I, Robot: To Protect Book 1, page 15
“Right,” Cody confirmed, though Susan doubted he had given it much thought. A common failing of doctors was to grossly overestimate residents’ time and the comparative importance of their own pet projects.
Susan found her gaze gliding back to the lockbox holding the precious liquid she would soon inject into a patient’s spinal fluid. Nanorobots. It seemed the stuff of science fiction. If the experiment worked, she could think of so many uses: identifying cancer cells and, eventually, selectively obliterating them; assisting or enhancing white blood cells in patients with immune system problems; finding imbalances in every cell of the human body. Her mind boggled at the possibilities, limited only by human imagination and programming skills. Nanorobots. Susan made a mental note to corner her father and make him tell her everything he knew about robotics.
Susan downplayed the Goldman and Peters study, not wishing to create more distance between herself and her envious colleagues. She used techniques well learned from her father to make the whole thing sound more like tedious busywork than the chance to become a part of research history. That her part was relatively small made it easier.
Susan found herself dreading the obligatory meeting with Sharicka Anson’s parents. She had nothing truly positive to report. In fact, nothing had changed. Susan had not even experimented with the little girl’s medications, as previous physicians already had her on a maximized regimen. Susan also doubted any of those drugs truly mattered. Sharicka had no interest in or intention of changing.
Keyed through one of the doors, Susan headed toward the conference rooms that branched off the hallway between the two sets of locked doors. Only one was occupied. A tall, slender man paced around the table, while a woman sat with her face buried in her hands. As she entered, the man took a seat directly beside the woman. His thinning hair had turned mostly gray, with only a sprinkling of his original jet-black locks. He had soft green-gray eyes that seemed older than his years and a face the same perfect oval as Remington’s. As Susan entered, the woman looked up. She had longish brown hair that would have seemed dyed if not for the smattering of white hairs in the very front. She had a long narrow face, pale eyes, and generous lips.
“Hello,” Susan said. “You must be the Ansons.”
The man nodded wearily. “Doctors Elliot and Lucianne Anson. And you must be Sharicka’s new resident.”
“Dr. Susan Calvin,” she said, taking a seat directly across from Sharicka’s parents.
“Let me guess,” the mother said, with just a hint of venom. “Sharicka is a sweet little girl, and you can’t imagine she’s capable of the heinous acts we accuse her of. You’d take her home, if you could.”
Susan swallowed hard. She wondered how many people had spoken those words. “To the contrary, Doctors Anson. I’ve witnessed more than enough of Sharicka’s deliberate cruelty to thank God she’s not my daughter.”
The parents’ faces brightened, and their full attention went to Susan.
It seemed the height of bad parenting for them to take pleasure in someone saying terrible things about their child, yet Susan understood their relief. Sharicka had probably terrorized them, and their family, until it shook their parental instincts to their core. Social workers, nurses, and even some physicians who ought to know better fell easy victims to Sharicka’s superficial charms. It was so much easier to blame the parents than to believe a child capable of such evil. Susan remembered what she had told Kendall about putting the cards on the table. Sharicka’s parents needed the truth.
“Sharicka has what we call juvenile conduct disorder.”
The parents nodded. They had heard the term applied before.
“Do you know what that means?”
Elliot cleared his throat. “We have a reasonable understanding. I have my PhD in social work. My wife’s is in childhood special education.”
Susan had not known those details. “So you have a professional understanding of the term?” She did not wish to offend them by over-or underexplaining.
Lucianne shook her head. “We have experience with a lot of childhood disabilities, but neither of us has specific psychiatric knowledge. We’ve looked it up, but the books at the parental level seem too cautious and nonspecific. The technical journals go over our heads. What is the long-term prognosis for Sharicka? We’re sick to death of pussyfooting.”
Susan took them at their word. “Conduct disorder in children is rarely diagnosed because it’s considered a permanent label. It’s reserved for the most intractable cases.”
As the parents did not seem put off by that revelation, Susan continued. “About five percent of children get the ADHD diagnosis at some point in their lives, and about a third of those carry it into adulthood. Of the five percent with ADHD, about twenty percent are diagnosed as also having oppositional defiant disorder or ODD.” She pronounced each letter separately. “About half of those with ODD go on to have serious adult psychopathology. When it comes to conduct disorder, however, it’s one hundred percent. That’s why psychiatrists hesitate to ever place that diagnosis on a child, particularly before the teen years.” She allowed that revelation a moment to sink in. “The younger the individual is when conduct disorder is diagnosed, the worse the prognosis.”
Lucianne nodded repeatedly before finally speaking. “So Sharicka’s prognosis is poor.”
“Yes,” Susan admitted. “May I be brutally honest?”
“Please,” the father said quickly.
Susan wondered just how offensive her words would sound. “I would never ‘give up’ on a child, especially one so young. However, given her current level of treatment and response, I worry about Sharicka. Until she decides to cooperate with her treatment, and the right combination of medications is found, it’s only a matter of time before she kills someone, probably before the age of eighteen.”
The mother stiffened but showed no other signs of agitation. “Depends on how you define ‘kill.’”
Susan did not understand. “What do you mean?”
Though the mother had raised the issue, the father explained. “We noticed from a very young age that Sharicka had a cruel streak. She has two older, nonbiological siblings, whom we also adopted; and we also had younger children in our home through foster care. It started as constant tears and bickering. Then, our oldest began locking his bedroom door at night or crawling into our bed with a score of sudden fears. Mysterious wounds and bruises on the fosters brought us into the spotlight.”
A light sparked in the mother’s eyes, actual anger. “We had fostered for longer than a decade, without ever using any type of physical discipline. We actually published a book on firm but gentle child rearing. We were considered experts. Then, suddenly, we were being accused of abuse. Us!”
Elliot hushed his wife with a wave. The topic, and the rage it sparked, had probably not served them well in the past. “It was Lucianne’s mother who noticed it first, Sharicka’s grandmother. She had always loved all our children unconditionally, but she admitted one night to disliking Sharicka because ‘that little girl is just mean.’”
Lucianne took up the story again, “So we started watching Sharicka, and my mother was right. Wherever we took her, someone got hurt. Playgrounds were the worst, especially if they had solid plastic crawling tunnels, where the insides were essentially invisible. She had no compunction about harming strangers. She seemed to target older children, whose parents found it difficult to become irate about the behavior of a toddler, even when it hurt their own child. Some of the fathers came down hard on their own kids instead of us.”
Mean. Susan became stuck on the word. It was short, simple, and vividly descriptive of Sharicka Anson. “She’s quite smart for her age, isn’t she?”
“Brilliant.” Lucianne managed a wry smile. “We used to take such great pride in that; but now it seems her downfall, because she’s capable of plans far more cunning than her age would suggest.”
Elliot added, “She’s also subtle. If someone
The parents looked at each other and winced before he continued. “But the problem went on long after she beat the dog to death. She was three years old.”
Tears filled Lucianne’s eyes. “We all loved that dog. Even Sharicka, we thought. She can disappear in a heartbeat. By the time we found her behind the garage, the deed was nearly done. It was the first time we ever spanked her; it’s hard to argue that capital punishment might teach violence to someone who just slaughtered a beloved pet. Sharicka hollered bloody murder. She never could tell us why she did it, never showed a hint of remorse. And the misplaced urination continued.”
Elliot clearly wanted to end the discussion, but not without making a few more important points. “Once, we got an incident report from the day care center that our current foster child, just learning to walk, had tumbled down a flight of concrete steps. It was weeks before one of the young women finally told us Sharicka had offered to help her brother down the stairs, then shoved him. The worker claimed the reason she didn’t tell us was because she thought we had a bias against Sharicka, and this moron of a girl felt all Sharicka needed was ‘someone to love her.’”
Lucianne fairly growled. “What an ungodly, offensive thing to say. No one, no one, could have loved that little girl more than we did. She is our daughter, and we have stood by her through things most parents could never comprehend.”
Her husband took her arm, squeezing warningly. Clearly, this was a familiar tirade that could result only in wasted emotion. Rehashing past offenses would not help the current situation. “Lucianne …”
The father continued, finally getting to the issue that had raised the sudden outpouring of information. “After killing the dog, Sharicka developed an obsession with death, constantly asking questions about it. What was it like? What happened afterward? What kinds of things could kill people? After a visit to Florida, she focused on drowning. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised us when Sharicka nearly succeeded in drowning her older sister in a bucket of water.”
Susan’s nostrils flared. “How old was this sister?” She had not known about this incident.
Now, Lucianne’s eyes blurred completely. She rose from her seat, unconsciously, and started to pace.
“Misty is nine. She took Sharicka for a walk, trying to be a good big sister. Sharicka seemed absolutely thrilled. Usually, her older siblings don’t have a lot to do with her.” The father watched his wife walk; but, as she made no move to stop him, he went on. “After a bit, I thought I’d better check on them. I found them at a neighbor’s house, and I heard splashing. Then I caught up to them. Sharicka was holding her sister’s head in a bucket of water. Misty was thrashing wildly, but Sharicka is stronger than she seems, and …” Now, tears filled his eyes, too. “I stopped it immediately, but Misty fell unconscious … and … and …” He started sobbing too hard to continue speaking.
Lucianne stopped, placed her hands firmly on the back of her chair, and finished for him. “You’ve heard of near drowning, I presume.”
Susan nodded, fingers knotting of their own accord. Technically, anyone who survived at least twenty-four hours after submersion was considered a near drowning, even if he expired at twenty-six hours. “She survived?” Susan asked hopefully.
The mother bit her lip. “It was touch and go. Three months in the hospital, now in physical therapy. She’s not the same clever, sweet girl who gallantly offered to take her little sister for a walk.”
Elliot finally found his voice again. “Misty remembers nothing. I’d probably be in jail right now if Sharicka hadn’t admitted to everything. Proudly, I might add.” He shook his head. “I think most people still secretly believe I tried to kill my daughter and Sharicka just took the blame to save me.
“Sharicka was admitted here then, but they only kept her two weeks. Said she was a model patient, and they used the word ‘alleged’ a lot, especially when it came to the near drowning.” The father shook his head. “On the drive home from discharge, she punched and kicked her older brother, flung toys at us, went into a swearing fit, kicked the back of my seat until I nearly crashed the car, and refused to stay in her booster. We managed to get her off to bed, then ourselves. We were awakened at three a. m. to anguished screams from her brother. When we ran downstairs, she was standing over his bed hitting him with a baseball bat. We brought her back immediately.”
Susan guessed, “And she’s been here since.”
“No.” Lucianne retook her seat. “She stayed another two weeks. Then, they sent her to a so-called professional foster home, where she attempted to strangle a thirteen-year-old autistic child.”
Susan remembered reading about that. She also saw places in the chart where physicians had recorded an extremely abbreviated version of Sharicka’s home-based crimes, always preceded by “her adoptive parents report ….” The near drowning seemed easy enough to check on, had anyone bothered. Susan made a mental note to do so. “What do you know about Sharicka’s birth parents?”
The parents exchanged looks filled with meaning. Elliott explained. “Recently, we hired a private detective and learned that little of the information the adoption agency gave us was true, and they withheld a lot.”
Lucianne opened a large purse and removed a manila envelope. “Sharicka’s biological father is serving a life sentence for murder. Her birth mother has a long criminal record, too, mostly for identity thefts, drugs, brawling, and credit card fraud.”
Susan nodded thoughtfully. Many articles demonstrated that diagnoses of dangerous social deviancy tended to run in families. Workers in the social field played up the environmental role, that children raised with abuse tended to become socio-or psychopathic. However, adoption and foster studies showed no less of a trend in biological children of dangerous criminals brought up in positive environments. Clearly, psychopathology could be inherited, an unsettling fact often downplayed.
So caught up in her thoughts, Susan would have missed the next utterance had it not fully captured her attention.
“You can see it in her eyes.”
The parents spoke simultaneously, clearly unrehearsed. She had never seen two people so honestly, so innocently stunned by what the other had said.
“You noticed it, too?” Lucianne asked her husband.
“Can’t miss it,” Elliot replied. “Though I thought maybe I was seeing things. The eyes of a —” He caught himself, flushed, and turned to Susan. “You must think we’re crazy.”
Susan knew some relief of her own. “I don’t like to use the word ‘crazy,’ for obvious reasons. But, no. I truly think you’re good parents doing your best with a child hardwired for …” “Evil” came to mind, but Susan discarded it as extremely unprofessional. “Sociopathy,” she finished. She had to confess her observations. “I saw those eyes. I know exactly what you’re talking about, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed them.”
Lucianne breathed a loud sigh. “So it’s not all in my head?”
Elliot reassured her. “Not unless we share the same head.”
Susan suppressed a shiver and changed the subject, “So, what can I do for you? What do you want to accomplish during this hospitalization?”
The parents exchanged another look. This, they had clearly discussed in detail. “Can you fix her?” the father asked softly. “Is there any medication, any therapy that can turn Sharicka into a normal child?”
Susan knew no one could do such a thing. “Not normal, no. No more than we could regrow an amputated leg. There are some things medical science still can’t cure. We can only attempt to control it with therapy, medication, accommodations, and training. Most importantly, she has to want help.”
Susan could read the mother’s eyes nearly as well as the child’s, though they appeared so much different. In Lucianne’s she read pain, love, desperation, and uncertainty as clearly as a billboard. This was a woman in agony, forced to choose between her love for one child and the safety of her others. Despite all that had happened, she still prized all of her children. Susan started to speak, but Elliot interrupted.
“Please don’t say, ‘It’s not my decision; it’s yours.’ Or, if you must do that, at least educate us enough to make a choice.”
Lucianne spoke before Susan could. “So far, the doctors just seem to want to get her controlled enough that we’ll take her home, deal with any consequences, and see what happens. Meanwhile, we want some guarantee that, if we take her home, she won’t just make our lives miserable until she’s finally old enough and strong enough to kill us. Can we work toward that?”
Susan sighed. “The problem is medicine isn’t an exact science, especially psychiatry. It makes sense that the last medical frontier would be the human brain. There are no guarantees; and, even if you gave us a list of what you could and could not tolerate, we have no treatments that would specifically control those exact problems.” Susan’s own words sparked realization. “If we could, everyone would use those medications, and we could selectively eliminate all negative behaviors and habits in everyone.”
Lucianne dropped her face into her hands. Her husband gave his full attention to Susan. “Understood, Dr. Calvin. We’re not asking for absolutes; better odds will do.”
Susan could not help smiling. Despite the seriousness of the discussion, the words were a small attempt at humor. The significance of her next words, however, dispelled all amusement. “Doctors Anson, there is no doubt psychopathology is hardwired. There are definite, proven defects in the chemical makeup of the brain, the neurological response of the brain to certain stimuli, and underactivity of important portions of the brain related to such things as impulse control, empathy, and higher function, such as love and caring. Unfortunately, those abnormalities vary from psychopath to psychopath.”
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