Every Ugly Word
By Aimee L. Salter
He indicates for me to take a seat, then sinks into a worn leather chair, looking just like a doctor should: graying hair, well-trimmed beard, and wire-rimmed glasses I suspect he doesn’t actually need.
We face each other over a glossy, mahogany coffee table. While he flips through my file, I scan the room. Shelves of creased paperbacks line the walls. The single window is framed by subtle drapes. There are doilies under the table lamps and two doors on opposing walls. This office resembles a living room—if I ignore the bars over the shatterproof windows.
Kind of kills the good-time vibe.
Doc clears his throat. I take a deep breath and turn back to him.
“How are you, Ashley?” His voice is too loud for the muted tones of the room—all earthy browns and soft corners. The quietly ticking clock in the corner tells me it’s 9:34 a.m. That gives me about five hours to prove I’m normal and get out of this place once and for all. Five hours until her life goes to hell, if I don’t make it home in time. I focus on him, try to smile. It’s already been a rough morning, but I can’t tell him that, not yet.
“I’m okay.” I shrug, then freeze. My stitches are only memory now, but searing pain lights up along the hard, pink lines spiderwebbing across most of my upper body. I breathe and wait for the jagged bolts to fade. My surgeon says I’m healing. But he forgot to mention that to the layers of mangled nerve endings beneath my fractured skin.
“Pain?” Doc’s eyes snap to mine. The benign disinterest was an act. He is measuring me.
“It’s fine. I just moved wrong,” I say breezily.
My physical scars aren’t the reason I’m here. He can’t fix those. But he can help me by letting me out. As head of this facility, no one leaves without his approval.
I mentally shake myself. He will let me out today. He must. If I can get home in time, I can fix . . . everything.
Doc’s lips press together under his perfectly trimmed mustache. After a second he smiles again.
“I see you brought your bag.”
The duffel bag my mother packed before dumping me here six months ago sits on the floor like a well-trained dog, as ready to go as I am.
“So you’re confident about today?”
“I’m confident that I’m not crazy.”
Doc’s smile twists up on one side. “You know we don’t use that word in here, Ashley.”
There are a lot of words they don’t use in here. See you later, for example.
I take another breath. Cold. Calm. Sane. “Sorry.”
He returns my stare, face blank. “I’m glad you feel confident. However, I do have concerns.”
He smiles in a way I’m sure is meant to be reassuring. But when he sits that way, with the overbright anticipation in his gaze, it kind of makes him look like a pedophile.
“Ashley . . . you’ve changed therapists three times during your stay. Do you know what I think when I hear that?”
I think the question is rhetorical, but he waits, expectant.
“Um . . . no?”
He hasn’t looked away. “I think as soon as anyone gets close to the truth, you flee.”
I can’t break my gaze without confirming his suspicions. So I swallow and wait.
His calm is maddening.
When he speaks next, it’s in the cool tone of a professional shrink. “I’ve read your file, spoken to your nurses, and been briefed by your therapists. Now I want to talk to you. About this.”
He makes his way to a closet in the corner, then pulls out a massive full-length mirror. It stands taller than I am, with a wrought-iron frame that is hinged in the middle, allowing it to pivot. He rolls it in front of the shelves in the corner of the room, far enough behind me that I can’t see into it without turning my head.
A kindness? Or a challenge?
Doc returns to his chair and I force myself to follow him, to keep my eyes away from the glinting surface.
“I have a hunch if we examine whatever it is you see in the mirror, we’ll find the truth about the rest, Ashley,” he says. “I’d like you to stand before it and tell me what you see.”
Panic lights up my veins. “What? Now?”
Doc raises a brow. “Unless you have a better idea?”
I don’t. I’d expected this session to be like all the others—a glib exploration of my past, patronizing questions about my psyche, along with self-congratulatory compliments when I make a “breakthrough.” I was prepared to do whatever it took to get out of here by 2:30, but I can’t look in that mirror—not now.
What if she’s there? She won’t understand why I’m ignoring her. She’s been through enough today already. We both have. And breaking her heart is breaking mine.
“The mirror won’t make any sense without the rest of the story,” I say, trying to buy time. If I can get him talking, show him how normal I am otherwise, maybe he’ll decide I don’t need to look.
His face remains impassive, but his head tilts to the side just a hair. He’s onto me. “I know the story you’ve fed your previous therapists. If there’s more, I’m willing to put the mirror aside for a time—”
I slump with relief.
But he raises a single finger. “—if you tell me everything. There’s only one route to getting my signature on your release forms, Ashley. And that’s it.”
His patience is a marble rolling along a slim edge, precariously balanced between hearing me out and sending me back to that cell they call a bedroom.
Swallowing again, I try to make myself pitiful. I drop my head into my hands. “Okay,” I breathe into my palms.
“I’ll tell you the truth.” As much of it as I can, anyway. I’ll let him think he’s gotten through where others failed. Hell, I’ll even consider what he has to say if it means he won’t make me look in that mirror.
“So . . . where do you want me to begin?”
He crosses his leg over his knee, pulling up his pant leg slightly. “Nothing too dramatic. Start with the night you planned to give Matt the letter.”
I feel the grin slide off my face. Nothing too dramatic. Right. I can’t help glancing sideways at the mirror. Doc follows my gaze, and when he sees where I’m looking, he frowns. For a moment the magnitude of what I’m trying to achieve is overwhelming. I cannot breathe. But I force my muscles to loosen. I swallow my fear—and begin to speak.
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