Chapter 5 – Ashes of The Late World

After the uncomfortable incident, Jaciam had turned off the TV, its image collapsing into dusky grey silence, like the eyes of a thing that had just died. She sat in the midst of her own silence, waiting until she heard something, waiting, waiting; it seemed that she should have been able to at least hear the reassuring tick of a clock, but she did not keep one in her room. The quiet became immense, overpowering.

It felt as if a door had been opened in her head and she could not prevent the other side from seeing her anymore. That creature, the huge cat skull fixed impossibly on the emaciated, naked body of a human woman, the dark eyes like halves of pomegranates staring witlessly at her… it had seemed so real, as if she could reach out and touch it. Nothing even in her room had quite that vividness, that quality of realness. She felt sure that the creature was real.

A name came to her. A name she was not sure she had, and she might have been naming a part of herself, but she knew inexorably it belonged to the monster in the doorway. The Doppler.

Her beak parted and formed that hateful name. The Doppler.

And now that the door in her head was open, The Doppler could come and visit her any time it wanted. Jaciam closed her eyes and rubbed her face in her hands. At least the rubbing feathers dented the silence.

She enjoyed the feeling of floating for hours, of her body parts shrinking and growing impossibly, then regaining normal size, as if the essence within her was so unstable that her body could not hold and comprehend such an uncertain enigma. She dozed in and out of an unsound sleep, testing the ground of slumber and finding it unsafe, rickety.

Many hours later she eventually slipped into sleep long enough to dream.

The sky was falling apart again, and pieces of the universe like shedding skin floated repulsively to rest on the cracked earth. The Doppler sat opposite a bonfire, the ashes of the late world drifting passively with the sparks from the vivid orange flames. The illumination cast the wasted body, the jutting bones, into sharp relief and dark shadows. Light reflected off the wicked, sheer curve of the skull, but there was nothing where its eyes should have been.

“Iri!!? What happened?”

“He had a seizure… he had been taken off some medication earlier today.”

“That was quite a violent withdraw reaction, I haven’t seen anything like it.”

“You haven’t been around enough then. People here will have seizures for no reason whatsoever.”

Dr. Phaedrus peered into the mob of passing white coats, which crowded around a rolling stretcher. There was a man in the middle, who was strapped under the restraint belts, his eyes closed in slumber, his tail dragging limp over the side. It took a few moments for the doctor to realize that the man was Nox, the very patient that had been the focus of his attention that morning. As the group rolled on by, his eyes trailed them down the hall for a moment before returning to the life-sapped receptionist in which he had been previously engaged in conversation. He proceeded to carry on without so much as a hitch.

“When can we expect the orders for security cameras to arrive?”

“This weekend.” said Hobbs in his dull, uninterested voice.

“And when can we get someone to get them installed?” There was a shuffling of papers as the rabbit muttered out an estimation equation.

“I dunno, maybe Friday?”

“Excellent Hobbs. That’s good to hear, tell them they’ll have a personal tip if everything is set by Sunday. You can also tell one of the wardens that he can start looking for someone to be a supervisor guard.”

“Sure Dr. Phaedrus.”

“Excuse me.” The ermine turned and glided down the hall, following the sounds of chaos he had witnessed moments earlier. It wasn’t hard, there was a lot of calamity going on in the immediate infirmary next door. He still carried Ashes of the Late World under the crook of his arm, but he had almost forgotten completely about it… and his mood had improved significantly, so there was really no need to remind himself that he was still carrying the thing. Down the expanse of the hallway he went until, by intuition, he turned to the room he wanted.

“What happened?” he said calmly as he entered; a few doctors visibly jumped at his arrival. The nurses were busy with setting up equipment and fussing with small instruments, taking pulses, taking temperatures, monitoring pixelated numbers on a small juke-like box machine.

“The patient had a seizure due to a drug withdrawal…” someone said.

“Obviously. What was the culprit drug?”

“Well, that’s what we’re trying to figure out. All the papers seem to be lost and confused, we can’t figure out which medication we’re treating him for.”

“I wasn’t aware that any medication of his was…” the ermine paused in mid-sentence as a eureka moment occurred. He snapped his fingers. “Of course. So silly of me, it’s Dr. Liok…” Dr. Phaedrus was so enraptured of what he was going to do next, he turned right around and stepped straight into Dr. Kuin, who had somehow materialized out of thin air behind him. The ermine stared at the disheveled woman icily as she apologized and brushed herself off and adjusted her bun. Her eyes automatically strayed to Nox’s bed, peering almost as if she were a curious child.

Dr. Phaedrus stepped smoothly in front of her.

“What happened?” She uttered the question that no one could answer. Unlike Dr. Phaedrus, she was completely ignored.

“Dr. Kuin,” said the ermine, as he swept her under one of his arms, fairly well directing her out of the room that she had sprinted down three flights of stairs in heels to reach. “Please return this to patient 924 of the left wing.” He pushed the painting he had been carrying into her arms once they where outside in the hallway. For a moment, Dr. Kuin’s face lit up, but a moment later, much to the ermine’s surprise (but not unpleasant surprise) it turned into shock and alarm. She adjusted her glasses, as if to clarify what lay before her eyes, before looking at him with confused eyebrows.
“Dr. Phaedrus… this isn’t the painting you gave me.” she said uneasily. It was Dr. Phaedrus’s turn to have confused eyebrows.
“Of course it is.”
“Clearly it isn’t, why just look at it, it doesn’t even look the same.” She showed it to him more closely. Amongst the original deadened scene of the canvas, there was a striking new edition on its painted features. A large, ink-like SPLAT was set right in the middle, uncharacteristic of the artists own delicate hand and attention to detail. Within that black splot of darkness there was a fire… a bonfire… and two figures sat there facing each other. In the foreground, a man was approaching the darkness and the flame, with a trail of grey dust growing behind him.

“All of that wasn’t there before!” Dr. Kuin persisted “Either this isn’t the same painting, or its been tampered with! I can’t give this back to Jaciam…. why, I gave her my trust when I borrowed it from her.” The white ermine looked fairly unconcerned with the distress on the woman’s face, although something deep inside of him shifted uncomfortably in its seat, it turned the harsh volume down on Dr. Kuin’s voice with a remote.

“My dear woman, since you have given this painting to me, it been in my possession until this moment, and midst the duration, I have been in plain view of my colleagues debriefing them upon the new security system we are receiving this weekend. I can assure you no little elf, brownie, hobgoblin or other gremlin has laid a greasy little finger on this wonderful piece of art. Besides… if anyone had….” he dragged his finger over the canvas and pulled it up close to her face, as it it where some sort of weapon to be feared. “The canvas would still be wet. Wouldn’t it?” The woman was baffled beyond a point of return.
“But it wasn’t there before! I tell you, I saw it just this morning!”

“I have only one question for you Dr. Kuin. Have you finished all of your evaluations today?” After a moment of silence, the woman’s face flushed.

“I thought not.” He smiled pleasantly. “Well,” he pushed the canvas back into her unwilling arms, as if tired of looking it. “I don’t quite know what possessed me to take this away from you in the first place, and I apologize. Jaciam must truly be missing it… so I suggest you give it back to her as soon as you can.” He smiled at her briefly before swinging around, a sharp chirp in the heel of his well-polished shoe before he started down the hallway.
Luisia stood there for a moment, staring after him with a sort of pathetic helplessness.

“But…” she said, looking back at the painting. “Jaciam… didn’t paint this.”

When Dr. Liok arrived at the infirmary, a nurse was adjusting the IV tube leading to Nox’s arms. He shook his head, snorting lightly in frustration, an uncharacteristically frustrated glimpse on his grizzled face making him look stern. He lifted the attached clipboard that contained records of medication administration and his signature, scrawled in black ink. The decrease in dosage was perfectly clear—for the patient’s weight, any doctor would have agreed that the incremental decrease was safe, even somewhat conservative. Any patient would have negative side effects from a decline in barbiturate levels, but it was unusual that someone would have such a drastic reaction from so conservative a decrease. Dr. Liok supposed that Nox was simply an unusual outlier who would have to have his dosage lowered at far below the normal rate, even a conservative rate.

Dr. Liok replaced the clipboard, which swung twice into a metal railing attached to the bed, and left the infirmary. When he arrived at his office, he brought up Nox’s files on his computer and began a new prescription sheet with only the smallest decrease of barbiturates that was possible to prescribe, indicating that the patient should be on the prescription for several weeks or until further notice. When the notice was printed out, he scrawled a signature above his printed name and credentials. He returned to the infirmary, clipping the latest prescription chart over the previous paperwork. It was important that Nox no longer be a mental prisoner of the drugs they had so foolishly prescribed him; it would just have to be done excruciatingly slowly.

As he walked… little black mice with pink ears peeped their heads out of the ashen ground. They were tiny, like termites in size, but they came. They scuttled and nipped at his toes, and swam around his ankles like minnows. The way their tails propelled their small bodies reminded Nox of sperm or tadpoles. He kept walking, and as he glanced over his shoulder, a long trail of dust was stirred up in his wake. The trail would never settle; it was stagnant forever.

As he walked, he was getting younger. He was shrinking in size and his horns were receding into his skull; he felt lighter, his hair was shorter, neater. Ashes were collecting on his shoulders along with lolling tadpole mice that were brave enough to swim that far up off the ground; they nibbled at his fur with tiny, minute pinprick squeaks. They leapt on large clumps of ash and broke them in their playfulness. The ashes seemed to be spiraling towards a center place, which came to him as a flame of darkness in this world of dead color, with a dot candlelight of flame in the middle of it. It was like a star; it illuminated the entire landscape around him. The candlelight seemed to grow in size as he neared, until it reached a column of fire–a bonfire.

There was someone already there.

He marched with soft, padded footsteps with the sperm mice tumbling after him. He sat by the other and impulsively reached for her hand. As he looked at her, he saw that she “seemed” childlike as well to him, but perhaps she didn’t realize it herself.

It was only after this he saw Lokivu.

She was on the other side of the fire… silent, her head was tilted so much that she wore it sideways on her neck, with her ears looking like batty scissors. Her eyes were hollow and dark. She did nothing, nothing stirred the long, soiled grey hair that covered half of her features. She was childlike… like them… but she was always a little childlike.

She sat with her skeletal body and her broken, crooked tail, like a forgotten game beside a broken game machine in an abandoned arcade in an abandoned fairground, but she was not broken and she was not a machine.

Jaciam was busy watching the sky. It had the appearance of cracked, jagged earth broken apart into segments, black so dark that it was like a pool of oil behind the charcoal clouds, shifting their spidery masses, breaking, reforming, breaking again. It was a vast, colorless heaven that she was privy too, so wide that the mind could not possibly comprehend its impossible, inconceivable expanse of nothing.

When she had returned her attention back to the bonfire, she noticed that there was someone sitting next to her. Strangely, he was holding her hand, except she couldn’t feel her hand—it was a lump of dead flesh without nerve endings. She had no means to feel anything. When she looked at her hand, she found with a rush of horror that it wasn’t her hand at all—it was a whole arm that had been removed from a corpse and then sewn onto her shoulder. It looked like her, purple feathers (with a black design on the back of her hand that had always made her wonder) and slender shape, but there was no identity to it. She thought that if she looked at her arm that there should be some sense of familiarity to it, some warm feeling that defined it as hers. There was nothing. It was a parasitic alien. He was holding the hand of a dead body.

“This is The Doppler,” she introduced to the stranger who had just arrived, as if he had interrupted an intimate gathering, just between two friends, perhaps some tea and cakes next to a sunlit window in a room full of warmth, but whom was welcome all the same. There was something indistinct about him, but familiar… something affectively warm but that she could not identify.

Everyone was colorless except the fire, and its hue was impossibly vivid, a deep, profound orange that touched something finished deep inside her. There was texture and richness in the flames that seemed to have been stolen from everything around it.

“The Doppler wanted to there was something else that she came she’s very old she wanted come tell me that I didn’t exist,” she explained. Her words did not hold reason, but that wasn’t unusual. There was an eerie silence; the cat’s skull across the fire stared at her without eyelids, with those massive spaces that could not have possibly held any sense of reason or emotion. The glistening strings of flesh attached to the bony protuberances reflected the firelight. “She’s a very old… something. Very old. Not friendly. You might want to did it all didn’t you did it all might want to find another happy game of checkers.”

Nox watched her face. He could see her clearly, he knew who she was, but he couldn’t come up with a name. When she introduced him to what she called The Doppler, his huge, childish eyes glazed over in confusion.

“Oh, you’re not all right,” he said. “I see Loki, god of crazy, demonia, peaches, paper cranes and shopping carts. She is the queen of my endocrine system… and she hasn’t changed.” But when he looked up back to Loki, she was no longer across the fire but directly in front of him, unmoving, silent. The mice that had clouded around Nox darted away, most of them flying suicidally into the angry orange fire, making quick squeaks as they were incinerated into tiny, glowing cinders of ash. Only one stayed, and he buried into Nox’s fur, diving into his skin and entering his bloodstream to hide.

“Did you touch her… Jaciam?”

“Her name isn’t Jaciam. My name isn’t Loki,” said Loki quietly.

“Then who am I?” Nox asked nervously, clinging to Jaciams dead arm as he shrank back from the catlike skeleton. “You never change; you’re always Loki.”

“Jaciam is your sister,” said Loki. She twisted her head
SNAP
to face the other direction, the other sideways.

“But she isn’t my sister,” said Nox. “I don’t have feathers, I’m not an owl.” Loki was smiling, the corners of her mouth expanding like warm elastic. She leaned forward and quickly bit the boy on the chin.

“I’ll eat your selfish face because you’re so selfish.” she warned “You say that I’m not The Doppler, you say that she isn’t your sister.”

“Then tell me why! She isn’t my twin! She isn’t her!” Nox was on the verge of crying; he was bleeding from where he had been bitten. It was a small nick, but even small wounds can have such profound effects on a child.

Loki turned to Jaciam and grinned.

“We’re going to have a wedding,” she said. “You’re going to love it. Put on your cap and gown Jaciam… quick now.” Suddenly, the ashes that had been falling around them seemed to freeze in their fall, and then reverse their direction. The flakes of ash became sheets of glass and as they ascended they resealed the sky, becoming a universe-sized dome of stained glass. The world became brilliant with sickening color; one could not watch the dome because it revolved like a planetarium and could disorient them and make them forget themselves. The ground fell away and became inky black, like the bottom of the ocean. The fire seemed to explode into a bajillian candles… twisted and melted, they raced into two endless lines of floating light, extending far into the distance until they disappeared in both horizons as tiny, flickering dots.

“Hurry up,” said Loki, who was swaying between the rows of candles. “Hurry up. Hurry up. Now. Say your ‘I dos’. It is the only way. You’re brother and sister… but not twins yet… so I have to marry you… you have to become twins now.”

“Are you asking me?” Jaciam said loudly, startling herself with the force of her response. Her voice seemed to have taken a life of its own, the tones rough and edgy. “I don’t remember I don’t remember touching her, what isn’t human, careful of what I said: she can never betray you enough. But she is different to you. A second glance shows concavity when the first shows convexity.”

Jaciam watched the exchange, hearing the emotion behind the protest but unable to hear the specifics of the words. The other boy was protesting her status as his sister, but it was not done in any language that she knew—it was the language of voice flexion and intonation. Jaciam could not decide if she agreed with his fierce protest or if her feelings were hurt by the vehemence of his claims.

“I’ve never had a brother before,” she said wonderingly. The Doppler moved towards her suddenly, bones standing stark in the firelight, jutting out from under her dried and cracking flesh. Jaciam gasped in a rush of foreboding before The Doppler reached forward and scratched her cheek viciously with one clawed finger. She screeched, sounding like a startled hawk. Jaciam’s face turned unexpectedly violent and she shrieked with unfeigned intensity, “You bloody piece of paper!” she admonished. “You bloody written thing!”

A sudden sense of spinning nausea overcame her and Jaciam disappeared for a moment. Voices, all incongruous, splashed in her brain like drops of ether, like lifeless metaphors, all saying something else, something different, something better. One was silent, another coughed and barked, another was shrill and wan, yet another made a sobbing, bestial sound. The last made rustling, whispering sounds like dead leaves while the others walked through it.

“Oh are we being invited to a party?” Jaciam asked politely, but inside she could not prevent a thrill of foreboding at this inappropriate game. She was dressed in a graduation robe, a cap perched crookedly on her head, the tassel hung down the side that indicated she had not yet been handed her diploma. Only one of her tufted ears popped out from under the cap. “I think I’m in the wrong garb. I’m sorry, I didn’t know we were all going to a wedding. Jaciam glanced sideways out of one of the stained glass windows. She couldn’t remember how she got there; the whole thing had been assembled in front of her eyes and she could only remember the shuffling voices. She began to sing softly to herself.

A destined goodbye… bells rang out the day of your worst fear. Obscure graduation day, left you but with memories to bear. Lost in heartlessness, seclusion cuts you just as deep as knives. Dissolving the bonds; Time was set to fade away our lives…

As she sung in her murmured, rustling intonation, Jaciam became aware that The Doppler stood solidly on the alter, a craven, lunatic church, her dry, patch-like skin and textured skull (still with bits of gristle and flesh attached stubbornly to the processes) reflecting the flickering amber. The song grew in Jaciam’s throat as she stood beside the strange boy of whom she had forgotten the face.

In a moment or so, Nox was peering down the folds of wedding dress he was wearing. It was made of paper, and it itched and was stiff like cardboard. He carried a bouquet of spider-like origami flowers and little noseeums had formed a permeable cloud around them. As he watched, a tiny drop of his blood splattered on a petal…. and he got a strange mental image of red paint splattering on a linoleum floor…. in an art room…. and a lanky, wild African dog was lapping the puddle up.

“Where are we?” he asked, lifting up his fishnet veil, stumbling across an imaginary threshold to an imaginary alter, dropping the flowers to catch the oversized dress from slipping over his bellybutton.

“Where did you get that scar?” he asked when he reached his companion again, holding up the bosom of the dress to his neck. “On your face?”

Loki stood between them.

“You already signed the contract with your hand.” She picked up Jaciam’s dead arm and waved it around as if for proof. “It’s your turn for a little of you to die.” She pointed at Nox “You still have that sperm mouse in your veins? Careful not to make her preggers with it… it’ll be all your fault.” In the next moment she was gone, but her hot, rancid breath lingered in the air and was very much alive… swarming and multiplying like a bacterium as her voice whispered from somewhere nearby.

“Mix. Mix your faces.” The bite mark on Nox’s face began to sear with hot poker pain… as if the strings of his meat where wriggling to crawl out and escape from the opening of his wound. He was drawn irresistibly to press his wound with the one on Jaciam’s face, like a magnet. He was unable to stop himself from seizing her arms.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! I don’t want to! She’s making me stuff sand in your shorts! Don’t get pregnant! Oh please don’t hate me!”

“Well you have the worst garb of any of us,” Jaciam informed him with stern disapproval, as if scandalized by his poor choice in clothing. He was a shadow, a whisperer, a familiar voice perhaps but it was housed in a ghost’s body—or the lack thereof. And he was wearing a dress—holding a piece of rotting meat in one hand, beetles buzzing around it, wallowing in the smell. Their shining black carapaces smashed repeatedly into the carcass, making sickening wet sounds. There was a steady drip of blood to the floor, and its innocuous two-toned noise was magnified strangely in the empty desuetude in which they stood.

“The Doppler gave it to me. She’s just a bloody fucking written thing, you know. Just a bloody piece of paper.” Someone was touching her arm; she turned and those wicked, curved twin beaks meeting in the center were right before her, almost touching her; the smell from the pieces of gristle was nauseating. Jaciam could have put a whole fist through one of its eyes. The Doppler had grasped her alien arm and was waving it around like a flag, as if she had something to prove.

At her words, Jaciam stepped backwards and then froze, her body held rigidly, as if a giant hand had come down and crushed her form where she stood. Her turquoise eyes glittered strangely with terror, like fish gasping out of the water.

“Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” she shrieked, and her terror was so thick that someone could have taken a knife to it and sliced it into thin strips. It was awful to hear, like grinding someone’s face against asphalt, the shrill horror in her voice. Jaciam abruptly burst into tears and then separated from herself, like she already had been cut into two. She marveled at this inappropriate show of emotion but could not stop its progress; she was so afraid. She had not cried for over five years, and he she was, her entire body shuddering with the intensity of her dread. It was a wonder these bodies could even have reactions like these.

“I won’t forget the name,” she screamed as Nox true ever closer, under his own spell. They were both puppets, controlled by something with far more power than they, something that had no human motivations that could be spoken of in any language they knew. Her yell dwindled and became one of the many murmurs that rustled vividly in the church, excited paranoia bustling with the latest gossip. “I strip my mind with all but you,” she whispered as their skin pressed together, her wound soaring in agony even as she felt it from beyond a frosted glass window. “The scales of madness just before we die.”

He felt as though he was dissolving like a vitamin tablet. The material of his dress unraveled like toilet paper, and he too along with it. Whispered words crawled inside his ear like insects and invaded his mind and clicked along his skull.

Was it possible for two cells to effuse into one? To de-evolve into nothing?

Would they become a monster? A Frankenstein catbird? Purple feathers for hair and shark-like eyes? A beak with feline fangs grinning a lunatic smile? Something unlovable and untouchable… different versions of this flashed through his mind like still frames from a rocky horror picture show. The movie continued, he could even hear the projector reel clicking as it spun a new homemade movie. Soft glowing bugs droned lazily along by the screen. It was a silent film.

-the scales of madness just before we die.

The whisper was just a faint echo, disconnected as if spoken from the end of a long steel tunnel. Loki wanted to show him something, something important that he would understand. He saw himself, his younger self, smiling at the camera, running down the boardwalk. He had red eyes… the one on the screen always had red eyes.

“This is a rerun. I’ve seen this,” he complained aloud, as if to mock Loki with any shred of dignity he had left. Yet he couldn’t tear his eyes from the blank wall on which the film was projected. Perhaps he was handcuffed to a chair. The film clicks became louder in the small room, and the illumination came closer and closer to his face.

“I told you you’ve showed me this one already,” Nox complained again, trying, through all of his fear, to sound annoyed, even bored. “It’s me and Kate, we’re catching bugs. You always show this one to me till I wanna throw up!” The boy on the screen was running towards his sister, and suddenly, Nox realized that this was indeed, a new edition to the film. Instead of his own sister, whom he knew as a precious looking feline with long, blonde hair, someone else was in her place. It was a feathered girl, with black hair and bright blue eyes… only she seemed to be just like Kate. His eyes grew wide, astounded as the two siblings laughed at him.

That… can’t be right. That can’t be right!

“Where’s Kate?!”

In a blinding flash, the projector erupted in flames, blinding him, until he realized that he was within the movie, only the forest was on fire now. The children were gone, but down the vast boardwalk, a shadowy child was approaching him, her hair illuminated as a golden nimbus. Her tiny hand extended for his, but before he could reach to take it, she quickly cracked at the fingers and crumbled away into ash, fluttering as a perverted version of the flying insects that he’d seen earlier in the film.

It was quiet again.

He had a feeling that he was cold, without clothes, and it was damp.

Two children lay nestled in the grass, like fawns awaiting their mothers return. The purple feathered child lay beside him. She seemed so real, down to the gentle twitching eyelid movement of REM sleep and the way her stomach rose and fell to warmth pulsing just beneath her feathers. It was as if it were only a powerful memory…

That can’t be right…

… can it not be right?

He ran a careful finger through her hair to make sure that she was real, and then he began to cry without understanding why… as if something precious to him had been taken away, feeling the way an Alzheimer’s victim realizes that he is slowly losing his mind. He knew then that none of this could be real, because he couldn’t cry outside of his dreams.

“I don’t know who you are but I know you all too well. You are, and always have been, my sister.”

Gripped by a terrible foreboding tiredness, he too began to fall under a sleepy spell. Although he struggled to keep himself awake and alert, he was weighed down too much by the grass, which had begun to engulf the two children slowly in a leafy embrace.

“You’ve made the wiring loose inside my head, fucking bloody written thing,” Jaciam suddenly snarled, her affect as labile as an infant’s, and she struck the Doppler hard. A cracking slap resounded through the church and the skull was jerked sideways, her impassive eyes unblinking. The texture was as smooth as dried slate, an empty ringing in her hands, except for where she had brushed against a bit of desiccated gristle. The hollow eyes looked as if they could have swallowed her whole.

The Doppler did not speak, but her skeletal hand grasped Jaciam’s wrist even as the gryphon’s hands rose to defend herself. They were a human woman’s hands, but the bones stood out in sharp relief against the shrunken skin.

One of those papery, whispering voices said something audible, the first thing that was not just hollow slithering words: the pieces fit because I watched them fall away; the light that fueled your fire that has burned a hole between us
to bring the pieces back together–

Jaciam was taken to the bonfire with the shimmering of image, the incoherence of the dream, complete without preconceived notions of a narrative. It was dead; she had no fire, she had no burning, there was no one home to speak of—

The Doppler stood by her and lit it with a wave of her hand, the flames erupting with a snap and a howl. Jaciam knew that it wasn’t her fire, that it was something constructed and manmade, something woven according to the whimsy of the moment.

She saw two heads leaning together, gossiping in animated whispers; they were in a library, stacks of books as tall as mountains surrounded them, boxed them in—

He had red plumage and brown eyes as placid as the each, and even though the flames could not depict the sound, he leaned back in a huge laugh, his chest collapsing with each exhale—

Two years later—he was older now, and he no longer had his scarlet feathers, the messy brown hair—there was a chartreuse cat-man there instead, horns curling at the sides of his head, his demeanor just as vigorous and lively as Kaji’s had been (Ka-hee he always pronounced it, originally in jest and then in habit).

“That isn’t the way out…” Jaciam spoke in a hypnotic voice, following the dream-figure’s movements as her adolescent self threw her arm around his shoulder. Something was terribly wrong with this picture, as if the Doppler was building her mind from scratch, tearing out whole sections and inserting pieces that were new and false and stank with lies and bone. Jaciam wondered dully if the man who looked like a vivid green panther would later tie his wings with rocks and throw himself off a cliff like he had, driven to slow depression and starvation by neglect and society’s rejection—

blood spattered, screams and cries, the quivering silence of flesh that had been freed from the confines of the skin

She was so totally and wholly, completely and unequivocally inadequate.

“Give me your lies and bone,” she whispered fiercely to the Doppler. “Give me them. I’ll take your counterfeit incoherence and make it my own because it’s better than the bloody written truth.”

Jaciam woke abruptly with an uncomfortable muscular jolt. It was the middle of the day. Her last therapist had recommended she try to manage a more ordinary circadian rhythm, but Jaciam was finding it too difficult not to nap during the day and stay awake at night seized with creative energy.

As she sat up in her bed, her eyes caught the painting she had created during that strange therapy session earlier that day, or perhaps it was a few days ago. Her constantly distorted perception of time made is so that she could never be sure when things had actually happened. Although she sometimes wondered if it actually mattered when things had really happened, so long as they happened at some time according to her timeline. Of course, when she integrated back into society, that mindset wouldn’t be very useful, and she wasn’t even sure she had a timeline to speak of.

As flashes of her dream returned to her in pictures and words, collapsed into sensory perception and emotion without any sense of narrative to tie it together, Jaciam wondered quietly at the strangeness of it. Although she had had vivid dreams before she had never had it with quite such an intense presence of the other. Although she didn’t really know the fellow Nox that had been in her group session yesterday, she felt like her dream had made him all too real to her, in perhaps not the same way that he was real to anyone else.

What in the deuce was a Dr. Molckenhoff?

Dr. Phaedrus was back in the filing room. He had begun to dig, and dig, and dig, like a mad badger only separating papers and files into neat, sturdy stacks. This was a serious miscalculation on his part regarding management, and he would have to head someone off if he was ever going to get what respect he thought was left hanging in the loop.

Dr. Phaedrus may have been shrewd, but he didn’t get this position in the asylum for merely striking fear into the hearts of staff alone. Sure, it was a nice aspect to have, but one had to be careful with that sort of personality. Dr. Phaedrus was known for his organization, and this was certainly not organized. How could one patient be doped with so many pointless drugs and conflicting diagnosis when he was in charge? Apparently, you can’t trust anyone but yourself in the modern age, he reasoned as he thumbed through the case file. Earlier he had dropped by Dr. Liok’s office, but finding him not in, he grew impatient and went on his jolly way; there was no time to wait to see what he was up to.

His beady eyes scanned the tight printed lines of the documents for incriminating evidence. In this particular case file, so many people had passed in and out of the file that they added onto a growing mountain of medications like some sort of practical joke he wasn’t clued in on. Dr. Phaedrus knew the names of these doctors, and he could draw up their faces… but he also knew them as witless drones who, if you told them to jump, they’d ask “how high?” No, there was someone behind this, there simply had to be. No one could make a mistake that had this big of a domino effect. If he hadn’t been so busy keeping Dr. Kuin away from that confounded patient in the first place, he might have seen that he’d been duped before it was too late. Who was the mastermind behind this? You could imagine the ermine’s utter shock and disgust when he came across the German name Molckenhoff, scripted in neat, cursive handwriting on one of the oldest documents that was shoved back inside a blank folder he had nearly skipped over.

“Who does this Molckenhoff think he is?” he hissed between his teeth, gathering up the papers and shuffling them into a neat file. He certainly wasn’t a part of any building that Dr. Phaedrus was a part of. Perhaps he was part of the eastern tower, a place where there were an entire other sect of psychology directors and infirmaries, nurses, unstable wards and left wings and whole other libraries like the one he was in. The ermine searched through the papers relentlessly, devouring text and refiling it. Every paper he searched for the name “Molckenhoff.” Perhaps he could dodge the minor annoyance of asking Hobbs who the blasted person was. After all, Dr. Phaedrus liked to know everything without relying on anyone (you could only rely on yourself after all)… but the asylum was a big place. A huge place, it could very well take days before he figured this conundrum out.

After a few hours of exhausting himself on the first column of the unstable ward, he leaned back against the shelf, massaging his temples. For some reason he reminded himself of Colonel ‘Catchcart,’ a character in a story he had once read, who was paranoid about losing his power and obsessed with becoming a general. He chuckled to himself. A crazy man in the army named Yossarian had become the object of his paranoia, the name alone became frightening to him because it was a threat to his power. Dr. Phaedrus squinted at the small, neat script “Molckenhoff” at the bottom of the page.

You’re next Dr. Wolf. You’re next Dr. Wolf. You’re next Dr. Wolf. You’re next Dr. Wolf. You’re next Dr. Wolf. You’re next Dr. Wolf. You’re next….

Who wrote this?

Dr. Phaedrus couldn’t be sure exactly what he was reading. The words where scrawled all over the official document paper, making everything else underneath unreadable.

Dr. Liok had been sitting in his office for at least ten minutes, his fingers pressed together in a diamond shape, held close to his face in intense thought. He was debating how to address this fiasco with Dr. Phaedrus. He did not wish to give the doctor reason to make Nicodemus an enemy, a topic that was already giving him some misgivings. There was something under the surface of Dr. Phaedrus, something he had detected all along, but that he could not put into words. He had no means of determining where his suspicions came from, but Nicodemus did not like to question his intuition, which had often provided the means of reaching a break-through in therapy with several patients. He respected the sense that he got from people, and his sense was that the director of psychiatry was a man not to be trusted.

Even so, Dr. Liok could not let his reluctance to confront the ermine overrule him; the fact of the matter was that he had witnessed atrocious disorganization surrounding the patient Nox. If Nox’s diagnoses and prescriptions were so misguided, how many other patients were receiving abysmal care? Dr. Liok prided himself in working in such a prestigious institute, but he was beginning to doubt this pride as foolish arrogance—just because an institute was respected did not mean it was rotting from corruption on the inside.

With these concerns fresh in his mind, the grizzled old wolf left his office and made the familiar, winding path towards the director of psychiatry’s office. He heard frantic shuffling from inside the room, although he could not see anything through the frosted glass that bore Dr. Phaedrus’s name and credentials proudly. Dr. Liok steeled his will and knocked firmly on the door.

“Hello? Yes, this is Phaedrus from the western tower.” He sat at his desk, thumbing through loose stacks of pages. “I need to know if you have a doctor employed at your end by the name Molckenhoff.
“Yes. Yes… well it would likely have been in last June.
“Mm-hmm.
“No, that’s why I’m calling you, we don’t seem to have a record on file, so he’s either with you, or it is someone with a falsified document under a pen name. I would prefer it if you can find out sooner than later Miss. Yes I know you, of course I know your voice…”

After he’d hung up he was silent for a moment, except for the gentle rapping of his clean, claw-ish fingernails against his desk, enraptured in thought. There was the corner of a red paper sticking out at him from under one of the neat stacks, and he compulsively went to straighten it… but then ended up pulling it out entirely.

It was an old document, delicate and faded. He didn’t recognize the outline of the paper, perhaps it was before his time. It seemed somewhat official, but archaic. There was small scripted handwriting all over it, smeared intelligibly in some places.

What caught his attention was that it wasn’t a red document at all, as he had first assumed. The corner of the paper he had spied had a small splat of red on it. Dr. Phaedrus hummed to himself as if consolidate his findings. Every nerve of him compelled him to believe that that inky crimson dot wasn’t a drip of catsup from a careless hand.

He was about to indulge himself in the document when a knock at the door quite startled him. It had become so overpoweringly quiet in the room that he shut his eyes tightly in a lapse of distinct irritation, wakefulness, and paranoia, before pushing back his chair with a squeal. He gave a quick glance about his room, his face becoming almost demonic at the mess he’d made with all of the papers in neat stacks on the floor and about on his desk, covering his own casefile that he’d been working on just this morning. It was far too late to tidy except to run his fingers through the milky hair that dofted his head before opening the door to his office.

“Dr. Liok,” he said softly once he saw who it was, without so much of an ounce of rivalry except for the cold placidness he carried around. He opened the door further to offer the distinguished man in. “I was just looking for you about an hour ago.”

For a second, the wolf-man believed that the director was not going to open the door, and he almost raised his fist to knock a second time when the frosted window swung open to reveal Dr. Phaedrus, his usually composed features in slight disarray. Dr. Liok’s eyes traveled past the ermine’s outline over what he could see of the rest of the office. It was in a state of total dishevelment. His eyebrows raised slightly above his ice blue eyes, which traveled quickly to the crimson-stained document clutched in Dr. Phaedrus’s paw, and then finally to the director’s cold eyes.

“You may have tried to catch me when I was out of my office, making a medication change to Nox’s chart,” Nicodemus suggested smoothly, his voice calm, neither warm nor cold. “Clearly the events today warranted a change to his prescription, although it was unfortunate that we had to discover it that way.”

“I’m sorry if I have caught you at an unfortunate time…” the wolf began; again, his gaze flickered momentarily to the unkempt office floor behind the ermine, as if to indicate exactly what he meant. “But I’m afraid that we really need to speak about some things. If now is not convenient, tell me a time and I can come back then when it is mutually suitable.”

Although Dr. Liok was loathe to postpone the complaints that he had at the forefront of his mind, he knew that this was the way things were done—the director of psychiatry was his direct superior, and he could not simply demand an audience at a whim. If Dr. Phaedrus did indicate that Nicodemus was to come back at a later hour, the psychiatrist had the notion of opening a private discussion in the meantime with Dr. Kuin. Although he couldn’t be certain, he suspected that she had taken a special interest in the patient Nox given what he had seen earlier. It might have been beneficial to listen to some of her thoughts and experiences, whether regarding Dr. Phaedrus, Nox, or the institution itself.

“By all means,” said Dr. Phaedrus, standing aside. A prolonged stay surely wouldn’t be necessary. “I’m always willing to listen to the concerns of an esteemed coworker such as yourself.” He paced smoothly behind his desk, the columns of papers creating a throne-like aura around him as he continued to stand, setting the red fringed paper before him on the desk.

“Please, enlighten me on your thoughts.”

It was abruptly after this that his phone rang. At first, the ermine ignored it quite literally, keeping his eyes trained on his wolfish guest, but after a few rings he raised his eyebrow at the machine. It wasn’t going to voicemail for some reason. He promptly picked it up and dropped it down on the receiver again, silencing it, before returning his attention again to the other doctor.

“Go on,” he invited.

Dr. Liok felt his face mold into a smile, but it was a smile he did not feel internally. His eyebrows twitched, and he felt their impulse to arch upwards into a surprised frown. For some reason, he felt some internal alarm clang very close to the surface at the unctuous words ‘esteemed colleague,’ as if they were a warning that this impression could be altered with the slightest whim. Dr. Liok was somewhere in a danger zone.

Nicodemus looked impassively at the phone as Dr. Phaedrus picked it up and dispassionately dropped it down again. The ermine was trying to send a message with that gesture—that Dr. Liok’s communication could be tossed aside just as indifferently, rendered insignificant by the circumstances. The director could have easily just pressed a button and sent the call to voicemail. He had wanted the person calling to know of his callous rejection. Dr. Liok cleared his throat, which gathered his attention to the forefront.

“Perhaps you have some thoughts on this matter already, but I’m concerned about the way that Nox’s case is being handled. It seems that there indeed has been some violence in the past with this patient within the confines of the hospital, but putting him on both haldol and barbiturates goes way beyond what would ordinarily be done with a violent patient.
“I’m also concerned that there was so much disorganization surrounding his medical history. There have been multiple doctors assigned to him at various points” (Dr. Liok was careful not to say ‘you assigned’ in order to reduce possible defensiveness) “and it seems like each one failed to read any of his history, making his treatment plan utterly incoherent. How can we expect our patients to get better if we cannot provide them with an organized, predictable, and coherent setting and treatment plan?”

Dr. Liok was careful to keep his grizzled voice light and nonaccusatory, despite his increasing sense of anger. It was impossible to detect his antagonism beneath the cool demeanor, like the placid surface of a lake. He folded his hands into a diamond shape, bringing him a sense of containment as he waited for Dr. Phaedrus’s reply.

The ermine studied Dr. Liok with a fishermen’s patience. It might have been true that a lake was clear on the surface, but if one were to cast his line out far enough, he could feel the tugging hunger of the creatures underneath. He sighed quietly in a way that might indicate that he was deeply and emotionally troubled by the point that was being brought up.

“Well, other than the painfully obvious,” Dr. Phaedrus began, in a soft tone. “… I’m afraid that there may be more at stake here.” He turned to one of the columns of papers, and thumbed through them, having memorized carefully where he had placed them when he had got them out just earlier.

“… did you know…” he said in a soft, musing tone, “that 23 of our staff have retired in the past year? Not including the nurses. You may have not noticed since we have so many working here, but many highly respectable psychiatrists and psychologists such as yourself Dr. Liok, with promising futures ahead of them have, with no apparent reason, decided to leave.” He turned around in his chair, and, like he was dealing black jack, papers and resumes formed a neat pile before the older psychiatrist.

“Dr. Kausloff… Dr. DiBise… Dr. Yung Tao, young Dr. Cherest…” he named them off casually. When the papers where expired he leaned back in his chair, with a disgruntled air about him.

“All of these fine doctors had one thing in common… although, it’s fairly insignificant to my point.” He said after a minute of staring into the pile of names. “They all had worked consistently with the same case file. Now…” he looked at Dr. Liok seriously, “contrary to public belief… I did not fire these doctors. In fact, I did not know that they were working with patient 1031 at all. I had assigned a specific group to Nox when he was first institutionalized, and was not aware of… whatever agreement the staff had contracted, for whatever reason, to rotate out a new supply of doctors quite under the radar of my detection,” a whisker twitched in a sign of annoyance.

“That is why Nox’s assessments looks more like that of Frankenstein’s achievement than one that would expect in the halls of this asylum,” he explained. “With all of the doctors and nurses, therapists and psychiatrists tending to him all leaving at once in such short notice… there was an unglamorous turbulence in the perception of his diagnosis.” He paused, waiting to see how Dr. Liok would respond to this information that he too had only just discovered. He actually surprised himself in finding relief in divulging it to someone…

“I’m not one to take on blemishes lightly, Dr. Liok, I can assure you of that, especially when such carelessness biomagnifies up the chain until it finally reaches me, when in this case, I receive most of the culpability for the actions of others, who receive a much lesser sentence.” He proffered a smile, as if this were some sort of joke.
“Of course, now that I mention it, we are short of a designated psychologist and a psychiatrist for the patient,” he paused, before adding an ominous chuckle. “Although, I daresay, with the pattern I’ve observed, I’d expect whoever assigned to him to up and disappear within the next month.”

Dr. Liok leaned back in his seat as he listened, positioning his chin over his flat, clasped hands, knuckles knitting together. The flecks of white fur over the back of his palms did not quite match the swathe of speckled grey and creamy white under his chin, a constant reminder of his age. The ice blue in his eyes did not soften, but grew increasingly reflective, an expression accentuated by the thoughtful tilt of his chin.

The ermine’s story had not lessened his culpability for this mess in Dr. Liok’s mind—in fact, if anything, it had increased the sense that the director had been incredibly lax in his responsibilities to the point of violating their ethical code. However, it did increase his sense of widening confusion, for unless Dr. Phaedrus was outright lying, the situation was far more complex and corrupt that Dr. Liok had originally imagined. Dr. Liok did not suspect him of lying, and thus felt an increasing sense of unease as the explanation unfolded.

“I understand your confusion, then,” the wolf finally stated, choosing his words carefully. “But I’m seriously concerned at who authorized, or perhaps masterminded would be a better word, this constant influx and efflux of staff. And in particular, why it was occurring without your realization. I would have thought that your responsibilities as a director would have required you to stay in touch with the progress of each of the doctors under your employ, including the patients they had been assigned to. Even if each of these doctors had kept the identities of their patients a secret from you, their signatures still had to manifest on the assessment reports and prescriptions.” He paused in reflection. “But perhaps that failing takes less prioritization than the fact that the undercover stream of doctors mismanaged this case so badly in the first place.”

Dr. Liok had certainly not decreased his chances of making an enemy of Dr. Phaedrus, but hopefully the director would take note of the wolf’s willingness to collaborate on this mystery, recognizing it as their top priority.

“Have these doctors left forwarding addresses, or perhaps reasons for leaving your employ? Who was the last doctor to be involved in any aspect of Nox’s treatment? Who was treating him, for example, before I interviewed him today? Surely there is at least one doctor currently here who was part of his treatment team.”

Dr. Liok sat up a little straighter and looked unexpectedly tired. “I don’t have any immediate plans for retirement, and I feel perfectly safe in taking on Nox as part of my caseload if you are willing to assign him to me.”

“I can give you what I can of the list that was given to me,” replied the ermine. “Yet, whatever doctor has been behind this…” his voice trailed off into a mutter, for no matter how he could try and explain what he was feeling, it would come out as nonsensical theories that were not backed up by facts, and to be sure, he didn’t want to throw any more theories at Dr. Liok to preserve what he thought was left of himself.

The phrase Dr. Molckenhoff stared him in the face on his desk like an insidious smile, just waiting to be brought up. Dr. Phaedrus found it perverse how confident he was in the belief that this mysterious ‘Doctor’ was the one responsible for this happenstance, and it was because of this strong belief that he was actually reluctant to divulge it to his fellow worker. Even though Dr. Liok seemed so willing to help (and Dr. Phaedrus was content in the knowledge that he might cross to his side), he wanted to reach the guy first and make up for his grievous mistake.

“You may take on his casefile.” He sighed, and after a moment, he handed a file over to the aged canine, containing the conglomerate of nurses and doctors that he could find in those passing hours, sorted by dates that they were signed.

Once again, the phone rang, and Dr. Phaedrus paused before turning his attention to it, deep in thought. There was no caller ID… like before, and like before… it wasn’t going to his voicemail for some unsound reason.

“I should take this.” He said, almost robotically. “You look tired. It is almost evening, be sure to get a good night’s rest tonight.”

Dr. Liok leaned forward. Something in the ermine’s manner made him appear reluctant to divulge the list to him, although the wolf couldn’t be sure why. The most obvious explanation was that the director was still terribly embarrassed over such a grievous offense. In fact, Dr. Liok had enough information to bring the case to the ethical review board of the state, which would look very bad for Dr. Phaedrus. In fact, the ermine had every reason to want Dr. Liok on his good side. Dr. Liok felt a creeping, snake-like thought in the back of his mind, that he now had something that he could use to manipulate Dr. Phaedrus the next time he wanted something done, but he felt immediately guilty at the sneaking notion and wondered where it had come from.

He accepted Nox’s oversized file, already beginning to wonder what kind of assessments he would utilize once Nox’s medication had decreased a sufficient amount for him to show some kind of functionality again.

As the phone ran, the psychiatrist glanced at it for longer than was warranted. Recognizing a dismissal when he heard one, he pushed the chair back and rose to his feet. “I will be expecting the list of doctors. You know my fax, if that is the most convenient for you. Have a good night, doctor.” Dr. Liok turned and departed the way he had came, the door shutting solidly behind him with a sharp click.

The ermine waited until Dr. Liok had left before pausing to massage his temple methodically, as if he had just experienced the most terrible migrane. Then he picked up the phone. Before he could even speak, there came a sound from the other end.

“It was rude to hang up.”

“I was in a meeting, sir, and the phone was interfering with my debriefing.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“Excuse me?”

“When I call, pick up the phone.”

“Who is this?” The voice that was emitting from the other end must have been going through a tunnel; it kept fading in and out into white noise. The voice (if that was him talking) came in muffled bursts.

“This is Dr. Molckenhoff.”

“Dr. Molckenhoff? Good god. I’ve been looking for you.”

“What do you want?”

For a minute, Dr. Phaedrus sincerely forgot what he had wanted from Dr. Molckenhoff, and this profoundly confused him. He waited in baffled silence as the white noise crackled on the other end.

“You want my blood Dr. Phaedrus? I am a bloody written thing after all. A bloody piece of paper.”

“That’s a rather uncouth way of putting it,” blurted the ermine, who, at the very moment, was staring at the document with the splotch of red upon it.

“I want to meet you Dr. Phaedrus.”

“Then… shall I arrange a meeting?”

“… in room thirteen. The second.” After a moment, the phone line went dead, and the ermine held it to his ear for a few moments before replacing it on its holster. When it rang again a moment later, he jumped to receive it, expecting the same voice, but utterly taken aback by the female who addressed him on the other end.

“What is it Miss Julluvian?”

“Dr. Phaedrus, I’ve searched everywhere in our files, both retired and recent. There is no Dr. Molckenhoff anywhere in our database.” The man ran his fingers across his desk, his eyes narrowing.

“… are you sure about that?”

“Sir?”

“I just received a call that told me otherwise.”

“Well, sir, with all due respect, whoever is telling otherwise is giving you falsified information.” The ermine twisted his finger into the curly Q chord of the phone…

“Thank you, that will be all.”

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~ by komicks on February 27, 2011.

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