"My condolences." Dropping her chin, Joy nodded soberly because that was the appropriate response, not because she felt a profound loss. Of course, she was sad. She wasn't heartless; she just didn't feel any deficit. That ship had sailed years ago. Brushing the hair out of her eyes, she wondered how long the morbid little shindig would last. The Lorazepam was wearing off, and she was getting antsy. She despised crowds. "Hi Joy, I'm Grant. I worked with Alex. I was in IT. This is my wife, Sharon-- "Sorry for your loss," Sharon interrupted, feigning empathy, red lipstick bruising her front teeth. She looked like the kind of woman who did that often. Joy hated that. “Thanks." Joy urged them along. She didn't know these people. She barely knew anyone. She took advantage of the brief lull to scratch her outer thigh. A new wound was scabbing over and itched like hell. The urge to pick at it was seductive. Pain always was. "How are you holding up?" A friendly voice behind her. Heather. "Barely," she answered, not turning around. She didn't have to. Heather was there for moral support and had no expectation of being consoled, unlike the other mourners. They were there for the show, to witness little Joy's unraveling. Her reputation preceding her, they wanted to see for themselves whether or not she'd live up to the hype. Was she a loose cannon? Would she cause a scene? One nervous breakdown on national television and the whole world assumes you're a nutcase. "We're almost done; then you'll just have to get through the funeral tomorrow. Good turnout, though." "Yeah," Joy shrugged. Heather’s hands on her shoulders were comforting. "But are they here for Alex or me?" "Both, probably. Can I get you something to drink?" "Vodka, rocks." "Very funny. How about water?" Joy shrugged, then watched her friend skirt through the crowd. Being in recovery sucked. "Hi, you must be Joy. Alex often spoke of you." The man held out his hand, offering his respects. Based solely off the smirk, Joy thought he must have heard some great stories. Doozies. "I hope it wasn't all bad," she chuffed. Indifferent, she wished he'd move along. "Most of it was, I'm afraid," he teased, not intimidated. Intrigued, Joy raised a brow. "Do tell." "Absolutely not." "Oh, come on, humor me." "Definitely not appropriate funeral conversation. I really can't." Throwing her shoulders back, she stole a closer look. The man was handsome, fit, and older, and he had a full head of salt and pepper hair. She dug the beard. A grown-up Harry Potter, but with hipper glasses. "Oh, come on, I could use some cheering up," she flirted. She was a sucker for older men. "What's your name? How do you know the dearly departed?" "Dan Lipton." Joy couldn't place him. Noting her confusion, he added, "The therapist." Waking, Joy rolled over and patted down the bedside table, searching for her phone. Using her hand as a visor, she checked the time, protecting her eyes from the harsh light. Four a.m. Damn, she fell asleep after sex, and apparently, he didn't read the one-night stand handbook because he was snoring beside her, his back pressed against the wall. That was the problem with older men, the sex was usually fabulous, but they liked to stick around for cuddles and pillow talk, hoping the sex meant something. Of course, it never did, not with Joy. One good thing had come from it, she'd gotten some decent sleep. That was a rarity, especially since drying out, but the dream woke her, the same one she'd suffered for decades. Creepy, unexplainable. It was always the same, varying slightly over the years. In the dream, she was lying in bed, sometimes paralyzed, sometimes not, but always spooked, like she'd been startled awake. Music screamed in the background so loud it was offensive. Usually, it was heavy metal, but on rare occasions, it was hip-hop, its thick, insistent beat desperate to warn her, to save her, from what she had no clue. Sometimes in the dream, she'd see a shadow crouched in the corner, arms wrapped tightly around the knees. Other times it was a dog, a Shepherd, or a Rottweiler, something big, its mouth dripping blood. It was spooky. Although the dream varied, it always left her shaken. When she was really young, she would crawl into bed with her mother, aching for comfort. Occasionally she would find it, but most of the time her mother ushered her back to her room insisting it was nothing but a bad dream, that it wasn't real. Joy would try to convince her it was real, that she could practically feel her heart beating to the tempo of the music, the adrenaline tightening her veins, paralyzing her. Her mom would shush her, leaving her to quietly suck it up, to suffer in silence. Mom didn't deal well with drama and wasn't the nurturing type. Joy had bitterly tested that theory over the years. Thirsty, her tongue too thick for her mouth, Joy carefully poured herself out of bed, trying not to wake him until she could put herself together. She didn't like men seeing her naked and didn't want to explain it. In fact, she avoided it at all costs, usually fucking in the dark or feigning so much passion there wasn't time to get undressed. Something told her Danthetherapist would find something deep in her psyche about that, and she wasn't interested in being psychoanalyzed by someone who just had their tongue inside her. After covering up, she padded into the bathroom and filled a glass with tepid water, quickly gulping it down. It wasn't enjoyable, but it was wet, which was good enough. Wiping a hand across her lips, she caught herself in the full-length mirror, her tiny body swallowed by an oversized t-shirt. Her long, dark hair, a tattered mess, hung loosely over her bony shoulders. She hated her body, void of curves, but especially the scars that crisscrossed her lanky thighs, logging her trauma. That was a half-truth. Joy had a love-hate relationship with those scars. She hated the embarrassing disfigurement, but each one was glorious in the moment of reckoning, offering her bitter-sweet comfort, the pain fulfilling a twisted, karmic debt looming in the layers of her suffering. How else could you explain such a deep desire to harm herself without actually offing herself? Her mother always said she was melodramatic. Maybe that's why she went into acting. That and it allowed her to escape her life for a while. She really was fucked up. "Joy? Everything okay?" Dan's voice through the closed door. She rolled her eyes at the mirror, wishing they'd gone to his place instead. Taking the walk of shame was easier than kicking a man out of her bed. "Fine. Do you need some water?" she asked. "Sure, if you don't mind," came his response. "I'm sure there's water at your house," she whispered. She was disgusted with herself. This was nothing new. She always felt that way after sex, cutting, drinking, and almost every other crutch she used to pacify herself. She was a walking shame show. Back in bed, she handed Dan the glass before quickly curling under the covers, grateful for the dark. "So, now tell me some of the stories Alex shared about me?" Joy pressed, morbidly curious. Dan shrugged, taking his sweet time sipping the water like it was a fifteen-year-old scotch in a crystal snifter. He was definitely stalling. She masked her irritation behind a smile, her patience slipping. Opening her bedside table, she retrieved a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, fumbling to pull one out of the package. "Those things will kill you, you know." "So they keep promising," she clipped back, not missing a beat. Lighting the cig, she inhaled deeply, filling her lungs. It felt like the first deep breath she'd allowed herself in days. The amber heater glowed like a sparkler against the black canvas of the room. She resisted the temptation to write her name like a child. The acrid smoke spiced the air between them, offensive to anyone that didn't crave nicotine and the instant comfort it provided. She could see him curiously staring at her, even in the dim light. It was unnerving. "I really can't share that with you, Joy. It's unethical and breeches confidentiality." "Sure you can. I won't tell anyone." She wanted to know. "Seriously, no. Let's not ruin the night." "Curious," Joy spat, "Is it also unethical to fuck your dead client's—" "Yes," he interrupted, cutting her off. Probably a good thing. She was being a bitch, and she knew it. "I don't make a habit of it. I shouldn't have let things get this far, but I like you." In all fairness, she did not want to be alone that night and had come on very strong. She was desperate for comfort, but sex was good enough. She would take what she could get. A therapist or not, Dan was also just a man. Joy knew her way around male egos—and their libidos. She wasn't a woman men turned down, especially since becoming a reality show darling. At least she had yet to meet one who did. He handed her back the half-empty cup. Then, taking one last haul of her cigarette, she dropped it into the liquid, satisfied by the sizzle it offered before dying at the bottom of the glass. "I bet you think you know a lot about me, don't you?" she asked, no longer hiding her impatience. "Not really." "I bet you were curious about me, had to see for yourself if the stories were true...if I'm as bat shit crazy as you were told." She could feel her anger rising, the insatiable, uncontrollable, unreasonable demon that fed off the discomfort of others. She hated that side of herself, but sometimes it was the only way to feel better, making others feel crazy too, poking them, agitating them, whittling out their anger. Then, when they finally got pissed off, it justified her self-loathing. Did she mention how fucked up she was? "I'm guessing this is your kink, Dan. Probably not your first time." "I should go. You're tired and emotional, understandably. I'm sorry. I should have been more sensitive. This is a terrible time for you." "You think so? Given everything Alex told you about me?" "I don't think it was as bad as you're imagining," he said, reaching for her hand. Joy pulled away, not interested in being placated. "Okay, how bad was it?" She was baiting him. "Bad is not the right word. Don't be so hard on your mother. She's been through things you know nothing about—" his words dropped as though he’d said too much. After a brief pause, he added, "I think you worry too much." She was getting to him. "I think I worry the perfect amount," she announced flatly, annoyed with the conversation. "What else do you think about me, Dan?" "Honestly? I think you hide behind sex and sarcasm to avoid any form of real intimacy." Laughter covered her shame. "Wow, one blow job, and you think you know a girl. Impressive." Dan rolled the covers back, sliding to the bottom of the bed, anxious to take his leave. "I made a mistake," he said, searching for his clothes. Joy flipped on the light, so he could see his mistake more clearly. She made no move to help him, immensely enjoying his discomfort. What kind of asshole picked up a woman at her mother's funeral anyway? Pulling on his pants, he said, "To be clear, Joy, I had no expectations that any of this would happen." "That's funny; I knew it would." She watched him dress, both of them silent, pressing through the moment's weight. There was more she wanted to say, but it wouldn't serve either of them. She'd made her point. It was messy closure, but closure nonetheless. Retrieving his suit jacket, he rolled up his tie and placed it in the inside pocket before slipping it on. Put back together, he looked no worse for wear, aside from regret dragging down the corners of his mouth. "I'm going." Approaching her, he patted his pockets. "Will you be okay?" He was searching for something. Pulling out his wallet, he handed her a business card. Was he offering his phone number? Did he want to see her again? After all that? Crossing her arms, Joy hid her surprise, her heart beating faster inside her chest. "Please, take the card, Joy," Dan insisted, sounding more like a therapist and less like a man she'd just seen naked. "Really?" she smirked. "You want me to call you? Can't resist my charms?" "It's a colleague. She's a specialized therapist, grief counselling," he said, gently waving it before her. Staring at the card, Joy hesitated, unsure how to respond. Shame churned beneath her ribs, mocking her, reminding her she wasn't good enough, that she'd never been good enough. "Take it," he repeated gently, compassionately. Dangerously close to sobbing, Joy could barely swallow past the knob in her throat. That was unacceptable. "Get the fuck out, Dan," she said quietly, sliding under the covers. Rolling over, she turned her back to him, eyes closed as though nothing mattered, not him, not the sex, not his bullshit compassion. "Joy, the door that releases you from all that suffering…it isn't locked—" "Gee, thank-you fortune cookie," she scoffed, refusing to look at him. His footsteps clapped towards the bedroom door, applauding his exit. Only after he closed the door behind him did Joy allow herself to cry.