May is Mental Health Awareness Month! I wanted to devote The Writing Desk towards that effort all month long, including Friday Fiction, and Veniamin Kovalenko Werebear Detective is a perfect candidate for this. Venia comes from a long line of werebears who traveled from their home country of Russia to Sitka, AK and finally to center-west California. Like most immigrants, the Kovalenko clan considers itself part of the state’s foundation and in a way they’re right. However — like their human immigrant counterparts — they also caused great harm to California’s native population with its displacement.
The Kovalenkos have a complicated relationship with the state they love so dearly. California reveres bears as its symbol, but at the same time most would rather see them on the flag, a picturesque postcard or as a rug in a cabin. Interactions between bears and humans rarely go well, and Venia learned that lesson the hard way at an early age when an uncle got a bit too drunk and shifted during a fight; he killed two people before forest rangers put him down. The trauma of that experience set Venia’s course — first, as a supernatural ‘fixer’ and then ultimately as a private detective.
In our Dresden Files game, I played Venia as someone with limited intelligence who was just trying to do the right thing. However, unresolved anger, anxiety and depression warped his perspective more often than not and made him an enjoyably hot mess to play. There was a run of sessions based in Sitka where he learned the town’s long-time residents treated his family like local royalty, and it was interesting to note how…unnerved Venia felt by the experience of being not only accepted, but embraced for who (and what) he truly is.
Venia usually hated authority figures, and over the course of the game he had built quite a file for himself with local law enforcement. At one point he was sentenced to court-appointed therapy sessions with a mysterious, disturbing psychologist named Mabel Watney. This month, I wanted to write short scenes that unpack the messiness of dealing with a mental health issue that’s been exacerbated by being relegated to the margins of society.
Veniamin slumped in his chair as he watched the woman sit down at her desk, turn to her computer and begin typing. After a moment, he glanced at the clock — 10:02 AM, it said. He opened his mouth to speak, but she held up a finger without looking away from her screen. He sighed. She kept typing.
When she stopped a few moments later, she turned to a journal on her desk and began writing. Veniamin shifted with a grunt; he felt the anger inside him, a bubble of pressure in his stomach that made him squirm, pushed the hair on the back of his neck straight up. It was 10:05 AM. Forty minutes left in their session.
She seemed content to let him seethe for a couple more minutes, writing deliberately in tense silence. She set down her pen. She closed her journal. She adjusted the small owl statue on her desk so that its big round eyes were pointed at him. Then she folded her hands and smiled at him.
“So does this mean that my charge for this session will be prorated?” Veniamin couldn’t keep the growl out of his voice as he leaned forward. The sensation had spread to the rest of him, controlling his movements so his mind could focus on the object of his annoyance. He didn’t feel the way his hands gripped the arms of the chair, or the way he had positioned himself to leap out of his seat at any moment.
His psychologist, Mabel Watney, raised an eyebrow and lifted the corners of her mouth. She ran her palm underneath the tight ponytail that sprouted from the back of her skull, as silken and shining as its namesake. “If you wish,” she said. “Thank you for waiting.”
Venia leaned back in his chair, the spell of anger broken. He was confused about why that worked, but found comfort in the anger that rose from the fact that she had manipulated him without him having any idea how. “Fine. You’re welcome.”
Dr. Watney nodded. She watched him with an unwavering but open and curious stare. Venia found he couldn’t meet her eyes for very long, and didn’t like the feeling of being pinned under that gaze. There was a clarity in it that disturbed him; it felt like she had him figured out from the moment he had walked into that door. He could have shifted right now and it wouldn’t have surprised her.
The seconds ticked by. When Dr. Watney spoke, it was with a suddenness that suggested she had waited for the precise moment when his wariness dropped. “So, what’s on your mind?”
Veniamin sighed and shook his head. “Nothing.” He rested his head on his fist. It felt like he was being waited out, a child coaxed into confessing something his mother already knew he had done.
“You look uncomfortable.” Her voice was deep and rich, authoritative and concerned at once. “Why is that?”
“I don’t see the point of me being here.” Venia spoke the words before he thought them. “I don’t have any problems you can help me with, and I’m not going to talk about them. And I’m not crazy.”
“No one said you were.” Dr. Watney sounded surprised he would even say that. “You’re here because a judge thinks you could benefit from a little bit of help managing your anger.”
“I don’t have a problem managing my anger,” Venia snapped. “I just don’t like putting up with things I shouldn’t have to.”
Dr. Watney opened her book again and began writing. “I see,” she said. “And you feel this therapy session is one of the things you shouldn’t have to put up with?”
There was something about her tone that softened something inside of him. He glanced at her. She was staring right at him, pen in hand. It looked like she had stopped mid-word. He felt a flash of panic and looked down into the eyes of her owl figurine, then further at a safe, nondescript side of her desk.
“Listen, I’m sure you’re a good woman and you help people who need it and all that, but…I don’t need this. I just have a lot on my plate and it’s stressful is all. It got to me once or twice, and now I’m here. That’s all. I haven’t hurt anyone.”
“You haven’t, but you have done a few things that are cause for concern. It’s not any one action that’s brought you to me, Mr. Kovalenko — anyone can have a bad day. What the judge is worried about — what I’m here to help with — is the pattern of behaviors that you seem to be exhibiting. Stress is a serious issue, Mr. Kovalenko. If you’re stressed and not angry, fine; we can work on managing your stress, then.”
Veniamin considered this. He wasn’t sure how to talk about what stressed him, at least not in a way that this woman would understand. He was part of a world she had no idea existed, and the attempt to introduce her to it would bring even more stress. That was, perhaps, the most frustrating thing; even if Dr. Watney could help, it would make things worse telling her how.
He took a deep breath and looked at her. She watched him attentively. At least the pen was down for now.
Could he find a way to talk about what was on his mind without having to explain the things she wouldn’t understand? Was it even worth the effort? He wasn’t sure he had much of a choice in the matter. She would have to report his progress back to the court, and if he resisted the process the entire time it probably wouldn’t reflect well on his record.
“Fine,” he snorted, looking away to stare at the painting of a stylized bow and arrow half-hidden by a potted plant. “How do I learn how to manage my stress?”