A song plays on a handmade boom box. Cobbled together from random odds and ends, it looks like something out of Dr Frankenstein’s lab. But hey, it works.
“T-the remedy is the experience.
th-i-is is a dangerous liaison
– the comedy is that it’s serious.
this is a strange enough new play on words.”
The CD had seen better days.
“I say the tragedy is how you’re gonna spend
the rest of your nights with the light on
So shine the light on all of your friends
–it all amounts to nothing in the end.”*
(*”The Remedy,” by Jason Mraz)
I can remember back when mp3 players ruled the planet. Then little by little music was regulated to smaller and smaller devices until culture was nothing more then an app ran in the background of more important projects. Who would guess that in the dawn of the 22nd century the only music we have left is what was real; CDs, vinyl, cassettes. Everything else was lost int he destruction. Perhaps that’s why I wish to write my story, to put it into words so that it will never be forgotten. Because it’s my story to tell; the life of Dr. Ella Flores.
I was just twenty-one years old when my mother received the letter that would change my life. No, not anything nice like an invitation or a letter of acceptance to a decent school. This was much well…stranger.
As I stood outside my mother’s house waiting for the carriage she reserved, I fished the piece of paper from my satchel. The letter, from a small town in Mexico.
It was around ten at night, dark and cold, even for Southern Texas. I checked my hair wrap, to make sure it would stay in place. I didn’t cover my hair for religious reasons, more for my own safety. Under the shadow of the night, I could pass as a brunette, like my mother and sisters. But in reality I was “blessed” with my father’s blonde hair; hair the color of gold, hair that made me a target.
When I was certain my hair would behave I attempted to re-read the letter, by the light of the full moon. Long story short: a farmer lay dying of fever. According to the letter the man had been living as a beggar, having lost his land and his family. But by the mercy of the Lord, he had been granted sanctuary at a church, someplace called Saint Theresa’s.
The story had so many plot holes; did the man claim to be a farmer? Had he sought sanctuary in a church? Was there no doctor located closer? A more importantly, who was this letter from? there was no point of contact, all it said was “We will be expecting you, Dr. Flores.”
That was the other issue on my mind: the letter was addressed to my father, Dr. Alberto Flores. But he was dead; murdered. So it was decided, by my mother, that I was to go in his place.
I could hear the sounds of the robotic hooves approaching. Centuries ago carriages were pulled by horses; majestic creatures that all but went extinct during the great famine. Cars still existed but with the cost of fossil fuel, only a handful of people cared to own them. The majority of people traveled via steam robot. Or walked; if the journey did not take me into such unknown territory I would have considered making the trip by foot.
I greeted the driver who was clad completely in black, including an industrial mask. As he held open the door of the grotesque mental carriage I could see he was armed with both a knife and a pistol.
“Thank you, sir,” I said in my most polite tone.
He gave no reply. I knew the ride was prepaid through my mother’s bitcoin account but knowing her she probably stiffed him on the tip.
“Here,” I whispered, hanging him some coins from my pocket.
The man raised his mask, allowing me a view of his face. He had the most stunning green eyes. “A-are you sure?”
I nodded and quickly hopped into my seat.
I could see his gloved hands trembling. It was clear he hadn’t eaten in days. I watched as he lowered his mask and pulled on his chest armor before firing up the engine.
I knew I was safe inside the carriage, although part of me wanted to see the glow of the radioactive core that powered the steam engine. “How long have you been a driver?”
“J-just a few m-months, when my Pa got too sick.”
“I’m so sorry.” I knew it was the nature of the job, men of the lower-class rank would line up for the chance to rent and operate a carriage. Drivers would be supplied with all the material necessary to power their vehicle, in exchange for a monthly fee- and eventually their health. “This address,” I asked if only to change the subject, “is it a church?”
“No, St. Theresa’s is actually a convent,” the driver replied.
“You’ve been there?”
“On occasion: dropping off young women like yourself.”
“Young women looking for a career change…”
His words felt strange. What kind of work was done at a convent located just past the Mexico border? “I’m actually a doctor.”
“Like a real doctor? Did you go to school?”
“My father did,” I replied awkwardly. Truthfully, I was only an apprentice.
As the carriage crossed the Texas-Mexico border I glanced out the window. I could see the remains of guard towers and even the once legendary wall. That was before the world went to shit. In 2075 more people wanted to cross into the south, than the north. Countries run by gangs were safer than ones run by elected officials.
“Your father? A man was allowed to attend school alongside the witches?”
“Yes, he was one of the few.” I paused as I fought back tears. “My father was a brilliant man.”
“My father was stolen from my family life by a coven. It makes me sick to think what they did to him.” For witches, men are catalysts. They can be claimed through sex or cannibalism. A man claimed through sex belongs to his mate, their hearts united as one. But for many witches, true love is too much to hope for so instead they resort to kidnapping men and devouring them like cigarettes for a temporary power boost.
“And your mother?”
“She’s a practicing healer.”
“Healer? An interesting title for a witch.”
“You say ‘witch’ as if it’s some kind of derogatory word.”
“All women of impurity are witches.”
“Impurity?” I chuckled at his choice of words. Yes, all women were witches. All women craved the life force of male victims. I knew my mother wanted me to kidnap the patient at St. Theresa’s, to replace my father. She was hungry, we all were. Hence why my two sisters left home, determined to find men to claim as their own.
The driver started to speak, chuckled, then simply coughed. I could tell he was trying to stop himself from going into a laughing fit.
I rolled my eyes. “No, I have not taken a lover.” Within the last hundred years, all women were born of power to some degree. I inherited my mother’s healing abilities, but I didn’t want a man- not as a lover or a food source. Even if that meant my powers would be hindered.
“I guessed as much.”
“Why, have you?” I asked with concern. I had always believed that once a woman claimed a man they would mate for life.
“Only when I have no driving jobs lines up.” He chuckled softly as if he was joking. But I knew he was not.
“None of them ever wanted to keep you?”
“I wasn’t worth their time. Not even to keep around as a snack. But you know what the really messed up thing is? I would have gladly lived with any of them, abandoning my father to live out the rest of my life as some witch’s pet.”
“How many women have you been with? Never mind, oh God I can’t believe I said that.”
“I’ve been with seven women, all for pay.”
We rode in silence for the remainder of the trip. Upon arrival at the convent, he opened the door and just as quickly attempted to return to his seat to leave.
“Wait! I never got your name.”
He left his rig, stepping down to face me.
I reached to hold his gloved hands. “My father told me stories, a long time ago men used to rule the world. Some were good, some were evil but at the end of the day they all slept under the same stars.” I removed his gloves, revealing the driver’s badly burned hands. “Witches, men, cats, dogs, all of God’s creatures- and the end of the day when we close our eyes, we all sleep under the same stars.”
“M-my name is William.”
I lifted his mask to look into his eyes. “That’s a beautiful name. Was it your father’s name?”
“My grandpa, my mother’s father.” He swallowed hard, blinking tears from his eyes. “She gave me my name before she passed away.”
“I’m Ella. My father named me after his mother, Eleanor. Our names are all that we are. William, I want you to find a place to sleep. But only after you return to your father.” I placed his gloves back on his hands. “May God hold you in his grace.”
William nodded and pulled on his mask. “Goodbye, Dr. Flores, I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
I watched him leave before turning to the front gate of St. Theresa’s.
I was greeted by an elderly woman who introduced herself as Mother Lorena. “You must be Dr. Flores’ assistant?”
“No, I’m Dr. Flores.”
“Oh? I was under the impression Dr. Flores was male.”
“I’m as skilled as my father.”
“I have no doubt, but the patient’s current condition will put your lady-like senses to the test, I’m afraid.”
We walked to a cold barn area. As we got closer the smell of death and decay became strong. Mother Lorena opened the door to a remote wooden structure. The room was dark, lit by only a few candles. From the doorway, I could make out a man laying on a dirty mattress. His face was obscured by a beard and long, matted hair the color of the night sky.
“Is there a source of water nearby?” I asked.
She motioned towards a metal pail. “We have someone assigned to bring him water once a day.”
Much to my surprise, the container did actually hold clean water. With the pail in hand, I approached the bed.
As I removed the thin blankets, it was clear he had not been properly bathed in days. Besides the dirt and the smells, more disturbing were the lesions. There were deep wounds on his arms and back where he had been flogged without mercy to the point where the skin had been torn from the flesh. It was clear the wounds had been left to fester but there was something odd; he was healing in that I could only describe as stripes.
Not that the gashes looked like stripes. No, the wounds looked like the work of a medieval torture professional. That, or a wild animal.
But his body was healing itself in long flower-petal shaped chunks, forming a chrysanthemum-like shape. I would wait until we were alone before taking a closer look. “How long has he been here?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” the old woman replied. That was clearly a lie.
I touched the man’s neck. As I expected, the body was covered in sweat. Despite the coldness of the night air, he was burning with fever. With every weak breath, he was shivering so badly I could not help but weep. All I could think was, that this man is someone’s son, perhaps even a husband or a father.
His eyes flickered.
I could see the dark brown color sparkling by the light. But I was not certain if there was anything beyond those eyes. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was what my own father had endured?
“Is there anything you require?” asked Mother Lorena.
“Perhaps a bath?”
“I will have some water brought to the guest quarters, for after you have completed your examination.”
“Not for me, for the patient. This man’s body is covered in open wounds.”
The old woman rolled her eyes. “It’s quite late. I’ll wake one of the servants, and see what I can do.”
It was clear to me Mother Lorena was not the one who wrote the letter, sending for a doctor. She would have been content, perhaps even happy, to watch this man die.
As she left I put down my bag, setting up my humble equipment. I had a small camp stove and several small candles. My flask of vodka would have lit the fire much faster but I needed to conserve the contents for sanitizing my tools. And to be able to sleep later.
Using one of the nearby candles I lit my stove to boil some water. I poured in some herbs, mixing them with some oils: a formula I’d committed to memory. As the mixture simmered I held my patient’s hand, stroking his cold, motionless fingers. “I’m Dr. Flores, you can call me Ella. If you can speak, that is.”
I stripped the blankets to fully examine his body. As expected, the man was kept naked, like an animal. Despite his current state of sickness he had the body of a warrior; muscular, with a broad chest, thick arms and long legs. To my surprise he wasn’t shackled or restrained. I laid the man on his back, to observe the movement of his breath.
His eyes shot open as his body convulsed.
I quickly rolled him on to his side, allowing him to cough up blood and mucus. It was clear he was breathing, he was alive. Even if he was barely conscious there was no way he was not in pain. “Sir, I don’t know if I can help you, but I’m going to try.”
I soaked a cloth into the warm liquid, then pressed it to his forehead, neck, working my way down the wounds of his back. With every touch, he flinched in pain. There was no logical reason why he was still alive, save for the mystery of the chrysanthemum.
I left his back exposed but kept him positioned on his side as to not inhibit his breathing.
That was when I heard him gasp. “Ava?” The sound was barely a whisper.
He coughed a deep congested cough, gripping his chest in pain.
“Try to take some deep breaths, you’re safe now. I’m a doctor. I’m going to give you something for the pain.” I returned the cloth into the warm water to soak up more of the mixture. “Is Ava here, at the convent?” That would explain why he was not restrained. There was someone here, a wife or maybe a daughter; someone worth dying for.
“Ava runs the most beautiful garden,” he explained, his voice drifting away into a dream-like state. “She requested a slave to help her with the harvest…”
“You’re a slave?” I reached for a pair of scissors from my bag. I ran my fingers through his dark greasy locks trying to determine just how much had to go. I wanted to get a look at his face.
“A slave is what I am, here.”
“But you’re definitely not a farmer,” I muttered out loud as I began to cut away chunks of hair, revealing his forehead, cheekbones, and neck. “Keep talking, tell me more about Ava.”
“She was so beautiful, with hair the color of the ocean on the darkest night. And skin the color of coffee with cream.”
“Of what?” I had heard of cream. But coffee, that was something I had only briefly read about in old, foreign cookbooks.
“You are too young to remember, back before the great famine. There was so much beauty in this world. The clear blue oceans were teeming with fish, while birds filled the smog-free skies.” He paused for a moment as his lungs struggled. “That world was a fantasy, like Ava herself.” His body shivered in pain but his lips broke into a smile.
What he said was strange. No one alive knew of such a world. People refer to the ‘great famine’ as a single event, but in truth, it had taken place over decades. It was a massive series of dominoes; country after country falling into economic depression, overpopulation, global warming. It was all God’s way of saying mankind’s time was up.
I stroked my finger along his jaw. He was a very attractive older man around the same age as my father. “Why do you refer to Ava in the past tense?”
He swallowed hard, his words escaping as a labored breath, “Because she’s likely dead!”
“They found you in her bed, I assume?” My self-taught scientific mind in action: he was handsome and this Ava was clearly not a blood relative. I focused the cloth on his neck. With each breath, his body appeared to be getting stronger.
He turned his head, looking at me with his dark eyes. “She offered herself to me so that I might know comfort.” He paused his lips into a seductive pout as he took in a stream of air. “We were both taken away in shackles. I knew if I took the blame there was a chance she would not be harmed.”
“That’s very sweet.” I could feel my cheeks flush. Was it possible I had a crush on this stranger? “Is this medicine helping?”
“Yes,” he said in a soft moan, “your touch feels heavenly.”
“Ok…thanks…” I attempted to roll him on to his back again, hopeful he had healed enough to not go into convulsions. Thankfully, his body remained perfectly calm.
I soaked the cloth then held it to his throat, working my way down his chest. I could feel the rise and fall of his breath becoming ever stronger. “I learned this technique from my father. The warmth will help you breathe easier. My father was a trained physician, he devoted his life to helping people.”
“And your mother?”
“My mother is a healer, just a different kind. I’ve witnessed her power first hand. My father, ever since he was a child he walked with crutches and leg braces, just always in terrible pain. My mother was one of the few people who were kind to him. Her healing gave him a chance at a normal life.”
“Kindness?” he asked in a sarcastic tone.
“Yes,” I replied, slightly annoyed. “My mother is a kind women, much like your Ava.”
“But it’s your father whom you idolize.”
“Even more reason to appreciate my mother. Had she not chosen him, my father would have ended up like the millions of homeless men and boys who wander the streets looking for a work.”
“I do not disagree. Tell me more.”
“My parents, they met in high school.”
“High school? So you come from wealth.”
“I did, mean they did. After the elimination of public education, there was no way my parents could afford to send me and my sisters to school. My grandmother was rich.”
“Hence your blonde hair?”
“My father was a stunning, Nordic man. His height and his blonde hair were a gift from the expensive fertility clinic where my grandmother purchased sperm in an effort to give birth to a healthy, beautiful baby girl. But instead, fate saddled her with a sick crippled little boy. All she could do was make sure he the chance to go to school so that he might find a powerful woman to watch over him.” I giggled remembering the stories my father used to tell me. “He was fourteen, in year one advanced biological sciences. Out of a class of fifty, he was one of only four boys.”
“He was also the only one with cerebral palsy.”
“Oh.” The man turned his head, leaning into my touch.
“She wanted so badly to help him, so she developed a very special way of treating his pain. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”
“Would you care to show me?” The man whispered, his eyes closed, lips agape.
I laughed as I shook my head. “I couldn’t even if I wanted to, I don’t possess her level of power.”
“Have you ever tried?”
“No, I guess not,” I replied nervously since I was essentially admitting to my virginity. “But we don’t have that kind of connection.”
“How can you be so sure?” He sat up, stretching his back. “You healed my body. I say give it your best shot.”
“I healed your body?” I moved to his lap, caressing my hands down his shoulders. His body felt sticky. I could feel the movement of his skin and muscle tissue sealing the once open wounds. The medicinal water did not possess such an ability, on every other patient I’d treated it provided only sanitation and relief of their pain.
I knew needed to touch the chrysanthemum on his back. I glided my hands down his spine. I could feel raised scar tissue in the flower pattern. It felt cold and perfectly smooth, like metal or glass. “Fine, for you, I’ll try. But first, tell me your name.”