Nothing in his life rattled Gregor Russo so much as the news that his daughter was crazy. He had heard worse from his father, and grandfather, but something about next of kin got under his skin. He was supposed to do better.
The psychiatrist stirred in her seat across from Gregor in her small, private office. Connie waited outside, probably reading one of those damn books again or glancing over some magazine. “Do you need a glass of water, Mr. Russo?” the doctor asked. Her name was Prudence Murry.
“Not right now,” Gregor said, though his throat felt dry. “Could you maybe explain a little about what’s wrong with Connie? I hear all the rumors on TV, but if you could give me the clinical rundown, I’d like to process that instead.”
“Certainly.” Dr. Murry smiled and Gregor noticed for the first time that she was pretty, and young. A few years younger and she might have suffered the same problem she had diagnosed for Connie. “What Constance is suffering from is a highly imaginative delusion. In this complex, we see adolescent girls and young women convinced of the existence of supernatural entities. Constance suffers from the core sect of this complex, an obsession over vampires. Likely her friends assist in the maintenance of this paranoid delusion, but I can’t be certain without meeting them. And we’re not here for their well-being.”
“But you think they could have it too.”
“They could. Let’s not be superstitious. This condition has spread across the country, but psychological ailments are not contagions. The problem is in Constance’s mind and her perspective on her surroundings—what is real and not real. This type of paranoid delusion involves the manifestation of imaginary entities. In Constance’s case, there is an additional creative level in place where she not only believes in the existence of these manifestations, but is obsessed with seeking them to live out her romantic and/or sexual fantasies.”
“She’s sixteen,” Gregor snapped. “She doesn’t have sexual anything.”
Dr. Murry shifted again. “Should I be speaking with Mrs. Russo?”
“Mr. Russo, it’s natural for adolescents to—”
“I know. It’s not you. I’m sorry. That’s common knowledge about teenagers. Believe it or not, I used to be one. It’s just different when it’s, you know …”
Dr. Murry nodded. “It’s natural to be protective.”
Protective, Gregor thought. Not judgmental. He had his own doctor trying to teach him about his own problems, in another office. He didn’t relish explaining this afternoon’s revelations at his next session. Not judging, his mind repeated. “This obsession—it’s just a phase, right? It’s harmless and she’ll grow out of it, won’t she?”
“She could adjust past the obsession, however, the paranoid delusions are harmful and will persist. The paranoia won’t be applied to these delusions either. She doesn’t see them as attempting to persecute her. They want to befriend her, understand her. She’ll apply paranoia against anyone trying to come between her and these delusions. That could be you, your wife, a teacher, a friend. Later an employer, a husband.” Dr. Murry flipped open a small notebook. “I’m writing Connie a prescription.”
“You want me to make her a zombie,” Gregor said.
“She’s to take one in the morning and one in the evening every day for a month. You’ll bring her back then for reevaluation and we’ll decide our next step.”
Gregor left the shrink’s office with fire on his tongue and kept his mouth closed when he went to collect Connie from the waiting room. She had a smartphone in her hands and her father couldn’t tell if she was reading, texting, playing a game, or using it for a phone’s purpose. He hated those phones, but still kept his mouth shut. Connie hopped to her feet when he cleared his throat and followed him to the parking lot. She didn’t ask him how it went, not once, just kept her eyes glued to her gizmo.
Not judging, Gregor’s head repeated as he pulled onto the road. He took a peaceful moment to gaze through the windshield like his therapist had told him to do, just him and the world.
A car horn blared behind him and he sped under the green light ahead. He should’ve taken his moment in the parking lot. It wasn’t as if Connie would’ve noticed a delay. He could have circled the lot, never reaching his white Dodge Plymouth, and worked all this out before even getting behind the wheel.
“I can drive, if you want,” Connie said. No eye contact.
“I’ll trade the wheel for your toy,” Gregor said. “But if you crash this car, I’m keeping it.”
Connie’s fingers clutched the smartphone closer. “It was a fender-bender.”
“So what are you doing?”
Knew it. With all the gadgets in stores and shit on television, the last thing Gregor expected to rot his daughter’s brain was a book. Although Dr. Murry didn’t put it that way. She made it out that this was Connie’s mentality—it just happened to be the same illness afflicting a lot of teenage girls these days.
“You ever think about taking a break from reading? Or reading something else?”
“How do you know I’m not reading something else?”
“Because I know.”
“I like it. It makes me happy.”
“That’s fine, but it’s just fiction.” Gregor heard his voice getting louder. He didn’t know how to stop it and continue the conversation, and this was a conversation they needed to have. “You know that, don’t you?”
Connie said nothing.
“It isn’t healthy. Your doctor said so. Having interests is good, reading is good, but you need limits. Your friends should be swooning over real boys, not—”
“I don’t like the boys at school!” Connie snapped. “They’re assholes. You don’t understand. If I brought one of them home, you’d see that. If I was hanging out with them, you’d wish I stayed at home reading or hanging with Liz and Zazzie instead.”
“I’d rather you were looking at some asshole at school than making up pretend boyfriends and being diagnosed a—” NOT JUDGING, Gregor’s head insisted. He snapped his mouth shut. Connie slumped into her seat, her attention sinking back into the smartphone, back into one of those books. It was her own private hole and he would have a hard time drawing her back out tonight, so he crept into his own.
That had been the family way for as long as he knew. Upset with someone? Angry? Grieving? Go be alone. Wall yourself off. Find a cave, in your head or in real life. A family of loners wasn’t a healthy one according to his shrink, but what did that guy know? He couldn’t even accept Gregor calling the guy what he was—a mind-fucker. Calling him a shrink was putting it nicely.
Dr. Murry was certainly a mind-fucker too. She had turned Gregor against his daughter without Connie’s doing anything wrong. It wasn’t like she really pretended there was an imaginary boyfriend. The shrink wasn’t being fair. She hadn’t even considered counseling for Connie and immediately dove for the pill solution.
Gregor changed lanes. They weren’t going to the pharmacy. They were going home.
Connie asked if she could eat dinner in her room. She asked her mother, of course. This was another night where Gregor didn’t have a prayer for getting a word or a glance from his child. He didn’t fight the rejection anymore, because his therapist said that would only drive Connie deeper into her cave, but that seemed to be happening anyway. Maybe Dr. Murry was right and Connie was crazy, but her delusion wasn’t making her happy. Neither were those books, nor the space her father gave her.
The pills could help, Gregor thought, but he knew he wasn’t going to use them. Not that he had a problem with medicine for head cases. He wasn’t one of those nuts who dodged vaccinations and thought the flu shot was some government conspiracy. The pills just weren’t right for Connie. Not judging. He didn’t know how he was supposed to help things without judging.
Gregor could only guess that Dr. Murry had written that hasty prescription out of fear. Connie’s problem had been seen in only a few girls once, but the condition ballooned in only a short while. Soon you couldn’t glance inside a high school without seeing them—delusional teenage girls who pined for romantic abominations. It wasn’t long after that a psychological disorder was coined by the media and became a pop-psych diagnosis—the Bella Complex. And the TV and newspapers never shut up about it. Real or not real, the psychiatrists were feeding the frenzy the way they fed Ritalin to the braying parents who insisted their kids had ADD. Even a doctor was susceptible to fear.
But Connie wasn’t crazy, not really. Lonely, unhappy, but not crazy. She wasn’t like those girls Gregor saw on the news some nights, the ones who dug up graves in search of undead lovers. And if there was a positive point in this mess, it was that Connie hadn’t branched out. She was part of the—how did Dr. Murry put it?—the core complex. She wasn’t in so deep that she couldn’t be pulled out. If anything, she was mainstream, borderline typical of an average teenage girl. Since the complex had been identified and gained notoriety, many girls her age had diverged from the core complex and chose to obsess over things that weren’t vampires.
Connie wasn’t one of the sisters who went dredging through a Florida swamp in search of a crocodile man or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. She wasn’t that wrist cutter who stalked the guys from that Ghost Hunters show. And Gregor could never see Connie being so air-headed as to scale a fence at the zoo, believing the wolves were werewolves. That had happened twice in the last month, with one fatality. Those girls were crazy or stupid, or both. Connie wasn’t. She was … she was …
She doesn’t understand. Gregor smiled to himself, sitting in the den, pretending to watch TV. That was it. Connie had it backwards. She was the one who didn’t understand. If father and daughter could get on the same page, he wouldn’t need to worry so much, wouldn’t need to fear losing her.
He spent much of the evening making arrangements and explaining the barest details to his wife. She couldn’t leave work on short notice like he could, but that was fine. He didn’t want her along. This was a father-daughter excursion and he didn’t think Donna could handle it anyway. And there would be no shouting, no rage, and no judging. He would simply bring Connie and they would reach an understanding.