This story is by Richard Peterson and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I looked at the clock to see how much time before my daughter would arrive when there was a quiet knock on the door. I took a deep breath, centering myself. It was time for Dylan’s therapy session. I walked to the door and opened it.
His face was sallow with metal piercings in every soft spot he had. An Iron Maiden tank top hung loose over his emaciated frame, and he wore black skinny-jeans with designer holes in the legs. Doc Martins completed the outfit. He made seven spikes with his hair. Each week it was a different color. Today it was dyed jet black with fluorescent pink tips. He never spoke.
“How are we today, Dylan?”
“Good, I’m so glad to hear that you’re doing well.”
I always felt like I was patronizing him. He didn’t want to be here; I didn’t really want him to be here, but my wife made me promise. I was good with teens. They were my specialty. But I could never get through to Dylan. I tried to ask my daughter, about him. They were classmates. She didn’t really know him. Said that he kept to himself.
“Let’s see…where should we begin? How about we take up where we left off last time?”
I looked at my notes. They were incoherent doodles. We sat in silence for 50 minutes. We always sat silently, together. We were still waiting for the other to break. It was a battle of wills. I thought that I learned my lesson not to engage in this kind of power struggle when my daughter was three but, apparently, I was wrong.
I wasn’t sure that I would last another 50 minutes of just sitting and looking at him; especially knowing what he had done. He just sat there, looking sullen, like I had run over his cat.
“Are you going to fucking participate today, you little shit, or are you going to just sit there and waste more of your parents money and my time?” I’m not sure who was more surprised, me or Dylan.
Dylan just sat there silently, staring straight ahead.
“I guess that’s a big, fucking, no.” I had no idea what had come over me. I didn’t speak like that. Not ever, not at all. But something within me had snapped. I felt a surging rage overcome my sanity.
“I ‘spose that means I’ll be doing the talking today. It’s time to take this shit seriously or don’t bother coming back. I don’t mind taking your parents money, but I do have a work ethic. I don’t want to take it for doing nothing.”
Dylan shut his mouth and stared straight ahead. He wasn’t going to give in. Neither was I. Not today. But I had lost my composure.
“Hey, shit head! Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
Dylan stared straight ahead.
I seethed. How dare this kid ignore me. Does he have any idea of who I am? How hard I’ve worked to keep some semblance of a life for my family since she died? I was working myself into a lather that soon I wouldn’t be able to come back from. I thought that this must be how The Hulk feels just before he goes green. I looked at Dylan, staring and emotionless.
Smoke came from every orifice – eyes, ears, mouth, nostrils…I screamed, an Achillean war whoop. I stomped around him, ranting and raving. I threw a chair and overturned the coffee table. I smashed the book case along the left wall and books rained down. It felt so good that I smashed the book case on the right side just because. I looked at my patient.
Dylan just stared straight ahead.
So quiet, and so peaceful, like nothing else was going on around him. As if he didn’t have a care in the world. I stopped, then, for a moment. I saw myself as he must have. Beet red face, huffing and puffing with clenched jaw and fists. What an ass I was. Here was this kid who came into my office for help and I was screaming at him. What.The.Actual.Fuck. I thought that maybe I would try a different tact with Dylan.
“Let’s start over, let’s…let’s try this again. Your parents are worried about you, Dylan. And quite frankly, so am I. They say that you’ve become withdrawn; that you don’t hang out with your friends anymore. Is this true, Dylan?”
Dylan continued to just sit there, stoically. Vacant eyes, staring into nothing.
I was willing to do whatever it took to get him to open up to me. I tried to out quiet him. I sat across from him and stared back. Our focused, unblinking eyes locked onto each other. Dylan was a troubled kid. I knew that. The kids at school knew that. His parents knew that. If he had any friends, they would have seen it as well. But that still didn’t explain why he just wouldn’t…talk. Here are all of these people reaching out to him in an effort to make his life better, to make him, better, and yet he refused. Every single time someone reached out to offer him a hand, a life raft, he refused it.
“Staring Dylan” is what I called him to my wife. She would always smile and tell me that I was good at what I did. I would find a way to help him. And here I was, years later and I had done nothing to help him, except perhaps to hone his staring skills.
My daughter was my life raft after my wife died. What my wife saw in that boy I don’t know. I mean, look at him. All he ever does is sit and stare. Who the fuck does that?
I wanted to slap him. So I did. My red handprint stuck out on his pale face.
Dylan continued to stare straight ahead like it was little more than a leaf from a tree that brushed across his cheek. It made me…angrier.
I leapt out of my chair. My rational brain gone. I was acting only on impulse. No flight, only fight. I was gonna kick his motherfucking ass. I licked my lips in anticipation. I was ready to strike when I heard my office door creak open.
I froze, mid-hit, and looked up. My daughter stood in the doorway, ashen face.
“Daddy, what are you doing?”
“This doesn’t concern you, baby. You need to turn around and go.”
She stood still and didn’t move. “Daddy, are you ok?”
I tore my eyes away and looked down at the chair where Dylan was sitting; where I was ready to pummel him. Have it your way, baby girl. I drew back my right arm for a haymaker. I yelled and let it go. There was a sickening crunch as my fist hammered the wooden chair where Dylan’s face was supposed to be.
“Daddy!” My daughter shrieked. She ran to me. I looked at her and back down at the chair where only moments before Dylan sat stone faced. Only he wasn’t there. He hadn’t been there in a week. I gaped at the empty chair, crumpled to the ground, and started sobbing. There was a deep void in my heart that I wasn’t sure I’d ever crawl out of…because Dylan was gone…My daughter held me as I wailed like a newborn babe. Torrents of tears, came from my eyes. I never knew that losing a patient would hurt so much. I felt like I lost my wife all over again. I promised her. She believed in my ability to help him. Oh, the emptiness. I wasn’t sure that I would climb out of the abyss this time.
My daughter continued to hold me when we both heard a rustle at the door. Dylan’s father stood there.
“I didn’t know what to do. It’s just that…I’ve always left work early to pick him up after his therapy.” He walked over to me and daughter and sat next to us and put his arms around us, enveloping us. Loving us.
“I am so sorry; I tried everything. I am so sorry,” I said over and over again. His dad, through tearful eyes, comforted me. The roles were supposed to be reversed but I just…couldn’t…
We cried together then. Me, my daughter, and Dylan’s dad. Then we remembered Dylan. We were sad but we knew that we’d be OK. We’d be able to move forward. I looked up from our embrace. My office was destroyed except for the chair where my patients sit. And there was Dylan, sitting quietly…smiling.
Billi Lynn Holt says
Richard, I thought this was well written and easy to follow. I felt like I was above and observing the events as they unfolded. The characters evoked feeling and sympathy and drew attention to the reality of therapists trying to help troubled kids. The ending was a little confusing as I didn’t understand if it was a dream, or nightmare or some kind of horror or the truth. All in all I was on the edge of my seat and curious. You left me thinking and my imagination was stirred. Nice job!