I slip in the back door, and a scented wave of cinnamon and sugar hits me, an intended welcoming warmth that I don’t feel. I head for the stairs, hoping to make it to my room before—
“You’re back!” Mom’s voice sounds strained, her cheerful tone forced. Like always. “How was the mall?”
I shrug. “Boring.”
She pulls a plate of snickerdoodles off the stovetop. “I made some treats for Sunday school, and thought you might like some of the extras. They’re fresh out of the oven.”
“I’m not that hungry, Mom. There’s half a dozen. Dinner’s in an hour.” I feel like she should be the one thinking about that. Still, I’m not about to turn the offer down, not entirely. I snatch one off the plate and let my teeth sink into the soft, sweet cookie.
She watches me with concern, that same disturbed look she’s been giving me every night for the last few years. “Well,” she says, “I thought… maybe Thomas would like some? They’re his favorite.”
I roll my eyes and set the plate on the counter. “I’m not dealing with this again today. I have homework.” Maybe Dad will eat the other ones, or I’ll just snack on them during school tomorrow.
School… yeah right. Sitting at the dining table with a couple workbooks and an iPad is “school” as much as the first aid kit in the bathroom makes it a hospital. Homeschooling is supposed to be close, intimate… but the way my parents run things, it’s about giving me busy work so they can avoid dealing with me. I’m fine with that—I try to avoid them, too.
“Don’t forget,” Mom yells down the hallway as I make my escape, “we have an appointment with Nick tomorrow.”
I whirl and let loose. “Can we stop pretending that calling Doctor Greene by his first name takes away the fact he’s a shrink you’re making me see because you think I’m crazy?”
Mom lets out that defeated sigh of hers, the one that means she will leave me alone. It’s a stalemate, but I’ll take it.
I walk past Thomas’s room—always empty, always immaculate—and slam my door before flopping onto my bed. Tomorrow’s a big day; I know that’s why they made the appointment. Five years ago, Thomas and I took off on our bikes, and only one of us came home.
* * * * *
“Hello! Good to see you,” Nick says, with a too-white smile and “Happy Holidays” disposition. I don’t mind calling him Nick, even though I’ll argue with my parents about it. To them, and to him, it probably seems cool, a way of relating to the kids he sees. Whatever. It’s all part of the show we’re putting on here. Thirty minutes of fun and entertainment, and the clock starts now.
He’s got two folding chairs in front of his desk, and a love seat in the corner where Mom and Dad could sit together, if Dad ever bothered to show up. I take the one on the left and sink into a slouch, arms crossed, hoodie shading my view.
“Mrs. Talbach,” Nick says in his overly chipper tone. He turns to me, glances at the empty seat, and says, “I’m really glad Thomas could be here today.”
I kick the extra chair aside with a huff. “It’s just me, Nick,” I hiss, “just like the last five times. What are we paying you for again?”
As soon as I say it, Mom’s emotional rubber band snaps—I can feel her burning glare on the back of my neck. “Mind your tone and watch your manners. You’re not paying him for anything—”
“Darci,” Nick says, cutting her off. His tone is solid and firm. “Maybe you’d like a mug of cocoa? Someone at the front desk can help you.”
He takes a seat beside his desk, his eyes on her. He watches in silence, removing any doubt about the directive nature of his suggestion.
I try not to smirk, and I keep my back to Mom until the door clicks shut.
“So,” Nick says, elbows on knees, chin resting on his laced fingers. “Still pushing your mother’s buttons?”
“As much as she pushes mine.”
“You realize your parents have been through a lot, too, don’t you? Today, especially. The memory of the accident hits them as hard as it does you.”
Of course I realize that… but they didn’t see what happened.
Nick glances at the empty chair. “You say that Thomas isn’t with you anymore, but I’m afraid you’re telling me what you think I want to hear. It’s easy to put on an act for the doctor every two weeks, and you’re a smart kid, no doubt about it. Smart enough to figure that out.”
I stare at him from beneath my hood. That’s most of what Dad pays for—Nick and me staring at each other in silence. Maybe that’s part of why he stopped coming.
“You can be honest with me,” Nick says. “No sign of Thomas at all?”
“I let him go. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Move on?”
“Yes, well, you’re a… complex case, in my experience,” Nick replies. His fingers stroke the thick file on the edge of the desk. “In any event, after a traumatic episode, you’re right, it’s important to keep moving forward in life. However, we all want to be sure the direction you’re moving in is healthy. That it leads somewhere better than where you were when we first met.”
Same old speech. “Who’s to say what’s better, Nick?”
“Great question. I think that’s when you benefit most from the perspectives of others—the people who love you, the people you love. Those, like me, who want what’s best for you.”
Out the window, I can see a dozen kids scrambling all over a school playground across the street. Climbing, swinging, chasing, laughing. I miss those days.
Nick leans over and twists the stick; the venetian blinds snap shut. “Tell me about Fairmont Junior High.”
“I imagine so, given some of these comics and stories you wrote.” He slides a couple yellowed sheets of paper out from the folder. On one of them, a pair of stick figures fight their way through a school infested with zombies. On another, there’s a list of names titled ‘People I Hope Die.’
I sigh and stare at Nick’s wall of degrees in glossy frames.
Nick points at the comic. “‘Timmy and Tommy Versus the Zombies,’ a tale of twin boys, taking on the mindless horde of cold adults and mean classmates that you had to deal with every day. That’s kind of funny. Maybe a little bit like life?”
When I don’t respond, Nick presses his point. “You drew this, what, a year after he passed away? Do you think maybe you were expressing some feelings you weren’t able to process otherwise?”
“Of course,” Nick continues, “Fairmont had a zero-tolerance policy for anything perceived as threats, so when your teacher found this list, you had to—”
“No! That’s not why we homeschool, okay?”
Nick sits back at the outburst, but gestures for me to elaborate. I’m surprised that came out, but I’m so sick of them worrying about problems and phantoms I’ve already outgrown.
“How do you think it felt,” I say, “being the only kid in middle school with an imaginary friend? Being the kid who freaked out if anyone sat next to him in the cafeteria… Teachers had to keep one desk empty rather than put up with me losing it in the middle of class…”
Nick nods, pretending he knows what it’s like. “That’s why I’m glad we’ve made progress,” he says gently, and gestures at the empty seat. “Some, at least.”
“Whatever. If we made so much progress, what the hell am I doing here?”
“Like I said, you’re complex. There’s still more going on, and I don’t know if you’re ready or willing to address it.”
I shake my head, and my lips curl in frustration. “I’m fine with how things are now. I’m finally fine. I’ve moved on. That’s all I wanted, all I needed. I just wish everybody else would back off and stop trying to tell me what’s best for me.”
“You say that, but—”
“Isn’t it time to go?” I grab the small digital clock he has on his desk—turned away from the patients, of course, but always visible from his chair—and check the time. Ten more minutes. Dammit.
“It’s a sign of progress that you no longer require the additional space and consideration you once expected from everyone,” Nick drones, flipping through records of previous visits. “That’s an important step, but as I review your history, I wonder if we are moving in a healthy direction. One significant concern when dealing with delusions related to trauma is that…”
I’m done with this. My mind shuts down and my eyes wander over the decorations around the room: the dream-catcher some kid made in art class, the framed newspaper story with Nick’s picture, the carved African trickster guy hunched over his flute whose name I can never remember.
“—unable to distinguish,” he continues, “between the real and the imaginary in other parts of life, affecting relationships, job performance—or, in your case, academics—and basic social integration.”
Nick leans forward and gives me his oh-so-caring face. I wonder how many times he practiced that in med school. “What I’m saying is, I can’t just ignore these other symptoms.”
“They’re not symptoms,” I growl. I’m so tired of him and everyone else not listening to what I’m saying about me. “Stop treating me like I have a problem. I had a problem. It’s gone now.”
“You have to want to get well before—”
I fly out of the seat and kick it down behind me. “I am well!”
I had a twin. We did everything together. He got into an accident and died, and that sucks, and nothing’s gonna fix that. I did what I could and let go.
Now I wish they would.
Before Nick can give me another one of his touchy-feely speeches, I storm out the door into the lobby, past Mom and her cup of Swiss Miss, past the secretary’s stupid bulging eyes, past some other waiting mom and her teenage daughter. I leave them all stunned and slam the outer door on my way to the parking lot, slipping my earbuds in. I just want to be alone with the fresh air and my music.
Moments later, Nick leads Mom out the door and checks what I’m doing before continuing his conversation with her. I pause the music on my phone so I can hear, and keep pacing around Mom’s car, eyes on the ground, the perfect image of a distracted teen.
“—following the right approach, Mrs. Talbach. There’s more pain deep inside that he doesn’t want to deal with just yet, and this is his way of coping—or rather, ignoring and suppressing that hurt. Keep on pressing him about why he let go of Thomas.”
“But he gets so angry,” Mom says, her voice quivering like she’s going to cry again. “And he just shuts down whenever I say his name.”
“This is important. It’s going to be a hard road; I won’t lie to you, it’s probably going to be almost as bad as…” He glances at me and leaves the rest unsaid.
The kids on the playground are still shrieking with delight, dashing to and fro. I remember recess with my brother, when we challenged each other to ever-higher climbs and ever-farther jumps off the swings. Always one-upping each other, never afraid of the risks. That, and pranking the teachers in grade school, who never could tell us apart.
“Talk to Jared,” Nick says, referring to Dad. “Please, encourage him to come next time. He’s burying his pain, too. Maybe helping his son will draw both of them out of their shells.”
Mom nods. “I’ll try.”
Can’t wait to see the train wreck tonight when she brings that up.
* * * * *
“I’m not going back, Darci,” Dad shouts. “I tried that psycho-babble bull. We’re throwin’ money at that guy every month, and for what?”
They always think their fights are some kind of secret, something I don’t notice because it happens after dark, behind closed doors. Even quiet voices carry through the vents; shouts come through loud and clear. The doors and walls aren’t nearly as soundproof as their minds.
“Honey,” Mom pleads, “there has to be some way to make things better.” I hear the crack in her voice as she adds, “I can’t lose him too.”
“Wasn’t it that quack’s idea to let the imaginary friend crap run its course in the first place? Then all of a sudden, we’re supposed to stop playing along. Where did that get us, huh?”
Like I’m some garbage video game they’re playing… Push A to expose pain; tap B to speed recovery; use right trigger to unlock closer relationship.
“Doctor Greene says we need to keep talking to Thomas,” Mom insists, her voice ragged. That tone—she’s barely holding together. It’s the threshold before the bubbling pot boils over.
“Darci, he keeps saying Thomas isn’t there anymore.” For once I have the tiny spark of hope that maybe someone believes me. “He’s not doing any of that imaginary crap like before. Maybe we’re only going to make things worse if we press the issue.”
“I can’t pretend that—I won’t accept that he—God, Jared, every time he acts like this, I feel like I’m grieving all over again.”
Dad says nothing. I get where Mom’s coming from, but she doesn’t know what Thomas went through, either.
“So… what do we do?” Mom sounds broken.
“Hell if I know.”
* * * * *
“Let’s talk about that day.” Nick isn’t even trying to go slow today.
“Fine. There’s not much to say. We rode our bikes up the steep hill on Hoffman Street, up to the train tracks. Nobody rides down that hill—it’s crazy. I told Thomas he didn’t have to do it, I told him he won the bet. I chickened out.”
“Is that right?”
“He said it wouldn’t be fair if he didn’t go through with it.”
Nick sits back, giving me a suspicious eye. “What did you say to that?”
I look around the room, trying to focus on anything else. Mom didn’t bother coming in this time. Dad called about some last-minute meeting at the office, so Mom stayed in the car fighting with him over the phone while I checked myself in for my appointment.
Against my will, the memories flash through my mind: my brother lurching forward and pedaling like mad, building up speed before the descent, my hand reaching out as if I could pluck him off the bike from ten feet away. “I didn’t have time to say anything.”
For an instant, I feel the onset of tears, the old hurt like a hand wrapped around my heart, squeezing into a fist. It was my fault. I goaded him into it. He lost control—I should’ve known that would happen—and went into traffic on Garfield Avenue at the bottom of the hill…
“Thomas,” Nick says, “it’s not healthy. All that guilt, all that blame, that crushing burden? You’ve been carrying it too long.”
My eyes drop to that folder on the desk, the name “Thomas Talbach” written in thick black Sharpie. Of course that fat secretary had me booked under the wrong name, the same one on Nick’s file. As he waits for me to answer, Nick taps his fingers on the folder almost like he’s pointing out the mistake everyone keeps making.
Just like how the hospital put the wrong name on the death certificate.
Just like the gravestone.
I don’t need any help. I don’t have any burden to put down. My only problem is I don’t know how to get everyone else to see that.
“My name,” I mutter, “is Timothy.”
Nick locks eyes with me, his face stern, his tone hard. “You need to let go, Thomas.”
“That’s the thing, Nick. I already did.”