The boy fussily brushed the pale hair back from his wide, sweaty forehead, crouching and staring down at his feet. In the corner of the garden, amidst a smell of grass strong enough to make it hard to breathe, a faint, unpleasant stench wafted from behind the fountain.
Lying at the boy's feet was the corpse of a rabbit. Its abdomen had been torn roughly apart by teeth, its wet organs exposed to the sunlight. Not much time had passed. If one viewed it from an angle where no signs of feasting were visible, it probably looked like the work of a half-playful dog.
The boy's stare was fixated upon the rabbit's wounds. The rabbit's glassy eyes were wide and clear, as if it was not yet aware of its own death. Its soft, golden yellow fur was stained with dribbled blood, vanishing fuzzily at the edges of the wounds, replaced instead with an overlapping, dark hue of unclear form.
Small insects began to gather, smelling its scent. The amount of blood lost was surprisingly low. It seemed to have been killed elsewhere before being brought there.
The boy licked his dry lips with his thin tongue. A hint of salt from the sweat tickled at the inside of his mouth. It's not enough, he thought. The rabbit should have been lying in a larger pool of fresh blood. The fluid pouring from the rabbit's insides should have been big enough to drown it, big enough to create an ocean.
Where had the blood gone? Where was it? In his mind's eye, the boy saw a finger bowl set upon a dining table hosting a nighttime banquet. He would dip his fingers into the cold water when peeling fruit after dinner, and in that moment its surface, the lights bouncing off it, would be dyed a deep red. The fresh blood that filled the bowl would feel warm and familiar against his fingertips, before finally revealing a mysterious number - the all-important number that would open the door leading into a gloomy and terrifying realm of darkness on the underside of our own world...
The body trembled suddenly. He had only now realised what the object he had been staring almost trance-like at had been. Disgust and nausea bubbled up in his throat, and he snapped to his feet. Why had he been so captivated by something like that? He had no idea. The images of glinting silver and heavy red had fled from his mind, too.
But before running away, like someone was following him, the boy couldn't help but toss a glance back over his shoulder. Hidden by the summer grass, he couldn't see the corpse clearly, but the florid thing that flitted past in the corner of his eye left a sort of unknown, lingering writhing within the boy's chest.
With his back to the fountain and the two stone statues, he circled around to the front of the manor and sprinted through the large, heavy door that had been left open. With the strong, bright West Coast sunlight blocked out, the boy was instantly enshrouded by a cave-like chill. He came to a stop in the centre of the entrance hall, staring back towards the dazzling front. It was as though he had slipped into a different world as he had passed through the door.
Hearing his name called, he turned towards the dining room door. An elderly woman clad in old-fashioned clothing stood inside it. As she looked at the boy's face, the woman seemed to momentarily draw back. He plainly saw the faint ripple of fear move across her face.
The old woman blinked, then produced a handkerchief and pressed it against her forehead, speaking quickly as if slightly flustered. "The sunlight is too strong out there. Come inside the house. You'll make yourself ill if you don't."
He nodded obediently. She rarely reacted in such a manner towards him, but from time to time it did happen. She's afraid of me, he thought suddenly. For whatever reason... she thinks I'm going to kill her.
Without the boy, standing there in amazement, noticing, the woman hastily turned on her heel and shut the door behind her.
Richter's father had been killed in action in Europe the year he had been born, and his mother had died in childbirth, meaning that they were both complete strangers to him. He and the old lady who had raised him lived all alone together in this vast mansion. Although he called her "Granny", the old lady was not Richter's grandmother, but rather a distant relative of his father's, or so he had heard.
The old woman was strict with Richter. Not only did she not like to lavish him with attention, but she even disliked being around him for long periods of time. Richter was raised without so much as a hint of anything resembling affection, whether from the old woman or the few servants who never lasted long due to her stubbornness. As the last of his line, he had no relatives, nor any friends, and spent his childhood all alone inside the mansion.
The old manor, built in the suburbs of Los Angeles, stood in stark contrast to the lively scenery surrounding it. The building, a miniaturised reproduction of the castle in eastern Europe where Richter's family had lived for generations, towered imposingly, haughtily rejecting the merest hint of cheer. It was a vessel, filled with time old and unchanging.
Part of the mansion was built in a curious manner. Cellars serving no purpose and empty towers were scattered about at what appeared at first glance to be complete random. There were large doors blocked off by stone walls, too, and passages that led nowhere at all.
Most mysterious of all, however, was the domed tower that jutted out from the centre of the manor. The area beneath the dome seemed quite spacious, yet it was impossible to climb up to it from anywhere within the manor. Looking up at it from below, one could see that it was encircled by elaborate stained glass windows with shutters on top, but no one knew just what it was like on the inside. Richter had tried asking the old lady, just once, and she had shaken her head with a rare good-natured laugh.
"It's from the castle."
"Yes, the castle. A wonderful castle it would have been. It was big, towering above all of the people. That tower stood at its summit. It was the seat of the lord."
"The seat of the lord?"
"That's right. Only the lord could climb the tower. There were no staircases or passages in the castle leading to it."
"How did the lord climb up there, then?"
The old lady shook her head once more. "He didn't need anything of that sort."
"Why? Could he fly?"
She stared Richter in the face, frowning suddenly. Richter saw the usual agitation surface in the dark eyes sunken into her wrinkle-riddled face, and abandoned hope of hearing the rest. But contrary to his expectations, the woman went on, although in a quieter voice this time.
"He could do whatever he pleased. The lord possessed an extremely strong power. And you, too, Richter..."
The woman trailed off, Richter watching her with wide eyes.
"Me? I have a strong power, too?"
This time, she physically drew back.
"That's all in the past!"
He had a dream.
In the dream, he was running frantically through the mansion, chased by the invisible "lord". Something terrible would happen to him if he were to be caught. He ran down familiar corridors, dragging his feet, raced up the stairs and pulled open the door... and awaiting him there, inside the seemingly empty room of stone walls, was the lord!
The boy awoke with a scream. No one heard it and came running. The old woman and servants all had rooms away from his. He lay trembling in his bed all night long, drenched with sweat.
The nightmare came back to him over and over after that. Sometimes, he was the one doing the chasing. He didn't know who was running away from him in those dreams. Whenever he had the dream, he was afraid of catching that person. He was afraid of what he would do with them if he did. His dream self, however, continued his relentless pursuit. Chasing, being chased, until he could no longer stand it and leapt up with a scream...
Even once he began attending school, Richter was lonely. They nicknamed him "the straight As kid from the haunted house". Richter had no idea how to interact with the other children of his age, either. To those around him, he grew into a serious and quiet child, but there was always darkness within Richter.
Richter was aware of a strange ache. It was a sensation akin to thirst, and it always came out of the blue. Trapped amidst dark, crushing anxiety, he gasped pleas for something, but had no idea what it was that he actually wanted. He of course told no one of this, including the old woman.
As he grew older, he grew accustomed to putting up with the unwelcome sensation. It was then that he first decided to one day learn what was causing it, and rid himself of the feeling once and for all.
After arriving home, he would often spend time in his mother and father's room. It had been tidied away, with no suggestion that a person had ever inhabited the space, nor any remaining traces of his parents. Even still, something drew him to the room. He spent many an hour perched atop the furniture, covered with a fine layer of dust, reading books, or moving around the furnishings.
The room was a spacious adjoining room, divided into a bedroom and a study containing bookcases. Inside the bedroom was a canopy-draped bed and a large fireplace. In following with the rest of the manor's oddness, this room too was filled with incomprehensible objects. A tall cupboard stood beside the bed, a round, tray-like item bearing four discs set before it. Upon the discs were drawn a horse, a bird, a rabbit, and a deer. He tried turning the discs, but they refused to budge. He tried touching the discs and placing objects on top of them, too, but nothing happened. Eventually, he resigned himself to them being merely decorative.
Above the fireplace hung a painting of a girl in red. Richter had been afraid of the painting when he was still small. He felt as though she were watching him no matter where he was in the room, and that when he took her eyes off of her she was grinning at his back. Even once he was grown, he still had a habit of occasionally looking back over his shoulder to check the painting.
There was a door at the other end of the study, but it was empty save for the cylindrical stone walls. Rusted metal was set into the walls as if in order to fasten something to them.
The chest in the corner of the study was filled with all sorts of odds and ends, such as old documents or the screw cork of a cask and a classic pistol. Richter found several accessories amongst them. There was a ruby ring containing the glint of a drop of blood. A jewel beetle pendant gave off a bewitching blue-green glow. Richter fiddled with them, thinking of his parents.
Of the few photos that remained of them, just one was in colour. It showed his father, clad in military attire, his moustache-crested lips set sternly. Beside him stood his mother, her pale face surrounded by yellow hair, wearing a nervous expression. Her eyes were dyed an unnatural blue characteristic of old colour photographs. The jewel beetle pendant hung at her bountiful vested chest. For some reason or another, the photographer had coloured the pendant a purplish red.
Richter hadn't been told much about his mother and father. It wasn't that he didn't wish they were there, but he was incapable of imagining life as a family.
Sometimes, when he looked at the photograph of his parents, he felt something like the ache. This, however, he thought was his natural emotions towards his lost kin.
Richter didn't discuss his wish to attend university with the old woman until it had already been decided.
"...Becoming a doctor is fine, but why...?"
"It's a little far from here, isn't it," he interjected calmly.
It wasn't just far away - the school he had chosen was in the remote New Hampshire countryside.
"There are plenty of schools in L.A., but I've spent my whole life in this house. I want to try standing on my own two feet for once. I can't have you running around after me forever."
I want to get away from this mansion, he added mentally. I want to get as far away from this place as I possibly can, so I can cure this darkness inside my heart for myself. Staying here will only make it even deeper.
The old woman didn't try to stop Richter. In fact, she spoke quickly, as though afraid that he might change his mind.
"Yes, that's a good idea. You have quite a fortune, and there's nothing you can't do if you have that. Do as you like."
Richter made the journey across to the other side of America in order to attend college. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, the newly-built medical school came packaged with all of the latest equipment and theories, sparing no expense, and attracted the best students from all over the country.
Richter enjoyed his first taste of freedom in the unfamiliar New England town. He made several friends, and enjoyed his studies. Alongside psychiatry, he also developed an interest in surgery, forgetting almost entirely about the darkness within his heart.
"Richter Harris, the pride of our class!"
A large hand clapped him on the shoulder, and Richter, flustered, hurriedly set his paper cup down on the table. Ralph, paying him no mind, continued in his loud voice.
"Old man Hobson's words will live forever in the annals of our great Wright Memorial University's history."
"The professor said nothing," Richter muttered, a small smile upon his lips. "Just 'good!' when I was done."
"Ahh, there's that famous line!"
Peering over the shoulder of Ralph Crane was the suntanned face of their classmate and Ralph's steady girlfriend, Janet McBright.
"You were the only one out of the group Professor Hobson didn't complain about when the test was over."
Looking at Janet, Richter stood slightly. The pair sat down at his table with a chuckle. Richter's politeness towards women was a sort of affectionate teasing between the friends.
"Complain? That's not quite how I would've put it. Let me give you a little run-down of what the professor said to me: 'Clumsy oaf. This is more than a mere technique issue. You simply haven't evolved into a homo sapiens yet, you poor wretch. We'll redo the test once you've finished evolving, hm...?' I'm glad that dog was under general anaesthesia. If it'd only been a local, it would've either bolted or bitten me."
"I'll tell you what he said to me, too." Janet set down her cup of Coke, brushing back her fiery red hair. "'Would you like me to bring you a sewing machine?' as I was doing my darndest to tie off the sutures."
"Yeah, maybe he ought to've. Your stitches are pretty artistic, Jan."
Janet pouted, swinging her small fist at Ralph. Ralph let out a shrill squeal, and Richter laughed freely.
The college tearoom was empty. An underclassman, late for his lecture, shut the book he had been reading and hurried out. They watched him go with the composure of undergrad seniors.
"Urgh, we'll have to retake the surgery exam. A sewing machine'll get you a pass, Jan. Your surgical technique itself was solid, right?"
"If you don't count the three times I made him tut, sure."
"Well, Hobson's practical skills class has half the historical pass rate. You're joining the surgery department, aren't you, Richter?"
He nodded lightly, taking a silent sip of his coffee. Ralph and Janet exchanged looks.
"No, Richter, don't doubt yourself!" Janet exclaimed. "I want to join it, too. If you, the handiest with a scalpel in our whole class, don't go, me and the other clumsy surgery department hopefuls won't be able to show our faces."
Ralph unreservedly drank down Janet's Coke.
"I agree, Richter, you're exemplary with a scalpel. No matter how complex the technique, you can pull it off without breaking a sweat. The professors know it, too. You'd be welcomed with open arms no matter what specialisation you chose, be it brain or heart. You could even try your hand at pathology. Then it wouldn't be going to waste."
Small, sharp blades truly had always fitted into Richter's hand like they were made to be there. He could manipulate them freely. Everyone recoiled at first, carrying out error-filled dissection practise, but Richter had breezed through it all. Even his professors sung his praises.
Richter, still smiling ambiguously, looked at the pair. "I want to go into clinical studies, so not pathology. I originally wanted to study psychiatry, though."
"Oh, gosh..." Janet shrugged.
"Psychiatrists are the biggest earners out of all of the doctors in America. They don't need any tools, just a bed, and they're open for business. There are no emergencies, and they don't have to worry about malpractice suits. But...">
Static-muddled chimes echoed through the speaker installed upon the café's ceiling. All of the drifting sounds of chatter paused instantly.
"Sixth year student Richter Harris, please contact the student office immediately. Sixth year student Richter Harris..."
As the commotion resumed, the other students having learned that it had nothing to do with them, Richter and his two friends exchanged looks of surprise. It was extremely uncommon for a student to be summoned in such a manner.
"...I wonder what that was all about," Janet murmured worriedly, looking at Ralph and Richter.
Richter shook his head lightly and got to his feet. "Maybe they've decided that I've failed the surgical exam. See you later, then."
"Richter Harris?" said the elderly secretary in an oddly dark voice when Richter visited the office. "The dean wants to see you."
Richter looked at the secretary's face in puzzlement. He knew Professor Lassen from his gastroenterology lectures. If it were about a lecture or exam, though, he would have been called to the classroom. Richter couldn't even begin to guess why the professor would want to have a face-to-face meeting with him as the dean. Did he have some bad news to impart?
As urged by the secretary, Richter opened the door to the dean's office.
The professor had been sitting at his desk, but stood upon seeing him. He found it surprising. The professor wasn't usually the type to get out of his seat for a lone student.
"Come, have a seat," he said gently, pointing at the sofa.
Growing more confused by the second, Richter sat down on the sofa. The professor took a piece of paper from his desk, then took a seat opposite him. He laced his fingers, beginning to speak in a low voice.
"I hate to be the one to have to tell you this. We received a phone call from L.A. a little while ago. Your grandmother passed away from an illness last night."
Richter understood the professor's behaviour instantly.
"You have my heartfelt condolences. Your parents are no longer with us either, are they? Your last relative... Would you like something to drink? A coffee, or...?"
So the old woman's dead, Richter thought. Even if she had raised him, there was no bond to speak of between them. She had shown clear relief at him leaving the mansion to go to college. Not in the sense of having a nuisance taken off her hands, but something more serious than that... Richter remembered her expression, looking like she'd been relieved of some extremely dangerous duty.
He hadn't returned to the mansion ever since. School holidays were spent at his apartment, or going on small trips. He had a separate trust from the old woman, so he wasn't dependant upon her financially, and he certainly didn't think she would want him to go back.
The manor and the old woman had become so distant to him. He had never thought back on them with any fondness. Hearing the news of her death now was no different from hearing of the death of a complete stranger.
The professor headed over to the door, telling the secretary to make a coffee. Noticing that the man's eyes gaze looking back at him was filled with sympathy, Richter inwardly found it amusing. He had mistaken Richter sitting there silently for him being depressed at the loss of his beloved grandmother. But he didn't try to clear up the misunderstanding; nor did he say that she wasn't actually his grandmother. There was no need or means to explain. Richter simply bowed his head slightly at the professor.
"Thank you for being so considerate, sir..."
"But of course." The professor returned to the sofa, sliding the slip of paper towards him. "You'll have to return home immediately, no doubt. It was a person from your grandmother's bank who made the call. They, um... have a lot of things they need to discuss with you. I took down their number for you."
"I'm her only relative, after all."
"Yes. It seems so. I suppose this will be trying for you."
"Yes, I suppose so..."
The professor smiled warmly at Richter. "You are an excellent student, Richter. We have great expectations of you. It goes without saying, but this semester is a very important time for your class. I'd like you to cheer up and return to school as soon as possible. If there's anything you'd like to discuss, I'd be glad to lend an ear."
Still internally amused, Richter thanked the professor.
The old woman was buried at a cemetery near to the mansion. The funeral was a solitary one, attended only by himself, a few servants he didn't know, and the bank employee who had made the call.
It was his job to throw the first handful of dirt onto the coffin. He walked forward, stretching his hand out over the centre of the hole.
Why wouldn't you love me, Granny? The thought suddenly surfaced from the depths of his mind. He had forgotten all about it. Did you really think I was going to kill you?
In a daze, he unconsciously opened up his palm. Earth pattered down on top of the coffin. Ignoring him, the thoughts continued.
...Why would that have been?
As soon as the mental question had been spoken, a deep voice echoed throughout Richter's head in reply.
"Because if you consume the flesh of one whose blood you share, you will be granted power."
The funeral attendants watched Richter standing there, coming to the same misunderstanding as the professor.
The mansion welcomed Richter back with the same haughtiness. He looked up at the dome from the front garden, overgrown with weeds, and let out a sigh.
"Mr. Harris... You're going to be a doctor, soon, aren't you?"
"Just Richter is fine."
He turned to look at the bank employee. He was aging, and didn't seem sure yet how to treat Richter, who was young enough to be his son. The two opened the door, going into the dining room through the entrance hall.
The chandelier, the white cloth-covered table and silver candlesticks were just as Richter remembered them. Now, however, they were covered with a thin layer of dust. The cleaning seemed to have been neglected in the two weeks since the old woman had been hospitalised. The pair brushed off the chairs, wearing strained smiles.
"...Now then, Richter. This may be the first time we've met, but our bank has been in charge of managing your trust for a long time now. You are aware of this, yes?"
"Yes, of course."
"The same is true of the trust of the late Rose Harris."
It felt strange to Richter to hear someone else say the woman's name out loud.
"You are to inherit this trust as well. The manor originally belongs to you, but Rose was designated as its custodian. It will now be under your management. It's probably fair to say that you are quite a wealthy man. I will give you the documents laying out taxes and the exact figures."
Richter nodded. He had known that all along.
"You are in the middle of your studies. I'm sure you'll be needing someone to take care of the manor until you return home. We will make those arrangements for you. It might not include regular cleaning, but the necessary maintenance and security are in our hands. This is quite an old manor, is it not? It's very impressive."
Richter took a deep breath. He had been thinking about this time for a while.
"I think I'm going to get rid of the manor."
The bank employee was so shocked that he got halfway to his feet.
Although it felt like the entire mansion were listening intently, Richter went on resolutely. "The land can stay as it is, but I plan on having the building destroyed in its entirety."
"Y... you can't be serious. A beautiful manor such as this... You were raised here, weren't you? Your father, your mother, your grandmother Rose... All of your memories are here..."
Richter scowled, letting out another sigh. With him not knowing much about the finer circumstances or inner workings of the manor, it would be a difficult task to thoroughly explain his feelings to the bank worker. Instead, he decided to ask a question of his own.
"Do you really think it's beautiful?"
The bank employee pondered this for a moment before replying. "Yes... it is beautiful, isn't it? It's old, and... there's something unique about it that I can't quite put into words, I think, but..."
"I can't stand this old house. You mention memories, but I never knew my mother and father, and my grandmother..."
Richter trailed off and shrugged. The bank clerk watched him in silence for a time, before finally muttering something mingled with a sigh.
"Well, you are only young... Give it a good thinking over, won't you? It's simple to tear down something old, but nothing like this can ever be made again."
I'm sick to the back teeth of those old things, thought Richter. A strange darkness lies within my heart. That ache I've felt in my chest since I was a child, that odd voice before... It's all connected to this mansion somehow. He didn't have any intention of undergoing psychoanalysis, but he had come to this conclusion after conducting his own fervent research.
It's a meaningless delusion, he thought. He had no parents, and the old woman who raised him spared him no love. Her behaviour was most likely due to the guilt she felt because of it. Those trivial incidents created a complex within me, which turned into trauma, a mental scar. That idiotic mental response from before is a good example, isn't it? And the symbol of it all is this manor. Now that the old woman is gone, all I have to do is wipe away all traces of the manor, and this darkness in my heart should disappear along with it.
There's no way the clerk could ever understand, thought Richter. No - nobody would understand; not his professors at school, or his classmates, or anyone else. How many times had he seen the mansion in his dreams - in his nightmares? Instead, Richter simply nodded with a smile.
At the same time as he graduated from medical school and obtained his certification as a doctor, he informed the bank that he had decided to tear down the mansion. The clerk made no objections this time.
Richter returned to the manor after another long journey, taking with him only a small number of items, including photographs of his parents, and left all of the nonsensical things as they were. As he exited his parents' bedroom, Richter smirked at the girl in red.
"You've given me my fair share of frights, but this is goodbye."
As he turned on his heel, he didn't look back behind him.
He could have asked the workers who carried out the demolition what had been underneath the dome, had he wanted to, but he no longer cared.
"...Yes, please dispose of the furniture as well. Yes, I am aware that they are valuable antiques. I'm sure the appropriate dealers will take care of it. And the paintings, and the tableware... No, I don't need any of it."
The night he received word that everything had been cleared away and the lot was vacant, Richter felt as though the shackles had been removed from his limbs. The manor no longer existed. The castle far away in Europe upon which it was said to be modelled must have been lost to the annals of history long ago, too. And my darkness must have gone with it.
For the first time in his life, he fell into a peaceful sleep. Richter stored the things he had retrieved from the manor inside a small desk in the corner of his plain apartment. The jewel beetle pendant that rested atop the photographs took on a sudden light, glowing dully.
Richter Harris recorded extremely high grades as a resident, too, and was recruited as a member of the medical team by the cardiac surgery department at a university hospital. Even if he continued his psychiatric research, he believed that his own problem had already been solved. Now, his interest was piqued by the world opened up to him by the scalpel.
The voice inside his heart had vanished without a trace. The ache in his chest occasionally returned, for some reason, while he performed surgery on patients. As the scalpel bit into the skin and their organs, stained with fresh blood, were exposed, a small lump rose in his throat. He swallowed it down and ignored it.
Maybe I'm just not good with blood, Richter thought with a wry smile. I doubt the professors and team would have an easy time believing that, though. I suppose the ache must come from a complex that has nothing to do with the manor. Damn. Must be a misdiagnosis.
Still, the phenomenon wasn't bad enough to get in the way of his work as a surgeon. Strangely, the scalpel if anything seemed to actually move with greater fluidity when the ache was present. He felt the same satisfaction towards himself as a patient that a doctor would feel when their diagnosis and treatment went to plan.
The name "Richter Harris" began to spread throughout America's medical community as an up-and-coming surgeon. His scalpel-work in the operating theatre was bold, and he was admired and trusted by the staff and patients alike. He made energetic presentations at academic conferences, all of which received high praise. Before he knew it, he was steadily making his way down the path to success.
When he received an invitation from a Californian university, Richter was a little hesitant, but he knew what a big opportunity in his career it marked. Most importantly of all, the mansion wasn't in Los Angeles anymore. He decided to take up residence in his hometown for the first time in more than a decade.
Richter rented an apartment nearby the university. It was built from white terracotta in a Spanish style, and had a balcony decorated with tiles of various colours. Avocados and windmill palms cast a cool shadow over the poolside. The faint sound of a piano playing cool jazz drifted in through the open window.
This is Los Angeles, thought Richter. I've finally learned what this town is really like.
Richter drove his car towards the house of Ray Robinson, the head of the ob-gyn department. He had been invited to a bridge party. Along the way, he was to pick up Marian Ceres, a medical laboratory scientist.
He opened a window, exposing his arms to a mildly chilly breeze. All of the flower beds were filled with golden poppies in full bloom, their yellow corollas swaying gently. Despite acknowledging how unlike himself it was, Richter whistled softly.
Robinson was something like a boss to the younger hands at the hospital, and he had been helping Richter out since the start. Richter's mannerisms were on the stricter side, perhaps due to his upbringing, but it was mostly thanks to this man that he had integrated so readily into the casual fellowships that were the norm on the West Coast. He was also the one who had told him to fetch Marian today. Richter smiled wryly, recalling what had happened when he had informed her of it the day before.
"The short version is, Ray's trying to set us up," Marian Ceres had whispered to Richter, as if revealing a secret. "Ugh, it's such a pain. Actually, it's more like Ray's wife's scheme than his. She wants the high society of the hospital wrapped around her little finger. Whenever she spots a talented-looking youngster, she picks out one of her pawns from the hospital and hooks them up. That way, she thinks she can make both halves of the happy couple hang on her every whim."
Richter raised his eyebrows. "My apologies, then. I'm sorry you've been dragged into such a scheme, and stuck with me of all people..."
"Oh, gosh, no. I didn't mean it like that!" Marian said, exaggeratedly widening her dark brown eyes.
"It's not an evil plot, or anything as dramatic as that. Oh, she has some small-time scheming in her, but generally speaking she's nothing more than a pain in the backside. And either way, you aren't any trouble, Richter. I have a boyfriend. He's in New York on business right now, though. We just haven't gone public with it. If it's just a little date, I'd be only too happy."
He nodded with a laugh.
"Hey, Richter," Marian said, suddenly leaning towards him curiously. "Did you leave behind a special lady or something like that in the east?"
"You're pretty popular around here, but I never hear any whispers about you going on any dates or anything. If you don't ask someone out soon, you're gonna end up caught in another of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson's schemes."
"Nothing like that, unfortunately."
"Really? Then I know a few ladies who might be up for consideration. Some nurses, some patients..."
"Just go easy on me, please, won't you? I'm pretty timid when it comes to girls."
Marian let out a cheerful laugh. Women's laughs are so wonderful, thought Richter. I never heard them when I was a boy. He harboured no special feelings towards Marian Ceres, so it wasn't a particular letdown, but he found himself fond of her voice.
His hands on the steering wheel, he shrugged at himself. Ahh, was this more of that trauma? Maybe he'd better submit an application to the Robinsons and get himself married as soon as possible. Still, something didn't seem quite right. He had always been so distant from the concept of a family so far.
Suddenly, a blinding flash of light erupted against the windscreen. Richter hurriedly put on the brakes. Fortunately, he hadn't been travelling at too high of a speed. He managed to move to the right side of the road and pull over while mostly maintaining his control of the vehicle.
Still gripping the steering wheel, Richter took a deep breath. He finally pried away his stiff fingers, opening the car door with hands that still trembled slightly due to the effects of adrenaline. He climbed out onto the pavement and looked around.
"What the hell happened...?"
He stood on an empty residential street. Neat houses stood in rows, the trees lining the roadside rustling in the breeze. He could see nothing that appeared to have been the culprit behind the flash of light. Golden poppies, the state flower, simply scattered the fragrance of the season on the air.
Had the light been a hallucination? Still leaning against the car, Richter took another deep breath. He had no idea what was going on. At least he hadn't caused an accident. In any case...
Despite his confusion, Richter attempted to get back into his car, when something glittering caught his eye. Something lay amongst the thick growth of poppies, its glinting mingled with the gold of the flowers...
He approached the plants. It was a woman. She lay there clad in something resembling a white gown, hidden by her golden hair.
"You there!" Richter called, sprinting over. "A...Are you alright!?"
After a short pause, the woman sat up smoothly. She stared at Richter with a vacant expression upon her faint white face. He gasped. She looked like a jewel haloed with light. Her lips were the delicate hue of a flower out of season. Her eyebrows were bold arcs standing out against her porcelain skin, and the wide eyes beneath them contained the deep twinkle of sapphires.
Is she a flower spirit? Could she be...? No; of course something so stupid would happen in real life!
As Richter stood there in a daze, the woman let out a small sigh and collapsed back atop the flowers. Finally coming to his senses, he rushed over to her. The hand he placed upon her shoulder was met with a warm, firm sensation. Without his own realisation, he felt a wash of relief. She was human.
"Hey! What's the matter? Can you hear me!?"
He scooped the woman up, and saw that she was unconscious. Feeling as if he were still in a dream, he stared down at the girl in his arms.
"Richter. Hey, Dr. Harris!"
Spacing out in the medical office, he turned around at the sound of Ray Robinson's voice.
"I heard about that lady you brought in." Ray sat down, holding a paper cup from the vending machine in his hand. "They were saying something about you picking up someone who was out dying on the street. Wondered what you'd got yourself into this time."
"Sorry for skipping out on the party like that."
"Not at all. Nevermind that. What's this about the woman having amnesia? Quite the discovery you made."
Richter shrugged. "Yeah. She seemed weak, but she didn't have any physical trauma, so I thought she'd have somewhere to go back to once she woke up. Birke from psychiatry is looking into it, but apparently she doesn't remember a thing from before today."
"You've reported this to the police, right?"
"Asking around the neighbourhood turned up nothing, and she apparently didn't match the description of any missing people. There's no traces of her being involved in an accident or anything like that, either, so they didn't have a clue what to do. They say they're going to keep looking for now, but they didn't seem particularly enthused about it."
Ray cast a probing gaze towards him. "What do we do with her, then?"
"Normally we'd turn her over to a YWCA or someplace like that and they'd handle the ID checks, but..."
He trailed off, and Ray frowned as if his suspicions had been confirmed.
"I heard a little while ago that you told accounting to redirect her invoice to you. You don't really..."
He stared back in silence.
"I'm going to give you some advice," Ray said in a harsh voice that sounded like it had come from someone else. "The hopes of this hospital are riding on you. Don't go doing anything strange and putting a blot on your career, you hear me? I don't care how impossibly beautiful the woman is. If you get yourself involved with a stranger you don't know from Eve, who can say what'll happen down the road? She might even be involved with crime."
Richter listened, stiff-faced. Ray's fears were justified; no matter how he looked at it, even he knew he was right. And yet...
When the woman woke up and opened those eyes of hers once more, Richter understood. This woman had been born for him.
"...Nothing I say will get through to you at this point, huh?" Ray grumbled, watching him sit there in silence. "Stubborn guys are such a pain."
Patting him lightly on the shoulder, Ray got to his feet, easygoing once more.
"All we can do for now is wait and see, hm? However he comes off, Birke is good at what he does. Maybe her memory'll come back before then. Don't come crying to me if she turns out to be a mother of three."
Richter looked at the woman in wonder.
"Thank you for going to all of this trouble for me, Doctor."
Lying back against her pillow, she sparkled with scintillating beauty. She didn't look like a fairy anymore. Instead, she seemed to give off the magnificent majesty of a queen. Her face enveloped in a golden light, she looked at him and smiled.
"Truly, thank you. I don't know what would have become of me if not for you."
"Don't worry about it. Just take it easy and relax."
"Even still, I..."
Her eyes clouded up as if covered by a mist. Looking at the woman with her flowing eyelashes even made Richter's chest hurt a little.
"Why on Earth did something like this happen? I can't even remember my own name. It's so pathetic..."
"There's no need to worry," he said hurriedly. "Tormenting yourself won't do any good. You should try to stay calm. It'll help."
"Dr. Birke said the same thing, but..."
"We have the police looking into it, too."
"They said there were no leads. I had nothing on my person, as you know." She smiled weakly. "They said the clothes I was wearing looked like some sort of pyjamas."
"...Yes, they were."
"I'm scared. What's going to happen to me? If nothing ever changes, I..."
A faint shadow fell over her features once more.
"There's no need to worry," Richter practically yelled despite himself. "Even if you can't remember anything, I will protect you!"
The woman's eyes went wide with surprise. A rich light rose from their deep blue depths. Richter felt as though he were being sucked into them.
Richter endured the positive and malicious shouts that rose up from all around with silence and strength of will. He was put in charge of the woman, finding her an apartment and a simple office job after her release from the hospital.
As time passed, the voices gradually diminished. Her memories failed to return, and the police's enquiries turned up nothing, but everyone who came into contact with her realised that she was trustworthy.
"She's a really wonderful person."
Marian Ceres had become fast friends with the woman, and had taken on the role of extolling her virtues for herself when she had been hospitalised.
"She seems to have had a good upbringing, and she's certainly well educated. Her memories may be gone, but she still has her bright personality, and she's really thoughtful, too. Heck, I'm a woman, and even I could fall for her."
Marian smiled, and continued in a lower voice.
"Besides, she really loves Richter, and he does, too. Almost like they couldn't live without each other."
"Nothing we can do about it now, I suppose," Ray Robinson said with an exasperated sigh. "Perhaps it's better for her memory not to return at this point. By the way, I heard you'd given her a name."
"Richter did. We couldn't just keep calling her Jane Doe. But..."
Marian tilted her head to one side in doubt.
"Is it really that strange of a name?"
"No, it's not that... He named her Lenore Lee."
"Well, that's a pretty name."
"You doctors are all so ignorant when it comes to literature, aren't you? Lenore is from a poem by Poe. Even if they do happen to share the same golden hair, it's a dead woman's name. It's bad luck."
"Hmph. Have you told Richter about this?"
"Yeah. He was surprised. But he said that she liked it, so it didn't matter."
"Oh? Well, if she has no problem with it, what does it matter?"
"I guess so. He says he's going to have her meet your wife soon. Take care of the introductions, would you?"
Ray chuckled. "Leave it to me. Richter is her favourite. She was exclaiming about how wonderfully romantic it all is. Richter soldiered on and won in the end, didn't he?"
Marian nodded with a smile.
If anything, Richter was secretly glad that Lenore had lost her past. She was a pure white cloth, and all of her was dyed with her love for him.
As time passed, people forgot about Lenore's missing past. She set down steady roots, her world built around Richter, enchanting everyone around with her personality.
"If you think about it, she might be the ideal spouse," Ray Robinson said to Marian.
"Well, look who's gone and changed his tune."
"It's much better than marrying a woman who comes with a load of baggage. For starters, she has no relatives. The wife's family is the ultimate headache."
When Richter proposed, Lenore looked at him with the same wide eyes as she had back then. Her face shone with joy, and then, a moment later, she suddenly turned her back to him.
"Lenore... Don't you want this?" he murmured timidly.
"I mean... I have no memories, and I don't know who I am," she answered in a sob. "I don't see how I could possibly be the wife of a fine doctor such as yourself..."
"What does any of that matter!?" Richter exclaimed. "I've known it from the moment I saw you. You are the woman who will become my wife, whether you have your memories or not."
She turned around slowly. Richter gently covered her tear-stained cheeks with his hands.
Richter and Lenore were married. He built a new house on the site where the manor had stood. Although the location was the same, the scenery did nothing to remind him of the building that had been there before. It was a bright and calm home, almost as if it reflected the pair's hopes.
Upon the bedroom wall was a portrait of her that Richter had secretly had painted. She wore a deep rose pink jumper, her small white hands resting peacefully upon her lap, a small, sweet smile upon her forward-gazing face.
"Oh, Richter. It's wonderful!" she exclaimed, turning back to him. "But it's a little embarrassing. I'm not as majestic as that. It's like I'm looking at a painting of a queen."
"In this house, you are the queen."
Smiling, Richter took a gold chain from his pocket. It was the jewel beetle pendant.
"It seems to have been passed down in my family from generation to generation. I'm sorry to give you something so old, but I'd really like you to wear it."
"...I'm so happy."
He hung the pendant around her offered neck. It gave off a rainbow of colour amidst her golden hair as she shook her head and brushed it back. At that moment, an intense ache bubbled up within his chest. It wasn't the urge of a newly-learned love. It was a sensation with which Richter had been familiar for a very long time.
"What's the matter, Richter?"
Lenore looked up at him dubiously as he drew back rather than go in for an embrace. Her face sent another strong shockwave through him. Wearing the pendant, Lenore looked just like his mother did in the photograph.
Richter refused to admit that the darkness had returned to his heart. He thought it was impossible. The mansion was gone. He would live happily forever in their new house with his beloved wife. Why would something like that happen?
But the nightmares returned.
It was the nightmare about the manor. He wasn't the one being chased anymore. He passed through the garden with the fountain and pair of statues, then through the entrance hall and into the dining room with its glittering chandelier. Down the hallway with the mirror he went, and up the stone stairs into the room with the fireplace, then through his parents' room with the laughing girl in red, down an endless stone corridor, and finally the unscalable dome... Before him appeared the manor that had long since vanished from the world.
He was chasing after someone. Each time he turned a corner, he caught a fleeting glimpse of whoever it was he was pursuing. And when he caught up to them... he would tear them limb from limb. The realisation that had been lacking in dreams past sliced through his brain like a bolt of lightning. He wouldn't simply kill them. He would rip them apart, then sink his teeth deep into their still-warm flesh as they writhed in agony.
...There was blood. The same blood that always welled up underneath the scalpel, tantalisingly drenching his thin rubber gloves. But it was different this time. It was not a sharp scalpel biting into the flesh, but a dull, thick stake he was driving into the living to his heart's content. The blood spilled, flowed, sating his appetite.
He still couldn't clearly see who it was he was chasing. All he could distinguish was the golden hair fluttering along their back...
He awoke, somehow managing not to let out a scream. He turned his sweat-drenched head and saw Lenore sleeping there, half buried in her pillow, his body trembling with soul-deep terror.
Busy days awaited Richter. His schedule burst at the seams with surgeries, academic conferences, and fancy parties attended by the illustrious. His reputation was now unshakable. He was showered with admiration and envy from those around him at having made for himself both a successful career and a happy home.
Lenore was a kind and obedient wife. Her missing memory never posed an issue. As he watched her work carefully throughout their large new house all for him, he was struck by a tidal wave of affection. If he held out his arms, she would rush into them with a joyful smile.
But sometimes, he felt he had to stop those arms that reached out to embrace her. As he held Lenore's soft body, his lips buried in her gold hair that wrapped around him like smooth silk, a desire worlds apart from love tightened itself around his throat.
Richter was aghast. What could I possibly want to do? The nightmare...? Impossible!
"What's the matter, darling?" Lenore asked in confusion as he went stiff during their embrace.
Richter faltered, unable to give her an answer. He silently averted his eyes, and Lenore drew back sadly. He shared in her sadness. It's because I love you, he wanted to respond, but he couldn't tell her about the nightmare. Its implications were just too ridiculous.
But still, Richter found himself no longer able to embrace Lenore the way he wanted to. He didn't know when the desire from the nightmare would seize him. Within those desires lurked a wickedness that tormented him.
Lenore couldn't comprehend his hesitance. Unless her past was only just now causing a rift between them, she could only imagine that it was proof of her husband's love for her waning. But what could she do about it? She had nowhere to go back to. The only short history she had had been spent in the warmth of his arms. She had no choice but to cling onto it.
More than anything, though, she still loved him just the same as she always had. She was happy just to be by his side. She would think of it that way, so as to place as little of a burden as possible upon her husband...
Lenore gradually began to distance herself from him, spurred on by Richter's hectic schedule. The further Lenore became from him, the more Richter threw himself into his work. The ache in his chest became incessant, his scalpel growing ever more deft.
That night, when she opened the door and he saw her, Richter was shocked. Rather than pull away when she greeted him, Lenore practically leapt forward and embraced him. Looking up at his bewildered face, she chuckled softly.
"...What's gotten into you?"
Lenore laughed again. Her cheeks were dyed the colour of flower petals, and a cheery glint danced in the blue eyes that had been filled only with sorrow as of late. She looked almost like the fairy of a golden poppy in full, brilliant bloom. The image tickled at the back of Richter's mind.
Standing on tiptoe, she whispered into his ear, "I went to the hospital today."
"And I found out. You're going to be a daddy next year, Richter!"
He felt as if time had come to a standstill. He stood there in blank amazement, looking at the wife he held in his arms as she glowed all over with joy. A child...? My child. I...
An abrupt look of upset crossed Lenore's face. "Aren't... aren't you happy, Richter?"
"Of... of course I am!" he exclaimed. He lifted Lenore up, showering her relieved and joyful face with kisses. The only thing bubbling up from within his chest and spilling out now was his love for Lenore. There was no trace of that dark impulse.
Richter thought that nothing on Earth could make him hurt her. Lenore was going to give birth to his child. It was almost like this fateful woman had been born solely for him. That accursed nightmare should just get lost!
And it did. The nightmares and the ache vanished, as if they had never been there at all. Eventually, Richter wondered if perhaps it had been a mere hallucination. He could come up with any number of explanations for it, such as a change in his environment or work-related fatigue.
Richter felt truly apologetic towards Lenore. He had sensed her pain, unable to trust in his love. It was all his fault. He would never make her feel that way again. This time, Richter held nothing back, showering her with affection. She shone all the while.
Ray Robinson recommended to Richter that he should attend the birth, but he flatly refused.
"I suppose even obstetricians are split down the middle. Some absolutely insist upon doing it themselves, and others absolutely won't. There's no need for a heart surgeon, is there? I just thought you might want to cut the cord."
In the end, while being made fun of by all of the hospital staff, he waited out in the hallway with the outpatients. Richter thought what a fool he was, straining his ears despite knowing full well that the baby's first cries would never reach that far. Finally, the door opened, and Dr. Robinson peered out and waved to him.
"Congrats, daddy. She's a beauty."
Richter's throat constricted when he saw the blood-flecked surgical gown. Led by a nurse, he entered the recovery room, where he saw Lenore looking down at the newborn lying beside her, an exhausted but proud smile upon her face. The baby, letting out sounds that were almost but not quite cries, had scant tufts of hair clinging to her damp head. The hair was clearly the same gold as her mother's.
"...I just don't understand him, Marian. I don't understand how he feels... I know all too well how busy he is, but sometimes he'll suddenly stop talking to me or get up and leave the room out of nowhere... Just when I start to think that maybe he doesn't love me anymore, he acts all thoughtful... He's the same way with Laura. Just when you think he adores her more than anything, he suddenly starts acting like he doesn't want anything to do with her. I don't know how I'm supposed to live with him anymore."
Marian Ceres reached out her hand, gripping Lenore's. "You shouldn't brood about it so much. Maybe it's not what you think it is."
Lenore brushed her off, shaking her head firmly. "What I think? And what would that be? I have no idea why he'd act this way!"
"...If you're thinking Richter's being unfaithful, you're probably wrong."
Lenore looked at her friend in disbelief. Marian leaned back in her chair, took out a cigarette and lit it.
"Dr. Harris is a busy man, that's true. He might be the busiest doctor in all of LA. The patients whose lives were saved by his skills are innumerable. He actively incorporates new theories and methods, and all eyes are on him at every conference. Patients come from all across America, trusting in his scalpel."
"It's thanks to that that he's hardly ever home," Lenore said softly.
"That's normal, isn't it?" Marian said plainly, exhaling smoke. "That's what it means to be a famed doctor. His schedule would be lighter if he worked at a private practice, but he doesn't. Going private would be impossible for a heart surgeon, anyway. Even if he made the switch to general surgeon, it would just be a waste of his talents. He probably hasn't even considered it."
"I think he's satisfied with the way things are now."
"It's his calling. Let me tell you one thing, though, Lenore. He's famous at the hospital for being such a devoted husband. I really can't imagine that he's cheating."
"I don't remember ever telling you that I thought he was," Lenore murmured sadly.
Marian frowned. "He hasn't made any comments about your past, has he...?"
"No!" Lenore exclaimed. "He's never done anything like that. We've both practically forgotten all about it. It has nothing to do with this!"
Marian leaned forward, her voice stern. "What is there for you to possibly be unhappy with? You have a husband who's respected by all of America, a cute little daughter, you live in a lovely house... You say he doesn't love you, but from an outsider's perspective you're the happiest person on Earth. We work with him, and sometimes you and Laura come up. When you do, it's like his face is going to melt. It almost makes me feel silly. Even if one of us asks him out after work, nine times out of ten he'll turn us down and go running home to you. You must know that."
Lenore simply nodded.
"But he's busy enough that he's hardly home. Even if he can be a little cold, can't you think of that as him just being tired?"
Lenore let out a deep sigh. She had tried to think of it that way. Her husband was tired out from work. Every day, people put their lives in his hands, wearing away at his nerves. Sometimes, it made his wife and daughter seem like an irritation. It wasn't his fault.
But day by day, the feeling that it was more than just that grew stronger within her. The emotion she saw in his eyes when he avoided her embrace seemed like a sort of fear. Would he really make a face like that if she were just a troublesome annoyance?
Sometimes, when he cuddled Laura, the eyes that melted as he looked at his daughter would widen momentarily in seeming surprise. Suddenly he would set Laura down on the bed, like he was pushing her body away from him. He glared at her with what looked like hate in his eyes as she hurried over to the loudly-sobbing Laura - hatred that sent a chill down her spine.
It wasn't like she hadn't considered the fact that her past might have something to do with it, but Lenore was strangely convinced that it was unrelated. It was her he looked at with hate, not her past. That was what hurt the most. Saying something wouldn't get him to understand, however. He would say that she was imagining things, and that would be that.
Lenore fell silent, and Marian gave her an apologetic smile.
"...Sorry. I said some pretty harsh things there. Some of the staff here at the hospital are real playboys. You hear some awful stories once in a while. Compared to them, Dr. Richter Harris is a total square. What I'm trying to say is..." She smiled playfully. "People think he's the number one ideal husband. If you, his wife, behave like this, where are us single ladies supposed to set our sights?"
Lenore responded with a weak smile of her own. Then, she heard a faint cry.
Lenore got to her feet and swiftly left the room. Marian hurriedly stubbed out her cigarette. Lenore returned with Laura in her arms. Her still-sleepy eyes stained with tears, Laura still noticed the familiar Marian.
"Hiii, Laura. Oh, look at the mess you've made of your pretty face. Tears are one thing, but we can't be having that snot."
Lenore sat down and wiped off Laura's face.
"Did the maid quit?" Marian asked, her face suddenly going serious.
"Yeah. She was only temporary help. Laura isn't too much of a handful anymore, anyway."
"It must be hard keeping up with a big house like this without any help."
"I'm not used to having other people in the house. I sometimes have someone take care of the yard, and I'm inside all day, so I get by."
Laura, finally clean again, gave Marian a smile that showed off her two sprouted teeth.
"...Gosh, you two look like twins. You both look like something out of a painting with your blonde hair and blue eyes."
"I think she gets the shape of her face from Richter, though."
"Hm, maybe. Doesn't she take after you?"
"Her personality probably comes from him, too. She's normally quiet, but I guess she's strong-willed, too. She has a stubborn streak in her."
"Isn't that great? Women are going to need that from now on. Isn't that right, Laura?"
Laura was a beautiful child. Though still only a baby, she seemed to be strong-willed and self-asserted. Whenever there was something she wanted she would cry in a strong, loud voice, and once she was satisfied she would be perfectly quiet and smiley. Compared to all of the other children, who were frequently moody, her resolute personality was visible in her countenance and behaviour. It distinguished Laura from all of the others, charming all of the adults who met her.
Lenore devoted her entire life to bringing up Laura. Richter became busier and busier as he rose in status at the hospital, the time he spent with his family growing shorter than ever. Rather than feel lonely, Lenore began to find it a relief. The less time they spent together, the less often she had to experience her husband's odd behaviour. I have Laura, Lenore thought.
Laura grew quickly. She was spoilt and doted upon just the same by the mother she spent almost all of her time with, and the father she only saw for a few dozen minutes a day. When she started school, she was showered with praise by her teachers due to her intelligence. Before long, she began to stand out from the crowd.
"She's a truly wonderful child." Laura's teacher smiled at Lenore, her eyes narrowing. "I'd like her to grow straight and true. I want to nurture her good qualities and help her to achieve her potential."
Lenore was glad. Richter's behaviour may not have changed, but it's clear that he loves Laura. I love her, too. She is our child. Nurturing her is the same as nurturing our love. Laura noticed her mother, and ran into her arms. I do love him after all, Lenore thought as she scooped her her soft body.
"I think I can eat dinner at home tonight," Richter said to his wife as he knotted his tie. "The guys from the conference will be catching their flights home this morning. We've just come off a ten-day party, so I'll stick to just doing my rounds in the afternoon."
Lenore brushed down his jacket. He seemed to be in a good mood this morning.
"I'm glad to hear it. Laura wanted to talk to you about something. She waited for you to come home last night."
"Sorry. Honestly, these New Yorkers aren't satisfied until they drink themselves onto the floor, and they want to drag you down with them."
Lenore stood on tiptoe, draping the jacket over the smiling man's shoulders.
"Has the young lady already left?"
"Yes. She left quite early this morning, saying she had band practise."
"Flute practise with the marching band. I think that's what she wanted to talk about."
"Right, I'll ask her myself. Laura will feel let down if I know about it."
Standing by the front door, Richter gave Lenore an incredibly ordinary kiss.
"...You haven't been wearing that pendant recently, Lenore."
"...I haven't," she said quietly, her eyes dropping to her chest.
"Oh, it doesn't matter. I'll be off, then."
After watching his car pull away, Lenore returned slowly to their room. There, mixed in with the expensive accessories in her dresser, she found the jewel beetle pendant glittering. The accessory that symbolised his love for her. How long had it been since she had last worn it? Maybe that had been what had broken the bond between them.
For whatever reason, I never really liked that pendant. I was happy when he gave it to me, but at some point I became hesitant to wear it. I don't think I've put it on once since Laura was born. But why?
She picked up the pendant carefully, fastening it around her neck over the top of her rose pink jumper. She took the compact Richter had given to her as a present and patted it lightly over her cheeks, then stretched out.
The blonde woman in the mirror. She's dressed just the same as I am today.
As if freeing herself from the meaningless anxiety that wrapped itself around her, Lenore trotted out of the room.
Richter shut his car door, looked up at the lights of his home and sighed. He was late. An emergency had come in midway through his rounds. It was long past dinnertime when the surgery was finally completed.
Richter had suffered for these past few decades, too. The wicked writhing in his chest expanded and contracted, never disappearing fully. The nightmares troubled him repeatedly, and by now he knew clearly that the target was his wife.
And now, just as he had felt at first, the urges turned themselves on Laura, too. When she wrapped her plump arms around his neck and he smelled the bittersweet perfume that only children gave off, the hunger that surged up within was enough to take his breath away.
Richter loved Lenore and Laura. He was determined to do whatever it took to protect them - and yet it was he himself who wished to harm them.
Maybe I'm crazy, he thought. This was the fear that had driven him to study psychoanalysis and psychology all those years, but he couldn't judge it for himself anymore. He couldn't bring himself to consult a professional any longer, either.
I just can't leave their side.
Just like Lenore, spending little time at home due to his work made him feel at ease.
I hope today is an okay day. I hope I can hold them in my arms all I want. It might be late, but Laura is probably still awake. I want to gaze upon Lenore's kind form as I listen to her high, clear voice.
When he opened the door, Richter was disappointed not to see either Lenore or Laura there to greet him. Usually, no matter how late it was, one of them would come to him. Perhaps they were angry at him for being late to dinner. He opened the dining room door.
The scene that greeted Richter was his wife lying in a pool of blood. Standing beside her was their daughter, holding an arm severed to the elbow in her hands, small mouth stained a dark red as she sank her teeth into it.
D. Hoarse laughter echoed in the back of Richter's brain. Darkness. D. Dracula. The blood of D flows through both you and your daughter.
A voice from the darkness. The voice of evil itself, that had resounded within his heart so many times since childhood.
Your daughter killed her.
Lenore. His wife lay face down on the dining room floor. A woman with golden hair, lying there in death.
You need blood. You need it, and so does your daughter.
The blood that poured out from her chest and severed arm formed a blackish red pool that spread across the floor. She wore her favourite dark rose pink jumper. A silver knife glinted, its blade stained with thick red.
And so she feeds.
Laura. His daughter, absorbed in consuming her mother's arms, was unaware of her father standing there.
To be granted true power.
The jewel beetle pendant, its chain snapped, glinted a reddish purple.
A few hours later, Richter moved mostly automatically. He scooped up Lenore, made sure that she wasn't breathing, and confirmed that her repeated stab wounds had been caused by the carving knife that lay at her side.
He wrapped his arms gently around Laura from behind, taking Lenore's arms from her hands, then carried her to the bathroom as she moved her mouth as if she had lost her soul. Laura's eyes were wide and glassy. He cleaned off her mouth, removed her clothes, and rinsed the blood off in the shower. Then he moved her limp body over to the bed and injected her with a sedative.
He washed off the knife, put on surgical gloves, and then soaked it in blood once more. Next, he wrapped Lenore's arm bearing Laura's tooth-marks tightly and hid it under the chassis of his car. He took one last look around the room, just to be sure, and called the police.
The detective sat down on the sofa, his shrewd gaze upon Richter, whose face was buried in his hands.
"...So you returned home, and that was when you first noticed it."
"Was your wife alone?"
"No. My daughter was with her."
"Just your wife and daughter in a big house like this? You don't have a maid, or anything like that?"
"My wife didn't like the idea of living with others."
"What condition was your daughter in?"
Richter looked up. "She was lying on the ground."
"Next to my wife."
"And where is she now...?"
"She was unconscious, so I took her to her room. I gave her a sedative, and she's sleeping now."
There was a glint in the detective's eye. "And I can have a chat with her once the drug wears off."
"No!" Richter exclaimed, getting to his feet. "You really mustn't. My daughter is in severe shock. To go through this at the age of just twelve has traumatised her deeply. You can't interrogate her at a time like this...!"
The detective gripped him by the shoulders and pressed him down onto the sofa.
"Please, take it easy. I don't want to interrogate her; I just want to ask her a few questions about what happened. We don't want to ask anything too difficult from a twelve-year-old girl, either. But if we are to apprehend this heinous criminal..."
"Still, you mustn't. Please understand..." Richter held his head in his hands once more. "She's all I have now..."
The detective shrugged, deciding to retreat for the time being. Behind him was a stretcher, covered snugly with a blanket, about to be removed by the police.
Richter looked into his daughter's eyes. Darkness surfaced and retreated within. A savage flash. An evil smile, once angelic but now twisted into a hideous parody of itself, spread across Laura's lips. Richter averted his eyes reflexively, quickly cutting the ampoule he had prepared.
He added more medicine to the drip. In an instant, the terrible smile was wiped from Laura's face, now instead absently hazy.
"Listen to me, Laura. You're going to forget everything. Everything that happened here tonight... When you wake up, you won't remember any of it. You will forget. Forget it all..."
Over and over he said the words. Using all of the methods he had learned, Richter meant to erase Laura's memory.
It was a major incident. Richter Harris was a renowned doctor, and his wife had been cruelly murdered. Not only that but, although it was being covered up by the media, the shocking truth was that her arm had been taken from the scene. The police set about investigating, their prestige on the line.
Richter's alibi was solid. The estimated time of death revealed during the autopsy meant that it had occurred while he was still in theatre. The second his alibi was confirmed the detectives, who had at first had only harsh words for him, eased off. Their questions were still harsh, however.
"There's one thing I'd like to ask you. You were in surgery when your wife passed. The thing is, there's quite a gap between the time you're estimated to have arrived home and the time when you contacted the police. What were you doing during that period, Doctor?"
"I knew instantly that my wife was dead," Richter said, his words planned thoroughly. "At first, I thought my daughter might be dead, too... She was covered with blood. I sat her up and saw that she was alive."
"She was unharmed, so I took off her clothing and washed her off in the shower."
"Why didn't you call the police first?"
"...I didn't have time to think of any of that. I was so worried about my daughter... The idea of her waking up and seeing herself drenched in her mother's blood made me feel like I had to get her cleaned up."
"Well, I suppose that would make sense," the detective said reluctantly. "Oh, and one other thing. Had your wife remembered anything?"
"She had lost her memory, no? That's what I've heard, at least. Perhaps the key lies in what happened in your wife's past."
Richter was internally surprised. He had long ago forgotten about Lenore's missing memory. She didn't seem to have paid any particular attention to it for years, either. It had never been an issue in their relationship. While it might not seem like anything to him, who knew the truth, perhaps it was only natural for the detective to have his doubts.
"No, nothing whatsoever. She saw a psychiatrist often at the start, but we'd given up on it. It's been fifteen years now, after all..."
"Yes, it has been fifteen years," the detective said aloud, but his gaze remained sharp.
A week later, Richter finally permitted the detective to question Laura. The detective, a middle-aged man, began to ask his questions, doing his best to take care with the haggard and terribly young-looking girl.
"When did you get home from school that day?"
"Late in the afternoon. I stopped by a friend's house."
"What about your mom?"
"She was preparing dinner, like always."
"What did you talk about?"
"School. She said Dad was coming home early today. I was happy, because I could talk to him about band."
"I helped Mom, set the table, and waited for Dad. But he never showed up. Mom looked sadder and sadder, and said maybe another really sick patient came in again. She said we should go ahead and eat without him, so she cooked the meat. I was sad that Dad wasn't gonna be eating with us, but I'm used to it, and I was hungry. We started to eat."
The detective leaned in. Laura, her eyes wide and casting dark shadows over her cheeks, went on readily, albeit quietly.
"As we were eating dinner I started feeling sick, and the next thing I knew I was lying in Dad's bed."
The detective stood up in surprise, looking over at Richter, who stood behind Laura's chair. Richter shook his head at the man slowly.
"...She doesn't remember anything," the veteran detective muttered, glaring at the report sitting in his typewriter. "All of her memories before and after the incident are gone without a trace. Everything from the time she ate until the time her father came home and put her to bed is just missing."
"Is that even possible!?" said a still-young detective hysterically.
"Probably. The dead mom had amnesia herself. I asked the dad later, and he said she'd been running a high fever the whole time since that day. When her temperature came down and the dad asked her what had happened... she was like that. He said it was most likely due to shock. If you look at the situation, there's a good chance that the girl watched her mother be murdered right before her eyes. The psychiatrist apparently agreed. We don't know if there's such thing as a genetic predisposition to amnesia, though.
"And there you have it: the kid doesn't remember anything from that night. The dad said she hadn't said anything - or rather, couldn't say anything... When I was questioning her, she suddenly turned around and looked up at him and asked, 'Where's Mommy?' I didn't know what to do."
The young detective listened, relief at not having been the one present plainly written all over his face.
"The dad said something like, oh, your mom's gone somewhere far away... What can you even say? She apparently came down with another fever after that. She's sick. She didn't even look twelve to me, more like eight or something like that. There's no way I could bring myself to try to drag something outta her."
"But we don't have any other leads. Their neighbours are far away and didn't hear any screams, and no one witnessed any suspicious-looking people."
"You know..." The veteran detective lowered his voice. "At first, I thought the dad looked good for it."
"Dr. Harris!? No way! But isn't he an eminent doctor who's famous all over America!?"
"What's that got to do with it? When a wife gets killed, the husband is at the top of the suspect list."
"But he has an alibi..."
"All we know is that he didn't get his own hands dirty. It's still possible that he hired someone else to do it for him."
"But he has no motive. The fortune is all his, she didn't have an expensive insurance policy or anything like that, and they seemed to get on well."
"Yeah. I thought maybe he had a mistress, so I looked into it, but would you believe it, clean as a whistle. Then I thought, well, maybe he somehow found out about his wife's past... It's pretty hard to imagine that giving him enough of a reason to kill her, though. And anyway, in that case, I think he'd've done it himself. I can't see him hiring someone else to do the job."
"Then he has no reasons whatsoever for killing the wife. What would've made him do it?"
"I don't have anything concrete, here, but... There's just something off about that doctor. All he does is fuss about his daughter, almost like he doesn't care about catching the guy who did it at all."
"Can you blame him for seeming off? His wife was murdered, and his daughter's lost her mind... It would be weirder if something wasn't wrong with him. Catching the perp won't bring his wife back. His daughter's the more pressing matter right now."
"I guess that means the wife's past is the issue here."
The middle-aged detective let out a sigh.
"I went back through her record, but there were no leads. She had an L.A. accent, but no one had reported her missing. Somebody must be looking for a girl that well-bred."
"It was fifteen years ago, though."
"We didn't find anyone around her with a motive for killing the wife. Maybe someone from her forgotten past does have one. Maybe they hadn't seen her until now and finally managed to achieve their goal, or maybe her current situation gave them that motive... I think the possibility's there."
The young detective shook his head, as if to say that he couldn't agree. The veteran shot him a glance.
"There's something else that's bugging me," the young detective continued, ignoring the scowl on the other man's face. "What happened to the arm?"
"I've been thinking about it. What if she was wearing some expensive ring or bracelet and they couldn't get it off, so they took the whole arm?"
"How dumb are you? If it was a ring, they'd just cut off the finger. Even with a bracelet, they'd only have to sever the wrist. There's no reason to take the entire arm when it's the same amount of effort. Besides, no money or anything like that was taken."
"Oh..." The young detective ducked his head. "A pervert, then. A random crime. I'd place my bets on one of those rather than some fifteen-year-old grudge, anyway."
The veteran detective continued to glare at the typewriter, his face growing more and more bitter.
The veteran detective hunted around in Lenore's past, but found nothing at all. In the end, the conclusion put forth by the police aligned with what the young detective had said. He visited Richter Harris in his office at the hospital.
"...And that's the gist of it. I promised I'd catch whoever killed your wife. We haven't given up yet."
Richter sat with his eyes closed. The detective watched his anguished face for a while.
"...I understand." Richter opened his eyes, a dark shadow flickering within. "Thank you."
The detective waited, but Richter had nothing more to say. He got to his feet, shaking his head. They shook hands, and as he walked through the door, he turned around and enquired.
"How is your daughter doing?"
"Not too well," Richter replied, his gaze still casting a vague shadow. "I told her Lenore had got sick and died. She had to go through the shock all over again."
"Oh, damn... Is she being treated...?"
"She's attending the psychiatry department at this hospital, but... Curing her would mean the return of her memories. If possible, I'd like to make sure she never has to remember it ever again."
The detective stared at him in amazement. He smiled weakly.
"She's all I have now."
The detective shut the door and, shaking his head once more, began to walk away.
Richter sat back down, lacing his fingers atop the desk. His beautiful Lenore was dead, just like in Poe's poem. Her body laid out on the ground, and her arm... He had disposed of the arm using the hospital's incinerator. Nobody had noticed a thing.
Laura remembered nothing. No matter what methods he employed, he was unlikely to break through her mental block.
D. The blood of D circulating in my body was inherited by Laura. She consumed Lenore's flesh in search of that blood. The flesh of someone sharing the same blood as her.
Only now did he finally comprehend the terror of the old woman who had raised him. She was afraid that he would awaken to the blood of D and eat her. She knew of the curse upon his line.
Richter balled his hands into fists above the desk. I'm alright. I've endured it for all of these years, haven't I? I've ignored the voice calling me from the deep dark and protected my wife and daughter. And that's what I'm going to keep doing. I will protect Laura. Lenore. I loved you. Perhaps you couldn't understand, but I loved you with all my heart. I will dedicate the rest of my life to protecting Laura, the one you left behind. Please forgive me.
Richter, Laura in tow, journeyed across America in search of a change of scenery. Fortunately for him, his skills were in high demand at hospitals all over the country.
"Might be a good idea..." said Birke, a doctor in the psychiatry department. "As you say, making her face reality now would be just too cruel."
"I told Laura that Lenore died of an illness. I'm worried about someone telling her the truth if we stay here."
Birke looked at the chart darkly, stroking his thick beard. "I'm sure you know this, Richter, but all this does is put off the issue until later. The wounds she has sustained run incredibly deep. As long as she is unaware of the truth those wounds are simply hidden, and will never heal. Nobody knows how that will affect her later on when she becomes an adult if the wounds are left alone."
"I know. But memory loss is a defensive mechanism of the brain and psyche, isn't it? Her psyche sensed that it had to protect her. Accepting the truth in its entirety isn't necessarily the best course of action. Don't you agree?"
Birke let out a dejected sigh. He shot Richter a look which clearly said that he wasn't in agreement at all, but he maintained his stubborn expression.
"...Well, it'll probably be fine for now. You plan on returning sooner or later, don't you?"
"I'm not sure yet."
"Everyone will have forgotten in a few years. No matter how major of an incident, the chatter will cool off before long... Oh, no, I didn't mean it like that. Your wife..."
"It's alright. I've left that up to the police. The only thing on my mind is Laura."
"...Don't forget to look out for yourself, too."
Richter looked as though he had been slapped out of the blue.
"Have you noticed? You look terrible yourself. She isn't the only one who's been hurt."
Richter simply nodded with a sigh.
Richter raised Laura with meticulous care. It was necessary for him to seal away not just the events of that night, but also the blood of D that had awoken within her, so he utilised potent drugs to control her mind. As a result, Laura lost the circuits connecting her current experiences to her past memories. Perhaps as a side effect of this, she repeatedly came down with fevers over the ensuing six months, muddling her memories even further.
But Laura's talents survived unscathed. Although she was lacking in cheerfulness, she remained sharp and intelligent. Her innate sturdiness remained ever present, too. Once her body had recovered, she grew into a quiet, shrewd and beautiful girl.
Richter watched over Laura, continuing to fight his own darkness. The blood of D spawned intense urges towards Laura, his sole remaining relative, but he resisted it with all of his desperate might. His life and affection were reserved almost wholly for Laura. Laura was a literal daddy's girl.
A few years later, the pair returned to their home in L.A. The house had been left just as it was, so large-scale renovations were carried out. Richter took a position at a hospital downtown rather than return to the university.
As his former colleague had pointed out, it was like the incident was missing from everyone's memories. Even if there were meagre rumours swirling about, none of them seemed to reach Laura's ears, which relieved Richter deeply.
Laura attended school like a normal child, accepted by her teachers and fellow students alike as an obedient and excellent student just as she had been before. There were no signs of her mental block shattering, nor any adverse effects apparently remaining following his stringent controlling. As he looked up at the portrait of Lenore, still hanging on the bedroom wall, Richter wondered if perhaps she was protecting Laura.
Laura is growing into a beautiful young woman. She looks so much like you did when we first met. Sometimes it gives me a fright, almost like you've come back from the dead. Nobody would say anything to the contrary if I told them that the painting is of Laura. If she wore those clothes and put on the pendant...
The pendant. The jewel beetle pendant.
Richter was dumbfounded. How had it taken him this long to remember? That pendant had been lying beside Lenore, its chain broken, on the night of the tragedy. Where had it gone?
He went back over the events of that evening in order. The pendant had definitely been there. Richter had mentioned it for the first time in a long while that very morning, so Lenore likely had it around her neck. He remembered seeing it lying off to the side on the ground, appearing a purplish red rather than its usual greenish blue. He had no recollection of seeing it after he had carried Laura away, however.
The only thing the police had taken as evidence was the silver knife. Actually, no - he had said that he had moved the body, so the police took him to see the crime scene several times that night. The pendant had no longer been there on the floor. He should have noticed it back then, he thought now.
For now, however, he decided to forget about it. Even if he found the pendant, he had no intention of giving it to Laura like any old jewel. He had been wrong to give it to Lenore in the first place.
Laura has already been severed from her past - by my scalpel. She will lead a free life, not constrained by anyone. That is what I wish for her.
"...Is that really true?"
Richter ignored the voice of darkness that bubbled up from within.
Richter, just once, had a dream. In it, a jewel beetle brought back from the dead was crawling around the old manor. The beetle's body changed from colour to colour. The entire time, a hoarse laugh barked endlessly from nowhere in particular.
Richter stared at Laura in awe when, at breakfast, she announced that she wanted to attend medical school. Morning sunlight streamed through the wide widow, dappling the plant leaves and making his daughter's blonde hair glint brightly. Even with her long limbs clad in plain garments with no hint of fashionability, it would strip her of none of her elegance.
"...It won't be an easy ride, you know."
"I know. But I'll work hard. I want to do the same job as you, Daddy. I've been watching you for so long, and it's made me think that saving people's lives is a really worthwhile job to do."
Richter's eyes narrowed further. "Yes, I suppose. It is worthwhile."
"My teachers say I could get into the medical department of any university I wanted. L.A. is full of great universities, so..."
"Give me a moment."
He stood up. When he tried to speak the words he had been thinking for all this time, the old ache reared its head deep within his chest. Seeing her father's rigid expression, Laura looked taken aback.
"...Do you not want me to, Daddy?"
He knew the darkness would try to stop him, but he forced it down.
"...It's not that. Leave this house and go to a school somewhere far from L.A., Laura."
"Why!?" she exclaimed. "Why can't it be in L.A.? Why can't I stay in this house with you!?"
The darkness wrapped itself around his throat once more.
This is the reason, Laura. Your dad's held himself back all this time. I intend to keep holding on for the rest of my life. But when I think of the worst case scenario coming to pass, I just can't bear it. Your dad loves you, and that is why I want to keep you as far away from a place where you will be in danger as I possibly can - away from me.
"That's right, Laura. That's what I thought you ought to do when you came of age."
"And you said you wanted to become a doctor like your dad. That makes it an even better idea. If you stay here in L.A., you'll only suffer due to people comparing you to your father."
"That'll never happen!"
"Yes, it will. I am a well-known doctor. No matter how hard you work, or how successful you are, people will think you got there because of me. Perhaps people will say that no matter which school you go to, but it's still far better than studying in L.A."
Laura fell into a sad silence. Richter went on, suppressing the trembling of his hands.
"I am very much in agreement with you becoming a doctor. I don't mind which university you attend. If you want, you can even go overseas. Anywhere but L.A."
Laura bit her lip and nodded. Watching her hair shine in the filtered sunlight, Richter felt both pain and relief.
The university Laura chose was in San Francisco. I can get home easily during breaks, she had said with a smile.
"Or would you prefer for me to go somewhere further away, Daddy?"
Richter responded to the challenge in Laura's voice with a wry laugh. Laura suddenly leapt into his arms.
"Daddy... I think what you said was true. But you'll be all by yourself. Aren't you going to be lonely? Or will you be fine? Am I in your way?"
Richter gritted his teeth, holding back the ache. Don't let the sacrifice escape! screamed the voice of darkness. There was a tremor in the words he managed to choke out.
"How could you ever be in my way...? You..."
Laura looked up at him. Tears welled in her clear blue eyes. The love that overflowed from within suppressed and dispersed the darkness. Richter embraced her tightly and tenderly.
"...You are the only person in the whole world I love."
Laura let out a clear laugh. Her laughter embedded itself in his heart forever.