The floor was marble of a beige, warm hue. It matched the natural stone walls that wrapped the room up into a small, cosy lounge-place. A fat, cushy couch that housed more throw pillows than Garry believed was excusable lay sprawled in the middle, facing an armchair across the dainty coffee table. There were rustic paintings hung around the room that added to the charming ambiance intended for relaxation, and the large, wood-framed windows invited in the cheery morning sun.
Anyone else would probably have loved this apartment that belonged to his benefactor’s secretary, Ms. Voltfied.
With that said, Garry was sure it was clear why he wasn’t amongst the people who enjoyed being inside the room. He dropped his backpack next to the couch and parted the pillows for a place to sit, making himself comfortable in a mountain of spilling cushions.
Nicholas – or Dr. Voltfied was late.
Just as he thought so, the door behind him swung open and in came said doctor, striding around the couch to face him. Nicholas looked worse for wear as per usual, with messy hair and dark bags under his eyes. “Evening, la’,” he said with a jerk of his chin, not meeting Garry’s gaze.
Garry frowned but greeted back anyway. “Morning.” He was half-convinced Nicholas purposely messed with him from time to time, but considering that Nicholas’s expressions ranged from scowling disgruntlement to blank lethargy, perhaps not.
The smell of coffee followed the older man as he set down a thermal bottle on the table. Garry watched Nicholas make a line to the filing cabinets at the corner of the room and jiggled a key to retrieve a thick folder bounded with a rubber band.
As a fashion design major, it annoyed Garry to no end that Nicholas always showed up in some slovenly attire. It wasn’t hard to imagine what the man had on right now had been thrown together by picking randomly from a monochrome wardrobe. On more than one occasion, Garry had had to bite back the urge to offer Nicholas a makeover.
It was over two months ago that Garry had begun this routine of meeting Nicholas twice a week – as per Mr. Garland’s order. Tuesdays and Thursdays, timing flexible. The meetings were to be held in Ms. Voltfied’s apartment inside a building owned by the Garland corporation for ‘security reasons,’ and Garry was to, under no circumstances, discuss them with anyone.
Of course, he would never dare, because the reason for these meetings…
“A’ight, let’s begin.” Nicholas settled into the armchair and crossed his legs, pen in hand and white folder splayed on his lap. “You know the drill. Absolute confidence, no judgment, blah blah blah. Now.” Bloodshot eyes that had been glazed over moments before turned sharp and alert. “How are you and Ms. Ib Lowell this week?”
It was routine. The same opening question every session. Still, Garry’s heartrate climbed as he answered, “Fine.”
“Care to elaborate on that?”
‘No’ wasn’t an option, as Garry had learnt very early on. He sank deeper into the pillows, to hide or to seek stability he wasn’t sure, and started picking at the hem of his jacket. “I’m helping a professor with his collection, and it’s been taking up a lot of my time. As for Ib, she’s…not looking forward to the new semester starting.”
Dr. Voltfied waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, the man said, “Not quite what I was looking for, but go on. Why is she not thrilled, do you think?”
Garry shrugged. “You know the way kids are.”
“You’ve made it rather clear you don’t view her as one.”
Garry fell silent. He knew the good doctor was latching onto this topic because Garry had let his concern slip. The problem here was how much he should be telling the man because, despite the ‘absolute confidence’ clause, Mr. Garland was still going to be made privy to everything that Dr. Voltfied deemed worth reporting.
Then again, Mr. Garland would probably find out sooner or later anyway, and if Garry was going to be seeing a psychiatrist, might as well vent.
He let go of a sigh. “Because it means less free time.” Fewer chances to be together.
Dr. Voltfied nodded. “Less time to meet. You’re also concerned about this, but I sense not for the same reasons?”
God, he hated being seen through. Garry hunched over and propped his elbows on his knees, wiping his face with a groan. “She’s been…around…a lot.”
“And how do you feel about that?”
“…Happy.” His heart thumped steadily. He balled up a sweaty hand inside his hair. “But also nauseous.”
“Garry,” she called. One small hand cupped his jaw while the other brushed his hair, thumb caressing his cheek bone and fingertips touching his ear, all too tenderly. He was compelled to smile with her.
“Every time she smiles at me, I feel…absolved—but I shouldn’t. I’m not. Then I’m left alone, and it just feels completely wrong. Some days, I can’t shake off the thought that she’s putting up a front to put me at ease.”
How she could still stand to be so close to Garry was beyond him. But in the haze of elation he decided it suited him just fine and pulled her closer to his chest, let her hear his heart’s unveiled confession. She still felt too far away.
“There isn’t a minute we spend together that she doesn’t look contented. And…” He snapped his mouth shut.
Garry kept his gaze down and made no move to adjust his position, pulse strumming in his ears. ‘And it was sickening that he had the gall to feel dissatisfied’—but he couldn’t tell Dr. Voltfied that. His benefactor would no doubt hear about it.
“Garret, my boy.” Mr. Garland had flopped down next to Garry right on this very couch and draped a friendly arm around Garry’s shoulder. “What happened that night cannot happen again. Have I made myself clear?” The same easy-going smile. Firm, painful grip on his shoulder.
He paled at the memory. He didn’t know how much Mr. Garland already knew, or how much the man could find out. But if he gave the man any reason to believe ‘that night’ might happen again, he knew he would be separated from Ib immediately. “And…I still struggle to reconcile why—how she’s still by my side,” he said.
The doctor made a noise of acknowledgment and clicked his pen to scribble something onto the files. “It’s not unusual to find cases like yours, Garret.”
Garry scoffed, dropping his arms between his legs. “Is that supposed to make me feel better? That I’m just one of many pedophiles in this world?”
A click of the pen. “First of all, no, I’m just telling you a fact.” Dr. Voltfield sat back in his seat. “Second of all, we’ve talked about labelling. You’re not a pedophile, neither are you a hebephile, so please refrain from calling yourself any of those words. It’s detrimental to these sessions, and also does no one any good in general.”
“Third of all, you misunderstand. Pedophiles are plenty, yes. However, I meant there are many cases where the…survivor…”
“Garry?” Soft locks of hair fell down to his face like spools of silk.
The doctor seemed wary, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose to hide inquisitive eyes. Garry saw it anyway. The man was gauging Garry’s expression, and Garry did his best to keep a blank face despite the ugly pinch inside his guts. “…grows attached to the inflictor.”
“Did you have a nightmare, Garry?” She knelt over him on the bed.
“Sympathize with the latter.”
In the bleary darkness, he saw worried red eyes. A hand ran over his sweaty forehead.
“Even protect the latter, come hardship.”
Still out of breath, he searched the slender length of her arm, fingers crossing her shoulder to reach her back, pull her down to him. Let her scent flood his senses. Erase his fears. Ascertain reality’s hold. “It’s not real,” she said into his ear, voice so quiet even in the dead of night. “You told me before, remember?” Her arms slipped behind his neck for a reassuring embrace. “It’ll be okay, Garry.”
“You might have heard of it. Stockholm syndrome.”
Breathless laugh. “Isn’t that reserved for hostage situations?”
The doctor watched Garry for a moment, then tilted his head to the side. “A more appropriate generalisation would be ‘situations where neither fight nor flight is possible.’”
Garry scowled. His heart was too fucking loud. “I am not restraining her.”
“You don’t have to. It’s all about perception, la’. You know how children won’t turn on abusive parents? How people won’t leave abusive spouses to keep up a good public image? In the same way, the little girl has found it impossible to leave you, so she has to find another way to…cope with your presence. It seems to be appeasement for her. Quite a common defence mechanism.”
His head was spinning, and his mouth dry. He just stared back at the doctor as the meaning of the man’s words slowly sank in.
“Still with me there, la’?”
He shook himself awake. “Coping? She has to cope with my existence?”
Dr. Voltfied looked to be assessing something before he began, “Yes, but—”
Garry shot to his feet and stormed for the door. “Garret!” He ignored the man and grabbed the doorknob—and stopped. Where was he thinking of going? His head was full of her. Her kind eyes. Heart-warming smile. Did he want to go to her? To the girl who was secretly terrified of him? For what? To what end?
His heart and thoughts were racing. He was furious. At what or at who, he wasn’t sure. He just felt that this wasn’t right.
Stockholm Syndrome? A common occurrence? What?
Thought you were special, didn’t you?
Garry shook his head and wiped his face. To think it was so common. To think it had a name.
That wasn’t right. That wasn’t right at all. Their situation was so much more complicated than that, and summing it all up into two words would be injustice. Simply wrong.
He loved her more than words could describe, and she’d inexplicably chosen to stay with him; there was still no explanation to the gallery that had tied their lives together.
That was how things were supposed to be. Unexplainable. Everything about them was beyond words, beyond reasons.
Good grief, you’re pathetic.
She’s hurting by your side, you selfish prick.
He yanked his hand away from the doorknob as though stung.
What the hell was he doing, trying to get to her? He’d always knew it, hadn’t he? Had suspected that her intimacy with him wasn’t normal. But he’d ignored all doubts and instincts to keep being by her side, deluded himself into thinking their situation was special to justify holding her.
Even though he had no right to. Not anymore. Never did.
Of course, they’d survived that horrible gallery, and no one else would ever understand. It’d made sense at first to be there for her. But then their bonds deepened. His feelings grew.
At which point had staying stopped being for her sake?
Garry wanted to throw up. He doubled down and started to dry heave. His shoulder was seized; he spun around, grabbed the perpetrator by the worn collar and slammed him against the wall.
Dr. Voltfied’s head made an audible collision with the hard surface, and the man grunted. “Bloody—”
“Why is she still coming to me?”
The doctor scowled, rubbing the back of his head. “Like I said—”
Garry tightened his grip. “Why…am I still letting her come to me?” His voice grew weak as he searched the doctor’s cold eyes for some kind of answer. But in reality, he didn’t need it. He already knew: he was a fucking monster.
Dr. Voltfied didn’t say anything, and after seconds that felt like hours, Garry let go. The doctor sighed and proceeded to fixed his clothes. “Sit down, Garret. And calm yourself.” He went back to his seat and sat down. A click. Some scribbling. “She’s not forcing herself to be with you if it’s as you’ve been telling me.”
“…What do you mean?”
“Sit down, la’.” The doctor kept his gaze on the file, writing. When he was done, there was another click before the man looked up at Garry, quirking an expectant eyebrow.
Garry stared back; seconds passed, marked off by the hasty heaves of his breathing. Slowly, he dragged himself back to the couch and curled up amongst the pillows, cradling his head. “She’s not forcing herself to be with me?” The words came out more like a whisper, for his own ears only. It was despicable how he was already trying to make himself feel better. He was a selfish, cowardly little shit.
“You said your meetings were always decided by her?”
As he felt her arms around his waist, he stopped himself from telling her to have some moderation in visiting him.
The sound of the papers being turned disrupted his thoughts. “She clings to you?”
“What are you reading, Garry?” Her chin rested into the crook of his neck and her weight pressed against his back as he bent over his professor’s article.
“She seems comfortable around you?”
He tangled his fingers into her hair, half caressing, half brushing them away from her face. Her soundly sleeping face as she used his thigh as a pillow. So precious. So trusting.
“Well, there you have it.”
“Doesn’t mean she’s fine,” he said through clenched teeth.
“She’s still a child, la’. I assure you, you’d know if she isn’t fine. Coping is a fairly subconscious process. The literature makes a big deal about how the syndrome is abnormal, but more often than not, people who have it also have peace of mind. And sometimes that’s the best anyone can ask for.”
“Bullshit.” But still, he felt better. Wasn’t he just a stellar example of a decent human being?
“If you’re thinking about ‘snapping her out of it,’ consider that it’ll make more of a mess rather than solve anything.”
Garry straightened himself and ran both hands through his hair. “Of course you would say that. You work for Mr. Garland.” The good doctor’s words were bias at best considering Mr. Garland was hell-bent on keeping this under wraps. Providing Garry a psychiatrist wasn’t so much to make him feel better but to keep him stable. So that he wouldn’t go breaking down before he finished his degree.
“I’ll say it regardless of circumstances. You wouldn’t think to push people who’d repressed their memories to remember, would you? The same applies here.”
He gave a bitter laugh. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”
Dr. Voltfied held Garry’s gaze for a stretch of silence before shaking his head. “No, Garret.” The man took off his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose before dark eyes returned to Garry. “This?” He tapped the white folder on his lap with the tip of his glasses. “There’s no ‘fixing,’ no ‘making it right.’ Not everything can be solved by straightening things out, so get that idealistic notion out of your head. All you can do now is minimize the damage you’re going to cause down the road.”
When Garry had gotten the chance to calm down after the session and think back on it, that was probably not something a psychiatrist should’ve said to his patient. Perhaps that had been scorn. Or maybe an advice, rolled up in cynicism.
He wasn’t sure if realizing that changed anything, as he’d decided he couldn’t leave things like this. He was going to talk to her, not so much to ‘snap her out of anything,’ but to let her know, at the very least, she had the option of leaving him. Always had and always would.
And just maybe…if she decided to leave, then he wouldn’t have to leave her.
Garry turned to the next page of the novel and shifted for a more comfortable position against the mass of pillow and comforter he had squeezed between himself and the headboard. The hum of the heater perpetuated in the silence of his apartment. It was chilly tonight despite still being early August.
Having to squint to read under the light of night lamp, he wondered if it was his eyes going bad, or he needed to return the lamp and get one that was just a little brighter.
“Garry.” He looked up to see Ib walking past the threshold, tugging at her oversized clothes. She’d pulled on one of his T-shirts after showering, said she liked the way it smelled; he hadn’t protested. “There’s water in the bowl. But you left the eggs out so I put them back into the fridge,” she said as she climbed onto the bed.
“Thanks, sweetie. You’ll definitely like lunch tomorrow.” She shimmied under his arms to settle against him.
“There’s no egg,” she said, as if that fact forecasted her enjoyment of the meal. Ib hid her pout behind small arms that folded over his chest.
He chuckled at her sullen look and dog-eared the page he was reading before setting the book down on the nightstand. “Gotta try new things, Ib. You might like it.” He stroked the back of her head. “You ended up liking macarons, didn’t you?”
“That’s not the same.”
“Come on,” he coaxed and lifted her chin to place a kiss on her temple. “One bite. After that, if you really don’t like the beans, I’ll make your favourite omelette. Deal?” Garry didn’t care that he was spoiling her. He simply wanted to please her however he could with what little time they still have together. Mr. Garland had already decided to move him away from her by the end of the year. He’d had time to process it, and now he was just glad her parents kept having to leave her alone in the house for some business gathering.
Ib appeared reluctant still, and he grinned. “Just remember I’ll be really, really hurt if you don’t like the food even though I’ve put so much of my love in it.”
She seemed to think about it as she leant her face into his hand. Her eyes never left his. Ah, that captivating red. She moved on top of him, slow and careful, climbed his chest and rose to his eye level. Their noses touched and their lips met.
She pulled back, smiled. “I’ll kiss it bett—” was all she managed before he pulled her in for another. His heart almost broke from all the happiness swelling inside him when she deepened the kiss. Eyes slid shut. Slim waist beneath his palm. Pleasant weight on his groin. Her hot, stifled moans were making him heady as he rolled over and pinned her under him.
They parted for breath and he trailed his mouth down her neck. Ducked lower to kiss the hollow of her chest, her stomach—brought her knee up to kiss it, too.
He froze, heart rampant and skin feverishly hot. Hers, too. He swallowed. “Sorry.” He forced himself to move back up to gather her tiny form into his arms. “Sorry.” He didn’t dare to look at her yet and instead burrowed into her shoulder, feeling that sliver of redemption when she hugged him back, just as wordless.
“I love you, Ib,” he said after a while, tracing the rim of her ear with a distracted thumb. She was using his lap as a pillow again, fiddling with the last button of his shirt.
“I love you, too, Garry.” It hurt so much to hear her say that.
“I wish we could stay like this.” He brushed her hair back and managed a small smile.
Red eyes glanced up at him. “Can’t we?”
“I don’t know. So I wish.” He let his gaze drift so that he didn’t have to face hers.
Ib got up. “We can.”
“I hope so, honey.” He patted her head and started rearranging the bed. “Let’s sleep. Wouldn’t wanna skip breakfast and jump straight to lunch tomorrow now, would we?”
“I want omelette for breakfast.”
“Mm, we’ll see.”
With the lamp turned off, Garry joined her under the comforter and let her curl up in his arms. He kissed the top of her head, felt her relax against him, and finally closed his eyes.
Tomorrow. He’d talk with her tomorrow. And then, they would see.
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