She tried her best to ignore the sporadic knocking coming from the locked door, focusing all of her attention on him instead.

"This isn't the sort of thing I normally do."

"You kiddin' me? This is what your best at."

She looked down at him, skeptically. "Then explain to me why you've yet to reach climax."

He shrugged his broad shoulders, casually. "Maybe it's the Prozac. A...side effect."

She sighed, discouraged, as she continued to move her bare hips in rhythm against his.

"Hey, come on," he said, reassuringly. "You got me off before. Lotsa times."

Someone knocked at the door again.

"You gonna get that?" he asked, gesturing with his eyes.

"This is your time."

"They're gonna get me eventually, ya know."

"I don't think it's you they're after."

The knocking briefly resumed, louder this time.

She closed her eyes and analyzed each physical sensation – her fingers between the course hairs on his chest – her nipples hard in the cool, stagnant air – her thighs grinding against his skin – the edges of her mouth hesitantly trembling upward – him inside her, trusting her, wanting her.

"Is it just me or...are you enjoyin' this more than I am?" he asked.

She opened her eyes, and looked disapprovingly at his bemused smirk. "It's not supposed to be enjoyable."

"Then, uh..." he said, laughing a little "...what's the fuckin' point?"

"You're the one who kept...going on about how much you wanted to fuck me," she retorted, indignantly.

The knocking came from the door again, even louder than before, drawing his attention.

"Jesus Christ," he said. "And I thought my mother was bad."

"Focus, Anthony." Her voice drew his eyes back to hers. "Let it come."

"How do I know you're not gonna pull away again?"

"I wouldn't do that."

"Oh, you wouldn't?

"No."

"You really don't remember?"

"I think we need to keep this about you."

"Ah, fuck it. This is all bullshit anyway."

It annoyed her when he talked like that. She had to prove him wrong. "This may hurt a little." She leaned forward, putting her hand on his right shoulder, and dug her fingernails into his flesh. She tightened the muscles inside her around him and sped up. His eyes closed and his head tilted back in pleasure. She whispered softly into his ear, "Come in me."

Jennifer opened her eyes. The monotone buzz of her clock radio indicated the time was 6:30 am. She leaned over, pushed a button to silence it, then rolled onto her back again. She looked at the ceiling and tried to remember her dream. What had it been about? She clenched her teeth, sensing that she had lost something important, although what it was she couldn't remember. She used to be better at this sort of thing – back when she habitually wrote in her dream journal as soon as she woke up. But after the dreams had become dark she'd given up on it, and though she had meant to resume the habit, she'd somehow never quite gotten around to it.

She walked into the bathroom and turned the light on, careful not to look at her reflection. She sat down on the toilet seat and put her face in her hands, sighing. No patients today. She looked down at her toes, stretching them, then scrunching them, then stretching them out again. Simple things were so hypnotic this early in the morning. Her eyes moved to the white tile floor between her and the shower and remained focused there.

The child looked down at the white tiles of the elementary school floor that had been streaked with black marks from the students' rubber-soled shoes. She swung her feet back and forth, as her legs dangled from a chair that was just a little too big for her. The sound of footsteps came from the hallway to her right and she looked over to see her mother walking toward her. She looked back down at her sandals and swung her feet some more. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her mother sit in the chair next to her.

"They act as if I've got nothing better to do," said the woman. "Let me tell you, nobody ever asked my mom to come all the way out to meet with my teachers."

The child continued swinging her legs.

Two forth grade boys slowed as they were passing, focusing their attention on the young girl. "Hey, look! It's Muh-Muh-Melfi!" said one. They laughed as they walked away. The girl watched them go, then looked back down at her feet.

"That's how you let them talk to you?" asked her mother. "You know, when your grandfather came over here from Italy, he would have never stood for that sort of thing." She looked at the girl, awaiting a response and, getting none, sighed and focused her attention elsewhere.

A nearby door open and a man stepped out. "Aida Melfi?"

The woman smiled at him, nodded, and stood up. She made her way past the man into the room, her daughter following closely behind. They both took a seat at the circular table where another woman was waiting. The man closed the door and joined them.

"Aida, this is Jennifer's teacher, Mrs. Ross. I'm the principal of the school, Mr. Davis."

"Pleased to meet you," said Aida, shaking Mr. Davis's hand followed by Mrs. Ross's.

"We called you here because we're both very worried about Jennifer."

"I worry about her sometimes myself."

Mrs. Ross spoke up. "We'd like to begin by saying that in the areas of homework and general comprehension, Jennifer is doing quite well. Her work is always complete and finished on time." She smiled at Jennifer, then looked back to Aida. "The problem seems to be...more an issue of classroom participation. Now, we recognize that some students are more comfortable than others in a traditional social setting. However, Jennifer almost never interacts with the other kids or contributes to our classroom discussions."

"Jennifer?" said Mr. Davis. "Is there something you'd like to say about this?"

"It's...I don't m-m-mean to be like that. It's just w-when I say stuff a lot of m-m-m-mpeople m-make fun of me."

"And why do you think that is, Jennifer?" asked Mr. Davis.

"M-m-mbecause of the w-way I talk. M-m-m-mbut it's n-not on m-m-mpurpose."

"We know it's not on purpose, sweetie," said Mrs. Ross. She looked at Aida. "But this...thing of hers is really interfering with my class. It takes her at least twice as long as the other children to answer my questions. And recently she was supposed to give a book report that was two to three minutes. Jennifer's written work was about the same length as the other children's', but her presentation went on for more than ten minutes. It's just not fair to the rest of the students."

"Mrs. Ross and I have talked it over and we think Jennifer might be more comfortable in a special class. Where she can be with other kids who are more like her."

Jennifer's eyes opened wide in horror. She knew what class they were talking about.

"Well, you are the experts," conceded Aida. "I know you'll do what you feel is in my daughter's best interest."

"Okay, then," said Mr. Davis, happily. "Jennifer, starting tomorrow, you're going to be in a special class. How does that sound?"

"N-n-n-no!" she said, shaking her head. "I n-n-n-ndon't w-want that! M-m-my friends are in m-my class and I'm n-n-n...I'm n-n-n-not stupid!"

"Nobody thinks your stupid, Jennifer," said Mr. Davis. "We know that everybody has their own needs when it comes to education."

"He's right, honey," said Mrs. Ross. "Besides, you'll make lots of new friends in this new class. This will be better for everyone, okay?"

Jennifer started to plead, "M-m-m-m-mbut..."

"Come on, Jennifer," interrupted Aida. "We've taken up enough of these people's time."

Jennifer looked at her mother, dismayed.

Aida stood and addressed Mr. Davis. "Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us."

"It's our pleasure," he replied. "It is our job after all. And don't worry, Jennifer," he said, turning to the girl. "I know it might be scary at first, but in the end I think you're really going to enjoy your new class."

Aida grabbed Jennifer's hand and escorted her out to the hall. The door closed behind them. Jennifer was crying. "N-n-nthey think I'm stupid, m-mom," she wept. "N-nthey think I'm n-n-ndumb."

Aida sighed. "Can you really blame them?"

Jennifer folded a tissue into quarters and wiped clear a large square of the foggy mirror. She observed her reflection – her still-wet hair that stuck to the sides of her frowning face – her large, firm breasts under the bathroom light. She remembered standing in front of another mirror when she was little, reciting sentences over and over. Slowly. Carefully. Focus. Don't stutter. Day after day, month after month, until she got it right. Her greatest accomplishment before she got her M.D. And her mother didn't say a word.

Still, better to be silent than insincere. What had he said? Her voice was like a mandolin? How many goomars-to-be had fallen for that stock line?

She put on her bathrobe, tied it, and grabbed a comb, which she pulled awkwardly through her hair as she made her way into the kitchen. As she poured the ground coffee onto the filter she glanced out the window to see what appeared to be a rather cold, lonely day. Pale grey clouds masked the sky, but it wasn't raining. She didn't think that it would. She started her coffee maker and went to the front door. The morning paper had landed a few yards away from her doorstep, and she walked quickly to retrieve it, refusing to break into any sort of a sprint. Once she was back in the house, she looked over some of the headlines, and one in particular caught her eye. "New Jersey Expands SCHIP to Cover Middle-Class Families". She smiled.

"Take your average American today, for example." Bruce Cusamano held his glass of red wine so that it was at the same level as his head. "No sense of financial responsibility. They get the sniffles and expect the government to step in and pay for the fucking Tylenol."

Jennifer's mind tried to process the awkwardness of hearing the word "fucking" come out of Cusamano's mouth, while the rest of the guests laughed in concurrence with his sentiment.

Jean Cusamano added, "Of course, to hear the Democrats talk about it, you'd think any pharmaceutical company that expects to make a profit off of their business is run by ogres."

"It's all about politics," said Bruce. "I've said it before. Universal healthcare is just the first step to establishing a communist state."

Jennifer finally decided to take a chance. "You don't think everyone should have access to treatment?"

"Oh, come on, Jen, that's not what I'm saying. All I'm getting at is that medicine is a business and people should be expected to pay for it the same way they pay for everything else."

Jennifer smiled. "So everyone should have access, as long as they can afford it."

"Remind me, how much do you charge per hour?" The room erupted in laughter. Jennifer, still smiling, lowered her head slightly. "I'm just breaking your balls, Jen. Before I forget, though, there is something on this general topic I need to talk to you about.. Can we?" He motioned with his glass toward the kitchen.

Jennifer wiped her mouth and followed him into the other room, wondering where on Earth he had picked up the expression "breaking your balls". Once they were out of earshot of the guests he explained, "I have a patient who needs to speak with someone in your field. I'm compiling a list of people who would be willing to meet with him, and I'm wondering if you'd be interested. He collapsed the other day at his barbecue while he was getting ready to celebrate his son's birthday. I had him tested and everything came back negative. We're thinking it was a panic attack."

"I've treated this sort of thing before. Let him know I'd be happy to meet with him."

"I appreciate that, Jen, but...before you jump on board with this, there's something you should know about him. This patient of mine also happens to be my next door neighbor. I believe you may have heard of him. Tony Soprano?"

She hadn't.

Jennifer shoved the last bite of toasted bagel into her mouth as she finished reading an article on pollution levels in the U.S. She put her dishes in the sink, returned to her bedroom, and opened the doors to her closet. After shuffling for about a minute through the meticulously pressed clothing hanging before her, she picked out a brown blouse and a matching business suit and skirt.

Once she had gotten dressed, she studied herself in the room's full-length mirror. The outfit, though form-fitting, had the potential of maintaining a certain conservative air about it. This potential, however, was negated by the shortness of the skirt, which proudly showed off her long, slender legs. She liked wearing things like this.

"Awesome possum! Jen, you look amazing!"

"You sure about that?" Jennifer turned her head and upper body toward the mirror behind her, and stared at the reflection of her legs.

"She's right, Jen. That outfit is totally bitchin'!"

"You don't think it's too...showy?" She turned back to her five classmates, unable to hide her smile.

"Are you trippin'? I had your legs, I'd wear threads like that to school every day!"

Jennifer turned to face the mirror again, this time taking in the dress she was wearing. The hot pink and lime green floral patterned fabric hugged her already fully-developed figure. Before this, she'd never worn a skirt that went up past her knees, or a blouse that was tight enough to show off anything. She imagined the eyes turning toward her as she walked onto the dance floor and the boys whispering to each other, "Is that Melfi? Holy shit!" She let out an excited sigh.

Being walled up in her office ten hours a day, six days a week meant that days like these were designated to running errands, fulfilling social obligations, and, of course, meeting with Elliot for her weekly appointment. It had been over a month since Jennifer had lost her opinion on which day of the week she most looked forward to, but she was sure this wasn't it.

She gently pressed on the brake as she approached the back-up of cars in front of her. Directing traffic was a man in a uniform and helmet that matched the bright orange cones that were laid out along the street. It looked like there was some sort of construction going on. A long, loud honk came from one of the cars in front of her and Jennifer couldn't help but scowl at the driver's lack of patience. It was so easy to set some people off.

"I find that it's becoming increasingly hard to provoke him."

"What do you mean?" asked Elliot, opening his oversized water bottle.

"When I started treating him, one wrong word could send him flying into a rage," Jennifer explained. "He would...yell at me and storm out of the room. Now? Even my most literal Freudian interpretations of his family life fail to elicit any sort of extreme reaction."

Elliot looked confused. "Jennifer, do you...want him to fly off the handle?"

Jennifer thought for a moment. "What I want is for him to feel that he doesn't have to wear some sort of proverbial mask in front of me. I'm glad it appears he's gotten a better handle on his emotions. I am. But part of my job as his psychiatrist is to draw out his feelings and find the root of what's causing his problems. And I worry that his...whatever you want to call it...restraint?...may be what's keeping us from making the progress that we otherwise could be."

Elliot looked at her for a moment before asking, "Jen? Is that really what's going on here?"

"It's hard to know for sure what's caused this change in him."

"I was actually referring to your behavior."

"My behavior?"

"This...intense desire to elicit response from him. You say it's for his sake. But I have to wonder."

"If you have something you'd like to say, Elliot: please."

"I think maybe you're...drawn to the thrill of provoking an intense discussion with this potentially dangerous man."

"We've been through this. I'm legitimately trying to help him."

"Jen, the man is a sociopath. Curing his panic attacks was one thing. But now? What more do you possibly expect you can do for him? I think you need to accept that the reason you continue to meet with him is more for your sake than it is for his."

Jennifer looked down to her side for a moment, before meeting Elliot's eyes again. "I appreciate your opinion. But you're seeing things that aren't there."

Elliot had been right about one thing. Her patient truly was unredeemable. Jennifer had honestly thought she was helping him. She had put in a lot of time and effort trying to understand him and address the issues he was facing. But that was all before she'd learned that her patient was no more than a textbook case of criminal manipulation – using her to practice his social tactics and to psychologically vindicate his immoral behaviors outside her office. And she had fallen for it for years. The hypothetical "thrill" she had been accused of seeking was not what motivated her to continue seeing her patient. It had been his playing her, letting her think that they were making real progress, all the while making a mockery of her profession and turning her into a symbolic accomplice.

"Ma'am?" said the twenty-something Korean-American woman behind the counter. "Here are your clothes." Jennifer mustered a smile and took the four outfits by their hangers. She left the dry cleaners and walked out back to the car, where she opened the back door and carefully laid the garments out on the back seat.

Jennifer folded the clothes she had worn to school earlier that day and put them away in the bottom drawer of her dresser. Having no more excuses to procrastinate, she hesitantly looked at herself in the mirror, hoping that her dress hadn't somehow deteriorated into a monstrosity since she'd purchased it two days ago. She saw her reflection and smiled.

After she had put on her shoes and fixed her make up, she began to make her way through the kitchen where her mother was doing the dishes.

"What are you doing?" Aida's tone stopped Jennifer in her tracks.

"There's that dance tonight, remember?"

"You think you're going out wearing that?"

"I thought I might," said Jennifer, her amused and slightly incredulous tone hiding her disappointment.

"Come on, Jen, let's be serious here. Go get changed."

Jennifer frowned. "What's wrong with what I've got on now?"

"That's the sort of outfit that's likely to give boys the wrong impression." Aida went back to washing the dishes. "Go to your room and get changed."

"You think this is too revealing?"

Aida didn't look up from her work, just raised her eyebrows and shook her head to herself.

"Lots of people my age wear clothes like this."

"Well, you're not like lots of people your age."

Jennifer thought for a moment. Normally she did whatever her mother asked of her, without question. But this was important. "I have to go. I'll see you later tonight."

Aida looked at her. "Excuse me?"

"We'll talk about this when I get home."

"You're not leaving this house until you get changed."

"Mom, I'm sixteen. I think I'm old enough to decide what clothes I want to wear."

"Do you know how much money I've spent buying you nice dresses over the years? Were those just not good enough for you?"

"It's not that. It's just...I really like this outfit. And so do my friends."

Aida let out a small laugh. "I wouldn't trust what your 'friends' have to say about anything."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Jesus Christ, Jennifer. For a straight-A student, it's amazing you can't even understand the most basic things."

"Like what?"

"Nothing. Forget I said anything."

"No, really. What?"

"Well...your friends are all pretty popular, aren't they?"

"I guess so."

"So...let's be honest...why would they choose to hang out with someone like you?"

Jennifer paused. "They like me."

"Jennifer, how many times have you let them copy your homework?"

A stinging realization started to set it. "They've never asked to," she lied.

"Don't lie to me."

"We do lots of stuff together."

"I don't doubt that. Believe me, there are plenty of reasons for those girls to keep someone like you handy."

"They're my friends."

"I guess that all depends on how you define 'friend'. If you consider being their pet-project the same thing, then, yes, they're your friends. I'm sure you make them feel very good about themselves – taking you in, playing dress-up with you. Seeing what sorts of good deeds they can do for the cute, nerdy girl."

Jennifer's eyes began to grow hot with tears. "You don't know them."

"Jen, I was one of them. I remember, we had a girl we let hang out with us who was just like you."

"Fuck this. I'm going to the dance."

"Don't you dare use that language with me."

Jennifer stared back at her, saying nothing.

"What do you think is going to happen when you step on that dance floor? Come on. You think all eyes will turn on you and suddenly you'll be one of the popular kids? It doesn't work that way, Jen. They're going to laugh when they see you trying to be someone you're not. You know full well that you're not like them. Because, as nice as some of them try to be? They all still see you as the stuttering little outcast from elementary school." Aida went back to working on the dishes. "Now go change into something more appropriate."

Tears flooded from Jennifer's eyes and ran down her cheeks. She turned and fled into her room.

Jennifer didn't go to the dance, nor did she ever wear that dress again. When she went to school the next day she told her friends she hadn't been feeling well. Soon, all of their actions became affirmations of her mother's claims, and Jennifer began making up excuses not to be around them. It wasn't long before they had drifted apart. When she graduated the next year, she felt estranged from everyone.

In retrospect, her mother's tactics seemed fairly rudimentary. Playing off her daughter's insecurities, transforming half-truths into whole-truths, simplifying the situation to the point where there could be only one plausible interpretation of her friends' behavior. Looking back, Jennifer was somewhat amazed at how gullible she had been. But, when it came right down to it, had she really changed at all since then? For years she'd foolishly let her patient manipulate her, just as her mother had done. It took Elliot pointing out what now seemed obvious to get Jennifer to accept the truth. Perhaps she wasn't as insightful as she liked to think.

The man behind the counter handed her a bottle of pills. They exchanged looks and Jennifer started toward the exit of the store, a bag of groceries in one hand, her prescription of Ativan in the other. She studied the label just to make sure they'd gotten it right. You could never be too careful when it came to medicine.

"Can you tell me which medications you have him on?"

"I assure you, he's getting the best possible care."

The hint of annoyance in the doctor's voice didn't phase Jennifer, although her attempt to keep in pace with his hasty walk was proving to be a bit of a challenge. "It's just that I've been looking through various medical journals to see what sorts of things have worked best in situations like this in the past. If there's any way I could help..."

He stopped in front of a sliding glass door and turned to face her. "You're a therapist, right?"

"A psychiatrist."

"Why don't you stick to your line of 'expertise' and we'll stick to ours."

The glass door slid open and he went on ahead. Jennifer followed, annoyed at the implication that her practice was somehow less legitimate than his was. That there had even been a debate on whether or not she would be allowed in the unit was ridiculous. She understood the need for increased security, but this was one of her patients. These people.

Her focus changed as her patient came into view. He was laid out on a hospital bed, unconscious, an endotracheal tube down his throat, an ECG machine tracking his vitals. Nobody was in the room with him, which was good, as she wished to avoid any awkwardness that might come with running into a member of his family, or worse, his associates. She stood at the door, staring at him, expressionless.

"You all set?" asked the doctor.

She nodded and watched as the doctor walked briskly away, clearly having more interesting things to do than deal with her. She looked back at her patient, watching his chest fall, then rise as the mechanical ventilator forced air into his lungs. She could feel a lump start to develop in her throat. She swallowed, then entered the room.

There was a chair next to him, which she repositioned slightly, then carefully sat down in. "Anthony?" she said softly, her voice almost catching in her throat. "It's Dr. Melfi."

The beeping sound from the ECG machine kept a constant rhythm.

"I sent a card to your wife. I imagine this must be a very hard time for your family."

The ventilator continued to breathe for him.

"I heard about this on the news, of all places. I was fixing dinner and there it was."

She could usually read his face, but right now she couldn't what he was thinking. Or if he was thinking anything at all.

"The people who work here are assholes, but they seem to know what they're doing. I'd recommend you suppress any urges you might have to pummel their asses as soon as you wake up." She smiled a little.

She wondered where he was, who he was, if he was anyone anymore.

She leaned a little closer to him. "I know you're going to find your way back here. You're too far to stubborn not to."

She leaned back and reached into her purse. "I have something for you." She pulled out a note card with some words written on it. "It's an old Ojibwe saying. I thought of you when I read it." She read from the card, "Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky." She stood up and walked over to a board where a number of cards and well-wishes had been posted. She tacked the proverb up among them, then turned back to her patient. "This should give you something to contemplate while you're recuperating."

She walked back over and stood next to him. She started to reach for his hand, then hesitated. After thinking about it for a moment, she went ahead and took his hand and squeezed it. For a moment she was reminded of the time he'd held her's when she needed comfort.

She let go and walked toward the door, then looked back. She understood that air had been cut off to his brain and, as a result, even if he did wake up, he might not be the same man she once knew. At the moment, there was really no way of being sure. The only thing she was certain of was that, no matter what he was or what he would become, she would never abandon him.

The action/adventure section was being occupied by three rather noisy teenage boys, and so Jennifer had decided to forgo her first choice in movie genres in favor of browsing the documentary section.

"Then I hear Tucker yelling, 'Ah, shit!' I look over and, I swear to God, Mike's pissing on the fucking couch!"

The other two boys started cracking up even louder than they had been before.

"So Kevin comes running in, right? Because he knows he's fucked as soon as his parents get back. And he's all, 'What the fuck are you doing?' And Mike looks over at him like, 'What?'"

"Oh, fuck!" laughed one of the teenagers.

Jennifer rolled her eyes, grabbed a copy of Winged Migration, and made her way to the front of the store. She put the DVD down on the checkout desk, before retrieving a credit card from her purse. She stared at the checker, hoping to exchange an exasperated look in regards to the chaos behind her, but the employee, who was barely older than the teenagers themselves, processed the film without making any attempt to meet her eyes.

"Did you at least ask where they were going?"

"No, Richard. Unlike you, I don't have the obsessive compulsive need to track our son's every move." Jennifer ladled the marinara sauce onto the other serving of spaghetti, before picking up the plates and walking over to the kitchen table.

"So, for all you know, he could be anywhere. Doing anything. Who knows what sorts of trouble he could be getting himself into."

She set the one on the plates down in front of him and put the other at her place. "Is it really that bad for a kid his age to get into a little trouble? He needs to learn from his mistakes." She sat down and picked up her fork.

"He can't do much learning if he's lying dead in a gutter somewhere."

"Jesus Christ, Richard." She took a bite.

"You don't think there's real danger out there?"

"Jason's a smart boy who's never gotten into any serious trouble. I think we can trust him to avoid whatever bogeymen you think are out to get him."

"You just can't accept what sorts of temptations there are for a boy his age. Especially for one of his heritage."

Jennifer lifted her glass of red wine. "And here I was under the impression you thought the Mafia was nothing more than a stereotype formulated by Hollywood to degrade Italian Americans."

"You know how I feel about the way the media portrays us. But that doesn't mean that there aren't people out there who they base those horrible stereotypes on. That small, morally depraved population of Italian Americans that sully the reputation of good, hard-working people like you and me. And who knows what those sorts of monsters are capable of?"

"If you're so worried about him, why don't you call his cell phone? He never turns that thing off."

"I may just do that. Although I don't think it should be my sole responsibility to look out for him."

"He's sixteen, Richard. At this point, I don't think either of us should be keeping constant tabs on everything he does."

"Don't act like you haven't always treated him this way."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You've behaved like this ever since he was little. Acting as if he were one of your patients, instead of your son."

"How so?"

"You don't shy away from psychoanalyzing his behavior, but you almost never offer your opinion on whether or not that behavior is acceptable. And then you wonder why he's so distant to you. If not for his safety, you should at least inquire about what he's doing to show that you care."

"You think I don't care?"

"I know you do. I'm not sure he knows that."

"What do you expect me to do, Richard? Attach a tracking device to him? Be his parole officer?"

"Be his mother, Jen."

In retrospect, Jennifer wondered if Richard had been right after all. Jason never initiated contact with her unless he needed something. On the rare occasions they had dinner at her request their relationship seemed, while not hostile, strained. To be fair, she knew he was busy with grad school, and she had more than her hands full dealing with her patients, even after letting her most difficult case go.

Keeping her left hand on the steering wheel, Jennifer toggled through the stations with her right. She stopped when she came to a song she knew quite well – I Walk Beside You by Dream Theater. This used to be one of her favorite tunes. She listened for a moment, then turned the radio off.

"So my new philosophy. This whole...live-and-let-live thing?"

"Yes?"

"Turns out it's not as easy as I'd hoped."

"In what way?"

"My business does not...lend itself to that kinda thinkin'."

"You don't feel that your position of authority allows you to set new precedents?"

"It's not that simple. The guys...they expect certain things from you. You don't live up to that, they see you as weak. Collections start coming in light. Pretty soon the whole organization turns to shit."

"You don't trust your associates?"

"Fuck no. Now, there are a few exceptions. But most of these people?"

"Sounds dangerous."

"Yeah? Where the fuck have you been the last seven years?"

"How much of this resistance to change would you say is due to your fear of betrayal versus your own need to exert your power over others?"

"There's a difference?"

"There's a big difference. One is motivated by...a legitimate concern for your well-being, while the other is based on your unwillingness to try and control your impulses."

"You don't get to be where I am by controllin' every fuckin' impulse."

"Granted. But certainly there have been times where self-restraint has helped you reach your goals."

"True."

"Do you think it would be possible to find a balance where you could apply your 'live-and-let-live' philosophy while still maintaining your perceived status as a 'tough guy'?"

"Maybe. Possibly. But anytime you try shit like that, you're takin' a risk."

"Are risks not some of the best catalysts for social change?"

"Hey, I'm no Gandhi."

"Believe me, I know."

"If it were all about money...it'd be one thing. But these guys. Few of 'em are liable to put a bullet through your skull, they think they're not gonna get one back. That's the difference between them and you."

"You draw a distinction between me and your employees based on my lack of firearms?"

"That's not what I meant. You're...loyal. You know? I don't have to worry about turning your back on me just 'cause you don't like what I'm sayin'."

"I don't feel it's a psychiatrist's place to judge their patients."

"Oh, you judge. I don't always notice, 'cause you don't say anythin' a lot of the time. But you do."

"Let's get back to your business. Potential danger aside, in what specific ways do you feel your new philosophy would alter the choices you make concerning your work?"

"You really want me to go into the details?"

Jennifer smiled and nodded eagerly.

"How are you doing, Jen?"

"Can't complain. Things have been...peaceful."

"That's good to hear."

"Yeah," she said, smiling weakly. "It is." She looked down to her side, trying to figure out how to describe an emotion that she herself couldn't identify. "Although, lately I've been feeling...I don't know." She looked back up at Elliot. "Empty?"

"Any idea what could be causing that?"

"I'm not sure. Recently I've been thinking about interactions from years ago."

"With?"

"My mother. Richard." She shook her head. "It's funny. I feel almost like I'm frozen in time."

"Regression?"

"No. More like...suspended animation."

"How long have you felt this way?"

"I don't know. I hadn't even really thought about it until this morning. But now that you mention it..." She took a moment to calculate. "Maybe...a month or two?"

"Have there been any...changes in the past couple months that may have brought on these feelings?"

"You're talking about my former patient."

"You haven't mentioned him since you told me you stopped seeing him."

"What can I say? I woke up."

"Still, I imagine this could be quite a shock to the system. Now that your little adventure is over, it must be...somewhat of a letdown."

A look of subdued disgust came over her face. "My 'little adventure'?"

"Call it what you will."

"He was my patient, Elliot. For eight years."

"And I'm sure that was very exciting for you."

She stared at him for a long moment, processing what he had just said. "I see. So that's all you thought it was to me. A form of entertainment."

"I didn't say that. But, let's face it. Treating a high-ranking mob boss would be a unique experience for any psychiatrist."

She scoffed, then said with a hint of astonishment in her voice, "You're jealous."

"Excuse me?"

"Is that why you brought up the study? Because you couldn't snag an 'exciting' patient for yourself?"

"Jen, I was concerned about you. Your refusal to acknowledge the consequences of what you were doing. You'd become obsessed."

"I'd become obsessed. Tell me, Elliot, on average, how long do you think you waited into each of our appointments before you succumbed to your inevitable compulsion to ask about him? Hoping that I'd let you in on all the gritty details, and disappointed when I only gave you half the story." She quietly added, "You hypocrite. You cock-sucking hypocrite."

Elliot looked surprised.

"You really did your research, didn't you?" Jennifer continued. "Mafia history. Criminal personalities. He was quite a hobby for you. And you think that's all he was in my eyes. You have no idea the things he shared with me – not just about his business. Memories from his childhood, dreams that he had, desires, fears. Things he probably never told anyone else. We had moments – breakthroughs." She stared at him, intently. "I watched him cry, Elliot."

"Jen, I've told you before. People like him are incredibly skilled in deceiving and manipulating those around them."

"So you're telling me, in eight years of therapy, not a single thing he told me was the truth?"

"Truths can serve as a means to construct greater lies. What he really is, for example."

"A 'sociopath'."

"Exactly."

"You really like to throw that word around, don't you?"

"It's what he is, Jen."

"One of the defining characteristics of a sociopath is an inability to care about anyone but themselves. My patient was self-centered and immoral, but that doesn't mean he was incapable of...love or compassion. He cared for his children, his wife, his friends. I might even dare to say he even cared for me, if I didn't think you'd throw that back in my face as evidence that I'm somehow delusional."

"I know part of you may think he's a good person, but..."

"When did I say that, Elliot? When the fuck did I say that?" She shook her head. "You think I'm stupid. Do you really think I ever once forgot who he was? How he made his living? You think that the fact that I can acknowledge that humans are complex, multifaceted creatures, means I've somehow lost my perspective of right and wrong?"

"Honestly? I think the fact that you continued to treat him for as long as you did, without considering the greater potential consequences of your actions, does indicate a...certain level of irresponsibility."

"My job is to treat my patients to the best of my abilities. Not to dictate what they do or don't do outside of my office. And if you think that a doctor's morally responsible for everything a patient does in their life, then that's an issue you're going to have to tackle. Seeing how 'irresponsible' you seem to think I am." She sighed. "You people. Always so eager to judge. Me. My patients. My friends. None of you can see anything outside of the context of your own simplistic dinner-party worldviews."

"These aren't just my views, Jen. They're well-documented facts. You read the studies."

"Fuck the studies! You're telling me every aspect of human nature can be summed up in a single entry of the DSM-IV? That you can determine every motivation of a man you've never even talked to, because you've heard there are consistencies between him and a diagnosis you read somewhere? You don't know him! Hell, you've been treating me for over twenty fucking years and you hardly even know me!"

"Okay." Elliot raised his hands in a slight defensive gesture. "I can tell you're very agitated."

"Well, then. This must be quite the 'little adventure' for you."

"I'm confused as why this is a matter of such importance to you."

"Because he came to me. He needed me. And, okay, I'll admit, it was a bit of a thrill sometimes. But that doesn't mean I didn't care. That doesn't mean I didn't try my hardest. I dedicated years of my life to helping that man and you act like it was all some sort of sick guilty pleasure to me. And that I'm too fucking stupid to know when I'm being manipulated."

"I didn't mean to..."

"You may not believe it, sitting there with your smug expression and your overcompensating water bottle, but over the years he and I made real, legitimate progress. You didn't see the moments of...vulnerability or acceptance. I did. I helped him. He trusted me and I – "

The realization hit her suddenly. For a moment, she couldn't breath.

When she finally found her voice, it was barely more than a whisper. "Oh, my God." She looked down to the ground, searching her thoughts. "What did I...?" Her eyes widened. "His son...had just tried to commit suicide! What kind of...? What am I?"

"You did the right thing."

"What made us choose this line of work, Elliot?" she asked, looking up at him, tears sliding down her cheeks. She looked back down to the ground. "When did this become all about me?" A tear fell from her face and landed on her short skirt. She let out a small laugh, marveling at herself. "I really haven't changed at all, have I?"

"You not considering taking him back, are you?"

Jennifer sniffled. "I don't know. Honestly, right now I don't feel particularly qualified to treat anyone." She thought for a moment before meeting Elliot's eyes again. "I want to thank you," she said, sincerely. "Over the years you've helped me through some very hard times. I really don't know what I would have done without you. I haven't always agreed with everything you've said or done, but you've always been here for me, and that meant a lot."

"Jen, are you...firing me?"

"No. I just...need some time to think stuff over. And I can't be around you while I'm doing that."

"So you're just...running away from your problems?"

"Hardly," she said. She stood up. "I'll call you when I'm ready to start our appointments again."

"I have to say, in my professional opinion, you're making a big mistake here."

"I appreciate your input." She started walking toward the door.

"Jennifer." His words stopped her and she looked back. "He was using you."

"What are doctors for?" She turned and left the room, shutting the door behind her.

Tony stood in his yard, raking up some of the last leaves of the year. While his doing so served no monetary purpose, as he regularly had someone take care of the area surrounding his house, being out in the open gave him a chance to reflect. The air around him was stagnant and cold, but it wasn't the temperature that bothered him so much as the lack of wildlife in the area this time of year. Spring seemed too far away.

The ring tone coming from his cell phone cut through the silence. He held the rake with his left hand, taking the phone out his pocket with his right. He pushed a button and held the phone up to his ear.

"Yeah?"