I have this friend since secondary school and we’ve remained friends since. Though we aren’t studying in the same college – she wanted to become a technician while I opted for linguistic – we’ve found numerous ways to stay in contact and keep our long-lived friendship from “desiccating” – to quote her beloved lexical item from a vampire show we both watch. Did I just mention a vampire show? Yes, one effective way for us to meet on regular basis despite both our hectic schedules of senior year is our TV weekends, where she brings in greasy snacks from a nearby fast-food stall and I prepare the latest episodes from all our favorite shows. Then we would lounge all day on the soft-cushioned couch and enjoying our exclusive privilege of youth indolence while increasing our cholesterol level by munching on unhealthy fries and gulping down extra-large sized Cokes.
This Sunday was one such day.
We began the day religiously like any other Sundays: she came bearing a humongous pack of fries plus Coke and as soon as I hit the “Play” button, she plopped down on the cushy seat, putting her elegantly long legs on the low glass table. The day went fine and so engulfed we were in the shows that I never noticed it had already been four and a half in the afternoon, around the time my mom would get back from her shift at the hospital. As if on cue, just when the thought popped in my mind, the gate creaked and opened, revealing my mother in her casual kind of crumpled clothes, her hair an essential mess poorly disguising itself in a bun and dim grey circles around her eyes. She gave a little nod to my ubiquitous greeting of “Mom” and went straight into the kitchen, not sparing a briefest glance at my friend. Having witnessed her rather unusual behavior, I was bewildered. That was so unlike my mother, who, as it was her job at the hospital, was warm and friendly in spite of her weariness after an eight-hour intense shift. She would smile at my friend, albeit weakly, and offered some frozen fruit snack (which we would definitely decline anyway due to our full bellies). But not today. Today her tired eyes had glided over me as if there had been only thin air around me where my friend was. Even stranger was that my friend was seemingly unaffected by my mother’s demeanor.
I leaped from the couch and went into the kitchen. There I found my mother sitting by the counter, slurping some peach juice she probably had found in a half-full carton box.
“Mom,” I called.
She raised her head and replied, “Yes dear?”
“You went straight into the kitchen when you got home?”
Mom raised an eyebrow, questioning. “So?” she asked dubiously.
“Normally you’d offer to make us some fruit though you know we’d decline anyway.”
“Us?” She sounded surprised, which had me confused as well. “Silly dear, you know I only offer to make that snack because your friend’s here. You’ve despised my frozen fruit snack sinc—”
“What?” It was my turn to be bewildered. “But my friend’s here and you just went straight past us as if you hadn’t seen her.”
“Who’s here, tell me again.”
Her bloodshot eyes went wide as she said, “I saw no-one but you on the couch, grabbing your greasy fries in one hand and the remote control in the other, eyes gluing to the TV with that vampire show that seems to go on forever.”
“You’re lying, Mom,” I almost shouted in my failure to grasp this unexpected turn of event. “Sybil’s been here with me for the entire morning and afternoon. She’s still out there.”
A deep crease manifested between her hazel eyebrows as she replied, rather tautly, “I am not lying, dear. Why should I be? I saw only you, not Sybil on that couch. If Sybil had been there I would have seen her already.”
“But I’m not lying either,” claimed I in a frustrated tone.
“I’m not saying you’re lying, dear,” she soothed me with her gentle voice and living gestures, the way she was so used to treating her uncomfortable patients. “I only say maybe you’re a little tired and have been a bit imaginativ—”
“Come Mom,” I huffed, trying to make it sound like a firm order, and, without finishing her sentence, she grudgingly stood from her seat and followed me out of sheer indulgence.
When we were in the living room again, Sybil was laughing hard at something on the screen.
“Where have you been, Sid? You missed the fun part. Should we rewind it?”
“See Mom?” I said with a note of confidence etched into my tone. “Sybil is not my imagination, isn’t she?”
“Hey Sid, why are you talking to thin air? Come and watch with me,” Sybil said from the couch.
She always wishes for better skin – tiny-pored, smooth and not so oily as her current skin is; there are days when the pouches of acnes on her face make her feel like a hideous monster crouching on the streets.
She is offered a deal: five years of her life in exchange for the skin of her dream. Needless to say she has taken it; it is never her wish to reach the age when wrinkles are what she only sees in her mirror.
She’s gotten what she yearns and she loves it so much she puts on her vibrant makeup and her loveliest dress and wears her favorite stilettos and takes a stroll in the neighborhood. She immediately notices eyes on her. Many, many eyes. How she loves the attention.
So full of herself is she that she does not notice a van coming at her at full speed.
So overjoyed by the news of his estranged daughter’s return that Lord William Bloodworth failed to ask the reason for Helen’s sudden change of heart. It had been almost a year since that fateful evening, after which he had not gotten a single word from his beloved daughter. Only recently had he received a telegraph saying that she had returned to London and wanted to stay for a while, perhaps a few months. William was more than pleased to receive her; this was, after all, the house where she had grown up. After his death, which he suspected would come in a few years’ time, perhaps even less, this manor would lawfully belong to her, together with his lands and title.
And so overjoyed by her presence that William could not bring himself to question the father of the child in her womb, soon to be brought to this world. Whosever it was, he reminded himself again and again in the silence of the evenings, watching Helen reading a book or dozing on the rocking chair by the fireplace, it was his daughter’s flesh and blood and thus, his own flesh and blood. He would give it the world once it was born, as he had given its mother. Helen would forgive him eventually, speak to him, and they would be a happy family, the three of them, once again.
Her child’s birth was due a week after her return, on a stormy night. Lord William Bloodworth paced anxiously outside the room, lighting cigarette after cigarette as he listened to Helen’s heart-wrenching cries on the other side of the wall. Time seemed to turn back to the night Helen had arrived to this world, also a stormy and thunderous like this night. For the second time in his long life the relatively atheistic nobleman sent a prayer to God.
The wails of the baby were heavenly music in William’s ears. Outside the room, the old man burst into tears.
It was a boy, a beautiful boy with large, black eyes like polished obsidian. William felt love for this little angel the moment he saw his image reflected in those mirror-like eyes.
He had come up with a thousand names for his lovely grandson; however, the one that Helen chose was never on that list. He had thought he would never hear that name again in the rest of his life. How devastatingly wrong he was.
“Adrian Augustine,” Helen nonchalantly uttered the name as she hugged her wailing son to her bosoms, “his name is Adrian Augustine Bloodworth.”
These were also the first words she had spoken to him upon her return. His beautiful Helen, cold and mute as the idol of Mary in the church.
“Ad–Adrian Augustine?” William stammered, holding onto a sliver of hope that his old ears had deceived him.
“Yes, Adrian Augustine.” Unabashed, she opened her blouse, baring her round, full breasts to her father’s eyes. The baby’s little mouth instantly latched on her, hungry for the sweet milk she had to offer.
William averted his gaze.
“Why, Helen? Why such a name? Certainly there’s a plethora of names–”
“Because ‘Adrian Augustine’ is my son’s father’s name.”
The ground beneath Lord William Bloodworth’s feet crumpled.
The next time Lord William Bloodworth got to see his daughter and grandson, it was six years later.
Five months after the child’s birth, Helen left the manor no matter how William had begged her to stay. “He isn’t welcomed here,” said Helen, standing at the door. How picturesque they were, the beautiful young mother holding her beautiful baby in her arms. How pale they looked under the electric light, pale like marble and just as cold. Each of her words a painful stab to his aging heart. Her voice speaking to him in their scarce conversations was never less than cold, her eyes regarding him colder still. They only became softer, affectionate, and loving when laying upon her son, a truth William soon learned with bitterness. Her son with Adrian Augustine.
Even in death did that depraved fiend torture him. Snatched away what he loved more than life.
“I will love him,” he promised. “I will love him with all my heart. If only you give me a chance…”
“No, you won’t.” She shook her head. “The only thing you can give him will be hatred and contempt.”
And they both knew her curt words were the truth while his was only a lie. Had Lord William never known the child’s father, or had he been someone else’s son, a lawyer’s, a soldier’s, a merchant’s, even a thief’s, he would love his grandson dearly. Give him the world if he could. Perhaps God was punishing him for his life-long practice of atheism, and what was a more cruel punishment than making his grandson the child of Adrian Augustine?
Deep down inside, Lord William Bloodworth had always known. He had suspected, of course, the moment he saw her stepping down the coach, her voluminous clothes failing to hide her maternal figure. He was old, not stupid, and he had been there to witness their disastrous romance. Risked all he could have to destroy it. Still he had placed his hope on a thin chance that Helen’s child had been some other man’s other than the one whose name caused him constant pain and wrath. Having his daughter admitted to him only had proven his foolishness.
Helen and the baby were gone the next morning, and Lord William Bloodworth’s manor was cold and empty once more. Cold and empty as the tomb in his heart.
Throughout the years he had been hearing news about his daughter. She had come to the New World they said – hadn’t she always wanted to fly there and leave the Old World behind? New Orleans, he heard from his many friends and acquaintances, a beautiful French city where she had settled and might have married the current Governor. Perhaps not. Perhaps she had established her own business and thrived. Such a successful young woman. All rumors and never a letter, never a word from her.
That summer his sister Agatha passed away, and thanks to that (he was not delighted by her death in the least), he had a chance to see Helen again. Before her marriage to a duke half a country away, Agatha had always been close to her niece, and remained close after. Every summer she would have come to London to pay her brother a visit, bearing all sorts of country presents for her favorite and only niece. Half the globe away (if the rumor about her living in New Orleans was true) and somehow Helen had got the news and returned just in time to bid farewell to deer old Agatha. She looked young, possibly younger than he remembered her – an obvious sign of his failing memory – and extremely gorgeous even in the high-collar grim black dress and black veil. Motherhood had become her. Glued to her side was a beautiful little boy that arose many a question from those attending the funeral.
How time flew, Lord William thought, watching the mother and son from afar – something blocked him from coming to her and hugging her so tightly she would feel his ache for her. All the years passed only deepened the wedge between them, already too late to try to fix. He heard the guests speak to one another.
“Don’t they make a most charming picture?” one lady asked.
“Lord Bloodworth’s daughter, isn’t it? God, it is as if time has never touched her!” another remarked.
“She hasn’t got married, has she? That would make the boy illegitimate. A bastard!”
“Shush, lower your voice, they might hear! I heard due to this the father and daughter have been estranged for years. She was even willing to forfeit her title and inheritance! Lord Bloodworth must have been furious.”
“I wonder who fathered that son of hers. What sort of man was he to be able to turn her against Lord Bloodworth?”
“The boy’s father passed away years ago. Adrian Augustine or so I heard.”
A few audible gasps.
“It couldn’t have been that ‘Adrian Augustine’!”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, there was a prodigal violinist by that name about ten years ago. His music was so godly they said he had bargained his soul to the devil. Could he have begot Lord Bloodworth’s grandson?”
“Now that you talk about it, I do remember seeing that man once or twice. God forbid such a face! Who could blame her for falling for a man with the face of Adonis?”
“A shame Adrian Augustine died before the boy was born. Got his throat slit by a madman during his farewell performance. Caused a real ruckus back then…”
“God, that’s awful! No wonder Helen Bloodworth never speaks a word about her child’s father. Poor thing…”
Anger of an unknown cause swelled in his heart, threatening to burst his chest open. He wanted to scream at them to shut the bloody up, all their seemingly harmless gossips that felt like buzzing bees with tiny pricks in his ears. They hurt his head, made tears hot on his cloudy eyes. They tormented him, reminded him of the hideous truth about the boy’s parentage. An abomination. An unforgivable sin. He wanted to lash out at them with his sharp-witted sarcasm and cruel words like Lord William Bloodworth-minus-”the old” used to. Shamed them until their heavily powdered faces turned scarlet, their lips sewn and they scattered away like scared ducks. How good it would feel. But he did neither scream nor lash out, because if somehow the years had not sapped his courage, his ceaseless coughs surely had. So he stood with his back against the stone wall, his cane in hand, chest heaving heavily as he tried to swallow his rage in silence like every other old man of his age. How time flew…
It took much persuasion from the relatives and friends for Helen to change her mind and agreed to stay with her father – the poor, lonely old man who missed his daughter sickly – until she returned to America. That was her home now, she added while her eyes were focus on him as though the words were meant for him alone. Just when his daughter had learn of cruelty? Had the New World taught her so?
The boy’s black eyes sparked with joyous warm upon the idea, a stark contrast to his mother’s cold ones.
It was when the three of them were seated on the dining table, him on one side while Helen and the boy on the other, that Lord William Bloodworth had the chance and courage to study the face of his grandson. On first look one would not doubt the boy was Helen’s: the resemblance was seeable in their raven hair, delicate features and milky skin. In her green adolescence Helen used to pride herself on her look. “Gives me an air of mystique,” she said, like the moon while around her there was abundance of sun in golden hair and rosy cheeks. She was one of a few who possessed pale complexion but never gave a sickly impression, and this trait was inherited in her child.
When he dared look closer, there were certain nuances that distinguished the boy from Helen. His eyes, for instance, were so dark that they reflected light while Helen’s were a pale blue. The mole under his right eye like a small tear. The particular curve of his lips when he smiled. All were pieces of a picture that once William finished putting together would present a familiar portrait. The face of the devil which haunted him day and night. Once he had come to such realization, he could not help seeing the boy at none other than the fiend that had spawned him. Like father, like son. Before he even noticed, the boy would reach adulthood and become the second Adrian Augustine. Such toxic thoughts poisoned him, worn him out, and he felt acutely the effect of time in every marrow of his old bones.
“Let’s retire for the evening,” he told Helen. “I had the servants prepared the rooms for you. Your original room at the east wing and–”
“Adrian will sleep in my room.”
“He’s old enough to sleep in his own room, Helen. You can’t coddle him like a baby forever.”
Helen caressed the top of her son’s head. “Can I?”
He tried to quench the uneasy feeling in his throat by the ever-growing affection in the way she looked at the boy. Something was not right. “He’s growing up, Helen, and sooner or later you have to let him out of your wing. Allow him to decide on his own for a chance.”
“Do you not want to sleep with me tonight, Adrian darling?” She asked teasingly.
“I want to sleep with Helen,” said the boy.
And the queasiness in William’s stomach grew tenfold at the particular manner in which the boy articulated Helen’s name. Adrian Augustine used to pronounce her name precisely the same, with the first vowel slightly longer and more stressed than usual. How that demon had loved to taunt him using his daughter’s name.
“Why is he not talking to me? Is he angry with me?” the boy asked.
“No, he is not. He is just bone-tired by all the things today. No one is angry with you, darling.”
“Should we call a doctor then?”
“That’s not necessary,” William said, waving his hands. “I only need a rest. Goodnight to the both of you.”
He swore he could feel the boy’s eyes on him even as Helen led him out of the dining room.
Lord William Bloodworth feared that he was going insane. Everything about Helen’s son reminded him of Adrian Augustine, his cockney accent even though he was living in America, his mannerisms, his countenance, as though he was not only the child of Adrian Augustine, he was Adrian Augustine. Atheistic as he was, William had never believed in God and Devil, in soul and reincarnation. Yet Adrian had proven otherwise. He had proven to him that the devil existed amongst humans – the myriad sins of his debauched lifestyle manifested in a bloody, devastating tornado that swept in those he had had eyes on – men and women – ravaged them until there was nothing left of those poor unfortunate souls but an empty, tarnished self. He might have proven to William that the devil was not so easily vanquished and that he might have already returned.
For what purpose? To relive his sinful life? To take revenge on William, torment him? To destroy him? Or to execute a grander, more sinister scheme?
Every night since Helen’s return he lay awake on his bed, thinking about Adrian Augustine, past, present and future. Fear grew in his senile heart, gnawing him like the great vulture that ever fed on the undying Prometheus’s liver. Fear bred paranoia and every time his eyes laid on the boy, the ‘Adrian Augustine’ of this life, he could not help visualizing those small hands wrapping around his throats, or holding a gleaming knife. He could not help imagining his throat slit by that same knife, his blood flowing like a fountain while the little angelic face retained its pure, innocent smile.
Thus, the deeper Lord William delved into his paranoia and many a scenario of Adrian Augustine’s taking his vengeance, the more slippery his promise to Helen became. How could he find in his heart a sliver of love for one who could have been the cause of his doom? Who had already robbed him of Helen’s love, and replaced it with cool animosity?
Lord William’s torments did not last long however, because roughly a month later, Helen took her son back to America, leaving him a lonely old man, who perhaps was finally at peace. Their leave would happen after a few sporadic events that had happened in their stay, which served to further cement William’s belief that there was something awfully wrong with the boy ‘Adrian Augustine’.
I. Cigarette from Cairo
It was one of the lazy afternoons when William loved to spend on his favorite armchair in his library, perhaps reading a book, contemplating the time gone by or simply dozing. Helen had departed early in the morning to pay a visit to her friend, leaving her son at home. When William stepped in, he found the boy sitting in a far corner, absorbed in some book he had taken from one of the many shelves. He seemed to be quite bookish, such was William’s observation and though being in the same room with Adrian Augustine’s child was not the most pleasant, William also did his best to not appear that he was avoiding the boy. He found small comfort in the fact that the child was a silent company; he did not think he could handle a naughty one running around the manor screaming and causing all sorts of mayhem. Perhaps years ago he might fancy a livelier child, but the William of present was, in his own description, a pitiful bag of old bones that loved nothing more than peace and quietness. Not the best of grandfather, he knew, and could not help it.
If there was one thing old age had not robbed from him, it was his long-term affair with the nicotine. Even when he was young, he did not have the best of lungs; when time weighted on him, so it did his lungs. William could not recall how many times his doctor had advised him to give up smoking, and how many times he had deliberately ignored such thoughtful advice when reaching into his pocket for his silver cigarette case. He remembered giving Adrian Augustine one such case, with his name beautifully engraved on it. They had found that case inside his jacket the night he was murdered. He had kept it all this time even when their relationship had taken a stale turn. An ironic memento.
Nicotine was poison, and the first inhale never failed to result in a string of painful coughs. His face dyed scarlet as tears cornered around his eyes.
“Are you alright, William? Shall I ring Frances?”
The boy’s face was blurry through a veil of tear, constructing an illusion of a young man’s. Of Adrian Augustine’s. His heart skipped a beat.
The boy had abandoned his book and crawled next to his legs.
“It’s ‘grandfather’,” he weakly chided the boy. His wrinkled hand went to his chest, trying to sooth the pain as well as his frantic heart. “Also, call your mother ‘mother’, not her name.”
The boy stared at him with huge, black eyes as though trying to process what he had been told, and failed. “Why can I not call her by her name, and you by yours?”
“Because it’s not appropriate!” William said, exasperated. What were they educating children in America?
“They are imported from Cairo, are they not?”
“These,” the boy said, pointing at the cigarettes in the case.
William’s bushy eyebrows furrowed. “How could you know?” he stammered, baffled. Never did he imagine a six-year-old could tell the origin of a cigarette brand by look and smell alone. He serious doubted his daughter would ever teach her son such matter.
“But it is true, right? That they are from Cairo?”
His beaming face seemed to gather all the sunlight of the late summer afternoon outside the library. Its shine hurt William’s eyes.
Lord William Bloodworth nodded, mechanically. His withering memory remembered hearing the same question years ago, spoken in a sonorous voice. The voice of Adrian Augustine.
Adrian Augustine’s admirers only knew his violin was heavenly; not many knew his singing was not any less.
“What’s from Cairo? Care to tell me?” A female voice was heard by the entrance. Helen had returned, and she was leaning against the window, basking in the sun. William found himself not blinking. So beautiful was she that wherever she stood, everything else, including the bouquet of red roses in her arms, seemed dull, monotonic while she became the most vivid color in the picture, the same as her son’s smile would gather all the afternoon’s sun to himself. Perhaps it was her make-up, perhaps it was her voguish black dress that closely hugged her form, or the manner in which she carried herself that no one could imagine she were already in her thirties, and mother to a six-year-old. Soon as she was back to London, her suitors had been lining up outside their manor and filling their chambers with exquisite flowers and expensive gifts. Still, at times when he looked at her, Lord William could hardly recognize his daughter, his Helen whom had raised from birth. A stranger, though mesmerizing, remained a stranger still.
This was one such occasion.
“Helen!” the boy cried with excitement. He rushed to her side, squeezing her body with all the strange a six-year-old could muster. Helen’s ice mask thawed instantly as she kneeled down and kissed his pale cheeks until they turned cherry. “Were you a good boy when I was out?”
The boy nodded. “William’s cigarettes come from Cairo.”
“Precisely,” Helen drawled. “Cairo has the best cigarettes in the world.”
“Did you teach him about cigarette brand?”
“No. I no longer smoke, as you see. But my boy–”
She paused midway to caress her son’s head. “–he seems to know a lot of things on his own. He surprises me sometimes.”
“Does it not strike you as… strange?”
“’Strange’ isn’t a nice word for a child, father. Besides, aren’t we all proud to have an intelligent child of our flesh and blood?”
“Flesh and blood” the two words struck William hard. Helen’s flesh and blood. Adrian Augustine’s flesh and blood.
What could a monster have created but another monster under beautiful skin?
“Helen, William has a beautiful silver case. Can I have one, too? With my name engraved on it?”
Helen’s laughter was like silver bell. “So that you can smoke at the age of six?”
The boy’s cherry lips pursed in an indignant line. “But it is beautiful,” he insisted, “please, Helen.”
“If you are a good boy and ask your grandfather nicely, maybe, just maybe you can have one.” Turning to William, she asked, “Can he, father?”
“Please, Wil… no, grandfather,” the boy pled. “I will be a good boy. Very, very good.”
His huge, expressive black eyes of Adrian Augustine would be the dead of William. Could he ever say ‘no’ to them?
Before long, the nobleman found himself handing his grandson a silver case with the name ‘Adrian Augustine’ carved on it. The boy beamed happily at him when he received the gift and William could not deny he had seen the former Adrian Augustine smiling at him.
How, in the depth of his cold, lonely nights, had he had wished to see that particular smile again, even just once.
II. For My Beloved Helen
Lord William Bloodworth was walking through a long corridor. His feet were bare, and his sleeping robe clung slickly to his skin as a result of a nightmare. Of jumbled images of a gleaming knife, a slit throat and the maniac laughter of a madman. The music had broken the dream’s spell, and once he was done catching his breath and steadying his heartbeat, he left his bed to find its source.
The music came from the room at the end of the long corridor. It was the Music Chamber, the name having come to being by a seven-year-old Helen, where the nobleman stored the grand piano and other musical instruments he had gathered over the years. Helen used to play the piano there every Sunday morning and sometimes in the afternoon, before she turned sixteen and decided to spread her wings. This was the thirteenth year since she had left this manor and during that time although Lord William Bloodworth had always instructed the maids to keep the chamber free of dust, he himself had not stepped inside it. He barely remembered how it looked now.
The wall of the corridor was ornamented with various paintings. William was an ardent collector in his younger days – from musical instruments to sculptures and paintings… If he had even the slightest interest in them, he would get them at all cost. This vast manor was the house to his treasured collections and this was where he showcased his paintings, the majority of which were portraits of countless people. Some of them were well-known historical figures while others were mere obscure faces of the stern Londoners from all walks of life. As he took slow, barefooted steps down the length of the corridor, he had a distinct feeling that all the visages painted from colored pigments became real. Not just their faces though, soon their bodies gathered flesh and they crawled out of their framed canvases to crowd the empty corridor. Gentlemen and ladies in elaborate wigs and fancy frills engaged in conversations – the gentlemen debating politics in boisterous loud voices while the ladies whispering gossips to one another behind their fans, their raucous laughter filling the space as their cigarette and brandy filling Lord William Bloodworth’s nose. The deserted corridor in a lord’s manor became the waiting parlor in a common theater house, he thought. Such a place reminded him of one particular man. Talented as he had been, Adrian Augustine had never fancied the large orchestral houses. It was in common theater houses such as this, where the aristocrats mingled indiscriminately with the folks, that he thrived, playing his demonic music and enchanting many a tender heart in a single night and trampling then when the twilight came. How William had watched the cycle repeat.
The moment William put his hand on the handle and twisted the knob, all chattering and laughter was vanquished by the song behind the door. He briefly closed his eyes and opened them again, expecting to witness a lean figure clad in pristine white. His raven hair fell to his shoulders in tendrils like ink on white cloth, his obsidian eyes half-closed, thick lashes like dark butterfly wings casting two faint shadows on pale cheeks, and he was swaying gently to the divine music from his violin. A devil at heart, but an angel in his looks and his art, that was the paradox of Adrian Augustine. Tonight he was playing a new piece that he had claimed to write in his smoldering passion for his ‘beloved’; he had pronounced neither the name of the music nor his lover’s, making a promise to divulge them both at the end of his performance. He had never managed to fulfill his promise, because when the music was reaching a crescendo, a madman leapt from the front row and slashed his throat with a well-whetted knife.
Lord William Bloodworth had been there to witness the death of Adrian Augustine, seated on a few seats from the madman’s. He had even had Augustine’s blood on his suit.
Now in the Music Chamber, he was listening to that unfinished, nameless piece again.
He did not see the devil in pure white when he opened his eyes; he only saw his beloved Helen in a simple teal gown and the boy sitting on the grand piano, basking in the final breaths of the sun before it died in the west. It was the boy that was sliding his little fingers skillfully on the ivory keys and Helen’s eyes on her son were filled with warm pride.
This time William got to hear the ending.
“Have you ever listened to this one, father?” Helen suddenly asked. She straightened her back and let her nimble fingers run through her son’s soft hair.
To her question Lord William Bloodworth nodded. “Is it alright to teach a child such sensual music?”
Helen let out a soft laugh. “Oh father, music is beauty and there are no beauties that shouldn’t be taught to a child.”
“Is that how things are in America?” His voice was hoarse with emotions evoked by the music, though William himself did not realize.
“That is how things are in my home, father,” Helen replied coolly. “They said this was the music he was playing when that madman murdered him. Do you happen to know its name?”
“For My Beloved Helen, that was the name. He wrote this piece for me. Yet I only found it when scavenging his notes, scattered around the flat he called his home. Oh the irony, father, can you imagine its bitter taste?”
He turned his head away to avoid her piercing gaze, brimmed with tears. He could never bring himself to tell her that he had been there, and could have had the chance to hear Adrian Augustine’s piece to the end had it not for the madman’s intervention. It would only fuel her wrath for him.
“I’m fine, darling,” Helen’s tear-choked voice said to her son as his small hand came up to wipe away her tears. “Thank you.” She caught his hand, kissing his palm.
“I don’t like this piano. A violin would sound much better.”
“When we come back to New Orleans, you will play the violin for me, promise?”
The boy nodded frantically, causing his mother to burst into laughter.
Helen kissed the top of his head. “Now, one more time before dinner, shall we? Do you care to join us father? Or would you rather retire to your room and get changed for dinner? Viktor is coming tonight. He invited me to the theater on Tuesday night so I thought it was only courteous to invite him to dinner.”
“I think I should go change,” William said, looking briefly at his open robe and bare feet. As he made his way out of the room, he heard Helen. “I remember we had a violin in this Music Chamber – the precious Stradivarius I always begged you to try but you never allowed me to touch. Where is it now?”
“Burnt,” he replied curtly, “in an accident,” and closed the door.
The various figures had returned to their respective places on the canvases, though he could still feel their eyes on him as he slowly made his way to his room.
III. Ghost of the Photograph
Lord William Bloodworth was having a very peculiar dream.
In this dream he was not an old man, having to be extra-careful with his every step so as not to cause unnecessary damage to his old bones; in this dream he was in a much younger body, with strong and swift legs to skip up and down the stairs like a happy little squirrel.
He strode through corridor, eyes sweeping over the portraits. He could feel the muscles around his lips shifted every time he passed a particularly interesting one. That gentleman has such funny whiskers, I wonder if he was called ‘Lord Whisker’. He heard the boy’s thought. Ha, this lady has such a tall wig that takes up two-third of the canvas. Poor her old neck. This body that hosted him was a boy’s, with all a boy’s curiosity and carefree attitude.
The boy had reached the landing where the stairs could lead to the chambers upstairs or the basement deep in the earth. Upstairs it was bright and sunny – it was in the early afternoon when the sun was very strong – while downstairs was dark and ominous. The boy was weighing his fear of the dark and his childish yearning to explore this part of the manor. Go up! William heard himself whisper. The boy had one foot on the tread. Be a good boy and go up! There is nothing down there for you, he told the boy again, putting a little more force behind his command. He could feel the clockwork turning inside the boy’s head. Hesitantly, he put his foot down. Good boy. Now go back to your room or the library, anywhere but here. A sudden spark, and then all his fear and hesitance vaporized, replaced with a fierce determination. The boy rushed up the flight of stairs, got himself a candle and then down again; William’s commands were pitiably lost among the noises of soles on the wooden steps and petulant enthusiasm. A child’s love for discovery was strong, and all an old man could do to subdue it were absolutely nothing.
Through the boy’s eyes he saw the wallpaper on the wall, the patterns of which had faded to non-recognizable and there were holes that revealed the brick wall underneath, courtesy of years of negligence and rodents. The stench of dust and mold grew stronger as the daylight grew weaker with the boy’s each careful step down, until the candle was the primary source of light. No more of the careless running, he had learnt to be caution when venturing into the dark.
At the end of the stairs was a door. William remembered it used to be red, but time had stripped away most of the pretty coat, leaving the rough brown skin. The boy tried opening the door, and found it locked. A surge of disappointment was transferred from him to William. Go back upstairs, before your mother starts searching for you. Once again he whispered, and once again he was unheard. The boy stared at the moldy walls, his small hands running over the wallpaper as if hoping to find something hidden in the myriad of tears. He looked to his feet, where he was standing on a doormat so ancient its original color was indefinable.No. William felt his heart throbbing – how strange it was, to able to feel in his dream, how alarming. Dust rose as the boy turned it over, causing him a string of sneezes. He touched the floor beneath, knocking his fingers on the wooden planks. Again, nothing. Not giving up, he began examining the doormat, pulling at every stray thread. God no. William’s chest hurt. A fire burning in there, cooking him from the inside. The boy let out a startled cry when he found a tear at the seam, in which a small, cool object answered to his searching hand. No. He held it up to his eyes: it was a bronze, unadorned, simple key that would never made it to the set of elaborately carved keys for the luxurious chambers upstairs. Yet it was just what he needed for the “Open Sesame” spell. He beamed with triumph as the lock gave a dry click and the door was opened. God help us. The boy gingerly stepped inside.
The room housed a motley group of objects, big and small, modern and ancient, under a coat of dust. Nonetheless, they did not disappoint the boy; rather, he was intrigued by them as though he had just unearthed a buried treasure ground. His big eyes scanned the room, his heart beating in sync with his excitement when he founded something that appealed to him. So many things that he did not know where to start. Then a small chest, much older than the boy and worn at the edge, caught his best interest. He retrieved it from the low shelf, placed it near the candle on the ground and flicked open the lid. William’s pain morphed into agony; were he in his own body and able to control it, he would scream for the boy not to bring what was inside the chest out to light. He were not, so with horror he had to watch the boy empty the chest’s contents to the ground. A soft thud, and a stack of yellow paper tied together by a red cord rolled over to his feet. Small hands untied the knot and picked up the first paper. His eyes, also William’s eyes, skimmed over the words of the unaddressed letter; the script was not the neatest, but the handwriting was strong and bold enough to give hints to the writer’s personality. Perhaps bored with all the characters, the boy abandoned the first letter to reach for the second, which he soon did the same for the third, the forth, until he found a black and white photograph of a young man amongst the papers. With hair as black as ink, pallid skin and exquisite bones for his face, he possessed a dark beauty that was both unnerving and alluring – a fallen angel made to ruin, now dozing on the armchair like a harmless babe. One look and you would not be able to avert your eyes, your very soul captured by the elegant line of his jaw, the tiny crease between his eyebrows, probably caused by a troubled dream. William felt the boy’s lips stretching into a smile, not the innocuous one he often showed William and his mother but one that was not unlike a smirk, which was mirrored by the pair of lips in the photograph. The eyes shot open, black like midnight, like their owner’s soul, and their stare penetrated the boy to reach the old man. The surface of the photograph simmered and melted like being held under a fire, and the beautiful young man, rather than burning, emerged from the frame that kept him imprisoned, and grabbed the boy, his eyes never leaving William.
Lord William Bloodworth was awaken by his own screams.
With the last image of his dream imprinted in his mind, the old man swung open the door of his chamber. Down the stairs he ran, not giving half a mind to his brittle bones, until he reached the red door at the end. He did not need the key for it was already open. Inside he found the boy holding a black and white photograph in his hands, his large, obsidian eyes opening wide in surprise. The candlelight was on the ground, around which the yellow letters were strewn.
“OUT!” William shouted. His shadow was looming over the little boy, threatening. His face pallid, sweated, his eyes red with tiny veins and the hand that was holding onto the wall was shaking violently. “OUT!” he repeated, louder, with menacing when the boy had not moved from his spot. The old man stalked closer and it was without a shadow of a doubt that he would strike the child if he refused to obey.
Fear finally registered to the young mind and tears started swelling in his eyes.
“Father,” called a voice from inside the room, from where the boy ran to. It was an ice-cold bucket dumping on Lord William Bloodworth, deflating his rage in millisecond and searing a way for terror to settle in. His body sagged instantly as though a torn bag of rice, and the rice had flooded out.
It was not the same as his dream: in his dream, the boy had been all by himself. In reality, Helen was with him.
She stood up from an old chair and let the boy hid his tear-stained face behind her back, shielding him from William. “Father, do you intend to kill my son, too?” she sounded calm, but instead of the mildly cool voice she usually spoke to him, this time it was frigid.
“No, I d–didn’t–I don’t…”
“Like you killed his father seven years ago?”
“What? I didn’t–”
“No more lies, father,” she said. “I have had enough with your lies.”
“Who told you such cruel lie? I didn’t kill him! Adrian Augustine was murdered by madman, everyone there saw that!”
William could hear his teeth clattering as he defended himself from Helen’s accusations; the effect of her chilling stare on him was devastating. His hand gripped the wall until his knuckles turned white, trying to keep himself from collapsing.
“Peter Browning was never a madman. He was only mad on the account of his wife’s consumption and a wealthy man, probably a lord, offered him money to cure her. In exchange for that hefty sum of money, he dressed up, booked a seat in Adrian Augustine’s final performance, and killed the leading star. Little did he know that after the murder, his ‘reimbursement’ for his service were a quick hanging and curses that lasted until today. Did I miss anything, father?”
“I didn’t know any man by the name Peter Browning,” he denied. “Nor did I pay him to kill Adrian Augustine.”
“Oh, don’t disgrace the hard-labor fruits of my six years, father.”
“What are you saying, Helen?”
The boy’s cry had quieted. Helen stroked his soft hair tenderly before sending him upstairs. “Go to our room and play with the new toys I bought you, darling. Mummy will soon join you. If you are hungry, ask Frances to prepare you some snacks.”
“Can I have a lemon cake, Helen? And a blueberry muffin, too?”
“Anything you like, sweetheart. Now, go!”
The boy nodded and proceeded to leave his mother’s side. He glanced nervously at William, afraid that the old man might strike him, as he passed through the door.
“After Adrian’s birth, I didn’t leave London like you, or anyone thought,” she continued. “I traveled to New Orleans often for business but my base was right here, just a few streets from you, father. Can’t you imagine the price I paid for the truth? A much higher than the one you paid for your lies.”
Tears brimmed hotly around his eyes. The Helen in front of him was blurred and flickering like an apparition.
“When did you know?”
Helen went on. “I knew you had him killed the day his death reached me, have always known in my heart. But a part of me, tiny as it was, stubbornly denied the blatant truth. It screamed for evidence, for a blinded faith that you, my father, was guiltless, then the truth crushed it, and burned it to ash.”
“He was devil-incarnate, Helen. An abomination! The filthy breathing proof of his mother’s adultery in her husband’s absence!” he cried. “And you, you were so pure, so innocent. He seduced you, corrupted you for the sake of his vengeance. Didn’t he tell me? He would break your heart, rip it out and trample it under his soles. I had seen him doing so to countless before you, all broken, ruined beyond fix. All ended up in a pool of shame, never to get out. I feared you would be next. I tried to warn you, but you never listened, enchanted by the devil’s silver tongue. I knew you would die once he discarded you. I had to prevent that nightmare. You, my beautiful, darling only daughter!”
Her piercing eyes softened with moisture and for a moment, it seemed his words had managed to touch her cold heart. It was only a moment though: her eyes regained their sharpness and she broke into a peal of laughter. “Did you think I hadn’t an idea of who he was? Did you really kill him to protect me, your helpless ignorant daughter? Oh, you truly make me laugh!”
Lord William Bloodworth stared at her, puzzled.
Helen leisurely walked to a corner, where she took an old violin case in her hands. Blowing softly the layer of dust, she opened the lid and held out a violin. Light from the candle danced on it finely lacquered skin. She sawed a few notes, testing the sound. “Burnt, father? The precious Stradivarius I used to suspect you loved more than your child?”
“The Stradivarius, those unsent letters, his photograph… You really built a shrine for him here, didn’t you? But you could have chosen some place… less dark and cramped. You know he always preferred light…”
Lord William Bloodworth was about to open his lips.
“Please, don’t sully the truth, father,” she denied his unvoiced defense. “I have always known. You were attending his debut concert the night mother died, abandoning her on her deathbed as a punishment for her slip of the heart. My poor mother, tormented till her last moments. Yet for all the hatred you had for her, you couldn’t hate him. You gave the Stradivarius to him. You bought his small flat by the south bank. You were his generous patron, who thought you had bought not only his art but his person as well.”
She picked up the scattered letters and the photograph.
“How did I know when you kept those secrets so well? He told me himself, everything there was to know, confessed to me the night we planned our leave.”
“Liar…” he muttered, weakly, “all lies.”
“We were going to leave for America, you see, New Orleans, the French city we both loved. We would settle in the French Quarter, open a small pub, and every evening he would play for our patrons. That beautiful dream of ours. Somehow you learned of it, and you couldn’t stand it. You would have it destroyed at all cost. Was that a lie, too, father?”
“If you have always known, if you despise me so, why did you come back?”
There she laughed again, each sound a silvery stab to his chest.”Has it not occurred to you that I have been planning for revenge?”
He could not tell if it was his legs trembling or the ground was quaking.
“Why didn’t you denounce me to the police? You’ve had all the evidence.”
She stalked closer to him and looked at him in the eyes she spoke, word by word. “I would never betray you, father, despise you as I do for having robbed my first, and only love. Adrian never broke my heart; you did. You tore it out, you smashed it to a bloody pulp. I wanted to torment you but once I stepped inside this manor, I realized that I didn’t have to; you had been doing it yourself very well already, with all your guilt and paranoia. How you were freaked out by the slightest thing my son did! Isn’t he a spitting image of his father? Do you feel haunted looking at his face?”
She cradled his head in her arms, whispering to him, “What date is it today, can you tell me?”
“The day he died…”
“Right, it was today that he was murdered. That I died. Do you have any idea how I have been waiting for this chance to tell you my hatred, my wrath, my pains…”
She kissed him, her lips like snow on his forehead.
“… Then I will leave. I will take Adrian and disappear from your sight forever. Until the day you die, father, remember that I will never forgive you, that I will not shed tears in your funeral.”
The yellow-papered letters and photographs left her hands, fluttered in the mid-air like doves, and landed by her feet.
“Keep them, father, however long you wish in this damned shrine you built, for I have the real Adrian by my side. Trade my soul for it I did.”
Helen did not spare a look at him when she spun on her heels and left.
Left alone in the basement, Lord William Bloodworth’s knees finally gave in.
True to her words, when William finally peeled himself off the floor and ascended the stairs, Frances told him that the lady and her son had long gone.
Adrian Augustine’s was the last face Lord William Bloodworth wanted to see in this word. It was also the last face he saw at the final moments of his guilt-stricken existence.
Adrian Augustine stepped in the chamber a beautiful young man. He was precisely the same as the image imprinted on William’s memory: hair and eyes as dark as the starless night sky, a face so otherworldly it inspired only awe and profound affection. He dresses all in white, as such was his beloved color, with a single black pearl adorned his cravat of the finest silk. He took off his hat and bowed deeply to William’s doctor, all polite and fastidious manners, but his eyes were on the dying old man on the bed the moment he entered. A shadow of a smile lingered at the corner of his lips.
“Look, my lord,” the doctor cried. “Your only grandson has come back!”
Oh, how the irony cut deep. If only he were not bone-tied to his deathbed, if only he had a sliver of strength, he would tip his head back and laugh so loud the sound of his laughter would shake the manor. Had he not already known this was how it would turn out?
“Could I be allowed a moment alone with my grandfather, please, doctor?”
“But of course,” said the doctor, taking Adrian’s hands in his and giving an enthusiastic squeeze. “Thanks God you have made it in time. I was so worried that you could have been hindered by transportation, or the telegraph failed to reach you. Your mother–”
The young man placed a finger on his lips.
“I see… Please stay with him, comfort him. He has been suffering great pain recently.”
“That I must do. Thank you, doctor.”
Once the doctor was gone, Adrian took a seat beside Lord William Bloodworth’s bed. He lifted William’s hand, lay beside his body, and placed a kiss on the wrinkled skin.
“I can imagine that I am not the face you wish to see at the moment.”
“She, no, we came back together. But she does not want to come in. She made a vow, you see, that she would never again appear in front of you. That day I did not go upstairs as Helen asked. I stayed on the stairs, and I heard all.”
Adrian looked genuinely stricken by Lord William’s curse. “Am I the devil, you said?” he asked. “How so? It was not I who murdered a man and robbed away his daughter’s love? Do tell me, is that truly the devil’s work?”
Though he spoke of accusations, his voice was soft, his tone calm, relaxed even. It would not be a surprise if he talked about London’s weather in this voice, or whispered honey into a lover’s ears.
How like Adrian Augustine, William thought. Always smiling even when the world around him shook and crumbled. Always smiling even when all around him screamed and suffered. Only a slit throat could have snubbed out that smile.
“…abomination,” hissed William weakly. Anger cost him a feat of agonizing coughs. He wondered if the flame of Hell could burn stronger than the one in his chest?
Adrian’s eyes were so mellow and gentle they could fool a dying man with spurious affection. Could have almost fooled William.
“Helen may not forgive you but I do. I forgive your cruel words and crueler acts…”
He lowered his head and kissed the spot between the old man’s eyes. “…grandfather,” he whispered at last. “That is why I will not let you pass on with a menacing lie. Helen did not come back to London. She could not, for she was buried beneath the soil of Lafayette Cemetery in the French Quarter. Has been there for two years. Tuberculosis, the same killer that had taken her mother.”
It seemed all the remaining air had been burnt out in Lord William Bloodworth’s ailing lungs. He could not breathe, his face turned ashen, and his bloodshot eyes, sunken deep in his sockets, were nailed on Adrian’s face. Both of his hands gripped the young man’s arm.
“It was her wish that I would tell you a lie and that I would hide the truth about her death from you. In the end I betrayed her will. You are, after all, my grandfather…”
William’s grip grew stronger, and stronger as though he wanted to break his grandson’s arm while Adrian’s words flowed, his serene expression perfectly concealing the pain. His hands slackened and finally dropped on the mattress when the young man was silent.
Adrian’s eyes spoke of profound sadness and loss as he closed Lord William’s Bloodworth’s eyes.
Music was playing when Adrian entered the Music Chamber. Sitting at the piano with her back to the door was a raven-haired woman, her long, black dress flowing down to the white-tiled floor like ink.
Adrian leaned against the door frame, keeping silent until her music ended.
“It’s been so many years since I touched the keys,” the woman said, turning around to face Adrian. “Do you think it sounds awful?”
The green youth of a girl had gone from her, yet what she might have lost was well compensated for by the breathtaking charms of a mature woman at the prime of her life. Her beauty fiercely absorbed the luster of everything around her, making them dull in her presence.
“It cannot be more awful than I was at four.”
He stepped forward and placed a butterfly kiss on her lips.
“He’s gone, isn’t he?”
“It was not a peaceful death,” he confessed. “What pained him more, I can’t tell, that his daughter had died before him or that she had refused to see him out of hatred.”
“Either was better than the truth,” she said, touching her sempiternally youthful face. “Can you imagine what he would have said if he had seen me as I am now?”
“Breathtaking,” he replied.
Her laughter was silvery bells. “That wouldn’t have done well to his condition, right?”
He lowered his head in attempt to hide a sheepish smile.
“What shall we do about this manor, Adrian? Oh, excuse me, Mr. Bloodworth?”
“You have not spoken of that last name since I was three years old,” he teased.
“You are the master of this manor now. The title and land will soon be yours also. I had better get used to hearing your last name.”
“Our last name, you mean?” He cocked a fine eyebrow.
“Yes, ours. How will you introduce me to the folks since we share the same last name? Your sister?” She laughed, shaking her head. “Everyone here knows you are an only child. Your cousin? You have no cousin that they do not know. How about our wife? ‘Mrs. Bloodworth’ does have a nice ring to it.”
“Too young to get married.”
“Too old to get married.” She laughed.
He rested his hand on her small waist and spun her into a waltz. Sun beams landed on their lustrous raven hair, their youthful countenance. Stark black contrasted with pure white, her black and his white, so that they seemed an uncanny pair of demon and angel. The beautiful angel and gorgeous demon, dancing with the world’s sorrows beneath their soles.
“Anything you wish,” he whispered into her ears, “my darling Helen.”
Note: Anyone caught the incest subtext? *cough*
OK. here’s a cover (or whatever you’d like to call it) I made for the story. Amateurish at best, I know.
Taking in one last exhale, Colebourne dropped the cigarette butt and began a process which he termed “The Art of Cigarette Butt Crushing” should one day it was turned into a book. He had crushed it flatly on the ground and was beaming to himself when he spotted the familiar figure of Cerney from afar. Always looking smart with his black coat, black tie and short raven hair (fashionably) crudely swept back no matter the time of the day, the man was a textbook example of the classic trope “Tall, Dark, and Handsome”, Colebourne thought with envious amusement. The man must have gone to bed wearing his trademark outfit, slept immobile through the night like a vampire, then woken up and gone straight to work. Trust Colebourne, he had seen it. Running a hand through his messy bed hair, he waved his colleague with the other. “Morning, cher.”
“Must I remind you that littering is a serious offense of the law?” said Cerney in his particular sarcastic tone as his eyes swept over the cigarette butts around Colebourne’s feet. “It’s a rare sight to see you’re up before 8 o’clock. What’s the matter?”
“Remember that missing person report of Thomas Gregory a few days ago?”
He waited patiently for his colleague to check his notes, which would take about five minutes if he was lucky. Note-making was Cerney’s unshakable habit. It helped his job a great deal; however, the downside of it was that the detective found it hard to search for a particular piece in a swamp of information.
Colebourne was lucky today. “Found the car here but not the chap. The guys are on their way.”
Cerney took out his phone and notebook from his coat pocket and began circling the black Mercedes, taking both pictures and notes while he did. “Who discovered it?” he asked without looking up from his yellow pages.
“You are speaking to him right now,” replied Colebourne as he lit another cigarette. “I was enjoying my jogging when I spotted this expensive baby alone in the woods, her owner nowhere. Recognized her number plate. Called you first since you live near here and then the guys.”
Cerney arched one five dark eyebrow, an astonishing feat Colebourne forever wondered how he was able to achieve. “You? Doing morning exercise?”
“And yoga, too. Is that a serious offense of the law too, Sheriff?” Colebourne snorted.
“No, it’s a serious offense of nature.”
Colebourne gave him an indignant look, which the other detective promptly ignored in favor of examining the exterior of the car.
“You have any gloves?”
Cerney reached into his coat pocket and took out two pairs of latex gloves. He tossed Colebourne a pair.
“You know, cher, sometimes I have to wonder if your pocket is Doraemon’s pocket. It seems to have everything,” said Colebourne as he put on the gloves.
“I can guarantee you there’s never cigarette in there. You’re sure you don’t want to wait for the guys?”
“It’ll take half a morning for them to drag their asses here. Besides, if you thought we should wait, why would you have these?”
“In case you ask.”
“Vincent’s guys are either clumsy newbies or experienced idiots,” Colebourne remarked. “Remember how they messed up the Designer Boutique massacre? One, both you and I did pretty well in forensics back in the day. Two, this is gonna be our case so we’d better not let them mess up.”
“Who said that? You can sniff it, Detective Jagdhund?”
“Yes, yes, I can sniff it, and I trust my nose. It’s telling me this case is no ordinary – another to pile up on our desk.”
He tried opening the door and found it unlocked. “Look how careless our chap was.”
“He didn’t bother to take the key,” Cerney said, his eyes doing a scan of the interior of the car. He motioned Colebourne to step aside so he could take some photos.
“Aren’t we just lucky this baby hasn’t been spirited away? A thief doesn’t even have to steal.”
“Neat inside, key left, safety belt done – now that’s odd, don’t you think?”
Eyebrows furrowing, Cerney jotted down the description on his notes. He had photographed the scene; nevertheless, he was the type that fancied the classic note taking: while his hands worked, his brain had time to process the information.
“Yeah,” agreed Colebourne, who spotted a Styrofoam cup on the cup holder. Confident that his colleague had recorded its original position, the detective took it to his nose. “Starbucks’ Cappuccino, three days old,” Colebourne said, taking a long inhale. “That fits the time of the report, doesn’t it? So our chap probably bought it on the way but didn’t finish it. Then he left the car or was abducted by–”
“With enough consideration to buckle the safety belt,” Cerney interrupted him. “I can’t imagine why someone had to do it.”
“Maybe he suffers some sort of OCD, that is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. He’s obsessed with doing something even though it’s superfluous or inexplicable to others.”
“Like you have to crush every cigarette butt with your foot?”
Colebourne made a face. “Yeah, something like that.”
He checked the safety belt, and found it tight, sturdy. Then he noticed something. “Cher, hand me your phone.”
Light flashed and the snapping sound of the iPhone was heard.
“Got something tucked in the safety belt.” Colebourne stretched out his palm.
“Looks like a link in a chain to me,” Cerney held the small, ring-like object between his thumb and index finger. The metal surface was gleaming under sunlight. “Huhm, silver?”
“Looks like someone has deliberately tucked it in the safety belt.”
Cerney carefully put the new found piece of evidence in a small plastic bag. “You mean, a signature?”
“It could belong to our chap, of course,” Colebourne said, shrugging. “Anyway I have a hunch it’s something significant. Let’s hear what Vincent have anything to say about this. I–”
“Vincent says you two should wait for him to do his job instead of stealing it from him,” a third male voice cut in, followed by the crunching noises of dry leaves under Italian shoes, which immediately attracted Colebourne and Cerney’s attention. “He still has a mouth to feed, you know.”
“Well then he should know ‘The early bird catches the worms’ and should have tried to drag his ass here earlier,” barked Colebourne.
The third voice was a man with gray short hair. On first look you might mistake him for a middle-aged man who aged quite gracefully; on closer look he was only in his late twenties to early thirties: his face was smooth and handsome in an unconventional manner, with his sloe eyes and his thin lips that always seemed to be smiling while in fact he was not. A case of bad blood that resulted in premature gray hair, one would say.
“Excuse you, he had to gather half the department and drive through a hellish traffic to get here,” the man snarled. “He could do with some sympathy from his colleagues, you know.”
“Our sympathy is expressed by doing half the job for you, Vincent,” Cerney said.
“And I should thank you, right.”
The sarcastic tone elicited no response from Cerney while Colebourne huffed and turned his attention to the car, his arms hugging his body.
“Thomas Gregory’s car was left here, unlocked and the key lodged in place. No obvious sights of struggle. There’s some liquid in the Styrofoam cup, which, according to our Jagdhund’s nose, is three-day-old Cappuccino. We also found this tucked in the safety belt.”
After briefing Vincent on the situation, he handed his colleague the ring-like object in the plastic container, which the latter took and held under the sunlight for examination.
“You took photos as usual?” His question was directed to Cerney. Nonetheless, it was the other detective of the pair that answered, “Yeah, have them here if you want to compare later. Gotta get back to the station to report. Baby’s here in all yours.”
He flung his arm around Cerney’s shoulders and walked away. Vincent’s Northern voice directing the forensic team to check the car and the surroundings was heard behind.
“By the way, Vincent,” Colebourne called, “all those crushed red Marlboro cigarette butts were mine. Got a crave for nicotine while waiting for you guys.”
Colebourne opened the door to his dear old Impala and flopped down on the driver’s seat. He tipped his head back, reclined in the seat and let out a long exhale, his breath coming out a puff of white fog.
“You’re alright?” asked the other man in the car, who was no one else than Colebourne’s life-long partner, Cerney.
“No I’m not,” replied the detective in an exasperated tone. He ran a hand through his matted ashen blond hair, messaging his scalp. “Those guys at the missing person department are stringent jerks. Not until I got a written, signed permission from those above to handle this case did they reluctantly share the information with us. I mean, what the fuck, man, they’re basically having two similar cases piled up on their desks with no shred of light on the culprit whatsoever – this Thomas Gregory and Aaron Benjamin Tylers before him – and yet they’re afraid we’re gonna steal their fruits!”
Cerney listened to his partner’s complaint with attentive silence. He handed Colebourne a carton box once the man was done.
“I bought dinner while waiting for you. Chicken masala, your usual.”
The spicy aroma filling the space once the box was open seemed to have a calming effect on the agitated detective. His breath became even and he took the chopsticks Cerney offered, eagerly digging in his favorite dish. “Thanks cher,” he muttered while chewing, “you’re the best.”
Cerney opened his own box of sushi and began consuming his ready-made dinner. The two shared a moment of comfort silence as each digested their food.
“Anything news from Vincent yet?” Colebourne asked, his left hand in the wheel while his right was holding a cigarette.
“He said it was some kind of very strange material he hasn’t seen before. He needs to send it up for some tests.”
Colebourne’s eyebrows knitted in the rusty-gold dome light. “It’s not metal?” he asked incredulously.
“That’s not the only strange thing. I dug into the old documents and also found Thomas Gregory’s not the first case of missing: there was Aaron Benjamin Tylers like you said and several throughout the decades –”
“Some dating back to just after World War II,” Cerney continued in his modulated voice – too accustomed was he to his partner’s cutting him in the middle of a speech. “And who knows how many before. All men, all inexplicable disappearances, no clues and thus all left to dust away in Section D… or became urban legends.”
“Let me guess, no bodies found?”
“Not a hair. So these cases remain missing instead homicides. And in some, there were reports of a ring-like object found.”
Colebourne’s eyes lit up. “Like the thing we found?”
“That’s why Vincent needs to make some contacts to see if he can get a look at them.”
“The reports on Tylers’ case to this say nothing of such an object,” Colebourne recalled, fingers rubbing his stubbly chin. “Seems to me these guys haven’t looked carefully enough. The chap’s car was returned to his family and their house is about 25 miles north of my place. Fancy a drop by?”
Cerney stared at him with all the pity a kind-hearted man could gather for a mentally deformed escaped patient. Then his ice-blue eyes fell ever slightly on the glowing numbers on the digital watch.
“… first thing tomorrow,” Colebourne hastily added. Swear to God, of all the manners of staring Cerney had invented to use on him over the decades, this was the most powerful hit; it truly made him feel like the unfortunate creature Cerney saw him as – whatever it was, it couldn’t be anything remotely good. “You can stay the night at my place. Saves travel time,” he blurted, trying for something, anything that could break Cerney’s stare.
“I need to bathe,” declared Cerney. Was that a triumphant note in his tone – Colebourne was sure it was.
“You can wear my clothes,” Colebourne insisted, and before any sarcastic comments came out of his partner’s lips, he explained, “Contrary to any misbelief you guys might have, I happen to be a cleanliness freak. I keep my flat clean, and my clothes cleaner.”
“I don’t have my toothbrush and towel.”
“I have some spares.”
“I don’t have any condoms.”
“I have some… Wait! WHAT??!”
Cerney only laughed. “Why the surprise, cher?” He was mimicking Colebourne’s recently-picked up French accent. “I’ve already bought you dinner.”
Without any effort, Colebourne put on display his most shocked face, which only served to elicit more laughter from Cerney.
“Don’t make that face, cher. It’s not our first time.”
“You have the most monstrous sense of humor, Rhys Allayer William Cerney.”
Cerney chuckled. “So the plan is I’m going to stay at your flat and we’ll pay the Tylers a visit?” He asked, his accent back to his original Cockney.
“And the Gregorys too, if there’s…”
Colebourne didn’t have a chance to finish his sentence due to his shock to spot a figure standing in front of the road. He reacted in milliseconds, steering the wheel sharply and dodging the figure in a hair’s breadth. This was not without a consequence though: due to the abrupt change in momentum and the speed at which he had been going, his Impala collided right into a huge tree trunk.
Whit no small thanks to safety belts and air bags, both of them were relatively uninjured.
They came to themselves almost immediately and leapt out of the car and onto the road. There they found the mysterious figure they had almost hit, lying on the side a few feet away from the streetlight. Fog circled around her body like smoke.
“Miss, are you alright?” Colebourne gently lifted her body while Cerney promptly checked for her vital signs. Her skin felt cold to the touch but her pulse was strong, her chest heaving under her thin, tattered dress. It must have been white before; now it was so dirtied with all sorts of stains that it hardly retained the original color. He did not fail to notice the many scratches, cuts and bruises littered on her exposed skin. She was skinny, her clavicles seemingly piercing through her skin. Cerney could even see the shape of her ribcage under her clothes. It disturbed him deeply to think about what she had suffered to reach this state: wandering on an empty road in the late chilling autumn night with her feet bare and her only piece of clothing torn. He reached for his phone and dial 911 while Colebourne took off his coat to drape over her.
“Darn!” muttered the normally mild-mannered man as he failed the third time to make a call. The signal bar on his screen generally disappeared.
His loud curse might have roused the unfortunate girl, for she stirred in Colebourne’s arms and opened her eyes with sluggishness. Her eyes were wide, dazed, with the blacks almost swallowing the whites.
“Miss, are you hurt?” Colebourne asked. Relief was present in his voice.
Her black eyes traveled from the two men and she shook her head wildly, her frame trembling. Whimpers came from her mouth instead of words. Her reactions further cemented their suspicion that something very ugly must have happened to her.
“It’s alright, Miss, we’re cops. You’re fine, no one can hurt you now. Tell us what happened.” Colebourne tried his best to soothe her, which produced little success.
“She’s in shock,” Cerney commented. “And I can’t make a goddamned call!”
“Calm down, you’re scaring her!” Colebourne chided. “Miss, we’ll take you to the hospital, OK? You’ll be safe there. Can you walk?”
Since she couldn’t give a comprehensive respond, Cerney ended up carrying her to the car.
They laid her down on the backseats and Colebourne forced his old Impala to max speed to the nearest hospital, bypassing each and every red light on their way. The girl remained mute the whole journey, only letting out soft whimpers from time to time, without which they were afraid she might have died right in their car.
By the time they had had her safely under the doctors’ care and completed the necessary paperwork, it was a few hours before dawn for a quick, exhausted sleep… right on the benches outside the patient rooms.
“What do you mean?” demanded Colebourne, his voice jarred by his exhaustion and lack of sleep.
They were woken up by the nurse who questioned them their reason for being here, only to learn that the girl they had taken to the hospital some hours ago had disappeared, or in the nurse’s words: “There’s no such patient admitted here last night.”
“We took her here, around 12,” Cerney patiently explained though he was not any less worn-out than his partner. “Asian-looking, young, wounded and malnourished. She was wearing a tattered white dress. Please check again.”
“I’ve checked twice, sirs,” replied the nurse, trying for patience. If there was one thing she did not want to encounter first thing in the morning, it was dealing with delusional, persistent cops. “If you can tell me her name than I can check again.”
“We couldn’t ask for her name that night. But there’s no way a girl in such condition could have gone anywhere in the night!”
“Well, sirs, if you don’t believe me then you can go see for yourselves. Surely you remember her room?”
Exasperated, Colebourne grabbed his partner’s arm and the two of them went to the girl’s room at the end of the corridor. That they still remembered well.
There were around three patients in the room, none of whom was the poor girl they had found on the road. Spotting a familiar face that had been here last night, when she had been carried in, Colebourne went to ask him. To their shock, the man firmly denied having seen such a person.
The two detectives left the hospital in utmost confusion and a ton of unanswered questions. There was no reason whatsoever for everyone here to simultaneously lie to them. They couldn’t have been hallucinating the whole event, could they?
“I didn’t do drugs last night, did I?” asked Cerney as he took his seat next to Colebourne’s.
“I’m not sure about myself but I can swear on my life that you don’t do drugs.” Colebourne lodged the key in and started the engine. “But I wish we did, man, the whole thing was too spooky to be true. You know the tale about the ‘vanishing hitchhiker’? I think we got our own limited-edition version of it.”
For once Cerney did not reply with any sarcasm. His gaze was wandering aimlessly around the dashboard when he spotted something sparkling next to the takeaway carton boxes they had not found the time to clear up, and reached out for it. His tired ice-blue eyes behind the glasses lit up.
“I suppose these aren’t yours?” Cerney held out his palm, on which rested two sparkling ring-like objects that were very similar to the piece they had found in Thomas Gregory’s car.
“I’m 100% certain they aren’t mine,” denied Colebourne. “This can’t get any spookier, can it?”
Cerney nodded. “Well, I guess we could pay Vincent an early morning visit.”
After spending most of the night in his office going through all sorts of reports about that strange ring object, Vincent was not particularly pleased to be woken so early in the morning by the two detectives whose middle names were synonymous with ‘trouble’ and ‘odd’ and sometimes ‘overwork’. But soon as Cerney shown him why they had come find him, his endless naggings immediately ceased.
When the forensic doctor asked about their origins, Colebourne spilled the tale of the vanishing girl to him. For once in their long years of acquaintance, Vincent did not laugh at the blond detective.
“Here,” Vincent called, handing Cerney a laptop, which the latter took and carefully placed on his table. “The guys’ve done breaking the password. Hope you guys can find something in it. Good luck.”
It had been months since Aaron Benjamin Tylers’ case and little progress had been made. Vincent had been able to confirm that the objects found in Gregory and Tylers’ cars were the same as what the two detectives had ‘received’ (they had concluded these objects must have something to do with the mysterious vanishing girl though how and why they had not figured out); still, that was all they had got. So it proved that the culprit was the same and she/he had left a link in a chain as some sort of signature. Still, that was nowhere enough to answer the heap of questions to which they had to find answers. Where the victims had gone? Had they died or were they kept somewhere? How were the victims related? What were the culprit’s motives? Colebourne and Cerney had met a dead end for a long time and they were almost desperate, and then here came a new one: Jaime Ramirez, student of an honored exchange program. His friends last saw him enter his room, retiring early on a Friday night. The next day the model student had missed the lecture and when his friends came to check on him, they found the room empty. A few days later, since he did not come back, the police were called and Vincent had another uncanny piece to examine while Colebourne and Cerney had another case to add to the pile on their desk.
“For once Vincent’s team did something quick,” said Colebourne as he placed a cup of coffee on Cerney’s desk. “Enough cream and sugar for a diabetic future, as usual.”
Cerney took a sip of his extra-sweet coffee, his pale blue eyes not leaving the laptop screen for one moment while his hand clicking the mouse with neck-breaking speed. “Anything on your side?”
“Yeah,” Colebourne replied, scratching his mess of ashen blond hair. “The cameras on the corridor showed nothing, so there’s only one way for the boy to get out of that room, except it’s on the eighteenth floor and he’d be a half-wit to try climbing out of the window.”
“So he just magically vanished?”
“So he just magically vanished,” Colebourne echoed. “Man, this boy’s dirty: look at all the porn he has!”
Cerney nodded in agreement. He was checking the Recycle Bin, where there existed a plethora of “Hookers in chains”, “Hot girl alone”, “My juicy pussy” or “Hot times with sexy gynecologist”. “Not quite the exemplary boy as his friends thought, isn’t he?” Cerney commented, clicking the mouse to restore them all.
Colebourne stared at him in disbelief. “Don’t tell me you’re gonna watch them all!”
“Not ‘me’, us. It’s not every day we get paid to watch porn, right?”
He held up a lean finger, effectively halting Colebourne’s coming protest. “Don’t give me the crap that you haven’t watched once in your thirty years.”
“Like you haven’t!” Colebourne blurted, the tips of his ears coloring.
“Every night,” Cerney nonchalantly replied, to Colebourne’s shock. “We shall proceed with this file, which is named ‘Jaime’.”
“Wait for me to get some popcorn and we’ll enjoy the boy’s home-made treat!”
Soon as the file was played, the smiles were wiped off Colebourne and Cerney’s faces. While they did expect to see some sort of white noise, shaky camera-ed film featuring Ramirez’s more private life, it was something else entirely. The main character was Heather Jaime Ramirez but he was not doing anything besides sleeping soundly on his bed in his dorm room – that they could tell by the laptop (the same they were examining at the moment) on the desk by the closed window and the ubiquitous furniture in the room. The light from the bed lamp was sufficient enough and the sound was surprisingly clear that they could hear Ramirez’s light snoring and even the buzzing from the air conditioner. Nevertheless, they were utterly shocked to see he was not alone: standing in the middle of the room was a figure with long black hair wearing a tattered, dirtied white dress. The face was hidden from the angle of the camera (which was another baffling revelation considering how the cops had searched the tiny room high and low), but there was no mistaken they had met her before, on a deserted road in a foggy night.
The clock’s hands on the wall pointed at 12:30.
They both held their breath and watched her stalk closer and closer until she was standing right next to him. She put a scrawny hand on his shoulder, gently as a butterfly’s flapping its delicate wings. They dared not blink, fearing they might miss something crucial. His form faded – like a photograph being developed in reverse – and it took no more than a few minutes for him to completely vanish. Just disappeared, simple as that. The bed and the blanket were there; so were all the wrinkles on the bed sheet, indicating someone had been sleeping on it. Only the person named Jaime Ramirez ceased to exist.
Slowly she turned her head, facing the camera’s angle. Her face was crystal-clear, a normal face, neither too beautiful nor ugly, bland, easily forgettable. The only thing remarkable about it was her eyes, if you could call those ‘eyes’ at all – it seemed someone had darkness stuffed in her sockets so that her whites were non-existent, only blackness prevailed in there.
Those ‘eyes’ were looking straight at Colebourne and Cerney, and they felt acutely for the first time just what it meant for their blood to ‘run cold’ in their veins.
She smiled the way a sharp knife carved into flesh, and put a finger to her lips. On her other hands was a long chain which linked together an endless line of men. The men were all naked and bound, with their wrists chained to the one before them and their ankles to the one behind. Despite bad lighting, Colebourne and Cerney were able to spot the faces of Thomas Gregory and Aaron Benjamin Tylers near the end of this human centipede, crumpled in agony caused by the obvious cuts on their flesh. They could not believe what they were seeing but they knew, inexplicably, that nothing was unreal. And they had a feeling that the empty spot behind Aaron Benjamin Tylers would soon be filled.
The mysterious girl broke a link free from her chain and laid it on the bed counter. She graced the two detectives with another eerie smile – as though she could have seen through the screen to look at them – before she, too, quickly faded and vanished, her ‘creatures’ taken with her. The video clip reached its few last seconds, darkening until the laptop screen was all black.
“The hell just happened?” Cerney was the first to find his voice.
“The fuck I know,” Colebourne answered. “By the look of it, we have just witnessed how it happened…”
“And solved the missing cases, yes,” Cerney continued for him. “Who’s going to write the report, you or me?”
“How about we let this video clip speak for us?”
Colebourne moved the mouse around, and found that the video clip had disappeared. Wiped out without a trace left.
Like Thomas Gregory, Aaron Benjamin Tylers, Jaime Ramirez and numerous victims before them.
Like the mysterious girl.
“Oh, fuck me,” Colebourne muttered a curse.
Note: I didn’t have a particular image for neither Colebourne nor Cerney when I first wrote them in Culprit. I have love for them and have always wanted to bring them back, even briefly. While I wrote this, a thought came to me: which actor would share the physical features of Colebourne and Cerney, and then I came up with these two: Joseph Morgan as Colebourne and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Cerney. No shipping these actors, please.
I did a terrible, unforgettable thing. A thing you could never imagine someone like me would be capable of.
I was a senior student of a prestigious technology university. All my life I’d been my parents’ good boy, my teachers’ favorite, and my friends’ hero, the last one mostly during examinations. The point is they loved me and they expected things from me, tons of things I might add; fortunately I had managed to not disappoint them so far, which is why the crime I am about to confess can be rather shocking.
I led an easy life, one might say, and I will not deny it. I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, cuddled by affluent, loving parents, who gave me the best of both their love and their money. They always did. I wore the best clothes money could buy, played the most expensive toys, went to the most prestigious schools. Sometimes I couldn’t help wondering if they had spoiled me with their sweet, teeth-rotten love; other times I simply enjoyed their smothering affection, taking what they offered me for granted. Life was all but roses and wine for me. Yet I always felt lacking. A tiny, insignificant puzzle piece missing from the big, bright picture of my life. It’d been urging me since I noticed its existence that I had to do something, yet I had no idea what it was. Unknown to my parents and my friends I had been hanging out with people from shady backgrounds. With them I had tried drugs, I had gambled, I had whored. I had whiled the hours tangling in sleek, naked limbs, passionately worshipping the Devil in the only way we knew how, and did best. The thrill they gave me was ephemeral at best, lasting for a heartbeat and then quickly dissolving into the vast, grim landscape of my ennui. The missing piece remained missing and at the end of the night, I laid naked on the bed, reeked of alcohol, sweats, tobacco and perfumes, watching the creeping dawn while feeling the tiny hollowness grow humongous until it devoured me whole.
You must understand that I, though had done many a questionable thing, had never wished to commit such an act. Never thought it! Even in my darkest hours I could never imagine that one day I would do the exact same thing that I often felt disgusted every time reading about it on the newspaper. It came to me entirely by surprise, an impulse that was too strong to resist. I wagered it was due to this impulse that the good, gentle husband plunged the knife into his wife’s chest, that the young, loving mother drowned her newborn baby and the benevolent child strangled his own mother. Before I had the chance to reason it, I had already acted on it. I grabbed that girl by her arm – a frail, delicate creature made to suffer as the poets so love to write – and down the street I dragged her while she struggled with all the feeble strength her petit body could muster. It was dark and deserted, a ghostly path that led to a ghostly house at the end of the street. I knew that house well – abandoned, uninhabited for years and years, a true haunted thing that it was. And even better did I know what I would do to her, the missing puzzle piece of my life in the form of a thin girl, lost, dirty and vulnerable to all sorts of violation.
I crammed myself into her tightness the moment I pushed her down the dusty floor. She squirmed beneath my weight and incoherent noises came from her throat. She was not screaming, could not to, and I learned that trivia once my tongue ravaged her mouth, finding not its counterpart. I couldn’t fathom why, but at the moment I came to the knowledge, I felt a bestial rage gnawing the inside of my stomach. So strong was the bite of the monster in me that my lust became impotent, instantly withered in her wet cavern, replaced by another desire. My hands clammed around her throat and I lifted her head, only to bang it against the cold, hard floor. “Scream! Scream for me!” I repeated my demand as my hands repeated the motion. Again and again. Stronger and stronger. Scream she did not; however, her large, sunken eyes were wide open as they stared not at my face, but something behind my head. But I didn’t notice her eyes back then, blinded as I was by my insane need, and I only recalled it later. Her noises grew weaker by second, until they all but died inside her throat.
I came in her deceased womb like I had never came before. My life was complete now that I had found my missing piece.
I went on being the ‘good boy’ of my parents and my friends. I looked brighter, full of life, one of my friends remarked and I could not help a beam. Could he say that if he knew what I had committed? But I didn’t smile as to mock his ignorance; I smiled because I was happy. I was living. I was enjoying my life as I had never been able to before the poor girl. At her I found a kind of elation that could keep me a good man for the rest of my life. I would be a gentle lover. I would be a faithful husband, a gentle father for my future family. I would be the man everyone around me expected me to be. I felt grateful for her life that was burnt for my own. Once the hellish fire had extinguished, I left her at the abandoned house – the madness occurred there would never depart it. No-one would discover her at least in a month or two. Maybe even more. I paid extra attention to the news, and my heart jolted every time they broadcast something about a murder. I kept waiting a day her death would appear on the TV screen, and they would have all sorts of speculations about her murderer. They would call him ‘a beast’, ‘a demon’. They would question the beggars, rogues and vagabonds nearby. They would never suspect a future engineer in designer clothes. No-one would never know. No-one.
Now you should understand that my telling you my ugliest secret is not because I was tormented by it, nor did I feel the slightest sliver of regret for what I had done. As I said, this act gave me the joy and a feeling of complete I’d never experienced before in my life. Given a chance to turn back time, I would still do it again. Don’t tell me you’ve never had that kind of impulse once or twice in a life time, I don’t buy bullshit. You haven’t committed it simply because you haven’t found your piece, or your chance, whatever the case.
So I’m telling you this not out of remorse but out of kindness, my friends, whether you believe me or not. What I said above is only half the tale, and the other half is what you should really pay attention to.
It happened just as quick and sudden as the moment I saw the girl. I was in my car, driving home after a hardworking day on campus. It had been a lucky day and I was in a ebullient mood; I turned on the stereo and jovially singing along some trashy music with my hands on the wheel. Then I shuddered with a chill, the light of the world went out and when it was on again, I was nowhere but inside my car. I was convinced that I had had a concussion, a notion I quickly shook off after a few seconds, for my vision was clear and my head painless. Confused, the first thing I did was look at my hands, finding them scratched and unclean, the fingers spidery and the nails ragged, caked with dirt. The asphalt of the pavement hurt my feet – they too were bare and filthy. More importantly, they weren’t my feet, nor were these hands mine, nor this stained dress, this entire body! This was a girl’s body, malnourished, neglected and probably abused, if the yellowish bruises on my arms were any proof. There was a small puddle on the street and with the light from the street lamp, I was able to get a look at my face. Not my face, to my un-surprise and utmost horror. You couldn’t imagine it if you have never looked into the mirror and found another face looking back at you. Words are never enough to describe it. Moreover, what had happened to my body, sitting in a car driving at top speed on highway? Had I already died?
A strong hand grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet. A man in a neat suit, with gold-rimmed glasses and a Patek Philippe watch around his wrist. I knew it immediately since I possessed the same one – a birthday gift from my parents on my 18th birthday. Even the strap was very similar. Provided he had another face, I would be convinced that he had somehow snatched my own body. But he looked too different from me to be me, the only similarity being the look in his almond-shaped eyes – someone had discovered the missing piece of his life puzzle and was determined to reclaim it!
No! No! No! I tried to scream but no word would come out of this mouth, only noises that the stranger paid no mind to as he dragged me to the shadows at the end of the street. I knew what awaited there. I had been there, only not as the captive. I wanted to fight back, to escape this predetermined fate yet this frail body just wouldn’t allow me. It was weak, famished and sick and the man subdued me with hardly any effort. Twice I tripped and my captor yanked me back up. My arm where he grabbed felt numb, my shoulder dislocated in my failed attempt to wrestle free of his grip and my bare feet scraped against the street, bleeding profusely. Tears streamed down my dirtied face. Then through a teary veil I saw her: under the streetlamp stood a girl in a stained white dress, her long dark hair disheveled and her feet bare. She looked exactly the same ragdoll as the night I had broken her, the same as I was now. The only nuance was that she was grinning at me from ear to ear.
Moss and dust and years of negligence created a peculiar stench that was unique to this abandoned house. It was familiar and terrifying at the same time. The man threw me on the floor, his foot stepping on my thigh to keep me in place while he undid his belt. No! No! I fought him but it seemed this body was designed for surrendering and my struggle only fueled his lust. He cleaved my thighs apart and thrust into me in one swift, precise motion. My muscles clenched around his scalding heat and I felt with clarity each and every of his virile pulse. It was a most excruciating agony, doubled with the irony that it was I who had done the same to the girl weeks before. The memory was still fresh, and for that my horror increased tenfold.
It was as though watching a horror movie and coming to a realization mid way that you had been literally sucked into the story and now your life was counted by the remaining screentime. He penetrated me down and up, and was disappointed by my inability to scream. “Scream! Scream for me!” he yelled, his hands on my throat and he lifted my head. In that fleeting moment before my head hit the cold, hard floor, I saw the girl again. Grinning widely, she stood right behind his back. But this time she wasn’t alone. In her hand was a chain that linked together a line of men behind her. All men, all naked and wounded, with their eyes crudely sewn shut, their mouths gagged and only incoherent noises rose from their throats. Each was crouching on the floor and bound by the chain, his wrists being tied to the man before him while his ankle hooked to the one behind. I squinted my eyes, trying to see beyond them. The line seemed without end, a true human centipede. Blood from their myriad wounds drew a tortuous trail that barely touched her feet as their groans barely reached her ears. She looked into my eyes and rested her free hand on my rapist’s shoulder.
That was my last image.
That’s how my story ends. My friends, I know you all have a missing puzzle piece waiting to be filled. It’s a nagging burden that won’t just go away. Beware of her, of our ruthless mistress, for she always knows of it, however deep a corner you have it concealed. She will tempt you, provoke you so that you will let it surface. Don’t give in. Otherwise there’s always a space for another man.
You lead a life of normalities: waking up, going to work, eating, drinking, returning home, sleeping. Just like that, days turn to months, and months to years, everything stays the same, nothing out of the ordinary. Except for one thing: your dream. Whenever you close your eyes, you have the same dream, unchanged as the rest of your life. In your dream you are chained. Metal. Each eye as big as your wrist. And cold as it bits deeply into your flesh. Just not as cold as the water around you. Bound, abandoned and condemned to look at the ghost of the sky ー distorted like a nightmare inside a nightmare ー through the thick layer of water with unmoving eyes. Yet those are the kind times; you should be grateful for them. True horror begins when the sun is out and the water turns ink, and you have nothing but darkness in your company. The darkness that promises terrible, terrible things with which the dark corner of your mind loves to play. Together they torment you, wreck you and you would rather burn in Hell than suffer like this. Oh, wait, this is your Hell, exquisitely tailored for you, for a sin you cannot remember. You are not entirely sure you deserve this punishment. This changes nothing, however, and thus your suffering goes on.
You dread sleeping. You have sought help in every psychiatrist’s office. To no avail. You have thought about freeing yourself from misery with the tongue of a knife yet always you stop at the last minute. You are no coward; still the very thought of being permanently trapped in that nightmare makes your blood curl.
Thus you cling onto your life.
There is no such thing as ‘ordinary’ in your life, if you could call that a life at all. Huge, heavy metal chain binds your limbs. It serves to keep you down there, under the water. Your eyes wide open, and you are made to gaze at the feeble sun through a distorted water mirror. You remember this is a punishment for a sin you can recall neither what nor why. This is only an icing on the cake however; the horror truly begins when the sun is gone. Feeble as it is, the sun is much more welcoming than the darkness that replaces it. The darkness conspires with the dark blotch in your mind and together, they conjure up an array of unimaginable things. This is your Hell, you have told yourself a countless time. You must have been a most wretched soul, and privileged also, to have a personal Hell customized for you. The thought never fails to light up your face with a smile.
But there is one ordinary thing in your life and that is you can dream, despite your eyes wide open. In your dream you lead a normal life: you wake up, you go to work, you eat, you drink, you return home, you sleep. A mundane life yet much desired ー you would rather have it a thousand times.
You cannot wait till sleep pays you a visit again.
Welcome you all to the Gallery ofCuriosité. Our highlight tonight is the Picture of Disappearance. Created from an unknown period by an unknown artist, this picture since discovered has captivated countless viewers. Captivated in the sense that it draws you to it and keeps you in. Spooky? No? Ha-ha, I see, all brave souls around here. What is so special about it, you ask. You will soon find out. Please fall in line, ticket in hand. The gentleman at the front, please step up. I like your Spider Man jacket, very trendy – I’ve been looking for one for ages! The rest please wait your turn. We can only allow one at a time. I will soon return for the next. In the mean time please help yourselves to the drinks provided by our bar, I’m sure there’s something for everyone’s taste. No cigarette, please. Thank you for your patience.
Now now, please follow me inside. This way, please. Here we are looking at the famous, or dare I say, infamous Picture of Disappearance. On the first glance, what do you see? Don’t be shy, tell me. No judging here, I’m no art critic. A landscape, right? Quite pretty, with lustrous green plain, wild flowers and the blue sky above, the bluest, if you ask for my personal opinion. It is called the Great Plain of Nassos, or so I was told. But it seems empty, void, without humans. Makes you feel lost. Just a landscape, you say, nothing more. I beg you to be patient and look again, mister. There, you see. The picture has changed! It’s no longer empty. There is a little girl in a moss-green dress sitting near a wild daffodil bush. She has beautiful golden hair, like the sun in the sky. She looks lonely sitting all by herself there, you say. Such a sentimental gentleman. The ladies sure love a gentleman with open emotions. Blink, and look again, please. Tada~, our beautiful little girl is no longer alone – she has a friend! A girl in lily-white dress and ebony black hair flowing past her tiny waist. Isn’t she lovely? They are making friends, you see. The raven-haired girl and the blond girl are holding hands. Can you tell they are smiling, too? Such precious friendship. Too bad it does not last long. Nothing too beautiful lasts too long, a wise man once said. A shame. Pity. Blink again. Now please look at them. The season has changed: the sky is grey, the sun absent and the grass withers, yellow. And our beautiful girls… Oh no, the blond girl is dead! She is lying on the ground, her dress a stark contrast with the grass. There are dark blotches on her dress, you have to squint your eyes a little. These are her blood. Look carefully if you don’t believe me. Ah ah, don’t lean in too close, please. Why is she dead, you ask. Who killed her? Look to the left, please. Yes, you are looking at the murderer. She has raven-black hair and is wearing a lily-white dress. In her ivory hand a gleaming thing. A butcher knife. It is still dripping! She stabs and stabs and stabs. Such a cruel girl. Please stay where you are. Don’t lean in. The black-haired girl is becoming bigger? Yes, she is coming closer. To you, mister. No, no, please don’t touch the… Oh dear. I did warn you not to stand too close.
Sorry to keep you waiting. Did you enjoy the drinks at the bar? The next in line, please. Follow me, miss. What a beautiful dress you are wearing. I always like crimson – ageless and never out of fashion. You know, the Queen’s favorite color is crimson, too. I’ll soon be back. Enjoy your drinks.
Please follow me inside. This way, please. Here we are looking at the famous, or dare I say, infamous Picture of Disappearance. What do you see? Tell me. A landscape, right? It is called the Great Plain of Nassos, or so I was told. I also heard in Nassos the sky was the bluest and the grass greenest. Myths are always beautiful. But the scenery seems empty, void because there is no human. Makes you feel lost in the vast space. But that’s just it, nothing more. Where is the ‘curiosité’, you ask. I beg you to be patient and look again, miss. There, you see. The picture has changed! It is no longer empty. You are looking at a little boy standing alone. He has a Spider Man jacket, you see. How adorable. Huh? He appears lost, confused. And he is crying. Maybe he is lonely. But look again! There is a girl in the picture. Her black hair is shining and her white dress is so beautiful. Isn’t she a lovely creature? They are going to be friends and the boy will be lonely no more. Be careful, miss. I must warn you not to lean in too close…
When Seiichi stepped on the threshold leading to his shared apartment, the sky was already a dark cobalt. It had been a difficult day for every one of them at the office – the first days of a month always were, as a matter of fact. Even as he left the building, stacks of paper coded with different colors still piled up on his desk like little bonsai mountains, promising a tomorrow just as long and hard as today. He had fallen asleep on the subway and would have sorely missed his station had it not been for a kind old lady who looked worn out like himself or any other passenger. He longed for a hot bath and a delicious meal that was not one of the varieties of instant ramen they had in boxes at their apartment. That was just wishful thinking really: the day his lazy, undisciplined roommate prepared a proper meal for them would also be the day his parsimonious manager gave him a decent raise, which was unlikely this year or the next. How many a time he had thought of quitting his current stagnant job and decided against it in the next minute; finding a decent job in this economy climate was not so different from the Gold Rush in the previous century: few chances and risks galore. And Tanaka Seiichi had never been in Lady Luck’s favor: a mistake in judgment could end up in weeks if not months of living off unemployment benefits.
“Tadaima,” he said aloud, announcing his presence to no one in particular. The place was dark, illuminated only by the yellow light from the street lamp outside the window. Shidou must be dozing off again, that lazy ass. Muttering a curse under his breath, Seiichi took off his shoes, placed them neatly in their place in the shoe cabinet and put on his fluffy bunny slippers (his roommate’s birthday present – never ask) which muffed the sound of his feet as he passed the short corridor in a few quick strides. The room at the end was pitch-back.
“Holy shit, Shidou,” cried Seiichi once he turned on the lights. He was very alarmed when his slippered feet made sloppy sounds as if he was stepping on a puddle after the rain. It turned out his analogy was not very far from reality – he had indeed stepped on a puddle at the door of the room. If he were in another time, when he was less exhausted and in a better mood for literature and romance, perhaps he might describe it as having the color of old red wine or withered Manjusakas. But no, the truth was he was dead on his feet so he would say it as it was, no unnecessary fluff: it was a puddle of congealed blood that lied on the floor, not far from which were the severed torso and limbs of a male body, whose remains of clothes looked too dauntingly familiar for him not to recognize. The blood was dark, almost brown, which suggested this unsightly deed must have been committed at least an hour or two.
And on the faded sofa laid the slumbering culprit of this ugly crime: the amateur mangaka on his way to become professional who was also his irresponsible and messy roommate for five years and a half: Miura Shidou. Seeing the young man curling up on the sofa like Shironeko on his daily routine caused a surge of anger to rise in the salary man. Seiichi went on tiptoe to avoid the scattered body parts and carefully made his way to the sofa. He gave the younger man a good kick, startling and sending him sprawled on the floor.
“The fuck, Sei-kun?” Shidou groaned, running his spidery fingers through his shoulder-length bleached-white hair.
Crossing his arms, Seiichi tapped his foot on the wooden floor.
“Oh right, that,” said Shidou in voice still heavy with sleep. “My bad, Sei-kun. I didn’t mean to. You needn’t kick me though.” He peeled himself off the floor and moved languidly to the table, where he sat down and poured himself a glass of water.
“Mean to what?” Seiichi’s tone was as cool as the first breath of winter that began to spread through the city. “I got home after a hard day’s work, dog-tired, and was warmly welcomed by a puddle of blood and a dismembered body in our room which is very likely my roommate’s newest masterpiece. I think I deserve having not just one kick.”
“I got a bad day too,” whined Shidou. “The tight-ass editor turned me down and this geezer just couldn’t shut up about how we are late for the rent, how we should keep our home a little tidier – my fault, you keep everything in order and I mess things up. I was having a monstrous headache and I told him to fucking leave me alone but he just kept on ranting. Blah blah blah…”
“He liked talking to you. You knew that already.”
Shidou’s hands flung in the air dramatically, the silver bracelets and bangles on his wrists clanging jovially. Pointing a finger at the torso near the door, he said through clenched teeth, “That’s entirely the point. Normally I can deal with his tasteless shitty flirts but today I was fed up with them. I couldn’t help myself.”
“How many times in this year you ‘couldn’t help yourself’?” Seiichi cocked an eyebrow and calmly asked. His tea-colored eyes behind his glasses stared into the younger man’s face. Shidou tried to avoid his penetrating gaze at first by turning his head sideway but even by doing so, he still felt the pricking sensation at the back of his head. This was not the first time he wondered why Sei-kun had not applied to the police institution: with his stare alone the man could put any suspect, no matter how toughened they were, into submission and spill out all their secrets. What a real shame. Defeated just like any other times, he held his hands above his head. “All right, five. I know I have the ugliest temper but this old pig went way over the top. He really asked for it…”
“Asked to be killed and torn apart?”
Shidou let out a exasperated huff. “Can we just move to another place?”
“Some place with a landlord who doesn’t let his dick do the thinking and harasses his tenant every time he gets a chance,” Shidou scoffed.
“Because this landlord,” Seiichi stressed, pointing at said landlord’s remaining body, “let his dick do the thinking that we were able to have the cheapest rent in the whole city! Let’s talk about moving again when you have a regular-paid job, Shidou-san. Until then do keep your complaints to minimum and your temper in check.”
“All right, all right. But you’ll help me this time, right, just like other times.”
He stalked closer to his friend until they were close enough to feel each other’s breath. “O-ne-gai, Sei-kun,” he purred.
There it went again, the puppy-eyed dork face Shidou was so fond of using on Seiich every time he wanted the older man to yield to his whims. With an annoyed grunt Seiichi pushed Shidou’s face aside. “Like I have another choice. It would be me they question if the police arrived.”
Shidou’s forming pout turned into a feral grin and even the formidable difference in their heights could not prevent him from leaping up and hugging his roommate’s neck. “You’re my best Healer, Sei-kun. But you’ll be even better…”
“Your onlyHealer,” Seiichi cut him short, “and no, I won’t leave his memory of this insane act of yours. Not even a hint of it.”
Shidou made an audible groan. “Oh, c’mon, Sei-kun, he’ll be hitting on me again. At least leave him some hint that he should leave us alone as long as we pay the rent.”
“So that he’ll become paranoid and throw us out on the street?” Seiichi shook his head and spoke in firm voice. “No. Try to deal with your temper like other Killers who have no Healers.”
“But I have you…”
“No buts. Next time I come home and see a corpse in our apartment, you can find yourself another Healer…”
Shidou looked as if he wanted to open his mouth but Seiichi promptly shut him up before words came out. “End of discussion.”
“All right,” he murmured. “Anything you say, boss.”
Seiichi’s eyes scanned the place. “Put the head and whatever missing parts back and wipe your mess. I want the floor clean as new and blood-free. You have half an hour.”
“I’m going for a bath first. I want things done when I come out. Got it?”
Seiichi was about to head for the bathroom when Shidou caught his arm. Scratching his messy white head, he smiled awkwardly. “A small problem, Sei-kun. I think the head and other parts are in the bathroom. In the bathtub to be more precise. So maybe we will get him back first and you can have your bath… later.” He defensively took a few steps back.
Blue veins throbbed beneath the salary man’s temples. “Tell me one good reason why I shouldn’t kick the shit out of you, Shidou-san.”
I don’t have a skin like you do To keep it all in like you do I don’t have a soul like you The only one I have Is the one I stole from you
Stay Awake – London Grammar
The girl was an orphan, born to an insane mother and an unknown father. The mother had been mad since she blossomed into puberty, a budding rose whose bewitching beauty was not unlike a curse, and stayed mad still. Some man, some good villager, or good husband, father, must have begot the child in her belly, but nobody admitted to the deed. Instead, rumors sprouted that it was a devious demon that had impregnated her, using her womb to produce an instrument of calamity. The most malicious of them even sought to destroy her by setting her lone hut on fire while she was asleep. She survived, albeit ruined beyond recognition, and her baby survived with her while those who had harmed her fell one by one to inexplicable causes. And before long, none dared to come near her hut, let alone offer her a hand. It was not a matter, because she had given birth to the child on her own, miraculously so, and had raised her daughter since, her madness seemingly washed away by motherhood. Nevertheless, the mother perished by the time the daughter had reached her sixth year of life. Blood from her every orifice, a slow and steady killer. No demon to save her this time. She was given no funeral, only an unmarked earth mound, and her daughter was received by none. They held their breath and murmured their prayers that the girl would soon follow her demonic mother. But to their dismay, the girl had learnt to keep herself alive and as years passed, she grew healthy and beautiful like wild flowers, like grass. Their fear grew with her, yet none would lay a finger on her for fear that they would suffer the same fate as those who had ruined her mother. They thought and thought and finally, they accused her of witchery and thus at the turning of twelve, she was banished to live in the deep dark woods, where she lived until adulthood. She had not borne hatred for the villagers though; her mother had not taught her such. Besides, the life in the woods was to her liking: there she felt safe, and absolutely free, unbound, unrestricted by any moral prejudice.
It did not take her too long to realize though she bore no grudge against the folks, she held no love for them either, or men in general. They could all burn to ash for all she cared. Perhaps they were right to assume she was the seed of demon.
The animals brought her food in her first month: the wolves shared with her their hunts, the bears brought fruits and honey and the birds lay seeds in her palms while she was sleeping. With their help, she built a hut and grew a garden of vegetables to sustain herself. Half of the garden was devoted to the flowers she so loved.
The girl lived on her own but was not alone; she had never been since the night her first and only friend came to her hut.
There was a demon that had been lurking about her garden for some time, too shy to make their presence known to the lone human in the hut. Their shyness made her laugh; such a strange thing this demon was, and very adorable so.
“Why don’t you come in?” she asked, directing her invitation at the darkness surrounding her hut. “I have pumpkin soup, very delicious and enough for two.”
“You are not… afraid of me?” the demon shyly asked. Their voice was soft, neither feminine or masculine.
“You haven’t made me,” she answered with a light cheerful note in her tone. “Now come in. It’s terribly lonely in here.”
Perhaps, had someone taught her, she would have better sense than to invite a stranger into her home, let alone a sinister demon. But she had no one but herself and common sense was an oddity to her as it had been to her late mother.
“It was so delicious,” the demon exclaimed as they put the clay bowl down. They was cloaking themselves with darkness so she could not make out their features and it frustrated her.
“May I come again tomorrow night?”
“If only you show yourself to me.” Reply was swift on her tongue.
There was hesitation in the demon’s voice. “You would be very afraid.”
“Why would I?” she asked. She had yet to meet anything that could give her a fright.
“You are bound to be scared. That is what demons are to humans.”
She heard the demon gulp before they continued, “I am never to show you my real form. If I did, I could never visit you again. The Great Master has dictated such.”
The girl, too, was silent. She said, after a pensive note, “Fine then, don’t show yourself to me. Come back again tomorrow. We’ll have sweet potato cake and green bean soup.”
The demon nodded – she could tell – and possibly beamed at her.
So they did tomorrow night, and the nights that followed. They never failed to compliment her well-cooked food.
“The Great Master allows me to come out of the darkness and see you,” the demon jovially told her, “provided that you lend me your assistance.”
“How can I help?” Their joy was mirrored in her tone.
The demon sounded hesitant. She could almost imagine their fiddling with their thumbs – if they had fingers – in the shadow. “I’m happy to help,” she assured them.
She seemed at a loss for word. They went on elaborating, “My form is not fitted for a human’s eyes. If I wish to show myself to you, it is imperative that I am under a guise.”
“How long do you plan to take it?”
“Just a day only, no more. If you lend it to me, I am sure to return it tomorrow.”
“Then you shall have it for a day.”
Again, had she been taught to take caution against demons by someone with a better common sense than her late mother, she would not agree to lend a part of her body for a demon so easily. But she had not, and this was her only friend; she saw no problem in giving them her trust.
And the worst was she might lose her hair, what was the harm in that? Hair could always grow back, couldn’t it?
The next morning she woke up to find her hair gone, her scalp bare. Running her palm over her head, she burst into laughter. She half-heartedly wished she possessed a mirror so that she could see for herself how utterly ridiculous she looked.
When she was done laughing and wiping away her mirthful tears, she crudely wrapped a shawl around her head and went to tend her garden. The little creatures living on her garden looked at her with their round, beady eyes as if seeing a stranger when a mischievous wind blew away her shawl. Glancing at them out of the corner of her eyes, she wrapped the shawl tighter once she retrieved it.
“There, I give it back to you. Thank you so much,” the demon said to her when they returned to her hut.
In a moment she could feel her hair again, flowing down her shoulders and back like spring water. As she ran her fingers through, it appeared smoother than before. She smiled. “Thank you.”
“For what? It should be I who say it.”
For keeping your promise and my trust intact. But she did not speak aloud; her tender smile conveyed it all.
“Please accept it as a token of my gratitude.”
From the shadow a flower bud was held out to her. As she studied it, she was entirely baffled. She had not seen anything like it before, a flower which was as black and shiny as coal. Black and shiny like her hair.
She gingerly touched the delicate-looking petals. They felt smooth and cool to her touch and she felt a soft vibration humming beneath her fingertips. Like the rippling of the lake when a breeze passed by. Like the gentle waves thumping against the hull. Like mother’s breath in her ears during cold nights. Like music, composed and performed intimately for her. Its fragrance was a tantalizing invitation, floating in the isthmus of reality and fantasy. She inhaled deeply, and thought she had a glimpse of her soul flashing before her eyes.
“What is this flower?” she asked.
“It is a Demimonde.”
“Such a beautiful name. It suits her.”
“Oh, so it is a ‘she’ to you?” the demon asked with a curious note. “In our world, Demimondes are genderless as we are.”
“I don’t know, but when I look at the flower, I feel as if I am looking at a female. Besides, to categorize by genders is one step to humanization,” she replied. She felt the urge to kiss the silky petals, so she did. The bud seemed to respond to her by opening up just a little, exquisite perfume filling her hut.
A silence that she perceived to be the demon’s contemplation followed.
“Is she from where you came?”
“I took her from the Great Master’s beloved garden. I wish I could show you even just a vision of it. Eden He named it and there seasons change to please its inhabitants. Those like myself are only allowed entrance once in a century though.”
“You said demons are genderless but you refer to your Great Master as ‘He’? Isn’t it a little odd?”
“My darling,” the demon chuckled, “He is no demon. He is actually closer to mortals than any of us could ever hope to be.”
It was her turn to contemplate the newly offered truth. She wondered how He looked like. Did He had vermillion skin, flaming horns and a pointed tail like the faded picture in the priest’s dog-eared scripture or was He magnificent like the winged angels painted in the only church in the village? It was not that she had been allowed to enter the church or glimpse at the priest’s scripture; she had only been terribly curious and sneaky. They all said she was the demon child, did they not, but weren’t demons genderless like her friend said? Could it be… Could it be that He was her father? Was her mother with Him then, in Hell, as the villagers shouted and spat every time they came across her? She betted Hell would be a wonderful place, where the Demimondes were always blooming and the seasons changed – but never less than beautiful – to please. She was very tempted to ask the demon.
“That I cannot give an answer to. Do forgive me,” the demon said in a low, almost regretful tone.
The girl fell silent. She did not blame the demon; nevertheless, to say she was not the least disappointed was a blatant lie.
“Still, I can guarantee that we have neither red skin nor pointed tail. Horns vary though; some of us have beautiful curved horns that earn others’ envy while others just… envy.”
A small smile found its way to her little mouth. “Do you make others envy or do you envy?”
The demon cackled. “I cannot divulge this secret to you lest I become your laughing stock for years to come.”
With that the demon transformed her budding smile into a full beam.
“Do you like her? The Demimonde, I mean.”
She caressed Demimonde’s petals with her nimble fingers. She had already fallen in love with the way the flower responded to her every gesture as if an animal, not unresponsive like the plants in her garden and the woods. “She’s mesmerizing, thank you.” A pause. “She’s hasn’t fully bloomed yet.”
“At the right time she shall bloom,” said the demon.
There was a sad note in her tone. “Then I don’t want her to bloom.”
“ If she blooms, she also wilts and dies. I will be very sad when she does.”
“Rest assured, my darling, a Demimonde never wilts. As long as you do not wish her so. A demon flower it is.”
She imagined the demon grinning and was rather frustrated when she could not see. “Won’t you come out now and see me?”
“Not yet, my darling. My guise is far from complete.” They took a short pause. “May I ask to borrow something from you again?”
She waited patiently.
“May I borrow your eyes? Your beautiful eyes that are as blue as the sky seen through the finest sapphire?”
It was her turn to be hesitant. Had someone been here, some villager with the caution and fear of the devils and consideration for her well-being, they would urge her to decline the demon’s request. They might even chase the demon out from the hut, sprinkling garlic and holy water and holding out crucifix. Hair was one thing: one could live their whole life hairless, but eyes were not something one should give away.
But no one was here with her. The demon was, and they were the one she trusted most in the world, if not the only one.
In a timorous voice she asked, “For a day only?”
“For a day only,” the demon echoed.
“You may take my eyes, but without eyes, I will not be able to make the pumpkin cake you so like, nor the green bean and carrot soup.”
“It shall be I who will.”
She woke up in complete darkness, unable to distinguish night from day. Panic seized her, and it was not until the larks and bluebirds’ chirpings in her ears and the warmth of sunlight on her skin told her the morning had come that she was able to calm down. It was only a day, she assured herself, one day and she would regain her eyes while her friend would have eyes like hers. Mother used to love her eyes so much, telling her they were the most gorgeous thing she had seen, that men would follow her to the end of the earth just for a flutter of her curved eyelashes, that even demons would be tamed by a single glance, falling hopelessly in love. Being too young, she had not understood: still, if it pleased her dearest mother, she herself was happy.
She got up from her straw bed and began her normal day, albeit as a blind girl. Things were tenfold harder for her but it would mean immense joy and relief when her eyes returned. After all, not many could experience the sheer happiness of having lost one’s eyesight and finding it again.
She opened her eyes just in time to a forkful of pumpkin cake holding out to her. The color was a little off, the texture not so smooth, and the aroma was not arousing as her cake. Yet she could see that the demon had put much effort in baking this pumpkin cake. They stayed true to their promise, returning her eyes and making her a treat. She had not put her trust in the wrong place.
Her smile was as sweet as the cake as she opened her mouth and let the demon feed her. “It’s really delicious. I love it.”
She heard the demon’s nervous cackling from the dark. A tiny frown was etched between her thin eyebrows.
“Little girls don’t frown,” they said. “Little girls should always smile and be happy.”
“I’m not a little girl,” she protested.
“Little girls do not want to be little girls. Little girls want to be grown-up girls. Grown-up girls would kill to be little girls once more.”
She was uncertain if she should understand the demon’s singing words. Were they supposed to be a riddle? Some demons sure loved riddles, her friend had once told her.
Then, the demon presented a flower bud to her. This time it was blue, blue as the sky seen through the finest sapphire, blue as her eyes.
Her frown vanished from her small face as she clutched the delicate flower in her hand. “What is she called?”
“Demimonde. The same as the black one.”
Not waiting for her to pronounce her curiosity about the color, demon said, “Demimondes changed colors to suit your eyes. They want to please you as long as you do not wish for their wilt.”
“A demon flower it is.”
She got up and placed the blue Demimonde in the little vase together with the black one. “Can you show yourself to me now?”
She heard a whisper of a sigh. “Not yet, my friend. There are still things that I wish to borrow from you.”
She woke up with a raw, aching sensation spreading from her head to the tips of her toes. Never before had the straw mattress brought her this much discomfort: every movement caused her to wince and every wince caused her pain and tears to pool at the rims of her eyes. Even discomfort was an understatement. The pain was bearable and short-lived once she was more careful and less hasty with her body; however, there was the feeling of countless tiny little thorns continuously pricking at her flesh that was maddening. She remembered having been bitten by a little ant when she was very small and the itch had been her worst torment. Now imagine a hundred ants, probable more, gnawing on her nerves. Moreover, she could not scratch no matter how horrible it was for fear that she would leave permanent damage to her uncovered, oversensitive flesh.
The demon had told her.
It was her skin, white as the virgin snow, that the demon had asked her. Like the first and the second times, she had complied to her friend’s wish.
Do not look into the stream, the demon had repeated over and over. It may drive you mad. Mad as my mother, she asked. Yes, mad as your mother. Incurable. Doomed. I would not have you become as such, swear to our Great Master, I would rather break into a thousand pieces. So please, stay in the house until I come back in the night. And remember (again) do not scratch!
Her sweet, sweet demon. She felt warmth pooling in her heart. She got up from her bed, dressed as carefully as she could with the wool and linen she had, and set out to the wood. Sorry, she murmured. Those poor, hapless creatures would starve if she neglected her patronage.
She supposed she felt a sting of pain in her chest when she witnessed the doe and pigeons that always ate from her hand fled from her, frightened beyond hope. She looked down at her skinless hand, her raw, red flesh and did not find the cause to be angered. The hideous, scary monster that was out for their tender flesh. Were she them, she reasoned that she too would flee from the monster’s sight as fast as she could. Still she hurt. How wrong of her to have thought that animals would look beyond the skin.
“Every creature with eyes finds it extremely difficult to look beyond the skin,” the demon said. “Because the skin is what most of them look at first, and to some, perhaps the only thing they can see. That is why we can only wander in human world under one guise or another. Even the Great Master is no exception, and His, no matter what shape or form, always captures the mortals’ deepest desires, and thrives on them. But in our world we never, just come as we are.”
“I’m different,” she protested, shaking her head.
“You are not, little girl, if you see the real me.”
She sulked, though she knew there was truth in the demon’s words. She herself had never looked beyond the skin really; she chose to feed the doe and pigeons because she thought them lovely, beautiful, innocent-looking, all the goodness in the world combined. All the time she had been ignoring the ugly toads and the slimy snakes. Today, the doe and pigeons had fled from her while the toads and the snakes had regarded her with their beady fearless eyes and stayed in their place.
She felt a hand on her hair with fingers and smooth skin. Gently it messaged her scalp like her mother used to do.
“A Demimonde for you.”
White and pure as virgin snow, with petals as smooth as her skin.
She looked ravishing between the black and the blue.
“Is your guise complete now?”
“It is, and it is not,” said the demon in their androgynous voice. “Still I lack a human voice.”
“What you are using to converse with me…”
“…is the demon voice. The demon whisper, as mortals say, that not all humans can hear.”
“But I can always hear you.”
“You are always special,” said the demon. “There are few humans who are attuned to the supernatural melodies and only they can communicate with the unseen and unheard. Sadly their number grows smaller still, alienated, discarded and slaughtered by their skeptical kin.”
So that was the “damned witch”, she recalled the villagers’ words, reeking of fear and disdain. Well, if witchery was her nature, she never felt ashamed.
“What can I lend you so that you have a human voice?”
The girl imagined the voice to be intangible, not physical like the hair, the eyes and the skin that the demon had borrowed so far.
The demon chuckled. “Oh, it is not so intangible. In fact everything is physical in one way or another: the mind to the brain, the sight to the eyes, the beauty to the hair and skin, and so on.”
“So, do you want to borrow my mouth, or my tongue?” This time the girl was not hesitant in voicing her question.
“May I borrow your tongue? I have yet found a way to remove the mouth,” the demon jested.
“Then my tongue you may have.”
In spite of the unfamiliar emptiness in her mouth, the girl found out with delight that not having her tongue was the least inconvenience she had experienced so far. The need to talk was nonexistent as she was mostly by herself during the day. She did not develop the habit of talking to herself, the trick that others would find useful in fighting off their loneliness. If she really had to, the thought of finally seeing the demon tonight, provided that with her human voice the guise was complete, kept her company all day.
The doe and the pigeons did not flee from her, seeing that it was not a skinless monster approaching them this time but a beautiful, harmless-looking girl they were used to. She ignored them however, and went to feed the toads and the snakes instead.
“A crimson Demimonde for your mellifluous voice.”
The girl did not know her own voice to possess such a velvety luster until she heard it speak to her. “Thank you,” she said, and placed the red Demimonde together with her other siblings. Their exquisite colors complimented one another so well that together, they were the most gorgeous things she had laid her eyes on. Normal flowers simply could not compare; they were beautiful all right, but their beauty blended in the surroundings, and became part of the overall landscape. Demimondes did not blend; instead they drained their surroundings off colors, making them lifeless and dull while they burnt lividly. She wished never for their wilt.
“I suppose you can see me now.”
“Without doubt, my darling.”
The shadow retreated and a figure came into her view. She gasped audibly, but with delightful surprise and joy rather than shock and fear. Here she was looking at her spitting image, down to the white cotton gown she was wearing.
Her more beautiful twin. Her superior half.
“No…” whispered the demon.
She reached out with her hand and the demon did the same. Their hands touched, feeling the mutual warmth and they both smiled. The same gesture, the identical smile, it was as if looking at the clearest mirror in the world.
“I have been longing to look at you with your eyes, touch you with your skin and ask with your voice if I can stay with you, now and always?”
Happiness overflowed her, threatening to burst her small chest open. She would very much like the demon to stay with her, now and always; however, she hated it when her rational voice always had the first say, “But won’t you have to return to your world? To your great Master whom you worship?”
The demon chuckled with her ringing voice. “And forfeit this perfect guise that I have so painstakingly crafted? No, my darling, the moment you lent me your hair, I was accepted to your world, and left mine behind. The Great Master consented to my leave.”
“For how long?” she asked meekly.
The demon’s eyes briefly shifted to the four Demimondes. “For as long as you wish the Demimondes not to wilt.”
“That would be eternity.” There were tears in her eyes and tears in her voice.
“Then eternity you shall have.”
The demon leaned in, licked away her tears, then proceeded to kiss her with her own lips. Tenderly as first, for her to accustom to, and then becoming passionately, bordering on desperation.
The Demimondes on the shelf were blooming.
Demimonde – that was the demon’s name from then on. And they was no longer ‘they’, but ‘she’.
The girl grew up to be a maiden, and Demimonde grew with her. They were inseparable, a pair of beautiful twins who shared the labor in the garden by day and the warmth of the blanket by night. With Demimonde, she forgot how to shed sad tears and with her, Demimonde forgot her previous eternal life brimmed with boredom and loneliness in the demon world. She had devoted to the Great Master, had worshipped him with all her fibers like each and every of her kin did night and day, but the Great Master gave no love in return, no cure for the forlornless plaguing every black heart. Love between the Master and His subjects went one-way; they accepted this truth as universal. Yet it was different in this human world: what she gave away would come back to her doubled, and affection flowed easily and naturally as the little spring in front of their shared hut. She might even have forgotten that she used to be a demon – was a demon still, being too comfort in her perfected guise.
But her power surfaced one night, in the form of a roaring angry mob and torches. Demimonde woke up, soaked in human sweats, and before she came to true understanding of the images in her dream, she had burst into loudly wails. Her cries disturbed the maiden’s sleep and she opened her eyes, confused as to why her dearest sister was making such heart-wrenching sounds in the middle of the night. No matter how she asked, the demon would not tell her an intelligible answer. The words disjointed, chocked in tears and Demimonde appeared to momentarily lose her human speech, which had become a part of her like her breath over the years. The maiden cradled her sister, laid her head on her bosoms and sang until Demimonde, calmed down, fell into the sweet embrace of sleep. She herself followed suit shortly after.
Her dream was as ugly and cruel as whatever had troubled Demimonde, and just as vague and incomprehensible.
Demimonde was restless these days. The maiden could see the previous dream had plagued her tremendously, but how and why, she could not figure out. Her sister held onto her silence like a cord that bound her life together, and she would sooner fall apart than let it go. Only her grief-stricken face and sunken eyes gave silent hints of the tumult gnawing her inside. She wished she could soothe Demimonde somehow, brought the peace back to her, but how, she did not know. All she could do was envelope her sister in her warm embrace, softly humming to her the nameless lullaby her mother used to sing to her. But even that could not prevent Demimonde from growing distant from her. It broke her heart to wake up one morning to find their shared bed empty and cold and Demimonde curling up next to a huge, hollow trunk outside their hut.
While peace was fragile in their small hut, outside the woods it was chaos. Draughts had been going on for years, hungers reigned and recently a terrible disease was sweeping across the devastated village, taking the young and the strong of the population in its dreadful wake. All hope was lost, and despair turned them to the witch they had banished into the deep, dark woods, and against the fear of tragedies that had befallen their predecessors for bringing harm to the little devil’s mother. Boiling in hatred and rage, that satanic witch must have lay a curse on them, and at the moment, she was peering at their miseries through the eyes of the dark creatures lurking in every nook and cranny, laughing at they perished, one by one, their corpses piling up and nourishing the vultures.
They gathered at the center of the village, all that remained. The gleam from their weapons and the torches in their hands seemed to the night to day.
They found the witch outside her lair. Such a face she had – even God could not craft a better visage. And such a dark, sinister heart – the Devil must be proud of his handiwork. The witch neither tried to escape nor cried when they dragged her back to the village to be burnt at the huge pyre at its center.
In her dead silence the villagers’ fear grew as they stared at her writhing form slowly devoured by the hungry flames. After the fire had died out, hours later, they did not find her blackened bones in the ash.
No one knew exactly how many decades had passed since the last one of the damned village drew their last breath. The burning of the witch had not lifted their curse – if any – and the plague, which made their skin blister and fall off and their blood boil, marked for death those draught and hunger had failed to. Soon the village was wiped out from the map altogether. Still, the deep, dark woods endured, growing stronger than ever, and so did the legend of the black-haired, blue-eyed witch. People told their children, and their grandchildren the story as a cautionary tale even after they settled on the once cursed land and for generations, none of them had mustered enough courage and strength to cross the thorny vines and venture into the heart of the woods.
Came a day when an adventurous and dashing young man, perhaps a knight, a lord’s son or even a prince, passed the village on his relentless journey. Oh, how the poor, honest villagers pled him to opt for a different route around the woods lest his life be endangered by the legendary witch. “There were men from the cities,” one would say, “men of high caliber who swore to put an end to the witch’s terror. They came in living men and came out horrifically disfigured cadavers.” “Their eyes gorged out, their body skinned and in their mouth where the tongue should be there was only blood,” another would add. Yet all the ghastly details had been turned a deaf ear to by the brave young man. He boldly declared that he would cross the witch’s territory, and slay her if needed be, provided that her legend proved to be no more than an old wives’ tale, a superstition, a tale to warn children from the dark places reserved for adults only.
In the villagers’ sigh, he rode past the thorny vines, penetrating the witch’s lair.
“What are you doing here?”
For hours the young man had been lost. Here, in this dark woods, all sense of direction seemed to be swallowed by the thick mist and wherever he rode, the trees and vines appeared the same. Taunting him they were. He might have been wandering in a circle for god’s sake and worse, signs of fatigue had begun to plague him. But he supposed Lady Luck was on his side today, because when he resigned to his fate of having to spend a night under these ominous canopies, with dark creatures lurking around, he saw a maiden in flowing white gown standing a few feet away. And she saw him, too, for she asked, “What are you doing here?”
He had not known angels until he saw her and heard her speak. “Terribly lost,” he answered. In the sky of your eyes.
“Would you please show me the way out?”
“Are you not afraid of the witch?”
He was a little taken aback by her surprise question.
“No. I don’t believe in her existence. Now…” He made no attempt to hide his scrutinizing eyes. “…I’m confident that the old hag either does not exist or has simply wasted away centuries ago.”
He could see the corners of her lips curve up ever slightly and her eyes mellowed. His heart melted at the sight.
“It’s getting dark. Come, I can let you stay the night.”
Hers was a small but very nice hut standing in the middle of a garden that stretched deeper and deeper into the heart of the woods. Carnations, roses, daisies… The vast array of colors gave his eyes a delightful blinding feast.
But even the whole garden pale in comparison with the four unfamiliar flowers arranged in a clay vase inside her hut. Black, white, red, blue, each shone with a vividness that gave an impression that they had a life of their own, even though they were merely flowers clipped from the stems, bound to wither in a few days’ time at most. And if Heaven had a scent, it would be their fragrance.
“Demimonde… That is how they are called.” The maiden spoke before he even asked, as if reading his mind.
“I’ve never seen anything like them before. So strange, and so very beautiful.”
“That is because they are demon’s flowers,” she explained. “Time doesn’t touch them, and they never wilt.”
The mention of “demon” should ring an alarm in him, yet he found it matter little in her presence. “Unearthly,” he breathed. Just like hers. “If I looked at them too long, would they take my soul away?”
Her perfect Cupid’s bow gave an illusion of a smile. “Only if your soul was worth taking.”
He stayed the night, thoroughly enjoying her sumptuous meal and the cozy, soft straw bed she prepared. The hut was small, and there seemed to be only one room and one bed. He had insisted that he should sleep on the ground but she had already disappeared before he could open his mouth again. He thought it odd that she would vanish from sight as soon as darkness blanketed the earth, but he reckoned she was only wary of strangers; she seemed to live here all alone. Was she an orphan? He had heard many stories about orphans being cast out from their community as they were thought to bring misfortune to the people. If that was the case, would she be happy to depart from this forsaken land with him?
Though the nocturnal creatures howled and croaked throughout the night, he had had the most pleasant dream ever, a dream that involved raven-black hair, midsummer-sky eyes, milky white skin and lips softer than the petals of the flowers that surrounded the hut.
He used up all his wits to come up with reasons to prolong his stay at the maiden’s place. To his utmost delight, she made neither questions nor denials, treating him with the same hospitality she had shown him in the first day. On the fourth night of his stay, he boldly asked for her hand in marriage. He longed for the moment he could bring her back to his kingdom and present her to his parents and the court the most beautiful maiden in the world, whom he would vow to love till the end of his life in front of the High Priest and Priestess. His whole being trembled at the vision of her in pristine white gown, golden tiara shining on her black hair, woven with roundest pearls harvested from the depth of the sea. She would make the finest princess in all the ten kingdoms.
“Someone borrowed my heart a long, long time ago,” she said in her mellifluous voice, to his dismay, “and it has yet to be returned.”
Twinkling with hints of moisture, her eyes lingered on the four strange flowers in the clay vase. They swayed as if responding to her words. When she turned to look at him, his heart broke to find not the smallest trace of emotions, only the distant politeness present always. Cold.
Had she ever been anything but polite and cold to him?
“But I love you,” he cried. “My heart is all yours.”
The maiden looked unmoved by his proclamation. “Your heart isn’t what I need. Instead, I would very much want something else from you.”
“Whatever it is, I would gladly give. For I would die without you.”
“Oh, don’t be so certain, my lord.” She stressed the last two words. Was that contempt in her tone? “Not until you listen to what I want from you. I want your hair – fair and shining as sunlight taken form, your eyes – deep and dark as the woods, your skin – the finest honey and finally, your tongue – the instrument of your sweet, eloquent declaration of love.”
She paused, staring at the shock rapidly seeping into his handsome countenance. “Would you be willing to give them to me, and be a hairless, skinless and blind mute for the rest of your life? Would you be able to go to that extent to prove your love which is so passionately and easily expressed?”
“Why… why would you want them?” he stammered. “What could they be of use to you?”
He was flabbergasted by her silvery ringing laughter – the first time he heard her laugh while she had been all but quiet and soft-spoken. “My lord, you are questioning a witch’s witchcraft. Very unwise.”
She stopped laughing and stared at him, her eyes shining and piercing his soul – how he had not noticed the sharpness of her eyes before. “What the villagers say are not the least false. Men entered the woods alive and went out dead. Do you know why? They were enchanted, and they surrendered themselves to the witch’s demand. They did not fight her, never tried to. Would you do the same?”
She shook her head, and the mask of cold politeness returned to her face. “You’d better leave this land while the sun is still high. At night, I cannot guarantee your well-being.”
“What about you? That means you’re not safe here, too.” He grasped her small hand, squeezing it. “Come with me, to my kingdom. You will be the most beautiful princess in the world.”
“This is my home, the safest place for me. Go, and do not come back. You can stay a couple of nights, but that’s the limit. For you, for any human.”
Her hand slipped from his slackened grip effortlessly and she drifted away faster than his eyes could follow. Like a phantasm. Cold sweats dampened his clothes despite it was in the late autumn. He shook his head and tried to calm himself. It was hard to tell whether what he had seen was real or imagined with the thick blanket of fog that would from time to time erase all sense of directions and logic.
Defeated, he went to retreat his horse, tied outside her hut, and mounted it.
He almost reached the entrance when a sudden pull caused him to reverse his directions. He had been a fool, he chided himself, for giving up just because of a few of her hardened words. Perhaps it was only her test, a small trial to see if he had been earnest in wanting to marry her. Of course, she had every reason to be cautious – every village girl with a head to think should know better than to trust strangers in fancy clothes – and so far he had proved her doubt to be true, that his words were just as light as the winds. Oh, he could stab himself if it allowed him to turn back time. Foolishness. Cowardice. His thighs squeezed the horse’s sides, urging it to run faster and faster. He had to apologize to her, giving her hard and concrete evidence that he loved her, that he really could not live without her. Giving her his heart should she demand proof, and anything else she desired. Then he would take her out of this woods, and to his palace, where a precious jewel such as her would shine the brightest.
The horse neighed loudly, hesitant to follow his instructions and he had to whip it. Its hooves thumped on the leave-covered ground.
The moon had hung high above him by the time the young man saw the flickering light from the maiden’s hut. The darkness surrounding everything vibrated with ominous hums but he paid it no mind as he got off his horse and crept noiselessly to her place. His hand was about to knock on her door when he heard her ringing laughter, so full of life and joy. He froze and retreated to a corner, where he could peer at her through the open window but the maiden could not spot him.
She appeared to be conversing with someone. He saw her smile, a warm, affectionate smile that was entirely different from the polite ones she had graced him with, and her perfectly shaped lips move. Sometimes she spoke loudly enough for him to pick up random words, and sometimes she only whispered or broke off in low giggles. Whoever in her company must be entertaining her tremendously, which he had failed during his short time staying. The young man felt a pang of jealousy. Still, no matter how he tried, he could not get even a glimpse of the other person in the hut. He decided to risk and creep a tad closer, and spied something, or someone moving in the shadow around the withering candle.
He saw the maiden stand up, her slender arms outstretched, and she took something into her embrace. He squinted his eyes. The duo swayed, coming closer to the candle. Closer. Just a little closer. His eyes widened. He heard a scream tear out his throat.
Both the maiden and the ‘creature’ – if that could be called a living being at all – turned to him, alarmed. The maiden’s eyes searched the darkness and found him effortlessly, her gaze a sharp dagger slicing through him. The ‘creature’ in her arms stirred and it appeared to be ‘looking’ at him with its vacant sockets.
Eyes were not the only thing it lacked. It was also hairless, no inch of its naked body was covered by skin, and from its throat only gurgling small noises came out.
The beauty and the grotesque creature, was it not the most frightening picture of all?
The maiden looked straight at him, the contours of her lips forming a curve. Both her smile and the light in her shining eyes were alien to him. At this moment, she was inspiring terror in him, not admiration and love. His throat clotted, he was petrified.
“Darling, if you had your eyes now, you would see how horrified he is,” she said to the creature clinging to her arms. “Every creature with eyes…”
It appeared to understand her, and nodded.
“You should have listened to her.”
Those were last words the maiden spoke, and the last he could hear.
Silvery moonlight bathed a soft glow on the naked body. Long but graceful limbs, small waist, straight back and toned muscles, this was the body of a man in his golden prime. His hair was short and fair, his eyes black enough to radiate light, the beauty of his youthful countenance matched the Adonis-esqueness of his body. Beside him stood the most precious jewel that shone brightly in the darkness of the deep woods as it did in the royal palace.
Together, they were a sight to behold and envy.
The young man took the maiden in his strong arms, pressing her slim body close to his.
“The most agreeable skin I have had after yours. I think I would weep when it decays,” a deep baritone said. “I have to admit I was deeply regretful when your fondness for him allowed him to leave.”
“Yet he came back, didn’t he, despite my warning?”
A chuckle. “My darling, did you honestly think he could fight your charms?” He caressed her cheeks with the tips of his fingers. “When even the shape of your lips could hook his soul?”
“No,” said the maiden, leaning to his touch. It was still strange to her, the feel of these fingers, but she would grow accustomed to it soon enough. Just like any other times.
“Would you rather have a new name to match your new guise?”
“I would rather keep Demimonde. After all, that is the name you first gave me.”
“Demimonde then,” she breathed, and kissed him on the lips, her kiss firm, certain, experienced and overwhelming with passion.
Dark creatures of the woods gathered around them to share the body laid at their feet.