Excuse Me, Princess, Part 1

kellyiconThe church bell rang in great, thundering tones, the bellows of a giant echoing across the city. The whole capitol was in a frenzy; along with the church bells belting out that ungodly racket, there were the shouts and curses of the city guards, the barking of excited dogs, and the clattering of hooves and cart wheels against the stone streets. Winona imagined the city – built into the side of a hill and crowned by a castle built of stone so white to this day the people swore it was built with magic – as a great anthill, all its workers running around in a panic at the behest of its queen.

Every single one of them was looking for her.

To be more specific, they were looking for what she had just stolen. The princess sat obediently on the horse, hand tied to the reigns and dressed for all the world as a simple peasant’s daughter. Winona led them down the dirt path leading away from the capitol, trying not to smile at her latest success. God, she was good. It would take the guards ages to search the city and realize the princess was long gone. By the time they had realized the princess was gone, Winona and the princess were already on their way to the next town.

“You’re a villain,” the princess sniffed. She had the most miserable expression on her face, and she had looked that way ever since her last escape attempt. She had slipped off the horse and ran to a traveling merchant ahead of them, begging him to believe she was the princess. Winona had simply apologized to the man for her ‘younger sister’s’ wild imagination, and explained that the girl was just a tad touched in the head. He had smiled at them, handed the princess a bright red apple, tipped his hat and went on his way. Winona made sure the girl was tied tight to the reigns from then on.

“Guilty as charged,” Winona said.

The princess apparently didn’t know how to respond to such a confession of Winona’s moral failures. They traveled in silence for the next mile, where they came upon a fork in the road. Winona took them off the main Royal Highway and onto the little dirt road that would lead them to one of the smaller villages far from the capitol. They were making good time, and less than two days away from their destination.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Money.”

“For such a reason you’d kidnap me? Your queen’s daughter?”

“Your mom’s no queen of mine, princess.”

“I have a name! It’s Rosa!”

“You can call yourself Sweet Pea for all I care,” Winona said.

“What’s your name?”

Winona suddenly had a vision of the next twenty miles being nothing but a game of Twenty Questions with an indignant fourteen-year-old.

“You can’t be stupid enough to think I’d tell you that.” The princess huffed, and probably would have crossed her arms if she could have. Winona wondered what it must be like living in a castle, filthy rich and with a small army of servants catering to her every will. Well, after this job, Winona would have the money and the servants, too. Two out of three wasn’t bad.

“What will happen to me?”

Winona glanced behind her. The girl’s face had fallen, all haughtiness forgotten.

“I hand you off to my employer, he pays me, he sends a ransom note to your dear mama, your mama pays it, and we all go home happy and filthy rich.”

“Do you promise?”

“Promise what?”

“Promise me I’ll be okay?”

Winona didn’t glance back this time. Instead, she kept her eyes focused on the road.

“Yes, I promise.”

* * *

The inn wasn’t pretty, or spacious, or even particularly clean. There was one bed and one thin, ratty blanket, and Winona could hear the wind whistling through gaps in the walls.

“You can’t expect me to sleep there,” Rosa said. She looked at the bed like one would regard a mangy, rabid mutt.

“Either that or the floor,” Winona said. She forced off her boots with her foot and crashed onto the bed. “Here, you can even have the blanket. Just remember, if you try to escape, that these roads are full of bandits who’d love to get their hands on a pretty girl like you.”

Rosa slipped into bed a few minutes later, and Winona blew out their bedside candle. Winona didn’t stay awake long enough to know if the girl hard fallen asleep; when she had finally drifted off, Rosa’s breathing was still curled into a tight little ball and her breathing was harsh and shallow. Was she crying? Winona dismissed the thought. The girl would be fine; hell, she’d be back home and under her down-feather comforters in less than a week.

“Help!”

Winona started awake to find a knife held against her throat. A man – or woman, she couldn’t tell in the darkness – stood over her, holding the knife, while someone else pulled Rosa toward the window.

“Help me! Please! You promised!”

A Mind Is a Terrible Thing, Part 3

kellyiconJackson checked his watch for the fifth time in a half-hour.

“You’re sure this is the right time?” he asked.

“I’m positive,” Madeline said, though she felt nothing of the sort. She was sure she had heard the voice tell her to meet at the park at three in the afternoon, but heard wasn’t the right term at all, was it? Someone had sent her a telepathic message in a coffee shop, and here she was, hopeful at meeting someone like her – thank god, she wasn’t the only one – and nervous that he or she would turn out to be an evil super villain or something. Weren’t telepaths usually super villains?

“No,” Jackson said when she asked him. He was still scanning the park as if he could spot the other telepath by sight alone. “Professor X is a telepath, remember? So is Jean Grey.”

“Didn’t she eat a planet?”

“No, that was the Phoenix Force. Kind of. Look, there are plenty of heroes who are telepaths.” Jackson took her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t worry, Maddie. Chances are this person is just like you – excited to meet someone else with your kind of power.”

“Right,” Madeline said, and squeezed his hand back. “Thanks.”

You guys are cute.

“Ah!”

Madeline jumped from the park bench, sending their bags tumbling to the grass. Jackson jumped up beside her, looking this way and that. Madeline concentrated harder than she ever had, hoping that her frustration would carry over with her words.

Where are you? This isn’t funny anymore!

Okay, okay! Sorry! The voice sounded genuinely sorry, and Madeline softened a bit. I’m actually right in front of you. Look across the pond, on a bench – there! There I am!

Madeline had followed the voice’s instructions until she spotted someone waving from across the pond. It looked like a woman, a little older than her, with dark skin, and long, wavy brown hair done up in a loose ponytail. She was wearing a long, loose skirt, a spagetti-strap top, and the most marvelous, bright blue, large-rimmed hat Madeline had ever seen.

Madeline grabbed Jackson’s hand, who himself only managed to grab their bags from where they had fallen, and sent off down the path that led to the other side of the lake. She wove in between young couples and families with babies in strollers as fast as she could, tugging so hard on Jackson’s arm she could feel it pulling at his shoulder.

“Hi, there!” The woman smiled down at Madeline as she and Jackson struggled to catch their breath.

“Hi,” Madeline panted back.

“Sorry about all the games,” the woman said. “I just couldn’t help myself. Also, I wanted to check out for myself what kind of person you were before I met you. My name is Sabine.”

“I’m Madeline, and this is Jackson.”

Jackson, still bent over trying to catch his breath, gave a little wave.

“So you’re…just like me? You can read minds, too?” Madeline asked.

“Sure can!” Sabine said. “As far back as I can remember. I was told there were others out there like me, but you’re the first I’ve met. Here, sit!” Sabine swept aside her books (thick, heavy ones that said things like Advanced Physics on them. Maybe she was a grad student?) and patted the seat. Madeline sat down, and as soon as she looked into Sabine friendly, brown eyes, a well of emotion overcame her. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes, and it was all she could do to stifle a sniffle.

“What’s wrong?” Sabine asked, those big eyes full of concern.

“I thought I was the only one,” Madeline said. Now the sobs came out in full force, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I thought I was the only one like this.”

“Oh, baby.” Sabine put an arm around her shoulders and drew Madeline into a hug. “You’re not alone anymore.”

A Mind is a Terrible Thing, Part 2

bernicons            The voice sliced through the chaos like a hot knife through butter. Madeline stiffened up, whipping her eyes all over the cafe. No one was looking at her, safe for the little poodle tied up to a lady’s chair outside.

Heh, no. Not the dog.

Madeline closed her eyes and took a deep breath, like her therapist taught her. Calming her mind, slowly peeling back every layer until it was just her. She opened her eyes. Where are you?

In the cafe, like you. I’m rather surprised. You’re not at all what I pictured in a fellow telepath.

            Madeline could barely keep her heart from fluttering out of her chest. How do you mean?

            Well, you’re nothing like me.

            Madeline’s brow furrowed. How so?

You’ll see.

A man, maybe a year or two older than Madeline stood up and Madeline caught her breath in mid gasp. He was tall, with spiky black hair and light, gray eyes set in a thin face with a strong chin. He caught Madeline’s eye and gave her a grin before pulling on his green jacket. He walked over to leave his mug in the dirty dishes bin and walked toward Madeline.

Madeline’s heart was stuck in her throat, she barely knew what to say. She finally released her clenched fingers and reached out to shake his hand.

Not quite.

The man stepped past Madeline in favor of the threshold of the front door. He glanced over at Madeline’s extended hand but with a quick shake of her head, she withdrew and smiled nervously to cover her embarrassment in vain. The man was bewildered and thought Madeline was a little bizarre.

Hahaha!

Face flushed red, Madeline snapped her head toward the cafe crowd again, searching for anyone that might be visibly giggling. Her eyes narrowed at a single pair of shoulders convulsing joyously about three tables down from her. She stood up and marched toward that person, with the pastel yellow cardigan and back towards her.

“Madeline?” She’d past by Jackson holding their drink as she made her crusade forward. She reached her hand out.

Wait, no! Don’t!

Choosing to obey her rage, Madeline pulled the chair back so she could see the face over her aggressor- and then the anger fell as quickly as it was kindled. The woman had a young face, though flat and wide, with a flat-bridged nose and slightly slanted, warm brown eyes. Her black hair was kept neatly, in a pretty circular pattern, set in by cornrows. Her tongue hung out slightly from the corner of her frowning mouth.

Can I help you?” came another voice. Mouth agape, Madeline looked up to the other side of the table where another young woman sat.

Madeline’s mouth was still open, but she could barely make a sound.

Wrinkles formed on the woman’s brow, too many for her age. “Did you just march yourself over here to gawk at my sister?” She stood up, towering over Madeline. “Yes. She has Down syndrome, and isn’t hard enough without people like you making a scene of it.”

  1. The woman in the yellow cardigan could barely make an audible sound and tried to wave her arm, signaling her sister to sit, to calm down. She didn’t pay attention.

“I-I’m so sorry,” was all Madeline managed to blurt out.

“Yeah? Isn’t that nice,” the woman turned to the counter. “Can I speak to the manager please? I’m not standing for this kind of harassment.”

A hand grasped Madeline’s arm. “Hey there, I’m very sorry about that.” It was Jackson. “My girlfriend hasn’t taken her medicine yet today. She’s very compulsive otherwise.”

“Medicine?” the woman asked, unconvinced.

“Yes, see we were supposed to get it earlier today but the pharmacy hadn’t filled it yet and we came here while we waited,” he explained. “She’s not normally like this, I promise.”

She crossed her arms and frowned, glaring at Madeline. “Just keep your goddamn hands to yourself. Okay?”

Madeline nodded to so quickly, the tears that rested at the brink of her eyes leapt from her face into the air. Jackson nodded apologetically. “Thank you, we’ll leave now. Thank you.”

Jackson turned Madeline around and brought them out the door, but not before she heard the voice again. Look, we’ll be at Washington Park tomorrow afternoon. I’d like to talk more then.

The feeling hadn’t quite returned to Madeline’s being after that bout of shock, but she managed a reply. Yes. Yes of course.

A Mind Is a Terrible Thing, Part 1

kellyiconThe coffee shop was packed, and Madeline resisted the urge to back right out the door. People were everywhere: standing in line, talking and laughing with their neighbors or staring off into space while they waited for the person in front of them to decide on their order; people shuffling past one another, drinks held high in the air as they mumbled a chorus of sorry, excuse me; and all the while the baristas and cashiers bustled back and forth between the cappuccino machines, shouting out orders and filling cups as fast they could. Every table in sight was occupied by no less than a half-dozen people laughing and chatting about their day. Just standing in the doorway, countless thoughts began to creep into Madeline’s mind, like a thousand whispers only she could hear.

Her heart caught in her throat, but she resisted the urge to flee. When she was younger, being in any place with more than a dozen people was torture; immediately their thoughts would fill her head and push out her own until her mind was nothing but a confused jumble of the emotions and anxieties of strangers. She could still remember her mother holding her, begging her to explain what was wrong while Madeline curled into a ball and pressed her hands to ears so hard her skin bruised.

That was a long time ago. Her parents, God bless them, never quit looking for answers, and after years of help from a professional telepath and a very open-minded therapist, she could even walk down a busy street like a normal girl enjoying her first year of college in a big city.

Madeline took a breath and focused her mental defenses, battling back the invading thoughts of others until her mind was relatively quiet. Rooms full of people were still a challenge. Heightened emotions and tensions built up in the air with no where to go, and fear and tension all but oozed from the walls of even the most laid-back of places. A coffee shop full of college kids on final exam week was like a powder keg of barely-repressed anxiety; typically a place Madeline avoided at all costs, but therapist wanted her to try feeling comfortable in busy places. Besides, it’s not like she’d be here long. Jackson just wanted to meet up and get some coffee before heading to the library. Jackson had been so understanding so far – for one, he didn’t run away or think she was crazy when she first told him about her powers, and so far he accepted she was just never going to be comfortable at parties or sporting events or midnight showings of popular movies. Waiting ten minutes in a crowded coffee shop was something she could do to show him it wasn’t always going to be constantly running away from anyplace fun.

Madeline took her first step over the threshold, then another. So far, so good. She took a few more small steps toward a small table in the corner, waiting for the rush of nausea and the hit-with-a-freight-train headache that always accompanied an onrush of other people’s thoughts, but her mind stayed blissfully quiet. Just another normal college girl killing time while waiting on her equally normal boyfriend.

“Babe, I’m so sorry,” Jackson said some twenty minutes later, swooping down to plant a kiss on her cheek. A grin lit up her face as she felt Jackson’s rush of affection for her. “If I’d known it was going to be so crowded, I’d of been here sooner.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I feel pretty good, actually.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I think it’s like a muscle. The more I practice, the better I get at keeping it under control.”

“At this rate, you’ll be ready for the Super Bowl in no time.”

The thought of being stuck in a closed space with tens of thousands of drunk and excited people made Madeline want to gag, and Jackson laughed when he saw her face.

“Just kidding. I’ll go get the drinks, and then we can be on our way. Hey, you don’t think you can look into the future and see what my grade on my English final’s going to be, could you?”

“I’m a telepath, not a psychic, thank god. Can you imagine being able to see into the future all the time?”

“Honey, I can barely predict what I’m going to have for breakfast in mornings, let alone the future. Be right back.”

He slid off the stool and shuffled his way toward the line. Madeline rested her cheek against her palm and watched people walk, jog, and rush by the window, content to not know what any of them were thinking about. She could just about imagine a quiet future where she never had to know what another person was thinking ever again, where the terrors of her childhood would be far behind her.

Just as soon as she imagined that future, her peace of mind was shattered. The thought was like being struck by a bolt of lightning, and her whole body seized with the shock of it. Usually what she heard were half-formed and vague, more emotions than fully-formed thoughts. But this…this was a message, and it was aimed right at her.

You can hear me, can’t you? You’re just like me.

First, Do No Harm, Part 3

kellyiconIt was the restraining order that pushed me over the edge. The good doctor reached across his desk to hand me the papers, and I took them with shaking hands. Dr. Lowe leaned back in his chair, a foot over his knee and his hands loosely folded in his lap, his eyes on mine, waiting for my reaction.

I skimmed the documents quickly, taking in little but Emily’s loopy signatures. There was the restraining order, just like Lowe said, along with instructions that it not be served until after her final procedure. Under that were statements from two different psychologists claiming Emily to be of sound mind and that she was looking to file a restraining order because she feared for her safety if I learned what she was planning to do. Neither name was that of her regular psychologist.

“This is absurd,” I said, looking from the papers in my hand to the doctor. A small grin had crept onto his face, and looked for all the world as self-satisfied as a cat who had just caught a bird. “I’ve never hurt or threatened Emily in my life. It’s obvious she took this out to keep me away from her while she goes through with this. It’ll never stand. No one willing to do this to themselves could be considered in their right mind!”

“Perhaps,” Lowe said. “But you’re missing the point, Mr. Jones. My procedure is completely legal and Miss MacIntyre underwent it of her own free will. You’re free to press charges, of course, but I can’t imagine what it’ll accomplish.”

It was right there, right then, that I had had enough. Emily’s anxiety had always been a problem for her, and she had been seeing psychiatrists for as long as I had known her. Was this what she had been telling them all this time? That I was hurting her? In the past few weeks she had seen so calm, so much more relaxed. Was it because she had decided to go along with this madness? And now…and now…

“You son of a bitch!”

As soon as I said it, I was up and over desk, grasping at the lapels of Lowe’s coat and throwing us both to the floor, his chair spinning wildly from under us. Spitting and cursing, he tried to put up his hands to push me away, but it was too late. I reared back my fist and slammed it into his eye as hard as I could. We both let out a howl of pain: Lowe reached up to cover his already-purpling eye, and I pulled back my fist – it was like hitting a cement block. It felt like I had cracked all the bones in my knuckles, and the skin around them had split and was oozing blood. Hell, even my shoulder was hurting from the impact.

But it didn’t matter. I pulled back my fist, truly ready to beat him into submission, when a hand much stronger than mine grabbed my wrist and threw me back against the far wall like I was a rag doll instead of a six-foot, two hundred pound man. Before I could so much as process what had just happened, two huge men in black jumped on me like NFL linemen, pinning my arms and legs beneath them. Through the tangle of limbs, I could just make out Lowe rolling on the floor, hands clutching at his eye while Brittany the secretary crouched over him and spoke frantically into her phone.

Twenty minutes later, the office echoing with the sound of sirens, I was finally allowed to take a breath without five hundred pounds of security guard pressing down on my chest. Dr. Lowe was sitting at his desk again, but his calm collected demeanor was gone. The eye I had smashed was covered by a cold compress, but I could still see bruising around the edges. The other was wild and wide, and as soon as the cops had me on his feet he started to rant.

“You come in here, into my place of business, and you try to kill me? No wonder your fiancee thought she had to take out a restraining order on you!” He was pointing wildly in my direction, much to consternation of the EMT trying to tend to his eye. “You’re the one who really needs the procedure! People like you are the reason people like me have a career!”

He was still ranting as the cops led me out, my hands cuffed behind my back. Truth be told, the cuffs weren’t necessary. What was the point? Emily was gone.

That’s when I saw her. The cops were leading past the double doors, the ones that hummed with some kind of energy and chilled my heart cold just looking at them. The door was slightly ajar, and from behind it someone was peeking out into the hall.

Emily.

“Emily!” I tried to run toward her, but the cops held me back. I could only see part of her face – one amber eye, part of her small, upturned nose, and her short, cropped, black hair – but it was her.

“Emily!”

The cops were all but dragging me toward the front door. I kicked and struggled, anything that might get me loose. If only I could get to her…

“Emily, please!”

But it was no use. Emily looked away and slid back to where it was she came from, leaving me kicking and screaming back into the sunlight.

First, Do No Harm (Part 2)

raboicons

“A mercy? You leave people as emotionless automatons! And that’s only if I believe your propaganda. God knows what you actually do to people.”

“Please, Mr. Jones. I’m going to have to ask you to lower your voice.”

And as he mentions it I realize that I am yelling and that Brittany is still behind me, ready and willing to end our little argument with the help of the security which they no doubt keep on ready call. It’s still hard to calm myself knowing what they might be doing to Emily even now but I know that I’ll had have to shift tactics if I hope to win this game. As easy as it was to sway his adjundant I know that the good doctor will not be coerced so easily. I take a deep breath and settle back into the leather chair, hoping that he can see I am calm once more.

“Very well. As I was saying, we do not leave anyone as an emotionless automaton, as you put it, but as beings which are much more capable of coping with the daily stress of–”

“And you’ve undergone the procedure yourself, of course.”

I hoped the question would give him pause but of course he plowed on with barely a blink. “Would you walk into a cancer ward and ask the doctor in charge if he had undergone chemotherapy? Our procedure is an extreme one, I admit, but one which is only suitable or applicable for those who truly need it. Fortunately I am not one though I regret to say you fiance was a classic case.”

Of course it hurts to hear him describe her as a “classic case” as if anything about Emily MacIntyre could have been ordinary or classic. She was—she is one of the most unique people I have ever met and that’s part of why I love her.

“You have documents proving she was assigned the. . . procedure of her own free will?”

“Of course.” Now he’s on comfortable footing. Hopefully he will remain so as I gather my next argument. Anything to let me see her before they’ve destroyed what I love about her. “I might add too that Ms. MacIntyre was desperate for the procedure and was prescribed it by our highly qualified psychiatric–”

“Spare me.” I don’t mind interrupting him and almost gather that he expected it.

“Consultants. Emily was, you’ll notice I use the past tense, troubled by many feelings of insecurity and fear. She was consistently afraid of certain aspects of herself and others which would drive her to daily panic attacks which verged on seizures. She–”

“She’s a goddamn artist.”

“Mr. Jones, are you here to disparage our profession and the very well being of one you swear to hold so dear, or are you hear to discuss her future and that of her current surgeries?”

I swallow my pride then, remembering that I am the intruder and regardless of my threats of lawsuit the doctor and his charlatans would be all too likely to win. They know that even if I were to pursue the case it would be far too late to save Emily and I know it as well.

“Go on.”

“As I was saying, her mental distress was to a point which was far beyond the help of normal psychiatric drugs or therapy,” He pauses and and raises an eyebrow as if he is waiting for me to interrupt once more but I hold my tongue. “And she came to us desperate, alone, and seeing no other options. Many of our patients do.”

Dr. Lowe gestures behind me then and for a moment I fear that the secretary will be flanked by armed guards but she merely hands forward a fat dossier with the neatly printed title “Emily MacIntyre.”

The good charlatan doctor begins to flip through it and again I wonder if he is waiting for me to lash out again. I sense that he sees the interview as coming to an end and feels himself as the winner. Little does he know that I will tackle and push my way through every person in this building to see Emily before they’ve destroyed her. To see her once more as she was. As she is.

“Mr. Jones, was it?”

“Yes. Marquis Jones. Engaged to the woman you people are set to dismantle.”

“Interesting.” Both his eyebrows are raised now and suddenly I feel that I am the only person in the room not privy to a complex inside joke. “I will have to ask you to leave then.”

“What? Do you know what I can do to you–”

He interrupts me though, and the seriousness in his voice, so different from the affected airs which he’s held to this point, stops me.

“Mr. Jones. I am under no obligation to tell you this; however, I feel it would do you some good to hear it.” He takes a deep breath. “In our folder here we have a copy of a restraining order which Ms. MacIntyre took against you the day before we accepted her to our facility.”

First, Do No Harm, Part 1

kellyiconThe receptionist-slashed-counselor ran her long, manicured nails through her hair, thoroughly fed up that I was taking up her time. An hour had passed by since I stepped into her small office, and since then the meticulously put-together and initially polite woman now looked like she was at the end of her rope.

“Mr. Jones, we’ve been very clear about this,” she said, and to be fair, even though her lips were pursed so tightly the skin around them was white, her professional tone never faulted. I wondered how many angry family and spouses she had dealt with as part of her job. “We don’t typically allow significant others or even family members to see the patient at this stage.”

On the wall behind her were several medical degrees in dour, professional-looking frames. A betting man could make good money wagering on how many of them came from the internet.

“The patient is still too unstable to receive visitors at this stage, and Dr. Lowe…”

“Wouldn’t want me calling my lawyer after seeing how you people operate?” I said, cutting her off. Whatever sympathy I had for her was cut short by the fact that she was standing between me and Emily. “You might be seeing a lawyer at this rate as it is. I don’t think I have to remind you that the last case brought against people like you did not end favorably.”

“Mr. Jones, there’s no need to threaten legal action. Miss Benson was fully aware of the full range of consequences of the procedure and consented willingly.”

“Ma’am, I know that at this point there’s little legal action can do. It won’t be for Emily, you see. It’ll be for me and the joy I will get from watching you and your boss being dragged kicking and screaming into court. Everyone knows that you people prey on the grieving. Do you really think any jury is going to be sympathetic to you?”

Now the woman’s face was completely white, liked someone had sucked the blood from her skin. Her frustration and professional tone were gone, and her hand shook as she reached for her phone.

“I’ll get the doctor for you.”

“Thank you.”

Twenty minutes later she led me down a hallway. It looked just like a proper doctor’s office if you didn’t know what was going on here. Besides the receptionist office, there was an examination room, a recovery room, and a room for X-rays. Beyond that, though, was a larger room behind two double doors. An audible hum came from behind the doors. The receptionist didn’t lead me through the doors, though. Instead, she turned left and led me to the office of Dr. Lowe. She hovered just outside the door and knocked lightly.

“Dr. Lowe, the fiance of Miss Benson would like a word with you.”

Dr. Lowe was a handsome man, with wavy brown hair curling around his chin, warm brown eyes, and a professional-looking lab coat. He looked up from his paper work covering his desk and frowned.

“You know we don’t see family until after the procedure is done, Brittany.”

“Yes, Doctor, but Mr. Jones was quite insistent.”

Dr. Lowe let out a little “ah” and waved her away. He motioned for me to come inside. He leaned back and rested his arm over the back of his chair, his eyes roaming over my face as if he could figure out what I was here for if he just looked hard enough. I took every fiber of my self-control not to throttle the smug-looking bastard.

“What seems to be the problem, Mr….Jones, was it?”

“I think you know very well what the problem is. I demand to see my fiancee.”

“You can demand all you want, sir, but we can’t let you see the patient until the procedure is finished. She’s too unstable. Upsetting her now could cause permanent damage to her psyche.”

“And removing her soul somehow isn’t permanent damage?” I said. “You hacks have stolen my fiance from me, and I’m here to save what’s left of her.”

Dr. Lowe’s eyes flickered and stared at something over my shoulder for a minute, and I didn’t have to look to know Brittany was probably there, her finger hovering over the button to call for the cops.

“Insult my profession all you like, Mr. Jones. As much as you would like to believe it so, we never deceive our patients. In fact, we try our very best to convince them to pursue less drastic means of dealing with their emotional pain. But for some, like your fiancee, find that traditional therapy and psychiatric treatment does not work. Instead of living with so much unnecessary grief and emotional torment, they turn to us so they can go back to living productive lives.” Dr. Lowe spread his arms wide and smiled. “We don’t remove people’s emotions to be cruel. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s a mercy, if you think about it.”

How the Years Go By, Part 3

kellyiconA pink and orange dawn rose over the lake, and the usually brown and murky sparkled like so many diamonds. The air was cool, a brief but welcome reprieve from the heat, and in the shade of Madame B’s porch it was almost chilly. I rocked the porch swing back and forth with my toes, hot tea in my hands, and stared out across the lake. During the night, Madame B and I had stayed up looking through her old photographs one by one. Each photo brought a wistful smile to Madame B’s face. Sometimes she traced her fingers ever so lightly over the faces of the men and women who had meant so much to her and were now long since dead. Dawn had broke by the time we finally closed the last of her albums.

Madame B sat down next to me, a steaming cup of coffee in her hands. The swing creaked as she leaned back, swinging back and forth on its old chains. She raised the cup to her lips and drank deep, then looked out across the lake with such genuine affection it warmed the heart to see.

“Beautiful, is it not? This is always my favorite day in this part of the world.”

“In this part of the world?”

Madame B laughed.

“Yes, in this part of the world. In the mountains I love the evenings, when the stars were so clear you could see them all in their millions trailing across the sky. And then there are cities with markets that, come afternoon, teem with every sort of human you can imagine. But here I like the mornings. There are few places as still and quiet as little towns in the early morning. And after such brutal heat, it is like being touched by God’s own cool grace.”

I sipped my tea, more to gather my thoughts than anything else.

“You never…get bored? Or tried of living?”

“Never. You could travel to every corner of the world and meet every person worth meeting, and after a few years everything would change so much it’d be as if you never left at all. In fact, one could say I look to the future more now than I ever did. Imagine if I had given up on living before movies were invented? Or planes? To see man fly across the sky like the gods of old in their chariots – there is a dream made real.”

“How did you become immortal?” My tongue stumbled over the last word. It seemed almost childish to ask her such a question. I expected her to answer with something profound, like ‘The first step is never as important as the journey,” but again she surprised me.

“This era doesn’t believe so much anymore, but once there were such things as gods. Great and terrible creatures they were. Millennium ago one such creature took pity on me and my short life, and gifted me with a life that has yet to end.”

I tried to imagine Madame B as a young woman, walking the streets of Babylon or Sumeria or Egypt. I waited for her to continue, but she continued to stare out across the lake, lost in her memories of so long ago.

“It doesn’t seem like much of a gift if you have to outlive all the people you care about,” I said.

“No, but the gods never did understand humans very well. She thought she was being very kind. And in my own way, I have a lived a life more fulfilling and full of wonder than I could have ever imagined.”

“Then what are you doing here?” I didn’t mean it to sound so incredulous, but if I were so old I could have visited the Sphinx when it was new, I don’t think I would have chosen to live in a little house outside New Orleans. I told her so. I expected her to laugh again at my naivete, but instead her eyes grew misty with tears.

“It’s hard to explain to one who has never known any place else but where they were born. I loved France, and I loved being French, even if in a way it was only ever a pretense on my part. Then the war came.” She paused to take a great, shuddering breath. “Many people ask me when they learn about my secret, ‘What happens if the world ends and you are still alive?’ I can tell you that the world has already ended once already. Whole cities were leveled to their foundations, and millions walked the roads headed they knew not where. They only knew that they had to keep walking on and on, a great shambling mass, but as silent and dead-eyed as corpses. I will never forget. I thought I knew how cruel men could be, but after the war I knew I needed to go far away from Europe. I couldn’t bare to see the cities I loved in ruins and the people I loved reduced to skeletons and shades. So I came here, to this country seemingly so untouched by war, and bought a little piece of land where I could be alone with my thoughts.” She wiped the tears from her cheeks. “I’m sorry. You probably don’t want to hear of such terrible things.”

“Do you still feel that way? About people and Europe, I mean.”

“I thought I would. So old I am, and yet even I keep forgetting that things change, least of all the hearts of men and women. I have gone back to France several times, and though it grieved me to think of all those who were lost, it brought joy to me heart to see the country so full of life again. But in the years since, this has become my home. So here I stay until I feel I must move on again.”

“What will you do,” she asked, “now that you know my secret?”

I turned to her, and for the first time since she sat down I managed to look her in the eyes.

“I would never tell anyone,” I said.

“Good. There are…stories I could share. Stories of people and places I have met. That would be nice, I think, to have someone to share my life with again.”

“I would love that more than anything.”

How the Years Go By – Part II

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A part of my mind told me that the woman in the photo must have been a distant relative, a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother or something, but another part of me knew the truth. I didn’t take much time to be shocked or frightened. Instead, I slipped the photo back in its’ plastic sheet and turned to the next page.

There were more photos of the wedding , Madame B and her groom with friends and family. The part of my me that knew the truth wondered if anyone in the photos were her family. Had she really been born in 1826 or was she even  older than that? Were her parents anywhere in the pictures or had they long since passed. Had she seen sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, even sons and daughters, grow old and die while she only accumulated a few more wrinkles and gray hairs.

She had not exaggerated , the first, second, and third binder were all full of pictures from France, dated up until 1914. I thought not about the incredible, mind-bending, unbelievable possibility that Madame B was centuries old, if not more, but of the fact that she had acquired so many photographs in adolescent years of photography.

“How are you doing up here, love?”

I slammed the photo album shut, the fear that I had been caught doing something wrong gripping my heart and squeezing. “Fine,” I responded much too quickly.

Madame B opened one of the photo albums that I had sat on the bed next to me, the first one with the wedding photos. She stared at the photo on the first page, the one that revealed her secret, depicted a woman who looked too much like her not to be and bore impossible dates on the back. She turned her head to the side, “Oh dear, I forgot about this one.”

She looked over at me as if waiting for me to speak. I said nothing. “His name was Bernard, my husband.”

“Your first?” I found myself asking.

She laughed, “Oh heavens, no. He was… somewhere around the thirties, it’s hard to keep count.”

“Did you love him.”

Her smile softened, “In a way, yes. When I was still young, well, relatively, I fell in love all of the time. Hard and fast and deep, just like in the stories. Then, after a time, and more heartbreaks than one should be allowed, I had thought I outgrew love. Then most of my relationships were just maintained out of utility. After even more time, I figured out I didn’t outgrow love, I just outgrew my idea of it. I was doing it wrong.”

I must have been looking at her like a hungry wolf, devouring her words. “But you don’t want to hear me go on all day about love and whatnot. At the age you are, you gotta figure all that out on your own.”

She gathered the three albums I had stacked next to me. “Those were all from France,” I said, “up to 1914.”

“Yes,” she said, sitting them on top of her dresser next to books and magazines, “it was so hard to say goodbye. But, what can you do?”

She sat next to me on the bed, took the album from my hands, and opened it. “Where was that taken?” I asked as she looked at the photo on the first page.

“Morocco,” she said after a moment, as if she had to recall, which she probably did. She turned the page.

The question had been bubbling up inside me and I could keep it from bursting out no longer. “Were you really born in 1826 like the photo said, or are you older?”

She looked at me and smiled, “Well, love, how old do I look?”

How the Years Go By, Part 1

kellyiconThey said Madame Beauchene was as old as Lake Pontchartrain itself, and that the first people who wandered into Louisiana to found New Orleans found her on her hill, just as she always has and still does today. She lived on a grassy little hill overlooking the road that ran next to the shore, her shabby old two-story house keeping a watchful eye on all those rushing to get to the city and those rushing to get out of it. Everyone knew her and called her “Madame B,” just as their parents and grandparents and probably even their parents did. Try as they might, no one could remember when the house was built or if she had any family living with her long ago, and while nobody thought she’d be angry if anyone asked her, everyone’s will to pry dissolved when confronted with that kind, thin smile she was so well-known for. You’d stumble around for words for a few seconds before giving up and taking a beignet, always fresh right out of the oven, and in the end nobody pried too deep.

I knocked on her door, the afternoon air muggy and oppressive and the mosquitos already coming out in force. I slapped at a duo that had landed on my arm as the screen door creaked open to reveal Madame B, a smile on her face and her long sleeves rolled up and tied around her elbows.

“Lakeisha, how are you?” she said.

“Just fine. Good to see you, Madame B,” I said, returning her bear hug.

She ushered me into the house, chatting away about all her recent visitors, her French accent as thick and rich as caramel. Madame B’s house was never what you expected. Outside, the paint was peeling and the weeds overgrown, but stepping inside was like stepping into a museum. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if Madame B actually lived here or just used the house to store her collection. The walls and floors were just bare wood, no paint or carpets, and you had to wear slippers or risk turning your toes into a pin cushion made of splinters, but strewn about the floor were treasures like you couldn’t imagine. Old fashion and literary magazines, from Harper’s to Life to turn-of-the-century French literary magazines, were stacked in every corner and along every wall; pictures frames, large and small, wrapped up in brown paper, and stacked in sets of five and six, were strewn about the living room floor. Upstairs a whole room was filled with nothing but old leather chests overflowing dresses and suits from every conceivable decade after 1800. It was a favorite pass time of the neighborhood girls to come round Madame B’s and run their hands over the fine lace and silk. Madame B even lent a few of the dresses and suits for weddings, but always insisted they be returned to her in the same condition she lent them out, and so everyone handled them like they were made out of tissue paper instead of fabric. A china closest was filled with ivory sculptures and fine dishes, though when asked where she got them, Madame B always waved her hand in front of her face as if to bat away an unpleasant smell and said she “found them at some yard sale years back.”

I always loved coming to Madame B’s house. I’d sit among the stacks of magazines and delight in the gaudy beads and short dresses of the ’20s and the pinched waists of the ’50s and all the dapper men in their suits and hats. Mother would sit at the plain, wooden table with Madame B and shoot the breeze about gossip and births and who married who, or Madame B would tell us a story about her youth in Frace. All the while a jazzy song blaring out of the beat-up, old record player. Her house was full of things I could never see or dream of in a small Louisiana town. So when she had asked me to help her organize her things over my first summer home from college, it took me less than an hour to collect up my notebooks and run up the steps to her porch.

“Now, love, I thought we’d start with upstairs, yes?” We were sitting at the table, our plates scraped clean of a lunch made of seafood and bread. “It is just clothes and pictures up there. Easy to organize. We just have to take note of what’s in what chest.”

“I’d love to. Do you have many pictures of France?”

Madame B smiled, crinkling the crow’s feet around her dark eyes.

“So many, I think you will be sick of looking at them by the end of the day.”

“I doubt it. I’ve been wanting to look at those picture books since I was six.”

“Then why don’t you get started? I’ll clean here.”

It didn’t take long to find her pictures. They, like everything, were piled in a mound in a corner in one of the bedrooms. It looked like at one time someone had sorted them neatly, only for them to topple over and spill out all over the floor. There was a magnificent four-poster bed decked in soft lavender and silver sheets in the room. I carried over an armful of binders, dumped them onto the bed, and crawled onto the soft comforter.

I’ll always remember the moment I discovered Madame B’s secret. The first picture in the first binder was of Madame B. A little younger perhaps, with a few less lines and no gray in her hair, but clearly it was her, even through the photo was crinkled and yellow with age. She sat on a stool, dressed in a high-collar Victorian dress, her hands folded neatly on her lap and bland smile on her face. Next to her stood a man, dark and handsome, his hand on her shoulder and a look of pride beaming from his face. I slipped the photo out of the plastic and flipped it over. The back read, in French:

Adele Beauchene, b. 1826, m. 1845. May God shine his grace on you and bless you with many happy years. Love, Mama.