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The worry lines forever etched around his eyes and mouth deepened with disapproval. I changed my tune. “My dad is right. I should retake the tests.”
Mrs. Collins scratched away in my file with a pen. My last therapist had been highly aware of my authority issues. No need to rewrite what was already there.
Ashley waddled back into the room and dropped into the seat next to me. “What did I miss?” I’d honestly forgotten she existed. Oh, if only Dad would, too.
“Nothing,” my father replied.
Mrs. Collins finally lifted her pen from the page. “Ask Mrs. Marcos for the next testing dates before you go to class. And while I’m playing the role of guidance counselor, I’d like to discuss your schedule for the winter term. You’ve filled your free periods with multiple business classes. I was wondering why.”
The real answer, because my father told me to, would probably irritate multiple people in the room so I ad-libbed, “They’ll help prepare me for college.” Wow. I’d said that with all the enthusiasm of a six-year-old waiting for a flu shot. Bad choice on my part. My father shifted in his seat again and sighed. I considered giving a different answer, but figured that reply would also come off flat.
Mrs. Collins perused my file. “You’ve shown an incredible talent in the arts, specifically painting. I’m not suggesting you drop all of your business courses, but you could drop one and take an art class instead.”
“No,” my father barked. He leaned forward in his seat, steepling his fingers. “Echo won’t be taking any art classes, is that clear?” My father was a strange combination of drill instructor and Alice’s white rabbit: he always had someplace important to go and enjoyed bossing everyone else around.
I had to give Mrs. Collins credit; she never once flinched before she caved. “Crystal.”
“Well, now that we’ve settled that …” Ashley and her baby bump perched on the edge of the chair, preparing to stand. “I accidentally overbooked today and I have an OB appointment. We may find out the baby’s gender.”
“Mrs. Emerson, Echo’s academics aren’t the reason for this meeting, but I understand if you need to leave.” She withdrew an official letter from her top drawer as a red-faced Ashley sat back in her seat. I’d seen that letterhead several times over the past two years. Child Protective Services enjoyed killing rainforests.
Mrs. Collins read the letter to herself while I secretly wished I would spontaneously combust. Both my father and I slouched in our seats. Oh, the freaking joy of group therapy.
While waiting for her to finish reading, I noticed a stuffed green frog by her computer, a picture of her and some guy— possibly her husband—and then on the corner of her desk a big blue ribbon. The fancy kind people received when they won a competition. Something strange stirred inside me. Huh—weird.
Mrs. Collins hole-punched the letter and then placed it in my already overwhelmed file. “There. I’m officially your therapist.”
When she said nothing else, I drew my gaze away from the ribbon to her. She was watching me. “It’s a nice ribbon, isn’t it, Echo?”
My father cleared his throat and sent Mrs. Collins a death glare. Okay, that was an odd reaction, but then again, he was irritated just to be here. My eyes flickered to the ribbon again. Why did it feel familiar? “I guess.”
Her eyes drifted to the dog tags I absently fingered around my neck. “I’m very sorry for your family’s loss. What branch of the armed forces?”
Great. My father was going to have a stinking coronary. He’d only made it clear seventy-five times that Aires’ dog tags were to stay in the box under my bed, but I needed them today—new therapist, the two-year anniversary of Aires’ death still fresh, and the first day of my last semester of high school. Nausea skipped and played in my intestines. Avoiding my father’s disappointed frown, I took great pains to search my hair for split ends.
“Marine,” my father answered curtly. “Look, I’ve got a meeting this morning with prospective clients, I promised Ashley I’d go to her doctor’s appointment and Echo’s missing class. When are we going to wrap this up?”
“When I say so. If you’re going to make these sessions difficult, Mr. Emerson, I will be more than happy to call Echo’s social worker.”
I fought the smile tugging at my lips. Mrs. Collins played a well-choreographed hand. My father backed down, but my stepmother on the other hand …
“I don’t understand. Echo turns eighteen soon. Why does the state still have authority over her?”
“Because it’s what the state, her social worker and myself think is in her best interest.” Mrs. Collins closed my file. “Echo will continue therapy with me until she graduates this spring. At that point, the state of Kentucky will release her—and you.”
She waited until Ashley nodded her silent acceptance of the situation before continuing. “How are you doing, Echo?”
Splendid. Fantastic. Never worse. “Fine.”
“Really?” She tapped a finger against her chin. “Because I would have thought that the anniversary of your brother’s death might trigger painful emotions.”
Mrs. Collins eyed me while I stared blankly in return. My father and Ashley watched the uncomfortable showdown. Guilt nagged at me. She didn’t technically ask me a question, so in theory, I didn’t owe her a response, but the need to please her swept over me like a tidal wave. But why? She was another therapist in the revolving door. They all asked the same questions and promised help, but each of them left me in the same condition as they found me—broken.