Cradles the Brain: A Book of Short Tales

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Vitality Episode 3 (Pt. 2)

Instantly she is flooded with a feeling she has never experienced before. She smiles, clutching the child to her chest. A warm sensation rushes over her. She faces William. He sees, to his surprise, that she is beaming.

“Oh, he’s just perfect! What a little angel!” She hugs the child tighter.

William gawps at her. “What of the sudden change of demeanor?”

“Ah, William. I watched my dearest friend give birth today. When she held the child, I imagine it felt something like this. This child is mine. I will raise him as if he is of my own blood.” She holds out the child and smiles at him, scrunching her nose and shaking her head. “You are just the purest baby I have ever laid my eyes on.”

The onset of tears frightens him. Emotion swallows him and he cries out.

“William? What is the matter?”

He shakes his head, hiding behind his hands.

Melanie approaches him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Dear, William, he can be your child, too.”

He looks at her from behind his hands, his eyes red rimmed and wet. “Are you sure?”

She nods, handing over the boy.

William takes him, a smile spreading across his face. He weeps, clutching the boy close.

“Since I have a bit of time, I shall retire for respite. Will you sit with me and the boy until I am asleep?”

William nods and follows her to her room.

She gently pulls the sashes closed and takes off her coat. At her vanity, she sits and pulls her hair down. It falls the length of her back and then some. Powdering her hair and face, she whispers, “What a day it has been.”

William watches, noticing the dark circles under her eyes and the paleness of her skin. She resembles me. He smirks and looks down to the boy who lies on his stomach on her bed. The restraints still hang from the bedposts. A flash of him striking Melanie fills his mind. He flinches away from the memory. Sitting next to the child, he sighs.

“Maybe one day I’ll enlighten you on the afterlife and my previous time on Earth.”

Melanie smiles, standing. “You ought to. I would love to know.” She climbs into bed, covering up with a thick blanket. Yawning, she whispers, “Will you stay?”

William nods, staring at her eyes in the dim light.

“Excellent.” She reaches over and touches the boy’s bald head. “What should he be called?”

William shrugs. “I’m not sure.”

“How does George sound?”

He nods. “George,” he trails off.

“George Poe, son of necromancer and—” She smiles, leaving him to fill in the blank.

“Alchemist,” he quietly offers.

“Alchemist? You can’t be serious?” Melanie says, sleepily.

“Of course I am.”

“I’ve been searching for an alchemist all my life. Your skills may be tested in my laboratory, William.” She smiles and closes her eyes.

A smile warms William’s face. He slips under the covers next to Melanie and picks up the boy. He sets him between him and Melanie, laying on his side with a hand over the boy.

“Get some rest, George. I assume tomorrow will be eventful,” he whispers, nodding off.

Melanie awakes, looking over to William. A pleasant feeling fills her. She revels in the warmth of her bed, just before an icy blade pierces her brain.

The child.

Wide eyed, she searches the bed. She sits up, not finding him.

William opens his eyes. He leans on one elbow and rubs his eyes, yawning. “What’s the matter?” he whispers.

“I cannot find the baby,” Melanie says, throwing the blanket off of herself and William. She finds him closer than he had been when she had fallen asleep. Almost trembling, she opens the curtains. The window displays a grey day filled with other dull apartment buildings. It casts in dim light.

“Well, I can’t imagine he could have gotten far.” William steps out of bed, looking at the ground. He crouches, peering under the bed.

Melanie ducks to look under her armoire when a sudden giggle startles her. She jumps up, frantically looking around the room.

“George?”

“Melanie, he’s not going to know his name.”

Melanie throws William a harsh look. “Well, how else is he supposed to learn?”

Another giggle makes them both flinch. Melanie looks up to the wood ceiling and gasps.

George stares at her from the ceiling, his rear seated on the beam and his head hanging below his body. He waves a hand at her and laughs.

“Dear Lord,” Melanie whispers.

William looks up and cackles. “What a lovely boy he is!” He walks under George and beckons to him. “Come give papa a hug!” He looks back to Melanie. “He doesn’t even need his own room! We can just nail some furniture to the ceiling of the parlor!” His laugh is interrupted as George lands on his shoulder, tackling him. William catches him, fear taking over his face for half a second. Holding out George to look at him, he and the baby burst into laughter.

Melanie watches in terror. “William!” She puts her hands on her hips with a huff. “How will I ever take the child out if he behaves this way? I can’t have him climbing the walls of the market.”

“Take him out?” He looks at Melanie, followed by George. His chubby cheeks frame a pouting lip and teary, blue eyes. “I didn’t realize we were allowed out.”

“Well,” she pauses, fidgeting with her fingers. “Eventually, I’d love for us all to go out.”

William and George smile. “I think that’d be great. Eh, boy?” He bounces George on his arm. “Well, I’m not sure about you two, but I am starved.”

Melanie cringes. “I am not sure if I have anything for a meal.” Her eyebrows knit together as her lips twist to the side. She asks slowly, “What would a raised soul in another’s cadaver and a summoned infant eat anyway?”

“Why don’t we go see?” William pokes George on the nose and leads the way to the parlor. William looks around. “Melanie?”

“Yes?”

“Do you have a kitchen?”

“I do not.”

William gapes at Melanie. “How does one not have a kitchen?”

“I usually eat herbs and things I am given in payment. Most of the time I eat in others’ homes.”

“Ah, like the rat! You are quite the scavenger.” He raises his eyebrows and smirks, a dare Melanie is willing to take.

“And you are quite the scavenger yourself, Sir William! Taking another’s body? Quite the scavenge, if I may say so.” She haughtily laughs as he rolls his eyes.

“Well, scavenge up something! You are not a very good host.”

Melanie scoffs. “You slept in my bed! I’d say I’ve shared enough, but I will see what I can scrounge up.” She smiles and enters the drying room.

William sits on the floor, placing George on the cushion in front of him. The boy squishes the pillow down with the heel of his palm and watches as it rises up.

“Melanie! We ought to get this boy some clothing! He can’t always be naked!” He laughs, looking at the boy’s round bum.

“I will work on it!” Melanie calls back, a strain in her tone.

William picks up George and carries him into the drying room. He eyes the doorway to her dining room. His eyes hit the floor in front of him after witnessing the still toppled furniture. “Would you like some help?”

Melanie sets plates of food and mugs onto a tray. She smiles. “Just finished up.”

“What can the boy have?”

“I happen to have some diluted sheep’s milk that still appears to be fresh. I think it may be his best bet.”

“How will he drink it?”

“I will attempt to spoon feed him.”

“Ah, quite the adventure that will be.” He gazes at George and bounces him up. “Isn’t that right?” He laughs and enters the parlor. Melanie follows behind, setting out their meal on the low table. Each has a bowl of mixed nuts and a wild salad.

“Aren’t those rose petals?” William asks, sitting on the floor.

“Mmhmm.” Melanie smiles. “Try one.”

William cast a strange look at Melanie. “It won’t kill me?” He pauses, a smirk on his face. “Again?”

Melanie rolls her eyes. “Nay, with the child you summoned, I’ll be needing help around the apartment. I still have a job to do.”

William nods. “Does that mean I can stay?” His voice is lighter than usual.

“Yes, only if you offer help though.” Melanie pushes her smile away, only to lose. She softly laughs and sits on the floor next to William.

They eat in silence, Melanie finishing before William.

“By God, William, I’d think you were seeing Heaven with each bite.” She laughs, picking up the mug of sheep’s milk. George approaches her, almost knowing it is for him. She props him up on her thigh, supporting him with one hand and feeding him with another. She lets him sniff the spoonful of grey liquid. Without hesitation, he lets her pour it into his mouth. His gleaming eyes and smile offer all the appreciation Melanie requires.

William watches in awe. “Never have I ever had such luck with an infant.” His eyes shimmer with the onset of tears.

Melanie laughs. “Ah, no luck feeding them?”

William clears his throat. “Nay, no luck with them living.”

Melanie catches a chill over her skin, causing her to convulse. She instinctively pulls George closer. “What do you mean?” Her eyes bore into William’s.

He stumbles over himself at first, only recovering to blurt out, “My sister died as a newborn when I was ten. I never got to see her alive. I died in an accident with my wife who had been bearing our first child.” Tears finally crawl down his face. He sets his bowl aside and cries into his hands. “I’m dreadfully sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up so abruptly.” His sobs shake his body. Melanie sets George down and puts the mug onto the table. She scoots next to William and places her arms about him. She says nothing, only letting him cry. George crawls to his side and lies on his lap.

William settles down and Melanie speaks up, “I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m sorry for bringing up all this pain.” She sighs, still clutching him.

He places a hand on her arm. “You needn’t worry. You saved me from where I was.”

“Where were you?”

“I’m not sure, but it wasn’t the Heaven, or the Hell, we are told about in church.”

“Describe it.”

William thinks back, conjuring up images he could never detail. “You just feel lost. You recognize no one. It’s like the loneliest feeling.”

“Oh.” Melanie tries to imagine it. “What does it look like?”

He sighs. “Swirling colors. Like cleaning a paint brush out in water. Faces pass you, each in agony or crying out. I imagine these are the other souls within the realm I had been in. Oh, the wailing, Melanie.” After pausing, he whispers, “God knows how long I was there.” He suddenly perks up, twisting around to look at Melanie. “What,” he takes a deep, shaky breath, “what year is it?”

“Tis October of 1346.”

“Lord.” William sits back onto his butt, pulling away from Melanie. He places a hand on his forehead. “I died in 1206.” Melanie watches the bit of color left in William’s face drain. “Melanie.” He grabs her by the shoulders, staring deep into her eyes. “I mustn’t go back to that place. Please let me live.”

Melanie shakes her head. “Why would I decide that?”

“You brought me forth. I thought you are responsible for me.”

She takes his hand in hers. “I would never return you to that wretched place.”

He nods, gently gripping her hand. “Thank you.”

“I am here if you ever want to talk about it.”

“Someday, hopefully soon.”

Melanie let’s go of William’s hand, picks up George, and continues feeding him.

Silence takes over the apartment. No one outside makes a sound. No one in the surrounding apartments makes a sound. Just the breathing of three confused souls and the occasional slurp of milk from George fills the parlor.

William focuses on his heartbeat, something he never thought he’d feel again. It pulses against his chest, thumping into his wrists and legs and ears. He listens to it, thankful for the grounding sensation it gives him.

“William?”

He starts and looks at Melanie. “Yes?”

“Since George is finished eating, would you like to go to the market with me?”

“The market? How would I ever fit in?”

“Ah, I have an idea.”

They stand in the drying room, Melanie on a chair, towering above William. She takes a scoop from the wooden bowl she holds and splats it onto William’s head.

“Lord, that is cold!” William shivers, making George laugh. “What is this?”

“Henna. It is used for temporarily dyeing the skin, but I thought it would work to dye your hair.”

“Dye my hair?”

“People aren’t fond of anything abnormal. You should know this. Your hair is as white as a ghost. It will frighten the children and church goers.”

William nods, a drip of henna paste landing on his nose. He scrunches his face and wipes off the drip with his finger. Smearing it around on his index and thumb, he asks, “What is it?”

“A leaf powder mixed with lavender oil and water.” She massages it into his hair.

“That feels nice.” He smiles.

“Stop moving your head!” Melanie harshly straightens his head. “Keep it still.”

William adjusts his posture so he stands tall. “Better?”

“Better.”

Melanie mixes the entire bowl of paste into his hair and hops to the ground. “Give it some time and then I will rinse it out.” She heads to her work table.

William sees her hand and laughs. “That looks disgusting!” He cackles.

Melanie looks over her shoulder. “You should see your hair right now.” She smirks.

George stretches his arms out toward William. He walks over and picks up the boy, who stares at William’s gloppy hair. Melanie scrubs the bowl with ferocity, staining the water in her bucket brown. She carries this bucket to the washroom and sets it onto the table set below the mirror.

William stays in the drying room, admiring Melanie’s collection of herbs. George’s eyes wander all about the room.

“This is not a place for George to be unattended. Ever,” Melanie says from the doorway.

William gives her a questioning look.

“Not all of these herbs are for helping.” She turns on her heel. “Follow me.” William does so, finding her setting up a chair in the washroom. She gently takes George and sets him in the tub. “Please, take a seat. I’m going to wash out your hair. We don’t need it too deep of a brown, just enough.” She tilts his head back, and, taking a cup, she dips into the tinged water and pours it into his hair. Running her fingers through his hair, she says, “You’ve got soft hair.”

William shrugs. “Lucky choice, I guess.” He laughs, eliciting a giggle from George.

Melanie takes care as she washes the henna from his hair. Her hands turn icy and rigid as she finishes up the last bit. “I am satisfied with the transformation.” She picks up a towel from the table behind her and carefully dries his hair. With a comb, she straightens it in a different fashion than Clint had it, one she had always thought would look better on him. “Stand up and turn around.”

He does so, smiling at his reflection. “I look less like a demon and more like—” he stops, cocking his head to the side. “Well, more like who I was. I used to have tawny hair like this.” He lightly plays with a few strands on his forehead. “I love it, Melanie.” He bear hugs her and whispers, “Thank you.”

As they part, she looks up to him and says, “It is of no trouble. Are you ready to go out?”

“Wait, when was the last time you got to wash your hair, or wash up at all?” A concerned look takes on his face.

Melanie blushes. “Is it that noticeable?” she asks, ashamed.

William’s eyes widen to that of wagon wheels. He throws his hands up. “No! My goodness, no. You just seem to be such a busy person.”

“Ah.” Melanie nods, looking away from him.

“I wanted to offer my services without being too forward, but would you like me to wash your hair? It’s only fair to return the favor.” He scratches the back of his neck.

Melanie mulls this over, chewing on her lip. “It has been sometime since I’ve actually had someone wash my hair.”

“When was this?”

“When I left home when I was thirteen. My aunt used to do it for me.”

William’s heart sinks. “Thirteen?” he asks.

Melanie nods. “It wasn’t a good place. My aunt and uncle were, hmm, not the sanest of people.”

“What of your parents?”

“Of that, I am not sure. No one ever told me.” She looks back to William, now noticing his frightened look. “Ah, please, do not worry. That was some time ago. I have learned and moved on from it.” She plops down into the chair. “There’s a clean bucket of water and a bar of soap on the table there.”

“Soap? You must be rich!” William laughs, switching out the buckets.

“Nay. Tis easy to make things when you have the ingredients.”

“You made this?”

“I told you, I refuse payment in currency. You’d be surprised what people have given me, not thinking much of them.”

“How did you make this?”

“Ah, someone decided to pay me in used olive oil. They had cooked with it and bottled it, thinking it of no use to anyone.”

“Well, how did you use it?” William inspects the bar.

“I strained it. Over and over again until I got a small amount that was clean. It was just enough for that one bar of soap.”

“Luxurious. Well, I am honored to wash your hair with your fancy soap.”

Melanie laughs. “Get to it then. I must head to the market soon.”

William unties Melanie’s hair and watches it tumble, the ends falling into the bucket of water. “My goodness, you have quite a length of hair.”

“Thank you. I grew it myself.” She smirks, watching George from the corner of her eye.

William cracks up as he wets her hair. Following Melanie’s manner, he washes her hair as gently as possible, tending to her scalp with light hands.

As he finishes up, he looks over to George. He gasps. “Melanie, look!”

Melanie looks to the boy, discovering a sight she will never forget.

The boy sits completely still. He stares forward, looking at the giant black mass sitting before him. The black mass slowly inches closer to him. George reaches a hand out just as William dumps the bucket of water on the blob. It dissolves with a gurgling sound. George cries out as he is soaked. Black globs slosh into the tub, swirling around him. Melanie stands, snatching the boy from the tub and smearing away the darkness. She grabs a towel and carefully wraps him up. Trembling, she holds him close.

“What was that?” William asks, holding the empty bucket.

Melanie shakes her head. “I’m not sure. I’ve seen things like it in the books.” She looks to George. “The child may be a bridge to another realm, considering he was summoned.”

William’s eyes narrow. He looks over to Melanie. “Would that mean I’m a bridge as well?”

She purses her lips. “I can’t be sure. Your body is of the living realm.” She lifts George up with her hip, looking at him. “Only God knows where George came from.” He smiles at them both, clinging to Melanie’s shoulder. “Let’s get dressed so we can take this boy to the market.”

The rain slaps down on the roof, pattering. Melanie clutches the boy close, keeping him halfway in her coat. William walks behind, a heavy cloak wrapped around him and a scarf obscuring his face. The air is sickly sweet with baked goods and sweat. Rotting fruits and vegetables cover the tables they pass. As people shove around them, Melanie reaches a hand back, taking up William’s. She barrels through the crowd, pulling him along at a speed much more aggressive than he’d like.

Reaching the middle of the church, where the weekly market is held, Melanie halts at a stall.

“Dimitri!” she calls over the counter. A slim man pokes his head out from behind a shelf. He notices William and approaches with caution. Melanie barks, “Has anyone left any donations this week?”

The scrawny man nods, his hands squirming around with each other. He eyes William. “Who’s the boy, Melanie?”

Melanie pulls George further out of her coat. “This boy?”

Dimitri’s eyes widen. A smile splits his face. He reaches out and chirps, “Who is this young man?”

Melanie lets Dimitri hold George, much to William’s discomfort.

“Goodness, he’s quite the angel, isn’t he?” Dimitri smiles wider, further presenting dark teeth. William squints at them, thinking they look quite sharp.

Melanie smiles and nods. “This is George. Someone left him on my doorstep. Poor thing was so cold.” She pouts out her lip.

Dimitri looks up to William, raising an eyebrow. “Who’s this fellow?”

“A new assistant of mine.” She looks back to William. “Please introduce yourself.”

William bows his head and says, “Hello, I am William.” He pulls down the scarf and sheepishly smiles.

Dimitri nods at him. “I’m Dimitri. I deal with the church’s donations. I didn’t realize Doctor Poe needed an assistant.” He cocks his head to the side as he looks from William to Melanie.

“This area is too demanding. An assistant like William here can tend to the small things as I’m out healing the sick and wounded.”

William notices a confidence in Melanie that he had not seen yet.

“Small things?” Dimitri asks, looking at George. “Like this one?”

“Well, William came to serve before George appeared.” She glares at William through the side of her eye. “I mean, he will assist with drying herbs and maybe even collecting my donations.”

“Ah, but how will I know that I look frail and white if you don’t come around weekly to tell me?” Dimitri snickers, and if William didn’t know it, he’d say Dimitri and Melanie were a married couple.

Melanie laughs. “Alright, give the child and get my donations. I’m thrilled to see what the congregation has provided for me this week!” She holds out her hands, her fingers just barely peeking out of her sleeves.

Dimitri somberly surrenders the boy. “Bring him around more often. I always appreciate the little ones.” He sneaks off to the back of his stall.

William slides in next to Melanie and asks, “Donations?”

“Mmhmm. The church asks for donations every sermon so I may continue my practice for free.”

“So, you work for the church?”

“No, I work for the people.”

William rolls his eyes. “Aye.”

Dimitri appears with an overflowing basket. “They felt generous this week.”

“Ah, it couldn’t be the lack of death that kept them donating.” Melanie gestures for William to take the basket. He does so silently and turns to leave.

“Before you go.” Dimitri grabs Melanie’s arm.

Her eyes widen and her jaw sets. Yanking her arm away, she grabs Dimitri by the collar of his dirty shirt. She hisses, “Yee ever touch me again, and I’ll slice you open on my operating table.”

William’s heart quickens in his chest. He steps toward Melanie just as she releases Dimitri.

Dimitri cowers back into his stall, rubbing his throat. “I was just going to tell you to let the church know about the baby. It may get you more donations.” He nods, his eyes bulging, and retreats behind a shelf, busying himself with straightening jars.

Melanie huffs. “Thank you.” She snatches William’s hand and races out of the market. William willingly drags along behind Melanie, afraid to speak up. Faces glance at them as they hurry by, most with a look of terror. Melanie busts through the church doors, almost hitting people in the swing of the door. She stomps down the brick until William stops. Melanie is pulled back. She whips around, a snarl on her face.

“Why did you stop?” She pulls on him, but he stands in his place.

“What happened back there?” William asks. He tries to catch eye contact with Melanie but has no luck.

“Dimitri knows better than to touch me. He’s a snake, and I don’t like snakes.”

“Why do you say that?”

Melanie shakes her head and sighs. “He tried to court me when I first moved to this town.” Her face revolts in disgust. “Sick man.” She lifts her gaze up to William’s. “Can’t men see that I am more than a woman to marry? I’m a healer of the sick. To me that matters more than anything.”

William scoffs. “You’re mad because he wanted to marry you?”

Melanie narrows her eyes. “Yes,” she curtly answers.

“Ah.” William slowly nods, still confused.

“As a man, you wouldn’t understand.” She shakes her head, turning around.

William pulls her back. “Well, make me.”

Her eyebrows knit together. She thinks for a minute, inspecting the brick they stand on. Looking to him, she says, “I’d like to be seen as a doctor, not as a single woman. Dimitri had just met me and was already asking for marriage. In my eyes, that is an insult. I am here to do more than bear a child, although,” she pauses, looking to George, “I’d like to one day.” She shakes her head. “You weren’t there when he asked. You just don’t understand.” William thinks he sees a tear in her eye just as she turns away from him. “Let us get home. It is cold.”

The walk home is silent. William trails behind Melanie, watching as she marches forward. The hand not holding George is clenched, the knuckles white. Just as they reach Melanie’s door, William softly takes up her hand. He brings it to his chest before she can pull it away. She faces him, her countenance stormy. A light smile touches his lips.

“I’m sorry for the way Dimitri treated you. You are the most intelligent, diligent doctor I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

Melanie’s expression softens as tears climb to her eyes. “It isn’t your fault.” She quickly unlocks the door and storms in.

She barrels through the lab, not saying hello to Tristan or Riggs, and shoves the bookcase aside.

“You first,” she mumbles.

William scrambles past her, catching a glimpse of George’s gaze. He gets to the top of the stairs before Melanie catches up.

In the apartment, Melanie hands George over and closes herself in the washroom. William stands at the front door, on the verge of tears. He realizes how cold the apartment is and enters Melanie’s dining room, basket and George in hand.

Setting George beside him, William quickly gets the fire going in the hearth. He watches the infant as he crawls across the rough wood flooring in the orange glow. Melanie appears in the doorway of the dining room. Her hair flows over her shoulders in amber waves and a light gown dusts the floor at her feet. She holds the doorframe with a light hand, staring at William. He opens his mouth to speak when she speaks first.

I love you.”

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