I eyed the nametag of Dr. Kaleb Anderson, my assigned therapist at Saint Dymphna’s Institute of Behavioral Health, as he perused my chart yet again. That’s Kaleb with a K because, apparently, his mother didn’t want to be too mainstream with his name. Memorizing the spelling of it—again—was better than watching the phlebotomist’s vial fill with more of my blood. He wore his reading glasses today, though they usually sat on his desk during our conversations.
“How many of those are you going to need while I’m here, anyway?” I asked as she pulled the needle from the crook of my arm.
Her voice was clipped as she pressed a cotton ball to the spot where the needle had just been. “One every day, Ms. Kateri. It’s in your chart.” She nodded to the folder resting under her tray of supplies on the cart.
I’d swear the staff here were a bunch of vampires. Probably starving from the pittance of blood in a single vial. But there were at least twenty other residents, so maybe twenty-ish vials every day was enough to sustain them? Pfft. Not likely. If vampires were real, I’d guess they’d need a hell of a lot more than just a couple vials of blood a day to keep going.
After securing the cotton ball to my arm with a band-aid, the phlebotomist wheeled her cart out of the room, closing the door behind her with a soft click. I put my arm back into the sleeve of my cardigan.
I couldn’t stand those books, though—the vampire romance novels. Who the hell sees a violent, vicious predator and thinks, ‘ah yes, that’s what I need to get into bed with?’ You’d have to be dealing with some serious unhealed trauma for that.
Dr. Anderson’s nasal drone interrupted my thoughts. “You’ve been here a few days now and haven’t spoken to anyone but the staff. Why do you insist upon solitude here, Naiya?” His hands were folded on top of the yellow legal pad in his lap as he watched me, holding an uncapped pen between his fingers. His hooded eyes had little crow’s feet in the corners, though they were probably only visible thanks to those reading glasses of his.
“It can’t be all that uncommon to not want to make friends in rehab.” I shrugged a shoulder and looked over at the bookshelf lining the wall next to the door. Every book on the shelf was related to substance abuse, trauma, or regulating emotions. Shocking.
“It’s not,” he agreed, nodding. “But there’s a difference between not making friends and choosing to only speak with staff. You even sit alone in the cafeteria.”
I resisted rolling my eyes at him. “Almost everyone sits alone in the cafeteria.” And I barely even speak with the staff unless I’m spoken to. The less I said here, the less they’d have to hold me on, and the sooner I could leave.
Dr. Anderson’s pen scratched across the legal pad, but he looked over the top of his reading glasses at me. “Naiya.” His tone was chiding.
I huffed out a breath. “There’s no point in making small talk with anyone. I’m not going to be here long. I don’t have a drug problem.”
He scribbled something else down. “Perhaps not. But the alternative is more troubling, don’t you think?” He placed his hand down deliberately on the pad of paper before looking back up at me. “Because that would mean you have clearly lost touch with reality and could be a potential danger to yourself or others, should your perception of the world be threatened.”
I sighed and looked away, placing my chin in my hand as my eyes focused on the clouds outside the window. “Or so my mother says.”
“Your father, too,” he added. “Why don’t you tell me more about this leopard story you now claim is a contrivance?”
I rolled my eyes at his ‘I’m so smart’ vocabulary but didn’t look back at him. “It is, obviously. No one can just turn into a leopard.”
The pen scritched on the paper again. “Why abandon it so quickly? Is it because of what happened with your father?”
No, what happened with my father wouldn’t have happened if my stupid mother hadn’t screamed when she found me as a leopard in my bed. I wouldn’t even be here if they hadn’t assumed I’d drugged them instead of trying to figure out how the hell me turning into a leopard was even possible. I had to tell them something to try and get out of being sent to this stupid place.
I shook my head. “I only ever wanted attention.” Which really wasn’t true, but it was an easier explanation than trying to get yet another person to believe I wasn’t lying.
“Hmm.” More scribbles.
“Look,” I continued, taking my head out of my hand and turning back toward him, “the way-too-tanned-to-be-white adopted child of a successful white businessman and his too-perfect wife?” I shrugged. “My parents only ever wanted me around when I was quiet and prim and proper. They did not like me when I was wild.” Which was true enough.
“So, when they accused you of drugging them, you came up with a wild story.” He nodded and returned to scribbling notes.
“The wildest I could think of,” I confirmed, leaning forward as I crossed my legs in the armchair. “Something so wild they would have to talk to me instead of just dumping me here or shoving me off onto Abigail.” Who also hadn’t believed me the first time I tried to tell her.
He looked over his glasses at me again. “Your nanny?”
“She’s the ‘house manager’ now, but yes.” I put air quotes around Abigail’s current title. It was the third my parents had given her as I’d grown up. First housekeeper, then nanny, now house manager.
He looked at his notes a moment, his face a careful mask, but his eyes told me I had his curiosity. “And where will you go when you leave here?”
I made a face, curling my lip before answering. “Anywhere but back there. I’m old enough to get a place of my own.” Better to live alone than with parents who are so convinced you’re lying, they’re willing to dump you in a mental institute.
He nodded. “Uh-huh, and how will you afford that?” He sounded like he was talking to a five-year-old.
I sucked on my teeth and tried hard to keep the edge out of my voice. I dropped my legs back out of the chair and sat up straighter. “I’m not a child anymore, Dr. Anderson. I’m twenty years old. Father won’t want his stakeholders to know his adopted daughter was committed to rehab. He won’t cut off my funding if he wants to keep his job.”
He pointed at me with the back end of his pen. “That’s blackmail, Naiya.”
His judgmental tone could take a long walk off a short cliff.
I folded my arms across my chest and didn’t bother keeping the edge out of my voice. “No. That’s them upholding their commitment as parents. Don’t adopt a kid if you aren’t going to support them.”
He looked away as he scribbled more notes. I kept my arms crossed and sat very still, watching him until his pen came to a stop. He flipped through some of his notes from our previous sessions. “Tell me more about the nightmares, then.”
I slumped back in the chair. Yeah, right. Like I really wanna talk about all the times the bloodthirsty predator stalked and caught me in my dreams. No, really. Let’s chat about that one time it caught up to me and then forced me to watch from its eyes as it literally disemboweled my parents—who didn’t take such abuse silently, mind you.
I shook my head, stopping the motion when I realized Dr. Anderson was watching me.
No. Freaking. Thank. You.
“Naiya,” he chided, gesturing to the clock when I glanced his way.
I sighed. “The night terrors, you mean.”
He shook his head. “We’ve been over this. You remember them—”
“So they’re not night terrors. Yeah, I get it.” I leaned forward, my elbows on my knees. “But you said that if someone or something wakes the person having the night terror, then that changes things. Makes it so they’re more likely to remember the nightmare, right?”
“Yes. But Naiya, nothing is waking you up.”
I huffed out another breath. Yeah, right. Nothing but changing into a damn pointy-toothed, sharp-clawed predator, that is.
He glanced at the timer on the coffee table next to him. It was turned so that I couldn’t see how long was left from my angle, but I suspected we still had about ten to fifteen minutes to go today. “Tell me about the nightmares. Are they what cause you to use?”
Ugh. Leave it to the therapist at a rehab center to always assume everything leads back to drugs. “I don’t use … and I’d rather not talk about what happens when I try to sleep.”
Dr. Anderson took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “If you’re going to insist that the reason you were admitted here is a fantasy, I’ll have to treat you for what I can. You’ll have to learn for yourself the value of truth over lies.” He replaced the reading glasses and gestured to my file. “Now, your drug tests have come back negative, but you have also had a couple of nightmares since you were admitted. How long ago, before you came here, did those start?”
I jerked my chin toward the file in his lap. “It says there in my chart, I’m sure.”
His eyes met mine. “I’m asking you.”
I pulled my feet into the chair then, my knees pointing toward the door of his office. “It’s been months now, for sure. So …” I shrugged. “Maybe a year ago, I guess?”
His pen scratched across the paper again. “And what did your parents do when you started having these nightmares?”
“They got rid of all the sodas and hired a nutritionist who doubled as a chef.” I ran a hand through my hair and sighed. “Helen tried virtually every diet she could think of—gluten-free, sugar-free, keto … hell, they even tried to make me vegan.”
More scribbles. “Did it help?”
I snorted. “Not at all. If anything, it made them worse. Except when we went Paleo. At least the food for that diet was tasty.”
“Did it help the nightmares?”
I sucked on my lip and thought for a moment. “No.”
He bobbed his head as he made more notes. “So, how did you cope with the diets and food restrictions?”
“I got my friend Elisa to take me places, so I could get snacks I actually liked.”
He nodded like that was an expected response. “And what did your parents do when they found out?”
The corner of my mouth pulled up. “They didn’t find out. I kept my snacks in a box on the top shelf of my closet. If they searched my room, they’ve probably found it all by now.”
He didn’t look up from his notes. “What about the dreams themselves? Any recurring themes?”
Yeah. The vicious leopard. Sometimes it was me. Sometimes it stalked me … dammit. That would only keep me here longer. I pressed my lips into a line and traced a pattern in the upholstery as I tried to pick just the right words to say.
He looked up at me then. “Naiya, I can’t make you talk to me, but I can’t let you leave until our time is up, so you might as well—”
“I’m always being hunted.” I stopped tracing the upholstery and met his eyes. “Something is after me in the dark—breathing, snarling, claws scraping on things that set my teeth on edge to think about.” The words tumbled over each other like rushing river stones. I couldn’t tell him anything about me being a leopard, or he’d surely extend my stay, but I could tell him everything else. Maybe that would be enough to fill the requisite minutes. And if he could help me with that, well then, at least this wouldn’t have been a complete waste of everyone’s time. “It’s big and evil, and it wants to consume me. It’s faster than me—always ends up ahead of me, even if I run. And I wake up screaming every time it catches me.”
Or I wake up snarling, covered in fur, fighting against the blankets and sheets of my bed with four black, claw-tipped paws. As it turns out, I have faint spots in the blackness of my fur, something I only noticed when I got stuck as a leopard for most of the night once. But even in the dark, I could see them—spots of impossible black against the all-consuming darkness of the rest of my fur.
I suppressed a shudder, glad that Dr. Anderson was too engrossed in his scribbling to see. He nodded along with whatever notes he was making, as if pieces were falling into place for him.
He probably had the wrong idea.
The wind-up timer began its sharp ring, and he stopped taking notes to end its incessant noise-making.
“Saved by the bell,” I breathed.
He took off his glasses again, laying them on the coffee table next to the timer. “So it would seem.”
The door opened, and a bulky orderly who was past his prime stepped in. His nametag read ‘Jimmy.’
“We’ll talk again on Monday,” Dr. Anderson said as I stood to follow Jimmy the orderly. “Make a friend, Naiya. Non-staff.”
I rolled my eyes and waved dismissively before shoving my hands into the pockets of my cardigan. “Fine.”
(You are here)