The big chair nearly swallows me as I sit back against the cushions. My hands smooth over the supple leather. The feel of the cool upholstery sends a deep shiver through me, deep enough that Dr. Hoffman doesn't notice. My eyes drift shut and I imagine the soft leather cuffs around my wrists and ankles.
"Detective Tennyson?" Hoffman's voice pierces my languid thoughts. Her voice is slightly nasal with that calm, controlled undertone that every psych student learns before receiving their fancy printed certificate declaring them fit to heal minds—warped minds, lost minds, broken minds. My mind doesn't fit neatly into one but all three.
I open my eyes. Hoffman, a woman who could be forty or fifty, her lack of expression makes it hard to know, is wearing a bright pink scarf that doesn't go with the rest of her tightly conservative look, a straw colored pantsuit and hair pulled so severely into a ponytail it pulls her eyes up at the corner. In the dull confines of her office, she seems the quintessential psychiatrist, stone faced, non-judgmental, never a hair out of place, but something tells me, at home she struts around in faded sweatpants, snapping gum loudly while she sips beer from a bottle.
I tilt my head at her. "I'll bet that hair band comes out the second you walk those sensible shoes through your front door."
Hoffman smiles in response and adjusts the yellow notepad on her lap. "Detective Tennyson—" She starts again but pauses. "Should I call you Tennyson or Angie?" Another pause and she seems to have a moment of awkward shyness before speaking again. "Or may I call you Ten? I understand that's what they call you—"
"Whatever works for you," I say, but think having her call me Ten, my nickname on the force, will sound strained.
"I like Angie," she says seemingly satisfied about reaching a decision. "I once had a friend named Angie. We used to spend every Friday night at each other's houses watching movies and talking about boys." Hoffman wiggles her bottom some before sitting back farther on the chair. Her moment of childhood reverie ends abruptly, and she lobs the first zinger.
"Tell me about the Lace Underground, Angie."
My pulse skips into overdrive. After two nightmarish months of withdrawals followed by a month of what was lightly referred to as debriefing, weeks of having details and memories squeezed from my mind like water wrung from a dishtowel, I was finally free to discuss the Underground. I'd waited for the day as much as I'd dreaded it. And it seemed that inside Hoffman's outdated office with its green walls, tan carpeting and floral drapes, that day had arrived.
Only now, I wasn't ready for it. I wasn't ready to peel that sore open again.
I glance around. "Your office reminds me of my Aunt Clara's house, the way it looked when I was a kid." I rub the soles of my shoes over the rug. "Her carpet was the same color." I look up expecting to see disappointment in her expression. It's there but still behind the stone mask. "Her walls were the same green. Only she had this really creepy collection of ceramic clowns sitting on a shelf. She loved those things." Hoffman waits for me to continue, so I do, happy to have the earlier topic dropped. "One day my cousin, Lori, and I were using pillows as shields. We were beautiful princesses moonlighting as brave knights, and we were in hot pursuit of a dragon. The couch was our drawbridge. Lori threw her shield at our invisible prey and Phinneas the Clown, my aunt's favorite, naturally, shot off the shelf and broke into a million pieces. My cousin broke down in sobs, so I took the heat for it."
"That was valiant of you," she says and makes a note of something on her pad.
I shrug. "I was playing the part of a brave knight. Guess it rubbed off."
"Do you still see your cousin?"
"She stopped chasing dragons and started chasing boys. Literally." I drum my fingers on the arm of the chair, a habit I inherited from my dad. "She followed her boyfriend to Alaska. She's happy, I guess. As happy as you can be in a place where it's either windy, snowing or dark."
More light scribbles on her notepad. I wonder briefly if she's just doodling. I sure would be with the boring shit I'm bringing up.
Hoffman takes a not so sneaky peek at the small timer she has on the table. She's like everyone else. It's a job and she's waiting to go home and yank on those sweatpants and pull that cold beer from the fridge.
"Tell me more about your family," she says. "You have three brothers, right?"
We are at the prying into the family connections part of the session. I'm good with it. Better than other subjects.
"Luke and Keith are older than me, and Everett is twenty-four, one year younger."
"Do you see them much?" She stops and seems to wish she could pull the question back in. But she is a pro. She recovers. "Of course I mean before this." Her recovery is rougher than I expect. "Since before you went on assignment," she adds unnecessarily.
"They live in different states with families and jobs. I see them and Mom at Christmas."
She reflects so long over each question, it makes me feel like a fragile porcelain doll. It annoys the hell out of me.
"Your dad died when you were fourteen?" she asks, again unnecessarily.
"Yes." I stare blankly back at her, and she gazes back expectantly. I grin faintly to let her know that my answer is complete.
Hoffman's lip twitches the tiniest bit in disappointment. She regroups by shuffling her notepad and tapping her chin with her pen.
"Let's get back to my first question. What can you tell me about the Lace Underground?"
I fiddle with the zipper on my sweatshirt and sense that Hoffman is getting impatient. I lift my face to her. She has hazel eyes. They are bloodshot around the edges. I wonder if she's been binge watching something after work hours, when she's lounging in her gray sweatpants and eating microwave popcorn. Game of Thrones or Gilmore Girls, I want to ask but decide against it. After talking to broken people like me all day, I'd opt for Gilmore Girls.
I rest my elbow on the soft leather arm of the chair and lean my temple against my fist. "Dr. Hoffman, do you go to church?"
"I did as a child," she answers smoothly, like a professional who, no doubt, gets silly off tangent questions all day. "Why do you ask?"
I drop my supportive fist away and sit forward, now resting my forearms on my thighs. I've dropped so much weight my muscular legs look like skeleton bones wrapped in faded denim. I look at my twiggy thighs for a second and then continue. "You asked me about the Underground," I say calmly but a silent storm is surging in my chest. "Close your eyes," I command politely and am more than surprised when she complies.
"Think about being that little girl in church. Remember how they drilled the concept of purgatory into your innocent, impressionable mind. A terrible, horrible place void of hope, a hot burning pit so bleak, the despair, anguish and regret would consume you. A place so hideous it kept you from peeking at your neighbor's math test for an answer and made you rethink sticking your chewing gum under the theater seat. Do you have the place in your head, Dr. Hoffman?"
It seems her skin is a shade lighter. Her lashes flutter dark and restless against her ivory cheeks. She nods almost imperceptibly.
"At the same time you think about hell, visualize heaven, the place the Sunday School teacher insists will open its pearly gates to all who earn it. A place where every fantasy comes true and every desire is satisfied. A place that feels safe and where the only emotion is heightened pleasure. A place where you can feel like you belong even if you have no idea why."
I take a deep breath. She mirrors mine with a breath of her own.
The sudden silence prompts her to open her eyes.
"You asked what the Lace Underground is like. That's your answer."
Hoffman discretely picks up her pen and scribbles quickly, almost frantically to catch up. There are a few beads of sweat on her upper lip that weren't there seconds earlier. She absently wipes at them with the back of her hand.
"What about Kane Freestone?"
It is only a three syllable concoction of letters, but it sends pulses of electricity through my bones, my muscles. I hide the twitch in my cheek by allowing my hair to fall forward on my face.
"What about him?" My voice sounds tweaked, unnatural. Hoffman catches it too.
"Any thoughts?" she says with a shrug as if asking me to comment on the weather or the color of her suit.
The words spin around in my head before I can straighten them into coherent phrases. But I need to talk. The sooner I talk, the quicker she signs my release to get back to work. And I need work. "He was a twisted monster. I hated him as much as I couldn't live without him. He made me feel dirty and wrong . . . and desired and loved. At that time, during those months in Lace Underground, he was the center and soul of my existence. And as stone cold and heartless as he was, I think I was his center. I was the soul of his existence." The unfamiliar tone coming from my throat stuns the doctor more than me. Maybe she isn't the utter, complete pro I gave her credit for.
I have her undivided attention, so undivided that I'm sure a six-eyed alien could walk through the room and she wouldn't flinch. She doesn't dare stop to take notes. Her lips part with anticipation as she waits for me to continue.
I search but there is nothing more. My head shakes weakly. Hoffman sits back hard as if she finally releases a breath she's been holding for days.
"What about the serum?" Her neatly drawn brows scrunch as she looks for a different word. "The elixir?
"The drug?" In the Lace Underground it was called 'nectar', but after several grueling months of detox, I came to the easy conclusion it was nothing more than a drug. No science degree necessary.
Hoffman flips over a page of her notebook and runs her finger along a handwritten list. She looks up expectantly.
"If you have a copy of what I said about it, why are you asking me?" I sound snippy but can't stop myself. It's all right, I tell myself. She knows I'm only here to get my badge back.
"I wanted to hear it from you."
"Nectar," I say wryly, "leaves you in an emotional dead zone. No inhibitions, no happiness and, more importantly, no sadness. But internally—" Heat rises in my cheeks and I flush thinking about it. I press my hands between my knees worried I might instinctively rub them over my crotch. My pussy moistens at the thought of it. "Internally, it's as if every nerve in your body is working in overdrive. Every physical sensation is magnified by a thousand. It's like an explosion taking place inside a bomb shelter." My head starts to hurt. I reach up and rub my temple. The common gesture startles the good doctor.
"Do you need something? Water or I can open a window?"
"No, just a small headache."
She looks at her timer. This time more boldly. "We're almost through for the day." The way she purses her mouth gives me fair warning that another zinger is about to be lobbed my direction. She was ripping off the bandages quickly, maybe hoping that would move things along faster.
"How did you feel when you saw your partner?" She glanced down to get his name. "Detective James Maddox?" She says his name with crisp precision. "What was that moment like?"
The pain in my head gets sharper. I sigh, hoping to relieve the pressure building in my temple. "Ache," I say quietly. My voice is more normal now but the edge of sorrow can't be missed. "Pain and hurt so intense it could never be healed."
"So when you saw Detective Maddox, you felt a terrible ache?"
I blink at her, sitting on her tufted leather sofa seemingly forgetting about my description of the drug.
"Me? I'm talking about Maddox." I was drugged out of my mind but that moment in time was still etched in my memory like a carving in a marble statue, hard and permanent. "I felt lost. I felt it through every bone in my body."
Dr. Hoffman rubs her temple now.
I smile. "Guess it's catching." I wonder if she goes to a therapist herself. Or maybe beer and Gilmore Girls are all she needs to recharge for her next work day.
Hoffman nods and drops her hand quickly. "Yes, it seems so. One last question that I hope will give us a place to start next time we meet." She reads her notes and then peers up at me. "You volunteered for a highly dangerous undercover assignment. Up until that time, you and your partner had won several medals for bringing down a large drug cartel along with three of the top local drug dealers. You were busy on the streets. What was it that prompted you to go undercover on the Lace Underground sting operation?"
The day I volunteered seems so long ago, as if an eternity has passed since then. But it is still clear and sharp in my chest. "Disappointment compounded by a mega dose of heartbreak."
Hoffman waits patiently for me to elaborate but the pain in my head says we are done. She reads my expression and jots down a few notes before smiling up at me.
"Disappointment and heartbreak. That's where we'll start next time. Good session, Angie."