Nicole doesn't ask him how his week was, this time. She leans forward in her chair and looks at him intently. Tom doesn't know where to look. He moves the Kleenex box an inch to the left, then back. "Mr. Foss, I wanted to say I'm sorry. About last week."
"I shouldn't have asked you that. I should have known it would upset you, especially coming from me."
Do you think of Kyle as your-- He didn't even let her finish the question, but he as good as told her the answer anyway. He doesn't want to discuss it. "Don't worry about it."
"I am worried about it. That's the second time in a month that you've left a session early because you didn't want to answer a question I asked you."
He shifts uncomfortably. "I'm sorry."
"I want you to do an exercise with me. It's to help with trust and setting boundaries. Will you do it?"
He hunches over. "Sure."
"Thank you." He hasn't looked up but he can hear her smile in his voice. Then she gets out of her chair. "If you would stand up." He does, eying her uncertainly. She smiles again. "Now if you would step closer, about arm's length away, and just maintain eye contact with me."
He can feel his eyes widen.
"Please," she says. "I know it sounds silly, but it's a very useful exercise."
He shuffles closer, takes a deep breath. Then he raises his head and looks her in the eye. She watches him calmly. Looking at him. Seeing him. What does she see? It's too close. Way too close. Embarrassment and the need to escape swell in his chest until they overflow into his throat. He breathes shallowly through his nose, but the bubble in the back of his throat grows until he looks away, huffing back a laugh.
"It's natural to be embarrassed," she says. "Just work through it. Stay here with me."
He takes another deep breath and stares her down. Gives her his best poker face and doesn't blink. She's in his space. He has to fight every instinct just to stand still. She's blond and serene and so damn nonthreatening, and he feels exposed and afraid, and he knows that she knows that. The seconds tick by, and then she smiles. "Very good. I know that was difficult for you, but you stuck it out." She holds up her hands, palms facing him. "Now set your hands flat against mine."
She laughs. "Don't worry, we're not working up to a hug."
He grits his teeth and holds up his hands. Settles them against hers. Her hands are smaller than his, but not by as much as he expected. Her palms are dry, and warm, and a little rough. She's been gardening or washing dishes, probably.
"Look at me," she says. He doesn't want to. "Only a few more minutes. You can do it."
He doesn't need to be coaxed like a child. He looks at her. He can't stand it. It's too close. Hands and eyes together, and he's ashamed of how afraid he feels. Part of him, though--part of him feels safe. What the hell's wrong with him? This should be nothing. He should feel nothing. Humor her and get out.
"Now push against my hands," she says.
"What? Why? Am I supposed to try to knock you over?"
She smiles. "Why don't you try it?"
He narrows his eyes, tightens his muscles abruptly and gives her palms a sharp shove. She yields, lets her arms slide back, her hands still flat against his and with just enough return pressure that he doesn't overbalance. Of course. She told him to stand at arm's length. Just far enough away he can't knock her over without stepping closer, if she doesn't push back. He's impressed in spite of himself at the cleverness of it.
"It's not a contest," she says. "I'm just here with you. Meeting you at the boundaries we both set. You can push, and I can push back, and we'll still be here together." She presses her hands against his, gently, and he gives her an inch. They stand there a few moments more. "Thank you for doing this exercise with me, even though you think it's silly," she says. "Would you like to keep going, or should we stop?"
He lets his eyes slide away with intense relief. His hands fall to his side, and he sits. She follows his lead a moment later. "I made a mistake last week," she says. "I'm sure I'll make more. I hope that next time, instead of leaving, you'll stay here with me and tell me 'no.'"
He nods, feeling the ghost of her palms against his skin.
"At our first session, you said you'd rather I asked you questions. Do you still feel that way, or would you like to direct the conversation yourself?"
He clears his throat, still not looking at her. "Let's stick with the questions."
She nods. Moments pass. She lets things settle. He's breathing a little easier when she says, "Last week you told me you were happy at Zzyzx."
"Well, I don't know about happy."
"But yeah, I guess I liked it there."
"And then you blew it up. You killed Kern. How did that feel?"
He doesn't answer.
"Before we go any farther, I should probably clarify that anything you tell me is protected under psychologist-patient privilege, which is recognized in the state of Washington. Of course I'm obligated to report it if you tell me of your intent to commit a crime in the future, but statements about anything you've done in the past is strictly confidential." He stares at her, and she gives him a crooked smile. "I promise you won't shock me. I counsel troubled teens. You're not my first patient to have killed someone."
That never occurred to him. But she's talking about it like it's no big deal to her. It has to be. He knows it does.
"So how did you feel about destroying a place that had meant something to you?"
"I never cared about Zzyzx."
His head jerks up. "I didn't know she was there!"
Nicole blinks. "You didn't?"
"No! What, you thought I would just--I never saw her before that night!"
"But you left her there."
"Kyle showed up. I had to get him out before everything blew." He still resents that, even though he thinks he would have left her there anyway. She hadn't been important yet. And Jessi knows that, she must. She knows that he left her there to die.
"So you didn't bring Kyle with you to Zzyzx."
"Of course not."
"But you took him and Declan to MadaCorp."
"Zzyzx was a one-man job. MadaCorp needed three people."
"I'm not criticizing you. I took my children to MadaCorp too, to help Kyle."
"No, it was stupid. I shouldn't have let Kyle talk me into it."
"But you got the boys out, at great personal sacrifice."
The words make him squirm. "I wouldn't have had to if I'd brought a gun."
"Why didn't you?"
"I wasn't sure I could get it through security."
She waits. He doesn't say anything. "You didn't want to hurt anyone," she suggests.
He laughs incredulously. "I just told you I blew up an entire scientific facility!"
She tilts her head stubbornly. "It still sounds to me like you went into MadaCorp unarmed because you knew that if worse came to worst, you could get the boys out by sacrificing yourself. And when Declan got hurt, that's exactly what you did."
"Don't you get it?" He waves his arms. "Kyle didn't see Jessi! I knocked him out first. If he had, I would have had to find a way to drag her out of there too!"
Her lips part in understanding. "But if you had abandoned Declan, Kyle would have known."
He nods. He should have brought a gun. It wasn't noble, it was selfish. He knew Kyle could shut his eyes only so far, could pretend Tom was someone he could be around only until presented with evidence he couldn't ignore.
"So if Kyle hadn't been there and wouldn't have known, would you have left Declan?"
She doesn't sound like she wants any particular answer. Just an answer. He wants to say yes and be done with it. Why hasn't he been lying to her all along? Why has he allowed her to set up this pattern?
"Do you know the answer?"
He sinks into his chair and shakes his head. He wants to believe he would have left Declan, and hates the idea at the same time.
"Why is that troubling? Why don't you want me to think well of you?"
A minute and a half ticks by before she says, "I have an idea. See what you think of it. Have you heard the phrase 'self-concept' before?"
He shrugs again.
"It just means the image we have of ourselves. The kind of person we think we are. People are very, very protective of their self-concept. They'll go to almost any lengths to preserve it. And most people, even if they avoid it, do want to be seen for who they are. Most people prefer accurate criticism to inaccurate compliments, because it's proof that someone sees them. That they're important enough to be seen. You'll admit to caring about Kyle because loyalty, and going to extremes for people you've decided are your responsibility, are part of your self-concept. But acts of kindness or altruism aren't."
"And what, you think I'm a nice guy?"
She frowns thoughtfully. "I guess I don't see that as a useful category of analysis. In the end, kindness is a choice, not a personality trait."
"I'm serious," she says. "Look at Kyle and Jessi. Kyle is more naturally imaginatively empathetic. The idea of someone else being in emotional or physical pain is instinctively upsetting to him. Jessi has to work harder to understand the impacts of her actions on other people."
But Jessi does. She works so hard to live up to Kyle's and Nicole's expectations. Sometimes it hurts to watch. "That doesn't make Kyle a better person."
She smiles. "I agree." Her eyes look huge. "I don't think you should be any particular way, or do any particular thing. No one is obligated to sacrifice himself for someone else's child. I just want you to believe you have the choice."
He can't breathe. He can't break eye contact.
She leans forward, lays her hand on the table. "Because you do. Think about where you want to be in a few years. The life you want to have. That's your homework for this week."
He looks at the clock. They've run over by fifteen minutes.