,” she says, returning to her chair with a pen and notepad, scribbling away excitedly as she sits. “It’s a four-part challenge that I’ve found can work really well if the patient commits.”
I tilt my head, thinking I misheard. “Did you say a four-part challenge?”
“That’s correct, yes,” she says.
That’s… strange, too.
Ms. Hazel’s homework for me is always simple and straightforward.
“Here’s how I think you can beat loneliness, Clark—or, at the very least, begin to make progress,” she says. “Number one: try to make a new friend, rather than just looking forward to graduating high school soon, and—”
“Hold on,” I cut in.
My heart thuds. “Did you just say ‘try to make a new friend’?”
“Are you sure?” I triple check. “That’s my homework?”
She nods again, but slower.
That’s not right. She wasn’t supposed to say that. That’s not my homework.
That’s never been my homework today, no matter what we’ve talked about.
She waits for me to explain my confusion, but I don’t. “Did I say something to upset you, Clark?” she asks.
“No, it’s just…” I trail off. “Never mind. Sorry. Okay, so, try to make a new friend. What’s the second part?”
She clears her throat and looks back down at her notes. “The second part is…”
Gratitude journal. Of course that’s what it’s going to be, just like every today.
“… help someone who could use it,” she says. “Research shows that helping others can not only be incredibly gratifying, but it often connects us to others in meaningful ways.”
What the hell is going on?
Ms. Hazel really has gone completely off script.
Sure, I go off script all the time. I deviate in just about every therapy session, asking off-the-wall questions and playing devil’s advocate. But my deviations have never once forced Ms. Hazel to change her homework assignment for me.
So, I repeat: What the hell is going on?
I stand, circle the coffee table, and hunch over her side. Her handwriting reads, to my complete shock:
Clark’s 4 tips to beating loneliness:
Try to make a new friend.
Help someone who could use it.
Be vulnerable so others can be too.
Do the thing that scares you.
“Are you serious?” I say, stepping back.
“Clark.” She laughs. “Why are you so aghast? Does this feel like too much homework for one week? Is that it?” She nods supportively. “To be clear: you don’t have to try all four tips this week. How about we start with just one?”
“What about the gratitude journal?” I ask, feeling sweat collect on my brow.
Her eyes widen, appearing even larger and more distorted than usual through the lenses of her glasses. Ms. Hazel flips back a page in her notes, showing me what’s on the other side. It reads, as I expected it would:
Clark’s homework assignment: start a gratitude journal.
“Now, how in the world did you know that I wanted you to start a gratitude journal?” she asks, bewildered. “That had been your homework—until you mentioned your loneliness.”
Until you mentioned your loneliness.
I’ve said way more wackier things to Ms. Hazel in this office. Why would telling her that I’m lonely make any bit of difference?
I’m silent, weighing my options.
Should I lean into Ms. Hazel’s unprecedented deviation in search of an answer and probably confuse the hell out of her? Or should I give it up and just go with the flow?
Before I can make up my mind, Ms. Hazel leans in, deciding for me. “You sneaked into my office before our session and peeked at my notes, didn’t you?” she asks with a smirk. “That’s how you knew about my gratitude journal idea? I won’t be angry if you did, Clark.”
I return to my seat, perplexed. “You caught me.”
Ms. Hazel smiles, proud of herself for seemingly figuring it out.
But she doesn’t get it. And how could she?
“Let’s talk about my third and fourth tips to beating loneliness,” she carries on. “Vulnerability. It’s contagious, as we discussed last month, and opening up to others is often the catalyst for them to feel comfortable opening up to you. That’s exactly how we build meaningful bonds. And then tip number four: do the thing that scares you.” Ms. Hazel pauses dramatically before continuing.
“We all have a thing that scares us, right? A terrifying thing we know we should do, or say, or try, because it’s the right thing to do, or say, or try? It may not be intuitive, but I’ve found that it’s often doing the scary things that reap the biggest rewards in terms of nurturing relationships with the ones we love—and nurturing relationships with ourselves. And…” She pauses, this time sensing that I’m distracted. “Clark?”
It’s incredibly difficult for me to focus because, for some inexplicable reason, one of the unbreakable laws in the rulebook I’ve been forced to abide by just got broken, and I have no idea how or why that could have happened.
So here’s the thing, in case it isn’t clear: I’ve been stuck in a time loop. That sounds ridiculous, I know, but I’m not sure what else to call it. A temporal loop? A causal loop? The internet has lots of names for it (and none of them truly reflect how terrible they are). Basically, the same day is repeating itself. Nonstop. Presumably until the end of the Earth, because nothing I do has seemed to stop it.
To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only one aware that this is happening—or the only one that it’s happening to. Everyone else wakes up and takes on the day as if they haven’t already experienced it several times before. But in my world? Yesterday was today, just like today is today, and tomorrow will be today, too. Three weeks from yesterday? September 19. Four months ago? September 19.
And around and around and around we go.
Like I said, I’ve already told Ms. Hazel three times about the time loop to no avail. Even if I could find someone who’d believe me, they’d forget about it by the next today anyway. That’s the main reason why I’m lonely. That’s why I’m depressed. That’s why my life—if you can even call it that anymore—is pretty much meaningless at this point. Sure, Ms. Hazel’s new homework assignment is a bit baffling (to say the least). But as much as I want to hope that a broken time loop rule could be a clue in my effort to escape, I’ve been let down far too many times in this today to be fooled once again.
Still, I’ll give Ms. Hazel some credit. She may be right in that Mom and Dad parting ways and Sadie moving to Austin haven’t exactly helped when it comes to my loneliness. But life goes on after your parents separate and your best friend suddenly lives three states away.
It just can’t when you’re stuck in a time loop for the rest of eternity.