I had this idea when I was on my way back into work. I had just seen my therapist and was working out the idea that I was one of many patients. Which isn't unreasonable to think, but in a profession that focuses on mental health and wellness, I wondered how empathy played into it. To see a patient, to want good things for a patient, it all seems a bit Hollywood. But then I had this funny idea that led to this, and could turn into something more...
A languid fan turned side to side in the dry heat. Midday sun overhead heating the adobe husk as if they were roasting in a pizza oven. Madison twisted in her seat, chewing on the end of her ballpoint pen. Her blouse was sedate, a paisley amalgam of earth tones that emphasized space, secreting away the physical alacrity of three hundred combined hours of expensive yoga and personal training at Perpetual Fitness. It’s what the job required on any given day. And, despite maintaining a slight—though healthy—distance from clients, nestled into the fortress of throw cushions surrounding her, she awaited the call to go over the top into no-man’s land
Across from her, reclining stereotypically on a couch that she scored from a thrift store two blocks from her downtown office, was David: typical white male, mid-thirties, struggling with anticipatory anxiety and workplace stress. Additionally: fear of bright lights, obsession with oil slicks, mentions blood every so often with uncomfortable familiarity... David’s proclivity to fiddle with his clothes, to nervously pluck at his anemic beard: tell-tale signs of clinical compulsion. Deliberate and textbook. She knew now, without exception, that David was the murderer. Christ, he even had dried blood under his fingernails. Oil painter, my ass...
“It’s the same thing, every time. The lights. They’re a trigger,” he said.
Looking at her notes, a scrawl of shorthand psychiatric notations, she circled the macabre profession casually, written out with paradoxical whimsy. It was almost two in the afternoon. Her next client was already out in the waiting room, scrolling through social media and listening to the warm and fuzzy NPR broadcast featuring a documentary on the lives of polyamorous circus musicians.
“So, David, when you avoid this…” She paused, prompting the word in her mind like a late night talk show host. “You avoid this stimulation, right? You’re building it up. Making it out to be something catastrophic, like that stone that was rolling after Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
David sniggered. “Mmmhmm, I loved that movie.”
This was typical David: escape coping through nostalgia.
“David? Did you read the chapter in the workbook yet?”
He tilted his head sideways. Madison saw the reflection of the ceiling light in his glassy stare.
“No,” he replied. His posture clenched and relaxed, like a blood pressure monitor. “I’ve been wanting to, meaning to… It’s just been a hard week.”
“I’m sorry,” Madison cooed.
Quickly changing topics, she continued.
“We’ve established that you tend to worry, think apocalyptic thoughts. But… you know… not everything is the end of the world, David.”
Madison watched David roll over, onto his right arm, placing his head on his pillow as if he were about to sleep. He laughed. A disembodied voice, strained, nervous, unraveling like a roll of toilet paper.
Pushing against her couch, making a half-hearted effort of a pushup, he replied, “I know, right?”
“And you still think this is because of the loud noises that you were subjected to? As a child?” Madison probed further. Time was cheap, borrowed at this point in the session. The sting was in process. The cops were already outside. She could hear the police chopper cutting through the air overhead.
“My father had a gun. Late at night on the farm he would go out to check the traps around his chicken coop. And it was always unexpected, the shot. You would hear it in the night echoing through the hills like a jet engine, or a bundle of dynamite. Fourth of July, I hated the most. I would be dragged there by a babysitter or family friend and cover my head under the blanket for an hour. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! And I would shiver. They would laugh and cheer like it wasn’t a big fucking deal. And afterwards, I would look up and see it: the phosphorus afterglow of smoke, like blood spilling out onto the night sky.”
She needed more time. “David, did you come up with that right now? That’s really creative.”
Immobile, he looked up while lying prone. “Yeah? It just came to me…”
She leaned forward, masking her victorious smile, making wide strokes across her note pad. Not circles, or even underlines. It was the signature brush stroke of an epiphany. “So… okay, David. This is an ongoing thing. What steps have you taken to desensitize yourself to sudden increases in volume? What do you feel does the most to walk these panic episodes back to a place of calmness?”
But, it was too late. Chatter in her ear. The extraction imminent. The shrill ping of microphone feedback made her wince. David sat up. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“Ah, yeah… Just a migraine,” Madison replied, irritated. “It’s that time of the month…”
So much for the signed confession, she lamented.
At the corner of the office, from a slim five panel door—exit only—a sudden compression of blasting air. An explosion of brass colored woodchips, projectile fragments of door knob, and deadbolt barely missing her head. Through the haze, David scurried like a rat, rolling off the couch, and clumsily pushed the air conditioning unit out of the window frame.
“Down! On the ground! NOW!”
Ignoring the officers, David stumbled through the open window, reaching out for a railing that was not there. Afterward, Madison heard a scream and a chorus of cries below.
Fuck. She rolled on the ground in pain. “Why? I was so close!” she shouted.
As the officers swarmed in, inspecting every inch of the room for danger, they parted for Detective Jefferies. A gaunt face with high cheekbones and wiry hair slick with oil, he wore second hand slacks and a ragged windbreaker stained in the color of blue ice. He circled quizzically around the ruined office, sucking on a lollipop. It was her fault. Once, she made the recommendation for seeking a health substitute after watching Jefferies chain smoke a pack in two hours. Not candy, though. She didn’t recall recommending grape flavored Big League Chew to baseball players hooked on chewing tobacco. And carrots would just exude the aesthetics of wise cracking rabbits. Jefferies kicked a piece of wood across the floor, distantly remorseful. “Sorry about your place…” He grimaced, crunching into the candy and discarded the stick, flicking it like a cigarette butt.
Madison clambered for the windowsill in a daze. She saw onlookers gathering around what remained of David after his three story fall. It was a waste, losing a client. He was worth, at the very least, four more sessions.
Reluctantly peeling herself away from the tragedy, she left the window and slumped down in her chair. Drywall dust scattered out from under her.
“We raided his house this morning, in front of the bodega on Third Street. One of those craftsman homes with the paint peeling like at get out. Finally got a judge to sign the warrant. The construction work in the backyard on those new condos was the perfect cover, you know… for hiding the bodies. Just like you said, all of them were members of the gun club in the valley.”
Jefferies unwrapped another lolly and put it in his mouth.
“They all were—get this—partially exploded! As if fireworks were jammed down their throats.”
Madison hung her head, massaging her temples. “The confession… it was almost there…” She muttered.
“Sir?” One of the officers came in, dragging a fragile nymph of a boy. “This one was in the waiting room.”
Madison leaned forward, peeking around Jefferies.
“Mark? Hey, I’m sorry... Can we reschedule for Thursday? Something came up…”
For the rest of the afternoon she sorted through her case files: photographs, slides, newspaper clippings, and whatever notes she had written down from her sessions with David. The office space she rented out was a part of a historical location from the turn of the century, before there was such a thing as global warming and the nights still got chilly. She lit a fire in her office and tossed the paperwork in, almost nostalgic. Mostly angry.
Weekends. That sacred time when one could lay out on the beach and get a $100 tan while shooing away the peeping homeless. It was time to get out and see the world. So, that night she met up with Joselyn and Steven, a pair she had met at the county correctional facility the year before. They had good energy, well balanced. Yin and Yang. Steven’s tendency to overanalyze and hyperventilate when his favorite character died on television and Joselyn’s frenetic and manic fascination with World War Two trivia and samurai swords. Kat-something…
They were at the local favorite of hipster and disenchanted youth renown, Your Face’s House, at the end of the bar, holding down the corner closest to the bathroom and the karaoke machine—just in case. Joselyn was jawing on about her latest client, Charlie, who committed suicide the day before the failed arrest on David.
“And that’s another thing. They never teach you how to profile. You think you have a jumper, but he’s really a cutter. You think you have a cutter, but she’s really prone to shoot up and OD.” She took a long drag on her cigarette, burning away a centimeter of tobacco. Into her chest went all the spite of the world, Madison figured. A convection oven dotted with freckles and rosacea. “I mean… fuck me for making a difference…”
“We do what we can,” Steven murmured. He took another sip of his Guinness and wiped the foam from his moustache. (Joselyn called it the “Tom,” as in Tom Selleck. Madison would always cringe, knowing damn well that it was a walrus moustache, trimmed short to the lip.)
“This last week,” Madison slurred. “I almost… I almost got ’im. Fuck… Fuckin’ cops… Shit.”
“Next time sweetie,” Joselyn stated with certainty. “Remember: the opioid crisis is the best thing since 9/11. Fuckin’ Pandora ’s Box. You’ll get another one, eventually.”
Madison swirled her drink counterclockwise, She bent over it, slumping down.
“When do I stop, you know? Caring?”
This caught the others off guard.
“Where do I draw the line? These aren’t just paychecks. They’re people.”
“Never get attached to the client,” Steven cautioned, nonchalant, flattening his cardigan closer to the bulbous outline of his torso. “If you did, life would be romantic comedies.”
“The shitty kind,” Joselyn agreed, smothering her cigarette. “Like, Bridget Jones’ Diary shitty. And you can forget that Hugh Grant shit…”
“I have one guy,” Steven began, calm and collected, staring too hard into the wood grain of the bar. “He’s nice, good kid. Believes—hands to God—that there’s lizard people, as in the conspiracy theories that you see on the Youtube. He’s intelligent, polite. Sometimes even poignant… How to proceed—that’s what they don’t teach you at med school.”
The bartender broke away from a group of college kids and checked in with the three, wiping the inside of a pint glass and setting it behind the bar.
“You guys good? Need any food?”
Joselyn declined while Steven search through the menu hastily.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” He replied.
“And do you want that medium or welldone”
The bartender smiled and collected Steven’s menu, leaving a card behind with a number sketched onto it.
Joselyn eyed the card jealously. “Medium, huh?”
“Medium,” Steven repeated. “I don’t spend much time in restaurants, but I know how hard it is to cook hamburgers.”
Madison was busy looking at the card. She smiled, surprised, frankly.
“You’re gay, Steven? Aren’t you married?”
“No… and yes, I am married. I just like the validation,” he said professionally.
Madison lifted her drink. “I’ll drink to that.”
After the burger came, which was on the edge of medium-well, Madison gathered her things and left the bar, hoping to get an early start the next morning. Saying goodbye, she ventured out into the wet October night, checking her phone as belligerent students weaved across the sidewalks. 16 messages from Mark. Jesus Christ. Another from a number she didn’t recognize. She checked it as she jaywalked across the street. The noise on the other end was modulated.
“Of thirty bare years have I
Twice twenty been enragèd,
And of forty been three times fifteen
In durance soundly cagèd
On the lordly lofts of Bedlam,
With stubble soft and dainty,
Brave bracelets strong, sweet whips ding-dong,
With wholesome hunger plenty,
And now I sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing…”