|Publisher:||Seventh Street Books|
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About the Author
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A Cal Henderson Novel
By Robert Palmer
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2015 Robert Palmer
All rights reserved.
"Yes," I said, scrambling to remember what Michelle had asked me. "I think I read something about interest rates changing."
Henry, Michelle's husband, edged forward on the sofa. "So it's a good time to refinance. Tell her."
Couples therapy. It's the worst part of my job. I wouldn't do it, but everybody's got to pay the rent. One of my professors said that for a psychologist, couples therapy is like trying to herd lemmings. There's rarely a storybook ending.
I said, "Mortgages are a little outside my expertise. Besides, we've been through this a few times before. You both seem ... stuck today."
"I'm not stuck," Michelle said, crossing her arms.
I rubbed the scar on my wrist. It's a habit of mine when I make a mistake with a patient. Michelle had a defensive streak a mile wide, and I should have known better than to use the word "stuck." She actually was the most rigid patient I had. She wore the same sweater and shoes to every session, sat in the same spot on the sofa, always with her right leg crossed over the left. Henry was another story altogether. He was game for anything. He was fifty-six years old and in the last four months had taken up rock climbing and sky diving. He claimed to have invented streaking. The wilder he got, the more inflexible she became. Welcome to couples therapy.
"I didn't phrase that well," I said. "Michelle, I'm sorry." I noticed I was rubbing my scar again and stopped. "I gave you some homework to do. Any progress there?"
They looked at each other and smiled. If I gave out gold stars, that would have earned one. "Great. Tell me about it."
"You said I should try to do more around the house. Little things to surprise her," Henry said. "I put the newspaper away every day, so she wouldn't have to. And I picked up the dry cleaning. I even baked her a cake."
"Really?" I said. "How did it turn out?"
"Must be pretty good. It's half gone already."
Tears immediately sprang up in Michelle's eyes. They had remarkably similar builds: beanpole arms and legs, plump around the middle. Henry carried the extra weight proudly, but it bothered the hell out of Michelle.
He turned red and stammered, "I mean, it's nice, you know? Nice that she made a show of liking it so much." He goggled at me for help.
I let a few seconds pass. "Michelle ...?"
"Yes, I liked the cake very much." She carefully wiped her eyes and eased the throw pillow out from behind her back. I figured she might bury her face in it, a thing she sometimes did when she got upset. Instead she hefted it once, then slugged Henry across the face.
"Hey, don't do that!" I bounced out of my chair and snatched the pillow from her.
I thought I might have to step between them, but they both burst out laughing. "Man, Doc, you're ticked off," Henry said.
"Right. Now both of you calm down."
Henry showed me his palms. "No worries."
I headed back to my chair. "OK, what's going on?"
"More homework," Michelle said. "You told me to try to find a way to express myself when he made me angry."
"So you've been hitting him?"
"Only with pillows and oven mitts. Towels. Things like that."
"You don't look too happy, Doc," Henry said.
Right again. The zipper on the pillow had left a small cut under Henry's eye.
I pulled a tissue from the box on the coffee table and handed it to him. "You're bleeding."
He dabbed at it. "Sweetie! First time you've left a mark."
They giggled together, but that stopped when they looked at me. "Jeez," Henry said, "you aren't going to throw us out of here, are you?"
I took a breath to calm down and thought make the best of it.
"Did you notice what he just called you?"
She beamed. "I did. And he's a sweetie, too."
Getting them to express affection like that was close to a miracle. But the hitting — that had to stop.
I said, "I'm really glad you've taken this step. But I'm going to need you —"
The lights dimmed and a half second later came back up. It was the signal that our time was nearly up. "I need you to promise — no more hitting. Zero tolerance on that."
"Why?" Henry said. "It works."
So far, I thought, imagining a room with no pillows, but a lamp or maybe a baseball bat. "An inch higher, and that cut would be a scratched cornea. Now promise — no hitting."
"OK," they both muttered.
"But keep working, Michelle. Find a way to let the anger out and let him know about it." I stood up. "Keep up with your journal writing, both of you. We'll start with that next week."
We headed for the door, which opened before we got there. It was my receptionist, Tori Desia. She stared at Henry's eye as they passed. "What happened to him?" she said after she shut the door behind them.
"Michelle — the pillow. She didn't mean to do it."
"I hope not." She straightened the sofa and put the tissue box back in the center of the coffee table. Tori ran the office like a military operation. Not that you'd expect that by looking at her. She was the most strikingly attractive woman I'd ever known. Her mother had been a Norwegian soccer star. Her father was half-black, half-Cherokee. Tall, athletic, exotic — she would have been a dream catch to anchor any TV news show. Instead she worked for me. Scratch that. We worked together. Nobody could ever claim to be Tori Desia's boss.
"Henry and Michelle are six weeks behind on their bills," she said. "We should drop them."
"They're starting to make progress."
"And that helps the bottom line how?"
"All right. I'll talk to them about the bills next week."
"You do that." She handed me a file folder. "New patient up next. Edward Gaines. Likes to be called Ted."
I flipped through the paperwork. "It doesn't say how he found out about me."
She gave me an innocent look. "No it doesn't, but you're a psychologist. Maybe you can get him to talk about it."
She turned for the door. "He's an eel, by the way. Twitch-twitch. Went to the bathroom twice in the last fifteen minutes. And a real hound."
She had animal designations for all the patients. The eels were manic. The hounds were perverts. Today she was wearing skin-tight cords. Often it was a micro skirt and five-inch heels. Most every man who entered my office ranked a hound.
I said, "We could bring back the old desk with the privacy panel."
She knuckled me under the chin. "Now what would be the fun in that?"
As she reached for the door, two sharp raps came from the other side. "Eel," she sighed. She swung it open.
"Dr. Henderson. Hiya." He stuck his hand out to shake. He was wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap, which immediately made me warm to him. I'd been a Birds fan since I was a kid.
"Mr. Gaines, it's nice to meet you."
Tori quietly closed the door, and he looked around the room. "So this is it, huh? Pretty neat. Only five blocks to the Capitol Building. You get a lot of them here? Senators, judges, whatnot?"
"More of the whatnot," I said. "Why don't you sit down."
"OK." This usually presented a dilemma for patients. Take the couch (and all the baggage that came with it) or one of the chairs (and maybe look like a hard case). Without hesitating, he grabbed the nearest chair and dragged it next to the window, so he'd be able to look outside and see me wherever I sat. He had an old backpack with him, and he plopped it on his lap. Whatever was in it was heavy. "Let's see." He ran his finger back and forth like a compass needle. "The Supreme Court is over that way?" The finger stopped moving.
I took a seat in the other chair. "That's right."
"Good. A new place, I like to get my bearings."
Tori had been right about the twitching. Already he had crossed his legs a couple of times. He was tall, well taller than my six feet plus, and his hands were very large. He fluttered them down the armrests of the chair. Then he felt the backpack, hefting whatever was inside, some sort of security for him.
"So, what do we do now?"
"Good question." I picked his file up from the coffee table. "There isn't much background in here about why you've come to see me. Just 'anxiety.' Did another doctor refer you?"
I waited for him to elaborate, but he only grinned. His eyes flicked to my face and away, and he rubbed the armrests of the chair again.
"How about this," I said. "Why don't you tell me about yourself. That's usually a good place to start."
He seemed confused. "Tell you about me?"
"Sure. Start anywhere."
"I ... I live in Mount Pleasant."
I'd seen the address in the file. "It's nice up there. Near Rock Creek Park?"
He nodded but said no more.
"How long have you been there?"
"Eight years, same place."
He was about my age, early thirties. That meant he'd moved there shortly after finishing college, if he'd gone to college. He started jiggling his foot; his hands were still twitching. "Anxiety" seemed to be an understatement.
"You wrote on the patient form that you work for Callister Resources. What do you do there? I haven't heard of it."
"Data research. Clerk stuff, mostly." Then his grin came back. "You don't get it, do you?"
"I'm sorry?" I said.
"Do you like my hat?" He touched the brim. "I got it just for you."
Every psychologist deals with unusual people. It's what the job is all about. But he was starting to push the creepy meter. "I don't understand."
He took the hat off. He had ginger hair, thin and cut unevenly. There was a bald spot off-center, right of the crown. The flesh there was depressed and discolored, a wine-dark divot. Staring at me, he had a strange sheen in his eyes, intent and timid at the same time. That tickled the back of my mind, something familiar.
"Davie, it's me. Scottie Glass."
I shook my head stupidly and looked at the file with Edward Gaines on the label. I didn't think I'd heard him right.
"Sorry about the name. I wanted it to be a surprise." He gave a lopsided smile. That hit a vague memory too, from way back when we were kids. He'd do something wrong and give that bent grin for forgiveness. "You dope," I'd say, and we'd be friends again. That brought it home. Scottie Glass, in the flesh.
"How ... how did you find me?"
"It wasn't all that hard," he said.
"What do you want?" That sounded more suspicious than I intended, but I hadn't seen him since I was a boy. I kept everything about that time boxed up, and I didn't like being waylaid by it.
He put the cap back on, and he wasn't smiling anymore. My mind had gone blank, then it began filling with pictures of my parents and brothers. I tried to shake that off, to say something about being glad to see him, but I couldn't come up with any words.
He fiddled with the straps on the backpack. "I'm sorry — the fake name," he said. "I should have called you instead."
"I guess that would have been better." I knew that was wrong, too. The name wasn't a problem — or maybe it was. I felt trapped, cornered in my own office, and those old pictures wouldn't stop coming.
He stood up suddenly and tugged the backpack over his shoulder.
"Wait ... just tell me why you're here," I said.
If he heard me, the edge in my voice only made him move faster. He strode out the door and slammed it behind him.
A rushing sound filled my ears. I stared at the chair where he'd been sitting.
Tori came in. "What was that all about?"
I didn't answer, and she stepped over and pried my hand away from my wrist. Her eyes snapped up in surprise. I'd left half a dozen deep scratches.
I got up and took my coat off the rack. Moving helped me focus. "Did you see which way he went?"
Excerpted from The Survivors by Robert Palmer. Copyright © 2015 Robert Palmer. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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