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Black black black black black.
It had been dark for so long that I had forgotten what light looked like, felt like. The darkness was tangible, like a cool, musty cloak wrapped around me from head to toe; I was swaddled like a baby in sooty blackness, but it wasn't comforting, like a blanket. More like a shroud. Was I buried? Was I dead?
I couldn't remember how long I had been alone in the dark. Forever? A week? A second? Time loses its meaning after a while, when you have nothing to mark the passing of the moments. No shadows flowing across the walls and floor, no ticking clocks' hands showing how the hours and minutes pass; I remembered the idea of shadows, of walls and floors, of clocks, but not what they actually looked like. What does anything look like, feel like? I had become a philosopher in my solitary black existence. It was as if I was caught in an eternal moment that had no beginning and would never end.
A vague, gnawing feeling, something I realized I should recognize, somewhere in my middle section. I knew I theoretically had things called arms, legs, a torso, a head, but in that darkness they didn't exist, they were just meaningless words, I knew I could touch myself, whatever I was, and not know what I was touching. Was it my...stomach? Was I…hungry? I felt my mind emerging slowly from cloudy stupidity into a slightly less hazy reality.
Hunger. Hmmm. What was hunger? I pondered it for a moment, a philosopher again. The lack of food, the desire of the body for nourishment. How long had it been since I had eaten anything? I knew I had eaten before, had tasted food and enjoyed it to varying degrees, but once again, it was an abstract concept. But this strange feeling in what I was beginning to understand as my midsection was unpleasant, and growing even more so with time. That new hunger helped me realize the passing of time, the desire for something to fill my empty insides made me realize the minutes marching by. Why am I hungry? Was that not a basic need of humans, of anything, to eat, to be able to keep the body going? Why had it not been met?
Suddenly, a light.
It was like the first sunrise, breaking over the horizon, after God spoke those all-important words. Let there be light.
Who was God?
But that didn't matter—all that mattered was the light.
A long, vertical slant of light, brighter than a million stars (stars?), growing wider, casting its piercing rays upon me, my eyes screaming painfully in protest, but still seeking more. Light. I hungered for it as much as the body I only vaguely understood and acknowledged desired food. Without understanding what I was doing, I lunged toward the light, I wanted to touch it, I wanted to bathe in it, be consumed by it. I wanted to FEEL. To KNOW. Things that were impossible to do well in the blackness.
I can't move! The body I hadn't been able to feel suddenly screamed in protest, the muscles I had forgotten I had bunched and cramped, strained against the bindings I could feel holding me fast. I was sitting, I realized. I was in a chair, a hard chair with a high back and long arms, and I was strapped to it at the shoulders, wrists, elbows, waist, and thighs. My feet dangled in empty air, twitching as I struggled, and they burned from the lack of circulation, from not being able to touch the floor. Am I a child, or simply very small? The shaft of light piercing my world came narrowly through a tiny opening I could now see in front of my eyes, a cutout space…My head was covered by something, something hard that I could feel pressing against my cheeks and forehead and crown, with a small notch cut out in front of my nose.
How amazing. In that split second I remembered my body, knew all the names of the different parts of it. And in that split second I wished I could forget them all again.
Whoever had opened the door entered the room, leaving the door open a bit. Rough hands loosened the strap across my elbows enough for me to move my forearms. My fingers tingled in relief, blood rushing down into the starved tissues like a raging fire. I gasped in pain. The same rough hands lifted away the thing that covered my head; I felt the cold air of the room on my scalp, through my sweaty hair.
I could see again, a little bit, but the weak light coming from the doorway made my eyes smart and ache. How long since I've seen daylight? Any light??
A scraping sound. Something, a shape, intruding into the shaft of light on the floor, and I was aware of something else: a smell. Something besides the musty dankness. It smelled like life itself; somehow, my subconscious registered that scent. Bread. Broth. The smell of life itself. Rough hands pushed something onto the arms of my chair. I saw, sharply cast in shadows by the light in front of me, shapes of things I knew I should know and love. I lifted my tingling hands, fell upon the tray—tray?—and began to eat with the savagery of an animal. Was that what I was? An animal? Am I in a…zoo?
That concept bothered me vaguely, but it took a very distant second place to the feeling of rapture as the food I swallowed without tasting filled the hollow inside me. The hunger was calmed a bit, not banished entirely, but it retreated enough that it was possible to ignore it and think about other things, my mind growing clearer by the moment.
While I had stuffed myself with that food the light vanished, with an echoing thud, a puff of dust. It was dark again, so absolutely dark that I almost doubted the food in my hands.
I froze, hands midway to my face. Yes, face. That was where my eyes were, my mouth, my nose. My brain. What had just happened?
Someone had shut the door to my cell.
Cell? Wasn't a cell someplace for a prisoner, someone who must be locked away, to protect the innocent from them? To punish the offender? Was I one of those people, the condemned? Was this a prison I was in? This blackness, and to be strapped to this infernal chair, was this my sentence? What was my crime?
I finished the last bite of bread, gulped the last mouthful of broth, and knew that a thin stream of it ran down my chin and dripped onto my chest, but I didn't care. I knew I should have cared at the crudeness of it, but it was suddenly more important that I THINK.
Why am I here?
Who am I?
Me. Who was I. This collection of body parts, this amalgam of chaotic thoughts and feelings, was a person. Me. Who was me? Who was I?
Sounds came to me, gibberish at first. I tested them, tasted them on my tongue.
M. Mmmm….ma….rrr. Maaaarrrrryyyy. Dredged up from the thick tangle of my dim past. Odd sounds. Nonsense syllables.
Right but not perfect. Not complete. Not what I had answered to before the darkness, I was pretty sure…although I didn't quite remember anything before the darkness, just odd flashes and images that I didn't really understand right now. It was very important that I remember those sounds correctly. They meant something, something vital. Like a key to a lock that I couldn't see or feel, but made up my whole being.
It hit me like a bolt of lightning, an electric shock, from nowhere.
Mary Alice. Mary Alice Brandon. I was Mary Alice Brandon.
Alice. I didn't like Mary. Too many Marys around. Alice was better. Alice was different, pretty. Like Alice in Wonderland...a book I loved, a magical place I could escape to. I think I liked books, liked magic.
But why was I in the dark? Why was Alice in the dark? Had I, Alice, always been here? Been a bad girl? No. No, I hadn't. What was there before this blackness? It was so hard, not being able to separate the twisted, tangled thoughts and images that seemed to make up "before". I thought hard, tried to remember, to untangle. I focused everything I was in that moment on that concept. Why why why?
I remembered something, something clear, something real, something important. I remembered remembering, remembered feeling.
Green grass. Sweet, cool wind moving across my face. Bright blue sky. Scent of freshly mown hay on the wind. Birdsong. Sunlight. Taste of berries on my tongue, sweet and sour at the same time. White skirts blowing against my legs. My favorite dress. I was ten. Gathering blackberries. My favorites. Seeds caught in my teeth. Juice stained my fingers and lips. Then…something strange. Something strange but not unfamiliar. Pictures. My pictures.
Though my eyes did not stop seeing the berry patch and trees and grass and blue sky, something else was there too, something separate from the berry patch but still there, but not tangible. Like a picture cast upon the air before me, flickering, hazy, but I could still see some details. Like a motion picture show. I had seen one before, but in a theatre, not outside, in the bright afternoon sunlight. Where was the projector? But I had seen these before, these pictures. Sometimes they showed me things that were wonderful, sometimes things that were horrible, sometimes things that did not happen at all—but they usually did. I had loved the pictures as a small child, delighted in them, rejoiced at telling people about them. I had disregarded their fear and revulsion at first when the pictures came true, it hadn't mattered. I had been right. But that had changed. The pictures had eventually become something to fear, to hate, to hide from. I avoided people. I tried to not see them. But it never mattered, they always came, whether I was awake or asleep. That day I saw something that frightened me, made me want to hide in the thorny blackberry bushes and never come out.
My father. Hollering. Angry. Face red and sweaty as it was when he drank. Crushing my fingers as he clutched my hand, dragged me away. "Satan's spawn!!!" The smell of whiskey on his breath, sour and sickening.
Mama, screaming. Begging. "No, no, please, no, she's only a girl!"
Someone else crying in the room, someone small, golden hair in pigtails. Cynthia. My little sister. She cried for me, screamed for them not to take me. They didn't listen.
The priest. "We must cast out the demons." His hands folded piously before him, his face like stone. "Modern science has the means to help his child. God has mandated it."
The big building, long dark hallways, sharp chemical smell; screaming, moaning, sobs, whimpers, whispers, hysterical laughter, shouts, swirling together, flowing from doorways and windows like a symphony composed by a maniac. Doors slamming. A high-pitched humming, like a tuning fork struck against a rock: the sound of electricity. Screams. My screams. Dragging my heels, kicking, shrieking, tearing with my nails and teeth and trying to grab at something, anything, to keep me from it as I was thrust into a room, and then nothing. So black. I screamed too. Darkness. I was afraid of the dark.
"Don't worry, Mary Alice. It's all for the best. They'll make you better. They'll fix you." My father's voice had never sounded so false before, in a child's lifetime of memories of falseness from him. Footsteps fading with distance. Darkness, all-encompassing. Hearing faintly from far away, "Do what you need to her. She's no use to me. Damn freak."
It had happened. I was here now. What I had seen at the berry patch was now my whole world.
Poor Alice. Poor me. All alone in the dark, no one around to inspire the pictures, and my own future's pictures filled with nothing, with blackness. Long, long years of emptiness beckoned.
Now I knew who I had been, at least a little, and why I was here, but it was hard to hang on to those things, to hang on to myself. The darkness was just too thick, too heavy. It pulled on me, pulled on my thoughts, weighed them down, pulled me into the darkness with them. Was that why I was here?
To lose myself?
Why? What's so wrong with me?
Ah, yes. The pictures. Having pictures meant you were wrong, were evil, that you were broken, right? Needed fixing. Right?
I remembered: my doll, her arm dangling by a thin thread…Mama pulling out her sewing kit, humming as she re-attached the doll's arm, smiling absently to herself. "See, Mary Alice? I fixed it!" she said brightly. Brandished my doll, repaired, but still not right. The thread was blue, the doll's body was white. Fixing wasn't possible. Not truly fixing, making something brand-new again. Just repairing. The scar always showed.
Could I be fixed like that? So easily? No, like the doll, the flaw, the scar would always be there.
But am I really broken??
I didn't feel broken, before. Before here, I'd felt fine, I think. My pictures were a part of me, like the mole on my right shoulder, like my slightly upturned nose, like my black hair. Part of what made ME…Alice.
Then why was I here?
Oh yes, because THEY thought I was broken. Needed fixing. What I thought didn't matter, because the broken person can't have a proper perspective, is that it? But all the needles and thread in the world wouldn't fix me, wouldn't take away my pictures. If I hadn't been able to avoid them, in my desperate desire to do so for all the years since I had realized how much people disapproved of and feared my ability, then nothing could take them away. Why wouldn't they listen? I never hurt anybody, sometimes my pictures helped.
I considered this. I thought hard, until my head hurt. Had they gone away, my pictures, since I had been here in the dark? Was their solution working?
No. No, not really. They were less, but still there. Less because I had no one around me to make decisions and cause the pictures to come to me, because the blackness deprived me of my consciousness; less because my own future had obviously been decided by others more powerful than me, and who had no desire or inclination to change that decision.
Suddenly a flash of memory: it struck me that it wasn't always dark.
I remembered that now, and wished it was always dark. Then I wouldn't have had to endure what followed the light coming back.
Sometimes, they came for me.
I remembered the painfully bright slash of light as the door was thrown open, the hard hands on my arms as they dragged me outside into the hall outside my cell, the light which had delighted me at first becoming sinister as I realized something was dreadfully wrong. Felt something pulling my wrists and ankles fast against a hard surface, pushing me down onto a table, holding me tight. Someone shoved something between my teeth, holding my nose when I refused til I finally relented, gasping.
"Be a good girl now. Bite down on this." Taste of hard leather, dry and dusty.
Agony. Pain so sharp and defined it was as if I felt every cell in my body, alight and afire with it. Sizzling, a burning smell. That sound, like a vibrating music note, frozen in eternity, electric, buzzing. Oh, the stench. Burning me. Gagging me.
Is that my hair I smell? Am I on fire??
Yes. My hair. Sizzling. Burning. My body thrashing in futile resistance, tormented by currents of electricity poured into me through my temples. My teeth bit down into the hard thing until they met, pierced the leather, and I tasted my own blood on my tongue. I would lose consciousness, fading into a misty red haze than eventually tapered into a numb blackness. I would awake in my chair, utterly and completely disoriented, twitching, unable to even comprehend my own consciousness.
Other times the rough hands took me somewhere else. Bundled me blindfolded out of my cell, then half-carried me to a different place. They took my clothes, left me naked and shivering, defenseless as the day I was born, lying on an icy-cold floor in a tiny room. I could reach out and touch the cold walls and ceiling without being able to extend my arms even half-way, could feel tiny holes in those walls, thousands of them. Wondered why. Such a common word in my existence. It defined me. Why.
"Bathtime! Be a good girl, sit still."
Then the water came, bitingly cold, in tiny streams, fast and hard as if from a firehose, striking my skin like needles, from every direction. It was as if I was being flayed alive, it felt as if my skin was being scoured away by thousands of icy, biting insects…Water in my nose, my mouth, my ears, drumming my eyes through my squinted eyelids, pouring from my hair, puddling around my knees, while I hunkered down into myself, trying to keep my tender flesh from more ravaging by those watery needles.
I could never tell how long the shower lasted. Eventually rough hands would throw open the chamber door and yank me to my feet. I would be dressed in different clothes and shoved back into my chair, strapped upright. Those were the only times I welcomed it. At least the chair was dry, solid.
Then there were times when the room was warmed to a suffocating, oppressive heat, causing me to sweat and then ultimately pass out, delirious. I would spend days like that, I think, drifting in and out of fevered dreams, til I awoke one day drenched in sweat, feeling wrung out like an old dishtowel. I didn't understand why they would do that to me.
Sometimes, more frequently it seemed lately, although I had little basis of comparison, it wasn't the rough hands taking me to the shocks or the showers that took the dark away for a moment. Sometimes, the hands came sweetly, silhouetted against the blinding brightness of the open door, offering me a cupful of loveliness. I remembered the flavor: chocolate. "Here, drink this. It's good for you." I barely noticed the bitter aftertaste as I gulped it down greedily in my animal hunger. Even after several times of this, I always took the cup and welcomed the taste.
Afterwards, the darkness took on a different feel. Warmer. More comforting, at first, gathering around me like a soft blanket. I would drift in that sweet sensory deprivation, forgetting everything bad. My thoughts would slow, flowing like cold syrup, and would become tangled, messy. Incomprehensible. Then I would become disoriented, dizzy, would see colors flashing behind my closed eyelids, would sometimes vomit, or shake with horrible tremors till I thought my bones would dislocate. Eventually blackness would overwhelm me and I would pass out.
Later, I never knew how much later, I would wake and not know where I was, who I was, and would have to fight my way back to myself, my brain sluggish and stupid, and I would spend hours, days perhaps, slogging through the tarry blackness of the cell and in my own mind until I found Mary Alice again, until I understood myself again, would remember that it was something in the chocolate they gave me, and promise not to drink it next time…but I always would. Weak. I was so weak. I would begin to be anxious for the cup, would begin to feel sick with waiting, it became almost like a physical craving. But why? I hated what it did to me. Why do I want it? It was strange. Did everyone go through this?
No. Only me, with my accursed pictures. They were trying to make them go away, my pictures. Trying to fix me. Alice without the pictures would be all right for them, even if it was just a botched repair job, like cutting off a diseased and rotting limb.
Take them!!!! I screamed into the blackness. Yes, the pictures were a part of me like my nose, but a part I would gladly trade for a moment's breath of fresh air, to see the sun, feel the wind, for a second to feel free. Take them, and be damned!
But it didn't work.
So I sat in the darkness. I endured the hunger and thirst. I forgot and remembered, forgot again, remembered again. I ate and drank and thrashed against my bonds when they tortured me with the shocks and curled protectively around myself in the showers. I thirsted jaggedly for the cup and its bitter aftertaste, for the momentary glimpse of peace it brought. But that glimpse was growing less with every time, I could tell my body was becoming accustomed to it, that it wanted more of the stuff to get that peace. I drowsed in the blackness and despaired of anything else. What else was there to do? There was nothing in the empty black cell to kill myself with.
Once, when they left my straps loose for a while, after feeding me, I managed to release myself, and tried banging my head against the walls until I felt blood flow, until my consciousness merged with the darkness, trying to hurt myself badly enough that I could sleep forever. It didn't work, though; I woke later, bound to my chair at new points, neck and knees and ankles, totally immobile, head covered with the wooden hood and its tiny opening, my head throbbing. I could feel blood, dried and tacky on my face and neck, could smell it all over me, knew that no one cared about me other than to keep me from being more of a nuisance. I was a good girl after that; if I had to be in the dark, at least I wanted to be free to move a bit when they left the straps off my forearms, to kick my feet in a vain effort to keep my toes from falling asleep. To remind myself that I was alive, as noxious as life was.
They were winning in one way, the people who had put me here, my tormentors: Mary Alice was going. Alice going bye-bye, like I remembered my little sister saying as I was taken away. Every time I had to fight my way back to her, Alice was more faded, more vague, less familiar. Bye-bye Alice. Like an old dress being weathered by the wash, wind, and work, becoming shapeless and drab and eventually worthless for anything but the ragbag. I was losing Alice, they were throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and I didn't really know why that bothered me anymore. Why did it matter, really, if Alice was there? What did Alice matter? I just wanted to stop feeling anything at all. I was tired of the pain and gnawing addiction, tired of the blackness, tired of the confusion and fear and doubt. I wanted it all to end. Please, let me sleep. Dreamless. Empty.
Then one day HE came, and with him came the pictures of my life again. They stunned me with their vivid strangeness.
I had been sleeping, I suppose, when he was suddenly there. I know I didn't remember seeing the blinding slash of light as the door opened, or I would have cringed away from it, fearful. I remembered first feeling cold, hard fingers stroking my face. I heard the most beautiful sound I had ever heard before. A voice. I should have been terrified but I wasn't.
"Ah, my sweet, how sad you are." A sigh, soft and careful. "I will help you. I just pray I am not too late."
Joy. I didn't know who he was, I didn't know why I was special to him, or why I deserved help…but I wanted it. From him. I desperately wanted the pictures I saw of myself, flashing by rapidly like pages flipped in a book, burning into the insides of my eyelids: me, cold and hard, glittering(?), breathtaking. Strange, alien, but wonderful. I was as swift as the wind, free as a bird, flying at his side, we were running together. Free. FREE.
Strong, icy fingers loosened and then removed the straps binding me, lifted the cover from my head. Cold, hard arms lifted me from the chair, as if he knew that I could never walk on my own, not anymore. He caressed my face, brushed back my hair. I knew that it was very short, and I fleetingly, ridiculously, felt the vain, useless shame of knowing I must look hideous. I remembered the days when they came and sheared my hair off, every so often, so it wouldn't burn too much when they shocked me, so I wouldn't become louse-ridden.
I felt his chest hitch against mine in a sob, but no tears fell. "Why have they done this to you, my beautiful one?" he whispered.
Why indeed? I asked silently, ironic even in my delirium, lolling in his arms, weak as a kitten and helpless as a child. You tell me. I would be happy to have a good answer. Maybe then I could sleep peacefully?
I felt myself moving, as if I was being carried by a cloud. To heaven?
He chuckled. I felt softness beneath me, blessed softness. Pillows? Blankets? A mattress? His fingers on my forehead, stroking.
"So you do have something left inside that poor ravaged mind, thank God. Maybe I'm not too late." Cold fingers stroked my face again. A sweet smell, unlike any I had ever smelled before, washed over me: his breath. I wanted to die then and there, carried to heaven by that sweet breath. "Sleep, my beauty, sleep and dream your dreams. See your pictures. You are safe now."
And so I did.
I don't know how long I slept in the room he had taken me to, safe and dim—I really slept for the first time in who knows how long. Before, in the cell, it had been the sleep of exhaustion, of drugs, of a mind seeking refuge from torture and deprivation; now it was real rest, and my mind lay mostly dormant for a long time, healing.
Not all the healing was enjoyable, though.
For days, weeks, I was wracked with tremors and piercing pain in my stomach, my skin crawled like a living thing, prickling with gooseflesh, greasy with sweat; I vomited, I wept, my brain full of a sticky, itchy haze that buzzed like angry bees even though I knew I didn't hear anything. Sometimes I realized why, in my fleeting moments of true awareness: my craving for the chocolate drink with the bitter aftertaste had roared to life within me at being deprived. I begged him to give me something, anything, to make it stop. Kill me, even.
He sat with me through it. He spooned weak broth into me like a baby, but never made me feel like a child as he did it. He wiped my face, cleaned away the vomit and sweat and tears without hesitation or revulsion, his touch firm and sure. He explained to me, in his kind, patient, musical voice, what was going on, when I begged him to kill me.
"I'm so sorry, darling. So, so sorry." He sighed regretfully, painfully, and then his voice turned hard, condemning. "You see, Alice, they had been giving you laudanum. Milk and cocoa, mixed with laudanum, tincture of opium, to keep you quiet, to make you complacent. They've nearly killed you with it." Icy fingers stroked my forehead, tracing my eyebrows tenderly.
"Your body must be cleansed of it, of the addiction, before you can be whole again. Better to stop it altogether rather than taper it off, we don't have that much time. It will take some time as it is, to dry it out of you, and it makes you ill, but it's best this way."
I understood inside my mind, but it didn't make it any easier to bear the pain and shame of what I was going through. But eventually the symptoms subsided, my limbs stopped trembling, my stomach stopped twisting and rejecting food, my mind cleared of the ragged buzzing haze, and I didn't want the drink anymore. Not really, not purposefully. The taste was still here, in the back of my mind, and I knew that if I allowed it to come to the forefront of my mind it would take over again, and it would rule me. But my angel wouldn't let that happen, so neither would I.
Finally, rested, dreams began. Good dreams. I saw my pictures again.
I saw him, even though I never opened my eyes, even after he removed the light, loose blindfold that had covered my eyes at first. I saw him in my mind, in my pictures.
I think he kept the room where I was very dim and had blindfolded me at first, for my eyes had been damaged by being kept in the dark for so long, he told me. He also said it wouldn't be permanent, that I would see again, although in a different way, and I didn't mind keeping my eyes closed, drowsy, dreamy, safe in that knowledge.
I fixed on the image of his face in my mind. Oh, he was beautiful. So beautiful, sparkling like the sun, his face like an angel, smiling at me, sharp clean planes of his face like marble. I knew he was old, but I didn't care. I knew he was strange, knew he wasn't human, but it didn't matter. He was my savior. He loved me, and I didn't care why he'd picked me, although I sometimes wondered at it. The love was enough. His words and hands were gentle. He didn't judge me. He wasn't wishing for me to be different.
I'm fine the way I am! Me! Alice!
He stroked my face, my arms, kissed my forehead. I saw it in my mind's eye, felt it on my skin. I was too afraid to open my real eyes, afraid that perhaps the reality wouldn't match my fantastic dreaming. I had never been so happy before, so complete.
He often sat beside me while I lay there, and he held my hand. He talked to me, told me things about the outside world, about himself. He was very old, he said. I knew that, even though he didn't look old. He had traveled the world over many times, and had never found anyone like me before.
He saw pictures too, it seemed, but not quite like mine: he had to touch the person so see something about them, and could hear their thoughts when he touched them, too, almost like he became part of their mind and its future. He could read only one person at a time—whereas my pictures deluged me with images from everyone around me at times, especially when I knew the people, and when something important was about to happen. My pictures and visions were flickering, sometimes transparent, unless it was something particularly close and certain, whereas when he saw the future of others it was as if he saw through their eyes, and experienced the sounds and smells of that future as well.
He had been seeking me, or someone like me, for a very long time. He had seen a future for himself with me, long ago, something that didn't often happen to him. He had become a doctor in the hopes that one day he could find me; he specialized in treating people in places like this: a mental asylum, a madhouse, a sanitarium, I realized now. He knew that someone with a gift like mine would probably be labeled defective, need to be fixed, that I would need help whenever he found me.
He told me about finding me.
"I arrived here in St. Joseph a few months ago, from an asylum in New York," he began one day, as if I had asked. Maybe I had with my thoughts.
"I was tired of the way they ran that place, the poor people caged like animals, covered in their own filth. I heard of this hospital, that they were experimenting with new treatments, focusing on trying to cure the diseased mind, rather than simply imprisoning and restraining the body. I hoped for something different." He sighed, sounded regretful.
"Here, I found a different place, certainly, but not better. At least in New York they were honest about what they did, unapologetic. They were there to protect the insane and violent from themselves and protect the rest of society from them, through whatever means necessary." He paused, as if considering, before he went on. "I do suppose there is some small honor in that, to such a clear purpose so unambiguously carried-out...But to masquerade torture as therapy, to pretend that it is anything besides a series of horrors that no one, not even the meanest of degenerates, should truly endure...That is an abomination that should not be allowed."
His hand clutched mine, strong but not hurtful. I somehow knew he could crush my tiny fingers if he wanted to, but that he never would.
"The director of this facility is a…" He trailed off, almost like he was at a loss for words—something I was sure he never truly was. I guessed he was trying to be kind in his choice of phrase; he was always a gentleman, soft-s´poken and courteous. "Well, he is what passes for an educated man in this present society. He has traveled extensively, he attended university in Europe, knew Freud, but doesn't think much of his theories of therapy." He chuckled. "He much prefers the methods another man discovered in the slaughterhouses, the method he has tried out on you several times, with the electricity."
His voice became like steel. "I fear, my love, that although you are one of the first unfortunate ones on this continent to experience that particular 'therapy', you will not be the last, by far. I have seen that much in his mind, in his zeal for proselyting his cause."
I heard him shift in his chair, rest an elbow on the bed next to me. I smelled his delicious scent and drifted a bit. He was silent for a while, as if lost in thought; I didn't mind the silence, it was calm, not oppressive. Finally he spoke again, his voice a bit warmer.
"On my first day here, I toured this hospital with him. The director. He was very proud of his wards, so sparkling clean and organized, cleaned by the more capable patients, of course—he says that hard work distracts the sick mind from its delusions." He snorted, derisive. "More like captive slave labor, I should say.
"First we toured the men's wings, the various levels of security. Very innovative, this, segregating each class of the mentally ill according to the severity of its maladies. Intelligent, actually, something I must give him credit for; it decreases problems, keeping the psychotics and violent away from the simply depressed and delusional." His fingers ran along my forearm, rested on my hand. "He proudly showed me his 'treatment rooms,' as he called them. I saw all the various methods he deals with the deranged. I saw the rooms filled with stacks of restraints, saw the isolation chambers and twirling chairs and the needle bath showers."
I shuddered at the memories, at the raw cold pain of them. His hand pressed mine gently, reminding me that I was safe. I relaxed again, listening in the dark.
"The women's wings were also clean and neat. More so, I suppose, given the general predilection that the fairer sex has for tidiness." He chuckled. "I saw much fewer women in the restraints, of course, for women are not often given to violent mental illness. They are more given to depressiveness, to melancholia. Or so it is said, by the current philosophies. However, I," he said quietly, "I, for one, believe that this 'tendency toward melancholy' is less to be attributed to the supposed innate weakness of the female mind than to the desire of male humans to dominate, to keep their women quiet and submissive." He laughed, a sound like bells. "Imagine, human men, afraid of human women. It's quite funny, actually."
I smiled, although the joke of it eluded me. I was happy to hear him laugh. I was also amazed at how he spoke; no one had ever spoken like that to me, with big words and complicated phrases...fully expecting me to understand, like he was speaking to an equal.
He continued. "While we were touring the higher-security women's hallway, the director turned to me, conspiratorial and sly, and smiled at me. He asked me if I wanted to see something wonderful, his pride and joy. A personal triumph, he said. I said yes, of course. Why not?
"So we left the main hallway, and he used a key from his waistcoat pocket to open a door, a nondescript door, no sign or number. Anonymous.
"Inside the room was a table, and all the workings for the electroshock therapy that I had heard about from Europe. Apparently, he had been the protégée of a doctor in Vienna who had been experimenting with that technique for, oh, ten years or so by then. He fancied it the latest, best treatment therapy for truly delusional people, and especially for the violent and deranged, the criminally insane. It makes them compliant and receptive, he said, their diseased minds are wiped clean of their wicked fancies, and we are able to implant proper notions there instead. That his professor had learned it in a slaughterhouse, where they used the technique to pacify the cows and pigs before they cut their throats." His voice was tight with rage.
Suddenly, it was as if I was there again, in that room. My stomach clenched violently in memory. My eyelids squeezed shut even tighter, I drew in upon myself, I could smell my hair burning, I could almost feel the current coursing through me. My breath came raggedly, painfully, in terror. I had been trying not to remember those things.
I was immediately in his arms, small as a little girl. He held me tightly to him, shushed me. I cried into his shirt for a while, hitching, anguished sobs, and he let me, patting my back like I was a child. Eventually my grief ran its course, and I was able to draw a breath without it catching in my throat. I waited for him to continue his story.
"Well, sweetheart, I had to hide my disgust, of course. The man was my employer. Although I wanted to slaughter him then and there, I held myself in check, knowing that I couldn't do that. Even more important than not allowing my…differences…to become known, I did not, could not, allow any part of that foul man to become part of me."
I wondered absently at that. I knew he was different, my angel, but I wasn't sure how, exactly. What did that mean, "part of me?" Like he would eat the man? I shivered a little at the idea. He laughed softly, although the laughter had an edge to it, a self-mocking tone that I didn't understand; he must have gotten something of my thoughts from our touching hands. I decided to ignore the disturbing thoughts.
"Anyway, he went on about the wonders of this therapy, that he was corresponding with his old master in Europe and giving him progress reports. I asked the director how many patients he was currently…treating. He told me that at the moment only one, a young woman." He paused, his arms tightening around me for a moment before continuing. "I was a bit taken aback—a young woman? I asked him. Surely, she is not one of your deranged, violent psychotics?
"The director laughed and said no, he had had several of those in the past, that they had all provided him with a wealth of information, solid-gold research material, he called it, before they either died or were rendered completely catatonic and unresponsive. He had chosen this particular subject due to the profound nature of her malady, and with the approval of her family, he said." His voice was profoundly sad, a soft whisper, but every word stabbed at me.
The approval of her family, he had said. What they had done to me here had been known about and approved of by them, by my father, surely not by my mother. How long had it been, how long had I been there?
"Ten years, Alice. You have been here ten years, as of next month." Again, softly, sadly.
I began to cry again, broken, shattered into a million pieces by this.
Half my life. I've been in this dark place for half my life. And my family has known, approved, left me here, never came back to get me, never cared if they fixed me or not. I felt so alone, so worthless.
Feeling my anguish, he murmured in my ear how beautiful I was, how special, how wonderful I was. They knew nothing, those people. Pearls before swine. Diamonds before swine. He held me until it passed, this time a much longer time than before.
When he began again his tone was heavy, sad. "Of course the sadistic pig wanted to tell me more, but he didn't actually want to show you to me. He was very…almost protective of you, jealous of allowing someone to see you, to perhaps offer another opinion on your case. But I prevailed upon him to show you to me, because I was suddenly consumed by the knowledge that you were the one I have searched for all this time." He stopped, his cold hands cradling my face between them. "I was looking for you, Alice, for all that time. Only you."
He had rescued me. I was special. Soon, we could be together in every way, always together. I wanted that so much, was so grateful. I just needed time to heal, to recover from what had been done to me, to understand kindness and love for the first time.
I loved him, and he loved me. Simple. Easy as breathing. I didn't know his name, but it wasn't important. He cared for me like a baby, bathing and dressing me, combing my hair because I was still so weak; I felt no shame anymore. I didn't have to talk, if he touched me, because he heard my thoughts, saw my future; it was a joy to be able to be understood so easily. My pictures didn't frighten him. They were part of me, a part he loved dearly. A part like himself.
He finally began again.
"As he escorted me to your holding cell, he told me about you, Alice.
"You were nineteen, he said, and had been 'in his care' for about three years now. Your father had brought you here to St. Joseph when you were a little girl, saying that you were possessed of the devil, that you saw visions of the future like a croaking raven, that you were a lunatic." His voice turned icy with hate. "I cannot imagine what that man could possibly have thought. No one who sees your sweet face could ever think you anything but an angel."
Me? Angel? No, no, he had it all wrong. He was my angel.
"He unlocked your cell with aplomb and fanfare, almost like he was unveiling his masterpiece, a work of art." My angel squeezed my face gently, lovingly. "I can agree with that part. You are indeed a work of art, my Alice." I flushed with pleasure.
His voice became heavy again, full of anger and grief.
"You were there in the chair, as you always were, I realized. I have never heard of anyone confined to the tranquilizer chair for so long; normally, the subject is confined for a few hours, perhaps a day, to deprive them of their senses, to supposedly make them pliant and open to ideas other than their delusions. That is the theory behind it, at least.
"You were sleeping, although I suppose it was more that you were unconscious. I could smell the laudanum in your blood from there. Even so, tainted like that, I had never smelled anything like that in my entire long existence." His voice warmed, became softer than velvet, took on a tone of longing. Almost...hungry.
"I had a theory, based on things I had seen in the past, of other members of my kind who encountered members of your kind who are so…appealing…to us. You always smell good, you understand, but some are more intensely attractive to certain of my kind than others, as if their blood were created especially for that particular one." He paused, took a breath, inhaling, like smelling a flower. Chuckled again, low, rich.
"When humans smell that wonderful, that bewitching, to one of my kind, there is something there that binds them to each other, and it is... undeniable."
He paused, his lips close to my ear. I shivered in anticipation.
"We have to decide what to do with that bond, you see," he whispered, barely audible. "We have to decide, do we make that person part of us... literally, or figuratively. We must choose whether to give in to the thirst or to the lust, Alice. There is no other way. It is too much to bear. Once you have experienced that, there is no undoing it: a crossroads is before you, and you must choose for better or worse."
The cool breath in my ear raised gooseflesh along my neck, shoulders, arms...followed by a slow warmth that spread throughout me like a delicious cloud. I'd never experienced anything like that ever before.
He continued, sounding breathless.
"I decided then, seeing you there, smelling your incredible scent, hearing your heartbeat and the blood rushing through your veins…" Hard fingers pressed gently against the hollow of my neck; I shivered. "I decided that I couldn't live without you, that I couldn't live with myself if I allowed the thirst to win."
My heart galloped, sped, like a racing horse.
His breath caressed my face, as if his mouth were inches, centimeters, away from mine. It didn't matter to me, him speaking of blood and thirst; I ignored it deliberately, pushed it aside, focused on him, hovering there above me. I suddenly wished he would kiss me, would do something other than the chaste caresses and pecks he gave me. I felt my blood singing through my veins as if electrified, but this electricity didn't frighten me: it made me feel more alive, more real, than I had ever felt. My hands clutched at his sleeves, grasping for a hold, trying to pull him closer. My lips strained for his, my breath coming in short, labored gasps.
He sighed and loosed his hold on me, laying me back onto the bed again, pressing me gently but firmly into the pillows with nothing but controlled affection.
"Ah, Alice, you must be patient, as I must be," he reprimanded me gently. "As wonderful as you smell, my love, if I allowed both of us to give in to what we wish, it would be the death of us both, I fear." His laughter was quiet. "I am not that well-controlled, I know that much of myself, after all this time. What I already do is hard enough."
Rejection flooded me, and embarrassment. But then something struck me, something I hadn't allowed myself to think about before.
Smell?? I smell wonderful?? I pondered that muddily for a moment. It must have shown on my face, because he laughed again, and I felt shamed again. My blood?
Once again his cold finger traced my brow, then the curve of my nose, the angle of my cheekbones.
"Rest assured, beautiful, that it is not without regret that I must restrain us both. For I wish you to be much more than my next meal."
His hand patted my shoulder comfortingly, then he quickly continued with his story before I could begin to grasp what he had just said. It was as if he had never stopped telling me, hadn't rendered me into a puddle of quivering, gasping lust moments before.
"The director told me that you had been possessed of delusions and visions since the earliest time of your childhood, and that often the predictions you made came true. He attributed that to a demonic influence, the idiot. So-called man of science, batting about words like demons and witchcraft, bah.
"He said that in the course of trying to rid you of your malady, your demon perhaps, that he had tried every known treatment and had no real success." He spoke through clenched teeth. "Before him, they had put you in the tranquilizer chair, they spun you, they drugged you with laudanum, they put you into the needle baths, all trying to break open your mind, to gain access to that part of you that clings to your visions, to try to wipe them away. The new director kept that course of treatments, but added to it, as well." He clutched my hand again, angry once more. I was so glad that his anger was not directed at me, I knew somehow that it would be fierce and undeniable, and hopeless for the target of that rage. He continued again after a moment, and this time his voice swelled with pride, with love.
"But you were stronger than that, Alice," he whispered, adoringly. "Your gift is no sickness. It is a gift, a talent, like mine. And your mind is strong, stronger than anyone else's mind I have ever seen in all my years. You held on, my love, by the tips of your fingernails, to yourself. Because you were waiting for me, as I have waited for you, for so long."
I felt as if I would die with the joy of those words.
How right he was, how I had clung to myself and to sanity, and had almost lost the battle with the darkness. If he had not come for me, I would have lost that battle. I would be a drooling, compliant lump of flesh in the corner of a dark room somewhere, Alice gone bye-bye.
"I knew, as I said before, that you were the one I had sought, the one whose blood sang for me, and that I had to free you. I wanted to rip you from that infernal chair right then, to flee with you, and make you mine right that moment. But I knew I had to wait for just a little while, for the right opportunity."
Why??? I screamed inside my head, for the first time feeling betrayed by my angel, my savior. Why did you let them keep doing those things to me???
His voice was sad when he answered my unspoken scream.
"Alice, I know you know that I am different from you, that I am not exactly, er…human." I felt him stroke my hair back from my forehead tentatively, as if he were suddenly afraid that I would draw away in fear or revulsion. I just waited, hoping for more explanation.
"I do not want to go into particulars right now, I cannot, but please understand me, I have already said too much already, Alice, that I mean you no harm. To the contrary, actually, I want to be with you forever."
Forever was a long time. Literally, forever?
I thought again of the pictures I had seen when he first saved me, of us together, running, white and glistening like diamonds, our eyes blood red, fleet and fast like no one had ever been before.
I knew that is what we were in that picture. When he said forever, he meant it, literally.
So he wanted me to be like him? The thought frightened me with its strangeness. Like I had a choice to make. A choice no one is ever really given.
No one is ever given an option to choose immortality, are they? That's something the pharaohs and barbarian emperors had struggled to have for all of human history, and never gotten anything other than their names in tales and their bodies in tombs and depicted in statues. The priests in church had said we could have life everlasting if we do what the Good Book says, but only after we've actually died, right? True immortality of the body isn't possible.
I wanted to be with him, always, but I was a human girl, and had no concept of anything else. What would it mean, what would it feel like? Would I still be me? Still Alice?
His fingers tightened around mine, drawing my hand up to kiss my knuckles one at a time, urgently, like he was comforting me, reassuring me. His lips were like his hands, cold, hard, smooth as silk. His breath washed across my hand like a blessing.
"Please don't be afraid, Alice. If you don't want to be like me, you don't have to be, we will make do with the time we shall have," he promised in a hushed voice, but I heard the terror in it, terror that I might choose that exact option. It confused me. Why would he be afraid of me staying me?
"I could not bear to be without you, my Alice. And I know of no way to die, to escape the pain of losing you, so I would wander, alone, heartbroken, for all of eternity. I would become a monster." His voice shook.
"I have tried so hard for over a thousand years to not be a monster, to only feed when the need was insurmountable, to only take the dying, the terminally ill, the comatose, sometimes the criminal, although I despise that." Disgust colored his words. "It's as if their evil becomes part of me, and believe me, my love, it is hard enough to resist the monster without consuming the monstrous."
FEED??? CONSUME??? I was horrified at the realization of what he meant.
He sighed again, pulled his hand away as if in resignation, and his voice was sad, and seemed somehow...hurt, rejected?
"All right, Alice, all right. I understand." I felt the ache of the absence of his touch like a physical pain, like a flashback to my struggle with my addiction, and instinctually reached out for him, unable to resist, despairing.
His fingers clutched mine again, and it was like I was whole. Like he felt he was whole, too.
He resumed his story as if all the talk of immortality and consumption of the evildoer had never taken place, and I was relieved by not having to deal with it. I focused on his voice alone, and started to feel better almost immediately.
"Apparently the director had taken to shocking you about once a week at first, although after you had tried to kill yourself by smashing your poor head against the walls he said he was 'forced' by your psychotic, self-destructive episode to do it more frequently." His tone was disapproving, but I knew it was almost as disapproving of the idea of me trying to hurt myself as it was of the director's zeal for his therapeutic techniques.
"He stopped spinning you altogether to reduce your vomiting, increased your laudanum dose to increase your compliance, started trying the new idea of trying to sweat out the bad humors through an artificially induced fever by having your room heated to practically boiling." He grunted a derisive laugh. "Although he almost cooked your brain with that a few times, giving you heatstroke. Stupid man, you didn't have syphilis!"
His voice softened, became sad again.
"But the maltreatment worked in a way, I suppose. It accomplished his goal of taming you, and once you had become more biddable he stopped restraining you completely. He said you were very quiet, composed, and seemed…blank. Yes, that was the word. Blank."
He stopped, and both of his hands cupped around my face; when he resumed, his voice was urgent, rapid, almost panicked.
"I knew then that I had to act quickly, that you were close to the breaking point. I could not risk losing you. But I could not simply act without weighing my course of action carefully. Although I could break you out of there so easily it wasn't even fair to think of the risk, I knew I had to be cautious.
"There are those in my world who...frown upon untoward displays of strength and power by the rest of us." He stopped, considering again, then continued cautiously, as if afraid to say something. "They have decreed that we must always be circumspect in our dealings with mortals, even in feeding, to avoid drawing undue attention to ourselves.
"I am known to them, for I am almost as old as they are, and they know they can find me easily should I transgress any laws...And I wish to cherish my existence with you, my Alice, not damn it to an untimely demise."
Although I didn't understand anything he said, really, I was comforted by his words. Somewhere, in the arcane mentionings of age and laws and power, was the desire to be with me forever. To cherish me always. I could live with vagueness for a while, I supposed, if it meant we would get what we both wanted. I hungered for the freedom and beauty of that vision, for the wonder of an eternal, ever-new love.
His thumbs stroked my lips, caressed my closed eyelids. "So I made my plan, determined how I would save you from this place and that man's evil purposes for you. I decided what to do, considered every detail.
"I immediately began cultivating a friendship of sorts with the director, though the idea disgusted me. I have a very long, respectable educational pedigree, and a great deal of prestige and commendation in my field. He was flattered in my interest in his research, and confided everything in me. Eventually, he allowed me to take over the women's wards, although he kept your personal care in hand always. He was, as I said, jealous of you, like a child with a cherished toy." My angel's voice was twisted with bitterness.
"When he was away for a medical conference in London, I made my move. I announced an outbreak of typhus on the ward, sent the orderlies and nurses away on pain of dismissal, and cared for all the patients myself. I declared a quarantine of the ward, and no one dared trespass.
"The next day I opened the door to your cell. No, I didn't need a key," he chuckled, "I have my own methods. And there you were, poor thing, half-dead, but you shone like the sun for me, Alice, and you always will, forever."
I brought my own hands up to touch his face, marveling at the smooth coldness of his cheeks. I felt him smile under my fingers.
"And so, I took you here, my Alice, in the dead of night to my humble rooms a block from the asylum. Then I did something I regret, but considered necessary." He paused, the brief lull almost like he was giving a moment of silence in remembrance for the dead.
"I set fire to the ward, Alice, very close to your cell. I freed the patients, knowing some would get away and never be seen again, and that it would cause untold confusion, making it easier for me to do what must be done. And I had to kill a woman, my darling, I am so sorry. I had to make it seem as if you had died in the fire, place a body there, someone close enough in size to you, for the director to inspect. To keep the secret."
I felt a jolt of fear and wonder thrill through me: fear that he was capable of something like this, and wonder that he was capable of something like this for me.
He continued heavily. "Poor thing, she was catatonic anyway, I suppose death was just like life to her anyway, but I still despise rationalizations for evil deeds. It somehow cheapens good ones, to try to turn one into the other. But I still can't bring myself to even consider having not done what I did. It made us possible, it made it possible for me to help you come out of that stinking hole, to come back into the light." He brightened.
"And so now, my love, you have your story, how I found you. Now you can tell me the story of our future, eh?
"Tell me something, Alice. Anything. See something for me, my darling," he asked, delighted in my visions, different from his, but so similar. That was the first time he asked me, but far from the last.
I basked in his approval, it warmed me like the sun. Whenever he asked me, without ever opening my eyes or mouth, I would obey, so happy to please him. Usually I would see something good. Something helpful. He approved. It was becoming easier to focus and control the pictures when they came, and I could make them come at will by concentrating on someone, something specific. I had never been able to do that before, when I had been consumed by fear and the disapproval of others. I told him what I saw, of us living together, traveling, loving, learning. It was wonderful, for us both.
With his help, I began remembering things, things from before I had been brought to the dark place.
I remembered my mother, always so shy and quiet, never standing up to my father and his bourbon-soaked rages for herself, but trying her best to keep me and my sister from harm with her own body. She had suffered so much to keep up safe, and lost me in the end, anyway, despite her best efforts. I remembered her pale blue eyes, how she whistled while she kneaded the piecrusts for my favorite blackberry pies, how she had dimples that showed only when she grinned broadly, or laughed hard—something she didn't do nearly enough. I wondered how often she laughed now, without me there, whether she missed me at all. I had somehow managed to get her to laugh, even when things were horrible.
I remembered my father, although those memories were bitter and I disliked the taste of them in my mind. I didn't concentrate on them to understand details. He had never really loved me, I knew, he thought I was perhaps some other man's child, with my tiny frame and black hair, so unlike him and even my mother or sister. They were all golden-haired, tall. I was like a changeling to him, a scrawny, unwelcome little being with uncomfortably sharp eyes and frightening visions of his own future.
The only thing I remembered clearly about him was the reason he had dragged me to the asylum: I had seen him dead, lying face-down in the mud in the front garden, clutching a whiskey bottle in his stiff, cold fingers. When I had guilelessly told him what had shocked me so, that image of his death, he had flown into a rage, striking me to the ground, called the priest, then had hauled me off to the nuthouse, screaming about demons.
I realized with a flash that he was dead now. That I had seen exactly the truth, and that his self-hatred and guilt in what he had done to me, in bringing me here in the first place and then agreeing to let the director torture me, had brought that vision home with the deafening thunder of inevitability
I was hard-pressed to feel more than regretful that I'd been right. The dutiful daughter in me was barely enough to restrain my shameful relief that he was, finally, gone.
More happily, I remembered Cynthia.
My Cynthia, who is five years younger than me. She was only five when I was taken from her. I wondered how that had affected her as she grew, having to see me dragged away like that. We had been very close, I recalled. I had dressed her like one of my dolls when she was a baby, had carried her on my hip everywhere with me, even though I was so small for my age she was half my size by her third birthday. I had stopped growing when I was ten.
I used to braid and arrange Cynthia's long yellow hair in fanciful ways, and I made her clothes with my own hands, as my mother had shown me, out of left-over pieces of fabric from my mother's sewing projects. I made up designs and executed them with varying degrees of success, but it never had mattered to Cynthia if it fit her like a potato sack or a ballgown. It had thrilled me to see her like a living doll, sitting on my bed, her pink, plump cheeks flushed with pleasure at my approval. She adored me, and I adored her.
I also remembered things that I had liked, had loved, things that had defined me.
I loved to dance. I had cut pictures of the prima ballerinas from the European ballet troupes when I found them in the papers and magazines, and pasted them to my bedroom walls, dreaming I could someday be so serene…so tall! I had always striven to carry myself well, had decided that, even though I was the skinny, under-sized, under-loved daughter of a working-class Irish Catholic family in rural Mississippi, that I would be graceful and elegant.
When I heard music, I couldn't help but dance, even when it was old-time gospel on the crackling, staticky-voiced Victrola, or even the canons at Mass, where I had gotten a cuff across the top of the head more than a few times by my father for my inability to restrain my dancing feet behind the pews. I danced to the music in my head when there was none, twirling and leaping through the cornfields that abutted our home, which was on the outskirts of town. No one saw me there, dancing with the nodding cornstalks, but I reveled in the feeling of the wind in my hair, of being able to defy gravity for a brief moment as I danced.
I also loved to sing, to draw. I enjoyed sitting on the porch of our house, watching passers-by and horses and birds and trees and homes. I tried my best to commit them to paper using a stub of charcoal and packing sacks. I made up little songs and sang them to my sister, to my mother, to the empty cornfield.
And of course, I loved my visions, my pictures. Loved them and hated them. They were mine, I was theirs. I worked on my pictures with my angel, learning more and more every day to see them more clearly, to focus on certain specific people. That was how I found out my father was dead—I saw my mother remarrying somewhere down the road, to a good man who finally treated her and Cynthia well. I was so glad, that they would have a happy ending.
I saw many things, and began to feel somewhat confident of my sight, to even be a bit proud of it.
Then one day I saw something different.
I had been dozing, curled up on my side, and my angel was holding me against him, a blanket between us to keep me from being chilled by his abnormally cold body. I didn't care. I knew he didn't sleep, that he watched over me while I dreamed, and I felt safe there.
With a blinding suddenness, I saw another beautiful being, sparkling like my savior, eyes red like my angel's, but these were fierce and malevolent, and I knew that he, too, wanted me.
But not in the same way.
He wanted to TAKE me, to end me, not like my love, who only wanted to heal me and make me whole and be with me. My savior's affection for me intrigued and infuriated him; he was a twisted being, this hunter. He reveled in the hunt, and not just the pursuit: he loved to take the thing that was most dear to his target, to inflict as much anguish and suffering on the victim as possible.
The hunter knew of my savior, could smell him, sense his presence here, and had seen him, knew how he loved me. He had been watching us for a long time now, while I recovered, but had just now decided to take me from my savior. The hunter coveted me, but only to crush me, in order to crush my angel.
I gasped out loud, and, for the first time, tried to sit up and open my eyes. I don't know how long it had been, it felt like months, but probably it had only been weeks. My ability to tell time had evaporated, rendered unnecessary by drugs and shocks and fevers in the cell and by drowsy recuperation here. The room was dim, my love gleamed beside me like marble.
"He's coming!" I screamed, clawing at the bed, frantic.
Cool stone arms wrapped around me, laid me back down; he extinguished the low lights that had burned my sensitive eyes.
"Softly, Alice, softly. Who? Who is coming?" he asked.
I screamed again, horrified, seeing the terrifyingly plain face in my mind.
He touched my face, saw what I saw, and in seeing that must have seen something of my own future in that touch, suddenly sucking in a hissing breath in realization. I felt his mood change, felt the way his normal hardness changed from loving firmness to a protective shielding around me.
"He won't have you, I swear it," he said grimly. Cold fingertips pressed against my lips, cool lips pressed against my closed eyelids.
"Rest, my love. It will be all right." He sat up then, tucking me gently back into the bed, kissing my forehead as he stood up.
I believed him. I knew he was right. I would be fine. I tried to still my mind and gain control over my fear. But suddenly the future's picture changed, for him, for me. He wasn't there anymore.
I'm alone! Or was I?
Flickers, flashes, confusing images. People and places I didn't understand. It was all changing so fast, I couldn't make heads or tails of it.
I hadn't heard my angel leave while immersed in my musings consideration of these changes, my fear steadily growing as I sifted through the images coursing through my head. When I realized I was alone in the room, I froze in shock, my eyes flashing open again to the soft darkness of my new room.
He'll come back for me, right? Of course he would. He loved me.
I heard noises then, sounds of struggle, crashes and thuds and screamings somewhere distant, somewhere outside my savior's little apartment. I somehow knew it came from the direction of the asylum, which he had said was only a block away. Heard doors opening and slamming. Glass breaking. Footsteps, running. The sounds of panic, of fighting, of fleeing. Even more horrible, low, menacing growls, like a predatory animal, close by, outside. I saw a terrifying glimpse of my angel and the hunter in my mind, locked in a death grip, crashing through walls and windows, struggling to gain the advantage, the screamings and growls and hisses deafening. I couldn't tell who was winning.
My fear increased. I curled into a ball, wrapped my arms around my knees like I had in my dark cell, terrified, shaking. I felt so alone. I felt the blackness returning, felt the laudanum craving start yowling in the back of my head, screeching that it could provide relief and release from the pain and fear. I screamed silently back at it, and it subsided a bit, sullen.
Then he was back, my angel, and his breathing was labored, as if he'd been running, but I knew he'd never tire, regardless of how much he ran. This must be fear, then. I felt a chill course down my spine, felt a wash of foreboding.
He gathered me to him. I felt the fear rolling off him in almost palpable waves. It terrified me. What could frighten him, of all people?
"Alice my darling, I need to do something now." He sighed in frustration. "I had planned to wait for this, to give you more time to prepare yourself, to heal...but I cannot risk more time. Not now. We have no time to waste, not even a moment." His tone was pleading, hopeful, and desperately frightened, somehow apologetic.
"It will hurt. Can you bear it? It is to help."
That startled me. I opened my eyes, looked above me. In the darkness I could barely discern his shape, and I reached up toward his face to touch it.
Hurt? How much pain had I already endured? If it would help…I had heard that before. From my father. But this wasn't Father. This was my savior, my angel, who loved me. Of course, I could trust him.
I nodded. Anything for him. We would be together. I would be like him. I could stand the pain, if it was necessary. I nodded. He sighed again, this time in relief, then tensed again.
"God give me the strength to do this properly…" he murmured, his tone intense, prayerful.
Then he bent down over me, his shape a darker silhouette against the darkened room.
"I love you, Alice," he breathed, prayerfully.
Pain then. A brilliant, slashing pain—at my wrists, the insides of my elbows and palms, ankles and knees. Above my left breast, where my heart was shattering itself against the inside of my ribcage. What was this? Was he slashing me with a razor? Cutting me to ribbons?? I gathered my breath into my lungs, to scream, to fight.
Why? What are you doing to me??
Then his face was hovering over me, silhouetted against the dimness of the room, his breath washing over my face again. His breathing came in labored pants, I could feel his hands locked around my forearms like iron clamps, not painful yet, but so close...
"Alice..." he murmured, lowering his face so close to mine, his lips skimming down the curve of my jawbone, down the column of my neck...I felt myself quiver, not in fear, but something else...
Cold, smooth lips on my neck, his tongue tracing my skin...Sharp pain again, right where my neck joined my shoulder, where the blood pulsed in my jugular, hammering with my tension...as if he were biting me...was he? Biting me?
Through the pain I felt a drawing, a suction, at that place on my neck where his cold lips were fixed, as if he were trying to inhale me into himself...Was he? Drinking me?
After a long, agonizing moment, both of us motionless, rendered immobile by our separate fears and longings, he pulled away with a harsh cry.
"I'm sorry, Alice, so sorry!" he cried, sounding as if he were in agony.
Amazingly, I wanted to comfort him. The bloodflow from my neck seemed to have dried up almost immediately, the bright pain of the cut fading a bit, to a slow burn, like at the other sites of pain all over my body where he had bitten me, I now knew. I reached for him, to bring him closer, wanting him anyway. Fool, I whispered to myself.
Why? I asked him silently.
He sighed raggedly, his fingers clutching mine as if I were saving him from drowning. He pressed his face into my hair, inhaling, as if trying to remember my scent.
The slow burn began to increase...Everywhere, a fire was kindling, as if using my flesh and bones as tinder...
"My love, this is how it has to be, this is how it is done" he whispered into my hair. Then he lowered his face to mine again, his lips so close..."Can you bear it, to be with me, to be safe?"
He kissed me then, on the mouth, for the first time, and I tasted the intense sweetness of his breath, his hard, cold lips against mine, almost painful in the pressure of them, at the same time feeling the pain as something cut the inside of my mouth. It was a bizarre mixture of rapture and agony, my body responding with passion but also recoiling in fear. I smelled my own blood, tasted it welling up in my mouth, knew I was bleeding, that HE had cut me.
But it didn't matter anymore. We were going to be together. Safe. Forever.
Then the burning flared up, began in earnest. Began consuming me.
It had started where the pain had slashed me, then spread, charring me, like wildfire, through every part of me. I had never felt pain like that before. Words defied description. Even the shocks would have been welcome before this, would have felt like a little tickle, a caress. Burning like I was submerged in acid, in boiling oil, in lava. Broiled into cinders by a fire hotter than the center of the sun.
I screamed, my voice jagged and harsh, tearing my throat.
Screamed forever. Couldn't stop screaming.
I begged him to stop it, to stop the pain, to end the burning. I begged him to kill me. I writhed as I had never writhed before in the grips of the shocks. I heard his voice distantly, heard the agonizing sorrow in it. I heard him sobbing his tearless sobs.
"I'm so sorry, so so sorry, but it's for the best, my Alice. You're safe now, my beautiful. He won't want you now." He sounded like he was in agony, twisted by my pain, which I knew he could feel, he clutched my hand, trying to share it with me, so I wouldn't burn alone.
But why won't the hunter want me anymore?
Somehow through the pain, through the burning, I believed my angel. I trusted him.
I saw a picture in my mind's eye of myself, a picture unlike anything I had ever had before, more vivid, more solid, so real it was as if I could touch it and feel it. I was awake, alive, and beautiful beyond my wildest imaginings. My skin like his, white, sparkling, cold, unbelievably smooth. I felt a desiccating thirst, fiery, uncontrollable, in my hard, satin-smooth throat. My black hair would always be short now, it would never grow again. I saw my eyes, red and gleaming like rubies. I knew that my mind would expand like a balloon, with soaring vaulted openness, a capacity to think and learn that people aren't capable of, I knew I would be capable of understanding anything. I would be fast, and strong. So strong. I could protect myself. I didn't need him anymore.
But I want him!
I burned for time immeasurable. I don't know how long it was. Eternity.
At one point I felt him lift me up, clutch me to his chest like the most precious thing in the world, although the agony of being moved made me wish for death. I knew we were moving, fast, knew the light changed, dark and light and dark again, saw and felt the differences through my eyelids, felt the wind rush around us as we traveled. We moved for a long time, zigging and zagging, as if he was trying to flee from something. The hunter?
Eventually, he put me down again, this time on the ground, but I wasn't afraid, I knew he hadn't taken me back to my old cell. I thought we were back in the asylum, but wasn't sure. I heard his footsteps as he turned from me, facing away, heard his clothes brush against each other as he positioned himself in front of me. Somehow I knew he was crouching protectively.
I saw why. I saw a few seconds into the future, the picture coming hard and fast, like nothing I had seen before. My pictures unfolded before me in a panorama, and the real-life scenes followed my pictures seconds after. So close.
The hunter. He was here. He had followed us.
Trailed us, as my savior had ducked and dodged and avoided him, trying to lay false trails, eventually returning to the last place we should have gone, where it all began. But this hunter wasn't someone, something, easily shaken. He was frustrated, disgusted. And he was very, very angry. I heard his low, rumbling growl, menacing, close.
I saw in my mind's eye. I saw my savior spring, saw the hunter, crouched as well, springing to meet him, heard the thunderous crunch as they met, growling, roaring, hissing, their struggles merging into a barely visible blur of movement and sound. I heard metallic squeals and tearings, unlike anything I had ever heard before.
I sobbed. I couldn't open my eyes, I was still burning, but my mind was expanding so fast I could be terrified and anxious and burn at the same time, could see and feel each exquisite detail sharp and vivid in my mind and body.
He was losing. My angel was losing. I knew it. I saw it. I screamed. No, no, please, no!
In that instant I knew I was alone. I knew I would live forever, and I was alone. Empty. No one could take his place. We had been made for each other. I would always be alone.
Or would I?
Suddenly I was at a crossroads. Like the one my angel had spoken of, a place when I had to choose how my life would proceed. The choice was unavoidable, inevitable.
I saw, clearly, two paths stretching before me, both leading into forever. On both paths I was the person I knew the consuming fire was changing me into: lovely, pale, nearly indestructible, consumed with bloodlust and thirst, passionate, powerful, graceful beyond imagining, as I had always dreamed of. Those things would never change. I would never change again.
On the first path, stretching to my left, I walked alone. I hunted, I fed, I gloried in the thrill of the blood, which now was my bread and meat and wine. I understood now what my angel had said about blood, about feeding. I was a predator unlike any other, gorgeous and cold and utterly lethal, and my prey was…what I had been. On this path I didn't mind the screams of my victims, I didn't pity them. They were food for me, cattle. I enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, the fear in them, the satisfaction of the kill. I was immortal and strong and beautiful, and alone. I wandered, tossed about like a lonely leaf on the wind, no home. So, so alone. I clung to my memories of my savior, my maker. I was angry. I was filled with sorrow. I knew he had died for nothing, for me, who was ultimately worth nothing. I had become the monster, as he had said he had tried not to be for over a thousand years. Someone so good had saved me, healed me, changed me to keep me from being hurt again and to keep me always, and it had been for nothing, because I had become everything he did not, would not, be. My guilt was corrosive; I had carried it from mortality to immortality, and it shaped the stone of my substance into something twisted. I avoided others of my kind, too bitter to bear being around anyone else, especially someone who reminded me of my loss.
One the other path, stretching to my right, I wasn't alone. He walked with me. But not my savior, someone else, someone even more wonderful. How is that possible? Beautiful and hard and sparkling like me, like my savior had been, but golden-haired where my angel had been dark; the new man was tall, so strong, his beautiful pale skin scarred somehow, as if he had battled countless enemies and emerged victorious but marked by his trials. He was special, too, I knew: he made me feel things, made others feel things. I didn't know his name then, but I would know his face forever, would seek it in the face of every golden-haired stranger I met until I found it. At first his eyes were red, like my new ones would be…then his eyes weren't red anymore—they were golden, liquid. And mine were, too. Somehow I knew it, though in this vision I was looking through my own eyes. The thirst was still there, on that path, but channeled…I wasn't prisoner to my bloodlust, like on the other path. We made each other whole, this man and I, like one soul separated at the creation of the world in two parts, brought together and made one again. And we weren't alone, my lover and I. We had a home and a family waiting for us someday, and they had eyes like ours would be, once we found them. They had to teach us how to master that thirst, how to be stronger than it, to not be the monsters that we were supposed to be due to our thirst, how to exist peacefully and not hurt others. They would love us and help and protect us, and we would love and help and protect them. Family. Something I had never really felt, except from my mother and sister—the same mother who had let me be taken away from her, who had deep-down feared and distrusted me with my odd pictures. No: this would be real family. I wanted that life down that path like I had never wanted anything before. Even as my body burned, I wanted that new life.
What did I have to do, to choose? I knew that it required a sacrifice, to have that man, that family, that life. What was it? What did I have to give up?
It came to me suddenly.
My savior, my angel.
I had to let him go.
I had to let go of my horrible, bitter past. I had to start fresh, to not carry that pain and bitterness and sorrow forward into my new life with me—because if I allowed those sad, angry voyagers to travel with me into this new life, they would poison me, weigh me down, doom me to that solitary existence, shape me into the person I did not want to be, the kind of being my angel would despise.
I unconsciously grasped that what I was becoming was fixed, very hard to change, and to enter immortality burdened by such sadness and rage would twist me into the being on the left-hand path. I couldn't be with my golden-haired man on that path. I couldn't be with anyone—I could barely be with myself.
Somehow, I knew that if I didn't cling to my memories from before that I would forget them, eventually, they would become distant and muddy, vague and unreal. But this was different, what I needed to do not to be twisted into a monster.
I made a very purposeful effort, somehow, amid the burning and agony. I pushed all thoughts of my old life from me. I concentrated on the burning, used the pain to push myself forward, like I was birthing myself. I felt the pressure squeezing in on me, shaping me, hardening me. Smoothing away the past.
I clutched that fire to myself, urging it deeper into me, using the pain to push things out of me, and I let them go: Mama, Father, my sister…my angel, my captors, my torturers, the priest…my childhood, my loves and hates and preferences and foibles and peculiarities, memories, wishes, dreams, hopes, fears. All the things tying me to who I had been before.
I locked them all in the chest of my heart, the heart that was now dying inside me, and I set it afire inside me, that same all-consuming, transforming fire that blazed along my bones.
I would emerge from this fire purified, clean, empty, a vessel ready to be filled, knowing that my purpose was to find that man, find that family.
In my empty, echoing new mind, as the last memories were being burned away, I wrote my name on a piece of paper, Mary Alice Brandon, and held it close to me, the only thing I would allow to pass into my new life with me. I could at least remember my own name.
The pain was fading from my fingers. I knew I could control myself now, could feel the new strength coursing through me even through the burning.
All of that had taken the span of a few seconds. What had happened outside of my mind? It had seemed like an eternity, but only moments had passed. So different.
The moment I felt capable of opening my eyes again I heard the shrieking metallic tearing and anguished screams that marked my entrance into my immortal life like a rung bell.
Who am I? Where am I?
Hadn't I asked those same questions before, so many times? Had I? Or was I imagining? I couldn't remember anymore. I only really remembered the burning, the darkness.
What was that sound?
The world was vivid, inexplicable, even though the room I was in was dark. The detail was bewildering. I felt, heard, smelled everything, in blindingly clear detail.
Someone stood before me, chest heaving, crimson eyes glistening like fresh blood. His skin glistened, but he was unremarkable otherwise. But still, I knew this creature was dangerous, that I should be wary. Every fiber of me screamed caution.
I still felt the fire in my veins, burning, retracting, pulling toward my heart; it was hard to focus on anything but the pain, but I sat up, stared at this other creature, transfixed.
"Who are you?" I whispered, and didn't recognize my own voice. Like chiming crystal bells. So pretty. I lost myself in it for a moment.
He recoiled from the sound of my voice and threw something white and hard aside, where it bounced against the wall and fell to rest beside me, quivering horribly. I tried not to see it, but I knew what it was: the remains of whomever he had just destroyed. I knew vaguely that I should know who that had been, that it should bother me, who this hunter had destroyed, but I didn't let myself think about it.
The creature hissed at me. "Damn you!" His voice was like mine, ringing, clear, but not so beautiful.
He ground his teeth, curled his lip like he would spit at me. "Worthless. You're worthless!" he grated, and then, like he had never been there, he was gone, vanished into the darkness with unimaginable speed.
I absently realized I was capable of the same speed, perhaps more.
I slumped back, still burning, frightened, drained. My breath came in rapid, painful gasps.
That was when it happened: my heart, exploding within me in a final agonizing surge, driving all mortality from me.
I screamed, shrieked, writhed on the floor, scrabbling at the stones with my fingernails, begging for the end. My heart thudded one last, agonizing time.
Then it was over.
Total silence inside me, echoing stillness. No heartbeat. No breath. The absence of pain was stunning.
I opened my eyes again; I was in a room, surrounded by stacked boxes and crates, some kind of storage area. It smelled damp, dank: a basement? I knew it was dark, that I shouldn't be able to see, but I could. The world shimmered; I could see the splinters on the crates, see the drifting cobwebs in the corners of the room, feel every grain of grit on the floor beneath me. I knew I didn't need to breathe but I did anyway, inhaling the scents of the room. I smelled smoke. Fire?
I knew, instinctually, that I needed to flee. Fire was deadly to me, more than it had been...before?
Some instinct took over my body, and I was suddenly outside in the darkness of a moonless night. I had moved without even thinking about it, the action and reaction automatic, without a gap between intention and completion. It had taken no effort, no accelerated heartbeat or labored breathing to show for my speed. Just the smooth, implacable silence of my body.
I looked up and saw the building, a black hulk again the sky, saw the faint glow of the spreading fire through the windows. Every square inch of the building, every licking flame of the fire, was unbelievably clear. The stars shone in the sky like diamonds, their light piercingly bright to my new eyes, but not painful. I could distinguish them as clearly as if they were right in front of me.
I smelled a sweet, cloying smell mixed with the smell of the burning building, something foreign, something I knew was the smell of someone, something, like me, burning. I knew I had to flee, had to get away.
The night was cool and sweet around me as I ran, unconscious in my strength and speed. My throat burned. I was so thirsty. My body cried out for blood.
The thought didn't bother me. All that mattered was slaking that thirst.
A smell, like nothing I had ever smelled before, struck me: alluring, bewitching, the most delicious thing in the universe. Hot, wet, coursing through veins and arteries, beckoning me, inflaming my thirst. So close.
I saw her then, a small girl, crouching the shadows, eyes wide in fear. Ragged clothes, dirty face, tangled hair, no shoes. A street child. Her smell. Her blood. Magnetic, irresistible, delicious. What I needed to slake this jagged thirst. I had to do it. I had no choice.
How terrifying I must have looked to her, with my red eyes and white skin, someone barely bigger than a child herself, with her death in my hands?
I took her unthinkingly, drank, cast her aside, and fled once more, my thirst slaked a little bit, knowing that I had to avoid discovery. Even a street urchin like that might be missed eventually, her body might be found. I had to hide; I ran silently, invisible through the night, the dark was my friend.
I was immortal, I was lovely, but I wasn't impervious, I could be destroyed. The one who had been there when I had awakened, the hunter, was still out there. He knew how to kill me, and perhaps he would change his mind about it? I felt a thrill of fear at the idea. I knew he could find me if he wanted.
I settled into the dimness beneath a house's broad porch, reveling in my new, vivid senses.
The night glowed in all the colors of the rainbow, plus another color I knew no name for, felt alive, pulsing, vibrant. I could hear so clearly: pedestrians breathing and their footsteps and heartbeats; the activities inside the houses, murmurs and laughter, dishes and pans clattering and rattling about; the clop-clop of horses' hooves on the road a mile away, a nightingale singing, the wind sighing through the trees…
I felt the strength coursing through my body like an electric current; I knew that I was graceful, every movement like dancing. I could smell everything around me, identify it immediately: growing grass, dirt, sweat, chimney smoke…blood.
I could hear and smell blood, coursing through the veins of the people in the house above me, as clearly as I could see my cold, hard, bloody white hands spread before me in the dirt. Blood. My throat burned again, the thirst reasserting itself already.
I smelled the blood on myself, looked down at my stained hands, and felt a sudden surge of revulsion. The little girl's horrified, dirty face rose before me in my mind, a memory, not a vision, her eyes sightless now. She hadn't even had time to scream. I couldn't see her future because I had taken it from her, left an empty spot in the world where she should be.
I wondered why I was here. Things were so dim. So cloudy.
Who was I? Who am I now? Where had I been before, before the burning?
I knew I should remember things about myself, remember what had happened before the burning and the blackness, before I had awakened…but I knew, deep down, that I shouldn't try to remember. It was best. But still, what was I?
A monster? A monster. Yes. A blood-drinking monster.
I thought back to the burning time, the first clear memory I had.
Remembered my vision. I remembered the paths then, at the crossroads, and remembered making a choice.
This was part of it. I had to drink blood, but I hated it. I couldn't let the lust for it rule me.
Why was it wrong to be what I was without apologies?
Because I don't want to be a monster.
I didn't have to be one. There was another way.
A name, scribbled on a charred piece of paper in my mind's eye, a name that looked like it was part of a larger whole, but everything before and after Alice was burned, gone.
The name struck me. I was Alice.
I am Alice.
Alice is beautiful and wonderful and special. Alice in Wonderland.
I wondered, marveled again above me, at the glimmering stars set like diamonds in the black velvet sky. So close, as if I could reach up and gather them in my hands to scatter like seeds. Glittering like my skin, hard and faceted and lovely like diamonds.
I saw something, something that wasn't there, but was still real. Oddly familiar, like déjà vu, like something I should remember but couldn't.
Pictures. Hovering in my mind, behind my eyelids, but I could still see them with my eyes open. They were real, like life had never been—I didn't remember anything before that moment, so I had no basis of comparison, but I had a hunch that it was true.
What I saw were not pictures really, not visions. Realities. More detailed, more…full, three-dimensional, than those other words encompassed. Also, besides the…pictures, for lack of a better term…I could see flickers of other possibilities, all around, other options, that could transform into realities if the right choices were made.
I didn't know how I could possibly understand that, but I did. It was as if it were as much a part of me as this glittering new skin, and the thirst. I understood the pictures because they were me.
I closed my eyes, concentrating. A shifting mosaic, a kaleidoscope of events and people, all twined together, but I could separate them if I chose. I could follow multiple paths for multiple people, even for myself.
I focused for a moment on myself, on the future I had seen and hungered for while I had burned, the first thing I recalled besides the burning blackness.
My vision beckoned, vivid, real.
My man, my golden-haired man, smiling at me, his eyes bottomless with love for me. My family, with the golden eyes. The tamed thirst. Not being a monster anymore.
He smiled at me, a sad but sweet smile, beautiful, perfect, lovely, despite the scars, despite the red eyes, despite the torture I saw reflected in those eyes, of a life haunted by guilt and regret.
My life. He was my life. He and I would be together, always. And we would have a family. We would be good.
I stood up, dusted myself off, and headed toward my future. He was waiting.
I even knew his name now. It came to me like a revelation, like a beam of light, a bolt of lightning from a clear starry sky.
I smiled, began to run, without a clue as to where, but I had to move, I had to find him. He was waiting for me somewhere, and I would find him, and take his hand, and we would walk into forever together. I set off down the road, away from here, toward him.
I would embrace it with open arms, complete, the crossroads behind me and long-forgotten, like a dream in the bright light of morning.
The cool sweet darkness of night swallowed me up, as I began the first part of my long journey to my destiny.