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EP434: Coping Mechanisms

by Gerri Leen
read by Dani Cutler

Links for this episode:

Author Gerri Leen

about the author…

I’m a transplanted Seattleite who’s lived in Northern Virginia for nearly three decades. I started writing professionally in my early 40′s, and it’s been a fun ride so far. I have had stories and poems appearing in many anthologies and magazines, such as Sword and Sorceress XXIII, Footprints, She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror, Dia de los Muertos, and Sails and Sorcery.

about the narrator…

Narrator Dani Cutler

Dani Cutler last narrated for EP in 389: Keeping Tabs. She has been part of the podcasting community since 2006, hosting and producing her own podcast through 2013. She currently works for KWSS independent radio in Phoenix as their midday announcer, and also organizes a technology conference each year for Phoenix residents to connect with others in the podcast, video, and online community.

 

COPING MECHANISMS
by Gerri Leen

The interface between Luna and Earth was particularly bad–like a slow connection to the Net when I was a kid and my grandparents had been too cheap to move off dial-up.  Cal’s image moved in fits and starts, and it wasn’t what I wanted–okay, needed–to see.  As chief base shrink, I should be woman enough to admit I _needed_ to see my husband in some way that didn’t immediately scream he was roughly 380,000 clicks away.

Even if Cal was barely my husband; he and I hadn’t touched in eight months–and I’d only been on Luna for six.  Coming here had been my way of saying goodbye, of letting our marriage die slowly and gracefully rather than living through the drama of a messy divorce.  Funny thing about the moon, though: you don’t get over people here.  You miss the hell out of them, every part of them.  Or maybe you just forget the bad parts, maybe they disappear in the middle of this resounding grayness.

I used to think my marriage was gray and grim.  Landing at Echosound–getting my first view of my new home in the bright lunar daytime that had gone on for fourteen Earth-days–had been a reality check of the highest order.

“Vanessa?”  Cal was probably wondering why I’d called.  We were supposed to be getting used to being away from each other, and I didn’t have much to say that was related to the impending dissolution of the marriage.

So I said the first thing that came to mind.  “How’s Denny?”

The jerking image made his expression unreadable.  “He’s fine.”

I didn’t normally ask about his parrot.  In fact, I hated that damn bird.  Probably because I knew Cal would part with me, but not with him.  As a psychiatrist, I don’t shy away from truths.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t make me any better at dealing with them.

“Van, I have to go.”  Cal didn’t sound disappointed, especially on five-second delay.  Not for the first time I wished personal calls were given the same priority for real-time access as mission-related calls. But they weren’t, so I would deal.  Badly, no doubt.  But I’d deal.

“I have to go, too.  Time for my shift.”  Which was a lie.  I may have normal duty hours, but as essential personnel, I’m on call all the time.  No shift work for Doctor Vanessa Holmes.  It used to make me feel important; now it felt like a stone around my neck–an Earth-stone in Earth-gravity where it would actually be heavy.

Cal ended the call before I could say anything more.  It shouldn’t have hurt.  It did anyway.

#

Even in 1/6G, I felt like I was dragging as I made my way to my office. “Hey,” I said, my general hello no matter my mood.

“Hey.”  Chu barely looked up at me from the newsvid.  “Did you see this storm in Tulsa?”

“No, I uh…”  I took a deep breath and Chu glanced over at me.  “I called Cal.”

“Wow.  Pick at those scabs, Van.”  Chu shook his head and went back to the news.

“How long’s it been since you hit the Day-Glo room?”  Vijay [Vee-Jay] was looking at me the way I probably looked at the miners who went a little space crazy out on their asteroids.

“I was just in there yesterday.”

“Uh huh.  To run diagnostics.”  He nodded at the door as if he was the boss and I was the brilliant intern.  “Not the same thing, Doctor.”

“I have a patient coming in.”

“Yes, a new comms officer for the VLF array at Indigo base.  A person you’ve never met.  No reason Doctor Chu can’t take him.”

“But far-side personnel have special issues and–”

“Doctor Holmes…”  Vijay [Vee-Jay] already had the door open to the Day-Glo room.  “I checked.  It’s been over a month and we just had a cancellation.” His expression clearly had a note of “Physician, heal thyself.”

I handed him my databoard and walked in, pulling the door shut behind me.  As the seals engaged, the door disappeared, and the walls, ceiling, and floor of the room began to glow.  I walked to the lounge chair set in the middle of the room, sat down, and felt the microbeads in the fabric settle around me, supporting in all the right places.

Leaning my head back against the headrest, I forced myself to relax as the room color–normally our familiar lunar gray–started to change.  It began in the pastel range, gray giving way to pink, then ice green, lavender, blue, and the palest of yellows.

I found myself breathing deeply, as if I could suck in the colors and make them part of me.  Vijay [Vee-Jay] had been right–I’d waited too damn long to get back in here and I knew better than that.

The pastels gave way to stronger tones; they were still light but with more depth stirring the pinks and aquas and blues and yellows.  Spring green and bright peach and warm tan were added, bringing to mind Earth’s palette of natural colors.  The colors swirled and morphed in delicate, gentle ways, and I felt some of the tension drain out of me.

Soon the colors intensified again.  The Day-Glo hues the room was named for came into play, as did some of the darker jewel colors–clear emerald, bright amethyst [AM-uh-thist], and deepest ruby.  But no onyx or midnight-blue sapphire or dark green tourmaline [TOOR-muh-lin see http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tourmaline?s=t].  Nothing that would remind anyone of space.

I breathed slowly as they’d taught us in the lunar orientation training and let the bright colors excite me–and my brain–in ways we were just beginning to understand.  I opened my eyes wide and let the colors replace the grayness that stared back at me whenever I went to Echosound’s upper level and looked out at the lunar surface.

The designers of the base had tried to replicate this feeling of being submerged in color with the decor they’d chosen.  They’d tried to let the brightness of red and fuchsia and turquoise fill in for those times that a full immersion in color wasn’t possible.  And it worked for me–to some extent.

Until I went back up and looked out–torturing myself the same way I did when I called Cal.  Luna was good for self-realization:  I’d never known I was so masochistic, or inclined to wallow, until I’d been here a few months.

#

He wasn’t a miner, hadn’t been stuck out alone in space, but he paced my office not making eye contact like one of them might.  He seemed to be having trouble with the low grav, was bouncing more than we oldtimers did.  I checked his chart for his last posting.  Galatea: they had artificial gravity.

He took a deep breath, then another, and didn’t stop pacing.

I glanced at the innocuous looking box that sat on the table next to my chair.  Patients often complimented me on it, and the workmanship was exquisite–Balinese wood carving adorned with the island’s famous silverwork.  Inside were several hypos of fast-acting tranqs.  The box was keyed to the medical staff’s biometrics, since I couldn’t always reach the box if I was busy restraining a patient.  I’d restrained far too many people up here for my taste, yelling for help and hoping Chu or Vijay [Vee-Jay] or one of the nurses could get here before all hell broke loose.

The psychological screening done for those assigned to Luna was intense.  Unfortunately, it was far from foolproof and we often didn’t find out how far we’d gone wrong until someone was faced with the desolation [des-oh-LAY-shun] of this place.

“I’m sorry.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”  He sat down and held his hand out.  “I’m supposed to introduce myself.  I do know that.”

I took his hand, but let it go quickly.  “You’re Stephen MacDougall. You’re single, no children, and this is your third assignment in space.”  I glanced again at his report-in chart.  “You were at the Ore Processing Station Galatea and before that you were an engineer on the heavy metals shuttle.”

He nodded and his eyes darted to the walls of my office.  I knew what he was looking for:  the surface of Luna, which was roughly five meters above us–a hell of a lot of regolith between us and it.  The dirt barrier kept the radiation away.  It was also easy to imagine that we’d been buried alive.

“I know it’s bleak here.”  Despite my own issues, I was good at this. Good at keeping my voice soothing, my eyes understanding.  I practiced it in front of my bathroom mirror, especially when I was going through a rough stretch.  “Then again, it’s bleak in space.”

“I’m not bothered by bleak.”  But still he seemed to be looking for something.  “And you can see Earth from here, at least.  Or so I’m told.  Kind of hard to tell down here.”

“You can from the surface.  Most of the time, anyway.”  I checked his screening results.  “You didn’t test as claustrophobic.”

“I’m not.”  He took a deep breath.  “I mean…I haven’t been before.” He met my eyes.

“So canned air doesn’t bother you?”  No way it could have given his record of success in space.

“No.  But…I’m used to having windows of some kind, being able to see the space I’m living on or flying through.  You know from the shuttle viewscreen or seeing the ships going by at Galatea.  This…”

“Yeah, we all have to get used to it.”  It’s what submariners on Earth went through.  Navy personnel could be on the confines of a ship for years and not be bothered by the restricted space as long as they had a view of some part of their world, but get them under all that water with no way to see out and no sunshine coming in, and it was a different story.  At least we had a better way than a periscope to see out.  “I go to the auxiliary docking area a lot–especially when it’s daytime.  A lot of people use it.”

He smiled.  “I’ll remember that.”

“When Earth’s out, it’s really beautiful.  Makes you appreciate where we come from.”

He laughed.  “Just trying to walk here is making me appreciate that.  We had zero-G on the shuttle.  This…this is really strange.”

“I know.  And not that healthy.  The doctors at internal medicine will be monitoring your exercise routine.”  I’d put off my resistance training this week and had already gotten a reminder in my internal mail.

“By monitoring, you mean policing?”  He grimaced.  “I hate those centrifuges.”

“Everybody hates them.  But if you want to walk when you get back to Earth someday, you’ll use them faithfully.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  He rolled his eyes, but I could see he understood the need for the exercise so I dropped it and moved on to my own territory. “I’m going to book you for the Day-Glo room–it’s free tomorrow afternoon.”

He didn’t look impressed.  “On Galatea, we had an Earth room.”

“We’ve got three here.  They’re booked months in advance.”  My next visit was in two weeks–I still hadn’t decided if I was going to use the beach or the mountain scenario.  Between virtual reality and sensory manipulation, it almost felt as if you were there.  “Day-Glo is the best I can offer right now.  It should help with any anxiety you’re feeling.”  So would a big dose of benzodiazepanes, but I didn’t resort to those except for those I was transferring off–the last days were the worst when someone needed to get the hell off Luna.

“Fine,” MacDougall said, “mesmerize me with colors.”

I reserved the room for him, then asked, “Why did you leave Galatea? You earned high marks from your supervisors, were promoted twice in a very short period.”

“A place gets old.”  He didn’t meet my eyes.

“A place?  Or a relationship?”  Did he think I wouldn’t have done my research?

“She wasn’t in my chain of command.  She wasn’t married.  It was all legitimate.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t.”  I leaned forward.  “It’s over, isn’t it?”

He stared at the blue and green carpet the designers had hoped would promote openness.  He didn’t seem to be responding to it.

Maybe I could offer something more.  “I understand.  I’m…losing someone myself.”

“Losing?”

“Okay, I’ve lost him.  But it’s easier to say losing.”  I smiled at him.  “It’s not wrong to find ways to make things easier to accept.”  Unless those things were the drugs that found their way to this place no matter how much Security screened arriving shipments and people, or overdoing it on the alcohol that wasn’t prohibited and that made the time go faster, or the indiscriminate sex for those who preferred their coping mechanisms to come with warm, human skin.

“I wasn’t just running.  Luna did offer new opportunities.  And very good pay.”

“I know.  But let’s not start off our professional relationship with lies, okay?”

“Fine.”  He got up and stopped at the tranq box.  “This is pretty.”

“Thank you.”

He seemed to want to say more, but just stood there.

“What?”

“How many people make it here?”

I gave him the gentlest smile in my repertoire.  “More than you might think.”  That didn’t seem to make him feel better.  “We all have different reasons for coming here, MacDougall.  Our reasons aren’t important.  It’s what we do once we get here that matters.”

He did smile at that.  “Thanks, Doc.”

#

The party was in full swing when I hit the lounge.  Then again some party was generally in full swing in this lounge. [Please re-record this line with the accent on “generally”]  It wasn’t quite as bad as the “Day that Ends in ‘Y’,” parties at my University, but it was close.  Part of it was the atmosphere here, the need to blow off steam, but I also attributed the frequent get-togethers to the trend of hiring extroverts for lunar duty, since they tended to cope better in situations with low privacy.  Echosound had grown a lot since it had been built as the support facility for the Mare Smythii observatory, but it was still a place where everyone knew your business.

“Hey, Doc,” MacDougall didn’t wait for a reply as he handed me a drink. “I gotta admit, the parties here are way better than at Galatea.”

He winked at me, and I wanted to turn off the professional who was assessing how much he’d already had to drink, wanted to just enjoy a handsome man who seemed interested in me as a person, not just the shrink he had to snow.

But I couldn’t turn her off, and my inner booze counter had him sized up at the “too much already” point.  “It’s wise to pace yourself.”

Any interest he might have had seemed to fade from his expression.  He turned away and muttered something about people who didn’t know how to accept a gift.  I let him go–this was my time off, too.  As long as he wasn’t in my face, I’d ignore it while he was still in the settling-in phase.  Most people were fine once they got used to Luna.

I sipped my drink and did pace myself, making the rounds of the room, trying to have fun but not being able to resist checking up on those around me:  Did Lenkova seem less depressed?  Was Mattson’s stress-related rosacea better?

Sometimes it sucked to be a shrink.  Or maybe it just sucked if you were a good one.

“Hey, Holmes.  Get the lead out.”  Someone was calling to me from a crowd of people; a hand emerged from the group, gesturing for me to join them.

I walked over and heard, “The smell of pavement when the rain first starts,” “Nighttime that actually ends in a night,” and “The way the sky turns colors at sunset.”

Great.  Playing “What I miss about Earth” was not a good mix with booze.

Vijay [Vee-Jay] looked up at me, and by his expression I could tell he’d tried to steer the conversation in some other direction.

Garcia from Hydroponics [hi-dro-PON-icks] smiled at me and asked, “What do you miss?”

“You know I hate this game.”

“It’s not a game, Van.”  Anderson glared at me.  We’d been close to becoming friends once.  Until I had to choose between being that or her shrink.  The professional won.  To her benefit, but not to mine–she’d been fun to hang out with.  “Just answer the question.  You never answer.  You must miss something.”

“Fine.  The way the light comes in all golden through the blinds, late in the day when you’re lying in bed thinking about a nap.”

“Alone,” she said, more than a little nastily.  Anderson rarely went to bed alone.  It was what I’d felt compelled to talk to her about.

“Or with someone.  But the golden part, where the blinds split the light and turn the walls into something beautiful.”

Garcia took a deep breath.  “That’s a nice image, Holmes.”

I realized MacDougall was watching me from the other side of the group. I smiled at him and held up my drink.  It was supposed to be a peace offering, but by the way he didn’t smile back I could see he took it as a warning.

Well, that worked, too.

#

“Vanessa, I need your permission to sign these.”  Griffin stared across the screen at me, his time-delayed voice holding little other than impatience at the extra minutes required to conduct business with a client on Luna.

Cal had sent the papers forward.  I’d thought we weren’t going to talk about divorce until next year.

“He’s met someone, hasn’t he?”

“I really don’t know, my dear.  I just need to respond within the required time.”  Divorces had gotten so much easier than when my parents split up.  Very pro forma.  Lawyers took care of everything unless it got messy, and I’d come up here so it wouldn’t.

“Does it say why?”

“Irreconcilable differences.”  I think Griffin was giving me a stern look, but with the flickering of the image, it was hard to tell.  “You did choose to go to the moon without him.”

“He didn’t want to come.”

“That’s not the point.”

“Fine.  Sign them.”  I said it fast, before I could change my mind.  A call to Cal would accomplish nothing other than embarrassing myself.

“You need to witness this.”

I tried not to laugh as his hand jerked across the page.  Was this even legal?  He could have been signing his health club agreement for all I could tell over this bad a connection.

“There.  It’s done.  You’re a free woman, Vanessa.”

“Great.  Thanks.”

I waited for him to cut the connection before I started crying.

#

MacDougall was in the auxiliary docking area when I got there.  So were two others I barely recognized, not folks who frequented the lounge or my office.

“Hey,” MacDougall said softly.  He nodded to the chair next to him, the motion so slight that I could ignore it if I wanted to.

I chose to join him.  We stared out at the lunar landscape and the beautiful green and blue planet that was just visible on the horizon, and I found myself listening to the cadence of his breaths–nice and steady.  My relief was a mix of professional and personal.

“You look like you’ve been crying,” he said.  “Your eyes are all puffy.”

“A gentleman would ignore that.”

“You don’t have to be perfect, you know?  You’d no doubt tell me to share what’s hurting.”

I laughed softly, and the sound managed to come out with only a trace of bitterness.  “You’re right.  I would.  But I’m not going to share.”

He looked back at the grayness stretched out in front of us.  “Fine.”

A klaxon went off–the “Woop woop woop” sound of a breach.

“Crap,” I said, digging my fingernails into the arm of the chair.  I wasn’t claustrophobic, but I hated being stuck in a module during dust repair.  At least this time I wouldn’t be alone.

The door to the ramp slammed down.

The couple across from us got up and went to the door.

“It’s all right,” I said, as the woman stared at it in what looked to me like panic barely held in check.  “They’ll open it as soon as they’ve isolated the breach.”

“We’re stuck up here,” she muttered as the man with her led her back to her chair.

“I used to hate this on Galatea.  I got stuck in a side shaft one day during a breach.  All alone for five hours.”  MacDougall was keeping his voice down, obviously not wanting the other two to hear how long his experience had lasted.  He seemed calm though, no evidence of the pacing that had gone on in my office.

“I hate these, too.  My last one was in the accessway between Hydroponics [hi-dro-PON-icks] and here.”

“Ooh, deep and dark.”

“Yeah.”  I had felt like the entire moon was pushing down on me, making the space closer and closer.  Fortunately, deep breathing and a stern talking to had kept me calm and centered, but I’d run back to the office once it was over, not stopping until I was in the check-in room with Chu and Vijay [Vee-Jay].

“How long does it take them to fix a breach?”

“Not long.  It’s a nuisance, not an emergency.  The base is comprised of many modules, all capable of being self sustaining in the case of a breach in an adjacent unit.  When the alarm went off, the system automatically shut the doors between the modules in the sector, but other parts of the base will be operating as if nothing is wrong.”

“This is one of the least protected spots,” he said, and I saw the other two look over.  “I mean, technically.”

He wasn’t wrong.  The surface was the most vulnerable; it was why so much of the base was built below it.  We had shielding to stop space debris from hitting the outer levels, but it didn’t always work.  It also didn’t stop the lunar dust from coming in and clogging up the works.  We’d had less dust-related alarms since the last HVAC upgrade, but it was still a problem.  Vijay [Vee-Jay] liked to say that lunar dust and cat hair were the two most pervasive materials in the known universe.  If we ever got cats up on Luna, we’d be in trouble.

MacDougall leaned closer.  “With no atmosphere protecting us anything could–”

“Could we pick a new topic, Mr. Cheerful?”

“Okay.”  He pitched his voice lower.  “Why were you crying?”

“I was chopping onions.”

He laughed softly.  “I saw the onions on the tour I took of Hydroponics [hi-dro-PON-icks] last week.  Quite the impressive spread of produce being grown.  Not to mention the fish.  We didn’t have fish farms on Galatea.”

“We’re getting chicken soon, too.  Down at Lands End, near the polar water processing unit, they’re building a facility for them.”

“Good.  I miss real eggs.”  He smiled gently.  “I don’t believe you were chopping onions, by the way.”

I shrugged.  “I guess I’m not a good liar.”

The alarm sounded again, a long buzz that signaled all clear, and the door opened.  The other two rushed out, but I noticed MacDougall made no move to leave.

“Do you ever go out there?”  He stood and walked to the window, his nose pressed against it like a little boy.

“Nope.  Hate the suits.”  Even if they had been improved over the years from the bulky things the first astronauts had worn.  “Even with thermal protection, it’s too cold…or hot, depending on if the sun’s out.  And you can’t get any perspective on the landscape–it’s very disconcerting.  Plus…I feel very alone out there.”

“Wow, they better not let you write the marketing brochures when they open this place up for tourists.”  He laughed at me, and I grinned back.  “I signed up for a moonwalk.  I’m trying to get to know my new home.”

“That’s good.”

He turned.  “Is that the shrink talking or the nice lady who won’t tell me why she was crying?”

“I’m not sure they’re different people.”  I stood and joined him at the window.  “Up here, it’s hard for me to let go of that.  So many people depend on us all being okay, you know?”

“So, by extension they depend on you.”

“I used to try not to think about it all the time.  And then one day, one of my patients decided to go for a moonwalk.  Without a suit.  We were lucky.  He followed exit protocols, didn’t take anyone else with him, but he could have.”  I took a deep breath.   “So you see, I don’t get a break.”   “And you kind of like that, don’t you?”  He was studying me in a way that made me very nervous.  “I guess being essential beats having a life?”

“I have a life.”  One that was on Earth and no longer tied to me.  I turned and left before I decided to start sharing that.

#

Chu wandered into my office, stood by my desk, tapping his fingers on the laminate.

“Yes?”  I didn’t look up as I keyed in my write-up from my last session.

“I’m…transferring off.  I got my orders; I ship off next week.”

I stopped what I was doing, looked up slowly.  “Oh.”

“I like who they’re sending to replace me–there’s a memo in your queue, it came in while you were with your last patient.”

I nodded, unsure what to say.

“I think you’ll like her, too.”

“Good.  Great.”  Why was this hurting?  Chu and I weren’t really friends.

“Can I make a suggestion, Van?”

“Yeah, of course.”  I realized I was breathing a little fast, told myself to take it easy.

“Talk to someone occasionally.  You don’t have to be strong all the time.”  He took a deep breath.  “I know this thing with Cal is hurting you.  That pain makes you human.  Probably would be reassuring for people to see that.”

“Okay, I’ll send an all-base memo.  Let me get right on that.”

He shook his head.  “That’s not what I meant.”

“People here are my patients.  I owe them more than a messed-up doctor.”

“So you admit you’re messed up?”

I laughed–the maneuver he’d used was a classic.  “You’re so damn good at this.”

“I know.”  He laughed softly, too.  “Just think about what I’m saying, okay?”

“I will.”  I met his eyes, tried to imagine the base without him.  We weren’t friends, but he’d always been a touchstone of sorts, a serene spot in the quiet chaos that was Luna.  “It’s been a pleasure serving with you.”

He touched my shoulder, let his fingers sit for a moment, and the contact felt good.  “Same here, Van.  Same here.”

#

The lounge was packed for Chu’s going away party.  I knew he wasn’t taking it as a sign of how many friends he had–it was just the first party in a long time that had an actual “event” affiliated with it.

“Hey,” MacDougall said, handing me a drink.

I tried my best not to assess him; I failed miserably.

“I’m still on my first glass,” he said with a grin.

“I kind of figured that.”

“Do they give you extra pay for that?  Being a human breathalyzer?”

“No.”  I watched as Chu worked the room.  “They don’t pay me extra for having no friends, either.”

“I wouldn’t say you have no friends.”  He winked at me.  “Just…not very many.”  At my look, he grinned.  “You said no lies.”

“I did say that.”  I took a sip of my drink.  “I was crying the other day because my husband filed for divorce.”

He looked surprised at my blurt-o’-truth.  “I’m sorry.”

“Me, too.”  I took a deep breath and wished that letting the truth out had felt better.

“If you want to talk about it…?  Some other place and time, when it’s not so crowded?”

The rebuff was on my lips, but I pulled it back.  “Maybe.  Yeah.  We’ll see.”

He looked disappointed.  “You just can’t stop being the professional, can you?  Not even for a minute.”

I pulled him away from the crowd a little, so we had the corner to ourselves.  “Twenty percent of all medevacs from Luna are psychologically related.  One out of every five people we have to send home will–”

“Go nuts?”

“That’s not the approved term.”

“But it is what you meant.”

“They’ll have some sort of psychological stress or episode severe enough to necessitate removing them from the base.”

“I got it the first time, Doc.”  He leaned in, his whisper was harsh. “And you’re the first line of defense?  Great.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You expect us to spill our guts to you or your colleagues, but you don’t share.”

“I didn’t say I was going to.  It was nice of you to offer a friendly ear, but I don’t have to take it.”

“No, you sure don’t, do you?”  He raised his drink in a bitter salute and left me alone.

#

I knew from the moment Doctor Lansing arrived, that she was the kind of doctor people opened up to right away.  I hadn’t thought I’d be one of those people, though.

She was watching me with a gentle look.  “So this Cal–did you think he was your forever mate?”

She had a funny way of putting things.  But her words cut to the heart of the matter.

“I guess so.”  I opened up the diagnostic panel of the Day-Glo room and showed her the quirks of our system.  “I loved him.”

“Not enough to stay and fight for him, though, huh?”

I glanced at her, but she was staring intently at the unit.  Her voice hadn’t held any condemnation–she was just stating a fact.

I hadn’t fought.  I’d run away.  But–  “Is it running away if the patient can’t be saved?”

“The patient?”  She shot me a gentle smile.  “Or your marriage?”  At my look, she said, “Not everything’s a patient, Vanessa.”

“I know that.”

She eased me out of the way.  “I can finish up here.  Why don’t you take off early?  I hear there’s a party in the lounge.”

“Imagine that?”  I found myself smiling, wishing she was coming. Wishing I knew her better.

Her easy grin told me there was plenty of time for that.  She’d be here–if I’d let her in.  I’d never let Chu in.  Or–

I skipped the lounge, walked up to the auxiliary docking area instead. MacDougall was alone.

“No hot party for you?” I asked with a smile.

“Nope.  Nor for you, apparently?”

I shook my head.  “Is that offer still open?  To, you know, talk?”

He nodded slowly.

“You can talk, too.”  I tried to smile, tried to make it real and not my professional one.

“If I do, is it on the couch or not?”

“I don’t know.”  I met his eyes, tried to let him see that I wasn’t playing games.  “I can try to just listen, not assess.”

I could try, but I would fail.

To my surprise, he grinned.  “Let’s not strain you too much.  How about we start with you telling me a little about yourself?  We can work up to the other thing.”

I laughed, but inside I could feel something shutting down.  I didn’t do this; I didn’t share.  Sharing made you weak.   Before I could completely lose my nerve, I said, “My husband told me I was closed off.”

I waited for the snarky comment, the “no kidding” that would have been so appropriate.  MacDougall didn’t say anything; he just waited.

I tried for more words.  They didn’t come, and then I felt his hand on mine, just a slight and quick touch.

“Why not start at the beginning?  How did you meet?”

The beginning.  Such a simple concept.  But not the right place to start.  Not for this.

“He said I was closed off, and he was right.”  I met his eyes, took a deep breath, and started talking.

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