(Kelly was written by Kelly Blanchard. Alan was written by Amy Preder.)
It was a warm day, just on the cusp of summer. The sun was brightly shining. He hated days like this. The sun was too bright, and people liked to be out and around. There were too many eyes about. Too many people to see everything he did, and too few shadows to hide in.
He took another look at the scene, wanting to make sure everything was perfect. He had his maid set out iced tea and some plain refreshments. Bread, some creamy cheese, fruits, a small container of peanut butter. He hoped his guest wouldn’t mind the simple vegetarian fare. It was more extravagant than he was used to, but most people around here still preferred their meat and potatoes. Plain foods and vegetarianism were still considered to be popular fad diets for the rich and famous.
His guest, he scowled to himself as he thought those words. He didn’t quite understand why he was having a guest. It was that voice in his head. The one he tried to hide from. The one he tried to fight. Somehow, he could never quite manage to complete either action. He resented the voice most of all.
He took one more look at his carefully manicured nails to make sure they were clean. He picked a bit of imaginary lint from his perfectly tailored grey suit, then smoothed it. He looked around the scene he had set. He frowned at the sugar bowl set out for the tea, but thought twice. Maybe his guest would like sugar, even if he thought it was an unnecessary and unhealthy extravagance. The garden seating was comfortable ironwork. Not particularly fancy, but sophisticated all the same. His eyes fell on his small greenhouse just past the seating area. He loved the building’s simple ironwork and glass panes. He retrieved a small silver bud vase holding a single orchid stem. The vase had a delicate pattern depicting a field with wildflowers. The orchids were pure white with red centers, like a line of blood drops on fine linen. He smiled, picked up the vase, and walked it over to the table. He had almost forgotten the most important part. As he set the vase down on the table, his maid showed up, escorting Kelly Blanchard into the garden.
Kelly took in her surroundings as she was led into the garden area. She had to give him credit, at least he didn’t kill his plants, but she kept this thought to herself as she set her gaze upon him and smiled. He looked sharp and charming, but she sensed his unease with her coming here, and she was fine with that.
As she approached him, she nodded to him. “Hello, I am Kelly Blanchard. Thank you for having me. I’m afraid I don’t know if I ever really caught your name.”
Good, he thought. She spoke first. It gave him the chance to be solicitous and charming. He tried to evaluate Kelly’s demeanor without being too vulgar about it. She stood with too much confidence for a woman.
He put on his best, most charming smile. He came forward to offer his hand. “Oh, please forgive my manners, Miss Blanchard. Please call me Alan. Can I offer you a seat and refreshments?”
She accepted his hand and returned his smile. “Of course. Thank you, Alan.” She gaze around the garden. “Quite an exquisite place you have here. Do you tend to the gardens yourself, or do others do it for you?” She shifted her gaze back at him to watch how he moved and to catch anything he might not say.
He escorted Kelly to the seating area, and pulled out a chair for her. He was glad she noticed his pride and joy. To comment on it, though. that caused the smile to fall from his eyes, even if he managed to keep it plastered on his mouth. “Why, thank you Miss Blanchard. I’m glad you appreciate it. I have a gardener to keep up out here, but the servants only do the superficial work. I keep up the exotic plants. Of course, the greenhouse is all my work. Orchids are so fragile. I don’t let just anyone touch them, of course. Mother always told me that it was important for a man to learn some refined arts, and horticulture suits me.”
Good, he thought. That should impress her. He smirked a bit at the use of the word horticulture. It would tell him what kind of woman he was dealing with.
She tucked away the mention of his mother to come back to it later, but she had to ask. “And how many of these plants have you used to kill people?” She raised her brows as she sat across from him. She knew both the healing and killing powers especially of herbs, and she wondered if this garden was tied that closely to his other work.
He was shocked at her directness. Appalled. Angered. Emotions contorted his face as he tried to regain his composure. She couldn’t know such a thing. How could she possibly know such a thing? Had the voice in his head betrayed him? “Well, despite your etiquette, you’re quite modern, aren’t you?” The words hissed from his mouth quietly, like an accusation. They had the oily feel of blasphemy.
He plastered back the fake smile. This time, it was stretched, more like a grimace than any other expression. “Of course, I am studying to be a doctor. My intent is to learn to use these plants in healing, not murder.”
“I’m quite modern?” She raised her brows and then laughed. “Oh, I’ll have you know that I learned the killing powers of plants alongside a physician during the Crusades.” But then she gave him a nod. “And yes, I do know what it is that you do—that you kill people, but that doesn’t make me afraid of you though.” She shook her head. “Instead, I want to know why you do it.” With that, she crossed her arm over her chest to hold her other arm as she sat back in her chair was observed his reaction.
“Well, then, did you know that ground bone and blood make good food for the roses, Miss Blanchard?” He spoke the words in a strained, clipped cadence as he fantasized about killing Kelly and putting her body to just such use. He could not abide being challenged by the fairer sex, and she was certainly not the type of woman worth preserving or immortalizing.
“And, clearly, you were misinformed. I do not kill. Not people, anyway. I need subjects to learn from. The medical profession needs to learn what perfect subjects look like, so that we can better identify disorder and disease. They will thank me for it, one day, even if my instructors don’t currently understand my vision.”
“Ah, I see.” Kelly couldn’t help but grin. She could see in his eyes how he was imagining different ways of killing her. Let him try. He’d be in for a very rude awakening. But still, she tried to keep it civil. “So, you are trying to save humanity by any means possible? And of course no one sees it like you do, so you deem yourself merely misunderstood in hopes that maybe one day people will recognize the greatness you have done for the greater good.” She nodded. “And these people you…subject to your…techniques…are they all volunteers?” She lifted her brows, but she easily imagined him smoothly charming any person into trusting him, and they not realizing what was really happening until it was too late.
“You make it sound so trite.” He spat the words at her, the corners of his nose wrinkling with disgust. “I choose my subjects. They are carefully chosen from the flock. As carefully chosen as any researcher would choose a specimen in the field. I make sure they are able to enjoy their last moments. And I deliver them as painless a death as possible. I also have no such grand delusions as to ‘save humanity.’ I wish to assemble the perfect anatomical model. That will be a great enough accomplishment, and well worth the sacrifice of those who went into its construction.”
“You choose your subject—therefore they do not volunteer. If they die by your hand then, that is simply murder—no matter how pleasurable their final moments are or how painless the death.” Kelly locked eyes with him and did not let go. “You, Alan, are a killer and a murderer.” She then tilted her head as if observing something curious about him. “You don’t seem comfortable with that identification.”
This was too great an accusation for him. “I’m no such brute. I will show you a murderer.” There was no mistaking the cold or rising anger in his voice. He stood abruptly, upsetting the table and attempting to grab Kelly by the hair. His hands passed harmlessly through her, and his momentum carried him past her to fall clumsily past the seating area. He stood up, dirt and pulls in his trousers, and rounded angrily at Kelly. “What are you!”
Kelly tsked as she turned in her seat to him, and she smiled. “I’ll tell you what I’m not. I am not your next victim. You may strike out at me as much as you wish, but…” She shook her head—still smiling. “You’ve seen what happened. You didn’t think I was stupid enough to speak as I do to a man such as you without some kind of protection of my own? You’re, by far, not the first man who tried to kill me, and you’re not really even that original. You all try to be tough and bad and such, but…you’re all basically the same.” She shook her head but then gestured back to the chair he had abandoned. “Now, care to sit once more? You still have to put up with me for another hour.” She smiled.
He growled, low in his throat. “Well, if I have no choice…I won’t let you just push me around like this, though.” He sulked back to his seat, rage bubbling just beneath the surface. He was barely managing to contain his fury and embarrassment at not being able to act.
Kelly was extremely tempted to say, ‘good boy,’ when he returned to his seat, but she kept that to herself though she couldn’t contain the chuckle at the thought. Instead, she focused on another matter. “So, you mentioned your mother earlier. Were you close to her?” Or did you kill her too? Kelly wondered but wouldn’t ask that—yet, at least.
The soft chuckle almost set him off again. Only the memory of his embarrassment kept him from striking out again. “You have no idea how lucky you are.” He muttered it low, as though speaking to himself, but chanced a glance at Kelly for a reaction. He meant for her to hear it, but did not want to seem so predictable.
“Mother and I were very close, before she died. Tuberculosis is not a pleasant death, and that was the one she had in store. She begged me for mercy. I could not fix her. That is why I need to do all I can to prefect the medical arts. She always said we were meant to be rich and well educated. I have done my best to live up to her.” He uttered each direct word with loathing.
“So…because you couldn’t save her, you kill others in hopes to save even more…” Kelly tried to make sense of this, but…yeah, the pieces just won’t coming together. “Why should you care about everyone else? I mean, how different are they from me? One person may be nice and polite and quite charming, but what would keep you from killing her? Someone else may be direct, forthright, or arrogant and egotistical. Why do you even care about the rest of the world?” Kelly motioned to their surroundings as if indication to the world, but then she fixed her eyes on him–not mocking him but sincerely curious. “What have they ever done to earn your care? Or do you simply wish to be the one to master death–preventing it or causing it at will?”
He started to calm slightly at seeing Kelly’s genuine curiosity. Still, her questions were unsettling. He did not like them at all. They led to uncomfortable, dark corners that he preferred to leave cloaked in darkness.
“I…I couldn’t watch her die like that…I couldn’t watch her drowning in her own blood…I couldn’t watch her wince with pain each time a fit came on. It’s too much to ask anyone to bear…” He shook his head to clear that unpleasant thought. “My subjects are something special. I only choose those who are the best examples of the human female. And I only choose those who make themselves disposable.” His voice took on a lusty tone as he spoke. “Why should someone just die or be destroyed in the poor morals of this city? Better to preserve them before they are destroyed by gin and music, short skirts and shorter hair. If they had families who cared for them, they wouldn’t be alone in this city, now would they?”
Not necessarily, Kelly wanted to point out, but she had another question before she could say this. “And how well do you come to know your…subjects before you usher them to death’s door?” She softened her voice to show she wasn’t mocking. Rather, she wanted to understand, and perhaps in her understanding, he would come to realize something about himself—whether or not he liked what he might learn was an altogether different matter though.
“I can meet them anywhere. I am always on the lookout for my next subject.” This didn’t feel right, even as the words escaped his lips. “No, that’s not right.” His eyes wandered to the ground, then to the sky and back as if he sought an answer in his surroundings. She wanted to understand. Okay, he could work with that. For some reason, he had trouble forming an explanation that really seemed to explain it well.
“Well, anyway, I need to know if they are right before I can move. Of course, no mothers with young children who need them. No girls with family who is actually protecting them. No illnesses or bad habits yet that would harm their perfection. Good skin and hair. Blonde…” Blonde? Why blonde? That didn’t matter. It wasn’t a requirement, either, just a preference. He stood up and started pacing his side of the seating area like a caged predator. He did not like where these questions were leading him.
“So you do your research.” Kelly sat back in her chair and watched him pace.
“Yes, of course. I am no brute.” He looked at Kelly, searching for some hidden meaning behind her statement. She didn’t seem to be implying anything lewd. Still, what was her game?
She ignored his last statement and pressed on, “And how long do you observe them?”
“For as long as I need to.” The answer was automatic. He had no need to think about it. He tried to take his seat again, and brushed uncomfortably at the dirt on his trouser legs. He was not clean. “Mother would be so disappointed,” he muttered to himself as his mind wandered to his current appearance.
That statement caught Kelly off guard, and she furrowed her brows then tilted her head as she crossed her arms. “Why do you say that?”
He shook his head to clear his mind wandering. He realized he had drifted away from the interview, and had no idea what he had said. He hoped his disorientation was not apparent as he tried to cover. “I’m sorry? I observe my subjects for as long as I need to in order to make sure they fit my requirements. It may take no more than a few days. It may take weeks. It all depends. They must be meant for me. They must fit the criteria. They must be willing to go with me to their end, even if they don’t know what is coming. I don’t believe that that they don’t know, though. I think all of them realize on some level, even if they don’t want to admit it to themselves.”
He had shifted back to the original topic, but Kelly wasn’t quite ready to let his slip up go. She leaned forward, setting her forearms on the table as she clasped her hands together on the table and leaned forward–eyes never breaking from his. She saw how he was taken back by her abrupt change of posture, but she didn’t back down though she kept her voice soft and not attacking. “What did you mean your mother would be so disappointed with you?” She searched his eyes. She knew part of it may have to do with his clothes being dirtied, but she sensed it went deeper than that.
He involuntarily drew back, and tried to suppress the deep, cold tremor he felt pulse through his body. He could not remember ever being met with such intensity from a woman. Her softness, though, and her interest. He could not make the feelings or reactions in his head line up properly. He also knew that there was danger here. Some sort of danger he did not want to face.
“Mother always said appearance was important. Always look neat, clean. Never know when you might need to impress someone important.” The words turned into a singsong cadence as he said them. It was as though he was a young child reciting his lessons.
“And how would she react if you weren’t…presentable?” Kelly almost whispered as she watched him, saw how skittish he was, but she was grateful that he wasn’t completely closed off even if he didn’t realize it.
He felt an uncomfortable tremor in his body once more. His throat and eyes were burning, although he didn’t know why. His head was starting to ache. “She loved me. I don’t know what you mean? What do you mean?” Even as he said the words, strange images flowed through his head. They felt like memories, although he did not think they were his memories. They were oddly familiar, though. There was a little boy sitting in a church in a suit just like his Sunday suit. There was that boy and a little girl in a bright yellow dress playing outside. There was his mom, lying in her bed, a thin line of blood trailing from the corner of her mouth. She was saying something to a boy next to her, something he could not hear.
As he came out of his memories, he realized his face was wet, although he didn’t know why. He angrily wiped his face and eyes and dashed the wetness away. “I’m sorry, but I don’t remember much of my childhood. I assume she punished me if I misbehaved, as all good parents do.”
She tilted her head at his words, his reaction. Even though he didn’t know it, she had seen the same memories he had–part of being a Muse. But she saw something deeper–deeper than he wanted to admit, but she had to ask, and she did so softly, “And why don’t you remember your childhood?” Kelly reached across the table and touched his hand. He flinched back surprised by the contact and the fact that her hand didn’t pass through his, but Kelly maintained eye contact. “You can trust me. I might challenge, might mock you, but I only do so to make you think.”
He looked up, as though he might find the answer written in the sky above him. There, again, were those strange images. The little boy, younger than ever. A stern man. Then, Mother. Mother and the stern man shouting, and a knife. And mother saying that it would all be okay, if only he was a good boy and listened. The little boy a bit older again, and Mother yelling that he needs to listen and be a good boy. Scalding hot baths, painful scrubbing in the baths. Soaps that burned his eyes and stung his nose.
Slowly, it dawned on him that he and the young boy were one in the same. Still, he didn’t know how to make sense of the images. He couldn’t quite integrate them into his world.
He looked back at Kelly’s now solid hand and felt the strange connection. He drew his hand back quickly, as though shocked. “Thank you…I…I don’t know what to make of this all. There is something…more…for me to see. I wish I could explain it to you, but I don’t have words right now.”
“I see what you’re seeing, Alan.” At his perplexed look, Kelly offered him a warm smile. “I’m not like everyone else. You saw that earlier. Go on. Keep remembering. If you want an anchor, you may hold my hand.” She offered her hand once more. “I won’t let you go.”
Tentatively, he reached forward, just barely making contact with Kelly’s hand. He reached further back into his mind, and the images looped around. Back to the girl in the yellow dress. The two of them playing, laughing. Getting mud on their clothes. His mother coming out of the house screaming, furious. Then the little girl was gone and he was alone, sad, and scared. The memories went back to his mother’s lingering death in her bed. Coughing. Begging for mercy. The little boy. The little him boy, smiling. Knowing that at last she would know…
And with that, the emotions became too much. The last of his defenses broke down, and even his anger could not keep him from crying. He tried his best to keep his composure, even as the tears ran down his face. “I can’t say it, but if you truly see what I see, you know. I’m sorry. Maybe in a different life, you could have saved me. In this one, you can’t.” He stormed off towards the house.
“Alan.” Kelly didn’t even turn to face him as he stormed past her, but she waited until she heard his footsteps falter to a halt. Only then did she finally rise to her feet with grace and turn to him and approached him.
As she drew near to him, she wasn’t sure what to say, but she placed a hand on his shoulder and tried to find his gaze and until he finally–reluctantly locked eyes with her. Tears still stained his cheeks, and she offered him a kind smile. “I’m not here to change you or to change what you do, but know your actions–no matter how careful you are—hurt others in ways you cannot imagine, and I’m not talking about those your…take away from this world. You’ve been hurt. I know that, and you are forever trying to please and satisfy your mother, but she’s gone. She can’t hurt you anymore. Your actions are your own. Remember that.” Then she let him go and left.
He was in a panic as he finally went inside and made his way to his study. His refuge, where nobody else was ever allowed. Ever. He was breathless and dizzy. He felt unsteady on his feet. His interview with Kelly was unsettling in a terrible way. He tried to focus on his breathing, to calm himself, with only limited success. As his thoughts cleared, one memory seared its way to the front. The worst one. The terrible truth he could not admit, even to the mysterious and compassionate woman he had just met.
The little boy that was him was in his mother’s bedroom. She was dying. She was in horrible pain. He turned his back to her, not wanting to look at her pain. But as the boy turned his back, he saw the boy’s face. The boy may have been in pain, but he was also smiling.
Note: Amy’s story is currently untitled, and she isn’t sure when it will be released, but you may follow her on social media for more updates!