This is a work of fiction. Characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, or are used in a fictitious manner. No portion of this excerpt may be used without the expressed permission of the author.
He sees his name printed on the desk calendar, circled twice in bold, red strokes. He’s been Peter Samuel Wilson longer than either he or his caseworker expected. His last three identities ended in abrupt chaos. The repeating string of stalkers, concerned neighbors, and paparazzi appear to have finally ended. Two decades in hiding, and it seems the world has finally forgotten him.
This time, he’s maintained an identity long enough to get a degree, land a decent mid-level engineering job, and even celebrate an anniversary with a girlfriend. He finally has the average American life he’s always wanted.
If life were normal, Peter wouldn’t be in a therapy session with a woman who doesn’t know his true name. He can see how their future appointments will play out. She’ll spend weeks trying to solve the puzzle of his anxiety and crippling fear of abandonment. They’ll analyze the supposed meaning behind clips of nightmares and a muted version of his flashbacks. Peter already knows why he’s suffering, but he can’t tell her that. Maybe she’ll figure it out before he has to quit again.
If anyone knew he was in therapy, without being able to tell the therapist why he needs to see her, they might tell him he’s wasting his time. And maybe he is. But it makes Peter feel better to talk about the contrast of the chaos in his head and the banality of his twisted version of a normal man’s problems. Since he doesn’t have friends, his only option is to pay someone to listen.
He scans the room. The therapist has a smattering of photos propped on her desk and crowding books on nearby shelves. They depict her with a close friend, or perhaps, her sister. Their arms interlock in some. In others, they gaze at the camera cheek-to-cheek. They look solid together. He wonders what it would be like to have a relationship like that.
“Peter?” Doctor Richards uncrosses her legs and leans forward. As her soft bronze skin scoots against the leather chair her knee-length skirt raises up her thigh an inch.
“Yes?” Peter realizes his gaze has lingered a moment too long when her hand tugs the fabric down to the top of her knee. He snaps his focus to her eyes.
“We’re about halfway through your session. You haven’t said much. Is there anything you’d like to talk about today?”
“I’m sorry, Doctor. I’ve never done this before. I guess I’m not sure what to say.” Peter tightens the skin on his forehead, drawing his eyebrows together. He lifts his shoulders, attempting to look unsure of himself. It’s a lie. This is his sixth attempt at therapy since leaving foster care. Now solidly in his thirties, he has to ignore the pursuits that came before Peter Wilson was breathed into reality. It’s easy to pretend it’s all new. Makes for a simple excuse to explain away all the things he can’t say.
“Please, call me Jeanne.” She turns crimson lips into a practiced smile designed to break down barriers and open a client up. Police interviewers and social workers do the same thing when they talk to kids. “Let’s start with why you came in today.”
“Okay, Jeanne.” Peter looks down at the hands folded in his lap. One of his thumbs twitches involuntarily. It’s been an embarrassment since middle school. No matter what combination of medications, physical conditioning, or behavioral intervention he’s tried, he’s never been able to shake it. “Well, I guess I just wanted someone to talk to.”
She nods. “Do you have many friends?”
“No,” Peter admits. His throat is dry, and he wishes the water tank in the front office hadn’t been empty when he’d come in. He’d kill for a glass of water.
“What about family?” Jeanne reaches for a pad of paper on the small table beside her and scribbles a note.
“My mom died when I was twelve.” Peter tries to appear sad, the way someone who lost a parent should. The funny thing is, despite the lies he’ll tell Jeanne over the coming weeks, this story is true. But after so many years without her, he’s not torn up about it anymore.
Jeanne’s face takes on the same practiced sadness Peter’s expressing. “And your father?”
“We don’t talk.” Peter fidgets in his chair, unsure of whether to say more. His thumb twitches more noticeably now, and he clamps his other hand over it to keep it from jumping around his lap. The words he wants to say wrestle on his tongue. Eventually, he blurts out, “He’s incarcerated.”
Jeanne takes the information in stride. It must be strange to spend every day talking to people with crazy families. Peter imagines someone in Jeanne’s profession eventually reaches a point where nothing is shocking anymore. “It must be lonely without friends or family to talk to.”
Peter’s nodding his agreement before he realizes it. It is lonely being the only one who knows who he is. Who he was before. “I have a girlfriend.”
“What’s her name?” The pen in Jeanne’s hand becomes still, poised over the paper in preparation of cataloguing his relationship status for future reference.
Jeanne smiles. He sees her recognition that she’s found a topic to get Peter talking. He wonders if she’s looking forward to the rest of the session passing by without the pair of them staring at one another like the awkward strangers they are. “How did you meet?”
“We met at a cemetery.” Peter looks toward her pad as it fills up with scribbles and wonders how much truth he wants to tell her. He waits for Jeanne to comment on how a cemetery is a strange place to find love, but she’s better than that.
“Did someone you know die?” Jeanne turns her mouth down in another sympathetic frown.
“An acquaintance. I didn’t really know him. My dad did.” Peter stops short of telling Jeanne that he’d only known the man as Victim 32 until the day before the memorial service. There’d been a full page spread in the paper. A surveyor measuring plots for a new housing development had stumbled across what little was left of him a decade after his disappearance. His bones rested among a collection of unidentified bodies for years, until somebody working cold-cases had the time and technology to identify him.
That’s how it usually went. Where Oliver’s victims were concerned, law enforcement were rarely the ones to find them. It was usually a hiker who’d lost the trail, a farmer ploughing a fallow field, or campers intent on avoiding developed campgrounds and their fees.
Peter hadn’t been brave enough to go when they laid his remains to rest. A few days later, he’d gone to tell the man’s headstone he was sorry for what his dad had done. “He was Elsie’s father. It was kind of funny. We both visited his grave on the same day. It wasn’t even a holiday or anything.”
Jeanne smiles with him. “It’s interesting how things work out sometimes, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Although, sometimes I wonder if meeting me was really the best thing for her.” Peter doesn’t enjoy thinking about how he met Elsie. Most of the time he can push it into a dark corner in his mind. That’s probably why their relationship is so easy, though. They both lost their fathers and had to navigate life without them. And neither of them wants to talk about it.
“Do you not feel worthy of Elsie?” Jeanne’s head tilts curiously. She reaches a hand across the space between them and places it on Peter’s knee. He can feel the warmth of her palm through his jeans. Her fingers rest around his kneecap and squeeze slightly when he tries to shift away from them. “Many people feel unworthy of love when they lose their parents as children. That doesn’t make it true.”
Peter feels the tears well up behind his eyes. He hates this part of therapy… the part that’s real. He tries to push the tears back, but it’s a losing battle. Suddenly, Jeanne’s hand disappears from his knee. It’s replaced by a small cardboard box. He pulls a stiff tissue out and hides his eyes in it for a second.
When he pulls it away, he can see through Jeanne’s sympathetic facade. She looks so sincere, but deep down, Peter is sure she’s proud of striking a nerve. Her hollow empathy reminds him therapy is nothing more than a manipulation of character. Jeanne’s job is to uncover people’s secrets.
For twenty years, Peter’s job has been to hide from a man famous for burying them.
This would make for a complicated relationship.
“Love doesn’t exist.” Peter’s throat clenches as he chokes on the words.
Jeanne scribbles another note. “How long have you and Elsie been together?”
“That’s a long time to be with someone if you don’t believe in love.” Jeanne doesn’t look at Peter as she speaks. She’s distracted by writing another note, and it makes Peter uneasy.
He feels an overwhelming urge to demand her full attention. Peter wrings his hands together to keep from grabbing the therapist’s face, forcing her to look at him. “It seems to work out well enough just liking her.”
“Does Elsie know you don’t love her?” Jeanne looks back at him. Instantly, Peter feels the tension melt away.
“I don’t know,” Peter admits.
As Jeanne shifts in her seat, her skirt rises along the edge of the chair again. This time he vows not to stare at her thighs, revealed under the wandering hem. “Have you ever told Elsie you love her?”
“Yes.” Peter leans forward, drawn toward her deep brown eyes and waves of ebony hair. Jeanne smells nice. Like plump strawberries floating in a bowl of cream.
“You don’t feel bad when you lie about your feelings?” Jeanne’s eyelashes flutter as she frowns.
“Sometimes.” As they inch closer together to discuss the issue intimately, Peter feels like kissing her. The thought of cheating on Elsie makes his stomach clamp down on itself. It drenches his mouth in a bath of acid. He leans back in his seat, pressing into the faux leather until it squelches around him, complaining at his cowardice. He fights to force the horrid burn of stomach acid down.
“Peter, are you okay?” Jeanne pushes the box of tissues farther up his lap.
He swallows hard. He sucks a few deep breaths, gulping air, trying to stop the muscles constricting his stomach. The urge to vomit passes and he mutters, “Yeah. I think so.”
“What happened? You looked ill just then.” Jeanne’s eyes show genuine concern, now. Peter wonders if she’s worried she’ll have to clean her carpet after he leaves.
He searches his mind for an appropriate response. He can’t tell her how beautiful she is. If he does, he won’t be able to come back. “I was thinking about what you said about lying to Elsie. She’d feel awful if she found out the truth.” Peter nods, relieved when Jeanne copies his movements.
“Maybe you care more about Elsie than you realize.” Jeanne touches Peter’s knee again. The warmth of her hand makes his skin tingle beneath the thick denim.
Peter takes in another large, nervous gulp of air. He reminds himself he can’t risk losing Jeanne over the admission of an attraction to her and vows he won’t tell Elsie about his new crush. “Maybe I do.”
Find out more about Peter and his dangerous relationship with the truth…
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