By the end of the summer, he would drown his only friend in a lake, but it started, he claims, by a fountain.
Selena knows just the fountain her 13-year-old patient is describing. A trio of mermaids stretches tall and naked above it. Water bubbles over their shoulders, runs around their breasts and scales. Splashes, trickles, over the tips of wide tails into a shallow pool. Arms reach skyward, fingers interlocked, as though caught in a secret dance. She used to play around it with her little brother—splashing, wading, pulling toy boats made of bars of soap by a string. But she had been much younger than the boy seated across from her.
White as a loaf of Wonder Bread, compared to her own light brown skin, Leal Porter could be any one of dozens of adolescents she has tried to help over the years. Spindly as a sapling, his body type reminds her of how tall and lanky she was when she was his age. Washed-out jeans, black T-shirt with a faded logo of some rock group, untied grass-stained tennis shoes—he doesn’t look like the murderer he purports himself to be. Again, she has to remind herself that he hadn’t been charged with anything more serious than creating a disturbance—and even that charge had been dropped once the detectives were through with their investigation.
It’s his expression, though, as inscrutable as a walnut, that’s difficult to read. A half smile, not quite a smirk, is perpetually pasted to his face, but his eyes are elsewhere, turned inward, maraschino cherries sunken in cream. A thin white scar with an imprint of stitches slants across his forehead beneath a disheveled outcropping of brown hair. Insignia of a duel? She’ll have to ask him how he got it sometime.
As Leal tells it from the couch on his side of the office, a woman stepped magically out of a slant of sunlight. He found out later her name was Diana. Long and tall, she seemed like one of the mermaids herself, leaving the palm of a seashell to join the world of mortals. Bare thighs emerged from frayed ends of shorts. Sloping breasts filled an orange midriff. A butterfly spread its wings on soft white flesh below her shoulder. A snake curled around her ankle.
Selena has to admit, he makes it all sound so very real, the delicate gold veins of the butterfly interweaving through purple wings glistening bright and vivid in morning sunlight. An orange snake coiling around the silver shaft of a dagger, seeming as though it might slither up her body to snatch the butterfly with slick fangs, as she knelt to plop a coin in the fountain.
Right away, the boy Leal was looking after drew his hand through the water, plucking out her nickel from the bottom of the pool. The boy was only half Leal’s height with a tangle of dark hair and black jellybeans for eyes.
“It’s not polite stealing other people’s wishes,” Leal reprimanded him, just like a parent might do, but Thuster pretended not to hear. Pretended? No, he could hear other things well enough: bird in a tree, exhaust of a truck, police whistle. Just not Leal’s voice, not all the time. Selective attention: this is what Father Mac, the neighborhood priest, has called it.
“It’s all right,” Diana said. “He can have my wish if he wants it.”
“No, ma’am. It’s not all right.”
He tugged at Thuster’s wrist but pulled too hard. Together, they succeeded in knocking over a paper bag of groceries that Leal hadn’t even realized was there, sitting on the edge of the fountain.
Leal watched as a carton of eggs spilled out of the bag, brown farmer’s eggs—not white. This was one of the things he noticed.
Immediately, he knelt down, helping Diana place the eggshells back in the carton one at a time. Seven eggs were smashed, broken beyond repair—not all the king’s horses nor all the king’s men—leaving a yellow mess on concrete slabs. Using the jagged crowns of the shells, Diana scooped up as much goop as she could manage. Leal must have apologized a hundred times.
“Sorry,” he said.
Hundred and one.
Long amber hair fell across her forehead, slanting across her face, not quite able to conceal a green and purple circle of swollen flesh surrounding one of her eyes. And this was the other thing he noticed.
“You’re staring, aren’t you?” she said, softly, voice like autumn leaves, even though it was early summer.
“No, ma’am,” Leal said. “I’m not staring.”
“It’s all right. Everyone’s been staring.”
“No one is staring. I don’t think anyone is staring.”
But it was true. He was staring. It’s a bad habit, hard to give up—like coffee or cigarettes, his mom’s twin addictions. Everyone has a bad habit, he presumes.
They formed a loose circle around the paper sack of groceries—he and Thuster and Diana.
She made a move to pick up the bag, but Leal reached down quickly.
“Let me carry them for you,” Leal offered.
“No,” she said, “you don’t have to do that.”
“It’s no trouble,” he said, looking up.
And then he saw her smile.
Leal didn’t recognize any of the street signs along the route they took to get to Diana’s house. Most of the streets were named after trees—Oak and Elm and Maple—with a couple of presidents thrown in. Obscure ones, too: Fillmore, Harding, Polk.
White picket fences enclosed immaculate yards, ivy climbed tall arbors. Swing-sets and jungle gyms turned back yards into playgrounds. He envied these people their aquamarine lawns, their pillared porches, their ornamental gnomes and geese.
“Ovid—well, you know what Ovid is like,” Leal prompts Selena from the comfort of his couch in her office, twining his fingers, studying a row of bruised knuckles, purplish and tender—another hint of something not quite kosher in Denmark. “I mean, you live here, too, don’t you?”
The question catches Selena off guard.
“Yes, Leal. Yes, I do.”
“Have you always lived in Ovid?”
She peers into half-lidded eyes.
“No. Not always. I lived north of here. In Chicago. But I grew up in Ovid. When I was younger.”
“Is that why you moved back here? Because you grew up here?”
Again, she hesitates. She knows better than to tell him about the separation. Her father’s stroke. The pregnancy. She makes it a general rule not to divulge her personal life to her clients. Yet there’s something about his posture. Not expectant, not indifferent.
“No, not really. My parents—a couple of years ago my mother died, and my father … well, he needs someone to be with him. But that’s a long story.”
“Oh. Well, then, you’re pretty lucky. I mean that you didn’t have to spend your whole life here.”
Eventually, Diana led them down a sidewalk to a white sugar cube of a house tucked behind a row of pine trees. Once on the porch, she brought them lemonade. One glass she handed to Leal and the other to Thuster, but he didn’t take it, of course, and so she set it aside.
Before long, a dark blue car—big as a limousine—buckled around the curb, pulling long and sleek onto the driveway.
Diana frowned at the driver: dark gray suit coat, red tie loosely knotted below an unbuttoned collar. Black hair, just a line of gray at the sideburns, rose from his forehead slicked back on a wave of gel. Sunshades blotted his eyes.
The man stooped to pinch a stalk of pink clover before jostling up the steps to the porch. He set aside a leather briefcase and offered the flower to Diana.
“You’re home early,” Diana said, wrapping the clover inside a fist.
“Aren’t you glad to see me?” He made a move to kiss her, but Diana turned her head.
“Not in front of the kids.”
He turned back around to consider Leal at an angle over the bridge of his sunglasses.
“Hello, boys,” his voice came out of the side of his mouth, like loose gravel. “Here to collect for the paper, already?”
Leal recognized him from late-night commercials, even without his crown and scepter, his floor-length robe of fur: Saul Solomon, the Chinchilla King. Two-Fur-One Special Offer. Look Like a Queen Fur a Day. My Kingdom for a Fur.
Diana, too, now that he saw them together—she would appear in them. The “lovely Diana” would twirl around in a brand-new fur coat, opening it at the end of the commercial to reveal a bikini inside. And there would be her two tattoos.
Oh, Selena thinks. That Diana.
She has seen the commercials, too.
“This friend of yours,” she says, looking down at her notepad. “Thuster. Sort of a strange name, wouldn’t you say?”
“It was just his name.”
“Yeah. Sort of.”
“Do you know how he got it?”
“Used-ter know,” he confides with a shrug, “don’t anymore.”
Inwardly, she voices a groan at the rhyme. She wonders how long he’s been waiting to spring this one loose. Her soon-to-be ex was full of bad puns, too.
“Saul, these boys helped me carry my bag of groceries home today.” Diana’s voice sounded flat, even.
“Is that so?” Saul said. “Did she give you anything for your trouble?”
“She gave us lemonade, sir.” Leal felt obliged to defend her good deed.
“Well, in that case.” Saul reached a hand deep into a pocket and pulled out a thick wad of green bills. Peeling back bill after bill—the first bill was a hundred that made Leal drool—he arrived at a couple of crumpled dollars. Thuster didn’t take his dollar, just stared back at it in a way that only Thuster would do.
“Thank you,” Leal said, stuffing both dollar bills into his pocket.
“What’s wrong with your friend?” Saul asked, bending down to squint into each of Thuster’s eyes, just like an optometrist might do.
“Are you a doctor?” Leal asked. He was thinking veterinarian, because of his interest in chinchillas. In his commercials, he always had a chinchilla perched on his shoulder, like a pirate with a parrot. He thought it possible that selling fur coats was just a sideline.
“Saul, a doctor,” Diana laughed. “That’s a pretty good one. I’ll have to remember that.”
Saul confronted Diana bearing his briefcase like a shield.
“Drink ready?” he grimaced, and Diana backed away inside the house.
“Take care of Thuster,” she said through the screen.
Selena could picture them leaving the porch on their way back to the parsonage where the priest would be waiting, cooking an Irish stew. The wind blows a pink cloud through the branches of a tree. A boy rides past on a bicycle throwing newspapers. And Leal takes Thuster by the hand, walking along the sidewalk in silence, all the way down Lambeth Street, to the very end of the block, where he takes another look at the street sign, just to make sure he remembers its name.
Selena glances at the clock. Almost out of time.
“Leal,” she says quietly, “you said in your confession—”
He didn’t know they were going to call it a confession. But he guesses that’s what it was. He just needed to tell someone. That’s all. And he didn’t know who else to tell. He knew he couldn’t tell his mom. She wouldn’t understand any of it. And as for Father Mac—
Selena looks through her notes, flips a page.
He supposes he could have told Father Mac about it, except he left for Florida at the end of the summer. So, when it comes down to it, there was no one really left to tell. He could have told God. He could have walked off into the woods or locked himself in his bedroom and told God all about it. Except he’s not so sure he believes in God anymore.
“Let’s call it a statement,” she suggests. “In your—statement, it says that a young boy—this friend of yours—Thuster—drowned. Is that right? Is that how you remember it?”
“He was more like a shadow. The way he would follow me around half the day. But then, I guess you could look at it the other way around and say that I was his babysitter. That’s how Father Mac must have looked at it. It was like he made me Thuster’s babysitter for the summer so he would be free to do other things.”
“Like basketball. He was always hanging out on the basketball court. The one outdoors next to the parish house with the rusted hoop?” He makes it seem as though Selena should know the one he is describing. “Oh, and confessions. He liked hearing confessions. He was always good about that. Ministering to his flock. That’s what he called it. He was like Jesus in a way. The only thing he couldn’t do was walk on water. Only, now that I think about it, it would’ve been nice if he could have done that, too. Then maybe none of this wouldn’t ever have happened.”
Selena closes her folder of notes: news clippings, school files, photocopies of police reports.
“Listen, Leal, it’s fine if you want to tell me this story,” she says, leaning forward. She already knows not to call him Leland—his father’s name, too, dead these past six years. He was only seven years old when he died. Took his son along on a business trip and came back in a body bag. His mother had already warned her. He won’t want to talk about it. And she was right. He didn’t. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But you’re going to need to give me something more. Something more to go on.”
“You mean, you don’t want to hear about this?”
“No, Leal. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s fine to talk about this. It’s very good.”
“You mean, this isn’t what you want me to do?”
“Anything you want to tell me is what I want you to do. This is how it always starts. I normally work with young people, like yourself—who are going through a crisis. You know what a crisis is?”
“Yes, ma’am. My mom has them all the time.”
Selena suppresses an urge to smile.
“Well, this is how they normally start out. They start out by telling me a story. And that’s fine. It’s really quite natural. But at some point—there’s really no pressure here. I don’t want you to feel there’s any pressure, at all. But at some point, you’ll need to tell me what’s troubling you.”
“What’s troubling me?”
“And there’s something else you should know. Anything you say here is confidential.” This isn’t quite true, but she decides to skip over the technicalities. “You can say anything to me, and it will stay here. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes, ma’am. I mean, I think so. Just like Las Vegas, right?”
This time she lets a smile curl her mouth.
A minute goes by, silently. Selena uses the minute to push herself from her chair cushion, using two fists, feeling a slight pull of her stomach muscles. At six months, she’s only starting to sense vague movements, a fish swimming through her belly. Leal rises, too, reaching out a hand, as though to steady her.
“You’re pretty,” he says as she goes over to open the door for him. “I didn’t know you’d be so pretty.”
“Excuse me?” Selena asks, pulling the coils of her long, black hair behind her neck into a ponytail, a reflexive habit whenever she’s caught off guard. She can feel herself blush all the way to the base of her skull. So much for transference!
This isn’t the first time a patient has remarked on her physical features: hair, height, eyes, even skin tone. In a town like Ovid, blackness is an anomaly. And Black therapists are not only rare but unique. Her father is Black, her mother was white. Her husband—almost ex-husband—is white, too. She still likes to tell the story of the young patient who scrutinized her in silence for several minutes to the point of making Selena feel uncomfortable, worried she had a crumb lingering on her face from breakfast or insect crawling in her hair, before blurting out her sudden epiphany: “You’re Black!”
Younger patients are like that—open and direct, unpremeditated, without the subliminal uneasiness of an older clientele. That’s one reason she likes working with kids.
“Not as pretty as Diana, of course,” Leal tells her, eyeing her up and down, “but you’re definitely a close runner-up.”
“Thanks for the compliment,” Selena replies drily, forcing her therapist’s smile.
“Right,” she says, taking a moment to interpret, “bye for now.”
And then he steps past her out the door.
She brings take-home Chinese for her father, but this time she doesn’t feel hungry—just nauseous. Late-afternoon sickness, she thinks. Symptoms of morning sickness dissipated months ago.
In her bedroom, she scans an email from Lori reminding her about the upcoming high school reunion, their twentieth. You’re still going, right? Don’t leave me stranded! Another confirming her reservation at a conference in Montreal. It will be good to see Henri again.
Henri—she lets herself think about Henri, their last encounter, shortly after her husband left her for that woman in L.A. She pictures a row of candles, like votives in a church. She closes her eyes and feels again the softness of hands, the light pressure of lips. She hears murmurs, moans, confessions of doves. It had only been one night, but as in soap operas and daytime talk shows, one night had apparently been enough.
Lighting a cigarette, she creates a new email message:
Will you be at the conference? The one in Montreal? It will be so good to see you again—both of you, I mean.
She takes a short puff on her cigarette without inhaling. Newport Lights have been her therapy of choice since she would sneak them out of her mother’s purse.
Fingers pause on the keyboard. Henri and Genevieve must be touring the south of France by now—a trial honeymoon, Henri called it.
She thinks about her own honeymoon with Thomas. They’d gone to Cancun. The undercurrent had carried them out to sea on their inflatable raft. Two Mexican boys rescued them only after Thomas promised them $50 US each when they got back to shore. It had been a bad omen.
I met with my new client today.
His narrative presents some unusual difficulties, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate based on your work with similar cases (please see attached file).
For the record, the client’s mother told me what she told the detectives: that she had prior knowledge of the primary subject of her son’s narrative. I spoke with her on the phone beforehand.
Customarily, she would have suggested having the parent sit in on the first couple of sessions—often, she didn’t even have to go that far; the parent simply assumed—but Sandra conveniently had an excuse for any time Selena proposed, vaguely postponing their face-to-face for another date. All the paperwork, she completed online.
She knew all about his imaginary friend. He’s had him for a very long time, she said. Ever since his father died. She just didn’t think he would go so far as he did. She was as surprised as anyone when Leal confessed to the murder—the drowning—of a small boy named Thuster.
She wanted to know how long it would take to make my determination.
I told her it all depends on the client—some sooner, others longer.
She said she just wants it to end—the etcetera.
The etcetera? I asked her what she meant.
You’ll find out soon enough, she told me. With Leal, there’s always one more thing—one damned thing after another to worry about.
Bottom line: she doesn’t want any more trouble with the school authorities. And so she’ll keep him coming to see me—at least for as many visits as her insurance allows a dependent. It’s not as though she has much choice. He’s on probation at school. Attending our sessions is one of the conditions he has to meet to stay enrolled.
Her friend Lori made sure about that. Lori worked as a guidance counselor for the Ovid school system, rotating among two elementary schools, a middle school, and the high school. About once a week, she called Selena with a case she labeled “just too damned complicated for a country mind like mine.” Privately, she suspected that Lori was only trying to lighten her workload. Still, she ought to be grateful for the extra business. It was hard setting up practice all over again—especially in a small town like Ovid.
Preliminary diagnosis: magical thinking; false beliefs. I should stipulate the qualifier ‘possible,’ as the client is both lucid and coherent. Or maybe he just lacks attention. After all, his disruption at school made him a celebrity for a day, even if his name was withheld from the evening news.
She could picture students’ mouths opening like sirens without sound, as each received the message in turn and then passed it along in a growing chain:
i killed thuster. i can kill u 2
Zero tolerance. The school went into lockdown. The police were called in. Leal was escorted out the door—all because he had sent a threatening message to the cell phone of a student who had been bullying him.
At this point, all I can really do is probe for hidden trauma.
She takes a moment to snub out the long, lingering ash of the cigarette she has left smoldering in the ashtray, untouched. Idly, she spins the globe of the world that rests on her desk until her finger comes to rest on a group of islands at random: the Seychelles. “Seychelles” rhymes with “seashells,” and she can picture playing in the sand on the seashore with her baby-to-be, filling buckets, digging trenches, building castles.
“So what do you think, Henri?” she asks aloud.