We met for the last time three weeks after the fire. One more session, though a secret one, off-site and off the books. No one wanted to get Dr. Sayer in more trouble than she was in already, and she wanted nothing more on the record for the patients. We were criminals now: murderers and kidnappers and conspirators. As a therapy group we had clinched the prize for Worst Outcome Ever.
We gathered at a breakfast restaurant a few miles from the Elms. Dr. Sayer knew the owners, and because at two in the afternoon the place was nearly empty, they gave her the run of the back dining room. Martin and Stan arrived early. Ten minutes after the hour Harrison came in on crutches, looking haggard.
“She’s not with you?” Stan asked.
“Sorry,” Harrison said. He took a seat at the table and set the crutches on the floor. “I think she’s thrown away her phone. And no response on email.”
“Nothing for me, either,” Jan said.
The last time we had seen Greta was the night of the fire. She had volunteered to help Harrison check in at the emergency room. One minute she was beside his bed. The next she was gone.
Stan said, “You don’t think she’d hurt herself?”
Jan shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“She can’t risk it,” Harrison said. “If she breaks the bottle, it’s not clear what would happen to the thing inside her. Maybe it goes into the little girl.”
“But she couldn’t even say goodbye?” Stan asked.
No one had an answer for that. Maybe we’d grown tired of processing these absences.
Harrison poured himself coffee from the thermos on the table. The silence went on. Jan, however, seemed willing to let them warm up slowly. Finally Harrison said to Martin, “New frames?”
Martin nodded and took off the thick glasses. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m just surprised.”
“It’s different now,” he said. He turned the frames in his hands. “Before, I was afraid to take them off. Now I want to use them. For the boost.” He smiled shyly. “I still don’t understand what happened that night. How I tracked her. I was just guessing.”
“But you weren’t,” Jan said. “Have you ever heard of blindsight?”
He shook his head.
“The brain knows more than it thinks it knows,” Jan said. “The information you’re processing isn’t coming through your visual system. It never was.”
“So these glasses are just props.”
“What works, works,” Stan said.
After a moment Harrison asked, “What happened to the little girl? Is she okay?”
“Alia’s traumatized, but she’s getting better,” Jan said. She’d gotten the girl admitted to a short-term treatment center. After that, social services would take over. Jan was petitioning to become her supervising therapist.
“How’d you explain how you found her?” Harrison asked.
“I told them the truth—that I went to that building to help a patient in crisis. Then I saw the girl come out of the building.”
“What about the other stuff?” Martin said. “What if Alia tells them everything?”
“Then she tells them,” Jan said.
“You could lose your license!”
“What matters is the girl.”
Harrison believed that was more true than she knew. If the group hadn’t shown up that night, Greta would have still carried out her plan—but Alia, and probably Greta too, would be dead. And the Hidden One would be uncontained. He didn’t know what that would look like.
“I believe Alia can come through this,” Jan was saying. “I know others who have come through just as terrible beginnings. Scars heal.” She smiled. “But at the moment I’m interested in hearing from you. When terminating a group, we’d usually have several meetings to discuss the process. I’m afraid we’ll have to make do with this. So. Who’s first?”
As if she had to ask. Stan launched into complaints about Martin. The kid was still living upstairs, for free, yet kept harassing him about the mess downstairs.
“Lately I’ve been thinking about fire safety,” Martin said. “Do you know there’s not even room for a bed in his bedroom? The frame is leaning against the wall! He has to strap himself in.”
“Old habits,” Stan said.
They went on like this for nearly ten minutes, with Harrison asking questions to keep them going. The argument meant nothing in the long run, and perhaps that was why it meant so much now. No one wanted to stop talking. No one wanted to terminate.
The waitress came by to take away the coffee thermos. It was clear they wanted the room back.
“How about you?” Jan asked Harrison. “Any thoughts about the group?”
“I did want to talk about one thing,” Harrison said. He reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and dealt out the four 5x10 photographs. “These were taken during Barbara’s autopsy,” he told Stan and Martin. “It’s the map the Scrimshander laid out on her body.”
Martin and Stan leaned over the pictures, amazed. They hadn’t seen them before.
“Us three, Greta, and the girl—Alia.” Harrison said. “All bound up in the same web.”
“I see it,” Stan said quietly. “You see the lines?”
“Alia too,” Martin said. “Weird.”
“But there’s a piece missing,” Harrison said. “The Scrimshander left another portrait, on Barbara’s chest. The forensic techs didn’t open her up there.” He put a finger down in the empty center. “Here”
“Who’s there? Barbara?” Martin asked.
“That what I thought at first,” Harrison said. “But Barbara’s the canvas—in a way she’s already there. It’s someone else.” He looked at Jan. She was staring at the table, holding herself still. Keeping control.
“You brought us together,” Harrison said to her. “I think it’s time to hear why you did that. Why you put yourself on the line for us.”
Jan looked up. “I couldn’t tell you,” she said. “It wasn’t ethical. The group is about you, not me.”
“Wait a minute,” Stan said. “What are we talking about?”
She began to tell them her story. Harrison had already figured out most of it, but Martin was amazed. Stan, for whom the story mattered most, was beyond stunned. He seemed to barely process the information.
Jan spoke for nearly a half hour. When she finished, she reached across the table and placed her hand on Stan’s arm. “I have something to show you,” she told him. “Something in my house.” She looked up at the others. “Do you all have time for a short trip?”
Martin and Harrison carried Stan in his chair up the steps and into the house. Jan unlocked a door that led to the basement. She did not turn on the lights.
“I think Stan should see this on his own,” Jan told them. “I can take him from here.”
“Are you sure?” Martin said. “He’s heavy.”
“I’m stronger than I look,” she said.
Jan levered Stan down a step, then two. Then she reached back and shut the door behind her.
Harrison and Martin exchanged a look, then went into the living room. After a while Martin said, “You’re going after her again, aren’t you?”
“She’s a mass murderer,” Martin said.
“But dozens of people. She let that thing burn them.”
Harrison sighed. “Yes.”
“And she’s still carrying the monster inside her.”
“Still . . .”
“Yeah,” Martin said.
They were quiet for a while. Then Harrison said, “The Scrimshander went to a lot of trouble to send a message to us.”
“What’s the message?” Martin asked.
“I don’t know. The little girl’s part of it, though.”
“I think there’s something big coming.”
“Jesus,” Martin said. He took off the frames and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Is it ever over? Do we ever get to just . . . win?”
Harrison chuckled. After a moment he said, “When I was a kid I used to play soccer. This was in San Diego, before we moved to Dunnsmouth. It was this park district league, and they didn’t keep score. Losing would be bad for self-esteem. So at the end of the season, every player got a ribbon. A blue ribbon, stamped in gold, that said ‘Participant.’”
Martin looked at the glasses in his hand. “Fuck.”
“Congratulations,” Harrison said.
In the basement, Dr. Sayer and Stan had reached the cement floor. She still had not turned on the lights.
Stan stared into the dark. There was a familiar smell in the dank air. His heart beat very fast. “You always took care of me,” he said. “You were always so kind. None of the others—”
“I didn’t stop them,” she said.
“You were a child.” He smiled. “The Pest. And all this time I thought you were a boy. You would climb up there with me . . .”
“I still have trouble sleeping,” she said. “That’s when I come down here.” She stepped away from him, and then the lights came on.
“Oh,” he said.
Along the far wall, scores of thick ropes formed a dense web that stretched from ceiling to floor and wall to wall. The ropes were tied into steel hoops that were bolted into the floor, the wooden joists, and the cinderblock walls. It was the Weavers’ barn, in miniature.
“It’s—” His voice broke. “It’s perfect.” He looked at her. “May I?”
She wheeled him to the web. He ran a stump along one of the ropes. Then he looked at her again and she nodded. She squatted in front of his chair, put her arms under his, and lifted him. Lifted him easily.
He placed one arm through a loop in the net. She hoisted him higher so that he could get his legs between the ropes. The web cradled him.
“Not too tight?” she asked.
He closed his eyes. “I should hate this,” he said. “I should hate this. But . . .”
“It’s okay,” she said. “We’re different from other people.” She climbed up into the web, moving carefully to keep from shaking him. She slipped her arms and legs between the ropes and settled beside him, and whispered into his ear.
After perhaps an hour, Harrison and Martin heard the wheelchair thunking up the stairs. Jan emerged from the basement backward, pulling Stan and after her. The old man slouched in the chair, looking almost drunk.
“You okay?” Martin asked.
“I napped,” Stan said. “Best sleep I’ve had in years.”
We said the things people always said, promising to keep in touch, making vague plans to meet again soon. We went to our homes congratulating ourselves on being a little stronger than before we met.
That was in daylight. By nightfall, our thoughts had turned to the promise written on Barbara’s bones. We went about our evening routines, trying to think of something else. Harrison poured himself one last drink. Martin strapped Stan into his frame. Jan made her way down the stairs. And Greta, in some city unknown to the rest of us, locked the door of her hotel room.
Each of us, as we turned off the light, felt a tingle of dread.
But that was all right. The feeling was as familiar as the dark. Some of us thought of what Jan had whispered in the basement, words that Stan had repeated for the others as we said our goodbyes. We’re different from other people, she’d said. We only feel at home when we’re a little bit afraid.