My entry for the Review Game's February Writing Challenge Contest. The prompt: change something.
As his mother dragged him into the psychiatrist's office, Luke's stomach did backflips. Good God, he did not want to be here.
"I'm not crazy, mom. This is not cool." Luke's protests were more for form's sake than for any expectation of results. He'd crossed the line. There was no going back this time. Instead of answering him, his mother grabbed his hand and led him to the receptionist's desk like he was a naughty child who'd wandered off at the supermarket. She kept an iron grip as they walked towards the pretty young secretary applying lipstick. Luke snatched his hand back indignantly when they stopped beside the desk.
"Dr. Whitman will see you now." The secretary smiled at Luke, making him blush.
Luke's mother led him through series of hallways and around a couple of corners until they came to a door with the words DR. WHITMAN, LICENSED PSYCHIATRIST printed on it. Luke gave his mother one last pleading look.
"Don't look at me like that." His mother sighed. "It's the judge's orders, sweetheart."
"I... I don't think this is a good idea."
"Oh, hush. There's nothing either of us can do about it. And who knows? The doctor might be able to help you. Good luck, honey." His mother leaned and gave him a kiss on the forehead, making him feel even more embarrassed and anxious about being here.
Without another word, Luke found himself ushered into a room with a slate gray carpet and soft blue walls. Nearer the ceiling than the floor, the windows let in rays of sunlight. The furniture lazed in the corners of the room, worn but well taken care of.
"Good afternoon, Luke." Standing from behind his desk, Dr. Whitman looked like his furniture, like he'd seen a lot but wearied it well. His tanned face crinkled as he grinned and walked towards Luke. In his fifties, he was older than Luke had expected, but his handshake was firm and he never stopped looking at Luke's eyes.
"Good afternoon," Luke remembered to mumble as he flushed and looked away. Now thoroughly uncomfortable, he let go of Whitman's hand and sat stiffly in an off-white couch in the farthest corner of the room.
"How are you today?" The cliché phrase sounded sincere when Whitman said it. The doctor took a seat in one of the armchairs. The old tomcat perched in the seat, his blue eyes alert and his agile figure calm and relaxed.
"Okay, I guess." Luke's throat clenched at all this small talk. The last thing he wanted to do was sit around all day and exchange pleasantries. He wanted to hide away somewhere where he wouldn't be scrutinized and accused and judged like he had been for the past month.
"I've been told why you're here. Do you think talking to me will help?"
"I..." Luke squirmed, feeling like he was under the microscope for an entire audience, not just one person. "I suppose so."
"Why does everyone else think it would help?" Whitman's voice was quieter this time, like he sensed Luke's discomfort and wanted to make himself smaller and less threatening.
"I... don't know if they think it would help or not. I think they just, um, want to make sure I don't run away again. Or, you know, rob another jewelry store." Luke rubbed the back of his neck, color flooding to his face again. It sounded so stupid out in the open, talking to big, serious adults.
"You don't seem like the type to rob jewelry stores." Whitman didn't laugh. Luke had to give him credit for that. In fact, the doctor sounded more thoughtful and curious than amused.
"Yeah, I know." Luke sighed. "I think the store's owner even felt sorry for me. He agreed to drop all charges if I returned what I'd stolen and met with a psychiatrist."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Running away or robbing the store?" Luke glanced at the clock in resignation. Only five minutes had passed.
"Both. Where did you run away to?"
"Where else?" Luke shrugged. "New York City."
Grand Central Station smelled like New York: big, sharp, and filled with people. Walking into it, Luke felt dwarfed, but that was a good thing. It was almost like being invisible, and he liked the idea of observing without being observed.
He'd caught the night train, so it the sun was just peeking over the horizon as he crept outside. Some aura of mischief made him feel like he should be sneaking along, but soon he abandoned that idea. Tourists flooded the streets soon enough, and who was going to notice a scrawny blond kid with a loaded backpack identical to the ones half the other sight-seers carried?
Like any other person seeing the city for the first time, he hit the popular sights first. The Statue of Liberty. Ground Zero. Central Park. For the first time in a long time, he did things at his own pace and on his own time, and he enjoyed it. The feeling that he wasn't supposed to be there, that he was breaking some sort of law of etiquette by being somewhere without his parents, melted away with the rising sun.
He bought a all-day subway pass and made a point of riding it whenever he could. It was about one in the afternoon, when he was riding the subway as looking at the map of New York to decide where to go next when someone tapped him on the shoulder.
"Hey, do you have a phone I could borrow?" a girl about his age with hair pulled back into a black ponytail asked.
It took Luke a second to react. He'd hardly spoken to anyone the entire day, save for stopping to ask directions once and paying for a hot dog he'd had for lunch. Unable to speak for a moment, he realized he'd rather enjoyed his self-imposed silence and that this intruder had broken the spell.
"Uh, sure." Luke took his phone out of his pocket and handed it to her, but not before checking it himself and seeing that his mother had called him thirty-six times.
"Shit." She paused a second later. "No signal. Do you mind if I come with you to the street once we get off?"
"Um, okay." Luke mentally kicked himself and felt like banging his head on a wall. Of course, his throat had closed up the minute she'd started talking to him. Why was it that he couldn't think of something less idiotic to say? Why did this girl need to be here, now, making him feel foolish? Other people always did that. He only felt competent when he was alone.
But this was different, he told himself. Today he could be whoever he wanted to be. He was never going to see her again anyway. Reasoning with himself, his nervousness evaporated and he decided that if she spoke to him again he'd answer in a complete sentence, eliminating any "uh"s and "um"s.
"Thanks," the girl said once they'd gotten off the subway and she'd made her call. She handed Luke his phone.
"No problem." Luke took his phone and pocketed it. Not a long sentence, but it was progress.
"Hey, I know this is a bit much, but would you mind walking to the jewelry store around the corner with me? I have to but something for my mom, and I might need to call her again." The girl bit her lip. "If it's not too much trouble—"
"Definitely." Luke sputtered. "I mean, I'm not doing anything. Sure I'll go with you."
"Thank you so much! You're so sweet." The girl smiled and held out her hand. "I'm Emma."
"Luke." They shook hands. Luke didn't think much about the strangeness of Emma's requested. As far as he was concerned, he'd managed to make it through an entire conversation in a reasonably normal way and a pretty girl had just called him sweet, and he was almost positive that was a good thing.
Emma didn't end up needing his phone again, but she kept talking all the way to the store and while she browsed through sparkling diamonds and sapphires. All Luke had to do was nod and smile, and it felt good. If he'd had to say something, he was afraid he'd ruin it, so he just let her talk and watched her instead. He noticed the way her eyes lit up when she spoke, and how one of her thin eyebrows was always raised when she asked him a question, and how she put her hands on her hips when she was trying to be serious. In the end, she didn't think anything was worth buying.
"I'll look somewhere else," she said as they left the store. "Thanks for coming with me."
"My pleasure, Emma." He decided he liked her name and the way it rolled off his tongue.
"Stop, you little thieves!" It was the cashier from the jewelry store, yelling from the entrance. It wasn't until Emma pushed Luke, making him stumble as she sprinted away that he realized the cashier was yelling at them.
Luke's disbelief and bewilderment finally gave way to dread as, when the cashier demanded he empty his backpack, he found an emerald-studded bracelet Emma had been looking at earlier.
"You know the rest." Luke closed his eyes, noting that talking about it hadn't made him feel better. He still felt like a gullible idiot. In fact, after telling the story to the cashier, the store owner, his mother, the police, his lawyer, the judge, and the jury, Luke could honestly say he felt stupider every time he told it.
"Why'd you go to New York in the first place?" Whitman's question caught Luke off guard. He'd expected to be interrogated about the jewelry store fiasco.
"I don't know." Luke rubbed his temples.
"I'm sure you have some idea," Whitman purred from his armchair.
"To run away." Luke bit his lip. "From expectations, I guess. I mean, uh, people expect me to behave a certain way and all. And... I hate that. People just, ugh." He ran his fingers through his hair, frustrated that now, when he finally let down the floodgates holding back his problems, he was finding it as hard as ever to voice them. "Am I making sense?"
"I, uh, had to get out, you know? Just for a day. Do you think I'm crazy?"
"You're not crazy, Luke." This time Whitman did laugh. He stood and walked over to the other side of the room, and then, to Luke's surprise, he sat down on the other end of the couch, sinking into the fabric with a sigh.
"What you need, Luke, is a change of pace." Whitman looked just as relaxed in his new seat, his arm thrown over the back of the couch.
"You don't want to talk about the store?"
"We can talk about whatever you want to talk about." Whitman shrugged, and then he leaned in and whispered as if it were some sort of conspiracy. "But really, infatuation and betrayal are things everyone deals with. You just drew the short stick there."
"No, Luke, you don't need a lecture on the immorality of stealing. You need to be able to make your own choices once in a while. You need to change something about your life." Whitman stood and stretched. "Otherwise, all the pent up impulses lead to drastic, and possibly dangerous, outbursts, like running away."
"Um, I guess so." Luke frowned. He'd never thought of it that way before.
"Since most people do this on their own, I have a hunch that there are reasons you don't."
"You'll tell me. But not until our next session." Whitman tapped the clock on the wall and smiled.