Both men narrowed their eyes as they admired the house. It was a twisted landscape—the shadows were torn, stalking up the foliage-lined pathways and grinning between wrought-iron gates. Sitting on the city-facing slope of a jutting mountain range, one could observe the gradient in the sky as it slowly shifted from true night to skyscraper-glow and hazy cityscape.
“No one ever really lives in a house like this,” Felix complained, shutting the door to his dark red Focus after throwing a black messenger bag over his shoulder. His passenger was eyeing a hand-painted sign with a soft smile.
“Perhaps we’re safer here. Look at the signs.”
The shorter man’s attention glided past several noxious cactuses to the weathered boards of a warning: scrawled in white capitals: INFECTION FREE ZONE — FIGHTING THE VIRUS ONE BULLET AT A TIME. A biohazard symbol blared in the corner, crossed-out in radioactive green that dripped onto the grass near the dirt driveway.
“That’s not funny;” Felix shoved his hands into his pockets. “When the zombie apocalypse comes, you’ll be less inclined to joke about it.”
Arden’s smile twisted tighter.
“And the huge cemetery right next to your house,” he added. “I don’t understand how you sleep at night.”
Without sound, the brunette pointed to a pathway overshadowed by weeping willows. Tucked against the leftmost fence, Felix squinted to see it.
“Fantastic,” he remarked. “There’s a legitimate graveyard. Those better be eviscerated pet guinea pig remains.”
The sound of incessant gunfire darted through the trees as they started the walk from the poorly kept cement road through gravel and dirt. Arden pushed a leather boot against a meticulously crafted pile of rocks; tumbling to the ground, one fell to display chalky words hastily scratched into its side: THE TOWER.
“The fall of deception,” he said.
“The only thing I believe in is the appropriate application of lethal force,” the blonde responded, moving to step in front of the writhing, rusted gates.
They stood before the metal vines; Felix faltered as his hand gripped the bars. A gentle push incited a bitter, screeching hiss as it slowly swung open.
“Of course,” the brunette began suddenly, “these people likely lived a life you’d be elated to be privy to.”
Felix frowned, musing aloud, “People are becoming wiser, Arden. Society isn’t as narrow-minded as it used to be.”
The blonde narrowed his eyes in thought, and his eyes fell down to the red brick spirals in the cement. The first section of gates was meant to house vehicles; Arden kneeled in front of one of the hundreds of glass weather instruments set carefully on the bricks.
“It’s 67 degrees Fahrenheit.”
“I hate the number six.”
Arden stood, facing the left side of the house; he inspected the cemetery that loomed under the embrace of the willows.
“A nice stroll through the outside perimeter is in order.” Carefully picking his way through delicate gauges, he unlatched another rusty, saffron gate. As it cried out, a rabbit darted from a nearby bush and through the fence.
“Delightful;” Felix stepped through first. “Even the spiderwebs are abandoned.”
His brown-haired friend was idly moving a soft willow branch through his fingers; several leaves crumpled to the cement.
“All unmarked,” Arden said, scraping his boot against the walkway.
As they cast glances toward one another, a large crow landed above them, dark stare shifting from side to side.
“Thanks for making sure the coast is clear,” the brunette thanked the bird and continued through the damp graveyard.
Felix raised an eyebrow as the dark figure called out in a monosyllabic response.
He eyed the stretching limbs; “Loz is rubbing off on you.”
Arden set a tan hand on the next gate that emptied from the modest graveyard into the backyard. Dying fruit trees had shed most of their leaves; one had started to froth bubbles of sap from its bark. Silently, they trekked through the grass—Arden was the first to notice the perfectly circular patches of dirt.
“A failed attempt to copy crop circles?” the blonde asked, squinting at the bare ground. His sight landed on amber-coloured half-spheres arranged inside of the largest of exactly seven circles.
“Generally, humans tend to prefer even numbers,” he continued.
“And why is that?”
Another wave of silence washed over. The crow that had once guarded their travels as a lone sentinel had been joined by two others. Their stares were fixed on something in the distance.
Felix moved away from the circles and toward a raised fire pit, fresh charcoal lining its walls. He thrust his fingers into the ash without hesitation, and the dust plume danced through the air. Withdrawing a closed fist brimming with swirling ash, he released it across the yard. It fluttered and fell, white spots dotting the circles.
“I wonder if it snows up here,” he said.
Arden tilted his head toward the mountains to their left and right; “We’re approximately 5000 feet above sea level. During winter, when the snow level drops during storms, this landscape is a winter delight.”
He smiled tightly, moving towards the right side of the expansive yard; “A deserted pond is hardly ever a good sign.”
The other man swayed slightly in the wind; a soft rustle shook through saffron leaves, and he sighed: “I saw the Tower the other day.”
Inspecting a dying fruit tree, the brunette raised one eyebrow in question: “In your dreams?”
“I thought it was something weird,” Felix began, “but I found it on the corner of Shadow Valley and Odin Street.”
“Fascinating names. Is this a metaphorical journey or a literal one?”
“I think it may be both, but I still have trouble understanding these things.”
He grimaced as the shriek of cat claws on steel clang out. A slinking feline mewled from atop a the long balcony that wrapped across the back of the house. The blond man turned to look out at the night, simulating what so many who stood on these grounds had done before him. As the breeze sifted through the leaves, he could see a distant glint on the horizon. Clouds moving over the coastline edged around distant buildings; amidst their vapour, they trapped the dense glow from desolate corporate skyscrapers whose workers now sat in lines of red, blaring traffic. The lights never went out; the scum never stopped flowing.
“Why did you want to come to this woodsy house anyways?”
Arden shrugged. His eyes still shifted across the pomegranate tree, its leaves brittle and browned. He ran his finger across a dry husk that rotted against a limb. The black crust of its shell rained to the ground as he stroked it.
Through his thin lips, he said, “This property is so desolate and decayed because its owner abandoned it.”
The blond turned from his stance looking out over the valley. The twisted gates fell across the endless lights, and though he wanted to continue tracing patterns in the grid, he eyed his companion suspiciously.
“Sometimes I don’t ask enough questions,” Felix muttered. “Abandoned it?”
“So to speak,” Arden said.
“So Loz directed you here.”
The taller man moved quietly over the ground, making his way across the uneven landscape. Underneath his black boots, golden grass crumpled, and as he walked to the other side yard, pine needles began to cover the ground. The slender walkway ran parallel to the city. As they rose, the dingy mental dipped below the lights, below the city, and a dense marine layer trapped a glow over the valley. Two pillars of smoke jutted from factories in the valley. They reached above the fog only to sink back into the wavering ocean of clouds.
Arden confessed, “Kind of. This house is a relic from the swinging sixties, and it belonged to an appropriate figure from that time period.”
Felix jogged to catch up, and they meandered up the gentle slope to find the trunk of the pine tree that loomed overhead. The blond’s face sat in thoughtful frown. Between Arden’s long fingers, he twisted the next gate’s latch. It creaked open, scratching against its metal frame, and the dirt gave way to a garden encased in concrete. Another meow pricked their ears as the cat weaved through the metal bars above them.
“I’m going to name the three most stereotypical things I can think of, and if you name any of them, you’re buying tonight.”
Arden clasped his hand and nodded. As the brunette’s mouth sprung into a thin smile, Felix suddenly doubted his decision. He scratched his head.
“A mobster, someone related to the movies or a doctor,” he said.
Arden stopped at the stairs that lead onto the balcony. As they ascended the slope, they had risen to its level.
“A doctor?” Half of his smile melted to leave a questioning smirk. “That’s not a very stereotypical sixties-era profession.”
“Okay, how about drug addicted musician? Bonus points if he was HIV positive.”
“Firstly, bonus points don’t make sense in a black and white bet; secondly, you’ll be buying our snack tonight.” Arden paused, fingering his chin. “Thirdly, it was a woman. She was involved in radio technology, and her descendant inherited this house shortly after her death at the age of fifty-seven.”
The brunette had stopped walking near a shriveling aloe vera planet. Most of its long, purplish green leaves had dried into dark tendrils that curled from the core.
Felix narrowed his eyes at the plant and urged Arden to continue; “So who inherited the house?”
“Who do you suppose inherited it?”
“Her wealthy children.”
“Nearly. This was the Rozgonyi house.”
The shorter man turned to face Arden and grabbed the strap of his bag. His long-sleeved shirt crumpled around his fingers as his pupils grew wider in the darkness; “That explains all of this weird shit.” Felix threw his left hand through the air to flop awkwardly for several seconds.
His companion frowned at the limb as he thrust it into his pocket.
“Yes, it does explain it to some degree. Have you been taking photographs?”
“Photographs? I’ve been following you around poking at dead things. I brought the tripod and the flash assembly, but it’d take me some time to get a clear photo of everything both with and without the fake lights.”
Arden’s frown deepened. He turned toward a bent tree. Half of its leaves had turned brown while the rest remained sickly green and withered. As he let his eyes roam across its shriveled fruit, he saw the broken roots that had sent it tumbling over. Rot. This entire garden was rotting.
“We can come back,” he said. “No one will return to this place for a long time. The next clearing leads out to the car.”
Felix inhaled and muttered inaudibly.
The brunette smiled, turning to walk down another pathway between fringes of pine.
Following, he straightened the messenger bag as it swung across his torso, and worn sneakers slapped the concrete as they rounded toward the last face of the house. A young pine tree loomed over the walkway, and its needles covered the ground, branches stretching over and in front of the men.
Arden grasped the next gate, and the latch released easily. They found themselves once again surrounded by glass thermometers, barometers and hydrometers.
“Being around so much glass makes me nervous,” Felix said, picking a pathway through the delicate groups.
His companion turned back to smile at him, and the blonde exhaled as Arden easily slithered between the devices.
They walked through the first gate and back towards the dark car sitting beneath a peppercorn tree. Moonlight glinted through needled leaves and off of its berries, almost hot pink under the sheen. Slender branches hung down to lay against the dirt, their green leaves rustling softly as breeze kicked up through the canyons around them.
As the sound of shattering echoed from behind them, Felix pulled out the keys to his car. He turned to investigate and shifted his stride backwards.
“One of the weather instruments has died,” Arden remarked, keeping his steady pace.
“As the wind blows in, no less.”
“Maybe someone will be coming back here.”
Felix pursed the corner of his mouth as he squinted, and his gold eyes moved through the shadows. Another heavy sigh rattled from his lungs; another glass explosion rang out against the darkness.
He said, “Let’s get out of here. I’m trying to earn a degree not a rap-sheet.”
As the car’s lights flickered in its unlock sequence, Arden couldn’t help but smile slightly to himself.
He threw the messenger back behind his seat and threw himself into the vehicle. Just before the blonde could slam his door shit, the gurgle of fighting felines spat against his ears. Another waterfall of broken shards rained into his brain as the metal door suddenly encased him back in silence.
“You’re unusually perturbable today.”
Felix thrust the key into the ignition, and the car rumbled to life. He threw the shifter into reverse and muttered over his shoulder, “I’m not too fond of cats.”
Arden blankly stared ahead.
“Okay, vibes. I’m all about vibes. This place has bad ones. And also cats.”
“That’s a fairly legitimate concern.”
Felix ruffled his eyebrows as he started forward down the narrow dirt road, and into the canyons toward the city lights, they went.
“Why didn’t you tell me we were going to the site of the murders? Something strange is going on,” Felix said. He turned the car off the road and into a narrow alley. Behind him, an motorist honked and accelerated by, cutting close to the back of his Focus.
Arden thought briefly about the woman he’d met buying cigarettes Tuesday. Her ragged face told him to watch out for the “warmongers”, the companies and the politicians. He had ignored her, allowing slight amusement to seep into his expression, and her crackled voice grew low: “You’ll see,” she warned.
The second time he idly scorned her, she grinned at him. Her teeth sat in jagged, yellow peaks. They both laughed though neither knew why, and when he walked down the sidewalk, the shriveling woman racked her lungs, coughing as he ambled down the block.
“There’s always something strange happening,” Arden said, picking at the skin of his fingertips.
As they rounded the corner into the cramped parking lot, the brunet looked out at the empty spaces.
The car pulled into a space, and Felix killed its engine. He turned to his companion with a creeping smile; “They’ll certainly let me use the WiFi now. No one’s going to be in there but us.” His hand waved quickly around to the desolate concrete and flopped back into his lap.
“Not if you keep making those hand motions.”
Felix popped his door open and tossed his bag over his torso. He rubbed it as he remarked, “I brought my laptop. Conducting intense research on murderers, cultists and political figures is actually kind of a hobby of mine.” He lowered his voice; “I also like looking into other things.”
“Conspiracies,” Arden clarified, getting out of the car.
Irritated with his lack of tact, the blond grudgingly agreed.
“It sounds less serious and more combative when you put it that way.”
Once again in the city, the air was heavy in their lungs. The dry chill that had swept through the mountains was replaced with the warm, hazy blanket of clouds and smog that drifted overhead. Arden loosened the buttons on his jacket as the air sat still, damp.
Against the concrete, his boots ground, and they drifted through the parking lot in a slow, meandering line; “It does, but they are conspiracies nonetheless. People are beginning to accept more unorthodox methods of thinking. What about all of these movements recently?”
“People are starting to realize something’s wrong with the system, but they’re far from realizing how to fix it. They’re also really far away from the core, the money-hungry core.”
The fluorescent glow of the café’s sign cast a green glint against Arden’s black jacket, through his black hair. A delicate lattice awning twisted over the little restaurant’s entrance. Soft jasmine plants sat in pots to weave through the trellises, but their buds sat under the haze unopened, and vines limply hung against the ground. As Felix’s sneaker smeared a bundle of foliage into the ground, they walked toward the entrance.
“See,” he motioned toward the door.
When they entered, Arden’s eyes danced across the tables, over the cast-iron art hung on the walls.
The woman at the counter regarded them lazily, her black eyes moving up only long enough to register their existence. She slowly looked back down to the cellphone in her lap. Arden stared inquisitively at her before shifting forward. A waitress stood at across the café, and she turned to greet them.
Her pale face lit up as she moved toward them, hands pushed into the pockets of her black apron.
“Arden, Felix,” she called, “I haven’t seen you in a while!”
The dingy gold nameplate attached to her left clavicle read FREY. She shook her limp, platinum hair from her eyes and grabbed two menus from the counter. Her associate made no notice as they moved past her.
Felix scratched his head idly. “Moneys been tight,” he said; “This place is a bit of a drive, too.”
The brunet took a seat inside of the booth as Felix moved into the other side. Frey snapped the menus onto the table and kneeled.
“Well, things have been weird here, too.”
Arden’s eyes widened slightly. He rubbed his chin; “We’re approaching war, I believe. Sides were taken long ago, and preparations have begun.”
Frey said, “I believe it. I read on Tseeker that they want to extend the ceiling and push back the shockwave that’s going to come after the debt hits us.”
“Bah,” Felix cut in, “it’s easy to see when they’re preparing us for war these days.”
“They’re testing the waters,” the brunet said as he shuffled through his menu; “There is a reason that gun control is endlessly in the news.”
“That makes me nervous!” The woman sprang up, saying, “I’ll get your drinks. The usual, right?”
Before waiting for confirmation, Frey walked from the table into the café’s kitchen area. The splash of drinks being filled wavered around Arden’s head as he continued scouring.
“And Felix,” she called from across the restaurant, “the WiFi’s unlocked.”
“Fucking sweet,” he said, patting the messenger bag the hung around his torso and rested against the seat.
During the silence, both of them flipped through the menus.
The blonde waitress walked back carrying a large pot of coffee, a cup and a milkshake. When the cold glass thunked against the plywood table, Felix started, raising his hazel eyes to the thick, brown milkshake she had slid in front of him.
“Yes,” he commended, “chocolate banana is the best.”
Between sips of swirling black, Arden announced their order. Frey cheerfully turned, taking the menus and offering endless milkshakes to the other blond. As she walked away, Felix put his laptop on the table, opening the silver case to power the machine on.
“Free WiFi is unbeatable,” he said.
Arden shuffled in his seat, blowing on the dark brew beneath his lips; “Who are your favorite murderers?” A slightly askew grin stayed masked behind his cup.
The blond rubbed his chin as his computer booted. As his fingers slid over the trackpad and keyboard, he slowly responded, “I like the tales of the Babysitter Killer, mainly because the corruption surrounding his release are just too characteristic of our justice system.”
Felix eyed his milkshake as though he had forgotten it and took several large swigs of it. His face crinkled in simultaneous joy and pain as he gripped his forehead.
His companion slowly continued sipping his hot beverage, clearly amused at his friend’s pain.
“I’m most intrigued by things such as Albert Fish—the mentally disturbed.”
Felix opened a document containing endless blocks of text in varying sizes, font faces, colors and stylizations. Hyperlinks, photos and bits of HTML jutted from the edges as he scrolled through the chunks.
“This is my document on the Rozgonyi murders. It was a pretty widely known event in this area, but news about killer rapists and their psychopathic ways often gets a lot of media attention.”
Arden chuckled slightly, his coffee wavering in the cup, “Certainly. We wouldn’t want everyone’s wives and children at risk.”
“Or husbands,” Felix said through a wry grin; “Either way, I haven’t found much more than what you already know. Some stuff about their Hungarian ancestors and weird personal stuff, but other than that— ” His eyes darted across the document as he scrolled with one hand and held the milkshake in his other. Felix’s eyebrows furrowed.
Arden made no move to disturb him when Frey briskly walked from the kitchen’s swinging doors to their table with food. She set a piping hot tray of pancakes in the center with two small plates on the side. Felix glanced up and back at his laptop; his typing remained continuous. Frey leaned to the side. She eyed the screen.
“Awesome,” she said, “researching heinous crimes?”
The brunet’s coffee sat next to his sleeve, and he shoveled pancakes onto the plate; he smiled, saying, “Ritualistic murder and violence have always been fascinating to me.”
“I just love human nature,” Felix added.
The blonde waitress shifted her weight. “We all love things society tells us not to.” Her eyes widened as she suddenly darted toward the kitchen.
Arden had begun diving into the cakes. Felix looked at his friend and then at Frey’s back as she disappeared behind silver doors, an incredulous quirk in his eyebrow.
“Media outlets told the story as though the Rozgonyi family believed it could commune with demonic forces attached to sixteenth century Europe,” Arden said between bites. “I doubt Satan had much to do with any of it.”
Felix exhaled, roving over the document; “The media attached ideas of demons for added punch, no doubt, but the family thought they could communicate with a Hungarian countess, the murderess Erzsébet Báthory.”
“That’s close enough to a demon in the eyes of the West,” Arden muttered.
The shorter man nodded, eyes rapt to the screen; “A lot of their motive was centered around keeping their family line going. They believed they were direct descendants of Erzsébet. Interestingly enough, the media reported that both Maxen and Anasztázia had adopted Hungarian names sometime shortly after they met, but Maxen was his birth name, and it’s actually Welsh, common among his family. Anasztázia was born Anasztázia Rozgonyi to Hungarian immigrants in New York.”
Arden stopped chewing and swallowed. “So there was a bit more legitimacy in their superstitions than the media wanted to accredit.”
The blond look at the stake of pancakes, now half gone. He moved his computer aside to make room for the plate of pancakes he had made. Syrup dripped onto the table as he shoveled them into his mouth.
The brunet continued, “So Maxen must have legally adopted her surname, Rozgonyi, when they married.”
Between bites, Felix added, “Men having the option of taking their wives’ family names was actually appealed to Hungarian law in 2004. I haven’t found anything directly linking Anasztázia and Erzsébet in genealogy, but maybe her want to continue her Hungarian ancestry made him mix their heritages more directly.”
Arden pushed his plate aside and began on his third cup of black coffee. The steam wafted through his sinuses clearing his head. Deeply inhaling, he closed his eyes to listen to his friend talk.
“Other than the details about their personal lives and some specifics about the victims that were released but not well-publicized—” Felix trailed off.
The taller man watched his friend devour the remaining pancakes while poking at his laptop with the other hand. Behind silver doors, he saw Frey walked toward them. The doors slammed open as she carried a small, porcelain glass filled with black liquid. As she walked, it wavered, bouncing with the waitress’ stride.
“Espresso, a double shot,” she announced. She put the tiny cup in front of Arden. He set his coffee down and smiled.
The strong brew seemed to reflect no light, and he raised it to his lips.
“I owed you one.”
The door squeaked as a new set of patrons walked in, two men and a woman. The lackluster woman at the front counter looked up to greet them only to let her head fall back onto her hand. Her phone still sat in her lap.
Frey said, “I have to lock the router again.”
Felix’s face fell; “Oh okay. I can’t focus after eating that much anyways.”
The waitress gave him an exasperated look and briskly walked away.
The blond look at his plate and slowly ate the last pieces of pancake. He gave his computer its position back in front of him and stopped to watch Arden sip the espresso.
“Bitter little drinks,” he commented.
Arden smiled slightly, finishing the warm brew in one giant sip.
“That’s just what you need,” Felix said, making a face, “caffeine at this hour.”
The brunet smiled again, but this time his grin sat on the left side of his face. He looked at the wall behind Felix and said, “Speaking of time, I’ll have to get back to Loz soon.” He watched his friend type seemingly random keys into various portions of the text.
“Yeah, I could sit here and watch you drink disgusting things all day,” Felix paused typing, “but I have to sleep before classes tomorrow.”
His hazel eyes flickered back to his laptop screen. He said, “I’ll try to find out of there was a link between Anasztázia Rozgonyi and Erzsébet Báthory. You should look at the information I collected on the victims; some of it’s fucking crazy. I emailed it to you.”
Arden nodded though he knew the blond wasn’t looking at let his mind wander into thoughts of victims. His brain offered him the image of the Rozgonyi victim he thought of the most, easily the most publicized of the people to meet an end at Maxen and Anasztázia’s hands. Arden thought of the Japanese girl that would later be known as the couple’s fourth victim. Ironic, he thought.
The blond closed his computer and shoved it into his messenger bag, still hung snugly at his torso. His pale hand fumbled in his pocket, and he withdrew a wad of cash from a battered wallet. Plastic cards jutted at haphazard angles from its torn cloth. Arden eyed it disapprovingly.
Both men stood, and Felix shoved the wallet back into his back pocket. Across the café, Frey watched them start walking toward the door. Her hands were full of plates for the remaining guests, and they exchanged brief nods with her as they exited.
Outside, the dense cloud deck had thickened, and the clear streets sat oddly illuminated in the dead of night. Felix’s red Focus still sat alone in the parking lot. An orange glow hovered above them; a damp cold had shifted through the valley. The blond shoved his hands into his jean pockets.
“It’s suddenly chilly,” his companion said. The taller man buttoned up his jacket and flung his hood on. Strands of black hair rippled around his face.
Felix commanded the vehicle to unlock, and they dove in, chill beginning to sink to the bone. The blond’s messenger bag lay tossed in the backseat as he warmed his hands near the heater vents.
Arden was deep in thought when they left Dogbone Café’s parking lot.
“It was nothing more than a distant dream….” He paused, eying the paperwork at his desk.
“My name is Eszes.” The hole in the side of her head throbbed.
“Fitting.” The doctor frowned without looking up.
“Look—I’m not sure who you are, but you’re certainly a man of reason,” Eszes said, clicking her bent, torn fingernails against the oak chair.
“Doctor Vostok, was it? Fascinating name. The thing was a spherical deathtrap that surprising did not end up dooming Yuri Gagarin. However,” she said quickly, pausing to eye his body language. The olive-skinned man sat behind his desk with a slightly bored expression. Black eyes narrowed at a speck of dust near his left hand, he twirled a turquoise pen incessantly in the other.
The doctor’s eyes closed slightly in exasperation, favoring a position close to rolling back into his head. Having listened to the ramblings of a thousand psychopaths before her, he leaned back in his chair without the slightest attempt to feign interest.
Eszes narrowed her eyes at him, continuing, “However, this isn’t a dream.”
He inhaled slowly. “Do you think I like the taste of blood?”
“Yes,” she slowly said, squinting. Her green eyes darted across his face.
He returned her inquiry with a deadpan gaze and silence.
“My patience is wearing rather thin,” she said.
Doctor Vostok sneered out of his daze. “Your patience? Your patience is wearing thin— Do you realize how much money I make listening to you lie?”
Eszes groaned, her green eyes squinting at his words. She grimaced at him.
As his eyes met hers, the black irises behind fatigued eyelids seemed aflame. Black locks fell over his gaze, and he held her stare. She suddenly wondered if his medical license was legitimate.
“Our time is up,” he paused.
As the nurse gently grabbed her arm, she sneered at him.
The woman resisted, watching the nurse’s brown eyes with disdain. Her arms tensed, drawing closer to her body. The old, grey scrubs that hung off of her folded as the nurse put an arm around her waist, pulling her toward the wooden door. Eszes suddenly relaxed and her angry sneer melted.
“Hollow,” the nurse said softly.
Lynch nodded from his desk, watching the woman direct Eszes back to her room. He rubbed his forehead; tucking her file back into his desk, he inhaled as the specks of dust floated across his vision. The creaky chair cried out softly as he pushed his weight against the back of the seat.
Doctor Lynch let his black eyes swing across the room as the door racked the frame; he could almost see pieces of plaster and and sheetrock break free and fall toward the floor. Briefly, he thought of the last woman to break free in his office. Bloodstains still splattered the windowsill, he swore.
As the final shudders of wood against paint silenced, the doctor slowly rose from his dusty brown chair. His feet rose high off of the hardwood, and it softly creaked as he glided across the room.
Eszes closed her eyes, mumbling, “It’s a nervous habit.”
“That’s not healthy, you know.”
She snapped at the doctor, “I would, of all people.”
“When did you pick it back up?” He shifted back in his seat.
Her eyes were bright in the glint of the bars of lights over her head. Idly, the second hand ticked as she stared blankly through the hair the tumbled over her face.
“You look like a ghost,” Vostok said.
She didn’t budge, breath coming in uneven, jerking hitches.
He leaned forward, gold eyes glinting; “The trees are all around us.”
The only sound was the grit of Eszes' teeth clenching and unclenching, clenching and unclenching. Deep inside of the walls, the incessant rumbling of thousands of bees lurched.
Vostok gritted his teeth back at her, throwing paperwork into the air.
“You think they don’t have eyes? That they can’t see you?” He laughed as the sheets drifted back onto the ground.
The girl’s green eyes widened owlishly; she wrapped her long fingers around the oak chair’s armrests.
The doctor smiled; “I see you haven’t become any less anxious.”
Forward and backward, she slowly rocked. The white hair swayed, brushing her fingertips.
“Do you feel anxious?” he slowly said.
One pupil dilated during absolute silence, and the steady squeak of the oak chair meandered through their thoughts.
He tapped his turquoise pen on the desk and raised an eyebrow; “it was the tea the new nurse brought you, wasn’t it?” He stroked his chin. “Ms. Shukla can’t always watch out for you.”
“Tea,” she repeated softly. Her head shifted forward, hair tumbling over her face. “I asked for tea.”
“I’ve been your primary physician for almost seven years. We can talk about tea all day long, but no one dare bring you any.”
“I like tea.”
“You loathe tea,” he said.
Doctor Lynch sat at his oak desk. Between the ticking of the clock that sat on the wall behind him and the steady breeze that rustled the Joshua trees outside of his window, Lynch was lost in his thoughts. The turquoise pen in his right hand twirled in his fingers. Across from him, the grey-haired woman stared with furrowed eyebrows at his face. She clutched a stack of papers, each with scribbles of drawings or words scratched into the page. Charcoal dust had rubbed onto her arms and wrists, between her little fingers, the graphite smearing circles against her white skin.
Eszes loosened her expression and let the pile of papers fall into her lap. Graphite and charcoal dust flew out from the edges and gathered into soft, grey clouds before drifting away. Her green eyes roved over her own art and writing. Happily appraising a sheet filled with crooked writing, she picking it up to look at the page taped to it.
“Eszes,” Doctor Lynch said to her, “did you enjoy writing that?”
The woman kept her face down, eyes on the paper. Her smile started at the left side of her face and briefly covered her whole mouth before melting back to one cheek. She nodded slowly.
“A lot of your writing involves the lady in red,” he said.
Eszes looked up at him, face still stuck in a partial smile. She gritted her teeth as he reached over and set his outstretched arm on his desk.
The woman let the smile seep off of her face. She gathered her papers quickly and threw them onto the desk. The sheets landed in a pile over the doctor’s arm, and he nodded to himself. Adjusting them into a tight stack, he grabbed the sheets covered with Eszes’ crooked scrawl.
The woman watched his hands warily as he leafed over the paper. In the silence, she had begun to pull at her hair, and strands of grey twisted from her skull to her fingers. She narrowed her eyes at his hands as he read through her writing.
“This woman in red,” he began, “she’s always luring silver foxes into her cottage.”
The wavering text had already begun to smear. Eszes’ writing was severely slanted, moving sideways along the page as it flew upward at its ends. She had written over parts of the text in silver and red, words fading through one another. Scrunched into thin loops, the pencil she had used left wavering dots over the page when she tapped it against the paper. She hadn’t been wondering what to write next.
“She’s always lying to them.” Lynch eyed a spot on the paper where the woman had rubbed graphite so roughly into the fibers that they tore. A small hole sat in the center of the dark cloud, edges frayed and reaching. The doctor fingered the hole absentmindedly and examined the corner of the page. It bore a small, circular pencil mark with a dragon’s face in the center. The tiny drawing was placed like a seal, intricately shaded and detailed though it was as small as a dime. He set it aside to leaf through the other pages.
Not too far into the ruffled stack, he came upon a drawing. He frowned slightly as he scanned her art: Eszes still wouldn’t use any other colors than red, silver and the smudging grey of graphite.
“How do you feel about green?” he asked her.
Her emerald eyes jerked up from his desk and to his face. She seemed to consider the question, and the corner of her mouth crinkled.
“Eloquent and appropriate,” Vostok said. “What about red?”
Eszes shrugged and repeated, “Fuck green.”
Lynch let the answer slip into silence and looked at the picture more closely. The subjects of Eszes’ haphazard works of art were often the same: young, delicate women. At times, Doctor Lynch was sure she drew herself in these chains, that the flesh swirled with jagged burns was her own. Whenever he took the time to stand outside her chamber as she scribbled across the page, he saw her in a frenzy: she would stay there for hours, scratching away madly in the dark. He knew from the examinations that her past was littered with pock-marks, razors and wire, molten hot metals pressed and sliced into the flesh.
The doctor flipped through a series of graphite sketches before landing on a a page smeared with red. The female silhouette in the center remained white, a pristine negative slicing through crimson. Grey writing twisted through every portion of page except the figure, and over the bloody smudges, another tale of treason was skewed. As Lynch muttered to himself about the color, he scanned the page. The white silhouette was never mentioned, but Eszes’ script instead painted the wry image of a fearful politician being torn asunder by hungry wolves. She spared nothing in describing how strips of flesh gave way under his suit and blossomed red against snow and teeth. The last sentence read: HIS BOUNDLESS VICES WERE EQUALED BY THEIR HUNGER; THE WOLVES, THEY HAD THEIR FILL.
When Doctor Lynch finally turned his attention back toward the woman, it seemed like an eternity to Eszes. She had let her mind fiddle with the realities on his desk, and the plaque that bore his name now showed a disproportional Eye of Horus. She grinned at it; the iris yawned with her thoughts.
“Eszes,” he said slowly, “where are you?”
Without her gaze wavering, she answered steadily, “Doctor, this is hardly the time to patronize me. I’m in your office as you scan my texts.”
Lynch let his black gaze hover over her for several seconds before nodding back to the pages in his hands.
“When you imagine yourself in the fields, you see carnivores there, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said. Her eyes flickered from the plaque to his hands as they stacked the pages back into a pile.
The doctor leaned back in his chair; “How many kinds?”
Eszes did not allow her mind to wander: “only two.” Her breathing had nearly stopped, and she sucked in one hitched gasp: “I see them behind my eyelids every time they close.”
The doctor looked down his nose at the sheet he’d left on top: the silhouette stared back at him eyeless.
“Do they influence you, Eszes?”
Lynch’s brows were creased together; he had envisioned her running with these beasts, cascading into the fervid temptation they represented.
“Temptation,” Vostok repeated aloud.
Eszes watched as the eye rolled in its socket. Lines cut across gold and dissected the letters of his name. Were it not for the writhing letters occupying her mind, she would have flinched as his foot rapped against the wooden desk.
“Do they have names?”
Her green eyes snapped from the plague to his face, and she frowned.
“Why would they have names?” she asked. “I don’t need to call them; I feel them.”
Doctor Lynch held her gaze; he said evenly, “Even concepts have names, Eszes.”
“What about you?” Eszes said suddenly.
He did not flinch. “What about me?”
“Don’t you see carnivores?”
As she watched his lips part, she inhaled. He inhaled.
“I am carnivores.”
Her breath hitched, and she whispered, “One has a name.”
“And what is it?” Vostok asked.
“The Lady Ember”.
“This woman?” He motioned to the drawing; a smile crept along his face.
The red smears seemed to dance off the page and onto his desk, and the white silhouette undulated slightly, wavering within the lines of her paper prison. The oak of the desk began to slither toward her, and as red and black mixed, Eszes continued to stare into his eyes.
Gold bored into her sockets, and she shook her head.
Vostok slammed his hand against the desk, papers and knickknacks jumping off of the slick oak surface to rattle back down against the silence. A gurgle rose in his throat, and he grimaced at her. With his face twisted into a sneer, he stared down his nose. The doctor slowly drug his hand off of the desk, fingers thumping as they moved off of paperwork and onto wood.
“The Lady Ember,” Lynch repeated suddenly.
“So fierce she glows white,” she added. Her voice was a whisper.
The white walls seemed too tall to Eszes, too looming for something obviously meant to be inviting. In her rickety plastic chair, she sat slowly rocking back and forth. Though group therapy would not begin for another seventy seven minutes, she sat in the circle alone. Cross-legged, Eszes stared ahead no doubt deeply lost in her own mind. Between the eleven lights that hung from the ceiling and the one hundred three tiles that sat under her, she continued to rock, twisting a strand of grey hair in her fingers. The room she sat in lay barren save for the chairs and an orderly meandering at its rim. The cobalt trim that cut along the walls stopped abruptly at the only exit: a set of metal doors. The same nurse the had taken Eszes from Lynch’s office now stood peering at her through a tiny window. Dressed in the same scrubs as her patient, her hair sat in a tight bun against her head. The brown strands that had unfurled swung against her tan forehead as she she jotted in a notebook, and the plate that rested at her collar gave only her first name: Yazi. Her eyes were black.
Eszes continued rocking, the chair underneath her still creaking in steady rhythm. Her green eyes remained wide, stuck on the wall she had pondered. The blue trim had melted onto the floor, and she examined how it stuck to the cracks and dripped down baseboards. Her fingers twisted around the strands of hair until they split. Another lock curled under her nails. For the minutes that remained, she remained rapt to her thoughts.
The door creaked, and Eszes made no movement. She picked at the hem of her shirt. Another orderly lead a girl in, and the girl’s shuffling broke the silence. Her red hair was cropped short around her face. Despite the grey-haired woman’s obliviousness, the girl certainly noticed Eszes. She stood half a foot taller than the other patient though her wide eyes darted endlessly around the room.
“Poppy,” the orderly softly said while ushering her into a seat. The girl inhaled softly, clumsily piling herself into the plastic chair. The orderly moved back out of the room.
Poppy scrunched her face and eyed Eszes. For several minutes, the only sounds that echoed were the slow steps of the orderly and the scrape of the redhead’s fingers on her arm. Two more patients were brought in by orderlies, and Eszes made no move to greet them as Poppy nodded furiously. An older woman with neat, peppered hair moved into the seat on Eszes’ left. Her severe face stayed neutral as the orderlies set the circle. Her narrowed eyes scanned the other patients before she settled to pick at her nails, perfectly manicured.
The last needed no help from the staff: a brunette with wide, blue eyes happily sat next to Poppy, crossing her legs and adjusting her jumpsuit in an over-embelished flurry. Yazi handed her notebook and pen to an orderly who was passing by. After they all left the room, she stood outside of the circle of chairs. Only Poppy seemed to notice her presence and lifted her hand in a sheepish wave. The Middle Eastern woman offered her a smile in return, holding the redhead’s gaze as she continued to nervously eyed the nurse.
The woman who had galavanted in the room tilted her head to the side to stare at Poppy. Her thin lips peeled back in a wide grin, she let the corner of her mouth fall as she looked at the redhead.
Yazi looked toward the door as Doctor Lynch walked in. Beneath his arm, he carried a folio stuffed heavy with printed paper. Leaves of lined scribbles peaked from the edges as he adjusted himself to sit. Coughing, he looked out on the female patients and pulled a document from the mess. He twirled a turquoise pen in one hand.
“Ladies,” he addressed them, “welcome back to group. Some of you know this arena well.” Lynch bowed his head toward the woman beside Eszes and then toward the woman who sat next to Poppy.
“Yeah, I’ve been here before,” the older lady said as she adjusted her legs. Eszes’ eyes slowly moved down the wall and across the floor; she stared intently at the woman’s nails.
“Oh, Elena,” the woman sitting next to Poppy chided her, “one could even call you a veteran.” Her smile was searing, unwavering.
Lynch watched their interaction and jotted some lines onto his paper. Poppy had hunched forward in her chair, bending like a dehydrated tree at the waist. Both of her long, slender hands were buried in her hair, and it splayed from her head like flames. Across from her, Eszes still stared at Elena’s hands, which plucked at themselves like birds. The dark streaks of her hair wove between the greys, and it hung across her forehead as wet papyrus hung from trees.
“Let’s start with introductions again,” Lynch said. He scanned the circle before spotting Poppy. “Miss Koulas,” he gestured toward her.
Poppy didn’t move for what seemed to the doctor like years. When she finally began to slowly rise, her arms stayed stuck by her head.
“Poppy,” he said softly, “why don’t you introduce yourself to everyone?”
Her eyes darted from the ground to his face, and she furrowed her eyebrows slightly. Moving her hands over her face, she settled them in her lap.
Poppy’s voice started in an uneven, quiet tone: “My name is Poppy Koulas, and I’m fifteen years old.” She paused, frowning.
Lynch watched her eyes begin darting between him and the other patients; he jotted another sentence down on the document.
“Okay, Poppy, that was great.”
Content with her praise, she drew her legs into the chair and hugged them to her chest. As Lynch pointed to the woman next to Poppy, the redhead chewed at the sleeve of her shirt.
“I am Allegria Marita Kamloops: maverick, wife and mother,” she announced. The bun that held her hair bobbed as she bowed her head in a display of extravagant etiquette.
Next to her, Elena openly scoffed. Her body heaved as she let a chuckle escape, and Allegria continued as though it hadn’t happened.
“Most of you already know me, but for those of you who don’t,” she giggled to herself, adjusting to switch her crossed legs, “I’m Mister Klossner’s go-to gal, so to speak.” She laughed again, and the older woman rolled her eyes.
The redhead nodded quickly as Allegria appraised the audience.
“Wonderful,” Lynch said. He nodded to Elena, who shrugged and continued inspecting her fingernails.
“Name’s Dorothy,” she said.
Lynch frowned at her and interjected, “Elena, we’ve talked about aliases and confusing other patients.”
“Fine,” she seceded, “you already let the cat out of the bag anyway.”
The doctor nodded and crinkled his face in a half-hearted smile.
“Great, now Eszes.”
Watching the rhythmic movement of Elena’s fingernails prod at one another, Eszes made no motion to acknowledge him. She sat still save for her hand curling in and out of grey hair and her eyes, which moved to the other woman’s face.
“Eszes,” he said firmly.
Poppy began scratching her fingers against her chair, eyes flying between Eszes and Lynch.
Allegria tilted her head to the side. She let her eyes roam over Eszes in silent expectation.
“Don’t be so drab,” she told Eszes. Her smile twisted across her lips and crackled across her face. She leaned forward slightly.
Vostok’s hands clenched around his files, around his pen. Strained, he said, “She can’t help but be drab.”
Elena suddenly stopped fidgeting. The wrinkles in her face deepened as she grimaced, bringing her gaze up to look at Eszes.
The sound of scratching echoed through the room as their eyes met. The older woman narrowed her eyes at the other patient, and as Yazi moved closer to the circle, Elena examined the cracks in Eszes’ green irises. Her eyes didn’t move.
The doctor said her name again, and she slowly turned her head. His face tightened and white knuckles into the files as Eszes’ eyes settled on Allegria.
“Drab,” she said. Allegria straightened her shirt again, meeting the unwavering gaze of the other patient.
Eszes watched the hornets gather against the side of Allegria’s head. They landed on that perfect bun, wriggled toward the woman’s skull as she sneered. The incessant buzz kept her mind reeling, but she noted with interest how the insects burrowed between folds of flesh and bone.
She watched as the woman kept talking through the swarms: “You wretch,” Allegria muttered; regaining her snide smile, she giggled to herself as she looked away from Eszes and tilted her head back. She pretended to put on makeup, delicately patting her cheeks in succession.
Eszes opened her mouth to speak, but only a choked hiss left her lips. Everyone froze as she gargled, face straining against the images before her.
The doctor threw his files to the ground, pen cracking as it bounced off the tile. Jagged pieces of turquoise plastic danced across the floor.
Poppy jolted up from her seat and screeched. Knocking her chair against the Allegria’s legs, she darted toward the edge of the room. Yazi rushed to the redhead’s side as she crushed herself into the corner of the room. With her back against the wall, Poppy rocked herself. The nurse tended to her while orderlies swept into the room. Before they could restrain her, Allegria had picked up two chairs. Her composed face had melted into red, a gradient of rage cast across her skin. She sputtered like an angry dog and heaved them at the wall. The rip of metal as the chair’s legs stabbed through drywall sent a raucous laugh through Allegria. She set her sights on the older lady nearby. Before two orderlies could pry the angry woman off of Elena, the older woman’s left eye was a pool of blood, and the hornets were rushing into Elena’s skull.
“This is mine!” Allegria said, thrusting a gob of flesh and ooze into the air. Already it was fodder for the swarm.
As Elena was taken to the infirmary, Yazi administered sedatives to Allegria and Poppy. Their final struggles against straps and metal fell silent, and Eszes was once again left in the room. Vostok still sat in his seat next to her.
“Hornets,” he said.
Eszes’ eyes remained fixed to the patch of air where Allegria had been sitting. She didn’t move.
“Hornets,” the doctor repeated, humor dripping through his voice. He chuckled slightly.
The grey-haired woman’s breathing hitched, and she inhaled deeply. The rumble of insects was getting louder, seeping into her thoughts, into the tornado that rattled through her brain. One of the eleven lights flickered out. Eszes slowly looked up at the doctor, and the absence of the light cast small shadows across his shoulders, under his smiling face.
He opened his mouth to speak. The rumble of a million insect bodies echoed through his chest as he spoke: “Enjoy the view, Eszes.”
Vostok’s voice had shifted, deepened as he reached a hand out to clasp her knee.
Eszes watched with widened eyes as he opened his mouth again. Instead of words, he merely gaped at her, and she saw his black tongue writhe against the hornets in his throat.