“Isabella had had a frightening night, but her father even more so.” The lieutenant turned to face the officers that had gathered in the room that day. Cathleen had a bit of a twinkle in her eye; devastating as cases could be, they seemed to have a certain effect on her. Some thought this was the signature of a sadistic woman, who joined the police force only for the fear of the law, but the days were different from others, law did not quite have the people under its thumb. Perhaps it was true anyhow, but she was lieutenant and a good one regardless of whether she felt personal gratification at the sight of blood or not.
She found herself lying awake in her bed, breathing heavily and talking to herself. She had no idea what the dream had been about, but she knew it had terrified her. She tried to close her eyes again, but the unfound paranoia kept her awake. After about twenty minutes of shifting positions and adjusting pillows, it was her decision to remain perfectly still until her sleepy eyes shut themselves and took her back into the land that harbored dreams. Then again, though she was sleepy, she didn't know if she could dare to step into those planes again. Now, she felt, only waiting for irresistible fatigue would do the trick. But for a mind filled with fear, it was not an easy task.
“That is, of course, if what he says is true.” She went on. “And we can’t truly place him in the position of a suspect. It seems to be a case of self-mutilation, but why would the victim -and I say victim because I’m still not convinced, have a reason to do this to herself?”
The projector whirred; a grotesque image of white-and-red covered the screen. Those gathered, the people of the law, felt nauseated at the sight in spite of the fact that they were experienced with corpses. This specific girl had broken the strongest of the officers’ mental defenses, and a little of Cathleen’s courage when she had first seen the corpse. The room was filled with an imaginary scent of decay. Cathleen could only be glad she was facing her officers and not the screen. Others, however, did not have such luxuries.
Isabella could feel her mouth going dry, and so were the tears on her cheek. These tears had passed off unnoticed by her before, but now she could feel the salty liquid vaporizing with the hot, dry wind. It tickled her face. It must have been the frightening dream that had caused these tears to run down her nose and temple, but it could have also been the result of the fact that her eyes had been open for a while now. She blinked a few times and sat up in her bed.
The night was awfully dark. Remembering the cellular device she had kept under her pillow the previous day, her hand reached for it. It would serve as a source of light, so she could find her way to the kitchen.
A young officer raised his hand. He tried not to look at the screen, but he had to, in order to face the lieutenant. The others, happy to have another object of interest to look at, regarded him closely.
Her hand reached under the pillow, it searched.
Nothing? She thought, confused. Then she picked up the pillow and tried to see where it was, if it were there at all. The warm sweat and drool on her pillow moistened her hand and as the thirsty winds fed on the moisture; she felt cold. She felt with her free hand for her cell-phone.
There! She found it. Good, well.
Damn! The battery was exhausted. She would just have to travel alone through the dark. And she did. Adjusting her pajamas, Isabella stood up and groped for the door knob. She felt entirely blinded, but before she knew it, she had opened the door and made her way to the kitchen.
He was undoubtedly in his 20’s, and had the sickly pale complexion of a person who had spent too much time away from the sun. Despite being new to the force, the captain favored him, and since nobody dared question the captain’s judgment, he was treated with respect (if not a little sarcastic) by his colleagues. Following the officers’ gaze, Cathleen nodded quietly.
The switch was right there. She pressed it down with her whole palm hastily, thereby switching on all the other electronic appliances whose switches were around the one she had meant to press down. Now in the warmth of artificial light, she could switch off the ceiling fans and the microwave with ease.
But that was not meant to be. The light from the CFL blared out and flooded the room. Isabella could feel a pang of pain in her optic nerves as her eyes adjusted to the brightness. Had the lights been changed? They hadn’t been this bright before or any other night for that matter. Or perhaps it was just the night, darker than that any other. Isabella could almost imagine the sky, cloudy and dark grey, or rather, black, small lights fading behind the clouds like dying fireflies.
She walked to the water-filter, blinking rapidly as she did so, wishing her eyes would get used to the glare already. They were little more than narrow slits as she drank quickly. The water going down her throat in large quantities pinched her oesophagus as it went. Sleep seemed like a distant memory.
Isabella could still feel her salivary glands pouring thick, water-deficient saliva into her mouth.
Perhaps a little more.
This time she was careful to drink slower. She filled her stomach with water until she could feel the unease of a strange wobble inside. Now all she wanted was to go back to her bedroom and sleep; okay, stay awake and be quiet about it. She must have woken up someone with the racket she created while she switched on all the appliances. The golden glow of the microwave stared back at her under the flutter of the ceiling-fan, bathed in another glow that was the local lights.
He pushed his chair back in a clumsy fashion, thereby disturbing the utter silence that had followed the revelation of the very first slide in the presentation. Cathleen had put it there for just that. She didn’t need to build up to a mystery. All she needed was a room where she could speak without interruptions as one of the five officers that had been there at the scene of the crime as soon as they were called. And even she couldn’t help but wince at the clumsiness of this bull in the china shop she had set up as an excuse for briefing. Clumsy as he was, he was a brilliant person, and he would soon come to prove it to the rest of the team, but not yet.
She headed back to the switches and pressed each one, one at a time, but she didn’t switch off the light. Her finger rested on the switch though, as she considered. Finally, gathering her courage, she pressed down.
She found herself pressing again, at the other end. Light was back from the CFL.
She found herself wondering why she had just done that.
‘Okay’, she thought, she obviously wasn't ready to make her way back to her room through the dark. Not that she was afraid, but she was. She had been for a while. She knew he had returned, and she knew she couldn’t run away again, like she had done a long time ago. She couldn't repress his memory at the back of her mind any more, and she certainly couldn't fall asleep with that memory clawing its way through her subconscious.
After all, we recreate a memory every time we remember. He was reborn again and again inside her head.
The kitchen opened to the dining-room, and there lay a table for six. A stool had been pulled up there the night before, for the family had had guests, and the chairs fell short for one. Isabella had taken her seat on the stool and eaten awkwardly with people who were related to her but only pretended to care for her.
And now she sat again, on the stool, waiting patiently for the night to end, and despising guests.
“By the state of her body, she couldn't have possibly done it herself.” He said in a single breath as he stared into the picture at last, disturbed by it but also too stupefied to look away at this point of time.
“And why do you think so?” Cathleen stepped into the darkness to let him have a complete view. She suppressed a smile, for she knew exactly why he thought so.
“Mum, mum wake up!” Beatrice shook her mother’s shoulder as she slept. It was very early in the morning and Beatrice’s mother was not excited about the fact that she was being woken up, but sensing the emotion in her daughter’s voice, she did so anyway.
“What is it, Bea?”
“It’s Isabella. She’s awake.”
Hearing this, Martha mother was mildly annoyed. She knew her older daughter to be an insomniac, especially while under the pressure of coming exams.
Beatrice sensed her mother’s irritation, and she wished to resolve it but didn’t know how. After living in the world for many (though not many) years, her mother had not quite learned the trick to masking one’s annoyance. Finally, finding no way to explain the situation briefly and yet clearly, Beatrice, much to her mother’s further annoyance, dragged her to the kitchen.
And thus the situation was explained.
“Isa? Are you all right?” Martha approached her with caution. After receiving no audible response, she decided to be sterner with her daughter, who looked like she had stayed up the whole night, and she probably had.
“Answer me.” She demanded.
Isabella turned to her mother, slowly, mechanically. Her eyes were dark and dull. She broke into a straight, fake smile after what felt like a lifetime. “Why wouldn't I be?”
“Why wouldn't you what.”
“Be alright. Why wouldn't I be alright?”
“You, young lady, need to explain why you look like you were up all night.”
"That's because I was."
Martha’s voice shook as she said this, and Isabella could tell. She noticed every bit of everything that was happening in her vicinity. The cold, eventless night had almost changed her. Perhaps it had not been as eventless after all.
“You’re blood pressure isn't steady.”
“And just how would you know that.” Martha sat back and crossed her hands, silently checking her own pulse and willing it to be slower.
“You are scared. And yet you refuse to believe it.”
“Are you going to cry? I’m sorry if I’m making you cry.”
Martha did not know what had led her daughter to this, but instinctively, she felt herself blink. A single salty drop of water rolled down her cheek. Before she could respond, Isabella had walked away.
As Isabella walked to her room, Beatrice spied her from a crack in the door, afraid of whatever her sister had become. However, Isa knew of this, and just as she turned to the room, just before Beatrice could squeal and run, she bent down all of a sudden and peered back through that crack.
There was no sound; Beatrice was too shocked to scream. She scrambled to the corner, away from her sister who now walked into the room. Whispering nonsense to herself, she rocked back and forth, trying to get herself over the horrors of what she had just seen.
Inside the bathroom, the older sister looked for a while, and when she found not what she sought, she walked out again, this time, glaring at Beatrice and flashing her a short, sharp smile. Bea, the little clumsy girl, was now chewing her hand, but not really getting anywhere. She would need sharper teeth than that, her sister thought as she left the room. That gave her an idea.
But then WHERE did her father keep his stupid razors?!
“Well, for one, she wouldn't have finished. The pieces are perfectly diced, as we can all see, and the moment she hit an artery, like the one on her neck, that is the carotid, It would have led to an instant death. And if she had cut off the rest of, um, herself minus the organs of the digestive system before the-“He trailed off and immediately looked away from the screen. “It isn't possible.”
“Isa?” Her father rolled over in his bed. She hadn't been noisy at all when she entered her parents’ room, but he found himself half awake.
“Isabella, hon, what are you doing?”
“Nothing, father, just go back to bed. You’re safe in bed.”
He got out of bed, yawning and stretching a while, and then, realizing that the whole house was awake, he grimaced. He had been a heavy sleeper, but how long had he actually been asleep?
Turning around, he checked the clock. It seemed to be stuck, and the hour’s hand moved back and forth from 3 to 4, visibly fast. Samuel stared at it for a while, feeling oddly dizzy.
The bathroom door slammed shut.
“Good points, Harris. But that isn't all. You see, she had no records of a mental condition in the past, not even depression. Needless to say, the scene of the crime was spotless. The neighbors reported nothing unusual, not even screams. No sign of struggle. No drug popped up in the forensics department, at least not yet. And all the missing pieces were found in her mouth and stomach,” She closed her eyes. ”digested and definitely chewed." "What do we come to now?”
Harris sat down, defeated. Everything about this murder, or suicide, was crossing itself out. It seemed as if something else had killed her; something not of the earth. Even as a man of science, he could not shrug off the notion.
Then somebody else spoke: “But how, ma’am, do you know that this was the work of a murderer for sure. He could have forced her to do it, but she must have protested.” Then he paused thoughtfully, “Perhaps they were both in it. But it still seems like an extreme, for self-mutilation, I mean.” At this point he realized that he was contradicting himself and sat down abruptly.
It stung, it hurt, but that was okay. Flakes of enamel fell into the sink, with a little blood, too. This did not concern Isabella as she chipped off further, staring right into the bathroom mirror as she did. She knew that it would all soon be worth it, in a while.
“They seemed to be in it together, but nobody was there in the bathroom with her.”
“How do you know? Harris just said that it wasn't suicide. It could have been her family members, most likely her father.” Another officer pointed out.
“What makes you so sure?” Somebody asked.
“Well perhaps it’s because I was there at the scene yesterday when we were called.” The lieutenant spoke as calmly as she could. She was not used to being questioned. The shock had been hard on her, too, and that was the reason why she was intent on solving the strange case. The other officers weren't there, save for the other four whom she had called upon herself. It had been a national holiday, and they had to see the sight of a girl who had cut herself up into pieces and eat those pieces. She didn't know if she had gathered the officers there so they could share her shock, or solve the case together. "Unlike you", she had meant to say, who wanted to enjoy the holiday. It wasn’t their fault, really, she reminded herself. She was called early in the morning on her personal phone and she had the time to bring along only four officers, the best on the force. None of the gathered people were these officers, they, were at home, suffering from the shock and unable to speak.
In another room, Beatrice was chewing through her hand. Her skin was rough and she seemed to be struggling. Savagely, she bit further, and the purple bruises darkened. Whatever she had seen in her sister's eyes had changed her completely.
But Isabella was far ahead anyway. She shed her clothes and stepped into the bathtub, pleased with the work she had just done.
She sighed. “Well, whatever it was, it was contagious. Her sister, Beatrice her name is, is in care right now; they’re trying to keep her from nibbling at her hand. Her mother hasn't ceased crying, and the only person who can talk is the father. It’s clear that he’s in shock too, but he seems to be convincing himself that he saw somebody inside. No traces were found though, not even fingerprints.”'
“So someone could have been there?”
“I have interviewed everyone related to the crime scene. I can assure you that the possibilities of a person being there are few.”
“What other information have you gained from the interviews?”
“The father’s interview was interesting, actually. While the others -and when I say others, I don’t mean the other family members who haven’t yet said a word- had nothing much to say. Calm day, no sounds, nothing suspicious at all.”
“What did he say?”
Cathleen pressed a button on the remote. “… Something downright frightening.”
Someone pounded on the door. All Isabella had really wanted was solace. Now the entire household (but for her sister, who was still drooling over her hand and never getting anywhere like the silly girl she was) was outside the bathroom, screaming her name.
“WHAT” she shouted back, “do you want?”
“Open the door. NOW!”
“I’m bathing.” She gurgled through the blood.
“OPEN THE DOOR ISABELLA.”
No one had noticed the low hum of the projector just yet, but now the room had attained a whole new level of silence. The slide faded, much to everyone’s relief, to a new one. And it was then that they realized that the next slide was less disturbing, but even more. It was a drawing, a harmless drawing of a man sitting beside a bath-tub and holding a piece of flesh close to his mouth, as if he were cherishing the smell of his meal. The walls of the bathroom were sprayed with red. His clothes, a ritual robe, perhaps, seemed to be untouched by the thick, crimson liquid, if not a little muddy and creased.
...But the robe was the least of the unnerving aspects of the man. One of his eyes was scarred, and both were held upon purple sacs that were the distinguishing features of a man devoid of sleep. He was a staring portrait, one of those optical illusions that can look at the viewer no matter where he runs. He also seemed to have an aura about him, depicted artistically by fading details as the objects moved away from his influence in the drawing.
“This is what he said he saw.” The lieutenant paused. She believed in a snappy briefing and even quicker justice, but here she felt like a person narrating a story as the listeners sat around a camp-fire and ate burnt marshmallows. “Artist: Isabella Smith, and one hell of an artist too. Object: her imaginary friend from long ago.”
This slide faded too, leaving others wondering what it would be.
“These, ladies and gentlemen, are her drawings over the ages.”
A little girl with a triangular body and crooked lines for limbs, holding the hand of a grown man with a scar across his eye; the same strange man in the middle of the playground, out of place in the whole picture; a forest with the same little girl walking with the man, but she did not seem so happy; her in chains, very detailed chains, with the man sitting there, just staring; herself again, disembodied with several faceless kids glaring down at her flesh and pieces. Each drawing was better than the last, and finally the same one again, with the man at the bath-tub, his scar fresher than ever.
Samuel flung himself at the door. It remained put. However, contending himself on the fact that he had done some damage if any, he tried again. This time, the lock shook.
Inside, Isa wondered why he bothered at all. What was done was done. She just hoped the lock would not break before she could finish, that it would not fail her in this lifetime.
Haha, a lock with a life. Funny.
The door bulged one more time, and the lock gave in. Isabella cursed it under her breath, whatever breath she had left, and sank into the tub as her father barged in. Maybe it was the shock that kept him, or maybe Isabella was just too fast for the intricate design she had carved out that day, on both time and herself, but he was just too late.
Too late for both his daughters, one demented, the other dead in the bathtub. But then again, she had been dead for quite some time now, precisely three hours.
The projector screeched. The slides started to play again, from the beginning. This, Cathleen thought, was not part of the briefing, or rather, story. She pressed frantically at the buttons on the remote, and finally after several failures, she walked up to the switch and pressed the reverse end of all switches. The air was filled with a burning smell; the projector was destroyed.
And suddenly, there was darkness.
Suddenly only darkness.
One could still see the after-image of the picture, glorified with blood. The room was cleared. The police had half given up on the case already, for despite themselves, it savored of the supernatural. Even the lieutenant, who hadn't anticipated this, was afraid.
The case, she knew, would be passed off as murder on grounds that Harrison would put forth. Or maybe it would be passed as suicide if the post-mortem was hidden from the masses. Either way, it would be covered up, and it would be made to seem like the police had solved another mystery. That's how law usually goes; another innocent hanged for the sake of the police's reputation, and Cathleen was okay with that. It made things simpler. She couldn't do anything about it if she wanted. Not this time; not ever.
The man at the bathtub greeted Isabella’s father with a smile.
It seemed that the case was Isabella’s and hers alone.