Tick-tock. Tick-tock. What a fucking weird sound setting for a digital clock, wall-mounted or not. She slouches in her seat, then draws herself back upright, frowning at the posters lining the waiting room walls. Centuries of psychiatry, yet mental disorders have yet to reach their full marketing potential.
“Oh, no, please just call me 'Abby'. That unholy amalgamation of names is my parents. Are my parents.” Abby wrinkles her nose. “Never mind.”
From the corner of her eye, Abby sees the receptionist squint at her like she's trying to figure out what the fuck her accent is doing.
They had been there during the first session, to help Abby answer questions about family and medical history. Oh, Abby had talked. Lots. But they have a curious habit of dominating any given conversation with dark stares and pensive gazes into the distance. She would've pointed it out around the fourth or fifth time one of them had shot the other a smug glance, but she'd decided to wait. Better to bottle things up and unleash them at a later date.
Anyway, these sessions are a proactive measure. For now.
Therapists still manually write their notes, though there's probably a recording device somewhere. Apparently some people find it more soothing this way. Abby gnaws her lower lip and stares at her blue shoes before her bluer eyes dart upwards at a speed that makes the therapist jump slightly.
“Look, I'm pretty sure I know the root of all my problems,” Abby says.
“All right,” the therapist says, cautiously, beginning to scribble on her notepad. “Would you like to start there?”
“It's not about my relationships with them,” Abby clarifies. “That's always been fine. They've had to be nice to me, to compensate for everything else. What they consider light banter is probably verbal abuse for normal people.”
Abby explains that her parents have been working together since before she was born, if 'stumbling over each other in an attempt to hammer the misshapen lump of the public sector into a remotely square-ish paste just so they can try to shove it into the ravaged remains of a once-round hole' could be described as 'working'. She oscillates between 'Mom' and 'Mum', ultimately settling on 'Mum' for the therapist's comfort.
“They met at the top of the PR department of the Metropolitan Police Service,” Abby says, spitting the final words as acidly as an attack from the Hollywood version of a Dilophosaurus.
“What a high-stress environment.”
“Yeah, but to be fair, I think they collectively contributed at least 60% of that stress.” The therapist is silent. Abby has never passed up a chance to elaborate. “Dad hated Mum before they even met in person. He was Deputy, but when the Head resigned, the Commissioner hired Mum for the job instead of promoting him. On her first day, Dad leaked a story without her permission. So she fired him on the spot. Then he found out what the Commissioner paid to hire her and told everyone else, basically blackmailing her into keeping him. Mum tried to clear the air afterwards, except Dad lied about having marital problems -”
“Your father was in his first marriage at the time?”
“He made up a fictional wife.”
Eyebrows raise. The scribbling speeds up. “Oh.”
“So Dad lied. But meanwhile, Mum tattled on a coworker using a tip Dad gave her. The Commissioner asked her how she knew, and she took all the credit. They ended up fighting in front of him. I don’t know exactly how it went, but the words ‘flagrant insubordination’ and ‘gushy bleeding-heart’ were thrown around in the retelling.”
“All this took place in a matter of months?”
“No. Five days.”
Abby is able to recount what happened next, without pause for breath or reflection. The childish squabbles over serious PR tactics. Commissioner Miller's suicide. The other attempted blackmail. The Karl Jeffries riot. Commissioner Inglis' appointment. Honestly, Abby finds the squabbles the most offensive.
“You know a lot about your parents' history,” the therapist observes.
“I asked. They told me everything. Mostly it was Mum at first, as bedtime stories. Dad had to interrupt, on principle.” Abby smiles grimly. “Besides, I would’ve found out somehow, eventually.”
Thankfully, the therapist doesn't question why she's so confident in her ability to dig up dirt.
“What do you think is your main problem?” asks the therapist.
“They can't function without constant conflict.” Abby rakes both hands through her thick dark hair in frustration. “Just last week, they started shouting at each other at opposite ends of the living room. I got bored, went to make a sandwich, and ate it. When I came back, they were sitting next to each other on the couch. In silence. In disarray. It was awkward. So I went to make a smoothie and drank it. When I came back, they were shouting at each other again, in worse disarray.”
That warrants multiple shudders.
Abby gestures wildly as she goes on to list: “They're fundamentally incapable of saying anything that isn't a hyperbolic, melodramatic rant that's half-incomprehensible figurative language. They always blame others for the crazy sh - for how they act and the mistakes they make. On the rare occasions when they're right, they expect people to fix themselves on the spot, for their convenience, as if everyone on earth is a...a...a 24/7 pharmacy serving human clones of themselves. Also, they have approximately zero self-awareness. Collectively.”
Abby rarely lies. With the right presentation, any truth can be twisted for any purpose. There are plenty of childhood stories to recount. The numerous school projects delayed over disagreements about phrasing, until Abby stopped asking for help. The awkward burial of a dead pet rabbit, which neither Mum nor Dad knew how to eulogize appropriately, giving up and buying a new rabbit later that afternoon. (It'd immediately pissed on the grave of the old one.) The debacle over introducing her to Star Wars, where they argued about the 'correct' order of watching Episodes I-VI, only to be sorely disappointed when she watched Episode X alone.
“What bothers you most about how they treat each other?” the therapist asks.
“They're so fu - so negative. It's not just each other. It's a running commentary of hyper-criticism about every facet of society from the moment I wake up and the news is on, to when I go to sleep and the news is still on. I'd like to stop being so fu - I'd like to stop being as negative as they are,” Abby adds, in close to a whine, “but it's so hard.”
“Maybe we could start with your parents. Can you think of anything positive about them? Including their relationship with each other?”
“They do seem to enjoy the same things,” Abby admits, begrudgingly. “They understand each other's weird communication style, within the arguments and during the seconds of peace.” She shrugs. “Maybe arguing is part of it. They usually don't compete for my affection - they take it for granted that I tolerate their crap. I've had to, since I was a freaking fetus. I only have this name because names starting with the letter 'A' are supposed to be the most advantageous, and 'Aaana' was too bad even for them.”
Throughout the fifty minutes, Abby repeatedly returns to the theme of the old Scotland Yard, dropping small references to pre-Metwork PR incidents and tactics. She prides herself in reading people, doubly so because it's an acquired skill. Her parents wear (and state!) their emotions so plainly that since early childhood she's been forced to learn nuance almost entirely from scratch, by paying closer attention to others. She doesn't sense suspicion yet.
Abby reflects on the irony that if another medical professional knew what she was up to, they'd have a lot to analyse.
Abby steps out of the office. It would be inaccurate to say that she fakes a smile - she's genuinely pleased to see them, even if she isn't exactly in a smiling mood.
Her parents are glaring at the walls, standing back to back, arms folded.
“You'd think by now, mental disorders would look more appealing,” Mum gripes.
Dad rolls his eyes. “You're just upset they haven't asked you to be the poster girl.”
“I was picturing something along the lines of anthropomorphised disorders starring in a musical, but sure, be boring. There's no treatment for that.”
“You didn't find me so boring when - ”
Abby clears her throat. They whip around to face her in near-perfect sync, expressions startled and vaguely guilty. Mum belatedly swats Dad on the elbow.
“Hi. What did you tell her?” Mum asks, flashing a fake smile to rival Abby's.
“Enough.” Abby glides past them with a wink in the receptionist's direction and pushes the doors open.
“Of course, she didn't mention it,” Abby continues, once they're safely outside, a generous distance between them and the clinic. Mum takes wider strides to keep up with her while Dad grumbles about his bones and the weather's effect on them. “Doctor-patient confidentiality and all that. But I could tell she made the connection. I think I can make her slip someday.”
“We probably conceived you during an election,” says Mum.
“Yeah, thanks, I've done the math - ”
“Maybe you could use that in the next session.”
“What, the conception story or me doing the math?”
Dad finally falls into step with them. “Am I missing something?”
“Girl-talk,” Mum claims, smoothly.
“People stopped using that term a decade ago,” Abby groans.
Mum looks distraught. Dad is still too perplexed to celebrate beyond a brief smirk.
“This just so happens to be Jason Delgado's therapist, too,” Abby tells him. His eyes widen, then narrow. “Past and possibly present. I'm sure he's mentioned the trauma inflicted towards the end of Commissioner Miller's tenure. It's a freak coincidence.”
“You're spying on him,” Dad concludes, in a remarkably level tone.
“I'm spying on everyone,” counters Abby.
Dad redirects his critical gaze to her preening mother, eyes narrowing further. “And you waste every other breath accusing me of being unethical.”
“She's getting real therapy out of it,” Mum says, defensively.
“Sticking it to that son of a bitch will be highly therapeutic,” Abby points out.
Her parents halt in their tracks. “Abigail,” they chide in unison.
“It's his father we hated,” Mum says.
“As I recall, you two were quite chummy,” sneers Dad.
Mum charges up to him so quickly, all three of them nearly topple from the sheer force of it. “Temporarily, because someone - ”
Abby coughs several times. Their mouths snap shut. She closes her eyes and exhales slowly, knowing from excessive experience that the blessed, sweet silence will last for just a few -
“We're proud of you,” Dad says.
Abby blinks rapidly. “Why the hell?”
“You have a semblance of subtlety.” He ends the statement with a noise between a scoff and a chuckle. “Fuck knows where that comes from.”
“You've always been really interested in the future of social justice,” Mum adds, voice so diplomatically strained that it sounds extra-American. “It's...admirable.”
“Fuck knows where that came from,” Dad repeats.
Abby shrugs. Metwork is practically her estranged older sibling; since it's a semi-abstract concept being held together by duct tape and abject denial, she assumes that the responsibility of their political legacy falls to her. The sins of the father were foisted onto her in receipt form. Attached to the sins of the mother. Lucky - or unlucky - for her, they're largely identical.
Mum takes one of her hands. Dad takes the other. They squeeze hers at the same time, and she squeezes back as they step into a sliver of sunlight.