LESSONS OF EVIL
The Oregon Desert, 1989
Shrinks think they know everything, but they’re as clueless as everyone else. Abishua had learned that from the psychobabble they’d forced on him in the early eighties at Oregon State Penitentiary. He’d been paroled early because of all the ‘progress’ he had made. They had no one but themselves to blame for the bloody mess he’d made of a girl that night in celebration of his freedom.
At the moment he was clipping his fingernails over the office waste can, thinking about the newest mindfucker. She’d fail, just like her predecessor, never having hard proof of a damn thing. Not when a spy reported back to him from deep inside each of his creations. Not when his followers kept watch.
Abishua looked at his fingertips, now satisfied with his handiwork. “Cadman,” he snapped at his oldest son who was, as always, nearby. “Be very sure Laura Covington doesn’t push too far.”
He turned his attention to the child sitting motionless at his feet. “It’s time,” he said. “Tick, tick, tick.”
Laura Covington sat in her hellhole of an office, her tiny desk jammed up against the wall. She wished she could open a window except, of course, she didn’t have one.
That’s what I get for climbing down the corporate ladder.
After years as a corporate psychologist at a large company in Portland, Oregon, she had kissed her slick environs and high paying job good-bye. She’d entered the far grittier world of Community Mental Health in Rapid River, a small eastern Oregon town. This was where she’d find the people most in need of her counseling skills. 1989 was her year to reach out to those troubled souls clinging to society’s lowest rungs.
She’d craved the mental challenge, and boy oh boy, did she ever get it. Almost nobody was as challenging as Woodrow in his aluminum cone hat warding off the aliens. Or Vlad who’d bite himself if he couldn’t corner some little creature to feast on. Clinical vampirism just wasn’t one of the disorders she’d encountered in the corporate sector.
She sat back in her rickety desk chair and let her thoughts wander to her predecessor here, a woman named Sarah Fletcher. When she’d gone through Sarah’s files in her first weeks on the job, Laura had been impressed with the senior counselor. And nosey about her, too.
“Where did she go?” Laura had asked her boss Tom McClaren.
“Somewhere in Seattle,” he’d answered. “I’m not exactly sure where. Private practice, I think.”
“She kept great notes. Left me a lot to go on.”
“Maybe, but don’t believe just everything you read.”
“What do you mean?” Laura thought it a curious thing to say.
“Oh nothing. Except Sarah sometimes got a little too … imaginative. We want your take on things. You have better credentials, and that’s what we’re paying for.”
Laura wondered if Tom was referring to Sarah’s work with Multiple Personality Disorder. Not all counselors believed it existed. Herself included. But maybe that was because they’d never worked with such a dysfunctional population as that at Community Mental Health. With what she was encountering here, Laura was now open to all sorts of trauma-based syndromes.
Just because you haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
“Who are you?” asked the wide-eyed young man hovering at Laura’s office door. He looked ready to take flight, like a pheasant flushed from a hedgerow.
Laura stood and moved toward him, then stopped when he started to step back. “I’m Dr. Laura Covington,” she said. “I’m your new psychologist. Please come in.”
“Where’s Sarah?” David Hollingshead asked, remaining at the threshold. He was in his mid twenties, with golden brown eyes that looked older than his years. Or tired. Or maybe apprehensive. His clothes were faded, worn thin at stress points, and his shoulder length auburn hair had some kind of white flecks clinging to it. But he was at least clean enough to have no body odor.
An improvement over a lot of the clientele around here.
Laura thought he would have been handsome if the scar on his cheek had been stitched together by more talented hands. He was too thin but otherwise in decent physical shape as far as she could see. He had no telltale signs of drug or alcohol addiction. He was at least taking some care of himself.
“Sarah Fletcher left the department several weeks ago,” Laura said as he finally entered her tiny office and sidled into her guest chair. “Didn’t she tell you?”
“Maybe she told the others. But they didn’t tell me.”
It was her first inkling that David and she were not alone. According to his file, he had originally come to Community Mental Health in 1987 from the psych ward at the Rapid River hospital, diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder. Sarah Fletcher had left a brief note that she concurred with this diagnosis. But his file was surprisingly short on details considering the full reports she’d left on other clients.
“I’ll miss Sarah.” He sounded dejected.
“Yes, I’m sure you will. Transitioning to a new counselor is never easy.” Several of her clients felt abandoned. It was hard on them – on her, too, for that matter, trying to win over people who’d rather she wasn’t there.
“Talking to you upsets some of us. We don’t all like change.”
“I understand. I wasn’t sure if you’d come today since you missed your first appointment.” Laura kept her voice low to begin asserting her authority in a tranquil manner.
“I missed an appointment?” David looked confused. “I’m sorry.”
“Well, I’m just glad you’re here now. I’ve read your file, so I know a little about you. But I’d like to ask you a few questions just for background, okay?”
“We’ll see how it goes,” he said with the hint of a smile, and he settled into the chair as if he planned to stay for a while. He could meet her gaze, unlike many of her clients. In fact, his eyes seemed fastened on her, the way a prey animal might be alert to a predator.
“Did Sarah discuss your diagnosis with you?”
He was clutching the edge of her desk, and she could see the tension in his slender hands. He lifted one and pointed to his own head. “Yes. She said I’m not alone in here. I didn’t believe it. But then I worked it out, and she was right.”
“I know you don’t trust me yet, David. I understand that will take time. But if you listen to me, I will do the same for you. And we’ll continue working on it together.”
He shifted, hooking his feet around the chair’s front legs.
“I thought you could tell me a little about your job,” Laura said, choosing the easiest place for many people to start talking about themselves.
David never took his eyes off her. She began to feel like the target of a dissection, skin peeled back and organs exposed. It was difficult for her not to glance down to check whether her buttons were all behaving.
Finally he said, “We don’t like it in here. It’s too tight.”
“Yes, the room is very small. Would you like to move your chair closer to the door? I could open it, but I don’t want you to worry that we’d be overheard.”
“Being shut in,” he said, voice almost a whisper. “It scares the Little Ones.”
She felt a tingle of excitement. The Little Ones?
She needed to solve this simple issue of space if he was to believe she could help with harder problems. “Would a room with windows help?”
He nodded. Laura called Lovella the receptionist to book the downstairs conference room. “Let’s move there, David. We’ll meet there until they, ah, the Little Ones, know they can trust me.”
For the rest of the session, they sat together, the only two people in a conference room that could easily seat sixteen. A glass wall separated them from the sounds and activity at the front reception desk. Vertical blinds screened the windows that faced the street corner, but strong sun filtered through. It was often sunny here in Oregon’s high desert country, not as gray as Portland where Laura had lived before.
“This is better,” David said.
Laura read the relaxation in his body language. “Good. Then we’ll meet here until my office is comfortable for you. Now, can you tell me about your job?”
“I’m a pretty good woodworker, cabinet maker, any kind of finish carpentry,” he said. “That’s what I did when I was on the road a lot.”
Ah! That explains the white flecks in his hair. It’s sawdust. Laura felt like a detective who had interpreted a clue.
As the session progressed, David lost the wariness that had accompanied him into her office. When their time ended, Laura felt they had made a good start. Maybe he’d come to accept her in place of Sarah Fletcher.
And maybe she’d come to accept his diagnosis. Crazy as it sounded.
“He said he’d diaper babies or old people if he had to, but not me,” Diaper Man howled.
Dr. Laura bit her cheeks to keep a straight face as her client described his break up with the guy he called his main man, his hunka hunka, his love torch.
Diaper Man was a middle-aged schizophrenic. He also enjoyed wearing a diaper. This in itself would not have been issue enough for him to receive free counseling, since it wasn’t exactly a threat to society. But it’s what he most liked to talk about.
Laura listened then reminded him about the dangers of hanging around public restrooms to find another soul mate. She saw to it that he got his anti-psychotic meds from the psychiatrist and made it clear that he mattered to her as well as to all the other people at Community Mental Health. That reassurance was really what he needed most.
As the only PhD in Rapid River’s Community Mental Health Department, Laura spent her days conducting client psychological testing for all the other counselors. Her own caseload was enormous as well. Some clients like Diaper Man could hold a job, but most were so disoriented or disabled that employment was out of the question. They lived in hole-in-the-wall apartments or missions or alleys. She was their last line of defense, and she vowed to do everything for them that her education, experience and emotions prepared her to do.
She had her favorites, of course. Like David Hollingshead. After their first appointment, David always appeared on schedule. Laura went down to the lobby to meet him each time and escort him into the conference room.
As she came down the stairs, she could often hear him chat with the ancient receptionist. Lovella had a face as wrinkled as a shar-pei and skin the color of a rich mocha. Her salt and pepper hair was pulled back with dagger-length clips, and God help the strand that tried to escape. Her most startling feature was her bosom, encased today in a starched white blouse. Laura figured the breasts beneath must be the size of Big Gulp drinking cups. Nothing about the old girl seemed the least bit soft except she appeared to dote on David. Today, her face was cracked open in what could only be called a smile. But after Laura collected David, Lovella immediately returned to her dour self.
“You!” she snapped at the frail looking fellow sitting on a straight backed waiting room chair. “Don’t tear pages out of that magazine. I’m not telling you again.”
Laura closed the conference room door, enjoying the sunny room as much as David did. It was time for him to confront issues over his failed marriage, so she got to it as soon as they were seated. “In your file, I see that you and your wife have separated.”
David looked ill at ease. “That’s not easy to talk about, Dr. Laura.”
“No. Most of our work together will be hard.”
“Well … if it’s important. Cathy cleared out. Has her own place now.”
“Did she know about your diagnosis?”
“She beat feet before the hospital shrink gave it a name.”
“He said in your record that you were losing time, that intervals would pass and you wouldn’t know what happened. Did Cathy know about that?”
He brushed a forelock of auburn hair back from his eyes. “She just thought I was spacey. ‘Earth to David,’ she’d say. Complained I never listened to her, that I’d lose my head if it wasn’t screwed on. But mostly, I don’t know, I guess we were just apart a lot.” David began to swivel the conference room chair back and forth. Laura read it as nervous tension.
Could a wife really not know her husband was losing time? Or is David just very good at hiding it?
“Why were you apart so much?”
He stopped to light a cigarette. None of her clients was fazed by the new anti-smoking craze. They all still puffed away. She thought he should be spending the money on food instead.
“Cathy worked late a lot. She wanted the overtime. I was building houses as far away as Medford. Our crew stayed in crappy motels all week. Everybody got tanked at nights just ‘cause we were bored. I thought I passed out from booze a lot. Turns out, I was losing time. I’d sometimes wake up with aches and wounds I couldn’t explain.” He cocked his head and rubbed a finger down the red scar on his cheek. “No idea what happened here. Anyway, our crew only got back to Rapid River on weekends. I’d see Cathy then, if she wasn’t working all the time.”
“When did things start to change for you two?”
David stared out toward the reception area, but Laura doubted he was actually seeing anything as he reminisced. A kind of dissociation common for us all.
“My boss bolted a while back, leaving a lot of unpaid bills. Work isn’t easy to come by anymore. Sometimes my church hires me to build furniture they can sell. It’s not a lot, but I thought at least I wouldn’t have to travel so much. I could be with my wife more.” His eyes misted with tears. “It wasn’t long after I stopped travelling that Cathy left me.”
Laura gave him time – and Kleenex – to regain his composure then asked, “Did she say why?”
“She started to gripe about money, and we fought about it. Then one day, she said I scared her, even slapped her. But I can’t believe that. I don’t remember any of it. I love her. I’d never hurt her.”
He certainly looked innocent, golden brown eyes as imploring as an animal shelter poster. But for the first time, Laura felt a prickle of apprehension. Should I be alone with this man? She could see Lovella and the activity around the reception desk, so she felt safe enough to continue. “Why would Cathy say you hurt her if you didn’t?”
He stopped swiveling the chair and leaned toward her. “I’ve thought a lot about that. I think she wants to punish me for losing my job.”
“What finally made her leave?”
“I didn’t get it. She accused me of having another woman. I said it wasn’t true. And it wasn’t. But, then she said she’d actually seen me with some bimbo, at a bar one night when she stopped with her friends after work. So then she thought I was not just a cheat but a liar. And she walked out.”
He took a deep ragged breath and leaned back. “The thing is I really didn’t have another woman. At least not one I remember. I went ballistic.”
“I’m not surprised. That kind of event is called a stressor.”
“I was angry, felt lost. Without a job, without my wife, not knowing what to believe, well, I fell apart. The shrink used a word–”
“Yeah, that’s it. Cops picked me up where I passed out in an alley. I was liquored up, been cut pretty bad. They took me to the emergency room. Once the docs patched up my gut, they wheeled me down to the psych ward. Kept me ten days, booted me out, and told me to come here.”
When she’d had her corporate job, people came to Laura between meetings with sales and marketing, not after a life threatening fight in an alley. Her clients here at Community Mental Health lived very close to the edge. Crisis to them meant a lot more than a down quarter. She still wasn’t used to the violence.
“Let’s talk more about losing time,” she said.
But David was done talking for the day. “I think it’s time you meet the others,” he said, rising to leave. “I’ll bring them next session. Some of them want a word with you.”
Later that afternoon, Laura was reviewing her notes when she heard a knock on the frame of her open door.
“Laura, could I speak with you a moment?” said Tom McClaren, her boss. His carrot top clashed with his florid complexion, but his Howdy Doody freckles didn’t fool her. She knew he had the street smarts to be of enormous value to the department, especially when it came to negotiating federal, state and county codes and funding.
She turned off her tape recorder, shut her notebook and invited him into her office with a smile. “It’s nothing much, but mi casa es su casa.”
“This isn’t exactly a social call. I hear that you’ve been using the conference room to see one of your clients.” Howdy Doody frowned.
“Yes. David Hollingshead has issues with a small room with no windows.” She indicated her office with a hand gesture worthy of Vanna White.
“He says the Little Ones get scared.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Not that again.” Tom rolled his eyes. “By now he should be comfortable with you.”
Laura stiffened, not liking her competence to be questioned. “He is comfortable with me. Just not with the office. I see nothing wrong with using the conference room as long as it’s available.”
“Well, the department does. It just doesn’t look good. It’s for government or hospital conferences, not individual counseling.”
“But I still don’t –”
“So please conduct your sessions in your office from now on. And keep in mind, these people are very cunning. They can fool you. With your corporate background, you might be a little, oh, shall we say naïve about them. You need to control them, not the other way around.” With that, he left her office.
Must be hard to walk with a stick so far up your butt. A hot blush of anger crept up her chest and neck. She thought she’d left officialdom behind in the corporate world back in Portland, but she was finding the red tape pretty binding here, too.
The next week, Lovella called her from reception when David arrived. “Oh, and you should know there’s a meeting in the conference room.”
“But I booked it for this morning,” Laura protested. She had ignored Tom’s request.
“You been trumped by the Man.”
“I’ll be right down.” She grabbed her coat, purse, and notebook, then galloped down the stairs. David was standing at the reception desk, talking with Lovella. Laura shot an angry look at the group in the conference room and saw Tom grin back at her. She controlled herself enough not to flip a bird at him then said to David, “How about we go for a walk today? I’ll buy you a Coke and we’ll talk.”
“That’s okay, Dr. Laura. The Little Ones say they’ll be all right in your office now that they know who you are.”
Barriers were coming down with her client if not with her boss. She hated having to clamber back up the stairs, humiliated by Tom’s pleasure in besting her. But she reminded herself that this was about David, not about her. So back up the stairs she went. David took a seat in her office while she put her purse in her desk drawer and hung her coat on the back of the door. Then she looked at him, indicating the door with her hand, “Okay?”
He nodded, and Laura shut it. She took her seat, turned toward him and began, “I’m sorry about the conference room. We don’t always see eye to eye, but Mr. McC –”
“Fucker doesn’t know his head from his dick.” David’s face was a mask of anger.
Startled, Laura said, “Well, you needn’t worry about him, David. I can –”
“Who you calling David? I’m not that pussy.”
Laura’s heart beat a little faster. She’d heard lectures about it, read about it, but … “Then who are you?”
“I’m Weasel. I speak for the Defenders. The others don’t do shit without my say so.” Weasel seemed to take more space, as if David had puffed himself up.
The hair on the back of Laura’s neck stiffened. “Where is David?”
Other than sitting right here in front of me. Holy shit!
“He’s taking a little time out.” Weasel’s face was far more animated than David’s. He leaned back and sprawled his legs out in front of him, balls forward. A challenging posture. Sure of himself. Macho.
“Is he being punished?”
“He should have slapped that fucking boss of yours from here to Toledo.” Weasel bared his teeth, an expression totally alien on David’s mild countenance.
Laura fought the instinct to back away. “No! There will be no threats to any member of this staff.”
Including me. Especially me.
“Yeah. That last do-gooder was a pussy, too,” Weasel said, appearing disgusted.
“Do you mean Sarah?” Laura asked while her head was saying wait, just a minute, give me time to process this.
“That’s the one. She was scared of the prick, too.” Weasel/David removed a toothpick from his shirt pocket and began to chew on it. “Some of the Forum liked her, though.”
“What is the Forum?”
For the next half hour, Weasel the Defender spun a tale bizarre enough for The Twilight Zone. Almost none of it had been in Sarah’s notes. It was electrifying for Laura, like watching one man play different roles.
Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde. Eve, here are your three faces.
Laura learned that David and Sarah had developed the Forum together. It was a senate inside David with three representatives of different personality types called the White Hats, the Little Ones, and the Defenders. Together, through bickering, wheedling, and bullying, they held sway over David, the host who most often faced the public. Any of the others could take over, make him feel pain or keep him from it.
“That last mindfucker said we have to keep the pussy safe, or we’re all in danger.”
“That last mindfucker was right.” Laura heard nothing but Weasel. Not the clock, not people in the hall, not the fan oscillating through its slow pattern. Nothing existed for her but David and, well, whomever.
“Now that Sarah left us, I could kill him for all she cares.” Weasel spat the toothpick into Laura’s wastebasket.
“That’s not true. You all still need to take care of David. There’s only one body. Kill him and you all die.”
Kill? Die? What am I saying?
“Who has to take care of me?” David asked, his body gathering into a less pugnacious posture and his facial features returning to benign. “Which one are you talking to?”
“David?” Laura asked, her voice the least bit unsteady.
“Of course it’s me.” David smiled. “You better be careful, Dr. Laura, or people will think you’re as crazy as I am.”
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