PART A (The Psychologist) — 6

The Rolmans were given a winning lottery ticket.

Or maybe the money was willed to them by some rich relative.

It really doesn’t matter how.

Basically, the Rolmans were given huge amounts of cash.

They had no idea how much.

It might as well have been billions (or trillions) of dollars.

The money was one of the few things Mr. Rolman never mentioned to the Psychologist.

He just never thought to bring it up in their sessions.

But Mr. Rolman did have plans for the money.

He stuffed it in the innermost pockets of his oldest coats, which hung in the living room closet below stacks of board games, umbrellas, flashlights, and other ordinary knickknacks.

Mr. and Mrs. Rolman took money from the pockets whenever they needed it.

Mrs. Rolman bought a hairbrush, and a birthday cake for their son.

Mr. Rolman bought the boy a scooter.

One day, Mr. Rolman began to feel a dull pain just below and to the side of his right knee.

From then on, the pain seemed to flare up whenever he would run to keep up with the boy at the park near their home.

The pain grew worse week by week until eventually it remained a steady, sharp tinge that made him cringe each time he panted and pumped his arms to go faster.

But the boy never stopped blasting forward and away on his shiny yellow scooter, circling and whooping, playing all sorts of little games Mr. Rolman never quite understood.

Sometimes Mr. Rolman’s attention would be drawn away to seeds, or nuts, or rocks, or lizards, or whatever else he might come across on the ground as the boy carried on.

The Psychologist had told Mr. Rolman it was okay to be a little absent-minded, that the important thing was how much time he was always spending with his son, and that it was great he was encouraging the boy’s individuality and confidence.

Much of what the Psychologist told the Rolmans would eventually be shown to be somewhat incomplete, like games with missing pieces or wrong instruction cards.

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 5

There was a man who would one day change his name to Bing.

So let’s call him Bing now.

Bing made plans to tell his boss and co-workers about something he would dub his “Yearly Medical Day.”

He intended the request and necessary conversations to include dapper explanations of how he would bust through all sorts of appointments with various specialists in a single day, getting it all out of the way at once.

It would be a lie, of course, and just as well…

For even after Bing had paced his office hallway like a pent-up swarm of bees to work up the nerve, all he could actually manage with his supervisor was: “Um, I gotta take Friday off for . . . doctors…?”

And with that, his real plan was underway.

Two anxious nights, a hundred-dollar bill unclipped from a wad, and a hurried dialogue later, and Bing had his prescription.

It was stamped, signed, folded four times, and tucked safely away in his wallet like a tool in Batman’s belt.

Driving to his next and final stop, he took a deep, slow breath.

He reached to press the volume button, causing his car radio to cough to life.

Chattering, distinguished voices cut through loose, gravelly speakers.

But he wasn’t listening.

Almost there.

Gingerly thumbing sleep from both eyes, Bing glanced down and across at his iun* resting open on the littered passenger seat. (*device)

The address was up, along with a little map, though he had memorized it all late the night before.

Reviewers of the place he was headed for had made a point of describing the way Suite F only appeared to face the street (“between a crappy head shop and nail salon”), but that the real entrance lay around back.

Nearly all the potential places Bing had come across in his almost-all-night search had been described in similarly off-putting ways: “up the second flight of stairs . . . watch for the guard to the left of the building . . . if you hit Dearhurst, you’ve gone too far.”

Apparently medical marijuana dispensaries weren’t the easiest places to reach.

A flush of tired nerves jolted Bing to life as he made his way around a quiet row of shops.

There at the back, he saw a makeshift metal guard shack next to a big door with a large F painted crude in green.

It was time.

This was the moment he had been both longing for and dreading for the past six months, ever since a work colleague had shown him how legal weed could be a real possibility.

Of course it was the details that made him nervous, like always . . . like reviewers of some dispensaries who described being given strains to sample right at the counter, “taking tokes” with their “budtenders.”

An offer like that would put Bing in an awkward spot for sure.

He couldn’t turn it down for fear of seeming rude or shy.

But the idea of being high around others, especially someone as experienced as a budtender…

Also, the listed pricing charts all seemed so confusing.

He hoped, more than anything, to avoid any sort of attention or drawn-out conversations in the unfamiliar environment he was about to be thrust into.

But there was no turning back.

His prescription had been paid for.

He was locked into his plan.

As midday heat beat down through grubby windows, Bing shoved his iun under the seat, withdrew his wallet, clasped his ID and prescription together in one hand, and slowly popped open his door as though easing into a freezing pool.

“Hey man,” spouted a skinny guard from the shack across the way. “Y’all got yo papers ready?”

“Yes,” stated Bing.

The guard bowed slightly, reaching to open the heavy door behind him.

Even before stepping through, Bing was overwhelmed by the smell that wafted out to greet him like an old friend.

It was that same familiar scent of pine, and skunk, and herbs, and something else all its own.

He found it to be both calming and alluring right away.

His rigid gate eased a notch.

He smiled.

Maybe these people would be cool.

Maybe they could be his friends.

“First time or returning?” asked a mechanical female voice from a box to Bing’s left.

He turned to glimpse two of the most alarmingly attractive young women he had ever seen seated behind a thick acrylic-glass window.

The one with darker skin and slightly more tattoos gave him a friendly smile and repeated into a microphone attached to her desk: “First time patient? Or returning?”

“I’m . . . first time,” said Bing.

“Got your rec and ID?”

Bing noticed the slot at the base of the window.

Without saying anything, he slid his license and prescription through.

“Thank you,” said the other girl. “Please sign in and fill out one of these…”

She slid a clipboard with a stack of stapled forms back through the slot.

Bing took the clipboard and lowered himself to a metal chair.

After signing and initialing a few dozen times, he glanced around to take in the waiting area.

It was quite bare except for a small wooden coffee table at the center.

On the table lay neat stacks of magazines with pictures of plants and paraphernalia.

The smell, and what that smell meant was waiting just beyond the next big door to his left, remained pleasantly bewildering.

He could hear faint fragments of talking taking place behind the door.

He took a deep breath, hoping again for a quick and smooth exchange.

His name was called like at a doctor’s office.

He rose, slipped the clipboard through to the smiling receptionists, pocketed his ID and rec, and pushed through as the handle buzzed to unlock.

The smell so intensified as he entered that innermost chamber (its source) it hit Bing hard like a massive wave.

It was the steam from cartoon pies that causes characters to lose their senses and float off the ground toward it, all drooling and fuzzy-headed.

He couldn’t decide which was more appealing as he inched across that pungent room . . . the rows upon rows of giant mason jars, all filled with more marijuana than he’d ever thought he’d see, or the team of tiny beauties behind the counter, all grinning at him.

But the idea of sampling a smoke with an unfamiliar hot girl seemed to Bing about as uncomfortable as being a eunuch at a peep show.

He imagined himself guffawing like Goofy, and felt his pulse quicken in his neck.

He sauntered instead to a small Asian man who stood almost unnoticeable amongst the rest behind the counter.

“Hi, Mr. Pugloci?” welcomed the young man in a quiet voice.

“Hi,” said Bing, his gaze lost in waves of green and other forest colors.

“Your first time here?”

“Y. . . yes. I just got my prescription today,” said Bing, immediately feeling a remarkably strong sense of calm and focus as he brought his eyes up to meet those of his first budtender.

“Wow!” said the peaceful voice. “That’s great. Well, I can walk you through everything you’ll need to know. My name is Ten, by the way.”

The two shook hands.

“Bing,” said Bing.

“Well, Bing, basically how the dispensary works is you have your top-shelf strains…” Ten motioned to the jars Bing had just been ogling.

Each jar had a hand-written label with names like Moody OG, Kryptonite, Purple Princess…

“Then there are your medium and low-shelf,” continued Ten, pointing toward jars that sat, conveniently, on the two shelves below the top.

“Oh cool,” said Bing, eyeing jars through the glass.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” said Ten, “what’s your medical need? That way I can help you find the right strains for you. The ones you are looking at now would be good for things like insomnia, loss of appetite, anxiety… Over here,” Ten continued, gliding in an arc around the counter’s sharp central corner, “we have strains known to get you up and moving. These are more energetic, and are said to help with creativity and mental stimulation, kind of like an energy drink. You might find them helpful for problems like depression or mood disorders.”

“I guess…” began Bing, trailing off.

“It’s okay,” assured Ten, “I know it can all be quite overwhelming at first. Trust me, in six months you’ll know all the different types of strains inside and out.”

Ten laughed, pronouncing each “ha” as though learned from a textbook.

“Here,” he breathed, arcing again at speed around and out from behind the counter, “these are edibles.”

Ten reached to open a refrigerator door just behind where Bing was standing.

Bing turned to see that the little fridge was packed full of chocolate bars, brownies, cookies, and bottles of lemonade and soda.

Some of the goodies had professional-looking labels.

Others were unmarked, in re-sealable zipper bags.

“Wow!” said Bing. “I’ve never had edibles before.”

“The key with these is moderation,” cautioned Ten, smiling humbly. “I mean, you only want to eat a little, and then wait about an hour or so. If you’re used to smoking, you might just keep eating and eating, and then…”

Ten let the consequences of his unfinished thought hang in Bing’s imagination like barbed wire.

“I smoke a little bit,” said Bing. “That’s why I wanted the prescription . . . so it could be legal or whatever. But yeah, I’ve been doing it off-and-on since high school.”

“Cool,” said Ten, his expression blank and tranquil. “You have probably just been smoking whatever you get, right . . . not really paying attention to different strains?”

“Right,” Bing confirmed.

“Well, now you can really keep track of how the different types affect you. Oh yeah, one more thing…” remembered Ten, navigating his way back behind the counter with the finesse of a predatory animal. “These are called concentrates…”

Looking to the small section where Ten was gesturing, Bing saw rows of tiny vials and tubes half-filled with oily liquids, as well as bottled pastes that looked like brown or yellow globs of dough.

“With these,” Ten said, “you only need a little bit to get the same effect.”

“Oh, so I should just get those then?” asked Bing, noticing the prices listed were about the same as the regular, non-concentrated marijuana in jars.

“Well, no,” said Ten, pausing, a slightly focused tinge to his expression suggesting the arrangement of his thoughts. “I see a lot of people will start medicating with mid- and top-shelf strains. Then they build up a tolerance and start using concentrates until those don’t even work anymore. You really don’t want to get to that point, right? I mean, it seems better to just ease off a little if you start to build up that kind of tolerance. That’s just my opinion, anyway. You want to make sure it keeps helping you medically. Again, just what I think.”

“Oh, okay,” said Bing. “Well, my main symptoms are anxiety, so…”

He trailed off again into silence, hoping not to have to continue.

“Okay,” beamed Ten at just the right time. “Then you’ll want to go with the first group of strains I showed you. They’re called Indicas. Great for anxiety.”

Ten was already lifting three of the mason jars to the countertop and unscrewing their steel lids in one fluid motion.

“Go ahead and take a closer look,” Ten suggested. “You can smell the flowers and get a sense of how each will taste. See the thick red hairs on this one?”

Bing lowered his face toward the jar labeled Abusive OG.

The dense clumps inside were so large the entire jar was made up of only about four massive buds, dark green, almost brown, and covered in a dense jungle of red.

“Is this one that you use?” Bing asked as he took in the musty smell, picking up a somehow pleasant hint of skunk.

“Me?” said Ten. “I haven’t medicated in about six months. And we just got this strain in last week. So, no.”

“Wow, six months?”

“Don’t tell him that!” called the squeaky voice of a female budtender waiting to work nearby.

Ten smiled politely, his eyes ever fixed in their impervious gaze.

“Yes,” Ten assured. “Like I was talking about, I had built up too much of a tolerance, so I decided not to medicate for a while.”

“You must be . . . desperate for it by now?” chuckled Bing, hoping to triangulate his way into a conversation with the nubile girl who had spoken.

Ten, or the place itself, had certainly seemed to set Bing more at ease.

“No,” said Ten simply.

“No?”

“It helps me in . . . certain ways,” Ten began, then paused. “When I want to, I’ll use it again. That might sound cryptic, I know.”

Bing nodded, thinking, and replied, “Actually, it reminds me of what the doctor I just met with was saying, right before I came here. I went to him because he writes these articles about weed and how the experience can be sort of . . . spiritual, in a way. Is that kind of what you’re talking about?”

“I think that’s something private for each person,” responded Ten. “Right?”

“I don’t know,” answered Bing, slightly disappointed, but still smiling wider than he had in longer than he could remember.

. . .

Bing completed his first medical marijuana purchase, exiting with a rich sample of strains and edibles to try.

As he left, he thanked Ten, the two receptionists, and the laidback guard outside, even treating each to a silly grin and wave.

The white paper bag folded neatly under his arm carried a hint of the captivating smell like a beacon back to its lair.

Shielding his eyes from the blinding sun as he strutted back to his car, Bing felt about as loose and relaxed as Ten had seemed.

He considered Ten’s comment about spiritual experiences.

Though Bing would never see Ten again, the small man’s calm words and demeanor would never be too far from his mind.

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 4

A classmate pulled ahead, followed close by Johnston.

The two shot around L-shaped corners, zigging past waves of empty cork boards and brightly colored, crisply cut election posters taped to walls.

The classmate pumped sweatered arms, never quite looking back.

Johnston pressed, but heard his shoes begin to screech against the scummy linoleum floor.

Too loud to go this fast, he thought.

Too much trouble.

Not the right way to behave.

He stopped and caught his breath, alone now in a random stretch of hall.

As he considered heading home, a neatly folded square of lined paper caught his eye from beneath the rear of a bin marked “REFUSE.”

Glancing left then right, he glided in and stooped to clasp the mysterious page by its exposed corner.

He noticed a blue heart drawn in pen with extra curves and spirals.

As he turned the note over to yank its careful folds apart, a gaggle of gleeful females swarmed into the hall, all giggling and honking like the working components of some enormous cartoon machine.

Johnston froze, feeling their judgmental stares as they laughed and bobbed in his general direction.

He glanced halfway up, not quite meeting pairs of menacing eyes . . . then quickly down again.

His point of view was the sliding piece of the Strongman carnival game once its lever has been whacked with a mallet and the slider finds its apex.

He shuddered as he took in partial outlines of further curves and spirals.

An old warmth began to pool in his chest like a shaky jolt, and Johnston bolted, fleeing first straight at the gaggle, then around . . . an uncoordinated asteroid knocked into and out of orbit.

A door marked “MEN” lay just beyond.

Then safe in the usual dank and sterile mix of smells . . . hidden with his feet up in a stall . . . Johnston finished unraveling the paper, fighting to contain a wicked grin.

mark,

im stefani. im gabbys freind. u met me at gabbys house when derek had that party. i long brown hair and big tits. haha. anyway, i wrote this letter because ive been thinking about u. i like the way u talk and ur voice and i just though u were cool so gabby says u would probably go out with me. i want to go out with u. ur hot. haha. i think u liked me 2 because u were looking at me and laughing when i said that about mr hensler. i was so nervous about u but i hope u will think about this. i been thinking about u. a lot. haha. anyway. bfn.

xxx

stef

. . .

It was dark.

The kitchen air had fallen still and musty, probably with age.

Johnston cursed as quietly as possible, almost a whisper and quite matter-of-fact.

His scrubber’s bristles, loose and dull, were matted through with tiny fragments.

Slime from old scorched beans and days’ worth of a crusty film held fast.

He gritted his teeth and scraped all the more beneath pale, lukewarm water.

The chore had to be done, so he let his mind wander in the particular way it had trained itself to, having now well over a decade’s practice.

Stef . . . Stefani…

Perhaps it was just her fun, cute way of spelling Stephanie.

Or maybe Stephany.

Yes, he could picture her now.

And Gabby.

And others, all clustered in a tight circle on the floor of Stefani’s pink and Easter-blue, pony-themed princess room.

He envisioned the troop of pajama-pantsed beauties all laughing and egging each other on as together they penned Mark’s note.

Johnston now knew the note by heart.

He had read and reread it over 50 times, letting his mind run to fill in every missing detail.

Had she given the note to Mark?

Had Mark tried to throw it away and missed?

Did that mean poor Stefani might be alone somewhere even now, perhaps softly crying into her teddy’s side for having been so slighted?

How could Mark have committed such treason?

Johnston would never spurn so exquisite a creature as Stefani.

Of course not.

And he could just see Mark, too . . . the pretty-boy idiot, self-obsessed, immature, carefree and careless.

The dishwater seemed to stink more than usual as Johnston continued to scrape with all his worth, tearing at a few final filthy remnants until at last he saw no traces.

With a smile, he set about drying and putting away.

The odd football yell or hyena shriek from down the hall was nothing new.

Barely even noticeable.

His smile grew as the complete blueprint for a plan seemed to leap all at once to his mind, ordered already in sequential steps.

He would write Stef a note, and leave it near the same place, though more visible out in the hallway.

And what if his note were to actually reach her?

How romantic would their against-all-odds story one day be?

He could just see himself with Stefani reciting their unlikely tale for the nth time to half-ring rows of beloved grandchildren.

But first Johnston would scrimp and save, running that decrepit scrub brush through more sets before retirement.

That way he could take her to the movies and buy her popcorn.

He would treat her the way she needed to be treated . . . the way she deserved . . . like royalty.

She just needs someone to show her how special she is.

Someone to love her.

The noises from Johnston’s older brother’s room became less human and more frequent.

Johnston remained completely still, unaffected.

The dishes were done.

Yes.

Floors were clean.

He lowered himself to brown shag-carpet beside an old cherry-wood desk his father might have used.

He had been told this was the very spot his father’s body was discovered.

It had since become Johnston’s spot, right at the center of the house.

He stared into a blank white page that lay diagonal on the floor before him, and waited for careful designs to become correct words.

Then his gaze shifted, and he stared way past the page (and every fluffy shade beneath) until all blurred to sweet meaningless oblivion.

The expected words came, and he wrote.

Hi Stefani,

How are you? Ok, try not to be mad, but I found your letter to Mark. I thought it was great! I loved what you said and the way you wrote it. My name is Johnston, by the way. Johnston Sayen.

I know this is going to sound strange, but can I meet you? I just mean that, if Mark did not appreciate your letter, maybe you would like to know someone that did?

Maybe your letter never got to him. If that is the case, forget about what I said. You can try to get another letter to him. Or whatever you want to do.

Well, I will leave it at that. Since I found your letter, I have been thinking about you. A lot. Haha. ; ) bfn

xxx

JS

He was happy with his draft, though knew it would undergo scores of tiny tweaks throughout the night.

But first Johnston let himself get lost again, staring far deeper than carpet could go in total stillness and silence.

Time slipped away as it always did, and he became that boy again . . . the one whose older-brother guardian was always off somewhere subdued in distant rooms by all the worst subductions.

He was once more that quiet boy who taught himself to clean from magazines, and who learned to find his own way to each school . . . that boy who met all violence and chaos head-on with the sheer force of a simple belief in a single ideal: that Johnston could be, and do, and become anything he chose if he were just to complete each necessary step.

It was more than a belief, really.

It would always be his way out . . . his line to reach for and return to no matter what.

Johnston certainly wasn’t violent.

Never.

. . .

In morning’s light, Johnston set about perfecting his letter again.

Did he know, deep down, he would never really leave it for Stefani to find?

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PART A (The Psychologist) — 3

Revy peered at the full-length mirror hanging tall within his open closet door across the room.

Light seemed to outline his reflection as he watched himself strum and pluck his old guitar, the first gift he remembered ever receiving from his father.

He looked pretty cool, his lean and angular profile bobbing gently as he jumbled along the rougher edges of a piece.

He listened as his voice began to stretch its way up in search of a good entry point.

The rise felt familiar, though somehow weirdly wrong.

And he knew the lyrics he was about to sing were trash.

Why had he wanted to call the song Fantastic?

But it was hardly an idea for a song.

He huffed and shook his head, recognizing at once his most familiar trap to avoid.

Memories of days and weeks spent fiddling around like this at the edge of his bed . . . just noodling through the same old sets of chords over and over . . . rang out like a warning bell in his mind.

In lieu of missing parts he somehow never failed to expect would magically present themselves to tie his work together, he shifted his gaze ahead, peeled his left shirt sleeve up over his watch, and dug the tip of his thumb into a tiny button on the side.

A telltale chirp meant the watch’s timer had been sprung into motion, set to sound four hours later.

Immediately all Revy could hear were noises he never would have noticed if it hadn’t just become his official practice time: the build and fade of cars nearby, bursts of whistling birds, a few hoots from children far away…

He also heard Jodie’s voice booming through the wall.

She must be pretending to interview some celebrity or something again.

He could all but see her hands swooping to catch up with the bubbly, unrelenting words.

Two words in particular jumped out from all her lines, yanking his attention back each time: “And, uh…”

He smiled, picturing the sudden redness and scowl that would overtake her stern face like a storm if he were to ever point out anything about her speaking skills or style.

Yet she seemed to have more than just freedom to question and chide any choices he made in his art.

And there went three minutes.

After brushing fingers hard through his hair, Revy slipped up his sleeve again and dug deep into two buttons to restart the timer.

He reached to grab a spiral notebook from an open shoebox just under the edge of his bed.

PRACTISE was scrawled uneven across the book’s cover in thick green ink.

Inside, he bypassed pages of instructions to himself . . . mostly advice gleaned from rock star heroes in interviews.

It was actually from something said in one such interview that he had decided on his “4-for-4” plan in the first place . . . to practice four hours a day for four years.

Aware of the timer still snapping out fresh seconds, he rifled to a section marked SCALES.

Letters and symbols for notes in each key littered the pages he landed at like a preschooler’s homework.

Labeling the notes had been an awkward notion.

But he’d known this would be an important language to internalize if he ever hoped to play well with more educated musicians and not feel like an idiot ever struggling to catch up by ear alone.

He found the first note, C, and slowly climbed his way up the scale, not quite muttering letters to himself in hopes of memorizing each note’s name.

C, D, E . . . F . . . G . . .

No wait, that’s a G?

That doesn’t sound right.

Oh…

After a few minutes spent clumsily mapping the same tones to different spots on his instrument’s neck, he slid absentmindedly back to strumming out one of his old, comfortable, unproductive pieces again.

But the seconds still ticking silently away on his arm began to scream at him like a drill sergeant.

Then he huffed a couple more times, ground more fingers through his hair, and returned to jerking his way up and down the fretboard like a sloppy robot.

He cursed Jodie as she continued to spout her “And, uh…” banter from next-door.

She too was practicing her instrument, he knew.

Though she seemed to be making far more headway.

Doesn’t she know I have to do this?

I guess she doesn’t care.

He glanced sideways to glimpse his profile again in the mirror.

At least he could pull off the look of a passionately aloof rock god . . . perhaps prepping to amaze some intimate VIP crowd at a secret venue with a light acoustic set.

As Revy stared, whatever scale he’d been tinkering with went right out the window just beyond the mirror.

His fingers fell to perhaps their most common, easiest place, strumming the chorus to one of the first songs he’d ever written with…

His eyes darted away from the mirror, the window, and every other distance.

His mind reeled back from far, far away.

And for a split second, seated in the swivel chair by his never-used desk, he saw Dale.

For that was where Dale had always sat whenever the two would spend hours messing around on their guitars in Revy’s room.

The chair was empty, of course.

A bitter sting of tears touched just beneath and behind Revy’s eyes.

He slammed the fingers of his left hand hard against strings to cut short the folksy sound.

He couldn’t bear to hear what might have rung out like a beacon back to simpler times.

The temporal space left on his watch continued to shrink in its precise and unheard ticks.

With shaky hands, Revy fingered through his notebook to a place marked COVERS.

This is where he would spend the remainder of his appointed time, trying to figure out the secret marriage of music and melody as mastered by others.

But every now and then, he wouldn’t quite notice himself slipping back into Fantastic or another unfinished number.

Then more fingers would machete through hair, and he’d glumly wrench his attention back to scaling the walls of others’ art until at last he was relieved by artificial bleeps emanating from near the end of his arm.

Jodie, too, was silent.

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