Doctor Jasper Embry wrote on his clipboard, keeping an eye on the corner where Zacharias Adams stood. The large man would have appeared menacing to anybody who wasn’t acquainted with him, but the doctor knew better. The dark eyes were locked on him, and he nodded to reassure his patient, who didn’t relax. Instead, his attention went to a tall, thin man as he walked into the room, his gaze sharp and slightly hostile; he didn’t even grace Zacharias with a glance.
“Dr. Embry,” he greeted, his British accent clipped and neat around the edges. “I hope I am not too early.”
“Not at all, Christopher!” Dr. Embry said, shaking his head. “Just go and settle wherever you like. I brought a few books for you to read. They’re over on that table.”
Christopher strode over to the books, perusing his options, then picked up one that took a Ph.D. in psychology to understand. Zacharias watched the man sit down and flip through the pages, recalling looking over the books just a few minutes earlier. He’d mentioned to Dr. Embry that the words scrunched together, stringing letters around in unpredictable patterns, all while in neat little rows that scolded him.
“You should be able to read! You’re old enough to read, stupid!” he’d muttered to himself with a pained expression.
The good doctor had listened with a compassionate expression, placing his hand on the broad shoulder to comfort his patient. The large man shrugged him off then meticulously arranged the books as they had been before retreating to his corner. The dark-skinned male always did best when he could watch first, just as he had been taught.
“Study the situation first, Zach. See if you can figure out where you stand before going forward and saying ‘hi,’” his best friend had told him during one of their sessions.
Preoccupied with watching Zacharias slowly puzzle through his thoughts, Dr. Embry didn’t notice the teenager with fiery hair until she was in the middle of the room looking around with pursed lips. Her gaze seemed to skip right over the large man in the corner, just as Christopher’s had. Which is good, Dr. Embry thought. Gives him a chance to see who he’s going to meet.
When Zacharias shook his head, indicating that he didn’t want to be announced, Dr. Embry turned to greet her. “Flora, how are you?”
The girl shrugged, and the doctor scanned her almost too-thin, yet well-muscled frame, noticing her face was guarded. When nothing else was said, she strode to the side of the room with no furniture and began to do some of her martial arts stances, her katas flowing effortlessly. The psychologist focused on his large, silent patient again, noting that Zacharias was interested in her smooth movements before the sound of more footsteps caused his head to rotate back to the door.
The large man wilted in disappointment when, instead of his friend, a man with wild black hair walked in. He regarded the room suspiciously, muttering to himself as his eyes darted around, as if he were looking for something. His face contorted and a short, surprised noise escaped him when the psychologist touched him.
“Shh, easy, Phin. Easy. It’s only me,” Dr. Embry said. “How are you feeling today?”
The man spoke in a low, frantic voice, leaning close, as if afraid somebody else might hear. “Ting says he’s going to kill me, and Zee Zee thinks I should kill you, Marti is trying to mediate, and you look like you’re going to hurt me!”
“You know you’re hallucinating?” the doctor asked.
“Somewhere in my mind. It’s hard to tell what’s real, but I’m trying to be calm,” came his shaky reply.
“I can tell, and you’re doing well. Just go curl up in that chair over there, listen to your music, and breathe. We’re waiting for a few more people, then we’ll get to introductions.”
While they had been talking, two more teenagers walked in, a male and a female. The pudgy, almond-eyed girl yelped as she hit a table, rubbing her sore leg while her equally pudgy twin laughed.
“Lyle! Lilly!” Dr. Embry exclaimed, sending the twitching man away to a chair. “Good to see that you’ve made it.”
“Mother said to tell you that pickup’s at seven this evening,” Lilly said, refusing to meet the man’s eyes. “She’s going to take us to the horse ranch tomorrow and we have to get enough sleep. I get to see Shadow and Starlight and Frenchie again! Frenchie was so little the last time I saw her, but Mr. Marvin says she’s grown a lot! I’ll get to feed her and ride her around the yard! She’s a blue roan with such a pretty coat, and I’m bringing a carrot just for her!”
“Sounds like fun,” Dr. Embry said with a nod. “And you, Lyle? Learn anything new?”
Lyle kept his eyes on the floor, just as his sister had. “I saw an old Pontiac Firebird today,” he said, then began listing the details.
The doctor nodded politely, his attention focused on the door even as he tried to seem interested. He nodded in greeting when a young man appeared. Cheeks pink, the slightly overweight man was reluctant to interrupt the conversation, and he ducked his head. He slunk by the doctor and the twins, hiding his face behind a book when he was looked at by Christopher, who promptly ignored him again.
Dr. Embry managed to interrupt the eager description of another old car that Lyle had seen two days prior, sending the twins to a table. They pulled out paper and pencils then lost themselves in their own worlds. The doctor went over and patted the newest arrival on the shoulders, leaning down to whisper to him for a moment.
“Thanks for coming, Alex. You okay?”
A nervous smile was all the psychologist got in return before another man strode in. He was clearly older than most of the others, besides Christopher. He was lean with startling blue eyes. Dark rings surrounded them, and he looked exhausted.
“Devon!” Dr. Embry exclaimed. “I’m so glad you made it! Did you work last night?”
“Got about four hours of sleep between the end of my shift and when I needed to leave to get here,” the man replied with a yawn. “I’m here, though.”
“Excellent! Go lay on the couch, try to rest. We’re only waiting for one more person.”
Five minutes later, the doctor was talking about the contents of the book Christopher was reading with his oldest patient, glancing up on occasion to check on Zacharias. As far as he knew, nobody had seen him. As he was considering whether or not to coax the large man out to socialize, more footsteps rang out.
Zacharias man announced himself loudly to the skinny male that walked in, and the rest of the patients looked over, surprised to see him and wondering how long he’d been there.
“Josh! You made it here!” the dark man stuttered, dashing out of his corner to his best friend and bouncing in place in excitement.
Joshua smiled, patting the taller man’s arm. “Yeah, Zach, I made it. Had to finish my shift at the restaurant then ran home to change. I see you made it all right. Take the bus?”
Zacharias nodded emphatically, struggling to produce the words he needed that would convey his jumbled mess of thoughts.
“Seventy-two had a tire lateness-thing but three-seventeen came and took us off to Poppin’s, where God cried, but I didn’t dry too slow, and…and…”
The man faltered when he realized that everybody else was staring at him. His dark face darkened further in embarrassment, and he looked away, anger etching into his sharp features.
The new arrival glared at everybody else as he spoke carefully. “So, your bus was late because of a flat tire, so another was scheduled to come and pick you up?”
“Yeah,” Zacharias muttered, glancing over at his friend. Dr. Embry observed the group, reaching for his clipboard.
“The bus dropped you off Popinjay Park, where you got rained on, but not too badly?”
“I’m dry now. Short walk here and the red man made me sign something. I couldn’t…you know.” Zacharias gestured in front of him in a vague manner, but Joshua understood.
“Red man?” Alexander asked.
“That would be Reggie, wouldn’t it?” Lyle asked, his tone absent.
“He is wearing red today,” Lilly agreed. “Red hat with a stiff brim, long red coat to keep out the wind with two sets of fourteen buttons, one column fake. Dark slacks with a stain on the left knee, probably from coffee, and dress shoes buffed to perfection.”
“He was in a rush this morning and he forgot to send in that pair of pants for dry cleaning, so he had to make do,” Dr. Embry replied as he took notes, barely glancing up.
“He made me sign something, too,” the half-crazed man said, his fingers drumming on his thigh. “I couldn’t concentrate over the voices, so I didn’t read it.”
“It was a statement saying that you consent to this study,” Christopher said, looking over all of them with distaste clear in his eyes. “It was a release of information to the group, and it listed the days that we’re to come in and interact as a group, the days we’re to have our brains scanned, and the days where we come in one on one and talk about our group experiences.”
“Brain scan?” Flora demanded.
“Yes, Flora, you signed permission for brain scans,” Dr. Embry said. “You will do activities while being scanned that will show us where your brains light up so we can know how they’re different than other people’s.”
“But I have a normal brain!”
“Then why are you here?” Christopher asked, his expression cold.
“Stop!” the doctor exclaimed, sensing the danger. He gestured toward the ring of seats. “Introductions first! Sit, facing inward, and we’ll talk. This is our first session, so let’s keep it simple.”
Everyone sat. Zacharias scooted his chair closer to Joshua, his expression defensive. He clearly didn’t like all these new people. Dr. Embry took note: the group had stared at him funny when he’d spoken, and they had given Joshua an even stranger look when his friend had translated his speech in that almost magical way he could. Naturally, Zacharias would be defensive of his best friend.
The psychologist finished writing and tapped his pen against his clipboard as he began. “As all of you know very well, I am Dr. Embry. I’m in charge of this study, and I will be making careful notes about all of your interactions. There are cameras here so that I can look back on everything, and the microphones in here could pick up a fly sneezing.”
“Flies don’t sneeze, they vomit,” Lyle interrupted.
“That was a metaphor, Lyle,” was his patient reply. “I meant that the microphones can pick up almost any noise, so if you mutter, as Christopher tends to mutter, there is a very good chance that I’ll know what you say.”
“Oh. Okay,” the boy said, placated for the moment.
“Now for your introductions. Please list your name and what you have been diagnosed with, a special skill or two, something that interests you, and, let’s say, your favorite song. Who will go first?”
Nobody moved as suspicious glances were thrown around. The wild-haired man stood after a moment, twitching.
“I’m Phineas, but everybody calls me Phin,” he said, his eyes staring at an empty spot; he looked ready to bolt. “I’m a Schizophrenic and—”
“Do you hear things that aren’t said?” Lilly gasped. “Do you see things that aren’t there?”
Dr. Embry flinched inwardly, watching Phineas in case he needed help.
“Are you seeing them now?”
“I-I think so…”
“What do they look like?”
“Lilly!” Dr. Embry snapped as Phineas swallowed and shrank in on himself. “You will wait for your turn, and you will not ask those kinds of questions right now.”
The girl sank back, looking properly scolded. Lyle patted her hand, and she jerked away, hugging herself as she began rocking.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Lilly, but it isn’t your turn,” the doctor said. “You must wait your turn.”
“Yes, sir,” she muttered.
“Good, now you were saying, Phin?”
“I don’t know. I forgot.”
His grey eyes lit up. “Oh! I’m good at drawing!” He dove into his backpack and pulled out a sketchpad. After flipping through a few pages, he held up a picture of a black dog with red eyes. “See? This is something I’ve seen before. I call him Sam. Sometimes he stares at me when I’m in bed, but only when I’m having an episode.”
Lilly looked up and reached out to take hold of the pad, but Phineas drew back. “Um, I don’t let people touch my book.”
“I’ll let you see mine,” she said, pulling out a piece of paper and holding it out.
There were a few seconds of hesitation before Phineas handed it over and took her drawing. It was a horse, and it was very well done.
“This is pretty,” he said, trying to hand it back as he reached out to take his drawing pad.
“Some of these are scary,” she said, her excitement subdued as she turned the pages. “You see them?”
“Yes…” His fingers twitched, and he began to look distressed, so Dr. Embry spoke.
“Give Phineas his book back, Lilly. He wants it back.”
Lilly’s gaze shot over to the man, clearly surprised, but she gave Phineas the sketchpad. He checked it for damage then stashed it carefully back in his bag.
“What else am I supposed to say?” he asked, glancing at the doctor.
“What interests you and your favorite song,” Christopher said, crossing his arms and looking at the ceiling, his irritation almost palpable.
“I like musicals all right,” Phineas replied. “My favorite song is from a musical. It’s called ‘Quiet.’ It makes me feel like I’m not so different.”
“I like that song. What’s your favorite part?” Zacharias queried.
“It’s all right, Phineas. We’re all safe,” Dr. Embry encouraged.
“O-okay, I guess.” He thought for a moment then attempted to begin. After stuttering out a line about something seeming right in a way, Phineas went quiet and closed his eyes. He shook his head, hands twitching toward his ears as his face colored. “I can’t remember right now. The voices are screaming at me.”
Zacharias shifted then continued where the Schizophrenic left off, singing in a clear, perfect voice about answers coming unbidden and stories fully written, about how everybody shouts and how loud the noises in his head were. Then suddenly, his voice became soft as he sang about quiet and how he couldn’t hear the voices anymore, even though their mouths are moving. When he spoke about
He stopped singing at a gesture from his doctor, who nodded at Phineas.
“Is that it, Phineas?”
“Yes,” Phineas replied then glanced at the large man. “I can’t believe you know the song.”
Dr. Embry smiled. “Zacharias is very special, and he knows lots of songs of all sorts. Why don’t you go next, Zach?”
His patient shook his head, his eyes darting away from everybody’s faces. Joshua patted his arm and gave an encouraging smile, so he stood up and began to mumble.
“Zach Adams.” He paused, looking desperate.
“You are diagnosed with?” Joshua asked.
“Mozart’s concerto number five.”
“Done,” Joshua said, and Zacharias dropped back onto the chair, glowering at nothing. He was so obviously embarrassed, and the rest of the group were staring at him, which was something he loathed.
“All right, Josh, what about you?” Dr. Embry asked, rapping his pen on the clipboard.
Joshua stood up. “I am Joshua Wallace, and I have Bipolar Disorder. I am a skilled writer, and I’m interested in completing my newest novel. My favorite song changes with my mood, but right now it is ‘Bird with a Broken Wing’ by Owl City.”
He sat beside Zacharias, who smiled reverently at him. Dr. Embry knew that he wished he was more like Joshua when it came to talking. The younger man gave him that smile that told him he was accepted, and he relaxed a little.
“Who’s next?” Dr. Embry queried, flipping to a new page to take even more notes.
Lilly and Lyle glanced at each other then got to their feet. They were agitated by the eyes, and Dr. Embry noticed their stimming behaviors: Lilly was flapping her hands as she spoke, and Lyle was pinching and rubbing his earlobe. No doubt the others saw it, too, but they said nothing about it.
The girl spoke first. “My name is Lilly Thompson, and this is Lyle, my twin.”
“We have Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of high-functioning autism,” Lyle continued. “I am interested in science and math, and my sister likes art.”
“We do schoolwork, and we are good at what we are interested in,” the girl added. “My favorite song is ‘All About That Bass.’”
“Why?” Flora asked, her face blank.
“I like the song,” she replied.
“It’s inappropriate,” Christopher argued.
“I like the song,” she insisted, getting more agitated.
“And what is your favorite song, Lyle?” Dr. Embry asked over Christopher’s muttered curse, trying to keep the room calm.
“‘Long Black Train.’ It has trains in it.”
“And that’s a reason to like a song?” Christopher demanded.
“Enough!” Dr. Embry barked, silencing everybody. “Now, Christopher, it’s your turn.”
Christopher stood up, glaring at the corner. “I am Christopher Tyler Jennings, and if you call me Chris, I will personally kill you.”
“Christopher,” the doctor warned.
After rolling his eyes, the man continued. “I enjoy psychology, and I have a degree in it. I love my pets, and they are better than you humans in every way. My favorite song is none of your concern.”
“Christopher, please, socialize!” Dr. Embry begged, frustrated by his long-time patient.
With that, the man took his seat and continued to glare at nothing.
“What are you diagnosed with?” Devon asked.
“I’m a Schizoid.”
“You have Schizophrenia, too?” Phineas asked, nearly standing in his excitement.
“No! I am not crazy!” Christopher shouted, eyes blazing. “I have a personality disorder!”
“That explains a lot,” Joshua muttered, and Christopher turned his steely gaze on him.
“What does that mean?”
“I’m not crazy!” Phineas exclaimed, tears in his eyes.
Dr. Embry stood and tried to mediate the chaos. The twins covered their ears and squeezed their eyes shut, rocking back and forth. The slightly overweight man pulled out what looked to be a bottle of water and opened it. Joshua gagged.
“Is that vodka?” he demanded, and the room froze. The man blushed, hiding the bottle behind his back as Dr. Embry frowned at him.
“Give it here, Alex.”
“Just one drink?”
“No. Give it up.”
The doctor took the bottle away and went to pour it down the water fountain. Alexander had a pained expression on his face as he stood.
“I’m Alexander Evans, and I have an Alcohol Dependence. I’m not good at anything, I don’t like anything, and I don’t have a favorite song.”
He sat down and hugged himself as the bottle was thrown away.
“I’m sorry you feel like you need to drink, Alexander,” Devon said. “Why is that?”
“I’m shy when I’m not drinking.”
“I like shy people.”
Alexander glanced over and a small smile appeared. “What are you in for?”
“Depression. I’m Dr. Devon Brown, but you can call me Dev. I’ve got a Ph.D. in medical practices with an emphasis in emergency room care. I’m interested in helping people feel better, and my favorite song is Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ simply because it represents reality in a way that most songs don’t.”
Dr. Embry nodded. “Thank you, Devon. Flora? Your turn.”
The girl stood up. “I am Flora Rose. I don’t belong here.”
“Flora,” the doctor huffed.
“Fine, I’m Bulimic.”
“What’s that?” Alexander asked.
“She overeats then purges,” Christopher answered, his tone dismissive.
“Only recently!” Flora growled. “I usually exercise. I’ve got several black belts.”
“Favorite song?” Zacharias asked in a low voice.
“‘Reflection’ from Mulan.”
Zacharias began humming it, fingers twitching as he played an invisible instrument. Joshua patted his arm, smiling again. The dark-haired man nodded at him but continued to ‘play’ the song.
“We’ll have to get some instruments in here for you, Zach,” Dr. Embry said thoughtfully. “Now, what do we want to talk about next?”