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The tingling started in the pit of her stomach, a vague gnawing that quickly traveled to her chest, then spread upward and outward until it reached her neck. Invisible fingers wrapped around her throat and pressed down hard on her windpipe, cutting off her supply of oxygen, rendering her dizzy and light-headed. I’m having a heart attack, Robin thought. I can’t breathe. I’m going to die.
The middle-aged woman sitting across from her didn’t seem to notice. She was too engrossed in her own troubles. Something about an overbearing mother-in-law, a difficult daughter, and a less-than-supportive husband.
Okay, get a grip. Concentrate. The woman—what the hell was her name?—wasn’t paying her a hundred and seventy-five dollars an hour to receive a blank stare back in response. At the very least, she expected Robin to be paying attention. You didn’t go to a therapist to watch her have a nervous breakdown.
You are not having a nervous breakdown, Robin admonished herself, recognizing the familiar symptoms. This isn’t a heart attack. It is a panic attack, plain and simple. You’ve had them before. God knows you should be used to them by now.
But it’s been more than five years, she thought with her next breath. The panic attacks she used to experience on an almost daily basis were part of her past. Except the past is always with you. Isn’t that what they say?
Robin didn’t have to wonder what had brought on the sudden attack. She knew exactly what—who—was responsible. Melanie, she thought, picturing her sister, older by three years, and thinking, not for the first time, that if you removed the L from her sister’s name, it spelled “Meanie.”
A message from Melanie had been waiting on her voice mail when she’d returned to her office after lunch. Robin had listened to the message, debating whether to return the call or simply pretend she’d never received it. In the midst of her deliberations, her client had arrived. You’ll just have to wait, she’d informed her sister silently, grabbing her notepad and entering the room she reserved for counseling clients.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked her now, leaning forward in her upholstered blue chair and eyeing Robin suspiciously. “You look kind of funny.”
“Could you excuse me for just a minute?” Robin was out of her seat before the woman could answer. She returned to the smaller room off her main office and shut the door. “Okay,” she whispered, leaning against her desk with the palms of both hands, careful not to look at the phone. “Breathe. Just breathe.”
Okay, you’ve identified what’s happening. You know what caused it. All you have to do now is relax and concentrate on your breathing. You have a client in the next room waiting for you. You don’t have time for this crap. Pull yourself together. What was it her mother used to say? This too shall pass.
Except not everything passed. And if it did, it often circled back to bite you in the ass. “Okay, take deep breaths,” she counseled herself again. “Now another one.” Three more and her breathing had almost returned to normal. “Okay,” she said. “Okay.”
Except it wasn’t okay, and she knew it. Melanie was calling for a reason, and whatever that reason was, it wasn’t good. The sisters had barely exchanged two words since their mother died, and none at all since Robin had left Red Bluff for good after their father’s hasty remarriage. Nothing in almost six years. Not a congratulatory note after Robin graduated from Berkeley with a master’s degree in psychology, no best wishes when she’d opened her own practice the following year, not even a casual “good luck” when she and Blake had announced their engagement.
And so, two years ago, with Blake’s encouragement and support, Robin had ceased all attempts at communication with her sister. Wasn’t she always advising clients to stop banging their heads against the wall when faced with an immovable object and insurmountable odds? Wasn’t it time she followed her own sage counsel?
Of course, it was always easier to give advice than it was to take it.
And now, out of the blue, her sister was calling and leaving cryptic messages on her voice mail. Like a cancer you thought had been excised, only to have it come roaring back, more virulent than ever.
“Call me” was the enigmatic message Melanie had left, not bothering to state her name, taking for granted that Robin would recognize her voice even after all this time.
Which, of course, she had. Melanie’s voice was a hard one to get out of your head, no matter how many years had passed.
What fresh hell is this? Robin wondered, taking several more deep breaths and refusing to speculate. Experience had taught her that her imagination couldn’t compete with her reality. Not by a long shot.
She debated calling Blake, then decided against it. He was busy and wouldn’t appreciate being interrupted. “You’re the therapist,” he would tell her, his eyes wandering to a space behind her head, as if someone more interesting had just walked into view.
Pushing thoughts of Blake and Melanie out of her mind, Robin tucked her chin-length curly blond hair behind her ears and returned to the other room, forcing her lips into a reassuring smile. “Sorry about that,” she told the woman waiting, who was a first-time client and whose name Robin was still unable to recall. Emma or Emily. Something like that.
“Everything okay?” the woman asked.
“Everything’s fine. I just felt a bit queasy for a second there.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not pregnant, are you? I’d hate to start this process only to see you quit to have a baby.”
“No. I’m not pregnant.” You have to have sex to get pregnant, Robin thought. And she and Blake hadn’t made love in over a month. “I’m fine,” she said, trying desperately to recall the woman’s name. “Please, go on. You were saying . . .”
What the hell had the woman been saying?
“Yes, well, I was saying that my husband is absolutely useless as far as his mother is concerned. It’s like he’s ten years old again and he’s afraid to open his mouth. She says the most hurtful things to me, and he acts like he doesn’t hear any of it. Then when I point it out, he says I’m exaggerating, and I shouldn’t let her get to me. But my daughter has picked up on it, of course. And now she’s being just as rude. You should hear the way she talks to me.”
You think you have problems? Robin thought. You think your family is difficult?
“I don’t know why my mother-in-law hates me so much.”
She doesn’t need a reason. If she’s anything like my sister, she despises you on principle. Because you exist.
It was true. Melanie had hated her baby sister from the first moment she’d laid eyes on her. She’d been instantly jealous of their mother’s suddenly divided attention. She would pinch Robin while she lay sleeping in her crib, not stopping until the infant was covered in tiny bruises; she’d hacked off Robin’s beautiful curls with scissors when she was two; when Robin was seven, Melanie had pushed her into a wall during a supposedly friendly game of tag, breaking her nose. She was constantly criticizing Robin’s choice of clothes, her choice of interests, her choice of friends. “The girl’s a stupid slut,” Melanie had sneered about Robin’s best friend, Tara.
Oh, wait—she was right about that.
“I’ve done everything to make peace with that woman. I’ve taken her shopping. I’ve taken her for lunch. I invite her to have dinner at our house at least three times a week.”
“Why?” Robin asked.
“Why?” the woman repeated.
“If she’s so unpleasant, why bother?”
“Because my husband thinks it’s the right thing to do.”
“Then let him take her shopping and out to lunch. She’s his mother.”
“It’s not that simple,” the woman demurred.
“It’s exactly that simple,” Robin countered. “She’s rude and disrespectful. You’re under no obligation to put up with that. Stop taking her shopping and to lunch. Stop inviting her over for dinner. If she asks you why, tell her.”
“What will I say to my husband?”
“That you’re tired of being disrespected and you’re not going to put up with it anymore.”
“I don’t think I can do that.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“Well, it’s complicated.”
You want complicated? I’ll give you complicated: My parents were married for twenty-four years, during which time my father cheated on my mother with every skank who caught his roving eye, including my best friend, Tara, whom he married five short months after my mother died. And just to make matters truly interesting, at the time, Tara was engaged to my brother, Alec. How’s that for complicated?
Oh, wait—there’s more.
Tara has a daughter, the product of a failed first marriage when she was barely out of her teens. Cassidy would be twelve now, I guess. Cute kid. My father adores her, has shown her more love than he ever gave any of his own kids. Speaking of which, did I mention that I haven’t talked to my sister in almost six years?
“Some people are toxic,” Robin said out loud. “It’s best to have as little to do with them as possible.”
“Even when they’re family?”
“Especially when they’re family.”
“Wow,” the woman said. “I thought therapists were supposed to ask questions and let you figure things out for yourself.”
Were they? God, that could take years. “Just thought I’d save us both some time.”
“You’re tough,” the woman said.
Robin almost laughed. “Tough” was probably the last word she would have used to describe herself. Melanie was the tough one. Or maybe “angry” was the right word. For as long as Robin could remember, Melanie had been angry. At the world in general. At Robin in particular. Although to be fair, it hadn’t always been easy for Melanie. Hell, it had never been easy for her.
Double hell, Robin thought. Who wants to be fair?
“Are you sure you’re all right?” the woman asked. “Your face . . .”
“What’s the matter with my face?” Am I having a stroke? Is it Bell’s palsy? What’s the matter with my face?
“Nothing. It just got all scrunched up for a second there.”
“Scrunched up?” Robin realized she was shouting.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you—”
“Would you excuse me for another minute?” Robin propelled herself from her chair with such force that it almost tipped over. “I’ll be right back.” She opened the outer door to her office and bolted into the gray-carpeted hallway, running down the narrow corridor until she reached the washroom. Pushing the door open, she darted toward the sink to check her image in the mirror. An attractive thirty-three-year-old woman with deep blue eyes, pleasantly full lips, and a vaguely heart-shaped face stared back at her. There were no unsavory warts or blemishes, no noticeable scars or abnormalities. Everything was where it was supposed to be, if a little off-kilter because of her slightly crooked nose. But there was nothing that could be described as “scrunched up.” Her hair could use a touch-up and a trim, she realized, but other than that, she looked decent enough, even professional, in her rose-colored blouse and straight gray skirt. She could stand to put on a few pounds, she thought, hearing Melanie’s voice in her ear reminding her that despite her achievements and “fancy degree,” she was still “flat as a pancake” and “skinny like a stick.”
She felt the stirrings of another panic attack and took a series of preventive deep breaths. When that didn’t work, she splashed a handful of cold water on her face. “Okay, calm down,” she told herself. “Calm down. Everything is fine. Except your face is all scrunched up.” She examined her reflection once more, noting her pursed lips and pinched cheeks and making a concerted effort to relax her features. “You can’t let Melanie get to you.” She took another series of deep breaths—in through the nose, out through the mouth, inhale the good energy, exhale the bad. “There’s a woman patiently awaiting your wise counsel,” she reminded herself. “Now, get back there and give it to her.” Whatever the hell her name is.
But when Robin returned to her office, the woman was gone. “Hello?” Robin called, opening the door to her inner office and discovering that room empty as well. “Adeline?” She returned to the exterior hallway and found it likewise deserted. Great. Fine time to remember her name.
Obviously, Adeline had fled. Scared off by Robin’s “tough” facade and “scrunched-up” face. Not that Robin blamed her. The session had been a disaster. What gave her the right to think she could counsel others when she herself was such a complete and utter fuckup?
Robin plopped down into the blue chair that Adeline had abandoned and looked around the thoughtfully arranged space. The walls were a pale but sunny yellow, meant to encourage optimism. A poster of colorful flowers hung on the wall opposite the door, meant to suggest growth and personal development. A photograph of autumn leaves was situated beside the door to her inner sanctum, a subtle reminder that change was both good and inevitable. Her personal favorite—a collage depicting a curly-haired woman with glasses and a worried smile amidst a flurry of happy faces and abstract raindrops, the capitalized words why do i get so emotional? floating above her head—occupied the place of honor behind the chair she usually sat in. It was intended to be humorous and put clients at ease. She’d found it at a neighborhood garage sale soon after she and Blake had moved in together. Now he was increasingly “working late.” How long before he brought up the idea of moving out?
“Why do I get so emotional indeed?” she asked the woman in the collage.
The woman smiled her worried smile and said nothing.
The phone in Robin’s inner office rang.
“Shit,” she said, listening as it rang two more times before voice mail picked up. Was it Melanie, phoning to berate her for not returning her previous call promptly enough? Robin pushed herself slowly to her feet. What the hell, might as well get this over with.
The first thing she saw when she entered the adjoining room was the telephone’s blinking red light. She sank into the comfortable burgundy leather chair behind her small oak desk, a desk that had been Blake’s when he first began practicing law; he’d passed it on to her when he graduated to a bigger firm with a bigger office, one that required a more imposing desk.
Was that why they’d never followed through on their plans to marry? Was she not sufficiently imposing for a man of his growing stature?
Or maybe it was the pretty new assistant he’d hired, or the attractive young lawyer in the next office. Perhaps the woman he’d smiled at while waiting in line at Starbucks had been the source of second thoughts on his part.
How long could she continue to ignore the all-too-familiar signs?
She picked up the receiver, listened as a recorded voice informed her that she had one new message and one saved message. “To listen to your message, press one-one.”
Robin did as directed.
“Hi, this is Adeline Sullivan,” the voice said. “I’m calling to apologize for running out on you like that. I just didn’t think we were a good fit, and to quote a therapist I know, ‘I thought I’d save us both some time’ and just leave. I hope you aren’t angry. You can bill me for the session. You did give me some things to think about.” She left the address where Robin could send the invoice. Robin promptly erased the message. Would that everything else was so easy to erase. She closed her eyes, her fingers hovering over the phone’s keypad.
“Go on,” she urged herself. “You can do this.” She pressed the button to listen to her sister’s message again.
“First saved message,” the recorded voice announced, followed by her sister’s abrupt command.
Robin didn’t have to look up Melanie’s phone number. She knew it by heart. It was chiseled into her brain. She punched in the digits before she could change her mind.
The phone was answered almost immediately. “Took you long enough,” her sister said without preamble.
“What’s wrong?” Robin asked.
“You better sit down,” Melanie said.