"That must have been horrible for you," Dr. Tyler says quietly as he once again takes notes in his stupid little notepad. "To find Jill like that, in your own yard. That would take a toll on anyone."
He pauses and looks at me. I've already been here for thirty minutes and to be honest, I don't know why I came. Except that I don't know what to do with everything that is happening in my life. I feel a little like I'm floundering, like I've lost control. That was one thing about using. It always made me feel as though I was in control...even when I wasn't.
"Of course it was horrible," I answer. "There was a dead person at my house. It was startling."
Dr. Tyler stares at me. "There was a dead person at your house whom you have been sexually involved with. She tried to contact you prior to dying. You have more than a passing interest in this, Pax. You need to deal with whatever you are feeling about it. Can you tell me what you feel?"
"I'm pissed, actually," I glare at him. "Why did she have to come to my house to overdose? Was it to prove a point? I told her that we were done, not that there was ever a we. We fulfilled a purpose for each other. That's all. I didn't even know her last name."
Dr. Tyler stares at me thoughtfully and I feel like he is trying to look inside of me.
"Are you really angry because she died at your house?" he finally answers. "Or are you angry that you weren't there with her? Or for her when she tried to ask you for help? Do you know what her texts said? Or did you throw your phone overboard before you read them?"
I'm pissed now, mainly because he's right. I've wondered about those very things.
"Are you trying to imply that this is my fault because I didn't answer her texts? The girl was psycho. She was an addict who needed help. I told her to get help, but she chose not to."
The doctor holds his hand up.
"Of course I'm not saying it was your fault," he says soothingly. "It wasn't. She is responsible for her own actions. I was just wondering if you were able to read any of her messages to you? It might provide you with some sort of explanation, so that you are able to get closure. I'm guessing that you are feeling some guilt and maybe even the urge to use. I want to help you deal with that."
I shake my head.
"I don't need closure. Someone that I know died. I didn't love her. I read a couple of her messages. She wanted drugs and she sounded desperate. I have no idea where she found the drugs that she overdosed with. The only guilt that I feel is based on the fact that I didn't cut her off a long time ago. I contributed to her state of mind by giving her drugs for the past two years. That's something that I am responsible for. I feel badly for her that she wasn't able to quit, but that's all. And I haven't felt the urge to use. Far from it, actually. I'm tired of talking about this now. Can we get back to my issues?"
"In a moment," Dr. Tyler answers. "I'm curious about Mila. How has this affected her?"
I pause and I feel my heart quicken. Every day this week since the incident, as I've been referring to it, I've felt panicky when I pictured the look on Mila's face that morning. It was a look like she somehow thought it was all my fault, like I might end up like Jill. And like she wasn't prepared for any of it.
I swallow and my throat is so dry I can hear it.
"Mila is a trooper," I reply. "She stayed while the police asked their questions and she was worried about Jill's kids. She's got a soft heart."
"So, she didn't draw any parallels between you and Jill?" The doctor sounds doubtful. I get the sudden urge to punch him in the face.
"Of course she did. She told me that it could've been me. And then I promised her that it never would be."
"And did she accept that answer?" Dr. Tyler's pen pauses.
I pause, too.
"I don't know. She seemed to. But she's been quiet this week, reserved. I don't know if she is processing it or what."
"Does it scare you that she might not be able to return to where you were before this happened?"
More than anything in the world.
But I don't say that.
Instead, I simply say, "Yes."
The doctor looks at his paper and scribbles. Someday, I'd like to see exactly what he is writing.
"I'd like to change the subject now," I tell him firmly. I'm done talking about Mila.
I steel my gaze and stare at the doctor. He sighs and nods.
"Okay. Let's change the subject. Have you had any more dreams?
I nod. "Yes. Several times this week. They are still the same. I'm in a dark room and I can't see very well. But I can hear my mom. It sounds like she's pleading with me. I can't seem to get past that point in the dream. It's frustrating, because I feel like there is more to see."
The doctor studies me, his fingers rolling his pen around on his lap.
"Sometimes, a person's mind protects itself as best it can. It does that by building barriers and suppressing memories. If I had to guess, I would say that this dream is a memory. And your mind doesn't want you to remember the rest of it because it will be very painful."
I stare at him. "You think that I'm dreaming something that really happened?"
He nods. "I'm guessing that is true. I could be wrong. But the only way to find out, is to let your dream play out."
I shake my head, frustrated. "It won't. It only goes up to that point, where I'm in a dark place and I can hear my mother. And then I wake up. Usually in a cold sweat."
The doctor nods. "There is another way, if you're open to it."
I wait, not sure if I want to know.
"Have you ever been hypnotized?" the doctor asks and I scoff.
"Fuck no. No. I'm not getting hypnotized. What kind of quack practice are you running?"
I start to stand up, but the doctor holds up his hand.
"Wait, Pax. Hypno-therapy is a very valid and useful tool available to us. It isn't quackery. It's simply guided relaxation techniques that allow the patient to focus intensely on something, blocking everything else out. Most psychiatrists are trained at using it and in fact, it is a specialty of mine. If you really want to know what you are dreaming about, it is the best way to find out. It strips away the barriers that your mind has put in place, allowing you to see what you are trying to hide from yourself."
He just had to phrase it that way, didn't he? Because he has to know that I'm dying to know what my mind is trying to hide.
I settle back into my seat.
"How long will it take?" I ask uncertainly.
"It's not that time consuming," he reassures me. "And I think it might be good for you."
He stares at me, waiting. Finally, I sigh.
"Fine," I mutter. "I'll do it. But you'd better not trick me into barking like a dog or anything. I don't want to do it today, but I'll do it soon."
Dr. Tyler smiles. "That only happens in movies," he tells me. "And we can do it anytime you'd like. I'll plan on it for next time, unless you tell me otherwise."
He scribbles a bit more in his notepad.
"Have you filled the Xanax prescription?" he asks, glancing up at me.
I shake my head. "No. I told you I didn't need it."
"Good for you," the doctor commends me. "You have strong fortitude. It's encouraging. It seems you really do want to change things around for the better."
I nod and for the first time today, I feel good about something that I've done. The quack doctor is right. I really am changing things around for the better. I might be going about it wrong, but at least I'm going about it.
It's funny how days blend into each other when you aren't paying attention.
It's been weeks since Jill died. Weeks since the misgivings and doubts crept in. Weeks that Pax has given me nothing at all to doubt him for. He's been perfect. Amazingly, unbelievably perfect. So perfect, in fact, that I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. And so far, it hasn't.
I pull into my parents' driveway, or I guess I should say Madison's, since she lives here now. But to be honest, this will always be my parents' house. I think Madison actually feels the same way and I wouldn't blame her if she wanted to sell it at some point and get a new house of her own.
I yank the keys out of the ignition and make my way up the icy sidewalk to the door. Maddy opens the door before I even get a chance to knock.
"I'm glad you're here," she tells me, without even saying hello. "Try this."
She shoves a hot mug into my hand and I sniff it as I step into the house, knocking the snow from my boots on the doorsill.
She nods. "The best hot chocolate you've ever had," she says confidently. "Thick Italian hot chocolate. I'm trying it out for the restaurant. It's literally so thick the spoon will stand up in it."
I sip at it and the thick, creamy chocolate slides down my throat like pudding.
"Holy cow, that's good," I tell her. "You've got a winner."
She tries to grab it back, but I yank it away. "Not on your life."
She rolls her eyes. "Fine. Now what was it that you wanted to look for today? I forget."
I take my coat off. "I just wanted to browse through mom's memento drawer. I'm feeling a bit sentimental and I miss them. So I thought I'd look through her trinkets."
Madison looks at me sympathetically. "I know how you feel. I was like that last week. I miss them so much."
Her eyes turn watery, but she moves away, toward the kitchen. Madison isn't much of a crier. She waves her hand. "You know where to find it. I'll be in the kitchen."
She leaves me alone and I pad down the hall to our parent's bedroom. Even though it's the master bedroom, Maddy couldn't bring herself to clean it out and sleep in there. She's kept her old bedroom, keeping mom and dad's exactly as it was.
As I walk in, it is so quiet that it seems almost reverent. If I close my eyes, I try to pretend that I can smell my mom's perfume lingering here. But of course I can't. They died several years ago. Her scent is long gone.
But her memories aren't.
I slide open the top drawer of her dresser and pull it out, carrying it to the bed. As I sit on the flowered bedspread, I can remember so many afternoons after school spent in here with her, sitting on the bed as she readied for work at The Hill. She'd sit at her vanity and curl her hair, spritz on perfume and talk with me about my day.
God, I miss her.
I sift through the pictures in her drawer first. They are in informal stacks, held together with old rubber-bands. Black and white ones from her youth, faded ones from mine. My favorite picture is here, the one of my dad and I both holding up huge fish that we'd caught in Lake Michigan on one perfect summer day. I was eight years old and had a chocolate mustache and he's wearing his floppy fishing hat.
I smile at the memory.
That was a really good day. Mom and Maddy had sat on the beach because they were squeamish about the fish and bait. Dad had slugged me on the shoulder and we had fished for hours. I had felt so important because I had a strong-stomach and could be his companion.
I put it back in the pile and replace the worn rubber band.
I finger through old love letters from my father to her, and even old letters from my grandmother. My mother kept everything and was a sentimental at heart. At times like this, I'm so thankful for that.
As I move the drawer, I hear a rolling sound. I feel around and find a ring in the corner. It's a wide band made from rose-colored gold and on the inside, Love Never Fails is inscribed. My chest tightens. I remember this ring. It was mom's original wedding ring. She had to stop wearing it after she had Maddy because it became too small. And then Daddy had gotten her a fancy diamond and she started wearing that instead.
But now, holding this simple ring in my hand, I feel buoyed somehow. Love never fails. What a strong sentiment. Just holding the cool metal in my hand makes me feel good, connected to my parents somehow. I slip it onto the ring finger of my right hand. It's a perfect fit.
I slide the drawer back into the dresser and find Maddy in the kitchen.
"Do you mind if I keep this?" I ask her, holding out my hand. "It's mom's original wedding band."
Maddy shakes her head. "Of course not. You gave me her diamond. It's only fair." She smiles at me now with her best big-sister grin and I can't help but give her a hug.
"I love you, you know," I tell her as we settle into her kitchen chairs, our elbows propped on the table. "Mom and dad would be really proud of you."
She smiles at me again and sips her chocolate. "Thank you. They'd be proud of you, too. They always were."
I lean into her and try to steal her cup and she slaps my hand away.
"How many of those have you had, anyway?" I demand jokingly. "Surely you can spare one cup for me."
"I already did," she answers. "And I've probably had enough. But can you ever really have too much chocolate?" She waggles her eyebrows and laughs and we chat for what seems like forever.
After we talk about The Hill, Tony, my shop, Madison's new car and the dog that she is thinking of getting, she turns to me and looks thoughtful.
"How are things with Pax?"
I roll my eyes. "As if you care."
"I do," she insists. "I'm still worried, but I'm less worried now than I was. He seems to make you happy. And I really do want you to be happy, little sis."
She wraps her slender arm around my shoulder and squeezes. I sniff at her.
"Did you put deodorant on today? Because you kind of smell."
We giggle and she slugs me and all feels right in the world.
We sit in her kitchen and talk until dark.