12 sept. 2012

LILY'S LUMES - VOL I: THE PART WHICH TAKES PLACE ON EARTH




CHAPTER ONE
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I hate trains. They are surely one of Man’s greatest inventions, but still, I can’t stand them. Especially long-distance trains. Try taking them for hours on end over two years, along with all the delays, and running around with your luggage gradually giving you carpal tunnel, and then being told by distracted-eyed railway agents that the only reason why you’re not reaching your destination tonight “Ma’am”, is because of a fallen tree that’s damaged the rails. Over two years, there have been around twenty-eight fallen trees. That’s some deforestation! Funny it was nowhere on the news… I hate trains. 

But I guess my real reasons go deeper than anyone else’s, considering my… condition. Or my nature. Or whatever it is I have. It took my doctors twenty years to find out what it was, and the name seems relatively banal: Acute hyper reactive skin. It’s not an illness. It just means your skin is a dramatic bitch. It reacts too violently to anything it comes in contact with – Fabrics, temperature, air quality – as well as any stimulus, like, erm… emotion. To put it plainly, if I’m mad at someone, they can see it. Literally. My whole body is suddenly covered with bright red blotches. And I’m already a redhead, so you can only imagine how obvious it can be. Strangely enough, that seems to scare people off; which comes in pretty handy when you’re mad at them. 

And trains are the perfect environment for plenty of symptoms to manifest: Carpeting inevitably means I’ll have trouble breathing soon, since the inside of the nose is skin too, and it hates dust… And an hour into the trip, when the train air-conditioning really kicks in, I know I’ll be covered from head to toe like a yeti, begging for some heat to seep back into my veins. I’m not sure what mild temperature really is; most of the time I’m so cold that my skin hurts to the touch and I can’t function, or I’m so hot that I feel like I’m melting into a puddle. And breathing isn’t the easiest thing to do in that case either. 

And so, for the past two years, the Paris-Stuttgart trip has become my most regular, yet most dreaded activity. All this because my dear parents had decided to separate. Mom naturally opted to stay in Paris – she’s in the suburbs, but don’t say that to her, it drives her nuts – while dad went back to his charming hometown of Ludwigsburg, Baden-Württemberg. 

Mom is the kind of disappointed-with-life Britton who feels she has made it just by managing to live in (the suburbs of) Paris, and keeping a certain life standard. One she couldn’t afford, no doubt. But she dreaded losing it much more than having to pay for it. And so she got into social events, and managed to collect connections from the right crowd, allowing her to suddenly discover a flair for the Modern Arts. And so she went into the elite business of exhibition planning and hosting. I’m sure this isn’t enough to explain why she and I would never get along, but that’s another story.

As for dad, the hot-blooded German police officer, well, he wanted none of that. He had come to Paris in the first place just to please mom. But when matters started going downhill, he longed for things to be simple and familiar again. It took him two and a half hours to pack everything he had, all his history with his family in one luggage case, and then he was gone. We found out he was back to Germany from my granny. My sweet, naïve granny. She argued that children always brought adults back together. However, there was only one of me, and such an enterprise was too heavy for my shoulders. I couldn’t bring them back, and I wasn’t even sure it was the best thing for them. Whenever I interfered or even talked about it, I was accused of taking sides. 

At one point it got so bad that I used the I’m-eighteen-now excuse to move out – to Paris (not the suburbs). And since then, they get one weekend a month each. 

« Excusez-moi! Vous bloquez le chemin là !! » My daydream gets interrupted by this charming French girl poking me from behind with her luggage case handle. Parisian no doubt. I blurt out an undeserved apology, then slip my carry-on luggage into the overhead compartment, and reluctantly let her pass. Blocking the way, am I? I’d like to tell her what else I could block. And just like that, in two seconds, the blotches appear, everywhere. Chest, arms, neck, face. I take a deep breath and sit down as quickly as I can. I feel my breathing become heavier as my nose starts to get congested, and I try my useless yoga concentration to calm down. I close my eyes and count the breaths. In and out…. Calm down Lily. There you go…  A few slow minutes later, the goose bumps start disappearing and the blotches go pinker, as my ginger freckles turn a lighter shade of brown… 

At that moment, my peripheral vision is disturbed by a pair of irises darting straight at me. I look up and see, across the aisle, only two rows ahead, rather huge, clear green eyes, staring. They belong to a boyish-looking passenger sitting opposite me. Ash brown hair, glasses. That’s all I could see before my usual reflex kicks in: I hide behind the seat in front of me, naturally. And I keep to the same position, for hours. If there’s anything I dread in this life, it’s to be stared at up-close by someone, especially if they might be attractive. I didn’t have a long enough look to know that for sure, but what I saw ignited this tiny, uncomfortable heart-pinch I used to feel back when I was fifteen and desperate. 
I no longer have such moments though. It only takes a second glance for me to notice the turn-off factors, and so, a few minutes later, any pinching of any sort is long gone. However, this time around, I decide not to give that second glance. I just hide behind the seat and wait for takeoff.

Surely enough, the conductor announces the departure in three languages, two of which he speaks pretty badly. And as the slow wheezing of the departing train fills the compressed coach air, I start digging for the three woolen covers I’d stuffed into my backpack, and begin the usual ritual of tucking myself into the seat by jamming the covers into every crease I could find: on both sides of my thighs and arms, behind my shoulders, between my knees, and of course, all around my feet. I hear a little girl giggle in a nearby seat, and I know it’s at my expense. I’m just happy Mr Huge Manga Green Eyes can’t see me like this. My ego would have taken a considerable blow… How pathetic am I really? Freezing in silence, just because the temperature has gone below 27 degrees Celsius, and hiding behind the back of a seat at the mere thought of a guy I barely saw, who happened to look up at me by pure reflex.  Oh what the hell… I slightly shift my weight to the left, trying to make it look as natural as possible, and suddenly…oh!! Our irises meet again, in a shockingly perfect straight line. And before I even have time to go crimson red and lose breath, Huge-Eyes suddenly seems to be struggling with something. He blinks once,  and clumsily pushes his glasses up his nose with crooked fingers, as he quickly looks down and starts scribbling something on a piece of paper. 

Wow! Have I just had an effect on a guy? Because that would be a first for me! He looked positively uncomfortable as he went on scribbling. Ha!! Take THAT! I can make a man blush anytime!... I smile at the absurd vanity of the idea, and reflect no more on it. The only thought that lingers on is that I found no deal-breakers at this second glance. I smile to myself and just tilt to the right, back to my comfortable hiding zone, and distract myself with the rhythm of my own breathing, so as to keep the air intake regular, while my mucous membranes do their best to fight the train carpet dust…   

The next thing I remember is the voice of the conductor announcing the first stop in Strasbourg. I must have fallen asleep. I swallow hard, as I feel the insides of my cheeks and my throat prickling, while my dried up lips are on the very brink of cracking. Yep, they’re skin too, and they hate it when I fall asleep with my mouth open, letting all the dust in. The train gradually slows down and finally comes to a full halt in the weird alien-ship-shaped train station. Dozens of impatient passengers rush through the aisle, bumping my elbow as they go. Parisians, I mutter. It’s a relief when the stampede has almost entirely exited the train, except that there seems to be a straggler who’s just realized he has to get off: Mr. Green Eyes abruptly stands up and reaches for his luggage, then clumsily does a full circle to find the direction of the exit. He looks so gauche and disoriented it’s comical to almost everyone. Some passengers even laugh, though he’s in too much of a hurry to pay them any attention. But I’m anything but laughing; all I could think of at that moment is how discordant his looks seem to be with his painful-to-watch awkwardness. He is gawkily rushing to get out, though his facial expression just doesn’t follow. His face seems a million miles away: impassive, relaxed, blank. He steps out at the very last second, just as the signal resounds and the doors brusquely close behind him. He then turns around, but only from the waist up, and looks back towards the coach. His eyes seem to scan the windows… and then they zero in on me.  

I’m so taken aback by his glance that I freeze, eyes fixated on him, and lips slightly parted. His expression, however, is even more undecipherable than before. It’s not flirty, it’s not neutral, it’s not inquisitive. It’s just… impossible to interpret. Why are you looking at me? Do you know me? Or are you just trying to leave an impression? He simply keeps looking at me, intently, intensely. The train starts moving again, and as it glides past him, his eyes follow mine all the way, till I can no longer see them.

A second later, I sit back straight, and shake my head as a sobering smile draws itself on my lips. It’s so refreshing to have those platonic crush looks when one hasn’t flirted for like… ever! I can’t help but imagine what my mom would have said in this case, “Why didn’t you make more effort? Why didn’t you flirt?” Well, mom: first, are you sure this is the kind of motherly advice you should be giving me? And second, I would never have managed to keep it up! Your less-than-subtle criticism throughout my youth has successfully managed to turn me into a ball of complexes. Newsflash for you: people with complexes are not exactly the best candidates for forward flirting. 

And after all, this was a perfect moment for me, just as it was. No uncomfortable talking, no discovering what’s behind the green eyes; just one perfect, untarnished, platonically fulfilling moment. The very best kind.


I actually think I’m going to catch a break when I see a woman in her seventies take the stranger’s seat, until she suddenly looks up at me, as if startled, and smiles. What is this? Stare-at-Lily day?? I quickly reach into my backpack and pull out a mirror. Hmm, no redness or marks of any sort this time; to the untrained eye, I should look normal. And yet she keeps ogling down at her hands, then back at me, and smiling, that annoying old-lady smile. I squirm in my seat, and try to look away, when she suddenly holds out her gloved hand and waves at me to come over. Um, no! I give her a tight-lipped, polite smile, and turn away. 

A while later, the ticket inspector creeps up on me, as they usually do, and while I fumble for my ticket, he suddenly bends down, as if to whisper, and says, “Ma’am, the lady across the aisle has asked me to give you this”. He then hands me what looks like half an A4 paper, with a lovely drawing on it; a drawing that would make my eyes ball out and my breathing come to a stop: It was me

Or a better version of me. The lines were so elegant, and the strokes so stylized that it felt like they were actual strokes on my very skin – but the kind that does not leave bruises. Did Mr. Green Eyes leave this?? Is this what he was scribbling? Both the inspector and the old lady smile at me as they watch my face turn from normal flesh-color, to white, to crimson red, while my mouth slacks open. It’s not just the shock of seeing a drawing of me, but that of the inhumanly accurate attention to detail! Everything was there: the exact hairdo, down to the smallest strands, the right size freckles, the tiny shine in the eyes, the self-conscious look – Am I that obvious? – the shape of the lips with even the minutest fissure… I could almost see the fabric details of my shirt collar, as well as that of the woolen cover. Damn it, he noticed that… Though how could he??  

I mean, our eyes only met twice, and very briefly. The rest of the time, I was hiding behind the back of the seat. And if I couldn’t see him, then he most likely couldn’t see me either,… could he? Because this is not the kind of drawing you could pull off out of memory. It’s rather the kind you’d make your model pause for hours for. How could he do this? I’m even flushing in the drawing, which brings the blood flow back up to my cheeks. Everything is there, down to a small mole I have on my neck, right under my ear. This is so surreal! The only thing that seems strange is a nice chain necklace he must have added out of imagination. It sort of feels like he’s offered me the necklace, which makes me smile. Some passengers start turning and looking my way, so the inspector tactfully continues his round. I look up at the old lady and mouth “thank you”. She nods once with a friendly beam, and looks away. 

I spend the remaining time of the trip contemplating the drawing, in total awe. Part of me is uncomfortable with staring at myself for so long, while the other knows that the only thing fascinating me is the execution, and the hand behind it. Suddenly it dawns on me: I will never figure out how he did it, will I? It’s not even signed! So all hopes of actually googling his name along with “sketch artist”, “painter” or any other title, has gone down the drain. Frustration starts creeping in, replacing all the curiosity and wonder. He went from Paris to Strasbourg, and that’s all I know. 

Shit.   














CHAPTER TWO
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My dad’s like a pendulum clock that hasn’t needed any adjusting since the day it started ticking. As always, he’s there, at the right spot on the platform, with his usual brown suede coat, waiting for me but looking elsewhere. It must make him feel less ill-at-ease to pretend to be contemplating the view, instead of seeming like he’s there exclusively for me. This always makes me smile. My dad’s even more self-conscious than I am. 

“You need a new coat, Erik”, I say as I get off the train.
“Yeah, missed you too kid”, he says with half a smile. And that’s all. German dads don’t hug; least of all mine. And neither do British mothers, by the way. Or just not mine. 

Erik grabs my luggage case, though tiny, and walks me to the car. I don’t really try to strike up a conversation, since we don’t really feel the need to; although I could have commented on how beautiful the weather was in Stuttgart. 

Once “home” – I still haven’t figured out what to call my dad’s house – we have the usual talk about how things are going in Paris, how I’m handling music school, if I have enough money on my account, if my roommate Ginny is holding her end of the deal by paying rent and doing chores, and a brief question on my mother’s health, only.  Then he heats up some dinner and we watch the latest Tatort episode. Obviously I don’t have the slightest idea what it’s all about. I just know that it’s a crime series that’s been on TV since the seventies, with the exact same opening credits, and it’s set in different German cities, depending on the episode. 

“Hey dad?”

“Hmm?” he says distractedly.

“Why haven’t you ever taught me German?”

He freezes, keeping his eyes on the screen. He seems a bit lost in thought for a few minutes, then uncomfortably shifts his weight and says, “Well, I’m not much of a teacher, am I?... I just considered English as a language you’d need much more, with your mother, and professionally… And you were learning French too, inevitably. So I just didn’t want to clutter your brain with more… But you do speak a few words…”

“Food-related, mostly”.

He lets out a short guffaw, “That is vital. You also know how to say hello and all that…”

“Naturally. I’ve been coming here for two years, so I’ve caught a few words here and there… But it’s all recent.”

He seems a bit uneasy so I quickly pull him out of his misery. “I’m not blaming you for anything dad. It just frustrates me not to understand the true depths of Tatort!”

He tries to look non-amused – you do not joke about Tatort! – though the crinkles around his eyes betray him. He smiles for a second and goes back to watching young Kommissar Bootz solve crimes with incomparable skill. It’s endearing to watch my own father, a police officer who has seen it all and knows too much of crude reality, be so affected by obviously filtered fiction, depicting a dramatized version of his profession. But a more dominant thought keeps intruding and poking at me: I couldn’t help think that maybe my father had sacrificed too much for us, including who he really was. He had accepted to marry a foreigner, move to Paris, and raise a non-German-speaking child… How could these reasons not be part of why he’d left in the first place?... It makes me wonder if I’d have the courage to let go of so much, just for love. Or if I ever should.  

            For some reason, my mind suddenly jumps back to the drawing. Will this ever stop baffling me? How was that guy able to strip me of so many details? Could he see my reflection in the window perhaps? Nah… I couldn’t see his, so he logically couldn’t see mine either. Physics. But then… how? And most of all, who was he? I know how my mind works: I start with allowing a thought in, and then it takes over every inch of it. By tomorrow, I’ll have become sickeningly obsessed with it. Couldn’t I just nip this in the bud and spare myself the trouble? Sadly, there is no OFF button for my brain… 

           When I finally go up to the room dad’s set up for me, I very slowly change into my PJ’s, as if delaying the moment I’d be next to the night table, where I’d delicately placed the object of my obsession. Then, once under the covers, I have a last, long stare at the drawing, as if it were the only logical end to my day, then I turn off the lights.  


Greenish glow, closed shutters, and an old dusty desk. Erik walks in, dressed in the cheesiest beige trench coat, and a hat that casts a very film-noir-esque shadow on his face. A few police officers follow him into the 80’s-decorated room. And just as he takes off his hat, he smiles at congratulations fusing at him from all sides. He addresses the officers in German, but strangely enough, I understand everything he says. “I couldn’t have done it without you, gentlemen. Today, we have managed what every police officer in this city has been drooling over: Müller is officially behind bars, thanks to your considerable effort and determination. Congratulations everyone.” 

I wake up with a smile, knowing that somewhere in my unconscious mind, my dad is my Komissar Bootz…

Which gives me an idea that should have been obvious: I think it’s time I’ve stopped underestimating my father, and put his skills to extensively personal use. 

“Morning dad!”

“Moin!” he says, and smiles to himself as he makes coffee. Must be German slang.

“So, slept well?” I stall.

“Mm-hm. I can’t say the same for this past week. Had a rough case…”

Ah! The perfect opening. “Are you allowed to talk about it?”

“Yeah, we’ve closed it. It was just a missing persons case. And the girl’s father is someone’s cousin, someone at the precinct. So the personal involvement got us all on edge…”

“Sheesh! So… did you find her?” I reply, still waiting for the opportunity to ask him my questions, but also genuinely interested in how his case panned out. 

“Yeah we did. She’d OD’ed at a friend’s place, and the said friend just panicked and ran, without informing anybody about it.”

My mouth pops open, but I have no words. I wonder how my dad can say such things so matter-of-factly, without seeming the least bit affected. He keeps looking me in the eye, as if sounding my reaction.

“That’s, um… horrible!” I venture.

“Kid, I need to know something,” he seems reluctant to continue, “Have you ever taken, or even just tried…”

“What, drugs?!” I suddenly understand what he’s getting at. “God, dad, of course not! I mean, you’ve raised me and know me well, don’t you?! And with my condition, do you think I would react well to substances that affect the nervous system?...” 

For illustrative purposes, I feel the blotches erupt angrily across my chest. He pauses, then gives one more argument, but with less conviction, “If you only saw what I see almost daily… Kids that seem to be perfectly normal… And I know you’re still dealing with the divorce…”

“Dad, you do realize I’m twenty years old, right? If I were meant to go down the wrong path, I would have already. The divorce was two years ago, and the Paris-Stuttgart agreement was my idea, if I remember correctly. So I believe I’m handling this pretty well…”

“True, but… your roommate looks like the kind…”

“What?!” I scoff in disbelief. “Ginny has never… Is it because of the purple hair?!” I can’t keep a straight face, and he almost blushes, realizing that he has no further reason to think that of her. But I feel like I’m losing my opening, so I quickly get back to the subject at hand. “So anyway… How do you do it? How do you proceed to find a missing person?” 

At that moment I’m very happy the blushing has already started, or else I would totally have been busted.

“What do you mean? There is no step-by-step procedure…,” he replies cautiously.

“Like… If you only had a picture of the person…,” I say, smiling inwardly. 

“Well, in that case we check the database, see if we already have something on them… Do we have a name?” He’s totally in the game now, and I will definitely keep him talking.

“No, just a picture.”

“Hmm… tricky. How would we have a picture without a name? Normally, someone comes to us with a picture, and they usually have a name and some info to get us going. If not, then how would we get hold of the picture in the first place?”

Damn it, he’s smart! I fumble for more ideas, but finally decide to go a whole different way. “Okay, then how about an anonymous letter? How would you proceed to find out who wrote it?”

“Well,” he straightens his shoulders and uses a clearly professional tone, “we first speak to the recipient –– ”

“It was sent directly to the precinct.”

“Oh… In that case, some fancy precincts have graphologists working for them. You know, experts who can analyze handwriting.” I wonder how that could help me out, since I don’t have much to compare Mr. Green-Eyes’ drawing style to, and I wouldn’t even know where to start… But Erik is on a roll, “And if that doesn’t work, then we try the post office, see which box it came from. It would give us an approximation of the whereabouts. Then we try to check street cameras.” Well, the closest I can get to that is by going to the train company and asking them. They would obviously refuse to give me any information on other passengers… I start losing hope again.

“And if that doesn’t work either?”

He absent-mindedly rubs his chin, then says the only logical thing left, “Then you go back to what you have; the letter itself. You analyze the content and message behind it… Hey, what’s with the interrogation Lil’?” he winks at me.

            “Oh so that’s what I get for taking interest in what you do?” I ask, looking falsely appalled.

“Mmmmmmm-hm!” he lifts an eyebrow, in a that-won’t-work-on-me kind of way. I jokingly stick out my tongue at him, then take my coffee and quickly head back upstairs. I needed to take his advice somehow. What if the drawing carried some sort of message? And what if I put all awe aside and tried to look at it objectively?

I delicately close the door, and take the portrait to my desk, putting it right under the desk lamp. The awe element is inevitable… The pixie-like aspect of the features is very pleasant to look at… The hair looks almost real, along with the minutest light reflected on every wave; then there’s the pout in the lips, the chin… And then I freeze. I’m so stupid! The only thing that stands out! The necklace!!! It must be there for a reason, I know it. Go back to what you have, analyze the content and message… God, my dad’s smart!

Quick, my laptop! All I have to do is google “chain necklace” and compare designs… I’m so amped that my fingers find it hard to hit the right keys, and my skin is covered with goose-bumps. 

Two hours later, I start to get a headache. There are so many! I could spend days comparing and squinting at the smallest links, without the slightest guarantee of finding similarities. Maybe I should speak to a jeweler or something? Aw damn… This is going to be harder than I thought! Why did this guy choose a signature that looked more like a necklace than a name?! Would that have been too prosaic for him? I cross my arms on the desk and drop my head down in frustration.

A fraction of a second later, it dawns on me. I pop my head up, eyes wide as if I’ve just had the revelation of the century. I grab the portrait and bring it as close as possible to my eyes, and muffle a squeak when my suspicion is confirmed: these are not links in the chain! They are tiny, stylized, almost undecipherable letters!!!  




















CHAPTER THREE

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What the fuck is a ‘LEETAH’?!

 

I’ve spent the whole day in my room, leaving it only for food, and all I could manage to decode is a series of letters that mean nothing, and the number 8. Basically, the chain is made up of a loop that goes “LEETAH8LEETAH8LEETAH8…” 

I suddenly realize that I have no nails left to bite into, and my reflection in the mirror next to the bedroom door peeks at me sideways, and almost shakes her head disapprovingly when she sees the rings around my eyes start to show. I ignore her and desperately try toying with anagrams. I come across “Tale Eh”, “At Heel”, “Late He”, and the very French “Le Hate”, none of which makes any sense. Argh!! 



Miss Reflection tsk tsk tsk’s at me. I distractedly get up to meet her. She’s right, the rings around my eyes are already a grayish purple. I see small brownish spots in them too, and I know from experience that some tiny veins must have popped while I was forcing my eyes to decipher the link letters. And my skin is so bad it looks like it’s gone from normal to advanced PMS state in just a few hours. Sometimes I just wish I could shed this skin and just have a tiny hope at normalcy… 



It reminds me of my very first kiss. Consequence: chronic angular cheilitis. The first time I used contacts; eyelid cysts that required surgery.  The first time I decided not to wear another layer of cotton under my shirt; excruciating stomach pain and memorable public embarrassment. The first time I wore fake jewelry; an extremely irritating rash that had to get worse before it got better… Miss Reflection’s eyes slightly start to redden and water up. I am not normal! Nor will I ever be…



And yet some random guy makes my skin look like a beautiful thing. A thing worth drawing, memorizing, perfecting... I have to find him!



Okay, why am I complicating things? I’ll just look up “Leetah” online, although the odds don’t – … huh?! The very first result: Leetah – Elfquest. Healer and gatherer. What the… ? Lifemate of Cutter; mother of Ember and Suntop. Is this from a comic book or something? Status: Immortal; living.  Wow, what is this? A comic book about Elves! If this is what Green-Eyes really meant to draw, then I’m pretty sure I’m currently looking for a very cute Geek! It’s endearing! I click on Gallery, and find myself face to face with Leetah, the Sun Elf. Red hair, green eyes, pouty lips. She’s beyond beautiful, for a comic book character…



And yet… she looks so much like me!



It’s extremely unsettling. I feel my ears burning, and I know the blushing tsunami is quite close. I stare at her and I know straight away that if this turns out to be what my stranger meant to slip into the drawing, then his skills might not be that accurate after all. I’m not at all this magnificent, elfish creature!... But I still want to know everything about her.  



And that site goes way beyond my expectations: I let out a choked squeak when I find, under “Comics”, a digital gallery of the whole collection! I can almost feel my eyes popping out of their sockets, as I rush to start the first comic…


Three hours and one avoided dinner later – Cramps is always the ultimate excuse out of a thorough questioning by a suspecting father – I lie back on the bed, hiding my eyes with the back of my hands, and shake my head with disbelief. What the hell was that?!...  It’s anything but a children’s comic, that’s for sure! It’s the story of Cutter, a Wolfrider who is made to leave the forest because of the Humans, and crosses the desert with his pack, coming across a village where the Sun Folk live… He sees Leetah, and immediately experiences the power of Recognition, a telepathic instance wherein one recognizes their soul mate, and denying that just causes them lack of focus and pain. I literally stressed over whether or not they should be together, or if Leetah should resist what seems to be imposed by Nature…

The entire plot is smart, quick, funny, tear-inducing, dreamy, and much to my surprise, sexy!  There’s one particular love scene, on a cliff, on a deep bluish night, between a once reluctant Leetah and an intensely loving Cutter, which makes my heart race noticeably…  Who would have thought that reading a comic would be so incredibly fulfilling?! 

Oh my God, I’m officially a Geek!!!.. Great, that’s what was still missing to my flawless profile! I chuckle and stretch my rusty muscles. Have I really been in this room all day? Jeez, I need to move my butt!


I go downstairs, leaping happily and almost breaking my neck on the last few steps. Erik watches me all throughout my bouncing routine, with a crooked eyebrow, and just as I’m about to enter the living room, he asks, “So, have you found your missing person?”


I stop dead in my tracks. Busted! He sees my cheeks turn blotchy-crimson and laughs out loud. I hate it when he does that! I try to look contrite, but end up smiling guiltily, and going for total honesty. “I think I might have some leads actually!” He finally looks away and lets out a last laugh that sounds more like a proud harrumph and replies smugly, “That’s my girl.”

 

The rest of the evening is spent in front of the TV, with my dad being too much into a German reality show, and translating it to me whenever he felt like it, while my mind swam with thoughts of portraits, of ash brown hair, and of eerily real Elf stories…








The next morning, I hear a light rasp on my bedroom door. Erik pokes his head through, only to find me at my computer, at 8 a.m., smiling sheepishly at him. So instead of saying “Moin”, he cautiously walks in, trying his best not to peep at my screen, and delicately offers to help. I think that since our discussion about missing persons, he’s been really curious to know whom I was really looking for. And I just let him, perhaps out of guilt for being in Germany, yet spending the weekend in my room. There was also this tiny pang I usually felt every Sunday spent here, knowing that once more I would have to say goodbye at the station , sometime around five…



But I needed a new version to my story. I surely wasn’t going to tell him the whole thing unfiltered. So I just go for the first thing that comes to mind. 



“Well... I met this really talented guy who volunteered to draw my portrait. But then he had to leave, and I think I might have omitted to ask for his name…”

Erik observes me, looking obviously uncomfortable.

“What?” I ask.  

“Nothing, I just…” He rubs his chin and does a funny mimic with his teeth. “I’m just not entirely comfortable with the idea of you letting some guy draw you, and then keep a trace of it…” 



Ah, thank goodness, he’s just being a dad. “No, no, he gave it to me!” He visibly relaxes. “But he didn’t sign it. Or so I thought. How-everrr…” I stress on every syllable to increase the suspense, as if giving him a real-life scene from Tatort, “based on our discussion yesterday…” He raises his eyebrows and already looks smug, “I found out he had added a chain necklace, which turned out to be made up of a series of letters and the number 8. I found out what the letters stood for; a character from a comic book. The 8, however, is still a mystery. I tried reading the comics, and there was no 8 in there.”



He looks at me with some warm emotion. Pride? Then he rubs his chin absentmindedly, and comes up, again, with the only logical question left. “What if it really is in the comic after all? Count the main characters, their symbols, their habits… and also look up the meaning of their names.”



“Well, the one from the necklace is called Leetah, which means “healing light” according to the site. The other main character is called Cutter, which is pretty explicit… Oh. Wait…” 



I suddenly remember something crucial: upon “Recognition”, the elves know each other’s “soul names”, or secret alternative names that are only known through recognizing a soul mate. Leetah’s soul name is also Leetah, but Cutter’s is “Tam”. I don’t even know if it exists in the real world; I look it up anyway. Dad finally allows himself to look at the computer screen, and together we see the dumbfounding results:



“Name: TAM. Gender: Male.

1.      The Hebrew name Tam means: Heart, Twin.”

How convenient, considering the very principle of Recognition…

2.      “The Vietnamese name Tam means: The number 8.”



“Gotcha!…” Erik whispers, relishing.



But I’m in no mood for celebration. This discovery might mean that the necklace simply reads “Leetah and Tam”. Don’t get me wrong, I squirm and blush at the thought that Green-Eyes might have experienced “Recognition” for me. It’s beyond flattering, but also beyond frustrating …because I’m nowhere closer to finding this guy than I was on Friday.





Yep, shit!





After the usual train station hug that grows a little bit tighter every time, I say bye to Erik, and go through the usual pissed-passenger-crowd ordeal to get to my seat. And soon enough, I start imagining my own Elf, sitting across from me again… All sorts of different scenarios weave themselves inside my head, like him recognizing me straight away, and how he would find an excuse to come talk to me… Or that he would be in a different coach, and we would bump into each other by pure coincidence, while headed to the bar… All sorts of corniness that seems to stem out of a desperate teen’s imagination rather than mine. Am I that emotionally immature? I thought that not having relationships would make me kind of cynical and resistant, instead of clueless and gaga over the first crush that pops along. I frown at the thought. I need to get over this, fast...

As we near Strasbourg, my obsession has already reached a painful peak. I need to see him! Maybe he’s spent the weekend in this city and is going back to Paris today too? The odds aren’t all that bad. I tense as my eyes search the platform, while the train slowly enters the station. I even say a small prayer, with my eyes fixated on the coach entrance, and demand my own private miracle… 

But no one comes.

The train doors close, and my brain refuses to let go. This is it, this is the official peak of my obsession, and the disappointment over losing the last hope of seeing the guy again floors me. So is that all? I’m never crossing his path again? I’m never discussing the portrait with him? I’m never asking him if he really meant to include elf references in the drawing? So many questions, so much anticipation… for nothing. That should teach me to be such a pubescent enthusiast. Someone drew you, what’s the big deal? Keep the picture with you for good luck, and just stop thinking about this, it’s not healthy!


I’m startled by the ticket inspector, creeping up again, then I gladly hand him my ticket as I notice that his eyes are one green shade darker than… oh my God! I need Ginny now. Only she could get me out of this!










CHAPTER FOUR
________________________________________________________________________________________________

Life in a tiny Parisian apartment would not be the same without Ginny Early. I remember that really stupid student ad I’d posted on the shabby university board, in which I try to sound fun and easy to live with, before begging all English speakers interested in flat-sharing to give me a quick call. 
The French-born-and-bred side of me did not appreciate the thought that I found English-speakers to be more fun to live with on the long run. But soon enough I realized it was probably because I addressed myself in English on most pondering occasions, so it probably meant I was more comfortable and more myself speaking it. 
Ginny was the last person who called, well after I had lost all hope of finding anyone normal. The others seemed too weird – “So… what’s your intake on pet snakes?” – too spoiled – “Hold on. Daddy!! What’s a lease?” – or too clingy – “Here’s my mobile and landline number, my mother’s email address, and my dad’s lawyer’s coordinates, just in case.” All Ginny did to make an impression was present herself as an American lost in Paris, then offer to get together and start looking for a place right away. Straight to the point, just the way I like things. 

The pixie purple hair was the first ice-breaker. I was actually jealous; no shade of violet would look good on a red-head. And cutting my hair that short would be like flashing a bright light on my weirdo skin, for everyone to notice and stare at. But on her, it looked like she had upgraded from whatever imposed natural shade was underneath, to one that showed her true self. 

Surprisingly, the girl turned out to be anything but extravagant. She works part time as a translator for a local television production house, while completing her masters in Applied Foreign Languages at the same university I go to. The only bizarre thing about her is her adamant refusal to say “Hi”. Ginny does not say hello, good day, good morning, good evening, and whatever other part of the day one would wish to be good. To her, such greeting is too formal, and she would only use it with people she has just met, or that she dislikes and would prefer to stay formal with. The rest of the population can enjoy a truly remarkable greeting on her part: one of Ginny’s original quotes.

No one knows when this all began. As long as I’ve known her, she’s been able to pop out a new quote every single day. They aren’t all good, but they help me guess what is on her mind. After a safe period of “hellos”, we became close enough for her to give me her first quote: “You shouldn't feel dumb about doing dumb things if you're actually aware they're dumb.” 
It lacked entirely of context, and she chose to say it to me one morning, as I groggily dragged myself from the bed to the kitchen table. After a few seconds of bewilderment, I grinned and told her she should write a book. I still insist she do that, from time to time. 


Which brings us back to today: it’s precisely this sort of witty, straight-to-the-point wisdom I need right now, to forget my new invasive obsession. 

I noisily turn the keys as a warning, worried I might walk in on her with company. But she’s there on the sofa, with her back turned to me, and her laptop on her crossed legs. She only twists around halfway to say, “Patience is a necessary form of masochism”. 

It stops me dead in my tracks. Hmm! Spot on, Miss Early!
“Hah! This is actually good!” I say. I know she’s expecting a reaction. It’s like she’s testing those quotes on me.

            She winks at me sideways, then goes back to typing. But just as I think she’s totally ignoring me, she asks without any eye contact, “So? How’d it go?”
“Weeeell….” and I leave it hanging. In a fraction of a second, her laptop is shut, her whole body twists around and her eyes search mine, intrigued. She knows me too well…


I sit across from her, not even bothering to take my coat off or my luggage to the bedroom, and tell her the full story with all the shamefully neurotic details, as if cleansing myself of them. I even illustrate with the drawing, which makes her jolt up, and her eyes move quickly back and forth from my face to the paper.  But she remains painfully quiet, as the ghost of my own fixation dawns in her eyes. 


“See? Not so easy to ignore, is it?” I blurt out, tentatively trying to draw her over to my side. She stares at the drawing, while distractedly biting her thumb nail. Then the questioning begins, about his strangely detached facial impression, and why I think that is. It stings to answer, because deep inside I obviously don’t want to portray him as indifferent to me, rather than totally Elf-smitten. But I know she’s only playing devil’s advocate. 



“So lemme see if I got this right: he stares at you with an eerily unaffected expression, but the drawing is enough for you to think otherwise? To be convinced he’s experienced ‘Recognition’ for you?”



“I hate you right now,” I throw at her, moaning adolescently.



She stares blankly at my feet, mentally going over all the possible ways of investigating this further, and I know she would eventually reach the same conclusion: He can’t be found, forget about him. However, she chooses a surprisingly more spiritual view. “You know, if he really believes all that Elf telepathy stuff, he probably thinks that someday, somehow, he would find you again! Otherwise, “Recognition” would be totally useless, wouldn’t it?” She sits up, suddenly enthusiastic about her own theory. “Maybe he’s even testing that on you! How romantic would that be: not signing the drawing on purpose, but strongly believing you would be reunited by pure chance. And, erm, Elf magic.”  



I give her an evil look, which quickly turns into honest surprise: why do I feel better all of a sudden? Man, she’s good… She must not be used to seeing me go through something so irrational, so she opted for a non-rational conclusion. And I’m almost ashamed to admit it worked for me. She gives me a lazy smile, perfectly aware that she totally got to me, then adds the final tour de force:



“Hot chocolate?” 



And then I really feel better.



Once in bed that night, I find myself smiling dumbly again. Not because I’m optimistic about finding Green-Eyes, but more because Ginny’s sappy conclusion gave much more sense to the whole experience; one that I could comprehend and accept better than having to just stop thinking about the guy, cold turkey. From now on I’ll be remembering all this with much less intensity, but will still hope that someday, somewhere…









A new week begins, and yet everything is the same: morning Ginny-quote – I believe today’s was “Only obsess about someone you know you can't have; you already know how it ends.” It earned her another evil look, although she made a fair point – taking turns for breakfast in the abnormally tiny kitchen, then going to university. I had three consecutive hours of Music History starting 9:30, followed by another three hours of Ethnomusicology, right after lunch break. So let’s just say I wasn’t exactly thrilled about going. But I knew I had enough memories from this weekend to create opportunities for exquisite mental escape and daydreaming. 



The ethnomusicology professor even made us listen to samples from the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack, and inevitably, Björk and Thom Yorke managed to transport me with an ingenious train-rhythm pattern in “I’ve Seen It All”. Needless to say, it took two seconds for the train noise to bring back all the memories from Friday… 



I got so wrapped up in my daily dose of daydreaming without the slightest clue that, a little over twenty-four hours later, my wandering mind would be the cause of the most horrific, life-changing moments I would ever have to live through.
 
 
But for tonight, I just wait for Ginny’s courses to be over, and we walk home together, enjoying the last normal evening before a long, long while…




Tuesday, May 19, 2012

16:04

Just like yesterday, it’s breakfast then university for me, contrarily to Ginny, who will be spending the whole day at the production house. Only trouble is, I forgot my key at home. Next to dealing with my own skin, this must be my second most dreaded ordeal ever. 

I’m also done for the day, so I quickly text Ginny about the key, only to receive a less than sympathetic reply: 
Shit, Lil! We hav a shoot today & the company’s paying 4 the taxi home, so no idea when I’ll b done here! 

Damn it!... Maybe I could just wait it out by hanging around the library and keeping an eye on my phone for any updates from Miss Grumpy…


18:01

Okay, I’m bored out of my wits and Ginny hasn’t tried calling yet. And to make things worse, the library’s closing, so I’ll need to find some other solution. Maybe the coffee shop around the corner?...

19:40

            All those movie scenes where the female character seems to reaffirm her own individuality by enjoying whole afternoons of solo coffee shop breaks, are lies. It’s mostly uncomfortable to just sit there, especially after you’ve finished you coffee, and a previous library stay has put you off reading for the moment. I mean, there’s only so much staring at people you can do. And as it gets darker, you get terribly restless, to say the least. Fuck, Ginny, show proof of life! I text her again, and get what I’m guessing is an in-between shots reply: You know where I am, come over

            Oh no… I’ll need to take two slow buses to get there, and it’s in the empty kind of suburb that I hate above all else. 

Oh what the heck… I won’t spend the entire evening wandering about, and I’m really starting to get tired.


20: 55

           I’m not even sure I got off at the right stop. I really hate the suburbs!! It’s too empty and quiet here! But the area looks familiar, so at least I’m not entirely lost. All big TV studios are here, for lack of space inside Paris; and since media is a never-sleeping field, most blocks have a few lights on still. Now I just need to find Ginny’s…

            I try calling her but it goes directly to voice mail. Big surprise! I’m seriously mad now, mostly at myself. How could I forget my key, when it’s hanging in plain sight, next to the main door? Idiot!

            I keep on walking, since I have no other option really. And as I check every building, I’m reminded of the recent similarly-impossible search for Green-Eyes… I can barely remember his face, which upsets me. I wish I had looked longer, memorized his delicate features…

            Suddenly, what feels like a fat raindrop lands loudly on my shoulder blade. Great! That’s about the worst thing that could happen right now. And I don’t even have an umbrella… I’m so useless today! 

            Another loud raindrop impact, this time lower on my back. What’s this freaky horizontal rain?!

Third impact. But with a major difference this time. The said “raindrop” bounces off and lands on the asphalt, right next to me. Is that… M&M’s?

In less than a second, my limbs grow numb, and my breathing hitches, but I keep walking.

It’s nothing, just some kid.

            Fourth impact, this time at the back of my head. 

It’s nothing. Keep walking. There’s nothing else you can do anyway.

My reflexes terrify me. Isn’t one supposed to run, or try some sort of self-defense in such cases? All my sissy brain could come up with is “keep walking”?!...

            A low chuckle behind me; much closer than I thought. An indescribable shiver shakes my system from the inside, and reflects on my limbs and lips. My lower jaw starts trembling, and at that moment, I really hate myself, my cowardice, my numbness. I barely have any strength left in my fingers, but a strange reflex compels me to slide my phone into my sleeve. Pure genius. I’m in potentially mortal danger, and all I’m scared about is having my phone ripped from me.

            Another chuckle, louder, meant to erase all remaining doubt in my mind. 

Then, in an utterly unsettling fraction of a second, my brain goes from extreme denial, to extreme surrender, and simply says:

Let go. It’s coming.
           
            The first blow lands on the back of my skull, in a horrific, bloodcurdling, ripping metallic sound. My feet slow to a complete stop. I sway to the right, totally numb, with absolutely no reflexes left. 








I feel my handbag pulling at my shoulder, and have just enough strength to cling to it. It seems to be keeping me up on my feet, although my knees are desperately begging to bend and find some solace on the ground. 





The world spins a few degrees, and my knees get their release. The painful impact against the hard concrete almost wakes me up. I slightly lift my head, and see a Face. It’s not some kid’s. It’s much, much more spine-chilling than that. 

The second blow is aimed at my face. I can feel it was a kick. I look down and cling to my bag, as if that is going to help me. 

Another kick, also in the face. I cough up blood, and it hydrates my mouth, bringing some absurd comfort.

My bag starts pulling at me again. I imbed my nails into it, and some things fall out with a light clatter, before the bag totally disappears.

A few metallic blows rain on my head, my shoulders, my arms. I am hollow, and can almost feel the blood frozen in my veins. I can also hear a loud, hair-raising, continuous wail, coming from my very insides, although my lips are shut. 

My stomach takes in the following kick. No! I curl into fetal position, but it makes no difference. The pain is everywhere now. I slowly open my eyes enough to see a red and white, pointy object sticking out of my arm. I can no longer move it. 

I feel my stomach heaving sickeningly, as everything I’ve eaten today is projected back out of my body. Weirdly enough, it gives me a few seconds of cease-fire. So, in an attempt to prolong it, I keep forcing my stomach to heave more of its contents. 

But it was only a fleeting moment of peace. Now the strikes resume and seem to be aimed at my hip and legs. I hear a loud crack, but am too distracted to analyze it. A small, hard object keeps poking at my rib, from beneath me. I feebly reach for it with the only arm I can still move, and manage to grab it with three fingers.

Erik! My dad’s name pops into my head, but it takes a couple more kicks for my brain to figure out why. Erik, thank you! I hear these words in my very soul, as my arm moves of its own accord and, lifting the small object up towards the Face of my terror, squeezes it as hard as it possibly can.

“Argh!!! You mother…”

The Face is hidden with a rough, bloodied hand. It then starts coughing, gasping, and gurgling. And a second later, so do I. 

I quickly start running out of breath when a violent cough shakes my very bones. It seems to keep me conscious, unfortunately, although I’m completely unable to open my eyes. 

And then… as my brain first recommended, I let go. 







CHAPTER FIVE
________________________________________________________________________________________________


            Something’s caught in my throat… And the earth is moving, rocking left to right, left to right… AAARGH!!! Fuck, fuck, fuck!!! Searing, ruthless razor blades are cutting into my flesh, my face, my ribs, my chest. In a heartbeat I go from total oblivion to a shocking threshold of heart wrenching agony. With every earth movement, the bar is raised, and I feel more than ready and willing to just disappear, to be swallowed whole by the Nothing; to just DIE, whatever it takes to stop this. Please, please, kill me!!!

Then my brain suddenly notes that the Face of my Terror might still be around. I open my eyes as widely as I can, with heartbeats threatening to push a hole through my ribcage, only to feel that even more pain is blocking my vision, and through what I think are tiny slits, I see a grey, metallic ceiling. The earth shakes again, and I close my eyes before screaming from deep within. But something’s caught in my throat… 

Two dark faces seem to be hovering over me, but I can’t see their features. Pure, distilled horror drips through my veins, and I hysterically try to hit one of them with the hand I can still move. But two palms hold it down, rendering it, and me, powerless.

“C’est bien pour ça qu’on attache les victimes d’agression[1],” one of them whispers.
   




[1] “That’s exactly why we tie down assault victims.”
 

 …Victim? ...The tone is too professional, and I just about realize that maybe they won’t hurt me, before the earth shakes again. I feel a spear cutting through my very hipbone, and moan loudly. My vision gets all blurred, and one of them hurries to wipe my eyelids with some sort of cloth. Did he just help me?... Confusion washes over me; where am I? With every blow of excruciating pain, I keep getting flashes of kicks, of metallic impact; flashes that make me scream louder and louder, though it all comes out as a ripping, muffled roar.  

One of the two silhouettes speaks to me in polite French, calls me Madame, and explains to me that I’ve been assaulted, and that I have fractures so I’ll need to keep as still and calm as possible. It makes me want to hit him even more. He also asks me if I directed the pepper spray at my attacker, or more at myself.

It suddenly dawns on me; that’s why my dad’s name came to mind. He had given me that pepper spray bottle. That’s what I found under my ribs. It must have fallen from the bag. That’s what I squeezed at the Face, and that’s why He coughed and cussed. I must have known that as I was pointing the spray bottle at Him, though I’m having trouble remembering it accurately now. But why the question of whether I had pointed it at myself?... Oh… my skin. I must have been in contact with trailing spray, or maybe the wind had blown some of it my way. I must be reacting badly to it, which could explain the eyes, and possibly the throat.

I try to cough by the two palms hold me down again. No, Madame, you have been intubated, don’t fight it, he warns. I shut my eyes, too exhausted by the effort, but the darkness scares me. I re-open them, and stare at one of the silhouettes, still unable to make out its features. It’ll be okay soon, he promises. But the earth keeps moving, and my inner scream grows louder and louder, to the point of filling my ears and mind, leaving no room for any other sounds I might possibly utter.  


The movement stops, and my brain registers, less cloudily now, that we must be near a hospital. I hear vehicle doors opening, and see a chink of the dark night sky, the same sky under which He did this to me. It’s enough to push me over the edge, and the hysterics take over. It doesn’t help that I feel the stretcher wheels slamming against the concrete, with resounding vibrations throughout my body. I shriek, not knowing whether the sound is coming out, or if it’s just in my head. This is too much. My God, make me numb, make me numb, make me numb… 


The next few days are a blur. Talks of open fractures, of hairline-fractured hipbone, of internal bleeding, of acute reaction to pepper spray, of facial skin burns and swelling… I can hear them all – feel them all – but the screaming in my ears is much, much louder.  MRI’s, horrible rape kit tests, bandages, anesthesia for bone resetting, anesthesia for sutures, needles, drips, casts, leg tied up to the bottom of the hospital bed to stabilize the hip… Nothing is strong enough to cover the continuous wail in my head. Not even my mother, who gets there first, and sobs mostly about all the swelling and bandages on my face; or Ginny, who seems positively suicidal; or hours later, Erik… Erik!! He left everything and took the train over. His presence would have been more soothing if he didn’t look like a puce-coloured battering ram, with no neck. I have never seen him like this. He would hardly look me in the face.

Mother repeatedly asks me a dozen questions, with an exceedingly soft voice, as if that would soothe me. But I just look at her through the slits I have for eyes, and keep staring at her, mentally hoping she would shut up. The shrieking in my head is already loud enough. 

At one point she begs me to speak, while both Erik and Ginny hold their breath and look at me.  

I’m a bit surprised by this, despite the numbness. It’s as if I had intentionally chosen and decided to be silent. I hadn’t. If I spoke now, I wouldn’t hear my own words from all the inner screaming, and it wouldn’t make me feel better to “share, describe, or express” anything. And what irritates me most of all is that circus-attraction feeling, when everyone’s waiting for you to do something that would bring them relief, while all you can think of is how you’d like to curl up and die.


            By the end of the fourth day, Erik marches into the room with company: two French detectives he used to work with; the best, he says. He presents them to me in the strangest of tones; one of seriousness and detachment, as if I were someone who has just filed a complaint at the precinct. And when he looks at me, it’s like he doesn’t really see me. He then exits the room, and leaves me with the detectives. Their brows are noticeably furrowed, as if to show they’re fully aware of the gravity of the situation. They tell me their version of events, including the fact that slipping my phone into my sleeve was a good idea, since it allowed them to quickly identify me and call my next of kin. They start asking me basic questions, and I just give them an exhausted, powerless stare, hoping they would just leave me alone. And when they don’t, I slowly look away, after seeing them throw glances at each other, confused by my silence.  

            And yet, Erik doesn’t give up. He brings forth more investigators, both police and private, over the few following days, whereas mother invites psychologists and, to my nightmarish surprise, friends and cousins, “for support”. They all gape and smile, offering me their sympathy and support. In the meantime, Ginny stands in a corner, all pale-looking and wide-eyed, staring creepily still at one chosen point. 

            The only time she manages to be alone with me, she sits next to the bed and finally looks up. I see her deep-rooted guilt and grief, and wonder if I really do blame her… Well, of course I do. But then, I blame the entire human race and nature, so it’s “nothing personal”…  And I appreciate the fact that of everyone who has been here, she stayed silent. We just look at each other, and it’s the most I’ve allowed myself to communicate with anyone so far. 

But our small reunion is interrupted by Erik, marching in, as usual. He surely has some new detective to present to me, in case I’d find one I’m comfortable enough to speak with. I roll my eyes but no one can see it because of the swelling. Even he looks surprised that Ginny has left her corner. He looks at her inquisitively, and she slowly shakes her head. No, dad, I can’t speak yet. Leave me the hell alone! He hesitates for a second, then decides to go forward with his new idea.

“Lily, I’ve brought you a new friend of mine. He’s the best in his field.”
But of course he is!
“He’s the best in Europe actually. And he’s not even in the police force.”
He’s right, it does make for a refreshing change.
“If you let him, he’ll help you form a facial composite of the fucker who did this.”

His new friend peeks his head through the door, and I do a double take. And the second my eyes reach a full focus on his face, my heart explodes then comes to a shocked, gut-wrenching still.


My Green-Eyes!
















CHAPTER SIX

________________________________________________________________________________________________







            With one terse look, Erik intimidates Ginny into leaving the room, then he ushers his friend in, and closes the door behind him.



            Suddenly I realize that my inner scream has been muted, or rather muffled by the loud tribal-drum-like sound of my heart beating through my temples and ears. The only person who has truly seen me, who truly knows me, is here at last. 



Now I can breathe…



I barely have the courage to look up into his huge, clear, painfully beautiful eyes, and my breath hitches in my throat. Was he this… this… heartbreaking when I first saw him? His ash-brown hair seems to strangely give more light to the green in his eyes; those eyes he underlines with big black-framed glasses. And his lips… I realize I hadn’t noticed them before. How could I not? Even from a distance, they look too full, too soft, too young. His entire posture seems somehow adolescent, untamed, untarnished. It’s like magic balm to my wounds. I just know, then and there, that when it comes to this person, I’m in deep trouble. He could ask me anything, and I would do it in a heartbeat.  But first, I just need to wrap my head around the idea that he’s here!!! Right in front of me, looking straight at me once more…



            But then I wonder: what does he see, if not bandages, casts, disgusting swelling, and pain? I haven’t exactly looked at myself in the mirror, but the gauze covers most of my skull – with my hair shaved at the back and right side – and goes diagonally over my nose and right cheek. My lower lip is sore and heavy on one end, and as for my eyes… well, I’m still looking through slits. I tried touching them once, and it felt like brushing against water balloons. And by the way he’s staring at me right now, with that slight, puzzled frown, I’m sure his assessment of me is in a whole other register than mine of him. 



            He slowly walks towards me carrying what looks like a laptop computer pouch, and sits where Ginny was a few minutes before.



            “Hello, I… I’m Peter,” he says, looking every shade of guarded.



            Two realizations hit me at once: First, he most probably does not know me from Eve. So I’ll have to rein in my obsession, because I’m two breaths away from behaving like I’ve known him all my life. And second, I should probably go even further in the reining-in process, and not tell him who I am at all! I suspect, with a deep pang, that even if I do tell him we’ve already almost-met, he might not remember me one bit! He draws portraits for a living, and mine was so… insignificant that he just left it behind, on the train… Oh fuck… Why didn’t I think of this before?!



            I plummet from instant euphoria to mind-boggling despair… Stupid, stupid, stupid… There is a reason why girls stop being so desperate after fifteen; but it seems I needed one more embarrassing disappointment to learn that lesson.



It’s decided then, I won’t tell him anything.



“Peter Alberic,” he continues. “I’m sorry, I heard your father speak English to you... Would you prefer French?” 



By his accent, I’d say he’s a Londoner, born and bred, and by his question, I know he’s been told things about me. I slowly shake my head. 



“Okay then… um… I make facial composites for the police. I can help you find the person who did this, if you’ll let me.” He pulls out his notebook, and pushes the On button, letting it whirr on his knees. “Could you tell me anything about what he looks like?... Let’s start with the obvious: what ethnic group do you believe he is from?”



His voice and tone are so intimidating, so much older than one would expect. I idly wonder what he’s been through to sound so… aged. But I’m quickly distracted by the bluish hue the computer screen is casting on his delicate features, and how it’s mirrored in his glasses, adding even more light to his eyes …



“Or… I could come back if you wish?” he asks, still oh so formal.



NO! Please, stay, I’d do anything! Though what excuse would I have to keep him? The inner scream threatens to resurface, but there’s something different this time. I’m not alone in my hell. Green-Eyes, my Cutter, my Tam…Peter, is here with me. I turn my head and look him straight in the eye, just before the dam finally bursts open, and tears the size of heavy rain start rolling down sideways, over my nose, temple, and onto my bandages and pillow.



He’s startled by my outburst, and quickly closes his laptop and puts it on the night table. He then hesitates for a second, pushing his glasses up with those shy fingers, before suddenly sliding the chair closer to the bed, and crooking his head to be parallel to mine, taking me by surprise. Our irises align again, reminding me of the first time I saw him. 



He stares straight into my eyes, as if sounding me. My heart threatens to burst, as I realize that maybe, just maybe, he might see something in my mutilated face that he might remember. But he just lets me cry, never losing eye contact. Does he know I haven’t cried until now? A few moments later, he whispers, gently, “I’m not here to hurt you. I wish you would trust me… We don’t need to do this today though. If you tell me to come back, I will. Just say when…”



I don’t know what comes over me, but in the midst of my outburst, and maybe in a subconscious desire to please, I find myself resorting to lame humor. 



“When,” I croak, but try not to smile so as not to break any stitches.



            He’s genuinely surprised to hear my voice, but even more so by my joking through the tears. Slowly, an incredulous smile etches itself on his face and he teehees, while still maintaining eye contact. Okay, note to self: his smile pretty much kills. I muster up some more strength for a serious, pleading answer. “Tomorrow?”



            He smiles again, and I could just leap up and hug the life out of him. “Tomorrow,” he nods. We look at each other for a few more seconds, then he slowly straightens up, as if pulling himself together, and says, “Well… in that case, I’ll leave you be now.” Oh, Mr. Alberic, if you only knew how un-bothered I am by your presence.







            I watch him pick up his notebook and pouch, then give me a polite half-smile and nod, before turning and heading to the door. I notice he’s wearing a loose lumberjack shirt, jeans, and Chucks. For someone who works with the police, and who’s “the best in his field, the best in Europe,” he sure doesn’t seem to be dressed for the part. He just looks like a normal, sort of geeky around the edges, beautiful young man; mid-twenties, but with the voice and demeanor of a frankly intimidating CEO. What a riddle this person is!






           

            A few seconds after he’s stepped out the door, I hear his balmy voice mumbling something I can’t make out. But Erik’s decibels booming in the hallway are enough to fill in the blanks. “What do you mean she ‘told’ you to come back tomorrow?! Did she actually speak to you?” More mumbling. “If you’re not here tomorrow, so help me…,” Erik threatens. Jeez, dad, don’t scare him off!



            He then marches in, as expected, with both mom and Ginny following closely, and finally decides to look me in the eye; something he hasn’t done since I got here. A few seconds tick by before I manage to take a deep breath, swallowing both pain and screaming, and simply say, “Hi…”

            And for the first time in my life, I see my father cry.

           







            One of the surgeons on my case, Dr. Culbard, checks up on me and seems pleased with my advancement. But with one raised eyebrow, she terrorizes my parents into sparing me all potential pressure. She’s no circus clown, she says in her northern French accent. Oh thank you thank you thank you! So don’t go asking her to say stuff then reward her with peanuts! She needs rest, so you folks give her some space, alright? That woman is my new hero.

Her orders buy me a few more hours of peace, despite Erik’s frustrated hopes for asking me all the questions he’s had in mind since day one, and my mother’s need for reassurance that she wasn’t a bad parent for not having been there to protect me. Odelia throwing Tae Kwon Do moves, that must be quite a sight.

And speaking of sights, the most painful one in the room, after me I guess, is Ginny.  

Her eyes seem less vacant, and she’s regained some color, but she still looks like a shadow of herself. Deep inside, I pity her, and know that I could make her feel better in an instant. But am I even ready to offer her any kind of consolation? Maybe it wasn’t her fault. Maybe it was mine; or maybe it was a fucked up twist of fate. But I’m light years away from transcending such thoughts as “if she hadn’t told me to go over there, nothing would have happened.” I wonder if I would ever be able to overcome them. To overcome this. It goes without saying that I will not be the same person again. A few days ago, all that mattered was school, making rent, and booking tickets for Germany. And my sole criterion for making friends was simply getting along. Now, all I care about is never feeling this kind of fear and pain again, no matter the cost. And real friends would never be so careless as to expose me to them. Ever.

            That night, as the usual terror of closing my eyes and seeing The Face again looms in my conscience, I turn to the right, and vividly remember Peter’s breathtaking face perfectly aligned with mine, just a few inches away, asking me to trust him. My heart skips a beat, and suddenly I can’t wait for it to be tomorrow.


                                                    ____________________________



            Nothing’s different today. The pain is the same, if not worse. Erik is as restless as ever. Ginny is as zombie-like as ever. And Oda is as demonstrative and guest-oriented as ever – she even brushed the few locks of hair that peeked from the head bandages, to make me more “presentable”.  Before all this, I would have bitten her head off, but now I just let her. I’m too tired and cynical to bother.  Besides, if Peter really does come back today, it wouldn’t hurt to look less… victim-like.

            Nothing is different today... Except that I didn’t have nightmares, and the inner scream is broadcasting on a constant yet low frequency. It might even disappear for a few minutes if he comes back.

            If he comes back… The possibility that Mr. Best-In-Europe be too busy to visit is not unlikely, but oh so unnerving. Did he actually promise?... It’s all blurry now.

            Hours tick by painfully slow, and I keep throwing glances at the door every time I hear footsteps. Why is there so much circulation in these hallways?!
            You’ve got it bad this time Lily, you bloody idiot.

            One set of those footsteps belongs to Dr. Culbard, who comes to announce the terrific news that she has no idea why my skin has reacted so badly to pepper spray. Erik guiltily admits that it’s a “special” kind of spray that specializes more in grizzly bears and the like – true story. I bet it’s even illegal to carry without a hunting license. Lucky for me my dad’s a corrupt policeman who wouldn’t turn himself in, and drag me down with him. Oda also explains the whole hyper reactive skin thing in such a pity-invoking voice that my peripheral vision registers Dr. Culbard discreetly rolling her eyes at her.

            “Mrs. Brandt, you know –”

            Ms., it’s Ms. Konnor now,” Oda corrects her. This time both Erik and I roll our eyes. Dr. Culbard stares at her for a second, and I could swear I see two red laser beams darting out.  

            Ms. Konnor, hyper reactive skin is not really a condition per se. It’s just the nature of your daughter’s skin. We can only measure the extent of it on a case-by-case basis. What I find peculiar in Lily’s case though, is both the aspect and gravity of the reaction. In other words, I have never seen such symptoms, and I’m sure not many physicians have!”

            “What are you saying, Doctor?” Erik interferes, in his usual eagerness to synthesize. Dr. Culbard seems to hesitate for a few seconds, fumbling for words, then says the only thing she can:

 “I’m not sure, Mr. Brandt. I’ll need to look into it, but we can’t treat what we don’t fully understand. We can alleviate the symptoms, but unless we know the cause…”


She rambles on, but she knows she’s lost her crowd. A nurse knocks and asks for her, so she exits the room, slightly embarrassed by her vague diagnosis. We’re all a little puzzled, except that I’m used to all this. Every time my skin has acted up, there was a surprised doctor there to note it. I’m about to say it to Erik, but he looks like he’s still staring after the doctor. 


I follow his gaze and there, in the door left ajar by Dr. Culbard, stands a very discreet Peter, waiting to be invited in.














CHAPTER SEVEN
________________________________________________________________________________________________



In a manner my parents believe to be inconspicuous, they scurry out of the room, mumbling welcomes to him. It’s almost as if they are in awe of him, like one would be of a village Shaman who’s just cured it from the plague. Ginny, however, takes her time, scowling at him as she territorially prances by. Her jealousy is so obvious it’s comical.

And what’s more laughable is the absolute mess I become around this person. All it takes is the surprise of seeing him there to turn me into a giant drumming heart.

He stares uncomfortably at everyone leaving the room then turns his attention back to me. He looks so gawky that I wonder who the more intimidated person here really is.

“Hello,” he says simply, and automatically raises those crooked fingers to his glasses. I thoroughly note and appreciate the fact that he hasn’t asked me “how I was doing today”. Most absurd and unnerving question ever, under the circumstances.  I wave towards the chair, and he pulls out his notebook as he makes his way to it. I suddenly hope it won’t take another round of waterworks to get him to slide that chair closer.

“So… Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?” he asks.
Who still says ‘shall’?
“That being?...” I wonder, puzzled. I hope he doesn’t take it as a lack of focus the day before, although that’s exactly what it was. What, not my fault he’s so distracting

 “I asked you what ethnic group you believe your attacker is from. Your friend said she saw a man fleeing the scene with your handbag, so we know he’s male, and he acted alone…” What?! Ginny actually saw Him?! Why didn’t she tell me? Then again, I didn’t exactly give her the chance… “But all she could see was his back… so not much for a facial composite there.” 

My brain is reeling… Male… Handbag… Ethnic group… Oh my God, why is it so hard just thinking about this? My heart thuds violently against my ribs, doubling in speed, and I feel as if my mind is pulling me hard in the opposite direction, away from all thoughts related to that night. I find it almost impossible to focus, and it feels exactly like drawing a mind-boggling blank on something painfully obvious.

“Caucasian, I think…” I croak, extremely confused by my own uncertainty.
If there’s anything causing the inner scream to invade my conscious mind every minute of every day, it’s the fact that all the horrific memories from that night are right at the door, banging, pushing, ramming it to open, as my mind constantly fights back. And when I’m supposed to actually let them in, just enough to answer Peter’s questions, I’m left with the blank my psyche has created, as a coping mechanism. Arrgggh!!! You’ve got to be kidding me! Do I really not remember anything more substantial?!

“You know…” he pauses, as if weighing his words, “your mind will try to fight this.” What?! How did he…?! I gape at him, wide-eyed, and all I can think is that he must probably have seen this a gazillion times. “But don’t over-think it. Just tell me the first answer that pops into your head. There’s no time to analyze, to think things through…”

My heart stops. Did he just quote Thom Yorke?!... Of course he didn’t, stupid. Or did he?... Is my brain programmed to hear unintentional song lyrics in normal speech, or is this man just as geeky as I am?

“… To make sense?” I venture, completing the quote.

He gasps lightly, and his eyes almost pop out through his glasses.

“Radiohead fan?” he asks, with a wary, incredulous smile. Yes!!! I was right! Major plus points for Mr. Alberic. He looks almost guilty to be straying from the professional line of questioning.

“Technically, that’s from Yorke’s solo album. But hell yes,” I say matter-of-factly. He chortles in amazement, very slightly shaking his head.

“I just thought it was appropriate,” he tries to justify, “and that it would only sound like a quote in my own head.”

“… And it doesn’t help that there’s a Radiohead quote for basically every important thing out there,” I show off, trying to win points in return, for being as hardcore a fan as he seems to be.

“Really?” he raises an eyebrow. “What would be your pick of the day then?” he challenges.
What quote would I choose, if I were to describe exactly what is going through my mind? The answer hits me hard like a boulder, but I hesitate to give it. I might be a wreck at the moment, but I also feel this childish need to come out as “normal” to Peter. Hmmm… talk about a conflict of interest. I really need the Sketch Artist to find the fucker who did this to me, but I also want the Man to see me as more than a mere victim… Then again, no other quote comes to mind, so I decide to go for honesty.

Mephistopheles is just beneath,
And he's reaching up to grab me.
This is one for the good days,
And I have it all here in red, blue, green…”

I unconsciously point at my facial bruises when I say that last line. So much for sounding “normal”, when I’ve just compared my attacker to Satan, who’s still out there to get me. And I suddenly feel out of breath when I realize that it is the case.

He slides the chair closer – finally – and his intense frown seems to be filled with some unnamed emotion. Pity? Understanding?  “Hey, hey,” he says softly, “please look at me. Help us find him for you. Just tell me what you remember, and your father will take it from there. Help us help you.”

“But… it’s like my brain is unable to fish out any specific memories of Him!”

“It’s all there, you know it. All it takes is to get it one detail at a time. Trust me.” Here it is again. You’re my Tam, of course I trust you. “Was he wearing anything distinctive that you might remember?”

“A black leather jacket, and jeans. Blue, I think…”

“Good! Anything else? Shoes? Hat? Jewelry?...”

“A wool hat, black…”

“Excellent,” he encourages. “Did you see any hair coming out of it? Or maybe facial hair? A beard, a goatee?...”

A flash suddenly hits me at the speed of light, and my stomach heaves. I see the hat, I see the jeans, I feel the horror… Another flash, this time of a metallic sound ripping across my skull. My eyelids start a hysterical flutter, and my breathing grows shallower still.

“Miss Brandt! Miss Brandt… Lily!” His voice pulls me back to reality. Did he just say my name? “Breathe,” he urges gently, “I’m sorry. Did I push you too hard?”

“I… It’s the flashes… They’re like electric shocks…” I splutter, and wonder if I’m making any sense to him. Deep in thought, he runs his knuckles across his lower lip, and my mouth goes dry. What would it feel like to kiss this man?

“Would you like to stop?” he offers.
No!!!
“No, I’m okay. I can do this…” As long as you’re here, I can. “No facial hair.” I try to control my breathing.

“What about locks sticking out of the hat? At the front or back…”

“…No, I don’t think so. I didn’t really… look at him. I saw him very briefly when I fell, and when I sprayed him. But I wasn’t… okay.”

“I know, believe me,” he reassures me. “Only say what first comes to mind.”

Yes, but how does he know though? From other victims, or first hand? He sure seems to master the psychology of it a bit too much for a sketch artist… My mind registers the words right after I’ve spoken them,
“Have you ever been attacked?”
What?! What is wrong with me? Think before you speak, you stupid tactless cow!

Suddenly, his expression is just as undecipherable as the first time I saw him. He shifts in his chair and says, listlessly, “Are you implying that no one has a hope of getting you unless they’ve been through the same thing?” He sounds cold for some reason, although he’s spot on; yes, maybe I am implying it, but not to him! He’s the first one who did understand, hence my question.

“You get me,” I smile inwardly at the double meaning, and he seems to relax, “you get me better than anyone else. Before you got here, I could only quote ‘I’m In Here’…” Jeez, take it down a notch Lily, you’re too obvious! He silently stares at me, not recognizing the title. 

“By Sia. You know her?”
“I know the singer, not the song,” he says, ashamed.
“She asks many questions in that one…”
“...Such as?”
“What, you won’t check it out?” 
I’m fully aware I’m teasing him, but I really want him to listen to it. It’s the only way of knowing if he has the answers. He raises an eyebrow and scoffs, 
“Are you really giving me homework?!”
“Depends,” I mutter bravely, “will you be back?”

Did I really just say that?! The conversation has now gone on to the next level, and the atmosphere has totally shifted, adding a touch of tension to the room. I see a very slight smile at the corner of his mouth, so at least I know that my bandaged-and-swollen-girl flirting hasn’t sent him running to the hills. 

“Well, I promised your father I would make the best composite of my career, so I won’t leave before that’s done. Honestly though, you agree when I say that your father can be… pretty scary, right?”
I laugh out loud, and he follows. It feels so weird to be giggling while carefully making sure none of the stitches break. Note to self: tell Erik to keep him terrified.

 “But you know, it’s only fair if I gave you homework too. Do you have access to the internet here?”
 “I could borrow Ginny’s phone. Why?...”
 “Do you know ‘U-Turn’, by Aaron?” He really seems to be enjoying this!
 “Of course I do,” I say warmly, “they’re French. And there’s my name in that song!”
 “I’m well aware of that,” he winks playfully, but then tries to sound more serious. “Do you know all the lyrics?”

I suddenly blush from head to toe; no, I don’t know all the lyrics, but one particular line comes to mind: Lili, easy as a kiss we’ll find an answer… But I’m sure he’s not referring to that one. Cause that would definitely be flirting.

“I take it that’s a no. Well then, you should check out the second verse of that song,” he orders.
“Sir, yes, Sir!” I joke, in an attempt to hide my frustration. What I would do to have Ginny’s phone right now!
“Okay then… Now the ball’s in your court, Miss Brandt. Do we stop for the day?”
“What happened to just ‘Lily’?” I tease, and as expected, he quickly pushes his glasses up his nose, embarrassed. “No, I’m ready for another round,” I say mercifully, before frowning at how sexual that sounded. Luckily, he doesn’t seem to take notice.
“Good… Let’s go for facial features then. Generally, one always notes a distinctive trait, like a pointy nose, or thick eyebrows…etc. Does anything come to mind, before we get to the specifics?”

“Yes,” I say slowly, surprised that his fishing-for-details method is actually working, “his eyes were… how can I put it… too far apart. They looked hollow that way. You know what I mean?”

“M-hm,” he says while typing and clicking, and I notice that screen light reflected in his glasses again. I take advantage of his concentration to stare, shamelessly. I imagine running my hand slowly from his temple, down to his cheek, with the tips of my fingers trespassing onto his neck, and tingles spread through my entire body.

Oh why don’t I tell him about the train, the drawing, and be done with it? At least it would give him an idea of what I look like beneath all this; if he remembers me that is… But what good would that do if I’m not even sure I’ll ever go back to looking like that?... Also, the thought that the portrait was so insignificant as to be left behind, still stings…
And to top it all, he doesn’t seem to deal well with embarrassment. He closes up like a shell, and it’s difficult to watch.
Then just keep your mouth shut, Lily. When all this is over, maybe, just maybe, you could gather enough strength to tell him. But not now, not like this.

Half an hour later, we both start giving up. All his questions about face shape, nose size, and eye color have amounted to nothing. Zilch. It’s like a flesh-colored blur has been drawn in my mind, to replace the Face. It’s become more of a concept, a feeling of deathly horror, than a person, and Peter knows this all too well. He tries to reassure me by saying things like, “Your mind is just saturated with all the information right now. It just needs a break.”  Whereas all I could think of is how genuinely nice he seems, and how after two hours he’s spent here, talking to him has become one of my all-time favorite things.

But there’s a part of restraint in it. At this point, I’m constantly at risk of acting like I’ve known him longer than he thinks he’s known me. Also, the fact that I’ve gone so far as to consider him my “Recognized” equivalent of Tam, definitely increases that risk.
And to make matters much, much worse, I just can’t stop yearning to touch him! The thought mesmerizes me to the point of pain. 

            “So… Lily,” he says with a shy smile, and my heart does a full flip.
He bends down to pick up the pouch for his notebook, but politely maintains eye contact. His face has never been so close to mine, and I notice an adorable dimple on his right cheek.

But I’m suddenly puzzled by an extremely fleeting frown that crosses his face. He stops dead in his tracks, and looks me straight in the eye. Intently, intensely.

Oh no, oh no, he knows who I am!!!

Then, his face abruptly veers into its undecipherable mask, and he stiffly straightens up.
“I won’t be in town before next week,” he utters very coolly. What?! Fuck! “Any idea how long you will be here?”
What’s happening?!
“Not really. Three weeks, as a minimum, at least till my hipbone and ribs heal, …and then there’s the cracked skull and, erm, the face...” I say casually, trying to lighten the mood.
He glares then swallows hard, as if I’ve said something difficult to bear. I grasp at straws, wondering whether I should be apologizing for something. But he swiftly composes himself again, and I’m bewildered by how quickly his expression changes.

“Well then,” he says detachedly, or so it seems, “until next week?”
“Sure!” I feign the same indifference. “What day?” An answer to that would save me a lot of unnecessary obsessing.
“Thursday I think.”
Why has the atmosphere grown cold all of a sudden?
“Okay, cool.” No, it’s NOT cool. Nine days?!
“Yes, um, hope you feel better in the meantime. Thanks for everything Miss Brandt,” he says with a polite smile. ‘Miss Brandt’ again?
“Thank you, Mr. Alberic,” I say vindictively.

He hesitates for a minute, as if regretful of something, then smiles again, nods, and clumsily heads for the door.

What the hell just happened? And could he be any more strained?! Argh!!! 













CHAPTER EIGHT
________________________________________________________________________________________________


            I’ve barely had the time to calm down and think through what’s just happened when everyone marches back into the increasingly smaller room. Jeez, a few minutes alone, is that too much to ask? It’s already bad enough that some nurse is taking care of my corporal hygiene by using horrendous-smelling wipes and mangy towels, and I can’t even ask everybody to leave every time I need to pee through the catheter… I practically have no dignity left whatsoever. I need to have some me-time, somehow.

But first things first, I have a friend to console. It’s time.

And at the risk of sounding like a hypocritical opportunist, which I am, I really, really need her phone.

“Mom, dad, can I please speak with Ginny?... Alone?”

Ginny’s head pops up, and she looks like she’s just about to be thrown to the lions.

“Kid, you’re not telling us what happened with Alberic? Was he able to make the composite?” Erik inquires, exasperated.

            “Some of it, yes. Huge improvement. He’ll be back next week. Now can I speak with Ginny? Please?”

 Dad turns beet-purple at my tone, but I have no time or patience to humor his emotions or anyone else’s. He throws a glance at Oda and she follows him out. 


 Meanwhile, Ginny hasn’t moved an inch. She stands right across the room, leaning against the wall for support, and looking at me with barely contained wariness. I think I’ve tortured her enough. And for some reason – that I know all too well – I’m less bitter than I was this morning…

 “The wall won’t fall if you move, you know,” I say with tentative humor.

  She pauses, looking genuinely lost, then takes a couple of steps forward and stands at the foot of the bed.
           
  “You saw Him,” I blurt out, almost accusingly.

  “Yes…” Her voice sounds so off. “He was running away, so I didn’t see his face.” 

  “Tell me everything,” I demand dryly. 

  She remains standing, although she knows the story will take some time to tell.

  “As soon as I sent you the message asking you to come over, I felt like crap, especially when over an hour later, there was still no sign of you. Then I thought you might have forgotten the address, but there was almost no reception inside the studio, and I couldn’t step out and leave the set during the shoot…”

 “Please just skip to the facts,” I mutter, suddenly exasperated by her attempt at justifying herself instead of telling me what she actually saw. As far as I’m concerned, she can feel as crappy and apologetic as she wants, at least for a little longer.

 “Okay… After we wrapped it up, I stepped out with a couple of colleagues to smoke and call you, when suddenly we heard a male voice swearing, not too far away. Like a couple of blocks. The guys didn’t care, but I thought the man was being robbed or something, and I pushed them to go have a look. When we got there, we all saw the same thing: the back of a man running away, holding what looked like a purse, and some sort of…stick. White, I think.”

  “Yeah, he is.”

  “No, I meant the stick. White, with some red…” she shivers.

  I roll my eyes at her; it could have been Gandalf’s staff for all I know. The fact of the matter is, red was surely a more dominant color once he was done with me.

  Ginny swallows hard, and looks like she’s having trouble continuing.

  “And then Clément says, ‘Putain, y a quelqu’un par terre, une meuf!’[1] It took me less than a second to recognize you… Your hair… Fabien called the police and the medics, while I ran after the man, but Clément caught up with me, stopped me, called me crazy. I know the logical thing was to check on you, but I… couldn’t. I had a one-track mind at that point; I just wanted to catch him before he’s managed to disappear. And I wasn’t sure I would bear to see the extent of what he had done to you… What seemed like hours later, the pompiers[2] came. When they hoisted you inside the ambulance, I heard you scream… I haven’t slept since.”
Her voice falters on those last words and her whole posture slacks, as if the weight of the entire world was on her shoulders, and it had suddenly doubled.







[1] ‘Fuck, there’s someone on the ground, a woman!’
[2] i.e. the fire brigade. Firefighters in France are also trained for emergency medical services. 
  

“Jeez, Ginny, sit down, will you?” I say, sounding much less acidic than before. Has she even eaten today? …Or this week? This is the first time I’ve seen just how much this has been gnawing at her. She zombie-walks to the chair, then looks me straight in the eye and says, “Don’t you ever forgive me. I never want to let myself off the hook for this.”

Oh my God, Ginny…

“Tell me something…” I venture, “How many ‘what if’s’ can you come up with that don’t even involve you?... I have one: What if I hadn’t been dumb enough to forget my fucking keys?”

She glowers at me, not convinced in the least. But I decide to insist, because it is not her fault, no matter how much I might internally blame her for it.
“Ginny, all you did was ask me to come get the keys. Nothing more,” and guilt washes over me for not telling myself that before. “If you want to be mad, channel it into helping me get over this. Because I’m not sure I can do it alone… And my next best thing is Oda,” I wink.

She looks weirded out by the sound of her own abrupt laughter, but finally seems to relax a little, and her expression is one of relief. She smiles wistfully and says, “The Lily I know is back. Hi…”

I raise an eyebrow. “Did you really just… ‘hi’ me?! …Is this normal?!”

With an even more assertive laugh, she pauses, screws her eyes then lashes back with a good old dose of Ginny-quoting: “Normality is only relative... Although, it is universally acknowledged as BORING.”


I laugh lightheartedly then we both exhale, as if we’ve just gotten rid of a shared burden, or at least part of it. The silence that ensues is my queue. “Hey… can I borrow your phone for a minute?” Her hand reaches into her pocket before I’ve finished the sentence.

It takes me a moment to position the phone upright against the bandages of my left arm. It’s really hard to both hold it and type with one hand. Then I google “aaron u-turn lyrics” and scroll down to the second verse, with my heart thumping through my temples.



 Lili, you know there's still a place for people like us.
            The same blood runs in every hand.
            You see, it's not the wings that make the angel,
            Just have to move the bats out of your head .


“People like us”?... What could he possibly mean by that – if not that he’s been through the same thing? …I knew it! He’s been assaulted too!

“Miss Brandt?” Dr. Culbard peeps her head through the door. “Can we… talk?”

Ginny gently squeezes my arm, and tactfully steps out of the room, while the doctor checks my I.V., and takes note on her clipboard. Or at least she pretends to, for as soon as the door closes, her polite smile disappears and she sits, as if prepping for a serious discussion.
  
“Miss Brandt, I’m sure you’ve heard me go on and on about how intrigued we are by your cutaneous reaction to the… assault. And to the pepper spray…”

Aw man, is she going to ramble on about my skin now? Great…

“I’m not sure I was clear enough…” I’m about to interrupt her by pointing out that she’s been all too clear, when a strange gesture on her part catches my attention. She draws a pocket mirror out from between the pages of her clipboard, and it’s obvious she was hiding it there. But why?
She hands it to me and says, with the most insisting stare, “Tell me… What do you see?”
What’s her problem? Does her logic dictate that I’d be eager to see how disfigured I am? I’ve managed to avoid reflective surfaces so far, and this sort of feels like an ambush.  

And yet, there’s this morbid fascination pushing me to just have a quick peek…

Oh…
           
The water balloon figure was accurate alright, especially for the creepy eyes and around the ugly sutured gash on my lower lip… Except that I couldn’t have imagined the color spectrum that comes with it. A general sickening, shiny red, with blotches going from yellow to outright black. Huh… I can almost see the shape of a shoe tip on my left cheek, in insolent purple.

Is this what Peter has been looking at for two days? No wonder he ran…

I almost toss the mirror down, but Dr. Culbard still insists on giving me grief.  “No, you don’t understand. Please… Look very closely. What do you see?”

I reluctantly bring the mirror back up to my face, and hear my own shivering voice saying, “I see disfigurement.”

“No, I mean… Nothing peculiar, skin-wise?....”

I really feel like throwing the mirror at her, ninja style. “My skin is already peculiar, Doctor Culbard,” I lash out. 

But the woman just won’t give up! With exasperating patience, she persists. “Miss Brandt… Lily… Just humor me for a second. Could you please describe yourself before the… incident?”

“You mean weird skin, ginger, and freckles?” I say in what I hope is obvious sarcasm. 

But to my befuddlement, she raises her eyebrows and nods, slowly, before lifting the mirror back up to my face, one last relentless time.


Weird skin, yes, and ginger hair… but not the smallest freckle in sight. 



Wha…?!











CHAPTER NINE
________________________________________________________________________________________________



          “I’m aware it’s a lot to take in, but…”

          “Sssshhh!!”

Let’s just say that it takes one hell of a shock to shush one’s doctor.

This. Is. So. Weird!!!

I lift my arm into the light, like a toddler discovering its limbs. Freckle status: normal. Then I throw a zillionth glance into the mirror. Facial freckles: inexistent.  

          “Erm… Did you have a look at other areas… of my body?” I ask with an empty, half-awed, half-freaked out voice.

          “Obviously. And it’s a very interesting patchwork...”

Of all the ways I’ve been described…

          “Patchwork?”

          “Yes… The freckles seem to have vanished from all the heavily wounded parts. Needless to say, it’s… uncommon.”

          “But… why hasn’t anyone else noticed?” I wonder. My parents know me by heart, and it seems unlikely for them not to have noted my… defrecklement. 

          “Well, perception tends to adapt to the next logical theory: to others, the current overall redness of your skin must surely be hiding the freckles. They haven’t seen this many wounds very often, so to their mind, this is ‘what wounds do’!”

Not very convincing, especially knowing Erik and his attention to detail. Yet, he’s no doctor, and he might probably be distracted by all the swelling and bruises to wonder about vanishing melanin. That might even be a good thing too, since it’s the kind of detail which, once noticed, quickly becomes the elephant in the room.

          “Have you seen any… change in the time I’ve been here?”
           
          “You mean an increase or decrease? That is exactly what I’m here to talk to you about. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to put you under prolonged observation, in order to figure out why this is happening, and to establish a pattern. Is it a permanent or temporary alteration? Is it in progress, or just an isolated incident? There are many unknowns to explore…”

 In progress!!! I feel panicky all of a sudden. It will take me some time to fully comprehend this whole situation, and now she’s suggesting the patchwork might get even less…patchy?! I was never a fan of the freckles, but there’s this horror-movie-like dread one gets when they’re faced with a potentially irreversible change of their very constitution, no matter whether or not they liked it in the first place.  

          “What would this…observation involve? And do you think you may be able to stop this thing?!”

          “Calm down Miss Brandt, I promise you, I will try to get to the bottom of this. All I need from you is to sign these forms, allowing me to. Here, use my pen…”

 Boy, she looks eager. I wonder what it would mean for her, to treat a practically unique case by herself… I’d do anything to find out what the hell is wrong with me, but there’s a thought I just can’t shake… she was hiding the mirror between the pages of her clipboard!

           “Tell me, Dr. C… Why isn’t nurse Joséphine with you today?” I don’t even know where I’m going with this, but I suddenly feel very uncomfortable around the good doctor. Her expression remains neutral, but she waits two seconds too long to answer.

            “Nurses don’t gravitate around me all day, Miss Brandt.”
            “What about my parents? Have you already talked to them about this?
            “You’re no longer a minor, so I don’t really need to.”
            “But it would be more… ethical to tell them first, wouldn’t it?”

I’m playing a much more dangerous game than I think I can handle. But strangely enough, she seems to falter.
          “You need to understand… I have tried to get through to your parents, but they have a very square idea of what your skin is and what it does, and no matter how much I try to point out that it is different this time around, they just won’t have it!”

          “It’s because they’re protecting me! They know just how much I’ve had to deal with, on a daily basis, because of my skin, and the last thing I need right now is another curious doctor!!!” I’m on the verge of screaming, so I try to take a deep breath. I see the blotches spreading angrily across my forearm. Huh… at least these are still faithful to the call.  

          “Lily… I’m only trying to help. I’ve never seen anyone so uninterested in what’s happening to them!”

          “So… to you, out of a hairline and open fractures, internal bleeding, cuts and extreme bruises, what I should be interested most in knowing is where my freckles went?”

 Her lips open slightly, and she seems at a loss for words. I take a second to think about all this, and realize that besides all personal interest, she also means no harm. So I decide to bargain.
  
         “No close or prolonged observation of any sort. Just ONE test. In return, I want a favor.”   

         “Name it,” she says with hardly concealed determination.

         “I want an early release. I want you to convince my father that it would be okay for me to spend the healing period at home. We could hire a nurse if necessary, just as long as I get to leave this place.”

           “But it’s not possible; you’ve suffered serious injury….”
            
           “Wouldn’t a nurse be able to monitor me? I’ll stay in bed and won’t lick my stitches,” I say cheekily.  

  She stares at me for a long moment, with a furrowed brow. She knows that what she’s asking of me wouldn’t get any of her superiors’ approval. So, if she wants mine, she’s going to have to break the rules.


            “How early?” she asks warily.

Yes! I’ve got her. And I know exactly when I’d like to leave.

            “Next week, Friday.” Please, please Peter, be there before!
           
Dr. Culbard pauses, then nods once, and I know I’ve just made a deal with the devil.
  






In the following days, I watch my hospital privileges double suspiciously. The food is better, which is already something, but I’m also allowed to have my laptop from home – which provides the opportunity to loop Peter’s songs, and perhaps innocently Google his name, to no avail. The man is a ghost! But anything else would have surprised me, for someone working with the police…  

I’m also constantly asked “if everything is alright” by practically half the nurses on the floor. Ridiculous.
In return, I allow Dr. Culbard, during one of my wonderful “bathing” sessions, to sneak into the room and do a biopsy. 

On a different front, Erik finally gets to ask me all his questions, although he’s not given permission to investigate anything personally. I answer willingly, thinking it might bring him some comfort, but to our shared despair, my brain still prefers the flesh-coloured spot to remembering the Face of my Terror.
What would I tell Peter when he asks me again? How many times can I disappoint him before he loses interest in my case? The thought itself is distressing.  

           “Dad? Any news from Mr. Alberic?” I ask tentatively.

           “No, why? You said he was coming back! Did he say ‘maybe’?”

           “No, it’s just… I’m not telling him much, so maybe he’s lost interest. In the case.” I can’t even look Erik in the eye. But for some weird reason, I find him laughing.

            “Kid, not like he says much either!”

            “How do you mean?” I ask, puzzled.

            “Well, you know… The way he tends to stammer sometimes….and how he could go for minutes without saying anything, although you’re there, waiting for his answer!”
           
What?! Okay, he’s shy and all, but when he talks, he’s nothing short of intimidating, and he’s never stammered! What is this?

          “Is that something you’ve noticed?” I push. Erik is barely ever wrong, so I need to know where this is coming from.

          “It’s obvious enough though, isn’t it? You know what we call him at the station? ‘Aspy’. As in Asperger’s. You know, autistic…”

          “I know what Asperger is dad. And it’s horrible of you!”

          “Oh, no worries, it’s all in good fun. We even joked that his favorite song was ‘Welcome to the jungle, watch it bring you to your knnn knne knees, knees’.”

          “Dad!!!” I scold, but he’s got the giggles now and there’s no stopping him.

How strange is that though? I can’t even imagine Peter stuttering, or even less providing the jokes for an entire precinct.
           
          “Do you know him well?” I ask earnestly.

          “Hmm… I can’t say I do. No one does. He doesn’t exactly socialize! And no one ever knows his whereabouts. Most of the time he’s in the U.K., but he also travels across Europe for cases, so we can hardly ever get in touch with him. And most of the time, we would do anything to have him work with us. I don’t know how he does it, but that boy is like a rock-solid guarantee that the suspect will be caught. He looks twelve, and yet he’s lethally accurate at what he does; it’s humbling. So yeah… you can trust him.”

 We’re interrupted by a light rasp at the door. Nurse Joséphine comes in with a big smile – still spoiling me I see... Please, proceed! – and hands me an envelope. “This just came for you. Is everything alright?”
          “Yeees,” both Erik and I reply, in non-fooled synchrony.

   Suddenly I’m worried: what if it’s the biopsy results sheet? I need to get Erik out of the room somehow. Think fast, think uncomfortable…
          “Dad, could you please, erm… give me some catheter time?” For some reason, the C-word makes him disappear from the room at Samurai speed.
           
I know I don’t have long, so I quickly scan the premises to be sure no one’s looking, then fumble like crazy to tear the envelope open with one hand.

And what I find there makes my heart morph into a fairground punchbag in a fraction of a second.

It’s a post-it note that reads, simply:
  
          Yes...
          Monday?

…and it’s stuck on the cardboard cover of a Sia CD.












CHAPTER TEN
________________________________________________________________________________________________


“But what does it mean?” Ginny asks, frustrated.

She’s just spent the last few minutes illustrating how wide her eyes can open with every revelation about who Peter is, and that theoretically, he doesn’t recognize me. I make her swear never to tell my parents about this, and to really play dumb around Peter. The minutest slip of the tongue could tip him off, and the entire house of cards I’ve been building would tumble down.

“The ‘Yes’ is his answer to all the questions in Sia’s song, the one I told him to check out! ‘I’m in here, can anybody see me? Can anybody help?... Can you hear my call? Are you coming to get me now?’ …”

“Oh!” and her lips stay shaped into an ‘o’, “…Wow!”

“Y-yeah!” I say in a very Californian-cheerleader sort of way.

“And he’ll be here four days earlier?... Huh!... There’s a good moth,” she winks.

            “Meaning?”
           
            “Meaning the right thing would have been to keep you waiting, but he obviously couldn’t stay away now, could he?” she concludes, smugly.
           
            “Oh yeah, I bet he wants more of my bandaged water-balloon goodness,” I snort in my best impression of hospital-sexy.

She should really stop giving me false hopes though… Last time he was here, he looked anything but eager to be back. I still can’t figure out what happened! One minute we’re talking music and of “a place for people like us”, and the next, his face falls and his shell is once again hermetically sealed around him. Did I do anything wrong? All it took is for him to look me straight in the eye… Supposing he really did recognize me, then why the violently negative reaction? Was I right not to tell him who I was after all? And now he seems eager to be back?... This is so confusing!

“Don’t worry Lil’, you’re already starting to look like yourself again, I can see it… almost,” she reassures me. But her words cause nothing but panic: it suddenly feels like my defenses are falling; if knowing who I am makes him run, then what will I do when I can no longer hide it?!


This limbo state between eagerness and panic festers inside me till Monday morning, then manages to double when the needle hits five and he’s still nowhere to be seen. Good thing my parents aren’t here! Erik would have definitely noticed the anxiety… I convinced him to take the keys from Ginny and go get some sleep at the apartment; and Odelia has a gallery opening night, so I know she won’t be back for hours. Only Ginny knows Peter’s coming, so she’s loyally patrolling the hallways for a sign of him.

            Six. I check the post-it again. It really does say Monday. Where is he?!



            Seven… I hate him. Seriously.




            Eight. Visiting hours are probably over.

           
           

I toy with the idea of telling Ginny never to let him into my room again, but I know I would kill her if she actually followed that to the letter…

“Heads up,” she suddenly whispers through the chink of the door, “Legolas is in the premises! Time for me to… ‘bow’out,” she teases.
And that does it for me. The Molotov mix of anxiety, relief, and Ginny’s geeky humor, pushes me over the edge… and the nurses at the end of the hall hear my laughing hysterics.

A minute later, he appears at the door, and just stands there, with a comically raised eyebrow. “Glad to see you’re in good spirits!” he blurts out, faking offense at being laughed at. 

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I say, wiping the last few tears, “come in, please!” I offer, pointing to the chair. You’re late, Legolas!

“Sorry I’m late…” Ah, that’s better. “Or actually, I’m not. I was hoping to catch you alone.”

My smile disappears. Huh?
I notice he doesn’t even have his laptop…
The tribal drums start a fanfare in my chest. Is this a social visit?!

He suddenly seems at a loss for words, which reminds me of Erik’s jokes about him. I decide to step in.
“I did my homework.” It makes him smile. Do you even realize how huggable you are right now?! “… ‘People like us’?” I venture.

“Yes, the… Please don’t take it wrong, but I meant… the ‘socially inapt’,” he says apologetically.
Oh, that!

“Ah… And there I was, thinking you had been assaulted too…” I try again hesitantly, hoping not to rile him up like last time.

“No, I haven’t. But my mother has, and I was there,” he says with disturbing neutrality.

My heart falls. Oh God, no! That’s why this upset him when he was last here! He thought I didn’t find him capable of understanding, since he hadn’t been through it himself. Survivor’s guilt?

I tactfully decide not to question him about this, just like I wish others would do for me.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean…!” I say nervously, but he brushes it off with a don’t-worry-about-it kind of gesture. I quickly change the subject. “Well then, I get why you would think me ill-fitted socially, but why is it that you seem perfectly… apt to me?”

“That’s what I came here to ask you actually, thanks for the great opening! Tell me… do I look familiar to you?”

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit! What do I do?!

“…Why?” This seems to be Erik’s favorite way of avoiding questions, so it must work.

“Have our paths possibly crossed before? Where are you from, originally?”

“My father’s from Ludwigsburg, my mother’s from Luton, and I was born and raised in Paris, but have been to the other two cities pretty often. Why?” I insist, shamelessly.

“I don’t know… I never, ever forget a face. I mean that literally. And yet there’s something in yours that I… know. It’s… disarming. None of my barriers seems to hold.”

Come again?!... My breath hitches, and my lips gets stuck halfway between a ‘what?!’ and a ‘woah’…. He might as well have held my heart in his palm, and squeezed it to bits.

“… Why would you need… barriers?” I ask, pushing my luck.

He takes a few long seconds to reply, and his expression seems to change, infinitesimally. My instincts tell me I’m not getting a straight answer to that.

“I did my homework too, and your barriers seem more important to break than mine.”

…So he’s really here to “see me”, “help me”, “hear my call”, and “get me now”? The last one makes me blush, and nervously check my arm for blotches. His eyes zero in on my arm too, and for a reason my brain can’t process straight away, I anxiously slip it under the cover.

“But we tried so hard last time,” I say as a diversion, “and I can remember no more today than I did back then… What happens if I never do? Your efforts will have been in vain…”

 “Let me worry about my efforts. Besides, I’m already very much invested in this, so don’t think that we’ve reached the bottom of our options list; not yet.”

He’s invested in this!... I wonder how it’s even possible for him not to hear my frantic heartbeat when it’s almost driving me deaf.

“Yeah, my dad still harassing you?” I joke.

“Haha, yes! But it’s noticeably more than that… You might find this rather strange, but I’m… I believe the right word is angry. I’m angry that this has happened to you. As angry as I would be if you were kin… Last time you joked graphically about your injuries, and bile rose in my throat... Since then, I couldn’t stop thinking about it…  Interrupt me if I’m being too intense,” he smiles ruefully.

Only he could trouble me and break my heart in the same sentence. He shares my anger, which is basically the only strong emotion I can relate to right now, and then he confesses that he considers me “family”. I’m surprised by the tinge of sarcasm in my voice when I say, “So… I’m like a sister you’d like to help out?”

What more did you expect? That dark voice inside whispers, you’re a Patchwork of redness and swelling, so isn’t this much more than you could have hoped for?
He brushes his knuckles against those lips, and I realize it’s what he does when he’s concentrating on something crucial.

“Let’s just say that my instincts have never failed me, and they’re telling me that this is …personal.”

“They’ve never failed?” I ask with barely concealed irony. If that were true, he would have recognized me by now.

My question seems to destabilize him, and he pauses, as if reconsidering. I quickly regret asking when I realize this could also be about his mother. But he replies before I’ve had the chance to apologize.

“Listen, Lily, my instincts will be reliable enough to identify the man,” he promises, sliding forward in the chair, “I can understand your lack of faith in them, but you should at least know how determined I am. In my line of work, I’ve had to sacrifice everything to keep my family and loved one safe, and I’m willing to apply the same unwavering constancy with you, if you’ll allow me to…”

'Loved one' or 'ones'? He did say loved 'ones', didn’t he?! I feel like I’ve just been slapped, hard.

My confused silence seems to upset him, and he suddenly sits back with a gradually hardening expression. Here goes the shell again! He then stands up, as if eager to leave. Quick, say something!

“Hey, you’re not going anywhere without today’s homework!”

His smile makes a lazy comeback, and he looks at me, patiently, waiting for his instructions. 

“You know the chorus to ‘Summer Moved On’?” I say clumsily, then worry about seeming too obvious. That chorus is built around one main word, sung in the most heartbreaking intensity: STAY!

“No,” Damn it… “But I’ll look it up,” he volunteers gently.

“… What about mine?” I ask like a disappointed child at the toy store.

“You know what? I’ll give you an entire song to consider this time, since my own words don’t seem to get through to you. Try ‘Good Times Gonna Come’ by Aqualung.”

I roll my eyes at him, which makes him laugh. He knows pseudo-Hallmark positivity wouldn’t work on me, so there’s got to be more to that song. 

“Noted. Oh, and just fyi, change of plan: I’ll be leaving this place on Friday!” I hurry to tell him, just in case he’s set on making me wait another week for his next visit. His lips tighten in a straight line, and he seems to genuinely dislike the idea. “What?” I urge him.

“Well that seriously limits our interaction time. I’m not sure that’ll be enough to get to the bottom of this…” he says distractedly.

“Who says we can’t continue with this outside the hospital?!” I ask, a little too loud, putting that “I’m invested” claim to the test.

He seems to consider the idea for a few seconds, with a furrowed brow. Jeez, what’s so complicated? Is he scared of giving me his phone number or what? The pernicious devil in my head whispers, He doesn’t want his ‘loved one’ to suspect anything. That slap in the face still stings, but I’m keeping it dormant with all the self-control I could possibly invoke.

“We could… But I’ll definitely come again before then, say, on Thursday?”

“Cool,” I say in what comes out as fake adolescent indifference. Self-control is faltering.

“Cool,” he parrots. “…Although I find it strange that you’re allowed to leave the hospital when you still seem so… fragile,” he protests with an undercurrent of… what exactly? Tenderness?... Seems he was serious about considering me “kin”… Huh… I have no idea what to make of that! But it reduces my insides to mush and my throat to cardboard. 

Then he seems to pull himself together, before giving me one last friendly smile and a brief “Bye then”, and heads for the exit.


I could spend eons remembering and figuring out everything he said today, but for the moment, I need to wipe the fake smile off my face and let go of all the self-control that’s helped me last through the conversation, after the infamous “My loved one”… 

No matter how I look at it, I should eventually call a spade a spade:
…He’s got someone.


He’s got someone. He’s got someone. He’s got someone.



…And there are no fucking painkillers for that.






CHAPTER ELEVEN

________________________________________________________________________________________________


Tuesday was a dark, dark day. Not only did it rain like hell, which is always a good way to worsen an already bleak mood, but I was also in a lot of pain. My entire body felt as sore as that atrocious moment when one’s leg recovers from being asleep. Is this even normal? After about two weeks here, I’d expected to feel a lot better than this! Does pain come in cycles?



Erik’s face darkens more and more as he sees me wince every once in a while; good thing he doesn’t know that what I really feel like doing is groaning my way through it. And Ginny’s finally gone back to university, so I’m relieved she’s not here to see this and feel guiltier than she already does. It took a lot of work getting that creepy hollow look out of her eyes. As for Oda, she tries to distract me with artsy jabber, while Erik walks in circles like a lion in a cage.



It takes him one more wince from me to storm out of the room, and come back with a troubled-looking nurse Joséphine. She checks my vitals, and asks me to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10, which I think is ridiculous. “Nine and three quarters,” I jab, but nurse J. just stares at me. Ginny would have got it.



A few hours later, Dr. Culbard arrives and asks to speak with me, alone. Erik glares at her while Oda scurries out without protest. He seems suspicious of her, which doesn’t surprise me. The man has the instincts of a predator when he puts his mind to it.



Once everyone’s out, Dr Culbard still doesn’t find it in herself to do more than whisper:


“Miss Brandt, your biopsy results were inconclusive. Or rather, there was nothing in them that explains the disappearance of your freckles. Now, you were very clear on not wanting any more tests, but I really urge you to reconsider, since it might also help us determine why you’re in such pain now…” she begs.


“You know what the perks of having a computer here are, Dr C.? I get to browse through a few pages about biopsies, and contact some friends in public health… And you know what’s strange? They all seem to agree that ‘lack of freckles’ is not a known symptom of cancer. Isn’t that the main reason for a biopsy?” I don’t know if it’s me, or if it’s the pain talking, but it was surprisingly easy cornering her.



She remains quiet for a few seconds, then decides not to insist. She just nods once and says, “I wouldn’t do anything without your consent. Either way, if I did, I would never be able to use illegally-obtained results for ‘personal glory’, if that’s what you think… I’m just…fascinated by your case.” She looks at me for a few more seconds then exits the room, and nurse J. comes back with painkillers.


I suddenly feel bad about all this. What if I was too harsh with Dr Culbard? What if, in the midst of all this medical weirdness, she ended up being my only reference?


I try to block such thoughts, but the ones that replace them are far worse… He has someone.


Everything else he said, about being invested, and about how “angry” he was with what’s happened to me… it all felt exceedingly intense for someone regarding me as ‘kin’. I don’t see my own cousins feel so strongly about me. What I really want from him, what every fiber of my body has wanted from day one, is much more than that.



The soreness gets worse as the day goes by, and come nightfall, it becomes almost unbearable. I’m given sleeping pills to get through the night, but they don’t stop me from waking up a couple of times in a haze, and writhing in pain, even in places that weren’t wounded at all. Frankly, it felt like the assault wasn’t enough, and that I was now being punished for wrongdoings I couldn’t even remember… This must be Hell. 



                                                    _____________________________





             But if I had to choose one date when it all started getting “weird”, I would definitely go for Wednesday...




             I hope you’re ready, because this will go rather fast.




             Waking up to pain was not pleasant in the least, but what I noticed a few seconds into the morning was nothing short of horrific: As I reach out for my laptop on the night-table, I suddenly gasp loudly as my eyes zoom in on my forearm. It wakes Oda up, and she asks me if I’m alright. I quickly pretend that stretching my arm made the pain worse, while very discreetly slipping it back under the cover…




             THEY’RE ALL GONE!!! 




             I’m officially freckle-free, and it happened overnight!!! I can’t help but associate it with the pain, although no logic would back this up… would it?


What is happening to me?! If anyone sees this, curiosity would be their main emotion, while mine is pure FEAR. What if I’m never… me again?


And when I was a mere ‘patchwork’, the bandages and redness managed to conceal the weird disappearances, whereas now it’s all out in the open!... You’re in real trouble, Brandt!


At one point nurse J. comes over to check my drip, and I go through an entire maneuver of turning the inside of my forearm up, and laying the outer part down against the mattress, pretending I’m too weak to lift it. Then as soon as she’s done, I slip it back sideways underneath the cover. But I know I can’t keep this up for long, and panic really starts taking over. The only less stressful time is after curfew, when I can finally take advantage of the darkness to stretch and breathe. But then I spend a white night thinking of more sneaky maneuvers, and despairing over the fact that, surely, none of them would work on Peter! He sees everything... and a spotless-skinned redhead is conspicuous, to say the least. 
 


On Thursday morning, I quickly check my forearm. Please, God, let it all be a dream! But cream, spotless, immaculate skin stares back at me. Oh shit…



The climax of anxiety comes in the form of Ginny, passing by to check on me, and at one point staring fixedly at my arm, which I had accidentally moved an inch outside the cover. But luckily it was just a blank, distracted look that I managed to break by engaging conversation.



At one point I even hope that Peter has some sort of important police business that would prevent him from coming… although the idea itself is intolerable.  



And in the evening, I’ve already crossed every threshold of stress imaginable. I’m startled by every opening of the door, and every time, it turns out to be one of my parents, coming to check on me. 



 


Finally, at the zillionth opening, Erik and two French detectives march in. Oda quickly leaves the room, and Erik pulls up my bed table. What is this? A group intervention?

One detective seems to notice my strain, and gives me a kind, reassuring smile.


In the meantime, I notice the second detective is holding a square, grayish tray that he lays down on the bed table. 


“Lil’, please have a look, are these yours?” Erik asks anxiously.


I focus closely and see bundles of sleek nylon sachets with elaborate tags, each containing a small, carefully packed object. Chapstick, earphones, tissues… It takes me one second to realize that these are the things I had in my bag on the night of the attack!


The look on my face confirms it to the cavalry. 

           "DID YOU CATCH HIM?!" I shriek.

           "No honey," Erik says, looking guilty as hell, "just these."


“Miss Brandt, is anything missing?” one of the detectives asks. I’m taken aback by the importance of the question, and by how arbitrary my reply might be. Does he really expect me to remember everything I had in my bag? I mentally go over all the possibilities, but I’m already such a nervous wreck that I keep going back to the beginning. Focus!


We’re suddenly interrupted by a knock at the door, and in comes Peter, finally.


 I nervously check if all un-bandaged parts of me are well under the cover, and wonder desperately how long I could keep this up… But then I’m distracted by the peculiar interaction between Peter and the rest of the group, whom he’s supposed to know well. They all shake hands with him and mumble some sort of hello, while he remains perfectly silent, and fidgets restlessly. Erik throws me a fleeting glance, in a do-you-see-it-now sort of way. 

Huh! He’s right!... Is this the same laid-back, professional, intimidating Peter I know?!


His eyes end up finding mine, and he visibly relaxes, taking a few steps closer. And there I am, surrounded by four very intelligent men waiting for me to complete my inspection of what might be missing, while Peter’s stare makes me exceptionally nervous.


“Dad, I’m… kinda cold,” I lie. Both Erik and Peter frown in concern, but I reassure them, “Must be the meds. I’m okay though, as long I stay covered. Could you tell me what all the items are? And just out of curiosity, where is the bag?”


“We couldn’t find it. These were thrown on the side of the road, not too far from the scene of the assault,” one detective says.


“So, he… was more interested in the bag than what was in it?” I ask with a raised eyebrow, feeling stupid.
 
          “Was he wearing gloves?” Peter asks patiently. No, he wasn't... My mind goes from gloves to hands to fingerprints. Then I’m finally on the same wavelength as everyone in the room: he didn’t want to risk just cleaning his prints off the bag, so he emptied it and kept the potentially incriminating bit.


“He’s arrogant. Someone scared would have kept the whole thing, just to be safe. But he’s taunting us… And we couldn’t find a wallet either,” Erik says carefully, rubbing his chin.


I throw a quick glance at Peter, and notice his stare hasn’t left my face. He looks every shade of worried, echoing my inner panic. The Face knows who I am. He knows where I live. He has my credit card, my ID, and even my childhood passport picture!!!




This really is Hell…



There’s no way I could go back to the apartment tomorrow, and if he knows who I am, he probably also knows who my parents are, and perhaps where they live…. And Ginny!! She should get out of there asap!!! 


“Dad, Ginny!!!” I choke.

          "Don't worry, there's a police car doing rounds in your neighborhood since the day of the incident. But I'll check on her if that would make you feel better..." 

          I nod and he promptly grabs his phone, asking me for her number. As he steps out into the hall, I turn back to Peter, with an alarmed, pleading look. His face tenses up, as if he’s just decided on a course of action.


“Suchet, any chance there could be constant surveillance on her apartment?”


 Suchet looks surprised, as if this isn't Peter's prerogative. 


“We could, but she would have to….” He goes silent, and all three turn to look at me.


 I quickly understand what he means. I would have to be there. As bait.


 Tears of terror start pooling in my eyes. No, please, please, NO!


“Hey, don’t worry,” Peter croons, “you won’t go there before you’re fully recovered, and they wouldn’t take any risks with you. You’d have a full SWAT team watching over you,” he winks.

I could just kiss and melt into him right now …if he didn’t have someone


“So, let’s just go over everything here, shall we?” The second detective starts picking up the sachets one by one, and piling them on the bed table, while Suchet takes note of my answers.



Then, everything happens extremely fast.



The detective holds up the only item that shouldn’t be seen by everyone in this room. The only item I should have thought about when they first brought in the tray. The only item that might have irreversible consequences.




THE PORTRAIT!!!




My heart drops, and my gasp is muffled by the sound of breaking glass.


Oda’s flower vase on the night table smashes to the ground, in a shockingly loud clatter.


The detectives look towards the noise, towards Peter. But he’s already turned around and knelt down to pick up the pieces. He’s obviously trying to hide his reaction! Yet, they look away, as if not surprised by ‘Aspy’ the klutz.

  

I feel my stitches almost breaking as I twist as far as I can to keep sight of Peter. Oh please, please, look at me, tell me what you’re thinking!


He stays on the ground, although it barely seems like he’s picking any glass. And, for one fraction of a second, I could swear his shoulders look… different… leaner, more chiseled. But it’s only for a swift, disturbing second, enough to make me doubt my own perception.







Then he swivels his head towards me, and shoots me with the most hurtful glare I’ve ever seen. It’s a mix of extreme shock, outright terror, and…blame?


 He slowly composes himself, putting on a neutral mask again, a mask I’ve come to know well. He stands up and addresses the detectives, with icy poise, and eyes never leaving mine, “I’ll be right back.” There’s an unmistakable sneer in the way he says it that makes me want to cry.


 I can see he blames me for not telling him, but I’ve only avoided it because… the reason evades me now. Because I’m no longer the same person he drew then? Because I felt the portrait was insignificant enough to be left behind?... I no longer know, but that’s not the issue. The real question is: why is this such bad news to him?! It’s about time he included me in the loop!


Instead, he turns and walks out the door, not looking back. Tears trickle silently down my cheeks, making both detectives look very uncomfortable.



“Ginny will come here directly after school,” Erik announces, tramping back into the room, and stopping in his tracks when he sees my face. His eyes slide to the tray, and he seems to deduce that seeing these objects must have upset me. He tilts his head towards the door, and the detectives follow him out to the hall.


I can see them through the tears, right outside the open door, deep in whispered conversation. Then they lift their heads up, as if someone’s called them, and… 




           IT ALL GOES STILL.




Everything goes strangely quiet, even the clock on the wall. The only sound I can hear is my own shocked breathing and pounding heartbeat, as I watch my father and his colleagues frozen, mid-movement, like surreal window mannequins. I want to scream, but I choke on panic. “Erik!” I squeal, pathetically, “Erik!!!”



And then they appear, at the end of the hall. The most beautiful, stupefying sight I’ve ever seen. Three mythical-looking figures: two eerily tall, emaciated, yet muscular males, with faces out of a dark fairytale, and eyes whose hugeness seems to gleam in the white hospital light… and Peter.

They all walk towards me, but I hear no footsteps.

Once they’re at my room door, the two strange individuals stop, and only Peter comes closer. One of them suddenly murmurs, in a voice that sounds more like a chime, “You only have a few minutes, Peter,” but it sounds more like it’s directed at me. I gasp at the unnatural beauty of his timbre.

Peter nods slowly, and turns to scowl at me. He still looks furious, but that’s my last concern right now.

“What's happening?! What have you done to my father?!” I shriek accusingly, unable to hide the fear in my voice.

His face slightly softens, and he tries to reassure me, “He’s okay, he’ll be himself in a few minutes, with no memory of this…”

HUH?!

“Did you do that?!”

“No… Vlad did,” he says nonchalantly, pointing at one of the two beautiful males.

“…How?!” I splutter.

“Look, Lily, there’ll be time for an explanation later. There’s something more urgent at hand.”

The bluish night glow from the window is reflected on his face, and I’m inconveniently reminded of that amazing night Cutter and Leetah spend on the hill… He interrupts my reverie with a weird question. “How did you do it? How did you find me?...”

“Find you? What do you mean? Erik called you after the assault!” I answer, puzzled. He pauses, as if incredulous, and decides not to let it go.

“Are you really telling me you had nothing to do with this?”

“With what?!” I start to get impatient, and frankly worried about my father. “All I did was notice the letters in the drawn necklace, and read the comics! And then, two days later, this happens!” I choke, pointing at my face from under the cover. “So here’s a good one for you: Why did you draw it?... And why leave it behind, for me to find?” I venture. It’s all or nothing now.

He seems uncomfortable, but doesn’t push his glasses up. It makes me wonder: Does he even need those glasses, or does he just wear them Clark-Kent style? And if so, is all that clumsy, asocial, stuttering act, just a created persona to hide who he really is?... Erik never saw through it, but I did… Oh! Is that what he meant by all his “barriers not holding”?... Huh…

“When I saw you on the train, it took me so much as a second to know…” he says, but seems unable to continue.

“To know what?”

“You know... That I would bind myself to you…” he says shyly.

My heartbeats literally shake my ribcage and boom through my temples.

“You mean, like, ‘Recognition’?” I say innocently, still thinking of Leetah. His eyes light up and a shadow of a shy smile etches itself on the corner of his mouth.

“Exactly like that, yes,” he states matter-of-factly. My heart suddenly explodes, and goes on overdrive. “But we… evolve in different circles. And mine is not the kind I would want you to be involved in. I left the drawing to convince myself to leave you alone! Not to have you find it and go treasure-hunting, by the way,” he scolds softly. “I tried to protect you…”

Wait a minute… ‘I’ve had to sacrifice everything to keep my family and loved one safe’… Oh my good God! I AM HIS ‘SOMEONE’!!!

“But, as I said,” he continues, “I never forget a face… I really never do, even if it’s swollen and seemingly unrecognizable to everyone else…”

“Gee, thanks!” I roll my eyes, hurt.

“You know what I mean! The girl I drew… She was different. You’re different! You had an entirely dissimilar glow in your eyes, and…”

“No shit, Sherlock! You can’t just go through this and come out unchanged,” I huff.

“It’s not just that… You’re different, underneath all this. Your features… I didn’t recognize you, and that’s saying something! Yet, for a reason I now finally understand, I felt tied to you the minute I saw you in this bed, as if you were ‘kin’, if you will. That’s the only explanation I could find, since you looked so different from the girl on the train… I knew I had to help you, but I couldn’t figure out why… ” He grasps at straws to make it clearer.

And then it hits me. I slowly slip my arm out from under the cover and hold it up. It takes a few seconds for it to click in his head. “Your skin is… oddly clear,” he whispers, confused in the extreme.


I don’t know if it’s the deep silence, or the unnatural phenomena I’m currently bathing in, but I suddenly experience an epiphany… I know for a fact that my altered skin had nothing to do with the assault. Somehow, I’ve always known that.

“This is because of you!... Peter… What have you done to me?” I ask, with the peace of someone who’s finally starting to see clearly. 

Peter’s frown deepens by the second, and he’s completely speechless. Then I see the ghost of resolve brusquely replace his confusion. He turns around and throws one glance at the two figures, who suddenly glide in, and stand right next to the bed, looking down at me from their unnatural height. Peter stands at the bottom, and, in one perfectly synchronized movement, the trio lay their palms down on my arm and leg.
 
"What..."


And just like that, I am gone. 







[THE REST IN VOL II !!!! (SCROLL TO TOP AND CLICK ON "DECEMBER" IN THE BLOG ARCHIVES) BE KIND AND LEAVE A COMMENT ;) AND FOR CHAPTER UPDATES, FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER @StellanBlu]

29 commentaires:

  1. Got hooked from the first chapter! can't wait to read more!

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    1. This means so much, THANK YOU NEYLA!!! :) Please keep on reading and share with whoever might like it too. And of course, keep an eye on Google+ or my twitter for chapter updates :) @StellanBlu

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  2. I've been wanting to get hooked on something after I've done reading the Harry Potter books. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to dream again. I'm thirsty for more.

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    1. If i were a whole class, i would spell "YOU ROCK" for you down from the playground ;) THANK YOU!!! <3

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  3. Hahahha the C word now thts smart it made me laugh soooo much:p once again u'vr done iiiittt n i totally agree with mr. anka you gave us the opportunity to escape from this world and dreams again. cant believe u used to be my teacher!! Ur awesome

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    1. You know I wasn't exaggerating when i called you my literary guardian angel. I OWE YOU SO MUCH!!! And the responsibility is HUGE... Did you know that I was on the verge of giving up on this when you wrote me your first feedback? I'm deeply, heartily honored, THANK YOUUUUUUUUUU!!!! :") xxx

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  4. Please continue! I want to know what happ hap happens :-)
    I'm hooked!

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    1. THANK YOU SO MUCH Sonia!!!! I'm really being as quick as humanly possible, so please hang in there!! :) And never hesitate to comment anytime!

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  5. I have to be honest with you when i noticed that it was the romantic and girl drama type of plot i was all like : well this is going to be boring .
    Yet here i am at 1 in the morning , reading your soon to be novel . I confess myself addicted .
    I am proof that the young choice will adore your work of art .
    Tu as ma parole ! Courage et Bonne chance

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    1. ... My goodness, what can i possibly say to that? Just know that never in a million years would I have expected or even dreamt of having such amazing feedback, especially from a non-girl-drama-type-reader!! ;) This story is my reason for being right now, and you Sir, have just made my day! THANK YOU, a million times over!!!! (now please get some sleep, i want you healthy for Chapter 10! ;D)

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  6. that chapter was much too short... but a teaser nonetheless! can't wait for more :D

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    1. LOL agreed, Neyla, but I hope you're ready for a PIVOTAL Chapter 10, and I don't say that lightly ;).... THANKS for reading and please comment anytime, for anything!!

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  7. :O gone whheerreeeee?! gone whereee?!! Btw thank you so much for making this chapter longer than the previous one n i have to say u knw its good when a love story makes ypu rlyyyyyyyh long for your loved one . and once more thank you for letting us dream again :)
    P.s: gone whereee?!

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    1. HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA "Gone wheeeeeeeerrre?!" X')))) Patience, patience....
      As I told Elias, the previous couple of chapters were just hors-d'oeuvres; this is part of the main course ;)
      As for what you wrote, about this story making you long for your loved one.... I'm in total shock, because this has been my utopian purpose for years, and I thought I could never achieve it!!! I CAN'T BELIEVE IT WORKED ON YOU!!!! Oh my goodness, THANK YOU!!!!

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  8. great brilliant talented amazing work! bravo!! =)
    mur xoxo

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    1. :") Oh my goodness. coming from someone whose middle name is "Talented", it means a whole, darn lot!!! :") (K)(K)

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    2. hahaha! Co! merci!! xoxo

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  9. i'm loving this turn of events! can't wait for more :D

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    1. I was so nervous about it at first, and it's really hard to write, but i'm ECSTATIC that you like it, THANK YOU Neyla!!! xx

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  10. Hi, I stumbled the link to your story this while browsing Book Tweeting Service on twitter - am so glad I found it!!!
    Your tale kept me interested from the 1st page - could hardly stop reading to get things done..... Love the story & characters so far, hope there's more to come....... :-)

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