By Jeff Abbott
Published by Dutton Adult
August 2006; 0525949720; 352 pages
I killed my best friend.
"This doesn't affect you." Miles signed his name—his real name, Miles Kendrick—at the bottom of the page. Allison had never seen his real name.
Miles went to the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face. Stared at himself in the mirror.
I used to be someone, he thought. I used to be me, a regular guy, the anybody American with a home and a business and a life, and now I don't know who I am anymore. The old me died. The new me doesn't want to be born.
"Lies!" Andy called from the kitchen.
Miles wiped his face and stepped back into the kitchen. "I'm telling the truth."
Andy slapped at the confession. "The truth you remember. Not the truth of what really happened."
"It's all I remember."
"You didn't save those cops."
"You know I did."
"And I think about the high price every day, Miles."
Miles stepped around Andy, took the paper, folded it, slipped it into an envelope. "I have to be honest with her."
"You're breaking our deal."
"The only deal we have is in your mind. I have to go. Don't be here when I get back."
"I don't want to get ugly, Miles," Andy said, "but you give her that confession, and I'll kill you."
Miles stopped by the apartment door. He yanked on his coat, slid the confession into his coat pocket.
"I will, Miles." Andy's voice was low and it prickled Miles's skin as if an ice cube ran along his ribs. "I'll slip a gun into your mouth. I'll pull the trigger. I'll settle the score." Andy paced the kitchen floor, arms crossed, glaring.
"You go ahead and try." Miles shut the door behind him and leaned against the door. Then he hurried down the steps, past the comforting cinnamon smells of the bakery on the ground floor of his apartment building. He stopped right outside the building's front door, craned his neck out an inch, scanning both ways up the narrow streets, eyeing every car and pedestrian.
No one waited to kill him. No cars idling on the road, full of assassins to mow him down before he took five steps. He started his walk to Allison's office. He walked everywhere because he was afraid if the Barradas found him, they'd wire a bomb to his car's ignition. They'd blown up the last two people who testified against them, scattering engine and glass and flesh across a driveway in Hialeah and an office parking lot near Miami. The center of Santa Fe, where he now lived and worked, was territory he could cover on foot. Santa Fe was so much smaller and quieter than the constant revving hum of Miami. He walked through the Plaza at the heart of the old city, past the Native Americans spreading turquoise and silver jewelry across black felt mats. He headed up Palace Avenue, past a beautiful young mother pushing a stroller with twin girls in a pink blanket, tourists ambling along an architectural tour, joggers huffing in the crisp gray of the mountain morning. Jogging, Miles thought, he should try jogging. Good healthy exercise to heal all the rot inside him.
He glanced over his shoulder twice to see if Andy followed him. No Andy, although it wouldn't take him long to catch up if he decided to press his case.
The confession, sealed inside his envelope, made a soft crinkling sound as he walked and he smoothed the paper straight with a slide of his finger.
The paper would change everything in his life, once again.
He walked past the stone grandeur of Holy Faith Episcopal Church and the elegant Posada Hotel and Spa. Most of the homes along this stretch of Palace Street had been converted into office space. Allison Vance counseled in an old brick Victorian that stood out from the more common adobe-style buildings, its yard dotted with spruce pines and cottonwoods. The hum of a saw roared through an open upstairs window. The landlord was refurbishing the empty top two floors while Allison refurbished people's heads.
Miles went up to the house, glancing over his shoulder. Andy stood on the bricked sidewalk, his tropical print shirt and khakis out of place in the morning chill of a Santa Fe spring, huddled against the cold.
Go away, Miles mouthed at Andy.
"You give her that confession," Andy said, "It changes nothing. It doesn't hurt me, it hurts you. You got me, Miles?"
Miles gestured at him to go.
"This ain't done." Andy tossed the cigarette onto the street, marched back toward the Plaza.
Miles found his breath and went inside. The door to his right read ALLISON VANCE, M.D., PSYCHIATRY. He opened the door, stepped inside, rested his head against the door as he closed it.
"Good morning, Michael," Allison said to his back. "I'm glad you made it this morning."
"Made it early," he said. Certain days he couldn't face the appointment, the idea of sifting through the black sand of his memory, afraid of what he might unearth. "What's the matter?" he asked.
"Nothing at all," Allison said and her tense expression faded. "Would you like a cup of green tea?"
He hated green tea but he said, "Great, thanks." He took off his jacket, hung it on a hook—the confession still in its pocket—and sat down in the fat, worn leather chair across from hers.
She poured a steaming cup of tea and handed him the cup.
"Thanks," he said.
"You look tired, Michael." It was his new-life name, one conjured up by Witness Security.
"I'm not a morning person." He sipped.
"You probably worked a lot of nights, being an investigator." Attempt number one to get him to talk. Him being a former private investigator was one of the three nuggets of truth she knew about his old life.
"Nighttime is the right time," he said. "Cheating spouses often burn the midnight oil."
"Is that who you shot? A cheating spouse?"
Attempt number two, based on nugget number two. The dance remained the same; she would try to get him to talk about the horrible instant of when his old life died, glean details he couldn't remember, and he would duck and run, hiding behind jokes and chatter. "No. I never carried a gun." The words came out like molasses dripping from his lips. Get up and give her the confession, he told himself.
Andy stood behind Allison. "What's wrong, Miles? Lose your nerve? Go ahead, tell pretty lady exactly what you did to me."
Miles froze. His skin felt like it had been slathered in ice. Andy had never stepped foot in Allison's office before. Miles glanced at his coat, where the confession lay. He looked at Andy. Andy grinned and shook his head.
"Michael? Is something wrong?" Allison leaned forward with a frown.
Miles hid behind a long sip of his tea. Steadied his breath against the rim of the cup. Looked up again. Andy made a gun of his fingers, fired it at Miles.
"Michael, every time I mention the shooting, you freeze up."
"I know." He set the tea down. "I don't want. . .to not remember what happened any more. I need you to help me."
She sat across from him. "Of course, Michael. This is a major step. Wanting to heal yourself, it's a critical element that's been missing from our work together."
"I don't want you to hate me," he said.
"I couldn't. Never." She offered a thin smile. "I think I understand you better than you know"
"Wait till you find out what I did," he said. "I don't even remember all the details of it—I can't."
"Your willingness to talk about your trauma is all that matters, Michael."
"I know I haven't been cooperative with you, but I want to be sure. . . I stay your patient. You're the only one who can help me."
"I'll take it as a welcome compliment, thank you, but—"
He held up his hand. "Don't give me the shrink line about every therapist is good, blah blah blah. And I don't want you sending me to a hospital; I can't, I won't go to one of those places, they're not an option."
An expression of surprise, or of disappointment, he couldn't tell which, crossed her face, then vanished with her nod. "No hospitals. And I welcome the change in attitude toward your therapy. Where would you like to start?"
Prep her for the confession, he decided. "I keep seeing the person I shot. I can't live this way, I can't have him on my shoulder all the time, so it's either get fixed or go even crazier."
Her expression might have been cut from steel. "Is he here now?"
"Yes. He's a fever I can't shake. He told me this morning he wanted to kill me."
"What's his name?"
Behind her, Andy crossed his arms. "I really resent you bringing this do-gooder bitch between you and me, Miles."
"Let's talk about the shooting," Allison said.
"I told you, I don't remember all the details."
"We'll go slow. Start with where the shooting happened."
The first word caught, a stone in his throat, but he coughed and said: "Miami."
"I grew up there. So did Andy."
"Where in Miami did the shooting take place?"
"A warehouse. No one there but me and. . ." He stopped; he couldn't look at her. Handing her the confession now seemed impossible. He steadied his breath; the burn of panic inched along his bones.
Andy laughed at him. "Me and two policemen and Andy . . ."
"The knife that's in the kitchen drawer," Andy said. "Wicked sharp. I'll put it in your hand, I'll help you draw a nice hot bath, and then you can slash your wrists, and we're cool again."
Miles stopped. "I want to be healthy again, I want my life back. . ." He stood and he paced and put his face into his hands.
"Let me help you. Go back to the story."
"But I can't remember, I can't remember, how can you help me if I can't remember?"
"Small steps. You shot this Andy."
The pictures crossed his mind, a jumble, photos dropped at random on a floor. "We're laughing. Then—Andy freaked. He pulled a gun. Aimed at the head of the one of the cops."
"And you shot him."
He sank into the chair. "Yes. But I don't remember it."
"Doesn't pretty lady deserve the truth," Andy whispered, "before you give her a letter full of lies?"
"Let's not try to remember," Allison said. "Let's just talk about what you visualize if you think about the shooting. That's different from the memory itself."
He sipped the green tea and wished the cup held bourbon. "I remember the laughing. But then the laughing stops and I raise the gun. I see Andy start to speak but I can't hear what he says. I pull the trigger. He shoots me."
"He shot you?"
"Yes. In the shoulder. I see him fall. I. . ." The scar on his shoulder began to ache, throbbing like a heartbeat. Sweat coated his palms, the close air of the building—the smell of the paint, the faint hammering two floors above him—and suddenly the office disappeared, the chill of New Mexico that pressed through the windows replaced with the humid blanket of Miami, the gunfire boomed a ceaseless roar in his ears, echoing in the cavernous warehouse, drowning out Andy's scream, his own voice filled with shock and horror, the chock of the bullet hitting Miles in the flesh, a cannonball of pain.
"Oh, Jesus please." Miles ran his hand along his forehead. He felt feverish, sick. He steadied his hands, pressing them against the soft leather of the chair. He was here. Not there. He could not go back there. Never.
Michael wasn't his name and he didn't want to answer to it and then he remembered, yes, he was Michael now and forever. If he wanted to live.
"Yes," he said.
"You were having a flashback. You're safe. No one will hurt you."
"I'm safe," he repeated after her. He blinked.
She cleared her throat. "Tell me about Andy."
His hand wanted to reach for the confession, just give it to her, but he didn't want his hands to shake when he gave her the envelope.
"I want. . .Michael, are you listening to me?"
He put his gaze on her. "Yes, Allison. But I don't want to remember any more. I'm sorry. I can't." End it, he thought. Tear up the confession, walk out. Never come back. Have Andy as the perpetual roommate until you die.
"You took a forward jump today. You said you want your health back, your life back. Fight for it, Michael."
"It's too hard." He found his breath again. "Let's talk about my mom and dad. Did I tell you my dad gambled a lot?"
"I don't think we can shy away from what you're facing with Andy. I want to introduce a new element to our therapy."
He heard, behind him, the door to her office opening.
Miles spun up from the chair, covered the five steps to the door, grabbed the man's neck, and pushed him hard against the wall. The man matched Miles's height and he closed a strong hand over Miles's hand, tried to wrench Miles's grip from his throat.
"Michael! Stop!" Allison yelled. "Let him go!"
Miles released his grip. The man had blond hair, blue eyes, a heavy build under the tailored suit. He gave Miles a cool stare.
"I dislike people coming up behind me," Miles said.
"Clearly," the man said.
"Miles. This is Doctor James Sorenson. I've known him for many years. He's done amazing work with people suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder."
"Then he should know not to sneak up on people," Miles said. "Sorry."
"I apologize. . .if I frightened you," Sorenson said. For a big man, he had a soft voice, raspy, as though few words passed his lips. He smoothed his suit lapel.
Miles didn't care for the underlying tone of Sorenson's voice, the slightly superior way in which he said frightened. He returned to his seat and faced Allison.
"I don't want another doctor," Miles said. A hot anger surged in his chest. This wasn't how a doctor as caring as Allison behaved, springing another doctor on him. It was wrong. It wasn't her.
"I know. But Doctor Sorenson is running a new program I believe could help you. Could give you your old life back."
The confession. It would stop this shift, keep this other doctor out of the picture. So get up out of the chair and give her the confession and stop being petrified of what she will think of you.
Andy said, from standing behind Sorenson, "It's not about what she thinks of you. It's about knowing exactly what happened when I died. That's what you don't want to remember. How you killed me."
"My old life. . ." Miles shook his head at Allison, then at Sorenson. "I don't want my case discussed with anyone else."
"You don't need to worry about confidentiality, Michael," Sorenson said. "Your secrets are safe with me. I only want to help you."
Miles knew he could get up and leave. He didn't want to hand the confession to Allison, not with Sorenson here. Potentially reading what he wrote. No. Not now.
Sorenson seemed to study the indecision on Miles's face, and said: "I want to help. Your memories—whatever they are—must be very terrible to you."
"Less terrible than dying." He couldn't say Andy died and I loved him like a brother. Best friend since I was three years old. He died and I killed him, God help me, God forgive me. I didn't mean to kill him. I didn't want to kill him. I was trying to save him.
Sorenson leaned forward and Miles saw muscles bunch in the man's big shoulders. His expression was flat and cold. "There's a theory about traumatic memories. Our most terrible memories take the deepest root. Because they're not like regular memories. After a trauma, patients constantly dredge up the results of our worst, life-altering experiences. We examine them, we dissect them. What could I have done differently, what choice could I have made to avoid the tragedy. Leave for school two minutes earlier and my car doesn't crash into a truck and kill my child. Keep a more careful eye open and my friend doesn't get gunned down in a battle."
"The traumatic memory is walled off from 'regular' memories, as it were, and fails to integrate with other memories. It's never processed as you would a non-threatening memory—filed and put away, to borrow an office metaphor. So the terrible memory becomes more deeply rooted and so does the trauma associated with it-the nightmares, the crippling fear, the paranoia that fate will strike a deadly blow again. Even when you don't remember specific details, the memory is there, an engine for the trauma. It's a vicious circle."
Miles tucked his hands in between the arm rests and the cushion of his chair in case the trembles returned.
"If you could forget the worst moment of your life—would you?" Sorenson asked.
"No one can forget."
"But if you could, would you? Forget all the trauma associated with killing this Andy person."
"Yes," Miles said. "Yeah, I would."
"Won't happen," Andy said, now sitting on the chair's arm, leaning close to inspect Sorenson. "We're freaking inseparable."
"Well, I can't wipe your brain clean, but I could lessen the trauma of the memory." Now Sorenson smiled. "Think of it as a shot of mental Botox, as it were, to smooth out the wrinkles in your memory that cause the pain."
Picturing Andy dying, with no guilt, no pain, no fear, no horror. No guilt. Miles looked at Allison. "This is for real?"
"I want to enter you in a special program for trauma victims. Allison thinks it might be helpful to you."
Allison studied her hands in her lap.
"Is this program what you think I need?" Miles asked.
Allison, wordlessly, nodded. She glanced at Sorenson and Miles saw this was why she'd been tense when he arrived, this other doctor hidden in her office. Waiting for him.
It all seemed—wrong.
"Will you let me help you, Miles? Allison is recommending two other patients of hers for the program. We're meeting here tonight at eight to discuss it. I hope you'll join us. Your case fascinates me."
"Thanks for the offer. I'll give it serious consideration." Miles stood. Session over, even though twenty minutes remained on the clock.
"You made real progress today," Allison said. "I appreciate you listening to and talking with Doctor Sorenson. Thank you for—understanding."
"I'll make my decision and let you know."
"Decision made, you asshole," Andy said to Sorenson. "He's not coming anywhere near you."
Sorenson shook Miles's hand with an iron grip. "I hope we can, together, make your pain go away."
"Speaking of which," Allison said, "here, Michael." She pressed a white plastic vial of pills into his hand.
"A very mild sedative to help you if you have another flashback."
"Not necessary." He disliked pills and hated taking the anti-depressants she prescribed for him. Swallowing each pill reminded him of his failure to be strong.
"Dosage directions inside," Allison said. "Call me if you have questions. I really hope we'll see you here tonight at eight."
Miles slipped the pills into his jacket. He heard his confession crinkle against the vial. He left, closing the office door behind him. Sweat coated his palms, ran in a trickle down his ribs.
Andy lounged by the entrance. "I knew you couldn't go through with it. Just tear up the confession and let's go home."
Miles said, "I'm going to work and forget about you." He stumbled outside. The bracing air slapped against his face.
"Sorenson, yuck," Andy said, "calling your case interesting. It made my skin crawl. I'm a lot more than a case."
"You're right," Miles said. "I don't like him either." He spoke low, under his breath, into his cupped hand, as if he warmed his skin with his breath.
"Good, then, you don't need his dumbass program." Andy slung an arm around his shoulder. "My favorite part of the confession was when you said you were trying to save me. That's rich. You don't save me, you don't get to save yourself, that's only fair, Miles."
Miles stopped. Closed his eyes, hunched his shoulders against the cold, counted to one hundred, listening to the distant hum of cars driving on the Paseo de Peralta. He opened his eyes and Andy was gone.
Would you forget the worst moment of your life?
I can't go on this way, he thought. I can't. He'd join the stupid program, let Sorenson take apart his brain if it would banish Andy. If Allison believed going under Sorenson's wing would cure him, fine.
He touched the confession in his pocket, realizing he kept rubbing at it like a praying man fingering a rosary. Tonight at eight. Tonight he'd give it to Allison as a show of faith, listen with an open if broken mind to Sorenson's proposal to fix his head.
"But I might kill you before tonight," Andy said, back again, leaning in close. "Make you step out in front of a speeding car. Put a gun in your mouth. Walk you up to the top of a tall building and right off the edge—"
Copyright © Jeff Abbott
What if you could forget the worst moment of your life?
Jeff Abbott was born in Dallas in 1963 and grew up in Austin and Dallas. He graduated from Rice University with a degree in History and English, and worked as a creative director at an advertising agency before turning his attention to writing.
Jeff is a three-time nominee for the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allan Poe Award and a two-time nominee for the Anthony Award, given at Bouchercon (aka the World Mystery Conference.) Jeff's first novel, Do Unto Others, won both the Agatha Award and the Macavity Award for Best First Novel.
He lives in Austin with his wife and two sons.