On a brilliant spring morning, as daffodils nodded their golden heads, robins poked at greening lawns to find insects for breakfast and sparrows busily gathered bits for their nests, Dr. Samena Burns headed to her office. A light breeze carried intoxicating scents of warm earth, lifting her imagination to faraway unknown destinations. But she resisted the siren call of nature’s seduction, even though it would have been excusable to play hooky that morning, having spent two hours testifying in court on behalf of a patient.
Samena entered the drab gray building and took the stairs to Walden Therapeutic Services on the fourth floor. When she came to the suite, she thought it odd that the door was still locked at 10:30. Most of the therapists and other professionals in her group were always in the office by 8 a.m. for appointments. As she fished out keys from her purse she saw no one through the glass door – not even the receptionist – although all the lights were on.
Aside from there being no one visible, nothing else seemed amiss. Telephones were ringing and going to voicemail. She thought she heard someone’s voice from the large group therapy room at the end of the hall. As she walked toward her office, she saw that each office she passed was open and empty, paperwork strewn on desks, lights on.
Samena’s office was the last before the group room. She deposited her briefcase beside her desk and turned on her computer. She opened her window blinds, watered the plants on her sill, and settled down in her chair to compose the report from her morning in court.
She didn’t recognize the male voice coming from the group room across the hall. Despite the soundproofing built into the room, she could nevertheless hear the man’s angry barking, but not his specific words. The practice always posted reservations for the room to avoid double-booking, but she hadn’t seen anything on the schedule.
Group sessions were sacrosanct. It was critical to never interrupt; momentum and dynamics are often precarious and can easily be thrown off. So she continued working.
But then she heard a long terrified scream from a woman, coming from the group room. And then even louder angry shouts from the same unknown man. The session seemed to be veering out of control. It was the responsibility of the supervising therapist to ensure the physical and psychological safety of the patients, but that clearly wasn’t happening. She waited to hear an intervention from one of the group’s therapists, but only heard more shouting and crying. She didn’t know what was going on in there, but finally felt she had to intervene.
Samena crossed the hall and knocked lightly on the door of the room. No response, although she did hear muffled sobs. She tried to turn the doorknob; it was locked. She pounded on the door. It burst open suddenly, and she was greeted by a man with what looked like an assault rifle. He was one of her patients, Jacob Fisher.
“Well, well,” he growled. “If it isn’t Doctor Burns,” he sneered, drawing out her title with dripping sarcasm. “Just who I was looking for.”
Jacob grabbed her arm and threw her up against the wall, then leaned into her ear. “Go lock the front door, Bitch, then get your ass back here. We need to talk. And if you try anything, I’ll kill everyone in this room,” he spat, waving his gun in the direction of a large group of people lined up on the floor.
He stood with one foot in the hallway and one foot in the room, holding his weapon pointed toward his hostages. The hall was a straight line to the front door, so he could see everything she did. Samena walked slowly to the door, her mind spinning, trying to think how she could manage to send for help without endangering the group. She hoped an incoming patient might be standing at the door at that moment, whom she could signal, but no such luck.
He saw her lock the door then snapped, “Get back here now, asshole.” She walked slowly back down the hall; the lack of haste clearly agitated Jacob. When she finally returned, he threw her onto the floor of the room and slammed the door closed.
She looked up from the tweed carpeted floor. All twelve of the group’s therapists and staff, plus two of their regular patients, were sitting on the floor at one end of the room away from the windows. The chairs had been stacked at the other end, up against the windows. There was a pile of cell phones under one of the chairs. Wires of the sole landline in the room had been ripped out of the wall and the useless device with trailing cords sat pathetically in the middle of the room. Isabella the receptionist was crying. Shireka the bookkeeper was shaking visibly. Old Dr. Gordon’s Tourette’s tic was going haywire. The rest of the group were sitting rigidly, with fear creasing their faces.
Jacob walked over and kicked Dr. Burns. “Sit up, cunt.” He was a large man, over six feet and beefy. His long blond hair was tangled and disheveled. He was wearing dirty camouflage clothing and a flak jacket. He hadn’t shaved, and he smelled like he hadn’t bathed in several days.
Samena struggled to regain the breath he’d knocked out of her. “How can we help you, Mr. Fisher?” she coughed out.
“Help?” he laughed, derision contorting his snarling mouth. “You think you were helping by telling the judge that my kids should be put into protective custody?” He pounded the butt of his weapon into her ribs. No one in the room made a move; they may not even have breathed.
“I’m sorry, Jacob,” Samena said, her voice weakened to a whisper. “You know it’s not permanent. Only until you can get treatment, so your children can feel safe with you.”
“Well, aren’t you just the perfect bitch.” He drilled his words, searing into her. “You think you know what’s best for everyone else? Well, not having my kids is killing me. They’re my life. So I tell you what. I’m gonna kill one of these people, one every fifteen minutes, while you watch. So you can feel the guilt, roll in it, taste the pain. So you can feel what I feel.”
Jacob pulled a cylinder from his pocket and fastened it onto the muzzle of his gun. He swaggered around the room, seeming to revel in his power. He began circling the perimeter, considering each person, waving his weapon in each face.
I’ve passed out three times in my life, which occurs to me as odd. I’m certainly not a weak or timid person. But after three minor incidents in childhood I checked out for more than half an hour each time. Once when I fell backwards off a six-foot ramp. Another time a dog jumped up and bit me on my face. And the time my cousin pretended to swing my baton at me but the rubber end flew off and hit me on my glasses, gouging the frame into my eyebrow. It’s almost like I wanted to stay wherever it was that I went, like I didn’t want to come back.
She was being kicked again. Harder. “Well, bitch, how does that make you feel?” Jacob yelled, pointing to Isabella lying on the floor in a dark pool of blood spreading in an irregular pattern on the carpet, like a living Rorschach test. “You killed her. It’s your fault!”
Dr. Burns almost passed out, seeing what he’d done to Isabella. “Jacob, stop,” she pleaded. “I understand. And yes, you’ve succeeded in making me feel what you feel. I’m sorry. But you have to stop now.”
“There you go again, telling me what I have to do.” He hit her upside the head with the butt of his gun.
One of the other doctors began to speak …
I often used to travel through a long spiral tunnel into a daydream where I wasn’t present in West Virginia with my Aunt. Instead I’d find myself in a coma in California, where my mother and father were lovingly standing over me, anxiously waiting for me to awaken. I’d escape into a different reality, away from the hateful monster who beat me and frequently reminded me that no one wanted me, not even my father, that she took me because she had three boys and no girls to help around the house, so I’d better get to work …
“Well, Doctor,” Jacob strutted and taunted. “How does it feel?” Puffing up his chest, elbows out like a prizefighter, lifting each leg and planting his feet hard like some badass paratrooper. He kicked the lifeless body of Dr. Rothstein, one of her most beloved colleagues. Her mentor.
She almost threw up. “Jacob, please stop,” she begged him. “You should just kill me. Wouldn’t that resolve things for you?”
“Not a chance, bitch,” he shouted, pacing back and forth, swinging his weapon, almost in a frenzy. “I want you to suffer. Over and over again.”
He walked over to a side wall and smashed a framed inspirational poster imprinted with graceful script against a mountainous background: Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.
As glass shattered to the floor, Jacob shouted, “So you think this here is a beautiful destination? I sure traveled a lot of difficult roads, and where did it all get me?”
Dissociation. So cool. I always wished those episodes could last forever. Auditory amplification. The slightest brush against soft cloth, light tiptoe across the floor, a breeze ruffling a window curtain, … sounds booming and echoing like from a deep cavernous well, bouncing off the walls, miles separate from me, slowing my movements as if I were floating in the stratosphere, disconnected from my miserable reality … Those ‘trips’ ended after childhood; then I began using alcohol to escape …
Snap! The silenced shot pulled her back. Her head whipped around and she saw Dr. Avenir, the group’s newest psychiatrist, lying on his back. At least she thought that was him. His face was pretty much gone. A wrenching eruption from her gut exploded onto her lap and splattered onto the doctor.
Jacob smirked. “Gotcha, huh? How’s it feel?” He roared with incongruous laughter, then kicked me again and resumed his pacing, taunting his captives.
“So, you all think you can fix people like me?” he challenged, waving his weapon at the group. “After all these months of Dr. Burns’ therapy, and pills that screwed with my head, you think I’m doin’ just fine now?” He stomped over to another poster with bold block letters: Ask yourself if what you’re doing today is getting you any closer to where you want to be tomorrow.
“I did everything the good doctor told me to, and look where it got me!” Jacob shouted, swinging his arms and his weapon around the room, and smashed the offending poster.
I was there. I was two and a half the day she did it. Or someone did it to her. That final part always eluded me. The violent multisensory nightmare would interrupt my memory dream and take over, year after year, all throughout my childhood. So I never managed to recapture the last piece of the story of how my mother died. I kept checking out when it mattered, going somewhere else. Pattern of my life.
Another Snap! This time it was Duane, our IT guy. That made four.
Jacob’s captives – those remaining – were slumped, eyes glassy. They weren’t talking among themselves; they had witnessed how that set off Jacob’s rage. But Jacob seemed to be gaining more energy, increasing his resolve. He was on a mission as he walked around considering each person, choosing his next victim.
“So who’s next, cunt?” Jacob goaded me.
I glowered at him. “Why not you, Jacob? Can you turn that gun on yourself?”
Something magical happened the day my aunt finally crossed the terminal line, the day I first fought back, the day I decided to leave. From the moment it clicked, the minute the switch turned, I floated through my days, my feet barely touching earth. I knew what I would do, intoxicated by the vision of freedom I would gain. Coin by stolen coin, it took me six months to squirrel away enough money for the long bus ride to California. On that final day, at the age of fifteen, never having traveled alone, I just … left.
Samena was consumed by guilt. Jacob was achieving his objective. It was as if each time her mind slipped away to some other place, another person died. This time it was Harriet, the intern. Sweet young Harriet. Five people now.
Jacob no longer exhibited smug satisfaction in each kill. He was becoming more agitated. His breathing was rapid and shallow. His eyes were darting all around, from one person to another. Unlike earlier, he now seemed to be warily looking for indications that one of them might retaliate.
She wondered whether there would be an uprising, whether there was anyone in the group who might decide to rush him when his back was turned. She would, but she was half his size. It would require more than one person, and since he had isolated her in the middle of the room, she could exert little strength lacking numbers.
“Jacob, please stop,” she begged him once again. “If you would just kill me, you could finally settle the score, achieve real satisfaction.”
“You’d like that too much, Doctor,” he snarled. “Then you wouldn’t have to feel guilty anymore.”
“And you won’t feel guilty?” she challenged him. She turned to look over her shoulder, past the chairs, out the windows. The sun had clouded over. The skies were dark and threatening.
When I knocked on my father’s door after my nerve-wracking bus trip, he didn’t recognize me. Decades later, a former classmate from West Virginia found me. He told me my friends had felt abandoned by my abrupt disappearance without a goodbye.
Samena stood. Jacob raised his weapon. “Sit down, cunt!”
She threw herself at him. She felt the blast through her abdomen as she fell onto him.
Now there were many arms lifting me up, helping me leave.
Leslie Kain has a B.A. in Psychology from Wellesley College and an MBA from Boston University. She has written much nonfiction throughout her various professions and began writing fiction in 2016. She draws from her careers in psychology, business, high tech, Intelligence and nonprofits, along with her own life experiences to create stories with multilayered plots and compelling character arcs. She has just completed her first novel, seeking publication.