Title: THE CONVEYANCE
Author: Brian W. Matthews
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Beneath the calm waters and pastoral fields of Emersville, a deadly secret lurks. When psychologist Dr. Brad Jordan stumbles upon the odd happenings in the town, he unknowingly sets into motion a series of tragedies that could expose a danger long kept hidden from the world. As he doggedly pursues a trail of madness, suicide, and murder, he soon finds himself confronted with a massive conspiracy, and a sinister device known as the Conveyance…
A tense, taut and terrifying tale, The Conveyance is resplendent with twists, turns, and a pulse-racer of a plot. Informed by the author’s extensive experience as a therapist, The Conveyance teems with authenticity. The Conveyance is a standout thriller destined to stay with readers long after the last page is turned.
"I can't imagine how difficult your life's been," I said to the rail-thin boy slouched in the chair opposite mine. At twelve, he wore the characteristic sneer of a child who knew little about the world but hadn't failed enough times to realize it.
Doug Belle didn't respond, not that I expected him to. The question had been a trial balloon, my way of gauging his willingness to converse. It worked about half the time. This wasn't one of them.
"Fighting," I said. "Not listening to your teachers. At risk for failing classes. Quite a change for you, if I'm not mistaken."
I paused, letting the message sink in: I already knew something about you, we didn’t have to start from scratch. I left out that I also knew about his other, more serious issues: tendencies towards self-abusive behavior, occasional property destruction, two episodes of running away. Important as they were, they would have to wait. I needed to build a rapport first.
So I waited.
Silence burned the long minutes to ash.
I let the disquiet to play out. From an early age, parental interactions and social norms conditioned us to converse, to follow the ritual back-and-forth pattern of communication, and long periods of silence tended to make us anxious. That, in turn, prompted us to say something—anything—to fill the void.
Another trick, if you will. A way of encouraging patients to open up.
It also failed.
Time to change tactics, see if a little empathy would help.
"A lot's changed. New home, new school. Forced to make new friends while leaving the old ones behind. Nobody likes having to do that."
Doug sat, head down, arms clenched over his chest. One leg kicked back and forth, the heel of his sneaker smacking against the sofa.
Bang bang bang
Neither of us spoke, conscripted soldiers in a wordless war. But like a man defending his native country, I had an advantage: I knew the terrain. I knew every treacherous drop-off, every false turn, every dead end. Eventually, I would win. Not that victory would come easily. A fourteen-year-old girl I'd treated for an eating disorder sat through six sessions before uttering her first word. She was a tough nut. I liked her.
I was beginning to like Doug, too.
That didn't mean I wanted to spend the next few sessions playing Easter Island with him, staring at one another like great stone statues. I reached into my desk, withdrew a handful of small, squarish objects wrapped in white wax paper and covered with blue and red lettering. I unwrapped one and popped the pink tablet into my mouth.
Bubble gum, and not just any kind of bubble gum.
Bazooka bubble gum.
I chewed loudly, waiting.
Bang bang bang
The cloying smell of sugar filled my office. Some in my field might have called this tactic immature, or even unfair. Perhaps they were right. But to me it was more about encouraging kids to open up than quibbling about the method used. It was, after all, only bubble gum. And sometimes a cigar really was just a cigar.
Bang bang bang
Doug's defiance wound down like a pendulum running out of time, until his jean-clad leg hung motionless over the edge of the sofa. He fidgeted a little—reluctant to give up the fight, no doubt. His shoulders gradually unclenched. His hands, which had been tight balls of anger, opened, and he wiped his sweaty palms on his shirt.
That was all he would allow. His head remained firmly down, his eyes averted.
I held out my hand. "Care for one?"
No response—then, a slight nod of his head.
"Do you have braces?"
He mumbled something unintelligible.
"I didn't catch that."
"Sorry, champ. You'll have to prove it. I don't want any trouble with your mom."
Another pause, longer this time. I began to worry that I hadn't won him over.
Before I could withdraw the treats, he lifted his head. Strands of fine ginger hair covered the upper half of his face. He brushed them aside to reveal brilliant green eyes.
His lips parted into a reluctant smile.
He had told the truth: no braces.
"Here you go." I dumped the gum into his hand. "The rest are for later."
He unwrapped one and began chewing.
"What do you prefer to be called?” I said. “Dougie, or Doug?"
"Doug. I hate Dougie." He paused. "What am I supposed to call you?"
"Well, my name is Doctor Bradley Jordan, but that's a mouthful. Most kids stick with Doctor Brad."
* * *
Doug unwrapped another piece of gum and stuffed it into his mouth. His jaws worked like a wood chipper trying to grind a forest into sawdust.
For the first ten minutes we chatted about this and that, skirting the more emotionally charged issues. Eventually, we arrived at the difficulties of being "the new kid."
"Johnny Richardson's pretty cool," Doug said. "He's got one of those funny divots here." He jabbed a finger at the middle of his upper lip. "What do you call those?"
"Yeah, that’s it. A harelip. Anyway, his ain't so bad. Johnny says there's lots worse. Still, he's gotta have surgery. I feel bad for him. He gets picked on a lot."
"It's never easy being different."
"That's why Johnny and me, we stick together. We're pals. He's got my back, and I got his."
"He's lucky to have a friend like you." I paused. "Is Johnny one of the reasons you're getting into fights?"
Doug made a sour face. "He don’t know how to defend himself. He stands there like an idiot, arms hanging at his sides. He don't know nothin' about fighting. Never hits back, just stands there, eyes big and shiny. I'm surprised he hasn't pissed himself." He looked at me with hard, unforgiving eyes. "That's the worst part, you know—letting them see you're scared, showing them you’re weak. You might as well wear a shirt that says 'fuck with me' across the front. I tried to tell him, tried to get him to man up, but he don't listen. He never listens."
"You associate fear with weakness."
"You mean you don't?"
"I'm more interested in what you think."
"Nobody cares what I think." He picked up a stuffed animal, a fuzzy orangutan I occasionally used during play therapy with my younger patients, and began tossing it in the air. "I'm just a kid."
"That doesn't make you unimportant."
"If you say so."
"Somebody's told you different?"
"Kids are kids," Doug said glumly. "They're meant to be seen and not heard.” He caught the orangutan in his fists and stared at it. "Why do you have a toy monkey in your office?"
He was stalling, changing the subject. Fine, at least he was still talking.
"I sometimes use them in my work." I pointed to a large plastic container in the corner of my office. It was filled to the top with dolls, hand puppets, Matchbox cars, and games like Connect Four and Trouble and Uno.
"People pay you to play games?"
"Among other things."
"Did you have to go to school for this job?"
"College, eight years. It was a long time."
Doug snorted. "All that, just to play fucking games?"
His words hung in the air. More time passed. Therapy was often a waiting game.
"That's twice I dropped the f-bomb," he said finally, "and you didn't say anything. How come?"
"It's one of the rules. You can say what you want in here, within reason, and you don't have to worry about being judged. Another rule: our talks are confidential. No one will know what you've said. Only under certain circumstances will I break that confidence."
Doug's eyes narrowed. "What circumstances?"
"If you say you're going to hurt yourself or someone else, I will tell your mother, possibly the school authorities, maybe even the police. I won't allow anyone to get hurt. And if I receive a court order for your records, I’ll have to turn them over. That's usually not an issue, but you have a right to know."
“Whatevs.” He held out his hand. "You got a tissue or something?"
I handed him the box of Kleenex. I had nineteen more in the closet next to the door. I ran through them like they were...well, like they were tissue paper. I should own stock in Kimberly-Clark.
Snatching a tissue, Doug hawked the wad of gum into it, wrapped it into a lumpy, gooey ball, and lobbed it at my trash can. The pinkish-white monstrosity bounced off the rim and tumbled to the floor.
"No worries," I said, picking up the sticky mess and dropping it into the can. "Three-point range. Not an easy shot."
He looked around the room. "Why am I here? What am I supposed to do?"
"What you've been doing. Talk, ask questions, think."
"Sounds like a waste of time."
"It could be, if you let it. Therapy is like any other activity—the more you put into it, the more you get out. Work hard enough and you might be surprised at what you could accomplish." I paused. "Tell you what, you agree to work hard, and I promise to work just as hard. What do you say, do we have a deal?"
He stared at me, his expression tight. “What do I have to talk about?”
“Whatever you want. It's your time.”
My answer must have pleased him. His face relaxed, and he lost some of his adolescent guardedness. For a moment, I caught a glimpse of what he would look like as an adult: strong, bold, yet at the same time, sensitive. A rare mix in a world where role models were spoiled pop stars and unapologetic, multimillionaire athletes.
Doug Belle was a good kid.
He was also a troubled kid.
"I know there have been problems," I said. "You're not here as a punishment. My only concern is for you and how you're feeling. I'd like to help, but in the end, it'll be up to you. No one can force you to talk."
More silence, longer this time. The overpowering smell of bubble gum had thinned to a nauseating wrinkle in the air. Outside my office, a door opened, followed by heavy footsteps as someone lumbered toward the waiting room.
I resisted glancing at my watch. Never let someone think your time was more important than his. George H. W. Bush made that mistake and it had cost him the trust of the American people.
Doug held the orangutan, his thumb caressing its tattered cheek. He blinked, three times in rapid succession. A tear spilled from the corner of his eye and traced a path down his cheek. He wiped at it with an angry hand.
Was he thinking of his father, or his mother, now a widow?
Was he thinking of himself?
Would he see his tears as a sign of weakness and shut down?
I didn't know. I could only wait, so I did.
Doug finally let out a long, slow sigh and tossed the doll aside. "Do I have to talk about my dad?"
"Only if you want to."
"And if I don't?"
I spread my hands. "Like I said, it's your time."
"You always this easygoing?"
He eyed the container of toys. "I'm pretty good at Connect Four."
I felt comfortable checking the time. "Maybe a game or two."
Doug reached for the container. There was a hint of a grin on his freckled face.
Yeah, he was one of the good ones.
* * *
Doug hadn't lied. He was killer at Connect Four, beating me three games straight. I frequently let patients win, but by the last match, I was putting my full effort into the game. He still trounced me, blocking my pieces time and again.
I congratulated him, told him it was time to go, and packed up the game.
We found his mother in the waiting room, sitting alone and leafing through an old edition of Entertainment Weekly. Desiree Belle was in her mid-thirties, but grief had eroded her youthfulness and left behind a woman who looked much older. She had limp, languid hair parted down the middle, haunted eyes, and she wore a dark jacket that hung like a sack over her thin frame. Her socks didn't even match.
Doug wasn't the only one in trouble.
Desiree Belle noticed us standing in the doorway. A smile erased some of the years. She rose and held out her arms. "How'd it go, honey?"
Doug slipped into her embrace. The hug didn't last long. "Pretty good. He wants me to come back next week."
"If that's okay with you," I said.
"I'll do whatever he needs." Her smile faded; the years returned. "Do you think you can help him?"
"He's bright. As long as he keeps working, I think we can do some good."
Desiree touched Doug’s shoulder. "He's the man of the house now. We need him to straighten up."
Oops, there went my red flags. "Can we talk for a moment, Mrs. Belle?" I pointed to the hallway. "In private."
"Sure, I guess." She turned to Doug. "Go have a seat, honey. I'll be right back."
I led her down the hallway, far enough from the waiting room so Doug couldn't hear us. Cheery watercolor prints hung on the walls. I doubted they would soften the blow of what I was about to say.
“Call me Dee Dee. Everyone does.”
“All right. Dee Dee, please keep in mind your son is only twelve. That's a difficult age. Couple it with the loss of his father and you can see what happens." I paused. "He's trying to cope with a lot right now. Too much, really, for him to process effectively. That's why he's here."
"I know all this," she said stiffly. "It’s why I’m getting him help."
"I think his school suggested the therapy, but that’s beside the point. What concerns me is your 'man of the house' statement. It puts unintended pressure on Doug. He'll want to please you; to prove he can live up to your expectations. The trouble is, he can't. He can't be a man when he's still a boy, and he needs to be a boy for a little while longer. You need to let him be a boy."
"Are you saying this is my fault? He's behaving like this because of me?"
"No, of course not. I just want you to understand that words carry power, and with them, consequences. Doug loves you very much. He'll want to make you happy. But for now he needs to focus on himself. Making him responsible for the family, even if it's just an off-hand comment, won't help."
Dee Dee Belle snugged her jacket more tightly over her shoulders, as if it were a shield against my words. A classic defensive gesture.
"I'm doing the best I can," she said. "I hadn’t planned on being a single mother."
"None of this is meant as an accusation. I'm simply looking out for your son's best interests."
"Fine, I'll watch what I say."
"Another thing." I lowered my voice. "I know this has been tough on everyone. If you don't mind, I'd like to give you the name of a colleague, a woman who specializes in grief counseling. I think she might be able to help you, and in the process, help you help Doug."
Her expression grew hard. I'd seen the same look on her son, not an hour ago. "You think I'm the one who needs a shrink."
"Everyone needs help from time to time. It's not a sign of weakness."
"I appreciate your concern, but I coping well enough. I don’t need to talk to someone."
Then she glanced at her watch, and I knew I’d lost her.
I stifled a sigh. Doug was my patient, not her, and I knew better than to push. I led her back to the waiting room.
"Will next week at the same time work for you?" I asked.
"I'll let you know." She grabbed her son by the arm and practically dragged him out of the waiting room.
Doug glanced over his shoulder and waved goodbye.