Having finally finished yearbook duties for the day, I was about to head for the bus stop when someone tapped my shoulder. “You’re not thinking of going to work, are you?” Jasmine’s voice rang out accusingly. I turned towards her and noted that her hair was wet. She’d probably just got off from swim practice.
Since I had been intending on going to work, I smiled sheepishly. “I can’t just take the day off. It’s not a holiday.”
“Sure you can,” she said. “Already called Dean for you, since I knew you wouldn’t. He told me to make sure you take a long, restful nap.” She gave me a stern glare. “So go home.”
“Fine,” I sighed. “I guess I have no choice. Are you coming?”
“Just have to pick Meiyu up.”
“I’ll go with you. Is it far from here?”
“No and no,” she replied adamantly. “You’re going home and taking a nap before you get sick. You look like you’re on the verge of collapse. Besides, I won’t be long. Probably be home for dinner.” She glanced at her watch. “Actually, my parents are working late again today. If you want, you can come over. I’ll have dinner ready at seven, so you have almost two hours to get some rest.”
“I’ll be there,” I promised.
Jasmine sent me a warning look. “I’ll leave the back door unlocked, so you’d better be punctual.”
Since I knew she hated leaving the door unlocked, I considered this a sign that she completely trusted me now, and that was a big accomplishment.
Although I was exhausted, I didn’t think I would sleep any longer than fifteen minutes. The insomnia had been pretty bad recently, and even if I did sleep, I’d wake up every ten minutes or so. Nevertheless, I set the alarm clock on my phone for ten minutes before seven o’clock. Then I lay on my bed and closed my eyes.
Amazingly, I felt my body relax. Before I knew it, the shrieking ring of my cell phone jilted me awake. I rolled over to turn the alarm off, half amused and half relieved that I’d slept longer than I thought I would. Then my eyes fell on a shadow that hovered near the open suitcase at the end of my bed, and I froze. Hal was touching my clothes.
“What are you doing?” I snapped. Hal froze for two seconds, caught red-handed, and then turned slowly to me.
He cleared his throat. I could tell he was thinking of an excuse for being here. “Was ‘bout to wake ya. Seems the lady’s made spaghetti, and I didn’t want ya to keeps her waitin’ for dinner.”
Then he glared at me, as though I’d been the one caught rummaging through his stuff, and stalked off.
I rose from the bed, heading to the suitcase to make sure everything was still there. I didn’t trust that guy one bit. In fact, I’d always suspected Hal had something to do with that one time I’d found my clothes strewn haphazardly around, even if he hadn’t taken anything.
Now I had my confirmation.
Nothing appeared to be missing this time either, but it was clear he’d been looking through my things since my clothes were all out of place. I took out my camera. No damage there. But there was a slight dirty smudge on the side, most likely my fault. I’d probably gotten it dirty while taking pictures of football practice after school.
I had to start locking my room from now on, or one of these days, Hal might try and sell all my stuff. Maybe he was already planning on it, and that’s why he’d been looking at my clothes, gauging how much he could sell expensive brand name shirts.
Looking at the clock, I noted it was already seven. I didn’t want to keep Jasmine waiting, especially when she said she was leaving the door unlocked. If Hal wanted to steal my things, I could only imagine how tempting the Carwarners’ house would look to him.
The back door was unlocked as promised. “Hello,” I called, opening it. “It’s Adam.” I didn’t want to startle the girls.
“We’re in the kitchen,” I heard Jasmine call back. A light pair of footsteps came prancing from that direction.
“Adam!” Meiyu shrieked, and I only had a second to react before she came flying at me. Thankfully, I caught her before we both ended up falling on the floor.
“Hey there,” I said, patting her head. “How was your day?”
“We made paper flowers for art. I made one for you.” She presented me with a pretty purple flower, which was actually decently folded for the hands of a six year-old. I could only guess how many times she’d practiced.
“Thank you.” I smiled and took the present in both hands. “I’ll take good care of this treasure.”
Meiyu beamed at me and took my hand. “Let’s go play. Jasmine’s making spaghetti.”
Spaghetti. The word jarred in my head like a sour note. Hal had said that Jasmine was making spaghetti. How had he known? I whipped my head around to the window, looking towards the guest house. But there was no sign of Hal peeping outside, nor were any of the lights on.
“What’s wrong Adam?” Meiyu peered at me through questioning eyes.
“Nothing,” I replied. “Just wanna make sure the door’s locked.” I triple checked the door. Maybe I was just being paranoid. It was an easy guess that we’d be having spaghetti—we ate it whenever the Carwarners worked late. But still…how had Hal known that tonight Lewis and Annabelle would be at work? Something still wasn’t right.
Meiyu led me to the kitchen, where Jasmine was concurrently stirring pasta noodles in one pot of boiling water and tomato sauce in another. While Meiyu trotted to the table in the corner to color, I walked to the stove, absentmindedly taking the spatula from Jasmine to stir the sauce. “Let me help you with that.”
She murmured a thank you, which I hardly heard. I was busy taking mental pictures of the kitchen. There were several windows, all with the shutters drawn open. One went across the length of the kitchen sink, and the other was a bay window behind the little table where we ate breakfast. Outside the bay window, I could see the neighbor’s house across the street. Anyone standing on the sidewalk could see us in the kitchen. Maybe Hal had just been coming home and noticed Jasmine cooking spaghetti.
Maybe I was being paranoid. I thought bleakly about Dean’s story of how he’d been paranoid due to his PTSD. Did this mean my OCD was getting worse?
“Adam!” Jasmine’s voice jerked me back to reality. Judging by her annoyed tone, it seemed she’d called me several times already.
“Sorry, what’d you say?”
“I suggest you turn the burner off, before the sauce explodes.”
I looked down to see the sauce bubbling like molten lava, big bubbles rising to the surface before popping and scattering red specks all over the burners. A sudden splash of it landed on my shirt, forming an amoeba-shaped splotch. Immediately, I drew back in alarm, muttering a word that if heard by the elder Carwarners, would probably have gotten me kicked out of the house.
Jasmine sent me an amused smile and turned the burner off herself. Meanwhile, Meiyu gasped. “Adam said a bad word. Will he be punished? Jake said it once, and Mrs. Maple sent him to the principal’s office.”
“I’m sure Adam didn’t mean it,” Jasmine replied.
“What does the word mean, Jasmine?”
Jasmine wisely evaded the question. “Go wash up. It’s time for dinner.”
“Meiyu…” Jasmine gave her sister a warning look, and the little girl sighed, obeying. When she was out of ear shot, Jasmine turned back to me. “You’d better be glad my parents didn’t hear that.”
I was in no mood for to hear a lecture, already feeling the sweat pour down my face. I’d been holding my arms up all this time, forming the shape of a cross. Why hadn’t I worn an apron? “Could you please wash this off?” My voice sounded panicked and so unlike my own.
“It’s not gonna kill you,” Jasmine teased, not understanding that I was about to faint, until I took a step back and almost lost my balance. The smile disappeared as she started to grasp that I was being serious. “Are you all right?”
“Tide, in my pocket,” I squeaked, nodding to my jeans.
She quickly retrieved it and handed it to me. A few months ago, I probably would have still been able to clean the stain myself, but now the thought of even touching the dirty shirt repulsed me. It was clear I was getting worse. “You’ll have to do it for me.”
Jasmine eyed me warily. “This isn’t just some excuse to get me close so you can do something perverted, it is?”
Under any other circumstance, I might have made a quip about that, but not now. “Get it off!”
“All right, all right.” She moved in, and I felt the tip of the pen drawing circles across my shirt. Seconds later, Jasmine took a step back. “Good as new.”
I looked down, and finding the stain gone, my arms collapsed to my side in relief. Now I was becoming aware that Jasmine was staring at me curiously. I knew she wanted to ask what that was all about, so I quickly searched for a change in subject.
“You should look at the pasta before it boils over. I’ll…” I saw tomatoes and lettuce in a drainer by the sink and sent thanks heavenward. “I’ll put together the salad.” Salad I could do without another disaster…I hoped. Thankfully, as I busied myself, Jasmine took the hint and kept quiet, going back to drain the pasta and mix it with the sauce.
Only Meiyu was particularly conversational throughout dinner. I responded with a few nods and grunts, but the little girl didn’t seem to care that I wasn’t saying more. Jasmine wasn’t very talkative either. She was smart enough to understand that I wasn’t in the best of moods, and that it had something to do with what had just happened.
I looked at my pasta and cringed. Why had Jasmine gone with the short twisty noodles? If she’d only gone with regular long spaghetti, I wouldn’t have to eat the pasta three at a time. Cursing silently, I tried to spear only two pasta noodles onto my fork, but the sight made me cringe and shudder. Helplessly, I speared a third noodle. The urge to vomit left immediately.
My problem was getting worse and showed no signs of going away. I had no idea what to do. Maybe Dean was right and I should tell someone to get some help. But if I did, my identity might be revealed.
Wordlessly, I grabbed the salad tongs to fish out three cherry tomatoes and put them on my plate. I knew I wasn’t going to eat them, but they needed to be there, forming the shape of a triangle right in the middle, or I’d go insane. I’d done the same with blueberries once at breakfast, and Jasmine had taken notice. Maybe if I crossed my fingers, she wouldn’t notice.
“May I be excused from the table?” Meiyu asked politely. The Carwarners taught their kids beautiful manners. With Jasmine’s permission, Meiyu got up from the table to watch TV.
I got up too to stack the dishes together, intending on bringing them to the sink.
“Leave it,” Jasmine said. “We need to talk.”
“About what?” I pretended to be clueless.
“About that.” She pointed to the three cherry tomatoes left on my plate, and I cringed. “And about what happened at first.”
Shoot, I should have known she wouldn’t leave me off so easily. Jasmine wasn’t the type to let things be. She’d just waited until Meiyu was occupied with the TV, so we could talk privately.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “I just don’t like to get dirty.”
“If that were true, you wouldn’t have survived so long as a busboy.” Jasmine gazed at me with such clear, shrewd eyes that I wondered why I had to have fallen for such an intelligent girl. Bimbos were so much easier to deal with. “I think you just can’t stand when you stain your shirts. But if you had an apron on, you’d be fine.”
She’d hit that one right on the mark. I shifted awkwardly, still unwilling to admit it.
“Then there’s the fact that you do everything in multiples of three,” she went on relentlessly. “Your eating habits aren’t the only thing. Sometimes you count when you walk.”
Did I? I hadn’t even noticed. Unbelievable. My counting obsession had gotten so bad that I was doing it on a subconscious level.
“I think you have OCD.” There it was—she’d discovered my secret. She sent me a concerned frown. “Dean used to be like that too. He said it was because of trauma from the war.” Jasmine didn’t ask the obvious question on her mind—what trauma had I faced to develop severe OCD—but the expectant gleam in her eyes told me she was waiting for me to talk.
I sighed, giving in. It wasn’t like I could deny it now that she’d guessed. “When I was sixteen, I saw a man murder my parents, but I don’t remember anything. My grandfather shielded me from everything regarding their deaths afterwards. He said it was a blessing to forget, but ever since then, I started counting by three and having an abnormal fear of the color red.”
“I guess there are a whole bunch of lunatics in this world.” My eyes shot to Jasmine’s face, wondering what she meant by that. It took me a moment to register the tremor of fear in her voice and to realize she wasn’t calling me a lunatic, but rather, the man who killed my parents.
Jasmine visibly shivered, and for a moment, her eyes grew haunted, as though she was living through that traumatic afternoon two years ago instead of me. Then I remembered how much she feared the strays her parents brought in and realized what she must be imagining.
“He won’t be coming to your backyard,” I said quickly. “He killed himself after shooting my parents. It’s the only thing Gramps told me.”
She shook her head, willing herself to disperse those imaginings to come back to reality. “I’m sorry about your parents,” she said, and I knew she wasn’t just saying that the way others did at a funeral when they didn’t know what else to say.
“It’s been two years already,” I sighed. “I can’t believe I’m still suffering with this OCD. Gramps says I’m weak for not getting over it yet.”
“That’s not true!” The outburst was so sudden, I half jumped up. Jasmine looked at me through furious eyes. “You can’t just get over something that traumatic, as if it were some spoiled leftover meatloaf passing through your system to be flushed down the toilet.”
Wonderful imagery. If she wasn’t being serious, I would have laughed.
Jasmine glared at me. “Have you seen a psychiatrist about your problem?”
“No, Gramps says it’s shameful to see a shrink, and if our investors found out, it would be bad for the family business.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she exclaimed. Her breathing was starting to become irregular, something that immediately alerted me that this excitement stemmed from something deeper than trying to convince me to see a psychiatrist.
“Calm down,” I said, coming to her side, but she went off again.
“Maybe he thinks it’s shameful, but it’s better than waking up from nightmares every—” Her breath was cut short, and she choked. This time, I was ready. Grabbing the inhaler from the counter, I put it to her mouth, and she breathed in the medicine.
“Jasmine?” I called to her when her breaths came more regularly.
“Yeah, I’m all right.” Her voice was a hushed whisper, but reassuring. Now that she wasn’t in danger, I thought back to what she’d revealed unintentionally. She’d looked so scared when I’d told her about my run in with the murderer of my parents, and then she’d been defensive about visiting a shrink. And finally, she’d practically confessed to having nightmares every night.
She’d told me before that one of the strays had tried to abduct her. I’d assumed it had been nothing but a thwarted attempt that had only spooked her a bit. But now I realized it was more serious than that.
Someone hadn’t just tried to kidnap her—he’d been successful. My blood boiled. Before I’d wanted to kill the jackass who’d tried to harm her, but now I wanted to yell at Lewis and Annabelle too. How could they still take in strays having already experienced the danger they’d put their daughters in?
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to make this about me.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but she shook her head. “Don’t ask,” she begged. “Please don’t ask right now.”
I wanted to pursue the topic, but I knew if I pushed it, she’d just pull away.
When she spoke again, she sounded like her usual self once more. “Promise me you’ll see someone for help. My parents know some good doctors. You can’t live counting things in threes all your life.”
I frowned, feeling the pull of my own obstinacy once again. “But—”
“Promise me before I have another attack.” Her breathing became erratic. Whether it was real or just an act to get me to budge, I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to take the chance. The devious girl knew it too.
“Fine, fine,” I consented quickly. “Just relax please.” Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to seek help. Legally, doctors had to take the patient confidentiality laws very seriously, so there was a greater chance my identity would stay secret than not.
Jasmine gave a satisfactory nod. “I’ll set you up an appointment with Dr. Poray then. She’s Julie’s mom.”
Julie’s mom? As in Jasmine’s best friend, the snooping Julie who’d do anything to uncover a good story? She was already pestering me with questions, hoping to discover something of my past. Oh my God, I was in trouble.
Early Saturday morning, Jasmine dragged me out of the house. Julie’s mom, Dr. Vera Poray, had agreed to see me in her office just a few blocks away from school. I was extremely nervous about meeting her, especially knowing that if I wanted any hope of getting better, I’d have to tell her the truth. Jasmine took a seat in the waiting area while I went to the receptionist’s desk and was given a whole bunch of papers to fill out.
I hadn’t even finished filling them out when Dr. Poray personally came out to greet me.
“Jasmine, how lovely to see you,” she beamed. “And this must be Adam.” She took my hand warmly.
“Hi Mrs. P,” Jasmine said. I murmured my greetings as well.
“Jasmine, there’s a computer in my other office, if you’d like to watch dramas while you wait.”
Jasmine’s eyes sparkled. “Is it really all right?”
“Of course, help yourself. Julie and I are already on episode 12 of Class Distinction, and all I can say is, I wish they’d hurry and subtitle episode 13.”
The two of them started chatting, totally forgetting me.
I took the time to finish filling out the paperwork, only half listening to their excited squeals over the current drama they were watching. Jasmine had told me that she and Julie were obsessed with watching Asian dramas. Jasmine had been the one to start Julie and her mom on that particular mania, but according to the Carwarners’ rules, Jasmine was only allowed to watch one episode per night and only if she was done with all her homework. Two if it was the weekend. Her parents wouldn’t even have allowed her that much, but Jasmine had convinced them that watching Asian dramas would help her perfect the languages, which Lewis and Annabelle would never argue against. What I found truly amazing was that Jasmine didn’t even need subtitles. I’d observed her watching episodes without any translations. It was no wonder she’d won several awards in language competitions.
“Well, I should be doing my job,” Dr. Poray came back to reality. “Excuse me for losing my professional demeanor for a moment, Adam. Are you done with the papers?” She took them from me and beckoned. “Please follow me.”
She led me into her office, a pleasant room illuminated by soft lights giving off a purple tint. It smelled slightly like lavender, not overpowering, but nicely mild.
Dr. Poray looked through my papers, talking to me as she did so. “Jasmine told me over the phone that you struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder. How long has this been going on?”
“It started after my parents died two years ago,” I said, noting that she had paused while scanning my personal information. I knew exactly why and took a deep breath, waiting for her to address the issue.
“You’ve left your last name blank,” she said. “As well as your current address and emergency contacts.”
I could have lied about all of that, and wrote Jasmine’s address as mine as well as using the Carwarners for my emergency contacts, but I’d already decided to tell the whole truth.
“That’s because you wouldn’t believe me if I had filled it out.”
She did a good job at masking her confusion, a feat only a shrink could accomplish. “And what do you think I wouldn’t believe?”
“First, I need you to promise that what I say in this room doesn’t leave this room.”
“Adam, I’m a professional psychiatrist,” she replied calmly. “It’s my job to maintain patient confidentiality. Unless, of course, you intend to hurt yourself or others.”
“I just wanted to hear it personally from you,” I said.
“You have my word that your secrets are safe with me.” Dr. Poray put the papers aside. “I have a feeling we won’t be needing these. So please, continue.”
I scooted to the front of my chair, fishing out my wallet from my pocket, and then took out two different driver’s licenses. One was my real one, and the other was the fake that Toph and I had managed to buy off a guy we knew. I handed both to her.
She looked closely at both, and that professional demeanor she prided herself in faded slightly before she gained control once again. “I know a fake ID when I see one,” she said, “And the fake isn’t the one I expected it would be.” She raised her head to look me in the eye. “Seems you have a lot of explaining to do, Mr. Gables.”
It took awhile to tell her the whole story, but once I did, I felt a little relieved. Considering all she’d done so far was listen, I was eager to find out how much better I’d feel once she actually started treating me.
When I was through, I expected her to make some comment on how I should go and tell the Carwarners the truth and then go home. But she only nodded, and said, “I see.” No judgments at all.
“You’re not going to lecture me about lying to everyone?” I asked, amazed.
“I’m not your guardian, Adam. I’m your psychiatrist.” Dr. Poray picked up my paperwork again, and looked through it. “Now, you say your tendency to count things in threes cost you several jobs, and you fainted from having your shirt covered in ice cream, which led to the Carwarners taking you home. Other than obsessive counting and cleanliness, what other symptoms have you experienced?”
“I’m deadly afraid of bugs, Santa Claus, and the color red.” Then as an afterthought, “I also have really bad insomnia, but if I do fall asleep, I get nightmares.”
“And what are your nightmares about?”
“Santa Claus and the color red.” I shrugged. “Usually I’m standing by a Christmas tree.”
“Interesting.” Dr. Poray paused, regarding me carefully. “Two years ago, I recall reading in the paper that your parents passed away on Christmas Eve.”
I nodded, casting my gaze downward. “I already know I became like this because I saw them get shot. I was a witness, but I can’t remember anything.”
Judging by the hesitation, I had a feeling Dr. Poray was trying to choose her words tentatively. “I’m going to ask you to do something that might be a little hard,” she finally said. “But I need you to tell me what you do remember about that day before you blanked out.”
I lifted my head and shrugged. “All I remember is we were Christmas shopping before attending a huge party my grandfather throws every year at Gables Park.” We’d been shopping at the souvenir shops by a famous Christmas tree by Coyote Lake. It was a hundred something feet tall and attracted tourists from all over.
I tried my best to think back to that day, conveying what I could remember to Dr. Poray. I’d tried so hard not to remember all this time that it was a little hard recalling even the memories that my brain hadn’t erased.
It had been about mid afternoon when we finally finished our shopping. Mom had a headache from the crowd, so we took a walk through the Christmas tree forest to get some fresh air and told our driver to pick us up around three so we could get to Gables Park by four thirty. The air was cold and refreshing, and it was far away from all people so that only the sound of my voice narrating stories about school penetrated the air.
One of my stories had been cut off with a shrill scream, soon followed by another. It sounded like someone was in trouble, so my parents told me to wait while they went to investigate.
I paused in my narration, trying to recall what happened next. I’d never pried into my memory this much before, and my head was starting to ache, but I knew I had to try. A brief flash of an image of myself running through the forest played through my mind. “I think I followed them.” There was the sound of a distant bell chiming three o’clock, followed by a loud gun shot.
“Ahh!” I cried in pain. It hurt too much to think.
“It’s all right, Adam,” I heard Dr. Poray’s gentle voice penetrating through the pain. “You don’t have to remember anymore.” She stood from her seat and poured a cup of water, which she handed me.
I took a slow sip. The coolness felt good on my tongue. “Good job,” Dr. Poray told me.
“I don’t know anymore,” I said. “But I was told our driver found me and a girl passed out in the snow next to my parents’ and the murderer’s bodies. I don’t know who the girl was, or why she was there.” My grandfather wouldn’t let me know anything else. I looked to her in question. “You must know the story, since you’ve read the paper. Everyone knows except me, but no one will tell me.”
Dr. Poray straightened in her chair. It seemed she did know something and was debating whether to tell me. “All right, I’ll tell you,” she finally decided. “I don’t know much, but I read the murderer was dressed like Santa. He abducted a girl, and your parents tried to stop him. Then he shot them before shooting himself.”
“Why can’t I remember?”
“People cope with trauma and tragedies in different ways,” Dr. Poray explained. “Sometimes forgetting the whole thing is what the brain thinks is the best solution. Some of your phobias as well as the behaviors through which your OCD has chosen to manifest itself may be linked to that day. For example, you’re afraid of Santa Claus, most likely because the murderer was dressed as Santa, and the color red appears a lot at Christmastime, which may explain that phobia.”
“What about counting by threes?” I asked. That was the symptom I would be happiest to be free of.
“It may be linked to that day, but it may also just be a way to reassure yourself when you’re nervous. You see, OCD is one way people who have been scarred can feel like they can regain control because they were powerless during whatever trauma they experienced in the past.” Dr. Poray examined me through meaningful eyes. “I believe you’ve been suppressing the emotional pain of that day, and in order to cope with that stress, your body has decided to engage in ritualistic behavior instead. The insomnia is a result of stress as well.”
“Will you prescribe medicine for me then?” I asked, so hoping for a quick fix solution.
“I could give you some antidepressants, but I don’t think that would be the best way of dealing with this,” she said. “Plus, the side effects could worsen your insomnia. For now, you need to find ways of relaxing. Do some exercise, do things you like. Also try to ease out of your rituals slowly, but not all at once. If you feel the need to do something three times, take deep breaths, try to walk away and focus your mind on doing something else. But if you don’t succeed, don’t get angry, just try again next time.” She wrote these instructions on a prescription pad and handed it to me. “I want to see you every other Saturday.”
I mumbled an agreement, although I wished she’d just given me the antidepressants. This would not be an easy battle. “Dr. Poray, in your honest opinion, do you think it would be better if I remembered?”
“Do you want to remember?” Why did shrinks always answer everything with a question?
“Part of me does,” I said, “I hate having a hole in my memory, especially if it means forgetting one moment with my parents, even if it is traumatizing. But the other part is scared to remember. I can’t help feeling like I forgot for a reason, and if I remember that reason, I might not be able to recover.”
Dr. Poray was silent for a moment. Finally, she sighed. “The number one thing to know is that it’s all right to remember, and it’s all right not to remember. You may or may not recover your memory, but don’t force yourself either way. It needs to be a natural process, meaning if the memories come back, let them. If not, then they don’t. But whatever happens, we’ll deal with it together.”
It wasn’t exactly the answer I was looking for, but it was still comforting to know I was no longer dealing this by myself. It had been such a burden trying to keep my OCD a secret. There was just one more question I wanted to ask. “Do you know the name of the girl my parents saved? Even if she doesn’t remember any more than I do, we were victimized by the same criminal, and I’d like to make sure she’s all right.”
“I’m afraid that’s something I can’t answer,” Dr. Poray said. “But,” she added, “I’m sure if that girl wants to find you, she will. Your name is rather famous.”