Grace shifted and stretched on the plastic chair, trying to get a little more comfortable. Despite her fatigue and the oppressive stench of stale urine wafting up from the cracked cushion into her nostrils, she felt elated. Just one more hurdle to clear, and this dunghill institution was history. Oh as always, she had found distractions enough within the walls, but the tedious nature of the place took its toll on her. Toys, she mused, were more fun to break when she got them undamaged. Ticking through her list of tattered playthings, Grace could almost forget her impatience.
Marlin, the night orderly for the ward was a tad greasy for her taste, but certainly energetic and pliant enough for a little recreation. What's more, he seemed to know everyone: in the biblical as well as other senses. Despite a few veiled threats, Grace felt confident she could manage him easily, if that time came. After all, taking advantage of a resident like herself was grounds for dismissal, if not incarceration, and she felt sure that Marlin could ill afford a new job search or a prison roomie. Lucky she had the foresight to save a souvenir from their time together. Thank you Trojan Man.
Dr Thomas, the Ward Physician. Praise be to God for frigid wives, Grace mused. Flash a little thigh; add a touch of cleavage, and the poor old dear could barely keep from drooling long enough to write her recommendation for release.
The sweat collecting on the back of her neck slowly tracked its way down her back, causing Grace to squirm slightly.
"Christ Almighty, how much longer.." she began to mutter, then checked herself. Now was not the time for displays of annoyance. Plenty of opportunity for that after her release. She stretched the skin around her mouth in a toothy display, as she reflected on the target of her coming wrath, old mummy dearest, before returning to her list of toys.
Marie, the day nurse. Such a bouncy little thing, and she had the cutest blush. She was naive enough to accept the whole abused girl repentance act without much persuasion. Better yet, the graphic details of various trysts held her fixed with a perverse fascination, and Grace was never one to pass on the pleasure of corrupting the uninitiated.
Flies buzzed languidly at the windowpane, lazily bumping up against the bars. Grace studied the cracked linoleum she flexed her calf muscles. So boring... The sun-bleached magazines stared dully at her eyes, proclaiming breaking news long since broken and discarded. Another sigh passed through her lips, and Grace returned to her list of playthings; Marlin, Dr. Thomas, Marie...
Ah yes, Lillith. Little girly goth, mother of demons wannabe. Teeth flashed again as Grace focused on the memory of her latest conquest. How easy it had been to gain her confidence. A few brooding hours complete with shy, sidelong glances; some halting attempts at conversation; a little mutual commiseration at their captivity; before Lillith knew what was happening, she was being tumbled beneath the sheets. After that, Grace couldn't keep her quiet; the secrets spilled out so fast. A treasure trove of information about the indiscretions of the Deputy Director, along with some other amusing tidbits.
Poor pathetic thing, Grace had almost found herself growing attached to Lillith, the way she clung. Starved for affection, willing to do anything she asked; pleading not to be abandoned. So helpless, so hopeless, so much like...
Grace felt the breath hook in her throat. Images at the edge of her memory began to gibber for attention. Pushing her glasses up, she bowed her head and began to squeeze the bridge of her nose.
"Focus" she hissed to herself.
The interview with the Deputy Director loomed ahead; not a time for indulging in weakness. Her mind blindly grouped for the spark of hatred she felt burning within. There. Grace cupped her thoughts around it and slowly fanned it into flame.
Lillith meant nothing, a get out of jail free card, nothing more. The Deputy Director was shit, her Mom and Stepfather were shit; all useless, worthless filth, made to be used and discarded.
Raising her head, grace found Maria timidly staring at her, mouth slightly agape. Slowly showing her teeth, Grace turned her fury outward, and felt gratified to see Maria tremble visibly under her gaze.
"G-Grace, the Deputy Director will see you now."
"I appreciate that."
Smoothing the skirt around her knees, Grace rose demurely, and turned toward the faded oak door. Her strong, red tipped fingers caressed then gripped the worn brass. Exhaling gently to submerge her anger, she turned the knob and pushed open the door, hesitating only momentarily to whisper,
The door opened quietly on its hinges as Grace cautiously kept her eyes focused on the clean, threadbare carpet. Pausing on the threshold, she awaited an invitation to enter; sneaking glances at the office's decor.
African tribal art, reproductions of Aboriginal rock paintings, a Navajo wall hanging; nice color coordination, but not exactly overwhelming. Stretch that public servant's salary, doc.
"Ms. Malshear, is it? Please, come in and take a seat."
Still not raising her gaze, Grace moved toward the only chair opposite his desk, her sandaled feet dragging slightly. As she lowered herself between the ancient leather arms, her eyes snatched a quick scan of the somewhat battered but immaculately polished desk.
Coral paperweights, the brass ashtray of scenic San Fran filled with toffee caramels, metal cowboy bookends with the single volume of Putin, the crystal globe and the obligatory vacation pictures- Nostalgic clutter with a touch of tacky Americana.
"Ms. Malshear, may I call you Grace? My name is Dr. Litso."
Grace lifted her head slowly, in what she hoped was a trusting and submissive gesture. Sliding her glasses up along the bridge of her nose, she carefully began to catalogue the director's appearance as she replied,
"Yes, please do."
He sat with her file beneath his folded hands; long, delicately tapered fingers that didn't want for a weekly manicure interlaced serenely. She noted with interest the sheen from his nails, provided by a coat of clear nail polish. As her eyes moved to his wrists, she observed the charcoal grey suit coat frayed slightly at the cuffs, but it appeared to be of the Calvin Klein collection. The immaculately tailored sleeves of his jacket lead her eyes to elegantly embroidered shirt that stretched across his muscular chest. A powder blue tie accented with a diamond stickpin completed the ensemble; a deftly tied Windsor knot drew her gaze upwards.
Even at this late hour, his face showed little trace of a five o'clock shadow; just a touch of darkness above his full lips. The hawk nose rose upwards, past high cheekbones where Grace noted a touch of foundation. This seemed to confirm what Lillith had intimated; feminine wiles were likely lost on Dr. Litso. Other avenues remained open, she reminded herself, nobody's perfect.
"Miss Malshear? Grace?"
With a start, she realized her wool- gathering had left her vulnerable; this was imprudent to say the least. Grace lowered her eyes demurely, and allowed a slight sigh to escape her lips; focusing on the wool skirt that enshrouded her knees. She inclined her head slightly to catch what she hoped were encouraging words.
"According to this," slim digits tapping the file,
"You've made significant progress over the past few weeks"
"At least," he paused "Dr Thomas seems to think so."
Something about his tone seemed to add sneeringly "that pathetic, lecherous idiot!"
Grace willed herself very still. This was not going well. She swallowed twice, resisting the temptation to touch her face. Focus, focus, focus, she chanted silently while frantically searching for the words that might soften his suspicions.
"I'm grateful for the help and guidance I've received."
Deep breath, slight tremble on the exhale.
"Everyone has been most kind, and I've been trying..."
She let her voice trail off, hoping to create a sense of earnest integrity with this verisimilitude of humility.
"Ah yes" his right hand removed the glasses from his face, and placed them on the desk.
"Trying is a term I find most applicable to describe your time here."
His palm tapped softly on the desk, letting a gold bracelet slide slowly down the muscled forearm from underneath his shirtsleeve. As it settled around his wrist, Grace picked out a name in delicate cursive lettering; "Brandy".
Hand raised to face, and the heel of his thumb rubbed the left eye tiredly, before grasping the spectacles and resettling them on his nose. The Deputy Director locked eyes with Grace.
"Nothing pleases me more than helping a resident resolve their difficulties and leave us."
He placed his left index finger against his temple, and stretched the corner of his lips slightly.
"But ultimately, the responsibility rests with the residents themselves. I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter."
Grace found herself unable to break away from his bemused gaze. Smug bastard, he'd already decided the matter, and was taunting her with this show of feigned concern. Why hadn't she anticipated this, she wondered. He dealt with dozens like her daily; manipulation was second nature to him. Dealing with defectives had made her careless. She opened her mouth with cautious hesitancy.
Soft tones emanated from the breast pocket of Dr. Listo's suit coat. He smiled condescendingly, as he slid his hand underneath the lapel and plucked out his silver Nokia cell phone.
"Please, hold that thought."
Grace felt herself vanish as he thumbed open the lid, rested the back of his hand on the edge of the desk, and stared down at the screen. The information triggered a sudden transformation of the Deputy Director; replacing his assured smirk of superiority with a tightly clenched jaw, and narrowed eyes. To her delight, Grace noted not only the scent of vulnerability; but by peering closely; she could discern the contents of the display reflected in the dear Doctor's glasses. A name, a number, and an expletive: thanks to her ability to decipher mirrored images, she had struck pay dirt. Dyslexia, my hero.
From the reaction the message evoked, fear tinged with desperation, Grace felt confident this was a lever strong enough to insure her release. All she needed now was the proper positioning, and the door to this cage could be pried open; Litso’s better judgment be damned. In fact, a little payback seemed in order; after all, mixing business with pleasure was her forte.
The cell phone returned to it place of concealment; the Deputy Director struggled to return his emotions to a similar sanctuary, a less than successful attempt which Grace found amusing.
"Now, Miss Malshear, where were we?" exhaled Dr. Listo. With slightly trembling hands, he moved his glasses to the bridge of his nose as he sought to bring her face into focus.
"I believe the topic was ...responsibility." She smiled, and leaned forward to place elbows on his desk. Fingers interlaced and chin rested on her extended thumbs; Grace peered upwards at the emerging sheen of perspiration on his forehead.
"My time here has been most instructive in this regard; thanks to Marlin, among others. The esteem with which he holds you is truly uplifting. Considering your hands-on approach, I'm not at all surprised that you would inspire such devotion."
She felt the smirk beginning to show on her lips, and found little reason to care. Stupid pricks ruled by their stupid pricks; she wondered at her previous apprehension, and felt the warm glow of satisfaction as she jerked his strings.
The Deputy Director responded with a sudden raise of eyelids; the reference to Marlin had hooked them open, and he stared at the auburn haired form in front of him with a new intensity.
"Really, Doctor, such actions not only serve as an inspiration to residents such as myself, I feel certain that others would derive benefit from knowledge of your activities."
The emerging pallor of Litso's face infused Grace with a sense of elated satisfaction. Evidently, the little girl goth had been dead on in her assertion of the after hour trysting between Listo and Marlin, but she cautioned herself from outright gloating. Plenty of time later, after some careful goading had guided him along her chosen path. His chin came up sharply, as he fended off her thrust.
"I must say I appreciate the sentiment behind your offer, Ms. Malshear, but I fail to see the relevance to your own situation."
He laced his fingers together tightly, and drew back lips to expose an enameled grimace.
"Much as I value the affirmations of my staff and their positive interactions with our residents, I was hoping you would provide some more substantial evidence of your progress. What have your learned here that would justify your transition back to society?"
Grace leaned back into her chair; the ancient leather creaking woefully. With her thumb beneath her jaw, and her index finger extended to her temple, she cradled the right side of her head and stared critically at the Deputy Director.
"My association with Lilith has taught me not only the value of empathy, but has allowed me shared confidence on a intimate level. Surely that's progress in a positive direction; building trust and affirming another’s sense of self."
Grace allowed her eyes to narrow at the Doctor's sudden intake of breath.
"She really is a most observant girl; full of insight and a willingness to share, someone I would do well to emulate.”
The Deputy Director swallowed, and let the trapped air in his lungs hiss slowly outward. Untangling his fingers, he placed his hands on the desktop between them, and exerted enough pressure to make his digits appear to dig into the mahogany veneer.
“Admirable indeed. I had hoped you were making strides in improving your interpersonal interaction skills, and this conversation confirms what I had gleaned from this report. An acknowledgement of past mistakes, and the ability to learn is crucial to one’s progress, as you seem to have learned.”
The pause here rang ominous in her ears, and she braced for the implicit violence. Deal time, before we do something we’ll both regret. Left hand slipped deftly into the pocket of her skirt, she flipped the small, plastic wrapped packet on the desk between his hands.
“Yes doctor, and something even more important; the art of compromise. I trust that this indicates my willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to rejoin society. Much as I am indebted to Marlin for his contributions to my welfare, there’s a larger perspective to consider- the best interests of this institution. After all, a little protection seems the most prudent course -considering the vulnerability of the residents, Lilith especially. This should afford you that opportunity.”
Grace watched the Deputy Director uncoil, as his left hand slid over the object on the desk. Leaning back, his fist squeezed slightly before placing it into his jacket’s side pocket. Nothing like a bit of blackmail to keep the troops in line, especially backed by physical evidence. The D.D. should have little to fear from Marlin now, and with his help, Lilith should prove much more manageable. An acceptable trade?
The nearly imperceptible nod of his head did not escape her watchful gaze, as they both began to breathe more easily. Time for the wrap up.
“Well, I must say you have made my job much easier. There are times when these interviews prove painful, but an enlightened mind like yours reaffirms my faith in the process and people in general. Once I have the opportunity to confirm a few facts, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be back with family in a few days.”
“Thank you doctor” purred Grace as she rose slowly to her feet. The Deputy Director dismissed her with wave of his hand.
“No need for gratitude, my dear. This is something you’ve earned.”
Exultantly, she moved to the door, preparing to exit, only to be frozen by his voice at the point of her departure.
“And Grace?” She paused, fearing deception and betrayal at her moment of glory; dread shaking the fingers upon the doorknob.
“May I say what a pleasure it is to see one of our residents reach her full potential. Au revior.”