“Don’t even think such a thing.”
Clara actually looked frightened, as though saying a thing made it more likely to happen, as though whatever God she believed in worked like that. But Myrna knew neither Clara’s God nor hers was so chaotic and petty they needed or heeded such ridiculous suggestions.
“If it was me,” Myrna continued, “you’d care.”
“Oh, God, I’d never recover.”
“These papers wouldn’t matter,” said Myrna.
“Not at all. Never.”
“If it was Gabri or Peter or Ruth—”
Both women paused. It might have been a step too far.
“—anyway,” Myrna continued. “If it was even a complete stranger you’d have cared.”
“But Lillian wasn’t a stranger.”
“I wish she had been,” admitted Clara, quietly. “I wish I’d never met her.”
“What was she?” Myrna asked. She’d heard the broad strokes, but now she wanted to hear the details.
And Clara told her everything. About the young Lillian, about the teenage Lillian. About the woman in her twenties. As she got further into the story Clara’s voice dropped and dragged, lugging the words along.
And then she stopped, and Myrna was silent for a moment, staring at her friend.
“She sounds like an emotional vampire,” said Myrna, at last.
“I ran into quite a few in my practice. People who sucked others dry. We all know them. We’re in their company and come away drained, for no apparent reason.”
Clara nodded. She did know a few, though no one in Three Pines. Not even Ruth. She only drained their liquor cabinet. But Clara, oddly, always felt refreshed, invigorated after a visit with the demented old poet.
But there were others who just sucked the life right out of her.
Lillian was one.
“But it wasn’t always like that,” said Clara, trying to be fair. “She was a friend once.”
“That’s often the way too,” nodded Myrna. “The frog in the frying pan.”
Clara wasn’t at all sure how to respond to that. Were they still talking about Lillian, or had they somehow veered into some French cooking show?
“Do you mean the emotional vampire in the frying pan?” asked Clara, uttering a sentence she was pretty sure had never been said by another human. Or at least, she hoped not.
Myrna laughed and sitting back in her armchair she raised her legs onto the hassock.
“No, little one. Lillian’s the emotional vampire. You’re the frog.”
“Sounds like a rejected Grimm’s fairy tale. ‘The Frog and the Emotional Vampire.’”
Both women paused for a moment, imagining the illustrations.
Myrna came back to her senses first.
“The frog in the frying pan is a psychological term, a phenomenon,” she said. “If you stick a frog into a sizzling hot frying pan what’ll it do?”
“Jump out?” suggested Clara.
“Jump out. But if you put one into a pan at room temperature then slowly raise the heat, what happens?”
Clara thought about it. “It’ll jump out when it gets too hot?”
Myrna shook her head. “No.” She took her feet off the hassock and leaned forward again, her eyes intense. “The frog just sits there. It gets hotter and hotter but it never moves. It adjusts and adjusts. Never leaves.”
“Never?” asked Clara, quietly.
“Never. It stays there until it dies.”
Clara look a long, slow, deep breath, then exhaled.
“I saw it with my clients who’d been abused either physically or emotionally. The relationship never starts with a fist to the face, or an insult. If it did there’d be no second date. It always starts gently. Kindly. The other person draws you in. To trust them. To need them. And then they slowly turn. Little by little, increasing the heat. Until you’re trapped.”
“But Lillian wasn’t a lover, or a husband. She was just a friend.”
“Friends can be abusive. Friendships can turn, become foul,” said Myrna. “She fed on your gratitude. Fed on your insecurities, on your love for her. But you did something she never expected.”
“You stood up for yourself. For your art. You left. And she hated you for it.”
“But then why’d she come here?” asked Clara. “I haven’t seen her in more than twenty years. Why’d she come back? What did she want?”