The door opened five minutes before time for the appointment. Elizabeth hadn’t changed much since I last saw her; frizzy light brown hair, freckles, and the same timid demeanor as when she first walked into my office a decade ago, with a state assigned guardian and an open secret that she had powers. She was older now, and she’d cut her hair to just below her shoulders rather than to the small of her back, but the personality behind the body hadn’t changed.
She froze on seeing me, as if reconsidering the whole affair. “I’m sorry I stopped coming, it’s just that it was clear it wasn’t working, and…”
If I were a traditional psychologist, I would have perhaps told her it wasn’t her fault, a natural part of most depressive disorders. However, I was trained for a specific subset of the population whose psychology was more uniform, and volatile, than average.
Imbued had an exaggerated sense of personal agency and responsibility that bordered on the pathological; they blamed themselves for things well beyond their control. Words like ‘it isn’t your fault’ were interpreted as insults, and with Imbued insults were often followed by violence. Prevailing theory was that it was a necessary psychological component to Manifest in the fist place.
“It’s fine, Elizabeth.” I followed my training to change topics to something neutral and familiar fast as possible. “Is it okay if I still call you Elizabeth?” It didn’t get much more neutral or familiar than the patient’s name.
“I’m just going by Beth, now.” Her tone was more certain, almost confrontational. She took a seat during the pause that followed.
There’s a story there, perhaps tied to her return. I had to go through the process of getting to know this girl all over again. I could hope the sense of trust I’d worked so hard to establish in the first place remained, but for now it was a matter of testing the waters. “I suppose the best place to start is asking what prompted you to return?”
“I’d be lying if I said I understood it, myself.” Beth couldn’t meet my eyes, instead focusing on the desk. “But I suppose it starts with some new friends I’ve made. Two of them are dating, now, and in a roundabout way, I’m the reason they met.”
The assertion of responsibility was expected, and couples meeting through a mutual friend was nothing unusual, but I couldn’t be certain whether she was taking credit, or accepting blame. The Elizabeth I had vague recollections of would have been insisted she had no need for friends to begin with. “And that made you reconsider therapy?” A safe, neutral push for her to continue.
“I was watching them, and how happy they all were despite the problems in their lives,” she continued. I withheld judgment until she gathered herself to finish explaining. “I guess I was a little jealous.” Her eyes widened. “Not about them! They’re good people, and I hope they’re happy. But, I pictured myself in thirty years living in the middle of nowhere with a hundred cats. Sounds so generic and boring when it’s said out loud, huh?”
There we go. “Well, I like to think everyone’s more alike than they are different.” Now that I knew the circumstances, the short-term goal was to convince Beth to dedicate herself to therapy. “The fear of being alone isn’t generic or boring, it’s human. What’s important is that it was a wakeup call.” I may have been reaching with that assumption, but such was the nature of the job on occasion. “For now it’s a motivator, but that will wear off with time. As you know, therapy’s a long process that takes hard work, are you prepared for when the burst of inspiration fades away?”
Rule three of dealing with Imbued: turn their goal into a challenge of their ability, and they will move mountains. Sometimes literally. Beth was no exception to that rule. The concern on her face turned into something else, anger and disgust in equal measure, and directed toward herself. Not the most pleasant of emotions, and I’d be working against them for most of our time together, but for now they were what was required to get results and keep my licensing.
“I know it will be difficult,” she said. “I want better from this. From myself.”
There’s the path to success. Only now, after she’d committed in her own mind, did I open my ledger. A quick swipe of my pen changed Beth’s status from a probe to an accepted client; a risk, taking her on so soon, but if by the end of the interview I felt she was too much of a risk, the mark proved intent, not a binding agreement. Besides, I’d already ‘lost’ her once, so in the end her black mark would either remain on my record, or said mark would be removed.
“Good,” I said. “I’ll give you the number of a new psychiatrist as well.” I couldn’t recall off the top of my head what medications she was on, but when I was done with the interview, I’d make sure Doctor Erikson knew her history and lapse; it would be on him to decide if they should resume the old regimen, or adopt something which might prove more effective for Beth’s needs. “I have some time before my next appointment, if you want a free half session.”
“Oh, thanks,” Beth animated some.
It was a cheap trick, but one of the best strategies ever devised. Whether giving a patient a little more care than required, or hosting a business meeting in a restaurant and picking up the tab, nobody forgot such simple acts of generosity. It was useful when you could make it work, but complicated by the first rule when it came to Imbued: ‘never lie to them’. The prevalence of Truthsayer powers was such that even a white lie could backfire in ways that were impossible to predict.
“We could get reacquainted,” I said when it became clear she wasn’t going to take the initiative. Compared to most Imbued, Beth was rather passive. “For example, your job? Or these friends of yours?”
“Oh, well, I work in theater. Pay’s not great, but it’s never boring. And I do some volunteer work.” She seemed to be avoiding details, but where Imbued were concerned that was the norm. Aside from that, she seemed enthused about her situation, which was helpful; more motivation for her to keep fighting her disease. “One of my new friends works with me.”
“That’s good.” I left it there, because it was more effective to guide rather than pry.
She stayed silent for a little while. “We lied to you.” The moment after she said it, she froze like a deer in the headlights. “I mean, back when I first came here, the story you were told was a lie.”
Getting lied to was a natural reality of the career I chose; the only people who loved secrets more than Imbued was the government, and the two of them were the majority of my clients.
“What about?” It wasn’t the first time someone came out and told me they had powers, and I prepared to act surprised by the news.
“My father,” she said. “I know you were told it was a murder-suicide, but it wasn’t.”
Wait, what? When I’m done with this appointment, I’m going to make some phone calls. How am I supposed to do my job if they’re withholding vital information? Assuming Beth is telling the truth, it is possible she’s fabricating a story to alleviate her trauma. It was almost unheard of for an Imbued to have a disease such as schizophrenia, but repressed memories and other outright delusions were more or less equal across the board.
“I see. I’m sure someone believed it was better to keep it a secret.” I wasn’t lying; either one government official stuck a traumatized teen in my office with the story that her dad killed her sister and himself, or Beth had been lying when first met six years ago. One way or another, someone thought that secret was worth keeping. How different could things have turned out if they were honest with-
“They didn’t lie.” I was so caught up in my thoughts that I almost didn’t hear Beth’s whispered sob. “H-he. Dad had powers.”
Oh. That changes everything. I had assumed Beth herself was Imbued, but as a victim of one, it would make sense for her to be assigned to me by her caseworkers. Nobody said she had powers; I had assumed it from consistent behavior indicative of Manifestation, and by virtue of government involvement.
“I apologize if I say something hurtful, but I was told he was a violent alcoholic.”
“He wasn’t.” Her voice lacked conviction, however. “Or, not to me and Larissa. I learned later that had a record in costume, but to me he was just Dad. He’d play with us, even show off his power to create these beautiful displays for us before we went to bed. I tried to pretend I was too adult for bedtime stories, but th-they were the happiest moments of my life.” Her voice lost strength with every passing word, and toward the end tears began to fall.
I followed my training and let her have her cry; laws and common sense forbade me from physical contact with the girl, and there were no words to offer her, so we stayed in relative silence. If she stayed like this for more than half an hour, then I’d start to be concerned.
“S-sorry, I feel like an idiot,” Beth signaled she was ready to move on.
“You’re allowed to be emotional, it’s natural.” No, that could still imply a weakness on her part, no sense in getting lax just because I no longer suspect she’s Imbued. “If you could talk about a subject like this one without being upset, then I’d have cause for concern.” The pop culture concept of emotionless psychopaths was annoying and inaccurate, but the stereotype was useful as a means of convincing people that emotions weren’t the enemy without a lecture that often defeated the purpose.
“I guess that makes sense.”
“We don’t have to continue, if you don’t want to.” Always let the patients know they get to decide how far is far enough.
“I’ll never want to,” she said. “But I think I have to. Dad’s power was… in costume, he called himself Recoil. Nothing special, he could manipulate and redirect energy on skin contact. His upper limit was handgun levels, and I think it took a lot of concentration to work, so even back in Oregon he never stood out as a hero or villain.” She forced a sad, weak smile. “He did figure out a sort of cloaking field that let him walk through electronic security.”
“Impressive.” Her attempt to take pride in her father’s accomplishments was understandable, and invisibility was a rare power.
“Yeah.” Beth took a slow, shaky breath. “One night, he went out. It’s possible nobody knows everything that happened. He came home late, we were in bed. I read Larissa her bedtime story. At some point, his powers changed.” She stopped, looked at me. “He Surged, if you know what that is?”
Oh. “I know.” I could piece together what was coming on my own, but this was Beth’s story to tell, not mine.
“His new power was absorption instead of redirection. He went from insignificant to one of the strongest in the state.” Her voice trembled with the word ‘strongest’, made it into an insult rather than a mark of achievement. “When he got home, he went to Larissa’s room.”
“His power didn’t absorb damage.” She looked at me, pleading with her tear filled eyes for something I couldn’t offer. “It transfered to someone else on touch. It had to be painless, right? She was asleep, and there wasn’t enough left of her to feel anything.”
Good god. “I’m sure you’re right.” Forcing her to explain the rest would be sadism, not therapy. “You don’t have to continue, I think I can figure out the rest.”
In the silence that followed, I did piece together some of what must have happened. A suicide by poison made sense with the context she gave; it may have been the only option with a power like his. Mistaking accidental death for murder was more common than I wanted to dwell on, if indeed Beth’s version was accurate. I had to keep in mind that her perception might be flawed. Some parts of her story required significant assumptions, and couldn’t be as reliable as a police investigation.
The part I didn’t understand was moving her to the other side of the country in the aftermath. There was more to this story than I knew, and I wasn’t sure Beth had the answers even if I could risk this breakthrough by pressing her. Beth may not have given me a complete picture, but she gave me enough to help her, and my curiosity did not justify losing sight of the goal.
My job is to help victims pick up the pieces of their lives, nothing more and nothing less. “Thank you. I can’t imagine what reliving that must have been like for you. For what it’s worth, I think you made a great deal of progress today.” As far as tactics went, praising success was generic enough to work on almost anyone if it appeared genuine, but it went double for Imbued.
With effort brought on by the usual ravages of time, I climbed out of my chair. “I have some paperwork which needs done. You don’t have to leave, feel free to stay here as long as you need.”
Beth looked up at me after I stood. “Thank you.”
I avoided contact on my way out; office space was a premium in the city, and while I was successful, I still had to be frugal. Once the door was closed, I started scribbling notes down on Beth’s profile. Some was details I couldn’t trust to memory, some risk and assessments that I might have to pass along some days, and some was me venting my dissatisfaction with the officers involved in this case. How was I supposed to do my job when people kept critical need-to-know information from me? Not that they care, it’s not their performance quotas on the line. Ugh.
I looked over at my daughter, playing the role of secretary while handling her homework. To my relief, she planned to go into her father’s profession as an engineer, but that didn’t mean she got to grow up without having at least one garbage job. “Elise? How’s the 3:30 look?”
“Still Mister Sloan.” I felt a bit of relief; by all reasonable metrics, the man had no need to see a psychologist, he just liked to take an hour out of his week to pay someone to listen to him talk about himself. Tedious, perhaps, but between volatile patients that might be able to erase my brain and government agents breathing down my neck, I was ready for more tedium in my life. “Oh, and you have an evaluation at three tomorrow. A new Altered, got her powers Christmas night, and they’re getting ready to take her out of quarantine.
Christmas? “They kept her in quarantine for a month?!”
Elise shrugged. “Hey, ain’t me callin’ the shots.”
“I know.” Meanwhile, I was doing mental calculations on how I would schedule my foreseeable future; adding two new patients in such a short period of time was never a good idea, even if one was technically an old patient. Let alone a new patient coming out of a month of partial isolation who had powers which required a month of partial isolation.
All of which was a future concern. Right now, I needed to focus on Beth, and what parts of what she told me would go into the record, and which I’d leave out for her sake. One of the costs of government business; privacy laws were a thing that other people obeyed.