The Sequel to Clockwork
Author's Notes: Welcome. For those of you who have not read Clockwork, it is not necessary for you to read that story in order to understand this one. I have done my best to design Blackout so that it will work as a standalone; reading Clockwork is only necessary if you wish to know what happened to the protagonist, Taylor, when she was a child.
Sticky hot air and bleeding red lights punctuated the night.
From above, the occasional flickering from an obnoxious neon sign flooded the dark alley. Chix on Dix it said, overlaying the faded image of a cartoon woman riding reverse cowgirl. Classy, Owen thought as they approached it. Nothing like the promise of naked, bouncing tits and getting your dick rode hard on a Thursday night. The blood red glow sliced through the thick steam and smoke that poured from the rafters of the strip club, enveloping the darkness. The pulsing, rhythmic beat of music from up ahead was accompanied by the many sounds of a city not yet asleep; cars on the beltway from further outside the city, the cry of a distant siren, or some unidentifiable shout carried and then lost on the back of the wind.
The pavement, slick from an earlier rain, was black and spotted with puddles. Water gushed from overflowing gutters, trickling into the sewage drain beneath the road. Gotham had been unseasonably wet for this time of year, experiencing record rainfall and even flooding in some of the lower-income districts, particularly the Narrows, where it was easy to turn a blind eye and let all the dirt and grime either soak up the excess water or be drowned in it; it was much easier than allocating precious taxpayer dollars for a massive clean-up, where no doubt more problems than they had originally set out to tackle would be unearthed. No, much easier to let nature run its natural course—no one in those parts had a voice loud enough to be heard by the city council anyway. And in the eyes of a Gotham politician, a problem only needed to be addressed if it directly affected the greater good of the people who did have a voice.
Beside him, Owen watched out of the corner of his eye as the Joker tilted his chin upwards and placed one hand over his throat to adjust his tie, tightening it as he walked. The rain didn't seem to bother him at all, and in fact the bottom half of the legs of his trousers were soaked. He stomped through puddles, almost seeming to welcome them, never once making an effort to side-step them or readjust his course so as to avoid them. Owen supposed that was fitting—the Joker, intransigent, a man who moved for no one and nothing. His shoulders were drawn forward and hunched at a sharp, predatory angle, his tongue snaking out to wet his mangled red mouth. His purple jacket thudded against his chest and abdomen as he moved, his switchblades and other assorted necessities all tucked safely away in the recesses of his jacket. Owen looked away after that, never one to stare at the Joker for too long. There were a long string of disfigured bodies with smiling faces and gauged out eyes that hadn't learned that lesson as quickly as Owen had. Behind the two of them, Anderson and Tank were following at a close distance.
Some might've thought that 'Tank' was a name better suited for the family dog as a sort of joke, maybe, but it could not have been more fitting for the hulking black man currently fifteen paces behind him. The man was built like a brick shithouse, or maybe a freighter, like one of those massive ships you see lined at the docks along Hemming Street, loaded with thousands of metal containers, sat upon the waves like a house, unmoving and still, even as the water lapped at its sides. He was all of that, and Owen had yet to see him be taken down in a fight, even if his size and weight made him slower than most. Owen supposed that didn't matter much when you could land a punch that'd have your opponent's brain rattling in your skull for days after. Laying one into Tank, on the other hand, felt like hitting a five hundred pound punching bag or a brick wall. He was six feet of solid, unflinching muscle and distended forehead veins, made all the more noticeable by the black-ink tattoos covering his bald head, some sort of intricate maze, or an array of overlapping electrical wires, like he was plugged in, more machine than man.
Tank was quiet though, maybe because his physical appearance spoke loud enough as it was. He was a stoic man, even in the midst of battle; he didn't need to threaten you with useless words, not when he had clubs for hands and enough weight to squash you like a bug just by sitting on you.
Anderson, God help him, was Tank's polar opposite. With the strap of his gun slung over a thin shoulder, he was fiddling with his AK-47. Owen could hear the resounding click every time he moved the safety switch to 'off' from 'on'. Anderson was one of the new guys—just a boy, really, gangly and tall with lots of piercings and shitty tattoos attempting to cover every sliver of pale skin—and nervous to boot. A bit of a hothead, too. He'd pick a damn fight about the color of the sky if he felt like it. He was good with guns, though—didn't matter the model or size or other determining factor. If Owen had to guess, he wouldn't be surprised if the kid came from a military background, perhaps a father or a close uncle who'd served. Kid knew how to dissemble and assemble even the most complex models faster than Owen had ever seen. He knew the machinery and the mechanics of weaponry like the way a person knows every freckle and scar of a long-time lover. And that kind of attention to detail didn't come from just study, no, it was the sort of fostered affinity that had to be cultivated from years of hands-on practice, affinity born from obsession at an early age.
The kid was also a junkie, had more tracks on his arms than the goddamn map of the underground rail, but Owen knew junkies made some of the best recruits. They were loyal, usually, as long as they weren't too strung out to do the job, and do it well—and they needed the money to feed their habit. Sometimes they could be paid in kilos. The Joker wasn't picky about that, he knew better than anyone that not all currency came in the form of paper bills. Anyway, he hoped the kid would knock it off with his nervous little tick before the Joker got annoyed and slicked the pavement with something other than just rain.
When they reached the back entrance of the club, Anderson and Tank stopped several yards behind them, turning their backs to the two of them and holding their guns close.
"Good doggies," the Joker murmured.
The Joker had been quiet tonight, and it made this night feel different than usual. Off, somehow. Owen knew the Joker didn't take too well to being summoned, but he was hardly one to refuse what could potentially turn out to be a party.
He looked at Owen, only a flitting, frenetic glance. It was enough. Above them, the blood red sign hummed with electricity, cloaking the Joker's painted face in a harsh glow and making his eyes appear as fathomless pits. With the Joker so close and hulking beside him, tall—so fucking tall—Owen's senses were overwhelmed with the taste and smell of him, gasoline and gunpowder, coating his tongue, lining his nostrils with their acridity.
Time to get this show on the road.
He stepped in front of the Joker and climbed the concrete steps in two strides. He threw open the metal door, which hit the wall with a bang.
With deliberate slowness, the Joker entered the dark room, ducking through the doorway in a way that made the sweat on the back of Owen's neck feel cold all the sudden.
The icy relief of the air conditioned room and the smell of cigarette smoke accosted Owen when he stepped further inside and off to the side to give the Joker his space. The Joker liked that, didn't want you standing too close.
Owen watched him put on his show, the way he licked his lips and rolled his shoulders, briefly shut his eyes, the excited shiver that curled up his spine and fanned out.
In the back corner of the room sat a balding fat sonofabitch, wild-eyed at the sudden intrusion of the Joker. A woman in a short, slinky silver dress—with one thin strap spilling over her arm, revealing a bare shoulder—was draped provocatively over his lap, seemingly unperturbed by their interruption. Her eyes raked over Owen, then the Joker. She smiled at them as if she had a secret to tell, and then she moaned and arched her back, showing off the open back of her dress, her smooth skin, the way her dress slid dangerously high to reveal her bare thighs.
She looked at the Joker from behind her thick, false lashes, gauging his reaction. Seeing none, she nuzzled into the rolls of the man's neck, her smooth, black hair trailing down the curve of her back as she whispered into his ear. He could only imagine what she was saying. "Think we have an audience, maybe we should give them something to watch?" With a throaty laugh, the guy moved his hand lower and stroked her ass. She all but purred at his touch, cat-like, arching herself even more.
She did paint a pretty silhouette, Owen thought... but you could not pay him all the money in the world to do what she did. He had no shame in admitting it, either. He knew that for some women, prostitution wasn't exactly a choice. To greedy men, the body of a woman was not her own, or even a body at all, but a thing, an object to be shared and used among many.
To others, it was nothing but a fact of life. It was survival. It was the owner's manual to how to stay off the streets when you've grown up poor, how to feed the kids, feed the addiction, feed the bills... and hell if this girl wasn't giving it every damn thing she had and enjoying it.
In the dim lighting, the woman's faux gold-hoop earrings glimmered, sashaying from her ears when she ducked her head to laugh into the rolls of the man's sweaty neck.
"You didn't tell me you invited the Joker," she purred, her voice a distinctive mix of thick, city drawl and gravelly husk from smoking too many cigarettes. She crawled off the guy's lap and sashayed to where the Joker stood by the door.
With hunched shoulders and hooded, predatory eyes, he watched her approach, unblinking.
She smiled when she stood in front of him, staring up into his dark eyes without the slightest hint of fear. "Come to play?" she whispered to him. She didn't break her gaze as she lowered her hand between them and cupped him firmly between his legs, laughing when he merely raised his brows. "You're so big," she purred.
"I am," he agreed, unsmiling, just low enough for her to hear. "And fortunately for you, not interested." With a speed she hadn't been expecting, the woman found herself on the floor with a blade wedged in between her ribs, stunned at what had just happened.
It took only a second for realization to kick in. The blood rushed from her face and she turned pale as a sheet. With a gasp, she pulled the knife from her side and let it clatter to the ground, her lips trembling. Owen didn't move a muscle, but internally he grimaced. It was a small knife, just a pocket, but you never pulled out the offending object; caused more tissue damage and, depending on how deep, more organ damage, too. Yeah, he'd seen guys bleed to death because of that. The woman, though? She'd be fine, minus an ugly scar after the stitches were taken out, maybe.
Their man, a Russian by the name of Iosif, rolled his eyes from behind the safety of his desk. "Get out of here, Jessica," he said, exasperated and bored. "Show is over."
With wounded pride and ribs, Jessica was shaky to get to her feet. She winced at the pain that flared up her side and glared at the Joker.
"You ass," she mumbled on her way out.
The Joker watched her limp towards the door that led out into the club as if nothing had happened. Bright, flashing colors and pulsating music wafted through the room for just a moment before the door was closed once again.
"I apologize for her... impudence."
Iosif's accent was thick, but not enough to impede the language; he spoke English well, all things considered. His voice, though, sounded like chafed metal and gritty sandpaper.
Owen spread his legs a bit to get comfortable and stood with his back ramrod straight, as if awaiting inspection. He was a military man. He kept his hands folded low, near his groin, in case quick intervention was necessary. There was a Beretta PX4 nine millimeter semiautomatic pistol strapped to one thigh and a Ruger SR22 strapped to his other in case things got really fun. His AK-47 assault rifle was slung over his back. He looked at the Joker out of the corner of his eye and saw him lick his lips.
"Perhaps you should keep your pets on a leash."
Iosif took a long drag from his cigar, studying the Joker's tall frame. "Sit down."
The Joker did not.
"Very well," he mumbled around the cigar in his mouth. The Russian leaned back in his chair and folder his soft hands over his protruding belly—hands that hadn't seen the perils of war, greed, or murder. Hands that were accustomed to receiving but never giving. Tender, fatty knuckles that'd never met the flesh of another man's face. "I have to admit, Joker, I did not think you'd show."
"We-ll," the Joker drawled, stepping closer as his eyes moved around the room in one quick sweep, observing everything—especially the security camera in the corner, which Owen had also made note of. "You called, I came. Seemed like the polite thing to do."
Iosif smirked. "In that case, maybe you like to do me little favor."
The Joker chuckled, though his eyes were glimmered in the darkness, a warning. "You are nobody to me. Do I reaaally look like the type of guy to be doing you favors?" The word tasted sour on his tongue and he pulled a face.
"No," Iosif said. He leaned back in his chair. "But I am betting you want to do this one."
The Joker smacked his lips and cocked his head to the side. "That depends on what kind of favor we're talking about, hm?" He raised his brows. "And what little ole Joker here gets out of it."
Sighing, Iosif opened his mouth to speak but promptly closed it again, hesitating. It was obvious he was wrestling with how he was going to sell this.
"Joker... I contact you because you're a smart man, yes? You take care of things. You are... unconventional, yes... but you get job done. The city is scared of you. The Italians," he emphasized,"are scared of you. And we, the Russians? We scared of you too. But we respect you, see?" Iosif gestured between himself and the Joker. "We are team. So I say to myself, 'Iosif, hire that Jokerman, and good things will come to you'..."
Owen was starting to see where this was going. In Gotham, the Italians were the ones who ran the show. That was how it had been since the dawn and rise of Gotham, and that was how it would always be... but it didn't stop the Russians from trying to climb to the top and usurp the perch of the Italian mob, especially as the Russians' numbers grew, as more and more immigrants poured from their mother country. There was a lucrative business to be found with the Mexicans and illegal arms dealing, as the Russians had secured several trade routes between Gotham and certain cartels in Mexico and Central America. The hard part was smuggling it all past the border, but the Mexicans were paid handsomely for their troubles, and the Russians got to sell their product to all of those whom the Italians had burned bridges with, and secure new loyalties in the process. If Owen were honest, the Russians had probably amassed a small army by now, and an even smaller army of those who had pledged their allegiance in payment for their own protection. That was not to say the Russians were ready take on the Italian mob by any means, and their current threat to the Italians was a quiet one, but if their numbers continued to grow, there would be an all-out war in Gotham, ending in a massacre.
And as the Russians grew in number, so did their acumen in their business dealings. These men were not desultory like many Gothamites who had come before them had been. For the Russians, it was not a matter of imbuing their ideals, or even wanting to create a better Gotham, or to mold the city into the shape they wanted it to be. It was about declaring their ascendancy, their control. If anything, the Russians' rise to power was born from a cry for dominance rather than some twisted and misguided desire to see Gotham as a phoenix rising from the ashes. The Russians had come to stake their claim and to take ruthlessly from the very city that had been their vehicle to power.
Owen saw their battle as a losing one... you don't bite the hand that feeds you and then continue to expect to be fed. And the Russians had a weak spot—they had little to zero pull with public officials and the Gotham police. Since they were not recognized as a true crime syndicate, they received little acknowledgment or respect from the higher-ups. The Italians, on the other hand, had been in Gotham for so long that many of them had political ties that were strong enough to span generations of families; little Johnny Jr. would grow up to be a crooked cop just like his father, and bend over backwards for the whim of whatever Italian syndicate his father had been so loyal to. The Italians had what the Russians could never buy—decades worth of loyal bonds, relationships, a foundation of which was not so easily cracked.
"You know," the Joker started, pausing for a moment as if he were letting the words roll around on his tongue before he said them, "desperation is not a look I find very becoming." Iosif was about to protest, but the Joker took a heavy step forward and held up a gloved finger to silence him. "Ah, ah, I know it when I smell it, and you... you reek of it. Y'see... desperation makes people do craaazy things. It makes people volatile. Fearful. Vulnerable."
"Look," Iosif began, his weathered, gray eyes darting around the room as if to double check that no one was lurking in the shadows. Owen rolled his eyes. It was all for show. "I let you in on big secret. This is a favor." Owen watched as the Joker bristled at this, an action that otherwise went unnoticed by the Russian. Iosif pulled his cigar out of his mouth long enough to twirl it between his thumb and forefinger. "Something big is going to happen, and I uh, being nice guy and all, figured that you want to be part of it."
The Joker raised his brows as if to issue the man along further. Owen was getting impatient as well. He couldn't imagine the Russian knew something that was worth even two cents, yet, here they were. Could he just get to the point already?
Noticing his expectant gaze, Iosif cleared his throat and locked eyes with the Joker. "There's uh, somebody that needs to be... disposed of, if you catch my drift." He winked exaggeratedly, as if he thought that was cute or something, but the Joker stared with a blank expression, working his mouth and tonguing at the inside of his scars. Owen couldn't believe they had come down here for this. He stood a little straighter, ready for the Joker's instruction should he want him to take the Russian out.
"I don't..." his voice was nasal and high as he waved his hand, searching for the right words. When he spoke again, his voice had plummeted to a lower octave. "I don't do that, if ya catch my drift." This time is was the Joker's turn to wink exaggeratedly, and Iosif paled. He scooted forward in his chair, sensing the Joker's mounting irritation.
"Please," he urged, anxiously slicking back nonexistent hair, "I have received hefty sum for job." He paused, waiting to see if the Joker was still interested. "I give you sixty percent, yes? Is quick job... hell, you dress it up if you want. Make it uh, theatrical. Gotham hasn't had… the pleasure of witnessing your presence in almost two years."
He was talking about The Joker's noted absence from the public eye. For months, rumors swirled from every paper in Gotham that the Joker was dead, that Batman had finally done it—the rumors had even picked up steam globally, when he hadn't been seen or heard from in over a year. Some papers suggested he had died in a freak accident—an explosion in one of the chemical plants on the South Channel Island around the time of the Joker's latest escape from Arkham and his consequent disappearance—where someone had claimed to have last seen him. Since then, hundreds, if not thousands of claims had been made on behalf of people who reported having spotted the Joker. It was, of course, nothing but buzz to fill the eerie silence and tension he'd left in his wake, a city sitting on the ledge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Some speculated the Joker was merely biding his time, that he would soon return… and those who believed so were not wrong.
A deep frown pulled at the corners of the Joker's lacerated mouth. He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "Tell me something. Does your employer think I can be bought with money?" he asked with exaggerated incredulity. "Does he think I'm going to welcome him with spread legs? That I'm some kind of whore who'll do whatever he wants for a couple green slips of paper? Is that what you think I am? Do you think I'm a whore, Iosif?"
The Russian scratched the underside of his jaw, becoming angry as he mumbled around the cigar lodged in the corner of his mouth. "I am putting my neck on the line for this," he clarified. "My employer... he slighted me. My men. He asks me to do this and expects me to sit quietly on the sidelines? No. No." He shook his head, the idea unfathomable. "He plans to bring this city to its knees." He paused to let that sink in. "I give you this job, and the money, and you bring this city to its knees." He eyed the Joker up and down. "You want in or not?"
Owen watched as the Joker sauntered forward to place his palms on the edge of the desk, gripping the metal as he leaned forward, growling. "I am the city."
Leaning back in his chair, a wide grin spread across Iosif's face. He clearly had a card under his sleeved he hadn't revealed yet.
Sensing this, Owen watched the Joker's gloved hands curl around the edges of the metal desk. "Who is your employer?"
The Russian's eyes glimmered with satisfaction. "Scarecrow," he said.
The Joker grinned, too. "Now we're talkin'."
Several months prior….
Taylor was having nightmares again.
Austin had been in the shower when he heard her crying, and he was quick to turn off the faucet and wrap a towel around his waist. Steam poured from the bathroom as he opened the door and hurried to the bed where Taylor lay tossing and turning.
"Hey, hey, it's alright. I'm right here." He knelt down next to the bed where her face was pressed against the pillow, her cheeks wet from tears. Taylor sobbed when she opened her eyes, seeing Austin there with soap suds still in his hair and his expression twisted into a worried frown.
"Austin, I'm sorry, I—"
"Sh, sh. You don't have to be sorry. It's not your fault." He dried his hands on the towel before reaching up and smoothing her hair against the pillow. "I'm right here," he said again, more softly this time. She sniffled and pulled her hand out from beneath the covers, reaching for his. She clutched it tightly and he let her, still running his other hand through her hair in a comforting gesture. He did that until she fell back asleep.
In the early hours of the morning, the sky was a pallid shade of slate gray, half hidden behind the billowy white curtains that hung from the window. Outside, the neighborhood laid silent and still, the sun having yet to crest the horizon. Already it was humid and sticky out. The grass and trees were damp from an earlier morning rain. April had proved to be rainier and more humid than most, perhaps a small taste of the summer that was soon to come.
As dark rain clouds loomed in the distant sky, a static electricity also seemed to hang in the air, a small warning of the impending thunderstorm that was scheduled to arrive sometime later that afternoon.
Austin noted this as he stood in the kitchen and sipped his coffee, staring out the window into the backyard and thinking about the long day ahead. Taylor's nightmares were getting worse and becoming a lot more frequent. He'd be lying if he said it wasn't exhausting. Dealing with two nightmares a week he could handle, but one almost every other night, and sometimes more than one? It was starting to take its toll on him. Waking up to the sound of cries, screams, or, on the worst nights, Taylor thrashing so hard in bed she nearly hurt herself.
He could only imagine the toll it was taking on her.
He wished more than anything he could stay home with her, just hold her in his arms, promise her that everything would be alright and that he'd always be there to protect her no matter what. He set his cup on the counter and gripped the edges of the sink, bowing his head with a quiet sigh as he closed his eyes.
He was startled when warm hands slipped around his waist and Taylor hugged him from behind. He relaxed into her hold.
"I'm sorry I woke you," she said quietly.
Austin turned to face her, his heart practically swelling in his chest at the sight of her. Those big, green eyes would be the death of him. God, even after all this time he was still so in love with her.
"You didn't wake me, baby," he assured her. "Are you alright?"
Taylor sighed as she put her hands on his chest and leaned into him. He wrapped his arms around her waist and held her close.
"They're getting worse," she said, almost as if she were ashamed to admit it, as if she had any sort of control over them at all and they were her fault.
It was the first time she had acknowledged the fact aloud, even if they both already knew without her having to say it. He knew it hurt for her to have to tell him. Taylor had always been one to revel in denial, to think that if she just didn't talk about it, then the problem would go away. This wasn't something she could keep sweeping under the rug, though. It had to be addressed.
Austin didn't even know where to start. He held her tighter. "I'm so sorry," he whispered, nuzzling his cheek into her hair. He realized with a sinking feeling that maybe he was in denial, too. He always thought if he could just hold her a little bit tighter, if he could be there for her more that these nightmares wouldn't plague her anymore, wouldn't haunt her. Austin was not the Knight in Shining Armor he had originally envisioned himself to be. He was not the one fighting off the monsters that breathed in her ear and haunted the dark cellars of her mind. He did his best to offer himself as her constant shield of support and encouragement, and he had once promised himself he'd be everything she needed him to be, but maybe even that wasn't enough.
He ran his hand along her back and didn't know what else to say. It made him feel like a fool. He wanted to fight her demons for her, more than anything, but now more than ever he felt so ill-equipped at doing so.
Taylor tucked a strand of hair behind her ear as she pulled away. "I'm sorry," she said again, as if she ever needed to apologize for something so out of her control. She sniffled and smiled halfheartedly in an attempt to erase the images from her nightmare. "Can I make you breakfast?" she offered.
Austin smiled sadly at her, watching as she went about the kitchen. That was his Taylor, always the first to ignore her own problems in favor of helping someone else. He had loved that about her when they first met, but now he could see it was a fault more than anything else. She had to start putting herself first.
"I think you should see a psychiatrist again," he said, quietly. He watched her reaction carefully, noting the way she slowed as she placed a frying pan on the stove.
"I know," was her equally quiet reply, and he knew better than to push the matter further. Her psychiatric sessions were completely private—he knew nothing about them or what went on—and while they had seemed to do some good at first, during the third month with one Dr. Johar (just one doctor among a slew of nine others), something had gone terribly wrong. That was after her stint in rehab due to side effects of the surfeit of anti-anxiety medications she was taking. She hadn't seen a psychiatrist since then, and he'd only asked about the incident once, never to receive a response. He thought that maybe if she could just push past that barrier that haunted her that maybe—maybe—things could slowly begin to get better and her wounds would begin to heal.
Deep down though, in the recesses of his mind, he knew that there were some wounds that had cut too deep, wounds that might not ever heal. Taylor had been scarred in more ways than Austin could comprehend, and he knew it. He didn't pretend to understand what she was going through. How could he? He knew some of her traumatic past—bits and fragments, really—but there were some things that she was unwilling to share, even with him. He had his suspicions, had wondered on more than one occasion if she had been sexually abused as a child. But he didn't ask. A part of him, perhaps as selfish as it was, didn't want to know. He couldn't bear the thought of her being so humiliated and hurt at such a young age.
He swallowed the lump in his throat and decided to change the subject, attempting to take her mind off her troubles by telling her a funny story about an incident that had happened at work. They laughed like little kids as they sat at the counter and ate breakfast together. Taylor giggled and her eyes lit up as he told his story, and for a moment everything felt good like it was supposed to, like this was the way their life had always meant to be. It was one of those moments that Austin wished would never end.
He groaned when he glanced at the clock.
"You have to leave already?" The disappointment in Taylor's voice was enough to make him want to call in sick to work, but he'd done that enough times and knew he couldn't risk another. He had an important article to revise for tomorrow's paper anyway.
"I'll be home early tonight," he promised.
Taylor nodded, pulling her bathrobe tighter around her as she slid from the barstool and gathered their plates. "I'm working tonight. I won't be back until about eight tomorrow morning."
Austin hummed in acknowledgement. Sometimes he hated that she worked nightshift at the hospital, even if the pay was better. There were so many nights where they didn't get to see each other. Sometimes he'd miss her by mere minutes. She'd leave at six in the evening for her seven o'clock shift, missing him pulling into the driveway after his workday by mere minutes. And in the mornings, when she got home at eight, he was already gone.
"Can you stop by for a late dinner?"
Austin smiled. "Of course I will." He sighed then and pulled her close, hugging her to his chest. "I love you so much."
Taylor clung tightly to him. "I love you more."
He always laughed when she said that. "I doubt that, baby," he teased. He grinned and blew a raspberry into her neck as Taylor pushed him away with a laugh. They hugged once more by the front door, and as Austin slid into the car and waved to Taylor standing at the front door, he wondered how long they'd be able to keep sweeping her monsters under the rug until they rose to the surface with a vengeance.
Taylor did see a psychiatrist.
It was a Thursday, her day off. Austin had to work, but he'd offered to take the day off too in case she wanted him to go with her. While she appreciated his offer, she ultimately declined. This was something she had to do on her own. She didn't know if she'd be able to fully open up if Austin were there; there were things about her past that she did not want him to know. It was not out of a desire to keep secrets from him, or even that she was embarrassed… but she did not want him to see her as tainted. Broken. Something to be handled delicately, like China glass. She did not want to be treated softly on account of the horrors she'd experienced as a child, no matter how fresh some of those wounds were.
People tended to walk on eggshells when they found out you had tried to commit suicide, or that you struggled with depression, that you had been abused and mistreated as a child.
Austin knew more about her than anyone else—he probably knew her better than she knew herself, if she were honest—yet she still felt the need to erect barriers, as if there were parts of her that she couldn't allow him to see, as if they might disgust him, or cause him not to love her anymore. She didn't want to shut him out, not that, but even despite everything—despite how understanding he was, how kind, patient, and loving, all the qualities she so deeply admired about him—she was still terrified of losing him, that one day he would decide he'd had enough, that he couldn't handle her demons, all of her baggage, and would walk away. She knew it was an unfounded fear. He'd given her no reason to feel the way she did, but she also knew that many of the people in her past had been so fleeting. She had been so lonely, so afraid when she was younger, that it had been far too easy to grow attached, to cling to someone, to trust, to love, only to have those attachments ripped from her without warning. Friends from the orphanage, foster families, her adoptive mother, and countless others. So much in her life had not been permanent. She did not want Austin to befall the same fate as all the others.
The two of them had first met in college, when she was just nineteen. Austin, who was three years older, had been studying journalism at a university in Delaware before transferring to Gotham State University during his junior year. They met in the parking lot of a grocery store, of all places, and she remembered the rain that afternoon, it had been falling all day. She had been carrying a bag of groceries in her arms when she slipped and fell on the pavement. She could still remember the way it felt to be lying flat on her back, pelted by freezing cold rain, and the figure of a man as he ran across the parking lot. She thought something awful had happened until she realized he was running to her, to see if she was okay.
He had been so sweet, kneeling by her side in the torrential downpour, gathering up her groceries—including the ones that had rolled down the small dip in the pavement where they had come to rest against the curb. She remembered they had to shout at each other to be heard over the rain. She remembered the absurdity of exchanging phone numbers—she never gave her number out to strangers—beneath the superficial awning of the open trunk door. She remembered the way he could not stop looking at her as he walked away and how hot her cheeks felt from the rush of the moment.
When they started dating, she had been impressed by how gentlemanly he was, respecting her boundaries, not moving too fast, never pushing her to do anything she was uncomfortable with or not ready for. She fell in love with his laid-back demeanor, and how genuinely kind he was to complete strangers.
And while she had never really dated anyone before him, she felt that Austin understood and sympathized with her background better than most. She knew that meeting him had helped turn her life around, that he had helped her find her sense of purpose again. It had been so easy, falling in love with him. Despite their differences in upbringing, she felt that they shared a mutual understanding. Austin was an only child who had grown up knowing nothing but wealth, he had been raised by parents who gave him everything and nothing, smothering him frivolously with their money but also their expectations. They wanted him to become a lawyer, marry a nice, wealthy girl and carry on the family name. Taylor, on the other hand, had spent most of her life in foster care. It amazed her to think how their lives had been on completely different sides of the spectrum, and yet they were still able to form a connection, a deep bond of trust which she had craved so desperately during her childhood. She loved him more than words could express.
If she were to be more open with him about her past, she knew he would have been incredibly understanding regardless of whatever was revealed—he always was, it was one of the many reasons why she had fallen in love with him in the first place—but it did not change the fact that there were monsters from her past she did not want him to see. He already took so many of her burdens and shouldered them as if they were his own—she couldn't bear the thought of adding any more weight to it. She could not lose him like she'd lost so many others.
Her appointment was with one Dr. Graham, located in Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. It would take three hours to get there, and with Austin taking the car to work, Taylor purchased bus tickets to take her into the city and decided to make a day of it. She left early in the morning, shortly after Austin did, and had arrived in DC a little after nine, with only minimal delays due to traffic. She spent the morning and early afternoon browsing through museums on Independence Avenue, squeezing herself through all the crowds of children on their school field trips, and smiling to herself at their uncontained excitement and energy. She took a break around one to have lunch in a small café, and ended up chatting with a friendly couple from Sweden who were spending the summer backpacking across the States.
With an hour and a half left until her appointment, she walked along Main Avenue where it was sunny and warm and browsed the fish market before taking a walk along the small pier. The smell of fish was strong, but so was the scent of the salted waves, and the algae that clung to the rocks that sheltered the pillars of the pier, and the hot clam chowder and garlic-crusted shrimp sold in a small booth next to the market. All of this faded into the background, however, as the closer it got to her appointment, the more her nerves seemed to spike inside her with a frenetic burst of energy. She felt her palms turning sweaty and stopped along the pier to lean her elbows against the railing and close her eyes, trying to let the sound of the waves lapping against the rocks calm her and put her mind at ease.
She knew she was going to have to recall parts of her past that she hadn't thought about in a long time... not since her last session with Dr. Johar. A session so disastrous it ended with her having to be sedated; Austin didn't know that. He knew it had gone badly, but he didn't know to what extent. It was another thing she couldn't bear to tell him.
As it edged closer to three thirty, Taylor steeled herself and called a cab. Dr. Graham held her sessions out of her home. It was located in a quaint but upscale neighborhood in the suburbs, with a fresh-cut lawn and bright garden outlining a beautiful blue Victorian home. As she eyed the surrounding homes, it was clear that this was a community home to many doctors, lawyers, and politicians.
Taylor paid the driver and stepped out onto the sidewalk, squinting up at the house through the onslaught of the sun's rays as the taxi drove away, finalizing her decision to see Dr. Graham. It was too late to turn around now, wasn't it?
There were flower baskets hanging from the porch and birds singing and flitting in between them. They dispersed when they heard her approach, scattering in a flurry of chirps. The wooden floorboards creaked beneath her as she stepped on the welcome mat and knocked on the door. For the few moments it took for Dr. Graham to reach the door, Taylor's heart felt like it was trying to crawl its way up her throat.
The door opened to reveal a woman of Taylor's height, with long brown hair and square glasses. She was dressed in brown capris slacks and a billowy white top. She held open the door.
"Hello," she greeted with a kind smile. "You must be Mrs. James. Please, come in." Taylor nodded her thanks and stepped inside as they exchanged names and pleasantries. "You're right on time," Dr. Graham remarked, glancing at her watch. "Did you have a hard time finding the place?"
Taylor shook her head. "No, not at all. This is a beautiful neighborhood." It was a beautiful home, too. It looked just like the interior of the homes in the Country Homes decorating magazines her foster mother used to read. Taylor had always loved looking through them and cutting out her favorite interiors. She'd glue her favorite pictures on the back of a giant poster board that her foster brother had once used for a school project. The board detailed all the designs she wanted in her future home, all wood floors, lots of windows and skylights to let in natural light, wooden antique chairs and tables with just the right amount of scuff and roughness to give it that aged charm. Ruffled, checkered curtains over the upper portions of the windows, mismatched cutlery and dishes, a chalkboard by the front door with a friendly welcome message, or a place to leave reminders. Decorations that spoke of an affinity for collecting antiques, all of which were mismatched but looked as if they all belonged nevertheless.
If Taylor didn't know any better, she'd think that Dr. Graham had taken all of her most favorite designs from her poster board as a child and put them in her home. She immediately felt surrounded by that same warmth and safety that the country homes from those magazines had once made her feel, and she melted into the memory as well as into Dr. Graham's home, feeling more at ease than she expected to. The house smelt like cinnamon and something else that was distinctly Dr. Graham's own, much the way every family has their own unique scent. She let her eyes wander as Dr. Graham motioned for Taylor to follow her down a hall that was spotted with various décor and framed photos of her children and family.
"When I first started out I was working in a shoebox in an industrialized office space in Baltimore. Took me five years and several new office spaces to figure out that the city was not for me. That was right around the time that the idea of working from home had started to become popular."
Taylor shook her head. "If my home was this beautiful I don't think I'd ever leave," she said, the awe in her voice unmistakable.
Dr. Graham laughed, a pleasant sound. "I'm flattered you think so. It certainly has its perks. Would you like some tea, water? I just made fresh lemonade."
"Fresh lemonade would be wonderful, thank you."
Taylor followed the doctor into an open and spacious oversized kitchen where afternoon sunlight spilled in freely through the sliding glass door next to the dining room table. The sun's warm rays bounced off the rustic chandelier and the glass vase in the center of the table that housed bright yellow daffodils. She was taken in by the rustic charm as well as the finger-painted pictures and colorful alphabetized magnets dotting the fridge. Dr. Graham noticed her looking and smiled.
"That would be the work of my three year old, Ava."
Taylor smiled at what was presumably meant to be a giraffe, but resembled more of a yellow skyscraper covered in brown dots of varying shapes and sizes. "She's quite the artist."
"Oh, believe me, you haven't even seen the carpet in her bedroom." Taylor laughed at that. Dr. Graham retrieved two tall glasses from the cabinet next to the sink. "Do you have any children, Mrs. James?"
"Please, you can call me Taylor. And no, not at the moment."
Dr. Graham pulled a glass pitcher from the fridge as it opened with a suctioned pop. "May I inquire as to why?"
Taylor bit her lip and looked away, suddenly remembering why she was here. "I guess we're getting started right away then?" she asked with a chuckle, hoping to veil her anxiety.
Dr. Graham smiled kindly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be forward." She moved around the island to hand Taylor her glass of lemonade. "Just asking out of genuine curiosity. Life would be so different for me if it wasn't for little Ava and John." She smiled and then gestured. "Come, please, my study is this way." Taylor nodded and followed her back down the main hallway in which she had entered, and then veered to her left, down another hallway with an arched entryway behind the stairs. "Normally I invite my clients to sit outside on the deck on days when it's nice like this," she paused to open the door to her study, holding it open so Taylor could enter first, "but Thursdays are landscaping day for my neighbors. I didn't want us to be distracted by the sound of lawnmowers and garden sheers."
"That's alright," Taylor said. Truthfully, she felt more comfortable indoors anyway, where she could be sure her words weren't being carried off by the wind, or overheard by suburban moms pushing their strollers or going for an afternoon jog with other neighborhood mothers.
The door closed behind them with a click. "Please, have a seat," Dr. Graham instructed.
Taylor did, sitting on a well-cushioned but structured couch the color of sea foam. Dr. Graham's office was light, airy, and clean, very much without the warm, aged, and familial tones of the rest of the house. There was a more minimalist but beachy feel to the room, the walls painted a muted and washed out shade of blue, almost like bleached denim, while starfish tangled in fishing nets and seashells decorated the walls. The bookcase, in contrast, was tall and black, stretching from floor to ceiling along one wall and filled to the brim with books of all colors and sizes, as well as other knickknacks; seashells and sea glass in a tin pail, various beach-scented candles, and pictures of the ocean.
There was a desk in the corner of the room that housed the bookshelf, tilted at an angle so that it faced the other furniture in the room, but Dr. Graham did not go to sit behind it, instead choosing the overstuffed chair across from Taylor's own. A coffee table separated them.
Taylor set her drink down on a beaded seashell coaster and tried to let herself relax, to let her mind be calmed and quieted by the serenity of the room, with all its muted shades and the slight scent of sage and sandalwood that hung in the air. If she tried hard enough, she could almost hear the sound of crashing waves, feel that spray of sea salt wind on her face and in her air.
Dr. Graham had a folder of papers on the coffee table that she briefly sifted through before reaching for her notebook.
"Before we begin, I just want you to know anything you say in here will stay in this room. I have already taken the liberty of signing a confidentiality agreement as I do with all my clients to put them at ease. No one will know what was said in this session or that there even was a session unless you want them to. Any notes I make here today will be placed in a file to be passed along to another therapist or psychiatrist should you choose to see one. Do you have any questions for me regarding these things?"
Taylor shook her head. She wouldn't even know where to start if she did have questions.
"I know that all might sound a bit overwhelming. The main takeaway is that in this room, right now, it's just you and me. I want you to feel comfortable sharing your story with me. This is just an introductory session, mostly. All I hope to do today is to get to know you better. The doctor who wrote your referral also mentioned you've been having nightmares that have interfered with your daily life. If we have time, we can certainly talk about that today, too."
Taylor nodded, this time 'yes', and reminded herself they were just going to talk. She was safe. Nothing bad was going to happen. She trusted Dr. Graham.
Her body was reacting like a nuclear bomb was about to be set off in this very room.
"If you have any questions you'd like to ask me, or if there's anything I can do to put you more at ease..." She let the question hang in the air for Taylor to finish, almost as if anticipating that Taylor had something on her mind.
"Um... the blinds," she said tentatively, "could we close them?"
Dr. Graham seemed surprised by this. "You want to be in the dark?"
"No," Taylor said quickly. "Not in the dark. Just... more alone, I guess."
Dr. Graham got up without a word and drew the blinds down, but did not close the slats. "Is this alright?"
Taylor nodded. Even having that extra barrier between her and the outside world—no matter how thin—felt like an extra weight off her shoulders. She watched as Dr. Graham went back to her seat and picked up her notebook. Clicked on her pen.
"I've read most of your file, Taylor, and it's very comprehensive... however, as I ask of all my clients, I was hoping you could tell me your side of the story."
"Yes. In fact if you'd like, let's start from the very beginning."
Taylor chuckled and scratched a phantom itch on her shoulder. "We might be here all day."
Dr. Graham smiled, not unkindly. "I think it will go by quicker than you expect. Can you tell me about your time in foster care? Your earliest memories. Don't be afraid to be detailed. Tell me exactly how you remember it."
Taylor cleared her throat. She didn't remember a lot from that time. She was four when she was put in the system. She only had vague, dim memories of her mother, and she'd never known her father. She did not know if she had had siblings.
"Everything before the orphanage is dark… blurry." She sighed. "I was ten when I was adopted by the Tanners. Clara, my mother... she was wonderful. The mother I had always dreamed of having when I was a little girl. She worked at a small bakery in the city and always brought home cookies for Terrence and me to snack on while we did our homework at the kitchen table." She smiled at the memory.
"Terrence being your older, non-biological brother?"
"And your father? What was he like?"
"William." She found herself smiling at the flood of old memories of her father. Back then, he had the most infectious smile and laugh. "He was a counselor at the high school and well-loved by everyone who knew him. Respected."
There wasn't a person in the world immune to the effects of his cheerfulness, or his warm, caring eyes. But he knew when to be serious, too. She could remember all the times he had come knocking on her door after she had burst into an episode of hysterics after being startled by the sound of sirens, or after becoming scared or feeling alone because she couldn't make friends at school. She remembered the way the bed would shift with his weight when he sat down next to her, and for a while he wouldn't say anything at all, just sit there with his hands clasped between his knees like he was thinking for a very long time about what he wanted to say. And then he'd talk. And it wasn't the kind of talk a lot of parents give their children—about how things will get better with time, or how back in their day, this is how they coped with whatever situation they were faced with. No, it was the kind of talk that, once he started, she didn't want him to stop. He was effortless to listen to, the kind where you hang off every word, like listening to a story not really because you want to know how it ends, but because you just want to be read to, because you want to be swept away into this other place, into another plane of existence. Because everything in the real world, all your problems and fears, seemed to fall away when he spoke, and it was a feeling she craved.
He talked about life and love, things he'd learned as he'd gotten older. He'd tell stories about when he was in school—most of which were amusing and never failed to make her laugh—others, tragic, like when he'd talk about his grandfather dying, who he was very close to. Even then she loved listening to him. He talked to her about fear, and how she had to try her hardest not to let it define how she lived her life, how she reacted to her circumstances, how it was something that could be overcome.
"How would you describe your relationship as a whole with your adoptive parents?"
"Wonderful. They were the perfect parents for me. I only wish it hadn't taken them so long to find me. Things might have been different then."
It was silent for a moment after that, Dr. Graham allowing Taylor to gather her thoughts.
"Tell me about your relationship with your bother. You said he was older?"
"Yes. And we got along well even though we were two years apart. He let me hang out with his friends whenever they came over... although I always think that was because mom made him." She smiled. "But I always enjoyed our time together. He was my big brother, my... my best friend. I trusted him."
Some of her earliest memories of their time together were ones she held particularly close. She could remember sitting on the porch steps of their townhouse and listening to him and his friends on the concrete steps in front of her. They'd be playing with the wheels on their skateboards as they joked or talked about school, and she'd loved listening to their stories, just as she'd enjoyed listening to her father's. When she and Terrence were alone, the two of them would sit on the floor in the living room, with the afternoon sunlight pouring in from the window and warming their backs, and she'd watch him shoot Storm Troopers and save the galaxy on his PlayStation. She was shy, then, and didn't talk much, but she'd offer him encouragement by smiling or giving a thumbs up whenever he looked over and wanted to see her reaction to him moving onto the next level.
Taylor looked down at her hands, remembering how content she'd been back then, how good it felt to truly belong. Being adopted by the Tanners was like a dream come true. She had been so happy in her new home, happier than she could ever remember being. Clara and William and Terrence were kind to her, even despite the fact that it had taken several months before she was able to open up to them, before she was able to string full sentences together and answer their questions with more than just a nod or a shake of her head.
She had been so scared, at first; scared that they would become angry with her and lock her in the basement like her first family had. She was scared to show affection as well, scared to say how she felt, and most of all, scared to place any kind of trust in others for fear of having that trust used against her. But Clara and William were nothing if not patient. They never forced her to open up more than she was comfortable with, and they gave her equal amounts of space to be alone, but also affection to know that she was loved and a wanted part of their family.
After a year of living with Clara, William, and Terrence, a strange but lovely sense of normalcy—something she had never experienced before—began to blossom within her. She grew accustomed to the home life that her new mom and dad had so graciously welcomed her into. She loved her family, and even if it took her a long time to show it— and even more time to actually say it—she knew deep down in her heart that they knew. Growing up in their brick townhouse that lay nestled right in the heart of the city had been more than she ever could have hoped for.
That was until Clara abruptly passed away of a stroke, only three years after Taylor had been adopted. She was thirteen.
The death had been so unexpected, so random, that it eroded and tore at the foundation that had been holding her new and perfect little family together. Her father started drinking in heavy quantities, something that shocked both her and Terrence.
He had never been abusive when he was drunk, but instead became emotionally distraught. She and Terrence would find him sitting in the living room recliner as they spied from the staircase. Beer cans littered the floor at his feet while he quietly sobbed, the glow of the television illuminating the tears that streaked his cheeks.
He quit his job soon after and began working in a factory in Downtown Gotham. The pay was nothing and the hours were long, but it gave him the solitude he wanted. He didn't have to talk to anybody, and nobody had to talk to him; he was nothing more than a robot standing in front of a conveyer belt.
He became distant after that, always pulling away when Taylor or Terrence would try to reach out to him, to comfort him or offer him hugs. It crushed Taylor to see him like this, and it hurt her even more to have lost the only mother figure she'd ever had in her life, the only woman she had ever loved. And with her father slipping further away, she felt like she was losing him, too, only this loss was slower and more prolonged. In some ways, the loss of her father was more devastating than the loss of her mother.
She learned that the hardest thing was grieving the loss of a person who was still alive.
As a thirteen year old girl on the cusp of entering the new and scary world of high school, and all the hormones and physical and emotional changes that tended to entail, Taylor felt the loss of her mother more poignantly than any young girl should ever have to. William's behavior only added to her distress, and she felt at a loss of what to do. He had always been such an affectionate and jovial man, and now he couldn't even muster the energy to hug her, to kiss her good night. It was a shock to see him so sad and broken, and she was hurt by it. It was like another person entirely had invaded his body.
When Clara was still alive, her father had been a bit on the heavier side, with round cheeks and belly and shining blue eyes. After her death, he began to drop weight, and fast. He stopped eating, his face had thinned as had his hair, and his eyes had turned gray, dull, and lifeless. This wasn't the father who had taught her how to fix the flat tires on her bike, who always said prayers with her before she went to sleep, or the father that spent hours helping her with her science fair project, who sometimes let her stay up late so she could finish her favorite TV show. This was a different man entirely; he was practically a stranger.
For a while, Terrence had done everything in his power to fill the void their parents had left. He comforted Taylor, even though he too was grieving. Most times it felt easy and natural to seek each other out. They grew close in those months following Clara's death, closer than they'd ever been before. There were many nights Taylor slept on the floor in Terrence's room. They never talked about it, and she left in the early morning before he woke, but they both knew it was something she needed, something that helped her coped—or at least got her through the night—and that was fine by him.
That all changed, though, as life was wont to do.
She remembered there was a night of drinking when William was particularly distraught, and after stepping out for a few hours, he returned home with him a woman from the bar; a woman who, as Terrence told her, "looks just like mom".
It was only six months after Clara's death. The dirt covering her gravesite had barely settled.
After that fateful night, Terrence had become rebellious, always causing fights at school and eventually getting caught up in the dangerous world of drugs. At home, Taylor had found him cutting his arms in the bathroom one afternoon after school, the dried dots of blood on the sink and bathroom rug later proving that what she had seen had not been imagined, as she would've liked to of made herself believe.
William was aloof to everything that was going on, or at least pretended to be. This left Taylor to try and convince Terrence that what he was doing was wrong and that he needed to stop his destructive behavior; she never did have the guts to tell him. She hated herself for it—hated that she was too scared and too afraid of how he might react—so she didn't say anything at all.
Looking back on everything, the way she had responded to everything as the story of her life unfolded, she hated how fragile and emotionally broken she was. She'd always hidden behind her self-made blanket of fear and denial, unable to deal with it all and shielding herself from the things she wished weren't happening. And as William progressed further into his state of aloof depression and Terrence descended further into his blind rage, Taylor found herself becoming increasingly afraid of the one friend she had come to trust over the years, come to love. She felt ashamed of the fact that she had become terrified of her own brother. When she was fifteen and he seventeen, it had gotten to the point where she couldn't even look him in the eye anymore.
When she graduated high school and went off to college, everything changed. Terrence had long since disappeared. He finished high school, went to community college for half a semester, and then abruptly took off, nobody, not even his friends, knew exactly where.
Dr. Graham's voice pulled her out of her reverie and brought her back to the present. "I know your mother passed away when you were a teen. What about your brother and your father?"
"I haven't seen Terrence since he left. I don't even know if he lives in Gotham, or if he's still alive."
"And your father?"
"He's still in Gotham, living in our old townhouse. He's retired now. I see him once a week to bring him groceries." He was also still drinking, still sulking in his own misery and shunning the outside world, but Taylor felt that part didn't need to be shared. She still loved him despite everything, and that's all that mattered. "About once a month I'll give the house a good cleaning and make him a home-cooked meal. I think he appreciates it because it reminds him of mom. Reminds him that he's not alone and still has family out there who care for him."
Dr. Graham scribbled down a note. "I want to ask you again about your time before the Tanners. Your file says you spent six years in the system. I know you describe those times as 'blurry', but I want you to tell me everything you remember, if you can."
Taylor took a deep breath and let it out through her pursed lips. "This is the part I don't like," she said, smiling uneasily.
"Just take your time. Remember where you are, remember that you're safe here." Dr. Graham's voice was soothing, calm. Taylor let it wash over her. "Think about the way your breath feels as it enters and leaves your lungs. Remember that all the air you need is right here in this room."
She closed her eyes and did as instructed, breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth as she'd learned in other sessions. Dr. Graham let her.
"You're doing well. Take your time."
"My... my first family... they come to me in bits and pieces. I still... remember their faces." She swallowed and closed her eyes again.
"What else do you remember?"
"What else?" She looked up at Dr. Graham, her forehead creased. How could she possibly put it into words? She remembered crying so hard that it hurt, so hard that her throat was raw from it, that she felt as if she were bleeding from the inside out. She remembered crawling to the top of the stairs and screaming, pounding on the door to be let out, that she'd be a good girl if they just let her out. She remembered they didn't like that, remembered the sound of her foster father's footsteps as he came crashing down the stairs, remembered his hands on her, beating her until she was senseless, leaving bruises that took months to heal.
She remembered hours feeling like days, remembered the bucket they'd given her to relieve herself in. She remembered listening attentively for the sounds of footsteps on the top floor, because at least that meant she wasn't completely alone. She remembered sometimes they fed her and sometimes they didn't, but the hunger always persisted nonetheless, and sometimes it was all she could think about. She remembered ripping off pieces from her cardboard mat and eating them, remembered sucking on the hem of her dress, and loving when it rained and the basement flooded in that one corner like it always did, because at least then she could cup the water in her hands and quench her sandpaper throat.
Most of all she remembered the darkness—it was always so dark—and the hours she'd spent trying to chase the single thread of sunlight that poked through a small sliver of rectangular window, too high for her to reach.
Taylor took a shuddering breath. She swallowed again. "The abuse was on and off. Whenever I angered them, they just…." She broke off, unable to complete the sentence. "Some periods were longer than others. All I know is that days felt like years. I… I was only five. I think that... I had been such a horrible wreck when they first brought me in..." She had been scared of everyone, and everything. Sometimes something as simple as a door slamming could set her into a fit of terror. Other times it was the sound of police sirens, or gunshots on TV. Usually it was at night when she slept, when it was dark and hard to tell the difference from dreams and reality. "Maybe they were expecting this little ray of sunshine," she said. She didn't know what they were expecting, but looking back, she realized she had been nothing but a paper doll that had been crumpled one too many times, and her paper was starting to tear. What she had needed then was someone who could have dedicated the time to carefully taping her back together, someone patient and loving.
"They didn't know how to handle your behavior and it frustrated them. So they locked you in a basement. Your notes here say the authorities didn't come for you until six months later?"
"The neighbors... they heard my screams. Finally realized it wasn't just the TV, I guess."
"Are you angry at them? At your foster parents for doing that to you?"
"Angry?" Taylor bit her lip. No, she wasn't angry. For the longest time, after it happened, it wasn't even something she could process. The ramifications weren't something she was able to think about until she was much older. "My dad—William—he always said anger was a toxic emotion, that it led to rage, and eventually revenge. I never wanted revenge. I would never wish upon someone the same trauma that had been inflicted on me."
Dr. Graham scribbled something down. "Can you tell me what you remember before that, if you can. I know you were very young."
Taylor looked down, focused her gaze on the droplets of condensation sliding along her glass of lemonade. "Fragments," she breathed. "These awful... jagged memories. I—I don't even know if they're memories. Maybe just pieces of some... some half- remembered dream."
"Your notes from your early days at the orphanage—before your first foster parents—say you used to cry and scream in your sleep. Do you remember that?"
"Yes," she said. She was still staring at her glass. "Yes, I... when I used to lie in bed at night, surrounded by all those other children in cots identical to mine, I screamed... I can remember that, even though that part is the haziest of all. I remember screaming the name of a man. I... I wanted him to 'save' me." Taylor touched her fingers to the silver chain around her neck. "I think about that every day." She looked up, then. It was the first time she had ever told someone that. A part of her was startled she had admitted it aloud. It had always felt like too intimate of a thing to share. She had spent years wondering who that man was. Her real father, maybe? An older brother?
"And you don't remember his name?"
"No… not even a face."
She swallowed past the lump forming in her throat, wanting to say more, wanting to say that her nightmares back then had been so lucid they were practically real, that they had left patchwork scars on her brain and were nightmares she would have time and time again throughout the rest of her life, each one a different and more terrifying variation of the last, like a shape shifting monster who continually took on new forms. She knew they had sedated her with drugs at the orphanage, it was the only way to get her to sleep—perhaps it was why she had such trouble remembering details of her past during that time—but they stopped sedating her when she was adopted. And like clockwork, the nightmares started again, and so did the screams, and her foster parents locked her in the basement because they didn't know how to deal with her. And the authorities found her six months later.
"I know you said you don't remember your biological parents. Did that—or does it still—upset you?"
Taylor thought about the question in silence for several moments. When she was twelve, she finally worked up the courage to ask her mother about her real parents, said that she wanted to know who they were, that she was ready. She remembered her mother sitting her down in the living room one sunny afternoon—her dad was there too—as they told her calmly and sadly that they didn't know anything about her biological parents. They had dug into every public record they could to find them, to prepare for the day when Taylor would ask, but had come up empty-handed. They had told her that if her parents were anything like her, then they were good people, and they had no doubt loved her very much. She still believed those words to this day. She'd never felt any animosity towards her birth parents.
"It... it didn't really upset me when I was younger. I was surrounded by orphans throughout my childhood. None of us had moms and dads—most of us didn't even know what having parents—real parents—was like." If she were honest, not knowing who her real parents were was something of a bittersweet relief; not knowing them meant there would be no opportunity for her to feel disappointed when they did not live up to her expectations. Not knowing meant she would never find out that maybe they had abandoned her, that they had hated her, or abused her. "Sometimes... sometimes I think it's better not to know the truth."
"Ignorance is bliss?" Dr. Graham offered.
"Would you call it ignorance?"
Dr. Graham put down her pen. "To be honest, Taylor, I wouldn't. It's okay to not always know the truth. There's no shame in that."
"My dad used to say that 'the truth will set you free'."
"Maybe," Dr. Graham said. "But at what cost to you?"
Taylor had never thought about it that way before.
In fact, now it was the only thing she could think about during the bus ride home. She'd spent her entire life haunted by fragmented memories and nightmares that were grotesque and yet somehow deeply rooted in reality; they felt real, as if... as if maybe they had happened in another lifetime, in some other universe.
But what Dr. Graham had said... was it really okay to not know? Was it okay to accept the fact that something was wrong with her, and she had no idea what had precipitated it, what event had shaped the course of her life, what man she used to cry out to in the middle of the night to save her. Was it okay to move on and not know? What is it even possible?
She watched Gotham City come into view in all its familiar glory; all brooding skyscrapers and flickering night lights.
When Austin came to pick her up from the station, it was close to ten and Taylor was ready to curl up in bed and forget about all the memories from her past she had spent the day sifting through. Austin was curious to know how the session had gone and what she thought about Dr. Graham. She kept it vague and told him she'd thought it had gone well despite it being mostly an introductory session. She liked that the session had felt so relaxed and personal, and that Dr. Graham hadn't spent the entire session staring at a clipboard while checking off tiny boxes.
She told Austin she didn't know if she'd be going back soon—but that she did want to go back—and when he asked if Dr. Graham had prescribed anything, Taylor felt herself stiffen. The last psychiatrist she had seen had put her on Zoloft, and a slew of other antianxiety medications after that. The first had caused insomnia, while the rest to follow had caused varying degrees of sleep-related anxiety, off and on bouts of depression, and a stint in a rehab facility after an attempt to end her life. That had been an eight-month disaster, and Taylor swore she'd never take another antidepressant again.
She tried not to let her voice quiver when she spoke, feigning indifference. "It was just an introductory session, baby. No meds."
Austin looked over at her and could see through her façade of easiness. He reached over the console to hold her hand, keeping his other on the wheel.
"Good. No more meds. We're going to fight this together. You and me, okay?"
Taylor nodded and feigned another half-smile, even as she turned away to look out the window, wondering whether this was a fight that could actually be won.