Skeet’s eyes appeared to be not just swollen and bloodshot but sore, as if he’d seen too many painful things. But in the ice-pale, sunken wreckage of his gaunt face, his smile was warm. “You’re not just a half brother. You’re a brother and a half.”
Dusty cupped a hand against the back of Skeet’s head and pulled him close, until their foreheads touched. They sat for a while, brow to brow, neither of them saying anything.
Then they got out of the van, into the cold rain.
Dr. Mark Ahriman’s waiting room featured two pairs of Ruhlmanstyle lacquered lacewood chairs with black leather seats. The floor was black granite, as were the two end tables, each of which held fanned copies of Architectural Digest and Vanity Fair The color of the walls matched the honey tone of the lacewood.
Two Art Deco paintings, nighttime cityscapes reminiscent of some early work by Georgia O’Keeffe, were the only art.
The high-style decor was also surprisingly serene. As always, Susan was visibly relieved the moment she crossed the threshold from the fourteenth-floor corridor. For the first time since leaving her apartment, she didn’t need to lean on Martie. Her posture improved. She raised her head, pushed back the raincoat hood, and took long breaths, as if she’d broken through the surface of a cold, deep pond.
Curiously, Martie, too, felt a measure of relief. Her floating anxiety, which didn’t seem to be anchored to any particular source, abated somewhat as she closed the waiting-room door behind them.
The doctor’s secretary, Jennifer, could be seen through the receptionist's window. Sitting at a desk, talking on the phone, she waved.
An inner door opened soundlessly. As if telepathically informed of his patient’s arrival, Dr. Ahriman entered from the equally well furnished chamber in which he conducted therapy sessions. Impeccably dressed in a dark gray Vestimenta suit, as stylish as his offices, he moved with the easy grace characteristic of professional athletes.
He was forty-something, tall, well-tanned, with salt-and-pepper hair, as handsome as the photographs on the dust jackets of his bestselling books about psychology. Though his hazel eyes were unusually direct, his stare wasn’t invasive or challenging, not clinical—but warm and reassuring. Dr. Ahriman looked nothing like Martie’s fader; however, he shared Smilin’ Bob’s affability, genuine interest in people, and relaxed self-confidence. To her, he had a fatherly air.
Rather than reinforce Susan’s agoraphobia by solicitously asking how she had handled the trip from her apartment, he spoke eloquendy about the beauty of the storm, as though the soggy morning were as luminous as a painting by Renoir. As he described the pleasures of a walk in the rain, the chill and the damp sounded as soul-soothing as a sunny day at the beach.
By the time Susan stripped out of her raincoat and handed it to Martie, she was smiling. All the anxiety was gone from her face, if not entirely from her eyes. As she left the waiting room for Dr. Ahriman’s inner office, she no longer moved like an old woman, but like a young girl, apparently unintimidated by the expansive view of the coastline that awaited her from his fourteenth-floor windows.
As always, Martie was impressed by the instant soothing effect that the doctor had on Susan, and she almost decided against sharing her concern with him. But then, before he followed Susan into the office, Martie asked if she might have a word with him.
To Susan, he said, “I’ll be right with you,” and then shut his office door.
Moving to the center of the waiting room with Ahriman, keeping her voice low, Martie said, “I’m worried about her, Doctor.”
His smile was as comforting as hot tea, sugared shortbread, and a fireside armchair. “She’s doing well, Mrs. Rhodes. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
“Isn’t there medication you could give her? I was reading that anxiety medication—”
“In her case, anxiety medication would be a very grave mistake. Drugs aren’t always the answer, Mrs. Rhodes. Believe me, if they would help her, I’d write the prescription in a minute.”
“But she’s been like this for sixteen months.”
He cocked his head and regarded her almost as if he suspected that she was teasing him. “Have you really seen no change in her, especially over the last few months?”
“Oh, yes. Plenty. And it seems to me . . . Well, I’m no doctor, no therapist, but lately Susan seems to be worse. A lot worse.”
“You’re right. She’s getting worse, but that’s not a bad sign.”
Baffled, Martie said, “It’s not?”
Sensing the depth of Martie’s distress, perhaps intuitively aware that her anxiety arose not entirely from her concern about her friend, Dr. Ahriman guided her to a chair. He settled into the seat beside her.
“Agoraphobia,” he explained, “is almost always a sudden-onset condition, rarely gradual. The intensity of the fear is as severe during the first panic attack as during the hundredth. So when there’s a change in the intensity, it often indicates the patient is on the edge of a breakthrough.”
“Even if the fear gets worse?”
“Especially when it gets worse.” Ahriman hesitated. “I’m sure you realize I can’t violate Susan’s privacy by discussing the details of her specific case. But in general the agoraphobic often uses his or her fear as a refuge from the world, as a way to escape engagement with other people or to avoid dealing with particularly traumatic personal experiences. There’s a perverse comfort in the isolation—”
“But Susan hates being so fearful, trapped in that apartment.”
He nodded. “Her despair is deep and genuine. However, her need for isolation is even greater than her anguish over the limitations imposed by her phobia.”
Martie had noticed that sometimes Susan seemed to cling to her apartment because she was happy there more than because she was too frightened of the world beyond.
“If the patient begins to understand why she’s embracing her loneliness,” Ahriman continued, “if at last she starts to identify the real trauma she’s trying not to face, then sometimes, in denial, she will cling to the agoraphobia more fiercely. An intensification of symptoms usually means she’s making a last-ditch defense against the truth. When that defense fails, she’ll finally face the thing she really fears—not open spaces, but something more personal and immediate.”
The doctor’s explanation made sense to Martie, yet she couldn’t easily accept the idea that an ever steeper decline would inevitably lead to a cure. Last year, her father’s battle with cancer progressed along a relentless downward spiral, and at the bottom there had been no joyful breakthrough, only death. Of course a psychological illness could not be compared to a physical disease. Nevertheless
“Did I set your mind at rest, Mrs. Rhodes?” A twinkle of humor enlivened his eyes. “Or do you think I’m full of psychobabble?”
His charm won her over. The impressive array of diplomas in his office, his reputation as the finest specialist in phobic therapy in California and perhaps in the nation, and his keen mind were no more important to building patient trust than was his bedside manner.
Martie smiled and shook her head. “No. The only babble is coming from me. I guess . . . I feel like I’ve failed her somehow.”
“No, no, no.” He placed a hand reassuringly on her shoulder. “Mrs. Rhodes, I can’t stress strongly enough how important you are to Susan’s recovery. Your commitment to her means more than anything I can do. You must always feel comfortable about expressing your worries to me. Your concern for her is the rock on which she stands.”
Martie’s voice thickened. “We’ve been friends since we were kids, most of our lives. I love her so much. I couldn’t love her more if she were my sister.”
“That’s what I mean. Love can accomplish more than therapy, Mrs. Rhodes. Not every patient has someone like you. Susan is so very lucky in that regard.”
Martie’s vision blurred. “She seems so lost,” she said softly.
His hand tightened slightly on her shoulder. “She’s finding her way. Believe me, she is.”
She did believe him. Indeed, he had comforted her so much that she almost mentioned her own peculiar rushes of anxiety this morning: her shadow, the mirror, the mezzaluna, the point and the serrated edge of the car key. .
In the inner office, Susan was waiting for her session. This time was hers, not Martie’s.
“Is there something else?” Dr. Ahriman asked.
“No. I’m all right now,” she said, getting to her feet. “Thank you. Thank you so much, Doctor.”
“Have faith, Mrs. Rhodes.”
Smiling, he gave her a thumbs-up sign, went into his office, and closed the door.
Martie followed a narrow hallway between the doctor’s private office and a large file room, to a second waiting area. This was smaller than—but similar to—the first.
Here, a back door led into Dr. Ahriman’s office, and another door opened onto the fourteenth-floor corridor. This double-waiting-room arrangement ensured that arriving patients and their companions, if any, wouldn’t encounter departing patients, thus guaranteeing everyone’s privacy.
Martie hung Susan’s raincoat and her own on a pair of wall hooks beside the exit door.
She had brought a paperback book, a thriller, to pass the time, but she couldn’t focus on the story. None of the creepy things happening in the novel was as disquieting as the real events of this morning.
Soon Jennifer, the doctor’s secretary, brought a mug of coffee— black, without sugar, as Martie liked it—and a chocolate biscotto. “I didn’t ask if you’d rather have a soft drink. I just assumed, on a day like this, coffee was the thing.”
“Perfect. Thank you, Jenny.”
When Martie first accompanied Susan here, she had been surprised by this simple courtesy; although having no previous experience with psychiatrists’ offices, she was sure that such thoughtful treatment was not common to the profession, and she was still charmed by it.
The coffee was rich but not bitter. The biscotto was excellent; she would have to ask Jennifer where to buy them.
Funny, how one good cookie could calm the mind and even elevate a troubled soul.
After a while, she was able to concentrate on the book. The writing was good. The plot was entertaining. The characters were colorful. She enjoyed it.
The second waiting room was a fine place to read. Hushed. No windows. No annoying background music. No distractions.
In the story, there was a doctor who loved haiku, a concise form of Japanese poetry. Tall, handsome, blessed with a mellifluous voice, he recited a haiku while he stood at a huge window, watching a
“Pine wind blowing hard, quick rain, torn windpaper talking to itself”
Martie thought the poem was lovely. And those succinct lines perfectly conveyed the mood of this January rain as it swept along the coast, beyond the window. Lovely—both the view of the storm and the words.
Yet the haiku also disturbed her. It was haunting. An ominous intent lurked beneath the beautiful images. A sudden disquiet came over her, a sense that nothing was what it seemed to be.
What’s happening to me?
She felt disoriented. She was standing, though she had no memory of having risen from her chair. And for God’s sake, what was she doing here?
“What’s happening to me?” she asked aloud this time.
Then she closed her eyes, because she must relax. She must relax. Relax. Have faith.
Gradually she recovered her composure.
She decided to pass the time with a book. Books were good therapy. You could lose yourself in a book, forget your troubles, your fear.
This particular book was especially good escape reading. A real thriller. The writing was good. The plot was entertaining. The characters were colorful. She enjoyed it.
The one available room at New Life was on the second floor, with a view of the well-landscaped grounds. Queen palms and ferns thrashed in the wind, and beds of blood-red cyclamens throbbed.
Rain clicked against the window so hard that it sounded like sleet, though Dusty could see no beads of ice sliding down the glass.
His clothes only slightly damp now, Skeet sat in a blue tweed armchair. He paged desultorily through an ancient issue of Time.
This was a private rather than semiprivate room. A single bed with yellow-and-green-checked spread. One blond, wood-grain Formica nightstand, a small matching dresser. Off-white walls, burnt-orange drapes, bile-green carpet. When they went to Hell, sinful interior designers were assigned to quarters like this for eternity.
The attached bath featured a shower stall as cramped as a phone booth. A red label—TEMPERED GLASS—was fixed to a corner of the mirror above the sink: If broken, it would not produce the sharp shards required to slash one’s wrists.
Although the room was humble, it was costly, because the care given by the staff at New Life was of a far higher quality than their furniture. Skeet’s health insurance didn’t include I—was-stupid-andself-destructive-and-now-l-need-to-have-a-full-brain-flush coverage, so Dusty had already written a check for four weeks of room and board, and he had signed a commitment to pay for the services of therapists, physicians, counselors, and nurses as needed.
As this was Skeet’s third course of rehabilitation—and his second at New Life—Dusty was beginning to think that to have any hope of success, what he needed were not psychologists, physicians, and therapists—but a wizard, a warlock, a witch, and a wishing well.
Skeet was likely to be at New Life for a minimum of three weeks. Perhaps six. Because of his suicide attempt, a series of nurses would be with him around the clock for at least three days.
Even with painting contracts lined up and with Martie’s deal to design a new Lord of the Rings game, they were not going to be able to afford a long Hawaiian vacation this year. Instead, they could put a few tiki lanterns in the backyard, wear aloha shirts, crank up a Don Ho CD, and have a canned-ham luau. That would be fun, too. Any time spent with Martie was fun, whether the backdrop was Waimea Bay or the painted board fence at the end of their flower garden.
As Dusty sat on the edge of the bed, Skeet dropped the issue of Time that he’d been reading. “This magazine sucks since they stopped running nudes.” When Dusty didn’t respond, Skeet said, “Hey, that was just a joke, bro, not the drugs talking. I’m not particularly high anymore.”
“You were funnier when you were.”
“Yeah. But after the flight goes down, it’s hard to be funny in the wreckage.” His voice wobbled like a spinning top losing momentum.