The Devil's Therapist - The Devil’s Therapist

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The Devil's Therapist
Jim Carnicelli
5/4/2021   |   7/26/2021   |   7/12/2024   |   17,506

17,506 words
FNASR offered
Kira Carnicelli
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The Devil's Therapist

by Kira Carnicelli

5/4/2021    7/26/21    17,506    1:17:48
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I opened my eyes to find myself sitting across from me. We were both in soft chairs approximately four feet apart. The space we inhabited resembled a cave. I thought it to actually be so and wondered how I got there.

Pain seared through the left side of my neck, face, and shoulder. My reflection (although no mirror separated us) stared at me with cold, round dark eyes. My flat, straight black hair was brushed down to my shoulders around my narrow, pale face. I was dressed for the office in a black blouse, tan slacks, and black dress shoes – exactly what I had been wearing before … before I woke up.

I looked down at my own body, and a fresh wave of pain shot through me. Strangely, I couldn't see myself but for a silhouette. Yet I could see this reflection in just the right light, right down to the tired lines around the eyes and thin lips, making her look older than her late thirties.

I stared at her, waiting for her to speak. Finally, she began in my low, formal voice. "Do you know where you are, Doctor?"

I had been sitting rigid but slouched in the chair. Now I straightened to match her posture. "No," I answered, keeping my voice almost as calm. "Where are we? And who are you?"

"Where do you think we are?"

I thought back to my last conscious memory. I raised a hand to my neck, touched just below the spot of intense pain, and pulled away to find a glistening on my shadowy hand. “I’ve been injured.”

My face gave me a small smile and nod.

“Am I … am I dead?”

“Are you, Doctor?”

My mind raced for a long moment. I couldn’t possibly have survived … if my last memory was correct. And if I was dead, there were only two places I could be. And this was not Heaven. I asked, "Is this Hell?"

My own face nodded solemnly. Cold washed through me. I must have looked terrified, loathe though I was to acknowledge it, but the self before me ignored it. Instead, she continued, "And who am I?"

I paused again. "The devil?"

My – well, ‘my’ – expression didn't change. "Who I am is not of high importance. Do you know why you're here, Doctor?"

I stayed rigid. Many thoughts ran through my mind, but I found it safest to respond, "No."

"That's okay. You don't have to have all the answers right now. But surely you know what brought you here?"

"I know who sent me here."

"Do tell."

"I can't break client confidentiality."

My reflection leaned forward over her crossed legs, resting a hand under her chin. "Don't you think that's kind of silly, considering where you are?"

I felt my back go straighter. The pain in my neck sharpened and burned. "I assume I'm here to be judged?"

"There is no judgement here, Doctor. This is for your benefit, to help you understand what has happened, why it happened, and the consequences."

"I don't think that's necessary."

"Why?"

"I already know what has happened, and I know the cause."

'I' squinted at me. "You don't seem fazed at being condemned for all eternity, or being the victim of a crime."

Again, I thought through my response before speaking. "I'm not unfazed."

"No. I can smell the fear on you, but it's masked by denial. It'll pass. That's also why you're here: to come to terms with this change in your existence. I know all that's happened. You have nothing to hide from me, only yourself. Once you've acknowledged all, you can move forward."

"I can leave Hell?"

When the woman across from me spoke, her voice was gentle but firm. "There is no leaving Hell, but you can move forward from this moment, past the fear and confusion. Until then – this sounds harsh, Doctor, but I'm simply stating a fact – you won't leave that chair."

My throat tightened. I made the attempt to rise from the soft chair, but the moment I did, my muscles locked in place. I tried not to look terrified – sixteen years as a therapist nearly perfected my poker face – but the devil looked at me as though she knew my intention.

“Who sent you here, Doctor?” she pressed.

“Rob … is what he goes by.”

“Tell me more about Rob,” she said, smiling. I had never seen myself interact with a client, but this replica before me looked like a snake under a human costume. It was no trick of my eyes; she looked exactly like me. I averted my gaze.

“What do you want to know?”

“Anything you can tell me. Why don’t you start at the beginning?”

“All right. Well –” I inhaled, leaning my rigid spine against the back of the chair. I organized all the important facts I could recall, as if giving an oral report. “He came to me with social anxiety at the age of ten. On average he sat across from me two hours a month, sometimes more, occasionally less, for six years. Sadly, the only changes he underwent in those six years was a change in hair length, a darker wardrobe, and a growing cynicism.” The devil nodded for me to continue. “For the first year, his parents joined our sessions, discussing his refusal to go to school due to the headaches and stomachaches they doubted actually existed, as well as the punishments that didn’t seem to be working. I encouraged them to keep disciplining him and tried to talk him out of his stubbornness. Sometimes he would cry, claiming that we didn’t believe him, and then his father would intercede, assuring him that if he said he felt sick, we believed him. I would then add that we wanted to help Rob realize that these feelings should not be enough to keep him home.”

“You wanted the child to overcome his fears by invalidating them.”

“Yes. It was a simple matter of redirection, changing his perspective.”

“How did his parents feel about this method?”

I felt my hands, which I’d folded together, clench. “They wanted him to get better. They worked with me in these sessions, until the boy started to cry.”

The devil stared back at me with cold eyes. “And how did … the boy … feel about your method?”

“Presumably, he was never consenting or receptive to it.”

“But you stuck with it nonetheless?”

I didn’t respond. Under her professionalism, which to the untrained ear sounded like polite curiosity, was a shade of disapproval. If this was a game, I didn’t know my part, and I feared the consequences of a wrong move, for unbelievable as it was, I had no doubt this was Hell.

My reflection gave a slight smirk, watching me. A glint of mischief – or wickedness – touched her eyes. “Silence will not get you past the truth, Doctor.”

“I have a name. Why don’t you use it? Surely you know it?”

“Do you want the devil to speak your name?”

I sighed. “I …” I was only doing my job, I wanted to say, but that wasn’t true. “Yes, to answer your question. I was willing to take guidance from his parents, but that option vanished rather quickly. Rob’s father died a year later, when the boy was eleven.”

My reflection was back to neutral professionalism. “Keep going.”

“It came as a shock – an aneurysm. During the family sessions prior, I could tell Rob and his father were close. They would come in together more than Rob’s mother or younger sister; however, I should note that his sister was six years younger, so when she did come, she mostly rested on her mother’s lap or played on the floor. Mark would listen to his son intently – more so than I ever did. During family sessions, the two would sit together on the couch while the mother sat in the chair with the daughter, and it was obvious that Rob had the closer relationship with Mark. After his death, Rob secluded himself at home for a month. Nothing could get him out, according to himself and Cindy – the mother,” I added.

“I know,” the devil said with a touch of impatience.

“When he came back, he began to change. The change was slow. In our first year together, he would whisper short, simple responses to my questions, always with a parent present. Once he started opening up more and became willing to attend sessions by himself, his talkativeness increased to a more normal level. I never found it excessive until after Mark’s death. As the weeks went by, Rob would give these long soliloquies, angsting about his grief and problems between his remaining family and school. He never spoke of fixing his troubles but wallowed in them as if doing so would make them disappear.”

My reflection cut me off, for which I’ll admit I was grateful. I was beginning to sound like that client I so despised. “Why did you allow him to wallow? As his therapist, it was your job to direct the session.”

“I tried, at first, by encouraging him to focus on more positive aspects of life, or reshape his thinking, but he always returned to the same self-pity.”

“You had many tools at your disposal. You could have asked him if he saw no positivity in his life. Asking him questions may have been more productive than cutting him off and shutting him down. Or laughing at him.”

I felt the burn of her dark stare under my skin and looked at my shadowy legs. She knew all the things I hadn’t breathed a word of: my refusal to ask deep questions, to have a true dialogue with him; shutting him down instead of encouraging him to open up. Laughing at him. Catholicism was a small part of my life, mostly nonexistent aside from holidays. Now I wished I’d taken it more seriously. This was not how I imagined Hell to be, but I understood why I was here.

Still, I tried to defend myself. “I thought he was … beyond hope. Unreceptive.”

“How does that justify your treatment of him?”

I thought my answer and replied, “I’d rather not discuss it. I assume we both know my reasoning?”

“Refusal is not an option, Doctor. How do you justify your treatment of Rob?”

She was glaring now. We both knew that I was done. I had no intent of answering. Simply acknowledging it to myself was too shameful. I would never speak it to the devil.

Suddenly, the burning started under my skin. This was not burning from shame, but from fire, as though it now coursed through my veins. The heat increased. It pumped through my limbs, my abdomen and chest, my neck and head. I felt no beginning nor end to the burn. It toyed with the wound on my neck, threatening to burst me open, melt my fingernails and eyes from my body, and leave me a puddle of gore.

I tried not to show panic. I wished to know a rational way to talk myself out of the heat. But within seconds, it was more than I could bear. I screamed and attempted to thrash, but as the devil said, I could not move beyond a few innocent, fidgety gestures.

“How do you explain yourself, Doctor?”

It took realizing that I couldn’t see my reflection to realize I had shut my eyes. But I didn’t open them. I was lost in the heat.

Presumably, the devil knew how much she was burning me. The heat ebbed enough to return me to sanity, enough that I stopped screaming and choked the absolute truth. “I wanted the paycheck!”

The heat dulled to a low simmer. I continued, “I didn’t think anyone would have more luck with him than I, so I sought to keep the benefit of money while making the best of my time with him.”

“The best for who, Doctor?”

“Myself, obviously!”

The burning stopped. Despite being dead, I could feel my heart pounding as I gasped for cool air. The temperature surrounding us was comfortably warm but now felt suffocating.

The devil – a thirty-eight year old woman who looked exactly like me – sat straight in her office chair, rested against its tall back, one leg crossed over the other, perfectly relaxed. “Go on. Tell me more about the changes in Rob.”

I needed another moment to collect myself; my breathing was still quite heavy. Once I felt my heart slow to normal, I said, “His appearance changed, as it often can for teenagers or those going through an ordeal. He was always small and skinny – that didn’t change. But his hair had been cropped short. Now he grew it out so it waved to his shoulders. His wardrobe changed, too. Before, he wore mostly blue jeans, tee shirts, cargo pants – most likely clothes picked out by his parents. He gradually switched over to the goth look, with baggy black clothing. His favorite pair of pants had chains on them, and one sweater had a skull on the back. When I asked him how he was getting all those bizarre clothes, he told me his mother didn’t like his choice but could do nothing about it.” I paused, reflecting on that day.

“Go on,” the devil said.

“There was this … mischievousness in his eyes. I would swear he was remembering how I would encourage his parents, when the four of us would meet, to take away his privileges if he didn’t complete his homework. I swear he hated me for saying that. They told me he would get headaches and stomachaches in the evenings that would stop him from finishing homework. True, those are common symptoms of anxiety, but I thought it worth overlooking. Rob’s father coddled him, presumably reinforcing bad behavior. I assumed that for that reason, Rob used these illnesses to his advantage, consciously or not. I wanted to teach him that a slight headache or nausea was not an excuse to avoid responsibility, so I encouraged his parents to discipline him.”

“You didn’t believe Rob was sick,” my reflection stated.

“Not to the extent he claimed. Do you know that he would wake up claiming to be sick and beg his parents to let him stay home until they gave in?”

“I know this as well as you do.”

“Then you also know he was in fine physical health. Yet they gave in. He knew he could control them, and this was part of my goal as well: to teach them to take control, and teach him to obey.”

“Even when you thought he was beyond hope?”

Once again, I thought it best to think through my response. “I hoped to teach him, at the very least, that trying to have all things his way would get him nowhere.”

“But you failed, Doctor,” my reflection said. There was more force in her tone this time, condemning me. Anger and something akin to shame flared in me.

“What do you want me to say?” I snapped.

“I want you to continue your story. Tell me more of your interactions with Rob.”

I searched my memory, wishing to report an objective timeline while giving the devil the details and whatever else she wanted to hear. The more I thought, however, the more I saw the lanky child grow from a shy and quiet boy to a sullen, rebellious teenager. I saw the passive, downcast eyes progress to glare at me like murky green fire under waves of thick black hair, hating me for seeing through his cover.

I remembered the first signs of resentment in his tightened jaw when, in our first meetings, I asked Rob what he thought of my suggestions to his parents, to which he replied, “I think you guys don’t believe I’m really sick.”

“No,” I said. “We believe you. But you have to ask yourself how sick you really are, and if it’s really so bad you have to miss school.”

I remembered how his shoulders slumped and his gaze dropped and shifted to his left – the universal sign of admission and defeat.

“Or so you thought.”

“What?” I looked up from my lap, suddenly aware that I’d lowered my gaze and been silent for longer than intended.

My reflection repeated, “You thought you recognized admission of guilt. Would you like me to tell you what your client was actually thinking when you expressed disbelief?”

She read my mind! I thought.

“Yes, I hear your thoughts, but I expect you to continue this dialogue with me. Will you do that?”

“It seems I have no choice.”

“We always have a choice, Doctor. You clearly know the more productive one. I commend you on your acceptance.” She paused, perhaps to let me respond, perhaps to put distance between the compliment and her next statement. “When you – the person Rob’s parents chose to help their son – accused him of faking the pounding heart that made him sick to his stomach, and the anxiety that brought him to tears most mornings, reducing him to a quivering, pleading mess, all he could do was recall the many teachers who had already done the same thing.”

“How can I believe you?” I demanded. “You’re the devil. You are infamous for lies and misguidance.”

“I do not lie, Doctor. My words are true. They’ve just been used to lead people to their own evils.”

I stayed silent. I would need to reread the Bible to know if that was true. I remembered the story of Genesis, though, and her words certainly rang true for Eve. Regardless, I had no choice. I was stuck here, in this dark cave, this soft chair, with this replica – this creature – for as long as she chose. Or until someone came to my rescue. I found the latter highly unlikely.

“Make of my words what you will, Doctor. I am here to make you understand. Whether you choose to believe me is up to you. God would tell you the same things. Not that this is relevant, but I think it’s worth noting that Rob’s parents mostly dismissed your advice. Cindy tried it occasionally, but Mark never backed her up. To him, you were just someone for his son to go to until – and I quote – ‘we find someone better’. Not that it would have mattered, right? You did your job, regardless of whether you were appreciated.”

Oh. I determined I wouldn’t let her see how much that hurt me. “Why –” I cut off and cleared my throat. “Why did they keep him coming, if they didn’t approve of my approach?”

“It was the only way they could get Rob a study hall at school – an hour in a quiet room to do homework with more individualized attention. Remember those forms you had to sign each fall?”

Yes, I did remember. The school forms Cindy brought to the clinic every August, in which I wrote a summary of Rob’s anxious symptoms and my treatment plan – cognitive and behavioral therapy – to get him specialized attention.  

Mark and Cindy had spoken of these study halls but never claimed that they were conditional. I thought the only benefits amounted to extra time on tests and a teacher’s assistant to help him with challenging readings. Rob never showed appreciation for these services except to say that he liked the break from regular school but wished he could spend it doing something besides homework. I didn’t like giving permission for the boy to be coddled, but denying him would be breaking too great a boundary. His parents – especially his father – would never stand for it.

“But,” the devil continued, “that was simply a side note I thought you would appreciate knowing.”

“At least I did something for him,” I murmured.

“Yes, Doctor, your biggest accomplishment was giving Rob an hour of solitude with the thing that caused him stress. You enabled his parents to keep his head just above water and continue the same miserable existence. You must be very proud.”

I tried to remember how often I used that same sarcastic tone on my clients – on Rob – and for the first time, found myself regretting it.

“Carry on, Doctor.”

“Those study halls were helping him,” I said, mostly to myself, and not the devil that looked like me. “His mother kept him coming to me for five more years. If she didn’t like me, why didn’t she find someone else for him?”

“Tell me about your conversations with Rob regarding his mother.” When I did not immediately answer, she pressed, “You had many. It can’t be hard to choose one.”

“No, it’s not,” I snapped, mostly so I wouldn’t have to hear my own voice reprimanding me. When I heard our voices match to precision, I wished to never talk again. But I knew that wasn’t an option right now. “Rob ranted to me once about his mother scolding him for forgetting to complete his chores. This was roughly two years after Mark’s death. Rob was quite a professional at going on about his many woes by now. He started by telling me how Cindy harassed him the previous night because he forgot to empty the dishwasher after already doing many chores. He claimed she shouted at him ‘like it was the end of the world.’”

“It sounds like he was very frustrated,” the devil said.

“Whiney, yes,” I said, crossing my legs. Despite the circumstances, I found a strong catharsis in beginning to share my experiences with Rob. If nothing else, I always abided by patient confidentiality, partially because it was too risky, and also for lack of listening ears. After all, my goldfish was not the ideal listener when looking for empathy. Furthermore, I’d found throughout my experience that high emotions are often trivial and therefore unworthy of a high response.

To the contrast, sitting here in Hell, I acknowledged that I did have these emotions, and holding them back would benefit me nothing.

But perhaps I was wrong.

I wondered what the devil would say to that, but she made no indication of hearing my thoughts. She waited for me to continue, so I did. “I would never share how pleased I was that Cindy was beginning to enforce discipline. This had started only weeks after Mark’s death, but the degree to which she extended it increased as time went by. I asked Rob if she was really shouting at him, to which he replied that she raised her voice, which to him was the same as yelling, so I quoted back at him, ‘“She raised her voice”. That’s different from shouting.’

“I reminded him that when you’re a teenager, you perceive things differently than they really are and to keep that in mind when dealing with his mother and teachers.

“I could tell he resented that, but he simply said, ‘I hate when she yells at me.’

“I rephrased, ‘You feel irritated when she raises her voice,’ and he insisted he felt angry. I simply repeated, ‘You feel irritated.’”

The devil cut in, “I remember. When he didn’t respond, you were sure you’d defeated him.”

“Everything in his posture told me I had! The lowered gaze, the slouch in his shoulders, the left ways glance – they’re all subconscious confessions!” I insisted. I realized I was leaning forward slightly, hands held in front of me with my palms up. I was begging, and I didn’t care. I was too frustrated to care. And too desperate.

The devil leaned forward, too. She locked her eyes on mine, holding me in place. Even though we were at eye level, I felt smaller. She seemed to tower over me. “Doctor …” She sighed. She smirked. “The leftways glance is a myth!” She flashed our slight overbite at me. Her whole narrow face glowed with condescending amusement. “Your poor client was thinking of all the teachers and family members who had been telling him how to think and feel since his dad died! He was counting all the individuals who ignored or misinterpreted him and wondering why he even bothered talking! And what did you do?”

I shut my eyes and massaged my temples. “I … steered us away from the subject.”

“You ignored him – and misinterpreted him! You, Doctor, represent to this child everything that is wrong with the world!”

“I don’t see what mockery will achieve, Doctor,” I hissed back. “Nor do I see how dramatizing like a bratty teenager will achieve anything.”

“Ah-ah!” She held up one finger, cutting me off again. “Don’t forget who you’re talking to, or that I have no qualms about reminding you.” She stood up.

All my life, I prided myself on being tall. At almost six feet, I invoked fear, respect, and criticism in most I encountered. One of my clients, a little five foot man, always clammed up when I met him in the waiting room or rose from my chair at the end of a session. I noted to him once that I seemed to make him uncomfortable. He replied – and I quote – “Tall women just make me uncomfortable. It’s okay once you sit down.”

Now, I got to see myself from his perspective. Except for the fact that I never literally looked down on my clients as if they were bugs at my feet. The devil strode towards me, quickly closing the short gap between us.

“Stop, please!” I blurted out.

She forced her fingers between my lips, with her thumb under my chin. Her nails cut my lips as she forced my mouth open and curled her fingers into fists with a sharp yank. I heard the crunch of my lower teeth being torn from my gums. I felt it. Along with the warm torrent of blood that flowed over my lips and chin.

The devil took a step back and let my teeth fall to the ground … or floor, for all I knew. Not that it mattered. I raised my hands to my face and groped beneath my lips, feeling for the cavities. The front six teeth were gone.

High pitched sounds of pain and panic escaped me as blood covered my hands. Finally, I was grateful I could only see a silhouette of myself.

“You know the theory of teeth dreams, Doctor? Poor communicators often have dreams of their teeth falling out. You conveyed your message to Rob irrevocably, but your tone and word choice tell me you don’t want our time together to go as smoothly as I would like. I know that’s not true, Doctor. Why don’t we start again? And this time, be more mindful of what you speak to me.”

I tried to speak, but only managed a few pitiful whimpers. I was hunched over, tense, aggravating the injury in my neck, bleeding on my lap, holding my lower mouth as if to hide the new injury, as though it never happened.

“Sit up, Doctor,” the devil commanded in a cold voice I knew I possessed but never used. “Sit up.”

Trembling, I struggled to obey. Once I felt my back straight against the chair again, I raised my eyes to my reflection. She stared down at me like a predator in the wild, pinning its prey. “Lower your hands.”

I felt my gaze pleading with her to let this all be over. She waited for me to comply, knowing I would. I thought back to the last time I needed this much courage: my fourth year as a therapist. A female client felt I wasn’t putting forth the effort to help her deal with her emotionally distant boyfriend. Unbeknownst to me or any of my coworkers, she waited in her car until the office closed. She followed me to my apartment. The next evening, I came home to find it broken into and vandalized. Presumably, she found someone to tailgate, because the police found her prints and worked with me to have her put away. I recalled coming home to the door already open; walking the small space, expecting a killer to jump out from behind the bedroom or bathroom door; maybe hiding in the closet or shower. A foolish move, admittedly, but the first I thought to make.

Now, I lowered my hands. The devil put her fingers over my lower lip, pressing on my bleeding gums. I screamed and grasped her slender wrist.

“Don’t,” she warned. I couldn’t tell if her command did any good. It may be that I was simply paralyzed with fear, that she’d made me feel so helpless that I lost the conviction to fight for myself. But the reason doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t fight her.

I felt a pressure in my gums, under the wounds, and moaned. Her touch seemed to channel more pain to my neck. The pressure in my gums built until a sharpness accompanied it. I screamed again as fresh teeth sprouted. The devil’s fingers moved, allowing the teeth to grow, but it felt like she forced them up, dragging them with some magnetic power through my lip.

When her hand left my mouth, sharpness still throbbed in my tender gums, but the worst of the pain slowly faded.

She backed up so she no longer towered over me. “You cut off his power of speech. You think I exaggerate, but you never encouraged him to use his voice. You encouraged him to change with no regard for the person he was. Do you still see yourself as compassionate? Did you ever?”

I moved my mouth to speak, but no words came out. Primarily, I wanted to see if I was capable of speech. The iron flavor of blood soaked my tongue and chin. I could feel its wetness on my hands and through my slacks, gradually cooling. I didn’t understand how my body could carry heat if I was dead but accepted the confusion. Perhaps being in Hell meant retaining the unpleasant sensations of being alive.

I tried again. “You … have to understand … why I did it.”

“You didn’t like him. That’s why, Doctor.” I opened my mouth again, to protest, but the devil cut me off. “It’s as simple as that. Don’t try to deny it. Just accept it and tell me more about Rob.” She resumed her seat and said, “Tell me what you disliked about him.”

I wanted to stay silent, but so far, only total compliance had spared me. I took a deep breath and continued. “Rob was given to dramatizations. After Mark died, he became the spitting image of teenage angst. Whatever his sense of humor used to be, I saw none of it. Presumably, it vanished altogether in the following years. As I’ve said, he could go on about his troubles with no intention of solving them. I found him to be a sort of leech who feeds off misery.”

“He was never taught the power of communication, Doctor. His mother is a disciplinarian who shouts and criticizes – which you know quite well is different from teaching. Rob’s father was a nurturer who reassured his son but never explained, in the ways Rob needed. Rob went through his childhood, reaching and requesting for what he wanted, considering himself fortunate to receive. He didn’t perceive himself as having control over anyone. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

“He may have put on an innocent act,” I argued. “But children are natural liars. They know, on some level, their power to manipulate, and I got the feeling that Rob knew his very well.”

“Was it any more than a feeling?” my reflection asked.

I searched my memory, desperate for a physical sign from Rob – other than the leftways glances – that he consciously manipulated his parents. I thought up several but realized they were exaggerations on my part, even false memories. I thought up one and began to share, but the devil spoke first. “Anger does not count, Doctor. Honest human beings become angry when dismissed or challenged just as much as the revealed criminal. Just look at yourself.”

“Are you calling me an honest human being? Am I not a criminal?”

The devil’s dark gaze was wide and inquisitive as she asked, “Are you, Doctor?”

I shut my eyes. “All right. Perhaps I was wrong. But all of us can only stomach so much whining from another person, and I had very little patience for Rob’s.”

“Did you forget his social anxiety? Or did you stop caring?”

“Yes, to both. I – I see where I was wrong and unprofessional. He would never have had the mental capacity to control his parents the way I imagined he did. And I neglected to continue treating his condition. But what can I do now that I’m dead?”

The devil smirked. “You’re forgetting again who you’re talking to. You cannot manipulate me as you did your client. Keep talking.”

“What can I say?” I whispered, unintentionally reaching out again.

“You’ve given me vague descriptions of Rob that are all subjective. Give me another anecdote.”

“Okay, well …” I thought of one that illustrated his angsting. “A few months before our last meeting, he seemed more agitated than usual. I asked what he would like to talk about, and he replied that ‘things are just stressful right now.’ He claimed that a lot was going on but nothing was changing. I told him that didn’t make sense and suggested that maybe he felt stress because he wasn’t being challenged. Maybe he was finally feeling the restlessness of slacking in school and not applying himself.”

“This was another assumption you made, Doctor?”

“His attendance record was lower than average when he first came to me,” I replied.

“That doesn’t answer my question, Doctor.” Her voice – my voice – held barely contained annoyance.

“His mother forced him to go to school most days, and as the years passed, his attendance did improve. But that doesn’t mean he applied himself in the classroom.”

I believe the expression I want to describe my reflection is ‘deadpan’. She made no response but after a brief silence said, “Continue.”

“Rob said that his multiple assignments were causing him stress because they were either overly challenging or tedious; but nothing was interesting. He said, ‘They just keep coming. They never stop.’”

I stopped talking and thought back to that session.

“They never stop,” Rob despaired.

“What’s ‘they’?” I had asked, not out of confusion, but annoyance. I’d hoped that spreading some of my frustrations to Rob would teach him not to waste our time. Perhaps he would take the hint that I was not responding to his complaints with sympathy and change topics, or better yet, his approach. Instead, he must have just seen me as another ignorant, heartless adult. It never occurred to me to care. I can’t say why.

“The assignments!” Rob snapped.

“So you’re stressed out because of all the homework.” He nodded. “Have you been going to school?” He nodded again with a glare. Perhaps I sounded a little more critical than intended. “Are you behind on the assignments?”

Some of the tension left his hunched shoulders as he replied, “On some of them, a little.” I took this as a victory, at the time. I had called him out on a fault – irresponsibility – without feeding his need for pity. I’d made him concede. Or so I’d thought. I didn’t need the devil to tell me, at this point, that he didn’t care; that he was, perhaps, beyond annoyance.

Rob waited for me to speak. I could have lectured him on changing his perspective to a more honest one, but the method was overused by now. Granted, the alternative was listening to him whine, but today, I felt curious. The two weeks since his last session had been relaxing, and I had a little more patience to handle him this time. I wanted to see what he would do, given my change in action. “My mom’s always nagging me about them. She drills me every day, like the world’s going to end if I don’t do them all right this second.” As I suspected, he’d taken us right back to his mother. When I remained silent, he continued, “She’s calling me lazy, asking if I’m a moron, saying I have no motivation. She might as well come out and say it: she hates me. She –”

“Does she really hate you?” I let my doubt show.

“Yeah. I think she does. She doesn’t treat my sister this way.”

“Your sister is six years younger than you.”

“That doesn’t matter. All my life, she’s been this way. I just never had to deal with it this much before, because my dad was there. It didn’t matter what she thought of me, because he understood me; he cared. Now …”

Now I felt it appropriate to employ my normal response to Rob. Listening to him proved to do nothing more than irritate me. I let out a brief, light-hearted laugh. “We’re back to this again, huh?”

Meanwhile, my reflection tilted her chin up, studying me. “What happened after you laughed at him?”

“Our session continued as normal, except for one other outburst from him – too redundant worth repeating. I asked him how his driving was going. The boy was sixteen at the time and had his temporary license. He was eager to drive but reluctant to do so with his mother, who was his only escort. The two are night and day: Cindy, a thick-skinned believer in discipline, Rob, a believer in comfort. He often told me that she insulted him when he drove, making him feel unsafe, as though he were a threat on the road.”

“I meant, Doctor, what was his response to your dismissal?”

I once again felt my skin burn with embarrassment. “Anger, of course. His verbal response was, ‘This has been going on my whole life.’ Meaning, his trouble with his mother.”

The devil’s dark brows furrowed in fascination. “What did you say to that?”

“That he had to train himself not to think that way and that his mom did not hate him.”

“And then you asked about his driving?”

“Yes. And the session continued as normal.”

“As normal?” Disdain crept into her voice. She cocked an eyebrow at me. This was not a gesture I ascribed to myself, and it looked wrong on my face; too openly hateful.

“Yes.”

“And do you know what was on your client’s mind during or before that session?”

I smirked and shifted in the soft chair. My lower spine was growing stiff from sitting so long … or for what felt like a long time. “I’m not a mind reader, much as people assume I am. It’s a common misconception that I spend my days listening to the innermost thoughts of others. I listen to their voices during our one hour sessions and let them make of their troubles what they will. It is not my job to analyze or read minds. We are all responsible for ourselves, no one else.”

“Actually, Doctor –” She gritted her teeth as she talked. “– you are responsible for your clients’ well-being when they’re with you. You are paid to pretend, at the very least, that you care about them, and in that hour, you owe them your full attention. You took an oath.”

My heart started to pound. My neck pulsed with pain. I raised a hand to sooth it but dropped it before it could touch. I didn’t want to feel the wetness, or the wound. “Ah!” I uttered as the pain increased. “I did, that’s true! What do you want from me?”

The devil leapt up and changed form at the same time Rob’s angry adolescent voice screamed, “I want you to see what you did to me!” He stood where my reflection had, clad in his baggy black wardrobe, long hair resting on his neck, for once swept away from his slender face, giving me the full impact of the fire in his murky green eyes.

I felt myself trying to disappear into the chair. My mouth dropped open as I gaped at him. Icy blood coursed through my veins. I thought my bladder would fail. I couldn’t breathe.

“What do you got to say now, Doctor?!” he yelled. “Nothing? You finally out of words? Well then, let me talk, ’cause I’m not done yet.”

“Oh, Jesus,” I moaned.

“He won’t help you now,” Rob said, pacing around our enclosed space. The dim light that had illuminated my reflection followed him like a spotlight.

“I may be naive,” he said. “I may seem simple minded to you; trapped by myself. Do you know why that is, Doctor?” The way he used my title sounded like a mockery, harsher than my reflection had been. “I tried to make you listen. Just like I tried to make my mom and teachers listen. They’re always saying, ‘Listen to me, do as I say,’ but my dad’s the only one who asked questions. You thought I was irresponsible and never tried. Did you ever consider that I did try, every day of my God forsaken life after Dad died, to cope with life? With being alone?”

I could tell by your attitude, I thought without meaning to. No one as pessimistic as you would recognize opportunities or improvements in their lives. They wouldn’t see the option of trying. You were stuck.

He faced me and leaned forward, accenting his words with his hands. “I was venting! When I wasn’t trying to make you listen, I was venting. ’Cause that’s what you’re there for, and if you’re not gonna be good for anything else, you’re at least gonna let me feel what I feel. You know why I was so frustrated? I suppressed like a sonofabitch. Surface complaints about chores and homework and shit became my fallback. But you know what? I had more to say to you that day.”

He fell silent, standing over me with that tense hunch in his shoulders.

“What did you have to say, Rob?” I asked.

For the first time ever, his eyes squinted in amusement and he snickered. “What does it matter now? And why would you expect me to tell you – Doctor?”

“I – I assume you mention it for a reason?”

He laughed, a loose, wholehearted sound. If it wasn’t intended to insult me, I’d have found it almost beautiful. “You’re not stupid when it matters. You saw my wrists, didn’t you?”

I started to tremble. “What?”

“Answer the question, Doctor,” he ordered, keeping his voice menacingly low.

“You always kept your wrists covered by those sweaters, Rob.”

“Yeah. But I know you saw these.” He thrust his sleeves back enough to expose the scars and fresh cuts on his wrists.

I stared at the familiar sight, unsure how to respond. I remembered when his sleeves happened to roll up during one session. Rob didn’t notice in time to pull them down before I glimpsed the cuts, some fresh, some deep enough that I was surprised he hadn’t punctured a vein.

“Why didn’t you say anything about them?” he demanded.

I sucked in air, trying to fill my lungs. “You never mentioned them. I thought if you wanted to talk about them, you would.”

Murky green fire bore into me again, trying to burn me. But instead of the usual resentment, he emanated power. He saw through me, as my reflection had. “You could lie to your clients. But you know that’s not gonna work here. Try again, Doctor.”

I took a deep, shuddering breath. “You … aren’t Rob, are you?” Part of me wondered – or hoped strongly – that this was a trick; some elaborate trick of modern day technology I wasn’t privy to. My pride hurt when I imagined a client putting me through an experience so humiliating, but at least it would end, somehow. He would get caught; I could escape; or I would die for real. Surely death would be different than this.

The teenager replied, “You’re in Hell, Doctor. You don’t have the right to know all the answers. You only have the privilege of speech … or silence. But you know what that gets you.”

“You’re not Rob. He isn’t dead yet,” I decided.

“I’m waiting, Doctor.” His voice was menacing and cold. “You had an obligation to me.” His voice rose to a shout. “Why didn’t you ask about my wrists?” He lashed out and struck the side of my head.

I yelped and gripped where he hit. The force jostled my head and bent my neck, stretching the wound so the pain was twofold. Hot tears stung my eyes. I felt my face contort. I hid behind my hands and began to weep. My father was abusive, and the last chance he had to touch me was three decades ago. He chose a slap across the head, as Rob had. A neighbor passing our open window called the police, and my dad left us.

“You weren’t suicidal!” I sobbed. “You had too much self-preservation to take your life!”

“Ha! That’s a good excuse. Pretend you know me better than I do. Like everyone else. Where the hell did you get that impression, Doctor?”

I wiped my eyes and took another deep breath, looking at my ex client directly. “You couldn’t stop complaining about your exhaustion, your early mornings, your mother and sister, or your assignments. You couldn’t handle the challenges of everyday life that all children face. You would never handle the pain of suicide, especially not by cutting. You were waiting for a savior, Rob.”

“Au contraire, bitch.” I liked Doctor better. “I’m not dumb enough to believe anyone could take my dad’s place. Or give a shit about me the way he did. And you confirmed that just brilliantly!”

“Okay.” I leaned forward and rested my elbows on my knees, folding my hands between them. I looked up at my client. “I wasn’t attentive to your needs. What can I do to make it right?”

“Well, you can’t undo it, that’s for sure. Once you’ve destroyed someone, there’s no going back.” He strolled to the chair across from me and dropped into it. He leaned forward to match my posture, so we were at eye level. “You know what I wanted to tell you, that second to last meeting?”

I shook my head with a tired sigh. “No, Rob, I don’t. What did you want to say?”

“I wanted to finally tell you, after five years of keeping it inside, that I was sick of my worthless existence. That I was done fighting a pointless fight, of pretending it didn’t hurt – pretending enough to get up each morning and suffer the heartless people in my life. You’ve never suffered anything except some beatings and verbal abuse. You’ve never suffered a real loss. And the shit you went through, you had people walking it with you. You never saw what I lived with, night and day. You don’t know what it feels like to live almost half your life wanting to just be … gone. And I was finally ready.” He looked down for a moment, all the fire in him quenched. “And then you laughed, and I remembered you didn’t deserve that.”

“I – I don’t understand.”

“I was desperate, and knowing you wouldn’t have cared gave me courage. But I’d still be laying my heart out. I knew it’d be awful for you, but it’d also be a privilege – that’s how normal people see it, at least. And you hadn’t earned that level of confidence. When you laughed at me, I remembered I was still taking a risk, and I shouldn’t waste it on you.”

I thought many things too judgmental to say in an office setting. I saw no point in saying them now, in Hell, because I didn’t want to be harmed again.

“Never thought I was that deep, did you, Doctor?”

“You’re not Rob,” I repeated.

“Maybe not, but I’m not a liar, either. And I know all the facts, unlike you. But I guess that’s too harsh. You’re not stupid; you just act like it when it’ll get you what you want. Like, do you remember that time I was telling you how my dad would stick up for me, but now that he was gone, my mom was just closing in tighter and tighter? And I told you I couldn’t take it anymore?”

Yes, I did recall that session. Approximately a year after Mark died, Rob expressed that he’d reached his limit with his mother’s strictness.

“It hurts to feel like your only value is in how much homework and chores you do,” he’d said. “I keep telling myself the hurt’ll go away if I keep fighting and pretend it’s not there. But it’s always there, like some dark, overpowering enemy. It starts to feel like I’m not even supposed to fight it. And then I start to think, ‘Good,’ because I just can’t do this anymore.”

I remembered my reaction: a strong burst of laughter. His little soliloquy sounded only slightly more dramatic than what he expressed in other sessions, but it seemed I was closer to my breaking point than he was. The melodrama of his words stood out more to me than their meaning. “Okay, so you’re still adjusting to your mom’s rules. What else is new?” I’d said.

Now I stated, “You’d scheduled that appointment as an emergency.”

Rob nodded solemnly. “Yeah. And it didn’t occur to you that maybe I wanted to work some things out and maybe feel better?”

“I wasn’t thinking. That’s all I can say.” And it’s true: I wasn’t thinking clearly. I knew it was wrong when I did it, but I hadn’t cared. I just wanted to keep emotional and mental contact with Rob as minimal as possible, and when he didn’t react with anger, as a normal person would have, I moved on, relieved to be done with the topic.

“What if I had gotten angry?” he asked.

I gave the automatic, appropriate response. “I would have apologized and asked if you felt comfortable telling me more about your feelings.”

His expression hardened. “That’s what you’re supposed to say. What would you actually do, Doctor?”

“Please, Rob. Do we have to discuss this?”

He scoffed. “Seriously? Do you want to run that by me again?”

“If you want the truth,” I said, straightening up in the chair more than was necessary for comfort. “I’m frightened by this conversation and would rather not be burned or lose my teeth again.”

“You know how to keep that from happening.”

I sighed and slouched in the chair. “All right, if you insist. Had you reacted with anger, I would have encouraged you not to take things so seriously. I would have encouraged you to find a brighter side in the gloom you surrounded yourself with and learn to laugh at yourself once in a while. I’m – I’m sorry.” I glanced up briefly enough to see his posture change; it mimicked his earlier form as my reflection. He straightened up and regarded me like a predator sizing up its prey.

You’re scared, not sorry, Doctor.”

“Yes, I am scared. What’s going to happen here, Rob? Or should I say, Satan? How long will I be here, and what happens to me when I leave?”

He leapt to his feet, a blur of dark. “I told you,” he screamed. “You don’t get to know that! You’re here to confess. The only answers you’re getting are the ones you face – the lies you’ve told yourself, and me. You’re here … as long as I decide.”

“I … I am ashamed of my outburst that day. And for using it to my advantage so frequently. You were just so pliable in conversation, so willing to conform to my emotions, that it helped me relieve the aggravation you caused me. But I would have been fired, had anyone known. I could consider it fortunate that you ended it the way you did.” Except now I’m here, I added silently.

“You’re almost sincere,” the boy – the devil – said. “You’re also forgetting: it’s too late to make amends with your client. Even if I were that kid you hated, do you think I’d forgive you? You can’t make someone feel like crap the whole time you know them and smooth it out with a simple ‘sorry’ later on! You’re a fucking sadist! You liked knowing I suffered with you!”

“That is not true!” I shouted.

“Bitch! You know you’re lying! Why not just fess up? Like you wanted me to do all those years? Except I had nothing to hide.”

Angered, I sat with my lips pressed together, resisting with all my might against the instinct to defend myself … even if Rob was right. Instead, I thought of the neighbor girl I babysat as a teenager. I knew my curiosity was sick when I sought to test my authority over her. I gave her snake bites and Indian burns, making the four-year old cry in the process. I would tell her that something very bad would happen if she told on me. She never questioned and took me at my word. I was fired within a month, however, because the child told a friend, who shared the information with her parents, who in turn told my employers. In the child’s mind, confiding to a friend was different from tattling to an adult. I never begrudged her. I took amusement in her cries of pain and fearful eyes as I twisted her skin and warned her, as she rubbed the red marks on her arms, of that something very bad.

Maybe I did have some sadism in me, but no one had called it out before. I doubted anyone knew it existed, as it was a trait I never thought, therefore acted, consciously on.

“You know what’s fucked up?” the boy asked. “You actually have emotions. You’re twisted, but you’re not a sociopath. Wanna know how I know?”

“I want to be done with this!” I snapped.

Rob chuckled. “Too bad. Wanting to be done never got me what I wanted. So here’s how I know you’re not a total monster: Last year, you got a client who was recovering from an abusive relationship with her father. He never hit her, just belittled her – like my mom does to me! What do you fucking know? – but on some level, you related to her. You were shaken. You showed her actual sympathy.”

“Yes,” I whispered, thinking back. I’d fought so hard to contain myself as the young woman in my office told me, with tears streaming down her own face, “I want to get past this. I don’t want him to haunt me forever. I mean, you don’t have to be dead to haunt someone, you know?”

“Yes,” I’d whispered. “I know exactly what you mean. And I am so proud of you for taking control of your life and being ready to face what you’ve been through.”

“Thank you.” She sniffled and began to wipe her eyes. I handed her the tissue box on the coffee table between us.

“I know a doctor who specializes in family dysfunction and emotional trauma who may be a better fit for you. I can give you a referral and see if she has an opening next week. How does that sound?”

The young woman nodded, composing herself. “Okay. Why, if you don’t mind my asking?”

I smiled. “Honestly, I had an experience similar to yours when I was young. I can sympathize, but Dr. Brooks is more an expert in the coping realm. Trauma – and I’m sorry if that word doesn’t ring true with you,” I added when she grimaced. “But that’s the simplest way to categorize the type of therapy you’re seeking – trauma is not my specialty.”

“Okay. Well, yeah, I’d like that referral, then.”

“You can schedule an appointment on your way out today. I will take care of the rest.”

“Okay, thank you. And thanks for your time. I’m actually sorry I won’t be working with you more.”

“Me, too, but I think you’ll find Dr. Brooks a good match. Feel free to contact me if need be.”

We rose, shook hands, and I escorted her to the door.

No doubt Rob accessed every part of that memory, but he made no comment; just rested forward as he watched me reflect.

“What happened to her?” I asked him.

“You’re never gonna find out, Doctor,” he said with a wicked smirk.

Unthinking, I tried again to rise to my feet, but my body clenched and froze, keeping me prisoner. Rob responded with roaring laughter.

“That’s how I felt my whole life! God, if only I were really here to see this! Things might not end the way they’re going to. But I guess that’s life, huh?”

“You heard that too often, didn’t you, Rob? ‘That’s just life’?”

“Yah. No kidding. Know who I heard it from the most, besides my mom?”

I massaged my temples. “Please … enough.”

“Not good enough, Doctor. You had a heart. Why’d you turn it off to some clients and not others?”

“Sometimes, therapists have better connections with certain clients. It’s human nature.”

“So you recommend another doctor or try to make the best of it!”

“I did! I tried!”

“To make it better for you, Doctor. Not me. Not the other clients you snubbed. Not all of them, of course. You knew where your paychecks came from. You also knew who was gonna complain and who wouldn’t. You watched me with my parents and decided to take advantage.”

“I suppose. I was lucky to never receive a complaint.”

“Ah, now you’re showing some sorrow. I can hear it in your voice. That’s good. Don’t stop, Doctor.”

He sounded sincere, not mocking or angry for once, but I tensed. He continued, “You know what it feels like to hurt. To lose. You’ve had people walk beside you like I never have, except my dad. But you’ve had people hurt you – relatives who shunned you for not being the perfect Christian and criticized your mom for her bad parenting.”

“She didn’t follow Catholic doctrine,” I explained, perhaps too defensively. “That does not mean she was a bad parent.”

He nodded. A few wisps of dark hair fell over his face, but I could see the compassion in his eyes. “That’s right, she wasn’t. And just because you were socially awkward like me, doesn’t mean you deserved to get picked on by popular kids. I mean, even if you’re a heartless bitch, you’re not totally heartless. Or you couldn’t have existed.”

“I don’t think that’s true … but I appreciate the affirmation,” I said cautiously. “Rob, why are you saying this?”

“To make you understand why you’re here. Like, really understand. And that means finally understanding me.”

“Okay.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“I didn’t want you to know me that well, truthfully. Just hearing your advice to my parents, I knew you had a bias against me. But I got desperate as time went by and life without my dad got harder. It’s stupid, but I kept holding out hope that someone would care.”

“That’s not stupid, Rob, that’s human nature. But you need to take care of yourself, too.”

His face crumpled. His eyes turned glassy. “I was eleven! I’m still just a teenager! I shouldn’t have to take care of myself yet!” Resting his torso on his thighs, he covered his face with the sleeves of his baggy sweater and shook with his sobs.

I didn’t know what to do. “You’re the devil,” I stated. “Why are you crying?”

He peered up at me, still in tears. “Am I, Doctor? Am I the heartless devil your bible preaches about? Any more than you?”

“Your powers … are inhuman. How can you be an emotional being?”

He covered his face again. I couldn’t tell if his response was a harsh laugh, or a sob, or both. “You treated me like I was inhuman. You thought I saw you as an obstacle, or like, an annoyance … which you were … an annoyance, I mean … but Mom and Dad said you were supposed to help me. You had power, and I was supposed to trust you.” He broke off with another sob before continuing. “But you just accused me of lying and told them to punish me. You were a dark force, a danger.”

I translated, “An enemy. To be defeated.”

“No.” He took a few deep breaths and looked up, most of his tears gone. “Even if that’s how most people see it, I never thought of you as an enemy; I’m not powerful enough to have enemies. I told you, as I’ve kept telling you for the last five years, I am just trying to survive. Even at the end, I wasn’t thinking of defeating you. Just … running on emotion.”

Before I could respond, my voice came from nearby, to my left. “You never thought you had the luxury of escape in your life, did you, Doctor? You thought you had to make the best of your situation, so you endured every stress life threw at you, taking the most amenable actions to avoid making enemies.”

I yelped and lurched to the right, cringing from the voice. My reflection sat on the ground, against the wall, slightly illuminated by whatever light that allowed me to see her and Rob. One leg stretched in front of her while the other bent so she could rest one wrist on the knee. She wore the same office clothes as before. She looked up at me, imprisoning me with the power of her dark gaze. “You didn’t want to be coddled, because if they coddled you, they might hurt you. Like your father hurt you.”

“So everyone should be like you,” Rob continued. “No one should have the nurturing you denied yourself; everyone should bootstrap themselves and lock their emotions away. Until they can punish the first weakling that falls in their path.”

I looked at my reflection. “What are you – ? I – I thought you were –” I glanced at Rob, then back at the woman. “The – the devil – ?”

They both harbored wicked smiles.

My reflection bent her other leg, pushed up on her heels, and knelt at Rob’s feet. At this angle, her profile was to me. She looked like a teacher preparing to send a message to a student, except for her imploring expression. “I really misunderstood you. I was awful to you, Rob. It’s unforgivable. And I’ll never be able to make it right.”

He stared down at her with intense eyes, leaning over, seemingly bowed by the tension in his shoulders. “No, you’ll never make it right. All you can do now is feel my pain. Feeling your own obviously wasn’t enough for you.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“What do I gotta do to get through to you?”

“Maybe you need to show me what it was like; make me experience it for myself.”

A smile grew as he nodded at her. He turned that grin on me. “That’s a great idea, Doctor. I think we’re getting somewhere.”

I felt the tremors in my body like tiny insects under my skin. The figures before me weren’t doing this. This was pure terror. I couldn’t control my shivers. “No. You’ve done enough. Please, I’m begging you. I’ll do and say anything you want, just don’t harm me anymore. I deserve it, but I can’t take it. Please.”

My surroundings started to blur. The devil, both versions, watched me with those same smiles. Nothing physically hurt, but I was losing focus. I felt nauseous. I felt the pain in my neck more strongly. Holding myself up became a struggle, and I wondered what would happen if I gave up and went limp. What if I started to fall?

If I lost consciousness, would I reawaken here? If not, where would I go? If so, what would they do to my body? What condition would I find myself in once I awoke?

There was a stretch of nothing, as in sleep when one does not remember her dreams, and then I was sitting in a firm chair with no arms to support me. The smell of disinfectant assaulted my nostrils.

As my vision came into focus, I saw Mark in the hospital bed before me. His eyes were shut. My small, child-like hands enfolded his larger one.

Wait … my hands were not my own. My clothes and body were not right. I wore boy's cargos and a purple tee shirt; and when I raised a hand to my head, I felt short cropped hair and angles that were not mine.

Furthermore, the pain in my neck was gone.

A heart monitor beeped by Mark's head. It slowed. I heard soft commotion behind me. Mark's heart beat once per few seconds. A nurse was at Mark's other side. I felt someone shake my shoulder and turned to see Cindy standing over me, with Courtney clinging to her side.

"What's happening?" Courtney asked. Her little six-year old voice quivered.

"Rob, get up," Cindy urged me. I obeyed. She pushed me to the side, next to Courtney, and leaned over her husband, stroking his curly, greying red hair. "It's okay, sweetie, I'm here for you. Your family is here."

After a few slow beats, the monitor fell flat with that ominous, continuous beep.

"Daddy?" Courtney called.

"Shh," Cindy hushed, touching her forehead to Mark's.

"I'm afraid he's gone, honey," the nurse said. "I'm sorry."

I felt a cold dread in my heart. A thought drifted through my mind like a shout: HE DOESN’T LOOK DEAD. The thought didn’t belong to me. Without my intention, my hand reached out to grasp Mark's again. It was still warm. But heavy. Unresponsive. I thought of all the times that hand held mine, squeezing it, guiding me, comforting me.

But they weren’t my memories. I had shaken hands with Mark and Cindy once, the first time they brought their son to see me.

I had never witnessed death before, but I shouldn’t feel this intense loss. I also shouldn’t have the body of a preteen boy, or Rob’s old clothes.

What had the devil done to me?

Gradually, the heat left my father’s hand. I caught myself and thought, Mark’s hand, but it made no difference. I felt my throat close and tears come to my eyes, but I closed them off. Or more accurately, Rob closed them off. It was the only explanation I could think of for these thoughts and emotions that were not my own.

Was Rob conscious in this body? Did he know I was here? Had we gone back in time, despite the devil’s earlier promise that there was no going back?

How long would I be stuck this way?

Pressure built in my eyes, throat, and chest as the body I inhabited tried not to cry, but like water boiling over, the tears and shuddering – albeit, silent – sobs took over. I curled in on myself, chin tucked to my chest, hands still clutching Mark’s.

All this time, I was unaware of my surroundings. Surely, Cindy was talking to the nurse and/or Courtney, but my universe narrowed to my dad’s cold hand and the absence of his amazing life. Who would protect me now? Who would make me laugh and listen to me when I had something to say? When I felt sad or scared or sick? No one.

No one.

A sob escaped my lips.

I felt a rough tap on my shoulders. “Rob! Why don’t you go to the bathroom to collect yourself,” Cindy said. Her voice was sharp but mingled with tears. “You’re upsetting Courtney. We have to be strong now.”

Our dad just died! We SHOULD be upset! The thought may have been Rob’s, or mine, or both. It was too strong for me to tell. In the back of my mind, I agreed with Cindy. The family had to be strong for each other. They couldn’t afford to wallow in their miseries. However, I also felt the pain and dread in Rob. I felt it in myself and instinctively loathed Cindy’s harsh response.

I looked to Courtney, who stared at me with concerned, watery eyes.

I wanted to look at Cindy and ask where the bathroom was – that is what I wanted, at least – but the body that carried me just dropped our gaze to the floor and sulked out to the hall. He found the men’s room easily enough and splashed cold water on his face, settling down a bit. In his mind and heart, I saw the familiarity of this pattern: the struggle to control his emotions in the midst of others versus the loss of social pressure that allowed him to regroup in solitude.

He wiped the water from his face and looked at his reflection in one of the mirrors. I had never seen his eyes this closely. The irises had a contrasting dark and light beauty to them that reminded me of a lake. I thought it a shame that behind those deep eyes was nothing but cowardice and laziness.

But as Rob looked at himself, he felt no connection; no sense of self. That’s me, he thought vaguely. The toy or animal left behind by its owner with no one to care for it. God, just yesterday, he was fine. We were laughing in the kitchen. Now he’s gone. I don’t believe it. I really don’t think I can. God, what am I gonna do? 

He doubled over the sink and started to cry again.

We stayed like that until Cindy knocked on the door. “Rob? Are you in there?”

He controlled his voice well. No one would hear his despair as he replied, “Yep.”

“You need to come out. They’re getting ready to take … to take him away and we need to go.”

His blood went cold. “Will – will they wait?” he asked. Now, he sounded like someone was strangling him.

Cindy didn’t answer. For all we knew, she’d gone back to the room. Rob washed his face again and hurried out, still choking on grief.

He found Cindy and Courtney on a bench in the hallway near Mark’s room. Cindy held Courtney close while the little girl cried.

“It’s okay, sweetie, let it out,” she whispered.

“Where’s Dad?” Rob asked.

“They’re finishing up. We should go home now. We were just waiting for you.”

“I want to see him again. I want to say good-bye.”

“I already told them to go ahead. I don’t want you to remember him like this.”

“Like what?”

Cindy sighed. “Please Rob, can you not argue with me, just this once?” She pinched the ridge of her nose, covering her eyes as she sniffled. “You can say good-bye at the funeral.”

In silence, we went to the family’s house. In silence, Rob hid in his room, sitting with his grief, his fear, his questions, and his memories.

In this time, I attempted to find some control. I tried to speak, hoping to make Rob speak, but nothing happened. I tried to move in the hopes that Rob would move, but again, nothing happened.

After many hours of brooding intermingled with brief, half hearted games in which action figures played out scenes of sicknesses or deaths within families, Rob heard Cindy call him for dinner.

Dad should be coming home soon, he thought.

Dinner was silent with the exception of little Courtney asking questions about why her daddy wasn’t coming home. Cindy answered her in a tone that was careful, guarded, but kind. I realized as I listened that this tone was different from the one she used with Rob and her husband during their appointments, as well as with me. To us, she spoke sternly and as though she was consciously trying to keep us at a distance. I understood her type: the one who is strong; always in control; never needing or letting anyone in.

But Rob didn’t understand this. I doubt it would have mattered if he did.

***

For the next five years, I experienced Rob’s life. Never interacting but living every thought, emotion, and action along with him. I began to understand the causes of his anxieties and despairs. I would listen to Cindy snap and reprimand him day after day and feel the sting of dejection as it washed through my old client. I felt his angst eat away at him and tried to see through the paralyzing blindfold it left on him, but I was just as powerless to overcome it as he was.

Soon, I felt the same pseudo solace he received from the headaches and nausea that kept him in bed so often. Lying under the warm covers was a refuge from the noise and pressure of school and his mother’s demands. I struggled to remind myself that the boy deluded himself into thinking this temporary escape the solution; that hiding would only make his anxieties worse.

But then I heard Rob repeating the same thoughts as I, trying to find the truth in them. They ghosted through his mind in whispers of Cindy’s voice and mine. The words were empty to him.

Hearing my voice through his ears would have made me weep, had I a body in which to do so. It mirrored Cindy’s in its cold sternness. I felt Rob’s angry, desperate passion on the occasions he tried to get through to me, to make me aware of what he truly felt, and the festering resentment the rest of the time when he accepted that my perception of him would not change.

Soon, although I retained my own conscious mind, I became one with Rob. His thoughts and actions became not only plausible to me, but often the only ones. I sat in on his appointments with me, growing sicker with each session. One could not say the boy expressed himself in the most mature or eloquent manner, but as his therapist, I deliberately ignored countless opportunities to reach out to him.

The more I walked with him, the more my dislike of him faded and my empathy grew. Despite the ineptness he displayed, he became a clearer, deeper human being … simply different from me. As I listened to his mother and myself, the more I yearned to explain to them in a way they would understand how wrong they were; how much harm their misconceptions would cause in the end. Or, in my end.

As the end of our five years approached, I grew anxious. Rob – and by default now, I – had fleeting but frequent thoughts of vengeance. Or to put it more accurately, catharsis. An enraged fog had settled in our minds, nearly consuming us. I tried desperately to reach out to him, to alert him to my presence and do whatever it took to dissuade him from fulfilling the fantasies that grew stronger each day. But he never heard me.

On our second to last real session, I resided in his body, beside his mind, as he reached into a chain laced pocket and handed the therapist before him a folded piece of paper. The note was from Cindy, informing me that a friend of Rob’s had passed away recently, by his own hand.

I watched myself through Rob’s eyes read the note. As always, I sat erect in my office chair with one knee crossed over the other. My face was professionally closed off. As always. In five years, I had never shown a trace of emotion except when I was laughing at him.

Now, I observed myself looking up from the paper and saying, “Okay. So, how are you doing?”

Rob’s blood seemed to boil a little bit as he replied, “Fine,” because he knew the question wasn’t sincere. I felt the squint in his eyes, scrutinizing his doctor to see how she would handle this tragedy.

She replied, “What do you want to talk about today?”

After a brief pause, he exhaled. I remembered this session, seeing those sharp eyes under his dark fringe of hair and being simultaneously annoyed and unnerved by his calculating belligerence. He considered for a moment before grunting, “Huh. Where to start?”

I remembered my irritation at what I’d seen as a self-pitying response.

“Why did your mom send this note?”

He offered a tiny shrug. “She wanted you to know.”

“Why didn’t she come in?”

“She had to take my sister somewhere. Besides, she doesn’t like to.”

I didn’t ask him to elaborate. I recalled my reason being that his mother was none of my concern. I recalled being uncomfortable with the new knowledge of his classmate for fear that Rob would be more emotional. My regular approaches may not work.

“So I guess your mom is worried about you,” we watched the therapist – that bitch, as we’d started to call her – say. Again, Rob only shrugged. “Why might that be?”

A shoulder twitch, then, “Mason killed himself last week.”

I wished I could stop her response, but I was powerless. “And who is Mason?”

We both felt the rage. Rob felt a touch of sinking; insulted but not surprised. I felt repulsion and shame. Now, in this new version of life, I’d watched Rob and Mason together in school. Mason was a stronger, more confident influence. He wore his blond hair long like Rob’s. He wore similar gothic clothing but was quicker to smile and laughed easily. He was also unafraid to put an arm around a friend’s shoulder and talk with them about how much some aspect of life sucked. He wasn’t the brooding type but had his share of hardships that weighed him down. Mason was an empathetic sounding board for Rob, and also a good friend and leader, although Rob would never admit that part out loud. I would have appreciated these traits in Mason before my death, but now that I’d merged with Rob to this extent and experienced Mason’s strength and compassion almost for myself, I loved him as his friends did.

Rob didn’t have enough trust or respect for the person I was to say much about this friend over the year, but he – or we, as I commonly thought of us now – had mentioned Mason in enough detail often enough that I should have remembered, had I cared to half-heartedly listen. He snapped, “My friend. I told you about him.”

The therapist – for I struggled to think of her as myself anymore – went for her notes, where, I knew from memory, there would be no mention of Mason. “Did you?” Then after a pause: “Oh, right. The one you were seeing at lunch.”  

This was technically wrong, in the sense she meant it. We had met Mason over lunch in the beginning, but mostly saw him in gym class and occasionally after school. We’d informed the therapist of this along the way, but Rob found the detail trivial enough to let slide – not that he was surprised by her ignorance. As a third party observer, I thought back to my mindset as I gave that answer: You can use simple, vague responses for any given situation to make yourself seem in the know. I and many of my coworkers used it often in affirmation. These simple phrases created a false sense of intimacy for the client; and sometimes for the therapist; but Rob felt no such intimacy.

“How are you doing with that?” I had asked my client.

“Coping … I guess.”

“Good.”  

Within minutes, we were discussing his driving. He had his learner’s permit, which had excited him at first. When Cindy insisted on taking him out each weekend, his enthusiasm died quickly. Cindy was high-strung and often berated Rob. Instead of complimenting him or giving specific suggestions of how to improve, she would make demands and exclamations. “Stop!” “Slow down!” “What is wrong with you?” and “What are you thinking?” were some of her most common ones. Most times, anxiety and anger would drive Rob to tears. Sometimes he would pull over, park, and leave on foot, typically walking until he felt calm enough to return home, upon which he would walk past Cindy as she ordered him to never do that again and claiming that they were going out again the next day as punishment. She portrayed the logic here as the only way to make Rob improve his driving.

Throughout this time, I retained enough of myself to feel sorry for her. She wanted her son to grow, but she took on too much responsibility for him and didn’t see the stress she caused him. After watching her mother move in for a time after Mark’s death, I understood why Cindy never thought to show her son the compassion she showed Courtney. Her mother was an old fashioned sexist – the kind who believed women were the ones to feel while men were the ones to do the hard work. Cindy didn’t seem to grasp the apparent role reversal between herself and Mark.

Rob had tried to explain this during our earlier sessions, but when his attempts were met with criticisms of his perception, he gave up communicating and settled for venting. Our driving discussions usually ended with him saying how Cindy made him “feel like crap” and how he wished his dad was alive to teach him.

On this day, he shared how Cindy had made him drive home after Mason’s funeral.

“I waited in the cold for half an hour, because I couldn’t stay inside with all those people crying, and I couldn’t look at his body anymore. I’d just gotten myself collected, so I didn’t want to fall apart anymore that night. So I’m cold, and kind of fragile-feeling, and she pulls up and says she’s got my temps and that I’m driving. I said I’d better not ’cause my focus wasn’t good enough; ’cause I was too emotional; but she didn’t care. So we’re going down the beltline and I had to make a lane change to get home, so I check my blind spot and mirrors. All’s clear; there’s a red car probably a hundred feet back in the lane with his brakes on. So I start making the change, and she grabs the wheel and starts freaking out, ‘What are you thinking? Watch out!’ So I freak, and I’m saying, ‘What? What?’ and she’s like, ‘Didn’t you see that car?’ So I look, and I see the red car gaining on me, but still way behind. It was going to let me in but when she freaked, we swerved and it wanted to get ahead; probably thought we were crazy and didn’t want to get stuck behind us. But suddenly, it’s like there were cars everywhere, and we were going twice as fast as we really were. I mean, that’s how it seemed to me. I was choking up again, thinking about Dad, and Mason, and how many people die in car accidents. And I pulled over and got out. It was all so much, like … like death was … everywhere.”

I felt the cold dread creep into him at the memory. For a moment, the therapist was gone to him, and he was alone in his head, hearing Cindy’s shouts, seeing the corpses of those he loved.

I resided in his mind, praying to be spared this memory.

The therapist pulled him back, laughing as though he’d told a hilarious joke. This was the last thing she wanted to be dealing with and could think of no easier way to divert Rob. “‘Death was everywhere,’” she quoted. “That’s funny. You word things so dramatically.”

I remembered – and felt – how Rob tilted up his chin and worked his lips into the smallest smile a human can manage. My old tactic – laughing to redirect him – worked like a charm, even in his darkest moments.

Watching, I hated myself. Rob hated me, but in a different way. He projected hatred for himself, sharing it with me, hating us both. His thoughts, in short, amounted to: This has to end. 

Now I understood.

At the last session, Rob leaned back in the couch across from the therapist’s chair instead of his usual hunched position. I remembered seeing his eyes more clearly as his hair fell back off his forehead. They appeared cold, closed off, yet peaceful. I couldn’t tell which was accurate, but now I understood that all were true.

“Things have been great,” he reported. “Classes, friends, Mom …”

“Oh?” I said, inviting him to continue.

“The work’s lightened up. Mom’s not nagging me as much. It’s almost like she’s starting to like me again, er, well, starting to like me, period. I’ve been hanging out with this guy Jake more, so that’s cool … um, yeah. It’s better.”

“That’s good,” I stated, marking it in his file. “Have you been driving?”

“Not so much,” he replied neutrally.

“You shouldn’t be avoiding it, you know,” I reprimanded.

Rob shrugged and said, “We haven’t gotten around to it. That’s all.”

In hindsight, and even before, it should have been obvious to me that something was wrong. I admit that I felt a slight stirring inside, warning me to investigate; but I didn’t want to disrupt the peaceful session. Once he was out of my office, I told myself every week, he was no longer my responsibility, and until then, I was obligated to make the hour as bearable for myself as possible.

For one of the few times in our work together, we discussed “positive” aspects of Rob’s life. Throughout that time, I watched Rob bullshit me – his therapist – and how willingly she accepted it. Towards the end of the hour, he said he wanted to thank me for all my time. I told him truthfully that I was only doing my job. He replied, “Still, not everyone likes their job.”

Inquisitive, though not enough to question, I stood up to see him out. He followed suit and took a step towards me, holding out one arm as if for a hug, keeping the other at his side, thumb looped in a pocket.  

He said, “Can I?” and without waiting for a response, enfolded me in a one-armed hug. The closeness struck me as strange both times. The first, to be so close to a client. I’d found it utterly unprofessional. Rob was small and had a vulnerability about him, body and soul. Although a challenge, I could separate from his emotional vulnerability by redirecting him and shutting off my own mind. The touch humanized him to me. Instead of listening to a voice and watching a body and face, I was forced to recognize this person as real and feeling. Everything I tried so hard to deny.

This time, I understood what it felt like for him to take hold of this person he so loathed. Although he’d found her physically attractive when he first saw her, any recognition of that attraction faded when he came to know her personality. Even though I watched and felt him touch my own body, and knew in turn that I was doing the same, I felt us cringe internally as if touching a snake – a creature we both despised. But also feeling a sense of power and liberation as she froze in our embrace, surprised, unsure how to respond.

Disarmed, she – I – didn’t think to watch or resist him. He didn’t give her enough time, for in the next second, he reached into his baggy pocket for the knife and brought the sharp blade into her neck. The tip slid in smoothly, cutting through skin, muscle, tendons, and finally striking bone. His hand did not tremble. He knew ahead of time that he couldn’t afford it.

The door was still shut, so no one heard me cry out.

He yanked the knife out of my neck, only to bring it over my throat and slice, disabling my windpipe. He angled himself in such a way as to avoid being splattered with blood.

We watched our therapist drop to her knees, then to her side, eyes and mouth gaping. I had never seen myself look anything but collected in the mirror, in work pictures, in Hell, and through Rob’s eyes. Now, I saw myself taken off guard, scared, and defeated. I felt humiliated as I related to who I had been. I felt her pain as though it were still mine.

But part of me also thought, Finally! 

But what would happen next?

Rob put the knife back in his pocket, covered his hand with a sleeve, and opened the door, closing me in with incredible swiftness. We locked her in. I remembered hearing that latch click. Between the pain and the faintness as my blood drained, there was nothing I could do. I bled out, soaking the carpet red.

We strode down the hall, past the receptionist checking in my next client. We beamed. Rob felt exalted. I felt free, scared, and inquisitive. I had surrendered to my existence with him quickly, knowing there was nothing else to do. I was helpless but suspected my fate. Now that I understood what brought me to Hell in the first place, what would happen?

The clinic was empty enough that Rob slipped out undetected. Spotlessly clean, he had nothing to hide when he climbed in the car with Cindy.

She turned the car off, unbuckled her seatbelt, and handed Rob the keys. “You’re driving.”

He stared at her for a moment, irritated. Yet still exhilarated. “No.”

“Yes. You haven’t driven in a week! This is the only way we’re getting home.”

Rob deliberated, then took the keys and switched seats with Cindy. He adjusted the seat and mirrors, started the ignition, and drove them out of the parking lot.

On the roads, he drove like a wild man, going twenty above the speed limit when no other car was near, lane-changing without checking blind spots, and taking corners sharply enough that the tires screeched.

“Stop, stop! What are you doing?!” Cindy shouted.

“I’m driving!” he yelled back. “You’re always telling me to drive with more confidence!”

“You’re driving like a madman! Stop it – unless you want to get us killed!”

“At this point, I don’t much care what happens!” he said with a laugh.

“What’s that therapist saying to you? Pull over. Pull over now, Rob.”

He obeyed, switching back to the passenger’s side and riding home with a growing rush of exaltation.

The next morning, he awoke before the sun came up to wash the knife and bury his pants and sweatshirt in the hamper.

I don’t know exactly when my body was found, or by whom, although I wish I did. An investigation was conducted in which all my clients and coworkers were questioned. When they came for Rob, he lied so smoothly that their suspicions of him died.

***

In the months following my death, Rob began truly living for himself. He skipped school when he could and spent class hours and evenings doing art and journaling. He ignored the opposition from Cindy and his teachers.

Cindy thought his change in behavior was the result of my death. This was true, but for a different reason than she believed. Finally, Rob felt on equal ground with the forces that took his father. My message finally broke through: instead of waiting for the life he wanted, he found he could reach out and take it. He would never have to listen to me lecture again.

He would never have to obey Cindy’s orders again.

When Courtney came to his room to ask a favor – usually that he play with her or help her with her homework – he told her no and locked her out. If she happened to be in his room and refused to leave, he learned to take her under the arms and remove her from his space. And he learned to ignore her when she stood outside his door crying and screaming for Cindy.

I used to see myself as a horrible person, he wrote one night, because everyone in my life thought I was horrible. Now, I am horrible by all accounts. I hurt people. I don’t think about anyone besides myself (except Shelby from English). But I don’t feel horrible anymore. I guess that’s the paradox of it. I’ve wondered if I could be different, if I wanted to – you know, like, less selfish – and I totally could, but it’d have to be for someone like Shelby who treated me with respect. And who actually liked me. For who I am. But there’s not many people like that anymore, so I’ll just settle for liking myself.

Another night, he wrote, Liking yourself doesn’t necessarily make things better.

On his final day, Cindy designated Rob to drive her, Courtney, and their grandmother to a carnival. Memorial day was nearing and it was the family’s tradition to go to the carnival in the next town over.

This was nearly four months after my death. Cindy had tried to keep as much normalcy in the family as she could since Mark died for fear that if she didn’t, they would become weighted down by grief and unable to continue. She seemed to find this especially important on holidays.

Rob wished she would give it up. It hurt him more to go along with her cheeriness than to spend a day in grief, breaking their joyous traditions. He fought vehemently with her over driving – we both did, as I lost more and more of myself to this young man – but in the end, conceded.

He hadn’t been behind the wheel since the day of his therapist’s death. Cindy had made no mention of driving until now. Perhaps his reckless behavior unsettled her more than she would admit. Maybe she thought he wouldn’t pull such a stunt with a young child and elder in the back seats.

Before he killed me, she would have been correct, but Rob never lost the sense of empowerment as he felt my body go weak in his arms. He relished the thought of terrifying them, making them beg for their safety. Or better yet, their lives.

But grief overwhelmed him as he took the wheel and listened to the women’s “Happy Memorial Day!” declarations.

Even after five years … Dad should still be here, we thought.

I couldn’t see our face as he drove, but I knew the expression from countless encounters in the mirror, and – although the memories grew foggy – my time as his therapist: the heavy shadow of loss, anger, and resentment. I felt it all. I understood it.

Heavy-hearted, we didn’t want any hassles. We drove fast but safely. Cindy still berated us at times.

Courtney tugged our long hair from the back seat and taunted us. Our grandmother laughed and played along. We told them to stop, warning that they were making it hard to concentrate. Cindy rebuked us for using a short tone.

We choked on silent tears we kept in our throat.

As we neared the carnival, we missed Mark even more. The thought of pretending to celebrate without him seemed sacrilege. We had never taken a holiday to remember or mourn him. We’d been forced to pretend we didn’t love our father.

Our high disappeared. Helplessness crept in. We couldn’t do it again; not to him, not to ourselves.

A rocky hill towered to our right. We sped by it on the empty road. A thought touched our minds. For a split second, we thought, I can’t. I’d never, and immediately countered, It doesn’t matter anymore.

Rob jerked the wheel to the right, barely thinking on a conscious level but feeling and reacting as when he killed me.

Nobody had time to react. Everything went away.

I woke up in the same chair in the dim room. The therapist sat in front of me, cold as ever.

“You understand now,” she said, devoid of emotion. “Stand up.”

I felt moisture trail from my eyes, down my cheeks. I could feel in my chest that I was weeping. I felt no pain in my body. I touched my face, my hair, longer and straighter than Rob’s. “What happened to Rob?” I asked. “What happened to his family?”

“That is not up to me to tell you, Doctor –”

“Please never call me that!” I begged.

The therapist stood up. I couldn’t read her expression. It almost seemed satisfied. “Stand up. It’s time for you to go.”

“Where?”

She stared down at me, a sickeningly smug smile on her face. I waited for pain that never came, then rose to my feet.

She extended her hand, motioning for me to turn around. In the dimness, there was just enough light for me to see the door’s outline. I felt anxiety course through me. I turned to the woman and cried more freely. “Please tell me what happens.”

“Don’t be afraid, Doctor.” For the first time, her voice was soft. “It will benefit you no longer.”

I glanced at the door, then back to the therapist. But she was gone. I stood in the dim space alone.

I trembled and sobbed into my hands. When it was clear I had nothing more to do, I braced myself. I had never understood the acceptance and guidance Rob craved, that he never received from a living being, save for Mark. Not until I lived his life. Now I could crave it, too, and mourn what I never had. I thought it unlikely to receive now, after everything we had both experienced, but I wondered: What could possibly be left, after those five years? Did we truly go through that just to suffer eternal torment? I found that hard to believe.

I spent another moment in the dark silence, feeling both stalked and abandoned. I didn’t want to stay here, closed in. Whatever was behind that door was out of my control. I may enter and wish I’d never left this place, but I would surely go insane, isolated here with knowledge beyond my grasp, even the knowledge that there would be no more knowledge, no more privilege for me.

My fear increased. Another part of me just wished to know what became of Rob. I said a prayer, reached for the tiny knob on the door, twisted, hesitated, and eased it open. Pain or release, I was ready.