Oven time required: twenty minutes. Candler washed the mixing bowl and sponged off the counter before heading for the shower. The year was 2008, the month April. James Candler was thirty-three years old. He was a little paunchy, but he didn't even own a scale. Women were attracted to him. He was liked at his job and had friends dating back to high school. If the rumors flying around the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center were true, he would soon be¬come the youngest director in its history. This fact pleased him and worried him and would contribute to his undoing.
Lise Ray had just turned twenty-seven. She was an only child. After some years of estrangement, she was close to her parents. By means of an online social network she had reconnected with friends from high school, all of whom were married, still in Missouri, saddled with demanding children and husbands bent on disappointing them. They openly envied her freedom and referred to California as if it were a supernatural realm. Lise had constructed this life out of the tundra of her previous life. Every day she let herself feel astounded to be free of that old life.
Down the hall of Candler's oversized house, a friend whose mar¬riage had failed slept fitfully, having sought out Candler in his time of need. One of his clientsa schizophrenic boy as fragile as a whisper had revealed that he was in love with another of Candler's clients, a beautiful and damaged girl who, Candler suspected, was living with a man. What to do? What to do? He was facing a controversial promotion, could not afford his combined house and car payments, hardly knew the woman he was engaged to marry, could barely keep up with his clients' complicated lives, and had just signed on for his fourth credit card. Tick tock, his head was rocking. He wiped down the shower stall and sprayed it with cleanser. He squeegeed the shower door. The more uncertain his mental state, the cleaner his bathroom.
Candler was the only man in his office who didn't just stop at the Donut Hole and grab a box of the glazed when it was his turn to supply the goodies. The women in the office baked their own: berry-stuffed muffins, pastries with patterns of icing that changed color and design according to the season, and on one occasion, Kata technician on the evaluation floor and Candler's sometime loverbrought homemade baklava, the crust as delicate as the eyelids of exotic birds. Candler made a point of matching their efforts. Or at least approximating them. After one wretched attempt at baking from scratcha doomed and debasing carrot cakehe resorted to boxed products. (The miserable cake had never solidified, a brown mush that sloshed in the Pyrex bowl like an aquarium model of a sewer.)
How Elizabeth Ray first met James Candler was a story she had told a thousand times, but only to herself. Candler did not know the story. It was only a story from her point of view. There once was a girl with two heads, she might begin, plagiarizing her nightmare, and the stupid head had taken charge. Usually she was in bed, the room dark, and she could not sleep. She never began with the same sentence. There once was a girl who aided the gruesome monsters in her own abduction and then volunteered her body for their grotesque experiments. She had grown up reading science fiction, which colored her narratives, but the es¬sential plot was always the same: the blind girl in the forced labor camp is not only freed but made to see, the bump-n-grind slave girl in a society that has discovered how to turn sex into electrical power is whisked away in a forbidden non-sex-fueled vehicle whose fearless driver detours to let her see the darkened windows of her former master's house. And so on. Bad movie plots for the kinds of bad movies that had never cast her, in all those years, not even as an extra.
Candler dressed himself in a gray suit and blue tie. No one else in his office wore a suit to work. One of the perks of living in Southern California, Clay Hao had told him, no costume required. Hao was the senior counselor in their officetheir pod, according to the Center's guidebook. Candler's pod had four counselors, three techs, and a secretary. The Center had a total of eight pods. Of the thirty-two counselors and eight psychologists eligible to apply for the position of director, twenty-seven had more seniority than Candler. Yet he had accelerated past all of them.
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