San Francisco, USA – Tuesday, the 5th of June, 2012. 10:30 AM.
“Come in!” Carol Clarence called out in response to the knock at the door. She quickly skimmed through the notes she’d taken during previous counseling sessions with her client, the keywords marked with pink highlighter.
Among all the challenges she’d been tasked with to date, Christina Chung was probably among the top three. And it didn’t help that she was crunched for time. Instead of the usual six months to a year, Mr. Turner wanted the girl fit for service within a few weeks. And how could the Wardens therapist say no to the Secretary of Evolved Affairs?
As usual, the client took her time opening the door and stepping through. Granted, she didn’t hesitate nearly as long as she had for the first couple of sessions. But the speed at which she presented herself at her therapy sessions was still next to glacial.
Oppositional defiant disorder, maybe. Or perhaps insecurity? Mrs. Clarence thought. Uncomfortable with her role as a future Warden, but always careful not to be overtly insolent. Most likely insecurity.
The girl finally stepped through the doorway wearing the same hooded sweatshirt as always. She changed her sweat pants frequently enough, but the sweater held some kind of significance that Mrs. Clarence hadn’t been able to identify yet. The introductory session had revealed an emotional connection to a young student named Ryan, but any attempts at getting to the bottom of it resulted in sullen silence.
“Good morning, Christina,” Mrs. Clarence offered, hoping to inspire a positive mood. As always, she infused her voice with a cheerful ring regardless of her own feelings.
“Morning,” the girl replied, curt as usual.
She took her time taking in the small office, looking around to detect any suspicious changes that might have been made since their last session. Her almond-shaped eyes flickered over the hardwood floor, the African landscape photographs, and the two opposing white armchairs, one of which was occupied by the therapist.
The client’s eyes briefly settled on the small table with the tissue box that sat between the chairs. The box was standard equipment. Some clients appreciated having tissues at hand when the questions started to touch on more personal issues.
But Christina Chung had yet to reach that point.
It was unfortunate, really. Mrs. Clarence suspected that the therapy would progress more smoothly if the girl would let go of her built-up emotional baggage. She had detached herself from it, though — a common coping mechanism that ran the risk of harmful long-term effects.
In Christina’s case, the emotional barrier was extensive enough to suspect an influence by her powers.
It isn’t all that surprising that such an exceedingly withdrawn teenager has acquired a shielding power, she determined.
The government therapist maintained her smile, waiting for her client to take the initiative to sit down in the opposing armchair. Responds poorly to explicit advice or encouragement, she’d noted on her writing pad a few days ago.
After a few seconds, the girl stepped forward and sat down in the chair next to the window, crossing her arms over her chest and giving her counselor a sullen look. As usual, she didn’t offer any greeting. The unfortunate events leading to her temporary confinement had left her with hard feelings directed at the US government and the Covenant, Mrs. Clarence knew. Unfortunately, the counselor hadn’t been able to hasten her release.
“How are you today, Christina?”
The client shrugged, eyes glued to the window.
“Did anything come to mind since our last chat? Anything you feel is important?”
“Not really,” the girl replied, still avoiding eye contact.
Mrs. Clarence poised her pen to scribble a note. Lack of self-reflection, or prefers not to share it. When she looked up, she noticed that Christina was watching the ballpoint’s movement across the paper with a skeptical frown.
Mrs. Clarence resisted the urge to ask about it. She’d already learned that the girl responded just as poorly to obvious attempts at ‘psychoanalyzing,’ as she called it, as she did to direct encouragement.
The train of thought sparked an idea, however.
“Let’s try something different today,” Mrs. Clarence suggested, setting the pen down on the armrest. “You ask the questions, and I’ll answer them. Ask anything that comes to mind. There are some questions I’d prefer not to answer, but I don’t have many of those.”
The girl’s eyes widened a fraction and the frown disappeared from her face. Mrs. Clarence was pleased by her reaction. It showed real emotion for once.
Perhaps we’ll make better progress by breaking the usual pattern.
“Go ahead. Shoot.”
“Um . . .” Christina droned. This was followed by a stretch of silence that lasted a good half minute. She brought the fingers of one hand up to her face, eyes never leaving her counselor as she rubbed her cheek.
Her usual gesture of insecurity, the therapist noted in her head. The girl was used to smoking cigarettes, perhaps this was a holdover.
Christina finally found her voice. “What exactly are you hoping to achieve with this reverse questioning thing?” she asked, unfurling her arms and lowering them from her chest.
Mrs. Clarence interpreted the shift in the girl’s body language as a crack in her defenses. It gave her hope that she might finally find a way through today.
“I want you to be comfortable, and I’d like to get a conversation going,” Mrs. Clarence said.
“Okay, whatever. Do you have a family?” the girl asked.
The fact that she’d brought up family before any other subject was quite telling.
“Two cats, a former husband whom I’m still on good terms with, and a lovely mother who’s fit enough to be hiking in the Grand Canyon right now,” Mrs. Clarence said. “No children. Two brothers who live overseas, both of whom are married to European women.”
“Is your dad dead?” Christina’s voice didn’t reflect much in the way of emotion or true interest, but for once she didn’t hesitate.
Has the ability to show an interest in other people, despite a few symptoms hinting at autism, the therapist mentally noted. She would have to have a follow-up chat with the girl’s mother after the session.
If this is a recent change, it may have been triggered by her power classification. Varying personality changes had been confirmed in multiple post-transition cases, though often associated with extreme classification variants.
“Yes, my father passed away,” Mrs. Clarence said, answering Christina’s question.
“Oh. Sorry for bringing it up.” The girl rubbed her face.
“That’s alright. Death is a part of life. My father suffered a stroke while hiking a few years ago, in a fairly isolated area. The emergency crew wasn’t able to revive him.”
“How did you cope with that?” the girl asked. “The loss, I mean.”
Searching for ways to deal with her feelings, though any help needs to be accepted on her own terms.
“Not very well. At least, not right away,” Mrs. Clarence said. “I had a close relationship with my father. He always encouraged me to stand my ground and face any hardship head on. That it was okay to get an average result, so long as I was comfortable with it.” She saw an opening and went for it. “Sometimes it’s okay not to cope, Christina. To break down and let it all out, and then recover later.”
To break down your barrier and let yourself be vulnerable. To trust someone.
“Family dying sucks,” Christina said, turning her face to look out the window. There was a distant look to her dark brown eyes, but both hands remained at her sides.
“It does,” Mrs. Clarence agreed.
She let the conversation hang in the air, hoping for the girl to pick it back up. When the client didn’t do her the favor, she decided to seize the moment and drive the advantage.
“Do you feel ready to talk about your little brother? Dylan?”
The girl’s features hardened and her fingers twitched on the armchair. Still, she didn’t shut down. Not completely.
Struggling to maintain autonomy in the presence of authority. Needs to feel like she’s in control.
After a minute of silence, with Mrs. Clarence just waiting for her, Christina looked up and met her therapist’s gaze.
“You don’t pry much, for a psychiatrist,” she said. “Most people don’t let me have my space. They all try to push me one way or another.”
The therapist was gratified by the obvious step forward. Capable of true self-reflection and assessment of personal needs, she noted.
“I’m not a psychiatrist, Christina,” Mrs. Clarence said, her voice even. “I don’t have a degree in medicine, and I don’t prescribe medication. My mother wanted me to earn a medical degree, but I learned I was more comfortable in the role of a psychological counselor.”
The girl gave a nod, then straightened in her seat. “Could you, um, call me Chris? The people who call me Christina are usually too keen on being in charge. People like . . . your mom, I guess. Or my dad.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Clarence agreed with a cheerful note she didn’t need to fake. The offered token of trust represented a huge step forward.
She kept the smile on her face as she waited for the girl to pick up the conversation again. Hopefully this time, she would.
“Dylan was still a baby,” Christina said finally, turning her face away from the patch of sunlight that was streaming in through the window. “Helen wasn’t home, and my parents had gone out. They were still trusting me back then. At least sometimes.” She paused there, as if picking out each memory carefully.
Mrs. Clarence resisted the urge to reach for her pen. Watching the girl open up was like watching a creature in the wild; she didn’t want to do anything to spook her.
“I was watching a movie downstairs, and the baby alarm told me Dylan was awake. I wanted to have him with me for a little while. I liked holding him. He was the most . . . cuddly member of our family. He was always grabbing my fingers or pulling at my shirt. It was nice.”
Lack of affection from other family members? Real or perceived? She added another topic to her mental list of things to bring up on the phone with Mrs. Chung, though she’d have to tread carefully around this one.
The girl’s usual monotonous tone softened as she went on to describe the baby, his personality and likes.
“I went and picked him up from his crib and held him on my lap while I watched the movie,” Christina said. “There were some peanuts on the table, and he grabbed one of them. And I . . . I did notice, I just . . . I guess I just didn’t think much about it.”
Mrs. Clarence simply nodded. She’d sequestered a copy of the baby’s death certificate for her client’s file.
“Mom had asked me to let him sleep, so I put him back in his crib. He was still holding that peanut . . . he was squeezing it in his little fist. And I didn’t . . . I didn’t take it away. Stupid, I guess. Then I . . . I went back downstairs.”
Christina was clenching her hands into fists now. She had broken eye contact and was staring intently at the floor. The lines on her face were twisted in a multitude of creases unusual for someone so young.
Pathological guilt. Possible post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mrs. Clarence had to struggle to maintain a passive observer’s role.
“I didn’t hear anything over the baby alarm. Maybe . . . I don’t know. Maybe the movie was too loud or something. When my parents got back, they went right upstairs to check on him. And then Mom . . . she screamed . . . it was so loud . . . ”
The girl sucked in a deep breath and struggled to remain in control of her breathing. Mrs. Clarence just waited, not wanting to break the air of trust.
Christina had shrunk back in her seat and was struggling to hold back the tears. The minutes passed slowly before she was ready to pick up the story again.
“I never saw him. I was too scared to look. But they said he . . . they said that his little face was all blue. He’d swallowed that dumb peanut. I swear I didn’t hear anything. If I had, then I . . . I would have gone to look.” Her voice broke on the last few words, making them barely intelligible.
Carol Clarence couldn’t keep her distance any longer. It would have seemed needlessly cruel to further explore the details of the trauma just then. What her client needed right then was reassurance that this office was a safe place to explore her emotions.
The therapist leaned forward and plucked a tissue from the box on the table, then offered it to Christina.
The offering seemed to shatter the girl’s tentative confidence. She pushed the tissue aside and jumped to her feet.
She was already halfway to the door before Mrs. Clarence could react.
“You can’t keep running, Chris,” she said evenly. “Emily needs your support during the upcoming Wardens assignment.”
Mrs. Clarence was well aware that she’d just pulled out her trump card. It almost felt like cheating. It was the Warden’s young Empath, Emily, who had given her the crucial hint: Christina responded strongly to some Guardian classification role patterns, despite struggling against them. She had a weak spot for children in particular.
The counselor played the Emily card with mixed feelings. She wished she had the time she needed to properly support Christina through conventional methods, but the tight feeling in her chest didn’t change the fact that she was working within a very tight timeframe.
She didn’t know the reasons, but Mr. Turner’s face had told her more than his words when he’d given her the instructions.
The girl is to be ready for active service by the end of the month.
Christina stopped dead in the doorway, her fingers balled into clenched fists at her sides. “Why me? I never wanted this. I’m going to fuck it up, I just know it.” She kept her back turned to the counselor as she spoke.
I wish I could promise you that everything will turn out alright, Mrs. Clarence thought. But I can’t.
The therapist reached for her pen, just to have something to hold on to. She was good at her job because she could relate to her clients, but sometimes she found it hard to distance herself.
“Do you remember what I told you a few minutes ago? Failing is alright. It happens. As long as you do what you can manage, there’s no reason to feel like you’ve failed.”
“I failed my sister, too,” Christina murmured, as if talking to herself. “And most of those men at the mall.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Mrs. Clarence said gently. “Please, come sit down. We don’t have to talk about your brother any more if you don’t want to.”
This seemed to appease the girl because she returned to her armchair by the window and crossed her arms over her chest. “So what do you want to talk about? The weather?” She glared out the window.
“How about we talk a little bit more about your powers and how they work? There’s still a lot I’d like to ask you.”
She uncrossed her arms but didn’t take her stare from the window. “Like what?”
Mrs. Clarence took the opening. “Like, could you describe your relationship with your sister, Helen? Anything that seems significant.”
Christina winced at the question. “How is that supposed to explain my powers, exactly?”
“Helen was a big part of your transition, wasn’t she?”
Christina rubbed her temples with small circular motions. “Yeah, I guess,” she sighed. “But it’s, um, complicated.” She didn’t lower her hands, partially obstructing her face.
Fear of being judged? Mrs. Clarence mused.
“Just try. I won’t judge you, Chris. I want to help you because I believe in you.” She didn’t dare pick up the ballpoint pen.
The girl slowly lowered her hands. “Fine. We used to be . . . pretty close, I guess. Back when we were kids. But when we got older . . . I dunno. She was the princess. She just seemed to do everything right. Everyone adored her. I wanted to be like her, but . . .”
Mrs. Clarence waited. She wouldn’t interrupt this time.
“But every time I tried, it turned out all wrong,” Christina finally concluded.
Feelings of being misunderstood. Self-isolation.
“There’s nothing wrong with being different.” The therapist’s tone was gentle. “You can’t try to be someone you’re not. That never works out.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Another long pause.
“I didn’t hate her or anything. I just wish she’d stayed on the other side of the country. That’s probably a shitty thing to say, but it’s true.”
“I appreciate your candor, Chris. It’s very refreshing,” Mrs. Clarence offered. And it was true; the clients who tried to figure out what she wanted to hear always frustrated her the most.
“Whenever she came home, everything was just . . . I don’t know, worse somehow. Everything I did was suddenly even more wrong in comparison. And Ryan . . . it’s like he suddenly joined her team, too.”
“And by Ryan, you mean Helen’s boyfriend, correct? The one you saved from the accident?”
Christina nodded. She chewed at a hangnail, drawing blood.
A clear indication of self-reprisal and residual guilt.
Mrs. Clarence decided to follow a hunch. Counselor’s intuition, perhaps. “That hoodie you’re wearing. Was it a gift from Ryan?”
“Yeah,” Christina admitted, her face noticeably closing off.
Mrs. Clarence could guess at the reasons behind the defensive reaction.
“And what was your relationship with Ryan?”
“He’s, like, my best friend. Or was my best friend. He’s pretty cool,” Christina said, lowering her gaze.
You don’t have to say anything else. I can see it in your face, the counselor noted.
“I have a theory about your powers. Would you like to hear it?”
The girl shrugged. “Sure,” she muttered, trying awfully hard to feign disinterest.
“You see, it’s uncommon, but not unheard of, for powers to be affected by emotions. Sometimes in ways that their user can’t consciously control. Nato, the Transmuter who joined the Wardens just before you did, is a good example. His ability to alter material depended strongly on his mood. And, for another example, Dreaming Rose’s visions were clearer when they were about people she was attached to.”
Christina looked up now, meeting Mrs. Clarence’s eyes. “Really?” she challenged. But the word held a note of genuine curiosity.
“Really. I believe what happened during your transition may have been very similar. You felt connected to Ryan and you saved him, right? But those men in the mall were strangers to you. I’m sure you meant them no harm, but you just didn’t feel connected enough to them for your forcefields to protect them all from the initial hail of bullets. Your shields were only strong enough to stop the one-off shots after the Golem shifted gears.”
The girl frowned at the suggestion. There was a distant look on her face; it seemed that she was drawing her own conclusions already.
Mrs. Clarence spoke her next words carefully. “I don’t believe you failed your sister, Chris. Your perception was distorted during the transition. You don’t remember that you tried to protect Helen, but you did. It’s just that her forcefield wasn’t strong enough to survive the car’s enormous impact because you felt more attached to Ryan.”
Christina’s frown deepened.
“I’m sure you loved Helen,” Mrs. Clarence continued, tone gentle. “The bond you described earlier doesn’t just go away. It changes, maybe, but it was still there.”
The girl’s eyes remained glued to the window, her thoughts unreadable.
When she finally spoke, her tone indicated that maybe she’d opened up to the suggestion. “It was all so crazy and . . . well, pretty shitty. How can I be sure what happened?”
“You don’t need to be sure, Chris. Maybe the memory will come back to you sometime, maybe not. But I’m convinced you did try to save your sister. In fact, I’d be willing to speak to your parents about it. Ryan as well, if you’d like.”
The girl perked up at that, straightening in her seat. Then, as if trying to hide her interest, she immediately sagged back into the armchair.
The flicker of reaction warmed the therapist’s heart. It reminded her of why she put up with the less pleasant aspects of her job every day.
Mrs. Clarence smiled. “I think that’s enough for today. The next time we meet, maybe we can address the pain feedback you experience through your danger sense. I believe it’s a psychological effect — something you do to yourself by locking all your feelings away. We should be able to lessen its impact over time.”
The girl looked doubtful, but nodded nonetheless. “Okay.”
“So I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
Christina nodded again as she got to her feet. She was halfway to the door when she stopped. “And, um, thanks,” she mumbled.
There was a twist to her lips that could almost be interpreted as a smile.