Chapter 3: Maenad
Before the week is through, she has about just every classic literary work he could scrounge from the library and the bookstore. His college friend has graciously loaned him Middlemarch, Lady Audley's Secret, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
It disturbs him that he dotes on her like he does.
Has she killed before?
The question assaults him when he's alone. He knows too little to deny it. If she has, he prays it was only a desperate act of survival, not of heartless barbarity.
If that isn't disconcerting enough, neither the Secret Service, the D.S.O, nor any other organizations backed by the U.S government or its allies can find any records of the men he killed. They'd had the foresight to singe the prints off their fingers and during the autopsies it was discovered the blood of these men held an antigen reactant (until now brushed off as mere fiction by the scientific community) that resists the chemicals used to identify a person from their DNA.
Leon's brows knit. They were thorough. He wonders if the same antigen resistant is in her blood too, and considering their level of precaution he's leaning toward the positive.
Ursula peruses a pocketbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley on the bed while he rummages around the house for more clothes she can wear before he heads to the Goodwill. So far he has two shirts he's outgrown, a pair of shrunken boxer shorts patterned with chili peppers, and a pair of socks Sherry left the last time she was here. He bites back a smile as he wonders if she left her panties here too, but he doubts it.
He steals a glance at the ever inattentive Ursula, naked as a nymph because she can't be bothered to see the point in wearing a simple t-shirt for more than a few hours. Like her books and her clothes, she grows bored of anything after too long and discards it. She isn't aware of how her naked form torments him. Oftentimes she'll just undress right in front of him.
Once she shed her t-shirt unexpectedly, complaining of the heat. He turned around quick to keep his thoughts holy. Before he knew it she wrapped her arms around him and pressed her cheek into his scapula. "You are sad?" she asked.
Saw virtue in her shape, how lovely…
She falls asleep that night with her pretty paw against an open book. Gently, he pries it out from underneath her hand and lifts it to his view, curious as to what kinds of poems she's been reading. Something about falling snow, many miles to go. He recognizes it from an ancient English class he sat in before he had hair under his arms, and remembers the boredom, the stillness and the normalcy. Jumping from then to now in his head, he isn't sure whether it warrants a laugh or a cry. He places the felt bookmark there and closes it.
From the window, he spies the rabbit skittering into the underbrush.
Sometime later, Leon measures the stainless steel wire and snips the end with a pair of rusted pliers. He curls a loop into the end and ties it. He tightens the last of them. These few snares should be enough.
He tries to consider the bright side of this. There's too many of them anyway. It's less conspicuous than having to procure blood bags, too.
He orders Ursula to dress herself, taking to the steps and poking around for his boots.
"Where are we going?"
Leon hunted and set traps with his father when he was young. Fortunate too, because 2004 was a year he would need to recall the experience. The forests of Spain were almost devoid of uninfected wildlife, so he had to resort to rabbits. Their meal was tough, gamey and almost bare of any nutritional value. The meat had his and Ashley's stomachs growling miserably for the rest of the rainy, groaning night. As if resting fitfully under the roof of a decrepit shed wasn't enough.
With that peculiar patience of hers, Ursula lifts her gaze to the canopy, ears open to all sounds and sights. A squirrel, resting on a high branch, is far beyond her reach. The owl is keen; unblinking, shrewd, much too smart for her. The owl knows what she's about.
The rabbit jumps out into the clearing, about two feet from them.
The rabbit notices its visitors, its paws held humbly to its breast. Its whiskers twitch, its dark eyes dart. It takes a few quick hops to them, and Leon is astonished at the serendipity. Cottontails have only ever been known to be timid and flighty, but this one is almost… unafraid. The rabbit winks its whiskers at Leon, then at Ursula, and bounds once more.
In mid-leap, Ursula snatches it out of the air and holds it up at arm's length.
Its hind paws thump uselessly at the air, its forepaws caught in her grip. Its head twitches, and he hears some struggled squeals, until Ursula bites into its cranium and silences it. It goes limp, slacking into a long strip of fur.
No words can pass from Leon's lips as she feeds from its cracked skull, the slurping and crunching making his throat constrict. Before he can get a word in edgewise, she turns it over, holding it by its tail and draining its head into her mouth.
He wants to utter her name, but he can't.
It spills onto pale skin, like paint on white paper. It drips and patters over her bare neck, soaking her choker, tainting the gilded locket.
Ursula is as quiet as a church mouse, at her books again. She won't speak of what transpired between them two nights ago. He doesn't know what to tell her about tonight's 'serving'. He's been getting headaches from the blood loss and knows it'd be wise to stop feeding her through his own veins while he's ahead.
He must have truly lost his mind.
Leon massages his temples, pondering what courses of action would enable him to acquire what he needs to sate her. The answers he gets are not those he wants to ponder on. He wonders how far he's fallen to be feel he owes anything to this fiend—this—
"Leon, I've remembered something."
"What is it?"
She presses a finger to her lips. "The birdcage."
"You remember having birds around you?"
"No, there weren't any. It was a big cage, nobody in it. And it floats."
"A floating birdcage with no birds."
"Maybe they put you in there," he says. He doesn't have time to flinch before he recognizes the connotations of his remark, but the slight has been uttered, and at any rate it's pretty damn close to how he feels.
Her silence reminds him, as plaintively as that night, how reserved she's become in his presence now.
"Do you hate me?" she asks.
"Are you afraid of me?"
All Leon wants to do is snatch out that book from under her and rip it in half, along with the rest of the novels he painstakingly bought and borrowed, just to condemn her somehow so he won't have to revile himself with his own foolishness. As if it'd help.
"I'm not afraid. But I can't be sure of you anymore," he ends.
"…I can't stop," she whispers.
The lump in his throat aches. His slighted thumb pales in comparison. He turns away, pulling up windows on his laptop to give him something to do other than 'wring his hands', as the writers of sensibility would often put it. It pains him to be silent, but the clacking of keys is desperately at work to quell the punishment.
Leon lied. He is afraid. Not of what she is, but what she may become.
Morning sears through the blinds he didn't bother closing last night, striping his face. The rug has imprinted the side of his bicep and one half of his left leg. He rolls over onto his other side, smites his alarm the second it beeps. He wants to staple his eyelids shut.
Ursula is already awake. He hears the soft leafing. She is on the shadowy side of the bed.
"Ursula…" he rubs his eyes, "When did you go to bed last night?"
She puts her chin in her hands. Ever somber and knowing. Their eyes don't cross paths for most of the day.
"Give her over to us for a while. We'll run tests. I'll call Hugo—"
"No. All I want from you is leads, or at the very least to keep a sharp look-out. There has to be some quack out there kidnapping young girls, then altering them so they have this… bizarre blood-lust. I just—"
"She'll be more demanding in the future. She might even turn violent. You can't give her the benefit of the doubt, Leon. She might look all cute and cuddly now, but…"
"Come on Sher, don't worry me now," he huffs.
"Her meals are going to get harder and harder to catch."
"I'm not doing the catching."
From the window he spots lanky legs, a kneeling crown of antlers. He pulls the curtains together and looks askance at Ursula.
She's seen it too.
After the buck, Leon's fingers are itching to dial Sherry again.
This time, she almost ate through its throat.
But her abdomen is as taut as ever. She's as dainty and petite as she's ever been. And not a single complaint of stomach aches. Her eyes are even glassier, bluer than the clouds. Her skin is warm and peach-hued as if she was born yesterday. Even her hair looks a little shinier, the curls more graceful.
She lies on her stomach. Her foot bobs like a bird's beak in water. As always, she pays him no mind when she has a book open.
Sometimes, when she tires of reading, she'll stare out at the trees for hours, like she's waiting for her long lost love to return from war. Barely imparting any notice to him.
Most of the time he can keep himself from it, but other times, he thinks about all that blood she drinks. Imagines it sit in her stomach like fat reserves. She is full of it, like an ugly queen mosquito. He had a dream recently where she was pricked with a needle and withered away into a dry prune. She was a dead, fetal raisin before he woke.
Is that what would have happened if she never tasted what little his thumb offered, and never grasped that cottontail or stumbled upon the doe and its unfortunate fawns?
Leon washes the choker and cameo in hot water. The blood stains erode from the ornament after a few washings. Old blood filters through the black lace.
The cameo gleams at him. He digs a fingernail into the lip between the two wings, and pries it open. A few hidden droplets, but nothing more. The first time he opened it, he hoped to find anything along the lines of a photograph, a locket of hair, or even a tracking device, but the inside of the cameo was left unimaginatively empty.
He's beginning to think it would have been better if he never found her.
Or, more accurately, if she'd never found him.
He enters the bedroom. Leon grasps Ursula's ankle, stills it. She turns around, and he hands her the only possession she had when they met.
"Do you understand me?"
"What will happen if you don't listen to me?"
"I'll be punished," she states, as routinely as a secretary would answer the phone.
"And how will I punish you?"
"No blood for a week."
"No blood for two weeks," he amends. "And I don't care if you get sick."
Ursula says nothing, though he senses she's eager to lower the severity of the sentence.
If worst comes to worst, he has handcuffs from his RPD days. Or day, rather. And he's got a nice sturdy pipe in the basement to cuff her to, if she decides to act cute.
An empty threat, bless her. Against all better will and reason, he's afraid that he cares about her. He opens the back door, gives her a rake, a trash bag, and yellow latex gloves. "Clean up the mess you made."
She takes her supplies and sallies forth, unsure of where she made this mess. She walks on. No matter. A few minutes in and she can already smell it. The rabbits, poor sweethearts, have been torn to bits. She isn't sure what made her so angry at them. She's hardly ever known an evil thought since she woke, but something made her snap. Perhaps it was the fidgeting, their annoying wriggling. She regrets her meanness.
Fur, flesh and sinewy muscle slush onto the curve in the rake, and she tosses it in. She hears it hit the inside of the bag with a squishy slap, and grows hungry again. She looks back at Leon, who would sooner cuff her to a pipe in the basement than let her keep it for later.
Today he learns that she does not piss out what she drinks, nor shits out what she eats. She has only been going to the bathroom because there is another window in there to stare out of.
They enter the woods again for her lunch, but this time, he has Gladys. He can't take any chances. He turns to her as she lifts her nose to the air and sniffs.
"What happens to everything you eat?"
"I guess I keep it."
"So your body must use it all. That's… efficient." He's trying to be objective about this, trying to suppress his revulsion.
What does he need tests for? If he wants to learn anything about her, he can just watch her eat.
And there, in the middle of the clearing, is the deer. It's in its alert posture, but something is wrong. No, that wouldn't be accurate. Something's always off about the behavior of the animals when Ursula has them in her sight.
It isn't moving, almost as if it can't, or it doesn't want to. These animals, Leon realizes, all exhibit some kind of suicidal behavior when Ursula is staring at them. They want to stay right where they are, or they want to approach her, as if trying to make friends. But how is this possible? How can an animal override its own instincts to flee from danger?
Ursula pounces on it and her and the deer crash to the ground. She snaps it neck in an instant and it slacks into the leaves. Leon's heart thumps, and he pulls his gun out, removing the safety.
The chewing is like the grinding of granite, or the ingestion of glass or rocks. Bones breaking. The sucking of the marrow. This sound doesn't drudge up happy memories.
Ursula whirls around and pierces him with her stare. Her eyes… Leon's eyes harden.
She's not even here anymore.
Ursula bounds, and for a second he's surprised by how fast she is. He shoots her in the leg and she collapses for only a moment, jerking herself upright and growling at him through her hair. He steps back, but keeps his stand, his grip on the gun tightening as his frown deepens.
He doesn't want it to be this way… He once thought she wasn't a monster. That she couldn't be a monster. The girl who smiled at him and fell asleep by his side, the girl who asked him what a "Tom & Jerry" was, the girl that sniffed and licked his phone as she puzzled over what purpose it served if it wasn't a book or something to eat, the girl that covered her mouth in stifled laughter when he nearly tripped over the towers of books he collected for her.
But this isn't her. It can't be.
She jumps onto a tree and flurries of leaves are disturbed and drift down, shaken from its branches. Leon points his gun up, scanning the area as quickly as he can.
Then he feels a shove at his back and a clamping that soon explodes into hot pain.
She has her teeth in his shoulder and blood spurts from his wound. Leon elbows her as hard as he can in the stomach, the thigh, any part of her she left open to attack to disengage her. She tears away from him to clasp her stomach, blood dribbling from her mouth as she fumbles to staunch her own bleeding. She jerks in a different direction as he empties the clip. The lock slides back.
She wavers for a moment, her balance failing, and with a small grunt, she finally collapses into a pile of leaves.
Leon doubles over, his jaw set in a grimace. He squeezes his injured shoulder, breathing through his teeth.
Ursula stirs and slowly sits up, bloody-mouthed and disoriented. Leaves and twigs stick out of her hair. She lolls, thrown off the fierce ecstasy of eating, and blinks the world into focus.
Leon's hand drips as he stares back at her. His incredulity brings her quickly to terms with what she's done.
The name 'Hugo' had him sounding plumper than he actually is, and perhaps some kind of Hispanic. In reality, his leanness can be likened to a telephone pole and his skin is paler than Leon's. But no matter the body type, starch white lab coats and patent leather oxfords are objects of distrust. He looks exactly like the kind of quacks Leon described to Sherry in some detail already, but Hugo has his PhD in genetic engineering and biochemistry with a nonexistent criminal record. Thus, Sherry's elite coterie of agents and test tubers put him in the clear. With a derisive, doubting huff, Leon decides he'll have to do.
His gauzed hand and shoulder throbs as the unconscious Ursula is escorted away on a bed with her wrists and ankles shackled by soft padded restraints. There are no traces of any of her wounds. Her vital signs are stable, as if she'd never been injured in the first place. Dr. Hugo follows the patient down the hall, but takes a glance back.
By that time Leon has already disappeared.
In a hellishly white room, devoid of all reassuring furniture save for two metal stools for Dr. Hugo and Ursula, he steadies the clipboard on his knee and poises the pen.
"Ursula, what would you say you are?"
"What kind of girl are you?"
She stares. "I don't know."
Are you honest?
Are you fair?
"Let's talk about food."
"What kinds of foods do you like to eat?"
"Rabbits… And deer, when I can catch them, but they're very fast."
"What do you do when you catch them?"
"I eat them."
"As they are?"
"How do you do that?" he asks.
"I bite into them. Into their heads—if they're rabbits."
"If they're deer, how do you eat them?"
"I have to break its head so it won't move."
"And I eat it then." Ursula rubs her fingers over her toes. Where is Leon?
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
"Ursula, do you know that eating animals the way you do is unnatural?"
"Yes. We eat animals, but we don't eat them alive."
"Because we can't eat the fur or the blood. It would make us sick. You see, the animals have to be properly prepared before they're ready for human consumption."
"But I need the blood."
The clock is pin-pricking her heart.
"We want to know what kind of girl you are, since normal girls can't do what you do."
"Live on blood."
Ursula glances at the one-way mirror on the far side of the wall, nearing tears. "Am I bad?"
"No, Ursula, you're not bad. You're just unusual. We want to find out why you eat this way so we can help you."
Ursula's eyes grow dim. The glass is unresponsive. No faces appear but theirs.
Where is Leon?
Dr. Hugo has made little progress through conversation, Leon's told. Ursula constantly questions the doctor about where he is.
He's seen Hugo's notes. Skimmed them, and then swallowed and turned away.
Subject shows need to ingest live organic matter to sustain motor functions… Deprivation triggers coma like state, but not death…
Subject has shown resistance to conventional foods, and becomes violently ill when these are consumed. Ingestion of blood and muscle causes temporary augmentations in strength and agility, along with the revitalization of all body systems…
The nourishment the subject demands is increasing…
At home, her books have been biding their time like the trapped rabbits. They both wait to be opened up.
It's more than he can bear some days.
"How is she?" he asks.
"She's in quite a sorry state."
"Is she getting sick?"
Hugo sighs. "We've been serving her regularly, but she's refusing the blood. She's under considerable stress."
"Because of me, I suppose."
"I recommend you visit her. She's very upset."
"I can't—" Leon isn't sure what he even meant to say in the first place.
Hugo dips his pen into the nook between the board and the clamp. "She's constantly asking about you. She thinks this is punishment for what she did. We still understand little of her abilities and stand to be injured if she becomes resentful. Even though she appears to have the sensibility of a child, she's physically as strong as an average adult male—and that's before she's fed."
Leon turns to go, but Hugo waylays him again, grasping his forearm.
"She has no qualms about killing, either. It comes to her very easily."
The duty lever has no lock; above it, there is an ID slot and fingerprint reader. Behind it: her, locked in like a dangerous animal. It pains him to know she is there, always alone. He opens the door.
Ursula can't believe it's really him. After all of these endless days, here he is. She is almost brought to tears.
"Leon!" she jumps off her lonely stool and crashes into him. She clenches his sides and buries her face in his jacket.
"I meant to see you sooner," he grunts, placing his hands over hers and loosening them. "I'm sorry, okay?"
"You're not sorry." She says, low and tremulous.
"I am." He longs to tear off her paper gown. Rid her of her sterilized company.
"Can we go home now?" her muffled voice, weary, has already forgiven him.
"You hurt me, Ursula. If you can't control yourself when you're eating, then I can't let you come home with me," he says.
The girl's expression drops, and her hands begin to shake. She lowers her head and stifles her sob against his chest.
Sherry knows it isn't her place to say anything. Dr. Hugo holds the clipboard to his heart, feigning marble. But the little scientist inside seethes; no progress has been made, very little has been uncovered.
Sherry might be jealous, if it weren't so unnerving.
He was never half so fatherly when she was 12 years old, newly orphaned and being chased by something wearing her father's clothes and dragging a metal pipe around. She's been infected with G all her life, always wrestling with a distinct fear of one day turning into something without a conscience and a hunger for killing… but this girl is different. She's the product of an experiment. A serious one that's taken years or maybe even decades to accomplish. She might have been born as innocently as anyone else, but inside, that hunger has always been there.
After Leon leaves and the door clicks closed, Sherry observes her through the porthole, her arms locked behind her. She takes in all of the girl's desperate dejection, her slouched figure and clenched fists.
"Dr. Birkin," Hugo interjects, "Did you tell him about her DNA?"
"No. I didn't want to just yet. Not until I know for sure who she is. But I suspect I won't have much more time for digging. Those people are looking for her."
"Don't you think a fair warning's in order, then?"
Sherry starts walking ahead of her colleague down the white hallway, her expression cool as snow. "He already knows they're coming. In fact, he wants them to."