The contrast between the brisk 50 degrees it was outside and the stifling heat from the radiator in Dr. Neumann’s office irritated me. I was hot and uncomfortable.
“How often do the couches in here get cleaned?” I asked
Dr. Neumann was startled out of his scrawling by my question, and I laughed as his glasses nearly slipped off his long, slender nose when his head jerked my way.
The leather couch was sticking to the back of my bare thighs. I lifted my legs and slipped my hands underneath where I could feel the dampness caused by my body heat against the worn, black leather. I couldn’t help but wonder how many other people’s sweaty, sticky bodies had sat here before I had. I shuddered and pulled my skirt under my legs as I slid my leather jacket back over my shoulders to get ready to leave the psychologist’s office.
“The office is cleaned nightly,” Dr. Neumann responded as he pushed the wire-rimmed specs back onto their rightful place.
“But the couches specifically,” I asked, lifting my legs again as I gestured to the clinging leather, “Do they get wiped down?”
Dr. Neumann sat back in his office chair and crossed his arms over his chest as the pencil he had been using to scribble notes about our session hung from his lip.
“I honestly don’t know I’m afraid to say. However, I will make a note to ask the cleaning company about it.”
The sixty-year-old balding therapist jotted down the question on a sticky note then turned his attention back to me. I shifted my weight back and forth on the couch, unable to get comfortable. Our session today had not gone well. Dr. Neumann wanted me to open up about my childhood. But how could I when I couldn’t remember? I didn’t want to be at those court-ordered sessions with a therapist who didn’t even know anything about me. It was ludicrous.
Being trapped in Harrisburg, Missouri was maddening. I needed to get back home, well—the only place I considered my home anyway. I needed to find Carter in Cedarville, Minnesota.
“There’s something else we need to talk about Ivy,” Dr. Neumann took off his glasses and held them between both his hands on his desk. He did this when he was trying to be serious.
“You’ve got two weeks left- give or take- at Lochnar. What are your plans for your release?” He asked.
“Go home, of course,” I said without hesitation.
Dr. Neumann sat back in his chair and sighed.
“Ivy, we’ve talked about this,” he warned.
“I lived with them for almost four years Dr. Neumann,” I reminded him.
“We have tried to contact the McCourt’s on several occasions Ivy. You know as well as I do that McCourt Manor is not an option.”
“Why?” I snapped at the doctor. “Just because Dr. John is dead? I know Carter still lives there. He would never leave, and the deed is still in John and Ester’s name.”
Dr. Neumann leaned forward in his seat and put the glasses back on his face. His eyes were locked on mine, and he looked tired. I also saw the pity that I didn’t want. The old man’s look said it all.
“Dr. Neumann. I know what they say about my dad, but I know he didn’t do it. Those girls ran away. They were bad, wicked girls who didn’t want to stay. They didn’t want help, and they left. That wasn’t his fault,” I insisted.
The McCourts were my foster family from the time I was eight to just before my twelfth birthday. They saved me, but there were other foster children they couldn’t save. I would be much worse today if it weren’t for Dr. John, Mama Ester, and their son, Carter.
No matter what they said on the news about Dr. John. I knew in my heart, that he was innocent, even if he was convicted and killed. They never even found those girls that ran away—no bodies, no evidence, no trail that led the authorities to his conviction. They took the only father that ever cared for me away to be killed in prison for crimes he didn’t commit—wouldn’t commit. Dr. John and his wife, my Mama Ester were the nicest people I’d ever met.
“Ivy, we’ve been down this route before. We’ve tried to contact Ester. She can’t be found, and neither can the son, Carter. Besides, Carter McCourt was just a few years older than you when you lived at that house, what is telling you that he would welcome you to live with him now?”
Dr. Neumann’s question was all too personal, even if he didn’t know it, and it sent chills up my spine and gave me hope that I would see Carter in just a couple of weeks.
My face flushed red, and I looked down. Dr. Neumann liked to try to force me to rationalize, analyze evidence, think deeper about things, but sometimes these things don’t exist within rational and logical thinking. What I felt for Carter was so much more than anything science or data could explain. I knew because I could feel it because I just knew, that Carter and I were linked and that he would indeed welcome me back into the only place I was truly accepted—his home, McCourt Manor.
“Ivy, last time we went down this road, we extended your stay an additional four months. I don’t want to have to do that again so close to your completion of the program, but I will if I have to,” Dr. Neumann threatened me that ended in a sigh that suggested he was simply tired of me, just like everyone else had been my whole life.
I clenched my fists and buried my hands back under my thighs as I squeezed my eyes shut. I breathed in and out just like Dr. Neumann had taught me to do when I was angry.
“Do you need a minute, Ivy?” He asked calmly.
“No,” I told him through gritted teeth. “I think our time is up.”
I opened my eyes and saw Dr. Neumann look down his nose at me as he cleared his throat.
“Well Ivy, we have just two court-ordered appointments left; however, it is my recommendation that you keep to our schedule of weekly sessions even after the order is lifted. Next week we need to talk again about the McCourts and what you plan to do and where you’re going after this. I better not hear you mention McCourt Manor or Cedarville at our next session, or I will need to change my recommendation for your release. I think we are close to figuring out why the memories of your biological parents and early childhood are blocked. I want to keep exploring that with you. What do you think, hmm?”
I didn’t want to talk to the mouth-breathing old man for another two sessions, let alone after that. Besides, I had somewhere to be.
“Can’t Doc, I’m on a time crunch as it is, and you don’t have to worry about where I’m going, I’ll figure it out. Once I’m done with the program, I’m no longer your concern.” I told him how I saw things as I stood from the couch.
I was so sick of people pretending that they cared.
Our session had been over for a few minutes, and I was ready to go, whether my therapist was ready or not.
“Alright Ivy, we’ll talk about it again next week, but you need to have a plan,” he smiled and stood to join me at the office door.
I didn’t wait for him to open the door for me; instead, I swung it open and bounced into the hallway and out to the reception area before he could rattle off his usual reminder of our scheduled time.
I drew in a sharp breath and stopped dead in my tracks. A little girl with greasy blonde hair sat on a plastic blue chair next to a woman wearing slacks and a blazer. From her blazer pocket hung a social services badge. The woman’s name was Carol Rogers, and the little girl was one of her charges, probably in foster care like I had been. Looking at the child was like passing by a mirror, and seeing yourself in your peripheral vision—familiar, but uncertain, and the image blended together.
Carol was engrossed in scrolling through emails on her tablet. I had known many women like Carol in my lifetime. The child looked up at me with blank eyes as I finally forced myself to pick up a foot and cross the room towards the exit. I smiled briefly and winked at her before pushing the door open. I noticed her smirk as I left. A silent connection between a former foster kid and a current one. She understood the message: “You are not alone.” I was comforted that I may have lifted her spirits, even if just for a second.
I wasn’t much older than that little girl when I started my first therapy sessions. I shuddered when I thought about the very first memories I’ve ever had as I settled onto the bus station bench in front of the medical complex.
Dr. Neumann pissed me off. I hated talking about myself to anyone, but Carter. I didn’t need therapy when I lived at the McCourt house. I was happy there. Carter, John, and Mama Ester truly understood me, and I needed to get back to them. The thought of having weeks left trapped in Lochnar House made my skin crawl.
A rage began burning inside of my body. My legs and arms felt like they were going to explode if I didn’t do something with them. My head was swimming with awful thoughts, and I found myself wanting to—needing to…
“Fuck!” I cried out, and my body surged with energy. I kept cursing and beating against the terribly made structure that people called a bus stop. I beat my fists against the plexiglass, not caring if I broke through it, and ripped posters down and shredding them that were taped to the inside. I saw my hands were bleeding, but I continued anyway.
The plexiglass shelter was also occupied by a homeless man who quietly stared at me from the opposite corner of the bus stop. He was buried under a dirty grey blanket and curled up in the corner as much as he could, fearing my outburst. He cursed as he knocked over the 40-ounce glass beer bottle he had tucked into his side.
“Son of a bitch,” the man grumbled as he scrambled to recover the bottle.
Without saying a word, I ended my bus stop tirade and decided that walking would be a better idea. Perhaps the exercise would help take my mind off the waiting, the being trapped. My palms began to sting as blood was drawn to the surface where my nails dug into my flesh — one of my nervous habits. Blood dripped from my knuckles and my palms onto the sidewalk like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in case I lost my way.
As I walked towards Lochnar House, my mind wandered, still rife with troubled bitterness.
I didn’t understand why they wanted me to remember. Why would I want to think about anything before Carter? Becoming part of the McCourt family was the best thing that ever happened to me. As far as I was concerned, the day I walked through their door was the day my life started, and finally had a chance to be happy and normal.
My biological mother never returned to pick me up from catechism class at St. Mary’s. She didn’t bother picking up the phone when the sisters called over and again. The police were finally called after an hour of waiting. That horrible feeling in my gut that began in that hour wouldn’t subside until I arrived at McCourt Manor. My home, our home, was empty when the police started looking for her. She was gone.
I was placed with an emergency foster family for the night while the manhunt, which turned out to be quite a waste of time and resources, continued for my mother. I was six years old. My memory started after those events. I can only tell the same story that the newspapers had written at the time, and they were thorough enough for me to hang onto. Besides, it was the only story there was.
That’s what Dr. Neumann wanted. He wanted to wake the sleeping beast that was my childhood, before my mother vanished, and why my brain had blocked the memories. But I wasn’t going to be his guinea pig so he could author some boring article about my ‘breakthrough’ in a scientific journal. I wasn’t going to be the one to give him his career validation.
They never found my mother. She had vanished without a trace, and I had seemingly become invisible in the process of trying to find her. I was in five different foster homes before I landed at the McCourt’s. They were the first to see that I wasn’t the bad little girl the other mothers claimed me to be. I don’t remember them, but I know they were terrible women without a nurturing bone in their bodies. They lied and accused me of awful things.
Ester McCourt saw past the lies, the warnings that I would be too much to handle, and the false accusations of wrongdoing. She welcomed me into her home with a vanilla cake coated in confetti frosting and brightly colored candles. I had forgotten what a birthday was by the time I arrived at her home. The flames of the flickering candles had scared me at first. When Carter bounded down the stairs blowing a paper horn mercilessly, with mischief dancing in his eyes, I knew I was finally home. All the nerves I felt, the sickening feeling of being abandoned, had melted away with the candle wax.
The very first words Mama Ester said to me were: Happiest of birthdays my darling girl. Make a wish!
That was fourteen years ago, and that single wish would carry me through as I trudged through the piles of autumn leaves that lined the curb, making my way to the poorly ran halfway house, Lochnar House. Once I made my way back to Carter, my wish would be fulfilled—just a couple more weeks.
The crisp wind bit at my face like shards of glass floating on the arctic winds that ushered in the early winter as I regretted walking away from the bus stop. But I couldn't deny that the brisk pace had helped to calm my frustrations and ease my anxiety. Cedarville was only a full day's drive, and if everything went according to plan, I'd be off parole and finally able to leave town with four days to spare before my birthday which was also Carter and Ester's favorite day. I planned to surprise them by showing up and finally bringing our whole family together, well, except for Dr. John. I would grieve with them when I got to McCourt Manor.
I got closer to Lochnar House, and the scene changed dramatically. All of the houses in that part of town were dilapidated and falling apart. Dogs rattled the chain link fences that surrounded most of the homes. The beasts didn't startle me anymore, but I was grateful for the days they were locked up in their cages--usually first of the month and Fridays when people got paid. In this part of town, everyone had a side hustle — even me. After spending two years in jail for compulsory theft and most of the last six months on house arrest, I was ready to give up that life and find my family again.
"Ivy, Hey!" Cameron, the barely-eighteen-year-old girlfriend of one of the neighbors, called from the front stoop of what looked like a drug den. She sat on the broken cement and waved with a crooked smile.
I didn't want to talk to her.
I kept walking and pretended as though I didn't hear her.
"Bitch! My girlfriend is talking to you!" Ray, the middle-aged neighbor, called out as I bounded up the stone steps to the most expensive house in the neighborhood.
I chanced a quick look with an angry scowl in my expression before I headed into the building.
The all brick, newly constructed home had eight bedrooms and three bathrooms. The basement was fully finished as an apartment for our house mom, and the yard was professionally landscaped and maintained by a lawn care service. Most of the people in town couldn't even afford a lawnmower, so the halfway house had become quite the point of contention in the city with most residents not thinking so kindly of those of us who were forced to live there.
Only two more weeks.
I darted straight up to my bedroom without even checking with Barb, our house mom, or “residential aide” as she liked to be called when she was upset with us. I was in well before curfew, but I was supposed to check in with her after my appointments with Dr. Neumann to make sure I was “emotionally stable enough to be in the house.” A few bad days and everyone believed I was some psychopath.
The bedroom was small, only eight by eight, but it was easy to manage. All eight of the women living there at the time were responsible for keeping their individual rooms clean and taking turns cleaning common areas. We were evaluated on our domestic abilities among other things every week. Luckily, Barb was generous. I was confident she’d recommend my being allowed to move on from the wretched place.
I flung my purse onto a folding chair next to my door and collapsed onto the twin sized bed. I had been trying my best to sleep through most of the final days at the Lochnar Women’s House, but as my release was nearing, the anxiety and excitement of finally going back to Carter were keeping me up at night.
I enjoyed imagining what he looked like. Would he still have the same curly brown hair that hung down into his sage green eyes? Did he grow up and take after Dr. John or his mother, Ester? Did his freckles still pop out in the summertime? Did the gap in his front teeth ever get fixed?
I had spent days in the library scouring the internet and social media trying to find him to no avail. The closest I found was a yearbook from Cedarville High School that indicated he had graduated, but the trail was dead after that. Ester still owned our home according to public records, but Ester, who was well into her sixties, were social media ghosts like her son. The only phone number I found for the McCourt's rang endlessly without anyone ever picking up. At least I knew where I needed to start looking—back home in Cedarville.
That night I needed to find something to take my mind off the waiting. I was out of sleeping pills, and Dr. Neumann wouldn’t refill my prescription for another week at least.
I sat up and stared out the window above my headboard. The half-full moon hung in a dark sky. Too much light pollution from the city to allow the stars to breathe freely, but I always liked how the moon had the strength to shine, nevertheless. Just like I knew Carter would shine for me; he was the light in my darkness, my compass in life, finally leading me home.
I could feel him, even then, as I looked out my window, gazing at the moon. I felt the delicately woven thread that connected my soul to his, the connection that bonded us across the universe, across lifetimes, a thread that could never be severed by time or distance. I took a deep breath and settled back down into the bed linens. I knew he felt it too, in my gut, in my heart, I knew he felt the same way.
I kicked off my jeans and slowly roamed my inner thighs, dragging my fingertips over my delicate skin softly, as though he were teasing me with feather-light kisses. I smiled and imagined what it would feel like to finally be with him entirely as my two slender fingers slid inside, forcing me to tighten in ecstasy and draw in a sharp breath. I was good at finding ways to keep my mind—and hands, busy.
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A Note to the Reader:
Lucky Number 23 deals with dark themes that some readers may be sensitive to including childhood trauma, foster care, sexual assault, and other sexual themes, violence, murder, and mental illness. While this novel does not glorify these things, some readers may find certain scenes disturbing or uncomfortable. Before starting Lucky Number 23, please think about whether or not these themes may cause you emotional distress. If you would like more details or clarification on these themes before starting this book, please reach out to me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/krystleableauthor or via email, email@example.com