Thirty-Six - Linkin

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"I mean, it is difficult to explain. Before the island, I had a purpose. I was confident, mostly happy. I knew what I wanted – to help people. After everything at the island, though?" I paused as I walked over the creaky wooden boards carrying a silver tray with the new floral china cups I had picked up today. "I lost myself." I set the tray down on the table, pouring hot tea into two of the three cups.

Stuart leaned forward and nodded with a small smile. "Thank you." It was all he said as he picked up his cup and saucer, inspecting my newest purchase with his green eyes before motioning for me to continue.

"There were days, especially towards the end, where I didn't recognize myself, my own reflection," I continued to answer him as I placed a sugar cube into my cup, stirring it with a rose gold spoon before sitting down in a wine armchair. "I was so weak, so pathetic."

Stuart peered at me past his glasses, like any good shrink, but didn't interrupt me. Any other time, he'd offer support as a friend, but he understood that when I sat him down for a "serious chat" in our break that I needed something more.

"Now things seem better, more normal." I looked around the open concept first floor of our three-story Victorian house. We had converted it to our office, a waiting room, Stuart's psychiatrist office, his private office, and I even had a desk in the main area. The second floor had Stuart's room with a spare room next to it and the third floor, the attic, was all mine.

The house was over a hundred years old. It looked, sounded, and acted like it, but it was still beautiful in its own way. Stuart knew what was important to me and let me buy whatever I wanted, decorating it like something I've seen from hundreds of magazines, something I've always dreamed of.

"I mean look at us, we have a house together." I laughed and took a sip of my tea. "And while it isn't the same as being a doctor, I am still helping people. Our clients – even if they think I am just a secretary – I still help them."

Stuart smiled at my positive thoughts like a proud father. "You've come a long way and you should be proud of it. I know you want to forget the island, Ira, Jaysen, all of that, but you can't deny that they changed you, Linkin, changed us all." When he saw that I was ready to protest, he added, "I don't just mean physically either."

My gaze fell as I crossed my legs and picked at the black nylons that covered my legs. Even that small barrier protected people from me, but because of the island, I needed that barrier almost all the time.

"Do you still hate yourself for what they did to you?" Stuart asked as I continued to fiddle with my covering clothes.

That was a hard question. "Yes... I miss being able to touch people, to be able to feel. As much as it is a routine, I hate having you inspect me, worried that you might find an injury that I never felt. Part of me still feels like the little girl begging to be taken and put in a cage." My gaze finally met his as I reached out and placed the cup on the table before glancing to the old fireplace. "I don't know if I can ever get over that."

Stuart was ready to reply, but the phone rang. It was shrill and made both of us jump.

"You should get that," Stuart said with a sigh. "It could be our one o'clock, but we will continue this conversation."

I uncrossed my legs and stood up, digging into the rug that protected the original hardwood floors.

"Linkin," Stuart added as my heels hit the wood, "it's been a year, and you've come a long way. Don't forget that." After that reminder, he glanced into his teacup as I walked over to the old rotary dial phone which I demanded to have.

Stuart had pointed out its uselessness because of lack of caller display. I made the argument that it was harder to track and increased client confidentiality, but the real reason was that we could redirect our Mexican number to here. Over the last year, Stuart had stopped questioning the things that I brought home or where I got the money for them.

I lifted the black phone and placed it to my ear. "Doctor Neil Stewart's psychiatry office, how may I help you?"

There was nothing at the other end and I frowned as I sat down in my leather chair behind my glass desk.

"Hello, can I help you?" I repeated. The extra question got Stuart's attention and he stood up, carefully setting the tea down.

I heard a breathy laugh on the other end. "Neil Stewart?" they asked as Stuart watched for some sign. Call it paranoia or learning our lesson, but Stuart was always on guard when something out of the ordinary happened.

"No, this is Link. May I help you?" I replied, watching as Stuart released tension from his shoulders and went back to fill his cup of tea like it was his original plan.

There was once again a long pause, during which I took the time to open my laptop and grabbed a pen and paper, just in case I needed to make a note as my laptop booted up. "Link?" The caller crackled; the antique phone wasn't the best at quality calls.

"Yes, miss. Are you alright?"

"I am, sorry, it's just..." The woman on the other end seemed to sound tense and hesitant, and oddly familiar. She sounded American, unlike the English voices we were used to hearing by now. I remained silent and allowed the distressed woman time to gather herself. "I need to make an appointment to see the doctor."

My head bobbed and my eyes fluttered to my computer to see the welcome screen. I quickly logged in, the clicking of the keys dulled by my gloves. I opened Stuart's schedule and sandwiched the receiver between my ear and shoulder. "He has an appointment today at 3?" Stuart always asked for an hour to be kept open in case there was an emergency, and this caller sounded like she needed some quick help, not the week it normally took.

I could almost hear a smile in her voice as she spoke again, and the mood shift was strange. "I may need a later appointment in order for me to make it there. Maybe next week, the last appointment in the day?"

It wasn't the most absurd request I had heard. "Of course, let me look," I paused as I clicked to the next week, "I have Wednesday at six?"

"That'll do."

"May I have your name?" I selected the input box and waited to type in our newest appointment.

"Dylan Stapleton. Gracias, Rosa!"

My heart nearly stopped when the line went dead. I swallowed the lump in my throat and glanced to Stuart as I slowly eased the phone back onto its base.

"Who was that?" He observed me over his cup of tea.

"Ira..." Dylan Stapleton had been her alias in Mexico, and I'd joked that it suited her because it sounded like a serial killer. She and Stuart had spent a night finding names for us from news reports, most them related to crime.

Stuart mirrored my stunned expression, frozen like a statue on the rug. "Is she—"

The bell to our office rang and the door opened a few seconds later. Our one o'clock appointment walked in with a smile and she stopped by my desk to sign in for the day. Stuart and I glanced away from each other as we collected ourselves to face the client. There wasn't anything we could do about Ira until Wednesday – it was going to be a long week.

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