Cradles the Brain: A Book of Short Tales

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Vitality Episode 2

The scream tears out of her throat. She pulls her leg from his grasp, but his fingers clutch the fabric around her leg. Dropping the open book on his face, he lets go. She spins around and latches onto the door handle. With a twist, the door is open. She hoists herself through the doorway and pulls the door to a slamming stop against the door frame. The wall rattles.

She leans against the door, her chest heaving. The corners of her mouth reel back, creasing her face painfully. Crashing comes from behind the door. Melanie whips out the key and locks the door not a second before the handle wiggles from side to side. A deep scream rips from behind the door. Melanie feels the thunderous vibration as Clint’s body punches the door.

Melanie squeaks. She presses the palms of her hands against her ears with enough force to crush a melon. She squishes her eyes closed then opens them quickly. A shadow moves on the staircase down the hallway. She gasps. Her heart clutches itself, and she knows she cannot be seen. In as much of a rush as she came out, Melanie inserts the key and enters the dark apartment.

Her eyes scan the dim parlor. “Clint?” Her voice rings throughout the room like a small bell chime uttered in silence. Heavy breaths fall behind her. Before she can react, he has his arms around her waist. For an instant, she thinks of dancing. Her mind clamps down and reminds her of the severity of the situation. She clasps her hands and pulls them outward. With a swift movement, she jams her elbow into his ribs. He grunts and lessens his grip. Melanie pries his arms from herself and runs.

Getting to his bedroom, she slams the door shut. Struggling to stay on her feet, she jumps into his armoire. She seals it in front of herself, keeping all light from her eyes.

“What if he escapes?” she whispers. For a gut wrenching minute, she stands there, listening. The silence crawls on her flesh, tickling her. She gasps, busting out of the armoire.

What have I done?! What have I done?!

With a swing, she opens the bedroom door. The grey light from his bedroom barely makes the parlor distinguishable. She steps forward, flooding her senses with darkness. The bedroom door crashes closed behind her. She utters a short cry, a hand covering her chest. A burst of flame blinds her eyes. It shrinks to the glow of a lantern. She walks to the table and picks up the lantern by its hook. The light shakes as her body trembles. The orange glow casts dancing shadows about her as she moves around the room. She pulls in raspy breaths, her body tense.

Melanie checks the front door, finding it locked. A pang of fear strikes the back of her mind as she realizes she had not locked the door behind herself earlier. Her hand slowly moves to her coat pocket, discovering it empty. Air hisses between her teeth as she spins around, her eyes scanning the floor. She catches a glimpse of Riggs. Her heart shoots into her throat before she realizes it’s her skull. Lightly, she taps his forehead with her boot.

In the corner of her eye, the faint glow of the fireplace moves, projected from the doorway to the dining room. She walks to the doorway before realizing she should open the curtains. Turning on her heel, she b-lines for the window. She throws open the sashes. The grey light twinkles in, barely illuminating the room. Melanie huffs out a shaky breath.

Entering below the archway to the dining area, she holds her breath, tensing her muscles. Her pale skin glows amber with the light of the lantern and the flaming hearth. Reflecting the fire, her eyes appear to shine of their own source.

With trembling lips, she whispers, “Clint?” Slowly, she does one circle around the table. A shredded, blue linen covers the table, draping to the floor. Melanie looks to it, trying to peer through the tears. She gulps in a breath and crouches. Her hand moves to the cloth, seeming to move at a snail’s pace. Her index finger and thumb pinch some of the rough material.

Pulling the lantern close, she lifts up on the fabric, quickly exposing what lie beneath the table. She gasps. White eyes bored into hers. Green veins swim through his newly translucent-white skin. He snarls and lunges at Melanie. Placing his hands on her chest, he shoves her crouching body to the floor, knocking the lantern from her grasp. It hits the floor and extinguishes, leaving them only lit by the fireplace. Melanie falls on her back. The room jitters with fluid shadows. He stands above her. His coal black hair now snow white in patches. His eyes reflect the fire, matching his feral countenance.

Melanie scoots away from him, backing herself into the wall next to the hearth. She whimpers. He steps forward and bends over her. She shrivels away from him. Grabbing her by her ankles, he picks her up until she hangs from his hands like a fresh catch. With a swing, he throws her across the room. She lands on her side at the doorway to the parlor. Stunned, she lays for but a second. Upon hearing his footsteps, she gets to her hands and knees. She scurries along the floor, her coat hindering her to small movements. Rushing through the dark, her cheekbone catches something hard. She winces and feels about. The table sits in front of her. Footsteps enter the room. She frantically clambers around the table until her hands land on a large book.

Melanie,” it whispers.

Her heart almost stops. She picks up the heavy book and stands. Backing up to the front door, she presses her back into the cool wood. Her skin burns, from heat or fear, she does not know. Eyes adjusting, she can see Clint’s silhouette.

Melanie,” he says in a sing-song voice. “I see you.” He approaches her slowly. Melanie stands still.

In a burst, he’s on her. She lifts up the book, using all of her strength and swings for his head. Luck had never been on her side until that moment. It strikes the top of his head. He crumples to the ground with a grunt. Melanie releases a pent up breath, crouching over his body. She checks his pulse and finds it still present. A rush floods over her brain as a plan forms.

Melanie stands and leans over. Her hands grip his ankles, and she drags him across the room. Turning around, she throws open his bedroom door with a grunt. She stays there a moment, gazing out of his grey window. Red spider legs fill the once white of her eyes. Her hair has been pulled free of its bun. It sticks up in odd ways, going in every direction. Lips full of vitality contrast her ivory skin. All of the previous life may have been drawn away from her skin, but her eyes have only gone savage.

With a final heave, his body is through the doorway. Melanie throws open the armoire. Inside only a handful of outfits sit. She snatches up the two belts available. Throwing them on top of his body with a slap, she moves to the bed. In a quick movement, she has a blanket rolled up in her hand. In a second, she has another. Melanie tosses these to the ground and looks to the dirty bed. With a sigh, she bends over Clint’s body. Her body tenses as she lifts him onto the high bed. It creaks and shakes under his weight. Pulling him up to the headboard, she lays his head on a pillow. Similarly to how she positioned him for the ritual, she sets his limbs out so he’s in a star shape.

The belts sit buckled around his wrists to the bedposts, and the blankets were twisted and tied around his ankles to the bedposts. She smiles, confident she has properly restrained him.

Gently, she sits on the edge of his bed. The sun has set. Only moonlight and a small chill come in through the open window. With a hand under her chin and propped on her leg, she gazes at the round moon, just as she had many nights before as Clint slept in the very spot his body now lay. She takes hold of his hand, taken aback at its iciness.

“Ah, dear. I really wish it didn’t have to be this way.” She leans over and kisses his hand. With a sigh, she stands and leaves the room, closing the door behind herself.

Sitting at the dining room table, she ponders what to do. Hours pass as her eyes blankly stare at the slowly dying fire. The chair calls out as she scoots it back to stand.

Entering his room in silence, she holds her breath.

Good morning,” a husky voice says from behind the door. Melanie squeaks and tries to pull the door closed as she exits. “No, no, it’s fine.” He latches onto the door, stopping her in her place. His face peeks out from behind the door. Melanie winces. He’s even uglier in the light of day. “What’s not fine is your ability to tie someone up.” He laughs, more a cough than a genuine laugh.

“What’s wrong with you, Clint?” Melanie looks to him with teary eyes.

Listen, I’m not Clint.”

“What do you mean?”

I mean, you killed this Clint fellow.”

Melanie huffs out a breath. “Well, I brought Clint back! Maybe you’re just having a bout of amnesia.”

No. Hmm.” He taps his chin with his finger and squints. His pale lips pout out as he stares at the armoire.

“What?” Melanie throws up her hands.

He looks down to her with disgust. “You really don’t know how the Dark Arts work, do you?” He chuckles a harsh ha-ha-ha.

“I don’t see what you mean.”

He removes himself from behind the door. “Let me explain, Miss,” he stops, even in movement, and looks her in the eyes, “well, I don’t know your name and you don’t know mine! You’re not a very good host to guests.” A grin spreads across his sickening face.

“I thought you were Clint! And Clint knows me. And this is his house, not mine! Well, I mean, you’re Clint but you say you’re not so technically it’s your house. Even if you claim to not be Clint you’re still within his body and I really don’t understand how you could not be Clint, but be inside—”

He puts a hand up. Looking to her in awe, he says, “Calm down before your heart explodes. And since I don’t know your name, I’m just going to call you Hasty.”

“Hasty? Why Hasty?”

Because that’s your personality.” He laughs in her face and pushes past her into the parlor.

Melanie looks at the back of his head with disdain, her lip slightly curling upwards.

This is much better than where I used to live.”

“Used to?”

He spins around as he says , “Well, yes. I used to be alive, too.” He taps Melanie on the nose with a cold finger.

Melanie smacks away his hand. “Well, stranger, where did you used to live?” She cocks her head to the side, her lips pushed together in a tight line.

I used to live on the east end.”

“East end?”

Yeah, fancy way of saying the slums.” He chuckles.

“Ah.” Melanie nods.

You still don’t believe me, do you?” Melanie shakes her head. “Clint’s soul is gone.” He throws his hands up and shakes them around her face. “When you performed that ritual, you opened his body as a vessel. As a passing soul, I took ownership of his body.

Ownership?”

“Yeah.” He spins in a circle, displaying his body. “This is my body now.”

“So,” Melanie’s face drops, “so Clint is really dead?” He nods. A rush of blood floods her face and hot tears fill her eyes. “I killed a man,” she whispers. Turning around, she says, “and I’m a doctor.” She spins to face him, a wild look on her face. Shoving by Clint’s body, her breathing elevates. She falls to her knees with a sob and casts her upper body onto the sofa. She weeps into the worn cushion.

A bell chimes in the distance, signaling the time.

Melanie straightens up. She snivels. “My patients.” Her face is void of emotion, only stains of her fit remain. Locating her things, she gathers herself. With her cloak on and bag, heavy with black magic tools, slung over her shoulder, she fixes her hair in the mirror next to the front door.

Where are you going?”

“Where is the key?” She turns to face him, her bird-like mask on.

Clint’s body takes a step back, wide eyed. “What are you wearing?” He clutches his chest as he takes another step away from Melanie.

“This?” She slips off the mask. “It is my doctor’s mask. I put herbs inside and they protect me from the illnesses that I heal.” She lightly smiles, but it is quickly ripped from her lips and torn into a frown.

Ah, well I don’t like it.” He nods.

“Key.” Melanie holds her hand out.

Yes, go away.” He slips his hand into the pocket of his dark pants and pulls forth a key. Before Melanie slides her mask on fully with her free hand, he approaches her. A twinge of fear irks her mind, but she stands still. He places his empty hand under hers and gently holds it. Setting the key in her palm, he clasps her hand in both of his. “Don’t come back.”

She nods and faces the door. A heat rises on her neck as she unlocks the door. She slips out and tosses the key back inside. It clatters on the floor and Clint’s body utters a grunt as she slams the door closed. It clicks open and Clint’s head pops out.

Hey,” he waits for Melanie to turn around, “I didn’t ask for this.” He disappears and the door gently clicks closed.

After dropping her things off and collecting herbals at her lab, Melanie makes it over to the Liverpool’s.

“She has much improved,” Jonathan says as he leads Melanie through the parlor.

She nods, her beak swinging up and down. “Let’s see how she is.”

Jonathan opens Annalise’s door, letting Melanie in first.

The girl sits up in bed, a book on her lap. She lifts her eyes to Melanie and gasps.

“Hello, Doctor,” she says, her voice raspy.

“Hello, Annalise.” Melanie sits on the edge of her bed, to the girl’s side.

She closes up her book and sets it aside. A smile curls her lips. “I feel much better since taking your medicine.”

“That’s good to hear. I’m just going to do a few tests to see how you’re doing.” Melanie’s voice is loud yet muffled through her mask. Annalise nods, and Melanie sets her satchel on the bed. “First, I’m going to rub this salve under your nose.

“What will it do?”

“It is fragrant. It is to keep away the diseased air.” She pauses. “This home seems to be full of it.” Melanie looks back to Jonathan with narrowed eyes. She juts her chin out, pushing the beak of her mask toward the door. A gesture Jonathan understands. He quickly exits the room, even having not seen her face.

She looks back to Annalise. “Do you think you can stand up, dear?” Annalise nods. Melanie gets up, sets her satchel on the rough wooden floor, and gently uncovers Annalise. She takes the girl’s small, pale hand and watches as she slowly pulls herself to the edge of the bed. Her feet hit the old floor and a visible chill runs up her spine. She stands, her legs wobbling. Melanie holds both of her hands now.

“Good. Good. Can you stand on your own?” Annalise waits a moment, slowly releasing Melanie’s hands. Finally letting go, she nods. “Excellent.” Melanie brings over a lantern that had been burning in the corner of the room. She sets it on the bedside table and draws the curtains to the side of the girl’s bed closed. “I need to look under your clothing for sores. I know it is uncomfortable, but I, as a medical practitioner, have sworn myself clean of any and all sin.” She holds Annalise’s hand. “You can have complete faith in me.” Annalise nods. She lifts up her gown and pulls it over her head. Melanie quickly glances over the girl’s pale skin. “You may dress yourself now. I see no sores or signs of illness.” Annalise smiles and slips on her gown. “You can get comfortable again,” Melanie says as she files through her satchel.

Annalise plops into her bed and pulls the covers to her chin. She looks over to Melanie. “What are you looking for?” Her last word croaks, and she begins to cough.

Melanie snaps her head up to look at her. She pulls out a vial of dark sludge. “Here, drink this.” The girl looks to Melanie and the vial with wide eyes. Her pale skin has gone red with exertion. “It will soothe your lungs.”

Annalise takes the vial. Melanie uncorks it and gestures for her to take a drink. Annalise puts it to her mouth and tips it up. It slowly pulls down and fills her mouth. She grimaces and swallows the bitter sludge.

“Just awful!” She hands the vial back to Melanie.

“But you did stop coughing.”

The girl looks to Melanie and smiles. “You’re right!”

“I am. You look to be in much better health, so I shall let you rest.” She picks up her satchel. “Before I go, I must ask: is your father giving you the proper medicine each morning and each night?” Annalise nods. “Excellent. I should be on my way. I have a few more patients to see before the day is over.” She waves goodbye and walks to the doorway.

“Thank you,” Annalise says. Melanie looks back to her. She sits in her bed, her knees curled up to her face and partially covering her smile.

Melanie smiles back. “No need to thank me. I’m only doing what a good person should do.” She nods and leaves the room, softly closing the door.

She stands in the empty parlor, just in front of the door. “Jonathan!” she calls. A clatter comes from the kitchen, and Melanie hears shoes rush over the hardwood.

“Is there a problem?” Jonathan asks as he rounds the corner into the room. His wrinkled face displays anxiety through a gaping mouth drawn downwards and large eyes.

“No, sir. No.” Melanie tightens her grip on her satchel strap. “Although, a good sprucing up of this place may—no—will do the girl some good. This place is filthy. As your daughter’s medical practitioner, I insist that you clean this entire apartment as soon as possible.” Jonathan nods. “Good. The girl has no sores, her breathing has seemed to have improved, and her spirit seems to have lifted since I last saw her.”

Jonathan smiles. “That’s wonderful news.”

“Yes. Keep administering the medicine. I will be back tomorrow with a fresh jar of it.” Melanie turns around. Her hand cups over the doorknob when Jonathan’s hand lands on her shoulder. She jerks away and turns around.

He doesn’t notice her defensiveness. With a soft expression, he says, “How can I ever repay you?”

“I’ve already told you, payment is not necessary. I’m happy to be giving back what I can.” She nods, an affirmative gesture, and opens the door. She slips out before he can say another word.

Taking a deep breath, she glides down the stairs. As she exits the small lobby of the apartment building, she takes another gasping breath. Her herbs are tainted. Having not changed them in a few days, they have lost their potency, and she can smell everything from the musty air of the Liverpool’s foul apartment to the sewer that runs along the street beside her. Her boots tap on the brick below her feet. She moves quickly, her breath fogging up her lenses.

An iron nine sits at eye level on the door. She knocks twice. The door jangles and then opens a few inches. A dirty face peers out. The brown eyes narrow onto Melanie.

“It’s about time!” The woman swings the door open and reaches for Melanie’s coat. She latches on and yanks the doctor inside. In one movement, she slams the door and turns to look at Melanie. “Take off that mask!” Melanie shakes her head, and before she is able to speak, the woman yells, “You know it frightens Badria! Take it off!” Melanie sighs but reaches to the back of her head. Her fingers slip around the buckles, and she is free of the mask in seconds. The woman approaches her as she puts her mask in her bag. “Melanie.” The short woman grabs her face and stares into her eyes. “You have to help her. We can’t keep her hidden much longer.”

Melanie nods, feeling the woman’s calloused skin rub against her cheeks. “I know. I’m going to try a different treatment.” The woman nods and gazes at Melanie, expecting more. “Since her diet has not worked, I’ve brought along a laxative.”

“A laxative?”

“Yes, hopefully it will rid of her of the excess black bile in her body.”

“Black bile?”

“Yes.”

“But we’ve been praying and praying.”

“Mrs. Drumpshire, praying doesn’t always help.”

The woman lets go of Melanie’s face. “What do you know? You’re just a type of witch!

Melanie’s eyes widen. “If I didn’t care for Badria so much, I would leave now. You’re lucky it’s not you hidden away in that spare room as of now, for I would let you parish.” A rage contorts her face, drawing her mouth down at the corners and lighting up her eyes.

The woman’s countenance shifts. Her face softens. “Please, excuse my temper, Doctor. Will you please just help my daughter?” She clasps her hands in front of her chest and looks up to Melanie with tears glazing her eyes.

Melanie nods. “Only for the sake of Badria.” Her face is set as stone and her tone is flat. “Lead me to her.”

The woman nods and walks past Melanie. They walk down a long hallway together. With each step it gets darker. They reach the end of the hall. Mrs. Drumpshire produces a key. She knocks on the door and in a soft voice says, “Badria, Doctor Poe is here to see you.” She unlocks the door slowly. It opens with a creak. Melanie steps inside. Suddenly her eyes are assaulted by a flame. Her pupils contract, rendering her useless in the dark. A face presents itself from the dark, entering the ring of candlelight.

“Hello, Doctor Poe. It’s nice to see you again.” The girl’s gaunt face captures every shadow possible under her eyes and ever present cheekbones. “Glad to see you without the mask.” Melanie lightly smiles and nods. With a swift movement, the girl uncovers her lantern, letting the flame grow. It illuminates the room.

A small cot lay defeated in the corner. In the other corner, a wet pile glimmers in the candlelight. Melanie’s eyes trace the uneven brick floor from the wet pile to the girl’s dirty, bare feet. If only she had her mask on to defend her from the foul odors of the room. The girl wears nothing but bloody bandages on her wrists.

“Badria, did you cut yourself again?” The girl eagerly nods. “Why?”

“I’m performing my own bloodletting in hopes it will cure me.”

“I’ve told you before that it must be done by a doctor. You’re doing it in an unsafe manner.”

“That’s okay. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

She spins around and squats, setting the lantern in the center of the room. Badria stands and walks to her cot. Sitting down, she asks, “What are we to do today?

Melanie stands in silence, her mind going through everything she knows. Mrs. Drumpshire lingers behind her.

“We must let you out.”

Mrs. Drumpshire gasps. “No! No, we cannot!” She barges in past Melanie, standing between her and Badria. “She must not be seen by others!”

“The darkness and dampness of this room will kill her. This room is tainted.” Melanie bares her teeth. “You are letting this girl wallow in demons! If she stays here, she will rot!” Her voice strains as she yells. It deepens, much like that of an angry man’s. She relaxes her features and lowers her voice. “Considering you will not allow an exorcism for dear Badria, we have no choice but to use unconventional methods to draw away the demons.”

“The church cannot know of Badria’s illness. If they did, they may harm her or take her from our care, and I do not trust their methods.”

“And that is why you must follow my instructions.”

Badria watches from her cot, her mouth gaping and eyes blank.

Mrs. Drumpshire face goes slack. “What must I do?”

“You must promise to put Badria’s needs first. Prioritize her and her illness.” Mrs. Drumpshire nods. “Say it!”

“I promise to put Badria first. I will prioritize her and her illness.”

“Excellent.” Melanie looks to Badria. “And you,” she points with a black gloved hand, “you must promise to follow my and your mother’s instructions accordingly.” The girl nods. “Say it!

“I promise to follow your and my mother’s instructions accordingly.”

“Good.” Melanie nods and clasps her hands together. She places them under her chin and rests her face but for a moment. Quickly, she removes her gloves and stuffs them into her satchel. “I have a plan.” Mrs. Drumpshire and Badria look to her, expecting more. “Let us leave this room. Lock it up for a fortnight and proceed with cleaning. We will leave to a brighter section of the house. Do you have another room for her?” She glances over to Mrs. Drumpshire.

“Yes, her bedroom is upstairs. This was our cellar.”

“Excellent, she will be moved there immediately!” Melanie exits the room, quickly paces down the hall, and enters the parlor. “Where is your washroom?”

Mrs. Drumpshire follows behind and points to the left of the parlor.
“Badria! Come along now! We have work to do!” The girl runs from the dark room and into the bright parlor. “We need to clean you up!” Melanie thrusts her hands towards the direction of the washroom. The girl, from what Melanie knows, is almost twenty years old. She rushes into the washroom, clearly eager. Melanie approaches Mrs. Drumpshire. “You must trust me on this.” She nods, slipping her hand into her satchel. She pulls out a large bottle filled with brown, lumpy things. “Have her eat a few of these with each meal.” She hands Mrs. Drumpshire the bottle and nods. Mrs. Drumpshire nods back. “We will need a bucket of water and two cloths. And please get her softest gown.” She turns away, leaving Mrs. Drumpshire to her chores, and enters the washroom. Melanie sets her satchel on the vanity. “You aren’t cold, dear?” Badria shakes her head, but Melanie notices how she trembles. “Don’t worry. I’ll have you in a comfortable bed in no time.” She smiles, just now remembering that her mask isn’t there to hide her expressions.

Badria stands in an empty tub. Rings stain the walls and floor of the tub in shades of red and brown.

“First, I have a salve for you.”

“A salve?”

“Yes, I recommend it for all my patients. It is to help keep the evil spirits from entering your airways.” Melanie looks to her with a smile as she dips her finger in the small jar she holds. The amber salve slides onto her finger. “Just a little right,” Melanie pauses as she quickly swipes her finger across Badria’s upper lip, “there!” The girl pulls away from Melanie and scrunches her nose. Her face relaxes as she catches a whiff of the scented salve.

“Lavender?”

“And dill. It’s a nice, down to Earth blend. Strong to the spirits but tolerable to our noses.” The girl thinks it over for a second and nods.

Mrs. Drumpshire barges into the room, the handle of a bucket of water clutched in both of her hands. She breathes with effort, her heavy chest rising and falling quickly. Two towels are slung over her left shoulder; a nightgown over the other. She plops the bucket down, sloshing water onto the grimy floor.

“Thank you! Now please be on your way. I must have privacy with the patient.”

“But-”

“No. Leave. We will be done soon.” Melanie points to the parlor behind Mrs. Drumpshire and shoves her nose up. Mrs. Drumpshire tightens her jaw but turns around. “Leave the towels and gown please!” She huffs out a breath but turns around and hands over the linens. In another sigh, she’s gone.

Melanie lifts the bucket of water and moves it to the tub without a problem. She folds up the towels and gown and set them aside. Into her satchel her hands go. She pulls out a bottle of dried herbs. On it in cursive reads, “Purification.” Uncorking the small bottle, she inhales its sweet, flowery scent. Badria watches as Melanie dumps half of the bottle into the bucket. She corks it, puts it back, and retrieves a towel. “As you cleanse yourself, imagine a bright, white light enveloping your body. Breathe in the light and push out the dark.” Badria nods and closes her eyes as she begins to wash her shoulders. Melanie turns back to her satchel. Opening it as wide as possible, she uses the grey light from the window and the faint candle light to search. Bottles and jars and her mask glimmer back at her. She picks out a bottle and sets it next to the girl’s gown. After selecting two more bottles, she turns to the girl.

Badria stands, staring at her wrists. The bandages lay on the floor of the tub, blood crusted to them in deep purple clots. Tears roll down Badria’s cheeks as she stares at the deep gouges in her arms. Her mouth falls open, a small breath escapes it. The long, crooked tears seep red from their ripped edges. Melanie gasps at the carnage.

“Look what I did to myself, and it hasn’t helped at all.” Her voice is soft and pleasant, as if she tells of her day’s events rather than of the harm she has caused herself.

Melanie snaps back to. She digs through her satchel and finds bandages. Setting these out, she turns back to Badria. She bends over and picks up the stained towel. Gently, she cleans the girl’s arms. Badria winces but allows Melanie to clean.

“We can’t be doing this, Badria. Bloodletting must be done but a professional.”

“But it felt so good.”

Melanie’s eyes snap up to Badria’s face. Her heart sinks. “Badria, we have much work ahead of us. I will heal you.”

The girl distantly stares back and nods her head slowly. Melanie grabs the roll of bandages and wraps the girl’s arms.

“Let’s not think of this right now.” She grabs her hand and assists her out of the tub. “Dry off.” Melanie grabs the bottles beside Badria’s gown. She uncorks both and lightly sprinkles a few drops on Badria’s nightgown. The girl stands behind Melanie, wrapped in her scraggily towel. Melanie puts a few drops onto her fingers, spins around, and wipes them onto the girl’s neck, just under her ears.

“What was that for?”

“Rosemary extract, for keeping you pure.” Melanie faintly smiles. She puts away the bottle and picks up the nightgown. “Very soft,” she whispers as she hands it to Badria. The girl quickly puts it on, leaving her towel on the floor. “Let’s get you up to your room.” Melanie takes the girl’s arm and leads her out of the washroom.

Mrs. Drumpshire smiles at them as they enter the parlor. “Her hair!” Her smile is ripped from her face. Melanie looks up to Badria’s head, now noticing the torn strands.

“I’ve been pulling it out.” She smiles.

Melanie sighs. “Mrs. Drumpshire, I must have a discussion with you once Badria is put to bed.” Mrs. Drumpshire nods as Melanie and Badria start up the stairs.

“To the left,” Badria says.

“Yes,” Melanie mumbles as they crest the stairs. She pushes open the door. The smell of dust swiftly enters her nostrils. She scrunches her face. “Go lie down.”

Badria follows her order, slipping under the covers of her small bed. Melanie walks about the room, picking up a sharp thing here, a glass trinket there.

A few minutes pass as Badria watches. Melanie stands at her bedside with an armful of her possessions. “We will put these in a box for now.”

“Why?”

“To keep them safe.”

Badria nods. Melanie looks to the bed then up to the ceiling. Her eyes dart to the window. She sees it is locked. “Get some rest. I will be up soon.” She faintly smiles and leaves the room.

Downstairs, she asks Mrs. Drumpshire for a box.

“What for?”

“These are all of Badria’s things that may be a danger to her.”

“Ah.” Mrs. Drumpshire retrieves a crate from the kitchen and helps Melanie delicately place the objects inside.

“I have a request for you.”

“What is it?”

“You must keep Badria’s window locked. Maybe even figure out how to lock it so she may not unlock it.” Mrs. Drumpshire eyes are wide but, she nods in understanding. “Check on the girl frequently. She doesn’t require much attention outside the bounds of having a small child, meaning: food, water, bathing, and keeping her from hurting herself.” Melanie stands from crouching over the crate and Mrs. Drumpshire follows suit. “Keep sharp things and glass from her reach, even if you must cut up her food yourself. Keep her nails trimmed. She may fuss about it, but just tell her it’s to keep her safe.”

“I don’t mean to interrupt, but why shouldn’t we put her in the care of a professional?”

Melanie huffs out a breath. “Because these professionals don’t know what they’re doing! They are only low ranking members of the church that take in ill strangers. We’re not adopting out a child here. We’re caring for an ill adult. She will be healed soon.”

“You’ve been saying that for weeks,” Mrs. Drumpshire spits at Melanie.

Melanie narrows her eyes. “And she was sick for years before you decided to take action. Don’t blame me for the inadequacy in of your parenting.” Mrs. Drumpshire gasps but before she can speak, Melanie walks away and says, “Listen, we both have the same goal of healing your daughter.” Melanie enters the doorway of the washroom, puts a hand on the door frame, and turns to face Mrs. Drumpshire. “We must work together no matter how much we despise each other.” She ducks into the washroom, collects her things into her satchel, and slings it over her head. Walking out, Mrs. Drumpshire stands in the same place, her mouth agape. “I must dress the girl’s room. Please follow my requests. I will be back tomorrow.” She heads up the stairs, feeling Mrs. Drumpshire’s gaze on her back.

“Hello Badria. I have returned.”

“Hello, Doctor,” she says in a low, sleepy voice. Melanie smiles. Opening her satchel, she lightly hums. “What are you doing now, Doctor?” Her eyes are closed, and her voice is barely above a whisper.

“I’m going to cleanse your room. You just rest.” Melanie pulls a jar of herbs from her satchel. With a quick hand, she uncorks the top, releasing the smell of salt and rose petals. She quietly walks to the window and sprinkles a handful on the sill. She then walks to the door and places some in a line at the doorway. Melanie puts this jar away and retrieves another, this one full of dried garlic blooms. On the table beside Badria’s bed, Melanie lays out a few blossoms. “All done,” she whispers, watching Badria as she sleeps. She quietly leaves the room, gently closing the door behind her.

Going down the stairs, she slips on her mask. Finding the parlor empty, she books it for the door and bounds out into the cold. She pulls her coat tight around herself. Her body had been spoiled with the heat and humidity of Mrs. Drumpshire’s apartment. She pulls out her notebook and leafs through the pages as she briskly walks. Scanning over her next patient’s notes, she doesn’t notice the man that steps out in front of her. Their bodies collide. Melanie drops her notebook and the man grunts. He looks down at Melanie as she scrambles for her notebook. She snatches it up and stands, looking to the man with wide eyes from behind her mask. The man’s face is covered in red rings. His nose runs with a dark liquid. Melanie hisses in a breath and quickly walks around the man. She looks behind herself to see the man staring at her. Her heart races, pounding in her ears. Clutching her notebook to her chest, she speeds down the street, skin crawling.

Relief floods over her as she sees the door of her next patient come into view. Quickly looking both ways, she hops off the curb. She runs across the street, her coat dancing behind her. Her black gloved hand knocks on the door.

Behind the thick wood, Melanie hears sobbing. A pang of sadness penetrates her heart. The sobbing gets louder until the door clicks. Woeful, brown eyes meet Melanie. A red, tear soaked face nestles these eyes in inflamed skin.

“Anna, what happened?”

The woman sighs and opens the door further, exposing her distended belly. “Oh, it’s nothing really.”

“Well, did your face magically spring a leak? Must I call a pipe worker?”

Anna shakes her head, her lips pressing together in a thin line. “The baby moved,” she says suddenly, looking to Melanie with fear in her eyes. “I saw my skin protrude! Dear Melanie, please tell me a demon has not taken possession of me!”

Melanie looks at Anna with a blank face. She waits a moment, completely still. A burst of laughter escapes her mouth. “Ha! Anna, are you pulling my leg?” She doubles over, laughing. Looking up to Anna through her lenses, Melanie sees the serious look on Anna’s face. “Oh my.” She stands up. “You are serious.” She clutches the chest of her coat and bites her lip. “Well, uh. No. A demon has not taken possession of your womb. Your little child-”

“Gideon.”

“How do you know it’ll be a boy?”

“I just know. It has to be.” Anna crosses her arms across her chest.

Melanie looks to the floor quickly then back up to Anna. “Well, we may have hope. Please take a seat.” Melanie closes the door and enters the parlor. “May I remove my mask?”

“You may.”

“Thank you,” she slips off the mask and puts it into her bag, “I tend to ask as many prefer me to keep my mask on for their own safety.” Melanie takes in a breath of the warm, yeasty-smelling air. “Ah, are you making bread?”

“I am. It’s out cooling now. Would you like some?”

“I,” Melanie pauses, feeling the void in her abdomen, “I would love a small piece.”

Anna smiles and gets up. A few minutes pass after she has left the room. Melanie sits on a stiff chair and sets her bag onto the rough wooden floor.

Anna enters the room, seeing Melanie selecting jars out of her bag. Melanie looks up, a bottle of coriander in her hand. Anna carries a tray and sets it onto the small table in front of the loveseat. She sits and looks to Melanie. “I haven’t eaten my supper yet. I figured you’d like some.”

Melanie peers at the tray from her bent over position. She quickly sits up. “I can’t take your meal!”

“I insist. You look gaunter than the last time I saw you.”

Melanie sighs. “It’s been a while since I had a meal.” Her tongue turns bitter as she remembers the taste of mugwort.

“Eat,” Anna says as she picks up a piece of bread. She quickly stuffs it into her mouth, chews, and swallows as if she hasn’t seen food in a year.

“Are you quite sure?” Anna nods. Melanie delicately picks up a piece of bread. It is warm. She puts it in her mouth, instantly happy with the flavor. “Thank you very much,” she says around the fluff of bread. “This will keep me going through the week.”

“The week?” Anna bursts with a mouthful of cheese.

“Well, I snack on roots and herbs from my inventory, but for the most part, patients only donate herbals. I am rarely paid.” For a brief moment, Melanie feels sorry for herself, until she realizes without her profession and her patients, she would be nothing. “It’s nothing to be concerned with,” she pauses, stifling a burp, “I am quite wealthy.”

Anna looks at her, eyebrows raised. She laughs. “Wealthy with madness!”

Melanie smiles and sips tea from a porcelain cup. “Chamomile. Excellent taste. Anyway,” she sets the cup down, “I am rich with happiness and friends.” Anna scoffs. “You see the rich people out there?” Anna thinks for a moment, looking out the window to the bustling street. She nods. “They all look so miserable. They weep. They do not smile or hum as they walk the streets as I do!” Finding herself stuffed, Melanie sets a piece of bread back onto the tray. “I am loved by many, while the rich of this neighborhood wallow in the hatred of others and themselves. They give not, so they shall receive not.”

Anna nods. “Yes, dear, but you’re a walking corpse.”

Melanie’s eyes widen and her pulse quickens. Anna looks at her strangely. “I just remembered I have an extra patient today. A man with um… uh…” She looks around. Yellow flowers adorn the walls. “Yellow sores on his,” she looks back to Anna, “abdomen!”

Anna looks surprised. “We had better hurry then! I have an appointment with a local farmer anyhow.”

“Appointment?”

“Yes, I’m looking to purchase a plot of land to grow my own crops.”

“Oh, how lovely,” Melanie says as she scrambles to get her jars onto the table. “Alright, let me examine you first.” She stands and places a hand on Anna’s stomach. She moves her hand around and nods. “No abnormal growths.” She sits next to Anna and takes her wrist. After counting to sixty in her head, she says, “Your heart seems normal.” Presenting the jars, she says, “I want you to incorporate coriander and cilantro into your diet.

“What?”

“They are exotic spices. Very rare here. They help encourage fertility and a healthy birth.” Melanie smiles. She picks up a jar of pink rocks. “Rose quartz, will help calm you and bring love energy to your pregnancy. I hope to alleviate some of your fears.”

Anna takes one from the jar Melanie holds out to her and presses it to her lips. “I will treasure this forever,” she whispers.

Melanie smiles, warmth spreads over her heart. “I highly recommend seeing…” Melanie retrieves her notebook, quill, and a bottle of ink. She scrawls out a name and address. “Duck. She is a midwife of the church and can help rid you of your fears. She has worked throughout this area for years and has birthed most of the recent generation here. She can assist us at the time of birth.”

“Oh, Ms. Poe, I don’t know if I could afford such a service.”

“She work not for pay but for admission into Heaven through the work of the church.”

Anna nods and takes the paper from Melanie’s hand. “Thank you.”

“Not a problem, but I must be on my way. Please keep these spices. Get a taste for them. Experiment. Just consume them in any way fitting to you.”

“I will. Thank you.”

Melanie slips her mask back on. “Have a good evening.” She exits quickly, afraid Anna may remember something else and spark up new conversation.

It is late. Melanie can tell by the way the grey light hits the buildings around her. She doesn’t have much time. With her warm skin and a full belly, Melanie runs down the empty street, hoping no one eating their dinner will see her. She reaches her street and flies past her door, not noticing how it is open just the slightest bit.

At his door, she stands, out of breath. She waits and waits, internally begging her lungs to function. With a trembling hand, she rotates the doorknob, finding it unlocked. The parlor is empty.

Melanie calls out, “Clint? Clint?!” She stomps over to the dining room, seeing it empty and the hearth cold. She gasps. Running, she gets to his bedroom and peeks into his washroom, under the bed, and into the armoire. A weight bears over her chest. Tears flood her eyes. She storms out of the room and into the parlor. In a burst of fury, she shoves over a bookcase. It crashes to the floor, flooding the ground with books and broken glass. She steps over this and swings open the front door. Slamming it behind her, she bounds down the stairs, her skin burning. With large strides, she clicks along the walk back to her lab. Her hand reaches for the knob, but her knuckles catch the wood and push the door inward. Melanie gasps. Her mind races as she tries to recall if she had locked her door.

Slowly, she enters the stairwell. It is pitch black. Melanie climbs down the stairs easily, having walked down them a million times before. The door to her lab is closed. She opens it, finding her candles still burning. The orange light contracts her pupils. She looks around, finding everything as it was when she had left. With a nervous laugh, she closes the door, still scanning the room. Shadows play around the walls, keeping her on edge. She walks to her work table, her body stiff. Sensing no life in the lab other than her own, she sighs.

“I must have left it unlocked by mistake,” she whispers, slipping off her mask. Setting down her satchel and mask, her body aches. Turning to grab a candle, her foot catches something under her table. She gasps and bends down. Her eyes peer into the darkness below her table, finding nothing. She huffs out a breath and stands. A white face meets her own, white irises only an inch away from her own. He smiles. She whispers,

You.

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