Growing

The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.

George Eliot

***

I

My psychiatrist tells me that I'm growing as a person.

'Of course,' he adds. 'I'm not just saying that because it's your birthday.' He gives me a strange smile, and hands me a lollipop. I'm not altogether sure that he is serious. Then he hands me my bill, which is a considerably less welcome birthday gift.

I realize then that I'm late; our session ran overtime, and it's almost ten minutes past ten.

His words made me think – if I'm growing as a person, then what was I before? A shell? An incomplete human prototype? A temporary placeholder, just waiting to be swapped out? What does that mean for my life so far? That all my choices have been in vain, that I've really just been leading up to this point?

I feel like some twisted example of how not to achieve the American Dream. Loving husband? Big house? White picket fence? 2.5 kids? I think I missed the memo. What I've got now is a dead lover that I can't get over, a toddler that I don't see nearly as often as I want to, and a job that has nearly killed me at least twice.

Would I change any of my choices?

Fuck, I don't know.

***

I'm rushing out of the elevator when I run into Jordan. Literally run into, that is. We almost take a tumble, but she grabs my wrist, stops me from falling. I'm not sure why she's on this floor – CTD is two floors up.

'Slow down, Emily.' She's smiling, and I realize that she's still holding my wrist. It's not a firm grasp, but a warm, comforting one.

'Sorry.' I try to smile, but I know my face is reddening. I'm blushing.

Oh God.

'I have to go,' I tell her. 'I'm running late.' Reluctantly, I pull my hand from hers, and I give her a small wave. I'm walking fast, partially to escape the embarrassment, partially because I'm now thirty-seven minutes late.

'Happy birthday,' she calls out after me.

Shit. Does everyone know?

Apparently, yes. I head straight for the briefing room, and I'm greeted by smiling faces – well, most of them are smiling, anyway. I'm glad they didn't go as far as to wear silly hats.

'Sorry I'm late.' I pant out the words. 'Appointment went overtime.' I don't tell them what kind of appointment, and they don't ask. They don't need to ask.

Derek pats me on the back. 'Happy birthday.' It's only ten-thirty, and I'm already sick of those words. 'But it looks like the heavy drinking will have to wait for another night.'

I roll my eyes. 'And here I was looking for a babysitter.' Of course, I'll need one anyway. 'What do we have?' I ask JJ. She hasn't actually started the briefing – they had all been waiting for me.

'Baltimore.' The appropriate photos jump onto the screen. Dead eyes seem to stare into your soul, an unending abyss. They test your limits, see how human you are, how deep that soul goes. They stopped affecting me a long time ago.

Was that a bad choice? Did it make me inhuman, unfeeling? Was her death some sick way of Fate telling me that I wasn't cut out for happiness? That I didn't deserve it.

'Seven women. All kidnapped, tortured and murdered.' The screen flashes again. I wonder if these women had husbands, had children. Did they end up lying in a ditch because of the choices they made? I'm only half listening as JJ continues the briefing, but I learnt a long time ago how to gather information without actually listening.

I intercept JJ on the way out. I don't even have to say anything before she nods at me. 'I'll call Will. Henry's been looking forward to seeing her.' I almost feel my heart break, knowing that JJ's son probably has a better relationship with my daughter than I do. But then, that's the price I pay – the consequences for the choices I've made.

***

We drive to Baltimore. It's barely forty miles, but with horrendous traffic, it takes us nearly an hour and a half. In the back seat, Reid is explaining how we would cut fourteen minutes off our travel time if we drove as the crow flies. I'm not listening.

Upon leaving the briefing room, I discover the reason for Jordan's presence on this floor. A tiny package is sitting on my desk. It's wrapped in blue paper, and the message reads "To Emily. Hope you have a happy birthday. Love Jordan."

Huh.

I had put it in my ready bag. It's something I want to open in private.

'You okay?' Morgan asks me. His eyes are kept straight ahead, on the seemingly endless line of cars.

'Yeah,' I tell him. 'Yeah, I'm good.'