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"My walk home from the train after work at night always takes me past groups of those slathering dogs, but this was the first time one broke away from the pack to follow me."
Rodney Foster, Melinda Terwilliger's best friend and part-time therapist, nodded. He was always nodding during their "sessions." He was only a grad student, but his father was one of the most brilliant minds in psychotherapy, and Rodney was planning to follow in his father's footsteps.
Melinda didn't mind being his lab rat, really. Their sessions were informal, helpful and free. And, most important, she trusted him.
"When did you first become aware the thug was following you?" he asked.
Melinda's muscles tensed as she felt transported back to the events of a few days earlier. "I felt his eyes on me. I know he turned his head to watch me as I walked quickly past, and there was some kind of warning bell going off in my head, telling me something was up. But I didn't know what to do, or whether to trust it." She felt like an idiot now for having ignored what, in hindsight, seemed so obvious.
"Not surprising," Rodney said. "You know, the instinctive awareness of danger is something animals have, particularly in the wild. There's no reason to assume we humans don't have similar senses. I happen to believe we do, but we bury them in things like reason and logic and even good manners. Often, to our own detriment."
"That's exactly what I did." She nodded slowly as she recalled the incident. "I didn't turn around, didn't look back, but I heard his footsteps behind me, and I knew he was following me. A cold shiver rushed up my spine, just like people always say it does. I felt it so palpably that I wanted to slap it away. No, no, that's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to break into a dead run. Everything in me told me to run. I had to fight not to."
"At least you know your instincts were working. You just weren't listening to them."
"I will next time, that's for sure."
"There you go, something positive came from this."
"You and your positive thinking," she muttered.
Rodney shrugged his skinny shoulders in a distinctly feminine way. "It works for me. But back to you. Why do you think you didn't want to let yourself run, Melinda?"
She shrugged. "I guess I thought I'd look like an idiot."
"To whom? The thug? Why did you care?"
"I don't know."
"And yet, you didn't run. You basically put your chronic worry about what other people think of you, your constant need to please others, to be liked and approved of by them, ahead of your own well-being."
She pursed her lips as he touched on her most sensitive issue. "II quickened my pace, though."
He sighed, but didn't press her on what he called her Doormat Tendencies. "And then what happened?"
She drew in a nasal breath and caught a whiff of her own perfume, tender-scented sweat pea. It gave her little comfort. She even smelled like a 'fraidy cat, she thought miserably. Why couldn't she be strong and tough and self-assured the way some women were?
"He quickened his pace, too," she said. "And there was a dark alley up ahead, the last one before my duplex. The one that always gives me the worst case of goose bumps when I walk past it after dark. I just knew he was going to yank me into that alley when I got close enough. So I started to cross the street. That's when he grabbed me."
"Stop right there," Rodney interrupted. "Answer quickly, without thinking first. What did you feel when he grabbed you?"
"Panic, of course."
"Surprise? Now try to answer honestly."
She frowned. "No. No, I was expecting it by then."
He nodded. "I think you've been expecting it for months. Ever since those thugs moved into that house on the corner."
"They're ruining the neighborhood. It used to be so nice, but now you just see those four who live there, lurking around all the time. Looking like gang members or something. The fat one, the skinny one and the heroin twins."
He smiled a little. "That's a great nickname for the two females. It fits them."
"I just know they're dealing drugs out of that house, what with the lowlife scumbags that are in and out of there at all hours of the night. More and more of them are hanging around longer. They don't seem to have jobs or lives or, God forbid, bathtubs. They just stand around, taking up space in the streets and making the neighbors nervous. You know Mr. Peabody's coffee shop was robbed last week?"
"Broad daylight, guy in a stocking mask, waving a gun around. Got away with eighty-seven bucks. Probably went straight to that drug den and spent it, too."
"Did your guy have a gun? Your mugger?"
She shook her head, refocusing. "He had a knife. I felt it pressing into my side. He said not to make a sound, and I didn't. I just stood there and let him take my purse. I already had my keys in my hand, but he got everything else. And I just let him take it."
"Given the circumstances, that was probably the smartest thing to do, Melinda."
She shook her head. "After it was all overafter I unfroze enough to look around me and he was gone and I was aloneI realized there was a tear in my coat. From that knife. He'd pressed it hard enough to tear my coat, and he could have torn my flesh just as easily. It was like my body suddenly snapped back to life. I broke into a run and didn't stop again until I was behind my own door."
"That's the fight-or-flight response."
"Well, why was it so slow in coming?"
"Why does my fight-or-flight response only kick in after my 'deer caught in headlights' response gets finished? Why couldn't I have broken into a run before I passively handed over my credit cards?"
"Because that's what you expected yourself to do. Look, hon, we've been having these sessions for almost a year now, and all your problems are just new versions of the same basic story. You're a doormat. You're a victim. This is just the blown-up version of the same tale."
"Oh, come on, getting mugged isn't the same as"
"As what? Doing your colleagues' work for them without pay? Letting your sister drive your car while you take the train and make the payments? Loaning money to every ex-boyfriend who asks even though you know you'll never get it back? How is this different? Tell me? This guy didn't know it, but he didn't even need that knife. All he had to do was tell you he needed your purse and you'd have handed it over."
"I would not!" she denied.
"You're a sucker, Melinda. You are taken advantage of constantly because you expect to be. And, I believe, because you think people won't like you if you say no to them."
"I don't" She drew a breath, sighed. "I do. You're right, I do that. Maybe not to the degree you say, but yeah. Why, though? Why am I so weak?"
"Because you believe you are."
She rolled her eyes and sat up. She'd been lying on her own sofa, as if she were in some cliched shrink's office, telling Rodney about her latest drama. And instead of helping her, or telling her how to get stronger or at least how to feel better about being the victim of a violent crime, he'd gone off on his usual tangent about her creating her own experiences. If she really wanted to change, she would do so. She must be getting some kind of gratification from being used, or she would put a stop to it. If she let him keep going, he'd get onto the flimsiness of reality as we believe it to be and quantum physics and dead cats in boxes.
That was where he usually lost her. "I'm going to make some more herbal tea," she said, to distract him. "You want some?"
Rodney sighed loudly. "Sure." Then he was quiet for a long moment as she padded past him in her socked feet and headed to the tiny kitchen to put a kettle on the four-burner range. When he spoke again, he was on an entirely new track. "How are things going with the new math teacher?"
"Going?" She didn't know what he meant. There was nothing going whatsoever. Just because she got goose bumps and a little queasy feeling in her belly every time Matt MacGuire flashed his to-die-for dimples in her direction, didn't mean anything. She never should have mentioned the new math teacher to her busybody, well-meaning friend. "I haven't even met the man yet. Why on earth do you ask?"
"Because you're attracted to him."
"So, I suggested you go up and introduce yourself, ask him out to lunch. Have you done that?"
She was very glad he couldn't see her face just then. It heated at the very thought. "I'm not one of those aggressive, make-the-first-move types, and you know it. If he has any interest in me, he'll let me know when he's ready."
"Shoot, how's he supposed to know there's anything to be interested in? You make yourself practically invisible."
She rolled her eyes as she took cups from the cupboard. "I like being invisible."
"No, you don't. You're miserable. Constantly asking me to tell you how to change your life, and then never listening to the advice I give. What good can I do if you won't even listen to me?"
He stayed where he was, in the easy chair by the window. She leaned back away from the range, so she could see him through the doorway. It was snowing again, big fat flakes falling past the window at his back. "I thought the shrink was supposed to listen to the patient," she said.
"I'm more than a shrink. I'm your friend."
"Best friend." She said it softly, glancing back at him through the doorway. "Fine, I'm listening. Talk."
Rodney shrugged. "You keep telling me you want to stop being a doormat."
"Then here's your answer. Stop being a doormat." She paused with cups in her hands, waiting for the punch line, but he was finished. "Geez, Rodney, if you're ever going to be a great shrink, you're going to have to do better than that. I am what I am."
"You are what you believe yourself to be."
"Bull." She broke eye contact, opened a cupboard, took down the glass dish that held a selection of organic, herbal teas, each in their own little compartment.
"How about if I prove it to you? How about that, huh?" Rodney asked.
She frowned, backing away from the cupboard again and turning to stare into the living room at him. "What do you mean?"
He drew a deep, nasal breath, then blew it out slowly. Finally, he got to his feet. He was tall. Way over six feet, probably six-three or -four. And he was scrawny as a scarecrow. His nose and Adam's apple were the two most prominent features one noticed on him, and as a result, his high school nickname had been Turkey. Turkey Foster. Go figure. No one called him Turkey now. He was a bona fide genius. She tended to forget that because they were such old friends.
"What are you thinking, Rodney?" she asked.
"Okay, it's drastic. But it could work. It could make you feel like a whole new woman, give you confidence, change your life entirely. Depending, of course, on how badly you really want to change. And how susceptible you are to hypnosis, of course."
"Hypnosis?" She felt her mouth split into a smile, but when he didn't return it, she knew he wasn't kidding. Not at all. He was dead serious. She poured hot water into the cups, set them on a tray with the tea bags, creamer and sugar bowl, and started for the living room with the lot of it.
Rodney kept talking the whole time, apparently on a roll. "If I can make you believe that you are a woman who never lets anyone walk all over her, then you won't be. It's that simple. It's what I'm basing my thesis on. Will you let me try?"
Tilting her head to one side, she studied him. "You're going to turn me from a doormat into a barracuda, just by what, dangling a pocket watch in front of my face?"
He shrugged. "Something like that. If you're game."
"You really believe in this stuff?"
"Doesn't matter if I do or not. It's what you believe that's going to matter here. If you believe it'll work, it'll work. If you believe what I tell you while you're under, you'll become it. Are you game?"
She lowered the tea tray onto her coffee table, considering things as she went. "You won't make me mean or snotty, will you?"
"Are there any you know, side effects?"
"Definitely. The people who are used to taking advantage of you are going to be damned disappointed to find they can't do it anymore. They might stop coming around. Or, they'll respect you as an equal, remain as a friend and go find a new doormat to take your place as their favorite enabler."
"I'm not an enabler."
"Yeah, you are. But you won't believe that until you see what happens when you stop."
She drew a deep breath. "I guessI guess it wouldn't hurt to try."
"Great. How about tomorrow?"
"How about right now?"
He smiled at her, shaking his head. "First she's hesitant, then she's in a big, fat, hairy hurry," he said.
She shrugged. "If I don't get over being a big coward, I'm going to have to move. This neighborhood is no place for weaklings. Annabelle, next door, chased that same herd of thugs down the sidewalk with a broom a week ago. Accused them of trying to steal her cat, Percy. And she's seventy-something."
"You could learn a lot from Annabelle." Rodney leaned forward to choose a tea bag and dropped it into his cup. "Tomorrow night, after work. My place, okay? Around seven?"
"Okay." She fixed her own tea, took a sip and burned her tongue.
"So what did the police say about your purse?"
"That I shouldn't walk home alone from the train station anymore."
"That's helpful." Rodney rolled his eyes. "You'll have to drive."
"I would, except that would mean leaving my car there all day, and God only knows who'd get after it. I'd come home to find it stripped."
"And your sister has it anyway," Rodney added. "Love the positive attitude, by the way. Just assume the worst-case scenario will always come to be. If you leave the car there, it'll get stripped. Why not assume it won't?"
"Because I'm not an idiot?" she tried.
"Because you're a pessimist," he corrected her.
"So maybe you can tweak that a bit tomorrow night, too."