“Gracious Solem, I pray to thee to have mercy on my soul,” Miriam recited the ancient prayer.
Her feelings were a mixture of fear and excitement. She looked at her reflection in the bathroom mirror and exhaled loudly. Tonight was the night she’d meet her mother’s friend for the first time. It was also the first time in years that their household would have a new guest.
“I pray that no attacks will happen today,” she muttered. The attacks hadn’t occurred in months, save for the odd pain that could easily be ignored. Even now, Miriam was faintly aware that her right leg was tingling with an uncomfortable numbness. It didn’t matter to her, though. Tonight was all about new beginnings.
She straightened the folds on her light blue chiffon dress before she turned on her heels to join her mother in the adjourning bedroom. As she stepped through the door, she was instantly hit with a heavy fragrance of expensive perfume that wafted through the room. It made Miriam’s head spin, and she had to support her weight on the doorframe for a second.
She glanced around the room, noticing the only person—her mother—seated on a stool in front of the vanity table. A large bed took up the space in the middle of the room, and Miriam moved around it to open the window. She unhinged the hasp and waited. When a gentle breeze drifted in, she inhaled deeply. Staring at the sunset in the distance, she prayed to Solem once more.
Solem, don’t let it happen again today, she thought. Don’t ruin tonight’s dinner.
The stars had already started to twinkle in the distance, and she smiled at them, bowing her head in respect for their wisdom. She grimaced shortly after when a slight pain streaked her eyebrow. A familiar panic rushed through her body.
No, not now! Not tonight.
Miriam had been isolated in the house for years. The random occurrences of her unexplainable attacks of pain prevented her from going away from surveillance, and even worse, it prevented people from coming to her, as well. The people around her were all familiar faces of staff members and her mother’s clients. Tonight was her first time to see a new face, and to top that, it was an important person to her mother too.
She gritted her teeth and forced a smile, ignoring the pain. Turning around on her heels, she walked over to stand beside her mother. She smiled at their reflection before meeting her mother’s eyes in the large mirror.
“Tonight is the night!” she exclaimed. There was no need to fake the excitement. It was genuine, and it didn’t take long before she’d forgotten about the numb leg, and throbbing eyebrow.
Miriam studied her mother’s vanity table. Placed before her were several of the up-and-coming beauty products in colorful flasks shimmering in the light. She frowned as she looked over the different bottles.
How could anyone make sense of all this?
She shot a glance towards her mother who was applying powder to her own cheeks. Miriam smiled at the sight; the wrinkles around the eyes were barely noticeable, and the expression in general was joyous. Miriam grinned when her mother gave a frustrated groan.
“Ma, are you nervous?” Miriam teased.
Her mother scoffed and placed the powder back in its place. “Don’t be silly, Miriam,” she said. Yet, when she reached for the brush, her hand shook.
Miriam giggled and took the gold encrusted brush before moving behind the stool. She took a strand of hair and started to comb through it. “Is that so, Ma’?”
Her mother sighed and gave in with a small laugh. “I guess I am a bit edgy—he makes me feel young again.”
Miriam contemplated the statement a bit. “Your names do seem to match. Steven and Veronica…” She winked to the reflection. “There’s a small ring to it, isn’t there?”
Veronica just shook her head lightly.
“Sit still, please.” Miriam took a few hairpins and started to organize her mother’s hair. “He seems to make you happy.” She placed the final hairpin, securing the bun on the top of the head. Instinctively, she reached out to free two locks of hair, framing her mother’s face in a youthful way. Gone were the wrinkles, and there was a slight glint in her eyes.
“Don’t worry. He does. He certainly does.” Veronica refreshed her own lipstick before rising from the stool to squeeze Miriam. “I’m so happy!”
Miriam felt her whole body tremble as optimism filled her. She helped her mother arrange the folds on her dark red skirt. With her hands folded in front of her, Miriam watched as her mother left the room. Before Veronica disappeared through the door, she turned around, a concerned expression on her face.
“I genuinely hope…” she trailed off, looking down in shame.
“Me too, Ma. Me too,” Miriam said with a vague smile, crossing her fingers behind her back. She hoped as well.
Please, let there be no attacks today. Shaking her head to rid herself from the worries, she thought of her mother. The woman who had raised her. A wise and creative woman who deserved happiness. Her mother never made Miriam feel unwanted, and for that, Miriam wished for nothing more than to make her mother proud of her.
Miriam avoided looking in the mirror. She didn’t want to jinx tonight. While her attacks had been random at most, she always found them to come when she was feeling extra good about herself.
The wind caught a strand of her silvery hair, blowing it into her line of view. In comparison to her mother, Miriam was colorless. Many times Miriam had looked at her own blue eyes, finding them to be dull and lifeless. A recurring question flared through her mind.
Do I look like my father?
Although her family had always openly talked about many things, Miriam’s heritage was something they refused to discuss. And on a day like today, it didn’t matter. All she needed to worry about was to remember her manners when eating.
Her stomach growled in response to her thoughts. It was time to leave. She tied a blue ribbon around her hair, making sure her appearance was as flawless as possible before walking out. Her thoughts returned to dinner, curious about what the menu for tonight would be. She ran out of the room, and passed the various pieces of arts that decorated the halls. Miriam slowed down when she came to the steep stairway, and with one hand on the rail, she descended slowly to the main hall.
To think that all these artifacts could have been lost forever if it wasn’t for her mother. Miriam often stopped to appreciate their beauty—but not today. She skipped around the marble pillar, and ran down the narrow hall to the kitchen. This place was normally used for the house staff, but Miriam didn’t care.
It wasn’t until she ran into someone that she stopped to breathe. She gave out a welp before checking if she’d hurt anyone.
“I’m so sorry, Miss,” Gustavo said. The older man had been the family butler for as long as Miriam could remember. His kind eyes never ceased to calm her when she was sad. He’d be perfect if he didn’t insist on being so formal.
“How many times have I told you to call me Miriam?” she scolded in a playful tone as she tilted her head back in order to look up at him.
“Many times, Miss.”
“Then why won’t you do it, Gustavo?” she asked for the umpteenth time. The polite smile that the butler gave her told her what she already knew—this would be a never-ending battle.
“It is not appropriate to call you by your first name, Miss,” he answered simply, leaving with a bow.
Miriam sighed. She understood Gustavo’s reasons for formality—she knew about his past. His wife Leonora, who taught her history and mathematics, had told her how Veronica Hertz had saved them from a life on the streets, and therefore by default, Gustavo felt he owed everything to Veronica.
Nevertheless, Miriam hated it with a passion. She wasn’t allowed off the grounds of the family estate, which meant that the only people she had around her were the servants, and most of them refused to call her anything other than ‘Miss’.
She winced at a sudden pain on top of her head. It felt as if she had just banged her head against something. Looking up to find nothing, she held her hands against the sore spot, scowling when her palm touched the small bump that was forming.
This can’t be happening now. Not today…
Her mind was in turmoil, imagining all the worst-case scenarios. Trembling all over, she realized that she was pressing her nails into her palms. She exhaled loudly, trying to steady her raging emotions.
This will be okay! It has to be…
A usual notion of paranoia hit her as if something had clogged her airway.Gradually, she convinced herself of her own well-being before looking around the hallway. No one had seen this attack, so she could simply ignore it. She crossed her fingers, hoping that this would be the only incident today. After a few more long exhalations, she headed for the kitchen once again.
The scent of spices filled the air as she neared the kitchen. As she walked closer, the doorbell echoed throughout the halls, causing her to halt.
He is here! Turning on her heels, she ran towards the main hall, coming to a stop just before stepping into the light.
Shadowed by the enormous stairway, she watched Gustavo take the man’s coat. Miriam surveyed him from her hiding spot. He was tall, almost as tall as Gustavo. His hair was dark brown, with a few white strands. Dressed in a neat suit, he stood up straight before thanking the butler.
His demeanor made him look powerful. Miriam was reminded of her mother’s business associates—the kind that insinuated with their very presence that they were better than everybody else was.
As the man looked around the main hall, Miriam wondered what he thought of the interior. His curious gaze made her think he was different. A snobby person wouldn’t look as astonished as this man did, and for that, Miriam was happy.
The various landscapes that hung on the walls were even more stunning whenever they bathed in the light from the enormous chandelier hanging in the center of the room. Miriam always thought that the candelabrum looked like a cascade of falling stars: a tribute to the creator of everything.
The man slowly made his way around the main hall. He didn’t notice Miriam, who observed his dark eyes with curiosity as he took in the view of the hall. His steps echoed throughout the room, stopping only when he paused to examine the artwork of the temple in Yildun.
Her mother’s voice sounded from above her. Miriam was pleased to see that the man’s eyes immediately focused on the staircase as Veronica descended it. His whole face brightened as he watched her. Miriam also took in the sight of her mother, and couldn’t help but smile. Her hair shimmered in the light, and her face lit up as her eyes met the man who awaited her patiently at the bottom of the stairs.
“Steven Johansson, it is my honor to welcome you to my home.”
The man took her hands and held them carefully as he kissed Veronica on the cheeks.
“Veronica, my dear, your beauty shines brighter than anything in the world,” he said.
Miriam saw her mother blush at the words. A little embarrassed about spying on them, she made herself known by stepping out into the light and clearing her throat.
“Miriam, come here, Love,” her mother said after a little cough.
Miriam came forward and walked up to her mother. She curtseyed for the man and offered her hand to him. He kindly took it and bowed before her.
“This is my daughter, Miriam Hertz.” Her mother gestured between them. “Miriam, meet Dr. Steven Johansson.”
“It is an honor to finally meet you, Miss Hertz,” Dr. Johansson said, and bowed lightly as a sign of respect.
“Likewise to you, Dr. Johansson,” she said, curtseying.
She looked up to meet his eyes, noticing his sincerity, his perfect teeth and the small wrinkles around his eyes.
“Let’s all enjoy a drink in here,” her mother said, leading them to towards a cozy lounge to the right. “The dinner will be served shortly.”
Miriam took a seat in a comfortable armchair while her mother and Dr. Johansson each took a place on the couch to her right. She tried hard to stay quiet, and not interfere in their conversation. She looked around while her mother poured something for them to drink. Their position in the center of the room made it possible for to look through the open double doors, and directly into the main hall. Books covered the panels around them, with the dim light giving the lounge a peaceful feeling.
“Your home is really beautiful,” Dr. Johansson said to her mother as she returned to her seat. His eyes were skimming over each bookcase with interest.
“Thank you Steven, I do like to keep my ancestor’s legacy alive and well.”
Veronica lifted her glass of red wine for a toast. After taking a sip, Dr. Johansson cleared his throat while Miriam looked at him.
“My dear, you have a lot of books in here,” he said.
“These are just a small selection of my favorites. We have a library, where Miriam’s lessons take place. Perhaps you can have a tour after dinner.”
Miriam felt her mother’s eyes upon her, indicating that she shouldn’t be so quiet.
“Lessons? What do you study, dear? Don’t you have regular school?” he asked her, diverting his eyes from the books.
The intense gaze made Miriam squirm a bit. “I study history and literature mostly, sir. I have a private teacher here, caused by the fact that my health hasn’t always been the best.”
She gulped down the uneasiness that for some reason had formed in her throat. It was a fair question, and she didn’t want to lie to him. Granted, she also hadn’t said the whole truth. Choosing the usual explanation, which her mother told others seemed like a fair choice.
Dr. Johansson nodded at this while taking another sip of his drink. He leaned back in his chair and asked, “Do you study Astron’s history then? I personally think that we have one of the most fascinating histories in the entire world.”
“I study the world mostly, but seeming as most of the largest civilizations descend from Astron, It would be unavoidable to come across part of Astron along with it.” Miriam spoke while twiddling her thumbs. Socializing had never been her strong suit—it was a side effect of not going out. He smiled at this, and Miriam saw an opportunity to change the subject away from herself. “Do you enjoy reading, Dr. Johansson?”
“Very much. While studying medicine, I had to read many books to maintain a good score. Naturally, books have always been my getaway. So, when I see so many well-kept books, my heart reaches out to them.”
Dr. Johansson finished his drink while looking around the room. Miriam noticed that his eyes kept stopping as he scanned the books. Miriam was about to question him about which type of books he preferred to read, but a voice interrupted her train of thoughts.
Gustavo had appeared in the door, bowing. “Dinner is served,” he said before turning around, heading towards the dining room.
Leading the way, Veronica walked them through the main hall. Veronica took pride in her home, just as her ancestors had done before her. Miriam knew this, as her mother tended to scold her in the past if she got too close to any of the priceless artifacts. Most of them were family heirloom, which her family had gathered throughout the generations. Several magazines had asked to feature them, but her mother always declined due to Miriam’s safety.
Miriam’s stomach rumbled loudly again, and she felt her cheeks heat up. She excused her stomach as they all took a seat around the table. They didn’t normally use this room—only when they had guests. Miriam enjoyed the idea of it, however. Her mother often told stories about how they all used to gather around the table in here, discussing ideas for the Hertz family when she was but a child. Looking around now, she found it easy to imagine what it would be like to have both parents.
The roasted duck was already at the table, and Miriam watched Gustavo proudly cut into it. It was one of the few things he took a considerable amount of pride in, and he always made sure to place it on the plates in an artistic manner. She closed her eyes and enjoyed its delicious scent. The cooks had outdone themselves in the preparation department.
Above the long dining table, there were living lights casting a beautiful glow throughout the room. Even the fancy crockery was on the table for this occasion.
Silence spread throughout the room as the Gustavo served them. Soon thereafter, the conversation started up again. Veronica talked about the history of her ancestors. Miriam always loved hearing such stories about the Hertz family. She knew that they had been the top of the city’s elite for many decades, at least before her grandparents anyway, and she was proud that her mother continued the proud family line, basing it not just her name, but on her skills as well.
Miriam dined in silence, listening to the sound of her mother’s voice. Long gone from her thoughts was the pain she had in her head earlier. It wasn’t until she felt her wrist grow sore that she thought of it again. She felt another bruise forming just as fast, and she bit her cheeks to refrain from making a sound.
Oh no, not here… Not again!
There had been so many days without an attack. She inhaled and exhaled deeply to quell the panic that rose within her. Her wrist throbbed, as her heart raced, making blood pump hard in her veins. It wasn’t long before numbness took over. A prickly feeling spread from her fingers to her arms, as she clenched and unclenched her fists, trying to make the sensation go away.
Focusing on her eating and her breathing, she ignored the dull ache of the swelling, trying her best to eat with her limbs asleep. Then the pain intensified, causing her to gasp, and when she felt a blow to the right side of her torso, she clenched her teeth, groaning. This caught her mother’s attention, as she stopped mid-sentence to look at her.
“Miriam! Are you okay?” Veronica asked.
The sound of chairs scraping across the floor, made Miriam look up at her with contrite and pleading eyes, holding her ribs lightly, fearing her touch would hurt them more. “Yes … Ma, can I please be excused?”
Miriam tried her best to hold in her gasps, but the searing pain made it difficult. Clamping her mouth shut, she rose from her seat to try to leave with grace. However, the pain would not let her. She felt invisible fists punching her in both sides, causing her to crumble to the marble floor, gasping and hugging herself. She knew all too well that her arms would not provide her any protection from the invisible attacker that again decided to haunt her.
Above the sound of her troubled breathing, she could hear her mother and Dr. Johansson hurry to her side.
“Is it an attack?” Her mother questioned with frightened eyes, holding her daughter’s head in her lap. She stroked her hair softly, trying to calm her.
Miriam nodded slightly. She winced every time a new blow struck her.
“The… pain… it hurts so much!” Miriam managed to choke out between gasps.
“We need to get her to a bed,” Dr. Johansson exclaimed after checking the pulse on her wrist. “I will go and get my bag!”
“No!” Miriam gasped. Dr. Johansson didn’t listen, trying to pick her up in his arms. Miriam wailed from the pain, struggling to make him release her. She didn’t want to cause trouble, and she didn’t want her mother’s boyfriend examining her on his first visit. This was a secret—an awful, well-kept secret.
The magazines would go crazy if they knew about this. That was one of the downsides of being rich and famous. The media always ruined everything.
Miriam tried to get up, but let out a scream as pain shot through her arms and legs. She looked down. Blood now seeped through her blue dress. Now she gasped at this sight. She had bled before, but never so much. She swallowed hard, focusing on the ceiling.
“Miriam, you need to let him help you,” her mother whispered. “It’s so much worse this time.”
Miriam looked up at her. The joyous look from earlier had been replaced by anxiety. Tears streamed down her mother’s cheeks. As she cried, her head shadowed a lamp, giving her an angelic look.
“You are an angel, mother,” Miriam whispered.
Her mind clouded and felt woozy. The room spun, and she grabbed her mother‘s shoulder before she again fell to the floor. Looking into her mother’s eyes, she saw nothing but fright, confusion, and sympathy.
“What do you mean with this time?” Dr. Johansson asked. “Has this happened before?” His eyes roamed over Miriam’s crouched form, as she desperately clung to the arm of her mother.
Miriam was lost in pain. She fought hard to hold back the screams that threatened to escape from her lips. The fog in her mind lifted, and she silently begged her mother not to tell. They had worked so hard to keep this secret hidden, and telling Dr. Johansson might ruin everything. She hoped that her mother would just send the man away and wait for her own doctor to arrive.
Nevertheless, the decision was evident in her mother’s eyes. As soon as Veronica opened her mouth, Miriam knew that her mother was going to confide in Dr. Johansson. She would tell him everything. Miriam gave out a cry of agony, struggling now just to breathe. Immediately, Veronica nodded permission for her guest to examine her daughter.
“This has happened before. Many times, though this time it seems worse,” she explained.
Dr. Johansson rose from the floor and took her in his arms. Veronica led the way as he carried Miriam to a bed.
“This is a guest room. You can place her there.”
Miriam listened to her mother’s voice and as she pointed to a bed in the middle of the room. She noticed a change from fright to strength in her. Dr. Johansson laid her down on the bed before leaving to retrieve his medicine bag.
“Ma, why did you tell him?” Miriam flinched - it hurt to talk.
“We need help, and I trust this man. I know he will do his best for you.”
Her mother stared out of the window into the night. Miriam was sure that she was avoiding having to look her in the eyes, trying to hide the doubt that was barely detectable in her voice.
Dr. Johansson hurried back and opened his bag, taking out his stethoscope. Miriam had a hard time focusing on him as he approached the bed. Veronica stopped him by putting a hand on his arm as he approached Miriam’s side.
“I trust you to keep this secret for us,” she said, meeting his eyes. He nodded grimly and swept past her to Miriam.
“I will have to remove your clothes, dear. Lie as still as possible,” he told her before proceeding to cut up her dress with a scissor. A gasp escaped his lips as soon as he saw the various scars and bruises covering her body.
“How did these come to be?” he asked, but as he waited for an answer, he saw it happen. Right before his eyes, Miriam winced as the invisible attacker hit her. He saw the blow happen, just before it slowly started forming a bruise.
“Impossible,” he muttered to himself as he checked to see if any vital organs had been damaged.
“Tell me if this hurts,” he said, running his fingers across her bones while applying light pressure.
Miriam gave out a whimper as he touched a sore spot. Gasping for air, she tried to stay as still as possible.
“I don’t understand this,” he said and looked at Veronica for an explanation.
Miriam saw her mother pause.
“I can’t give you any explanation. This has been happening all her life. First I thought she was just being clumsy; however that idea was soon disregarded as I’ve seen it happen before my own eyes.”
Dr. Johansson stared back at her, and in Miriam’s pained and fogged mind, she imagined what he must be thinking. He had come to this house with the belief that this would be a normal dinner, and a chance to meet his girlfriend’s daughter. Had he ever been on a dinner date where his medical assistance was required under such circumstances? Miriam seriously doubted it.
Focusing on the people with her helped to ease the pain a little. She looked at her mother. Her tears had stopped, and only a faint shadow underneath her eyes showed that she had even shed any at all. However, the look in her eyes was saddening, and Miriam would do anything to prevent that from ever happening again.
An excruciating throbbing started to spread up her arms, stinging and burning. She screamed with all her might. In between the pain, she saw her mother and Dr. Johansson hurry to her side once again as glimpses of bloody bandages kept coming to her. Someone had cut her, and badly.
Miriam’s cry was agonizing. Dr. Johansson felt her fear as if a hand clasped around his throat, making it difficult for him to breathe. Swallowing a lump, he soon felt Veronica’s hand in his.
He winced at the sight of Miriam’s body once more. Her screams increased in intensity as she thrashed from side to side. He and her mother merely stood at her side, speechless. Then, he saw tears streaming down Veronica’s cheeks again.
He wished he could offer her some comfort, but the screams were never-ending.
The start of this evening had seemed so promising. Now, this had to happen. Running a frustrated hand through his already tangled locks, he analyzed the situation. The wounds seemed severe, and from what he could gather, this wasn’t the first time they’d experienced this sort of attack. It looked as if she was being tortured, and he couldn’t come up with a rational explanation as to why this was so.
This was otherworldly. He tried to recall if he had ever read of anything like this ever happening, He searched his mind to find some passage that could help somehow. A small shred of hope surfaced when he did recall one thing.
“Is Miriam an only child?” he asked Veronica. Her eyes met his for a second.
“Yes… I have only her.” Veronica sobbed. Her hands were shaking, and she had clenched the hand that he wasn’t holding.
“I’ll get to the bottom of this, I promise. I will go home, and I won’t stop working on it until I’ve figured this out”
He squeezed Veronica’s hand. Her eyes didn’t leave Miriam’s form again, and he looked with her at the poor girl now passed out from pain. A gasp escaped his own lips now, as several deep and random cuts covered her arms. They oozed crimson blood, and he hurried to let go of Veronica’s hand and tend to the wounds.
He ran to his square, black bag and looked it through, taking out various different medical items. With his stethoscope still around his neck, he resumed his frantic search for something wrong.
He then quickly bandaged her new wounds, using disinfectant to clean them. As he cleansed and bandaged Miriam, he gestured for her mother to help from the other side of the bed. She stepped up without hesitation, taking a wad of cotton to moisten with disinfectant.She then worked on her daughter’s many lacerations.
Her dry sobs sounded throughout the room, and Dr. Johansson considered pausing for a moment in order to lead her out of the room. Then, he looked upon the strong woman across from their patient. Her movements were confident, giving him the impression that this was far from the first time she’d been forced to bind her daughter’s unexplainable wounds.
He performed the bandaging as she cleansed the lashes that kept randomly occurring on various parts of her daughter’s body. As soon as they had thought they’d finally disinfected the last wound, new ones would form. Tending to these, they worked now as a team, cleansing and binding Miriam’s many cuts.
Just as they were nearing the final one, another piercing scream came from Miriam. Before their eyes, a large gaping slash appeared across her already bruised ribs, traveling down her stomach. Miriam fell silent again after this, save for the sound of her heavy breathing.
She had passed out from the pain again.
The silence now hurt their ears more than her screams had. Dr. Johansson bandaged the vast wound, tying her ribs tight in the hope that it would ease her pains once she awoke. He gently pulled the sheets over her still body, tucking them carefully around her. As he then looked around in the spacious room, he saw Veronica staring out one of the windows.
He turned off the lights before walking to her. His heart now bled for the girl who had endured such excruciating pain. He watched Veronica open the doors that led from the room to the garden outside. Following her silently, he then closed the door, to avoid Miriam getting cold.
Veronica waited for Steven to approach, falling in step with her now as she walked. Silence wrapped around them as he looked towards the sky. It was a clear night, and the brightness of the stars seemed to mock him.
He felt Veronica’s hand in his own again. Looking down to their intertwined fingers, his heart dropped. Images of Miriam in pain still haunted his mind. He wished he could do something more for her.
The intoxicating smell of the flower garden reached him before insight did. As Dr. Johansson looked around while walking among the many roses and orchids, he suddenly got an idea.
“I need to go to town tomorrow,” he said. “I will gather my things, and get to the bottom of this.”
Veronica nodded once at this. He squeezed her hand once and led her to a small bench. Together, they sat silently, with the only sound being the light whistle of the wind that through the leaves. He wrapped an arm around his beloved, comforting her by holding her close. It was a small consolation, but as she leaned her head onto his shoulder, a gleam in his peripheral vision caught his attention.
“Look, a shooting star,” he whispered.
Simultaneously, they looked towards the sky and prayed to the stars, hoping that someone out there would have mercy on Miriam.