San Francisco, California
Tuesday Before Thanksgiving
Tuesdays are always a test, and getting to his office is the hard part, but twenty-two-year-old Reeve LeClaire has never told her psychiatrist about her route. It begins with a short walk to the Ferry Building, where she routinely orders a hot chocolate and carries it outside, sipping its sweetness while watching the ferries emerge from the fog. The boats come from Vallejo and Larkspur and Sausalito, trailing white foam and flocks of gulls before stopping to off-load a morning rush of commuters.
When the sun breaks through the fog, Reeve turns her face to it, shuts her eyes, and savors the red heat on her eyelids.
No one notices her in the flow of the crowd, and she feels almost smug about her anonymity. She’s hardly recognizable as the schoolgirl pictured in the “Missing” posters, or the pasty waif heralded in the tabloids. Though still on the small side, she has grown an inch and gained sixteen pounds. Her teeth are fixed. She is clean and smooth and has plucked her eyebrows to precise arcs.
Her hair has grown back so nicely that it’s almost a source of pride. She often changes its color to black or blond or, today, maroon. She wears it neatly cut, feathered, and always long enough to cover the scars that remain visible on the back of her neck.
When the clock tower begins its 9:00 A.M. chime, Reeve shoulders her bag. By the time its elaborate music is finished and it’s pealing seven … eight … nine, she is out of the Ferry Building and crossing onto Market Street. The street vendors and musicians are too busy to bother her. But the farther she makes herself walk down this street, the more cautious she must become.
She sets her jaw. Here comes the wooly-faced man with the tarp-covered cart. He’s always here, hustling the corner by the bank, but she forces herself to look straight ahead as she hurries down the sidewalk, skin prickling.
Next comes the BART station, with its gauntlet of grubby people. She veers around them and comes face-to-face with the tall man in the smeared raincoat. She holds her breath and charges onward as he barks, “God bless you!” at her back.
She squares her shoulders. She’s doing fine. Two more blocks and then she’s nearly there. She feels the air on her face. Her legs are strong and she walks with purpose.
As she passes the sidewalk café, a handsome young waiter catches her eye and smiles, but she looks away. Why would she trust guys who pretend she’s pretty? She knows very well that she is not, with her crooked nose and pointy chin.
She looks down at the sidewalk and follows the feet walking in front of her, then glances up and sees the safety of the Hobart Building, where the guard makes every visitor sign in. She waits at the crosswalk, balanced on the balls of her feet, watching traffic, scanning the last dangerous stretch. The light changes and she hurries across the intersection. The moment she reaches the other side, the filthy man in the wheelchair rolls into view.
Reeve stops, feeling her chest knot. She considers crossing back to the other side of the street and approaching the building from the far corner, by the flower stand. But the man is looking the other way. If he just keeps rolling forward, Reeve can slip past behind him, unseen.
She calculates, takes a breath, and hurries toward the building’s entrance. She is twenty feet away … ten … five … when the man in the rolling chair works his wheels and pivots. His eyes blaze. His whiskers jut out like wire.
Reeve jumps back, swallows, and charges past him into the building, where she stops in the cool lobby to catch her breath. Next, she confronts the elevator. It’s so old and small that it feels cramped with just three people. She knows she could do it; she has done so in the past. But not today. She opts for the stairs.
The waiting area of Dr. Ezra Lerner’s office is always scented with citrus, and she is relieved to arrive early so she can enjoy the fragrance and cool down after climbing nine flights. She nods at the receptionist, a pleasant woman with a Cupid’s-bow mouth, and slides into her favorite chair.
The walls are pale jade, and a white orchid blooms from a cobalt-colored pot on the coffee table. She picks up the latest copy of The New Yorker and flips through, looking at photos and reading cartoons. Sometimes she gets all of them, but today they seem obscure. She studies them for meaning and chides herself for not following the news.
At exactly 9:30, the receptionist says, “Miss, Dr. Lerner will see you now.”
Patient privacy is strict office etiquette, another reason Reeve feels safe here. The receptionist never calls out her name, even if no one else is in the waiting room. Only her family, a few people in law enforcement, and Dr. Lerner know that Regina Victoria LeClaire, the girl who was kidnapped at age twelve and held captive for nearly four years, has legally changed her name.
She is no longer “Edgy Reggie,” the feral girl who responded to media attention by whacking down cameras. She now thinks of herself as agile, not skittish. As serious, not grim. She has transformed into a composed young woman who is living a pleasant, structured life. She even has a job.
As Reeve replaces the magazine beside the orchid and stands, the office phone rings, which is slightly unusual, and as she walks down the carpeted hallway to Dr. Lerner’s door, she hears the receptionist’s bright greeting fade to a darker tone: “Oh no.… Oh no … Yes, of course, but the doctor has a patient and…”
Reeve puts her hand on the doorknob and pauses to listen, but Dr. Lerner swings open his door, saying, “Reeve, always so good to see you.”
Dr. Ezra Lerner perhaps looks too young to be an expert of any kind, but he is in fact a leading authority on captivity syndromes, which is why Reeve’s father first contacted him. He has the taut, compact physique of a gymnast. His face is clean shaven, his eyes observant. His little dog, a shaggy mutt named Bitsy, stands beside him, wagging her tail and looking up at Reeve with canine adoration.
Reeve stoops to scratch Bitsy’s head. “It’s good to see you, too.”
She crosses the small room to take her usual seat on the sofa, pats the cushion, and Bitsy jumps up beside her.
Dr. Lerner settles into his chair, watching her, and asks how she’s sleeping. He always asks this.
“Nothing to report. No bad dreams. No panic attacks. I haven’t had a nightmare in so long, I’m starting to feel boring.”
Almost normal, she thinks, though that’s a term that Dr. Lerner would never use. During the early stages, she met with him for hours at a time. Then three times a week. Then twice a week. And now only on Tuesdays, a measure of her progress.
He asks a few questions about her new job, and with a slight smile, she retrieves a sheet of folded notepaper from her pocket. “Homework,” she volunteers, waving the paper. “Right here.”
She unfolds it, saying, “I thought about the reasons I like working at the restaurant. And even though it’s only part-time, it’s a pretty long list.” She glances up, adding, “A good thing, but I’ll try to keep it brief.”
A smile flickers across Dr. Lerner’s face an instant before his cell phone pings a muted note and his smile fades. “I’m very sorry, Reeve. Please excuse me a second,” he says, checking the screen.
She stiffens. Dr. Lerner has never allowed himself to be distracted during their sessions before. “Is it an emergency?”
He scowls at the phone, shakes his head, and sets it on the corner of his desk. “I’m sorry, Reeve. Please continue.”
“But do you need—”
“No, no, it can wait.” He takes a breath, bringing his gaze up to hers. “You were telling me about the restaurant.”
“You were afraid you wouldn’t like it,” he prompts.
“Um, right. But just the opposite. And part of the reason I like it so much, I think, is that it has no emotional baggage.”
“Ah. Meaning what, exactly?”
“Well, Japanese food is a long way from cold pizza and warm soda.” She smirks, dimpling one cheek.
“That’s a good realization on your part. What else?”
Holding the list in her right hand and stroking Bitsy with her damaged left hand, she tells him about the pleasure she takes in the simple formality of the Japanese, the ritual of bowing, the fresh clean smell of green tea. “And I’m learning the language,” she adds.
“Excellent. It’s a tough language.” He steeples his fingers. “You were good at languages in high school, weren’t you?”
She shoots him a cross look. “You’re not going to start bugging me about college now, are you?”
Rolling her eyes, she continues, “Anyway, on the topic of my homework, I’ve realized that sounds really affect me. You know, maybe after so much silence.” She has written, Dr. Lerner’s voice is smooth as caramel, but doesn’t say this, and now recalls how his tone sharpened when he testified in court, how everyone sat forward, watching as a strange intensity rose off him like heat.
“Yes? What kinds of sounds?”
“For instance, Takami-san has this very soft voice, almost a whisper. And the sushi chef’s knife clicks on the cutting board. And the music in the restaurant is almost Zen-like. Instrumentals, you know. No insipid lyrics.”
“You enjoy it? That’s progress.”
She’d had trouble with music for years, complaining that it all sounded like noise to her. Dr. Lerner had suggested that she was suffering from anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure.
She strokes Bitsy’s head. “Now you’re going to ask me about Thanksgiving.”
“Right, good. You’re having dinner with your family, aren’t you? Any anxieties about that?”
She shakes her head, leans back, and tells him about her father’s new live-in girlfriend. “She’s going to cook Thanksgiving dinner, which will certainly give us all something to be thankful for.”
Dr. Lerner is nodding and commenting as usual when his cell phone pings again. His gaze flickers to the phone and back. “I apologize again, Reeve. Please excuse me a moment.” He picks up the phone, studies it, then glances toward the door.
She rocks forward, unsettling Bitsy. “Seriously, don’t you need to answer that?”
His brow creases as he shoots another look at the door. “Not just yet.”
“Are you sure?”
Reeve can’t help but notice his pained expression as he sets the phone aside. She wonders if hostages have been released somewhere in Mexico or Iran, and again chides herself for not following the news.
Copyright © 2013 by Carla Norton