Whispering somewhere close. I might’ve been dead, but not alone. I didn’t see, but I could hear – not an ideal situation, but still something. And I felt warm and so very comfortable, all that whispering, as if somebody were careful not to disturb.
Then I must’ve fallen asleep and dreamt, even in death, and it felt anything but nice. I was small, so small, a bee in a jar. And I tried to get out, but the glass was slippery, with nothing I could grab. Every time I tried to reach up, my palms would leave traces of blood down the jar. Instead of fingernails, I had pus and blood. I screamed a sharp scream like a train whistle, then pushed hard on my hands. And then my eyes were open, though heavy, so very heavy.
I sat up, sweat trickling down my forehead and neck. The room seemed warped, like in a dream, my skull burdensome as if it contained rocks. I dropped back on pillows that smelled of disease, and something stung my arms. My body grew heavier and heavier, sinking in the mattress like a pile of steel. I realized I wouldn’t be able to lift myself again, it had been only a rush that my body wouldn’t sustain again anytime soon.
A sweet, pained voice rang close to my ear. “Alice, baby, you’re awake. Thank God, you’re awake.”
English. That moment I knew Mom leaned over me, her lips pressing on my temple and forehead. I tried to open my eyes again, but I didn’t find the strength, my lids swollen.
She held my hand, I now felt it, aware again of the life that flowed feebly through me. A slow pulse in my chest, like a lazy clock. Tick – pause – tock. Tick-pause – tock.
Among sobs, Mom began telling me the story of the Sleeping Beauty. It had been one of my favorites as a kid, and her voice brought back the oldest and sweetest memories of pink pajamas and Judy the Monkey. Memories as distant as how and why I’d ended up feeling as beaten and finished as I did. My mind filled with only the image of a prince with beautiful, sculpted face and long raven hair, the girl slumbering in a high, ivory tower, and the taste of cotton candy mingling with that of blood.
The story came to a forced end when two men walked in – I could tell they were men by the deep voices that didn’t manage to keep their heated conversation to the mere level of whispers.
“I won’t leave her under your wing alone.” The direct, determined tone immediately triggered the man’s identity in my head – Dad. The feeling of warmth and peace now became whole – they were here, both Mom and Dad. I was safe.
“You’re being unreasonable, Tiberius,” the other man warned in a commanding voice. Probably as commanding as his person, since he called my dad by his first name – very few called the great Dr., PhD., a-pile-of-titles-in-biochemistry-I-can’t-even-read Tiberius Preda by his first name.
Suddenly, images of a rusty chain and strings of fur crossed my mind’s eye like sharp lashes. Then the fall, the knock in my head. I reached the conclusion rapidly – I was at a hospital and the man must’ve been a doctor.
“I can take care of her at home,” Dad said.
“That’s not a good idea,” the doctor stressed.
Among wretched sobs Mom whispered, “She’s woken up, Tiberius. She was up on her hands, she opened her eyes.”
The shuffle of fabric told me Dad hurried to my side. Hands checked the catheter in my arm. Hospital, doctor, IV lines . . . reality caught outline. How on earth could I have survived? The leaden sensation all through my body prevented me from moving or making a sound, and a ton of sedatives and painkillers must’ve been keeping me numb to pain, but my brain activity took off like a rocket.
“She’s regaining her strength fast,” Dad said, and bent close to my ear. “Alice, do you hear me? Are you awake, sweetheart?”
Regaining my physical strength felt far from the truth, since I didn’t find enough to moan, let alone answer.
“She fell asleep again,” Mom lamented, as if I were more dead than alive. “She fell asleep, my poor girl.” My temple tickled when she caressed my hair.
“You should get some fresh air, Jen. You look and sound tragic, and that’s the last thing she needs.”
Mom took offense, it was obvious in her higher-than-usual pitch. “I’m not going anywhere. This is my baby, barely out of a cold ditch.”
“Not in that tone Tiberius, I’m not one of your sluts.”
“You’re catching fire, and that’ll afflict her. You need some fresh air. I promise, I won’t stand in your way when you come back, but go come to grips first.” Dad sounded severe – that kind of severe that used to sew my lips together years ago. Now it shut Mom up and strengthened my decision of playing asleep. I sensed her linger in the doorstep, as I did her crying eyes on my face before her steps faded down an echoing hallway.
I still couldn’t understand why she put up with his brashness. Once she’d said it was for my sake, but that hadn’t kept him under the same roof with us anyway. His work took a heavy toll on our family.
“I’ll leave you with her,” the doctor said calmly.
“No, don’t. Close the door, we need to finish our talk.”
“Not here. Not now.”
“I won’t abandon her with you, lad, and I don’t want you doing anything behind my back to force my hand.”
He can force Tiberius Preda’s hand?
“I won’t take action without your knowledge”, the doctor said, “But I won’t back off.”
“I won’t have her in your custody. That’s my final word.”
“Let’s talk about it later, some other place.”
Dad seemed not to hear him. “There’s something else that can’t wait, though. Have you seen her blood count? It’s so good it’s frightening. After hours in the cold and everything she’s been through, not even a bladder infection. She fell down a precipice and not a broken bone. This is not normal. Besides, she’s always been a fragile kid.”
There was a trace of discontent in Dad’s voice that baffled me to the marrow. If I was doing so good, what was there to be urgent about? And why was I hooked to IV and felt like shit? And why ask my own doctor if he’d seen my blood count?
Thank God my face was too stiff to express anything. The slightest sign that I could hear them and false smiles would greet me, then the discussion would be taken somewhere else, leaving me with no clue as to my own situation and the reason for Dad’s distress.
The doctor wasn’t as surprised, though. “She won’t remain this strong. But either way, she remains in danger.”
“What if she doesn’t come back to normal? Ruxandra Ignat, her blood count looks just as staggering, there’s still no change …”
Ruxandra. In flashes, I began remembering the last moments at the cottage.
“BioDhrome’s our priority now, Tiberius. They won’t stop here.”
He knew about BioDhrome? And Dad did, too?
I strained to pinpoint the doctor’s voice. I knew him, I surely did. That voice, deep, composed and pleasant to my ears like thick, flowing honey. I didn’t have to search long until recognition hit – my unattainable barbarian, Damian. He was alive, thank God he was alive, thank God for learning it before I was aware enough to go nuts with the uncertainty! But how on Earth did he know Dad?
I attempted to open my eyes again, but the effort equaled lifting bricks, giving me the necessary seconds to reconsider. The conversation would come to an end at the first sign I was awake. I stayed still as a corpse, but inside excitement, joy and curiosity strained to pump my pulse. For whatever reason, they failed, my body wouldn’t respond. What the heck am I on?
“No, BioDhrome won’t stop here. Especially if these kids’ blood counts don’t come back to normal,” Dad said.
“They will. The gas effects always fade. It causes the body to regulate its chemistry so that it can become a fighting machine, the best version of itself, this is no secret to you. But the effects are always temporary. Alice will be the fragile kid you know again. But that still won’t stop BioDhrome.” There was scorn in Damian’s tone, as if he suspected Dad of wishing weakness on me. It didn’t throw Dad off his distressed track, though.
“The effects of the gas might wear off after a while, but the experience will never go away. And the experience is powerful, and, combined with the gas, it can make the effects permanent. I don’t want her . . . Forgive me, but I don’t want her ending up like you either. An Upgrade is as doomed as a target.”
“They did much more with me than they did with Alice, Tiberius, you know this. She’s far from an Upgrade, and her values will normalize. You’ve seen George Voinescu’s results, his liver’s already a wreck again.”
George made it too . . .
“What you had was inclination, Damian, talent, if you will. That played the most important part, along with your accumulated anger. Their procedure came second. Blood and spirit are connected, make no mistake about that, and don’t listen to small minds with a degree in science. Alice might not be talented, she may be soft and frail, but she is . . . in a difficult place. She is angry enough to facilitate irreversible effects from this experience and the gas.”
“For that you have only yourself to blame,” Damian said, calm but cold like a judge in court. “She gave up your inheritance, she ran away from everything you represented, she went desperate enough to want and marry a loser so she could be rid of your name. Of your shadow. And things got worse and worse.”
Pause. Both in Dad’s breathing and mine.
“Put like this it strikes you, doesn’t it, Tiberius? With all due respect, you can only hurt your own daughter. And you surely won’t be able to protect her now, not with BioDhrome’s eye on her.”
“How deeply did you two bond, boy, that she told you all of this?” Dad hissed. He’d virtually bowed his head and gulped down all Damian’s scorn, however veiled in a detached tone, but it was easy to imagine him pointing a rifle at my handsome barbarian now.
“She talked. I listened.”
“Did all that listening get her in bed with you?”
Oh, no, no, no, Dad, please don’t!
“Have I not proven my loyalty and respect?” Damian’s voice went a frequency lower, sounding like insulted bass. This time emotion was clear, making my stomach flutter with both butterflies and embarrassment. “I only got close to her when the situation turned ugly. I owe you much, Tiberius, and this is my opportunity to repay you. I can and will protect Alice until we track down BioDhrome’s head and chop it off.”
“So can I rest assured that you haven’t taken a special liking to my daughter, Damian? That you weren’t on this trip because of her?”
Another pause, this time in Damian’s response and in my breathing again. He hesitated. Good God, he hesitated . . . Was it a good sign? Was he reluctant to admit that he liked me? Or was he unsure of how to tell Dad his baby wasn’t worthy of attention?
“Why don’t you prove your respect once more, and keep as honest as I know you,” Dad demanded. Expectation virtually built up, but my pulse stayed steady. The strangest sensation.
Damian’s reply lagged for seconds, but when it came, it came through velvety and clear.
Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.
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