Paying the Piper

by Roberta A. Isleib, Ph.D.

Dr. Rebecca Butterman leaned against the counter of the nurses' station and sighed. Her left shoe had pinched the little toe to a blistered mass, her head ached, she'd had nothing to eat since the bowl of Special K at breakfast. She dreaded jousting with a teenager who hadn't opened up to her all week and was unlikely to roll over this afternoon.

Though she already knew it by heart, she skimmed the admit note written three days ago, searching for anything she might have missed. "Single, white male, eighteen years old, found tied to tree, naked, behind Governor Livingston Regional High School football field. Skin on patient's buttocks and a small area of his penis had been tattooed with red ink. Patient appeared catatonic in the ER and was admitted to the adolescent inpatient psychiatric unit. Rule out Acute Stress Disorder. Request consult with clinical psychology."

"Any progress with Alex Platter?" Dr. Butterman asked the head nurse, Sally Hart.

"He's been pushing hard all day for discharge." Sally shrugged. "Amazing how quickly he sealed over. You'd think it would be difficult to act arrogant with gibberish tattooed in permanent red ink on your ass, but this kid manages it."

"What about the words?"

"His butt was so swollen and discolored, at first we couldn't make anything out. The ice and antibiotics helped, but now he's declining to be examined by the linguistics expert they sent over," Sally said, shaking her head. "I'm putting that politely, which the young man certainly didn't."

"Maybe Detective Rumson came up with something. Tell her I'm down in his room when she gets here?"

Dr. Butterman felt the kid's challenge as soon as she stepped into his space. Sally was right-this cocky young man bore little resemblance to the quivering boy she'd interviewed three days ago.

"How are you?"

"Becky! What's up?" The kid stretched the full length of his six-plus feet, and then pulled himself up on one elbow. "Take a load off. Looks like you've had a hard core day." He patted the bed beside him and grinned.

Dr. Butterman stiffened, hoping her internal reaction was not visible-an uncomfortable mixture of dislike, mistrust, and attraction. She knew it wasn't only her. The kid's seductive, yet contemptuous demeanor-maybe James Dean meets Hannibal Lector?-riled up most of the women involved in his treatment. The more recent nursing staff notes reflected this reaction with a subtle edge of hostility. Nothing a managed care or legal representative could have pinned a malpractice case on, but obvious enough to the trained observer.

So far, Alex had rebuffed all her attempts to understand what had happened to him earlier this week in the woods. To make things worse, he reminded her distinctly of her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Mark. She could imagine the kid trolling the hallways of the high school, a casual hello here, a stop to chat there, a touch so fleeting that the chosen recipient might even doubt it had occurred. The waters of the high school crowd would part ahead of him like Moses. And behind him would trail a gaggle of giggling girls with pheromones flaring and blouse buttons unbuttoned as low as they dared. Baiting their hooks for Alex the Prince.

Twenty years ago, in college, Dr. Butterman had been one of those girls, shadowing her husband Mark. She had managed to attract his attention long enough to commit herself to a lifetime of women throwing themselves at him. For Mark, the temptation had been too much to resist. Now, with their marriage all but buried, she felt furious and exhausted at the prospect of starting again.

She had lain awake half of last night berating herself for reacting to Alex at all. Countertransference, they called it in graduate school. The shrink's reaction to the patient-unavoidable, but useful, if looked at with a trained eye. And annoying as hell all the same.

"Come and sit," Alex said again, his dark eyes inviting an intimacy she did not want. "You look tired, Becky." His hand caressed the bedspread next to him with a circular motion.

"I'm fine." She cleared her throat to smooth the slight crack in her voice. "Any more thoughts about what brought you in here?"

"No. Only about what's going to get me out. Dr. Redfield says I can go tomorrow." He grinned again and massaged his left bicep.

"Who have you chosen for your outpatient therapist?"

"I decided I don't need one. Redfield says I can always call if that changes."

Dr. Butterman frowned. Bad enough that the unit chief would discharge the kid with no understanding of the incident that had thrown him into catatonia. But not insisting he follow up with an outside shrink, that bordered on malpractice. She had noticed this trend all week, too. The men dealing with Alex could not get past cringing over the image of those needles injecting red ink into the boy's privates. Or maybe their own. An instinctive, leg-crossing rush to protect him from any further damage seemed to blunt their collective clinical judgment.

A burly woman in rumpled corduroys and a turtleneck knocked on the partly open door. "Hidey-ho." She nudged a clump of graying curls off her forehead.

Alex sat up and drew his knees to his chest. "Good evening, Detective." The seductive tone he used with Dr. Butterman evaporated.

"Hi, Doc. Hey Alex. Just had a couple more questions for you. Been chatting with some of the kids over at the high school. You still don't remember anything from that night?"

"Not a nanosecond," said Alex. "I say, let it go, dude. Get me the hell out of this dump and on with life. Biggest lacrosse game of the season tomorrow. My team will kill me if I'm not in the goal." Another grin flashed across his face, though this one looked strained.

"Thought of anyone who might have had it in for you?"

"No one," he said. "Except maybe the attackman on the Scotch Plains team. He can't seem to get anything by me. I'm single-handedly destroying his chance at offensive player of the year." The crooked smile was back firmly in place.

"What about girls," said Detective Rumson. "Anyone who might have felt jilted? Thought she was your girl, but you had a different idea, something like that?"

The kid shook his head. "Wrong way, Detective. Everyone knows I'm taking Ashley Worth to the prom. Head cheerleader at GL and muy caliente. That's very hot, for all you non-Spanish speakers." He laughed. "We've been going out for months. I'm old-fashioned that way-strictly a one-horse kind of guy." He cracked an imaginary whip.

"Okey-dokey," said the detective. "You think of anything, you call me. I'm all over it." She paused at the door, and turned back. "Oh, one more thing. Any ideas about the words?"

The boy's face darkened. "No." He picked up a copy of Stephen King's Cujo from his bedside stand and began to read.
The detective followed Dr. Butterman back to the nurses' station. "Feel like a field trip?"

"What did you have in mind?"

"I had some interesting conversations at the high school today. I have a sneaking feeling our friend is not telling the whole truth, nothing but the truth."

Dr. Butterman heard the wail of the bagpipes as soon as she stepped out of the car. "The band is practicing for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo," said Detective Rumson. She locked the door to the vehicle and shrugged on a black leather jacket. "It's a huge Scottish games exhibition and a big honor to be invited-especially for high school students."

The pipers lurched into "Amazing Grace".

"I don't really care for the screeching, but it always gets to me when they play the bagpipes at a funeral," said Dr. Butterman. "There's something so darned lonely about that noise."

The two women took seats in the bleachers. The pipers segued into "Skye Boat Song", marching rhythmically across the football field, their kilts swaying with the cadence of the dirge. The band halted in front of the grandstand. Four Highlander dancers moved to the head of the pack and laid swords out in a crisscross design on the ground. They began to weave in and out of the swords' patterns as the bagpipes sawed through "Scotland the Brave".

"You see the short dancer with the long brown hair?"

Dr. Butterman nodded.

"I spent some time in the guidance department today. Word is, that girl knows more than she's saying. I'm hoping you can help me talk to her."

"I'll do what I can."

As the practice session wound down, Detective Rumson cut the brown-haired girl out of the pack of chattering teenagers.

"You're looking for me?" the girl asked, her round face guarded and scared. Rumson nodded. The conversation behind them fell quiet.

"We need a few minutes of your time."

Reluctantly, the girl followed the two women back to the bleachers. "This is Dr. Butterman. She's a psychologist at Overlook Hospital." The girl offered a limp handshake.

"Bonnie Burrows," she said.

"Listen Bonnie," said Detective Rumson. "We won't waste your time. We're here to talk about what happened to Alex Platter."

"I wish I could help…" She set her mouth in a quavery line.

"You know," said Dr. Butterman. "My ex-husband reminds me a lot of Alex. Smooth, smooth, smooth, but underneath the surface, he takes what he wants without much regard for who it hurts. And sometimes it hurts a lot." She watched two tears appear in the corner of Bonnie's eyes and begin to trickle out from under the tortoiseshell glasses and down her cheeks.

"Why don't you tell us what happened," suggested the detective.

"I feel so stupid," said the girl, her shoulders shaking as she fought to keep from crying. "He knew I had the worst crush on him. We went for a walk and he kissed me. Then he forced me into the woods-he said it was what I wanted. He said he could smell it on me, how much I wanted him." Now the tears crashed through her composure. She dropped her head to her lap and sobbed. "Maybe he was right. I asked for it."

"You told him no?"

She nodded. "I begged him to stop."

"Then you didn't ask for it," said Dr. Butterman.

"Why didn't you tell someone?" said the detective. "Get some help?"

Bonnie looked up at her, her face drained of all color. "He said no one would believe that I'd been raped. He said I was lucky to have had the time with him." Dr. Butterman grimaced and patted her on the shoulder.

"Do you want to press charges against Platter?" asked the detective.

"Oh god, please. No."

"What happened to Alex in the woods on Monday?"

Bonnie shook her head. "I don't know."

The detective stared at her for a long minute. "That's all for now. We'll probably need to talk some more later." Bonnie nodded. They watched her walk slowly back to the band, where she was drawn deep into the comfort of their plaid circle.

"The trick will be getting the kid to confess," said Detective Rumson. "He thinks he's a tough nut, but I've seen plenty of harder shells in my career."

"Got any ideas?"

The detective nodded. "A slightly evil one. We'll need to stop by Borders on the way back to the hospital."

"So nice to see you again, ladies," said Alex, when they returned to his room. "You brought entertainment?" He smiled, inclining his head toward Detective Rumson's boom box.

"You're sure you don't remember anything about what happened the night of the tree incident?"

Alex's eyes hardened. "Nothing. I told you that already. I'm sick of all the questions. I want out of this hellhole."

Detective Rumson punched the play button on the boom box. The first strains of "All Those Endearing Young Charms" squealed out from the recorder.

Alex's shoulders tensed and he frowned. "Is this your idea of a sick joke?"

"Bear with me, Alex," said Detective Rumson. "I thought this music might jog your memory." The boy closed his eyes, then he stood and paced over to gaze out the window. Dr. Butterman watched him struggle to keep his composure.

Finally, he threw his hands up over his ears.

"Stop! Shut the damned thing off!"

"Only when you're ready to talk, Alex," said Detective Rumson. "When you're ready to tell me about Bonnie." The bagpipes bleated on.

"Turn it off!"

The detective pressed the stop button and waited.

"Okay, I admit it, we had sex. She'd been following me around all year like a bitch in heat. We had sex, but she wanted it. I could have cared less. I was just helping her out."

Dr. Butterman felt sick; the same queasiness that had overwhelmed her when she found Mark in their bed with Antonia the day she'd stopped home unexpectedly for lunch. He'd looked at her with such outrage-as though she had been the one to betray their promise.

The detective pressed the play button a second time. The two women watched as Alex rocked on the bed moaning, his ears covered against the assault of "Wee Highland Laddie".

"Looks to me like there must be more to the story," said Detective Rumson, her voice bemused. "You've developed quite an unusual aversion to bagpipe music. Now Dr. Butterman here isn't crazy about bagpipes but…"

The boy motioned frantically for her to shut off the tape. His eyes teared and two lines of clear mucous ran down from his nostrils. "I swear, I thought she wanted it," he said.

"What about the bagpipes, Alex?"

"Those bitches went crazy," he said, his face twisted into something out of Stephen King. "They took me out into the woods and stood around droning that f--ing music while they took turns…" Alex dissolved into sobs. "I swear, I thought she wanted it," he said. "They all want it."

"Apparently not this time, Alex. Lucky for you, Bonnie says she isn't interested in pressing charges. Though to my mind, a few years behind bars might do you good. So we'll give her some time to think it over." She removed the tape cartridge from the boom box and slid it into its protective cover.

"What about you? Do you want to press charges against the pipers?"

He shook his head sullenly.

"In the meanwhile, before I change my mind about arresting you, I'd suggest you get busy on a letter of apology. I presume you can have it ready in an hour?"

Alex nodded.

The women returned to the nurses' station. "How the hell did you finger the pipers for the tattoos?" asked Dr. Butterman.
"I studied the photos of his butt. Ugh! I knew those words weren't English. Then, when the guidance counselor mentioned Bonnie was a member of the all-girl bagpipe band, it hit me. Scottish Gaelic!"

"What's the translation?" asked Dr. Butterman.

"According to the dictionary I found on the Internet, the words mean evil, ugly, and a bad man," said the detective.

"What about the ink smudge on his penis?"

"I think the girls started out with the idea of writing there. But remember, it was night, barely forty degrees, and the kid was scared to death. There wasn't much square footage to work with." Both the women laughed.

"Shall we adjourn to Archie Moore's?" asked the detective.

"Sounds good," said Dr. Butterman. "I have a taste for St. Andrew's ale."

All Design, Graphics, Infrastructure, and Content is copyright 2004 Roberta Isleib. All rights reserved.

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