Little Red Caplets
... young woman in a shapeless overcoat, clutching a brown paper bag of little red caplets, stuck in the revolving door of a tall glass building: Miranda Martineau suddenly found herself on the street with no home and no memory.
The amnesia she could live with; the homelessness, according to Dr. Hong, was in her mind. “You live in a house on Jaguar Island,” she had told her, barely looking up from her fat file, “with your grandmother; it’s a subway ride away, then you walk to the edge of the river, then there’s a ferry; and we’ve already notified your grandmother of your release.”
“I don’t remember my grandmother,” Miranda said, addressing herself to the top rim of Dr. Hong’s glasses. “And I don’t want to leave the Institute.”
“Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about that; you’re eighteen. We no longer have jurisdiction.”
“Am I cured?”
“You were never sick.”
“Then why was I here?”
“People did terrible things to you. It’s all in here. But you don’t have to think about that. You have the red caplets. They suck out all the pain from you. That’s why it doesn’t hurt.”
“Can I look at my file?”
“You wouldn’t want to. Lots of bad things in the files. Only doctors can look, Miranda. People who haven’t been through med school and psychiatry school, well, the things they see in these files can really destroy their minds.”
“I don’t remember my grandmother. This place is my family. You’re like a mother to me, Dr. Hong,” Miranda said.
“I wish I could have been,” said Dr. Janice Hong, and for once she lowered the file and Miranda could see, behind the thick lenses, a kind of concern. “Now, take your grandmother these documents.” She pushed them across the table in a brown paper bag. “And here’s a bottle of your pills; the prescription’s refillable. And a map. You can read maps, can’t you, Miranda? Don’t stray from the map. Whatever you do, Miranda, don’t stray from the map.”
“Yeah.” She closed her eyes. There came a flash: a ruined house at the water’s edge. An old woman laughing. White eyes.
Wicker bars of a cage.
When she opened her eyes again, she was standing by the revolving doors. Just like that. She must have taken one of the little red caplets. When she started seeing things like that, she was always supposed to take one. Then, sometimes, she’d lose a chunk of time.
She wondered if Dr. Hong had hugged her goodbye. Or at least shaken her hand.
* * * * *
The escalator went a long way down. She had trouble with the turnstile, but when a bum tried to help her, she panicked. She walked down a tunnel lined with tiles, smelling of piss. The smell made her mad. “You don’t own this place,” she whispered fiercely. She did not know who she was talking to.
She found herself at another turnstile. It jerked, made a squeaky, creaky noise, and let her through just as a train pulled up; she went in. Good, there was no one else. Except...never mind. Whoever it was was hiding behind a Weekly World News; she couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see her. That was good. She knew it was a he, though. There was something in the air.
The car was a lot dirtier than rooms at the Institution. There was a smell that wasn’t piss. She thought it might be coming from behind that newspaper. It bothered her. It also made her tingle. Down there, inside. She wondered whether it was time to take another pill.
The car started to move.
The tabloid lowered.
Odd. He’s younger than I sensed. He’s maybe a teenager. Curly dark hair and pouting lips. And he’s staring straight at me. Big eyes. White eyes? No. Just for a moment maybe. Something electric. Something familiar. Then he averted his eyes.
He, too, had a brown paper bag.
She looked away. The window flashed, on-off, on-off. The walls were covered with peeling posters. Then...in a niche...a leopard. Howling. The moonlight. No, no, another one of those dream-pictures, stealing in on her waking world...she fumbled for the little red caplets.
The car squealed as it braked. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, the car was full of people. She shrank back. Some of them seemed to sense that. They crowded her. A whole group of them, with shaved heads and leather and cruel eyes.
“Haven’t seen you on this train before,” said one. Bony-faced. Had a chain wrapped around his forearm.
“So what you wearing under that potato sack?” A fat one, muscle shirt, sweaty.
“There’s no one here but us,” said Bony-face. “Unless you count the dweeb.” He jerked a thumb at the boy behind the newspaper. They moved closer. There was an odor. Catpiss. Somehow the stench made her angry. Really angry. She remembered Dr. Hong’s anger management mantra, began repeating it over and over in her mind:
Anger is a dark cloud. Blow it away.
Your skin is just a sack. Pour yourself out. Empty yourself.
But they were getting closer. The cat smell was maddening. Then the fat one laid his hand on her shoulder. She could feel the grease through the fabric.
Anger is a dark cloud blow it away blow it away.
She squeezed her eyes tight. Get away from me! she screamed inside. There was an explosion.
She opened her eyes. There was a hole in the fat man’s head. She turned, saw the blood stream down the wall behind her. Blood spattered the seat. A smear of brain down the man’s forehead and he slumped to one side. Not a spot of blood on Miranda. She sat there, frozen. How did I do that? she was thinking.
But it wasn’t her. More shots now. It was the boy behind the Weekly World News. He’d taken a gun from his brown paper bag and now he was firing. Not insanely, methodically, picking off the gangsters one by one. Bodies were piling up. The reek of blood was drowning out the stench of catpiss. The floor of the car was crimson. It was over in less than a minute. She was screaming. So was the car.
The subway car plowed on. Lights flashed, on-off, on-off.
In her mind, she could hear laughter, a woman’s laughter...like an evil witch in a cartoon. But she didn’t recognize the voice.
The bony-faced one, slammed against the window, jerked. He wasn’t quite dead. He reached up, pulled the alarm, slipped on the pool of blood. The car shuddered to a halt. The blood sluiced left, right, left, right. The bodies rolled back, forth, back, forth. The lights dimmed. Miranda saw that the youth was wild-eyed, staring at the gun.
“Don’t be crazy about it,” she said softly. “You saved me.”
She touched his arm with a fingertip. Felt...anger...draining from him. Into her. Rage, bright red, like fire, siphoning into her veins. She visualized her blood running cold, quenching the flames. The young man’s fury seemed to subside. She had drawn it into herself. Like she’d seen Dr. Hong do to patients sometimes.
Images: knives. The bars of a cage. Children’s eyes. Listless. The peeling of raw skin. Tears of blood. The bars of a cage. Or window bars. Bars. A whiff of cinnamon melding into catpiss.
He got up from the seat. He dropped the gun. Pried open the door of the subway car. “Come on,” he said. “We can get to the surface from here.”
They climbed out. There was a ledge. They inched their way along. They left the train behind when the path divided. The boy seemed to know where they were going, and Miranda followed; he clung to her sleeve with a clammy hand. It was pitch dark. But she could sense movement in the air. Not far from here there was a way up. She could tell. Eventually the ledge expanded and there were footholds, bars of metal. “I’ll go first,” said the boy. “You can hold on to my foot.”
The foot felt cold. Images came once again. She had seen the boy before. The eyes. Familiar eyes. Almond-shaped. Fiercely blue.
There was a grate above their heads. He prodded at it, worked it free. As she climbed through, she realized that her bag was all bloody...that the moisture had worn a hole in the paper. Before she could think of it, something dropped out. She could hear it clinking against the wall and hit bottom. “My little red caplets,” she said. “I have to take them. Otherwise--“
“Otherwise what?” the youth asked.
“Otherwise...I don’t know,” she said. She fumbled in her pocket. She usually kept a few extra. She found one...swallowed it quickly before looking around to see where they were.
“I...” she tugged at the map. Blood made it stick to the paper bag. “I don’t know where I am anymore.”
And she remembered what Janice Hong had told her...Don’t stray from the map, not ever.
Miranda drew the map all the way from the bag. What was left of it. It was soiled. The parts Dr. Hong had marked in felt tip pen were all splotchy and illegible.
“Don’t worry about the map,” the boy said. “If you walk straight west, you’ll hit the pier. You’ll see the island.”
“But how did you know where I’m going?”
“Everyone knows, Miranda,” he said.
The street was misty. She did not know how late it was, but a Korean grocery store on the corner was packing up to close. There was a newsstand with a neon light that didn’t work. The boy--she still had no idea who he was, or how he knew her name--suddenly began sobbing uncontrollably. She did not know what to do. She embraced him. He was thin in her arms, insubstantial.
“I tried not to kill them,” he said.
“I know, I know,” she whispered, comforting him.
“I don’t have the gift,” he said.
“I know, I know,” she said. But she didn’t know. “Will you walk with me as far as the river?”
“Can’t,” he said. They heard sirens. He looked like he was about to panic.
“I...I don’t dare,” he said. “It’s not allowed, I mean, I think I already went too far.”
“What’s your name?” she asked him.
“No names,” he said. “Just situations. Relationships. Boy-in-subway. Darkside.” He twisted free of her embrace, abruptly, forcefully.
The sirens were louder now, closer. “I’ll see you later,” the boy said softly. And bolted. Into the gathering mist.
She looked in the window of the newsstand. Her eyes: almond. Fiercely blue. The Weekly World News draped over a counter; she could read the headline: SATANIC CULT LINKED TO RITUAL ABUSE.
There were pictures. A caged child. A knife. The same pictures as the images that swirled through her mind sometimes. The images that the red pills took away. She turned away, faced the direction the boy indicated and began walking.
A black cat ran across her pathway. She didn’t like the way it smelled; she didn’t like its eyes. She breathed in: Dr. Hong is wise. Breathed out. Dr. Hong is concerned. In, out. Yes. She was already starting to feel better. Where was the river? That way. Straight down.
* * * * *
The moonlight was fading. It was dark. There were row-houses here, an alley now and then, a trash can; the street lamps were mostly broken. She had to go on. She wondered about her grandmother, tried to conjure up a picture...but all she could see were eyes. Deep blue eyes. And teeth. For some reason, she remembered teeth. Sharp, glistening with a hint of drool.
She walked on.
It was far. After a while she wanted to rest, and she wanted to see if she could glean anything from the map. There was a working street light and a dumpster. She sat down on the pavement. She smelled pizza and old vomit. She leaned against a corrugated iron wall. The map was puzzling. It seemed to have changed. Dr. Hong’s scribblings weren’t there any more. Roads that had once seemed crooked were straight. The river was outlined in coagulating blood.
Maybe she slept for a while. Her eyes were closed, at least, though she did not think she lost consciousness. She could see images on her closed lids. A forest. The ground oozing. The leaves breathing. The air thick and earthy. She could feel the wet ground, feel her palms and soles dig into it. I’m an animal, she thought, some kind of wild animal. The air was quite still: the only wind was the breeze of her own movement, of her fetid breath.
She could hear something. A soft growl. Threatening. But she was not afraid. She circled. A sharpness in the air...blood.
The growling crescendoed. Then came a sudden trumpeting...an elephant...no, a car horn.
Suddenly Miranda realized she wasn’t dreaming. Trash in the dumpster cast jungle shadows in the lamplight. In the alley there was a stopped car with a running motor. There was a man at the wheel. He must have banged into the car horn by accident. His eyes were closed and he was swaying. The rhythm was oddly familiar.
The door opened and a woman crawled out. The night wasn’t that warm, but all she was wearing was a red slip, and the shoulder straps were halfway down her arms. Her lipstick was splotched with white. She got up and slammed the door with a shoeless foot, then took some pills that were tucked in her bosom and popped them, one at a time, peering left and right. She hadn’t seen Miranda, but maybe she sensed something; she paused and sniffed the air...there was catpiss here, too...the moisture in the air was laced with it.
The car peeled away and there was the woman, girl really, beneath the harsh yellow light. She put one arm against the wall, almost brushed Miranda’s head, but didn’t seem to notice her. Maybe it was the pills. They were red, too, not caplets, but round, shiny.
Miranda held her breath. The woman had startling eyes. Like the boy. She stood there. There was a scent about her, not just the perfume she had drenched herself with, but something from down lower, something from the forest in Miranda’s dreams.
Another car pulled up. It was a convertible, an Impala or something, sleek. It was full of men. The same kind of men that had threatened Miranda in the subway. The woman seemed afraid. But she set her face in a mask of seduction, and she forced herself to smile. The men surrounded her. They spoke in low voices. There was a tone of menace. They began to move closer. They grabbed her. Ripped her slip. Miranda saw a breast, saw a smear of blood, and something came over her.
Time seemed to draw itself out, become elastic. Blood squirted against her tongue. Acrid sweat-smell soaked her nostrils. Her fingernails struck flesh, raked, rent skin, ripped raw, gouged, dug clumps of meat, shredded, slick blood slid against flesh and fur. She snarled. She worried at smashed bones. Licked the marrow, slimy with drool.
She was one with the savage night. Perhaps she was black like the night. Perhaps her skin glistened silver-black. Perhaps she wasn’t human. Perhaps...
The world whirled, blacked out, was suddenly still. She opened her eyes and the woman was backing away from her.
“Don’t touch me. Please...don’t,” she whimpered. “I’m not ready for this. I could’ve taken it. I had the pills. I wouldn’t have felt anything. The pills, they take it all away. You didn’t have to...do that.”
“What did I do?” Miranda said softly.
The woman shook her head. Backed away, all the way down the alley; at the street, she turned and ran; Miranda heard heels echoing against concrete, into the distance.
Miranda saw the carnage for the first time. It was worse than in the subway car. Worse, because she must have caused it.
They were lying around in pieces. Arms and legs protruded from a trash can. The heads had no eyes. She had blood on her lips...and something gelatinous She shook herself, and a slimy tongue rolled down her coat onto the pavement. Sticky gunk in her fingernails. She was afraid.
Dr. Hong used to lock her in a closet. She remembered the straitjacket, too. How could she have forgotten that? The closet...she couldn’t breathe...strapped down. But it was for her own good. To stop her from harming herself. She remembered now. Dr. Hong had told her that. Often.
The cage bars...the eyes...the knife...she was beginning to panic.
She had no little red caplets left. And now the map was unreadable. It was completely soaked in blood.
She heard the laughter again. It was someone she knew. It was a sound from her childhood, perhaps, something to do with all that stuff in Dr. Hong’s file, the ancient trauma that had brought her to the Institute in the first place.
She began walking.
* * * * *
There was a boat moored by the dock; somehow she knew it was meant for her. It was cold, clear, luminous. When she climbed in, the boat seemed to move by itself. It glided in water that hardly rippled; she saw moon after moon reflected; the island, in the distance, did not seem foreboding at all. She could see the house now, palely lit. The red caplets must be wearing off. She was feeling all hot inside; her skin was warm too, armor against the chill night air. At first, all she could hear was the ripple of water; but as she neared the island there were other sounds, too. A kind of howling. A soft purring. When she put her hand to her breast, she realized that the purring came from inside her.
It was only then that she began to feel like she was coming home.
A woman stood in the doorway. Her skin was dark as the foliage in the moonlight; her eyes shone, and she saw for the first time that they were her own eyes, impossibly blue. But it had not occurred to her that her grandmother was black. She hadn’t remembered that.
“Are you startled?” The voice was clear, almost as though it sounded inside Miranda’s head. And now that she thought about it, she wasn’t sure if the woman’s lips had moved. “Do you remember me?”
The knife slashing through the air...in mid-air, the knife metamorphosed into a gentle hands, caressing her...
“I’m not sure what I remember,” Miranda said.
“Embrace me,” said her grandmother.
She smiled; Miranda saw the glint of fangs. She was about to say something when--
“The better to eat you with, machè,” said the old woman. And laughed, a laugh that banished apprehension.
Miranda set aside her fear. She hugged her. Though blood still clung to her clothes, her hands, her grandmother didn’t seem to mind. She was hard, lithe, underneath the shapeless summer dress, billowing a little in the chill air.
Miranda didn’t mind either. When she sank into her grandmother’s arms, the blood didn’t smell as bad. It had a sweetness to it. A smear or two still stuck to her lips held a hint of cherry ice cream. “You starting to remember now, machè,” she said. Miranda could not place the lilt, the accent, but it sounded comfortingly familiar. “I think you a little surprise me black.”
“I am,” Miranda said. “But I do remember a little.”
“Quick, come inside, it cold, machè,” said her grandmother, “and your dinner waiting.” What kind of accent was this? There was a hint of France, a hint of Africa. “And shut the door behind you.”
Miranda stepped inside the house. The furnishings were old. Gold leaf was peeling from the moldings. On a tattered divan whose legs were carved into feline feet, his face now emerging from a bloodstained Weekly World News, there was a boy with deep blue eyes. He stared at her, his eyes narrowing to slits--cat eyes. She could feel his sadness. He put down the tabloid and came to her, touched her hands, her face; at each touch, something siphoned into her from him; she saw pictures: the eyes, the child in a cage, dangling; the knife, the flashing steel, the blood spurting gashed flesh, hot, fast cooling with the slowing of the heartbeat --
“I just can’t do what you can do,” he said softly. “I try, but I’m not the one.”
“His blood didn’t run true,” said another voice. In an inner doorway stood the hooker whose life she had probably saved. “I’m sorry I backed away, sis,” she said. “I knew about your powers, see, but I...hadn’t seen them in action. I guess I panicked.”
And so it is that Miranda knew their eyes...her eyes. And she remembered. The eyes staring from behind cage bars...veiled by two-way mirrors...locked up. Her eyes.
“When you left,” her grandmother said, “we try so hard, we try, try, try to make another like you; nothing work.”
“What do you mean,” Miranda said, “like me?”
“Come,” said her grandmother, “eat now.”
She followed her brother and sister through the living room, with its bronze leopard statue garlanded with jasmine, its oil portraits of dark ancestors and shelves full of porcelain cats, the velvet drapes smelling faintly of perfume and urine; on the other side of the room was a veranda that looked out over the water and the far shore; never built up, the other side of the river was all trees, dense, foliage silver-black in the setting moon. There was a table set out, with candles, hundreds of them, candles in cups, candles in trays, candles in a silver menorah, candles in old wine bottles; and there was food. Roast beef, lamb, pork, no vegetables at all; and in the middle of the table, some half-eaten cans of cat food.
She wondered at the cat food, but then the boy sprang onto the table, nimble-footed, began eating it straight out of the can.
“It’s hard for Leo,” said her grandmother. “He’s trapped in between, can’t switch. Easier for Tabitha.”
“Yes, easier,” the girl said, as she padded toward the table. She pulled out a chair for Miranda, right by the wooden rail, over the river; Miranda sat down, listened to the whispering water, felt different somehow; as if she had been running all her life and had suddenly stopped.
“Look,” said her grandmother, “you been expected, they all been keeping a lookout for you.”
“They?” Miranda asked, as she bit into a succulent morsel of rare lamb.
“The ones who look to you,” her grandmother said, “in the dead of night. The ones who are lie in fear. The ones who wait in shadow.”
“When you went away, sis,” Tabitha said, “they were scared, they couldn’t sleep at night.”
She could see them now, crawling up the veranda, skulking behind old armchairs covered in plastic, peering between the railings. They were old and young, wild-eyed, homeless. They adored her. And that was the strangest thing of all; Miranda had no memory of adoration...except, except--
Someone was banging at the door. Pushing it open. Shouting, “Miranda, Miranda, come now, I’ve come to rescue you.”
Crashing noises. Someone was tramping through the living room. She could hear pictures sliding off walls, glass breaking, the thud of the leopard statue as it fell from its niche. There were voices, ugly voices like those men who had tried to attack her on the subway train. They bust their way through the mesh door onto the veranda. They had guns. They had straitjackets ready, and they were making their way toward Miranda and her family.
“Hold it for a moment.” It was Janice Hong. She had brought these people. “I don’t want a big scene.”
As the gunmen threatened Miranda’s grandmother and her siblings, keeping them in their seats, Dr. Hong approached Miranda, spoke to her gently, with tenderness. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, Miranda,” she said. “Remember our exercises. Anger is a dark cloud. Blow it away.”
“What are you doing here?” Miranda felt no anger. She felt, beneath the ocean of her newfound serenity, something moving in the depths … far below … maybe a shark.
“Anger is a dark cloud, blow it away.”
“But I’m not angry, Dr. Hong,” Miranda said. “Are you?” She stretched out her hands. “I can take it away.”
“You didn’t follow the map,” said Dr. Hong. “I told you to follow the map!”
“I couldn’t. There was too much blood.”
“And you lost the caplets, too, didn’t you?”
Dr. Hong reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of the little red caplets. She held them out. “Come on now.”
“What are the caplets for?” Miranda was astonished that she was asking this question for the first time.
“You have terrible memories,” said Dr. Hong. “They fill you with rage. You see bad things. You don’t remember but we had to put you in a padded cell, with a straitjacket on. That’s what the caplets help you with.”
“But I’m not full of rage right now,” Miranda said softly. “Actually, I remember everything perfectly.” That wasn’t quite true yet, but something was happening to her. Her conscious mind had been like a raft, drifting in a murky sea; but now the waters were becoming still, clear, transparent. Images were drifting up out of the deep.
Suddenly, Miranda saw who had been wielding the knife. Suddenly, she saw the face that had looked back from the other side of the cage bars.
She remembered the crown of thorns. She remembered the chained women in the padded cells, violated, bleeding. She remembered the laughter. Now she remembered who the laughter came from. Those pearly teeth, glistening in the glare of overhead halogen lights...and herself reflected in the eyes, her pale, small, frightened self.
Dr. Hong could see that Miranda remembered. Because there was fear in her eyes.
“Experiments,” Miranda murmured. “You used them. Killed some of them. Threw them out into the street to fend for themselves...helpless, maimed, blind to the real world.”
“The mantra, Miranda!” Dr. Hong kept repeating. “It’s just a bad dream...I’ve been like a mother to you...oh, why did you stray from the map, Miranda?”
“You made me stray,” Miranda said.
Dr. Hong rushed forward. Started clawing at Miranda’s eyes. But human fingernails are no substitute for real claws. Miranda pounced. She scratched. She moved so fast, it was all a blur. And her brother and sister were moving too; the three of them, together, leaping, clawing, perfectly synchronized; it seemed only seconds later, and the gunmen and Dr. Hong were trussed up, tied to chairs with strips of their own clothing, their own weapons being pointed in their faces by some of the street people who had been crouching in the shadows.
The street people were whispering to each other: “Experiments. Experiments.” That too, was like a mantra. As the memories burst to the surface, she knew that Dr. Hong hadn’t been the villain, either; perhaps, in a way, she had even loved her. The cage that imprisoned Dr. Hong had no visible bars, but it was perhaps even more terrifying that what she and the others had suffered in the Institute, in the basement with the bright lights and the knives. And now, with Dr. Hong staring at her, imploring, the stench of fear percolating through the night air, Miranda felt a kind of pity.
That was Miranda’s special gift, the gift of pity. She pitied even as she killed; touching the slain, she drew their pain into herself; that was why, of all her siblings, she had perfected the changing; of all of them, she alone could become perfectly one with the night.
“You’re wrong,” Dr. Hong was saying. “Don’t throw your life away. I’ve protected you all these years...they were grooming you...they’re going to kill you...use you in some weird ritual...come on, Miranda...I’ve been a mother to you...don’t let them do this.”
And Miranda answered her, “You’re right, Dr. Hong. They are going to kill me. For this I was born, for this I was raised. Don’t give me any more Little Red Riding Hood stories, straying from the pathway, shying from strangers, swallowing the pills.”
Miranda knew what had to be done. Her grandmother had a knife, the knife of her nightmares. Her eyes were widening now, becoming even more blue; her skin was darkening, acquiring the sheen of liquid moonlight. Miranda took off that shapeless overcoat, stepped out of her Goodwill Store dress. She folded her panties and put them on the table. Carefully, she moved the candles, so that there was room for her to lie down in the center of the table. A breeze sprang up; her nipples hardened.
The others crept closer. The knelt around the table. They were praying. The veranda was crammed with supplicants now; they all watched her, expectant, hoping. She could hear their whispers, their soft chanting. Dr. Hong and the two thugs, trussed up in their chairs, had ringside seats. Their eyes bulged; but Dr. Hong could no longer speak, for Leo had gagged her before she could start screaming.
Miranda’s grandmother said to Dr. Hong, “You try to do these things, Janice...but you no have the gift, machè.”
For the first time, Miranda realized that they were kin, too. Somehow, Dr. Hong was the one who had strayed from the path. Dr. Hong did not have the eyes. And yet, somehow, she was connected to this clan.
“Oh, Janice, you mean well,” her grandmother continued, “you want to help the sick in mind, the helpless; I know this. But the transforming is no for you. You are no ours by blood, only because you carried our seed. You can cut out a million hearts but you no change your own heart. Heart comes by being born. Heart is a gift. Heart link us to the old country, the dark island in the jewel sea.”
Dr. Hong was struggling against her bonds now. From behind the gag came little whimpering sounds. Her eyes were filled with terror and...remorse.
“Now, Janice,” said Miranda’s grandmother, “I take your daughter’s heart.”
Janice Hong wept tears of blood.
Miranda made her mind completely blank and still, as she had been taught, a long time ago, before the Institute, before the red pills. She knew there would be pain if she did not empty everything. She whispered a mantra of unchaining, and her thoughts drained from her, as if she had pulled the plug in a bathtub full of foul, decaying dead things. She closed her eyes; numbness radiated from her chest, seeped through her veins to the tips of her fingers and toes, to the crown of her head.
There was no pain when the knife descended, only pressure; she could tell that her flesh was giving way, could feel the wetness of blood, could hear the crack as her sternum was riven to get at the beating heart beneath. She opened her eyes; when her heart was ripped away, she could feel a great stillness, as though those endless calming mantras Dr. Hong had taught her were finally working. She could see her grandmother as though from a great distance; the person she saw was of immeasurable age, born before time, fiery-maned, male and female, dark and light; she stood upon the water, yet her feet did not touch the rippling of the river.
“Now, machè,” said the ancient woman, “let us become as one.”
The knife descended once more, slicing ever so delicately into the upper layer of Miranda’s skin, stopping just shy of the subcutaneous fatty cushion, then paring, peeling the skin, so so carefully so that the only tear was the one in the chest through which the heart had already been torn.
As the skin was stripped away, she was aware of the wind against her bones, the chill seeping into her, the blood thickening as it touched the atmosphere...the cold stealing over her internal organs...came darkness...like the caresses she had never known, from the mother who had never revealed herself.
Then there was stillness.
* * * * *
Miranda opened her eyes...her eyes, other eyes. She stood against the railing, against the veranda. It was almost dawn.
Inside her, other minds looked out. Other voices whispered. She remembered...everything the little red caplets had wiped from her mind before...and more. She remembered running from the hounds in the Virginia woods. She remembered dancing naked on a ship to drum and fife. She remembered gnawing at her foot, caught in a steel trap. Remembered the pounding of paws, of wet, packed soil, the pungent earthy odor of the forest, the distant trumpeting of elephants...sunrise in alien colors, on alien worlds.
Now the sun was rising again. It hurt her eyes a little; she realized, suddenly, that the sun had never risen in the Institute. She was a creature of the night; dawn had come in a padded cell, in a closet, on a hard berth.
Around her, other creatures of the night were slinking back to their hiding places...the street people, the prostitutes, the lost children...she was their guardian. She was born to protect them. She was their goddess, renewing herself each time she grew old by absorbing the living flesh of her own offspring.
Where were Dr. Hong and the security personnel from the Institute? Gone with the morning. They were not the enemy; in her own way, Dr. Hong had wanted to become a guardian too. But it wasn’t in her blood.
“Goodbye, Miranda,” Leo said. “I guess I’ll go back to patrolling the subway.” He seemed to fade into the coming sun.
Her sister smiled. “I’ll see you,” she said. “I’ll feel a lot better walking the streets now, knowing you’re out.”
Miranda didn’t smile back. The enormity of what had happened was only slowly sinking in. And she knew she had work to do, more work than even her grandmother had realized.
Oh yes, I did, machè, said the voice inside her head. But I had to wait for you before it could begin.
Was she really ready to be the redemptrix of the city’s lost? She could not agonize over it. She walked out through the front door of the house, found the boat, and--as if knowing who she was, and where she was going--the wind and the tide sprang up at just that moment, and bore her to the other shore.
* * * * *
She was a confident young woman in a shapeless dress, standing in the revolving door of a tall glass building. She swept past the security people as if she owned the place, didn’t bother even to stop at reception. She took the elevator up to the seventeenth floor and found the office whose door read “Hong: chief counselor.”
Dr. Hong’s nose was buried in a file. She didn’t even look up, said simply, “Résumé?”
Then something made her put down the file. Something in the air. Perhaps it was the faint scent of feline urine. Miranda had not yet learned to mask the pheromones of the huntress.
“I read in the want ads,” Miranda said, “you might be needing a new chief counselor.”