Every Single Secret – Emily Carpenter

There are monsters all around us—people who have to hide because the world can’t bear to see them for who they truly are. They’re good at keeping secrets, the monsters. Sometimes, too good. Which is why I’ve always suspected that I am one of them. A girl I once knew used to call me names: Egg Salad, Pizza Face, Fat Fuck. She claimed a family of cannibals wanted to adopt me and put me in their cellar, and that when they did, I would forget my name and who my mother was and become one of them. It was a cruel thing to say, but I saw the blackness of my own soul pretty clearly for a kid, so part of me believed her. The strange thing was, when it came to predicting the future, she wasn’t that far off. Now I wonder if she hadn’t been, in fact, warning me. Perched high on a lichen-crusted rock ledge, I look past the scuffed tips of my hiking boots at the waving branches of red and orange and russet below. I clutch an iPad to my chest, and the cold wind whips my hair, making my eyes water behind my glasses. The dampness is so thick it has a weight to it, even though it isn’t actually raining. It pierces through the too-big canvas coat I’m wearing, right through to my bones. This day is nothing like the crisp blue night the name-calling girl—Chantal—died. That night was brilliant.

The perfect night to lie under a canopy of stars. I brush the thought away. It’s true I’m a bit of an oddball, and not just because of Chantal. I am what people call guarded. I don’t blog. I don’t post. I don’t share. I don’t love people in that beaming, open-armed way you’re supposed to, but there is a good reason for it. Dark things vein through me, the way precious metal shoots through the heart of a mountain. Dark things that should stay hidden, embedded deep within the rock.

It is for the greater good that I stand guard over my mountain, over my past. This particular mountain is only the dog tail of the Blue Ridge range, but standing here with the gorge dropping away beneath me makes it feel like the highest, loneliest point on earth. I’ve been staying in the crook of this mountain nearly a week, and I don’t even know the name of it. I do know, from my stellar Georgia education, circa fourth grade, that white men discovered gold in this area a century ago and took this mountain and all the rest of the northeastern part of the state from the Cherokee. They ripped the gold out of the mountain, and after that came death and disaster. I know another thing about this mountain, having seen it from the trail below. The cliff I’m standing on curves back under itself, creating a jutting shelf. I wouldn’t even have to jump out to fall. I could just take one small step, and it would all be over. I might crash straight down through branches and needles before I hit something solid, but eventually I would hit.

And it would hurt. Just like it must’ve hurt Chantal. The cliff, the whipping wind, the thoughts of death—the whole scenario is so over-the-top gothic, it almost makes me laugh. But it is poetic justice. Full-circle closure. I am a runner, always have been, in different ways. And now, after all the years of running—in my head and heart and even physically, every dawn at the track down the street from my house—I’m finally being forced to stop. To decide what I really want. Do I stay? Or do I throw myself off the cliff and end it, once and for all? To my left, down the trail but still out of sight, I hear the rustle of leaves and breaking twigs. Someone is struggling up the path.

Someone I know. My time is up. I have to decide. Quickly, before I go back down the trail to that house and everything gets confused again. Before I lose my way. Suddenly, another sound. The cry of a bird, in the blue above me. A hawk is tracing figure eights. He’s relaxed, scanning the trees for dinner. Not a care in the world.

No idea of the drama unfolding below him. And then, beside him, a darker form. A vulture? Can he have already smelled what’s happened here? If I go over the cliff, he will find me too, eventually. That’s the way it works. Suddenly, the reptilian section of my brain kicks into gear, and I realize with a jolt that I can feel my blood pulsing through my veins, infusing every inch of my body with life. My body is still working, still doing its job, even as my thoughts turn to death. I guess no matter what kind of person I might be, no matter what I’ve done up to this point, I am a person who wants to live. I want to live. And then I go—scrambling down the side of the mountain, stumbling over roots and rocks, barely managing to keep myself upright. I press the iPad against my chest, gasping in the thin, cold air, but I keep going.

There’s no trail here, but right now getting lost is better than being found. I will not die for anyone—not for Chantal, not even for the girl I was. I am running. Again. If that makes me a monster, so be it. Chapter One Saturday, October 13 Six Days Before My fiancé, Heath Beck, sat all the way at the back of the crowded bar. I could see his reflection in the mirror behind the liquor bottles. Dark hair hiding his eyes. Shoulders hunched over the glossy oak slab, tipping a glass of brown liquid into his mouth. Seeing him like this felt artificial, like a scene out of a movie.

This was the last place Heath would come—this bar on East Howard—hence the last place I thought to try. And yet here he was. My know-it-all brain helpfully told me why. He’s hiding from you. I stood just inside the door, my legs gone wobbly beneath me. From dinnertime to just past midnight, I’d been driving around the city, checking out his favorite haunts, fueled by surging adrenaline. Now that I’d found him, the chemical was receding, leaving my limbs trembling and weak. The bar was called Divine. Major branding irony, as the place was a discordant hell of shouted conversation, clinking glasses, and migraine-inducing techno-pop. The clientele—youngish, hollow-eyed metro-Atlanta professionals—milled around, sizing each other up for future business deals or a late-Saturday-night hit-and-run.

Heath hated this place. At least, that’s what he’d always said. I pressed back against the wall and eyed him. Like always, twin bolts of disbelief and desire shot through me. Desire for his jaw-dropping handsomeness. Disbelief that he was truly mine. It always hurt, just a little bit, to look at Heath. There was a woman on the stool next to him. Young, with dreadlocked hair gathered into a tangled bun. She was wearing a transparent peasant blouse with no bra, but Heath didn’t seem to be the least bit aware of her.

No surprise there. He wasn’t a cheater, not even a flirt. He’d never given me a reason to worry, not in that respect. Dreadlocks grabbed her purse, slid off the stool, and walked toward the bathroom at the back of the bar, giving me my opening. I wanted to rush up to him, hug him, and smother him with kisses, but resisted the urge. This wasn’t a happy reunion; it was a confrontation. I needed to know what the hell was going on. The nightmares had started a couple of months ago. They’d wrecked the bliss of our engagement, exhausted us and made us tiptoe around each other. And then came that first night when Heath didn’t return home from work.

It hurt, of course. But more than that, it scared me. What did he need that I couldn’t give him? What was he doing that he couldn’t share? As it turned out, it was the first night of many. A new normal for us. I could hear Lenny now, drawling in her posh, old-money Buckhead accent. This is why you give a man at least five years before you let him put a ring on it. She was my best friend, my partner in our corporate design business, and she was always looking out for my interests, but when it came to Heath, I took her advice with a whole saltshaker. She didn’t have the full story. She assumed I’d fallen fast and hard for Heath because he looked like he’d taken a wrong turn out of a Greek myth. She had no clue, but it wasn’t her fault.

It was because I’d never told her. I’d never uttered the two words that would’ve explained everything: soul mate. I couldn’t have said those words and expected her to keep a straight face. Nobody said oldfashioned stuff like that anymore. It made people gag and roll their eyes and pity your naïveté. The idea of a soul mate was a cliché. An invitation for mockery—even if it happened to be true. Even if it was the only term that came close to describing the connection you felt. Somehow Heath and I had short-circuited the customary “Show me yours, I’ll show you mine” dating process and arrived at a perfect understanding of each other. “I have a story,” he’d said on our second date at a cramped Italian restaurant in an out-of-the-way corner of the Westside.

“A long, sad story that I don’t particularly enjoy talking about.” I nodded. You and me both. He sighed. Took my hand. “It stars a single mom, some of her particularly unfriendly boyfriends. She passes away. There are a lot of nights sleeping on friends’ couches.” He looked down at our interwoven fingers. “The thing is, I don’t believe therapy is the answer.

I don’t believe you find strength in talking about your past. I think you find it in a person. The right person.” I was mesmerized by the elusive logic of it all. Crazy how, in one instant, everything you could never express can suddenly make perfect sense. I wondered if I was the right person, if he was mine. And then he jutted his chin at the speaker above us, which had been playing a steady stream of Sinatra all evening. Now “Why Can’t You Behave?” slithered through the patio. “This guy,” he said. “He’s always made my skin crawl.

” I laughed. I hated Sinatra too. With that, loving another person became the most effortless, beautiful thing I’d ever experienced. Our silences were more precious to me than all the conversations I’d ever had with other men. Even after nine months together and getting engaged, Heath knew very little about me. But he knew the things that mattered. He knew I loved him. That I would never leave him. Not even with the nightmares, or the distance, or this ghosting routine he was putting me through. Not ever.

Maybe it sounded desperate, but I had been searching my whole life for something I didn’t know existed. Now that I had it, now that I had him, there was no way in hell I was going to let it go. Dread, like warm bile, pushed up my throat as I threaded through the crushing tide of people in Divine. I slid onto the vinyl stool the dreadlocked woman had deserted, and Heath straightened, a look of surprise on his face. “Daphne.” He’d been playing with a white business card, rotating it between his fingers, but now he held it still, poised like a flag. I fought the urge to put my hand against his cheek. “Hi.” On the other side of Heath, a knot of girls in tight club dresses and impossible shoes not-sosubtly checked him out. I wondered how long they’d been standing there.

Posing. Baiting him. One, in particular, was really locked in. She had long honey-colored, flat-ironed hair, beige lipstick, and bright-blue eyelash extensions. College student, probably. A baby. I almost wished I could pull her aside: Stay one night with him, I dare you. See how it feels to wake up to him screaming and ripping the sheets of the bed. Trying to climb through the window. Breaking the wedding dishes you picked out together at Crate and Barrel.

See how sexy that shit is. I hung my purse on the hook by my knees, caught her eye, then pushed up my glasses with my middle finger. Not super classy, but you know what they say—you can take the girl out of the Division of Family and Child Services . Blue Eyelashes tossed her stick-straight tresses and turned back to her posse. She said something that made them all titter, then they aimed a collective sneer at me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the bartender chuckling to himself. “I’m sorry I made you come looking for me,” Heath said. I met his eyes. “Please don’t apologize. Not if you don’t mean it.

Not if you’re just going to keep doing this every night.” He started to say something but stopped, and in the sudden flash of light from the TV screens above the bar, I realized his eyes were red and damp. “Not here,” I said quickly. “We can talk at home.” “No. I can’t go home, not yet. I’m just . ” He shook his head. “I need to tell you what’s going on. You’ve been really patient, and you deserve an explanation.

” I exhaled evenly. This was going to get tricky, I could feel it. Yes, I wanted Heath home, and yes, I wanted the nightmares to stop, and yes, maybe even an explanation from him would be just the thing to get us over this rough patch. But talking led to other, unwelcome things. Talking led to openness. To heartfelt statements, honesty, and confessions. Dangerous and unknown places. Places that terrified me. Talking, for me, wasn’t an option. Heath rubbed his eyes, and in the seconds he wasn’t looking, I picked four cashews out of a nearby bowl.

I clenched them in my hand under the bar, feeling their reassuring kidney shape against my skin. Immediately the electrical storm in my head cleared, and I felt calmer. I drew in a breath and let it out slowly. The counting was residue from my ranch years. A weird habit—or tic, whatever—that so far I’d been able to keep from Heath. Back then, it was always about food—how much was available and would I have access to it when I needed it. Now the counting alone seemed to settle my nerves. It always had to be an even number, preferably four. Four cashews, four stones, four pens. I knew it wasn’t normal—and sometimes I could curtail it with a quick snap of the elastic hair band I kept around my wrist, hidden among a stack of bracelets—but it did make me feel better.

Particularly in moments of high stress. Like this one. “Do you remember what you told me when we first met?” he asked. “About closure?” I swallowed. Of course I remembered. It was the same thing I had said to every new friend I made, every guy who’d ever pressed me to talk about my past. “You said closure was an illusion,” he went on. “You said we can’t go back. We can’t fix things. And trying only brings more pain.

” I waited. There was a but coming. “I so admired you for believing that. For living it out every day. I wanted to be like you. I tried and tried, Daphne, but I’m not as strong as you. I want closure. I need it . and I need help finding it.” He pushed the business card he’d been holding at me.

I stared at it numbly. Dr. Matthew Cerny, PhD, the elegant font read. Baskens Institute. Dunfree, Georgia. “He’s a therapist. A psychologist,” Heath said. A therapist. Someone whose sole job it was to make you tell your secrets. To poke and prod at you until you voluntarily gave up information that ruined your life—or someone else’s.

I had opened up to a psychologist once, and it had torn a good man’s world apart. Torn mine apart too. The dread I’d been swallowing since I set foot in this place snaked up into my chest and lodged there. “Are you okay?” he asked. “You said you didn’t believe in therapy.” My voice was faint. “I didn’t, but maybe I’ve been wrong. Too stubborn to admit it’s the one thing I need.” “Okay.” I hesitated.

“It seems like a big shift, all of a sudden. But even if you’ve changed your mind, there’s no reason to go all the way to Dunfree. That’s at least three hours away, right? Up in the mountains? I’m sure you can find a doctor down here in Atlanta. Somebody who can help you get closure.” The bartender pointed at me, his eyebrows raised, but I shook my head, and he turned back to the bar. I squeezed the cashews. “I’m sure there are plenty of good doctors around here,” I barreled on. “Hell, Lenny could probably recommend a battalion of them, knowing her crazy family.” I touched his arm. “Growing up the way you did.

Your mom and her boyfriends. Maybe that’s why you’re having the nightmares—” “Heath. Dude.” A young man in a badly tailored blue suit had materialized behind us. A basketball buddy or an old college friend. I didn’t recognize him. He clapped Heath’s shoulder and thrust out a hand. “Where’ve you been?” Heath swiveled to face the guy. “Busy, man. Working.

I’ve got a new thing.” I kept my back to them and let out a whoosh of breath, half listening to Heath describe the warehouses on the outskirts of Cabbagetown that he was developing into condos. Heath didn’t bother to introduce us, rightly sensing I was in no mood to chat up strangers, and for that, I was grateful. I signaled the bartender. He braced his arms against the bar’s edge, and in a low voice I made my request. He raised his eyebrows at my credit card but took it. When he moved back down the bar, Heath was sending the guy in the suit on his way. “So the therapist,” he said. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the bartender was talking to the girl with beige lipstick. Her gaze slid over to me once, then back to him.

“He’s based near Dunfree, up on the mountain. It’s an old mansion that he uses as a relationship-research lab and retreat center,” Heath said. “He’s one of the best in his field, been leading these retreats for over a decade. He observes how couples interact—he studies their body language, their conversation, all with hidden cameras in their suites.” “Seriously?” “He gets amazing results, apparently. And he’ll be able to observe me while I sleep. It’s like a total break from reality up there. Very intense—they don’t let you have cell phones or computers.” I just shook my head. “People from all over the world want to see Dr.

Cerny. Baskens is really hard to get into.” “But you did.” “A guy in the office told me about him, and he must’ve put in a good word, because I called today and got the green light.” I cleared my throat. “You know, you could just talk to me.” He smiled gently. “Interesting you should say that.” “What do you mean?” “If I told you all about my past, but you keep yours hidden, it would throw off our balance. The perfect, precarious balance that’s made this thing work so well.

Don’t you agree?” I didn’t answer. It was the first time Heath had ever referred to my past—and with such confidence that I wouldn’t want to talk about it, even if he opened up about his. It was a new feeling —like he was indulging my insecurities, like he was a parent whose child was convinced there was a monster hiding under the bed. “I wouldn’t put this on you anyway, Daphne. Dr. Cerny’s a professional. He’s done everything —couples’ therapy, relationship research, dream therapy too. He does this thing called EMDR. Eye Movement . um, something something? It’s a technique they use to help people remember past events.

Childhood trauma.” A trickle of sweat ran down the back of my neck; I rolled the cashews inside my palm. “I’d like to go there,” he said. “To the Baskens Institute, to meet with him. But”—he hesitated —“it’s seven days.” My skin goosepimpled. “What’s seven days?” The whole bar broke into a round of barking in response to the game playing over our heads, and I leaned closer to Heath. “The retreat,” he said louder. “Dr. Cerny’s retreat for couples.

It starts Monday morning and ends Sunday. When I called, he suggested we should register for it. That it might be a really good idea, for the both of us.” “But if it’s you that wants therapy, why do we need a couples’ retreat?” “He suggested since we’re going to be married, whatever I had to deal with involved you too —” “But it doesn’t,” I blurted. “And, frankly, I don’t buy that the only solution to what we’re dealing with is a weeklong couples’ getaway. How much is this thing, anyway? I’m sure it’s not cheap. I mean, think about it. This guy’s a salesman. He’s selling a product.” “That’s a cynical way to look at it.

” “Heath. You don’t need to sit in some airless office and talk for seven days straight so some arrogant, money-hungry PhD can tell you why you’re having nightmares. I mean, there’s a billiondollar self-help-book industry out there, probably scores of books on why we dream what we dream. And not that you want to hear this, but you could just take a knockout pill to help you sleep better. I mean, they’re not going to make you turn in your man card for taking a fucking Ambien.” I was babbling now, but he only watched me, his eyes patient. The look filled me with more fear than everything he’d just said. “Look—” I started again. He put out a hand. “Listen to me for a second.

Dr. Cerny said if you weren’t comfortable meeting with him, that it would be fine. You could still come up, be with me when I’m not in sessions, spend time around the institute. The house is really old, and I hear the grounds are beautiful. You could just rest. Relax. Would a week off kill you?” “No.” I sounded petulant even to myself. “He said there was a possibility you could offer some insight into the nightmares, too, if you were open.” He looked down at his drink.

“If you don’t want to, that’s your choice, of course. But, Daphne, here’s what I’m saying. Whether you go with me or not, I’m leaving tomorrow.” This was the point where he was supposed to say he was kidding—that all this therapy talk was just a huge joke, and really what he wanted to do was go home with me so we could make love and then fall asleep in each other’s arms. But he wasn’t saying that. He was just staring down at that stupid business card lying between us like it was some kind of magic key, given to him by a fairy godmother. The promise of a better life. I already felt like I was being left behind. He was very still. “I don’t want to do anything without you.

But if we don’t figure this out, Daphne, I don’t . I don’t know what’s going to happen to us.” “So you’re saying . ” My voice was shaking. “You’re saying it’s the therapy or we’re finished?” He cleared his throat carefully. “What I’m saying—” “Heath—” “—is I don’t know if the way we’re living—the way we’ve chosen to relate to each other—is sustainable for the long term.” These weren’t his words. They were something a therapist had said to him and now he was repeating back to me. But it didn’t matter where the words had come from. It was clear—Heath wanted to deal with his past.

Bring it out into the open. And then—as surely as thunder followed lightning—mine would be next. The dark, crowded bar felt airless. Like it was gradually shrinking and I would be crushed if I stayed. I lifted a finger to the bartender. “He’ll have another one.” I dropped my credit card back in my purse, then faced Heath. “Drink it slow. When you’re done, come home, and we’ll talk. And whatever you do”—I slipped off the stool—“never, ever make me come looking for you again.

” As I pushed my way back through the crowd, a cross between Joan of Arc and Beyoncé, I burned with humiliation and defiance. I could feel Heath’s eyes on me. And the eyes of the bluelashed girl. I hadn’t been able to resist striking first. Paying her tab for the night, and thus sending her an unmistakable message: Don’t mess with me; don’t mess with my man. If the system had taught me one thing, it was that acting tough was a perfectly good substitute for actually being tough. Just like this bar and the people drinking away their Saturday night in it. Heath’s basketball buddy, the girl with the blue eyelashes, the laughing bartender. We all acted like a bunch of badasses with nothing to lose. But I knew it was a lie.

I was a lie. I was weak and I was scared. Losing Heath, losing my soul mate, would be like watching a sand castle that had taken twenty-eight painstaking years to construct be swept away by a single wave. It would end me, if not in body, then in spirit. I couldn’t let that happen. Outside the bar, I found a trash can and watched the cashews fall from my hand. I wiped the salt off my palms and stood there for a minute, thinking over my plan. I would go with Heath to the retreat. Play the supportive fiancée while he met with the doctor and searched for his elusive closure. And in the meantime, I would do some digging of my own, try to get out in front of the situation.

If I could somehow figure out what was causing Heath’s nightmares before this Dr. Cerny did, maybe I could cut this process short and get us home where we belonged. Get everything back to normal. I did have something to start with, something I hadn’t given much attention to when it first happened because I’d been so rattled. Now I realized it was a clue, if only just a seed of one. Words Heath had said during one of his bad dreams, his voice raw and ragged with terror. Break the mirror, he had chanted over and over until it reverberated in my brain. Break the mirror. Chapter Two Sunday, October 14 Five Days Before The house lay at the end of a rutted gravel road that seemed to stretch on endlessly, rising, switching back, then rising again until I felt nauseated. It stood in a cove of dark pines, its steep crimson gables and stained-glass windows regarding our arrival with a stern expression. A house with eyes. I wasn’t being paranoid or dramatic. Like Heath had said, the cameras were actually part of the deal at Baskens Institute. Couples attending the famous Baskens retreats were not only paying for therapy sessions but also for the privilege of being observed while they twiddled their thumbs or engaged in their everyday spats. A bunch of lab animals, paying for their own exploitation. I unfolded myself from Heath’s battered Nissan. The air smelled of moss and rotted wood and was at least ten degrees cooler than down in Atlanta. A cloud blotted out the sun, dousing blue sky and green forest in an inky gray, then moved on again. I shivered in the sunlight and thought of my iPad, which I’d tucked safely under the mat in the back seat. Heath hadn’t seen me hide it. I hoped it would be safe until I could retrieve it later. “Where do you think the cameras are hidden?” I polished my cloudy glasses on the scrunchedup sleeve of my sweater. Ours was the only car in the circular drive. I wondered if the other two couples attending the retreat had flown in and been shuttled up the mountain. I hadn’t heard anything about them. “They’re inside the rooms. Not out here.” Heath climbed out, popping his neck and stretching. The drive from Atlanta had only been three hours, but in his tiny car it felt like twelve. The Nissan, an unfortunate iridescent royal blue, was a holdover from his college days that he swore he’d never give up, no matter how important the job he happened to have. His holding on to the old car was just one of the things I loved about him. He didn’t judge things by their outward appearance; he saw below the surface. In the bright mountain sunshine, Heath sneezed twice in quick succession. “Bless you,” I said. “Something’s blooming.” He went around to the trunk. Everything was dying as far as I could see, fall’s brown and red and gold emerging on the hillsides. A series of terraced lawns bordered the western side of the house, dropping out of sight down the slope of the mountain. Dense forest flanked the rear and eastern sides. Farther off, higher up on the shoulder of the mountain, I caught a glimpse of a thin waterfall tumbling between granite rocks. The house was painted a deep crimson—the wood siding, the shutters, even the intricate gingerbread trim. Except for the door, which was a vibrant mustard yellow. The facade was dominated by a large overhanging gable, but the rest of the thing was a collection of off-center wings, jutting eaves, and precarious spindled balconies. There was an L-shaped wraparound porch and a hexagonal tower that rose from the top floor. An orgy of Victoriana. The place was grand, but this close, it was impossible not to notice the faded, peeling paint and mildew-rotted eaves. The way the tops of the window frames sagged. How the roofline and walls joined at odd angles. And the house was wedged into the side of the mountain, too, good and tight. No place for me to go jogging, not unless I wanted to risk falling off a cliff. I did an automatic count—two doors, four chimneys, eighteen panes of glass on that large, front-facing gable that appeared to be an enclosed balcony. I felt a little better, then. It was important to stay calm. I couldn’t let myself slide into panic. “How in the world do people find this place?” I said. Heath hoisted our bags from the trunk. “Dr. Cerny’s retreats are all based on word of mouth and referrals. Under the radar, super exclusive. Word is, he’s the guy who handles Bill and Hillary’s tune-ups.” “I wonder if we’ll get their room. Sleep in their bed.” He dropped our bags. “Would you like that?” He raised his eyebrows and we shared a smirk. For a moment, just a moment, things seemed perfect between us, like the conversation at Divine had never happened. Like we were just a normal couple who’d gotten out of the city for a last-minute mountain getaway. But I couldn’t pretend. The night before, when I’d gotten home from Divine, I’d spent an hour on the computer, first Googling Baskens Institute, then rescheduling the rest of my appointments for the upcoming week so I could leave the next day. The search results were sparse: there was no official website for the retreat center and only a smattering of pieces written about it, most of them years old. One, an article in the Wall Street Journal about Baskens’s reputation as a center for platinum-level relationship rescues, emphasized the exclusivity of the place. Nondisclosure agreements prevented clients from leaking any details about Cerny’s unconventional methods, but rumors of juicy scandals abounded—celebrity dirt or perverse deeds the Baskens surveillance cameras may have captured. I moved on to shuffling the upcoming week’s tasks onto Kevin and Lenny. I dashed off a succinct, overly cheery email to each of them, glad that it was late enough not to have to deal with a million questions I didn’t want to answer. Yes, Daphne Amos, who scoffed at psychotherapy, was accompanying her fiancé up to the mountains for a full week of it. No, I wasn’t taking part; I was tagging along to cheer him on and, in the process, dumping a crap-ton of extra work onto my partner and our employee. I could practically hear Lenny screeching in disbelief when she read the email. Moving on to my final task, I opened Instagram, and, holding my breath, typed in a name. I’d heard it only once, from Lenny, that very first day I’d met Heath. Annalise Beard. On Instagram, she was @fairlyweirdbeard, and she was a prolific poster. Of frosty, fruity drinks, beach sunsets, and a wan-faced cocker spaniel, mostly. The scattered selfies showed a longlimbed woman with tangled blonde beach hair, a knowing twist to her lips, and an impressive collection of fedoras and ankle boots. Actually, she looked a bit like me. Or maybe my prettier, more socially confident sister. I followed her, then clicked over to type in a message. After I was done, I powered down the computer, tucked it in the bottom drawer of my desk, and went to bed. Later—much later—Heath slipped between the covers and curled against me. He was cold and smelled like the autumn night air and fallen leaves. He must’ve been out walking, not hanging out in the bar, drinking, like I’d been imagining and worrying about. In relief, I rested my hand on his bare chest and draped a leg over one of his. I told him that yes, I would go with him to the retreat, but I still refused to meet with Dr. Cerny. We made love for the first time in weeks. As I drifted off to sleep, I tried not to think about pretty Annalise Beard, whose help I now so desperately needed. Heath slept peacefully the rest of the night and woke in a good mood. Which was something, I guessed. And on the way up to the mountains, he’d seemed unusually lighthearted, chatting and singing along with the radio. Now, standing in front of the rambling crimson Baskens, I resolved to act supportive, even if I didn’t feel that way. Even if I was low-level panicking at the very idea of being an overnight guest at a relationship-research facility. I inhaled and sent Heath a sly grin. “If sleeping in the same bed where Bill and Hillary slept is what it takes to save us, I will do it,” I said. “I will find it ironic, but I will do it.” He caught my wrist and pulled me closer. I buried my face in his shoulder and inhaled his scent—soap and deodorant and the stuff he put in his hair. Who needed therapy when you had your own personal, six-foot-two mood stabilizer? The whiskers on his jaw scratched my temple. “Always us,” he said in a low voice. “Always us,” I replied. “And Bill and Hillary, if need be.” A young man with a shiny face, tortoiseshell glasses, and a swoop of muddy brown hair shouted a greeting at us from the porch. He hadn’t been there when we’d first driven up. Maybe he’d seen us approach on the hidden cameras. He bounced down the porch steps and across the expanse of grass. “Ms. Amos? Mr. Beck?” The man extended a plump hand toward me. Crescents of sweat stained the underarms of his starched oxford button-down, and his khaki chinos were just a hair too short. “Dr. Reginald Teague. Reggie, though, please. Welcome to Baskens. I’ll have your car parked around back, if you don’t mind.” Heath handed him the keys, and Reggie nodded at our bags. “Give you a hand with those?” Heath slung the strap of my bag across his shoulders. “I got it, thanks. Just point me in the right direction.” “Of course. Right this way.” He led us up the front walk and then the porch steps, talking over his shoulder. “The other two couples, the Siefferts and the McAdams, have already arrived and are getting settled. You’ll have your private tour, meet the doctor, and then dinner in your room. Tomorrow after breakfast, Mr. Beck, you’ll have your initial session with Dr. Cerny.” I expected some side-eye from Reggie because of my refusal to take part in any sessions, but without so much as a hiccup, he ushered us through the mustard door, and we stepped into the front hall. I stopped in my tracks. “Wow.” I was used to the vast, open floors of modern office buildings—prefab cubicles, collaborative meeting rooms, and dog-friendly courtyards. Everything was bright and visible in those places. All things movable, adjustable, temporary. This house looked like it had been here a thousand years, like it breathed the moldered air of a long-ago past. The lower halves of the walls were paneled in coffered oak, the upper halves in cracked leather embossed with a trailing-vine design. The floors were a dingy brown veined marble, and an oak staircase with multiple landings rose from the middle of the room to the floors above. The stairs seemed to have as many switchbacks as the road we’d just driven up. Chairs upholstered in frayed silk were scattered among monstrously oversized sideboards. Ornate brass gas lamps converted to electric did their utmost to light the room, but the place was still oppressively dark. The air felt stale, like the windows had never been opened. I tried to ignore a creeping sense of claustrophobia, looking into the rooms just off the front hall. There were several—a dining room, a salon, maybe, or music room. A library. But their doors were closed or they were dark and I couldn’t see inside. Old houses with cloistered rooms and layers of bric-a-brac always did this to me. I snuck a look at Heath but couldn’t gauge his reaction to the place. His face was a blank. Reggie brightened. “Ah, surprise, surprise. Looks like the McAdams are back downstairs. We can meet them before the tour.” Heath dropped our bags, and Reggie ushered us into a library, done up in more dusty silks and somber velvets, with one wall a massive, carved bookcase. Twelve shelves, all filled with old books. I turned away, fiddling with the hair band around my wrist, and focused on the couple standing beside the bay window. They were in their midthirties, the man sporting a pair of Oakleys looped around his neck by a camouflage neoprene strap, the woman dressed in a swingy paisley dress and cowboy boots. Both of them held crystal goblets of red wine. “Heath Beck and Daphne Amos, I’d like you to meet the McAdams, Jerry and Donna. They’re one of our three lucky couples at this month’s session.” Three. Why does it have to be three? I took a deep breath and forced a smile. After the flurry of handshakes and greetings, I turned to the woman. “Are you from around here?” She glanced at Reggie. “Actually, Ms. Amos,” he said, “we ask that all Baskens participants not share personal details with each other. You’ll be seeing very little of the other couples this week. All meals are delivered to you in your private suites by Luca, our cook—who speaks very little English. Sessions are scheduled with everyone’s utmost privacy in mind. You may see the other couples on the grounds during free time, but Dr. Cerny asks that you respect the intensity of everyone’s experience and refrain from socializing. The doctor believes the fewer the distractions, the more you can adequately focus on your partner and open yourself up to the therapy. It’s one of the hallmarks of Baskens’s unique approach. Speaking of which, you read the agreement regarding your cell phones, correct?” “Yes,” Heath said. “The gift of silence, that’s what we like to call it.” Reggie produced a small basket and held it out. Heath dropped his cell phone in. “Dr. Cerny and I both have telephones in case of emergency. The nearest village down the mountain, Dunfree, has a fire department and hospital, if needed. Though it never has been,” he rushed to add. I tried not to imagine the awfulness of driving back down that rutted gravel road with some sort of medical emergency. I couldn’t believe people actually chose to live up here, almost completely cut off from society. And SuperTargets. “Babe,” Heath said. I dug my phone out of my purse. “Oh, right. One sec. Just something from work I should check real quick.” I turned and tapped open Instagram. A couple of notifications—@fairlyweirdbeard had followed me. And left me a message. I opened it. I was wondering when I’d hear from you. Emailing you now. “Daphne,” Heath said. I switched off my phone and let it clack into the basket. Annalise Beard was emailing me. This was a good sign. Better than good. Reggie checked his watch. “All right, then. I’ll take you to your suite. You can unpack, rest a bit from the trip. Luca will deliver your dinner at seven o’clock—fish, I believe—along with a complimentary bottle of wine.” “Fish,” Heath said under his breath. I furrowed my brow at him, but he looked away. “It’s actually scallops in some kind of cream sauce, if I’m not mistaken. You’re not allergic, are you?” “He’s not allergic,” I interjected. I glanced at Donna McAdam, smiled, and rolled my eyes. A prim look was all I got in return. Reggie cleared his throat. “After dinner, the doctor will meet with each couple in his study, so we’d like to get your private tours of the house and grounds in before that. There are a few quirks to the property, and we want everyone to feel comfortable during your stay. The Siefferts have already had theirs. The McAdams are next, and then I’ll take you.” I looked over at the McAdams. They’d migrated back to the windows, still holding their wine. In the main hall, Reggie led the way upstairs. “You can drop your things in your room, freshen up if you like, and then we’ll meet back downstairs for your tour. Do either of you know why the house is called Baskens?” Heath spoke up. “The property and house originally belonged to the Baskens family, from Dr. Cerny’s maternal side—built back during the gold rush. Dr. Cerny inherited the place, lived here a while, and eventually turned it into a counseling retreat.” “Wow,” I said. It was certainly more than I’d been able to dig up online. “Very good,” Reggie said. “Mason, the guy from work, told me that,” Heath said. “Here we go,” Reggie puffed, and Heath hooked a finger through one of mine. As I stepped onto the first landing, I happened to look back. I could just see—through one arched opening—a woman standing in the dark dining room. She had silver or blonde hair that shone, even in the shadows, and a long, elegant neck. I thought, at first, that was all I could see, but it wasn’t exactly true. There was something more, something strange. She was staring at us—at me, specifically —with an expression of naked, undisguised curiosity.


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