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The Human Capacity

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“And the nightmares? Are you still experiencing them?”

“No.” Jennifer looked straight into the therapist’s eyes as she answered, gaze steady and sure. She knew how to lie; she’d always been a good liar, though she’d always thought it was a skill she’d reserve for her writing career. Then again, until that week in Connecticut she’d assumed that most people were good. That turned out to be a lie too.

The uproar after her trial was based on another lie. She was called a murderer and a whore, mainly spurred by the fact that the newspapers and television kept saying she’d ‘gotten off scot-free’. Court-ordered therapy in an inpatient facility didn’t feel like scot-free to her, but it turned out the truth wasn’t interesting enough to make the papers.

Jennifer spent months in prison waiting for her trial to begin, and the hospital where they sent her after her sentencing didn’t feel any different than prison. There was the mandated therapy, of course, one on one at first and then later in groups of other patients. She still met with her main counselor once a week, though, and nearly a year from the time she’d been sentenced, she’d finally learned enough about what lies they wanted to hear to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“Well, you’ve made remarkable progress,” her therapist was saying, glancing up from whatever he was writing to flash one of his infuriating, enigmatic smiles. “Have you given any thought to your next steps?”

Jennifer shrugged and looked away, out the window that looked out over the hospital grounds. The sky was a clear, bright blue, sun shining high above and she knew if she walked out into the open air it would feel the same on her skin as it had all those months ago, in another summer spent in a cabin by a lake.

Her stomach turned at the memory and she tamped down on the feeling, turning back to look her doctor in the eye. “Next steps?”

“You’ll need a plan, before you’re released. Partly because the court requires it, and partly because your chances of a successful reintegration are far better with a plan in place.”

It wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation. He’d asked her before, leading questions about how she thought she might ‘contribute to society’ going forward. As though that was just another part of her penance, finding some way to be useful in the world instead of just surviving.

Jennifer shrugged again, but she managed a small smile this time, even if it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’d like to start writing again. Never did get around to finishing that novel.”

The doctor nodded, eyes on the notepad in front of him as he jotted something down. Probably outlining her ‘plan’ so he could report back to the court and assure them she wasn’t still a danger to society. The thought made a bitter laugh bubble up in her throat, but she pushed it down and looked away, back toward the window and the perfect day outside.

“Any other plans? Reaching out to family, perhaps?”

She hadn’t had that much contact with her family before all this happened, and in the time she’d been in the hospital, she’d only gotten a couple short letters from her mother. They were filled with news of her hometown upstate, names of people she hadn’t spoken to in years, not since she’d moved to the city. Her mother never mentioned the trial or what happened after. Jennifer didn’t bother to write back.

“Maybe. My parents are in Syracuse,” she offered, because she knew that’s what her doctor wanted to hear.

He nodded and jotted down another note. She wondered if he’d tell the court that she was planning to go stay with her parents for a while after her release. She wasn’t, but if it made him feel better to write it down, she wasn’t going to set him straight.

“So, writing and touching base with your parents.”

Jennifer nodded slowly and cast one last glance out the window. “I’ve been thinking about volunteering too.”

***

She'd been a little worried, when she first brought up the idea of volunteering at a women's crisis center, that her doctor would see through her. That he'd think it was a step too far, or maybe that she was saying it because she thought it was what he'd want to hear. Or maybe that he'd veto it altogether, tell her it was a bad idea to keep reminding herself of her own trauma by dealing with the trauma other women were going through.

But he seemed to think it was a good idea, a sign that she was accepting what happened to her and the mistakes she'd made in dealing with the aftermath. As though volunteering at a shelter was somehow a sign that she recognized herself as a murderer and regretted what she'd done.

Another lie she could live with, if it meant the doctors and the courts would finally declare her stable enough to get on with it. She was a little surprised to find a list of volunteer opportunities in the city among her release papers, tucked under the reminders about her appointment with a court-appointed therapist and information about a survivor's group she'd probably never go to. Jennifer tucked it all away in her bag and got into the cab they called for her, then she looked out the window and didn't speak to the driver once.

He dropped her off in Brooklyn, at the address of one of the women's shelters on her list. Jennifer handed over the cab fare they'd given her at the hospital and let herself out, bag gripped tight in one hand as she stared up at the brick building that housed women like her. Women whose lives had been pulled out from under them whether they liked it or not, by husbands or boyfriends or, in Jennifer's case, complete strangers.

The memories rippled to the surface and she forced them back down, brushing away the phantom hands on her arms and breasts. When she caught her breath she forced her shoulders back, then she willed her legs to carry her forward, past a sitting area with second hand couches to a reception desk that had seen better days.

"Can I help you?" the woman behind the counter asked when she glanced up to find Jennifer standing there, long hair pulled back into a sensible bun and probably looking like she belonged anywhere but here.

"I think there's a room reserved for me," Jennifer answered, and she tried not to glance back toward the door, but she found herself looking anyway. Her fingers started to shake as she gave her name, and she dropped them to her sides and curled her hands into tight fists. She'd never let herself feel like a victim, not when she took justice into her own hands, and not when she'd turned herself in afterwards. She didn't let herself feel like a victim while she stood in court and recounted each rape, over and over in so much detail the jury could barely look at her, and she didn't let herself be a victim while she was in the hospital doing penance for making sure she'd never feel like a victim again.

But something about this place, with its worn second-hand furniture and its beaten-down feel, made her more tired than she'd been in a long time. This wasn't how she wanted to feel, wasn't how she wanted to restart her life. There was nowhere else to go, though; her apartment was long gone, and the little savings she'd had went to renting the cabin in Connecticut for a summer she didn't spend writing the novel she'd been planning for so long.

There was nowhere else to go, so she let the woman behind the counter lead her into a small office with a lock on the door, then did her best to listen to the rules and what was expected of her while she lived there. Home before dark, no guests in the rooms -- male or female -- and no drinking period. Nothing she hadn't expected, and nothing she couldn't live with. She missed wine, but she'd lived without it for this long. It wouldn't kill her to keep living without it; there was nothing she couldn't stand, not after what she'd already survived.

***

It took Jennifer six months to save up enough for a security deposit on a new apartment. Six months of living in a small, white room, sleeping on a narrow bed and willing herself not to flinch at every slammed door and loud voice in the hallway.

Still, she knew how lucky she was. Several of the women she'd met at the shelter had been there for years, and most of them didn't have any real skills to fall back on. The common thread in their lives was that they'd been kept isolated from the world by the very people who were supposed to love them, and once they finally got out, they had no idea how to move forward.

Jennifer, at least, still had contacts in the freelance world, and writing under a pen name meant she didn't have to deal with the stigma that went along with her very public trial. She couldn't replace her typewriter right away, didn't even know what had happened to the one she'd carted all the way to Connecticut with her. But the shelter had an old typewriter tucked back in the corner of one of the common rooms, mainly for use filling out job applications and government forms.

It worked well enough to get her career more or less back on track, even if it wasn't private enough to focus on a novel. As soon as she could afford a second-hand typewriter of her own she started working in her tiny room, perched on the edge of the bed while the bedside table acted as a makeshift desk.

Even then she didn't start on her novel, though. She told herself it was better to concentrate on freelance work until she could afford a place of her own again, until she could get some stability back in her life. Until she could feel like a normal person again.

It worked, for a while. Surrounded by the other women in the shelter, it was easy for Jennifer to feel like the well-adjusted one. She had a career, a light at the end of what felt like a long, long tunnel, and they all knew her time with them had an expiration date.

She wasn't sure how word of who she actually was got around. Jennifer was careful never to tell anyone her full name, and whenever the other women got comfortable enough to tell each other their stories, she always said as little as possible and found a way to escape back to her room and her typewriter.

Still, her face had been splashed all over the papers for weeks, so it was possible someone recognized her, even though it had been a long time since her trial. In a lot of ways it felt like another lifetime ago, like the person she was before that trip to Connecticut was someone she wouldn't even know if she met them now.

The person who lived in a dingy white shoe box and sat on the edge of a cheap mattress to write was someone none of her old friends would recognize. This new Jennifer didn't smile at strangers anymore -- barely made eye contact when she was forced out into the city for therapy or trips to the drugstore -- and she definitely wasn't meeting girlfriends for brunch of leaving bars too late without worrying about who might follow her out.

But she was still here, and that was enough. It meant something, to her and to all the other women she lived with, even if the people from her old life would never understand.

***

Her new apartment was all dark wood and fresh paint, tall windows to let in the light and triple locks on her door. Her typewriter sat on a second hand dining room table instead of next to her bed, and she sat in a real chair while she worked instead of on the edge of a cheap mattress.

The sounds were different in her apartment building than they'd been at the shelter, more muted through the thicker doors and insulated walls. But she still flinched at every one, still laid awake at night listening to the quiet and the sound of her own breathing, still got back out of bed nearly every night to double check that the windows were locked tight.

It took Jennifer a month to go back to the shelter and sign up as a volunteer.

"Of course," Sharon behind the counter said when Jennifer turned up again, smiling as though she wasn't surprised at all. "We're so happy to have you."

She still went to all her therapy appointments, still said all the things she knew her therapist wanted to hear. She talked about her writing and her volunteering, talked about the women she'd met at the shelter and said all the right things about wanting to help, to pay back the help that had been given to her.

"It's a sign of healing," her therapist said while wearing the same enigmatic smile as the doctor back at the hospital had worn. Jennifer smiled back and didn't think about scratching it off her face.

But she kept showing up at the shelter, chatting with the women she'd known for nearly a year now and carefully filling out the new intake paperwork any time a new arrival turned up looking for help. She took in the bruises and the defeated looks, the lack of eye contact but the defiance just under the surface, showing the fight that hadn't been beaten out of them completely.

The first one to approach her was a surprise. Jennifer had been there to do her intake paperwork, had leaned forward across the desk and strained to catch her words when she answered all Jennifer's questions in a timid whisper. The dark, angry hand prints around her neck told Jennifer everything she needed to know.

So it was a surprise when she was the one to slide into the office the next time Jennifer was on duty, staring down at the floor for a few long moments before she looked up and fixed Jennifer with a hard stare.

"I know who you are."

Jennifer didn't have to ask what she meant. It was possible one of the other women had told her, or she'd recognized Jennifer on her own. Either way it didn't really matter, because Jennifer wasn't going to deny it. Instead she nodded and folded her hands in front of her, then she waited for Rita to say whatever was on her mind.

"How did you get away with it?"

Jennifer blinked, clenched her hands together a little tighter, because she hadn't gotten away with anything. She knew that's what everyone believed, though, and nothing she said would change anyone's mind. A year in a psychiatric hospital probably seemed like a small price to pay for committing four murders, after all, even if every one of her victims had deserved it and more.

"He'll never let me go," Rita said, fingers coming up to brush the edge of the bruise on her neck where it had faded to a sickly looking yellow. "No matter how far I run, he'll keep coming for me."

"You're safe here," Jennifer said, even though she didn't believe it. They all knew better, because they'd all tried to convince themselves they were safe at some point in their lives, only to be caught again.

"I'll never be safe," Rita answered, voice going soft the way it had been that first day. Then she swallowed and looked up again, and her voice was harder this time. "Not until he's gone."

Jennifer glanced toward the door automatically, then she stood up and closed it slowly. When she was done she turned back around, leaning against the desk instead of sitting behind it. "I didn't just walk away from it. I spent over a year in a psychiatric hospital. And months in jail before that."

"But you're out now," Rita pressed, reaching out with one hand before she thought better of it and pulled it back into her lap. "Just tell me how."

Jennifer shrugged, looked away and wondered how many times she'd have this conversation from now on. "I guess the first step was believing I didn't do anything wrong."

"You didn't," Rita said, an edge in her voice now, fierce and determined, leaning forward in her chair as though she was waiting for the next part of Jennifer's story. The next hint of how she'd managed to avoid a life behind bars, in spite of what she'd done.

Jennifer had never been able to feel guilty about it, no matter how hard the doctors and lawyers tried to make her. She went to therapy and said all the right words, she volunteered at the shelter and put on a reassuring smile for the women who came in looked as haunted as she'd felt in the beginning. But she'd never be sorry about what she'd done, and maybe some of the women in the shelter could understand that. Maybe they just needed to learn the right words to do what was needed in order to take their lives back too.

That was something Jennifer could give them. After all, she'd always been a good liar.