The office was spartan, mostly cream walls and bland watercolors of nature scenes. The furniture was wood, cloth, and comfortable, made in a mid-century rustic style. The middle-aged doctor, a woman, was in black pants and a pink silk top. She looked at the disheveled man in jeans and a t-shirt through her circular glasses while he wiped his sweaty palms on his pants.
“Mr. Floyd, may I call you Terrence?”
“Sure. Dr. Holloway?”
“Debra, please.” She smiled as she wrote on a legal pad with efficient strokes.
“Debra, great.” He clasped his hands together and tried to not have his leg vibrate.
“You seem a bit nervous, can I get you something to drink?”
“Uh, tea? Something with chamomile?”
“Absolutely. Sugar, milk?”
“A little sugar, please.” He forced himself to smile.
The doctor walked over to an electric kettle, opened a wooden box, took out a tea bag, and fixed him the drink in a generic white coffee cup. Her flat shoes made little thuds on the floor. She gave him the cup before re-settling behind her desk.
“Now, Terrence, have you ever seen a psychiatrist before?”
He shook his head jerkily. “No, never.”
“It’s fine to be nervous. A lot of people think it means something is wrong but I’m just here to make a preliminary evaluation and see what we can do to help you.”
“I hope you can. I’m crazy after all.” He barked a short laugh.
She smiled pleasantly. “It’s unlikely you’re crazy. You’re looking for help which means a lot. You said on the phone you knew you were being irrational. Those aren’t signs of being crazy.”
He snorted. “You might feel differently in a bit.”
“Well, try me. But let’s start with some background. Can you say what’s bothering you generally?”
“Um, I’m anxious, on edge. I feel like I’m about to run screaming out of my skin sometimes. I want to hide away from the world.”
“Have you always felt like this?”
“A bit, I’ve always been a little twitchy about stuff, worried a lot but not like this and not with a fixation like this.”
She stopped writing. “Fixation?”
“Yeah, it’s stupid.” He made a dismissive motion.
“Tell me about it.”
“Well, there is this combination of things, three things and they’ve taken up residence in my mind. And ... it’s a story and it’ll sound crazy. But, I know it’s just coincidence. I know it doesn’t mean anything.”
“Tell me about it,” she said again.
“I used to be on Reddit a lot. Ever heard of it?” She shook her head. “It’s a place where everyone can make their own forum with their own rules. Some are big and actually serious like world news forums. Others are just joke ones where people take pictures of bread on trees. One day I stumbled across the one called Red63Tennis. It was small but kind of cool because it was like playing a game with finding things in the world. You were to post things you found in the world that combined those three things in some way, the color red, tennis and the number 63.”
“Were there a lot of these?” she asked.
“Not really but if you look hard enough you can find all kinds of associations. The first one I posted was a clip. I used to be big into competitive e-sports. This guy who went by Red Mittens was wearing a t-shirt with a tennis player on it that said ‘you’ve been served!’ and he’d gotten 63 eliminations in one game. Someone gave me gold, which gives you some perks on the site, and I was kind of hooked. Most of the posts were like that. One was a great one of a 63-month-old ferret who rolled in red clay playing with a tennis ball. The whole thing was stupid but harmless. I got to know a bunch of folks in the subreddit. We had an off-topic thread and it turned out a bunch of us were going to Emerald City Comic Con so we even had a meetup. We had a blast.”
He stopped to drink some tea but the doctor indicated he should continue, so, he did.
“People occasionally put up bullshi ... uh, crap posts but not much because the mod, SelfishStarfish was on point.”
“So, you had to post all three together?”
“Sort of. It was amazing how much these things came together though it took work to find them. It was like a puzzle game with the real world. Some folks would post something with two of them and another person would find the third. The three things had to be together though or it would get deleted within a week. People would argue about how many degrees of separation were acceptable.”
“Well,” Debra cleaned her glasses, “it sounds silly but harmless.”
Terrance’s hand shook so he put the teacup down. “It was until it wasn’t. It started getting more morbid when a story was posted about a guy having a heart attack while jogging. He was wearing a red shirt. He was jogging along state road 63 and the nearest intersection was Tennis Road. None of us really thought anything of it at the time.”
Debra kept her eyes on him and sipped from her coffee. He continued.
“That was the turning point. It just kept going. I remember one, it was about a sixty-three-year-old tennis player who died, tripped and broke his neck in a freak accident while playing with red tennis balls in Italy. After a while, it seemed like we found things like that all over the place. It accelerated. First, it was once a month, then twice, then once a week. I’m not the only one that started to feel like this was a bit much. We all talked about it but we also figured it was a blip, you know, an anomaly and it would slow down.”
In the pause, while Terrence drank some tea Dr. Holloway said, “Terrence, apophenia is a sort of cognitive fallacy, a looking for patterns in randomness. I think it’s natural for people who want their worlds to feel ordered. You yourself said it was absurd.”
“Sure, I know that. How many humans have ever lived? A hundred billion, more? Some crazy coincidences will pop up. And this was creepy but it’s what happened later that got under my skin.”
“Okay, so tell me about that.” She picked her pen back up.
“A user named BrokenMirrorSelfie was the first to start a Tumblr for the combos. He was still posting to Reddit but he figured that it would be a cool thing to share off Reddit too. This was back when Tumblr was more popular than it is these days. He disappeared 31 days after the Tumblr blog went live. No more updates to Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, anything. Then a Livejournal followed by someone else. In exactly 31 days, it was gone and we never heard from that person again either. A Wordpress blog was next, this one by DarthCookieMonster. That was when it started to feel ... I don’t know, real. After 31 days Monster stopped updating it and stopped posting on Reddit. A Reddit post from another member came along with a news story from Kansas of a 43-year-old home security installer who died 63 inches from his phone while wearing tennis shoes and clutching a red pen. The story was just text but then someone came up with photos they had only published in the local paper and not in the AP version of the story - we recognized DarthCookieMonster from the party in Seattle.”
“That’s certainly odd Terrance but...”
Terrence cut her off, continuing in a low monotone. “It wasn’t the last. People started sharing private details in messages so we could check on each other. PM!eYourToes, yeah that was her Reddit name, turned out to be a 19-year-old student in Canada. She sent me everything but her address and I started one of those Google things to alert me if her real name popped up anywhere. It took a while but I got an alert one day. Her real name was Joanne Tillers. She was driving a red compact car when she died from impact at 63 miles an hour by a van that had a sign on it for Territorial Essential National Network for Insurance Safety or T.E.N.N.I.S. I thought, it’s probably just the same name, right? I didn’t know her address after all. There are plenty of Joanne Tillers. So I messaged her. PMMeYourToes never replied and never posted again. There were four more. Do you want the details? One was meeting their lover, a tennis coach when their ex found them and shot them. When the police grabbed him he just yelled over and over that he just saw red. He had been in jail for 63 days for a random assault. PencilNum222 got lost and stopped for instructions off exit 63 of an interstate. The clerk of the gas station said he got agitated when he saw a tennis game on the TV behind the security glass. A driveby killed him. The bullet that got him went right through a red sticker on the window that said ‘stop and remember to turn off your engine’ ... can I have a minute?”
“Sure,” Debra said, “take your time.” Despite herself Debra felt one of her eyes twitching but she calmed herself just as her patient was though her breathing hadn’t sped up noticeably. A few minutes passed and he just tried to breathe in and out slowly to slow his racing heartbeat. When she restarted Debra asked, “How did people respond to this? It must have been horrible.”