So what is eating Zachary Martin?

Another one in the present tense. But to make it different, it's not in first-person. :)

Disclaimer: I own nothing except Dr. Willoughby.


"Twisted little fuck, aren't you?"

Zack smiles. "Is it that obvious?"

"See what I've had to put up with?" Maya's face is strained and sickly from sleepless nights and crying. She's a pitiful image—wasted, tired, desperate. All things he never thought she'd be.

He laughs at her—long and hard, unable to control himself.

Dr. Willoughby looks down at the piece of scratch notebook paper before him, once again observing the gruesome image of the mutilated infant doodled upon it with the words "mommy no love me" scrawled across the top. He leans back against his cushioned chair, removing his glasses and touching his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose. Then he sighs, weary. It's easy to see he's on the verge of giving up. After six straight weeks of morbid artwork, obscene language, sardonic jokes, and nightmares, he's about ready to seek a doctor himself. "How you can laugh at this is beyond me," he finally says.

"How you can label me a 'fuck' and still call yourself a professional is beyond me."

Dr. Willoughby glares at Zack but Zack is unaffected.

Maya turns away, covering her mouth with her hand as she begins to whimper.

The doctor leans over and hands her a box of tissues that has been sitting, unnoticed, at the edge of his desk. "I see 'em, I label 'em," he says, his eyes firmly on Zack.

Maya takes one of the tissues and blows her nose into it. Then she tosses it into the little blue trashcan next to the doctor's desk.

"Ouch," Zack responds sarcastically. "Cold."

Dr. Willoughby shrugs. "Honesty is the best policy."

"Insanity is a better defense, you know."

Now the doctor almost smiles. "You get that from a t-shirt?"

"Bumpersticker," Zack replies.

"I see..."

"Doesn't make it any less true."

Dr. Willoughby bends forward, fiddling with his fountain pen, his facial features scrunching in concern. "You're not insane, Zack. You're just an asshole."

Zack raises an eyebrow. "Is that your official diagnosis?" he asks daringly.

"It's my observation." The doctor glances down at his pen for a moment, biting his bottom lip, and then looks back up at Zack. "I can deal with clients refusing to talk, and I can deal with them having mood swings, but you..." His eyes narrow accusingly. "You are just a vindictive bastard."

"Hey, at least I'm not a glorified liar," Zack shoots back, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Oh, you're a liar alright. You've been lying through your teeth since you first walked through my door."

"Bullshit!" Zack shouts.

"There's no need to shout," Dr. Willoughby says. He beckons to the pathetic, slumped over Maya sitting next to him. "If you're not a liar, how about being honest with Maya instead of pretending like she isn't here?"

"Fine," Zack snorts. He turns his head to the side and looks at her, his face totally serious. "I lusted after you for the contents of your pants."

She looks back at him, stunned, momentarily unable to articulate what he'd just said, and then starts to cry harder—her sobs more shrill, her cheeks streaking with mascara.

"Zack, that was uncalled for!" Dr. Willoughby exclaims.

"What?" Zack says, putting on an innocent, shameless face. "You wanted me to be honest."

"Yes, but—"

"You gotta make up your mind, doc. Do you want me to be honest or do you want me to be nice?"

"I want you to be both. Can't you manage that?"

"How am I supposed to manage that?"

"Be honest, but at the same time take her feelings into account. It's not that hard."

Zack gives the doctor a bemused look.

"I've never seen anyone so unsympathetic before."

"Then you must have lived a sheltered life, doc."

Dr. Willoughby sighs. "Look…I understand you feel betrayed, Zack. But you can't keep living like this. It isn't good for you. There will be other chances. You're still young, strong, healthy…"

Zack's mind begins to wander. Here we go again, he thinks. He glances up at the clock hanging on the side wall. It's almost 12:30. They've only been there for half an hour but already he wants to leave. He wants to think, to sleep, to curl up on his couch and watch cartoons, and allow the tears to fall (in private, the way he likes them). His eyes shift to the little crucifix hanging diagonally from the clock, about two feet from the door. It's strange, he thinks, that a doctor would keep a religious symbol in his office. Not that doctors couldn't be religious; it just felt odd. Kind of unnatural.

"Zack, are you listening to me?" The doctor's question just barely brings him out of his reverie.

"Why do you have a crucifix in your office?" It comes out before he can stop himself. But he doesn't regret it, in the least.

Dr. Willoughby is thrown off guard. "I beg your pardon?"

"The crucifix," Zack says, pointing to it.

"What about it?"

"Why's it there?"

"How is that relevant to this discussion?"

Zack shrugs. "It's not. I'm just curious."

The doctor doesn't answer him. Merely stares at him with a mixture of bewilderment and indignation, as though he cannot decide whether he should be offended or surprised, or both.

Eventually Zack sighs, letting it go, knowing he's not going to get an answer. "I'd like to leave now," he says, his expression apathetic.

"Go right on ahead," the doctor tells him matter-of-factly. "But remember, I'll have to write down that you ended the session early."

Zack nods—"You do that"—and gets out of his black leather chair. As he closes the wooden office door behind him, he can hear Dr. Willoughby comforting Maya. Telling her she has no cause to be ashamed.

...

He lays bundled in a maroon blanket on the living room couch, a lukewarm beer in one hand and a remote control in the other, zipping through channels on his TV set. He doesn't stop until he reaches the cartoons. Looney Tunes is on—an oldie but goodie. Daffy Duck is running around like a hyperactive maniac, doing things that can't really be done and living in the moment, not thinking about tomorrow.

Zack forces himself to laugh; once he forces himself it becomes easier. He hears the laugh but doesn't feel it. These days, there's not much he does feel…except tears, which now begin pooling his eyes. He lets out a choked sob and forces another laugh—a single mirthless chuckle—and then begins to sob and laugh simultaneously until he can't tell the difference between the two and the sobs take over, and the laughs vanish somewhere inside him, and all he can do is bawl uncontrollably until he sets the beer can down at the side of his couch and falls asleep.

He wakes to the ring of his cell phone inside the front pocket of his jeans and reaches under the blanket to retrieve it. Straining from a kink in his neck, he props himself up on his elbow and glances down at the screen to see who would be calling him on a Tuesday afternoon.

Who else but Cody?

Zack turns off his phone, lies back down, and returns to sleep.

When he wakes again it's to a hand shaking him, accompanied by a voice: "Zack, get up!"

Zack tries to ignore it.

"Zack, get your lazy ass up!"

Gradually Zack opens his eyes and looks up to see Cody standing before him, staring at him with an annoyed look on his face. Realizing he's slobbered, he wipes his lower cheek and jawline with the back of his hand. Then yawns.

"You alright?" Cody asks.

"Do I look alright?" Zack grumbles.

"I tried calling your cell, but you didn't answer."

Zack throws off his blanket. "Did it ever occur to you that maybe I was busy?"

Cody turns his head towards the TV, which is still on. "Doing what, watching cartoons?" he asks accusingly.

"None of your business," Zack snaps.

"You look like shit."

"Likewise." Cody's dressed completely in black—a black t-shirt with a bar code and the word "human" printed across the chest, and a pair of black skinny jeans. His shoes are even black, with black shoestrings. He's been dressing that way for months, trying to stand out. Trying to "find himself," as he says. Zack blames the people he hangs out with: emos and eccentric philosophy professors. But he can't complain too much; anything beats those goofy sweater-vests he used to wear.

Cody rolls his eyes. "You need to get out more. Wanna go for a walk?"

"Not particularly."

Cody gives Zack a slight kick in the foot, urging him. "Come on."

"I said no."

Cody sighs. "You can't stay on your couch all day."

"Wanna bet?"

Grunting in agitation, Cody takes up the remote and flips off the TV. "Zack, please…"

"Alright, alright," Zack finally gives in, wobbling to his feet. "Just let me get my shoes on."

...

It's warm outside—about 70 degrees, breezy. Perfect for a nice, long walk. The type of weather that makes it hard to stay indoors. Yet that's exactly where Zack wants to be—alone, curled up, in the dark. He's developed somewhat of an aversion to light; it's even a hassle getting himself to Dr. Willoughby's. He's not quite sure why he does it. A force of habit of some sort. He is somewhat of a masochist, dare he admit it.

He walks glumly next to Cody, slumped over, his hands pressed into the pockets of his jeans, completely silent except for the steady in-and-out pattern of his breathing.

Finally, after a long time of saying nothing, Cody decides to speak: "Nice day, huh?"

Zack meets his comment with a glare. "That's what you dragged me out here to tell me?"

"I was just trying to make conversation," Cody explains, throwing his hands up in defense.

"Well, don't. You suck at it."

"Fine, then. You make the conversation."

Zack sucks in a breath, flustered. He tells himself to think, wanting to find a topic that would keep someone like Cody occupied. But the only thing that comes to mind, strangely enough, is that crucifix in Dr. Willoughby's office—its mahogany color, its shine, its majestic appearance despite being plain and coated in dust. And then it occurs to him. "You still reading the Good Book?" he questions.

For the past several weeks, Cody has been reading the Bible. It's an off-and-on kind of thing, dependent on his college workload. But his goal is to finish it, from Genesis to Revelations. Maintaining an open mind throughout.

"From an analytical perspective, yeah," Cody answers. "I've gotten all the way to Deuteronomy."

Zack nods, flashing him a bemused look. "Good for you," he says with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

"You see Dr. Willoughby today?" Cody changes the subject. He knows Zack doesn't like talking about his therapy, but he can't help himself. Zack needing a shrink—legitimately needing a shrink—has never been something he'd foreseen. Even now, after weeks of visits, the whole idea of it seems unreal.

"Of course," Zack answers with nonchalance.

"How'd it go?" Cody prods.

Zack shrugs. "The usual."

"How's Maya?"

Again, Zack shrugs (though he feels a burst of pain swell in his chest). "The usual," he repeats.

"You're still not talking to her, are you?"

"Well can you blame me?"

The twins reach a wooden bench outside a thrift store that overlooks the street and sit down.

"Eventually, you'll have to," Cody says, crossing his legs at the ankles.

"And why is that?" Zack asks indignantly.

Cody looks down, seemingly inspecting his shirt. But Zack can tell that he's thinking—that he's considering what to say. When he finally does speak, he brings his face back up and looks Zack straight in the eye. "Life's too short to be spent holding grudges."

"Pfft! Life's too short to be spent doing shit you don't wanna do," Zack shoots back, giving a humorless snort. "If you wanna hold grudges, that's your own damn business. And no one else should say otherwise."

"Isn't it exhausting, though—living like that?" Cody questions.

"Do I have a choice?"

Cody looks hurt. "Yes, Zack, you do," he says. "You always have a choice."

Zack sucks in a deep breath, obviously peeved. "When you've had to go through what I've had to go through, come back and say that. Until then, keep your fucking mouth shut."

A long moment of silence passes between them. From the corner of his eye, Zack spots a young couple walking together with their children and turns to watch them. The mother is holding the hand of a little boy, her other arm supporting a sweater; the father is carrying a bundled infant against his chest, periodically glancing down and cooing into its face. The tears come back. He holds them in, not wanting them to fall in front of Cody, but they sting. Sting like a thousand needles.

"Are you sure it's Maya you're really mad at?" Cody's question startles him. "Or is it yourself?"

"What do you mean?" Zack hisses.

"Do you really blame her for going through with it, or do you just blame yourself for not stopping her?"

"How can you say that to me?"

"You never told her how you felt about it. She told you what she wanted to do and you never spoke up. Who's really at fault here?"

Zack's blood begins to boil. He feels rage surge through him, igniting his veins, burrowing inside his stomach. He wants to hit something—anything. He wants to go on a rampage and destroy everything in his path, big or small. He can't, so instead he screams, right in Cody's face: "Shut up, Cody! Just shut up, alright? You don't know jack shit!"

But Cody doesn't shut up. "Who's really at fault here, Zack?" he pushes, feeling, for some unknown reason, that it's what Zack needs.

"Shut up, Cody!"

"I will once you answer my question."

"I'll never forgive her!" Zack chokes. "Don't ask me to forgive her because I won't! I'll never forgive her—I swear to God, I won't!"

"I'm not asking you to forgive her, Zack."

"Then what the fuck are you asking me to do, huh? Stop fucking around with my head and be straight with me!"

"I'm asking you to forgive yourself." Gently, Cody places his hand on his brother's shoulder, but Zack shoves it off. "Let it go, Zack," Cody says earnestly. "Just let it go."

"Easier said than done," Zack retorts.

"It always is. But it can be done…if you let it." Again, Cody reaches for Zack's shoulder. However, this time he stops himself short and brings his hand back down before it actually touches. "Just let it go. It's over. In the past."

Zack shakes his head, disillusioned and emotionally-drained. "Stop fucking with me, Cody. I mean it."

"Let it go, Zack."

"Cody, I'm warning you…"

"Let it go. It's okay. You'll be okay."

"I'm not in the mood for your philosophical bullshit!"

"Let it go, let it go, let it—"

"Cody, I swear to God..."

"God has nothing to do with it. This is all you, man. This is your choice."

And just like that, Zack hauls off and hits Cody square in the jaw. It makes a crunching sound. The top half of Cody's body jars and twists, his face snapping to the side. His hand goes up to the side of his face, rubbing the area where Zack's knuckles have left a blotchy red mark across his skin. Then he opens his mouth and shifts his jaw about, checking to make sure no real damage has been done.

"Cody, I'm..." Zack fumbles for words. His eyes are wide. His mind is unable to register what he's just done. It's like the world has stopped turning—like everything has come to a halt.

He starts to cry. Hard. His body slumps forward, he buries his face in the palms of his hands, and he wails like a child.

This time when Cody touches his shoulder, he doesn't retaliate.

He just sobs. Sobs until his throat is sore, until his eyes feel like they're about ready to pop right out of their sockets, until his chest throbs so badly he thinks his heart may literally be broken. "Oh God...I'b so s-s-sorry...please forgive me...dear God, please forgive me..."

He sounds like a little child who's lost his way. People stop and stare, though none do anything. They just have themselves a nice little look and then continue on their merry way.

"Shhh..." Cody leans in close to him and encloses him in both arms. "Shhh, 's okay. I got you. 'S okay."

They stay like that for a long time. Until Zack's sobs cease and he and Cody sit quietly together, embracing each other tightly.

Eventually, Cody decides he needs to leave. "You gonna head on back?" he asks, standing up and stretching.

"In a little bit," Zack replies, his voice airy and scratched from the dryness of his throat. "I wanna stay out here for a while first. Get some more fresh air. God knows, it's been forever since I've done that."

Cody nearly smiles. "Okay, well, see ya."

"See ya."

Cody walks off.

And Zack is alone.

He looks around for a long time, taking everything in—the cars parallel-parked on the other side of the street, the abandoned warehouse directly in front of him, it's brick walls spray-painted with cartoons, the Starbucks a few blocks down, the people who were free to roam about on a Tuesday afternoon wandering around like aimless drunks, the sky. He has an aversion to sunlight but he turns his face towards the sun anyway, closing his eyes, feeling the warmth of it on his skin.

His cell phone rings. He knows, even before answering it, that it's Maya. She has a habit of calling him just to see if he'll talk to her. It's become kind of an OCD thing. She's been doing it for weeks. Why, he'll never know. The only one who does the talking is her. He never utters one word. At least, not usually.

But today is somehow not a usual day. And as soon as he flips the phone open and puts it to his ear, two words escape his lips: "I'm sorry."

A long pause ensues. Zack can hear Maya stifling sobs on the other end. "Me too," she finally croaks.

For a moment, Zack wants to smack himself. Why did he have to speak? What was he supposed to do now? Of course, he could always just hang up and turn his phone off. But the thought of that feels cowardly. "I lied to you," he tells her through a deep breath.

"When?" she asks.

"This morning. I didn't really lust after you for the contents of your pants."

"That's…"—Maya falters—"good to know."

And Zack can't control himself again. "But I did lust after you for selfish reasons," he confesses. "I liked the way I felt around you. I liked the way my pulse felt, the way my stomach knotted up, the way I wanted to give you my skin, my flesh, my bones—the way I wanted to rip myself apart and give it to you. That's how I loved you."

"That's morbid."

"I thought it'd be beautiful." He feels another sob edging up his throat, but fights it down. "I was wrong, it's not. Being ripped apart is not beautiful."

"Do you still have nightmares?" she asks, changing the subject.

The tears begin to sting again. The needles in his eyes. "I'll always have nightmares."

There's another moment's pause, before Maya braves the question she's been wanting to ask for a long time: "Zack, do you think I'm a horrible person?"

He draws in a deep, shaky breath. "Yes," he answers. "But then again, aren't we all? Aren't we all just horrible, despicable people?"

"Zack, I don't think—"

"I forgive you, Maya."

Even over the phone, he can see her amazement. He can almost taste it, smell it—as though it's as tangible as he is.

"You. Forgive. Me?" Her words come out slow. Calculated. "After everything?"

"Yeah," Zack replies. "After everything."

"Why?"

"Because…what do we have if not forgiveness?"

There is a third pause—this one so long that Zack is tempted to hang up.

Then Maya breaks it. "Thank you, Zack."

"Sure." For a brief second, he's pulling the phone away from his ear. But in a flash, it comes back, a sudden thought popping into his head. "—oh, and Maya?"

Luckily, she's still there. "Yeah?"

"I have a question."

"Sure, Zack. Anything."

"Remember that story in the Bible where God asks that father to sacrifice his son?"

"The story of Abraham and Isaac. Why do you ask?"

"What happens at the end?"

"Zack, you already know what happens…"

"I want you to tell me."

"Read it yourself."

"No, I want you to tell me."

Maya sighs. When she answers, she sounds weary. Like she's given up all hope. "God stops him."

Zack hangs up.


Don't just tell me what you think. Tell me how you feel.