The Reluctant Psychic Ch. 17


"Well, genetics is certainly a possibility, although if memory serves, the girl presented as a teenager, and this patient is in his thirties. Contagion is also a possibility, although it would be an incredibly long incubation period," Dr. Conners said.

There was some more discussion, but it ended with Dr. Conners telling the nurse that I could have visitors. The doctors filed out, and soon the girls filed in. Even without my powers, I could see all too clearly the concern on their faces, but with my powers it was agonizing. I turned away from the window, and gratefully, as before, my powers shut off when I stopped looking out the window.

I sat down on the bed, with my back against the headboard and my legs stretched out in front of me. I kept my head turned away from the window until I heard Anna draw the blinds again. She came over and sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed, her knees scant inches from my feet.

As I looked at her, the unreality of the situation hit home once more. She was just as beautiful as I remembered, more beautiful if that was possible. She was the sum total of everything I ever wanted in a woman, plus all the things that I never knew I needed. My eyes began to tear, and I felt both doors swing open, flooding me with memories and emotions I hadn't faced in years.

* * *

It happened during winter break my sophomore year of college.

The year before, I had made the mistake of going home for the holidays. I'd thought that I could hang out with my high school friends, and not have to be alone. But they had all changed, and we'd grown apart. I also couldn't take the pity: every time they looked at me I could see them thinking about my dead parents. We were all uncomfortable, so I returned to school before New Years, switching off the TV in my dorm room an hour before the ball dropped.

But my sophomore year had been much better. Once I stopped moping around, I started making friends. I was no longer the guy who'd lost his parents; most of my friends didn't even know what happened. Before my friends left for Christmas, we all made plans to have a giant New Year's party back at school.

Unfortunately, a blizzard hit two days before hand, followed by a second squall the day after. The roads were impassible, the power lines were down, and the entire school was closed. The school's administrators shoved those of us who hadn't gone home for break into the smallest dormitory. Even with a dozen generators, they could barely keep the temperature above sixty and they definitely couldn't spare electricity for lights.

Most of us were huddled together in one of the common rooms, playing cards by candlelight. Some people were walking around with blankets wrapped around them and the others were resigned to wearing their jackets indoors. I had just given up trying to learn cribbage from a thoroughly sloshed English student, when I felt it. I looked around the dark cramped room, and knew I needed to leave.

I zipped up my jacket, grabbed my hat and hurried down the dark hallway to the lobby. I pushed through the doors to the outside and immediately felt the slap of cold air. The sharp cold immediately broke through the ennui that had been growing inside of me. As my boots crunched in the snow, I was amazed to see how bright it was outside. The further I walked, the brighter it became, as the moon drifted higher in the sky.

I found that I was walking directly toward the student center. I tended to avoid the student center at this time of year, because the giant Christmas tree out front tore at my heart. My mother had always loved Christmas, and facing it without her hurt too much. But, in spite of my feelings, I felt inexorably drawn forward.

The tree was unlit and heavily covered by snow. As I crunched closer to the tree, I saw that a ring of snow had been stomped flat. I also heard a voice singing, "Fah Who, For-aze, Dah Who, Dor-Aze." My face scrunched up at the oddity of hearing the song from the "Grinch who Stole Christmas." I started walking around the tree, trying to find who was singing.

The singer must have been circling the tree as well, since she was still on the opposite side of the tree when I'd made it halfway around. I stopped and heard that the voice was still singing and travelling around the tree. Eventually I saw an overstuffed parka come twirling around the tree. I couldn't tell if the girl was so tightly bundled that she couldn't drop her arms, or if she just enjoyed spinning with her arms out.

Because her hood was drawn so tightly, she didn't notice me until she nearly spun into me. She stopped abruptly when she did, and cut her singing off mid-note. I could barely make out a bright red nose, clear blue eyes, and wisps of blonde hair peeking through the hood. I can only imagine what she saw on my face, but she said, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Grinch," before bursting into laughter.

"It's nearly New Year's, not Christmas," I said.

"But you don't mind being called a Grinch?" she asked.

"I'm more the Ebenezer Scrooge sort, I don't want to steal Christmas, it's just not my thing," I said. Then I added quietly, "any more." Before she could say anything else, I asked, "What are you doing out here? It's freezing."

"I could ask you the same thing," she said. "But to answer your question, I'm just having fun, being silly. Don't you ever want to be silly?" Before I could answer, she continued, "I know it's not Christmas anymore, but the tree is still here, so it can be Christmas just a little bit longer."

I sensed, as much as saw a shiver run through her. A bad memory had surfaced in her mind. I quickly withdrew my thoughts from her mind, feeling dirty for having invaded her so. But even without reading her thoughts, I could tell she was in a fragile state, so I blurted out the first thing that came to mind, "Why not Jingle Bells?"

"Because Christmas doesn't have to make sense," she said. "It isn't about going places, or presents, it's about good cheer, and glad tidings."

"And family, and friends," I added to her list. It seemed natural, even if this particular year, I was sorely lacking in both.

"They help," she said, a bit hollowly. She pulled in her arms as if she suddenly started feeling the cold. I realized in a flash that she was as alone this holiday season as I was.

"None of my friends stuck around for Christmas either," I said. "I can't blame them, I'd go home too if—" I looked at the mysterious girl, all bundled up against the cold. I wanted to tell her, but I just couldn't open myself in such a way to a stranger.

"Too far away?" she asked, going with the more obvious and least painful choice.

"More like too long ago," I said. "All my friends changed their first semester away at college, and things just weren't the same."

"And your family?" she asked. She looked at me earnestly, and at some point had taken a step closer to me. As she spoke, the fog from her breath briefly bridged the gap between us.

"If I asked about your family, I think you would dodge my question, as I'm dodging yours," I said.

"I suppose I shouldn't pry. But, I like to know what people are thinking," she said. She looked up at me, and I felt myself falling into her clear blue eyes. "Especially what could turn a handsome young man into Ebenezer the Grinch."

"You would probably be disappointed to know what most people are thinking," I said, with more truth than she could possibly understand. "But prying isn't so bad. It can lead to a very healthy catharsis."

"Are you a psychology major too?" she asked.

"It kind of runs in the family," I replied.

"I thought you were dodging questions about your family?"

"That wasn't a question about my family," I said. She was looking at me so intensely that I felt compelled to say, "My parent's were both psychologists." She kept looking at me, not voicing the obvious question, "Were?" So I added, "My father was killed by a patient, and my mother died a week later."

"She was also attacked?" she asked. She was a step closer. So close that she could have wrapped her arms around me, if she chose.

"No, she died—" I could hardly believe I was going to say it. Even after more than a year, it sounded corny. Worse, it sounded like a lie. That I made it up so I wouldn't have to say she took her own life. But she hadn't taken her life, she had died the same day as my father, it just took her body a week to realize it. "She died of a broken heart."

I felt her mitten against my cheek. She pulled it away, and held it in front of me. It glistened slightly from the tear she'd wiped away. "I didn't mean to be so cathartic," she said. I could hear the regret in her voice, but there was more sadness. The sadness wasn't from my story but from her story. I watched her as she considered the freezing tear on her mitten.

She caught me staring at her, and said, "You seemed to have already guessed that my parents are dead as well. It was a car accident when I was ten. We were on our way home from visiting my grandmother for Christmas," she shrugged. The shrug said all the things that she couldn't say out loud. "I lived with my grandmother after that. She hung on long enough to get me to college, but her mind can no longer take the loss of her daughter."

"The same thing happened to my grandfather when his wife was—" I didn't want to seem too dramatic with all my relatives meeting violent ends, so I concluded simply, "died."

"Another death by broken heart?" she asked, as much to distract herself from the feelings thrashing inside of her.

"No, he's in the Met," I said, referring to the Metzger Memorial Psychiatric Hospital.

"So it really does run in the family," she said. It was a poor joke, but enough of one to break the melancholy atmosphere that had developed.

"Well, I'm not the one dancing around a Christmas tree singing a song from a Christmas movie," I said, then added, "On New Year's Eve."

"You should try it Mr. Grinch." She looked up at me, and I felt a jolt shoot through my body. It was like a giant bass drum was causing my insides to vibrate. She added very quietly, "Maybe your heart will grow two sizes this day."

I leaned down to kiss her, but the fur surrounding the opening to her hood stymied me. I couldn't even see her lips. My nose managed to pierce the confines of her hood, and for a brief moment our noses rubbed against each other. Her eyes grew wide, and I knew she felt the same spark that I did.

Her mittened hand grasped my gloved hand and she pulled me along as she started backwards. "You should try it," she said giving my hand a squeeze. Then she started singing again. I looked around, as if anyone would be outside to see us. She led me halfway around the tree, singing the whole time, before I tentatively joined in.

We circled the tree a half dozen times before heading back to the dorm, singing the entire way. She didn't let go of my hand until we were all the way back to her temporary dorm room, and then just long enough to remove out mittens, gloves and jackets.

We sat together the whole night, talking and laughing. We kissed briefly when our eyes grew too tired to stay open any longer. She drifted off to sleep lying against me. I fell asleep as well, pulling the thick comforter around us both.

I was half awake, in the close heavy air of our shared cocoon, when I felt her lips seek mine once again. There was a brief moment of intense passion that threatened to wake me fully. But before the kiss was over, I was asleep once more. I didn't even know if she awoke at all.

* * *

"My jacket didn't look that silly, did it?" Anna asked. I was once more back in the present, as if being trapped in Anna's college dorm room was really the present.

"You saw all of that?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. I hoped that she'd say something else, but she lapsed into silence, alone with her thoughts.

The silence grew too uncomfortable for me, but I was unwilling to break it by speaking. Instead, I stood up and walked to the window. I slowly lifted the blinds, and looked outside. Only six of the girls were present, three standing on either side of the bed. They were talking to me, and each other, making the half-hearted jokes that keep a person from facing a tragedy directly.

"I wish they wouldn't stand three to a side like that. They look like pall-bearers."

"They are too young and beautiful to be pall-bearers," Anna said from the bed. I turned by back on the window, and sat down on the sill. She had come to some decision: I could see it in her face. "I think I know why you're here."

"Because I'm dying?" I asked.

"It has nothing to do with the pall-bearers; it has to do with you and me. I know you have never forgiven yourself for what you did to me. It is especially hard when the person you hurt can't grant you that forgiveness. So, you've tried to atone. When that atonement failed, spectacularly I might add, it was too much for your psyche."

"Can't forgive me, or won't?" I asked.

"If I said, 'I forgive you,' would you believe me? Could you believe that it was the real Anna speaking and not a delusion or a coping mechanism?"

"No, I don't suppose I could," I said. I thought for a minute and added, "So, I have to forgive myself for failing to atone for the mistake I made?"

"Either that or find your ruby slippers."

"But, I've just fathered a dozen monsters!"

"They aren't monsters! You aren't a monster. You are a human being with powers he didn't understand. They will be human beings who do understand their powers. They will have a father, who can make sure they don't make his mistakes, and mothers who are beautiful and generous spirits."

I shook my head, doubtful that the solution could be so trivial. "So, instead of ensuring there are no more people in the world like me, I should just be sure to raise them properly? It's that simple?"

"Raising children isn't simple. But just think of all the good they could do in the world? How much good you've done in the world?"

"I put a few criminals behind bars. That hardly evens the tally sheet compared to the harm I've caused."

"What about Bambi? How long do you think she could have lasted in that strip club before she lost her virtue, or had it taken? What about Gwen? Do you think she would enjoy life as a sex slave? Do you think Betsy would have enjoyed the foster care system? Do you think Stefani would even be alive?"

"What about you?" I asked.

"What's one life against a dozen?" she asked.

"Everything," I said. Before she could respond, I added, "But I meant, what about your part in all of that? I couldn't have done half of that without your guidance. I might have conquered half the world by now, if you hadn't have been my conscience."

"Then listen to your conscience. Go back to your girls, they need you. Raise your sons and daughters to be strong of body and conscience."

"What about you?" I asked as I started to feel the room fading away.

"Do me a favor," she said. I saw tears forming in her eyes as she spoke. I tried to reach out to her, but I was fading too quickly.

"Anything," I said.

"Anything?" she asked.

"Anything, I promise."

"Turn off the machines, let me die."

"I ca—" I tried to say no. I desperately wanted to say no. But, I couldn't refuse, no matter how much it hurt. I drifted closer to her, seeking to hold her in my arms one last time. My arms passed right through her. She reached a hand up, stroking what would have been my cheek. "I promise," I said as the room filled with white.

"I forgive you," I heard as the white light consumed me.

* * *

I hope you enjoyed reading this installment as much as I enjoyed writing it.

As always, I appreciate your votes and comments, they have really helped motivate me to write. I especially enjoy hearing your thoughts on how the story is going and where it's headed.

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