Doctor Jasper Embry tapped his pen against his clipboard as he meandered down the hall of the clinic, half excited and half dreading what he was about to do. In his twenty years of practicing psychology, he had never participated in an experiment like this, and it frayed his nerves to think of everything that could go wrong. What ifs had been plaguing him since it was decided that he would ‘lead the charge’ as his superiors put it, and the past twenty-four hours had been the worst of it.
To put off entering the room and starting the project, as he called it—experiment made it sound like they weren’t actual people, just something to study and he couldn’t abide by it—Dr. Embry stopped by the restroom. He splashed his face with cold water, shocking his system to help him focus on something besides the tension that sang through him. ‘It’s just like the other groups,’ he thought, but he knew it wasn’t.
After dabbing his face dry with a paper towel, he took a good, long look at himself in the mirror. His brown eyes—“Just like your mother’s!” his family would say fondly—were set back into his face behind a pair of thin-rimmed glasses, and he gazed at them for a moment, trying to see his mother’s face, but it was hazy and it grew more so with every passing year. He missed her laugh, her joy that she brought with her wherever she went. She was the reason he’d gone into psychology; his mother had always wanted to help those who were misunderstood, unlike her husband, who insisted on perfection and normality in everything he did.
The rest of his features he had inherited from his father, from his rounded nose to his high forehead to the set of his thin lips. Even his hair had been like his father’s, black as the ink he used to write his notes with, though now it was more salt-and-pepper.
His gaze traveled down his face, taking in the coffee-with-cream tone of his skin, noting with a pang that though the color was still smooth, the skin itself was starting to show his age. He quickly looked down at himself, pushing back thoughts of his fading youth, and focused on his clothing. As per usual, he was dressed casually. He found it eased his patients to see him as just another person, and perhaps even a friend, and the more formal his clothes, the less at ease they were. Shaking his head, he dried his hands on his purple, long-sleeved shirt, a habit that people laughed at or scolded him for. He straightened his shirt over his khaki pants, knowing that he was procrastinating but feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of going out to get started.
When he could linger no longer, he blew out a breath, grabbed the clipboard he had set on the side of the sink, and strode out, resolving to face whatever was going to happen, be it good or bad. He was terrified it would be bad. There were so many variables to consider, age differences, various diagnoses, some of which were on the opposite end as some of the others, and so much more. Unlike the other groups, where everybody had something in common, the participants in this group seemed to have nothing in common.
Pausing outside the door, Dr. Embry took a deep, steadying breath then walked in. He scanned the room to see if anybody was there yet. The furniture was neat and untouched and included a large couch and many cushioned chairs, as well as a table off to the side with two more chairs beside it.
The doctor didn’t think there would be anybody there yet. There was still twenty minutes until their scheduled time, it was possible that one or more of his patients had arrived. Reggie, the doorman, knew almost everybody who came into the clinic, including his patients, and it wasn’t too far-fetched that he would unlock the door for one of them.
The first glance told him there was nobody there, but when he looked closer, he noticed Zacharias Adams huddled in a corner, half hidden behind a bookshelf. He was watching the doctor with black eyes, deep and kind despite the hardship and pain their owner had gone through. Dr. Embry smiled and nodded at his patient then began to write on his clipboard as he considered the dark man.
The large young man would have appeared menacing to anybody who wasn’t acquainted with him. He could have played football, had he been interested in it. His body was thick, but with muscle, not fat, which filled out his over-six-foot frame. His skin was dark, which was another reason he put off those who met him. People just didn’t like the broad, black man that towered over them. Racism was certainly alive and well.
“They just feel threatened by you,” his best friend had said once. “Screw them. You’re more than their opinions.”
That particular friend, Joshua Wallace, was a writer, and he enjoyed vivid descriptions and minute details. One day, Zacharias had timidly asked to be described, needing to hear something good about himself, and the wordsmith in him had exploded with joy. The three pages, part physical description and part character analysis, had pleased the large man so much that he’d brought it in to show Dr. Embry. The whole thing was full of the brotherly love that the two of them shared, and despite the fact that, at only twenty-two, Joshua was several years younger than Zacharias, who was almost twenty-six, he protected his friend mentally and emotionally just as much as Zacharias protected him physically.
The words that Joshua had used in his project came to the doctor’s mind as he looked at Zacharias. Milk chocolate skin that made him sweet. Short hair, springy and black as the sticky pitch which Joshua claimed held the two friends together as they went through life. Eyes that were black, inky pools of emotion, from sparkling joy to bright anger. Broad shoulders that were perfect to cry on in those moments of desperation that they sometimes pretended never happened. Joshua’s description fit Zacharias exactly, even to the doctor, who didn’t know everything firsthand.
Dr. Embry found himself grinning at the dark-skinned man, who smiled back, though it was clear he wasn’t sure why. Before the psychologist could turn back to his writing, a tall, thin man strode into the room, his gaze sharp and slightly hostile. He didn’t even grace Zacharias with a glance; instead, he skipped over him. It didn’t help that the large man shrank back behind the bookcase, making himself as small and unnoticeable as possible. The doctor didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he turned to smile at the man.
“Dr. Embry,” the new arrival greeted, his slight British accent clipped and neat around the edges. His clean-shaven face, pale, flawless skin, and short, chestnut hair made Christopher handsome to the point that women would swoon over and dream about him. Unfortunately for them, Christopher had no interest whatsoever in a relationship, be it romantic or even just platonic. That was part of the reason he had been sent to counseling in the first place, and though he had fought it, he had eventually agreed to stick with Dr. Embry. He was one of the doctor’s first patients.
Looking around again, Christopher added, “I hope I am not too early.”
“Not at all, Christopher!” Dr. Embry answered, shaking his head. “Just go and settle wherever you like. There are a few books for you to look over, and I think you said you would like to read one or two of them. They’re on that table.” He gestured with the pen.
With long, casual strides, Christopher made his way over to the books, perusing his options, then picked up one that required a Ph.D. in psychology to understand. He settled in a plush, green chair and flipped through the pages, his blue eyes taking in the information; they never quite lost that hostility, though. Dr. Embry watched for a moment then turned back to his clipboard.
Meanwhile, Zacharias watched Christopher. The dark man thought that the accent matched the Brit well, what with his clean, unwrinkled clothes and almost clinical way of walking and talking. He looked every inch what Zacharias thought a British man should look like.
As Christopher read his selection, Zacharias’ thoughts went back and recalled him looking over the same book just a few minutes earlier. The words had scrunched together, stringing letters around in unpredictable patterns, all while in neat little rows that scolded him. “You should be able to read! You’re old enough to read, stupid!” The pain and shame of dyslexia burned through him, and he had slammed the book closed, glaring at it for a moment before taking a deep breath to calm himself and meticulously arranging the literature as it had been. He then retreated to his corner, reluctant to meet anybody he didn’t know.
“Study the situation first, Zach. See if you can figure out where you stand before going forward and saying ‘hi,’” Joshua had told him during one of their combined sessions with Dr. Embry. Zacharias fully intended to follow that advice, especially since his friend wasn’t there yet. He could feel Dr. Embry studying him, and his face warmed; his emotions were often easy to read on his face, and he had never perfected the art of hardening his expression, like his father had. Just the thought of that man caused a shudder to run up Zacharias’ spine and he grimaced. Glancing over at the psychologist, Zacharias received a nod of acknowledgment before the doctor turned to greet the girl who had just walked into the room.
She was teenager, about seventeen, her body almost unnaturally slender, which made her five-and-a-half feet seem even smaller. Her fiery hair had a natural curl, and it was locked in a ponytail to keep it out of her face. Her features were almost gaunt, and even the makeup she’d used to hide her face full of freckles couldn’t make her look healthier. When she scanned the room, her shocking green eyes skipped right over Zacharias, just as Christopher’s had; again, he shrunk back behind the bookcase, and Dr. Embry couldn’t help but think: At least it gives him a chance to see who he’s going to meet.
“Flora, how are you?” the psychologist asked, smiling at her.
The girl shrugged, and the doctor scanned her almost too-thin frame, wondering if she had lost any more weight. Her expression was guarded as he wrote his observations and thoughts out on his clipboard. Pursing her full lips, she glanced at Christopher, who was almost as old as Dr. Embry was but not at all interested in her arrival. Her small, upturned nose wrinkled in distaste as she turned back to look at the doctor.
When nothing else was said and he gestured for her to have a seat, she turned to look over the room. All of the seats faced inward to encourage talking to the group. She shook her head, unsatisfied with any of the seating options then stomped over to the far side of the room, which had little furniture. She began to do some martial arts stances, her katas flowing effortlessly.
Dr. Embry wondered if she’d eaten, how much she’d eaten, and how much she’d exercised that day. He wasn’t sure whether or not to stop her, so he went back to his notes, debating his options. While the doctor argued with himself, Zacharias watched the girl’s movements, fascinated by her confidence and the fierceness in her eyes. When he heard more footsteps in the hall, he turned his gaze back to the door, hoping for Joshua, who was due any time now.
He wilted in disappointment when, instead of his friend, a wiry man with wild, black hair walked in. The man was twitchy and his skin, though the color of caramel, looked paler than it should have. His silvery-grey eyes regarded the room suspiciously, and he muttered to himself as his gaze darted around, as if he were looking for something. His face contorted, and a short, surprised noise escaped him when Dr. Embry touched him.
“Shh, easy, Phin. Easy. It’s only me,” Dr. Embry said. “How are you feeling today?”
Phineas spoke in a low, frantic voice, leaning close, as if afraid somebody might overhear. “Ting says he’s going to kill me, and Zee Zee thinks I should kill you, Marti is trying to mediate, and you look like you’re going to hurt me!” he hissed, wringing his hands together and narrowing his eyes.
“You know you’re hallucinating?” the doctor asked, keeping his voice low and soothing. “You know I won’t hurt you? That nobody here will hurt you?”
The man shrugged a shoulder, worrying his bottom lip. “Somewhere in my mind. It’s hard to tell what’s real, but I’m trying to be calm,” came his shaky reply.
Dr. Embry nodded. “I can tell, and you’re doing well. Why don’t you sit down and listen to your music? Do your breathing exercises. We’re waiting for a few more people, then we’ll get to introductions.”
While the two of them had been talking, two more teenagers walked in, a male and a female. The pudgy, almond-eyed girl yelped as she almost tripped over her own feet, catching herself on the doorframe while her equally pudgy twin laughed. They both had black hair, hers to her shoulders, his around his ears. Their skin was golden-yellow, and Zacharias wondered if they had been born in Asia or in the US. They were both slightly above five feet tall, and the dark man knew he would tower over them in an almost comical way. Still, they looked friendly enough, and the doctor greeted them as he sent Phineas over to a chair.
“Lyle! Lilly!” Dr. Embry exclaimed. “Good to see that you’ve made it.”
“Mother said to tell you that we can’t run late today,” Lilly said, her lack of accent confirming that she was at least raised in America. Dr. Embry noted that she refused to meet his eyes, but he wasn’t offended; most people with an ASD diagnosis had trouble looking others in the eye, especially while they talked.
The girl continued, flapping her hands to relieve her discomfort. “She’s going to take us to the horse ranch tomorrow and we have to get enough sleep. I get to see Shadow and Starlight and Frenchie again! Frenchie was so little the last time I saw her, but Mr. Marvin says she’s grown a lot! I’ll get to feed her and ride her around the yard! She’s a blue roan with such a pretty coat, and I’m bringing a carrot just for her!”
“Sounds like fun,” Dr. Embry said with a nod then turned to look at her brother. “And you, Lyle? Learn anything new?”
Lyle kept his eyes on the floor, just as his sister had. “I saw an old Pontiac Firebird today,” he said, then began listing the details.
The doctor nodded politely, his attention focused on the door even as he tried to seem interested. He nodded in greeting when a young man appeared. The arrival was of average height and slightly overweight, but his honeyed skin had a healthy glow to it. Cheeks pink, the man was reluctant to interrupt the conversation, and he ducked his head when he was looked at. He slunk by the doctor and the twins, hiding his face behind a book when Christopher glanced up at him. The British man promptly ignored him again.
Dr. Embry, wanting to properly greet the man, managed to interrupt the eager description of another old car that Lyle had seen two days prior. After diverting Lyle’s attention, he sent the twins to the table. After moving the books to one side, they pulled out paper and pencils then lost themselves in their own worlds. Now that he was free, the doctor went over and patted the quiet man on the shoulders, leaning down to whisper to him for a moment.
“Thanks for coming, Alex. You okay?”
The green eyes that met his gaze were shy and all he got in return was a nervous smile. Dr. Embry was distracted as somebody else strode in. The man was clearly older than most of the others, besides Christopher and the doctor himself. His lean frame was covered by a shirt as black as his short hair, and he wore a pair of khakis. Dark rings surrounded his startling blue eyes, which were slightly magnified by the stylish glasses he wore.
“Devon!” Dr. Embry exclaimed. “I’m so glad you made it! Did you work last night?”
“Got about four hours of sleep between the end of my shift and when I needed to leave,” the man replied with a yawn. “I’m here, though.”
“Excellent! Go lay on the couch, try to rest. We’re only waiting for one more person.”
Five minutes later, and just as the session was supposed to begin, the doctor was discussing the contents of Christopher’s book with its reader. On occasion, Dr. Embry glanced over at Zacharias. As far as he knew, nobody had seen him, or if they had, they didn’t acknowledge him. The psychologist started to consider whether or not to coax the large man out to socialize when more footsteps rang out, signaling the arrival of the last patient.
Zacharias announced himself loudly to the small, skinny man that walked in. Everything, from his long hair to his glowing skin to his soulful eyes looked as if they were dipped in honey just so they would have the color of gold. The rest of the patients looked over at the corner, surprised to see Zacharias and wondering how long he’d been there.
“Josh! You made it here!” the dark man stuttered, dashing out of his hiding spot to embrace his best friend.
Joshua smiled as he was released, his golden-brown eyes glittering as he patted the taller man’s arm. “Yeah, Zach, I made it. Had to finish my shift at the restaurant then ran home to change. I see you made it all right. Take the bus?”
In response, Zacharias nodded emphatically as he struggled to produce the words he needed that would convey his jumbled mess of thoughts as they raced by.
“Seventy-two had a tire lateness-thing but three-seventeen came and took us off to Poppin’s, where God cried, but I didn’t dry too slow, and…and…”
Zacharias faltered when he realized that he had the room’s attention. All he could feel in that moment was eight pairs of eyes judging every word that came out of his mouth. His dark face darkened further in embarrassment, and he looked away, anger etching into his features as his defenses rose.
Joshua pursed his lips as he looked over the room, his expression morphing into a glare before he spoke carefully. “So, your bus was late because of a flat tire, so another was scheduled to come and pick you up?”
“Yeah,” Zacharias muttered, glancing at his friend. Dr. Embry observed the group as they shifted and listened to Joshua. The doctor reached for his clipboard.
“The bus dropped you off Popinjay Park, where you got rained on, but not too badly?”
“I’m dry now. Short walk here and the red man made me sign something. I couldn’t…you know.” Zacharias gestured in front of him in a vague manner, but Joshua understood.
“Red man?” Alexander asked, setting aside the book he’d been pretending to read.
“That would be the secretary, wouldn’t it?” Lyle asked, his tone absent.
“Reggie? He is wearing red today,” Lilly agreed, then she began to describe what she had cataloged when she had seen him earlier. “Red hat with a stiff brim, long red coat to keep out the wind with two sets of buttons, one column fake. Dark slacks with a stain on the left knee, probably from coffee, and dress shoes buffed to perfection. He opened the door for us.”
“He was in a rush this morning and he forgot to send in that pair of pants for dry cleaning, so he had to make do,” Dr. Embry replied as he took notes, barely glancing up.
“He made me sign something, too,” Phineas said as he focused on a spot in the middle of the room. His expression was half-crazed, and his fingers drummed restlessly on his thigh. “I couldn’t concentrate over the voices, so I didn’t read it.”
“It was a statement saying that you consent to this study,” Christopher said, raking his gaze over all of them with distaste clear in his ice blue eyes. “It was a release of information to the group, stating that you don’t mind sharing personal information, and it listed the days that we’re to come in and interact as a group, the days we’re to have our brains scanned, and the days where we come in one on one and talk about our group experiences.”
“I still don’t see why I have to have my brain scanned,” Flora muttered.
Dr. Embry nodded. “It will show us how it’s different.”
“But I have a normal brain!” she growled, crossing her arms.
“Then why are you here?” Christopher asked, his expression cold.
“Stop!” the doctor exclaimed, sensing the danger. He gestured toward the ring of seats. “Introductions first! Sit, and we’ll talk. This is our first session, so let’s keep it simple.”
And that is the edited excerpt! Compare to my previous excerpt here.
And if you are interested, please support my efforts to get this manuscript edited professionally by donating here. I would really appreciate it.